All posts by Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things.

A Day of Surprises

Philomena Bucket busied herself in the kitchen of The Squid and Teapot, attempting, with little success, to keep her mind focused on anything other than recent events. She reddened at the brazen way in which she had confronted Rhys Cranham a few days earlier, almost demanding that he forsake his work and way of life, and marry her. Although he had tentatively – and without any great enthusiasm –  agreed, she was convinced that the Night-Soil Man must really despise her. Whatever had possessed her to do such a thing? She could only think that all this talk of her being a powerful witch, with some impressive magic at her fingertips, must have gone to her head. Well, she was yet to see any evidence that she was any different from how she had always been, despite having had a year of her life stolen in that strange cavern, deep beneath the surface of the island. Far from feeling magical, Philomena regarded herself as being an abject failure, both in love and life, letting down all who came into contact with her.

Wrapped in these dark thoughts, she did not notice Drury, the skeletal hound, wander through the back door, until she heard his bony form clatter noisily down, and sprawl out upon the flagstones. However glum Philomena felt, Drury would always lighten her heart.

“Ah, get from under me feet, you great lazy lump,” she said, good naturedly. “Are there no spoonwalkers for you to be chasing today?”

Drury’s tail wagged, thumping the floor several times, but he made no effort to rise. Instead he regarded Philomena with a baleful eye, or would have, had he actually been in receipt of an eyeball.

“Well, you’re in luck. I’m almost finished here,” said Philomena. “Come on, let’s go for a walk up the Gydynaps.”

If anywhere on the island of Hopeless, Maine, could be regarded as being Philomena’s favourite place, it would be the Gydynap Hills. For many Hopelessians, the reputation of the Gydynaps engendered a certain amount of mystery, not to say terror. For Philomena, however, they always brought back memories of the Nargles Mountains, an area she knew well, a dozen or so miles west of the city of Cork, in her native Ireland.  This was the place to which she would come, whatever the weather, whatever her mood, and always feel better for the experience.  True, she had encountered a few strange characters while walking these hills, which led her to believe that the Gydynaps were home to a portal, of some description, that lead to who knows where, rather like the cavern beneath The Squid, but she never felt threatened. Anyway, with Drury by her side what harm could befall her?

The fog came down with alarming rapidity, even for the quixotic climate of Hopeless. Although Philomena and Drury had been walking side by side, they suddenly disappeared from each other’s vision. At least, Philomena could not see Drury. The dog, on the other hand, spotted Philomena in the thinning mist. She was running away from him, down the hill, back towards the town, and waving her arms above her head. Drury loved a game of chase, and if that is what Philomena wanted, then he was all for joining in.

Usually, it’s fair to say that Drury is nobody’s fool, but the day of our tale was far from being a usual day.

Philomena stood alone, wrapped in a cold blanket of fog. All around her was silent and still. Her world had become abruptly comprised of nothing but this chilly cocoon that seemed to be seeping into her very pores.. And then, almost imperceptibly, the whispering began. At first it was no more than the faintest suggestion of breath in her ears. Then came the taunts and the chuckling, barely audible, but all the worse for that. Philomena hugged her body, trying to force out the strange voices. Where was Drury? This was not supposed to be happening. She felt an icy hand clutch at her heart, squeezing and freezing her from the inside.

“Get a grip, for heaven’s sake,” she thought to herself. “You can beat this. You can beat this. You can beat this…”

Philomena kept repeating these four words, over and over to herself like a mantra, rocking back and forth as she did so. With outstretched arms and, still rocking, she began to turn, slowly, at first. Then the turning became spinning, ever faster and faster, and the mantra grew into a great, roaring song. Grey, grim rags of fog swirled all around her body, gathering speed until they were drawn up into a swirling vortex that rose above her head, dark and menacing, a filthy cloud which swelled until it burst into a mass of screeching, bat-like creatures that fled away into the now clear sky.

Philomena fell to her knees, sobbing and trembling, and wondering what had just occurred.  Shakily, she managed to stand up and steadied herself against a rock, breathing in deep draughts of air. She stood there for several minutes, regaining her composure and a steadier heartbeat, when Drury reappeared, not a little confused by the events of the last half-an-hour.

“And where the hell did you go. Fat lot of good as a guard dog you were!” Philomena cried, uncharacteristically angry at her canine friend. Anger, however, is not an emotion that Philomena can harbour for long, especially where Drury is concerned.

“I think you and I have been attacked by some enchantment, old friend,” she said quietly, patting the dog’s bony skull. “Sorry I shouted… but I’m damned if I know what was going on there. Come on, let’s get home.”

Durosimi O’Stoat stepped out from behind the rock where he had been hiding, visibly shaken by what he had just witnessed. When Doctor John Dee had let slip that he believed Philomena to have very powerful, but yet latent magical abilities, he was sceptical, but Durosimi resolved, there and then, to rid himself of any threat that this Bucket woman might pose. The deal he had struck with the dæmon, Buer, had backfired, thanks to the incompetence of Dee, and now it was up to himself to end matters. The fact that she had thrown off the fog so easily, a spell that had taken no little amount of time and effort to contrive, was beyond comprehension. It was supposed to wreck both her mind and body. Instead, she had spun around like some whirling dervish and cast it off as though it was no more than an old shawl. Durosimi rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He had obviously underestimated her powers. Well, if he could not harm her directly, maybe he could target someone close to her. He would have to make enquiries.

Philomena made no mention of her experience when she returned to The Squid and Teapot, just in time for evening opening. The usual procession of familiar faces filtered through the door, and as the night wore on she was kept busy, ferrying endless tankards of Old Colonel and platters of Starry-Grabby Pie to the tables. The atmosphere was one of warmth and conviviality. It came as a surprise, therefore, when the room fell silent. Philomena, dutifully washing-up, was curious as to what had happened, and came out of the kitchen, tea-towel in hand. Every pair of eyes in the bar was fixed upon the figure of Rhys Cranham. The Night-Soil Man was no more than a legend to some, rarely seen, and then only under the cover of darkness. Now, here he stood, scrubbed clean as a choirboy on Sunday morning, smelling of nothing but soap, and wearing an old, slightly ill-fitting, suit, courtesy of Bartholomew Middlestreet and retrieved from one of the attics of the inn.   

“I’ve been thinking about what you were saying the other day, Philomena, and you’re right,” he said, awkwardly. “Naboth Scarhill has been a good apprentice, and he reckons he’s ready to take on the job as the new Night-Soil Man right away.”

Rhys dropped down on to one knee.

“In view of that, Philomena Bucket, will you please do me the honour of becoming my wife?” 

There is only one Simon

It is rare to see all of Simon because usually most of him is in the water. Thus when various bits of him surface, the uninitiated will tend to assume that they are seeing many different sea monsters. But no, it’s just the one Simon, with all his many appendages.

Every now and then some other sea entity gets it wrong, sees a bit of Simon and mistakenly assumes this bit of Simon is lunch, or a viable breeding partner. Lunch certainly occurs in these scenarios, and it happens often enough that Simon seldom has to make the effort to actually hunt for something.

After a few false starts, and several hearty lunches for Simon, the Hopeless Maine Scientific Society established to their satisfaction that he really was just the one sea monster. This led to obvious questions about the reproductive habits of Simon and to an ongoing study of his behaviour. Remarkably, this study lasted for more than a year without incurring further lunch opportunities.

Some seven months into the study, scientific observers identified numerous extra appendages in Simon’s bay and postulated either that he had grown dramatically, or that a second Simon had come along. Debate raged over the likely gender of the new Simon as in many species it is the female who stays in one location while the males have a larger range. Except where this is the other way round. Could the original and resident Simon be a female of the species? While no definite conclusions could be drawn, it was agreed that Simon would always be Simon, regardless of gender.

Simons tend to be active around midday, it had been observed. The Simon is an unusually lunch motivated creature. Thus when the Simons began a midday flurry of activity, it seemed likely that each wanted the other on the menu. So often, science calls for the close scrutiny of other people’s reproductive habits. The attending members of the Scientific Society concluded that the Simons were indeed breeding. It may be worth mentioning that in one of their more anthropological episodes they had also identified belching as a key mating ritual for members of the Chevin family.

When it was all over, and the sea foamed with what might have been blood, or Simon ink, or some other fluid, there was indeed, still just the one Simon. There were those who said that eggs had been released into the waves, and those who said that you probably grew new Simons by breaking bits off the old Simon, but that’s scientists for you.

The Scent of Change

For some months, following the disappearance of Philomena Bucket and Doctor Dee, Drury had been conspicuous by his absence. While this was a cause of celebration for some, there were others who missed the sight of the old rogue rattling around the island, chasing spoonwalkers, stealing washing from the line and causing general mayhem wherever he went. There were many who came to the conclusion that he had gone looking for Philomena, and to some degree they were correct; the truth was that he had been spending all of his time with Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man. Rhys and Drury had, under cover of darkness, scoured the island looking for the barmaid, becoming ever more despondent when, with each passing day, all hope of her being found grew less. The Night-Soil Man, by necessity, was a natural recluse and was rarely seen in daylight at the best of times. As days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, Drury never left his side, for these two, in their own, individual ways, loved Philomena more than any other creature on earth, and found some small crumbs of comfort in the company of each other.  

A year and one day passed by before Philomena was once more seen on Hopeless. While her return surprised everyone, no one was more bemused by the event than the lady herself, who thought that she had only been away for a few minutes. Although there was a certain amount of curiosity as to where she had been for all of that time, Philomena feigned amnesia. She instinctively sensed that it was best that few knew of the existence of the tunnels, coiling deep beneath The Squid and Teapot, and, at their heart, the mystical cavern that presented a different scene with each visit. Only Bartholomew Middlestreet and Norbert Gannicox were aware of their existence, but neither man suspected that Philomena had returned there, following the revelation that she was a vessel for a deep and ancient magic.

At the insistence of Bartholomew and his wife Ariadne, a celebration was to be held in Philomena’s honour the very next week. There was a great deal to organise, invitations to be sent out, and little time in which to do so. It occurred to Philomena that the one person she wished to be at the celebration would be unlikely to turn up, or, indeed, be welcomed by most. It saddened her that the noxious odour, which pervaded the air around the Night-Soil Man, excluded him from all aspects of island life. Nevertheless, next to Drury, he was Philomena’s best friend, having saved her life when she first came to the island, and she was determined to pay him a visit and, at least, let him know that she was alive and well.

Standing on the pathway, outside the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, Philomena slipped a clothes –peg on to her nose, hoping to negate, to some extent, the inevitable reek that would doubtless assail her nostrils when Rhys came to the door. She took a deep breath and tapped lightly on the open window.

Rhys, exhausted from his night’s work, was fast asleep. Drury, on the other hand, was only dozing, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before, as Edgar Allan Poe would certainly have said, had he been there. Despite this, the dog’s phantom ears were always ready to detect the slightest noise. The tapping on the window caused him to raise his head. For some reason the House at Poo Corner, as the Night-Soil Man’s home was known, had recently become attractive to a particularly decrepit member of the Corvidae family, a fact which pleased Drury not at all. He was in no mood for the annoying tapping that invariably announced the presence of that ghastly, grim and ancient raven, and decided to put a stop to things once and for all.

“Nevermore!” he thought to himself, as he threw his bony old body against the window, which, as I mentioned earlier, was fortunately open.

Instead of finding himself lying on top of an angry pile of black feathers, as he had planned, Drury looked down into the pale face of Philomena Bucket. For a split second he failed to register exactly who it was that he had careered into. Then he went berserk.

Philomena felt the dog’s wet tongue slobbering excitedly all over her face, before realising that his fundamental lack of saliva glands, and indeed, a tongue, made this impossible. Could this extra-sensitivity be part of the newly-released magic? She had no chance to consider the matter further, however, as Drury danced around her, barking happily, in a state of high excitement.

Rhys, bleary eyed and sporting a long, striped nightshirt, appeared in the doorway.

“What is all that noi…”  he stopped abruptly and did a double take.

“Philomena, is that really you? Not your ghost?”

“Yes it is me, you great daft thing!” she laughed. “Have you missed me?”

Rhys did not answer. He had no need to; his face said it all.

 “There is going to be a party thrown for me,” she said. “I really want you to be there. Please Rhys.”

“You know that’s impossible,” he replied, sadly.

“No, it isn’t,” said Philomena. “Don’t ask me where I’ve been, but while I was away I learned a great deal. Some of it was even useful.” She paused, briefly, then asked, almost shyly, “do you still have an apprentice?”

Rhys nodded, wondering why she wanted to know. Following the disappearance of his previous apprentice, Gruffyd Davies, who had been revealed to be a selkie, one of the seal-people, Rhys had felt compelled to return, somewhat embarrassed, to the orphanage and ask Miss Calder for another volunteer. The life of a Night-Soil Man can be unpredictable, and sometimes brief, so the presence of an apprentice is crucial, if the line is to remain unbroken.

“Yes, young Naboth Scarhill is shaping up nicely. In another year or so he should be spot-on.”

“I’ve just lost one year of my life, Rhys. I can’t afford to waste another,” said Philomena.

Rhys looked puzzled, “Sorry, you’ve lost me,” he said.

“No, I haven’t. I’ve found you. Give this up, Rhys. If you love me, as I think you do, give up being the Night-Soil Man.”

 “But I…”

“Bartholomew’s grandfather, Randall Middlestreet, did all those years ago. You could too.”

Rhys looked at Philomena for what seemed like an age, digesting her words.

“I could too,” he said, slowly and deliberately.

Drury, who had been quiet all this time, had been around humans long enough to know exactly what was being said. These were the two people whom he loved most in the world, but now they had each other; how could there be any room for him in their plans? If a beating heart had dwelt in his old ribcage, it would have sunk at that moment. Quietly, sadly, he turned around and made to leave.

“Drury,” Philomena called, “don’t go. If Rhys and I live together, there will always be a place for you in our home.”

The dog turned and wagged his bony tail. There was a definite scent of change in the air. A change for the better. Suddenly, it felt good again to be alive.

Vigil

Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, was standing silhouetted upon the headland, gazing forlornly across the fog-bound ocean. Drury, the skeletal hound, lay uncharacteristically subdued by his side, his bony old head resting miserably upon his equally bony old paws.

“It seems that she’s really gone, old friend,” said Rhys, in wavering tones. “Where, why or how, I have no idea. Just another casualty of this god-forsaken island, I guess. ”

Drury lifted his head to the heavens and emitted a heart-rending, mournful howl; a howl that chilled the blood of all who heard it.

Philomena Bucket was hungry and cold, the threadbare walls of her tent providing meagre shelter. During the deepest, darkest hours of that first night, she had lain awake and reflected how her mission to discover her latent magical abilities had brought her to the mysterious cavern, far beneath the island of Hopeless, Maine. With the comforting presence of the alchemist, Doctor John Dee, to advise her, she had felt confident that nothing could go wrong. Even the fact that, upon entering the cavern, they had instantly found themselves wandering through a beautiful old forest in springtime, fazed neither of them.  It was very unlike anything that existed upon the Hopeless that they knew, but from past experience each was aware that, within the walls of the cavern, anything was possible. It was only when John Dee disappeared that things started to go awry. Philomena, suddenly alone and panicking, could find no way out of the forest, and was forced to spend the night in an old black tent that nestled beneath the branches of a lightning-struck tree.  Although Philomena had come to terms with her situation, and was sure that the forest, the lightning-tree and the tent all had a purpose in releasing the magic residing within her, it was cold comfort. 

A pale morning sun peered through the trees, and Philomena was glad to get up and walk around. Her back and joints ached. Although lying on the thin palliasse had been preferable to being upon bare earth, it was hardly a feather mattress. If life had taught her anything, it was to make the best of what she had and not feel sorry for herself. Her first priority was to take stock of her situation; she had shelter, of a sort, and access to water. Lovely though the forest was, it provided her with nothing to eat, for even if she had possessed the skills of the finest hunter, Philomena knew that she would probably starve before being able to bring herself to kill and eat any of the animals or birds that lived among the trees.

Hunger is a strange thing, as anyone who has experienced a complete fast for any length of time will tell you. For the first day or so, every thought is fixated upon food. By day three, this feeling generally passes, and a definite air of superiority over those who indulge in the vulgar practice of eating, takes its place. After that, starvation is easy. As toxins are banished from the body, however, the person fasting often experiences strange dreams and hallucinations. Philomena was no exception. Granny Bucket would flutter in and out of her dreams and waking hours, bringing with her a host of spectres, some ethereal and filled with grace, others as grotesque as anything Philomena had witnessed on the island. Giant, shadowy forms seemed to flit among the trees and unearthly singing would fill the air. Philomena knew that these were illusions, and told herself not to be afraid, even when Death itself passed by, her dark robes brushing the side of the black tent. To counter these strange, unnerving visions, Philomena would sit upon the ground, hugging her knees and rocking gently to the sound of her own humming, dredging up tunes from her early childhood, the ones taught to her by Granny Bucket, all those years ago, back in Ireland.

When the stranger first approached, Philomena thought that he was no more than another figment of her imagination. As usual, she was sitting on the ground, rocking and humming, wrapped in her own thoughts. This latest apparition, however, seemed fleshier, more earth-bound than those who had preceded him, being powerfully built, with a broad chest that threatened to burst the buttons of his tweed waistcoat.  He stood before her and extended a large, meaty hand, wordlessly inviting her to take it. Philomena looked up into a pair of laughing, twinkling eyes and a kindly face, which a thick salt-and-pepper beard failed to conceal. She instinctively knew that she could trust this man, and unhesitatingly took the proffered hand, rising unsteadily to her feet. Not a word was exchanged as, hand in hand, they left the lightning-tree and black tent behind them, to where the trees thinned and meadowland began. Philomena could make out a scattering of buildings lying beyond, obviously a village or maybe a hamlet. She wondered to herself why she had not found this place before. After all, she had walked miles, looking for a way out of the forest, and now, within a few hundred yards, this stranger had led her to safety. It made no sense… but there again, nothing in this adventure had made any sense, so Philomena shrugged and stoically decided to give herself up to whatever was going to happen next.

Upon reaching the village they were met by a great throng of people, who all seemed to know Philomena. They clapped and cheered as the bearded stranger took her gently by the shoulders and led her into the midst of the crowd. Weirdly, although she did not recognise anyone there, she felt that, somehow, she knew each and every one of them personally. The air was filled with music and singing as they wandered through the sunlit streets, with Philomena carried aloft, shoulder high, on a litter, looking for all the world, like the Queen of the May. From this vantage point she could see that a feast had been prepared, a street-party, no less, with trestle tables barely visible beneath a burden of food and drink, the like of which she had never before seen. The litter was set down and Philomena seated in the place of honour at the topmost table.

Philomena was never able to recall for how long the party went on.  She could remember that there were toasts and speeches, all in her honour, followed by dancing and entertainment. It made her feel quite dizzy. When darkness fell and fires were lit, old tales were told; tales of kings, princesses, crones and magical beasts. Then, far away, a clock chimed for midnight, and the bearded man raised his hand; the crowd grew quiet.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “It is time, at last, to hear a few words from our very own Lady Philomena.”

All eyes fell upon Philomena, who stood tongue-tied in the silence.  She was frantically thinking of what she might say when a distant, mournful howl, caught her attention.

“Drury!” she cried, her voice filled with excitement. “Dear Drury, where are you?”

She turned her head towards the direction from which the dog’s howl had come, and like Cinderella leaving the ball, dashed away from the party without a thank-you or goodbye.

She had run no more than a dozen paces before she found herself gazing into the mouth of the cavern. This was it, her way out, back to The Squid and Teapot.

There was no trace of the candle lanterns that she, and Doctor Dee, had used, however, a pale glow now suffused the tunnels, as if someone, or something, had been expecting her return. Even so, it was an hour before Philomena found herself at the foot of the ladder which led to the attics. She remembered that there was a hidden one-way door, as well, that opened into one of the inn’s cellars. She felt weary and this would be a far less strenuous mode of entry into The Squid.

Philomena composed herself before pushing open the door. Whenever she had been to the cavern before, time appeared to have been stretched. However long the adventure had been, on Hopeless only minutes would have passed, so she was confident that, quite possibly, her absence had not been missed. She wandered through the cellar, climbed up the flight of stone steps and walked into the bar, where a score of rowdy islanders were enjoying the produce of the Ebley Brewery. Bartholomew Middlestreet turned to serve a customer, when his eye fell upon Philomena. Even in the dim light it was obvious that his face paled visibly. Others followed his gaze and the cheerful hub-bub died to absolute silence.

“Philomena? Where on earth have you been?” asked the ashen-faced barman.

“What’s the fuss? I just popped out for a couple of minutes,” she replied, feeling quite indignant.

“But… but, you’ve been gone for a year,” said Bartholomew. “We all thought you were…  we wondered what had happened to you.”

“A year?” gasped Philomena.

“A year and a day, to be exact,” the voice was that of Norbert Gannicox. “I remember it well. It was Midsummer’s Eve last year when you and Doctor Dee both vanished.”

Philomena flopped into a nearby chair. A year and a day! Granny Bucket had once told her that, in all of the old tales, any task achieved in exactly a year and one day had a deep and magical significance.

What had she done?

The unspeakable thing in the night

You lie there awake, listening to the sounds on the roof. Something is on the roof, skidding over the slates. Back and forth it goes. They go. There is no sense in this scrabbling about around the chimneys, and yet you cannot be sure that there is nothing intelligent up there. 

All you can do is hope that it is a donkey, again. There is no imaginable way that a donkey could be on your roof because there are no means by which it might ascend. You know this. You have checked extensively. But there has been a donkey on the roof before – you saw it with your own eyes in the uncanny half light of an early summer morning. The donkey looked at you and you expected it to speak, giving some pronouncement to justify its position or identity. It said nothing. How it descended remains as mysterious to you as the means by which it found its way to your chimney pots. It declined to come down while you were watching, and everyone must succumb to the call of the privy in the end.

You really hope this sound comes from hooves on roof tiles. That the skidding is exactly the way a donkey would sound on a roof and that those aren’t slithering noises at all. But now you’ve thought about it you can’t quite let go of the idea that the sound from above is a slithering sound. The low grunt doesn’t dispel the possibility of night visiting tentacles. It does however raise the possibility that what you’ve got on the roof is a werewolf. You’d had your suspicions for a while about Amos next door, and he has a window that would make it easy to get out onto his roof, and from there to yours. You are fairly certain this is not the route the donkey used.

How dangerous is Amos if he really does turn into a werewolf? He’s not eating well, that’s for sure. The man is bone thin, which makes you think he’s maybe not that good at hunting and eating people. On the flip side he’s probably very hungry, and your roof connects with his, and here you are, all fleshy and nutritious.

The darkness around you feels heavy and oppressive, and you think about lighting your candle. It might be a comfort to be able to see what’s around you. Of course that still won’t help you with the thing on the roof. You briefly entertain the idea that it could be some sort of perfectly normal night bird doing perfectly normal night bird things up there. Then you hear it breathing slowly into the chimney, and the hairs rise on the back of your neck.

Please let it be a donkey.

The Black Tent

Philomena Bucket and Doctor John Dee stood hand in hand, gazing into the mist-filled mouth of the mysterious cavern that lay deep beneath the island of Hopeless, Maine.  Philomena was on a mission to unleash the magic which, apparently, resided within her. She had enlisted the aid of the sixteenth-century alchemist, Doctor Dee, who, until being hurled through time and space to the island, had been Court Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth. Exactly how this magic was to be released, however, neither had any idea; they were led here purely by Philomena’s intuition that this cavern was the place where her magical abilities were choosing to manifest.

The two looked around them in wonder. As soon as they had stepped through the misty cave mouth, they found themselves transported to somewhere deep within a rich, green forest, where dappled sunlight played through the leaf canopy, high overhead. The air was filled with birdsong and the scent of the wild garlic and bluebells, growing in profusion all about them.

“It must be Springtime here,” observed Dee. “What a delightful place this is.”

“Well, I’d bet anything that we’re not on Hopeless,” said Philomena. “Spring flowers? Birdsong? No, it is all too perfect. I wonder what we’re supposed to do, now that we’re here?”

“We could look in there,” said Doctor Dee, pointing to a ragged-looking black tent, that neither had previously noticed. It was squatting beneath the branches of an equally ragged-looking black tree.

“It must be there for a reason,” declared Dee, not particularly convincingly.

As they drew closer it became clear that, at some point, the tree had been struck by lightning, leaving its branches blackened and skeletal. The tent, which had obviously seen better days, was based upon a yurt-like design, but without any indication of the comfort that such structures usually provide. Doctor Dee unhitched the door flap and, with no little amount of trepidation, the two ventured in.

Philomena looked about her with a certain amount of disappointment. Daylight showed through the threadbare sides and roof of the tent, while the floor had no covering. Could it possibly have any relevance to her mission? She turned to ask John Dee his opinion.

“Do you think…” she began, but the sentence died on her lips as she watched Dee gradually fade away into nothingness. Her last sight of his semi-opaque form was to see him reaching out to her. She thought that she could hear him calling her name, but the sound came from far, far away. She tried to touch his outstretched arms, but they were as insubstantial as a sunbeam, and then he was gone. Philomena was not a woman who cried easily, but, feeling suddenly alone, she fell to her knees and wept.

Upon entering the tent, John Dee was surprised to find that he was in his study, at home. Everything was as he had left it; his obsidian scrying bowl was still on the floor, where it had dropped when Philomena, Norbert and Bartholomew had first appeared. He turned to speak to Philomena, and was not a little shocked to find her disappearing before his very eyes. He reached out, at the same time anxiously calling her name. As he did so, the thought crossed his mind that, until now, he had always referred to her as Mistress Bucket. It was ironic that it was only when he was losing her that he felt familiar enough to call her Philomena.

“And who is Philomena? Some bawd or other, I do not doubt.”

Dee turned to see his wife standing in the doorway.  

“Jane, my precious, I… I was just contemplating writing a treatise upon Saint Philomena,” he stammered, crossing his fingers behind his back.

“I cannot say that I am familiar with her,” replied his wife, suspiciously. “Anyway, I came in to remind you that you have an appointment with Sir Francis Walsingham in an hour.”

An appointment with Walsingham? Dee suddenly remembered that he had been due to meet with the Queen’s spymaster on the very afternoon that he had been whisked away to Hopeless. It dawned upon him that, incredibly, those weeks of his life spent on that strange little island in the New World had apparently passed by in but a few minutes in Elizabethan England.

“Walsingham… yes Walsingham, indeed my love. I will make myself ready,” he said hurriedly, gathering his composure and relieved that he had somehow succeeded in getting away with inventing a Saint Philomena.  Incidentally, and apropos to nothing at all, it would be another three hundred years before the bones of the third-century Philomena of Corfu, patron saint of Infants, babies and youth, would be discovered, and the girl eventually canonised.

Philomena Bucket was feeling anything but saintly. She was angry; angry with herself for coming to this place, angry with John Dee for disappearing and angry beyond words because she could not find a way out. She wandered back along the path that she was certain they had taken, but there was no welcoming cave mouth to guide her back to The Squid and Teapot. She searched the forest all day, but to no avail. The light was fading and Philomena was tired and hungry. She realised that she needed to get back to the black tent, and shelter within its thin walls for the night. Her main concern was, however, that she would never find it again. She had walked miles, and in no particular direction. What were her chances of stumbling upon it once more? And then the realisation came upon her, that she was here to unearth her latent magical abilities, and doubtless, the forest, the tent and the lightning-tree all had a part to play if this was to be achieved. There was no point in being frightened, or resisting the inevitable. All she needed to do was to surrender to whatever it was that had created this illusion, for illusion it surely was, and hope for the best.   

No sooner had these thoughts formed in her mind than the lightning-tree came into view; the black-tent still sitting beneath its branches. Accepting whatever might befall, Philomena slipped inside its dark interior and closed the door-flap behind her. In the gloom she could see that a pitcher of water had been placed on the ground, next to a simple straw palliasse. Gratefully Philomena drank some water, then sank, exhausted, onto the little bed, desperately wishing that Drury was there to keep her company.

To be continued…

Back to the Underland

Actual key made by Matt at Arcane Armoury.

Regular readers of these tales will be aware of the circumstances which brought Doctor John Dee, the sixteenth century alchemist and Court Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth, to the island of Hopeless. You will, likewise, know why he was now frantically searching for a key to the Underland, a labyrinth of mysterious tunnels, the entrance to which lay far beneath The Squid and Teapot. In addition to this, an attentive reader will also have gathered that Durosimi O’Stoat, sensing the latent magical abilities of Philomena Bucket, had plotted to sacrifice her to Buer, who was generally believed to be a demon, but was, in fact, a Daemon, which, apparently, is not the same thing at all.

“Of course I know where it is,” exclaimed Philomena, in response to Doctor Dee’s request for help. She reached into her pinafore pocket and fished out a heavy, ornate, iron key.

“Bartholomew gave it to me to look after, until such times as he could decide where the best place to hide it might be,” she said.

“Ah… then give it to me, my very soul depends upon it,” said Dee, making a sudden lunge, only for Philomena to deftly step aside and his hand grasp nothing but thin air.

“And so does mine, it would seem,” said Philomena. “Do you know that this is all a plot by Durosimi? He has made a deal with Buer to hand him the key, and in exchange, Buer gets me. Body and soul, apparently.”

John Dee paled visibly.

“Then I cannot possibly go through with this,” he stated, a tremor in his voice. “If I must sacrifice myself to save you, Mistress Bucket, then I will gladly, though all the devils in Hell torment me. My time, however, is short, for Buer gave me but three days to find the key.”

“Nobody is being sacrificed,” said Philomena, gently. “I’ve spoken to Buer, and he is on our side. I need your assistance, though Doctor. I want you to help me find my magic powers; it is our only chance against Durosimi.”

“But, as I have said many times before,” replied Dee, “I have no magical abilities. How do you think I can I help you?”

“Well,” began Philomena, “whatever you choose to believe, you are the nearest to a magician that I’ve ever met. You are a scryer, an alchemist, an astrologer and quite the cleverest person on the island. If you cannot help me, then nobody can.”

“Very well, but I wish Edward Kelley was here. He would know what to do,” said John Dee, remembering how his old friend and colleague had frequently claimed to possess all manner of magical skills. In truth, Kelley had been something of a charlatan, far more adept at self-aggrandisement and the art of bluffing than John Dee could ever be. The Queen’s Astrologer was so convinced of his friend’s occult claims that, upon learning that ‘The Angels’ had confided to Kelley that it would be right and proper for him to occasionally share a bed with Mistress Dee, the good doctor accepted the idea without a murmur. Had Philomena known this, she might have revised her opinion, somewhat.

“I have every faith in you, Doctor,” said Philomena. “And if I am not mistaken Durosimi has given us a clue as to what we need to do. He is keen to get hold of this key, and as far as I know the tunnels all lead to the cavern where you first dropped into Hopeless. That seems to be some sort of magical hub. Something tells me we need to go there.”

“Then we should trust your intuition, Mistress Bucket,” said Dee. “I told you once that the magic lies deep within you, and when once awakened, will find its way to the fore, and nothing, or no one,  including yourself, will prevent it from doing so.”

“Then it needs to get a move on,” said Philomena, “and we need to get to The Squid as soon as we can. I’ve a lot to learn and there’s not a lot of time left before Durosimi expects to get the key and dispose of me.”

Tucked away in the corner of one of the attics of The Squid and Teapot is an old sea-chest; at least, that is what you are led to believe. It is, in reality, part of the brickwork of the inn, cleverly constructed to look like a sea-chest. Once the heavy padlock is undone and its lid is opened, a long, vertical iron ladder is revealed; it runs from the very top of the building to the cellars. On either side of the ladder, at its base, stand two doors. One leads to the cellars, the other to the cavernous tunnels, descending two hundred feet beneath the foundations.

Carrying candle lanterns, it was down this ladder and into the depths beneath the island that Philomena and John Dee ventured.  With their lanterns held high, they passed through the great, cathedral-like cavern, where Norbert Gannicox had once lit rush-lights, and down into the tunnels beyond, not stopping until they reached their goal. Philomena could remember when she had visited this place – wreathed as it was in what she called ‘Good Old Hopeless Fog.’ That was the day that they had first met Doctor Dee. The fog was still here, as was the comforting appearance of daylight beyond, but she was wiser, this time around. Philomena was well aware that this was no route to the shore, for there was no knowing what lay behind the foggy mouth of the cavern. Her first foray into its depths had drawn her, along with Norbert Gannicox and Bartholomew Middlestreet, into a great arena, enclosed on all sides by sheer walls of smooth, black obsidian. This, as it turned out, was actually Doctor Dee’s scrying bowl. After a brief visit to the astrologer’s study they, and John Dee himself, had been spat out into a helter-skelter ride through history.

Now, with their senses heightened, the pair could almost taste the raw magic emanating from within the recesses of the cavern. Instinctively they joined hands, drew a deep breath, and stepped into the fog.

To be continued…

Pandæmonium

Since coming to Hopeless, Philomena Bucket was of the firm impression that there was nothing left to surprise her anymore.  She had witnessed so many oddities, so many weird and not particularly wonderful occurrences on the island, she convinced herself that the part of her brain designated to register surprise had been rendered permanently numb by overuse. It was, therefore, something of a surprise to her to find that she had, against all odds, been taken by surprise.

I do not think that many of us, when finding ourselves mysteriously transported from the chilly, foggy island of Hopeless to the sumptuous, if somewhat stuffy, environs of a London Gentleman’s’ Club, heavy with the scent of deep, leather armchairs, good brandy, expensive cigar smoke and freshly ironed copies of ‘The Times’, could honestly claim to say that the experience had failed to raise the odd eyebrow, or cause us to ponder for a moment. Personally, put in such a position, I would have quickly dissolved into a gibbering wreck, and been sent to inhabit a small space liberally lined with several rolls of rubber wallpaper. Philomena Bucket, however, was made of sterner stuff, and allowed the novelty of the moment to do no more than extract a slightly startled, “Jaisus, Mary and Joseph!” from her lips.

The lean, bespectacled figure, sprawled languidly in the leather armchair, had introduced himself simply as Buer. The name meant nothing to Philomena; happily, for her, she had never seen him in his more terrifying form, with five legs, each tipped with a cloven hoof, radiating from the head of a lion.

“Where am I?” she asked, looking around the unfamiliar surroundings.

“You are in Pandæmonium,” replied Buer. “This is my home… or at least the home that I share with my many brothers, for we are legion.”

“Is Pandæmonium a place?” queried Philomena. “I always thought it was an unholy noise.”

“Oh, it is definitely unholy,” smiled Buer, “But it roughly translates as ‘The Home of all Daemons’.”

“And you are… a demon?” asked Philomena. If there was alarm in her voice she was determined that Buer would not hear it.

 “That need not concern you, for now, Philomena,” said Buer. “I mean you no harm. But tell me, why is Durosimi O’Stoat lying to me, and offering you up to me as a sacrifice?”

The look on Philomena’s face told Buer that she had no idea as to what he was referring. He decided to enlighten her.

“Durosimi is using me to persuade John Dee that he must find the key to the Underland. You, my dear, are the payment I receive when he delivers it.  Apparently, in Durosimi’s words, you will be mine, ‘Body and soul’.”

Philomena shuddered. Her naturally pale face grew chalk white. Buer raised a reassuring hand.

“Don’t worry, I have no interest in you, other than to warn you of Durosimi’s intentions.  I think that obtaining the key is of less importance to him than getting rid of you. Do you know why that might be?”

Philomena shook her head. Although she did not like, or trust, Durosimi, she could not say why. She barely knew the man.

Buer raised himself from the armchair, and walked over to where Philomena was standing. Her body tensed and she became frozen to the spot as he took her face in his hands and stared deeply into her eyes. She could feel his gaze sweeping through her like a searchlight. After what felt like an eternity Buer straightened his arms and regarded her with interest.

“He fears you! Durosimi fears you and does not truly know why. How unutterably delicious,” Buer laughed. “And you have no idea why, either, do you?”

“This is all news to me,” said Philomena. Just an hour previously she had thought that there were no surprises left in her life; now she was currently juggling more than she could cope with.

“I wonder why it is,” pondered Buer, “that men seek to destroy that which they do not understand? Tell me, Philomena, are you familiar with the term ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’?”

Philomena shook her head dumbly, unsure of where this might be leading.

“Then allow me to lighten your darkness,” continued Buer. “In the late fifteenth century there lived, in the city of Florence, a Dominican friar, named Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola feared beauty, for he considered art, books, mirrors, cosmetics, perfumes, indeed, almost anything that made life bearable, to be sinful.  That would have been fine, had he kept his opinions to himself. Unfortunately, he managed to persuade the citizens of Florence that, in allowing anything remotely beautiful to exist, they would be damning themselves for eternity. Rubbish of course, but they were driven by fear, and on Shrove Tuesday, in the year 1497, they built a great fire and destroyed every worthwhile thing of beauty that they could lay their hands on… and that was unforgiveable.”

“But what has that got to do with Durosimi O’Stoat?” asked Philomena.

“Because he is no better than Girolamo Savonarola,” replied Buer. “I have seen into his mind. He fears you, and because of that he wishes to destroy you.”

“Ah, go on… why would anyone be scared of me,” laughed Philomena, nervously.  Before she could say another word, Buer held up a beautifully manicured hand to silence her.

“Because you are powerful. Far more powerful than Durosimi O’Stoat could ever be.”

Philomena said nothing. Both John Dee and the ghost of Granny Bucket had told her the same thing, and it made her feel uncomfortable. She wanted to change the subject.

“So, what happened to old Girolamo?” she asked, quietly congratulating herself that she had remembered the friar’s name.

“I hated what he had caused,” said Buer, “so all it took was for me to murmur some chosen words into a few sanctimonious ears, and little more than a year after The Bonfire of the Vanities, Friar Girolamo, along with two of his closest supporters, were fuel on their own bonfires.” He gave Philomena a long, hard look. “When O’Stoat learns that I have no appetite to consume your body or soul, he will, most likely, try to turn the islanders against you. Before that happens, I will deal with him as I did the friar.”

“No,” cried Philomena, horrified. “I can’t have that on my conscience. Anyway, you said that you’re a demon. Surely, you approve of people being evil?”

“My dear young lady,” smiled Buer, “that is a very mediaeval attitude, if you don’t mind me saying. Anyway – I did not say that I am a demon, they are completely different to my race. I am a Daemon. Any ancient Greek schoolboy would tell you that I am no more, or less, than a supernatural spirit. While I admit, I can rarely be described as being on the side of the angels – if indeed, such creatures exist – I am certainly not on the side of evil. I will punish as I see fit and somewhat enjoy terrifying the pious when I don some of my various, less comely, forms; but no, on balance, few would call me evil.”

From seemingly nowhere, a mist arose and began to swirl around the room. A startled Philomena looked about her, and the vision of the elegant daemon in Pandæmonium began to fade; she was once more in the kitchen of The Squid and Teapot, staring into a bowl of water, which glowed golden as sunlight. Philomena’s heart missed a beat as, alarmingly, the terrifying image of an angry lion’s head with blazing red eyes appeared upon its surface.

“If you do not wish for my help, then learn your craft, and learn it quickly, Philomena Bucket”

It was the voice of Buer that spoke in her head.

Suddenly the spell was broken by an agitated John Dee, bursting into the kitchen.

“I’m giving up scrying, it does not work for me anymore. Mistress Bucket,” he blurted, twirling his beard in anguish. “I am in dire danger and know not how to extricate myself if I cannot find the key to the Underland. Please, Mistress Bucket – I implore you – I desperately need your help!”

To be continued…  

Dustcat, Baby

Here for your delight and delectation is a little bit of dustcat footage, shot by Martin Hayward Harris – maker of this puppet. Tom is working the puppet.

Try singing about ‘dustcats’ to the tune of ‘Loveshack’. dustcats baby, dustcats baby…funky little cat.

If you would like to meet this puppet in person, and get a photo of you with it, then come along to our Stroud event!