The story so far: Is in Part One, surprisingly.
The big day was here, and Sandra was ready. She slipped into her usual combat trousers and slung a pump-action Remington 870 over her shoulder. A pair of sensible shoes and a light cotton blouse completed her outfit. With her long blonde hair twisted out of the way, she tip-toed downstairs, avoiding her mother who had passed out on the top step.
Let her sleep, thought Sandra, and she pulled the blanket higher over her mother’s shoulders. There were three more pregnant ewes in the dining room, and it would be a busy day.
Sandra and her mother looked after an unfeasibly large collection of livestock considering they grew carrots and turnips. Last year they had been forced to convert the large barn into an impromptu milking shed. The increasingly Marxist-Leninist regime at Bilewater Farm down the road had caused splits in Mr Turvey’s herd, with serious dissent from the more anarcho-syndicalist cows. It was all rather vexing.
Mr Bubbles was waiting by the farm gate.
“Stupid day.” he said, but whinnied softly when she tied an extra large red ribbon around his neck.
“Good boy.” She kissed his nose. “Let’s go and do our best.”
The village was decked out in bunting and looked the picture of Yorkshire country life at its best. Henry Ndoah, the local charcoal burner, was selling some unusual meat-based cakes from a stall by the church. His sign “A Taste of Lagos” was fooling no-one, though. Even the vicar knew that Goat Sponge was Henry’s own invention, even if it was disguised with marzipan and royal icing.
The older men of the area had come in their Sunday best, which was like their usual clothes but with less chicken manure, and the Children of the Empty Furrow had turned out in force as well. A local non-conformist sect, they came to every event in order to share the sort of folk songs which made your ears bleed. If one of the singers had his hand up to his ear, it was usually to stem the flow until that verse was over. “My Love Lies Choking Slowly to Death in a Celeriac Field” was always a favourite on Valentine’s Day.
Mr Quilling, the village pervert, had been locked in his attic for a while, to avoid him getting over-excited, and everything was ready. Sandra could see the traditional procession coming along the main street – the Women’s Institute members in their neat two-pieces and jaunty bonnets, and the Esoteric Order of Dagon clad in long robes and bowler hats. It was not a good sign that the two groups were keeping to opposite sides of the street.
“Got that gun ready?” Mr Bubbles examined his hooves, affecting a nonchalant air.
She had, but hoped not to use it. All the shells were filed with salt today, and sea-salt at that, which had been expensive. The Dagonites could call on some fairly unpleasant support if riled, and as for the WI… they had rites which got even the local witches worried. Even now Miss Hildagrim, the coven leader, was planting ash-stakes around the village green in case of trouble.
As the two processions came onto the green itself, carrying their baked or concocted offerings, the Children of the Empty Furrow launched into “My God is Dead but so is Yours”, a rousing song which always had everyone tapping along to it.
Scones always came first. Courting couples were offered the first batches – with cream and strawberry jam – as most of them usually wandered off after a while to do dubious Valentine-related things beyond the cricket field. The next batches were the ones used for competitive purposes. Laid out on the judging tables, the scones awaited their fate.
“Here we go.” muttered Sandra.
There was only one judge this year, thanks to a spate of drugged chocolates, mysterious phone calls from dying relatives, and blackmail letters.
Herbert Marsh, thirteen and half years old, stumbled out of the marquee, watched anxiously by his parents. Mr and Mrs Marsh managed to combine a look of pride with that of a couple who might soon be childless. Lanky Herbert, as he was inevitably known, was a troubled boy who was utterly terrified of what lay in Whateley Wood, hated the moors and wished only to be living somewhere safe and quiet, like the middle of a busy motorway.
“Let us welcome our judge – for today.” said the vicar’s wife, making an unfortunate pause between the two halves of her sentence.
“The church warden threatened his parents.” whispered Adelaide, who had told the girl guides to settle down and keep away from trouble for once. “Said someone had to judge the blooming thing, and how did they feel about mowing the churchyard every week for the next ten years?”
Sandra nodded. Her attention was on the thin teenager himself who was leaning over the WI display of sultana scones, each one of them perfectly heart-shaped as demanded in the rules.
“V-v-very nice.” Herbert managed to choke out between tentative bites. “Soft, but firm. Good use of bitter almonds…”
His eyes widened as he realised what he’d said, but Miss Cockridge, one of the WI contestants, held up a small bottle. “Essence only, everyone. No need to panic.”
Sandra was called away as Herbert moved on to the scones of the Esoteric Order. Mr Bubbles was having trouble separating Mr and Mrs Gayamurthi, who were hitting each other with ethnically-appropriate cooking utensils by the village pond. Onlookers provided the information that Mr Gayamurthi had spent the contents of the shop till on illicit domino games, and Valentine’s Day had brought it all to crisis point.
The pony had remembered Sandra’s comments about not kicking people in the head. Instead he had his teeth in the collar of Mr Gayamurthi’s jacket, but was having trouble with Mrs Gayamurthi and her well-oiled cast iron tawa. The small woman seemed to be trying to turn her husband’s face into a flatbread.
Sandra put the shotgun to her shoulder and fired a blast between the two combatants. Grains of sea-salt spanged off the tawa, shocking the Gayamurthis out of their duel.
“Oh, do stop it, you two!” she said sternly, breaking open the Remington and replacing the spent shell.
With order restored, she rejoined Adelaide in time to hear Herbert Marsh declaring the Dagonites as winners in the scone competition. Cheerful cries of “Cthulhu ftaghn!” from one side of the green; unhappy mutterings from the other.
Sandra shivered. Was it getting colder? There were definitely clouds in the sky now – low, worrying clouds which seemed to match the changing mood on the green.
“Sponge cakes will be next,” announced the vicar’s wife. “And then fancy desserts in about an hour.”
Sandra and Mr Bubbles left the main gathering. Sponges were a guaranteed win for the WI, which would even the score. A pineapple upside-down cake which might have done well had been confiscated from the Esoteric Order, primarily because the pineapple chunks had too many legs. And because they had legs at all, come to think of it. That would clinch it for little Emily’s mother to win it with her triple-chocolate sponge on behalf of the Women’s Institute.
At the village pond the ducks had gathered in the bull-rushes – either they were sick of having scones thrown at them or they had sensed trouble. It was also possible that various other ‘things’ which used the pond had been disturbed. They considered a few methane-tinged ripples, and hoped that nothing was on its way up from the depths.
“Why do Mrs Peaslee and Mr Pickman hate each other so much?” Sandra tugged on her hair thoughtfully. “That’s the mystery here. I mean, last year I had to take sharpened spoons off both of them before they went for each other’s jugulars.”
“They were at it.” said Mr Bubbles.
Sandra was at a loss to think of anything in St Botolph-on-the-Wolds which explained the intense hatred between the two otherwise respectable leaders. Mr Bubbles was, at time, annoyingly short on conversation.
The pony whinnied in annoyance. “Years ago. Going out. Kissy kissy.”
“Oh, I see.”
They walked away from the green, towards the tall, tasteless outline of St Botolph’s. It was possibly Saxon, probably added to by the Normans, and most certainly completely ruined by the Gothic designer Hemsley Baring-Gould. Baring-Gould had considered the many examples of church architecture noted by a relative of his, and decided to try them all at once, with additional Gothic spires for fun. The only safe way to approach St Botolph’s was to concentrate on the main doors and try not to see the rest of the building.
“How do you know about this, boy?” Sandra winced as she accidentally caught sight of a flying buttress.
“Celandine told you?”
He stared at her as if she were an especially dim foal. “Cows can’t talk. That would be mad.”
“That cow Mrs Pettifer. Asked her for polo mints. Told me a story instead.”
Sandra frowned. “That’s not very nice.”
“I know. Wanted polo.”
“No, I mean what you called her. Don’t be mean. So I suppose they fell out?”
“She liked golf. He liked Chris de Burgh. Doomed.”
“Yes, that would be hard.” She shuddered at the thought of ‘Lady in Red’, which was on a list of banned songs and texts across most of the Wolds. “Gosh, that explains an awful lot.”
“Cold.” said the pony.
“Yes, OK. It is getting a bit nippy. Let’s get back to the contest.”
It was no warmer on the green. Clouds the colour of dead fish moved across the low sun, and the place now had an adversarial air. The WI had clumped to the east side, surrounded by their supporters, who sported a range of umbrellas, shooting-sticks and other pointed implements. To the west, nearer the church, Dagonites and a few bad-tempered old men stood jeering and spitting tobacco onto the trampled grass.
Sandra noticed that the local coven was in the middle with the vicar’s wife. It was typical of village politics that both the Church and the Triple Goddess were trying to remain neutral. The witches and the Anglicans shared many interests, including the concept of ‘anything for a quiet life’ and a distrust of Jesuits. And the vicar’s wife was quite keen on going ‘sky-clad’ especially when the vicar was away at his brother’s place in Selby. Many a charcoal smudge could be seen on her shoulders after she had helped Henry Ndoah to lay out the hymn books.
“Listen.” said Mr Bubbles.
She tilted her head. The Children of the Empty Furrow were humming “Our Grain Swells with the Liberal Addition of English Corpses”, but that was only a traditional song from the Jacobite rebellion, which had been quite popular in these parts. What else was on the wind?
Then she heard the whip-poor-wills calling in Whateley Wood.
“Something coming?” she asked.
The pony shook his head. “Not the woods. Checked them.”
The ethereal song of birds rose and fell, as if they were not entirely sure if tragic and indiscriminate slaughter was bearing down upon the village. Perhaps it could go either way, thought Sandra. She liked to be positive at times like these. Tragic and indiscriminate slaughter always made her mother drink more, which played havoc with the ploughing.
“Why are they singing during the day-time?” asked Adelaide, tucking a dented bottle of Brasso into her skirt-band. Sandra pretended not to notice.
“I think they’re bored.”
Adelaide grinned, giving the impression of a shark who had scented a collection of unattended toddlers in her part of the ocean.
“Not for long.” She pointed to the main judging table, where Mrs Peaslee’s rose-petal and mascarpone cannoli were being placed next to Mr Pickman’s model of a Valentine heart constructed entirely out of tiramisu. He had even added arteries made out of strands of red liquorice.
The onlookers oohed and aahed appropriately while Herbert Marsh took a deep breath of asthma inhaler. Fortunately Sandra had taken the precaution of having the girl guides check Herbert’s inhalers beforehand. Two canisters of amyl nitrite and one of an unknown psychedelic had been found, though there was no clue as to which faction was behind the substitution.
Strengthened, the nervous teenage boy cut a slice from the tiramisu heart. His parents watched anxiously as he tasted it, but he remained standing.
“V-v-very nice. D-d-delicious.” he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. Mrs Marsh was too excited to reprimand him.
He dug a spoon into one of the cannoli, breaking the fried shell of sweet dough and scooping out some of the creamy filling.
“M-m-my goodness. That’s yummy, as well.”
Many of the crowd obviously hoped that a draw would be declared – their last, best chance for peace until the next year…
“Let me taste that!” said Mrs Peaslee, pushing her short, tweedy form up to the table. Before the vicar’s wife could intervene, she spooned out a left ventricle of tiramisu and slid it into her mouth.
“Aha! This isn’t marsala or a traditional Venetian sweet wine. You fraud.” She pointed triumphantly at Mr Pickman. “British fortified sherry!”
“But they were out of–” The hierach was interrupted by a loud jeering from the WI. Face contorted in anger, he picked up a cannoli and sucked out the filling from one end. “So. And this isn’t mascarpone, is it?”
Whirling on Mrs Peaslee, he pointed the empty cannoli at her.
“Tesco’s Budget-range cream cheese, with butter whipped into it! You see!”
Before Sandra could reach the centre of the green, concealed cake-knives were being drawn on every side.
“I had mascarpone, but it went off!” Mrs Peaslee wailed, mascara running down her face.
Clouds covered the sun, and a storm broke among the villagers, at first a storm of threats and invocations and then one of cutlery, umbrellas and sundry items to hand, even at one point a passing mallard.
As the coven and the vicar’s wife tried to shield Herbert Marsh, Sandra felt that deep prickle at her temples which meant trouble.
“There.” said Mr Bubbles, pointing with one hoof.
Near the village shop, a group of Dagonites were chanting loudly, their robes whipping about in a wind which hadn’t yet arrived. She could only catch one word, repeated again and again.
“Oh dear.” she said.
The wind came, a sharp stink upon it, and Mr Pickman’s tiramisu began to move. Ridding themselves of cream, the dark coffee-flavoured layers became darker and developed tendrils which lashed out, crushing cannoli and almost reaching Mrs Peaslee’s tweed skirt.
“I say, look out. Formless Spawn!” cried Sandra.
Tendrils of black-brown goo flailed higher, their acidic touch dissolving the tablecloth. The blasphemous children of the toad-headed god Tsathoggua, shapeless and malevolent, began to flow over the trestles, eating their way into anything they encountered.
From the ranks of the Women’s Institute members rose the voices of the Ladies Book Club, in counterpoint to the ab-human Dagonite chanting.
Obsessed with Swedish thrillers and Nordic Noir in general, not a few of the book club were versed in skaldic charms. Wielding copies of Henning Mankel novels, they advanced towards the Esoteric Order, their runic utterances making the Formless Spawn waver in the air. A Stig Larsson book hit Mr Mildrew in the face; in return a small, toad-shaped statue caught one of the book club members in mid-utterance.
Skaldic charms were not enough, though. Tsathoggua, while extremely slothful as hideously deformed gods went, had lively children. Mr Marsh’s left boot dissolved in acidic spray, and Mrs Marsh shrieked as she realised that her husband had a hole in one sock.
Mr Bubbles reared and charged the thrashing things in the centre of the village green. Iron-clad hooves slammed down, while his powerful body twisted to avoid their tendrils. Reeking of coffee and cheap sherry, the Formless Spawn writhed across the grass, heading slowly but certainly for the WI.
Sandra fired her shotgun, but the salt-shot made no difference. She grabbed Adelaide and shouted hurried instructions. Within seconds the guides were off, dodging tentacles and confused villagers, like a herd of sociopathic gazelles.
“Swing Low, Sweet Valkyrie.” sang the Children of the Empty Furrow, feeling some sympathy now with the Women’s Institute, especially as a couple of tendrils were heading their way.
Grabbing a discarded cricket bat, Sandra hit out at the Formless Spawn, which were shifting shape as they crawled along, adding the odd hand or claw to their tendrils. Her pony had acid spots on his coat, but he was keeping most of them worried. There was something about Mr Bubbles’ hooves which was unpopular with anything eldritch, and shifting into other, unheard of dimensions was not always an escape. Sandra tried not to think about that too much.
Wielding the bat, which had some protection from years of being rubbed with linseed oil, she managed to reach Mr Pickman and Mrs Peaslee, who were trying to drive cake-knives into each other under the remaining table.
“Stop it.” she yelled at them. “Mr Bubbles!”
The pony was very angry. One of his better ribbons had been eaten away with acid, his nose was sore, and a tendril had seared his fetlocks. He bellowed and advanced on the two contestants, ignoring Tsathoggua’s vile emissaries. He kicked the table aside.
“Kill them now.” he said, eyes wild.
“No, no!” Sandra hung onto his mane. “Just stop them, boy. Make them stop.”
His adrenaline-charged breath swept over her face, his teeth bared.
“Please, boy? For me.”
“Nggh!” With an angry snort, he brought a great hoof down on each of the two struggling figures, pinning them to the grass – and possibly breaking a rib or two in the process.
“Enough.” Sandra looked down at them, noticing also that her nice Mary-Jane shoes had been ruined by spawn-spit. “If you don’t cut this out right now, I can’t say what Mr Bubbles will do next.”
The truth was she could say exactly what her pony would do next, but she was hoping to avoid that option. Mr Pickman and Mrs Peaslee stopped struggling.
“It’s over!” shouted Sandra. Dropping the remains of the cricket bat, she pumped the shotgun again and again, firing into the air. Dagonites, WI members and even Formless Spawn paused to see what was happening. The Children of the Empty Furrow trailed off in mid-verse.
“I’ve had enough.” Sandra glared, breathless, at everyone around her. “This is my village too. You’ve spoiled my shoes, and this blouse will have to go for rags.”
She gestured for the pony to let Mr Pickman and Mrs Peaslee up.
“Call these off.” she said, and pointed at the Formless Spawn, which were still burning their way towards the WI.
“I can’t.” said the hierarch, spitting out cannoli. “We never practiced that bit.”
The coven was doing its best, but oak, ash and thorn were somewhat susceptible to the spitting acid, and most of their nature-based attempts were only slowing the spawn down.
“Right.” Sandra. “Chemistry Grade C, then. Adelaide?”
The head guide came forward, her pack behind her. “Yes, boss… I mean, Sandra.” The twelve year old had lost her usual cynical expression and was looking on the older girl with some admiration.
Adelaide signalled, and dozens of little hands launched paper bags of baking powder at Tsathoggua’s children. The guides had raided every shop and kitchen in the village on Sandra’s orders.
The black, coffee-stained masses hissed and bubbled as their acid reacted with the bicarbonate, sinking back with a mindless shriek. Without the chanting of the Dagonites to guide them, they flailed their tendrils and subsided. In five minutes, all that was left of them was seared grass and dollops of mascarpone.
“Alkali versus acid.” said Sandra, rather pleased with herself for remembering that. “Now, as for you two…”
They might have argued. They might have ignored the remonstrations of a teenage girl with tangled hair and red cheeks. The possibly-insane, foam-flecked black pony with great yellow teeth and iron-shod hooves was, however, something else. The presence of an angry Mr Bubbles may well have affected their next decision.
“Sorry, Sandra.” said Mrs Peaslee.
“And what did you do?” pressed Sandra.
Mrs Peaslee glanced at the pony. “I… I cheated.”
The hierarch of the Esoteric Order sniggered, and Sandra rounded on him.
“And you, Mr Pickman?”
“Ulp. Er… I cheated?”
“Exactly.” Sandra clenched her fists. “You both cheated. And because of that, you will both go to the Buttercup Tearooms next Thursday and have a nice pot of tea together. With some of those little iced cakes. Bought ones.” she added. “And if I hear that you argue, there’ll be trouble.”
The hierarch drew himself up, wincing. “I would never–”
A pride of lions could not have matched the rumble from Mr Bubbles’ throat.
“… ignore such a kind suggestion.” he managed to finish.
Mrs Peaslee dropped her cake-knife and nodded her reluctant assent.
“Good.” Sandra shouldered her shotgun and looked around, smiling grimly at the vicar’s wife. “Time to clear up, I think.”
As the villagers began to pick through the debris, avoiding patches of grass which were still smoking, Sandra leaned against her pony’s heavy flank and took a long, deep breath.
“Thank goodness that’s over.”
Mr Bubbles was silent, his rage beginning to ebb and leaving him with a distinct need for a pile of slightly mouldy turnips.
“Brasso, anyone?” asked Adelaide.
Next week: Back to weird fiction features, lurchers and jolly nice interviews. Gosh.