Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
The sun shrugged off the wisps of night and yawned a gold-pink wash of light over the horizon. It considered the possibility of rising.
Brigid let the cool air stir gentle against her skin. She was a dream of a figure, in a body-paint of soft greens; gold flames licked up her thighs and dabbled in her navel. Her back was straight, her ears tuned in to the celestial song which slipped across the horizon with this momentous dawn. She faced it in silent stillness from her position astride Leo; the choice of mount had seemed a pretty good one, she thought. Queen of the fires, and king of the jungle - a neat concept. She could picture herself, strong and pagan. Perfect; just one flaw. Her mount should have been bearing her with sturdy pride, his face a study of stern nobility; not lying flat on his back, snuffling gently to himself in expectation of a tummy-tickle.
Bloody cats, she thought; she gave him a final rub and tried to heave his limp, heavy body to its feet. But Leo was happy where he was. He behaved like jelly - purring jelly. Brigid pulled his front half upright; Leo purred. She let go to grab at his rear end, and he slithered back to the ground. He purred. She sat on his stomach and yelled obscenities at him. He purred even louder.
By the time she had negotiated a settlement, the sun had decided to climb over the horizon; the rustles and twitterings of the awakening Forest had gained full volume, and the circus had done its morning exercises.
Doug's voice wafted toward her in complaint from among the ravaged pussy-willows: "Stop that! Look, it took ages to get me costume right - stop eating it. Haigho, get this elephant off of me. You tell it what Brigid can do when she's mad - have you seen those nails?"
His complaints were lost in the heavy crackles and bangs of large animals on the move; the circus hove into sight. The sun now glinted off several restless eyes; the animals all peered from the shrubbery with alert anticipation. All except for a placidly swaying elephant, which had other matters on its mind. It was exploring Doug Marrow with an inquisitive trunk. The goddess looked her priest over with approval; his home-woven garb of fronds and twigs, lined as it was with soft catkins and topped by a frou-frou of Mayflowers, was perfect for a follower of the fertility goddess.
The sound that she awaited arose at last, harsh on the morning air. The Travellers' massive bonfire-cart creaked and groaned its way toward Fallekin Barrows in the faint illumination; the Travellers creaked and groaned in sympathy, as they shoved and pulled at it. Ceredwen sat on top of the heap, yelling encouragement and insults impartially.
"I say, why did you have to make this thing so heavy?" grumbled Gerald's voice from the rear. "Give a fellow a chance - splash on more of that axle-grease of Drew's."
"Save your breath and push, pal," Holly yelled back.
They pushed with vigour, they pushed with verve. They pushed so positively that Gerald perked up. "I say, this isn't so bad when you do it right. I was right about that grease, wasn't I? You know, I could swear this thing would move without us!"
He was quite correct. It would indeed; the land sloped downhill at the Forest's edge.
"What extra grease?" Holly said, glancing over her shoulder. "We didn't put... Look out!" Travellers scattered earnestly to right and left as the cart picked up speed.
"Alright, who's the smart alec who said we wouldn't need brakes?" said Holly. She extracted herself from the prickly embrace of a young hawthorn, only to fall into the clutches of a sales-conscious monkey. "No," she told Orangputeh wearily, "I don't need any more of your herbs. Look, I bought three packets - okay, okay. Stop doing that. I'll take the Special Incense..."
The cart bowled cheerfully down the slope, picking up speed, and crashed out of the edge of the Forest; wooden bearings squealed as it careered up the Barrows slope toward the top. "Whee!" yelled Ceredwen, brandishing her bagpipes.
The Stone sentinels glowered down in lofty silence. All this mayhem was obviously beneath them.
Back in the Forest, business was brisk. A group of pleased-looking circus animals sat on assorted Travellers and poked away at them. From the victims, anguished cries arose: "Look, you stupid creature, I already bought my incense; see? Ouch! Oh, alright, I'll buy another - no, not the 'Brigid', I'm a follower of - ouch! Yes yes, Brigid incense will be just perfect..."
Haigho glanced up from his latest successful sale, and looked toward the Barrows; his eyes widened, and he yelled: "The cart - hey, everyone, I'd run for it if I were you!"
His voice was cut off by the rumbling of the determined vehicle, which was on its way back with its load of brushwood. It was working hard at this moving business. One had to hand it to the cart, once an idea had been driven into its woodwork, there was no stopping it. It thundered fussily back into the Forest, Ceredwen urging it onward with banshee yodels.
Brigid stood frowning at the scene; Travellers hugged the ground all around. She tapped her whip against her thigh as she contemplated her potential worshippers. She had no objection in principle to their horizontal inclination - but she preferred the activity to be a bit more positive. Light the fires first, do a bit of worshipping, and then lie down and bonk your brains out; that was her motto.
As the cart teetered to a stop again and then gathered itself together for a third pass with a whoop, she made her decision. The ensuing sight of three elephants lumbering up the Barrows slope after the slowing cart was pretty impressive - although Haigho and Orangputeh marred the dignity of the occasion slightly by dancing about on the elephants' backs and yelling as they twirled a couple of lassoes.
The sun had climbed high, wiping the wisps of cloud from the sky with its warmth, by the time the cart had been caught and formally introduced to its final resting-place. It was an inspiring sight, one to stand back and contemplate. Preferably with something thirst-quenching.
The Barrows became a place of peace and tranquillity, broken only by earnest glugging noises and companionable sighs.
Gradually the sound of song and laughter began to grow from the Forest. "Aha!" Ceredwen said, peering thoughtfully at her emptying pipes, "Villagers. Good. Now then, has Jeston got a few barrels with him?"
The same dawn had washed down onto a scene of village bustle and laughter. Bright red and green strings of bunting fluttered from roof to sagging roof and twisted around chimneys; golden banners, decorated with green foliage and faces, swung from the eaves and from poles; and May-garlands wafted their fresh scent from every doorway. Every house was a scene of bustle and preparation - except for the vicar's.
Theola, having only got to sleep that dawn, was finally jerked awake by the echoes of cheers and music and an insistent thumping at her front door.
Bleary with lack of sleep, she flung on her kaftan, stumbled downstairs and opened her door - to be met by what appeared to be a hundred assorted russet-clad fairies, a score of animated bushes, and a Horned God. They whirled and jumped and laughed in the sun's mid-day glare; Theola clutched her kaftan close around her neck and gulped.
"Ye're ready, then?" said Kerr, catching hold of her hand and pulling her among the dancers, past a flashing kaleidoscope of cheery faces.
Three thoughts jostled in her mind: Wow, where'd he get that costume? ... Damn, I only just cleaned my kaftan, ... and Eh? She chose the latter. "Wha'?" she said, intelligently.
"For the blessing, o' course. We'll get the holy water now."
"Holy water?" Theola said. Then she was twirled around again and again, with no breath left to ask questions. She simply worried in silence. Where were they taking her? The Forest - heavens, it must be something to do with their heathen celebrations. Oh God, what should she do? Well, right now she didn't have much choice.
The chance to make a choice came when the whirlpool of dancers subsided at last; they came to rest around a Forest spring. The water welled up from beneath an ancient, roughly carved rock. In spite of the weathering of its surface, a foliate head still grinned up at her from it with a powerful presence. A hush fell around Theola in an expectant blanket; even the trees seemed to hold their breaths.
Jeston, dressed as a particularly portly fairy with a large orange and purple cravat, bounced up to her. "Ahem. Excuse me, miss; you need this for Blessing the Barrows. This is your first Beltane, isn't it? If I may assist..." He pulled a half-empty bottle of Special from a pocket and emptied it thriftily down his throat. "There, miss, just fill that up."
"But- " Theola stood there, clutching at a dirty bottle and her theology. She looked around at the glowing, expectant faces. She stiffened. It was the devil's temptation. "It's pagan. I can't; really I can't."
The life and joy went out of the fairies; suddenly they were grey-faced, sad-eyed villagers in bedraggled costumes. "What - no Blessing at the Barrows?" The bewildered whisper hung in the air.
They all looked so wistful, she thought. What had Jesus said about loving thy neighbour? One of the two greatest commandments; of course! If all this meant so much to them - and they wanted a blessing... Well... It all felt so innocent.
Kerr's hand covered hers, bark-rough against her skin. "'Tis a simple enough thing to do," he murmured in her ear. "Follow your heart."
She flushed, and bent hurriedly to fill the bottle. The bubbling spring was cool and fresh against her hands; she raised some to her hot cheeks. Holy water, she thought. Well, why not? Water couldn't be evil, no matter what its use. Suddenly her heart felt light, and she snapped upright, flicking droplets from her fingers at everyone around. The Forest exploded into a ripple of giggles and squeals. By the time they had danced their way out of the Forest and up the Barrows, Theola was singing the chorus as lustily as the rest. The lyrics weren't too hard to pick up: "Oh diddle-I, diddle-I, diddle-I, dil-do; with a rumty-tumty, twiddle-me-do."
Joy swirled with them, up the slope and around the sleeping fire, catching everyone in its trail; then they were all ripping open bags of herbs, throwing them over the wood among a cascade of thyme and marjoram, sage and hemp, lemon-balm and rose.
At last Theola stood alone before the cart, contemplating the Travellers' massive effort. What to do now? Follow your heart, Kerr had said. She took a deep breath and spoke: "With this water I thee bless- " she flicked some water from the beer-bottle and watched the glittering drops scatter over the pile; then she began to circle it, her slippers twinkling over the grass, and chanted: "May your strength and warmth bless the people all year as I bless thee with God's pure water in every corner..."
Kerr unscrewed a horn and began to play along with her; a gentle melody, a song of water whispering through bracken, of fire crackling autumn's leaves, of air rushing through grass. Theola found herself caught up, light as sunshine, lost in the sound.
"Halt!" Mr. Dimbly's voice rang out above the music. "Cease this abomination, in the Lord's name; Madam vicar, you should be ashamed."
"I beg your pardon?" Theola, flushed and a little breathless, whirled around to face him.
"Nay, thou shalt have no pardon, IDOLATER!" said Mr. Dimbly. He stood outside the circle, backed by his GODLY crew who waved banners bearing the stark words: Put not your faith in demons and Yobbos Go Home.
Theola drew herself up. "Who are you to judge your fellow man? 'Pass no judgement, and you will not be judged'"
"Don't you quote the Bible at me, you - you - Jezebel! I give you 1 Corinthians, chapter 5 - 'Not to company with the fornicators of this world, or with idolaters.'" Mr. Dimbly shook his fist at the assembled company.
"Oh yes? Well, I give you the same dratted chapter - 'Your self-satisfaction ill becomes you.'"
"Right, then - Romans, chapter 13! 'Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness-'"
Theola, who had been racking her memory, interrupted in triumph: "- 'No quarrels or jealousies'!"
"'-Make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.'"
Inspiration zapped Theola: "Cast aside all those who do not honour the wisdom and traditions of their forebears, for they shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Let no man set himself up in the pride of his being, for he is only as much as every one of us who springs from the womb of the Almighty by the seed of her..." what am I saying?
Mr. Dimbly wore the bewildered look of a man with a wet fish down his trousers. "Eh?" he said.
"Where'd that come from?" whispered Holly.
"Nowhere; I made it up," Theola hissed back. She tried not to giggle.
Doug Marrow hardly noticed the verbal tussle. He was far too busy remembering his duties and trying not to scratch.
His goddess had also been ignoring the verbal tussle. She looked at the fire and licked her lips, before turning to Doug. "So thou hast the technique well practised?" she said.
Doug nodded unhappily. He really didn't fancy trying to get this bunch of self-opinionated animals herded through the Beltane smoke. Right now he didn't care that it would make them healthier. Right now he just wanted to slip into something more comfortable. Such as Brigid.
He was still thrusting lustful thoughts to the back of his mind when a GOLEM van rumbled up the slope and spewed out a rash of officers, all frantically waving posters. "Stop! Stop! You must leave; the bombing will start soon."
"What?" Holly grabbed one of the posters and read it aloud. "'Warning - official demolition due on this site at 17.00 hours. Trespassers beware of bombs. By order.' You don't give much bloody notice, do you?"
The Police spokesman looked uncomfortable. "Administrative error. Circumstances beyond our control..."
Orangputeh looked up at the sky. Bombs? he thought. Bugger that. Not staying here to get blown to bits. Home. Have another go at that. On which thought, he blew a sweet note through his nose. Shame about the elephants, though.
Natasha stamped her foot. "Nasty man!" she said. Then she got really cross. A fireball exploded into the sky and screamed back to earth, lighting the Beltane fire with a "whoomph".
"No, Natasha!" said Doug, still rehearsing his lines, "You're not meant to light the fire that way - look, we're supposed to rub sticks together - yes, I know your way is faster. Oh, alright. It's too late now, anyway."
In the distance a faint "thwup thwup thwup" of helicopters began to sound.
Theola rather thought she was going to scream.
"He what?" Sherelle stood in the middle of the sleas-house dormitory and gagged.
Festin Burke tugged at his collar. He'd been afraid of this. She won't like it, he'd thought. He'd been right.
She radiated horror; her hands crept up to her trembling lips and her eyes stared, wide and dark.
He shut his eyes and repeated: "The Stones. Sir Liam says they're unsafe; they'll be bombed today."
"But it's Beltane! Hundreds will be there- "
"No no," Festin flapped his hands and took a step toward her, "the GOLEMs have put up loads of signs, truly they have."
She snorted. "You really think they'll take any notice?"
"They have to! It's the law- "
"That for your stupid laws," she said, shoving her fingers up in a graphic gesture before his face. Suddenly her eyes filled with tears, and she turned her back on him to sob inelegantly.
He reached out his hands, twitching like timid rabbits, and touched her shoulders. She didn't hit him; good move, he thought. Gently, oh so carefully, he turned her round and drew her into his arms. Phew, still okay; now then, rock her back and forth a bit - maybe rub her back... Yes, that was it. The stiffness went out of her and she collapsed into a warm, soft armful; her hair tickled his nose with a faint lemon scent, and her body quivered with each sob. Only a couple of millimetres from his crotch lay those concealed purple lace undies. She was making his shoulder awful wet, to be sure, but oh boy oh boy oh boy...
With a final fruity sniff she pulled away and wiped her eyes. "You could stop it; you're too scared of your precious Sir Liam, aren't you?"
"No, really! He gave the demolition order direct; I only heard about it when I had to get the notices ready for the GOLEMs. I gave them loads to put up, really I did." He licked his lips, unsure whether to try pointing out the situation's advantages. He wished he could understand what made her tick; the more sick people there were, the more she was guaranteed a job - plenty of new patients to nurse - and that was good for her, surely? Of course, she wouldn't get an increase in salary just because of the extra work; but he'd be willing to back any claim for overtime... No, that wasn't right. He'd better not say it. There was something else bothering her; it genuinely seemed to matter to her about all these people.
Sherelle sighed and turned back to her charges. "Well, just make sure you have the ambulance vans standing by. Where on earth will I be able to put all the poor souls?" She glanced back at him and her expression softened slightly. "I'm sure you do your best, really. Now please, just go away and let me get on with my work."
Festin wandered off to the Grand Square, deep in thought, his brain examining her final comments from every angle and trying to translate them into "Now please, take me to bed and bury your nose in my underwear." It wasn't very successful.
He knew he had the key to Sherelle somewhere, if he could only put his finger on it.
As he sat on the steps of the Fallen Angel statue, still wrestling with his philosophy, he became aware of an irritating sound. The distant "Thwup thwup thwup" of a couple of antique helicopters jarred against the metallic, hiccuping buzz of a shoddy micro-light blimp; the airforce was on its way. Festin gritted his teeth together and tried to ignore the growing cacophony.
He took off his neat little bowler hat and turned it over and over in his hands. He'd bought it only yesterday, hoping to impress Sherelle with his new, streamlined image; the hat was a deep purplish-brown, with a daring tilt to its rim. She hadn't noticed. She never really noticed him. If only he could do something to catch her attention. Searching for inspiration, his gaze swept along the clean, marble expanse which led to the brooding mass of Parliament House; somehow he couldn't recapture the warm, pure feeling that the view used to produce. He felt empty; not even the thought of purple lace underwear had the power to move him now. Nothing would ever move him again.
At that moment, an enormous statue materialised above the square and thundered down into its own personal crater beside him.
Festin became exceedingly moved. He was earnest about it. He tried to put his best foot forward; unfortunately, both feet made a vigorous bid for the position, and he fell flat on his face.
Deep in the caverns of Tyrnannog, silence reigned except for the gentle hum of Arianrod's wheel and the delicate crunch-crackle of a cat eating crisps. Tasty stuff, telepathed Ethniu. Eel and gerbil flavour. Neat. now then, what's in this? She wandered over to a stone bowl and sniffed.
Arianrod placed her latest creation on the 'souls - pending' pile. This one was a real masterpiece, she thought. "Mmm? That's tangerine tea, dear."
Tangerine what? Oh well. At least there's milk in it. Ethniu plunged her tongue into the warm fluid.
Ceredwen appeared, on the wail of a dying note, and stomped over to her pulsing wine-vat to refill her pipes.
"Have some tangerine tea for a change, dear," said Arianrod.
"No time," said Ceredwen, "got to get back. Beltane, you know. Trouble brewing."
"Really? What sort of trouble?"
"Some idiot's going to bomb the Stones. Posters up everywhere." With a soggy skirl, Ceredwen disappeared.
Ethniu jerked her face out of the dish, dripping warm tea from her whiskers. Bomb the Stones? She tilted her head to one side and listened intently, sorting out the correct Parallel. Aha - a distant aircraft.
"Mew," she said tunefully and disappeared.
Arianrod looked down at her pile of figurines and felt a twinge of annoyance. "Oh drat," she said. Her latest masterpiece had disappeared. And she'd been particularly proud of this one's genitalia.
She would have been delighted to know that the genitals in question, made of a clay which was tougher than the Grand Square's marble, had survived the statue's fall.
Egrette circled high above Beltane, sweeping around and over Uptonburgh with her wings outstretched in a lazy glide.
See the great huntress, she thought, all below glance upward in fear as the menacing, distant shadow sweeps past...
She peered down. Nothing. Only some git of a self-absorbed human. Oh well, theoretically her shadow struck fear-
A "thwup-thwup-thwup" noise grew out of the distance, louder and more insistent, heralding the arrival of three flying monstrosities. Egrette frowned as only an eagle can, and clicked her beak.
Bloody typical. Food was getting difficult enough to catch these days, and now there were all these huge mechanical birds to frighten whatever might be around- "Awk!"
A large cat had materialised right against her feet, spitting comprehensively. Never one to let slip an opportunity, The Great Huntress grabbed hold of the cat and staggered a bit, flapping frantically to stay airborne.
Bugger, thought the cat.
Dinner! thought the eagle. Which was when Orangputeh materialised on her back. Oh, come on, she thought, as all three of them plummeted toward the Grand Square.