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Authors: Freda Warrington

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BOOK: A Dance in Blood Velvet
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The imaginary “Lancelyn” was always with him. Ben pictured him as a shining, handsome hero from a
Boy’s Own
adventure. Lancelyn led, Ben followed. The image stayed with him into adulthood.

Ben was nineteen when the Great War destroyed his dreams.

He served in the trenches in the worst of conditions, enduring cataclysmic battles. While he was there, the first letter came from Lancelyn.

Dearest baby brother,

Forgive me for never writing before. I wanted to. When I realised you were old enough to be dragged into this disaster, I couldn’t bear to think I might lose you without even having said “Hello”. Do you remember me at all? I still see you as a red-faced toddler covered in egg and jam. I can’t believe they’ve sent you out there to be shot at.

I couldn’t write to you at home. Mother would have destroyed the letters. Whatever she’s made you think of me, I am not the Anti-Christ. Come home safely, so I can meet you and explain...

The letter began a correspondence that kept Ben from outright despair. Words from a distant golden hero, lifting him out of the filth and blood - for a brief time, at least.

Other soldiers broke down and went mad. Benedict’s experience precipitated a revelation.

One night, sheltering behind mud-sodden sandbags under the hellish thunder of bombardment, Benedict saw an amorphous light on the lip of the trench. Crazed logic insisted that this was Lancelyn, come to guide him... where? Paradise? That meant death. He wept, but a voice in the cloud of light commanded him to stop and
look.
Disregarding bullets and shells, Ben saw that the mudscape of no-man’s-land was actually a broad black river. He felt compelled to cross it... even knowing that to do so would be suicide.

The sky lit up with a shell-burst and stayed alight. The heavens shone like beaten gold. Clouds became mountains, castles, forests in the sky. Elongated figures moved up there, as dark as demons yet stately, like seraphim trailing wings of fire... neither angels nor demons, but something
other...

Benedict knew that he was looking into the spirit-realm.
Leave Earth behind and enter,
Lancelyn seemed to say.
Cross the river, it’s the only way!

What could be worse than the hell he was enduring? Ben began to climb a ladder out of the trench. The vision ended as a bullet ripped into his chest and flung him back into the mud.

He was sent home, recovering from a wound that, the doctors said, should have killed him. A miracle; he was alive for a reason! While in hospital, he received another letter from Lancelyn.

My dearest Ben,

You’re out of it! The moment the War ends, I am renting a villa in Italy for the summer with some friends. Do join us.

Ben was thrilled. His heroic brother was real and they were going to meet at last! But then he thought,
What will Mother and Father say?

He believed in honesty. When he broke the news to his mother, however, her reaction was extreme. If he went, she yelled, he need never bother coming back! He would be as dead to them as Lancelyn.

She forced the choice on him; Ben, knowing almost nothing about his brother, chose the new and unknown.

Thus he found himself on a tiered hill above the Mediterranean, sunlight glowing through cypress groves. As he reached a headland above the bay and breathed the warm fragrant air, he felt a glimmer of hope that life was worth living after all.

The sea was indigo, the sky deepest burning blue. Dust and heat and bare white rocks were softened by olive and orange groves spilling down the slopes. Ben saw the sugar-white walls of a villa with greenery spilling wildly over the boundaries. He climbed the hillside for a better view, until he could see over a wall and straight down into the grounds.

The sight made him gasp.

There were people in the garden, some stretched out on the grass, others playing tennis. Four women and seven men - all stark naked.

He’d heard of such goings-on among the “artistic” set; the puritanical father in him pounced, and his first reaction was disgust. Then he edged forward to take a longer look. He began to smile.
Good God, what a sight!

A cough nearby made Benedict jump guiltily. Looking up, he saw a girl sitting on a rock above him, sketching. His first thought was that he must steer her away before she saw this decadent display.

She was pretty, with long dark hair flowing from beneath a huge sunhat, a loose white dress flattering her slim figure.

“Good morning!” he called out cheerfully. “Do you speak English?”

“I do my best,” she said; her accent was educated British, with a trace of Norfolk. “Good morning. Isn’t it a beautiful day?”

As he reached her, she smiled and put her sketchpad aside.

“May I see?” he said.

“If you like. It’s not very good.”

As he looked at the blur of brilliant colours on the page, he was aware of her gaze travelling over him. Although his parents had taught him that conceit was a sin, he’d often been called handsome; six feet four, with a strong face and a good head of blond hair.

“No, it’s very good. Your use of colour is... bold.”

“That’s because I can only see the colours,” she said. “Do you think the Impressionists were short-sighted?”

Benedict breathed a sigh of relief; no danger of her seeing the sunbathers!

“I wonder if you could help me,” he said. “I’m looking for an Englishman, Lancelyn Grey. Is that his villa?”

“Oh, I’m staying with Lancelyn!” she exclaimed. She pointed at the sunbathers. “Yes, you found us.”

“Good God,” he said.

“What’s wrong?” She laughed. “Oh, the sun-worshippers. Were you embarrassed? You shouldn’t be; it’s unhealthy to keep the body covered up, don’t you think?”

All at once he saw this supposedly innocent creature in a different light.

“Well - yes I’m sure, but -”

“Come on, I’ll take you down, Mr -”

“Grey. Benedict. I’m -”

“Oh, you’re his brother!” she said, thrilled. “I’m Holly Marshall. Oh, he will be pleased you came.”

She slid her hand through his arm and her scent flowed around him, like rain-soaked flowers. Ben was in love.

No ring on her finger; but what was she to his brother?

By the time they reached the villa, the sunbathers had vanished. He waited on a terrace in the deep green shadow of oleanders while she went inside, returning a few moments later to say, “That’s a nuisance. Lancelyn and the others have gone into the town; we just missed them. He’s left me some work. Do you mind waiting?”

“Of course not.”

“Sit down, I’ll bring some lemonade.”

“You know I - I don’t know Lancelyn at all. I haven’t seen him for twenty years.”

She blinked. “I know. He told me.”

He sat in a fretwork chair and watched Holly, at a table on the terrace, copying a sheaf of notes into a book. Her sunhat made a big round shadow on the table. After a while she looked up, and he saw that her eyes were red.

“Anything wrong, Miss Marshall?”

She sighed, stuck her pen into an ink bottle, and rubbed her eyelids. “Eye strain,” she said. “I have to copy these notes for Lancelyn, and I can’t read his writing. It’s giving me such a headache.”

“Why don’t you wear spectacles?”

“They don’t help much. I was born with an eye condition that means I have to squint around the blind spots. I’m used to it.”

“And Lancelyn makes you do this close work?”

“I don’t mind!” she said fiercely. “I’d do anything for him. He’s a wonderful man. You’ll see.”

Ben drew his chair beside hers. “Let me help,” he said, but she pulled the papers away.

“They’re private.”

“I won’t tell.” His smile seemed to melt her resolve.

Warily she pushed the notes towards him. “You won’t understand anyway. From here,” she said, her fingernail indenting the paper.

Benedict read out, “‘Initiate of the first level of I.T. makes r. as per Libris S. 1.1-5. Perambulate deosil. Examiner may determine if state of mind is open to receive secret Names of L.S. 2.1. Knowledge of secret N. direct from Raqia indicates imm. elevation to fifth.’” He stopped. She was right: gobbledegook. “Is that correct?”

“Yes, perfect.” Her face was bright with relief. Huddling over the book, she began to write in a large, clear script. “Do go on. This makes it so much easier.”

They worked with a delicious sense of collusion, their knees touching under the table, while their shadows moved with the circling sun.

When she finished, Ben said, “Excuse me asking, but is this a black-magic ritual of some kind?”

Her face dropped with indignation. “No, nothing of the sort! You really don’t know Lancelyn, do you? The purpose of our Order is to train ourselves spiritually and learn secrets that are revealed only in a higher state of consciousness. It’s absolutely nothing to do with...”

She stopped, staring at a figure in the arched doorway of the villa. He was dressed in loose Indian-style white clothes. The interior looked coldly blue behind him.

“Thank you, Holly,” he said.

She looked like a schoolgirl who’d been caught at some mischief by a teacher. “I was only explaining -”

“It’s all right, my dear.” He stepped onto the terrace and held out his arms. “Benedict.”

This couldn’t be Lancelyn! He wasn’t at all as Ben had imagined, a golden Greek statue come to life. He didn’t even resemble Ben. Instead he was stocky, with big features and coarse skin roasted red by too much sun. He struck Benedict as not merely ugly but gnome-like. Under a mop of dark grey hair, his face was not so much lined as crumpled, the lower half coated with a sparse beard that resembled the hair on a coconut.

Then Ben was imprisoned in his embrace. He gasped, stunned and pleased. Lancelyn stood back and studied him.

“Benedict,” he said again. “You are so much more handsome than your photographs.”

“You never sent any,” Ben said, laughing now. “You told me nothing.”

“Well, now you know why mummy and daddy threw me out. They thought I was a Satanist.”

“Are you?”

Lancelyn laughed. “They think anything outside their narrow brand of Christianity is Satanism.”

Ben looked down. “Mother said if I came to you, I needn’t bother going home again.”

“Whatever do you mean?” When he smiled, his eyes became slits that gleamed with mischief. “You
are
home.”

And Ben, despite his initial shock, felt excitement swell inside him. “Your letters saved my life.”

“Me - not God?” said Lancelyn. “Well, Ben, what do you believe in?”

“Nothing. After the War, nothing.”

“We’ll see about that. Will you come to our Temple meeting tonight? You’ll find us strange, but bear with us. We don’t bite.”

Benedict, although cautious, was ripe to become involved. With no sense of purpose, anyone who put a parental arm around him, especially if that person was
Lancelyn
, could ensnare his mind. More than that, his afternoon with Holly had induced a sense of otherness; he felt the world turning transparent, with shadow-figures moving in a dark landscape...

The first Temple meeting changed his life forever. It was alarming, ridiculous, inspiring, sinister. Embarrassing, at first, to see adults dressed up in robes, calling each other by made-up titles. In a cool windowless room, Lancelyn’s temple had grey walls, white candles, enigmatic sigils drawn on the floor, a plain wooden altar; and clouds of incense in the air, richly intoxicating.

“The purpose of this meeting,” said Lancelyn, “is to make our brother Benedict a probationer in the Order of the Neophytes of Meter Theon.”

Benedict felt horribly self-conscious. Seven men, five women, all apparently well educated and bright, taking this so seriously. Lancelyn led them in a clockwise walk around the temple as they chanted set responses to his words. He called on obscure spirits to lend power. The chanting grew louder; the walk became a dervish dance.

Dizziness, incense, too little oxygen. Suddenly, Ben no longer found the ritual foolish, but hypnotic and liberating. They laughed as they whirled; the power they summoned became real, and it was the force of their own will. Ben felt it like heavy static, a cone of glowing light. Lancelyn’s voice was deep and resonant; easy to believe he commanded demons and angels. He was a true priest, one who shouldered all burdens and gave all the answers.

At the peak of their euphoria, Lancelyn led Benedict to the centre of the circle and brought a figure before him, veiled from head to foot in black.

“She represents the Black Goddess,” said Lancelyn. He drew back the veil. Underneath was a hideous mask that made Ben jump: a pallid, fanged crone. “Beware of the dangers before us! To unveil her brings wisdom - but only to the pure and strong. To the weak and corrupt she brings death!”

The veil fell to the deafening crash of a cymbal. Ben was made to lie face-down on the floor as he took a formidable oath of secrecy. Lancelyn’s voice boomed, “We welcome this initiate to the path of Wisdom, she whom the ancients name Sophia.”

Benedict opened his eyes, and saw the vision he’d had in the trenches; a glorious and terrifying skyscape. Ecstasy coursed through him. He knew, at last, that he belonged.

Afterwards, he told Lancelyn what he had seen. “Was it an hallucination?”

“My God, no.” Lancelyn seemed delighted. “You saw the astral realm! You are like me. We share the same gifts! Father couldn’t keep us apart. Conventional religion strangled me. Couldn’t be doing with it. I studied other beliefs, joined various occult groups, but in the end the only way was to seek my
own
truth. Meanwhile, you’ve achieved a depth of vision that takes most initiates years of work. But understand: if you want to continue, the path will not be easy. There’s a lot to learn.”

“I’m willing to try,” Ben said vehemently. “I’ll do whatever it takes. But you must explain where this is leading.”

“I would love to, if I could. However, I don’t know - yet. The point is to search.
Meter Theon
means Mother of the Gods; the Greek title for Cybele, the Black Goddess. I see her as a rounded black stone, enclosed and secret as an egg. Her darkness does not represent evil but the quality of being
hidden
, obscure. Our task is to unveil her. When we do we will find Sophia, Wisdom herself. The path is not easy, because Meter Theon is a harsh and demanding deity - and how can we know what Wisdom will teach us until we find her? But when we do, she will rebirth us as gods.

BOOK: A Dance in Blood Velvet
2.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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