Thousands of years ago on a flat bit of land that eventually would be called Salisbury Plain, in what eventually would be known as Southern Britain, stood a ring of wooden uprights that would be compost. For generations the ring had taken many forms and signified many things, including the free availability of wood and where the smell was coming from in damp weather. At that precise moment in the ancient religious site’s history, a single great stone lay on its side, surrounded by the men and women who had dragged it across the land. It had been stopped by an obstacle more serious than steep hill or flooding river. The leader of the band, App Front, had to face the final problem alone.
“You’ve got no appreciation of Nature,” accused the protester.
“I’m a druid,” replied App.
“But not a real druid. You were fast-tracked. You’ve not spent decades getting in touch with the Earth Mother. You wouldn’t know a shamanistic ritual if one bit you on the bum. When did you last explore the entrails of –”
“Please,” App interrupted. He was doing his best to keep his patience. This was hard, especially when his opponent began sounding like Master Thunder Cloud, and he just knew, if he didn’t stop this right now, there’d be some comment about his beard.
“I’m App Front and your name is?” asked App, because using names was supposed to help in conflict resolution, but it could bring so much new pain.
In time-honoured fashion, proto-Brits named their newborn by the first thing the mother saw after birth. Great for places with soaring eagles and dancing wolves, fine for areas where a mother could ignore the pain of labour distracted by big skies, endless vistas, or sunny places with interesting flora and fauna. It rained in would-be Britain. It rained a lot.
Women, not being stupid, don’t opt for being rained on whilst epidurals are millennia distant. Stealthy Fox and Prancing Hare were titles for foreigners. Damp Patch and Annoyed Wise Woman Being Called Out On A Night Like This were local names.
They could always be shortened to disguise the worst of it.
“Roof, Lea Roof.”
“Mr. Roof,” said App, relieved it was not too bad, “let us focus on your grievance so we can resolve it by mutual consent.”
The protester snorted. “You haven’t even got a beard.”
“I don’t need a beard,” App groaned.
“Masters of the mystical arts has to have a beard.”
“No they don’t.”
“Yes they do!”
“No. They. Don’t.”
“Not right, druid without a beard.”
“Just shut up about the beard. Please, let me hear what your complaint is.”
“Not natural,” mumbled Roof.
“It’s perfectly natural. The Great Beard Spirit decided I didn’t require chin-lagging, so I haven’t got a beard!” After bitter years of trying, App had learnt that his fine fair hair would never achieve critical beard mass. On desperate mornings he considered a comb-under. App began his breathing exercises, focusing on being reasonable; for that was how to deal with the situation.
“Can’t be a druid, if you haven’t got a beard.”
App sighed. He had found that being reasonable achieved little. Trying to understand the other person’s point of view should really work, and yet the more reasonable App was, the less respect he received. Thunder Cloud would have had the protester gutted and used the intestines to foretell that the other protesters blocking his path would go home and stop causing a fuss. Amazingly they would, and later be overheard saying things like: “Now, there’s a druid you can respect.”
App had the muscle and the right to do what Thunder Cloud was whispering in his mind to do, but it didn’t fit with App. So instead of a terminally short amount of pain for someone else, App would get that frown headache again as he attempted to reason with Roof. Already the muscles over his eyebrows were knotting.
“You must be aware the woodhenge keeps warping, wrecking the alignment. This upgrade will give us a new level of accuracy.”
“Trouble?” asked Big Stick, head of security, coming up beside him. Stick was not a big man but he had presence. ‘Presence’ was the name of the biggest stick with a rock on the end of it App had ever seen.
“Brought up your paid thugs, have you?” the protest leader challenged.
“Want me to deal with this?” Stick asked.
Stick’s men were forming a line either side of him. Although their sticks were smaller, they compensated by towering head and shoulders over App and their boss.
“I don’t pay anyone. This is for the community. We’re doing this for you,” App said and then turned to Stick. “No, I’ll sort this out.”
“Right, boss.” Stick thought for a moment, then added, “I think I’ll stay here, just in case.”
“Right, now Mr. Roof, what is your problem with the installation of this new system?”
“You’re going to dig up sacred trees —”
“— stumps — sacred stumps. Generations of people have worshiped here and you’re going to change all that. These trees —”
“These stumps have been here for hundreds of years and you’re going to destroy all that sacredness.” Behind him a dozen men and women with bits of clothing on sticks (banners are simple when there is no writing) nodded in agreement.
“I know about the worshipping and sacredness, I am a druid, remember. The wood doesn’t last for generations, it rots. We have to keep replacing them. In fact, we have to keep chopping down more trees, hurting the Earth Mother’s bounty to celebrate the Earth Mother’s bounty.”
“That’s beside the point,” Roof snapped. “This is big religion stopping the little man.”
“Stopping him what?”
“Stopping him worshiping.”
“I’m trying to help you worship. I’m trying to fix the henge so that when you’re praying at the winter solstice, it actually is the solstice and not four days late.”
App’s shoulders slumped, the wrinkles in his forehead deepened. While he was kneading the ridges, the sofas began to arrive. App turned to watch. Around the great stone flowed his support team. Men and women carried between them the vital comfy chairs and on their backs, or balanced on their heads, food water, and bedding.
Many have pondered the mysteries of how the ancient peoples of Earth moved giant stones. App didn’t because he was one (with a headache). It took hundreds of men and women dragging them. Bit of lubrication from mud (freely available in early Britain) and away the stone goes. Stopping it often became the challenging part. The key was resting. A good rest plus a couple of pints of beer and the transport team were up for another day of hauling. Everyone could do the beer bit, whereas only the druids were masters of the arcane art of sofa crafting. The mystery for App was how come the people pulling the immense rock out-distanced those carrying the lighter sofas. The haulers, who had been idly leaning against the stone watching App’s confrontation, idly slumped into the chairs.
App saw another group approaching at a pace. He didn’t recognise them and assumed they were locals who had come to help. App opened his mouth to greet the workers. They went straight past him.
A battle cry rang out and the new arrivals charged the protesters.
“Fight, fight, fight, fight!” cheered App’s people.
Beside App, Big Stick was agitated. He needed to break heads, heads were available and ready for the breaking of, and yet, unless the order was given he couldn’t break said heads. Worst than that, amateurs were making a complete mess of making a mess of people’s heads.
“Permission to intervene, sir?”
App hesitated. “Yes, Stick, break it up. Kill the minimum number of people. The minimum number of people being zero.”
“Yes, sir. You heard the man, maiming and crippling only.”
The haulers and support staff roared with appreciation as the security team waded in. The fight didn’t last long. Stick’s men were trained in poking soft parts of the body with accuracy and clouting hard bits with maximum power. The two groups were separated by the conscious ones dragging the unconscious ones out of the way of the thin line of Stick’s security. Stick returned to App with two of his men frog-marching Lea and a new man. They were dumped at the druid’s feet.
Lea sported two black eyes and stood gingerly. Broad-shouldered and sturdy, the new man had one black eye that spread to cover both visual organs and his lips, which were thickening in an unpleasant, purple way.
“The ringleaders, sir,” Stick explained.
As a man who had to retake Basic Sacrificing three times, App was appalled at the efficient violence and wasn’t sure what to do next. Stick needed to be commended for carrying out his orders, but Stick’s actions made App feel ill. He paused to check that none of the figures were lying with eternal stillness. All were still living, although some wished they weren’t. Counting that as a plus, App managed to say, “Good work, Stick.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Keep those groups apart, while I deal with this.”
“Who are you?” App asked the new man.
“Uddy Walters,” spat the second man, and a tooth flew out.
“I understand your enthusiasm for helping us to erect the first stone, but I
was dealing with the situation.”
“I’m not ‘ere to help you e-rect that stone,” Walters spat, and a second tooth departed his mouth.
“Oh. So you why did you attack the protesters?”
Walters looked at Roof. There was a delay before he said, “You’re pro-testers?”
“Yes, we’re here to stop this beautiful land from being destroyed by men with no sense for Nature.”
“I did say I was a druid and there are women in my group. Some of them are quite strong, well at least stronger than me.”
“I thought you were working with them. Sorry about that, mate, easy mistake to make,” Walters said, proffering a grazed hand.
Roof shook the hand before turning to his band and shouting, “These brothers are with us! Together we shall save this land from these… these….”
“Druids and affiliated groupings of co-operative workers,” suggested App.
Roof continued, “Everyone lie down, block their path, they won’t dare run us over with their infernal machine.”
“It’s a rock on a sledge,” App pointed out.
Stick returned to App’s side.
“It wouldn’t be too late to kill ‘em all, sir.”
“It’s getting very tempting, Stick.”
“Call it a sacrifice to consecrate the new phase of work. Nobody’d bat an eyelid, sir. Sacrifice is all right and proper,” Stick advised.
“Hmmmm, or just run them over with the rock, make it look like an accident,” App voiced a thought.
“Yes, sir,” Stick agreed, considering that maybe this druid wasn’t as wet as he looked, sounded, or behaved.
“No,” App snapped back into focus, “no, not yet, there should be a better solution.”
“Squashed protesters sounds win-win to me, sir,” Stick observed.
“We’ll hold that in reserve,” App said.
Roof and Walters were, by this time, lying at App’s feet. App chased the ‘it would be very satisfying to squash them’ thought from his mind. Didn’t these people know how lucky they were that he was the one in charge? Anyone else and they’d be a stain on the grass. He drew a breath and started again.
“Right, Mr. Walters, why do you want to stop this vital and, may I point out, spiritually uplifting work?”
“We’re Maintenance,” he stated. “We fix the rot and replace the trees. If you replace the trees with stones we’re out of a job. You’ll be making us re-dundant.”
App asked, “And you, Mr. Roof, are stopping me because I will be pulling up the trees. Is that right?”
Roof nodded smugly. To App he seemed rather too comfortable lying on the grass, like he spent a lot of time doing this sort of thing.
“The trees are dead and Mr. Walters will pull them up anyway and replace them, so there is nothing special about the trees.”
“Have you noticed I’m one of the people who know what’s sacred and what isn’t? The circle is sacred, not the trees; they’re just makers.”
“We must all find our own spirituality,” Roof replied knowledgeably.
App had never debated with people lying on the floor before and found it strange that the urge to kick them was ever-present. Of course it might be that Roof was the kind of person that sponsored the kicking instinct, whether prone or upright. Accompanied by thoughts like: after they’ve been run over with a giant rock, no one would know how many times the victim had been kicked.
Dripping Thatch, a junior lugger, trotted up to App. “Reverend Front, sir, our foragers have made contact with Hunting Wolf’s scouts, sir.”
“He was weeks behind us,” App said.
“It is told that he has footstools and some talk of his daring use of coffee,” Thatch explained. “He could be here in the next two days.”
“I bet he is trying to overtake me! How can he do that? How can he think to
take my place in history away from me?”
App realised Thatch was still there. He suppressed his anger to say, “We shall prepare a welcome for brother Wolf with a freshly erected stone. Go back to the camp, tell the men to rest well, for tomorrow we shall raise the stone.”
“And the women, should they stay active and use up any spare energy?”
“I was talking figuratively, figuratively boy, you know, men as in… don’t bother. Tell everyone the stone is going up tomorrow.” App used to be respected by Thatch, well, at least to the end of the first day he’d known the druid.
Walking back to the human obstacles, his temper rose like magma in a volcano. How did men like Hunting Wolf get away with it? Using coffee, for the Mother Goddess’s sake. He must have picked it up from the Egyptians at last year’s Stone-Shifting and Edifice Construction conference. Coffee was still under evaluation, yet he’d taken it out into the field. What of the addiction risk: how a coffee-user couldn’t start work without a cup first thing in the morning. None of this had been checked. How did he change his name? You had to do great things to get a name change, and yet Soggy Cat arrived at the college, and druid Hunting Wolf had graduated. Now, of all things, Wolf was trying to overtake him. The first stone was App’s honour for being top in runes (classical and modern) and for his thesis on mushrooms and their use in vision-questing. How could people do that? They couldn’t; not to him! Waters and Roof smiled at him.
“I am the Reverend Approaching Cold Front. Remember my name, because if you don’t I’ll have it tattooed on your skulls along with: ‘Killed by the order of’.”
“Silence!” App boomed as Roof opened his mouth. “You –” App pointed at Walters “– will not lose your maintenance jobs because these rocks will need scraping clean of lichen, bird droppings, and blood, as necessary. This is easier than cutting down trees and planting them. You also get the bonus job of giving explanations to visitors about what these stones are for; this is even easier than keeping the stones clean.”
“Er… Reverend sir, I don’t know what the stones are for.”
“That doesn’t matter, neither will the visitors. It’ll keep you and your children and their children in business forever. Happy?”
“I think so. I’ll need to consult with my men,” Walters said, crawling over to his group. The discussion was quick and as a sign of agreement they ran (limped, stumbled, and groaned) off.
Roof made to speak again.
Roof had heard that tone before today. A rock made the same tone when it split open a head.
“Mr. Roof, this sacred plain on which are buried many of our ancestors and where you one day — perhaps today — will be buried is only here because we chopped down all the trees that kept getting in the way. We have risen above mindless tree chopping; these trees forming the henge will be the last ones to be felled.
“They’re sacred,” Roof braved.
“Stand up, stand up,” App said amiably. In the friendly tone that occurred just before a slap. “Up, up!”
“Mr. Roof, these trees are sacred to you aren’t they?”
“Yes,” Roof said and ducked.
App didn’t swing at him.
“They are precious to you.”
“You want to keep them safe, don’t you?”
“Louder, please,” App encouraged.
“What?” Roof asked, certain there was a punch coming from somewhere.
“Please say that you really want to keep these trees safe, loudly so all
your followers can hear.”
“Oh, right.” Roof said at much higher volume: “I really want to keep these trees safe!”
“Good because you can take them with you and keep them safe at your home.” App had been third in class at ‘getting your voice heard at significant moments’. Barely rising, his voice ensured it carried to all present.
“They’re sacred to you; you can have them. In fact, I want you to have them.”
“Er… I don’t want the trees.”
“You don’t? You said they were sacred to you; everyone else knows they are markers and it’s the circle that matters. If they’re left here they’ll rot to nothing, so you must take them.”
“Wer… er, but… er, ah?”
“It is your duty to take them.”
“Er…but er –”
“Do you hear that, brothers and sisters? Brother Lea Roof is going to take the sacred trees with him.”
The battered protest group had been listening. Understanding the logic of the conversation was aggravating their injuries.
App held up a finger before saying quietly, “If you don’t take the trees, then you don’t care for them and that will make you a liar in front of your people. You’re not a liar, are you Mr. Roof?”
“Wait a second.”
“Roof is taking the trees back to his home — we shall help him!”
The protesters almost cheered. There was uncertainty because Lea Roof hadn’t responded. He looked like concussion was taking effect.
App leaned very close to Roof and whispered, “You’re not a liar, are you? Lying is very bad. Lying to ordinary folk makes them mad. Lying to chieftains makes them violent, but lying to druids is always fatal. Are you lying to me, Mr. Roof?”
Roof’s eyes opened so wide it was like someone had smacked him on the back of his head and his eyeballs were propelled out the front. The effect on his brain of App’s words was very similar.
“Yes, we must save the trees!” he suddenly shouted.
App walked back to his people as Roof, with the help of the other protesters, began uprooting trees.
For the first time ever, the haulers made a space on a sofa for him to sit on. *
About the Author: Roderick Gladwish is an aerospace engineer living in the UK. An amateur SF artist, he has produced many magazine illustrations appearing in The Zone, Scifantastic, Focus, and Premonitions. When he can’t resist the urge he writes a story, most recently these have appeared in webzines Quantummuse, Aphelion, and Scribal Tales. More of his work (pictures and stories) can be seen at www.rcdg-art.co.uk. Rest assured he is not working on a novel.
Story (c) 2006 Roderick Gladwish firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago is an artist who creates from the subconscious and therefore is a drew-Id.
Illustration (c) 2006 Romeo Esparrago