Some weeks after their adventures with the Book of Ways, Polly and Eustace sat enjoying a breakfast of boiled eggs and generously buttered toast in their little sitting room, which looked out over the front garden and down the lane to the stream. An insistent tapping began somewhere in the garden, which at first they put down to a woodpecker, although the noise was a little louder than even the heartiest of the local birds normally produced.
Winter had set in and outside the day was overcast, with light drizzle. The temperature had dropped and so had most of the leaves but it was a season which nonetheless had its own pleasures. Kicking through the now composting leaves along the woodland paths, putting on warm jerseys and carrying homemade soup in their rucksacks for picnics along the way. And large cups of hot chocolate by a crackling open fire in their little sitting home when they returned. Red faced and well exercised, they would settle down for an evening of reading, or even just quiet contemplation, staring into the hypnotic flames in the grate.
The cottage had a newly thatched roof, set to last some 30 years, and three small but comfortable bedrooms upstairs. A tiny water closet housed a deep hip bath, which added to the eccentric charm of the place. Their home was everything this contented couple could wish for – not so big that it was a struggle to maintain, nor so small that it was uncomfortable to live in. Life was untroubled: a small but successful business which combined skilled craftsmanship with intellectual satisfaction, beautiful if sometimes mysterious countryside, and few cares to disturb their peace of mind.
There was no big town near by, no busy road. No light pollution to blot out the dance of the stars overhead or the magnificent wash of light from the Milky Way. The village seemed set in a lost world of idyllic bliss, an Arcadia, an Eden almost. “Et in Arcadia ego” it was said, and some held that there was a serpent in every Eden. And yet recently Eustace had begun to wonder whether death itself was a myth, and evil an option rather than a mandatory requirement of life on earth. He had been much affected by his recent adventures and both he and Polly began to realize that reality was altogether stranger and perhaps more benevolent than either of them had ever imagined.
The determined tapping continued, now on the diamond paned leaded glass of the sitting room window. Opening the front door onto the garden, Eustace was surprised to see that a large snowy egret was the culprit. Perhaps the very same bird from that green hill in an enchanted valley which now seemed but a distant memory. Its long brown conical beak was still tapping at the window. When it saw Eustace had at last answered its call, it fluttered over to the front door.
“About time, if I may say so” said the bird, flapping its large yellow-green feet on the front path and shaking the beaded rain from its elegant, snow white wings. “I am Pluribus and I have travelled long and far. I would greatly appreciate a moment or two of your time by a warm fire with a bowl of hot milk.”
Pluribus settled himself happily down on the floor, close enough to the fireplace to warm its chilled body but not so close as to endanger its beautiful white plumage. When he had finished lapping the warm milk, he pecked contentedly on an oatcake Polly had found him in the kitchen, and no longer seemed in such a hurry. Perhaps after all, he had just been impatient to come in from the cold.
Eustace and Polly sat patiently and eventually Pluribus sighed contentedly, and raised his head towards the couple. “We saw you at the gates at the top of the green hill” said Polly, “but we were whisked away before we had a chance to come and say hello”. “Ah, well then, Mages and their toys work in mysterious ways. Perhaps the Book had shown you enough for one day, or perhaps it thought you were late for choir practice. But it’s time we talked. I bring you a message and come with a request. You are both summoned, if you will, to the Council of Elders at the Chapter House. In the far corner of reality I come from, it’s a sort of parliament. A meeting place where we guardians of the timeless dimensions chew the fat and wonder how we can best encourage those still wandering the lower paths.”
“I’m not at all sure I understand” admitted Eustace. “We live a quiet life here in our own little world and I can’t imagine how we could help out in matters so far beyond our limited experience”.
“It’s like this” said Pluribus. “We guardians like to prompt and guide, to suggest. To use force can only ever be a last resort, and sometimes we need a little help from you mortals, if I can put it that way.”
Polly and Eustace looked none the wiser. “Where or what or who are you all? ” asked Polly, “The Mage, the book, the Green Hill. It all seems so mysterious. One moment we are living our quiet lives here in our hidden valley, and the next we are whisked away to see lands and people and things we never dreamt existed.”
“Now you are asking!” said Pluribus “What questions you have and all the right ones, if I may say so. But others at the Council may give you the answers you seek. Now we must hurry – it doesn’t do to keep The Mage waiting and the Council is assembling as we speak. I suggest you go and pack your things, you never know how long one of these adventures is going to last or quite where it might lead. Take the largest back packs you have and fill them with your warmest clothes. A toothbrush and a sleeping bag wouldn’t go amiss either. And put on stout hiking boots and your thickest woolen socks. Some food would be a good idea too – you never quite know where your next meal is coming from on these quests.”
None the wiser as to what was afoot, Polly and Eustace did as Pluribus had suggested. Locking the cottage door behind them, all three set off up the hill and into the woods. The little village lay below them and Eustace glanced round and sighed at the comforting sight of their little cottage, set amidst the familiar surroundings they both so loved. The stream meandering along the bottom of the valley, the church with its tall tower and gently swinging weather vane, the villagers beginning to go about their day this cold and overcast winter’s morning. Both he and Polly were at the same time apprehensive at this disruption to their comfortable lives and yet intrigued by the puzzles and enigmas of a world so much wider and stranger than it had seemed a few short weeks ago. Soon enough they were in unfamiliar territory. Gone were the paths and woodland clearings they had so often wandered, as Pluribus led the way deeper and deeper into an altogether stranger forest.
The big white bird hopped along, confident of his path, helped along his way by the occasional flapping of his wings. Sometimes he stretched his wings and soared upwards above the forest canopy. As they looked up, Eustace and Polly saw a sky that was now clear and blue and noticed that the season seemed a little kinder than the winter gloom they had started out in.
By and by they came to the seemingly ecclesiastical building in its wide clearing in the woods, familiar to Eustace from his last visit. The Chapter House was to be found on its far side, a fine octagonal structure supported by flying buttresses. Of honey hued stone, each side (other than that connected by cloister to the church) had two tall arched windows between each of the buttresses, paned in brightly coloured glass and the conical roof looked to be made of weathered green copper. Between the arched windows on each side, a door was to be found. Stout structures of heavy oak, studded with iron bolts and a large circular handle. No locks, oddly enough, so apparently open to any who sought entrance.
“Can’t get in through those outer doors” said Pluribus. “Or rather we would be unwise to try – no idea where we would end up, but we would be very unlikely to find ourselves inside the Chapter House.”
Leaving any further explanations aside, Pluribus lead them to the great oak door of the church itself, and thereafter through to the cloisters leading on to the Chapter House.
A single richly carved central stone pillar reached to the magnificent vaulted ceiling within the chapter house itself. A vast octagonal table took up much of the flagstone floor and surrounded the central pillar. On richly upholstered carver chairs surrounding the table, the Council members were in full debate as Pluribus and the two guests arrived. Eustace and Polly were placed on chairs either side of the Mage’s throne, and Pluribus perched awkwardly on a cushion on his own chair. It seemed the Snow Egret was a member of this august body but he looked by no means out of place since the Council was no mere human gathering. Flavio was there, his lute placed on the table in front of him, as were many of those Eustace had met on his evening of Sylvan feasting.
The Council was quorate it seemed and yet two plush red chairs still stood empty at the great oak table.
“Welcome humans” boomed the Mage “And my thanks for agreeing to attend our conference. We are here at the behest of the Gothic Elves of the North who face troubles in their far flung realm. We hope their tardiness signifies no concern for their safety, but these are troubled times.”
At that moment one of the oak doors set in the octagonal outer walls opened and a howling wind roared into the chamber, accompanied by driven snow. Polly gasped with surprise – the door had opened onto some place far removed from the sunny forest clearing they had walked through with Pluribus only a few minutes earlier. Through the open door, a dark and wintry scene presented itself. A Romanesque cathedral could be seen atop a steep and rocky outcrop, around the base of which wound a swiftly flowing river.
Two young women stepped into the Chapter House, closing the door behind them with difficulty, and bowed to the assembled company of elders. The two Gothic Elves turned out to be sisters and no explanation was given for their curious handle – whether they originated from some 6th century Gothic tribe was never made clear. Or perhaps the name came from their curious mode of dress and did not speak as to their tribal origins.
“I am Aliénor” said one, introducing herself to Polly and Eustace and bowing deeply. “My sister and I hail from Dunholm in the Northern Lands, not so far removed from the Great Wall of Time which still stands to hold the darkness at bay which threatens us from the frozen lands beyond.”
It would be accurate to describe Aliénor’s attire as Gothic, in the sense not so much of those ancient tribes from the east as of a certain fashion which grew in European countries in the 19th century and beyond. A Gothic revival which expressed itself in art and architecture and literature and usually entailed much flourish and colour. In Aliénor’s case, her attire struck an even more modern tone and was fashionable among the young throughout 21st Century Europe. Black was the colour (or should one say absence of colour?) favoured by the modern Goth.
Aliénor was dressed entirely in black, from the platform builders’ boots on her feet to the conical, wide brimmed hat on the top of her head. A long and elegant dress of black silk was covered with a fine black woolen cloak for warmth. To complete the study in fashion, Aliénor sported black painted finger nails. She cut an altogether fine figure.
“And I am Rozálie” said the other sister, bowing politely to the young couple she hoped had come to help her. Rozálie was of a somewhat different makeup, if looks could tell. Her garb was altogether more relaxed, from the blue rubber clogs on her feet to the warm multi coloured coat she wore against the chill winds of her homeland. She wore owl-like tortoise shell spectacles and had long blowy fair hair, not unkempt certainly, but fashionably boho and casual.
Despite differences, they were very obviously sisters and devoted ones at that. Neither uttered a word without looking at the other, not so much seeking approval but with a tacit understanding that such approval would nevertheless be granted if sought. Whether the two of them ever quarreled no-one seemed to know, but the suspicion was that few harsh words if any ever passed their lips.
“The Gothic Elf sisters bear the usual magical powers common among their kin” said the Mage, as the two sisters took their seats at the table “but the darkness from the north seems to require powers of an altogether different nature. Deep sorcery may not be enough and legend has it that only humans hold the key to finally ridding their land of the evil that is overcoming it.”
“We sit here at the hub of the known universe” said Aliénor solemnly. “As far as we can tell, we live in an infinity of infinities. Universe within universe in both directions, up and down, in and out. Even we Elders have no idea of the full extent of what surrounds us, even we have hardly begun to explore the mysteries we are surrounded by. What we do, each in our own separate domains, is to try to maintain the balance. There is good and there is evil. People and beings who wish goodness and happiness and plenty for all and others who would seek dominion over the rest. Who would conquer and pillage and plunder to satisfy some primal urge which even they do not understand, and can certainly not control. We aim to allow quiet and honest folk to get on with their mortal lives free from the cruelties and injustices so often found throughout the Many Worlds”.
“Even I” said the Mage “Can not claim to know all that is or ever will be. Even I can not claim to have fully fathomed the deep and entangled infinities of which we are but a part. But I am the eye of peace within a storm. I am the ruler of a land of calm and tranquility and plenty and many find their way here to my realm when their time in the purely physical realms has come to an end. And I am surrounded by my Council of Elders who have gone out into the physical realms to bring such peace and comfort as they are able to a fractured and fearful multiverse.”
“We have transcended, if you will” added Flavio. “We belong to a realm beyond the physical plane but can return there if or when needs must. Is there a god, some ask us. What is the ultimate nature of reality some wonder. Was there a beginning and will there be an end. To be truthful, much as our wisdom and knowledge have grown over countless eons, even we can not fully answer such questions. We are at deep peace, we have achieved a state of bliss and have escaped the base desires and miseries of the physical worlds. We have powers you could only dream of and yet even we sometimes wonder whether there is yet some higher power, some higher transcendence. Yet some deeper or higher realm where all is even more glorious than here and where all questions have been answered.”
“But what we have is perfection enough” offered Aliénor. “More than that, I should say. Here is a realm of plenty, a place where time does not flow nor entropy weave its destructive path. A place of happiness and beauty and contentment. Where boredom does not exist and where cruelty has no place. And if there is more, then let it come if it will. Let him or it or her find us in its own good time. And if there is not, if we ourselves are at the very peak of creation or are the creators ourselves, then so be it. We continue to grow and flourish, we continue to garden the many worlds as well as this our ethereal plane. Perhaps we after all are the gods men seek. And perhaps those men may join us and become as we.”
“Speculation enough!” ventured Rozálie in her soft and slightly squeaky voice, brushing a few wisps of golden hair out of her eyes. “To the problem at hand and time to ask of your help.
And with that, the talk continued long into the night.