Meadows of Fantasy
FANDOM GOES TO COVENTRY
AT THE CONFLUENCE of the Everest and the Alamo, set like an antique pearl in the midst of prosperous sun-washed farmlands, stands the ancient city of Sargasso. And there in her palace of Minehall, clad in a long blue undress robe, Queen Helmine of Minland was taking counsel.
"You must see him at once, my lady," urged Iano, Secretary for the Four Provinces. "The Governors will not send an ambassador all this way for fun."
"What's this talk of an ambassador?" asked the Queen icily. "A Governor -- even a quartet of Governors -- does not send an ambassador to his sovereign."
"Ambassador -- emissary -- envoy -- call him what you will, my lady," put in the Chancellor, Baron Pordave. "We have reason to believe that his message is of urgent import."
"All right," the Queen agreed. "Have this -- er -- messenger summoned."
The individual in question was of comparatively small stature, with the yellowish cast to his skin and the slant eyes of his race. He stood before the throne and bowed. This was an outright breach of protocol -- one does not bow to a queen regnant, but salutes her from the waist as if she were a man. However, his demeanor otherwise was correctly deferent.
"My lady," he announced in excellent Minnish. "I bring you loyal greetings from the Governors of the Four Provinces of Old Cathay, New Cathay, Chingford and Sangley Marches."
"We acknowledge their loyal greetings," said Queen Helmine with a gracious inclination of her shapely head, "and would greet them in return as befits us."
"Thank you, my lady," said the emissary. "May I speak frankly?"
"Thank you, my lady," the man repeated. "The Governors wish, as a matter of extreme urgency, to combine their governorships under unified control that the integrity of the Four Provinces may be the better protected."
The Queen sighed. "That is an old cry," she returned. "Our answer remains as it has always been -- and as that of our father before us. The least of the Four Provinces has over twice the population of the Minnish motherland. Were they to be combined under one rule, 'twould be too great a temptation for any man -- or woman. We cannot allow it."
"But -- my lady," protested the emissary. "I would remind you that the Four Provinces are even now under one rule -- that of your gracious self."
Queen Helmine heaved another sigh -- this was such a hoary old chestnut. "That is so," she agreed. "But from a safe distance. A Governor on the spot with such unlimited power would be a different kettle of fish, and we fear that in such circumstances the Minnish tie would not long hold."
"I would like to point out, my lady," said the emissary, "with the greatest respect, that the way things are going there is a distinct possibility that the tie will not long hold in any event. For one thing -- if their request for unification is not to be granted, the Governors say that they will be unable to stop our young men trading into The Doldrums."
The Queen gasped audibly and visibly at this -- and so did her counsellors.
"That," she pronounced, "sounds dangerously akin to treason."
"No treason is in my thoughts, my lady," said the emissary soothingly, "nor yet in those of the Governors who sent me here. What I said was simple fact -- that unless their request is granted, the Governors will be physically unable to restrain the people. The people want unity -- and always have done. If they cannot have unity under the Minnish flag, then they will look for it under the Doldrumese flag or any other that comes to hand. And that," he added with the merest trace of sarcasm, "I am sure your ladyship does not want."
The Queen considered a moment. "You may leave us," she told the man. "We would take counsel. You will be summoned anon."
The emissary bowed again -- surely he knew the correct custom? However, she would ignore the matter in this instance. Then he withdrew.
It was Bruce Pelz's fault. Having considerable surplus of stocks of "Coventry"-oriented fanzines, he had sent a mixed bundle to Dave Portable. Dave had been first perplexed, then definitely interested, and had passed them around. The upshot had been the creation of Thisbury's own fantasy world.
The world had no name -- any more than this one has. It was broadly similar to this one in other ways, too, such as atmosphere, climate, the land-to-water ratio, the physical types of the flora and fauna, and so on. The one basic difference was that floating continents, instead of being a simply a geological theory, were a fact of major importance -- for not only did the continents float, but they could manifestly be seen to float. Each continent or archipelago, with its attendant continental shelf, moved all the time with the ocean currents -- which in their turn, of course, were continually changing as the position of the land-masses changed. The result was a cartographer's nightmare -- and, scientifically tenable or no, was proving to be great fun to dabble in.
Technologically, the floating world was two or three centuries behind this one -- though sociologically they were much the same. Minland was situated on one coast of Capricorn, the largest continent. The Four Provinces were located on the opposite coast of the same continent. Between them stretched the vast wastes of the great Karelian Desert, which made communication overland virtually impossible. Minland this controlled her distant provinces by sea -- a sea constantly changing as various other territories approached and receded with the currents. More of this anon.
There were seven of them in the game -- Dave, Owen, Ian, Bert, Mine, and Cynthia from Thisbury, and also Theo -- it being impractical to leave him out if Mine was in, things between those two being what they were. With Theo living at a distance from the rest of them, special arrangements had to be made for his participation. The other six had an arrangement whereby each controlled a country, and each also had an alter ego in everybody else's country -- this wherever the action happened to be, everybody could always legitimately take part. Mine, for instance, besides being the Queen of Minland, was Mistress Mine, State Bookkeeper-General to Master David, the High Admiral and Merchant-General of the Free City of Port Able. In Moland, she was the Lady Hervomai, tutor and advisor to Prince Owen. On the Punic Puninsula, where ran King Baroduc's writ, she was the Countess of Minehead. In the Grand Duchy of Detheim, ruled by the Grand Duchess Peracynth, she was the Grand Dowager. And in Kulistan she was a slave in the palace of the Sultam Om. She alone had a permanent alter ego in the mysterious and antique land of Wenlock, where Trun the Warlock ruled. There she was the Princess Carmine, the Minnish ambassador and younger sister to Queen Helmine. ("Being one's own grandfather is passe these days," she said. "I'm my own younger sister.")
Besides the seven countries above-named, the floating world contained a plenitude of others. These, such as The Doldrums and Renigard, were manipulated by common consent as circumstances seemed to warrant.
Meanwhile, back at the palace of Minehall...
Five heads of state sat round a table in Queen Helmine's withdrawing-room. Courtiers and counsellors hovered anxiously at a discreet distance. Only two things would bring together such an assembly -- good news and bad news. And the news that had brought them was far from good.
"I have given in to the demands of my subjects in the Four Provinces," Helmine was saying, "and appointed a Governor-General of the entire domain, with over-riding authority. That may help to hold The Doldrums at bay for a time -- though they come ever closer. It is also the first step in the abdication of Minnish rule over those parts I fear -- but one can only choose the lesser evil."
"Minland was a great nation before ever she spread her rule to distant lands," David of Port Able consoled her. "Minland will still be a great nation without a single overseas Province to her name."
"Thank you, cousin," said the Queen sincerely. "If the Doldrums were one's only trouble, I would have no problems. But nearer to hand there is the question of Renigard. And that, cousins, troubles us all alike."
"Not all alike, cousin," Peracynth of Dethein pointed out. "Renigard daily looms more directly between our lands, 'tis true, and all are threatened. But not for long do our lands march so close -- and my oceanographers tell me that Renigard is likely to be more your problem than ours."
"Aye, that is so," said David. "Any assistance we can render to each other whilst we be neighbours we should do so. But once the tides divide us, distance will make a mockery of our efforts I fear."
"I am ready to place my entire weapunry at the common disposal," offered Baroduc. "Though 'twill be of little avail."
("Not while you make puns like that, anyway," said Mine.)
Om of Kulistan spoke. "As one who is bound to the same continent as Minland and her Provinces," he stated, "I find that my country draws great benefits from the stability that this arrangement imposes. Thus anything that Kulistan can do to help preserve the status quo in any particular, that will she do."
"And what of ancient Wenlock in the mysterious continental heartland, Helmine?" asked David. "Are you not in alliance with the Warlock?"
"I am, and thence I have sent for succour. But many leagues of mountain and desert lie between us, and time is short. It may be that there is no answer, and the League will be smitten by the gathering vultures."
"Courage, cousin Helmine," said Peracynth. "We must lay the best plans we can, and await with fortitude what is to be."
"Oh, don't let's be so bloody ridiculous," Mine burst out suddenly. "Games are games but this is life. I'm not married, I've no family ties, I'm employed by the county education authority, and if they tell me to go and teach in Chipping Melton -- or in Tackton Castle or anywhere else -- if you gotta go, you gotta go, and that's that. I'll be able to get over here at week-ends..."
"Instead of Much Wenlock?" asked Ian.
"Or probably not. I can still see you all now and again, anyway. I certainly won't lose touch."
"I've told you before that you should tell them to go to hell and get a job somewhere else," said Cynthia.
"And I've told you before that if I wasn't planning to leave here anyway before very long that's precisely what I would do," Mine snapped back. "But since it's only a matter of months -- what's the use fighting it?"
"In that case, what the hell else is there to say?" asked Dave. "You know we'll be sorry as hell to lose you..."
"We'll even be sorry to lose you to Much Wenlock," put in Bert with surprising sincerity.
"We'll hold wakes aboard the Turtle twice nightly," said Cynthia. "People will come from miles around simply to watch. You'll be doing us a good turn actually -- bring in no end of lolly to the Club."
Mine sat and glared at her.
Far away on the other side of the continent, on the Forbidden Isle of Orinoco, Mors Ambulans, Despot of the Doldrums, played host to a group of his fellow despots. Mors Ambulans was a giant of a man, seven foot tall and broad to match, with a bristling black beard that was always kept scrupulously clean by his long-suffering women. Warl Ord, the Tyrant of Renigard, was smaller, neater, and considerably more devious in his ways, though equally tough. Utan, the Orang of Turlang, not only looked like a great ape but spelled suspiciously like one too. Finally there was Baron Freiherr, the young Molish exile -- not yet a despot in his own right but who seemed to entertain high hopes of becoming one if he played his cards aright.
"So that, friends, is the plan," finished Mors Ambulans, casting aside the beef bone he had been gnawing. "I will let the Minlanders think that my forces are bent on attacking the Four Provinces, then sail right past them and into the homelands of the League. In return, I claim a free hand in Kulistan which lies athwart my line of communication, and the rest of you can carve up the more distant lands between you as you wish."
Baron Freiherr glanced surreptitiously at Warl Ord for a moment, then at Utan the Orang.
"I should like to point out, Despot," he said with a trace of nervousness, "that the success or failure of this plan depends utterly and entirely upon myself and my Molish friends. Had I not sought you out to being with in the first place, then there would have been no alliance 'twixt The Doldrums, Turland and Renigard, and all our chances would this have been that much less."
"That, Baron," put in Warl Ord coolly, "is, I think, exactly what the Despot meant. If your influence with Moland is as great as you claim, then Moland will be yours besides as much additional territory as you are able to hold. If, on the other hand, you hope simply to ride to power on our shoulders -- well," -- he smiled nastily -- "we may still find a use for you."
"Most excellently put," grunted Utan the Orang.
"You may see with your own eyes what powerful influence I have within my native homeland," said Baron Freiherr -- who was nothing if not tautological. His nervousness seemed to have left him. "Tyrant of Renigard, Orang of Turlang -- may your realms increase, but not at the expense of Moland."
Stateless ships and masterless men came flocking from the wilder places of the floating world to join the already vast fleets and armies of the Black Alliance. Baron Freiherr sailed to Renigard on the Tyrant's own ship; then, with a handful of followers and a considerable amount of money, the latter contributed by the three despots in equal portions and which he would be expected to pay back sooner of later, he was landed one night at a lonely spot on the Molish coast and left to fend for himself. Warl Ord had offered him troops, but the Baron had refused them with the reasonable excuse that whilst many Molanders might be expected to flock to his personal standard, the presence of alien forces behind him would cause many to think again. From the first, he met with the expected success. Lured by his name and -- it must be admitted in at least some cases -- his money, the people came over to him in droves. The Government still ruled in the capital, but the countryside almost to a man accepted the orders of the returned exile. Whole regiments were reported to have joined him en masse. He quickly acquired ships, too, and by the time the mightily augmented navy of the Doldrums hove off to the Renigard coast, he was fully ready for the next stage in the campaign.
By general agreement, the main landing was made slightly to clockwise of the Minnish Mouths -- the delta of the Everest. Kulistan was already under full blockade by non-Doldrumese auxiliaries, and with both Minland and Moland ruled by the Black Alliance disposal of the remaining territories would be laughably easy. With a heavy heart -- for she had hoped until the last that her country would be spared from becoming a battlefield -- Queen Helmine gave the order for her yeomanry to muster. From all over Minland came the companies -- from the cities of Sargasso, Sahara and Forth; from the coastlands; from the fertile croplands around the capital; from the grassy plains of higher and lower Lanthey; from the arid steppe-lands of Aquetas; and from the furthest marches of the kingdom they came. Even the crews of ships trading from the Four Provinces answered the call of their Queen. Minland's allies, seeing the way the situation was developing, sent their best to fight beside the Minlanders under Helmine's command; so crack brigades from Detheim, Port Able and the Punic Puninsula took their places in the line that faced the dread invader.
Mors Ambulans, for his part, chose to station his Doldrumese legions on the left flank, allotting the opposite flank to Warl Ord and his Renigards. The wild men from Turlang were in the left-centre, and the right-centre of the Black Alliance army being held by a surprisingly large force of well-equipped Molanders. And so the opposing armies closed for combat. Mors Ambulan's strategy -- or, rather, Warl Ord's strategy, for if the former was the natural leader the latter was the natural power behind the throne -- was to outflank the Minlanders and their allies by steamroller tactics for which he Doldrumese were numerically well fitted. From the first, in order not to make things too obvious, the attack was pressed hard on both flanks, but the real pressure was sustained on the left until Queen Helmine's forces were ousted from their positions and the drive was on.
Mors Ambulans did not, however, have everything his own way by any means. The well-disciplined companies of the Minnish forces fell back in good order, carrying their wounded with them, and fresh troops came forward to oppose the Doldrumese. They got moving again and the fresh troops fell back in turn -- and suddenly the steamroller came to halt, turned about and caved inward as the allied contingents under King Baroduc took them completely by surprise in the rear. Urgently Mors Ambulans sent horsemen to his own allies to ask for speedy assistance. But none was forthcoming -- for the Despot's allies were in enough trouble of their own. It appeared that the Molanders had changed sides in a body and attacked the men of Turlang and Renigard in their rear. Furthermore, the surprise move by Baroduc's forces seemed to indicate that this reversal of allegiances had not been unexpected. And so a day that had started by looking grim for the defenders of Minnish soil ended in the complete rout of those by their attackers who were able to escape with their lives and liberty.
Mors Ambulans, Warl Ord and Utan the Orang were among those who escaped of course -- they made damn sure of that, anyway, as is a despot's privilege. Many of their followers were slain, and many more taken prisoner. An officer high in the Doldrumese command was brought before Baron Freiherr as the latter surveyed the field from a handy eminence. The captive voiced his opinion of his indignity in no uncertain terms.
"To be captured by the effete men of these waters is insult enough," he spat. "But to be captured by a traitor is thrice an insult."
"I am no traitor, fellow," said the Baron not unkindly. "I promised your despot that wen I landed in Moland the Molanders would flock to my standard -- and they did. They could hardly have done otherwise, since they knew what you obviously did not -- that I am Prince Owen, their sovereign ruler, and a staunch ally of Queen Helmine."
There was dancing in the streets of every Minnish city, town and village when the news reached them, and likewise throughout the League, continuing by the light of bonfires far into the night. In Thisbury, too, they celebrated -- by holding an impromptu party aboard the Turtle. The Nullgray Mouser took reluctantly to the open air as the drinks were poured.
Owen waved his glass aloft, spilling a good half-inch of the contents. "I give you a toast," he declaimed, "to the object of our affections -- your very good friend and mine -- Mine."
The rest of the party responded with cheers.
"It's all very well to lead the toasting," commented Mine as the glasses were lowered. "But where were you in my darkest hour, when my friends gathered to offer their sympathies?"
"Out behind the scenes," said Owen. "Fighting a lone battle on your behalf."
Considerable consternation ensued at this. Mine had been reprieved -- that much was known, and it had been sufficient to the occasion. All eyes were on Owen.
"S'right," he said. "I probably shouldn't say anything -- but to hell with it, I'm bursting to tell somebody. Mind -- I didn't actually do anything -- that is, not like do something. I saw a possible -- possibility that might've happened anyway, and sort of nudged things along in that direction. That's all. It may well've happened in any case."
"I think you'd better make things a bit clearer, Owen," Dave suggested.
"Well I," said Owen. "That is, I sort of had an idea in my mind that seemed to be worth looking into. So I hopped over to Chipping Melton, to investigate conditions there at first-hand. I found what I was looking for right away -- there's a chemist's shop, only a small one, but it's right on the market-place. SO I went in and bought something. Then I started chatting-up the girl behind the counter, and sure enough, the place was owned by the pharmacist himself -- he's an old man, and only keeps at it because he'd rather that then sell out to the multiples. The place was absolutely ripe for a takeover bid from the right quarter."
"Chemist's shop?" asked Cynthia with a puzzled frown. "Might as well say a candle-wax factory. I thought it was a school that was giving trouble."
"Wait a wai -- let me explain. So back I came to Thisbury, and dropped in at the Co-op chemist's. Pharmacist there's Bert Peters -- he's an old boyfriend of my sister's, so I know him quite well. Got married six months ago to a teacher -- in the same line of business as Mine." (Five breaths were let out simultaneously.) "And I'd heard over the grapevine that he was on the lookout for a place of his own.
"So I started asking all about this new home colour developer thing" (for Owen had recently become something of a shutterbug, and now regularly made a considerable nuisance of himself over it) "and sort of got on to how things were with him. He confirmed what I'd heard about him looking for his own place. Thisbury was all sewn up by the multiples, eh said -- Boots and the Co-op and that -- so he had his eye on a place in one of the nearby villages.
"So I asked him sort of conversationally -- why not think big? Why not pick some place a little further away like, for instance, there was Chipping Melton. It's bigger than Thisbury, and it's got a market that would bring extra trade -- and it wasn't all that far away, so his wife wouldn't feel completely cut off from her parents.
"Yes,' he said -- 'but we'll be counting on Brenda's earnings to start with -- she couldn't very well commute to Thisbury, and it may not be so easy to find her a suitable job somewhere else.'
"'That is a point,' I agreed. 'Of course, they might be crying out for women teachers in Chipping Melton -- but anyway.' So I left it at that. I didn't tell him about the chemist's shop in the market place. I didn't tell him about the teacher's vacancy. I just sort of hoped he'd find them for himself. And I heard this afternoon for sure that he did. And believe me -- nobody can be more surprised than I was when I -- when it worked."
Mine, for one, was now frankly looking at Owen with a growing respect in her eyes. "That -- and that's the truth, Owen?" she asked.
"Uh-uh. Like I said -- it might've happened anyway. But I thought there was no harm in trying to help it along a little -- sort of just in case."
"Owen," the girl declared, "I could kiss you."
"Well why don't you then?" asked Owen mischievously. "You've done it before, and it didn't kill you."
"In fact," said Mine, "I damn well will."
And she made a very thorough job of it, too.
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