Sunday, 12 June 2011

1: The Fertility Stone of Ooze

The Longest Day – Summer 902 NDGrey and jagged, and tinged with the orange glow of the low morning sun, it stood no more than three adult feet high. It was hardly impressive, but the villagers believed it had been the source of many a pregnancy in the tiny hamlet of Ooze.

It was just after dawn when the small figure cautiously trod the path, which was no more than soil compressed by the feet of thousands. He could see its pointed top above the low-lying mist of a humid summer morn, and he wondered why he had been sent there. His feet sliced through the vapour: he looked back over his shoulder, seeing that it curled in behind him, blocking his view of the trail.

The boy reached his destination and stood next to the stone in anticipation.

Forty smaller slabs, flat and round, formed a perfect circle, with the fertility stone at its centre. The radius was thirty adult feet. As the mist swirled, he could just make out the shape of the circle, but not the individual stones. It was as if they sent out invisible blades to cut their boundary through the blur. A dense forest surrounded the clearing.

Apprehensively, the boy draped a dirty sack over the stone and gingerly placed his backside upon it.

Two hours passed, and things were getting uncomfortable. He stood, doubled the sack, and draped it over the stone once more. Another hour passed: he folded the sack over again to create an even thicker barrier against the sharp edges. When the sun was at its highest, and sweat beaded on the boy’s forehead, dripping into his eyes over his not-yet-bushy-enough eyebrows, a dark figure emerged from the woods, shuffling towards him along the well-trodden path.

It was an elderly man with a long, dark-grey beard and a pronounced stoop. A floppy, pointed hat sat on his head. Roughly cut hair in straggles and clumps jutted out from under it. His face was grizzled and weather-beaten and caked with grime. He supported himself with a gnarled and knotted length of wood, which had the appearance of having been hewn directly from a tree, bark and all. It was the height of a fully grown man, standing a good child’s foot taller than its stooped keeper. He looked inquisitively at the boy on the stone and stopped close by.

“You’re sitting on the fertility stone,” he said.

“I know.”


“Mother said I’d need all the help I could get for later life. I don’t know what she meant. It’s a good job I brought this sack.” He wriggled his bum to ease the pressure.

The old man’s jaw dropped, displaying unusually white teeth, like the polished whalebone ornaments sold by passing traders. The sight of them belied his otherwise vagrant-like appearance.

“How old are you, boy?”

“I am in my seventh year. Today is my birthday. It hasn’t been much fun, so far.”

The scruffy old man looked shocked. “Can you really be the one? Your seventh year, eh? And are you the seventh son of a seventh son?”

“I think I am,” replied the boy. “I’ve got lots of brothers and many uncles. I don’t know what you’re getting at, though.”


“Why ‘oh’? And why are your teeth so white?”

“I am Quentin Moorlock, the County Warlock – and that should answer your question about my teeth. I said ‘oh’ because there is a problem, an insurmountable one.”

“What’s the problem? And what does insum ... insir ... insmontacle mean?”

Moorlock the Warlock pushed down on his staff and un-stooped himself, standing at even height with it. “It’s a problem, my lad, because it’s noon on the longest day, and you are sitting on that stone. That gives you a role that in later life you must fulfil. It’s insurmountable – yes, that’s the correct way to say it: in-sur-mount-able – because normally in these situations we expect our champions to be of higher pedigree and, dare I say, a little less fishy.”

The boy glared at the old man, his mouth opening and closing. A sharp lump blocked his throat, stopping his words from forming. He scratched his head, causing flakes of dry skin to fall onto his sackcloth clothing, and managed to say, “You think I’m fishy?”

“Let’s put it this way: if ever modern scholars needed proof positive that all life originated from the ocean, then that proof sits before me. On a stone. The fertility stone. At noon. On midsummer’s day. Look at the way your mouth opens and closes, like a fish: and that skin condition – fish scales, it looks to be. So, what’s your name, my pseudo-aquatic friend?”

“Pike”, he sobbed. "But you’re not my friend and I don’t know what sue dough means,”

“Ha! This gets better and better. Pike: fish by name, fish by nature. This can’t possibly work.”

“Whatever it is, I don’t want to do it, anyway,” said Pike, his tears forming. “And I’m not fishy.”

“Yes you are. But, fish or no fish, you must follow your destiny. Meet me back here in the year of your sixteenth birthday, same time, same stone. And don’t forget to moisturise.”

He turned to leave, but then paused and looked back over his shoulder. “Don’t take it to heart, young man, I’m sure that when you get home, your mother will console you. Pike, she’ll say, of course you don’t look fishy.”

Pike huffed, sliding off the stone and grabbing his old sack. “She don’t call me Pike; she calls me Tiddler, ’cos I’m little.”

With a hoot of laughter, Moorlock the Warlock walked away.


Early Summer – 911 ND (Nine years later)
Spring eased into summer: blooms bloomed, the flies flew, and birds stole seed and shoots from the recently sowed fields. The hamlet of Ooze was alive with the bustle of the market – and a horse.

The horse rampaged up and down the track that divided the hamlet of Ooze in half. People screamed and scattered as it succeeded in demolishing the fruit and vegetable stall by rearing up and belly-flopping onto it. It moved on to the butcher’s wagon, from which a host of blue-bottles beat a hasty retreat when the wild stallion again raised up on its hind legs, bringing its fore-hooves down onto the rancid display of blood and offal. By demolishing these two displays it destroyed the market in its entirety. The horse walked calmly away and began to nibble thatch from the roof of a small wattle and daub building. Crushed vegetables dripped from around its belly whilst it chomped.

A worm-holed shutter burst open, smashing against the wall, splintering at its hinges and causing the horse to bat a single eyelid before pulling off a large strip of thatch and wolfing it down in one.

“Get off thur! Ya rabid ol’ mule,” screeched the old crone from out of the window, drowning out the cries of distress from the two stallholders and their nine customers.

Seething with rage, the crone, ravaged by age and a hard life, inadvertently spat a tooth at the horse, to no good effect.

“Argh! T’were me last tooth, t’were. Gi’it back, ya filthy ’oss!” she screeched.

Nonchalantly, the horse turned away and wandered off along the deeply scarred track, apparently satisfied with its morning’s work.

“PIKE? PIKE? Ya need to mend me roof! That blessed mule’s eaten it again.” She spat blood out of the window and slammed shut the shutter. The final splinters holding it in place gave way. It fell into a dried-up rut, smashing as it landed.

“Now ’ee’s broken me shutter, an’ all!”

Pike stepped into the small house from the doorway in the back wall. He’d heard the commotion but hadn’t bothered to venture around the front to investigate. Why should he? It happened so often it was obvious what was going on. He glanced over at the old woman.

“I told you not to slam that thing, didn’t I?” He scratched his chin; flakes of dried skin cascaded onto the straw-covered floor. “And I said not to speak of that creature like that. You’ll have the wrath of the gods bearing down on you.”

“Ya told us no such tripe, yoom idiot, boy! Ow’s I gonna sleep wi’that thing open all night, eh?”

“It’s all right, Grandma,” he sighed. “I’ll fix it on again.”

“And the roof?”

“Yep, and the roof.”

“Ah, thur’s moy little Tiddler! Ee’s notsa big as he forgets his ol’ Gran, is ee?” She stepped towards him, arms outstretched for a hug, shrivelled lips puckering for a kiss, blood and spittle oozing from their corners.

Pike dodged around her, taking three short paces from the centre of the room to the open window. “Oh, Grandma! Don’t be soft! And why do you talk like that, anyway? No one else round here talks like you do.”

“Lived ’ere all me loife, I ’ave: babe, an’ girl an’ woman an’ all. How many others round ’ere can say that, eh?”

“Hmm, difficult … let me think … yep! Got it: every fully-grown woman in Ooze. No one moves in, no one moves out. We’ve all lived here, all of our lives.”

“Bah!” snapped the old woman. “Always the same argument. I’m goin’ t’moy room.”

“You’re in your room. This is it, there’s nothing more. Ground floor yours, upstairs for visitors. Not that you get any.”

“Well I’ll take t’moy bed, then,” she huffed, sitting on a low, sack-covered pile of straw that lay behind a rough, wooden ladder, which led up to a rickety platform in the roof-space.

“You do that, Gran. I’ll nip home and get my tools.”

Pike left by the rear door and headed to his home, about forty adult feet away.

He reflected on his Grandmother’s words. Tiddler, she’d called him. Hadn’t heard that in a while. He was always called Tiddler, when he was smaller, and he thought it to be a term of endearment. That is, until the day he met Moorlock the Warlock at the fertility stone. Since then he’d wondered about it; he wondered even more when he reached his fourteenth year and everyone except for Grandma started to call him Fish.

Pike arrived home. From behind a water butt at the back of the small homestead he grabbed a calfskin bag containing his tools and then went around the front of the house to find his mother. She was sitting on an upturned bucket, chewing on a piece of straw and gazing idly into space. Remembering Moorlock’s words he could contain himself no longer.

“I heard that all life started in the ocean.”

His mother, a thickset woman with lank, dark hair, wearing a long sack-cloth dress, a white apron and half a watermelon skin as a bonnet, looked at him and sighed. “Oh? So how did we get here, eh? The ocean is many miles from here: fish don’t have legs, and whoever heard of a flying fish? It’s nonsense, boy. Don’t know where you get these ideas.”

“What about me: am I fish-like?”

His mother spluttered. “Get away with you lad: fish-like? You? Nah! Well, erm … actually, and I know that as a loving mother I shouldn’t really say this … but … erm … errrr …. ackkhhhh! No, o’course not.”

“So why does everyone call me Fish?”

“Because you were my little tiddler, and now you’re all growed up!”

“But a tiddler is a small–”

“Fish! I know, I know, but it wasn’t meant like that. Why, you were just a small babe, you were. You were my little tiddler … so helpless and tiny.” A nostalgic tear rolled down her left cheek.

Pike’s mouth opened and closed, but words failed to come out. He was often struck dumb by parental logic.

His mother glared at him. “Stop gaping, boy. You look like a trout!”

Spurred on by the insult, the question that had haunted him for more than half of his life bubbled to the surface.

“Er, Mum, what’s an ocean?”


The Longest Day – Summer 911 ND

The days grew longer and the weather became warmer. In the time leading up to Pike’s birthday he often found himself sitting by the wide pool that was fed by the River Ooze, trying to catch his reflection in the water, wondering if one day he would sprout gills and swim away with other fishy folk. After trying this three times without success, he decided to try it again, but this time in daylight, just to see if that made a difference.

A little after dawn on the longest day of the year, his birthday, Pike cast the best reflection of himself he had ever seen. The low sun was strong enough to highlight even the tiniest detail of his face.

He stared into the water in disbelief, his mouth opening and closing several times before his words formed. He didn’t know what the worst part was: the bulging black eyes, the trout-like mouth, or the chronic dry skin condition that caused his epidermis to crack up like fish scales.

“By the power of Adriarch the Sinner: I’m as ugly as a carp that’s had its brains splattered on a rock!”

He rubbed his chin in wonderment. Flakes of skin sprinkled onto the water, slightly obscuring the image. A small fish bobbed to the surface to devour them. Before it could sate its hunger it caught sight of Pike and darted off in horror. From the distant reaches of Pike’s memory, some words echoed:

Don’t forget to moisturise.

The words of Moorlock the Warlock.

It was only then that he remembered that today was the day he must revisit the fertility stone.


Just before noon, Pike plonked his backside on the stone. It seemed much smaller than it had all those years before. Mind you, he was much tinier the last time he’d sat there, so he hadn’t realised just how sharp and pointy it was. Still, keeping to his word, he sat on the stone and awaited the arrival of the Warlock, wishing that this time he had brought more than one sack to cushion his rear.

It was an hour later when a bird landed on his shoulder.

“Be gone, blasted sparrow!” shouted Pike.

“Shut up, fish-face,” snapped the sparrow, much to Pike’s surprise. “Holy Herne the Hunter! Moorlock was right. This is totally insurmountable. No way are you suited to the quest. Deal’s off. Bye-ee!”

The sparrow raised its wings as if to leave.

“Quest? What quest?”

“The quest to release Moorlock from eternal damnation at the clutches of his arch enemy, and then to win the heart of the fair maiden in the Pit of Zidor, that’s what quest, stupid.”

“That sounds like two quests.”

The sparrow shook its head, squinted, and left a dropping on Pike’s sack-clothed shoulder.

“No. It’s one quest in two integrally linked parts. Can’t do one without the other. And I doubt you could do either.”

“Why not?”

“With that skin condition? You’d never survive the acidic vapours of the Stinking Peat Bogs of Lanklandishire, and even if you did, there’s a fair maiden who would really want to stay put if she saw you coming at her. Yikes, she’d probably dive in even deeper.”

“I can’t believe I’m sitting on a pointy stone, being crapped on and insulted by a talking sparrow!”

“And I,” said the stone, “can’t believe I’m trapped in here, being sat on by a rancid fish-faced youth who’s being crapped on and insulted by a sparrow.”
The sparrow raised an eye. “You know, that stone sounds exactly like Moorlock the Warlock – apart, that is, from the fact of being muffled by your scrawny rump.”

“It is me, sparrow; and as if my eternal damnation were not enough, this youth has passed wind.”

“It’s the shock!” snapped Pike.

“Sire,” said the sparrow, “it’s useless. This Pike is not suited to the mission. We need a replacement.”

“It’s too late for that,” whined the stone. “The die is cast and the youth must fulfil his destiny. He must act immediately, so send him on his way. And for the love of Herne, give him some moisturiser, pur-leaze!”