Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
It was the night before Beltane, and all through the Forest little rustles and squeaks rose on the clear air. The moon shone down with all her might - only slightly obscured by silver-streaked clouds - and lit the Travellers' clearing. A bonfire was doing brisk business, crackling and sending sparks up to flare and die in the moonlight.
Farrell squatted beside it, poking at his own baking potato with a stick. He watched dancing figures form and twist in the fire's depths, and listened to Holly and Gerald bickering away. Holly was using the drip-drip-drip technique of words to wear down her opponent; Gerald was resisting remarkably well. This argument about going to the party had been going on for days.
Though large, this fire was but a slip of a thing in comparison with the monster version which was forming behind Farrell; he glanced over his shoulder at a scene of concentrated bustle.
The Travellers were clambering, ant-like, over a massive heap of brushwood which was being built up on a roughly-made cart. An ingenious way to get around the ban on fire-building at the Stones, he thought. These people seemed to be truly dedicated to spiritual matters. Well, most of the time anyway, he amended, as a clatter of falling wood burst from the pile followed by an impressive string of curses.
Ceredwen and Natterjak watched, cackling and ribbit-ing as they took turns at sucking the bagpipes.
From somewhere nearby in the Forest, a wild tune drifted across the clearing; Farrell listened intently. It sounded very like Kerr's horn-playing. He shrugged, rolled the potato out of the ashes and sat cross-legged to eat it. He was at peace; no longer did each minute without the Cap seem like an endless desert. Vinny was always in his mind, of course - in fact, so vivid was she that he kept catching impossible glimpses of her out of the corner of his eye. If he stayed quite still, didn't try to grasp her, she would stay there, tantalisingly close. If he just reached out a hand to the side... Oh yes, he looked around eagerly, he could feel her silky- Oops.
"Oy!" said Holly, her eyes dangerously dark, "Pal - if you want to keep that hand, go practice with it on someone else."
Farrell looked around at the fire-lit faces with interest. "Have you got anyone in mind?"
"Just remove that hand, pal. Or shall I set Papillon onto you?" Holly patted the dark flank which supported her back; the horse looked round and bared his teeth at Farrell.
Farrell removed his hand hurriedly. "Just as well," Vinny's disembodied voice whispered in his ear, "or I might have had to use these on an intimate part of you." A metallic weight appeared from nowhere and thumped down into his groin. He winced and inspected the object; then he broke out in a cold sweat. The jagged jaws of a pair of pinking-shears glinted at him in the moonlight.
Whew, he thought, I'm going to have to do something about my imagination. Or stop drinking.
At which point, he grabbed the nearest bottle of Drew's Mix and took a deep draught. He had just finished choking when, eerie in the distance, rose the wild howl of a wolf... A wolf? Farrell's head jerked up and he listened intently. Yes, there it was again. Oh well, that made everything clear as treacle. He was absolutely bonkers. What the hell, this potato was good. Warm and earthy, a smoked flavour.
Gerald's voice started up again. "I say, Holly - you never call me pal. Why do you call him pal?"
"Because, Toff, he's a human being."
"Oh, look here, so am I. And my name's Gerald."
"What, that my name's Gerald?"
"No, chicken-brain." Holly laughed and thumped his shoulder. "Prove that you're human."
"Go to that party."
Gerald groaned and put his head in his hands. "All right. You win; I'll go. God, I hate those affairs. And Linsey - she's going to think I mean..."
Holly grabbed his shoulders and rocked him. "Don't be daft. You could always do something outrageous, and put her right off you."
Gerald's expression brightened. "I say! Yes; you mean I could maybe - eat quiche with a spoon or something?"
"That's the boy - pal," said Holly, giving him and affectionate pat.
He caught hold of her hand. "Holly - I say, if I do manage to get rid of Linsey, would you do a fellow the honour..." He coughed, and started again, the words coming out in a rush. "I mean, would-you-marry-me?"
"Yes," said Holly.
"No, don't refuse straight out - listen a minute; I know you don't like my family and so on, but I'm- What did you say?"
At which point the fireside erupted into a whirling Gerald, his arms flailing around to the sound of wild whoops of joy.
"I think he's happy," Farrell said to Holly. "Have a potato."
What the hell, he thought, all these people were together - he glanced at Megan and Drew, who were earnestly examining a depressed-looking pile of wires - so why shouldn't I just put on my Vinny disc? He wiped a few crumbs of potato off his chin, smoothed the Cap over his temples, and settled back hoping to feel the warmth of his Vinny's arms. Whereupon he promptly fell backward into the cool grassy embrace of the ground. This was all wrong - she wasn't there! He sprang upright, clutching his pack to his chest, and looked around wildly. "Vinny!" he yelled.
Ah, there - was that her? Yes, her arm flashed white in the moonlight; she was waving at him from Drew's side. "C'mon, Farrell," she called; "over here."
Drew, a little way back from the fire, was examining an outmoded computer which Megan had proudly produced. Its bent casing drooped dispiritedly over his hands, and the flat, scored screen frowned at him. He cleared his throat. "Yes, my dear. Very nice. Umm - where did you find it?"
She looked at him sharply and sniffed. "No need to get cocky. There's always loads to scavenge on the local tip; think you can do any better?"
Drew shook his head and grinned. He planted a smacking kiss on her forehead. "Bad-tempered bitch. No, really it's just fine. The guts of the thing are all there, so we can work with it. Quite a family effort this is turning out to be, isn't it? What with Vinia's cra- "
At that moment, a cry of "Hey! Let me go; we are here to glorify the Lord's work- " rose above the natural hubbub.
The voice was interrupted by: "You're stealing."
"It's the Lord's land!"
"Those crystals are government property - or will be soon."
Several people erupted into the clearing; Farrell was about to wave these beautiful visitors welcome, when Vinny knocked his arm down.
"Quick, put your Cap away, for goodness' sake," she hissed in his ear.
Her tone was so urgent that he slipped the Cap into his pack without thinking; he was startled to feel a soft kiss on his lips, and to hear Vinny say: "Thanks, Farrell. It's GOLEMs!" So flummoxed was he by this lingering after-effect, that it took him several second to focus on the new arrivals.
Sure enough, they were GOLEMs. Three of them, two men and a woman in their bottle-green uniforms; they clutched two struggling prisoners. "Put me down," said one of these unfortunates, "do not tempt me to strike you."
"Oh shush -gasp-," said the other prisoner, "violence, Mr. Dimbly!"
"Aggie, it's the Lord's work we do here, and this is Common land- "
"No it isn't," said the uniformed woman, "that's what we're here for. To tell you all to get off this land immediately; government orders."
"What?" Drew wheeled around and propelled his chair toward her.
She backed away, her hand to her throat in memory of their last encounter.
The Police spokesman stepped hurriedly in front of Drew. "No getting physical, now. We've got a job to do, same as anyone else. You just move off of here quietly and we'll forget the whole thing."
"Bloody Toffs," Holly yelled, squashing the remains of her potato into Gerald's face.
"Hang on," he muttered, wiping gobbets from his nose, "this can't be right."
Mr. Dimbly had escaped from his captor's loosened grip; he shook his fist at the Travellers. "Oh yes, get rid of them," he said, "they're yobbos, all set to desecrate the holy places. But the land belongs to the rest of us."
"This is Common land, like that twit says," Drew nodded toward Mr. Dimbly. "You can't throw us off."
Aggie tip-toed over to the fire and warmed her hands. She glanced up at Farrell and gave a quick little smile. "I do like a nice bonfire; it smells so - so - apple-smoky." Her gaze flickered around, little darting peeps. "Ooh look -gasp- Mr. Dimbly! Isn't that going to be a beautiful big bonfire?"
"Aggie - come back here at once. Fraternising with the enemies of righteousness!" Aggie scurried back to his side.
"I say," Gerald called out, "what's all this about?"
"Ah. Sir," the spokesman mopped his brow; he sounded relieved, "orders from Sir Liam. You'll understand - this is his property- "
"Now tell a fellow the truth, do. We haven't passed any such Bill."
"Well, no; but Sir Liam has a provisional eviction order, and we are confident that his personal claim to the land is good. It's well supported; here's a copy of the local petition. As you can see, his local agent, a Mr. Dimbly, has gathered a sufficient number of names are here to allow for transfer of the land- " the man gasped as Mr. Dimbly grabbed the paper out of his hand.
"But - but - It's a lie!" said Mr. Dimbly, grinding it into the grass with his heel, "I'm nobody's agent; that's our petition for the land! He's used us... How dare he say we- The bastard!"
"Mr. Dimbly - swearing!" Said Aggie.
Mr. Dimbly was indeed swearing. He did it with passion; he did it with verve. He brought whole new dimensions to the activity. This was fine art - Farrell was impressed. Even Ceredwen stopped drinking to listen.
"I say," said Gerald, wandering over to rescue the paper. "This won't do, you know. It simply isn't a popular majority; for Common land to be appropriated, he'll need more backing than this."
The Police spokesman whipped a brand-new booklet out of his pocket and looked around warily for pouncing horses before thumbing through it.
"Here, sir, I think you'll find the provision for such appropriations under Article U6h, Bye-law P00, after the reference to pimping- "
"No, look here, what about Section- " Gerald paused to scratch his head and remove another piece of potato, "- Z1p, Article Y0, referring to agricultural land, special reference livestock?"
The man leafed through hurriedly and found the place. Then he re-read it. He breathed hard. "Well," he said at last, "I suppose it might apply; do they have any chickens here?"
"I say," Gerald sounded hurt, "would I bring it to your attention if they didn't?"
"I'm sorry sir, but we'll have to have some proof- "
"Oh very well. Holly," said Gerald, turning his back on the Police and winking frantically, "go over to the coop and wake the poor things up."
"The coop?" Holly looked bewildered.
"Yes, go on, but don't let them out." Gerald jerked his head toward her van and winked again.
She disappeared behind it and made some "Here, chuck-chuck" noises.
Gerald opened his mouth; a sudden deafening sound of squawks and cock-a-doodling burst out across the clearing.
Farrell was stunned. "How does he do that?" he whispered to Megan.
"Practice, I suppose," she shrugged. Have you ever seen my 'drowning woman'?"
Gerald turned back to the Police in triumph, just as Holly reappeared. She looked a trifle flushed, and her eyes were full of laughter. "See?" said Gerald.
"Indeed, sir," said the spokesman, "but- "
Ceredwen's voice interrupted. "Have a drink for your troubles," she said, then, as they hesitated, "Good Wildflower Nectar never did anyone any harm. Or not much, anyway. Come on."
"We're not drinking with godless yobbos;" said Mr. Dimbly, straightening his tie; "come, Aggie." He strode off, followed by Aggie, who cast longing glances at the cheerful fire.
The GOLEMs looked at each other and licked their lips. A few swigs of Wildflower Nectar later, and they were licking everyone else's lips. By the time the evening had finished, they wandered off with a whole load of visions which had absolutely nothing to do with any known Virtual Reality.
When they left the Forest, they'd had a particularly surreal encounter with a lion, three elephants, and a proboscis monkey. That monkey was to haunt the GOLEM woman's dreams for many nights.
The mysterious packet of herbs in her coat pocket, also, was to haunt and puzzle her for weeks - until she had a sudden impulse to burn it. After that, she never looked back. Or forward.
In the nearby grove on that night before Beltane, the pussy-willow tree was rustling gently to itself. Ooh, that was nice, it thought. Natasha had wrapped her arms almost around it, and was stroking its bark and murmuring gently. A decent child, he purred; and indeed, perhaps Kernunnos wasn't too bad either, for a god.
At that moment, the god was playing a soothing melody on his horn, a hollow lilt of a tune; something like the wind strumming through winter boughs.
Haigho, Doug and Orangputeh sat beside poor comatose Arboriana, counting the night's takings. The sale of specially packaged herbs was going well. The moon glinted off several pairs of interested animal eyes, and glistened in the warmth which steamed from their bodies.
"Thirty-five, forty-five, fifty!" said Haigho. The monkey nudged him. "Oh yes; also three bananas, a knitted poodle, and a pair of scarlet knickers - er - how did you get hold of those, Orangputeh?"
The monkey looked up at the moon, humming to himself, and twiddled his fingers together.
Haigho shrugged. "Anyway, Doug - those herbs of yours have gone down like ninepins. Just like our customers, come to think of it. Got enough for tomorrow?"
Doug nodded happily, and then a wisp of unease crossed his face as Brigid foomed into the gathering.
She wore a voluminous, purple cloak; the hood was pulled forward and almost covered her face. "Come, my priest," she said, and grabbed Doug's arm. "Thou hast a load of lines to learn for tomorrow's rave-up."
"Ah, yes ma'am, certainly," said Doug, as she dragged him into the bushes. His raised voice wafted back at the group: "Uh - you lot will have to sell the rest yourselves... Ow! Put me down, woman. Yes, yes, I'll do it, give me time. For heaven's sake, cut those nails!"
The pussy-willow looked down at Kernunnos, and rustled. "The sap is rising, you know," it said wistfully. "My Arboriana - well, I look at her, still wintering, and I long in all of my flower-buds for her..."
Kernunnos put his horn down and patted its bark. "Don't fret. She'll be back with you soon; either that, or you'll all cease to exist. So why worry?"
Why indeed, thought the tree wryly. Such a casual thought - "cease to exist." Oh yes, it is indeed a marvel, having a god for a friend.
The moon blinked, as a wisp of cloud passed its face, and wandered off to look for something more rewarding to shine on. It found Theola, kicking her heels on the churchyard wall, gazing up at the night sky.
Her mind still a muddle, Theola had come up here to cool her hot, sleepless cheeks and absorb the majestic silence of the church. So it was a bit of a jolt when she heard the eerie howling of some animal. A dog, perhaps, she thought. The sound came nearer in bursts, deep and sad, until it resolved itself into a shadowy figure which reared up before her. Two huge paws planted themselves on her knees, and saliva dribbled onto her hands.
"Ugh." She said, and chuckled as she patted its massive head. "You horrid creature. I've met you before, haven't I?"
"Ow-ooo-ooo!" it howled, and pushed her off the wall.
The ensuing tumble of legs and paws felt most undignified, involving as it did the complex interaction of a sensitive pair of ears, a long tongue, and a wet nose.
Theola was still shrieking with laughter when she felt a pair of hands grab her ankles and pull her out from the melee. She sat up and came face to face with Sloshforth, who knelt there, panting.
"Hello," she said. "Whew, I'm exhausted! Thanks for rescuing me from a severe tickling."
He let out a long sigh and sat back. "Tickling - is that all Lupudana was doing? I thought- " Then his voice took on its habitual harshness. "Stupid woman. What did you have to go into my shack and get all pally with Lupudana for? Now look what you've done."
"Oh, don't be silly. It's not my fault that you leave your place unlocked. Is that animal yours after all, then?"
He ignored her. Lupudana's bulky figure crawled toward her and placed a heavy head in her lap; Theola watched Sloshforth scratch the beast's ears, and felt curiosity stir under her irritation. "Why are you so horrid about women?" She asked.
"They're selfish and brainless."
Theola blinked. "That's comprehensive, to be sure. How can you say such a thing? You must have had a mother- "
"No?" Theola felt a faint scream coming on.
"No. Can't you understand English? Oh, someone must have borne me, I suppose. Whoever it was left me out in the Forest to die."
"Well, but you didn't die."
"Thanks to Lupu, here." Sloshforth pulled one of the beast's ears and it growled with pleasure.
"Lupu? But that's a dog!"
"Wash your mouth out, little lady. Lupu is a Werewolf-press."
"A wolf. She's the guardian of the word, of truth."
"Aha - got you!" Theola jabbed a finger at him. "She. Your precious wolf is a... Er. Did you say 'wolf'?" She looked down at the slavering face which lay on her lap, and shivered. Then Lupudana slobbered over her fingers and huffed at her. Theola wiped her fingers on the wolf's head, and jabbed a finger at Sloshforth. "Well, she's very nice anyway, and she's female."
He leaned back against the wall and gazed at the moon. "Women are mushy. Lupu isn't mushy. Okay, so she's got tits. So have I; they just don't make any milk."
"So that makes me the same gender as you, I suppose," said Theola, trying to keep a straight face. "Mine don't make milk either."
He turned his head, and looked at her with his lop-sided smile. "Maybe you're a wolf. Lupudana's never tried to leave the raft since we shacked up there, not for anyone else." He paused for a moment. "It's Beltane tomorrow, little lady. A big day in this village. Are you going to be there?"
She shook her head. "I don't think so. How can I? It's against God's- "
"Ah, phooey." He pulled himself to his feet and stalked off. "Come on, Lupu." He looked back over his shoulder. "This woman is blinkered."
Theola's hand crept up to her face. Blinkers, she thought, as Lupudana scrabbled to her feet. The wolf's eyes glinted greenly in the moonlight; something hard dropped from those massive jaws onto her lap, and then with a farewell howl Lupudana loped away.
Theola picked the object out of her lap; it was hard-edged and cold. She felt a strange desolation creep through her bones; or maybe it was the damp, she thought, clambering to her feet to brush the dew from her dress.
Then she held her trophy up to the moonlight; it was a wooden block. Exquisitely etched onto it was a miniature image of the foliate head.