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The Devil's Woods

By Dace - Dace.mcgraw@gmail.com
published May 26, 2020
11963 words
Summary

Reverend Hacker is hunting a witch in the wilderness of colonial New England; he finds far more than he expects..

Reverend Hacker suppressed a curse as the brambles caught his cassock, pulling and tearing at the scratchy black wool. It took a moment to pick the thorns out of the thicket - far longer than any time he’d saved with this short cut. The little paths through the woods looked far more passable than they were in practice, he’d found. Whatever devils and witches lurked in these outskirts of civilization were jealous of their privacy. He managed to extract himself and find a path around, but his mind lingered on the hostile fauna of the New World. His father and the instructors at the colleges had always said that untamed nature was hateful and strident enemy of a Christened man, but it was another thing entirely to feel the very ground resist him. If not for that desperate need he would never have entered these woods, but his parishioners had brought him all the signs. Milk had curdled in the milching bucket before the noonday sun, candles had burned in eldritch colors at the name of saints, and a lamb had been born early and with too many legs and two heads. There was a witch about, and it was his charge to protect the spiritual health of his community.

The good Rev. James Hacker was not a natural witch-hunter. One studied intensively for years to become a minister, and the skills of tracking in the wild and other, more unsavory practices necessary to divine witches from mere heretics or sinners were not taught in reputable institutions. But the good Reverend had known that when he had been called to the Americas; he had read the medieval texts on witchcraft and exorcism, even tainted by Papistry and Catholicism as they were. Unlike the clean lines of Aquinas and Calvin their logics and theology meandered and did not impress themselves upon him; after lurid curiosity had been sated he had packed them away with no further intent to revisit them. Now those books and the Good Book took much of the space in his modest pack, as did the ingredients they mandated for exorcism and confession of a witch. The brambles seemed to especially hate the pack; either the tanned leather of its exterior offended nature’s spirits, or the contents offended the ensorcelled tangle.

Rev. James managed to break onto a tiny track - a deer trail, perhaps - at long last. The path seemed well-travelled, clear of the hateful brambles and bushes. After a time it almost seemed to open up into the wider canopy, with freedom to move without constant assault at his boots and shoulder, though the clean light of the sun never seemed to fully reach the ground. He paused a moment to pray over what he presumed to be his noonday repast - bread gone stale, and a withered apple. The whole forest seemed to be watching him, silent and hostile save for the the odd chirp of a confused bird or breeze through the branches above. He kept searching for signs of a witch, or of any human habitation: carvings in the heartwood of a tree, or the remains of an animal splayed out and left for carrion.

Finally, he saw a strange pattern on a tree ahead, a huge oak secure in a clearing of its own making. As he neared, the pattern resolved itself into sharp, clean lines clearly carved by human hands - there! A sign of a witch, this far from civilization, surely. If he could determine -

A distant snap distracted him, and his foot seemed to slip and fall as he turned to face it, heart racing in his breast. His stumble became a fall as some strange motive force grabbed his ankle and threw it to the sky, pulling him up in suspension and yanking the pack from his back. The force was a rope, taut now with his own weight and impossible to reach, his loose cassock hanging down and exposing his thin trousers. This must be a trap, of some sort, for man or for beast he wasn’t sure. He reached for his knife but - it was below, in his pack, and well out of reach as he was now suspended a man’s height in the air. Twisting and reaching above to slip the knot strained muscles that burned from his long travel, he could bend and only reach the very tops of his boots before the effort overwhelmed him. After long, deep breaths to counter the swinging motion and whirling vision of suspension he began to call out for help, his voice carrying in the still forest air without answer. Soon, the air seemed to dim, and it seemed harder to draw breath until he slipped into the darkening embrace of the forest.

When he woke, it was to the sound of a cackling fire, well-banked in a fieldstone fireplace and harboring a humble iron pot. He tried to rise but found his foot bound to the low platform of the bed by cloth, and unresponsive to his demands. The cloth drifted into focus as bandages wrapped around his swollen ankle, and as he touched his head it became clear his head was tightly bound as well. He called out, but noone answered for a moment, and he sat, fearful in the quiet and dim flickering light of the fire.

He wasn’t sure when he drifted off, but when he woke again there was a man clad in buckskin and fur across from the fire on a modest wooden stool, tending to the fire and its iron companion. The other man - he must be a trapper, James realized, turned after a moment and saw he was observed.

“Ah, you’re awake Reverend. I’m sorry for the confusion.” The trapper moved over and brought him a small cup of carved horn; James drank the cool water down. It was oddly sweet and clear, as if drawn from a spring. After watching him finish the water, the trapper stepped out of the Reverend’s field of vision and returned a moment later with more water. Soon, the invalid was sated and managed to pull himself upright on the bed, resting against the log wall.

“I’m James. Reverend James Hacker. Where are we?” He managed to ask between the final gulps of water. How had he become so thirsty?

“Charles Aldbridge. My apologies for the accommodations; I’m not much used to proper company. I’m also quite apologetic about the snare that caught you; I’ve been tracking a wolf and set it to see if I could catch the bastard.” The trapper set the cup aside and spooned something out of the pot and into a wooden bowl. It was quite obviously hand-turned, and with some craftsmanship, from the local wood. James didn’t care once the bowl reached him, as the stew inside made him suddenly quite ravenous.

"How long was I … " He was interrupted by the arrival of a spoon, which somehow compelled him to eat as if he’d been on the edge of starvation. The spoon was too shallow to take more than a tiny sip with each bite; it began to frustrate him.

“Slow there, Rev. You shouldn’t eat too fast; it’s not good after a head wound. You couldn’t have been up there more than a day, I found you in the morning check of the traps and you weren’t there the day before. You knocked your head pretty well when I let you off the snare, you’ve been asleep two days more.” The bowl was suddenly empty, and James felt the overwhelming resentment of the absence of the tender, savory stew it had held. Somehow Charles anticipated him, and the bowl was removed and the horn cup returned.

“Thank you, for caring for me. I will need to leave, return to my parish - they will fear for me, having been gone so long.” James managed to resist the urge to consume the cup entire the moment it came to his hand, taking even, shaking gulps instead. His stomach finally gurgled something like contentment, warmth spreading from his belly to his limbs.

“Rest easy, Rev. I told a passing trapper - friend of mine - about you, and he’ll pass word you’re laid up. You can’t move for a time - the leg might go septic and head wounds are always a bit difficult.” The trapper turned back towards some of his other tasks, sharpening a gleaming, curved knife. “Never fear, I’ll change your bandages and boil them besides; you’re in good hands.”

“If you do not mind my curiosity … why are you out here?” The Reverend asked after a moment of cackling silence. The trapper seemed to weigh his answer.

“I don’t much mind living alone, and trapping’s a good trade up here in the woods. People will pay for a few simple pelts, and I can eat off the land well enough. Built this cabin with my own hands and a little help.” The Reverend could see that was supposed to end the conversation, but he felt compelled to ask:

“What about family? Surely, the injunction to be fruitful and multiply? This is no place to keep a woman.” The trapper chuckled, taking his eyes off the knife and looking back to the Reverend.

“No, I guess not. Can’t have everything, I suppose. Not likely to get wed anyway, at my age.” The man gestured to himself. Charles wasn’t too old, the Reverend allowed himself; certainly not thirty. He himself was only twenty and five, and at that somewhat old to be unwed. When he returned he would have to speak to the headman about any likely and unpromised women who might suit the man. It was the least he could do, for someone who had helped him in such a Christian fashion. The evening passed slowly and quietly between them until the trapper announced it was time to change his bandages.

“Here. I’ve been soaking the last set in a tincture to keep off any infections while the circulation returns. It will feel strange for a moment.” Charles was unwinding the bandages around James’ stiffened leg, slowly revealing a splint made of sticks and bound cloth. Each layer peeled away made James more aware of his nakedness; pale flesh that had obviously been scrubbed clean at one point. The last bandages revealed an ugly purple mark along his ankle, and too-pale flesh beyond on his foot. “If not for your boot, it probably would have pulled through to the bone. I wasn’t going to be terribly kind to the wolf, ashamed to say.”

“Fair enough due to a creature of Satan. I am fortunate you found me so soon. I will keep the foot?” The Reverend tried to strain the concern out of his voice. The wound unnerved him; he had seen cripples before, of course, but had no interest in joining their ranks if the Good Lord had another path for him. Charles seemed to flick his eyes up at the question, assessing his charge.

“Shouldn’t be a problem. Tomorrow perhaps we can walk you on it a little. For now we don’t have to keep it up. The tendon is healing well enough, it seems.” Reached into a small bucket - remarkable cooperage, for a remote hut, James thought - and removed a length of bandage dripping with a pale green color. The smell wafted to him immediately, an eye-watering alcoholic odor. A few bits of colorful plant matter seemed to drop off as Charles wrung out the effluvia, leaving only a damp rag that he smoothly and easily began winding around James’ foot.

“Pfaugh! Surely, you’re not using the devil’s libations to heal my foot?” The trapper seemed to grin as he worked, ignoring him. After a moment James consoled himself that using the alcohol in medicine must surely be a better cause than drunkenness and revelry, but he still had to fight the urge to squirm as successive layers of cloth pressed the cool compress along his flesh. After a moment it warmed, or his leg numbed - he was not sure. The split was quite diligently reapplied and Charles set the leg aside. For a moment he seemed to consider saying something, then broke their silence.

“It’s healing up just fine. Sleep well, Reverend. I’ll see you in the morning.” Charles stood, banked the fire and fed it another healthy log, then maneuvered the pot to a point where it would not boil over in the night. A few other chores seemed to have him drifting around the cabin like a spectre as the reverend slid in to sleep.

The next morning James had to awkwardly ask after his prayer book while Charles unwound the bandages. He had not seen his pack since he awoke, and while he knew a great many verses by heart his convalescence revealed a startling inability to bring an appropriate one to mind. Charles took the request in stride, and offered a gracious apology for not finding and returning it sooner - it had apparently been left at the site of his injury, and had escaped notice in the rush to secure the Reverend’s own health.

Before leaving to check his traps and secure the pack, Charles maneuvered his charge to a modest seat on the stoop outside, citing the health benefits of fresh air. The limping, shameful exercise of lifting him from the bed and supporting him to the exterior revealed the cabin to be quite spacious; the small nook with the bed and the fireplace being quite misleading. From what he saw, the rest of the space held a few traps, tools to repair and maintain them, and various constructions of wood and metal for tanning and curing furs and meat. There was even, to his surprise, a modest shelf containing a number of books, far more than any he’d seen outside his own collection since coming to the New World, all leather-bound and quite rugged. A small loft above betrayed where Charles had slept the night before.

The porch overlooked the valley, now glorious in autumnal colors. After Charles departed down the trail, he wondered how the trapper would stay through the winter; having borne the harsh snows for the first time himself last year he shuddered at the thought. The coarse wool of his cassock and the rough blanket Charles had left him warded off the chill well enough, but stories of snow as high as houses seemed to loom in his memory. The painful, shambling walk to the outhouse only reassured him that Charles was a remarkably resilient man to brave the wilds for so long, though the small garden he saw as he returned seemed to be thriving despite the late season.

The breezes and winds of the autumn air seemed to make the day move in a languid trance. Perhaps James had slumbered, because it seemed a rather short time before Charles returned, bearing his pack and a small brace of woodland animals on a branch. Charles wordlessly passed the pack on then set about butchering and skinning the animals over a firepit he lit from the hearth inside; James found he could not muster the serenity to read while the kills were methodically stripped of their covering, musculature laid bare. Charles himself had shed most of his clothes but for a brief wrap around his waist, sweat and grime glistening and blending with the gore as he worked. As the pelts separated from flesh he meticulously pinned them to a tanning rack, then the corpse was dangled from another as the blood dripped from it onto the stones.

For whatever reason, the sight did not repulse him. James had never possessed an especially steely disposition, and he’d once fainted as a child after witnessing the charnel house residing behind the butcher’s shop. But the bearded, hairy man here dripping with gore and grime seemed undisturbed by it, and he found an odd, thrilling fascination in the slow drip of blood from the creatures as Charles methodically peeled their layers apart filled him. It was not until Charles returned, naked but for a sheen of slowly drying water, that he realized he’d been utterly captivated. The sight of the other man bare to the sky shocked him from that trance, even in passing - Charles did not pause, but merely ducked inside to collect clothing. He reappeared, apparently unconcerned for his breach of modesty, then amiably went about asking after the morning.

“I’m afraid there’s not much to report. Your homestead here is quite remote, though; did you haul me far from the traps?” James asked. Charles seemed not to mind such questions, or perhaps the reticence he’d displayed the night before had vanished before such fruitful work.

“A mile or so; you are not so heavy that it was a trouble, however. It was lucky on your account; there were no other traps that bore fruit last night. As the season closes some of the animals are more cautious, more sensitive to stray smells like our own.” They chatted amiably for a time until the sun had passed its peak, Charles adjusting the fire, frames, and racks accordingly. The corpses of the skinned animals were cautiously dismembered, certain cuts and offal discarded into a bucket - for the garden, Charles explained. The most meaty of the brace - a pair of rabbits - were cooked with onion and potato from the larder inside for their midday meal. Charles changed his bandages again, seeming to add a few dried plants and flowers to the acrid alcohol to renew its potency and again ignoring James’ comment about its use. The process unexpectedly wearied him, and Charles helped him inside to the bed again even though it was barely afternoon.

James seemed to slip in and out of sleep, day inseparable from night in the dim cabin. Once he woke, barely moving, with Charles at the foot of his bed and changing the bandages again without a word. The next time his mind pierced the mists of dreams he could have sworn to have seen the trapper idly leafing through one of the books - one he recognized from his pack, the witch-finder’s manual. The trapper seemed unperturbed by the graphic woodcuts displaying the foul rites he’d come here to stop, eyes coolly surveying the contents like a hunter minding wounded prey. James could not sustain the vision for long and slipped back under the grip of sleep, but the scene chilled him.

When he next woke, it was clear that whatever fever had gripped him had passed. His foot was no longer bound in the splint, but only loosely with cloth - and clean, dry cloth at that, to his relief. He collected himself, suddenly aware that his cassock was missing and that he was dressed only in a loose and long cotton shirt. The cabin’s contents had not changed substantially, but much had moved; the furs had been piled neatly in corners, the larder fuller, and the traps more numerous and tarnished, in various states of repair. A limp brought him to the outhouse and showed him a world with just as much color but subtly lighter foliage than his last convalescence; he had truly been sick for a time. The world seemed loose, slippery to his mind, almost frail; as if rough handling would shatter its edges. He struggled to remember, to fully recall what had happened and why he was here, even as the chill wind seemed to caress his bare skin and seep warmth and meaning away.

James managed to slump into the chair he’d last spend the day in and wrap himself in the blanket. His clothes were nowhere in evidence; Charles must have undressed and tended to him. Charles. That was the name of the trapper. He felt his mind moving through a dull fog, listless and fumbling. He had been bare-chested, well-formed muscles slinking under skin and hair obvious even under a layer of gore and grime. The vision of the man stark naked and glistening returned to him, somehow more real in recollection than it had been in the flesh. The drops of water falling from the other man’s beard seemed to glitter in memory, reflecting a thousand images of the trapper, virile and strong. He must have been lost in reverie, for when Charles returned it took a moment for him to realize the trapper was there in the flesh.

“Charles! Thank God, you are back. I have been so sick, I feel so strange … I don’t understand.” The trapper seemed unconcerned, looming over him in the afternoon light. Somehow, the man’s beard seemed to perfectly shape his jawline, drawing the eye to loose curls of hair and the muscular strains of his neck, flushed with the exertion of his labors and dewed with sweat. James could feel his breath coming in waves, his heart racing in his chest as if chained to a rabid animal.

“James, you’ve had a fever. Some confusion is normal. Here, let me help you inside. You’ll catch a chill.” Charles reached out and helped him up, the heat of his flesh warmer than the afternoon sun and sending a shock through the contact. Standing revealed his immodesty, the blanket sloughing off to reveal his manhood swelling under the thin cloth. Somehow, Charles missed or ignored it, despite the clear tent of his flesh against the cloth. James was wracked with the shame, watching with horror as his own body betrayed him.

"Charles, how long … what is the date? Surely I’ve not been so sick … " Charles put him down on the bed, helping him along with that strong, muscled arm that even now gave off the reek of sweat and labor. Looking up, he locked eyes with the trapper, his mind slowly clearing away. “Where is your catch? You left the traps here.”

“Just after that wolf. It’ll bother me in the winter if I don’t get it now. Don’t worry about me, Reverend. You’ll be on your own hunt soon enough.” Charles wrapped the blanked around him, then retreated to the far wall to fiddly with some twine and wood for one of his snares. Slowly, slowly the Reverend’s mind reached and grasped, the unsettling feeling of missing something rising to the top …

“I didn’t say I was hunting anything.” It slipped past James’ lips before his mind truly caught it; Charles paused and sent him a look.

“Lucky guess. A reverend doesn’t leave his parish alone without a good reason. Surely you were travelling afar for something.” Charles resumed his repairs, but the facade melted from James’ mind.

“No. You read my books, you know why I’m here. Why did you read my books?” James felt a huge, gasping betrayal, a tearing sensation in his chest. Why? How could Charles do this?

“Reverend. You’re working yourself into a fit.” Charles’ voice was was full of sympathy and care, but it seemed to ring hollow. James surged to his feet, unsteady, dropping the blanket.

“No! You’ve … held me here! Why? Has the witch ensorcelled you? Is she here, lurking, and waiting to strike?!” He swung about, trying to take in the whole room at once. In the dim afternoon light, the traps and skins seemed to slither with shadows and menacing curls. The weak ankle gave out, and the world spun and caught - as Charles seized his arms and stopped him from falling. “Charles! We have to find her! You aren’t safe here with a witch in the woods! I can’t believe I didn’t tell you before, you’ve been in danger all this time!”

“Reverend, relax.” The muscled arms wrapped him in warmth, the scent of the man filling his awareness and subsuming him, his breath evening even as his heart raced into arrhythmia. The feeling of the trapper’s breath on his nape calmed him, the sensation of the other mans’ beard on his skin and the sudden awareness of their closeness stirring his groin. “You should have minded the books, of course. They would have warned you that not all witches are women.”

James felt his blood freeze in his veins with shock; his body convulsed. The tearing sensation in his heart, the betrayal, yawned wide and swallowed him whole as he struggled, screaming snatches of gospel as the strong hands of the trapper held him fast. Tears sprang from his eyes, unbidden, and somehow, impossibly, his turgid manhood seemed to resume its unholy ascent to firmness. He managed to twist and clumsily slam his forearm into Charles’ temple, breaking them apart and causing the larger man to stumble. James turned and lunged towards the door, a desperate bid for freedom -

  • and his bad leg gave out, splaying him across the hewn floor. Looking back in horror, he saw the iron grip of Charles’ hand wrapped around his ankle.

“Reverend. That’s no way to treat the man who nursed you back to health. Sure, I trapped you in the first place, but that’s no excuse.” Charles rose, effortlessly flipping the prone minister with a careful twist of the ankle. Pain shot up his leg until he turned, facing the monster emerging from the form of his friend. “Did you ever wonder, why you seemed suddenly so content? Your drive, your zeal somehow distant and unimportant? You were strong, of course, but the poultice did its work. Your Achilles Heel, rendered and bound to your ankle twice daily. You tripped my wards, triggered my traps. You walked right in to my den.”

“Foul creature - spawn of the deceiver - monster!” James was weeping freely, scrabbling to get away, even to crawl on his back, to get his ankle loose. Breathless prayers and injunctions sprang to his lips and died there, twinges of pain rippling from his leg with every attempt at resistance.

“Now, now. No need to be uncivil. Here, I’ll even release your ankle.” Charles knelt, then pressed James’ foot to the wood of the cabin floor. While one hand held him fast, the other traced a circle in the rings of the wood, with a sweet burning smell filling the air in the wake of his fingertip. That concluded, he released the ankle - which jumped into the air two inches and froze, swinging freely but bound quite firmly in space. James could only muster a low moan of terror, his fingernails scraping on the rough wood and straining against the unmovable force that now seized his leg.

“You know, I rather took a liking to you from the first time I saw you.” Charles was stepping around him, unconcerned. The trapper slipped off his shirt and buckskin, leaving only a loose covering over his crotch. Below him James scrabbled to the side, pivoting around the ensorcelled ankle hovering in the air. Charles reached for a candle in an intricately carved horn candlestick; the wick lit at his touch, glowing a lurid red. He kept talking, as if they were around the fire rather than in the middle of a witch’s sabbath. “You radiated confidence, assurance in your place in the universe. I’ve always had a liking for men in uniform, and apparently that extends to men of the cloth as well. Even aside from our natural enmity I might have considered luring you here eventually.”

James let out a low whimper, pushing and straining against the ankle holding him fast to the air. The blood-red candle seemed to pulse slowly in the dimming afternoon light, a foul heartbeat making shadows loom and dance as the little candleholder lifted itself into the air of its own volition. He was so terrified by the sight it distracted him, until the trapper’s rangy form crouched down in the light over his ankle, curls twisted by the light into a thorned crown like a perverse twin of the Savior.

“Of course, you can’t leave like this. I’m sure that we could have come to this place in a more comfortable fashion. In truth, we were well on our way there with your little fever; another day or so and you would have done anything I asked, willingly, worshipfully.” A muscled arm reached out and a calloused hand traced the Reverend’s bare ankle; the light touch sent shocks along his bare legs, every hair on his body seeming to rise like flowers to the sun, reaching for the witch at his feet. James realized he was moaning, somewhere been a fearful keen and a desperate cry of longing; shame warred in his heart with aching, unbearable need for the touch of the other man.

“Please, Charles, just let me go, I’ll never come back I swear to Heaven and all the angels and Jesus Christ, just let me go -” his protests died into more moans as the trapper gently stroked along his calf, tracing the lines of his muscles. Pleasure radiated out from the contact, swells of desire and sensation rocking his body and leaving him collapsed on the hewn wood, his bare buttocks now pressing into the rough floorboards as he thrashed against the feelings rippling through him.

“There, there. That’s better, isn’t it?” James collapsed as the hand was withdrawn, mewling between heaving breaths. The wood felt cool beneath him, the rough texture a rasping counterpoint to the otherworldly sensations wracking his soul. The trapper stood, the eldritch candle drifting about him like a hellish halo. Charles cocked his head, and made a noise of curiosity. “You’ve got more in you than I thought, Reverend. I didn’t expect you to break through the confusion of my spell. You’re still yourself, beneath all the desires and needs of the flesh I’ve unleashed in you. I respect that. Lesser men go mad, become little monkeys driven about by lust. They’ll beg, and do anything just to have me touch them again. I’m glad you’re made of stronger stuff.”

Charles loomed over him, bare-chested, brown ringlets curled around his face and glowing auburn in the light. James’ eyes drifted across the sculpted form before him, drinking in the curled hairs on his chest, the tiny protrusion of the nipples, the curve of the pectoral. He could feel himself entranced by the other man, drinking in the sight of him like a starveling fished out of a shipwreck at sea. The trapper reached down, picking at the long shirt covering him, his last, tattered bulwark of modesty. The touch was deft, feather-light; it still threw his body into contortion, each muscle straining and pulling towards the man above him. Charles twisted the fabric between his fingers, eyeing the desperation James could feel leaking through his mein. In a single, sharp movement the cloth tore all around him, the stitches dissolving and the cloth slipping away from his form as it seized and froze up in sudden pleasure. He could feel himself murmuring mindlessly in the cadence of prayer, words stumbling and sliding around each other like the speech of a drunk.

“Much better.” Charles said, tossing the scrap of cloth into the corner of the hall. The shadows seemed to creep along the walls at his gesture, fumbling and grasping at the discarded shirt like jealous women. He reached for his own drawstring, the knot coming apart in his fingers at the slightest touch. The trousers fell, revealing him in his virile glory, legs wrapped in a brambled lace of chestnut fur that wrapped and nestled itself around the half-limp manhood in the join of his legs. James whimpered, somewhere between disgrace and desperate need. Charles held out a hand without breaking his eyes from the quarry beneath him, and the blood-red candle drifted into his palm contentedly, like a puppy in the hands of its master.

“I’m going to do something to you, James. I assure you it’s far less harmful than you’d think. It’s a gift, really.” They were so close now that as the trapper crouched, the heat of his presence overwhelmed James, the musk of his sweat rolling over him like a wave. Charles reached out, one hand cradling the evil candle that wrapped him in heartbeats of scarlet, the other open, a finger extended towards -

The contact froze his body entire; a fingertip on the barest tip of his manhood flexed every fiber of his body like a string drawing a bow. Charles was murmuring something to him in a reassuring tone, but the words slid past his awareness like the babble of a stream. The entire universe was in the contact of finger tip and prong, revolving slowly as the trapper started to circle the crown of his head, the pale fluid now glistening out in stead pulses timed to the beating heat of the candle above. It seemed an eternity of slow, even circles, dipping under the hood of his foreskin then back across the cleft of the head, each motion stretching his body like a maestro before an orchestra. The contact finally broke, and Charles settled back on one knee, his manhood exposed at rest to the preacher’s view. It was swollen with readiness now, glistening wetly in the light of the candle as the trapper lifted his wetted finger to the light.

The fluid caught the flame, and through some wicked sorcery lifted itself from the digit of the witch and began to float, a clear droplet in suspension. Charles gestured with his freed hand, and a knife drifted to it as if on a silken tie. The knife pointed gently and firmly into the trapper’s own arm, a prick that bled a tiny stream along the paler flesh of the anterior and dribbling above the channels of veins and muscle to well into the horn candleholder. As the blood lapped its carved surface, the light above seemed to pulse faster, now truly matched to the rhythm of a heart. The globule of clear discharge drifted into that light, caught in it, as the blood rose impossibly against the pull of the Earth along the waxen candle. Where they met, they commingled, curdling into waxy rose-colored lumps that drifted through the impossible flame over and over. Charles was murmuring, his eyes intent on the flame, heedless of his own blood dripping through his fingers and onto the floor below. A drop splashed onto James’ skin, seeming to well up and soak through like water on a sponge. The contact was flush with warmth, leaving him dazed.

Above, the waxy substance seemed to glow with heat, passing slowly through the flame, drop after drop of blood joining it until the amorphous blob was about the size of a thumb. Charles idly discarded the knife to drift lazily through the air, indifferent to weight, and gestured in the air around his strange ritual. The flickering orange-red of the wax - their essences commingled with some foul magic, James realized - drifted over to his hand, following it like an obedient hound. The trapper set his candle adrift, sending the shadows scrambling around the room again. The little globule was cradled over his hand like a votive, pulsing with a heartbeat of its own and the uneven glow of its own fire. Lit thus by the strange agency of magic, Charles seemed like some sort of primal god, wreathed in power and sensuality. James drank him in, the line of downy curls from upthrust manhood to the wild russet crown of his head, the finer fur dusting the planes of his muscles like a statue given breath.

James found himself rising to the sight, heedless of the ankle still bound to the air. He wanted to touch, to simply be near the other man, to have his body pressed against the other’s form and feel the weft of that fur against his own skin. They were suddenly only a breath from each other, and Charles was then cupping his head gently, pulling them together into a slow, intimate kiss.

They melted into each other, the pressure of bare skin against each other and the liquid warmth of lips and tongues commingled. James lost himself in lust, the searing sensation of fire wherever Charles touched him. Suddenly, that fire seared itself into him, and he broke free of their kiss as his body recoiled back, struggling against the sudden grip of the trapper above him. The hot brand of some evil fire traveled across his skin, meandering from his shoulder’s blades across his arm as he struggled against the rugged man above him. Glancing at his own flesh he saw the orange-red char migrating its way along his body, flexing and spreading like some creature of the deep as it traveled down his flank, coming to pool and rest on the join of his belly and waist like oil spilled on a skillet. The burning sensation subsided, the waxy substance cooling and flaking away as he whimpered and twitched against the pain, heedless of Charles’ tender touches and ministration.

He didn’t know how long he rested on that bare wooden floor, seizing and shivering from the pain. Charles came and went over him, looming and comforting in equal measure. The tiny mark left behind on his waist seemed to burn with a bone-deep pulse, subsiding in tiny inches as the waxy substance flaked away or burned in to him. At some point, he was alone, unbound, both his feet at rest on the floor. There was no strength to move, wracked by the low, even burn of the mark at his waist. The trapper knocked about his cabin, apparently unconcerned about the naked preacher groaning quietly on his floor. The odd ripple of ecstatic sensation washed over him like a strike of lightning, raising the hair across his body and causing him to moan with pleasure.

In time, it was over. James could groan and roll himself to his knees, crawl. Then, he could stand, carefully, his hand placed between the traps and oddities on the walls of the cabin. Charles watched, impassive. James considered a moment, to … why would he want to leave Charles, anyway?

“You can’t, unless I will it. I felt that - a moment of you, considering how to escape away to the town, flee through the woods. You can’t, at least not like that, and not for that reason.” Charles murmured. James felt strange, quite suddenly aware that he’d wanted to leave but mystified as to why.

"Why would I want to leave you? I … " His mind stumbled again, reaching for something that wasn’t there.

“The geas fades in time. Not much use for a witch to have a thrall that can’t even think straight. We’ve got quite a bit to sort out in the meantime.” Charles offered him a bowl of stew, hewn from the local woods and steaming with rich flavors.

“I don’t understand …” James stumbled over to him. The stool - really just a log, rough-hewn against his buttocks as he sat - was close to the fire. The side that was closer to Charles felt warmer though, even though it was closer to the open door. The cool air flowing over his nakedness didn’t seem to bother his skin, so long as it streamed over Charles first. His nakedness didn’t bother him - it excited him, his manhood erect and slowly throbbing with his lifeblood. Charles seemed to appreciate it, eyes travelling over his body in slow, admiring arcs.

By the time he had finished the bowl, he’d been overcome by another kind of hunger. His manhood was no longer erect, it was painfully stiff. Charles’ gaze had turned predatory, and his blood was begging for his touch, straining from beneath his skin towards the trapper. The witch held out a hand, cupped gently in a beckoning gesture, and James moved to fill the grasp, his arm sliding along the open hand to let his body follow.

Every point of contact became subtle flames along his tendons, burning him up from the inside. The rough curls of Charles’ chest hair caught in his beard, light tugs of each tangle resisting the inevitable gravitation. The final kiss of his lips to trapper’s rampant prick was a marriage of ecstasy, the slight tang of the taste filling him with contentment. Charles sighed with contentment above, his hands caressing the Reverend’s head, making merely distant the unquenchable need to please the witch. He was lost in contentment, low moans pulling out from the pit of his belly between desperate, heaving breaths. The pastor’s tongue played around every edge of the phallus before him, licking into the folds and curves of the head and suckling at the bulb of the head. A gentle push nestled him deep in the crevice of the witch’s crotch, pressed into the flesh of his legs and breathing in the subtle scents of his master.

A simple tug on the lobe of his ear pulled him away, a low mewl rippling out of his throat as he was denied nirvana. Charles bent over him, their mouths locking in a kiss as the trapper bore him down to the floor. The rough movements of the wiry trapper bore James up into his arms, cupping the Reverend’s taut cheeks and pressing the firmness of their flesh together in an furnace of body’s heat. James was insensate in their kiss, lost in the witch’s embrace as their tongues erased the separation between man and the devil’s kin. He felt Charles’ manhood sliding along the seam of his legs, pressing against him and slick with the clear fluid that still tanged against their tongues. The sudden pressure against his back announced the arrival of the hewn logs of the cabin, impossibly coarse compared to the smooth, entangled firmness of their union. He contorted against his master, the arcing his back to let his prong slide along the strained muscles and fine fur of the witch, his hooded skin rippling and rolling back and spurting his own clear juices across them in little jets of warm, wet rivulets that mingled with the scent of their sweat.

He wasn’t sure when it began, between their moans and grunts, but the moment of entrance was lost in the wet warmth of their sex. James only realized as the witch’s prong rubbed against some unbidden knot inside him, sending a lightning strike of pleasure across his body. They became lost in the connection between them, every movement and touch sending ripples and shocks through their bodies in easy waves or sharp, sudden blasts. James lost himself in the sensations of Charles driving himself in and out of the center of his being, surrendering himself entirely to the trapper’s command. The building pressure across his nerves released in a flood, seed splashing across the curled hairs of the witch’s chest and running and joining in clumps. He felt the pressure building again, and again, and the shuddering climaxes of his master within him, their essences flowing and easing their rut as they collapsed across the cabin, slamming from wall to floor and finally collapsing in a writhing pool on the cot. James’ existence narrowed to the sensation of the warm firmness thrusting and shuddering within him, pressing against the center of his being and withdrawing, each circle driving him between need and satiation.

When next they woke - it was an instantaneous awareness, that Charles was awake and that he thus should be as well - the coverings of the cot had been wrapped around them in a nest. James was wrapped around Charles, nestled into the join of the witch’s arm. Some part of him was aghast, gibbering in horror at the embrace of the Devil’s kin, but it seemed distant, like the town crier among the bustle of the market. Instead the forefront of his mind was contentment, as if wrapped in winter-weight fleece and set aside the hearth. The cabin around them was cool, the advancing winter making itself known through the occasional gust of wind. The chimney still radiated a little warmth, but the dim light of the cabin - and the absence of the cheery fire-crackle - made it clear that the hearth was cold. James felt annoyance at the impending chore of relighting the hearth and tending the fire, a vague, distantly sour note to the perfection surrounding him. Then that sourness faded, drifting away even as the sensation of its departure drew his attention.

“Don’t mind the fire.” Charles’ eyes were locked with his own, and James suddenly felt his presence more keenly than merely the pressure of their skin along each other. The warm, welcome presence in his mind nudged along, soothing rising alarm and drawing him back into torpor. The witch gestured lazily and the strange horn candle of the night before drifted into view, its interior flush with red warmth. James felt his gorge rising in disgust at the obvious display of Charles’ thrall to Satan, then felt that revulsion wash away in another wave of calm comfort. Native instinct nestled him further in the trapper’s chest, breathing deep their comingled scents.

Time seemed to slip and skip, and without Charles ever departing their cocoon of furs and woolen blankets, the cabin was restored to cheery warmth. The furnishings and snares that had been flung about in the throws of their lovemaking were back in their places, and the far side of the cabin was lit with the varied, flickering light of the hearth. James looked up at his master wordlessly.

“A matter of focus. I didn’t want to alarm you further, so you took a moment while I tidied up.” Charles rumbled, the words echoing through the taut muscles of his chest and belly. The witch-candle drifted away, the heartblood beat of its light lost in the flickering light of the fire.

“I … I need to know, Charles. If my parish is in danger. I don’t want - I can’t think of you harming them. It’s impossible, but some part of me has to know.” Each word seemed a tiny piece smoother coming out, but the first felt like speaking a foreign tongue for the first time, thick and strange.

“No harm at all. I live in seclusion for a reason. I even help those lost lambs your God casts out, mind, so yours should be well pleased with my residence here.” Charles seemed miffed at the question, almost indignant. James felt relief warring with terrible horror, pain at the thought that Charles might be angry at him, a gnawing, wrenching strike at the heart of his being. Charles looked down, and his hand stroked the line of his jaw, draining away the fear and anguish as if soothing a child.

“Cast out? What do you mean?” Me murmured, when his mind returned to him some moments later. “All are welcome -”

“- in God’s kingdom, yes. That is the scripture of it, of course. But women of low status or means, of course, or those descendants of indigents. The women with child by the wrong men, or those poor boys who find their hearts stirring for other men. Women who feel themselves drawn to their own, fairer sex, as well, though such things are less clearly drawn than amongst men for whatever reason. A great many of your Yahweh’s children find their God a tad less understanding than the scripture says.” Charles kept an even tone, but between them a flinty anger resonated, rising and falling as Charles’ soothing fingers stroked along his hair.

“I …” James felt the weight of Charles’ attention smother his words before they began. The warmth in his mind spread, tendrils of thought wrapping around his own like a slow tide. His mind slipped, again, for a moment. When he rose again to awareness Charles had abandoned him in their nest. The trapper was nude and unconcerned with the cold, the lines of his form cast into flickering shadow by the fire. Various implements drifted about him in midair, the candle among them. Their conversation slid through his mind, recast with new awareness.

As the witch’s implements danced in the firelight, James felt himself drawn into contemplation of the wretches Charles had told him of, those he had helped. James knew some, his mind now reported, some quite upstanding. The butcher’s wife, her womb caught by a moment of indiscretion with the alderman’s son. The weaver’s daughter, besmitten by the blacksmith’s girl across the way and painfully aware of her unrequited affections. The butcher’s eldest son, his heart unguarded save here, in this room, where he and Charles had lain in lonely communion before his memory and affections were smoothed over and neutered. The abused young woman, whimpering in bruised pain as Charles wound bandage and poultice around her nudity, drawing out the pain of a beating and the flared sickness inflicted by the last man to ride and discard her for a half-hand of coin. The matron, troubled by heavy flows and so many miscarriages, and the maiden, fearful of the pain of the wedding night and the callous disregard of the groom that saw her only as a brood sow. Charles had healed them, helped them, soothed them. He reached out into the distant community down the mountain, tender fingertips soothing away imperfections and righting cruelties.

“I never knew.” James gasped, low. “How could I not have known?”

“It is not entirely your fault, James. Much wisdom is lost to the conformity of dogma.” A tome, its pages lit with careful and colorful diagrams in careful, precise loops and immaculate script, drifted before him. “Some of the things in this cabin were lost to man in the fires of Alexandria or Rome or a hundred other fires since, preserved only by my kind. But first is the knowledge that the powerful abuse their power, and that those in need are the most abused. Man rediscovers it every so often, before it becomes too inconvenient a revelation to sustain.”

"But … how do they know? None knew of your cabin, none warned me. Surely … "

“Most forget, after their needs pass. Only those of truly constant need remember for any serious duration. That poor whore, the one … yes, I gave you her memory. She visits more often than most, and not just for the tinctures that still her womb. She is beautiful, and men pay well to abuse one whose ancestors lived here while theirs rooted in the mud of the Continent. She knows the path, but not what lies at its end, once she departs. Part of the magic of this place I have made for myself.”

“But … the signs? Witch-light, and the warped calf?” James struggled upright, his sides straining with the effort. He found himself unconcerned with his nudity, even though the cool air reminded him of the remnants of their lovemaking crusted on his skin.

“Circumstance, for the latter - sometimes nature’s little gambits end poorly. Low-quality lamp oils and a superstitious mind for the former. Of course, I could do such things and far more, if I willed it, but I’ve no malice towards your flock, any more than you might towards an errant dog that occasionally snaps at your guiding hand. I don’t much mind your visit, of course, and I’ve pondered tricking you into my thrall more than once, but in this instance it wasn’t needed.” Charles gestured at a mortar and pestle drifting around him, the stones grinding something in even, regular motions well outside the reach of the witch’s arms.

“Are … what are you doing? Is it … another spell, a poultice?” James shuddered at the sensation of warring desire and fear within himself at the thought.

“Not at all. Some herbs to add flavor to our broken fast, and some light reading. Our … acquaintance was somewhat draining for me as well. Though it’s been pleasant to resume my normal mode now that there’s no need to keep up appearances for you.” Charles waved the book away, and it sealed and filed itself amongst the others on the other side of the chimney. James stirred and rose on unsteady feet, joining the trapper in the center of the cabin. Charles smiled at him, the warm presence in his mind caressing his thoughts as the preacher nestled himself in the witch’s arms.

“Will I ever … be left unguided, without your lead in my mind?” James murmured, his head laid in the warm crook of Charles’ shoulder.

“Of course. Distance and time will lend you more autonomy, though you may call me up as you will with merely a touch.” Charles’ hand stroked the join of his waist and legs, idly tracing the raised pattern of a new scar there. The touch sharpened the warmth in his mind, defining its edges and letting his awareness dance across it.

“So … I’ll be sent back, to the town?” He felt hope, perhaps, warring with disappointment and the foreshot of pain at the idea of separation.

“As much as I’d prefer to keep you, pet, the disappearance of the good Reverend James Hacker on his well-intentioned witch hunt would only draw attention. Don’t fear, though. At my level of mastery, distance is really just a matter of perspective. I can have you safe in your sacristy in a moment’s notice, or call you from the pulpit at a whim, if I’ve the need. Or if you feel the sudden need to escape a lynch mob hard for a burning, of course. It’s a bit gauche, but most of my kind would not dare to enthrall someone so prominent in the first place.” Charles uncurled from around him, then looked him over. “Before we eat, though, I’ll have us washed. Follow along.”

Idle gestures had his various implements drift away to their assigned places, and Charles strode out into the autumnal chill without concern. The cold seemed to wrap around him unpleasantly as he followed. The trapper’s curly nape and taut buttocks led him to a footbridge behind the outhouse, crossing a tiny creek and up into the ridge backing the cabin. The stone formed natural, slightly uneven steps, with easy grips at hand. It occurred to him that this entire area had been shaped by Charles’ artifice to his needs, the stone and earth turned to his will - as they rose above the little clearing, the smoke of the fire drifted apart in little curls, dispelled by some strange sorcery, and and the unnatural lines of a perfect circle of tall trees, each of a different form, rose from the canopy around them, rising as high as the ridge. Charles led him between a cleft in the rock, just wide enough for two men abreast, and the wind vanished save for a low, gentle current against their chests, warmed and thick with steam.

As they descended the walls turned glassine and began to glow, tiny lights deep in the stone giving glittering light to the tunnel and revealing perfectly formed steps with unnaturally straight hatches along their surface, as if stone-carved by master artisans. It might have been only thirty steps into the dark of the ridge, winding and turning, before they arrived in a chamber that lit with their approach, like a fire catching and leaping from ember to raw wood. Cut quartz in ripples and waves filled with eldricht light in blues and reds, and the steam began to rise from the pool that filled the floor, illuminating it from below. James stared, amazed, as Charles recovered a lump of soap and a stick with badger bristles, and a set of good shears. The witch descended into the pool, a wide bowl of graven wood gravitating out into the water with him bearing their bathing implements.

"How … " James couldn’t properly formulate the question, but Charles seemed to lift it from his mind without trial.

“Much of the stone was here already. The quartz came obediently at my request, and the granite is modestly pliable if one is patient with it. The spring was a little more tempermental, but in time it complied. The heat is a little more difficult, but my magic draws it from the sunlit stones above and stores it in the quartz here until it’s needed. The light is even simpler, the first sort of enchantment one learns as a child afraid of the dark.” Charles beckoned, and James descended into the water with him, the water warming with each step into the depths of the pool. Charles had descended so only his face summited the water, his chest hair adrift in the water and wavering in the subtle current. His eyes were closed, but the warm sensation in the back of James’ mind was alert, aware of his every movement. The bowl drifted over as Charles’ prone form turned slowly in the water until his head nudged against James’ smooth chest.

The reverend grasped the soap automatically, leading it and his hand across the prone witch’s muscles in slow, even passes, lingering only momentarily over the crotch and join of the limbs. He felt amusement through Charles’ presence in his mind, and a casual dismissal even though the witch’s prong rose to his attentions. The suds drifted away in the current, carrying with it the lingering remnants of their intimacy. James took up the shears and trimmed at the witch’s beard, both aware of the chance to stab the devilspawn with the perfectly-sharp blades and the total absence of any desire to harm Charles. The witch’s smile told him more than the warm presence in his mind that Charles had no fears on the matter. When the witch was clean, he stood, gently pressing his thrall back into the water to be cleaned in turn.

Instead of merely passing by his gender, though, Charles paused to fondle and stroke its length. James twitched in the water, aware that he could no more resist than he could drown, so far in the witch’s power. The trapper indulged his curiosity, circling and tracing along the lines of his prong and the bags of his testes. James could feel himself whimpering at the sensations, the blood rushing to his prong and sending it rising through the surface of the water. His hood slowly slid back, a stream of clear fluid following and trickling along its lines into the water.

The lights trickling through the walls seemed to dim, reduced to the twinkle of distant starlight. It called to mind the vast starlit sky on the passage to the Americas, a vast dome of light and color foreign to a boy raised in the din of an English high street. Charles was murmuring something as he stroked across his thrall’s pent flesh, soothing words without real meaning tracing themselves through his awareness as he drifted in ecstasy through the stars. The hands drifted across him, tracing the ring of his rump and sliding in effortlessly, the pain lost in the pleasure of the witch’s mouth on his prong, tongue lapping and dancing across the bulb and throat bobbing up and down. The fingers within him began to circle and press against that mysterious knot within him, releasing him into climax then drawing him back, his seed draining effortlessly into the witch as his body sang out in joy. James could never know if his cries of pleasure and low, mewling moans echoed only in his mind or throughout the infinity around him.

In time, it ended. His body was wrung out, the ache in his muscles surrendering to a pleasant burn. Charles was out of the water, supine on a shelf of stone as he dried. James stumbled out of the water, his body still flush with warmth, and joined him. The witch extended an arm to wrap around him, fingers tracing loops and circles in the reverend’s hair. They lay there, even breaths slowly bringing measure to the breathless, and warmth draining away to the ambient comfort of the underground cave.

“I … is it always like this?” James asked into the expanse of starlight above them. He couldn’t imagine - he could have never conceived.

“No, not always. Though I didn’t need much artifice to please you that way. The stars and suspension in the water was all, the rest was your own mind, entranced by the … novelty.” Charles caught a stray thought as it formed in James’ mind. “Ah, no. No ritual either. Just appreciation of your lithe form, minister. You may not see it, but you’re a rather well-formed man. It’s also a pleasure all its own to render someone so … reserved into a state of disarray.”

James sat, struggling with these thoughts. The idea of fornication, so obviously counter to the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, should have repulsed him. But the image of the witch’s chestnut curls framing his face as he look up his body, James’ prong vanishing into the trimmed frame of the russet beard as his belly tensed and seized with the pressure within him, pulling those enterprising fingers in, deeper and further - he felt entirely at peace. It was right, it was proper.

“Did you make me this way? The butcher’s son …” He trailed off. The memory of Charles and the bulky young man rose to his mind’s eye, the trapper holding the sobbing youth in front of the hearth.

“He was betrothed. A good woman, as it happens. I gave him … succor, I feel. I always try to leave people who come to me in need with some measure of peace. Connor wanted to know what he’d be giving up, and I was lonely, so I obliged. Changing one’s inclinations is not a simple process. The thrall bond -” that warmth pulsed against James’ mind, comforting. “- is more so, though perhaps less emotionally traumatic. Poor Connor’s essential drives will probably not recover, and while he is a dutiful - even exemplary - husband, I know he will never achieve the same level of fulfillment that was available to him in a less cruel version of our world. Nor could I do as I’ve done with you, binding him to me as if we were of one flesh. He had integrity, to not betray his future wife so fully. I am grateful for my part.”

“Your … gifts are so strange to me.” James let it hang in the air, his mind pondering implications.

“I like the sensation of your mind exploring these questions.” Charles interrupted. “I don’t think less of the folk that come to me for help, but it is clear that … well, your mind is more refined, more elegant in its leaps and conclusions. Part of why I preferred enthralling you rather than merely sending you on your way. I also rather enjoy stripping you of those faculties with such ease.”

“The benefits of an education, perhaps. Though I flatter myself with the presumption of some native talent.” James stared out into the stars.

“Don’t mind that, either. Politesse, modesty. I imagine nobody save myself knows the lines under your cossack, do they?” James flushed at the question, but Charles just chuckles in the darkness. “Ah, yes, I chose well.”

“A strange sort of marriage, isn’t it? A witch and a shepherd of God’s flock.” The bitter note strained through to the end, trailing out into the night’s sky.

“No marriage, really. The question of your consent was rather cavalierly ignored. There’s far more to the bond if you want to accept it, of course, but that has to come willingly and I imagine it’s too new and fragile for you to desire it.” Charles hand was now circling the rise of his chest, flicking lightly across the crease of his nipple.

“I think … maybe in time.” James allowed. The warmth in his mind had subsided, withdrawn to a little ember in his awareness. He felt it flicker, Charles’ mind and emotions pressing against him.

“Of course. Now come, it’s time for you to return home.” Charles stood, offering a hand to the preacher, a perfect negative space against the starlight behind him. James followed him back up into the air above, startled by the sudden transition to full daylight. The air seemed bitterly cold against his naked skin, but thankfully the ridge acted as a windbreak and kept the worst of it at bay. His member, strangely, didn’t shrivel in the clime, and at a switchback it was apparent that Charles’ prong was equally unperturbed. After a moment the cold receded from his awareness, no more pressing or offensive than the shadings of grey in the clouds.

The cabin had prepared their repast in the interim; a side of ham turning smoothly in midair over the flames and a loaf of bread, dusted with salt and herbs resting just over the hearth. Charles gestured and a knife drifted over to pare away slices of ham, each slice drifting to land on chunks of bread as he broke them off from the loaf. A stone crock revealed goat’s cheese - a gift from town, he confessed, in modest repayment for his services - that they spread along the bread. They sat on the floor, buttocks bare to the wood but now indifferent to splinters or the coarseness of the grain. Charles explained the little enchantments woven into his home and draped over his snares, the little witch-helpers he’d hidden about the property. There was no guardedness, no guile - it was clear that his solitary life left few to share his secrets.

In time, they were done, and James found himself fiddling with a crust of bread to prolong his stay. But Charles saw through the gambit, and the stiff wools of his cossack draped over a nail called to him. Charles helped him in to it clumsily, unaware of the various ties of the strange garment. They laughed awkwardly, the coltish way of young lovers courting shyly in the market. Though rarely did such young lovers spend their days captive to witchcraft, James mused, unless he had become more distant from childhood than he imagined.

Charles guided him to the edge of his domain, between two great trees he could not identify. Where the preacher was wrapped in the uniform of his profession, the trapper had only a loose wrap, a vague gesture to modesty. They embraced, stroking each other but resisting the lure of further intercourse with strain.

Charles stepped back from the embrace, then gestured, a strange word slipping from his lips with odd resonance and a lurching sensation in his chest. The warmth within his mind seemed to damp down, receding somewhat, and when James opened his eyes he was in a clearing, one he knew. It was not far from the outskirts of town, less than an hour’s walk from his church. He set out, and the forest seemed … tranquil. Brambles cleared from his path, and even rough terrain seemed to steady him as he marched. The town seemed to arrive instantly at his feet, townsfolk calling welcome as he advanced. He passed the trade stalls, nodding to Connor, the butcher’s son, who gave him a strange look as if they were of more than infrequent acquaintance.

The rectory seemed cold to him, unwelcoming. It was not the hostile sensation he expected, no seething rejection of his new allegiance, but merely the absence of comfort. His hearth was cold, and the flint took an aggravating span to catch. The bread and cheese in the pantry was stale, the cheese hardened and a tad moldy. His cossack seemed to catch uncomfortably and scratch against his beard, and the boards of the house seemed too loose and drafty. No cold seemed to really cause him discomfort, but after the comforts of Charles’ lodge the absence of warmth was keen.

Somehow, the wracking sobs helped him to sleep, the low warmth in his mind weak as a candle in a storm.

The next days were a trial. His sermons were simple to write, and righteous to deliver. They were full of vigor, though perhaps less calumny than his parish might have been accustomed to. For whatever reason he felt more comfort in the shanties of the outskirts than the center of town, though the benighted felt no real comfort at his presence. Many were unfamiliar faces, though he recognized the whore that had been so often the subject of Charles’ care. She seemed sad, though it was nowhere on her face. It made James concerned, that perhaps Charles’ witchery had seeped into him through their bond.

Each night, he slept bare instead of in his customary dressing gown. He pleasured himself without concern for his immortal soul, his hands drifting and occasionally tracing the brand on his flank. The warmth in his mind would flare, their awareness reaching each other, the image of Charles rampant in his cabin passing back and rising with his contortions in the rectory.

It was five days before his new lonliness became too much to bear. He was alone in the rectory, stoking the fire before dinner, and Charles’ absence struck keenly in the memory of their simple repasts at the cabin. It wasn’t with conscious intent that he reached into the folds of his cossack, but when he touched the scar along his waist it flared with comforting warmth that spread along his spine. The presence of the witch in his mind grew steadily, flaring back into a bonfire of warmth. He turned, and Charles was before him.

The evening was lost to their reunion, lovemaking and contemplation in unequal measure. Their sex was far from frantic, but it was desperate. The loneliness resonated through their bond, its absence a balm.

“I caught that wolf, you know.” Charles said, in a lull following the climax. They were indifferent to the chill breeze through the clapboards, bodies bare to the advancing winter. James had been surprised that he didn’t need a heavier overcoat when making his rounds in town, and had started to draw strange looks from townsfolk.

“I rather assumed the wolf didn’t exist.” James murmured, wrapping the trapper’s hand in his own over his belly.

“He does, the sneaky old bastard. No pack, as far as I can tell. I decided to let him go, though the prick tried to snap at me once I did.” Charles murmured.

“Feeling a little too much in common with a wolf alone in the wild?” James asked after a moment.

“Maybe. Though I’m rather content with my choices.” Charles whispered, leaning in so his breath flowed in a warm current across the Reverend’s neck.

Charles was gone in the morning, but never far away.

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