Parfitt’s Island – a chronicle in four parts: Part Two.

Prince Fuisal was something of a disappointment to Rowena:  she had anticipated a thobe of flowing white, a ghutra and a beard.  Instead she got a rather affable young man in a business suit, with very little hair at all.  Nevertheless, she caught herself curtseying as he greeted her.

“Your Highness!”

“Ah yes.  This is – what is the expression – ‘the little woman’.  Is that correct, Mr. Parfitt?”

Needless to say, Rowena did not immediately take to the young Prince; not that it mattered, since from that point onwards he scarcely acknowledged her existence.

When Julian had finished choking, he invited his guest to the house for tea.

The Prince was unenthusiastic.  “Tea.  Yes, of course. Tea.  Lead the way, Parfitt!”

As soon as tea was served (by Rowena, naturally) the Prince seemed eager to get down to business.

“Tell me your proposition, Parfitt.”

“Well,”  Said Julian;  “What I suggest is this….”

The Prince’s hand restrained him.  With a regal nod, he indicated Rowena.  “You wish to discuss business in front of your woman?  How quaint.”

“Oh, no, don’t embarrass yourself!”  Said Rowena:  “I’ll be in the scullery scrubbing the floor if you want me, husband.”  And she left, closing the door with a violence that set the remains of her dinner service wobbling perilously on the dresser.

Rowena did not meet the Prince again.  She heard his laughter as Julian unfolded his plans, then the front door closing as he departed.  Within an hour of its arrival, Prince Fuisal’s launch was bearing him back out into the bay.  That evening the ‘Xanadu’  gracefully and silently slipped its moorings.  By the morning of the following day, it was as if the third in line to the throne of Al Flaberri had never visited.

For another week Julian’s island basked peacefully in pale Scottish sunshine.  Rowena so loved this place with its moody climate and magnificent scenery that she soon forgot her ill humour, even to the point of forgiving Julian.  She preferred not to know what his discussions with the Prince had entailed, and certainly Julian was not eager to tell her, so she began to revive her daily routine and pursue her own interests.  She fed the hens, milked the cow and the goat Julian had insisted they buy (though neither of them had any background in animal husbandry) and worked at the well-nigh impervious garden.  The wind riffled through her hair, her skin bronzed in the subtle sun, she breathed the richly oxygenated air and felt glad to be alive.  For a while she almost made herself believe that the natural gas resources had sealed themselves up and the whole thing was forgotten; but of course it wasn’t.  On the seventh day, insidious hell oozed in from the ocean.

Boats chugged quietly into the bay late on Saturday night: by morning they were gone.  Along the shore a camouflage net covered the equipment they had left behind, and the accommodation for the workers who came with it.

These were riggers, whose intrusion was neither subtle nor brief.  They were possibly most remarkable for their ability to turn a simple portacabin upon the jetty into a thriving public house, which sprang into life at seven p.m. (just after the heavy machinery which littered the island had shut down) and did not acquiesce until well into the following morning.  During the day they worked under cover, with the extensive use of camouflage netting and disguised vehicle movements; a mystery to Rowena, one which Julian seemed reluctant to explain.  They came, they gave their hosts six weeks of unremitting torment, and they left.  Peace descended once more, but it was a gurgling, vibrant peace.  It was the peace of pipes laid and lying idle, of machines which did not turn, of vehicles which squatted covertly in hollows and caves.  It was a peace waiting to be breached.

Rowena slipped meekly out from beneath the ice-pack she had adopted as a permanent night-time companion.  Frequently of late she had found it necessary to remind herself of the day of the week; even, in stormy interludes, whether it was day or night.  This morning, she was certain, was a Wednesday.  She would remember, later, that it was a Wednesday.  Sun-glow bathed the little bedroom where she often slept alone now.  She dressed quickly, for the advancing year brought a fresh, invigorating bite to the breeze.

It was Rowena’s habit, in the early day, to don her biggest sweater and stomp the upward mile to the summit of Ben Adderhochie, from whence it was possible to see the mainland afar off in one direction, and to imagine the Americas, half a world away, in the other.  This sense of space and freedom excited her so much that she would make a little dance for herself at times, and, miles from sight of any other human, cavort around the top of the Ben like Julie Andrews on speed.  The breeze was exceptionally fresh that morning – that Wednesday.  Rowena had already become familiar with the long jetty Julian’s riggers had built, probing out from the north shore for nearly half a mile – but this Wednesday…..

Julian was already up and making coffee when Rowena, white-faced, threw the door open.

“Steady, old girl!  You’ll have the hinges off!”  He said.

“Have you – do you know what’s out there?”  Rowena stammered.

“Er – no, dear?”  Julian played along.

“A tanker.  A big, gigantic, huge, no – not just huge – massive tanker!”

“The Al-Rasheed, I believe she’s called – this one.”

“THIS ONE!  How many are there??”

“Well, we’re scheduled to accept six.  Although, if the weather breaks, of course….”  Julian waved his hand vaguely.  “Coffee, dear?”

“Yes please, one sugar.”  Rowena slumped into a chair at the big breakfast table.  “I suppose it’s a silly question, but what exactly is a super-tanker doing anchored so close to our island?”

“Oh, loading with gas.”  Julian replied mildly.  “They – we – have equipment to condense it: that way we can send it anywhere in the world.”

“We?”

“The Shahiree-Parfitt Corporation:  Prince Fuisal owns the Shahiree half, of course, but he can’t admit to that, being royal – wouldn’t be ethical.”

For some while now, Rowena had been sensing a growing weight upon her shoulders.

“Julian; are you quite mad?  Have you any idea what is going to happen when the mainland finds out about this?”

“Oh, they already have.  I told them yesterday.  They were asking about the jetty.”

“My god!  We’ll have the police, customs, the bloody British Army here.  Julian,” Rowena took a decision;  “I’m leaving you.”

“Are you dear?”  Julian responded mildly:  “You’ll need a passport.”

“A passport?  A boat to the mainland, that’s all I need, Julian.”

“No dear.  Sorry, but they won’t let you in.  You see, as of yesterday, you became a citizen of the Republic of Aga.  We’ve got our own flag, and everything.”

“You’re insane.  They’ll murder us!”

“No.”  Said Julian.  “No. they won’t.  The Republic of Aga has declared itself to be under the protection of the Kingdom of Al Flaberri.  Now the King of Al Flaberri (Fuisal’s dad) is a great mate of our Royals, and his country is strategically important to Britain in the Middle East.  He buys lots of planes, and things.  This is his son’s pet project at the moment.  If the British try to interfere, Flaberri will order them out of their naval base in the Gulf.  Very knotty problem, that, for the British.  Oh, and by the way, we also declared an alliance with Iran.”

Rowena burst into tears and ran from the room.  Ten minutes later, she returned.

“It won’t work.”  She said.

“Yes, it will.  Not for very long, but for long enough.  After the initial enquiry, the diplomatic counterpoint, a court case, an appeal, then another to the European Court (we’ve applied for membership of the Community) and the final settlement – I’d say a year, at least.  That’s a minimum of twelve tankers, even given the worst weather.  After expenses that will yield about a hundred and sixty million.”

“You said ‘settlement’”

“I did.  The ultimate answer will, of course, be for the British to buy the island.  With mineral rights, I’d say another two hundred and fifty million or so?  With a bit of skilled negotiating, we should be able to retain royalties.  We need a good estate agent.”

Throughout this explanation Rowena’s mouth had been dropping slowly open.  Her knees felt quite unsteady.  “Then what happens to us?  Poor old Aga’s going to be not much more than a slag heap.”

“I’m negotiating for a different Island; somewhere warmer.  The South Pacific, actually.  I think you’ll like it.”

“Come to bed!”  Said Rowena.

“Oh, one thing I did forget to mention.  It may be necessary to convert to Islam.”

“Come to bed, husband!”

At this point the relationship between Julian and Rowena might have turned something of a corner:  there is no more effective bandage for a wounded marriage than a seven-figure bank statement, especially if the draft constitution of your newly-adopted nation makes no provision for divorce.  Besides, as First Lady of the Republic of Aga, Rowena had duties to perform and an image to live up to.  The reason their relationship did not, in fact, improve, we shall now relate.

The fledgling republic got off to a nervous start. Constant over-flying by Royal Air Force jet fighters was nothing more than they, as residents on a Scottish island, had come to expect.  However, now the gloves were metaphorically back on the hat-stand these aircraft flew lower and with considerably more menace.  Helicopters kept appearing over Ben Adderhochie, a reconnaissance plane droned constantly in the background.  When, the next morning, a Royal Navy destroyer anchored off the bay, Rowena suggested that maybe Julian’s fabulous plan was not working.

“It’s OK,”  Julian said.  “I sent a warning against trespassing in Republic of Aga airspace.  They’ll desist very soon.”

And they did.

Anthony James Poulson was staring contemplatively at his bag of golf clubs one Friday morning when his senior, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, stuck his head around the door.

“A word, AJ?”

“Certainly!”  said Poulson affably.  “Albatross.  Will that do?”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Not at all – that’s a very nice word:  better than eagle, for example, or birdie?”

“I’m being serious, old man.”  The under-secretary drew up one of A.J’s rather comfy leather chairs.  “It concerns this chap Parfitt.”

“Oh god, no.  What’s he done now?”  Poulson’s tantalising vision of the fifteenth at sunset began to fade.

“Well, it isn’t so much what he’s done, as what we haven’t – if you’ll forgive the grammar.  It’s been a month now, during which time he’s managed to turn around six tankers-full of high grade natural gas, and we don’t seem to be doing anything.”

AJ spread his hands.  “What can we do?  It’s a complete stand-off, as far as I can see.  Faisal’s slaughtering birds on some very choice grouse moor with our beloved Prince even as we speak.”

“There must be something.  Where is he selling all this gas?”

An awkward silence ensued.  A.J. Poulson seemed to have something in his eye.  “Well, to us, actually.”

“I must have misheard you,” the under-secretary said slowly:  “For a moment I thought you said ‘to us’.

A.J. coughed.  “Auchterwootie Refinery is just eighty miles south of Aga.  He gets an excellent price, and the trip for the tankers is so short they can run a shuttle service.  It works very well.”

The under-secretary looked as though he was about to explode.

“Well, it’s not our refinery;”  A.J. defended.  “It belongs to Swell PB.  We can’t stop them.”

There was a considerable interval while the under-secretary recovered from this piece of information.  At last he said:  “Do you have any idea – any idea – how ridiculous this makes us look?”

“Absolutely, under-secretary.  The King of Flaberri is having a bit of joke, I think, at our expense.  Whenever I put in a call to suggest a solution I get the distinct impression he’s laughing at me.  Usually he limits himself to one-sentence answers, and the sentence almost always includes the words ‘British Aerospace’.”

“You know the PM’s all for taking the gloves off and sending in a couple of battalions?  This Parfitt fellow wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on, now would he?”

“Well….”

“Oh, come on!”

“Parfitt claims he has documentary evidence that Aga was not included in the Act of Union.  He says the last people to take up residence there were the Danes, in about 740 AD.  The island’s not part of any of the recognised groups, it’s never been named anywhere; and, at thirty miles, it’s outside British territorial waters.”

“That would stand up?  I mean, legally?”

“Parfitt is ready to test it in the courts.  The problem is, there’s just an outside chance that the European Court might uphold it.  Then we really would be in the soup.  Parfitt did come up with one solution.”

“Which is?”

“A pipeline.  It would get us over the natural gas issue.  The trouble there being, Parfitt wants a lot of dosh for it, and he has no intention of relinquishing his sovereignty claim.  He’s a curious chap,” A.J. mused; “He has friends in The City who are doing very well out of this, but I would like to know what he’s after.  I don’t think it’s just the money.”

“And a pipeline’s the best we can offer?  The PM is absolutely hopping about this, A.J., and your entire department is bankrupt of ideas?”

Poulson thought for a moment, acutely aware that his apparent lack of a solution was endangering his booking for the first tee at 3pm.  “Well, maybe there is a sort of a possibility:  it depends rather on just how underhanded you’re prepared to be.”

“Underhanded?  Dear boy, this is the Home Office – since when were we anything else?”

“Well then,”  A.J. picked up the telephone;  “Let’s see what we can do.”

Some days elapsed before this interview at the Home Office could bear fruit.  The fruit concerned, in the person of one Willoughby Lightfoot, had required transport from inaccessible foreign parts where he was found deep in some allegedly impenetrable jungle, half-way across an uncrossable swamp.  Willoughby was not too upset by the call to his mobile phone – after all, the crocodile he was wrestling at the time was, as crocodiles go, too small for his purposes.

In London, Lightfoot needed a day or two – to be briefed by A.J; to restore his hair, which was long and flaxen, and to manicure his nails.  A further twenty-four hours later he reached Scotland, where he made a few enquiries, looked up a few contacts.  Now he stood on the foredeck of a local trawler, looking across the one remaining mile of choppy sea which separated him from the Republic of Aga.

“Is he expecting you – the Parfitt man?”  a deckhand asked.

“He’s expecting someone.”  Willoughby shouted back against the wind.  “He’s not expecting me.”

Willoughby Lightfoot entered Aga’s small harbour poised atop the trawler’s bow like a figurehead, his hair flying about his face, his startlingly blue eyes focussed upon the little welcoming committee gathered on the quay.  A long leather coat streamed behind him in the evening breeze.

His reception, six strong, fell way below his own exacting standards.  In declaring Aga a Republic, Julian had needed security guards for just such purposes as these, recruited from those places on the mainland with the highest unemployment.  Even unemployed men with any self-worth had proved hard to procure – the working conditions were less than desirable, the pay wasn’t desirable at all.  Finally, Julian had approached a hostel for the homeless in Glasgow, discovering those who would consider anything if it included a roof to sleep under, regular meals and an unlimited source of booze.

Amongst such as these, Willoughby was Gulliver before the Lilliputians.

“Right, chappies – which way to the boss?”  He enquired, assuming Julian would not be one of the ravaged creatures who accosted him.

“I need ye’re paasspoort!”  said a slightly bent man with a hawk nose and a drip.

“Fine.”  Willoughby produced it from his shoulder bag.  “Now,” he said, watching the document disappear into the folds of the bent man’s uniform; “which way?”

“No’ so fast.”  A stout Glaswegian with an astonishing lack of neck chided him.  “There’s procedures.”

“Right-ho.  Proceed away!  What shall we do next?”

“The strip search.”  

If, at this point, Willoughby began to regret that he had made this appointment with Parfitt as a diplomat from the Home Office, he did not show it.  Instead, he regarded the little group of security guards with a look of amusement.

“Oh, you silly boys!”  He chided them gently.  “Why didn’t you just ask?  Now – who wants to be first?”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Continuum – Episode Twenty-Six: Reflections

In the previous episode:

Dag Swenner’s health is improving as he follows the wild river, seeking first signs of civilization.

Meanwhile, Sala’s insistence that Celeris is a figment of Alanee’s imagination has induced him to materialize, and Alanee learns that he is Hasuga, dressed in a form she finds attractive.  His appearance is too much for Sala, so Hasuga blanks her memory of their meeting.

Alone in her chambers, Alanee discovers her powers:  using telekinetic energy, she can move the heavy silver ball, and now the mysterious mirrors beckon…

“Well?”  Ellar settles an ebony statuette she has been examining on her desk.  “What is the explanation?”

“There is none, Lady.” Sala shrugs her shoulders.  “She insists the man she calls Celeris bedded her last night.”

They are in the part of Ellar’s apartments the Mediant calls her study, a small offshoot of her main reception area.  Here she spends most of her waking hours, working at a large oak desk and admiring the collection of effigies and small busts that adorn the walls.

“There was no man with her?”

“No, Lady.”

“So what conclusion may we draw?”   What ails Sala?  Ellar’s mediator stands sullenly before her, a recalcitrant schoolgirl called before her principal.  There is no flicker of challenge, no answer in her eyes.

“That she imagines him, Lady.”

“That is an explanation, then, is it not; an imaginary bedfellow?  The strain, one supposes.  She is under a great deal of stress.  She insists upon it?”

“Yes, Lady.”

“Very well.  Thank you Sala.”

“I may go?”

“You  may go.  Return to Lady Alanee later, say, at six o’clock.  Stay with her then, if you can.”

“Yes, Lady.”

“Oh, and Sala?”  Sala is already on her way to Ellar’s door. She turns.  “You are wise enough in the ways of the world, I am sure.  You would be able to tell if Lady Alanee had, in fact, spent her night with a man, wouldn’t you?”  Sala does not reply.  “Well, I am asking your opinion: did she?”

“I cannot be sure.”

Sala departs, with Ellar’s discerning eyes scrutinizing her every step.  The alteration in the young woman’s posture, her voice, even her look is inescapable:  where now to place her trust?  While Sala is watching Alanee (will that still be possible?)  who will be watching Sala?  These questions may not detain her:  Valtor’s insistent message on her summoner is calling her to High Council.  Sire Trebec, recently returned from his mission to wrap up the Dometian affair, has prepared his final report and she, as a member of the Council, must attend.  She does so with some misgivings, knowing that on the Domo’s recommendation Alanee has been excluded from this gathering, which is setting something of a precedent, for it will be the first time in history that a full Council has convened without a Seer.

Alanee, meanwhile, is occupied with matters far removed from her station as Seer.  She is quickly acquiring the trappings of a member of The City’s privileged inner circle.  Unable now to walk freely in The City and shop for herself, she has no difficulty in selecting a reputable interior designer to attend her.

Prinius, it transpires, is a friend of Tocatta – a very close friend, if Prinius’s perspective is to be believed.  And certainly everything about his manner and bearing would seem to confirm that perspective, for he is dressed with the same careful precision, the same elaborate care.  His perfume is intense, his eyes warm, their earnest stare almost hypnotic.  A crescent moon of long grey hair flies about the fringes of his red fedora, for he is not young, and his long nose is purplish in hue and inclined to drip:  yet he illustrates his suggestions with expansive, eloquent gestures and he motivates like a heavy rainstorm, so that within a very few hours the inexplicable white suits have gone from Cassix’s grim walls to be replaced by brightly coloured hangings, while druggets temper the severity of the flagstone floor.  A pair of comfortable red leather couches have discovered space for themselves, adjacent to a low table in warm rosewood, above which naked lighting has been sacrificed to something altogether friendlier and more responsive.

He can do nothing immediately for the stone walls themselves:  “All that writing to be scrubbed off, then plaster panels, my dear Lady, are absolutely essential!  I will attend to it.  And graphics – something rather pretty I imagine?”

Or for the more idiosyncratic furnishings of the room:  the mirrors:  “Oh my dear!”

The large spinning disc of undecipherable purpose:  “A certain brutal charm.  One could always persuade the unwelcome guest to recline there.”

The silver orb:  “Quite impressive, really, though I would imagine completely useless?”

– or the doorless wooden edifice that dominates the inner side.  “That!  Oh Habbach!  I couldn’t even begin!  One might cover it with something; a tent, perhaps?”

On the whole Alanee is sufficiently pleased: when she surveys the beginnings of Prinius’s transformation over a late lunch ordered in from an exorbitantly pricey restaurant, she feels a certain satisfaction: it may never look like a home, but at least Cassix’s old cave is a little less habitable to bats.

Left to herself once more, allowing the clouds of loneliness to close in, she greets a summons from her door chime as a welcome sound.  She answers it half-expecting Sala to be standing there, rather than a deferential young man with a parcel in his hand.  It is the book she ordered the previous day.

Alanee tips the young man for his trouble and thanks him.  When unwrapped, the book nestles cosily in her grasp; leather cunningly distressed into eloquent age, blank unlettered pages mellowed at the edge, roughly cut, a lock not rusted, but so convincingly worn it might easily trace its ancestry through two thousand years, all exemplars of the forger’s art:  a book which until now she has only seen inside her head, made manifest. It is so deceiving as to give her mission substance and purpose, and new hope for its success.  She conceals it beneath a chair in her bedroom for the moment, while she plots her next move.

Is it the book that draws Alanee’s thoughts back towards Cassix’s mirrors?  She is suddenly reluctant to sit on that ancient leather chair, to face the three angled reflections that fill one end of the wall.  Whether the three further, smaller mirrors behind the chair deter her, or whether there is some more obscure reason she cannot know.  Nevertheless she takes her place in their midst and once seated she can find no justification for fear.  The whole thing looks and feels like a museum piece – they are mirrors, no more, no less.  What were Hasuga’s words?  ‘Gain their trust.’  Without the slightest clue what that may mean, she studies the large centre glass.

At first, the images she sees seem no more than different aspects of the room created by angles in the glass; however, it crosses her mind that she is looking not at first-hand reflections, but deflections from the mirrors behind her.  Yet, if that is so, why does her own reflection not appear anywhere?  She is sitting between the smaller and the larger mirrors, so how can her image be missing?  The answer may never have come to her had she not chanced to direct her gaze upward to where, concealed by changes of level in the ceiling, are more mirrors:  not just three but a whole battalion of them!  So…. the reflections she sees are being thrown back and forth, up and down, between all of these surfaces.  It is a wonder after so many journeys that they bear any resemblance to reality at all!

‘Gain their trust.’

Half-consciously using her new-found kinetic sense she finds she can fractionally change the attitude of one of the glasses.  Instantly the images alter.  In one glass now she sees a reflection of the city gardens; in another Prinius’s new wall hangings show up perfectly, in the third the strange wooden room with no door appears.

Alanee alters the angle of one after another of the glasses, fascinated by the finesse she can achieve, and their effortless synchronisation.  In part she is playing, revelling in her new-found abilities: yet there is rightness in each adjustment, a process that seems to involve switches within her mind.  And something more…

 Her fingers stroke the old leather of the chair.  Does she imagine it or is there a worn indentation where her hands rest on each arm?  On a whim she goes to a bag of items the  drabs retrieved from the watchtower, selecting from among them those two stones Cassix gave her.  She seats herself with a stone beneath each hand.

There are no revelatory flashes of insight, no journeys to the stars; just a tiny white spot upon the spinning metal of the disc on the wall beside her, and the micron-thickness beam of light that creates it, lancing straight from the mirrors above her head.  In the third mirror before her, the wooden room appears.  One end of the room has somehow acquired a door, and the door (a whole carved panel hung upon great iron strap hinges) is opened wide.  So little should be distinguishable in the gloom of that windowless interior, but one thing clearly is.  Upon a simple chair inside the door sits a very old, very thin man in a hempen smock.  This man’s gnarled and twisted limbs speak of age as an old tree speaks – of weathered suffering; of the ravages of the seasons.  The sockets of his eyes are hollowed, his skin as dry as ash.  He is unmoving:  his bones of fingers clasped before him, his head bowed.

Shocked, Alanee turns to look directly at the wooden room.  There is no open door.  It looks as unassailable as ever.  So, the combination of stones and mirrors can transform their reflections and the stones provide the switch.   Setting her teeth, she tightens her grip upon the stones.

She does not instantly recognise what she sees.  The Balkinvel reflected in the glass bears little relationship to the village she once, not long ago, called her home.  And she does not expect to see such a picture – why should she?  She is several thousand miles from the Hakaan – it cannot be a true reflection.  Yet she sees it:  it is there.

The Terminal is there:  there and burning, with the roof half-gone where flames lick through and a pall of black smoke rising into the angry sky.

Look at the sky, Alanee!

No-one douses the flames:  there is no bucket-chain, no anxious crowd.  It burns unattended – it will burn to the ground.  A village street that might be deserted were it not over-run by rats, creatures not given to exposure yet so frightened they run in the open, running for their lives, and cottonweed everywhere, un-swept, neglected.

The gap where her own house once stood; the house of her friend Shellan, its windows broken and door swinging in the wind.  Old Malfis’s immaculate garden overrun with weed; so quickly!  Did the old man die?  House after house empty of life – where are they all?  The Makar, Carla, Paaitas, Namma?  A pain stabs at her heart.  Her village; her life, destroyed.  Why? 

“Hasuga!  Did you do this?”

“I?  No, Alanee, not I.”

Then, before eyes becoming attuned to horror, the curtain falls, if curtain it be.  Some veiled nemesis descending from that sky, spinning and purging as if culling a memory.  Alanee sees it in the mirror; sees what Ripero saw, in that second when the love of his life was taken from before his eyes.

Look at the sky, Alanee!

Do the mirrors move by the insistence of her thoughts, or upon some impulse of their own?  They tilt towards the heavens – not greatly, but enough;  dragging her awestruck eyes above that scything whirlwind, high into the atmosphere, through the jagged, ragged lightning and the black moil of rage into a calmness of the palest blue.  She sees the cloud-base as another country: white mountains with black anger at their base, rolling hills, pleasant valleys basking in a gentle sun.  And before the mirrors’ eye they take upon themselves a life, so for an instant she might be gazing down upon fields, rivers, brave little towns clinging to those insubstantial wisps of vapour as if they were real:  chimneys smoke, men go out with ancient tools to till the red soil, and children!  She has never seen so many children!  They play in the streets, follow the plough, shout and laugh among themselves as if they have no cares at all!

Only for an instant.

The white line begins as a livid dot of such intensity it burns her eyes, spreading laterally, a swinging blade to level everything, scythe everything away.  Its signature screech obliterates all other sound, drowns the cries of those who, in the seconds before the coming know it is the end of all things.  From its epicentre white death rises to a cone, a burning ball:  then silence.

Alanee can bear to see no more.  With all the force of her mind she snatches her grip from the stones, turns the mirrors back into her own world.  The white spot on the disc disappears.  Her heart is so full it can hardly stand the excess of compassion and pain exuding from the glass: the mirrors seem to have some kind of empathy, some sort of life-force of their own.  They seem to be regretful, but surely that cannot be?  She remembers that once as a child she believed inanimate objects such as carvings or even farming machines could feel and move.  They never did, until now.

For a while she paces, pours herself a drink, then two.  With every step she tells herself the things she witnessed cannot be true.  Balkinvel cannot have been destroyed so fast; the work of a thousand years undone in a few cycles.    She was in such a low state she saw predictions of doom.  If she can change her own mood, the predictions will become more optimistic too.  Alanee knows nothing of Ripero, or how his village and his life was wiped away.  So she has no precedent for the horror she has seen befall Balkinvel, and the cloud-land vision is so preposterous she must dismiss it as fancy.

With the aid of a couple more drinks, by the time Sala visits Alanee’s humour has changed completely.  Paia, she has decided, is a very acceptable spirit:  she applauds Cassix’s choice, not guessing that it was a choice made for very specific reasons.

#

A first citrus tint of sunlight feels its way across the valley, casting the spark that will turn the waters of the river into a necklace of gold.  In long shuffling shadows night creatures bury themselves, finding tunnels into wombs of safety.  Dawn is chill of a depth no other chill can match.  It sends icy tendrils into bone.

From his perch behind a veil of acacia Dag has a panorama of all the river basin spread out before him.  Last night he began to climb, having made a decision to leave the river and gain the summit of a hill that rises behind him.  When he first heard the voices, he had yet another thousand feet to go.

He has followed the river for days now; hunting or fishing for food.  In all that time he has seen no sign of occupation, though the land is fertile: there is no track, no tell-tale smoke haze in the sky; nothing.  Then, suddenly last night, pushing his way through a thicket of bracken on the green hill, he heard sounds, distant chatter, undistinguishable as any form of language, but certainly, as he thinks, human.  Remembering his fugitive status, the acacia became his inhospitable bed for the night.  Now, in the dawn, he listens; he watches.

Yes, the voices begin again with the rising of the sun.  Few at first, then a rising clamour.  Whoever these people are, they are obviously neither hunting for food nor afraid of discovery, whilst he, Dag, cowers behind his cloak of foliage suppressing shivers as best he can.  Here, the wide bowl of the valley is some six miles across with mountains to the further side, their snowy peaks already blushed by the rose of sunrise.  The trees no longer reach to the waterside, for the river has grown languorous.  It meanders now, lazy amid bogs of poppy-rich meadow grass and reed, host to fronds of willow, a footing too uncertain for the stalwarts of the forest.  Colour is everywhere; hydrangea and cyclamen, Acacia and tulip, rhododendron and cornflower.  And still of the owners of the voices there is no sign, no life other than that of a dappled deer on the opposite river bank, far away and oddly so much bolder than he, as it takes dancing steps towards the water’s edge.

Almost beyond Dag’s powers of sight, the river turns southward around a gentle hill which juts out into the widest part of the watercourse: a promontory topped by a random scattering of trees; a tulip or two, a walnut, an umbrella pine.  As the light of morning gathers it reveals some detail of this higher ground:  there are features there which, even from this distance, seem strange to Dag’s discriminating eye – the grass is more evenly spread, there are no bushes or rocks to break up the line.  He tries a simple trick:  closes his eyes, turns away, then turns to look again; and yes; there is a movement there, two far-off figures so small at this distance they are little more than dots!  They move as children might in play, to and fro about the grassy slope; running, perhaps?  They are minute, but not so little that he cannot distinguish the human touch.  People!  For better or worse, good or ill, he cannot avoid civilisation forever.  The time has come.

Glad of action, Dag thinks he will move closer: stay hidden until he learns more.  Who are they?  They should be Dometians, but he is unsure how far he might have travelled, whether he might have strayed into the higher valleys of Eastern Braillec.   Whoever they are they must have heard what happened to their fellow citizens, so they would know and understand whence he came.  And this is his concern, for with Ripero he saw too plainly the fate of those refugees on the Dometian Plain.  Though his heart would guide him back to the Consensual City, in his head there is a warning.  Does the City wish him dead?

He has no time to do more than form his plan before choice is taken from him.  From nowhere, it seems, a figure rises before him, a figure with bright feverish eyes tearing aside the branches of acacia.  From behind him other unseen hands snatch and pin his arms.  A loop of thick twine binds them into captivity.  By the strength of many he is thrust face forward into the sun.  And what he sees draws a cry of disbelief from his lips…

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Picture Credits:

Arto Martinem from Unsplash
Stacey Gabrielle-koenitz-Roselle from Unsplash

Another Delve

As promised, I am revisiting some of my more ancient short stories:  I thought I’d try  to lighten the mood a little today, by reminding us all of the joy to be had where fantasy and reality meet!

After that, I feel the next sentence should begin with ‘Dearly Beloved’  so I’ll leave it there!

Goblins

It is the fate of some of us to live in a world peopled by dragons, unicorns and goblins. Yes, this is my opportunity and I will let my secret out: I am such a one (In my case an occasional pixie may also make a guest appearance, though rarely more than once, say, in every week; scarcely worth mentioning, the pixies).

Now generally speaking this is not an inconvenience.  The creatures of the Nether World do not exactly dominate my existence, no:  it’s just that from time to time, in certain phases of, say, the Moon, or when Jupiter aligns with Mars, they are especially active.  They come out to play.  And their celebrations, though so discreet as to escape general notice, are usually to my cost.  Allow me to give you a recent example.

On Monday morning I am late for an appointment in town, so my normally sedate but very even-tempered car is politely asked to hurry a little.   Nothing unsafe, you understand: just a brisk, business-like ten miles through traffic light-strewn suburbia.

Let me explain to those unfamiliar with our quaint British ways that we mount our traffic lights boastfully on posts over here.  We offer them up for admiration, for the bold, artistic statements they make – we don’t string them across the carriageway on wires, as, for example, in the United States – as we should, of course.  If we did it that way there would be no opportunity for goblins to make their homes within the hollow posts and I would not have a problem.

In the last twenty years or so whole families of goblins, reputedly from the Irish mini-travelling community or from Eastern Europe, have taken up residence in the poles of traffic lights throughout the land.  The system works, I suppose, effectively.   The head of the family is employed by the local council to operate the lights, throwing a simple switch to give best advantage to the traffic.   At least, that is how it should work.  But goblins being goblins…

From within the foot of the pole:  “Michael, me darling, who have ye got up there?”

Michael, from his lofty position by the switch:  “I t’ink that the auld writer-fella from the valley moight be on his way…”

“Well, that’d be grand!  Stop him for me, will ye?  I’ll get Fergal here to hitch a ride with him into town.  There’s a few things I need from the Goblin Market.  Fergal, are you list’nin’?  I’ll just be makin’ ye a list.”

I am close to making up my lost time and the road ahead is clear. The traffic lights at the intersection ahead are on green and there is no-one else in sight.  Happy in my universe I increase my speed a little (naughty!).  The traffic lights change to red.  I stop, grump, grump.

Michael, atop the post:  “Fergal, will ye hurry up man!  I’ll be havin’ to change them in a minute!”

Mrs. Michael, from below:  “Patience, Michael, I’ve not finished me list yet!  We’ll have not enough victuals for the Moon Feast.  Hold him up for a bit, will ye?”

My fingers drum the steering wheel: tap, tap, tap.  From a perfectly clear horizon to my left a large lorry suddenly appears, bearing down upon the lights from the road currently favored by a green.   Free to pass through, it enters the intersection intending to turn right and gets stuck, its driver unable to force his big machine through the turn.

My light changes to a green.  

The junction is blocked by the lorry.

I cannot move.

My light turns back to red.

By corrective maneuvering and a waved apology, the driver gets his massive charge under way, so with the next ‘green’ I am free to proceed, though not before I might think I hear the faintest, most barely detectable of taps upon my roof.  I may recognize it, but where’s the point?  I am late.  I drive faster.  Above me, Fergal clings to my radio aerial with his empty shopping bag streaming behind him in the wind, muttering complaints.

My appointment is at the top of the town, the Goblin Supermarket is at the bottom.  It is as I approach the lower end of town that my car’s perfectly maintained engine develops an ominous knock.  I stop to investigate.  I drive on.  The knock has vanished, and so, incidentally, has Fergal.

I am late for my appointment and there is an atmosphere I cannot dispel because goblin intervention is not accepted as an excuse for my tardiness.  When the meeting has drawn to a torrid conclusion I take my car to the garage.

“I was hearing this ‘knock’ thing.”

The mechanic takes it for a drive:  “There’s nothing wrong with it.”

“Well, there was something.”

“There isn’t now.   Must be an intermittent fault.  If you hear it again…”

“I’m sure it was there…”  I persist, even though I know ‘intermittent fault’ is polite garage-speak for ‘you are imagining it’.  I am not prepared to admit the truth.

“Well it isn’t now.”

But I know it will be.  And sure enough, it returns, as soon as I reach the lower end of town on my way home.  This time, though, I am wise to its cause.  I ignore it.  It gets louder.

I continue to ignore it.  It becomes louder still.  Finally when I refuse to pull over and I am halfway down the valley road a set of traffic lights in front of me that has just changed to green changes instantly back to red and I am compelled to stop.   Let me emphasize, I do not actually see him, or any more than suspect his presence, but I know a very sweaty and out-of-breath Fergal has hauled himself back onto my roof.

When I drive away it is no surprise that the knocking sound has vanished, nor am I more than mildly pleased that every other set of traffic lights is green and I reach the last set – Fergal’s home set – in good time.  They, of course, will be red:  I expect it.

The lights are green.

There is more than a little of the Fergal within me.   I chuckle to myself because I know a mistake has been made.  Impervious to knocks from the engine, squeaks from the suspension, flashing LED lights and warning bleeps I increase my speed.  In twenty yards it will be too late to stop safely!   With fiendish grin I set my hands on the steering wheel, envisaging the panic inside that post as someone runs frantically up the little spiral staircase to lunge at the switch.  Too late! Ha ha! I am through!

I give way to laughter, to wild, demonic laughter!  There are no more traffic lights for two miles and the knocks and squeaks cannot intimidate me!  I throw the car through corners, imagining those little hands clinging desperately to my radio aerial, driving faster and faster; but then…

It dashes from a small paddock to my right; and once I have seen it, my eyes won’t let it go.  Brilliant white it flares, it flies, it flashes; it prances with strong neck arched and golden horn thrust forth like the sun-child I know it to be: it leaps the hedge, it bestrides the verge… 

Fearful I should hit something so royal and so fine I slam on the brakes,   My car drifts for a moment, collects itself, then convulses as another car with brakes not quite so sharp hits it from behind.

The impact is loud, the silent moment which ensues complete.  As the dust settles, a small, squat creature slithers through my window to stand before me on the dashboard and we meet, face-to-face, for the first time.  How do you describe ugliness so profound it defies description?  I shall not try, except to say a liberal quantity of mucus is involved.  Fergal leers at me, waving a stubby, bulbous finger in admonition.   Then he winks.  Then he goes.

Apparently the car which collided with me is a police car.  It seems I was speeding.  The officer writing out the ticket also thinks I stopped needlessly and dangerously.

“But I had to stop – I would have hit it!”

“Hit what, sir?”

“Why, the unicorn!”

“The…unicorn, sir?”

Yes, of course the bloody unicorn.  There it is, lying as statuesquely as any wild horse has ever lain upon the grass verge, watching as I am given a breath test.   But the policeman won’t see it; nor does he seem to notice that Stephanie, the girl who lives four doors down from me, is cradled against its chest, her long golden locks mingling with its soft white mane.  Now I do feel it might be being slightly misled in this regard, because I’ve seen the way she behaves with her boyfriend and he at least is less than celibate, I can tell you.   However…

At length the police car turns around and leaves.  I am reading my new batch of literature as it passes, but I do glance up in time to see Fergal, full bag of shopping on lap, seated comfortably amid its cluster of blue lights.  He gives me a cheery wave.

As for me?  Well, I drive home in a car which now has a genuine knocking sound, and count myself lucky that the fines will amount to less than a month’s wages.   From now until the end of this week (the end of Moon Feast) I shall only travel by taxi: my car is being repaired, anyway.

I feel it is time for all of us whose minds are open to creatures from the lower world to gather together and proclaim our beliefs.  What about you?  Have you any stories to tell about your encounters with pixies, or dragons, or maybe the odd Jabberwocky?

NB:   Some who read this post may accuse me of sizeism.  I wish to make it clear I have no prejudice against PORGs (persons of restricted growth) or their freedom of movement throughout the European Union, however ridiculous and misguided I may believe it to be.

© Frederick Anderson 2014.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.