FOLLOW THE SUN By Marion Mente

C 2007 Marion Mente All rights reserved.
Original text C1976 Marion Mente.

No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the author

CONTENTS

The Quest Begins
The First Encounter
Forest Green Holds Much Unseen
Finders Keepers
Nomans land
Kindred Spirits – Intrigues and Mysteries
Turning point
All Change
Deeper Mysteries – In the labyrinth
Hopes Rekindled
Chapter 10 Capricorn – Marking Time
Expect the Unexpected
Sorrows and Joys

ZODIAC is an imaginary place in space, a mythical world with twelve separate regions, or realms, you could say thirteen if you counted No-Man’s Land, an area of swamp and desert plonked at the lowest point right in the middle of the land mass. The twelve regions have individual landscapes and climates, each symbolic of the qualities expressed by their mythical Sovereigns.

***

The Quest Begins.
Mars in Aries

Beginning in the east, the headland is the first realm of Zodiac. Its roaming terrain of heaths and glens is surrounded by formidable hills, hidden from all beyond.

A young Ram awoke spread-eagled on the grassy floor of a crater, sunk deep amid the hills that sat atop its rim like a jagged crown. Apart from a few scrapes and bruises he was uninjured, but a blow to his head had erased all memories except his name. He had tried scaling the walls of the crater to the east, north and south of its bowl but was not able to rise beyond the lower spurs, the rocky upper reaches had proved too treacherous even for his skill in securing tricky footholds. His only hope of escape was to conquer the peak that towered above the crater’s rim on the west side. This might be easier to assail since its incline was less sheer, but a ravine gaped between the middle ground and the peak’s ascent. He must leap this before gaining his chance of freedom.

Violent storms caused dense mists which continually engulfed the crater, obscuring his view of the rockface. Spying no ledge to catch him, the risk of plunging into an abyss had checked his reckless impulses. And it was his recklessness that had cast him into this sorry place, but he had forgotten that. He had forgotten that he’d wanted to leave the headland to explore the unknown, or that the headland realm existed. He’d forgotten its leafy, green glens with tumbling streams that sparkled in golden sunlight. Forgotten the vast, rolling heaths cloaked in purple heather and bright yellow broom, and how their merry blooms danced in the gusts of playful breezes. There were no drenching storms such as he knew now, nor damp, cloying fogs that seeped through his fleece and chilled his bones. As for the sun, its orb was masked by shadows which let only dismal hues illumine the space around him. Time floated by. He knew only the gloom that he longed to escape, that he was strong and wiry, and that his name was “Aries”

After an arduous climb to the middle ground, he had taken shelter in the lee of a crag below the ravine, biding time there, waiting to glimpse a secure ledge from which he could climb to what, he had no clue, only the absolute conviction that this was what he must do. Another dreary night descended. The feeble light of a crescent moon barely lifted the dark, casting ghostly shapes on the drifting mist, but he was snug in the hollow under the crag and slept soundly. Awake at first light, he briskly looked about hoping to sense a change in the air, but the day seemed less promising than those before. Patience was not his strong suit and when a loud clap of thunder hailed the onset of another drenching storm, the virtue deserted him entirely. Plunged further into desperation, he was seized with a ferocious anger, “I canna bear this wretched pit!” he hollered, and decided now was his moment to leap.

Action being his focus, he snatched a hurried bite of the iron rich grass sprouting around the crag, having no appetite for the food which had been his only diet. He was confident that a short, fast sprint would launch him over the ravine to the rocky face of the ascent – then come what may. Moving into position, he tunnelled all thoughts into his blind faith of landing safely, courageously dismissing any outcome but the goal he desired. Inhaling deeply, he sprang to run but at that instant a fierce wind whipped grit into his eyes. Blinded, he lost balance and slipped on loose shale, toppling to the crater floor. The storm blew hard against him “Thrash with all ya might!” he railed, “You canna keep me!” and with his vision clearing, he set the coil of his horns against the elements and started up the slope.

Lightening struck the hilltops with a vengeance as thunder clashed and the skies opened. The going had been tough and by the time he’d reached the crag he was exhausted. Panting for breath, he sat to gather strength for a second attempt, but no sooner had he settled when he was thrown to his feet.
For a moment he was dazed, terrified by what was happening. The hillside groaned and shook violently beneath him, then an ear-splitting crack rent the air followed by the crashing of falling rocks. He stood petrified as he witnessed the ground below being torn asunder in clouds of dust and rubble. Flames and smoke belched up from a deep fissure splitting the crater floor in two. The hills opposite were collapsing, sinking into the divide being forged between them. Filled with horror and panic he’d turned to make a dash for the ravine when a flying rock knocked him senseless…

When he came to all was still, silent. The wind had dropped and rain fell softly. Frightened by the earthquake, he raised himself and staggered forward, his head aching and sight blurred from the blow. Staring in disbelief at the broken ground, bewildered by the scene of devastation, he stumbled towards the ravine. To his joy, a pile of boulders had tumbled from the tip of the summit and were lodged in the crevasse. With mounting excitement he clambered over this makeshift bridge, but before tackling the peak, he turned to look again on what remained. Slowly lifting his gaze over the rubble that had once been the east wall of the crater, he caught a veiled glimpse of grey-green hues and the vague outline of hills in the distance, then rising smoke and dust masked his view and the vision disappeared. Something haunted him, a thought, a dream, a memory he couldn’t quite get hold of. Closing his eyes, he hesitated for the beat of a moment, then resolutely began to climb. In that moment Aries came to know the nature of his spirit; he was driven to push forward, to conquer all that challenged his endeavour and to never, ever turn back.

The mists fell away as he gained height, but not once did he glance behind him, and as he achieved his goal the rain abated. His spirit soared when he first looked up at the cloud streaked sky, awed by its trailing ribbons of crimson and gold, “I’VE MADE IT!” he cried. “I am FREE! For ever free…”

Forgetting the horror of just hours before he bounded across the narrow plateau, eager to see what lay ahead. So high he felt like a king as his gaze swept the meadows, streams and forests stretching out below, but the most breathtaking sight was of the sun setting on the distant horizon and the blaze of colour that crowned its descent. The evening glow traced hints of red in Aries’ curly black fleece, and as he stood triumphant a passion flared within him as fiery as the scarlet orb. He must reach that horizon. He must follow the sun.

Taking deep breaths of the cool clear air he could almost taste the sweet grasses in the meadow below. His mouth watered as his appetite returned and he was determined to reach the meadow’s edge before night closed in. This side of the hills was not as steep as the crater walls, and brimming with optimism, he quickly picked his way off the rocky summit onto soft, mossy mounds which tumbled gently in descent. The ground yielded with every stride as he blazed forward, head down to race the sinking sun.

Dusk had almost faded when he raised his sights to check his bearings. His heart lurched! Looming ahead was a sprawling hedge of briar protecting the meadow’s boundary. The spiked brambles formed a dense high wall which would have deterred any intruder, but not Aries, not now!

Once again reckless and eager to meet the challenge, he put an extra spurt in his pace and launched himself up and over the briar in a mighty leap. Tumbling into clover he kicked his heels and pranced in a circle, giddy with euphoria as he gorged on the luscious, sweet-scented grasses, so different from the coarse tufts in the crater. In his self-absorbed excitement, and the dwindling light, he was oblivious to the other presence, now furiously charging towards him…

*

The First Encounter
Venus in Taurus

Taurus was jolted awake by the dawn thunderclap that had spurred Aries to make his escape. He had been blissfully dozing under the spreading branches of his favourite oak. This stood in the heart of the meadowlands, below the hills which kept the headland from view.

Being so rudely awakened, he had made up his mind that such a bad start was portent of a bad day. To compound his view, this morning’s rendition of the Dawn Chorus had been less than spirited and his green, pastoral realm looked drab under the brooding skies. Loath to rise off his warm patch, he remained under the shelter of the oak, resolved to stay put until at least lunchtime.

The storm gathered fury, bowing and tossing the staunchest of trees in its wake. He winced to hear the splintering of twigs as branches thrashed above him, and being of a practical nature, began to estimate the number of nests that might be abandoned or destroyed. His calculations filled him with unutterable gloom. He deeply grieved any damage to his trees for Taurus held a strong affection for the natural beauty of his realm. He cherished the land around him and was a possessive protector of his terrain. His loving ownership was such that he looked upon every blade of grass, every petal on every flower, every leaf on every tree as his very own, very personal property. This was his domain.

His agitation was increased because only yesterday he had held the final rehearsals of his new choral arrangement for the Dawn Chorus. Deserted nests meant he would now have to make alterations to the score and adapt his own accompaniment. Moreover, the birds had been less tuneful lately; dropping notes, singing in the wrong order, falling into petty squabbles about positions in the choir, all in all reducing what was usually a creative achievement into an irksome task. If all this disruption were not enough to incur his displeasure, the elements played further havoc with his placid temperament when a deluge of rain now ruined his plans for lunch! Taurus enjoyed his food and rarely lacked appetite. Indeed his penchant for rich tastes often lead to over indulgence with occasional indigestion.

A creature of habit, it was his custom to visit the pasture at midday to enjoy a leisurely lunch in the company of Taureanne, his true companion. He felt at one with her gentle yet no-nonsense nature, so in keeping with his own. Always reluctant to part, their lunch was invariably followed with a stroll by the stream that meandered gently through his orchards and meadowlands. The sound of rippling water never failed to inspire a song as they ambled in concert, his soaring tenor complimented by her dusky contralto. However, the fierce storm had cooled his ardour and he now resolved not to budge one inch until the day had improved. He was at his most stubborn when disgruntled.

He was not alarmed as bolts of light struck the hilltops, he felt secure in his domain. The hills gave protection against the worst of the elements and the veins of light always earthed on their rocky tops or amid the taller trees in the neighbouring forests of the Gemini. The serene vales of Taurus were not usually disturbed by the more dynamic forces of nature. 
Made miserable by the inclement weather, he turned his thoughts to music to cheer himself and began to hum his favourite aria. Its melody captured the sensual climes of warm sunny days lazing by his stream, swaying to the rhythm of the birds and bees, caressed by a languorous breeze. Recalling such pleasurable pastimes, he opened his throat and let the chords flow….

CRAAACK! BOOM!! CRAAASH!!! His reverie was shattered. The ground creaked and moaned, then trembled under him as the roar of clashing and crashing sounded from the direction of the hills. Shocked to his feet, he glared at the towering boundary of his lands. Spellbound, he watched as plumes of smoke billowed up from behind their rocky tops, then witnessed the very tip of the tallest, ‘Great Tor’ as it was known, crumble and disappear from view. Every sinew in his body was taught. Though strong and sturdy, Taurus disliked the unexpected and avoided the unknown. “Oh precious Oak, let my senses deceive me,” he gasped, wanting this horror to be a bad dream, to doubt what he had felt and seen. Until this instant he had borne a profound faith in the fixed nature of the earth; no matter what changes to the air the elements might conjure, the ground itself was solid and constant. But what he had now witnessed threatened all he held dear.

He stood staring at the hills for a long while, his senses keen, listening for sounds of further disaster and deliberating the consequences: would the hills disintegrate completely? And worse, was there an army of marauders preparing to charge his boundaries, to lay his meadows bare? Brooding over such dismal thoughts, he hastened to check on his beloved Taureanne. Ushering her to a safer pasture beyond his orchards, he ate a hurried lunch before returning to the meadow with the beginnings of indigestion. Resuming his post under the oak, he decided to sit tight and wait for signs of further danger. Taurus now realised with great certainty that whilst his was a passive spirit, he would, at all costs, protect and defend that which he deemed his own.

The rains continued though nothing more seemed to stir. He pondered the rumours he had heard via the bird songs. These had vaguely told of a creature, or creatures – he couldn’t be sure – living behind the hills where the landscape was rugged with bracing air and choppy breezes. It all sounded rather bleak to comfort loving Taurus, nor did he desire the acquaintance of those endowed with the nature of such a place, they were bound to be challenging!
However, he had been sceptical of these rumours since the birds seldom told anything first-hand, and their reports were invariably tailored to suit their own tune, with tidbits of local gossip here, snippets of general news there. Being the messengers across the realms, the birds believed that the gists of their various reports would be understood by those to whom it was relevant, and ignored by those to whom it was not. Hitherto, Taurus had been content to mainly enjoy the melodies, ignoring irrelevant or obscure lyrics.

As was his way, he doubted there were inhabitants behind the hills because he’d never had tangible proof of their existence, and before accepting anything as a certainty, Taurus had to see it, hear it, smell it, taste it or touch it! Nevertheless, despite his scepticism, being cautious by nature he’d kept his boundaries up to scratch. In view of today’s traumatic events he felt his diligence was justified and made his way to the briar to double check its defences. By the time he had finished his inspections the rain had stopped and the evening sunlight cast a rainbow onto the dark clouds behind the damaged hills. At other times he would have composed a song to this splendour of nature, but not today. He was far too fussed and fed-up to give a second glance. Reassured that his hedge was intact, he returned to his spot under the boughs of his cherished oak to keep a vigil throughout the coming night. Being of a leisurely nature and peace loving temperament, he dearly hoped there would be no invaders. Stubborn he may be for once a decision was made it was made and not unmade, but fighting was not his thing. In the fading light he dozed a little, failing to notice the dark figure swiftly descending the hills above his meadowlands.

Already annoyed because of the unexpected occurrences, the Bull’s sour mood inflamed to rage when first he heard, then actually saw a stranger leaping about on his territory, munching avidly on his grass. How many more would follow? His worst nightmare was coming true! Usually slow to anger, at this moment Taurus was taunted beyond endurance. Lowering his horns he focused on the intruder. Hunching his broad shoulders he took a deep breath and charged. The desire to toss his quarry back over the briar was absolute.

When Aries became aware of pounding thuds stampeding his way Taurus was all but upon him. With lightening responses he sprang aside, letting the intrepid Bull pass like a rolling boulder. Taurus skidded to a halt and wheeled around, his blood boiling at missing his target. Barely pausing for breath he prepared to charge again, but to his astonishment the Ram’s horns were just a heartbeat away from his face!
“BUTT OFF FATTY!” countered the Ram, pushing against the nose of his assailant. Unlike Taurus, Aries was roused to anger in a flash, especially in defence. Nor was he one to be intimidated no matter how big or powerful his aggressor. Fighting was definitely his thing!
“FATTY***?!” Taurus visibly steamed – words failed him and a red mist of anger flared before his eyes. He pushed the Ram back then swung a sideways jab.
“OUT!” he bellowed as his fearsome horns sliced the air. Aries swiftly jumped clear, butted the Bull’s hindquarters then stood defiantly awaiting the next move. Taurus advanced again, and again, furiously jabbing at his quarry but each time the Ram dodged aside, skimmed the Bull’s flanks and taunted him with rude remarks. He was revelling in the clash, a chance to show his mettle “Butt off! You canna win – I’m too fast ‘n’ you’re too fat.” Followed with, “Been stuffin’ yourself you have!” And worse, “Greedy is what you are!”

For the second time today Taurus felt at a loss. First those dreadful earth tremors and now this insulting, challenging upstart. He was loathing this altercation but in no way would he be moved, the ground would have to swallow him first!
He blinked hard, trying to clear his vision of the red mist. First, he must calm himself, then he would skewer this intruder and thrust him through the thorniest brambles back to where he had come from. Summoning his self-control he curbed the urge to bellow – which would alarm Taureanne – and spoke in a low voice, heavy with the threat of his wrath, “This is MY realm. MINE! You will not take what is MINE! …OUT!” He advanced on the Ram again. Aries stumbled as he stepped away, barely managing to avoid this assault.
“I dunna want your – burrp – smelly watchacallit’!” He had eaten too quickly, the grasses were repeating on him and after the traumatic events of the day, he was beginning to feel drained.
‘SMEL..!? .. Just leave. NOW!’ Taurus began pounding the ground he had gained.
Undeterred, the Ram drew himself up to his fullest height, and with arresting self-importance declared “I Am Following the Sun!”
“Following the… Are you potty!?” Taurus was dumbfounded. Whatever excuse he’d expected, this wasn’t it!
“Potty? I am Aries. Survivor of Earthquakes and a free Ram. I leave at Sunrise!”
“EARTHQUAKES?!” Taurus glowered at him. The red mist subsided. His outrage at the invader’s arrogance was diminished by this dreadful proclamation. 
Aries felt shifty under the penetrating gaze and was prompted to explain himself further.
“I was trapped behind the hills. You shudda seen it! Ground groaning and splitting, ripping apart!” he gauged an angry rut through the grass. “Smoke and flames blasting up from deep pits! Hillsides collapsing!” he resisted the temptation to turn around and look back “Rocks and boulders flying through air – cracked me on the head. Knocked senseless. It’s dangerous back there but I survived and climbed to freedom.”

His vivid report was having a profound effect. Taurus knew it had to be true. He’d felt the tremors! Seen the smoke! Heard the crashing! At length he spoke but had difficulty forming the words to ask the unthinkable, “Are you saying… ahem… Are you telling me that… well, what I mean is… am I to understand that your realm has been .. completely destroyed!?” Comprehending such a catastrophe turned his anger to ashes. He shuddered. Will this happen to him? Will there be more earthquakes? Lifting his gaze to the orchards. “Homeless!” he gasped. He tried to order his thoughts. He must get practical and form a plan to safeguard all he…
“Realm?” broke in Aries, “I’ve told you, there is no realm, or whatever you call it! Just rubble and smoke and…” his voice trailed off as he called to mind the veiled glimpse of hills beyond the collapsed walls of the crater, but perhaps he’d imagined the vision, had been seeing double after that bang on the head. Whatever! He didn’t care to think about that now, or to explain himself further. It was pointless. He had left that crater never to return. He was moving on and was bored with this inquisition.
“I’m tired,” he yawned. “Must be away at first light. Places to see, far to go.”
Taurus slowly shook his head. Though relieved to hear it was Aries’ intention to move on, he now felt sorry for this fellow. Surely it would be more sensible to salvage something from the ruins, to rebuild rather than traipse the land exploring? He decided Aries was definitely potty! “I think that blow to the head has affected your judgement,” he said sympathetically. “Where are the others of your realm?” Still on his guard he listened for sounds of further company, but there were none.
Aries’ temper rose again. He really disliked these useless questions. “There’s only Me!’ he barked. “Go see for yourself. I need sleep.” and turning abruptly on his heel he started towards the oak. “I’ll bed down here”
It hadn’t occurred to him that he was trespassing. As far as Aries was concerned this confrontation was entirely the fault of the other fellow!
“Hold up!” boomed Taurus, starting after him. He might be prepared to give this hay-brain shelter for the night but not in his spot. “Did your manners go up in smoke too?” 
Aries stopped in his tracks, braced to fight again, but Taurus had a kindly expression as he drew alongside “It seems we are, or rather, have been neighbours. The towers of Great Tor stood between us” They both glanced up at the broken hilltop, its misshapen silhouette looked eerie under the rising moon.
“Great Tor…” repeated Aries, absently. The name struck a chord, but he couldn’t think why… uncomfortable feelings stirred again, as they had done with his vision after the earthquake. Why had he looked back, he questioned himself, it wasn’t worth it!
Taurus sighed heavily, dispelling the moment. “Let’s start again. You, I gather, are Aries. I am Taurus, and you are in My domain.”
Aries gave a brusque nod, acknowledging the claim, not that he cared too much about ownership, he just wanted rest. But he did ask if there were many more ‘domains’ before reaching the forests he had see from the hilltop. He was told that all the land between the hills and the edge of the forests belonged to Taurus, who went on to further describe his pastures, his grain and vegetable fields, and his orchards, and about the variety of foodstuffs and his particular favourites, indeed about all the beauty of the earth’s bounty that flourished and fruited in his realm.
Aries liked the sound of the Bull’s voice, thought it rich and melodious with a leisurely, soothing tone – now he was being friendly. “There is so much here, so much more than where I have been. It’s good to be free”
“Good to be Free ?… hmm…” Taurus was a little perplexed by Aries attitude. By all accounts he had just lost everything! Had nothing! And was on some absurd mission about goodness know what, to goodness knows where! What could possibly be Good about that!? He blinked at the moon and at the bright evening star, his constant companions in the night sky. “It’s good that you are safe and well” he continued, “And now we are both clear about who and where we are, in the circumstances, considering your dreadful loss, I suppose it’s only reasonable to offer my hospitality. After today’s disasters we can both use a good night’s sleep. But not here! Follow me, please.” He smiled, emphasising the courtesy, and feeling once more in control, duly lead them across the meadow to shelter in a small copse beyond the oak.
As they walked Aries also began to relax, enjoying the lush surroundings.
“You are not really fat,” he proffered by way of an apology for his earlier remarks.
“No” agreed Taurus amicably. “But you are really rude!”
“But…”
“No butts, thankyou.” and they both laughed at the pun.
The day had improved.

The sweet fragrance of night-scented stocks filled Aries’ senses. Contentment flowed through him, a sensation little known to his restless nature, and he was glad to be ending his first day of freedom in such agreeable comfort. Taurus settled himself nearby, gazing dreamily at the waxing moon, happy that the night was still and peaceful, as it should be. He felt comfortable again, able to sort his thoughts concerning the day’s events, hoping that earthquakes, like this strange neighbour, only came in ones. Gently wrapping his tongue around a tuft of meadowsweet, he chewed lazily, reflecting on what little Aries had explained about himself. “Wants to explore,” he mused. “There is no better grazing than here,” he said aloud, but his guest was sound asleep.

The night passed uneventfully. The promise of sunshine put them both in good humour over breakfast and Aries was persuaded to stay a while. On spotting the unusual visitor a number of birds flew in close and set down, curious to hear all. Aries was fascinated, he remembered no birds in the crater. “They’re so pretty and chatty!” he laughed, playfully chasing all in his path. “I wish I had wings.”
“Hmph! They’re also a bit gossipy!” grinned Taurus as he watched Aries darting to and fro, the birds playfully flitting away and teasing him “Be careful what you say and do!”

The land was fresh and green with bursts of colour from swathes of yellow daffodils, blue and white daises and blossoming fruit trees. Taurus introduced him to many new tastes, smells and sounds, but not his companion, not yet. He didn’t want her upset by Aries’ vivid account of the earthquake. He would tell her a little of what he had learned over lunch, then perhaps invite the newcomer to join them on another day, provided all remained well.

New sights and sensations fuelled Aries’ ambition to explore and he asked what lands lay beyond the forest. Taurus told him there were a number of realms beyond, to the west, but that he didn’t know a great deal about them since he’d never had any urge to venture.
“All I need is right here,” he said, “One’s realm is where one’s heart is” In fact nothing could entice him to follow the sun as Aries was bent on doing. “It’s all very well springing headlong into places, like yourself, but I feel it’s essential to put down roots, to establish where you belong and what belongs to you,” he remarked advisedly, hoping this tearaway might take note. Aries didn’t share this sense of belonging. He wanted to see more of the world before deciding on his place in it, so they agreed to disagree in the matter. However, Taurus felt it was worth prompting him to brush up on his manners.
“I recommend you make your approaches in a friendly fashion before you start helping yourself to folks’ grazing.” Aries grinned and said he would consider the point. Taurus went on to tell about his immediate neighbours, the Gemini, “They take care of the forests and lead very busy lives by all accounts. I hear their music through the birdsong, as they will hear mine. Otherwise they are quite different from me.”
“Different, how?”
“Hmmn, well…, they live at the top of trees a lot of the time. Not my thing,” he replied dryly. “But they don’t bother me and I don’t bother them. Each to his own I say. It’s the best way.” He heaved a sigh then continued, “However, that being said, in view of this awful disaster, and your plans to explore, it would be useful if you made some investigations on your travels. Ask if anything strange has happened or is happening in the other realms – apart from you turning up that is!” he gave a short, friendly laugh. “But seriously, something is definitely wrong somewhere.” he sighed again. “I’d sensed it in the birdsong long before you arrived. Something has been creating discord for a while and I’d like to know more. The Gemini might have an answer.”
“I’m a great investigator! I’ll head for the forest now,” enthused Aries, turning to run.
“Reeelax,” drawled Taurus. “What’s the rush? Take it easy and leave tomorrow. Tonight I’ll throw a small party, we should celebrate your visit. And I’ll invite the choir.” Taurus always welcomed occasions to share fine foods and good music.
“But I’ll lose a day’s travelling,” complained the Ram, he wanted to be off immediately.
Patient Taurus persuaded him that it was good to be leisurely and tempted him to linger with promises of more new flavours to be savoured, not to mention the delightful company, “Besides, it is practical common sense to make fresh starts first thing in the morning, not halfway through the day.” He felt that Aries’ way of barging about his business was quite unnecessary and likely to cause indigestion.

The light of a full moon spilled over the meadow and Aries looked wide-eyed at the banquet before him. Taurus had a store of exotic provisions gathered from all parts of his realm and tonight he had pulled out his stocks. Taureanne, always gracious and warm, welcomed Aries, introducing him to the flavours of honey and cream. As they indulged in the sumptuous dishes, Taurus was eager to share the potent meads he had distilled from the grains and fruits of his realm. Eating and drinking freely, Aries soon became intoxicated, and being in such congenial company, danced with merry abandon to the stirring, sensual music that Taurus composed for Taureanne. Though enjoying the revelries himself, the Bull kept a close eye on the antics of his frisky friend. Albeit a generous host, he didn’t want this ‘adventurer’ to get too close to his nearest and dearest with his alarming reports of destruction, and madcap ideas of exploring.

Taurus awoke a little later than usual. Bleary-eyed he looked about but seeing no sign of his newfound friend, he set off in search. Aries had been up since sunrise, eager to get to the forests. By the time Taurus had reached the far side of the meadowlands he could only glimpse the Ram running in the distance. “Following the sun!” he grumbled, squinting at the disappearing image “Potty! He’ll burn himself out.” He was feeling disappointed that Aries had left as suddenly as he had appeared, and without the manners to at least say ‘thank you and good-bye’ in a proper fashion. “RUDE!” he complained aloud, sinking into a bed of forget-me-nots, humming a plaintive air. He mulled over the recent unsettling events and Aries’ preposterous quest. “I wonder how the Gemini will take to him?” He surmised that his talkative neighbours were bound to bring more to light from Aries concerning his realm and its terrible fate. Also, given the greater number of birds in their community, there was hope they knew more about the birds’ tuneless goings on, perhaps even the cause. In this matter he mildly chastised himself for not taking the trouble to speak with the Gemini sooner, but then “Everything in its own time” he sighed, forgiving himself for the lapse. “Let’s hope the investigator sends a sensible report.” As he settled, he considered the effect Aries’ had on him, and smiled. “He bounded in on a storm, won my heart, then off and away free as the breeze. I will compose music to capture this theme.” He began putting a few notes together, excited by the challenge of such an arousing composition.

During his contemplations a hush fell over the meadow. He pricked his ears to the unnatural silence and sat very still, anticipating more earth tremors. Then he saw her. The Eagle circled low overhead before swooping westwards. The meadow breathed again as she soared away, but Taurus remained uneasy. Sight of the Eagle, rare though it was, unnerved him.

She came from Scorpio’s realm in the territories beyond, and would perch on top of Great Tor, scrutinizing the landscape in all directions before heading off as swiftly and silently as she had arrived. He would always feel the intensity of her gaze and it raised a sense of excitement and danger in him that he found disturbing. But today she did not tarry on Great Tor. She had flown only around his domain, and with great urgency.

He now felt his apprehensions of change more keenly, anxious about what news would arise from Aries’ visit with the Gemini. “But come what may, I will not be upping sticks to explore. I will take stock and rebuild.” His vow was adamant. Feeling better for making firm resolutions he relaxed a little, the sun warming his back. A bee buzzed lazily past his ear, and the sound of soft lowing beckoned from the pasture. His thoughts drifted to hazy days by the stream, and memories of a summer breeze. “Ummmm…” he sighed in deep contentment, “May pleasures remain constant” and surrendered to dreaming again.

*

Aries had been resting in the shade of a hawthorn when the Eagle had passed overhead. For the present, at least, they were unaware of each other.
At first his over indulgences at the party had slowed his pace, but as he traversed the land he became aware that the nature of Taurus’ realm was also affecting him. He’d become content to stroll rather than run over the rolling countryside, occasionally lingering to admire the pretty patchwork of fields, or to inspect a flower-filled hedgerow, even once taking a paddle in the clear running waters of the stream. He had gained a deeper appreciation of his senses in this realm, but although enjoying these sensual pleasures, the leisurely lifestyle could not tempt him to remain. At heart he needed action, and to explore the unknown.
However, he was faced with more than a little frustration when eventually he reached the boundary on the far side of the realm and tried to exit the Bull’s domain. Here there was no rise in the terrain to give him sufficient lift to leap its height, as there had been on Great Tor. Rashly, he tried to ram his way through the briar but suffered sharp barbs and scratches for his attempts; ramming proved painful and pointless. 

Sitting to ponder the problem, his gaze scanned the obstacle before him. Eventually he spied a chink in its defences. Low to the ground was a small opening where the brambles grew less dense, as though they had once been parted. With what little patience he had now grown able to muster, he carefully inched his way through this opening on his belly, and reasonably unscathed, emerged on the outskirts of the forest.

***

Forest Green Holds Much Unseen

Mercury in Gemini

Curiosity was foremost as Aries entered the woodlands. Spring was turning to summer. The morning sun glowed bright and warm and he was glad of the dappled shade provided by the trees. Birds chirrupped in busy movement overhead while small creatures scurried through the undergrowth. The forest was teeming with life and activity. He felt lighthearted and bouyant in this environment which suited his energetic temperament. “This is more like it!” he smiled, congratulating himself on his arrival.

Making his approaches in a friendly fashion, he called “Hello” hoping the Gemini would appear to greet him. Taurus had said they lived at the top of trees and he wondered if they looked like birds. As if in answer to his calls, two bright yellow butterflies darted into view. He was fascinated by the patterns on their wings as they flirted with him, brushing his nose, leading him deeper into the woods along a winding path. The brightly coloured shrubs which flowered on either side of the path were growing in identical pairs, one border a mirror of the other. This repeating arrangement soon became confusing, and he began to think that the butterflies were leading him in circles as they drew him on, flitting through the blooms, enticing him away from the path, and then back on to it, and then away again, when suddenly they disappeared from view completely, leaving him alone.

Feeling disconcerted he looked all about and found himself in a different scene. Gone were the flowering shrubs in leafy shade, he now stood among columns of tall trees with high, spined branches. Shafts of light pierced the dark green canopy casting pools of sunshine onto trails of ivy creeping through the shadows on the forest floor and entwining itself around the tree trunks. Absently he wandered forward, looking up through the branches, calling out for the Gemini.

Tripping over the branch of a fallen Pine tree, he landed in a bed of nettles sprouting between its limbs. His yelps echoed through the woods as he rolled on the ground, twisting and turning, trying to quell the itching pain of the stings. Peals of laughter rang over his head amid sing-song taunts, “Oooh. Lost his way. Lost his way. Chasing Flutterbyes went astray. Tsk Tsk!”
Peering up through the branches of the surrounding trees, he was cross that his discomfort was cause for amusement. “Is that the Gemini?” he cried.
“OUCH!” A pine cone thwacked him sharply on the rump. He spun around. Ping! Poing! two more bounced off his nose and horns. Again, shrieks of laughter but still no-one to be seen.
His ever-ready temper flared.
“Afraid to show yourself?” he scorned. “Come down and fight in the open. D’you hear. C’mon, I’ll show you!” He was fuming. So much for friendly approaches!
“Oooh! Fight, fight, fight. Fight yourself, feisty,” came more taunting barbs.
Furious, he charged the nearest tree butting it so hard he released a shower of cones on himself.
Dazed by the impact he slumped against the trunk to recover, cursing his elusive antagonist.
“Oh hark at you, what a fuming fuss,” called a light, cheery voice.
“We were only teasing,” followed similar tones from the opposite direction.
Again he peered up through the branches, surprised as two agile imps tumbled in skilful somersaults to the ground.
“Sorry. Sorry. So sorry! We really didn’t intend to upset you.” And putting their sling shots down, they cartwheeled around him, leapfrogged over his horns and went on to further entertain him with their acrobatics. “Very different from Taurus!” he grinned, taking in their fine, birdlike features, twinkling eyes and nimble frames.
The Imps looked very dapper in their tunics of forest green with matching caps, all smartly trimmed in a barley sugar piping of various hues.
They mimicked his chase of the butterflies, his fall into the nettles and subsequent yelping and writhing. In spite of his burgeoning headache he managed to laugh at their comical impressions of himself.
“Hi. I’m Gem,” said one, at last.
“And I’m Ini,” followed the other, slightly breathless.
“But together we’re the Gemini,” they sang in unison, bowing to pick handfuls of dock leaves.
“These will help to stop the itching,” said Gem.
“Just rub them on the stings, like this,” demonstrated Ini, who went on to add how important it was to recognise the different herbs and medicinal plants growing in the forest, and that Aries should learn to do so quickly, especially if he was prone to accidents!

The Gemini were mercurial by nature and compared to leisurely Taurus, their speech and movements were like quicksilver. They asked about him, saying that the birds had reported his being with their neighbour, relaying tidbits of his conversations with Taurus, but they wanted to hear his account of himself. Was he some kind of messenger?

Aries felt very honoured to be regarded as a messenger – this gave him two quests: following the sun, and bringing a message about where he had been. No, three, because Taurus had asked him to investigate the cause of tuneless birds. Instead of wasting in that dismal crater he now had three important goals to accomplish. His future was improving by leaps and bounds! 
Puffing out his chest “I am an Explorer and Adventurer, a Survivor of Earthquakes and an Investigator!” he expounded, but as he began telling them about the earthquake the Twins interrupted him with questions about Taurus: “How did the storm effect Taurus? Was there a lot of damage in his realm? What was his reaction to suddenly meeting Aries? Did he say anything about messages not getting through?”
“I thought you wanted to know about Me!” he stropped.
“Ooh, self, self, self,” came their flippant response. “Of course we want to know about you, we are extremely interested in You, but Taurus is our immediate neighbour and since we have had hardly any news lately, we are anxious to hear your first-hand report.”
This placated his ego a little and he learned that Taurus was always guarded when talking about himself and his business, saying as little as possible which, in turn, meant the birds often had little or nothing to relay. The Gemini, on the other hand, were more than happy to chatter about their daily goings on, discussing the news they’d hear in the bird messages, and from other creatures (their friends) in the forest. Putting their enquiries aside for the moment, they gave a brief account of a typical day in their domain.

The Gemini were lively and amusing. He warmed to them and was agreeably challenged keeping pace with their conversation since Gem, whose cap was set at a jaunty angle, would begin a sentence and Ini, whose cap was on quite straight, would finish it. And both would fidget, first sit then stand, and jump from one subject to another, telling him little bits about lots of things, expecting him to keep up with their narrative then gently tutting when he lost their drift and seemed confused, tsk, tsk!
“But I don’t understand all your words, and you say them so quickly” he said in mild complaint.
“We like to talk. We love words, indeed we invent many because there is always something new to discover and name in the forests,” answered Gem, brushing a leaf off Ini’s cap, knocking it askew.
“And words are very powerful” followed Ini, straightening the angle of Gem’s cap. “There is a word for everything and you must use the right word for things or else muddles happen, or worse, disasters!”
He said he agreed and keen to return to the subject of himself admitted, “I enjoy talking. I want to know lots of words.”
“Then it’s a good thing you came by. You will hear volumes here – and we are very good teachers!” assured Gem.
“But be warned, there are words that mean the same thing but which sound quite different, and some that sound the same but mean quite different things, like ‘tiers’ and ‘tears’ – the first tend to rise, the second tend to fall” advised Ini, twinkling an eye at Gem, “Things can end either way!”

Aries wondered if he was being teased again, but rather than challenge, he decided to employ a little of the forbearance of Taurus and turned his mind to telling his tale, though his headache was getting worse. Why did he always have headaches! He held their undivided attention when describing the bleakness of the crater, the fury of the storm and the destruction of the earthquake. They praised his endurance and the bravery of his triumphant climb, and applauded the amusing, animated account of his first encounter with Taurus. But when hearing about his quest to follow the sun they began whispering between themselves in speech he couldn’t understand.
“What are you saying?” He felt suddenly excluded, concerned they would disappear as the butterflies had done.
“No need to worry” explained Gem. “It’s our ‘short-cut’ way of exchanging thoughts quickly. We were just saying what a splendid idea it is to follow the sun. We’re impressed that you want to do it.”
“And we’ve often wondered where it goes to before it comes back. Do be sure to let us know when you find out,” said Ini.
He asked why they hadn’t found out for themselves.
“Tsk, tsk! As we explained earlier, we are far too busy in our day-to-day business to consider such an undertaking,” they replied smartly. “We are constantly travelling around our domain to see that everything is flourishing. No sooner is our work done in one place than something needs attention in the next. And so it goes on,” said Gem.
“A continual round robin,” concluded Ini. “We simply don’t have the time!”
“But there is always time for music!” they laughed happily, and swiftly producing a whistle and a drum, began to play a lively tune.
He came to see that the Gemini were dexterous and inventive, devising all sorts of instruments from twigs and bark and vines, indeed from anything they could find. Their wit was quick and humorous, and as the conversation swung back and forth they composed the talk into rhyming verse and song. They were surprised to learn that he was happy to travel alone because they hated the idea of solitude. “We are a community here,” they informed him. “We travel mostly to visit our friends in the course of our daily business.” Aries said that he’d had no friends before the earthquake, that the storm and had been good for him because he hasn’t been lonely since. “I should mention,” he stated importantly, “that Taurus wants me to investigate why the birds are tuneless. Do you know anything about it?”
“We most certainly do! We also have a story to tell about that fierce storm,” said Gem, suddenly quite serious. “Are you’re sitting comfortably? … then I’ll begin”

“That storm was good for us too. It rid our forest of an imposter, a wicked Shrike who’d gained a strange power over the birds. We don’t know where it flew in from, but have since learned that the birds believed it was a special messenger, the keeper of an important secret. According to the rumours, it had come from a realm of its own where the air is sweet and the berries growing there enhanced the singing of all who ate them, though it had the most dreadful lisp itself and couldn’t sing a note in tune. There is no doubt that it was responsible for the birds being tuneless!” Gem broke off, clearly very disgruntled at thoughts of the loathsome Shrike.

“That’s absolutely true!” added Ini, raring to take up the tale. “It was a devious liar bird. It was ages before we realized the dreadful influence it was having and the extent of the damage it had caused. It made mischief with the birds’ messages; ruining the tunes, mixing up the words, always spoiling good news with bad, creating fear and suspicion. It made false accusations, dividing the bird communities and inciting them to quarrel, all of which resulted in huge disruptions in communications across the realms. Many absconded or were outcast from their flocks. It promised them richly feathered nests if they followed when it returned to its so-called ‘wing realm’ But it never told when that might be, or gave any clue where this place was. Gem and I doubted its preposterous claims, all lies used to impress and gain control over those silly creatures who believed its false promises – a gross abuse of words!
Anyway, despite their misguided loyalties to the Shrike, distrust grew among the ranks of its followers. As you might expect, being under its influence they soon began lying about each other and lost their true voices, became unable to sing at all! But worse, none in the forest dared speak against that bully for fear of reprisals, which is why it took so long to discover the culprit. Some among the forest communities were made so afraid and despondent that they perished. It was just awful! It had to be stopped!” Ini paused for breath, “But with all the secrecy around it we couldn’t catch the villain, so we sent word to the Collective. Then lo and behold, just when its hiding place had been detected, lightning struck the tree and felled it.” Ini pointed to the fallen Pine where Aries had tripped earlier. “We found its burned out nest along with some charred and broken wing feathers, all other remains were consumed by the flames. The storm had put an end to that horrid creature.”
“It’s in its own ‘perish-wing realm now,” quipped Aries, glad to get a word in and amusing the Twins with his twist on the name. They agreed he would be a fast learner.
“Taurus must be told about this liar bird. He will see that I’m a very successful investigator. But I can’t turn back to tell him”
“Oh don’t worry about that. We will personally take the news to Taurus” offered Gem “Yes, it’s been too long since we paid him a visit” agreed Ini “We really must make the time!”

*

Unseen by the trio, the Shrike had been eavesdropping on their conversations from its hiding place beneath the charred trunk of the Pine. It was glad to be thought of as ‘perished’ for the time being, it could prove useful to its deceitful purposes.

When lightning had struck and split the tree that had housed its lair, its nest had toppled in flames, strewing the contents over the forest floor. Amongst the Shrike’s ill-gotten treasures was a Black Pearl. Tossed a little distance from the burning nest, and the falling Shrike, the Pearl had slipped beneath the carpet of ivy and fortuitously rolled into the nest of a mouse. Thankfully, the mouse had been foraging with friends in another part of the forest at that time. After the storm, she had made her way home, taking time to call in on neighbours, comforting those who’d been hurt in the disaster. Surprised to find her own nest still intact under the fallen outer limbs, she was overjoyed to also find the gem. She thought it was a gift of the storm! Sensing it was much more than a rare, polished pebble resembling a small, precious egg, she duly took it to the Twins to place in their care, “It’s such a prize, it should be yours. Please accept it as a ‘thank you’ gift on everyone’s part for all your kind help and tending, especially after the storm” she told them, then happily returned to her nest, unaware of the Shrike lying injured and hidden in a niche under the trunk, a little distance away.

The Gemini surmised that the Pearl had belonged to their other neighbour, Cancer, because she collected such items. They suspected it might have been stolen by the Shrike but didn’t know for certain since the mouse seemed equally clueless about how and when it came to be in her nest, and storms often brought lost or hidden things to light. They were grateful to her for bringing the find to them and were keeping it safe until such time as they could return it. (Their earlier whisperings had been about forming a plan to now return the gem to Cancer as a surprise, and how this unexpected visitor and his curious quest could assist in that endeavour….)

The Shrike was unaware of the mouse’s transaction with the Twins since it was badly injured and barely conscious at that time. With injuries now healing, it schemed to regain power over the birds and continue to cause mischief with their messages. But first it must find its precious secret. The unexpected appearance of Aries on the scene troubled it. It sensed further complications to its plans.
“What ith he about with hith fanthy idea of following the Thun!?” it scowled. “And what were the flighty impth babbling about?” Try as it may, it couldn’t decipher the language the Twins spoke between themselves. No matter, it guessed something tricky was afoot. It hated the twins, was jealous of their cleverness, but had found the perfect refuge in their forest from where it had set up its base to cause as much trouble on Zodiac as it was able. It had almost succeeded until they had found its lair, but they had needed the help of the collective to do that. It would have its revenge on them all, and soon.
“I mutht get more informathion about that wunaway Wam!” It could pick up bits of news regarding Aries and his business on the forest grapevine, but was reluctant to leave its hiding place before finding the Black Pearl. For the time being it must remain undetected and rely on whatever bits of gossip fell to it ears while it scoured the undergrowth, interrogating and terrifying any creatures nearby. “It hath to be ’ere, ith gotta be ’ere. Thomebody knowth thomething! Oi you, thlimey, c’m’ere.” But the frightened toad swiftly jumped clear of the spiteful beak.

*
As the day drew on the Gemini demonstrated their natural versatility in language, impressing Aries with the different tongues they spoke when communicating with their woodland friends. He noted that keeping abreast of the news, and the gossip, accounted for most of the time spent on their ‘round robins.’ He noticed too that the trim on their tunics and caps changed colour, subtly adapting to, and reflecting the predominant hues of their surroundings. He wondered if the same might happen to him in this realm “Will my fleece change colour too?” His enquiry tickled their impish humour “Oh Yes! To a really bright Puce” warned Gem in a solemn voice. “But only when you’re cross!” concurred Ini.  
‘PUCE!?’ He recoiled at the thought, They could not be serious, could they!?

They lead him through the pines to a sunny clearing, their favourite place in this part of the forest. Wearily he sat in the shade, complaining loudly about his throbbing headache.
“Tsk Tsk. Stop bleating! What do you expect if you fight trees!” they scolded. “We’ll fix your head, we can fix most things” and so saying, made a medicinal compress of mud and moss. While Ini was placing it over the sore looking bump under the fringe of curls on his brow, Gem talked more about life in and around the forest, listing the names of trees, shrubs and plants, informing what was good to eat and what was not. They also told him more about the realms to the west where ferocious beasts stalked, and the land of corn where all the birds gathered at harvest time, and finally, the Great West Mountains where the Collective lived.
“The what?” he asked, at this further mention of the Collective.
“What?” answered Gem
“What does it mean?”
“What does what mean?”
“Collective!” he growled, trying not to loose patience – he couldn’t risk turning puce.
“Do you mean what does the word mean? Or, do you mean what are the Collective, because you know what the word means? Which ‘what’ do you mean?” teased Gem.
“And it’s who are the Collective not what are – remember that too!” corrected Ini.
“My Whatting head hurts!” he groaned through gritted teeth.
“Ooohwer! We’d better tell him what’s what or he’ll give us what for.” they laughed, huddling together, pretending fear.
Gem jumped onto a low branch and shuffled along to reach for some berries while he talked “The Collective are so called because their realms are, mostly, collected together on and around the Great West Mountain Range, which is some distance beyond Virgo’s cornfields. We gather all the local news and send reports on to them with the birds. Then they hold meetings they call ‘Councils’ to ensure that everything is well, or send help if needed. That’s why we sent word to them about the Shrike: so there would be a ‘collective’ effort to catch it. But communicating was a slow business because of all the disruption it had caused. And that’s all we can tell you”

Aries had listened to as much as he could absorb and began to eat the assortment of nuts, berries and fresh leaves they had provided. His head pain began to ease although he felt a little strange and discombobulated.  Ini sat down beside him “We don’t need to concern ourselves with the wider business of the Collective Realms. Gathering the local news is vitally important and all must be done with due attention to details.” She smiled reassuringly “As you follow the sun, you are bound to see all for yourself in due course.” 
He smiled dreamily, “I feel a bit sleepy” and drifted off. 
“The efficacious effect of the leaves” said Gem, taking a handful to chew, passing some to his twin.

Next morning he felt much better and discovered that the Gemini’s day-to-day interests lie as far as Taurus’ realm to the east, and the valley of Cancer to the west. A lake of silvery water filled the valley they told him, on the shores of which many treasures can be found.
“The valley slopes are lined with lush vegetation,” they said, their mouths watering as they described in detail the delicious fruits growing there. “We sometimes help ourselves to the goodies,” they grinned, but admitted that it was not strictly speaking within the boundaries of their realm. “Cancer the Crab lives on an island in the centre of the lake and the valley slopes are more a part of her domain really. And watch out! If she’s in a touchy mood she’ll give you a tweak with her pincers.”
Gem demonstrated by giving Aries a playful pinch on the rump.
“Ouch!”
What they omitted to tell him was that they often gathered the goodies from the slopes when Cancer was absent on visits to her family in other parts of the lake. Although she was more than happy to share, she preferred to know what stocks they were taking, but just as often, they didn’t have the time to await her return. However they did own up to sometimes playing pranks on her.
“When she’s not looking, we hide small treasures she has fished out of her lake,” confessed Ini. “It’s just a game, we know she’ll find them again. She always knows when something is missing and searches in the most unlikely places.”
“’Cos that’s where we hide ’em!” chuckled Gem. “It’s hilarious to watch her peeking here and there. I call out warmer, warmer, or colder, colder, then she gets a bit crabby with me and…” 
“But when we take her a gift, no matter how small, she just as quickly forgives us” interrupted Ini promptly, not wanting Aries to have the wrong impression of their sensitive neighbour. “She is very kind and tender-hearted.”

The Twins offered to guide him through the forests. He asked if there was any way he might bypass the lake they had spoken of to continue his travels from the other side. He wasn’t too keen on the prospect of swimming, nor of being tweaked, and valleys sounded too much like craters!
“Tsk, tsk. You must visit Cancer,” they insisted. “She would be most upset to think you didn’t want to meet her and we can’t have that, no, no, absolutely not! Besides, she will need to check your head wound, to make sure it’s healing properly. Be sure to ask her to do this. And don’t fret about the lake. We will try to fix things so that you won’t have to swim.” Again, they began secretly conferring. Although he couldn’t understand what they were saying, he quite believed the Gemini could fix anything – how was another matter.

Gem and Ini were very popular and the following days of trekking through the forests were filled with visits to their variety of friends. He came to see how important it was to know different ways of communicating, and appreciated the mental stimulation he was gaining from all this variation. As his vocabulary expanded, and his grammar corrected, he was learning a great deal more about his immediate environment, also to read and write, a skill he had forgotten. But while he was keen to decipher the bird messages, he knew it would take more time than he was prepared to spend to become as fluent as his hosts. For their part, the Gemini were finding Aries’ visit a most interesting and exciting interlude. His enthusiasm and curiosity inspired them to show their many talents, and they were finding great pleasure in sharing what they know. But he was growing restless with their visits to friends, and their lessons, and wanted to press onwards, even though he was enjoying travelling alongside them. The Twins’ chicanery amused him, and at the end of each day, come twilight, they played their music until long after the stars had risen. He sometimes sang along but mostly listened with quiet appreciation as their sweet notes drifted over the treetops and into the night.

As the days grew hotter the nature of the forest changed again. Now there was jungle-like vegetation and long vines draped from the trees. The wildlife too was more majestic and a cacophony of sound and colour greeted him as he struggled through the thickening undergrowth. The Gemini were in their element, blithely swinging through the branches above, skimming the dense vegetation below.
“Not far now” they called down to him on this particularly hot afternoon, “Just a little further and we can put your travel plans into action.”
“If our scheme works do you think she’ll be pleased, forgive us for our little prank?” asked Gem of his twin, referring to Cancer and their scheme with the Black Pearl.
“Oh yes. She’s bound to be thrilled when she discovers it!” Ini was quite confident. “We would have heard more than a whisper if she had lost such a treasure. For some odd reason she can’t have noticed that the Pearl is missing from her collection. She will be doubly delighted that it has been found before she realised it was gone! Trust me, she will want to know exactly how we came by it and so will definitely invite us for tea.” They adored tea with Cancer, she made the prettiest tea cakes and irresistible dainties.
Gem gave Ini a winning smile. Ini could be super smart sometimes! And both were exceptionally pleased with their ingenious plan which Aries, unwittingly, would help them to execute.

At length he came to the base of a large, twisting tree which reached above the foliage of its neighbours. The Gemini were waiting for him.
“Time for the first part of the plan.” They assured him that all would be fine as they wound a vine around his middle, leaving his limbs free. “We’ll hoist you through the branches to the top. It will be a bit tricky but if you do as we say, it should work.” To say he was doubtful would be an understatement, but question them as he might about the next part of their plan, they would only tell him to wait and see.

Trailing one end of the vine over the lowest branch they began to pull. His feet lifted off the ground. Aries was beginning to feel nervous, but after a series of strenuous tugs he was able to straddle the first branch.
“Tree tops are not my thing!” he protested, casting his mind back to the leisurely time he’d spent with Taurus. “Oh what’s the point” he scolded himself, pushing the memory from mind, “upwards and onwards!”
The Gemini climbed to the branch above and began hoisting again. In this fashion they eventually gained the top of the tree where they clambered into a huge nest, high above the forest canopy.
He had been bumped and bruised by the exercise and was feeling extremely grumpy by the time his companions pulled him to safety.
‘AM I PUCE!!?’ he hollered  “I’m Feeling Very Puce And I Want to Know What’s Happening Next!”
“Oh do stop harping on,” reproached Gem
“You’ll spoil the surprise,” added Ini, quickly peeling a banana and smartly popping it into his mouth, muffling his further protests. He noted the large stash of fruit in the nest. “I would advise you make your approaches to Taurus in a friendly fashion before you help yourselves to his grazing!” he remarked knowingly. “Of course we will!” they laughed, the Gemini knew all about Taurus.

The hoisting had been hard work and being unused to such physical labour, the Twins fell into an exhausted sleep, leaving him to gaze over the forest landscape. He watched as the reddening sun slipped towards the horizon, the forest blushing pink and gold as the lengthening rays kissed the tops of the trees. He had not had such a heady view since leaving the hilltop. It made everything seem worthwhile.

Darkness came and he had just begun to snooze when the rushing sound of wing beats filled the air. The Twins were instantly awake, reassuring him that all was well as a large white stork alighted the nest as gently as a single feather. Stork and the Gemini exchanged a few words before they turned to him.
“Being an explorer and adventurer,” said Gem, his eyes wide with excitement
 “We thought you might like to try flying!” they cried enthusiastically.
Aries’ eyes popped and his jaw dropped.
“Stork will transport you to Cancer and, you’ll be delighted to hear, no swimming!” Cheering each other loudly, they clapped in delight at their scheme.
The long sharp beak secured a firm hold through the vine binding his middle. “You really fixed it!” he cried, nervous yet excited as the great bird prepared to take off.
“Happy Landings!” they called after him, splitting their sides at the spectacle of the Ram dangling from Stork’s beak. “He has been lively fun hasn’t he” said Gem “Oh he has, he really, really has” laughed Ini. “and this is such a clever plan it can’t possibly fail ….”

***

Finders, Keepers
Moon in Cancer

Holding his breath, the sound of beating wings was drowned by the pounding of his heart. Airborne, he was thrilled by the sensation of flight. The wind was soft and warm on his face and his brave heart trusted his fate. Their way was lit by the rising moon, and as they climbed higher he was able to see the subtle changes in the forest landscape below. But when he looked ahead his heart skipped a beat. Way, way in the distance, gleaming luminous white under the light of the moon, he saw the snow-capped tips of the Great West Mountains. Aries knew that he could not, would not rest until he had reached the topmost pinnacle.

Just as the moon reached its zenith, the Stork flew over the lip of a wide valley. A vast oval lake shimmered like liquid silver in the moonlight, and the lush slopes of the valley sank into its waters. The only visible shore was a pale ribbon of sand around a crescent-shaped island in the middle of the lake. He had never seen such an expanse of water, only brooks and streams on his journey so far. He attempted to communicate with the Stork, asking that she ignore the Gemini’s instructions about landing him on the island and instead ‘fly over Cancer’s realm to drop him on the other side, as close to the mountains as possible.’ The bird registered an understanding of his request, filling him with pride at his newfound skills in communication.

As they flew over the little island a heady scent of jasmine wafted on the warm night air, and in the bright moonlight he could clearly see the fringe of palms and succulent plants nestling around the isle’s rocky centre. He thought it might be interesting to spend a day there, but recalling the splendour of the peaks, promptly abandoned the idea.

The Stork had flown with smooth grace so he rightly felt alarmed when she suddenly swooped low. Without warning she let go of the vine and to his horror he was plunging towards the water.
“Stupid great bird!” he shouted rudely as the Stork winged away. She believed she had done exactly as he had asked: to ‘fly him over the island and drop him not too far from the rocks’ – contrary to her explicit instructions from the Gemini, which were to deliver him directly into Cancer’s cave. He had needed more practice with the language but that didn’t occur to him. He believed his dousing was the Stork’s fault, and her lack of understanding, obviously!

The rocky centre on the island housed a large oval-shaped cavern, its rugged walls rounding into the ceiling. At the far end of the cave was a large circular pool contained in a bed of sparkling crystal. This was fed by a spring welling from deep in the earth. At the phase of the full moon the water swelled, overflowing the crystal rim and washing the sandy floor of the cave. In the rocky roof above the pool was a wide, chimney-like opening through which light filtered down. Moonlight spilled through this natural window, and the full moon’s image was mirrored on the crystal water. It was down this ‘chimney’ that the Gemini had asked Stork to drop Aries, thus giving Cancer the surprise of her life. Imps!

Cancer adored the night of the full moon. Its radiance rippled around the cavern illuminating her collection of treasures which filled every nook and cranny. The polished gems and stones glistened, and the assortment of driftwood and shells cast shadows creating beautiful, mysterious images on the walls.
She loved to recline by the side of her pool and gaze at the image of the moon, now floating like a platinum disc on the water’s surface. Knowing the ethereal light in her cave would dim as the moon waned, her eyes brimmed with tears and she sighed softly, “Oh, how I wish this night would last for ever.” However, she also knew that the foraging was especially good after the full moon had swelled the waters of her lake, and this cheered her a little. An avid collector of curiosities she had a discerning eye for what was worth keeping.

Drying her tears she gazed in affectionate wonder at the magic of the moon’s reflection. At that same moment a strange shadow flitted across its image on the water. Alarmed, she scurried outside to see what was happening and spotted Stork passing over her island before swooping low to drop a bundle into the lake. Hurrying to the water’s edge, she quickly submerged then waited for the ripples to subside before investigating further. This was always her approach for she wanted to be sure of the catch before advancing. Her vision was clear under the moonlit water and she was intrigued to watch as a strange creature attempted to struggle ashore. Although she trusted that her friend Stork would bring her no harm, because the bird had flown from the direction of the Gemini’s realm, Cancer’s suspicions were aroused. Some jokey trickery might be afoot from her impish neighbours. “The Stork is a generous bird but not always as discerning as she ought to be” she brooded, feeling crabby about the situation.

Aries hated the water and was quite out of his element. He’d tried to swim but had become hampered by the vines which had loosened in flight and now straggled his feet. Cautiously side-stepping towards him, Cancer waited until the loose ends of the vines drifted within her reach, then taking hold with her strong pincers she pulled forcefully, dragging him under the surface and firmly into her grasp. Deftly wrapping a length of vine around his horns, neck and forelegs she twisted it into a knot. Hogtied, he was powerless as he was dragged choking and coughing onto the sandy beach. When his head had been submerged by the water he had felt stabbing flashes of light, and the pain of his most recent head wound had returned twofold.
“Come to plunder my lake under the brightie moon have you, thief in the night?” she accused scornfully.
He was enraged by such treatment and accusations, but feeling weak and winded from near drowning had difficulty breathing in the Crab’s vice-like grip.
“I’m no thief,” he spluttered. “That stupid bird dumped me here. Let go, cough, cough, I’m choking!”
She released her grip only slightly in case he tried to escape before she had finished her enquiries. “Who are you?” He didn’t look at all familiar but that he did not resemble the Twins went a little in his favour at this moment.
“I’m Aries!” he gasped. “Survivor of Earthquakes, Explorer and Investigator, Conqueror of the Skies on my way to the peaks. Let me breathe!” He wanted to butt the Crab into orbit but dizziness overwhelmed him and he passed out.
Seeing him so helpless softened Cancer’s mood and she now took pity on his bedraggled form. ‘Investigator? On his way to the peaks?’ She considered his reply. ‘Maybe he has business with the Collective?’ She had heard a snippet of news concerning some kind of ‘traveller’ but the message had been garbled, didn’t quite make sense, so she hadn’t been prepared for this. ‘Aries? Hmmm…’ she vaguely knew of the realm, the name certainly. Survivor of earthquakes? She wanted to know more!

Helping him into her cave she made him a warm, dry bed from palm leaves. As he began to regain consciousness she brought him a bowl of nourishing fish stew. This aromatic brew didn’t appeal to him but he felt too weak to protest as she repeatedly fed spoonfuls into his mouth. However, it helped to revive him, and though still feeling groggy, he gazed in wonder at his surroundings… was he dreaming? The moonlit cavern full of curious objects was the most fascinating and beautiful thing he had ever seen. Watching Cancer as she gently fussed about him, he thought she was oddly curious too. Minutes ago she had taken him for a thief, had almost drowned him, yet now his wellbeing was her uppermost concern.

Peeping shyly at him were large, soft eyes set in a gently rounded face with curling wisps of fine, fair hair framing her dainty features. Her formidable pincers seemed incongruous to her kind and gentle demeanour.
“Do you feel better?” her tone was sympathetic, caring.
“No! Thanks to you I’ve got a blasted headache!” he answered curtly, feeling out of sorts and thinking the Gemini’s teasing of her was more than justified.
“Let me see if you have hurt yourself,” she said kindly, smoothing back the fringe of curls on his forehead, trying not to be offended by his rudeness. After all, she reflected, perhaps she had been a little sharp with him on his arrival. “Why yes. There’s a huge lump here!” She was hoping that this was the cause of his bad temper.
He winced as she touched the compress and told her he had butted a tree flat – he couldn’t admit to losing a fight – and that the Gemini had placed the compress there. Cancer replied that it was high time to remove this mud pat and replace it with a proper, clean dressing. “I shouldn’t be surprised if the wound has become infected,” she said tartly, at this moment having a poor opinion of the Twins as nursemaids. As she gently worked on freeing the compress, which seemed stuck fast, she spared him no details about why she felt disquieted by her impish neighbours.
As she talked her mood darkened and she became quite piqued towards those “double trouble, nosey, noisy, naughty, nippers! They’ve nipped so much from me,” her eyes moistened, welling with tears as she complained that they’d made off with bundles of bananas on their last visit, “and they are always hiding things I fish out of the lake. It can be very, very upsetting.” She began to cry.
“They are only teasing you!” he explained quickly, alarmed by her tears and wanting them to stop. He told her that the Twins liked to find clever hiding places for her treasures knowing she’ll be doubly pleased when she finds them again “It’s just a little hide ’n’ seek game, that’s all. They don’t really mean to upset you, it’s simply that they like to play. They are really very, very fond of you” As he was speaking she had managed to loosen the compress, prizing it away in one piece.
“Ahh. The pain has gone!” His relief was audible.
“Yes, the wound seems quite healed” she answered absently, absorbed by the cake of mud in her claw. What he’d been saying about the Twins prompted her impulse to squeeze the compress, causing it to crumble. Blowing away the dust, her eyes opened wide at what remained in her grip. “My goodness me! What have we here?” She held up the object for him to see. It was a beautiful, lustrous Black Pearl.
“Would you trade this gem for another?” she asked tentatively, eyeing him from under her lashes.
“Trade?” He wasn’t quite sure what she meant.
“Exchange it for something of similar beauty and value.”
“Well, er, I…”
“Perhaps a necklace of gems and shells?” she urged. “I have just finished making one, most unusual and attractive, I`m sure you`ll like it.” She loved to bargain but was prepared to give generously for this Pearl.
“But it’s not mine to trade,” he said honestly. “The Gemini must have placed it in the compress. Oh but of course! Stupid me Tsk, tsk!’ he exclaimed happily. “They insisted I ask you to check my wound. They wanted you to find it, just like always. It’s yours. A gift… from them… and hidden in a very clever place indeed.”
“Oh my!” She caught her breath. It had to be true. “It’s truly wonderful. Oh, those thoughtful, clever Twins. It’s worth all the bananas under the sun!” Delighted and wreathed in smiles, her mood was now buoyant. “I absolutely must invite them to tea.” She rinsed the Pearl in her pool. Under water its lustre glowed more luminous, its beauty far surpassing the gems in her collection. She had only dreamed of finding such a prize.
“It’s so rare, so precious. Ooh, I could weep with happiness,” she drooled.
“Oh please, not again” he pleaded, already exhausted by her changing emotions.
She looked tenderly at him, intuiting his difficulty, his innate shyness of sentimental feelings. “I’m so happy but I promise not to cry” she sniffled, fighting back the tears.

Her cave grew dim with the setting of the moon and though wishing to question Aries more about himself and his quest, understanding that he was still out of sorts from his dip in the lake and feeling tired, she considerately bid him goodnight. Reclining by her pool, Cancer held the gem under what moonlight remained. Mesmerised by the lovely hues of its lustre she drifted into sleep, clutching the Pearl to her breast.

She began to dream of an ocean she had never seen, of a world beneath the rolling surf where coral reefs teemed with plants and tiny creatures unknown to her, yet strangely familiar. At first she played amongst the sea anemones, the moon shining brightly above, but then the pearl in her grasp began pulling her down into the fathomless depths of the ocean. Engulfed in a whirlpool she tried to release it, to let it drop, but it remained anchored in her claw, spinning her round and round, drawing her down and down, sucking her into the darkest depths where sunlight or moonlight could never penetrate, nor cries for help ever be heard…

“Wake up!” he shook her back to consciousness. “You were screaming in your sleep”
She regarded her familiar surroundings. Sunlight streamed into the cave and she began to feel safe again, but tells only that she had dreamt of drowning. She wondered if the Gemini knew of the Pearl’s properties. Did Aries know? Was it a trick, a joke after all? She couldn’t be sure. Feeling morose she uncharacteristically tended her treasures rather than her visitor’s needs. He too felt the need to be alone, but quite within character, wondered how soon he could get onwards to the peaks.
By late afternoon he had explored the entire island. He liked the tropical scenery of tall palms, voluptuous flowers and succulent fruits, but the hot sun made him drowsy. Again out of sorts, he lay under the shady palms and looked out over the lake. He could just discern shapes of greenery on the far side. Unknown to him, these were mangroves, behind which lay the dangerous swamps of Nomans Land. Assessing the distance over the water, a wave of frustration engulfed him. ‘Damn valleys!’ He felt marooned. It was too far to contemplate swimming, and he had decided that he loathed water anyway. Searching for an alternative, he scanned the skies for Stork but not a cloud marred the deep summer blue. He tried calling for Stork in one of the tongues he had heard the Gemini use, but drew only amorous responses from a large bird of paradise who thought he wanted to dance. There was nothing for it but to beat a hasty retreat to the cave, the colourful bird in hot pursuit.

Once safely inside he looked for Cancer. She was not at home. He strolled over to the crystal pool, now bathed in early evening sunlight. The water looked so inviting that he fought his reservations about getting wet and plunged in. Despite the heat of the day, the spring’s waters felt deliciously cool. As soon as he had immersed he began to relax, his stresses about being marooned melted away and, most unusually, he found himself looking back, pleasantly reflecting on his experiences so far; dreamily tracking back through the forests, reminiscing about the informative, playful times he’d had with the Gemini; back through the flower filled meadows of Taurus, recalling his first tastes of honey and cream; back to the broken summit of Great Tor… at this point his mood changed. Against his will, recollections of the earthquake and of the vision beyond the collapsed hills began to swamp his mind. All was misty and melancholy, as it had been then, and the eerie, haunted feelings now returned to trouble him. Disowning these feelings, he briskly climbed from the water and ran outside to shake and dry his fleece, but he collided with Cancer as she was approaching the entrance. She was returning from a visit to her sisters in another part of the lake and, fortunately, had managed to hang on to her laden basket despite the collision.
“Where are you going in such a hurry?” she asked, surprised but friendly.
“Going? I’m going nowhere. I’m stuck here. Damn it!” he cursed.
She was taken aback by his attack but before she could respond he followed with, “More to the point, where have you been?”
“Amongst other places, I have been gathering food for our supper,” she replied quietly and moved quickly past him, upset by his aggressive tone, verging on anger herself.
With a sigh of exasperation he walked to the water’s edge, kicking at a few pebbles along the shore. He hadn’t meant to upset her but he felt so touchy on this island. “Keep out of her way for while,” he told himself. “She’ll soon get over it, forget about it.” Being of a volatile temperament he was naturally able to do that, but would soon come to learn that Cancer’s nature was altogether different and at odds with his own.
She’d had it in mind to confide more about her dream and the visit to her family, also to ask further about his past and his quest. She hoped to establish where the Gemini had found the Pearl. The disturbing dream caused her deep concern and she was unsure what to do about it.
“Such a dreadful nightmare warns me not to keep it” she had wailed to her sisters.
They fully understood the anguish of her dilemma because to let go of something she wanted to cherish was in conflict with Cancer’s nurturing instincts. After discussions it was agreed that they should keep the gem to see if anything similar might occur in their dreams too. So she left the Pearl in her family’s safe-keeping and promised to come by again the next morning. Meanwhile she must return home to look after her unexpected guest.

When Aries eventually returned to the cave supper was laid, but he had been wrong about Cancer forgetting his earlier rudeness. Being extremely sensitive she didn’t take slights lightly and whilst she dutifully joined him in eating, she remained in her shell, refraining from conversation. She was of as strong and innovative character as he, and she was not about to tolerate his insolence. Her silence made him feel quite awkward.
“I, er, um, I didn’t mean to be rude earlier,” he mumbled, clearing his throat. “It’s just that…”
“I understand how you might feel,” she put in sharply, saving them both the embarrassment of him explaining his frustration. “A simple ‘sorry’ will do. Remember, I didn’t invite you here.”
“No. Of course. Right,” came his stilted response.
The strained silence continued until supper was finished. Appreciating that Aries had made as much of an apology as he was able, she let out a sigh of resignation. “In a few days the waters of the lake will subside and reveal a sandbank, a causeway to the mangroves on the far side,” she informed him. “You will be able to wade across easily, and quickly, since you’re so eager to get away.”
“It’s not that I want to get away so much as I want to get onwards,” he answered, feeling a little contrite. He was relieved she understood him, also to hear about the causeway, but felt a little sheepish in being so transparent. Being aware of the feelings of others was not one of Aries’ strengths and he silently admired Cancer’s gift of insight, even though he couldn’t form the words to say so. “Oh, for just some of the Gemini’s eloquence” he thought “If only I could make her laugh!”

After clearing away the supper dishes, Cancer told him she was going fishing in the lake and would return in a few days time. She had left ample provisions of food and he should be quite comfortable until her return. He thanked her, assuring that he was quite happy to fend for himself and hopes that she has a successful trip. He was preoccupied with thoughts of the emerging causeway.

Next morning she duly called on her sisters to discover that they too have had the same nightmares. “Since he brought the Pearl let him take it away,” they advised. On hearing her reports about Aries’ rudeness they felt he had the same upsetting effect on her as the gem. She agreed that he did make her feel more emotional which, in turn, increased her sensitivity. She stayed with them for a few days, relaxing in the comfort of their homely companionship, brightening her spirits by making several very successful foraging trips. She settled her mind that the Gemini were truly trying to please her and that their gift was not a trick but something they had found that was more mysterious than they had known.

She returned home with a bounty, feeling rested and much better. Aries too was in a friendlier mood since the lake was visibly receding. He noticed that she seemed more relaxed, less sensitive and changeable than his first impressions of her. This was invariably the case with the Crab once the moon had begun to wane, her emotions were less on the surface.
Over dinner she encouraged him to relate his experiences so far. She listened attentively and waited for him to finish speaking before making comment. He liked that.
“No storm or earthquake has happened here,” she said,  “You’re the strangest happening on my shores.” laughing softly, “But from all you say, I admire the way Taurus appreciates and protects his own, he seems much like myself in that regard. When the Gemini speak of him it’s to praise his singing. Quite wonderful, they say. Hmmn, yes,” she mused, and moving to her collection of treasures, selected a beautiful crystal, admiring the rainbows in its reflecting lights. “I will send him this gift to say ‘hello’ what do you think?”
“Do what you like,” he snapped. “But how will you get it to him. I’m not turning back.”
“Oh, but of course not. I wouldn’t dream of asking you” she soothed tactfully, sensing her mild praise of Taurus was causing him to feel defensive. “It would be too painful to return to your lost realm. Stork will do it, she owes me a favour.”
“Lost realm!” he protested. “You mean that pit I escaped from? You can’t call that a realm. There was nothing there except me and damned fog. I am alone and always have been. I don’t need a realm. I’m an Explorer and Adventurer. A realm would only keep me in one place. What use is that to me?” He was getting worked up again.
“Oh dearie me” she thought, though she smiled, nodding gently in assent to his words, “I fear he is protesting too much. I’ve a strong inkling there is much more about him.” She was aware there existed a ‘Realm of Aries’ to the east, and that it was known as the ‘one alone’ but knew little about the conditions there. However, rather than provoke him further, she wisely steered the conversation towards his quest.
“You said you have important business with the Collective. Tell me about that.”
He calmed a little, much preferring to talk about his plans than his past. However, he was caught on his back foot at this and blustered, “Well, er… I have to… ahem… admit that it’s not business as such, I mean… er… well, the Collective’s not expecting me or anything but… um… What does the Collective do anyway?” He thought that to ask the questions might serve him better at this point.
She smiled enigmatically at his naivety and answered, “Amongst other things, they gather and sort information. And you have a lot to tell them, don’t you?” He gave her a sidelong look. There was more to Miss Cancer than he’d grasped. Her warm demeanour relaxed his tension and she began to advise him on his path through the marshes, warning that he must keep close to the main stream which feeds the lake.

She told him that once through the marshes he would have to cross a desert before reaching the uplands and the Realm of Leo. “The marshes and the desert are Nomans Land where only danger rules,” she warned. “These regions are the lowest point of all the lands. The marshes are full of quicksand and horrible beasts which will swallow you whole should you even for one moment let your guard down. And the desert is hazardous. Unless one knows the terrain well it would be all too easy to go astray and perish from lack of water. From what Stork says about Nomans Land, there are menacing prowlers straying in those regions, outlaws banished from the Plains who seek to disrupt Leo’s rule for their own gain. The Plains are a political hot-bed.” She looked earnestly at him, hoping he was taking what she was telling him seriously, but she couldn’t be sure. “On reflection, I think it would be advisable for you to wait here until Stork comes by, let her fly you over Nomans Land directly to Leo. She usually visits when the moon is full and bright.”
As she expected he replied that he preferred not to wait for the Stork. HHH   e was impatient and rather than being put off by her warnings was beginning to relish the challenges ahead, “Tell me more about Leo’s realm. What’s a ‘political hot-bed’?”
“It means that while the inhabitants of the Plains wholeheartedly pay homage to Leo as Sovereign and protector, there are others who contest his law and purely for selfish gain. Personally I couldn’t contend with such chaos. I feel that Leo should be applauded for keeping control of the situation. Be sure you seek him out immediately. There’s no mistaking him for another, you will intuitively know he is ‘The King’ – that’s how he is referred to in his Realm. Because of his rivals and pretenders you must not trust any prowler to give you safe passage in those regions, no matter how persuasive they might be.” When it came to matters of trust Cancer had a sixth sense about things and rarely had cause to doubt her instinct. She felt Aries would be safe if he followed her advice.
“Have you met Leo?” he asked.
“Once I flew there with Stork. I was a guest at one of Leo’s Galas. I also met some from the Collective Realms there. But I don’t often like to leave home,” she answered. “However, I trade much of the jewellery I make with many on the Plains for different gems and metals they provide to me which they, in turn, have traded with those of the Collective. I do quite a lot of business in those regions though Stork usually does the fetching and carrying for me.”
“And what did you mean by ‘I’ll intuitively know that it’s Leo?” He was intrigued.
“It means you will know without needing to ask. As I’ve said, many might tell you they are Leo, but your intuition will tell you if their claims feel true. Intuition is essential when seeking the rightness of things – especially the right price!” they laughed with gusto at her allusion to trading.

Cancer’s spirit of enterprise impressed him greatly and he wanted to speak more with her about it, and her experience at Leo’s Galas. To the latter, she gave a brief but colourful description of the range of the entertainments and the masquerading, the elaborate costumes and jewellery worn for display at the Galas, or ‘Extravaganzas’ as Leo termed them, but she declined to say much more, reminding him that the hour was getting late. “If you insist on leaving tomorrow rather than waiting a while for Stork, you must get an early start.”
He resigned to go to sleep, but his mind was buzzing with images of what lay ahead. He could hardly wait for the morning. While he slept she worked late into the night, weaving a snug-fitting pouch for the Pearl in a strong yet extremely fine twine. Her pincers were capable of the most delicate stitching and she deftly interweaved the pouch and its ties with strands of fine curls that she had discreetly clipped from his fleece. Painful though it was, she had decided to heed her family’s advice and send the gem on with him. Again he was to be the unwitting bearer of this mystical treasure. Without disturbing him, she gently secured the little pouch closely around his neck ensuring all merged perfectly. When she had finished, all trace of its presence was concealed. A strong intuition warned her that secrecy meant safety for both the Pearl and himself, though for what purpose and to what end she did not know, yet. Satisfied with her work, she fell into a peaceful sleep for the first time since her unusual visitor and his mysterious burden had arrived.

After a hearty breakfast they walked down to the edge of the causeway. She had kindly packed him a lunch of fish paste sandwiches, a piece of chocolate cake and two peaches, insisting he eat it all. She repeated her warnings to follow the main stream, and with tears in her eyes, clasped him fondly to her breast, making him promise to let her know the outcome of his quest. Though unable to contain his excitement to be travelling on, he remembered to thank her eloquently and sincerely. He then gambolled across the causeway, unaware of the precious cargo nestling beneath his lunch pail. Watching him leave she began to fret about his fate. She winced at the thought of the quicksands and rigours of the desert. Wherever he was heading he had embarked on an arduous journey where anything might happen.
On return to the cave a wave of sadness swept over her and she wept as never before. She had wanted that Pearl for her own. But it had had such a disturbing effect on her and last night, when she had tied the little pouch around his neck, she felt very sure she was doing the right thing. However, concerns for his safety were now causing doubts to beset her. Had she been too sensitive, perhaps overreacted to that foreboding dream? Had she put Aries at risk to avoid further upset to herself? Should she have kept the Pearl despite all? To try to console herself she browsed her collection of treasures, selecting those gems she would craft into the elaborate gold crown she was making as a gift for Leo, a token of her respect and admiration. As she set to work she reflected about the Gemini’s part in it all, and while mulling over plans to invite them to tea, an amusing thought occurred “I’ll have a word with Stork when she comes by. It’s high time I gave them a surprise!” The very idea of ‘landing’ on the Gemini caused her to laugh out loud. She’d last seen the Twins scampering along the shore avoiding a tweak from her pincers. Lovable Imps!

***

NOMANS LAND

By evening Aries was thoroughly disenchanted with the marshes. The heat and rising vapours, biting insects, eerie gurgling and screeches all irritated him beyond the limits of his tolerance – which was never very high. At first, following the stream was not difficult, but as he trudged further into the swamps more rivulets joined the mainstream, slowing him as he waded carefully through the muddy waters trying to avoid splashing his chest and belly. When eventually he found a dry bank, he sat down to eat. He didn’t care for the fish paste sandwiches, ungratefully tossing them towards a nearby log half submerged in the shallow water. To his horror a pair of large jaws opened at one end of the log and snapped up the discarded food. Two bulbous eyes fixed him in their gaze and the log began to move towards him. He tore off like a shot. Trees were one thing but he would draw the line at fighting crocodiles!

Thick vegetation shaded him from the sun but the vapour condensed on the under-leaves, dripping and drenching his fleece. The air was sultry and heavy, his feet sank with every step leaving puddles in his wake. Days melted into nights. Afraid to sleep, aware of other sinister shapes slithering through the murky waters, he grabbed only short snoozes when he could walk no further. Miserable and exhausted, he grew despondent that there would be no end to these accursed marshes. More than once he wished he’d listened to Cancer, taken her advice and had waited for the Stork. “Hot-headed idiot,” he scolded himself. He was learning!

Eventually the waters subsided and the going became easier. Confident of making progress he slept a little better, though still in short, irregular intervals. With more movement in the air he quickened his pace to a trot, stepping niftily over gnarled roots, head kept low to avoid sagging branches and drooping vines. Tiring, he was about to rest again, when the cloying vegetation fell sharply away. Without warning he was suddenly exposed to the full glare of the noonday sun.

Blinded for an instant, once his sight adapted he found himself gazing across a sun-baked landscape of sand and rocks, stretching as far as he could see. After the suffocating swamp he welcomed the open space, but the intense heat soon had him longing for respite. The cracked bed of a dried-up river snaked across the terrain and he followed it, hoping its trail would eventually lead him to water. His throat felt as dry as bracken and his back was burning by the time he came upon a waterhole. As well as the heat, his luxurious black fleece drew the unwelcome attentions of a huddle of prowlers, milling around the pool’s edge. They snarled as he approached, but being heavily outnumbered, he knew that to provoke a fight would prove foolish. He really was learning! Avoiding eye contact, he ignored their hostilities in the interests of slaking his thirst, but his temper was rising – how welcome now to turn puce and scatter this rabble in surprise. Amused by the idea, he managed to drink and depart before tensions snapped, but as he made for the lengthening shadows of nearby rocks he noticed two of their number were stalking him.

On reaching the shade he turned to take them head on. “Butt off. My business is with Leo.” He sounded tougher than he felt, this was two against one and they were seasoned predators.
“Look no further stranger, I am Leo.” The grin was menacing, baring a row of broken teeth. This outlaw was sporting a strange headdress of matted fur which straggled raggedly over his face and shoulders.
“Playing ‘King’ again eh, with your scuzzy wig! Don’t believe this liar. I am Leo,” growled the other. He was as bald as a coot with split ears and one eye badly scarred.
“Call me a liar? You one-eyed cur!” was the angry response.
They began to scrap with each other but instead of smartly distancing himself, Aries’ natural aggression tossed caution to the wind and he plunged into the fray. Enjoying the cut and thrust, he rid himself of pent up frustrations, ramming his horns into one, then the other, exchanging blow for blow and laying both out cold. The victory invigorated him and confident they wouldn’t follow, he headed off across the unforgiving terrain.

Nights in the desert were as icy cold as the days were blistering hot. As he trudged along the dead river trail, other outcasts crossed his path. Few were friendly enough to share their shelter at night, or their shade in the day, but never their food or water. And none could be trusted not to skin his hide to trade. His intuition was getting plenty of practice for he had to outwit many scavengers. His days seemed a constant battle and he’d fought a number of fights to stay alive. In addition to these trials, the heat and dust were making him so miserable that he began to doubt his ambition to reach the peaks. He felt as rootless as the balls of tumbleweed that rolled aimless across the sun-baked sands.

It had taken a number of days to cross the desert and with only small hope and little strength left, he eventually climbed up to a vast, grass-covered plain. There was still little in the way of shade, just one or two parched trees jutting from the shimmering landscape, but in the far, far distance he could see the purple shadows and majestic white caps of the mountains. At last he had arrived in the Realm of Leo, and the fire of ambition burned within him again.

***

Kindred Spirits
Sun in Leo

The sun was now high. He had stumbled for hours through the long dry grasses before finding water. At first he thought he was hallucinating, dazzled by the glistening surface. He plunged his face into the liquid image fearing it was yet another mirage. It was gloriously wet! The water was clear and he could see the pool’s sandy bottom. Shoals of small fish darted between the shoots a large reed bed, spreading from the far side. He had learned in Nomans Land not to drink greedily, but foremost to check for signs of poison. Taking one deep gulp he came up for air. He was feeling lucky. Surveying his surroundings, he was glad that the pool’s parameters were not littered with ne’er-do-wells, just a small flock of wildfow wading among the reeds. Shade, was all Aries could think of as a few joyous leaps through the pool brought him to the opposite bank with a big splash. The wildfowl screeched in protest as he waded past, but they didn’t depart. Feeling tired but happy again, he left the water and found a shaded place to lie behind the reeds.

As he slept, birds of prey began circling above, hoping he would soon be carrion. The vultures attracted the attention of a pack of jackals who had been roaming the Plains, trying to incite a rebellion against Leo. They had been banished to Nomans Land for unlawful hunting, stealing and other crimes against the inhabitants of the Lion’s domain. Careless about trespassing, they headed towards the reeds hoping to find a ready meal there.

Aries had been enjoying his slumber when a sense of being watched roused him. Sleepily, he opened an eye then instantly shut it tight. His mind reeled. Fear gripped his stomach. He could feel their breath on his back and face as several pairs of fangs slavered over him. Frantically gathering his wits he tried to form a plan of action, flight most upper in his mind.

Fortunately for the Ram, one other had spotted the vultures circling and curiosity had bid him to the scene. The winged scavengers swiftly departed on his approach, alerting the outlaws of the danger. No longer so brave, they quietly dispersed, two of their number skulking away through the long grasses. But three remained, lurking beyond the reeds out of view from the pool. Surprised at being abruptly deserted, Aries stood to make a run for it, but an instinct warned him to stay. He peered carefully through the reeds and spotted something moving in the middle distance.

The Lion crept forward with stealth and purpose. His tawny coat merged against the parched grasses providing him with good camouflage as he edged towards the pool, tracking a wisp of air that carried scent of the three despots, who now plotted an ambush. Inching closer, his limbs stiffened as his muscles coiled to spring but a split second before he leapt, one of the gang lost their nerve and broke cover to run.
“Game on!” roared Leo, pouncing as the jackal made to escape, startling the wildfowl who flew squawking into the blue.
The Lion’s rage was ferocious, and being no match for his speed and strength, the outlaw’s days were swiftly ended. Leo gave a mighty roar causing the two in hiding to rapidly steal away, but the triumphant sound had thrilled Aries to his bones, fixing him to the spot. There could be no mistake. At last he had an audience with ‘The King.’

Leo sauntered to the water’s edge. “Harrumph! Time for a drink and a nap,” he mumbled loudly. After intense bursts of energy Leo invariably rewarded himself with a drink and a nap. Lapping heartily until his thirst was slaked, he checked his reflection in the water and preened, admiring the luxurious mane which crowned his strong, noble features. He was proud of his mane, his pride being born of his high regard for the finest that life could offer, and his mane was the finest! His sense of pride also meant that he put heart into everything he did, doing nothing in half measure. He could turn a crisis into a drama with the flick of his tail, but just as easily take total command and restore order. He was either hugely magnanimous, taking the greatest of pleasure in the smallest of things, or the most terrible of tyrants with those who flaunted his law, as Aries had just witnessed. He watched transfixed, full of admiration and keen to meet this Sovereign of great renown, who now lay a short distance away, resting his head on his paws.

Impetuous as ever, he shook his fleece and abruptly left the cover of the reeds to present himself. “That was a brilliant leap, just brilliant! I’m the best at leaping too. Let’s have a contest.” His challenge was friendly and enthusiastic, he wanted to impress and be approved.
Leo raised his head and blinked at the image before him, doubting both his eyes and his ears. What was this? A contest? What preposterous audacity! Standing before him was some straggler from that rabble he had just dealt with, actually challenging him to a leaping contest? Unbelievable! How very novel! Entertaining thoughts of leaping all over this ‘arrogant loser’ he tossed back his head and roared with laughter. He could justify making a meal of this one. Oh yes, he would certainly take him home for dinner. Life was indeed bountiful.
“Bless the Breeze” he chortled, gathering his composure. “Pray tell my ‘deer’ are there others like you in these parts?” He wondered if Aries was alone, or whether more of that sorry gang were still in hiding, hoping to pull off an ambush. Aries was crestfallen. Insulted at being laughed at but compelled to redeem his injured pride “Watch this!” he challenged, springing over Leo, making a madcap sprint towards an outcrop of rocks.
Though startled by the sudden move, Leo’s reflexes had him up in a trice, he wasn’t about to let this despot escape. He stood poised for a beat. It crossed his mind that this might be a trap. “Pah! Bring it on,” he growled, “I’ll bag the lot of ‘em!” and leaping into a lightning chase, covered the ground in less than half the time. Clearing the rocks only seconds behind Aries, he set down a few feet ahead, instantly turning to claim the winner’s prize.

But fate had smiled on the Ram yet again. In his haste he’d misjudged the distance to cover and had jumped too soon. Not quite clearing the rocks, he had stumbled and toppling down the other side, had landed heavily on an old boar who had just lain down to die. The beast let out a groan as it expired under the impact “It was too slow and I’m too fast” he boasted, thinking quickly, giving the impression that he had actually ‘bagged’ it. Suitably impressed, Leo congratulated him.
He recognised this boar as a vicious creature who had caused much trouble and had been marked for banishment long since. However, the great pig had proved difficult to tackle even by the most experienced of hunters, always managing to avoid capture.
“This is a strange turn of events,” he thought. Instead of an ambush, he found that he had been effortlessly rid of an old enemy. Perhaps this challenger wasn’t an outlaw after all. But he had to be sure and would question further before granting him leave to remain on the Plains. He lead them back to the water and took another drink.

Aries’ back and knees had been bruised in the fall but pride prevented him from acknowledging the hurts, plus he was pleased to find himself in Leo’s good books. For the first time on his journey he quietly contemplated the situation. He had enjoyed his encounters with Taurus, Gemini and Cancer. Different experiences in their realms had given him more knowledge about the world and his responses to it. Through meeting them his perspective had grown. But there was something in the fiery, competitive quality of Leo that he recognised as more akin to himself. At this point on his journey he felt the need of companionship and began to consider the impression he was making. He wanted Leo’s admiration, but more, his friendship.

Reflecting on his initial introduction of himself, he reluctantly accepted that in no way could he win a leaping contest against such a formidable opponent. However, needing some advantage – for Aries was fiercely competitive – he decided to use a different tack: he would draw on his experience, employ the qualities he had gained during his travels through the other realms.
Leo finished drinking and gestured for him to sit. Aries remained standing to speak. “There can be no doubt that you are Leo, Sovereign of this Realm and King of the Plains. I have heard great things about you on my travels and am honoured to finally meet you.” He gave a nod of respect. “I am Aries. Survivor of Earthquakes, Adventurer and Explorer, Fighter of Bulls, Conqueror of the Skies, the Swamps and the Desert, Hunter of Boar and More Besides.” Such a notable list of accomplishments was bound to impress. He sat down.
“Indeed!” responded Leo, suitably flattered by the opening address and pricking his ears to the claims of bravado. Raising an eyebrow he looked the Ram up and down, still unsure what his motives were. He had heard rumours of a feisty stranger abroad in Nomans Land, asking questions, wanting to meet him, but this was nothing new. There was always someone seeking an audience so he had paid little heed. “If they want to meet me, they’ll find me.” He is the King! Rumours implied that the stranger travelled alone, perhaps this was he? Either way, if his claims were an outrageous boast – which Leo suspected they might be – they certainly had the makings of an amusing tale and he must hear more. The Lion greatly enjoyed a talent for storytelling both in himself and others. “It all sounds absolutely fascinating, my deer.” You must tell me all,” he prompted, grinning widely. Aries was eager to begin.

The Ram told his tale with great relish and embellishment. Leo’s eyes widened in admiration. He found himself warming to this fellow whose claims to bravery and endurance could be matched only by his own. Plus the amusing little details, the vivid descriptions of the realms he had traversed, his knowledge of Cancer and her trading, it all lent plausibility to Aries’ credentials. “Perhaps there is truth to his bragging” thought Leo, “there is an ‘Aries’ Realm in the east, and he had bagged that boar with little effort, hmm..” Leisurely stroking his chin with a fore-claw, Leo too reconsidered the situation. Yes! Aries could stay. This must be the traveller he had heard rumour of, and he accepted that the Ram was not party to any insurgence. There was no question that he could survive on the Plains and with his store of amusing tales, he would be an entertaining guest. Settled. He enquired about Aries’ plans. “And um, where do you go from here, my Dear?”
“I’m following the sun, on my way to the peaks. Ahem. I’ve important information for the Collective.” Aries considered this to be true because, as Cancer had wisely pointed out, he would have a lot to tell them.
“Following the Sun? Most ambitious! And business with the Collective you say? I see. Hmmm…” Leo narrowed his eyes, regarding Aries with more scrutiny; ‘important information’ he thought. This changed things slightly.
He preferred to avoid unnecessary interest in his affairs from the Collective Realms. One or two of them were squeamish about the hunt, disapproved of any gaming or trading close to Nomans Land. But culls were sometimes necessary on the Plains to maintain a balance in the domain, and he had recently bagged some good yields in this way. He knew there would be disapproval and was aware that they regularly had debates about what they considered to be his extravagant lifestyle. But what of it? Leo was nothing if not an autocrat who would do as he saw fit in his own Realm. Of course, there were those of the Collective Realms who were only too delighted to attend his banquets, indeed they expected invites to his ‘Extravaganzas’ when lavish feasts and entertainments were laid on for days at a time. Quite! As far as the Lion was concerned, consideration of collective wishes was one thing, unerring compliance was quite the other. Effective leadership in his domain often demanded unpleasant decisions to maintain order. There were many predators and scavengers, outlaws from Nomans Land, stalking the Plains. Although Leo reigned supreme, there were those abroad not so noble-minded who continually plotted to make a free-for-all. If they had their way they would abolish the pecking order and anarchy would reign. The Plains would run with blood. If he didn`t make bold of his prowess and authority, if he was less flamboyant, those wannabes might succeed in a coup. How would the deer fare then, my Dears?

Leo was a strong ruler and though sometimes given to excesses of will, he was steadfast and an extremely loyal friend. In the matter of Aries, since the Ram said he had business with the Collective – ‘who surely must have received some intelligence that he had reached the Plains?’ he surmised – Leo now decided it was his sovereign duty to ensure Aries had safe passage on this stage of his journey, to make doubly sure of avoiding unpleasant incidents, thus any unwelcome nosey-parkering. He stood and stretched his limbs. “Soh! It seems I have a distinguished visitor to my Kingdom” smiling warmly he gave Aries a friendly biff on the shoulder. “Welcome to the Plains, and I insist you become a denizen of my court.” With that settled, they set off for home.

Aries felt extremely flattered. Head held high he trotted beside Leo who padded along at an easy pace, leading them to a number of waterholes, each some distance apart.  
‘Your realm, er, Kingdom seems very large?’ he remarked, wondering when they would reach Leo’s ‘court’ and what a ‘court’ might look like.
“Large!” exclaimed the Lion, leaping onto a podium of rocks. “My Kingdom is Infinite,” he declared with a majestic sweep of his paw, brimming with pride for his domain.
‘INFINITE!’ gasped Aries in complete awe, “Then you must be King of the Mountains,” he said in excitement, hopping up beside him.
“Er… well, I… er… don’t bother too much with the mountains I have to confess. I’m umm happy to leave those regions in the hands of the Collective,” bluffed Leo, highly amused at the thought of being ‘King of the Mountains’, laughing to himself at the various protests those of the Collective Realms might make about being deemed his ‘subjects.’ He felt it would be a pity to spoil the illusion immediately. “It um… it rains a good deal in those parts and wet tangles my mane, don’t you know.” He gave a haughty toss of his locks, his expression deadpan. 
“Tsk tsk. How infinitely distressing!” grinned Aries, promptly cottoning on and realising how niave he had been. “Umm, speaking of wet, how far is the next waterhole?”

Sunset across the Plains was breathtaking. Flame-coloured rays emblazoned the tall grasses and the landscape shimmered like a lake of fire under the orange sky. Night followed swiftly turning the sky to pitch before it glittered with a host of stars that seemed close enough to touch. Leo was full of bounce and good humour, glad that he hadn’t ‘bagged’ Aries. They were fast becoming friends, trading stories, competing for laughs. With no fear of betrayal, Leo found it easy to talk about the burdens of his rulership. “I appoint delegations across the Plains to keep an eye on things since I can’t be everywhere at once. Trusted deputies lead these delegations and keep me informed, but I have to keep a close eye on their rank and file too. As well as open competition, there is often rogue in-fighting for these appointments and I find that the strong have most to fear from the weak among their allegiances, for weakness covets strength. Those who least possess the prowess to lead can be the most ungracious in defeat, so become the most disloyal. They eagerly seek to find flaws in their champion, to fall upon him like a pack of jackals.” He gave a low, rumbling growl “Those who lead can ill afford the luxury of any fault or imperfection of conduct!” He was curious about the Ram’s realm and what kind of leadership was enacted there.
Aries replied that he ruled only himself, saying again about his solitary existence in the crater but stating that he felt quite able to command, “Leadership requires a singleness of purpose, as with my quest to follow the Sun” and so it was that they found themselves in accord about many things.

The hour was late when they skirted the edge of a large pool, circled by tall palms. They stepped up to a plateau rising behind the pool and standing proud of the surrounding landscape.
“Home sweet home,” purred Leo. “Ssshhh. Don’t wake the Ladies.”
In silent collusion they crept over the plateau to enter an extremely spacious arbour under the gnarled, spreading boughs of long established acacia trees. “AHA! Stop-outs!” boomed Leo, heading straight to the larder for cold cuts. Aries started, thinking something was wrong. “The Ladies are out,” explained his host. “No doubt at some gathering or other, enjoying a lavish dinner and making arrangements for the season’s entertainments. They are very creative planners especially when it comes to entertaining.” he chuckled. After his late night snack, he showed Aries to comfortable quarters at the rear of the arbour. “Sleep well my friend. I look forward to introducing you to my Pride and Joys in the morning,” and took his leave to lie under the foremost bough.

Aries was the first to wake in the household. He quietly stole past five sleeping Lionesses to reach the edge of the plateau and look out over the magnificent plain. The white caps of the mountains sparkled in the morning light, while in the near distance was a horned skull bleached by the sun. He reflected dismally that Taurus, in particular, would be ill at ease with the drama in the realm of Leo, while the Gemini would find the contrasts of the Plains stimulating. He strolled down to the pool to eat a light breakfast and wait for his host to rise. At length Leo joined him. The Lionesses appeared later at intervals, each in her own time. Once he became acquainted with Leone, Leonora, Lena, Leola and Leila, he soon learned how playful and affectionate they were, making him feel as welcome as possible. But he also observed their queen like quality, expecting their status to be recognized by those around them, desiring their whims and wishes be met at all times.

The cool mornings were usually spent rehearsing hunt sequences and he soon realised that the Lionesses were very organised, as much in command of these dramatic routines as the Lion himself who, to everyone’s satisfaction, preferred to sit back from the action and direct the proceedings.
“Timing!” he roared. “It’s all in the timing. Once more ladies. And let’s get it right!” With only small dissent, they repeated their perfect choreography. On one occasion Aries went along as a spectator when the hunt was for real. He saw how all that rehearsing suddenly came alive. The air was electric with excitement as the dramatic chase played through to its final, closing scene. Leo strode to the fore to claim the glory, his companions following closely at heel. Leonora bossily pushed in front but was smartly checked. The King became aggressive should they try to upstage him.
“It’s that ol’ timing thing” whispered Leila, moving in for her share “Know when to wait for the feed!”

Come the heat of the afternoon, the company invariably retired to spend the rest of the day basking on the plateau and around the pool.
“I adore the afternoons,” purred Leone, as she stretched and rolled in the grass, tickling Aries with her toes, a signal for a play-fight.
“Later,” came his sleepy response. He was dozing comfortably in the shade and knew only too well that tumbling with one meant tumbling with them all, ‘fair shares’ was a by-word in the Leo household. It was too hot to move.
“Later, huh?” she pouted, and with a hint of petulance switched her tail at his nose.
“Don’t be rude,” came his mock rebuke, one eye watching her sashay towards Leo. The Ram wished he could purr. But despite all the tumbling and play-fighting, due to the foresight and talent of Cancer, the Pearl remained safely and secretly in place.

The Ladies lionised Aries, saying he was marvellous in wanting to follow the sun, but none wished to leave their realm to join him on his travels. “There’s so much excitement here why should we seek it elsewhere?” they’d say. And they were right. Life in Leo’s realm was dramatic and colourful. Leo often held court with parties and entertainments. On the grander occasions all attending wore elaborate costumes, masks and headdresses. Many emulated Leo by flaunting false manes while Leo wore the most luxuriant gems and plumage, an opulent testament to his authority. 
The Lionesses bedecked themselves in tiaras and necklaces of gold and fine jewels, and they adored decorating Aries for these events, stringing gold chains and jewels around his horns ’til he sparkled as brightly as all the glitterati present. He became more aware of the importance of politics in this realm, and how quickly unfavourable words or actions could bring exclusion from Leo’s court. For his own part, he felt favoured and relaxed in their midst, avoiding political comment where possible, after all, he was only passing through. At quieter times, when there was no hunting event or party to attend, the starry nights were spent chatting and storytelling by the pool, digesting the days business and, of course, dinner.

Aries had spent many happy days with the Leos but not even their sunny disposition and camaraderie could dispel his longing for fresh challenge. While watching routine rehearsals this morning, his thoughts wandered towards the mountains, but more, to the Collective Realms. He was enjoying life on the Plains, it was challenging and fun, and he’d made many friends, the Leos knew everyone! Everything Cancer had told him about the vivid vitality of the realm he now knew to be true. The vastness of the Plains, the variety of noble, law abiding inhabitants and their differing customs, but more, Leo’s prowess as Sovereign. The realms of Taurus, Gemini and Cancer were more self-contained, their Sovereigns being more solely concerned with their daily business. To some extent this was true of Leo also, but his business involved keeping control of the diversity on the Plains which commanded a flamboyant parading of his leadership.

He felt pleased with himself. He realized how much he had learned since starting his quest. But he hadn’t yet seen it all, hadn’t met the Collective, hadn’t scaled the peaks or explored the mystery beyond the horizon. Loath though he was to leave his friends, his urge to follow the sun was greater. Once the Leos had settled for their afternoon rest, he decided it was time to tell them that he must leave.
“LEAVE!” Leo looked at his friend in profound disbelief. He adored having Aries around, they had been having great times and the Ram’s fiery nature had enhanced his own powers of leadership and authority. “Preposterous!” he growled, dismissing the notion. What Leo did not want, Leo did not accept! Taking a regal stance, he turned his back on the company to gaze across the Plains. The sun beat down as a light breeze swayed the flaxen grasses in a rippling dance. He felt much aggrieved that his friend wanted to depart at this point. He had been planning a huge Extravaganza, invites to all. He would bring the Collective to Aries, saving him the need to journey. A grand surprise. Notices had already been sent to performers and the buzz of excitement was mounting. Now all would be ruined. He would have to cancel because his guest of honour, the very centrepiece of the occasion, had decided to leave! Apart from anything else, he would look foolish, and that, my dears, could never, ever be countenanced.

Feeling their King’s displeasure, the Lionesses circled behind Aries. He stood his ground. He sensed Leo might be displeased by his intention since, as their friendship had deepened, whenever he’d mentioned the peaks, or meeting the Collective, the Leos had quickly changed the subject, avoiding discussion. So he had thought about what to say in his farewell. He knew Leo had his pride and if the King felt his friendship or hospitality had been dishonoured, in a fit of temper he would banish Aries to Noman’s Land, or worse. So he chose his words with care and rehearsed them well. Now all he had to do was deliver them!
He cleared his throat. “My most noble friend, you have welcomed and accepted me as one of your own. None can be more honoured and grateful than I. My time on the Plains has been more joyful, exciting and enlightening than I could have possibly imagined, and you must rest assured that I will always regard you with the greatest affection and hold you in the highest esteem. But as you know, I have a goal and a passion burns within me to see it to completion, if I can. Reluctant as I am to leave the warmth of your company, and all the splendour that is yours, I would be most unworthy of your friendship if I failed even to try to succeed in my endeavours. I am not one to be commanded, and if I remained I would become like some shiftless wretch, exploiting your generosity instead of honouring your fine example by being master of myself.”

The silence was palpable. The Lionesses, barely breathing, stood still as statues, eyes and ears trained on Leo, poised to do his bidding. Their loyalty was absolute. Leo audibly inhaled and slowly turned to face Aries. He thrust his chin forward and exhaling slowly, brought his gaze level with the Ram. This was a problematic and sensitive situation that called for diplomatic handling. He must remain in charge, contain his wrath and disappointment and find some way to forestall his friend until after the planned extravaganza. He must approach this carefully, step by step, in ‘penny numbers’ as he liked to coin it.
“Not forgetting, of course, your important business with the Collective, My Dear”
Aries gave a short, gracious nod. “Of course,” he said with a respectful smile, almost weak with relief that the Lion had accepted his mission. (Taurus, Gemini and Cancer would each, in turn, have applauded his solicitude, eloquence and sensitivity.) Then true to form he dropped the bombshell. “I’ll leave immediately.”
As he turned to speed away the Lionesses closed ranks with lightening speed and blocked his exit, 
“JUST .. one moment Aries!” It was Leone, speaking in her most persuasive tone “We respect your wishes, naturally, but you must not be in such a hurry. You cannot just leave immediately, like some scalded cat!” She gave a small, breathless laugh. “Why, many would suppose you have displeased our King! You would not survive a day on the Plains.” She lowered her eyes to veil the threat and moving towards Leo, continued, “As you so rightly say, you have been accepted as one of our own. Your departure from this realm must, therefore, be such as befits our kin. Anything less would bring us dishonour” and now a plea to his integrity? He wondered where this was going. Lovely as she was, Leone could be temperamental. Feeling uncomfortably out of his depth he cleared his throat again.
“Naturally, I do not intend to bring you dishonour, but I am not quite sure what you mean by ‘befits your kin’?”
She was now whispering in Leo’s ear. The King smiled broadly. “Of course, Leone. You are absolutely right! And thank you, my dearest Dear.”
Leone rejoined her sisters and began conferring quietly with them.
“Forgive me, Aries,” began Leo, beaming. “Befits our kin means ‘In Royal Style’ but your sudden announcement almost caused me to overlook it. As is befitting I must, and will, personally accompany you as far as the last waterhole, near the edge of the cornfields. It would be expected of me.”
“The Plains can be very inhospitable when one travels alone” stated Leila, a meaningful look in her eye.
“And we would all be happier to know that you have safely reached of the lands of Virgo” supported Lena.
“But now we must be getting on, there is a lot to arrange” added Leola, smiling.
‘We have preparations to make for your ‘royal’ departure, the day after tomorrow,’ affirmed Leonora, in a friendly but business-like tone.
They took their leave laughing and talking happily together. Aries watched bemused as they sauntered away.
“Great speech, my Dear,” grinned Leo, settling to take his nap. He had won the day.
Aries accepted that he shouldn’t leave immediately and felt more than happy with the plan; he would have the pleasure of their company a little longer, yet be moving on. This, of course, had been Leone’s ploy. She knew it would better please Leo to spend more time with his friend, to get accustomed to the idea that Aries was leaving, but also that the Extravaganza could still take place. No listed performers would have to be disappointed and, with a little adjustment to the proceedings, even greater excitement would be generated by the changes. Having Aries among them had certainly fuelled their imagination and expanded their ideas when planning functions. Furthermore, since invites to the Collective had not yet been sent, their presence would not be expected nor, more importantly, missed. In this way Leo would suffer no loss of face on the Plains. The Ladies knew only too well that their King sometimes needed managing. If Aries had taken off in a hurry, as was his original intention, Leo’s disappointment could have swept him into a rage, and who knows what fate for Aries then, my deers?
 
***

Intrigues and Mystery

While Aries had been enjoying the hospitality of the Leos’, the Gemini had received a surprise visit from Cancer. She had recently dropped in on them, giving them quite a fright, to thank them for their kind thoughts regarding the Pearl and to find out more about its origins.
Realising the gem must have been brought to the forest, perhaps stolen, and most probably by the Shrike, but definitely not from her realm, she felt strongly that the Collective should be told about it and prompted them to send for the Eagle. It was decided that rather than use the community messengers, they would ‘wait the while’ until Stork came by again. There were still troubles with communications and Cancer thought that despite the wait, it would be safer to follow her inkling that secrecy in the matter was important, and so it was that when Stork came by she agreed to take their summons to Scorpio.

The Shrike had quickly got wind of the Eagle’s arrival and remaining undercover, crept as close a possible to try to overhear what was being discussed. It feared the Eagle, ‘Meddlethummatty!’ The last time she had visited the forest was shortly before that storm, then lightning had split its tree in two. That both Cancer and the Eagle were present indicated something of great importance was being discussed. The company were speaking in very hushed tones and it was difficult for the Shrike to make out exactly what was being said except that the name of Aries was joined with mention of the Black Pearl. However, it rightly deduced that the Gemini had found its treasure and, not realising its importance, had foolishly given it to Aries, and were now just as foolishly reporting their actions to the Eagle. ‘Curtheth! Curtheth and more curtheth!’
But whatever gaps in their report it had misunderstood, or missed, it definitely knew it must locate the Ram to retrieve the Pearl. However, that Scorpio had now become involved threatened to ruin its plans entirely. Frustrated and angry, it had to wait until the cover of night to steal away. It would gather intelligence regarding Aries’ whereabouts as it travelled. ‘I’ll make for the harvetht. Bound to gain newth from thum gothipy thcatterbird.’

After hearing all there was to say, the Eagle took her leave. She did not disclose her own knowledge about the origin and purpose of the Pearl but swore the Twins to continued secrecy about their find, it was vital. “A secret whispered is a secret out” she warned. “In the forest, leaves have ears.” The Gemini understood, and accepted that they were to do nothing further until they heard again from the Collective. Eagle must now hurry back to Scorpio and would look for sight of Aries on the Plains as she travelled.
Cancer, having thoroughly enjoyed her extended time with her neighbours, gleaning many treasures from their woodland streams, decided to return home on the swift wings of the Eagle. She’d left the Gemini with a stack of teacakes and her gift of a crystal for Taurus, which they promised faithfully to deliver on her behalf. They have so much to tell Taurus now that they really will make time to visit.

Once airborne, knowing they couldn’t possibly be overheard, she asked the Eagle to tell more about the Pearl. The Eagle consented, knowing the Crab would be discretion itself. Cancer thanked her profoundly. Now she understood the terrible dream she’d had, but more important, that in letting the Pearl go, she had done the right thing. If she had kept it as a gift its whereabouts may not have come to light, and a terrible tragedy would have resulted.
Unknown to the Shrike there was one tiny creature who had been keeping a close watch on its movements, and had overheard its plan to head for the cornfields of Virgo. This was the mouse who had first found the Pearl in her nest. Soon after her unusual find she became aware of the Shrike’s presence in hiding nearby and stayed undercover in fear of her life. She heard the Shrike muttering about its ‘secret’ and its ‘black treasure’ as it hacked at the undergrowth searching in vain. The Shrike always made the mistake of muttering aloud and was not nearly so silently crafty as it thought itself to be. From such rantings the mouse quickly realised that the treasure the Shrike was looking for was the black gem. She also knew if that evil bird spotted her, and had the slightest suspicion she had found its secret, she would be tortured until she told all and then killed. Once sure the villain had vacated the scene, she made haste to find the Twins to tell them her story.

It was late evening and a couple of days after the Shrike’s departure before the mouse caught up with them. Horrified to learn that the Shrike was still alive, and definitely the thief of the Pearl, the Twins realised that it was now in pursuit of its treasure. They must urgently get word to the Collective Realms if Aries and the Pearl are to remain safe. The Shrike was extremely wily and there was no knowing what trap it may put in place to catch Aries, and what cruelty it would mete out on his capture. They devised a birdsong containing a code which could be deciphered only by the Eagle herself. The song was so tuneful it quickly became popular with the bird communities, who were flocking together at this time, making preparations for their customary migration to Virgo’s corn harvest. The Gemini could do no more and would be quite jittery until they learned of an outcome. The mouse was now free to join her cousins who lived in a particularly pretty part of the woodland scene.

***

Arrival in Virgo’s Realm
Mercury in Virgo

Leo’s ‘In Royal Style’ meant precisely that. With a huge retinue he lead the way along the longer trail across and around the Plains where they would pass a number of waterholes, needed to replenish such a large company. The mode of their procession was like a glorious carnival with musicians and dancers, actors, clowns, jugglers, singers and acrobats all giving their best performances. Aries felt both deeply honoured and humbled to be the subject of such fanfare. For his own part, Leo loved this processional kind of Extravaganza. He vowed to do it again, a Grand Tour around his realm when, of course, he would invite the sovereigns of the collective realms. As the landscape became increasingly verdant, and before the uplands gently dipped into the rolling vales of Virgo’s realm, he commanded his entourage to rest and then return to the Plains proper. He preferred to travel alone with his friend for the short remainder of their journey.

Evening was approaching when they reached the last waterhole, and rain clouds were gathering. Leo’s mood was sultry, akin to that of the weather. The peaks loomed nearer and as Aries’ gaze lingered on the snow-clad pinnacles a thrill passed through him. He could feel his ambitions being filled, that his goal was within reach!

Swaying gently in the foreground, fields of ripened corn shone with an iridescent light under the flint sky. Beyond the large expanse of cornfields he could just discern a small thatched house fronted by a neat carpet of green. Again, this was something entirely new to him. Some larger outbuildings stood off to one side of the house, while planted behind it, mounting a small rise in the land, were rows of trees growing in straight lines. Though the rolling fields reminded him of Taurus’ realm, he could see a difference in the way the land was ordered, it put him in mind of the mercurial Gemini and their woodland shrubs that grew in matching pairs. He turned to Leo to speak his thoughts but noticing his friend’s unusually quiet demeanour decided to quell his enthusiasm, which might seem overbearing and inappropriate. Being firm friends they both felt sad at parting company “Let’s camp for the night in the shelter of those trees” he suggested, “Fresh starts are always better in the morning.”
Leo yawned in agreement then muttered that he hoped the rain would hold off for another day – his mane, don’t you know!

Aries was eager to meet Virgo. Hers was the last realm before reaching the foothills of Great West Mountains, and the domains of those of the Collective. He was gaining a greater sense of the wider world around him. That there was much more waiting to be discovered. What would he learn next? What would be his place in the wider scheme?
His entry into Virgo’s realm was indeed pivotal, and before the coming dawn he would come to realise that the cause and course of his journey were on the point of change. But for the moment, despite his excitement and apprehensions, he and Leo sat in companionable silence under an olive tree at the edge of a small grove, unaware of the Eagle high above. Her gaze missed nothing when hunting, regardless of the cover of trees. She was returning to Scorpio with her news of the Pearl, now also of Aries’ location. Time was of the essence.

Virgo, for her part, was at this time preparing for bed after a busy day getting ready for the harvest. She had counted her chickens, cleared the barn of chaff, sharpened the scythes and last but not least made sure the guest room was spick and span, ready to receive her neighbour, Libra. Libra’s was the first of the collective realms and her closest neighbour, his domain being in the foothills of the mountains.
He was due to arrive in the morning to help gather, weigh and record the yields of which she kept a precise account. Virgo was equally fastidious about her bedtime routine; first a relaxing bath in soothing oils she had distilled from plants and berries, followed with a rigorous brushing of her long golden hair, one hundred strokes to make it gleam, before donning a fresh cotton nightie and slipping between the crisp white sheets of her applewood bed. By the light of a beeswax candle she nestled into the warmth of her goose down quilt and recorded the day’s events in her diary. Because of the ongoing disruption in communications she was unaware that anything was amiss. She didn’t know there had been an earthquake in the distant realm of Aries, nor that the Ram was traversing the lands, even less that he rested on the edge of her cornfields waiting to make her acquaintance…

*
Meanwhile…

Scorpio paced her underground chamber, anxious for Eagle’s return. Serpentis, her snake, sensed her agitation and coiled himself on the cushions around the large iron brazier, burning hot in the centre of the cavern. It had been several nights since the Stork had arrived with the urgent summons that Eagle come to the forests of Gemini. Scorpio had deeply desired to fly with Eagle on such an intriguing mission but knew she could never do that. She would not survive in the open and the sunlight, the shadows and the secret were the qualities of her domain. On the point of distraction with curiosity, she poured herself more wine and slumped into the cushions beside the serpent. Moving his upper body onto her lap, she took comfort in his strong, muscular form, gently stroking his head as her needlesharp mind searched for reasons behind the summons.
At that moment the Eagle flew into the chamber with her news. Scorpio was jubilant. Praising her faithful bird she instructed her to take a little rest. Eagle must embark on another mission before sundown which required great stealth, and for this she would need Serpentis, “Being the eve of the harvest who knows what forces are gathering in Virgo’s realm tonight!” she warned. Confident her agents would do exactly as bid, Scorpio retired to her bedchamber feeling certain of a fait accompli.

*

At his villa in the foothills Libra was busy giving the final polish to a marble sculpture he had crafted. It was a gift for Virgo which he was sure would delight her. With a fine sense of what was aesthetically pleasing, Libra accomplished balance and harmony in his works of art and his environment. Satisfied the finish was perfected, he closed the door to his workshop and strolled through his ornamental gardens to enjoy a moment of tranquillity before returning to the house to prepare for his journey and retire early.

Being of good posture and even proportions, Libra’s suave manner was in step with his classically handsome features. Clean shaven, with well-groomed hair and expressive eyes, the fact that he took good care of himself and his appearance was evident. Though the work was arduous, he enjoyed helping with the harvest, it kept him fit and he usually stayed on for a number of days, after the crops were in.
Virgo was an excellent cook and, when relaxed, a warm and knowledgeable hostess – even if a bit of a taskmaster around her home. He was happy to contribute his efforts in return for her extended hospitality, and would always take her a gift in return for the delicious conserves and wines she insisted he bring home, the fruits of former yields.
Strolling in the evening light he was admiring the late flowering roses, but tranquillity eluded him. Being a sovereign of the collective realms, he was aware of issues that affected all of Zodiac and was deeply troubled. His thoughts were of a looming disaster. It concerned the fate of the Transforming Fire. This fire burned from the core of their world, beneath the Labyrinth of Scorpio which sprawled under the great west range. For some mysterious reason it seemed to be slowly dying and that threatened a catastrophe of enormous magnitude. It endangered the replenishment of the light to their Sun, and the renewing cycle of life.
Amidst this grave concern was also the mystery of the Black Pearl, and the tragedy that was imminent if it was not found before the passing of the thirteenth moon, which was drawing ever nearer. Despite all the councils and investigations held by the Collective, they were unable to find any resolution to these problems. The disruption in communications across the realms had greatly hindered their efforts, but they took some comfort in believing that the culprit responsible for the chaos, the Shrike, had perished in a great storm which had shaken the realms of Gemini and Taurus earlier in the current cycle. Eagle had been under pressure to return in haste with a report about the communications situation and didn’t discover at that time about the earthquake, or that Aries had abandoned his realm. She reported only that the headland was still plagued with dreadful weather and that lightening had damaged Great Tor.
Being unaware of these further dilemmas, Libra strived to put the other matters from mind, thinking the roses were especially lovely. Then he spotted Eagle flying with speed towards the plains, but what alarmed him more was that she carried Serpentis with her. He knew something must be very wrong, perhaps some disaster had befallen Scorpio? but no, Eagle would have come directly to him in such an event. Then it must be that Virgo had sent for the Eagle? What could possibly be wrong? He decided not to wait until morning but to make his way to the farm at once. Harnessing the pony and trap, he wrapped the statue in a blanket and placing it safely aboard, went to fetch his work clothes and change into his riding clothes. If luck was with him, he should make good distance over the moors before the pending storm broke.

Treachery Afoot

Night came. The air was close and humid, but despite the threat of a storm, the grove seemed peaceful. Aries slept soundly, but Leo was uneasy, disturbed by a strange sense of foreboding. He had noticed a large bird alighting on one of the upper branches of an adjacent tree, but knowing it was harvest time, he had thought little of it. This was the Shrike and Leo’s wakeful presence didn’t please it one tiny bit. The Shrike also became aware of another presence, silent and menacing, lurking in the branches above where the pair lay. It could make no move on Aries for the moment.

Restless, Leo rose to take a drink from the pool. There was no moon and the stars were hidden behind a blanket of cloud. This surely was the darkest night he had ever known. A rumble of thunder warned that the storm was about to break. He lapped half-heartedly, longing for the dawn and the return of his beloved Sun. Turning back to the grove, he froze. A streak of lightning pierced the darkness and in its flash he saw the silhouette of a snake drooping from the branches above Aries’ head, its gaping jaws poised at the Ram’s throat. He lunged at the dark shape, his teeth and claws dragging the snake’s body from the tree. Like the lash of a whip the serpent retaliated, sinking its fangs into Leo’s back. The Lion roared in pain and losing consciousness, fell to the ground as the poisoning venom coursed through his veins.

Thunder and lightning clashed. The Eagle flew low in close circles above the scene. She had been waiting in a nearby tree for Serpentis to return but on hearing the cry from Leo, realised that their plan had gone horribly wrong. The serpent was badly lacerated and the deep gashes he had sustained slowed his progress through the long grasses. He just managed to crawl clear of the grove before Aries was fully aware of what had happened. Once the Eagle sighted her companion she swooped down, carefully lifted his torn body in her talons, and winged her way over the cornfields to the cottage of Virgo.

Alerted by Leo’s cry, Aries was horrified to see him fallen and at a loss what to do. The Shrike seized its moment. “I thaw it all fwom my bwanch in that twee. A worm hath bitten the beatht in the back. Lucky it didn’t get you too!” Aries was further startled by this sudden presence and stood speechless. The Shrike spoke again, a crafty plan forming in its mind, “The beatht will die without medithin. You can’t get the poithon out. The beatht ith killed! Quick, follow me. I’ll lead you to thafety before the poithoning worm returnth.”
“This is no beast!” he shouted indignantly. “This is Leo, the King. My friend. I must save him.” His mind reeled. What could he do? Leo was stone unconscious.
The Shrike hovered impatiently. “Then quickly, quickly follow me,” it hissed urgently. “Virgo hath medithin – over the corn. Follow now!”
Glad of help, he rushed headlong into the cornfields as the storm raged. “I can deal with storms,” he told himself, determined to save Leo. “Storms bring good outcomes.”

Beyond the Call of Duty

“My goodness me! What is all this fuss and so late at night?” complained Virgo. Closing her diary she quickly snuffed the candle to deter the urgent rapping at her door. She thought it might be Sagittarius making one of his untimely visits, and she had not the slightest intention of being hospitable to her nomadic colleague at such an unearthly hour, especially in her nightgown. “If that’s you Sagittarius you’ll have to make do in the barn until breakfast,” she called, then covered her head under the quilt, determined not to listen to his pleading responses and be persuaded to open her door for a nightcap and a chat about his latest adventures.
But the rapping continued louder and more urgent. Now fully attentive and feeling more than a bit cross, she quickly lit a lantern before lifting the latch and peeping outside. The sight of the drenched eagle clutching the injured snake was the last thing she had expected or wanted to see.
‘Serpentis!’ She kneeled to examine the deep gashes in the snake’s body. ‘What’s happened?’ she cried, running to fetch some salve from her Ointments cupboard.
‘There is little time,’ urged the Eagle in her low, rasping whisper. “There has been a confrontation with Leo. He lies at the first pool beyond the corn. You must go there”
“Of course I’ll go,” snapped Virgo, disliking to be commanded but understanding the urgency of the situation. She had seen the suffering inflicted by the snake’s bite before. “But tell me what has happened? What is going on?” she implored, smoothing salve into Serpentis’ wounds.
“No time Virgo. Must hurry” was all the Eagle would impart. Once again she gathered up her companion and swooped off towards the mountains and Scorpio’s cave.
“Darn Scorpio!”cussed Virgo, stamping her foot as the impressive bird flew away. “Why must she always be so secretive!” But despite her proneness to nervous worrying, Virgo was able to keep her head in a crisis and acted quickly in response to the Eagle’s request. She deftly braided her hair while scanning the contents of her Potions cupboard.

The clearly labelled bottles and jars, all neatly stacked in perfect order, never failed to intrigue Libra, and he would often sketch them when he visited. He especially liked the arrangement of coloured powders and bottles of little pills that Virgo made, all sugar-coated to taste sweet, and the wisp of a bitter-sweet fragrance wafting like a gossamer veil on opening the cupboard doors. It all held such a fascinating allure. In no time Virgo had selected the ingredients of a potion to neutralise the venom without causing sickness. She mixed the powders with an almond flavoured syrup then decanted the liquid into a glass phial. “All will be well if I arrive in time,” she kept telling herself, repeating it like a mantra as she rushed around filling her bag with everything she would need. Expecting Libra’s arrival in the morning, she quickly scribbled him a note explaining her absence and requesting help if she had not returned home by the time he arrived. Pulling on a warm tunic and her cloak, she pinned the note to her front door, then reaching for her bag and lantern, set out into the hostile night.

She ran across the cobbled courtyard towards a small wooden bridge spanning the stream that irrigated the cornfields. Stepping onto to the bridge she was alarmed to see how much the water had risen and became anxious that her fields would flood. In any event the ground would be muddy for the ensuing days which meant the work would be heavier. And all that slimy mud. Yuk! And the amount of laundry and boot cleaning that would be entailed. Ugh! It was all too much! These worries, coupled with her deeper concern about Leo’s deteriorating condition were enough to upset her delicate tummy. She started to feel quite queasy. But she must press on and knew she had to make her way directly across the field to Leo rather than hope to cover the distance around it in sufficient time. If only she hadn’t loaned her pony and trap to Libra!

Beating furiously at the head-high corn, her nimble frame was a poor match for the rain-sodden stalks that impeded her progress. She was about to cry with frustration when the wind changed direction. The gusts now thrashed the corn away, clearing her path. Being light and fleet of foot, Virgo was able to make good speed and virtually danced along the lengths of bowed stalks, avoiding the sludgy earth beneath. As she made her way the skies began to lift and the downpour eased to a fine drizzle, but the gusts remained strong. Though it was a dark night, her exceptionally keen eyesight could discern the outline of the olive grove, near the waterhole where the Eagle had said she would find Leo.

Virgo found him lying alone, unconscious and almost rigid. Placing her bag and lantern on the ground she kneeled to his chest, listening for a heartbeat. Relieved to detect a faint murmur she hurriedly reached for the phial of antidote from her bag. Cradling his motionless head in her lap she placed the phial between his lips and dripped the medicine as far back in his throat as she could. This done she turned her attention to the wound itself, and holding the light above him looked for visible signs of the bite. A trickle of blood seeped out from under his tangled mane and on closer inspection she found two small punctures between his shoulder blades. If only some of the poison had been drawn off he wouldn’t be in such a poorly state now! Taking a selection of ointments she rubbed them into the wound then covered the punctures with a neat dressing. She removed her cloak and draped it over him, hoping its warmth would restore him to consciousness. Wearily, she went to wash her hands in the nearby water, glad to realise that the rain had stopped. She felt great relief to think that her corn was saved from flooding. Now what she had to think about was how to get Leo to the safety of her farm, for he wouldn’t be able to walk there, and would need proper nursing if he was to regain full health.

Help at Hand

The storm broke as Libra was crossing the moors, the pelting rain slowed his pace. Pulling his travelling cloak around his ears, and tugging his hat over his eyes, he didn’t see the Eagle returning to Scorpio, rushing to get Serpentis home.

The hour was late when he arrived at the farm, but the rain has slowed to a drizzle. There were no lights in the house but as he pulled up he spotted the note pinned to the front door. Virgo’s news was a blow. Before setting off to her aid he unloaded the gift and placed it out of sight in her parlour. He had assured her it was not too fancy, for she preferred simplicity, and that it would enhance the view from her parlour window. It was a small column of purest white marble fashioned in the slender image of Virgo herself, with one arm upraised to support an oval shaped dish which served as a bird table, while the other embraced a sheaf of corn. He had not told her these details for he wished to witness her pleasure when receiving it, and would advise on where best to place it for his workmanship to be most admired. He stoked the wood burning stove and draped the wet blanket over the fender to dry before cutting several slices of bread and honey to take with him.

Virgo heard the pony and trap approaching, surprised but relieved that Libra was on hand so soon. Gently she stroked Leo’s forehead and assured him he would be his old self again in a few days. She recalled her copious letters to him about the prowlers who thieved her chickens and livestock then take refuge on the Plains. Her pleas had hereto gone without satisfactory response but perhaps tonight’s events might make him alert to her losses and more intent about calling the culprits to order.
“Thought you might be hungry” smiled Libra, alighting and offering her a honey slice.
“I’m so tired I don’t think I could eat a thing” she replied wanly. “How come you’re here? I wasn’t expecting you ‘til morning” she merely nibbled at the bread.
“I saw Eagle pass, carrying Serpentis. I knew something wasn’t right. What has happened here?” he moved in closer to Leo.
“You may well ask! All I know is that Eagle arrived at my door with Serpentis, who was also badly wounded, and ‘instructed’ me to come to Leo’s aid saying nothing more than there had been a ‘confrontation’ and that Leo lay dying from the snake’s bite! Lucky I got here when I did, it’s been touch and go, Libra, but I feel sure he will survive with proper care. In a little while we’ll get him into the trap and take him to the farm. I can’t imagine what’s been going on. Why would Serpentis attack Leo?”
“Search me!” responded Libra with a shrug of his shoulders, “the whole world seems topsy turvey at the moment, but Scorpio certainly has some questions to answer! However, you will be pleased to know that I remembered to bring the surprise I promised”
They sat in silence a while, Libra grabbed a short nap, waiting for Leo to stir. As the dark began to lift the sound of Virgo’s cockerel drifted over the corn. Leo raised his head and they helped him to board the trap.

Aries and the Shrike

‘Thith way, thith way,’ croaked the Shrike, pretending to lead Aries straight ahead. The corn reached higher than Aries’ sight line and he needed a guide to keep him on a straight course. However, the Shrike intended to run him in circles until he dropped, exhausted. This way it would meet with no resistance when searching him for the Pearl.
The thief spotted Virgo when she entered the field from the farm. It promptly lead Aries away from her path and around on himself. The wind then changed direction and the stalks were blowing and thrashing against him. “You will have to cwith-cwoth the field, go with the flow. Can’t wun againtht the wind. Too blowy. Follow me,” it cried, again and again. It was such hard going against the corn that Aries conceded the Shrike was right. After a great many arduous criss-crossings of the rain-soaked field, a seriously tiring Aries began to suspect something was wrong. He’d stopped in his tracks a few times to rest a little and leap up to get his bearings, but he seemed always to be in the centre of the field; all he could see was a sea of corn, he was no nearer the homestead. He had become almost expert at judging timings and distances from his time spent on the Plains, and rightly thought he should have reached the far side a while ago, even if he was taking a serpentine path. Why wasn’t he making progress? And he was desperately worried about Leo. At length, panting for breath, he stopped again to sort his thoughts on the matter.
The Shrike set down beside him. “Not far now, take a nap if your tired.” It hoped he would do just that. At that moment the sound of the crowing cockerel caught Aries’ attention. It wasn’t too far away. Again, he sprung into the air to see above the corn. Relief! It seemed he was now only a few leaps from the lawn in front of the cottage.
“I’ll take it myself from here,” he said abruptly, still puzzling why the crossing had taken so long. He wondered if the Shrike had slowed him, guided him wrongly on purpose, or indeed why it would wish to. But that wasn’t his priority right now, medicine for Leo was.
“I’ll catch you later then,” the Shrike croaked after him, blistering at being foiled again. It hadn’t counted on Aries’ determination and reserves of stamina.

With all his strength Aries strained to take his last leap over the corn. Alas, he had not known of the stream. The distasteful memory of Cancer’s lake flashed through his mind as he scrambled shivering from the ice-cold water. Shaking the wet from his ears he walked up to the house and pushed on the door. It opened easily and he walked along a small passageway into the large farmhouse kitchen, bathed in a rosy light from the glow of the stove. He called ‘Hello’ but realised he was alone. Gazing around, awed by the domestic surroundings, he saw Virgo’s note lying on the table next to the bread and honey. Trying to decipher her hurried script, and wishing he’d spent more time on his reading lessons with the Gemini, he managed to make out ‘Leo’ and ‘gone to help.’ He felt a certain relief but was puzzled. How come Virgo knew about Leo’s injuries, or where he was attacked? And who had she left the note for? Feeling unable to think, and hungry, he reached for the bread and accidentally knocked over the honey pot. The sticky fluid spilled onto the table edge and dripped to the floor. Too tired to care, he dragged the blanket from the fender, placed it to catch the drips then sunk in a heap by the stove and slept.

Aires Meets Virgo

The sun was rising as the party crossed the bridge onto the courtyard, and with the sound of the farmyard animals calling for breakfast, no trace of the night’s tempest remained. Virgo asked Libra to make Leo comfortable in the barn while she prepared more medication and saw to her animals.

Upon entering the kitchen she stopped in alarm. On closer inspection the muddy heap in front of the stove was a strange creature swathed in a half a blanket, plus the other half was covered in a mess of honey which had spilled from the table. Everything was a mess! yet the creature was snoring, quite oblivious to the moment. Stressed and fatigued, Virgo’s natural modesty deserted her. She grabbed the blanket and whisked it away, jolting Aries awake. “Get up at once!” she shouted, her blue eyes flashing with indignation. “Look what you’ve done to this blanket you dirty, messy creature!” Aries rose unsteadily to his feet. He was messy; fleece splattered in mud with broken stalks of corn jutting here and there. He was about to speak but didn’t get the chance.
“Everywhere! A dreadful sticky mess!” She was furious. “Who are you? How did you… Ahh. Don’t tell me. You’re the surprise Libra promised, ‘the perfect harvest-time gift’ Well thank you, but No thank you. You’ll find him in the barn.” She pointed to the door. “Out!”
Without protest he made a rapid exit.
“Enhance the view from my parlour indeed!” She slumped into the rocking chair and burst into tears. “What in the name of sanity is going on!” she sniffled, and dabbing her eyes with a clean cotton hanky, decided she must get on.

Aries hurried across the courtyard towards what he guessed to be the barn. Hearing voices he craned his neck around the open door and warily moved inside. Libra was making Leo comfortable on a deep straw bed. Relieved to see his friend alive, Aries pushed past Libra to speak to him. “I’m so glad to see you. I had to leave you. A bird said you’d been poisoned. I had to find medicine” He was feeling awkward, as though he had deserted Leo, let him down. Leo groaned, he just wanted to sleep and wake on the Plains under a glorious morning sun.
“He will be fine. Sagittarius survived Serpentis’ bite and so will he.” assured Libra “But who are you?”
“Serpentis!” Leo was now alert if very weak. “I thought it was some slinker after easy prey. What the blazes is going on?” he groaned again.
“That’s precisely what I want to know,” said Virgo crisply, entering with a tray of oatmeal, skimmed milk and Leo’s medication.
“I asked who you are!” repeated Libra.
“This is Aries’ announced Leo before Aires could speak. “A good friend”
“Aries! The real Aries?” Virgo’s eyes widened in surprise and Aries thought what a beautiful colour they were, they reminded him of the bluebells in the Gemini’s wood.
“What do you mean real?” asked Libra, taking the tray and serving the food.
“Well, amongst other things I had wondered if he was the surprise you had promised!” she teased, sweeping past him to give Leo an assortment of sugar coated pills.
“He is nothing like my gift! My gift is perfect. You’ll adore it,” he said indignantly. “What I want to know is what is Aries doing here!? And please explain what you mean by the real Aries. He looks real enough to me!”
“Oh, nothing really. I’d just picked up some silly gossip on the birdsong that Leo had a new friend named Aries. I imagined it was someone play-acting, masquerading as one of the Realm Sovereigns to enhance their appeal. It’s often done on the Plains as you know, false names and false manes, wanting centre stage at one of Leo’s Gold Star do’s,” she quipped.
Flattered by her answer, Aries spoke up, “I am the real Aries. Adventurer and Explorer, Investigator, Survivor of Earthquakes, Fighter of Bulls, Conqueror of…”
“Never mind the pomp,” said Libra cutting him short. Despite his usually genial nature, he was finding that Aries’ manner irritated him “What we need to know is why you were on the Plains in the first place, and why did Serpentis strike Leo?” his irritation was evident.
“He was asleep,” put in Leo, “he didn’t see anything. I was saving him from attack,” and told what he knew of the incident.
“You saved my life!” exclaimed Aries.
“And you saved mine,” said Leo. “I would be carrion now if you hadn’t run for help”
“Oh, No! It was the Eagle who told me you had been bitten,” said Virgo. “I was on my way before Aries arrived here, and made a mess!” she threw the Ram a scathing glance.
“But I would have been here sooner if that old bird hadn’t led me in circles around the cornfield” he said defensively. “It promised to lead me to help.”
“Old bird?” quizzed Libra. He was none to pleased with Aries; deserting his realm, traversing the lands, he was upsetting the balance of things, “Never mind old birds! Just answer the questions” he snapped. He couldn’t recall sight of an old bird that morning.
“I don’t like your tone!” retorted Aries aggressively “And for that matter who are You!?’’ He didn’t like being questioned at the best of times…
“Forgive me. I am Libra of the collective realms, and you’re right, my tone was a little supercilious” Libra pulled his horns in a little, realising it would be better to employ charm at this juncture. The ram obviously had a hot, impulsive temper that could only inhibit enlightenment of the situation, “But since you are the real Aries then you know that your realm is the one alone, secluded behind the hills of Great Tor. That you are so far from home is unprecedented, and questionable. Such an act could completely upset the balance of things. Surely you understand our concern?”
Aries wondered what ‘supercilious’ meant but decided to find out later. “I know of Great Tor, but there was no realm.” he said flatly, then went on to tell his story in brief.
Libra and Virgo were flabberghasted ‘Earthquake! Following the Sun? But what has happened to your Clan?’ enquired Libra.
“Clan! What Clan. I’ve told you there was only me in that crater. I know nothing of any Clan” Aries tone brooked all argument. Libra and Virgo exchanged worried glances, at a loss as to what to make of it all.
“What about Scorpio – have you met her Eagle or Serpentis on your travels?” pressed Libra.
“I have never heard of Scorpio til now, or anyone connected with her” he answered truthfully.
“I have no idea why she wants to attack me, believe me. Let’s go and speak to her now, find out.”

Virgo believed he was being sincere and could see the sense in going to Scorpio. However, a trek to the mountains and back would take a number of days and she had her crops to get in, as well as nursing Leo. She feared she might be left in the lurch and looked to Libra for some resolution. He didn’t wish to go haring off to the mountains now either, he was tired, nor he did he have his mountaineering gear with him. Also, he was aware of Virgo’s dilemma. After short deliberation he gave his view “We do need to question Scorpio, of course. However, there’s no need to go off to the mountains at once. It is harvest time and there is every chance the Eagle will return here soon. This is a time when she can gather a deal of information without travelling too far afield. It is my suggestion we wait, and in the meantime help Virgo to get her crops in.”
Aries agreed. On consideration, he preferred not to leave Leo before he was more recovered and besides, he wanted to learn more about Ms Virgo, and this Libra fellow.
“Good, all’s in order” smiled Virgo collecting the breakfast dishes “I suggest we take a rest before making a determined start this afternoon. In the meantime, Aries, follow me please” the steady gaze of her lively eyes entreated that he obey.
She lead him across the courtyard to a small outhouse built over the chimney stack at the side of the cottage. Slipping the latch she held the door ajar. He moved past her into a warm, perfumed room. “I’m sure you’ll know what to do” she smiled, closing the door behind him and a tub of steaming foam.

*

The Shrike lay low on the edge of the cornfield. It watched as Aries entered the barn and seeing the coast was clear, sneaked into the hayloft to listen. It was fuming. It daren’t risk being spotted at the harvest now, a time when it had planned to recruit more ‘messengers’ to its cause: to take by the foulest means that which was not its to have!

With the collective’s intelligence impaired the sovereigns would have little choice but to accept the lie it was seeding to grow: that it had won possession of the ‘prize Pearl’ in Nomans Land when rousting a gang of insurgents who’d been foraging on the Plains. It would be seen as a Hero, ‘a rightful new Sovereign of the Realm.’ However, Aries stumbling into the midst of things had caused complications and the Shrike was having to adapt its plans. Again, it must wait to see what moves Aries would make next. That the Ram had made no mention of the Pearl pleased but puzzled it. Why, when he was boasting about his travels, didn’t he mention that the Gemini had bestowed him with such a glorious gift, especially since rumour has it that he had lost his own realm? Surely it was a prize worth mentioning… hmmm? A glimmer of enlightenment dawned: ‘Concluthion! Wammy don’t know he got it, which ith why he didn’t tell. Of courth, he don’t know anything!’ With great relief it realised that all it had to do now was to wait until Aries was alone and secretly steal it back. If stealing proved too tricky, it would have to convince the Ram that the Gemini had stolen the Pearl from itself, and were using him to hide proof of their theft. It would persuade him to hand over the gem as an act of decent honesty then peck out his eyes and split his tongue. ‘Eathy peathy.’

However, Scorpio’s recent involvement in the matter threatened to ruin its plans entirely. The Shrike cast its mind back to the meeting in the forest, trying to recall what it managed to overhear.
“Eagle knowth that Wammy got the Pearl.” But what the Shrike found equally puzzling was that the Eagle, or more correctly Scorpio, had not shared this intelligence with others in the Collective… hmmm?
“And how come Thcorpio’th worm attacked the Wam at night… ahaa…?”
Its manipulative mind moved around the facts to find the answers. Because the Shrike was unaware of both the mouse’s and Cancer’s part in it all, it began to deduce that the Gemini and Scorpio were somehow in collusion over the Pearl. The Eagle had been in the forest when its nest had toppled, perhaps they’d found it then and hatched a plot, and are now using the unsuspecting Ram as a scapegoat in some way… hmmm? The Shrike was greedy, deceitful, ruthless and vain. Its biggest error was believing that everyone thought and behaved like its wicked self in matters of possible gain. “I want only one domain. Thcorpio ith plotting to get power over two! Eegh! The wicked thchemer!” But whatever silly muddle it was making for itself, the Shrike realised that it must get possession of the Pearl before Aries made his intended visit to Scorpio, and certainly while Libra was still in the dark about the gem’s whereabouts. If it was successful in that endeavour it reasoned there would still be enough confusion in communications for it to bluff its innocence against any claims the Gemini and Scorpio might make against it, and for its lie about obtaining the Pearl in Nomans Land to succeed – well, just about. “Thtay focuthed, thtay cool.”

*

After a rest and a light lunch the remainder of that day and the next few were spent gathering the crops until the heavier work was completed. Making good use of the brief opportunity during break times, Virgo took notes for her diary as Aries recounted his travels. In turn, he realised how resourceful she was, and a tireless worker. She seemed so intense while cutting the last of the corn he felt the urge to tease her. “It’s hard work being part of Leo’s realm isn’t it?”
Her eyes flashed, “Part of Leo’s…?” she gasped, mopping her brow with a forearm and brushing strands of hair from her face. “How dare you even think…”
“It’s just a little joke,” he said laughingly. He’d obviously touched a nerve.
“Aah, I see…. And whose little joke, exactly?” Virgo was sharp as a knife and guessed rightly that Leo was the author of this little joke!
“You have very pretty eyes,” he grinned, wanting to change the subject.
She relaxed, amused by his cheeky smile. “I also have a cupboard full of pretty little jokes. Part of Leo’s realm indeed!” But his ruse had worked and she sat to take a break.
He asked what ‘supercilious’ meant.
“Well…, pompous, feeling superior, I suppose,” she answered, taking a drink of water.
“Are all the Collective supercilious?” his tone was serious.
“What a strange question.” She laughed softly. “Sometimes they all might seem so is the most truthful answer. But they do do invaluable work. Why do you ask?”
“It’s a word I heard.” he shrugged, then asked her about Libra.
“Libra is a good neighbour, he lives in the foothills. As you can see he is an enormous help to me at these times. Also, I sometimes get bogged down in too much detail, worrying, giving rise to headaches and tummy upsets, that’s why I strive for order. In his desire to achieve harmony, Libra’s sense of order calms me. Unlike me, he is able to relax easily, though I will say that sometimes he relaxes too easily, especially when it comes to the more unpleasant tasks around the farm. He will be more than fair to himself should he wish to avoid doing something.”
“And who is Sajee .. something, someone he mentioned who has also been bitten by Serpentis?”
“Aah, that will be Sagittarius, but we call him Saj. He is also one of the collective and lives on a plateau high on the range. As for Saj, well, he is very good-humoured and great company, but often I find his jokes inappropriate. He travels a lot and knows a great deal but also he tends to preach a bit and thinks he is right about everything when, of course, no-one is right all the time. Forgive me, it’s not that I mean to criticize either of them, I can be a bit too pernickety myself, we all have idiosyncrasies, but it is important that we at least try to be perfect, hmm?’ she gave him a gentle dig in the ribs with her elbow, “And it’s the same when I prepare my fields for planting, the more thorough I am when tilling the earth, sifting out the weeds and stones, the better the crops will root and the better the harvest.”

None too sure how perfect she might find him, he changed the subject to her orchards and fields saying how they reminded him of Taurus. However, she also put him in mind of the Gemini since they were interested in detailed information, except they were more talkative and preferred play to work, or so it seemed to him. She laughed again, acknowledging his comparisons, saying she knew more about the Gemini because of the many birds which flocked to her fields from their realm. “Until the troubles in communications we used to exchange news regularly. I miss their bulletins, snippets of gossip from the forest and will be glad when normal service is resumed!”
He was about to tell her of their clever scheme in returning that Black Pearl to Cancer, but Virgo had stood to resume work, saying time enough had been spent chatting. Not wanting to be seen to shirk, he said no more. He considered the incident an unimportant detail anyway so promptly forgot about it. Little did he know that this small omission would lead him to mortal danger and cast him to the depths of despair.

Virgo admired Aries’ energy and capacity for work. She found he encouraged her own resolve and she felt he was a positive force when it came to getting things done. She told him he would be a welcome visitor to her farm at any time. When their day was over, Libra enjoyed the comfort of his usual room in the house while Aries chose to stay in the barn and keep Leo company. To the Shrike’s abject frustration, Aries was constantly in company and it had no chance to accost him. It was vital that no-one else became aware of its presence at this time. The birds had flocked to the fields from all regions, trilling over and over the song the Gemini had composed for the Eagle. The Eagle, however, had been conspicuous in her absence causing everyone to work faster in order to make a start for the mountains.

***

All Change
Venus in Libra

They had worked tirelessly and Virgo was pleased that the harvesting was completed in record time. On the morning of their departure, she laid on a farewell breakfast fit for kings. The aroma of freshly-baked bread had everyone hastening from their beds to gather around the big oak table nestled under the boughs of an old apple tree in the orchard behind her cottage. There was a sumptuous assortment of jams and honey, cheeses, yoghurts, fruits, cereals, scrambled eggs, mushrooms and juices.

Though it was pleasant to relax in the early morning sunshine, Aries was eager to get going. Virgo had packed a lunch of fruit and sandwiches for their journey and when all were ready, she and Leo walked them through the orchards and past the rows of beehives to take their farewells at the edge of her vineyards. Leo was feeling very much better but would stay a few days more since he had suddenly developed a ‘gippy tummy’? Otherwise, he was so appreciative of Virgo’s caring for him he promised that once he returned to the Plains no thieves would dare to scavenge her livestock.

Deeper Meanings

Pony trotted at a brisk pace making good speed over the moorlands. Aries asked about the Collective realms “Why are you different from the realms in the east?”
“It’s quite simple,” Libra began, “But perhaps I’ll start by quoting my good friend Sagittarius ‘First you must accept that nature, as a totality of physical entities, creates unity and balance in all things’ unquote”
“Simple!” exclaimed Aries, whose expression showed that he hadn’t expected such highbrow postulations about nature and unity. He just wanted to know who was who and what they did that was different.
“Well perhaps nothing is quite as simple as it seems” smiled Libra “However, as you have seen, the realms east of Virgo, including your own before the earthquake, are self-contained and are a separate world in themselves, whilst being a part of the larger world. The aim of those sovereigns is to preserve the ‘individualism’ of their realm within the larger scheme.”
“Right” He felt that he had worked this out during his experience in the realm of Leo.
“Conversely,” continued Libra, “the realms west of Virgo are collected together, on and over and under the Great West Mountain Range, apart from the Pisces, but I won’t confuse you with them for the moment, though they are part of the Collective. However, these sovereigns, of which I am the first you have met, have the collective aim of preserving the mountain range, and the larger world, which supports our individual domains. Do you see?”
Aries nodded. He thought he saw; the world was a concoction of opposites! East and West, left and right, night and day. He recalled the sovereigns east of Virgo: Taurus protects his domain. He liked his creature comforts and not even an earthquake could get him to venture. The Gemini were kept busy with the varied and ever renewing environment of their domain. Cancer was attached to her lake and all she had collected. She liked to trade but used Stork for the transactions rather than leave her home and treasures. Leo. Aah yes. Leo was devoted to controlling his territory, preserving his status. As for himself, “All I have to preserve is … Me!” he concluded.
“Yes” sighed Libra “at cost of all else”
“That’s unfair!”
“No. It’s not unfair. It is the way it is. The way you are in the same way that Taurus and Gemini, Cancer and Leo are. I am making you aware of it, that is all” he casually shrugged his shoulders “But returning to Virgo for a moment. She is self-contained like the realms to the east, but she gives her help and services to the aims of the Collective realms in the west, recording events of our meetings and councils, sharing the crops, and we in turn help her with whatever she may need to run the farm.”
“A sort of link between the two,” he said. Though still smarting from Libra’s assessment of him, he was determined to get as much information as he could.
“Exactly so,’” replied Libra “And it also falls to those of us in the Collective to co-operate on the larger tasks of preserving harmony and balance throughout all the realms. After all, east or west we are all part of a much, much larger scheme if you count the Sun, the Moon and the Stars too, which the collective do.” He paused a moment, deep in thought. He was reflecting on how Aries was causing him to think, to consider how opposite in approach they were. Whilst this was challenging it was stretching his own comprehensions, his faculty of ‘harmonising’ relationships between one and the other.
“Something occurs to me concerning the reason you ventured out” he said, “Perhaps, and it’s just an idea you understand, but because your realm had become too isolated, those of the realm, which means yourself, naturally, had reached the imbalanced point of believing that nothing existed beyond that realm. Whatever happened there happened because you had to make this journey, had to gain a balanced perspective.” He looked earnestly at the Ram
“I’m… er… not sure,”stammered Aries. Even accepting that he had a realm, which he didn’t, he saw himself as the driver, not the driven towards his goals and accomplishments. To adopt the view that his quest was not entirely his own idea, that it was some role he had been chosen to play in the greater scheme of things was contrary to his assertive spirit. It didn’t sit well with him.
“But while such an idea might offer an explanation for your adventuring,” added Libra, “it doesn’t explain what has happened to the Clan.”

He felt Libra was again putting him on the spot, and again he told him that he could recall nothing but the crater and the fog. He decided to change the subject, “What are these larger tasks of the Collective? And who is Scorpio?” He was both angered and intrigued by this mysterious sovereign. It seemed they were adversaries yet had not even met!
“From what we can tell, our world first sprang from fire then came light. Scorpio is the Sovereign of the dark recesses of our world where many things lay buried since the beginning of light. Her domain includes the Labyrinth which sprawls like a web under the mountains and reaches deep into the core, the heart of our world where the Fire burns bright. We call this the Transforming Fire. Our world is old with many secrets waiting to be discovered and the Labyrinth holds many of these secrets. In its deepest passages crystals are formed from all that has gone before. When these crystals are scorched by the flames of the Fire they absorb the heat and light and are transformed into fire-bright gems. Our main task is to bring these gems to the surface. We place them on the highest peaks where they freely return the light of the Fire to the Sun, when the Sun has reached the end of its cycle, so it can begin anew. It is an offering of regeneration to the Sun, to continue light and life.” He paused again, weighing what he knew of Scorpio, and recognized her way of reacting to situations was very similar to that of Aries. He would be the first to admit that the Ram ruffled him, but at the same time this stimulated him into making fresh appraisals of his responses to his neighbours. “It is Scorpio’s task to mine these gems. Serpentis is her faithful guide in the Labyrinth, only he can sense the way in the darkness there. The Eagle is Scorpio’s ears and eyes abroad for Scorpio rarely leaves her domain. She is sensitive to the light and prefers to remain in the shadows. One of the few times she leaves her realm is on the eve when we hold our festival, ‘The Celebration of Light.’ on the night of the thriteenth moon”
“Tell me about the Celebration,” said Aries, excited by this new information. The world was full of mysteries he had been unaware of but was now keen to know about. Perhaps there was truth in what Libra had said about a larger scheme of things, and his individual purpose to journey? But surely he was self-motivated? Although he can’t remember how or why he came to be in the crater he knew it was his idea, his alone, to escape that place. But then came the earthquake, a happening beyond his control. It was this event that set had him free. He needed to reconcile his thoughts about these ideas but decided he would do it later. Now he wanted to hear about the festival.

“As I said, the Celebration begins on the night of the thirteenth moon, the longest night when our Sun has reached its darkest hours.” explained his host “At this time, after Scorpio has delivered caskets of the gems, and Sagittarius has taken them on to Capricorn’s realm where they are placed upon the highest peaks, we gather on the plateau of Sagittarius and light a huge bonfire. There is a great banquet to celebrate the gems as well as the harvest’s yields. There is music and dancing, all the usual festive activities, until it is time for the new dawn and the beginning of the next cycle. The rays of the new Sun lighting the dark is the most spectacular dawn of them all!” he sighed, memorising the beauty of it.
“I want to be at the Celebration!” said Aries
“I think it is the perfect reason for your quest. You broke out of your isolation to ‘follow the Sun’ and your explorations have led you to discover this event of the Celebration. A really perfect reason, I think. Once we clear up this matter with Scorpio, the Collective will welcome you and help with the matter of your Clan. But first we must call at my villa to get my mountaineering gear” Libra then became quiet, enjoying the rich hues of the autumnal landscape. This was the time of year he most enjoyed to capture on canvas. He hoped this business with Scorpio and Aries would be soon cleared up, not take up too much of his ‘painting time.’

Aries tthought the heather cloaked moors were breathtaking in the late morning sunshine. He was enjoying the cool autumn climate, better suited to him than the heat of the Plains. Something about the landscape felt strangely familiar, though he’d never been in these parts. Ahead, the mountains dominated and being at closer range he could discern that the blue green pines of the lower slopes ascended to a wide, grassy plateau spreading towards the base of the snow capped peaks. He remained quiet and wistful, enjoying the journey for its own sake. He didn’t mind too much about this excursion to Libra’s villa, although he would have preferred to press on to see Scorpio and clear himself. He supposed it must be important to Libra to collect his mountaineering gear, “At least I’m naturally geared for mountaineering!” he grinned to himself, feeling just a little supercilious.
Moving on, his mind conjured images of Scorpio and what had been explained about the fire-bright gems, but even more he thought about the purpose of his quest, and this question of a Clan, to which his mind drew a blank. Not wanting to dwell on this he asked Libra about Sagittarius, how come he had been bitten by Scorpio’s snake?
“Ahaa, therein lies a tale…. At the last Celebration, Sagittarius, who is a keen archer, having drank too much wine, was carousing in a boisterous fashion and began lighting arrows, firing them at the stars. All great fun until he accidentally stepped back onto Serpentis, who was coiled up close to the bonfire. Serpentis had also over-indulged and was sleeping off the effects, but on being trampled instinctively retaliated giving Saj a nasty nip on the hindquarters. However, that was not the worst of it. At that same instant an arrow which Saj had poised to fire flew drastically off course and lodged itself in the outstretched wing of the yawning Eagle, who was rather upset – to put it mildly – to find herself pinned to the ground by a flaming brand. Aquarius swiftly doused both the flame and Eagle with pitcher of snow. As you can imagine, mayhem broke out!” Libra laughed aloud, clearly enjoying his recollections. “Scorpio swept up her bird and snake and left in high dudgeon, refusing to aid the errant Sagittarius one iota. She can be quite unforgiving when crossed. Of course it fell to me to fetch Virgo, who was spending a few quiet days at my villa having left the festivities early because it was all becoming too rowdy. Virgo then had to nurse Sagittarius at his home because he was unable to travel to hers, and under the most appalling conditions, that is from her point of view I must add. Apparently he was not a good patient. First, he wouldn’t rest, as Virgo had insisted, then refused his medication saying it wasn’t having any effect. She accused him of being bigoted against her expertise and methods because she was more disciplined and orderly than him. He made jibes about her pernickety fussiness, she then complained about his shoddy housekeeping and so it went on. As he recovered it seems he regaled her with tales of his travels, several times over, insisting she should traverse the regions around her in order to broaden her mind. Virgo retorted that she had more than enough to think about and the last thing she needed was some glorified gaddabout suggesting she take a jaunt to improve herself. Imagine!” he laughed again “In any event, I then had to make peace between Virgo and Saj, as well as between Scorpio and Saj. I fear I would be worn to a frazzle if all across the realms decide to take a jaunt – as recent events demonstrate.” Once again, Libra found himself testing Aries.
“Because you now have to make peace between Scorpio and me?” Aries felt he could fight his own battles. “But I’m prepared to confront Scorpio myself about why she is attacking me. You don’t have to speak for me.” He stated his case in a reasonable tone, refraining from his usual ‘attack in defence’ mode. Libra exuded a calm poise in contrast to his own fieriness and being aware of this difference was prompting him to practise more restraint.
“That’s precisely why I will speak in the matter,” replied Libra. “Confronting another tends to cause disputes not resolve them. In the circumstances you may find yourself getting heated and angry, not representing yourself accurately and worsening matters. Equally, so might Scorpio, she too has a temper. I strive for harmony which is why it falls to me to mediate, to restore equilibrium. In most disputes all parties feel they are in the right, therefore, in most cases it is necessary to have an impartial party to weigh the argument of both sides against the known facts. When viewed clearly, the facts tend to point to the solution or truth of a matter, even when one is blind to, or hiding the truth of their own part.”
Aries felt he was hiding nothing but let the matter rest. He had too many new exciting things to think about.

By early afternoon they had crossed the moors and were in the foothills. “Almost there” announced Libra, and as they crested the brow of a high hill his elegant white-walled villa came into view, nestled among cypress trees near the top of the next rise. Feeling quite hungry they hurried through the ornamental garden. Aries admired the copper fountains. These were sculpted into large fish whose mouths spouted spumes of water into long, narrow lily pools edged by kidney shaped flower beds. They stepped inside the villa to a spacious sitting room. The walls were covered with large, glowing canvasses and ornate mirrors. Here and there were beautiful sculptures and artefacts, and a basket of orchids filled the room with a delightful perfume. He was fascinated by the clarity of his reflection in a mirror.
“This is magnificent!” he cried, preening and admiring himself. “The Leos would really adore this!”
“That’s a very good idea!” agreed Libra, enthusiastically. “An excellent ‘thank you’ gift for their hospitality! And thank you, Aries for suggesting it.” He gave the Ram an unexpected, friendly hug.
“Once this business between yourself and Scorpio is resolved, I will make a Grand Mirror, a most suitable gift for Leo and those wonderful Extravaganzas. I’m looking forward to the next one! The mirror is made from a material called glass, the result of an accidental experiment between Pisces and Aquarius. However, very simply, glass is made by melting sand at very high temperatures. It becomes a molten liquid that can be formed into shapes, like these windows.” He tapped the glass lightly. “But you have to be careful, it breaks easily and shatters everywhere.” He had apprehensions of the Ram crashing through the opening. “Best make that a travel proof mirror for the Leo’s” grinned Aries.

As well as the visual beauty, there was a sense of peace and spatial serenity about the room. The villa was quite different from Virgo’s homestead, being given more to gracious living than cottage industry. Libra suggested they eat in the garden where they could sit and admire the mountain views. And here they were joined by his pet dove who flew down from her cote to sit on his shoulder. In a tender voice he asked would she fly to Scorpio’s realm and give notice of their intended visit.

The Shrike had left the vineyards and had followed them at a safe distance. Once sure they were in the garden, it crept inside the villa, making a note of Libra’s portable treasures. As soon as it was able to set up its grand nest in the realm it planned to make its own, it would certainly return for some tasteful furnishings.

When their late lunch was finished, Libra showed Aries around his home. On the tour Aries stopped to admire a full-sized statue standing in a corner of the entrance hall. It was of a beautiful, nymph-like female. She was borne within a large sea-shell rising above foaming waves, her luxuriant tresses cascaded over her shoulders to meld with the filmy drapes of her raiment. “She’s beautiful” he sighed.
Libra smiled warmly at the compliment. “She’s Divine. And entirely of my imagination.”
He was especially proud of this work “Perhaps you would like to see my workshop, we have a little time.” He had decided to wait until morning to set off to see Scorpio and spend a relaxing night at home before trekking into the mountains. At first Aries was cross about the delay. He felt Libra was frustrating him on purpose. They argued about it but he conceded that Libra knew the terrain better than himself and so reluctantly agreed with his plan.
He lead Aries through the gardens to a large, airy studio where half-finished canvasses lay against the walls. Aries poked around and found some discarded statues, similar to the one in the house.
“Why aren’t these on display?”
“Well, they are not quite perfect,” answered Libra.
Aries was openly astonished. “They look perfectly perfect to me.”
“Perhaps, but after a while I notice the flaws and feel I have to create another, more perfect image. There is beauty that is appreciated only by the eye of the beholder. And there is an ethereal beauty which is appreciated by the eyes of all. This is what I try to create” With that he changed the subject. He was aware of his inclination to find flaws but was not inclined to justify himself at the best of times, and especially not with the instigator of so much disorder! “Dove has flown ahead to inform Scorpio we will be there tomorrow” Aries asked again how far it was to Scorpio’s realm. Libra said it was almost a days climb up to the canyons hidden between the peaks, just below the plateau of Sagittarius. To placate Aries he drew him a rough sketch of the trail they would take. “Trust me. It is safer to overnight here and make a start in the morning. The light fades early in the mountains and it’s a treacherous route, unwise to attempt it at night.”

When the Shrike saw them walking towards the house it quickly flew outside. Deciding to take a chance, it flew on towards them, boldly landing on the garden table. “Hallo. I thaw you ath I wath flying by. How pleathant to meet you again. I heard the good newth that your Lion fwend ith better now,” it smarmed.
“He is fine,” was Aries’ short reply. It was apparent that he didn’t feel very pleasant about this visitor’s surprise arrival.
“I thee you’re thtill twavelling. Where are you off to now?” it enquired.
“Should that be any of your business?” he said.
“Oh, I don’t mean to pwy. I’m impwessed by your ambithions. I have heard much about you at the harvethting.”
It sounded plausible, and there was no call to be rude in reply.
“We are making our way to Scorpio,” he answered “About that business with Leo in the grove.”
“Of course!” exclaimed Libra. “My wits deserted me for a moment. Apparently you were at the scene. Tell us exactly what you saw. Hopefully you can shed light on the matter.”
The Shrike was delighted. Events were moving its way. Without waiting to be offered food, it helped itself to the bread left over from the meal.
“So tell us, did you see anything before then? Was there any warning?” asked Libra
“Oh no. No warning. I had been on my way to the harvetht – I like to be early – and had thtopped to wetht for the night” It paused, recalling the scene in detail. Of course! The snake was at Aries` throat. Well, well. It fixed the Ram with a malicious gaze. It now knew exactly where its treasure was hidden. It could feel its heart race but it must keep cool. “I wath thleeping until I heard the Lion howl,” it lied, “but I thaw the worm get away and knew what had happened.”
“Sleeping? Is that all?” pouted Libra, not impressed by the stranger’s information, or its lack of table manners.
“Well, not a lot more to tell – exthept that I thaid we mutht get the poithon out, or thumething like that, I can’t wemember clearly – it wath quite a dwama you know.” It was testing the water, a little lie to see how the Ram would react.
Aries shifted uncomfortably. He couldn’t remember too clearly either but felt that this account wasn’t quite how it had been, however, he made no immediate challenge.
“Then I offered to lead the way to Virgo, to get help. But our fwend here took off on hith own, wunning awound in thirclth in the corn. I twied to help but he wouldn’t heed me.” It now risked this greater lie to counter what Aries had said in the barn. It was simply a case of Aries’ word against its own, no-one could prove anything. Divide and conquer, cause confusion, that was its usual policy and it usually paid off.
“That’s not true!” postulated Aries, now furious at this blatant misrepresentation of the facts. “You led me in circles,” he said angrily.
“Led you in thirclth? In my condithyon?” It gave a racking cough. “But why would I do that? What would be the point?” it shot a look of believable incredulity towards Libra, who in turn looked at Aries. The Ram sensed Libra’s mind weighing towards doubting him.
“You can’t believe this stranger?” he argued defensively.
“This whole business is so, so odd, it’s hard to know what to believe,” answered Libra, caught between the schools of thought. “We need to speak with Scorpio.”
Aries’ temper flared at this seeming injustice. He had lost his patience with Libra’s constant testing and doubting of him. “I don’t need you to speak for me! I’ll find Scorpio myself and speak with her tonight.”
Before Libra could stop him he charged out of the garden in a fury, the route to the canyons clear in his mind. Libra was also furious but let him go. No way was he venturing into the mountains at night. If Aries found his way to Scorpio, and he felt sure he would, he’d catch up with him tomorrow. If the Ram got himself lost, then he would first hear Scorpio out and they could launch a search. No-one could get too far in that terrain overnight.
“Hot- headed fellow ithn’t he’ remarked the Shrike “I’d better be on my way too” and took off in pursuit.

***

Revelations
Mars and Pluto in Scorpio

With a clear memory of the route from the sketch, Aries found the track which climbed though the pine woods to the canyons. The terrain was inhospitable and swirling draughts whipped grit around his legs. Once or twice he had slipped and almost fallen, but he had made no mistakes in the route and his fury had lent him speed. The Shrike flew ahead trying to flag him down, but he set his horns against it. No way would he speak with that creature again. It could now only follow on his heels and hope a chance would come, its mind racing to form another plan, a trick to win the Ram’s confidence before it was too late.

A thin crescent moon gave little light when Aries eventually entered the box canyon which held the entrance to Scorpio’s cave. The formations in the walls of rock were convoluted with deep folds and creases. The mouth of the cave was set a little way up the rock face at the rear of the canyon, and in front of the opening was a wide ledge upon which stood a tall column of granite. This was the Eagle’s perch, her lookout-post from where she viewed the approaches to the canyon. Tonight it was vacant.
Running up the steep steps to the ledge, he could see a flickering glow from the entrance of the cave. Dismissing his apprehensions, he entered the long, low tunnel, running its length to emerge into Scorpio’s chamber. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, not at all what he’d expected – though he wasn’t sure what he had expected. He looked about, but there was no-one to be seen or heard.

The Shrike hovered outside, furious. Here, it dared not enter. If Scorpio succeeded in obtaining the Pearl then its only recourse was to blackmail her. The secrecy about Eagle’s meeting with the Gemini was highly suspect after all, and the Collective didn’t keep secrets from each other did they… no… everything must be debated and agreed. But that didn’t happen did it… “No! Then blackmail it ith.” Feeling a little less despairing about outcomes, the Shrike decided to hide nearby and do what it does best – hatch nasty schemes.

The chamber was higher and more spacious than Aries’ first impression. Hot coals glowed, cradled within the latticed frame of a large iron brazier standing in the centre. Vaporous wisps curled from the ashes suffusing the air with a sweet, musky aroma, and soft velvet cushions were piled in a wide circle around the fire. Tall candles stood in groups amid the stalagmites around the floor, their soft golden glow coalescing with the rosy warmth. Stalactites were clustered around the edges of the cavern roof casting eerie shadows to haunt the darkened, misshapen corners.
His attention was caught by large tapestries which adorned the walls. He counted twelve of these, all finely embroidered with gold and silver thread. Each had a different gemstone embedded on its hem. He scanned the motifs on the tapestries, fascinated by the pictures and strange symbols they depicted.
He recognized the likenesses of those sovereigns he had met so far but was quite shocked to see a tapestry depicting himself as a sovereign, with a realm, not the crater he had known. Can it be true, he wondered? Why couldn’t he remember it or feel it? Why didn’t he want to own the realm? The various birds and plants he had seen in the realms he had traversed were also skilfully embroidered on each tapestry, along with the Sun, set against differing backgrounds of star constellations, and the Moon in its various phases of reflected light. Similar imagery was depicted on his tapestry, the moon was a thin crescent though the Sun was in its full glory. “No it can’t be. I don’t have a Realm. There is only me!”
He prevented himself from pursuing the thought and looked for the tapestry which depicted Scorpio. He thought he could tell, but wasn’t quite sure for he didn’t know enough about the other sovereigns he hadn’t yet met – which one was Sagittarius, Capricorn, or Aquarius and what about the Pisces? Libra had said he wouldn’t confuse him with the Pisces… But Aries was as confused and depressed as he had felt in the crater. Frustrated by his ignorance about himself and all he did not know, he felt small, defensive and angry.
“I hate these pompous, self-righteous, supercilious sovereigns of the west!” he railed. He wanted to find Scorpio this instant and demand an explanation for her attack on him.

He ran from the chamber more angry than he had been in the whole of his memory. Passing under an arch he came to a second, much smaller chamber, lit by a flaming brand anchored to the far wall. He could see several caskets stacked against the walls, some wrought in gold, others in silver and copper, all with ornately inscribed lids and filled to their velvet-lined brims with sparkling stones of various sizes and colours. But sight of these riches didn’t interest him beyond reminding him of Cancer’s cave of treasures. Confronted by two further openings, he sped headlong into the one on the right, giving vent to his rage by his breakneck pace, shouting and challenging Scorpio to appear.

The lighted brands became fewer as he ran through the maze of low ceilinged passages, and were set at greater distances apart but worse, the brands behind him began to flicker and die. The darkness of the Labyrinth slowly closed around him. He stopped running, breathless and in the dark. There was no sign of Scorpio. He turned to make his way back. Too late! He tried to retrace his steps thinking he had gone wrong somewhere and could put himself right. There was no light and the passages seemed to lead nowhere but down. Each time he turned, sure he was on an incline, the way twisted on itself and became a decline. He could see nothing as the blackness deepened and heard only the pounding of his heart and the sound of his breath in the suffocating silence. He tried to deny the fear that gripped him.
“Have I really lost my way? At what turn did I make a mistake?”

During the ensuing hours of groping along twisting passages, blind alleys that lead nowhere, he fell into despair. For the first time in his memory Aries doubted his invincibility. He started to believe he was going to waste and perish in this hellish place.
Despondent and exhausted he dropped to his knees and drifted into semi-consciousness. In a dreamlike state his thoughts wandered to long ago yesterday and his walk across the moorlands. Wistful feelings, like those he had experienced in Cancer’s pool now stirred within him as again he recalled his vision after the earthquake. He didn’t fight these feelings now, instead he held on to their fragile thread. As the thread unwound it unravelled visions and memories once trapped in the web of his mind. The scene behind the hills became clearer; he was running through the glens of his homeland, laughing and racing with other young rams. No dreadful storms, no cloying, freezing mists, just morning sunshine over the purple heather and bright yellow broom. Images floated before him, youngsters dancing and playing, grown rams jousting, competing for glory, honour and affection; the long marches across the Realm, his Realm, with its heaths and streams. The Clan! Then came the storms and dreadful mists. His steel determination to explore, to find new horizons.
“There is nothing out there,” many had protested, refusing to follow him. “The hills are impassable, full of craters and chasms. We will all perish and never return. This is your Realm, you must stay and protect it.” But he had been headstrong and selfish in his ambition, the weather had been dreadful for too long and he had yearned for better climes.
“I will go alone,” he had declared.
He had refused to listen to their warnings, did not care what they thought. He had been intent only on his own way. He remembered the bleating pleas for him to stay, their anger, fear and sadness on his abrupt leaving. Then amidst the awful weather, came the dreadful solitude of the crater. He had fallen yet had survived. But all memory of his life before had been driven to the recesses of his mind, until they surfaced here, in the Labyrinth of Scorpio.
He now recalled the destruction of the earthquake. Ironically, it had saved him but what of his Clan? He hadn’t been there when they had needed him. How many had perished in that disaster? Dreads invaded his mind, flooding his senses. Anger. Guilt. Grief. A sickening ache in his stomach swelled into his breast with a sharp, punishing pain. His throat constricted as he tried to scream, to cast his anguish into the abysmal blackness.
“Why didn’t I listen. What good has come for them of my exploring. What good has come to me!” Hot tears stung his eyes and Aries wept. He was alone, helpless and heartbroken.

He’d fell into a nightmarish sleep and on coming to had lost all sense of time. Hunger gnawed at his stomach and his throat was parched. Then a glimmer of light flickered through the tunnels. He thought he was imagining it, but no. He could see the walls were speckled here and there with gems. At first there were just one or two very bright ones, but their light lifted the darkness and reflected against other glittering splinters in the rock.
He remembered what Libra had told him about the fire-bright gems, that Scorpio would come to mine them for the Celebration.
“I will survive! I will search for my Clan. The Collective will help.” He will make them believe in him despite Scorpio’s attack on him, and that nasty old liar bird. “Liar Bird!” Of course! the Gemini and their tale about the Shrike, the liar bird with its dreadful lisp. So it had survived! He felt sure this must be one and the same creature. But how come it was in the grove, and why had it wanted to discredit him? No matter, the Twins would tell the Collective about the Shrike and its lies and clear his name. Hope had returned and with it his will to survive.

Light in the tunnels swiftly lifted, the heat became intense. Without warning came a rushing, roaring sound, and to his terror a tongue of flame soared up the passage towards him. He had barely a split second to dodge into an adjacent tunnel before being scorched to a cinder. His heart raced, he had to find another way out. In his mixture of fear and relief he didn’t realise that he had been seared from tail to horns, but then the pain set in, his nostrils filled with the pungent stench of his burned fleece and singed flesh. Forced to his knees, he rolled in agony, tumbling down the helter-skelter shaft of the tunnel. With all his failing might he tried to halt his descent towards the blinding light. His mind screamed without sound as he hurtled towards the Transforming Fire.

Gains and Losses

Libra’s Dove had returned to the villa shortly after the Ram’s angry departure. She had seen him running towards Scorpio’s canyon but didn’t question it being in a great hurry herself. She had exciting news from the Eagle about Aries, and the missing Pearl, and felt he would be welcomed on his arrival in Scorpio’s chambers. The Shrike had spotted Dove’s white form approaching and had quickly hidden until she’d passed, furious that Aries was gaining distance.

Libra was overjoyed to hear Dove’s report from the Eagle. Though eager to hear a full account of this intrigue, and the incident involving Leo, he decided there was no longer a need for great urgency so he could enjoy a full night’s rest. He set off for Scorpio’s realm after a leisurely breakfast, intending to arrive by early evening. In buoyant spirits, he was pleased that all seemed to be turning out well. As soon as he entered the canyon the Eagle left her perch to tell Scorpio. Libra could discern Aries’ footprints leading to the entrance and was glad of the reassurance that he had arrived. As he strolled into the main chamber he felt a chill in the air, the coals in the brazier had burned low.
Though Scorpio was not there to greet him, he was unconcerned that anything was amiss, surmising that she was at rest while Aries too was catching up on his sleep. “He must have arrived at some unthinkable hour,” he thought, busily replacing a few spent candles. As he returned with fuel for the brazier, the Eagle appeared clutching a hamper of refreshments. “Eat, please. She will be with you soon” and saying no more returned to her post. Eagle spoke rarely, using a minimum of words, preferring always to observe.

The fire was soon restored and he settled himself on the cushions. He was engrossed in the contents of the hamper when Scorpio silently emerged from the shadows. Though small, her stature was imposing. A cloak of ruby velvet trimmed with snakeskin covered her from neck to ankles exposing only her sting. This curled up from behind, its point poised over her head of dark burgundy hair. Coal-black eyes peered intensely from beneath winged brows giving her a sinister air as she approached her unsuspecting visitor.
‘SNAKES!’ she declared. Libra leapt into the air with fright.
“Whoops! I mean snacks!” and both collapsed into laughter as they plundered the hamper for a savoury treat. “Forgive me, I didn’t mean to startle you. Hmm, something nice and spicey” Scorpio liked her snacks to be fiery. “I’m ravenous, its been along night”
“I suppose he’s sleeping it off?” Libra was referring to Aries.
“Indeed, sleep is the best thing for him now” she responded, but thought he was referring to Serpentis, who had had a terrible night. She had been assisting her serpent with the shedding of his skin, made difficult because of his wounds. Knowing Libra intended to discuss the incident with Leo, she came directly to the point, her defence ready.
“I’m relieved to hear Leo is recovering well from his accident, and am deeply indebted to Virgo for her swift action and expertise.”
“Leo’s accident?!”’ Libra bristled. “If I’m any judge the accident was all yours, Scorpio!”
“I did what had to be done with little time to act” she said smartly, refusing to be put on the defensive.
“You acted independently with disastrous results. If there was no time to call a full meeting of the Collective you should at least have consulted with me or Sagittarius about your plans.”
He glared at her, willing her to apologise.
Her sting quivered in anger “You would have vacillated, wasting valuable time, and Sagittarius, as usual, was nowhere to be found!” it was a scathing retort.
Libra fumed at this injustice. Somehow it was always the other fellows fault in any dispute with her. Attack was Scorpio’s means of defence, and it would invariably win her the point. She and Aries had much in common in this regard.
“Vacillated!?” he was resolute “You cannot battle your way out of this one. For your information, the instant I spotted Eagle flying past with Serpentis I set off for the farm! The truth is you should have instructed them to inform me of what you had in mind.”
She pulled back a little. “In different circumstances I might concede that you are right. But on that night, at that hour, decisive action was needed, not discussion.”
“Checkmate!” He had found the flaw in her argument. “You actively avoided discussion because your mind was set. You, and you alone, had decided what was right, leaving others to sort out the consequences. So determined were you, that you had absolutely no intention of sharing your intelligence!”
She was seething, needing to recover ground, “I’ve told you there was little time and circumstances dictated that I be as discreet as possible. Remember, you don’t know as much as I do about the matter.” a barb to wound his vanity, she still had the upper hand.
Libra stood, his mood black. “Damn your Petty Power Games!” he thundered and stepped away. He needed to calm down, be rational, diplomatic, or he would lose her contrition “Scorpio, I have no doubt that you felt you were acting in the best interests of discretion and expediency,” he said. “However, that is a separate issue from the point made that you didn’t alert any one about the plan you were carrying out and the risks involved, or that someone might be called upon for help. As you say yourself, you are deeply indebted to Virgo for saving Leo’s life.”
“I had covered the event of an accident.” She wasn’t giving way. “Eagle had instructions to alert Virgo immediately should anything go wrong, as indeed she did.”
“There shouldn’t have been any accident! And as I said, it would have been far better had Virgo been forewarned that her services might be called upon, or at the very least given some clue about your part in the situation at the time the Eagle did call on her. That she responded so readily and efficiently is to her credit alone. Nor must it be overlooked that Virgo put herself at risk in venturing beyond her boundaries on such a foul night. Anything could have happened, more accidents, and time really was of the essence. If she had been just minutes later Leo would not be alive today.” Libra had spoken fairly if in strong tones.

Scorpio lowered her gaze and stared into the fire, her thoughts running over what had been said. From her point of view if she hadn’t taken the initiative that night the Pearl could have fallen into the wrong hands. Indeed they still did not have actual possession of it. However, if things had gone to plan then she could have presented the Collective with a fait accompli. Power games? Painful as it was, she recognized this element in her nature. Loath as she was to admit it, Libra may have cause for his displeasure with her on this occasion. Her eyes welled but she fought back the tears. “I accept your point in hindsight.” she whispered.
“Thankyou” said Libra, “I’ll accept that as your apology”
“Very well. But you must understand that everything was of great urgency that night. You know the Pearl has to be retrieved before the thirteenth moon wanes or it will be too late! Eagle returned late in the day with news from Cancer that Aries, unknowingly, carries the Pearl about his neck” She relayed what Eagle had learned. “It’s almost certain that it had been stolen by that Shrike responsible for the chaos in our communications. A vain and greedy creature who no doubt sought to hold us all to ransom for return of the Pearl. Thankfully it was killed in that storm but not without leaving a wake of trouble behind it.” She slumped into the cushions, stressed and contrite.
“Go on,” prompted Libra, sitting again.
“When Eagle said the Ram had reached the edge of the cornfields I had to act quickly. It was the eve of the harvesting! Birds were flocking there from all regions, who knows how many misguided accomplices the Shrike had retained among their numbers, communications are still chaotic are they not!? How much was known about the Pearl, and the consequences of it not being found in time? How much has been learned or guessed about its whereabouts? Was a trap being laid for Aries? There was no time for discussion. The Pearl had to be retrieved that night and in secret. To avoid any protest from Aries or Leo, and the risk of causing further trouble, Serpentis was to quietly lift it from his throat and bring it here.” She smoothed the folds in her cloak, the jewelled rings on her fingers reflecting the glow of the coals.
“It was not your plan, but your lack in consulting me about it in any degree that is at fault,” reminded Libra. “However, all’s well, because Aries is here and the Pearl is at last safe.”
“Just as I suspected,” she smirked, with a hint of sarcasm. “You wanted an explanation before introducing him didn’t you? No doubt the incident with Leo has made him wary of me, but you can safely bring him in now, I’m dying to meet him.”
“Bring him in? But he arrived last night, or rather the during the early hours of this morning. He is already here.” Libra grew concerned.
“Here!” her surprise was sincere. “He must be hiding then!” Rising, she looked expectantly towards the shadows around the room.
“But you said he was sleeping. That sleep is the best thing for him now.” A note of alarm crept into his voice.
“Sleeping? No! Not Aries. I thought you meant Serpentis! I have just come from nursing him.”
“But he must be here somewhere, his tracks lead up to the entrance.”
She called for her Eagle and questioned if there was any sign of Aries in the canyon, but no. “Check if there are any tracks leaving. I’ll raise Serpentis, he’ll detect the Ram’s scent if he has entered here,” Hurrying through the arch into the lefthand tunnel which led to her quarters, within minutes she returned with Serpentis draped around her shoulders, looking extremely poorly and limp. She lifted him gently to the floor “Just look at him! That Leo was terribly ferocious!” she sparked crossly. Libra made no comment, remembering how Leo had fallen. Noble Leo, he thought, the Lion may be courageous and strong, but the Eagle and Snake are more formidable adversaries.
Serpentis had difficulty moving over the ground but he detected traces of Aries’ scent by the arch, then his long sinuous body moved into the tunnel on the right.
“No!” They were horrified.
“No Serpentis! I will go.” cried Scorpio, and gathering him in her arms she returned him to his nest. He was in no condition to enter the Labyrinth.
“Is there anything, anything, I can do to help?” asked Libra, but he knew that beyond this point he was helpless. Only she or Serpentis could enter the Labyrinth and hope to survive. He could only hamper her search so must wait in the main chamber until she returned. Taking a good supply of water, Scorpio began her descent. Libra sank onto the cushions and buried his face in his hands. ‘Chaos is surely upon us’ he groaned. He knew that with every passing hour the chances of finding Aries alive were diminishing.

On the second day of Scorpio’s search, Libra was feeling couped up and very restless waiting for her return. He needed a change of air and decided to take a walk through the canyons, the source of the marble he used for sculpting, then perhaps go on as far as the plateau. Walking this rocky terrain would take his mind off things for a while. The weather had turned bitter and by the time he’d reached as far as the plateau, sleet was starting to fall. Now in Sagittarius’ domain he made his way to the Centaur’s log cabin for shelter. As he entered the long, ranch style building he held half a hope that Sagittarius was home, but was duly disappointed. “Scorpio is right about him never being around!” he mumbled, feeling very disgruntled. Nothing would please him more than to see his jovial friend’s broad smile and casual expression. Sagittarius spent the greatest part of his time outdoors, and in contrast to Libra, he paid little heed to his appearance which was invariably informal and often windswept. Being an eternal optimist, he had a way of riding over adversity and seeing beyond the instant, believing all would come right in the end. During these troubled times the Centaur’s views had helped Libra to gain a balanced perspective of events which would otherwise give rise to pessimism. He now felt the need of Saj’s wisdoms more than ever.

Lighting the logs in the stone built fireplace, he hung the kettle on the iron hook above the flames to boil for a brew, then helped himself to an assortment of nuts and dried fruits to keep hunger at bay. He liked the feel of the log cabin with its smell of pinewood. It was spacious yet homely with untidy bits of clutter strewn here and there. A collection of different sized bows and arrows were hung on the walls, together with intriguing maps of the night skies as well as of the mountain and surrounding territories. He wondered where Saj might be and entertained the idea of asking Eagle to search him out. But he knew better. Eagle would follow no-one’s instructions but Scorpio’s, and Scorpio was too stubborn to accede to a search for Sagittarius especially when, with their troubles about the Fire and the Pearl, she believed he should stay closer to home.
Clasping a steaming mug of tea he stepped out onto the porch where Saj kept a telescope fixed to a stand – the telescope was another of Aquarius’ innovations, a by-product of the glass experiment. Peering through its lens he spotted the Shrike in the branches of a nearby tree. It had been loitering around the canyons, careful to keep out of sight of the Eagle. Curious about what was going on inside Scorpio’s realm, it had followed Libra, intending to gain news about Aries, thus the Pearl. Seizing the opportunity to speak with him, it flew onto the porch “Fanthy finding you here!”
“I might say the same to you!” Libra was beginning to have his suspicions about this creature, it semed to be dogging him. Perhaps Aries had been right about mistrusting this old bird.
“But I live awound here” lied the Shrike.
It sounded plausible. Libra asked if it had seen Sagittarius recently. Shaking its head the Shrike quickly turned the conversation to it’s own ends “Did our hotheaded fwend find hith way to Thcorpio by-the-way?” trying to sound casual.
“Unfortunately, he has found his way into the Labyrinth!” his deep concern for Aries was mixed with anger at the Ram for causing such concern, and his tone betrayed that “Scorpio is searching for him now, but I fear the worst.”
The Shrike was genuinely alarmed. It must find out if the Pearl had been discovered. “Oh what dweadful newth! What happened. Did he and Thcorpio quarrel?”
Libra moved back inside the cabin, he wanted no more chat with this creature. “He and Scorpio never met” and slammed the door behind him.

The Shrike was in a fury as it flew back to the trees, wailing and shrieking “My Pearl ith gone, gone! Curth, Curth, Curth that Weckless Wam! I hope he burnth, burnth, buurrrnth!” It found the remains of an old nest in one of the nearby pines and took refuge there. Its mind was set on gaining a realm for itself but with the Pearl lost, its plans were in jeapardy. It sat seething, scheming to find an alternative way to succeed in its wicked ambitions….

Libra sat at the large round table and wrote Sagittarius a letter giving a full explanation of all that had happened, urging him to get to Scorpio’s realm. He was taking the optimistic view that Saj’s return home was imminent. Dowsing the fire, he donned one of the deerskin hats from the pegs on the wall and left the cabin. It was growing dark and the sleet was turning to snow. Eagle was inside the chamber waiting for him. Scorpio was still in the labyrinth. After a lack lustre meal of cold snacks, he strolled passed Scorpio’s bedchamber to the cavern of hot springs. Several circular pools bubbled and foamed with waters rich in minerals, and he gratefully immersed himself in the soothing heat.

Three nights had passed before Scorpio resurfaced. She had found no trace of Aries. “After I have rested Serpentis and I will make a wider search. That naive Ram has ventured into uncharted tunnels and I can not go there alone.” Stressed and fatigued she paced in slow circles around the brazier. Libra stood calm and still as he listened to her report. “It is almost four nights since he disappeared and, if nothing else, I can return his remains to the surface. Libra, you have a choice. You are welcome to stay, but you may prefer to return home and await news as to the outcome of the search, after which there must be a full Council to decide what is to be done. I am not hopeful that Aries will be found alive. He has already been too long without water. But if we find him, alive or not, we will also find the Pearl. At least some good will have come of all this. We can then turn our attention to the Transforming Fire and the cause of its diminishing” She fixed him with a long, steady gaze, then lowered her eyes. “If we find no trace of Aries, then the Pearl will also be lost. More deaths will swiftly follow.” Despite her inner strength Scorpio began to weep, unable now to control her emotions.
“I will return home to collect what I need and quickly return” replied Libra, incisively “I will sculpt a perfect effigy of Aries from the purest black marble. No flaws.”

*
In the Labyrinth

Aries spilled out of the tunnel onto a wide ledge. For a few moments he lay splayed on his front, eyes shut tight, not daring to believe he was still alive. Steam billowed up from the pit of flames, and though dazed and in pain he was aware of lying midstream of a fast flow of water.
He slowly inched forward, feeling his way, sure he would be blinded if he opened his eyes more than a squint. The moisture from the steam and the water flowing under his belly offered some protection from the searing heat, though his flesh was badly scalded.
Keeping close to the rock wall, he sensed the ledge was widening away from the burning pit of fire. He tried to sip the hot water, but it was salty, acrid. Barely managing to rise to his feet, he moved with extreme caution, not daring to brush against the heat cracked walls for fear of further burns. Progress was painfully slow. Creeping forward he could gradually feel the flow of the water begin to quicken until he was wading against a knee high torrent, which was becoming perceptibly cooler. Daring to open his eyes a little wider, he saw a waterfall gushing from a wide fissure in the rock. He passed under the fall, its tepid, saline waters spilling over him, easing his burns. The relief gave him strength enough to climb further into the fissure, away from the heat and the glare, up onto a flat-surfaced rock. He passed out again, half submerged in the flow.

When he recovered consciousness he was stiff and weak, badly in need of both food and water. But he could see no food, and the water was salty, undrinkable. He struggled to climb further up the incline of the fissure which twisted at its neck and widened into a high underground cavern. Filling the floor of the cavern was a lake of swift running water, feeding the waterfall into the pit. He had no choice but to swim to reach another waterfall that tumbled into the lake from the rock wall opposite. He knew that the water had to be getting in from the outside of the mountain. He felt certain that if he could find its source, he would find daylight.
Carefully, he submerged his bruised and burned body, keeping close to the edges to avoid the main thrust of the current against him. Feeling so weakened he was glad of the sensation of weightlessness, and as his limbs gently propelled him, a strange tingling began to pulse through him, lending him strength, as though some kind of magnetism was also drawing him through the water. He managed a weak laugh at the irony; in these detestable circumstances he was actually enjoying swimming!

Though safely away from the fire, its heat and light reflected off the moist rock walls. He could see comfortably and had little difficulty reaching the second waterfall. He swam amidst it and peered up at its course. The action of the tumbling water had eroded a natural stairwell in the rocks, it flowed not gushed, allowing him to wade up alongside the watercourse with relative ease. To his surprise this water was not salty, and he was able to drink. Mushrooms sprouted from cracks in the walls, so hungry he was ready to eat anything as he dined on these. The properties of this meagre fare together with the fresh water sustained his flesh and his hopes. As he climbed higher, the glow of the fire dimmed and the encroaching darkness steadily deepened until again, all was pitch black, as in the labyrinth.

Moving in a trancelike state, he frequently fell into dream-filled sleeps. Images of all the realms, and the friends he had made, kept his spirit going. The days elapsed and the pain of his burns was dulling. A cool draught began to freshen the air, and though still deep inside the mountain, he guessed he had reached above where the entrance to the labyrinth had been. Over time he could feel the draught quicken, and the steady stream of water had become ice cold, numbing his limbs. Gradually, light began to filter into the rocky stairwell gently releasing his eyes from their imposed blindness. Just a little way ahead he could see that the source of this light was from a narrow aperture which veered off at a right angle from the gulley. He had been right about the waterfall leading him to daylight. This gave him the much needed boost of energy and hope to carry on. With great effort he managed to get himself up onto the ledge to look inside the opening. It was a long tunnel, low and wide, at the end of which was a slit of daylight.

Weakened and badly injured, it was solely the prospect of freedom that kept him scrabbling forward, negotiating treacherous pitfalls that swallowed tracts of the tunnel’s floor. As he neared its end, he thought he could smell woodsmoke, mingled with an appetizing aroma of food. Then he heard the sound of someone speaking. His spirits lifted and he wept with relief. He was no longer alone. The narrow opening was close to the high roof of a cave. Aries was able to squeeze his head through the gap to see, and savour, the scene below…

***

Misunderstandings
Jupiter in Sagittarius

Sagittarius sat relaxing by a campfire stirring a large pot of rabbit stew. He had been exploring the Northern Sweeps when bad weather had set in forcing him to take shelter in this deep cave high on the mountainside. Having spent time here before he had made sure there was a good stock of firewood and warm blankets, along with a few basic provisions. He was conversing with a mouse.
“The Shrike is Alive!?” he laughed with disbelief “Where on Zodiac d’ya hear such bunkum?” Sagittarius knew well what prodigious gossips mice were and thought that much of their intelligence was to be taken with a pinch of salt.
“It’s true I tell you!” insisted the mouse, comfortable in the palm of the Centaur’s hand. “It’s been the hot topic in all our communities for ages. It beats me why the Collective don’t use the Mouse Grapevine instead of the Bird Messaging Service, especially since the bird messages have been very unreliable since the Shrike infiltrated them, and the Shrike is still alive!” it chattered on, “and it is chasing a Ram across the realms, and I admit I don’t know why, but I do know that much for certain because I heard it firsthand from my cousin who has a friend of a friend who is the uncle of the cousin of the mouse who actually overheard everything in the Gemini’s forest. Where it all happened.” .. and mice were prone to twittering on and on much more than the birds.
“Firsthand!? Alive and chasing a Ram!” The Centaur guffawed at this, the hearty peals of his laughter echoed around the cave “Now I know it’s a mouse tale!” Still chuckling he offered the messenger another morsel of food.
“I don’t mean to doubt you little fellow but your news is, well, extraordinary! And the reason why the Collective use the BMS is that when its working properly their reports are delivered swiftly and fairly direct from source, whereas news from the MG travels overground through many communities, in the course of as many days and invariably gets distorted.” He gave the stew another stir, it was ready and he was famished.
“But the sources I’ve mentioned are all officially appointed messengers. This news is not gossip!” the mouse persisted, getting agitated and running up the Centaur’s arm to sit on his shoulder amid the lengths of luxurious, unruly hair that flowed onto his back. “and there’s lots more to tell you about the Ram. I have reports from the Plains, the cornfields and the foothills” it continued.

Sagittarius filled his bowl with the stew “Then tell me when I’ve eaten. It’s easier to listen when my stomach isn’t growling. And I’m still digesting your news about the Shrike”
“It’s true” croaked Aries from aloft, hoping they could hear him. He hadn’t got the strength to speak much above a whisper.
“It’s Here!” shrieked the mouse “Did you hear it? That Shrike is Here. Oh Save Me, Save Me!”

Sagittarius sprang to his feet, and loaded an arrow, poised to fire ‘Who’s there?’ He scanned the shadows of the craggy rear wall that sloped up to the roof.

“Up here” cried the feeble voice “I am Aries … Help!”
“ARIES!? From the Headland? What in the name of Thunder!” Putting down his bow Sagittarius climbed up to help. Taking hold of the Ram’s horns he began to gently pull. Half man, half horse, Sagittarius was robust with a fine muscular body. He travelled far afield on scouting trips to see that all was well around the mountains and the neighbouring realms, and had an excellent command of the bird languages. It was always his intention to travel as far as the Gemini’s realm, to collect their news reports personally, then perhaps go on to the Aries’ peninsular, but some business or other invariably, and often irritably, called him home whenever he had reached as far as the swamps of Nomans Land. His travels and experiences gave him an open mind with a philosophical bent, seeking for the greater truths of existence in the wider scheme of things. He took the unexpected in his stride, but never in his wildest speculations had he imagined he would encounter the Sovereign of the Headland in a cave on the Northern Sweeps!

As he lifted Aries free he was saddened by the thin, burned body whose only remnants of fleece were his fringe and a thin tangle of matted curls at his throat. Aries tried to explain what had happened but could only stagger attempts at his story “An earthquake. The Headland’s lost. I followed the sun… Serpentis bit Leo… Shrike, liar bird. Alive. It’s true! Tried to find Scorpio… but … the labyrinth… Thought I would die ..”
“You arrived here through the labyrinth!? That’s astonishing! But more so that you’ve survived that hellish place. Bye-the-way, I’m Sagittarius – Saj. Would that we had met in better circumstances. But you can trust that I’ll get you to safety” He set Aries down by the fire and wrapped him in blankets, managing to get a few good spoonfuls of stew into him before he fell into a fitful sleep.
“Didn’t I tell you” piped up the mouse “the MG is reliable!”
“So it would seem. But did the Shrike chase him into the mountain? I mean why, how did he get here!?’ he began to pace to and fro’ around the fire. “It’s obvious there’s more I need to know. From what he has said something dreadful is going on, chaos! I must get back.”

Restless, Saj walked to the mouth of the cave. It would soon be nightfall and the temperature was dropping rapidly. Flurries of snow swirled into the entrance, carried on a bitter wind “Curse this cruel weather!” He stared into the snowstorm, his heart heavy with all he had heard.

Not for the first time he chastised himself for being away too long. He came to the Northern Sweeps to study the night sky because the light was different here. The northern horizon was illuminated by a greenish glow, or sometimes a faint red as though the sun was rising from an unusual direction. At different times in the sun’s cycle there was a spectacular display of green lights across the sky, as though the stars were dancing. The great mysteries of the stars intrigued all in the Collective but he, Sagittarius, was not so concerned with the timing and measuring of the movements in the changing sky. These mathematical tasks were the province of studious Capricorn who kept a log of the cycles. Sagittarius’ thoughts ranged more to ponder what mysteries lie behind their being? Were there other worlds out there? Though distant, the stars were as real and constant part of his environment as the ground he stood upon. There was so much to learn.
He had hoped this trip would bring him some insight, some greater philosophical reason concerning the diminishing of the Transforming Fire, a way forward to accept and deal with worst consequences if there proved to be no solution to that dilemma. Also, there remained the mystery and imminent tragedy of the missing Pearl, and now the shocking news that Aries had borne. Deeply troubled he wished more than ever to be galloping through the canyons at home, wanting the wind in his hair to blow his cares away, to be free of burdens. He had planned to return long before the twelfth moon but a foul turn in the weather had caused his delay. The twelfth moon was rising and with it had arrived this added dilemma of Aries and his need of proper care. They were too high on the range and too far north to get back to his cabin safely with Aries so poorly. Capricorn’s peak was certainly nearer but the high passes across to her realm were dangerous in bad conditions, too easy to loose your footing and fall to certain death. “He’s in no shape to travel nor can I leave him unattended” he muttered to the mouse shivering on his shoulder. Returning to the interior of the cave he stoked the fire high, but despite its warmth it would be a harsh night in this cheerless, draughty shelter.

During the morning, fortified by more helpings of Saj’s stew, Aries was able to give a fuller account of his journey. Sagittarius was both amused and impressed by Aries’ ambition and bravery. “There is a reason behind all happenings for nothing happens without a reason” he said judiciously, “Libra is right in thinking the reason for your quest is to discover the Celebration of Light. It is very reasonable” he joked.
They talked more of the incident in the grove “Scorpio must have had strong motives to dispatch both her agents to find you. And you can think of nothing that may have provoked her action?”
Aries said that after regaining his memory he had done much soul searching during his despair in the labyrinth, seeking answers but finding only regrets for his realm. He sank into gloom.
“Look on the bright side, ol’bean. It’s excellent news that Leo is recovered” he wanted to jolly Aries’ spirits “I’ve enjoyed the merriest of times on the Plains, Leo is a great friend. And though it seems he wasn’t the intended target you should know that he and Scorpio do have a natural antagonism – one lives for the Sun, the other seeks shadow”
“She has a natural antagonism for me” said Aries dejectedly.
“No. It’s not that” replied Saj “There is something else behind all this, it’s not simply a matter of personalities, besides, you haven’t even met! If anything is true it’s that there are elements in your nature that are closely akin to Scorpio. You are both fighters and find your best strength when doing battle, as you have just proved with the Labyrinth. Extraordinary! Believe me my friend, Scorpio is far more likely to make you an ally, not an opponent. She has discovered something, certainly, but what? It’s got something to do with that Shrike I’ll wager. If I catch sight of the bounder I’ll bring it down, make no mistake. But whatever it is, I have to find it out and urgently need to get back in circulation” he looked seriously at the Ram, who read his thoughts “But what to do about me, eh?”
“Correct.”
He managed a smile at Saj’s candid response. He felt an instant warmth and connection with him, as he had done with Leo. From all he had heard about the Centaur he was a larger than life character and meeting him affirmed that. He spoke his thoughts frankly without guile, and gave wise counsel. Aries was glad to find himself in Saj’s hands at this time, and would trust his judgement on what was to be done. Sagittarius explained that they would go to Capricorn. She will doubtless know what is going on and can bring him up to date, also Aries would receive proper care in more comfortable conditions. The problem was how to get him there. Although he could walk he would be slow, but worse, he had no natural protection against the freezing temperatures.
“The only way is to cocoon you in rabbit pelts and deerskin and fix you to my back.” Saj started to hunt around the cave for something he could use as a structural support for a harness.
“One of these will do it!” he held up a pair of wooden snow shoes “Aquarius made these so he could walk on deep snow. I’ve brought him up here a couple of times to see what we call “the Northern Lights” You’ll see them too as we climb.” He was smiling broadly causing Aries to look forward to the journey ahead in spite of his debilitated condition.

Being adventurers at heart, preparing to move on had them both in higher spirits as they swapped tales of their experiences in Noman’s land, and having had a score of adventures in those parts, Sagittarius did most of the telling.
“But even the worst of scavengers have their merits. Their pelts make warm coats” he grinned, donning himself in an impressive wolfskin “This critter played havoc with Virgo’s chickens – and would have made a meal of her too, mark my words. Lucky I turned up in the dead of night and spotted him at her door. I fired an arrow to warn him off, thinking the scoundrel would scarper, instead he turned on me! Then I see he is rabid. Couldn’t let him live.” Aries understood. He had learned much from Leo and survival on the Plains.

In a short time they were ready to set off. They had to travel light and so packed the minimum of provisions which included a coil of rope. Saj dished up the last of the stew and encouraged Aries to eat “Best tuck in. It’ll be a couple of days before another cooked meal.” When travelling he was accustomed to ‘eating on the hoof’ as he termed it and on this mission there would be no time to hunt then linger around a campfire. For Aries’ sake they had to keep moving, especially through the night. He strapped the bags with provisions on his horseback, then secured the makeshift harness with ties over his shoulders and around his waist, thankful his burden wasn’t heavy.
“Now what about you little fellow, are you coming along for the ride?” he was addressing the mouse “Thankyou , but no, no. I’m feeling sleepy. There’s enough dried nuts and stuff here. I’ll stay and make my way back to the tree line when the climate improves. I have such a tale to tell. Firsthand too!” and with that the mouse scurried off to a nest it had made in a cranny at the rear of the cave. Saj picked up his bow and quiver “That reminds me, you never said how you managed to get here from the tree line. It’s quite some distance for your little legs” he said.
“Oh, no problem” called the mouse disappearing behind its rock “Hitched a ride on wolf back”
Saj shook his head, smiling. Life never ceased to amaze and amuse him!

There was no telling the time of day when they left the cave, it was snowing heavily. Aries was impressed with the skill and strength of Saj as he climbed amid the upper peaks. The skies were clear above the clouds and the views awesome. As it grew darker a greenish light appeared on the horizon, illuminating the peaks. He looked across the top of the range, amazed to see a snow covered plateau, winding between the pinnacles like a never ending road. He felt a mixture of joy and sadness. It was his great ambition to be here, but not to arrive as an invalid on the back of a good friend, nor bear the yoke of grief he feels for the Headland. Sagittarius stood for a moment, absorbing the scene around him. This awe of the world filled the Centaur with a sense of joy and connectedness. It was the bedrock of his in-borne optimism.
“Our way will be a little easier from here until we reach the passes. That’s where it gets a bit tricky. Very soon you will see the full light show from the stars. Words will fail you.”
“Words like “nature, being a totality of physical entities, creates unity and balance in all things” unquote?” smiled Aries.
“Correct” laughed Saj, heartened to hear his ‘wisdoms’ had been quoted “Now you’ve thought it, soon you’ll feel it, then with certainty, you’ll know it.”

He began to gallop along the plateau, gathering speed as the rhythm of his stride paced at one with the pulse coursing within him and about him, sensing the core energy, the spirit of nature that pulsed through the universe causing connection; fusing grains of sand into pearls, stars into galaxies. An energy that seeks to know itself, to manifest and be acknowledged within the glory of all that it stirred into being ‘Aaah.’ breathed Saj as the Northern lights rained down “The Unity of Nature!”
Aries was entranced. Riding to the rhythm of the Centaur’s stride he felt in tune with and mesmerized by the spectacle of light dancing all around him. He was caught in the magic of the moment, “I’m just a tiny, tiny part of it all” forgetting his woes, rapped in wonder to be a fragment of this unmatchable splendour.

At length Sagittarius slowed to a halt. “We have reached the passes” he said, breathless. “I’ll turn about so you can see what we’re against.” As he does so, Aries drew in his breath at what came into view. A series of majestic arches spanned the ravines like stones skipping on water. Formed from ice, the structures had an ethereal beauty.
“Let’s take a break” said Saj lifting the harness from his shoulders. He set it down on the hardened snow and released the bindings so that Aries could stretch his legs. As they ate and drank the cold quickly bored into the Ram’s exposed flesh and he was glad to return to the warmth of the pelts. Saj hoisted him into position and once again secured the harness to his back.

During their break he had been busy securing an end of the rope to one of his arrows which had a clawed tip. “This might seem a bit hair-brained but it should work” he told his passenger. Taking careful aim he fired at the centre of the first arch. The arrow embedded itself and he gave the rope a strong tug to see if it would hold. Happy the line was secure, he tied the other end around his middle and stepped on to the arch. Sitting on his haunches he began to pull himself towards the centre, winding up the slack as he progressed. Aries looked into the abyss below. He felt terrified and sick. What was Saj thinking of? This was beyond reckless! This was madness! He hardly dared to breathe.
The bridge was barely wide enough to take them, one little slip and it would all be over, or equally the structure might crack. It was just ice. But he trusted the Centaur despite his fear. Saj was aware of Aries apprehensions and impressed with his brave spirit, it gave him extra strength and confidence to complete the onerous task he had set himself. After what seemed an eternity to Aries, they achieved the centre. Saj swivelled around the arrow and slid the knot of the rope to the top of the shaft, above the flight. Slowly letting out the slack they glided easily down the other side. He then gave a tug and the rope followed.
“One down, eight to go! But that’s the highest and the worst. It gets easier as we go on” he grinned, reassuring Aries that he had done this before!
“I want to be unconscious” was all Aries could reply.

It was almost daybreak when Saj traversed the last arch. “I’m tuckered out. I need a quick nap” he sighed, lifting the harness from his shoulders. “It’s fairly straightforward to Capricorn’s Peak from here, a longish trek due South but no more ravines or climbing. We’ve been lucky with the weather so far but I don’t like the look of the eastern sky.”

He found a cranny deep enough to shelter them from the wind. Aries was too weak to stretch his legs and remained in his cocoon. A short nap was all that Saj needed before they were on the go again, however, he wasn’t galloping so hard. The hip where Serpentis had bit him was beginning to ache. It did this when he was tired, causing him to limp. As predicted, the weather worsened and a blizzard set in. They were forced to seek shelter when the icy snow whipped them into submission, causing them to spend extra miserable hours on the mountain. The cold was reaching through the protection of their pelts and both were chilled to the marrow. “Don’t fall asleep!” shouted Saj above the din of the gale. Afraid for Aires, he kept him awake by continually shouting his name and making him repeat the names of everyone he had met on his journey.

As soon as the storm began to abate they started off again. It was dark when they reached the small ridge that rose up to the snowfield in front of Capricorn’s Peak. Saj made to jump its height but faltered, missing his footing and tumbling badly. “Curse this hip!” he shouted, masking the pain. “I was confident I’d make that jump” he gasped “Over confidence, a grave fault of mine!” He groaned in agony. The hip had gone into a spasm and he couldn’t move. Releasing the harness he urged a reluctant Aries to leave him and walk over the snowfield. “It’s no distance, you’ll make it. I’ll follow shortly. Tell Capricorn I’m hurt.”

Slowly, Aries made his way across the crisp, hard snow towards a curtain of icicles, a frozen cascade draped over a rocky shelf at the base of the spiralling pinnacle. Snow was falling fast and he was quickly covered from horns to tail, so cold he felt even his thoughts were frozen, but was alert enough to know that once behind that wall of ice he would gain some protection from the elements. Sagittarius began dragging himself forward, “What a wretched outcome!” he wailed.

***

Marking Time
Saturn in Capricorn

Capricorn’s mood was sombre as she poured over her charts and log of weather cycles. Something was amiss. The high blizzards had come too early to the peaks so she had spent the whole day checking and rechecking her data to be sure she hadn’t overlooked something that would have given warning. “Nothing!” Exasperated, she rubbed her tired eyes and though reluctant to concede defeat, finally closed the large, heavy book. Always commendably diligent in her undertakings, she was irritated by the prospect that she had made some careless error and annoyed that she couldn’t trace it. All indications had predicted a period of sun-bright days above the clouds, despite wet and wintry conditions below.
“This whole cycle has been beset with queer weather starting with reports of that tempest in the east,” she muttered aloud, folding the charts, resisting the urge to scan them once more.

Because of the communications delay, the eventual news of the earthquake and of Aries’ journeying had not yet reached her. And though she wasn’t aware that Sagittarius had been delayed on the Sweeps, she rightly supposed the current blizzards had prevented him from delivering the due consignment of Firebright gems.

As a rule, until the onset of late winter with its furious snow storms, the peaks were spared much of the bad weather because they towered above the clouds. Her realm being the highest in all the land, it was her task to monitor weather conditions because she was the first to be aware of impending changes. Sun and moon dials were set at strategic compass points on the pinnacle which ascended above Capricorn’s living quarters, her ‘Halls’ as the Collective called them. These Halls were a network of hollows formed in the ice and rock layers at the base of the pinnacle, the tallest of all the peaks. And all the peaks were her domain, her ‘Empire’ as she preferred to call it.

Being scrupulous in keeping records, she was responsible for tracking the cycles of the Sun, Moon and other ‘lights’ against the seemingly fixed background of Stars. These movements she also tabled in her log. Thankfully, these cycles were more predictable than the weather!
Capricorn actually enjoyed gathering facts and figures. She disliked the disorderly and knew that by keeping tables, that which at first seemed random would eventually prove to conform to a pattern. Marking these repeating patterns enabled those of the Collective to know the onset of the seasons, to judge the best times for planting and harvesting and to make plans for their Celebration of Light. Monitoring these movements provided her with the power of facts. This power she used to gain the controlling hand at the Collectives’ planning meetings should Sagittarius, or the Pisces for instance, wish to negotiate the time of the Celebration to accommodate some trip they had in mind. She would bring discussions back to the known facts and whenever possible have them conform to the set agenda.

Living for the most part in quiet solitude, from her vantage point she was able to cast an eye over her closest neighbours, Sagittarius on one side of the mountain and Aquarius on the other. Unlike herself, or Libra and Scorpio for that matter, these two characters refused to conform to an orderly regime of duties and needed to be held to account for their actions from time to time. As for the Pisces, well, if ever they acted as predicted it was unexpected!
Though Capricorn sometimes seemed austere to her fellows, her dry sense of humour always hit the mark. She gave her colleagues nicknames contrived from what she observed as their not-so-outstanding attributes, all of which would benefit from a little self-discipline; Libra she called Lackaday, Sagittarius was Slapdash, Aquarius was Awkward, while Scorpio was obviously Schemer, and the Pisces, fond of them though she was, were nothing if not Wishy ’n’ Washy.
She returned the log book and charts to their proper place on the top shelf of the large mahogany bookcase which housed all her files and records. A cold draught whistled through the Halls prompting her to fetch fuel for the fire which had burned to ashy embers in the grate of the grand marble fireplace, a gift from Libra. Comfortable in cool temperatures, she rarely stoked the fire to a blazing heat but did enjoy a rosy glow when the north wind froze all with its breath.

The floor in this high-ceilinged chamber was suspended just above ground level to counter the incline of the rock. As surface ice on the walls slowly melted, the water ran under the floor into a deep rock pool in a corner of the room. Here, she kept exotic fish, a gift from the Pisces, along with alpine and aquatic plants from Aquarius. As well as her desk there was a sundial in front of a large panoramic window which looked out onto the snowfield and across the peaks, and off to one side of the window, being a lover of ethereal music, stood a large harp she enjoyed playing. These, along with the other furnishings of a polished mahogany table set with twelve high backed chairs, gave the room a formal feel. Her one concession to cosiness was a fireside rocking chair and a lamp table under which she kept a basket of various yarns. During the quite evenings she loved to sew and knit.

She made her way to the fuel store outside the back door and selected a few choice lumps for her scuttle (as well as the gems, Scorpio also provided coal from the mines). Turning to go back inside she spied a ghostlike form moving across the snowfield towards her. “Nonsense!” she told herself, remaining composed. Though startled by the apparition, being inherently sensible she felt it was no more than an image conjured by the swirling snow. She was about to close and lock her back door when Aries collapsed on the doorstep. Shivering convulsively, he could barely say his name through chattering teeth. Capricorn gasped in disbelief!
“Aries, here!? Why have I had no word of this?” She was cross at being so left in the dark and took a moment to collect herself. She helped him to the main hall and sat him by the hearth. “Ssssagittttarius is hurttt. Outttssside” he shivered.
“First things first” she replied. In no time at all he was wrapped in blankets in front of the glowing fire. She left him sipping hot broth and went to investigate his claim about Sagittarius, which she could scarcely believe. This whole situation was unbelievable! Taking a lantern she ventured out onto the snow.
True enough she caught sight of the Centaur dragging himself towards her. ‘Saj!’ she cried, shocked to see him so out of action.
“It’s this cursed hip” he groaned, “it feels frozen. I fear I may be lamed Cap!” he sounded so despairing, so out of character. The terrifying belief he would be lamed had tortured him in his lowest moments of illness, after Serpentis had bit him, this torture all the more punishing because he had accepted it was self incited. “My over blown over confidence has done for me. Wretched. Wretched!” he railed. It was so unlike him to give way to such pessimism but the reality of not being able to move his limbs, to be permanently hobbled by pain struck a blow that daunted even his strong spirit.
“Nonsense! Stop this talk. It’s just a spasm because you’re exhausted. Now get to your feet!” she commanded sternly “I’ll support you.” Capricorn could not bear for Sagittarius to believe he might be lamed and refused to accept it herself, hence her tone.

It took some effort on both their parts but eventually he was up and able to limp indoors to join Aries by the fireside. Feeling nicely thawed but very poorly, Aries found himself being gently but firmly ushered to bed to recuperate. On her return to the hall she brought Saj a cup of camomile tea and an ointment infused with herbs to rub on his hip. “This tea will help to relax the muscles. I know because often I get stiff sitting at my desk, causing both muscle and joint pain. And rub this on the spot” She handed him the pot of ointment. On this occasion he did exactly as instructed.
“Now” she said in the businesslike tone she used to open their meetings “Tell me what’s going on”
“I’m hoping to learn the news from you!” yawned Saj, feeling warm and soothed.
“I know nothing!” were the last words he heard her say as he faded into sleep.

Capricorn went about the business of making him comfortable with silent efficiency. She reasoned that her unexpected guests were in no state to answer questions sensibly and preferred to wait until such time as either one of them was sufficiently recovered. The inclement weather was preventing any exchange of news to or from other members of the Collective, but she could wait patiently for that to improve too. Patience was Capricorn’s strong suit. The next morning she checked on them both. Aries was feverish and still very poorly. He must remain in bed. She was relieved to see Saj getting back on form, pacing around the room, exercising his afflicted limb.
He related what he had learned since rescuing Aries in the cave. “I thought you would certainly know what Scorpio had discovered and the reason behind her actions” he said. Capricorn repeated that she had received no communications due to bad weather, furthermore, the consignment of gems was late due to his delay on the Sweeps. “Give me another day and I’ll be as right as rain” he smiled, offering his cup for another brew of tea. “The sooner I get to Scorpio the wiser we will all be!” But the weather turned more aggressive and it was two days before he was able to leave, with assurances that he would return with the gems as quickly as possible.

After a short time in Capricorn’s care with its strict regime of eating, exercise and sleeping, Aries quickly grew strong and fit again. The wounds to his flesh had healed, helped by the ointments she’d applied, and stubble was growing where his fleece had been scorched. To keep out the cold, Capricorn had knitted him a warm coat from thick black yarn she had thriftily salvaged from an old woollen blanket. It fitted snugly and he thanked her effusively as she secured the collar high around his neck. Overjoyed to feel more like himself again, with enthusiastic ‘thankyous’ he nuzzled her cheek. Being naturally shy, she was abashed by his impassioned responses to her handiwork and instinctively dubbed him ‘Ardent.’

Capricorn had a studious demeanour and dignified bearing. Her upper body was that of a slender goat with straight, fluted horns and a silky smooth white coat. From the waist down, in place of legs, she had a silvery fish-like tail which curled round on itself at the flukes. Her tail, she told him, was an invaluable asset when traversing her icy Empire. He much admired her but her adherence to discipline and routine, her insistence on his locking doors behind him, he found mildly challenging, but after his recent experiences he had matured so found it is easier to accept rather than contest her house rules.

During his days of recovery he explained about his leaving the Headland and his fears for the Clan. She assured him that all would be done to get news of them and to speed his journey home. She had listened attentively to the account of his travels and recent trials.
“I find it no surprise that your mind released its secrets in the depths of Scorpio’s Labyrinth” she said “And your report of an underground lake spilling water throws light on what is a probable cause of the Transforming Fire diminishing. Knowing the cause will help us to find the remedy. You have done well and shall certainly be the guest of honour at the Celebration.”
“But what about Scorpio? Why did she send Serpentis to attack me?” He was still troubled by feelings of injustice and needed to acquit himself.
“I can think of no obvious reason why she would” she replied coolly. “As Sagittarius says, there has to be more to all this. He should be returning soon. Be patient and wait to see what he has found out.”

Aries expressed his interest in her maps of the night sky. She explained that she plots the movements of the Sun and Moon against the background of stars. She pointed to the differing shapes the star clusters formed, calling these images ‘constellations’ “And we have named twelve of these constellations after our twelve realms. There are other, lesser lights which also move through the constellations and each have their own cycle too, some moving quicker than others. It is in the repeating patterns formed during their cycles that we in the Collective search for clues to the nature of their correlation to events here, a sort of grand unification of nature. Cycles are all about doing the arithmetic, seeing what adds up”
“Does calculating these cycles mean you know what events are going to happen?” he was highly curious.
“With regards to the Sun and the Moon, certainly,” she said. “But the lesser lights require many observations to accurately determine their correlation to matters here and we still have much to learn. However, it is true to say that many factors are involved in the becoming of an event, and many events come to pass, but not in the way as might have been predicted or anticipated.”
Aries understood this last point as he recalled the vision of his ambition to conquer the topmost peak, compared to the actual way in which he had arrived. Capricorn had explained as much as he wished to know at this time and his response to her next instruction was none too keen, “Study the maps and learn to recognise the constellations starting with Aries.” She set him to work, sure that he had enough curiosity and self-interest to at least begin.

Next morning the weather had completely cleared on the higher peaks so they were able to venture outside in bright sunshine. In marked contrast to his sorry arrival, he pranced and frolicked in the soft, thick snow. His exuberance touched the playful side of Capricorn who, liking nothing better than sporty fun, began lobbing snowballs at him. It had been a long time since either of them had enjoyed themselves so much. But then she became serious again. She had been giving a great deal of thought to what he had explained about his escape from the Labyrinth. He’d been following the course of a waterfall before stumbling across the opening which had led to the cave on the Sweeps. Obviously this water flow came from the mountain. However, there has to be more than one source of water into the Labyrinth to create the lake and flood Aries had described, also, that the water had been salty suggested some inlet from the ocean. She questioned him again to make sure she had her facts straight. “‘Salt water! Perhaps I should tax Aquarius about this. He might be responsible in some way.” She was thinking about an escapade in the middle of the large lake in Aquarius’ realm. It had involved a number of noxious substances, loud bangs and the spectacular partial disintegration of the rock below one side of his lake.
She told him about it. “Aquarius had been persuaded by the Pisces that a waterfall through that particular rock would look very pretty and form another, lower, lake nearer to the Pisces themselves. Luckily, he had orchestrated this demonstration of fire power from the safety of the opposite shore. We were all quite shaken by the explosion and he has agreed not to conduct any future experiments without a full discussion and the consent of all the Collective. I remember he was a little withdrawn during later talks about his discovery’s possible uses. Most unusual for him because he is always enthusiastic to promote his ideas.”
She said that the realm of Aquarius lay on the far side of the mountain range. Lakes and waterfalls cascaded through woodlands and formed a river which runs to the ocean. “It’s a beautiful place and usually tranquil until BOOM! I still hear the occasional crack and bang but he assures me that these ‘firepowder’ experiments are for amusement only. He is most odd at times! Oh I don’t mean that unkindly,” she added. “He is quite ingenious and has invented many useful things to help the Collective in their tasks. Of course you’ll meet him at the Celebration and he will doubtless arrive in some extraordinary fashion. You may think your flight with the Stork was extraordinary, but Aquarius has taken to gliding over his realm clinging to a great wing-like structure he has constructed with sails. Don’t be surprised if he appears in a puff of smoke at the coming Celebration!” she said laughing. As she finished speaking they walked around the base of the pinnacle to re-enter the Halls through a grand colonnade of ice – her front door. With mild embarrassment she realised that she had talked all the way home.

She went directly to her desk and began to write a report about Aries’ observations in the Labyrinth. This done she then checked her sundial. “Since it promises to stay fine I thought you might like to climb to my watchtower at the top of this peak. We have time and there are fantastic views.”
He said he was quite able to do that and as they begin their ascent she noticed his impatience to reach the top, so challenged him to a race. Invigorated by competition he began to madly scramble up the twisting snow-covered track, slipping only once or twice. Puffing and blowing he reached the summit certain of victory, but to his astonishment Capricorn was serenely waiting for him to join her.
“How did you beat me?” he panted, puzzled since he had not seen her overtake him.
“There is more than one way to the top,” she smiled. “It pays to be sure of your ground before accepting a challenge!”
He congratulated her, not feeling too sore about losing for once and realising this was yet another of her lessons.

She lead him to a round tower where she kept a store of provisions along with a telescope, measuring instruments and dials. They were greeted by a pair of high-flying ravens who had taken shelter there during the unexpected blizzards. Capricorn welcomed them knowing they would be very discreet guests who would mind their own business and cause no concern. She lit a fire in the small stove and in no time at all was serving warm drinks and sandwiches. He wanted to enjoy the views but she insisted he stay to help with her calculations. “Business before pleasure” she reminded him.

The afternoon passed quickly and come sunset the work was done. He climbed the spiralling stairs to the top of the tower and looked through the telescope there. The range of sparkling peaks stretched north to south as far as his eye could see. The clouds below had cleared and looking east, over the canyons and the plateau of Sagittarius, he could just discern the roof of Libra’s villa nestling among the snow-covered foothills far below. Beyond there his view diminished over the expanse of the moorlands but he now knows that in the distance lie the cultivated fields of Virgo, the Sun-drenched Plains of Leo, the tropical valley of Cancer, the Forests of the Gemini, the lush meadowlands of Taurus and finally the eastern hills and the glens of the Headland, or what might remain of it. He had achieved much of his goal since leaving home but felt he had paid a great price. Not wanting to dwell on the past he turned west to look over the lower lakes in the frosted marshlands of Aquarius and way, way out to the ocean’s far horizon. It took his breath away. The last rays of the winter Sun let a thin trail of light over the vast, rolling water back to the distant shore.
“Is the ocean a realm too?”he asked as Capricorn joined him.
With eyes downcast she gave a long, sad sigh.
“The ocean is the domain of the Pisces,” she murmured, then breaking her mood looked up. “However, to deal with the present. Since the skies are clear, tonight will be perfect to view the stars and I will be able to test you on how many constellations you have learned, and remembered.”
He inwardly groaned, he might have known! He wanted to ask her about the Pisces but knew his questions would have to wait until ‘business’ was finished.

That evening, after their stargazing, when he had acquitted himself reasonably well, they returned to the tower and the welcoming warmth of the stove. The night had turned bitterly cold and Capricorn said it was best that they stay overnight and return to the main Halls in the morning. It was a cosy evening spent pleasantly chatting about the different natures of the realms and their sovereigns, until he came to mention the Gemini’s teasing of Cancer and the incident with the Black Pearl. Capricorn could not contain her excitement at his revelation. She made him repeat his recollections of the situation, and his description of the gem.
‘So, in fact, the Gemini found the Pearl and you are absolutely sure that Cancer now has it.’
“Absolutely sure” he assured her. This was what he honestly believed.
“This is the most marvellous news. Marvellous! There is still time. She may be saved. Oh thank the Stars! I must let Scorpio know at first light and she can send the Eagle to retrieve it. At last it has been found and just in the nick of time!”
“Who will be saved? Why is this Pearl so important?” he asked, caught up in her elation.
“It belongs to Piscella, one of the Pisces sisters,” she explained. “They each have a pearl which acts as their compass and safeguard in the deep ocean, which is their true home. What actually happened, how she came to lose the gem, is all a bit mysterious and we have never quite got to the bottom of it, but then the Pisces are always a little vague when it comes to explaining themselves. It’s not that they’re deliberately hiding something, it’s just that the details tend to escape them.”
“They’re quite opposite from Virgo, then” he said “She never misses a detail”
“Quite so. Well observed” she praised. “However, suffice to say that without her Pearl, Piscella dare not enter the ocean for fear of being lost to its depths. She has been confined to the safety of their grotto in shallow waters but she is withering from the loss. If the pearl is not returned to her by the time the thirteenth moon begins to loose light she will…… fade away too.” Her eyes brimmed with tears, she could hardly voice these last words, saddened by the looming fate of her dearest ‘Washy.’ Pulling herself together she continued to enlighten him. “The Pisces are bound together and are inseparable, should one perish then the other will pine away too. Their pearls work in unison also, otherwise the Pisces would swim only in circles. It is vital for both their sakes to retrieve Piscella’s pearl as soon as possible, though how it had arrived in the realm of Gemini is another mystery.”
“I think I may have an idea about that.” He was thinking of the Shrike and putting two and two together. He told her all he knew of the Shrike, what the Gemini had told him and his suspicions in this regard. He wanted to carry on discussing the Shrike, speculating about its evil intentions, the role it might have played in the matter of the missing Pearl, although he still couldn’t understand why it had wanted to discredit him, and was as baffled by this as by Scorpio’s attack on him – he still viewed it that way.
“Well hopefully we will soon have possession of all the facts at which time we can draw firm conclusions. But first things first. To retrieve the Pearl we must be up at first light.” So saying she put on her nightcap, pulled up her blankets and bid him good night.

Awake with the dawn, Capricorn quickly set about sending her news of the Pearl to Scorpio with one of the ravens, who was delighted to oblige. Meanwhile Aries was strutting around, reliving his former glory. “The Headland is the first to see the Sun!” he proclaimed. “And I was the first in the lands to wake, first to run, first in everything!” She was busy making notes in her book of tables but glanced at him from the corner of her eye. “Not first in everything, Ardent,” she murmured, and blotting the page stated coolly, “the thirteenth moon will be in four days time. I’m the first to know that!” He laughed with admiration, she most seriously was as competitive as himself. In fact she was the most competitive of the characters he had met so far bar none! Feeling full of energy he challenged her to race again, down the pinnacle. She regarded him with a wry smile. “Are you quite sure that’s what you want?”
“Absolutely.”
“Then race we shall” she answered happily, packing away her work. “But the loser must pay a price.”
They agreed that if Aries won he would spend his time practising ‘snow travelling’ before the Celebration. But if Capricorn won then his time would be spent in extra lessons on updating the log books. She locked the books away and brought out a pair of toboggans. “It’s only fair to have equal advantage,” she said. “I would usually glide on my tail but that would assure me of victory. However, today we will both use these ingenious innovations of Aquarius’ devised to make snow travel easier for those not so naturally equipped as myself. But I warn you, they need skill in handling! Sagittarius has become a master at it, but it took a little time!”
After some practice in handling the toboggans they took their starting positions on the edge of the slope. He could see that the descent would need nerves of steel as well as skill if he was to beat Capricorn to her front door. “If Saj can do it, so can I” he told himself, smiling secretly, “When it comes to sheer nerve I’ll show Miss ‘Cap-it-all’ who is first!”
Their adrenaline surged… Ready… GO! Racing neck to neck, exhilarated by contest they gathered speed, flying over bumps in the snow, skidding round the first bend, skittering around the next, Aries was just in front as faster and faster they spiralled down the slope steering towards the narrow ledge curving towards the plateau outside her front door. Capricorn was fully enjoying herself and with due skill pulled ahead.
“Who’s first now?” she called, shooting a spray of snow across his bow.
Incensed by the prospect of losing he threw caution to the wind and tried to overtake. It was a reckless manoeuvre at such speed. He lost control of his craft and hurtled into space over the far side of the range. She skidded to a halt and rushed to help, but too late. She could only watch in trepidation as he tumbled down the mountainside, gathering pace and snow as he went.
“Dear, dear Ardent!” she sighed, sad to suddenly lose her sporty companion. “First to take a tumble!”
She must alert Aquarius to the situation since he would have to help her mount a rescue.

*

Saj’s journey down to Scorpio’s realm had been fraught with danger due to the lack of visibility during the storms. But as was his way, he casually swaggered into Scorpio’s chamber with the carefree air of one who was dropping by for a cuppa. Libra was over the moon to see him and they embraced as long lost friends. “Sagittarius! Thank the Stars. I left a letter for you at the cabin. Have you been there?”
He shook his head “Nope. But I’m glad to find you here” he brushed back the forelock of hair that invariably lopped over an eye, “But first, I’m famished ol’ bean, any chance of a bite and a glass of Scorpio’s excellent wine?” while he helped himself to wine, Libra went to organize some food. He returned with a large omelette and plateful of spicy potatoes.
“I have so much to tell you” he frowned, as Saj tucked in. “There has been mayhem and now tragedy. Today I sent a message to Aquarius asking him to join me here. He has to be told what’s happened, and Capricorn too, but I could summon only a robin to take the message, they won’t fly to great heights. Dove is at the villa awaiting my return. I really don’t know where to begin” Libra looked and sounded strained. The worry of many days and nights with no news from Scorpio was taking its toll. Saj drained his glass and held it up for a refill “Libra, my good friend, fret no more. I have the best news for you – and I can recommend the Mouse Grapevine if no high flyer can be summoned!” he smiled his wide grin “Aries is alive and is with Capricorn.”
Libra fell back on to the cushions, mouth agape. Saj poured them both a glass and related the tale of Aries’ rescue from the Labyrinth. “Then the Pearl is safe too! This really is the best news Saj”
“What are you talking about, the Black Pearl?” Saj was puzzled. “Of course the Black Pearl” returned Libra excited, and he explained what Scorpio had learned from the forest. Until this point their mood had been one of re-union and celebration, but on hearing that Aries was supposed to have carried the Pearl, Saj’s mood deflated like a bubble burst. He stared into the fire “He doesn’t have it now” he said flatly. “Trust me I would have seen it. Or if not me then Capricorn, she’s been nursing him. No! He has nothing on him. The fire scorched him naked. It’s a miracle he’s survived. My guess is that the Pearl was lost at that point” Both were deeply saddened by this conclusion.
“There is a chance Scorpio may find it down there. She is searching as much for the Pearl as for him.” said Libra, but he sounded far from optimistic.

Sagittarius stayed on for a further three days waiting for Scorpio to emerge, but the only news to arrive was from the Raven sent by Capricorn about the Pearl being with Cancer. “I’m sorry Libs but this news prompts me to get back immediately. Though Scorpio is due to appear at any time, I must let Capricorn know the true situation. And I’ll be sure to check Aries over just in case there is the slimmest of chances ….” With that he set about stowing the caskets of gems and prepared to leave.

He was struggling to get up the mountain with the consignment of the gems. Snowdrifts impeded his progress causing him to divert from his usual route, and being mindful of his hip injury, he’d decided not to take any chances with dangerous shortcuts.

***

Expect the Unexpected
Saturn and Uranus in Aquarius

Aquarius was busy in his workshop. Before him were glass tubes and bowls filled with various liquids and powders. He was consumed with his latest creation of colourful fireworks when something disturbed his concentration. He was sure he had heard the rumbling of thunder but the sun was streaming through his window. “Odd!” Moving to the window he gazed up at the blue sky.
Puffs of white cloud drifted high across the blue, there was nothing to signal an approaching storm. “Very odd!” he muttered, and turning back to his bench became once more engrossed in assaying his powders. He paused again. There was definitely a strange rumbling and it was certainly getting louder. He strode across his workshop and opened the door, outwards. Sunlight flooded in, blinding him for an instant. Shading his eyes he looked towards the snow-covered slopes and started back in horror. Hurtling towards him was a large ball of snow, chased by a mini avalanche. He slammed the door shut a split second before it struck. The building shook and the door bowed inwards at the impact. He waited expectantly, listening for sounds which would tell if the building could take it. All was quiet.
“Very, very odd!” he remarked, shaken as he strode back towards the window, grabbing a shovel on the way. Easing his tall, angular frame through the opening he cursed at being disturbed from his work, but at the same time was highly curious about this intrusion.

Despite the force of the impact the snowball was still intact, and with a view to clearing his doorway, Aquarius gave a few hefty blows with the shovel. Immediately, muffled sounds came from the ball itself, which had also begun to wobble of its own accord. Aquarius sprang back in shock. “What? A live snowball?” Scratching his unruly mop of hair he deliberated the absurdity of the situation, perplexed as the odd ball increased its noisy wobbling.
Enlightenment dawned. He addressed the ‘thing.’
“Ahem. Is it, I mean, are you… a sort of life form?”
It seemed a perfectly reasonable question. The snowball showed a deal more agitation, much to the ecstatic delight of Aquarius who instantly proclaimed, “A new life form! Omygosh how fantastic! How beautifully bizarre! A wonderful new life form!”
Pacing to and fro he was now beside himself with excitement. He must first determine if it has real intelligence, then establish a method of communication.
‘CAN YOU UNDERSTAND ME?’ he bellowed, though why he imagined the life form was hard of hearing is beyond explanation. The ball began to shed lumps of ice and he could definitely hear thuds from inside. “Excellent! A positive response,” he reasoned, rubbing his hands together in anticipation of the mysteries to be revealed.
Aquarius considered how he could resolve his most burning question: had this entity just landed from the vastness of the skies, or had it been hidden for time beyond measure in the snow drifts of the Great West Mountains, never recognised or understood by its neighbouring fellows? What an abominable thought! He fervently hoped it had landed from the skies. In no way was he alarmed by the newcomer, on the contrary, here was something that would smash the boundaries of the known, never mind his front door.

Nothing did Aquarius like more than to test boundaries. Though sometimes his experiments had unpredictable and occasionally disastrous results, never was he deterred from attempting something new and testing his theories. Indeed he could be extremely stubborn especially when he encountered resistance to an ‘outlandish’ idea from those more traditional or cautious. But here was something completely different for him to explore and understand, something totally new that would revolutionize thinking in his world. That he seemed a trifle eccentric trying to communicate with a ball of snow bothered him not a jot.
Then the unexpected happened. The ball burst apart to reveal a Ram in a black woolly coat!
“I am Aries. A cold and bruised life form,” he announced crossly, teetering from the mass. Shock turned to hilarity as Aquarius doubled up laughing at the comical scene. He wasn’t too disappointed with Aries for not being the discovery of the age, being highly impressed by his outlandish arrival.
“You might find it amusing,” chattered Aries shivering, “but I feel quite peculiar!”
Aquarius struggled to keep a straight face.
“Of course, of course. You have literally just ‘broken the mould’ and are probably in a state of shock, or should that be, in a shocking state? Apparently both!” and relapsing into fits of laughter again he helped Aries to walk around the side of the workshop, through a heavy metal door and into the main house.
“I’ll fetch some food and drink. Sit yourself by the fire, you’ll soon feel better.”
His warm, friendly manner and engaging smile made Aries feel welcome. Aquarius was a very sociable character who enjoyed having visitors, and the more unusual they were the better he liked them.
The room was light and spacious without clutter. A couple of Libra’s landscapes adorned one wall and a few crystallised rocks were jotted around as ornaments. A tall plant with large spiky leaves stood in one corner and, like others of the Collective, he had a telescope and a sundial. The clean lines of the large, square room retained a spartan feel, the only concession to cushioned comfort being a right-angled sofa sprawling around the open log fire. One of the walls was a large picture window with views onto a wide lake that seemed to extend from below the house itself. A high waterfall tumbled down the mountainside into the tranquil water, and tall pines interspersed with bright-berried bushes grew along the shorelines. The scene was extremely picturesque.
“Where did you say you came from?” asked Aquarius, returning with a tray of refreshments.
“I didn’t. But I come from the land where the sun rises first,” began Aries, “and I have travelled across the realms.”
“How revolutionary!” marvelled Aquarius. He knew Aries was Sovereign of the Headland and was intrigued that he had travelled so far from home. “It sounds fantastic. But before I hear all about that, where did you just come from, in the snowball I mean?”
Aries told him about his race with Capricorn and abrupt departure from the peaks. Again Aquarius howled with laughter and his mirth was so infectious that Aries was soon laughing with him. But then he felt anxious that Capricorn might be worried about him and asked if there was any way he could let her know he was safe. It dawned on him that a sense of responsibility was his legacy from Capricorn.
“No sooner said than done,” responded the earnest young man. “Follow me.”
His speech had a sharp, decisive style and his stride was long and rangy, there was nothing flowery about Aquarius. They made their way to a flight of stairs in the workroom and up through a hatch which opened onto a flat roof. A strange apparatus stood in one corner, composed of mirrors, pulleys and levers.
“Capricorn has a similar apparatus,” he informed Aries. “We usually send messages via the birds, but I recently devised this system as an alternative. However, I have yet to find a means of alerting each other that one of us is trying to communicate.”
“Do you spend all your time inventing?” asked Aries, impressed by all he had so far heard of Aquarius’ achievements.
“I suppose I do,” replied his host. “I’m driven to find new ways of doing old things. But my individual purpose is intended to serve the common benefit. I don’t call it inventing, I call it innovating because the answers are already here, waiting to be discovered and utilised.” And taking hold of the levers he began rapidly manipulating them causing the mirrors to catch the rays of the sun and reflect them towards the mountain top.
Aries watched intrigued.
“Look up there,” pointed Aquarius. “We are getting a reply.”
Aries glanced up at the mountain and was further impressed to see a sequence of answering flashes.
“Bother!” exclaimed Aquarius, noting down the sequence. “Cap says she has been trying to contact me ever since you left.” He returned a sequence to her then vocalised her next reply because it was intended for Aries, himself. “Glad you are safe – stop. You must attend the Council – stop.  You lost!” At which Aries instructed him to reply,  “I’m calling a re-match.”
Capricorn flashed back that she was calling for a meeting of the Collective – to be held as soon as possible and that Aquarius should ensure the Pisces attend. She wanted all present for the good news about the Pearl and also to discuss the matter of the sea water leaking onto the fire – can there be a solution?

Once the messages had been exchanged they returned to the house and talked far into the night. Aquarius was impressed by Aries’ tale. He was overjoyed to hear about the Pearl being with Cancer and agreed with Aries’ theory that the Shrike was the culprit in its theft. Unlike Capricorn, Aquarius was very curious about the Shrike and seemed concerned about Aries’ idea that it was somehow involved with Scorpio and the incident in the grove.
“Do you think Scorpio and the Shrike are plotting together to be rid of me then?”
“Oh no!” Aquarius was emphatic. “I don’t think that at all. I’m just curious about the Shrike, what you know of it or of any other rumours or lies it might have spread, nothing more. But tell me about your time in the Labyrinth and your miraculous escape. And your adventure on Northern Sweeps with Saj. I’ve been there. Spectacular! Pity Saj isn’t here now, he’s great company, but you say he has gone to collect the gems for the Celebration? That promises to be a great party now the Pearl has been found! Did you hear about the time he almost set Eagle alight!?” Aquarius laughed as Aries recounted what Libra had told of that event.
He listened attentively as Aries described his ordeal in the labyrinth, but then became restless, began pacing on hearing about the salt water pouring onto the Fire. “Salt water? That certainly suggests the ocean has found some way into the mountain.” Aries told him that Capricorn thought he may have some answers to that problem, hence her question earlier “That means she thinks I’m responsible in some way!” he shouted, throwing his hands in the air. “But I had to test my new discovery. Its power is awesome. It can change life as we know it!” he said, his manner becoming increasingly excited.
“From what I have heard it has already changed things,” replied Aries. He knew Aquarius was expounding about his explosives and he was referring to what Capricorn had said about the lower lake.
“The explosives can’t possibly have caused the problems with the Transforming Fire,” snapped Aquarius. “I took the very greatest precautions when blowing up the rock to create the lower lake. There could have been no reverberation into the range itself.” He looked earnestly at Aries as though considering whether or not to say more, then spoke out. “There was another, bigger blast but that was done so far out to sea that no effect whatsoever could have been felt in the mountains.” Again he stopped, his mind racing. He thought, but didn’t say, unless there was some underlying fault, some shift in the ocean bed that had been triggered by the explosion. But he couldn’t be blamed for the ‘unseeable’, could he…? His mind then jumped from the matter of the underground lake and returned to the power of his innovation. “But that’s what experiments are about, testing theories, trying things out,” he threw a glancing smile to his audience, bringing himself back to the moment. “This salt water etcetera, might have happened in any event, through erosion. Unexpected things happen all the time. I mean, take what happened in your realm. An earthquake! That’s why I have to know more about the Labyrinth because the fire-bright gems are vital to our continued existence.”
Aquarius went on to explain that his greatest endeavour was to shed light onto the workings of the Labyrinth, to make it more accessible. “If I can explore its deepest held secrets it might lead to knowledge that will enable the gems to be forged outside of the Labyrinth, saving the labours of Scorpio and eliminating the dangers of freak accidents, like the underground lake for instance. I may even discover the beginnings of existence, the purpose of Life itself!” he proclaimed wide-eyed, running his hands over his unruly hair in fruitless attempts to smooth it.
“Purpose of life!” exclaimed Aries. He felt that while he may not yet have the inventive knowledge of Aquarius, he had actual experience which gave equal weight to his view.
“I believed I would perish in that Labyrinth. Everything was black, painful and hopeless. But something glinted in the darkness, the gems. My hopes revived. I seized my chance to survive and because of my experience there I have come to see what life means to me. I am glad to be in the daylight, to experience my senses and appreciate all around me. Is this not a purpose of life?”
Aquarius stopped pacing and glared at his visitor. A mere platitude but its simple truth made him furious. If he was to wholly accept that view he would have to forsake his endeavours. His whole being resisted Aries’ words.
“What about knowledge? What about progress? Are we to remain in ignorance?” he railed.
“No, not in ignorance,” said Aries coolly. He wanted to discuss this. “As you say, you innovate. All is in place waiting to be discovered and utilised. When there is so much to do, like improve communications across the realms or observe the patterns in the night sky for instance, why bother to unearth the Labyrinth? It can be explored and mapped more thoroughly I agree, a map would have been useful, and a light! But to interfere with its workings, to expose it and try to forge the fire-bright gems in a different way may bring disaster as much as enlightenment. I mean, if you forge the gems differently how can you be sure that they will have the same properties as those made naturally by the Fire? How can you know exactly what difference their difference will make? As you say, the unexpected happens!”
“Your rhetoric bears the hallmark of Sagittarius!” scolded Aquarius, wanting to stem this philosophical outpouring. Saj was a much loved and respected friend of Aquarius but often they would get into heated debate about the Labyrinth, along much the same lines as he and Aries were now arguing.
Aquarius strolled over to the large window and looked out over the lake. It was almost daybreak and a low mist hovered on the surface of the water. In its cool mountain setting the scene was beautiful, almost surreal. He felt churned up inside. He had such a fervent desire to know the Labyrinth. Its secrets challenged him, there was so much yet to discover.
“Why don’t you go into the Labyrinth? Scorpio can lead you,” suggested Aries.
“I have tried that already without success. Although Scorpio consented she was very against the idea. I find her very intense and we are often at loggerheads. I’ll have a flash of insight but she wants to delve into the why’s and wherefore’s of it. Also I found the tunnels suffocating. I couldn’t think in there. I need space and light,” he replied, “I admire you for surviving that trial alone. I’m sure I would have lost my mind and perished.” He stretched and yawned. “But that’s enough discussion for now. We must get some rest before we take off for the Pisces. They’ll be over the moon to hear about Piscella’s Pearl, I can tell you.” And fetching Aries a feather-filled quilt, he bid him ‘good morning’ and went off to bed himself.

Burying his head under his pillow Aquarius didn’t want to think anymore about anything. Instead he was looking forward to visiting the Pisces sisters later, not only to bring them the good news but because in their romantic and sometimes muddled notions they often accidentally attained a clarity when he needed to ease his mind.

*

It was long after sundown when Saj arrived in the main hall with the gems. He asked after Aries and Capricorn told him he had tumbled off the mountain but had landed safely with Aquarius. She was evidently much amused by Aries and in good spirits. “He brought out the playful side of me, it’s been fun having him around” But her demeanour changed when she learned that the Pearl was not with Cancer, nor, as far as she was concerned, was it with Aries. “The fact is he was burnt naked as you know. You didn’t see anything on him and neither did I. I nursed him, and made him a coat to keep out the cold. If he’d had anything about his person, anything at all, one of us would have seen it.” She was quite adamant.
“Then all we can hope is that Scorpio will find it” said Saj. They both knew this was akin to finding the smallest of needles in the largest of haystacks.

They were awake early next morning and after a light breakfast Capricorn said she would go to the watchtower and despatch the other raven with a message for Aquarius, warning him not to raise the hopes of the Pisces, that the Pearl was lost, and to expect her at his workshop that afternoon. There was no point in holding a meeting now, as she had messaged the previous evening, instead she decided she would accompany him and Aries to the Pisces grotto and wait for Scorpio’s news regarding the Pearl, good or bad.
Sagittarius told her he would to return to Scorpio`s realm and wait with Libra. He would take one of the toboggans to speed him down the mountain and should arrive before sundown. “You will virtually have fly down the mountain to make such good time!” remarked Capricorn, concerned for his safety although she knew him to be a superb sportsman. “Aha Now there’s a thought. I don’t suppose Aquarius has left his flying machine here?’ he hoped he had. “No chance! He keeps it so close I shouldn’t be surprised if he sleeps in it!” she grinned. 
“Then I’ll make the toboggan fly! Don’t worry, I can handle it” he assured her “It’ll be an easy ride over those drifts.” He then became serious “If Scorpio has found the Pearl, Eagle will get it to the Pisces with all speed. We will follow taking the lower pass to Aquarius’ realm and send word to your party to join us there. If all is well, the Celebration can take place around the lake.” He paused and placed his hands on her shoulders, “If the Pearl is not found, then we will join you at the Pisces grotto … to say our farewells.”
At these last words Capricorn bowed her head and turned her face away from him, her shoulders slumped as though some great weight had suddenly descended upon her. She now found it difficult to feel the slightest hope that the Pearl would be found, thought it was too improbable, that the odds against it were far too high. “What is the point of holding on to a false hope?” her voice sounded flat, defeated “Why not just accept the inevitable, no matter how dark” 
Sagittarius put his arms around her, comforting her silent tears “We must not despair Capricorn, not until the last, the very last moment for hope has passed” he said gently, and quietly took his leave.

***

Sorrows and Joys
Jupiter and Neptune in Pisces

Aries had barely rested before he was disturbed by an eerie, wailing sound. The quiet of Capricorn’s realm had fine-tuned his hearing and he was sure he could discern a plaintive voice, a sorrowful song floating over the resonance of the waterfalls. He was prompted to investigate alone rather than rouse his host for what might turn out to be little or nothing.

The early morning air was frosty and mist still hovered on the lake. He shivered, the woolly coat had kept him warm in the dry, cold air of the peaks but on these frost-covered shores of Aquarius’ realm the damp chill seeped into his bones. All was still, there was no-one to be seen. The song was coming from down river and, intrigued, he was drawn towards it. A small dinghy was moored to a wooden jetty extending from the veranda which ran around the base of the house, but he preferred to stay on foot. Descending the staircase of lakes he broke into a run through the woodlands, following the river, and the song, down to the sea. The exercise warmed him.

As he reached the wide sandy beach a wintry sun peeped through the clouds and a light breeze cooled his face. The tide was out and the ocean stretched away in the distance. The river flowed into a channel around one side of a craggy, rock-like isle and when the tide flowed in again it would surround the rock, isolating it from the mainland. But now he could walk across the damp, undulating sands and onto the little isle with ease.
The singing had stopped. The only sounds were the lapping of the waves and seabirds calling from their nests dotted around the cliff face. A little exploration along the grassy cliff top brought him over a lagoon, sheltering in a west-facing bay. He climbed down a ladder of rocky steps to the pebbled beach and saw a honeycomb of caves reaching under the isle itself. He guessed he was near the grotto of the Pisces.

Curiosity lured him to wade into one of the hollows, though he was anxious about what he may find. Shoals of brightly coloured fish darted through and around his ankles and while swift to avoid his footfalls they unnerved him a little, unsteadied his tread. Then he saw her.
She was sitting on a rock inside the entrance to the grotto, her long fish tail dangled in the shallows. Her face and upper body were turned slightly away, hidden behind tresses of dark hair which hung down to her waist. She was sobbing, though with little sound now. Aries was more disconcerted, not sure whether to go forward or retreat but, sensing his presence, she turned to face him. Startled by the stranger she quickly slipped from the rock with a cry of alarm and hid behind it.
“Stay!” He called, disarmed by her fright. “It’s just… I heard singing… such a sad song.”
Her head barely peeped over the rock. “Who are you?” she trembled, still afraid.
“You must be the Pisces,” he answered, keeping his voice as low as he could. He hadn’t meant to frighten her.
“I am Pisconna, but who…”
“The song, was that you?”
She nodded gently. “My farewell to Piscella, my sister. She is… fading… our bond is releasing her.” She broke into sobs again. “Very soon now she will be… gone. And it’s all my fault. All my fault!” she wailed, clasping at the long twine which stemmed from her navel and trailed into the water.
Aries slowly paddled around the rock to face her. He saw a beautiful White Pearl, a twin to the Black gem, set over the root of the twine.
“Where is your sister?” His tone was concerned.
Still weeping she pointed to the large chamber beyond the entrance. Here there was a high domed roof which rose out through the top of the isle itself. Around the dome there was a circle of twelve arched windows each covered by coloured glass depicting the realms and their sovereigns, replicas of the ornate tapestries he had seen in Scorpio’s realm. Under the light of the dome succulent plants grew in profusion, clinging to the rock walls in cascades of greenery and white star-like blooms. On the sandy bed of the pool were many different shaped seashells and coloured crystals, similar to the scene in Cancer’s cavern. With some relief he noticed that here there were no shoals of small fish darting to and fro to further distract him.
As he waded into the larger chamber the water deepened, covering his shoulders so he had to swim. Sunlight spilled through the arched windows creating a kaleidoscope of coloured shapes that reflected off the surface of the water and rippled gently around the walls in rhythm with his strokes. He was pleasantly surprised to find it comfortably warm and, like in the underground lake in the Labyrinth, he felt the same strange sensation that he was being drawn through the water, towards the prostrate form in the centre of the pool.

Piscella lay unnaturally still, hands folded across her chest. Her long fair hair floated in tendrils around her pale countenance, her fishtail was opaque and lacklustre. There was an indentation at her navel where the Black Pearl should be, the connecting bond to her sister was hanging by a thread. As the kaleidoscope of colours gently rippled over her, she appeared almost transparent, as though literally fading from view.

She was in a deep coma and when Aries entered the pool she had almost transcended into lifelessness. But once he had submerged to swim, a shockwave pierced the void of her catatonic state, rousing her waning senses. Her pulse began to quicken. Consciousness slowly, slowly drifted back from the dark as instinct recognised the magnetic signal of her Pearl, now a pulsating white line streaming across the blackness behind her closed lids.

Throughout his ordeal in the Labyrinth, Cancer’s beautifully crafted pouch had clung with tenacity to the remaining curls at Aries’ throat, where the Crab had skilfully placed it. It was so well camouflaged, and with its ties burned away, neither Saj nor Capricorn could have seen it without the knowledge to look. With his approach towards this sister its signal strengthened. Piscella’s inner self willed her to answer its call, to reclaim her life and be at one with the ocean again. But she had fallen too deeply, she could not wake! She must wake! Please awake!
He swam in close. He wanted to revive her, to tell her they had found her Pearl, but suddenly Pisconna swam up behind him and viciously grabbed the collar of his coat, thwacking at him with her tail, trying to pull him back. “Don’t touch her, don’t touch her!” she screeched. “Who are you? What do you want?”
He jerked himself away, ripping the neck of his coat apart.
“I’m Aries!” he protested hotly, trying desperately not to be cross, and surprised that one so seemingly timid could display such strength and aggression. “I bring good news about the Black Pearl” he said angrily.
“Good news?” Pisconna stopped thrashing and stared at him open-mouthed. She had come to accept that it would never be found. He looked into her eyes. They were a lovely deep violet blue, and seeing the grief there all anger left him. He forgave her desperate outburst and attack. He could feel her pain, sense it acutely as if it was his own. In the realm of Pisces, he came to know compassion.
“It is safe, believe me,” he assured her. “It is with Cancer. She lives on an island – in a cavern… like… this…” Again he was distracted by the moving patterns of light around him, his thoughts and feelings running amok. Did nothing remain stable in this realm?

Pisconna knew both of Aries’ realm and of Cancer, and would have felt more comforted if she wasn’t so puzzled by him being so far from his Realm, but also by his revelation. She thought she could feel a slight current in the water, as though the twin of her Pearl was close, but how could that be if Aries was telling the truth about it being with Cancer?
In a state of much confusion and doubt she retreated towards the entrance, imploring him to follow.
“Leave Piscella in peace. Please. Come away” she begged, “Tell me everything, all you…”
“Ssh! I think Piscella is aware,” he whispered.
Pisconna turned back. Aware? At this eleventh hour! Was it possible? She held her breath.
In the commotion one of Piscella`s hands had slipped from her breast into the water. It now brushed feebly yet deliberately against Aries. He turned towards the dying sister, speaking softly into her ear. “I have been near death myself and know how weak you must feel. If you can hear me, know that your Pearl is safe. It will be with you soon, I promise. Just hold on…”
As he was speaking she slowly opened her large, blue-green eyes. She turned to gaze at him, yet seemed to look through him and beyond him. He was enchanted but felt a deep sadness. She seemed so frail he doubted she would survive long enough for the Pearl to be brought the distance from Cancer.
She had not heard him, his words had sounded muffled and faint. But she now knew where her Pearl lay hidden. Her lips parted to speak but she barely breathed. Still she held his gaze. The sensing pulse was stronger now, throbbing, drawing her hand towards it. Her fingers found the black curls at his throat, the remnants of his fleece, and as she gently parted the patch of matted tangles, the life-saving gem surrendered to her grasp.
‘Thank you, oh thank you,’ she whispered, lifting her Black Pearl free.

Ecstasy was the only word that could describe the Pisces’ joy. With the Pearl once more placed securely in her navel, Piscella instantly regained a little strength and colour. Pisconna threw off her mantle of guilt, though her sister had long since forgiven her, and their bond was again secure. Aries was equally bowled over to have been the bearer of the gem, although totally baffled why Cancer had secretly entrusted him with it “Such mysteries are way beyond me,” he thought, glad to be reconciled that some mysteries will ever remain.

The Pisces escorted him onto a sandbank within the grotto. It was full of clutter. Old seashells, combs, mirrors, sponges, tangled strings of little pearls and other stones, together with a discarded sundial and an up-ended, half buried telescope. Pisconna cleared a space for him to sit while Piscella remained relaxing and recuperating in the water.

He told them only that he had been travelling across the realms and explained why he thought the Pearl was simply a gift from the Gemini to Cancer. He then mentioned that he had first heard of their plight from Capricorn and of his suspicions that the Shrike must have stolen the Pearl and then hidden it in the Forest, where the Gemini had found it.
“But how did you come to lose it?” naturally, he was curious.
Pisconna wiggled her tail in the water and lowered her eyes.
“We were caused to quarrel badly and I took it from Piscella while she was sleeping. I hid it among the rocks around the lagoon so she wouldn’t be able to sense it and find it, but when I went to retrieve it, to give it back, it was gone! I thought I’d misplaced it and kept searching, but it was nowhere to be found.”
“Well it’s obvious. The Shrike must have found it and understanding it’s worth quickly made off with it. Evil creature. It spoke of having a realm of its own ‘wingrealm’ but I think that was a lie. I think it wanted to claim your realm and was waiting for .. well .. you know, until you had gone.” he now felt quite sure that this was the case.
“The Shrike, mmn, yes. I suppose so.” She seemed a little vague, distracted, as though she wasn’t quite telling him all, then enquired, “Did you tell Aquarius of your suspicions about the Shrike, I mean, did he agree or have anything to add?”
He said Aquarius had firmly agreed that the Shrike was the most likely thief, but beyond this there was little to add. “I don’t suppose we will know the whole truth until it is caught and questioned. However, the important thing is that the Pearl is again with Piscella. Now we must let Aquarius know where I am, and about the Pearl. Do you have any signalling mirrors?”
“Oh no!” she said laughing “We prefer the old ways. We will send word with one of our gulls. Let’s go to the lagoon, it will be better for Piscella there too.”

He was glad to be outside, he could dry off properly, and the surroundings wouldn’t move so much. Pisconna helped him to remove his sopping wet coat whilst Piscella gathered a little seaweed to chew. It contained many minerals and would help to replenish her vigour. She was still weak and moved even more languidly than usual as she bathed in the lagoon. He explained about the scorching of his natural fleece by the Transforming Fire and that the black coat was a much treasured gift from Capricorn which had served him well. Pisconna laid it flat upon some rocks to dry “It sounds like you have endured a terrible ordeal,” she said, sympathetically.
“Oh I have, I have,” he agreed. “But thankfully I’ve survived to tell the tale.”
To his great relief he realised that his natural fleece had begun to re-grow, but something was different. Pisconna found a misplaced mirror among the rocks, the Pisces were always misplacing things, and held it up for him to see his reflection. Piscella came to join them.
He could hardly believe his eyes. Apart from his fringe and the lock of curls at his throat, his once beautiful black fleece was now the colour of the Sun.
“I’m golden!” he cried.
“That’s a transformation,” said Piscella nonchalantly.
He smiled and agreed that’s exactly what it was. He told them more about his experience in the Labyrinth and his climb inside the mountain, how he found Sagittarius. Then their exciting journey to Capricorn and how much he had enjoyed and learned from his time on the Peaks. They howled with laughter when he recounted his tumble down the mountainside and Aquarius’ reaction to the ‘live snowball.’
“In an odd way,” said Piscella smiling, feeling very much better, “You are a new life form, if not quite what Aquarius had expected. I mean, you are your new self, different from the Aries who had left the Headland”
“That’s true!” added Pisconna “Because of your travels, you have grown from that one essential aspect of yourself and have become much more besides.”
“Much more besides. Yes!” He liked her words, remembering his meeting with Leo and reflecting how pompous he must have sounded then. Now it rang true because he had gathered a different awareness from each of the realms. He had matured and knew himself better, had come to acknowledge his weaknesses as well as his strengths.

It was approaching midday and the tide was flowing in, the isle was soon surrounded by the ocean. Piscella said she felt strong enough to take a gentle swim around the rock, that the exercise and a small foray into their beloved ocean, beyond the reef that enclosed the lagoon, would strengthen her more. Aries declined to join them, preferring to climb to the cliff top and look out to sea. He found a grassy hollow where he could sit comfortably and enjoy the views. Time was healing his feelings of remorse about leaving the Headland, the pain was not so acute as it had been in the Labyrinth, or when with Capricorn. “A lot has happened to me since I left and whoever in the Headland has survived the earthquake, they have done so without me,” he told himself. “Life there will be different now, perhaps I have no place in it.” he thought, feeling a little downhearted. Sighing deeply he tried to sort the muddle of his thoughts and feelings about the Headland and his Clan, and his ever present quest to follow the sun. “I cannot go back. It is pointless. It will only disturb things” he concluded, resigning himself to thinking that any survivors of the Clan must believe he had perished in the earthquake. “I must go forward. It’s the only way.” This, after all, was his true nature.

He watched the Pisces return, fascinated as Pisconna jumped, dived and glided through the surf. Piscella was trailing, swimming well but at a gentle pace. He was impressed by her resilience and power of recovery. She had seemed so weak such a short while ago. He wondered what he might learn from their watery realm, other than sensing the pain of others, and being a little more modest about his accomplishments. He ran to join them on the shore in the bay.
“Tell me about the ocean. What lies beyond its horizon. Can I follow the sun there?”
They looked from him to each other and it was a long moment before Piscella spoke softly, as though in a trance, “Far out at sea all you see is the sea. The horizon moves and is all around you. The ocean is dangerous, the waves are high and walls of water fill the sky. Far out to sea it’s so easy to…”
“But we can dive to the quiet depths below. This is our realm,” interjected Pisconna quickly, she pulled her sister closer to. “There are many different landscapes under the ocean and these shift and change with the ebb and flow of the tides. We have our Pearls to guide us against dangers. But how would you survive?” Her tone was more earthy and practical.
Aries was crestfallen. Horizons moving, walls of water, shifting landscapes! This realm was the strangest, most daunting place he had encountered. But thoughts of turning back, retracing his steps went against his fibre. “There must be a way,” he said, mustering determination, not at all sure he believed his own words.
“Oh, we almost forgot. We must send word to Aquarius about the Pearl!” cried Pisconna and summoned one of the gulls.
“Please stay for supper. Aquarius will join us and we’ll try to find a way to help your plight,” said Piscella gently, sensing his confusion and apprehensions about travelling on.
Needing to catch up on sleep, he returned to the grassy hollow on the cliff top while the Pisces retired to the grotto to rest. Trying not to dwell on his feelings of uncertainty and the challenge of the sea, he wondered what the Pisces had quarrelled about. He would ask them more about it over supper.

Secrets Confessed

Aquarius was in a cranky mood. No stranger to irregular hours, he often stayed up late, sometimes worked throughout the night, but then would happily sleep until sundown the next day. Being virtually dawn before he had got to bed today he was not pleased to be roused by the din of impatient messengers squawking at his door in the early afternoon. Also, there was no sign of Aries who was obviously up and about and who could have otherwise answered the calls.
“All right! All right!” he shouted above the birds’ babble. ‘First come. First heard!’
A stately raven stepped forward complaining it had been waiting since early morning with urgent word from Capricorn: “Do not speak with the Pisces. Aries has misinformation. His cargo was lost in the Labyrinth. I am on my way to you. Capricorn.”
Second spoke the robin: “Grave news. Join me at Scorpio’s as quickly as possible. Libra”
“This is confusing!” he was puzzled and began pacing the veranda. Aries’ cargo lost in the Labyrinth? He deduced this meant the Pearl. But isn’t it supposed to be with Cancer? And what was the matter with Libra? It flashed to mind that Libra had found himself snowed in at Scorpio’s – which Aquarius would consider reasonably ‘grave’ – and wanted to use his flying machine to glide swiftly over the snowdrifts back to his villa. Should he leave for Scorpio’s realm to ‘rescue’ Libra? But Capricorn was on her way here, so he must wait before he can go. And where is Aries!?
“Communication! Communication! Communication!” He was extremely agitated, wondering what to do for the best. On further questioning, robin admitted that his news was a few days old due to bad weather, therefore, it may be out of date. Raven confirmed that Capricorn’s message was sent at first light so Capricorn will be arriving at any time. At that moment a gull flew in bearing the good news from the Pisces.
Aquarius pondered for a moment then with a flash of insight felt he knew what to do. “Raven, fly with haste to Scorpio’s realm, inform Libra and Scorpio that the Pearl is found.” He would wait for Capricorn, hopefully Saj had got the gems to the peaks and was with her. If he came along with Capricorn, they could all visit the Pisces this evening. Excellent!
After a bite of food the messengers went their ways, robin glad to be off the hook and free to stay in Aquarius’ domain amid the pretty berried bushes around the lake.

Aquarius had barely managed to pull on his warm, woolly boots before Capricorn arrived. She was overjoyed to hear that Piscella has at last found her Pearl, and related what she knew about Scorpio’s part in it all. “She and Serpentis will surface soon to receive the good news. Saj will be there also, waiting with Libra. Good that you despatched the raven rather than the robin with the news. But back to the Pearl. It must have been hidden well! I never saw so much as a trace of it on his person which is why I was so sure”
“We all make mistakes sometimes,” he soothed, realising his insights as to what the messages meant were a bit askew. But he knew she would take being wrong quite to heart. “At least there has been an excellent outcome, Cap.”
She was grateful for his kindliness, “Now all we have to worry about is the fate of Aries’ Clan and the water flow into the Great Fire. You can’t shed any light on that can you?” She looked at him with one of her serious ‘tell me all’ expressions.
“Well, I’ll do my best,” he said airily, deliberately fobbing the question to avoid explaining his ‘explosive adventure’ out at sea. “It might mean another explosion is necessary to seal the leak, if there is a leak.” Whilst Aquarius was honourable in accepting his responsibilities, he wanted to be very sure the fissure was the result of his actions before declaring he had any part.
Over a late lunch they enjoyed convivial conversation about recent events, but rather than go on to visit the Pisces, now that all was well, Capricorn decided it was better that she return home. She had preparations to make and the Celebration was less than three days away. They agreed that it should be held in the realm of Sagittarius, as usual, and she would inform the others.

He accompanied her a little way up the mountain and amongst other provisions for the Celebration gave her some of his coloured powders to keep safe. “These are for Saj. I will try to bring more.” Then bidding her farewell he left the trail to stand on a rock shelf protruding from the mountainside. She stood and watched as he strapped himself onto his ‘winged contraption’ as she called it. “I really must have a go at that one day soon,” she promised herself, and gave him a wave as he launched himself skywards.
“To the Beach and Pisces!” he cried as a gust of wind filled the large sail and lifted him into the air. He loved his flying machine, it was his favourite innovation and he was soon transported over the marshes and woodlands to the isle, scattering a few gulls as he made his zigzag landing.

Aries and the Pisces were chatting inside the grotto. The sisters sat companionably arm-in-arm listening to the tale of his adventures, thoroughly enjoying and encouraging his animated recount. He was moved by their sisterly love for each other and was proud to have been the bearer of the Pearl. But whilst he didn’t want to spoil their reconciliation, he simply had to know. “I don’t want to be rude, but what did you quarrel about? It must have been important to involve something as precious as the Pearl.”

“Perhaps I can answer that,” called Aquarius, wreathed in smiles as he entered the grotto. He knew the Pisces might skirt around the detail in relating the tale. He was elated to see them happy again. “But before I do, I must congratulate you on your absolutely fabulous new fleece. Dazzling! Leo will be highly impressed when we attend his next Extravaganza! Also, I can give you an explanation about Scorpio’s part, the incident in the grove. It’s not how you thought.”
Aries was relieved all the misunderstandings had been cleared. “I’m really looking forward to meeting Scorpio, though her realm scares me half to death!” They all howled with laughter at his remark and he felt terrific.
“I have brought something special to celebrate the return of Piscella’s Pearl. Virgo and I worked together to cultivate this perfect draught.” beamed Aquarius, producing a beautiful silver pitcher richly inlaid with gold inscriptions of the constellations, filled to its brim with the finest sparkling wine. He poured generously into four gold and silver goblets.
“Here’s to Excellent Outcomes.”
They all cheered the toast and drank.
“Whoopee! I love the bubbles,” giggled Piscella.
“We will prepare a grand meal to compliment this wonderful wine,” Pisconna felt truly happy.

While the Pisces busied themselves preparing food, Aries asked Aquarius about their quarrel. He wanted to know more about these peculiar fish, who seemed indefinable to him. The Gemini were also two, but the Twins seemed more of one mind. He felt the Pisces exuded a sense of duality.
“Without her Pearl, Piscella had lost her freedom to swim the deep ocean, could never safely enter her natural domain again, her will to live was ebbing away. Because they are bound together, Pisconna would have eventually perished too. Thanks to you, now no such tragedy will happen.” began Aquarius.
“Thank you but I understand that much,” said Aries, fidgeting, “But how did they come to lose it?”
“Patience! I am coming to that,” chided Aquarius as he poured more wine. “The sisters are quite different as you can see, Pisconna is dark and Piscella is fair. While their natures encompass each other’s qualities, they differ in expression. Pisconna is quiet and reflective, can seem a little melancholy at times but she is also quite practical, whereas Piscella, by contrast, is more whimsical and frivolous, she can often become restless but has a clarity of vision on occasions. Sometimes they are at odds and quarrel about which direction to set off in, often changing their minds and turning about to proceed another way, but both are imaginative and compassionate, forgiving of each other, so mostly succeed to agree as one.
Their ocean realm is vast and seems without boundaries, however, their pearls keep the sisters within safe waters, especially in the depths. One day, in the spell of a restless mood, Piscella persuaded Pisconna to venture beyond their pearls’ warning navigation. Though fearful, Pisconna allowed herself to be led. The ocean grew very dark and menacing and both became afraid but as they turned to retreat, a strong current caught them. They were being sucked into a vortex, an abyss. Sheer terror lent them just enough strength to fight against the terrible force and eventually they managed to surface, struggling to survive in a turbulent sea. They had passed the point of exhaustion when a huge wave tossed them onto the shore of a floating island, landing them a distance apart, stretching their bond to its limit. But they were not yet safe. The island was a treacherous place. It was inhabited by Shrikes and overrun with seductive fruits and berries which, when eaten, caused delirium and ultimately, death. The Shrikes lured seabirds to alight there to feed, trapping and killing their victims for food and morbid entertainment. When the Pisces were washed up the Shrikes rejoiced. This was their chance to freely seize the Pisces grotto and cultivate their evil throughout the land, to cause chaos and destroy the realms”
He sipped his wine, Aries patiently listened. He mused that there had existed a sort of ‘wingrealm’ then.
“While Pisconna remained unconscious, Piscella was being roused by the ringleader and was tempted to eat the fruit, little realising the dangers and sacrifice she was making with her health. When Pisconna eventually came to and went to join her sister she found Piscella had become delirious and estranged from her. She was rightly suspicious and refused to eat, quickly escaping danger by diving beneath surface waters, where the Shrikes could not follow. Obviously she couldn’t stray too far from Piscella and their captors knowing this were unconcerned about her disappearance, turning their full attention on her sister, who quickly became addicted and ill. They would deal with Pisconna once Piscella was dead.”
Aquarius silently shook his head. He could not tolerate the barbaric activities of the Shrikes. Their cruelty, greed and corruption served no purpose but their own gratification. They created an environment of chaos where nothing could thrive or progress and, eventually, would cause their own destruction too. This latter thought, at least, brought some sense of just retribution, but why keep repeating their acts of destruction? When will they learn? He smiled warmly at Aries, fully acknowledging the Ram’s strength and bravery in surviving the horrors caused to him by the greed of a Shrike.
He resumed his story “Naturally, Pisconna was frantic, helplessly watching her sister worsen into delusion and disorientation. Their only hope was to get a message to me. She was able to arrest the attention of a seagull as it flew towards the island, warning it of the dangers before it was lured to eat. The gull reached me, urging me to their rescue, promising it would guide me to them. Thankfully, my boat was seaworthy but I had never sailed far out on the ocean and will be eternally glad of that seagull’s assistance. Fortunately the weather held fair with a good wind and we made excellent going. The Shrikes launched an attack on spotting our approach but the gull had precipitated such action and had summoned a large flock, ready to counter attack. It was a dreadful, bloody battle and while it raged above and around us, Pisconna and I struggled to lift Piscella on to the boat. She had now become wildly hysterical, threatening to sever their bond, pulling at the twine, trying to rip herself free. That is when her Pearl fell away and she fainted. Pisconna deftly caught the gem and we were able to stow her sister safely aboard.”
More wine, more patience!
“The battle ended as the few surviving Shrikes fled, but I doubt they got far since more seabirds joined in their pursuit. I never want to witness such scenes of mutilation and death again, much being the results and remains of the Shrikes’ inhabitation. Though we had won the day and helped survivors safely aboard, I decided to blow that evil place out of the water. It was a perfect opportunity for me to further test the power of my explosives, far from land where it could do no harm and only good in these circumstances. So, Pisconna placed the charges around the toxic island and when we were a safe distance away I detonated them. It was the biggest blast you could imagine! The ocean erupted and for a short but scary time I feared we might capsize and drown. When eventually we reached the grotto, Pisconna hid Piscella’s Pearl among the rocks around the lagoon until her delirium had diminished and the addiction was cured.”
“And you have told none of this to the Collective,” remarked Aries, recalling what Capricorn had told him about Aquarius’ promise concerning his explosives. He was making a statement not a criticism and understood now why the Pisces has been less than forthcoming, also why Aquarius was so interested in what the Shrike, obviously a survivor of this blast, may or may not have put abroad concerning the incident.
“He did the right thing,” called Piscella as the sisters rejoined them laden with platters of seafood and vegetables. “Of course we had intended to report all but had agreed not to do so until I was properly recovered. I felt deeply ashamed of my actions and couldn’t bear anyone else to see my sickness, what I had become. Pisconna nursed me through those dark early days and, perhaps selfishly, I felt it would be easier for the collective to forgive me for placing first my sister, and then Aquarius, in such peril if they could see I was healing and that the threat of harm to the realms had been averted. Then my Pearl went missing. Pisconna felt so painfully guilty for not keeping it safe but still I pledged them both to secrecy. It is strange, but despite my worsening state, I held faith that one day it would be restored to me.” She drifted into a dream for a moment then just as suddenly returned “Besides, it was my recklessness and mine alone that was the real cause of the loss and I couldn’t bare for her to take any blame, nor for Aquarius to suffer undue reprisals. But what else should he have done? Left that place with its terrible blight? A place where only evil can thrive! As far as we are concerned, he’s a Hero.” and she planted a kiss on Aquarius’ cheek. “Our Hero of the Silver Jug. Can I have a top-up please. And you are our hero too, Aries, our Golden Hero, mine especially!” and she planted a kiss on him too. “Oh, aren’t we so lucky Pisconna, to have two fabulous heroes and both of them here, oh whoopee I’m so happy. I really am back to my normal, happy self.” She was becoming a little tipsy from the wine.
“Now don’t get too soppy, Washy,” grinned Aquarius, giving her an affectionate hug. The Pisces could get a little over-emotional, either too happy or too sad, especially after a draught of heady wine. “The swells and depths of their realm makes them a little ‘dippy’ sometimes” he said amusingly to Aries, who seemed mildly embarrassed by her sudden effusiveness. The Ram couldn’t recall feeling ‘shy’ before and reflected that this was, indeed, a realm of strange feelings.
“Who knows what chain reactions the explosions set in motion though,” put in Pisconna plaintively, ever prone to guilty feelings. “We must tell soon, the fissure and underground lake, maybe the earthquake in Aries’ realm… we know the ocean bed shifts… and…”
“Oh don’t fret so, Pisconna,” urged her sister. “Let’s not talk about that now. You’ll spoil things.”
Aquarius groaned, he’d tried avoiding the possibility of truth in what Pisconna was saying, but…
“WHAT! Your stupid, reckless actions destroyed my Realm!!” Aries shouted at the company, furious and feeling protective of his Clan and the Headland once more.
“We don’t know that for certain! Anyway, according to you, change was in motion before the earthquake. You had already left your Clan,” retorted Piscella, suddenly quite sober. “But for that earthquake you would still be a prisoner in the crater. What good were you to your Clan there? You’d forgotten they existed!”
The truth of her words stung him, doused his argument. He had to concede she was right. There was little point raking over it all now, it was done, and perhaps it was unavoidable as Aquarius had said.
“Let me finish my tale,” said Aquarius soothingly, feeling at once absolved of blame in the matter of the Headland’s plight and very much better. “As I was saying, Pisconna hid the pearl for safekeeping until Piscella recovered, but she never did. Not until now that is.” he raised his goblet to her.
“But a surviving Shrike found it and stole it, with the aim of carrying out their original plan of seizing the Pisces grotto” concluded Aries, satisfied he now had the full story.
“Yes,” affirmed Aquarius. “It must have crept aboard and hidden while we were gathering the sick and injured from that island. Pisconna wouldn’t leave until we had rescued all that showed any glimmer of life. As it was, the majority died before we made it home.” Though not given to displays of emotion, these were clearly sad and painful memories for Aquarius, who withdrew into silence for a little while.
 Inside the grotto the incandescent light of many candles reflected off the water, the scene was quite magical. After supper the Pisces took up their flute and lyre and sat on the rock where Aries had first seen Pisconna. Beautiful music filled the chamber and the mood of the evening held enchantment. Although he felt reconciled about the earthquake, there was something elusive about the Pisces which disconcerted yet fascinated him. He decided that their fathomless realm would have to remain a fantasy for him, he intended to stay above the waves. Then he had an inspiration. Aquarius’ boat. Yes! Perhaps he could chase that horizon after all. “I saw a boat on your lake. Is that the rescue boat?” He tried not to sound too obvious.
“Oh good grief no!” laughed Aquarius, “I use my sailing boat for the sea. It’s moored here, on the channel side of the island.”
After a short while Aries said he was sleepy and stood to leave to bed down in the hollow again. Aquarius was happy to stay in the grotto and keep company with the sisters. “Sleep well, Aries. We must make our way to the mountains in the morning,” he said with a yawn. “The Celebration will take place the day after tomorrow.”
Aries bid his friends good night but sleep was the furthest thing from his mind.

“I do quite like him,” sighed Pisconna. “So do I, truly” agreed Piscella. “But I hope he doesn’t go blabbing at the Celebration about the island and the earthquake and everything, you know.”
“We all know…’ added Aquarius, “that honesty is the best policy, however…’
“However, there’s a time and place for everything,” giggled Piscella.
“Especially honesty!” piped the three together, laughing raucously at the prospect of due reprimand for their collusion.
“Tsk, tsk, you Pisces,” chuckled Aquarius. “You’re such a comfort.”
But they agreed they must tell all at the next Council, after the Celebration for they also agreed there was little point spoiling the celebrations with in depth discussions about Shrikes!

Aries searched for the boat on the channel side of the islet. The tide had ebbed again but the vessel was afloat in the low water, tucked away in an inlet. Despite his inclination to go it alone he knew he would need help to set sail. He must persuade Aquarius to show him how to handle things.
When morning dawned, being first up, he joined his friends in the grotto. “I need to sail your boat to follow the sun.” Such a direct approach took the company quite by surprise. “I can’t return to the mountains even if there is the Celebration. Everyone will try to persuade me to turn back, to go home, but I must go on, not lose sight of my goal. Will you help me?”

Aquarius studied the Ram with a mixture of curiosity and admiration. Aries was fuelling the rebel in him. He wanted to share in this adventure. The Pisces huddled together expectantly. They had more than an inkling what was on Aquarius’ mind and would back him, no matter what. Also, such a venture would enable them to go safely to the farthest reaches of their ocean. Aries’ quest would make their dreams a reality too.
Aquarius considered his options. He would be going against all convention to miss the Celebration, though surely he would return eventually? He thought about the dilemma with the Transforming Fire. It couldn’t diminish completely for quite some time and besides, Scorpio had to find the leak before he could do much about it? Then there was the matter of his investigations into the Labyrinth. Well, they could wait a while too and surely this journey into the unknown was as much of an experiment. Saj, at least would be pleased…
“Yes. I will help you. But I am proud of my craft and will not trust anyone else to sail her.”
“Are you saying you will come with me?” Aries was astonished, and thrilled.
“Yes,” came the decisive reply.
“How fabulously exciting!’ exclaimed the sisters, over the moon that Aquarius was breaking his mould. “We will help too. We will navigate as far as we can.”

They spent the day preparing for their journey and stocking the boat with as many provisions as it could carry. Aquarius despatched a message to Capricorn with one of the gulls, telling of their plan and promising to keep in touch, communications allowing. The Pisces took hold of the hawsers and guided the craft out of the channel to a good forward wind.
“Expect the unexpected,” cried Aquarius in jubilation, as they set sail on the evening tide.

***

New Beginnings

“Well! I think it is most outrageous!” Capricorn was most indignant on relaying the news from Aquarius. She thought he was deserting his duty, but more she was disappointed he wouldn’t be at the Celebration and would miss his company. She also felt strongly that Aries should be returning home, acknowledging his responsibilities to his Clan, and she would miss him too. As for the Pisces, she could understand them taking off on a whim, Piscella being reunited with her Pearl, somewhat forgivable, if typical, she supposed.

All were gathered on the Plain of Sagittarius for the Celebration of Light festivities. “I’m disappointed I am not with them on this adventure,” moped Saj, priming his arrows with the powder provided from Aquarius. “Still, looking on the bright side, if Aries hadn’t set off in the first place the problems caused by our greatest issues would not have been resolved.”
“How true.” supported Scorpio, stoking the bonfire with lumps of coal she had brought from her realm, these would keep the embers hot through the night. “Though extremely foolish, his actions caused me to venture deeper into the labyrinth than I would otherwise have contemplated, even less risked.” During her intensive search for the Pearl she and Serpentis found themselves entering unchartered territory, beyond where Aries had wandered. She’d discovered that the fire was not diminishing as at first thought, but was burning brightly as ever in these farther depths, safe from the dousing waters, where seams rich with gems waited to be mined. “The labyrinth is revealing in the strangest of ways and in retracing his steps I felt I came to know him; the moves he made, the turns he took. His battling nature is very close to my own..”  she gave a little laugh to lighten her remarks “I will feel a touch jealous of you all until I meet him face to face,” she added, giving the fire a playful poke.
“My effigy of him will have to suffice for the time being” beamed Libra, as he proudly unveiled a statue of Aries, formed from the finest black marble. They all congratulated his craftsmanship.
“We must have faith that all is as it should be,” said Saj, lighting one of his arrows in the bonfire and sending it soaring into the night sky. It exploded into a wonderful array of colour that showered over them like falling stars. Virgo filled their goblets with her fine sparkling wine. “This may be my best brew yet” she said modestly.
“To absent friends,” they toasted, and the merriment began.
It had been the liveliest party ever and just before dawn they gathered in a circle around the smouldering bonfire to sit in quiet contemplation, awaiting the new dawn. As the first rays of light illumined the sky all gave praise and thanks for their beautiful, wondrous world and the continuing cycle of the Sun.

*
Hidden amongst the pines, the Shrike watched the night’s celebrations with rancour. The Pisces were strong again ‘Curtheth!’ All was lost for its cause to sieze their grotto and start a colony there. When it believed the Pearl to be lost, its plan had been to attack the weakened Pisconna once Piscene had perished. That opportunity had now passed. It must make another plan. The only place it could survive without fearing recognition and retribution was Nomans Land. ‘Let the dutht thettle. They’ll all forget in time, they alwayth do. Then in another time, another realm, there’ll be another mithtake. More twubble, more opportunity.” It stole away before dawn. “Thtay focuthed, thtay cool”

*

Aquarius hoisted the sail and fixed their course to the horizon. The weather had been kind at first and both sailors had gained their sea legs quickly. But out on the high seas a storm was blowing and angry waves buffeted the small boat like a cork. “I said to expect this,’ he shouted above the noise of the squall. He was fairing better than Aries in the stormy, watery conditions. They were constantly drenched and tossed from one side of the deck to the other as their craft dipped and rolled in the swells. Aries recalled Piscella’s words about walls of water filling the sky and was filled with dreads of drowning. He longed for hard, dry land.

Returned to their true realm, the Pisces had been seeing the wonders of their ocean world with renewed love. The silent, rocky landscapes of the ocean bed held a beauty for them that surpassed anything on land. As they glided through and around the towering, convoluted formations they composed music and poetry to reflect the surreal majesty of these structures. Their artistry portrayed these images to their friends on land, bringing scenes of the otherworldly to shore for all to imagine and enjoy.
“It’s peaceful here in the deep,” sighed Pisconna. “But there are storms above and our friends will need help.”
They surfaced and clambered on board, securing the bruised and sick shipmates in the coils of their connecting twine.
“Once the storm passes you will enjoy being at sea again,” they told them.
Both Aquarius and Aries found that hard to believe at this instant.
“I want it to end,” wailed the Ram as his head swam and his stomach churned “I can’t tolerate these turbulent waters!”
But as the four huddled together he felt a reassuring strength in the bond of the Pisces and was comforted. They sang a lively shanty to challenge the throes of the storm, cheering him a little and his fears of being drowned subsided. “Close your eyes” suggested Pisconna “Imagine you are sinking beneath the turbulent surface, gently floating down to the calm silence below,”  She began to lull a soothing, hypnotic melody, relaxing him while Piscella lyrically depicted the beautiful landscapes under the waves. Seduced by their imagery, his imagination took flight. As though in a waking dream he was gliding alongside them, seeing the variety of sea creatures Piscella was describing. The ocean was a world of infinite shapes, of colours changing from bright to a soft translucence then glowing to bright again. The surreal experience endowed him with blissful awe, as with the Northern Lights, rendering him oblivious to the rigours of the storm. Experiencing the expansiveness of their realm, he would never regard the Pisces as anything so simple as ‘vague’ again.

The moon had waxed and waned and waxed again before the squalls blew themselves out, but the seas remained choppy. Patches of fog persisted under gloomy skies and it was a cold dank dawn when Aquarius gave the cry that land was in sight. As they sailed closer to shore the Pisces again took up the hawsers and guided the boat. A flood tide carried them along the rugged shoreline towards a wide crevice hewn in the cliffs. The swell calmed as they entered this inlet and were swept along its course. Walls of rock towered above them on either side, no signs of life were visible and it seemed a melancholy place. Eventually they came to a large basin, a natural harbour nestled within a range of hills. Aries was the first ashore, relieved to feel the grass beneath his feet.

The morning Sun strived to break through the clouds, dispersing the mists as he surveyed the landscape. With mounting elation he recognized Great Tor with its crumbled summit and realised that the basin they have sailed into was once the crater, its barren landscape now cloaked in grasses and heathers.
“This is my Realm!” he cried. “This is the Headland. That earthquake has re-arranged things.”
The Pisces whooped for joy “Aries can only come back to something new!” they cheered, throwing the mooring ropes to Aquarius who had also jumped ashore. “These are exciting new times!” agreed a beaming Aquarius, sharing their loving embrace. “I can’t wait to launch my flying machine off the top of that hill.” It had been the first thing he had stowed aboard.

At that moment a company of young rams sprang from the cover of the heather and marched smartly towards them, ready to defend their territory. Aries stepped forward, halting their lines. “Thank the Sun, Moon and Stars! I feared all had perished in that earthquake!”
They stared at him, unsure whether to advance or to hold.
He spoke with the authority of mature self-assurance. “This is my first homecoming. You are the first to greet me.”
His words hung expectantly but the pause was brief…
“Aries!” they cried, cheering loudly that he had returned. Despite his changed fleece they knew him and glad to see him again they jostled to get closer, eager for tales of his travels.
“Is it dangerous out there. Did you have to fight?” urged one.
“Both! I’ve a lot to tell you and…”
“Did you conquer all you met?” pressed a second
“I conquered a great deal, but also learned much more..”
‘”Have you brought prisoners?” piped up a third, pointing to the strangers and their boat.
“Oh No! Not prisoners. These are my friends and ..”
“LOOK AROUND YOU WOOL BRAINS!” came an excited yell from the rear.
It was the youngest among them, aggressively pushing his way to the fore. “LOOK!” he cried, gazing at the clearing skies. “He’s brought back the Sun!” and giving Aries an affectionate nuzzle, he scampered off to spread the news across the glens, the morning rays catching glints of red in his curly black fleece.
Aries watched as the young tearaway sped off, and admiring the wild beauty of his realm he felt at one. His quest had brought him to his true self.

Others of the Clan began to gather around, suspicious of the strange newcomers and of Aries’ different appearance. “Was it worth it? Is there anything of real value out there?” one elder challenged. Aries looked to the west “There is some excellent grazing on the far side of that hill, but approaches must be made in a friendly fashion,” he smiled.
“Is that so?” responded the questioner and still sceptical, turned away. Fears of more earthquakes and the persistent fogs had caused them not to venture as Aries had done, but what was more, until today they’d believed he had perished in the ‘void’ beyond the hills.
“And if we go there will we all get fleeced like you – Ol’ New Boy Goldylocks!” jibed another with mocking laughter, nudging his comrades for their support.
Aries dropped the smile and looked him sternly in the eye. A hush fell.
“You are Really Rude!” he said, then laughed at himself. 
It felt good to be home.

THE END

ODE TO THE ASTROLOGER

Restless spirit sought to stay
And behold the planets whilst they play
A window of time held the moment’s grace
And in its frame spirit found a place.
Let me draw your window so we may view
The spirit of that hour whence quickened You
MM

***

About mirandatrench

I'm a Panther - I'm the shadow in the shadow on the wall, reaching for the floor. Blogging is a floor. Hi. What will I find on the floors of creative writers? I'm nervous. I like to be heard, but not to be seen, which is why I wear black, I suppose... Of course, black can be fatally visible, once spotted contours are outlined. Poise. Awareness. Next step. Like with writing. Am I being naive in thinking that blogging was just about spontaneous thoughts - minimum edits - an email to a girlfriend, but on a global scale, and which has grown into the hugest pen pal extravaganza that has set many souls free! I pray it is true. I'll step back a little now, and read more clues showing which trails to follow....... Ciaow Hello, Miranda here. Symbols, as with my Panther, are evocative of many images. They are a shorthand for a wealth of meanings, allusions. I found this in Wikopedia : Symbolic anthropology (or more broadly, symbolic and interpretive anthropology) is the study of cultural symbols and how those symbols can be interpreted to better understand a particular society. It is often viewed in contrast to cultural materialism.[by whom?][citation needed]Clifford Geertz writes, "Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning."[1] says it all succinctly. And followed by Jung - same source - “C,Jung: "My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.”[1] Such psychic contents are why I remain fascinated by astrological symbolism and relate it to people I know.
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