Mrs. Rosy Parker
John Fulton watched his son for a while. He tried to recapture fleeting memories of what it felt like to be carefree, with few worries and fewer responsibilities. Back then your own time was really your own . . . or was it that simple?
He broke back into his son’s world by shouting down to him, “I’m walking back now Michael.” His son turned and waved goodbye. After the scare he felt a little annoyed his son continued with his game making no move to follow. The sea was calm and there were people walking their dogs; he felt safe to give him space to enjoy his freedom.
He ambled his way along the high tide mark enjoying the early morning sunshine; space to think his own thoughts . . . but what were his own thoughts? Although his business was wound up for a couple of weeks, he couldn’t help thinking of the jobs still outstanding. Worries came tumbling back in . . . money, and the kid’s reports, and his wife being shattered all the time; the dilemma of holiday for grown men – how to put everything that he had to think about in a box and thoroughly relax.
Startled from his thoughts, he realised he’d passed the house. He looked up to see an old lady clad in her towelling robe and green tufted swimming hat, flip-flopping her way across the path on her way to the beach.
“Ah, Mrs. Parker. Early morning swim?”
“Never miss it, nor did your mother. How’s Jane? Still teaching?”
Mrs. Parkinson commented, “That bad?”
John Fulton tried not to discuss anything private with Mrs. Parker. The fact was, his wife seemed shackled to her job and had little or no energy for much else. Mrs. Parker knew. She had been a very good friend of his mother and now his wife; a little nosy, but harmless enough.
“And Michael? How’s he doing?”
John Fulton almost felt compelled to talk about the events of the early morning. It seemed the nature of the woman to prise out your worries and concerns, as if she knew in advance what they were. He glanced back down to the breakwater and realised his son had followed.
“You can ask him yourself, he’s only down there.” He pointed to where his son was talking with an old man on the sand. Mrs. Parker frowned and shuffled off quickly down the beach. John knew his son would not be pleased to talk with Mrs. Parker. It wasn’t a favourite pastime talking to the Grandma of his best friend, just in case he gave something away he shouldn’t have.
John Fulton turned and walked back to the house – hot coffee – hmmm, that sounded just the ticket.
The Journey Ahead?
Michael couldn’t wait for his best friend to arrive. He had begun to discover there was enough to do on the beach if you could find the right people and make friends when they arrived. He’d already managed to have a wake board session behind a jet ski, and he’d used a friends kayak topaddle to the harbour. Then there were the sea anglers who showed him how to cast and how to dig up lug worms at low tide. There were also a few local lads he had joined on occasions. They built incredible sand structures to dam the water that drained the beach and then, as the tide turned, kept the rising water out.
This morning he was all alone, which suited him nicely after the events of the night before. He sauntered along where the last ripples of the waves reached up to touch his feet. The low tide sand was beginning to narrow and he kept having to retreat up the beach when a particularly strong wave swept in. He picked up the odd stones embedded in the sand and turned them over to look at the shape and texture, and to feel the best way to hold them for throwing. Each stone was fascinating; a different pattern; a different colour, and as he stared at the flint pebble in his hand, the lines swarmed in and out of focus. Then everything around him became a blur and the pebble snapped into clear focus and became the shape of a face.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
The boy stood over him. Michael found himself lying beneath a tree that reached its great, gnarled limbs out wide. Each huge arm twisted to meet the ground before arching out as if to ward off the advancing boughs ofits neighbours. Every one, a giant wooden fortress of tendrilled formations, under which Michael felt a degree of safety after his ordeal with the dragon.
He turned his attention to the boy; his pale, slim features radiated concern. He was young but there was venerable age about him too. And there was power. Untouchable, unfathomable power that seemed veiled.
He spoke with crystal clarity, “You must travel light and fast, the city you seek is a long journey from here.”
Already Michael’s mind was in a whirl. From the relief of escape and the fall came only confusion – where was he and what was this journey?
“I cannot tell you more. All I can say is, the Lord of the City knows of you and he will make your path clear. I am not permitted to order your steps, all I can do is warn you. There are many subtler dangers between you and the borders of the place you seek.” The boy relayed this final remark and then swung himself gracefully over the nearest bough and was gone. Michael scrambled after him, questions now pouring into his head but there was no sign of the boy.
How had he survived the fall? He tried to peer through the branches of the tree to spy the mountain where the menacing clouds had rolled in. What had been trying to snatch his life away? Where on Earth was he? He clambered into the hole in the trunk of the tree and curled up near the fire the boy had made. Questions tumbled and whirled around him – Which way to go? What city was the boy on about? Was he seeking a city? If he was it was the first he knew about it. The swirling mass of questions kept separating and coalescing until he found himself overwhelmed and out of his depth with this new experience.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
He found himself knee deep in the breaking waves. Where was reality? How had the tide reached up this far? What was happening to him? Michael, dizzy and nauseous, stumbled towards the sand. He dragged his sodden limbs clear of the sea only to be greeted by an angry shout, “Oy. Get off.”
Michael realised he’d blundered through a series of wet sand mounds. He looked up and was taken aback by the look of outrage on an the man’s grizzled face. At first he took the man for a tramp but his face wasn’t dirty, just tanned and weathered, as if he’d set his face to too many storms. His features reminded Michael of the stone Tors he’d seen on Dartmoor the previous year. Michael looked down around his feet and noticed it wasn’t just random piles of sand he’d blundered through in his escape from the waves; it was a sand sculpture. The sculpture was some kind of creature, though Michael couldn’t tell what. The back legs and tail descended into the sand as if it were a living thing trying to escape the waves itself. As he stood transfixed he realised the sand was melting into the beach.
Michael turned to see the old man staring at him.
“Won’t hurt him. You were fortunate he didn’t carry you off.” By the man’s nod Michael thought he meant the drenching he’d just received in the waves. The sand sculpture was vanishing fast as the waves continued to roll in. “He’ll be back.” The old man turned to leave.
Michael was confused, it was all too much, “I don’t understand. What do you mean?” Could this man know about his nightmare last night.
“Ah, just my little joke you understand.” The man glanced up the beach, “Must escape the witch woman.”
Michael followed his stare and watched as Mrs. Parker negotiated the steep bank at the top of the beach. She looked like something from the depths and Michael recognised that look of determination, she was after him. He muttered, “I’d rather face that dragon.”
The old man chuckled mirthlessly as he strode off. He was quickly out of sight behind the next breakwater before Mrs. Parker reached Michael.
“Good morning Michael.” She addressed the breakwater, the one the man had disappeared behind. Her look was one of concern but it softened as she swung her gaze round to him.
“Good morning Mrs. Parker.” She now had him all to herself.
“And how’s my Grandson doing at school?”
Michael was ready for this. Josh had warned him about conversations with his Grandma. Wham! No small talk. Straight in with what she wanted to know.
“Oh, fine,” he lied. In actual fact, his best friend was struggling. Not so much in lessons but with a group of other boys who were merciless with their so called ‘attention’. This attention made Josh so miserable it was affecting his work, and many of his so called friends no longer wanted him around.
“Really! Michael Fulton, I thought you’d be a bit more forthcoming than that.” Michael shrugged. “Never mind. Josh will be with us in person very soon, I thought you’d like to know. But for now, I’m going swimming.”
Michael watched as she waded through the shallows to submerge beneath the waves.
It was one of those typical English summer days – not hot but not cold, not sunny but not completely overcast and grey either. One of those non-descript, doing things sort of days. His sister, Abby, and his Mum had opted to free-wheel down to the beach while Michael persuaded his Dad, after many objections, to do the forest trail at West Dean. The outward journey promised much, as they passed narrow winding tracks set up for an exciting down hill return. Michael couldn’t wait; John Fulton could. Man and machine were not in harmony. Actually the disharmony was creating an angry, disgruntled parent and he was starting to blame his son for a thoroughly miserable afternoon. Maybe this was why Michael tried to ride a little faster: to open up a gap, separating himself from the seething, sweating hulk of his Dad behind. And perhaps that was the reason John Fulton was struggling as he made a futile attempt to keep up. As they crested a rise, Michael shot away between the closely spaced beech trees. It felt good to feel the wind rushing and to be in complete control after the events of the previous day.
Mr. Fulton pulled his bike to a stop, unwilling to pitch himself and his bike down the steep incline. He could just see his son’s red helmet bobbing away; disappearing and reappearing as he hurtled round the bends of the course. He knew he shouldn’t be cross with his son for enjoying this so much.
His Dad’s call from the top of the hill caught Michael’s attention for a split second. He knew that looking back was a mistake even before he made the half glance up the hill. His left handlebar clipped the trunk of a tree and he was launched from the saddle as the front wheel was jerked sideways.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Michael knew nothing more of the beech wood as he found himself under the spreading spidery arms of the ancient Crithbegoran trees of his dream. How he knew these trees were so named? Michael had no idea, but knowing their name was a small comfort. The fire near him had burnt low so he realised he’d slept for some time. The words of the boy were still clear in his mind. He pondered. A journey? A city? He felt very snug in his hollow beneath the tree whose name he knew. Why travel miles when this was as good a shelter as any, especially when this place was a complete mystery. He collected more wood for the fire and rooted around for food. The wood was plentiful but the food was scarce. Although he knew the name of the tree, his knowledge didn’t extend to knowing which fungi were edible and these were the only things he could find among the rotting twigs, sticks and broken boughs of the forest floor. He’d either have to move on or “WAKE UP.” His shout startled the silence, but Michael didn’t emerge from his dream.
As he sat by the fire he’d coaxed back into life he didn’t realise twilight had crept in and cloaked the wood. She draped her grey shadows over the forest; the night a breath away. Pools of darkness grew from the shadows. Tendrils of night creeping together, joining a relentless tide to engulf the remnant of the day. Mist coiled up from the forest floor adding to the eerieness. Michael’s hearing became acute as the night released its lonesome noises. The fire became his focus as he added the last of the wood and blew on the embers to encourage the flames. He recognised the need to keep it burning and berated himself for not collecting more wood. He huddled in his alcove of tree roots, the fire – a barricade keeping a lonely vigil. Too afraid to sleep, he kept the night under close scrutiny. The darkness worked on his fears and Michael began to feel loss and hopelessness seep into his safe haven. ‘If only I’d found somewhere safe before darkness had set in,’ he thought forlornly. He squinted into the night trying to penetrate its veil. The noises seemed to creep nearer; a whispered muttering of air through the leaves; the dry stirring of the forest floor; a scatter of crackling laughter; the guttural call of something wild. Could the trees themselves be talking, or was it something more sinister?
The night became a blank wall that couldn’t be penetrated. As the night drew on Michael grew weary and sleep soon settled over him. Which is why when they came, he didn’t sense the change in the blackness, as they enveloped the darkness in their malevolent aura. But the first Michael knew of them were their freezing fingers that clutched and grabbed at him. The dying embers were no help. The night was blacker but that was when he realised he was looking up into the clustered ranks of feral creatures. He sensed their hostile intent, heard their flickering, slithering tongues and felt their leathery touch as they bound him. Their bodies, their faces, their beings blackened the night. He began to make out where they were by the way the night seemed light behind them, their eyes deep pools filled with rage and hate.
As he was dragged across the forest floor, Michael tried to gain his feet. He stumbled over the roots of countless trees, ripping away the skin on his knees and elbows. Trying to ignore the pain in his chest he attempted to match the relentless pace of his captors. They stopped only for short periods to sniff the air and slaver out their guttural words. If he as much as whimpered they seemed to double their pace. To Michael it seemed like hours later when they stopped once more. The night was receding and there was more urgency in their unearthly language. As the grey light of dawn approached their actions became rushed. To Michael’s strained consciousness it was as if the light brought blindness to these creatures. He watched as they swarmed up the massive trunk, arms and legs out-stretched, tearing the bark. They hurriedly hauled Michael up the Crithbegoran. Michael felt like he was being cut in two as they hauled on the rope tied around his waist and he scraped his way up the rough trunk. The creatures tied him down in the cleft where the great arms of the tree sprouted. Gagged and almost suffocated by the pungent rag they stuffed into his mouth, he watched as they scrambled over the edge. Even in the strengthening light the creatures seemed to repulse all scrutiny. They poured over the edge and descended to the forest floor.
Left alone to the coming day Michael tried to shift himself round to lie more comfortably. He had been lashed securely, his leg was trapped underneath him, with his arms tied behind him. He could see little more than the boughs of the tree arching away, and the grey, white clouds that hung heavily over his resting place. Unable to move an inch he collapsed into a dreamless, pain-ridden sleep that lasted most of the day.
He awoke to find night had returned with it the creatures gathering over him and pawing at Michael’s body. Their damp abrasive fingers searched feverishly. He shivered as he was forced to stare into their malevolent eyes, their only discernible feature. He was pulled to his feet, a soggy bundle of putrid food was stuffed between his lips and cold, clammy fingers smothered his mouth to make him swallow. Michael was then dragged to the edge and lowered down on the same cords that had bound him. Burning pain seared through his arms and legs as blood flowed into his deadened limbs. He collapsed immediately when forced to stand without assistance. The night continued where the previous one had finished as Michael was dragged and hauled deeper into the forest. No glades, no streams, just mile after mile of the giant Crithbegoran. No respite, no mercy, just hour after hour of relentless running; often feeling light headed from lack of food; often retching emptily as exhaustion began to take over. He was aware they were stopping more regularly and their ‘hands’ scrabbled hungrily at his flesh as if trying to discover a way into his body. ‘Why didn’t they rip him to bits if they wanted to eat him?’ Michael thought many times.
The night ended as before. The shadows lightened, their movements became more erratic and he was hauled to the sprouting top of the nearest tree. Michael made sure he was lying more comfortably this time as he was lashed to the largest branch. This time to his right was a crack where one of the limbs had split away from the main trunk. He watched as the black shapes of the creatures scattered amongst the trees.
The Grey People
Michael lay as dead, his staring eyes unseeing in the pale blue of the morning sky. His body felt wrung out. When he died, because he knew he surely would, it would be a relief. He dozed and would have slept all day if it hadn’t been for the crack through which sounds from the forest floor trickled into his semi-conscious state. Voices. Human voices. He couldn’t move and the gag stopped him from making any noise. Through the crack he watched as people clad in rough grey tunics went about their work.
Trapped metres from the attention of these people was more torment than the physical torture of the nights. He stared through his ‘window to the World’ and watched the people brush up and collect all the leaf litter and tree debris from the forest floor. The ground beneath the tree was spotless, not a leaf in sight as they cleared in a wide sweeping arc. Desperate to do something to attract their attention he banged his legs against the spongy trunk. The muffled noise wasn’t loud enough to escape the hole let alone carry to the ground below. He looked about him. There was nothing but the loose dead leaves and twigs that had lodged in his prison cell. Like him they were trapped and unlikely to escape. He could turn his head and move his legs, but the top half of his body was tightly bound to the branch and his arms were tied behind him. He slumped back, exhausted.
It was close on midday and the people had moved steadily around to the far side of the tree. Perhaps this was a sacred place, somewhere which deserved such meticulous scrutiny. As the shadows began to lengthen an idea began to form in Michael’s mind. He practised shooting his legs into the air and as far over his head as he could. It was painful, but he needed to work out whether he could generate enough momentum for what he had in mind. Scraping away with the edge of his trainers he was able to form three small piles of sticks and leaves. As the noise of the workers grew louder he readied himself, tensing his body. With the first pile of sticks and leaf debris firmly clasped between his feet he launched his legs up and over releasing the pressure on his ‘missile’. The sticks scattered and fell directly on his head; he had let them go too early. ‘It would work. It had to work. He had to stay calm.’ He reloaded and prepared himself envisaging the point of release; he launched again. At first it seemed it would be successful but a gust of wind sent the leaves fluttering back into Michael’s alcove.
One last chance, would he ever have another? Without build up he clutched the final pile and flung it up and over. The leaf litter flew higher this time and caught in the breeze; the leaves hung as if caught in indecision before fluttering down to the spotless floor below.
Now he could only hope someone had seen.
In fact nobody had seen except the boy that was blamed for the mess. The place where the twigs and leaves came to rest was obscured from view by a fallen branch. The majority of the people were debating what to do with the mighty limb while the boy cautiously stepped towards the scattering of litter beneath the crack in the tree. Michael could see him peering up, his young inquisitive face etched with fear.
“Ooorr, Brith, you haven’t messed up the place now!” Michael watched a man approach the small boy.
“It wasn’t me Da. There’s som’at up in’t tree.”
The man scowled at the boy. It was one of those ‘I’ve heard these stories before’ sort of scowls and the boy recognised the warning signs, instantly scrambling round clearing up all of the debris. The man, satisfied, returned to the branch and the view from Michael’s crack was empty again. Any hope he had begun to feel faded and he slumped back listening to the murmuring of the people below. They were congregating out of view now that their day’s work was over.
He heard the scrabbling on the tree before he heard the boy’s name being called. The hope in Michael’s heart rose like a flood. He’d done it! The boy had seen and he was climbing to find out what was up the tree. He looked up to see a terrified face. The scream was ear splitting, “Spirit!” The boy vanished and Michael heard a great bustle of movement and further cries of alarm. To Michael’s dismay all the people fled.
For the next hour Michael sat alone, distraught. He closed his eyes, utter despair overtook him, his body shaking with emotion. He knew twilight was approaching. He knew what the darkness would bring.
The sudden knocking startled Michael since he had been listening intently for the creatures’ return. The deep blue eyes of a man appraised him, looking for signs, but signs of what? Michael pleaded with muffled grunts and he sensed in that split second the man had made his decision. His movements were careful as if he feared a trap. Everything that the man examined seemed to satisfy him. He grinned. Two gold teeth gleamed giving him an insane look. He unsheathed a great curved sword that flashed even in the gloom. His muttered words added to the blades edge as it began to shin and with a sweep he raised the blade above his head and swung it down at Michael’s chest.
Terror. Complete and utter terror. And . . . freedom. The ropes had dissolved and the gag was pulled from his mouth. Michael drank his lungsfull of the fragrant autumn air.
From being meticulous and careful, the man worked frenetically as Michael was lowered from the tree. The man landed softly next to him. Michael was hurriedly tied to a horse and they set off at a gallop even before he had a chance to brace himself.
The journey began in relative discomfort much like the previous nights but this time he was free. He could tell by the fading light that his escape would be discovered all too soon.
Within minutes they had passed the outskirts of a village. The houses were drab, ramshackle huts made from the wood of the forest with straw matted roofs. There was no sign of the residents except the telltale smoke that escaped from holes at the pinnacle of each roof. Howling echoed from behind them. The creatures had returned and found him gone. Michael wondered what they would do; would the creatures give up on their prisoner so easily?
The horses knew how to negotiate the great drooping branches, swerving in wide loops to enter and emerge from under each tree. Michael felt concerned they were taking a less direct path than the creatures in pursuit. The man said nothing but the determination on his face was enough to reassure Michael.
After a while they slowed, allowing the horses time to recover. The man was appraising the situation by listening and staring hard into the trees. He checked the sky as if reading it like a map. Michael watched, amazed at the man’s calmness.
“They have us surrounded I’m afraid.” His voice was level and steady. Michael’s mind reeled and he broke out in a cold sweat.
“They must have been quite certain that they could enter you.”
Michael didn’t understand, “What do you mean?”
“The Spirits wanted your body to live in. They discover lost people, attracted to their fear and despair; once inside they make the desolation grow, cultivating it, making them stronger. You cannot begin to imagine being controlled by them.”
Michael struggled to accept what he was hearing. As they had pawed over him the previous night he’d known they were seeking something, and that ‘something’ was a door into his life; worse, a door into his being, into his soul.
“No use running any more tonight. The horses wouldn’t get us through.” Michael stared into the night; the darkness intensified as the creatures drew closer. The man unslung the sword from his back and their reaction was immediate. The hisses from the shadows spat an unearthly language as they drew steadily closer.
The horses stamped their alarm.
“Let them go,” the man commanded. Michael saw the sense in this as it had taken all his concentration to keep the horses calm. They bolted immediately and before Michael could regain his balance five of the creatures used the disturbance to rush them. The man’s sword was a whirr of fire and the light from the blade lit the faces of these tortured beings. Beneath that midnight cloaking, their twisted power was evident, but the man wielded more. The eyes of the beasts were seared by the light and their beings sucked upwards and away, vanishing as the man commanded them, “BEGONE.”
The night lightened as the rest of the creatures drew back from the attack. The man set a fire and pulled food from his pockets. Michael hadn’t been aware of his hunger. He ate as he eyed the man warily. Apart from the gold teeth, the man was quite ordinary looking. He was slight in build, with tousled, brown hair and a twist of the mouth that made him look like he smiled at everything. ‘Perhaps he did,’ Michael thought.
“How did you find me?”
“The forest folk. They returned to the village frightened. As it wasn’t night time I assumed some wretch was in the hands of those demons. The boy showed me, the one you frightened half to death.” He said it as if it was Michael’s fault.
“Why didn’t they set me free?” Michael asked.
“They were frightened. Anyway, there’s not much that could get through your bonds.”
“It was rope!”
“Yeh, but rope that’s stronger than chain.”
“Who are you anyway?” Michael felt a little rude considering this person had risked his life to rescue him.
“Oh, just a fellow traveller!”
“So where are you heading?”
“You know, you’re too full of questions. Perhaps you should tell me where you’re going?”
Michael stopped and thought. “A city!”
“Oh?” the man’s eyebrows raised, “Any city in particular?”
Michael frowned at the man.
“I…I’ll know it when I see it.” Michael wasn’t too sure he would but he was certain of the boy’s advice, about the path being made clear.
“Well, I’ll see you as far as the Great Road tomorrow. Past there our destinations differ.” The man curled up and was asleep in moments. Michael was too afraid to sleep so he resolved to keep watch over the shadows until the dawn came.
Neither heads nor tails
He was shaken awake by the man as the grey shadows of slumber lifted. The two horses were back, tethered close by. He broke off a chunk of bread and passed it to Michael together with a skin of wine. They ate in silence before mounting up and heading off once more.
The morning was bright and airy. Each mile revealed more forest settlements and countless groups of people intent on clearing the leaves and debris from the forest floor. Twice they rode through clearings that had only a light scattering of leaves. This intrigued Michael. The previous day he had assumed the tidying up was for a ceremony practised in a sacred place, but it appeared to be a daily occurrence. He turned to the man.
“My name’s Cordell by the way,” the man announced interrupting Michael’s thoughts.
“Michael!” Michael nodded. “Thanks for yesterday.” Michael felt awkward thanking him now when he should have done so the night before.
“What were you going to ask?” Cordell’s smile invited Michael’s questions.
“These people in the forest,” Michael gestured to another area cleared of leaves. “What are they doing?”
“Work. And paid work at that. They would call themselves lucky.”
Michael was puzzled, “But what sort of work is that. They clear a glade of leaves – what for? Within a few hours their work is spoiled.”
“It’s paid work. They do it to live. Life is hard here. Most aspire to reach Fanatucee, it’s the city of dreams. Few save enough in a lifetime for the journey, and those that do, set out never to return. The rumours passed down about the city are sheer fantasy but people seem completely captivated by the place. So much so that they dedicate their lives in the hope of reaching it one day.”
“But the work is completely pointless. It’s . . .”
“Sshhhhh. Not so loud. Yes it is, of course it is. Why do you think I come here?”
“Why do you come here?”
“To speak of better things!”
“And what might that be?”
`“You want to know?”
“I’ve asked haven’t I?” Michael was feeling a little irritated.
The man fell silent. There was a distant look about him as they continued on their way. Michael’s impatience seethed inside. He’d been subject to too many cryptic statements and he wanted someone to talk to him plain and straight.
“I can see you’re not quite ready to hear my story, but I will tell you this; the city that you seek is only the beginning of your journey.”
“What do you mean I’m not ready? Which city am I seeking?”
“You’ll see,” said Cordell as they emerged from among the Crithbegoran trees and looked down on what seemed like an endless, grass covered plain with a single road that disappeared into the distance.
“I’m leaving you here, but I’ll need my horse back.”
Michael slumped in his saddle. He’d asked his questions and received answers that made little or no sense to him.
“You’ll feel better once you’re on the road ….unless you want to go back in the woods and face those creatures again.”
Michael slipped off his horse and Cordell threw down a cloth bag filled with what food he could spare.
“Thank you for saving me.”
“Let’s just say I was in the right place at the right time and leave it at that shall we . . .” He stopped himself from saying more and spurred his horse, returning to the forest. Michael looked towards the road. At least now he had begun his journey. And yet, what Cordell had said about the city marking the beginning of his journey troubled him.
Even though ‘the Spirits’ had resided in the forest Michael felt exposed without the familiar, dependable cover of the trees. At least the road could give him a direction to follow; the road should take him somewhere. He hobbled down the hill, the soft, springy turf making his way a little easier.
The road was further away than he had at first thought. He stopped at midday next to a stream where he tried to clean himself up. The blood from the wounds on his legs and arms had dried with the grit and dirt still embedded in them. He wiped away the blood and grime from around the cuts and grazes, and then attempted to wash his wounds with what clean material he could find from his filthy, ragged clothes. He then sat and picked through the morsels of food while he watched another group of grey clad people at work. Again their actions puzzled him. They measured the grass and cut it with crudely, fashioned hand shears. They worked in rows, moving across the plain towards where he sat. Each cut they made was meticulous. The care they took was painstaking. Michael was intrigued again by the scale of the task.
“What are you doing?”
The nearest man scowled at him. “Work, what d’ya think we’re doin?” He continued with his cutting.
“Why are you cutting the grass so precisely? What’s it for?”
The man stopped and looked up at Michael, “You stupid or what? It’s what we’re paid for!” The person working next to him backed into Michael’s legs. “Ay! What’re ya doin?” the man growled, “Work too good for ya then?”
“Do you enjoy what you do?” Michael persisted.
“Enjoy? Enjoy’s got nothin’ to do with it. There’s food to afford, tribute to Minden, rent t’pay and if we’re ever goin to make the journey to Fenetucee we’re goin to have to work harder, and ignore wasters askin stupid questions.” His voice had risen to a shout and he shoved Michael roughly aside.
Michael continued toward the road, glad to be away from them. He thought about the people: how they had been in earnest about their work as if it was worth something.
His path took him ever downhill towards the road. Which way? Left or right? Or would there be other roads leading off? He continued to ponder these things as he reached the base of an incline that took him up on to the raised cobbled road. He clambered up the slope and stood looking one way and then the other. Each direction seemed to have no end and each cut purposefully across the vast plain. There were no signposts, no towns and no sign of anything moving for miles in both directions. He looked back up the hill he’d walked down that morning. The forest crouched on the crest reaching across the horizon to right and left. It looked ready to spill over and invade the plain.
He had to choose a direction with no signs to help him. He dug in his pocket for a coin and flipped it. He shouted, “Heads go right.” It hit the ground, spun and pitched into one of the cracks between the cobbles. The coin had landed on its edge. Just as he was about to toss the coin again he heard a great rattling crash of metal upon metal. It came from the other side of the road. He crossed the highway and peered down the slope. It was steeper and longer than the one he’d climbed up, which was why he hadn’t spotted the wagon down in the thicket of scrubby trees. He could see the animals used to haul it were unhitched and roaming freely in the small cutting. At the back of the wagon he saw a rather portly man laid out flat on his back surrounded by pots and pans of various shapes and sizes. By the groans and odd snippets of song, Michael could tell the man had just fallen from the tail-gate of the wagon and alcohol might have been a contributing factor. Michael slipped and skidded down the steep bank towards the man. As soon as Michael had reached the bottom he was surrounded by docile, friendly oxen. He managed to dodge back around them, and once near the wagon they lost interest in him.
He rounded the back of the wagon cautiously. The man was mumbling to himself and seemingly unaware of Michael’s presence. He’d just decided to help the man when, from a distance, he heard music.
The man opened his eyes wide crying, “Here already!” Struggling to sit up he accepted Michael’s helping hand to stand, albeit a little unsteadily. The music to grew louder. It was accompanied by the sounds of beasts bellowing and the rumbling trundle of heavy wheels. The cracking of whips could be heard accompanying the weird hypnotic melodies
“Wood! Collect me wood if you please. For the fire . . .If you’ve got a caring bone in your body. If I’m late for their arrival . . .” The man swayed as he slurred his request. As Michael turned to run off, the man boomed “No. No,no,no. Show them. Show them the track down here. Yes. Or else they’ll miss it.”
The man nearly lost his footing as he swung his arm round to point in the rough direction of the track that led out of the cutting. He brought his whole face down to leer into Michael’s eyes, “There’s a good lad.” The stale, beery breath confirmed Michael’s suspicions.
The Caravan of Know
Michael raced off up the cutting and found a narrow entrance between two rocky spurs, where a shallow earth ramp led up to the road. His run turned into a sprint when he realised he could hear individual voices over the din of the approaching wagons. He arrived at the road and jogged towards the convoy. The array of wagons reminded Michael of a cavalcade of fun-fair vehicles. Each elaborate carriage had its cargo lashed down with brightly coloured tarpaulins. As Michael approached he could see the people sat on these vehicles had an imperious air, their eyes stared forward seemingly unaware of his frantic gesticulations. The wagon drivers wore the same embroidered tunics as the haughty looking passengers. They flailed their whips achieving great gunshot cracks over the labouring beasts. The lead rider made no acknowledgement that he had heard Michael who was forced to jump out of the path of the oncoming vehicle. He tried attracting the attention of the animal drivers but they seemed deaf to his shouts and Michael was afraid that they might turn their whips on him. In desperation he tried to appeal to one of the boys that sat at the back of the lead wagon. The boy was playing an instrument a little like a bassoon, except the sound quivered and warbled, deep and resonant one moment, high and tremulous the next. The lead animals of the next team of beasts were dreamy eyed seemingly enchanted by the music. They appeared to be pulling harder to reach the boy. Michael was surprised when the boy winked back at him and gave him a hand up while still holding the tune. The wagon changed course to pass between the rocky spurs. Looking back along the length of the convoy, Michael saw the last few wagons rise out of a dip in the road. He’d not seen them earlier as they’d been climbing out of a large depression in the plain. The wagon slowly descended into the cutting and the road was lost from view.
Having directed them down the correct path, the relief Michael initially felt slowly melted away. He became apprehensive about the company he now found himself in. What he had already seen hadn’t impressed him. A fat, drunk man; a rider who refused to acknowledge his directions; the wagon drivers who looked ready to use their whips on anything and everything; self important passengers who thought themselves above everyone else in the World; and the musicians who wouldn’t stop playing, not even to greet him. He couldn’t help wondering who were they and where were they heading?
The lead wagon shambled into the clearing and veered off into the scrubby trees. With a synchronised routine, the wagons rolled in, found their space and pulled to a halt. The musicians leapt down and circled to the front of their wagon to unhitch the team of oxen and set them free to roam and graze.
The fat man waddled up and grabbed Michael by the hair. Unprepared for the vicious assault, he found himself thrust to his knees in the dirt, and forced to look at the travel worn boots of the lead rider. The hand that forced him down loosened, and his voice, that had been blustering and slurred before, now simpered and squeaked at the man who towered over above them. Michael ventured to glance up but he was slapped down immediately.
“Lord Mordecai, may your knowledge never end, I . . I . .” The fat man stuttered, trying to find the right thing to say.
“Ahhhh.” Michael heard the towering figure sneer. “Simunel. Is he one of yours?” Even as he was staring at the ground Michael knew the conversation was about him.
“Ur . . ur . ye . yes. I sent him to alert you of where to leave the road.”
“Ha! And offended the whole train of academics to boot. And did you deign to instruct him on how to approach the Caravan of Know?”
“He didn’t lay on his face?” Michael heard the incredulous response of Simunel. It was as if everyone should have known this fact. “But . but surely he knelt at least . . .surely?”
The Lord Mordecai continued, “And to the slave who doesn’t bow down . . . then he must be educated! That is only right. But until then, GET THE FOOD READY.” His authoritative shout was laced with anger, “And if I ever find you drunk at the end of another day’s trek before we reach the city, I’ll have you flogged to an inch of oblivion.” The menace in the silky smooth voice was poison.
Michael was dragged to his feet and pulled, less severely this time, towards Simunel’s food wagon. Michael watched Lord Mordecai strut off to a group of the colourfully robed academics before the scene disappeared from view.
Simunel let go of Michael’s arm and began to brush the dust from his clothes.
“A thousand sorries to you.” Michael heard the sincerity and was taken aback by this change of treatment. Simunel’s look was kindly.
“How come you know nothing of the ‘etiquette’ required before the academics of Minden? But never mind that now, we have food to prepare.”
Simunel walked towards the fire he had hurriedly coaxed into life. Several small children were busy cutting up vegetables or setting up iron tripods around the large blaze. Every so often one of the musicians entered the shelter of the large food wagon to dump down a pile of wood.
In the next hour Michael was kept busy by an endless number of jobs. Preparation for the meal was behind schedule simply because the caravan had set off earlier than was agreed. Simunel was still blamed though, and he seemed to accept the abuse he was given by Lord Mordecai and an endless stream of other ‘dignitaries’. They acted like royalty but were far more aloof and arrogant in their manner. Each time one of the colourfully robed personages approached Simunel, he instantly stopped what he was doing and fell to his knees. Michael learnt very quickly to rush off on an errand to avoid the yelling tirade of threats directed at Simunel. He took all the abuse all good heartedly and continued to grin at all the children who helped him with his work.
As the first fingers of twilight crept over the clearing, the food was carried through to the central hub. A second larger fire had been lit near tables where all the adults were sat. A great hubbub of talk rose up from the clearing as the children served the food. Michael was kept back at the cooking fire with Simunel and they continued to prepare giant pots of steaming stew and savoury concoctions. The great hurrying rush was over and Simunel began to relax.
“You offended them today.” The statement was left in the air. Michael waited for Simunel to explain. “You don’t know what you did wrong, do you?”
“No!” Michael didn’t mean to answer fiercely.
“It’s not me you offended. Can’t offend me no ways anyway.” He paused and then began again. “Let me explain if I can.”
Simunel settled himself on a stool by the largest of the cauldrons.
“The city of Minden is a city of learning. Very early on, many, many centuries ago men came together to further their knowledge. They fed off the enthusiasm of their colleagues and they achieved some pretty astounding things. You’d be amazed how little sleep some of those people need when they’re together. The city grew and it began to draw in the most brilliant minds from opposite ends of our World – from Mamonth to Roslavic. It became powerful; not in wealth, though it gots plenty; not in power cos they’ve no army; it became powerful in knowledge, so much so that most realms and cities rely on the knowledge to underpin their own stability. So the city becomes all powerful and the academics demanded a level of reverence whereby people acknowledge their ‘superiority’.” Simunel uttered his words carefully almost as if reciting a history book.
“Hence all the bowing and stuff.” Michael spat out the words.
Simunel nodded slowly, “Few people have visited Minden, it is not encouraged. But you’ve been summoned there. The Lord Protector, Mordecai has willed that you should be ‘educated’ there.”
“How do you mean ‘educated’?” Michael could see a wall of silence descend as Simunel’s face blanked and he bowed his head.
“The beginning of your education! Good, well done Simunel. As one with no way it is important he hears some of the foundational tenets of the Great City.” The Lord Mordecai stepped into the light of the fire. “Lower your gaze boy.”
Michael remembered too late. He had been fascinated by Lord Mordecai’s face. A mighty intelligence shone from his eyes, and yet they looked on him with cold calculation. Michael dropped his gaze but he didn’t drop to his knees. The thwack of the stick in the back sent him sprawling and he winced at the pain.
“Enlightenment can come at great cost . . . if enlightenment doesn’t come, oblivion will take you.”
Mordecai slipped back into the shadows and Simunel looked up with tears in his eyes.
Sleep didn’t come easy that night. In the wagon under the hides of animals, Michael finally dozed.