Notes on the writing of
STAND ALONE STAN
If you would like to see the stone I had in mind (though the location is changed in the book) you can go to the small town of Rudston which is on the Wolds in the East Riding of Yorkshire. I think the name Rudston suggests a stone and a cross, and hence is a fusion of Christian and pre-Christian elements.
A LAND FIT for HEROES
Book 2. Stand Alone Stan
Introduction and Chapter 1
Welcome to the Earth.
This world, which we are now approaching, is displaced from our own by a mere twelve seconds. But that short time is sufficient to make this world wholly different from our own while yet remaining, in some ways, quite familiar. For instance, the hills and rivers and plains are largely the same, but the men and women who inhabit them are different. Their history and customs too are different, but in subtle and strange ways.
In this world the Roman legions never quit Britannia. Far from it. The Roman legions marched on and, after stamping their mark on Britannia, conquered the rest of the world. Wherever they trod they established their social systems, their laws and their military organization.
Though for a while Roma tottered before the northern tribes, it nevertheless survived to become the capital city of a vast eclectic civilization. Roma became renowned as a great seat of learning; as a cultural melting-pot and place in the sun for all races; as a home of good food, rare spices and fine red wine; as the place for hot gossip, love, philosophy and lust; as the centre of fabulous, profligate wealth and awesome world rattling power.
Which is all well and good, but this book is not much con cerne with Roma, or with the rest of the world come to that, but with just one small corner in the distant north-east of themoist and wooded province of Britannia.
When military resistance in Britannia ended with the defeat of the Celtic tribes, the province prospered. The Romans built their roads throughout the length and breadth of the country and ruled in the neat cities, small towns and military camps. Gradually they created an organized society based on urban living.
In the early days after the conquest, the political leader of this society, the Praefectus Comitum as he was called, was appointed from Roma. But soon this position was filled by members of the great aristocratic, military families that settled in Britannia and began to call that province home. These families controlled vast estates and enjoyed almost unlimited power. Their privilege was supported by two classes in the population: the Citizens and the Soldiers. These two classes were mainly drawn from native families who, in the early days, forsook the tribal life and accepted the pax Romana with relish. They became ‘civilized’. As the decades stretched into centuries and the centuries ticked past, Roman rule began to seem like a law of nature. Given material comforts, security and a guaranteed place in society, the Citizens were hardly aware of the strict rules and regulations and limits under which they lived. Thus the clerks and sewer- men, the cooks, cleaners, nurses, gardeners and candlestick- makers who made civilized life possible for the Roman military aristocracy, hardly ever questioned their condition. As for the Soldiers, they were not encouraged to think about anything other than a pride in service and a delight in efficiency. They controlled the roads and the city gates.
But where the city walls ended, the wild wood began. Still, in the forests and moors and swamps which surrounded the Roman towns, life continued pretty much as it had for centuries: as it had since before the coming of the Celts and the earlier generations of men who built Stonehenge, yea back even unto the time of giants. In the different regions of what the Romans called Britannia, the old, green and ever youthful spirits of tree, glade and river maintained their dignity and held sway among the people who lived close to the soil. To those who lived in the vast forests, their ancestors, almost as old as the hills, could be heard whispering in the trees and among the bubbling streams. At nightfall they murmured together in the shadows of the long barrows. Even so, golden lads and lasses made love in the meadows and on the hilltops and in the quiet places behind the barrows, and never thought about grave-dust.
To the ancient Roman families and the Citizens and Soldiers who served them, these woodlanders were primitive savages who could be tolerated because they posed no threat.
Christianity sprang up in some quarters but nowhere did it become as great a political force as it did in our world. Indeed, where it did survive, Christianity took its place as one sect among many, each of which celebrated in its own special way the sacrifice of a man or woman who chose death in order that humankind might be saved. These various creeds rubbed shoulders with older religions of earth and sky and of the Great Mother.
And all races and creeds walked the Roman roads.
We come to the present.
We are deep in the wild wood.
Coll, Angus and Miranda walked in silence, heads tucked down into their cloaks, stepping round the puddles and soft ooze that had formed in the forest path under the trees. The only sounds were the squelching of their footsteps and the sudden splatter of water drops as the wind stirred the high trees and the leaves tipped.
Each of them was lost in a private world of thought and hardly regarded the dark path they trod. For each of them, the hope and energy and feeling of purpose with which they had set out in the early morning had gradually wilted before the savage memory of the attack on their village. This memory would not rest. It needed to be faced and accepted. Each in their own way had been shocked by the violence they had witnessed: each felt damaged by it, dirtied by it, challenged by it.
Miranda held the box containing the friendly protective skull close to her breasts. The skull had been Bella’s gift to her before the inn was burned. Bella had guessed rightly that Miranda would feel lonely and abandoned without the familiar routine of the inn or the warm arms of Gwydion, and it was her own finely honed intuition and good common sense which led her, despite the rush and hurry of clearing the inn, to reach into the niche above the door of Miranda’s room, pull out the skull, dust it off and hand it to Miranda. ‘Take this. Gwydion’ll find a box for it. I reckon old Polly’s taken a shine to you and she won’t be needed to look after this room in five minutes or so. She’ll keep you safe no matter what.’ Miranda had taken the skull of Bella’s great-grandmother, and she kissed Bella in gratitude.
As she tucked the skull into its box and cushioned it with twists of rosemary and rolled-up balls of lemon balm, she was aware how strange she had become. What had happened to the conventional girl who had been a star pupil at the Eburacum Poly? Who was this bright-eyed pagan who took comfort in the skull of a woman who had been dead some forty years? No matter. Miranda the realist was as strong now as Miranda the romantic and she took comfort where she could, no matter how strange.
So now, as Miranda walked along, she held the box close and tried to imagine that old Polly was walking with her. Even so, she could not keep at bay the loneliness. ‘Is this what life is all about?’ she thought miserably. ‘No sooner do you feel comfort than it is whisked away.’ She remembered some boys she had once seen on the streets of Eburacum; they were teasing a dog, tying a bone to a length of string and dangling it before its slavering jaws. She had seen the dog jump and bark and bite the air.
Miranda shivered. Her feet felt damp. The rain had worked its way through a seam in her cloak and water trickled down her neck. There was an itching on her back and face and thighs where the nettle-stings were healing. Almost giddy with the memory, she saw again the arrival of the storm-troopers and the near-panic in Bella’s eyes as she thrust the nettles into Miranda’s face. Again she heard Bella scream, ‘Rub yourself. Rub yourself with the nettles. Sting your face and arms. Lift up your skirt, sting your legs, sting the inside of your thighs.’
‘Just do it. They rape. They kill. They’ll be here.’
Miranda remembered the kicking-down of the doors, the torture of the prisoners with wire, the ferocity of Gwydion as he whistled like a bird before the face of the blinded captain and then killed the Roman officer with a single blow. Then there was the burning of the village and. . . so much more. So much. So much. Miranda became weary with memory.
For the hundredth time she glanced round, hoping she would see the tall figure of Gwydion, striding to overtake them. But there was only the dismal path, with the impressions where they had stepped which were slowly filling with water. Gradually, with the rhythm of her walk, Miranda began to feel curiously detached from her life as though she had no control over events. She was being swept along. She was more the watcher than the one who was enduring. The past was already darkening and the future was no more than a bend in a lane before her.
Coll, the newly named who only a few hours earlier had been called Viti, was struggling with guilt. He knew that the attack on the village had come solely because of him. He was the wanted one. He was the last surviving son of the Ulysses line, one of the most powerful families in the entire Roman world. He was the one who had turned renegade. He could imagine the hatred. What would his father or the authorities not do to catch him? In his mind’s eye Coil could see his father’s face, unyielding as stone, as he heard the words of his spies and ordered the storm-troopers to attack the village. For Coll was under no illusions. He had grown up among the luxury and cruelty of the elite of the Roman world.
Now, one side of him wanted to slip away under the trees, away from Miranda and Angus, and find his way back to Eburacum and there deliver himself up to the Roman authorities or perhaps kill himself in sight of the gates of the city. What stopped him was simply the realization that such an act would render useless and meaningless the sacrifice of so many people in the village; people among whom were those he had known as friends.
No. His way was onwards or not at all. Hard as it was.
But this stoic attitude merely strengthened his feeling of helplessness. He had not chosen this path for his life. ‘Why me?’ he thought for the hundredth time and for the hundredth time there was no answer. There was only what was. And so he stumped along and thought about revenge. He thought about safety, too. In front of him walked Miranda for whom he felt a depth of shame that had no bottom. He wanted to protect her though he knew she wanted none of his protection. And in front of her walked Angus, for whom he felt a fondness even though Angus had once tried to kill him. So many people had been put at risk by him! ‘I hope,’ thought Coil to himself, ‘that Lyf got it right. I hope whatever body they dressed up to look like me and burned convinces the soldiers. Perhaps they’ll stop looking for me. Perhaps we’ll all be safer. Perhaps I’ll be forgotten. Perhaps my father will retire to the estates in the North and let everything else go hang. I hope so.’
Angus, for his part, found himself talking to himself in his head. This was a habit he had fallen into during his time working with Damon up the tall trees. He could hear a dialogue. One voice was angry. ‘Those mother-fuckers had no right to come killing and raping. The just state would make them pay.’
The other voice was more resigned. ‘Justice is a delusion. Only the wealthy have justice. There is no justice for the powerless.’
‘Don’t the people they raped and killed have rights?’
‘None at all as far as the Romans are concerned.’
‘But they are people. Men and women. Like we are all, men and women.’
‘Not to the Romans, and the Romans have the power.’
‘So, is power everything?’
‘Everything. To the materialist mind.’
‘Bah. That must be changed. The weak must be given a sword. Those cruel bastards must be taught a lesson.’
And so his dialogue went on. Occasionally he kicked at stones on the path as his stubborn, untutored, grasping and brilliant brain struggled with ideas such as justice and equality: concepts for which he had no frame of reference, except for his brief period of life in the village.
Once as they walked they heard the sound of drumming. It seemed to come from a great way off and from high above them. They all stopped.
‘Now we’ve heard that before,’ said Angus, ‘and we never came to harm.’
‘No, I don’t think it’s threatening,’ said Coll.
‘I find it a comforting sound,’ said Miranda.
At about midday the rain lifted and a pale sun shone down into the forest. The smell in the air changed as mist rose from the ground. They made camp under a giant sycamore. Its large leaves had protected much of the ground from the soaking rain and the soil near the trunk was quite dry. They lit a fire and began cooking some of the food provided by Bella.
They had no sooner started to eat when Coll, who had the sharpest ears of all, paused and stood up.
‘Shh. Someone’s coming,’ he whispered and they all froze and stared out from their shelter.
An old man leading a donkey came into sight round a bend in the path.
‘Cormac!’ called Angus, in astonishment, and the old man halted and then peered about. This was Cormac the Singer, Cormac the Insulter, Cormac the Teller who had entertained them at Bella’s Inn. They all remembered that night for to each of them Cormac had offered a special message which mingled hope with fear.
They came out to greet him from under the sycamore and stood in the narrow lane.
‘Hello you three. So they’ve turned you loose again, have they, to cause more havoc?’
‘Have you heard what happened to the village?’ asked Miranda and Cormac nodded.
‘I have. Everyone knows. Word travels fast on the wind. There’s a song of death going round.’ Cormac said this with a peculiar emphasis as if it were a curse.
‘What kind of a song?’ asked Coll.
‘A song like a stone that is dropped in the water. A song of ripples and widening circles. A song of names and a song of anger. A battle-song too. Now I’m travelling west to offer help. Sometimes a singer can bring ease like no other. Sometimes not.’
‘We thought you were far away. We thought you’d gone to the southern sea,’ said Coll.
‘I changed my mind.’ Cormac offered no further explanation and there was a brief embarrassed pause.
‘I’ve changed my name,’ said Coll. ‘I am no longer Viti. After what happened in the village, that name is full of pain. I’ve changed it.’
‘And what name have you chosen to replace it?’ The old man’s eyes were suddenly keen.
‘Coll,’ said the dark-haired young Roman.
‘A good name for a singer. But it’ll take more than a name change to wash the Roman shit out of your soul.’
‘I know. But it’s a start.’
‘Everything is a start. Good luck to you.’ Cormac turned to Miranda. ‘And what of you, Miranda? Have you talked to the moon yet?’
‘Have I what?’ asked Miranda, blushing.
And indeed she had. Ever since Cormac had sung to her that night at the inn she had felt differently about herself. The moon had become important in a way that she could not understand; the sun too, but especially the moon. One night, with Gwydion on top of her, and his tousled blond hair in her mouth and his arms like living rock holding her, she had opened her eyes at the moment of her climax and had seen the full moon staring down through her window. And it seemed to Miranda that at that moment of greatest release when her body opened, the moon rushed into her. She had never told anyone about this. She felt she had a child in her. A child of the moon: beautiful and peaceful and quiet and strong. But yet she was not pregnant in a physical way. The thought made her dizzy.
‘I’m OK,’ said Miranda, and laughed at how inadequate the words were. ‘Getting there.’
‘And what of the strong man?’ asked Cormac turning to Angus. ‘They say you were like walking death with a gun in each hand when the Romans attacked the village.’
‘I did my bit.’
‘So modest. And have you settled into our world?’
‘No. Not yet. I find your world strange. I find everything strange these days. I don’t know how you manage things.’
‘We rub along.’
‘But how can you stand having things happen like I saw happen, having men killed and women raped? How can you stand it? Why don’t you organize yourselves and fight?’
‘Why don’t we become like the Romans, you mean?’
Angus was not sure that this was what he meant. ‘Well . .
‘I think you have your answer, or at least part of it. Anyway,’ Cormac jerked the reins of his donkey, ‘Aristotle and I have many miles to travel before we’ll bed down for the night. I wish you all well.’ Cormac made to move.
Miranda asked, ‘Are we on the right road for Stand Alone Stan?’
‘You are. You’ve passed the turnings for Berry, Bird and Grindal.’ The three looked at one another in surprise. They had not been aware of any turnings. ‘Remember, keep the hill slope to your right until you come to open land. There you’ll find the path leading up to the Fox. That is where you begin the climb. Make good speed. The wind is shifting round to the north-east again, and that means rain and bluster. Be under shelter tonight.’
As Cormac finished speaking, there came a sigh of the wind in the high trees and the creaking of branches. ‘Good speed to you,’ said the old man and set off down the narrow path. Within a minute he was round one of the bends and gone.
‘Look,’ said Miranda pointing to the ground.
Both Coll and Angus looked. ‘I can’t see anything,’ said Coil.
‘That’s what I mean. Look at our footprints. You can see where Angus has been standing and even my heels have left a mark. But there’s no mark of Cormac or his donkey.’
No more there was. They’d all heard the animal and smelt it and both it and Cormac had been as substantial as the trees which pressed beside the path, but there was no evidence of its walking or of the old man.
‘More bloody trickery,’ said Angus. ‘Honestly, you never know where you are with these people. Come on, let’s get moving like the man said. I’ve been out in the forest in a storm and it’s no joke. So the sooner we get a move on the better.’ Without waiting for reply he picked up his swag and set off.
Thoughtfully, Coll and Miranda followed.
Gradually the sky darkened. The wind stiffened and moaned in the high trees, dislodging leaves which spun and tumbled and found their way down to the narrow path where the three walked. After a hot summer, the leaves were beginning to curl and dry. The path was in deep gloom and above them they could hear the mighty creaking of branches.
Miranda found herself jumping with every falling acorn. As a girl and now as a woman she had always lived in houses. And houses, by and large, attempted to exclude wild nature. Her only deep experience of the forest was during the trek to the village after the escape from the Battle Dome. Occasionally she had wandered in the forest close to Bella’s Inn, but she had never moved far from the sound of the woodsman’s axe. Gradually the thought crept up on her that the forest was a single vast beast. She felt small and threatened. Finally she could restrain herself no more.
‘I don’t want to go on today. I want to find a safe place for the night. It’s going to rain soon and – . .‘ Even as she spoke the first large cow-eye drops of rain spattered the leaves above them and began to drip down. Then with a gigantic sigh of wind, the rain began to pelt down.
‘I agree,’ said Coll, for though he was now named after a tree, he was not very wise in the ways of the forest, having spent most of his time at Bella’s Inn looking after the animals. He too felt nervous and vulnerable.
In contrast, Angus found the gathering storm exhilarating. He felt fear, as any man will, but it was not a numbing fear which made him want to hide but rather a stimulating fear which made him want to fight. The fury of the wind in the branches and the slashing of the rain provoked ardour in him and touched some deep and primitive depths of his being. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Come on, let’s get out from these oaks.’ He led them off the path and up a slight hill to where there was a natural clearing and there, standing alone, was a holly tree. Angus opened his sleeping-roll and pulled out the axe he had taken from the mechanical dragon a lifetime ago. He cut away some of the lower branches and revealed a den within the holly tree. It was dry and musty and coated with spiders’ webs. Generations of spiders had lived there undisturbed and the present incumbents made quickly for the darkness. Using the blade of his axe, Angus cleared the cobwebs and then scraped the dry floor to get rid of the litter of prickly dry leaves and twigs. ‘Here. We’ll be safe in here.’
Miranda moved in and squatted down, pretending that she had not seen the spiders. Coll appreciated that the holly tree would protect them from attack for he had not forgotten the wolf tracks he had seen those many months ago. He wondered briefly how wanderers such as Cormac and Lyf — and Gwydion for that matter — coped with the dangers of the forest. And even as the thought was born he realized that those men were as at home in the forest as he had once been in the barracks at the Eburacum Military Academy. As he sat and shivered, he wondered if he would one day feel at home alone in the forest. If this were a question he was asking of the future, he received no answer save the howling of the wind which had suddenly stepped up its ferocity.
Angus alone had slept out in the forest and had encountered some of the forest’s terrors. In his time with Damon, repairing electric systems in the forest, Angus had seen the spoor of wolves and Damon had told him some fearsome tales. ‘They can smell fear,’ Damon had said. ‘They track and devour fear.’ Indeed, it was the old electrician who had instructed Angus to take shelter in a holly tree if ever he was caught out in the open. ‘The holly tree will fight for you,’ he said.
Angus also knew they needed a fire. There was enough dry kindling under the holly tree but they needed stouter branches. He chivvied Coil to his feet and together the two men ran out into the rain. They found a tree that had fallen a year earlier and were able to snap and chop off branches and lug these back to their shelter. While CoIl cut and broke the branches into logs, Angus struck a flame and blew on it and soon had a small fire crackling and hissing at the mouth of their den. They were none too soon, either, as an early evening gathered in the clearing.
As she smelt the smoke and saw the flames, Miranda felt her spirits rise. She would survive. ‘We might be here a few days,’ she said, remembering how Bella had once talked about sitting out a storm. ‘That is if this doesn’t let up.’
‘Better go easy on the food then,’ said Coll.
‘I can walk out to a village if needs be,’ said Angus, almost relishing the thought.
They made a simple meal and brewed some herb tea. But none of them was really hungry. They sat and listened to the rain and the howling wind and wrapped their arms round their knees. One by one they fell into a reverie of private thoughts, and this became a dozing which became a fitful sleep.
There came a sudden crackling dazzle of lightning and a detonation of thunder. It seemed to come from directly above them and rolled over and round the holly tree. For a few moments everything was lit up starkly and shadows jumped. Coll sprang awake and found himself alone under the tree. Of Miranda and Angus there was no sign. He tried to struggle to his feet but found that he could hardly move. His feet seemed trapped. He looked round in sudden panic, and as he did so noticed that all the branches and leaves around him seemed to glow with a glimmering grey light. He looked at his own flesh and that too seemed to glow, but with an unsteady light. In the clearing outside were many different colours flowing. He blinked, unable to believe his eyes. Again he tried to stand up but something moved against his back, pushing him forwards, and Coll watched in astonishment and horror as a branch from the holly tree wound round him binding him tight. The leaves of holly pricked his arms and face. Part of Coll’s mind screamed that this was not happening, that this could not be happening, but then he felt himself lifted bodily. A branch from higher in the tree bent down and coiled round his waist and lifted. The branches from below pushed and Coll found himself slowly being eased from branch to branch and moved up the tree. He took a deep breath to scream, and as he did so a branch locked round his chest and he scarcely uttered a note for fear that the branch would contract and squeeze his lungs and heart. One branch did grow briefly round his neck but then it let go and sprang away as though conscious of how delicate his life was.
Never in all his fighting days at the Battle Dome had Coll felt such implacable power in a contestant. The strength in the tree was beyond anything Coll could imagine and eventually he stopped testing his muscles against it and just hung there, like a dead fish in a net, and allowed himself to be manipulated up the tree.
The tree had changed too. The holly tree under which they had sheltered had tightly locked branches but this tree seemed more open. He saw branches spring apart to make room for him and then there was movement above him and the luminescence of the branches and leaves grew brighter. A branch from another tree, an oak, broke into the canopy of the holly tree and seized him and lifted, dragging him free. Coll screamed as the sharp holly leaves raked him and the rough wood scraped over his skin. But the oak brought a great feeling of strength and security. It did not so much grip him as support him and he was able to move his arms and legs.
In the clearing outside the tree, lightning danced and shone as the rain teemed down. Free from the holly tree Coll was able to twist round and look about. Trees crowded close. He could not remember there being so many. He could see a graceful alder tree and a compact blackthorn. There were beech trees and yew and ash all pressed together. Ivy and vines twisted in their branches and the floor of the clearing was bright with the yellow of furze. ‘Hope they don’t drop me down into that,’ thought Coll as the oak tree hoisted him higher.
As he looked down he noticed that each tree, apart from its distinctive shape, had its own pulsing colour which surrounded it like an aura. There was a giant beech tree which flickered with orange lights, and a small blackthorn which had something of blue and something of red in it. The tree which was now lifting him was an old stunted oak, one that had been riven many times by lightning and which yet maintained its vitality. Its colour was a deep and velvet brown which seemed almost an exhalation of the earth itself.
To his astonishment, Coll seemed to be able to see the life of the trees. It was not like our life, so full of thought, and with quick scintillating shifts of mood and emotion. This was a life without moods but with a deep and rough vitality which almost overwhelmed him. He knew, though how he knew he had no idea, that he was almost invisible to the trees. He smelt time and season in their breath. He knew, though again he did not know how he knew, that he was experiencing a new world for which there was no language: that his sense of movement and change was only a metaphor for what was truly happening in his spirit. Awareness was everything at the borderland where unself-conscious life met life which was supremely self-conscious. And so Viti who was now Coll and who would become many things before this life ended, hung there and watched as the rough trees handled him, groping in their slow, implacable way to discover some essence in him that they could relish in their natures and hence comprehend in their own way.
The beech tree received him from the oak and he was lifted up to the very canopy of the forest where he could see the wind flowing like a river. And then he was passed down to the reaching branches of a green ash tree and finally to a small tree that he had not noticed before but which he did now. It was a graceful hazel tree. This received him and enclosed him in its many stems like a cloak and for a moment he had a sense of how the tree perceived him. As something so fragile, its like not known since the moment of the tree’s first quickening from seed. As something precious like a bead of light or a pearl. As something so quick in its movements as to be almost invisible. As something soft like opening buds in springtime.
Then, glaringly, like the sudden opening of a furnace door, he saw his entire life, from his earliest days to his present moment, spread before him. How could this be? His mind tried to grasp. He saw his life as akin to a painting that is both a single statement within its frame and yet filled with complexity. For a moment he saw his future and his past as a single design. And then the door slammed with a roar of thunder and he could remember no more except that he knew he had a past and a future and a journey to make, and that was deeply comforting to this lonely man.
Slam. Thunder. A hand on him roughly. A push. An angry voice. ‘Stop bloody kicking about.’ A tickle of scratches on hand and arm. ‘Sorry,’ said Coll as he eased round and listened to the rain and the wind drumming in the clearing outside and smelt the green breath of the earth. He had returned.
There came a sudden detonation of thunder directly above them and a brilliant flash of white lightning which blazed and did not fade. The world turned to chalk and charcoal. Miranda screamed and looked round for Gwydion for she was sure he had been close, but she was alone. Where was Viti? Coll, she corrected herself hastily. And where was big Angus? Was he gathering wood? And what was the light outside?
With a start Miranda discovered that she was clothed in a simple white dress with a modest collar. Her only ornament was the nuin-tree pendant given to her by Cormac. She held on to the pendant while she looked about and began to come to her senses.
She was no longer under the holly tree. She was at the door end of the long, low building with a stone-flagged floor and thick spider-webbed rafters. She had been lying on the ground when she was woken by the thunder. Outside blazed a brilliant white light which seemed to flatten everything about her. Brushing the webs away from her face she moved to the door and looked out. The light seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere and it took a few moments for her eyes to adjust. She could see there were steps leading from the house (or whatever it was) down to a clearing filled with white grass. In the middle of the clearing was a low hill. All about were trees, pressed so tightly together that they were like a wall, and the effect of the blazing light was such that their uplifted branches seemed like arms raised in fright. Between the branches was blackness.
Miranda stepped cautiously out of the building and was amazed at the way her skin shone and the simple dress glowed. She glanced up and gasped for she had found the source of the light.
It was the moon: but not like any moon she had ever seen. It filled the entire space above the clearing. She could see its mottled silver and grey face so clearly. It was like a blind staring eye, like the eyes of the white marble statues she had seen in Eburacum and which had always disturbed her, for she could imagine them moving stiffly and turning their blank and cruel gaze on her.
With an effort Miranda wrenched her eyes away from the staring moon and looked down into the clearing. She walked down the steps, and as she reached the bottom she saw the small hill in the centre of the clearing, convulse.
Was this something dead and buried that was coming alive, or the hatching of some monstrous egg? She could not turn or move away, but stood, tied to the place, while her legs began to shake.
The hill heaved and a small hole opened up. Through this flickered a long black tongue which was forked and felt about and touched the earth with its tip. Another heave and the blunt end of a nose began to emerge. It seemed to be growing out of the earth. Two holes blinked open on the nose and she heard the creature breathe and saw a gentle secretion flow. Then the entire head of a reptile slid into view and began to cast about.
As it emerged further she caught the first whiff of the beast. It was like the smell of something ancient, like the smell of the sea-shore on a sunny day, like the hot smell of Gwydion as he lay in her arms.
The creature fixed her with its black eyes and slithered further out of the earth and reared in front of her. Slowly its mouth opened, and its tongue probed and she could see its twin fangs as its lips drew back.
From behind her there came a call and the call broke the spell. Miranda turned to find an old woman making her way down the steps using a stick to help her. The old woman was talking to herself in an agitated, anxious way and she brushed straight past Miranda and walked up to the reptile which reared back with a look which we might call astonishment or recognition. The old woman raised her stick and tapped the reptile’s blunt, ebony nose while all the while talking.
The giant snake’s jaws closed and its head lowered slowly. The woman kept tapping the snake and talking to it. Finally, its head and scaly chin rested on its own black shadow. The white grass lapped round it like fur. The large eyes stared.
Seemingly satisfied, the old woman stopped her tapping and chattering and turned to Miranda with a smile. ‘See, nothing to be afraid of. Nothing that can’t be coped with. You’ll learn.’
It seemed to Miranda that she knew the old woman’s face. Where had she seen it? And then it came to Miranda. This was the old woman whose skull she carried with her. The resemblance to Bella was unmistakable. This was Bella’s great-grandmother called Polly. Miranda was aware how extra-ordinary this was, but in terms of the logic of everything that was happening to her, meeting the spirit of the dead woman seemed normal.
‘You saved me,’ she said.
‘Bah. You saved yourself,’ answered old Polly. ‘Come here and meet him. You’ll see a lot more of him before you’re as old as me.’
Miranda approached the giant snake cautiously. It seemed calm, though the end of its tongue, protruding from its enamelled lips, flickered like the tail of a half-swallowed fish. She stood by its head which was higher than her shoulder and stared into one of the large black eyes. It acted as a mirror but the face that stared back at her was that of a man.
In confusion Miranda turned to the old woman.
‘Why do I see a . . . why don’t I see myself?’
‘That is yourself. This creature is yourself. Learn to love yourself by the light of the moon.’
Miranda turned back to the giant reptile and stared at the image of the man who for his part seemed to stare back at her in equal wonder. Then to her astonishment he waved and faded away and Miranda found herself staring into blackness.
The giant snake opened and closed its jaws once, then lifted its head, turned and slithered away, drawing the rest of its bulk from inside the earth. It forced its way into the trees at the far end of the clearing and, with a powerful wind of its body, vanished quickly.
‘Beautiful, isn’t he?’ said the old woman. Miranda was not sure. She felt as though she didn’t understand anything any more. ‘Well he’s out and moving and you can’t put him back. That’s the way of things. Do you want to see my rare beast?’
Miranda nodded. Old Polly put two fingers to her lips and whistled lustily. From outside the clearing there came a distinct growl and then into the clearing leaped a panther with sleek blue-black fur and gleaming eyes. It ran to old Polly’s side and rubbed its small, fine head against her hip. She gratted in its fur behind its ears. Then she whistled again and the panther ran straight at Miranda, leaped right over her, landed running and disappeared into the forest. Miranda watched it go and when]she turned back to the old woman she found that she had moved away and was climbing back to the building.
‘Can I come with you?’ called Miranda.
‘Now is not your time,’ said old Polly. ‘You come later.’ Then she waved and at that moment the moon above turned to blood, and the white clearing and Miranda and everything else was suffused with red which gradually turned to black.
Miranda woke with Angus shaking her. Her eyes blinked open to find that it was day and that she was again under the holly tree. She breathed deeply and took in her surroundings.
‘I’ve been trying to wake you for ages. You and that other daft bugger. You’ve been shouting and kicking.’
Miranda focused on Angus. His cheek was cut and bloody. The hair on one side of his head was singed and a big, livid bruise had formed on his forehead. He was cradling his right arm and she could see where blood had seeped through his clothing and had dried black. Parts of his leggings were torn. ‘What’s happened?’ she asked. ‘What’s been happening here?’
Angus ducked instinctively when he heard the detonation of thunder just above the small tree. The brilliance of the lightning outside made the trees seem to jump.
‘That was bloody close,’ said Angus, squinting out into the clearing. ‘Must have struck one of those big oaks.’ There was no reply, and when Angus glanced round in surprise he saw that both Coll and Miranda seemed hard asleep, both rolled up in their own corner under the tree. ‘How the hell can you buggers sleep through this?’ he muttered, and returned his gaze to the clearing.
More thunder, more lightning and a sudden increase in the rain teeming down. Angus gathered his cloak more tightly round him and then edged some more wood on to the fire, making the flames leap. Behind him Coll twisted in his sleep and cried out briefly as though in pain. So did Miranda. ‘Not surprised you’ve got bloody nightmares,’ muttered Angus. ‘Bloody bad weather.’ He hunkered down and hunched his shoulders and glanced out into the clearing as more lightning turned the night to a brief flickering day. There he saw a movement which made his blood run cold. An animal which looked as big as a horse but which had the unmistakable lope of a wolf trotted into the clearing with its head down, sniffing. It was followed by others who stood, bedraggled and fearsome in the rain.
Though he had listened to the tales of Damon, and believed them, nothing had prepared Angus for the fierce brutes which were now gathering in the clearing with their glaring eyes and exposed teeth.
‘Viti,’ hissed Angus. ‘Wake up.’ More urgently, ‘Viti.’ Still no response. ‘Oh Fuck it, Coll or whatever you call yourself, wake up. There’s trouble.’
The sleeping figure of Coll moved in his uneasy dreams, but did not wake. Angus squirmed back and kicked him hard, twice. ‘Wake up, sod you.’ Coll moved and spoke and turned away, but still did not wake. Angus turned back to the clearing. The wolves were milling about at the far end of the clearing, baring their teeth and snapping at one another. They were obviously aware of the fire and perhaps of the people sheltering under the holly tree.
Angus felt about and found the short axe Coll had used to chop the wood. Holding this he pushed the ends of longer and thicker pieces of wood into the fire. He wanted pieces he could carry if need be. A warning thought nagged at him to be careful he didn’t set the whole tree alight. Then he shook Miranda but she was as dead to the world as Coll. Angus frowned and wondered briefly if they had eaten something that he hadn’t. ‘Bloody dreamers! Leave me to it.’
He checked the back and sides of the holly tree and was certain they were safe. A bull at full charge or even a wild pig could not have got through. The tree was a natural fortress. The only way in to where they were hiding was through the front where he had chopped back the branches, and the fire was protecting them there. Angus breathed more easily and crawled back to the opening.
Lightning flashed and thunder rippled overhead like the sound of gunfire. Angus looked out into the clearing and found himself staring into the wide, shaggy, snarling face of the leader of the wolf-pack. All the wolves had crept close. They were sniffing at the smoke.
When the light died Angus could still see the face and gleaming eyes of the leading wolf. He edged himself under the holly beside the fire and gripped one of the long burning branches. ‘See what you think of this,’ he murmured and thrust the burning branch directly at the face of the wolf. It snarled and jumped back and sneezed and then settled again but was many yards further back. Angus replaced the brand in the fire. ‘That’s given you something to think about.’
So began a slow warfare. The wolves surrounded the holly tree, prowling and howling. The leader and two other wolves crept forward and Angus came to respect their cunning. When they got too close Angus struck at them with a burning brand and drove them back.
But all too soon he was running out of wood and the fire began to lose its intensity. ‘Wake up you two bastards,’ shouted Angus in sudden fury. ‘I need help. We need wood.’ He glanced up into the night to see if there was any hint of dawn, but all he could see was darkness as though he were at the bottom of a mine. ‘Now’s when I need the Dragon,’ he thought, remembering the lumbering monster he had tended at the Battle Dome. ‘That’d fix these brutes. That’d give them the shits.’ For a moment his mind went back to earlier times and his vigilance wavered. Perhaps the wolves waiting beyond the fire sensed this for suddenly two of them ran forward at a crouch. By the time Angus reacted they were almost on him. One wolf became tangled in the holly and ended up snapping at the branches. But the other came at him with bared fangs. Luck, and a natural skill in combat, were on Angus’s side. As the snarling head of the wolf dipped under the holly to reach for him, Angus reared up and struck downwards with his axe. It was an instinctive blow and a masterful one, for the axe buried its head in the space between the wolf’s eyes. The beast crashed down, scattering part of the fire, and rolled and kicked though it was quite dead. So strong and heavy was the beast that when it fell, its momentum wrenched the axe out of Angus’s grip, throwing him off-balance so that he toppled over and the side of his head was caught in the glowing embers at the edge of the fire. He screamed in anger and pain and slapped at the side of his head.
Then, as quick as he could, Angus scrambled up and grabbed the axe-handle and levered it loose from the wolf’s skull. The small enclosure under the holly tree was already filling with the acrid smoke of burning fur. Angus pushed the carcass as hard as he could out of the place where the fire had burned, but the damage was done. The branches in the fire were scattered. Some had fallen outside and were now extinguished in the rain. Others glowed and smoked but did not blaze. ‘Shit a brick,’ breathed Angus and he started to push the embers together with the blade of the axe and blow on them.
But there came a sudden snarling and Angus was aware of a shape leaping at him. He struck blindly and felt something rake down the side of his face. He drew back his arm but it became tangled in holly branches and he could not strike. He felt something grab his side; there was a sudden piercing pain and he was dragged free of the holly. Again and again he struck upwards, flailing with his axe, and he felt his blows sink home. Suddenly he was released and lay groggy in the rain.
About him there was the tumble of fighting. The wolves were tearing at the carcass of their dead companion. Angus heard howling and thunder and then a drumming noise getting closer. This was a sound he had heard before both when walking with Coll and Miranda and when working with Damon. Damon had said it was one of the tree-men and had warned Angus to give such creatures a wide berth.
In a flash of lightning Angus saw a giant figure, like a beast reared up and charging on its stumpy hind legs. It came leaping into the clearing. It beat on its drum which it held high above its head and, hearing this, the wolves stood still in the rain. He saw the figure lift one of the wolves and throw it to one side. He saw him drag another by the tail, at which it turned and snapped and he slapped it with his open hand.
Then there was silence and Angus did not know whether he had suddenly gone deaf, or had passed out, or whether the wolves had slunk away into the thickets. He felt himself picked up roughly and carried and set down within the small enclosure of the holly tree. There he pushed himself upright and was amazed to find that he could see. He looked out into the clearing and discovered the thin grey light of dawn. The rain had stopped and the smell in the air was fresh. He realized he must have been unconscious. He heard a deep guttural groaning which suddenly stopped; a human figure reared up before him and crouched at the entrance to the holly tree. This was the ugliest man that Angus had ever seen. In fact Angus was not sure it was a man. It squatted like an ape and had the heavy, drooping shoulders and thick arms of a gorilla. But the hands were like roots and the face seemed to have a trunk for a nose, two glittering, deep-set eyes and a chinless gash for a mouth. The smell of the creature also reached him. It was ripe like old cheese.
The creature reached forward and poked Angus who winced. Then, of all improbable things, the giant creature laughed. ‘Hey, you fight good, you kill good. This for you.’ The creature hoisted up the pelt of the leader of the pack which he had stripped from its body, leaving the head more or less intact. ‘You wear. You get strength of hundred wolves.’ The skin was greasy with blood and rain and Angus accepted it as though with relish but hoped he was not supposed to drape it over his shoulders immediately. ‘You kill them too?’ asked the creature pointing to Coll and Miranda, who lay without moving. ‘You bad. You in shit deep.’
‘They’re not dead.’ Angus reached out a foot and kicked Coll who groaned and turned and still slept. ‘They just can’t wake up.’
The creature crawled half into the small space under the holly tree. He leaned over Coll and sniffed. Then he leaned over Miranda and turned her face up with his hand. A growl came from him. ‘Hey, she smells like flowers.’ The creature sniffed deeply again and for a moment Angus had the horrible thought that the creature would start licking her.
Angus looked on uncertain. He just hoped that the half-man, half-animal didn’t take it into his mind to get fresh with Miranda. If he did there was not much Angus could do. Even Gwydion, big and strong as he was, would have his back broken like a carrot in those giant hands. ‘But what would Gwydion do in a situation like this?’ Angus asked himself. ‘He’d use his bloody head, that’s what. He’d distract the brute.’
Angus grabbed the fur skin and, though his side and arm hurt like buggery, he growled and snarled and crawled out of the narrow space and made a kind of dance. The creature looked on and nodded in what seemed to be appreciation. Then Angus rubbed his stomach and pointed to the pale stripped carcass of the one-time leader of the wolf-pack. ‘Hungry,’ he said. ‘Need meat. Need fire. You make.’ He pointed at the creature which again nodded and grinned and then heaved itself out of the holly tree, breaking off a few branches.
Angus watched in awe as the creature scampered across the clearing and bounded up into one of the small trees. There it tested various branches and then wrenched one free and plunged its giant paw down into the gash. It came up with dry, powdery wood which it carried clutched to its chest as it jumped down and ran back to the holly tree. It made a neat heap of the dry wood, dry leaves and small twigs and then fetched a leather cord from its pack which lay behind the holly tree. Within seconds it had fitted the cord to a springy length of wood like a small bow and was using this to make a short, dry piece of wood turn quickly in the middle of the firewood. It sat with its body hunched over the twigs and punk. Then it began to sing, but it was a song without words that Angus could understand. After about a minute of sawing, a wisp of smoke rose and the giant creature began to blow gently down on the smoke without stopping for a moment the rapid bowing movement. Suddenly a small flame leaped up and the creature fed this with twigs. He moved with great delicacy and care. Within minutes there was a fire blazing again. Nonchalantly the creature wound up the leather thong and threw the sticks it had used into the fire. Then without so much as a glance at Angus it began to carve the carcass using Angus’s axe.
‘Can I do something?’ asked Angus, but was waved away.
Angus had not been hungry, hut when he smelled the wolf steaks his saliva almost hurt his throat. While the meat was cooking and smoking and crackling, the giant fetched some large flat leaves from a vine and spread them out.
It was at this moment that Miranda suddenly cried out, ‘Can I come with you?’ and turned over. She buried her head in her arms and kicked and cried out but there were no words.
The creature stood up quickly. He gathered his kit and drum and threw them over his shoulders. He stood by Angus and rested a heavy and bone-hard hand on his shoulder. ‘Me going. She see me. She afraid. Me not smell of flowers, eh?’ Again the laugh and he pushed Angus and Angus fell flat down on his bottom. By the time he had got to his feet, the creature was already at the end of the clearing.
‘Do you have a name?’ called Angus. ‘What shall I call you? Me Angus.’ He pointed to himself and then pointed to the creature ‘You what?’
‘Call me this,’ shouted the creature, lifting its drum. ‘Call me Drummer. Everyone knows me.’ Then it was gone.
So Miranda woke up and some time later Coll. Both were moody and looked at Angus and the clearing where they had spent the night as though such things were not quite real. But their hunger was real enough and they tucked into the tough, gamey, meat with relish.
Angus was puzzled. He tried to tell them about the night and the wolves and the strange giant ape-like creature with a trunk for a nose and a sense of humour; but though they nodded, they were not really engaged and did not ask the kind of questions that would drive his story forwards. They were not even impressed by the size of the wolf-skin. Angus found his wounds starting to hurt. Something had gone out of him — call it adrenalin, call it spirit. He fell silent and looked at the fire that these other two took for granted and which he had seen made with such skill.
‘I think I was out of my body,’ said Coll after a long pause. ‘I wasn’t asleep. I was elsewhere. I’ve never known anything like it.’ And he went on to describe as well as he could what had happened to him. Miranda listened intently and before Coll had finished she began to describe something of her adventures. Both spoke with that almost selfish absorption that characterizes people trying to share a mystical experience which it has been their good fortune to enjoy. But mystical experiences are by their very nature exclusive, and Angus, who sat by the fire with an aching body, pushing sticks into the embers, felt a deep anger rising in him. Finally he could bear it no longer and when Miranda talked about the sky and everything in the clearing turning to blood, his anger burst out.
‘Well, Fuck the pair of you. Look at me, will you? Look at me. Poor ignorant unimaginative Angus, eh? Good for mending things, aren’t I? Good for carrying. Yes, well, think on this. It’s poor fuck-wit Angus who kept you safe this night. Poor dumb Angus that stayed awake when you two slept. Thick-as-shit Angus who fought the wolves with only an axe and a bit of fire.’ He hoisted up the wolf’s skin. ‘Look at this, will you? Look at the size of this fucker. Look at these bloody teeth. Fine dreams you’d have had if it’d got its teeth round your neck. Well, I killed it and I kept you safe. While you went gallivanting off on your nice little spiritual adventures, it was me stayed home. Me, get that? Me!’ He paused and enjoyed the fact that they were both staring at him in bewilderment. ‘You say you were frightened just ‘cos you had some bloody nightmare about the trees grabbing you by the cods or about a fuckin’ big snake coming out of the ground. Well let me tell you, this was frightening’ He brandished the wolf’s head with its long sharp teeth. ‘And so was this.’ He pointed to the side of his head where he was burnt. ‘And as for this —‘ he showed the wound where he was bitten ‘— this was fucking hilarious, let me tell you. And if you’d seen the Drummer you’d have really known what fear was. He’d have put the shits up that smart arse Gwydion and no mistake.’ Angus paused for breath. The drive of his anger was dying away. ‘So don’t be so fuckin’ smug, that’s all.’
He looked at them, at their open-mouthed faces, and felt the width of the gulf between them since their escape from the Battle Dome. Viti had gone native and wanted to be called Coll. He’d gone soft and strange. Miranda. .. ? Well, Angus could hardly recognize the young woman he had once loved. He’d wanted her so much, and so often, but she’d turned him away and now he could hardly look at her. Well, if she wanted that big bastard Gwydion, so be it. That one’d screw her and leave her and that would be that. Ungrateful, selfish, cold and uncaring. The words described both of them in Angus’s mind. ‘So you can find your own way to the Stand Alone Stan place. I’ve had enough of you. And if the wolves come a-knocking, don’t bloody call for me.’
He hefted the wolf’s skin up over his shoulder and picked up his kit and began to trudge out of the clearing.
‘Angus, come back!’ It was Miranda calling, but he paid no attention. ‘Go after him, Coll. Make him see sense.’
Coll ran down the narrow twisting lane between the trees and though he caught up with and tried to talk to Angus, the big man just walked on in silence and eventually Coll just let him go.
In this way they parted, though as events turned out, it was more a symbolic parting than an actual one; for after about half an hour, Angus’s anger cooled and with it his resolve. He came to a place where the road divided and where someone had conveniently made a bench by placing a split log between two stumps. Here a weary traveller could rest. ‘Bet those buggers’ll take the wrong turning,’ he thought. ‘I’d better wait for them. If those bloody wolves come back. . .‘ He sat down. But in his heart he knew that the wolves would not return. He had bested them. That was why Drummer had given him the wolf’s skin. Talking of which, Angus was aware that the skin was beginning to smell. He hoped that when he got to Stand Alone Stan he would find a good tanner who could prepare the hide for him properly. He rather fancied wearing it.
Angus also had some other things to sort out. He had amazed himself with his anger. He had never expected to hear himself talk to either of them like that. He was astonished at the depth of his anger and at how easily the words had come. He knew, though he could not quite get clear in his mind how, that something deep had shifted in their relationship. He had moved out, or beyond, or on. Somewhere. Anyway, he still felt responsible. Coll and Miranda had looked like children, babes in the wood, lost in their nightmares.
Angus stretched out. His cuts hurt and the adrenalin had long since drained away. He was weary through loss of blood and a night without sleep. Suddenly the bench, warmed by the sun, seemed as comfortable and inviting as any feather bed. He would just lie there until they came by. ..
And when they did come by some ten minutes later, they found Angus hard asleep on his back, indecent as a dog, and snoring fit to wake the dead.
Miranda and Coll let Angus sleep.
They sat apart, suddenly aware of their enforced intimacy. The enthusiasm that had enabled them to speak freely when they first woke up had vanished, only to be replaced by embarrassment as memories of their past encounter dominated them. Now neither could think what to say
Since Gwydion had entered her life, Miranda had more or less put the bad experience with Viti Ulysses behind her. In any case, the arrogant Roman warrior who had forced himself upon her was hard to recognize in the quiet young man who tended swine at Bella’s inn. But Gwydion was gone. Miranda sat while memories of Viti’s party came to her unbidden, making her close her eyes and turn away
And what of Coll? Coll just sat and stared at the ground. He did not have the beginnings of an idea of how to unravel his grief and guilt, let alone speak of it.
So both sat and waited. They wanted to speak. But neither could.
Eventually Angus woke up. ‘So you buggers finally arrived,’ he said and tried to sit up. His wounds had stiffened and he had no option but to accept Coll’s helping hand.
‘I’ll be all right when I get moving.
They took the right-hand fork and moved down a winding lane which crossed several streams, all of which were flowing from the right. Suddenly the road came out of the forest. They found that they had been climbing steadily and had reached a vantage-point from which, if they looked north, they could see the purple and grey slopes of the Moors. The Moors had figured prominently in the stories told at Bella’s Inn. Now, in the gathering evening light, they looked mysterious and threatening. To the east the sky held a peculiar clarity which Angus could remember from his childhood. ‘Sky over sea,’ he said. ‘It always looks harder, more like an enamel. ‘
But it was the hills on their right-hand side which most took their attention. These rose suddenly and steeply. By and large they were covered with a pale grass which darkened in flowing patterns when the wind curled over it.
‘Them’s the Wolds,’ said Angus. ‘Stand Alone Stan’s at the top of them. Somewhere.’