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|Note A: Everyone has heard those lame-sounding excuses for late trains and cancellations: how can a leaf stop a train? Can't a broken signal just be judiciously ignored? But often, the reality is a lot more complicated than it sounds, and you just can't tell the whole story in a short platform announcement. The following story elaborates on the announcement made at Swansea on the morning of March 22nd, 2004 - "Arriva Trains Wales apologises for the cancellation of this morning's Heart of Wales service. This was due to equipment failure, damaged track, and horses on the line. An alternate service is being provided."|
|Note B: The vast majority of train conductors are courteous and genuinely keen to help. "Malcolm" is an exception. They happen.|
|Note C: The "Welsh" used in this story is not intended to match today's conversational Welsh. Since the protagonists of the story are not Welsh-speakers anyway, spellings are phonetic, as an Englishman or American would hear them. If any Welshman should read this story, after you have finished laughing, do please email corrections or suggestions (polite suggestions please).|
|Note D: Did you know Merlyn is Welsh for "pony"?|
Bob (aka Dr Bob, Robert Stein, Robert T Bob, Posti, et al) leant back in his seat as the little train laboured its way up the hill. As Matthew had promised, the view was superb – tall hills bordering a broad green valley. The railway clung to the hillside, some hundred feet above the valley floor. Dry stone walls and slate-roofed farm houses were the only punctuation in a the rich green tapestry. That and the white dots of the ubiquitous sheep.
There was a certain novelty in being chauffeured in a train. Matthew had apologised that he couldn't permit Bob in the cab, but when the entirety of the train was a single car like a glorified bus on rails (it even had a Cummings engine), it made little difference. Although Matthew had secured leave for most of Bob's visit to the UK, he'd been unable to cover one day, and had suggested his American friend might like to ride along for the day, especially as today's roster dictated a run down the scenic "Heart of Wales" line.
And Heart of Wales was right. The railway was like a time-warp: a slightly overgrown single track, just four trains a day, each like this one, and as Matthew had delighted in showing him at the last exchange station, relied on enormous brass tokens to be carried by the driver, rather than relying on signals to regulate the passage of trains. They had departed Shrewsbury at about nine in the morning, and the relatively flat Cheshire terrain had soon given rise to dramatic hills and valleys, populated mostly with sheep. There were few passengers, and apart from a couple of hikers and Bob, everyone else had disembarked at the previous stop.
The little diesel unit passed through a short tunnel through the peak of the hill it was climbing, bursting into sunlight on the far side. The PA hissed and the tinny tones of the conductor announced abruptly "Langunflo, next stop. Request only. Langunflo." The pair of hikers stood up and hefted their packs from the overhead rack. The train soon began to decelerate from its labouring thirty mph and pulled into a platform scarcely longer than the train. According to the name-plates, the little halt was actually called "Llangynllo". Bob wasn't too surprised to note little correlation between the actual spelling and the pronunciation – Matthew had explained about Welsh names, and the fact that the train crews were staffed from Crewe in the West Midlands, and therefore not generally well-versed in reading or speaking Welsh. He wondered if the conductor's version bore any resemblance to the actual name.
The sliding doors at each end of the carriage popped open with a disproportionately loud noise, and the hikers disembarked. After a pause, there was a warbling tone to warn of the doors closing, which they began to do, only to be interrupted. Bob heard the conductor's gruff tones impatiently advising someone to "Hurry up, mate!" There was a reply which Bob couldn't make out, but had the general tone of someone saying, "Don't take that tone with me, Sonny." The someone climbed aboard, and Bob stared. He recovered himself, stared again, tore his eyes aside with an effort, then contented himself with stolen glances as the newcomer carefully deposited a large pack like an army kit-bag in the luggage area and then made his way to the seat opposite Bob.
He was dressed in what could only be described as a robe. It may have been grey or pale brown to begin with – it was difficult to tell as the towelling was stain and filthy. Bob's nostrils caught a strange scent –not unpleasant actually- that reminded him of earth and herbs, and oddly, rain: a wild smell. The robe sported a voluminous hood, that was currently folded back from the man's head, allowing Bob to see a tangled bush of gray-black hair that looked as if it would have all the familiarity with the word "comb" as Bob did with "Llangynllo". There were a couple of bits of twig and a holly leaf caught in it.
The face framed by the hair was craggy and seamed and ancient beyond belief. It looked like old bark, or granite, or leather. The hair swept around to become an equally bushy beard. A beaky nose thrust forward over this, and the eyes, lids lowered as if their owner were half asleep, were so folded in wrinkles that Bob could only make them out because they were accented by large, frizzy eyebrows. Unable to help himself, he cast another covert glance, and almost jumped out of his seat as he met glaring blue eyes of unnerving brilliance. If the rest of the body looked like it had been pinned to a mountain-side for twenty years, the eyes looked like they were taken out and polished every day. They glared at Bob, pinning him, hotly accusing him of his presumption in daring to measure up their owner.
Bob hurriedly shifted his gaze to the window, but continued to observe the stranger by taking advantage of his reflection. The other striking feature was the six-foot staff of twisted wood. Well-grounded as Bob was in a world of multi-media, internet, trans-Atlantic flights, and on-line pizza delivery, every cell in his body hissed "Wizard!"
The conductor was obviously not possessed of the same insight. As the diesel engine roared and the train laboured forwards again, he made his way toward the new passenger down the central aisle. "Tickets from Langunflo!" Bob was not overly impressed by the conductor's customer attitude. It appeared the stranger wasn't either, who pointedly ignored him.
"Ticket, please, sir," the conductor requested curtly, apparently irked that his previous announcement had gone unacknowledged: the stranger was the only person to have embarked at Llangynllo.
The stranger looked up slowly, and said something unintelligible. Not only did it appear to be speaking Welsh, the voice sounded like a long-unused piece of machinery: a rough voice, low in tone, but with unexpected squeaks and grinds.
"Ticket," the conductor insisted in a louder voice. "I need to see your ticket."
The stranger sighed, and said in heavily accented English, "But I am afraid I do not have one." The tone implied heavily that this was definitely someone else's problem.
"Where are you travelling to?"
"I have business in Llanwrtyd." It sounded, so far as Bob was able to make out over the engine noise, like "Hlan-oo-tid". "Since you have seen fit to lay this abomination across the land, I thought I may as well make use of it."
The conductor slung his ticket machine around and tapped on the small screen with a stylus. "Are you returning today?"
"What business of yours is that?" the stranger demanded.
"I need to know if you want a return ticket or just a single," the conductor said with exaggerated patience.
"What is it that makes you think I want either?" asked the stranger. Wizard insisted Bob's instincts. Mage, magic-user, magician. Is the conductor blind as well as stupid? He really could not have said why he was possessed of such a conviction. If wizards could be said to have a natural habitat, then the Welsh valleys were as good as any, steeped in ancient lore and legend, but Bob was not in the habit of going around identifying potential wizards. And this was not a guess, like I bet that man is an insurance salesman. Granted, the stranger looked like a wizard, or how Bob felt a wizard might dress, but the strange conviction did not seem to be grounded in mere appearance. The stranger could have been wearing a Hawaiian shirt and bell-bottom jeans and it would not have altered things. Bob simply knew, without knowing how or why.
"Single," the conductor muttered. "Five pounds twenty, please."
"I do not need or want your ticket," the stranger declared.
The conductor's mien subtly changed, and Bob guessed that here was the sort of man who took a petty pleasure in officious self-righteousness. "Can't travel without a ticket I'm afraid, sir."
The wizard looked out of the window at the passing scenery. "I do not perceive any difficulty."
Bob could practically read the conductor's mind: Oh-ho! A smart-arse, is it? "You have to have a ticket, sir. If not, I'm afraid I'll have to involve the police."
The wizard turned slowly and deliberately to face the conductor. As they had with Bob earlier, those startling eyes suddenly opened fully and pierced the man with their dazzling glare. I'll give you one warning, and one only. "I have travelled this path for longer than you can conceive of. I will continue to do so, with or without this diabolical contrivance. Now, be about your petty business if you must, but do not think to trouble me with it." And with that, the wizard pulled his hood up and over his head, losing his face within shadow. Suddenly, it looked like a strange rock formation occupied the seat. You could sit five feet away from this man on a mountainside, thought Bob, and have no idea he was there.
With an entirely insincere air of regret, the conductor said, "Well, if that's the way you intend to play it…" He drew a mobile phone from his belt, and turning away, made his way up the aisle.
Bob found he had been holding his breath, and shakily let it go. Discomfort in his fingers made him glance down and discover that he had been gripping the seat hard enough to leave an impression in the fabric. He looked up again as the stranger stirred, and a leather-skinned hand rose to make a slight gesture in the air. A word was hissed: "Distai." It may have been Welsh, or some other language entirely. It wasn't English, and it seemed to do something odd to the air – or it may simply have been a change in pressure: the train was descending a fairly steep gradient. Nevertheless, Bob leant out into the aisle and looked down the car to see the conductor shaking his phone and peering at it, and looking decidedly annoyed. He clumped back down the aisle and said gruffly, with no further reference to police, that the stranger would have to leave the train at the next stop. His humour was not improved when The train slowed but didn't stop for the next station – a request stop like Llangynllo, there was no one on the platform at Llanbister Road and the conductor had neglected to ask for the stop. Bob hid a smile. If the stranger was in any way amused, he didn't show it.
Whatever scene might have unrolled at Dolau, the next stop, remained a mystery, for mid-way between the two stations, the roar of the engine suddenly stuttered and died. The car rolled on for a few seconds, eerily quiet after the diesel's din, then the brakes applied and the train came to a gentle halt. The engine made two or three half-hearted attempts to restart, but though the engine turned over, it didn't catch, and silence resumed.
The driver's door opened and Matthew appeared, looking harassed and a little embarrassed. "Sorry, folks," he called, with a nod at Bob. "We have a slight technical hitch at the moment. Please sit tight, and we'll have you on your way again as soon as we can."
"What's up?" Bob asked.
"Run out of coolant, most likely," Matthew growled. "I knew we should have taken on more water at Shrewsbury, but these stupid units only have an inlet on one side, and 'cos the Birmingham was late in, they put it in the wrong platform."
The stranger stirred and pulled back his hood. "Will our journey be interrupted for very long? I have urgent business in Llanwrtyd."
Matthew's eyes widened at sight of the other passenger. "Uh…" He glanced at Bob uncertainly and then back at the stranger. "I'll do my best, sir. If I can't get her going again, I'll have to call for assistance, and that may take a little while."
"Do your best then," the stranger said, sounding irritated, and drew his hood again.
Matthew gestured to Bob to accompany him and they made their way to the rear of the coach. "Did he get on at Llangynllo?"
"Uh, yes, I think that's what it was." Bob hesitated, reluctant to share his strange conviction with his friend.
"He looks like… well, he looks like Merlin come to life, doesn't he?" Matthew said. "I get the oddest feeling, looking at him."
"Me too," Bob agreed, nodding vigorously. "Your conductor isn't too chuffed with him though – I don't think he has a ticket."
"Malcolm asked him for a ticket?" Matthew asked, sounding aghast at the idea. Then he looked puzzled. "But…" He shook his head in confusion. "No, everyone has to have a ticket, I know, but… looking at him… no, that's daft!"
"If he turned up at your front door, you'd quietly leave your own house until he'd finished with it?" suggested Bob.
"Uh, yeah," Matthew admitted uneasily. "Come on. I think it'd be a really good thing if I could get this thing started again." Inserting a key into a panel in the wall over the rear row of seating, he opened a compartment. "Hope you don't need to go to the bathroom urgently."
"Why?" Bob enquired as the driver twisted a small spigot concealed within. There was a brief, thin trickling sound.
"'Cos the emergency coolant supply is the header tank for the toilet," Matthew said with a grin. He slammed the compartment shut again. "That's only the first part. I need to pop outside for a second and open the feeder valve."
Pulling a fluorescent orange vest from a pocket and over his head, Matthew opened the rear passenger door and climbed out. Bob stood watching from the doorway. In the absence of the train's noise, the landscape was blissfully silent. It seemed almost a pity to try to get the engine going again. The only sound was the distant bleating of sheep, and a little birdsong, both sounds that seemed only to emphasize the peace of this land.
"You feel it, don't you?" said a voice like two boulders being scraped together, right next to Bob's right ear. Bob stifled a yell and caught the handrail as the wizard continued oblivious. "The peace, the tranquillity of the land. The quiet earth-soul breathes its spirit into the very air here. See, even the machines seek to be silent here."
Bob didn't argue – for one thing, he was pretty much in agreement, even if he wouldn't have phrased things quite that way. For another thing, even if he had been of the opinion that the local farmers ought to broadcast heavy rock to their herds, he would never have disagreed with this person. And for a third thing, he didn't actually have the opportunity – the surly conductor emerged from the rear cab and chose this moment to renew his customer un-relations exercise. "Oi! Away from that door, please! Come on, back to your seats. There's nothing to see."
"On the contrary," the wizard stated, "There is a very great deal to see." The gravely voice was mild but Bob could sense the irritation growing there. He winced.
"You, mate, are on thin ice," the conductor said belligerently. "I want you off at the next station."
"Alas, we cannot always have that which we desire," the wizard answered, and it seemed to Bob that there were layers of meaning in that statement.
"Can the philosophy, mate. You haven't paid for your journey. If there was any way to call the police, I would."
Shut up, you fool! Bob thought. Matthew, hurry up!
As if in response, Matthew obviously finished whatever it was he had been doing, and crunched back over the ballast toward the door, but the situation between the guard and the wizard was escalating. Bob found himself wondering what the mental equivalent to a seeing-eye dog was, because the guard sorely needed one.
"I am intrigued," hissed the wizard, with perceptible menace now. "By what right do you demand payment of me? You do not own this machine, or the land it travels over. You do not share in its work. You do not even guide it, as a farmer guides his team."
"Ooooh," sneered the conductor sarcastically. "Going to be like that about it, are we? Well, I might not "own this machine", but I represent the company that does own it. And they go to the trouble of providing a service for the decent people who wish to travel this route."
"Shut up!" Bob stage-whispered desperately, feeling the atmosphere escalate to Def-Con Two.
"Be silent," said the wizard, without sparing him a glance. Bob obeyed without question. He could not have said with certainty that some sort of spell hadn't sealed his lips. It made no difference – it was as if obedience to this figure was hard-wired into him. Why on earth could this imbecilic guard not sense anything?
Matthew chose this moment to clamber up into the vestibule. "Well, fingers crossed, people," he said brightly. "We've got a little water. We'll see how far it goes… Everything okay, Malc?" The last in a worried tone as the tangible atmosphere sank home.
"No, mate," the conductor said. "We've got one for Dolau. This gentleman will be getting off there."
Matthew looked worried. "Uh, I thought you wanted to go to Llanwrtyd?" he asked the wizard.
"That is correct," growled the wizard, grinding the butt of the tall staff into the floor.
"Uh-uh," the conductor said. "No ticket, no travel. You're off at the next stop, mate."
"Um, Malcolm," Matthew said nervously as the sun seemed to fade a little outside. "Ah, this is a special case. Give him a ticket to Llanwrtyd, would you, and I'll settle it with you later."
"What special case?" the conductor demanded with such complete lack of tact that Bob gaped at him. He had a crazy image in his head of Malcolm in an explosives store waving an open flame and demanding in the same tone, "What dynamite?"
"This special case," the Wizard said, and smote the staff upon the floor of the carriage. Bob realised his mental image had been a much lesser hazard than the one they now faced. The wood struck the rubber floor covering like a flint striking steel: a sharp crack and a flash of sparks. The sun faded, sucked away or thrust aside by a colourless radiance that seemed to emanate from the dark figure himself. Sudden wind assailed him, making him stagger and the wizard's robes flutter briefly. The train groaned as if some enormous stress had been brought to bear on it. Bob felt it himself: a phantom weight: as if he ought to be flattened by some mountain-vast pressure. He wanted to fall to his knees, or lie on the floor.
Meddle not in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger. Where did that phrase originate?
"I have been tolerant," the Wizard intoned, and his voice had transformed. No longer rough or laboured, the words were clear and so perfectly formed that they almost seemed to shine in the air. No voice can shape sound like a Welshman's. "I do not ask much. I did not seek fawning servitude or impossible services. But I will take my due of respect where it is owed. I have been offered grave insult, by a fool who cannot even see what it is he is insulting. I have weighed this conveyance, and it cannot fulfil its basic purpose. It fouls the air with its noise and its stench, and yet it does not even meet its own ends. Now my purpose has been delayed, and I will have redress! Difannu!"
The day returned, but it still seemed the sun was subordinate to the Wizard. That figure struck its staff on the floor again, and the floor material quivered into ash. The ceiling crinkled, tore, and shrivelled like a plastic wrapper in a fire. The windows exploded into fine sand. The carriage groaned and shrieked, but the sounds faded as if the vehicle's strength was at an end, and the dissolution continued. The seats fell apart to disintegrate upon the floor. There was a sudden feeling of descent and then the carriage opened up like a blossoming flower, the walls falling outward to land with no greater impact than petals, there to crumble into dust and nothingness. In no more than a few seconds, there was hardly a sign that the train had ever existed, and the three men stood on the bare rails, stunned.
Then the Wizard smote the iron rails with an impact that caused the track to sing; a pure note that seemed to glow in the air. The three men could see both rails vibrating visibly, and as the note grew, the vibration grew also, until the rails were a blur like a plucked guitar string. They grew more and more indistinct until they faded out altogether. The note diminished into nothingness and the track in both directions was now nothing but a gravel path with wooden sleepers.
The rough ballast crawled and surged like a liquid, knocking the three men to their knees, though the Wizard, without any evident effort, remained standing. The sleepers shifted, some sinking out of sight; some migrating to either side. Many sprouted shoots and leaves. The stones that made the ballast crumbled into smaller and smaller gravel, and when all was still, the railway line had become a road of flattened earth, over shadowed by young oak and ash trees.
"What the flaming fuck?" demanded Malcolm in a breaking voice. His face was white with horror, and he was crouched on one knee, as if not trusting the ground to remain steady, as well he might not. Bob and Matthew looked scarcely better, but Bob could sense the subtle difference. Matthew and I are frightened because we know what to expect. He's frightened because he doesn't.
Bob couldn't explain the thought, anymore than he could explain how he and apparently Matthew had instinctively known what the stranger was. Was it some special sensitivity, or was it merely –and he was inclined to believe this might be more likely- the conductor's incredible lack of it?
Whatever the reason, the wretched man was now paying for his folly. He cowered before the stranger now, staring upward with wide, pleading eyes. Bob felt as if they all stood within a bubble or a fish-bowl: a circle of power what encapsulated them and cut them off from the real world they knew. He could hear the sheep, the birds, but as if the sounds were coming down a long pipe, distorted and tinny.
The Wizard spoke, directing his words at the unfortunate Malcolm like blows, and the man flinched as they struck. "Now you perceive where your petty rudeness has brought you to. You have abused what tiny authority was gifted to you. You failed to realise that respect is earned, never given. You have no more sensitivity within you than a hog at its swill. Baeth!" The staff hit the ground. It did not look like a massive impact, but the ground trembled as if the world had been hammered.
Malcolm flinched and gasped. "No!" he cried. His back arched as he crouched rigid on all fours, and his torso suddenly bulged massively. His uniform stretched taut, then spilt down the back to reveal coarse pink hide. "Help me!" the man screamed, but his voice was different. Rough and with squealing overtones, his outcries became rapidly less intelligible, until his utterances became those of a pig; no longer a man's voice but the sound a boar might make sensing the proximity of a butcher's knife. The conductor's face changed, nose upturning and thrusting out to become a snout. His hair receded into pale fuzz, while his ears became large pink flaps. His clothing fell from him in shreds, leaving him naked, but there was no longer any human modesty to preserve. A great fat boar cowered before them on four cloven trotters, grunting and squealing, short tail curled tight in fear.
The Wizard spoke a phrase that they did not catch, and the great pig vanished.
"Where did he go?" Matthew stammered.
Somewhat to Bob's surprise, the Wizard answered him. "To be with others of his ilk. There is a pig farm three leagues yonder. He is in his prime: I think the farmer will not use him for bacon yet awhile."
As he spoke, the fish-bowl feeling dissipated. The air began to move to earthly breezes, and the world to assume its normal proportions. The sunlight regained its colour and tentatively resumed its normal duties, like a cautious first-mate being watched by the captain.
Bob and Matthew looked about themselves, cautiously straightening. They watched the Wizard warily, who was straightening his large pack, lying on the ground at his feet. "What about us?" asked Matthew.
"Indeed. What about you?" the Wizard asked, and his voice was once again that gravely, under-used voice that sounded unaccustomed to use. "You have offended me. Your rail-way is a scar upon the naked earth. And yet I sense your intent to help; to convey others where they so wish. And yes, I do know that you do it to earn a living, but I think also you do it out of a genuine wish to please. That puts me in mind of something. Yes, I shall permit you to continue with your chosen vocation, if you are still willing to convey me to my destination?"
Before Matthew could reply, those penetrating eyes focused upon Bob. "And you are his companion? Will you stand by your friend, and help him in this pursuit?"
"Of course I will, but…" Bob began but broke off as the Wizard swept his cloak back and again brought his staff down upon the ground. There was little sound, but again that feeling of a distant, heavy impact, and the fish-bowl feeling returned. "Merlun," said the Wizard to Matthew, and then to Bob, "Punfach."
There was no pain, and very little sensation of actual change, and it was over very quickly, before either man could utter a protest. Clothes grew tight, but gave little resistance before bursting and tearing into drifting tatters. Bob found himself rising up on tip-toe, his upper body arching forward and his hands becoming broad hooves to meet the ground. His body expanded hugely, even as his limbs became long and stocky. Thick, black fur rapidly covered what had recently been clothed by denim and cotton. His neck lengthened as his face formed a long, equine muzzle, and he felt his ears craning into inquisitive points that flicked this way and that.
He whinnied and half-reared, turning his huge head to look back at an equally huge body. Massively muscled, feather-legged, with a long black coat that had an almost metallic sheen. His nostrils flared and he snorted.
Where Matthew had stood was a much smaller animal than himself, but stocky and robust looking: a Welsh mountain pony (Of course!), grey with wide, dark eyes that were showing quite a lot of white at the moment as the animal tossed its head nervously. It had a long white mane and a tail so full, it almost reached the ground.
So do I, Bob thought, surprised. He swished his tail, the movement as automatic as twitching an ear. Something was different about the way he was thinking, but it was subtle, and he couldn't identify it. He knew who he was, and knew who his friend was, and that everything felt funny and new. He knew he had a job to do.
"Harnessiau," murmured the Wizard and Bob shivered as lines of leather and rope encircled his body. He stood still though as the Wizard hefted his pack and secured it across the larger horse's broad back. Then the Wizard turned to the grey pony and said, "Cuffrooau. Ffrooan." Bob watched with wide eyes as saddle and bridle formed out of nothingness and secured themselves around Matthew's back and head.
Then with the ease of someone long-accustomed to horse-back, the Wizard mounted the pony. Obedient to a squeeze of leg, Matthew turned along the track. The Wizard glanced back at Bob and with a muttered, "Tenunnau," took hold of the still forming lead-rope before it wound its far end into a halter about the pack-horse's head.
"Arriva Trains Wales apologises for the cancellation of this morning's Heart of Wales service. This was due to equipment failure, damaged track, and horses on the line. An alternate service is being provided."