Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
The hum from Arianrod's wheel slowed. She plucked the latest clay torso from the wheel's centre and said: "How about a cup of mint tea? Put the kettle on, dear." Her voice echoed emptily around the softly-lit cavern, and she lifted her gaze from her work. She looked around in some surprise. "Where is everyone?"
Something soft brushed her foot, and she jumped. "Oh! Oh, that dratted cat," she said. "I wish you wouldn't creep up like that, Gobsmacker. Bother." She put down the figurine, wiped her hands on a damp rag, smoothed her long, spangled skirt, and pottered over to a wall-niche which contained the special hollow Stone of Fire. It flickered with a mauve iridescence, which brightened to shocking-pink when stroked. Whatever liquid was required at the time would be inside, purring and bubbling away.
This was one of Kernunnos' more practical inventions, Arianrod thought, along with the delightful YUK-Z11-GAH herbs such as mint. It really would be a great pity if they had to re-set the clocks and start from the very beginning again.
A gentle "foom" and the remnant of a whistle announced an arrival. Brigid appeared, dressed in one of her more revealing and unusual creations. "Oh damn," she said. "Thou hast no idea how pissed-off I am. This Continua-travel is a real pain- "
"Don't swear, dear. On your way to SIK-A00-PERVT, are you?" Arianrod said. Of course she was; that explained the costume. The chains and writhing snakes were a dead give-away. "Well, if you're going that way, perhaps you could deliver this new batch? I'll just put the Breath of Life into them- "
"Thou needn't bother; there's no point. I can't get the shift right at all now. And they were going to have a party for me..." Brigid sighed. "Oh well, I'll just have to play with that new YUKker priest. No trouble getting there - all the lanes lead that way now. Hey, what's thy problem now?"
Arianrod wasn't concentrating on Brigid's speech. Something was missing; she could have sworn... She started to count the pile of figurines beside her wheel, and frowned. "Now then, I'm sure I had six of these last time I counted; I was going to bring them to life when I finished this seventh one, but I'm down to six again. It was a double one, too; a fine pair." She peered under the wheel, and met a pair of amber cat's eyes. "You haven't eaten it, have you, Gobsmacker?"
The cat yawned and telepathed: Do I look as though I'd eat a lifeless thing of clay? I'm off. Got better things to do than mess around with this rubbish. She gave a tuneful little "meow" and disappeared.
Arianrod looked at her pile of figurines and made a surprised little noise. "There's another one gone! Where on Tyrnannog are they disappearing to?"
Brigid chuckled. "Well, I can make a good guess. And if I'm right, it's a bloody good thing that thou hastn't put life into these SIK models yet!"
The sun climbed slowly up from its dawn bed, through the fresh-looking sky. Its rays shone down with approval on the clean world below, glinting off the shine of young leaves and wallowing in puddles of mud. They skimmed across the sagging rooftops of Fallekin Astow, followed the circling form of an eagle, played along the back of a large tabby cat who had materialised in the centre of the main street, and hovered in surprise over the clay-stone object which had appeared beside the cat.
Ethniu Gobsmacker sat in the middle of Fallekin Astow's main street and washed. A cat could wait forever for these gods to bring something tasty into being, she thought; she really was going to have to work on her new Chosen One. She licked her hair into damp spikes, pulled herself together just enough to show a few ribs, and practised a piteous "mew" or two. Then she staggered artistically off to the manse, pausing only for a quick sniff at the statue nearby. Stupid thing. What did it want to follow her for? Maybe it was this continuum thing that everyone was getting so worked up about.
She only had to give a hundred or so heart-rending meows before Theola's defences crumbled. Ethniu lapped happily at a large bowl of milk and accepted her first few tentative strokes from the sleepy vicar, who kept crooning: "Poor pussy. Hasn't it got a home then?". Yes, this human was definitely a soft touch. The place had possibilities.
The elusive, timeless and placeless caverns of Tyrnannog were not the only ones with a presence near Fallekin Astow. Between the Fallekin Barrows with their key standing Stones, and the crypts which lurked beneath the church, lay a series of pockets and caverns which were burped into being while the earth was still young. Shearweird Forest lay over this area like the soft mound which hid a maiden's shame.
In one place this Forest's gently pubic impression was marred by a group of leafless, violated pussy-willows which stood on the edge of a clearing; deep within this area, a couple from the GODLY commune were chipping away at a dark cavern's wall. Their torch-light sparkled against unusual, gently glowing crystals of perfect shape within which rainbow colours lay deep.
The man smiled to himself as he worked. The Lord knew how to reward His devoted followers, he thought. This cave had been a marvellous find, most lucrative; he was pretty sure that such rocks had been found nowhere else. Ah, now here was a beauty- "Ouch! Damn and blast," he said, as his hammer slipped off the crystal of his choice and bounced off his thumb.
"Mr. Dimbly! -gasp- You really shouldn't swear." The woman's voice wavered out of the shadows, and Mr. Dimbly scowled in her direction, sucking his thumb.
"I'm sorry, Aggie. I shall pray to the Lord for forgiveness; I was sorely pressed. If only we were able to bring proper lights down here."
"Well, we have to make do with what the Lord has allowed us, Mr. Dimbly."
"Yes, I know. And in His wisdom, He hasn't allowed us to own this land outright yet. But soon, Aggie, soon - the government has no reason to keep this as Common land- "
"Shhh!" Aggie appeared next to him, small and mousy-looking. "What's that noise? -gasp- Somebody's up there!"
They gathered up their bags of crystals and crept out of the caves, up into the quiet willows. Through the branches, they could see the cheerful colours of caravans gathering in the clearing. "The Travellers," Mr. Dimbly whispered. He backed away, intent on the scene nearby. "Come on, let's get out of here fast; we've got to get organised. It's time for our demonstration against those heathen- "
He fell over a tree-root and collapsed on his collecting-bag with a jarring yell.
"Mr Dimbly! Swearing!" Aggie hissed.
He sat up wearily and felt himself all over. Eyes in the back of his head would have been a good thing, he thought, and then castigated himself for thinking he could improve on the Lord's work.
And now, of course, he was surrounded by Travellers. "Oh, don't tell him off," said one of them, a dark-haired young woman, with some amusement. She had the reddest lips he'd ever seen; the thought whore of Babylon came unbidden to his mind. "He's got a wonderful command of language," she went on. "Are you okay, pal?" She reached down to help him up, and he shook off her hand.
"I am fine, thank you. I certainly don't need the help of godless yobbos like you. You should be run off every inch of God's land, until you learn to settle and live under the Lord's Commandments."
Her eyes narrowed in amusement and she nodded at the collecting-bags. "Well," she said, "if this is God's land, it looks to me as though someone has been doing a little stealing. Which commandment is that?"
Mr. Dimbly stiffened. "This is Common land. Though not for long, if we succeed- " he stopped himself in some confusion. "I'm not staying to talk to the likes of you. Come on, Aggie."
The Travellers didn't pay much attention to him as he strode off with Aggie stumbling along behind. They were gazing around them in surprise. "Just look at these trees!" said Drew, pushing his wheelchair up to one of the sleeping trunks and placing a gentle hand on it. "Don't they know it's nearly summer?"
A sigh rustled like an echo through the only leaf-bearing tree in sight. Farrell happened to be leaning against it, and he felt a momentary sense of deepest loss - so much so that unaccustomed tears started to his eyes. Phew, he thought, I'd better get a grip on myself. He rubbed his hair back from his forehead and dug his special pan-pipes out of his pack.
"Hey," he said. "This place feels like a graveyard. let's put a bit of soul back into it, eh?" He put the pipes to his lips and began to play, a lilt of bright notes rippling over the underlay of earthy huskiness. Down into a dappling of deep, slow notes and then up, soaring with the trill of birds. Holly's feet began to tap, and she grabbed her nearest pal, dancing and twinkling with him in and out among the sleeping boles. Drew twirled his wheelchair around, its wooden structure swaying and bouncing with his body. Soon all the Travellers were dancing among the trees, a dance of life, full of effervescence and laughter. Farrell finished on a long, piercing note which faded away through the branches, and then he turned and walked away.
"Anyone coming?" he said. "I'm off to Jeston's. Freedom VR, here I come!"
As they all trailed back to the clearing, sap-filled tears oozed from the live pussy-willow's bark. For a minute there, he'd almost felt his Arboriana's presence.
In fact, his Arboriana was feeling a little peculiar at that moment.
Shortly beforehand, in the computer-room at Teledildonics Inc, Gerald had got rid of his bored technician guide; the woman had shrugged and wandered off. It was none of her business if a Toff wanted to sit alone, stroking the computer all day. Gerald hunched over his beloved. It was purring inside his head again; "Ah, my Gerald. You have the diagrams, yes? Ah yes. Superb. We shall trace them together now, is it not so?"
It was so. Gerald didn't have a clue what the symbols meant, but his fingers traced them with verve.
Inside the computer there was a certain amount of discussion.
"Can't you find the bloody 'off' button?" said Vinia. She flicked one of her corners in frustration at one of the corridor's glowing spheres; it rolled around and jostled its neighbours, creating a wave which spread out along the corridor.
"There doesn't seem to be one," said Angus. "Anyway, what d'you think would happen to us if the whole thing shut down? Seems risky to me. No, we need to weaken one area, one circuit, so we can slip out carefully."
Vinia shifted uneasily. "I've just thought - do you think we'd be able to find our bodies if we got out? How would we know?"
It was at this moment that the echo of Farrell's musical note, amplified by the willow tree's sense of longing, pulled at Arboriana's very essence. She staggered, flipped over and lost concentration just as Gerald, out in the computer-room, was trying to follow the souls' suggestions. The loss of contact with this new, purry love of his made him jerk the cable that he held.
"Ouch!" Something zapped past Vinia, spraying fireworks and making her feel dizzy. For one horrid moment she thought she was going to faint, and then the world stopped rocking. "What the hell?"
"That, I think," Angus said in a voice which shook, "was what a spike in the mains feels like. We'd definitely better not run the risk of a shut-down. Arboriana, lass - get him to stop fiddling. We're going to have to start again; try to get someone who can find out how to de-programme the machine selectively." His icon crumpled slightly, and he sounded weary. Vinia touched him with one of her corners; she wished she could offer more comfort. She began to think furiously.
"No! Don't get rid of him yet; there must be something we can get him to do." A thought struck her; the spike had occurred after Arboriana had flipped over backwards. She glanced over at the cat-icon, in some concern. "What happened to you, anyway? Are you okay?"
The pussy-willow's icon had lost its firmness, and quivered around the edges. "I am well, thank you. For one moment it seemed that I was back with my body, listening to a sound of great beauty. But now, it is gone. I think," and a tear rolled very realistically down her furry nose, "that our bodies still connect with us somehow, is it not so?"
Bertha flipped her icon in amongst them all. She had been very quiet ever since turning into a gorse-bush. With a pang of guilt, Vinia realised that she'd been so glad of the peace that she'd not tried to find out if anything was seriously wrong. But now the gorse-bush spoke up, her cheery tones in contrast to the depression around her. "Mustn't get sad, eh? We don't really need to get out, do we?. All we need to do is stop nasty spikes happening; we can stay healthy, in charge of our lives, not trapped in useless flesh. Just think of it; alive for ever and able to do whatever we want- "
"Except get out," said Vinia.
"Yes, I grant you that. But this is such a lovely place; we'll get along fine here. Plenty to do if we put our minds to it. Come on, everyone, please just get used to it- "
"Bertha, shut up; I've just had an idea- " Vinia had just thought of something and it was slipping away... No, she had it. Of course! "A modem! We could warn the Freedom-VR people, ask for help. There has to be a- "
"Oh yes, lass - there's a modem alright. We've found the addresses in the memory map, but it's no use. It's only connected to a private line which goes direct to the main offices - for accounts or something, I suppose."
"Yes, but don't you see? We can get this guy Gerald to connect the cable to the external telephone."
Angus snapped upright. "Of course! And then he can go to Jeston's, and tell my people to expect a call. We'll have to finish the job soon, though, or someone'll notice. Come on, everyone."
They settled to work; as Vinia let her psyche spiral outwards to sense Gerald's brain-pulses, she noticed Bertha sidling away. Silly woman, she thought vaguely; you'd think she didn't want to get out, to hear her talk. And now she'd rather sulk than help gain her own freedom.
But now Vinia had hooked into Gerald's pulses, and there was no space for further speculation. She could feel Gerald's puzzlement; his passion for the computer had faded to a strong affection. The plug, she pushed at him. Get the plug out; come on, move it. Yes! Slowly, Gerald felt along the wall-plugs. No - not that one! The next one next, you dummy - yes, that's it...
C'mon, she felt the urgency from Angus, quick, someone's coming, I can feel it. Move, dammit, move.
Oh god, thought Vinia, don't stop and look at it. Get it in there now, hurry, hurry...
It felt like pushing a log through treacle, but at last she felt Gerald's satisfaction as the plug snapped into place just as the technician entered the room.
Gerald now had an extraordinary urge to go to Fallekin Astow to tell everyone in Jeston's pub what he'd done. Well, dammit, he would. Even if it sounded crazy - he could do with a drink, anyway.
Angus returned into his icon with a sigh of relief and looked up. Then he jumped, and yelled at the others: "Look out! for god's sake, get away- "
"What?" Vinia turned around to look at Angus, whose smiley-face was flashing desperately. She moved toward him, and then felt something behind her; she half-turned, just as a wraith-like creature brushed past, caressing Vinia as it went. She felt a great longing, and began to follow it; Angus came after her with a rush and tackled her icon to the glowing passage floor.
"No!" he panted. "Don't follow it or you'll be infected for good. I don't want to lose you that way, lass."
"Okay, okay," Vinia felt normal again. "Get off me, you great lump of haggis. What is it? Another kind of essence - like us?"
"No, it's a virus; I think it's the residue of a subliminal addiction message. We keep having to round them up. How the hell did that one get loose? I thought we had them all safely shut away. Anyway, whatever you do, keep away from the things."
"Oh damn," said Vinia wistfully. "I could do with a drink."
"So make a wine-icon then, lass."
Angus was joking, but she looked at him thoughtfully. "I just might give it a try," she said.
The sun had reached the highest point in its circuit, and was contemplating its descent down the other half of the cloudless sky. It had done a good job of drying out the ground below, and now it beat happily on the heads of worker and loafer alike. Doug Marrow, coming out of his special hidden plot, shielded his eyes from the glare; he looked around carefully before hefting a sack over his shoulder and slipping out of the graveyard gates.
He trudged down the hill, whistling gently to himself. The vicar hadn't yet discovered his little secret; and this year it was turning out even better than he'd hoped. Of course, if she - or some officious GOLEM officer on his beat - were to take a close look at that corner over at the west side of the cemetery... He shook off the thought. Nobody ever gave the place that close a look.
So deep in thought was he that he actually bumped up against the new statue in the middle of the street before he saw it. Which was quite amazing, now he stood back and looked at it, because the thing was strikingly strange and had that damn eagle perched, inevitably, on its most prominent part.
He put his head on one side to admire the thing. Whoever had carved it was a real craftsman - it had the same power as that other one that had appeared up by the church. Only this time the figure, which appeared to be male, had what looked like a pile of snakes on its head, as well as the other five which writhed where its genitals should be. This latter effect would not have been quite so stunning, perhaps, if the figure had been standing or sitting; in fact, it appeared to be frozen in the midst of a back-flip, and the snakes were apparently caught in the act of eating each other.
Doug lowered his gaze, to find the vicar standing there, glaring at him. "Ma'am," he said, getting his say in first for once, "I assure you I had nothing to do with this. I swear it. This stone is impossible to carve with my chisels. And, apart from anything else, do you think I'd put snakes - there?" he gestured up to where the eagle sat, yawing at him in derision.
The vicar opened her mouth just as a familiar "foom" sounded behind her. She whirled around; Brigid chuckled and strode forward. The goddess was rather more decently clad than usual; she wore long spurred boots and a tight leather suit. The jacket was half-unzipped, and the vicar obviously thought that the skirt was far too short; but Doug could find no fault with the general effect.
"I thought so," said Brigid, stroking the statue. "Thou hast been greatly privileged to see the work of Our Mother. Now then," she grabbed Doug, "thou shalt spend time with me. Thou'rt pretty bloody honoured."
Doug cleared his throat. "Yes indeed. Oh yes. Ah, please can I finish this potash delivery to Sloshforth before I get to be honoured any more?"
She laughed and put her arm around him. "A spirited priest! Good. Let us go. Then we can get plastered at Jeston's."
They went, leaving Theola with her jaw still hanging open. She shut it, looked back at the statue, and shuddered. Then she closed her eyes briefly, turned, and walked away. No, she thought on a rising bubble of hysteria, she didn't want to know. Not about anything. Except whether those floorboards in the church really were rotting. She did want to know that. Which was why, a few minutes later, she was crawling around on her hands and knees in the huge pulpit, tapping at floorboards with her nose two inches away from them.
"Hello," said a deep, earthy voice, "what are you doing there?"
"Shit!" said Theola, as she jumped and cracked her head on a moulding. "I mean - bother. Oh dear. Mr - Nunnos?"
She clambered to her feet and looked up into a pair of wild, smiling brown eyes. He lifted a finger and touched her cheek with his thumb. "A smudge," he said. "Sorry to startle you. Call me Kerr."