Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
Parliamentary House squatted in ancient splendour at the north end of Uptonburgh's Grand Square. It had known war and famine, crownings and revolutions. Right now its grey stones, steeped in centuries of debate and tradition, rang to the clatter of busy feet.
Sir Liam Hang entered the panelled, arched debating hall, and glanced at its majestic proportions with approval. This was what power was all about. His greatest ambition was to turn this back into the palace of its origins; he'd make a damn good king, he thought, as he bowed toward the Central Table with its Mace and Top-hat. He took his seat on the front bench, and stretched out his legs.
Gerald Fonsbrick-Smythe sniffed at the musty air as he followed Sir Liam into the House. He clutched his petition and rehearsed his speech again; he hoped he'd be able to get right through it before being forced to stop.
The rising babble of chatter around him hushed as a fanfare announced the arrival of the Keeper of the Gerbils, and the Cage. The strutting Carriers of the Cage finally laid their burden to rest on the Table. The Keeper picked up the Top-hat with reverence and placed it on his head.
What a pantomime, Gerald thought. All because, so the legend went, some prime minister had objected to the length of various members' speeches. So now, whoever took the floor to say his piece could do so - as long as he held the Gerbil. It was trickier than it looked; the House had seen many a flustered MP - and many an athletic rodent - over the years. At the moment the team sat in the Cage, their whiskers twitching in anticipation.
The day plodded onward like any other. A new member of the Opposition got through about four sentences before the Gerbil darted up his sleeve; three back-benchers in succession dropped the Gerbil on the heads below, causing a slight hiatus each time the animal had to be retrieved; and the old Member for West Sleasford snored.
The Keeper at last picked up the Premier's Gerbil, handing it with reverence to Sir Liam. The Great Man glared at it. He was, of course, a master of Gerbil-holding; he couldn't have got to the front bench otherwise. That didn't mean he had to like them.
"Mr. Keeper, gentlemen, I wish to put- " Sir Liam broke off as someone in the back benches cleared her throat loudly. "Ah, sorry. And ladies, of course. I wish to put forward the Bill on VR funding. As you know, Teledildonics Incorporated have produced a marked increase in revenue. I believe that we can be particularly proud of the way in which they have wholeheartedly implemented the regulations, such as the Morality Interrupt, which this House passed with such an overwhelming majority. They have co-operated fully, and it has been proposed that extra funding would result in stock which is worth double the investment..."
Gerald let the long, involved sentences flow past his ears. His own speech jostled for space in his brain with Holly, chickens and the last fumes from Jeston's Special. He became aware of a slight hiccup in Sir Liam's speech; surely he hadn't dropped the Gerbil? No, nothing that exciting. Oh well.
"Also, I wish to table an amendment to the Bill- "
The Keeper interrupted. "Has the honourable gentleman gone through the proper channels with respect to this amendment? I see no mention of it in my notes."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Keeper, that I had no time to lodge this with you first - however, it is a small matter of land-ownership which I feel has relevance to this Bill."
The keeper nodded, and Sir Liam continued. "It is proposed that the patch of land in Shearweird Forest which is at present designated Common land, should be placed under government control. My researches have revealed that there are certain valuable minerals in that area - some of them of use to Teledildonics Inc - the profits from which should come to the tax-payer."
The Keeper shuffled his notes and frowned. "Such a request is not without precedent, but the opinion of the local people has always been obtained before such an arbitrary- "
Sir Liam flipped a paper out of his pocket while he effortlessly allowed the Gerbil to loop the loop around his other hand. "That will not be necessary," he said. "I already have here a petition referring to that land."
Sir Liam's speech went on, and Gerald felt a twinge of envy for the Member for West Sleasford. The man snurfled happily in his sleep.
At last the Great Man handed back the Gerbil and sat down to a chorus of "Hear hear". The Keeper announced that the Member for Fallekin Astow had this morning lodged a counter-proposition as an amendment to the budget proposals, and Gerald stood up to accept the Gerbil. He hoped this one would be gentle with him; he was a bit out of practice. It sat and looked up at him while he stroked its soft, delicate fur. Then it thumped a back foot on his palm and was off, its little feet skittering happily over his skin.
"Uh," he said, revolving his hands over each other in time with the Gerbil, "Mr. Keeper, ladies, and gentlemen; Teledildonics Inc have loads of money already, don't they? They've got a growing internal economy, and they don't take much account of their customers' real needs. Oops- " The Gerbil did a back-flip and reversed direction. "I-I mean, if they were going to put the extra cash into finding out what's going wrong with their process- "
The few members opposite, all that remained of a once-great Opposition, stirred in their seats at this unusual hint of disagreement; excitement wafted across from them.
A rumble of annoyance began to arise from the government front benches. One excitable Minister jumped to his feet and yelled: "There's nothing wrong with it! We get enormous revenue- "
"Interruption! Out of line!" The opposition were bouncing up and down with glee.
The Keeper banged the Table. "Order, order!"
At last Gerald could make himself heard again. "I say, the honourable gentleman might let a fellow finish. No, really, there is a problem. It's only their latest process, it sucks out the essences of the originals - I've discovered that these essences are suffering and have become trapped - and it creates a load of mindless bodies- "
The excitable Minister was on his feet again: "But the Drongans want that sewage-sludge- "
Gerald cleared his throat. This wasn't going quite as planned. "Also there is reason to believe that the product itself isn't safe, even apart from the growing number of down-and-out addicts. I think the funding should go to Freedom VR; they've been doing research into harmless methods of creating discs. And their latest product, if only they could get the funding to market it, would be both safe and popular with customers."
Several front-benchers leapt to their feet, all shouting at Gerald together.
There was a cheerful battering of shouts from the opposition benches: "The Gerbil! They haven't got the Gerbil! Out of line!" while the Keeper's deep voice thundered:
At this point, Gerald tried to produce his petition, and the Gerbil ran off the end of his hand and skittered along the bench in front.
Meanwhile, in the Manse garden at Fallekin Astow, Theola Devin was kneeling near a herbaceous border and inexpertly wielding a trowel. It didn't help that she was being frenetically "assisted" by the huge cat upon which, in a moment of aberration, she had bestowed the name Ethniu. The creature seemed to think that the Manse was now its home. That'll teach me to be kind to dumb animals, Theola thought as she rescued her little cup of seeds from capsizing.
Kerr had given her these wildflower seeds to plant - strange fellow, he seemed to carry them everywhere. Somehow, as she'd looked down at the little dried things, a dormant interest had stirred within her; she wanted to plant them, to help life struggle out of them.
She felt herself blush as she recalled the walk home last night. Kerr had insisted on escorting her along the dark streets; she could still feel the warmth which radiated from him. Then there had been that magical moment on her doorstep when he'd placed a gentle hand under her chin to tilt it up. She had seen his wild head silhouetted blackly against the darkness of the sky; his unseen lips had brushed her forehead lightly, dry as bark. Her unruly memory had chosen that moment to flash a vivid replay of Doug Marrow's naked genitals.
A great stab of excitement had zipped through her, and she had nearly raised her lips to Kerr's. She went cold with embarrassment at the thought.
Unfamiliar feelings fizzed and crashed around inside her now as she tried to sort out the enormous muddle that was her mind. She had enjoyed the pub last night; was she being drawn from the straight path by the lure of alcohol and hedonism? But it had been so pleasant to be among carefree people, to be part of them. Surely God couldn't condemn something which seemed so harmless?
She snapped out of her reverie; the great cat was enthusiastically using the soft, freshly seeded earth as a toilet. "Dratted animal," Theola muttered, waving her trowel at it. "Get off!"
Ethniu, self-styled Daughter of the Sidhe, tidied up the ground. She ignored the trowel-wielding human, and washed a paw thoughtfully. The woman wasn't going to do anything useful about food for a while, quite obviously. Oh well, better get back to Tyrnannog and see if anything was cooking there.
She gave a tuneful "Mew" and foomed off into the aether, only to reappear in the middle of a scene of human chaos. Damn, she thought, wrong place. Oh well. She sat down and washed, to gain thinking-time.
She was in a huge room, full of people yelling "Gerbil" and "Order" at each other.
Something skittered over the benches, and Ethniu's whiskers twitched forward. Ah. A mouse? Snack-time. She leaped after the snack, using a few irrelevant humans as jumping-off points en route. Her claws made for greater purchase on their soft laps as she kicked off from them. She scarcely noticed their meaningless cries of "Ow - oof".
At last, the rodent scuttled across the floor, up an ornate table-leg and into a cage full of other tasty bites. It turned and twitched its nose rudely at Ethniu.
Lunch shouldn't do things like that, the Daughter of the Sidhe grumbled to herself as she wandered out of the room. It wasn't ethical.
Gerald sat and stared at the chaos below him. A furrow of doubled-over MPs showed where the Gerbil had passed, closely followed by that strange cat. The parliamentary shouts had degenerated into groans; he winced in sympathy.
It looked as though business was over for the day. Very few of the front benchers were unscathed; most of them were supporting each other as they staggered out of the Hall.
The Member for West Sleasford slumbered on.
As Gerald followed the others into the Lobby, deep in a muddle of thought, Sir Liam caught hold of his shoulder and held him at arm's length. "Fonsbrick-Smythe," the Great Man said, "ah, - Gerald, have you seen Linsey recently?"
"Uh, hello Sir Liam. Well - a couple of days..."
"I thought not." Sir Liam's hand patted the shoulder. "Strictly between us, that cousin of mine is pining. You wouldn't want that, would you? No, I thought not. You go and say you're sorry to the silly little bitch or she'll throw you over." He leaned against a Lobby pillar, his expression more of a sneer than usual as Gerald bent down to stroke a large cat. "A stupid animal-lover, are you? Now then, what is this nonsense you've got hold of - all this stuff about funding Freedom?"
Gerald straightened up in his eagerness. "Well, it's like this - my constituency have presented me with a petition- "
"Tsk," Sir Liam shook his head. "you don't want to take notice of such things. How can the populace know what is best for them? No no. The best policies avoid anarchy, of course. Well, this VR bunch of yours, they have an anarchic attitude - they have already refused to put the necessary control devices into their software. They want everyone to have 'freedom to choose.' Well, what if we had a mass-murderer free to choose? What then?"
Gerald shook his head; there was something wrong, but he couldn't quite put his finger-
Sir Liam patted his shoulder again, and his voice gained an edge. "Think about it, Gerald. You wouldn't want to lose your seat, would you? There are plenty of bright young men who would like to have a chance to stand for Fallekin Astow. Look, we have to talk some more about all this; come out riding with me this afternoon. But don't forget to pacify that fiancée of yours, or you'll lose her."
Gerald entered the Grand Square with a muddle in his head and a song in his heart. Linsey wanted rid of him, hurray!
Ethniu watched him go, and returned to her wash. The other human, the one called Sir Liam, remained and beckoned to another, who hovered nearby with a bowler hat in one nervous hand and a piece of paper in the other. "Well, Burke?"
The little man wiped his brow. "Sir, it's about this memo. You say you want the Stones uplifted."
"Yes?" Sir Liam's eyebrows rose.
"Yes, well, you do mean the Stones at Fallekin Barrows? It's just that they would be tremendously heavy, I don't know if we have the tackle - perhaps the army...?"
"Whatever it takes, Burke, whatever it takes. Just don't broadcast what you mean to do. Those Standing Stones must go; they're on my land, and I must be able to remove such a blot if I wish. That'll put paid to Beltane for good, and never mind all that namby-pamby 'Listed Building' rubbish that was slapped on the place. Good day, Burke." Sir Liam strode off. The little man remained, miserably twisting his piece of paper around in his hands.
Ethniu stopped washing and stared. Remove the Stones? Take away the anchor of Tyrnannog? She shuddered as she remembered the way it felt when the caverns used to rock about in the early days. Something would have to be done.
A few miles downstream, Doug Marrow whistled to himself as he tended his secret plot in the hidden west corner of the cemetery. Every so often he paused and shook his head. Had the vicar really come to the pub? It did seem downright unbelievable. Almost as unbelievable as this amazing Brigid woman who seemed to keep appearing. He stopped and leaned on his hoe. No, he must be going mad - not that it worried him too much. Just so long as nobody ever found out. He wished he could remember more about the erotic bits of this strange fantasy of his; or at least change one small detail. What kind of a sick mind would get itself all excited by creating the perfect, lust-filled beauty - and then hallucinate such a jab of massive pain, and pass out? He sighed and resumed his weeding.
"Foom!" There was that noise again, behind him.
No, he wasn't going to look around. If his brain wanted to play silly-buggers, that was its own affair-
"Urk!" he said, as he was lifted from behind and tossed over a maidenly shoulder.
"Ignore thy goddess, wouldst thou, mortal?"
"Gah!" he said, trying to get fine blonde hair out of his mouth.
She laughed. "Well, thou'rt going to learn to be a right little raver, even if it kills thee." At this point, Doug was deafened by her wild, tuneful whistle.
Deep in the bowels of Tyrnannog, Arianrod was concentrating on her latest figurine. She had given up worrying about those two missing SIK figures; without the life-force they couldn't do any harm, anyway. The loss still irritated her artistic soul, though.
She heard Brigid foom into the cavern behind her. She waved her hand at the glowing alcove, without removing her concentration from the clay, and said: "If you want some camomile tea, dear, it's ready."
"Camomile? Yuk!" said Brigid.
"Yes, dear, it is one of those delicious YUK-Z11-GAH herbs," Arianrod put down the figure and turned, wiping her fingers absently on her spangled gown. "Really, Kernunnos' quaint herbs are delicious."
"Yes, well I wouldn't want to drink them," said Brigid. "It's much more fun when a bunch of worshippers sits around a burner and sets fire to the stuff. Which brings me to Beltane - and him." She patted the man who was slumped across her shoulders.
"Now, what's this - isn't it the one you brought in before?"
Brigid frowned. "Yes, this is my priest; Doug. I wish thou couldst sort him out," she said, dumping Doug on the floor.
"Oh dear. Has it gone faulty again? Perhaps you should take another model. What's the problem this time?"
"He still won't stop fainting. He should be damn well used to me now."
"Don't swear, dear." Arianrod tapped her teeth thoughtfully, and walked around the crouching human. She reached out a finger to prod it, and it scuttled backwards. "Well, it looks alright. Plenty of life."
Brigid grabbed Doug's head and crushed it to her bosom. "Look," she said, ripping off the man's trousers to allow his loins to breathe, "he responds just fine when I do this."
She ran her hand over his crotch, and Arianrod was interested to see that the resulting tumescence was classic. Definitely one of her better creations.
Brigid went on: "But look what happens when I do this- "
She was right. Doug did faint. She hadn't mentioned his preliminary little squeal, though.
Arianrod shook her head. "No, no - there's nothing wrong with it. Brigid, dear, you really mustn't be so addle-brained. You've been spending far too much time with your SIK-A00-PERVT worshippers; this model is from YUK, remember? It simply wasn't designed for that particular twist. And anyway, you should cut your nails first."
When Doug's mind came out of hiding again, his back lay flat on an earthy surface. His nostrils were teased by the heady scent of warm, crushed herbs; as he moved one hand experimentally, it rustled against a feathery softness. Feathery leaves, he thought. He must have passed out right across his special, secret plot, dammit. Hell, he really would have to do something about these fantasies. But what was that faint chipping sound nearby?
He opened his eyes. There beside him, clad in a couple of leather strips and very little else, sat Brigid. She was busily clipping her nails.