The town of Unity sits perched on the edge of a yawning ravine where, long ago, a charisma of angels provided spiritual succour to a fledgeling human race. Then mankind was granted the gift of free will and had to find its own way, albeit with the guidance of the angels. The people’s first conscious act was to make an exodus from Unity. They built a rope bridge across the ravine and founded the town of Topeth. For a time, the union between the people of Topeth and the angels of Unity was one of mutual benefit. After that early spring advance, there had been a torrid decline in which mankind’s development resembled a crumpled, fading autumnal leaf.
Following the promptings of an inner voice, Tula, a young woman from the city, trudges into Topeth. Her quest is to abide with the angels and thereby discover the right and proper exercise of free will. To do that, she has to cross the bridge – and overcome her vertigo. Topeth is in upheaval; the townsfolk blame the death of a child on dust from the nearby copper mines. The priests have convinced them that a horde of devils have thrown the angels out of Unity and now occupy the bridge, possessing anyone who trespasses on it. Then there’s the heinous Temple of Moloch!
The Abdication is the story of Tula’s endeavour to step upon the path of a destiny far greater than she could ever have imagined.
7. Hidden Paths
Tula headed for the market and trudged up the snake path into the main square. The stalls were arranged in neat lines like soldiers on parade. All signs of the riot from the day before were long gone. People swarmed up from the bridge to meet old friends and feast on the rich sights and aromas of a traditional Topeth market. The square was bustling with shoppers young and old, men and women, miners and guards.
Amidst the melee of people and cattle, Tula enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the colourful stallholders. She breathed in the animated and sometimes heated bartering between them and the townsfolk, as though it was a draught of fresh mountain air.
She was excited to find the stall of a man selling all the paraphernalia of domestic lighting, including candles, wicks, lanterns, clay lamps and olive oil. He even had a famous seven-lamp, a brass menorah with its six tributary branches emerging from the main stem.
As she passed by, she glanced into a corner and noticed her new friend, Musa, standing with his back to her. He was next to a flower stall and was either talking or listening to another trader, she could not tell which it was. Tula wandered over to him, only to discover that he was there with the Commander who was conducting some serious business with a cattle trader.
Musa greeted her with a broad smile. Then, just as the flower stallholder was dealing with a customer, Musa reached over and snapped off the stem of a yellow rose. He presented it to her and blew her a kiss at the same time. To hide the blush, she turned away.
The Commander was saying, “How much, Saul? That’s too much. Far too much. It’s nearly twice what I paid last year.”
Saul the cattle trader was dressed in little more than a large brown hessian sack. The rough style of his attire seemed well-matched to his mode of expression because he replied, “Dah! Not my fault.” He added a solemn and convincing shake of his head. “Life’s tougher than an old bull’s hide. It’s not too much, I can tell you. I mean, what with the taxes and all that. They want shekels for atonement, shekels for the temple, shekels for—”
“Yes, Saul, I know all about the shekels,” Geb interrupted. “But there’s a war on in the plains and everyone has to pay the levy, including me. Please allow me to take a closer look at what you’re offering me.” He bent down on his haunches to examine a large, gentle heifer with a smooth brownish-red coat. The beast could have been mistaken for a statue if it had not been for its tail, which was swishing this way and that to keep away a swarm of irritating flies.
“Well, she looks in good shape,” Geb said, walking around the heifer.
“And so she should do. I tended to her myself, like, I was knowing you’d be wanting her for… the proper ritual.”
“And she’s fit?” Geb was asking. “If the priest refuses her, they will ridicule me. I’d have nowhere to hide my shame. I can’t afford that to happen. My situation here’s bad enough as it is.”
“Oh, she’s fit and ready. Never pregnant, never milked and never yoked. Them’s the three rules. That’s gotta keep the priests happy enough. That’s what you gotta pay all them shekels for. You takin’ her or what?”
“Yes, I’ll take her,” Geb said, handing over a pouch of coins.
“I’ll leave her at the temple and ’cos it’s you, there’ll be no extra charge for that. Always a pleasure to do business with the likes of you. Until next year,” Saul said, counting the shekels with the practised manner of a banker.
Geb set off through the market, Musa and Tula a little distance behind him.
“What’s all this about, Musa?” Tula asked him in a whisper. “What’s he buying a heifer for? And what’s the ritual?”
“You’ll find out soon enough, Miss,” Musa said. “The Commander, he don’t like to talk about it much. In two days, on Midsummers’ Day, there’ll be a special festival. The heifer’s for that. You’ll see it then. But now, I’m on duty. Gotta keep up with the Commander.”
“Thanks for the rose,” she murmured, as he smiled and headed off in pursuit of Geb.
As she watched Musa disappear into the crowds, she felt something warm and moist nuzzle into her palm.
“Oh, Bethany, it’s you. I should have known,” she cried.
“You can have my job,” Zach said with a chuckle. “You seem to have a way with the donkeys, especially our Bethany. Anyone would think she knew you.”
“I don’t know about that, Zach,” she murmured.
“I’m taking these two to the underground cistern. It’s their turn at the water wheel. Want to come along?”
“Yes, why not?” she said.
Zach led her and his donkeys out of the busy market and along a narrow defile until they encountered an open arena. In the middle of it was a huge metal bust, human from the midriff to the neck and with the head of a bull, white horns and a snout as black as the night.
“What on earth is that?”
“Moloch,” Zach grunted. “The bronze Temple of Moloch.”
“What’s it for, this bronze Moloch?” she said, screwing up her eyes. The statue sat on a large plinth. Access was by several steps which led to a large domed opening in the beast’s belly. Above that, in the midriff, were four open rectangular cabinets, one above the other, with the uppermost just below the neck.
“Devilish and malevolent forces are unleashed when we sin. They play havoc, attack our people and our town. Moloch is great, for he keeps them at bay.”
“How does he do that?”
“We make a sacrifice to the god,” Zach said. “According to the severity of our sin, the priests announce a sacrificial offering, which is placed in one of those four cabinets.”
Tula’s head started pounding and her chest felt heavy. She gave a dry, hoarse cough. “So… This temple… No, I can’t stay here. This place is suffocating me. I have to leave.”
Thank you, Justin Newland and Zooloo’s Book Tours
About the author
Justin Newland is an author of historical fantasy and secret history thrillers – that’s history with a supernatural twist. His stories feature known events and real people from history which are re-told and examined through the lens of the supernatural. He gives author talks and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio Bristol’s Thought for the Day. He lives with his partner in plain sight of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, England.
Website : http://www.justinnewland.com/