preface

 

 

 

 

 

Deep in the everglades, where the sly mists rise and there are only turtles (out through the woods, over the ferny wastes, down into the wetlands, where mud oozes over mud), sometimes, the villagers report, there is a deep and fearsome roar borne across the water on a breeze.

 

They huddle, isolated, each family perched in its stilted hut. At night they haul in their ladders for fear of what might slither up, something as cold and silent as the mist, something big and old and horrible.

 

Of course, there might not be anything out there, might not be anything wonderful in the world for that matter, except the flash of light in water; but that is easier to believe in air-conditioned shopping-malls than it is in the dark Chailey night, when the fog is thicker than your wrist,  even the star-eaten nights when the moon sails over, bright as a B.M.W. headlight, fixing the mists into icy solids.

 

           'Squat, web-footed, greeny grey, truculent and surly,

            given to witchcraft and depression, breeding hugely,

   though losing many young to bronchial complaints and the black fungus,

  the natives of the swampland construct their huts on wooden piles driven

                 sixty feet or more into the seething mud.'

 

so says Parson Grimes' notebook, one of the earliest records of this little-frequented region, where it is easy to believe nothing has changed in a thousand years.

 

                                   <{*}>


                                chapter one

 

The fairies were leaving. Count Ironhand had issued a decree, and while many goblins, trolls, witches and suchlike had decided it did not concern them, the Elvish council had considered the matter serious enough to abandon the sacred pools and groves they had inhabited these many years and set off for new lands.

 

Since when, you may well ask, have the citizens of Faerie taken such account of the proclamations of mere mortals ?  Not often, it is true, but we must bear in mind the reputation of Count Ironhand, who had drowned his own nurse in the bath when but a babe in arms, and not only of the Count himself, but of his newly appointed Chancellor, Norbert Sedge, universally known as 'the Idealist'.

 

Norbert had gained responsibility at Court over several years, enjoying successive promotions, and earning, eventually, what might even be termed favour, though the favour of Ironhand was hard to detect, except insofar as one's head remained attached to one's shoulders. In his career to date Chancellor Sedge had drained swamps, cleared forests, burned churches, crushed revolts, quelled superstition, banished wizards, killed and fried a dragon, instituted significant advances in agricultural practice, opened mines, built roads, and promoted both the eating of fish and a series of mechanical innovations involving the damming of streams and the confinement of many people in large sheds.

 

If some of the sun seemed to go out of the sunlight or the stars to twinkle less merrily when the elves departed, at least it could be said that the trains ran on time.

 

Not of course that there were any trains in that distant age. It was not only the changes that Norbert Sedge set in motion that earned him more respect than love from the people of Poictesme, (and perhaps more fear than either), but the attitude of the man as he accomplished them. He greeted triumph with a sneer, he lived a life of ostentatious simplicity, and offended one and all by his brusque and uncharismatic manner.

 

The seven Wizards who had advised Count Ironhand in the past age of magic were gone into the far west, retreating to ancient castles surrounded by rumour. As is only natural, these castles had tall, decaying towers and deep, dripping dungeons, and in these castles the Wizards wove their most powerful magics, fuelled with anger and shame, working with the strength of desperation. Great were the invocations, the fastings, the vigils, the burnings and the sacrifices they made. An odour of magic arose which came to the sharp nose of the Grim Rationalist Norbert Sedge as he sat in his bare chamber in the Count's palace scratching at dry paper with a quill. He sent for reports. He sent for the regional governers. He sent for scribes. He sent for maps. He sent for Generals. When all these materials were assembled the High Chancellor of the imaginary realm addressed them thus.

 

"It has come to my attention that all is not well in the West. There are rumours. Roads remain unbuilt. There are protests. Rivers run unchecked. Men come and go as they will without paying taxes. There are dragons reported. There is a strike in the mines. The weather is unseasonal. Brigands attack honest travellers. The people have respect neither for the law nor for the authority of the Count. There is a smell of magic."

 

(and here he paused, a little excited)

 

"All this must stop. No interference can be tolerated. We shall raise an army and suppress this rebellion."

 

The Generals nodded and left to issue orders, and the Regional Governers clapped and cheered, and proclamations were written out by the scribes and duly proclaimed in the squares and public places by the appointed and authorised officials.

 

 

                                   <{*}>

 

 

'In the sludgy depths of the delinquent forests to the west of the big river, there is a small village huddled among the trees, there is a castle carved from a huge grey rock, a faint pre-echo of the mountain ranges in the far west. Walid, a thin boy, pale as moonlight, walks the snaking path through the swamp under a sky thick with magic.'

 

Walid held the definite and fixed view that things were not as they should be. The talk of his parents and of his aunts, uncles, cousins and other neighbours was all, had increasingly become, of wonders, signs, portents, omens and supernatural forces.

 

Last week the seventh in a litter of ten pigs had been born with what were apparently wings, which were odd and scaly, and gave it a comical look, as though it was caught in an umbrella. The weather had not been the same two days running. Sudden electrical storms frightened the geese and set them honking. Sometimes it was dark all day, clouds circling the sky like sheep draining from a sink. Trees in the forest seemed to move about under cover of darkness, and Walid was sure he had heard sucking and squelching noises in the night, just as though some great tree-being was pulling up its roots and moving off. Paths too seemed to have lost what certainty of purpose they had had, especially those which were travelled on to distant places; especially, in fact, those which led in and out of the forest. People wandering about at the margins of the swamp nowadays often found themselves in a quite unexpected place, and would then have to trudge home again.

 

A concentrated effort had been made by a party of villagers to attend  market, where they had hoped to exchange slime-fruit and reptile skins for cow's-milk-butter and wheat flour. The unfortunate traders travelled for days, cutting marks on trees, crossing swamps on skis, navigating by stars, sun, the migrations of birds, but always finding their way barred by an impassable tangle of ancient trees and thorny bushes, or a sudden expanse of evil smelling mud inhabited by poison-flies and crocogators. 'It was as though the swamp-forest would not let us out.' they said as they returned, sodden and filthy, with their cargo half lost or spoiled, and their desire for a glimpse of dry ground and green grass and a taste of cow's-milk-butter squelched out of them.

 

Walid, leaving the familiar groves of plumiol trees and the sasquat plantations on the hillocks towards the castle, and his mind being more on the sort of oddness that life had become than where it was his feet were leading him, found himself at last awake in the increasing darkness in an area wholly unrecognisable. He was hungry. He was getting cold. He turned round and walked back the way he had come, but found a stretch of water barring further progress, and returning to the last crossroads was faced with five paths, none of which he recognised.

 

All five led out of the clearing he was in into the deep forest, and the darkness under the trees was only made more threatening  by the encroachment of black oily clouds into the sky above him. He felt as if the last bit of blue up there was his last link to life, and when that was winked out by clouds he fell to his knees at the edge of the clearing, and perhaps he might have cried, being, as far as he could tell, a long way from home in the forest in the dark, had something not happened at that moment which distracted him.

 

Into the clearing, from each of the paths, not all at once, neither yet singly, with a common purpose, very slowly, accompanied by an eerie glow and a low hum and a sound like a tickling in the ears came five robed figures, one carrying a sword, one a golden ball, another something like a pulse in a bottle, this one with a four-armed thing, the last with something else altogether. It was clear that they had not noticed Walid, since when they saw each other they threw back their hoods and began to speak.

 

"There you are!" began one with a hooked nose, placing his bottle on the ground.

 

"Khemal !"

 

"Good to see you again, Ptolemy, and so prompt !"

 

"Aha !  My old friend !"

 

"Where on earth are we ?"

 

"On earth, you think ?"

 

"Well, one presumes so......and where is Demtel ?"

 

"Demtel ?  He'll be along. He likes to make an entrance."

 

"Yes, where is he ?"

 

"What have you brought ?"

 

"Never mind me, what has that fool Sedge been up to ?  I hear he has raised an Army."

 

"Yes, I fear so, I fear so...."

 

"To suppress what he is pleased to term a 'rebellion'."

 

"He is the rebellion !"

 

"Well, what of it ?  An army is an assembly of people."

 

"So is a rebellion. There is no comfort in people. That is well known."

 

"It may be well known to you, but what does it mean ?"

 

"Yes, Gremthell, the little you know you know well enough, I grant you."

 

"And you know nothing at all about everything, Speddle."

 

It was not that all these apparitions looked alike to Walid, but rather that they all looked so strange and different; one bald, another with long hair in a ponytail, one with matted dreadlocks and a huge beard, one thin and unnaturally tall, one almost square, one with a huge belly and bow legs, and that they all talked so fast and so much at once which meant that he couldn't place any of these strange names firmly upon their strange countenances. Walid had a feeling which was like the feeling he had when he stared into the trees as they stretched out above him as he lay on his back and the high green leaves flicked specks of dappling sunlight through a green filter down to the forest floor. The five identically robed figures, who had made such an impressive entrance and who were still illuminated by a glow of unknown origin, (something like firebugs), but who now joked loudly in the still, dark forest as though they were in their own living-rooms, they seemed, although certainly now human in form still nevertheless although apparently real and behaving like people might who had not seen each other for some time, all the same, despite looking as though they were  there, and not see-through or anything, it was to Walid as though they were in a separate place, perhaps a sort of bubble, or raised up above the ground a little, or perhaps they were a vision, a vision like his Uncle had who had drowned. This was only a fleeting impression however which flavoured the moment of their arrival and conversation, but which faded, or was driven back to form a context for the next event in Walid's mind.

 

A sixth figure, similarly robed, appeared in a stunning flash of light. For one instant the surrounding trees and hanging branches, their ridged and various bark, the million leaves and their tiny veins, the mosses on their thick, gnarled trunks, the mosses on the moss, the hanging growths, the fungii, the fallen wood in gradual decay, the receding swamps, level, still, shining wet, radiating out in all directions, the reeds, the saplings, even the black, oily clouds above the clearing; all more clear than daylight, shadowless.

 

Then the sixth man threw back his hood, but Walid could see nothing, blinded by the flash, there was only a sheet of green that slowly turned purple in front of him and everywhere he looked. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, which was no use. When he started to listen he realised that the chattering had died away. He heard voices receding. He stumbled after them as quickly as he dared, dreading the idea of being left alone, blinded, in a strange part of the forest. He banged himself on a tree and scraped his leg on a fallen branch, so he began to crawl, but, as he started sinking into the soft mud called 'schlub', he found a tree-root, sat on it, and sobbed.

 

He could hear nothing now except his own dry, miserable noises. He was going to die, blind and alone in the swamp. He was going to starve and freeze and be subjected to horrible pain and be eaten. After a little while spent whimpering and rubbing his eyes he realised that he would have been able to see if it were not so dark. In the middle distance there was a faint glow among the trees. It was either a swampy or those weird men. Walid didn't care any more what it was. He ran after it as fast as he dared.

 

                                    <*>

 

The Lord High Chancellor was ushered into the presence of the Count.

 

           "To what purpose raise you this unauthorised force ?"

 

   "My Lord. I seek the heightened prosperity of the realm. When wizardry

         and magic are expunged from this land a new era of order,

                    reason and stability will blossom."

 

                    "Your platitudes do not impress us."

 

  "Pardon me, my Lord. To be succinct, then. Valuable trade is being lost

   with lands to the West. Trade means taxes. The western province is in

     rebellion. Tributes remain unpaid. A show of force is advisable."

 

                          "The west is barbarous."

 

                 "All the more reason, then, to subdue it."

 

"True. But it must be done quickly. Armies are unpopular. And expensive."

 

                 "Order is popular. People get used to it."

 

"People get used to anything. 'Order', 'reason'; people do not eat ideas."

 

                               "No, my Lord."

 

     "Go then. Subdue the West. Expell magic. Make sure that reason is

                                profitable."

 

                           "Thank-you, my Lord."

 

Thus it was that a grey host gathered around the Castle of Count Ironhand in the land of Poictesme. Historians cannot generally agree on the date of its assembly. It depends, I suppose, on who you are, or who you were at the time. Nevertheless it must have been a fairly large force, and it cannot have travelled quickly, as the heavy equipment, piled into wagons, was pulled by oxen, and the majority of the soldiers was of recent recruitment, trained for no more than a few weeks, and on foot.

 

                                    <*>

 

Archaeology is a conjectural science. We sift layers of dirt, we note the positions of whatever we find, we make up stories to explain our behaviour to ourselves. The archaeology of the Imaginary Land constructs for us a history made of that which was discarded or hidden. The shards of pottery, the deserted settlements, the drains, the lost and scattered remnants, things which, in their own time, were ignored and disregarded.

 

The area was once all swamp. Drainage works were started early in the Fourteenth Century, drainage works of an unusual size and scope for that era, which soon turned the swamp into a valuable agricultural resource. Pre-existent settlements sustained damage and were abandoned. The ancient Castle had apparently been unoccupied since before this began, perhaps for more than a Century. Traces of splintered bone, human and animal, reveal the hazardous nature of tunnel building and ditch-digging in the shifting, waterlogged mud. Some bodies have been recovered perfectly preserved. The walls of the tunnels are constructed with stone brought from the western mountains, a distance of more than fifty kilometres, in flat-bottomed barges. The ditches are lined with wooden staves and panels, built, in effect, like long boats with no ends. They carried water down a gentle gradient to the River Culver. There was a system of locks installed at a later date, probably in conjunction with works designed to improve the river's navigability. The swamp must have been a severe impediment to communications between the coastal plain, the mountainous region to the west, and the areas beyond, standing as it did across the route to one of the few reliable passes.

 

The conjectures of Archaeology run thus. The swamp was drained to improve communications, health and agriculture. Its drainage represents Historical Fact and Technological Progress, thereby re-inforcing the bases of Archaeology's own prejudices. Further, it suggests that things were better after the drainage than before, that these actions constituted 'improvements'; that our present way of life is superior to others. All these conjectures, self-serving and self-reflexive, are patently false and misconceived. They chime with a notion of History as 'progress' long since dead in the water, they spring directly from a cultural standpoint that sees divine beauty and wisdom reflected only in its own face. All this must be swept aside, and in its place; only the play of values, intricate and subtle, infinitely sparking in the mind, in the Universe; the dance of probabilities. For what story does he make into His-story ?  (and it has always been 'he'). 'The lies of the Victors.' What was believed by those who committed the atrocities would excuse them in the eyes of their contemporaries and successors. Thus the real forever perishes in the service of the imaginary. Both 'now' and in 'posterity'.

 

Except for those shards of splintered bone, both human and animal, the preserved corpses, the 'drainage tunnel', driven deep into the Castle itself, except for remnants, the discarded, the forgotten.

 

For the truth, I asseverate, is that here in this forgotten swamp a terrible, titanic struggle took place, both symbolic and actual, and that here the soul of the world was at stake, and its fate decided, or so it seemed at the time.

 

                                   <{*}>

 

It is perhaps felicitous at this point to behave like a guide-book or Geographical gazetteer and explain that the ancient Principality of Poictesme lies on a verdant plain, bordered on the West and North by mountains, in the East by the Porphrygian Sea, and that its Southerly border is marked by the River Snebs. I could further adumbrate its forests and claim that it is watered by three major rivers and is well known for the quality of its long established agricultural produce. However, I can scarcely be bothered. In truth Poictesme has all but vanished from the human memory, its history; all the lives of so many people, no more than a footnote in the brutal, tawdry, directionless, clod-hopping, 5,000 year massacre we call 'progress', 'evolution', 'civilisation', 'culture'. Well, what of it ?  What concerns us here, what must concern us, is the slow procession over the grey, straight road of the grey army, trudging, mumbling, clattering towards the Castle of the Rock.

 

 

                                   <{*}>

 


                                chapter two

 

 

 

The Castle in the Rock. Rusty armour piled in antique stacks. The rooms are dark, dark as the inside of a mountain. Bald, white, blind, amphibious rats patterplash the deep corridors. Damp pervades, inside everything, on every surface. Even the one fire burning at the centre seems to give out no heat. The fire is small, it has a single flame, that flame is of a dazzling, unnatural white. It illuminates a room deep within the core of the huge rock, and it illuminates the activities of three men and a boy, the sole so to speak human inhabitants of the castle.

 

Not to say, however, that there are not other presences there, even other intelligences: There is a feeling or sound as if of the beating of many wings. There is sometimes a light the exact colour of darkness. There is a smell like a giant moth. Things slip sideways from the corner of the eye. There are thickenings in the air that seem about to burst. There are sudden coldnesses that pass about in silence. The Castle in the Rock is full to the top with atmospheres and spirits.

 

At first, all seems silent in the chamber in the centre of the Castle in the Rock. Only the single white unflickering flame. But later, when we have thickened into shape, we will hear an undercurrent of voices which guides the procedures being undertaken. Each of the Magi is involved in the summoning and maintaining of powerful energies. They have in mind an architecture or pattern of multifold interperability, a self-sustaining web of invisible forces limited only by the latencies of its deep structures. To this end they labour, guided by their sympathies and their experience, by the knowledge passed onto them, the knowledge of forms and essences divined over countless generations by the ancients.

 

[Now we are nearly here, we are arriving in the shadows at the edge of the Chamber, it is hard to squeeze through so much rock, so much time. Track stands by the flame, reading a huge book in which are written all the possible futures. His lips are moving as he reads a line here and there. The secret hinges of the world are implied in its cryptic, ever-changing text. Schadengraf stands in the midst of a pentacle, moving his arms in a pre-determined pattern and sometimes singing in a horrible, cracked falsetto. Gremthell watches his bubbling pot, adding tinctures to the potion, stirring thrice widdershins, feeding more incense to the brazier, reciting a spell in an unknown language. The fourth occupant of the room, apart from ourselves, is a boy of about ten or eleven years. I do not know him. He is not in the directory of Wizards. He is eating from a bowl with a spoon made of horn. He wears a shapeless tunic. He seems relaxed and distracted, possibly tired. I think we can attempt a little limited contact with him. He is feeling.....he is......cold......food slides down his throat....ah. Peristalsis. How satisfying. He thinks....is thinking......(mother image. Dark warm. Loss. Lost.) He wonders what his parents are doing. He misses them. He is confused. He has been recently frightened.

 

Stumbling after the retreating glow through the unknown lowering of formless shadows and crying out in fear as he reaches the last figure, pulling at his robe, the head turns towards him, he falls, is lifted.

 

(The wizards crowd round the singular apparition. There is an image, that is to say, of faces, blurred and shifting, with stern expressions.)

 

Walid is weeping. His eyes, his eyes fill with tears. There is a tightness in his throat. His nose feels pinched. He is leaking.

 

                                  "Mama."

                                  "Mama."

 

Mama is not here. Mama is a long way away somewhere else. Here there are only strange men.

 

There is speech in a language to which we do not have access.

 

Walid is hoisted onto the shoulder of the square one, and taken up to the great dark walls and open gate of the Castle in the Rock. Inside, all the sounds are different. He is put on a pile of sacks in a corner and left sniffling. After a while a thin, bearded one older than death comes with a glass box with fire in and some brown dry sticky things which he shows are to be eaten. He eats one himself.

 

Walid is amazed at the box of light. The tall one prevents him from touching it, but hangs it on a hook nearby. Walid is unwilling to eat the brown things. The tall one puts one in his hand and Walid drops it, but it smells good and is sticky, and when he licks his finger it is sweet. When he eats, stuffing them in his mouth, the sweet brown liquid oozes down his throat and out between his lips. The tall one smiles, which is probably friendly, but which is like looking into a graveyard. He produces a ball from his pouch. The ball glows. He moves his hands over the ball, which is then gone. He looks up, and the ball is there in his hand again. He throws it away with a sudden, dismissive flick. Walid's shock and disappointment turn to wonder when the ball bounces, glowing back to his feet.

 

The wizard smiles again, shows him a glass of milk, a blanket, turns and leaves.

 

Walid stares at the bright box as he holds the ball, which he dare not throw into the endless darkness beyond. He is never going to let this ball go. Never. Never. Never.

 

Now, quickly, we must go. Track is onto us. All of you now. Come on.

 

 

                                   <<§>>

 

 


                             GUIDE G.A. 94721.

 

report follows:

 

Led party in third-person narratorial mode into Cavern in Rock

(Scene B.S. (P/T) 041/=k). Experienced psychic probe phenemenon, possibly deriving from subject 'Track' (ref.01). Request and recommend discontinuation of intrusive monitoring around this episode, and in particular this scene and subsequent 'magical' episodes (P/T 49, 52, 75, 76, 77, etc.). The reduction of client insertion already implemented has eased, but not eradicated the dangers inherent in this proceedure, which I estimate to be AMBER with particular emphasis on the effects of penetration, probing, ghosting. There is a possibility of flux or even temporal transference, remote as this may seem. The possibility remains strong that such activities and their concomitant effects will alter or disturb the course of this probability, and result in inversion, warping, and other, frankly unpredictable results in violation of the Codicil requirements and guarantees 5, 7, 12, 19, 31b and etc. etc.

 

This is a dangerous time.

 

 

                                   <{§}>

 

 

The Idealist sits behind his eyes engaging with the tasks which he confronts. Magic is a form of confusion. Once things are seen clearly, such elements can be eliminated. In thus such a way does his conscious mind regard the parched hinterland of his internality. He is content that all from that quarter should be laid neatly in rows, like the rows of wheat in the fields either side of the straight road.

 

Behind him stretched the long grey train of his army, inching across the broad, flat plain towards the distant mountains, the setting sun. In an hour more they would break the march and set up tents in blocks and lines, build twenty-five similar fires, cook their food, and sleep. Provisions, bedding, tools, lists, procedures, order. All plans turn within the great plan, as laid down by patterns perceptible to the intellect, grasped by reason.

 

The reports of scouts had indicated that the area around the Castle in the Rock, (a swampy, wooded, unhealthy place in need of drainage, clearance and resettlement) had been defended against approach. Unnatural-seeming growth around the edges of the swamp had blocked the paths. There was no possibility of moving in the cavalry and heavy equipment, nor yet of marching in a large company of infantrymen in good order. A pitched battle was unlikely in any case. Norbert Sedge smiled a small, taut smile. It was very well. He would not be unprepared.

 

 

                                   <<§>>

 

 

It was a long march with the slow, creaking carts full of speculations.

 

When the carts were unpacked they did not disgorge the expected stock of halberds, pikes, chain mail, breastplates, cannon balls and soforth. Instead there were shovels, buckets, huge leather socks, hammers, long boards, stakes, planks, dowels, awls, saws, ropes and all manner of contraptions for pumping and scooping. There was a great deal of unpacking and assembling, gathering and collecting, sorting and issuing and receiving and explaining.

 

The first organised parties approached the borders of the swamp across a ferny heath. They cleared the area of bracken, which they tied in bundles and stacked. Another party squelched round the edges of watery areas collecting reeds and carrying them to a gradual pile. Small thickets were also cut down, and the occasional large tree that was caught out on its own. The main body of the wood remained untouched, a glowering presence at the limits of the world, the dark boundary of the unknown.

 

These bundled ferns and reeds and the brushwood were used to make runways, tracks or pontoon bridges across the liquid plain. The paths were narrow and temporary, made to slide barges or trays along, which in turn bore large devices made of wood and brass and leather. Most of these machineries were left resting in various positions along the course of the trackways, but two, which resembled thin cannons, were taken right up to the edge of the wood, and supplied with a stock of large and heavy barrels which had to be rolled more than a league.

 

Filbert Gran died in the attempt, squelched into the sucking mud. He had been pressed with his brother and two friends, given grey clothes and told to march. Rolling barrels over the endless, shiny, stinking mud, coming to a place where the boards slapped loosely against water, and so trying to build up speed he had lost his footing; the raised edge of the track failed to hold the barrel on its course, Filbert grabbed for it, it whirled him round, pulling his legs away from the slippery boards. The end he grabbed slowed dramatically relative to the other, but its momentum propelled it forward, sideways, over the edge, with Filbert underneath.

 

The barrel remained where it was, as if cautious of further movement. Of course, all this was physics, the simple, inevitable laws of motion; there was nothing uncanny about it, despite the talk of the soldiers.

 

There were few major settlements in this underdeveloped western region, none near the swamp. The grim straight road was more of a promise or a threat. The small villages and the scattered farmhouses were visited with orders for a 'special levy' to be made by the authority of the Count. By this means the army was to be supplied during what seemed to be a siege, as far as anyone could tell, although it was the strangest siege in recollection, with no enemy in sight, nor any garrison, nor any parley, nor any restraint of passage of goods and foodstuffs, nor any attempt at encirclement. In truth the enemy was isolated enough already, if there were any enemy.

 

They had been there a week, and the weather had been good, although dark clouds gathered in the West, and they looked set fair for a month, for all anyone could tell. The wits of their commanders were becoming strained with the effort of keeping them gainfully employed or at least busy. News of their first fatality spread quickly through the camp. Until that point the stinging flies and the noises from the swamp at night had been the greatest worry.

 

It was not long before others died. On the eighth night a terrible rainstorm turned the camp to mud and raised the water level in the swamp several inches. Two men drowned, having blundered into soft mud when their tent collapsed, the rain smacking at them in lumps so that they could not see, or breathe, or speak, or hear properly, the water on the ground everywhere equally leaping to meet the water falling out of the sky, there being no perceptible division between 'camp' and 'swamp' any more.

 

After that, all water was the same water, there was nowhere to get dry, there were the flies, and the snakes and other things escaping the flood, the food was wet and spoiling, there was little or no fresh fruit. Now they began to fall ill and die of fever, sickness, diahorrea. Some began to say the place was cursed. Green mould grew on leather. Rust began to eat chain mail. Still it rained. The horses began to lose their hooves. It rained for seven weeks, not always hard, in fact it may sometimes only have been low cloud, but before it stopped raining the pontoons and brushwood walkways had vanished and everything was the colour of mud, except the shining, naked water.

 

When the sun began to heat the mud the floods gradually began to slip back, but the flies and stink were twice as bad, and a dank, unhealthy mist rose from the water, setting to a fog as thick as butter when the air cooled in the night.

 

Your companions, clothes, hair, face, body, tent, bed, food, horse (if you had one), even your name were all a uniform brown with mud. Elsewhere was only shining water and the sickly mist. Or else it was all invisible, everything separated by a fog which stopped fires burning and killed a shout at arm’s length.

 

Whether it was this, or fever from the bites of the water flies, or what on earth or beyond it was - who could possibly do more than merely indicate certain prevailing conditions at this distance ? - but anyway a fear gripped the camp, a fear that there was something uncanny about this change in the weather, a fear that turned to stark panic when a flock of birds or bats or some flying experience perhaps confused by the fog flew into the camp and beat about them with blind wings and sat croaking on the ground and on the ridges of the tents to be disturbed suddenly by a stray foot in the dark.

 

                                 "SPIRITS"

 

was the cry then, and all was running and splashing and separate red panics. Had there been someone, someone in authority who had the respect and trust and affection of the soldiers, and who had called out to the men to stay, not to run from birds in a fog and into certain, sucking danger; but to join together in a group and feel the strength of their community, which would defend them from danger; had there been some such person there then perhaps Norbert Sedge would not have retreated in defeat from his first foray against the powers of the west, but as it was his protestations were in vain and his exhortations went unheeded.

 

Many died that night. It was at the head of a reduced and much chastened force that the Grim Rationalist set about regrouping, fifteen leagues or so away, on the nearest hill.

 

 

                                  <<{§}>>

 

 

Snape, when we find him first, has not quite recovered from the experience of volunteering for barrel rolling. We have to go through it, it preys on his mind. He had thought it would be better to do something rather than march around the camp for the amusement of Sergeants. Barrels had always had pleasant connotations for him before this, they had generally contained something good, but nothing in his previous experience of barrels had prepared him for rolling large numbers of huge ones over duckboards surrounded by an endless swamp. Snape was big, and liked to take things slowly, so he rolled his barrels carefully over the creaking, splashing track. It was he who had christened it 'Norbert's Pier'.

 

There were eight of them rolling in a team, and then they stacked the barrels and walked back. Snape had been working with some men from his village, among them Filbert Gran and his brother, and in fact had been immediately behind when Filbert had lost control of his barrel and been squelched. There's no other word for it, really, he thought, the mud too soft to allow 'squashed', but the humour of it disturbed him. It had been a bad thing. Filbert tried too hard, was going too fast, endangering himself. Snape had said as much, but Filbert had just smiled and shrugged and shaken his head and opened his hands towards him as if saying 'What can I do ?  This is the way of me. I can no more control me than change the weather.' Which is the way of things, after all, even among friends. When Snape closed his eyes he could see the barrel lurch, and he felt the dizzy jerk in his gut that comes with stepping down something unexpected.

 

They had squelched through the expanding edges of the swamp and past the first few farms to the low hills and the first (or last) settlement and the beginning (or as it had seemed to them before the end) of the road, which led indifferently off into the distance across the wide plain and towards the rich farmlands of home. Camp was re-assembled, messengers were sent back to the Court. Latecomers arrived in sodden grey uniforms. Men shuffled and spat.

 

Snape had been seconded to kitchen duty, and was sent with a party of heavily armed men to collect provisions from the local market that Tuesday. They trudged into town through the rain, the general view of the party being that they should retire to an alehouse for the day, but the officer in charge was some toffee-nosed squit with a head full of duties, and their Sergeant was well-known for his rough and ready dispensation of martial justice, so it was with little enough expectation of a good time that the troop passed the first dirty hovels at the outskirts of Newholme and realised they were already in the centre. Snape, as appointed expert, detached himself from the general body of the troop and inspected the meagre stalls of produce set out around the mud. There was precious little available, the quality was appalling, the prices, when enquired about, insanely high. Such was the effect of this on the spirits of the party that it was only the unexpected decision by the Viscomte de Gallas to retire to the hostelry that pacified them.

 

Once inside the unpromising shed, marked by a bush hanging above the door, the Viscomte was ushered into a private room and the rest of the company removed their helmets, ordered ale and stood in a gently steaming group round the fire.

 

The landlord was a fat thief with one eye and a greasy beard. Snape and the Sergeant, leaning now on the bar with their attention on the hams and the sausages hanging from the rafters, saw him enter the kitchens, saw, later, plates of food being carried out to the private room, a joint of roast beef dripping with gravy, two partridges and a pheasant, piles of roast potatoes, an assortment of pies each venting a secret steam, fruit, wine, brandy, cheese, bread, yellow slabs of butter, jugs of cream.

 

"Well now, landlord, you lay a fine table."

 

"For those as can pay."

 

"Why yes, of course, we understand matters of trade, we are not brigands,

are we lads ?"

 

 

(Calls of 'no', 'not likely' and 'worst luck' from the troops.)

 

 

"But privately, between ourselves, you must have had word of our coming."

 

"No, to be sure, had I known I would have had something special prepared, a

roast sucking-pig, perhaps; or a full banquet, eh, with dancing; but as it   

is all we have is beef, ham, fowl, cheese, bread, soup, fruit......."

 

"Dancing ?  Well, there's a thought. You mean to say you have all this provender just lying spare, on the off-chance ?  You never get all this from the Market out there."

 

"Ha !  The Market !  There's not many buying today, I'll warrant. That's

just what Sir Hugo left instructions for."

 

"Oh," continued Snape, not really understanding, "So where do you get your

provisions ?"

 

"From Sir Hugo, by his warrant, from the local farms. There's not much left   for Market. We've had unseasonal weather this twelvemonth. Unseasonal."

 

"You can say that again, right enough. We were caught in the rain properly

a day or two back, and near washed clean away. The Sergeant here lost his hair in a sudden downpour, and I myself was a thin man, before the flood."

 

"Ha !  Yes, well things have been this way or near as bad for months.   Would

you gentlemen be requiring anything more ?"

 

"As to our requirements, Landlord, well, a ton of gold, a mile of beer,       a

waggon-load of women and six acres of land each might see us through, but for now I think a slice of pie and another jug of ale for the Sergeant and myself will have to do."

 

 

In due course the company re-assembled, and marched from the hostelry in a ragged line with the Viscomte ambling on his charger at its head. At an order from the Sergeant three men approached each of the stalls in the market and overturned them. Sullen faces peered at the backs of the soldiers as they returned to camp.

 

When news of the expedition reached the Grim Rationalist he filleted the essential from the raw information. His first reaction was to declare war on Sir Hugo. But Sir Hugo would have to wait. First it was necessary to feed and billet the troops. The Inn in Newholme would seem appropriate, and such local dwellings as might be available. Then, and with great urgency, a forward camp must be re-established at the edge of the swamp, and a new tactical plan evolved, and reinforcements and new equipment obtained, and preparations for a siege, and for a major public works project, and for all manner of eventualities, whether of supernatural origin or not.

 

 

                                   <<§>>

 

 

There was no doubt a great hewing of trees and cutting of planks and sawing of timbers. Also a great stripping and demolishing of barns, much to the disgust of local farmers, who had a hard enough time as it was, what with the rain falling on the mud, and the mud rising up to meet it. And the Grim Rationalist decreed that a vast number of barges be constructed, and that strange boats with hinged bottoms be built, and a number of brass devices appeared up the long road from the coast and were attached to certain of the smaller barges, and at a certain time this weird flotilla was nudged, slithered and dragged to the edge of the swamp, in sight of the looming trees (had it not been for the eerie, swirling mist.)

 

The men were embarked according to instructions, and the barges slid over the liquescent surface of the swamp propelled by water wheels powered by a crank. But the Grim Rationalist was no crank. He so arranged things by the exercise of consciousness over matter (but mediated through social and mechanical systems _ structures, oh my beloved) that those certain smaller barges equipped with brass implements first approached the huge trees across the lake, and taking aim with their wierd nozzles, and priming their fuel-lines, and building up pressure in their air-skins they sent forth vast, billowing clouds of flame which crept frightfully over the surface of the water, sizzling, and which stuck to the skin of the trees and burned into their sapwood and through to their ancient hearts, the flames tearing upward, crackling the great flabby leaves on the huge pendant branches.

 

Imagine.....Patches of fire drift across the water. Soon the barges of the fire-breathers would also be consumed by the flames. A line of flat-bottomed boats was arranged and scuttled, the mariners from these sacrificial vessels clambering aboard barges which returned them to base camp, (constructed on piles, but rather barge-like itself) to collect more boats and sink them too. In this way an almost perfectly straight channel was made from the region that can now properly be termed 'river' deep into the place we now consider a drained swamp.

 

At certain times, after a day or two, when the smoke had died down and the mist lifted a little, before the rain came again, it would have been possible, perhaps, to see a blackened area in the wooden fringes of the impenetrable swamp, an area marked by inroads of sky against black spikes. It was towards this caesura that the channel of dead boats proceeded.

 

 

                                   <<*>>

 

 

The mythic histories of those few primitive swamp-dwellers who remain seem to fuse this conflagration with its magical counterpart in the figure of 'the Bull-Dragon' or 'Great Crocodile'. (See here Grûber's seminal account 'The Religion of the Bulldozer', Berlin, 1942). Imagine, however, if you will, the cowering, mud-stained pygmy brought face to face with the implacable force of technology, the awe, the revelation of the majesty of the coming age. We shall return to this motif of fire destroying him who wields it at a later time.

 

 

                                   <<*>>

 

 

Jehb stood at the edge of the wood and looked out at the distant, toiling figures. He had come to shoot water-birds, but the activity had scared them, they were feeding elsewhere. He spat into the still water.

 

                               'Shitfuckers.'

 

 

                                   <<§>>

 

 

'Historical Visitations' is all decent and respectable. We don't do no snuffs, we don't do perverts, we do proper historically significant moments, what we call crucial narratives. We get trouble sometimes, mostly with the guides, sometimes with the customers, but it's usually nobody's fault, it's just the way it takes them. Materialisation and time-porting and psychism, well, they wear you down, they can come as a shock to the client, but for a guide, they wear you down.

 

 

                                   <<§>>

 

 

What worries me is the way in which by entering the mind of another we might change the way it thinks of itself. The mind is bigger, more active than we know. Our knowing of ourselves is merely conscious. I don't want to be caught. And then the narrative, when the narrative seems clear, by, when entering, and then taking places, picking spots where something is made into a point on a string which is a necklace of moments pointing one way into the future, when really at each of these points, and any point, anywhere there is always the endlessly possible stretching out into other places. Sometimes the world is wearing thin. Sometimes it almost seems as though we are tying up the past, holding it to the shape we want. It seems as though anything could happen. And when you enter, silent, secret, slow, reserving yourself in a hidden place, behind imaginary barriers in an imaginary space within a distant time, hollowed, whittled, refined, distilled to a whisper....... then you are almost not, and perhaps if something were to happen you might cease to be, might never come back.

 

 

                                   <<§>>


As each barge is sunk in position and the end-boards removed, water rushes in, thick and oily and green grey, and flows out of the far end into the deeper water of the river. A further party is detailed to clear obstructions in the river downstream, but the recent rain has done most of that, and the river slides, wide and flat, off through the distant plain.

 

They build for weeks. They build 4,000 barges. They pile bags of mud on top of muddy banks. They bail and sluice and drain and dredge and caulk. They live for months in the bilges, coaxing soupy water out of mud. Still the rain comes, sometimes thin and gradual, sometimes solid. The network of barges spreads out its delicate capillaries like the veins in a leaf. Mud chokes the channels, walls give way beneath the weight of mud, mud pushes at the creaking boards, men wade or paddle anxiously through the channels, hearing the walls creak as the mud presses with infinite subtlety, infinite patience, oozing and seeping.

 

Six men are crushed when the walls give way in channel b.12 as they investigate a blockage. Repair work takes three weeks. Four men are drowned in flash floods. Twenty-seven men suffer serious injuries manoeuvering barges into position. Seventeen are lost without trace 'outside' the network of scuppered boats. Five are drowned when their barge sinks before time. One hundred and twenty-three men desert. The countryside is stripped of timber. There are no carpenters to be found, neither for gold nor for love in fifteen counties.

 

Still the rain comes.

 

Still the water rises.

 

 

                                   <<§>>

 

 

Newholme itself was little more than mud. The troops were huddled in barns and hen-houses, decamped upon the floors of hovels, tucked into lofts and privies. There was no timber to spare for building shelters.

 

Sir Hugo had been prevailed upon, by force of necessity, to provision the troops, but a meagre ration was all that was forthcoming. At least Snape got his share of what there was. Whatever grew underwater, or had escaped the mould. Whatever you could cook out of damp barley flour, in a wood oven, that's what they ate. Truth and Reason, all very fine in principle, no doubt, were not great rallying-cries to the diseased stomach; but at least there was no more cholera 'up here', the water was clean.

 

It was clean because it was rain water.

 

The cholera had drowned.

 

Snape hadn't seen the laborious inching of the capillary channels, he didn't care, he wasn't interested, he just chopped and stirred and washed, and stayed as much in the kitchen of the Inn as he could manage, and as near the oven as he thought advisable, and sometimes nearer than that.

 

 

                                   <<§>>

 

 

MEMO : to GUIDE 94271

 

It is known that this period (P/T 041/=k-93) shows signs of instability. Advise caution regarding probing, ghosting. Present narrative must continue at all costs. No, repeat no infringements of Codicil are anticipated, the situations are being fully monitored. Take it easy.

 

                                  Travis.

 

 

                                   <<§>>

 

 

"Take it easy !  Take it easy !  I'm fucking mad about this. He expects me to take a party of V.I.P.'s up against trained wizards and 'take it easy' at the same time. Fuckwit."

 

"You need a break."

 

"I need a break. I need.......Oh Christ, I'm sorry, lover. I better take a pill, I better smoke a joint, I better go to bed, I ought to eat, and have a shower."

 

He went out and slammed the door into his bedroom, and she could just tell he was going to crank up the Wagner, so she let herself out before the Overture started to shred her ears. Pulling on her coat she walked with her head down through the silent corridor. She punched the lift button and stepped into the shaft, falling slowly at first and then faster, perfectly calm, slowing to a dignified halt at 'ground level', which for her was her auto. The screen flashed on, a grainy image of a fat man in a foolish hat with braid on it.

 

"Thank-you for visiting Bellevue. I hope you had a pleasant time."

 

"I hate these old-fashioned buildings."  she could almost hear the Wagner, and shuddered. She gunned the motor through the open wall. Maybe she'd go over to Billy's and drink some wine, and maybe they'd fuck.

 

 

                                   <<§>>

 

 

In the hole in the Rock, weeks since our last visit, as the drains inch out into the swamp and the rain flows down outside, the three magicians bicker. Track insists that the book of the infinite futures contains fewer possibilities than before. The others, naturally, deride him as an old trickster. Gremthell is feeling pleased with himself because of the continued downpour, and is even prepared to side with Schadengraf, a severe ritualist, in pouring scorn on Track.

 

"Nonsense. Your old book is full of lies."

 

"You place too great a reliance on Materials. The Essence of Action lies in Concentration."

 

"Oh rubbish. I'm telling you what I see, not what I want."

 

"Sedge will never penetrate the swamp. No drains can suck the skies dry."

 

"That's all very well, but all I'm saying is; oh what's the use anyway. Apart from that, I have had a peculiar sense of intrusion. It's useless trying to influence Sedge. He tells himself it would not be reasonable for it to rain forever, and what is unreasonable cannot be. He simply ignores it. He keeps building. Then there is Sir Hugo. He is tired of feeding the troops. He is tired of the rain. I did not tell him that you were summoning a Dragon, Schadengraf, but I'm sure he will soon tire of that too. He is afraid of Sedge. He is afraid of us. He is afraid of anyone purposeful."

 

"What about this dragon, anyway ?"

 

"Oh, er, well, it's most inconvenient, but I have to purify some more tallow. Virgins seem scarce on Sir Hugo's estate. Apart from a few minor setbacks it's all going very well. Things are always a problem."

 

"And you say I place too great a reliance on materials. The cheek of it !"

 

"Well, we're holding the line, anyway. We should get in touch with the others and see what they're up to. If we ever get this bloody dragon sorted out then we can think about moving West and building up the Grid."

 

"That's all very well for you to say, but let me make it perfectly clear that conceiving a Dragon is a work of concentration that requires of the Thaumaturge the Ultimate in Asceticism, Dedication, Discipline, Purity and Knowledge."

 

"And humility, I presume."

 

"Yes, and bloody speed and all."

 

"Oh !  Very well !  I shall retire to my quarters. I can see no use in prolonging this discussion."

 

 

                                   <<§>>

 

 

Looking over the flat grey plain towards the dark line of trees, seeing only the obstacle, the method, the gradual implementation of plans in pursuit of purpose. Nature presents obstacles which man may circumvent only by understanding Nature. Nature responds to laws greater than herself, she cannot help it. A careful and consistent application of these laws will tame the wilderness and bring all things into Harmony with Reason. Than which there is no greater good, than which there is no greater good.

 

Huge waxed canvas and leather pipes were laid in the bottom of the trenches, and after much sucking and gasping an outsized leather bellows pumped by three large men succeeded in producing a sluggish greasy flow into the course of the largest stream. Each of the tubes had to be prevented from collapsing on itself with constant attentions from damp soldiers to the orientation of its willow hoops. The men had no memory left of a time before mud, before wading, punting, before rain and mist and the damp cold air and the slimy mud drying in their hair and eyebrows and beards, cracking off their clothes in sodden flakes, getting in their boots, mouths, fingernails. It is as though time has stopped, or has gathered into a circle, an eddy, or has become bogged down in the dreadful mud.

 

 

                                   <<*>>

 

 

Sequence.

 

It is all about sequence. Sequence provides its own logic. Cause preceeds effect, which follows, step by over-lapping step, becoming cause by virtue of the next effect, things becoming clear only backwards, sense seen only in the rear-view mirror, the windscreen showing nothing but the clash of chaos. So if it were possible to know when exactly it was that the Earl of Poictesme became restless, perhaps at the prompting of Sir Hugo, about the expense and longuers of this Western campaign, and what form exactly his representations took, we might be able to judge better the proper interpretation of what evidence we have.

 

According to Blanchard in his challenging intervention 'Myth Representations of Western Europe.'

 

            'The first army of the West was mired in the swamp.'

 

which, if taken literally might explain the large numbers of (male) bones discovered showing no signs of violence and previously ascribed to a 'plague pit'.

 

'The Songs of Elfland', the anonymous collection of ballads and tales to be found under lock in the library of the University of Fnin tells that a great wall of mud was conjured by three mighty wizards.

 

                  'Which did with slow and dreadful force,

                   engulfe the armie in its course.....'

(Guscott's translation).

 

 

                                   <<*>>

 

 

The snares of magic are not all like miracles. Bad luck and bad weather are the stock-in-trade of witchcraft. But slow though time was, equally slow were the plans of Norbert Sedge. Count Ironhand sent messengers up the long road to the very end, requiring his Chancellor to return to Court with his army, but Norbert returned with only a small retinue and reasoned with the Count, promising rich rewards from trade and plunder in the west.

 

The River Culver waxed fat, and turned grey. Imperceptibly, the swamp began to drain.

 

Returning at last from his duties at Court, the Idealist was struck at once by the difference. First, there was the smell, a smell like a thousand things rotting, only very far away as yet. Then there were things; visible, permanent things breaking through what had been the unblemished surface of the water, far away across to the trees. He checked the level on stakes driven into the mud. Some had sunk, or leaned drunkenly, one had floated away; but the general message of the others confirmed that the water level was falling. And so it was that over a period of months the swamp gradually became drained as new channels were opened and the river-bed dredged, and sacks full of mud were piled on either bank.

 

In the Castle in the Rock the three Wizards released their haunting spells and their pestilences. Beasts with more legs than was wholesome squirmed in the oozy pools. Headless, white, bald flourescent rats splashed and pattered in the night. Evil-smelling fogs spread disease and disquiet. A man walking with his troop would suddenly find himself alone, a new light revealing to him the strangeness of his place and person. Men gathered together and spoke in hushed tones of God.

 

Sedge had fifty men trained to dig ditches and tunnels with their heads in wet cotton bags and wax in their ears. Men deserted in twos and threes, some walking down the long road to the dry, sane places they had left, some sneaking west to the swamp or the forests or the mountains to take up the ragged life of outlaws. Anything was better than the endless mud and the endless barley porage.

 

Over the course of months the dwindling force sucked the great swamp to a spongy slime. Floods assailed the lower-lying settlements beside the River Culver, forcing hundreds into the hills. A second causeway was built across the stinking ooze that remained and again barrels were rolled out to a brass-snouted box under the brooding trees. The rain had reduced to a drizzle not much thicker than a cloud, which alternated with a wet fog not much finer than drizzle. It was a drizzle that had lost its way down, and unsure of what to do now clung to every surface, every hair, every lace or string, forming into droplets, rushing in sudden trickles, dripping with hypnotic plips.

 

At a certain time on a certain day Sedge gave the order, barrels were emptied into the roaring gullet as a spark was struck, and when the bellows pumped, huge cascades of insane fire spurted and clung to the great trees, to their aerial roots, to the mud, crackling and fizzling, to the ground about the nozzle, to the stray spillage of a cracked barrel, to the stack of barrels, the screaming men, the roaring machine, the walkway, and in a sudden blast engulfing all and blinding, the raging liquid fire spread out across the flat mud, sizzling and boiling in an angry lake.

 

The forest burned for sixteen days.

 

 

                                   <<*>>

 

 

"Ha ha."

 

She stood in the middle of the damp wet square with the trees round and the huts stuck up on poles all shouting back 'Ha ha' and the people looking, all looking, and she moved quickly in a narrow circle leading the way in and round and then suddenly she stopped.

 

She was perfectly still, and everything around her became still also.

 

She clapped her hands.

 

There was silence in all directions, as far back as yesterday, as far as you could hear.

 

Into this silence she projected a tiny thread of sound which ascended from her mouth, her head thrown back, and expanded, increasing in height and volume, rising, rising above huts and trees and into the lowering clouds.

 

"My people, oh my people, hear and know."

 

"We hear."  comes the response from the gathered circle of the tribe.

 

"This day is come among us a new spirit in this place, the Great Crocodile has sent his chosen Son to protect us in our time of need. For I, Telemaja, have seen him."

 

 

                                   <<*>>

 

 

"It's too damp for Dragons."  shouted Schadrengaf, turning on his heel and clumping up the worn stone steps.

 

"I smell something."

 

"You smell bad."

 

"No, I smell smoke."

 

 

Gremthell turned and sniffed the wind.

 

 

"You're right."

 

 

They could see a darkening over to the East at the edge of the Forest. Schadengraf had almost disappeared indoors again.

 

 

"Hey Schadengraf, here's your fire. Go and fetch him back again, boy."

 

 

Walid ran up the steps and pulled at his cloak.

 

Smoke was now rising in a column. A deep red glow was just perceptible beneath it. Schadengraf smiled, revealing even, pointed teeth. Spreading his arms, he unleashed the Dragon.

 

 

                                   <<*>>

 

 

Legends recorded in Parson Grimes' Notebook suggest the wave of mud was succeeded in turn by a wall of fire which consumed both forest and Wizards, leaving only a pile of ashes which never moved, no matter how strong the wind, and upon which

 

           '...no plant would grow, and no creature prosper.....'

 

 

                                   <<*>>

 

 

The notebooks of the estimable Parson Grimes go into some detail on the legends and rituals associated with the figure of the Great Crocodile. At the dead of night at certain times of the year a deputation of villagers dressed in bizarre costumes picks its way past the swamp pools and under the slime trees and through the ancient mud to the deepest and darkest fastnesses of the forest. There they enact a grotesque ritual whose origins are lost in the insanity that preceded religion and perform the wanton sacrifice of a human victim, a victim left impaled upon a stake at the edge of the darkest pool, a victim whose low groans and ghastly shrieks haunted the night forest as the procession returned at moonfall.

 

Parson Grimes records the tradition as being in order to assuage the hunger of the Great Crocodile, and deflect its depredations from the settlements nearby. This spirit or being is said to exhale fire, to fly when necessary, to share reptilian characteristics with the native crocogators, ballivants and snake-lizards, to sleep for months or years in the mud at the bottom of a deep pool, to prize human flesh, to understand speech and to be able, in some unexplained way, to decide questions of ethical or political importance. The creature does not seem to be regarded as evil, resembling a very limited god, or spirit of place, and it inspires respect in the Villagers, a respect not always accorded to Parson Grimes. He tells us

 

'I determined that all pagan ritual must cease, and threatened the wrath of God on any who attended on this beast. Being awakened by some noise in the night, I followed at a little distance a party of villagers who set off into the swamp. Although the moon was full and bright I could not closely enough follow their path, and was soon lost and befouled in evil-smelling mud. I fell to my knees in earnest and heartfelt prayer, and it was in this attitude that some small children later found me. They roundly cursed me for a fool, which pleased me not, but nevertheless I was grateful for their assistance in leading me back to the trodden ways, and thence to the parsonage. I plan a sermon for this coming Sunday on the danger that attends ancient superstition leading us from the righteous path of Godliness . I trust that this may have a chastening effect on these hopeless Pagans.'

 

from later entries it is clear that it does not. His interest in the Legend nevertheless continues. He records the mysterious accounts of its flight at times of crisis, when the forest is threatened.

 

'It is said that when men came from the North with axes and with fire to clear the swamp, the Lizard rose, long, from its pool, its hooded eyes glittering like jewels, its great wings blotting out the sun. It swept upon the men of the North in a blaze of fire and destroyed them utterly, leaving only cracked bones and blackened armour behind. All this in a silence that cloaked everything, a silence so complete that mothers could not hear their children cry, nor lovers the sweet words of their beloved."

 

 

                                   <{*}>

 

 

"In a sense,"  Track was saying  "we could just as well go back from here as well as forward, or rather, we could go sideways so far we would seem to ourselves to be going backwards. We are always here, that is the point, it is just that our awareness moves, and because it is influenced by what it has experienced......and then there is the pull of the common flow of your social being......"

 

He stopped talking. Explaining time was impossible. Anyway, the boy was asleep. Track folded the blanket over him and sat over by the lamp in his chair and took up his book. There was no point in fretting about it, it was just a matter of doing the best one could.

 

 

                                   <<*>>

 

 

"The next time I took them in - I think it was the next time - it was even worse. They insisted on getting contact with one of the Wizards, I told them it was dangerous but they told me they could close down the whole operation, just like that, where did I think the money came from to research something like this ?  And they had clearance and I believed them."

 

"Yes, we understand you were placed under a great deal of pressure, Mr. McGrath, please do not trouble yourself about it, you did the right thing, you did what you had to do. Now please just tell us, in your own words, what happened when you attempted contact with the subject 'Track'."

 

"He knew straight away, I could tell that he knew without even thinking about it. I had this feeling of an incredible concentration, there was nothing outside the focus of his mind. I was pulled right in."

 

"Pulled into what ?"

 

"It was like a shining ball. I only glanced at it for a moment. I just saw it when you woke me up."

 

"Mr. McGrath, you were released from a coma after seven weeks. Within one hour you will relapse. We do not know whether it will be safe to wake you again. Please tell us what happened to you in the....."

 

"......In the Castle in the Rock ?  I been in there loads of times. It's weird, there's something weird going on. There's always three guys there, and sometimes there's a boy. If the boy's there, he's pretty safe, you can get to know him, but then he don't know anything. The three dudes you just don't fuck with, you just leave them alone. If they see you, you get out, if something touches you, you get out, it's not safe. It's always the same, it's always there, you can look but don't touch."

 

"But on the last occasion you went in there, Mr. McGrath ?"

 

"Last time, Billy, when you went in there with the suits."

 

"Them suits was bad news, you always dump me with the suits 'Oh yeh, Billy will do the suits, he's real official.'  Well that's fine if they don't expect you to swallow the Nile."

 

"You went into the Castle with the suits. They twisted your arm."

 

"They pulled the whole works. It was like at school or something."

 

"Yeh, sure, and then you went to contact Track, and...."

 

"I tried to get in real quiet and slow, but he was waiting for me. Even though everything in his mind was going through this one place, round and round like a figure of eight, like a spiral, round and round, like a helix, like a doughnut, round, round like a ball, like a jewel, like the petal of a jewelled flower, pulsing like a ball, like the heart of a jewel, like a sun with petals, round and round like a ball, like a helix, like a figure of eight."

 

"Billy ?  BILLY !   Fuck it, he's gone...."

 

"Oh Christ."

 

"Billy !  WAKE UP YOU BASTARD !"  (He slaps the slumped face, throws water at it, slaps him again. Billy blinks.)

 

"What ?  Christ, I'm tired. Whyn't you just let me sleep now ?"

 

"Mr. McGrath, it is of vital importance that we should know what happened to you and your party on your last visit to the Castle in the Rock."

 

"Oh, yeh, sure, well, it's funny, they're always around when they need you, aren't they ?"

 

"Mr. McGrath ?"

 

"'Mr. McGrath.' No-one ever called me 'Mr. McGrath' except they were looking to cause me trouble, as if I didn't have enough already. You never feel as though you're alone there. There's always someone else watching too, or something else, or more than one something."

 

'You took a party of people into the Castle in the Rock, they insisted you make contact with the subject 'Track', and what happened then ?  Can you tell us please, slowly, and in your own way, exactly what happened when you made contact with the subject 'Track' ?"

 

"I got in easy, it was weird because I was expecting trouble, but there was nothing in his mind, nothing, nothing at all except this one thing. You don't know how weird that feels, like going into a supermarket on Friday and there's only one tin in the middle of the floor, and there's no-one there, but inside this tin there is the whole shop and the whole world. There was no-one there, no him, he was entirely absorbed in this thought he was being, in this concentration. And I knew that if I looked at it I would be lost in it too."

 

"And then what happened ?"

 

"I tried to withdraw, but it was already too late. It had noticed me, I looked at it. Then you woke me up. It's beautiful. And now I'm tired. Let me sleep now, will you ?  I've told you everything that happened."

 

"You've been asleep for seven weeks, Billy."

 

"What happened ?  What happened to the suits ?"

 

"Same thing happened to you, Billy."

 

"Don't say I didn't warn you, YOU BASTARD !  I WARNED YOU !  I TOLD you we shouldn't go in there any more. I TOLD you it was dangerous !  One last time, you said, one last time for the suits, and then it's blue-flake cocaine and good whisky all the way to Hell."

 

"I'm sorry Bill."

 

"Mr. McGrath. Please tell us what happened on your last journey into the Castle in the Rock. You made contact, against your will, with the subject Track, and then.......?"

 

"I got in there and I was trying to get out when I just caught sight of it. It was like a figure of eight, only, no, like one of those strips you twist and glue, like a Moebus strip, only it was going round, and it was like a glow, a pulse, a jewel, going round, round and round like a roundabout, like a jewelled sun, going round like the universe, going round like a petalled helix, like a Moebus strip, like a figure of eight, round like a ball....."

 

and Billy carried on saying only now the men could not hear any more because his lips had stopped moving and his pupils had fixed, dilated, and they had collected their files and overcoats and walked down the plastic-floored corridors and out into the crisp November day, and anyway, that had all been weeks ago, by now it was past Christmas.

 

 

                                   <<*>>

 

 

There was a plain of cracked, baked mud. Black spikes, a shifting of grey ash. A small party trudged through the choking dust up to the smoke-blackened castle wall.

 

The Chief Herald unrolled the parchment and, removing his unwieldy hat, read.

 

"Chancellor Sedge, by the authority of the Earl and Communality of Poictesme, demands the unconditional surrender of this Castle and all its occupants and chattels. Unless this surrender is immediate and complete Chancellor Sedge will wage war against this Castle by all means at his disposal."

 

He waited for a moment, rolled up the parchment, placed his hat back upon his head, and turned to leave. The whole party seemed relieved. The Castle, grim and sooty in the blackened mud reared huge before them, and the area had an undeniably unsettling atmosphere. Walking here had taken hours, hardly a living thing to be seen, and an awful smell. By the time they'd reached the Castle, all filthy and sweaty and tired, they were hardly talking at all, there was no sound except their squelching and coughing and breathing. The sun was already past half-way into the west, and they wanted to get back to camp before nightfall.

 

But this was not to be allowed.

 

There was an appearance above the mud in front of them. A bearded head, severed neatly at the neck, and with a wrinkled, sympathetic face emerged from a cloud of light. It wore a circlet of leaves. Each hair of the white beard shone with an internal luminescence. This vision, opening golden eyes smiled a benign smile and spoke.

 

"Servants of Reason. Know that we can never surrender. We cannot be finally suppressed. We are always with you."

 

 

                                   <<*>>

 

 

This is preposterous !  On what authority do we make this descent into Hollywood ?  Bah !  Do we find this in the Genhammerungfest ?  In Parson Grimes' Notebook ?  In Blanchard or Von Humboldt ?  In children's tales, or contemporary accounts, or in Chronicles ?  No !  This prestigitation, this confection, this fooling with mirrors derives from Ambrose of Nantes' grisly mediæval romances. It stinks of Cecil B. DeMille. I repudiate this as any form of scholarship. The Dragon, God help me, I can accept, the Book of Futures, yes, the rain, the fire, the mud, the ash, all of these, but severed heads mouthing inane platitudes !  This stretches credulity beyond its design tolerances. While we may justly confine the notion of 'historical fact' to the dustbin, there is no need to plagiarise the nonsense peddled by charlatans to the credulous elites of a philistine era. Retailed by the yard, and sung, more than likely, in a high-pitched whine to the plinking of a lute.

 

 

                                   <<*>>

 

 

The swamp was drained. The forest was burned. The Castle of the Rock lay unprotected. Sedge surveyed the flat, black vista with something approaching satisfaction. It would clearly be some years before the road could be continued through to the mountains, but the possibility was now there for all to see. The deep swamp-forest to the north of the Castle could be ignored. When settlers came they would drain and clear it for their own use. For now, the majority of the force could skirt the swamp and proceed west. A small garrison, including the special operations team, would look after the Castle in the Rock.

 

 

                                   <<*>>

 

 

The sooty, bedraggled, web-footed villagers watched the army slosh through the outskirts of the swamp and file off towards the mountains. The three wizards packed what they felt most necessary and also headed west. This place was accursed, and there was no point in staying any longer. The crux had moved. Loosed magicks circulated, settling here and there. The special operations team, their heads in wet cotton sacks, their ears and noses plugged with wax, dug a trench, punched a hole in the wall, and allowed the surrounding ooze to slide in. Refugees from the blighted farmhouses took to the hills or walked down the long road east to the capital.

 

 

                                   <{*}>

 

 

The air is dark around him, a shifting of dampnesses. The ground is warmer and harder than he had expected, and there is a smell of smoke. He twinges with regret. But he had missed his parents and his village for weeks, he was worried about them, and he had no wish to leave for another strange castle full of slime and spirits.

 

Slowly, grey dawn sheets the sky, sucking moisture from the swamp, elucidating each flake of ash, each blackened stump. Walid realises finally that the Dragon has destroyed his village when he understands that the regular arrangement of stumps he has noticed in a broad, charred clearing is the remains of a house.

 

He sits down and weeps. Anyway, he cannot sleep, huddled in the ash with the sun rising and the birds croaking and cheeping. {Connoisseurs and other perverts will note with pleasure the pathos of his combination of guilt and self-pity. Such guilt reactions are common among subjects themselves unharmed by disasters that have overwhelmed their relatives and neighbours. However, I see that you are not interested in such titillations.} He is too miserable to sleep or be hungry. He begins to wish he had stayed with the Wizards.

 

At last, he got up on his feet, picked up his sack, and kicked his way through the ash towards the mountains.

 

 

 

                                  <<{*}>>

 

 

legend