Meadows of Fantasy



"HI, DAVE," OWEN greeted him as the former dropped down the ladder into the Turtle's interior. "How's the publication plans going?"

Dave Portable straddled a chair.

"I've got one item promised," he returned. "John Berry's offered a story that's already on stencil, which he'll run off himself if we accept it. It's already appeared in some zine with a strictly limited circulation, apparently."

"H'm," Own grunted noncommittally. "That's the only reply then?"

"Well, Archie Mercer's replied --says he'd like to do something for us, but he can't think of anything worth writing about. Once they can see visible proof that we're capable of putting out a magazine, they'll perhaps have more reason to trust us."

Dave struck a pose. "The Women's Institute of the Future, One Hundred Years From Now. By Mine Smith," he intoned.

"Oh dear -- I'd was hoping everybody'd have forgotten about that."

"Can't you adapt it to the Fan Club of the Future or something?"

"Now I've met you lot, I'm beginning to wonder how I ever had the face to inflict it on a Women's Institute audience, let alone a science-fictional one."

"Stefnic," Owen corrected.

"Shouldn't sit in a draught then," put in Bert Duckbarrow.

"Bert can compose an original pun for the occasion," Owen suggested. "We can give it a double-page spread all to itself, all out of the way of everything else -- what there is of everything else, that is."

"You're making a lot of noise, Owen," said Mine. "Perhaps you can write something brilliant to help out."

"Well," Owen hesitated. "I've been sort of thinking of writing a short story. Not a serious short story -- more of a fantasy thing. You know..."

"The Were-Vampire of Castle Frankenstein sort of?"

"Not exactly. No, it's about a man who's spent his life wandering about the world trying to find the crock of gold at the end of a rainbow -- you know. He's been all over, following every rainbow he sees. Anyway, somewhere out in the wilds of Tibet or Inner Mongolia, one of those sorts of places, he sees this rainbow. And does his usual, like. And somehow, this time he sorts of manages to catch up with the end. He finds his crock of gold -- only it's going tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock -- because it was a Chinese rainbow."

The Circle had put in a couple of strenuous months reconditioning the Turtle, which had metamorphosed into a pleasant little clubroom. The Sea Scouts, with whom they remained on excellent terms, had been a great help -- having precisely the same problem themselves, they had had no hesitation about employing a youth-club's prerogative and going round town openly on the cadge for usable wood and other materials. In the event they had rounded up considerably more than they could use on their own vessel, and the balance had been quietly handed over for the Turtle. Besides panelling the walls and constructing one or two necessary cubicles in the process, the Circle had run up a couple of rough but strong tables. Everybody had rallied round with old chairs and benches and things, Mine had pressed Cynthia (who preferred hammering to sewing) into service in the soft furnishings department, and the whole thing was now generally shipshape. They even had some portholes -- protected by wooden shutters when not in use, as they hadn't got round to having them glazed yet. Reconstruction had now slackened off, and the air was humming with plans for the future -- of which a club fanzine was one.

"To change the subject for a mo," Harry the Second changed the subject, "is anybody doing anything about the library?"

"Doing what about the library?" asked Dave.

"The public library -- letting them know we exist, and all that. Now what are you all grinning at? Have I said something wrong?"

"Should we tell him?" said Owen.

"I suppose so," Dave responded with a mock sigh. "There's no privacy nowadays. No, Harry -- it's just that I work there."

"Most of us originally contacted each other through there," Owen amplified.

"We've been in his good books ever since," said Bert -- who, to give him his due, had never even heard of WILLIS DISCOVERS AMERICA.

"Never mind," said Harry the Second agreeably. "It's my fault. I shouldn't have bothered to open my big mouth."

Harry the Second -- called that to distinguish him from the Circle's other Harry -- was a large, lazy young man who earned his living driving a delivery van -- a sort of miniature pantechnicon. As he possessed unrestricted right of access to this vehicle at all times, they found him a particularly useful addition to their strength.

"Call the meeting to order, Dave," Owen suggested. "Most of us are here, and anybody who isn't ought to be."

"Right -- the meeting is hereby called to order." Ian and Cynthia, who had been nattering at the other end of the barge, swivelled their attention.

"Can I make a suggestion?" Cynthia asked.

"Don't answer that question," said Owen.

"Thank you. The suggestion is -- why don't we arrange a picnic or something while it's still sort of summer?"

"It would sound more official, Cynthia," Tom reproved her jokingly, "to call it a club outing, or a circle outing."

"OK," Owen spoke up once again. "Let's arrange a circle outing and call it a picnic."

"Cynth can organise the catering arrangements," said Mine slyly.

"Out of order," Dave ruled. "We can't trust her -- she's not housebroken yet. OK, Mine, now that's settled..."

Mine made a face at him. Cynthia thought it more prudent not to.

"Proposal seconded," Ian volunteered. "Right -- where shall we go?"

"That depends," said Dave, "on how we're going to get there Harry."

Once again the Circle achieved almost a full turnout for the occasion, Tom as usual being (for reasons already explained) the sole absentee. On the other hand, the numbers were augmented by the presence of three extra ladies. Harry the First had brought his wife and daughter -- the latter twin to son George -- and Harry the Second had brought his current girl-friend. This made a round dozen, who, perched for the most part on assorted Turtle furniture in the back of Harry the Second's van, set off gaily the following Sunday up the hill to Upside Down en route for Tackton Castle.

"Have we got everything?" wondered Dave as the van ground into low gear for the long uphill drag.

"Remember the sandwiches, Mine?" asked Owen.

"Remember to pack enough glasses, Mine?" supplemented Ian.

"Remember to bring the mustard, Mine?" continued the interrogation.

"The salt..."

"And the tin-opener..."

"The bottle-opener, Mine -- the bottle-opener?"

"Excuse my being nosy," asked Mrs. Harry the First -- who was a small, plain-featured, pleasant woman -- "but why do they keep calling you 'Mine'?"

Mine smiled -- she liked the woman. "Because it's my name."

"Well why don't they call you by your Christian name?"

"It is my Christian name." The woman looked blank. "You see, when I was born, the midwide liked the look of me right away, and said 'I wish she was Mine'. So they decided to make her wish come true, and I've been Mine ever since."

"Is that right?" said Mrs. Harry earnestly. "I once used to know a..." She broke off doubtfully at the semicircles of grins facing her.

"Nevertheless," said Mine, "it is my real name, I assure you." And with that Mrs. Harry had to be content, though she did question her (equally ignorant) husband pretty closely on the subject when they got home.

The van turned sharp left at Laymans Cross, then peeled off into a narrow side-road and was soon winding through the dense woodland that was all that remained of the once-notorious Tackton Chase. The woodland road seemed never-ending, until suddenly the van pulled up with a unnecessarily ostentatious gravelly skid. Dave fell off his stool.

"Here we are, people," announced Harry the Second through the hatch. "Tackton Castle."

"Famed in song, story, and the Ministry of Works," said Dave. "Or whatever it's called nowadays."

"Song, story, the Ministry of Works, or Tackton Castle, d'you mean?" Owen demanded.

"Yes," said Dave. And they all tumbled out and went to have a look.

Tackton Castle is only a small specimen as castles go, but a well-preserved one. It is set on a knoll in the heart of the Chase, surrounded by a genuine water-filled moat (fed by a stream) up to the outside edge of which the woodland now extends. The village which once clustered about its walls (within the moated area) has long since disappeared, leaving only the gaunt ruin of the stronghold itself to hold a timeless sway over the scene. There is a wooden bridge over the moat, and a small booth where an official sells tickets, postcards and official guides, but they are the only concessions to the twentieth century in the vicinity. Even the car-park is concealed amongst the trees. Viewed from the north-west, the castle gives the illusion of the past veritably come to life. From any other direction however it can be seen that the north-eastern tower stands Pisa-like at an angle, having parted altogether from the neighbouring curtain-walls.

Owen, Bert and Cynthia contemplated the delinquent tower from the bailey within.

"Honestly, mister," Cynthia murmured. "All I did was lean against it."

"Try leaning against me, Cynth," said Owen. "I call for you any time."

Cynthia, of course, promptly did. Owen just as promptly lost his balance, and teetered on the brink. Cynthia gave a little cry, made a grab at him, and missed. Owen sort of tottered over the edge. He had his wits about him, his hands bounced him harmlessly off the tower itself and he landed on his feet about three yards lower down.

"Hey!" he called back up. "There's a passage down here."

"I wonder if the keepers know about it?" Cynthia speculated.

"Must do," said Bert. "Surely."

"I'm coming down," Cynthia decided.

"No, don't," said Owen, but Cynthia was already on her stomach and sliding over the edge. Owen was vouchsafed a brief glimpse of far more of her legs than was good for him, then she was beside him.

"Wonder where it leads?" she said.

"Dunno -- but now we're both here, I suppose there's no possible alternative but to investigate."

"Wait for me!" called Bert.

"Go away, Bert," Owen called back. "Remember, two's company."

"And three's a jolly good fellow," Bert returned as his long frame slithered down to join them.

The passage seemed sound enough -- what they could see of it, which was only a few feet. Owen led the way gingerly into the interior. In next to no time he was having to feel his way at each step.

"You still there, Owen?" Cynthia called.

Owen stopped, and she banged into him. "Let's hold hands, or link arms, or something." They did the latter, Cynthia between the two youths, and side by side they continued forward. Owen and Bert each had contact with one wall with his free hand. Then Cynthia's right arm was nearly wrenched out of its socket, and a clatter of loose change on the floor sent little echoes tinkling into the darkness. Bert gave a smothered curse.

"There goes my week's wages," he commented ruefully. "Now I wonder..."

"Who's got a light?" asked Cynthia.

"Not me," Owen told her. "I left all my makings in the van with my jacket."

"I can't find my bloody lighter," Bert grumbled. "Damn -- I bet it's on the deck too. Let's see what we can do anyway." The three of them scrabbled in the dust. Several assorted coins were successfully recovered by sundry questing fingers, but no lighter.

"Hey!" said Cynthia suddenly, in an odd little voice. "There's something here."

"What?" "Yes?"

"I think it's some sort of well."

"Well I never." (Bert of course.)

The boys moved forwards to investigate. A well indeed it appeared to be, of depth unknown. Owen sacrificed one of Bert's pennies in the cause of science, to be rewarded by an agonisingly long interval with a faint clunk.

"I don't entirely care for this," he announced. "I think we'd better go back."

"Which way is back?" asked Cynthia.

"Let's see -- there ought to be a wall here." There wasn't. "Or perhaps a little further -- here, say." There still wasn't. "But -- yes, I mean no. There certainly shouldn't be one here, anyway. That's odd."

"I think I've got a passage," said Cynthia. "But is it the right one?"

"Or is it this one?" asked Bert.

"Where the hell's that well gone?"

They were -- as Bert was sooner or later bound to remark -- well and truly lost.


Dave and Mine, a guide-book shared companionably between them, stood on the high walkway and surveyed the castle's interior.

"It certainly brings out the sense of wonder in one," said Mine. "I can just imagine them bringing in the boar's head from the kitchen in the great hall. Over there, in that space, my lord and his lady slept. There was a floor there then of course."

"It's just the right size," Dave decided. "One can more or less take in the whole layout at once -- it doesn't ramble all over the place whichever way you turn. Quarters, kitchens, store-rooms, stables -- the works. You can see Norman sentry patrolling along here. The master-at-arms comes past -- goes in that door, there." He turned and gestured over the wall. "There's a wagon waiting outside the drawbridge -- he's going to let it down so that the wagon can come in."

"I wonder," Mine mused, "why they called a chamber a 'solar' when it only has two little windows both facing north?"

"Dunno. Bert would probably say it was because it was part of the System. Why, come to that, should a toilet be described as a 'garderobe'?"

"Oh, that's easy," said Mine. "Elementary French. 'Garder', to watch, or mind, or beware. 'Robe' -- a robe is a robe is a robe. Translation -- mind your clothing. Eminently practical advice in the circumstance, I'd say."

"Oh. I thought it was just a sort of synonym for wardrobe. Euphemism."

"Well -- you may possibly be in the habit of committing euphemisms in your wardrobe..."

They both laughed. Ian emerged from the putative master-at-arm's doorway and joined them. (1)

"What's become of the rest of the gang?" he asked.

"I wouldn't know," Dave told him. "There's Dick and Harry and Co. over there. I rather got the impression that Harry the Second wouldn't be coming in -- he'd sooner lie on the greensward."

"That's all right for him," Ian grunted. "He's got something worth lying on the greensward with."

"Now that's not chivalrous," Mine chaffed him.

"The trouble with you, Mine," Ian returned, "is that there's not enough of you to go round."

"That," said Dave, "sounds positively pornographic."

"Anyway," Ian went on, "you haven't seen the others then?"

"No. Oh, they'll be up in the keep or down in the dungeons or somewhere. Probably skulking somewhere to take us by surprise. Let's hunt them up." And the party dispersed.


Meanwhile back in the bowels of the earth...

"Damn this darkness," complained Bert as his head grazed a sudden wall.

"It's the shortage of light that causes it," Cynthia gratuitously informed him.

"Don't I know it? Here, Owen -- you're a mole, can't you lead us to safety?"

"No," said Owen succinctly.

"Anyway," said Cynthia, "wouldn't it be more to the point to stop and wait for someone to send a search-party? We haven't a clue where we're going. And they'll be missing us sooner or later."

This seemed to make sense, so they leaned against a handy wall -- the place seemed full of handy walls -- and began to wait.

"Cynth," said Owen.


"Are you going to burst into tears?"

Cynthia considered this for a moment. "No -- I don't think so. Why?"

"D'you mind if I do then?"

"Talk about babes in the wood," said Cynthia.

"All right," said Bert, "if you want me to. Once upon a time there were two little babes who lived in a wood."

"One of then was named Fred." Owen took up the story.

"And the other was named -- er, Fred." (That was Cynthia.)

"In fact they were both named Fred."

"They were absolutely no relation to each other."

"Except on the mother's side, which didn't count, as the wood was strictly deciduous."

"Does that follow?"

"Were they little boy-babies or little girl-babies?"


"One of each."

"Freda? Frederika?"


"And one day they suddenly grew up and got married."

"To three other people who just happened to be riding by on a four-humped camel at the time."

"And they all lived happily ever after."

"Except for the camel, who suffered dreadfully from insomnia whenever there was a Tuesday in the month."

"So one day they sent for the camel-doctor."

"Who was a Tibetan llama with two Ls."

And so on.

They were just getting to the part where the male midwife bails out of the Martian submarine with a waterproof parachute when a sudden echoing bawl of "Anybody at home?" made them all jump. Then they began shouting simultaneously "Hooray!" and "Rescue!" and "Who is it?"

"Where are you?"

"Here!" and "Dunno!" and "Who is it?"

"Sounds like Dave," said Owen then.

"Careful!" called Cynthia in a penetrating voice. "There's an unfenced well somewhere!"

"It's OK -- got a torch!" A flash of light from somewhere in the erstwhile darkness confirmed this, and a moment later the three of them were scrambling to their feet in the presence of both Dave and Mine.

"How the hell did you get here?" asked Mine.

"That's a stupid question," said Cynthia scornfully. "D'you think we'd still be here if we knew?"

"How did you find us, anyway?" asked Owen.

"Simply followed the guide-book, believe it or not. You weren't anywhere else, so you had to be here. Q.E.D."

"How far do these things go?" Owen continued.

"Further than you think from the size of the castle. Anyway, we'd better be getting back -- Ian's keeping K.V. for us."

They all wondered why.

"Because we're utterly out of bounds, of course," said Dave. "Didn't you read the notice?"

"Huh?" "What notice?"

"Climbing strictly prohibited on pains of prosecuting, or words to that effect."

"Who's been climbing?" Owen demanded.

Owen, Bert and Cynthia were thoroughly surprised to find what a short distance they had actually travelled underground, and at Ian's urgent beckon they emerged thankfully into the daylight again, scrambling quickly to ground level before a keeper spotted them.

"You three'd better keep out of Harry the Second's way for a bit," Dave told them. "We had to beat the woods for him, to get the key to the van so that we could get a torch. Lucky he had one."


A dozen hungry humans eventually assembled at the van. Even Harry the Second and his girlfriend were there -- or perhaps they deemed it wiser to be there when wanted this time -- and a heavily laden human pack-train was soon wending its way along the banks of a little woodland stream in search of a suitable picnic-spot.

"I wonder why they call this a 'chase'?" asked Cynthia.

"Because it's where the wicked baron used to chase all the local vir... er, maidens," Owen suggested.

"'Virgins' is good enough, surely. I do speak English, you know."

"The local virgins were always chased," put in the inevitable Bert.

Mine decided to enlighten them. "In the middle ages," she told them, "all forests belonged to the king. Any forest -- such as this one -- that through some oversight didn't belong to the king was called a chase, just so that the king would know the difference."

"I wish you'd been my history master, Mine," said Owen.

They duly found a suitable spot, and the repast got under way. Mine had proved more than adequate to the organisation of the feast, and it was perfectly set off by the pleasant leafy surroundings. In course of time the speed of consumption slowed down, and a dozen bodies settled back one by one, replete.

"Let's leave the rest for this evening, " suggested Mrs. Harry the First.

"It's nearly that now," said someone. "Ah well."

"Somebody's coming," said someone else.

Somebody was coming. And talking as she came, which seemed to indicate more than one person. Only one person hoved into sight, though -- a slender woman in a print blouse and tweed skirt. Her eyes were tight shut, her outstretched hands held a forked twig more or less parallel to the ground, and she was muttering to herself something on the lines of: "I know there's water here somewhere, I'm sure there is, there must be water here, I feel it," and so on.

And she was heading straight for the picnic-party -- and the stream that lay just beyond them.

"Look out!" sang out Cynthia and Harry the First's daughter together. The woman gave a convulsive jerk, pulled up sharply, and opened her eyes to regard them.

"Oh dear," she said. "So near and yet so far. If only I could have gone a pace or two further."

This was manifestly impossible without her trampling the remains of the feast in the process. They sat and looked at her. She was aged maybe fifty, though it was difficult to tell. Her face -- untouched by human hand so to speak -- was clear and almost unlined, and looked younger than did her grizzled hair. She parted her hands and let them fall to her sides.

"I'm sure I have the Gift -- if only the conditions were right," she sighed. "If I could have reached the stream, I would have known. But it was not to be. Another day, perhaps."

Cynthia was the first to find her voice. "Have a sandwich," she offered, handing up a plate that happened to be within reach.

"Thank you my dear," said the woman, taking one. She bit into it. "You are hospitable. And by the way, I'm not as silly as you're probably all thinking.

"There's nothing silly about dowsing." Dave spoke up. "I hope you'll be successful another time."

"Thank you. May I be so bold as to enquire -- have you been visiting the castle?"

"Yes -- this morning."

"What did you all think of it?"

"There are twelve of us," Mine pointed out. "And we probably reacted in twelve different ways. Personally, I found it fascinating."

The women's eyes lit up. "Oh, it is," she confirmed. "Utterly fascinating. In more than one way. Godfrey de Morlac built it of course. You know who he was?"

"The bastard son of Rufus' seneschal," Mine said promptly. After all, she had read the guide-book.

"Yes," the woman said darkly. "That's what some say. And there wasn't a wickeder man in England -- no, not under three reigns. They used to say of him that instead of selling his soul to the Devil, he bought the Evil One's. You know the legend of the wall?"


"The well is located deep underground -- nobody's allowed to go there nowadays. The story is that if you throw money that has been cursed, and an unlit candle, down the well then foul fiends will appear before you, shining with an unholy light."

Owen, amongst others, stiffened perceptively at this. The woman saw it, and misinterpreted. "Well may you shudder," she told him. "Evil is still rampant amongst us, and it does us all good to face it frankly and fearlessly. But I don't want to outstay my welcome. Thank you for your hospitality. May the Elements preserve you. Perhaps some of us may meet again." And she turned and strode resolutely off beside the little stream.

"Crackers," confirmed Harry the Second's girl-friend as the woman passed out of ear-shot.

"Eccentric," Harry the First corrected her gently.

Owen leaned across and felt Mine's wrist. He moved his hand up her arm, squeezed it hard.

"You don't feel like a foul fiend, Mine, anyway," he told her. He subjected Dave to similar maltreatment. "Nor do you."

Mine and Dave, as well as most of the others, looked at him blankly.

"That legend. Bert fell over and dropped all his loose change. And swore at it. At least some of it went down the well -- I dropped it there, to see how deep it was."

Dave began to see.

"As far as unholy light is concerned -- you ought to have heard what Harry said when I routed him out to ask if he had a torch in the van."

Harry's girl-friend giggled.

"But that leaves the -- what was it? -- unlit candle," Mine pointed out. "Bert doesn't carry unlit candles around in his pocket, I suppose?"

"My lighter!" Bert gasped. Everybody looked at him. "I think it went down the well too."

"We don't know for sure," Owen amplified, "but anyway we couldn't find it."

Mine let out her breath in a soft whistle.

"Well I'm damned," she said weakly.


(1) Mine's suggested etymology of 'garderobe is certainly ingenious. However, my own researches tend to confirm that Dave's more prosaic explanation is probably the correct one. Cf 'cloakroom'. AM

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