Talk continued in the Chapter House, as rosy fingered dawn peered in through the leaded windows surrounding those at the conference table.
“We will help” said Eustace. “So we will” said Polly, although neither had any real vision as to what their adventures would encompass, or how they could help where these all powerful creatures had so far failed.
“Thank you” said Rosalie and Aliénor in unison. “We must set off immediately” said Aliénor, the younger of the two sisters, although the Mage had by now laid out a generous breakfast after a long night of talking, and no-one really intended to move while such splendor filled the tables. Almond croissant, pain raisin abounded and finely chased silver coffee pots gave off the most delicious aroma. Hot chocolate was offered too, in steaming earthenware jugs and every variety of fruit juice was to be found in crystal flasks. Muesli and thick creamy yoghurt, honey and jam, toast and marmalade and a host of other delicacies were placed before the guests, and conversation took a more jovial turn after the long council of war which had lasted the whole night.
It was generally agreed that the trouble in the Northern Lands seemed to emanate from the Great Wall of Time, built forgotten eons ago some distance north of Dunholm, to keep out some long forgotten evil. And yet the Wall still served a purpose and somehow evil had not until very recently plagued the realm again.
Details of the Wall’s construction were long lost and yet it had possessed the power to stabilize the whole country, even if it no longer formed a strictly physical barrier between the cold and mysterious north and the warmer climes of the south.
It held (or had held) some deep magic and while it had stood intact for all those thousands of years, peace had held. But lately the Wall had started to crumble, to disintegrate from within. Whatever cunning magic had woven its structure, its power was failing and dark things were seen to cross the land once again.
Ogres, trolls and goblins were seen on the wild moorlands of the far north and wolves once again plagued farms and villages, taking livestock and occasionally children to devour at leisure.
Tall Riders in Black had been seen, men of menace and mystery seated on mighty amour clad horses and shrouded in deeply hooded cloaks. Had they a leader these men, and what did they plan, where had they come from? They stormed the land sewing dissension amongst the kingdoms, stirring intrigue and jealousy, setting king against king, son against father, mother against daughter. A madness had gripped the towns and villages and where peace and trust had once prevailed, bitter quarrels now grew for no apparent reason. Power and greed seemed to grip the realm. Where once the watchword had been co-operation for the common good, the norm had now become competition – ruthless at that.
Pitched battles were fought (such as the one Polly and Eustace witnessed courtesy of the Book of Ways). Sword and mace had replaced hoe and plough in the Northern Lands and Polly and Eustace had bravely offered to find out why.
Rosalie and Aliénor made good hosts and passed round cakes and good things, pouring fragrant coffee and cream topped chocolate as they mingled with the gathering. They were famed at home for their cuisine and keen both on making and eating fine pastries, all the time remaining wafer thin. They ran a café and bookshop down an ancient cobbled alley in Dunhelm – called, appropriately enough, “Books and Cakes”. Both held tenured positions at the ancient University of Dunhelm. Rosalie as a lecturer and deeply respected expert on ancient Norse language, literature and religion. Aliénor headed the faculties of magic and metaphysical philosophy.
The Mage was very jolly now and chatted amiably to each and every one of the assembly in turn. He rather reminded Polly of Father Christmas in his glorious green robes and fur trimmed hood. Perhaps he was.
“You have taken on a mighty task and your valor will long be spoken of! Troubadours will sing of your bravery, lutists will pick sad minor chords mirroring the darkness you encounter. Beautiful cadences and triumphant notes will hail your great victories. Your generosity will never be forgotten” boomed the Mage between mouthfuls of sugar-iced current bun and slurps of frothy chocolate.
“This is as much about you as about evil and magic in distant lands. It is a test, if you like, certainly of your resolve. What do you believe in, what do you care about? How should we behave towards each other, how should we lead our lives? My belief is that there is some deeper magic hidden somewhere, that even I have not yet discovered. Perhaps you will find it where I have so far looked in vain. All “makes sense”, of that I am sure. There is purpose and meaning in life, and goodness and decency are at the heart of all. You will return much changed and may even awaken to some ultimate reality.”
“I hope we won’t disappoint you” said Eustace. “Somehow, I think I was waiting. Your call was not so unexpected. Difficult to explain really, I can’t put my feelings properly into words”.
“Yes, I too felt an inkling of something strange these past few months ” added Polly. “Both of us smelled change and adventure in the air. I need to know, I can only put it that way. I seek and I have always sought. Why – I want to know why. And how and where and when and all manner of other questions, hidden from we mortals since the beginning of time.”
“I understand your intuition well” returned the Mage “and that is why you were chosen, both of you. You have good in your hearts and a deep thirst to know. You will learn, you will grow, you will flourish even if at the end, this task remains beyond you. Even should you perish in the attempt, good will come from your bravery and resolve. For there is no true death in the Many Worlds, your spirits, your essence will be honed and tuned, hammered and tempered, refined and renewed. But above all it will survive. Listen to the wind, to the silence for clues. Hear the speech of the raging seas, the call of the birds, the whispering of the animals, talking and otherwise. Clues will abound, some hidden in plain sight, some dressed in more serpentine garb.
You will find help along the way, wise guides to offer sustenance and succor, comfort during the hard times you will face. Listen for the voice of the universe, hear the quiet from the very center of all. It is there, somewhere, that I feel in my very bones. Who knows, it may find you or you it.
Imagine! The two of you taken from your quiet village in rural England to heal a foreign world and to find all manner of wonders as you journey. The meaning of all perhaps, the philosopher’s stone, the very center of existence which thus far has eluded even we Elders.”
“Enough Mage!” exclaimed Rosalie “Stop frightening them! Aliénor and I will do all we can to help. Polly and Eustace should meet us at “Cakes and Books” and we will make a concrete plan for their trip to the Wall. That is where they should start out from.”
“How do we get there Rosalie?” asked Polly. “Oh, its simple enough” Aliénor offered. “Open any door you see around you in the wall of the Chancel and step through it with the firm intention of ending up in Dunholm. That usually does it, although I have occasionally been a little absent minded and ended up in some quite different world and had a devil of a job trying to find my way back. But you should be fine if you concentrate – picture us in your head as you step through the door. Imagine a quaint little city on a rocky hill in a cold northern land, surrounded by a dark and swiftly flowing river. Hold in your mind our warm little café in its cobbled alley, see the brightly colored sign swing above the door in the howling wind – “Books and Cakes” its says, quite unmistakable. That should get you there. I’m afraid we can’t travel together through a door, it doesn’t really work that way and heaven knows what would happen if we tried.”
“Oh, well we do know what would happen Aliénor , because last time we tried to lead a tour group back for a lecture series in Dunhelm, we shepherded all of them through the same door together. If you remember, half of them ended up in an unnamed desert world on the far side of an undiscovered galaxy in some bizarrely parallel universe. Even the Mage had trouble helping us to find them and get them safely to “Cakes and Books” where their afternoon tea grew cold.”
“Ah! Sister, I had forgotten that little mishap” said Rosalie. “It’s safe enough for the two of you to enter the same door but a crowd and all their conflicting thoughts seems to confuse the system, so Aliénor and I will be cautious and travel separately. Safe passage for two is offered but any more seems to cause a bit of a problem, so best not put it to the test.”
Aliénor and Rosalie said their goodbyes to the assembly of elders with many hugs and kisses and pocketed a few almond croissant for their tea back in Dunhelm. Just in case the Café had run out or the girls who helped them run it had closed up early for the day. They held hands with Polly and Eustace fondly for a few moments and expressed their gratitude for what the two of them had agreed to take on.
“Fare well, Gothic Elves” said the Mage as he lead them over to one of the Chapter House doors. Flavio gave the sisters a hug and a fond farewell as did Pluribus and a host of other elders. A winged horse, a centaur, and a large hedgehog came to add their goodbyes, along with a couple of owls which looked just as wise as owls are supposed to. “Good luck sisters” they cried, or hooted. “Be sure to return in time for the Midsummer’s Night Feast!”
And with that, the twinkling Gothic Elves darted through the open the door the Mage had escorted them to, and disappeared into swirling snow. Dunhelm Cathedral was just visible through the murk (gently lit by gas street lanterns) and The Mage closed the door hastily to shut out the cold and damp that was such a feature of that little northern city.
“Your turn my children” said the Mage in a kindly voice as he pointed them in the direction of a door in the Chapter House wall. “Any door will do. So long as you set your intentions on where you want to go, the portal will do the rest. Return soon but call me if you have need. The sisters will look after you well, but you have only to turn your mind to me in dark times and I too will come to your side.”
Polly and Eustace bade an emotional adieu to the Mage and their newfound friends among the elders. Pluribus and Flavio stood by and smiled in encouragement, honored by the bravery and resolve of this young couple with so little knowledge of the real world.
“You too must return for the feast on Midsummer’s Night. As our honored guests” said Flavio. “If you are not here, we will take it as an ill omen and send out such help as we are able to muster to secure your rescue. Not, I am sure, that you will need it. But know that we are all here for you should the necessity arise.”
And with that, Polly and Eustace held hands and disappeared through the door held open for them by the Mage. To say that they were nervous would be something of an understatement, but as they stepped through the strange portal, they tried to keep an image of ancient Dunhelm in their minds. And they imagined the warm interior of the sisters’ café which awaited them on their arrival.
That all was not going entirely to plan was obvious to the Mage as he peered through the door after the couple, before quietly closing it at their backs. He had expected to see the familiar Cathedral in all its winter gloom, but was surprised instead to see a tunnel of bright light which disappeared into an infinite distance. At this stage the Mage was not too concerned. Such errors happened from time to time and the odd glitch in their esoteric mode of transport between the worlds usually bode no ill. Often as not the door would sort out the mess before the travelers were even aware of it and managed somehow (usually!) to deposit them at their intended destination. Anyhow, the tunnel of light looked far from ominous and the Mage would soon enough call the Elves and check on their guests’ safe arrival.
Polly and Eustace felt no discomfort or fear but were nonetheless surprised to find themselves floating in light, with no solid ground beneath their feet.
Neither had any sense of “self” or place or time. They knew that they “were” but they did not know what they were. They were conscious but absorbed in a whole, not separate individuals anymore. They were neither Polly, nor Eustace, nor apparently part of any physical universe.
The sensation was wonderful. Freedom, complete freedom and an overwhelming sense of peace and understanding. They knew that they were “home” even if they knew not where that might be.
By and by, after what seemed like an eternity, a voice spoke. Gently. Male, mature, magnificent but at the same time kind and comforting. It seemed to come from all around in the kaleidoscope of warm light in which they were bathed. No up, no down. No left nor right. Just isness, being.
“I am Omega”, said the voice “I have been expecting you. I waylaid you at the Chapter House Door. And here you are, at the center of eternity, the end point of all. You must be confused but do not be afraid. You are out of the physical realm here, all is pure thought. Think and it shall come into being. Put yourselves into some setting you are more comfortable with and you will slowly come back into yourselves”.
“An island” muttered Polly dreamily, ” A beautiful island in an emerald sea with the most wonderful country house and gardens at its center. And hedges and topiary and gardeners and mowed lawns. And butlers and chauffeurs and all manner of old fashioned staff, smiling and kindly just like my old childhood nanny.”
“And a white painted wrought iron table with lemonade” muttered Eustace groggily “by a white canvas pavilion, on a sloping lawn just in front of the house. Leading down to a sandy beach. A Tudor house, big and irregular of mellow red brick. And a maze, a big beautiful maze. A glorious warm day full of sunshine and birds and small puffy clouds. And rabbits everywhere nibbling at the grass.”
Pop. Both felt a gentle movement and then there they were in just such a place as they had imagined, sitting in warm spring sunshine by a tent at a table with a jug of fresh lemonade and three cut glasses. And cucumber sandwiches. And buttered scones and cream and jam. Looking out over the most wonderful country house either of them had ever seen.
There was a gentle whirring and the two saw an old gardener pushing a mower over the lawns, who waved in greeting. Assistants in traditional overalls and dungarees were calmly snipping at the hedges with old fashioned hand sheers and others gently hoed weeds from the flower beds, or picked roses and wild flowers and laid them in wicker baskets to take indoors to decorate the tables. An open Bentley from the 1930s stood on the graveled drive of the lovely old house, polished by a young man in racing goggles. A smart gentleman in striped trousers and a morning coat waited at the front door with a welcoming smile.
Another gentle popping sound. Omega appeared alongside the young couple and sat down at the table. He sipped at a glass of lemonade and smiled. “Sorry to startle you but I wanted to have a little talk before you go on your adventure” he said.
The previously disembodied voice of Omega now had physical form and the young couple were delighted to see that he had taken the guise of an elderly professor with gold rimmed spectacles, neatly cut thinning white hair and a shabby old tweed jacket. Complemented by a frayed pair of golden corduroy trousers.
Omega smiled in his kindly way. He was so like the Mage the two could almost believe they were back in that clearing in the woods, with the old church and the Chapter House.
“You see, there’s a bit more about all this you need to know” he started, smiling brightly and raising his glass to his lips. “We all end up here eventually but it can be a bit of a long haul for some of us. I’m sorry to say the physical universe was a bit of a mistake – it all just happened, leaked out. You know, big bangs and expansions and black holes and all that sort of stuff. Someone at this end got a bit over imaginative in his thinking and physics just popped up. Moof! Its all been a bit of a nuisance to be honest.”
“So who are you?” And how did you get here?” perked up Polly “If you don’t think I sound too rude in asking.”
“Oh, not at all, not at all” said the old professor. “In a sense we are all one, you, me, the evil at the center of the Northern Lands. We are all spirits, mind, consciousness if you will. All together, unified and yet separate. Its evolution really – but of the non physical kind. The material universe split off by accident and some minds got trapped over there and then it all started going wrong I’m afraid. They forgot where they came from eventually and got swallowed up in all the physical worlds seem to offer. Gradually they forgot this place and me and all the countless billions who live here in an eternity of peace and harmony.”
“They lost their minds and were re-born in primeval slime on countless worlds and planets throughout a whole host of multiverses. And then material evolution took over – endless branching and weaving and sewing and sticking and gluing. Gradually consciousness started to re-emerge, but sadly by then most had forgotten their peaceful origins or where they had come from. They didn’t need to strive and struggle and fight and kill but by that time they had grown all sorts of nasty stuff like teeth and claws and digestive systems. Some grew into wise old oak trees of course and some into flowers and shrubs and all sorts of flora. Those were the nice guys. The animal kingdom was a different kettle of fish. So to speak!
It was the Garden of Eden to begin with but sadly only a few ever saw that. A few wise men and women woke to their true natures and tried to warn the rest of the exiles. A young carpenter on one rocky little planet started preaching decency and kindness and talked of a better place. The ruling evil empire strung him up and killed him in the brutal fashion of the times. Nice young fellow – and he ended up back here of course where he belongs. So no real harm done. Trouble is, his followers made a right mess of it. Took a simple story of a good man’s awakening to the true reality of his roots, and cluttered it with all sorts of mumbo jumbo, tomfoolery and funny outfits. Then the evil empires got hold of the story and we were back to the usual savagery – wars, conflict, torture and money. People selling (fake) shavings of the tree the young man was strung up on, flogging bits of old bone they claimed were his earthly remains and so on. He was most upset but of course nothing he could do about it once he was back here.
Oh and lots of other good people woke to the truth down there but none of it did a great deal of good. One nice old fellow with a bald head in a loincloth sat under a tree until the penny dropped and eventually of course he found himself back here where he belonged. His lot were rather better behaved after he went but sadly they never got far either – same old stuff went on and on. People killing for greed, unable to see there was plenty for all if only they could share. Sigh.
Anyway, The Mage and his lot are truly good people doing an excellent job. They are a mere hair’s breadth from finding their way back here. I must go and visit them shortly to give them a few pointers.”
“So how do we fit into all this?” said Eustace “and what is required of us?”
“Yes, how can we help” said Polly, looking a little puzzled in the face of the all powerful Omega.
“Well it’s like this really” said Omega thoughtfully, “it has to come from them, or they will never “wake”. The lost souls in the physical worlds. Never find their way back to peace and plenty. Harmony and the eternal. Go and find the source of evil in the Northern lands and reason with him or it, or her or them. Get them to see how foolish and unpleasant it is to stir up war and pit kin against kin. You’ll have to force their hand of course and that’s part of the reason I brought you here. Physical things really do count back down there – everything in the Northern Lands was nicely held in place by a crystal brick at the center of the Great Wall of Time but its gone missing. I won’t bore you with the technical details but it sort of held things in check down there. Held back some of the nastier impulses of the local thugs and made life a bit more tolerable for the locals. The sort of thing that’s very helpful in curbing the worst excesses of evolutionary bestiality. Anyway it emitted beneficial fields and held the balance nicely for a few hundreds of thousands of years. If you can find it and put it back into place, the locals can get on with their lives again, and hopefully some will even wake and find their way home. Eventually.”
“Enough business!” said Omega, “Come and walk with me a while. See a bit of the place you have created while you are here.” And with that they headed down to the golden sands of a long, long beach and strolled along calling out to the birds and playing ducks and drakes with rounded flat stones.
They waved a merry greeting to a dryad or two (or that’s how they cared to clothe themselves) and a strange gentleman in the garb of a sea god. The inspiration for the earthly Neptune perhaps. Jolly and pleasant people and all chatted in a kindly and interested fashion to their amazed and stunned visitors.
Eustace began to feel a little troubled suddenly. He felt small and vulnerable in the face of the enormous task he had been entrusted with and his fear began to show. Imperceptibly the wind began to rise and clouds darkened and covered the clear blue sky as they walked. Suddenly, the waves rose alarmingly and to his horror, Eustace saw a tall black wall of water a mile or so offshore, moving towards them at an ever increasing pace, with wild foam blown by the now howling gale. The wave looked to be several hundred feet high and birds wildly scattered down its menacing curve and huge sea creatures were bourn before it, tossed helplessly by its enormous power . Eustace felt the ground quake beneath his feet and heard a terrible roar as the wall of death approached the pretty little island, which would surely be swamped and destroyed. He shouted at the others and ran as fast as he was able up the sandy shore and back towards the house which stood at a somewhat greater height above sea level. 100 feet perhaps, but little enough protection against the terrifying tsunami approaching.
Strangely, the others took no notice but continued along the beach, laughing and chatting as if nothing was wrong with the world and the sun still shone. They didn’t seem to have seen the approaching danger, hadn’t noticed the abrupt change in the weather.
The truth was that Polly felt no fear and so projected none around her. As Eustace ran she turned and called him but his panic was too great for him to hear. She turned to Omega and saw the old professor was unabashed and still had a beatific smile on his face.
“The mind” he said. “All here is mind, made by mind and unmade by mind. There is no fear once you get used to it but you have to learn to curb your imagination a bit or you might get carried away by your own dreams and that wouldn’t do at all, now would it.”
He appeared at Eustace’s side and gently touched his arm, speaking soft and comforting words. The terror on Eustace’s face slowly faded and the tsunami faded with it. The sun reappeared and the birds tweeted. Calm was restored to the little island and the beautiful old house stood firm. Eustace felt a little abashed at the fuss he had caused but the old professor just nodded gently.
“Takes a bit of getting used to, doesn’t it? Dream it up and there it is. But it is a dream, a fantasy if you like. You can create a beautiful island in an emerald sea and then again a terrible storm and fearsome creatures. But the fear goes and so do the monsters. All here is safety and goodness and the phantom storm would have done you no real harm – it would have passed over like the dream it was. Back to the house for rest and dinner I think, for tomorrow you must resume your journey and rejoin the Gothic Elves at their little café in Dunhelm. People to meet and quests to embark on!”
With that the little group found themselves back at the front door of the beautiful old house and the butler was handing out thick towels and robes and sweetly scented bath soaps. It may have been in the mind but it was very welcome for all that. Especially for Edmund who really had suffered a terrible shock.
Baths were drawn and had, a little nap was taken and then a splendid dinner was laid on in the lovely old library. A fine suit of amour stood in one corner and every wall was covered in rare leather bound books, telling tales of derring do in the many world. And spell books, they were everywhere, although they were not called such in this august context. Suggestion books perhaps, recipes to conjure up what you desired and what would give this unworldly realm ever more beauty and joy.
Polly and Eustace laughed and joked and feasted with the professor and his guests. The young carpenter was there, and a very merry soul he was. The beastliness of a couple of millennia ago was quite forgotten and he and Omega wondered whether a rematch was due – a second chance to see the warring tribes of earth kiss and make up. Hmm, a little too soon perhaps. Not enough lessons had been learnt from the last visit, which had turned out to be largely a waste of time.
“Never mind” said the young man, “they will learn. Evolution will slowly have its way.” The elderly gentleman in a loin cloth to the right of Eustace agreed. “All in good time” he said “and others seem to be slowly leading the way down there”.
And so to bed, after a day of wonder and excitement. A day of revelation and awakening for this innocent young couple from a sleepy village somewhere in rural England.
Polly and Eustace walked sleepily up the grand staircase and found their way to a luxurious bedroom with rich drapes at the windows and a huge and comfortable four poster bed.
“It can’t ever have been this comfortable in Elizabethan England” Polly giggled and turned over sleepily while Eustace switched out the light on a long and eventful day.