8333243 needed to be divided by 2 as many times as was necessary to convert it into a binary number, then it had to be translated back into denary, but this time reading the binary number backwards. For that I would have to jot down the ascending powers of 2, and though I didn’t carry with me any of the personal active intelligence matrices that soon replaced the passive and dumb computers in many of the parallels, I did have one of the relatively simple purse-sized companions that easily evaded detection and could resemble almost anything common. Despite being an anachronism that would arouse an unhealthy interest if seen, it stored thousands of books and hundreds of films, as well as my favourite works of art and music, and my diary containing a myriad events in the parallels; looking like a slim hand-bag mirror, its ‘glass’ was mirror, viewing screen, scanner, and a projector capable of displaying text or images or in numerous formats. For now, though, it remained safely in a pocket of my hand-bag.
The other things which did not belong here (or indeed many other alternatives) were a crystal ring even harder than diamond, and a light-pen that was nothing like the computer pointing device, but a low-power laser with a small aerosol of emulsion that could be sprayed onto any surface, so the tuneable laser could be used to create a picture: it was a sort of air-brush based not on pigment, but light.
These were always in my possession, for I had discovered just over a century ago (and to my cost) that with the right equipment it was possible to detect things or people from other parallels, as they necessarily contained the energy characteristics of their native world. I had to be careful with my speech sometimes, too, so I didn’t use meaningless phrases or talk of things that had either not happened yet, or occurred in an alternative, regardless of how ‘near’ it was, but knowing how to behave correctly masked a great deal of ignorance of certain things, and such skills were all part of being a traveller.
The first number translated as 7271039, and the second converted back to 10452305, so the advertisement’s true message was really to make a telephone call on the 23’rd of May to 727(PARk) 1039, at 10.45: this was in two days’ time.
If I wanted to, of course. I hardly needed the cash or credit now, and had quickly learned I didn’t need a fraction of what I assumed in my distant youth was necessary for a comfortable existence, for I had grown up among one of the myriad variations of this world, in an other that was more than a century ahead of this particular one. The years were somewhat aimless and perhaps even a little irresponsible at times, and whilst the fashions and symbols relied too heavily on those of the previous decade (just as the 90’s copied the 80’s, the 50’s and 30’s borrowed from the 40’s and 20’s), they were predictable enough for me to feel more than safe, and so not quite as wary as I might otherwise have to be.
It was certainly true I had no need to be made to feel younger in any way, and neither was I beginning to feel the impact of some of my hundred and seventy-something years, apart from the desire for a couple of months of quiet living every dozen years or so; in all other respects, I was as fit and alert as was possible for a woman in her mid-thirties - the fourth or fifth time around. Mentally, I was still at the peak I had reached long before the end of my first century, and only when that edge began to abrade would I ever contemplate passing on to whatever came next for people like me; besides which, I had learned not to rush things, as there was really no point for someone in my position. And that was? Endless possibilities. Well, in theory, anyway. In actuality there was a limit to what could occur, given that the originating circumstances were usually fairly similar, based as they were on probability, and limited by social inertia as well as entropy, but who was counting? I certainly wasn’t.
There was little I could do in the meantime except enjoy myself (but then I’ve never seen life as a reason to do anything else), unless I began to change things to satisfy my desires, but having the power did not require me to pander to every petty whim and fancy I had. The plane would touch down fairly soon, then I would ride in a taxi to the Connaught, perhaps take a stroll just to ease my legs, certainly have a meal, and then a rest. Jet-lag affected this body far more than the previous one, but as long as I had a decent night’s sleep within a couple of days to rid the last remnants, I could still banish a fair amount simply by wishing it away.
Past experience told me that no matter how much I wanted to, I would not manage any proper sleep on the journey, so I read the remainder of the newspaper, did as much of the crossword as I could (I’ve never been very good at cryptic clues), and settled back to drowse for a while. Half-formed images and barely coherent sounds flitted through my mind, sometimes accompanied by disassociated snatches of music and conversation, superficially familiar yet ultimately unrecognised people, and then, vividly, as if some invisible dream / puppet-master considered I needed reminding of what I was, the faces and features I had known and worn danced before me in a macabre procession.
At the moment I bore more than a passing resemblance to Yvonne De Carlo in Cecil B. De Mille’s second version of The Ten Commandments, as had my previous incarnation, for there was little point in having a choice of appearance and not being anything other than what one wanted. Prior to that I used Ava Gardner (from The Bribe) as a model, for I’d developed an interest in the cinema and all the dreams, lies, and hypocritical ideologies it sometimes represented. In any case, the designers and engineers preferred a definite image from which to work on the quickly growing body awaiting reincarnation, as resurrection was ‘merely’ a cloning of the present form, and so would duplicate all of its characteristics (though not inheriting any injuries or diseases that may have been present in a foreign original). Previously I had chosen Veronica Lake (from René Clair’s I Married A Witch), and originally I looked rather like Katharine Hepburn (Keeper Of The Flame), for that was very close to my ‘natural’ appearance, if such a term could ever be applied to those of us who have access to and use of the machinery of reincarnation.
It felt uncomfortable watching myself like a film running backwards, and there was no hint I had decided to base my next incarnation on Gail Russell (The Uninvited), but should there…?
* * * [discontinuity] * * *
‘!’ (pain) ‘?’ (bewilderment) ‘!’ (fear)
What the hell was that?
A tremendous series of intense emotional outbursts blurred my vision, and my stomach lurched as if the flight had suddenly hit an air-pocket, but my slumbering neighbour was undisturbed by my abrupt awakening. The disruption was purely internal: a combined mental and physical churning that told me so little, yet so very much, being as I am.
Someone, somewhere below and ahead of me, had entered this world with as much finesse as a contemporary policeman interrogating a rape victim; the accompanying feelings radiated passion and utter loss, amplified by a gut-wrenching despair that for a moment made me feel nauseous.
There was a short-lived but nevertheless extremely jagged hole, a literal rupture in the forces that bound together the possibilities through which I passed, and it was leaking raw emotions like a sieve. Energy was coursing along the lines of least resistance, which in this case thankfully meant most of it going straight to ground, rather than through the operator or the nearest powerpoint, but the turbulence! It was colossal, of a magnitude I had rarely encountered in my travels, and where I had the people using their power knew how to tame it to a tolerable and safe level, just as I had learned to do many years ago with mine, for though I was not as strong as they, I was far from weak in my own way.
The advertisement could wait: this intrusion warranted immediate investigation. There was the possibility I wasn’t the only one here to feel it, in which case two or more of us would be on hand to help whoever had arrived, but whatever the reason for their appearance they were in dire trouble, else their entry would have been considerably more controlled, and to all intents and purposes undetectable unless one were standing next to them when they arrived.
Isolated lights shone dimly below through a veil of cloud, so we were now above land, and somewhere (I couldn’t be more precise until I was actually down there) was someone who had hurled themselves out of one world and into this one (or been thrown, there was always that chance, which meant I would have to learn why, and if they posed a threat).
The sooner I got there, the better, but the entry point was only that. I would have to search until I encountered some form of commotion, or the person / people themselves, and they would be easy enough to recognise with my heightened senses. Some would call it intuition or a feeling, and in a way they would be correct, but it was a carefully nursed and enhanced ability to identify anything related to my own power, whether a traveller or their passage, or a powerpoint, and it was essential for the control of the forces I wielded otherwise they would rebound fatally, as they had almost done a few times during my initial training.
The first signs of approaching trouble were innocent enough even in retrospect, almost normal in that the beginning was something which occurred every few months, yet nothing forewarned them of what was to come until it became an inevitable, unalterable fact. Could prescience only be useful when applied to others and not oneself? Lucy had no answers, and doubted she would ever know.
How had it begun? Another travelling preacher arrived at the village and summoned its people to hear promises of ending their nameless and unvoiced fears, and freeing them from their alleged dependency on the Sect of which Lucy and her family were part, no matter they lived outside the village and took nothing from it, expected nothing of its inhabitants. The villagers had always seen knowledge of any kind as suspicious, potentially evil rather than merely bad, for it touched upon things they did not want to know and did not see as useful in their daily lives. Even when they needed someone to heal their sickness and ease their suffering, or sought reassurance their farming efforts were not in vain, they managed to convince themselves the answers came from elsewhere; this was true in ways they could not dare imagine, for everything they needed to know could be learned if they knew where to look, and could read the language.
Out for a morning ride as was their wont, Lucy and her brother were many miles beyond their home fields, enjoying the perfect weather, when they felt an urgent call from their mother even as they knew instinctively of the need to return. A sense of danger they had never before experienced made them dismiss their mounts after a few frantic miles and, having disrobed, draw upon the rarest and most secret, taxing form of power over which they had recently gained control, but even the two unnaturally large wolves that leaped over gates and hedges faster than a maddened horse arrived too late to do anything except witness the joyous destruction of their home and its irreplaceable contents.
Lucy and Leith passed the body of their maid (herself a local but of pariah status because she was born out of wedlock, as if that were somehow her fault) who had been hacked down like a rabid animal as she attempted to flee, and saw a few villagers roaming the undergrowth in their search for further quarry who would be slaughtered merely for associating with the house. Though the actions they contemplated went against all the teachings and doctrines instilled in them since they were capable of understanding, they were yet young, their senses and animal blood inflamed by the horrific acts performed against those under their protection. With minds almost as feral as the beasts whose shapes they wore, the children clawed razor-sharp furrows down the backs and chests of the people remaining outside, and knocked flaming brands into the hedges, but they could accomplish nothing except petty revenge that left them feeling shocked and weakened.
Fear was the expected reaction to their lupine arrival, and they made use of it to gain entry to what remained of their home, but that would not survive for very long. Pikes and swords had shattered the painted windows and scored the inlaid panels that decorated most of the walls; torches had fired the coloured tapestries and made ashes of the illuminated books of Lore, and flames ran like bright snakes of liquid across flagstones as oil spilled through the rooms, but still the invaders were not satisfied, and sought other ways to satiate their blood-lust.
Hunting the preacher who had led the purge vociferously, if not always physically, the children discovered him with half a dozen people in the main room; even as they tore at the yielding flesh before them they recognised their parents’ weak condition, and for the first time in their young lives experienced genuine distress. Nearly exhausted, with their arms around one another’s waists partly for physical support, partly for emotional, their mother and father stood with their backs to the low light from the flickering hearth, appearing as serene and proud as they had always been, even with the knowledge of their impending and inescapable death.
Left breathless and somewhat disorientated for a few moments by the loss of their wolf-shape and the re-assimilation of their own bodies from the field of life that surrounded them and absorbed the changes to their perception of self, the sudden transformation of brother and sister also stunned the invaders, startling two to quickly muttered oaths and an equally speedy retreat. The majority remained, though casting looks at one another as if anxious about the shifting balance of power, despite the siblings being naked and unarmed, then a line of swarthy farmers clad in stained leather strode into the room, and cranked up their crossbows.
The archers were as supremely confident of their success as everyone else, for none of the frenzied villagers had thus far met with any form of resistance, and this was seen as evidence of the preacher’s assertions that the Witches were ultimately powerless when faced with the truth he professed to represent, but as two of the quarrels sped towards the waiting man and woman each waved their free arm in an apparently careless gesture and the bolts curved from their targets to strike the stone surrounding the fireplace, thence to fall with a clatter that sounded unnaturally loud in the ensuing silence.
Three more quarrels behaved in a similar manner, though passing much nearer their intended victims, and then, before Lucy or Leith could defend against it or even fully recognise what was happening, they felt a blast of power of which they had no previous experience throw them through the tenuous space that touched upon all things yet which could not be seen or felt. Immediately following their bumpy arrival in the stable were apologies for the trick against which they had no protection, love of their children and of the lives they had so far led, and regrets for all that had not come to pass, as the parents knew they had insufficient power remaining to transport themselves to safety in a like manner.
Their home erupted in a colossal gout of flame as earth-power was voluntarily unleashed from its hosts, wreaking havoc in its uncontrolled escape from the bodies of their mother and father, and aided by the ignition of barrels of oil and chemicals stored in the cellar which obeyed the wish sent to them to behave in their volatile fashion. The conflagration that embraced their parents was not the fire of perpetual torment threatened by the preacher to terrify all those who doubted his words, but rather it held the promise of endless change and transformation. For all the men inside, the blaze which rushed to engulf them signified the flames of everlasting persecution and torture in which they believed, and whilst they still possessed voices with which to shout their agony and descent into the hell to which they were so ready to consign others who doubted them, they screamed their denial.
Bewilderment at their passage through the nether void surged through the two children as they lay listening to the sounds of destruction, and the remaining villagers outside raising protest at the tremendous and unexpected upheaval. The spectacular means of travel had been withheld from them until their rites of adulthood at sixteen, which was nearly two years away; they felt utterly desolated, almost betrayed by their parents’ decision, but they were alive, and would survive, of that they were determined.
Weakened by tragedy and loss and their recent wearing of another shape, they rummaged for whatever clothing was lying nearby, and even half-dressed succeeded in mounting familiar horses made nervous by prowling strangers and the smell of fire, before riding from the ruins of their only home. Heavy emotions accompanied their departure, and guilt at their unrehearsed, impetuous return, which accomplished absolutely nothing and had been partly responsible for their parents’ inability to save themselves. There was nothing do to but escape the region and start anew elsewhere by raising a family to continue the traditions of knowledge, experiment, invention, and discovery. Their mounts ran down a few people, but they took notice only of those capable of preventing their departure, and sent panic into the other horses to make them bolt or throw their riders and so hinder attempts at pursuit.
Later that day they discovered to their horror the destruction of their home was part of a widespread routing whose execution had been carefully arranged, as if all the preachers had agreed on a time to act so that one Witch could not come to the aid of any other, for they met signs of a similar purge at the next village where they had hoped to find sanctuary and time in which to fully absorb the implications of their sudden orphaning. Rather, they were greeted by flickering brands and primed crossbows, and the sight of joyful villagers wrecking what little remained of the Master’s house, its owner and his family having been burned within to the sound of cheering and ecstatic laughter.
Leith received his wound then as fury overcame his caution, for as he felt the power rise uncontrollably within him he blasted one of the nearest people to the charred ground so the two were indistinguishable, but as if to counter the unlawful act a man hidden in the bushes loosed a feathered shaft of dark wood that pierced his back high and to one side. Lucy screamed at the shared pain, knowing how near his spine the arrow had entered and fearful for the damage it could inflict, how it might paralyse him.
Awakened to their presence, the locals pursued them eagerly, sending news of two survivors to neighbouring settlements and beginning the long chase, confident in their blood-lust and urged by promises that seemed to become truth with each passing murder. Sister and brother knew the countryside well from their journeying both as humans and the wolf-guise they sometimes adopted for amusement or secrecy; their senses were in any case perfectly attuned to the meadows and woods through which they passed, so most of the travelling was accomplished without much thought, which gave them time to attend to far more important things.
They were unable to stop for even a few desperate minutes, which gave Lucy no choice but to tend to her sibling’s wound as best she could whilst they remained mounted. Leith guided their horses by wishing upon them as his sister reached out with her mind, imagining she was using her hands to withdraw the bolt and shape the disrupted flow of energy around the injury, joining the flesh but doubtful of keeping it closed merely by placing a will rather than stitching the skin as if it were fabric. Their immature skills and the clothes they wore were their only possessions as they continued beyond the known country, their horses kept running as much by the power of their riders as by their own fear and awareness of pursuit.
By morning of the next day they were totally lost, relying on their steadily weakening senses to inform them of their surroundings, but fields and trees soon began to look the same and there was no feeling of a nearby shrine that might have afforded them some respite. They managed to rest for an hour in the afternoon and create some form of bandaging, as well as collect healthy leaves and moss with which to appease their hunger, but they were soon alerted to the probability of discovery and had to depart without having had a proper meal.
An ambush they had not been able to feel or foresee caught them at late evening in the middle of a clearing, and the dense undergrowth left them little chance of escape even on the reasonably fresh horses they had stolen from the last of the villages around which they had skirted, reluctantly leaving their own, but the animals were close to exhaustion and would have died soon, which was not fair.
Rising desperation mixed with no small amount of fear made Lucy despise the sheer ignorance and bigoted intolerance of their attackers even as a quarrel thudded into her thigh and sent sweat coursing along her back. She howled as her brother shouted at the impact and strained his own wound, and the heat that flushed her body was so intense she thought for a moment she had died and passed from the world entirely, but the pain she experienced was terribly real, and she grew afraid of the manner of her death at the hands of a crazed mob, who would most likely tear her apart.
Knowledge that such a thing was possible, as had so recently been demonstrated, but not the means to accomplish the feat their parents used to save them, joined with half-remembered childhood tales of travel to other worlds; the stories were always told as accounts rather than fables, and did not refer to different levels of awareness as encountered during trances but physical environments much like their own home. The last remnants of power swelled within Lucy’s numbed mind and injured body, and though she had no rituals from which to draw succour and form an anchor for her desires, or images to help focus her feelings, still she had the energy within herself, and it streamed forth.
The blind and all but hopeless, undirected calling merged with her scream, summoning spirits from the wild-wood depths to caress her with a tingling warmth before lifting her like a bird soaring above the trees so far, far below. Leith’s eyes widened as he recognised how awry things truly were, but he was swept from her side even before he could cry in horror at the desperate act, and as the worldwinds sent branches and leaves through the charged air to cast her from the forest as easily as if she were but a twig herself, she knew beyond doubt the total failure of her last wish.
She was drifting like a wraith of smoke: a rudderless ship caught in a whirlpool; a tail-less bird buffeted in a storm. Desolated, lost, afraid: a lonely, battered thing.
I already had the appropriate driving licence amongst the papers I carried, so there was no difficulty in renting a car, but I had a fair distance to travel and needed something both fast and belonging to this world, else I might have slipped away and found a place where I could have hired a skimmer or flyer that would transport me at high speed. Indeed, had I merely an appointment here, I would have done precisely that, arriving at the co-incident destination in that other place and stepping back into this world after looking ahead and ensuring my arrival remained unnoticed. The current situation prevented me from doing this, though, for I needed to search within a broad area and use my senses to direct me to a specific location.
With my small suitcase in the back of the open-topped sports-car I headed west as fast as I could along motorways that did not seem to have speed restrictions: would they be introduced later? or not at all? There was no way of knowing, only making an informed judgement based on the experience of similar parallels, but it was of no concern to me at the moment even though I was edging ninety mph a lot of the time.
I remembered my dream and the course it had taken, though I had no conscious desire to do so, for I felt more than mildly uneasy about it, as I had never before experienced visions like that. The odd thing was, I thought them to be more than just intimately related memories of my past, but the feeling itself was as inexplicable as the occurrence of the images to which it referred.
There was no doubt that in the minds of many people my resurrections and reincarnations would seem not only sickening, but also against what they thought of as the laws of nature, promoting narcissism and denying one’s inevitable mortality. It was not, however, an ‘unholy’ achievement made possible by the use of ‘satanic’ devices (abstract religious concepts such as god and the complementary devil always seemed to feature in the arguments, even when hypothetical), and as far as I was concerned, life was for living and enjoying, not suffering, for no matter how artificially prolonged it might be it was still a short time in which to experience and appreciate only a fraction of the wonders of creation.
Had there been any form of deep-rooted psychological revulsion at the methods I used, it would have surfaced long ago. In fact, it would have been impossible for me to have undergone the first transference at all had I rejected any of the principles involved, so that line of reasoning was easily dismissed, as was any possibility of my feeling at all guilty that I had access to something denied so many others who might be thought of as more worthy recipients of an extended lifetime. Though the skill I possessed which enabled me to travel through the alternatives was rare enough, I had successfully shared it with people who previously knew nothing of such things, and so was in no way limited by what I was, as once I had been, when much younger.
I had to slow down after two hours because I had run out of motorway, but could still manage forty to fifty mph, for the wide road was fairly empty as it gouged its way through the slowly urbanised countryside in a straight line; later it would disappear completely and I would have to venture along typical winding country roads, but by then I would be much nearer my goal.
The radio offered little in the way of entertainment, and the Bach on the Third Programme was the only thing worth listening to, though it was a bit light for my tastes. I could probably have tuned into one of the pirate stations, but with a few exceptions I did not like current pop music (though I had learned to appreciate everything from the rich emotion of grand opera to the dynamic energy of heavy metal), and was almost fed up with the predominance given to certain groups. The more I heard of them, the more I thought some people’s over-reaction against them was exceeded only by the over-rated praise they received from the fans who betrayed them at the first signs of change or progress.
Soon bored with the music rather than the countryside (which I always found a delight, no matter where I was), I began to tap out a rhythm on the steering wheel with my fingers in such a way that the rings I wore sometimes clicked in different patterns.
Of the many I had worn for usually decorative reasons, I kept only these: on my left, two slim bands, one of platinum, the other 22ct red gold, that were the legacies of my two husbands (both of whom shared my travels with me, as did our children, though they did not know it, for I easily created effects that might be interpreted as time-slips where someone travels back to a previous age for a while); and on the middle finger resided a plain 9ct gold friendship-ring whose single diamond weighing a mere fifty points, but its worth was immeasurable, and a physical reminder (as if I really needed any such thing) of the first and so far only woman with whom I shared an intimate relationship.
My right hand bore a single jewel in the mouth of a titanium snake whose tail curled around my finger and back into its own mouth beneath the glittering stone. Ouroboros held more than a gaudy ornament, for it contained billions of pieces of information stored in chromatic patterns that reflected endlessly within their optical prison, ready to shine form the snake’s mouth when placed in a reader.
I don’t know when I had last visited this part of England, though there was very little of interest to me (except historically, and I had seen Salisbury, Glastonbury, Tintagel, Stonehenge, and the other common monuments dozens of times already, though not always in the same world), so I skirted the towns and thought vaguely of the impressions gained by so-called psychometrists within the area that was so densely populated with genuine relics and barrows, and ‘sightings’ of dubious origins and intent.
I knew of people who could empathise with emotions from one person’s body and project them into someone else’s, as I had been both patient and recipient to such exercises, and true healers were as commonplace as diviners in more than a few places. Of the many things I had seen on my travels, a great deal that was accepted as usual in one world was thought of as impossible in another, but there were always a few people willing to take everything to an idiotic extreme, and I still had great doubts about the validity of psychometry when applied to inanimate objects that were supposed to act as some form of sensory recorders.
Be that as it may, there was no denying how much of interest lay in this part of the country, barring the destruction of almost half of it by the numerous war-gaming ranges that dominated the area.
There were quite a few hours between my arrival and that of the person or persons I was seeking, and I knew the disruption would have subsided many hours ago, thereby making it almost impossible to find their exact point of entry; I also knew I was already fairly near, for I could sense part of the problem was only a few miles ahead. What I felt was akin to touching something through a sticky web that baffled the tactile senses by providing too much information for the brain to easily order and interpret, but finding my way through the web was all part of the training I had undergone many years ago, and my task was made easier by the sheer intensity of the emotions, which still existed as a form of shock-wave.
I checked on one of the Ordnance Survey maps I had purchased at the last village through which I passed, and took the next turning off from the main road, heading not towards where I now knew the feelings to be originating, but around it so I could get another rough bearing. Triangulation was always possible in such cases, though only to a few square miles; I would have to rely on what manifested as instinct for a more detailed search once I was within the area, but it, too, had been honed, and never let me down.
Noon came and went before I was certain of where my destination lay. It was one of two villages lying a few miles south of Magna Beacon, in a direct line from Salisbury and the main escarpment on my left. Nadderbridge, which was no more than an accumulation of farmsteads on either side of the river after which it was named, was the nearest of the two, and as I drove through it I knew that what I sought was only a mile or so ahead of me.
I could sense something within Nether Aston: power, certainly, but also an unnerving, cloying, almost desperate pain and loss. The emotions had been linked to and so reinforced by the energy used in the traveller’s passage, as if they had recently been in contact with a powerpoint, but there was none nearby. That they were here of their own volition and not the victim of someone else’s sending I now had no doubt, but was beginning to feel the need for caution as well as the desire to help their obvious plight. The point of entry was probably less than a mile away as I drove into the fairly large village, avoiding the modern outskirts to the north, and parked just off from a pleasant clearing, walking back to where the map informed me was an inn on the western road.
Bird-song and a sore throat awoke her in the early morning, and she stirred on the chill floor, moving limbs seemingly infested by fatigue and coldness. Three of her fingers were white and almost numb, but her heart-beat was regular if somewhat shallow at times, and she knew she had absorbed as much of the shrine’s power as was available to her without actively drawing from it: that required an expenditure of energy she could not afford. Nothing was free; all was give and take: a balance.
She stumbled in the direction she knew to be right and found a little water, stale but still reviving, in a niche set in the wall at the far end of the building, near the main doors of dark wood and old metal hinges shaped like stylised flower petals, or cruelly barbed pikes. There was certain craft here, but the existence of the strange stone edifice above the shrine gave her cause for concern, though it was impossible to smother its energies or effects. No one could do that.
Leith, where are you?
There was no answer to her call, no feelings received, nothing. All she could feel was pain, and it was hers alone. She mourned her parents, possibly her brother, her home, her heritage, and the knowledge she had never learned, but a different pain intruded into her awareness, and she knew what had to be done.
Lucy tore the blood-soaked cloth, moaned as congealed blood pulled at dead skin and the newer flesh beneath, gritted her teeth and, knowing the quarrel to be free from barbs, tugged it loose and heard her elongated scream echo from the indifferent stonework. She cut that leg of her trousers into strips and bound them as tightly as she could, passed her hands slowly around the wound, and felt the irregular contours of her own life-energy respond sluggishly to her ministrations. The leg twitched in response to a surge of power she had not intended, for she was more concerned with preventing infection than actually beginning the process of healing, but perhaps all her efforts were in vain, for she knew the pitiful state of her own body and that she would die in two or three days unless tended soon, or taken to a stronger site.
It would be so easy to call a bird or wild animal to her side and devour it to help rid her hunger, but use of her skills for such a purpose was abhorrent even in her dire need, and would reduce her to the level of her lost pursuers who were more base than any of the animals they so readily classified as evil, as if life in all its inter-dependent complexity could be reduced to such simplistic divisions. Humans were also animals who hunted and fed on other animals: did following their instinct for survival make them bad? Cruelty and torture were choices directed by a conscience or its lack: that was the true evil.
She retraced her stumbling passage of the previous night and left the building before momentarily succumbing to the red haze that lowered itself in front of her bleary vision, and slipping to the earth. She chewed some grass and felt like retching, managed to contain her trembling, but desperately needed food of a different kind.
Rabbits, pigeons, crows, foxes, blackbirds, badgers, sparrows, squirrels, local domesticated fowl: she was aware of them all, many more besides including a few species she had never before encountered, and she cried at how near they were to her, yet how far.
There was only one alternative to ease her plight and her conscience. She watched, did not wish for or summon any living thing, but waited, saw a pigeon alight on a gravestone only a few paces away after less than ten minutes, and killed it cleanly with a searing blast that left her unconscious for a few seconds, even though she absorbed most of its freed life-energy.
Raw meat was normally no problem for her to digest, for she was able to control her body extremely well, and it was the usual thing to do when wearing her wolf-guise, but it would be dangerous, possibly even fatal, to attempt such a thing now. After collecting the bird, she rummaged for fallen leaves, twigs, flock, anything with which to fuel a fire, resisting dizziness and nausea all the while.
The village was slowly but inexorably awakening and beginning its alien way of life around her, but the building to which she returned also seemed to be a sanctuary of some kind to these people, so perhaps she would be safe for a while. And if not?
She shuddered at the prospect, began plucking the bird, drank its meagre supply of blood, and gutted it with movements that were almost autonomous, but made erratic by exhaustion. Too weakened to attempt using sticks, without a tinderbox, drained by lack of energy, she was caught in a spiral of indecision for a few moments but broke out of it, her senses reeling as a flame leaped from her fingertips and ignited the twigs she had placed midway along the central aisle. Soon, though, the small amount she had gathered would be depleted, presenting her with another dilemma.
Surrounded by many possible sources, she would not consider using any of the books she saw stacked on a table, or the ornate cloths draped over the altars and hanging from masts on either side of a dark statue of a man flanked by a long list of, presumably, names. The wooden benches were too old and solid for her blade to shave even had she the strength to do so, and then, under the seats, she saw cushions whose covers were woven into crude symmetrical patterns: they were her only choice, and they could at least be replaced in a few days by weavers.
Coughing on acrid smoke as dust and wool from the cushions smouldered and stung her eyes, Lucy cursed her expectations of straw or wood-shavings and hurled the smoking fabric away in disgust. She stood up again, swaying, and grasped the benches, anything that might provide a means of support, moving slowly in search of another source of fuel. Near the books she discovered three piles of folded papers with differing contents; one had a plan of the building in which she had taken refuge, but there was no indication of the shrine or the paths of power leading to other sanctuaries, and she marvelled at the incredible regularity of the writing she could not identify, even while she knew it was to be expected as she was, after all, in another world.
Guilty at the destruction, she left two of each kind on the table so that further copies could be made by scribes, and even knowing they would soon be spent used them to feed her fire, then she managed to make her way to the main altar where she took its candles and returned to the aisle. She cut them in half lengthways and crosswise into four sections which she placed in a square, lighting the exposed wicks but knowing they would not provide even a fraction of the heat necessary to cook the bird, so as with the paper she had no alternative but to direct them to burn at a slower rate than was normal for their kind.
Sunlight cast iridescent splotches around her as it shone in through the windows, almost causing the pictures to glow as if radiating some form of consolation; beams lit a myriad grains of dust suspended in the calm air. She felt almost relaxed in the peaceful atmosphere, yet the very tranquillity was disturbing: it was like a burial vault, a place for the stillness of death, not the movement of life and ever-present change.
A sound from the end of the building startled her, and she nearly lost her balance as she whirled around to face the intruder, losing control of the fire, which suddenly consumed all of her precious fuel. She had not felt the man’s life-energy, and even this close to him found it difficult to do so: his approach and arrival had been totally unheralded. Shock froze them as they regarded one another, he at the sight she knew she presented, she at all the doubts she had managed not to think about relating to the inhabitants.
She saw a man whose balding head was rotund, like his body; he wore a fairly loose black frock with a narrow but stiff, white collar. Circles of curved glass in frames of wire bridged his nose so they rested in front of his eyes: what were they for? Wait, her sluggish thoughts began to arouse themselves, she had seen pictures and read descriptions of such magnifying glasses, so perhaps they were placed to help his ailing sight as the books had said was done a long time ago, before the skill for making lenses was lost.
He was as surprised as she, if not more so. Perhaps he was in charge of the foreign shrine, but if such was the case, why had he not been there to attend the passing of the Midnight hour, and to greet the new day? No, she decided, reluctantly, but with growing certainty: whoever he was and whatever he represented, they shared nothing, least of all their beliefs.
The man gasped loudly, barely managed to restrain himself from action of an aggressive nature, shouted at her to vent his considerable anger, then strode resolutely forward. He grimaced in revulsion at the carnage that lay before her, slowed as he became fully aware of the extent of her injuries, stared at the bloody quarrel, then spoke with a rising accent to his incomprehensible words that might have suggested an inquiry or the beginnings of concern.
Lucy shook her head, and could not help but moan as dizziness pulsed across her mind. When awareness returned, he was kneeling by her side, looking at the ashes and pigeon with his lips twisted in loathing, and wrinkling his nose at what he could smell of her; he touched her leg in a tentative motion and she hissed, both in pain and as a warning. She was ready to blast him should he become hostile, even knowing she would then be so exhausted as to be unable to kill herself in a like manner should she have to use that final method to escape from any frenzied mob that might arrive, but he stood up with a sudden, decisive movement, and all but ran from her, leaving the doors open to allow the clear light of morning to spill across the tiled floor.
He returned a few minutes later accompanied by two others who were dressed in dull, almost sombre, uninteresting shades of a fairly coarse weave. One, the tallest, carried with him a brown bag with rigid sides, whilst his companion’s mien seemed no different from any of the men who had so recently sought her death, and perhaps might do so again in this foreign world of which she knew nothing.
All expressed surprise, and conversed amongst themselves for a moment, then the tallest man approached her cautiously, as if he were the one afraid of being attacked, and moved to her crudely bandaged leg, probing gently with his fingers. He shook his head and spoke to her with urgency, turned and exchanged a few sentences with his colleagues, watched the man in black depart upon some errand, and gestured to the remaining to help lift her onto one of the benches.
Presumably this careful, so-far-gentle person, was a Healer of some kind, but he carried no herbs that induced sleep or calm, and helped banish pain; neither did he have the necessary aura about his person, so how would he transmit his desires? She already knew how vastly different were the things in this place, so perhaps their methods of treating ailments were also different, but if he was a Healer, how could he be so unaware of his Craft as to actually touch her flesh to determine the hurt? rather than simply feel how twisted were the contours of her spiritual self.
At least the men’s first thoughts had been to her well-being, regardless of the fact they could not understand anything she might say, and she allowed herself the beginning of a little hope, both for herself and her brother, who was in more want of attention than herself, but totally beyond her reach until she had recovered.
Perhaps feeling a little secure in the knowledge she was being tended, and certainly because she knew she needed it, Lucy relaxed slightly and rested her head against the seat of the bench upon which she lay, her weakened senses as constantly alert as she could allow them to be. There was a short, unhurried exchange of words between the two remaining men that she judged by the tone of their voices to be a discussion rather than disagreement, then they approached her and made their intentions clear by means of self-conscious movements with their hands once it was apparent she did not understand their speech.
Lucy did not protest their immediate objectives, which were plainly for her own welfare, and allowed herself to be lifted from the bench, for the shrine would be of little use to her again: she needed a far stronger source from which to draw the energy she would need to restore most of her power, and so fully heal herself. The third man carried her by the shoulders, the may-have-been Healer held her legs and walked backwards so he could watch her condition during their progress, but throughout the short journey out of the bleak stone edifice and across a small clearing that contained a pond whose waters were almost stagnant, she was only too aware of the attention cast her way from the few villagers abroad, whose attitude of indifference was more unsettling than any overt hostility.
She was conveyed to a low house that seemed quite pretty, with the door, surrounded by a trellis supporting ivy, being opened from within by an old woman who was expecting them, probably having been alerted by the man in black. No, Lucy looked at the face staring down at her, the woman was not old, forty-three in a few months; but, though that was old to her, she suddenly realised that in relation to everyone around her such an age was merely part of their middle years. As she studied those around her she discovered the man in black was a year past fifty, the Healer a handful of years his junior, and the other was in his late thirties, but not very distant was a woman who had seen over eighty summers: twice the age to which Lucy expected to live.
The oldest person she had known was a man of forty-six, called a warlock by some, though he was not and had never been, in fact could not be due to his general insensitivity to all things natural; he was far from ignorant, though, and had died before his next year was due, thus satisfying everyone’s expectations. The longevity of the villagers around her seemed entirely natural, which gave her a small measure of comfort as it meant they were not all in possession of a skill of she was unaware, but what else could they be capable of?
Lucy was taken to a room at the front of the house which contained overly-large, soft chairs of a type she had never seen or even envisaged, dark wooden furniture of simple but sturdy design with floral motifs on the handles and claws for the feet, and an atmosphere of rustic charm that she found initially reassuring, as it told her of stability and a life that was accepted as normal here. The woman was wife to the man in black, and she departed quickly to follow a series of quietly spoken requests from the Healer, who commanded that Lucy be put on a wide couch so her wounded leg lay along the edge, then with a few friendly words and a smile he dismissed the man who had helped carry her.
Apparently heedless of any adverse reaction she might have shown to his ministrations, he carefully unbound the strips of cloth and took fresh towels from the woman who had returned, also carrying a small metal basin of water that she placed on the floor. He cleansed the wound and evidently wanted to examine more of her body, but that was one thing she would not allow, and as he tried to undress her further, she struggled, though less than she might have done had her need been greater, for she did not want to hurt him, and with great reluctance he submitted as he realised her protests would only weaken her further. Reaching out behind himself, the Healer realised what he needed was missing, and spoke to the man in black, who left the room in a manner which still informed her of his animosity towards her; he returned a minute or so later with the Healer’s bag, which had been left behind during their short journey, and placed it with easy reach.
A glass of water was brought for her, and as she drank it could not help but notice how different it was from the water she was accustomed to at home; it seemed thicker in texture, which was not possible, though it was definitely flat in taste and lacking so many elements, yet had others that should not have been present.
The two men tried to converse with her again, pronouncing their words carefully, sometimes unsure of what they wanted to say, but that aspect of her situation was apparently hopeless; she spoke of her home for a while, becoming almost lost in melancholy before realising how futile were her efforts at communication, then she saw light reflecting from something in the Healer’s hand, lashed out at with her mind as well has the edge of her hand at a tube of glass with what seemed like a needle at one end, and collapsed in a faint caused as much by sudden fear as weakness.
Only two or three seconds had passed when she awoke to find the men collecting the pieces of shattered material that was not, after all, glass, and she licked a small cut on her hand as she lay back on the couch. She watched them carefully, but judging by their reactions they seemed surprised the device had been broken, and were now as wary of her as she was of them.
Her breathing quickened suddenly and she gasped, barely managing to control her racing heart as they stood undecided, totally oblivious to her body’s requirements, which might bode well if it meant they were not aware of the buried shrine and what it represented, but one need was at least to be partially met, for the woman entered bearing a plate of bread, cheese, and a few thin slices of cooked meat.
Lucy nodded, murmured a short blessing in the only way she could convey thanks, and felt a little guilty at her recent outburst, for the men had in all probability not wanted to harm her at this late stage, but she, too, was ignorant of so many things. She devoured the meal, using the small knife but leaving the other utensil which had three short spikes laid side by side like miniature spears: perhaps that was its function, but she had no need of it, and with a few quiet words thanked them again for the food.
Exhaustion finally overtook her, and she spent the next hours slipping in and out of consciousness a dozen or more times, wracked by the images, sounds, and smells of death, destruction, and pursuit, only returning to a sudden awareness of her present situation as soon as it was clear anyone was approaching, but one of the men remained in the room at a cautious distance throughout her drowsing, and they seemed to have agreed to allow her to remain as she was for the present. Perhaps they were simply undecided what to do with her, in which case there was nothing she could do except await the outcome, and try to maintain some form of control over her ultimate fate.
The arrival within the first hour of her broken slumber of a man dressed in stiff dark blue clothes with silver adornments, and a funny conical hat held by a strap under his chin, presented her with no immediate concerns, for he remained in the doorway and seemed to defer to the Healer even though he radiated a sense of authority, and it was not until noon had passed did she feel the faint and faraway presence of something she had never before encountered. It approached rapidly along the ground far faster than the wildest horse or transformed animal, and became quickly discernible as a node of intense power residing within a single woman.
That such an unknown form of energy should be controlled to a depth she had never thought possible, yet be at odds with all that she knew, gave her both hope and cause for anxiety. Was it a true Witch on her way to help? or did this world, also, house renegades who would defend what they considered to be their territory? no matter that, contrary to all the written civil laws that set neighbour against neighbour and created mean, wealthy owners, none could possess the land? They might as well try and claim possession of the sea or air, or people’s thoughts.
Lucy was puzzled by the woman’s partial circling of the area before heading directly for the village in which she lay, and began to wonder precisely what was the power borne by the native Witch. She at first assumed it to be the equivalent of her own, but neither saw nor felt anything related to her immature skills, or received an answer to her admittedly feeble sending. What was this woman, if not one of her own kind? As if to scorn her needs, the Witch, for Lucy could not think of her as anything else, passed her and remained in a nearby building for over half an hour before seeking admittance to the cottage, the Healer leaving the room to meet and converse with her, and presumably enquire of her intentions.
Now that the woman was only a few feet away, Lucy was able to recognise how different to her expectations she was. Power she had, certainly, and its colossal presence was an inherent part of her very being, tamed to such a degree that she barely needed to think about its existence to make use of it; but what, exactly, was it? Lucy did not understand at all, even though she could feel so much, for there were none of the signs that bespoke of someone such as herself. She was well versed in natural laws and Lore, which the villagers at home called mystic as they refused to be educated otherwise, but the woman’s knowledge of self and her capabilities was worn about her like a mantle of royalty, though she did not and had never considered herself such, and did not make use of her skills to set herself as a ruler or guide of any kind. The Witch was utterly anonymous, and wished to remain that way.
Lucy knew she had barely sufficient strength to walk from the room, and fell to the floor as she tried to leave the couch, then the two men rushed in at the sound of her struggle, with the Witch close behind. Very tall she was, of a height with the Healer, wearing mostly white to complement her long, lustrous black hair; her movements were self-assured yet wary, confident in her own strength but cautious of the unknown, and her face was as composed and serene as that of the local Witch above the shrine in the stone building. Gods, was it possible? Lucy doubted her own senses for a few seconds before they confirmed her initial appraisal: the woman was over one and a half centuries old.
Having passed one of the numerous Tan Hills a mile or so back, it came as no surprise to discover the main public house in the centre of the old part of the village was called Beltane Fires; it was a pleasing enough structure, if a little on the low side (that was one thing I didn’t share with Yvonne De Carlo, I was five feet nine inches tall, as were all of my previous incarnations, for it was close to my original height and this was something I wanted to maintain), and parts of it were relatively ancient as many beams and posts had been taken from local barns that pre-dated the majority of homes. The inn was welcoming and did not yet possess any of the jukeboxes that were to appear in the coming years and make it impossible for locals and visitors alike to find somewhere to sit and have a quiet drink and a meal, or a lazy talk about nothing in particular. At the moment I needed all three, for I had not eaten since having the meal served on board the VC10, but food, like sleep, was something I could go without for some time if necessary, though my body would pay for it later.
After greetings had been exchanged, and a pleasant comment passed on the weather and where I was driving to, I ordered a glass of water, a vodka and lemonade, and some sandwiches filled with cheese and a pickle that wasn’t too tangy. I remained at the bar, eating and drinking slowly, and listening discreetly to everything I could, but I gleaned nothing of any relevance, only attracted occasional glances from the villagers. I knew they saw me as a solitary tourist with rich looks, but there are many forms of glancing appraisal, and none of these were openly hostile to my presence as they might have been.
I was far from disappointed in my search, however, for the skills I possessed that had enabled me to arrive in the village in search of the traveller now informed me they were less than fifty or sixty yards away to the south-west, and I knew they were from an alternative far beyond the limits of my personal knowledge. Then, as if someone were busily (albeit unnecessarily) erecting signposts of glowing neon for me to follow as, having paid for the meal and been wished a good journey, I moved towards the door, I heard in quick succession: “…absolutely unheard of…damned hippies…foreigners can’t even speak a word of English…” and most importantly: “…she’s been at the vicarage since they found her…” I was glad I had found them, yet cautious as I stepped from the inn, walking with slow, deliberate steps.
Over there, past a pond (somewhat stagnant water at one end of its broad ellipse, railings with layers of black paint surrounding most of it, the tattered remains of a nest beside an overflow pipe), and a cottage whose only means of support seemed to be the extensive growth of vines on its ancient walls.
I knocked on the front door of the vicarage, which after a delay of no more than a few seconds was opened by a middle-aged, rather plain woman with an expression on her face that changed from polite neutrality to protective concern as I enquired after the vicar, and tried to prevent myself from visibly shuddering as I fully recognised the power emanating from the girl, who was now only a few feet away.
That I could not see the vicar was instantly apparent, so I steeled myself for the blatant lie, mentioned in passing that I happened to know the girl, and watched as she started in surprise before inviting me to wait for a moment while she called her husband. He seemed to be a fundamentally genial person when he answered her summons, but rather strained as a result of whatever he had recently been through, and reminded me of a caricatured Friar Tuck.
Tension caused him to appear somewhat abrupt in his manner, both to his wife as he thanked her before she departed to the rear of the house, and to me as he regarded me with an inquisitive look in his smallish eyes, but as soon as I spoke of the girl I was ushered inside. He speedily introduced me to another man wearing bland tweeds who entered the passageway, Doctor Anthony (my heart almost skipped a beat: he was just like Robert Taylor at the beginning and end of the M.G.M. re-make of Waterloo Bridge), who was looking after the girl as best she would allow him, considering how unresponsive she had been since her discovery in the church.
“Do you know her? are you responsible for her?” Driscoll was very firm. “Because if you’re not, the last thing we need right now is someone meddling in what’s already a very distressing affair. You would not believe what has happened!”
This was going to be a trifle awkward as they were quite agitated and more than a little annoyed at whatever the girl had or had not done, but I refused to tell them anything other than the truth (though certainly not all of it, for their sakes as well as mine, as I’ll never forget the mistakes I have made regarding my power; it’s a heavy burden of trust to bear, both for me and anyone I reveal it to).
“No, I don’t know her personally, and neither do I know exactly where she’s from, but I do know of her, how she arrived, and why she’s upset. How is she?” I could still feel her pain, but needed a reliable opinion of her physical condition.
Anthony was extremely worried, and did not attempt to hide his concern from me, no matter I was a stranger, “She must be in terrible pain, what with the wound she’s taken, and she’s close to fainting with exhaustion, but is watching us like a hawk. She allowed me to dress the wound as best I could, but wouldn’t let me give her anything, and I’ve had no chance to slip her a sedative. She really needs to get to a hospital, but what with all the strikes… I’ve done my best,” he was almost apologetic. “Can you believe it? someone actually shot her with a crossbow! What sort of barbaric person would do that?”
The vicar was angry, for reasons I did not as yet know, “If it weren’t for her condition, I would have had her removed by now. Her behaviour has been totally inexcusable; I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it in my entire life.”
I didn’t need to feign the tone of sympathy in my voice, “I don’t know what she did, but whatever happened was likely due to ignorance on her part. Doctor, you said she had been sho…”
Driscoll interrupted, “Young woman, are you trying to tell me that this girl has no knowledge of how to behave in a Christian church? I doubt if even the youngsters of today would dream of such a thing: it’s monstrous.”
In all probability she had never seen a church before or even knew what it represented, let alone been inside one, but I could hardly tell him that at the moment, and even if I had he would have been unable to believe it.
“Please trust me,” I said, “I’m here to help. You, as well as the girl. I must speak to her, find out where she’s from, take her back if she wants me to, and most importantly find out what she’s capable of.”
“We’ve already witnessed what she’s done, do you wish me to show you the bestial horror she left in my church? As for talking to her, do you really think we haven’t tried?” his tone veered rapidly towards sarcasm. “Now, I suggest you leave immediately, or would you rather I had Constable Paterson remove you? He’s itching to do something, and only relented at the Doctor’s insistence.”
Anthony managed a wan smile as he regarded me, “I’m sorry if we appear a little rough, but the morning has been a tremendous strain for us all. I really think you had better go, unless you happen to know any Romany? It’s about all we can think of; the others failed: French, German, bits of Latin and Greek, and when she tried to talk earlier on we couldn’t recognise any of the words.”
I doubted whether the half-dozen or so languages from a few worlds in which I was fully conversant would be of any use, either, but shook my head, “I’m afraid I can’t leave, not now.”
His curiosity was aroused, “You seem to be very worried all of a sudden. Do you know something about her that we don’t?”
“A little, yes, and I’ll be able to talk to her, I promise. I shall be using pictures rather than words, that’s all, because I know the ones which will convey the concepts I want to put across to her.”
“We didn’t think of that,” Anthony was pleased, though at the chance of learning something and so solving the situation rather than proving my value to them. “It’s certainly worth a try, but only if I think she’s up to it.”
“Once she sees what I’m doing, she will be as eager as we, I can assure you. She needs answers, and wants to understand, because she’s so terribly lost.”
“That may be so, but…” Driscoll did not enquire how I knew these things, though the doctor gave me a curious look as if he would have asked it of me, but the vicar was interrupted.
A thump and a low moan came from the room behind Anthony, and the three of us rushed inside; the doctor helped a young woman (no, girl, she couldn’t be more than sixteen or seventeen) back onto a settee of drab but somehow reassuring colour, where he checked a large bandage around her thigh that was beginning to show signs of leaking blood. She was in a mess, that much was apparent at a glance, but beneath the dirty clothes and evidence of no few wounds was someone both proud and powerful, determined of manner, and perhaps even more resourceful than she realised herself. As she turned to look up at me, alert, wary, exhausted, perhaps even partially demented after what I now knew to be her unaccustomed flight through the worlds, I couldn’t help thinking of Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, which wasn’t a particularly promising comparison.
“Are you all right, young woman?” Anthony’s words seemed distant for a moment or two, then I realised he was addressing me.
“Yes, thank you. Why do you ask?”
“You’re very ashen of a sudden. You don’t feel at all faint?”
“It was a reaction to seeing the girl, that’s all.”
“Why, do you recognise her?” Driscoll wanted to know.
“No, but I know what she represents, and I’m going to need your help. Can you assure we won’t be disturbed for an hour or two?”
“I don’t really see why…”
“She needs more help than you could possibly imagine,” I spoke calmly so he would hopefully listen to the contents of my words and not become too emotive, “and without being immodest I’m the only one within a thousand miles or more who can provide it. Think of the girl’s plight and forget what she’s done: she hasn’t hurt anyone here, or you’d not have kept her free in your own home.”
“‘Forget’?” he was shocked into silence, and I knew from the tone of his voice and his sudden stance that he would oppose anything I might try and accomplish.
“Whatever she did will seem as nothing if she loses control of herself.”
“You seem certain of what she can do,” the doctor was beginning to sound worried.
“We share something, and that makes me… aware of her, much as you would recognise a fellow physician by the way they attended someone’s needs.”
“What do you want?” Anthony asked with a tone of inquiry rather than belligerence, as he was almost resigned into accepting that he was now embroiled in events over which he had little or no control.
“Plain paper, lots of it; coloured pencils and crayons; an exercise book or two, lined or not, it doesn’t really matter.” The light pen and electronic companion would have been very useful to use as an index and for cross-referencing entries, but even though the girl wouldn’t have been any the wiser the villagers would ask too many questions about things that were only supposed to exist in fiction (if at all), and there were more than enough problems to contend with already without my introducing any more. “Oh, and a bag of marbles, the small glass ones with coloured centres. If you can’t get those, then large ball-bearings from the garage.”
“You can’t be serious,” Driscoll was all but scoffing: he didn’t understand, for which he could hardly be held to blame, and did not want to learn, which in any circumstances was inexcusable.
“Will you help me, Doctor?”
He nodded slowly, cast an apologetic glance at the vicar, then left the room, moving surprisingly quickly and nimbly now that a course of action had presented itself, and he had decided to follow it.
At least I wasn’t fighting both of them, which was something to be thankful for, but I could hardly tell Driscoll to leave his own home to keep him from making his hostility towards me known to the girl, who had been watching and listening to us intently all the while, and in all likelihood making her own judgement of the situation based on the tones of our conversation. I would have to hope he wouldn’t interfere when we began, but he was not the kind to stay in the background for very long, and there was no denying he had more than a few rights in what was to him a very singular affair.
“And what do you want me to do?” his voice was more than just tainted with sarcasm. “You have already embarrassed me in front of one of my chief parishioners, I see no reason for you to stop there.”
I sighed, wondering whether silence or a probably futile attempt at placation was the best recourse, but was saved from a decision by the unexpectedly quick return of Doctor Anthony, who received a withering look of betrayal from Driscoll.
“I’ve asked Constable Paterson to arrange what you wanted, but I’m afraid you’re going to pay for every single item.”
“Oh, how silly of me,” I almost laughed at the inconsequential barrier. “Of course, I wouldn’t have expected it any other way; the things I need will be coming, though?”
“Yes, they’re getting it all together in the shop now.”
I opened my handbag and took out my purse, knowing how much cash I had with me (I always keep a careful note of what I spend, for I usually carry a few hundred pounds or so in various currencies), and made a pretence of hunting for what I thought would be the correct amount, with a little more added for the inconvenience. “Will £10 cover everything?”
Anthony was startled, but nodded silently and seemed almost reluctant to take the proffered money as Driscoll gasped, “You would spend all that on someone you admit you don’t even know?”
I could have come out with a quip to the effect of Christian charity, but knew it would only have alienated me further, so I shrugged slightly yet carefully, so as not to appear flippant, “Let’s just say I have far more money than sense.”
“Why are you willing to spend so much time and effort on this strange girl?” Anthony was understandably curious, too.
“Concern for her sanity, mainly, and her safety. Also, being as I am, I have a certain… duty, if you want to think of it in that way, to help others who are in a condition not unlike hers: as I once was, a very long time ago, before I was rescued.”
Driscoll interpreted that in the only way he now could, “Just because you feel guilty about something you have done in your past gives you no right to meddle in something that doesn’t concern you now.”
“Would you have thought of communicating with her by using pictures instead of words? I know far more about what she needs than you, who can feel nothing of her pain, so that gives me as much right to be here as you, who don’t even know how she arrived, as I do. I know what she is, and what she can do, and she needs to be calm otherwise she’ll react, and that will not be a good thing for any of you.” Damn! I shouldn’t have lost my temper (though I hadn’t shouted but kept my voice calm and level), but to assume the girl was unaware of the friction between the vicar and I would be dangerously stupid; she could probably feel my power just as well as I could feel hers, and she was beginning to fret at the apparent lack of action.
We were saved from a full-scale verbal battle by a knocking at the front door, and Driscoll strode out of the room to answer it, arriving before his wife who returned along the passage, casting a furtive glance into the room, then he led in someone from the shop who carried an armful of papers, books, and a couple of brown bags. The villager looked at the sick girl with something more than a veiled aggressive curiosity, but less than outright enmity, before placing his burden on a chair and noticing me for the first time; surprise crossed his otherwise expressionless face as he received my money from the Doctor, then he left the four of us alone without having asked a single question, or paused to offer a comment, which I found more than a little disturbing.
I sat on the floor as near to the girl as would allow me to suggest an air of trust and intimacy, yet gave me sufficient room to move back hurriedly should the need arise, and left space to spread out my new purchases as much as I could.
First things first, though. I swept both my hands inward to indicate my own body, spoke my name, indicated the Doctor and vicar with outward sweeps of my arm and spoke theirs, then held my hand palm upwards towards her. Such actions only had significance for certain cultures and times, and was nowhere near as ‘obvious’ as most people might think, but I had to begin with something that was clearly an attempt at basic communication, for the others had failed with full grammatical sentences, expecting instant understanding that was not forthcoming.
Her voice was hoarse because of strain and fatigue, marred only by her stale breath, and whilst the vowels were strangely accented, they were far from unintelligible. ‘Looseya’ or ‘Lucia’ was probably a more accurate rendition, but the other was easiest for me, and I needed to keep things as simple as possible so as not to confuse either myself or the girl. The mis-understanding of a single word might cause her to react in an unpredictable manner, if she interpreted as a threat what was really innocuous, and though I’d be able to protect myself simply by shifting to some other for a brief while, there would be nothing I could do to defend the two men unless I revealed myself to them, which was still an option, though only as a last resort to prevent bloodshed.
I took one of the exercise books and made a heading at the top of each of its pages with a letter from the alphabet (except Q and C, which were unnecessary, as in English Q always appears as QU, which is KW or K, and C can be K also, or S), and a score of characters from the phonetic alphabet. The other book I marked out on the first twenty-six pages with the normal English alphabet, and jotted down a few dozen words I knew would be needed to start me off.
The bags of marbles were all opened and laid out in an ascending sequence to attempt the first part of the process, whose success was important but not essential, as there were a few avenues of approach I could use. I arranged the marbles to show 1+1=2, 2+1=3, and so on up to 9+1=10; as I carefully voiced each number, I wrote it down in the book for English, with the translation beside it, the reverse being written in the second book so that one cross-referenced the other.
That was the easy part. ‘+’ and ‘=’, which had so far only been inferred, now had to be specifically designated, and although in this aspect they were primarily mathematical in use, they were useful in general terms, for ‘+’ would be used as ‘and’ or ‘with’, and ‘=’ could also mean ‘yes’ or ‘is’ or ‘same (as)’ or ‘equivalent (to)’, although technically speaking the last two were not the same, but differences like that were irrelevant. Then I went on to ‘-‘, which was going to be used as ‘without’, ‘take off’, and ‘leave out’. The false sums of 2+1≠7 and 3+4≠9 gave ‘no’ or ‘(is) not’ or ‘different (to)’, multiplication and division had no useful comparisons, and now we had the necessary elements to begin a dialogue.
Hearing the incomprehensible argument that did nothing but delay the Witch’s as yet unknown purpose, Lucy was astounded she did not use her power to subdue her opponents, even if by a subtle wish that affected their behaviour without their direct knowledge, but eventually the Healer acquiesced and left briefly to follow her bidding. The Witch, whilst easily maintaining her position against the two men, had remained remarkably composed bearing in mind the hostility she was experiencing; it was only after much thought that Lucy realised the men did not know who the Witch was, or even that she was such, and she did not want them to. That she was also at risk from these people seemed inconceivable, but why else might she wish to remain concealed, if not to protect herself?
The Healer returned and further conversation ensued, but a rift had developed between the two men; the man in black now openly opposed the Witch, the other not, and when someone arrived carrying packages that presumably had been ordered, the man in black refused help of any kind and remained in the background, though understandably upset at being omitted from events of importance in his own home.
The Witch sat near to the couch on which she lay, spread her belongings on the floor, and opened a pair of small books with blank pages, which she marked with curious letters, then she indicated herself and the two men with graceful sweeps of her arms and spoke carefully, enunciating the syllables in an almost exaggerated fashion so they were very clear.
“Karolyn. Antone; Driskul.”
Lucy gave her own name, and watched as a series of glass spheres were assembled into a simple addition sum, like a child’s game with sticks. With her mind dulled by fatigue, she did not realise the implications of what she was seeing until the foreign words drifted patiently towards her, and she spoke her own language in reply for the woman to write in the books.
When that was soon finished, Karolyn lifted each ball in turn and pointed to the bright whorl at its centre, touching clothes, furniture, anything with the same colour to begin constructing a dozen or so words for crude descriptions, and from there they went onto shapes. Three, six, and ten balls depicted a triangle; four, nine, and sixteen gave a square; six, eight, and twelve provided rectangles; and most of them formed a large circle. That line of approach was soon exhausted, and Karolyn walked slowly around the room, touching and naming the pieces of furniture, their colours and constituent parts, though there were some things she ignored which Lucy knew nothing of.
The process was so incredibly easy that Lucy felt a fool for not having thought of it herself, but then neither had the men considered such a course of action, and Lucy would have had great difficulty in making her demands known even had she wanted to use such a method for communication. If only… but why not? She reached out with her mind, called the woman’s name with as much strength as she could muster, and received, as with her first sending, absolutely nothing. How could a Witch be deaf to such a summoning?
Hurriedly drawn pictures in vivid and often garish colours depicted a series of every-day items that were named and written in the books: the parts of a simple house, of things within the earth and sky and sea, though there were a few objects Lucy did not know and never learned, as Karolyn instantly discarded anything that did not receive a prompt reply.
After more than two hundred words had been catalogued, a picture was carefully drawn showing the building in which Lucy had spent the night, with a few of the houses nearby stretching away to crudely sketched fields; above a nearby meadow, the Witch drew a door and after folding the paper cut it out with her fingernails, laying a scene from a previous picture behind it and making walking movements with her fingers.
“Yes!” Lucy cried out at the first visible sign of the power that had delivered her from her attackers, and Karolyn seemed satisfied, though in a manner which suggested she had merely visualised her own knowledge rather than learned anything she did not already know; not so the men, least of all Driskul, as neither of them had any idea what the last drawing referred to, which was perhaps as well.
So that was what this Witch, concentrating intensely on everything she depicted and wrote, was mistress of: the wild worldwinds that Lucy had called upon in her desperation.
“Fire in house, door in air in forest and ten ten ten men,” Lucy pieced together the primitive sentence using words she remembered having spoken, reached out to take one of the curious coloured pens and a sheet of paper, and hurriedly sketched the outlines of herself and her brother, which drew a gasp of consternation from Karolyn.
“Lucy and man?”
“Yes, Leith, my brother, wounded,” she added a quarrel in his back and one in her own leg, as her reply had not been easily translated, and saw concern cast a shadow across the Witch’s studious features; Karolyn was evidently unaware of Lucy’s brother also being in this alien place, so did that mean he was in yet another unknown world?
Needing words she did not possess, Karolyn searched for ways to draw her questions, and showed Lucy a group of stick-figure men and women linked by lines to one another; Lucy saw them to be arranged in families, with one of the girls, representing herself, circled in red, and she pointed across at her brother whom she named, then added to the vocabulary by providing words for her dead parents and grandparents, her aunts and uncles, “Mother and father… fire in house… ten ten ten men.”
Lucy was surprised to discover how much time had passed since their first fumbling exchange of personal names, and Karolyn was beginning to tire. Lucy also felt weak, but quite well within herself, because of the progress they were making, but it was incredibly frustrating when there were other means open to her, even though the Witch had so far proved utterly unresponsive to the calls sent to her.
“Leith brother with Lucy without house and fire, night forest walk door in air, Leith is pain, Lucy is pain, forest without men, field without forest, Driskul house, pain without home, pain without brother.”
Karolyn’s sentence was terribly crude, but it was more than accurate enough as the concepts far outweighed the lack of grammar, and Lucy lay back to rest for a few minutes as Karolyn was startled by Driskul suddenly stepping forward and demanding something of her.
The Witch moved indolently, for part of her mind was still ordering what was to her a foreign vocabulary, and her reactions provoked the man in black further as he considered her to be ignoring him, then she spoke to him briefly but calmly and turned to face Lucy again so she did not see the expression of outrage that coloured his cheeks and even spread to his neck.
The Healer, Antone, tried to placate his colleague, as he seemed to be more than aware of the tremendous endeavours and advances made by Karolyn, but his efforts at conciliation were shrugged off as Driskul left the room with determined strides. Lucy had felt his agitation and frustration increasing for some time, but was confident of being able to deal with anything he might do, as evidently neither of the men had any knowledge of either her own skills or Karolyn’s. Antone spoke quietly to Karolyn but remained in the room, silently watching everything that happened with a mixture of wonder at the means of their communication, a growing unease caused by his knowledge that her language was unlike any he knew, and puzzlement at what the drawings represented.
“Driskul house, fire and bird, eat bird,” the statement was short and, beyond its obvious reference to something she had done, seemed to be utterly meaningless. When Karolyn received no reply, she held out some paper and carefully rephrased the sentence. “Night walk, Lucy and pain, green house, red house, blue house, Driskul house, eat bird. Yellow house, black house, Driskul house?”
Why had she chosen the cold stone building for her shelter? Lucy drew its outline against a darkened sky, and after a little thought put the sun beneath it, “Sun in earth.”
Karolyn drew a plan of the building, and Lucy drew the sun again, near the smaller altar and its radiant picture that could not, she now knew, be dedicated to a Witch, as any who lived in this world did so in secret. “Sun, sun, sun,” the Witch was thinking out aloud, then she frowned, drew a door in the air and a man running, a second door and a man walking, a third door and a man lying down, then the sun in the earth and a man running again. “Sun in earth and sleeping man adds to man and awake.”
Karolyn spoke with Antone for a few moments, asking something of him in a tone that indicated she did not expect a useful reply, which is what she received, then she politely sent him on an errand and began constructing more pictures.
“One sun in earth under Driskul house,” she said, “is not under red house, is not under blue house, is under Driskul house.”
The Healer returned to the room and presented Karolyn with a detailed map of the village and its environs; forests, roads, and many other incomprehensible features of the landscape were marked with a precision she thought impossible, and the entire map was covered by meandering brown lines and incredibly small writing.
A small cross with a square at one end was circled in red, “Driskul house and sun in earth.” Many of the same symbols, and others that had circles instead of squares, were indicated in nearby villages and, judging by the size of the surrounding grey shapes depicting villages and towns of varying sizes. “Sun in earth not under house same as Driskul house.” A door was drawn in one of the fields near the village, with lines sent to the crosses.
“Lucy pain, see sun in earth, walk Driskul house,” her answer to Karolyn’s question of why she had chosen the shrine no longer seemed to puzzle the Witch, but Lucy was now more confused than before, as it was horribly plain Karolyn had no idea of what the ‘sun in earth’ represented; she was unable to feel the power of the shrine, in fact did not even know of its existence, but despite this she was undeniably a Witch of considerable power.
An entire hour had just passed as if it were only fifteen minutes, and there was so much I still didn’t know: what was the power under the church that she can see and I could not feel at all? I had been almost oblivious to the presence of Anthony and the vicar, but thankfully they were too interested (in the Doctor’s case) or too outraged (in Driscoll’s) to interfere while I was setting up the basic building-blocks of words in my crude but eventually fairly effective dictionaries.
I was far too involved in the situation to respond in anything other than a sluggish manner to the vicar when he demanded of me what I’d accomplished with my silly pictures, and I merely told him I would let them both know when I had a coherent story to present, which admittedly rather blunt reply only incensed him further. The trouble was, I had actually discovered quite a lot, but I didn’t find it particularly reassuring, and it would have been impossible to explain to them at the moment without appearing utterly insane.
Somewhere in another world, in all probability wandering lost and scared, perhaps fatally wounded, was Lucy’s brother Leith (or Leedh) in a not dissimilar condition to the girl lying before me; presumably, he also possessed the same powers as she. Add to that the fact I was more tired than I should have been (perhaps my life of recent decades had been a little too sedate, and I had grown complacent with the knowledge of my skills rather than their continual practise, though I exercised frequently), and that Lucy had only chosen the church in Nether Aston because it was the nearest to her point of arrival that had been built over… what, exactly? Why, out of all those available, had she arrived in this world rather than any other, and then sought that particular church?
Anthony was not as fully aware of the village’s history as he might otherwise have been (he had only lived here for eight years, having moved from the city), but tugging at the back of my mind like threads snagging in the fabric of my memory were a couple of theories I had read many years ago (in some other world that nevertheless shared much with this) which had originally been expounded as hysterical ideas, though they soon became absorbed into popular culture and believed unquestioningly as truth by those seeking such things.
The first credited our human ancestors with fantastic powers and senses: an attunement to the currents of energy that were supposed to flow within the earth and through all living things (that last I already knew was more than partly true, though not in the way it was generally accepted). Secondly, something entirely different in that it was wholly geographical (though later supporters would try and read far more into the system than was ever intended by its author): a series of line-of-sight paths that could be followed for miles, using hills and ditches and burial mounds like sighting posts and, later, stones that had been placed in line specifically for the purpose.
This part of England was saturated with possible sites that could be used as bearings (and made a statistical nonsense of the so-called ‘proofs’), but what I wanted to know (and the Doctor hadn’t been able to tell me) was whether or not the church was built over an old Pagan shrine. It was the usual practise for early Christians to smother and so attempt to destroy any established religion and claim they were merely assimilating it, that their god was a larger face of the other gods in which the so-called heathen believed, and it was quite possible it had happened here, as elsewhere.
Everything about Lucy so far suggested she came from somewhere similar to this world’s Elizabethan era, at least from a European viewpoint. She was very quick to learn, and seemed to possess an incredible amount of esoteric knowledge, all of which was at such variance with the kind of society I had hastily placed her into that I was at a loss to know even roughly where she had come from (culturally speaking, as I could feel only too well the energy-level of her home-world); also, my experience of such relatively primitive parallels was limited.
Be that as it may: my belief or doubt in the existence of such networks and their potential usefulness was completely irrelevant at the moment. The only thing that mattered was Lucy’s faith in whatever lay beneath the church, and what it had done for her. As I knew only too well in relation to my own powers, and the others I had witnessed, one’s beliefs and wishes were potent forces indeed, sometimes literally capable of changing reality, or at least what was generally regarded as such, for despite there being a genuine reality beyond personal solipsism, custom and expectation caused it to be interpreted in ways that remain locked within a culture.
That it provided her with some form of energy I already knew, but what else was she capable of if the pictures of walking through a doorway from one world to another had told her only that I knew of her means of arrival? As long as she remained as willing as I to continue this rather basic method of communication, we were both gaining a useful idea of one another’s lives, even though it now seemed we had little but our disparate skills in common, but we were interrupted.
The door to the room was opened abruptly by Driscoll, with a policeman following only a step or two behind. “Here they are,” said the vicar. “They have done nothing but talk utter gibberish for the past hour, and my patience is at an end.”
Paterson (at least I presumed it was he) looked first at the tens of pictures and sketches covering the floor, then Lucy, finally me, and said in a somewhat plummy accent, “Who are you, Miss? What part do you play in all of this?”
Driscoll answered for me, “She’s nothing but a meddler, a spoilt woman amusing herself at our expense.”
Lucy had been resting for a moment during my contemplation but, as soon as the two men entered, she stared at them as if willing the evil-eye upon them (and I wouldn’t have put such a thing past her, not with the little I knew of her, and what I had seen on my travels of the effects of people wishing things upon one another). The vicar almost crossed himself as he realised he was the target of that ferine glare, and Lucy spoke quickly in her own language as she pointed a steady arm at him.
I only managed to understand less than half of the words, which were mainly references to his name and his house (meaning the church), but also to the source of energy we had chosen to call ‘sun in earth’, and by the tone of her voice it was obvious she was berating him for something.
“That’s enough of that, you young whelp,” Driscoll’s voice was like a whip-lash as his fury came to the surface. “If you refuse to speak English then you will have to face the consequences of your own actions, but I feel it only fair to warn you I have asked Constable Paterson to take you into custody. You have taxed everyone’s patience to its limits with your arrogant stubbornness, and I refuse to allow it to continue any further.”
Had there been ball-bearings rather than marbles on the floor, I could have tried to convince myself that what happened next was due to one of an innumerable number of magnetic levitators I had used, but even if one had been present within the room it could not have lifted the single glass ball with a pale green whorl at its centre as if it were an extension of Lucy’s outstretched arm, and hurled it straight at the vicar, who barely managed to avoid it.
She snatched up my picture of the church on which she had drawn the sun, screwed it up and threw it after the marble, but before the paper was half-way across the room it burst into flames as it became the target of a visible and audible blast of lightning-like energy from the girl that left her verging on fainting for a few seconds, and the paper a charred wreck on the carpet in front of Driscoll.
I might not have been able to translate precisely what she said, but that last, physical message, was couched in terms even the vicar could understand: anger, contempt for his church, and an open display of power the likes of which none of them had ever seen, and I only on a handful of very unnerving occasions.
The policeman’s reflex was to call on saints to preserve him, Driscoll crossed himself and muttered something protective in Latin, the Doctor swore a full-bloodied oath under his breath, and I received a rather disconcerting smile of grim determination from Lucy as she propped herself up on her elbow and glared at the two men standing immobile by the door.
I was not precisely afraid (which surprised me), more wary than anything else, for I thought she felt our powers to bond us together in some form of companionship; she was right, in a sense, but I would have preferred things to have gone in another, more peaceful direction. It was far too late for that now, though. The vicar had already played his trump card, for I could hear half a dozen or so people murmuring outside the house, but the balance of power had shifted dramatically, and he was more afraid than he had ever been before.
Most people know the witches of legend, like vampires and werewolves, did not really exist, and had never done so except in the minds and doctrines of those who would profit from their creation, or destruction. It’s easy accusing and torturing an old woman who knows some simple herbal remedies, or an attractive young girl who’s spurned the attentions of their jealous accuser, because they can’t possibly fight back against pre-judgement and coincidence or trumped-up charges, but what happens when you meet a real witch who can not only defend herself, but actually does, and in such a demonstrable fashion?
It was now very clear to her that Driskul was a man who had no time for anything which did not fit into what his limited vision of the world told him was right, so in that respect, and perhaps in many more, he was just like the preachers at home, and Lucy felt her temper beginning to slip when he demanded the Witch cease her intensive efforts after so short a while.
Antone was curious and, though vastly ignorant of what he witnessed, desired to know more, and without hesitation he had helped her as best she would allow him. He did not deserve to be treated in a like manner to his companion, for the foreign preacher had summoned the man in blue who stepped in earlier to regard her impassively; there was little doubt he was some form of Baron’s Officer who would have her imprisoned, or worse, for she could hear villagers gathered outside.
When Driskul refused to listen further to Karolyn and spoke in a threatening tone, both to the Witch and herself, even knowing but still unable to accept she could not understand him, Lucy vented all of her frustration and anger in the only way she knew that would affect him, for her mind and body had rested while Karolyn was doing the tiring work of translation all by herself; Lucy had only to remember which words of her own had been used and written down, so she could express herself in the simplest of terms, though always trying to teach new words.
She told Driskul precisely what she thought of his prejudice and lack of regard for all things sacred, and that his cold stone edifice, which could never obliterate her sanctuary regardless of its size or position, was a house fit only for idle animals who feared their own shadows. She lifted one of the glass balls with the fingers of her mind and threw it at him, symbolically destroying the building they had termed his house, and leaving it in ashes at his feet because men like him had destroyed her own home in a like fashion.
The man who may or may not have been a Healer, the man in black who had demonstrated beyond doubt he was opposed to the celebration of life and everything she represented, the other man who had looked in on her as she rested earlier: they used their incomprehensible language to curse her in a variety of completely ineffectual ways, and stared so intently at what they had witnessed, yet still struggled to acknowledge their experiences. They had never seen power before, in fact did not even know what it was!
Lucy smiled at the Witch, who was equally surprised at the outburst but not, at least in the way she reacted, which was to remain unperturbed, the manifestation of power, and Lucy wondered with an almost idle curiosity how long the men would remain frozen by their fear.
Karolyn was the least affected, but though she was evidently very disquieted, it seemed to be more for the welfare of the men than herself, or their possible reactions once they had recovered from their considerable shock. Why was she concerned for them, when they were so obviously ignorant of her powers as well as Lucy’s own? Admitting how little she really knew about the world into which she had unwittingly catapulted herself, Lucy finally thought perhaps the reason Karolyn was troubled was simply that she had a very strong desire not to reveal anything of herself.
The Witch was certainly neither weak nor afraid, but that she had no sensible motive for all she had done was inconceivable, so perhaps she was in some form of as yet unidentified peril should she use any of her skills. Lucy would have to wait until they could communicate better to discover the true reasons, as there was danger ahead for both of them, and Karolyn would have no choice then but to use her power; Lucy could only manage a few blasts like that she had just delivered to the drawing, which would not even render a healthy person unconscious, though their fear might make them faint, so it was up to the Witch to deliver them both.
Karolyn took the books she had been using and stood up decisively, murmuring something that sounded like an apology to Antone as she passed him on her way to the door of the room. Driskul and the Officer wanted to restrain her by use of force once it was clear their brief exchange of words had failed to prevent her from attempting to leave, but she seemed to pass though them as if she was as seemingly solid yet ultimately insubstantial as a shadow, for she opened and closed the door so quietly and with such grace and economy of movement that she almost flowed from the room like water in a stream passing around a rock.
Now it was Lucy’s turn to be surprised by what she had witnessed, and been barely able to comprehend, for as she studied her astonished memory of the event she realised the Witch had made herself momentarily immaterial, moving through her surroundings as if they were nothing more than smoke to her. What suddenly concerned Lucy was her utter lack of recognition, both of the type of power involved, and the tremendous skill required, as she had felt no gathering of energy beforehand, and none during the Witch’s fleeting passage.
What little they had in common only seemed to exaggerate their differences, for though they both had power, Karolyn was totally unaware of the energy contained within the shrines, and Lucy now knew she was herself ignorant of an incredibly controlled energy that could not be understood even as an extension of that which she had used for her own escape from the ambush in the forest.
The man in blue was suddenly galvanised into action as he realised his quarry had simply walked straight past him rather than fleeing like the guilty person he judged her to be, and he cast a glance of suspicion and no small amount of dislike at Lucy before following the Witch, presumably trusting Driskul to do any guarding that was required.
Both remaining men flinched visibly as Lucy sat up on the couch and leaned forward, believing herself capable of standing reasonably steadily for more than a few moments without collapsing, then she opened her hands in Antone’s direction before stroking her bandaged thigh, speaking quietly in her own language, but even with all the words she had exchanged with Karolyn there were none for what she wanted to say as she thanked him for his ministrations, and wished him well in his search for whatever truths of Healing he followed.
She used energy whose expenditure she could ill afford to cast a weak spell to grant him good health, as it was the only manner in which she could repay him for his care, then bowed slightly, keeping her eyes alert as Driskul began to approach her with intentions of preventing her from moving. Lucy pointed at the man in black and muttered a phrase of childish idiocy that stopped him as surely as if he had walked into an invisible wall, for he assumed it to be some form of curse.
That, however, was one thing she could not afford the energy to realise, even had she been able to construct the patterns of thought necessary for such a heinous act, which would eventually rebound upon whoever cast it. He was not worth the effort, and certainly not the risk; given time, his own belief would reward him in the manner dictated by his true life, rather than his own perception of his actions, which could probably be excused or even cancelled by a ritual expunction.
A loud explosion a hundred yards or so distant, followed by a commotion outside the house, startled all of them but, given the curious circumstances of Karolyn’s departure, and perhaps without consciously knowing it, Lucy had been expecting something untoward to occur, and she almost lost her balance as she walked past Driskul and reached out to open the door. She knew she would have to be careful, as there was a knob to be turned rather than a lever to be raised, but her sluggish reactions and uncertainty over what was to him an everyday action slowed her considerably as she left the room, and he had no difficulty in catching up with her and gripping her arm so tightly she could barely struggle.
The front door was only a few paces away, yet it might just as well have been situated in the next village, so far from use was it to her, but without warning it was hurriedly opened from outside by an extremely agitated villager who raved incoherently and pointed to the south-west. Lucy was at a loss to understand the sudden cause for alarm, for Antone also seemed very concerned, then the air screamed as if it were being cleft in two by an impossibly large blade. Following a few heartbeats later was an explosion that shook the ground, and a blast of concussed air came from a field not too far away.
Whatever the cause of the panic that gripped everyone, and given the strange manner of Karolyn’s departure Lucy had her suspicions, the detonations were approaching very quickly, and everyone was so afraid that when the next explosion occurred she was left in an empty hallway.
“Lucy leave house,” Karolyn’s voice came to her as if carried on the forefront of a wind, or from a great height, yet its echoing nature could not disguise its urgent tones, and with relief she walked as quickly as she could from the house, searching for the source of the command, but she could neither see nor feel anything.
Lucy whirled suddenly and almost lost her footing as she heard someone approaching from the side of the house, then saw the Witch moving with slow paces, concentrating intensely as she beckoned to Lucy and indicated she was to follow to a low carriage like the one that had almost blinded her soon after her arrival.
“Karolyn and Lucy ride.”
The Witch had brought with her the books, but did not need to consult them as she had managed to remember sufficient words to convey her meaning, then she opened both small doors to the vehicle and sat on the right-hand side behind the framework of a small wheel, turned a few knobs on the panel facing her, and sighed with exhaustion as the mysterious and terrifying explosions ceased as abruptly as they had begun.
The carriage emitted a loud series of mechanical coughs and started to vibrate with low throbs that gained in frequency until they became an almost gentle purring, and as she saw Lucy hesitate when faced with the totally unknown machine, she smiled weakly and patted the empty seat on her left, “Sit, Lucy, sit and Karolyn.”
There would never be an excuse for what I had just done, no justification I could even give myself, except that I had to get Lucy away from the vicarage.
My alternatives were simple. The first choice was to risk another display of her powers, which might result in injury or possible death should she become sufficiently aroused: this would affect a handful of people, assuming the villagers outside were alerted to the conditions within. The other option was to frighten many people for a minute or so by using my skills to open and close passages between here and some where, in such a way that the vortices caused atmospheric disturbances similar to those that would occur should one of the nearby military ranges point their guns in the wrong direction. As soon as my objective of having Lucy temporarily forgotten in the sudden emergency was achieved, I stopped, but I still felt terribly guilty at the half-dozen detonations.
For more than ten years I was desperately afraid of my awesome (and, as I thought of it at the time, awful) power, especially after the stupid mistake I made when very young; I was doubtful of its benefits, either to myself or anyone else, but time is not only a healer but also, given the opportunity, a good teacher.
Time, and chance; and my infernal curiosity. Driscoll was right, in his own way: I was a meddler.
All I could do to convince myself of the validity of my actions was to imagine the carnage that might have resulted had I not managed to communicate in even the most rudimentary of fashions with the alien girl, for she would soon have reacted to the vicar’s animosity. I also had an obligation to help anyone in a position similar to my own all those decades ago, as did all travellers, for we usually discovered our nascent skills by terribly disorientating and very personal experience, which is not only frightening, but has also driven no few small number of people to suicide, or varying degrees of insanity, plagued with visions or memories of places that appear not to exist.
Considering she had never seen a motor-car before, Lucy was coping remarkably well with the experience of actually being inside one (once I had leaned across and closed the door on her side), though at first she had been understandably unnerved by the vehicle, and I drove from the village slowly so as not to frighten her any more than was absolutely necessary, even though I was worried about possible pursuit.
I did not know whether or not she had felt my use of power, either for the simulated explosions or my exit from the lounge, which had amply demonstrated the level of control I now exercised over my skill. I had the ability, at one end of the spectrum, to open a wide vortex that could out-blow a tornado if required yet still remain under my control; at the other, I could create the finest of passages between worlds in such a fashion that I existed for a short time in both, and yet in neither did I have any true physical substance: hence I might appear to fade through someone’s outstretched arm, or remain unaffected as something passed through me.
I had only managed to bring the crude dictionaries with me, so had no idea where I was driving until I reached the boundary of the map I had left behind and entered the domain of either of the two still in the car, but our direction wasn’t too important at the moment; it was certainly not as vital as Lucy’s condition.
She was staying alive on a combination of nervous energy and some other form that she had gained by being in the church or, rather, in the vicinity of something beneath it; the pictures showed all too clearly this was true, but I was ignorant of its nature, and how it might be used to aid her.
There were dozens of crackpot ideas and desperate theories I could bandy about in an effort to explain what happened, but I needed facts, and quickly. Whatever took place between us would have to occur in this world, too, as I couldn’t risk upsetting Lucy by taking her to another; anywhere that would be useful to me would terrify Lucy beyond her wildest nightmares if she was already disturbed by her arrival here. She seemed to be enjoying the sensation of having the wind in her hair, but was fighting fear of the unknown and darting questioning, pleading glances at me as I passed through a small village in a matter of seconds, heading in a roughly south-easterly direction.
My use of power and the speed of our flight had drained me, both emotionally and mentally, and I drove mainly by reflex, but for quite a few minutes I was almost lost to the world as I considered the choices before me: limited, to say the least. She probably required hospitalisation, and someone with whom to converse sensibly in her own language, but taking her to a certain place I knew of was out of the question, both in terms of her sanity, and my safety, should she lash out.
With no better direction to travel, I drove into the west, but after only a few minutes of a silence that was not as uneasy as it might have been, something visibly startled Lucy, for she grasped my arm with fingers that curved like talons as her other arm pointed to the left. She was trembling slightly, though whether with fatigue or eagerness, or both, I couldn’t tell. Whatever it might be, it was important to her, and she began to talk quickly, excitedly, forgetful of the fact I could not understand her very well, but I managed to recognise occasional references to the ‘sun-in-earth,’ which was more than sufficient to explain the cause of her agitation.
Interesting: somewhere not too distant from us was apparently a form of energy similar to that which had drawn Lucy to the church in Nether Aston, but I could feel nothing related to it, and the area was bereft of any powerpoints I might have used for my own benefit. I didn’t need anything to help translate her hand-signs, however, so began to slow down, then parked on the verge.
Lucy’s delight was evident, for she pointed across the desolate moors at what seemed to be a barrow of some kind, rather like a miniature Silbury Hill, and repeated the phrase ‘sun-in-earth’. Her goal lay behind fencing whose dull red signs declared the land to be Ministry Of Defence property, dangerous, not to trespassed upon for fear of prosecution, and so on, she and I both needed what might crudely be described as a re-charge, and as there were no military exercises taking place, it seemed safe enough, unexploded shells notwithstanding. Should I offer assistance, or would my presence hinder her mental processes? The decision was taken from me as she clambered over the fence and took laboured steps towards the mound.
The mental exertion involved in constructing the dictionaries and working at top speed in a fairly hostile environment, casting my feelings as wide as possible for any mutual point of contact with the lost girl, and creating half a dozen tightly-knitted vortices that had to be audibly impressive yet not physically destructive, had taxed me tremendously, and I felt as if I could sleep for a week. I had not been as tired as this for so long that I couldn’t remember exactly when the last time was. Thirty years ago? forty? No matter.
With far less time in which to acclimatise herself to the alien machine as a means of transportation than she would have wanted, had she been warned beforehand of what she might be called upon to accept as perfectly natural and therefore unremarkable, Lucy was taken from the village and driven along roads that passed through unfriendly, barely cultivated fields, and low but rugged countryside interrupted by outcrops of rock.
Some way to the west were barren moors: an exposed and desolate place in which she could easily have been fatally lost had she arrived there, rather than the outskirts of the village now many miles behind them, but though she could never lose her sense of direction relative to the cardinal points, she was totally disorientated as to which area was coincident with the forest in her home world, which was itself in a district she had no knowledge of.
She soon lost contact with the weak and buried shrine behind them, and slowly became aware of another many miles away to the north-east, but Karolyn did not steer the metal carriage in its direction, and Lucy felt it best not to protest the action even though she knew her body, though fairly rested, was inevitably losing more of its remaining strength.
Despite her unfamiliarity with the world, and the curious forms of power it contained as represented by Karolyn’s remarkable skill, she was still sufficiently attuned to her own energies, and gripped the Witch’s arm with a sense of joy as she felt the presence of an incredibly strong source only a few miles distant, in the direction they were now travelling.
Less than a handful of minutes later, Karolyn stopped the vehicle at the side of the road, quite near the new and, she could feel, very active shrine, which was buried beneath a mound covered in pale, unhealthy grass, but its energies were unlike any she had experienced before.
Karolyn informed Lucy of her desire to sleep or in other ways rejuvenate her expended energy, then Lucy fumbled with the curious latch on the door, only to give up and clamber over the side of the carriage to stand in the road.
They regarded one another for a few moments, perhaps in mutual recognition of their weakness, then she took slight, hesitant steps, almost losing her balance as she climbed the fence and moved as quickly and steadily as her wound would allow, but as she neared the ancient mound Lucy became aware of two things almost at the same time, and was never able to fully decide which impression had affected her first, for each carried aspects of the other within itself.
The shrine was very powerful, as she had known from over a mile away, but it was concentrated within a very small area and did not radiate its power in the usual way; rather, it flowed out and returned in vast loops of dynamic energy that did not reach any of the nearby sites or even strive to pass them and connect with others of similar potency. Of equal importance, surrounding the mound at a distance of some twenty paces from its centre was a faint barrier erected many hundreds of years ago, warning of an immense but unspecified danger for those who sought entry to the shrine.
Lucy stopped a few feet from the invisible wall, which manifested as a disturbance in the atmosphere that would break easily, even to someone in her weakened condition, and turned to look at Karolyn, suddenly needing someone from whom to seek guidance, but the distant Witch was sitting on the ground with her lax arms resting lightly on her folded thighs, her head bowed, her eyes closed, completely oblivious to the world around her as she drew some form of succour from within herself.
Powerpoints had no physical substance of any description but, like the electro-magnetic current they at times so closely resembled, they could be manipulated by devices of various designs. In the majority of cases, this meant the will of the traveller, but more recent developments had enabled mechanised equivalents to perform the same function, though not with any real finesse. They existed in their own environment, yet could not be reached in the same way as the worlds through which I passed, for they were not composed of matter, but energy: they were like conduits or channels for power to flow from one parallel to another.
Some were transient and would vanish once they had conducted sufficient energy to equalise the disturbance which had caused them to appear; those powerpoints could materialise almost anywhere and at any time, bringing with them spatial and sometimes temporal distortions that affected anyone within their immediate vicinity, and in influencing the emotions as well as the physical senses they could make someone think they had seen or even been taken to another world. Others were to all intents permanent, and had existed for millennia; though they were probably created by the same counter-balancing forces as their temporary siblings, the flow they transferred was many magnitudes higher, and was carried over a far greater distance.
Interaction with a powerpoint required a high degree of control, if only to prevent the operator from being swept away by a wild vortex, but it also necessitated entering a specific frame of mind. It meant contemplation of one’s skill and its effects, of fully acknowledging within oneself what being a traveller really signified, accepting its hazards and demands and responsibilities as well as its great benefits, whether they be for business or, as was usual once one had accrued sufficient funds, pleasure. Most importantly, if the circumstances permitted, it was time for a form of meditation or reflection; here, now, was hardly the ideal opportunity, so I would have to make do with walking through some of my memories, of which I had a not inconsiderable amount.
There were none nearby I might use to help me replenish my own reserves of energy, but I had many memories of their effects and could easily visualise their presence, as in no small way I carried the potential for one in my own mind. Reaching high above me like the branches of a gigantic tree, it spread out and seemed to dissipate in the atmosphere, but this was actually the ‘high’ end of the flow and so energy was pouring down, collected from the surrounding environment.
I possessed over one and a half centuries of travels, observations (though not, except at the very beginning, studies), participation, and had thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was looking forward to the years ahead, but knew that a time would eventually come when I would choose to leave my physical body behind rather than reincarnate again. Until then, what was life for, if not for living and enjoying?
I found a reasonably clean patch of ground on the verge and kneeled down, closed my eyes, and began to clear my mind as best I could, considering what had happened, what I had done and why. Was Driscoll’s opinion of me accurate? How could I weigh that judgement against the help I had given (and would give) to Lucy? as I had done to others in the past, as others had helped me in my time of need.
Breathe slowly; think deep, dark, and heavy. Slow: calm: drift.
Had the powerpoint I envisaged been more than just a remembered feeling to my body and emotions, I might have seen it as a glittering rainbow iridescence, formed by my mind’s eye in a futile attempt to organise the continually shifting impressions it received, but I did not possess the requisite senses (I knew of only four people who did, and one of them was intermittently insane with what he saw), and so what I experienced was similar (yet so different!) to being bathed in a high static charge, whilst breathing the fresh air at a coastal spa.
Any comparison was ultimately inadequate, for the powerpoint was also an atmosphere of space, as if entering a gigantic underground cavern after having walked in a tunnel for mile after dark, blind mile, as it was a temperature, of clinging globules of ice-cold water that were instantly heated by the body’s warmth, yet took no energy as they evaporated, and left no sensation of humidity.
She turned again and faced her shrine, still partially undecided as to what she should do, then stepped through the immaterial but still palpable barrier and gasped as she was confronted by a seething mass of raw emotions. Every feeling she had ever experienced, and some she had not, others she had only imagined: they all mingled and swam through one another like coloured dyes spilled in water, yet still they remained as individual expressions of intent or desire, trapped before they could incarnate themselves through a host.
Bitter hatred; unfulfilled, fanatical love; self-destroying passion; manic depression; selfless devotion; ecstatic joy; intensely erotic desires that were barely human in their expectations, yet full of care and consideration: they all swirled and attempted to coalesce above a series of blackened stones which had been broken, scattered, and cursed before the mound was raised over them in a purely physical attempt to prevent access.
Was she now so weak or confused she could no longer distinguish the preacher’s modern and overly-simplistic divisions of evil from good? or had she blinded herself to it in her desperate and, there was no denying it, selfish craving for the power necessary for her recovery? No, neither; she was as certain of that as she could be sure of anything in her present state, and the true reason filled her with a sense of desolation as intense as the emotions she had just experienced.
It had never occurred to Lucy that a shrine could possibly be perverted and have its very reason for being not only corrupted, but also completely reversed as this had been, for such a thing was utterly inconceivable at home; even where the secret and far smaller circles had been sundered and their collected power left to dissipate, there was still an aura that might be felt and used by one who could attune themselves. She was forced to remind herself this was a totally different world, where she had already witnessed absolute proof that powers could be unlike any she had ever known, but that the shrine could have been used for such a fell purpose left her numb with horror and revulsion, and she almost retched.
Animals had been slaughtered in the name of loyal and devoted sacrifice, with meaningless rituals as empty as the minds of the crazed murderers and deluded followers recited over their twitching carcasses, and… oh gods! Young women, most of them no more than mere girls ready to begin their joyous rites into adulthood, had died in an unbelievably hideous inversion of the fertility rites; life was drained from their struggling bodies as blood, rather than given to their willing flesh as seed: their pain and horror suffused the very stones that witnessed their butchery, and the feelings of betrayal hung over the mound like a pall of smoke at a funeral pyre. The purblind worshippers had replaced the spilling of first wine onto the ground that nourished the crops, the burning of first-cut corn in the field from which it grew, with the death of young goats and sheep, and the deliberately fatal pouring of human blood whose presence had originally signified the potential for life, and the continuation of the eternal cycle.
Faced with a total desecration of her deepest-held beliefs, and the vicious mockery of the doctrines that formed the basis for life, she wanted to vomit but could only stand paralysed by an anguish that tore at her heart and emotions, and threatened to overwhelm her. In fact, she wanted to be overcome, for then… no, she did not. What had made her think that? There was something lurking, waiting to use her as a key to freedom, but she would not allow it to possess her, and dared not permit its malevolence to have body and form again, for it knew nothing except cruelty and pain.
Almost a century ago, I undertook the most hazardous voyage I had ever contemplated, that of travelling in an unspecified direction, with no clear intent, either mental or physical, visual or emotional, of a destination. I was reckless, certainly, and heedless of the countless unconfirmed fears that accompanied such rash actions, but they were merely products of my own mind and not been told me by other travellers, so I could dismiss them quite easily, or so I told myself. The truth was, I was so depressed I didn’t care one way or the other.
For my departure I travelled to countryside unpopulated by human-kind; only birds and mammals lived as they had done for millennia, though most of the few I saw were unknown to me; this was not unusual, for evolution between the worlds was as diverse as the geography, and in other circumstances I would have been interested: such was not the time, though.
I took a slight, almost hesitant step, and passed out of that world to arrive…
…in a place that at first seemed as chaotic and half-formed as my mind’s eye envisaged it, for I had found it impossible not to begin constructing even a vague image of where I wished to go, but my surroundings eventually began to align and make some form of sense, even if it was so completely alien as to be beyond my immediate comprehension.
The ground in front of me seemed as if it was littered with jagged diamonds or shards of glass; they reflected and refracted the ashen sunlight into millions of prismatic rainbows and pinpoints of light so dazzling I could barely see any details of where I stood, whether it was on sand or soil, chalk or clay.
On the horizon, no more than five or six miles distant, a jagged line of small grey and black mountains bore testament to some aeons-old tectonic collision. Though my breath was slightly visible, the air was not as cold as I expected, but I needed to breathe deeply and frequently, for the atmosphere was thin, and deathly-calm; there was no breeze at all.
It was the sky, though, which drew and held my attention, for it was unlike any I had ever seen, and it unnerved me even more than the ground. A giant, washed-out yellow sun was nearly above me, but even then it appeared rather oblate, and despite the tenuous air I could view it without squinting (which I admit was somewhat silly); and the pale, oh, so pale sky, was translucent bluey-green, with streaks of cloud tinted in a thousand shades of red, pink, and yellow.
Despite the utter desolation, the silence that advertised the absence of any obvious life, it was curiously beautiful. I looked behind me, but saw only more of the same: some distant rocks (if indeed they were) attempted with futile effort to relieve the glittering plain, and part of the sky was a darker hue, hinting at the beginnings of jade, but of anything living or moving there was neither sight nor sound.
Everything seemed to my senses to be old and stale, as if it were a gigantic ruin on a scale I could not conceive, and felt totally dwarfed by, as if I were nothing more than a mote of dust. I departed after a quarter of an hour, taking with me a splitting headache and retinal after-images that took many minutes to disperse; and never returned, for it is no bad thing not to want to revisit such a place that so accurately mirrors one’s feelings at the time. I doubt I could even go back if I wished, for I would not be able to recreate the frame of mind I bore with me at the time, which was used as the subconscious guide for my journey.
She wanted to retrace her footsteps and try to forget she had ever encountered the corrupt circle, but found herself capable only of falling to her knees and sobbing in despair, both for herself, the sudden shattering of all her hopes and expectations at receiving succour from the shrine, and for the wretched victims of the distorted rites whose emotions had soaked the so-called altar stone on which they died so horribly, for such a vile, misguided, and futile purpose.
If only she were not in such a weakened condition, she might have been able to neutralise or possibly even re-sanctify the site, cleanse the air from the evil that had been created within and still haunted it, purify the tainted shrine and dedicate it to the ancient goddesses and gods of the pure elements, but there was no opportunity for such actions.
Lucy shook her head and struggled to her feet, discovered her inner vision counting the badly dispersed stones first one way, then the other, arriving at differing conclusions, but she was aware of the fatally hypnotic exercise and snapped her mind shut to it. That such a simple though deadly trap existed even here was slightly reassuring in its own way, as was her easy escape from the lure of its calling, but there was little else to reassure her. She had barely sufficient strength with which to turn her back on the shattered altar, and having accomplished that feat was left facing the serenely composed Witch, but doubtful of her ability to call for help of any kind due to their distance.
The binding contained behind the warning through which she had passed so easily gripped her lightly but firmly, and she could not rid herself of its presence. Despite her condition, the malevolence could not use her as easily as it might have done had she been of this world and so more open to its impressions, and certainly it would have met with no resistance had it been greeted by someone who wished it released, but it needed a vessel that believed in and required something from it, which Lucy did not, for it was contrary to everything she knew and accepted, so it remained trapped, though enraged and frustrated.
The creeping sense of despair was gradually shrugged off as she closed her inner eye, not as easily as it might otherwise have been, and rather than wasting her body’s strength by attempting to lift her leaden legs she slid her feet downhill over the grass, first one, then the other, overcoming the unnatural heaviness induced by the creeping tendrils of evil, and wincing as her wounded thigh protested the extra strain placed upon it.
Lucy reached the inside of the warning barrier, feeling as if the effort were draining her body of blood drop by precious drop and leaving her mind light as if more than just pleasantly drunk, but though the encroaching dizziness was far from an illusion as it was caused by her exertions, she knew what was happening even as she fell to the ground and sprawled within scant paces of her goal. Half the length of her body beyond her outstretched fingers it lay, as unreachable as the stars, and she wept with anger and frustration.
She needed an anchor, but could not clearly visualise or even properly recall anything from home; all the images she could conjure were of destruction and death. The unknown yet immensely powerful Witch and her child whose portraits of coloured glass were in Driskul’s bleak, lifeless domain, shone in her mind as if lit from without by sunlight, for they were the only pictures she had seen since her arrival with which she could identify, and she embraced the small but comforting beams of serenity as they were filtered by the symbol of her vision, which quickly shifted to her mother and father, her brother, the other Witches and Warlocks she had known who shared and practised the craft.
Something happened then, some last, hitherto unrecognised reserves of power and partially-understood knowledge came to surface in her churning emotions and disorientated thoughts, for as with what she thought had been her final chance for life in her own world, so she shrieked incoherently with sudden force, calling on she knew not what to deliver her from the clutches of the mood imprisoning her.
There was no wind as there had been before, no sensations of an unidentifiable presence as had happened during previous callings, when she was fully conscious of what she was doing, and who and what she was summoning and how its arrival would affect her. A sweet giddiness blew through her mind and left her shuddering, filling her with a curiously invigorating tranquillity as it passed overhead like a host of wind spirits, but magnified more than a thousand times, and following on its heels like a shadow chasing the horse that created it was a vast, majestic sigh, which told of unimaginable sorrow and pleasure, yet they were human terms, and so totally inadequate as descriptions of what she felt.
The nearest I’ve ever had to what might loosely be described as a religious experience was my first journey away from the Earth, speaking of it as a planet rather than one of the world-alternatives.
I boarded the ferry as an ordinary tourist, and paid little attention to the first stage of the flight, as I had cruised at about 100,000 ft. before, though I never tired of looking down on the wonders below me: the meandering rivers and sprawling mountains, flat plains and wind-swept desert dunes, the glittering lights of cities, and the oceans upon whose surfaces were cast the shadows of roaming clouds and storms.
The docks were much higher: a gigantic tube surrounded by concentric rings over a mile across, which always remained in the gravitationally neutral point between the Earth and its moon. A liner from there outwards was large and luxurious, but I forsook my apartment at the earliest opportunity and made my way to the rear viewing gallery, to watch the receding planet.
A blue disc swept with white which I knew from countless photographs and videos, but to see it like that, on the other side of a window, to stretch out my arm and occult it with my palm and then the end of a finger; to watch, heedless of the passing time, for well over half an hour as it grew smaller and smaller, and realise that everything that had ever been dreamed and created and destroyed, and everyone who had ever lived and loved and hated and died, had existed on the surface of that inconsequential piece of rubble: it humbled me. And made me weep at the sheer beauty of it, regardless of the wanton waste and carnage I had witnessed in so many others, including the one in which I was born.
Two hours later it was invisible to the naked eye, as it had become so small, and the (shielded) sun’s glare outshone everything, obliterating starlight. Enhanced observations provided the star-fields for general navigation to be matched with the guidance computer’s model of this part of explored space, but even they were unnecessary as we were only going to fly through the clouds and over the seas of a failed sun’s satellite, where we would watch like gods as volcanoes spewed forth into the atmosphere of another moon, and witness the majestic systems of rings.
Millions of miles away, but still within a ten-degree angle from the sun that included the Earth, the distance was nowhere near as great as it might have been had the planet been further behind in its orbit; a day’s travel even at the incredible speeds at which we were now moving, yet in relation to the size of the Solar System the ship was crawling like the insect it resembled.
I have been even further afield than that, but only a very few times; the vastness of space terrifies me, though its beauty never fails to hold me in thrall. Travelling at just over half the speed of light the journey still took six days, but even that distance was minuscule in relation to the nearest habitable solar system over twenty light years away that it seemed hardly worth the while. But it was!
My destination was one of the many stellar observatories set at the sun’s focal point. Larger than many natural satellites, it brought unsurpassed views as light was focussed by the distant sun, enabling the team of astronomers and engineers and tourists to view distant planets and even continents, or beyond them to vast clouds of interstellar gas, stellar clusters, and nebulae that seemed like translucent marine life seen through a microscope. It and its hundreds of cousins, set in a sphere around the sun, was the pride of an entire world, and deservedly so, for they provided unparalleled views of awe-inspiring beauty, and confirmed or denied current theories on the universe and its existence.
I accepted it simply for what it was, whilst knowing that it was far from simple. Yet, I had to acknowledge a part of me longed for the relative safety of the Earth, and there was, deep within me, a fear that I readily admitted to: what if I crossed parallels whilst away from an Earth, and arrived in that foreign space? What would I find so far away from home? Later, in a few centuries, perhaps I might try, but not now.
Despite the foul and battered condition of her body, Lucy felt cleansed as she stood up, facing north and stretching her arms wide with fingers splayed to east and west, imagining the sun’s energy flowing through and so purifying her; she wanted to laugh and run, even to fly and rejoice in what had happened, but though invigorated she was still quite weak, and only too aware of the fact.
Searching within herself, she saw that whatever slumbering power had helped her in the banishment of the malignant presence had imparted something of itself to her as she became little more than a passive channel for its purpose, and if she could isolate and define precisely what it was, she might be able to use it to her advantage, for all power was interchangeable, able to be translated by the user into the whatever form they required.
The stones beneath her were now as featureless and unresponsive as the rocks from which they had been hewn so many centuries ago when they were carved and positioned for knowledge and the harnessing of earthly power, but all around she could now identify centres of energy both natural to the earth and man-made, things both known to her and incomprehensible, though many of them were closed to her in her present condition, as they required too great an effort to tame and bend to her will.
Lucy could not draw on the man-made energy, though given sufficient time it was something she would be able to achieve relatively easily, but only ten miles away was another circle, large and complete, also buried beneath a mound of earth, and dedicated to the art of healing and well-being. Reaching it physically was not immediately possible unless she could communicate her need and ask the Witch to take her in the strange horseless vehicle, but there was another way open to her that gave her confidence so soon after the mysterious exorcism of which she seemed to have been merely an agent rather than the instigator, as if something had been waiting for the correct circumstances before it acted, or reacted.
She sent a call to the distant circle and pictured the lines of power converging in the hill on which she stood, uncertain whether or not the site beneath her could still be used now that it was no longer properly aligned or even active, regardless of the uses to which it had lately been put, but the currents of energy flowed through the earth and made the altars shine to her inner vision, for she was herself a focus.
Lucy felt as if a draught of strong brew were washing through her body and caressing her senses, causing her to experience the same kind of elation and flight of wild freedom she felt as she ran over fields and through forests when wearing her wolf-guise, but this was far more intense, and the exhilaration almost left her breathless.
She became aware of her strength increasing, and was certainly glad of it, but she also grew concerned as she realised that she was the first person in over six centuries to call upon any of the powers in their varied forms; they were clamouring for some form of release after their long confinement, and continual circling from shrine to sanctuary as they strove for freedom. If the power could in any way be likened to water as it flowed from one bend of an underground river to another, so she was now a well-pump that had suddenly tapped into a fresh spring, and could barely contain the pressure building up beneath it.
What if the valve should fail and the water gush out in a fountain? The analogy was only too perfect, for she could barely control what she had summoned in her exuberance, even as she was filled by every kind of energy she had ever known, and many she had not.
There was a time when I rode on a carousel with my son Robert, after his father Jonathan, my first husband, was killed in an accident. Three circles deep were those carved animals of white and yellow, green and red, black and gold; up and down moved the spiralling gilded posts as we laughed and rode across the sky with winged hooves. Lights chased each other in an endless procession through the painted clouds, and at the centre around which our little world revolved sat the man checking the punched cards as they were eaten by the ravenous jaws of an automatic organ.
Later, he bit into a toffee-apple and paid a penny for some throws at the coconut shy, hitting one with his last ball; the coconut didn’t fall, though, as the sand had been sturdily packed behind it, but he didn’t know that; besides, a funfair was for fun, losing as well as winning on the small gambles.
How different he was to the twins Julian and Lilith I’d had by my second husband Leo, but children are still children, even when they pretend they’re not, or are given silly reasons for not being so by elder children who want to be treated as adults without accepting any of the necessary responsibilities that go with the station.
No one with any form of power, no matter how weak or inconsequential it may be, can ever have a completely clear conscience, but continually feeling guilty is self-destructive, even though one might keep on thinking of the old dilemmas: Who would have the conscience of the King? Not I! But what if the King has no conscience? And, almost inevitably: Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Which is easily solved, as none of us have absolute power; no one I know of would take it even were it offered them. There are always regrets, whether caused by sadness, missed opportunities, one’s own foolish mistakes, or simply bad judgement. And, after all, guilt is but a facet of self-pity, in which we all like to wallow occasionally.
Enough of the past, it was time to emerge from my rumination and return to the present world once again, but I felt refreshed, and was as ready as I’d ever be to face the remainder of the day, and the repercussions of my interference or aid (call it what you will, oh conscience of mine).
As I stood up, I was suddenly affected by something that instantly brought to mind an expression of my own childhood so many decades ago, and my body shuddered involuntarily for a few moments. Someone’s just walked over my grave.
I shivered as some form of emotion passed through the air like a windless storm, as if it were carried on the wave-front of a warp similar to Lucy’s crude and desperate entry, and I looked at the girl who was facing me, but with eyes staring blind to her surroundings and seeing things only she could recognise.
This rather bleak setting was now an arena in which she had chosen to conjure with whatever powers were at her disposal; all I could do was await developments, and hope she knew what she was doing, as I certainly hadn’t at her age, when trying to come to terms with my own immature skills.
Like a river about to spill its banks, Lucy felt herself to be both the raging torrent of fluid racing ever onwards to the distant ocean, heedless of its course, and the crumbling soil that could no longer contain or even attempt to guide the flow, and so gave way beneath the wild onslaught with apparent willingness and gratitude.
Energy rushed into her body and mind, causing her to gasp for what seemed a last, dying breath, even as her flesh pulsated with invigoration; though her head soon began to throb, she saw with an unnatural clarity all that her senses could reveal to her about the countryside with its buried and largely dormant sites, and she watched as they awoke in response to the energising of their kin and added their own memories of power and stores of knowledge.
She turned her thoughts inward again, clutching at sometimes desperate means with the meagre knowledge she possessed as her mind reached out and partly absorbed, partly deflected, the almost fatal deluge. The river resumed its course once again, leaving her like an island in its midst; sweating, almost choking, she reached solid ground like a fish thrown to shore on the crest of a wave, and returned to the normal world again, or at least what passed for such in that incomprehensible place.
Lucy stood up, having fallen, unremembered and unfelt, to her knees, and shivered as shock at what she had done and what might have happened had she failed slammed into her. She clenched her teeth, and dared to use a little of her strength to enforce a certain calmness upon her body, discovering that not only did she succeed with an undreamed-of ease, but that she was practically unaware of the energy she had just used to achieve it.
The sympathetic bruise on her back where her brother’s wound lay, stopped aching as soon as she touched it with the fingers of her mind, then she turned her inner senses to her thigh. Blood leaked slowly into the fresh bandages where the fragile protection of new skin had been split, but the wound itself was clean, and there was nothing she could do except accelerate its healing, as she had done countless times before on many cuts and grazes; within a week, there would be only a scar left to tell its tale, and even that would soon fade.
Lucy felt her body flush with excitement, and began to laugh with the sheer joy of having been suffused with so much power, realising only just in time what she was doing, and why. She forced herself calm again, and sent out a call for her brother, but received no reply, which was what she had expected beneath all her hopes of an early reunion; she turned her attention once more to the Witch and the power she wielded so effortlessly and gracefully, seeking contact but unsure of precisely how to accomplish what would have been a simple feat had the other woman been a true Witch.
The call was both curious and urgent, and contained more force than she had intended, but evidently it had some effect, for the Witch’s body reacted as if it had been stung by an errant insect, and even at that distance Lucy could see the expression of surprise and no small amount of trepidation, even the beginnings of fear, that affected her movements. Lucy walked from the mound with far more ease than she had shown when approaching it, carrying with her a feeling of elation, and she made her way towards the stationary, horseless carriage, regarding Karolyn walking slowly to meet her at the roadside.
I had no defence, and did not know of a way in which to erect one, or in some manner attempt to block or even divert the mental intrusion, for that’s what it amounted to, that insistent call demanding some form of reply, but I did not know how to do that, either.
I was suddenly very frightened, and Lucy walked from the barrow with hardly a limp to show for her wound. Emotional empathy and the projection of good-will by healers was the extent of my experiences of non-physical communications, and that had been more than enough to contend with at the time, considering my previous lack of familiarity, but this was a direct attack on the privacy of my own consciousness, and I knew I was utterly powerless to prevent it.
Will-power is never enough, though wishes can be potent forces indeed when combined with certain skills; one must also have the knowledge of how to achieve one’s goal, and that always presupposes one has the necessary power to begin with, no matter how latent it may be. I had none to prevent or ease my naked, vulnerable condition.
Might I have left her (and this world) behind and never looked back? I was the key to her safe return home or wherever she wished to go, and could hardly leave her to unleash her frustration upon the locals. Besides, what if, either by accident or design, she summoned an uncontrolled worldwind even more powerful than that which had brought her here?
I managed to reach the car without stumbling, and tried with little success to forget how near she was as I searched through my books and found the words I needed. “Lucy not talk Caroline head,” I said. “Not head talk.”
She understood the meaning instantly, for I felt something like a cloud lifting from my mind as she withdrew whatever she had placed within me. “Talk, talk,” she replied, and spread her arms to indicate our surroundings. “Not talk is pain.”
There was little I could do in this place to appease her quite understandable need for information, but could I risk taking her anywhere else? “Lucy ride with Caroline, far, far house. Not talk head, talk mouth.”
Lucy shook her head. “Mouth talk is walk, head talk is run,” which was a protest that using words was too slow a way for her to learn anything, and though she was probably right, I couldn’t answer her in the manner she would have preferred.
“Head talk is big pain,” I told her, and she frowned. Too late, I realised she was concentrating not as one who says ‘There must be another way,’ but as one thinking, ‘I know I can do it as long as I’m careful.’
Whatever she did might not only hurt me, but injure me beyond any immediate repair, and the last thing I needed to lose was my self-control. Modulated by a numbing oppression that made her earlier attempts seem like the touch of a feather, her pronunciation of my name thundered against my mind, but I heard / saw / felt it completely in her terms, and it was Karolyn.
“Get out of my mind!” I shouted. If she understood me, my plea was ignored. I felt betrayed, exposed, and knew I was utterly defenceless. I couldn’t even move, now.
Oh god, is this what it’s like to be raped? I had no shame left to be ashamed with. Totally devoid of feelings, I was nevertheless acutely aware of someone else plundering my mind and not even understanding most of what they discovered. She may have been used to communicating with her family by telepathy (for want of a better description, though I have never ever experienced it, despite my familiarity with empathy), but they would be acquainted with it, able to accept the mental contact and converse in the same language. I could do neither, nor could I erect even a token barrier.
Mental and emotional privacy was the most respected of rights in all the worlds I had visited where such things were possible at will (as opposed to spontaneous, undirected outbursts), but here was a girl disregarding my wishes and displaying an arrogance far in excess of any I had thought myself capable of, even in my own formative years. Her powers were vastly superior to mine, and so her use of them and the accompanying disdain would be that much greater. According to the Greeks, hubris led to nemesis, but they only imagined gods and goddesses with really quite small powers, usually elemental rather than mental, and Lucy had yet to leave her hubris behind.
Sudden doubt made her control waver for a moment, but she needed to know so much, and even though her years were yet short, she was far from inexperienced in such matters. Lucy did not call again, as she had no real need with the power she now possessed, but she was stunned by Karolyn’s lack of defence: the foreign Witch was quite weak, really, and had no methods of even attempting to erect an obstruction. All she had was her skill at travelling through doorways in the air and taming the resultant worldwinds, which were far from insignificant achievements, but now that she was in the other woman’s mind Lucy was fully aware of the extent of Karolyn’s powers, feeling her futile efforts at rejection, and her quite considerable anger at the intrusion.
She could withdraw instantly and in the process lose so very much, or try and limit her entry to specific details, ask Karolyn to guide her through the labyrinth of her own mind, but who would help an invader plunder their own home? Lucy only needed to find the parts of her memory wherein lay the origins of her language, and the knowledge of how to use her power; everything else was irrelevant, but how was she to separate what she required from over one and a half centuries of experiences?
The power itself could wait until later, and perhaps she would eventually realise within herself how to direct and tame the knowledge she only partly understood, so she concentrated on the concept of language and skimmed the surface of the decreasing number of years as she went further and further into the woman’s past, seeking Karolyn’s native tongue, as it was evident she had learned quite a few languages during her lifetime, and could think in terms of almost half a dozen, which was very puzzling to Lucy.
Submission was all around as she delved through the memories surrounding her like a swirling mist that never remained still for a sufficient time in which to gain accurate bearings, and though she was aiming for a particular objective she was infused with emotions and vital recollections which she took with her as she swept through Karolyn’s history like a manuscript being read backwards at an ever increasing speed, yet still intelligibly. There were her children, their birth and childhood; her husbands and lovers, their romancing and death.
The most vital impressions and emotions related to her journeys between the worlds, whose numbers were so great as to present Lucy with a figure that defied interpretation, yet Karolyn herself possessed more than a cursory understanding of the mathematics involved, though she rarely used that detailed knowledge and had learned it the better to control and utilise her powers.
She had seen incredible flying machines and swimming creations of glowing metal and ceramics, glittering cities and masterpieces of sensory art that involved the viewer to such an extent they became active participants, and there were her voyages to… the stars? The sun is a star (from a viewing gallery on board a vessel speeding through the void, whose size was such that it would make the largest ship of the ocean seem as a coracle), and the stars are suns (see the arc growing closer and denser and realise it is a world in some far-away solar system, seen through the glass and metal eyes of a thinking machine that flew for over a century to reach its destination). No, it was impossible!
Lucy left those memories quickly behind, as if she had been scalded by the heat of their intensity, and immediately lost her mental balance as she encountered something like a veil behind which she could dimly perceive Karolyn as the same person, but wearing a succession of different faces and bodies, as if they were nothing more than a series of masks for her to wear in a village pantomime. The magic responsible for this was not any form of spiritual possession, or the realisation of the darkest art of necromancy, for it was not at all evil, simply another fact from the Witch’s life, which was full of event.
Karolyn had not tried in any way to forget her previous incarnations, but merely wanted to subdue the effort required for the miraculous operations, and though Lucy was now only a handful of decades away from her goal she was overwhelmed by the discovery of something buried in the Witch’s memories at such a depth that no chance remark or association could shake it forth; it was inexorably linked to the realisation and eventual mastering of her powers, which she had not learned but been born with, and it pervaded that most important time of her and anyone else’s life as she passed from being a girl-child to an adult woman.
I would have shivered in revulsion, perhaps even retched, but was held completely motionless by her probing mind as it sought something deep within me; what, though? Her passage was dredging up things I thought I had forgotten, and others I almost wish I had, but still she went further back, perhaps searching for the seat of my knowledge and skill. I would have given it to her gladly, and freely, if she would only have allowed me, but I could not make that thought known to her, and now had no choice in the matter.
Caroline Chant; TheoDara Rose; Rhiahna Lane; Jeanne Armstrong; Catherine Granger; June Temple. Kate Temple?
How can I truly ever forget the names I have given myself? and my first hesitant step into another world?
I know the people I have been, the lives I have led.
Faced with that, she faltered, having delved so far into me, and I almost felt like laughing in a reckless, sarcastic, manner, but it was only fear of the invasion, and what it might reveal.
Come on! You wanted to do this, not I, so don’t stop now; take it all! This is who I am, all that I have been and wanted to be. Take my hopes and fears, my joys and sorrows, my expectations for the future and regrets for the past. Why have you stopped your rape? It’s all or nothing, you can’t back out now, you’ve committed yourself, don’t you know that?
Perhaps she was aware of my idiocy and rage, I didn’t know, and was beyond caring. Would such emotions transcend the barrier of verbal language and be comprehensible to her in all their detail? or be just a broad, undefined range of feelings that surely (hopefully) must be felt as what they were? Sympathy and empathy could only succeed if they had a basis of shared experience on which to work, but she was after far more than that.
How many minutes had passed since her intrusion (or was it merely seconds?) I had no idea, as I was totally blind in terms of outside experiences to know the length of time she paused before the first thirty years or so of my life, though I was dimly aware of falling to my knees and leaning against the side of the car, clutching it desperately for a support it was incapable of offering.
Lucy was puzzled, but needed to know, like a child, and because of that I could forgive her much of what she was doing, but not the fact she had gone against my express wishes, and ignored my obvious protests.
Lucy recognised them as distant aspects of myself, and clearly, as she moved sideways, the names of others I had known from that period of my life: Nina, Leah, Sally, Francine; Karl, my gorgeous, loving, tender Karl; and Tonio. Then back to me: Catherine, June… Kate.
No, no further. Stop it, please!
My dream on the plane! I’ve never suffered from precognition (for that is how the few people I have met who possessed it have viewed their ‘gift’) and its random but always terribly reliable insights, but could it be mere coincidence? Can psychic shock create so much turmoil that it radiates in a direction contrary to what is usually considered to be ‘forward’, so it becomes a ghost from the future?
Decided, she advanced into the deepest recesses of my memory, and began to slowly analyse who I had been as Catherine and June, and, very briefly, as Kate. I had been many people in a very short time, but the extent and complexity of my life was far more than she had anticipated as it poured into her hungry mind, and because she was an observer I knew she was experiencing the majority of it as if it were from someone else’s point of view. Even then, it was translated by my knowledge of that particular person and her experiences of me: a girl who was rather weak but safe and undemanding, trustful of those she called her friends, and, as it transpired, so much more lost than I had ever been.