Part Three of the Untied Kingdom series
2 February 2020 – 14:14
Bodmin Moor, England
Cassandra was right where she wanted to be on her final day. Lost on the moors.
“Tree tree tree, make thyself known to me,” she sang as she poked her long walking stick into ground as firm as custard under a thin crust of frost. She hefted her canvas backpack to unsnag her ponytail and looked around the desolate flat landscape filled with invisible people.
From bronze age sacrifices to modern murder victims, this place was full of untold stories. Most of them gruesome. And today, this portentous day, Cassandra would add her own.
Where is the darn tree?
“Oh Mabs,” she sighed. “It’s been so long since you brought me here. But this place is always the same. It’s immune to time. You said so.”
She picked her way carefully along the thin path marked by straggling weeds.
“Perhaps this place is immune to time because there is nothing for time to cling to. No boulder to engrave, no trees to carve a heart around initials, no stream to change its course. Only the rise and set of the sun and moon.”
Mabs would have liked that thought. A rare tear forced itself onto her cheek.
“I used to call you my favourite aunty, Mabs. And that was fair because I only have one. I loved you so much because mum hated you. And anything mum hated was awesome. You were the only one who believed me Mabs. About the sign.”
The sun was setting, sending out beams of red light like the points of the protractor that Cassandra used to use in maths class.
And just like that, there she was again. Fiddling with her protractor. Sulking on the unfairness of a maths test on her birthday. She had finished it early just to show them.
The date on the top right-hand corner of her test paper caught her eye.
Her sixteenth birthday. 7/8/90. A perfect sequence. For one day only.
But it was a fragment of a larger sequence.
Cassandra picked up the pencil and wrote a time in front of it.
Darn. So close. Almost a perfect left to right numerical time-date stamp. Cassandra slumped back in her chair and closed her eyes. The scratching of pencils and the tick of the clock counting out the seconds until lunchtime were the only sounds.
The scribbles faded away and the tick tick tick amplified.
Cassandra’s heart skipped a beat. She sat up, opened her eyes, and added two more numbers to the sequence in front of her.
At fifty-six seconds past twelve thirty-four a moment of perfect numerical alignment would occur.
Cassandra’s eyes snapped up to the clockface. Its three hands shouted 12:33.01.
The moment of perfect numerical alignment was almost upon her. Upon them all. The enormity of it straightened her spine and opened out the top of her head like a trepanning. Her pulse quickened and her ears deadened with a powerful buzz drowning out everything but the thudding heartbeat of the clock.
She had to warn everyone. All her classmates stooped over the last questions of their maths test in various attitudes of concentration or boredom.
The clock shouted 12:34.03!
It was too late. Even if she shouted out that they were all in mortal peril who would believe her? She would become her namesake, the Trojan princess who cried out in warning as her countrymen hauled the wooden horse through the gates. The princess was considered mad and so her cries were ignored. Princess Cassandra was forced to watch as her countrymen became agents of Troy’s doom.
Frozen by terror and struck dumb by creeping awe, she watched the clock hand count down her own doom.
A wave zoomed over Cassandra from toes to ponytail. A draw from above. The touch of an angel. It robbed her of breath.
The moment ended. Cassandra slumped back in her chair like a marionette with cut strings. Her pencil scratched along her test paper.
Something was there.
The moment had manifested itself in a small picture. A small angular S shape, with the two ends joined behind its middle in a kind of mobius.
Cassandra blinked and leaned forward to look closer. It was definitely her pencil that had drawn this curious, simple symbol. But why? She didn’t remember doing so.
Cassandra looked to her right at her friend Betty Owens. Betty was facing forward, eyes blank, her pencil moving in her hand like a physical daydream.
Betty had drawn the same angular S shape on her test paper. She blinked and looked down with a mixture of shock at its sudden appearance and fear that she would get in trouble for doodling on her test paper. She would be in good company. The whole class had done the same.
Like tiny foot soldiers of an invading army, the mark was on all the papers.
Cassandra shivered and returned to the moment. Lost on the moors. The wind picked up, slapping the hood of her parka against the back of her head. She reached up to pull it on feeling the important solid rectangle in her backpack bag jostle against her shoulder blades.
“I went straight to you Mabs in a panic.” The wind snatched the words from Cassandra’s lips. “I told you everything. And you moved your scrying orb off the table, sat me down and took my hand. You didn’t even bother to read my palm. You just looked me in the eye and I calmed right down.
“I pulled my jotter out of my school bag and plopped it down on your velvet tablecloth. You studied it so carefully.”
“’I’m sorry,’ you said to your raven. ‘But this one is wise. I must show her the tree.’
“You got up and made some of that funny smelling tea. And you told me, ‘In days of yore when a king was a man with a hundred cows and gods were worshipped under the sky in rings of stone, a young woman as wise as you would be his queen. And through his hundred cows and your hundred secrets your rule would become legend and your people would prosper.’
“I asked you what the sign meant Mabs. And you replied, ‘Only you were shown the sign. Only you can find out what it means. But I can tell you this. That symbol is older than any alphabet.’”
“The sign took off, Mabs.” Cassandra looked around wind whipped moors as though afraid of being overheard. “Not just my school but every school. Doodled on jotters, carved into desks, painted on toilet doors in white-out. It spilled out the schools and into the streets as graffiti on alleyways, stickers on lamp posts, designs on T-shirts. A physical meme before there was an internet to spread it. And on my eighteenth birthday. It would seem that I was born to live a portentous life.”
Cassandra paused her speech and movement. She shielded her eyes as she scanned the red horizon claiming the sun inch by inch. The light was fading.
“Mabs, I need the tree. There’s only a few hours left.”
The memory of being in this place with Mabs years ago flashed across Cassandra’s mind’s eye.
Mabs, carrying a velvet bag, had walked with purpose. Her route was careful and circuitous, but certain. The tree’s gnarled branches were festooned with tattered cloth strips. When they finally reached its foot, Cassandra had marvelled at this ancient lone survivor. It was like finding a mammoth. Mabs had knelt at the base of the tree and pressed her forehead to a rounded hollow in a moment of solemn communion. She pressed the velvet bag against the same hollow in the tree.
Obeisance made, Mabs turned aside and chose a spot near the tree. She tucked her pink mottled scarf out of the way and rolled up the sleeves of her black crepe dress. Mabs plunged an arm into the slimy wet peat.
For a moment young Cassandra was sure a human sacrifice would grab Mabs’ hand and haul her under. But no, with a wet sucking sound Mabs pushed her sunken arm away from herself creating a small hollow into which she slid the velvet bag. She removed her arm, slick with mud, and the hollow closed with a soft pop sending up a short splash. There was no mark on the soft surface to show where the velvet bag had been interred. It had been discreetly swallowed by the moors. She took out the raven feather she had wound into her long greying braid and stood it upright marking the spot.
Mabs stood. Tears running down her face. She took her pink scarf, dabbed them away and wiped the mud from her arm. Mabs tied the scarf to a gnarled branch of the tree.
She took young Cassandra’s hand, placed it against the tree’s smooth hollow.
Clear your mind wise one. Remember all I have shown you. Allow this place to remember you and it will allow you to return.
Mabs’ fierce gaze and stern instruction began to fade returning Cassandra to the present moment. Lost on the moors. Looking for the sacrifice tree. Feeling the weight of her own intended sacrifice in her backpack.
Cassandra laid her walking stick down, cleared her mind, and stepped out onto a surface like a slack trampoline. For lack of any other landmark in this featureless maze, she headed for the setting sun. The peat sucked at her boots. Her weight sent ripples out across the soft surface. She had to keep going or the bog would swallow her whole.
“It took me years, Mabs to work out what the sign meant.” Cassandra resumed her tale. “I followed your hint and became a student of archaeology. And I found so many other ancient stones all inscribed with whorls and lines and representations of the sun. But I never found the sign.”
“I squandered my youth. I grew old. In a museum filled with people as grey as the stones I studied.”
“Until one day Mabs! One glorious rainy Wednesday in November. Do you remember me telling you Mabs?”
Cassandra hugged herself against the twin chills of the wind and the memory.
“Oh no. That’s right. I went looking for you Mabs to tell you of my triumph. But you weren’t there. And I had no idea how long it had been since I last saw you. I scoured London for you. Visited all the weird places and asked all your friends. You were gone. And I never said goodbye. I never got the chance to tell you that I worked it all out. I know what the sign means. I know my destiny. And I know what I have to do.”
Cassandra took off the backpack and hugged it to her. Its heavy load taxed her arms instead of her back. Her boots began to sink and she struggled forward. The bog reluctantly released her boots with wet thops.
The sun had set. And in the last of the gloaming stars came out. One by one like chorus members onto the stage of the night sky, until the full magnificence of the Milky Way had coalesced above her.
Cassandra trudged on, risking a look over her shoulder. The sight nearly stopped her heart. Glowing footprints trailed from her feet halfway to the opposite horizon. She chuckled, shook her head and re-shouldered her backpack.
“Marsh gas.” Heavy blue-tinged smoke wisped around the impressions her boots had made in the soft sagging surface. Her footprints had formed an arrow at her back guiding her forward. With renewed purpose, Cassandra surged on.
“That wet Wednesday in November Mabs. I was coming home from the Museum. It was cold and the rain was pelting down. I had left my umbrella in the car and I was fumbling my keys out of my pocket. They were stuck on a loose thread. I gave them a yank, they snapped free and flew out of my hand and into a grate on the wall.”
Cassandra opened her arms to embrace the night sky sugared with stars.
“Oh how we despair when we are so close to our goal! I knelt there Mabs, weeping in the rain. A total failure for the entirety of my existence up until that point. Born with the name of a doomsaying princess sixteen years before a celestial alignment that only I was sensitive enough to see. The keeper of a sign that I could not read. The seeker of an invisible secret.
“I knelt in front of that grate set in an ordinary wall and rattled its metal bars in utter frustration. Until the tears stopped, the rain stopped and I looked at what was behind the grate. Right in front of me.”
Cassandra grinned as she looked around in the dark for eavesdropping ears that might intercept this delicious secret.
“The symbol. Inside the grate, that same angular three-dimensional S was carved into an ancient stone. And the Stone, was the London Stone.”
“Oh Mabs! You would have loved it. If you had been beside me, we would have danced in the street and scared away the tourists.
“The London Stone! An altar so ancient that it has survived the removal of its guard of standing stones. Each stone carried away by a foolish self-important convert to a new sky god. Each believing themselves immune to the warding curse. Each proved slowly wrong.
“But the London Stone could hide in plain sight. Too important to cart off, too deeply drenched in sacrifice, to sink into the ground like one of the bog bodies of the moors. And if the London Stone is moved then London itself will fall. You told me that legend Mabs.”
In spite of the hopelessness of her situation, Cassandra grinned. She was struggling across a bog looking for an ancient sacrifice tree. Every step could her last. The bog might open under her, suck her in and that would be that.
“Ah the London Stone Mabs! I had found the source of the sign. One piece of the puzzle. But what did it mean? And what did I have to do now? What did the London Stone want?”
“And so I kept thinking Mabs about what you had said about the time when stones were worshipped. Sacrifices were made on them. And a king was a man with a hundred cows. And a woman with a hundred secret would be his queen. And the people prospered. But these small kingdoms grew greedily on the back of war. And grew even further on the back of peace. Now we have a mighty super-state run by a handful of faceless men while the people’s fortunes slide year on year.
“Yet in this world ripe for ruin, no ruin came. Sure, there were still wars. And sure, there is a new plague. But every doom-filled portent predicting the end of the world passed without major incident. The end of the Mayan calendar was eight years ago and I’m certain that the little grey people worked away behind the scenes to prevent the end of the world. Thwarting the world’s efforts to bring back that time when a king was a man with a hundred cows and stones were worshipped.”
Cassandra was getting worked up now. She gesticulated and stumbled. “Yet for all the nobility of their efforts, they are just bloating the corpse. A brontosaurus cannot evolve into an angel just by getting bigger. There must be many falls, and rises, and falls.”
“Endless expansion is not progress.”
Crickets sawed their back legs hidden in clumps of reeds. The blue marsh gas ebbed and flowed immune to the influence of the wind.
“It was at the museum filled with little grey people that I found the pin to pull on this world. A world filled with disaster, half-rotten and ready to fall.
“I remembered the sign Mabs,” Cassandra’s strength was leaving her. Her boots were harder to lift and her backpack heavier than ever containing its precious load of laminated pouches. “The sign disappeared on my eighteenth birthday. The day the Britain joined the European Union.
“There was a new display at my museum. The original Treaty of Maastrict. All nine copies. Each copy in the language of the signatory country. All in one place. Another omen.
“Oh London Stone! I understood what you wanted me to do!
“And so I stole them Mabs. You would have been so proud of my nerve. In the middle of the night, I distracted the guard with a cuppa and a biscuit. Picked up his keys on the desk. He never suspected a thing.
“And oh! The power that tingled up my arms as I touched them!
“But I am no vandal Mabs. Even though I seek to sack Rome.”
Cassandra grinned with glee and clapped her numb hands together. The sound was instantly swallowed by the silence of the moor. Even the crickets were quiet.
“I ran off two copies on the colour laser printer in the back room. I put one back in the display case and dropped the keys back at the guards’ desk as I said good night.
“Mabs, I had to stifle the urge to flee like a giggling child.
“I went straight to the London Stone. I could feel its thirst. No sacrifices for so many centuries. I pushed the originals of the Maastrict Treaty through the grate, onto the London Stone, doused them with lighter fluid and set them alight. The warmth was greater than mere paper should give.
“I have undone the Union of Europe. Brexit is only the beginning. Now nothing can stop the fall of the superstate. We will return to the time when a man with a hundred cows was king of as much land as he could see.
“And the London Stone was grateful, Mabs. But after a long moment of communion I realised that my quest was not yet done. I did not know at the time why I had made another copy of the Maastrict Treaty. All nine papers were still in my pack.
“The London Stone gave me another image. I recognised it instantly. The most famous stone of all.”
Cassandra whirled on the spot. The blue marsh gas whipped about her feet like streamers tied to a subway grate. The skin of the bog split drawing Cassandra’s right leg all the way in.
“Mabs! Help!” Lying face down spreadeagled on the slippery surface of the bog with one leg in and one leg out Cassandra rolled slowly away from the hole. The suction of the bog fought her, sapping her strength. With a huge effort her knee emerged but the bog gripped hard on her trapped calf.
Remembering Mabs committing the velvet bag to the bog Cassandra slipped her hand into the mud along her calf. She pulled her arm away breaking the suction and releasing her leg. The bog bubbled as the split sealed over. Its ancient patience would win eventually. Cold slimy mud caked her whole right leg and her right arm up to the elbow. The bog had taken her watch. Hopefully it would be happy with that small sacrifice for a while.
From her prone position, Cassandra could see her footprints stage-lit by the blue marsh gas. Gasping for breath, Cassandra drew herself to her knees. Her footprints were a straight line with stumbling drag marks and then a confusion all around her. The split that had nearly claimed her was visible as a blue gash across the jumble of whirling boot prints.
Trembling, Cassandra got to her feet.
I’m doomed. I’ll never find the tree. And I’m almost out of time.
“London Stone!” She shouted to the night sky. “You should have picked a better champion.”
Cassandra stooped putting her hands on her shaking knees. “Cassandra,” she said to herself. “You are talking to a stone two hundred miles away. Get a grip.”
As she straightened, the surface of the bog sagged under her weight. A moment of defeat washed over her from ponytail to muddied boot-soles. The inverse of the moment on her sixteenth birthday in maths class all those years ago, when she had received the sign.
In its wake, the wave left a quiet certainty.
This is my task. I may not be worthy. But I am here. And the time has nearly come.
Cassandra stood straight, closed her eyes, set her arms wide and turned on the spot. Her boots dug into the soft surface. She accepted her fate that, like a drill bit, she might bore through the surface and be swallowed whole.
“Tree, tree, tree. Make thyself known to me.”
In the velvet darkness of her mind’s eye a deeper shadow like a cat’s pupil defined itself. Cassandra slowed her spin and stopped to face it.
She stopped, opened her eyes and there it was. The gnarled tips of its branches backlit by the backdrop of the Milky Way and slapped by the rippling green stage curtains of an Aurora Borealis. Dozens of tattered strips of cloth tied to its gnarled branches flapped back and forth.
Cassandra did not rush. She approached the tree with reverence. She had lost her watch to the bog, but she knew that the time had not quite come.
Cassandra pulled the smooth sealed pouch containing the nine copies of the Maastrict Treaty out of her backpack. She hung the pack from a gnarled branch and ran the nearest cloth strip through her fingers hoping it was Mabs’ pink scarf.
She sank to her knees with the last of her strength and embraced the wrinkled bark of the sacrifice tree. Cassandra placed her forehead against the same smooth hollow and felt a little of her strength return.
Sitting back upon her haunches, Cassandra held the offering to the tree. Laminated against time and the touch of the bog the nine papers in nine languages would last until the next ice age.
Cassandra turned away from the tree and waited. The beat of her heart counting down the final seconds until her doom.
Holding the pouch close to her chest, Cassandra made a rip in the surface of the bog with her hand.
At precisely 20:20.22 2/2/2020, Cassandra slipped headfirst into the bog. Ready to become the new Rosetta Stone to an unborn generation.