"I was thinking more of the birds." Lewis gestures at the large flock of rooks, some perched on the intact parts of the roof, some circling the broken spires that stab up into the grey sky.
"As long as they're not attacking, I don't care what they do," James jokes.
"Right. Seen enough, Hathaway? I'd like to be home before dark." Returning from a police conference, they'd found heavy congestion caused by an overturned lorry on the motorway. Diverting to secondary roads had made for slow but less frustrating travel. They'd eaten lunch at an out-of-the-way pub instead of a transport cafe, and Lewis had been very tolerant about pausing at a couple of historical sites that intrigued James.
"I'd say so, since we clearly can't go inside."
An unfamiliar voice interrupts. "In fact, you can."
They turn to see a lean, grey-haired man stepping through a gap in the hedge. "Sorry if I startled you," he says smoothly, and brushes a stray leaf from the frayed cuff of his tweed jacket. He introduces himself as Eric Chapwell, Village Historian of Lindrosvale.
They give their names without mentioning their profession. They're not here on police business, after all.
Chapwell continues, "I've been studying St Matthew's for more than twenty years, and I cannot count the number of times I've been inside. The building, though damaged, is stable. You know its history?"
James only knows the basics.The neo-Gothic church was built in the 1870s by a wealthy mill owner, replacing an older, humbler structure. In 1943, a German bomb had destroyed half of the roof and shattered all the windows. It had never been repaired.
"Local industry suffered after the war, and the young people moved away." Chapwell flings his hands up, as if illustrating how Lindrosvale's prosperity had vanished into the air. "But someday, perhaps..." He leads them past the front doors, boarded over and nailed shut, around the corner to a small padlocked door. Old, nearly illegible placards on the wall announce DANGER! and NO TRESPASSING! and ENTRY PROHIBITED! Chapwell unlocks the padlock and pulls open the door.
They follow him into what must have been the sacristy. There's dust everywhere, but less rubble on the floor than James might have expected. He doesn't have much time to look around because Chapwell is moving briskly through another door. They emerge on the west side of the main altar. James walks into the centre of the sanctuary, and turns in a slow circle, admiring the magnificent desolation. There's no other term for it. There are mounds of fallen stone and mouldering, splintered wood. The marble top of the altar is cracked into three pieces. All of the altar furnishings are gone. The cloths and hangings, candlesticks and flower vases are all gone. (Rescued by parishioners after the bombing? Stolen by tramps?) And yet the essential shape of the building is there, proud walls and graceful arches, illuminated by the dim light coming through the large, jagged gap in the roof. James is reminded of an octogenarian retired ballerina he'd once seen: back hunched and limbs gnarled with arthritis, a caricature of her former self. She'd turned her head to speak to the man beside her in the VIP box, and in that simple movement, James had seen the young woman who had once danced the Swan Queen.
Lewis moves to stand silently beside him, his eyes scanning the space as if it were a crime scene. Which I suppose it is, just sixty years after the fact.
"Can you feel it?" Chapwell demands. "Can you feel it in here?"
"Feel what?" James asks.
"Power. Spiritual energy." Chapwell points at the altar. "This has been a sacred site for centuries. Before this church was erected, there was another. Before that, a hermit offered up his prayers from his wattle and daub hut. Roman soldiers made offerings to Mithras, and the Saxons built a shrine to Woden."
Lewis says in his calming-excitable-witnesses voice, "That's very interesting, sir." He glances at James, and the message is clear: dealing with religious nutters is a job best handled by a seminarian-turned-sergeant.
Obediently, he asks about archaeological surveys, and surviving annals and chronicles. Chapwell replies diffidently. It's clear his interest is elsewhere. "But before all of these, there was a spirit in this place. In the land and of the land. He is here still. His name is Indros."
That's different. James has met a fair number of British neo-pagans of various flavours—Wiccans, Druids, Odinists, and worshippers of Gaia—but no animists. The name 'Indros' means nothing to him. So much of British folklore is hyperlocal. A hob, pixie, or other archetype of mischief might be known by a certain name in one village, and by a completely different one a few kilometres away. "How did you learn of him?"
Chapwell says patiently, as if to a slow pupil, "He told me."
Oh. James glances at his governor, who gives him a very slight nod. It means Go on. I trust you with this. He turns his attention back to Chapwell. "What else did he tell you?"
It takes very little prompting for Chapwell to talk about his encounters with 'Indros'. The first was over fifteen years ago, just after he'd lost his wife to cancer. He'd been inside the church before, and had started work on a book about its history. On that bleak October day, the ruin seemed to call to him. "It was the perfect place for me—still standing, but desolation inside."
Lewis says abruptly. "Did you intend to harm yourself?"
"I thought about it," Chapwell admits, "but I didn't truly want to die. I just wanted the pain to go away."
Lewis's face is as still as the stone beneath their feet, his eyes shuttered. "And then?"
Chapwell describes how he paced the sanctuary, wrestling with his grief until at last he dropped to his knees in front of the altar, and prayed. "I don't even recall what I said. It may have been the Lord's Prayer, or a psalm, or perhaps there were no words at all. And... he answered."
The voice had been soft and indistinct at first, like a man awakening from deep sleep. "The spirits of the land get their strength from the people of the land, and from their prayers." Even prayers not addressed directly to them, he explains. The Saxon giving thanks to Woden, the centurion invoking Mithras,the Christians telling their beads or reciting the Collect—all of these, performed on the sacred site, gave Indros power to help and guide his people. Lindrosvale prospered. Life was good. Then came the war, and the bombing. It was decided that it would cost too much to restore the church, so they built a smaller one in the centre of the village. Indros fell into sleep, and the village settled into a slow decline.
"Have your prayers had results?" James asks.
"A little," Chapwell admits, "but I'm only one man. Just recently, I came to understand that something more than prayer was needed. Something more tangible, more powerful." The next word that comes out of his mouth is as cold and hard as the revolver that comes out of his jacket pocket. "Sacrifice."
This isn't the first time that James has had a gun pointed at him, but every other time, it was because the person holding the gun knew he was a policeman. The usual rules of engagement don't apply here. Chapwell doesn't want a briefcase full of bank notes and a getaway car. He can't be offered a lesser charge or a lighter sentence.
Lewis doesn't move, He glares at Chapwell. "Don't be a fool, man!"
"I would do anything to restore this land." Chapwell's defiant shout echoes off the stones, so that it seems to come from everywhere at once. He cocks his head, as if listening to a voice that only he can hear. "Yes, anything! I know that the price of renewal is death."
James says quietly, "Mr Chapwell, I know you feel you have good motives for doing this, but have you thought about the consequences?"
Chapwell responds with a dry chuckle. "I'm not afraid of going to Hell, Mr Hathaway. I'm not much of a Christian these days, but I don't think God will condemn me for trying to help my people."
"The law may have a different view of things," Lewis growls.
Chapwell looks surprised, as if he hadn't considered that angle at all. He shrugs. "But then it will be too late."
James considers his options. Chapwell's gun is a Webley revolver, probably a service pistol from the Second World War. That doesn't mean it isn't still functional and deadly. Does he have any chance of tackling Chapwell and taking the gun? If he and Lewis rushed him at the same time... no. If James could get Lewis out of here, then he could tackle Chapwell without worrying that his governor would get shot. "Mr Chapwell, you're quite right."
That gets the man's attention. "I am?"
"I read theology at university. Every religious tradition that I know of agrees that sacrifice is an act of great spiritual power. But if the... offering is willing, the sacrifice creates even greater power." He takes a deep breath. "Let him go, and you'll have your willing sacrifice."
"James!" Lewis's shout of outrage echoes off the stones. "You'll do no such thing. If anyone stays, it'll be me. You're young, got your whole life ahead of you."
And no one who will miss me. "I am not going to explain to your daughter why her baby will never know his granddad."
"If you think for one moment—"
"Gentlemen." Chapwell's voice is one of mild reproof, a schoolmaster cautioning fractious students. "As interesting as this is, I must point out that neither of you is fit to be a sacrifice here. You are both outsiders; only one who is of the land can die for the land. That is not why I invited you here." With slow, careful steps, he walks backwards until he is standing before the broken altar. "I want you to be my witnesses." He lifts the gun, resting the muzzle against his right temple.
"Please, don't," James begs. "There are other ways. Death is not the only answer."
Chapwell moves the gun slightly so he can turn and look at James. He smiles. "It is my answer. And perhaps I will see Anna again." He positions the gun again. "Indros! I am ready!"
Click! James flinches at the sound. It takes him a split second to realise that the gun has not gone off. Chapwell realises it, too. He lowers the Webley and stares at it, frowning.
James shifts his weight, ready to rush forward. Beside him, he senses Lewis doing the same. Before either of them can move, there's a rumble and a loud crack, followed by the distressed caws of dozens of rooks. Out of the corner of his eye he detects movement near the ceiling. Before he can quite form a question in his mind about the birds, a cascade of limestone blocks crashes into the sanctuary. He thinks he hears a muffled scream from Chapwell, who vanishes beneath a mound of stones mixed with shards of marble from the shattered altar.
"Oh, God!" James starts to run forward, only to be forced to a halt when Lewis grabs his arm.
"You can't help him. There's no way he survived that. Let's get out before the rest of the bloody roof caves in!"
They move as fast as they dare around the back of the rubble-strewn sanctuary, coughing from the clouds of dust in the air. The rain of stones in this section has stopped for the moment, and the path to the door where they entered is mostly clear. James can hear a maelstrom of sound: crashing stones in other parts of the church, and the ceaseless, urgent calls of the rooks. As they reach the sacristy door, he thinks he hears a man's voice. It's not Lewis, and it can't be Chapwell. Then he's outside, beneath the lead-coloured sky, running across the field. He holds back his speed just enough to keep pace with Lewis. When they reach the lane at the edge of the field, he turns and lets himself collapse onto the withered grass. Lewis does the same.
In silence, except for laboured breaths punctuated with staccato coughs, they watch the collapse of St Matthew's. When the last section of wall topples, sending up a cloud of dust like a dying breath made visible, James clambers to his feet. He reaches down to offer a hand to Lewis, who waves it away. "I'm all right."
After a long, awkward pause, they both speak at once. "Did you hear—" "I think that I—"
"I don't—" "Never mind—"
With no further discussion, they walk towards the car. Lewis slides into the driver's seat. James gets in on the left. As the car gains speed, James closes his eyes, replaying over and over again the voice he heard in the sanctuary.
"The sacrifice is accepted."
— THE END —