Copyright Carolyn Horn 1993
All Rights Reserved
At the circus, a bonfire was doing brisk business. Built on an earthen base, it roared and crackled with verve. Potatoes steamed gently in a hollow beneath, and a blackened pot swung above the flames. The sharp tang of mint floated on the air, mingled with smoky onions and carrots. The light glinted off a hundred hungry eyes, which blinked and smiled or simply - from the circus cages - stared.
Farrell sat beside the fire, trying to resist the temptation to plug in to Vinny again; the pain of denial was almost a pleasure, mixed as it was with anticipation. Deep down, Farrell knew he'd give in eventually.
Drew sat nearby, whittling away at a piece of wood; the firelight glinted off his knife and highlighted those muscular fingers as they twisted the carving with surprising delicacy. He glanced up and caught Farrell's gaze on him. He gave a deep chuckle. "I sell them," he said, "it's one of the ways I pay my way here. These Travellers have been good to me, it's the least I can do."
Farrell blinked. "You're not a Traveller? But you - well, you fit so well. I thought you were a leader..."
For a second, lines of sorrow creased on Drew's weathered face. "No," he said, "no. They found me just after I'd gone crazy and got myself run over by some hit-and-run driver. They took me in, confused and broken as I was. I'll always owe them for that."
Holly came up behind him and thumped him on the shoulder. "Shut up, Drew." She turned to Farrell and handed him a bottle. "He thinks we got a bad deal. I was only five when we found him, but I know we were all delighted when he got better and joined us. Drew's okay."
Farrell raised the bottle to his lips and took a deep draught without thinking. Five minutes later, he stopped coughing. He wiped the tears from his eyes and squinted at the enigmatic bottle. He managed a croak: "What was that?"
Holly's dark eyes laughed down at him. "Sorry, pal; should have warned you. We're so used to Drew's Mix that we forget-" A splatter of sparks from the fire interrupted her, and she whirled around. A man was stamping about at the edge, silhouetted by the fire, aiming kicks at it.
"Hey, stop that!" Holly yelled, and lunged at the figure. So did most of those present, including Farrell, and the man fell away from the fire under an avalanche of bodies. Legs and arms busily searched for bits to grab hold of, and cries of effort rendered the night hideous.
"Holly," said Farrell in tensely reasonable tones, "get off me."
"I can't, someone's squashing me."
"Well, at least take that bit out of my eye."
"Sorry, I'll just wiggle it about a little. Is that better?"
Farrell was speechless for the second time that night. But this time he was suffocating from a mouthful of Holly.
When the bodies had sorted themselves out and extricated their limbs from various entanglements, a rather bedraggled circus caretaker was revealed. His scars were now in company with a few streaks of soot and some bruises. "That's right," he said weakly, "just finish me off, why don't you? I'll have lost me job anyway, if Sir Liam sees this fire."
Holly passed him the bottle of Drew's Mix. He sat up, looking a little more cheerful, and took a swig. A big one. "Glark," he said, "Glurgle..."
By the time he'd stopped choking, wiped his streaming eyes, and blown his nose, he looked much more cheerful. By the time he'd reached the bottom of the bottle, watched with awe by his hosts, he looked so cheerful he was almost glowing. He became a familiar figure by the fire that night, just sitting. Smiling.
Farrell had a pleasant warmth inside, too; he was going to share it with Vinny, right now. He hurried off into the shadows, away from the chatter and crackle, and gathered his box into his arms. God, it felt good to put the Cap on again...
She lounged beside him, her breath soft against his neck and her hair brushing his arm. Ah, that fresh scent! It surprised him every time. He opened his eyes; there she was, lit by the flicker of the fire and her eyes reflecting the moonlight. He stroked her cheek; she gave a soft little "Mmmm" and snuggled closer. Then she sighed and sat up, as a burst of laughter wafted from the fireside. She knelt beside him and craned her neck to see what was going on. He was content to watch her profile. "These seem like fun people," she said at last, and looked back at him with a hint of sadness. "Couldn't we just stay with them?"
He shook his head. "Vinny love, I have to find you- her- you know what I mean. I can't carry on like this, desperate for this - this shadow."
"Shadow!" She turned on him and shook him. "Does that feel like a shadow? Or how about that?" She bit his earlobe and let go of him with a final shake. "Thanks for nothing. I can hurt too; I feel, I really do. When I think of how well we've come to know each other after all these days-"
He gave a crack of laughter. "Not well enough!"
"-okay, but it's only the one thing missing."
"It's the one thing that's driving me crazy, can't you see?" He grabbed her by the shoulders and turned her around; then he saw her scowl and folded her into his arms. He rocked back and forth, with his chin on her hair.
Her voice was muffled by his jacket. "But if you do find her, the real... Well, if you do, how do you know you'll like her?"
"What an absurd thing to say, my love."
His love did other, even more absurd things with her hands at that moment, and further speech was temporarily beyond him.
"Stop that!" he managed at last. "You know what happens when-"
Her answering giggle broke off short, and then he heard her scream. He echoed her agony as a bright neon sign flashed before his eyes; "Low Power," it seared at him, and then with a delicate burp it switched to an uncompromising grey.
Farrell was back in a Vinnyless semi-dark, but something wasn't right - his hands were still trying to hold his trousers against invasion. He snapped upright, and his desperate eyes met the large, liquid gaze of a horse. A busy horse, one with its mind firmly on the process of chewing off his trousers. Farrell thought of what else it might chew off in a fit of absent-mindedness, and his throat opened on his best scream yet. It was a scream to wake the dead. It certainly silenced the fireside revellers.
He was absorbed in a quiet battle for his life, or his honour, or worse, by the time a hoarse whisper at last floated across from the fireside: "Hey, what was that? Somebody - go take a look, eh?"
"God no, that was awful. You wanna know, you can go see. C'mon, pass the bottle."
Farrell opened his mouth to call for help, when a soft laugh gurgled beside him. It was Holly. "Oh look," she said. "Papillon likes you! Isn't that cute?"
"Cute? Omigod, lady, I can think of plenty of other words. Get him off me, please, before I lose every shred of - ooof!" Papillon had just nudged him in the stomach. The horse then bared his teeth at Farrell in an awesome grin and neighed in derision before executing a couple of dance steps and wandering off.
"That's one really weird horse," said Farrell, busily tying his trousers back together. "He should be in a circus. As a clown."
"Come on, pal," said Holly, "you look like you could do with a drink. Drew's Mix is very relaxing."
Farrell scrabbled to his feet. "I'll bet. What is it?"
Holly gave another gurgle. "Vehicle fuel," she said, leading the way back to the fire.
He stopped. "What?"
"You heard. Oh, he makes it a bit different for the drinking, but he can't bear waste. He was a great scientist once, you know, before his accident. He took up carving and painting, then."
Farrell took the bottle cautiously, and sipped; this time he was going to taste it properly. It really was rather good; it had a slightly smoked-wood flavour, and it warmed the heart as it slid past to the stomach. He took another sip and then another...
Two hours later, he was leaning against the lion's cage with another bottle, weeping into the surprised animal's shoulder.
The circus caretaker appeared beside him, having come out of his reverie in order to introduce himself to the holder of the bottle. "Hello," he said. "Is there anything left in that?"
Farrell turned to him with wet dignity. "Do I know you?"
"Th' name's Haigho. Haigho Dwerrystane. Pleased t' meet you. Now, is there anything...?"
Farrell squinted down at the bottle and nodded. Liquid glugged down the two men's earnest gullets, and they both wept onto the lion's shoulder.
Leo wished they'd stop. It was very wet, but he couldn't be bothered moving. And there was this tasty stuff that kept spilling out of the bottle... Not bad, he thought as he lapped up another puddle.
Things weren't much different at Fallekin Astow. Shortly after Theola had left him, the raft-dwelling printer and old fart - Sloshforth Villars - stomped up the path to the pub. He didn't normally hold with all this fraternising, but he'd cleaned his press and chained it up; now he wanted a few answers.
He threw open the door on a well-lit scene of hedonism. Jeston's jolly face beamed from behind the bar, his tie an enormous cascade of colour over his paunch. The rush-light twinkled and bounced from glasses and pump-handles. The ashwood tables were polished, as were the heavy, dark beams in the ceiling and over the fireplace; and the walls shone white. Battery-powered Freedom-VR slots glowed along one wall, each with its devotee, and faces glistened, chattered and laughed - all those which weren't flat on the tables or under them.
"Oy!" Sloshforth's harsh voice rang across the general noise. "Who's that damn new woman?"
"Sir!" Jeston's face glowed with delight. He waved Sloshforth over to the bar. "It's great to see you; to what do we owe the honour? Come over here, sir, and have a jar of Special on the house."
One jar of Jeston's Special and you knew you'd had a drink. Two jars of it and everyone else knew you'd had a drink. Three jars later, Sloshforth was hanging onto Jeston's tie and trying not to sing.
Shortly afterwards he staggered back down to his raft, muttering to himself about bloody convivial people and hiccuping to stop himself singing. So the new bird was a vicar, eh? Interesting.
Doug Marrow, however, wasn't thinking about Theola at all. The moon was climbing down the Western side of the sky when he stumbled out of the pub. He felt very confused, and this time it wasn't Jeston's ale which had addled his brain. Well not entirely, anyway. The terrifying goddess who kept fooming in and out of his life had a fair bit to do with it. He wandered off to his hidden graveyard plot in a daze, singing "My-ee lo-ove is like a red red rose", and fell face-first into his exotic herbs.
Dawn broke in a pink wash over the village. The people there arose from their flower-beds and water-buts, with mud on their faces and beetles in their hair - but no hangovers.
Sloshforth had sorted out his ink problem and finished his print-run before the sun had pulled the whole of its body over the horizon. He sometimes wondered just what Jeston put in his ale; he decided not to try and find out. Some things were better left alone.
It was half-past dawn when he turned his sign around and cast off from the shore to row upriver.
The same dawn broke with a roar over the circus. To be accurate, it was Leo who was doing the roaring. He was hungry, and he pushed out the sound with verve and a stench of bad breath. It woke up the other animals, who responded with a cross cacophony of hoots and whistles; they were hungry too, so Leo could shut up.
Hey, he yelled; I'm lord of the jungle, show some respect.
Right, then sod off to the jungle, was the hooting reply.
The noise didn't disturb Farrell, who lay with his head through the bars and snored loudly. It didn't wake Haigho Dwerrystane, either, who was curled up cat-fashion beside him and snortled in sympathy. Somebody had thoughtfully covered the bodies with a blanket.
Leo looked at Farrell's head and pondered. The fellow wouldn't miss a bit of it, surely? Leo wandered over to it and gave an exploratory lick. His tongue had lost none of its roughness.
Farrell gave a groan, rolled over and bashed his head on a bar. He gave a louder groan, and sat up. "Ooogh," he said, and put his head in his hands. "Someone switch off the light, for heaven's sake."
"Mph-m" muttered Haigho, who snuggled his huge nose further into the blanket and carried on snoring.
The early sun glistened off the cheerfully-painted caravans, which clonked and thudded with the sound of rising Travellers. The wheelchair rumbled down Drew's ramp, yet another sound to add to the cacophony which reverberated through Farrell's hangover.
"Here, take this." A mug of something pink with brown streaks in it steamed and heaved under his nose. Farrell recoiled. He'd smelt putrefying socks in his time - well, his own room had been full of them - but this smelt like acid in which they'd been dissolved, together with a pinch of decaying garlic. "Drink it," the voice said.
His bloodshot eyes looked up into Drew's face. The man was serious, he thought. Oh well, a lingering death by poison was preferable to this thumping in his head. He closed his eyes, glugged the brew back, and waited to die. Two minutes later, he was still alive. This seemed promising. Two minutes more, and he was almost sure he actually wanted to live; a further couple of minutes saw him on his feet, pirouetting with the sheer joy of living.
Holly hurried toward them. "Hey, pal, do us a favour-"
He threw back his head, took a deep breath, and laughed. "Lead on the dragons for me to kill - bring on a world for me to save! Just say the word, I can tackle anything!"
"Good, here you are then," she thrust a bucket and mop into his hands. "Get mucking out those cages." She stirred Haigho with her foot. "This guy's going to be unconscious for a few hours yet, and I think we'd better help out, don't you? I'm off to find the animals' food." She nodded at the lion, who watched with approval.
Farrell shrugged, and got mucking out.
The sun rose higher and shone down on a scene of bustle; snatches of song and laughter mingled with the earnest slurps and squishes of old animals sucking their vitamin-enriched soybean mush.
The noise had died down when Holly made a sound between a scream and a laugh. Everyone froze in position like a tableau of stuffed ducks.
She peered at them around a tent, with her finger to her lips, and beckoned. "Come and look at this - but softly." She stood before the bars of a carefully camouflaged lean-to; shrubs and grasses had been planted over and around the mound. Holly's friends all panted up to her, and craned to look past. "This" was a large tigress; she struggled to stand up, intent on defending the cub which wobbled beside her, but something was wrong with her legs. She snarled comprehensively and with venom.
"Poor lady," said Farrell.
Holly snorted. "Pal, that's no lady. Where'd she pick up such language?"
A sudden cry rang across the field, and Haigho stumbled over to them. "No! leave my Beauty alone; for god's sake don't tell Sir Liam... Beauty, my little one..." He sank to the ground against the bars, crooning at the tigress and holding out his hands. She dragged herself towards him, ears still laid back.
"Watch out!" said Farrell, and tried to drag him away.
But Beauty plonked a huge paw on Haigho's arm and pinned him down. She proceeded to give his scarred face a thorough wash; her purr was deafening. He laughed, squirming around like a kitten and giving her playful little punches.
"Strewth! Where's his hangover? Has he had your remedy?" Farrell asked Drew, who shook his head. "What a head the man's got." He was impressed. The strange love-in was impressive too, now he came to think of it.
Holly dug Haigho in the ribs with a foot. "Hey, what's all the fuss about? We weren't doing anything to her, except feeding her. What's wrong with that?"
The caretaker extracted himself from the motherly embrace at last, and sat up. He looked around at them all, and then he flushed. "Is that what you've been doing? Thanks; thanks a lot." He looked down at the ground and started picking blades of grass with nervous fingers. "I'm sorry about what I said yesterday, about gippos," he mumbled. "But my Beauty - you won't go and tell the Toffs, will you?" He glanced up at them again, and his eyes were dark with fear.
His audience looked as though it had just sucked a pile of lemons. Holly's face especially was screwed up with deep disgust. "Talk to a Toff? What d'you think we are?" She said.
He stood up and brushed himself off. "Sorry, didn't mean to insult you. It's Sir Liam, you see. He - well, he told me to have her put down; no use for a tiger with bad legs. She can't jump through the hoop, you see. And he says there's no money in a cub, though I did tell him the children like 'em. The entrance money wouldn't cover its feed, that's what he says." He pushed the brushwood screen back in front of the cage bars, and turned away. "Come on, I've got a performance to prepare for."
Farrell recalled the circus of his youth, and looked around. Something was missing, wasn't it? "Ah, Haigho; shouldn't there be some performers? Clowns, acrobats - all that sort of stuff?"
Haigho gave a twisted grin. "You're looking at 'em. Staff cutbacks, see; amazing how much one man can do if you force him. I don't mind the highwire business, and the animal-taming's a doddle. But the clown act drives me crazy. God, what those geese can do with their beaks, you wouldn't believe." He hurried off, leaving them all to gawp at each other.
The rising sun shed its light impartially over the circus, over Sleasford, over slobs and Toffs - it wasn't fussy.
In Uptonburgh, in the corridors of power - or rather, just off them in a large dove-grey room - hung the huge, gilt-framed painting of a man with a dark suit and a long face. The features were set forever in supercilious lines; grey eyes looked cold and hard above an attempt at a smile. It was the picture of a Great Man, a leader of government and - though this was known only to a select few - a leading light on Teledildonics Inc's Board of Directors.
Beneath the picture, in ornate lettering, flowed the name "Sir Liam Hang". It was flattering to its subject; there had been an attempt to show softness and care in that smile.
At this moment, Festin Burke stood in front of it on the marble floor and was able to make a direct comparison; Hang himself sat at a polished desk beneath his posterity and froze the council man with his gaze. Not that Festin had done anything wrong, as a quick examination of his conscience assured him. This was just the Great Man's way.
"You are aware, Burke," Sir Liam said in a thin voice, "that the Drongan delegation will be here soon?"
Festin twisted his hat between his hands and nodded eagerly. "Yes, Sir, it will be a great honour to show-"
"Bollocks. It's a great nuisance. They will have to be convinced that our sewage-sludge has been produced and processed under the most humane and environmentally sound methods." The cold smile slipped for a second, and the voice thickened slightly. "As if such things weren't prohibitively expensive!" he paused for a moment, and then that smile was back. "Well, of course we care deeply about these matters, don't we? I trust that you will be able to make their examination of our works completely satisfactory?"
"Oh yes, Sir, I've told that girl in the sleas-house-"
"Good, good." Hang waved one be-ringed hand in the direction of the door. "That's all; you may go.
Festin Burke backed out of the room, and stood in the corridors of power wiping his brow.
The auto-pilot within Vinia's body wasn't happy. Something was definitely wrong, but she couldn't put a finger on the problem; well, she couldn't put a finger on anything actually. She opened an eye and swivelled it around. Yuck. This wasn't nice at all. There was a vague feeling that she'd like to be somewhere nice, only the bits and pieces didn't seem to work too well.
It was a simple equation, easily grasped. Not nice here, nice somewhere else. Go somewhere else. The concept of "how" was beyond the auto-pilot, but she would probably recognise it when it cropped up. Strangely enough, it did so that very day at about mid-afternoon, when Sherelle was tidying the dormitory in a harassed lather of sweat. Vinia had somehow missed the waste-hole in the night and thoroughly soiled the degradable plastic sheet beneath her, so Sherelle had to take her off the bed and prop her against the wall while she replaced it.
Unfortunately there was a window in the wall. An open window. Even Vinia could spot this as an opportunity, and she rolled out. Sherelle's scream followed her as she splashed into the river. As the water closed over her head, her auto-pilot came to the conclusion that "somewhere else" was not always nice.