Sunday, January 10, 2021

SHORT STORY: Into The Valley Of Harlots

(Part One of Two)

Many months had passed since Percival and the girl had left the town in which she had been imprisoned.  Unencumbered by the undue prejudice of her community and the vitriol from her own mother, the girl had slowly come alive like an unfolding flower.  Easily falling in with Percival’s itinerant existence, the two had made their way through the woods, past the cliffs of despair and into the plains of ghosts and memory.

As travelers, they were perpetually on the move; thusly the girl’s conception of the world grew broader with each passing step.  Each new plant or animal she encountered was a novelty, and every small town, enclave or village they arrived at, she met fresh and without preconception.  Though grown enough to look after herself, more or less, she saw the world through the lens of a child.  An amateur scientist, all things were subject to intense questioning and eager investigation.  Percival envied the gift of clarity she possessed, even though it had been hard won via a life of cruel treatment. 

Though never having seriously contemplated fatherhood, Percival found himself in the unlikely position of guardian to this child.  Having witnessed the awfulness of her mother firsthand, he decided to be for her a suitable role model, the kind he wished he’d had as a young rat.  He showed her compassion and dignity and taught her to treat others likewise.  Though not outwardly demonstrative of his emotions, he cared for her in his own way, from a distance and without fanfare.  Day by day he warned her of dangers while allowing her to commit her own mistakes in instances where the lesson might prove valuable.  One night, while they both camped by a lakeside, the girl decided to finally resolve an issue of great importance.

“I think I should finally like to choose a name”, she announced as they sat both bathed in light from moonlight and campfire combined.

“You know my feelings on the subject”, replied Percival, “This is an honour you should reserve for yourself.  I can provide you with a name no more than I can give you wings with which to fly”.

“What sort of name do you favour, Percival?”, the girl asked as she gazed up at the night sky.

“In spite of Soraya’s wisdom, I’ve never given much thought to the matter.  I see no requirement for them to be powerful or symbolic, though I do suppose they should be chosen with due care.  Few things stay with us in life quite like a name”.

“I like the moon”, she began, “I know not what it is, but I find the sight of it pleasing.  Even though it changes its shape, it feels dependable and reliable.  I wish to be called Moon”.

Percival smiled in approval at the girl’s choice, “Very well.  From this day onward you will be known as Moon”.

A few moments later, Moon heard a low rumbling sound, “Do you hear that?  A low noise, it comes and goes, and sounds far away”.

“I hear nothing, but rats are not renowned for exceptional hearing”.  Percival looked at Moon, her young face illuminated by fire light.  She looked fatigued.  “It’s probably just the weather.  A far-off storm or perhaps the Gods are quarreling.  Either way, you should get to sleep.  Choosing one’s name is monumental enough for one day”.


The Preparation Suite, as it was called, seemed a peculiar room to Moon.  A large communal space at the centre of the village, it was the site at which all of its women congregated.  Only women were allowed in – a rule strictly enforced and adhered to.  She and Percival had found themselves welcomed by the unusual ladies after chancing upon one of their acolytes as she washed her hair in the lake upon which they’d made camp.

Though their hosts – each one a preternaturally gorgeous woman - seemed benevolent, Moon could not resist a reflexive pang of apprehension.  She’d shared a cautious, wordless exchange of glances with Percival as they entered the community.  The scenario itself seemed acutely familiar, except this time there were no shackles or soldiers or pious townsfolk.  Just women – beautiful women - piling out to greet them warmly and catch a glimpse of a new face. 

The village itself was a small affair, a few sturdy structures arranged around a metallic obelisk which immediately caught Percival’s eye.  As the two entered the village, Moon could hear the rumbling sound again, emanating from off in the distance.  Percival speculated that the mountain itself might be a volcano, but that was a word Moon did not know.

Their leader, a striking lady named Prune One introduced herself, “This is the Valley of Harlots.  You are welcome here, so long as your deeds remain clean”.

Percival could not help but notice Prune’s exquisite features and her authoritative nature.  Of indeterminate age, she wore her raven hair long and bore eyes that seemed at once exhausted yet alluring.  It was an expression shared by many of the woman here, prompting Percival to mentally recall the many examples of physical beauty he’d been privileged to admire.  Even now, on occasion, he still visited with Soraya in his dreams, but these women seemed different to her, as did Prune.  If in Soraya’s eyes he saw a banquet, Prune’s eyes beheld an empty plate.

That is of course not to disregard the sheer lunacy of each woman’s loveliness.  Each one boasting uncommonly comely features.  Tall, round, short, brunette – they were each undeniably gorgeous.  It was as if each woman represented an exemplary variant of the feminine form itself.

Impervious to their charms, Moon’s attention drifted from their outward appearance and more to their demeanour.  There was a defiance about these women, almost as if they were daring the very world to pass judgement upon them.  Of course, this audacity found purchase in the brazen manner with which Prune regarded the two as they arrived.  She’d been unable to avoid noticing Percival’s stunned reaction at the term ‘harlot’ being bandied about so casually.

“You disapprove, rat man?”, she asked him, her tone near challenging.

“Not at all”, replied Percival, careful to offer a measured tone so as not to offend, “Do not conflate surprise with disapproval.  As should be true of all sentient things, your bodies are yours to do with as you please”.

Placated by his measured response, at least for now, Prune’s demeanour softened as she welcomed the two travelers into the village.  Declaring that in their midst, “Men and women do not associate”, Percival was duly escorted to the ‘Men’s Compound’ while Prune cast a maternal arm around Moon.

“How wonderful that you’re here, child.  We are always glad to provide Steven with a larger pool of women from which to draw”.

“Come”, she said, her tone matronly, “You must join us in the Preparation Suite, the girls are making themselves fancy”.

Unwilling to seem rude, Moon obliged, following the group of women as Percival was cordially led away, before flashing Moon a reassuring smile. 

“It’s all right”, he silently mouthed, he too apparently satisfied that their hosts were relatively benign.  It was the first time since leaving her own home town that Moon had been separated from him, and she felt uneasy - no greater distance had ever separated them before. 

Prune and the women led Moon to the Preparation Suite, which was where she presently found herself standing, uncertain how to react.  The large room was lavishly furnished and adorned with luxurious décor.  Fine satin drapes caressed the windows and doors and a crackling fire and candle light coloured the space with soft glowing amber hues.  As Moon looked around, she could see women of all types, sat at small dressing tables with mirrors attached.  Each woman was busily engaged in the art of grooming and preening themselves.  With keen focus, they all styled their hair and applied garish makeup in thick layers.

“Do not be alarmed.  Steven favours a woman who reeks of excess”, came a voice from behind Moon.  She turned to see two young girls – just as heavily painted – who appeared only a few years older than her.  Noticing how overwhelmed she looked, the two girls welcomed her warmly.

“I’m Cataline Twenty-Four”, the first one said, “And I am Dianna Sixteen”, came her friend.  Cataline was tall with a fulsome bust while Dianna’s proportions were more even and curvaceous.

“Will you allow us to make you fancy?”, Cataline asked, her pleading eyes beseeching.

“Err…I…suppose”, stammered Moon.  She had never regarded herself as old enough to be overly concerned with her appearance, and, until recently, had never considered the prospect of one day utilising her physical traits to attract another.

As Prune excused herself with a slight nod, Cataline and Dianna descended, hawk-like, and sat Moon down before a dressing table.  Getting to work, one girl began by gently running a comb through her hair and pinning it back while the other began liberally applying bright pink rouge to her cheeks.

“Who is that man you travel with?”, asked Dianna as she reached into a small bag containing different coloured lipsticks.

“His name is Percival.  I am his companion and he is mine”.

“Did you see the way he looked at us?”, Cataline chimed.

“We know what men think of us, but we are careless”, replied Dianna.

“Tis true, we are whores, but we do not spread our legs for just anyone”.

“That’s right.  I’d only permit Steven’s digits twixt my nethers - if and when I am chosen”.

With a flourish Dianna lifted her blouse to reveal a mark upon her skin – the number sixteen – etched in scar tissue just to the right of her navel.  Cataline lifted her clothes similarly, exposing the cauterised number twenty-four in roughly the same place.

“Why do you wear those numbers?”, asked Moon, her head cocked to one side.

“In case we are chosen”, replied Cataline, “We wear the numbers and we make ourselves ready”.

“Every day?”, asked Moon.

“Every day and every night.  Making ourselves more attractive is our entire life.  We must be prepared in case we are selected to go up to the Mill, and so, we stay here in the Preparation Suite, beautifying ourselves.  It goes without saying that as a result, we are all visions of perfection”.

Some more than others”, added Dianna snidely as she adoringly cupped her own breasts while admiring her reflection in a mirror.

“Who is Steven?”, ventured Moon finally.           

“Steven lives up in solitude in the Mill upon the mountain.  Each week, three of us are selected by lottery to make a pilgrimage to serve him”.

“Serve and service”, added Dianna with a coy smile, “Our lives and bodies are his to do with as he wishes, and we surrender them to him willingly”.

“Is this your entire life?”, asked Moon, trying to mask her amazement.  She did not mean to appear judgmental, but these women and their way of life were alien to her.

“What else is there?”, retorted Dianna in a brassy tone, “Friendship?  Family?”, she sneered.  “How could any of those things compare to the immortal bliss of Steven?”

As Cataline continued styling her hair, Moon took a few moments to compose a thoughtful response.

“I know I am young, but I have always supposed that I would one day like a family of my own.  A husband, and a young child.  Perhaps two”.

Pfft!  Family!”, spat Dianna, repulsed at the very idea.

“Family means men.  Those barbarians are better suited to life among their own kin”, added Cataline.

“Have you no men among you?”, Moon asked.

“We have.  But we’ve not had need of their touch in almost a cycle.  Not since Steven arrived”.

“Ahhhh Steven”, swooned Dianna excitedly, “I hope when my moment comes, he splits me in twain!”

Cataline handed Moon a small mirror and she was startled by the reflection. She saw herself as never before – at a crossroads between childhood and adulthood.  Her wild locks tamed into a sensible ponytail, her cheeks ostentatiously coloured and her lips painted blood red, Moon looked ripe beyond her years.  Still, there was another aspect to this transformation, an element of the uncanny, Moon thought.  It felt as though a most special part of her childhood had been shorn away - severed prematurely.  Through cosmetic smoke and mirrors, time had been accelerated, and Moon saw a harlequin staring back at her, mockingly.

Prune returned from wherever she had been and proudly inspected Cataline and Dianna’s handiwork.

“You might be tender, child, but still of age enough to please Steven if called”.

“What happens next?”, asked Moon.

Prune held out a black iron rod, about three feet in length, with a tapered tip at one end.

“Would you like a number of your own?”, she asked with a smile as the other two girls closed in around her.

“There is no obligation”, came Cataline. “None at all, you may leave at any time you choose.


“The women changed”, began Trevor, “From the moment Steven entered our village”.

Trevor was a grizzled beast of a man whom Percival had met at what was euphemistically termed the “Men’s Compound”.  It was, in actuality, a featureless room containing only the slightest of amenities.  A nondescript table.  A few wooden chairs.  The walls were bare, save for a coating of paint haphazardly applied; a queasy shade of urine yellow.  With no bedding apparent, Percival presumed they slept uncomfortably on the hard-wooden floor.  After spending less than an hour in the place, he was convinced that the room’s purpose was punitive in nature – a sort of ‘holding pen’ designed to contain the village’s disruptive elements.  Trevor, the man he’d encountered upon entering, was one of a handful of residents.  He now held Percival’s complete attention as the poor man wove a sorrowful tale.

“If I ever catch sight of him”, Trevor began, “I’ve a good mind to wring his neck for what he’s done to this place”. Trevor’s sunken eyes betrayed his burly construction – it was clear that he’d never actually seen Steven for himself.

Trevor explained that life in the small village had been normal, if a tad parochial.  That was until a few weeks ago when the Prospector arrived.  An emissary of Steven, he appeared one day seeking women for his “master’s consumption”.  Soon after, the women began segregating themselves and allowing their bodies to be mutilated as part of an arbitrary lottery system.  On a weekly basis, Steven would send his envoy to collect three women at a time and lead them up the mountain, never to be seen again.  Whispered rumour suggested that they were all living up there with him in some form of ungodly harem.

“Have you tried talking to them?”, Percival asked, perhaps somewhat naively.

“What do you think?”, spat Trevor, his eyes wide with desperation, “They don’t listen!  Their minds have been…confused somehow.  Poisoned!”.

Percival regarded the other men in the room.  Some sat silently, staring at the wall.  Others quietly wept with their heads in their hands.

“They think we like it here, but I feel the flames of bedlam lapping at my feet”, said Trevor as he looked over the sorry assembly of broken males.

“Why don’t you just leave?”, dared Percival.

“We may leave at any time”, Trevor explained.  It was a phrase Percival had heard him use a few times already.  Indeed, the men’s compound remained woefully unguarded, nor did any of the unlocked doors and windows preclude an easy exit.

“We were thirty strong only a short time ago, but many of my compatriots left once they had made peace with the loss of their women.  Dead to them, if not in body then at least in spirit.  They left to find their fortunes elsewhere, or perhaps begin again with other women who would have them”.

Percival’s heart leapt with compassion for the man, and the overwhelming sense of sadness with which he spoke.  “And why do you stay?”, he asked Trevor gently.

“My Annabelle.  She forsook our home together and took in with that den of trollops, wasting her days primping and preening.  I appealed to her, but she spurned me, insisting she now only bent her knees for Steven.  It was as if she were no longer my wife, rather some other woman – hollowed out and placed in her stead.  She ascended to the house upon the mountain when her number was called, and I know nothing after that.  I attempted entry, but was denied.  I beg answers from the other women, but I am ignored”.

Flustered, Trevor clumsily wiped a tear with his sleeve, “I know not what fate befell her.  She remains in limbo, and thusly, so do I”.

Though his tale of a broken marriage tugged at his Percival’s heartstrings, there was one particular detail which had piqued his interest, something Trevor had mentioned just before.

“Tell me about the numbers”, he asked.


Having sauntered out of the Men’s compound unimpeded, Percival mulled about the village, driven by curiosity and a fermenting sense of dread.  Only a short walk from the Preparation Suite, the obelisk had caught his attention earlier, its stark, modern appearance standing out among the simple structures of the village.  Trevor had explained its connection to the women and the weekly lottery, and Percival was eager to see the device for himself.  Standing almost eight feet tall, the four-sided device was constructed of folded metal sheeting and emitted a low ticking sound not unlike a clock.  On one side, there was a small indent at eye level that contained a scrolling mechanical counter with space enough for three numerical digits.  Presently, the counter appeared inactive, reading ‘000’.

Behind him, Percival could hear a flurry of activity and turned to see the women approaching.  Bustling excitedly, they quickly moved expectantly towards the obelisk.  Prune was there, scowling at him disapprovingly for having transgressed their rules, as well as a few other faces he recognised from before.  Cutting through the small crowd was Moon, who immediately rushed toward him, clamping him in a bear hug.  Percival was surprised to see the little girl looked quite different.  She’d been given a new dress to wear; her hair was neatly arranged and her face was filled with colour.

“Look, I’ve taken a mark”, she reported, showing off a freshly cauterised number fifty-one.  Percival had known the tradition of tattoo, but this looked different – artless - as though Moon’s young body had been somehow desecrated.

“You don’t like it?”, asked Moon, her eyes catching his involuntary grimace.

“Not at all”, Percival conceded, “I merely hope it was not too painful”.

“It’s time!”, exclaimed Prune as she clapped her hands together in rapturous anticipation.  The obelisk’s ticking sound increased in volume precipitously.  More women soon appeared and mulled about nervously as clunking, clockwork sounds brought the inanimate object to life.  The mechanical counter whirred into motion, numbers scrolling rapidly then stopping with a jolt upon the number sixteen. Percival and Moon looked on, captivated by the display. 

“Sixteen!!”, called Prune, loud enough for all to hear.

“Yes!”, shouted Dianna as she jumped up and down with excitement, “My garden will finally be tended!”

“Thirty-Nine!”, announced Prune as the corresponding girl - just as ecstatic as Dianna - bid hasty farewells to her friends near her.

A lull among the crowd followed by a cresting wave of anticipation as the mechanical numbers rolled on for a third and final time.

“Fifty-One!”, called out Prune, as she looked over the crowd, then over to their newest recruit – Moon – presently stood next to Percival.  Suddenly in the spotlight, Moon looked to her surrogate guardian for guidance.

“May I go?”, she asked.

“I am not your keeper, Moon.  Do you wish to go?”

“Yes.  These women have shown me kindness and a new way of being.  I do not wish to leave you, but I am compelled by the mystery”.

“Your spirit of independence is why I freed you.  To cage you was a crime in the first instance.  I need not relish the choices you make, merely afford you the ability to make them yourself”.

And so, after sharing a bittersweet hug, and issuing a promise to return to each other, Percival and Moon said their goodbyes.  He watched, quietly, as Moon and the two other girls left the boundaries of the village and began their ascent up the mountain to meet Steven.  Concealed by a building and his own sense of helplessness and shame, Trevor watched them leave, his face twisted in horrible grief.


The front door to the house was modern and elaborate, much at odds with the rock face that the well-to-do home was embedded into.  The house itself was almost a part of the mountain, like a façade springing fourth from the terrain, existing merely for the sake of appearances.  The walk had been far less arduous than Moon had expected.  Along the way she had heard the same low rumbling as before, this time emanating from beneath her feet.  She had never seen a mill before and had no idea what it would look like, expecting to see some form of grandiose structure.  But as the women approached the front door, no structure made itself apparent.  After a few knocks, they were greeted by a portly man who introduced himself simply as “The Prospector”.  An oily caricature of a person, he leered at the women the way a starving man views a feast.

“Right this way, ladies”, he said cordially as he ushered them through a sumptuous foyer and down an unremarkable hall. 

Moon observed that the walls around them changed gradually as they proceeded – they seemed composed of the same metallic material as the obelisk.  That wasn’t the only unusual thing she noticed – there was a sound.  Separate from the rumbling, this one was new – it sounded heavy and mechanical and was coming from very close by.

“Steven will see you now”, said the Prospector with a crooked smile as he opened a locked door, allowing the women to enter first. 

Dianna took a few moments to tend to her appearance, straightening her hair and plumping her bosoms in preparation to meet the man of her dreams.  The door opened, and immediately Moon heard an awful, piercing scream followed by a series of sickening chopping sounds.  Like a tree being mulched, the first girl – number thirty nine - had walked right into the blades of a giant turbine set into the floor.  The sounds were of her bones and flesh being ground up before their eyes, sending an aerosol spray of blood into the air and onto every surface in the room.

Behind them, the Prospector licked his lips and grinned, “Steven requires protein in the form of animal matter to continue.  This is the most efficient way”.

Frozen in terror, Moon reacted instinctively and reached out for Dianna’s hand.  She’d been closer to the turbine and her face and clothing were caked in blood.  She turned to look at Moon, shaken by what she had just witnessed.  A chunk of brain matter fell from her hair.  Moon had expected a plush sitting room containing a handsome bachelor, but instead the only thing in the room was the giant spinning blades of the turbine set into the floor flanked by metallic walls that now resembled the inside of an abattoir.

Ever so slowly, Moon felt Dianna’s hand release itself from hers as she stood before the blades, a vacant expression of horror etched upon her face.

“For Steven…”, she whispered before stepping forth into the blades where her body was violently crushed.  The disgusting process was as quick as it was mortifying.  Dianna was no more, only pieces of her remained, scattered about the room.

“Step forth and do your duty, whore”, came the Prospector from behind Moon, his face too now glistening with human blood.

How could I have been so stupid?  Thought Moon as she stared at the charnel house before her.

Separate from the nightmare of seeing people chopped up before her very eyes was the feeling that she’d been led astray so easily.  Blindsided by the harlots who’d shown her kindness, the path she had traveled was suddenly clear to see.

This was the mill and Steven would not, could not be found within it.  Steven wasn’t in the mill – Steven was the mill.




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SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins