Solstice
by Zack

Author's note: I never expected to write a story that took place in Regency England, the favorite setting for Romance novels (also known as bodice rippers), but here it is. Many thanks to Jennifer Harrison for providing details of Wiltshire and for channeling the thoughts and emotions of her ancestor and namesake.

I groaned as I tried unsuccessfully to ease the pain I had endured since midnight of the previous day, locked in stocks that imprisoned my wrists and ankles in their implacable oaken clasp. Once again I strained to see if the sky was darkening, peering through the small barred window at the top of the cellar wall. My torture would last until sunset, if I survived it. But I knew I would survive this torture, even though my back ached from being bent so long, even though my muscles were tied in knots from their forced immobility. The thick wooden dowel forcing my mouth to stay open made it feel as though my jaw would drop off.

I tried to believe this was not happening, that it was all a nightmare, that I would awake to find myself living the placid life of only a few months ago. But I could not escape into illusion; the pain in my joints and muscles, the chill of the damp air on my naked body, all of this was real. My only escape would be death.

* * *

I first met Richard about noon on a cold but clear day, the first day of February, 1815. My father is Sir John Harrison, Bart., and our estate, now reduced to a single farm, is in Wiltshire, about twelve miles north of the famous ancient monument of Stonehenge. The farm nestles against the vast open grasslands of Salisbury Plain, which sweeps across the county, a desolate area fit only for the grazing of cattle and sheep, its uninterrupted view of the rolling chalk downs occasionally broken by a copse of trees or stunted bushes.

I had walked down to the highroad that bordered the farm, looking for a cow that wandered from its shed. You might wonder why I, the daughter of the house, was performing a task usually left to a milkmaid, but it was all part of my father's training regimen. My mother had died ten years earlier, when I was nine, and my father had raised me in his own eccentric fashion. Part of his method was requiring me to perform all of the tasks necessary to operate a farm. "You can't monitor tasks properly if you haven't performed them yourself", was his reply to any complaints I made. This was the least of his eccentricity, however. He tutored me himself in subjects not usually taught to girls, including Latin and mathematics. But he didn't neglect the traditional education received by girls of my class. My governess was a Frenchwoman, the daughter of aristocrats who had been executed during the Terror, and she taught me French and all of the social graces needed to function in polite society.

The fields were still covered with snow, but the highroad was mostly clear. My attention was first drawn to the sound of galloping hoofs, and then a fast-moving curricle, drawn by two magnificent black horses, came into my view as it navigated a bend in the road. It was near the lane that led to our farm that the mishap occurred. The curricle's right wheel caught in a frozen rut and instantly shattered, leaving only the hub attached to the axle. Fortunately the curricle remained upright, and the driver was not ejected from it. He was able to rein in the horses not far from where I was standing. He dismounted and uttered a vile oath when he saw the remains of the smashed wheel.

I was stunned. This was the most handsome man I had ever seen. Even the dark green greatcoat and fur-lined leather hat he was wearing could not conceal the perfection of his face and body. I was a virgin, but I had no trouble recognizing what I felt: it was lust, raw animal lust. I wanted this man, and I wanted him now. I felt a wave of shame pass over me at such lewd thoughts, but that did not lessen my overwhelming desire to give myself to this complete stranger.

Then he noticed me. He stared at me for a long minute, his mouth open. Then, with a visible effort, he recovered and spoke. "Excuse me, Miss. I didn't see you, and spoke as I would if I were with my regiment. I hope you can forgive me for offending you."

I stood there mute, my mind a seething mass of passion.

"Miss, did you hear me?"

I suppressed my desire and tried to respond normally. "No apology is necessary, sir. I've heard those words before. You are unhurt, I trust?"

"Yes, but this is damned inconvenient. I'm miles from home, and my time is limited. Is there anywhere I might obtain a new wheel?"

"There is a wheelwright in the village, sir. Would you accompany me to our farm? I'll send a stable lad to take care of your horses, and send for the wheelwright."

"Very kind of you, Miss." He bowed. "Permit me to introduce myself. I am Richard Lowery, Captain, 95th Rifles."

I curtsied. "Pleased to meet you, sir. My name is Jenny, Jennifer Harrison. Please accompany me to our farm." He took my hand in his and bowed over it. At his touch my heart skipped a beat and my lust surged again. I hastily pulled my hand away, blushing furiously, and hurried up the lane.

As we entered the house I told a maid to send Ned, the stable boy, to collect the horses and take them to the barn, and then ride to the village and fetch the wheelwright.

As I expected, my father was in his office, a small room on the ground floor of the farmhouse. He was seated at the table he used as a desk, working on the accounts. He looked up as I entered, and then rose to his feet when he saw Richard.

"Father, this is Captain Richard Lowery. Captain, this is my father, Sir John Harrison." The men exchanged bows. "Father, Captain Lowery needs a wheel for his curricle. I've sent Ned for the wheelwright."

"Very good, Jenny." My father turned to the Captain. "Lowery; that name is well-known in these parts. Are you related to the Earl of Cranbrook?

"He is my father, sir. As you might surmise from my commission, I am his second son, not his heir, so I have pursued a career in the army."

"We are honoured to have you here, m'lord. Please accept the hospitality of my house for as long as you wish."

"Very kind of you, sir."

After a few more pleasantries my father and Captain Lowery entered into a discussion of the war, which finally ended last April when Bonaparte was forced to abdicate and go into exile on the island of Elba. I didn't really care about the war, but I could not force myself to leave Captain Lowery, until finally my father ordered me to carry out my household duties.

A while later the wheelwright arrived at the house. He said that he had a wheel that would suit, but that it would require some modifications. I showed him to the study and listened to his discussion with Captain Lowery. The crux of the matter was that the curricle would not be repaired before dark, and my father invited Captain Lowery to spend the night. My heart leapt when I heard that, and I resolved that I would not waste the opportunity.

The rest of the day seemed to last an eternity. Finally, I showed Richard to his room, the room next to mine. Once in my room I quickly stripped off all of my clothes and examined myself in my looking glass. My body is slim and firm, with all of the appropriate feminine curves. I've been told by the local swains who courted me that I am pretty, and I suppose that is true. I have long red hair and brown eyes, and my face is well proportioned. My bosom is rather larger than is the fashion at the moment and I have to keep it disguised in a tight bodice but now, unencumbered, my breasts stood out firm and proud and the nipples were standing erect. I smoothed my hands down over my slim waist to my flared hips, gratified that I saw no blemish. I was always ashamed of the flush of ginger hair on my private area, but there was nothing I could do about it now.

I put on my nightgown and put out my candle. I discovered I was trembling, but not from fear. I had no personal experience of sex beyond a few kisses, but the maids openly discussed their intimate activities, so I had good theoretical knowledge of what transpired between men and women. I took a deep breath and opened my door. No one was in sight. I slipped into the corridor and tip-toed to the Captain's door. A line of light was visible under it.

I opened his door, stepped inside, and shut the door behind me. He had removed his shirt and boots, but still wore his trousers. He was startled when he saw me, and before he could say anything I blurted out, "I know you must think me shameless, or even wanton, but I don't care. I love you desperately and I want to consummate my love. I ask nothing of you except your body for tonight." I removed my nightgown and stood naked before him.

"Jenny, Jenny, I feel the same for you. I would have come to your room if I had thought that you might reciprocate my love." He took me in his arms and kissed me. I wrapped my arms around his neck and returned the kiss.

"I hope I can please you, sir. I've never been with a man before."

At this he released me from the hug and put his hands on my shoulders and held me at arms length. "Are you sure you want to do this, Jenny? Once we start I will not be able to stop."

"Yes! Oh, yes! Hurry!" I twisted from his grasp and leapt onto the bed.

He did not hesitate further, removing his trousers and joining me on the bed. He pressed his body against mine and I could feel his rampant manhood pressing against me. He kissed me, then his left hand caressed my breasts while his right hand pulled my thighs roughly apart. As I looked up at him, looming above me, he took my legs in either hand and lifted me bodily from the mattress and impaled me on his throbbing shaft. I stifled a scream of pain and surprise as he penetrated me, although my maidenhead had long since been broken by years of horse riding. I grabbed at a sheet and stuffed it in my mouth as he thrust into me, making me bounce on his lap. Hungrily, he took one of my nipples into his mouth, sucking and biting it until I felt I would lose my mind with lust for him. Suddenly I felt my heart beat even faster, a strange heat coming from my loins, and I screamed again, not in pain this time but from an intense pleasure I had never felt before. It seemed to race through me like a forest fire, wave after wave of heat, and light, and joy.

Richard lay me back down on the bed as the feeling gradually passed, but he was not finished with me yet. He turned me so that my face was now against the pillow and my posterior rising up from the bed. I felt him thrust into me again with even more urgency, no longer concerned for my welfare or comfort, but desperate to bring himself to satisfaction. I bit the pillow, feeling utterly at his mercy, but enjoying it all the more, until I felt the fire rage through me once more. At that precise moment, with a series of stifled grunts and moans, he pulled himself out of me, and I knew from the conversations with the maids that this was so that he would not impregnate me with his seed. As I had heard them discuss, I swung round and, as he knelt before me, straining with every fibre of his body to prevent what was inevitable, I took his manhood in my mouth and drank down his bittersweet fluid like some wanton harlot, until at last he fell back on the bed, utterly spent. We lay together for a long time before he turned to me and started covering my body with kisses, whispering his love for me, until he was quite recovered and once more took me to that place of carnal delights. We alternated between sleep, tender lovemaking and the most violent congress throughout the night.

* * *

Before dawn I crept out of Richard's bed and back into my own. I resolved not to embarrass or pressure him in any way. If he wished to leave and never see me again I would be desolate, but still feel rewarded. This had been my first time, so I had nothing to compare it against, but I could not understand how sex could be any better. If the ecstasy were more intense surely my heart would stop.

At breakfast I was careful not to betray any emotion, but I was tense and frightened. Would Richard say goodbye and drive off? That would satisfy the bargain I had offered him last night.

He addressed my father. "Sir, would you do me the honour of granting me your daughter's hand in marriage?"

I was flooded with happiness. My father looked at us. "So that's the way of it, eh? Just looking at you two last night led me to expect something along these lines. Well, m'lord, it is obvious that Jenny has accepted you, and I also will agree to your proposal. But what about your father? What will he say when he finds out that his son, even if not his heir, wants to marry the daughter of an impoverished baronet?"

"I'll convince him, sir. Surely he can see how much in love I am. The only problem is that time is short. I have accepted a place on the Duke of Wellington's staff, and I have to report to our embassy in Paris as soon as possible."

"Then you should not delay. Breakfast is ready, and I'll have Ned prepare your curricle so you can start at once."

The next few days were an agony. Would Richard really return? Could his father be persuaded? Then a messenger arrived with astounding news. Richard's elder brother, the heir to the title, had been killed in a riding accident, and the shock of his loss had caused his father's heart to fail. Richard was now the Earl of Cranbrook, and he still wanted to marry me!

A large, public wedding would have been offensive, since we were still in the period of morning for Richard's father and brother, so our wedding was quiet and private. It took place in the chapel of Cranbrook Manor, and the only persons present besides Richard and me were my father, Richard's Uncle Zachary, and the vicar who performed the ceremony.

Cranbrook Manor is large and ancient, and I had no time to explore it if Richard and I were to reach Paris on schedule. While we were gone the estate would be managed by Zachary, the same task he had performed for Richard's father.

Zachary repulsed me. His physical appearance was impressive, with a handsome face and a tall, muscular body, but he seemed to emanate an aura of evil, and I found myself avoiding him. I tried to credit this to my over-active imagination, but I noticed the staff, and especially the maidservants, seemed to be terrified when he was present.

I had a wonderful time in Paris. Just days before I had been little more than a farmhand, and now I was the Countess of Cranbrook. I enjoyed every moment, knowing our time here would soon be over. Richard planned to sell his commission and resign from the army now that he was the Earl.

Then we were overtaken by terrible events. On the first of March Napoleon returned from Elba and the French rallied to him. We were again at war. Richard ordered me to return to England, for he feared that bitter fighting would be necessary before the Corsican Tyrant was defeated. I didn't want to leave him, but Richard insisted, and as a good wife I obeyed my husband.

I had been at Cranbrook Manor for about two weeks when my happy world ended. One afternoon I received a visitor, Captain Jeremy Roberts, Richard's friend and a fellow officer in the 95th. His right arm was in a sling, but that was not the reason for his sad face. After brief preliminaries he got right to the point.

"Richard is dead, Jenny."

I did not believe him. I could not believe him. "No! Surely you are mistaken!"

"I'm afraid not. The Duke sent us out with a detachment of French Royalist troops to reconnoitre. We were attacked, and a cannonball struck a stone wall close to us. A chip of stone hit Richard's head and laid it open. Then the enemy charged, and we were forced to retreat. I could not recover his body."

"But maybe he was only wounded! You did not confirm he was dead!"

"No, I didn't have the chance. But if he had been captured alive we would have been notified. The French are punctilious about that. I'm sorry, Jenny, but Richard is gone."

I don't remember what he said after that. I don't remember what happened for the rest of that day and most of the next. It was that next afternoon before I was again aware of my surroundings. I received a message from Zachary, asking me to come to his study.

I had never been in this room before. It was small but well-furnished, with several upholstered, leather-covered chairs and a large desk. Zachary was seated by the desk, but he rose when I entered.

"My dear Jenny. Such a tragic time. You have my deepest condolences."

"Thank you, Zachary. I can't believe Richard is gone."

"I'm afraid I have further ill tidings to convey. A message for you arrived yesterday. Your father was forced to flee the country."

"What? How can that be?"

"It seems that he invested heavily in some tin mines in Cornwall, mortgaging his estate and borrowing more besides. These mines turned out to be worthless, and his creditors seized his property and attempted to have him imprisoned for debt. Fortunately, he was able to evade arrest and he has fled abroad."

"I must help him. What funds are available to me?"

"None. I have inherited the title and estate, and Richard had no money of his own."

"But you will help me, won't you?"

"Perhaps. I have the title and estate, but no Countess. I want you as my wife."

"You're joking! I'll never marry you, not for all the money in the world! And my father would never consent either. I know he would remain in exile forever rather than accept money granted on such odious terms."

"I thought that might be your answer, so I have an alternate plan."

And with that enigmatic comment he struck me in the stomach. I was completely unprepared for the blow, and it knocked me to the floor and took my breath away. Before I could recover Zachary pulled my hands behind my back and bound them palm-to-palm with a thin silken cord. He knotted it and wrapped the ends between my wrists and knotted it again, cinching the bindings painfully tight.

He rolled me onto my back and pushed my dress up above my knees. "You intend to rape me?" I gasped.

"Of course not. Adultery and fornication are sins. Besides, we'll be married soon enough, and by then you will be eager to please me. I do not enjoy a tussle with an unwilling woman."

"You are mad if you think I shall ever welcome your embraces. And do you actually believe it is no sin to attack and bind me?"

"Certainly. One of the Ten Commandments forbids adultery, but there is no prohibition against the discipline of a stubborn and disobedient woman."

He tied my ankles and pulled me to my feet. I teetered unsteadily while he got a scarf from the desk and tied a knot in the enter.

"Open your mouth, Jenny. This gag is to spare my ears only, as the household is used to the cries of errant females receiving correction in this room. I have run this estate for some time and the servants are loyal to me. No one will come to your aid."

I refused to cooperate, but my resistance accomplished nothing. Zachary pinched my nose shut and forced the gag into my mouth when I had to breathe. He wrapped the ends of the scarf around my head and knotted them behind my neck, pulling the gag brutally tight. I was very frightened, but I resolved to resist his foul machinations, to the death if necessary.

"This is what will happen, Jenny. Next Sunday the banns will be posted in the village church, and three weeks later you and I will be married. You will freely answer 'yes' when the vicar asks if you consent to be wed." I frantically shook my head, causing Zachary to smile. "You may not now believe you will do this, but in a week, two at most, you will find yourself begging me to marry you. I have a good deal of experience in these matters, and no woman has resisted my persuasion for longer than that."

Zachary went to his desk, and I felt a surge of terror when I saw he now held a riding crop.

"When I give you a proper flogging you will be tied to the whipping post, but that will come later. For now, something less formal. I still get a great deal of pleasure from administering impromptu beatings."

He dragged me over to a chair, seated himself, and draped me over his lap, face down. I squirmed and struggled, but he held me in place with his left arm while his right hand pushed my skirts above my waist. I protested through my gag when he ripped off my undergarments.

He stroked my bare bottom. "Ah, Jenny, how very lovely. It's a shame to have to mar this creamy skin with ugly red welts. But I must, no matter how much it pains me."

The hypocrite! I could feel his erect manhood pressing against me. Then he struck my right buttock with the crop, and all thought was submerged in a sea of pain. In spite of my resolve I screamed, the sound only slightly muffled by the gag. He immediately struck again, and yet again. He went into a frenzy, raining blows without pause on my bottom and right thigh, and I screamed continuously.

The beating stopped, and I desperately wished that this signaled the end of my ordeal, but my hopes were soon dashed. He reversed my position on his lap, so I was now held in place by his right arm and the crop was in his left hand. Then he struck my left buttock and thigh, blow after blow, building to a crescendo of agony. I screamed, and then, much to my shame, I begged him to stop. He ignored my pleas. My tears began to flow unstoppably as the intense pain of the beating conjoined with the emotional traumas I had so recently suffered to send me into a paroxysm of despair. It was clear to me that Zachary was a monstrous sadist and that I was entirely and inescapably in his power, with no hope of rescue from within or without the household. I wept for this desecration of the love Richard had given me in bringing me into this now accursed house.

Finally the crop's blows ceased and Zachary pushed me off his lap. I lay motionless at his feet, crying and moaning as I strove to cope with the pain.

"You may not have noticed, Jenny, but I can use the crop with either hand, and with equal facility, so the welts on the right and left sides of your body are symmetrical. For some reason this is the only activity where I am ambidextrous."

He bent my knees and loosely connected my wrists and ankles together with another cord. "I have to go out, so I'll leave you here to consider the consequences of resisting me. When I return I will convey you to a special room I have had constructed in the cellar. It is furnished with a variety of implements that will help convince you to accede to my wishes, including a rack, stocks, and a small iron-barred cage. Now, it will undoubtedly occur to you that you can stop the pain by pretending to submit. You should know that I will require you to prove your sincerity by performing a series of degrading sexual acts. If you consent to perform these acts I will know you will consent to marriage. So until later, good night."

I knew I had to escape before the fiend returned, but it was a while before I had recovered enough to attempt to free my hands. I struggled for some time before I gave up in despair. The rope binding my wrists was just too tight, and my fingers could not reach any knots. I realized my only faint hope of escape was to bring my hands from behind my back to the front. I'm slim, and strong for a woman, so I had a chance. I arched my back and struggled to pass my arms over my hips. The pain was intense as my arms rubbed across the welts on my bottom and thighs, but I had to force myself to continue. Finally, after an interminable struggle, my hands were in front of my body. I moved to a kneeling position, pulled out the gag, and used my teeth to attack the knots securing the rope around my wrists. Soon my hands were free, and I untied my ankles. I stood up and smoothed my dress over my ravaged body.

This was only the first step on my road to freedom. Next I must leave the Manor. This room was on the ground floor, and a french door opened onto a terrace overlooking the garden. The sun was just setting as I walked out onto the terrace. It was likely that I would been seen by servants, but with any luck they would not have heard about my change in status, from countess to captive.

So it proved. No one tried to stop me as I strolled into the garden, and then into the woodland behind it. Once I could not be seen from the house I ran to the stone wall that encircled the grounds. This was ten feet high, but a small tree had grown up near it. I climbed the tree, scrambled onto the top of the wall, and let myself drop to the ground outside it.

Now where could I go? I was penniless, and my father was unable to help me. Then I remembered Mrs Jenkins. She had been our housekeeper since before I was born, and when she retired my father provided her with a cottage in her native village and an annuity to support her. I had visited her several times and knew how to find her village. It was about twenty miles from here, a distance I could walk. It was completely dark now and it was getting colder. I oriented myself by the stars and set out on my journey.

I reached Mrs Jenkins' cottage just after dawn. I was hungry, half-frozen, and in great pain from the beating. I knocked on the door and waited impatiently until she opened it.

She was surprised to see me. "Miss Jenny! What are you doing here, and why are your clothes so torn and dirty?"

"It's a long story, Mrs Jenkins. Can I come inside? I'm very cold."

* * *

So began my life with Mrs Jenkins. I used an assumed name, Jenny Smith, and I told anyone who asked that I was Mrs Jenkins' niece. I was afraid Zachary would find me and drag me back to an unspeakable fate, and I hoped this subterfuge would help conceal my whereabouts. The cottage was small, with a tiny bedroom, a small sitting room, and a rudimentary kitchen. Mrs Jenkins used the bedroom, and I had a trundle bed in the sitting room. At first I felt guilty about using money from Mrs Jenkins' annuity, but I soon realized that her mind and her body were failing, and the money diverted for my keep would have been spent on a caretaker in any event.

The next weeks were not unpleasant. The welts and bruises healed and left no scars. I had enough to eat and a warm place to sleep. I kept busy looking after the cottage and Mrs Jenkins. The vicar and I became friends, and when he learned that I knew Latin he loaned me books by Virgil and Ovid. While I was reading or working I managed to ignore, for a while, the pain caused by the death of Richard, but at night, in my lonely bed, I frequently wept.

Everything changed when Mrs Jenkins passed away in her sleep one night in mid-June. I found her the next morning, and felt a mixture a relief and apprehension. She had gone to a better place, all cares and troubles ended, but my cares and troubles were just beginning. When Mrs Jenkins died her annuity ended. The last quarterly payment had been delivered by messenger on April first, and the next was due on July first, but now it would not be paid. Only twelve shillings remained from the last payment.

Mrs Jenkins was buried in the parish cemetery, next to the graves of her mother and father. She had been a surrogate mother to me at a time when I needed one, and I wept copiously at her funeral.

As I was leaving the churchyard the bailiff stopped me. "Sorry to bring this up now, Miss Smith, but the squire needs your cottage. He'd like you to clear out by Thursday, the day after tomorrow."

"I don't understand. I thought Mrs Jenkins owned the cottage."

"No, she just had a life tenancy. Now that she's gone the cottage reverts to the squire, and he wants it back."

"Very well. I'll be out by Thursday."

So now I was homeless as well as penniless. I was facing a problem I had never had to face before: How can I earn a living? I was qualified to be a governess, but I could never find a position without references. I suppose I could find work as a domestic servant or a farm labourer, but I had been a countess, and I would accept these low-born alternatives only as a last resort. Before I did that I'd join the demimonde and find a rich lover, either in London or in a provincial city such as Bath. But entering this dubious occupation would probably require a substantial amount of money for clothes and the other items needed to attract a protector. One false move and I would become nothing more than a common trollop. Needless to say, my uncertain prospects weighed heavily upon my spirit.

On Wednesday I had an unusual visitor. It was mid-afternoon, and I was just finishing with the cleaning when a woman knocked on my door. She was perhaps forty years of age, and dressed in a curious costume, a black dress and a long black cowl, much like a nun's habit. "Can I help you?" I asked.

"Perhaps I can help you, Miss Smith. I need the services of someone fluent in Latin, and the vicar told me you have that skill."

"Yes, I do know Latin. Please come in." The woman entered and I asked her to be seated. She perched on the edge of her chair. "What is it you wish me to do, Mrs...?" The appearance and manner of this strange woman made me uneasy.

"You may address me as Sybil. I am the leader of a group of women devoted to the study of the occult. We have recently acquired a trove of ancient manuscripts and we need them translated into English. You would be required to do this at our chapter house, which is located very near Stonehenge. If you prove to be as competent as the vicar indicated we will pay you five pounds per month, plus your food and lodging."

"That is very generous, Mrs.. ah..Sybil." Twenty pounds a year was good pay for a governess. "How long would this employment last?"

Sybil's lips twitched in what might be taken as a smile. "If you are the right person, you would be with us indefinitely."

Somehow this reply did not reassure me. I recalled hearing about this woman and her group, who studied the 'occult'. The more superstitious of the local inhabitants whispered about a coven of witches, and though I don't believe in such nonsense I did not necessarily want to be associated with it either. But I had no other options, so I resolved to accept the offer, at least provisionally.

"Very well, I accept your offer, at least on a trial basis. When and where do you want me to report?"

"I want you to come with me now, Jenny. I have a carriage waiting."

I lifted my eyebrows at the familiarity. "Jenny?"

"In our Order we are all known by a single name. As you are now in our employ you will obey our rules. If you do not agree to this our offer of employment is rescinded."

"Very well, I will conform to your rules." For pay as generous as they were offering I could tolerate a certain amount of eccentricity.

I had already packed my meager belongings and it was the work of a moment to retrieve my bundle. I half-way expected the carriage to be as exotic as Sybil's costume, but it was ordinary in appearance and pulled by four nondescript horses. Only the driver was strange; a woman, wearing the same kind of black dress and cowl as Sybil.

Sybil and I entered the carriage and my journey into the unknown began. As we travelled we left the main roads for smaller and smaller lanes and finally a track that meandered across the brome-and-grass-covered downlands. Habitation became sparse, until not even a hut was visible. Then the track turned around a chalk outcropping and I could see a house in the distance, which proved to be our destination.

The two-story house had a slate roof and walls constructed of mustard-colored brick. The architecture was mundane and of no recognizable style, with a plain facade and no ornaments such as columns, or even a roof over the four broad brick steps that led up to the front door. The carriage drove beyond the house and stopped in a brick-paved courtyard that connected the house and an outbuilding. Part of the outbuilding was used as a stable and carriage house, but there was a strange domed structure on the roof.

The carriage door was opened by a young woman wearing an unusual white dress. It had long sleeves and a hood that covered the woman's hair. There was no belt or other indentation at her waist; the line of the dress was straight from shoulders to hem, which was just above her ankles. I was surprised to see that the woman's feet were bare.

Sybil and I dismounted from the carriage and I looked around the horizon for the monoliths of Stonehenge, but they were not visible. I asked, "Didn't you say your house was near Stonehenge? I don't see it."

Sybil spoke for the first time since we had left the cottage. "You must be thinking of the upright stones. Those are recent additions to this landscape. The true, ancient Stonehenge is over there. It is a sacred relic. Come, I will show you now, but you must never approach it unless you are with an Initiate of the Order."

She guided me to the far side of the courtyard, where there was a very large granite slab, its surface about two feet below ground level. The courtyard brick merged into shallow steps that led down to it. It didn't appear to me to be anything special, although granite is normally absent from the chalk of Salisbury Plain. Perhaps it was left here by the Druids who supposedly built Stonehenge. I tried to look as though I were impressed.

Sybil ordered, "Come, Jenny. There is just time for your induction before the evening meal."

She walked at a brisk pace to the rear door of the house and I followed. I had no idea what she meant by 'induction', but I expected I'd find out shortly. We passed through a small room containing boots and cloaks and entered a short corridor. Sybil opened a door to the right. It was an office, with several cabinets containing files and a large table piled with papers.

Sybil took an iron box from a drawer in the table and withdrew a roll of notes. She counted out five pound notes and gave them to me. "This is your first month's wages, Jenny."

I took the money and put it in the pocket of my dress. "Thank you, Sybil."

She put the money box back in the drawer and withdrew a closely-printed sheet of paper, a pen, and an inkwell. "Sign this receipt."

She put the paper on the table and I tried to read it, but the poor light, small typeface and blurry printing made it difficult. "There is a lot of printing here for just a receipt," I protested.

"It also your employment contract. It lists the rules of the Order, and by signing it you agree to follow them. You have already said you will do so, so why are you hesitating? We still have much to do."

I was committed now, at least for a while, so I signed the document. Sybil put it in a file. "Now what? I asked. I was becoming annoyed as well as apprehensive, although I strove to hide it.

"Follow me, and do not delay us any more." Sybil led the way back into the corridor and then into another room. It was small and dimly illuminated by a tiny window, and the only furniture was a narrow table and some shelves holding several dozen wooden boxes. Two women were waiting in the room, one in the black costume worn by Sybil and the other in the same unusual white dress I had seen in the courtyard.

Sybil introduced the woman in black as Initiate Rachel and the woman in white as Servitor Jane. I was introduced as Servitor Jenny, much to my annoyance. I did not agree to be a employed as a servant. I wanted to protest to Sybil about this, but both Jane and Rachel were at least six inches taller than I, and they had the muscular arms of people who did hard manual labour. I did not think their presence was by chance, and I reserved my protests for later.

Sybil ordered, "Remove your clothing, Jenny."

"What! I will not."

"Every resident here must wear the appropriate garb. As a Servitor you will wear white. I am becoming impatient. Remove your clothing or Jane and Rachel will rip it off, and they will not be gentle."

I looked at the two hulking women and decided to comply. After all, it was not an unreasonable request to wear an appropriate livery. I removed my dress and chemise.

Sybil barked, "Shoes, stockings, and drawers as well. I want you naked, and quickly."

Jane and Rachel stepped closer to me. I resented this assault on my modesty, but again I complied, and I tried to use my hands to cover myself. "There. May I have a dress now?"

"Later. The physical examination is next. Lie down on the table, on your back."

"I will not! This is outrageous!"

"I've had enough of your insolence and disobedience. Jane! Rachel! Put her on the table."

Before I could blink the women had each grasped one of my arms and lifted me onto the table. They pulled my hands over my head and held them in place while Sybil tightly buckled wide leather straps around my wrists. Working swiftly, and obviously with the benefit of much practice, they bent my knees and moved my legs apart so my feet were off the table edges. Sybil buckled straps around my ankles to hold them there. I looked down my pinioned body and cringed when I saw how exposed I was.

My humiliation intensified as Sybil moved to the end of the table closest to my feet and started to explore my pubic hair with her fingers. After a few minutes she announced, "I don't see any crabs, so we won't shave her now. Check her head for lice, Jane."

I gasped when Sybil probed my vagina. "No maidenhead. You're not a virgin, Miss Jenny? You have ladylike pretensions, yet the morals of a peasant girl?"

"Actually, I am a widow. My husband was a soldier, he was killed in France."

"Humph. So you say. No matter. It just means you will have to be purified before you can take part in the Sacred Ritual."

The rest of the examination was not quite as humiliating, even though Sybil ran her hands over every part of my body, especially my breasts. Finally the groping and poking was finished. Sybil announced, "You seem to be free of disease, so you may enter the community without quarantine. Release her, Rachel. Jane, get her a dress."

My wrists and ankles were unstrapped and I stood, rubbing my reddened wrists. Jane took a box from the shelf and extracted a white dress and handed it to me. She wrote 'Jenny' on the box with a piece of charcoal, put my discarded clothes and shoes in the box, and returned it to the shelf. I put on the dress, glad to cover my nakedness and glad of the warmth. I took a step towards the door but Sybil raised her hand to stop me.

"We are not finished here quite yet, Jenny. There is still the matter of your insolence and disobedience. Normally, I would refer your misbehaviors to the Punishment Committee for adjudication, but you are new here, so I will just administer a mild, informal chastisement. Tie her hands."

Rachel held my forearms together and Jane wrapped thick, coarse twine around my wrists. I was pushed against a long side of the table and stretched across it by Jane while Rachel used more rope to cinch my wrists and tie the end of the rope under the tabletop. The edge of the tabletop pressed against my abdomen, and my toes barely touched the floor.

I looked back over my shoulder as Sybil produced a thick leather strap with a wooden handle from somewhere inside her garments. She lifted the hem of my dress and pulled it up over my waist. I was very frightened. "No, don't hit me!" I begged. "You cannot do this to me."

"Yes I can, Jenny. You agreed to abide by our rules and accept punishment for breaking them."

Then she laid the strap across my bare bottom. I screamed loudly. I screamed after every one of the six brutal strokes. My bottom felt as though I had been sat on a hot stove.

The strap vanished back into Sybil's garments. "Jenny, I'm letting you off lightly this time, but if you exhibit improper behaviour again the punishment will be more severe. Do you understand me?"

I frantically nodded my head. I was crying too hard to speak.

"Good." Somewhere in the distance a gong clashed. "Time for the evening meal. I'll send someone to release you and show you the routine, both for the rest of this evening and tomorrow as well."

A few minutes later a woman wearing a white dress entered the room and a cheery, educated voice said, "Oh my! You've been naughty, and you just got here? That doesn't bode well for the future. Just a minute, I'll get the lotion, it'll help with the pain."

Something cold was poured on my inflamed bottom and a hand massaged it in. "I'm Elizabeth. What's your name?"

"My name is Jenny. Are you a servant? You don't speak like one."

"Oh no, it's not like that here. I'm a Servitor, just like you, but that's an inclusive designation. It includes everyone from noblewomen studying to become Initiates to farm girls hired to do the cooking and cleaning. I'm sort of in-between. Believe it or not, I'm an astronomer. What about you?"

"I was engaged to translate some Latin manuscripts. Could you untie me, please? The rope is cutting into my wrists."

"Yes, just a minute." Elizabeth used a knife to cut the cords and free my hands. I stood up with a groan. There were deep red grooves around my wrists and I rubbed them briskly.

Elizabeth laughed. "Translating some Latin manuscripts, eh? Your father must have been almost as eccentric as my father. How many girls do you know who were taught astronomy instead of embroidery? No wonder I couldn't find a husband."

Elizabeth was about my size and perhaps a few years older. She had blonde hair and very blue eyes, and while she was not a beauty she had an animated face, especially when she laughed. I asked, "What does an astronomer do out here? Is this your only task?"

"Yes, it is. The influence of the stars is very important. I provide the celestial measurements that help Sybil and the other adepts divine the workings of the occult world. Perhaps you noticed the observatory on the outbuilding? I'm not using it right now though, as I'm busy calculating the exact time of the true solstice."

All of this seemed like claptrap to me, but I made no derogatory comments that might upset Elizabeth. I said, "Sybil said you would show me the routine. What should I do now?"

"It's time for the evening meal. Let's go to the dining hall."

I followed Elizabeth into a large room and we joined a line of Servitors queued up on one side of a long table. Initiates were queued up on the other side, and as each person walked along the table she picked up a pewter fork and spoon, a pottery plate, a slab of bread, and a pottery mug containing ale. At the end of the table a Servitor and an Initiate ladled stew from a large kettle onto each plate. I had never seen this type of food service before, but it certainly seemed efficient.

Once we had our food I followed Elizabeth to a long trestle table with a bench on each side. There were five of these tables, three for Servitors and two for Initiates. I placed my food on the table and started to sit down, but Elizabeth stopped me with a shake of her head. "Wait for Sybil," she whispered.

When everyone was standing by the tables Sybil said, "Fetch the sinner."

Jane and Rachel left the room and we all waited in silence. I was frightened, but none of the other women seemed to be bothered. Jane and Rachel returned after perhaps five minutes, and they had with them a naked woman. Her arms were tied together behind her back, hands palm-to-palm and her elbows touching. Her arms were dark red and her hands were purple, so apparently she had been bound for some time. A large wooden dowel forced her mouth open and was held in place by rope tied through a hole each end and knotted behind her head. She was whimpering and moaning, the sound muted but not silenced by her gag.

Sybil spoke. "Ruth, you have been found guilty of not satisfactorily performing an assigned task. As this is your first offence, we will be lenient. You will be suspended strappado for one hour." She nodded to Jane and Rachel. "Suspend the sinner."

The wretched Ruth was hustled to the end of the room, where a rope dangled from a pulley attached to a beam. Jane tied the end of the rope around Ruth's wrists and both women pulled on the rope until Ruth's feet were off the floor. Jane tied the free end of the rope to a cleat set in the wall. All through this process Ruth screamed through her gag.

Sybil turned over an hourglass and put it on the table in front of her. "Be seated," she said.

Everyone sat down except me. I stared at Ruth's wracked body until Elizabeth tugged at my sleeve. I was very disturbed by this punishment, but everybody else just ignored Ruth, and I found this indifference even more disturbing.

After we had eaten Elizabeth took me on a tour of the house, ending at the dormitory on the top floor. This was a long narrow room, divided down the middle by a ceiling-high partition. Walls extended from both sides of the partition, forming a double row of cubicles, each about six feet on a side. The cubicle walls ended about four feet from the outside walls of the building, defining a corridor. This end of the cubicle was completely open, with not so much as a curtain, so privacy was very limited.

The cubicle Elizabeth assigned to me was furnished with a bed, a wash stand, and a commode. The bed had a good mattress, stuffed with wool, and was provided with a feather pillow, linen sheets, and woollen blankets. The Order didn't seem to stint on creature comforts. Elizabeth said she would see me in the morning and wished me good night. I removed my dress and climbed into bed, and much to my surprise had no trouble getting to sleep.

Some time during the night I was awakened by a hand on my mouth. A voice I recognized as Sybil' s said, "It is time for your purification. Do not make a sound."

A faint light from a shielded lantern allowed me to recognize Jane and Rachel as they grasped my arms and pulled me out of bed, but I saw nothing after that because Sybil blindfolded me. My wrists were crossed and tied behind my back, and I was dragged out of the dormitory. I could not tell where I was or where I was going, only that we traversed several corridors and descended two flights of stairs.

Eventually we reached our destination and my blindfold was removed. I was in a cellar, with stone walls and a vaulted ceiling. The room was illuminated by many black candles mounted on tall iron stands. A five-pointed star surrounded by a circle was incised into the flagstone floor, and there was an iron ring set into the floor at each point of the star. Jane untied my hands and she and Rachel forced me to lie on my back in the enter of the star. I did not resist as they tied my wrists and ankles to the rings, but I briefly (and uselessly) struggled when they noosed my neck and tied the rope to the other ring.

Once I was securely fastened Jane left the room and all of the other Initiates filed in and formed a circle around me. Sybil started to chant in some language I could not identify, and the others joined in as sort of a chorus. There was a pause in the chanting, and two of the Initiates stepped into the circle. They were carrying large pottery vases, and they emptied the contents over me. The liquid was foul, and I had no trouble guessing what it was by its smell. I only hoped no horses were involved in its production. There was more chanting, and then more pottery vases appeared and their contents dumped on me. These, however, contained warm fragrant water.

There was more chanting, and then the Initiates filed out of the room. Once they were gone Jane and Rachel reappeared. They untied me from the rings and helped me stand up. They stripped, then poured more warm water over me. They had soap and sponges and scrubbed my body and hair until they were satisfied I was clean. They towelled me dry, and then blindfolded me and tied my hands behind my back.

They took me back to my cubicle, untied my hands, and tucked me into bed. I whispered, "What was that all about?"

Jane whispered back, "That was the purification ceremony. Now you can take part in the Sacred Ritual."

I was bemused but resolved to ask no more. At least I got a bath. I went back to sleep.

The next morning Elizabeth woke me up. After the morning meal she took me to the library. This was a small room on the ground floor. One wall had windows looking out across the downs and the other three walls were covered with bookshelves. In the centre of the room four tables were pushed together to form a rectangle. One of the tables had a stack of printed paper and the other was covered with hand written paper. Elizabeth said, "That's my mess, and your manuscripts are on that table. Writing materials are in the drawer."

She sat down facing the window and I took the table opposite her, with my back to the window. I examined the top page of the printed material. It was in Latin, but it certainly wasn't an 'ancient manuscript'. I had expected documents on parchment, hand-written by monks, but this was paper printed on a press. I shrugged and got to work. The text seemed to be about astrology, and it made no sense to me, but all I had to produce was a translation, not a commentary. I got paper, an inkwell, and a quill out of the drawer. There was a penknife, and I cut a point on the quill and started to write.

Just before the noon meal I finished the first document and started on the second one. I read the first pages and determined this was just a standard version of Virgil, the same book I had borrowed from the vicar. After the noon meal was over I approached Sybil. "I'm afraid there is a problem, Sybil. Some of the Latin material is not ancient at all, it's just a common copy of Virgil."

"Oh dear! We have been cheated! The dealer assured me it was all genuine. What I want you to do is to sort out the fake material. If you recognize it put it to one side and don't translate it. Translate the other material."

So that afternoon I sorted the material. Most of it I didn't recognize, but I doubted it was genuine. I translated it anyway, as I was paid to do.

Late that afternoon Elizabeth cried, "Finished! Finished at last! And none too soon."

"Finished what?"

"My calculations. The true solstice will be at exactly 13 minutes after sunset tomorrow night." The gong sounded, announcing the evening meal. "Perfect timing! Ready to eat?"

"In a few minutes. I want to finish this page. I'll join you in the dining hall." I picked up the penknife to sharpen my quill, but I dropped the knife and it bounced under the table. I crawled underneath to retrieve it. I heard a voice from the door and looked that way. I could see the legs of two Initiates standing just outside the library.

A voice I recognized as Sybil's said, "Elizabeth isn't here. She must have finished the solstice calculations."

Rachel replied, "Then Jenny knows too. I heard what she said to you about the documents. Do you think she suspects the real reason you brought her here?"

Sybil answered, "No, I'm positive she doesn't have any idea of what her true purpose is."

"Maybe we should keep her tied up until tomorrow night, just to be sure."

"No, the magic is much more powerful if the sacrifice remains unaware until the last moment. Jenny is very gullible. We'll tell her it's another purification ceremony. She won't realize what is really happening until she feels the blade enter her heart."

I froze, hardly daring to breathe. If they discovered me here I was doomed. I waited several minutes after they left, then crept to the door. No one was in the corridor. I walked to the dining hall, trying my best to pretend I suspected nothing. Fortune was with me, and I reached the dining hall without meeting Rachel or Sybil. I got my food and sat next to Elizabeth to eat it. Did she know that I was to be sacrificed tomorrow? Was she aware of this foul practice? I could not tell. I forced myself to eat and to take part in our casual conversation.

Once the meal was over I hurried to my cubicle. My mind was in a turmoil as I tried to plan my escape. I would have to wait until dark, and even then I couldn't just leave, as I wouldn't get far on bare feet. I would have to visit the examination room first. It was likely that my clothes and shoes were in the wooden box marked with my name. Maybe my five pounds were still in my pocket, and if not I resolved to take money from the iron box.

Normally I would have spent the evening socializing with Elizabeth and some of the other women, but tonight I pretended to be ill, so I would have an excuse to stay in my bed. I knew I could not act naturally, and if Sybil got any hint that I was aware of my fate I would be kept bound, with no chance of escape. I pretended to sleep and actually dozed for several hours, so it was fully dark when I crept out of the dormitory and down the stairs to the ground floor. There was a lamp burning in the entrance hall, illuminating a shrine of some sort, and I used it to light a candle stub.

My first stop was the examination room. My clothes and shoes were there, and I quickly dressed. The money was gone, so I would have to get some from the iron box. The house's outside doors were locked, but I knew the library windows could be opened and they were close enough to the ground that I could jump without risking injury. But first the iron box. I would need money if I hoped to escape from the district, for I was sure that Sybil would pursue me.

I tiptoed down the corridor to the office and tried the door. It was unlocked, and I opened it and slipped inside the room, closing the door behind me. The iron box was in the drawer, and I took five pounds from the roll of notes. Now on to the library, and then freedom from this vile place.

The door would not open! It was stuck, and pulling on the handle with all my strength did not free it. I struggled with it for several minutes, and then I searched the drawer for a a knife or something I could use to pry the door open. Suddenly the door opened and Sybil, Rachel, and Jane entered the room. I was dumbfounded, and stood as paralysed as a rabbit confronted by a snake. Then I made a dash for the door, but it was too late. Rachel and Jane seized me and forced my hands behind my back, and Sybil tied them there.

"You certainly are an innocent, Jenny," Sybil gloated. "Did you think I would leave money in an open and unguarded room? At night a hidden latch is activated, and it locks the door so it can only be opened once. It also jangles a bell in my room. You are not the first thief we've captured this way."

"I am not a thief! I only took the five pounds that belong to me."

Sybil took the money from my pocket and counted it. "So you did. You are not a thief, and I apologize. You will still be our human sacrifice, though. The gods prefer an intelligent woman rather than a dumb peasant, so I hope your stupidity tonight doesn't discount your value." She laughed at my outraged sputtering and addressed Rachel. "Take her to the dungeon and put her in the stocks. A night and a day there will make her more cooperative tomorrow."

I was blindfolded and Jane and Rachel dragged me from the room and eventually down some stairs. I heard a key being turned in a lock and a door creak open. We entered a cold damp room and the door was closed and locked. Jane removed my blindfold and untied my hands. I found myself in a cellar, dimly lit by a few candles in wall sconces. It was smaller than but similar to the cellar where the purification ceremony took place. This room did not have the symbols on the floor, but more sinister items were present.

Rachel ordered, "Strip off your clothes, Jenny. You know what will happen if you don't cooperate."

I did know. I removed my clothing and stood naked, shivering in the cold damp air. They led me over to the stocks and forced me to sit on the cold stone floor. Rachel opened the lower bar and Jane placed my ankles in the half-circles and held them there until Rachel closed the bar and locked them in place. Then they bent my body forward and locked my wrists in the upper bar. These stocks had obviously been made to hold women, because they fitted very tightly around my wrists and ankles.

Rachel said, "We better gag her. She'll be screaming a lot, and we don't want any of the innocents to hear her."

Jane got a thick wooden dowel from a shelf. It looked the same as that used to gag the unfortunate Ruth. Jane held it up to my face and I opened my mouth. I knew struggling was pointless. She pushed the gag into my mouth and tied the ropes behind my head. She didn't pull it as tightly as she could have, but it still hurt.

Once I was secured Jane and Rachel went to the door and Jane unlocked it and left the room. Rachel looked back at me from the open doorway. "Don't despair, Jenny. You will be leaving this life, but after you take part in the Sacred Ritual you will enter the realm of the gods, there to dwell forever."

She closed the door and the lock turned. I did not find her message comforting. I hadn't seen enough of this life yet.

As the night wore on my pain increased. My bottom hurt where it contacted the cold stone, my wrists and ankles ached, and my bent back flared with pain. No matter how I squirmed, I could find no comfort. I tried to sleep, but it was hopeless. I finally managed to achieve a kind of trance.

The night passed, and the sun rose. There was a window at the top of the cellar wall, and I could just see it if I looked over my shoulder. The sight of the blue sky, on the last day I would ever see it, broke my spirit and I wept. Finally I passed out, and for some time I was mercifully unaware of my ordeal.

All too soon I awakened. I groaned as I tried unsuccessfully to ease the pain I had endured since midnight of the previous day. Once again I strained to see if the sky was darkening, peering through the small barred window at the top of the cellar wall. My torture would last until sunset, if I survived it. But I knew I would survive this torture, even though my back ached from being bent so long, even though my muscles were tied in knots from their forced immobility. The thick wooden dowel forcing my mouth to stay open made it feel as though my jaw would drop off.

I tried to believe this was not happening, that it was all a nightmare, that I would awake to find myself living the placid life of only a few months ago. But I could not escape into illusion; the pain in my joints and muscles, the chill of the damp air on my naked body, all of this was real. My only escape would be death.

And death was at hand. The door was unlocked and Rachel and Jane entered the room. They opened the stocks and freed my wrists and ankles. The pain of movement was intense. They brought in a large wooden plank, about two feet wide and six feet long. They placed me face up on the plank and secured me there with straps around my wrists, holding my hands to my sides, near my hips. I tried to struggle, but my limbs would not respond. They tightened more straps around my ankles, knees, waist, and neck.

There were four poles fastened to the underside of the plank, their ends extending about a foot beyond its edges. Jane and Rachel each took hold of the poles at the opposite ends of the plank and carried me out of the room. They had to turn me vertically to go through the door, but the straps kept me in place. They carried me up the stairs and through the house, stopping just inside the back door. There they removed the dowel gag from my mouth and replaced it with a metal gag. This consisted of two pieces like large spoons, hinged together, and once it was in my mouth Jane turned a key, forcing the spoons to separate and lock my tongue in place. I was gagged as effectively as before, but this wasn't as visible as the dowel.

Jane and Rachel carried me outside and set the plank down on the courtyard bricks. Jane went back into the house. Eight Initiates moved next to the plank, four on each side, and exactly at sunset they grasped the ends of the poles and lifted me to shoulder height. Sybil led them and the other Initiates followed them in a column of twos. All were chanting in that unrecognizable language. They proceeded to the granite 'Stonehenge' slab, and my plank was placed in the enter of it.

The Initiates formed a circle around me and continued to chant. One of the Initiates held a chronometer, and on her signal Sybil gave a command and the chanting stopped abruptly. Another Initiate carried a long, slim wooden box, which she presented to Sybil. Sybil opened the box and withdrew a gleaming silver rapier. At the sight of this all of the other Initiates knelt. Sybil raised the rapier over her head with both hands on the blade and chanted alone.

Then she gripped the hilt in both hands and moved next to me. She aimed the point at my chest and waited for the exact time of the solstice. The Initiate with the chronometer said 'Now' and Sybil raised the rapier preparatory to a downward thrust through my heart. I closed my eyes. There was a volley of gunshots and Sybil's body fell across me. I fainted.

I wasn't out for long, and when I opened my eyes again I briefly wondered if I had died and gone to heaven, for Richard was looking down on me. Then I realized that if I were in heaven I wouldn't be strapped to a plank.

Richard pulled Sybil's body off of me. "Jenny! Are you injured?"

I mumbled through the gag. Richard used the key to compress it and remove it from my mouth. I had to work my jaw for a few minutes before I could reply. "I'm not permanently injured but I'm very sore. I spent a long time locked in stocks and my body still hurts all over. Please release me from these straps."

Richard quickly unbuckled me, but I was still unable to move. He wrapped me in Sybil's cowl and picked me up. "I'll take you to the house. It will be some time before this situation is resolved."

I started to cry. "Oh, Richard! I thought you were dead. What happened to you? I've had a terrible time without you."

He kissed me. "Later, Jenny. I'll tell you everything, but this is not the time."

* * *

The next day I awoke in a bed in one of the cubicles. It was midmorning, long after the time that the day's activities usually started, but I could hear nothing. I called, "Hello? Is anyone there?"

At once Richard appeared. He wrapped me in his arms and we kissed. I was still sore and I winced, and he noticed. He reluctantly unwrapped his arms. "I want you Jenny, but not if it causes you pain. Let's talk for a while. If you feel like it we'll return to Cranbrook Manor this afternoon."

"All right. Tell me why Jeremy thought you were dead."

"Because I looked dead. The piece of stone knocked me unconscious and opened my scalp. I was motionless and covered with blood. Everyone thought I was dead, including the French. I suppose if I was wearing a scarlet tunic like most British officers they might have looked closer, but in my green rifleman uniform they didn't notice me. It was several hours before I recovered consciousness, and by that time the battle had moved on. I was very lucky. The first people I met were Royalists, and they hid me. They even got a horse doctor to sew up my scalp." He showed me a thick scar at his hairline. "Of course, I was still in a hostile France, and I had a fever from my wound. It was a month before I could even stand up, and several more weeks before I was able to travel. It took me quite a while to work my way to the coast and find a boat. I've been in England for just two weeks."

"How did you find me here?"

"It wasn't easy. You weren't at the Manor, and nobody knew where you had gone. Zachary gave me a story about you travelling to be with your father, but I didn't believe him. I questioned the servants, and they were not as loyal to Zachary as he believed. They told me you had been beaten and were seen going into the woods behind the garden. So I knew you were still in England, I just didn't know where. I had agents scouring the countryside, but no one could find you. Finally, someone at your farm remembered Mrs Jenkins. I went to her village, but she was dead and you had gone off with a reputed witch. I visited here yesterday morning and Sybil flatly denied that she had ever seen you. I knew she was lying, but there was nothing I could do alone. I found the Justice of the Peace and explained the situation to him. He deputized me and gave me a warrant to search the house. I had several men formerly with the 95th with me and I recruited some local men. We were approaching the house when I saw them carrying you to that stone. By then all we could do was shoot."

He kissed me again. "I shudder every time I realize how close I came to losing you."

I kissed him back. I shuddered too. "What happened to the others living here?"

"They are all in jail, charged with various crimes."

"Not all are guilty, Richard. I'm sure most of the Servitors, the ones dressed in white, had no idea that human sacrifice was practiced here."

"I'll tell that to the Justice, but we know for certain that the ones wearing black were complicit in the crimes."

"Is Zachary at Cranbrook? He wanted to marry me, and beat me when I refused. If I hadn't escaped he would have tortured me. I cannot stand to be near him."

Richard smiled grimly. "When I learned that he had beaten you I gave him a choice: Go to some colony and never return to England, or face me with sword or pistol, as he preferred. He took ship for India last week."

"Did you say the chapter house is empty now?"

"That's right, Jenny. Only we two are inside."

I threw the blanket off my naked body. "I find that I'm not as sore as I believed. Would you like to start a family?"

The End

Copyright 2011 by Zack. I welcome your comments. Email me at zack_writer{AT}hotmail.com