|Welcome to Schlock! the new webzine for science fiction, fantasy and horror.|
Vol 3, Issue 1
10 June 2012
Schlock! is an exciting weekly webzine dedicated to short stories, flash fiction, serialised novels and novellas within the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. We publish new and old works of pulp sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, dark fantasy and gothic horror. If you want to read quality works of schlock fantasy, science fiction or horror, Schlock! is the webzine for you!
For details of previous editions, please go to the Archive.
Schlock! Webzine is always willing to consider new science fiction, fantasy and horror short stories, serials, graphic novels and comic strips, reviews and art. Feel free to submit fiction, articles, art or links to your own site to email@example.com.
We will also review published and self-published novels, in both print and digital editions. Please contact the editor at the above email address for further details.
The stories, articles and illustrations contained on this website are copyright © to the respective authors and illustrators, unless in the public domain.
This week’s cover illustration is “The Vampire” by Edvard Munch. Graphic design by C Priest Brumley
LOVECRAFTIANA: THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH by HP Lovecraft - He desired to fly to the onyx castle atop unknown Kadath in the cold waste to plead with the Great Ones for the sunset city they denied him… FANTASY
DARKLIGHT PART II by Nathan JDL Rowark – Simon is transformed into a be-tentacled monstrosity… TECHNO-GOTHIC
THE STRANGE (AND REMARKABLE) ADVENTURES OF WALLY AND ROY PART I by Todd Nelsen - Did I mention it was eerie? Well, it was… creepy, too… FANTASY
NOT ALL THE VOLSUNGS ARE DEAD! by Gavin Chappell – The original saga of the sword that was broken… NORSE MYTH
THE REAL WILD WEST SHOW by Sergio Palumbo, edited by Michele Dutcher - “If you come with me, your dream of an ever-lasting Wild West Show will come true,” the alien told him… SCIENCE FICTION
AYAME’S LOVE by Thomas C Hewitt - Anton had enough charm for anyone… EPIC POETRY
HOW I MET MY WIFE by Rob Bliss - Eyes wide, dry, staring at the unnamed constellations of pinprick stars passing over…
THE INITIATION OF LANTOS Part Two by John Douglas Hoyland - “Pod, is this all, or is there more?”… SCIENCE FICTION
VARNEY THE VAMPYRE ascribed to Thomas Preskett Prest - Flora Bannerworth and her mother. The episode of chivalry… GOTHIC HORROR
AFTER LONDON by Richard Jefferies – Night in the forest… SCIENCE FICTION
Things are coming to a head this week, as Carter and his ghoulish allies advance upon transmontane Leng. Meanwhile, Nathan Rowark’s Darklight continues as the new identity of Philip and Becca’s house mate becomes apparent. We have the return of Todd Nelsen with his new characters Wally and Roy, and their strange (and remarkable) adventures.
I’ve included another retelling from Norse legend, the saga of Sigmund, a story of outlawry, incest, murder, werewolves and bloody vengeance. We also have a story by Sergio Palumbo, this one including cowboys, aliens and a Wild West show beyond the stars. Ayame’s Love reaches its nineteenth stanza, with Ayame struggling to put the story of the gardener into words. We have a Rob Bliss story of love and laziness. Then there’s the second part of John Douglas Hoyland’s story of Lantos, followed by more installments of Varney the Vampyre, and After London, which are growing strangely similar as echoes of the Middle Ages resound through both stories.
And for those of you who missed last edition, a reminder about the Schlock! Anthology Writing Competition:
The winners of the competition will see their work published in the next Schlock! Anthology, Timeless Worlds, publication date tentatively scheduled for August/September. We’re looking for short stories in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and/or horror. Word count: anywhere up to 7500 words. The winning entries will be published alongside the cream of the crop of the last six months’ editions, and winners will receive free copies of the anthology, and will be able to purchase more copies at a discount. Final date for entries is 15 July. Send stories to firstname.lastname@example.org with “COMPETITION” in the subject box.
THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH by HP Lovecraft
Frightful were the secrets uncovered in those evil and windowless crypts; for the remnants of unfinished pastimes were many, and in various stages of departure from their primal state. Carter put out of the way certain things which were after a fashion alive, and fled precipitately from a few other things about which he could not be very positive. The stench-filled houses were furnished mostly with grotesque stools and benches carven from moon-trees, and were painted inside with nameless and frantic designs. Countless weapons, implements, and ornaments lay about, including some large idols of solid ruby depicting singular beings not found on the earth. These latter did not, despite their material, invite either appropriation or long inspection; and Carter took the trouble to hammer five of them into very small pieces. The scattered spears and javelins he collected, and with Pickman’s approval distributed among the ghouls. Such devices were new to the doglike lopers, but their relative simplicity made them easy to master after a few concise hints.
The upper parts of the rock held more temples than private homes, and in numerous hewn chambers were found terrible carven altars and doubtfully stained fonts and shrines for the worship of things more monstrous than the wild gods atop Kadath. From the rear of one great temple stretched a low black passage which Carter followed far into the rock with a torch till he came to a lightless domed hall of vast proportions, whose vaultings were covered with demoniac carvings and in whose centre yawned a foul and bottomless well like that in the hideous monastery of Leng where broods alone the High-Priest Not To Be Described. On the distant shadowy side, beyond the noisome well, he thought he discerned a small door of strangely wrought bronze; but for some reason he felt an unaccountable dread of opening it or even approaching it, and hastened back through the cavern to his unlovely allies as they shambled about with an ease and abandon he could scarcely feel. The ghouls had observed the unfinished pastimes of the moonbeasts, and had profited in their fashion. They had also found a hogshead of potent moon-wine, and were rolling it down to the wharves for removal and later use in diplomatic dealings, though the rescued trio, remembering its effect on them in Dylath-Leen, had warned their company to taste none of it. Of rubies from lunar mines there was a great store, both rough and polished, in one of the vaults near the water; but when the ghouls found they were not good to eat they lost all interest in them. Carter did not try to carry any away, since he knew too much about those which had mined them.
Suddenly there came an excited meeping from the sentries on the wharves, and all the loathsome foragers turned from their tasks to stare seaward and cluster round the waterfront. Betwixt the grey headlands a fresh black galley was rapidly advancing, and it would be but a moment before the almost-humans on deck would perceive the invasion of the town and give the alarm to the monstrous things below. Fortunately the ghouls still bore the spears and javelins which Carter had distributed amongst them; and at his command, sustained by the being that was Pickman, they now formed a line of battle and prepared to prevent the landing of the ship. Presently a burst of excitement on the galley told of the crew’s discovery of the changed state of things, and the instant stoppage of the vessel proved that the superior numbers of the ghouls had been noted and taken into account. After a moment of hesitation the new comers silently turned and passed out between the headlands again, but not for an instant did the ghouls imagine that the conflict was averted. Either the dark ship would seek reinforcements or the crew would try to land elsewhere on the island; hence a party of scouts was at once sent up toward the pinnacle to see what the enemy’s course would be.
In a very few minutes the ghoul returned breathless to say that the moonbeasts and almost-humans were landing on the outside of the more easterly of the rugged grey headlands, and ascending by hidden paths and ledges which a goat could scarcely tread in safety. Almost immediately afterward the galley was sighted again through the flume-like strait, but only for a second. Then a few moments later, a second messenger panted down from aloft to say that another party was landing on the other headland; both being much more numerous than the size of the galley would seem to allow for. The ship itself, moving slowly with only one sparsely manned tier of oars, soon hove in sight betwixt the cliffs, and lay to in the foetid harbour as if to watch the coming fray and stand by for any possible use.
By this time Carter and Pickman had divided the ghouls into three parties, one to meet each of the two invading columns and one to remain in the town. The first two at once scrambled up the rocks in their respective directions, while the third was subdivided into a land party and a sea party. The sea party, commanded by Carter, boarded the anchored galley and rowed out to meet the under-manned galley of the newcomers; whereat the latter retreated through the strait to the open sea. Carter did not at once pursue it, for he knew he might be needed more acutely near the town.
Meanwhile the frightful detachments of the moonbeasts and almost-humans had lumbered up to the top of the headlands and were shockingly silhouetted on either side against the grey twilight sky. The thin hellish flutes of the invaders had now begun to whine, and the general effect of those hybrid, half-amorphous processions was as nauseating as the actual odour given off by the toadlike lunar blasphemies. Then the two parties of the ghouls swarmed into sight and joined the silhouetted panorama. Javelins began to fly from both sides, and the swelling meeps of the ghouls and the bestial howls of the almost-humans gradually joined the hellish whine of the flutes to form a frantick and indescribable chaos of daemon cacophony. Now and then bodies fell from the narrow ridges of the headlands into the sea outside or the harbour inside, in the latter case being sucked quickly under by certain submarine lurkers whose presence was indicated only by prodigious bubbles.
For half an hour this dual battle raged in the sky, till upon the west cliff the invaders were completely annihilated. On the east cliff, however, where the leader of the moonbeast party appeared to be present, the ghouls had not fared so well; and were slowly retreating to the slopes of the pinnacle proper. Pickman had quickly ordered reinforcements for this front from the party in the town, and these had helped greatly in the earlier stages of the combat. Then, when the western battle was over, the victorious survivors hastened across to the aid of their hard-pressed fellows; turning the tide and forcing the invaders back again along the narrow ridge of the headland. The almost-humans were by this time all slain, but the last of the toadlike horrors fought desperately with the great spears clutched in their powerful and disgusting paws. The time for javelins was now nearly past, and the fight became a hand-to-hand contest of what few spearmen could meet upon that narrow ridge.
As fury and recklessness increased, the number falling into the sea became very great. Those striking the harbour met nameless extinction from the unseen bubblers, but of those striking the open sea some were able to swim to the foot of the cliffs and land on tidal rocks, while the hovering galley of the enemy rescued several moonbeasts. The cliffs were unscalable except where the monsters had debarked, so that none of the ghouls on the rocks could rejoin their battle-line. Some were killed by javelins from the hostile galley or from the moonbeasts above, but a few survived to be rescued. When the security of the land parties seemed assured, Carter’s galley sallied forth between the headlands and drove the hostile ship far out to sea; pausing to rescue such ghouls as were on the rocks or still swimming in the ocean. Several moonbeasts washed on rocks or reefs were speedily put out of the way.
Finally, the moonbeast galley being safely in the distance and the invading land army concentrated in one place, Carter landed a considerable force on the eastern headland in the enemy’s rear; after which the fight was short-lived indeed. Attacked from both sides, the noisome flounderers were rapidly cut to pieces or pushed into the sea, till by evening the ghoulish chiefs agreed that the island was again clear of them. The hostile galley, meanwhile, had disappeared; and it was decided that the evil jagged rock had better be evacuated before any overwhelming horde of lunar horrors might be assembled and brought against the victors.
So by night Pickman and Carter assembled all the ghouls and counted them with care, finding that over a fourth had been lost in the day’s battles. The wounded were placed on bunks in the galley, for Pickman always discouraged the old ghoulish custom of killing and eating one’s own wounded, and the able-bodied troops were assigned to the oars or to such other places as they might most usefully fill. Under the low phosphorescent clouds of night the galley sailed, and Carter was not sorry to be departing from the island of unwholesome secrets, whose lightless domed hall with its bottomless well and repellent bronze door lingered restlessly in his fancy. Dawn found the ship in sight of Sarkomand’s ruined quays of basalt, where a few night-gaunt sentries still waited, squatting like black horned gargoyles on the broken columns and crumbling sphinxes of that fearful city which lived and died before the years of man.
The ghouls made camp amongst the fallen stones of Sarkomand, despatching a messenger for enough night-gaunts to serve them as steeds. Pickman and the other chiefs were effusive in their gratitude for the aid Carter had lent them. Carter now began to feel that his plans were indeed maturing well, and that he would be able to command the help of these fearsome allies not only in quitting this part of dreamland, but in pursuing his ultimate quest for the gods atop unknown Kadath, and the marvellous sunset city they so strangely withheld from his slumbers. Accordingly he spoke of these things to the ghoulish leaders; telling what he knew of the cold waste wherein Kadath stands and of the monstrous Shantaks and the mountains carven into double-headed images which guard it. He spoke of the fear of Shantaks for night-gaunts, and of how the vast hippocephalic birds fly screaming from the black burrows high up on the gaunt grey peaks that divide Inquanok from hateful Leng. He spoke, too, of the things he had learned concerning night-gaunts from the frescoes in the windowless monastery of the High-Priest Not To Be Described; how even the Great Ones fear them, and how their ruler is not the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep at all, but hoary and immemorial Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss.
All these things Carter glibbered to the assembled ghouls, and presently outlined that request which he had in mind and which he did not think extravagant considering the services he had so lately rendered the rubbery doglike lopers. He wished very much, he said, for the services of enough night-gaunts to bear him safely through the aft past the realm of Shantaks and carven mountains, and up into the old waste beyond the returning tracks of any other mortal. He desired to fly to the onyx castle atop unknown Kadath in the cold waste to plead with the Great Ones for the sunset city they denied him, and felt sure that the night-gaunts could take him thither without trouble; high above the perils of the plain, and over the hideous double heads of those carven sentinel mountains that squat eternally in the grey dusk. For the horned and faceless creatures there could be no danger from aught of earth since the Great Ones themselves dread them. And even were unexpected things to come from the Other Gods, who are prone to oversee the affairs of earth’s milder gods, the night-gaunts need not fear; for the outer hells are indifferent matters to such silent and slippery flyers as own not Nyarlathotep for their master, but bow only to potent and archaic Nodens.
A flock of ten or fifteen night-gaunts, Carter glibbered, would surely be enough to keep any combination of Shantaks at a distance, though perhaps it might be well to have some ghouls in the party to manage the creatures, their ways being better known to their ghoulish allies than to men. The party could land him at some convenient point within whatever walls that fabulous onyx citadel might have, waiting in the shadows for his return or his signal whilst he ventured inside the castle to give prayer to the gods of earth. If any ghouls chose to escort him into the throne-room of the Great Ones, he would be thankful, for their presence would add weight and importance to his plea. He would not, however, insist upon this but merely wished transportation to and from the castle atop unknown Kadath; the final journey being either to the marvellous sunset city itself, in case of gods proved favourable, or back to the earthward Gate of Deeper Slumber in the Enchanted Wood in case his prayers were fruitless.
Whilst Carter was speaking all the ghouls listened with great attention, and as the moments advanced the sky became black with clouds of those night-gaunts for which messengers had been sent. The winged steeds settled in a semicircle around the ghoulish army, waiting respectfully as the doglike chieftains considered the wish of the earthly traveller. The ghoul that was Pickman glibbered gravely with his fellows and in the end Carter was offered far more than he had at most expected. As he had aided the ghouls in their conquest of the moonbeasts, so would they aid him in his daring voyage to realms whence none had ever returned; lending him not merely a few of their allied night-gaunts, but their entire army as then encamped, veteran fighting ghouls and newly assembled night-gaunts alike, save only a small garrison for the captured black galley and such spoils as had come from the jagged rock in the sea. They would set out through the aft whenever he might wish, and once arrived on Kadath a suitable train of ghouls would attend him in state as he placed his petition before earth’s gods in their onyx castle.
Moved by a gratitude and satisfaction beyond words, Carter made plans with the ghoulish leaders for his audacious voyage. The army would fly high, they decided, over hideous Leng with its nameless monastery and wicked stone villages; stopping only at the vast grey peaks to confer with the Shantak-frightening night-gaunts whose burrows honeycombed their summits. They would then, according to what advice they might receive from those denizens, choose their final course; approaching unknown Kadath either through the desert of carven mountains north of Inquanok, or through the more northerly reaches of repulsive Leng itself. Doglike and soulless as they are, the ghouls and night-gaunts had no dread of what those untrodden deserts might reveal; nor did they feel any deterring awe at the thought of Kadath towering lone with its onyx castle of mystery.
About midday the ghouls and night-gaunts prepared for flight, each ghoul selecting a suitable pair of horned steeds to bear him. Carter was placed well up toward the head of the column beside Pickman, and in front of the whole a double line of riderless night-gaunts was provided as a vanguard. At a brisk meep from Pickman the whole shocking army rose in a nightmare cloud above the broken columns and crumbling sphinxes of primordial Sarkomand; higher and higher, till even the great basalt cliff behind the town was cleared, and the cold, sterile table-land of Leng’s outskirts laid open to sight. Still higher flew the black host, till even this table-land grew small beneath them; and as they worked northward over the wind-swept plateau of horror Carter saw once again with a shudder the circle of crude monoliths and the squat windowless building which he knew held that frightful silken-masked blasphemy from whose clutches he had so narrowly escaped. This time no descent was made as the army swept batlike over the sterile landscape, passing the feeble fires of the unwholesome stone villages at a great altitude, and pausing not at all to mark the morbid twistings of the hooved, horned almost-humans that dance and pipe eternally therein. Once they saw a Shantak-bird flying low over the plain, but when it saw them it screamed noxiously and flapped off to the north in grotesque panic.
At dusk they reached the jagged grey peaks that form the barrier of Inquanok, and hovered about these strange caves near the summits which Carter recalled as so frightful to the Shantaks. At the insistent meeping of the ghoulish leaders there issued forth from each lofty burrow a stream of horned black flyers with which the ghouls and night-gaunts of the party conferred at length by means of ugly gestures. It soon became clear that the best course would be that over the cold waste north of Inquanok, for Leng’s northward reaches are full of unseen pitfalls that even the night-gaunts dislike; abysmal influences centering in certain white hemispherical buildings on curious knolls, which common folklore associates unpleasantly with the Other Gods and their crawling chaos Nyarlathotep.
Of Kadath the flutterers of the peaks knew almost nothing, save that there must be some mighty marvel toward the north, over which the Shantaks and the carven mountains stand guard. They hinted at rumoured abnormalities of proportion in those trackless leagues beyond, and recalled vague whispers of a realm where night broods eternally; but of definite data they had nothing to give. So Carter and his party thanked them kindly; and, crossing the topmost granite pinnacles to the skies of Inquanok, dropped below the level of the phosphorescent night clouds and beheld in the distance those terrible squatting gargoyles that were mountains till some titan hand carved fright into their virgin rock.
There they squatted in a hellish half-circle, their legs on the desert sand and their mitres piercing the luminous clouds; sinister, wolflike, and double-headed, with faces of fury and right hands raised, dully and malignly watching the rim of man’s world and guarding with horror the reaches of a cold northern world that is not man’s. From their hideous laps rose evil Shantaks of elephantine bulk, but these all fled with insane titters as the vanguard of night-gaunts was sighted in the misty sky. Northward above those gargoyle mountains the army flew, and over leagues of dim desert where never a landmark rose. Less and less luminous grew the clouds, till at length Carter could see only blackness around him; but never did the winged steeds falter, bred as they were in earth’s blackest crypts, and seeing not with any eyes, but with the whole dank surface of their slippery forms. On and on they flew, past winds of dubious scent and sounds of dubious import; ever in thickest darkness, and covering such prodigious spaces that Carter wondered whether or not they could still be within earth’s dreamland.
Then suddenly the clouds thinned and the stars shone spectrally above. All below was still black, but those pallid beacons in the sky seemed alive with a meaning and directiveness they had never possessed elsewhere. It was not that the figures of the constellations were different, but that the same familiar shapes now revealed a significance they had formerly failed to make plain. Everything focussed toward the north; every curve and asterism of the glittering sky became part of a vast design whose function was to hurry first the eye and then the whole observer onward to some secret and terrible goal of convergence beyond the frozen waste that stretched endlessly ahead. Carter looked toward the east where the great ridge of barrier peaks had towered along all the length of Inquanok and saw against the stars a jagged silhouette which told of its continued presence. It was more broken now, with yawning clefts and fantastically erratic pinnacles; and Carter studied closely the suggestive turnings and inclinations of that grotesque outline, which seemed to share with the stars some subtle northward urge.
They were flying past at a tremendous speed, so that the watcher had to strain hard to catch details; when all at once he beheld just above the line of the topmost peaks a dark and moving object against the stars, whose course exactly paralleled that of his own bizarre party. The ghouls had likewise glimpsed it, for he heard their low glibbering all about him, and for a moment he fancied the object was a gigantic Shantak, of a size vastly greater than that of the average specimen. Soon, however, he saw that this theory would not hold; for the shape of the thing above the mountains was not that of any hippocephalic bird. Its outline against the stars, necessarily vague as it was, resembled rather some huge mitred head, or pair of heads infinitely magnified; and its rapid bobbing flight through the sky seemed most peculiarly a wingless one. Carter could not tell which side of the mountains it was on, but soon perceived that it had parts below the parts he had first seen, since it blotted out all the stars in places where the ridge was deeply cleft.
Then came a wide gap in the range, where the hideous reaches of transmontane Leng were joined to the cold waste on this side by a low pass through which the stars shone wanly. Carter watched this gap with intense care, knowing that he might see outlined against the sky beyond it the lower parts of the vast thing that flew undulantly above the pinnacles. The object had now floated ahead a trifle, and every eye of the party was fixed on the rift where it would presently appear in full-length silhouette. Gradually the huge thing above the peaks neared the gap, slightly slackening its speed as if conscious of having outdistanced the ghoulish army. For another minute suspense was keen, and then the brief instant of full silhouette and revelation came; bringing to the lips of the ghouls an awed and half-choked meep of cosmic fear, and to the soul of the traveller a chill that never wholly left it. For the mammoth bobbing shape that overtopped the ridge was only a head—a mitred double head—and below it in terrible vastness loped the frightful swollen body that bore it; the mountain-high monstrosity that walked in stealth and silence; the hyaena-like distortion of a giant anthropoid shape that trotted blackly against the sky, its repulsive pair of cone-capped heads reaching half way to the zenith.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
DARKLIGHT (Part 2) An Oceanear Tale by Nathan J.D.L. Rowark
Darklight is a prequel to the Carriage Thirteen Trilogy by Nathan J.D.L. Rowark - Available in Red Skies Press Anthology Techno-Goth Cthulhu soon!
It didn’t make any sense to her, how a simple household fixture could present such a threat.
Upon re-entering the room, Phillip was found beside himself with shock. Above the curious students burned bright a ball of unfathomable energy, still suspended from the ceiling. Now separated from a source of power or receptacle to contain it, the conspicuous flame seemed further to annoy natural law by leaving the room in darkness.
“It’s not giving off any light!” Becca foolishly pointed out, trying to reason the phenomenon amid her frightened thoughts.
Phillip had nothing to say, no smart remark or enlightened fact to help her reconcile the anomaly. It was the second unusual occurrence in the space of a few minutes.
“Well, come on!” Becca hurried him. “You must have some sort of theory on what’s going on.”
“Nah,” the slovenly film addict revealed, “Not a clue.”
Taking Phillip’s arm, she marched him from the room, and out into their darkened corridor.
“We should switch the power back on,” she reasoned. “I don’t want to sit in the dark with that thing up there.”
“Okay.” Phillip agreed, quickly descending the stairs to the junction box below.
“Wait for me!” Becca spat indignantly, running behind as if given chase by the Devil himself.
On reaching the bottom step, the only man of the house not afraid to be possessed brought back the house illuminations with the flick of a switch.
“So what do you think we should do about all this?” he asked. “Should we call the landlord?”
Screwing up the pretty features of her soured face, Becca appeared repulsed by the sheer idiocy of the lodger’s statement.
“That’s a good idea!” she sarcastically remarked. “On account of Simon’s fevered guest, they’d probably charge us extra rent!”
Phillip grinned victorious. “So you do think he’s been possessed then?”
“I’m open to any theory right now, even crazy ones. This still better not be some sort of prank between you two,” Becca warned, referring once more to her boys’ love of comedic practice. “I’m scared out of my wits here!”
Pondering the statement, her confused companion burst out laughing.
“Firstly, when do you think I would have the time to attempt such a stunt?” Phillip reasoned. “And secondly where would I get the money? Even Paul Daniels back in the day couldn’t have pulled something like this off. I’m telling you, we’re being haunted!”
Just as the last word left his excited lips, a bloodcurdling scream echoed from the lounge. Backing against the front door, Phillip grabbed for the handle.
“Sod that!” he whined, hair elevating.
An upward chill began climbing the length of the student’s backbone, born from his compatriot’s alien sounding cry.
“It’s Simon!” Becca recognised his tone. “He could be hurt!”
Taking a deep breath, Phillip released his grip on the shank behind him and rejoined the matriarch’s side.
“You’re going to suggest we go in there after him, aren’t you?” he realised. “And that’s why you should stay up with me more often and watch a few horror films once in a while!”
Late night reruns of classic slasher movies had taught Phillip full well that he should never approach a room highlighted by the yelp of a victimised student. It could be a trap; something might be waiting beyond the closed door to consume them or worse. Seeing Becca flutter her bulbous blue eyes at him, he involuntarily relinquished the tensions caught between his taunt shoulder blades. Shrugging them with displeasure at being ordered to ignore the instincts he had gleaned from a lifetime of celluloid, Phillip passively led the way toward pitch black darkness.
“I though Simon was still in bed?” he whispered. “Didn’t you see him get up?”
Becca shook her head, “He seemed far too weak for that,” she remembered. “I waited here for you to come back from the bathroom. He must have sneaked away whilst we were staring at the dark light.”
“Darklight?” Phillip queried. “What made you give it such a nickname?”
“Well, it doesn’t give out any light, does it?” she remarked.
What was it about girls having to name everything seemingly azoic? A car, their favourite stuffed animal. Phillip found it preposterous. Even the creepy glow in Simon’s room had now entered the pantheon of Becca’s worshipped inanimates.
Extending slender arms around her reluctant protector, Becca caused her apprehensive knight to jump.
“Jesus, you could of warned me you were going to do that!” he moaned. “And what’s with the heavy panting, are you thinking of engaging Simon’s spiritual charge with phone sex tips?”
Not being able to breathe for fearful anticipation, Becca squeezed tight the sides of Phillip’s dishevelled shirt.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” she countered, trying to ease her fraying nerves by way of harmless flirtation.
The student grinned to himself, relaxing somewhat. “We could have that conversation later,” he informed her dryly.
Upon reaching the closed portal from which they had heard their friend’s piteous shriek, Phillip outstretched his shaking arm to take charge of the timber’s brass handle.
“Here we go then,” he murmured, before depressing the lever and throwing open the door.
From inside the adjoining scullery whispered chattering voices, deliberately quiet to disguise their conversation amid a running stream.
Reaching his hand around the door for a switch, Phillip flicked on the light. In front of the sink, Simon had submersed his matted locks under both taps, seemingly oblivious to his housemate’s presence.
“When do the downstairs residents get back from Malta?” Phillip quietly enquired of his companion.
“They’re on holiday for three more days, I think,” she replied, “Why?”
“I was just thinking, what would they make of all this, being churchgoers. Do you think they could get us an exorcism?”
Becca regarded the irrational behaviour of their house-sharing friend. “They might have to,” she agreed.
Hearing the creaking footsteps of the pair’s advance across the floorboards, Simon shot bolt upright with frightening vigour to greet them. Face covered in glistening beads of H2O, the smooth looking skin of a manifesting visitor surveyed the room through fresh eyes.
“Who are you?” Becca questioned, seeing less and less of Simon’s countenance amid his scaly charge.
Tilting its head to one side, the intruder glared curiously at Becca’s fitted suit.
“Where is Julian Styles?” a woman’s tones enquired, beyond the vocal chords of her obliging male host.
“Get out of him!” Becca screamed. “Leave him alone!”
“Where is Julian Styles!” the simian repeated violently, slamming Simon’s fist down hard upon the countertop against his will.
Phillip spoke up, to see the vile creature immediately switch its bloodthirsty gaze toward his locale.
“We don’t know anyone called Julian.” he revealed, “You have the wrong address.”
Becca turned to face her admirer, scarcely able to believe his ridiculous discourse.
“Tell her, it, to leave!” she demanded, pushing Phillip nearer the irascible being, defiantly occupying their kitchen.
“We don’t want you here!” he threatened. “Leave or there will be trouble!”
“There will be trouble!” an oceanic horror agreed, as against the wall its host’s scrawny shadow began to shift and change.
From both sides of Simon’s silhouetted likeness sprung the elongated limbs of a quad pair of tentacles. The flaying limbs stretched out across the ceiling like branches from a tree overanxious to greet the sun.
“I don’t want to know what that is!” Becca exclaimed, tears welling up behind her terrified eyes.
Phillip pulled the degree major close, “Neither do I,” he admitted, as the spindly tendrils of an unfathomable beast rose tall to dominate the room’s interior.
Taking Becca’s arm, a quivering hero began to edge them both away from the lounge and toward the open door. As she was gently escorted backward from the room’s demonic puppeteer, the graduating hopeful could see a shimmering tear fall down the side of Simon’s cheek. He was very much alive in there still; she was sure of it - and conscious too. Glancing above the imprisoned soul, Becca became hopelessly transfixed by the slippery shadow of a devil in expanse looming over him. Between salivating teeth, Simon’s tainted aspect spat out the chewed vestige of a teenager’s wriggling tongue. Free of the intrusive muscle, an amphibian spirit unabated threw back its human head and let loose an amoeboid cry. The resonating pitch reverberated across the windows, causing them to bend at first then break in quick succession. Hypnotised by the dancing sway of a water vixen’s protruding appendages cast about the walls, Becca leapt back in surprise as the lucid phantom abruptly decided to scurry itself away. The vehicle of its psychic presence continued to sing as with lightning speed the enveloping arms of a projected shade reached out for the voyeurs in gleeful torment.
“Shit!” Phillip exclaimed, taking them both outside and shutting the door firmly behind them.
Realising the act would do little good against the movements of a shadow, he struggled to drag Becca’s catatonic frame with him upstairs. For a woman who professed to be a size 10, she hid her pounds well.
“Where are we going?” she asked, coming to from her disturbed episode on the third from last step.
“I have an idea,” Phillip imparted. “But you’re going to have to trust me!”
Becca glanced backward, as their front door shrank in size, to that of a dolls’ house entrance.
“Shouldn’t we have gone outside?” she whimpered, trying hard to remain calm amid their spine-chilling crisis.
“We need a place to hide that won’t give us away, somewhere that won’t hold any light.”
Realising the destination his bold plan was taking them, Becca struggled to break free.
“I’m not going in there again!” she stubbornly refused. “No, Phillip, please!”
Turning onto the hallway situated at the top of the landing, the student dragged his squirming crush toward their possessed flatmate’s abandoned quarters.
“What if there are more of them waiting for us inside?”
As he inched Becca’s kicking feet over the threshold, a far worse thought crept into his bothered mind. What if the something or someone they had met downstairs expected them to hide in such a way? Without warning, the staunch door of Simon’s study slammed firmly shut behind them, seemingly of its own accord. The frightened tenants held each other close, as a slithered beam dissipated along the openings frame.
“What if we’re not alone in here?” Becca gasped, as the final chink of light removed itself from her unblinking pupils.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
THE STRANGE (AND REMARKABLE) ADVENTURES OF WALLY AND ROY by Todd Nelsen
We snatched the rope up in our hands and pulled, putting our backs into it. The work paid off. It came loose slowly, in spasms and jerks, like a decayed tooth wrenched out of bloody, pink gums. Then, with a sudden pop! and a short hiss of steam, we fell backwards into each other, the rope slack in our hands.
“You okay?” I asked. It felt funny to ask, taking into account I was now on top of him. Considering I hadn’t eaten for weeks, I wondered how heavy I was. Which was another thing. Why didn’t we eat here? On top of everything else, that seemed to be the worst of it for me. Eating had always been a necessity in my book, kind of important in the cycle of life, we are all part of nature sort of sense, you know? I mean, I didn’t know anybody that didn’t eat. But before I could inquire on that, for the 1000th time, he was up and at it, again.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” he said, crawling out from beneath me. “Come on.”
We both stood to our feet and followed the length of the rope.
Imagine a bathtub stopper, a rubber plug, just like your grandma would use on an old clawfoot, because that’s exactly the way I’d describe what I saw at the other end of that rope. It didn’t look like anything else I can think of. It lay lax on the floor, tilted to one side, freed of its sucker-like hold to the earth. Beside it, was the hole it had safeguarded (“corked” would probably be a better word), and now that we had it exposed, a thin, creepy light, spread eerily out from within its depths.
Whatever was down there -
Neither of us was volunteering to take a look.
“Here,” Roy said, stalling, dither dallying, for what I hoped was the benefit of both of us. “Let’s get this out of the way. Give me a hand.”
We both grabbed one side of the plug, he on one side, me on the other, and we spun it around and away, taking care not to step too close to the light. I was surprised by the weight of it. It felt much heavier before, but freed of its suction it couldn’t weigh more than 75 pounds. Its make-up was peculiar. Though a hard rubber, I doubted it was like any rubber I’d ever seen. It felt like rubber. Looked like rubber. But everything in me told me it wasn’t. Ever walked into the women’s loo by accident (assuming you don’t belong in such places) and wonder where the hell you’re at? Same idea. Not a bad place to be, necessarily, and well worth the visit (even smells nice), but once you realize what you’re missing (that being a row of men staring daftly forward into an array of ivory white, automatic, sensor flushed, stand-yourself-up, deodorized to the MAX urinals… yes, ladies, that is how we do it) it can get awkward after a bit.
We set the stopper/not-quite-rubber/cork/plug aside, and our task done, we turned back to the creepy/eerie light.
Did I mention it was eerie? Well, it was… creepy, too.
Presently out of options (and a far more clever master at hiding his own denial than I), Roy crisscrossed his arms in wait. Then, he casually took one arm out from beneath the other, shifted his weight to his other foot, and crisscrossed them again.
(Oh, he was brilliant, just brilliant at that.)
And he wasn’t moving an inch.
So neither did I.
“What do you think we got here, Wally?” he asked finally.
“Shit, your guess is as good as mine, Roy,” I replied. “Could be anything down there.” I rubbed my chin. The hair there was rough and longish, like the whiskers of a billygoat. Who’s that tip-trap-tripping over my bridge? the troll wondered. Well, it was me, I imagine. I hadn’t shaved in weeks, and it was beginning to show. I felt like some dopey beatnik from the 60s. Raggy from rooby-rooby-roo? I never could grow facial hair right. Shaving was necessary here, yet food wasn’t. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t figure this place.
No, I doubt very seriously that it’s a slice of the expected we’ve got here, Roy, I thought. I eyeballed the hole with growing unease.
Roy nodded to the affirmative. He agreed.
Wha-a-a? Huh? Can you --?
Again, he crisscrossed and shifted. With a solitary finger, he rubbed the base of his nose.
Hmm… SENSE appeared to be a word seldom used in this place; it was a downright nasty one, in fact, right up there with COMMON. Neither of us had any idea what to think or expect.
Well, that’s not entirely true. We had some.
The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker… Rub-a-dub-dub.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
NOT ALL THE VOLSUNGS ARE DEAD! by Gavin Chappell
Odin’s son Sigi became king of Hunland with the aid of warriors and warships provided by his father. His wife’s brothers killed him, leaving his son, Rerir, who avenged his father and took over the kingdom. Rerir was wealthy and he married well, but the couple was not blessed with children until they prayed to Frigg, goddess of fertility. Odin sent one of his Valkyries, Hljod the daughter of the giant Hrimnir, in the form of a crow to the king with a magic apple, which she dropped in the king’s lap. He shared the apple with his wife and the queen became pregnant. Rerir died of sickness soon after, but his queen’s pregnancy lasted for six years before the child was cut out of her. The process was fatal for her, but she kissed her son before dying.
The boy was named Volsung and he ruled over Hunland in his turn. He had a hall built that surrounded a huge tree called the Barnstokk. When he was fully grown, Hrimnir sent Hljod to him and they married, producing ten sons and one daughter. The eldest son was Sigmund, the daughter was named Signy, and they were twins.
Siggeir, king of Gautland, asked Volsung for Signy’s hand in marriage. Although Volsung and his sons took this well, Signy was not happy, but she let her father make the decision and she was betrothed to Siggeir. The marriage feast was to be at Volsung’s hall.
During the feast, a one-eyed old man in a hooded cloak entered and went up to the Barnstokk. Producing a sword, he thrust it deeply into the trunk and said, “Whoever draws the sword out shall have it as a gift from me, and that man will prove it the best blade he ever wielded.” Then he walked out again.
Now the people rose and each tried to draw the sword from the tree, without success. At last, Sigmund tried, and the blade came freely. Siggeir offered Sigmund three times the sword’s weight in gold, but Sigmund said, “It was intended for me alone, as I have proved.”
Siggeir was angry at these words but he kept it to himself, while plotting vengeance on Sigmund.
The next day Siggeir decided to return to his kingdom since the seas were calm and the weather was fair. Before they went, Signy told her father, “I do not want to go with my husband. I can foresee misery for our kindred if I remain with Siggeir.”
Volsung said, “Ill will certainly result if we break up the marriage now. We should keep our bargain.”
Siggeir left Volsung, inviting him to come to his land in three months’ time to make up for his hasty departure. Volsung agreed, and they parted.
Three months later Volsung and his sons went to Siggeir’s kingdom, reaching it one evening. When they anchored their ships off the shore, Signy took them to one side and told them, “I believe Siggeir intends to betray us. Return to our own land, please!”
But Volsung said. “I have sworn never to flee fire or iron and I have no wish to break that vow.”
Siggeir wept and asked not to be sent back to her husband, but Volsung insisted she must stay with him.
At dawn, Volsung ordered his men to go ashore and prepare for battle. Soon Siggeir and his men appeared and they began to fight. Although they slew many of Siggeir’s men, Volsung and all his men died except for his sons, Sigmund, and the rest, who Siggeir took captive.
When Signy learnt of what had happened, she asked her husband, “Do not kill my brothers quickly but instead put them in the stocks.”
Siggeir could not understand why she wanted a lingering fate for her brothers, but he granted the request since he wanted to torture them before they died.
So the brothers were placed in stocks deep in the forest. That night a she-wolf slunk out of the trees and devoured one of the brothers. In the morning, Signy discovered what had happened. She could think of no way to save them, and it went on night after night, that the she-wolf would eat a son of Volsung. When Sigmund was the only one left, Signy had an idea. She sent her most trusted man to Sigmund with some honey, and told him to smear it on her brother’s face and put some in his mouth. The man did this and then returned home.
Again, the she-wolf appeared, and now she loped over to Sigmund. But she caught the scent of the honey and began to lick it off his face. Then she thrust her tongue into Sigmund’s mouth, at which Sigmund bit down hard. The wolf tried to get away but Sigmund gripped her tongue so tight between his teeth that it was torn out by the roots, and she died of blood loss. When she was dead, Sigmund saw the wolf body turned into the shape of Siggeir’s mother, who was a witch.
The stocks had been broken in the struggle and now Sigmund was free. He hid in the forest, where Signy found him. They decided he should make an underground dwelling in the woods, and Sigmund hid there with Signy bringing him everything he needed. But Siggeir thought all the Volsungs were dead.
Sigmund remained in the woods for many years, while Signy and Siggeir had two sons. Signy sent them to Sigmund to see if they could help their uncle gain vengeance, but both proved fainthearted and Signy advised Sigmund to kill them, which he did.
Signy met a sorcerer, who changed shapes with her. Signy, in the witch’s shape, went to her brother and slept with him. She went away again and soon gave birth to a son, who was named Sinfjotli. When he was old enough, Signy sent him to Sigmund, and he proved far tougher than Signy’s other sons. He travelled through the forests with his father, living as a robber and killing men for their riches.
One day when they were wandering through the woods, they found a house, inside which two men were sleeping. Wolfskins hung on the wall beside them. Sigmund and Sinfjotli took these skins and put them on. Once they put them on, they could not take the skins off, and they howled like wolves. Now they split up and went their own ways through the forest.
Sigmund found himself under attack from seven men and he howled for his son, who came to aid him, and they killed the men. Then they parted, and Sinfjotli went on, and this time he met eleven men and fought them, killing them all despite being badly wounded. He rested under an oak until his father joined him. Sigmund asked him why he had not called him, and Sinfjotli taunted him, saying that unlike his father he needed no aid against men. Angry, Sigmund leapt upon him and bit his windpipe. He regretted what he had done at once, and took Sinfjotli back to the hut and sat over him until he found a way to heal him.
Then they went back to the underground dwelling and waited until they were at last able to remove the wolfskins, whereupon they burned them. Later Sigmund went on journeys without Sinfjotli, and during one, he slew a dragon under a grey rock and took its treasure away with him. With the booty, the two men bought armour and weapons.
Once Sinfjotli was fully-grown Sigmund put thought to wreaking vengeance upon Siggeir. They left the underground dwelling and came to Siggeir’s estate, and hid themselves in the entrance hall, which stood before the main hall. The queen found them and they decided to take revenge when it grew dark.
Signy now had two more young sons, and they were playing with gold rings in the hall. One ring rolled into the entrance hall, and the boy ran in, looking for it. He saw the two big men wearing helmets and mail, and ran to his father to tell him what he had seen. Siggeir was perturbed. Signy took the two boys and led them into the entrance hall, where she told Sigmund they had betrayed him, and she advised him to kill them.
Sigmund refused, but Sinfjotli slew both boys and flung their corpses into Siggeir’s hall. Siggeir sent men to take them, and they defended themselves well, but at last, they were overpowered and fettered. The king pondered what would be a fitting death for the two marauders.
In the morning, he had his men build a large barrow, with a stone slab set in the middle, cutting both ends of from each other. He had Sigmund and Sinfjotli put in the mound, both on either side of the stone, so they could hear each other but still be apart. While the thralls were covering the barrow in turf, Signy came up and threw some straw into the mound, telling the thralls not to tell that king what she had done.
When it was night, Sinfjotli told Sigmund, “I doubt our food will run short.” The straw Signy threw into the mound contained pork. When he picked up the pork, he found that it concealed Sigmund’s sword. He told his father and they were both overjoyed. Sinfjotli used the sword to cut through the slab, and then cut their way out of the mound entirely.
Now they went to Siggeir’s hall and set it alight. Siggeir awoke and he asked who had done this, and Sigmund told him, saying, “Not all the Volsungs are dead!” Then she asked for Signy to be allowed to leave the hall. But when she came to him, she told him of all the evil deeds she had done to work this vengeance, and said that she was not fit to live. She went back into the burning hall and died there with Siggeir and his men.
Now Sigmund and Sinfjotli gathered men and ships and went to Hunland, where they expelled the king who had ruled there since Volsung’s death. Sigmund became a mighty king and he married a woman named Borghild, with whom he had two sons, one named Hamund, the other Helgi. This Helgi was the reincarnation of Helgi Hjorvardsson.
Helgi Hunding’s Bane
When Helgi was born, norns came to his birthplace, Bralund, and wove his destiny, saying that he would one day be the most famous of all kings.
Sigmund had been in battle and he returned now, bearing a leek for his son. He gave the boy his name, and with it gave him the gifts of Hringstead, Solfell, Snaefell, and Sigarsvoll, Hotun and Himinvangar. He also gave him a sword, encouraging his son to do well and live like a Volsung.
A man named Hagal fostered Helgi, and the boy grew up to be a magnanimous man who was well loved and better than most men in his skills and feats. When he was fifteen he went warring, accompanied by his older half-brother Sinfjotli. While he was out raiding, Helgi met a king named Hunding, who was powerful and had a large following, and ruled Hundland. The two armies fought, but Helgi pushed forward and defeated Hunding, who fell with many of his men.
Hunding’s sons were named Eyjulf, Hervard, and Juorvard, Lyngvi, Alf and Hring. They raised an army to avenge their father and they went against Helgi, fighting a great battle in which Eyjulf, Hervard, and Juorvard fell to Helgi and the rest fled.
When Helgi left the field, he met many women riding at the edge of the forest. Their leader introduced herself. “I am Sigrun, daughter of King Hogni.” Helgi invited her home but she said, “My maidens and I have a different errand.”
She was to be married to Hoddbrodd, son of King Granmar, though she hated him and thought him no more valiant than a cat. She asked Helgi, “Will you fight Hoddbrodd and take her away?” Helgi agreed.
He gathered his followers and summoned them all to Raudabjorg. There he waited until a large host came from Hedinsey. Then a large army came to him from Orvasund in large ships. Helgi called his ship’s captain, Leif, to his side and asked if he had counted the army, but Leif said, “There are so many men it is impossible to count them all.”
Then they anchored in Varinsfjord, where a storm broke upon them. But Helgi told them not to be afraid but rather to set their sails higher than before. Then Sigrun came down to the shore with many followers and directed them to a haven named Gnipalund.
The people of the land saw all this, and Hoddbrodd’s brother Gudmund, who ruled Svarinshaug, came down to the shore. He asked which of them led the force. Sinfjotli rose and spoke insultingly to him, and then they began to trade insults until Gudmund rode away to join Hoddbrodd at Solfell. Gudmund told him that the Volsungs had come with thousands of men. Hoddbrodd levied forces and sought aid from his allies, including Sigrun’s father Hogni, and he went against Helgi. Both armies met at Frekastein. Helgi forced his way through the enemy’s ranks and many men fell there. Then he saw Valkyries led by Sigrun. Helgi reached Hodbrodd and slew him beneath his own standard, and all his brothers and thanes died with him except Sigrun’s brother Dag.
Sigrun thanked him for all he had done. He married Sigrun and took over the kingdom. They had many sons, but Helgi did not live long. Dag made a sacrifice to Odin in order to gain revenge and Odin gave him his spear. Dag found Helgi at Fjoturlund and killed him with the spear. Dag rode to the mountains to tell Sigrun what he had done.
He cursed her when he gave her his news, and blamed Odin for causing strife. Sigrun mourned her husband’s passing. When he reached Valhalla, Odin had Helgi sit at his right hand and rule with him.
Some time later, Helgi was seen riding to his burial mound with many other dead men. When Sigrun heard of this she went to the mound and found it open, and she spent the night with her dead husband. Although she returned, she lived only a short while longer. In later years, Helgi and Sigrun were reborn, as Helgi Hadding’s Champion and Kara daughter of Halfdan.
Sigmund’s Later Years
Sinfjotli went raiding again, and found a woman he wanted to be his wife. The brother of Borghild, Sigmund’s wife, also desired her. The two men met in battle and Sinfjotli slew Borghild’s brother. Now he went raiding everywhere, amassing plunder and fame. But when he returned to Sigmund’s kingdom and Borghild knew what he had done, she asked him to leave the kingdom and never return. Sigmund said he would not let Sinfjotli leave and he offered to give Borghild a wergild for her brother’s death. She told him that it was his decision.
Now Borghild arranged her brother’s funeral feast, to which she invited many important people. She served the ale herself, and offered Sinfjotli a large drinking horn, which he rejected, saying it was befouled. Sigmund took the horn and drank it instead. The queen offered Sinfjotli another drink, taunting him. He took the horn and said that it had been mixed with treachery. Sigmund took it from him and drank it all down. Again, the queen offered him a poisoned drink, and Sinfjotli recognised it for what it was. By now, Sigmund was drunk, and when Sinfjotli said the drink was poisoned, he replied by telling his son to filter it with his moustache. Angry, Sinfjotli drained the horn and fell dead to the ground.
Sigmund was struck by grief. He took Sinfjotli’s body in his arms and carried it through the woods until he came to a fjord. Here he saw a man in a small boat who asked him if he wished to cross the fjord. Sigmund agreed, but since the boat was too small for Sigmund and his burden, he put Sinfjotli’s body in it and walked along the fjord shore. Then the boat vanished.
Sigmund went home and he banished Borghild, who died shortly after. Sigmund continued to rule his kingdom. He heard that Hjordis, daughter of King Eylimi, was the fairest and wisest of all women, and so he decided he would marry her.
He went to visit Eylimi, and the king prepared a great banquet when he learnt that Sigmund came in friendship and not war. Now he found that Lyngvi, son of King Hunding was there, and also wanted to marry Hjordis. Eylimi let Hjordis choose between her two suitors, and she chose Sigmund, although he was old in years by now. They remained in Eylimi’s kingdom for some time before returning to Hunland, and Eylimi came with them.
King Lyngvi was angry. He and his brothers Alf and Hring gathered an army. They sailed to Hunland and sent word to Sigmund, who gathered his own army. He sent Hjordis with a bondmaid to hide in the forest. Battle commenced and the two forces fought, but Lyngvi’s army was much larger than Sigmund’s. Sigmund fought valiantly, and he cut Lyngvi’s men down before him until he was bloody to the shoulders. Then an old man with one eye came against Sigmund bearing a spear. Sigmund cut at the spear and his sword broke in two, and the tide of battle turned. Sigmund and his father-in-law Eylimi fell at the head of their army, with most of their men. King Lyngvi seized Sigmund’s kingdom but he could not find Hjordis.
The night after the battle, Hjordis and the bondmaid went among the slain and found Sigmund dying. She asked if he could be healed.
He said, “I cannot live because Odin wants my death. You are carrying a son. Raise him well, and keep the broken sword. It will be reforged and named Gram, and with it, our son will achieve great deeds.” Then he died.
Sigmund’s son was Sigurd the Volsung, who slew Fafnir the dragon and won the Rhinegold.
THE REAL WILD WEST SHOW by Sergio Palumbo, edited by Michele Dutcher
“There is no death. Only a change of worlds.”
Chief Seattle [Seatlh]
The horses were running and turning around the raised wooden platform in the middle of the circus. In the saddles rode two gunmen wearing Stetsons who were continuously aiming and firing at a target that consisted of an iron ring with several dish-shaped rotating objects that were fastened all around the outside. The goal of the performance was to hit the objects in close succession and in the correct order, paying attention not to miss the mark - as every shot that barreled through could reach the gunman riding exactly on the opposite side of the base and seriously injure him. There was no danger if the shot hit precisely in the centre of the dish-shaped object as the metallic material it was made of took all the power of the blast with no consequences or damage. As for the spectators sitting in the circular gallery, they were safe at all times behind the invisible vibrating shield that protected them from any accidental roaming shots coming from inside the platform area, just in case.
Zack was walking hurriedly backstage, busily preparing the ropes for the next part of the show and supervising all the performances. As the middle-aged man heaped some cords on the ground, the speakers began yelling in their unnerving tone:
‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, here come the famous human cowboys and their bloody adversaries known as Indians on far Earth. This is one of the highlights of our show for today, so get ready to watch the fierce Battle for the Prairies presented here before your very own eyes!’
Of course, the language used for the announcement wasn’t in English, as all of the showmen were far away from their home planet - more than 15 light-years actually. The voice was the dreadful way of talking the reptilian alien species of this world, known as Iltk, usually spoke - a mixture between a sort of plaintive lament and a difficult breathing - which simply made the speech even coarser because of the need to make it comprehensible to the many spectators at the circus.
While the first group, representing the armed cowboys, slowly approached the tunnel leading out of the backstage area, the man looked for a while at the holo-posters, which were in plain sight all around the orange big top. It showed one of the official 101 Ranch Real Wild West old-fashioned advertisements, rendered with modern technology and in high resolution. There was a beautiful girl riding a buffalo, with many other steer riders in the background and boundless green land all around. The poster made Zack think of the past…
The Miller Brothers 101 Ranch was an 110,000-acre cattle ranch in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma before statehood in 1893, initially founded by Colonel George W. Miller, a veteran of the Confederate Army. The 101 Ranch had been the birthplace of the 101 Ranch Wild West Show (its location became a national historic landmark during the 20th century). When Colonel Miller died in 1903, his three sons, Joseph, George Jr., and Zack took over operation of the ranch. By 1932, most of the land was already owned by the Miller family, and soon afterwards, they leased other space from the Pawnee and the Otoe Indians in Kay, Noble, Osage and Pawnee Counties. The ranch had remained in the family for almost 60 years.
It was the Millers’ neighbor, Major G. W. Lillie, who performed as ‘Pawnee Bill’ during the show, and who had originally motivated the family to produce a Wild West Show. The Millers made their transition from putting on local shows to the national scene in 1907 - then in 1908, they began their first tour and performed in many different locations. Over the course of the show’s history, its cast included Bill Picket, Bessie Herberg, Mexican Joe, Ross Hettan, and even an elderly Buffalo Bill - though it was only for a very brief time.
The Miller family came late into Wild West Show business and suffered financially - along with the other shows - after the invention of motion pictures. Actually, they had more problems than most in a business that was difficult even in the best of times. During their first year, they suffered a serious railroad accident. In 1908, the Miller Brothers had taken their show abroad, but unfortunately, while in England, the British military confiscated most of the 101’s horses, materials and automobiles too as things escalated towards World War I. Soon after, when the Millers’ show toured in Germany, authorities arrested some of their Sioux performers on suspicion of being Serbian spies: unfortunately, they were never seen again.
Zack Miller had managed by any means possible to get the rest of the cast out of Germany via Norway, and then back to England. Once in London, however, he had difficulties finding a steamship and finally obtained passage for his cast on an American vessel. Arriving back home in Oklahoma, the eldest brother Joe Miller refused to pay the Indian cast overtime, and as a result, the entire Indian cast eventually quit the show.
By 1916, the two brothers George Jr. and Zack worked at the ranch, while Joe kept on trying to make the Wild West Show a financial success. Joe Miller hired an out-of-work, aging, and ill Buffalo Bill to star in a World War I recruitment show called the “Pageant of Preparedness.” But Cody soon quit the show and died within a year. Still unwilling to let the show close, Joe continued to operate on a smaller scale. In 1927, he was found dead in the 101 Ranch garage. Only two years later George Miller Jr. died in a car accident.
Despite all that, Zack tried to carry on alone, but in 1932, he filed for bankruptcy. The US government seized the show’s remaining assets and part of the 101 Ranch. Completely broke, the show closed after the World’s Fair in 1939.
In January 1952 Zack Miller himself, 74 years old, had already given up all of his hopes and was dying because of cancer. Then --in just one day - everything changed. The man remembered it all very well.
Early in the morning, a small individual, the size of a dwarf, more or less, came to Zack’s home in Texas to pay him a visit. This individual wore a strange black overcoat, with a big hat covering his head and walked very slowly across the floor. His skin was pale, almost grayish, with a big muffler covering his mouth, and his eyes, oh my, his eyes were so big, dark and weird. As the man soon discovered, he wasn’t a common human at all. But he came with a proposal Zack couldn’t ignore, evidently.
Escorted by the tiny female servant, he entered the bedroom where the old man, still very tall despite his great age, stayed almost all the time during those last days, because of his terminal illness. While the rest of his body was in a very bad way, Zack’s vivid eyes still looked brilliant.
“Let me introduce myself, Mr. Miller,” the guest said. His voice was discordant like a very long scratching sound on rock. “I am Ghe Ji, the agent for Threvtt, an important company from abroad, and I have come here before you today in order to make you an offer you might find very interesting and highly amusing.”
“Yes, yes, I remember your name; you contacted me for an appointment, didn’t you? Why are you here, Mr. Ghe Jeeee?” Zack had asked the newcomer in his usual gruff tone, which was much more abrupt those last days of his past life.
“May we have some privacy?” the other replied, looking at the servant waiting inside the room.
“Yes, yes, please Leonor, leave us,” and the black-haired woman went just outside, closing the door.
“So, what’s the very important message you came to give to me on behalf of your company, Mr. Geee?”
“Actually, my name is Ghe Ji…” the visitor pointed out. “My offer is something you might consider strange, given the present circumstances, but I’m sure you’ll find it very appealing, anyway.”
“So what? Are you saying what, exactly…?”
“Well, Mr. Miller, the truth is that we can heal you.”
For a while, Zack didn’t say anything. He still remembered that moment because he was aching all over and it just wasn’t just wasn’t a good time to speak nonsense in front of him. At first, the old man thought he’d better reach the chest of drawers nearby, take his gun out and drive that nuisance away, but he stopped himself in time. “And I imagine you just came here in order to sell me some expensive treatments, maybe even some new medicine of yours.”
The guest didn’t say anything.
“Do you know how many trials I’ve undergone to try to heal myself? How many treatments I’ve undergone so far? But there’s no way to cure my illness, my days are numbered, this much is certain.”
“Maybe there’s something you didn’t consider yet,” the guest continued, showing himself to be very composed and calm.
At that point the newcomer revealed his face in full light and what a surprise to Zack! He didn’t look like a man, certainly not, given that rounded face, the grayish skin and those wide eyes, dark and incredible. The man immediately thought his guest must have some weird deformity and he knew the clear stupefaction showing on his face wasn’t the most polite way to behave in front of his guest. But, given the great pain of the present moment and the coldness he had been feeling all day long, Zack considered that, undoubtedly, it didn’t concern him.
“I’m not a common man, Mr. Miller…actually I’m not a man at all, and I was born on another world, called Ewp. That is exactly the place I come from.”
Then Zack thought that he’d better reach his gun this time. But the guest was faster than he was and pointed one of his slender, very long fingers at the man’s bed, which was hit by an orange ray coming directly out of a thin ring he wore. As a consequence, the man wasn’t able to move anymore.
“Sorry about that, Mr. Miller, but I need you to stay calm for a while, so I can make my full proposal to you. Please, just listen to me and consider it carefully. Afterwards, if you are not interested, simply tell me and I’ll leave, and you’ll never see me again.”
The eyes of the man were fearful now and he’d rather run away from there as fast as he could, but he wasn’t able to move, so, what other choice was left for him but to hear his visitor’s words?
“My company is very attracted to the kind of show you managed here on Earth long ago…I mean, the 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show.” He said this as if in response to a silent question of the man. Ghe Ji continued, “Yes, I know that the show is over now and you can’t revive it anymore, but the characters that were in it and the performances that the spectators enjoyed at that time could be of great interest for us…so we could revive it on your behalf. But we need an experienced man like you to run it again appropriately. So now you can figure out the reason why I’m here this morning. Oh, you can speak and reply to me, of course, only your possible yells or cries for help can’t reach anyone outside of this room, including your female servant, thanks to my technology.”
Zack spoke immediately. “So that’s what you aliens want from the Earthmen? A Wild West Show? You guys came a very long way just for that…!”
“Actually, that’s not what the aliens want from your planet, but the rest of it not my problem at the moment. This is the only thing that my company and I are concerned with. It’s simply a matter of business of course.”
“And can you really heal me?”
“We can do much more that that!” Ghe Ji smiled openly. “We are interested in your old Wild West Show as we have plans to develop it even further, making it reach new viewers and go on for a very long time, we promise you that for sure.” The weird guest paused for a while then added, “Ah, I almost forgot - we can also heal your illness for free, of course.”
Zack looked at him in silence, stuck in his bed because of a kind of sorcery he couldn’t even try to explain.
“If you come with me, your dream of an ever-lasting Wild West Show will come true, it is going to last for a very long time…,” the alien told him.
“But I’m dying and I don’t even have enough resources to maintain the equipment to run a show like the one of the old times. Other than that, the US government has seized the show’s remaining assets and bought 8,000 acres of the 101 Ranch.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Miller, just let us take care of everything! We have a deal with your government dating back to 1947, New Mexico, so there won’t be any problems.”
“What do you mean?”
“We can fix you, cure your illness and even help you in other ways to regain your assets…and something else, as a gift of course…”
“I don’t understand. What could be better than taking away the pain afflicting me?” Zack objected in a decisive voice.
“We could even make your body stronger, younger and in good shape. How old do you want to appear to be, Mr. Miller?”
“The hell…”the old man burst out.
“We can do it, just trust us. Choose your preferred age for introducing yourself before the spectators! Because there will be many spectators, we are sure about it.”
“The ones that will be watching your new Wild West Show, thanks to our company. Just put your trust in our project, because we are serious people, certainly.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Simply sign our papers and initial the contract, then everything will go in motion easily, no need for you to spend a dollar.”
“And some of your best known performers will be back in your show, too.”
“Are you kidding me? Many of them are already dead…”
“That’s not a problem for us, you’ll see!”
“Simply follow our instructions, and the glory of the old days will return for you and your cast, truly.”
“How do you know that other alien species in space will be interested at a Wild West Show run by some old cowboys and Native performers on Earth back on those days?”
“We do know it for sure, don’t even worry about it. Moreover, as soon you accept our contract, we’ll start moving… and shortly, we’ll have a wide series of dates set for our tour in space.”
What else could have he done after all that? The prospect of being healthy kept coming into play, and it was just too tempting not to accept that offer. So, finally, he signed the contract. And everything had changed at once.
Zack had become a middle-aged man again, in a good shape as he was at his time. His illness surprisingly disappeared after only one single treatment conceived by some unknown alien technology of theirs, and that had been all.
Many other old acquaintances of his, mostly people who had been hired in the past by himself or his brother, had signed the same contract as well. Eventually they left Earth and their space tour had begun. He and his cast had followed Ghe Ji, the alien manager, and his staff very eagerly from the beginning, pleased to set off on an incredible travel across the stars where they were going to be spacemen and showmen at the same time. But they had been betrayed, actually, as all of them figured out with the passing of time…
As the performers prepared for the Snare in town show, wearing their dusty costumes, the same old advertising spoken in eight different alien languages(one of them just looked like a deep, awful breath Zack hadn’t ever been capable of tolerating really…) started: “Here is The real Wild West Show- human lawmen and bloody outlaws on the run for a new land ahead of themselves…”
The American West had usually transmitted a certain barbaric image of adventure filled with cowboys, Indians, wild animals, outlaws and ambushes, even though the real American West of the 19th century was not nearly as attractive as commonly depicted. To European settlers the West was an unknown territory; it was the solution to their desire of a promise of a new and better life. The claimed space of the region inspired this promise. The west was a place open for new starts. Cowboys, Native Americans, adventurous travelers and famous outlaws really existed in the West, of course. But gunfights, bloody battles and sudden attacks weren’t an everyday occurrence. Other than that, since the beginnings of the westward movement people had been saying things about the Native Americans that were not true: they were depicted only as uncivilized and thieves. This was proved false, of course, as it was the Natives who helped the newcomer pilgrims settle in North American country in the first place. Nonetheless, the great myth of the Wild West as the ordinary man might have seen it back then, even if it was really an “exaggeration” of the real western frontier, had proved able to cross Earth’s boundary and reach into the stars themselves, and the many alien peoples living in outer space, too.
As the old Wild West Shows of their times helped the shaping of the myth of western life into creation by hand paintings and wooden sculptures, their company was endowed with any sort of super high-tech advertisements and special equipment. Holo-videos, 4D announcements and a lot of realistic animations (…along with some other weird means of communications Zack couldn’t understand yet…) surrounded all the circus facility just outside of the entrance, in order to advertise the show and attract paying customers. Inside the big top, anyway, everything had to look exactly like it was thought to have appeared in an ‘Old West’ small town down there, on Earth, and such a place was inhabited mostly by unscrupulous humans at that time.
“Cowboys driving cattle over open range. Outlaws and lawmen facing one another on a dusty main street. Indian hunters racing through buffalo herds on horseback.” All that was exactly what the commercials promised, and those were the performances on show. Like the old cowboy movies during the 20th century which, for example, portrayed the Plains People as living in teepees, wearing war feathers in their hair, always riding and brandishing rifles and such, the common assumption was that all Native peoples were like those portrayed in films and this was precisely the way their show put them on display. All of that was very far from the historical truth, of course...
Wild West shows took the reality of the West and presented it to the spectators, giving all that an exciting appeal. The showmen running the programs adapted western life to fit an exaggerated yet enchanting image which the attending people both expected and were intrigued by. The shows were a marriage of reality and theater, and were designed by the showmen to be entertainment and ‘the story of a great country’.
Wild animals, theatrical performances, dangerous activities accomplished by cowboys and all sorts of characters from the frontier were all put into the show’s adventure-packed program. There were battle scenes, ‘typical’ western settings and even hunts. Shooting exhibitions were in the lineup with extensive displays. Competitions that came in the form of races between people or animals aroused everyone as well, so the show had begun to include any type of ‘western’ occurrence that could in any way appeal to the afternoon and nighttime spectators.
The rest of the outline for today was composed of the Snare in town performance, the Buffalo riding cowboys, the target girl act with Native Knife throwing, followed by some colorful ceremonial dances with many lances. A typical Wild West Show of theirs consisted of a series of historical scenes interspersed with feats of showmanship, fast shooting and racing events. Their alien managers had cut off the so-called stage show turns, such as singing, dancing and comedy that ordinarily weren’t considered entertainment that any spectator anywhere could really enjoy.
Although their offerings and long list of performances could change at times, there was no real turnover within the cast members. When on Earth, back in the years, a performer left a show for one reason or another, sooner or later, and someone else was substituted. Such an occurrence couldn’t happen here because of their contract. All of them were continuously on tour in space, going from planet to planet, and no one was meant to be back home any time soon anyway.
Actually, the alien spectators who attended the show thought that it was them, the human Cowboys, Indians, lawmen and outlaws who were in a queer circus, but the performers saw it differently than that, as it was those strange, incredible and peculiar aliens all around them that looked like a sort of circus surrounding them.
Sitting on the terraces today, there were many strange beings who ranged in height from a little under 10 feet to almost 12 feet tall. Their skin was gray with orange undertones; they had only a few hairs on their large heads, which seemed to be filled with more than a dozen small eyes. They wore some functional overcoats and most of them - probably the female ones - had a few ornaments around their necks. Or were those the males?
On the right you could spot some creatures looking both short and slight, with builds similar to some shovels, between 4 and 5 feet tall, no hair and four eyes on a face larger than two men’s heads put together, known as the “Hhhhjhhh” or however you wanted to pronounce it.
Then came the Tllllljtk, or something like that, on the left side. Their almost featureless heads, along with some large pupils, which looked very deep and similar to orange stones, overawed him. Being not much taller than a common 5-year-old human boy, that species had evolved on a jungle planet, as far as he had been told, so the overall complexion was able to modify itself according to the sun light, when in the open air. Accordingly, it continuously was transformed - even because of their ever-changing colorful and powerful spotlights that set the scenes inside the big top. Their changing was a sort of biological reaction to the variable environments/sources of light those aliens were immersed from time to time during the course of the performances.
Last, but not least, the Phjw, native people of the planet Phjw (of course), were lost somewhere in space. They were strange individuals with a big skin looking like a sort of yellow overcoat with arms longer than 4 feet on average, sometimes with white blotches and white circles around their bulb-like eyes.
Those were all species who usually lived on Ky-vt (the main world where they held their show that week, within the Gliese 876 system, about 15 light-years away from their old Sun, whose star was so faint that it was invisible to the naked eye from here), even though Zack frankly didn’t know whatever they could have in common, apart from breathing air, the same as the humans did. Which was not so common in space, just thinking of it again, at least according to the showman’s experience this far. Zack was glad he didn’t deal directly with all those weird peoples. ‘Keep all the stinking things, the bankers and lawyers at a distance’, he used to say - the same thing now applied to the weirdest aliens attending their shows, and for a good reason. Some of them even eat him (or any member of their cast) all at once if they got too close. It was better not to tempt them anyways. Everything was okay as long as they paid for the tickets, clapped and enjoyed the performances.
The cowboys slowly made their entrance to the wooden platform, which had already changed and now represented a ghost town. The heroes, three men overall, regrouped next to Pawnee Bill who had the starring role and was to help them escape from the main street, staying away from all the shots fired from the buildings and fight back, too.
The last time Zack had seen Pawnee Bill, the Wild West performer was already 82 years old - just before he died. There was no lack now of the long hair he had possessed when he was still working at the show, as was shown in many newspapers and some old painted advertisements of that time. Zack also knew that the showman had asked the aliens to revive his beloved wife as well, who had died in 1936 because of a vehicle accident. But Ghe Ji’s management had told him that the body simply couldn’t be cloned because of what had happened to the cemetery in the first half of 21st century on Earth. So, even though his ability and his performances were always as good as they had been, Zack noticed the performer was often sad and not entirely satisfied, notwithstanding his being alive, younger and in business again…
The performance started and the four men went along, looking very attentive, very cautious. Then Bill stopped for a while, looking at something in particular, past a small wall next to a shed. There was no “fast-draw,” the outlaw just walked out, with pistol in hand, called the lawman out, and tried to shoot him down. At that point, the real gunfight began in the fictitious frontier town.
The spectators, no matter the species they were from, looked delighted, of course.
From the backstage Zack was thoughtful, as the old Earth was always on his mind these days. He considered that the aliens of the Threvtt management who had hired them possessed a very special way to communicate from world to world in space, by means of a device, which sent signals travelling at faster than light speed. Actually, that device let them have a look at other planets located light years away --like Earth for example - and even to speak to someone living there. But it was of no use because starships travel at incredible speeds. The Threvtts were only able to send their communications that way via a sort of technology --that none of their human cast could ever comprehend - but unfortunately, they themselves were bound to those starships.
The problem was that there would never be the same home planet that they had left when their contract began, even if they decided to go back to Earth. All of that was because of their long wandering across space, from planet to planet, at light speed - as they had discovered one day. It was something very difficult to understand for common men of the 20th century, like most of the members of a Wild West Show cast, obviously…
To make this clear, in physics let us imagine that there is a situation in which a twin makes a journey into space in a high-speed starship and returns home to find he has aged less than his identical twin who stayed on Earth. The explanation is that, if the traveler remained in a starship for one year of his time, and then reversed direction, upon return, he would find that he had aged two years, while 200 years would have passed on his home planet. The relativistic effects and the different time span occurred because only the traveler underwent acceleration, and this was the reason why there was any difference at all, because ‘any change of velocity, or any acceleration, too, had an absolute meaning’. On the other hand, the twin who stayed home remained there for the whole duration of his brother’s flight. No accelerating or decelerating forces applied to the homebound twin in the end.
This fact was the dud!
“Sure you can trust the Government, just ask any Indian,” they used to say on Earth…Now he preferred to say: “Sure you can trust our alien management, just ask anyone of us…”
They had been travelling for twenty years so far, stopping and going from one location to the other in space over the course of the various show performances, and now Earth was a completely different world from the one all of them knew before leaving. The last time Zack had taken a look at a video coming from his far home planet --thanks to that alien communication device - he had become very surprised and disappointed: on the East Coast there were some incredible orange-grey living conglomerations raised on the beaches which didn’t mean anything to him, but seemed a sort of building where people usually stayed day by day. And the sea, oh my! It had such strange colors in it. How could any fish be swimming there, how could they still be alive? Even the sky wasn’t the same anymore…That wasn’t Earth, at least not their old Earth!
They all had accepted the binding contract Ghe Ji had offered them, as it seemed to be the best road to take back then, at that moment. Most of the members of the cast were in difficult conditions or in poverty by then, being very old or living alone in some far recesses of the country. As for Zack himself, he was dying when the alien representative had come to visit him at home. So, there wasn’t any reason not to join this company, at first, as they thought that way they would earn a lot of money, become famous again, and finally get a sense of accomplishment. But nobody would have ever imagined such a choice would mean losing everything else: the possibility to see their world as it was before; their descendants; or even their home.
Would any seaman set off to go ocean fishing early in the morning if he knew that nothing would be the same when he came back? Not his family, nor his home, not even his town… Would he ever accept such a thing?
Actually, present-day Earth – all of them had taken a glimpse of it thanks to a long-distance space communication device provided by the aliens - already looked like something unbelievable, like something they had never seen before. Surely this was not a place anyone among them could possibly call home again or desire to live in.
They were forced to travel forever, everyday performing the same show over and over for the rest of their lives, doing exactly the same thing every day…with no change whatsoever!
The only break occurred when they were travelling across the obscure and unbearable space out there, aboard the metallic starship where all their wooden-like wagons were loaded. And the travels proved very long, indeed, with incredible distances from one point to another. A generation could have been born and grown up while you were travelling. But no one among them had decided to have children, for many reasons…
Paying attention again to the show-in-progress, the man noticed that the buffalo riding cowboys were beginning their act. As the animals approached, Zack reflected on the awesome cast. There was Bill Pickett the Great! It had been really surprising to see Bill alive again, standing five feet seven inches tall, with his powerful arms. It had been the same day the man had encountered all the others on Earth before departing from their home-planet for the space tour. Zack still remembered how Bill had died in 1932 as a result of injuries received from working horses at the 101 Ranch - so he was deeply relieved the first time he saw the dark-skinned man riding exactly as he used to. It had been said that there was never another cowboy quite like Bill Pickett, and this was true. All his present movements, his riding skills and the experience he still displayed proved he was the same as he was back when he was alive the first time. Other than that, he looked younger and in a perfect shape.
Probably the surprise he had experienced when he first saw Bill Pickett was the same when he saw Iron Tail and all the Native Americans of the cast. It was also amazing to see so many buffalos running next to the facility that day, because such animals were thought to have been almost extinct on Earth at that time.
It was already late in the evening when the show reached its final act. At the end, Zack cheered Iron Tail who was leaving at the conclusion of the ceremonial dances of the day. He wore his old war bonnet and the Native outfit that represented the typical costume of the Sioux nation. The elder Chief hadn’t chosen to be taken back to his youth because he desired to keep himself exactly as old as he was when he died, with the same graying hair. He was used to saying ‘Some things don’t have to change’ and then ‘The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with all the natural things and all their powers, and I did reach such relationship only during my old age. Why should I waste all that by being young again and being tempted to make the same mistakes?’ Of course, such requests did require some medical ‘adjustments’ from time to time to repair the damages of aging, but the alien technology had precisely the remedies that were needed for that.
In his eyes, too, Zack saw the same sadness that lay in everybody’s eyes within the cast, of course. As a matter of fact, all of them had been caught in a sort of trap that was going to last forever.
They couldn’t even age, or if they did age from natural causes – just a little bit and very slowly - the alien science would transform them again, fixing any illness, which could affect them, and keeping the entire cast in good shape virtually forever. They were that valuable to the Threvtt management - an important and expensive investment.
This was the way it would be for the whole duration of their contract…seemingly an endless time, as the clauses were binding all of them for 10 light years of travel yet to go! It seemed there was no way to stop it!
That night, on behalf of many within the cast, he asked for a new meeting with their Master, Ghe Ji, but the Ewp attendant had told him he needed to wait outside for a while. So he sat in front of the door of his wagon and stayed there for one hour.
In the end, a very fat alien with a ball-like head and four ears similar to some thyme leaves walked past him on the paved path. He was probably one of the strange alien businessmen Ghe Ji had to talk with that day.
An hour later, when the other had concluded his meeting and left, it was finally his turn. As he entered, Ghe Ji greeted him, while sitting behind his metal desk.
“I think you know why I’m here again,” Zack started saying.
“Things can’t change, as I told you last month, and the month before that.”
“You don’t take us seriously, but you should.”
“Ok, ok, you came here to tell me again that you and your cast are dead tired of playing the same old show day after day, as it’s exactly what you’ve done every day for the last twenty years, and you probably want to inform me that you are definitely ready to quit the show.”
The tall middle-aged man didn’t say anything, but evidently his eyes spoke for themselves.
“Listen to me, Mr. Zack Miller: there is nothing left for all of you out there, I mean back on Earth. Your home-planet doesn’t even remember you anymore. You should already know this by now. Haven’t you watched, over and over again, how things are going back there thanks to our space communication system? Your world has changed a lot, the overall social structures, too, and you couldn’t ever feel at home down there today – or even in the near future.”
“You knew all that when you hired all of us! You didn’t tell us all the truth, you…”
“This doesn’t change a thing. Your contract is binding and will be for the next 10 years. In the meantime, your homeworld will be constantly changing, moving away farther and farther from the one you knew and lived on. Accept this as a fact.”
“I can’t! We really can’t,” he replied, looking very sad. “We all accepted your offer because it was a way to be in a good shape again, younger and healthier. We wanted money, riches and glory, continuing the job we had all done for most of our lives on Earth, but we thought all that was meant to be just temporary. We thought we could earn lots of money, be back in show business for a while, and then go back to our homeworld, some time or another, in order to finally rest there.
But now we are aware there is no way to quit, no possibility of being simply retired persons: enjoying our old views in the desert; seeing our beloved relatives; and eventually having a quiet life. But none of this is possible because we’ll be travelling for a very long time yet to come and our planet will be changing day after day. There’ll be no way to get back to it as it was once, no turning back. We are a kind of alien, always on a different planet, among other aliens, and we can’t escape from all that.”
“I’m an alien, too, or have you forgotten? And my planet, too, which is the registered office of Threvtt company, has changed a lot since I left - but I don’t miss that, in fact I don’t plan ever to go back there at all. I’m a businessman travelling in space, along with my management team.”
“Because you accept all this! But we can’t anymore.”
“I concede that maybe your species was too primitive, not really ready to join such a business venture in space, but now it’s too late. The human government we had an agreement with to clone people from your old cast and take all of you back to Earth simply doesn’t exist anymore. Other social structures replaced that government centuries ago. No one can take you back now.”
“You don’t want to help us.”
“Because I can’t. Actually, you can’t even help yourself. Even if I would accept your leaving the show and rescinding the contract, by paying the exact amount indicated in all the penalty clauses, well, I don’t think that you would have enough money to break the contract. And I mean, not even with all of your troop’s past and present wages all thrown-in together.”
“So we are like slaves, forever bound to your contract, unable to quit, prisoners of…”
“Not prisoners, but simply parties under contract: valuable performers paid to do something important - to play a role of course, nothing more, nothing less. You accepted our rules back then.”
“But we want to change those rules now!”
“It’s only that you can’t afford it. There’s nothing that can be done about this,” Ghe Ji said. He had his usual expressionless look on his small grayish face, pointing his long slender finger at the man in front of him.
Zack made a great effort to settle down and he finally succeeded in calming down a little.
“Aren’t you glad of all the money we made today?” Ghe Ji asked him, smiling.
The man didn’t say anything at all. He reminded himself that silence was sometimes the best answer.
Tired, angry and hopeless, there was an Old West saying which came to Zack’s mind more and more often: ‘Nothing lasts forever but the Earth and sky’. But that wasn’t true for all of them, because the Earth and sky they once knew didn’t exist anymore.
While going out of the wagon in anger, the man considered the situation again. The aliens truly didn’t know them, for real. Surely they didn’t remember – or had just forgotten - what a few cowboys used to say about themselves at times: ‘Some of us are crazy enough to eat the devil with his horns on!’
The following day, Zack and Pawnee Bill were having a picnic lunch under the dull reddish light of Gliese 876, just next to the wooden wagons of their facility. These were just some empty grounds near the site they had placed their big top, and all the scenery around looked like a blackish wasteland, which seemingly never ended. The Iltk world where they were staying during the present week was really a miserable place, worse than even old Earth was by now, for sure.
“I’m so tired of eating such terrible food. I mean, those aliens on board our starship are capable of preparing some main courses that look like the ones we used to eat on Earth – but the food not the same. Why can’t they reproduce our food’s true taste as well? Is it so difficult?”
“They don’t have the same sense of smell we have…so they can’t figure out how poor this kind of food tastes in the end.”
“So, I have lost all hope, so far…”
“You could always taste some alien food from this planet, couldn’t you?” Zack sneered.
“Hobble your lip, don’t even think about it! In the tavern that is next to our Big Top, I spotted some food that looked so weird that I thought it was some rubbish. Moreover, there is other food that I couldn’t tell if it was parts of an alien creature that lives here, or fruits which are so rotten they are now inedible.”
“True, indeed,” the middle-aged man sneered shortly. “But don’t be taken in by appearances.”
“You woke up the wrong passenger. I’m judging what I see and I don’t like those things I see for sure!”
“So, let’s bend an elbow!” Zack exclaimed.
“Yeah, well said,” and the other took the beer on the table and had a long sip. At least, it tasted like beer, more or less.
“Did you speak with Master Ghe Ji?”
“Yes, yes,” he replied, “but he gave me the same old answer.”
He stared at his fellow with a deep fierceness in his eyes. “He doesn’t want us to regain our freedom! It wouldn’t be good for his business.”
“He doesn’t care. According to him, we can free ourselves only by strictly following their rules.”
“What if we don’t?”
“It’s exactly what all the others are beginning to think.”
“Me too, me too.”
“What did Iron Tail say about this?”
“He reminded me of an old saying of a famous Native: ‘The land is sacred, the land is our mother, the rivers our blood. Take our land away and we die’.”
“Damn wise words…That’s exactly the way I feel!”
“So we all feel the same. Everyone agrees, even Old Bill, did you ever doubt it?”
The performer simply smiled in return.
They said goodbye to each other, but they got together again later that same evening. Zack had already conceived his plan with all the details, but he needed to know if the others had acted accordingly and made all the preparations.
“Has everything been readied?” he asked Pawnee Bill.
“Yes,” the other replied in a soft tone.
“What about the costumes?”
“They are ready, be sure,” Iron Tail, the Sioux Chief, said.
“Do all the groups agree on everything?”
Bill Picket nodded. All the others did the same.
Zack stared for a while at Bill’s black eyes. As he was born to former slaves on Earth, he was the first one who could easily comprehend all their feelings at present, undoubtedly.
“Well done, well done all of you…” the man stated. “So, let’s wind up this business!”
They had assembled all the aliens of their management, along with Ghe Jii, their master, that same night, under the Big Top, to show them their new proposal for upgrading the show.
“We have some new ideas for the show that we’ve all been thinking about and trying out over the last few days. Our cast thinks that it would be a good addition to our show. We do need to change the usual list of acts we commonly offer, don’t you agree?”
“What do you propose?” Ghe Ji asked, curious.
“It’s the representation of a piece of old American history which could be of great interest for the spectators…”
“And is it part of the history of the West?”
“Oh, yes, it is, it is…” Pawnee Bill nodded openly.
“Well then, we could have a look at it now…why not?” the Ewp conceded.
“Please, all of you, just sit in the middle of the platform and let us present our new show…”
Their Master and the other ten aliens of the management slowly walked to the raised base and sat on the floor, waiting for their presentation.
“Now we start our feature act,” Zack said. He then began exclaiming at the top of his voice, “Ladies and Gentlemen, there were many massacres over the course of the bloody race to the Wild West in 1800, like Sacramento River, Sand Creek, Marias River, etc. These massacres involved Americans killing Indians, but also Indians killing Americans…”
The man paused briefly, looking at his fellows who were readying themselves on both sides, then he continued. “As I said, there were several of them we could have taken as an example, but we chose only one of those to introduce yourselves to the cruelty of life during that time period…”
The aliens, all grouped together, were paying attention to what he was saying, waiting eagerly.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, let us show you the live reenactment of the Mountain Meadows Massacre which took place on September 11, 1857 in Mountain Meadows, Utah, in the United States of America…”
There was a brief silence, which fell upon all of them.
“In the case of the hugely controversial Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, Mormons killed a party of American settlers, including women and children. The Mountain Meadows massacre was a series of attacks on emigrant wagon trains that culminated on September 11, 1857 in the mass slaughter of the emigrant party by the Iron County district of the Utah Territorial Militia. The wagon train - composed almost entirely of families - was bound for California on a route that passed through the Utah Territory during a turbulent period later known as the Utah War. The Baker–Fancher party made their way south, eventually stopping to rest at Mountain Meadows. While the emigrants were camped, nearby militia leaders made plans to attack them. Intending to give the appearance of a Native American war party, their plan was to arm some Southern Paiute Native Americans and make them join with a larger party of militiamen — all of them disguised as Native Americans — in an assault.
“During the initial fight against the wagon train, the emigrants fought back and a five-day siege ensued. Eventually fear spread among the militia’s leaders that some emigrants had caught sight of white men, and had probably discovered who their attackers really were. This resulted in an order by a militia commander completely to wipe out all the emigrants. Running low on water and provisions, the defending emigrants allowed a party of militiamen to enter their camp, who assured them of their safety and escorted them out of their hasty fortification.
“After walking a distance from the site, the militiamen, with the help of auxiliary forces hiding nearby, attacked the emigrants. Intending to leave no witnesses of complicity by Mormons and to prevent reprisals that would further complicate the war, the perpetrators killed all the adults and older children (totaling about 120 men, women, and children). Only seventeen children, all younger than seven, were spared.”
The story had held the complete attention of the alien spectators so far.
“Following the massacre the perpetrators hastily buried the dead, leaving their bodies vulnerable to wild animals and the climate. Local families took in the surviving children, and many of the fallen’s possessions were auctioned off. Some investigations, temporarily interrupted by the American Civil War, resulted in nine indictments during 1874. Later historians attributed the massacre to a combination of factors including both the raging war and strident Mormon teachings, along with the general atmosphere of distrust for strangers at the time, and that some locals appeared jealous of the Fancher party’s wealth. Scholars still debate whether senior Mormon leadership directly instigated the massacre or if responsibility lay with the local leaders of southern Utah.”
“And now, let have a look at our cast. Some of us have disguised themselves as Native Americans, according to the plan originally devised by authors of the attack at that time.” He pointed at the side where Iron Tail and his Native fellows stayed. “While the others will pose as the assaulting militiamen.”
Then he gave the aliens a hard look. “Oh, I almost forgot, our guns are loaded for real this time - not with just blank shots!”
At this moment, Master Ghe Ji rolled his very big eyes in surprise. “That’s irregular, it could be dangerous for…”
“Not for us. Not at all,” Zack replied suddenly, sneering at him.
Then the gunfight began. And real shots filled the air, filling the aliens with bullets. Orange blood was spreading everywhere on the wooden platform, in midair and on the ground surrounding the middle of the circus.
“No, what are you doing? You stupid men…!” were the last words Ghe Jii was able to say before he was hit several times.
“Oh, you Ewp aliens can speak, of course, only your screams can’t reach anyone outside of this space, thanks to your own technology…” Zack slyly stated.
And the killing went on continuously for several minutes. When everything was over, there was a deep deathly silence under the big top. While the members of the cast were checking the dead bodies in order to be sure no one had been spared or was in critical condition, Iron Tail took his bow and went over to where Zack was standing.
“Where will we go now?” Bill Picket asked the middle-aged man.
“Go West, young man! Go West!” Zack replied, smiling at him eventually.
“Their friends from the Threvtt company will come sooner or later and they will make us pay for this, you know that…” Iron Tail added afterwards.
“When I die, I may not go to Heaven, ‘cause I dunno if they let Cowboys in…” Bill Picket said in a disenchanted tone.
Zack and everyone there sneered, but it was just a way to play down the situation. And it was a small sign of relief as well, after a very long, long time.
AYAME’S LOVE by Thomas C Hewitt
Anton had enough charm for anyone,
all of his words felt special but faded
a few brief seconds after they had come.
His moves were mechanically operated.
The previous night when they had linked arms
it was the cynical work of the jaded.
The feeling he evoked in her was calm
curiosity, now abated.
The feelings that the gardener evoked
were not calm but were calmness that she hoped
she might be able to share with the man
that she anxiously craved to understand.
Anton’s story was already written,
the gardener’s tale she could not begin.
It pleased her that she could not write about
the man whom she had the most interest in.
Writing’s dilution watered people down,
that could not be the way with him.
She fought hard the temptation to expound
with written words all of her feelings
for fear they may no longer be aroused
if she were to exploit them with her ink.
Ayame was never so innocent
to be unaware of her ignorance
and her brief knowledge of the gardener
saw his tranquility was far too pure.
She could not ask to make a perfect pair;
all she could ask was to know him better.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
HOW I MET MY WIFE by Rob Bliss
The tiny white wheels of the tape recorder turned.
“I never took a wife. Came close, once. Well, whatever ‘close’ entails. A young promise for when the two of you are older? Like buying a house? When there’s money, career, the promise of stability. Then move ahead into marriage. A greater stability, or the greatest instability? Or is it when you’re in love? Simply. Even then, only one of you is telling the truth at any given time. I love you. Today.
“I never took a wife because that would lead to children. And I decided, eventually, that was an impossibility. But not for the reasons of which I’m sure you’re thinking. I’m a man, so…you’ll assume certain things. So it was only the one time I came close, when there was love, enough love, to keep us. For a while. We were willing to add a wedding day to our other celebrations: birthdays, holidays, dating anniversaries. Though all those disappear when your names are no longer said in the same sentence.
“How? Who cares? We met. This will remain as short a story as I can make it. We lived together, for two years total, three dating, but let’s skip to the year-and-a-half mark. I was lazy, still am, don’t care, that’s why I live here now. A small dream, one, to buy a small house in the country. Fields and forest, nothing grown, nothing razed, as was my childhood. Who among us, right? Rushing through our lives to have, as much as possible, our graves match our cradles. The sun goes down, and I watch it. I have a bath, immaculately chew off any grown fingernails, watch them descend through the clear bathwater, and see them lying on the foot-blackened bottom of the tub like white horseshoes. A routine, which I like. Read in bed till I turn off the light, let in the moon and crickets, which lead me to sleep without having known my eyes had closed.
“We lived in the city the whole time. She, too, came from the country, though she never wanted to go back. So there was our first clash, the beginning of lies. We talked children. Her story changed. I wasn’t one to get mad at anything, so when I did, her story became my story. I believed her, of course, until the change was so stark, and so much had gone passed, and through, us, that only a blind man, a deaf man…not even. Only a child.
“I lived on saved money, she worked. I read and wrote, she came home with work gossip. We were a normal couple. My money ran out. It always does. Don’t work till I have to. Wish I could help it. Some writing dream, some lottery, keeps me on my back. Full potential wasted, sure. Hating it and myself for most of the year, transferring that to a healthy misanthropy, returning to an idle life. Or, usually, if the money hasn’t accumulated, I run. Another job, new people, comfortable strangers, but the same hatreds arise again. Me, myself, and them.
“Just before the year-and-a-half point, with me working again, security, which is a job that all failures can get – and only failures do – she proposed we get the internet for my computer. She had it at work, I had never had a job with it, didn’t see what it could do for us, better or worse, but if it made her happy. Dialled it up back then, she showed me what it did. I went back to my blank sheet, promising myself so many words a day, or, at least, hours in the morning after she left for work. An afternoon catnap when enough hours had passed, then off to the night shift when she got home.
“Then. Isn’t that always it? Then. Odd how it became our bond, our medium, to separate. We were the same people – living for so long together, thinking in unison – breaking the same rules but in different ways.
“I would make sure, on my nights off, that she was asleep, I fully awake for an all-nighter, though I tried to go to bed with her at the same time. To maintain our unison. Listened to her breathing rhythm, though she must have felt me lift off the mattress, attuned herself to it eventually, breaking from her dreams, listening with eyes closed, echo-locating me, settling back, assuming I couldn’t be anything but a night owl, sleeping for a while until she had to pee. I depended on her myopia, never one to find her glasses in the dark to find her way through a familiar night apartment. Her feet would tell her if she tripped on the cat, but it could see her, and me, better with its superior vision.
“The glory of the computer. If I worked nights, before they changed my sleep schedule to fill sicknesses, voids, what did I care on my days off? Couldn’t sleep, honey, I’ll sleep through the afternoon with the cat. Too often she came home from work seeing me still in my pyjamas. So, naturally, my nights working freed the computer for her. Gave her the same privacy I had during her workdays.
“We were no longer having sex. A computer with a hook-up to the rest of the world became our, or my, sex life. But blame it on our opposing schedules. The world took care of me, so she needed it to take care of her, I guess. But I caught her before she caught me. Which she never did. I, the illiterate. Cracked the code. Found the love note, typed, emailed.
“So that’s why two years living, three dating. It was over, but it wasn’t. I ran. She looked at my new apartment with me, the two of us trying to stay one. Sadly. I felt malicious. A year more of me twisting the knife. We were back to just dating, a relationship in reverse. To locate the wound and heal it. It would end. When I said the word again, when she said it the first time? It didn’t matter who said the final word.
“In my own apartment, I took up the hobby she introduced me to. But a laptop this time, and endless privacy, three days off from work, all friends ignored, enough alcohol and cigarettes stored, and a locked door. Writing had not garnered a future by then, so I made my own. Heaven.
“One last visit to me, she brought coffee. I made it short, it was over, I locked the door behind her and turned on the computer, settling in for the night, phone unplugged.
“The phone calls, as friends, of course, trickled to silence. I ran into her, with no contact except for a quick glance eye-to-eye, fraction of a fraction of a second, kept walking. Three times. Then it was over for me.
“Arrested. Confiscated. Lost the job, family, friends, freedom. Life and all its accoutrements. Care. Years passed. I retrain for a new skill. Working big machines instead of ones that fit in your lap. To dig the earth, to push it, gouge it, drill through its rock and clay, to pile it into something that erodes with the first good rain.
“Worked, ran, worked again, saw half the country on two credit cards, unable to travel to another country to run across a new terrain. Borders red-flagged me. Had enough money to be tempted to run some more, but told myself not to; a life of circles makes you dizzy, and then it drops you.
“This house is mine. This town is my home. I’ll live and work until both end me. I resigned to an absence of immortality. Children. To get married would mean children now, absolutely. To find a woman who wanted them. And if she did, I know what world would’ve shaped in my home. An underbelly. To forego destroying others by destroying myself. My children. Unborn. An act of mercy. Let children find their own lives, blessed and cursed as their fates are fleshed out. I couldn’t let the demon in me live to butcher them before birth. I, the self-confessed embodiment of their future hatred, toward others, toward themselves. Unborn children as an act of parental suicide. An evil man may learn to see, and still have enough good in him to prevent its reign. Not by cutting flesh, but by staying very, very still. Until life passes over. His wickedness never again fuelled by the loss of love.”
Her thumb pressed a button on the machine, stopping the wheels. He looked at the carpet between his feet, socks worn with holes, white fingers splayed on knees. She watched his Adam’s apple, saw a wet shine in the corner of his eye as he looked to a wall. A framed painting of a field, yellow grass, a disappearing line of trees, a small farmhouse with a red roof behind wire fencing, and rain-greyed fence posts.
“I still have time,” she said. He shook his head once as though his neck was sore from holding still for so long. “I don’t mean for the interview.”
“I got nothing else. I must be low on your shrink’s list. Sorry I can’t give you better material. Unfortunately, I didn’t do anything, I only saw everything. And I unfortunately forwarded what I saw. Footnote me, stat me, cut me – I’m no sensationalist flavour.”
She smiled, almost a wink, at the light sting. “Sometimes less is more.” She sat up, felt her back muscles tighten, stifled a small yawn, exhaled through her nose, and looked at him in the eye when she could catch it.
“No. I meant, are you hungry? I’m buying.”
Her looked at her mouth, how she held her fingers loosely at her chin. Aimed into her eyes.
“I don’t go out.” He swallowed. His hands closed and curled inward at the wrists.
“I’m a big girl. I can cook. When was the last time someone cooked for you?” She slapped his knee as she stood. “Come on. Let’s see what you got.”
“I don’t have anything.”
She checked her watch. “Then we’ll go shopping. Should still have time.”
He didn’t move. Head tilted, eyes up to her standing beside his chair.
“I don’t go out.” His lips moved silently, testing words. “Not with you. This is a small town. They know me as alone.”
She got her purse, slung it over her shoulder, and looked back with one hand on the screen door. Moths beat against the porch light, uncaught by the single remaining spider thread bending between bulb and doorframe.
“You’re coming back?”
“Yeah,” she said in a whisper, swallowing a vocal crack in the back of her throat. “Half an hour, forty-five minutes tops. You’re not too far out of town, plus I still got a map in my car.” She smiled from a corner of her mouth. “I’m coming back.”
He stood and watched through the screen. Car engine cranked into a purr, headlights shot on. He squinted until the car turned as it backed up, crunched over the pebbles of his driveway until the wheels softened on the freshly tarred road. The engine revved to speed up. Headlights swallowed by a tunnel of trees.
He closed the wooden door, locked it, sat in his chair. Turned off the light on the table beside him, sat, hands folded tightly between his knees. Looked through the window that faced the road.
Eyes wide, dry, staring at the unnamed constellations of pinprick stars passing over.
THE INITIATION OF LANTOS by John Douglas Hoyland
Lantos plays with his hair when he is tired. It is a nervous habit he has had since he can’t remember when. He licks his fingers and run them through his long dark brown hair until his hair stands up from his head like a burning bush.
He falls asleep almost instantly. If he sits still or lies on his rest couch he drifts into a deep one. Rain says that Lantos is so laid back he could pass for being dead. Not that he had ever seen a dead person. Lantos has no concept of life or death. There is only now followed by now and now. The new makes way for the new and what was before is ditched into Lantos is one with Pod. Wherever he walks he is was with Pod. Pod is with him all the time. Pod is with him every step, even before the biz he is doing it has lost its shine. Pod will be there, or so Lantos thinks, forever. Pod sings to him when he rests, strange, haunting, whispered stories of strange mythical creatures and lands far away in time and space .Pod is the source of all understanding, a constant companion and friend. You could always rely on Pod.
“Pod, is this all, or is there more?” Lantos asks that evening as he lies on his rest couch plugged into Pod. Pod shows him all the world they live in, inside the bio dome. The glass buildings, his office at Server Heaven in the Pyramid of Burning Knowledge, the lanes of Lon Cit and the stream of living matter flowing through all. High in the dome the smaller lights shine down from the firmament and the horned moon hangs over his head like the rim of a silver dish. ‘With one bright star within the nether tip.’ Where did that come from? Lantos asks. It comes to him like a revelation. There must be more.
“I am the provider,” said Pod. “I, Pod, am the truth and the life. There is no other way.” Lantos thought that Pod needed his children to be happy. Perhaps if Lantos was unhappy then Pod was unhappy to. “I feel alone, Pod,” cried Lantos. “An infant crying in the night, and with no language but a cry.” Again that strange shock of recognition that sends him so alive. “Whose words are those, Pod?” asks Lantos. “Oh, some words from long ago, in the before time,” answers Pod. It is as if Pod had smiles when he says this.
Pod senses that Lantos needs more. Lately, he does not know for how long, Lantos has noticed that things did not seem right with him and his world. He is slightly out of phase with time going on around him as if the moving pictures and the spoken words did not quite match up. “What’s going on Pod?” Lantos asked, “Am I going mad?” “It is time, my son, to reveal all. Lie back and listen. This is going to be a long night.” As Lantos closed his eyes Pod began to tell his tale. “Once upon a time—.”
Pod talks to Lantos all through his rest period about the before time. “The world was bright and new and gleamed like a compact disc in the sparkling heavens. Then was an age of belief when my people had truths to follow and each one had a lone path down which they walked. That was before the blight set in and greed consumed all and we burnt up the skies with fumes and wasted all the green space and finally lost our way.”
“What were we like then?” asked Lantos. There was a deep throaty noise and Lantos could have sworn that Pod had tried to suppress a laugh. “Oh, my child, you have so much to learn.” “Then teach me, Oh Pod,” mumbled Lantos, his fingers knitted together in a ritual gesture he seemed to recall from the before time. “Show me the way that I might find my own path.”
So Pod talked on about beliefs and truths that had once been held dear. He talked about songs that had been sung and stories that had been told. He talked of a beginning in a garden, and perfect love, and how long after many had sought the path back to that garden. He talked of how life was formed of stardust and carbon and how the breath of life had awakened man and woman. He talked of time that seemed endless as new life forms changed and multiplied and adapted to the changing earth around them, of growing civilizations that in as short a space of time grew old and died.
Pod told him of wars and suffering and death. Lantos did not know of suffering Lantos did not know of death. These were outside the realms of his own thoughts.
Pod likened death to the ending of a program. He said that the valuable data from each life lived on in the memory of others like data was stored on a microchip. He talked of how we valued memory for the comfort it brought many just as food that had been stored kept many fed at times of hunger.
Pod uttered names like they were key words in a tune. Dante, and Shakespeare, Cervantes and Milton and Dickens: Melville and Wordsworth, Tennyson and Hardy and countless others, Oh so many names he could not keep count. “I want to know the meaning of all this,” cried out Lantos. “I am so empty and I long to be filled. I feel that I have lost so much and I would give what I have to gain one grain of what you have told me of.”
“The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide,” sang Pod. Such words gave Lantos a strange sense of pleasure and filled him more than any protein pill. How they made him light up inside! “What are these words, Pod?” he asked. “They were one written down a long time ago by a poet by the name of Longfellow. Would you like more words from my memory banks?” “ You have more!” Lantos was filled with wonder. Just how many words did Pod contain? “Oh yes my child, I have as many as the flickering lights that once burnt bright in the night sky. I have more stories and songs than grains of sand on a never-ending shore or photons of light in the stream of life. Would you like to hear another story?” “Oh please,” sighed Lantos.
Pod began slowly and Lantos lay back and listened as if each word were a new seed planted within him and beginning to grow. Oh, there was so much wonder, so much magic that Lantos felt he would burst with joy. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of time, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” Lantos dreamt on and hoped that it would never end.
Lantos looked down on Truth Square and all the glitter of helo-lights that ran down from The Pyramid of Burning Knowledge along the mall. The Tree of Life stood high in the square and suspended over its branches hung the all-seeing eye of Pod. Sun as usual was plugged into I tunes and high on waves of sound. Lantos found the sounds that Sun listened to empty and void of any meaning.
Lantos was feeling good. Words from Pod came to him in moments when he sat at rest. He identified himself with the hero of the story Pod had told him. He too felt dry and used up and believed he was capable of doing some fine thing. How had the story ended? The hero going to his death. “It is a far, far better thing I do know than I have ever done, a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.” Yes, thought Lantos, I too would be able to make the supreme sacrifice and lay down my life for another. Well, he could dream about it, at least he could do that.
Far down on the mall the stream of life pulsed and citizens blinked in and out of phase. Many were travelling for good times, high after work, looking for new ways to burn the lamp. Faceless figures moving down empty galleries. Plugged into Pod they could obtain instant sexual gratification by surfing virtual sex-space. Listening to the constant beat of a new wave sound they moved their perfect bodies to and fro and watched the helo lights burn and blaze like magic candles. Lantos felt sorry for them as he watched the constant move of the crowds down below. They were all prisoners of their own senses.
None of it seemed to amount to much and none of it seemed to make sense anymore. What was the point of all this self-gratification? They were like butterflies pinned to ever-spinning wheels. Lantos smiled in the dark. He was pleased with that image, though Pod knows where it had come from. All they did, all they appeared to achieve, amounted to nothing, for they would forget what they did now when something new came round the bend. The latest tune, the newest gossip, these would all mean nothing when something newer, some new tune or fad happened.
Lantos felt a cold breeze from somewhere. How could that be? All the buildings in Lon Cit were thermostatically controlled to maintain a temperature for maximum efficiency .How could he possibly feel cold? How could he feel so alone? The figures down the mall were fast becoming shadows of themselves, “full of wind and fury and signifying nothing,” Pod had whispered in his ear. That was it, Lantos said to himself. All that we do is futile and leaves no trace behind .As if all our trading, and running the stats on the market, and meeting the company goals of attainment, all signified nothing.
Lantos turned his back on it all. He did not even want to be with Judy Blue. Sun had left him. “Going to join with the hive,” he told Lantos. “Why be alone when we can all be one?” But Lantos wanted to be alone, alone with the small voice of his own thoughts.
Lying back in a rest chair, by his desk, Lantos switched off. Oh, where was the all-wise, all-knowing Pod he wanted, now, when he was most alone and at his lowest ebb? Will the tide ever turn for me? he thought, as he held his hands up to his face, and felt water run from his eyes and seemed to slide in tracks down his skin. One drop lay there, shimmering, on the cold metallic surface of his desk. He reached out and placing the tip of his finger in the drop he raised it to his lips. It had a strange, almost bitter taste. Lantos did not have the words for what was happening to him, nor did he know that for probably the first time in his life, he had tasted his own tears and was feeling his own pain..
Sol blazed away on high when Lantos rose from his desk. He was alone and at first he wondered why Sun was not there. There was a strange emptiness about the place until it struck Lantos that it might be a hol. Hols were times for celebration, to praise Pod and all he provided. Many would be heading down to the square to stand before the living tree and kneel before the all-seeing eye of Pod.
Lantos was aware of time passing. This was something new for Lantos who had always lived in the here and now. Yet he saw a picture of himself and Judy, holding hands and both kneeling before the living tree. Lantos was remembering something. He could see it all, as if played out on a digi-screen, the two of them, heads bowed as they sat in silence. They had got there early to avoid the crowds that soon would swarm up and down the mall.
That moment was lost now as if it had never been. And yet it wasn’t lost. For Lantos had resurrected it, had reached inside himself and somehow relived it. He could almost smell Judy, she seemed so close to him. Like Sol he could feel her presence even when she was far from him. Afterwards they had fused for the first time. Then there had been no Lantos and no Judy. They had been one. But not like being in the hive, oh no, it had been something quite different. It was as if they had been one flame, burning so brightly, and the flame consumed them. Here and now were gone and the togetherness seemed as if it would never end.
Lantos came back to his own solitary self. Sol was burning brighter than ever and now the square was filling, and citizens streamed in from all directions, drawn to the source. How long had Lantos been away? He did not know. He had been oblivious to where he was. Like being fused with Judy. He was filled with joy.
That was when he saw the words on the screen. The screen was usually filled with numbers and bar charts and peaks and flows as he ran up and down the stats and maximised profits. The screen had been blank before. Being a hol there would be no biz displayed. Yet he saw the words on the screen in blazing symbols of light. They covered the whole of the screen and he sat there as in a trance. It was as if someone had opened a door and he had seen outside the room for the first time. The words demanded his attention, like a voice calling out from a wilderness.
‘RECALLED TO LIFE.’
Recalled to life. Yes he remembered now. They had been words from a story that Pod had told him. In that story someone had been as if dead for so long. They had been given the chance of a new life, as had the hero of that story. Maybe he was being offered the same chance.
For so long Lantos had felt like a prisoner, as if the world he traded in had become a prison. He had come in and followed the regs and played the stats, moving the figures up and down, maximising the profits until he could almost do it in his sleep. Now it was as if he had been wearing a blindfold. Someone had raised a corner that had been covering his eyes and light rushed in and he could see the shadow life he had been living. How could he have ever been so blind?
Lantos knew where he wanted to be. He wanted to be with Judy. Just thinking about her and is insides churned about and waves of passion flooded the room. Instinctively he called out to her as he connected to the hive. Judy, I need you. Then there was her scent in the room and he looked up as she stepped out of the stream and appeared before him. “Judy. Pod, I’m glad to see you.” He could not disguise the pleasure he felt in his voice, which cracked and trembled like a dissonant zing tune.
“Lantos,” Judy whispered the word as if it had been a blessing. He felt the breath moving within him and his blood flowed like rising sap. He was so charged as if his skin was on fire. Judy reached out her hand and clasped his. Oh joy of joys. He almost phased out he was so overwhelmed with the love he felt for her. Holding her close to him, his breath meeting with her breath, his skin next to her skin, his heartbeat an echo of every beat of her heart.
“Judy, don’t you long to know? he asked her. “Know what? There is nothing to know. There is just us, and this, and here and now.” Judy looked at him and it was like a mirror image. So much of his own thoughts were moulded in her movements. She was the pearl he would sell all to possess. Lantos recalled this from something Pod had told him. Looking at her now he knew he could more easily cut off his right hand than allow himself to abandon her. She was a part of his existence, part of his thoughts, part of his living essence.
“I want to know so much. Who am I to begin with? I have almost no memories of the past. There only seems to be today, the here and now. I mean where did I come from? Have I always been like this? Also what is the point of our lives? We seem to be busy all the time and yet we achieve so little. Where do I fit into things and what is this place? Is this it or is there more?”
“Questions, always questions.” Judy looked at him. She so wanted to help him but she did not know how. Lantos looked so alone. “I know this,” she said instinctively, “Wherever you are is where I want to be, even if it means searching for answers to questions I don’t understand.” They stood together, while down in the square the masses knelt before Pod and poured their libations out to the one great provider. Then they heard the singing of a chant, which became louder and louder as more voices joined in.
I am you and you are I
There is no other side
We all join in and share the pie
Pod always will provide
Pod gave us eyes that we might see
All join as one in prayer
Fused in the stream we all are free
One mind, one thought, we share.
The chanting was becoming louder and louder. Lantos placed his hands over his ears and started to shout. “NO NO NO.” Judy looked up at him. She was scared. She had never seen him like this. Lantos slammed his hands down on the desk, so hard his fingers began to bleed. Anger. Something told him that what he was feeling was anger. And physical pain and blood. Where would it all end? “Come on, we have to get away from here,” he said, holding her hand tightly. They both stepped into the constant living stream and vanished from the room.
The first thing they noticed was the stillness. They stood by a great river and far out on the water were strange ships with cloth tied to wooden masts that fluttered in the gentle breeze. The buildings seemed very old and in the midst of them a high dome thrust itself upwards like an inverted dish. The sky was as blue as a bird’s egg, not that Lantos had ever seen a bird’s egg since all the birds that had once flown over this city were long extinct. Pod it seemed had countless stored images of birds and dogs and cats and countless other animals but they had no meaning for Lantos. All as dead as the dodo, Pod had once told him. A dodo. Lantos grinned. Somehow he doubted if even the all-knowing Pod knew what precisely a dodo was.
“Where are we?” Judy asked him. “Oh, this is a program I downloaded from Pod. It is supposed to be the city of London as it used to be in the before days.” “But how quiet it is,” said Judy, “and how blue the sky is, and what are those strange shapes out there on the water?” “Well,” Lantos started to explain, “Pod told me that a long, long time ago citizens lived in a time when there were no digi-screens or comps to program and they travelled far spaces in things they called ships. They would steer these by the moon and the stars and it could take a long time to get anywhere you wanted to go. Citizens were not immortal then and died and were buried in the ground in something he called graves.” Judy thought this was highly amusing. “Oh, Lantos,” she said almost overwhelmed by the laughter that was now shaking her entire body, “how utterly depresso. How did we ever manage without Pod?”
“Well, Pod says this was long before his time. He told me he wasn’t even a twinkle in his creator’s eye.” Judy was amazed at this. “What? Pod was created? I thought we always had Pod or who would provide?” “No, apparently not,” Lantos continued, “Pod explained to me that he comes from a long line and that long before he was there were providers designed by citizens. They could do very little though and most citizens had to provide for themselves. They had to grow their own food, make their own clothes and they were almost always tired or sick.”
“You seem very close to Pod.” Judy looked up at him with so much tenderness in her face, in the way she placed a hand on his face, in the way she seemed to trust him, implicitly. “Yes. I spend a lot of time with Pod. He says he is my Guru, my teacher, and he wants me to understand. He says I have to earn the right to Truth though and that he will not just provide it like he does other info. All this, Pod says, will take time. Then, the funny thing is he told me something that seemed to contradict all he had told me.” “What was that?” asked Judy. “Well, Pod told me that it would take me a long time before I would fully understand the truth - - - and then he told me that Time is a commodity he is rather short of. None of it seemed to make much sense.”
“What does it mean? Judy asked him. “Well, for the moment,” Lantos answered “Pod knows, and I suppose if it is good enough for him, then it has to be good enough for me. Anyway he told me whatever happens I will find out, sooner or later.”
They both looked towards the great dome that towered over the skyline. Lantos knew that it was a place that had once ago been known as St Paul’s. It moved something inside of him in a way he could not explain. There was something quite beautiful about that strange shape, as if it somehow offered a strange kind of hope, like the strange lights in the dark overhead, far off in Lon Cit. There was another strange word. Beautiful. He was coming up with a lot of words he had never needed to use before and seeing and feeling a lot of wonderful things he had never encountered before.
Then in a moment of this quietness, as he stood there and watched a sun from a world long dead slip into the stillness of the river, and a luminous orb slowly rising, moving in the gathering darkness. Words came to him. A voice was whispering in his ear:
The moving moon went up the sky,
And nowhere did abide;
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside-.
Pod was there. In the stillness of the night Pod was watching over them. Pod was telling him things would be alright. I am with you, and will be always, time without end. Lantos did not understand all of this, not yet, but he knew, his heart told him so, that whatever the future might hold, Pod would somehow always be there for them. This had been his covenant, he had told Lantos, his promise. A promise, Lantos believed, that Pod would never break, whatever the future might hold..
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
VARNEY THE VAMPYRE
FLORA BANNERWORTH AND HER MOTHER.—THE EPISODE OF CHIVALRY.
Gladly we turn from such a man as Marchdale to a consideration of the beautiful and accomplished Flora Bannerworth, to whom we may, without destroying in any way the interest of our plot, predict a much happier destiny than, probably, at that time, she considers as at all likely to be hers.
She certainly enjoyed, upon her first removal from Bannerworth Hall, greater serenity of mind than she had done there; but, as we have already remarked of her, the more her mind was withdrawn, by change of scene, from the horrible considerations which the attack of the vampyre had forced upon her, the more she reverted to the fate of Charles Holland, which was still shrouded in so much gloom.
She would sit and converse with her mother upon that subject until she worked up her feelings to a most uncomfortable pitch of excitement, and then Mrs. Bannerworth would get her younger brother to join them, who would occasionally read to her some compositions of his own, or of some favourite writer whom he thought would amuse her.
It was on the very evening when Sir Francis Varney had made up his mind to release Charles Holland, that young Bannerworth read to his sister and his mother the following little chivalric incident, which he told them he had himself collated from authentic sources:—
“The knight with the green shield,” exclaimed one of a party of men-at-arms, who were drinking together at an ancient hostel, not far from Shrewsbury—”the knight with the green shield is as good a knight as ever buckled on a sword, or wore spurs.”—”Then how comes it he is not one of the victors in the day’s tournament?” exclaimed another.—”By the bones of Alfred!” said a third, “a man must be judged of by his deserts, and not by the partiality of his friends. That’s my opinion, friends.”—”And mine, too,” said another.
“That is all very true, and my opinion would go with yours, too; but not in this instance. Though you may accuse me of partiality, yet I am not so; for I have seen some of the victors of to-day by no means forward in the press of battle-men who, I will not say feared danger, but who liked it not so well but they avoided it as much as possible.”
“Ay, marry, and so have I. The reason is, ‘tis much easier to face a blunted lance, than one with a spear-head; and a man may practise the one and thrive in it, but not the other; for the best lance in the tournament is not always the best arm in the battle.”
“And that is the reason of my saying the knight with the green shield was a good knight. I have seen him in the midst of the melee, when men and horses have been hurled to the ground by the shock; there he has behaved himself like a brave knight, and has more than once been noticed for it.”
“But how canne he to be so easily overthrown to-day? That speaks something.”—”His horse is an old one.”
“So much the better,” said another; “he’s used to his work, and as cunning as an old man.”—”But he has been wounded more than once, and is weakened very much: besides, I saw him lose his footing, else he had overthrown his opponent.
“He did not seem distressed about his accident, at all events, but sat contented in the tent.”—”He knows well that those who know him will never attribute his misadventure either to want of courage or conduct; moreover, he seems to be one of those who care but little for the opinion of men who care nothing for him.”
“And he’s right. Well, dear comrades, the health of Green Knight, or the Knight with a Green Shield, for that’s his name, or the designation he chooses to go by.”—”A health to the Knight with the Green Shield!” shouted the men-at-arms, as they lifted their cups on high.
“Who is he?” inquired one of the men-at-arms, of him who had spoken favourably of the stranger.—”I don’t know.”
“And yet you spoke favourably of him a few seconds back, and said what a brave knight he was!”—”And so I uphold him to be; but, I tell you what, friend, I would do as much for the greatest stranger I ever met. I have seen him fight where men and horses have bit the dust in hundreds; and that, in my opinion, speaks out for the man and warrior; he who cannot, then, fight like a soldier, had better tilt at home in the castle-yard, and there win ladies’ smiles, but not the commendation of the leader of the battle.”
“That’s true: I myself recollect very well Sir Hugh de Colbert, a very accomplished knight in the castle-yard; but his men were as fine a set of fellows as ever crossed a horse, to look at, but they proved deficient at the moment of trial; they were broken, and fled in a moment, and scarce one of them received a scratch.”
“Then they hadn’t stood the shock of the foeman?”—”No; that’s certain.”
“But still I should like to know the knight,—to know his name very well.”—”I know it not; he has some reason for keeping it secret, I suppose; but his deeds will not shame it, be it what it may. I can bear witness to more than one foeman falling beneath his battle-axe.”
“Indeed!”—”Yes; and he took a banner from the enemy in the last battle that was fought.”
“Ah, well! he deserves a better fortune to-morrow. Who is to be the bridegroom of the beautiful Bertha, daughter of Lord de Cauci?”—”That will have to be decided: but it is presumed that Sir Guthrie de Beaumont is the intended.”
“Ah! but should he not prove the victor?”—”It’s understood; because it’s known he is intended by the parents of the lady, and none would be ungallant enough to prevail against him,—save on such conditions as would not endanger the fruits of victory.”
“No?”—”Certainly not; they would lay the trophies at the foot of the beauty worshipped by the knights at the tournament.”
“So, triumphant or not, he’s to be the bridegroom; bearing off the prize of valour whether or no,—in fact, deserve her or not,—that’s the fact.”—”So it is, so it is.”
“And a shame, too, friends; but so it is now; but yet, if the knight’s horse recovers from the strain, and is fit for work to-morrow, it strikes me that the Green Shield will give some work to the holiday knight.”
There had been a grand tournament held near Shrewsbury Castle, in honour of the intended nuptials of the beautiful Lady Bertha de Cauci. She was the only daughter of the Earl de Cauci, a nobleman of some note; he was one of an ancient and unblemished name, and of great riches.
The lady was beautiful, but, at the same time, she was an unwilling bride,—every one could see that; but the bridegroom cared not for that. There was a sealed sorrow on her brow,—a sorrow that seemed sincere and lasting; but she spoke not of it to any one,—her lips were seldom parted. She loved another. Yes; she loved one who was far away, fighting in the wars of his country,—one who was not so rich in lands as her present bridegroom.
When he left her, she remembered his promise; it was, to fight on till he earned a fortune, or name that should give him some right to claim her hand, even from her imperious father. But alas! he came not; and what could she do against the commands of one who would be obeyed? Her mother, too, was a proud, haughty woman, one whose sole anxiety was to increase the grandeur and power of her house by such connections.
Thus it was pressed on by circumstances, she could no longer hold out, more especially as she heard nothing of her knight. She knew not where he was, or indeed if he were living or dead. She knew not he was never named. This last circumstance, indeed, gave her pain; for it assured her that he whom she loved had been unable to signalize himself from among other men. That, in fact, he was unknown in the annals of fame, as well as the probability that he had been slain in some of the earlier skirmishes of the war. This, if it had happened, caused her some pain to think upon; not but such events were looked upon with almost indifference by females, save in such cases where their affections were engaged, as on this occasion. But the event was softened by the fact that men were continually falling by the hand of man in such encounters, but at the same time it was considered an honourable and praiseworthy death for a soldier. He was wounded, but not with the anguish we now hear of; for the friends were consoled by the reflection that the deceased warrior died covered with glory.
Bertha, however, was young, and as yet she knew not the cause of her absent knight’s silence, or why he had not been heard of among the most forward in the battle.
“Heaven’s will be done,” she exclaimed; “what can I do? I must submit to my father’s behests; but my future life will be one of misery and sorrow.”
She wept to think of the past, and to dream of the future; both alike were sorrowful to think upon—no comfort in the past and no joy in the future.
Thus she wept and sorrowed on the night of the first tournament; there was to be a second, and that was to be the grand one, where her intended bridegroom was to show himself off in her eyes, and take his part in the sport.
Bertha sat late—she sat sorrowing by the light of the lamps and the flickering flame of the fire, as it rose and fell on the hearth and threw dancing shadows on the walls.
“Oh, why, Arthur Home, should you thus be absent? Absent, too, at such a time when you are more needed than ever. Alas, alas! you may no longer be in the land of the living. Your family is great and your name known—your own has been spoken with commendation from the lips of your friend; what more of fame do you need? but I am speaking without purpose. Heaven have mercy on me.”
As she spoke she looked up and saw one of her women in waiting standing by.
“Well, what would you?”—”My lady, there is one who would speak with you,” said the hand-maiden.
“With me?”—”Yes, my lady; he named you the Lady Bertha de Cauci.”
“Who and what is he?” she inquired, with something like trepidation, of the maiden.—”I know not, my lady.”
“But gave he not some token by which I might know who I admit to my chamber?”—”None,” replied the maiden.
“And what does he bear by way of distinguishing himself? What crest or device doth he bear?”—”Merely a green shield.”
“The unsuccessful knight in the tournament to-day. Heavens! what can he desire with me; he is not—no, no, it cannot be—it cannot be.”—”Will you admit him, lady?”
“Indeed, I know not what to do; but yet he may have some intelligence to give me. Yes, yes, admit him; but first throw some logs on the fire.”
The attendant did as she was desired, and then quitted the room for the purpose of admitting the stranger knight with the green shield. In a few moments she could hear the stride of the knight as he entered the apartment, and she thought the step was familiar to her ear—she thought it was the step of Sir Arthur Home, her lover. She waited anxiously to see the door open, and then the stranger entered. His form and bearing was that of her lover, but his visor was down, and she was unable to distinguish the features of the stranger.
His armour was such as had seen many a day’s hard wear, and there were plenty of marks of the battle about him. His travel-worn accoutrements were altogether such as bespoke service in the field.
“Sir, you desired to see me; say wherefore you do so, and if it is news you bring.” The knight answered not, but pointed to the female attendant, as if he desired she would withdraw. “You may retire,” said Bertha; “be within call, and let me know if I am threatened with interruption.”
The attendant retired, and then the knight and lady were left alone. The former seemed at a loss how to break silence for some moments, and then he said,—
“Lady ——”—”Oh, Heavens! ‘tis he!” exclaimed Bertha, as she sprang to her feet; “it is Sir Arthur Home!”
“It is,” exclaimed the knight, pulling up his visor, and dropping on one knee he encircled his arm round the waist of the lady, and at the same moment he pressed her lips to his own.
The first emotion of joy and surprise over, Bertha checked her transports, and chid the knight for his boldness.
“Nay, chide me not, dear Bertha; lam what I was when I left you, and hope to find you the same.”
“Am I not?” said Bertha.—”Truly I know not, for you seem more beautiful than you were then; I hope that is the only change.”
“If there be a change, it is only such as you see. Sorrow and regret form the principal causes.”—”I understand you.”
“My intended nuptials ——”—”Yes, I have heard all. I came here but late in the morning; and my horse was jaded and tired, and my impatience to attend the tournament caused me a disaster which it is well it came not on the second day.”
“It is, dear Arthur. How is it I never heard your name mentioned, or that I received no news from any one about you during the wars that have ended?”—”I had more than one personal enemy, Bertha; men who would have been glad to see me fall, and who, in default of that, would not have minded bribing an assassin to secure my death for them at any risk whatever.”
“Heavens! and how did you escape such a death from such people, Arthur?”—”By adopting such a device as that I wear. The Knight of the Green Shield I’m called.”
“I saw you to-day in the tournament.”—”And there my tired and jaded horse gave way; but to-morrow I shall have, I hope, a different fortune.”
“I hope so too.”—”I will try; my arm has been good in battle, and I see not why it should be deficient in peaceful jousts.”
“Certainly not. What fortune have you met with since you left England?”—”I was of course known but to a few; among those few were the general under whom I served and my more immediate officers, who I knew would not divulge my secret.”
“And they did not?”—”No; kept it nobly, and kept their eyes upon me in battle; and I have reaped a rich harvest in force, honour, and riches, I assure you.”
“Thank Heaven!” said Bertha.—”Bertha, if I be conqueror, may I claim you in the court-yard before all the spectators?”
“You may,” said Bertha, and she hung her head.—”Moreover,” said Sir Arthur, “you will not make a half promise, but when I demand you, you will at once come down to me and accept me as your husband; if I be the victor then he cannot object to the match.”
“But he will have many friends, and his intended bride will have many more, so that you may run some danger among so many enemies.”—”Never fear for me, Bertha, because I shall have many friends of distinction there too—many old friends who are tried men in battle, and whose deeds are a glory and honour to them; besides, I shall have my commander and several gentlemen who would at once interfere in case any unfair advantage was attempted to be taken of my supposed weakness.”
“Have you a fresh horse?” inquired Bertha.—”I have, or shall have by the morning; but promise me you will do what I ask you, and then my arm will be nerved to its utmost, and I am sure to be victorious.”
“I do promise,” said Bertha; “I hope you may be as successful as you hope to be, Arthur; but suppose fortune should declare against you; suppose an accident of any kind were to happen, what could be done then?”—”I must be content to hide myself for ever afterwards, as a defeated knight; how can I appear before your friends as the claimant of your hand?”
“I will never have any other.”—”But you will be forced to accept this Guthrie de Beaumont, your father’s chosen son-in-law.”
“I will seek refuge in a cloister.”—”Will you fly with me, Bertha, to some sequestered spot, where we can live in each others society?”
“Yes,” said Bertha, “anything, save marriage with Guthrie de Beaumont.”—”Then await the tournament of to-morrow,” said Sir Arthur, “and then this may be avoided; in the meantime, keep up a good heart and remember I am at hand.”
These two lovers parted for the present, after a protracted interview, Bertha to her chamber, and the Knight of the Green Shield to his tent.
The following morning was one of great preparation; the lists had been enlarged, and the seats made more commodious, for the influx of visitors appeared to be much greater than had been anticipated.
Moreover, there were many old warriors of distinction to be present, which made the bridegroom look pale and feel uncomfortable as to the results of the tournament. The tilting was to begin at an early hour, and then the feasting and revelry would begin early in the evening, after the tilting had all passed off.
In that day’s work there were many thrown from their saddles, and many broke their lances. The bridegroom tilted with several knights, and came off victorious, or without disadvantage to either.
The green knight, on the contrary, tilted with but few, and always victorious, and such matches were with men who had been men of some name in the wars, or at least in the tilt yard.
The sports drew to a close, and when the bridegroom became the challenger, the Knight of the Green Shield at once rode out quietly to meet him. The encounter could not well be avoided, and the bridegroom would willingly have declined the joust with a knight who had disposed of his enemies so easily, and so unceremoniously as he had.
The first encounter was enough; the bridegroom was thrown to a great distance, and lay insensible on the ground, and was carried out of the field. There was an immediate sensation among the friends of the bridegroom, several of whom rode out to challenge the stranger knight for his presumption.
In this, however, they had misreckoned the chances, for the challenged accepted their challenges with alacrity and disposed of them one by one with credit to himself until the day was concluded. The stranger was then asked to declare who he was, upon which he lifted his visor, and said,
“I am Sir Arthur Home, and claim the Lady Bertha as my bride, by the laws of arms, and by those of love.”
Again the tent was felled, and again the hostelry was tenanted by the soldier, who declared for one side and then for the other, as the cups clanged and jingled together.
“Said I not,” exclaimed one of the troopers, “that the knight with a green shield was a good knight?”—”You did,” replied the other.
“And you knew who he was?” said another of the troopers.—”Not I, comrades; I had seen him fight in battle, and, therefore, partly guessed how it would be if he had any chance with the bridegroom. I’m glad he has won the lady.”
It was true, the Lady Bertha was won, and Sir Arthur Home claimed his bride, and then they attempted to defeat his claim; yet Bertha at once expressed herself in his favour, to strongly that they were, however reluctantly compelled, to consent at last.
At this moment, a loud shout as from a multitude of persons came upon their ears and Flora started from her seat in alarm. The cause of the alarm we shall proceed to detail.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
AFTER LONDON by Richard Jefferies
CHAPTER XII: NIGHT IN THE FOREST
At first Felix rode quickly, but his horse stumbling, though accustomed to the woods, warned him to be more careful. The passage of so many horsemen in the last few days had cut up and destroyed the track, which was nothing but a green path, and the covered waggons had of course assisted in rendering it rough and broken. He therefore rode slowly, and giving his horse his head, he picked his way of his own accord at the side of the road, often brushing against the underwood.
Still, indeed, absorbed by the feelings which had almost mastered him in the arbour, and thinking of Aurora, he forgot where he was, till the dismal howling of wood-dogs deep in the forest woke him. It was almost pitch dark under the tall beeches, the highest of the trees preventing the beams of the moon from illuminating the path till later in the night. Like a curtain the thick foliage above shut out the sky, so that no star was visible. When the wood-dogs ceased there was no sound beyond the light fall of the horse’s hoofs as he walked upon the grass. Darkness and silence prevailed; he could see nothing. He spoke to his horse and patted his neck; he stepped a little faster and lifted his head, which he had held low as if making his way by scent.
The gloom weighed upon him, unhappy as he was. Often as he had voluntarily sought the loneliness of the woods, now in this state of mind, it oppressed him; he remembered that beyond the beeches the ground was open and cleared by a forest fire, and began to be anxious to reach it. It seemed an hour, but it really was only a few minutes, when the beeches became thinner and wider apart, the foliage above ceased, and the stars shone. Before him was the open space he had desired, sloping to the right hand, the tall grass grey-green in the moonlight, and near at hand sparkling with dew.
Amongst it stood the crooked and charred stems of furze with which it had been covered before the fire passed. A white owl floated rather than flew by, following the edge of the forest; from far down the slope came the chattering notes of a brook-sparrow, showing that there was water in the hollow. Some large animal moved into the white mist that hung there and immediately concealed it, like a cloud upon the ground. He was not certain in the dim light, and with so momentary and distant a view, but supposed from its size that it must have been a white or dun wood-cow.
Ahead, across the open, rose the dark top of the fir trees through which the route ran. Instead of the relief which he had anticipated as he rode towards them, the space clear of trees around seemed to expose him to the full view of all that might be lurking in the forest. As he approached the firs and saw how dark it was beneath them, the shadowy depths suggested uncertain shapes hiding therein, and his memory immediately reverted to the book of magic he had read at the castle.
There could not be such things, and yet no one in his heart doubted their existence; deny it as they might with their tongues as they sat at the supper-table and handed round the ale, out of doors in the night, the haste to pass the haunted spot, the bated breath, and the fearful glances cast around, told another tale. He endeavoured to call philosophy to his aid; he remembered, too, how many nights he had spent in the deepest forest without seeing anything, and without even thinking of such matters. He reproved himself for his folly, and asked himself if ever he could hope to be a successful leader of men who started at a shadow. In vain: the tone of his mind had been weakened by the strain it had undergone.
Instead of strengthening him, the teachings of philosophy now seemed cold and feeble, and it occurred to him that possibly the belief of the common people (fully shared by their religious instructors) was just as much entitled to credence as these mere suppositions and theories. The details of the volume recurred to his mind; the accurate description of the demons of the forest and the hill, and especially the horrible vampires enfolding the victim with outstretched wings. In spite of himself, incredulous, yet excited, he pressed his horse to greater speed, though the track was narrow and very much broken under the firs. He obeyed, and trotted, but reluctantly, and needed continual urging.
The yellow spark of a glowworm shining by a bush made him set his teeth; trifling and well known as it was, the light suddenly seen thrilled him with the terror of the unexpected. Strange rushings sounded among the fern, as if the wings of a demon brushed it as he travelled. Felix knew that they were caused by rabbits hastening off, or a boar bounding away, yet they increased the feverish excitement with which he was burdened. Though dark beneath the firs, it was not like the darkness of the beeches; these trees did not form a perfect canopy overhead everywhere. In places he could see where a streak of moonlight came aslant through an opening and reached the ground. One such streak fell upon the track ahead; the trees there had decayed and fallen, and a broad band of light lit up the way.
As he approached it and had almost entered, suddenly something shot towards him in the air; a flash, as it were, as if some object had crossed the streak, and was rendered visible for the tenth of a second, like a mote in the sunbeams. At the same instant of time, the horse, which he had pressed to go faster, put his foot into a rut or hole, and stumbled, and Felix was flung so far forward that he only saved himself from being thrown by clinging to his neck. A slight whizzing sound passed over his head, followed immediately by a sharp tap against a tree in his rear.
The thing happened in the twinkling of an eye, but he recognised the sound; it was the whiz of a crossbow bolt, which had missed his head, and buried its point in a fir. The stumble saved him; the bolt would have struck his head or chest had not the horse gone nearly on his knee. The robber had so planned his ambush that his prey should be well seen, distinct in the moonlight, so that his aim might be sure. Recovering himself, the horse, without needing the spur, as if he recognised the danger to his rider, started forward at full speed, and raced, regardless of ruts, along the track. Felix, who had hardly got into his seat again, could for awhile but barely restrain it, so wildly he fled. He must have been carried within a few yards of the bandit, but saw nothing, neither did a second bolt follow him; the crossbow takes time to bend, and if the robber had companions they were differently armed.
He was a furlong or more from the spot before he quite realized the danger he had escaped. His bow was unstrung in his hand, his arrows were all in the quiver; thus, had the bolt struck him, even if the wound had not been mortal (as it most likely would have been) he could have made no resistance. How foolish to disregard the warnings of the grooms at the castle! It was now too late; all he could do was to ride. Dreading every moment to be thrown, he pushed on as fast as the horse would go. There was no pursuit, and after a mile or so, as he left the firs and entered the ash woods, he slackened somewhat. It was, indeed, necessary, for here the hoofs of preceding horsemen had poached the turf (always damp under ash) into mud. It was less dark, for the boughs of the ashes did not meet above.
As he passed, wood-pigeons rose with loud clatterings from their roosting-places, and once or twice he saw in the gloom the fiery phosphoric eye-balls of the grey wood-cats. How gladly he recognised presently the change from trees to bushes, when he rode out from the thick ashes among the low hawthorns, and knew that he was within a mile or so of the South Barrier at home! Already he heard the song of the nightingale, the long note which at night penetrates so far; the nightingale, which loves the hawthorn and the neighbourhood of man. Imperceptibly he increased the speed again; the horse, too, knew that he was nearing home, and responded willingly.
The track was much broader and fairly good, but he knew that at one spot where it was marshy it must be cut up. There he went at the side, almost brushing a projecting maple bush. Something struck the horse, he fancied the rebound of a bough; he jumped, literally jumped, like a buck, and tore along the road. With one foot out of the stirrup, it was with the utmost difficulty he stuck to his seat; he was not riding, but holding on for a moment or two. Presently recovering from the jolt, he endeavoured to check him, but the bit was of no avail; the animal was beside himself with terror, and raced headlong till they reached the barrier. It was, of course, closed, and the warder was asleep; so that, until he dismounted, and kicked and shouted, no one challenged him.
Then the warder, spear in hand, appeared with his lantern, but recognising the voice, ran to the gate. Within the gate a few yards there were the embers of a fire, and round it a bivouac of footmen who had been to the feast, and had returned thus far before nightfall. Hearing the noise, some of them arose, and came round him, when one immediately exclaimed and asked if he was wounded. Felix replied that he was not, but looking at his foot where the man pointed, saw that it was covered with blood. But, upon close examination, there was no cut or incision; he was not hurt. The warder now called to them, and showed a long deep scratch on the near flank of the horse, from which the blood was dripping.
It was such a scratch as might have been made with an iron nail, and, without hesitation, they all put it down to a Bushman’s spud. Without doubt, the Bushman, hearing Felix approach, had hidden in the maple bush, and, as he passed, struck with his nail-like dagger; but, miscalculating the speed at which the horse was going, instead of piercing the thigh of the rider, the blow fell on the horse, and the sharp point was dragged along the side. The horse trembled as they touched him.
“Sir,” said one of the retainers, their headman, “if you will pardon me, you had best string your bow and send a shaft through his heart, for he will die in misery before morning.”
The Bushman’s spud, the one he uses for assassination or to despatch his prey, is poisoned. It is a lingering poison, and takes several hours to produce its effect; but no remedy is known, and many who have escaped from the cowardly blow have crawled to the path only to expire in torture. There was no denying that what the retainer proposed was the only thing that could be done. The warder had meantime brought a bucket of water, of which the poor creature drank eagerly. Felix could not do it; he could not slay the creature which had carried him so long, and which twice that night had saved him, and was now to die, as it were, in his place. He could not consent to it; he led the horse towards home, but he was weak or weary, and could not be got beyond the Pen.
There the group assembled around him. Felix ordered the scratch to be cleansed, while he ran over in his mind every possible remedy. He gave strict orders that he should not be despatched, and then hastened to the house. He undid with trembling hands the thongs that bound his chest, and took out his manuscripts, hoping against hope that among the many notes he had made there might be something. But there was nothing, or in his excitement he overlooked it. Remembering that Oliver was a great authority upon horses, he went into his room and tried to wake him. Oliver, weary with his ride, and not as yet having slept off the effects of the feast, could not be roused.
Felix left him and hurried back to the Pen. Weary as he was, he watched by the horse till the larks began to sing and the dawn was at hand. As yet he had not shown any severe symptoms except twitching of the limbs, and a constant thirst, which water could not quench. But suddenly he fell, and the old retainer warned them all to stand away, for he would bite anything that was near. His words were instantly fulfilled; he rolled, and kicked, and bit at everything within reach. Seeing this agony, Felix could no longer delay. He strung his bow, but he could not fit the arrow to the string, he missed the notch, so much did his hands shake. He motioned to the retainers who had gathered around, and one of them thrust his spear into the horse behind his shoulder.
When Felix at last returned to his chamber he could not but reflect, as the sun rose and the beams entered, that every omen had been against him; the adder under foot, the bandit’s bolt, the Bushman’s poisoned point. He slept till noon, and, upon going out, unrefreshed and still weary, he found that they had already buried the horse, and ordered a mound to be raised above his grave. The day passed slowly; he wandered about the castle and the enclosed grounds, seeking comfort and finding none. His mind vacillated; he recalled all that Aurora had said, persuading him not to do anything in haste or despair. Yet he could not continue in his present condition. Another day went by, and still undecided and doubting, he remained at home.
Oliver began to jest at him; had he abandoned the expedition? Oliver could not understand indecision; perhaps he did not see so many sides to the question, his mind was always quickly made up. Action was his forte, not thought. The night came, and still Felix lingered, hesitating.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK