The Hyacinth, the Witch and the Cormorant

The Hyacinth entered the river mouth, returning at last from a long voyage in the South Seas. She sailed past the castle and on up the narrowing river with the tide, her rainbow colours glowing brightly in the sun, which was setting on the starboard side.

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‘Look thee well!” cried Prince Halwell to the gracious couple that reclined behind him upon cushions on the fo’c’sle deck. Ahead, beyond a bend in the river, a magnificent red tower stood proudly on a hill above the marshland. Krake alighted on Prince Halwell’s shoulder and wagging his slender head vigorously at the pair, said, “That’s the town of Totness.” (You see, he was a Talking Cormorant.)

The Duke of Salisbury came forward and stood at Halwell’s side; a noble hunter returning home with his bride from the Southern Isles. His face was grave as he gazed north toward the tower, which drew gradually nearer as the oars of the Paying Clients pulled the Hyacinth up the winding navigable part of the river. He turned and spoke to his Duchess, Rebekah the Wise. “My Lady, this worthy town is held by a witch who has caused it to rain every Saturday when the people hold their market. Worse: fauns, dryads, nymphs and satyrs, and even gnomes, have been forced into slavery. And Talking Animals are made to wait at table for the witch and her crew.” Krake hissed in a way that left the others in no doubt how he felt about this last piece of information.

Rebekah joined them at the bow rail with a strange light in her brown eyes. “My Lord, let us together with our brother free the good Totnesians, human and otherwise, from this blight. Yet let us be not hasty in condemning all witches: the wide world holds good witches and bad, and indeed some that are both good and bad.”

Krake said, “You humans make things complicated. Bad witches: yes, undoubtedly. Good witches: well, possibly.  Show me a good witch, and I will believe you. But a witch who is both good and bad? There is no such thing.” And because Cormorants do not enjoy philosophical discourse, he slid off Prince Halwell’s shoulder and into the river before anyone could answer, to fish for the royal supper.

It grew dusk, and the royals went below to take oars, so that three of the Paying Clients might stroll on deck and rest their weary arms and core muscles. For they were of a generation who knew all about teamwork, and indeed, leadership.

As the Hyacinth nosed her way alongside Totness Dock, lamps twinkled from cottages newly built on the Plains, drained marshes where Halwell and the Duke had first met fighting alongside one another in battle with the Telmarines, many years ago.

Several Water Voles (larger than the non-talking kind) leapt from the deck and made the ropes fast, and the royal party disembarked. The Prince offered his hand to Rebekah, but she had already leapt from the side of the Hyacinth and alighted softly on her feet, upon a bale of wool waiting for export on the now-friendly Telmarine ships. “Now,” she said, “where does this witch lurk, she who enslaves the free and causes it to rain on market day?”

“We will find her in a cave at the foot of the hill,” answered Halwell. “She is usually surrounded by many courtiers, but they are unlikely to offer us much of a battle as they are advanced in years, and slumberous from much feasting. However the lady is powerful in her own right, and it is she whom we should either fear or slay, for she is said to enchant the hearts of men and women so that they cannot see the evil she represents. We must be mindful that she is in service of the Dark Powers, however she may seem to the contrary.”

And so the three ventured forth in the twilight, picking their way between sedge tussocks and tall reeds. Now and then a snipe or woodcock that had been roosting in the marshes flapped up in a panic from under their feet, and the Duke was quick to snare them for the pot (they were not Talking Birds, you understand). Krake flew with the party, sometimes diving into a dark inland creek for a tasty morsel.

Presently they all saw a lighted cave-mouth between some crack-willows. As they drew nearer they heard music from within: the melodious sound of a harp, and the voice of a lady, singing sweetly. Suddenly several elderly gentlemen, their large bodies dressed in fine merchants’ clothes, stepped from behind the trees and surrounded the small group, making aggressive harrumphing sounds.

Prince Halwell drew his sword, and Krake got ready with his sharp beak and strong wings. But Salisbury motioned to them to lower their weapons. “I would not give thee battle,” said he to the courtiers, “for thy great age stays my hand. But by the Lion’s Mane, we will see the Witch.”

At those words Rebekah raised her lithe arms and undulated her body, making a long, low sound, stranger than any they had heard as they crossed the marsh. One by one the gentlemen fell asleep where they stood, enchanted by wild magick, and on their round faces they wore blissful smiles.

As the royal party entered the cave, they saw a tall fair woman in a flowing dress, seated upon a cushion. She looked up swiftly from her harp. For a moment they saw an expression of mingled fear, hatred, and anger, but this was instantly replaced with a charming smile. “Why, I have visitors!” trilled the lady. “Come and warm yourselves beside my fire.”

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The Duchess, Duke and Prince entered cautiously, and spread themselves out around the cave. Krake, they knew, guarded the entrance.

“My Lady,” began Prince Halwell, “we have come to request that you release the Talking Animals, and the people of the streams and the woods, from their bondage.”  (Somehow, now that he looked upon her face, he no longer had any thought of slaying.)

She threw back her head and gave a merry laugh, and they all saw a bright blue jewel gleaming against her white throat in the firelight. “But the creatures are not slaves! They serve us willingly, because they wish to do so.” She threw some kind of powder into the centre of the fire, and began strumming again. “ Why, it brings them joy to wait upon our person. Do you not believe us? Would you have them return to their former miserable lives, trying to grub a living from the land?”

“This sounds reasonable,” conceded Salisbury. “You may indeed speak truth.” “Aye,” agreed Halwell, “I too am of a mind to believe it.” Rebekah stared at the Witch through the flames, as though she were trying very hard to remain awake.

“You must sit, and eat,” urged the Witch, waving fingers with very long nails towards a steaming pot beside her. The three sat; Rebekah last. A monkey dressed in a scarlet waistcoat emerged from a shadowy corner of the cave, and began ladling rich stew into locally made hand-crafted ceramic bowls. The three thought they had never smelt anything so delicious, and accepted spoons from the monkey’s proffered paw.

With that, Krake flew in like a black arrow. “Enough! There’s no good in this witch. Can’t you see, she wants to turn you all into slaves as well?” They gazed blankly at him, and the Witch resumed her beguiling song.

Krake landed upon a cross-pole above the fire, spread his enormous shaggy wings and deposited a copious load of guano onto the flames, which steamed, and went out. A dreadful-smelling smoke filled the cave. The Duke and Duchess, freed of their enchantment, leapt forward and grabbed the Witch by her forearms. Prince Halwell seized her harp. Suddenly she no longer appeared beautiful, but quite ordinary, smaller than before, and rather afraid.

“We have discovered the source of your enchantment, Witch,” said the King sternly. “Now that Krake has put out your fire and stopped your song, the Totnesians are free once more, and market days henceforth shall be both sunny and dry, and free from all but gentle breezes.”

The Witch looked nervously about her, no doubt wondering why her courtiers didn’t come. “I have turned them into statues of sugar,” said Rebekah. “I will release them from their enchantment only if you agree to go far from these lands, and never return.”

“My Lady, you are tender indeed,” said Prince Halwell. “Yet I do not trust her. How if she enslaves some other place, because we were merciful and let her go?”

“I say lock her up and throw away the key,” said the Krake.

But the Duchess said, “No, it is biblical nonsense to suggest that her suffering would somehow atone for the suffering she has inflicted. It is enough that the enchantment is over.”

The Duke looked at the Witch. “What say you?”

The Witch, upon being addressed, regained some of her former height, though not all. “This prince perceives aright,” she said in a very different, plain voice. “If you set me free, the Dark Powers will indeed compel me to enslave some other fair town such as Strood, and in my heart I would rather not do so.” She turned to Rebekah. “Good Queen, I see you have the power of enchantment, and I see also that you are just. I beg you: transform me into a seal, that I may live out my days in and around the mouth of this iconic river. I offer my pledge that if danger should approach from the sea I will swim upstream and warn friend Krake, that a defence of the town may be mustered in good time.”

The three humans looked at one another and nodded. Krake merely shrugged his black shoulders, which they took as agreement.

“It shall be done,” said the Prince. “For your remaining days you will pay for the disservice you have done Totness, by protecting the townsfolk from invasion.”

She bowed her head. “I am truly sorry for misusing these fairest of folks; therefore it will be both honour and penance to serve them thus.”

And so Rebekah spread out her slender arms and began to make a sound, this time more complicated, seeming to hold many rich tones at once. Gradually the Witch turned a mottled black, and her shape transformed until she had become a rotund, whiskered seal. She hauled herself out of the cave, past the courtiers’ statues, and into a nearby creek. A few bubbles rose to the surface, and after that she was never seen in Totness again (though more than once in the years that followed, Krake came to warn the townspeople of strange ships that were approaching, though they  turned out to be friendly).

“Well, that’s that,” said Prince Halwell, as he and the Duke clapped one another on the back. “And so, good Krake,” said Salisbury, “do you still aver that witches cannot be both good and bad?”

Krake shook out his sleek black feathers all over, as if to dispel the smell of smoke. “Have it your own way,” he said. “But I’ll be sure never to cross my Lady,” he said, his round eyes darting towards Rebekah, who was now releasing the courtiers. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some fish to catch.”

And he flapped away into the starry night.

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On the Dart Side

In the morning mist that hung above a broad bend of the river, a heron stood, hunched and brooding, beside the reeds. A pair of egrets darted here and there, and now and then a sleek cormorant surfaced, looked around, and dived again. The still water reflected tall trees on the bank, and from them came the spring songs of many small birds.

Abruptly, the birds ceased singing. The heron jerked out of its reverie and the cormorant, twisting its black neck, scanned the sky. A disc-shaped object was descending from the north fast and silent, bright lights flashing. It skimmed the water, and there was a hiss of steam; the egrets scrambled out of its path, and floated up into the branches. The disc bounced gently a few times, came to a halt, and morphed into a big black cruise boat.  The birds resumed their singing.

Aboard the boat, rows of passengers in white plastic armour sat stiffly on the benches. On the bridge, a tall figure in a black helmet and robe raised a megaphone to his masked face. “I am the Dart Invader. Troopers, your attention.”

One of the passengers prodded his neighbour. “Look, a seal!” he hissed from within his mask.

“Attention!” the Invader intoned though his ventilator.

“I didn’t see anything,” muttered the other. “But then I haven’t got an outside seat.”

The Invader glared at the two, and they fell silent. “Now, listen carefully. On your right you will see a majestic 18th century Palladian villa, set in Capability Brown-designed grounds. That is our target. The Force is especially strong here, and the Emperor wants the whole place for the Dark Side. Half of you will come with me to rip out the vineyard using lightsabres, and cover it with pebbles; it will be a car park. We will obliterate the walls of the kitchen garden and tarmac it over , and it will become a shuttle pad. We will also rip up the forest beyond that point” – he pointed – “and install a shopping mall with a MacDonald’s, a Costa, a Wetherspoon’s, ten-pin bowling and a multiplex cinema.

“Everyone forward from the bridge: you will erect metal barricades alongside the river for a mile either side of the house, so that nobody will be able to see the beautiful bits unless they pay.”

One of the Troopers raised a hand. “But if we do that, the beautiful bits won’t be beautiful any more.”

“Well, leave room between the water level and the barricades, for those who pay. They can stand with their backs to the wall.”

Another hand went up. “High or low tide, sir?”

“Work it out,” said the Invader ominously.

A Trooper sitting near the front spoke out. “But the animals won’t be able to get to the river to drink.”

“If they can pay, they can pass.”

“But, sir, the animals on this planet don’t have money – “

He breathed heavily into his ventilator. “Then they cannot drink.”

The Troopers exchanged glances with others in their row.

The Invader waved his blaster. “Get up. As we go downriver I want you to storm the banks, ten at a time. Shoot any humans on sight – and don’t miss!”

The first ten Troopers surged over the side and swum to the shore, some using breast stroke and some front crawl, with one or two doing doggy paddle. When they reached the reeds they were forced to crawl through red mud to reach solid ground, sullying their white suits.

Then over the edge they went in tens, as the cruiser navigated slowly around the great bend, passing between red buoys to avoid tidal mud banks. The last party scrambled out and into the woods, drawing their blasters as they splashed through vermillion puddles on the track.

“Now,” said the Dart Invader to the remaining few, “we will sail as far as that point”– he pointed – “and erect a giant gate across the river, to prevent any vessels coming up from the port and interfering with our plan. We need to have this finished by the time the Emperor arrives”

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It was high noon on a hot September day when the Eta-class shuttle decelerated across the moor, and tracked south west across the town, and on towards the bend in the river. Emperor Insidious looked eagerly out of the window for the new Dark Side Earthpost.

“The shuttle pad is just behind the house,” he told his pilot.

“There’s nothing there, sir” the pilot called over his shoulder. “My scanner is showing a – a vegetable patch. Oh, are those artichokes?”

“A vegetable patch?” growled Insidious, craning his neck to peer below. He saw no barricades beside the river, and only a strip of forest where the shopping mall should be. “Land wherever you can,” he ordered the pilot, and sat back in his seat, scowling. Something had gone badly wrong.

They skimmed low over a field of sheep who scattered, leaping wildly, in all directions. The pilot put the shuttle down on the only piece of flat land he could find. It was filled with human cars, but he managed to find a space at the end of a row.

Insidious leapt out and strode down the hill, his robe billowing behind him on the warm breeze. The road turned – to reveal another bend. And another. And another. Insidious was getting hot in his hooded black apparel… and then below him in a cattle yard, he saw a man wearing a green coverall and wellington boots. The man span round, saw him, and reached for a pitchfork.

The Emperor raised his hand menacingly.

“Don’t kill me!” shouted the cowman. “I’m a Trooper!”

The Emperor hesitated.

“Anyway, you can’t go in there with your lightning bolts; we’re having an Open Day!”

Insidious raised his hand again. “For this you shall die!” Blue energy crackled towards the cowtrooper, who leapt sideways and rolled over a straw bale. Insidious strode towards him.

“Don’t!” shouted the cowtrooper. “Let me tell you everything.”

Insidious, if truth be told, was puzzled, and unsure how to proceed. He had given his newly promoted Dart Invader clear instructions: what had gone wrong?

“Alright.” He sat down on the straw. “But you had better give me the truth!”

“Well, when we arrived, a morning mist was hanging over the river, and egrets –”

Insidious snarled, revealing crumbling teeth. “Cut the nature diary! Where is the Dart Invader?”

“Oh, Vader! Well, he sailed along to the point” – he gestured – “and disembarked. There, on a length of auspicious rune-carved stone, sat an old man: very small, pointy-eared, cross-legged. Vader says he reached for his blaster, but something stayed his hand. They talked; no-one knows what was said, but by the end of their conversation Vader had decided he wanted to learn mindfulness.  He came and found us – we had only just started preparations for the Destruction – and he insisted that we all attend mindfulness courses too.

“It’s hard to explain, sir, but within a short time none of us felt like putting in barricades, or tearing up the forest. We decided to stay, and now all of the Troopers have tasks here. Some work the vineyards, others help with catering, and me – well, as you can see, I look after the cattle.”

“And the Dart Invader?”

“Vader works up at the burial grounds. But he’s here today, sir, to help with Apple Day.”

Insidious glared. “Show me this Apple Day.”

They walked together towards the buildings, and approached a desk with an ‘Entrance’ sign. The Emperor slid his hand within his robe. “How much is it?”

“Entrance is free if you didn’t come by car,” smiled the man at the desk. Insidious peered at him: the voice was slightly familiar… but the cowtrooper was tugging his arm. “This way!”

They walked past a table on the grass where children were drawing trees. A young woman smiled up at him, holding out a pastel. “Like to have a go?”

Insidious had loved drawing as a child. He sat down, looked at the work of the boy next to him, and began to draw his own tree, leaning across the table to get more pastels so he could do multi-coloured leaves. “Very good!” said the young woman, and he felt a strange glow of heat in his chest as he stood up. It was not unpleasant.

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Next, he and the cowtrooper went over to a wooden apple press, where the Emperor lent his strength to pulling on the levers. He noticed a sense of immense satisfaction as golden liquid trickled into the bucket below.

Hearing singing, he followed the sound, and discovered a choir warming up their lovely voices beside a mellow wall of the perfectly proportioned house. The leader, a tall dark woman, waved eagerly for him to join in. “We need another bass!” Seeing him hesitate, she added, “The songs are all easy. You’ll pick them up.” He pulled an ‘I don’t know’ face. She nodded, beaming, and Insidious found he couldn’t resist. After twenty minutes of singing, he walked away, oddly elated.

Over the course of the afternoon he came third in a race in the Apple Olympics, joined in a circle dance, found a hidden wooden apple under a stone trough, and bought a bottle of apple juice, and drank it.

People were starting to leave, laughing and smiling as they passed, clutching their wooden apples, bottles of juice and rolled up sheets of A2. Some of them were singing. Insidious felt a presence at his elbow, and turned to see the pilot. “Sir, I came to look for you. You were gone ages! Can we go now?”

The Emperor looked around. “But there is all this to clear up! I’d like to help.”

The pilot shrugged. “You help if you like, but I have to get the shuttle back to the Galactic Empire. Are you coming, or not?”

“Stay, Sid,” said the cowtrooper, laying a gentle hand on the Emperor’s arm. “You’d be welcome, and there’s plenty of room. There’s a new mindfulness course starting tomorrow…”

“Sir,” said the pilot, “are you coming, or not?”

Sid grinned slowly, revealing a piece of apple skin wedged between his teeth. “Not,” he said. “Not!”

He threw back his hood, and laughed so loudly that it woke the heron from his dreams.