Shifters

1.

"I don't think we should be here," Gail muttered, stumbling over an ill-placed chair, reaching out his hands in the dark.

"Well go back, if you're so scared," Forrest hissed back, pressing onwards, picking her way through the clutter.

"Well maybe I will," Gail said unconvincingly, and followed her deeper anyway.

The two children felt their way in the darkness, their hands brushing against hard, smooth walls that were cold and unnatural under their fingers.

"What is this stuff?" Gail wanted to know.

"Derno. Probably some kind of stone."

"But stones aren't smooth like this..." Gail began, but was silenced as he walked into the sharp corner of a table and let out a groan of pain.

"Shh!" Forrest reprimanded him with annoyance, flapping an irate hand. "If Berkeley hears us there'll be all kinds of trouble."

She reached out and the two of them entwined their hands securely together like a guard against the darkness.

"I hate the dark," Gail complained softly. Forrest hated the dark too, though she didn't say it. Besides, she knew that Gail would never really leave her alone there. He was the sort of friend who followed her wherever she went.

The castle's deep basement had always fascinated her. It was filled with relics of a past age. And there was the strange, stone-like material of the walls that seemed so alien compared to the warmth of the green, living rooms above. And leading off the abandoned corridor was room after room full of strange artifacts, uses long forgotten. She had played here often, although naturally the place was forbidden to her.

She tugged Gail's hand impatiently. "Hurry up," she hissed, "or we're never going to find it."

The room Forrest led them towards was at the furthest end of the dark corridor, beyond a myriad of unsuspecting traps - rugs laid like snakes across the cold floor waiting to trip them, fallen tables and seats blocking the path, scattered metal objects that rattled and clattered under their feet and threatened to give them away.

Her excitement was so great that she pulled Gail ahead with less caution than she should have, stirring the dust of ages from beneath her feet.

"Here!" At last she turned into the final doorway and stood staring triumphantly at what appeared to be a lady's bedchamber.

Over the ages, the castle building had slowly sunk, so that now, centuries after it had been built, the windows were below the level of the ground, although Forrest felt sure that they had once been high and streaming with light. Through the now empty window frames, soil from the ground outside came through, and the room was only saved from being closed off in eternal burial by the roots of trees and plants that held the soil together. Forrest remembered to whisper a brief prayer of thanks for the living fauna that protected this fragile slice of ancient history.

The two children stepped into the quiet, darkened space.

A four-poster bed of carved rosewood stood against one wall. The heavy scarlet fabric of sheets and curtains had turned grey with dust and age. Moths had eaten away large patches, and dampness had sodden the rest. One of the bedposts had snapped and collapsed the top like a broken limb, so that the lace that had once hung charmingly now trailed like moldy ivy across the floor, yellowed and stagnant.
A shattered, tarnished mirror topped a fine dressing table whose scattered trinkets had rolled in all directions off the surface and across the floor. The stool was thrown back, on its side, as if someone a hundred years ago had left in a great hurry.

The whole place smelt of sweet rot.

Beside her, Gail shivered, but to Forrest it seemed a great adventure indeed.

She went towards the wall opposite the bed where a once great tapestry had worn free of its bindings and half fallen to the floor. Its pictures were obscured by the great fold in its fabric where it had flopped down and crumpled against the stone. Sections of the back had turned green with mould. Forrest went forward and tried to lift the fallen corner. The weight of the thick fabric was almost impossible to shift.

"Come on," she hissed to her friend, "don't just stand there. Help me!"

Gail hesitated a moment before swallowing his revulsion and stepping forward. He creased up his face into a pained winced as he put his hands on the rotting material. Between the two of them they managed to pull and push enough that the tapestry unfurled in a cloud of spores, dusty fibres and moths, revealing the colourful images underneath.

"You see?" Forrest explained, pointing towards the scene. Gail looked.

It was a picture of the great animals of the world. The ambition of the picture was enormous. It started at one end in the deep oceans, moved progressively through ice worlds, tundra, forest, deserts and jungles to end finally in the busy skies. And each habitat was filled with animals, all in their rightful places. Too many to count.

Even Gail seemed a little bit impressed. He bent down to examine it more closely. A lone beetle scampered self consciously across the tapestry to disappear into the recesses of the room. The two children gazed for a long time.

"There's the stag!" Gail pointed out suddenly, pressing his fingers against the image of the tall, antlered creature standing regal among the forest creatures. "And the badger too."

Sure enough the strong little creature was depicted sitting solemnly amongst the fallen leaves. Forrest smiled fondly at the image.

She cast her eyes out over the rest of the picture and suddenly tugged at Gail's arm.

"There it is," she exclaimed, pointing. Together they turned their eyes towards a scene of icy tundra.

There were very few animals in that section, a white furred fox, a snowy owl and thick coated elk. But the creature Forrest had spotted was less familiar than these. It was difficult to make out, slipping as it was between drifts of snow. It seemed almost a mirage. An illusion. A mistake, perhaps, not intended by the artist, but the sort of pictures you start to imagine are there if you stare for too long at a senseless pattern. Less substantial, even, than the shapes you can see in the clouds.

But, they both agreed, it seemed to have eyes. And it seemed to have fangs.

"But what is it?"

"I don't know."

"I've never seen anything like it."

"Me neither."

They looked closer.

"I know all the other animals," Forrest continued, frustrated. "I even know the houses for most of them, I've been learning it with my history tutor."

This was a slight exaggeration. She only really knew the houses of a handful, but Gail was happy to take her at her word, and looked over at her impressed. But Forrest only shook her head.

"But that!" she continued, "What is that?"

"An animal from the past?" Gail suggested uncertainly. "That we don't have any more?"

"But that's impossible," Forrest retorted, shaking her head. "How can an animal just disappear?"

"I don't know, maybe it happens."

"Well I've never heard of anything like that."

With a quiet drone, another beetle came and settled itself on Gail's ear. He shook it off and straightened. He suddenly felt ill at ease.

"I don't like it here," he said abruptly. "I don't like it, Forrest, let's go."

"No, not yet. I haven't finished looking." She ignored the fear that had crept into his voice and, turning away from the puzzling tapestry, looked quickly over the other contents of the room.

"Forrest..." he pleaded weakly.

"Shh! You're just being silly."

Something glittering by the bedside caught her eye and she strode over towards it. Gail shuffled towards the door, but she ignored him.

It was, she discovered, a bracelet. Made in metals, copper and gold twinned together to form a systematic pattern. But it was not one of the familiar natural patterns of flowers and leaves so favoured by the people of the royal court, instead it seemed quite unnatural to Forrest's eyes. The pattern was ceaseless and recurring all the way around, in a style that seemed completely at odds with the natural world of which it, by necessity of existing, formed a part. There was no symmetry so perfect out there in the world. Forrest frowned. She thought it quite ugly.

Nonetheless, with her curiosity piqued she lifted it to her eye and examined it closely.

"Come on, Forrest..." Gail's half-hearted prompts held no real hope of success. He knew her too well to expect to be able to sway her in a moment of adventure.

"Do you think it's treasure?" she asked.

"Well I don't know..."

"It doesn't look very nice, does it?"

His feeling of uneasy fear did not abate. In fact it strengthened as he watched her move the bracelet, positioning it as if to try it on. All at once he was quite sure that she must not do that. A terrible foreboding that something dreadful was about to happen came over him, as sure as anything. But the fears seemed to freeze up his throat so that he could not shout out or tell her to stop. He cursed himself for being such a coward. He felt ill, quite ill, watching the bracelet move closer and closer to her.

He had to stop her. He had to. He had to, but he couldn't.

He squeezed his eyes closed tight.

"I wouldn't do that, if I were you."

Both children jumped and looked quickly towards the door where the broad-shouldered Matron Berkeley stood with her thick, hammy fists on her hips, wearing an expression of severe disapproval.

Feeling his terrible responsibilities suddenly and miraculously lifted, Gail turned in a frantic gesture of panic and dove straight into Berkeley's skirts, a free-fall of tears sliding down his cheeks.

Forrest sent him her best look of abject disgust.

"Now you will put that thing down and return to your chamber," Berkeley continued in a stern voice that clearly meant she was not to be disobeyed.

Forrest surveyed her warily, as if sizing up an enemy.

"What did you mean," she demanded abruptly, "why shouldn't I try it on?"

The bracelet in her hand had warmed to her skin, and now that she had become used to it, she was reluctant to leave it behind, particularly as Berkeley seemed so adamant that she should.

"Because that is a nool bracelet," the matron revealed coolly.

The bracelet hit the stone floor with a thin, tinny ping and rolled a little way under the bed. Forrest could not suppress the small, startled gasp that escaped her although she would rage at herself angrily afterwards for reacting in such a cowardly way.

"If you put it on, you'll become a nool," Berkeley continued, looking somewhat satisfied that she had finally succeeding in putting some fear into the wild young girl before her.

Immediately ashamed of her childish reaction, Forrest jutted out her chin defiantly, trying to recover some of her lost face. "That's stupid," she declared, "you can't become a nool, you have to be born one."

Nonetheless, she made no move to pick up the bracelet she had dropped.

Gail let out a final, unhappy howl and Berkeley seemed to remember her purpose. Forgetting the issue of the bracelet, she put on her sternest face and said in her loudest and most authoritative voice, "Prince Forrest you will return to your chambers at once."

Forrest winced slightly. Whenever Berkeley resorted to calling her Prince, it usually meant trouble.

With a sigh she let her shoulders droop and filed out into the corridor under Berkeley's watchful stare. Together they returned to the more habitable parts of the castle.

(WC: 1979)