Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
Uptonburgh's Grand Square brooded darkly under seething night-filled clouds. Aggie shivered in the wind as she scuttled toward the Angel of Death statue, and Mr. Dimbly pulled his coat closer around himself. Ornate lamps dotted the Square and cast shadows around the marble figures.
"Oh Mr. Dimbly -gasp-, they're not here" wailed Aggie, glancing wildly around. "What'll we do?"
"Now now, pull yourself together; we're just a bit early." Mr. Dimbly lowered his shoulder-bag to the ground. It was satisfyingly heavy, in spite of the crystals which had been taken by those god-forsaken animals. "Remember that we are here to get cash for the Lord's work. If we can rally the forces of good against the evils of Beltane- "
"But we stole them; what if He's angry? The sky's so - so..."
Mr. Dimbly clicked his tongue against his teeth. "It's only a storm, Aggie; the Lord provides storms so that the fields may be fruitful." At that moment, a particularly large fireball rose into the sky and twirled into sparks.
Aggie gave a little squeal. "Oh Mr. Dimbly, but what about those? -gasp-. It's a judgement, oh!"
Another fireball crashed across the sky and disappeared into the clouds; Mr. Dimbly gulped and shook his head. "The Lord moves in mysterious ways, Aggie, you know that."
At that moment a discreet cough sounded behind him; he whirled around, temporarily losing his diplomatic poise. "Ack," he said.
A dapper little man from the Drongan delegation stood there, all toothy smile, bowing. "It is my sorrow, honourable sir, for shocking you. You will forgive this humble person, yes? It is that you have for us the so very particular items, is it not?"
It was. Mr. Dimbly entered enthusiastically into some spirited bargaining; he emerged with a triumphant "Done!"
The Drongan gave another flash of smile as he accepted the bag of crystals; he said: "Indeed; this humble person is happy to have done the honourable sir."
"Heathens," Mr. Dimbly muttered to himself. Couldn't even speak the language properly. But at least heathen money had its uses in the Lord's work, praise be.
Aggie had watched the transaction eagerly, but now she frowned in thought. "What do you want these bits of rock for? I mean, if you don't mind my asking..."
"Aggie! How many times must I tell you - the sin of curiosity!"
"Indeed, and the beautiful lady honours us by her interest. These are so useful to my people in the matter of jewellery- "
"Well, they are pretty I suppose." Aggie sounded doubtful.
The Drongan gave a light laugh. "This servant humbly apologises; he has misled the beautiful lady. The crystals are of a substance valuable to our industry; I believe the word, it is - catalyst? Yes. In a vat of a special formula, they make a transformation."
"I see." Aggie nodded. "But you're always wanting more. Does that mean - you can't keep using the same ones?"
"Really, Aggie," Mr. Dimbly finished examining the money, and turned in apology to the Drongan. "You must forgive her; she's never been very bright. She is one of the Lord's children - but thick as treacle."
"Indeed, honourable sir, this child of your Lord asks questions so bright that her great beauty is but a glimmer to their glow. These crystals alter slowly from such usefulness; it is as though they grow. After - oh - many applications, they - I think you would say evolve? Yes. It is that they can be used to make big place in computers, then." He felt in his pocket and produced a softly-glowing pendant. He handed it to Aggie with a flourish. "It would do me deep honour if the beautiful lady would accept this small gift. It will match her glorious eyes."
Aggie flushed bright pink and her eyes glistened in the lamplight. "Thank you," she breathed, holding the pendant against her cheek. "-gasp- It's lovely."
The toothy smile flashed again as the Drongan bowed and left.
"Poppycock." said Mr. Dimbly. "Foreign nincompoop. 'Glorious eyes' indeed." A crack of thunder made him glance upward, just in time to receive a gallon of rain in the face.
The clouds emptied themselves with vigour. Mr. Dimbly shook water out of his eyes; as he stood silent under a torrent of rain, in his shrinking woollen suit, he wondered whether it was a judgement after all. He'd take his congregation to a proper church tomorrow, really he would.
The sun approached the morning with caution. It arose, pale and wan, on the Sunday before Beltane, and peered down at the damp village of Fallekin Astow. Not a great deal was going on down there, but at least those fireballs had stopped. It warmed to its task; its rays felt their way down the church spire and glistened on the damp roofing tiles, which snapped and creaked in response.
Beneath the protesting roof, the old organ wheezed tunelessly under the Postmistress' practised digits. A scent of pine wafted from the flower arrangements near the altar and mingled, in the vicar's nostrils, with the faint mustiness of rotting floorboards.
Theola's tired eyes looked down on her congregation from the eastern corner of her massive pulpit; a tight knot of frustration fought in her stomach with a depressed lassitude and last night's baked beans. The beans were winning.
Kerr wasn't down there. Well, she thought, he never said he would be, did he? No, but if he'd really cared... Well, never mind that. What about Doug Marrow? He wasn't there, either, and he damn well - sorry God - ought to be. Instead, what did she get? One or two villagers; and a whole crowd of those awful people from that GODLY commune, all dressed in smart suits and holy expressions. Was this what the Almighty wanted? Maybe. She sighed. The strange longings which had gripped her insides must assuredly be wrong, anyway; these were temptations which had to be denied. She had come to this painful decision in the dark part of last night, while tossing endlessly on her hot, lumpy mattress.
Okay then, if those two men didn't want to come, that was just fine by her. It was their own damned souls, what did she care if they wouldn't listen to God's word? She should ignore them in future, or at least be cool and distant; they simply had to be tools of Satan.
She prefaced her text with a quote from Colossians, her feelings almost choking her as she read: "Then put to death those parts of you which belong to the earth - fornication, indecency, lust- "
"Hallelujah!" the interruption rose from the third row.
Theola blinked and hurried on: "- foul cravings, and the ruthless greed which is nothing less than idolatry- "
Theola located the speaker; it was one of those dreadful GODLY people. She felt herself flush. Well, that was enough of the quote anyway. She put aside the Good Book, and launched into her sermon. "Last night I went down to your local house of shame, the pub. There I saw people satisfy their fleshly desires- "
"Hear hear!" The neat man in the third row bounced in his pew and shook his fist in the air.
"Look, will you please stop interrupting?" Theola poured a gut-ful of hate and frustration into the glare which she aimed at him. He wriggled uncomfortably.
She kept the heat fixed on him for a couple of seconds, and then continued: "As you can see, the Almighty brackets the sins of lust, greed- " her gaze flicked him again as he opened his mouth, and he winced. "- and the worship of graven images together in the same class. So what does this tell us? It warns us, of course, to beware of the passions of the flesh. Do you recall what our loving God did to those people who insisted on worshipping idols?" She was really getting into her stride now. She ran her hands along the stonework as she stomped over to the west side of the pulpit and transfixed a woman who wore a fruit salad of a hat. "Death!" Theola yelled over the sound of groaning floorboards.
The woman jumped and raised a nervous hand to her head.
Theola straightened up and projected her voice to the back of the church. "Our dear God rained death and destruction on these slackers, these weak unbelievers, in order to save their souls. Why, then, do you see graven images all over this church?"
She glanced back at the woman with the hat, who shook her head and squirmed.
"Well, you can be sure that they aren't a remnant of ancient Paganism. Surely great wrath would descend on the building, on such a continuing sin, if this were so. No, God's workings are mysterious- "
"Told you so, Aggie," came a whisper from the third row.
"- and it must surely be that these ornate heads, and other symbols of nature are designed to make us contemplate the majesty of the Almighty's designs on this earth, and the horrors that Hell holds. She would remind us of our former sins, that we may repent and glorify Her now- "
"No but, excuse me madam, the Lord is glorious in His male majesty- "
Theola put her hands over her ears. "Sex - that's all anyone thinks of; you're all damned!" She shouted over his twitter; her voice echoed against the vault of the roof. A hush fell, and she grasped the stonework again. "Look," she said, "God must be sexless; would She - or He - need to be bound by the same mortal laws and lusts with which She tests Her - His - children?"
The man in the third row jumped to his feet and waved his arms in the air. "Blasphemer, repent! Lo, even in our midst, see how the Devil- "
Theola stormed back to his side of the pulpit; halfway across, she caught sight of Kerr by the door. Her heart gave a few back-flips, her stomach stopped grumbling, and she slipped neatly on a patch of rot. She almost didn't feel the pain as her elbow hit the floor; the whole of her was bubbling with joy - he had come, after all.
She scrambled to her feet, the scent of oak leaves strong around her; she felt his warm presence, and then his bark-rough hand was on her arm. He must have run the full length of the church to reach her, and yet he wasn't even breathing hard.
She looked up into his wild, laughing eyes and all her doubts concerning Satan's tool evaporated. Maybe Satan had a bit too much bad press. "Thank you," she breathed. The man in the third row was still yelling, and she frowned. Kerr's gaze followed hers; an unfelt breeze stirred his hair, and a dark shadow crossed his eyes.
"See," the man cried, "the Lord strikes down those who distort His name- Gack!" Kerr hefted the man over his wide shoulders and carried him effortlessly out of the church. A short silence followed, during which the windows darkened and a rising wind whistled through cracks. Theola shivered. She tried to carry on with her sermon, but the passion for it had gone out of her.
Then Kerr and the dust-filled sunshine returned; peace filled the building. Theola felt inspiration flood back. She found herself talking about the carvings as works of great beauty, created simply as a reminder of God's wonders rather than an awful warning; perhaps even the lusts of the body weren't that bad except under certain circumstances...
When the service had concluded with a couple of glad hymns and a plea for contributions to the Restoration Fund - Theola said that previous donations of buttons and VR-arcade tokens, though pretty, were of no use in replacing floorboards - the evicted man was discovered outside, sitting white-faced on the wall and babbling about Evil Incarnate.
Sunday meant nothing to Shearweird Forest. Under the canopy of eager young leaves, squeaks and rustles bore witness to the brisk business of every day. Worms continued their job of tunnelling and fertilising; small birds and mammals carried on digging and trapping food; and Egrette played tic-tac-toe over whom to eat today.
Aha! A shrew! The great huntress dives... She speared down in classic pose, just as angry shouts erupted in the nearby clearing. The little creatures scattered in panic. Bugger, thought the great huntress as she picked herself, mouseless, out of a pile of festering humus. Well, the stupid thing would probably have tasted bitter anyway. She spat out some decaying leaves and flew off to see what all the noise was about.
Drew Fareman sat in front of his van, the taste of fury bile-sharp on his tongue, and shook a uniformed woman by the neck-tie. "What do you mean by it?" he roared.
"Gack," she said, and pawed at his hands.
"Sir, this will not do!" Four more figures in bottle-green uniforms emerged from the trees. "Let her go; you are violating bye-law 6B, section D1e." The spokesman whipped a slim, tattered volume out of his pocket and flicked through it. "Yes, here - in the clause relating to the violation of personal privacy- "
"'Personal privacy' indeed. So this little skunk wasn't violating mine by ferreting about among my possessions?" Drew gave a disgusted snort and flung the woman away from him; she staggered a few yards away and massaged her throat. By now a whole crowd of interested Travellers and horses had gathered. Drew noticed Holly whispering in Papillon's ear; the stallion bared his teeth and snickered slightly. Drew wrenched his attention back to the uniformed spokesman.
"Of course not, sir. In order to protect civil liberty we, the Guardian Officers of Land, Ethics and Morality, have every right to enter property and take appropriate action as necessary." The spokesman flicked a laminated card out of his pocket and stepped forward, brandishing it. He drew himself to his full height and his voice took on a note of pride. "We are the custodians of Land Rights. That's my authorisation - completely in order. We can go anywhere, do anything, to protect property."
"Even to destroying mine, I gather."
"I never did!" The woman's voice sounded rough; she coughed slightly and carried on. "I only knocked over a couple of pots of paint. You have an alcohol distillation device in there; do you have a licence for it?"
Drew laughed. "That's not an illegal still. Don't you know anything about chemicals?" She shook her head and he carried on with glee. "It's simply equipment to facilitate the action of zymase on glucose such that the medicinal compound of ethylated and carbonated oxygen can be produced in its purest form. It is most efficacious when applied to nervous disorders caused by stress."
The woman sniffed. "Looked like a still to me. Anyway, I'm sure it's illegal. Hey," she turned to the group's spokesman, "isn't there something in the rules about dangerous chemical experiments?"
At that moment, Papillon erupted from the shrubbery behind the spokesman, knocked him over, and nipped the booklet out of his hand. The horse then proceeded to dance around the clearing, munching on the book and leaving a trail of saliva-sodden bits behind him.
The spokesman picked himself up and glowered. "You are treading on dangerous ground, my friends. We are here on official business; firstly, someone has made an unauthorised entry onto Sir Liam Hang's personal property, and has thereupon performed an act of vandalism. You are the obvious perpetrators. Therefore, we are hereby required to inform you that any further entry upon Fallekin Barrows shall be an actionable offence. Secondly," he waited for the jeers and catcalls to die down, "secondly - we have reason to believe that you are harbouring a criminal who stole a Teledildonics machine from his landlord. We shall search your vans for the proof whether you like it or not."
Drew looked blandly round at the indignant Travellers. "Oh, but of course! Can't have a criminal around the place. Holly - make sure that these gentlefolk are given absolute co-operation."
Holly nodded. Drew sat peacefully at the bottom of his ramp and listened to the busy sounds of searching, interspersed with the occasional "Yow! Get that damn horse away from me. Look, lady, I don't care if he is only playing; he's not going to play with my - ow!"
"Oh dear," he said as the ruffled quintet emerged, in a discouraged heap, from the final van; "nothing at all? Well, why not come and try some of my medicinal Mix. It's very relaxing, ideal for moments like this."
A few glasses later, the GOLEMs wove their way home, leaning on each other and singing at full volume - and off-key - the odds about "Frankie and Johnny" being lovers.
"Ah well," Drew sighed as he settled into his second bottle, "I take it they didn't find Farrell's machine?"
Holly grinned. "Papillon saw to that. Here, don't take all the Mix, pal. Gimme some. No, Papillon - let go, damn you. Horses don't drink booze. Oh, very well." Earnest drinking ensued, accompanied only by slurps, faint whickerings, and the eternal rustle of a busy forest.
Doug Marrow felt at one with the Forest this morning. He wandered toward Sloshforth's favourite fishing-stream with a reminiscent smile on his face, a sack of herbs on his back, and a pronounced limp. He neither remembered nor cared that it was Sunday.
Ah, what a goddess, he thought to himself. Oh wow. A man could get used to being flattened like that- "Urk!" Something soft hit him in the back, knocked him over, and sat on him. As he lay there, breathing in the heavy fumes of fermented humus and blinking at a few indignant beetles, he sighed. Life seemed a trifle out of control these days.
Then a stench of seriously rotting eggs hit him, and he swivelled his eyes. "Oh shit," he said. "A lion. A stinking great lion."
"Hey," a man's voice echoed from above, "don't insult Leo. He doesn't like it."
The man was right. Leo bared a frightening set of gums, and huffed. "Gah," said Doug, when he got his breath back. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. He smells of violets, I swear he does."
The weight on his back shifted, and he sat up. Around him he saw an amazing array of creatures - including a heavily-scarred man with a huge nose, who bore a startling resemblance to a proboscis monkey. In fact, he could have been the brother of the one over there-
"Hello," the man broke into his thoughts. "We're just robbing you; don't take it personally. We've a living to make."
"Thank heaven for that, aha ha -hic-, I thought they were going to eat me." Doug gulped. His brain kicked him. What am I saying? His mouth babbled on. "Not that I want them to, of course, but that is a lion - and isn't that a tiger...?" He shivered; he'd just caught sight of a pair of drooling vultures.
The man shook his head. "No no; nice of you to offer, but their teeth wouldn't stand up to it. I suppose Leo could give you a nasty suck... No. Come on, turn out your pockets."
Everyone looked a little depressed at the haul; apart from the sack of dried herbs, there were just two hip-flasks of Jeston's Ultra-Special brandy, a bent pocket-knife, and half a mint humbug.
Doug shrugged. "I'd have thought this stealing business was a pretty hit-and-miss affair. Well, I mean - how much have you made this week?"
The man thought for a minute. "Uh - a few coins and crystals, three bags of sweets, and two bananas. Okay, so it's not great. But what else can an out-of-work circus do?"
Doug sucked his teeth and shook his head. He was beginning to feel sorry for this decrepit bunch. Also he wanted his bag of herbs back. He riffled through his brain, and then it hit him. Of course! He smacked the heel of his hand against his forehead. "Look, I can grow things. You can grab people. Listen, let's start up a partnership; you can be my sales team. Beltane's coming up fast, lots of worshippers will be needing herbs..."
Half an hour and the contents of his hip-flasks later, Doug slung his sack back over his shoulder and hiccoughed at his splendid new partners. Fine fellows every one. He was still busy trying to get his feet to agree on a direction and stick to it, when he heard a "foom" behind him. "Uh," he said, and fell over.