Here’s the next chapter of Where the Moon is God.
Previous chapters can be found here:
Henry believed that when someone was truly penitent, a priest could recognise the seriousness of their confession. Equally, when they were not sincere, a priest could tell that their confession was incomplete. This was not some strange trick that came to them simply because they were men of God: he had personally handled so many confessions in his time that spotting the truthful and the liars was second nature to him.
It was not difficult to tell the honest from those who would likely commit another sin as soon as Henry turned his back. People who only confessed because they thought it would save them, and not because they truly felt the need to unburden themselves within their souls, hardly sounded legitimate. He tried his best to encourage all who confessed to him to truly mean what they said, but there were only so many people he could get through to. He did not have all the time in the world; he was always busy.
Too many people did not understand the importance of their confessions. They used them as escape routes when they wanted forgiveness, viewing confession as an easy escape from the consequences of their actions. The hardest challenge for Henry was allocating a penance: it needed to teach them not to repeat their sins, but also had to be something they were likely to see from start to finish. Too few of them would complete their penances. There were penalties in place for those who tried to avoid them, but Henry knew that large numbers never got caught.
He was priest in a church that seemed to have an overly large number of parishioners who were exactly that kind of person. He knew that it was his responsibility to ensure those people were as dedicated to the Lord and as moral as they could be, but in a bustling city rife with sin that task was impossible. On many Sundays, he would look out at his congregation and could almost see the corruptness, as though it hung over the people’s heads like a dark shroud.
Henry should not have been judgemental, but it was sometimes difficult to restrain himself. Although he was a member of the community in Lincoln in his body, his mind was like those of Theodore and Thomas, and he had always regretted not joining them in the monastery. His hesitation and reluctance to make such drastic changed in his life had left him stuck in the city; he had become too concerned with saving the souls of those who lived in the urban area now to leave.
Life in the city was not always terrible. It had its advantages. Henry was much more aware of local news than the two monks were, and news from London or even further afield would reach him at an alarming speed. He wrote to his brother often, usually to pass on this news, and knew that he was the source of much of their world news. His letters were generally faster than news in reaching the monastery. It had become something of an obligation for Henry to keep his younger brother informed on all things newsworthy. That, and to keep their ageing but still influential father away from the two monks.
Yet, for all the support that Henry provided to his brother (standing in the way of their father was a full-time job), he could not help his increasing frustration with the task. Priests were by no means perfect, for no man could avoid sin completely, and the more that Henry tried, the harder it seemed to be to juggle his personal and professional lives.
That was why monasticism called to him. It promised to take him away from so many evils, to remove the temptations the cities were full of. He no longer felt able to reach that standard of purity; his chance to leave the city and join a monastery had come and gone many years ago.
So, there he sat, listening to the confessions of the common people in his church every day. Men and women listed their immoralities in as much details as they could remember, their blank expressions portraying their misunderstanding of the importance of the act. Henry played the part of the concerned and attentive priest, telling each person who came to him to ask for forgiveness with a serious heart.
There were only so many times that he could tell laypeople how serious confession was before the whole matter became futile. By the time they reached adulthood, most people had already reached their own conclusions about the world, so what Henry had to say was irrelevant.
In the past month, he had listened to many confessions and been convinced on many occasions that he was listening to someone who was not truly penitent. The three who had stood out the most to him had been … well, they were gone now. It was a horrible way to go, and nobody – not even the constable – had any idea who or what had killed them. What little information Henry had managed to piece together had made no sense at all.
It seemed ridiculous that the killer only struck on the full moon, even more so that they killed three people each night, almost ritualistically. The only explanations he had been able to come up with so far were either that this killer was something who had lost their mind, or that they were something from the world beyond with an interest in scary stories.
The constable had sent for help from the king after the third set of attacks, but even these men had not found anything, and Henry did not believe they were too concerned about the deaths of a handful of sinners. The bodies had been found in various locations throughout the city, and if there were any real patterns into these places, then these had gone over the heads of the investigators. The link to Henry had been noticed, but the constable had thankfully already dismissed him as a potential suspect – Henry had solid alibis.
The priest had spoken to several witnesses. One description that had stood out in his mind for its absurdity as much as the detail was of a large black wolf with blood dripping from its fangs and bright yellow eyes that had seemed to glow in the darkness. Another witness had sworn that the killer had had a large pair of black wings and red horns. Henry knew both of these accounts were stupid: there were no wolves in England and the common person imagined strange, childish images of demons. The constable was in this one too deep.
Even if someone was caught – and someone would be caught, even if only to take the blame – Henry would not be satisfied until they were caught red handed. There were suspects and eventually one of them would confess. Officials could use a variety of methods to gain a confession, not all of them pleasant.
Henry could not sit idly by as the constable carried out his work. Something was amiss in the city and it threatened his flock; as long as they were in danger, Henry was not doing his job. It was only a matter of time before the killer decided to make a move on some of the more faithful parishioners, or even some of the clergymen. Waiting around to hear about the next set of murders was not an option.
Confiding in Thomas and Theodore about his problems had always been beneficial. Henry had hoped that they would be able to think of something he had not considered. A part of him had hoped that they would write back with assurances that there was no reason to think this might be the work of an unnatural force. He had waited anxiously for their reply, hoping that it would be a sensible one.
The men’s response had done nothing to ease Henry’s worries. The monks had agreed that there was something sinister about these murders, and from the way Thomas had worded the letter it seemed that they did not believe it could be human. Henry could understand why they had been sceptical to use the word demon without further evidence, but he could tell that it was been on their minds.
Like Henry, they had ruled out a wild dog attack despite the state of the bodies, believing the monthly cycle represented a creature more intelligent than some mere beast. Either this was a lunatic killing for some pagan ritual, or Henry’s gut feeling had been right all along.
Other clergymen would probably have advised him to let the controller handle it. They might have told him to stop worrying about the fates of a bunch of sinners who had refused to accept God and had failed to turn their lives around. Henry could not do that: to ignore the deaths would be to ignore that it was his church being targeted, people he knew or recognised.
The confessions of the three who had been killed most recently were still clear in his mind. He had focused a lot of his attention on them throughout the month, suspecting that they might be next, but he had done nothing to prevent their deaths. What could he have done? There was no way for him to have been certain.
Nevertheless, the feeling remained that Henry should have done something. He had questioned whether he had been jumping to conclusions by anticipating their deaths; now he felt ashamed that he had not done more to save them. This month, Henry had already decided, he would do things differently. He could not trust what the investigators told him. The guards around the city were useless. He would not allow anyone else to die.
Yes, he remembered all three of those confessions. The woman had been the first to confess. Henry had taken her away to a room where they could not be overheard for the confession, although from the moment he had seen her enter his church he had guessed what she might say. Her skimpy dress and exaggerated walk had not even passed a man as chaste as Henry by. His eyes had followed the movement of her hips back and forth before he had been able to stop them, and he had felt a little too hot in her presence.
They had settled in a private room at the back of the church. The secrecy of the room was designed to encourage the woman to list every detail of her sins. Even though he had known what sort of things to expect from her, some of the sexual acts she had described had shocked him and made him feel sick.
Henry was not allowed to react to any of the confessions he heard, so he had kept his head down and his eyes on the floor. That way, the confessor could not be put off by Henry’s response to their words. He had asked the woman the right questions, despite not wanting to ask them, to push her into confessing all. As he saw too often in the city, she had been unwilling to speak at certain points – or, Henry thought, perhaps too humiliated to continue. Considering how much she had been willing to admit, he did not want to know what might have embarrassed her.
She had been asked to do all manner of peculiar things by the dirty men who had used her services. Henry may have spent his whole life clinging firmly to a vow of chastity (which had not always been easy to keep), but he was by no means ignorant. He knew what was considered ordinary and what was more unusual when it came to sex.
As uncomfortable as he had felt as he had listened to everything she had to say, he had an obligation to hear her, so that God could forgive her. Through Henry, the Lord would see that she was repentant. Unfortunately, the more that she had gone on, the more convinced Henry had become that she was not going to change her ways. She had shown him no indication that she really intended to start over, and the confession had ended with the priest feeling more than a little useless.
When she had left, she had received strange looks from the men she had walked past, and Henry had become fully convinced that her confession and penance would do nothing to improve her life or encourage her to change. He had instructed her to go on a local pilgrimage with the hope that she would feel the presence of the Lord if she got out of the city, which in turn might encourage her to change her sinful ways, but he could not say that he had ever expected her to carry it out.
It was a shame to see people like her, so corrupted and alone that the twisted vices were all she had left. Henry could not help but silently condemn her. He had kept an eye out for her, wondering if she might be at risk, but he had wanted to believe that she would not be killed.
The adulterer had been the next to confess, perhaps halfway through the month. He had spoken in a quiet voice, as though he had been afraid of speaking his sins too loudly. Henry had reminded the man that a major element of confession was the ability to admit what he had done, and that if he could not do this then he could not begin to receive forgiveness from God, but even after the volume of that pitiful voice had been raised the tone had still been one of a man who really did not want to say what he was saying.
He had told Henry that he had been seeing a young woman for many months, an unmarried girl still living under the watchful eyes of her parents. Henry had wondered what could make a grown man wish to see a girl that young. Apparently, she was expected to marry soon, engaged to a young man of her parents’ choosing, but whom she had no interest in. The young woman and the adulterer had been sneaking around to keep their affair a secret from both of their families, his being his wife and children.
Nobody had discovered their affair – which often fuelled confessions of this sort – but the man was beginning to regret ever approaching the girl. He told Henry that he had tried to call off their relationship, although the priest suspected that this had been a lie. From the way the man had described their sinful actions, Henry knew he should have spotted that the man was not prepared to give the girl up.
Apparently, the pair had first met at church. Of all the places for such an affair to begin, it had been in Henry’s own church! They had caught one another’s attention, and from that moment everything else had sprung. It had been a whirlwind relationship, the young girl willing to offer herself openly to the older man, and he too eager to grasp the opportunity with both hands.
Henry could have easily blamed her if he had wanted to, but he knew that it was the adulterer who had taken full advantage of the opportunity. Everything his wife had refused to give him at home, he had taken from this girl.
The priest’s instructions had been to end the affair immediately and remove the young girl from his life. Henry had given the man a penance his wife would not notice, so that she would not become suspicious that he had sinned. With no real power to know whether this penance had been carried out or not, Henry had been left to hope that the man would care enough for his immortal soul to do the right thing. Although the priest could not say for certain that the man had died because he had failed to carry out Henry’s instructions, there was enough evidence surrounding the other victims to suspect that his advice had been ignored.
Then there had been the gambler, not two days before all three had been killed. The man had smelt strongly of alcohol and the stench had assaulted Henry’s senses. It had been as though he had suddenly become far more in tune with his ability to smell than ever before. The odour had been offensive and had left the priest feeling temporarily light-headed. He had recognised it too well – there were an awful lot of drunks in the city.
The gambler had been to Henry to confess many times before, so the priest had known that anything he said would likely not be adhered to. The gambler rarely paid any attention during the confession, turning up regularly with the misguided belief that confession alone was enough. Henry had still been forced to carry out his role as patient priest – and do it well. This was the sort of person he always hoped he might be able to get through to, and one who had been slowly causing those hopes to fade away.
They had sat down in the back room and the gambler had begun, the usual rambling story flowing freely from his mouth, one Henry had listened to many times before. He told Henry how it had all started when his goods had stopped selling at the market; how his wife had been angry because he had been unable to support her and their children; how he in turn had been angry and aggressive with her for acting as though she had any kind of authority over him. Henry had wanted to smack the gambler around the head and tell him that his wife was probably as miserable as he was, but that she had bigger concerns than her own selfish pride. Nonetheless, he had kept his head down and his lips tightly shut.
The story of the gambler’s wife had set up the man’s excuse to do whatever he wanted. He had told Henry that it had made him turn to wine whenever he had stormed out of the house in a rage. Eventually, the men he had been drinking with had introduced him to gambling, taking advantage of the drunk until he had become addicted to the game. Henry had repeated what he told the man every time they spoke: there was a chance to overcome this obsession, but to change his life both the drinking and the gambling had to stop. Once more his words had been met with a sorry explanation that this was too difficult from the supposedly penitent man.
Henry had told him that this was understandable, and that the Lord knew how hard things had been for him. It was, however, now time to turn his life around, and realise that he could take another path. The gambler had chosen to turn to the easiest option available, drowning his sorrows in booze. Once he had gambled away his month, Henry had assumed that the man would be willing to change, but the priest seemed to have ignored the stubbornness of the laity and the quick joy that sins brought common people. The man simply did not want to be moral.
The gambler had blamed everyone from the other traders at the market to his wife for his actions. At one point, he had even asked Henry why God would allow him to live in such misery. Each time, Henry had reminded him that he had chosen this path for himself, and it was not God (nor anyone else) who had forced him to act as he had acted. The Lord did not work to make him happy.
Perhaps the gambler had accepted this, but if he had it had clearly been too late. It seemed that there had been no intentions towards change.
God would have helped the man in an instant, had he genuinely wanted to work to change himself. That did not mean He would have made it easy for the man. Laypeople seemed to forget that just because God had created them, this did not mean that He would be there every step of the way to nudge them in the right direction and grant them answers whenever they asked for them. The Lord would hardly have been who He was if He allowed everyone to get by without having to put in any effort themselves.
It seemed that the gambler had taken the easy option once more. It had, unfortunately, cost the man his life.
Henry had spent countless hours trying to understand why it was people who had confessed to him who were being targeted by this killer. Had they been there, somewhere in the church, during each confession? That seemed highly implausible. Had they seen the sinners leave his church and picked them out at random? No, Henry would surely have noticed someone lurking outside or around the church like that. Neither of those explanations explained the fascination this killer had with Henry’s flock in particular.
All nine victims had seemed unwilling to change their ways or carry out their penances. That meant it had to be someone or something who knew enough about the victims to have decided they were lost causes who would never change their ways. Henry was a good priest, though: he had never disclosed a single confession to another person. Yet despite that, someone still seemed to know.
It was a terrible thing for him to think, but he might have felt better if there had been other odd deaths in the city. At least that way, the deaths would not seem so focused on Henry’s church. The whole situation was inhuman, even before he considered how the constable had described the bodies. He had tried to think of it as a loose animal, but that no longer seemed viable. Nor did some strange ritual. There was only one possibility remaining and the monks had confirmed that.
This killer was able to spot sinners and was selecting them for gruesome deaths. Theodore and Thomas had not needed the months of debate that Henry had had with himself: it had to be a demon.
He would have to keep a watchful eye on his parishioners this month, Henry thought to himself glumly, feeling the weight of the monster heavy on his shoulders. He had never banished a demon before and everything he had ever read about it had been rather vague on the subject. There was no time for him to learn, either: as he sat there, he noticed a woman entering the church, limping slowly towards him, and knew from the look on her face that she had come to confess …
With the church and all the responsibilities it demanded of him, Henry had too much on his plate to deal with a demon as well.
The woman was old, plump around the middle, and had large shadows under her eyes. Henry tried to pretend that he had not noticed her torn and shabby clothes. He did not wish to prejudge her. He smiled politely and showed her some courtesy, trying to avoid a pained expression from crossing his face as she told him that she was there to confess.
‘Then please come this way,’ Henry said, leading her away from the other clergymen gathered in the church. He avoided the crowd stood around a small shrine at the back of the church and sat her in a private room. The others, though no doubt worried about the deaths too, had chosen to do as Henry had done, and were keeping their innermost thoughts to themselves.
The pair of them got comfortable, but the woman seemed reluctant to begin. This was relatively common, so Henry began to ask her questions, aware that she needed to be willing and ready more than he had ever been aware of it before. Eventually, she said something that allowed the confession to begin.
‘I have hit a man,’ she said, and Henry flicked his eyes up from the floor for the briefest of moments to look at her large hands. He would not want to be struck by those. ‘I hit him so hard that I made him bleed and then I left him there without going to see whether he was hurt.’
‘Who was this man who you hit?’ Henry asked, because the identity was important if he was to establish who she had sinned against and how severe the sin was. Hitting anyone was bad, particularly for a woman (she should not have been acting in a violent manner), but there were ways in which the sin could be worse. ‘I do not need a name,’ he added, because she was not supposed to name anyone, ‘but tell me their position compared to you.’
‘A clerk,’ she told him.
‘Of what position exactly?’ he pressed her.
There was a long pause. ‘A priest, like yourself,’ she admitted. That was worse than if she had hit a layperson, but Henry still did not know enough about the attack.
‘Where did this happen?’ he asked her. If she had hit the priest in a consecrated place, the sin she was describing would become yet more severe.
‘Inside of his church,’ the woman said, twiddling her thumbs around one another as she spoke, ‘but I was angry at the time.’
Henry decided he had heard enough. The conversation had to move along so that he could deal with her excuse; the old woman would become another on the list of souls he had failed to save if she did not accept responsibility for this attack. By claiming that it had been an emotional outburst, she was shifting the blame away from herself.
‘Why would you do this?’ he asked her. ‘Tell me what angered you so much that you hit him.’
‘I … heard tell from some that this priest has committed adultery with my daughter,’ the woman replied, and Henry sighed internally. Every day he seemed to hear the same stories about clergymen in towns and cities taking advantage of their parishioners. ‘She has now seen the light. She told him that they could no longer see one another, but he became angry with her and said that she could not stop him. I thought I was defending my child, but now I realise my actions were wrong, and I am here to ask God for forgiveness for this sin.’
It was a relief that she seemed to know what she was talking about. Henry felt that she was serious about what she was saying; the woman seemed to honestly want to be forgiven for this misdeed. He was able to relax, the concept of her impending death disappearing from his anxious mind. Her justification made sense and it would have been far worse if she had not had a genuine reason for being angry towards the priest. That did not make it right, but she had clearly thought about the immorality of what she had done.
‘When did you commit this sin?’ Henry asked her. He looked at a spot on his shoes, waiting for her response.
‘It was earlier today. I came here as soon as I realised I was wrong. I didn’t even have time to change.’
At this, Henry stalled. If the woman had not had time to change, that implied one of two things: either she did not own any decent clothes and walked around in rags every day, or the incident she was describing had been more like a fight than a single smack. He approached the subject of a more heated bout carefully.
‘Tell me exactly how you hit him in as much detail as you can,’ he said. ‘Tell me everything you can remember, to ensure that you have fully confessed and spoken of this evil before God. Only when you have admitted all can you be forgiven for what you have done on this day.’
He did not miss another brief pause. ‘I walked into his church. There were lots of people around. I did not hesitate because I knew what I was going to do. I went up to him and struck him in the face. I was pulled away from him by the others who were present and then I left.’
Henry could not help what he did next: he looked up from the floor, frowning at her. ‘How did you get that mark on your sleeve?’ he asked. It was red and looked like blood.
‘Oh,’ she said, apparently caught off-guard by his question. She looked down at the sleeve and then back up at Henry, as though she did not have an answer for him. When she next spoke, she sounded less convincing. ‘It must have happened when I hit him – but I didn’t mean to do it, it was only so that I could protect my daughter! My husband pays alms to the church – it’s well know. We are highly spoken of for our generosity.’
‘One good deed does not balance out a sin,’ Henry pointed out, not wanting to lose track of their conversation. The woman looked as though she was insulted by this comment; Henry backtracked to save himself before the atmosphere turned sour. ‘All I meant to say is that a confession must be full and clear, and that a sin is a sin, regardless of one’s reputation.’
She lightened up a little after those words, but Henry felt that from that point onwards she was trying to avoid the subject. She became just another who thought that confession was nothing more than an obligation and as time went on Henry felt as though she was not really thinking about what she was admitting to. Her clothes might well have been torn as she had been pulled away from the priest, but one swift punch did not seem enough to account for the blood on her clothes.
Henry blamed himself when she left, convinced that she was now in danger and placing the responsibility for anything that happen to her on his own behaviour. If he had not spoken up about how she could not hide this sin behind her donations, then she might have filled in the gaps of her confession, but Henry had been so determined to get things right that his concentration had slipped, and he had made them worse. He made a mental note to watch the woman closely over the course of the month. Perhaps, if there was a way for him to ensure that she stayed in her home on the full moon, then she would be safe.
He wondered whether he was fretting for no reason. He had no idea whether the woman was going to be killed, but he could not get the idea off his mind. This monster was going to return, and Henry did not know if he would ever be able to forgive himself if he sent another person to their death, never mind whether God would be able to forgive him.
The pressure was already beginning to mount. If Henry had not known better, he would have said that he was responsible for all of this, the gruesome murders and all.