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Hell has its Demons by Mark Lord
Volume 1 of The Sotil and Savage Adventures
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Roger was very happy. He was on his own at night in the middle of the countryside, seated on an old barrel in almost complete darkness. Only the stars provided any illumination. All the villagers of the nearby settlement had long ago dowsed their torches and fires and gone to bed. For the first time in what seemed like weeks since he had discovered this place, he enjoyed a perfect conjunction of phenomena. No clouds obscured his vision of the night sky, the moon had not risen to drown out nearby stars with her milky glow, and furthermore he was away from Oxford with no fear of interruption from drunken undergraduates. The constellations of the spring sky surrounded him in a magnificent circle. Perhaps on a night like this Spurinna had foreseen the death of Ceasar, or his old mentor Ashenden the end of the French army at Crécy?
He was on the upper floor of an abandoned manor house, open to the elements and to the heavens, high enough for an excellent view over any tree; because of the building’s broken roof and wall, he benefited from an expansive vista. Only the top of a church tower would be a better place. He had once tried asking a village parson for such a favour, but the prospect of being summarily lynched had put him off that idea forever.
His instruments were arrayed around him. Now that he had seen that his view of the sky was as good as it could be, it was time to start the initial mappings; then the real work could begin. But first he must fix the position of Polaris and each of the constellations in turn. He reached for a quill and his parchment roll and scratched the time without the need of a candle, as after several hours here his sight was attuned to seeing only by the light of the stars.
Roger worked quickly to make his preliminary observations and notes, as he would not have another night like this for weeks. The moon would not properly enter her waxing crescent phase for another two nights, yet Roger had, by his own hand, ensured that he had lost those nights of study. It would be another twenty seven days until he had such good conditions again, and then there would still be a sliver of moon in the sky. If he could only call on some spirit to clear away the clouds when he wanted … He shook his head. Those were blasphemous thoughts. To summon any sort of spirit, even if he knew how, was akin to necromancy. But what of Ashenden, his old mentor? Roger knew that he had not gained his mastery of knowledge through observation of the stars alone. The man was dead, but his spirit haunted his student and successor. Could Roger turn that apparition to his own purpose?
Roger yawned with fatigue as he remembered the encounter with Ashenden’s spirit. The day had started early for Roger with a meeting at the chambers of the Warden of Merton College. He had risen early that morning in anticipation, excitement, and not a little fear at the prospect of what he must ask the Warden. Merton College was one of the oldest, largest, and most renowned of the Oxford Colleges, yet in recent years the buildings and fixtures of the place had fallen into disrepair. Endowments were down and there were fewer undergraduates. Last year the faculty of Merton College elected a new Warden, John Bloxham. Bloxham had never been much of an academic, but he had a head for numbers and a mind full of plans and drawings; and most important of all, a vision of how he saw the college in the future. Some said that he wanted a memorial to his own greatness, but his champions amongst the masters saw him as a saviour who would restore the fortunes of the college and bring students with fresh supplies of coin for their teachers.
Roger knocked on his door at prime and waited for a reply. But instead the muffled voice he’d expected, the door opened and Bloxham glared out at him.
“Make an appointment with my secretary,” said the Warden as he slammed the door.
Roger did as he was bid, yet the clerk who acted as the Warden’s notary gave him no time or date even for his appointment. “You will be summoned,” he said.
Later that morning Roger was half way through a lecture on Ptolomy’s Tetrabiblios when a college servant interrupted with a message from the Warden.
“Now?” asked Roger.
“The Warden says this minute or not at all,” replied the servant, looking at the lecture hall and maintaining a straight face.
Roger looked up at the rows of seats, and realising that they were all empty, followed the servant to the Warden’s chamber where Bloxham stood talking to a man wearing a leather apron covered in dust. The stone mason looked up as Roger entered the room, and started to roll up a set of plans.
“No, don’t mind him,” said Bloxham, “explain to me how high you propose to raise the height of this wall again, I can’t see it on the plans.” He frowned at Roger for a moment, then carried on his conversation with the mason.
Roger waited by the door, moving his weight from one foot to the other as Bloxham and the mason talked. He glanced at the door and was thinking about leaving when a shiver of cold air groped his neck, and his whole body shuddered in response.
“Don’t let him treat you like this,” said the voice of Ashenden from somewhere above and behind him.
Roger stood still. “Go away,” he whispered. He kept his eyes fixed on Bloxham, and the Warden seemed at last to notice him there, looking up with a smile of distaste. Perhaps he had sensed Roger’s eyes boring tunnels through his skull in an effort to avoid looking around the room. He would not, absolutely not, try to catch sight of Ashenden’s spirit. No.
“But I can help you,” said Ashenden, his voice now coming from the floorboards near where Bloxham stood.
“Be quiet,” said Roger, not whispering for a moment, and then hushing his voice again. “He’ll hear you.”
Bloxham looked again at Roger and the mason, noticing his distraction, stopped talking. Bloxham did not smile anymore. “You may go now,” he told the mason, who hurried from the room.
Bloxham poured himself a glass of watered red wine and sat down in a high-backed chair with grand carved wooden armrests, not dissimilar to a throne. On the table in front of him his battle plans for a glorious building campaign lay flattened or furling as they preferred.
Behind Bloxham, and resting a spectral hand on his shoulder, floated the ghost of John Ashenden, once a reputed Professor of Astrology, dead the past nine years a “victim” of suicide. A “victim” he kept reminding Roger, although the Church would not allow him to clothe himself with the name victim, of unrequited affection for a student who rejected him and fled to Italy to avoid him. Ashenden had taught him a great deal about science, but even more about the bitterness of human nature. What amazed Roger was how much Ashenden enjoyed his ghosthood. He wallowed in it, a pig happily rolling in his own faeces; happy, too, to throw it in the face of the one who he claimed had forced him to mortal sin.
“Well?” asked Bloxham.
“I …,” said Roger, before stuttering to a stop as Ashenden interrupted him.
“Now young Sotil, remember that you are a Professor and therefore an important member of faculty. Don’t let him bear you down with his pretence of power and authority.”
“It would be better if you just stayed quiet and stopped interrupting me,” said Roger, looking over Bloxham’s shoulder at Ashenden’s ghost.
“There’s no need to take that tone,” said Bloxham. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Uh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was talking to, well …” mumbled Roger.
“To the Warden of Merton College and don’t you forget it. And I should remind you that one of my duties is to ensure discipline is maintained amongst faculty as well as the student body. It is not proper for you or any of your peers, or me for that matter, to speak to another in that manner.”
“Of course not, but you see I wasn’t talking to you.”
Bloxham smiled, got up and turned in a complete circle. One of his arms parted the smoky form of Ashenden’s ghost for a moment. Ashenden grimaced as he did so and waved a finger at Roger.
“Will you listen now boy?” the ghost said.
Bloxham made a great show of looking around the room, peering under a table and behind the curtain. “Can the Merton Professor of Astrology see anyone else in this room except I?” said Bloxham.
Roger tried to get a hold of himself. “We are the only two living creatures here, I grant you. Please forget my earlier words, my mind was transported elsewhere and I indeed forgot myself and found myself having imaginary discourse with a rather annoying character. In my head I was framing the conversation I mean to have with him later. I hope you can excuse my impertinence, those words were not directed at you, nor would I ever wish to insult you or any of the other living faculty of this College.”
“A pretty speech, but I don’t like your tone,” said Ashenden, as Bloxham replied simultaneously so that Roger could hardly make his words. (Somehow everything Ashenden said was quite clear no matter who living might be speaking in the same moment.)
“Go on then, I said that I accept your apology, but I haven’t got all day,” repeated Bloxham.
“Of course, well here’s the thing. I received a letter from the Abbot of St. Brett’s yesterday, and … well … you see … he has asked for my assistance in a matter of some delicacy.” Roger had not brought the Abbot’s letter, but found he could relate it all to Bloxham by heart now. He had read and reread the missive a dozen times since receiving it.
There was silence from Bloxham after his speech yet a deep frown creased his forehead. The ghost of Ashenden had gone from behind his chair to stand next to Roger. It stood looking at Roger proud and expectant, but thankfully quiet.
“I would like to see the letter,” said Bloxham. His words were clipped and loud. “But before you go and fetch it, tell me: do you know why the Abbot has asked for your help, in getting rid of his town’s … demons?”
“No doubt he has read my recent opus on the nature of astral spirits, where I hypothesise that Thomas Aquinas’s supposition relating to the ruling of the planets was mistaken.”
“What has star-gazing have to do with demons?” asked Bloxham.
“I see you dare to question the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas,” said the ghost of Ashenden, his words overlapping Bloxham’s. “I only lived to such a ripe old age,” said the ghost as he fingered his spectral beard, “by not making all my thoughts known in writing, and here you go publishing a refutation of Aquinas? Are you possessed yourself?”
“Not mad, but right,” said Roger
“Pardon,” said Bloxham. “I didn’t call you mad.”
“No you didn’t, I’m sorry. Look I don’t want to take up any more of your time. If it is alright with you I plan to leave tomorrow. I will have a message sent to my students informing them that my lectures will resume in two weeks time. I am sure that will be enough time to help the Abbot with his problem. Although whether I can really help I’m not sure, more likely just diagnose I would think.”
Bloxham muttered and shook his head. As he did so the ghost approached near to Roger and laid a fatherly — yet cold and insubstantial — hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t sell yourself short, Roger my boy,” he said. “You veer from intellectual arrogance to misplaced modesty. You know the regard I had for you. It was I who told the Abbot about you, before I died of course. He knows what I taught you; well some of it.”
“Just tell me in simple words what use could the Abbot have for you?” demanded Bloxham. Are you a saint who can banish devils? Or an inquisitor of the Holy Office. You’re not even in minor orders are you?”
“No, I have never been tonsured.”
“Then what can he want from you, if you can’t exorcise his spirits? Does he want a horoscope to foretell when it will all end? If so, can’t you just write it up here and send it to him?”
“No, it’s not that. He has heard about my research and my theorems regarding the governance of the stars.”
“Well God governs the heavens, doesn’t he, so what has that got to do with the devil and his demons?”
“But you’re mistaken, as was Aquinas. My research has shown that it is impossible for God’s angels to command the powers of all the circles of heaven, and that our conception of the ‘top to bottom’ nature of the universe is all wrong. My studies of the horoscopes of men possessed to do evil acts show that they were under the influence of certain combinations of stars that could only be aligned by the working of demonic powers. My master believed the same.”
“I did not!” shouted the ghost.
“Your own work proved it!” said Roger to the ghost.
“What!” said Bloxham. “I’m a rhetorician.”
“You wouldn’t know it would you?” muttered the ghost. “You could get more sense out of a donkey’s arse.”
“Shut up!” said Roger to the ghost, but again Bloxham thought the words intended for him.
“How dare you! Who do you think you are talking me in that way?” Bloxham screamed. There was a knock at the door. “Can I help sir?” said the notary who entered the room. He was a rather tall and stocky man, and cast a concerned glance in Roger’s direction.
“Master Sotil will need escorting back to his quarters, where I think he should start packing his belongings immediately!” said Bloxham.
“Listen to me boy,” said the ghost. “Tell him that the Abbot has offered money if you can help him.”
“But …,” said Roger.
“Get out!” screamed Bloxham. The notary grabbed Roger’s skinny bicep in his large paw and started to pull him towards the door. He could see his tenure at Oxford ending very quickly after this meeting, and although he could afford to maintain himself perhaps by independent teaching he knew his family could withdraw his annuity or, worse, carry out their plan to have him ordained and placed on the road to a position of political influence within the Church. It pained him to listen to Ashenden, but he was desperate.
“The Abbot has offered money…,” Roger said.
“How much?” said Bloxham. The notary stopped tugging Roger towards the door. The ghost of the old man had been very astute.
“Tell him that the Abbey has plans to endow one of the Oxford colleges with at least four manors and a one-off sum of 10,000 marks,” said the ghost. “That should be enough.”
Roger repeated the ghost’s suggestion. The Abbot had mentioned no such reward or financial payment, yet Bloxham believed him and told the notary to leave the room and to take his hand off Roger’s arm, he wouldn’t be leaving Oxford for good after all.
“Sit down,” he gestured to a chair. “You should have told me this from the beginning.” Bloxham asked more questions about the Abbot’s proposal, and Roger replied as best he could with the ghost feeding him tall tales about the Abbey’s current financial prosperity and desire to support academic endeavours at Oxford, but also making clear that they had not decided on where to place their proposed endowment, there being a number of options available.
“Hmm, and we will most likely need to get rid of Wyclif soon too, the monks hate his words about the avarice of the Church. But tell me, Roger, you mentioned that your research involved questioning the nature of demonic powers and the stars? How many people know about this?”
Before Roger could reply, Ashenden’s ghost gripped him by the shoulders with his cold hands. “Tell him that it is merely a footnote to your main investigations into the stars and their influence on men, these are not your theories. Tell him that you only recount the theories of other scholars; that should satisfy him.” Roger wanted to reply that this was a lie and that he would not tell falsehoods about the research that was so precious to him. But he knew that his dead Master was right.
“No one, they are just ramblings in my notes, some ideas I have been working upon,” said Roger.
“It would be best if you kept them that way,” said Bloxham. “Would you care for some wine?” Roger nodded his assent and Bloxham poured a cup of red for each of them. “I would like you to send the Abbot a letter about the endowment; my notary will draft it for you from my dictation and you should send it today under your seal. I would like them to receive it before you arrive. As soon as you get there and speak to the Abbot, you are to write to me and relate whether the Abbot agrees or not.”
Roger had read through the letter written by the Warden’s notary as he collected together his equipment for that night’s stargazing. He wondered how he had got into this mess. The letter accepted the Abbot’s invitation most briefly and then over several pages of vellum described at great lengths the merits of Merton College and the building programme that Bloxham had begun. Particular stress was laid on the planned improvements to the collegiate church, the places that would be made available for monks from St. Brett’s to study at Merton; there was a hint, too, that the current Abbot would be remembered in the prayers of the College for many years to come. Roger was relieved that Bloxham had not asked for the Abbot’s letter, for now the lie would continue. Jake could arrange for this letter to go, but it might be best if he did not wait for the Abbot to send a reply before setting off for St. Brett’s.
The sky’s blackness was turning to yellowing dawn. Roger was satisfied with a good night of mapping the stars, but even so the task before him seemed gigantic. He dared not think of how many more nights it would take him, and then there were the calculations to make and the evaluation of those calculations. Perhaps a life’s work. Yet for what? The Warden had told him not to publish his theories. And yet while they remained only theories he was right. Somehow he needed proof, actual physical phenomena that he could record.
The dawn chorus was beginning and Roger could now see the outlines of the village before him, the church, the rectory, and its small orchard. Fires were being lit in the village. Small puffs of smoke came out of roof-holes and from the chimney of the rectory. He could smell cooking on the wind. Roger sniffed the air . Someone was grilling bacon, and what also smelt like eggs, but eggs that smelt rotten. Roger winced and coughed.
There were two rather large birds on the roof of the rectory. Too big for crows, thought Roger, but surely not eagles, not here away from their preferred mountain eyries. He remembered his childhood and the eagles that his father and uncles would sport with, taken at an early age from nests in the fells. Those birds had seemed so massive when he was small and he had always been frightened of them, but he respected them. Yet though these creatures were as large as eagles, they were ungainly and lacked the nobility of birds of prey.
He pulled a large thick convex disc of glass from his pocket and held it several inches from his eye and looked at the large birds on the roof of the rectory. Through the lens, which magnified his view, he could see that the creatures had only very small wings, curled on their black shiny backs. They were not birds. They each had two legs and two arms that were as long and thin as spider’s legs. One of the creatures turned towards him and he could see the face close-up, magnified by his lens, doglike but with longer fangs, black sheen of skin, and with two goat-horns protruding from its crown.
“Demons,” whispered Roger, fearful lest he be heard. He reached for his bag, knocking over his astrolabe as he did so, and produced a fine pencil of charcoal and some old vellum for mark-making. Quickly he tried to sketch the creatures with one hand while holding up the lens to look with the other. They moved with fast and jerky movements, hopping across the roof of the rectory; sometimes it was difficult to say they had moved, but rather they seemed to disappear and reappear at different places on the roof.
Now they hung like bats over the main door of the rectory, which like the manor house was on the upper story at the top of stone steps that descended to the ground. A man, a pastor by the look of his tonsure, walked through the door, and one of the demons jumped down to perch on his shoulder. The man walked down the steps, pulling his robes around him and tightening a belt oblivious to the winged creature sitting crouched on his back. The thing seemed to be whispering in his ear. Then a woman appeared at the door. Even though the daylight was still dim, Roger could see that her hair was loose and not covered and neither was the flesh of her shoulders and neck. The second demon jumped onto her back now. The priest turned and started shouting at the woman, who shouted back, shaking her fist.
Roger looked down at his vellum again, and made a few marks with his charcoal. He saw a movement behind him. His only thought was that he hoped it was not a demon. And then he was knocked by a heavy force to the ground, something sharp and cold shoved into his neck, and a large clammy hand closed over his mouth.