The Shepherd's Blessing
The Chain Story is science fiction author Michael Stackpole's project to create a series of stories involving the Wanderers' Club, whose shadowy background is described here on the Chain Story website. The stories are initially published online and linked by their association with the Wanderers' Club and to a central hub where all the stories are accessible.
Mike invited me to submit a story for the Chain, so I wrote "The Shepherd's Blessing", a tribute to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos and the Salem witch trials.
WARNING: This story contains scenes that may not be appropriate for younger readers, including those under the age of 13 years. Reader discretion is advised.
Copyright A.D. 2011 by Derwin Mak, Esq.
After Sir Joseph Barrow finished reading his story, another man asked to speak. Like several Wanderers, he was about sixty years old. Unlike the others, he wore clothes of a past century: a long black coat and breeches, white stockings, and a powdered wig, all of the period of King George III.
He was Jedediah Juneberry, an eccentric American who claimed to travel in time from the year 1783. He put a worn leather satchel on the table.
"I found these papers in the house of the most perverted family in Massachusetts," said Jedediah in a Boston accent. "I am shocked by the horrors that they describe."
The members of the Wanderers’ Club crowded around the table and stared with morbid curiosity as Jedediah pulled diaries and letters from the satchel.
A Presbyterian minister opened a black book, gasped, and slammed it shut. "Such obscene pictures!"
"That eldritch tome is not the worst of it," Jedediah warned. He raised some yellowed pages. "This is an account of an incident in the family’s history. Its dark and salacious details may offend decent folk. However, it does shed light on strange events of the early 1700’s. Shall I read it aloud?"
"Oh, please do!" the Wanderers urged. Even the minister nodded in agreement.Jedediah cleared his throat and began reading...
The shepherd tossed a shilling on the bed. It landed beside Abby.
"I like you. You have a pretty face and shiny brown hair, and your body is as thin as an adolescent's, not overfed like those rich ladies," said the shepherd.
Abby sighed and rolled onto her belly. Nobody in her profession was overfed. She picked up the coin and looked up at her client.
I am pleased that I spent that shilling on you instead of a drink," he said. "You are well worth the price, if not more."
Abby smiled and put the shilling into her purse. "Then why not pay me more, squire?" she asked.
The shepherd guffawed. "If I do that, every drab in Boston will think that she is worth more than a pint of ale! Then how could I afford you?"
Abby crouched and picked up her white linen shift. It felt soft against her skin, and she used it to wipe the man's sweat off her body. She got out of bed and pulled the shift over her head, the garment falling only as far as her thighs. It was a gift from another client, who said he had bought it in France. He claimed the nobility's prostitutes slept in such sinfully short garments. But she doubted that any high-class courtesan had entertained him. He likely cuddled with dockside drabs.
The shepherd picked up his clothes. Before he could put them on, Abby sprang out of bed and stopped him.
"Would you like to freshen up before you leave?" she asked. "Wash yourself with some water?"
"'Aye, that is a good idea," the shepherd said.
Abby pointed at a door at the opposite corner of the room. "Go in there, please. There is a basin of water and a towel. Please use them."
The shepherd went into the water closet. As Abby listened to him splash the water, she took another shilling from the shepherd's vest and put it into her own purse. She quickly searched his bag for other valuables, finding a whiskey flask, a pouch of chewing tobacco, and a book bound in black leather.
At first, she thought it was a Bible, but after looking at its title, she realized it was no book she had ever seen before. Stamped in gold leaf on the cover were:
OR THE ELDRITCH TOME OF THE MAD ARAB
TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH
The sound of splashing water stopped. Abby shoved the book back into the shepherd's bag.
The shepherd returned to the bed. He was a wizened man, worn down by decades of farming, with high-cheekbones, like a skull's, and a beak-like nose. His hair was thin and grey. He was around sixty years old, but despite his age and harsh life, could still indulge his physical urges.
As he put his clothes on, Abby asked, "What will you do next? Have you more people and places to see here?"
By creating small talk and showing interest in the client's life, Abby added a personal touch to their relationship. Even if she did not care about his life, a good drab knew how to make a client feel liked, and a client like the shepherd, who paid in genuine money, was one worth seeing again.
She glanced at a pile of wampum and tobacco on her table. How could she buy her way out of prostitution when clients paid her in beads and leaves?
"I have finished my business in Boston," the shepherd replied. "I wish I could dally longer here, but I must return home. Sheep farming is such a busy occupation. I cannot leave the farm for too long. The last time I was away for three days, my farmhand stole three shillings from my house and ran away."
"What did you do?" Abby said, curious as to how he dealt with thieves.
"I did not have to do anything. The local magistrate caught him stealing a horse from a blacksmith. The boy had a habit of committing crimes, so the magistrate taught him a lesson. He got thirty-six lashes of a bullwhip. What a coincidence, eh? Thirty-six lashes, one for each penny stolen from me. When people steal from me, they get punished."
"I see," Abby said quietly.
"Hah, hah. I did not seek the boy or report him to the magistrate. Before I could do that, the magistrate caught him committing the horse theft. I did not have to do anything. I am blessed!"
"The opposite of cursed," the shepherd explained. "Since childhood, I've experienced strange coincidences. Anyone who steals from me suffers a terrible fate. There was the farmhand. There was also a maid who stole my silverware and later drowned in a river. And there was a farmer who stole one of my ewes, only to be kicked and killed by his own horse two days later.
"So, now that you know me, do you not want to lead a life of piety?" the shepherd said.
"Piety? I have had enough of piety. I used to live with a preacher," Abby said.
She remembered the stern rule of her uncle, Reverend Samuel Parris. She remembered the harsh discipline at their home. She remembered the trials of the accused witches.
She remembered accusing the women of hexing her with violent spasms. She remembered twitching on the floor in front of the judges. She remembered shouting that yellow birds flew in the courtroom. She remembered watching the hangings. She remembered leaving Salem with her cousin Betty and Uncle Samuel in shame after the trials.
"Hah, I am happy that you chose the sinful life of a drab," the shepherd said. "I will return next month to sell lamb meat."
She escorted him into the hallway. As they walked past the rooms, she heard the other girls and their clients moan. The air stank of stale sweat and cheap perfume.
They walked down the stairs to the front lobby. After she opened the door for him, he went out into Boston's noisy streets. The smell of horse manure wafted in, and Abby choked and slammed the door shut.
She returned to her room and emptied her velvet purse. A small assortment of coins fell on her bed. She picked up her earnings from the shepherd: one shilling for her services plus one shilling stolen secretly.
Abby squeezed the two shillings in her palm. They felt small and hard: her value as a drab.
The first time she served a man for money, she did it to spite her uncle. She detested his strict rules of behaviour, his threat of eternal Hell to sinners, and his ban on fun and laughter. While other girls played hopscotch outside, Uncle Samuel made Abigail and her cousin Betty stay inside and read the Bible.
The second time she served a man for money, she did it for a red dress. Wearing the dress, she boasted to her uncle that a man had rented her body for a shilling. The outraged preacher banished her, and she went to Boston. The third time she served a man for money, she did it for food. By then, the thrill of rebellion had ended, and the desperation of survival had started.
She had hoped that if she saved enough money, she could retire from prostitution. But when she realized that drabs never became wealthy at a shilling per shag, she quietly stole money from her clients.
Sometimes, she would get the client to wash in the water closet, and she would steal a coin or two from his purse. She was careful never to steal too many at once so the client would not notice his lighter purse immediately.
The drunken clients were the easiest marks. They could be so drowsy that she could take their money without their noticing. The extra money was worth the work of cleaning their vomit off her dress. If a drunk fell asleep, the pickings were better, for she could steal his entire purse and dump him into the street, where the local magistrate would arrest and imprison him. However, if the client was a violent drunk, she suffered his blows upon her body before he passed out.
Abby looked again at the coins on her bed. She sighed and put them back in her purse. She was no wealthier than she was a year ago. At this rate, she would never retire from renting out her body.
A half hour later, Abby watched a thin blonde girl walk her client to the door. The girl, named Chastity, wore a blue dress and thick make-up. Her perfume smelled like cheap candy.
"Look what my client gave me," Chastity said with her Cockney accent. She held a newspaper. "He read it while traveling here and did not want it anymore. Abby, you can read, can you not? What's it say?"
Abby read out a sentence from the front page: "'The General Court of Massachusetts has declared that the witch trials conducted in Salem ten years ago, in the year of Our Lord 1692, were unlawful.'"
Now I can never return to Salem, Abby realized. If I return, I will be hanged by the families of the executed. In any case, why would I want to return to that miserable town?
Someone knocked on the door. Chastity opened it, and a man walked in. He was about fifty years old and had thinning white hair. He wore the plain brown clothes of a farmer.
"What pleasures do you desire, squire?" Chastity said.
The man looked around and clutched his hat nervously. He was probably visiting a bawdy house for the first time in his life. Such houses were rare in the countryside.
"May I see your girls?" the farmer said. He seemed awkward and did not smile. He stank as if he had not bathed for a week.
"They ain’t available now, but we are," Chastity said.
The farmer grunted. "Oh, just you two."
Chastity wore heavy make-up to hide her wrinkles, though she was only twenty-two years old. Eight years of selling her body had aged her quickly.
Abby had been working for three years, not as long as the other girls. She also had not suffered a childhood of hunger, scurvy, neglect, and violence as they had. Although Uncle Samuel was stern, he had fed her well and kept his hands to himself. At twenty-one years of age, Abby retained some of her adolescent beauty. But she feared that if she stayed in the business for another year, she too would look pale, wrinkled, bruised, and ugly.
"You are both quite pretty," the farmer said with a slight smile. His piercing stare made Abby feel like a piece of meat being checked by a cook. She was used to that look, but something about the farmer chilled her.
Abby forced herself to look at him and smile. She knew she had the best smile in the house; unlike the other girls, she still had all her teeth.
"You, I will have you," the farmer said, pointing at Abby.
Abby flinched. When the man opened his mouth, she smelled alcohol.
"You will enjoy your time with me, I promise you," Abby said, regaining her poise. She grabbed his hand and felt his rough, dry skin. She led him up the stairs and into her room.
As Abby unbuttoned her bodice, the farmer stared at her. She stopped and smiled at him.
"What do you wish, squire?" she asked.
"I think I have seen you before," he said.
"Yes, you seem familiar."
"You must be mistaken. I do not remember seeing you in this house before."
"Did you ever live in Salem?"
Abby felt her blood turn cold. She replied, "No."
"You are older than last I saw you, but I recognize you nonetheless," the farmer insisted. "It is you, Abigail Williams."
"No, my name is not Abigail," Abby said. "My name is Chantal."
"When last I saw you, you were a child of eleven years. You have grown into a pretty wench, but I still recognize your face." The farmer sneered. "Have you returned to Salem since you left in disgrace?"
"I have never lived in Salem. I am from Louisiana," Abby lied.
The farmer laughed. "Louisiana? Your accent does not sound French."
"How would you know the sound of French?" Abby retorted.
"Getting temperamental, are you?" the farmer teased. "I sat in the courthouse and watched you, your cousin, and the other wicked girls accuse good people of witchcraft."
"I did no such thing."
"Please permit me to refresh your memory. Do you remember pointing at Martha Corey and saying that you saw her holding a yellow bird that nobody else could see? Do you remember testifying that Goodwife Corey had made the bird invisible to all except a witch and her victims? Do you remember moving your hands as Goodwife Corey moved her hands, moving her feet as she moved her feet, and fidgeting as she fidgeted, mimicking her to create the impression that she was bewitching you? Do you remember twitching on the floor and crying that witches had sent the Devil to you? Do you remember any of this, Abigail Williams?"
"No, no!" Abby argued. "I was not there!"
"Goodwife Corey was a friend of my mother," the man said. "Martha Corey hanged for your lies!"
"Enough!" Abby yelled, from fear more than anger.
She pushed the man out of her room, prodded him down the stairs, and shoved him through the doorway.
Just before Abby slammed the door, the man shouted, "I will return!"
But the man from Salem did not return. Instead, for the next year, Abby saw other anonymous clients: sailors, farmers, merchants, and tradesmen. From each, she collected a shilling for her services and stole more money.
But living in Boston was expensive, and she saved only a few shillings. Even her barter goods were meagre: a small pile of wampum, a half pound of tobacco, and a rabbit pelt.
The shepherd returned each month. Although he was ugly, at least he brought real money. And he never noticed that he was missing an additional shilling after each visit to Abby.
A year went by. No one had caught or punished her for theft or any other crime. No terrible accident had occurred to her. There was nothing to the shepherd's blessing. It was just a tall tale.
After one of their shags, Abby asked, "How is your business, squire?"
The man grunted. "I am afraid that I have been too good in my job. For twenty years, I bred generations of prized sheep by mating the best animals with each other. My sheep showed consistent, predictable strengths. The same fine wool, the same robust bodies, the same amount of meat, the same resistance to disease. If any weaklings or deformed animals were born, I killed them immediately before they could breed. Healthy stock breeds healthy stock.
"But in the past three years, my animals have given birth to increasing numbers of weaklings and freaks: animals blind from birth, animals with thin wool, animals with two heads, animals with skinny bodies, animals with deformed legs, and animals missing a leg. This month, for the first time ever, I put down more newborns that I let live. I fear that by mating only the best animals with each other, I have created an inbred herd.
"I need to visit the farmers' market and seek out farmers who might sell me new breeding stock, animals who have never seen my part of the colony."
"The whole world is all about breeding, is it not?" Abby said.
The next day, Abby took a new client into her room. The man wore expensive black clothes, which Abby never saw on other clients. He showed gracious manners to her: bowing to her, opening the door for her, and calling her "milady." He was obviously a well-off man of the landed gentry.
He was a handsome gentleman, probably about thirty years old. He could have courted any of the beautiful ladies from the wealthy neighbourhood, or he could rut with one of his slave wenches. Why would he come here for a drab?
"I am pleased that this house has a woman as beautiful as you, milady," the man said after taking off his hat. "Oh, I am quite rude for entering your room without properly introducing myself. Please allow me to do so. My name is Howard Loach."
"Squire Loach, my name is Chantal. Please be comfortable," Abby said, pointing at her bed.
"How unfortunate it is that you live in Boston. A woman of your grace and beauty would be a fine courtesan in Europe," Loach said.
Abby laughed. "Dear squire, you flatter me!"
"It is not insincere flattery. Your elegance, poise, and beauty are equal to those of ladies kept by my friends in London," Loach said.
"You have gone to London?" Abby said. "How I long to go, far away from here."
Loach smiled. "I have visited London several times."
"Ah, a gentlemen with prestige and status," said Abby.
She touched the top button of her bodice. Loach quickly held out his hand.
"Oh, you do not have to disrobe," he said.
Abby stopped. "How do you wish me to serve you?"
"I came to procure your services as a courtesan but not at this time or place or for me," Loach said. "My widowed father has been quite lonely for female companionship since my mother died. I came to Boston to find a woman who can relieve his loneliness, if only for one night."
"Oh my, that is quite a different request!" Abby said. She had never before met a son procuring a drab for his father. "I imagine his is a refined and courteous gentleman such as you. Are there no local ladies whom he can court?"
"We live in Loach Hill, a town named after my great-grandfather. It is a small town, so there are no unmarried or widowed ladies at his age. He does not desire any of our slave wenches because he prefers light-skinned women. As for ladies in your profession, there are none because the population is too small to afford them a reasonable income."
"I see. How much will I be paid?"
Loach reached into his pocket and pulled out two gold coins. They glistened. "Will two doubloons be sufficient?"
Abby stared in shock at the Spanish gold. Two doubloons were worth thirty-two Spanish dollars. Thirty-two Pieces of Eight: she could exchange them for over a hundred shillings. She could buy her own house with a small vegetable garden. Or she could buy a shop and make clothes for the merchants; Puritans girls like her knew how to sew.
She could retire from drabbing.
"'Aye, I can entertain your father," Abby said. "Is he outside?"
"He is not here. Rather, I wish to invite you to come to Loach Hill."
"Where is Loach Hill?"
"We would require a day's journey by carriage, but I will pay for all travel expenses to and from there."
"Will you be hiring other girls for him?"
"No, one is sufficient for my father's needs."
Abby sighed. The offer greatly tempted her, but she remembered the clients who caught her alone. Such dangers had forced her from the streets and into the house.
Two doubloons were more than she could save in a decade. But her life, though cheap, was worth much more.
"I am sorry, but I do not work alone when traveling out of town," she said. "With another two doubloons, you can hire another girl who can accompany me. Two girls provide twice the fun of one."
Loach put the doubloons back in his pocket. "My father is old. One girl will be sufficient."
"Oh, I do not mean for your father to have two girls." Abby caressed Loach's shoulder. "You could enjoy the other girl –- or both of us."
"I am betrothed to a daughter of a family friend. I do not lack for female companionship. It is my father who does," Loach said. He went to the door. "I hope you consider my offer. I will be staying at the Ram's Head Inn until tomorrow morning. You will find me there when you change your mind."
He tipped his hat to her and smiled. "And you will change your mind, I am sure. Good evening, milady."
After dark, someone pounded heavily on the door. The noise echoed through the house. As Abby walked down the stairs, she complained, "Stop it, man! We are not deaf."
She opened the door and gasped. The farmer from Salem stood there.
He forced his way inside and blocked the doorway.
"You look pretty today, Abigail Williams," he said. "Another year of drabbing has not aged you at all."
"Sir, you have mistaken me for someone else. Please leave," Abby demanded.
"So what if I have mistaken you for another girl? That does not change what you are. Are you refusing to serve me, you cheap drab?" The farmer’s breath reeked of alcohol again.
Despite her fear and anger, Abby found the courage to speak up. "You seek a particular girl, but I am not her, and I cannot pretend to be her. Hence, I would not satisfy you. Please be gone."
The farmer grinned. "Abigail Williams, if you do not serve me I will return to Salem and tell the townsfolk where you live. They hate you. They will come and drag you back home and hang you!"
Abby cried. With all her strength, she pushed the drunken man out of her way and ran through the open door.
As she dashed across the street, Abby remembered all the money she had stolen from the shepherd.
The shepherd's blessing was her curse now.
She fled into the Ram's Head Inn across the street. She smelled the aroma of roasting lamb. By the flicker of table lanterns, the customers drank their beer and ate their meals. Singing and shouting filled the air.
Abby looked out the inn's window. She saw the farmer leave the bawdy house. He walked down the street, away from the inn.
Turning away from the window, she saw Howard Loach eating by himself. As she approached him, he saw her, stood up, and bowed.
"Squire Loach, may I join you?" Abby asked.
"Of course, you may, Chantal," Loach said.
Abby was impressed that he remembered her name. Few clients did.
He walked to the other side of the table and pulled out a chair for Abby.
"Have you had dinner yet?" Loach asked.
"No." Abby looked at Loach's dinner. "What are you eating?"
"Roast mutton. The meat is very tender, very succulent. It must be from a sheep of the finest stock, perhaps one of mine. Shall I order the same meal for you? It will be my treat, of course."
"Oh, thank you, squire!"
Loach ordered the meal. As she waited for the meal, Abby kept glancing at the door in case the farmer came in.
When the innkeeper brought the meal, she ate hungrily. Abby could not recall when she had eaten so well. The delicious meat made her forget her problems briefly.
She finished her dinner quickly, and Loach smiled as he poured a red wine into her cup. Abby sipped the wine and savoured it. It tasted smooth and delicious. Loach knew how to treat a woman like a lady.
"Have you reconsidered my offer?" Loach asked.
Abby glanced at the door again. Now that the Salem farmer had discovered her, she had to leave Boston.
"Yes, I will entertain your father," Abby said.
"Splendid! However, I do not wish to hire another woman. Will that be agreeable to you?" Loach asked.
Abby had to escape soon. She had to take the risk.
She nodded. "Yes, such an arrangement is fine. When can we leave?"
"You are eager to go," Loach observed. "I like such enthusiasm. We will go in the morning. Are you finished your dinner? I will escort you back to your house."
"Thank you," Abby said. "You are such a gentleman."
They arrived at the outskirts of Loach Hill. The old black horse slowly pulled their carriage through a dirt road. They passed vast fields of wheat, corn, and tobacco. Sheep roamed the pastures.
They entered the town's centre square. Abby saw businesses such as a clothing store, a tavern, and a farmers' market.
Unlike Boston, Loach Hill was a rural town, tied to the countryside surrounding it. A woman led a lamb to a butcher. A boy prodded sheep into a corral outside the farmers' market. A man pushed a cart of cabbages. A blacksmith hammered a horseshoe on his anvil. A tailor hung clothes on racks outside his shop. People scurried from place to place. The chatter of the marketplace filled the air.
Boston smelled of human and horse manure, mud, garbage, and smoke. Loach Hill, with far fewer horses and people than Boston, smelled of fresh air. Abby felt the cool odourless breeze upon her face.
"It smells cleaner than Boston," Abby said.
Loach smiled. "We country folk lead unpolluted lives."
Loach Hill reminded Abby of many other rural towns in New England. She, Betty, and Uncle Samuel had drifted from town to town after they left Salem. They could never stay in one place long before the local people discovered who they were. Eventually, she stopped caring where they lived. Each rural town was the same, a temporary stop where she could not make friends.
Another rural town...
Then, as she looked around, Abby realized everyone, both men and women, had large eyes, high cheekbones, and a beak-like nose.
She had seen this look before, on the face of the shepherd who rented her body for a shilling per shag. Were they all descended from the same settlers?
She noticed another oddity: the people were working on a Sunday.
And something was missing.
"Squire Loach, is there a church in town?" Abby asked.
Loach gave Abby a quizzical look. "Do you want to attend a service?"
"No, no. I am simply curious. Nobody worked on Sunday in the towns where I have lived. Even in Boston, the businesses close on Sunday."
"If people did not work on Sunday, what did they do?"
"We attend church."
"Interesting. What did you do in church?"
"Why did you pray?"
"To ask God for His help, to ask Him for His strength, to ask Him for His forgiveness," Abby recited.
Loach looked back at the road. "We too would pray if God would talk to us, but since He does not, we will not bother Him with our petty complaints."
Abby, surprised by the sacrilege, said nothing. Three years in a Boston bawdy house had not erased eighteen years in Puritan churches.
Never before had Abby seen a town without a church.
Finally, they arrived at Loach's house. With three floors, it was the largest residence in Loach Hill and the surrounding farmlands. Its wooden walls, black paint, and steep gables reminded Abby of Judge Jonathan Corwin's house in Salem.
Judge Corwin had sentenced nineteen innocent people to hang as witches. Many people blamed the Judge for committing the miscarriage of justice, but he could not have done it without Abby. Abby knew that, and so did everyone in Salem.
A black ram stood in front of the house. It was a huge animal with large golden horns. Even from a distance, she could see its glowing red eyes, which stared angrily at her. Abby had never before seen a beast like it.
A man came out of the house and stood beside the black ram.
Loach called to the man, "Cornelius, come here! Help our guest from Boston. Take her belongings to the guest room."
Cornelius walked to the carriage. Abby looked at the man and felt nauseous. He looked uglier than the ruffians and knaves who lived in Boston's alleys. Only a few long strands of black hair grew on his head. Scars, pockmarks, and growths covered his cheeks. He reeked of a foul odour.
And he too had the large eyes, high cheekbones, and beak-like nose of the townspeople.
He leered at Abby. When he opened his mouth, drool fell from his lips.
"Very pretty, very pretty," he said.
He grabbed her wrist, and Abby felt Cornelius's rough, dry skin and warts. When he squeezed her wrist, she winced in pain.
"Cornelius, behave!" Loach shouted as he hit Cornelius with a horsewhip. Whimpering like a dog, Cornelius released Abby, picked up her baggage, and carried it into the house.
Loach bowed to Abby. "I apologize for Cornelius's behaviour. His father was a servant of mine. Unfortunately, Cornelius developed into a moron. However, he is like a part of the family, and we felt a moral obligation to keep him despite his weaknesses. Rest assured I will send him into the fields after he carries our luggage into the house."
Abby, relieved that Cornelius was Loach's servant and not his father, smiled weakly. "Yes, please have him work outside, away from me."
Abby looked at the pasture beside the house. Scores of white sheep were grazing quietly.
The black ram approached Loach, snorted, and walked away. Why was it roaming alone, away from the flock?
As Loach and Abby entered the house, the black ram snorted again.
They ate roast lamb in the dining room. A girl in a plain black dress served them. She looked about fourteen years old, had blonde hair, and was thin, pale, and plain. She served them in complete silence.
Since arriving, Abby had seen only Loach, Cornelius, and the servant girl.
"Are we the only people here?" Abby asked. "Where are your servants and slaves? Where is your family? Where is your father?"
"The servants and slaves are in the fields, and my father and family are visiting friends at a nearby plantation," Loach said. "My father will return tomorrow."
Abby put down her pewter mug of water. "I look forward to meeting him." She changed the subject. "The dinner was delicious. Did that girl prepare it?"
"Ah, yes, she did. Jennifer is an especially talented cook," Loach said.
"I am impressed that she made that dinner all by herself," Abby said. "Does she not usually have help?"
"She usually has her mother and two other maids to help her, but they are working in the fields today. It is so busy now that even my house servants need to tend to crops and livestock," Loach said.
They went into the parlour. Jennifer gave cups of a hot, brown liquid to them. Abby smelled the liquid warily.
"It is called chocolate," Loach said. "Have you heard of it?"
She knew it was a brew made by boiling beans called cocoa. Only the wealthy could afford it. In Boston, one or two expensive taverns served it. Abby had imagined it tasted like beer.
"I have heard of it, but I have never drunk any before," Abby said.
"Do not be afraid of it. Sip it gently and savour it," Loach said.
Abby sipped the chocolate. It was nothing like beer. It tasted partly bitter and partly sweet and entirely enjoyable. "I like it."
Loach chuckled. "I am serving it to you tonight so that you may become familiar with its taste. I am pleased that you like it. You will have more of it when my father returns. It is an aphrodisiac."
"Oh, so that is why you are indulging me with aristocratic luxuries," Abby said. "You are spending a small fortune on your father. You must love him very much."
"I love him immensely. I spare no expense for him," Loach said. "My family is the most important thing in my life."
"To our families," Abby toasted, hiding the fact that she had run away from hers.
Cornelius barged into room. "Ugh, ugh, ewe giving birth! Come quickly, come quickly," the servant urged.
"Ah, another litter is born," Loach said. "Please excuse me."
He left with Cornelius. Abby stood up and walked around the room. It was sparsely decorated, with only pale blue and white wallpaper and no family portraits. How Puritan.
On a table, a large book lay on a stand. That must be the family Bible.
Though she had fled from her uncle and his religion, she could not shake off all her Puritan breeding. She instinctively went to look at the Bible.
But it was not a Bible. It was open to a page showing an illustration of a black ram.
Underneath the black ram were the words:
SHUB-NIGGURATH, the Black Ram with a Thousand Ewes, is the Outer God of Fertility. From the world of Yaddith he came to Earth, where his cult worships him with wanton abandon.
Outer God of Fertility? Yaddith? Cult? Abby wondered what type of book was this. She looked at the cover, which bore the title NECRONOMICON.
It was larger than the shepherd's book, but it had the same title. What was the Necronomicon?
She turned the page and saw a picture of a woman with a beaky nose giving a doll to a black, winged demon. The text read:
The original witches were voyagers of the heavens who absorbed the psychic powers of the Outer Gods into their own bodies. They, in turn, could channel those powers into their victims. Thus bewitched, the victims lost control of their minds and bodies to the vile witches, who often gave their victims as offerings to the Outer Gods.
"The ewe has given birth to two lambs," said Loach.
Abby gasped, turned around, and saw her host.
Loach smiled. "Oh, milady, I am sorry for startling you. I did not realize you were so intensely absorbed in reading the book."
"No problem," Abby said. "Uh, what type of book is this?"
"Milady, have you had an education in the Greek and Roman classics?" Loach asked.
"Uh, no. My family strictly studied the Bible."
“Well, the book you see is merely a collection of Greek and Roman myths. Harmless entertainment about what people believed before the coming of Jesus."
"I see," said Abby. "I know nothing about the Greeks and Romans except about the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. My uncle did not approve of learning about them because they were pagans. Perhaps you can teach me about their myths some day?"
"It would be my pleasure to do so," said Loach.
Abby finished drinking the chocolate. "Thank you for the wonderful meal and the drink. May I retire to my room now?"
"Yes, rest for tomorrow," Loach said. He took her upstairs to the guest room and left her alone.
As she fell asleep, Abby heard the black ram snort outside.
She woke up while the sky was still dark. Voices came from downstairs. Were they singing? Chanting? Why was the ram snorting so loudly?
Abby put on her shift and walked downstairs softly. When she reached the bottom, she peered into the parlour. Scores of candles threw eerie shadows of people on the walls.
Loach and ten other people stood in a circle. As they chanted in a strange language, another two men stood with the black ram in the center of the circle.
Suddenly, the two men broke from the centre of the circle, rushed at Abby, grabbed her, and pulled her in front of the black ram.
"Let me go! Let me go!" Abby shrieked.
She looked at the people in the circle. She recognized Loach, Cornelius, and Jennifer. She also saw people from the town, with their large eyes, high cheekbones, and beaky noses.
Loach approached her. "I did not expect you to awaken before dawn. Do not you drabs sleep until noon?"
Abby stayed silent. She struggled to free herself, but her captors squeezed her arms.
"Do not struggle or you will feel more pain," Loach advised.
"Who are you?" Abby asked.
"We are children of Shub-Niggurath, the Black Ram with a Thousand Ewes, who bred with human women and created our herd," Loach said.
He pointed at the black ram. "That is my father, Shub-Niggurath."
The black ram snorted and looked up at Abby. Its eyes had a wild look.
Loach continued talking. "Unfortunately, the believers of the Hebrew God Yahweh have swarmed over our ancestral home, the caverns under the land you call Arabia. Our herd was in danger of extinction until my great-grandfather led us to America and founded Loach Hill. At that time, we numbered merely twenty. Now free from persecution, the children of Shub-Niggurath have multiplied to one hundred. Soon, he will breed a thousand young to defeat the Yahweh pagans."
Abby squirmed. "What do you want with me? Let me go! There is nothing I can do to help you!"
"On the contrary, we need you," Loach said. "Everyone in Loach Hill is descended from Shub-Niggurath. We lived in secret, and we had only ourselves for companionship. We married within our group extensively. At first, cousins bred with cousins, then uncles bred with nieces, then brothers bred with sisters, then children bred with parents. Alas, the inbreeding has caused some problems."
Cornelius walked to Abby and leered at her. He opened his mouth and drooled.
"Very pretty, very pretty," he said.
He stuck his tongue out and licked her cheek. Abby moaned as she felt the thick, sticky saliva on her skin.
Now Abby knew why everyone in Loach Hill looked the same.
"What do you want with me?" Abby stammered.
"You will breed with Shub-Niggurath and bring new blood into our herd," Loach declared.
"No! Wait!" Abby screamed. "Why me? I am just an ordinary girl!"
"No, you are not, Abigail Williams!" Loach insisted, using Abby's real name. "The witches of Salem bewitched you. They controlled your body with their telekinetic power, that is, the ability to control objects and people with energy from their minds. Although you did not acquire the power of telekinesis, you absorbed enough telekinetic energy that it changed your gametes."
"It is a biological concept that your species does not yet understand. Suffice to say that the eggs in your womb have changed and now carry the telekinetic power of the Old Gods. You will pass that power to your spawn if you breed with a male who also possesses it. Thus you are an excellent ewe for breeding with Shub-Niggurath."
"Wait, wait!" Abby pleaded. "I was not really bewitched!"
"But you uttered sworn testimony at the trials saying that you had been bewitched," Loach reminded her.
"I lied! I lied! I was not bewitched! I was just having fun! I was just making trouble! I am merely an ordinary girl!"
Loach shrugged. "If you truly were bewitched, your body will enlarge to gross proportions and bear a litter for Shub-Niggurath. If you were lying, your body will split apart and die as your spawn claw their way out of your womb. Either way, you will add a thousand young to the herd."
"No!" Abby screamed as she struggled against the men who held her arms.
Loach chuckled. "Shub-Niggurath is a shape-shifter who can assume human form. Do you want to see how he looks as a male of your species?"
The black ram snorted, and its hair receded, its horns shrunk, and it morphed into the shape of a naked man.
Abby gasped. It was the shepherd who had been her client in Boston.
He leaned over and breathed on Abby's neck. The feeling of his hot breath upon her skin made her stomach churn.
"Good morning, Chantal," Shub-Niggurath said, leering at her. "You cannot imagine my excitement when I discovered you, the last of the bewitched girls of Salem."
Abby squirmed as Shub-Niggurath kissed her. She tried to escape again, but the two men held her.
Shub-Niggurath leered at Abby. "Do you know what attracted me to you?"
Paralyzed with fear, Abby could only stare silently.
"It was the way you stole an extra shilling from me after each time I rutted with you," Shub-Niggurath said. "That shows cunning, which is a form of intelligence. Our herd could use more intelligence."
Abby screamed. Full of energy from fear, she kicked her captors in the shins. As they yelled in pain and let her go, she ran for the door. Suddenly, an invisible force slammed her in the back, sending her to the floor.
Abby got onto her elbows and knees –- but no further. She wanted to stand but found she could not. An invisible force held her.
From across the room, Shub-Niggurath shouted, "You cannot escape from me, you drab."
A blast of frigid air swept over Abby, lifting her shift and exposing her thighs and buttocks.
The Outer God of Fertility approached Abby. He reached down and stroked her buttocks. "We will have a thousand children."
“No, please —” Abby struggled, but her body would not move. Cold fear gripped her.
Shub-Niggurath took Abby’s thighs and pulled them apart. He then transformed back into a black ram and positioned himself behind her.
The townspeople chanted, "Shub-Niggurath, the Ram with a Thousand Ewes! Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!"
Abby let out a long, desperate wail as Shub-Niggurath snorted and pushed, filling her with the curse of the shepherd's blessing.
- FINIS -
Illustration from John Ashton, Chap-Books of the Eighteenth Century (London, 1882).
Go to the Chain Story