An Exchange of Values, Conducted in Good Faith

by David Tallerman

Daniel took the four-by-four as far as it would go, to the point where what had been cracked tarmac and then become dirt track petered out into a sunken footpath between high banks. The wheels were spinning and slipping, and he wondered if he’d be able to reverse out. The main highway seemed very distant, and even that had been only a narrow, single-laned serpent chasing recklessly over the hilltops.

He took his wellingtons from the back seat, swapped his shoes for them, and trudged round to the boot. Drawing out his rucksack, he shrugged his shoulders into the straps with a grunt. Though he’d packed judiciously, it might as well have been full of lead. And the rucksack contained barely a third of the belongings he’d brought. Six months was a long time.

The rest he’d come back for. He merely took the map, in its plastic case, and passed a moment in getting his bearings: from this spot, he was close, but the intervening contour lines bunched worryingly.

Daniel sighed. A good job he’d spent those years as a Scout leader; a good job he was comfortable outdoors, that he was fit and healthy. All reasons they’d chosen him, no doubt. But, an insidious voice proposed, perhaps not the main reasons. His eyes drifted to the sky, which was as solidly grey and sombre as the ceiling of a medieval cathedral. And as much as he tried to assure himself this wasn’t a punishment, he didn’t succeed.

He locked the four-by-four, an act of caution that felt exceedingly pointless, and set off. After a few dozen metres, a stile appeared on his left, and the red line drawn on his map advised him that was the way onward, though what lay beyond was more a streak of dirt slicing the short-cropped grass than any sort of trail. As the contour lines implied, the slope rose steeply; soon he was sweating profusely, despite the drizzle that had begun to fall.

When he cleared the brow of the incline, he assumed he’d see it. How could a building be hidden here, upon so barren a landscape? Yet there were only the folds of the moorland, ragged with grey-green heather, stained with birthmarks of peat, and riven by trickling streams. Nearby, a crowd of black-faced sheep stared back with loathing. When he waved apologetically, they complained among themselves and their glares grew, if anything, more hostile.

He checked the map, though he was confident he’d come the right way. And for an instant, he fought the feeling that this wasn’t just a punishment but also a cruel joke. Could he have offended the bishop so badly? Were innovative ideas and a fresh approach really such heinous crimes? Yet he’d known all along the fine line he trod: the young liberal in an organisation that, no matter its good intentions, remained deeply conservative at heart. For all that he loved that heart, he’d known the only way to protect it was to break it into a new and more resilient shape.

Or so he’d told himself. In darker moments, he’d questioned whether he wasn’t simply trying to reconcile the conflicting parts of his personality. At any rate, he’d never expected his ideas to be met without opposition. But this? This he hadn’t anticipated, even on his most sleepless nights.

The trace of a path here was more fitted for those glowering sheep than for people, but he followed it because that was where the map insisted he go. The rain was getting heavier, penetrating his waterproof jacket at neck and sleeves. He hunched over and trudged, as the drops bounced from the fabric of his second skin.

And suddenly, there it was. He hadn’t predicted the dip; rain had been driving into his eyes, leaving him half blind. Abruptly, the moorland sheered away, to rise once more in the near distance, and at its lowest level was what he briefly misjudged to be a heap of stones, then acknowledged as a building, and then, recognising the cruciform gap above the door, understood at last to be a church.

No, not a church. His church. For the next six months, anyway.

He began the descent. He’d arrived on the steepest edge, and it took all his effort to keep from being sent tumbling by the weight of the backpack. The ground was hollowed like an eggshell cut lengthways, and the church was toward the rear of that oval depression, at its widest point, so that although the bowl was comparatively small, the building still managed to look tiny and isolated.

Of course, it really was tiny by any meaningful comparison. And there were actually three structures, which revealed themselves as his angle of view shifted. The main one, divided into two portions, was a rectangle appended to a blocky square, beneath tiles he took to be sheets of slate. Behind and to the side were outbuildings, the leftmost presumably a store and the other, he decided ruefully, an outside toilet.

There was no lock on the main door. It opened with a despondent creak. The space beyond was sufficient for twelve cramped pews, split six to a side, each long enough for four persons a piece if they didn’t mind a degree of intimacy. That meant his new congregation would number no more than forty-eight.

The key he’d been given opened a second, narrower door at the back, which let onto the living area. One wall was given over to a simple kitchen, with a cooker, fridge, and freezer, and even, to his astonishment, a microwave. A table with a single wooden chair occupied the centre of the room. In a corner, an armchair sat before a television set of the old cathode ray type, with an ancient video player beneath. A number of tatty tapes were piled on shelves, along with paperback books and, bizarrely, sets of chess and scrabble. The bedroom, such as it was, consisted of a sort of mezzanine, a protruding platform tucked into the roof cavity and reached by a ladder.

There was also a window and another door, so that he wouldn’t have to tramp through the nave every time he wanted to go out to the toilet: a minor act of mercy. Less humane were the uninsulated stone walls, which would turn the room into an icebox in winter; even now, in late summer, the foul weather had left the air distinctly cool.

All the same, the place had a certain charm. Daniel slipped off his pack, collapsed into the armchair, and let out the groan he’d been holding for two weeks, ever since the bishop first contacted him with this so-called opportunity. A special mission for a special kind of priest. At the remembered words, he struggled to suppress a chuckle, because now this seemed more than anything funny.

Perhaps he truly was being punished, or hidden away where he could do no harm. Nevertheless, it was funny, this church in the middle of nowhere—and the notion that someone might believe this would break his spirit. Surely the bishop of all people should understand that couldn’t be done, since his spirit didn’t belong to either of them. It was God’s, to reward, to test, to torment, to squeeze into a ball and play tennis with for all Daniel cared. If his ideas might be deemed unconventional on some subjects, on this he was as old-fashioned as Methuselah: he belonged to his maker, body and soul. And if here was where his maker wanted him, he’d make the best of it, come what may.

Daniel dithered over whether to continue familiarising himself with his home-to-be or to return for the rest of his belongings. But when he looked out via the second door, he discovered the shower had become a downpour, and the sky was black in every direction. There was nothing in the four-by-four he couldn’t survive without for a night, so instead he dashed to inspect the larger of the two outbuildings. As he’d surmised, it was a store, primarily for neatly stacked firewood, but it also housed a small petrol generator, which answered one mystery.

Back in the living area, he came upon a folder filled with photocopied sheets and instruction manuals. The uppermost page was a note torn from an A4 file that read simply, Good luck! Beneath were guidelines for keeping the generator fuelled and other matters of essential upkeep. They went into quite alarming amounts of detail, and curiously, that was what made the knowledge he was on his own begin to sink in. Oh, he might hope his parishioners would offer advice and assistance, and there was nothing to stop him driving into the nearest town except the two-hour round trip. Nonetheless, divine presences and antisocial sheep aside, he was altogether by himself.

He’d brought food, but as it happened, there were extraordinary quantities of canned goods in the cupboards. Though it was only mid-afternoon, he made a start on a meal: it seemed a suitable way to break down the barrier of strangeness between him and this tiny cottage in the middle of nowhere. After he’d eaten, he washed his plate and unpacked, considered once more a trek back to the four-by-four, and instead took out his laptop and opened a blank document. Today was Friday. Sunday would be his first sermon. He’d written notes, but none that felt like they’d coalesce into anything of substance. The truth was, he’d been so uncertain of what to expect that his every conception had floundered.

Now, his mind was marginally clearer. He had his hook, anyhow. He would talk about isolation, and about community. What better subject could there be when he was on the verge of inserting himself into these peoples’ lives? He scribbled Acts 2:42-46 and heard the words in his head: And all that believed were together, and had all things common. From there, he could discuss loneliness, and how ultimately none of them were alone, and he could joke about his own circumstances. Yes, he saw the shape of it, and he could pad out that outline over the course of tomorrow.

By that time, the sky was dark outside the single window, and the only light was the orange glow of the single dusty bulb. It was early evening, but he was tired from the long drive and his hike across the moorlands and from the anxieties of the last days, which now seemed equal parts reasonable and absurd.

Daniel hauled his sleeping bag up to the mezzanine, flung it over the mattress there, climbed down to flick the light switch, and navigated back using the torch on his phone. Once in the bag, he listened to the sounds of his new home: the constant low howl of the wind and the patter of rain and the creaking of timbers and the occasional screech of a hunting bird.

He closed his eyes. Six months, he thought, and was surprised by how little alarm he felt.

Sleep found him.


It had rained through the night, and the result was a painfully blue sky, a strong odour of peat on the air, and a thrilling aura of freshness and vitality that he registered in his very blood.

He ate breakfast and set out. Reaching the four-by-four, he reversed down the track, to where the way was sufficiently wide that another vehicle would be able to pass should it need to. He loaded up his rucksack, and, between that and his two hands, managed to carry everything he’d originally left behind. He returned to the church at an amble, pausing to wave at the crowd of sheep as he went by. They weren’t impressed, but he would wear them down. This wasn’t the first time he’d had unwelcoming parishioners.

Back at the church, he spent half an hour unpacking and arranging his belongings. The effect was minimal and imposed no hint of character. Maybe next week he’d drive into town and buy himself a housewarming gift: a potted plant, a calendar, an ornament. Then again, perhaps it was better to concede that he was merely passing through. And mightn’t that be viewed as more reason to give his all? The only place he truly needed to make his presence felt was in the pulpit.

Therefore, he went back out, picked a spot where the night’s rain had dried, and set to work. He’d always felt nearer to God outside than in; even as a child, before he’d found his faith, a cloudless sky had filled him with a profound sense of the numinous. Man was a trivial thing in the end, a fleck in the cosmos—but one beloved above angels.

A nice line. Maybe he could use it; he scrawled it down in case. Probably a bit heavy for introductions, though. If only he had a better idea of his audience. He was conscious that his imaginings were absurd: when he pictured tomorrow, he saw raggedy shepherdesses and red-faced farmers, like some scene from a Constable painting. But then, who would frequent a church all the way out here?

Nobody, he told himself, that’s who.

He strived to assure himself that the Church did not play cruel jokes. If this place remained open, that meant someone, somewhere, relied on it doing so. He read over the notes he’d made the evening before and set to concocting a few jokes that might break the ice. He wouldn’t hide his trepidation or his fanciful imagination. Instead, he’d hold them up for laughter. And once they’d laughed enough, he could work toward more serious points.

Staring upward into the blue arch of the sky, Daniel felt the tininess of his existence, the insignificance of his miniscule life—and that, whatever he was doing here, this was precisely where he was supposed to be.


When he woke the next morning, he realised he hadn’t a clue when the regular service was scheduled for.

He dragged himself from his sleeping bag, stumbled down the ladder, and took up the folder of useful information from where he’d left it on the table. But having flicked through once and then again to be certain, he found no answers. Indeed, there were no references to spiritual matters of any sort: the folder’s contents were resolutely grounded in the mundane.

At quarter to nine, he went through to the church. He considered sitting on one of the pews and continued outside instead. The day was dry, though the skies weren’t so clear as yesterday’s. Due to the church’s location, he wouldn’t be able to see anyone approaching until they broke the brow of the ridge. He could only stare, cupping his eyes with a hand.

Nine o’clock came and went. At twenty minutes past, he went inside and made himself a cup of coffee, which he took back outside and sipped. It helped to balance the slight nip in the air but did his nerves no favours. By ten, he was wound tight as a spring. He wished, absurdly, that there was a doorbell. Please ring for sermon. The idea should have been amusing and wasn’t.

By eleven, he was pacing back and forth. Ten minutes later, he decided to make a recce to the top of the slope, though he felt faintly absurd trudging through the heather in his choir dress. Upon the higher ground, he could see no one and nothing, except for the ever-present sheep, who hardly acknowledged him.

He went back down to the church. Afternoon services weren’t unknown, of course, and who could say what unorthodox rules a community such as this might have? It was his job to accommodate them and not the other way around. Perhaps he ought to have spent a portion of yesterday canvassing his neighbours, supposing he could find them. He determined he’d do so tomorrow.

Nevertheless, planning wasn’t enough to keep away despondency. He milled about. He tried to pray, and the little church felt emptier than at any point since his arrival. He drank too much coffee, and sometimes walked up to the moorland and peered into the distance, not able to resist the hope that a head would bob over the horizon. The day wore on. Evening came.

It struck Daniel that he hadn’t eaten. He wasn’t hungry, but he prepared a simple meal anyway. His desolation had become a sort of numbness, which he insisted to himself would pass. He’d find his courage again on the morrow. He wouldn’t be broken by this, though he might feel broken. He’d rise to the challenge. But not tonight.

He heard a creak of old hinges, a shudder of ancient wood. The church door.

Anticipation was followed by fear. He was, after all, alone here, far from any aid. Suppressing both reactions, he jolted to his feet and checked that no portion of his dinner had ended up on his cassock. Satisfied, he smoothed the fabric with the flat of his hand and hurried to the intervening door. He drew a deep breath, turned the handle, and stepped through.

Into darkness. The church was unlit and, now that he considered, wasn’t even connected to the electrics and the generator. The only illumination came from behind him, and from the entrance, which he saw as a skewed rectangle barely lighter than the surrounding walls.

The wind, he thought. You left the door unfastened and the wind caught it, that’s all. Yet the day had been heavy and breezeless, and had it not, he’d already noticed this dip had its own ecosystem, one largely immune to the moorland’s wildness.

He heard a fluttering, like the shiver of gauzy fabric. Before it had subsided, he was also reminded of a wasp or some larger insect: a moth, maybe, battering heavy wings upon a lampshade. From the corner of his eye, he caught a last tremor of movement, which subsided into stillness and ambiguity. Was there a shape there, high as his hand, propped on the spine of the third pew? A bird, perhaps? Or a bat—did bats stand upright?

Whatever it was, its gaze was on him.

There was a second, farther back. He marked it as it hopped between spots. They were keeping to the shadows, but now he was overwhelmingly sure there were others as well, a dozen or more. He could feel their presence and was irrationally certain they were allowing him to do so.

The fluttering ceased. In the subsequent quiet, voices whispered. He was aware of a pressure—of expectation, he felt. He sensed indignation and couldn’t quite persuade himself he was imagining it.

He was still holding his sermon, he realised. In the diminished light from the room behind, the hand-written sentences were a cryptic scrawl. But he’d read over it often enough today. The passages were burned into his consciousness. And even as he sought for them, the words came to his tongue.

“Welcome, all of you, to this house of the Lord... a remote outpost in his eternal empire if ever there was one. Today we greet each other as strangers. After today, it’s my hope that you’ll begin to see me as much more than that. For as the good book says...”


He had anticipated lying awake, wrestling with his thoughts until the dawn finally came. But in fact, sleep had overtaken him almost immediately.

Likewise, he’d expected to have dismissed the night’s mysteries as a result of the strain of recent days, his overworked brain rebelling against the abnormality of his circumstances, and instead, he woke with what was perilously close to acceptance. Yes, he’d been visited last night, and his visitors had listened in the darkness and then had left as subtly as they’d arrived. Perhaps he was mad, but if so, his madness had swayed his rational mind. He’d seen what he’d seen and had no impulse to deny it.

Rather, Daniel found himself planning.

His plans were not those of the previous day. They didn’t involve herding up errant parishioners. He understood now that there were no nearby farmers or shepherds waiting for a new priest to occupy an hour or two of their precious Sunday. No, his congregation was far stranger, and therefore so was his duty. He didn’t know precisely what was required of him. He knew only that something was, and that his notions of punishment had been severely awry. There was a function here to be performed, and he’d never for a moment been driven beyond the bounds of the Church.

What he planned, then, was a strategy, built from fundamentals. He could make no assumptions, though he supposed he’d have to begin with a few: that his words could be followed was among them. However, he saw that his greatest crutch in the past had been a bedrock of shared faith and knowledge. He had of course spoken often with those who didn’t share his beliefs, but they didn’t commonly attend a Sunday sermon. So—what had brought his nighttime guests? Was it curiosity? Did he amuse them? Was he nothing more in their eyes than a dancing bear cavorting to a nonsensical tune?

He couldn’t assume. And he had a week in which to make ready.


That evening, after a day that seemed feverish and faintly unreal in retrospect, he wondered suddenly if he should leave a message for his successor—and wondered, too, why no one had before. The answer to both questions was the same: would he have believed, had he not seen for himself? Would a warning have helped? Would sharing his half-formed theories achieve anything except to give the impression a lunatic had lived here?

Yet, looking at the folder, he felt powerfully that he’d been misled by so vast an omission of truth. He might know how to operate the microwave and how to refuel the generator, but he hadn’t the faintest idea what to make of—

There his mind refused to go further. He could accept what he’d seen, but only at a mental remove. He was reminded of a poster he’d had as a boy, an incoherent pattern that, beheld in just the right way, revealed a tenuous image of a dolphin scudding through waves. Lose concentration even slightly and you were back to squinting at a garish blur of colours.

Taking up the folder once more, it occurred to him that perhaps it was similar: stare hard enough for long enough and he might identify hints of this second existence, clues left by men who’d experienced what he had and discovered their own means of dealing with it.

Or perhaps not. Yet its precise and comprehensive collection of mundane details made more sense now. The folder, this room, the copious provisions, the antique video player, the board games that would never be played: they were the plain and sturdy vessel in which he was expected to navigate this terra incognita, and their very banality was a protection.


By the next day, Daniel was calmer.

Returning to his notes, he found them mostly gibberish, a series of questions without a trace of a solution. But there was sufficient to be going on with: in his immediate shock and distraction, he’d at least stumbled upon the core of the problem that lay before him. What remained was five days of hammering that lumpish mass into a functional form.

When he wasn’t writing, he focused on the minutia of living, a preoccupation made easy by the difficulties of his isolation. He’d already resolved that he wouldn’t leave the moors if he could avoid doing so; he would stretch his supplies to their limits. Leaving would risk breaking the mood that held him, as though he’d be stepping through the shimmering edge of a bubble. He didn’t know what would happen then, what would be left when he returned.

His sole regret was that he’d no access to research materials. An internet connection and a day’s searching of obscure websites might have answered half his queries; a decently stocked library would have accomplished the same in rather more time. Without either, he was obliged to rely on guesswork and supposition. And the more he gave in to those, the wilder his speculations became, so that he was constantly having to rein himself in.

The nearer Sunday drew, the harder he fought. It was an ever-increasing challenge to persuade himself he wasn’t delusional. And even if he was wholly sane, how was he to know he’d grasped the situation correctly? Nor was he convinced that the sermon he was preparing could possibly be ready on time. Each paragraph felt like a universe in miniature, concepts nestled inside concepts. In stripping his faith to its first principles, he was flirting with ideas that threatened his perception of everything, with catastrophic blasphemies. It was a struggle even to pray; he couldn’t say what he ought to be asking for.

On Saturday, he made a desperate attempt at compiling his notes into a legible form. It seemed to him that he’d wasted the preceding days in idle speculation. He’d been losing himself in abstracts when what he needed was something concrete and practical. He crossed out words with aggressive strokes, and then sentences and whole paragraphs. He told himself he was a priest, not a philosopher and certainly not a poet.

The sun began to set. The results were no more satisfactory. By the time he got up to turn a light on, he understood that they couldn’t hope to be. He’d been seeking a single right answer rather than having the nerve to admit there wasn’t one. In despair, he polished the remainder, what he hadn’t excised in his anger. He ate a rushed meal, dragged himself up to his bed, and fell into troubled sleep.

He woke late, full of agitation. He had to remind himself he wasn’t expecting any visitors until nightfall. Nevertheless, he pulled on his choir dress and went through to the church. He was struck by its age, which he’d hardly considered before. The timbers were warped and uneven, the stonework crude. He was no expert, but he could believe the place was Norman. Were there any surviving churches that predated the conquest? If so, he was inclined to accept that he stood in one of them. Had people once attended here, in some distant past? Had there been communities nearby? Or had it always been at the service of—

But even after these intervening days, even knowing his encounter might soon reoccur, he wasn’t willing to articulate it. Instead, he sought distractions. He pottered up to the moors and stared into the distance, or at the sky, which was overcast today and spat intermittent rain. He felt full of useless energy, which refused to be exhausted, though at the same time his mind and body both were worn out from the emotional cyclone of the past week.

The sky dimmed. Night fell. Not willing to wait in the church, lest his presence be misinterpreted as some sort of threat, he sat in his armchair with the intervening door open, straining his ears for any noise, unsure if he was more afraid that they would come or that they wouldn’t.

He’d left the electric light off, so that what disturbed him was first the realisation that he was sitting in darkness, and then that he’d noticed the darkness because the faintest glow was issuing from the doorway. The radiance was of a pale green shade, and as he became aware of it, Daniel perceived that hummingbird fluttering he recalled, along with other sounds: the delicate jingle of what might be bells, a creaking as of old leather, the patter of feet.

His heart was racing. He got up, as softly as he was able. The light was adequate to see the doorway by, but not what lay beyond. He felt the overwhelming sense of standing on the verge of a precipice. Whatever he did next, whether he dared enter the church or not, there would be no way back. He took a step, and another. The sounds he’d heard were fading to the barest murmur.

In the doorway, he hesitated. So did his visitors—and there was a long moment in which he could have sworn the room was empty after all, so still did they hold themselves. But there were the lanterns, no bigger than snow globes and suspended on poles at what he would regard as waist height, and it was impossible to see them and not look for their owners. A shiver went through him as he spied the figures, small as children and undoubtedly not children, not of his kind at all. Their features were broad and bulbous, their manner of dress earthy and strange, and their lanterns contained not candles but luminous clusters of dancing insects.

Daniel advanced unwillingly, as though his responsibilities were an outside force that manipulated him like a marionette. He saw now that his visitors weren’t identical, despite their similar stature. Some were leaner, with more refined features. One had a nose almost the length of its forearm, another ears so jagged that slits had been cut into its peaked cap. And the flying creatures, also, had returned, though they’d already found perches and so were hardest to detect.

The words had dried and shrivelled in his mouth. He needed all his attention to keep hold of his sermon between sweat-slicked fingers. What carried him to the lectern was that same external propulsion as before, and he wondered dimly if this was what it was like to have the divine work through you—or other, less benevolent influences. He cleared his throat, and some of the tiniest visitors stirred anxiously. He compelled himself to breath, and by degrees the sensation of his body being not his own began to pass.

You have a job to do, he told himself. And yes, he’d been sent here for a purpose—for this purpose. The servant did not choose where they served, only how.

“Welcome,” he said, and his voice was firm. “Welcome, one and all.”


Exhausted by tension, weak as a rag doll, he slept soundly that night. It was as if he’d torn loose something vital inside himself and converted it into a tumult of words. He had no idea if they’d been good words, if they’d made the slightest sense, if they’d been the ones he’d intended in the order he’d meant, and still they had cost him dearly.

In the morning, however, he felt rested and well, as after a long fever. He went outside, and the air, moist with the memory of rain, revitalised him further. Inhaling deeply, he looked at the church from the outside, studying its hard lines, marking the points where the ages had left it crooked and strained. He felt at home.

And he had a purpose, even if he didn’t altogether understand it. His role was perhaps impossible and yet utterly straightforward. He was to preach. He had no doubt that his congregation would return in another seven days’ time, and he must be ready, because he was here and there was no one else. His was the voice in the wilderness, his the shepherd’s crook.

Therefore, he had to do better than he ever had before. He’d invariably thought more in terms of vocation than job, but now even that wasn’t sufficient. As he worked, a portion of his mind groped for the correct word, and when it came, he realised it had only eluded him because previous generations had tainted its meaning in his eyes. Nevertheless, there could be no question: what he had here was a mission, and that made him a missionary. He had been sent into a land more profoundly, fundamentally pagan than any he could have imagined, there to spread the light of the Lord.

Or so he tried to assure himself. As his fervour cooled, he was forced to acknowledge that the motives of those above him remained obscure. Maybe they were merely following some decrepit tradition; maybe his predecessors truly hadn’t dared, or been able, to share what they’d encountered.

He had no shortage of maybes. What he required was an absolute, a rock to hang onto. And he already knew what that would be. He’d always loved the act of crafting sermons, that delicate balance of persuasion and artistry and entertainment and scholarship. He’d longed for a perfect audience, one so jaded as to need convincing yet open-minded enough to heed a message delivered with the utmost conviction. Could he have found that here?

Whatever the case, his sermons would be his focus. He had to refine his arguments, his language, his very self; he had to search his own faith, to apprehend clearly what had opened his eyes and how he might convey that to another—to the other. All of this he had to learn if he was to reach his nightly visitors, to keep them, and ultimately, perhaps, to sway them.


Week on week, his congregation expanded.

Were his sermons the reason? He’d have liked to believe so, and couldn’t quite. He had gone back to fundamentals in a way that would have been inconceivable a month ago, turned to arguments ancient as the Church itself. He’d stripped his language to the bones, striving for clarity above all else. He practised his oration constantly, to the bare stone walls and the pale moorland skies. On the more difficult days, he felt like some mad prophet—and wouldn’t madness have been the easiest explanation? But then, faith was never the easy option and wasn’t meant to be. He’d decided his course, and now he pushed away doubts as to his sanity with remarkably little effort.

Other doubts weren’t so readily quashed. His congregation expanded and he didn’t know what brought them. And though there were more each week, the tiny church was never packed. His visitors kept together in huddles, or hid amid the rafters, those that were small and agile enough, and ignored the front pews entirely.

He was unable to judge if he was seeing the same faces; their strangeness defied recognition. Was he getting through to them? Or was he preaching to an ever-shifting audience, each willing to squander a night and no more in satisfying their curiosity? He tried to insist that was what brought them, since curiosity was a gap in which he might insert a wedge through which faith would follow—but as one month vanished into another, he grew less sure.

He couldn’t say what nagged at him, only that something did. He felt he had all the pieces of a question that refused to coalesce. Something about the way his visitors came, the way they watched, the way they listened, the way they trooped out, almost invisible and inaudible, into the night—but what?

By the end of the second month, Daniel was no closer to an answer. Maybe he was no longer seeking one. With so little possibility for variation, he’d become defined by routine. He’d been into the nearby town twice for supplies and found each occasion exhausting and excruciatingly loud. He suspected he was suffering from mild agoraphobia and wondered if that should concern him more than it did.

Mostly, he resented time away from his sermons. When he wasn’t writing them, he was thinking about them, homing in on an ultimate argument he felt certain must be there. Somehow there must be a means to unearth the core of his faith and reproduce it in a new, infectious form, then to deliver it via the mechanism of perfectly chosen words. It had been done before, or else there’d be no Church today.

Was what held him back that the true fire of his craft had been lost over the centuries, by a religion that had won too many victories and grown complacent? Had the earliest fathers fought battles such as this? Had they succeeded? Or might it rather be the case that his fight was a mere sally in a conflict stretching to the dawn of Christianity, and here he was, naïvely envisaging a triumph that had eluded infinitely better men than him?


He felt, that evening, even as the shadows began to lengthen, that something was different. He couldn’t stop fidgeting and starting at half-heard noises. His sermon struck him as deeply unsatisfying, but every time he returned to it, he failed to settle on what precisely needed improvement. The words made his eyes ache, his shoulders tense. They were all so insufficient—and meanwhile, the noises that weren’t noises continued, out there in the gathering night.

Then he heard a definite sound: the patter of a drum beat, a lonesome, remote pit-pat, pit-pat out of rhythm with his own thundering heart. A pipe joined it, liquid and mournful, and the two kept time together, struggling for dominance—growing louder. Further instruments accompanied them, some that he recognised and some that he didn’t. The result could not be called music, yet he had no other description.

He went to the door. Above the hilltop, a silvery light flickered like cold fire, quite separate from the moon, which hung to his left. He thought he detected the tread of feet and hoofs, and imagined horses, before recalling that the notion of hoofed visitors wasn’t so outlandish. A shiver descended his spine, and he retreated inside.

First to enter were the congregation with which he’d become familiar: furtive, flitting creatures that propped themselves on the backs of pews or skittered to the rafters and little hominids with coarse features and leathered skin who scowled with beady eyes down the lengths of bulbous noses.

But this night, others followed. Still they kept to the darkness, and yet they strode in purposefully—or, yes, clattered on hoofs and the crooked legs of stags. Some even had antlers sprouting from their heads and had to turn to navigate the doorway. A few were dressed in finery and might have been human, until a glimpse of their features made clear they weren’t. And those moved with a certain unmistakeable ceremoniousness, which he could make no sense of—not until the final two entered.

There was a hush, a pause, an impression of many breaths being held. A gust stirred leaves that danced across the opening. Then the pair were in the gap and stepping within, and Daniel’s own breath evaporated in his throat and refused to return.

They were a man and a woman. Or rather, he corrected, they had aspects that made them appear male and female. They were pale, ebon-haired, and extraordinarily lovely, every feature perfect, though by any human definition, their pointedness, their sharpness, their hints of wantonness and savagery, should have been strange if not actively horrifying. He calculated by their relation to the doorframe that they were both shorter than him, the male by a foot or so and the female by more. Yet his mind rejected that evidence, insisting they were exceptionally tall; it seemed likelier, in fact, that his eyes were misleading him.

He wanted to shrink from them. Though they’d done nothing, said nothing, he felt he was committing an act of outrageous arrogance to stand above them, indulging the pretence that this place belonged more to him than them. Of course it was theirs, how could it not be? And so were the gathered throng, who’d all gone absolutely still since the moment of their arrival. So were these moors, as they’d been from time immemorial, time before the very concept of time had meaning. So were these lands, by rights ancienter than any king could claim, and—

Daniel stirred with a shudder. He had almost thought, So am I. Now, that blasphemy made him sick inside. He wrenched his gaze downward, to the papers in his hands. The words swam and blurred. He tried to clear his throat, and what came out was a ghastly, choking gasp that seemed to him like an apology. He knew he couldn’t possibly read what he’d written and thus worsen the insult he’d given simply by being here.

And he knew too that he had to speak, or everything he was and valued would be gone, and though he might breathe and move for another fifty years, the core of him would be dead and lost. He knew that what he’d perceived as his trial had been nothing, a petty preamble to the here and now. However he had failed or succeeded was irrelevant in the face of whether he failed or succeeded in the next minute. And he had to succeed, for much more than himself.

But first, he had to speak.

Daniel cleared his throat again, an awkward hem. He focused all his will on making the sentences before him stop swimming, and to his desperate relief, they did. The silence was crushing in its weight. He spoke solely to fill it, and only when a second had passed did he realise he’d read the opening line. Then he had no choice except to continue. It felt like falling, and he surrendered to that sensation, in the absence of anything else. He fell and fell, dragged down by the weight of his words.

Until he finished. That took him by surprise. His head jolted up, of its own accord. He saw how his visitors stood for an instant more, their reaction merely further, perfect stillness.

Then they began to depart.

The man and woman, of course, were first. The rest went after them in dribs and drabs, and Daniel knew, somehow, that none of them would return. This had been his chance. They’d shown him courtesy; they had tolerated his alien presence, listened to his alien ideas, waited in this alien place while he tried to convince them of truths that were as inimical to them as their existence was to him, and they would not do so again.

In a minute, the last of them was gone. All that remained was the skirling of the pipes, already growing faint, barely distinguishable from the howl of the wind.

He had no desire to follow, and nonetheless he did.

No, that wasn’t true. The part of him he viewed as himself, the man of God, the man of reason, wished for nothing more than to slam the door and barricade it and go to whatever limited safety his bed offered, to cower until the dawn. But his body ached to pursue, and his heart throbbed, and an aspect he’d have liked to deny was flooded with longing such as he’d never known.

He wanted answers. He wanted some justification for the last weeks. He wanted to discover where that dwindling flute was leading, what place could give birth to music so sweetly sad. But most of all, he wanted to see those two, to be where they were, to taste the freedom that hung in their wake like smoke.

He scrambled to the rim of the dip, dirtying his clothes and clogging his shoes with mud and not caring. The pipes were clearer there, and a faint glow hung far off in the air. It was easy to keep to their trail, and easy to stay at what felt a respectful distance. They moved as flickering silhouettes across the moorland. The note of the pipes had changed, had lost its melancholy, and the drums had started up again, with a rhythm his feet had to fight to resist; the smallest lapse in concentration made a jig of his steps.

He forced himself to slow. Their destination was in sight: the forerunners, led by the man and woman, were reaching it even now. There was a hill, its contours too regular to be wholly natural, and on its summit bonfires burned, and around those fires figures danced with uninhibited joy. No human bodies could have performed such gyrations, because no human could surrender to anything so utterly. They showed no heed to the new arrivals, who were steadily incorporated into their number, all except the man and woman, who kept apart and moved at their own pace, like swimmers in deep water.

Daniel was closer than he recalled being. He had no memory of how he’d come to be standing on the edge of the hill. The music was frantic. It plucked at his limbs and raced through his veins. There was singing, many voices rising together, and it seemed to him that each pursued their own subtly different tune, that they were incapable of doing otherwise. If he should sing to that music, his tune would also be different, something uniquely his that had been growing in him, eager for this moment.

He couldn’t tear his eyes from the man and the woman. Every motion of their courtly waltz through the chaos around them was a beckoning, an offer of what he’d denied himself for a lifetime. Tears stung his cheeks. A sob swelled in his chest. If he were only to let go, he would be free, finally and completely free.

And he would be lost.

He turned and ran.


They came for him on the Thursday of the next week: three officials of the Church, none of whom he recognised. One was obviously senior, both in years and rank, and the other two had the air of bodyguards, though both wore clerical collars. They appeared uneasy, and he felt they’d been here before, felt too that they’d be glad to leave.

The older man, who didn’t give his name, was kindly in a somewhat gruff fashion. He spoke as an officer might to a young soldier after his first night on guard duty. “Still in one piece, eh? Excellent. You’ll be glad to hear you’re relieved. Sorry we couldn’t give you more warning. Why don’t you make a start on getting packed up? We’ll wait.”

Daniel did as he was told. He moved about the room mechanically, packing his few belongings, mindful of their eyes on him. The process seemed to take a disproportionately long time, though it could only have been minutes. Eventually he said, “I’m ready.”

As he locked up—first the door into the chapel, from the inside, then the smaller door of the cottage, from without—he sought for some emotional reaction. This place had been his for weeks, the source of experiences he could scarcely have conceived of. Yet he’d developed no attachment, and no connection was broken as he turned his back. His time here was the fading shadow of a dream.

“I suppose you’ll have questions,” the older man said from beside him.

Yes, Daniel had questions. But mostly they weren’t of a sort he expected answers to, and putting them into words would be like trying to nail down smoke. Only one seemed worth the effort of voicing, and then as much because he felt a pressure to respond. “What if I’d succeeded. I mean, what if I’d converted them? Or even just one of them?”

He wasn’t sure his interlocutor would understand or that it was appropriate to broach the subject. But Daniel found he didn’t care. If his query was met with incomprehension, incredulity, or flat-out mockery, it made no difference to him.

Instead, the man smiled solemnly. “Do you think that’s likely?”

He wanted badly to say yes. Then there were the other questions, inevitable in the wake of the first, those he dared not ask. What if I’d failed? What if they’d converted me?

“I don’t know,” Daniel replied, though he did. Though they both did.

They continued in silence. On the road, the three had parked their car ahead of his four-by-four, blocking the track as he had tried not to do. The younger pair climbed in, one getting behind the wheel, the other taking the front passenger seat. The older man offered his hand, and Daniel shook hesitantly.

“Well. Your bishop will fill you in on what happens next.” The older man got into the nearside passenger seat. He wound down the window. As the car’s engine roused with a growl, he called, “You’ll be glad to get back to your life, I’ll bet.”

The window hissed closed. The car reversed up the ascending track, toward the corner that would steal it from view. Daniel watched them go. He was conscious of the church, out there somewhere behind him. He wanted to look and didn’t. But even after he’d unlocked the four-by-four, he hesitated, caught as if by a magnetic pull.

He shook his head. He went round to the boot and threw his rucksack and bags in. He slammed it with more force than was necessary, as though in anger. He went back to the driver’s door and climbed in and sat with both hands on the wheel, noticing how his fingers trembled.

He thought again of the barrow, and of the keening pipes and the drumbeat like foreign blood coursing in his veins, and of those beautiful figures, full of unearthly grace. He had measured his will against temptation. How long before he’d have been found wanting? Could he have endured even one more visit? He craved to be certain and knew he never would be—that the doubt was in him forever.

He started the ignition. Certainty: that was the prize they’d taken, deliberately or no. Not his faith but an element of it, which he’d never previously been able to identify. His complacency perhaps. Or perhaps his belief that he couldn’t stray from the light of his God because there was nowhere to stray to.

As he at last pulled away, breaking the spell that bound him for that crucial instant, he thought, Now I know differently. Hereafter, his faith was a desert island, surrounded by trackless waters. And in those waters, sharks swam.

David Tallerman is the author of numerous books: the historical science-fiction drama To End All Wars, thrillers A Savage Generation and The Bad Neighbour, fantasy series The Black River Chronicles and The Tales of Easie Damasco, and the science-fiction novella Patchwerk. Next out will be The Outfit, an account of the true-life Tiflis Bank Robbery and the part played in it by future leader of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin, due from Rebellion in early 2022.

David’s comics work includes the absurdist steampunk graphic novel Endangered Weapon B: Mechanimal Science, with Bob Molesworth, and his short fiction has appeared in around a hundred markets, among them Clarkesworld, Nightmare, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. A number of his best dark fantasy stories were gathered together in his debut collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.

He can be found online at

“An Exchange of Values, Conducted in Good Faith” by David Tallerman. Copyright © 2021 by David Tallerman.
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