Copyright Carolyn Horn 1993
All Rights Reserved
The scarred man - caretaker of this depressed-looking field - stopped in front of them all, panting. Farrell, who had scrambled to his knees and was still busy with his trousers, squinted up at the man. He found himself elusively reminded of a trapped animal; a mongoose, perhaps? No, that didn't seem quite right. A monkey, that was it.
The caretaker's eyes quivered like frightened mice beside that huge nose. He kept flapping his hands and twittering "Go! Get off!"
The Travellers were watching with interest. "How are you going to make us? Will you set your mangy dog loose?" Holly nodded her head toward the lion who hunched behind his bars, and she laughed.
The circus caretaker stopped fluttering; his huge nose stiffened, his scars flared red, and he half-turned toward the cage. "Don't you dare poke fun at my animals! I'll have you know that Leo is the finest-"
The Traveller in the wheelchair broke in, his voice a deep rumble: "Holly was only teasing; we can see he's a magnificent beast-"
The lion chose this moment to yawn and show his teeth - all three of them.
The Travellers huddled together in fascination. Holly gave a gurgle, and grinned down at her seated friend. "Sorry, Drew. Go ahead, pal; you tell it like it is."
Drew glared up at her and turned back to the scarred caretaker: "We just need a space to rest for the night. We'll be off again in the morning-"
The caretaker wrung his hands and shivered. "If Sir Liam comes and finds you here..." One of the Traveller's horses, let loose to graze, sidled up to him and butted its nose under his hands; he started to stroke the softness of it in an absent way. His voice gentled slightly. "A fine animal you've got here," he said.
"That's Papillon, and I can't think what he sees in you," Holly said.
"Ssssh!" Drew's whisper didn't silence her in time, and the caretaker's attention was jerked back to them.
"Get out. Go on, just get off Sir Liam's property or I'll call for GOLEM." He was referring, of course, to the Guardian Officers of Land, Ethics and Morality; they were a fine body of men and women who upheld the laws of the land with vigour. Their morals were, of course, squeaky-clean - or at least, they never got caught with their pants down.
Drew held up his hand in a pacifying gesture. "Okay, okay. If it makes you happy, we'll move to the next field-"
"No! That's his, too."
Drew sighed, and eased himself in his wheelchair. "Look, just tell us where his land stops and we'll go there."
The caretaker gave a cracked laugh and waved his arms around in triumph. "As far as you can see, that's Hang land. You'll have to go far away, don't you see?"
Drew looked at the man. "-Or the Golems will get us? You can't be serious! We've travelled a long way already today, and we're all tired."
"I can't help that; bloody gippos, what d'you want to wander all over the place for anyway?"
"And what about our horses? They're knackered."
The caretaker quivered slightly; his scars paled.
Papillon chose this moment to make his presence felt. He had no desire to be hitched up again; he wasn't too tired, but he reckoned he was due for a rest. He butted the caretaker in the back and then, sure of his audience, he sank to his knees, lowered his head to the ground and rolled his eyes. He then slithered his tongue out of the side of his mouth and gave an excellent impression of a horse trying to be sick. Even Leo stopped in the middle of another yawn and watched with interest.
Farrell was impressed; this horse had real talent. Holly and Drew fought with themselves to keep from laughing, but they lost the battle.
The caretaker gulped and gave a sickly smile. "What a horse! God, but he must have been circus-trained, surely?" He wrenched his eyes away and gazed around at the crowd. "Okay, okay. I suppose it's safe enough for tonight. Sir Liam's not likely to come now. But away you go, first thing in the morning, and if you cause any damage..."
He scurried over to lean against Leo's cage and watch them, arms folded.
Leo reached an experimental tongue through the bars and rasped it over his old friend's scarred ear. His old friend didn't seem to appreciate the gesture, though; the caretaker gave a little yelp, jumped a few yards away and glowered at him. Nobody was fun any more, thought Leo. He went into the back of his cage to sulk. Even that stupid eagle had gone off somewhere.
The clouds had cleared from the horizon, and the sun prepared itself for a display. It sat low in the sky, red and swollen.
Farrell squatted back on his heels and watched as the Travellers began to bustle around their caravans, the soft colours of their clothes fluttering like autumn leaves around the cheerfully painted wood of their homes. Most of these were designed to be drawn by horses, but at least one was blunt-nosed, obviously driven by an engine of some sort. Its wooden body was rather battered-looking, and the paint was peeling slightly, but Farrell had never seen anything quite like it. From the back doorway hung a ramp instead of the usual steps.
Farrell sat for a moment longer, with his arms clasped around his knees. He felt a reluctance to leave, but he knew he must. He had to find his real Vinny; a panic swelled within him whenever he remembered how easily he could lose her. Someone else might have married her; what would he do then? His unaware gaze followed Holly's dark head; she was humming a wild tune as she brushed her horse down.
Farrell's stomach grumbled. Oy - what about food, it muttered. He ignored it. Well, this wasn't getting him anywhere. He finished re-packing his backpack and stood up, swinging it onto his shoulders.
A deep, soft voice called out to him: "Hey, where are you going?" The man called Drew propelled his wheelchair toward Farrell and grasped his hand. "Drew Fareman's the name." The hand was strong, wide and weathered, just like Drew's face and massive arms. Of course, propelling the chair around must have developed those muscles.
Farrell hadn't really noticed the chair before; but this was the strangest contraption he'd ever seen, now he came to examine it closely. Not that he had any clear idea of what wheelchairs looked like - none of the tenants in his area of Sleasford could ever have afforded one. Come to think of it, no disabled people managed to stay in their bedsits anyway. But he didn't think such chairs were made, like this one, out of wood and creepers which still had the appearance of life. The manufacturer - one of the Travellers, he supposed - had done some very clever carving to get this effect.
He flushed, aware that he'd been staring, and dropped Drew's hand. "Farrell. Farrell Wightman; on my way to Fallekin Astow."
Drew smiled. "No sleep, not enough food, and a night of Shearweird Forest - what use do you think you'll be after all that? Why not stay with us and share our food this night? Come on, there's plenty."
Farrell's stomach grumbled with more urgency; this time he let it persuade him. "Thanks." He reached into his pack for his special, home-made panpipes, and grinned. "I could play for my supper..."
Orangputeh emerged from behind Holly's caravan and nodded to himself as Farrell and his new friend moved away. Good. Things go good. Hopefully, better soon. Man will fix science. Yes. Then soon I get home. Warmer, better, not backward like this place of noseless-
Just then he spotted the circus elephants. It was a revelation.
The sun made a spectacle of itself on the horizon. It did all the usual stuff with streaks of gold and pink, but it was particularly pleased with a selection of purple cirrus clouds. Yes, definitely one of its better efforts, it thought as it left the sky to the pale half-moon.
The Reverend Theola Devin, in Fallekin Astow, had been in a superb position to view this masterpiece. So it was a pity that she'd ignored it completely except to mutter: "Shepherd's delight; pah!" She sat beside the river, hunched up on the narrow strip of grass with her correctly-covered knees pulled up to her chin. One doughy cheek rested on them, and her hands were clasped around her shins.
A little way upstream, Jeston's pub rendered the evening air hideous with shouts and laughter and clatter. A fan rattled in its wall and spewed out great gouts of damp sawdust-scented air.
It's just not right, Theola thought as she squinted at the pub. How can they all bear to be in there, drinking their lives away?
The heady smell from Jeston's mingled with a sharp tang from the power-station which squatted on the opposite bank. That tang didn't emanate from the building itself, which was extremely clean, odour-free and eco-effective. The land-owners nearby - all of them Uptonburgh Toffs, of course - had insisted that it even be attractive in a rustic way, before they had allowed it to be built within their environs. No, what smelled so bracing was the raw fuel on which it ran. Chicken-droppings. Collected from the noisy yard-ful of hens which ran around at its feet.
Humph, thought Theola. I try so hard to show these people the Way, but I get no thanks. Her lips quirked in a bitter smile. Thanks indeed! Anything but; she'd seen the handpainted change on the village sign today. Then there'd been that fiasco at this afternoon's funeral. And church attendance was slipping.
Come to think of it, this whole place was slipping. She squinted around without lifting her head. The cottages near the river were crumbling gently towards it, their roofs sagging and the paintwork in patches. There was a mess of debris on the river itself; it gathered against the bank on every bend. In fact, there was a huge pile just a few yards away. She peered at it through the dusk, and then jumped as it made a noise at her. "Thump-bang-squeak, thump-bang-squeak" it went; a strange sound, almost like a big dog's bark.
She got up and crept towards it as this rhythm continued. The sound stopped as abruptly as it had started, and then someone swore in harsh, male tones: "Bloody ink, shoddy job-lot of rubbish!"
Theola was close enough now to see, in the strengthening light of the half-moon, that there was a makeshift raft among the flotsam. Logs were piled on top to make some kind of shelter. She slipped on the bank and put out a foot to steady herself against the raft, which swayed gently under her touch.
"Who's there?" the voice yelled, and a head poked out from the shelter. "Bugger off, whoever you are. You hear me?"
"Excuse me, but who do you think you're talking to?" Theola felt an un-Christian rage well up in her. "I'll have you know-"
"I don't give a damn. Stupid woman." The man popped out of his shelter and loped towards her. He looked her up and down in the growing moonlight, and sniffed.
Her rising fury gave way to surprise. This man was small and wiry, and his face looked like the most desiccated prune she'd ever seen. His eyes glittered from among a mass of wrinkles. He brought his face close to hers, and she could feel the coldness of his breath on her nose. "Go on," he snarled, "shoo! Can't you read?"
"What?" she said, intelligently.
"Read, I said read. Can't you read my notices?" He gestured toward a rough driftwood cross. Now that Theola looked carefully, she could see dingy splashes of paint on it.
She stalked over and squinted up at the words. "Old fart in residence," she read. "Trespassers will be eaten."
Her voice began to wobble. "You're the one on the village sign!" she said. Her elbow caught the pole as she turned; the raft bucked under her, and she collapsed onto its planks. "Damn," she said, "I mean - sorry God - bother."
Suddenly it all seemed too much. She hunted for her handkerchief and wailed: "Oh God, why this place? Why couldn't I have been given a solid, sensible parish?" She began to hiccup. This was appalling, she thought; what a public exhibition! She sniffed and wiped her eyes on the back of her hand.
A piece of cloth was shoved into it, and the man's voice gentled as he said: "Here. Use this. What's all the fuss?" He squatted in front of her. She looked up through the wet, into the gleam of his eyes. "Well?" he said, his mouth tilted in a lop-sided smile. "New here, aren't you?"
She nodded as she wiped her face, and sat twisting the cloth between her hands. "It's silly really. I've just seen the changes to the village sign; do they think I can't figure out who the second 'old fart' is that they've scrawled there?" Her voice had risen in indignation. "I can't think why the villagers hate me so-"
He flung back his head and roared with laughter. "You couldn't bear to be lumped in with me, grumpy old Sloshforth Villars, eh little lady? Well, it's something to be proud of, I'd say. Who wants to be one of the two hundred boring 'charmers'?"
Theola blew her nose. "I'm sorry if that was rude, but I'm trying to show these people the way of God-"
"Hah! You'll find there's more than one. It might be that I could show you how to handle the villagers, but I don't think I will. I doubt you're ready. For instance, you'd do well to try out some of their ways yourself before saying they're all sinful. Share their interests; you might find-"
She lifted her chin and scrabbled to her feet. "I don't see what you can teach me, if they hate you so much as well!"
"Yes, definitely not ready." The harshness was back in his voice. "Go on, clear off, little lady. I've got a print-job to finish and a deadline to meet." He pushed her off the raft and she stumbled up the bank. He called after her: "You can give that rag of mine a decent wash before you bring it back. And remember - trespassers will be eaten, especially at the full of the moon."
A burst of song from Jeston's pub mixed with his words and billowed after Theola while she ran home. "The man's mad, or drunk," she muttered to herself. She was completely incorrect.
Further upriver, at Sleasford, night was settling with a thick smell of sewage around the sleas-house. The river's gurgling sound wafted through the barred windows of the rooms, played over the motionless bodies which lay in orderly ranks upon their hard pallets, and rippled over the central gutters. Sherelle, a tired nurse, was turning bodies in one of the dormitories and fixing their feeding-tubes. She wrinkled her nose; these people most definitely were not dead, they were able to manufacture an amazing quantity of waste. Sherelle sighed, and bent again to her almost hopeless task of preventing bed-sores. If only they had more staff...
She positioned another body over a pallet's waste-hole, checked that the feeder contained enough of the special-formula soybean liquid, and stroked the body's hair back from its face. It had been a beautiful young woman once, with fine red-gold hair and delicate bone structure. Now it was a vacant and drooling raw sewage manufacturer. The nurse sighed again, checked that both faeces and urine would be channelled correctly, and smoothed the plastic sheeting over the body's legs.
At that moment, the little paunch of Councillor Festin Burke preceded the rest of him into the room. He held a handkerchief over his nose and carried his bowler hat in his left hand like a shield. He called out: "Hey! You there, nurse," and beckoned to her with the hat. She gave Vinia's body one last pat, and went across to him. "Yes sir?"
He looked at her pinched, tired little face and desolate eyes. Humph, he thought, she could be quite attractive if she'd only tidy those wisps of hair away under her cap, and starch her uniform. His voice grew sharp with irritation. "Neaten yourself up, for heaven's sake. There's going to be a government inspection soon, and you'll really have to do something about all this." He wriggled his fingers at the room. "Get some air freshener or something. Sir Liam Hang is coming," his tones sank briefly in reverence, "and he's bringing Important Foreigners. So look to it, woman!" He bustled out again.
Sherelle scowled and turned to survey the room. Air freshener the man wanted, now, she thought. In all the rooms, no doubt. And who was going to pay for it? Then she hugged herself and shivered as she looked at all the emptying bodies and thought about the strange disease that had struck them. If many more people were brought in, they'd have to find another building for the poor creatures.
The hulk of Vinia stared at the ceiling and thought about nothing at all.
Her computer-trapped essence was having difficulties of its own right then. Vinia wished that her icon could grow real ears so that she could put hands over them; the sound of cats yowling and scrabbling against a "wubba-wubba-wubba" background had grown louder again and drowned out the steady clock-beat.
"What is it?" she shouted. "Is that what the computer sounds like when it's working?"
Angus jerked the corners of his icon in an amused shrug. "Nay, lass. Come and see; nobody has worked out yet what to do about them. Not even our dear Bertha." He twitched in laughter at the mouse-faced icon, and led the way upward, out of the glowing congregation-node.
Bertha sniffed as she followed him. "It's just that they don't understand what I say. Silly little things. Nobody needs to be unhappy here, you know. I mean, look at it; it's all so beautiful-"
Vinia lost the rest of Bertha's monologue as they burst out of the top; she felt a faint tingling sensation which briefly turned her new vision into a kaleidoscope of coloured light.
"Sorry - I forgot," said Angus, "coming up onto the circuit's roof is a bit startling at first." Angus gave her a couple of clock-beats to get used to it, then led her down a glittering golden pathway; Vinia was amazed at the clarity of her vision now. Where all had been brown murk before, she could see a whole range of sepia tints. The pathways were threads of gold, and in the distance she could see fine copper spires and golden spirals. She looked back; the node which they'd left reminded her of a bubble, complete with shifting rainbow-swirls. It was one of many set in an apparently random pattern.
She was still wondering whence the light emanated, when they arrived at a nucleus which appeared to consist of a dozen nodes welded together. When they entered, Vinia felt that she'd slid into a wall of sound. The inside of the nucleus shone with a fawn light, which glinted off the fur of dozens of grey kitten-icons. They were amazingly life-like. Their mouths were all open; they kept leaping up the springy surface and scrabbling as they slipped backwards.
Angus jerked a corner of his icon, and they went back outside. "We've tried talking to them, but it doesn't do any good," he said. "They just keep on."
Vinia felt light-headed; she could hardly think for the noise, but she thought about those poor cats, their confusion and what they were missing. Then an idea struck her. "Hey, has anyone thought... Just a minute, let me try something!"
She concentrated for a minute, grabbed hold of a bit of aether with her mind, and worked at moulding it into another icon. It was tricky, holding onto her own and projecting another, but she hoped it would work. She tried to take a deep breath, then she dashed back in, calling "Kitty, kitty - here kitty, kitty!" and holding out her new icon.
She kept calling and holding out the icon; gradually the cats quietened and sat, watching her. The silence thundered in her mind, along with the clock-heartbeat. One kitten reached out an experimental corner and tried to sniff her milk-icon offering; then it started to make earnest lapping noises. Mayhem erupted again as the other cats clambered over each other to get at it, but Vinia's new friends had been quick to follow her example. Soon all was still, and the cat-icons were curled up. A gentle purring susurrated through the computer's circuits.
Vinia leant against one glowing wall and looked at the peaceful grey mass. "What are they doing here? Where did they come from?" she said.
Angus shrugged. "Must have been early experiments, I suppose - before T.D. realised that their new stuff could extrapolate backgrounds so well. These cats will all have been meant as props, I'm sure. Or maybe some people have really kinky fantasies..." his voice trailed away, and Vinia felt like gagging.
"Hell, I wish we could do something to destroy the bastards," she said. She might have been comforted to know that a deity or two was giving some thought to a very similar problem. On the other hand, she might have been even more bothered. The gods did look at such matters from rather a different angle, after all.
Arianrod's wheel hummed gently in the limestone caverns of Tyrnannog. The light glittered off her spangled gown and glowed faintly on Kernunnos. He rubbed a hand over the shaggy surface of his face, threw his pile of scratch-and-feel magazines aside and sighed. He could feel his horns droop. Why couldn't something really exciting happen for a change?
Arianrod glanced up from the delicate figurine which whirled around beneath her fingers. "What's the matter, dear?" she said.
"Ah, there ain't no real life in these things after all - no variety. Not much imagination in YUK-Z11-GAH, is there? Perhaps the Science Laws should have gone to the SIK-A00-PERVT Continuum. Now, those SIKkers are really imaginative!" He licked his lips.
"Well, dear," Arianrod sounded preoccupied, "You know we can't just hand the Laws over without a full Meeting. And anyway, we'd have to stop the clock and reset it in both places, which would be a shame. They're all such sweet little things." The wheel continued to hum.
Kernunnos threw back his head and laughed. "Sweet! By my horns, I think sweet don't cover it!" He wiped the tears from his eyes, and thought for a minute. "Ah well, I know what you mean. I've a soft spot for most of those YUKkers; dull but kinda fun to play with. In fact, I think-"
He unscrewed a horn from his head, blew a wild, eerie note into it, and disappeared. Shortly after, Shearweird Forest was treated to the sound of a dying echo of the note, followed by crashing noises and some serious swearing.
Kernunnos had arrived, half inside a pussy-willow tree. The tree was not amused.
"Hey! This is not good, no! My bark, it will be all of a mess, and for what? For nothing. You do not know how long it takes to grow this - no, and you do not care, imbecile!" Its earthy, purry voice mingled with the god's curses.
"Well, you wouldn't have any if I hadn't okayed the Laws, would you?" Kernunnos growled.
"Oh no, a god. This, then, it must be a judgement. But why - what is it so bad about us, that these gods, they must take my children and my darling Arboriana away..." the voice trailed away into a sighing murmur.
Kernunnos extricated himself, and peered through the shadows at the gash in the tree's side. Hmm, he had made rather a mess. Soon fix it, though. He laid his hands on the rough timber and began to glow with an amber light; wood and bark flowed together into an ancient-looking scar. "Not bad," he said. "Now, what was all that about your family? We ain't touched 'em."
"Gone, all gone!" the tree yowled. "Your two-legged monsters, they came with a black box and sucked out the spirits of my loved ones; look, beside me - nothing but husks which must die. And me, I can only stand and watch."
The god looked around at the leafless trees, stark in the moonlight. His shaggy face darkened with anger; he was fond of his tree-spirit pussies. Who had stolen their souls? He strode over to one of the hulks, subsided onto a root and rested his hands on the turf around him. His brow furrowed in the concentration needed to explore this Continuum. What an enormous amount of interference there was in the aether! He grunted, and picked his way through the white noise; ah! yes, there it was again - a sound like a hundred wailing cats trying to climb a wobble-board.
He called over to the still-grumbling willow: "Hey, stop moaning. They ain't dead, leastways not all of 'em. Mind, I don't quite know what to do about it. Blasted Laws." He thought for a minute, oblivious to the tree's eager questions, and then he nodded. "Reckon I'll have some fun while I'm thinking about it. Wouldn't mind a bit of time in this place."
The tree-spirit watched with interest as Kernunnos' horns melted away and his hair transformed itself into swarthy skin. At last he stood there, a sturdy man with dark hair, a rugged face - and a wild beard which almost reached down to his genitals, but not quite. Ah; not bad, it thought, impressed. Not bad at all.
Kernunnos was just about to turn and stride away, when a thought struck him; he clicked his fingers and was instantly robed in rough woollen shirt and trousers. What a pity, thought the tree.