This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, dialogue and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Samuel G. King
All rights reserved.
No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, scanned or distributed in any printed or electronic form without the express written permission of the copyright holder.
A forgotten suburb of London August 1914 AD
Thick muck squelched beneath his boots as Stephen Horn strode down the alley, his nose twitching and his mouth downturned all the while. In the back of his mind it registered that he wasn’t exactly dressed for the occasion, but then again, was he ever?
He risked a glance at his feet and the slop splattered up both legs. He did not like what he saw.
His new suit was ruined – a poor choice for the back streets of Olde London. Stephen readjusted his cloth cap and tucked his cane beneath the crook of his elbow. It was probably foolish to bring the weapon with him to the shop. It was a necessary precaution when travelling the Semita Mortuis, however, and he was not going to leave it in his automobile where any idiot could find it.
Stephen rounded a corner and stopped in his tracks. Empty crates and shipping containers were stacked in towering piles with only a narrow path in between.
The Old Man’s been busy. Too busy to clean it would appear.
Stephen turned sideways and slithered between the precariously placed boxes. Ahead he could see his goal, the shop.
It was a long squat warehouse firmly nestled between two factories. Made of red brick walls and capped with a dark tile roof, it could be mistaken for a mundane workhouse or storeroom like any of the other hundred similar buildings in the area. Its only discerning feature was a wooden sign that stretched the width of its enormous iron door. Painted in red on a field of pale yellow was a jumble of symbols. To the untrained eye it would appear to be gibberish or the writings of a mad child. To those in Stephen’s particular trade it would read ‘Here Be Dragons’.
Stephen wormed his way clear of the crates and skipped up some low stairs. At the top he struck the foot of his cane against the iron door. It boomed loudly with each blow, fine rust falling where the cane struck. Stephen didn’t care if he woke the whole neighbourhood, so long as it included the guard. He stepped back, neck craning up to the viewing portal. From inside he could hear the faint mutterings and heavy footsteps of the doorkeeper. With a rusted cry the portal slid open. Through a haze of tobacco smoke Stephen could see red eyes the size of grapefruits swivel around lazily. Finally they rested on him.
“You,” a gravelly voice rumbled from beyond the door.
“In the flesh,” replied Stephen, his cane resting at an angle and a hand on one hip. “This time at least.”
The red orbs regarded him closely, their penetrating stare broken only by the excruciatingly slow movement of the eyelids. Finally the doorkeeper spoke.
“Yes. You do seem to be made of flesh. This time…”
I shouldn’t have said that. He’s probably wondering if I have ever come in person before. I can see the cogs spinning in that tiny brain of his…
Seeing the conversation was about to go nowhere fast, Stephen decided to take things in hand.
“Yes. Here I am, as I said: in the flesh. Here at this very time. Which brings us to the matter at hand, the purpose of my business. Here. With you. At this very hour. May I come in?”
Bracing himself for what he assumed would be a long pause, he was shocked with the prompt “No.”
“No? What do you mean? No?”
“Closed for what? Spring cleaning? Let me in. I demand an audience!”
“He said no-one was to bother him. He said that to me, he did.”
Stephen stole a glance at the multitude of boxes and crates around him.
Of course. He’s busy itemising and cataloguing all of his new finds. All the more reason to get in.
“Well, we won’t be letting no-one bother him, will we my old chum? No nobodies will cross this threshold. Not with your brilliant post to prevent them. But I shall be admitted. Yes. Because as you can quite clearly see, I am most certainly a someone. Not a no-one. Now open the door, my good man. Chop-chop.”
It was always a chore gaining entrance to the shop, no matter which entrance you tried, at any hour. The Old Man didn’t hire the smartest of gatekeepers but they were diligent in their duty.
The red eyes behind the portal glared back at Stephen suspiciously. Without another word the doorkeeper slammed shut the cover with a loud clang. Stephen nervously twisted the grip on his cane. All of his plans hinged on being admitted tonight. There was a steam ship leaving tomorrow for Ireland and he intended to be on it. It pained him to think it all rested on a creature with hair for brains. If he failed here, there was nowhere else in Britain that could possibly help him with the equipment he needed.
Beyond the door came the sound of heavy iron cogs turning, though whether the noise meant locking or unlocking, Stephen could not say. As he was about to turn and leave, the doors groaned open and the pungent scent of dirt, tobacco, herbs and burnt hair buffeted him. Then, through a miasma of smoke the portly visage of the doorkeeper appeared.
At seven feet tall, Dogsbody was a giant compared to Stephen, but a dwarf compared to his brothers. Dry, flaking clay clung to him like skin over the matted hair and herb mixture he was woven from. Dogsbody held a cigar tightly in the motley brown teeth that filled his bucket of a mouth. His enchanted eyes swivelled around, assessing Stephen up and down and looking along the passage behind him.
“You had better be alone. He won’t like it if you bring no-one with you.”
Stephen smiled and, doffing his hat, bent in an elegant bow. “I wouldn’t dare dream, my good man.”
Dogsbody’s jaw worked soundlessly as he chewed over the words in his head. With a lurch he turned from Stephen and pulled a large lever on the wall. The iron doors swung closed to the chorus of clanking machinations. “Foowowmuh,” Dogsbody mouthed over a giant cigar as he shambled down a dark corridor. Stephen assumed he was meant to follow.
The path Dogsbody took led down a slight incline which spiralled deeper into to the ground. Gas lamps hung suspended from chains to light the way, Dogsbody expertly dodging them with sparse movements of his enormous head. Stephen stumbled behind his silent guide, his feet slipping on the moist brick.
Before long, the ramp levelled off and became a long, arched corridor. Side corridors split off left and right at regular intervals leading to specialised storage areas. The Old Man’s minions were busy at work shifting boxes, crates, curios and oddities. Curses, shouts, and babble rang out from every nook and cranny whilst a dozen different odours vied for supremacy in Stephen’s nose. Some of the beasts stopped to stare at him as he passed. Stephen grimaced and kept his eyes forwards, wary of drawing any more of the creatures attention.
“Wuhhur,” said Dogsbody as he puffed on his ridiculous cigar. The corridor ended, opening up to a vast circular room with a ceiling that seemed to stretch up and up for ever. Stephen forgot himself and gawked slack-jawed around him.
Just look at all this stuff! I could get lost in here. Again.
It took Stephen a moment to realise that he was alone. With Dogsbody’s hulking frame disappearing behind a tower of books, Stephen quickened his pace to catch up, giving the marvels around him only a minor glance in the process. They journeyed to the centre of the room, passing avenues of armour, lanes of lexicons and streets of sorcery, everything stacked in orderly rows of head-high shelves. Ahead a circular wooden dais was raised up from the ground, rough stone blocks of different sizes and colour forming stairs to its top. An ornately crafted desk stood in its centre, behind which sat an ominously large wing-backed chair. As Stephen drew closer the chair’s occupant could be seen.
The Old Man wore a black suit with a silk shirt beneath, unbuttoned to show a heavy gold amulet resting on milk white skin. Stephen was hoping to catch him in a congenial mood. The anger plainly written across his hard face caused Stephen to falter a step.
The man seated before Stephen did not look like the nickname that had been invented for him by his clientele. The Old Man’s true name had been forgotten but his deeds stretched back for as long as any could recall. To the casual observer he appeared to be a lean, attractive man in his thirties. His eyes, though, were the telling feature. They were as old and weathered as the mountains, worn and tired by the centuries.
Dogsbody stopped at the foot of the stone steps and removed the cigar from his mouth, hiding it behind his back as though no-one could smell it. Stephen stopped beside him, never presuming for a second to ascend the steps. The Old Man was a stickler for customs and formality at the best of times. Nobody was to approach him without consent, especially when he was perched on his dais. So he waited, his heart beating faster with every moment’s pause, while those cold grey eyes weighed him silently.
Please don’t turn me back. Not now.
“Mister Horn. My, it has been a long time since our last meeting. Too long apparently, for you’ve forgotten all etiquette,” spoke the store owner, his eyes fixed on Stephens cap.
Stephen smiled apologetically and swept the hat from his head. The Old Man’s eyes lowered to the cane under Stephens elbow. Still smiling, Stephen hid the cane behind his back. Dogsbody growled beside him.
The Old Man raised an eyebrow, prompting him to speak.
“Ah… Business in the East has kept me from these shining shores for some time. Please forgive my rudeness. I forgot myself in my haste,” said Stephen through his teeth.
The Old Man waved a hand dismissively at Stephen’s apology.
“Yes. I’m sure. It was Ireland before that. Was it not? Quite the traveller you are.”
How on earth does he know that?
“It runs in the family.”
A mirthless smile crept along The Old Man’s face.
“This is true.”
He glared at Stephen over interlocked fingers as he slouched back in to his chair, seemingly daring him to say more. Dogsbody shuffled nervously, ill at ease in his master’s presence. The Old Man turned from Stephen to the bugbear.
“You may leave. But mark my words, creature. Nobody else is to disturb me again tonight or I’ll fill you with lice. Do you understand me?”
The giant nodded sheepishly in answer before giving Stephen an ugly look that promised retribution. He shuffled off with heavy footsteps, his heady aroma trailing after him. The Old Man sighed and looked to the heavens.
“I need to grow some better help. I’m surrounded by morons.”
Stephen coughed into his fist. The Old Man rounded back onto Stephen with a sly grin.
“Present company excluded of course.”
“Of course,” replied Stephen through a forced smile.
“So, Mr Horn, what brings you to town? Business I assume?”
“Isn’t it always?”
The Old Man leapt from his chair and strode to edge of the dais. “Let us not waste another moment, shall we?”
He hopped down the irregular stone steps with ease to stand before Stephen.
“We have many new acquisitions. Some that will benefit a man in your line of work most handsomely.”
The Old Man swept his arm in a wide arc to encompass his magnificent store.
“So what will it be? The usual order of potions and powders?”
He pointed to the northern side of the dome where row upon row sat bottles, jars and boxes filled with rare and exotic ingredients from around the globe.
“Or something slightly strange?”
The Old Man searched Stephen’s face for a clue. The younger man started to sweat.
Don’t give anything away or he will charge you double…
The Old Man suddenly smiled.
Stephen trailed behind as a dark feeling started to overcome him.
“What do you make of this war going on?” The Old Man spoke over his shoulder as he entered an aisle filled with toys and ancient figurines.
Stephen bit his lip.
What is he playing at? Enough of the small talk! Just sell me what I want!
“A horrible thing… They are calling it a ‘World War’ now. Imagine that. It’s hard to see what the purpose is or what they will achieve out of it…”
The Old Man stopped and ran a long sinewy finger over a dusty music box.
“Oh I wouldn’t say it lacked purpose. Originality maybe… Nobody starts a war like they did in our day…”
The Old Man quickly glanced at Stephen and sighed.
“Or rather I should say my day.”
Turning, he continued on, eyes searching everywhere along the cluttered shelves. Stephen followed one step behind.
“Nothing good will come of this feud,” The Old Man said in a hushed voice, “Its outcome will have severe repercussions for us all. This I have seen. It would be best to find a quiet corner of the world and let it pass you by.”
“I have a place in mind,” Stephen replied.
“Good,” said The Old Man with a knowing wink.
They meandered together down several aisles, The Old Man turning left or right at various junctions, his eyes inspecting every item on every shelf. Stephen was growing impatient. He wanted to buy something that would fool the Sidhe and leave, not walk around the shop gossiping.
The Old Man spoke as they walked.
“There is nothing on this earth more detestable than murdering one’s own kin. This war in the west is a doomed affair, and I swear the victor will reap foul rewards. I just pray that they don’t focus their intentions eastwards too soon.”
Stephen shook his head as he mulled over The Old Man’s strange words.
“The war is in the east sir. Germany, France, Russia. It’s already quite convoluted. Almost all of Europe is involved or soon will be. At least they should not find their way into Olde Rome…”
“I’m talking about the real war, you fool boy!” The Old Man snapped at him, an elegant finger jabbing at Stephen’s chest with every word.
“That pathetic pissing contest in Europe is nothing compared to the bloodshed sweeping through the western worlds. The descendants of vile Remus are locked in civil war, his two favourites vying for the Twisted Crown. But no matter who mounts the throne, I can tell you for certain, it will only be a matter of time till they march on Rome and all that stands in their way.”
Stephen stepped back from the onslaught, bumping into a shelf and causing several objects to wobble precariously. He felt the blood drain from his face and sweat began to bead on his forehead. The Old Man loomed over him, mouth down turned and cold eyes boring into his. “Remus is dead…” was all Stephen could stammer.
“And his wolves will march,” snarled The Old Man.
“Life beyond! And you’re certain they will attack Rome? What about the Porta Caeli?” asked Stephen, his voice rising.
“It has always been their intention to seek revenge on Quirinus. Remus was far too feeble in his old age. His sons, however, have supped on his poisonous words for centuries. As for the Porta Caeli, I have no idea. The New Order have made no friends this side of Paradise. With Quirinus gone, it would be easy pickings…” replied The Old Man, shrugging.
“This is not good. This is no good at all,” said Stephen. “We need to do something about it!”
“We? What do you propose, Mr Horn? Do tell…” replied The Old Man with a grin.
Stephen clicked his fingers as he thought. “We should assemble an army of our own, one to rival the wolves!” he blurted.
“Think before you speak, Stephen,” replied The Old Man snidely. “An army to rival the Western Hordes, you say? Who would fight for Rome and the New Order? The magical races are dying if you hadn’t noticed. They will not flock to defend the very order which has doomed them.”
“But surely they must see it affects us all? Without Quirinus or the Porta Caeli, mortal life is threatened…” pleaded Stephen.
“And that matters to the likes of the Dökkálfar or the Ljósálfar? The Sidhe or the Fomori? The goblins, sprites and spirits of the earthly realms? The immortals are angry, Horn. Don’t you see it? How can they fight for Life, when Life has betrayed them?” replied The Old Man.
Stephen wilted. The implications of a sacked Rome spelled disaster for all. With the Porta Caeli destroyed, there would be no new Life on the mortal plane. No Life…
Stephen thought of his pregnant wife, lost to him within the Sidhe mounds. Could he bring a child into the world with such a bleak future?
Yes. He could and he would. It was too late to back out now. Stephen would find a way. He just had to rescue them first. Stephen was roused from his thoughts. The Old Man was smiling back at him knowingly.
“Of course, I cannot speak for everyone, Horn. There may be another way… I hear the Sidhe plan to leave this plane for good, setting sail over their twilight ocean for the realms beyond. Maybe if a union was created between the Sidhe and Hordes, they would abandon their vendetta and leave us all alone,” purred The Old Man, his eyes glowing.
Stephen stared at the pale man, transfixed. The idea of a joining Remus’s lot with the Sidhe branded itself in his mind.
Yes… a union…that would work…
The Old Man snapped his fingers and Stephen blinked.
“Yes?” asked Stephen.
“I was talking about the Sidhe. I guess you would know all about them though, wouldn’t you?” said The Old Man.
“What? How did you know about that?” replied Stephen as his pulse started to race.
“Oh, I know all about you, Horn. I know what you have done. More importantly, I know what you want.” The Old Man spread his arms wide, gesturing to the dark dome above and the laden shelves around them. “I have many things that you desire. All but one.”
With a wolfish grin and a nasty gleam to his eye, The Old Man leaned in closer. “And you shall never have her.”
Ice gripped at Stephen’s heart as The Old Man’s words sank in. Stephen could only blink in reply.
She is lost to me. They both are…
With numb hands he fretted feebly with his cane, turning and clasping at the ivory ornament. “How… How do you know?” Stephen asked hoarsely.
“I trade in more than just the material, Mr Horn. To some, information is just as important.”
Stephen felt the stirrings of anger as he noticed the man in front of him smiling at his misfortune. “But how? What do you know? Tell me!”
The Old Man casually picked up a wooden box and blew on the lid sending up a cloud of dust. He inspected the lid before answering. “No mortal can enter the realms of the Sidhe uninvited, and you, Stephen, are most certainly unwelcome.”
Stephen shook his head and wiped away the perspiration. The Old Man hadn’t told him anything he didn’t already know but hearing it aloud brought back bad memories and roused old feelings.
A cold friendless night lashed with rain. The hillside slick with mud and his own blood. Broken finger nails scrabbling through the rocky ground. Laughter ringing through the trees.
Stephen licked his lips nervously as he tried to push the images out of his mind.
“But there must be a way in. There must. A back door or something…”
“Better men than you have tried and failed,” said The Old Man through a sneer. “Give up this foolish quest for love. Fight for Rome if it distracts you…”
“And abandon the woman I love? The child too? What would you know of love anyway?” Stephen said in a rasped voice. “A love of money and dust?”
The Old Man took his eyes off Stephen and regarded the floor, jaw working as he ground his teeth. “I know more about love and heart break than you think, Mr Horn. I have lived a long life. I’ve seen it all and lived it all: centuries of betrayal, scorn, tortured pride and unrequited desire. You mortals are just learning what I’m trying to forget.”
Stephen’s hands balled into fists. He wanted to rage. He wanted blood and broken bone and singed flesh. He wanted to tear the vaulted ceiling down with his hands, right on top of the petty creature in front of him.
But most of all he wanted her.
Stephen would sell his soul to have her back.
“So if you understand my predicament wholly, surely you must see that I will do anything to be reunited with her. Anything…”
A dangerous gleam flashed across The Old Man’s eyes too fast for Stephen to notice. “Anything, you say?”
“I will do anything,” Stephen said evenly, without hesitation.
The room went dark. Stephen felt a weight pressing at him from all sides, holding him in place. Desperate, and confined in the one spot, he tried to wiggle free. The weight increased steadily until he thought he would burst. He fell to his knees, the force of the impact magnified by the crushing pressure. Stephen cried out. A cold hand gripped his chin, jerking it upwards.
The Old Man looked down at him. His eyes shone dimly in the darkness.
“Three times you agreed to the exchange without stipulating payment. Three times you will be cursed if you should break the agreement. Do you deny this?”
Stephen shook his head slowly in reply, his rising horror choking at his wits.
“Good. In return for my services I set the following payment. After the birth of the third generation of your kin I will take my due. Know that it shall be very important to you. You will be greatly saddened by the loss. You must not hinder me in any way.”
Stephen sobbed loudly in a confusion of pain and regret. The Old Man snarled and, grabbing a fistful of hair, pulled Stephen painfully to his feet.
“Lastly, you are banned for life from my establishment. Set foot in here again and I will destroy you. Utterly. Do you understand me?”
Tears streamed down Stephen’s face. He looked into the leering grin of The Old Man.
“I… I…” Stephen stammered, unsure of the course he was plotting.
On one hand, he got an object which would guarantee the return of his family. However if he took the item, he would be in debt to The Old Man for an undisclosed price.
“Answer me, man. Yes or no?”
I can’t give up now…
“I agree to your terms,” Stephen whispered.
The Old Man clapped his hands and laughed manically. Sparks flew when his hands met. The pressure relented and Stephen collapsed on the ground.
“You really are an idiot, Horn! I thought you would have learned to stay clear of magic after that debacle in Ireland! In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say,” laughed The Old Man. He threw the wooden box he had been holding at Stephen. It landed inches from his nose. From where Stephen lay, he could read the crude Ogham script which had been chiselled on its outside. His eyes widened with each word deciphered.
“That was far too easy,” said The Old Man as he turned to leave. “Escort him out will you?” Still chuckling, he started to walk away. He stopped after a few paces.
“And say hello to Bodb for me! Ha!” yelled The Old Man over his shoulder.
Stephen stared daggers at The Old Man’s back. For a moment he entertained the thought of chasing him down and spitting him on the end of his cane. Two burly guards appeared from behind a row of shelving however, dashing his dreams of revenge. Stephen groaned and gathered his belongings from where he had dropped them, carefully cradling the wooden box to his chest.
“Move it,” hissed a serpentine guard as he nudged Stephen in the ribs.
Stephen plodded forwards as more laughter sprung up from the shadows.
Clenching his jaw, he tried to piece together what had just happened.
He had bargained for what he wanted, but at what cost? The Old Man had tricked him, that was for certain. The talk of war had distracted Stephen, The Old Man touching on nerves he knew would disarm him. Then he had changed the topic so quickly back to himself, baiting Stephen with the Sidhe. The Old Man knew far too much about him than was reasonable. He had obviously planned this exchange.
After the birth of the third generation of your kin I will take my due…
Stephen felt sick.
The Old Man had planned on giving away the object from the beginning. It was all a ploy to make Stephen give away something in the future without putting up a fight.
And what did that comment about Bodb mean?
Did The Old Man tell the fairy King where to find Stephen and Muadhnait?
Was he responsible for this whole mess?
Numb and emotionally drained, Stephen stumbled through the shop towards the exit. Hideous monsters jeered and catcalled at him as he passed. He had the seed of a plan to save his wife and child. Now he needed one to safeguard against The Old Man and the impending war.
A difficult to find province of Britain 2010 AD
On the isle of England, in a very remarkable part of her borders, lived one of the strangest families of the age, in a very remarkable house. The strangest family of England for that era shared a two-bedroom apartment in Dover, and though they were a very interesting group of people, their story could possibly be found in another book. Not this one. The slightly less strange family that lived in a more remarkable house were called the Horns. At least that was how the locals referred to them. It wasn’t known what the residents of the remarkable house at 25B Cottondown Road were called exactly. They were quite aloof and stuck to themselves. All the neighbours had to go on was a small copper sign that dangled from an iron post. It read in rather ornate writing: ‘The House of Horn’. And since none of the occupants were forthcoming with their real names, that was what they were called.
If you were to sneak up to their bright red letterbox (not the blue one, never the blue one) early in the morning and read their mail, you could find letters addressed to anybody from an Adams to a Sanders to a Vander. Even the odd letter for a Laking sometimes, but that was obviously a mistake. That person had been dead for centuries.
It gave the postman hours of amusement every morning, reading as he did all the names on all the strange letters and parcels that he delivered to 25B Cottondown road. He would write the names in a little notebook he kept in his back pocket on his rounds. If he found a stamp that was particularly interesting, and he usually did, it too would go into his notebook. Back at the office, with the stolen stamps safely catalogued, he would transfer the notepads takings onto a giant chalk board that dominated the back wall of the Pennysworth Post Office tea room. There were over two dozen different names on it, each with a tally of the letters and parcels delivered by week, month, and year.
So far as the postman reckoned, the letters to various Sander’s was equal to the multitude of Vander’s. A certain D.Q Finch was the leading letter getter this month and there had only been two brown paper parcels for a Mr Edward Fox, a very unusual turn of events.
The postman scratched his head where his hat chafed his scalp. There was one letter he had delivered this morning that drew his attention. Peculiar in that this one had no stamp and that it was addressed to a Horn. Most peculiar. He almost didn’t deliver the envelope under principle, until he remembered he worked for the people of Pennysworth and not the Royal Mail.
“What was that name again?” he said to nobody. “I haven’t had a Horn in years…”
As he scratched his irritated scalp with his left hand he reached for his notebook of names with the right. Thumbing through the dog-eared and smudged pages, he came to the day’s scribbling.
“Horn… Horn… Horn… Where did I see that name?”
With a knobby index finger he scanned through the list, smudging the ink more as he did so.
“Ah. There it is… ‘M. Horn’. Who on God’s green earth is ‘M. Horn’?”
Consulting the tearoom’s black board he went to the Horns’ section.
“Okay. I see a Gerald Horn, a Henry Horn, a Henrietta, Thomas, Julie, a Mr Horn, a Remigius and a Stephen. No M. Horn. Very strange. I wonder if they’re new.”
Taking a piece of chalk from the mantel, he carefully added ‘M’ to the list of Horns’ on the blackboard. After replacing the chalk on its appointed resting place he stood two paces back and gazed at what he now considered his life’s work. After a quick perusal, he determined that there were indeed more Horns than Finch’s or Fox’s. Quite apt, seeing as the place was called the ‘House of Horn’. You would expect a few Horn’s to live in a place like that, thought the postman.
“I wonder if it’s for that horrible Mary Horn. Who would send a letter to her? She must have one friend after all. You live and learn, don’t you.” he pondered aloud. “Live and learn.”
The girl in question was coincidentally learning at Pennysworth Normal High School, or rather, attempting to learn, specifically trigonometry. She was very much alive too.
Mary sat at the back of the class chewing the life out of her pen and furiously glaring at her test sheet. To her, school was a place to learn what you needed to survive the big scary world the grownups had created. Anything that had no obvious or relative use to ones future needs was part of the teacher’s evil plan, to confuse and bore the spark out of their youthful charges till they were suitably drained and therefore susceptible to brain washing. Mary glowered at the wrinkled old walnut sporting a tweed jacket that was her maths teacher. Mr Higgs sat reclined in his chair reading yesterday’s newspaper, oblivious to the holes being bored into him by Mary’s eyes.
Her foe seemingly unfazed, Mary returned her attention to the test sheet before her and tried to think of any career that may require a sound knowledge of triangles. So far she could only think of one. Maths teachers would have to know a lot about triangles and hypotenuses and so on. Doctors, lawyers and important, highly paid CEOs would not. The test was a waste of her time.
Using both hands, Mary crushed the cursed test into a small ball and threw it at the waste bin by Mr Higgs’ desk. Folding her arms on the desk she promptly rested her head and shut her eyes. Mr Higgs’ newspaper rustled as he turned a page.
“The test is worth ten per cent of this term’s final, Ms Horn,” said Mr Higgs in his reedy voice. Half the class giggled, the other half sniggered, all stared at Mary.
“Quiet now, my sweet young things,” said Mr Higgs, his head still buried in the newspaper.
Mary sighed loudly and scraped back her chair to get up. The class watched her as she stomped to the front of the room and looted through the contents of the bin for her test.
“Are you looking for lunch, Mary?” asked Deidre, one of Mary’s chief malcontents.
The class erupted into laughter. Mr Higgs put a finger to his lips and shushed the class till it went quiet. Mary growled and fished the balled up test from the bin and stomped back to her desk. Roughly unfurling it, she got to work, stabbing her answers and slashing her workings across the wrinkled sheet.
Folding his newspaper, Mr Higgs sat forward in his chair and clapped his hands once.
“That’s all the time we have, my sweets. Pens down. Hand your tests in on your way out. Failure to spell you name correctly counts as a two point loss to your total score. One for your gross stupidity and another for the shame you’ve brought down on your ancestors. Oh how they must cry in their graves…”
The class gathered their books and bags and shuffled out, their talking growing louder as they left the teacher’s sphere of influence. Mary waited until the room had emptied so she wouldn’t have to deal with another round of teasing and taunting. Mr Higgs exchanged his newspaper for a clay pipe and got to work tamping fresh tobacco in. Mary slammed her test paper on the desk, drawing his attention away from the pipe and onto the scowling wild splendour that was Mary Horn.
Mary was difficult to describe. She had a natural beauty that was marred by a set of peculiar features. Her heart-shaped face framed large wolf-like eyes, plush lips that were so dark they were almost purple and her wild mane of hair helped to hide two pointed ears that defied belief.
Mary had other odd characteristics that, depending on who you spoke to, were either related to a kind of mass hysteria that dim people are prone to, or outright mystical anomalies. For one thing, her height often changed before your very eyes with her emotions. Not by much, but some people swore they could be looking her in the eye one second and the next she was above or below them.
The second was the unnerving feeling that you were being watched when in her presence. It was as if the very wind held its breath in anticipation, an unseen force biding its time.
As a result, the people of Pennysworth had a deep seated fear of Mary. That fear manifested itself as intense suspicion and puerile hatred.
The girl was not right. She didn’t belong.
Mr Higgs did his best to lower his rising bile, smiled at Mary and leaned back in his chair. “How was the test, my sweet? Will I have the honour of teaching you again next year or no?”
Mary slung her bag on to her shoulder. “That depends. Is ninety eight per cent a pass or not?”
Higgs smiled and picked up Mary’s test sheet. “My. You are confident. What question do you think you got wrong?”
“None. Your stupid test was easy. I spelled my name wrong on purpose.”
Higgs blinked several times. “Why?”
Mary sniffed and looking down her nose said rather matter-of-factly, “Father says I shouldn’t hand my real name out like some Hollywood hussy. Names are important. Names have power. You people will have none over me.”
Higgs could only stare off into space as Mary left the room, wondering to himself if she truly was as mad she looked.
Written plain as day on the test sheet was ‘Mary of the House of Horn’.
“I’m not paid enough. Not by half.”
It was lunch time and the hallways were mostly empty. The chatter of children and the clatter of cutlery could be heard from the school’s cafeteria. Mary always avoided it, rain or shine. Food had a habit of being thrown her way and she didn’t feel like washing potato salad out of her hair right now. Mary made her way outside instead, walking across the freshly mown sports field to a line of trees that marked the border of the school grounds. There was a particularly gnarled old oak that had plenty of good hand holds. Mary slithered up to the first solid bow and, sitting with her back to the trunk, made a start on her lunch. She ate with ferocity, chewing quickly and without satisfaction. Two cheese sandwiches were demolished with hardly a pause. The crusts she threw over her shoulder for the birds.
Absently wiping at the crumbs on her uniform, Mary looked wistfully at the lands beyond the tall stone wall that surrounded the school. She had dreams of leaping over the wall and running as far and as fast as she could. She dreamed of an exciting life, a life with meaning far away from this quaint English country prison her father had chosen to hide in. But she couldn’t escape, nobody could.
Nobody with sense, at any rate.
She knew most of the adults could leave. All of the store owners in Pennysworth had to get their goods from somewhere outside. Nobody in town made televisions, trashy girly magazines or bags of crisps. Her father knew how to leave; he often disappeared for days at a time. The Postman was a given, and some of the Archers had gone for years once. But they all returned. Returned to live the rest of their lives in this perfect postcard hell.
All of them but her brother.
Mary could barely remember him now. It had been so long since he left. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes.
The bastard left me here. Alone.
A wind picked up from nowhere, tussling Mary’s hair and setting the tree boughs swaying.
There had to be a whole other world outside of Pennysworth. A world that Mary could barely imagine, a world filled with all the oceans, cities, jungles and Hollywood celebrities that she had read about in books and magazines. A world they were taught about in school but never allowed to see. She would be shown, she was constantly told, when the time was right. But when would that time come? When she finished school? That was years away yet. Mary thought she would be lucky to see her next birthday, the way the people of the county acted towards her. Most were downright rude to her but some went beyond mere insults and cold shoulder tactics. Mary had lost count of the number of schoolyard scraps she had endured throughout her short lifetime. She just couldn’t understand it; why did everyone hate her so much?
Again Mary thought of running away. But it didn’t matter which direction she ran. She would find herself back in Pennysworth. If you were to head north of town towards the outlaying farms you would finally get to a low hill which, as you crested it, you would find yourself just south of the village. Head east towards the forest and you would eventually find yourself in a clearing overlooking the western side of the village. Going in any direction away from Pennysworth would only get you to the opposite side of the town.
Mary had spent many an afternoon and weekend trekking or cycling around Pennysworth County, trying to discover the way out. You could say it was her only hobby. She had gone as far as making terribly rendered maps and devising ‘cunning’ plans akin to ‘The Great- Escape’. In a quiet corner of the forest was the aborted tunnel she had created. Mary had laboured for months on that project. Her spirit had almost been well and truly broken when she finally popped out of the earth in a farmer’s field amidst some startled cows.
The Postman was her best bet. He left Pennysworth every other day to fetch the counties mail, so she had regular opportunities to stalk him. The man also had a penchant for whistling loudly which made him easy to find. But try as she might to follow him, and no matter how stealthily or closely she followed, he always vanished, either just around a bend in the road or passing some trees.
The man was obviously a wizard.
Her father was no use either. Mary had asked him many times why they couldn’t leave. He always answered with a shrug or changed the subject. One Christmas however, he had been well into his whiskey when Mary had broached the subject.
“It’s magic, of course! Old bloody magic! Magic so old, nobody can find it! Not even him!”
He then rolled about on the carpet, laughing and crying in turns.
Magic wasn’t too farfetched in Mary’s book. In fact, it explained a lot. Some of the things she had seen her father do defied reasoning. He had drilled in to her what he called ‘the basics of life’, back when she was much younger and he was much more tolerable.
Never make an oath or a promise, either in truth or jest, unless you are absolutely sure of the outcome.
Never tell you true name to anyone, be they friend or lover. As power resides in all names, let not your name command you.
Never leave any physical trace behind, be it hair, tooth or fingernail. Destroy these leavings with fire or risk an enemy birthing a fetish in your likeness.
Salt for the soul, fire for the flesh…
Mary wanted to think she had grown out of all that bunkum she had believed in when she was a little girl, but what else could explain Pennyworth’s borders? Reality-swallowing wormholes in the countryside?
Occasionally an outsider’s car drove through Pennysworth, the occupants blank-eyed and gormless. The cars never stopped, much to Mary’s disappointment; they simply passed on through. Many years back a homeless man had wandered into town, drunk and screaming profanities. He was the only outsider Mary had ever seen in person. The local constabulary had been quick to lock him up though, his fate unknown to Mary.
Mary sighed and, casting one last longing look at the world beyond the wall, prepared to climb back down the tree. She had just begun to lower herself down when she heard a noise above her. Looking up she saw two gleaming eyes peering back at her. Mary yelped and dropped to the ground in a heap.
With the wind knocked out of her, Mary lay amongst the leaves desperately sucking in air. There was a faint rustling beside her. She turned her head and saw the silhouette of something tall and slender standing in the shadow of the stone wall. Two amber eyes shone back at her through the gloom. Mary pushed herself up to her knees.
“Come any closer and I’ll break your legs.”
The silhouette shifted and a strange hollow voice replied back.
“I’m sorry to have startled you.”
“Startled me? You were spying on me, you sicko!” Mary shouted back.
A boy resolved out of the shadow, hands up and head shaking.
“You climbed into my tree. I was here first. You’re the sicko,” he replied in an odd, flat voice.
Mary studied him silently. She didn’t recognise him. Nobody in Pennysworth looked like him. He was wearing the school uniform, though, with his shirt tucked in and everything.
He was very tall and skinny, with golden like skin and large almond shaped eyes. His face was long and slender and he sported two pointed ears. He was attractive in a rather androgynous way she thought.
“Who are you?” she asked bluntly.
The tall boy was taken aback. “My name is… John,” he said after a pause.
Mary arched an eyebrow. He certainly did not look like a ‘John’, nor a Mathew, a Mark or a Luke. He was more likely an alien or something, sent to check on the welfare of their prisoners. Xandu of the planet Yurt was a fitting name.
“Well… ‘John’, I don’t suppose you think it’s normal to hide in trees and spy on girls, do you?”
John blinked and replied in his monotone voice, “No. Is it customary to be a sarcastic twerp when introducing oneself?”
Mary couldn’t help but laugh.
Maybe this alien spy isn’t so bad.
She stepped closer to him and thrust out her hand. “I’m Mary of the House of Horn. Welcome to earth.”
John looked at her sideways as they shook hands. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mary of the House of Horn. I am humbled by your warm welcome.”
Mary snorted. “Now who’s being sarcastic?”
John smiled, the first showing of a true human emotion. “Touché,” he replied.
Mary unclasped her hand from his.
“I take it you’re new to this charming neck of the woods?”
John turned from Mary and looked around at his surroundings. “Yes, very much so.”
He seemed wary and perhaps a little sad. Mary assumed this new place was as strange to him as he was to her. But why was he here and where did he come from? All joking aside, this boy was obviously not a local. That meant he probably knew how to leave Pennysworth.
“So tell me about yourself, John. Where do you come from?”
John gave her a level stare. “We came from up North.”
“Who is, we?” asked Mary innocently.
“Me and my guardian. Erm… I mean my uncle,” replied John looking away.
“Guardian uncle? That sounds cool.”
“So… The North is a big place. Anywhere in particular?”
Mary sighed. “So then. How did you get here?”
“We drove. In a car if you must know.”
Mary crossed her arms. “I’m going to stop talking if you’re going to be a complete tool.”
John gave her another sideways glance.
“I don’t understand. I am a man. Not a tool…”
“Could have fooled me,” Mary said beneath her breath.
John’s eyes narrowed. The ears were not for show then. John took a step closer. He looked over Mary’s shoulder towards the school buildings and pulling her close, spoke in a low voice conspiratorially.
“I know what you really want to ask me, Mary. I met the headmaster this morning. He told me that several of the students would be interested in where I’m from and how I got here. He made it very clear that I should not divulge anything that could help you. But believe me, Mary, when I say this: you do not want to leave.”
Mary snorted. “So I don’t want to leave, do I? You obviously don’t know me.”
John looked over her shoulder in the direction of Pennysworth for a moment; finally he looked her in the eyes. “There is nothing for you out there, nothing but pain and sorrow.”
Mary’s hackles began to rise. “You don’t know that. You know nothing.”
For this boy, this stranger to walk in to her life and dash her hopes with one short conversation was too much too bear. She felt angry and humiliated. Marys pulse accelerated. A pain in her chest swelled until her whole body was shaking. Mary shuddered as she gained an inch of height and girth, her uniform now strained down the seams of her shoulders and chest.
John stepped back from her, alarm on his face.
“What just happened?”
Mary clenched her jaw through the spasm of pain that came every time she lost control of her emotions. Her skin flushed a deep red. Her breath grew short. She glared at John for a moment then, panting, she turned and walked away from this nuisance of a boy.
“I am sorry if I have hurt you, Mary,” John said to her back. “But you must believe me.”
Mary couldn’t face looking at him. She quickly walked back towards the school, breathing deeply all the while to calm her raging thoughts.
The rest of the day went by in a sulky, tear-filled blur. Mary sat in the back of every class with her head down, ignoring all questions and any spit-balls that flew her way. She had her wild hair pulled over her face to hide the tears from the others. When the final bell rang she gathered her bag and flew out of the room, her stretched uniform dishevelled and dotted with paper pellets.
Mary sped down the hall and burst out of the front door in a lopping stride. The strange boy she met during her lunch break was waiting outside the school, his back braced against the wall and his arms crossed. As she drew near he stood up straight and blocked her path. Mary tried to walk around him but an amber hued hand darted out and clutched her shoulder firmly.
“Let go of me, John,” said Mary coldly.
John looked down at her, his emotionless face only betrayed by a tightening around his eyes. “Mary Horn, please let me apologise. It was wrong of me to say what I did.”
Mary scowled back at him with her best angry face just to let him know how much his apology meant. John’s amber skin gained a reddish tinge and his mouth drooped in what she thought was a pout. She realised that this strange boy was upset in earnest. The anger and angst which she had bottled up all afternoon began to dissipate slowly.
“Okay, John. You may apologise. But make it a good one,” Mary said with a straight face.
John looked startled. “I thought I just did.”
Mary let the tension build until John’s skin tone had gone through several more transformations.
“It’s okay you great goober. You can breathe now.”
John sighed quietly and stepped back to a more respectable distance. Mary finally noticed the odd looks she and John were getting as her school fellows filed past. On one and all it was a combination of disgust and contempt; the kooky weird girl and the strange new boy, what a couple. Deidre and her cronies ambled past tittering and laughing behind petite manicured hands. “I didn’t think there could be anybody uglier than you, Mary. Now I see your children will be.”
Without a thought, Mary had a fist cocked and was marching towards Deidre. The other girl dropped her school bag and puffed out her prodigious chest.
“Want a shot at the title, chicken-wing?”
Deidre’s friends formed a half circle behind her. Other children stopped to see what was going to happen. A low murmur grew into an excited roar; the masses could smell blood and now wanted to see it. Mary began to grow uncertain. She wasn’t afraid of Deidre. Deidre and her friends and half of the school were another matter. Being the least popular person in the county had its downside and she didn’t want to think of how the mob could turn on her.
What would it be? Fight or flight?
She felt a spasm of pain deep in her chest that radiated through her body. She shrunk an inch before she could calm herself with some deep breaths.
“Oh Gawd! She’s going to faint! What a chicken!” somebody crowed from the cheap seats.
Before she could act either way John stepped past her. His eyes flashed brightly as he spoke. “You offend me mortal. You attack my lineage without provocation. For this I take my due. Three fold your curse shall be.”
Deidre sniggered while John bore down on her, his voice taking on a chanting lilt.
“Your words are barbed with venom; I take your tongue lest thee offend again. Your eyes are full of insolence; I take thy sight so ye may never look above your station again. Finally, for your insult I thwart your true desire; may you never feel a man’s touch nor your womb quicken with child.”
Deidre laughed. “Whoa weirdo. Back off before I deal to you too.”
John looked down at the smirking girl. He made a quick hand gesture, thumb pressed to pinkie finger. “It is done,” he said quietly.
Turning he grabbed Mary by the hand and led her away from the pressing throng of students. Mary let herself be strung along behind, barely comprehending what had just happened. Hearing a scream she turned her head. Most of the kids were dispersing except for Deidre and her cabal of friends. Deidre sat on her knees clawing at her face in a mad panic while her friends looked on with worried faces.
“What just happened, John?”
The tall boy continued to walk with long strides. They passed around a stone walled boundary and headed towards Pennysworth village. A blood curdling, wordless cry followed them. Mary wrenched her arm from Johns grip and looked back nervously.
“John, stop. What did you do to her?”
John looked at her with a mischievous glint in his eyes, the faintest smile on his lips.
“I took away her power,” he said matter-of-factly.
Mary tilted her head unsure of what he meant.
“The harlot offended you and me without cause, so I cursed her,” John offered. “I doubt she’ll do it again.”
“What do you mean?” asked Mary slowly.
John spread his arms and shrugged. “Didn’t you hear me say it? I took away her sight, speech and desire. She’s quite harmless now.”
Mary shivered at the thought. Sure Deidre was rude and a royal pain, but nobody deserved what John had done to her in ten short seconds. If what he said was true.
“Are you for real, John?”
Raising a hand in front of him, John studied it mockingly.
“I don’t know Mary Horn. Some of my people say we are just a remnant of a former age, a people lost and forgotten by cruel and powerful gods. A dream remaining only in the minds of man and beast…”
Mary stamped her foot. “I’m serious! Did you just… take her eyes and ears or something?”
Laughing, John fished around in his pockets. “I have them here if you really want them…”
“John!” Mary screamed shrilly.
“Okay. Okay. Yes I did take away her sight, and speech. And I’d do it again if I have to. Nobody offends the great line of…. Smith and gets away with it.”
Mary shook her head. Real or not she couldn’t just let John do what he did, especially over something as trivial as calling her unborn children ugly.
“John, I demand you release her,” replied Mary coldly.
The tall boy crossed his arms and looked at the pavement.
Don’t make me beg for Deidre’s sake, thought Mary.
“John, please undo whatever you did.”
John’s body tensed.
“Maybe a smaller curse?” pleaded Mary.
John shrugged his angular shoulders. “Okay, Mary Horn. May she always wear odd socks and never find true love.”
Mary arched an eyebrow.
“May her bus never arrive on time?” asked John, gingerly.
Mary nodded. “That’s better.”
The strange boy pinched his thumb to each finger on his right hand and mumbled some incoherent babble.
John smiled a toothy grin. “I’ve never done that one before,” he confided.
Mary laughed nervously. What did this odd boy do exactly? Mary lifted a shaking hand and brushed her hair into place. She didn’t know whether to fight, flee or collapse on the floor and scream in the foetal position. Would he turn on her if she offended him as well?
“So John… What just happened? How did you do that?”
John’s smile slowly faded into a stony glare. “You people are easy to manipulate. It’s all energy and light. All I did was put a little energy in the right parts of her brain; over stimulated another part with light. The spirits of my ancestors had some input too. It was quite simple.”
Mary’s skin crawled. How could you do that to another person?
“Do you do that often? Hypnotise people that you don’t like?”
Raising his head John looked down his long nose at Mary as if he were inspecting a bug in a microscope. “I suppose I do. But it is magic. Not hypnotism.”
Mary gulped loudly. Her hands quivered as she smoothed her skirt and arranged her blouse. “I don’t suppose you’ll be doing it to me anytime soon?” She said in a shaky voice.
John smiled another toothy grin and slapped Mary on the back. Mary squeaked before she could control herself.
“No, Mary Horn. I would never do that to a friend.”
“We’re friends?” asked Mary uncertainly.
“Sure, Mary Horn. You have sass for sure but it is interesting to be around you. Most people I meet are boring and rude.”
Wiping a hand across her brow Mary realised she was sweating.
How close did I come to thinking I was a frog?
She looked at John sideways. Could she be friends with a magic wielding boy that looked like an alien and spoke like a robot? Anything was possible she thought.
John hefted his bag higher on his shoulder and looked at his wrist watch. “I suppose I should leave. My… uncle is expecting me home promptly.”
Mary sighed softly. She didn’t feel particularly safe around a boy that could and would hypnotise people willy-nilly, but he was interesting and the only person in all of Pennysworth County that didn’t spit at her or yell obscenities on sight. The thought of developing a friendship with someone was an entirely new idea, one that she was becoming fond of fostering.
“Where do you live? I could walk you home,” said Mary.
“Isn’t there a bus of some kind to take us home? A school bus?” replied John.
“Do you really want to ride that old piece of junk with all of those snot-nosed kids?” she replied, jerking a thumb in the direction of the school. “Besides, it takes forever with all the stops and all the back roads and such.”
John shrugged then pointed a long slender arm. “We live on the northern border of this land where the forest meets the merger of two steams. The energy of the land is quite agreeable. The Orientals would say it has a favourable chi. You may escort me, Mary Horn.”
Mary sighed again. Maybe this friendship thing was going to be a lot harder than she originally thought.
Pennysworth village centre was comprised of old brownstone villas and narrow cobbled lanes running in mad angles over low hills. Almost all of the shops could be found on two streets running parallel to each other in the town centre. They were named Trembling Road and Shiver Street. The locals, however, called them ‘Big Shake’ and ‘Little Shake’, or Big and Little as Trembling Road was slightly longer. Whitewashed cottages and squat stone houses on quarter acre sections were more prominent in the outlying suburbs to the south and east where the land was flatter. The roads were tar sealed here and old weather worn oak trees lined them. To the west, one larger hill commanded an old Roman fort which had been renovated by the locals over the generations. It was now a grotesque modern mansion owned by a pompous family that nobody ever saw except for village fairs and council meetings. Behind the fort was a modest wooden church with a steeply pitched slate roof. It was fairly modern by Pennysworth standards, having only been built several decades earlier. The graveyard was a new addition also. No more than two dozen headstones lay in the yard as most of Pennysworth’s residents had family plots on their own land or in the surrounding forest. The land beyond Pennysworth was dominated by a quilt-work of farmsteads, each acreage a different hue of colour to the next as the crops and agriculture changed, hedgerows and ancient moss covered stone walls dividing them. Mary and John walked through the village centre on ‘Big Shake’ with Mary explaining everything she knew about Pennysworth all the while.
“That really fat man there,” she said pointing across the street to a middle-aged man who rolled down the sidewalk with every step “is the local baker. His name is Mr Baker funnily enough. His kids are fat, too.”
She pointed at a tall stork like woman approaching them. “That funny looking woman is Mrs Teller, she works at the bank.”
The older woman sniffed loudly and raised her long nose as she walked past the two odd looking teens. John made a low noise in his throat and twitched his hand. Mrs Teller shrieked as one of her heels broke. Mary didn’t notice. “The green grocer is just a little further. It’s owned by…”
“A Mr Grocer by chance? I’m beginning to notice a pattern here,” said John interrupting.
“No. Mr Entwistle. His wife is Mrs Grocer,” said Mary flatly.
“The age of occupation seems new to these parts,” replied John.
“No. Just the worst case of nepotism you’ve ever seen.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“Forget about it.”
“So following that line of thought, that means your family hunt elephants?” asked John.
“Har-dee-har… Ahhhhhh!” yelled Mary suddenly. She gestured at something across the road and dashed over without bothering to look for traffic.
“What did I say?” mumbled John to himself
Mary had seen something in the window of the bookshop from across the street. On a display rack sat a pile of new magazines. Each was worth its weight in gold amongst the students of Pennysworth Normal High. Between their glossy pages were the fashion tips, music fads and celebrity gossip of the world beyond. They were both a source of amusement and information for Mary, who often had to save her allowance for weeks to afford just one.
Mary darted in to the shop and scooped up the pile of magazines. She pawed through them quickly, selecting the best before anyone else could claim them.
“Oi, you! No bags in the shop!”
Mary dropped her bag to the floor and kicked it out the door without looking. The sour shop owner shook his head slowly as he watched from behind the counter. John walked in carrying Mary’s bag shortly afterwards.
The owner rounded on him. “Can’t you idiots read? No bags in the shop!” he said pointing at a hand written sign.
John took two steps backwards and stood in the entrance scowling.
“How much for these?” asked Mary throwing two magazines on the countertop.
The shop owner looked down at the merchandise. “Twenty grams,” he replied gruffly.
Mary raised her eyebrows and whistled.
“It is what it is,” said the owner, folding his arms.
Mary pulled out a thin leather pouch from her pocket and jiggled it in her hand. The shop owner slid over a set of brass scales and the transaction began. Mary added small gold coins to the scale, one at a time. The owner licked his thin lips as he watched the pile grow. Finally, Mary dropped her last coin and the scales tipped. The shop owner took a hatchet from beneath the counter and removed a coin from the pile. After chopping it in half with one chop of the hatchet he handed one half back to Mary and added the other to the pile of gold. The scales teetered.
“Good enough,” he said. “Now get out, the two of you.”
Mary gathered up her score and rushed out of the shop. John stood by the doorway scowling at the shop owner.
“Are you deaf as well as dumb? Go!” said the owner, pointing.
John raised a hand and pressed his pinkie to his thumb. Before he could open his mouth, Mary grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him away.
“What was his problem?” asked John.
“Me, I suppose,” replied Mary. “He’s never been fond of me. The kids in school often try and steal from him too. He’s a bit uptight I think.”
John looked at the magazines Mary clutched to her chest. “And you spent all of that money on what exactly?”
Mary blushed. “It is my one and only vice… Do you want to have a look?” she asked, offering the worst of the two.
John took it from her and flicked through the pages as they walked.
“Fascinating… Do all of you people read these things?”
Mary brushed the hair out of her eyes. “Girls mostly. Some boys do but they wouldn’t dare tell you.”
“Interesting,” said John. “Would you mind if I borrow this?”
“…Sure you can,” said Mary after a pause.
The street ended at a tee intersection and crossing the road, they took the left fork. This street was the oldest in Pennysworth. All of the houses were made of stone and mortar of various hues. Some roofs were thatched though most had slate or tiles. Old wrought iron work was still to be found on some of the doors and windows. The only new thing about this part of town was indoor plumbing and the light bulb.
“Will you tell me what your family does, Mary, or shall I just assume you’re poachers?” asked John.
What does my father do?
“No not at all. My father is a doctor of sorts. No he’s more like a scientist really. The truth is I’m not too sure. His study is filled with all kinds of plants and rocks and things. He often makes stuff for people, mechanical things or powders or liquids. He does have something to do with the local power station I think. Does that make him an engineer too? He has the odd person come by to visit him – and I really mean odd. They always speak in private and he gets really cross if I try to listen.”
John shook his head slowly as if he didn’t agree or understand. “Your father hasn’t explained to you what his occupation is? How… strange.”
Mary stiffened at that. It was very true. Her father didn’t have much time for her at the best of times. Lately he had been in a foul mood. He locked himself in his study for longer and longer hours these days. She hadn’t seen him this upset since Remy, her older brother left Pennysworth for good.
“How about your mother then? Does she work at all?” John asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
“My mother left when I was very young.” Mary replied flatly. “We don’t see her.”
“Oh. I see” said John slowly. “Do you have siblings?”
“My brother left too. That’s enough about my family. What about yours?” Mary said sharply.
John scratched his chin. “Well, Mary. They are… how do I say it? They don’t work. Not in a conventional sense. They are… very wealthy and own a considerably desirable location.”
Mary eyed him sideways. “It must be nice to be rich. Where is this place you own?”
John bowed his head sadly and looked at the ground.
“It isn’t that great. It causes all kinds of problems to be honest.”
He walked on silently with his face downturned and the faintest gleam of a tear in his eye.
“Is it on the coast?” asked Mary bluntly. “Like some tourist trap where lots of people give you money just to lay around a pool and do nothing? Or is it a casino? I’ve always wanted to see a casino. Or the beach or anything other than here.”
John didn’t say a word. He just stared straight ahead.
Mary rolled her eyes. “It can’t be that bad, being rich – can it, John? Celebrities seem pretty happy with themselves most of the time. Maybe you’re just doing it wrong. You need someone like me to help you is all.”
John smiled thinly and lifted his head.
“Oh I do wish I could show you my ancestral home, Mary Horn. Perhaps after… everything I may. I want to go home too. I want to see my family again…”
Mary let that hang, unsure of what he meant and uneasy of holding him to his word just now. The pair left the last of Pennysworth town behind and, passing underneath an arched gateway, walked down a tar sealed road that was lined with wild hedges of gorse and blackberry. Small yellow flowers were scattered through the gorse, and buttercups and small white dandelions grew helter-skelter in the grass and dotted the ditches between the road and the hedgerows. Here and there they passed ancient oaks, their leafy boughs rippling in a lazy breeze to the songs of a multitude of birds. They passed modest farm houses nestled amongst manicured gardens, the buildings old and worn yet charmingly rustic.
Mary kicked stones while she waited for John to speak. The odd boy walked with a grim set to his jaw, oblivious to the awkward silence that he had created. Finally Mary had enough.
“So, John, if you won’t tell me where you’re from or how or why you came here of all places what will you talk about?”
John looked at her sideways, the trace of a sneer twisting his thin lips.
Mary raised an eyebrow in defence. “What did I say? You won’t zap me with magic will you?”
“Maybe I will. A small one perhaps,” replied John.
“Do it and I’ll bop you in the face.”
“My boots they are a-shaking.”
Mary punched him in the arm in response. John squealed in an alarmingly high voice and stepped back several paces.
“Ouch. What was that for?” he said rubbing his arm.
“Being a sarcastic tool,” snapped Mary.
“I told you before, Mary Horn, I am not a tool.”
Mary stopped in her tracks and put her hand on her hips. “Then tell me something! All of this cryptic stuff is driving me insane. You’re just as vague as my father!”
John tilted his head as he listened then turned to face north. “You don’t seem to understand many things, Mary Horn. And because of that I cannot tell you what you want to know. There are certain covenants in place which I must observe. Even now my… uncle listens to me, fearing that I misstep my place. To tell the whole truth would break an oath I made, which among my people is a very serious crime. I suggest you speak to your father for I will tell you no more.”
Hefting his bag John strode on with head fixed forward, leaving Mary behind. After several steps he began to shimmer as though seen through a heat wave. From one moment to the next, Mary was blinded, her vision going white then red before slowly returning to normal. She stared at the spot where John had been. She went slack-jawed; John was nowhere to be seen.
Did he just hypnotise her while she wasn’t paying attention?
How did he put it? Energy and light in the brain? Ancestor spirits?
She had some important questions to ask her father when she got home.
The road home
She alternated between kicking stones and throwing them at birds for the remaining walk home. In her mind she formed a range of penetrating questions to grill her father with. She would need to strike fast and hard, with tact and cunning. He would undoubtedly try to brush her off but she would press the issue. Eventually he would break down and tell her everything. Then they would leave Pennysworth forever and find her brother. She could also stay up late and eat cake. It was all so easy in her imagined scenarios.
She picked up a particularly big rock and threw it at a road sign twenty meters in front of her. It missed so she threw another. To her right she could hear laughter. A dozen men sat outside of a long wooden hall drinking from tankards and talking with loud, animated voices. Mary sneered in disgust. The men were all from the Archer family, the local ale and cider brewers. All they did was brew alcohol in various shades of potency and drink it. Sometimes they sold it to the public bar in Pennysworth town. A toast was announced by a large barrel chested fellow with drooping red moustaches. His fellows stood and knocked tankards together after a short unintelligible speech was given. A tussle started after ale was spilled over someone’s shoes. Fists started to fly and voices were raised. More men in leather aprons burst out of the building’s doors, the tools of their trade still in their hands. To Mary it appeared that there were different factions among the throng as the groups rallied then charged in a beer-fuelled frenzy. Mary snorted in disgust. Only an Archer could stand to be around another Archer. She couldn’t see what her father saw in them.
One of Mary’s (many) chores was to empty the letterbox of its contents and sort them for her father. As she arrived at the entrance to her family estate, she unlocked the arched iron-gate using a large key attached to a long chain which she hung around her neck. Taking a canvas sack from a hook behind the stone wall she began to fill it with the dozens of letters and small parcels from the red letterbox. The blue one never had anything in it. Mary assumed it was for outgoing mail but she never put anything in it, nor saw her father do so. After securing the gate and locking it, she hoisted the now bulging sack over her shoulder. She trudged onwards towards her home down a road of crushed white coral.
The estate’s gardens spread out to her left and right, overgrown and in disrepair. The once proud and beautifully sculpted gardens had been left to nature’s devices well before Mary was born. There were marble fountains and cunning mazes somewhere amongst the shambles of thorny rosebushes, flowing vines and bulging shrubbery that had not been seen by human eyes for years. To Mary it didn’t matter: the gardens had a chaotic beauty that blended the best parts of man and nature. Strict lines had softened, what was comfortable was now wild and what had been easy was now dangerous.
Beside her the statues of long dead ancestors stood sentinel along the edge of the road. The oldest statues, closer to the arched gates of Horn, were barely recognisable after decades of rain and wind had scoured their features back to humanities most basic of shapes. As she walked down the coral road to the manor the statues became more detailed and whole, only the odd missing limb or head showed time’s cruel passage. Mary knew most of their names and histories thanks to a lexicon of the family history in the library. Several pages had been torn out, however, and her father couldn’t or wouldn’t divulge their secrets.
Her favourite was a large buxom woman wearing layered dresses with crossed bandoliers strapped over her ample chest and a flintlock pistol in each raised hand. ‘Black June’ was inscribed into the stone plinth of the statue. June was something of a rogue and a highway-woman in these parts many years ago. Much of the current family wealth could be attributed to her lifestyle for which Mary assumed she should be grateful. One day her father’s sombre figure would stand guard with her ancestors, though Mary hoped she would never have to look at it. She planned to be long gone by then, never to return. Would she have her own statue one day? She shuddered at the thought.
Ahead of her the House of Horn loomed, a two-storey Georgian mansion of grey stone and white marble trim. Lichen and moss had found purchase in the mortar and cracks of the walls and amongst the gargoyles which clung to the top storey, giving them manic green hairstyles and wispy beards. Sometimes she could swear she saw the little stone men move to watch her better but it was always dismissed as idle fantasy.
Flowering vines covered most of the bottom floor, obscuring several windows. Mary climbed the six wide marble steps to the double doors of oak. Using the same key on her neck chain she unlocked the doors and strode in. The large, high-studded foyer was panelled in dark mahogany with carved scenes of woodlands and animals. Old oil paintings of strange landscapes and stranger relatives in gold-relief framing sat in clusters on both walls. It was an oppressive place made worse by her father’s insistence of keeping it unlit.
Mary hung her school coat on the rack and dragged the mail sack towards the sunroom. Here she upended the sack onto a felt-topped table and sorted the mail into the various names of its intended recipient before they were then transferred to a large wooden pigeonhole. Mary didn’t know why her father worked under so many different names. It was all to do with his mysterious occupation. Sometimes she wondered if he was a spy and the letters came from his network of moles and snitches. Whoever the correspondence came from, they were consistent. Every other day there was another mountain of mail for Mary to organise.
She sorted and filed quickly so she could confront her father while her courage was still with her. While the mail pile was divided into tidy stacks she came across an odd envelope. Her breath stopped as she read her own name scrawled across the envelope in a vaguely familiar writing. With a trembling hand she turned it over to check the sender’s details before she realised it was a waste of time. All correspondence to Pennysworth was destined to a P.O Box in the Cotswolds under the fictional name of P.W Holdings as the real postmen in the ‘outside’ wouldn’t have a chance of finding the county. Pennysworth’s own postman collected the mail from the P.O Box and distributed it himself, his wage paid for by the council enforced tax. It was the return to sender details that held the true recipients address.
But who could it be from?
A warm smile blossomed on her face and her heart started to beat so furiously it hurt. She tore it open eagerly.
There was only one person she knew of in the ‘outside’.
Mary. This letter heralds my return. Before the moon is full I expect to be home. Do not tell him anything. It will only complicate matters. I look forward to our reunion.
P.S There will be a little surprise for you. Two in fact.
Remy was coming home! A trill laugh erupted out of her at the thought of it. Her brother! The only true companion she had in this backwards village growing up. How long had it been since he left? Nine years? Ten?
Her father would not utter his son’s name and even to this day still refused to talk about him and why he left. He would be mad to see him again, or madder than usual, Mary thought sourly. Still, the thought of her father sulking around the house couldn’t bring her down. Taking the letter, she stuffed it back in its envelope and hid it in her skirt pocket. The remaining mail for her father was dealt with quickly. She tugged on a rope rigged up to a bell in the study to signal that the precious cargo was in place. He would be down shortly to go through his haul. Mary decided to wait for him, taking a seat on a leather sofa that faced the brimming pigeonhole cupboard.
Moments later there was the sound of several doors slamming. A fitful gust of wind picked up inside the house, seemingly from nowhere, setting the chandeliers to chime crazily and rattling the picture frames. An almighty stench of acrid herbs and sulphur wafted Mary’s way, bringing tears to her eyes. Soon she could hear the heavy footfalls of her father’s shoes and the sharp click of his cane tattooing its imprint into the worn floorboards. Stephen Horn burst into the sunroom, his face a thunderhead, his eyes alight with repressed rage. His black hair was beginning to show white at the temples. It was loose and hung limp in sweaty curls. He wore a battered and stained leather apron overtop a white cotton shirt and faded blue denim jeans.
He immediately strode over to the cache of correspondence and tore into the letters, a dagger at his hip cleanly slicing the envelopes. He read furiously, his eyes scanning over the pages without pause. Only the noise of dismissive grunts or short bursts of laughter showed that any information was digested. Mary cleared her throat after she realised her father hadn’t noticed her.
Stephen raised his head and slowly turned to peer over his shoulder at her. Nothing in his face softened as his eyes met hers. “Oh. You’re here.” he said.
“I had a good day. Thank you for asking. How are you, Father?” asked Mary bitterly.
Stephen’s lip curled in a smile before dropping back into a sneer. “I’m fine. Just fine… As always.” He turned back to his correspondence.
Mary clenched her teeth. This man is impossible to talk to. But I have to try…
“Father, I must ask you something.”
“What is it?” Stephen did not pause to look up from his work.
“I met a boy today a…. strange boy. We talked about things.”
“You? Speaking to a boy? Now that is strange.”
Mary didn’t know what to make of the obvious insult. She crossed her arms and stamped her feet. “I speak to boys all the time, I’ll have you know!” she said rather more defensively than she had wanted to.
Stephen chuckled. “Sure. And what did you talk about, this strange boy and you?”
Mary paused. How best to approach this? Might as well come out and say it.
“We talked about life outside of Pennysworth, magic and why we need to stay here.”
Stephen’s dagger dropped to the floor in a clatter. He spun on Mary in a whirlwind of letters, his cane pointed at her breast. “Who did you speak to? Tell me, child!”
Mary shrank back in the sofa as far as the soft leather would allow. Her voice faltered. She had never seen him this angry, had never had his wrath directed at her.
“What name did he give? What did he look like? Speak!”
“John. His name is John Smith. He’s the new boy at school,” said Mary meekly.
Stephen shook his head. “John Smith? Somehow I doubt that’s his real name. What did he look like?”
Hugging her knees Mary spoke, “He was quite tall and he had golden skin, pointy ears, spoke with a funny voice.”
Biting his lip, Stephen nodded and lowered his cane. “Did he make you speak an oath or promise? Did he trick you in any way?”
“No. We just spoke. He was nice to me. Who is he, Father?”
Holding his arms behind his back, Stephen turned and looked out the window. “He is a refugee, an important one at that.”
“A refugee of what?” said Mary sitting up.
“Forget about that. What did he say? What did he tell you?”
She shrugged. “Not much actually. He was very cryptic. He told me he was from the outside. That it wasn’t safe to leave. That he could hypnotise people with magic energy and light and ancestor spirits. That you had many things to tell me. The magic bit was the weirdest part. Yes, that definitely won the prize for most weird.”
Stephen slammed a fist against the felt topped table, sending it crashing to the floor as its legs collapsed. Frightened by the sudden outburst, Mary felt a flash of pain and she shrunk an inch.
“He performed in front of you!? The little blighter! I’ll have strong words to his father for this. Mark my words.” Stephen rubbed his fist menacingly as he glanced out the window.
Mary shook her head as she rose to her feet, her clothes hanging off her loosely. “No Father. Forget about that. I fixed it all up. What I need to know is why. Why are we here? Why can’t we leave? Why has John’s family come here?”
Stephen’s gaze returned back to her. “You’re too young, Mary. You know that. When the time comes I will tell you.”
“You always say that! I’m not too young! What is so important that you need to keep it secret?”
Stephen looked at her a while, weighing and measuring her or so it seemed before he spoke softly. “The whole truth would break your heart and drive you mad. I will tell you but only at my own pace. Leave it at that.”
Mary’s remaining hopes were sufficiently snuffed. She turned her back without a word and left the room. The staccato of her leather shoes echoed through the house and back to Stephen; he heard Mary’s mood darken even more as she had slammed enough doors to drown out all sound. Stephen sighed and ran rough, blistered hands through his hair.
All the women in my life are driving me to ruin!
He surveyed the mess he had made of the table and mail. Stephen raised his cane to chest height and flicked a hidden switch below the ornamental gargoyle head. A blue light began to glow down the length of the shaft and a low gentle hum slowly filled the room. His hair stood on end as he raised his arms and the hum intensified. Directing the cane like a conductor’s baton, Stephen coaxed the table back upright and the letters into a tidy pile. His little chore done, he switched the cane off and tucking the small parcels under one arm, returned to his study to work on finding his lady love.
Mary’s bedroom was on the top storey of the east wing, the furthest room from her father’s study. She ran up a wide stone staircase and down a hallway lined with rusted suits of armour. Most of the pieces were from Europe, the armour plain but functional. The oldest suits were smaller than Mary, barely the height of a twelve year old boy. Her father explained that people ate more meat these days, and as a result were much taller than their ancestors. There were several exotic pieces, dressed on wooden mannequins as well. They had a Roman legionnaire complete with spear and shield, a Japanese Samurai with a fearsome mask, a Zulu warrior with a leopards pelt and the helmet of a Greek warrior, its horsehair plume tatty and falling to pieces.
Mary’s bedroom had once been a storeroom of assorted ancestral knickknacks. She had taken it for her own use several years ago. Her old bedroom was uncomfortably close to her father’s study. Whatever mad experiments he did had kept her awake at night and given her headaches and nosebleeds. The move had been her own decision and she doubted her Father even cared. Mary had removed the worst of the junk herself, spreading it around the house and storing it in cupboards. The more exotic and interesting objects she kept for herself. Some were just too heavy to move. Her bed was nestled between a giant jade elephant that was as tall as her shoulders and a spiked iron cage that was big enough to house a grown man, though not comfortably. A weapons rack furnished with swords, axes and pikes, some ornamental, some practical, dominated the farthest wall. Coats and jackets hung from foam balls impaled on the weapons.
The rapier, epee, foil and sabre Mary practiced her sword-work with, sat at one end of the rack. Pennysworth Normal School demanded their students to be adept in either archery or fencing. Mary chose the latter as she did not have the upper body strength required to pull a longbow, nor did she want the lopsided physique which came with said strength. It was an archaic law which dated back to the schools founding. The people of Pennysworth still clung to their obsolete sports with zeal, the two events taking pride of place during the county fete.
Above Mary’s bed hung a metal shield that bore her family crest, a chequered background of black and gold with what looked like a giraffe sprouting two long horns painted in the centre. Beneath the monster-giraffe was the motto ‘Secretum Nos Vigent’. Mary had roughly translated it as ‘secret lives’. It fit her father perfectly.
On the wall opposite her bed was a large oak table, scarred and burnt from Mary’s “experiments”. Vials of liquid in tidy rows sat beside various measuring instruments, mortars, distilleries, knives and metal rods.
Her most precious objects, two atlases which showed entirely different geographies on their surfaces, sat on a wide stone plinth in the centre of the room. One depicted the world as was shown to Mary in her school books. The other was handmade from leather and bore only vague similarities to the first. All of the continents on the leather globe were stretched out of shape, islands large and small filled the oceans and places were frequently marked with the icon of a dragon. To make matters worse, the writing was an unintelligible blur. Mary assumed the two atlases were so drastically different because cartography had improved greatly since the older one was made. Her father had no idea she was in possession of the atlases and would probably take them should he ever find out. That would involve checking up on her which was unlikely.
Mary had fantasies of leaving England and traveling to America, if or when she was granted freedom. Her magazines were filled with celebrities from a magical place called Los Angeles. The idea of palm trees, white sand beaches and high rise buildings enticed her. She also wanted to watch movies in a real theatre and meet real film stars to see what all the fuss was about. Pennysworth didn’t have reliable television reception and the Horns didn’t own a video player. Mary wanted to see what was so special about these people.
Flinging herself upon the bed, Mary buried her head into the pillow and screamed. She had had enough of her father and his pig-headed ways. The only time he noticed her was when he was looking through her or talking down to her. At least he didn’t cane her like he had Remy.
It’s no wonder he left, thought Mary.
Father and son had always been at each other’s throats. Mary didn’t know what had caused the rift between them so long ago but if her father’s general attitude was anything to go by it wasn’t caused by her brother. After wiping her nose and eyes on her sleeve Mary took out the letter Remy had sent her. She reread it, puzzling over what surprises he could possibly have in store for her.
And he would return before the moon was full?
Mary checked her calendar which charted the major celestial movements as well. The next full moon was only five days away. Five days! And he could be home sooner! She smiled again at the thought of seeing Remy. She had so many things to ask him, so many years to catch up on. And even better, he knew how to leave this miserable place. Her eyes wandered over to a bag she kept in the corner of the room, packed and ready; a hiker’s backpack filled with all the provisions and tools she could get her hands on. It was the bag she had carried with her so many times before on failed expeditions to find a way out of Pennysworth for good. The bag was always at the ready. She was always at the ready.
This time it would be different.
This time she would not be alone.
The House of Horn
The sun rose over the eastern forest of Pennysworth in a brilliant ball of orange, imbuing everything beneath it with shimmering amber hues. There was not a cloud to be seen in another picture perfect morning in all of Pennysworth County. The dawn chorus of the nearby birds picked up its tune a notch as the light strengthened, waking Mary from her slumber. Yawning she threw back the covers and slipped out the door and down the hall to the bathroom, where she spent the next quarter of an hour showering and trying to tame her long wild tresses.
After brushing the life out of her hair she fashioned it into a ponytail using multiple ties to try to keep it all in place. Reasonably satisfied with her appearance, she turned her thoughts towards dressing herself. The day seemed fine and crisp outside. Mary settled on school regulation black tights beneath her plaid skirt and a blue cardigan on top of her school blouse. Now fully prepared for the rigors of the day she went in search of breakfast taking her new magazine with her.
The Horn’s kitchen was large enough to accommodate cooking for a large privileged family and a whole train of servants. It was wasted on the Horns who presently counted just two. Mary made a bowl of muesli and ate in silence as she read her trashy magazine.
The lives these people lived fascinated her: the hair, the clothes, the persistent Paparazzi. The glossy photographs and short gossip columns filled her with questions.
What did these people do exactly?
How could you be famous for doing nothing important?
What was ‘Social Media’?
What did a band of boys sound like?
How were they different to any other band?
Mary looked out the kitchen window at the southern gardens as she thought. Several sheep were in the vegetable plot making short work of her father’s half-hearted attempt at developing a green thumb. She smiled wickedly.
Would he really care? Would he even notice?
Not likely, she thought dourly.
After cleaning her bowl and spoon she went to the cupboard and fetched a container of honey. Taking the honey to the pantry she stooped down low and poured a measure out into a small bowl which sat in front of a miniature wooden door in the wall. The honey was payment to the Brownie who did most of the cleaning around the house. Brownies didn’t like to be seen and would leave to live in another household if discovered or treated poorly. Mary had hunted for it when she was younger but her father had reprimanded her.
“Leave the creature be, Mary. There are few of its kind left in the world. Our family is lucky it has stayed with us for so many generations. I can remember my grandfather talking about him. He will serve and protect us, so long as we do not pry into his life and pay him the tribute he demands.”
Mary had bragged to everyone at school the next day that her family had a Brownie. She was ridiculed for weeks afterwards.
The creature did a passable job at cleaning when it tried. However, it would disappear for days sometimes, and Mary would wind up doing everything. It would often pull tricks on Mary or pinch or prod her when she was wasn’t looking. Mary stood and was about to leave the pantry when she heard pottery clatter against the floor. She turned her head in time to see the empty bowl spinning wildly.
“Dust the halls, will you?” she called out to thin air. “They’re filthy.”
Mary felt a yank on her ponytail as she quit the kitchen and thought she heard high-pitched cackling laughter following her out.
Sparrows scratching in the dirt took wing as Mary carried the empty mail sack back down the driveway to the gate, her ancestors’ statues towering over her with faces of pride, glee and woe. Mary was startled to see John Smith standing outside the boundary, looking miserable. He watched her as she fastened the mail bag to its hook then opened the iron-gate, stepped through and locked it shut. “Good morning, John” she said eventually.
John rubbed his hands together nervously. “Mary Horn.” He finally said, with a hesitant note of formality. “May I apologise for my actions yesterday. They were unbecoming of my station. Let me assure you I will not be hypnotising anyone in this precinct hence forth.”
Mary quirked an eyebrow in response. “Did my father speak to yours last night?”
John looked at the ground. “Yes. Yes he did. My… uncle is very adept with the cane.”
Mary reached out and patted her new friend’s arm sympathetically. “I’m sorry. I told him not to. I didn’t mean to get you in trouble. Honest.”
John shrugged and shifted his feet. “Do you accept my apology?”
“Of course. I wasn’t that scared. Really.”
John suddenly looked her in the eye. “I scared you?” His voice was hoarse and rough.
Mary crossed her arms defensively. “Well yeah. I’ve never seen real magic before. I mean, I’ve always had my suspicions about the stuff. I didn’t know what to think. It shook me for a while.”
John looked at her incredulously. “You have never seen magic before? Ever?”
“Nope,” said Mary, shaking her head. “Look, I know things aren’t exactly normal like it is in the books and on the radio around here. Father is into all kinds of weird stuff but at least he can kind of explain it. So yeah, I have heard of magic before – but I’ve never seen it. We just don’t go around hypnotising each other in these parts.”
John shook his head slightly and laughed. “That is rich. Especially coming from you. Next you’ll be telling me you don’t believe in magic.”
Mary shrugged. “I didn’t believe in magic, and I’m still not sure that I do now. And what do you mean: coming from me?”
John’s eyes narrowed as he scrutinised her. “Are you joking with me again? How could you not? You’re surrounded by the stuff.”
“What stuff?” asked Mary, looking around. “I see no stuff.”
“The gate and fence, for one thing” replied John as he pointed behind Mary, “is made of iron, designed to keep my kind out of bounds. The red letterbox there has some sort of charm or ward on it to protect it from prying eyes. That blue one has something horribly wrong with it. Those gargoyles upon the roof are more than ornamental and haven’t stopped watching me since I arrived. In fact one of them just gestured something rather inappropriately… It’s all around you, Mary. You stink of the stuff.”
“Look. I think it’s cute that you believe in this mumbo jumbo nonsense, but it’s going to take a bit more to convince me,” said Mary, smiling.
“Then how do you explain it? How do you explain the ‘hypnotism’ I performed yesterday?”
Mary bit her lip as she thought of a suitable answer.
How did Father describe the Brownie when I was kid? An invisible psychic with a sense of humour… I remember looking it up in the dictionary afterwards.
“Father told me that magic is just science that can’t be explained,” she replied, hesitantly at first. “Some people have an affinity with others that allows them to reach into people’s minds: known as telepathy. Some can move objects with sheer will: telekinesis. Some people just happen to be invisible and run around doing your secret bidding.”
John’s eyes went wide as he listened. Leaning over he sniffed at her hair. “I thought I could smell a Brownie.”
“What?” asked Mary as she backed away.
“So how do you explain the boundaries of Pennysworth county Mary Horn?” asked John with a know-it-all smile. “Smoke and mirrors?”
Mary scratched at her head as she thought of her answer. “Well nobody has explained that to me but I’m guessing its some kind of magnetic anomaly or miniature wormhole thingy that keeps us trapped here. You know… unexplainable science stuff…” she said, now realising herself how rather unconvincing her words sounded.
“You seem to have a rather mundane way of explaining magic, Mary Horn! Unexplained science? Ha!”
“All I know is what my father told me.”
“Yes. Your father…” said John as he peered through the gate at her home. “Let us leave. I do not wish to be late for school. I’m already in enough trouble with my… uncle as it is.”
They walked briskly down the badly maintained road, John setting the pace with his long legs. He muttered under his breath as he stalked along, Mary only hearing the occasional words such as science, stupid and humans. A rickety old tractor driven by an equally rickety old man chugged down the road towards them. The two teenagers stepped into the ditch when they realised the driver wasn’t going to move even a fraction to accommodate them on the narrow road. The ugly, leather-faced farmer grunted unpleasantly as he passed before spitting the most disgusting phlegm globule over his shoulder, which landed with amazing precision at their feet. The tractor wheezed and rattled its way out of sight around a bend in the road. John stared daggers at the farmer and made a quick hand gesture behind Mary’s back.
“Only humans could make an art of controlled explosions such that it gave life to a rolling scrapheap,” he said looking forwards.
Mary smiled. “Science at its best and worst. No magic in that old piece of junk, right?”
John shook his head sadly. “You really have a knack for that, you know? Blowing things up with style. Got an enemy to kill? Set off some gunpowder and send a little piece of metal faster than sound at his heart. Need to go somewhere? Ignite some gasoline. It can get you in the air too! Life beyond! You fly to the moon with one giant explosion. Need electricity? We’ll split some atoms. Nobody needs those!”
Mary couldn’t help but laugh in reply, though she was unaware of how much her laughter hurt her companion. The tall boy took his hands out of his pockets and gestured at the sky.
“You have even bested mighty Thor and his lightning. Electricity surrounds us. It’s in your schools, in your homes; it’s even inside some of you, keeping you alive. You can communicate instantly with someone on the other side of the known world. Do you know how hard that would be with magic? And the atomic bomb? So much power and destruction… more than a mere thunderbolt could achieve.”
Mary watched as John rattled on and then stopped abruptly. She could see how his amber eyes lit up with mischief at first and then faded to something akin to sadness. She was silent, taking in his words, when he finally spoke again, his monotone voice now taking on a gravelly edge
“Perhaps you don’t need magic. Perhaps science has surpassed it.”
The smile was wiped from Mary’s face as she realised just how upset John was. What was he unhappy about though? That she didn’t believe in his hokum? Or that scientists and engineers were simply good at making things? Did she really have to defend that?
“How can you be upset over that stuff?” she ventured. “Look, bombs and guns aside, advances in science and technology are beneficial to everyone. Would you prefer candles or the light bulb? Do you miss squatting over a ditch when on your plumbed toilet? How about riding in an air-conditioned car instead of on some flea-bitten nag in the cold? And the best thing is, anybody can use these things – electricity, household conveniences, cars. Even backwards, tea-leaf gazing loonies like you. We don’t all have to be top wizards or sorcerers to have a better life. God only knows what they are doing out there, beyond Pennyworth. What inventions and gizmos clever people are creating…”
John’s amber eyes had widened as she spoke, and now he stared at her morosely. After a long silence, he turned away from her and sighed. “I am not upset at what the tinkers of this world have made,” he said, emphasising the word tinkers as though it were an insult. “I am distressed at the state of the magical world. It is dying, Mary Horn. One day soon it is expected to disappear completely. Then what will my kind do? Will I cease to exist? Or will I be reduced to some mortal form, a husk of my former life, devoid of the divine and beautiful art that created me? That is what troubles me most. The… uncertainty of it all.”
Mary didn’t understand what she was hearing. She stared at John, trying to find the words or emotions necessary to answer him. “What do you mean ‘mortal’? Aren’t you already?” asked Mary slowly.
John returned her dumb gaze with a haughty look. “You are so slow sometimes, Mary Horn…If you must ask then I cannot tell.”
Mary stopped in her tracks as her thoughts cart-wheeled in her head. Was he speaking the truth or just pulling her leg about the whole magic/immortal thing? He did seem rather emotional about everything he said. Or was he just a convincing liar? She glanced at the odd boy who walked on ahead of her, his back turned to her once more.
There certainly were a lot of strange things in Pennysworth. Perhaps magic, not science, offered a better explanation after all.
John’s long legs took him further away from Mary. She ran to catch up, tugging on his shoulder to slow him down a notch.
“Now answer me this, John, and don’t go spouting on about your magical coven…”
“Covenant. It’s a covenant, Mary Horn.” John interjected harshly.
“Okay. Gimme a break… Your magical covenant.” said Mary, rolling her eyes. “If you can’t or won’t speak to me on some matters because you made an oath, why have you been running your mouth about magic and such?”
John shrugged his angular shoulders. “I thought you knew. I thought everyone knew. They reflect the principles of the universe. How could anyone not know?”
Mary’s heart skipped a beat as his words sank in. Her tongue felt unnaturally dry as she licked her lips. “So we are trapped here because of… magic?” She felt a nervousness take hold.
John nodded, a slow smile setting on his lips and a glint of mischief in his eyes. “Yes, Mary Horn. That is no secret. But getting in or out? That’s the golden question. One that I cannot tell you.”
Mary’s knees buckled and she slumped to the ground. Hot tears burned her eyes. “How am I…” she stammered, her thoughts scattered but her nervousness giving way to exasperation. “How am I ever meant to leave this place?”
She felt Johns hand grip her shoulder tenderly.
“You cannot, Mary Horn.” His voice was solemn. “And believe me when I say you do not want to leave.”
Mary looked up at John through tear-filled eyes. “Why are we here? Why would anyone come here? It’s so horrible. I hate this place.”
John looked back at her levelly. “It is a safe place, Mary. The safest you could ever hope to find. For many people it would seem idyllic. It is quiet, it has a rustic beauty unmarred by human progress and there is plenty of food and shelter to go around. What more could people want?”
“It’s nothing more than a prison!” Mary spat back at him. “A comfy prison full of institutionalised prisoners too dumb to realise just how trapped they are. If it’s so safe then why can’t we just leave when we want to?”
John paused before answering, his head bobbing side to side as he thought of his answer. “The magic that created this place… that is this place, is very delicate. If there are too many people outside of Pennysworth who know about it, it weakens its power, makes it easier for others to find it. For it to exist it must stay a secret. If everyone suddenly became aware of Pennysworth’s existence it would probably disappear forever.”
John paused to scratch his long chin ponderously. “Or become part of the forgotten world perhaps… How would it fit in to a pre-established reality?”
John shook his head. Mary was looking at him intently.
“Does that make sense? Do you see why it is important to stay?”
“No” replied Mary coldly. “It does not make any sense whatsoever. And a magical prison is still a prison no matter which way you paint it.”
“It does if the magical prison is actually a safe haven for several thousand people.” John sighed and took a peek at his wristwatch. “Look, we are never going to make it to school in time if we stay here all morning debating metaphysics so forgive me when I do this.”
“Do what?” asked Mary as she wiped the tears from her eyes on the sleeve of her cardigan.
Grabbing her wrists, John yanked Mary to her feet and embraced her. The speed at which he moved was astounding. Mary only had time to utter a muffled ‘What?’ before the world bloomed white, as if a floodlight had just been shone directly into her eyes. Mary felt as though her body was being pulled or stretched away from the earth at phenomenal speed. She lost all sense of direction. No up or down. Neither left or right. There was only away.
Suddenly the sensation changed. She began to constrict and gather back together. The speed diminished. The brilliant light faded. She was standing on a grass field, John still embracing her tightly.
“We are here,” he said simply.
Mary reluctantly let go of her companion and glanced around. Pennysworth Normal School was behind her. They were standing close to the trees where they had only met yesterday. So much had happened to Mary since that moment. She had made a friend, learnt that her brother was returning and that Pennyworth itself was magic. It was as if her destiny had suddenly changed in that one chance meeting. She could only hope it was for the better.
“What was that?’ asked a breathless Mary.
“Magic.” replied John smiling.
Mary found it hard to concentrate on her school work all morning, her thoughts kept returning to John and his magic. They had parted ways earlier for their different classes as John was in the year above Mary.
“What can a magician learn at school?” she had asked him as they walked to class.
John only shrugged his shoulders in reply.
“Then why bother? Why not stay home?”
“I wanted to fit in. I wanted to meet people. I couldn’t do that at home. Magic can’t save me from feeling alone.”
Mary felt a chill crawl up her spine every time she thought of her strange new friend’s revelations.
Magic was real.
She could hardly believe it but the truth spoke for itself. It was all around her, just as John had said. Her eyes wandered about the room searching for wards or fetishes that the school masters could be using on the unknowing students. Did those flowers on the teacher’s desk lull their senses? Did the patterns in the carpet keep them in their seats? How far did the conspiracy go?
As she searched the room distractedly she began to notice the furtive glances from Deirdre and her friends – who had been unusually restrained in her presence. In fact the whole school seemed to be leaving her alone today.
Mary considered that this was what being ‘normal’ was like; nobody caring if you were in the room or not, nothing being thrown at you or spat on you, no nasty words or jibes as you walked past. It was a welcome change, even if the silence around her came as a result of fear. Mary smiled a big wolfish grin at every stolen glance that came her way.
When the lunch bell rang she stopped by her locker to stow her books and pick up her lunch. All talk died as she walked down the school corridors only to resume in fevered whispers after she had passed. Outside and under a clear sky, she made her usual trip to the trees on the school boundary. Clusters of children parted as she approached or turned and walked away from her very briskly.
Let them wonder, she thought. Let them fear me for once.
She found John sitting in a low tree branch, watching birds fighting over his unwanted sandwich crusts.
“I do love the birds here.” John said distractedly. “They seem so ignorant, so innocent. No pomp and ceremony. They are just simple birds simply being birds.”
Mary hoisted herself onto the tree branch beside John and sat dangling her legs. “They do anything for a morsel of bread,” chimed Mary. “Beats the pants out of eating bugs I guess.”
“Birds eat bugs?” asked John, his eyes wide with disgust.
“Yeah… of course they do. What do they eat where you are from?”
“Berries and cream I guess. Not bugs. That’s for certain,” said John shuddering.
Mary sighed. “One more thing I probably will never get to see ˗ stuck up birds…”
“Oh don’t be so melodramatic. You will probably be allowed out one day, Mary Horn.”
“Yes. One day. Good behaviour and all…” replied Mary sullenly.
John rolled his eyes and looked up at the sky, entreating the gods.
Do you see what I have to put up with?
“Again with the boundaries, Mary Horn. What is so dreadful about this place? It is a paradise. Can’t you see?”
Mary dropped her head and studied her swinging feet. “I can see. It is beautiful. But it’s also full of ugly, mean people. I have no friends or family that care about me. I’m an outsider stuck on the inside. I may as well be out there for all the good it does me being trapped here.”
John smiled at her. “You are different, Mary Horn, I will give you that. The same things that draw me to you probably scare regular people away. Besides, I care.”
Mary turned her head to hide her blushing cheeks.
He cares about me? What does he mean?
Wiping the grin from her face, she turned back to face John. John had missed whatever moment Mary thought they just shared and was staring at the sky. Mary’s feelings of hope suddenly deflated.
What were we talking about?
“It’s more than just the people though,” sighed Mary, filling the silence. “I’ve got nothing to look forward to here. What will I do after school? Work for my father doing God-knows-what? I can barely stand him as it is. And the knowledge that there is a whole, wide world out there just waiting for me to explore… It drives me mad just thinking about it. So mad in fact, I have dug escape tunnels and considered kidnapping the postman for information!”
John nodded as he listened to her talk. “I suppose I understand you, Mary Horn. Where I am from, we are quite isolated from the rest of the world too. I am very happy to be away from it. Even if it is only temporary.”
Mary’s spirits took another nosedive at the thought of her new and only friend departing. “You’re leaving too? When?”
John shrugged his shoulders. “When it is safe to return.”
“Safe from what?” asked Mary in a whisper.
“War. Death. Famine. Political assassination. The usual stuff,” replied John flatly.
Mary turned away and cast her gaze over the rolling farmland towards the forest of Pennysworth.
“You’re not going to tell me a thing are you?” she asked finally.
“Not a word more,” replied John.
They sat silently for a while, taking in their surroundings. Mary grew restless and produced a wrapped bundle of sandwiches from her schoolbag. They spent the rest of the lunch break laughing at the birds squabbling over the crumbs and crusts they dropped from the tree branch. For the first time in a long while, Mary forgot about her desires to flee Pennysworth and settled next to her friend with a feeling she would call, if she considered it closely, enjoyment.
After school Mary waited patiently for John by the main gate. Her schoolmates filed past her sheepishly and shuffled onto the waiting school bus without a word. Deidre stopped in front of her. Dark circles rimmed her eyes and her skin was pale. Mary thought she looked broken, barely strong enough to stand. Deidre made to speak, choked, tried again.
“How?” she asked in a soft voice.
Mary shook her head. “Not me.”
Deidre regarded her coldly. Mary began to feel uncomfortable. She wasn’t sure how she was meant to feel for the girl that had caused her so much misery. She wasn’t going to apologise. That was for certain. Deidre deserved to be brought down a peg or six for all the pranks and abuse Mary had received throughout the years. Mary began to sneer back at her enemy’s face. Deidre seemed to deflate further. Her icy gaze melted to the point she was staring at the ground. “I’m sorry, Mary. For everything…”
Mary felt as though she had been slapped. Her bitter thoughts crumbled, lost their edge. For a fleeting moment, a feeling of elation coursed through her.
Before she could allow herself a nasty smile or a poke of the tongue, however, Mary realised just how cheap the victory was. A curse had broken the girl’s spirits. Magic and fear had bought Mary’s respite. It disappointed her to think that, even for a second, she had been glad to see Deidre in some sort of pain.
The words tumbled out of Mary’s mouth without thinking. “I’m sorry too, Deidre. I stopped him afterwards… Made him take it back.”
Deidre sniffed and nodded her downturned head. “Well… thanks… I guess.” She walked away as fast as her laconic gait could take her.
Mary watched her mount the stairs of the bus unsteadily just before the doors closed and the engine rattled to life. As the bus left her behind, Mary turned her thoughts to John. He was nowhere in sight. She waited several more minutes, hoping she would have company on her long walk home and perhaps the chance to talk more about magic and life on the outside. But the seconds turned into minutes, and it soon became apparent that John would not be joining her. Mary hefted her bag high on her shoulder and started on her way.
Dark clouds blew in from the north, promising wild rain. Mary quickened her step. Pennysworth town seemed on the brink of desertion. Shop-keepers were already bringing in signs and display tables. The few townsfolk she saw scuttled past head down, making fast for home. Nobody noticed her. Nobody stopped to point or spit at her. Just at the edge of town, Mary felt the first spattering of rain on her head. She gripped her arms to her chest for warmth.
As she left the outskirts of Pennysworth town the winds picked up and the heavens opened. Great sheets of rain pelted her. Mary squealed in dismay and ran. Her hard leather school shoes offered little in the way of comfort. The soles of her feet were soon tender from the pounding rhythm of her flight. The road before her was obscured beneath a slick of water. The drainage culverts were overwhelmed, rivers of water lapped at her tar-sealed island. Driving rain stung Mary’s eyes. She blinked the pain away and pressed on, head bowed low and shoulders hunched forward.
Hedgerows and farms sped past her in a grey wash. Only morose livestock huddled beneath windbreaks witnessed her mad dash for home. She made it past the crossroads as a stitch in her stomach began to nag. Passing the Archer’s brewery, she became aware of her lungs growing hot and heavy. She had to slow a bit, and she saw the erratic brewers were outside their longhouse, singing in the downpour, swilling rain-diluted bear. A wavering cheer went up as some of the more coherent of the party noticed Mary. She ignored them and carried on.
Near the gates of the House of Horn, her stamina finally gave out and she slowed to a walk, breathing hard through raw lungs. The last twenty meters to the gate seemed to take an age to cover. With trembling hands she unlocked the gate and slipped in. The canvas mail bag waited for her on its hook. Mary wasn’t in the mood for dragging its bulk through the rain. However she knew her father would not tolerate any excuse when it came to receiving his mystery mail. She worked as fast as she could to transfer the envelopes and parcels from the red box to the oiled bag to minimize potential rain damage to their contents. The haul was blessedly light today. She flipped the bag over her shoulder and started her final leg of the journey past her glistening ancestors of alabaster and marble. Rain dripped from their noses, filled in their manic grins, and sheeted off shirts and petticoats. Black June looked like a pirate marooned on a tiny reef, a sea of muddy water lapping at the rocks.
Mary ran the last few steps to the door, unlocked it and let herself in. She left the mail sack in the foyer and went to her bedroom to change. Her room was freezing cold. Shivering, she peeled off her soaking wet clothes and dried off. She dressed herself in an old grey cotton track suit then ventured to the sunroom to complete her chore, collecting the mail sack on the way. Today the mail was sorted without finding anything addressed from Remy.
It doesn’t matter. He will be here soon enough, she thought.
She tugged on the bell rope signalling her father and withdrew from the room, finding herself unwilling to stomach his usual mood.
Mary gave the hallway a quick inspection to see if the Brownie had done any work. It was surprisingly clean. Mary ran her finger along several picture frames and suits of ceremonial armour. Not a speck of dust. And yet, in the corridor on the way to the kitchen, she came to a photograph of her on the wall that was completely covered in dust – so much so that it appeared to be the whole hallway’s worth of dust collected into this one space. She knew this photo well: there sat a younger version of herself, a small girl with the same untamed hair in an incongruously frilly dress, holding her long-lost cat, Sparkles.
Mary missed that cat. It disappeared suddenly when she was ten. Her father claimed his innocence afterwards but Mary had her suspicions.
Mary flicked the photo with her finger sending a shower of loose debris to the floor. The picture now had her wearing a dunce’s cap and a long flowing beard, all made from dust. Mary tried to rub the graffiti off with her fingernail but it stuck. The Brownie had glued it on somehow. A cackling laugher erupted behind her and echoed down the hall. Mary snorted and marched into the kitchen.
After a quick stock-take of the fridge and pantry she decided on a meal of sausages, fried vegetables and mashed potatoes. Halfway through chopping the vegetables and peeling the potatoes, a little bell rang.
Does that man think I’m a dog or something? I’m sure he would only communicate through the medium of bells if given a chance.
Mary groaned in frustration and started to double the quantities. A dumbwaiter on squeaky pulleys dropped down to the kitchen with a loud rattle of dirty plates and cutlery. Mary swept the old stuff aside and plonked on a steaming bowl of food, adding a cup of water for good measure. She pulled a bell rope which signalled her father that the dumbwaiter was ready. After a pause she heard another bell ring in response, meaning that he wanted Mary to haul the dumbwaiter up. Growling, Mary proceeded to yank the rope repeatedly until the dumbwaiter set off, its pulleys squeaking in protest.
Mary ate her own meal in silence in the kitchen. After cleaning up she returned to the sunroom. Her father must have lit a fire while reading his correspondence. The room was delightfully warm. Mary selected a book at random from the overburdened shelves and curled up on a couch to read.
Outside the wind and rain howled. The house shook with the violence of the storm. Its windows flexed inwards under the strain of the raging wind. Doors slammed shut or rattled on their hinges. Great rivulets of water cut through the lawns in brown swathes, feeding foundling ponds on the lower grounds. Tree branches cracked and broke under the building storm’s pressure. Leaf litter and debris plastered every surface.
Just when Mary thought it couldn’t get any worse, great forks of barbed lighting split the sky, and an almighty, thunderous boom rang out scant moments afterwards. Mary shrank back into the couch at the noise. It struck again and again, shattering the dark night. Mary could see the fierce light stabbing down at the woods beyond the window, small fires blooming and dying under the torrential rain. A door slammed open behind her. Stephen stood in the arch, one hand gripping his cane, the other holding him upright. He scanned the room hastily, an intense cast to his face. His eyes locked onto Mary’s and he surged towards her. “There you are. Something is horribly wrong. Come with me.”
Mary dropped her book on the floor and rose to her feet. “Why? What’s the matter?”
“This storm…” said Stephen pointing his cane at the window. “There is something very off about it, something unnatural. I want you close.”
Frowning, Mary looked out the window and back at her father. “What could be so bad? It’s only a storm. I promise not to go out holding a golf club or anything.”
“Don’t get cute with me. It’s not just a storm. There is a smell… a tingle… a hint of the unknown in the air. I don’t know what it means but I know it’s dangerous.”
“Do you mean it’s magic?” Mary said her words slowly so as to be sure he heard her.
Stephen studied her coldly. “Yes,” he finally replied. “I suppose you could call it magic. If you follow that line of thinking…”
He maintained his cool scrutiny of Mary. “You don’t seem very shocked. You’ve been talking to that boy again, haven’t you?
Mary’s hands balled into fists. She wanted to punch her father in the mouth – anything to wipe that permanent, superior sneer clean off his face.
“You didn’t say that I couldn’t,” replied Mary hotly. “In fact you didn’t tell me anything. You just brushed me off and told me to ask again when I’m older.” Now her ire was really up and she carried on. “Well, I’m not a child any more, Father. I deserve some answers.”
Stephen crossed his arms, his trademark sneer broadening. “Look at you. Getting so bold. I’m not sure I like it.”
Mary trembled with all the pent-up rage boiling inside of her. A flash of pain washed over her as her size increased. Mary gritted her teeth and fought through the discomfort. Then the floodgates opened and she heard herself scream, “Why do you hate me so much?!”
She was surprised when her father snapped back, “Because you ruined everything, you miserable little whelp! You and your brother represent the biggest failure in my life! And I’ve been stuck here raising you when there are far more important matters for me to fix!”
Mary shrank back from the heartless words gushing from her father’s cruel mouth. Too stunned for tears, she simply stared at Stephen, her mouth gaping. Somewhere a door banged open and a cold wind blew into the room. The fireplace sent a shower of sparks over the hearth, singing the carpet. Crystal chandeliers chimed fitfully in the draft.
Then ˗ heavy footsteps echoed down the hallway.
A dark silhouette appeared in the doorway, water dripping into small puddles at their feet. Mary shifted her gaze away from her father to the intruder. The stranger surveyed the room before removing a water-logged hood from his face.
“What?” asked Stephen in surprise.
Remigius Stephan Horn stood in his ancestral home for the first time in a decade. He didn’t bear much resemblance to Stephen, his eyes much darker and wider, his face slightly vulpine. He did have the haughty half-smile, half sneer ˗ that all-knowing look that all Horns possessed.
Mary skirted around her father and threw her arms around her long-lost brother. She cried then, burying her face into Remy’s neck. Remy hugged her back, awkwardly patting her head when she didn’t let go. “It’s good to see you too, Mary.”
Releasing her iron embrace ever so slightly, Mary looked up into the eyes of her brother and pleaded. “Remy, you have to take me away from here. Please, I’m begging you.”
Remy turned his gaze to the older man. “What’s going on here?”
“Just the usual theatrics,” Stephen replied with a wry grin. “This storm… I’m guessing it’s your handiwork? It’s quite the mess.”
Remy inclined his head slightly. “I needed to. We were being pursued by something…had to throw them off our trail on the Semita Mortuis. I didn’t want to risk them following us here.”
Mary tugged on her brother’s arm impatiently. “Remy! Will you listen to me? I want to leave! Now!”
Remy plucked her clutching hands off him. “Not now, Mary. We’ll talk later.”
Stephen shook his head angrily. “I’m sorry… We? Who are we? Have you brought someone with you? And what is this pursuit nonsense?”
“Oh right. I’m sorry. You can come in, Darling,” said Remy backing out into the hall. He returned holding the hand of the most beautiful woman Mary had ever seen, despite her being soaked to the skin. She had long silver hair plastered wetly to a noble face. Through the wet strands Mary could see high cheek bones, finely arched eyebrows and plush bee-stung lips. Her skin was an odd ashen grey, as though she were terribly cold. She was tall for a woman and very slimly proportioned. All except for her stomach which bulged out over her pelvis. Her brother’s face beamed with joy. “Stephen. Mary. This is my wife, Laedwynn.”
Laedwynn smiled nervously at Mary and offered a delicate hand to shake. Mary ignored the hand and went for a full body hug. “I’ve got a sister in law?!”
Laedwynn, who seemed more than a little confused, returned the embrace reluctantly. “Nice meet you,” she stammered with an oddly melodic voice.
“English isn’t her first language,” whispered Remy confidingly, “nor second or third, I think.”
Mary smiled at her older brother and clapped him on the back. It was then that Mary heard a low, terrible groaning. She turned around and saw her father on his knees, weeping into his hands. Mary took a step towards him uncertain of what she was seeing.
“Father? What’s the matter?”
Stephen pounded his fists on the floor, his face white and screwed up in a picture of agony.
“It’s all coming true! I’m out of time!” he screamed. “He’ll be coming for me.” He staggered to his feet, his cane lifting up to his hands by itself. He pointed an accusatory finger at Remy. “This is all your fault. You should have listened to me when you had the chance.”
Remy stood in front of Laedwynn, instinctively shielding her. “What are you raving about, you old fool?”
“He’s coming to take it away from me!” said Stephen gesturing wildly. Beads of sweat stuck out on his forehead and his skin grew redder. The older man’s eyes were wide open, rolling to and fro with a hint of madness behind them.
“He knows how close I am to breaking the veil between worlds. But he’ll steal it back for himself. I’ve got to do it! I’ve got to try!”
He lurched towards the door brandishing his cane like a club. “Out of my way, damn you all!”
The others stepped away from his furious path. Stephen clomped out of the room, swinging his cane at everything breakable in his path. Remy held his trembling wife tightly. She spoke to him softly in a language that Mary didn’t recognise, tears forming in her eyes. Remy shook his head several times and rubbed her shoulders consolingly. He spoke the odd language back to her. Whatever he said seemed to calm Laedwynn.
Mary turned from them and looked at the door her father had so angrily departed through. She was at a loss as to what just happened. “Do you think I should go after him?”
“No. Leave him be. We have much to talk about, sis.”
The fairy realm
The House of Horn’s corridors sang with the music of Stephen’s destruction. He broke anything and everything in his path, smashing with his cane, clubbing with his fists. A trail of broken glass and wood splinters showed his passage from the sunroom to his private study where he kept his most valuable object, the machine.
It was a large room on the second floor with bare stone walls and low-hanging globes of electric lights. An enormous bookshelf lined one of the walls, filled with curios, mysterious materials, exotic powders and various tools. Mary’s hated dumbwaiter, laden with dirty dishes, was sandwiched between the bookshelf and a chest stacked with odd bits of pipe and cable. A waist-high table was placed at the centre of the room, its every available space lined with books and notes.
The machine stood on a dais to one side of the room, its chrome and brass bulk demanding the eye’s attention upon entry to the room. Its centre looked like a giant gyroscope, a series of metal circles fitting inside each other tightly. Each was inscribed with flowing Ogham script that ran the length of the hoop. Large movable struts held it at the ‘X’ and ‘Y’ axes, terminating in steel housings covered with valves and vents. Wrist-thick cables running over the floor connected the machine to its control station, a podium box repurposed with levers, dials and glowing neon buttons.
A pale human hand rested on the podium, a long cable spooled on the floor joining it at the wrist. The hand was bigger than a grown man’s, unmarred with scars, blemishes or mortification.
Stephen burst through the door, the force of his wrath tearing it off one of its hinges. He stripped off his coat and threw on a worn leather apron. Striding over to the work table he checked over his notes, muttering and cursing over what he read. He had gone through this process an unforgiving amount of times before, trying to find the right combination of science and the occult.
It had worked once ˗ why couldn’t it work again? Those wily Tuatha Dè Danann couldn’t be fooled twice with the same ruse, but it was the only trick he had. It had to be the same yet different, if he was going to make it through.
Stephen thumped the table with his fist. He had no time left to perfect his plan. Years of preparation had bought him to this point, stabilising the energy fields and tuning the frequency. He had no time to run any more tests. It was now or never.
Flicking the hidden switch on his cane, it hummed with potential and Stephen directed it at his controls, bringing the machine to life. The room’s lights dimmed. Vast amounts of energy were drained as the central mechanism started up in a screeching whir.
The metal hoops began to spin, slowly gathering speed. Valves and lights flared. Acrid steam billowed out of ventilation grills. The room grew oppressive with heat, glaring light and the unnerving vibrations of the machine’s motions. Stephen approached the controls, his cane still in hand. The gyrating central mechanism reached its top velocity, white hot arcs of electricity crackling along its surface. The arcing energy fused together, forming a perfect circle of power caged within the spinning confines of the machine.
Stephen slid a lever and the circling hoops came together as one to spin upright around the perimeter of the energy. The severed hand twitched. Stephen wiped the sweat from his forehead with his shirt sleeve.
It was the moment of truth.
Stephen adjusted the ornament of his cane, and a bright blue light covered its length ˗ then moved outward, crawling up his arm and spreading over his entire body. Stephen gasped in pain once, then gritted his teeth and began. He pointed the cane at the heart of the glowing energy, and the severed hand sprang forth from the podium. The coils of cable unwound outward in a blur of motion before the line tightened at its full length, the fingertips of the secured hand just touching the shimmering light. Colour blossomed as the fingers made contact with the glowing surface. The energy now spiralled and contorted until an image resolved; a dark purple sky hung over a field of emerald green grass, orange stars twinkling in its inky folds.
A magnificent castle of tall spires and white stone walls stood in the background. Stephen searched the image for any sign of her. Sneering he swiped his free hand in front of him. The severed hand mimicked his action and the image on the energy disk altered.
He now saw a forest of impossibly tall trees reaching towards the sky, their massive trunks surrounding a glade of dense moss. No living creature was in sight. Stephen groaned and changed the image with a flick of his wrist.
He found himself staring at a bedchamber. An ornately carved four-poster bed sat in the middle of the room, strange beasts and foliage worked into its frame. It faced an open wall which overlooked a calm sea of brilliant cobalt blue. The bed was unoccupied but Stephen could swear he smelled the faintest trace of her aroma; wild flowers and honey.
This was her room alright, but where was she? A door creaked open slowly, and Stephen concentrated more closely on the image before him. He refined the resolution slightly to get a better look. His heart began to race in hope.
A slim man dressed in a dark purple suit with red pinstripes entered the room in front of him, a simple silver crown on his brow and a deviant smile on his face.
“Stephen Horn… You never give up do you?” asked the man.
Stephen felt the blood drain from his face and his legs begin to tremble. He shook his head slightly. “I want her back, Bodb. She wants to come back home.”
Bodb shook his head, his smile still trained on Stephen. “She doesn’t get a say in the matter, Stephen, and neither do you.”
Stephen slammed the podium with a clenched fist, cracking the wooden panelling. “She’s my wife, damn it! You can’t do this to us!”
Bodb laughed and crossed his arms at the spectacle of the raging mortal scientist. “What about your daughter? Don’t you care about her too?” he replied mockingly.
“Of course I do,” replied Stephen through gritted teeth. “I want them both back. Please… I beg you.”
Bodb rubbed his jaw, appearing to contemplate Stephen’s request.
“No. They stay,” Bodb replied through a roguish smile. “They are my family too after all.”
“Your plan is ludicrous, Bodb! Simply ludicrous!” railed Stephen. “Do you really think you can bargain your way out of death? The New Order won’t break status quo for you or anyone!”
Bodb’s smile slipped a little. “Don’t presume to know everything, you insignificant little bug. I am in negotiations to leave this realm with all of my people as we speak. All that hinders me are a few remaining loose ends. Hear me when I say we will be long gone before magic finally dies and you are stuck on a cold, barren plane of existence.”
Stephen buckled at these words. It was over. They would be gone forever by the time he had figured out another way of reaching into the fairy realm. He had to do something now. Wracking his brain for inspiration, he stalled for time. “Would you consider taking me with you when you leave?”
“And have you stuck with me for all of eternity? I think not, my glum old chum,” replied Bodb, laughing.
“Eternity is a big place, Bodb, you won’t notice I’m there. I swear on it.”
“You are under the impression that I don’t hate you, Stephen. But I do. I really do,” said Bodb as his skin flashed red and his teeth began to sharpen to points.
“You forget that you stole my daughter from me despite my strong opposition, twice in fact.” Bodb’s form stretched and buckled, gaining new mass and height as he spoke with more fervour.
“You forget of the misguided plan to ally the disgusting Western Hordes to my own kin in some fool scheme that went horribly wrong. So horribly wrong that I must hasten my barter with this foolish new bureaucracy in the afterlife to escape a cold and bloody full-scale invasion of my lands! No, Stephen Horn. I do not want to see you at all unless it is to watch you suffer!”
An eldritch demon from a time before men could remember now confronted Stephen from the other side of his portal. Stephen gulped, wondering if he had underestimated his foe’s power. Bodb stood heaving in and out hot, stinking breath. His once immaculate suit now bulged and tore over his elongated frame. The demon’s breaths shortened and it looked down, inspecting itself.
“Look what you made me do…” it grumbled.
Stephen blinked and the demon was gone, replaced with the gloating Bodb adjusting his cufflinks, his suit’s damage erased.
“The answer is still no.”
Stephen ran a hand through his hair, realising just how close he was to being cleft in twain, or suffering some similarly ghastly atrocity. There had to be something he could leverage Bodb with. His best cards were gone and now he only had scraps.
“What about the children, Remigius and Mary? Don’t they deserve to be reunited with their people?”
Bodb was busy inspecting his fingernails for chips, his interest in the conversation waning. “Their blood is too tainted with the filth of heathen dogs. I draw the line at your daughter. Just.”
Stephen’s simmering rage boiled over. Pointing the cane at his enemy, he summoned the reserves of his energy. A lethal bolt of lightning arced out of the cane’s ornament and pierced the fairy’s chest. Bodb cartwheeled into the stone wall behind him before crumpling to the ground. Stephen stared transfixed at the smoking body of Bodb.
Bodb, his enemy for too many years to count anymore.
Bodb, King of the Tuatha Dè Danann and ruler of the Sidhe.
Bodb, his father-in-law.
Had he just destroyed one of the most powerful beings left in creation?
Trembling now, he crept towards the shimmering gateway, ducking under the immortal’s hand as he passed. Bodb’s body lay motionless on the other side. Stephen reached for the gateway with an outstretched hand. He would cross over and take her back. Take them both back. He laughed nervously at the thought that after so long he was with reach of ultimate goal, that soon he would be reunited with his family. He crept forward, cautiously. Stephen bit his lip as he slowly inched his cane though the energy field first.
Stephen smiled, raised a foot and stepped through. As his body crossed the threshold, he felt a warm tingling sensation ripple over him. He entered the bedroom of his wife and looked around. She was nowhere to be seen. Bodb lay still on the stone floor, smoke wreathing the burnt puncture in his back.
The wind breezed through the open wall, bringing him the scents of orange blossom and summer grass. The impossibly blue ocean sat still below him, seemingly devoid of all life and motion. Hearing laughter and music, Stephen turned from the sea and sought out the pleasant sounds. From a lead-glass window he could see dozens of people milling about an open courtyard below him, drinking, talking and dancing.
The fairies wore a multitude of forms. Some were animalistic with coats of fur or pointed ears and long swishing tails. Others had a demonic cast with cloven hooves, scaly skin or horns. Several sported long trailing wings like butterflies or bats. Wisps of light or fleeting rainbows radiated off one fairy woman as she glided through the throng. Many were more or less human in appearance, but with odd angular features that separated them from the more ordinary human genetic code.
There were regular humans in the mix too, their inelegant dancing a sour juxtaposition to the majestic leaps and graceful twirling of the Fairy-folk. The mortals clomped around the courtyard intoxicated with magic, mad smiles fixed on their faces and blank eyes staring at everything and nothing. The fairies laughed and sported with the clumsy humans, they being nothing more than inebriated pets or carnival amusement at the festival.
A long table was situated at the far end of the courtyard. Regal and beautiful creatures sat poised on thrones made of dazzling crystal. The royal family watched their court at play with looks of boredom. Heaped plates of delicacies and silver urns of wine remained untouched on the table before them. Stephen let his gaze follow the line of seated nobles.
At the far left-hand side of the long table were two women, separated slightly from the rest of the party. Fine-linked chains held them at their necks and hands. Their heads were bowed, and they appeared unwilling – or unable – to be a part of the festivities. Stephen cried out before he could stop himself. Here they were: his beautiful wife and darling daughter! Here they were at last, in front of his very own eyes!
The music stopped and every fairy in the courtyard looked upwards at the sound. The humans danced on regardless, their mirth not of their own choosing. One by one the fairies pointed at Stephen and laughed. Their laughter was not made of soft joyous tones; no, this was a cacophony of cold, soul-crushing laugher. Laughter of animosity and hatred.
Stephen stood stunned by the window, his sluggish thoughts unable to comprehend what was happening. Then, his wife and daughter raised their heads together to see him. Tears spilled forth unchecked, a look of despair and misery written on their delicate faces.
A hand clasped Stephens shoulder and spun him around harshly.
“Yes, Stephen. This is a trap.”
Bodb loomed over him, his human form once again replaced with the demonic. “I wanted to see your face as your heart broke with the certainty that you would never see them again. Ever.”
Screaming defiantly, Stephen swung his cane while his forefinger moved towards the hidden catch that unleashed its stored power. Bodb’s enormous clawed maul darted out and crushed his hand before he could finish. Stephen writhed in pain as the fairy king tightened his grip.
“Did you really think one little tickle of lightning could kill me? I’m immortal, remember.”
Bodb pushed his bulk towards the window and waved down to his court. A cheer rose up amongst the fairies, high pitched and malicious. Stephen’s legs gave out from beneath him at the sound. Bodb raised his arm and dangled Stephen limply in front of him. Two large blood stained eyes filled Stephen’s vision.
“It’s over, Horn. For the debt of my blood spilled without valediction and the trespass into my kingdom without consent, I curse thee. Know that for as long as you shall live your wife and child will be mine to command. Only upon your death will I release them to freedom. So it is said, so it will be. Now be gone!”
With one flick of his wrist Bodb flung Stephen back through the gateway. Stephen slammed into the stone floor of his study, knocking the air out of him. Groaning in great discomfort, he tried to get up. Pain engulfed him as he moved. His right hand was broken in several places and his hip was in agony.
As if that pain was not enough, Bodb’s dreadful voice followed Stephen back into his world
“And what is this I see?”
Reaching through the portal Bodb grabbed the tethered hand that floated in the air. “Is this how you got in? My word… Wherever did you find this?” Bodb gently caressed the severed hand.
“I’ll be taking this too. With it, Nuada will be complete. We may even raise him from the dead. If he’s lucky…” Bodb snatched the hand back through the portal, snapping the cable. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Stephen…”
The swirling gateway started to collapse, shooting flares of white-hot light about the room. The machines spinning spheres ground to a screeching halt. Smoke billowed out of the exhaust vents, followed by orange tongues of fire. The energy field finally dissipated in a shower of arcing bolts. Stephen hurled himself behind the control podium as vast magnetic fields tore the machine apart in every direction. Flying shards of metal punched the wooden box to pieces and embedded themselves in the bare stone walls. Several large splinters caught Stephen in his left arm and shoulder. With numb, pain-riddled hands, Stephen energised his cane and directed it at a long-handled switch by the door. The power shut down, and the machine shuddered and stopped in the throes of its death.
Blinking through the harsh smoke, Stephen surveyed the damage. His study was in chaos. All of his work had been destroyed. His once and final chance of rescuing his family was gone. No hope remained. A sense of emptiness and utter loss engulfed him.
He wept at the loss.
Hissing steam brought his attention back to the machine. Several large cylinders were buckling under pressure, their rivets shearing off and flying around the room. The machine shuddered as mechanical and thermal processes carried on without their electrical counterparts to aid them.
“Oh dear,” he said.
The machine exploded and Stephen’s world went dark.
“I have so many questions! You need to tell me everything, Remy! Everything!” said Mary as she hopped from foot to foot and clapped her hands.
“Yes. Yes. In a minute. Let’s just sit down first, shall we?” Remy escorted Laedwynn slowly to a low chaise and helped ease her down.
“Do you have anything to drink? We’re parched,” he said over a shoulder.
“I could get you some water if you like.” replied Mary.
“Something stronger, please. Single malt for me. Laedwynn will have wine.”
“But the baby…”
Remy rolled his eyes. “Are you a doctor? Laedwynn can handle herself and the baby will be fine. Where she’s from they drink wine like water.”
Mary stared at the beautiful Laedwynn patting her belly with a simple smile on her face. “If you say so.” She turned and started for the door but stopped. “Oh wait. He keeps the liquor cabinet locked now.”
Remy raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean now?”
“Molotov cocktail experiments…”
“You do know you’re meant to use petrol, right?”
“Then why do they call it a cocktail?” shrugged Mary.
Remy sighed and got to his feet. “Never mind, I’ll get it. It’s still in the same place, right?”
“Yup,” said Mary, nodding.
“Keep Laedwynn company, will you?” Remy strode towards the hallway, looked left and right as he got his bearings back and disappeared.
Mary gave Laedwynn an awkward smile and shrugged. “So… do you know what the baby will be yet?”
Leaning forward to catch the unfamiliar words Laedwynn replied slowly, “Is baby.”
“Well that’s a relief,” Mary returned sarcastically, “and here I thought it was a dragon.”
Laedwynn pursed her lips in bemusement. “Is not dragon. Is baby.” She rubbed her belly with motherly affection. “Baby come soon.”
“How soon?” asked Mary, suddenly disliking the thought of a screaming baby in the house.
Mary went to Laedwynn’s side and stared at the wiggling lump. “Tonight? Are you sure? We’ll need a doctor or a midwife… Nobody will come in that storm.”
Laedwynn shook her head primly. “No doctor. Husband say great-father help. Great-father protect.”
A stab of suspicion entered Mary’s brain. “Protect you from whom?”
Laedwynn looked up at Mary, her eyes full of fear. “People is want baby.”
“Who would want a baby?” Mary asked out loud without thinking.
“Husband and I want baby. Not gift. Not to be stolen,” replied Laedwynn coldly as she looked past Mary.
Mary felt a presence behind her. She turned to see Remy standing in the doorway, holding a bottle underneath each arm and three glasses pinched between his fingers. He was shaking his head at his wife.
“Laedwynn was saying someone is trying to steal your baby. Why would somebody do that?” blurted Mary as she started to hop again with anxiety.
Remy approached a low coffee table and placed a bottle of red wine, a bottle of scotch and three glasses on its top. “We don’t know that. All we know is that we are being followed. That’s what brought us here.”
He sucked a teardrop of blood from his knuckle. “That thing really was locked, Mary. How big of a fire did you start?”
“It wasn’t that bad. He overreacted, as usual.”
Remy shrugged his shoulders and started to pour the drinks. “You want one of these?” He asked, looking at Mary.
“I’m like, sixteen, Remy. I’m not allowed alcohol.”
Remy laughed dryly. “You’re kidding, right? All teenagers ever want to do is get drunk and… do… stuff to each other.”
“Well I don’t,” replied Mary with feigned superiority.
Remy handed a glass of wine to his wife. She said something in her melodic babble. Remy chuckled and nodded his head.
“Don’t do that,” said Mary, crossing her arms.
“Do what exactly?”
“Talk about me in another language. It’s not nice.” Mary sat in a leather recliner opposite Remy and Laedwynn. “So will you tell me where you’ve been for the last ten years?”
Remy sighed and took a long pull of his whisky. “Okay. I owe you some answers, I guess.”
He stared at his glass for a moment, searching for the appropriate words to say.
“There are quite a few things you won’t understand at first. Not without delving into long, complex histories or metaphysical theories. What I have to say will not be easy on you. I think…”
Remy looked at his sister, innocent and curious, leaning out of her chair in eager anticipation. He cleared his throat and continued.
“I think I will leave why I left until last. First, the obvious ˗ Stephen and I had a fight, as you know. I have always known that we have kin outside of Pennysworth. You may recall that I am quite a bit older than you. I was actually born beyond the boundary, in a land far from the New World in a place referred to as the Western Reaches. I remember our mother. And I remember our father…” Remy trailed off, shaking his head.
“No, I won’t go there just yet. The point is, I knew what was outside. More importantly, I knew what had happened to our mother. I wanted to leave, to try and find her. Stephen, for all of his foibles, wanted me to stay. So, we argued. It came to blows. I bested him and ran away.”
“You bested him?” asked Mary. “What were you doing? Duelling at noon?”
“I knocked him out. With my fists,” Remy replied, showing Mary his scarred knuckles.
Mary gave her brother a look, to assure him that she was not impressed.
“Well, all I’m going to say is this ˗ he started it,” said Remy.
“And you ran away,” prompted Mary. “So what happened next?”
Remy settled beside his wife. “Where to begin…”
Her brother’s eyes went distant as he thought. Finally he started with an unsteady voice.
“I was not prepared for the world outside of Pennysworth. I had thought of myself as a man mature and experienced enough for whatever challenges life threw at me. How wrong I was. The world is a dangerous place. Crime is rife. War is perpetual. People are more likely to deceive you than lend a hand. The human race is a horrible, fractious bunch, Mary. I now see why the immortals loathe them so.”
Remy shook his head and took a swallow of whiskey, almost to dispel the bad taste from his memory.
“My plan was to travel to Ireland, in search of our mother. Her exact location was not known to me. Foolishly, I had not packed adequate supplies for my trip. After several days on The Road I ran out of food. I stumbled from town to town, ever westwards, stealing what I could to survive. After weeks of scraping by, I made it to a city called Pembroke. There, I snuck on board a ferry bound for Ireland. My plan really came undone once I arrived. I had no idea where to look. There are Sidhe mounds all over the country. Each one is a portal to a private realm for its fairy inhabitants. I combed the country looking for them, hoping in vain, that I would find our mother…”
Stephen’s expression glazed over, and for a brief moment Mary worried he’d be lost in his head. Suddenly he took a deep breath and was talking again.
“Each nether-world I located was either deserted or locked in some fashion. In the few mounds that I could access, I found evidence of violence ˗ corpses littering the golden halls and dark ichor staining the streets. Of survivors, there was no sign. With little more I could do, I inspected each body I found, preparing myself for the worst; that she, our mother, was dead.”
Mary felt herself shaking as she listened. The talk of fairies and magical mounds didn’t make sense, and as such, didn’t register with her. She was desperate for news about her mother. Where was she?
Remy continued with his eyes locked on the glass in his hands.
“I lived that way for two years, trekking the mortal lands like a wandering hermit and scavenging through the halls of the dead like a rat.
At the end of my stay in Ireland, I came across some new information. In the chambers of a fairy prince, was a letter. Its contents declared another, separate kingdom of Sidhe, here in England. Tired, dejected and probably more than a little homesick, I thought I would try my luck one last time. That month, I stole aboard another ferry, leaving the Emerald Isle behind me for good. Back on these shores, I made my way to Olde ‘Wickshire, a forgotten county near the centre of Britain…”
“Wait! You came back here?! But you didn’t come here!?” asked Mary.
“Ah, Mary, there are so many things you don’t understand. Be patient. Yes, I came back here, even if I did not come back here… For weeks I searched through dell and over field, looking for the mysterious ‘English Sidhe’. It was there, passed out in a hedgerow, partially mad from starvation and privation, that I found Laedwynn.
She appeared like an apparition through the trees, shimmering like gossamer beneath the moonlight. She and her brethren were dancing through the forest, singing songs older than mankind. The singing and dancing sparked a memory of my youth. In a bleary daze I followed after them.
Had I found our mother’s people after all this time?”
Mary sat forward. She looked at Laedwynn then back at her brother.
What does he mean? Our mother’s people? Are we related to Laedwynn?
She opened her mouth to speak but her brother was still talking. Mary thought it best to listen.
“I don’t remember much of that night. The dancing, the wine, the women… it all went straight to my head. Near dawn, the party started to depart. I recall being entranced with Laedwynn’s beauty. Her face had haunted me all night. Laedwynn was – is – the most captivating creature I have ever seen. Without thinking, I followed her. At that point, everything went dark.
When I woke, I was deep beneath the ground. I was a captive of the Dökkálfar, or Dark Elves as we would say. I had inadvertently broken an unwritten law by carousing with the elves. As punishment I was taken as a slave for a term of seven years.”
“Wait a second!” said Mary, as her hands gripped her knees tight. “They made you a slave? Because you made an idiot of yourself at a party? What?!”
Remy held Laedwynn’s hand. “Calm down, Mary,” he said. “Slave was probably the wrong word. You must try to understand that things are done differently with the magical races. They have certain covenants in place, set down by their creators. One of the chief laws they live by is that mortal men and women cannot willingly consort with Elven-kind without a price; it being either madness, a curse, or imprisonment for a maximum term of seven years. So you see, the way they responded to me was not their decision. Now, may I continue? Or do you want to interrupt me some more?”
Mary folded her arms and slumped into her chair. “Go on then.”
Remy rolled his eyes. “As I was saying, I was imprisoned in the Dark Elves subterranean realm. The Dökkálfar elders learned of my heritage through the arts they practice. Instead of toiling in a mine for ore, I was given an honourable role in the Royal Court. They treated me fairly and with respect. I was allowed many freedoms, so long as my duties were fulfilled. Nonetheless, I was still their captive, and there was always an element of suspicion and the threat of danger. It was made very clear that at any moment they could kill me should I displease them.
I did what I was instructed to do without hesitation. I served the King and Queen their meals, and poured their wine. I trained with the army in the military and magical arts. I sat at conferences with lesser nobles and visiting dignitaries. I was always on display, for any and all that enquired.
After years of living in pseudo-captivity, I learned of their true intentions for me. My treatment was purely political. I was to act as an insurance policy. A hostage, if you will.
Our blood ties are with some very powerful people, Mary. Some people the Dökkálfar were very desperate to ally with. I was nothing more than a bargaining chip. Things changed when they learned Laedwynn was pregnant…”
Mary had to cut in. “So you got all kissy-kissy with the women who made you a slave. Have you heard of ‘Stockholm syndrome’?”
Remy and Laedwynn shared a knowing look.
“You have a lot to learn, Mary. Strange times… can call for strange bed-fellows.”
He took Laedwynn’s hand in his and squeezed it gently.
“Yes. We had been seeing each other in secret for years, stealing kisses and trysts whenever we could. Our initial lust for each other had developed into a concrete love.
Her family eventually found out. They were furious at first, but when their tempers cooled, they saw an opportunity. Our union bore them another, stronger bargaining chip. Our father’s kin gave in to their demands and a deal was made. The Dökkálfar had an ally in their war against their ancient enemy, the Ljósálfar.”
“Lollies-alpha?” asked Mary.
“Light-elves,” said Remy, frowning.
“The Dökkálfar and the Ljósálfar have hated each other for millennia. Their enmity goes back to a time before common Man, during an age ruled by the Ӕsir, the gods the Norse worshipped. The Dökkálfar will stop at nothing in their last gasp attempt at toppling the Ljósálfar before their time on this plane is over.
Laedwynn and I don’t want to be pawns in the coming war. More importantly, we don’t want our child to be a part of that conflict. When my seven years was up, we fled, sneaking out of Dókkalheim. We knew we would be pursued. Both of us and the child are important in the deal struck between our two peoples. I knew we would be safe, here in Pennysworth, if we could only find it…”
Remy’s voice trailed off. His hands trembled as he reached for the whisky. Uncorking the bottle he took a long pull on the amber liquid. Coughing, eyes watering, he slammed the bottle back on the table. When he looked up at Mary, she was snarling, her skin flushed red.
“You knew!? About our mother! And you didn’t tell me anything!” she snapped. “How could you do that to me? How could you keep that a secret!?”
“I wanted to tell you. Please believe me,” Remy spoke to the table, unable to look at his sister’s face. “Stephen forced me not to. I swore a three-fold oath.”
“I don’t care if you danced a jig with the devil! You could have told your own sister where her mother was!” roared Mary, standing.
Laedwynn got to her feet. Her ashen skin was a darker shade of grey. As she pointed a finger at Mary, the shadows around her deepened. “You not speak my Prince that way!”
Mary returned Laedwynn’s stare. “I will talk to my brother any damn way I like!”
Remy stood up and put his body between the two growling women. “Calm down, the two of you!”
Laedwynn stood rigid with her pinkie finger pressed to her thumb and the beginnings of a curse on her lips. Mary fought her way through a wave of pain as she grew two inches in girth, her tracksuit bulging around her waist and shoulders. As her emotions soared, she felt ready to break something with her fists.
Remy gently lowered his wife’s hand and steered her back to the chaise. Laedwynn reluctantly sat, mumbling under her breath.
Mary started her breathing exercises. After the pain eased and her rage abated, she sat back down.
Remy wiped the perspiration from his forehead and sat beside Laedwynn. “Okay, Mary. I’ll tell you the truth. It will hurt, and I’ll likely owe Stephen my soul after breaking my oath…”
“Tell me,” said Mary through gritted teeth.
Remy took another hit of whisky and pointed an accusatory finger at the ceiling. “That man,” he said coldly, “Is not our father.”
Mary imagined that she should have been shocked to the point of hysterical tears. She briefly wondered if other people would be grieved or pained to hear such news. But she felt nothing. Stephen Horn didn’t have a paternal bone in his body. To learn that he wasn’t her sire actually made a lot of sense. She hadn’t felt any warmth or compassion from him in all her living memory. He was one of the driving forces behind her desire to quit Pennysworth for good. To learn it was all a lie was distressing but what about the truth? She turned her thoughts from him to something new and exciting, the prospect of finding her true parents.
“So who is?” was all she could finally reply.
Remy cocked an eyebrow. “What? You’re not angry?”
“I’ve had suspicions. He’s a hard man to like…” Mary said sadly.
“Yes…” said Remy tilting his head and eyeing Mary with caution. “Our father is Themus, King of the Western Reaches.”
Mary nodded dumbly. Nothing was making any sense. “Our mother?”
“Her name is Maighdlin Derg, princess of the Sidhe.”
A tear tracked down Mary’s cheek. “Why did they abandon us?”
“I wish I knew,” Remy replied morosely. “Stephen may tell you. Probably not though…”
Mary wiped the tears from her eyes. Her voice was surprisingly unbroken. “What is he to us? An uncle? Orphanage overlord?”
“He’s our maternal grandfather. He is family, even if he may not show it,” said Remy.
The lights suddenly flickered then went out. The only light in the room was cast by the untended fireplace, washing everything in fitful orange hues. From above them came the sound of an explosion. It echoed through the stone house, shaking anything not nailed down. Small trails of grit streamed down from cracks in the ceiling.
Remy leapt to his feet at once. “We’re under attack!”
Laedwynn stood with a speed that should have been impossible under any circumstances, pregnant or not. She clenched both fists and bowed her head. The room went darker and darker still. The fire guttered, reduced to a dull glow. Mary thought she saw the shadows move and shift around the ashen women. Suddenly Laedwynn raised her head and the darkness fled. “Not attack. Nothing in shadow.”
“What was that then?” said Remy, running a hand through his hair.
Mary’s first impulse was to make sure the ceiling wasn’t going to collapse while also glancing sideways to see if armed gunmen would break through the windows. The shock of her brother’s revelations and the subsequent explosion had her thoughts in a jumble. Soon her mind settled and she knew of one explanation for such a noise.
“Father!” Mary got to her feet and ran out of the room.
“Don’t call him that!” shouted Remy as he moved to follow.
“It’s a habit, okay?” Mary shouted back.
“I help,” Laedwynn said, stepping forwards.
Remy shook his head, his eyes automatically looking at his unborn child.
“Stay please, darling. At least until we know what’s happening?”
Laedwynn shrugged and took another mouthful of wine.
The hall was starting to fill with smoke. Mary stepped unsteadily over the broken coat stands and picture frames, the ones Stephen had broken on his journey to his study. She cupped her jersey to her mouth and tried not to inhale. The smoke got much thicker as she climbed the stairs to the second storey. Her eyes stung and she began to cough uncontrollably.
Remy was right behind her.
“Wait. I can do something about this, I think… Fire and water aren’t my specialty though.” Coughing, Remy rubbed his hands together then clapped. A fine mist radiated out from his palms, smothering the smoke and making the air more tolerable to breath. He kept his arms held before him as he advanced up the stairs, blowing the bitter smoke away from him and Mary with his magic.
Mary watched him in amazement.
How was he doing that?
Soot-stained water began to puddle beneath their feet and condensate in black droplets on the stone walls and steel suits of armour. Ahead of them they could see the door to Stephen’s study hanging on one hinge. Smoke billowed out like a furnace chimney, the glare of the fire casting a yellow glow like clouds of sulphur.
Mary screamed and pushed her brother faster down the hallway towards the unhinged door.
“Don’t rush me! I’m trying to concentrate!” Remy barked over his shoulder.
As they made it to the door they felt the heat of the blaze. Both siblings balked at the intensity. Remy gritted his teeth and summoned a greater reserve of his power. All Mary could do was watch as the veins in his neck swelled to triple their normal size. Remy seemed to expand as the mist turned first to a drizzle and then rain. Rain at his fingertips!
Remy’s coat seam popped at the shoulder and he cried out in pain. Mary stood there at his side, amazed at her brother’s talent and frightened for Stephen’s life at the same time.
Slowly the fire abated. Mary steeled her courage against the flames and slipped past Remy and into the room, crouching low. Fire still raged in the corner where a large metal contraption had been blown apart. Sparks flew out of control panels and torn electrical cables. Large pieces of shrapnel were embedded in the walls and ceiling. A collection of chemicals and powders had been knocked to the floor, their glass containers broken and the contents bubbling and fizzing as they mixed.
Mary surveyed the room in horror, a scream barely held in check. A smashed podium box shifted slightly and Mary saw a bloody hand reaching out. Mary scrambled forward on her hands and knees and began to sweep the debris away. Underneath, she found Stephen’s battered and broken body, his breathing shallow and laboured. Long vicious splinters were stuck in his left arm and shoulder. Bright red blood had soaked through his clothes and onto the floor.
Stephen’s head lolled about. “Help me,” he wheezed.
Mary grabbed him beneath his armpits and hauled him backwards towards the hallway. Stephen howled in pain at every bump and jolt as he slid along the floor. Remy was now standing by the machine, arms outstretched, his magical rain dowsing the fire directly. Several stubborn fires were turning his rain to steam
“I’m going to need your help to move him downstairs!” Mary screamed over the noise.
“In a second,” snapped Remy, “I need to get this fire under control first.”
Mary felt a tug on her hand. She looked down and saw Stephen pointing back into the room.
“My cane, child. Bring me my cane.”
“You’re too hurt to walk, Father. I’ll get your cane later.”
Stephen gripped Mary’s hand tightly. “Not to walk… For the fire,” he gasped.
“You want me to burn your cane?” said Mary, pursing her lips in puzzlement.
“Just bring me the damn thing!” Stephen yelled before lapsing into a coughing fit.
Mary sighed and went back into the room. She found the cane after kicking her way through piles of singed papers and splintered wood. She dumped it at Stephen’s elbow unceremoniously. Stephen fumbled the cane into a usable position with his left hand and waved it at sections of the machine. Valves opened or closed at his gesture, trapping the burning fuels and releasing coolants. The blaze quickly died. Remy relaxed his pose and withdrew his magic. His swollen body eased itself back into his normal frame. He looked like a veteran beggar. His shirt had split down his back and along the seams of his arms while his pants had torn around his thighs. Black soot covered him from toe to top.
Panting hard, he drooped and rested his hands on his knees. Jets of steam whistled into the air, blowing ash and papers around the room. “What on earth was that thing?” he said to no-one in particular.
Stephen crumpled back onto the floor with a thud, left hand clutching his cane tight.
“I’m no doctor but I think I need medical attention.”
They carried Stephen between them down the stairs and into the sunroom where there was the only ready source of light. The older man cursed and shrieked the whole way. They found Laedwynn looking out the drawn curtains at the raging storm when they entered. She cupped her mouth in shock when she saw the three of them; bloody, soot stained and soaking wet. She pointed a finger and said something which probably translated to “What the heck did you do up there?”
Remy spoke back to her in that oddly musical language, his free hand pointing and gesturing all over the room. Laedwynn’s voice took a sharp turn as she yelled back at him, stamping her feet and shaking her fists all the while. Mary ground her teeth while waiting for them to stop bickering. Finally Laedwynn pointed to a spot on the floor near the fireplace.
“Down,” she said gruffly.
Mary and Remy laid Stephen down as gently as possible. As soon as he touched the floor Laedwynn had a long bronze dagger in her hand. She was so quick about her work, Mary could hardly take in what she was seeing, how she quickly bent over him, how she hovered the dagger only briefly over Stephen’s chest before easily slicing off the leather apron and opening up his ruined cotton shirt.
Stephen licked his lips nervously at the sight of the angry elf maiden wielding a hunting knife over his exposed abdomen but there was little he could do to get away. “Does she know what she’s doing?” he asked Remy.
“More than me,” Remy shrugged back.
“Oh, that’s just great.”
Laedwynn shot Stephen a hot look that told him not to question her. With her free hand she gently probed his body for damage. She tisked and tutted over every bruise and broken bone; the splinters only received a raised eyebrow. With the initial examination over, she turned to her lover and spoke in her native tongue. Remy nodded his head and gave her prognosis to the rest of the family.
“Okay. She says that your wrist is snapped in several places. You have three cracked ribs, blood loss, slight internal bleeding and severe bruising. Oh, and a few first degree burns and lung scarring to boot. Good thing is she can fix you. Bad thing is, it’s going to hurt… like the dickens.”
Stephen looked at Laedwynn, his expression blank. “Just fix me.”
Laedwynn folded her arms defiantly, her mouth pouting.
“Please?” Stephen finally relented.
Laedwynn showed the faintest trace of a smile and bowed her head. She pointed at Mary and said a few words.
“She needs loam, water, and a pot big enough to cook a stew to mix it all in. Nothing made of iron, though. Could you get those for her, kiddo?” Remy translated.
“What’s a loam?” Mary asked.
“Dirt, soil, mud… that kind of thing.”
“Okay…” Mary got to her feet and sped out of the room.
The pot and water were easy to find. The loam was another story. There was no way she was going outside in that demon of a storm to pick up mud. Mary dashed down the hallway looking to recover soil from one of the potted plants. Unfortunately they had all been smashed by Stephen’s unexplained rage earlier. Sighing, she scooped up several handfuls of spilt potting mix, removing shards of ceramic and the remains of flowering shrubbery. She placed the soil mixture in the pot and ran back to the sunroom.
Laedwynn took the pot from her and inspected the contents, tasted the soil and poured in a measure of water. Picking up the bronze knife she touched its gleaming edge to Stephen’s wrist and paused.
“She is going to draw some of your blood now,” Remy instructed, “just relax and let her do her job.”
Stephen nodded his head, his eyes not leaving the wicked blade poised on his flesh. Laedwynn ran the blade lightly down Stephen’s palm drawing a trickle of blood. Stephen winced at the fresh pain but didn’t move. Laedwynn collected the dripping blood into the pot of water and soil and stirred it all to a paste with her hands.
Next she lightly painted it on Stephen’s chest in swirling knotted patterns. Mary watched in fascination at the spectacle. She inched closer to her brother and whispered in his ear.
“Do you know what she is doing?”
Remy spoke without turning his head. “Her people are attuned to the earth, an integral part of any healing spell. She needs the blood to act as a catalyst for the patient, probably because he’s human.”
“Can you do that stuff too? Could you show me how?” Mary whispered excitedly.
“I’m a novice in all magical arts. Laedwynn has decades more experience on me. I still struggle to heal a paper cut…”
Mary clapped her hands. “But you could show me a few things? I could be your apprentice wizard!”
“Novices don’t have apprentices, Mary. Now be quiet. She is almost done.”
Stephen looked like a Celtic warrior of old, painted with spirals of wode, the designs corkscrewing over his chest, up his neck, face and down his arms. With him lying on the floor before her, Laedwynn spread her arms wide and began to chant. Guttural and harsh at first, her voice rose in cadence to a high-pitched wail.
Mary covered her ears at the unbearable sound. Hairs at the nape of her head began to rise and her body felt cold. The patterns on Stephen’s skin began to glow, first white then blood red. The light hurt Mary’s eyes as it burned brighter. She turned away from the maddening sight, the afterimage of the magical light imprinted in her vision regardless. Laedwynn shrieked a wordless scream as the pattern’s dazzling light shone brighter still. Stephen howled in pain and convulsed on the floor.
Just when Mary thought she could not take any more, and must either flee or blackout from the stress, the horrible shrieking died down and the light vanished.
Mary opened her eyes warily. Stephen lay on the floor breathing hard, sweat glistening on his exposed skin. The patterns had vanished along with the splinters in his shoulder. The blood that had stained his shirt had disappeared too though the shirt was still caked in soot and grime. Laedwynn swayed drunkenly over him, her eyes still closed. Her face was drawn and pale, her hair damp with sweat. She gave one meek cry and fell over backwards. Remy dashed over to Laedwynn and, cradling her limp head in his hands, spoke softly in her ear.
Meanwhile, Stephen was flexing his wrist and wiggling his hips, marvelling at the feeling of his renewed body. He suddenly scissor kicked to his feet in a remarkable flourish of skill and, arms akimbo, yelled, “I don’t know about you, but I feel great!”
He jogged on the spot and dropped into some lunges, testing out his newly healed frame.
“I feel like I’m twenty again! I could run the whole road, from door to door, no problem!”
His smile soon faded. He looked to the floor where his dirty, ruined garments lay beside his precious cane. The memories of his exchange with Bodb came flooding back.
Stephen cradled his face in his hands as he started to weep.
“What’s wrong now?” asked Mary.
Stephen sniffed loudly several times and wiped his tears away with his hands.
“My last gamble didn’t pay off. I’ve lost your mother forever I’m afraid…”
“What?!” shouted Mary. Her anger was returning, with dividends, now the man she had been raised to think of as her father had let slip that he too knew of her mother’s whereabouts.
“You know where she is? And you lost her!?”
Stephen was taken aback by Mary’s outburst, probably for the first time ever. Mary was staring murder at her grandfather, as her skin flushed red and her muscles started to bulge.
“I’d hate to interrupt you two,” said Remy. “Do you have a spare room somewhere? I need to get Laedwynn comfortable.”
Stephen took two steps back from Mary. “Why?” he asked without looking away.
“She just told me that she’s going into labour,” said Remy softly. “The baby is coming. Now.”
[* ________________________________________________________________________ *]
Mary paced up and down the hall, feeling useless. The two men had forbidden her from helping during the birth.
Like they know anything about women or babies, she thought bitterly.
In some ways she was glad to be excluded. The secrets of life and birth were filled with blood and other icky fluids. She had enough on her mind tonight, with Remy’s return, the news of her real parents missing and her family mystery lurking at the edges – childbirth was not something she needed to have a hand in on this night.
She also didn’t want to be around Stephen if she could help it. Her unstable feelings of family duty had been spent during the rescue of him from the fire. She couldn’t fathom ever loving the man as a father again. He was too cold and mean-spirited to even like as a friend.
What about the deceit regarding her true parentage?
Why had this been kept a secret for so long? Where were her parents? Why were she and her brother abandoned?
Her mind raced from question to question, unable to answer anything on her own. Almost walking into a wall, Mary spun on her heel and paced in the other direction. Ahead of her the door to Remy’s old room opened, spilling warm yellow light into the dim hall. Stephen edged out and closed the door, a worried look on his face. He ran a hand through his hair and stared into the distance. As Mary came closer he shook the tension out his shoulders and rounded on her.
“What are you doing up? I thought I told you to go to sleep!” he barked.
Mary took a deep breath to calm herself before she could speak. “I couldn’t. Not with all of the day’s excitement. Explosions and babies and family reunions and all.”
Stephen made to speak then stopped. Shrugging, he finally said, “Do what you want. I just don’t care at the moment.”
Mary sneered back at him. What a surprise.
“How is the birth going?” she said, trying to change the subject back to neutral ground.
“I don’t know. She’s not human, after all,” said Stephen jamming his hands in his pockets.
“I haven’t a clue what a dark-elf’s labour is meant to be like… how long… how much blood…”
Mary winced at the idea.
Stephen rambled on with his thoughts. “I mean, she looks human. But so does Remy… is the anatomy the same throughout the subspecies? Do the same medicines work on all of us? I wonder if anyone has studied that. Written a journal or the like…”
Stephen’s curiosities about academic journals were of no importance to Mary. His first statement pricked her interest, far more than any musings on subspecies anatomy. He let slip a kernel of truth, one she would not let go. “What do you mean, Remy looks human?”
Stephen rounded on her. “What? He didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?” Mary replied nervously, unsure if she wanted to know now that this was hanging between them.
A bitter smile creased Stephen’s face. “Both of you aren’t human. Far from it in fact. Well, perhaps a little. I was responsible for some of your good looks after all.”
Mary started to shake. The idea that she wasn’t what she thought she was unhinged her. What could she be, if not human?
“What am I then?”
Stephen scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Part mongrel wolf-man, part fairy, quarter human…?” His voice trailed off as he thought of more.
“Our line is allegedly descended from an elf of unknown origin so you could probably claim that too. Oh and on the fairy side you’ve got horrible fish people for relatives. Nasty bunch, that lot. Violent and broody and all fishy… You two are quite the pair… Very unique.”
Mary raised a trembling hand and wiped away the tears.
“This is all too much to hear in one night.”
Stephen stared at her, impassive, cold, distant. “You see? Sometimes I know what I’m talking about. You’re too young to learn the truth.”
“Thank you, Grandfather, for thinking of my best interests,” Mary replied sarcastically.
Stephen snorted and turned away, attempting to end the conversation.
Mary followed him.
“Will you tell me who they are at least? My real parents? Why they left us here with you?”
He stopped in his tracks and turned back to face her.
“Your father is the King of the Western Reaches, a descendant of Remus. Your mother is my daughter, a princess of the Irish fairies. I had arranged a marriage between the two to prevent a war. That failed and your mother and my wife were taken from me by their own people. As a result, your father has declared war against the worlds. I have spent the better part of the last fifteen years trying to bring them back and stop this foolish war. But I’ve failed. Again.”
Stephen leaned against the archway, rubbing his temples with shaking hands. Mary had never seen him this way before, had never imagined the stern, imposing man to be so defeated.
“I’m sorry, Mary,” said Stephen, staring at the floor. “I’m sorry for everything.”
He turned his back on Mary and returned inside Remy’s room without another look at her. Too tired to resume her pacing of the halls, Mary slumped down on the floor, her back to the wall. She waited and thought. Thought and waited.
She woke with a start. The air felt heavy with electricity, dense and charged with excitement. Mary moistened her lips and stretched her aching limbs. Checking her wristwatch she saw that it was almost dawn. She had fallen asleep several hours ago, it would appear. There was a noise above her as something fell on the roof, seemingly breaking some tiles.
Mary waited, a breath frozen on her lips. Silence echoed down the lonely hall. Mary shook her head and laughed. The storm had probably knocked over a tree or something. Rising carefully and with sore bones, she tiptoed over to the heavy oak door that barred Remy’s room. She pressed her ear to it, hoping to hear the wail of a new-born. The door opened unexpectedly and she tumbled into the room.
Remy stood above her smiling broadly. “Come on in, sis. You’re now an aunt.”
Tears gleamed in his dark eyes and his voice buckled with emotion. He offered a hand which Mary gladly took. She padded softly over to the bed. Laedwynn was propped up on the headboard, surrounded by pillows and crumpled sheets. She held the babe delicately in her arms, an exhausted smile fixed on her face. Laedwynn didn’t take her eyes of the child. With a pang of longing, Mary wondered if her mother had looked at her that way
As Mary came closer she saw the baby’s face. It was remarkably serene for a newborn. Large dark eyes surveyed the room keenly whilst two pointed ears stuck out like wings, channelling all available sound. Laedwynn looked up at Mary’s approach.
“Is baby. Not Dragon. Like said.”
Mary offered her wiggling pinkie finger to the baby. “Wow. It’s so… calm, and smart. Is that normal?”
The baby took the gift with one chubby hand and wrestled it side to side.
“Elf babies are more advanced than their human counterparts it would appear,” spoke Stephen from the corner of the room.
“So he’s smarter than you?” Mary quipped without looking away. “Do you have a name for it?”
“Him, Mary. It’s a boy,” said Remy, laying a hand on her shoulder.
“And no, not yet. According to Laedwynn’s customs, children are named by the council of elders. Seeing as we eloped, so to speak, we may have to settle for something less. Any ideas, Stephen?”
Stephen shrugged. “Call him Steve.”
“I think we’ll forgo that little family custom.”
“Suit yourself, Remigius. I think it is a fine name. Steve Horn…” said Stephen, shrugging his shoulders.
Laedwynn looked at Remy expectantly. He shook his head, dispelling her fears.
Mary was busy making faces at the baby when the ceiling collapsed.
Plasterboard and timbers rained down in a heap at the foot of the bed, narrowly missing Remy. Mary screamed in fright. Laedwynn clawed her way out of the bed, one hand clutching her baby tightly. Rainwater drizzled down through the hole. Something large was unfurling itself from the mess on the floor. A hand the size of a frying pan grabbed hold of the bed’s footboard. Inch-long talons on the end of its fingers scoured deep furrows into the hardwood. The creature raised the rest of its bulk up until it towered over everyone in the room. It had two broken and cracked horns jutting from its brow. Misshapen teeth spilled out from a terribly wide maw. It shook out its sail-sized leather wings, flicking dust and wood splinters around the room. Two burning eyes shone beneath a craggy brow like lanterns, lighting the dim room with their unholy glow. Its mottled skin was grey with blue tinges, wet with slime and pox. Dust clung to it like filthy scabs. Studded leather armour covered its chest and legs. Cuts and nicks had been stitched over badly in several places. It turned its head slowly around the room.
“Which one of you is the prince?” it rumbled.
Remy arched an eyebrow at Stephen questioningly. Stephen shook his head. Remy stepped towards it with his arms held wide, palms open. “You are mistaken, there is no prince here. I suggest you leave before things get serious.”
The intruder locked its glowing eyes on Remy. “I’m big. Not stupid. You are the one I want.” It reached a massive clawed hand towards Remy’s throat.
Lightning lanced it before it could reach him, scorching a fist-sized hole in the creature’s chest. It toppled backwards into the wall, cracking the stone.
Stephen walked towards the creature, his cane pointed forward, white light flaring from the studded brass foot. Mary dared to edge closer to the rank beast for a better look.
“What is that thing?” she whispered.
Stephen sighed and bowed his head. “A creature corrupted by foul magic, The Old Man’s favoured soldier. Come to collect his due, no doubt.”
Remy grabbed him by the collar roughly, rage twisting his face.
“Him?! What does he want with me? What have you done, you old bastard?”
Stephen tore himself free from his grandson’s grip.
“I made a deal with him many years ago, before you were born. In exchange for giving me the means to find your grandmother, I allowed him to take something of mine, no matter what it be after the birth of the third generation of my line. That something is you, it seems.”
Remy stood stone-still as he listened. His breathing deepened and his skin flushed red. He gained an inch of bulk to his frame then two inches…then three. His already torn clothes bulged, fitting tightly to the hulking mass beneath.
“I am going to kill you,” he snorted slowly, taking a step towards his grandfather.
Stephen sneered back, the energy from his cane crackling around him.
The house shook as other bestial creatures smashed through the roof in distant rooms of the house. Mary darted between the two men before it came to blows.
“Calm down, you two meatheads! It’s going to hell out there and all you two care about is slugging it out? We need to work together!”
Mary waited until both men had dropped their staring competition and looked at her. “Good. Now what are we going to do?”
“I am not giving myself up to The Old Man. I’ve got a family to think about now,” said Remy between clenched teeth.
Stephen lowered his cane, its glowing tip cooling.
“We have to give him something. We must honour the bargain or I bring a curse down on all of us.”
Remy shot him an evil look.
They heard the smashing of windows and doors being broken down. Guttural shouts and laughter echoed from downstairs.
“How about somebody else?” asked Mary looking at Laedwynn silently weeping in the corner and holding her baby to her chest. “What if we tricked them into taking someone different?”
Stephen looked down at her sharply. “Like whom?” he asked coldly.
“Like me.” Mary shrugged back.
“No,” said Remy.
“Yes,” replied Stephen almost in unison.
“Could we do it?” asked Remy uncertainly.
“I do it.” Laedwynn said from behind them. “I change you. For short time.”
There was a sound from the hallway of a suit of armour collapsing and heavy cloven feet clomping on the stone floor.
Mary nodded. Her lips set in firm determination. “Do it.”
Remy shook his head. “No, Mary. I can’t let you do this.”
“Is there any alternative?” asked Mary looking at her brother with a steady gaze.
Her grandfather looked at the floor, his face unreadable. “I… I can’t do or say anything. I can feel it beginning… The Old Man’s curse. Whatever you do will have to be without me.”
“Bloody typical,” growled Remy. “I can’t let those things take my only sister!”
Mary touched her brother lightly on the shoulder. “We have to, Remy. There’s no other option. Besides, I always wanted to leave Pennysworth. Now’s my chance,” she said smiling weakly.
Remy looked at her for a moment as he weighed his options. He finally nodded once and squeezed Mary’s hand.
“We will find a way out of this, Mary. I promise you.”
“I need much time,” said Laedwynn.
Remy nodded back to her and moved toward the door. He paused with one hand on the door handle, looking back at his sister. “I won’t forget this, Mary.”
Howling an inhuman cry, his shape shifted into something akin to a large hairless wolf. His shirt split open in tatters revealing an extra set of arms beneath. His enormous muscles rippled with tension. Flinging the door open he bounded out, arms milling into the first thing he saw, a creature with a goat’s hind quarters.
“What the heck just happened to Remy?!” shouted Mary.
“That’s from the Sidhe side of the family. The royal family have a berserker transformation. Seems sonny-boy has it too.”
“Shii… what?” asked Mary.
“Fairy voodoo,” said Stephen, wiggling his fingers at her.
The building shook. An ear piercing laugh echoed through the door.
“What now?” asked Mary holding both her ears.
“The boy has gone berserk. He’s probably lost his mind.”
A series of gunshots went off in the hall way. Then, they abruptly ended. Still that horrible screaming taunt filled the room.
Stephen laughed darkly. “Curse be damned. I can’t let that boy have all of the fun.” And unsheathing his cane, he now held a thin glowing sword. He slipped through the door and hacked at anything that wasn’t family.
Laedwynn laid a soft hand on Mary’s shoulder. “Now we begin.”
He fought like a man possessed. He fought like a man that had everything to lose. The ugly creatures were as thick as flies in the ancient house, pressing from both sides without pause. His powerful arms cast them aside like chaff, pounded them like meal. He howled like a wolf and wailed with a berserker’s laughter throughout.
Inside he relished the fight, delighted at his prowess in battle. He met each foe with a gleeful fury that drove fear into the hordes in waiting. However, he recalled what he was fighting for, and a good measure of dread kept him in check from losing himself altogether. This fight did serve a higher purpose, after all. Remy howled louder still, driving a punishing twin-armed hook into a snaggle-toothed face.
Behind him fought his grandfather; the spiteful man that had raised him since he was eleven. Stephen sagged more and more with each thrust of his energised blade. The Old Man’s curse was taking its toll on him with each act of aggression against his plans. Shattered weapons and hulking corpses lay at Stephen’s feet, flesh and steel no match for his own blade. Darting in low, he ducked beneath the clumsy swing of an axe and thrust the length of his sword through the belly of a towering beast with chitin-like skin. The creature hissed dreadfully and fell forwards, its innards cooked by the sword’s caged energy.
Stephen skipped back from the flailing body. For the moment, the mob seeing just how lethal the blade was, had paused beyond the reach of his sword. Stephen panted at his exertions, unwillingly breathing in the foul fumes of burnt blood wreathing off his glowing weapon. Keeping an eye on the enemy waiting beyond his range, Stephen spoke over his shoulder. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take, boy.”
Remy disarmed a bull-faced beast and drove its horned head into the floor.
“I could go all night and day, old man. You just lie down and have a nap if you need to. I’ve got this.”
Remy caught a furry creature by the forearms as it attempted a double-handed stroke at his head, the mace stopping inches from his face. He wrestled the weapon backwards, freeing his spare arms to land a savage uppercut and jab to an ape-like face. The beast fell to the floor twitching.
“I thought you had wards all over the place to protect you from an encounter such as this,” he shouted back to Stephen.
“No doubt null and void due to my bargain with the devil.”
Stephen cast a surreptitious glance at the small brass amp meter on the inside of his handle. The needle danced dangerously low. Stephen weighed his options as several large brutes crept forward as one.
“Guess I’ll have to rely on skill alone,” he muttered.
Flicking a switch, he washed the halls with one final burst of lightning, felling half a dozen nightmarish beasts. The crushing weight of the curse amplified, robbing him of breath and sapping his strength. Panting, he eyed the next wave of foes cautiously advancing over their fallen comrades. “I do hope they hurry it along,” he wheezed. “I don’t think I have much left to give.”
“So how do we do this?” asked Mary, turning to Laedwynn when the men left the room. The elf placed her baby down on the bed, gently tucking it under the sheets. Rounding on Mary, she unsheathed her belt knife.
“That’s a little dramatic, isn’t it?” asked Mary backing away.
“You hair. I must cut like Remy.” replied Laedwynn.
Before Mary could answer, Laedwynn was slicing away handfuls of her untamed locks. Mary closed her eyes as the blade flashed dangerously around the edges of her vision. Laedwynn gripped Mary’s jaw tightly and swivelled it left and right, inspecting her work. “Is not so bad,” she remarked. “Now make face.”
Mary opened her eyes warily. “How will you do that? Prosthetics?”
Laedwynn shook her head. “I not know word.”
“Rubber noses and such,” replied Mary pinching her nose.
“I still not know word. Listen den-sister. I will conjure shadow. You look like man, talk like man, but night only. When day, all shadows die.”
“Shadows?” asked Mary scratching her head. “That won’t help. What if they use a flashlight or something?”
Laedwynn scowled down at her. “I show you, child. Shadow is formidable magic.”
Hearing the scraping of hooves on tiles, Mary looked up. Another creature was peering through the hole in the roof at them, lamplight gleaming off its pale horns and curved sword. Laedwynn raised her arm and pointed it at the beast. Darkness streamed from her outstretched hand, twisting and writhing towards the beast. Mary thought she briefly saw snarling faces of agony biting and clawing in the spiralling form, their teeth foaming with inky blood. She turned away as the force struck; the unearthly screams testament to the savagery of the attack. Shivering with unnatural cold, Mary hugged herself.
Laedwynn smiled at her knowingly. “See? Powerful magic.”
“You’re going to do that to my face?” asked Mary nervously, the horrible sound still vivid in her memory.
“With no blood and screaming,” replied Laedwynn. “Now come. We hurry.”
Taking Mary by the elbow, she guided her to the bed and sat her down on the edge. Mary caught a quick glimpse of the baby looking back at her impassively. It wasn’t cute anymore; how calm and inhuman it seemed to her now.
Not that I can judge.
Laedwynn dragged a chair over and sat in front of Mary.
“Be still. I work. You no want mistake.”
Mary nodded and closed her eyes. Laedwynn ran her hands back and forth over Mary’s face, kneading and stroking her skin. After several minutes her skin grew cold then numb. Outside she could hear somebody howling a fierce war cry and the walls rattled and echoed with impact. Mary flinched at each sound until Laedwynn slapped her hand slightly.
“You make this hard den-sister.”
Mary’s face was now completely numb, and Laedwynn moved on to her neck, shoulders and chest. The feeling was unbearable. It felt as though she were slowly being caught in an avalanche, slipping under the frozen torrent an inch at a time, head first. She was trapped there, crushed and pinned, unable to move in the shadow’s icy embrace. The cold crept over her body, beginning at her head and working down her neck, shoulders and torso. Just when Mary thought she would scream if forced to endure any more torture, a tingling warmth crept into her hands. It spread up her arms and into her chest, expelling the bitter cold and reinvigorating her. Mary opened her eyes slowly. Laedwynn’s pale face swam into focus, her hands clasping Mary’s.
“It is done.” Laedwynn leaned forwards and gently kissed Mary’s cheek. “I never forget what you do for family.”
Mary stood shakily and crossed to the dressing cabinet. She gasped at her reflection in the mirror. Remy stared back at her, though slightly shorter and with a messier haircut. Her baggy grey tracksuit fitted snugly to wider shoulders and biceps.
“That’s amazing!” shouted a heavier more gravelly voice. It wasn’t exactly Remy’s but it was certainly more masculine.
“You did it. You couldn’t pick me in a line-up.”
Laedwynn wiped a stray tear from her eyes. Crossing the room quickly she hugged Mary tightly. “Now be brave. Go, den-sister. Take all luck with you.”
Mary nodded back, lost for words. Taking a deep breath she opened the door.
Ugly beasts were stretched out on the floor in twitching piles. Some were slowly pulling themselves up, snarling faces screaming bloody murder. Mary’s heart lurched at the thought of being taken by these things. They were grotesque. Abominations. The hosts of hell were probably modelled on these beasts, and she was meant to go with them?
Mary fought down her rising panic as she surveyed the hall. Remy was a large muscled hurricane hurling bodies this way and that, knocking holes through walls and shattering armour. Stephen was circled by three monsters, desperately blocking and feinting with his flimsy sword. His left arm hung limply by his side. Several large cuts adorned his chest, arms and legs. Sweat beaded his pale skin and he wore a haunted set to his eyes.
Nobody had noticed the new arrival. The fighting raged on without pause. Remy’s berserk laughter drowned out the clash of steel and stone. Mary hesitated at the unknown future; what would happen once she was taken by these ugly creatures?
Would she be devoured? Tortured?
No. They had come this far. They wanted Remy for a reason. But what could it be?
I’ll just have to find out for myself.
She took several deep breaths and forcibly calmed herself.
Before she could change her mind, she shouted at the top of her lungs. “Stop! I’m here! Leave my family alone and take me!”
Her words came out as a roar, deafeningly loud. The fighting slowed, stopped. Every face turned her way. Mary returned their stares as best she could. “I’m the one you’re after, right? Well, here I am. Just leave my family alone.”
Stephen collapsed to his knees, his strength utterly spent. Remy backed away from the press of enemies, his mutated form covered in shallow cuts and grazes.
“Say it one more time,” wheezed Stephen. “It’s easier for them if you say it three times.”
“Um…” It had taken all of Mary’s courage to gain the beasts attention. Now it was on her she felt her voice waver. “You can take me if you leave my family alone, please?”
Her tongue felt electric as she uttered the words. She couldn’t place it, but something had changed.
A larger creature wearing Romanesque armour shouldered his way through the throng. He growled at Remy as he passed, one hand hovering close to an oversized pistol on his belt, the other dragging a vicious cat-of-nine-tails whip after him. He stopped in front of Mary and looked her up and down, hands on his hips, a disapproving sneer on his face. Leaning forward, he sniffed her, his hideous muzzle dripping saliva on Mary’s shoulder. Turning to his men he barked, “The blood of Remus, Nuada and Bran. This is the one we want.”
He looked back at Mary, his sunken eyes calculating. Finally he spat in his hand and offered it to Mary. “Shake on it. Do you agree to come quietly and henceforth be bound to my employer, forsaking all previous ties, be they blood or otherwise?
Mary looked at the clawed hand. It looked cleaner where he had spat. Grimacing, she spat on her own hand and closing her eyes, shook hands with a demon.
The monster snarled. “It’s a good thing you gave yourself up when you did, lad. We was about to bring out the big guns. You’d be scraping these boys off the walls by the time we was done with ‘em.”
He gave Remy a dirty look as he spoke. He turned his squat head, taking in the bodies of the fallen on the floor. His hand went to his hip. Mary froze as she expected him to take out a pistol and mete out revenge. Instead, he grabbed an innocuous looking tin mug from a pouch. He tipped the mug upside down. At first nothing came out. Then a sickly light began to grow. The light was made up of all colours yet none at the same time. Putrid green, bruised purple, diseased orange… the colours shifted. A trickle of the disturbing light poured out of the mug and onto the floor. It quickly spread, too far and fast for what seemed so little. The eerie light washed over the broken and twisted bodies on the floor, seeping into their wounds and clinging to their skin. Immediately the creatures began to stir.
“Get up, you lot! We’re shipping out!”
The broken and bloody creatures jerked back to life, shaking out injuries and laughing menacingly.
“I thought they were dead,” whispered Mary aghast.
“They were. Some of them at least. Nothing a little spoonful of The Old Man’s sugar can’t fix,” said the leader winking.
The great winged beast that had fallen through the roof stumbled his way out of Remy’s room, rubbing the freshly healed hole in his chest. “What kind of crazed lunatic bottles lightning? There are children in the house,” it grumbled. Its deep craggy eyes fell on Mary, burning hot and full of malice.
“This him?” He peered closer, his stinking breath warm on Mary’s face. “You look slightly different.”
Mary flinched under the heavy gaze. “I changed clothes,” she murmured back.
The beast rubbed his chin thoughtfully before pointing at Remy. “Who’s that guy then?”
Mary looked at her brother, unrecognisable with his wolfish snout and enlarged body.
“That guy? He’s my uncle. He’s a fairy.”
“Bleeding fairies… I hate ‘em,” said the beast cracking his knuckles.
“This is no time to be settling old scores, Mac,” growled the leader. “Grab the lad and get your Fomorian butt back, yeah?”
The winged brute shrugged his leathery wings. “Suppose.” Looking down at Mary he growled, “What’s it to be? You come quietly or I carry you in a sack?”
Mary looked at the beast’s wings, wondering if he meant to fly with her. But anything would be better than being hefted around in a stinking bag.
“No sack, please,” she replied meekly.
“Alright. On you get.” The beast spun around and kneeled. Mary looked for a hand hold or something similar to find purchase on. There didn’t seem to be anything.
“I’m not a bloody horse! Get on!” roared the beast.
“I don’t understand what’s happening…”
“I’m bleeding taking you back to Olde London! Now get on my bleeding back!”
Mary jumped and wrapped her arms tightly around the creature’s thick neck. She looked at Stephen, who was still sagging against his sword for support. “Um… Take care of the family won’t you? Um… Especially Mary. I think she could use a little help, sooner rather than later,” said Mary, hoping he would fix this mess.
Stephen nodded glumly and rapped his knuckles over his heart.
“You’d better get a move on if you want to be home by sunup,” barked the leader. The winged beast grunted and without further ado, coiled its massive legs and leapt, knocking a hole through the ceiling and tiled roof.
“What are you doing?!” spluttered Mary as she hung on for dear life, plaster dust and dirt cloying the air.
The beast landed on the roof, cracking a dozen tiles underfoot. “I need a run-up with all the extra weight.”
“I am not that fat!” retorted Mary.
The beast just shrugged his shoulders and shook out his massive wings, sending out a shower of dust and splinters. Before Mary could ask another question it was running full tilt over the roof. As the edge grew closer Mary couldn’t help but scream. They hurtled off the side of the building and fell several meters before the Fomorian’s wings unfurled and caught the air. The ground rushed past below them in a blur. Mary’s terrified scream became a joyous shout. The powerful wings began to pump slowly. By increments they ascended until they were well above the treetops. The sky was still inky black with silver-chased clouds. Below them was a rushing scene of indistinguishable shadow. Remy’s storm spell was running out of steam but the wind still blew cold and hard, buffeting the pair as they flew towards the Northern boundary.
Mary leaned forward and shouted into her companion’s ear. “Do you know how to get through the boundary?!”
The Fomorian swivelled his head back to look at Mary, suspicion etched on his ugly face.
“We need to get lost, of course.”
“How does that help?” asked Mary aloud.
“It’s something to do with the same way you get here. You have to be lost.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. I tried to leave thousands of times. It never worked for me.”
“Well, you obviously knew where you were going, didn’t you? Now shut up and close your eyes. We both need to get lost at the same time.”
Mary sighed and closed her eyes.
“You might want to hold on tight,” grumbled the Fomorian. “And whatever you do, don’t open your ruddy eyes!”
Without further warning the beast performed a gut-busting series of barrel rolls and loops. Mary couldn’t help herself from screaming. She gripped her winged mount tightly around the neck.
“Keep your eyes closed or by the tormentor I will tear them out!”
The spinning and falling stopped. The creature flew much more sedately.
“You can let go of my bleeding neck now, mate.”
“Sorry,” mumbled Mary. “Is it safe to open my eyes yet?”
“No. Not unless you want to go through the whole thing again.”
They flew for several minutes blind. Mary thought of all the things they could possibly crash in to. The image of her splattered across a mountain side didn’t entice her so she changed the subject. She started thinking about her current situation, the monsters, this mysterious Old Man. Had she made the right choice? She doubted it. Whatever happened though, she had finally fulfilled her wish of leaving Pennysworth albeit on the back of a winged demon.
Now the pressure seemed to change. Everything felt heavier. The air grew stale. As they passed the threshold she felt a pop in her ears and a tingle race down her skin.
“Thank the gods we made it,” grumbled her companion. “And we’re on The Road too. Maybe my luck is finally changing.”
Cautiously opening one eye, Mary saw a new vista for the first time in her life. Below her was a new road, cobbled, not asphalt, lined with eldritch trees out of fantasy and nightmare. It seemed to be twilight or early dawn as the skies glowed with burnt orange and indigo light. Stars twinkled overhead in a wash of different colours, their constellations different to the ones Mary was familiar with. Ornate signposts written in old English marked divergent paths and roads, the names odd and unrecognisable. Mary felt a tingle of excitement. She was loose in the real world at last heading for whereabouts unknown. She had never felt so free before, even though she was a prisoner. She leaned close to her captor and shouted, “Is this the real world now?!”
The Fomorian gave her a suspicious look over his shoulder. “No. It’s the Semita Mortuis. The real world is down some of those other paths. Dead boring place, that is…”
Mary settled herself on the Fomorian’s back and sighed. She obviously had much to learn about the world. Crouching down low again she shouted over the rushing wind. “What is your name?”
“Your weak tongue would twist itself off if you spoke my true name. You can call me Mac ’o Knives, or Mac,” replied her mount.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you Mr Mac. Even if we didn’t get off to the best of starts. My grandfather blowing you up and all…”
“Don’t mention it,” replied Mac dourly, his memory of the event still fresh in his mind.
“So where are we going?” asked Mary. “Anywhere exciting?”
“Olde London. The Old Man’s lair. It’s just a shop I guess,” shrugged Mac. “It’s only exciting to visitors. You too, I’d expect.”
Mary rubbed her numb chin thoughtfully.
They’re taking me to a shop? Why would a shop need an army of monsters?
“Are there many of you in this shop?” she asked as sweetly as possible with her masculine voice.
“Hundreds,” replied Mac flatly. “Now quiet down and let me fly in peace.”
They flew on, hugging the contours of the road tightly. Mac never dared cut a corner at all, even tight bends where it would be so much easier to simply fly straight. Mary spotted figures below, often dark and shadowy but sometimes gleaming with reflected light, as if they wore shiny armour. At one point she heard the unmistakable crack of a gunshot. Mac corkscrewed and veered all over the place just in case someone below was shooting at them. He cursed and muttered under his breath about heathen bandits and ‘no good eastern scum’ for a long while afterwards.
Far away in the distance Mary could see the outskirts of a large city, shadowy and sinister in the twilight. It loomed out of the earth in low flat slabs at first, then grew by increments and finally, bloomed into soaring towers of midnight. They flew closer, passing squat warehouses and stores. Lamplight filtered out of drawn blinds and shutters, slivers of gold in the oppressive darkness. Shadowy figures scuttled to and fro on the street, shouting and cursing in strange accents. Everywhere Mary looked it seemed unkempt and in disrepair. Boards covered doors and windows. Glass windows were smashed, the rooms beyond looted and empty. Trash sat in piles, blew across the street, plastered itself to walls. “Why do people live here?” Mary whispered to herself. “It’s so depressing.”
“They have nowhere else to go. You can thank the New Order for that,” replied Mac angrily.
“Who are the New Order?” Mary asked back.
“I don’t have the time or the energy to get in to that. We’re almost there.”
Ahead the streets were better lit. There were more people about and the area seemed much cleaner. Peeling posters and billboards displayed wares and events Mary had never heard of. Bawdy music and tantalising smells drifted up to Mary, reminding her of the Pennysworth carnival and schools fetes. From her lofty perch Mary could tell that everything here was outdated: the fashions, the stores, the advertisements. It was as if this place were stuck in some kind of time warp, even more so than Pennysworth.
Mary shuddered to think she had escaped one backwards place for another.
Mac took a turn on to a side street, the first time he had veered off the main road, then again down an alleyway. Tall brick buildings hemmed them in on both sides, dirty and dark in the twilight. Ahead the alley terminated as a squat building of red brick blocked its path. A wide docking platform sat below the mouth of a semi-circular door made of rusting iron. Mac deftly descended down to the platform, his clawed feet scraping against the stone as they slid to a halt.
“Get off, will ya?” Mac snapped.
Mary unwrapped her arms from his neck and dropped to the ground. Mary’s hands were stiff from the cold. As she stretched them she found similar pains in her neck, back and shoulders. Mac glowered at her and worked the tension from his aching shoulders with his large clawed hands. “Life beyond! That was rough!” he said, folding his wings as he strode towards the door. “Follow me close lad. Don’t make eye contact and don’t say nothing to no-one who don’t look human. Better yet, don’t say nothing to anyone at all. Got it?”
Mary nodded her head. “Lead the way, o’ fearless leader.”
The shop below the streets
Mac O’ Knives pounded on the door, his great maul sending showers of red flaky dust to the floor, until it finally swung open. A tall muscular man smothered in clay stood in the entrance, arms folded and a large cigar hanging from his thick lips. Hair stuck out of the clay giving him a fuzzy comical appearance. Two unnatural red eyes pivoted and swung about drunkenly until they focused on Mac.
“What’s up, Mac?” the newcomer greeted.
“Got the boy The Old Man wants,” replied Mac in his throaty growl. “How are things, Dogsbody?”
The clay giant shrugged his massive shoulders, flakes of clay crumbled to the ground to mix with the rust. “The usual.”
Mac clapped him on the back, leaving a dent in the brittle clay. Dogsbody seemed nonplussed by the damage. Dogsbody shuffled out of the way and Mac strode through. As Mary followed in his wake she felt a heavy hand grip her by the arm.
“You look familiar. Have we met?”
Mary turned to find two beady red eyes rolling madly and uncontrollably several inches from her face. “I don’t think so. I’ve never been here before.”
Dogsbody scrunched his ugly face and rubbed a sausage sized finger over his course chin. “I got it. You’re a Horn, ain’tcha? Bunch of stringy little whelps, ain’tcha? What no good business you have with The Old Man?”
Mary backed away from the uncomfortable stare of Dogsbody, not liking where the conversation was leading.
“Keep close, lad,” called Mac over his shoulder. “No use arguing with a bugbear. They’ve got hair for brains.”
Mary turned and trotted to keep up with her slightly more friendly companion. Dogsbody jeered behind her, his deep voice the only sound in the cavernous tunnel. They walked for quite a while down a gentle incline, the tunnel a semicircle of dirty brick and mortar. Suspended lanterns spat a wan light every ten meters or so. Mary stumbled several times in the poor light on uneven bricks and the smooth cart tracks embedded in the ground. As the tunnel evened out, boxes and crates littered the floor. Small-statured creatures ran about, opening and packaging antique wares, checking lists and cargo manifests. Mary stared at each one, astonished. Some were cute and cuddly. Others were hideous, miniature versions of Mac. Each one worked without pause, their little faces set in determination.
“What are all of these things?” asked Mary in a hushed voice. “Where did they all come from?”
Mac stopped walking and confronted Mary. “Some were human once. Some are goblins or Fomorian or elves. Take your pick, we’re all here. The Old Man’s magic has changed them to what you see now. Now stop staring like a slack-jawed yokel; it’s rude.”
Several of the small creatures stopped working to stare back at Mary. One of them poked an extraordinarily long tongue at her. Mary squealed and kept walking.
Ahead the tunnel opened up to a large round room, its roof obscured in shadow. Rows of tables and shelves spread out in straight lines for as far as the eye could see, their surfaces crowded with exquisite wares and inane bric-a-brac.
“He’s in the centre,” rumbled Mac softly.
“Who is?” replied Mary slowly.
“Your new lord and master. The Old Man.”
Mary gulped. She was beginning to regret her choice of switching places for her brother, no matter how noble his reason for staying. She really didn’t like the idea of being owned. A life of slavery was no life at all, in her opinion. There was also something very sinister about the creatures in the shop – a mystery that Mary would be happy to never get to the bottom of. Snapping to, she realised that Mac was ahead of her, striding towards the heart of the room, his clawed feet clicking on the stone floor in a rhythmic pattern.
Groaning, Mary followed. Mac led her through the labyrinthine rows of shelving, while her eyes roamed wildly, taking in the strange sights all around her. Abruptly, the shelves stopped, and she came to a wide circular dais dominating the centre of the room. Mary’s pulse quickened at the sight of a pale, severe looking man seated in a high wingback chair atop the dais, his hands pressed together and an impatient look in his grey eyes. Mac stopped a respectful distance from the man and dropped to one knee, bowing. Mary stood awkwardly beside him, unsure if she should bow as well.
“Get down now!” hissed Mac though a clenched jaw.
Mary made to curtsey before correcting herself and remembering to bow instead.
“Whatever you do, don’t address him first, don’t look at him and don’t ever stand on that dais. You understand, lad?”
Mary nodded her head, looked at the floor and waited.
Seconds dragged by like minutes. Eventually she heard the scraping of furniture and slow measured footsteps on wooden flooring approaching her. A cold hand gripped her chin firmly and tilted it up. Above her The Old Man stared back, his regal face a grimace of rage. She was partly afraid to look and yet she could not help herself. His dreadful eyes shone with eerie light.
“Who are you?” he spoke slowly, each word spat with venom.
Mary faltered under that cruel gaze, forgot how to speak, forgot how to think entirely.
“Speak, damn you!” roared her captor.
“Remy,” whispered Mary, finding her voice.
The Old Man shook his head disdainfully and tightened his grip. “Who are you really?”
“Mary. I’m Mary of the House of Horn,” she wheezed as The Old Man choked her.
With a roar The Old Man flung her backwards onto the stone floor, her head bouncing on the hard surface. Mary lay there in a daze, too scared to move again.
The Old Man rounded on Mac, his rage well and truly started.
“Are there still any forces inside the house? Did you leave anyone behind? Are the wards still down?”
Mac grimaced and bowed his head further. “I don’t know, sire. I took the lad and flew off. Ferule was in charge of the boys. They were about to leave when I took off.”
The Old Man struck Mac in the side of the head with his fist. “She’s not a boy, you idiot! She’s a girl! A useless little girl! What am I meant to do with her? Remus’s lot are a male-dominated society. I needed the prince! Not the princess!”
He began to pace backwards and forwards in front of them, one hand punching the other.
“I’ll probably never find the place again! Do you know how long I’ve waited for this? How bloody important this is!?” screamed The Old Man.
Mac bowed further until his head touched the floor. The Old Man rubbed his temples, his anger still simmering.
“The prophecy was very plain,” he said. “The union of royal wolf and fairy changeling, mortal heir of Horn, shall rouse the sleepers upon far Avalon, and turn foul Ragnarök. I had everything worked out and you’ve gone ahead and ruined everything. My whole plan is ruined. No prince. No leverage. Mark my words when I say I’m going to make things very difficult for you.”
Mary lay on the floor, her head too painful to move. She hoped The Old Man wouldn’t direct his anger at her. Looking over at Mac, she saw a spiteful cast in the Fomorian’s eyes. “I’m going to kill you,” he mouthed silently in her direction. Mary shuddered at the knowledge that, with her deception, she had made a bitter enemy out of Mac.
Suddenly The Old Man was gripping her hair. Mary screamed and tried to fight him off.
“Stop it girl, or I will feed you to the dogs,” he yelled as he pulled Mary to her feet.
He let go of her and began to circle around her, looking up at the dark ceiling.
“Hear me all greater and lesser spirits, and deliver your judgement. Eighty years ago a bargain was made. This girl’s grandsire bargained for the hand of Nuada. Payment was an object of my choice after the birth of the third generation of his kin. I demanded the Prince of both the Western reaches and the Sidhe. I have been deceived with this wretched girl instead. I entreat thee! Help grant me my true desire or strike down Stephen Horn. What say you?”
The air shifted, became heavy, deathly cold. Another presence joined the room. Mary looked about but couldn’t see anything tangible. Something tickled her ear. A disembodied voice came from nowhere.
…Denied… The girl may fulfil your desire… Watch and wait young falconer…..
The room sighed and the dark presence departed. The Old Man gritted his teeth and growled. Mary tumbled back to the floor. The horrible memory of the shade was unravelling itself from her fragile mind.
“Dammit!” roared The Old Man, his body constricted with rage.
He started to pace. “That ruddy Horn! I didn’t think he had it in him. Man was always a bit blind to the obvious… too hell-bent on his little vendettas. He must be laughing his miserable black heart out right now… Thinks he’s got the better of me, does he? I’ll show him… Precious baby Horn is mine now… my true desire…” His voice trailed off, as unspoken thoughts took shape. He turned and looked down at Mary, supine on the cold stone, the trace of a smile on his lips.
“Get up, Horn,” he snapped.
Mary stirred and rose to her feet shakily, eager to avoid further punishment for the slightest transgression.
The Old Man looked at her thoughtfully, taking in every inch of her face. Finally he waved a glowing hand in front of her face. Mary felt a ripple of heat wash over her. The shadow magic dissolved, exposing her true form.
“Pretty,” he sighed, “for a wolf. Even with a bad haircut.”
He walked around and her inspected her further. Mary felt herself redden under the scrutiny of the stranger.
“Yes. You will stay. It will break his heart I’m sure, knowing that you’re mine. You may even have a use yet. In the meantime though…”
A kick to the back of her legs dropped Mary to her knees. The Old Man loomed above her, one hand raised to the sky, the other cupped over her heart. Horrid light swirled in his hands, orange, brown, black and blue. Mary’s skin prickled at the proximity to the magic and a bad taste developed in the back of her throat.
The Old Man smiled, his eyes shining with their own evil light.
“I mark you mine for the dereliction of your sire’s debt, his lawful agreement broken in bad faith. You are hereby the property of this shop, the chattel of my will. Here you shall remain till the original agreement is fulfilled or a new bargain is reached.” The Old Man leaned closer, until Mary could feel the heat of his breath. “Or death,” he pronounced.
The corrupt light spilled out of his hand and drove into Mary’s chest. She shrieked as it coursed through her veins, poisoning the fibres of her being, tainting her very soul. Every part of her wanted to run away from the corruption, to cut it out and purge it from her system. But it was everywhere. It was now part of her.
The putrid light died in The Old Man’s hand, easing Mary’s discomfort a margin. He spoke without emotion down to her. “You are mine now, little Horn. If you try to escape, you will die. If you try to harm me, you will die. If you disobey me, you will die. Do I make myself clear?”
Mary nodded weakly, too scared and discomforted to speak.
The Old Man turned his back to her. “Mac! Show her to her Petri. Get the girl a job.”
Without another look he strode back to his enormous dais and slumped down in his chair. Mac’s clawed hand hauled Mary to her feet by the scruff of her neck and dragged her away. Shelves stacked with countless treasures streamed past as she was led deeper into the store. Her feet barely touched the ground all the while, Mac’s painful grip the only thing keeping her upright. They entered another tunnel, this one narrower than the one they had first come through. The brick appeared much older than the rest of the building but was much cleaner. Rusted pipes with slow leaks ran along the ceiling, steam and unidentified liquids puffing or dribbling down. Oil lamps burned in wall sconces to light the way.
Mary began to feel rather claustrophobic and in need of fresh air and sunshine. Somehow she knew that was out of the question.
“Where are you taking me?” she stammered.
“The quartermaster,” replied Mac curtly.
“I’m sorry I tricked you, Mac,” whispered Mary guiltily.
Mac snarled. “Shove your apology.”
“I didn’t mean to get you in trouble. I was only trying to help my brother.”
“Look, girlie, you may be one of us now. But you’ll never be one of us. What you did made me and the boys look really stupid. A smart woman would watch her back around the warrior caste and you done made them all angry.”
Mary felt a chill down her spine and her weak legs buckled further. Mac dragged her on without pause.
Mac turned down a branch off the tunnel, a wooden door with dark iron banding blocked their path. He rapped sharply on the door with a huge fist.
“Enter!” a trill voice screamed from the other side.
Mac swung the heavy door open. The room beyond was tightly crammed with more oddities and treasures. A low wooden table was in the centre of the room, a little slimy green-skinned creature sat behind it on a simple chair. The creature had wide pointed ears and a long jaw filled with needle-sharp teeth. Parts of its skin were made of stone, unmoving and at odds with the rest of the bright green body. The right hand had been replaced with an iron cudgel, its weighty form resting upon some papers on the table.
“Who is this?” the creature hissed in a high-pitched voice.
“Mary Horn,” grumbled Mac. “She’s new property of our lordship.”
The small creature eyed her with disgust. “What am I to do with her? She looks like a typical human from the mundane world, a good for nothing weakling.”
Mary opened her mouth to protest but Mac let go of his hold and she fell to a heap on the floor.
“Huh! You see? Fat lot of good this one will be,” whined the quartermaster.
“I don’t care,” spat Mac. “Just give her somewhere to sleep and a job. Master’s orders.”
The quartermaster jumped down from his chair and hobbled over to Mary’s side. One of his legs was completely made of stone from the knee down, forcing him to drag it behind him uselessly. “What can you do, girl?” he asked leaning down. “Know any magic?”
Mary shook her head.
The quartermaster sighed. “Can you fight?”
Mary shrugged. “I can fence.”
“What about hand to hand?”
The quartermaster shot an ugly look at Mac. The Fomorian just shrugged and picked his teeth.
“You any good with numbers?”
“Does it involve trigonometry?”
“I’ll take that as a no…” The quartermaster stroked his long chin. “It’s looking like the kitchens or the duster for you. Like we need another good-for-nothing cleaner…”
Mary eyed the dirty room but decided to bite her tongue.
Puffing out his scrawny chest, the little green man tried to sound regal and commanding, but it missed the mark entirely with his high voice. “I’ll give you the run down since I’m sure our exalted leader undoubtedly deigned to inform you. He has cast a spell on you. You do anything wrong and we’ll know about it. We can punish you as we see fit – and we will do so immediately.”
He paused to let his words sink in.
“I am your direct superior. You may call me master, sir or lord. Do not ever think to call me Petri as some of the lesser-minded do.”
Mac snorted and suppressed a burst of laughter. Petri shuddered angrily and looked at the much larger warrior with contempt. Mac wasn’t fazed by the shorter beast’s unspoken threat.
“As I was saying,” he rattled on. “You will work for as long and as hard as I tell you to. You will rest only when advised. Displease me and I will punish you.”
Mary gave him a deflated nod. This whole situation was getting worse by the second. She had traded her boring life in Pennysworth for one of slavery in the damp dark recesses of a shop run by monsters. “Be careful what you wish for…” she muttered.
“What did you say?” huffed Petri.
“Nothing, sir. I’m just excited by the prospect of work,” offered Mary.
Petri’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Show her to the kitchens, Knives. I’ve got important work to do.”
“What do I look like? The butler?” growled Mac.
Petri raised a stone crusted eyebrow. “Do I need to have a word with him?”
“No. No need,” Mac muttered. “Find me a broom and I’ll sweep while I walk. Come on, girlie, I’m fierce hungry.”
Mac spun on his heel and strode out of the room, Mary clinging closely behind.
Petri stroked his long chin thoughtfully. “Brooms? Yes… why didn’t I think of that before.”
They were back in the main tunnel, walking further into the recesses of the store. Mary assumed that they must be at least half a kilometre away from its centre. Dozens of tunnels branched away, some bringing cool breezes, others glowed with orange light and furnace heat. Most were dark and gloomy. Mac strode ahead, stopping only briefly to let Mary catch up on shaky legs. The aroma of roasting meat and boiling broths announced the kitchen before she saw it. The temperature increased by a number of degrees to an unpleasant level. Mary groaned when she thought of working in this heat day in and out.
The kitchen was set just off the main tunnel through a wide open arch. Inside, the walls and floor were tiled in a mosaic of random colours and hues. Twin hearths blazed at the far end with carcasses spit roasting on the open flames at different levels. The room was divided into three by long preparation tables. A multitude of minions in stained white smocks bent over their surfaces, chopping, peeling, dicing and splicing. On the right-hand side were a bank of gas-fired cook tops laden with frying pans and pots. On the left, copper washing tubs were filled with crockery and saucepans. A lanky man who seemed stretched out of proportion stalked the aisles screaming profanities and waving a ladle like a sword. He wore a chef’s uniform and an admiral’s bicorn hat; he was obviously the appointed master of the kitchen. Mac made his way towards the enraged man as he struck several cooks squarely on the head after sampling their soup.
“Rubbish! Not fit for the pigs!” roared the chef in a commanding voice.
“It is pig…” muttered a cook rubbing his scalp.
“Not fit for the dogs then!” retorted the chef.
One of the cooks raised a hand but the chef rapped him on the knuckles with a flick of his ladle. “I don’t care if there’s dog in it either. It’s bad. Simple as that.”
Mac shouldered his way past several waiting cooking staff earning him frosty stares and bitter threats. “Barnabas. I’ve brought you a new underling.”
The chef turned on Mac, ladle ready to strike. “What’s this? Mac O’Knives in my kitchen? And he brings help? My, aren’t I fortunate.”
Mac snarled. “Can the sarcasm, you glorified potato peeler. I’m not in the mood. The girl is yours to use as you see fit. Boil her for all I care.”
Mac spun on his heel and stalked out of the kitchen, his wings twitching and fists clenching.
Barnabas watched him go, murder in his eyes, his hands wringing the ladle like a chickens neck. His eyes dropped down to Mary.
“Come here, girl.”
Mary sighed inwardly and approached. Up close she could see his skin was scarred with a network of red puckered stretch marks. The admiral’s hat looked old and battered with a bullet hole in its centre, a relic from another age. The chef’s uniform he wore was grossly undersized for his elongated body.
Never trust a skinny chef.
Barnabas leaned closer, sniffing at the nape of Mary’s neck. Suddenly he plucked a hair from her head and inspected it in the light. Opening his long jaw he dropped the hair in his mouth and chewed.
“Dishes,” he commanded and walked away. Mary looked about her uncertainly. Around her the cooks laboured on in their duties. A cat-faced creature wearing a white bandana caught her eye.
“Better do what he says, lass. Not unless you want those pretty features disfigured quicker. If you catch my meaning.”
Mary nodded and smiled wanly. Threading her way past the cooks, she found an unmanned sink and got started. She was hungry, deathly tired and worst of all, scared.
“Worst idea ever,” she said to herself as a solitary tear streaked down her cheek.
Time bled by in haze of stacked dishes and tears. The more pots and pans she cleaned the more she found waiting, an endless cycle of dirty water and elbow grease. Mary swayed on her feet, half asleep with only the cruel comfort of an aching back and feet to remind her that this wasn’t a nightmare.
She had long since given up her pride and had resorted to eating the scraps and wastes in an effort to rid her hunger pains. None of the other kitchen staff spoke to her, either in encouragement or direction. They simply dropped off crates laden with dirty pots and took the clean ones away. She could feel their eyes on her as she scrubbed, some curious, others malicious. Slowly the chaotic noise of the kitchen died down as the last of the meals were cooked. Cooks downed their knives and spoons and left for bed. Soon only Mary and a handful of other cleaners remained. Reaching for what felt like the thousandth item to clean, Mary’s hand caught nothing but air. She stared blankly around and realised that her job was done. Now able to let her body and mind think of sleep she pulled the plug from the bottom of the filthy sink and let the miasma of dishwater drain away.
The other cleaners were all starting to leave. She decided to follow the least threatening-looking one away from the kitchen, hoping he was heading for the sleeping quarters.
The cleaner looked over his shoulder at Mary once it became apparent she was tailing him through the warren of tunnels. “Can I help you?” he asked curtly.
“Where do I sleep?” replied Mary timidly.
“They didn’t show you?”
Mary shook her head and bit her lip as another wave of tears threatened to fall.
The cleaner sighed. “Follow me then. I suppose there might be room. I suppose…”
He led her down a damp tunnel and through a small rickety door. Inside was a dark room filled with bunks and hammocks. Creatures of every stature and design slept where they could. The room reverberated with the sounds of sleep. Every second creature snored a rasping song, and every third farted in counterpoint. The room stank of body-odour, dirt, and digesting food.
How am I meant to sleep through all of this?
Mary grimaced and looked around for an unoccupied bed. She spied an empty hammock and tiptoed towards it. The small cleaner she had been following darted past her and leapt into its folds. Swinging side to side as he settled, he cast her a dirty look and blew a raspberry.
Sobbing silently, Mary found a space on the floor beside a large furry beast with protruding horns and a snake with thin little arms and legs. Praying to an unnamed god, she hoped nothing would eat her during the night.
Mary slept like the dead, without dreams or movement, for what seemed too short a time. She awoke bleary-eyed and stiff from the cold hard floor as the creatures around her stirred. With barely a word to one another, they trudged out the door, head down and eyes sunken, bound for more toil and hardship in their master’s employment.
Seeing an opportunity, Mary rolled onto a thin mattress, marvelling at its softness and the residues of body heat still clinging to it after a night spent on the cold hard floor. Her heavy eyes closed and she fell back asleep, as content as she could possibly be in her situation. Blissful dreams took her momentarily away from her cares, but soon twisted into dark nightmares of pursuit and panic. It was then, writhing on the floor as she tried to escape the clutches of an unseen predator, that she was rudely shaken awake. Body already thrashing and fists primed, Mary opened her eyes to a gnarled old man dressed in crude robes, his feeble hands on her shoulders.
“You must wake up, child. To be caught asleep after the first bell is a crime!”
The man sported a twisting goat’s horn from the middle of his forehead, dry and cracked with age. A long matted beard and large buck teeth reinforced a goat-like appearance. Two hairy ears stood out at odd angles, swivelling about at every noise. Mary swatted his clutching hands away and scrambled to her feet.
“What bell? I wasn’t told of any bell.”
The little man opened his mottled yellow eyes in astonishment. “The bells! We do everything by the bells! Pay them heed or be punished,” he lisped through his enormous teeth.
“Well… I’m up now. Thank you, I guess,” said Mary yawning and dusting herself down.
Mary stood several feet taller than the brittle little goat man. She felt like patting him on the head but restrained herself.
“Where do I find breakfast around here?” she asked.
“Breakfast? Which department are you in?” queried the little man.
“You’ll find it in the kitchen then…” replied the little man giving her an odd look, as if she were simple or playing a trick.
“Great…” groaned Mary. “Do you know how to get there? Yesterday was all of a blur to me. I haven’t got a clue where I am.”
The little man wrung his hands and hopped from foot to foot. “I must not be late for my duties. I’m a busy man, you know?”
“Fine,” sighed Mary. “I’ll find my own way.”
The little man watched Mary walk out of the room and turn right. After several moments he saw her walking past the door in the opposite direction.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got this,” she called back.
Biting his knuckles he ran after her. “Slow down. Slow down. I’ll show you.”
Mary stopped and let the little man catch up.
“It’s this way,” he lisped breathlessly as he pushed past.
“Thanks. I’m Mary of the House of Horn, by the way.”
“Timberash at your service,” replied her guide. “I take it you’re new here?”
“Very new. It was only yesterday that I was stolen and brought here,” said Mary glumly.
“Stolen… How rare.”
“Why is that so odd? How did you get stuck here?”
Timberash scratched his matted beard as he spoke. “I couldn’t afford full payment on a set of wings I rather fancied. I signed a contract allowing me to work in exchange for the difference. I was so excited I didn’t read the fine print… still haven’t got those blasted wings yet.”
“So he tricked you then. Did he trick everyone else who works here?”
“Not all of them. Some were collateral on others payments. Some work here voluntarily. Some were sold by their parents. The master grew some of them himself… He is very clever, the master. He’s even rumoured to see into the future… He always gets what he wants whether you like it or not.”
Timberash’s little shoulders sagged with defeat as he spoke, his fruitless future spelled out for him. Mary smiled briefly at the thought of upsetting The Old Man’s plans, even a little, when they took her instead of her brother. It was a small victory but one she was paying dearly for. She could only hope that Stephen was cooking up some way to rescue her. Either that or she would pay the debt some way.
“Has anyone ever finished their service, Timberash? Or escaped?”
The little man slowed as he thought. “Not in my time here,” he replied.
“Oh,” replied Mary, crestfallen. “How long have you been here?”
“I’ve lost count,” whispered Timberash in a small voice.
They rounded a bend and came out onto the main service tunnel. Creatures thronged the passageway, all heading in one direction. Massive warriors in plate armour mingled with stocky shop keepers in overalls and slight clerks wearing tatty business suits.
“Where are they all going?” shouted Mary over the din of the foot traffic.
“To the great hall,” lisped her guide. “It’s breakfast time.”
Timberash threaded his way into the flow of bodies, his small figure darting quickly between the lumbering strides of those around him. Mary dashed after him, desperate to keep the odd man in sight. After several moments it became apparent she had lost the Timberash in the crowd. Mary gave up and let herself follow the masses. Ahead, they turned left off the main service tunnel and through a large set of metal doors. Two fat-bellied guards in tight iron armour watched the crowd with blank expressions. Beyond was an enormous amphitheatre repurposed for the colossal task of feeding The Old Man’s minions. Mary did some quick maths and came up with a figure of three thousand workers, all seated and in the process of eating. Still more creatures were moving in and there were plenty of tables to spare. Mary, despite her low spirits, was impressed. It was like a coliseum dedicated to feasting instead of blood-sport.
The group dynamics were obvious. Run-of-the-mill shop workers were seated along the raised stands around the outside of the room. The tables were crude and were more often crates or boxes. They ate simple gruel from battered bowls and plates, using their hands or shoddy utensils if they were fortunate. Below the store-men were the clerks, their fewer tables much nicer with proper chairs, cutlery and dishes. In the centre of the amphitheatre were the soldiers and guards, seated at long trestle tables with crude stools.
The food they ate looked, to starving Mary, amazing; a smorgasbord of roasted meats and vegetables, fresh bread and mugs of ale. They ate ferociously and thumped the straining wooden tables with massive fists as they spoke for emphasis.
Set to one side, closer to another set of doors, was an odd collection of creatures. Their manner was far more reserved, their clothes better tailored, the food more delicate. Some wore flamboyant armour with gold and silver detailing, others were shrouded head to toe in stealthy suits of sombre black. The weapons they carried were more ornate than the ordinary soldiers seated in the centre. Mary thought they must be the elite fighters or leaders of The Old Man’s army. Each creature seemed deadlier than the last, their every movement predatory and calculated, even as they ate. Wanting to see them up close, Mary threaded her way through the centre of the hall.
Soldiers stopped stuffing their faces as she passed, looks of disbelief and hostility in their eyes. Mary caught sight of Mac at a table and waved. Mac shook his head minutely in warning before avoiding eye contact altogether. Some of the soldiers began to wolf whistle and jeer at her. Mary raised her chin and paid them no heed.
She stopped a short distance from the foot of the table, awkwardly staring at the interesting creatures and their amazing weapons. A slim bugbear in overlapping bronze plate armour ate dainty flowers from a bowl and sipped scented oil from a chalice. Opposite the bugbear a woman with a falcon’s plumage tore apart pomegranates with her clawed hands, a long whip with a silver-tipped hook coiled at her elbow. A goblin wearing a red leather vest and golden torc rings in Celtic fashion festooned along his muscled arms sharpened a curved scimitar. Mary’s curious eyes drank up the entire scene for there were many others, each as wonderful as the last. As she looked about, she caught the eye of a red-skinned man wearing fine golden armour that overlapped in small circular plates. He sat at the head of the table, his poise more serene – and also deadlier – than any of his counterparts. His eyes were completely white and unnerving, for he was impossible to judge in character or disposition. A golden half-helm sat on his head, silver hair streaming from a top knot down his neck. The man crooked a finger at Mary and pointed at the space beside him. Mary grimaced and walked over, the strange man’s blank stare following her every step. Mary waited patiently while the red man looked her up and down.
“Tell me, girl, what is your heritage?”
Mary blinked. “Sorry? What?”
The man’s white eyes narrowed threateningly. “Your parents, what race are they? And address your betters as sir or ma’am around here; your hide will remain intact much longer.”
Mary blushed and looked at the floor. “Sorry, sir… My mother is a fairy or a Sidhe or something, and my dad is from somewhere in the west. Cornwall, maybe?”
The man studied her silently. “Cornwall? I think not!” He suddenly laughed. He had a rich commanding voice, one that filled Mary with comfort.
Mary felt emboldened by the man’s easy laugh, and ventured him a question. “Who are you sir, if you don’t mind me asking?” She indicated the whole table with the sweep of an arm. “Do you lead the soldiers?”
The man laughed dryly. Those close enough to hear smiled knowingly and shook their heads.
“We keep The Old Man in business, my dear. We are the treasure hunters and relic seekers. We are the adventurers. Without us, this would be a shop with nothing to sell. Nothing important at least…”
Mary eyed the delicate golden armour that adorned him and the hefty pistols strapped to his waist.
“So it’s dangerous, what you do?”
“And how does one join your group?”
“Anyone can try. Most don’t tend to last very long though.”
The red giant gestured up and down the table with his hands. His voice lost its friendly edge. “Those you see here are the very best of the best. They have survived ordeals that would curdle a lesser man’s blood.”
His eyes narrowed as he leaned forwards and his voice dropped to a deep whisper. “Do you want to die?”
Mary stepped backwards. “No I’m quite fond of breathing. For the moment anyway. Sorry to bother you,” she stammered.
“Then be off with you. There is no place for the meek in our ranks,” said the man as he dismissed her with a wave of his hand.
Mary turned on her heel and walked away. Laughter burst out behind her. Mary clenched her jaw and hurried on.
She found a tunnel leading to the kitchens after following a ragged serving man carrying a large tray. Barnabas stood by the entrance, arms folded, ladle tapping impatiently on his shoulder. Mary knew she was in for trouble the moment she saw him.
“There you are!” he shouted, pointing the ladle at Mary’s chest like a boarding cutlass. “You’ve got a lot to answer for, missy!”
“What did I do, sir?” asked Mary timidly.
“Your tears! All that crying into the dishwater, it nearly ruined everything! Everybody has been complaining that the food is more melancholy today! ‘Oh Barnabas, this gruel is too maudlin. Oh chef, I can’t bear to eat another morsel of this sad, sad veal.’ Ingrates!”
Barnabas spat over his shoulder for emphasis. “Too much sadness for the rabble in the morning does them no good. A happy minion is a productive minion. Therefore, you are hereby removed from dish washing duties!”
“Then what will I do?” she asked, her hope rising despite her strong scepticism.
Barnabas blinked several times, dumbfounded. He cast a beady eye around the kitchen, his cruel mind searching for another suitable task. His gaze came to a halt on the small little waiter carrying the enormous tray.
“Wait tables. I’m sure even you couldn’t mess that up.” With that said he turned from Mary and stalked down the aisles, ladle swinging like a police baton.
The little waiter shrugged at Mary. “I mess it up all the time. It’s not that easy, actually.”
Mary smiled wryly. “What do I do?”
The waiter rolled his eyes. “Take out the meals and bring the dirty dishes back. It’s quite easy – even if I mess it up. Just follow me.”
The little waiter trundled back toward the main hall, leaving Mary behind.
Mary made to say something but decided against it. Somebody once said it was impossible to argue with a fool, or something like that. Mary found an empty serving tray and followed suit.
Waiting tables was a slight step up from washing dishes but the job was just as demanding on the body. Her arms ached from carrying the ungainly tray everywhere and her feet were raw from the continual walking. The meal service went all day and into the evening as shifts changed, and staff came on or off duty. She did manage to sneak in the occasional break though, which was a definite bonus.
And there was real food to be eaten, not just scraps and burnt on frying pan scrapings.
However, these small perks did not outweigh the negativity of the constant harassment she received as a by-product of being a girl. Shop keepers jeered and wolf whistled at her, scrawny clerks adjusted their fogged spectacles and tittered as she passed and the soldiers slapped her behind or tried to pull her into their lap. Mary’s hands were numb from constantly slapping and punching the offenders in the face. She found herself muttering more than once: It’s like they haven’t seen a woman in years.
Mary staggered back to the kitchens at the end of the day, dumping her final load of dirty dishes into a filthy sink. She stood there soaking her aching hands in the tepid water when Barnabas snuck up behind her. Mary turned to face him slowly, half wondering if he would try and grope her too. The tall chef leered down from his lofty height, looking like an albino raisin with teeth.
“I think you’re beginning to fit in, missy.”
Mary gave him her best fake smile and brushed the hair behind her ears coyly. “Thank you, sir.”
Barnabas nodded and continued to leer down at her.
Mary took a deep breath. “Um… Sir, is there any where special where the kitchen staff are meant to sleep? I only ask ‘cause I was on the cold hard floor last night.”
Barnabas rubbed his long chin thoughtfully as he eyed Mary.
“I suppose I could find you something more suitable. Somewhere more private…”
Mary gulped. “Um… Privacy isn’t really that important. A mattress and a blanket would do.”
Barnabas continued his awkward inspection of her. Just when Mary thought she had lost him, he snapped his fingers bringing over a scullery boy.
“Find missy here a room. A cosy one with a blanket and all would’ya?”
The scullery boy rolled his eyes. “Yessir.” He ambled away towards the main hall. Looking back over his shoulder at Mary, he waved his hand impatiently.
Mary took her cue and scooted past Barnabas, muttering her thanks.
After the storm
Pennysworth had been hit hard by the devilish storm conjured by Remy. Damaged trees lay scattered across fields and blocked roads. Leaf litter and debris covered the earth and lay collected in heaped piles by drains and culverts. Livestock, freed from their penned farmsteads, roamed the county bleating and crying, the weaker and older beasts now bloated corpses in muddy fields. The grain crops, vegetable plots and orchards the people of Pennysworth relied on for their food supply had washed away or been torn to shreds in the wind.
From his window, Remy could see farmers and villagers in the distant pastures, heads shaking or hands pressed to their mouths in shock. Remy thought he would be sick, his guilt torturing his gut. He had ruined their livelihoods in one action. One spell cast in desperation.
I hope it was it worth it…
He looked over his shoulder at his wife, smiling and doting on their son. He tried to smile himself but the emotion would not come. He turned away again.
Remy grimaced as his thoughts turned to recent memory: The monstrous beasts which had flooded his ancestral home and the bloody fight in the hallway, his grandfather almost losing his life twice in one night, his sister sacrificing her own freedom for his, his mother lost forever inside the realm of the Sidhe.
The Horns had a lot of drama on their plate.
Remy cleared the dismal reflections from his mind. He was tired of thinking about his family’s failures. He had to do something constructive.
“I’m going to see Stephen, dear,” he said to Laedwynn.
His wife gave him a curt nod. She was quite upset with him. They had barely stopped arguing since Mary was taken.
“What kind of man sacrifices his younger sister?”
“We were meant to be safe here!”
“We should have stayed at Dókkalheim!”
Laedwynn was furious, and rightly so. Nothing had gone right since their flight from her subterranean home. In her opinion, Remy had put all of them in danger by returning to Pennysworth.
Remy, on the other hand, was mad at his grandfather. His scheming and plotting had created this mess. Nothing good ever came from dealing with the treacherous Old Man of Olde London. And how could he trade away his own flesh and blood, like a farmer at the winter market selling weaned calves? It made Remy doubly angry that so many factions saw him as a commodity to be bought or threatened for political reasons. Was he that important?
Remy left the room without another word. They had taken Mary’s bedroom as it was the only one that had not been damaged during the attack. Remy felt another stab of guilt for taking over his sister’s private sanctuary. Outside, the hallway was a mess of rubble, timber, ceiling tiles, discarded armour and weaponry. Remy picked his way over the detritus in his bare feet carefully. His boots had been torn to pieces after his berserk transformation and he was yet to find a spare set in the house.
Remy went downstairs to the sunroom. His grandfather was where had seen him last, slouched in a chair with a bottle of liquor in one hand and staring blankly into space. Stephen hadn’t cleaned himself since the attack. Blood was caked along his hairline, down his chest and up both arms from a dozen minor wounds. The dark rings beneath his eyes and three day beard complimented his dishevelled look.
“Have you moved from here?” asked Remy as he entered the room.
Stephen’s eyes followed his grandson as he took a seat opposite him. The older man pressed the bottle to his lips and drank heavily of the potent alcohol, his dark gaze stuck on Remy all the while. Finally, Stephen lowered the bottle to rest it in the crook of his elbow, and wiped the spilt liquor from his chin with the other hand.
“I thought we should talk,” said Remy, not flinching under his grandfather’s silent regard. “It would be beneficial if we cleared things up between the two of us, don’t you think?”
Stephen’s hands flexed into claws, and Remy thought the old man might lunge for him. Instead, he slumped further into his seat and took another drink.
“It’s no use. Everything is ruined beyond repair,” said Stephen between mouthfuls. “You have yourself to blame for that.”
“All of this,” said Remy, indicating the house, himself and Stephen, “is my fault? Why? Because I had the audacity to start a family? Are you deranged?!”
“None of this would have happened if you had stayed like I told you!” snapped Stephen.
“Please… Is it my fault you made a deal with The Old Man?” replied Remy. “Do you really think you could delay the inevitable? This third generation or whatever? It was going to happen at some point – if not me, then Mary. Get over yourself, Stephen. You started this mess. You’re just too proud to admit it!”
Stephen glared at Remy. With a strangled cry he threw the bottle of liquor at the wall behind Remy. The bottle smashed to pieces, its contents splashing across wall and floor.
“Damn it!” howled Stephen, his body shaking and a finger pointed a Remy.
“Damn you!” he said, his face turning red. He stared at the other man for a long time. Remy crossed his arms and shook his head sadly. Slowly the heat went out of Stephen’s anger. Wilting, he covered his face in his hands and sobbed.
Remy shifted in his seat uncomfortably. He didn’t like watching grown men cry, especially this man. For much of his time raised in Pennysworth, he and his grandfather had been at odds. Despite the animosity, the man was like a rock for Remy: unchanging, unmovable and hard as stone. To see him moved to tears was deeply unsettling.
“Listen, Stephen,” started Remy, unsure of just what to say. “I know things look bleak, but maybe if we talked things through, the two of us can come up with a plan.”
Stephen slowly stopped crying. He lifted his shirt to his face and wiped away the tears along with a measure of blood and grime. “A plan for what?” he asked, his voice tight.
“Saving Mary, Mum and Grandma Muadhnait,” said Remy. “What else?”
“There is no point!” shouted Stephen. “Ragnarök is coming! It will be the end of days unless your father is stopped!”
“Then how can we stop him?” replied Remy, calmly. “There must be something he wants more than death?”
“Ha! We come back full circle to the original problem: your mother,” said Stephen. “He would do anything to be reunited with her. But that horse has bolted, so to speak.”
“Mum? I thought he wanted to kill her!” Remy felt his pulse rising, so angered and confused by his complicated family history. He had memories of fleeing The Western Reaches with his mother and newborn Mary under the cover of darkness. Whatever the reason, his mother, Maighdlin, was scared stiff.
“No, not at all,” replied Stephen, as his vigour returned. “She was tricked into leaving.”
Remy shook his head and pressed his hands to his head. He didn’t understand. “Start from the beginning, please. Tell me what you know.”
The older man sighed. “The beginning… is hazy. I was a Sidhe plaything for seven years, caught up in a conflict between your great-grandfather, Bodb Derg, and a rival. I was trapped in the fairy realm when I met Maudhnait. We fell in love. She came with me, here to Pennysworth, once I was free.”
Remy was stunned.
“We aren’t so dissimilar, are we?” said Stephen, almost smiling. “As I was saying, Bodb was furious and searched the country high and low for us. We were scot-free for several happy years before somebody tipped him off. One night, just before the start of the Great War, Maudhnait was stolen from me. From the bed we shared no less…”
Stephen stopped speaking to wipe his eyes with his sleeve.
“In desperation, I struck a bargain for an artefact that would give me unfettered access to the Sidhe realms. It was after I had sold my soul to The Old Man that I realised, that in all likelihood, he had told Bodb where to find me, forcing me to come to him for aid.”
“Why, though?” said Remy. “What did he have to gain?”
“You,” replied Stephen. “And a marriage between the godless Western Hordes and the New Order’s bootlicking lapdogs, the Sidhe.”
“But… Why?” asked Remy.
“I don’t know. It only clicked when that thing tried to take you. I think the Old Man was trying to stop Ragnarök, in his own messed up way. How, I don’t know. Our family were just pawns to play with. The thing is, it almost worked. It was years later that it came undone. Anyway, time flows differently in Sidhe. Maudhnait had given birth to a girl in the fairy lands, and she had grown into a young woman by the time I rescued them both. Together, we sought to stop the impending war, offering an alliance of the Sidhe, with Bodb’s reluctant blessing, to your father. He agreed, and your mother was wed.”
“Bodb agreed? But…”
“He hated me? Yes. But even he could see that an alliance with the Western Hordes worked in his favour, especially if it bought him credit with his insufferable New Order gods. So he signed the agreement, and everyone was happy. For a time, at least,” said Stephen, shaking his head at the memory.
“What went wrong?” asked Remy.
Stephen shrugged. “I wish I knew. Your mother turned up one day with you and Mary in tow. She had been told to leave by one of your father’s closest advisors. He had warned her that the alliance was over and that the wolves would march for Rome. Bodb himself came soon after, snatching Maudhnait and Maighdlin in the night. The rest you know. I raised you while I tried to find another way into Sidhe. And look how well that turned out.”
Remy didn’t know what to say. He slumped back into his chair and stared at the ceiling. The older man sighed and stood up. “I regret losing my temper beforehand. That was the last of the single-malt. Will you drink a blend?” he asked as he left the room.
Remy nodded distractedly. The circumstances of his birth and his parents’ marriage were operatic, every player being pulled to-and-fro by unseen forces lurking in the wings. A bitter anger rose in his breast, firing his blood and threatening a rage-induced transformation into a berserk beast.
It took every ounce of will to stay seated and sane. Breathing deeply, Remy fought down his raging thoughts.
His family’s affairs had been meddled with enough!
Now the Horns would fight back!
Stephen returned with a bottle and two glasses. Balancing the items in his hands he poured a drink for Remy, who took the offered glass without a word and knocked it back.
Stephen sat down with his drink, opposite his grandson. A silence ensued as Remy wrestled his emotions back under control. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Could I bother you for another?”
Stephen leaned over and filled his glass. Remy cradled the drink in both hands.
“There is one thing I’ve never understood,” he said, looking at Stephen.
“What is it?” replied the older man.
“Why Rome? What good does it do to destroy the Porta Caeli?”
“It is more than simple revenge for old daddy Remus,” said Stephen. “The wolves are afraid of the long night. When magic dies, will they die with it? Will their souls pass beyond? Or will they perish? They, as well as every other magical race, fear death now the New Order are in power, perhaps more so because of their feud with Quirinus. They believe their only hope lies in destroying the gate and leaving this world through the rift.”
“That’s nonsense. Nobody could be that dense!” shouted Remy. “He wouldn’t put all mortal life at peril! Dad… I mean… Themus couldn’t. Would he?” he finished uncertainly.
“Not if poisoned words have been whispered in thy ear,” said Stephen. “I think someone has been working very hard to kick-start this Armageddon. Who? I don’t know.”
Remy scratched at the stubble on his chin. “The Old Man, perhaps?”
“No. He is a devious bastard, but the eradication of all life is not his style. It’s a bit hard to make money with no-one to buy the merchandise, and that cock-a-roach would survive a nuclear holocaust, I’m sure… ” chuckled Stephen.
Remy nodded his head. “Who else?”
“I’ve been wondering…. Do you remember seeing anyone strange in Themus’s court when you were growing up?” asked Stephen.
“They were all strange,” replied Remy. “But one stuck out in particular. He had two horns on his forehead, and a wide mouth with a broad smile filled with too many teeth. Sound familiar?”
Stephen blinked slowly. “Maybe,” he offered.
The two men looked at each other over their drinks.
“Is there anyone willing to fight for Rome and Life?” asked Remy finally.
“Yes,” replied Stephen. “In that regard I have not been lazy. Come, I’ll show you.”
The older man stood and walked over to his shelves crammed full of letters, beckoning his grandson to follow.
Bliss. Unadulterated bliss. To sleep on a mattress after a long day’s work beat the pants off sleeping on the floor surrounded by monsters after a long day’s work. Mary smiled and snuggled into her thin blanket quite contentedly. She certainly was moving up in the world of serfdom. She now enjoyed the comforts of a mattress, blanket, privy pot and her own private room. Granted, the room was rather cramped and was better suited as a broom closet, but she was taking her victories where she could.
As the morning bell rang she stretched, dressed in her dirty track suit and apron and left her private sanctuary. She was beginning to find her way through the maze of tunnels and only got lost once on her journey to the kitchens. She was in a much better mood as she threaded her way past the dozens of servants in the main corridor. Barnabas was waiting for her as she entered the kitchen.
“How did you sleep, missy?” he asked with sly grin.
Good knowing I could lock my door, thought Mary as she smiled up at her lanky boss.
“Very well, thank you.”
Barnabas grinned back her, all yellow teeth and beady black eyes.
Mary scuttled around him and grabbed the nearest tray of food to avoid further discourse with the creepy man.
“That’s for Kyron Bell’s lot, missy. The stuffy adventurer’s table. Be on your best behaviour around them or you’ll soon lose that pretty head. Harhar,” chortled Barnabas after her.
Mary groaned and made her way to the great hall. The adventurers were the first to be served as they held special privilege over the regular soldiers and much lower clerks and store men. They were already seated and talking amongst themselves when Mary appeared. A cheer rose up amongst the soldiers as Mary entered the hall, wolf whistles and all. The relic hunters looked up in confusion from their quiet conversations and cast about for the source of the disturbance. Mary felt herself shrink beneath their combined glare. She felt demeaned and insignificant as she stood there, crowds of slavering buffoons cat calling and ogling her behind. Gritting her teeth, she crossed the room with as much grace as she could muster. Now focused on the bizarre food on her tray she came to the horrible realisation that she didn’t know any of the orders.
“Um… Good morning, everyone. Who ordered the bowl of raw meat-looking stuff?”
The red man at the head of the table coughed into his fist, drawing Mary’s attention.
“I do believe I am to be served first. Protocol and all…”
Mary blushed. “Oh! Sorry, sir. What did you order?”
“The herrings and porridge of course.”
Mary doffed a clumsy curtsey and served him the bowl of what looked like slop.
“Ah. That’s the stuff,” said the man, clapping his hands together. Mary made to leave when he grabbed her firmly on the shoulder.
“You do know I’m the boss, right?”
Mary gulped and nodded.
“Just checking,” he laughed. “And call me Kyron, please. I can’t stand being called ‘Sir’ all the time. We’re not in school or the military, are we? Well, you’re not at least.” He winked and patted Mary on the arm.
Still blushing, Mary moved slowly away and called out “Meat! Raw meat!”
She searched the adventurers’ faces for a glimmer of approval. A bear wearing a Roman helmet mail raised a furry paw. “Is there honey on it?”
Mary gave the disgusting bowl a sniff and immediately wished she hadn’t.
“Yeah. This is the stuff.”
“Pass it here then, love.”
Mary plopped the disgusting bowl down in front of the bear who grumbled his thanks before tearing into the meal. Mary held up the next plate of food for everyone to see.
“What looks like a broiled hog’s head stuffed with… with…”
“Dates and cheese. Yes. Yes. It’s quite obvious. Over here,” screeched a man with leopard spots, gesturing impatiently. Mary dumped the plate down unceremoniously, prompting a growl from the leopard.
Another sniff. “Liquor,” said Mary, eyes watering.
A slim man with pale grey skin raised his hand. He wore a black leather body suit which had a high laced collar that covered the lower half of his face. His dark black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, exposing long pointed ears. As Mary carefully lowered the bowl of liquor in front of him, the man grabbed her hand and brought it up to his face to inspect it. The man inhaled deeply and turned her hand back and forth before his eyes. Mary tore her hand free from his rude interrogation.
“You have been around the Dökkálfar recently, girl. Tell me who.”
“That’s none of your business, sir,” spat Mary, smarting over the rough handling of her person.
The veiled man stood to confront her. Mary shrank back, thinking he would cut her head off as Barnabas suggested. Instead he gently placed his hands on her shoulders and leaned closer, pale eyes pleading.
“I haven’t seen my kin in so long. Please tell me what you know.”
Mary faltered beneath his sincere gaze. “I’m afraid I don’t know much…”
He shook her gently. “Please. Anything at all. Who did you meet?”
“My brother called her Laedwynn. She’s his wife,” said Mary
The man’s eyes narrowed sceptically. “Laedwynn? What did she look like?”
“Tall, pretty, long silver hair.”
“Silver hair? And her name was Laedwynn, you say?” The man stood back from Mary and rubbed his chin. It was hard to read his emotions with that absurd leather collar covering half his face. He looked back at Mary sidelong.
“Why wasn’t she at home in Dókkalheim? Did she say?”
Mary shrugged. “My brother said something about leaving because it wasn’t safe anymore. A deal had been made with the Western Hordes to go to war with the other elves… the ‘Lollies-alpha’ or whatever they’re called”
The man seemed to wilt. He dropped his head and trembled, either choking back tears or a frightening bout of rage. Finally, he slumped back into his chair and cradled his head in his hands.
Mary didn’t know what to say so she served the remaining meals and returned to the kitchens for more. Unwilling to return to the adventurers’ table so soon, she picked a meal meant for the soldiers. Back in the great hall she saw that the collared man was still slumped at the table. Mary imagined it was quite hard to hear your people were about to march to war and to realise that you were powerless to help in any way. Mary tuned the dark elf out of her thoughts and approached the head of the soldiers’ table where the highest officers sat. All the officers wore an assortment of detailed Roman armour which stood them apart from the rank and file warriors in plain steel and leather.
Gruewolf the captain wore red lacquered armour made of overlapping segments that fanned over his muscular girth. Gaping serpents’ heads wrought in silver adorned his pauldrons, their sharp fangs jutting out several inches. Mary laid the platter before him first, reluctant to make a second mistake so soon. The soldiers all cheered, whether at the sight of the food or her, she wasn’t sure. Gruewolf beamed up at her through a fanged maw, his scaly copper-coloured hide catching the yellow light of the chandeliers.
“Ah. Bless me blind. Ain’t you a sight for sore eyes?”
Mary fought down her ire and gave a weak smile. “Is there anything else, sir?”
“Aye,” said the captain winking at his closest officers. “My lap be empty and so too my cup. What will it be?”
The soldiers hooted and hollered. Mary bit her tongue and refilled Gruewolf’s mug with ale. The captain pouted mockingly. “Prick me dead. And here I thought you’d pick the former.”
Mary turned to leave but a clawed hand grabbed her arm. Mary felt a flash of anger. She was beginning to get rather annoyed with all of the grabbing and pinching. Pain racked her body as she grew an inch taller suddenly. Mary adopted a breathing technique to calm herself down.
“Can I help you,” she growled.
Gruewolf smiled back, unaware of her change in height or the icy tone she used.
“I’d have you serve me and mine personally this morning, lass. You’re a cut above the rest and we deserve the best.”
Mary nodded back at him and shrugged herself free. Stomping back to the kitchen, she saw Kyron Bell indicate to her.
“What now?” she muttered.
The red man stood as she approached and took her to one side. His casual smile was gone, replaced with what Mary thought could only be described as a fatherly scowl.
“I’ve seen the way those guards treat you, girl, and I’m not sure I like it.”
Mary shrugged. “What would you have me do, sir? Go to the police? Beg The Old Man to make them stop? I’m just the help.”
Kyron looked down at her arms crossed. “That’s no way to think of yourself, even here under these circumstances. You do have some rights, after all.”
“I can’t stop them, even if I do have some rights as you say. They’re bigger than me and there are more of them. It’s just like school all over again…”
Mary looked at the floor as memories of the past mixed with her current predicament.
“Could you help me at all, sir?”
Kyron looked at her for a long moment. “No,” he said slowly, “I think you should help yourself.”
Mary gritted her teeth in frustration.
Fat lot of good, that was.
Her skin began to flush red and another emotion-fuelled growth spurt threatened to occur. Mary took a deep breath and counted to ten before nodding to Kyron and excusing herself. She was too busy focusing on regaining control over her body to notice the slight expectant smile on his face.
Platters heaped with bacon and eggs were waiting in a queue back at the kitchen. Several of the waiting staff were talking to each other using wild hand gestures.
Busy doing nothing while I get grabbed by every man with a hand.
Barnabas was wringing the life out of his hat when he spied Mary return.
“There you are!” he bellowed. “What have you done to those bumbling idiots in the army, lass? They’ve sent back every plate of food I’ve slaved over for the past hour. They don’t want nothing if it’s not delivered by your own hand!”
Mary shrugged. “They’re idiots, sir. Just like you said.”
Barnabas sneered back at her. “Watch the lip, girlie.”
Mary did her best to act repentant while her ire smouldered.
Barnabas sat his mangled bicorn hat back on his head and puffed out his hollow chest.
“S’no matter if you charmed ‘em all with a love potion or the like, I need that food out there. Now chop-chop. And remember the lip… none of it.”
Barnabas swung his ladle like a judge’s gavel closing the session.
“Sir, yessir!” Mary saluted and quickly marched away from him before he could tell whether she was being sarcastic or not. Rolling up her sleeves, Mary took a tray in each hand and got down to business. She figured that if she kept moving she’d be a harder target to hit (or pinch, in her case). She dumped each of the heavy trays without any aplomb on the soldiers’ long table, twisting and turning her hips expertly to dodge the numerous pawing hands. Keeping at speed she managed to deliver twenty trays piled up with various breakfasting goods to the stupidly long table – and was only grabbed once.
Feeling quite pleased with her effort, she started back to the kitchen bearing a heaped tray of plates and cutlery, hoping that she would now have time for a break and a bite to eat herself. She was so pleased that she didn’t notice Gruewolf’s hand reaching out for her as she walked past him. He slapped her on the behind.
Startled, Mary fell forwards, desperately trying to regain control of the heaped tray of plates. She landed with a crash on the stone floor, shattered plates and bowls flying everywhere. Pain lanced up her hands and arms from a multitude of minor cuts caused by the shards of ceramics and pottery. Tears in her eyes and a low, desperate wail in her chest, Mary writhed on the floor unaided. It was there amongst the broken plates bearing the smears of other men’s breakfast that she heard the laughter.
They were laughing.
All of them.
Gruewolf leaned back in his chair, one hand holding his belly, the other pointing at Mary, his eyes half closed and glistening with tears. Around him his cohorts thumped the table with meaty fists or clapped outright, bestial faces filled with inane merriment. Mary’s eyes locked back on Gruewolf, taking in every detail of the man that had just humiliated her.
Simmering hate gave way to full-blown fury. Blood boiling, joints popping, limbs stretching, Mary dragged herself to her feet. She was two inches taller. Now five. Now ten. A foot taller and a hand span broader. Her tracksuit was stretched beyond its limits, elastic or not. The cotton material spilt at her neck, wrists and, calf muscles. Strength swelled through her body in a heady rush, bringing a fresh wave of pain. Mary clenched her teeth and focused her anger before her. Gruewolf was still chortling away, happy and content with what he had done to her. Mary balled up a fist and shuffled closer without thinking.
“Hey,” she growled.
Gruewolf, still chuckling, looked up at her for the first time, not seeing what she had become. “Yes?”
A straight jab to the temple sent him flying across the room. He crashed into a table seated with clerks, who now gaped at the unexpected sight before them, this most muscular of men in a heap at their feet. He lay there, unmoving, his neck at an odd angle, thin gruel splattered over his immaculate uniform. Stunned silence filled the room as every eye turned to Mary. Disbelief and surprise was etched on every face. Mary panted slowly, her anger still up.
The unmistakable sound of swords being drawn from sheaths brought her attention back to the moment. All down the table, the soldiers were drawing their weapons and standing. A red-faced officer was shaking a fist at her and screaming obscenities.
“Get her!” yelled another officer.
“Come and get me,” chuckled Mary.
As one the soldiers charged. Mary laid waste to them with unfathomable ease. She had never felt so strong before, her movements so swift and confident, so effortless. The soldiers, on the other hand, seemed to be wading through water, their movements drawn out and slow. The un-girl slapped aside slashing steel and broke swinging arms. She punched through plate mail and pummelled flesh.
It was a game.
It was fun.
She heard nothing but the singing rush of blood through her veins, her own maniacal laughter and the dull thud of her fists striking armoured bodies.
“More! More!” she howled, her mind completely lost to violence. “Bring me a challenge!”
“Up spears! Form a ring!” roared a familiar voice.
The soldiers ceased their suicidal assault and formed a protective ring around her, shields up and long spears tipped with barded heads pointed at her breast. Arms trembling, eyes bright with fear, the soldiers closed the ring, the wicked spear tips inches from Mary’s unprotected hide. The un-girl smiled, too arrogant to know fear, too strong to feel threatened by mere steel. A winged warrior was skirting around the edge of the soldiers ringing her in.
“On my mark, advance!”
Mary spun to look at the creature, one burly fist raised. Mac watched her with unflinching calculation. Behind Mary there was a commotion. She turned in time to see a scruffy little man slide through a soldiers’ legs. He looked like a cross between a goat, a unicorn and a desert island castaway.
His name is Timberash, whispered some part of her brain.
“Stop! Stop!” he lisped, eyes wide and goatish ears pressed back. “Surrender, Miss Horn! It’s your only option!”
“They hurt me! Humiliated me!” spat the snarling un-girl. “They deserve what they get. Every one of them. I won’t stop till I’ve broken every one of their damn backs.”
The soldiers ringing Mary shifted uncomfortably.
Timberash squealed and gripped his head with both hands. “No! No! Don’t do that!” He said hopping on his cloven feet. “I understand you’re upset, Miss Horn, I really do. But for the love of gold, girlie, you have to stop. You can still come back from this. All you have to do is give in.” Timberash slowly placed his feeble hand on Mary’s leg. “Please, Mary.”
The berserker shrugged him off and howled a blood-curdling scream. “Never!”
Mac smiled wickedly and yelled at the top of his lungs. “Up spears! Down the beast!”
Sweeping back an arm, she snapped the spear shafts threatening her like match sticks. Changing direction she brought her battering ram of an arm back at Mac. Before it could connect, a searing wave of pain coursed through her chest, sapping her strength and crushing her heart. Mary fell in a heap on the floor, writhing in agony as the pain increased. Her straining lungs were empty of air as she tried to utter an unintelligible plea. The pain continued. As her body convulsed on the floor she felt her mind retreating from the horrible pain. As her vision started to go black she saw Barnabas standing over her. The chef’s wrinkled face was drawn down in a sneer, his eyes set in concentration. Holding his ladle like a pistol, he aimed it two-handed at Mary’s chest. That same malignant light that The Old Man had sent into her chest radiated from the battered kitchen implement.
Before she blanked out completely, Mary thought that knocking the smile from that lecherous old goat’s face had been worth it.
She woke slowly, her consciousness coming back to her in a trickle of harrowing memories and dulled senses. Her eyes blinked as she watched the rough stone floor rush away in a blur of motion as she was lifted up and away. Tough hands gripped under her armpits, dragging her somewhere. Mary moaned and tried to raise a hand to her throbbing temple. Cold iron manacles now bound her hands together tightly and were chained to her waist. Trying to look up at her captors proved to be too much in her weakened state. The strength required to stay awake was taxing enough.
Mary coughed and spluttered, tried to ask a question. Her tongue felt numb and several sizes too big for her mouth. The tunnel she was dragged through was dark and damp. The smell of filth buffeted her nose: human waste, garbage and mildew. Desperate and harsh voices called out as she passed, begging for their own release, or threatening the guards with immediate violence.
Her guards said nothing in return, just marched on with her dangling like a ragdoll between them. In a more remote section of the tunnel they stopped. She heard the jangle of keys and the creaking of rusted hinges. The guards dragged her into a cell and dumped her on the ground. She lay on the floor in a tangle of limbs, too tired to protest or move. Her guards shuffled out without a word. The cell door clanged shut and the lock rasped closed. The room grew darker as the guards walked further away and with a flash of fear, Mary realised the guards must have carried a lantern. The last of the light winked out and Mary was plunged into complete darkness. Straining to hear, she could make out nothing but a slow drip of water from further down the tunnel. If she had any neighbours they were deathly silent. Then, unsure whether her eyes were closed or not, Mary drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
Trapped in a dungeon
She lost track of time in the black. She slept when she was tired which was often. When she was awake she had nothing but the slow drip, drip, drip of a leaking pipe against which to measure time. It was frustrating to listen to. Its tempo changed at times, ruining her counting game. One hundred drips. Two hundred.
Would she sleep again at a thousand?
How many drips occurred while she slept?
Where did all the water go?
Could she see the water perhaps?
Mary focused on these insignificant details. To think of anything else was too painful, too raw. She didn’t want to think about food or warmth or clean clothes or anything else she had taken for granted. She didn’t want to think about what she would do for a regular meal and a shower. She didn’t want to think about how much she had given up already to be here while her brother and grandfather got to live in their cosy house in boring old Pennysworth. She didn’t want to think about the consequences of her actions, about what further deprivations she was expected to endure. But mostly, she didn’t want to think about what she had become for those two minutes as she cleaned the floor with an army of trained killers.
Mary sniffed and restarted her count of the incessant drip.
A noise startled her. She had definitely heard something. Metal shod boots marching down the corridor towards her. More than one set, from the sounds of things. Mary scrambled to her feet and blinked her eyes open. The faint light hurt her eyes yet it was welcome. Anything was better than nothing.
The guards were still far away. Their powerful lantern cast its light down the corridor, painting a grimmer picture than Mary had thought possible. Sickly growths clung to every surface of her cell, their textures poxed and slimy. Dark pools of God-only-knew sat in every corner, trickled along every crevice, the liquids too viscous to be simple water. Black mould grew in every space between. If she hadn’t contracted several diseases, it would a miracle. The soldiers stopped outside of her cell, faces stern and hands resting on weapons. Mary blinked at the harsh light and shielded her tender eyes.
“Up,” barked a guard through the cell bars. “And no funny business. We’ll gut you faster than a feast-day hog and feel less put about.”
Mary pushed herself upright. She winced at the pang of tight muscles that hadn’t been used in several days.
The guard with the lantern unlocked the cell door and pulled it open. “Out you come.”
Mary tottered forward unsteadily. The guards looked her up and down with overt hostility. The guard with the lantern spat and walked back down the corridor.
“Follow,” snarled a guard, pushing her roughly.
“Where are you taking me?” asked Mary.
“You have a visitor,” answered the guard after a pause.
Mary’s heart quickened. “Do you know who?”
“Uncle or some such,” replied the guard. “Who knows with you western scum. Probably your cousin and your brother to boot…”
“But I don’t have an uncle,” protested Mary weakly.
“Do you think I give a flying fig? Just shut up and walk, you mongrel.”
Mary stumbled on in silence.
Perhaps Stephen has come to save me at last! It’s about time!
The guards led her through a labyrinth of tunnels, past cells crammed full of belligerent workers and prisoners garbed in foreigners’ clothing or armour. They emerged at the bottom of an enormous pit. A service ramp spiralled up and up and up. Mary grew dizzy following its winding course up to its zenith.
Lanterns hung from poles and chains throughout the pit, the lights akin to stars in the night sky. The guards dragged Mary to an open elevator that looked like it had been made several centuries ago. She gladly stood in the middle as the thing jerked to life and bucked and lurched its way up the shaft. There were rooms and tunnels all the way along the service ramp: the soldiers’ living quarters, Mary assumed. The lift ground to a halt and Mary’s guards shoved her back onto solid ground. They were now in a wide tunnel that acted as some kind of training ground.
Soldiers going about their duties stopped in their tracks to stare at her. Some had looks of fear, others anger and hostility. Some shouted threats at her, promising bitter revenge should the chance ever arise. Mary didn’t doubt they would try – it was only a matter of when. The guards did little to protect her; they even seemed to slow so Mary’s aggressors would have more opportunity to hurl abuse. Mary walked with her head down, trying to drown the voices out with thoughts of freedom.
Leaving the soldiers’ quarters they entered the main tunnel. Thankfully it was quiet and there weren’t too many of The Old Man’s workers about to stare and comment. Mary wished she was as small as a bug and felt herself shrink an inch or two as a result. Taking a deep breath she calmed herself before it got any worse. She didn’t want a repeat of the mess-room brawl, not now.
The guards hustled her into the store’s central dome. They passed through rows of ancient books and scrolls. Men and women perusing the wares barely glanced at her, their attention more focused on their next purchase to notice the plight of a teenage girl. The rows of books ended, The Old Man’s circular dais before them dominating the vista. He stood, hands clasped behind his back glaring at a stranger at the edge of the dais. The Old Man wore a dark expression, though Mary assumed that was his default setting – much like her grandfather.
The stranger whom Mary assumed to be her uncle was a tall imposing man. He had a lithe, muscular frame and wore a tight-fitting leather suit trimmed in white fur. The man’s wild hair was swept back from his proud face with a cord festooned with sharp teeth and black and white beads.
He was certainly nobody Mary had met before but he shared many features with herself and Remy. Her mystery uncle looked bored, taking in the sights of The Old Man’s wares without the faintest flicker of emotion. The guards stopped at a respectful distance from their leader and bowed. One guard growled when Mary didn’t. Mary dropped to one knee, too tired to stand or bow like some courtesan fop. The Old Man gestured at Mary with an outstretched hand, his patience at a breaking point.
“Here she is. She’s in one piece, just like I said.”
Her uncle turned to look at her properly then. He looked her up and down with that same look of boredom. “I can see,” he said in a throaty growl.
Stepping closer, he sniffed at the nape of Mary’s neck, then sighing, he stepped back.
“The fairy blood is strong in this one… too much so.”
The stranger turned and confronted The Old Man. “What did you expect to get out of this meeting exactly? Our arms and unfettered access to our lands? Perhaps the positions and strengths of our armies? In exchange for this… girl, this… thing?”
Her uncle snarled, exposing his oversized canines. “We proud Sons of Remus cannot be blackmailed. We will not be coerced.”
His voice rose in timber, conviction and emotion till it bordered on a shout.
“We are resolute. We are unified. As one, the mighty host of Remus shall march and it will be war we bring to the East!”
Her uncle glared at The Old Man with fists clenched, his vicious teeth gleaming in the lamplight of the cavernous shop.
“Nothing will stay our path. Certainly no half-blood mongrel!” He spat at Mary’s feet for emphasis. “And certainly no peddler of pretty baubles and trinkets!”
The stranger’s words fired the anger in her breast. A small part of her wanted to strike this man down. The better half knew better. Mary bowed her head and focused on calming her thoughts.
The guards behind Mary drew their swords at her uncle’s insult. The Old Man dismissed them with a curt wave of his hand.
“What of your brother? Does he not care about the welfare of his offspring?”
Mary’s uncle shrugged, his fury still simmering. “My brother’s wellspring of love ran dry long ago. Not a day goes by when he doesn’t curse his union with the fairy woman. As to his children? I bet he pays them no thought, for his full resources are bent on the destruction of Rome and all of her allies.”
The Old Man’s jaw tightened. “Is she not second in line for the Twisted Crown? What should happen if he falls in battle?”
“He is only first among equals. Our father sired many strong Sons during his reign. We are legion in number. One from our ranks will take up the mantle should brother Themus fall. The throne will be upheld by a Son of pure blood and none other.”
Her uncle looked down at Mary with a look of disdain. She returned his gaze with a level stare. Mary didn’t really care what he thought of her. She didn’t even mind that her father had no love for her. Stephen’s cold shoulder style of parenting had left her immune to sentimental feelings. She was more upset at the lack of respect anybody had for her. No-one cared about her thoughts or feelings, had never cared, even from an early age. Her parents didn’t care about raising her. The people of Pennysworth didn’t care when they taunted and hurt her. The chauvinistic brutes here just wanted to pinch her and pull her into their laps.
Mary’s uncle sneered back at her. “Did your master not teach you to not stare at your better’s girl?”
And nobody had the decency to use her bloody name.
“He said betters. Not yapping curs,” spat Mary in his face. “And I have a name, or has father forgotten that as well?”
He uncle snarled and raised a hand to slap her. Mary’s anger spiked at the thought that he would dare hurt her.
…Hurt him first… came a voice within her head. She agreed with the voice and fed on the anger, changing from a girl to a berserk creature.
Her uncle saw her odd smile and struck. Mary raised a hand lightning-fast to block the blow. Her uncle grunted in pain at the contact. Recoiling briefly, he swivelled his hips and aimed a kick at her head. Mary exploded in a rush of movement and transformation, breaking the manacles that bound her. She grabbed his clumsy outstretched leg, hurling him backwards. Her uncle flipped head over heel to land on his surprised face.
Still growing, Mary got to her feet and bent over to pick the groaning man up. Blood poured from a broken nose and a split lip. Eyes wide he stared back at her, seemingly seeing her for the first time. She bought him close to her face, her breathe hot and steaming in the cold air. Voices cried out in alarm behind her but she paid them no heed. All of her attention was focused on the tiny man dangling in her mammoth grip.
“Tell my father that if we ever meet face-to-face there will be an almighty reckoning. Can you remember that?”
Her uncle nodded. Licked his lips nervously.
“Do you remember my name?”
“Mary. Your name is Mary.”
“Good. Now run along home and tell him what I said.”
Mary dropped her squirming uncle. He landed on his feet and without further ado bolted for the nearest exit. Laughing Mary turned around. Two dozen armed soldiers had formed a half circle around her. “Round two?” asked the Mary-thing with a coarse laugh.
The Old Man stepped in front of her, his face a thunderhead. “That is quite enough damage for one day, Miss Horn. If they don’t burn my store down in retaliation within the month then I’ll eat my hat.”
For a moment she thought of crushing the life from her master and jumping on the corpse. A sickening wave of nausea overcame her and she banished the idea. What were they talking about? “You don’t have a hat,” said Mary scratching her chin.
“I own a room full of hats, you stupid fairy!” roared her master. “You have more to worry about than my current lack of headwear. Your antics have put me in a right pickle. In the space of a week you’ve crushed my captain of the guards into mincemeat, broken two dozen of my best fighters and tarnished the only real value you had to me!” The Old Man shook his fists at her, his pale skin flushed red and veined. “You could have been free in a week’s time, but no! You had to beat the ambassador, a brother to the prince I might add, to a bloody pulp. They’re never going to negotiate now.”
Mary shook her head slowly. Didn’t he say she was some mongrel half breed? Didn’t he say her father didn’t want her?
“I don’t understand. He said they didn’t want me.”
“He was trying to play down your value, you fool,” shouted The Old Man. “It’s a little thing called bartering. This is a shop, you know?” He ran a hand through his hair and looked at the ceiling.
Mary’s heart sank. She could have been free if only she’d controlled her temper. But now she was stuck here until her debt was paid. That probably meant forever. She shrank back down to her normal size and found herself sobbing. “What am I going to do?” she moaned through her crying. “I can’t wash dishes or wait tables until I’m old and grey. I can’t work in that mad house.”
“Oh quit your crying,” snapped The Old Man. “You’re not working in the kitchens any longer. You’ve proved you can’t handle that without going berserk and making a mess.”
Mary wiped her dirty sleeve over her face. “Then what will I do?”
The Old Man looked back at her, his teeth grinding, eyes tight.
“Sir,” Mary added.
He looked at her for a long time. Finally he turned and strode back to his desk atop the dais. “I don’t care at the moment. Go clean yourself up and report to Petri.”
The soldiers formed a ring around the dais, swords held point down, eyes forward.
Still sobbing, Mary rose to her feet and started towards the main service tunnel.
“Oh. One more thing, Mary,” called her master. “I had almost forgotten.”
Mary turned to face him slowly. “Yes?”
At a gesture the pain took her. Mercifully she blacked out before she hit the floor and started to convulse.
She was having a nightmare. A horrible little goat man was sitting on her chest, prodding her with his gnarled finger nails, clutching her jersey with his grimy little hands. He whispered horrible things in her ear. Horrible things about an evil master that would torture her if she didn’t behave. He told her she would become disfigured even more than she already was.
But wait. That wasn’t true. She was a normal girl wasn’t she?
You are part wolf, part fairy, part fish and only part human, came a cruel voice like her grandfather’s.
Is that normal?
But she looked normal, didn’t she?
Not anymore, whispered the cruel voice.
Mary’s eyes fluttered open. There was a horrid little goat man sitting on her chest. Mary knew him.
“Yes! You remember! You must get up, Miss Horn. Our master wants you out of sight immediately. You have slept too long. Too long…”
Mary looked about. She was lying on the floor several meters away from the circular dais in the centre of the store. Guards stood at attention around it, weapons drawn. Several of the men were giving her sour looks. Behind them she could see The Old Man, his head bowed, reading at his desk.
“Up, Miss Horn. You must get up,” lisped Timberash, his little hands pulling on Mary’s sleeve.
“Okay. I’m moving.”
Groaning, Mary pushed Timberash off her and rolled to her feet. Timberash fell on his back and flailed around like an overturned tortoise, unable to get back on his feet.
“Sorry…” said Mary as she helped him up.
“Oh. That’s fine. It happens all the time.”
“Really? You get thrown off girls all the time?”
“No!” shrieked Timberash, going red in the face. “I mean I often fall over. I spent two nights under some shelving once…”
“You should really do something about that.”
“I have. I’ve left bedding under some of the trickier shelves.”
Mary frowned. Was he serious?
The little man reached up and grabbed her hand and started to lead her away.
They walked towards the main service tunnel at Timberash’s scurrying pace. Mary suddenly felt very aware of her current state of hygiene. “Tell me, Timberash, where would I find new clothes and a hot bath?”
Timberash looked up at her, a puzzled look on his face. “Clothes and a hot bath? For you?”
Mary rolled her eyes. “No, for the documentary film I’m making, ‘How to Stay Clean in a Monster Infested Dungeon’. Of course it’s for me!”
Timberash sucked on his matted beard as he thought. “I can show you to the bath house, but if I were you, which I’m not obviously, I wouldn’t take any clothes. Not from him.”
“Why not?” asked Mary slowly.
“He adds every expense to your bill. Meals and baths and the like are usually paid off during your day’s work. Extras like clothing or bedding will cost you an arm or a leg or both, especially if you don’t specify them in a contract.”
“That’s absurd!” shouted Mary. “He can’t get away with that!”
Timberash shot her a dark look. “You’re right. What would I know. I have only worked here since Arthur was a lad. You go ahead and get those new clothes. Maybe hustle up some nice fur-lined mittens and a cape for the cold nights while you’re at it.”
Mary thought it best to stay quiet after his little outburst and let Timberash guide her through a series of winding tunnels to the bath house.
Steam and the welcome scent of soap announced the baths long before they came into view. After walking down a wide and dimly lit tunnel for a while, the redbrick of the tunnel networks gave way to clean, enamelled white tiles. The tunnel opened up to a large chamber. Warm yellow light radiated from an unseen source up high in the steamy ceiling. The bath house was actually two houses; a china blue tiled partition split the chamber in two, with a larger room for the men and a smaller one for the few women who worked there.
Timberash stopped outside the entrance to the women’s section. “Here you are. There are towels and soaps and all kinds of girly things in there. There’s even a stash of rocks I hear, to throw at peeping Toms.”
Mary raised an eyebrow. “Soap and towels are girly, are they?”
Timberash shrugged. “It’s not natural to bath with that kind of stuff. Takes away one’s natural scent.”
Mary looked at the filthy little man in his grimy robes.
It must be a long time between drinks for this one.
“And the rocks… are they necessary?”
Timberash shrugged. “Wouldn’t be there if they weren’t.”
Mary peered sceptically into the steamy depths of the baths. Did she really need a shower that badly? She looked down to inspect her dirty hands stained with dungeon filth and the scabrous growths clinging to her sweat suit. In a word: Yes.
She needed two baths.
“Thank you,” offered Mary.
Timberash bowed slightly and turned to walk away.
“Um… Timberash, old buddy?”
“Yes, Miss Horn?” he asked looked back over his shoulder.
“You couldn’t be a pal and rustle me up some food from the mess, could you? I don’t really want to show my face back in there after all the broken teeth and such.”
Timberash shrugged his little shoulders. “I live to serve, it seems.” He walked off muttering and shaking his head, kicking at imaginary stones with his cloven feet.
Mary walked into the bath house proper, selecting a tub furthest from the partition wall. She filled the wooden tub with hot water and selected a towel before quickly stripping down naked and jumping into the blessed water. She felt herself relax for the first time in what seemed an age. Nobody else was around to yell orders or ogle at her. It was the most time she had spent by herself awake and not locked in a dark cell in days.
She started to scrub her hands and face with soap and a brush. As she worked the soap to a lather, rubbing her hands vigorously over her scalp and through her hair she noticed two peculiar lumps on her head. Both were raised and quite painful to the touch. Had she been hit on the head? Were they bites? Mary could not give them a proper inspection there in the bath, so she decided to look more closely later, when she could get in front of a mirror.
The hot water did its magic, easing her pains and soaking her skin, loosening the tension in mind and body. Unfortunately she couldn’t stay all day. After ten minutes she got out of the tub, and dressed in nothing but a towel, cleaned her clothes as best as she could. She then wrung out her garments and dressed in the still wet clothing. Timberash was waiting for her outside, a simple meal laid out on a tray at his feet. Mary thought she had never been so excited to eat porridge and plain bread before. She had eaten half of the meal before she remembered that she had company.
“Thanks for your help, Timberash. I really appreciate all that you’ve done for me.”
The little man smiled a big buck-toothed grin back at her.
“It’s nothing, Miss Horn. Truth is I had nothing better to do. He doesn’t like me around the shop when customers are about.”
“That’s…” Mary struggled to find a fitting word that wasn’t offensive. “…unfortunate”
“It doesn’t bother me. I wasn’t hired for my good looks, you know. None of us were.”
“That’s for certain,” Mary muttered under her breath. “Hey, while you’re here, do you mind having a look at my head for me? I’ve got these two lumps on my head. They hurt like hell and I’m worried I should see a doctor or something.”
Timberash motioned for her to come closer. “Lemme have a look.”
Mary obliged and let him run his clumsy hands over her scalp, wincing when he bumped one of the lumps. Timberash parted her hair back to get a better look.
“Humph,” said the little man as he sucked on his beard. “Just as I thought…”
“You’re getting your first change. Horns by the looks of things. How fitting, you being a Horn and all.”
Mary wrenched her head back, her eyes wide in shock. “First change? What do you mean my first change?”
Timberash looked at her sadly. “Your first transformation. Didn’t you wonder why this shop is peopled by monsters? We all used to look like you.”
Mary’s mouth worked mutely as words failed her. She pressed her hands to her face and tears began to flow. “You mean I’m going to look like everyone out there?”
Timberash nodded his head slowly. “Yes. Well, not like everyone… we’re all a little different from each other after all.”
Mary suppressed a scream with her hands. It was added insult to injury. To be a captive amongst monsters was one thing, but to turn into one…
“How? Why?” Mary asked as she gingerly touched her budding horns.
Timberash shuddered and looked at the floor. “It’s his magic that does it. Wicked stuff it is… the very dregs of a noble art. Do you know anything about magic, Mary Horn?”
“I didn’t know that magic was real until a few days ago. So no, I don’t know a thing,” said Mary throwing her hands in the air.
Timberash shook his head and sighed. “I’ll tell you the basics then. Magic for most people is divided into seven major elements. Fire, earth, water, air, spirit, light and shadow. Most of the magical races have some innate talent regarding one or two of those elements. Your garden variety human, especially those born after the reformation in the afterlife, have no talent whatsoever. Our esteemed leader was once human – plain old boring old human, devoid of the spark needed for the true art. As legend says, he sold his soul to the devil, changing his very spirit and allowing him access to another element. His form of magic is complex… it’s made of all the elements and yet it’s not. It’s chaotic in nature, bordering on the true art yet deviating from all common methods. It’s very potent stuff but it is very difficult to control. Does any of that make sense?”
Mary wiped her nose on her sleeve and shook her head.
Timberash clasped his little hands together and bowed his head. “His bad magic is in you. That chaotic, powerful hoodoo is bound to you. It’s always active, watching you, reporting back to him when necessary, punishing you with pain. Every day it’s in you it changes you just a little bit more. And it doesn’t stop. I’ve seen guys that looked like crocodiles turn into birds or even fishy looking things over the space of a year.”
Mary winced and cradled her head in her arms. “Is there anything I can do to stop it? Anything at all?”
Timberash shook his head. “Not really. If you behave and avoid his punishments you might delay it. The only way to stop it completely is to get rid of it, and only he can do that.”
Mary got to her feet and started to pace back and forth.
“I can’t let that happen. I refuse to let him do that.”
Timberash sighed heavily and picked at his teeth and ears.
Mary kept talking to herself. “I need to honour my grandfather’s stupid bargain somehow. He wants Remy or something of an equal value. What does the heir to the throne fetch in price anyhow? And how will I find anything of value or pay my debt working in a kitchen?”
“You don’t work in the kitchen. You were fired, remember?” offered Timberash.
Mary gave him a dark look. “Thank you for reminding me.”
Timberash yawned and picked up the forgotten tray of food. “Well, if you don’t need me anymore I might return to my duties.”
Mary waved a hand at him distractedly. Timberash shook his head and started to walk down the dark tunnel. He stopped just before he was out of sight. “You could be one of those treasure hunter types!” he shouted back to her. “They find stuff all the time! It is their job, after all…”
Mary stopped in her tracks.
Certain death seemed like a better alternative than permanent disfigurement. At the moment at least. What else was she going to do? Sweep floors or carry boxes? How many floors did one have to sweep in order to buy a prince? Mary’s math may have been a little out but she was pretty sure it was a lot. If only she had paid more attention in those trigonometry lessons. Mary started to walk down the tunnel, head bowed in thought.
Live as a monster or die as girl?
She couldn’t decide.
She picked her way slowly to Petri’s office, her heart too heavy to walk with any pep. The door was open when she arrived. Petri sat at his desk reading an oversized leather bound book. Taking a deep breath Mary knocked on the door.
“Yes?” asked the quartermaster without looking up.
“Our master told me to see you, sir,” said Mary as she fidgeted with the sleeves of her jersey.
“Of course he did,” replied Petri, his attention still fixed on the book.
Mary waited for more of an explanation. Petri continued to read.
“Um… he told me that I wasn’t wanted in the kitchens anymore.”
Petri sighed and closed his book. Leaning back in his chair, he looked at Mary for the first time.
“That’s right. You’re not wanted anywhere really. Too volatile. Too… unsavoury.”
Mary bit back a surge of anger, regulated her breathing. “I was provoked on both occasions. Sir.”
“The soldiers provoked you, did they?” chuckled Petri. “I wonder if you earned their scorn for duping them when they brought you here.”
“They were harassing me!” burst out Mary. “They pinched and prodded and slapped me all day long.”
“And your uncle? Did he harass you too?”
“He was going to hit me,” replied Mary hotly. “Was I supposed to let him?”
“Yes,” said Petri, slapping the table with his hand. “Do you understand how curses work? Had he hit you, chained and bound as you were, our master would have had a debt over him. The spirits need something to work with: damaged honour, stolen property, murder, and so on. Your violent outburst, however, safely put him out of range for any curse to be effective.”
Mary shook her head in disgust. “You would let him beat me just so you could curse him?”
Petri shrugged. “Yes. He’s a much more valuable asset than you are.”
Mary felt a stab of anger push her towards another transformation.
…Crush the whinging prick…
She took several deep breaths and closed her eyes, mortified by the urges she was feeling. She would overcome these violent outbursts one way or another. “But what about the soldiers?” asked Mary through gritted teeth. “Did I owe them a good groping?”
“Should have come to me or Barnabas. We would have put a stop to it.”
Mary raised a hand, ready to argue her point but dropped it upon deeper reflection. She could have asked for help but didn’t. It was her fault in part for letting it progress further than it had to; instead, she resolved the issue at their level, with her hands instead of her head. Still, the soldiers and store workers should never have touched her or treated her so appallingly in the first place, and she certainly wasn’t going to lose sleep over a few broken bones. Mary gritted her teeth in frustration.
“What do I do now, sir?”
Petri shook his head. “I don’t know. You’ve just about rubbed everyone the wrong way since you’ve arrived. Kitchens don’t want you. Master doesn’t want you in the store near the customers or goods. The army would more likely kill you than let you serve… Seems you might be cleaning toilets for the rest of your miserable life.”
Live as a monster or die as a girl? Slavery or potential freedom?
Her options were limited and mean. “Is there any possibility I could work off my family’s debt by working here?”
Petri laughed aloud, high pitched and arrogant. “You owe him a kingdom! Do you really think you could pay that off by cleaning loos?” He cackled whilst drumming his cudgel on the desk.
Mary’s throat went dry. “What if I found you something? Something more valuable than a kingdom?”
Petri snorted. “Down a toilet bowl? Do you know Midas or something? Har!” The quartermaster wheezed out a gruff ear-piercing laugh, tears forming in his stone-crusted eyes.
Mary waited for him to quiet down, her patience on a knife edge. Petri’s laughter reduced down to a chuckle, him wiping his nose and eyes on his sleeve.
A deep breath. “What if I worked with those treasure hunters? The adventurers?”
Petri’s eyes went wide. He pointed a finger at her. “You? No, no. You wouldn’t survive a week with that lot.”
Mary placed her hands on her hips, raised her chin. “And why not?”
“It’s dangerous out there!” Petri cried. “It’s full of magical beasts and mythical heroes. You… you’re just a girl.” He said that last part like it was an insult.
“A girl that took on the best part of a private army and survived,” said Mary through a trademark Horn sneer.
Petri faltered. He slumped in his chair, lips quirked in thought. “Well, I suppose…” He scratched the back of his slimy green head. “I’ll have to clear it with him, of course.”
“But I could do it? I don’t have to be invited or anything?”
Petri shook his head. “No invite or we’d never get new recruits.”
“What’s stopping every monster and bogie from joining then?”
“You need to have a serious death wish or be very stupid to even want to join…”
Mary nodded primly. “May I go? Sir?”
Petri nodded absently, waved a hand towards the door. Turning on her heel, Mary made to walk out of the office. Petri’s words stopped her short though.
“One last thing, Horn. Before you race off and sign up…”
Mary turned her head to look at him. Petri was staring back at her with an odd, calculating look on his face. “Are you prepared to kill for what you want?”
The question shocked Mary. It was something she hadn’t considered. Could she take a life?
“I don’t know…” she replied meekly. “Probably not. I don’t know if I could live with myself afterwards.”
Petri couldn’t hide his nasty grin. “Just something to think about. Run along now. And give my regards to the Master Thief.”
Kyron Bell had expected her. The giant in golden armour smiled when he saw Mary awkwardly standing on the threshold to his holdings.
“Our latest find, ladies and gentlemen!” he roared with his confident voice, one hand pointing in her direction. “Our very own berserker from the emerald isle, with a touch of the wolf no doubt! Best our enemies lock up their sons and gather their spears!”
Dangerous men, women and beasts lounging in the circular room howled in approval. Kyron Bell stood from his simple wooden throne and strode across the room, arms held wide and a grin on his handsome face. Mary blushed at the attention. She flushed a deeper scarlet when the imposing man bent down and hugged her fiercely.
“What took you so long? I thought you’d be here days ago?”
Mary was unable to meet his eyes and looked down as she admitted, “They did throw me in prison for a while.”
“Like any dungeon could hold you!” Bell exclaimed as he nudged Mary in the shoulder. “There are just a few teensy, tiny little words to say, then you’re in,” he said leaning in and whispering loudly.
Mary nodded her head. Kyron flashed her a toothsome smile then beckoned her closer. Mary obliged, feeling reluctant and also slightly exhilarated at the welcome invitation to join this band of looters.
Kyron bell said in a loud voice, “I, Mary Horn, swear to do whatever Kyron Bell says to do.”
Mary rolled her eyes and sighed out the words, “I, Mary Horn, swear to do whatever Kyron Bell says to do.”
The giant red man put a cupped hand to his ear. “Sorry. What?”
“I, Mary, will do whatever Kyron Bell tells me to do,” she said with more gusto.
“One more time, sorry,” he said, raising a finger.
“I’ll do whatever you tell me to, I swear!” shouted Mary.
Kyron clapped his hands together three times, a big goofy grin on his face. Mary wasn’t sure but sparks seemed to fly when his hands met.
“Excellent! Come and meet your fellow adventurers, Mary,” said Bell as he took Mary’s elbow and escorted her into the hall. “They’re excited to welcome you properly.”
The adventurers didn’t seem at all excited. They regarded her through half-lidded eyes, bored and unchanging expressions on their faces. They lounged amongst low-set tables on fat cushions and exotic carpets that covered every inch of the floor and some of the walls. Tobacco smoke hung heavy in the air, and Mary was disturbed to see that many were into their cups as they polished and cleaned an array of weapons, including modern firearms.
“Now Miss Horn… Mary. May I call you Mary? Of course I can. I can do whatever I like! I’m the boss and you’re the not-boss,” rumbled Kyron as he steered her past snoozing adventurers sprawled out on cushions.
“I must formally introduce you to my closest lieutenants. My inner circle, if you will. Do you have a head for names? Well, too bad if you don’t. Remember these. If any names you ever needed to remember, it’s these devious bastards.”
He stopped in front of a table close to his throne, at which sat the upper hierarchy. With one hand on Mary’s shoulder, he gestured with the other. “This leopard-looking fellow is Heronitas, my middle eastern expert.”
Mary recognised the leopard from her day of waiting tables. He was the one with the short temper. Heronitas regarded her with a haughty scowl, one clawed hand drawing circles in the spilt ale on the table.
“The fellow next to him is Theotan, a bugbear of outstanding repute. He’s in a class above those dreadful dolts who watch the doors and do all the heavy lifting.”
Kyron leaned closer and whispered in Mary’s ear. “Made of only the finest donated hair that boy. He’s something like a son to all of us. He deals mainly in objects created by the fair folk or their cousins.”
Theotan nodded his head respectfully to Mary. He was dressed in ornate bronze armour that was made of overlapping segments that looked like the petals of a lotus flower. Dark symbols were engraved in fine patterns along the seams and joints. The clay on his face and hands seemed much smoother and in better condition than the other bugbears Mary had seen in the shop. He exuded the most exquisite aroma of flowers and herbs.
“Ah! The illustrious Iona!” exclaimed Kyron pointing to a dark woman with scaly skin. “When people say that poison is a woman’s game they are obviously talking about fair Iona. A master alchemist’s best friend!”
Iona rolled her eyes and gave Mary a smile. Kyron bellowed on.
“Rare ingredients are her game and no better player there is! Ah! And here is my good friend VaynWingspur, our resident expert on all things martial.”
Kyron indicated the woman sitting beside Iona. She sat hunched on a chair, ridiculously large wings bunched behind her. Long feathers crested her head like hair and shorter plumage ran down the back of her arms, which ended in bird like talons. She reminded Mary of an eagle, proud, all knowing and deadly. Vayn eyed Mary like a bird of prey would regard a mouse. Mary quickly looked away.
“And last but certainly not least is Jeremy Ballard, our trusted spy master. He is something of a bibliophile too. Don’t let his bookish, dowdy appearance fool you. Oh no. Jeremy is one of the worst. By worst I mean deadliest. After me of course…”
Jeremy sat at the end of table by himself with an almost hostile look on his face as he listened to Kyron. The man looked to be in his sixties, greying on top with deeply creased wrinkles forming over his face. He seemed fairly plain and almost human – until one of his wrinkles cracked open on his cheek to reveal a dark, bloodshot eye. Mary flinched at the ghastly sight. Jeremy smiled at her discomfort and, pausing to wink one of his normal eyes, opened the rest. Altogether he had three extra eyes, one on each cheek and another in the middle of his forehead. He wore an unassuming grey robe that was cinched with crossed bandoliers filled with ammunition. Pieces of a disassembled gun were scattered over a stack of charts and maps. Ignoring Mary and Kyron now, he bowed his head to consult the charts as he cleaned and reassembled the gun.
“So these are my most trusted comrades. Treat any order they give as one of mine. Unless I’ve explicitly told you otherwise of course. I am the boss after all! Ha ha!”
Mary nodded mutely, wondering if her new supervisor was always so inanely cheery. Kyron placed himself in front of Mary, smiled down at her with a confident grin, his red skin glowing orange in the yellow candlelight of the hall.
“You must have tonnes of questions, little one. Or not so little as the case may be, eh? So ask away.”
Mary hesitated, her mind still reeling after meeting everyone and the warm greeting she had been given by Bell.
“Um… do I have to kill anyone?”
Kyron looked at her askance. “Leave the jokes to me, Mary Horn.”
“I’m serious!” said Mary pouting. “I don’t want to kill anybody. I’m not that desperate…”
Kyron shrugged, his smile evaporating. “It’s all part of the job. We’re treasure hunters and adventurers, not boy scouts out on a lark. People die in our line of work. Us. Them. What did you expect when you came here?”
Mary looked at her feet. “I don’t know, sir. I was running out of ideas…”
“This one seems a bit meek to me, sir,” cut in Heronitas. “Perhaps you were too eager to have a fairy changeling in our ranks.”
Kyron snorted. “Did you not see her lay our master’s bodyguards to waste? She’s got a fighter’s spirit in her and the talent to boot. She just needs a little confidence is all.”
Heronitas crossed his arms and leaned back on his chair. “She beat the snot out of some unprepared watchdogs who were at breakfast, is what she did. Can she do that again? Out there where they won’t hesitate to cut her throat?”
“You are too hard on the girl, Heronitas,” spoke Iona softly. She had an accent that Mary couldn’t place, the vowels drawn out, the consonants clipped. “What were you capable of when you were her age? Pleasuring yourself more than twice a day?”
The table burst into laughter, including Heronitas. “I’d pleasure you more than twice daily if you gave me the chance,” Heronitas snorted.
Iona shook her head still laughing. “Dream on.”
Mary’s face went red and she looked down at the floor. Kyron placed a hand under her chin and tilted her head back up. “Stop looking down child. Cowardice is unbecoming on you.”
He regarded her a moment, his big white eyes impossible to read. He dropped his hand and turned towards the hall, eyes searching. “Lonagan! Come over here!”
The slender dark elf that had so rudely sniffed Mary extricated himself from a shadowed corner and glided across the room on his long agile legs. He faced Kyron, still wearing his ridiculous leather collar.
“My lord calls?” he asked, his melodic voice slightly muffled.
Kyron pointed his massive fist at Mary. “This young woman is our latest recruit. I want you to show her the ropes, get her used to how things run around here.”
Lonagan seemed taken aback. He looked at Mary, dark eyes full of scepticism, then back to Bell.
“My lord, are you sure I am the right one for this task? Are there no better teachers?”
Kyron glowered down at the slight elf.
“Did you just question my judgement?”
Kyron waited for an answer.
Lonagan looked at the floor and shook his head.
“I want you to show her the bloody ropes. And no, there are no better teachers, so buck up and get on with it.”
Lonagan bowed stiffly. “I am yours to command.”
Kyron sniffed. “Take her on the ‘Spring Heel’ job. That should be a nice easy one to sink her teeth into.”
Lonagan shot Mary a dark look before looking back up at Kyron. “Is that not too dangerous for a first timer?”
Kyron’s eyes flashed hotly; his teeth gnashed. “He’s just some crackpot in a costume terrorising young ladies. Maybe you could, I don’t know, use her as freaking bait in a freaking trap! Now get out of my sight and earn us some coin, you belligerent little elf. I’ve had enough of your lip.”
Lonagan backed away a step or two before grabbing Mary’s arm and leading her away.
“And bring her back in one piece or by the maker I’ll sell your pale hide to the light-elves!” bellowed Kyron after them as they passed through a door and into a long hallway lined with painted shields and other trophies of war.
“Where are you taking me?” asked Mary, panting at the brisk pace Lonagan set.
“To the bloody armoury.”
“What’s there?” asked Mary, her brain still reeling from the exchange.
Lonagan looked at her sceptically. “Weapons and armour. The tools of our trade.”
Lonagan let go of her arm and quickened his pace. At the end of the hall stood two massive doors banded in studded metal. There appeared to be no handles or keyhole.
“Press this one then this one, then that one. Then these two together. Got it?” Lonagan said gruffly as he depressed the innocuous looking studs hidden in plain sight.
Mary didn’t see a thing but couldn’t be bothered telling him. The doors swung open easily to reveal a remarkable sight. Mary looked about in awe. The room was crammed full of weapons and armour of every description. From racks laden with swords, spears and axes to stands of arranged armour from various nations and differing styles; it was a room dedicated to violence and death.
Mary felt an odd mix of excitement and dread. She didn’t want to kill anyone. She didn’t want to die, either. Frying pan or the fire; Mary felt like she was dowsing herself in kerosene and flirting with both simultaneously. She knew that she wouldn’t be able to back out now because of her feelings towards murder and death. Kyron and The Old Man had her right where they wanted her.
However, there was nothing saying that she had to kill someone, was there? All she had to do was avoid that particular chestnut. And buy her freedom while she was at it. And do it all before she transformed into god-knows-what. Mary decided she would play along, but by her rules only. She would be the ‘loyal’ adventurer for Kyron Bell but only because she desired her ultimate freedom. She would accept anything, do anything to earn that freedom, except murder or kill. Those were her only rules, no exceptions.
Mary looked again at the weapons gleaming in tight rows, razor sharp and deadly. A sword was only a tool was it not? It could be used defensively. It could save a life too. It all came down to the application.
Lonagan made his way towards a pile of derelict leather armour pieces and started sorting through the mess. Mary’s eyes were drawn to some suits of shining plate armour arranged on mannequins. They looked like the safest bet. Nothing could hurt her in one of those.
“This one looks like my size,” she called out cheerily, one hand tapping the chest piece.
Lonagan looked over his shoulder.
“No good. Too heavy.”
He resumed his search though the pile of tatty leather. Mary sighed and looked down the line of standing suits. Most were far too big for her, built for lumbering giants not teenage girls. She spotted a long mail hauberk that would probably fit her if it was tied at the waist with a belt. Casting a wary look at Lonagan, she carefully lifted the mail shirt, tongue sticking out with the effort. With a heave she lifted it over her head and wriggled in. The thing weighed a tonne. It pressed down on her shoulders and restricted the movement in her arms. She spun about in a circle and almost fell over as the momentum of the shirt kept on swinging.
Lonagan was looking at her, shaking his head. “I told you that stuff was no good… Unless you have the physique of a cage fighter under that tracksuit?”
Mary lifted it off her and dumped it on the ground. “Okay. What do you suggest then?”
Lonagan threw a scarred leather vest at her feet. “That.”
Frowning, Mary picked it up. “This thing doesn’t look like it could stop a wet towel.”
“It will turn a blade if you’re lucky and cushion your insides from a punch or a kick.”
“But what if someone shoots at me?” asked Mary.
Lonagan crossed his arms and sat on the edge of a crate.
“A bullet will go through plate just as well as leather. The trick is not to be found. Something almost impossible to do in full armour.”
“But is this it?” asked Mary whining. “One stupid vest?”
“I’ll find you some vambraces and some greaves to go with it…” sighed Lonagan. “Just try the damn vest.”
Mary slipped it over her head. It laced up along the sides with cord. Mary thumped her chest with a fist. It actually was quite firm and comfortable…
“A weapon of some sort. What do you prefer?”
“I can fence a little…”
Lonagan got to his feet and strode across the room towards a weapons rack. Without a pause he retrieved a slim sword with a dull black enamel sheath. “A rapier should do the trick,” he said, passing it to Mary.
Mary looked at the weapon in wonder, a feeling of excitement and trepidation coursing through her.
“Is it a magic sword?” she asked without thinking.
“Yes. It magically kills the bad guy when you stab him with it…”
Mary looked at her companion with a frown. “So it’s a normal sword. No magic?”
“No magic. Just a normal sword.”
Mary slid the sword out and tested a few swings and lunges.
“How’s the weight?”
“It’s a little heavier than I’m used to. I’ll get used to it.”
Lonagan shrugged and threw her a sheathed dirk. “Take that too.”
Mary caught it and stuffed it down the back of her tracksuit. “How about a shield or something?”
“Ever used a shield or something?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“Then no. Let’s just keep it simple, eh? How about a side arm?”
Mary nodded distractedly, her eyes scanning the rest of the room for something to add to her dismal arsenal. She was beginning to get excited. It was like a sort of Christmas for psychos. Despite her better judgment she found herself desiring the biggest, nastiest gun she could find; she discovered deep in herself a reptilian brain function which sought peace through overwhelming firepower. A range of firearms caught her eye on the far wall. She skipped over and ran her hands along the impressive selection.
She hefted up two automatic rifles and promptly began to pretend she was in an action film. She turned to Lonagan, barrels hot from annihilating imaginary Jerry. He shook his head and pointed back at the rack.
“Put those back.”
“Do you know how to use it?”
“No. But you could teach me?”
“I don’t have time. We’re going out tonight if you didn’t notice. Now stop playing games. This is serious.”
Mary sighed and returned the guns to their cradles. Lonagan went to a crate in the corner and sorted through a pile of antique pistols. Mary frowned and picked at the loose leather on the grip of her rapier.
“Ah. Here it is.”
Lonagan held up the most ungainly, un-lethal looking pistol that anyone could ever have the misfortune of finding. The barrel was long and ended in a wide cone. The handle was made from what looked like worm-eaten swamp wood. Lonagan cocked open the chamber and looked down the barrel.
He tossed it to Mary who caught it awkwardly with her free hand.
“What is it?”
“It’s a one-of-a-kind prototype. Single shot, blunderbuss cross. Small gauge. Short distance. Made for someone who can’t shoot very well. Good in a tight space. This has your name written all over it.”
Mary looked at it in dismay.
“It looks like a piece of junk.”
“Be that as it may, it’s your piece of junk to own and cherish.”
Mary looked at the meagre armaments she had been given, then at her companion’s. Lonagan had a collection of modern automatic machine pistols strapped to different parts of his body and a bevy of daggers and throwing knives sheathed on his belt. She didn’t feel particularly confident in the huge disparity between her and him.
“When do I get to use the good stuff?”
“When you’ve proven yourself.”
“You mean when I haven’t blown my foot off or died?”
“You don’t have much faith in me do you?”
“None at all.”
Mary looked at the floor, visions of painful death playing through her head. Did she really want to do this? Was it too late to back out? She shuddered as she shrunk an inch. Too down to care, she let her quirk run its course. Lonagan studied her a moment. A sly look seemed to bloom in his eyes.
“Leave this stuff here with me a moment. I want you to go to our tailor. I can’t have you running around in some scruffy old tracksuit in the night. Go back down the way we came. Third door on your right.”
Mary nodded and dumped her gear on the floor, ignoring the stern look Lonagan gave her on the way out. She shuffled down the hallway towards the tailor’s room. The door was slightly open. She knocked twice and then let herself in. Inside was a spacious well-lit room with a high ceiling. Bolts of material were stacked against the walls and in the centre stood a dozen mannequins of various shapes and builds. The mannequins were dressed in suits of darkened leather or plain material much like the outfit Lonagan wore. Mary touched one of the mannequins. The texture of the material was odd, rather flexible, slightly sticky – and strong. Mary had never seen anything like it before. Between her fingers, it felt like silk but much thicker.
“Exquisite, isn’t it, my little thief?” asked a voice.
Mary dropped her hand guiltily and looked about her. There was no-one else in the room.
“I spun that myself. Some of my best work, if I do say so myself. Have you come to steal it?” called the creepy voice.
Mary still could not see anyone but she felt the voice getting nearer. She raised her hands and began to back away. “Um… I was only looking. Honest. I’m no thief.”
“Pfft. You’re all thieves. Every last one of you,” scoffed the voice.
“Even that Kyron Bell is, though he would tell you otherwise. ‘I’m a liberator!’ he says. ‘A seeker for truth and a finder of the lost!’ Hogwash, I say. Not an honest bone in his body…”
The speaker was only a few feet from Mary now. She looked left and right, eyes wide and fists ready.
“We are all thieves of some degree, little Miss, or else we wouldn’t be working here.”
Mary felt a prickling on the nape of her neck. Slowly she looked up.
Hovering above her was the biggest spider she had ever seen. Eight feet long at the bare minimum, it peered back at Mary with eight mismatched eyes, and tusk-sized mandibles clicking. Parts of its anatomy resembled a woman’s but only in an abstract sense. It had six ‘arms’ and two ‘legs’ that were black and segmented like a bug’s carapace. It slowly rappelled down a thick line of silk and came to a rest on the floor. Horrified, Mary backed away from the nightmarish creature.
“Oh, Kyron’s found a fresh one, hasn’t he? Yummy…” hissed the creature as it scuttled forwards. Mary bumped into something and stopped. The spider reared up on its hind legs, arms splayed wide. Mary had nowhere to run. She closed her eyes and whimpered her goodbyes. The beast touched her here and there gently. Mary could feel the soft pads of the spiders hands pushing into her arms, her legs, her back. Mary scrunched down into the corner and screwed her eyes tighter while she waited for the inevitable. There was nothing else she could do.
The beast lifted her arms and started cutting Mary’s clothes away. Soon the girl was standing in nothing but her underwear, shivering and praying to anybody listening that death wouldn’t hurt too much.
“Turn around, would you, dear?” asked the spider politely with a silky voice.
Mary cracked an eye open. The spider had a tape measure pressed to her inner thigh. “What are you waiting for?” asked Mary sobbing.
“For you to turn around you silly girl. Your clothes aren’t going to spin themselves.”
The spider placed her hands on Mary’s shoulders and gently encouraged her around.
Mary quivered as the spider ran her hands over her shoulder blades.
“So you’re not going to eat me?”
“Eat you? I’m trying to dress you, you silly thing. Now stop shaking and stand up straight or your suit will be several inches too short.”
Mary sighed in relief. “You had me for a second there, you know…”
The spider paused. “I know. I was there. Heard the screams and everything. Thanks for not squishing me by the way, or reaching for the fly spray…” she added sarcastically.
Mary laughed nervously.
“So who have they put you with?”
“Lonagan,” replied Mary
“Ah… the dark elf. You’ll be needing this in black then…”
“Do you know him well?”
“He’s a dreary chap. Quite the worker though. You’ll learn a lot from him. Not bad for a dark elf all and all… Here try this on.”
The spider tailor handed Mary a one-piece suit of darkest black. It looked tight and uncomfortable and she didn’t particularly like the idea of wearing something made from spider’s silk. Unwilling to upset a giant spider, however, Mary nodded and slithered into the outfit.
“How is that, my dear?” asked the spider regarding her over crossed arms.
“It’s… great.” Though tight, the suit was extremely flexible and comfortable. It seemed to mould itself perfectly to Mary’s body. “How do you stop it from sticking to everything?”
“Trade secret. Come over and look in the mirror dear.”
The spider led Mary to a freestanding mirror. She liked what she saw. She looked dangerous. She looked assassin-like.
“Hhmm…” rumbled the spider. “I do believe that it is my best work to date.”
Mary posed in the mirror, alternating between her dangerous and glamorous looks.
“It breaths better than cotton, is stronger than steel yet is softer than feather down. Truly, I am a genius,” boasted the spider.
“You should patent this. Everybody should have one!” exclaimed Mary.
“Alas, dear child, there is only one of me, and try as I might, my weaving abilities are severely limited. I’m sure our dear Master would be delighted to milk every last drop from me should he ever discover the source of our exalted department’s attire.”
“You mean he doesn’t know? The Old Man?” asked Mary. “How have you kept this a secret?” she said, indicating the suit.
The spider shook her head. “You have much to learn about the goings on in this shop, dear. He doesn’t concern himself with the hows and whys of our department. We are left to our own devices. I think he has lost his… passion for the job. Many years ago, he oversaw every mission and artefact. But now… our master is simply satisfied to receive his goods and fill his store. More’s the better I say. We have more freedom, more room to do things the way we want.”
“Mum’s the word,” whispered Mary buttoning her lips. “How much do I owe you?”
The spider seemed to sag. “Not a thing, my dear. It was my pleasure.”
“Okay. Well thanks anyway.”
“You’re more than welcome.”
Mary started for the door. She hesitated in the threshold. “Is there nothing I can get for you? As a token of my gratitude?”
The spider scratched its smooth head with one of its vicious clawed hands.
“You could bring me some of those gossip magazines. The ones with all of the latest fashions. I’m so out of the loop down here in this smelly dungeon.”
Mary nodded. “I know exactly what you are talking about. I’ll see what I can find.”
The spider gave her a dreadful smile and, quick as a flash, was scurrying back up to her ceiling perch. Mary wondered if a fly ever saw a similar grin just before it was snagged, wrapped and eaten.
Lonagan was busy repairing some blackened leather straps when Mary returned to the armoury. “Still in one piece, I see,” he said.
“She was lovely,” said Mary. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Maybe it’s only the rude ones which get eaten ,” he said, shrugging. He threw a pile of leather junk at Mary’s feet. “Put that on. And quickly. The sun is almost down and Spring-heeled Jack will be out.”
Mary buckled on a pleated leather skirt much like the Roman soldiers had worn, a leather chest piece, vambraces, gauntlets and modern army boots. Lonagan had fashioned a makeshift holster for her ungainly firearm which was slung on the opposite hip of her rapier. She felt every inch the adventurer. Lonagan looked her up and down, a hint of mischief in his eyes.
“Let’s go and have some fun, shall we?”
Light and dark
It had been another dull day of boring lessons and hostile classmates at Pennysworth Normal School. John was struggling with his new identity as a teenage student. It was supposed to be a distraction while he hid from the coming war. Instead, he found himself angry and depressed every school day. He was above being lectured to by mortals younger than himself and he should not have to concern himself with the opinions of simple-minded, acne-ridden yokels. Life with the mortals was not what he expected.
And there weren’t even any girls of interest. He had expected some to be curious at least about his looks – here he stood out as quite different, even exotic. But these humans, they were just so… boring.
Where were the friends he had expected to make, impressed with his advanced education and physical prowess?
Where were the pool parties and sleepovers he had heard so much about?
Where was Mary Horn?
John missed his only friend. She hadn’t been to school since the magical storm had torn through Pennysworth. John and his guardian had fought the monstrous gale for hours, diverting the worst of the winds away from their neighbours. Their efforts hadn’t been enough. Men and women from all over the small county were still cleaning up the destruction. Many students had stayed home from school to help their parents fix damaged property or replant lost harvests. Schoolyard rumour had it that several people had died as well.
Did that include Mary?
The school was emptying after the last bell. John walked alone through the corridors, his sensitive ears picking up words like ‘freak’ and ‘loser’ as he passed students heading for the exit. Sighing, John made his way to the stone boundary where he had first met Mary. It was an ideal place for his particular magic with little iron about, good sun and a natural border.
John called the light.
It answered in a rush of heat and radiance, transporting him several kilometres away to Mary’s house. He appeared on the road, the tar smoking in a ring beneath his feet. Several feet away was the large gate of iron barring his way to Mary’s home. John could feel the spiteful metal from that distance, radiating its hate for his kind. John hissed and backed away. Through the metal bars he could see that the old house had been damaged. There were gaping holes in the tiled roof and several windows had been boarded up.
John frowned. He and his guardian had been instructed by Mr Horn not to visit him openly. He wasn’t going to wait for an invitation on this occasion.
John looked along the stone wall. Pieces of rusted iron showed through the gaps of the stone every few metres. He could possibly climb over the wall, so long as he didn’t touch the blasted metal, but he would be severely drained when he reached the other side and would likely need several days rest to replenish his reserves. Instead, John started down the road, following the course of the wall. Perhaps there was another way in.
After half an hour of walking, John had gone halfway around the Horn estate, passing derelict orchards and wild pastures. Far from the road and hidden in a dense woodland was a hole in the wall. Pieces of stone and iron lay in messy piles, torn and pulled from the wall by hand or by tool. The earth had been churned to pieces by heavy footprints leading from the woods into the estate grounds. Fearing the worst, John slipped through the gap and ran towards the house. Thankfully, he soon left the horrid iron and its insipid taint behind. John passed through stony pastures, startling woolly sheep and wild horses from their grazing and entered the rough and overgrown gardens. Here he slowed to a walk and crept up to the house using the shrubs and bushes as cover. He stopped behind a gnarled elm a short distance from the back of the house to spy.
John waited patiently, watching for movement. After several minutes without a sign, he edged tentatively forwards. As his foot touched the crushed coral that surrounded the house, an almighty wail spoiled the peace.
“Ljósálfar! Ljósálfar! Ljósálfar!”
John looked up at the roof. Dozens of miniature stone gargoyles were jumping up and down, pointing little clawed fingers in John’s direction.
“Burn me. I forgot about you,” muttered John to himself.
Screaming and yelping their battle cries, the gargoyles dropped from the roof. Most of the grotesque beasts bounced off the ground and lumbered towards John with hands outstretched. Some of the unfortunate creatures shattered on impact, sending body parts flying in every direction.
“I come in peace!” yelled John.
The gargoyles continued their charge without pause.
John summoned his talent to transport to safety. Burning light enveloped him, pulling John away. Something was wrong, however, and he only moved a foot in the air. The damned iron around the grounds was putting him off.
The gargoyles, having closed the distance, leapt at him, clawing, punching and, biting at his legs. John fought back, kicking and deflecting the stone-critters away. His defence had little effect on the gargoyles, who quickly recovered and charged with renewed fury.
Desperate and, still a little drained from his proximity to the iron, John once again summoned his element. It answered reluctantly. White hot light flared in each palm, spitting and arcing as the air turned to plasma.
“I’m warning you! Stay back!” urged John.
The gargoyles stopped to hiss and spit curses in reply then rushed forward, attempting to overwhelm the light-elf.
John unleashed his magic, sending bolts of energy at the wave of stone, blasting holes through head and chest. The hurt creatures fell to pieces, as whatever art animating them unravelled. The gargoyles pressed on, stepping over their fallen comrades as they closed in around John. One creature slipped past his defences and grabbed a leg, jerking him off balance. John’s concentration lapsed and his summoned magic fled. More of the gargoyles reached him and pulled him down. They piled on top of him, pressing him into the earth. John gasped as the wind was knocked out of him. His vision dimming, John attempted one final act.
Remy had been repairing the walls he had knocked over during his fight with The Old Man’s minions when he heard the alarm. The words rang through the house like a bell – Ljósálfar! Ljósálfar! Ljósálfar!
Remy dropped his tools and ran back towards Mary’s room to check on his family.
Light elves in Pennysworth? How did they find us?
He met Laedwynn in the hallway, striding down the corridor with their son in her arms, her beautiful face twisted by rage.
“By the seven-circles-of-blackest-Hell, Husband! What is going on now?” she demanded in her native language.
“I have no idea, darling,” replied Remy. “I heard the alarm and came running.”
“Take the child then,” snapped Laedwynn as she handed over their son. “I will investigate, you useless deadweight…”
“But it might be dangerous,” stammered Remy as he held the baby delicately.
It was no use. Laedwynn was gone. Remy looked at his pale grey child, who in turn, frowned back at his father. “You are so much like your mother,” sighed Remy.
Laedwynn had disappeared into shadow. Her essence spread outwards, searching for the disturbance. She crept though every dark corner and hidden space, no more than a shade herself. From her hidden vantage, she saw a pile of stone gargoyles writhing in a heap several metres from the back of the house. Laedwynn gathered herself back together, stepping out of the shadow of an elm tree and watched. White-hot light suddenly appeared through the gaps of the little creatures. It intensified, cloaking the gargoyles in a raging ball of fire. Laedwynn crouched behind the tree and covered her eyes. The mountain of gargoyles erupted, flinging fragments of molten rock in a wide circle. The light died down.
Laedwynn peered around the tree. Standing in the middle of a small crater was a young Ljósálfar, his clothes burnt and in tatters. Beneath the smoking garments he wore the thin copper-alloy armour of his kind, a shade redder than his own skin. Golden ichor ran from minor wounds to his arms, neck and face. Small fires bloomed around him as the molten rock set the shrubs and hedgerows alight. He paid them no heed. His attention was fixed on the house.
Laedwynn ducked back into shadow. Her kind was at a disadvantage during the day against the much stronger ‘lords of light’. Her only hope was to catch him unaware with a lethal strike and end the fight before it began. It was foolish for a Dökkálfar to attack a seasoned Ljósálfar warrior while the sun was up. This boy seemed inexperienced, however, and Laedwynn liked her chances.
But why he was here? Never mind, she didn’t care. Laedwynn would gladly kill one of her ancestral enemies without provocation. If by chance he was here for her or the babe, it made the murder all the sweeter.
Laedwynn skirted behind the intruder, slinking from shadow to shadow. All she had to do was close the distance and strike.
Pain wracked him from head to foot. John’s entire body was bruised from the gargoyles’ crushing weight, not to mention the bites and cuts they had given him. John breathed deeply and focused on ignoring the discomfort. He got to his feet unsteadily and looked at the stone house. He was more than a little wary of entering after the rude reception he had just received.
To be fair, Mr Horn did warn me to stay away…
John tore the remaining scraps of his school uniform off. Luckily, he wore his armour beneath, just as his guardian had advised. He would have been dead without it just now. John summoned his flagging talents and strode towards The House of Horn.
He was halfway to the door when he sensed the attack. He felt the light change behind him, signifying a large mass moving fast. John quickly dived to his left, dodging a thrust of solid shadow. He rolled to his feet, a ball of burning light in each fist. A Dökkálfar assassin cloaked in darkness was standing where he had been with two swords of darkness scything through the air. John dodged backwards, unleashing a blast of searing light at the dark-elf. The shade was torn apart, spilling dark matter over the ground.
John relaxed at the sight of the fallen assassin.
“Dökkálfar? What is going on here?”
Too late, his element-attuned senses warned him of an attack.
It struck him from behind, tearing, clawing and freezing his exposed flesh. John howled in pain, the agony overwhelming his thoughts.
Laedwynn had used a decoy to put him off balance while she prepared her real attack. The young Ljósálfar was down, his own, stronger magic trumped without a source to draw from. Laedwynn smiled and poured on her violent shadow. She would rend the boy to nothing.
From out of nowhere, a fervent tunnel of wind trapped her, spinning her wildly into the air. Panicking, Laedwynn let go of her shadow magic as she was dashed against the ground. Winded, she got to her feet.
Meanwhile, the Ljósálfar had recovered from Laedwynn’s attack. He stood facing her, breathing deeply, his skin raw and bleeding.
“I will raze the flesh from your bones, dark-spawn!” he growled in their native tongue.
“I will devour your coward heart, cloud-licker!” spat Laedwynn.
The two elves leapt at each other across the expanse of ground as spells formed in their hands.
A lightning-bolt split the earth between them. Both elves stopped mid-stride and searched for the source.
Stephen stood in the doorway to his home, his cane pointing at the two elves and crackling with potential. “I will incinerate the first of you to make a move,” he said slowly.
Laedwynn and John looked at each other then back at Stephen.
“Now move apart and dispel your magic,” commanded the old man.
The Dokkalfar and Ljósálfar glowered at each other for a moment. John released his summoned light and walked several paces away from Laedwynn, his eyes flicking between Stephen and the dark-elf. Laedwynn smiled slyly and folded her arms.
“That’s better,” said Stephen. “Now explain what is going on. What brings you here to my home, Prince?”
Laedwynn gasped and arched an eyebrow at the light-elf.
“I was looking for Mary, Mr Horn,” replied John steadily despite his wounds. “I was worried when she didn’t turn up for school after the storm. My fears were justified when I found tracks leading from the woods into your grounds. I crossed the boundary seeking to give you aid. It was then that I was attacked by this filthy mud-dweller,” he said pointing at Laedwynn.
“That filthy mud-dweller happens to be my grandson’s wife,” replied Stephen coldly.
John gasped and looked at Laedwynn.
“Did she attack you before or after you set off the alarm and reduced my gargoyles to slag?” asked Stephen.
“Afterwards,” said John meekly.
“Right, so she attacked you after the magical alarm went off – the same magic that has protected my family for generations without incident. The magic that you have reduced to piles of rubble?” said Stephen, pointing his cane at the smoking ruins.
“Yes,” said John.
Stephen scowled at John. “I do hope that is enough damage you are planning on doing to my house today. As you can see, we have had more than our share recently,” he said, indicating the building.
Laedwynn smirked at John and started to walk away.
“Where do you think you’re going? I have words for the both of you,” snapped Stephen.
Laedwynn froze in place.
“I will not have the two of you tearing up the county on some mad, pointless death feud,” lectured Stephen, stabbing the cane at both elves. “If either of you wish to stay here in Pennysworth and all of the safety it provides, I demand you take an oath.” He gave both Laedwynn and John a look which plainly told them he would not take no for an answer.
Laedwynn studied her feet while John went a deeper shade of red.
“Make peace or leave,” said Stephen. “Those are your only options.”
“I will swear to peace,” said John through gritted teeth. “Though my ancestors howl and curse my name.”
“I swear,” purred Laedwynn mockingly. “No harm blow-hard when he in the Pennysworth.”
“Good enough,” said Stephen, relaxing finally. “Would you care to come inside, your Grace? We have wine and can see to your wounds. Laedwynn, would you please fetch your husband.”
Laedwynn disappeared inside, giving John a dirty look in passing.
“Pay no attention to her, your Grace. This way, please,” said Stephen as he led the way inside.
John paused in the foyer. “By the creator! What happened here?” he exclaimed.
“Ah,” replied Stephen. “We will get to that in due time. I’ll fetch us something to drink first.”
Remy appeared at the top of the stairs, breathing heavily as his skin flushed red. “Stephen, we need to talk.”
Stephen sighed. “Please, take a seat through here,” he told John as he indicated the door to the sunroom. “I won’t be long.”
John gave Remy a disapproving look before he turned on his heel and walked into the sunroom, closing the door behind him.
“What the hell, Stephen,” whispered Remy. “You bought one of them into this house? Are you mad?”
“Relax,” soothed the older man. “It’s all part of the greater plan. Now fetch a bottle of our best pinot and put on your best behaviour. We need to charm the pants off this one.”
The hunt for Spring-heeled Jack
Lonagan’s plan was very simple: Travel around Olde London until they caught this ‘Spring-heeled Jack’ turkey and catch him. It was so simple you could call it stupid, and it involved a lot of walking and climbing. Mary was grateful to be free from The Old Man’s dungeon for a spell, but her new boots were torturing her feet and Lonagan hadn’t stopped for as much as a sip of water since they left. He was always ahead of her, head bowed to the ground or craned to the sky, searching. He only spoke to her when she lagged behind or asked questions.
Be quiet and stay close!
She had lost count how many times he had said those words. It dawned on Mary quite early in the evening that he didn’t want or need her help. She was a third wheel on this particular adventure. And what of the adventure anyway? It was merely an assignment to catch some pervert in a funky magical costume that was terrorising Olde London in the night. According to Lonagan, there was a bounty out for his arrest. But The Old Man was more interested in his costume and already had a buyer lined up to acquire it. So their job was to catch this guy and retrieve his spooky getup in one piece. That meant no bullets or decapitations – which kind of put a dampener on things for Mary. She had these new weapons and was eager to test them.
“Hurry up. And be quiet! You make enough noise for three people!” hissed Lonagan from ahead of her. She stared daggers at his back and scrambled to keep up.
Maybe she should test them on him.
They came out of a narrow alleyway and onto a busy sealed road. It was a lively part of Olde London, filled with derelict taverns, modest restaurants and dingy theatres. Mary couldn’t get over how different everything looked. It was like there was no fixed time period for the architecture, design or fashion. Posters declaring out-dated products and vaudeville programs were stuck next to (what she hoped were) old propaganda slogans. The only common theme was the lack of cleanliness. Victorian and Edwardian dressed gentlemen mixed with girls dressed in tight vinyl skirts and sweeping bell-bottom jeans, the odd knight in shining armour walking through the crowd thrown in for good measure.
Men and women hawked wares from rickety carts or beat-up vans, anything from compact disk players to ribbons and thread to meat pastries.
Lonagan forced his way through the crowd, face obscured beneath a wide brimmed hat and one hand casually placed near a holstered pistol. Nobody seemed to care that he was armed to the teeth; in fact, many of them were in some fashion. Mary kept the tall elf in her sights and trailed along behind him a short distance, one hand always close to her rapier.
He took a turn into a quieter street and stopped outside of a rundown public tavern called ‘The Ox and Mule’.
“Wait outside,” he said as Mary caught up to him.
Mary looked through the grimy window to the low ceilinged hovel inside. “That’s fine by me.”
“It wasn’t a question,” replied Lonagan gruffly as he let himself inside.
Mary sighed and leaned against the brick wall. With nothing else to do she took stock of her surroundings. The street was narrow and filled with brick, two-storey town houses, their walls dirty and the windows filthy. Here and there curtains twitched as faces peered out into the night, faint lamplight betraying their surreptitious glances. People out walking alone watched every shadow, their bodies tense. Others swaggered by in groups, often with weapons drawn. The people of this part of Olde London seemed to be on edge. She wondered if was all due to this Jack pervert. Some of the rude stares she received told her that it probably wasn’t the case. These people lived a harsh life in a mean environment; Spring-heeled Jack was just one scum-element of a scummy part of town.
As she waited, Mary’s thoughts turned to herself. Lonagan had left her alone. If she made a run for it, could she get help? Find someone to lift The Old Man’s curse?
It was worth a shot. With a quick glance at the tavern, Mary turned and walked back down the street. After a dozen paces she became nauseous. After two dozen her legs began to shake and she had stomach cramps. At three dozen her head began to spin and her vision swam. Mary stopped and turned back around. Head down and panting, she plodded back to Lonagan. Every step she took seemed to lessen her burden. When she got back to the exact spot the elf had left her she felt whole again. Mary bowed her head and covered her face with her hands. It was hopeless to even to conceive of running away from The Old Man’s clutches.
“What do we have here, lads?”
The noise startled Mary. She looked up from her hands, her distraught feelings quickly giving way to a defensive pose. Four slab-faced brutes were staring at her, malice written on their flat, ugly faces. The leader spoke again, “How much do you cost, darling?”
“I’m not for sale,” growled Mary.
“Why? Who bought ya? I’ll pay double.”
Mary felt a flash of anger and the stirrings of a transformation. She fought through the pain, trying to keep her sanity in check.
“Look boys, I’m not one of those… women. So just bug off. I’m working.”
The men spread out in front of Mary, knuckles cracking and billy-clubs swinging.
“Well, we run this here part of the Olde, and we take a fee from all workers. Of the night or otherwise. So pay up.”
Mary pressed herself flat against the wall, her anger giving way to fear.
“I’ve got nothing to offer.”
“Well, tell you what… How about we come to another arrangement?” The leader grinned and licked his fat lips.
“She’s with me, Fennimore,” said Lonagan, stepping out of the tavern.
The thug turned his thick neck at the interruption, a forced smile blooming on his rough face when he recognised Lonagan.
“Ah, Master Lonagan! Should have known she was one of yours. What brings you to our part of town?”
The thugs all backed away from Mary a pace or two, hands wringing together and staring at the floor. Lonagan gave them all a level stare from beneath his wide brimmed hat, one hand casually resting on the pommel of his long sword. An awkward pause stretched out uncomfortably long. Lonagan crossed his arms.
“We are looking for the vagrant known as Spring-heeled Jack.”
Fennimore raised a scarred eyebrow. “Him will be hard to catch… Prefers to haunt the richer ‘burbs, I hear. Better class of women and all…” he said jerking his thumb down the road.
“So I’ve heard,” said Lonagan, taking the hint. “We will leave you gentlemen to your noble business.”
Lonagan walked towards the thugs who grudgingly parted to let him pass. Mary didn’t need any cue to follow. He strode quickly back down the way they had come, eyes searching the rooftops.
“Who were those guys?”
Lonagan ignored her.
“Why didn’t you cleave them in twain or fill them full of lead?”
Lonagan gave her a questioning look over his shoulder. “Why didn’t you?”
Mary chewed her bottom lip as she thought of her answer. “I didn’t want to.”
“That’s funny. Neither did I.”
Mary looked at the weapons she sported then at Lonagan’s departing back. She had the feeling that she had just failed a test. She wasn’t too sure if this life of adventure and street brawls was for her after all.
They walked on for some time and eventually arrived in a more affluent suburb. The streets were broader and cleaner with less graffiti and no bills plastered on every surface. The houses had wide stone steps and faux columns leading up to large doors with glass windows and stained brass fittings. Everything seemed well-made if slightly antiquated and worn. The few people on the street all travelled in groups with weapons handy. Lonagan stopped in the middle of the street with his hands on his hips, eyes on the rooftops, while people passed left and right of him, giving him suspicious looks.
“What are we waiting for?”
“Looking for a way up for you.”
Mary looked about dumbly. “Way… up?”
“Try that gap between those two houses. Should be able to shimmy up… maybe,” said the elf, pointing across the street. He leapt across the street in one fantastic bound and clung to the bare stone surface of the building. In the blink of an eye he clambered up the face of the wall and onto the slate roof. “Don’t just stand there!” he called to her as he sat down cross-legged.
Mary could barely comprehend what had just happened. Lonagan had moved so fast and had climbed a sheer wall effortlessly. Did he expect her to do the same? Mary shuffled over to the small gap Lonagan had indicated. It was just wide enough for her to press her back against one of the walls and her feet against the other. Slowly and not so surely she inched her way up the side of the building. Soon she had run out of real estate to climb up and her head was brushing the soffit. She looked left and right for something to grab a hold of. Nothing was in reach unless she moved forward from her current position.
“Lonagan! A little help, please!”
She heard a sigh and a black-gloved hand appeared over the guttering. Mary grabbed on for dear life as the elf hoisted her up and onto the roof. She sat there for a moment, sucking in air and massaging the kinks out of her aching legs and back.
Lonagan knelt a meter or two away, regarding her over his leather veil.
“I would have spread my legs and hands in your position, much like the shape of a star, shifting the weight from my hands to my feet and back as I climbed. Much faster and better options.”
“Well thanks for the input,” said Mary. “I’ll remember that next time I can’t find the stairs.”
Lonagan shrugged. “Just saying…”
Mary got to her feet and looked back down at her ascent. She felt a little dizzy and more than a little proud for getting up without falling and breaking her neck.
“How did you do it so easily?” she asked.
Lonagan tilted his head slightly as he looked at her.
Are you for real? He seemed to ask.
“I am Dökkálfar. I am a master of everything below the earth and stone. All of its secrets and lore belong to my kind. I didn’t climb the brick wall so much as I slid up it.”
“Oh…” said Mary nodding her head. “Could you show me how?”
“Are you a dark elf?”
“Not that I am aware.”
“Then no. A bird cannot teach a fish how to fly, or so the saying goes,” said Lonagan shaking his head.
Mary chewed her lip as she thought. “What can I learn then?”
Lonagan shrugged his shoulders. “What is your heritage? The different races have access to different elements.”
“Part fairy, part wolf,” said Mary as she ticked off her fingers. “Part human, part fish-man and part elf – or so I’m told.”
Lonagan sat next to her and dangled his feet over the edge of the roof.
“What do you know exactly?” he asked her.
“Nothing at all,” replied Mary. “I did see my brother do some water thing and shape-shift into a berserker. Does that help?”
Lonagan sighed and looked at the stars.
“The Sidhe or fairies as you call them, have access to some form of spiritual magic. That much you know, right? Theirs is a strange art though, and varies from family to family, or so I’ve heard. I do know that some can access another element. Again, that depends on your parent’s ability. They can change sizes and appearance, yeah? Like I’ve seen you do? You say you have the wolf in you too, so you’re of The Sons of Remus. They are chiefly of a spiritual magic. Shape-shifting and spirit talking are some of their abilities.”
Mary’s eyes widened. Something suddenly clicked. Sons of Remus? As in, Romulus and Remus? The founders of Rome? That was a fairy-tale from her history class. That couldn’t be true.
You’re complaining about fairy-tales? You are a fairy, numbwit!
Questions buzzed in her head, but Lonagan continued.
“But you got a whole mix of stuff in you, girl. You’re one complicated creature, I tell you. The fish-man bloodline I’m guessing is Fomorian. Water is their staple but some can control the winds. As for the elven blood, I couldn’t tell you more unless you specified light or dark. And as far as humans go… nothing much ever comes from them. They do however carry a soul which is more than I can say for…”
Lonagan’s voice trailed off towards the end, his head hanging as he thought.
Mary was bubbling with excitement. “So I can do all of that stuff? Water and wind and spirit and stuff? Cool… I can’t wait to learn some hoodoo and go flying around the place, blasting dudes with my magic rays.”
Lonagan gave her a level look. “Having that kind of mixed heritage may not be to your advantage. Diluting the bloodlines dilutes the power. You may not be able to do anything.”
Mary slumped. “So I’m just a good-for-nothing mongrel like my uncle told me?”
Lonagan got to his feet and held out a hand. “You are not good for nothing. You shape-shifted and beat the jam out of two dozen armed men. I’d call that a good start.”
“I can’t control it though,” said Mary. “It only comes when I’m angry and all I want to do is fight.”
“Then master it. Here and here…” said the elf, pointing at his head and heart.
Mary took Lonagan’s hand and got to her feet. She dusted the grime off her new outfit and looked about. Olde London’s rooftops were laid out before her in a sprawling jumble; a sea of pitched slate, basins of brick, waves of shingle, islands of sturdy chimneys and outcrops of antenna.
“Where do we begin?” she asked the night.
“Look,” said Lonagan, pointing. “I’ve found tracks.”
The pair crept across the roofs of Olde London, Lonagan in the lead and Mary bringing up the rear with her blunderbuss at the ready. The dark elf was tracking something imperceptible to Mary’s sight. She assumed it was another one of his magical secrets that she would never be privy to. At several points they had to cross the street to the other side. Each time they crossed, Lonagan would take Mary in his arms and leap across the void in an easy bound, his feet touching down lightly on the roof with barely a sound. The city was growing quiet as the night grew longer and her citizens returned home to find their beds. Soon, the only people out on the street were fools and thieves. Mary wondered which one of the two she was. They had travelled through this part of the city, traversing the street back and forth, for about an hour when Lonagan spoke.
“We are getting closer.”
Mary nodded nervously and checked on her weapons.
Suddenly a woman’s scream shattered the night’s peace. Lonagan pointed down the way and set off at a blistering pace, half running and half sliding over the tiled peaks. Mary gulped down her fear and followed as fast as she could. Climbing up a steep shingle roof she found Lonagan circling around a point below her.
“He’s in there,” he whispered pointing at his feet.
“What are we going to do?” asked Mary panting.
“I am going down there. You stay here.”
“What if he comes after me?” asked Mary, tilting her head.
Lonagan growled a deep sigh. “I don’t know. Run away? Now stand back.”
Mary stepped back and crouched behind the pitch of the roof. Lonagan circled around two more times before stopping and taking several deep breaths. With a crouch he leapt straight up in the air several meters. At the arc’s zenith he disappeared in a haze of shadow and dropped faster than gravity would allow. The roof where he had been circling collapsed in a mess of shingle and wooden beams. The dark mass of Lonagan was swallowed up by the hole. Mary winced as chips of shingle and wood rained down on her.
She heard a startled shout and a woman scream, the dull thuds of a body being pummelled and the crashes of furniture breaking. Then it went quiet. After a count of ten she wriggled forward to get a better look. It sounded like Lonagan had surprised this Jack goober and beaten the snot out of him with a chair leg. She was about to call out when a great gout of flame erupted from the hole in the roof. Mary backed away quickly on all-fours, the torrent of fire reaching the chimney top. Abruptly, the flame subsided.
Surely nothing could have survived that maelstrom of heat and light? But then, as if to be proven wrong, she heard the cackle of a madman rising from the depths of the charred room.
Before she could stand up a figure dressed in white leapt clear of the hole in the roof and landed in front of her. The man had a stained soldier’s dress uniform of white, edged in gold, trim with the front undone. He wore nothing underneath the jacket. His skin was deathly pale and creased with wrinkles. Two floppy horns dangled around the side of a face stretched back in the imitation of a manic grin. Glowing eyes glared down at Mary, havoc and mayhem their only message. The man threw back his head and laughed like a maniac. Mary cringed and backed away, her sidearm forgotten. The man ceased his mad laugh and looked down at her, his amusement quieting into something even more sinister.
“Oh ho! Another girl! I do like the girls. No matter what they say about me in the rags, they do have one thing right! I am mad about the ladies!”
Mary was face to face with Spring-heeled Jack.
He crept closer to Mary, arms outstretched and fingers wriggling. “How about a little kiss for old Jack?”
Mary suppressed a scream and crawled backwards. Her rapier dug into a hip, reminding her that she was armed. Hefting up the pistol she aimed it at the pervert’s chest.
“I’m warning you. Don’t come any closer,” she said as threateningly as possible.
“I’m warning you. There are reds under the beds,” replied Jack.
“What?” asked Mary, dumbfounded.
“Jumping!” exclaimed the madman as he did so. With a high leap he shot over Mary’s head, kicking the gun away as he passed.
“I told you! Don’t bring a gun to a knife fight! And remember to floss. I love a woman with good hygiene.”
He crept towards her in a deranged pantomime performance; both arms raised and knees bent in the manner a child or movie villain pretends to creep.
“Gonna getcha, girlie,” he giggled.
Teeth bared in horror, Mary fumbled for her rapier. She would lop his hands off.
Can’t touch me if you don’t have hands…
The narrow blade rasped free of its sheath and Mary slashed at Spring-heeled Jack’s hands. The pervert dodged back from the blade, a sliver of golden tassel the only casualty.
“Woah! I’ve got a live one!” cried Jack. “But two can play the poke’em and bleed’em game!”
He spun sideways in a blur. When he stopped he had a butcher’s knife at the ready.
“Aww… Yours is bigger than mine…” he mocked.
Mary grinned back at him. Every girl in Pennysworth was competent with a sword. Mary was no exception. She lunged at his heart then flicked the blade up after his parry. Jack sidestepped the blade and countered. Mary blocked the lazy thrust and countered with her own riposte.
“Weee! This is fun!” laughed Jack, casually blocking Mary’s attacks.
Mary glowered at the man and stepped up the intensity. She lunged and swung at the giggling man with all the speed she had, keeping him on the defence. The combatants moved back towards the gaping hole in the roof.
Jack seemed to grow bored of the fight and lashed out with a kick to Mary’s ankles. Mary fell sideways, dropping her rapier off the side of the building.
“Poke’em and bleed’em,” said Spring-heeled Jack, threateningly. He raised his knife high in the air.
Mary stared at the blade in mute terror.
Do something! Where is the berserker? Crush him!
She sought the feeling that precipitated a transformation. There was nothing to hold onto, her fear was too strong.
A howling wind suddenly blew, showering Jack with grit and fanning the fire.
There came a large cloud of smoke and the roof sagged alarmingly. The tiles felt uncomfortably hot beneath her hands.
“Oh dear,” said Spring-heeled Jack. “Time to leave, I’d say. Make going while the getting is good. Be seeing ya!”
Laughing all the way, he jumped in incredible arcs away over the rooftops until he was lost in the night. Mary watched him go, a feeling of uselessness and frustration swelling up inside of her. She had let him get away thanks to her hesitation. She didn’t want to think about what Lonagan would say.
Where was Lonagan?
Berserker v. Fire
Mary crawled toward the hole in the roof and peered over the edge. The room below was on fire. Thick black smoke spewed out of the hole like a geyser and obscured everything below. Mary caught the stench of burnt hair and the acrid tang of plastic or oil.
Panic coursed through her mind, constricted her chest. Fear stuck her in place. She wasn’t going down there.
Nothing could survive that inferno.
“Lonagan! Are you okay?” she called, her voice breaking.
She heard a window smash on the street side of the building and clambered over to investigate. Mary saw Lonagan crash through the window with an unconscious woman in his arms. He landed badly, his body taking the brunt of the fall, his arms protecting the woman’s head. Mary screamed when she realised he wasn’t moving. Beneath her the building was burning up. She made a dash for the next house as the ceiling joists buckled. She found a copper downpipe on the front of the building and clambered to the ground.
Crouching by Lonagan’s side, she saw that he had sustained severe burning to his arms, legs and one side of his face. The black suit he wore was charred and peeling. Both Lonagan and the woman were unconscious and wouldn’t wake up, despite the desperate shakes and slaps Mary administered. Behind her the burning building was in its death throes. Beams were collapsing and internal walls were being reduced to cinders. Mary could feel her hair singeing from the terrible heat. People were pouring out of the buildings behind her, shouting and pointing, but staying at a safe distance.
Mary didn’t like how close they were to the fire. If it collapsed completely it would bury all three of them with rubble to spare.
Grabbing a collar in each hand, Mary tried to pull the two limp bodies away. She wasn’t strong enough to pull one, let alone both at the same time.
The building shuddered, showering embers and hot ash over her.
Hurry it up! Otherwise…
Her anger rose, fanned by a desperation she had never felt before.
She wasn’t going to let anyone die.
Pain tore through her body as she grew several extra feet in a flash of popping bone and snapping sinew. The leather straps holding her armour in place tore and fell to the ground forgotten. With a berserker’s yell she heaved the bodies forward until they were well clear of the building.
Roaring a cry of fiery misery, the building collapsed, her timbers consumed, her bricks reduced to waste, precious keepsakes and furniture burnt to ash. Men and women were running about the street, eyes wide with awe and mouths agape. People ran screaming from the neighbouring houses. In desperation, a small crew of men and women battled the blaze with buckets and garden hoses, their task hampered by the gawking onlookers.
Mary turned her back to the raging fire to find a crowd formed around her, filled with angry faces and sharp weapons.
“Kill the monster! Burn it with fire!” yelled one man brandishing a pistol.
The un-girl looked behind herself, searching for the monster.
“Oh my god! It’s going to eat those people!” screamed a woman.
Mary looked at where they were pointing. They were pointing at her.
“Calm down!” she bellowed. “I just saved their lives.”
“Drop them, you beast!” yelled an old man. ‘Leave our people alone!”
Mary gently lowered the unconscious woman to the floor. “You can have this one…”
Suddenly another woman screamed. She was gesturing franticly at Lonagan. Her cry was taken up by others.
“Dark elf! There is a dark elf!”
Lonagan’s hat had slipped, exposing his long ears and grey skin.
Some idiot fired a gun. The bullet glanced off Mary’s muscled chest and ricocheted into the crowd. The mob scattered in a cacophony of shrieks, running blindly in every direction while Mary howled in agony.
A dozen or more men and women fought their way through the pushing crowd, making a line straight for Mary and Lonagan.
“Kill it! Kill it!” yelled a man.
More guns fired. Mary turned and covered Lonagan with her hulking body. Bullets and buck-shot bounced off the un-girl or grazed her thick skin. The gathered men and women emptied whole clips of ammunition onto the berserker, the gunpowder blanketing the scene with a haze of thick smoke, mixing with that of the house-fire.
Finally the last bullet was shot.
“Did we get them?” asked a woman, shouldering her hefty shotgun.
“Must have,” said the man next to her.
“Go and check.”
“Did you see the size of that thing? You go.”
The mob shuffled closer, weapons ready.
A disturbing sound rumbled from within the smoke, alternating between a high pitched laugh and an animalistic roar. The armed party stopped in their tracks and looked at each other nervously.
“Quick, reload. I don’t think it’s dead,” whispered a man to his neighbour.
“Not…dead…” said the berserker between her insane laughing. “Just…angry…”
The ground shook. An enormous silhouette, backlit by the raging fire, flexed its bulging muscles.
“Holy waters! Run!”
“Yes! Run for your lives!” giggled Mary, leaping from the smoke.
Half the remaining mob turned and fled in panic. The rest shot at Mary who swatted the bullets aside with her mammoth arms.
“You dare!? You dare!?” she roared, her anger fuelled to breaking point by her strange magic.
Blood boiling, temper flaring, she knocked them over with a flick of her wrist.
“I could break you! I should break you!” shouted Mary, standing over the people now cowering on the floor.
Mary grappled with her raging emotions. Part of her wanted to kill these cretins ˗ to crush them beneath her feet and smear them over the walls.
You don’t murder people.
The berserker paused, panting heavily, a hairsbreadth away from unleashing havoc.
“Look! The fire is spreading!”
Mary looked over her shoulder. The neighbouring houses were alight. If left alone the whole street would likely be at risk; not that Mary cared after the near-lynching by these ignorant vigilantes.
She looked back at the gathered crowd watching fearfully at a distance. Mothers and fathers held children tightly, dressed in nothing but their nightclothes.
“Please, don’t kill us,” pleaded a man lying flat on his back.
“Quiet, you,” growled Mary. “I’m thinking.”
Maybe I can fight the fire…
The berserker frowned.
With what? My hands?
“If Remy can do it, so can I,” said Mary, nodding her head.
Mary bounded to the blaze in several flying leaps. Lonagan was where she had left him, laid out cold on the street.
“I haven’t forgotten about you,” she said flying past. “Just going to fight a fire… might relieve some of the anger I’m feeling!”
The few locals battling the fire with their garden hoses quickly stepped aside for the berserker.
“Excuse me,” rumbled Mary, picking up a charred beam, “I’ll take care of this mess, you do the ones that are still standing.”
Without waiting she leapt into the burning pile of rubble. The flames immediately licked at her bare skin, but while the intense heat did register as pain, she did not burn.
The berserker howled its un-human cry and fought back.
Kicking, stomping and bashing, the un-girl unleashed a frenzied assault on the toppled building, smothering the fire with rubble or her bare skin. Her fists pulled down walls and crushed brick to dust. Lost in a primal daze, the berserker demolished the remnants of the house to the braying of her own manic laughter.
It took a moment to realise the fire was out.
The horrified crowd watched her in silence. The un-girl was covered head to toes in ash and soot, standing in the centre of the smoking wreckage. Beside her, the fires had been tamed by the locals and their hoses. Mary shook the loose detritus from her behemoth body and walked toward Lonagan.
The people moved out of her path, murmuring oaths and imprecations amongst themselves.
Mary bent over and picked up her limp companion.
“Please, leave us alone,” said a young girl beside her.
“I was only trying to help,” replied Mary.
“Yeah? Well we don’t want your help,” spat a man further back.
Mary shrugged her shoulders and walked away. Others, emboldened by her subdued attitude, shouted curses at her back. The berserker gritted her teeth and ignored them.
Mary stopped to check on Lonagan several blocks away. The elf was in a bad state. One eye had completely closed over and his breathing was shallow and laboured. The burns he had received would be putting him into shock at any moment. The un-girl didn’t know what to do. She had no idea about first aid or where the nearest hospital was. They would probably turn her away anyway.
She thumped the elf on the chest to wake him up. The elf stirred, cracked open his free eye.
“What?” bellowed the un-girl.
Lonagan beckoned her closer. The berserker obliged.
“Bury me… I need to be underground… I need the earth…” wheezed the elf feebly.
Mary nodded her thick head. “I’ll dig you a hole.”
She slung the elf over her back and trooped off in search of somewhere suitable.
In a small public garden, she dug furiously with her shovel-like hands until she had created a shallow grave. The un-girl laid the elf inside.
“Cover me… And wait…” commanded Lonagan.
The un-girl buried her companion in the loose soil and patted it down firmly. A solitary tear streaked down her sooty cheek. Mary was angry and upset. She had lost the new weapons and Spring-heeled Jack…. The people of Olde London were probably out hunting for her… Her companion was dying in the ground… And worst of all, she feared what she became when the berserker was in control.
She had no idea what to do next.
In a shallow water fountain she drank her fill before washing off the worst of the grime that covered her.
Cold and miserable, the un-girl got as comfortable as she could amongst the weeds and waited.
Mary woke to bright sun light glaring in her eyes and dry grass tickling her face. She sat up confused. Last night was a blur of walking, climbing and fear.
Why was she in a garden and where was Lonagan?
Her eyes fell on the fresh dirt on the ground. Fleeting memories of burying a disfigured man ran through her head.
What have I done?
An inspection of herself showed she was still in one piece. Her leather armour was missing, along with her boots and weapons. Mary held her head in her hands as she thought of all the things that had gone wrong last night. Kyron was going to be mad when he found out she had lost everything, including Lonagan. She looked back at the grave-shaped mound of dirt. Maybe she hadn’t lost everything…
Bending closer she put her ear to the dirt, hoping to hear something. “Lonagan? Are you in there?”
“Lonagan! Wake up!”
The dirt shifted a fraction. Mary clapped her hands.
“Lonagan! What do I do?”
“Wait,” came a muffled reply.
Mary sat back, a frown creasing her forehead. “How long?” she asked herself.
Join the effort
In a fit of anger John burnt the parchment he had been writing on. The vellum flared in his hand one second and crumbled to the floor the next. John dropped the fountain pen before he burnt that too and rested his head against the desk he was sitting at. He was frustrated and depressed at his progress. It was only meant to be a simple letter of request. Every attempt had been thrown out so far. His wastebasket was overflowing with his drafts.
The problem was he didn’t know how to talk to his parents.
Should he be formal? Casual? Did they care about his goings on with the mortals?
The second glaring difficulty was how did he convince his parents, the Lords Regent, to come here and actively join in the war effort?
Hi Dad. Hi Mum. School is great! So many friends! By the by – could you come for a visit next week. And do bring the army with you.
John could imagine Mary talking to them like that – straight to the point and with minimal fuss. Deep down, he knew his relationship with his parents was far more complex. If he wanted anything so important, he would need to form a strong case and petition them. He didn’t have the luxury of asking them for anything. Anything!
Mr Horn was right, however. This coming war affected everyone, not just the mortals.
John cast his mind back to the meeting several days ago.
Mr Horn and his grandson had argued in the hallway while he took a seat in the ‘sunroom’. It drew no comparisons with the sun, in his opinion. ‘Dark and musty book room’ was far more apt. Eventually Mr Horn, or Stephen as he insisted, entered the room with a greasy smile on his face. John knew him as a severe, serious man. To see him do anything but scowl was out of character.
“My grandson is bringing some refreshments, your Grace,” started Stephen. “Can we do anything for your wounds?”
“No, thank you. Njoddein, my guardian, can see to them when I return home,” replied John stiffly.
“Ah… yes… well, you wouldn’t have been hurt had you stayed away from my house as I had instructed,” said Stephen, as his jovial façade slipped slightly.
“I was concerned about Mary,” replied John. “I wasn’t prepared to post a letter and wait for an invitation. Where is she, by the way?”
The smile on Stephen’s face evaporated, replaced by a frown. “Yes… Well there’s no point in lying to you,” he said, rubbing his knuckles. “She has been taken from us.”
“Taken?!” exclaimed John. “What by the creator do you mean, taken?”
“She was stolen from us by The Old Man of London,” replied Stephen bitterly. “For what purpose, I do not know.”
“Good grief, man! What are you doing here then? We need to rescue her!” shouted John.
Mr Horn had looked rather sheepish at that point. Head bowed and shoulders slumped, he shook his head. “Impossible. It is all rather complicated, but, I owed him a debt. To my eternal shame, I never imagined he would dare take my own family,” sighed the older man. “We are working on other arrangements to guarantee her freedom, but there are other matters to see to. Matters which I’m sure are linked to Mary’s abduction.”
John paused. There was always a catch. And he could bet his immortal blood he knew what it was. “Tell me of these ‘other matters’,” he replied coldly.
Both men regarded the other for a time.
“Ragnarök,” urged Stephen, breaking the silence.
John shook his head. He knew it would come to this. “We will not bow to those who seek our destruction! Why should we fight for them! They do us, and all magic, a disservice!” spat John.
“But, your grace…” pleaded Stephen, hands raised.
“But nothing! We would give ourselves to the filthy Dökkálfar before we made peace with The New World Order!”
“What about us?” came another, calmer voice. “What of my sister, Mary?”
Remy had entered the room, carrying a laden tray with both hands. He carefully set the tray down on a coffee table and approached John. “Should we lie down and die too? Should we let the wolves win?” Remy stood a respectful distance away, measuring John with his gaze. “Should I kill my child now, before those horrors come to pass?”
John regarded the other man carefully. He was much older than Mary, his face hard and lean. The resemblance between siblings was striking, however.
John weakened under the other’s long scrutiny. He felt no love for the mortal races. That didn’t mean he wanted them dead. “No.”
“Then you will help?” asked Stephen.
“It’s of no use swaying me anyway,” replied John. “My parents hold all the power.”
“If you sent them a message…” started Stephen.
“They wanted me here, safe and sound from our fight with the Dökkálfar scourge. And without further correspondence with you,” warned John. “If somebody intercepted a letter and found I was here…”
“That would not happen,” said Stephen. “Just hear me out.” He indicated the seats and a bottle of wine sitting on the tray with a sweep of his hands.
John eased himself down and sat on the edge of a leather chair, careful not to smear his golden blood on the furniture. He looked about the room, particularly at the dark shadows for movement.
“She’s not here,” said Remy as he poured the wine into three glasses. “The filthy mud-dweller and my half-breed son are upstairs.”
Remy offered a glass to John, who accepted with a slight nod and a weak smile. Remy handed his grandfather a drink and sat down beside him with his own.
“What would you say if I told you that I am in negotiations with The New Order?” asked Stephen over his wineglass.
“Good for you,” shrugged John.
Both Horns looked at each other before Stephen continued. “What if I told you that I was working on a deal for all of the magical races? An amnesty, that is?”
John leaned forwards. “You have my attention.”
Stephen smiled. “In exchange for defending the Porta Caeli, all parties involved will be given licence to leave this realm, with their souls, or whatever similar essence, unbroken.”
John leaned back into the chair. “Wow. That is quite the offer. And they have agreed to this you say?”
“All I need is for Olde Rome’s guardian, Quirinus, to return through the gates with the signed contract,” said Stephen.
“I will need to see this contract, of course,” said John as he rubbed his chin. “If it exists…”
Stephen nodded his head.
“I’m sure my parents, The Lords Regent, will need proof as well…”
They had talked for a long time, discussing their future plans and what was required of whom. Mr Horn was gathering an army, if he could be believed, of the remaining ‘old blood’ mortals. He was also in the process of procuring some of the modern weapons the mortals liked to kill each other with – as soon as the necessary funds were acquired. Along with the majority of the magical races, they just might stand a chance against the Western Hordes. John noticed the strong emphasis on ‘might’. Where they would stage their battle was another matter.
Mr Horn had seemed giddy at the meeting – almost feverish. He promised much, but didn’t have any evidence to back his claims.
Did he dare trust the man?
He was deeply invested, that much was certain.
John had asked about Stephen’s plans for rescuing Mary several times too. The questions had been deflected to talk about the war. Everything hinged on the war, even Mary it seemed.
Johns thought’s turned to his own involvement. Did he want to be a part of this war?
He didn’t want to die. He was young, very young, for an immortal. Even so, he was attached to his essence. He didn’t want to be someone else, or changed into something else – something lesser. If Mr Horn was telling the truth he could save his people, and himself.
He just had to convince his parents to join the effort.
John stared at the paper.
Inspiration deserted him.
The butcher’s skin
The sun was dipping below the horizon when Lonagan dug himself free from his temporary tomb. Though ‘dug’ wasn’t really the word. Not by a long a shot. He rose from the ground, loose soil parting like the Red Sea. His bare skin was immaculate, not a smudge of dirt or any hint of the second-degree burns that covered most of his body less than twenty-four hours earlier. Shadow coiled about him like a leashed dog, maw slavering and teeth bared. He spoke to Mary without looking at her.
“Come. We have work to do.”
He strode off, with Mary still sitting on a rock, speechless but with a dozen questions racing through her head.
“What are we going to do?” she called to his departing back.
“Fight him on our terms.”
Mary chewed her lip. “Um… I lost my weapons.”
Lonagan shrugged and kept walking. “You don’t need them.”
“Then what will I use?” asked Mary, now getting to her feet and trailing after. “My hands?”
“But I don’t know Kung Fu…” said Mary, pouting and walking faster to catch up.
Lonagan stopped in his tracks and, rounding on Mary, jabbed a long elegant finger in her face. “You are stronger than ten men when you want to be, Miss Horn. Now stop whining and start doing. I don’t want to hear any more complaints about what you can and can’t do. Start trying. Start doing.”
Mary nodded her head once. Lonagan sighed and regarded the rooftops surrounding them. He scratched his chin through his leather veil.
“We need to catch him in the open, away from where he can hurt anyone else. It needs to be dark too… plenty of obstacles would be useful… lots of shadow to hide in…”
He looked at Mary with a raised eyebrow. “Bait? As Bell suggested?”
Mary bit her lip and shrugged.
“So be it then. We need to find you something else to wear. Something more provocative.”
“More so than a skin-tight leotard?” asked Mary.
“It doesn’t exactly cry damsel-about-to-be-in-distress,” said Lonagan, tilting his head as he inspected Mary.
“Okay. Just don’t try and force me to wear fishnets and a mini skirt, though. I do have some standards.”
“I’m sure I could fashion something,” said the elf. “What colour do you like to wear?”
Mary thought for a second. “Red. I like red.”
Lonagan spun a dress from shadow with a wave of his hand. The ghostly fabric appeared out of thin air above her and slowly settled down, forming itself to the contours of her body. Mary shivered when it touched her bare skin, much like she did when Laedwynn transformed her to look like Remy. It was a ball dress of ruby red with long sleeves and zero neck line. It hid her black sneak-suit perfectly underneath.
“How about some heels?” asked Lonagan as he tapped his chin thoughtfully.
“Made of ice and shadow? Go jump in a fire,” replied Mary.
“Suit yourself. Are you ready?”
They walked back towards the centre of Olde London, an assassin armed to the teeth and a teenage treasure-hunter dressed for a ball. The streets were deserted of people. All doors were locked and windows fastened. The city felt dead, hollow, devoid of the sounds and smells of human habitation. Even the street lights were out. The buildings loomed above them, towering spectres with dark windows like gloomy hollow eyes, watching them pass.
Mary was glad she had company as they wound their way towards the river. She thought about last night’s dismal fight and the things Lonagan had said about the elements. She wished she was armed with more than just her hands and feet. She wished she could perform magic, not just go berserk at random.
“The elements… how do you make them do what you want?” she asked, breaking the silence.
Lonagan paused before answering.
“First you need to feel them. Inside here and here,” he said pointing to his head and heart.
“If you can hear them in your thoughts, feel them in your heart, you may be able to command them. To me, shadow is an extension of my body. I can move shadows just like I can move my fingers. How much depends on how strong I am, how much force I apply. You don’t make them do anything. You are that element and it you.”
Mary nodded her head. More questions came to mind.
“You said you are the master of everything below ground. Why does that include both shadow and earth elements?”
Lonagan shrugged. “Balance I suppose. The Ljósálfar are masters of the sky and that includes air and light elements. The universe has a sense of humour. Or it did, at least…”
Lonagan laughed at his own joke.
“There is a bit of cross over here and there with magic. For example, fire needs air to burn. Air has water in it, such as clouds and rain. Water has minerals and runs through the earth.
So on and so forth. I can perform some-water based spells but they are very basic. I would assume that most Ljósálfar can do the same since air is their associated element. It all comes back to the individual and how much control they have.”
Mary bowed her head in thought. Could she feel anything abnormal? Was there something else in her head? She didn’t think so.
Lonagan found an empty warehouse on the docks by the river. Inspection showed that had been abandoned for some time. Rusted gantries crisscrossed the ceiling, their hoists broken and twisted. Smashed bottles, broken crates and graffiti lined the concrete floor, the work of time and vandals.
“You are going to need those shoes whether you like it or not,” said Lonagan as he kicked at something on the ground. It flipped across the room and landed in a heap of scrap metal. Mary sighed. The elf walked about the warehouse, studying its ceiling and the steel support beams.
Mary shivered despite not being cold. It was creepy walking through a deserted city by oneself in the middle of the night, especially when you were bait for a deranged lunatic with a penchant for young girls. Her feet were numb from the shoes Lonagan had made from shadow. They were an unassuming black number with flat soles.
Still it was better than nothing, she supposed – and much better than heels, as the elf had originally suggested. She whistled to pass the time. A jaunty sea shanty or so she hoped, being so close to the docks and all. Her tune echoed through the empty streets, the only sound to accompany the rhythm of her footfalls. She did loops around the block, not wanting to be too far from help when trouble called. After a third circuit without any takers she headed towards the docks themselves to take in the sights. A strange haze seemed to blanket the far side of the river, dampening down the colours and sounds. It was still an impressive sight for a country bumpkin like Mary.
Across the river the city thrummed with life. Neon signs blared their advertisements out in a rainbow of colours, each sign competing for attention. Cars honked and tooted as they threaded their way through the city’s arteries, each destination exotic to a girl who had spent her whole life in one town. Music boomed from a dockside nightclub, its bass fast and heavy, would-be patrons lined in a ragged queue, laughing and chatting. People walked along the waterfront, couples hand in hand and friends in charged packs. That was where she wanted to be. Out in the real world meeting real people. Not relics and monsters from times past. She wondered if she could swim across.
Would she make it?
A queer feeling in her stomach reminded her it was impossible.
She gave the fantastic sights of London one last wistful look before turning away. She belonged to The Old Man now and would belong to him forever unless she could find a way to reverse his spell. She turned away from the London calling her and bumped head first into something soft.
“Boo,” it said.
Mary looked up into the broad smile of a psychopath. Spring-heeled Jack looked back, his lunatic eyes catching the light.
“Give Old Jack a cuddle, won’t you?” he asked through smiling teeth with arms outstretched.
Mary stifled a scream and aimed a kick between his legs. Spring-heeled Jack crumpled to the floor, both hands pressed to his agonised groin.
Mary didn’t need another cue to run.
Spinning on her heel she ran in the opposite direction. It took a moment to realise that she was running away from the trap. Swearing to herself, she diverted down an alley between two salt encrusted buildings. She leapt over empty crates and crab cages, pulled down a stack of boxes to block her pursuer. She ran on, panic spurring her every motion, bumping into a plethora of hard edges and corners. The alley was dark, the moonlight obscured by the murky shadows of the close buildings.
At the alley’s end she cast a quick glance behind. Jack wasn’t in sight. She was torn between waiting and keeping enough distance away from him. A blurred movement on the rooftops caught her attention.
Without a second look she bolted. She was now in a small service road behind the warehouses, its cobble stones slick with dew, small puddles of grime filled water showing the ruts and pot holes.
She darted left down the street, hoping it would take her back to familiar territory. All doors and windows she passed were barred shut with heavy iron banding. There would be no hiding inside a building. Not unless she could force a transformation.
Halfway down the alley, she found a locked wooden gate that blocked her path. She added an extra burst of speed and leapt at the wall. Her fingers found purchase on the top edge and she hauled herself over.
Ahead was the street she had been walking up and down all night. She ran out to its centre and stopped to catch her breath. She turned in a circle slowly, her eyes scanning the rooftops for sign of pursuit. Wherever he was, it wasn’t up there. Heavy footfalls brought her attention back to the street. Spring-heeled Jack was standing in the middle of the street, hands on hips, his mock grin appearing like a wordless growl.
“I seen you. Walking up and down, parading yourself for Old Jack, waiting for me to return,” he said without any trace of humour. “You think you could fool me into walking into that old shack? What’s in there?”
Mary brushed the hair out of her eyes. Indecision wracking her mind. “The police,” she said meekly.
“There are no police in Olde London. Who’s in there? Who wants me?”
“The Old Man,” Mary said after a pause.
“More like The Old Man’s cronies,” shouted Jack, a puff of smoke escaping his nostrils. “You want this for yourselves,” he said pointing to his chest. “Well you can’t have it. It’s ours.”
He advanced towards her slowly, a sociopath at play. Moonlight danced along the sharp edge of an exposed knife, the only brilliance in the dark night.
“You know we inherited our name? Another time, another Jack?” cooed the deviant.
Mary shivered and her knees began to shake uncontrollably. She backed away as fast as she could, her eyes unable to leave Jack’s.
Things were not going to plan at all.
“This is something we haven’t done in a long time. It’s time to dust off the knives. Put our old talents to use.”
Mary screamed. “Lonagan!”
Jack laughed loudly. “Him that we burnt but proper? The elf? I fear not the master of shadow for my fire consumes night’s weak tapestry and makes it day. Watch.”
Craning back his vulgar face, he cock-crowed into the night. A torrent of hellish fire erupted from his freakish smile. It bellowed above the buildings, a beacon of heat and glaring light in the still night. The river of fire circled around on itself, collected and grew. With one last gagging cough, Spring-heeled Jack spat the last of his devil fire at the sky, a sun in miniature now aloft in the night sky above Olde London.
Searing heat and bright yellow light beat down upon the street. The night’s dew evaporated in a wash of steam, cloying the air with a stink of dirty pavement, creating a misty fog. Mary shielded her tear filled eyes with her arms, her vision reeling from the sudden shock. She had to do something.
Mary swung a haymaker where she thought Jack was. The maniac dodged it easily.
“Gee! Aren’t you full of spunk?!”
Mary followed the punch with a wild kick at his knees. Spring-heeled Jack jumped high above her head. Mary raised her hands to block an attack. A foot thumped hard her in the chest, however, and she fell to the ground. Blinded and winded she rolled about on the ground. A foot struck her in the back. Mary cried out and pulled herself into a ball.
What am I going to do? I don’t want to die!
“Did you like that? No more shadows for sneaky little elves to hide in now, is there?” asked Jack toying with his knife. He stood above Mary, fist raised to the fireball.
“Any last words?” The knife’s wicked point was aimed at her breast.
Words failed her. Thought had fled altogether. It was fight or flight and somehow she had chosen neither. Mary shuddered in pain as she shrunk an inch. Biting her lip she rode the change, willed it to go further.
Ever smiling, Jack plunged the knife at her heart. Her world closed in around in her, went dark, was nothing more.
“What the heck? Where did you go?”
Spring-heeled Jack was staring at the empty clothes on the ground, his knife scratching his chin. One second she was standing there, eyes pleading and mouth pouting how he liked it, the next there was nothing. Just an empty dress and black garments strewn on the ground. He looked about suspiciously.
“This was all a bleeding trick.”
He looked up and down the street, peered into every window, searched every shadow. Something was odd.
The shadows shifted.
There by the barrel! Something definitely moved that time. The shadow grew, coalesced, became a man. He was dressed in black like any shadow, a leather veil shrouding his mouth. Weapons adorned him in an overt display of firepower. He walked with calm step. It was the elf from last night, his flesh healed.
Jack growled, clutched the knife harder, eyed his fire hanging in the sky.
“Where is she?” asked Lonagan.
His eyes went past the lunatic shivering and tapping his feet impatiently to the pile of empty clothes on the ground. He shook his head slightly. It was a sad loss. The girl had potential but she should never have come. He would drink to her memory later.
“I was going to take your suit and let you go,” he said unsheathing his long sword. “Luckily I know a great tailor.”
“Big words. I see your face healed up good after I melted it some. Fancy some more?” gloated Jack.
Lonagan shrugged. “I’m not afraid of you. You, however, are very afraid of me.”
The lunatic gave a forced laugh. “I’m afraid of no-one.”
“Then what is that in the sky?”
Jack looked at the sky. “That is Hell’s own fire! Here on Earth!” he shouted with his arms spread wide. “Is no easy feat to command so much!” Jack dropped his arms and glowered at Lonagan. “I did it to prove my strength, my potency. I ain’t afraid of you or nothing! I can do anything I want.”
“I think the opposite. I think you did it because you’re afraid of me, of my shadow. See? Watch.”
Lonagan’s shadow stretched out before him until it was full-sized, whole. It stepped away from him and resolved itself out of the thin air. There were two elves in the street now, both identical. They shared a brief look, nodded, then spread apart with swords held before them. Spring-heeled Jack barked a laugh, tested the edge of his blade with a flabby finger. Without any preamble he sprang at what he assumed was the real Lonagan. Lonagan parried the first blow easily. The second and third thrusts came before he could finish his swing. This Jack was fast.
Jack had an advantage over him with his speed, that much was clear. Dark blood seeped from the cuts to Lonagan’s chest.
He ducked as his second swung a scything blow at Jack’s neck. Before the sword could connect, the lunatic rolled sideways, his knife slicing a deep cut in the second’s leg.
The doppelgänger faltered, dark blood jetting from its thigh. It ran a hand over the cut, staunched the flow of blood with a coil of shadow. Both of the elves looked at each other and shrugged.
Jack laughed and hopped from foot to foot.
“It would take an army of you to stop Jack! Call the general! Sound the horns! Jack cannot be stopped!”
“As you wish,” spoke the elves in unison. From the shadow-drenched alleys and crevices sprang a dozen more copies of the dark elf, each identical, each bearing down on their quarry with swords of cold steel.
Jack howled with laughter. “Have at thee, dark elf scum!”
He met them, his shorter blade darting in and out of their ranks. Thick dark blood drenched his arms, spilled in the cobbled streets, painted the walls.
Jack was in his element; a butcher and a fiend at play. He worked himself ragged, a hellish lather of shadowy blood and sweat foaming and frothing all over his ugly body.
The elves were dispatched but for one, their twitching bodies wordlessly beseeching the sky. Jack rounded on the last, body crouched low, knife held before his eyes.
“Not so tough, are you now? Where are your big words of fearing the night?”
The last Lonagan just stared at him, sword held limp and pointing at the ground.
“I am the night!” screamed Jack with arms raised triumphantly.
“I am the big bad ugly! The slayer of heroes and the taker of women! Let Olde London weep a hundred more years. Jack is back!”
He glared at Lonagan, panting with exhaustion.
“Nothing to say, little elf?”
Lonagan bowed his head. After a moment he sheathed his weapon and stood facing Jack, feet spread apart and hands on hips.
“You know the problem with shadows? Too slow, too sluggish. Want to know the advantage? Can’t kill a shadow.”
A low laugh rose up. Jack turned his head, surprised. The slain shadows were sitting about casually, some pointing at him, some playing with their swords.
Jack growled and turned back to the standing Lonagan. “Tricksy little bastard…”
Lonagan shrugged and pulled a pistol from his belt.
“Just wanted to tire you a bit. Can you catch a bullet?”
Lonagan squeezed the trigger, firing off a salvo of bullets on full auto. Jack spun left and right dodging the bullets with unearthly speed. Lonagan spent a whole magazine, reloaded and let off another burst.
The mad man leapt high overhead, spun in the air and cart-wheeled down the street, bullets chasing after him. Below the fake sun he lurched mid-leap, crimson blood blossoming from a wound below his ribs. He landed on the ground like a rag doll, lifeless and broken.
Lonagan released the trigger, lowered his aim, walked over to take a closer look.
Wheezing horribly, the madman rolled on to his back. He looked to the night sky and the fire it held.
“Come back to Daddy, little one. We need you,” he croaked as blood leaked down his chin.
The fireball roared, shifted, became a funnel. It spiralled down into the eager grin of its maker. He drank down the fiery brew in one enormous gulp. Spring-heeled Jack bounded to his feet, the bullet hole leaking flaming blood like molten steel. He glowed from within, a faintly green luminous light in the now dark night.
“Jack is back!” he chortled, his voice strained and lacking the previous bravado. “Let us see how your shadows hold up to Hell’s own fire, eh?”
Jack doubled over and vomited a plume of flame at the lounging shadows. They unravelled in a wash of searing heat, leaving not a trace behind.
Eyes wide open in fear and alarm, Lonagan raised his arms before him. The cobblestone road beneath him quivered at his call. Tearing itself free from its earthly hold, it curled up in front him like a wave made of stone. Lonagan took shelter behind it as the onslaught of fire swept his way.
Jack puffed harder, increasing the volley of fire to a raging tempest. The glass of the surrounding buildings reflected the uncanny fire; the diorama unfolding in miniature on dozens of windows. Smoke rose from Jack as his clothes began to smoulder.
Fire threatened to curl around Lonagan’s earthen defence. He crouched down low and thought of his options.
Mary was sitting on a crest of fabric overlooking a cavern of dark gullies and crevices. She was entirely naked and more than a little upset. It had taken her a moment to realise where she was. When it dawned on her that she had shrunk to the size of bug and was lost inside of her own clothing she had a small nervous breakdown.
How am I going to fix this? What have I done to myself?
Mary sobbed and clawed at her hair. Now was not the time to lose control of her abilities.
Outside she could hear the sounds of battle raging on; swords striking, bodies taking blows and the laughter of Jack. She felt small and impotent. It was a stupid decision to join Kyron Bell’s group of adventurers. It was even stupider to think she could survive without any training. Now here she was, in danger of being crushed to death by some careless passer-by. It was frustrating to think that her emotions had so much control over her. If only she could separate body and heart, divorce her emotions from her physical reality, she could be in full possession of her own abilities.
She lay down. There was nothing else to do. She thought of the things Lonagan had told her. Look inside your mind. Feel what is in your heart.
She relaxed. Breathed deeply. She sought inside and out. She imagined she was growing taller. She spoke magic words. Nothing. She tried to remember the fear and the anger which triggered her changes. There was something in the back of her mind. Something she reached for, out of reflex. She pushed at it mentally.
When she opened her eyes she was staring at the sky. Orange and yellow light danced along the faces of the tired and dirty buildings above her. Mary raised both hands to her face, and ran them over her body. She was whole, and more, she was dressed in her black sneak-suit. She could hear a wheezing, windy current. Getting to her feet, she saw Spring-heeled Jack only several feet away, his back to her, fire streaming from his mouth in a continuous rush. The flames were battering a curled section of road, the cobblestones glowing red and melting. Jack was on fire himself. His clothes had all but burnt up to reveal his saggy pale skin beneath.
Shadows darted behind the chest-high partition of stone, fleeting and dying in the torrent of light. With a gasp, Mary realised Lonagan was trapped behind.
Mary started forward, but stopped herself. What was she going to do? Ask nicely?
Mary needed something to stop this fight and quickly, a weakness to exploit. She looked at Jack, the blood leaking between his clutching fingers, the stains on his back and shoulders, the remnants of his burning clothes, the stitching that ran from the back of his head to his tail – were those laces?
Casting about she saw a knife on the ground, its steel sticky with inky liquid. Mary clutched the knife and crept towards Jack. The lunatic seemed to doubling over in pain as he held his wound with both hands. He looked ragged, feverish. His whole attention was fixed in front of him on the wall of fire.
Mary closed the distance. The heat was unbearable. Her eyes watered and her hair singed but she moved forward, one slow step at a time. She was almost there. Jack, so focused on his flame, didn’t notice her creeping behind him. With one swift movement, she lunged at his back and plunged the knife into the knot of lace on Jack’s head and slashed it down. The sharp knife parted the laces easily. Jack’s fire died in a spluttering gout of smoke and sparks.
He coughed. Once, then again. And now in a flood of sputtering noise. Thin tendrils of smoke followed by thick globules of dark matter flew from his smiling mouth.
Mary dropped the knife and, reaching up to grab the two floppy horns atop Jack’s head, tore the suit down. What she saw underneath was frightening: skin marred by puss-filled sores and raw red wounds, tattoos once covering his back and arms now reduced to unrecognisable blotches. Jack’s head was bald except for some wispy hair which clung desperately to a patch behind one of his ears. The man collapsed to the ground in a feeble tangle. Mary tore the suit free from Jack roughly. He moaned pitifully, his hands seeking his precious suit.
Mary held the floppy suit at arm’s length and stepped back several paces. Holding it in her hands, she could feel its strange power lurking within, the promise of mischief and ruin. And the texture; with one groan of disgust she realised the suit wasn’t made of material. It was made of something much worse. It was skin.
“Where did you come from?” asked Lonagan as he crawled out from behind the smoking section of road.
“I was hiding in plain sight, waiting for my time to strike,” she replied through a smile.
Lonagan tilted his head and studied her. He shrugged and wiped the sweat from his brow.
“Well… Good work on the hiding and everything.”
“Thank you,” beamed Mary. “That means a lot coming from you.”
Lonagan’s eyes narrowed to points but he didn’t comment. Instead he walked over to the grovelling man crawling towards Mary. He put at boot on his throat and pinned him to the floor.
“We’ve done a good thing today, Mary. Do you know how much trouble he has caused? How many people he has harmed?”
Mary shook her head.
“Too many,” answered Lonagan.
“Why didn’t we do something sooner then?” asked Mary.
“That’s a good question,” said Lonagan. “But I suppose it always comes down to money. Nobody topside had the skill to take him down. We only got involved when a half-decent contract was offered.”
Mary frowned. “That makes me feel sick. I never wanted to be a mercenary.”
“Money talks, Mary. But until then, trash like this walks,” said Lonagan, kicking Jack.
Jack moaned and pleaded wordlessly at their feet.
“What are you going to do with him?” asked Mary.
“I won’t do anything. It’s not my say.”
“Who says then?”
“Them,” said Lonagan jerking his head in the direction of the buildings surrounding them. People were appearing at windows and doors, clubs and garden tools held uncertainly.
He turned to face them and bellowed, “Here is Spring-heeled Jack. The Jack! Do with him what you will!”
He gave the disfigured man one last shove with his boot. The man coughed and rolled onto his side, stretched his grotesque arm towards Mary in a pitiful, pleading gesture.
“Come,” said Lonagan abruptly. “I want to be back in the shop before daybreak.”
Lonagan turned and walked back down the street. Mary glanced at the disgusting skin suit she was still holding in her arms and sighed. She trotted to keep up.
“You know your clothes are on back to front?” Lonagan called back to her.
“Huh. Thought they felt weird,” said Mary. “That reminds me, can we stop by a shop? There’s something I need to buy.”
“What?” snapped Lonagan.
“Uh… some magazines for the tailor,” replied Mary meekly.
“Follow me,” grunted Lonagan.
Home beneath the streets
As a blood red dawn approached they found an open kiosk selling a variety of discounted newspapers and magazines. The merchandise looked like it had fallen off the back of a truck ˗ some seemed to have been run over by the same truck, and all of them had their title and date clipped off. Mary selected a handful of the most recent fashion magazines. The owner slid them into a recycled plastic bag.
“That’ll be a fiver, love.”
“Oh,” said Mary. “Um… ah…”
“You don’t have any money, do you?” sighed Lonagan.
“No,” replied Mary.
“My shout then,” said the dark elf as he threw a crumpled bill on the counter. “You most likely saved my life anyway. Twice in fact, if you’re counting.”
They quickly walked back to their subterranean home, sticking to shadowy alleys and roads for Lonagan’s benefit, who, for some reason, despised the sun. Mary gave the sky one last wistful look before she disappeared below for who-knew-how-long.
Dogsbody let them in through the rusty door at the top of the loading bay. His animated eyes looked Mary up and down as she walked past.
“Wha’s this? Another Horn? You must breed like rats!” laughed the bugbear.
Mary had had enough lip to last a life time. “Say one more thing about my family and I’ll break you in half like a little twig! Go on! I dare you!”
“You? Break me?” said the bugbear, pointing at his large barrel chest. “I’d like to see you try.”
“She is quite capable of doing it, you over-grown dreadlock,” warned Lonagan. “Have you not heard of the Sidhe berserker that broke The Old Man’s army? Here she stands.”
Dogsbody’s jaw dropped and his cigar fell on the dirty floor. “Oh! I… errr… sorry?” he asked.
“Thought so,” said Mary, leading the way.
On the shop’s floor the filthy skin was taken from her without so much as a ‘how you do’ and stuffed into an oak chest. The shop assistant that took it had a vulpine face with mangy fur. He looked at her through two mismatched eyes, one red the other yellow and a droll expression.
“Do I sign anything?” asked Mary.
“Do I look like the Royal Mail? Get out of here.”
Mary opened and closed her mouth, gobsmacked at the rude attitude. Lonagan steered her away before she could react.
“Just walk away. You don’t want to get into it with that one.”
Mary cast a steely gaze over her shoulder at the short little critter. He waved back, his odd eyes following her.
“I could totally take him,” she said.
“I know. But he’s good at what he does so leave him be. Besides, you can’t pick a fight with everyone who crosses you, Mary. Now I’m parched and I’m paying so cheer up.”
They left the shop warehouse and made their way to the adventurer’s quarters. Men and women were sprawled out on the floor in a drunken stupor, bottles near at hand and pipes fixed to the corner of their mouths. Nobody batted an eyelid as they entered and took a seat in the corner at a low table. Mary gave the room a disapproving eye before sitting down.
“When is breakfast? I’m starving.”
“Soon. Kitchens won’t be ready yet. Thirsty?”
She nodded. Lonagan called over a waiter. The man had thick, warty skin that hung in rolls all over his body. He had a permanent frown on his sagging face. Mary supposed she would frown too if she looked like that. She thought of her budding horns and what the future changes may bring. Shuddering, she emptied her mind.
“What did you order?”
“I felt like a red. Something Italian.”
“You got us booze?” exclaimed Mary. “The sun isn’t even up yet!”
“Don’t be so prissy. We’ve been up all night fighting a fire-breathing lunatic if you’ve forgotten. Think of it as an after-work wind down. An aperitif before the meal if you will…”
Mary crossed her arms and pouted. Lonagan sat back in his chair, arms behind his head. The saggy-faced waiter returned with an open bottle of wine and two glasses. Lonagan paid him with some coins from his pocket. The waiter gave what Mary could only assume was a smile and left. Lonagan poured two healthy measures and passed Mary a glass.
“Go on. Drink up.”
Mary took the glass and sniffed it warily.
“It’s better than the water around here. Safer too,” said Lonagan undoing the leather shroud across his face. He peeled back the veil, exposing his mouth. Mary looked at him with awe and disgust. His lips were thick and purple like fat worms. His mouth was much wider than normal and turned down at the ends. Sharp, shark-like teeth stuck out like saws. Lonagan gave her a toothy smile and drank his wine. Mary looked away, ashamed she had been caught staring.
She took a small sip. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good either. She would have preferred orange juice. She would also have preferred a neck massage and a servant to feed her grapes. Better throw in her freedom while you’re at it.
She looked about the room. The disgusting layabouts had hardly moved. Some were fast asleep.
“Are they always so… drunk?”
Lonagan looked at his glass. “Every morning they wake up is a celebration of a kind. To some it’s just a way to pass the time. For others it is a crutch. Some of us need it to survive.”
He downed half the glass, smacked his fat lips contentedly.
“So about last night.”
“Yes?” asked Mary taking a bigger sip.
“You did good. Better than I thought.”
“But it could have been better?” said Mary frowning.
“Much better,” agreed Lonagan.
She slumped forward in her chair, rested her elbows on her knees. “Okay. What did I do wrong?”
Lonagan leaned his boots on the table and took a long drink. He looked at the glass as he spoke. “You hesitated on the rooftops. You had a shot and didn’t take it. Not many people get that kind of opportunity in a lifetime and still get to breath. You were lucky he didn’t slit your throat.”
Mary was studying the floor. “I thought we needed the suit intact…”
“Forget what Bell, or any of his cronies tell you. What they think isn’t going to matter if you’re dead. It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission…” said Lonagan swirling his glass.
Mary’s ire began to rise.
“It would’ve helped if someone had shown me how to use the bloody thing. I was inducted into this cult one second then pointed to the door the next. No training. No help. Nothing. Besides, I told Kyron that I didn’t want to kill anyone…”
“Kill or be killed, Mary. We play for keeps in this game. If you’re lucky you might make a good-looking corpse!” said Lonagan hotly.
Mary arched an eyebrow and sat back in her chair. She looked away as tears formed in her eyes.
Lonagan pursed his lips. “I’m sorry. We’re not in the habit of helping each other around here… I suppose we assumed you could handle yourself. After that debacle in the great hall we were all in awe of you a little. Still… I’m sorry, Mary. I could have done more.”
Mary nodded her head, either in agreement or thanks, she didn’t know.
“So will you help me? Show me how to be a better adventurer?” she said, meeting his eyes.
Lonagan finished his glass. “I will. When I can, that is.”
Mary sat up straighter. “When do we begin?”
“After I’ve slept. I need my beauty sleep after all,” he said, winking and giving her an ugly smile.
Mary delivered the magazines on her way to breakfast. The spider-tailor gave her a bone-crunching hug when she saw what Mary held. “Oh! You little darling. I definitely won’t eat you now,” she said, flicking through the magazines with her large, sharp hands.
“You’re welcome,” said Mary, rubbing her tender shoulders.
“Oh… my… What are they thinking?” asked the spider, looking at an article.
Mary waved goodbye and left before she could be squished with another hug.
“I do believe I have a new favourite,” smiled the spider as she scuttled to her perch near the ceiling.
In the great hall Mary received many a frosty glare from the seated warriors as she passed. None dared speak a word or touch her however.
They will never forget, she thought. I’m surrounded by enemies and my friends are few. Best not step on any more toes.
She was greeted by Kyron and the other adventurers warmly. Lonagan told them the story of last night’s battle as they ate, heaping praise on Mary’s stealthy hiding abilities and her timely rescue of him from Spring-heeled Jack’s fiery breath.
“Rescued by a little girl? You’ll never live that one down, dark elf,” sneered Heronitas.
The rest of the table broke out in raucous laughter. Lonagan glowered darkly at Heronitas and didn’t speak another word. Kyron stood, a tankard of ale gripped in his massive red hand.
“To Mary Horn! A berserker and a thief. Our Thief!”
The table roared in approval, clashed mugs and downed their drinks in one. Mary blushed and took another sip of her red wine. She found it strange to be the centre of attention and not in danger of being publicly humiliated. A weight lifted from her mind as her companions laughed and joked amongst themselves as they retold past adventures. Soon she was laughing and cheering along with them. For the first time in her life she dared to believe that she could belong somewhere. Could these strange and dangerous people be her friends? Had she finally found her home?
…Trust no thief… An alien voice in the back of head growled in caution.
Mary put down her glass. Her genuine smile turned false.
What was that?
Later she was shown to her room. It was bigger than her last one but also far cooler. It still had some personal effects from a missing adventurer ˗ a hair brush made from ivory, a dog eared picture of a woman and child, carved wooden figurines. She set the items on the only chair and looked around the room. She had a small writing desk, a radiator, a banged up chest and a single bed. All very modest but they would suit her needs. It beat the snot out of sleeping on the floor.
Mary slithered out of her sneak-suit and climbed into bed.
As she tried to get comfortable she reflected on all that had happened to her in the last few weeks:
Meeting John and discovering magic…
The astonishing family revelations…
Getting her brother back ˗ only to be stolen away…
Enslaved by The Old Man…
Learning of her own magical abilities…
Joining the adventurers…
Now she was hearing strange words in her head…
It felt like a hallucination or a bad dream ˗ then she was harshly reminded of her bizarre reality. If she was ever given the chance to trade places with Remy, she would take it without hesitation. She was not made for this world of danger and intrigue.
Kill or be killed.
If she was to survive, she would need all the help and training she could get. The berserk animal waiting inside of her needed to be tamed.
Mary rolled over and stared at the wall.
Damn Stephen for putting me in this situation. Why hasn’t he saved me yet?
Kyron was seated at his throne in the adventurer’s hall, listening to Heronitas and Vayn regale the table with their previous exploits over foreign lands and seas when Jeremy Ballard, his spymaster, entered the crowded hall. The normally stoic Ballard looked startled. He pointed at the opposite door and slipped back outside.
“…so there she was, drunk out of her mind on mead. When what should crawl out of the fire? An Ifrit!” roared Heronitas with laughter.
“Tell them the next part!” said Vayn, slapping the table.
As Kyron got to his feet, the table grew quiet.
“Please continue, my friends. I need to see a man about a whale,” said the giant man.
Heronitas wasted no time. “And I yell ‘Move your tail feathers, Vayn!’ And what does she do? She rolls over and vomits in this thing’s face! And it explodes!”
Vayn was laughing as loud as Heronitas, who howled like a banshee. Kyron smiled and strode through the hall to his chambers. He unlocked the heavy door and let himself in. Ballard was waiting for him, just as he had expected.
Kyron bell was a fast man, perhaps the fastest. And yet it always surprised him how Ballard got about the shop so quickly.
“Sir, I have important news,” started Ballard.
“How important?” asked Kyron.
The spymaster nodded his head.
Kyron crossed the room and lit a sickly looking candle atop of a side-cabinet. The candle burned a wretched black flame which poured a thick stream of grey smoke. The smoke helped dissuade any eavesdroppers that were listening in on the wind. Soon the whole room was filled with its foul stench.
“Speak,” said Kyron.
Ballard bowed his head. “Master, one of our spies has confirmed a sighting of the Beggar Knight, Percival, near the West coast.”
“What?!” asked Kyron, incredulously. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, sir. It has been confirmed by several sources,” said Ballard. “But more, he claims he has been freed from Avalon in order to find the Grail.”
Kyron trembled slightly. The implications of The Holy Grail…
“Naturally I have kept this information confidential,” said Ballard. “Several of my spies unfortunately had to be retired.”
“And does he know?” whispered Kyron.
“The old bastard? No,” said Ballard, smiling.
Kyron nodded his head. “Then let’s keep it that way.” The big man started to pace as he thought. “We will need to send someone to retrieve it at once… someone that can infiltrate the Beggar Knight’s camp and gain his confidence.”
“There is one that will be more than suitable,” said Ballard.
“Yes,” replied Kyron. “The Horn girl. She is perfect.”
Kyron tapped his cheek, thinking. “Yes. We must inform our master. He will be most impressed if we deliver The Holy Grail to him.” Kyron blew out the candle’s flame and retrieved two glasses and a bottle of whiskey from inside the side-cabinet. He poured generously into both glasses and gave one to Ballard.
“We will be princes of the new paradise!” said the giant.
Ballard smiled deviously and touched his glass to Kyron’s. “Here’s to Ragnarök.”
A visitor to the House of Horn
These Horns are going to be the death of me!
Timothy Lincoln wheezed his way back to the van. He grabbed another sack full of envelopes and parcels.
A van! A bloody van! In all my time here I’ve never needed a van! Now I can’t keep up without it! Bastards are trying to ruin me, I know it!
The postman picked up the sack with a bear-hug and shuffled his way over to the gate. He dumped it on the ground and gave it a kick for good measure then stood up straight with hands on hips to regard it.
He got to work emptying the sacks’ contents into the red letterbox. How it all fitted he didn’t know or care. His favourite pastime had long been abandoned. He couldn’t keep it up with the sheer volume of junk destined to the ‘House of Horn’ and do his normal rounds too. He wanted to complain to someone about this treatment but there was nobody to complain to. He didn’t even work for the Royal Mail Service! He was a fraud just like everyone else in the forgotten lands.
Sweat began pouring off him in buckets under the heat of the afternoon sun.
“Too bloody old for this carry-on now…” he muttered to himself.
“You don’t look that old,” replied someone beside him.
Tim fell over clutching his chest.
“Oww. Damn near gave me a heart attack! Who is that?” he barked looking about.
“Sorry about that. I thought you could see me. Old habits I suppose…” replied a man standing behind the iron worked gate. “I’m Remigius of the House of Horn. People call me Remy. Pleased to meet you.”
Tim gaped up at him, slightly stunned. One of his hobbies was staring back at him in real life.
“Are you okay? Did you hit your head or something?” asked Remy, smiling slightly.
“You…” wheezed the postman. “I haven’t delivered a letter for you for a long time. I thought you had died!”
Remy bit his lip. “Don’t you keep up with local gossip? I ran away.”
“Never bothered keeping up with that lot. All a bit odd if you ask me. Very cliquey. Gets a bit like that with all the inbreeding and so on…” said Tim as he got to his feet.
“Never thought of it that way. Explains a whole lot now that you mention it,” said Remy as he rubbed his hands together.
The two men looked at each other for a moment before laughing.
“I’ve got something to ask of you if you don’t mind,” said Remy after a suitable pause. “A favour if you will?”
“Yes…?” replied Tim sceptically.
Remy pulled out a large brass key from his pocket. “Would you mind delivering the post to the front door from now on? Please?”
He offered it to the postman through the bars of the gate. “Please?”
Tim stood stock still as he weighed up the pros and cons in his head.
If it makes my job any easier…
“Can I leave the mail in the sacks?”
“Of course,” replied Remy with a grin.
Tim reached out and grabbed the key.
“Come inside with me. There is someone I’d like you to meet.”
Reality often has a way of killing fantasy. Tim the postman learned this lesson today.
It’s a lot shabbier than I imagined. Damned shabby.
The only thing that did impress him was the degree of decay and damage. The hallway stunk of burnt carpet and charred wood. A layer of soot lined everything. It must have been quite the sight in its heyday, but now? Now it emanated neglect and sorrow.
Remy seemed to read his thoughts. “The resident Brownie is on strike… you know…” he said shrugging.
And they have a bloody Brownie too!
“Did it do all this in protest?” he said gesturing around him.
“Not the Brownie, no. My grandfather did some. Some rather unpleasant fellows did the rest.”
“Anyway. Do come in. There is someone dying to meet you,” Remy said as he led the way to the sunroom.
The ‘sunroom’ had seen better days. Cardboard covered what must have been a massive lead-glass window, completely blocking out any trace of natural light. Maps and pieces of paper had been tacked to every available surface within arm’s reach. Candles and a few sad electric lamps glowed above a dining table which had been repurposed to house a stack load of correspondence. A wiry man with swept back hair sat behind the table on a high stool, furiously writing with a fountain pen. No sooner had he finished one letter had he started on the next.
The source of my discontent…
The man looked familiar.
“Sorry, I forgot to ask for your name,” whispered Remy behind his hand.
“What? Oh! It’s Tim. Timothy Lincoln,” replied the postman, mesmerised by the stranger in front of him.
“Stephen. I’d like to introduce Tim. He’s the local postman here in Pennysworth.”
Tim gasped. This was the infamous Stephen Horn! He had heard plenty of rumours about him.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mister Horn,” said Tim as he doffed his hat and offered a hand.
Stephen looked up from his work. A sneer quirked his lips. When he saw the postman’s uniform it slid, rather unnaturally, into a queasy smile.
“Hi Jim. Stephen of the House of Horn,” he said, getting to his feet and shaking hands.
Tim couldn’t tell what emotion he should be registering. He stuck with ‘fan-boy’ glee as that’s what felt natural at the time.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mister Horn,” he said smiling widely.
Remy smirked at his grandfather. Stephen gave him a rude gesture back.
Something about this wiry walnut of a man reminded Tim of somebody.
“Have we met before?”
Stephen narrowed his eyes. “Yes. Only the once. You were drunk out of your mind when you stumbled into Pennysworth. Constable Manhire wanted my opinion on whether we should keep you or kick you out. I suggested the former.”
Tim’s smile sagged. “Oh… Well, thanks. I guess.”
“You do like it here?” inquired Stephen. “You’re happy you stayed?”
“Yeah… well… I got a job don’t I? And it’s a nice place and all. Yeah…I’m happy,” said Tim as he stroked the back of his balding head.
“That’s good,” said Stephen as he sat back down on his stool. Elbows on the table and hands clasped, Stephen gave Tim his most friendly of smiles.
“Jim, I hear you have quite the knack of finding and leaving this place. Could you please share your secret?”
“Oh, it’s no real secret. Not really,” said Tim blushing slightly.
He patted his pocket and pulled out a hipflask.
“Just need a little sauce when I’m trying to get back in is all.”
Stephen raised an eyebrow. “Is that it? That’s all you do? How do you get lost every time? Do you take different routes?”
Tim scratched at the back of his neck. “Well, most of the time if I drink a little grog and close my eyes I get here. If I’m really stuck I try driving through Manchester. That always stumps me.”
Stephen gazed off into space nodding his head. “You must be really good at getting lost, a consummate expert in fact.”
“Thanks…” replied Tim, unsure whether it was an insult or not.
Stephen got back on to his feet and walked over to stand by Tim.
“I need to ask you a favour, Jim.”
The postman nodded his head enthusiastically.
“If I gave you a list of people and where to find them, do you think you could bring them here for me? I’ll reimburse you handsomely, of course,” said Stephen, biting his lip.
“Here? You want to bring them here?” stammered Tim. “What about the council? Do they know about this?”
“Don’t you worry about the council, I’ll deal with them,” said Stephen. “Can you do it, Jim?”
“But… What about my job?” replied Tim, his voice starting to crack.
“We will find you an assistant. An apprentice or the like for your peculiar… gift”
Remy rolled his eyes behind Tim. Stephen gave him another quick hand gesture.
“Can I sit down, please?” asked Tim. “I need to think.”
Remy ushered him over to a chair. Tim plopped himself down. After a moments thinking he raised his head. “How many people are we talking about here?”
Stephen gave a piece of paper to Remy, who in turn passed it to Tim. The postman started reading the list of names and addresses.
“There must be a hundred names on this! At the very least! And you want me to bring them here?” asked Tim incredulously.
Stephen patted a giant pile of paper next him. “That is only the start.”
Tim shook his head. This was nonsense. What were they doing? Throwing a party to end all parties? “What could you possibly want with all of these people?”
Stephen folded his arms and leaned back against the table. “The end of the world draws near. I plan on fighting it. That, and I need to rescue my granddaughter from the most devious wizard ever known. Is that going to be a problem? ”
Tim slumped back in his chair, stunned. Stephen shrugged his shoulders and went back to writing his letters. Remy walked out of the room in search of his family, whistling a jaunty tune along the way.
Elsewhere in the forgotten county, Mr and Mrs Fletcher started on another barrel load of arrows, the Archers stopped drinking for a moment and practiced their true craft and the Knights of the old abbey inspected their ancestors’ ancient weapons and battle dress. The people of Pennysworth were preparing for war.
The Fields of Camlann 665 AD
Screams split the artificial night. Lost in the shadows, men were dying in droves. Merlin searched on, fearing the worst.
Where is the boy? Where is the king?
The wizard held a globe of swirling fire in his palm, the light pushing back the icy darkness assaulting his army. Frost-rimmed bodies were strewn over the ground. He inspected each in turn, just to be certain it was not him. Each had had their throat cut by the devilish Dökkálfar, the cowardly masters of shadow and allies of the witch Morgause.
Merlin cursed himself. He should have torn out her heart when he had the chance.
Instead, he had let the woman and her bastard son live.
And now, they were killing his dream.
Merlin felt a cold presence surge from the shadows behind him. He spun about and unleashed a wall of flame. The dark-elf assassin was caught off guard. The creature screamed its last breath and fell to the earth twitching. Merlin plunged his belt knife into the elf’s back to be sure it was not another illusion. Dark red blood confirmed the kill.
There came the rustling of cloth – such as a cloak makes when whipping in high wind.
“Turn and face me, boy,” commanded his former master.
The wizard slowly turned around. Nestled in the shadows at the perimeter of his light was the demon who had granted him his craft.
“Do you come to finish your grisly work, Goodfellow?” called Merlin.
“I come to gloat,” purred the devil through a wide toothy maw. “Tis the hour of my victory.”
“I am not dead yet, spirit!” roared Merlin, brandishing his stolen Hellfire. “If you desire the return of your gift, I offer a full measure!” Merlin threw flames at the demon, bathing him in the wretched heat.
The devil laughed as the flames enveloped him. “I fear not that which birthed me, son of Adhur.”
Merlin stalled his attack, leaving the fire to pool in his cupped hand. “Say your words, if any you have, Goodfellow. I tire of your tricks.”
Robin Goodfellow grinned back at Merlin through his wide mouth. “All your hard work has been for naught. Albion shall not stand united in the long night. Her ruler and only hope dies now. See for yourself.”
The devil pointed a long arm. The shadows parted to reveal two knights in the distance, locked in combat. One wore a suit enamelled in black with the figure of a winged dragon on his helmet. The other wore a simple suit with a white surcoat. A gold band circled his helm. Merlin recognised both men – King Arthur and his bastard son Mordred.
As Merlin watched helplessly, Arthur drove his enchanted blade deep into Mordred’s bowels. The dark knight staggered backwards clutching the wound and fell to his knees. Arthur raised his sword to deliver the final blow. He paused, however, and stood wavering with Excalibur above his head. Mordred pleaded with his father, the words lost to Merlin over the distance.
“Kill him or doom us all!” warned Merlin.
Arthur looked in his mentor’s direction, momentarily surprised.
Mordred took the opportunity to unsheathe a dirk from his hip and buried the blade in Arthur’s chest while he was distracted. Both men tumbled to the ground, bleeding. Shadow rolled in, hiding the men once again.
“So much for your gift of prophecy, boy,” laughed Robin Goodfellow. “Who will you pin your hopes to now?”
Merlin paid him no heed. He was too shocked to act, too stunned to think.
Arthur was like a child to him. He had spent years engineering his birth, preparing not only his forebears but the very world for his coming. The lad was going to save them all from Ragnarök, this much he had seen.
Merlin quit his nemesis, scrabbling over the rough earth on hand and foot in a mad dash to reach Arthur’s side. Perhaps not all was lost.
“We will meet again before this is through, dear boy,” called Robin Goodfellow after his former apprentice. His towering form unravelled into a black sheet and was carried away on the west wind.
Merlin stumbled his way through the dark, combing the floor with his hands. Finally he saw the gleam of the fairy weapon in the gloom. Arthur still held the blade in one hand – the other clutched his messy wound. He looked up at his mentor through heavy-lidded eyes.
“…old friend…” he wheezed.
Merlin strangled a cry in his throat at the sight of him. “Arthur lad, hold still. I can save you yet.”
“…no use… the blade… poisoned…” croaked Arthur.
Merlin looked at the wound. Dark fluid was leaking out with the blood.
“I… I…” stammered Merlin. He scoured his brain for the lore to heal such a wound.
Around him the shadows were unravelling to reveal the gory battleground. As Merlin desperately thought of a solution, brilliant light stabbed down from the heavens behind the enemy lines. His ears popped just before he was thrown to the ground. Dazed, he got back to his knees. Horns blared, signalling retreat. Morgause’s army was running.
Merlin looked skywards. Radiant figures were circling above the battle, throwing burning light amongst the rebels.
The Ljósálfar had joined the fight after all.
He promised himself he would punish them if Arthur died.
“My Lord, Merlin?” asked a rough voice. “How fare you?”
Merlin craned his neck around. Behind him was a troupe of brightly coloured knights mounted on horseback. They gasped at the sight of their king bleeding in the dirt.
“What have you done, wizard?!” yelled the brave but idiotic Sir Bors.
Merlin came to a decision, though it pained him deeply. “A horse. Bring me a horse.”
The knights stared at him; some exchanged awkward glances with each other.
“Now, or he dies!” screamed Merlin.
Sir Percival, the newest member of the Knights of the Round Table, dismounted first. “You may take my mount, Master Merlin.”
The wizard pried Excalibur from Arthur’s hand and sheathed the precious blade. Merlin hopped onto the charger without hesitation. “Hand me the King. Quickly!”
Percival and Sir Galahad picked up their king between them and hauled him into a sitting position in front of Merlin. Merlin turned the horse about, looking at the battlefield. Too many bodies clad in white lay unmoving in the mud.
“Bring our dead to the sea,” commanded Merlin. “All of them.”
Merlin kicked the charger into a gallop and was gone.
Arthur was slipping away again; his breathing grew shallow and his skin felt cold and clammy. Merlin tipped his head to the side and pressed his own mouth to the king’s. He vomited up another portion of his own essence. It poured like molasses down the limp man’s throat, suffusing him with its simmering energy. Arthur gagged but was too far gone to comprehend what was happening. Merlin swayed in the saddle. He didn’t have much more of himself to give. A little farther and they would be at the water’s edge. They only had to survive until then.
As the moon rose and the waters danced to its silver touch, Merlin ploughed the flagging horse into the surf. He walked the beast into the icy water until his knees were immersed. Arthur struggled in his sleep then stopped moving. Merlin looked to the horizon, muttering ancient words of summoning, then ran his belt knife over his palm. The sea foamed where his blood touched. He waited patiently for what seemed like hours, fighting to hold the drowsy charger in place.
Finally, he heard their song. Sweet and sorrowful, it reverberated from the depths of the ocean and echoed through the bay. Soon he saw their faces, dipping and bobbing beneath the surface.
“Sisters, I seek a boon of thee,” said Merlin.
Speak and we may grant it, favoured son of Adhur, said a voice from beneath the waves.
Merlin licked his lips nervously. He was hesitant to bargain with such creatures. Something had to be done though.
“Bear this man to distant Avalon,” said Merlin. “Let him rest in its hallowed grounds until Ragnarök comes, taking care of his person and all other deserving bothers who join him in these sacred waters.”
Merlin waited for a reply. As the minutes dragged by he feared he had asked for too much.
We care not if Ragnarök comes.
Merlin stifled a cry.
What do you offer in return?
Merlin bit his lip. “Name any price! Anything within my power shall be yours!”
The ocean sighed. Merlin stirred in his saddle uneasily.
We will take the body of the king and all other worthies who join him in our halls. To heal is beyond our craft. Their souls will be bound to this plane, however…
Several sets of cold-white hands snaked out of the water and grabbed Arthur. More were rising, reaching for the bridle and tack of the charger.
“No! Wait! How do I get him back?”
No answer came. Merlin fought himself free as the hands pulled Arthur and the poor horse beneath. Merlin felt fingers lock onto his robes and he too was dragged under. Pale faces with streaming hair filled his blurry vision. One of the sisters came closer and pressed her icy lips to his ear.
She spoke her terms.
Merlin screamed and tore at the hands pinning him. He fought his way to the shore, thrashing at the grasping submerged hands.
He stood alone on the beach, shivering in the cold. In his mind he sought to justify what he had done. Arthur would survive, in a fashion, until Ragnarök doomed the mortal plane.
That was all that mattered.
End of Part 1
I promised myself long ago that I would never write a book which required a glossary and a decoder ring to understand it, and while I prefer a hint of mystery in the books I read, I am also aware that not all people feel the same. To that end I have included a glossary of sorts to help understand the various races, characters and places that populate the story. The notes are only intended to give a little back ground information. If anything interests you, please go on-line or down to your nearest library. There is a wealth of fantastical stories and myths out there, handed down through the generations, told by fire side and under starlight to the delight of children and adults alike.
Warning: Potential spoilers ahead!
The Norse pantheon of gods which include Odin, Thor and Loki. In this story, the Ӕsir had control over Scandinavia, Northern Europe and parts of Britain. They were in contention with the other gods for power, including the Sidhe and the Greeks/Romans. The Ӕsir and their rivals have been removed from the mortal plane by The New Order to make way for a new era of ‘logic and reason’. Their creations, the elves, live out the last of their days, plotting revenge against the New Order and each other.
They are traditionally a legendary creature akin to a hobgoblin, not a creature similar to a golem like I mistook them for. A line from David Bowie’s song ‘Jean Genie’ inspired me to create the ones in the book. I thought the line was, “And keeps all your dead hair for making a bugbear.”
Turns out I was wrong. So just to clarify, my bugbear is a creature woven from human hair and infused with herbs and flowers. A skin of plaster is painted on and enchanted eyes are inserted. They are utterly loyal to their master/creator.
The Elves of English folklore are descendants of Germanic and Norse mythology. They are portrayed as beautiful, intelligent and ambivalent beings with supernatural abilities and are often associated with sexual threats, seducing people and causing mischief or harm.
Ljósálfar (light elves) are associated with the Ӕsir, the Norse gods. It is unknown whether they were gods themselves. These elves live in the sky atop floating mountains which have parted with the base earth. They command the elements of light and air.
Dökkálfar (dark elves) represent the darker aspect of the elven race. They live beneath the ground and are described as swarthy and untrustworthy. They are more likely to meddle in the affairs of man as they harbour a great loathing for the mortal races. They command the elements of shadow and earth.
Svartálfar (black elves) are cousins of the Dokkalfar, also known as Dwarves. They too live beneath the ground, crafting machines of superior workmanship and cunning. Their skin is as ‘black as pitch’ and they are small of stature. Not much is known about them so far.
The Irish fairy or Sidhe (pronounced ‘shee’) have their roots as pranksters and mischief makers, more likely to steal away a maiden than to leave a pot of gold. They are descended from the Tuatha Dé Danann, some of the original inhabitants of Ireland whom were cast underground by the Milesians (mortal men). It is thought they lived in a magical parallel world, accessed through the Sidhe (earthen mounds) that are dotted throughout Ireland. The Tuatha Dé Danann were fearsome warriors and magicians who employed powerful artifacts in battle, and to that end I have chosen to keep their descendants the same. The Sidhe have spirit as their chief element, with a weak connection to either water, air or earth elements.
The Fomorians predated the Tuatha De Danann on Ireland. The name is interpreted with either of being below or of the sea. Fomorian or Fomori was a term to describe pirates in Medieval Ireland. They were finally driven back to the ocean during their last battle when Lugh pushed Balors’s evil eye out of the back of his head with the help of his sling-shot, killing the waiting army behind him. The Fomorians have the element of water with a weak connection to air.
Goblins appear in many European myths and stories. They are often characterized as small and annoying creatures with dim intelligence and a greed for gold. The goblins in this story come in all shapes and sizes, and are more sinister than baffling. Goblins have a connection to fire and earth elements.
The New Order was issued by the governing body of the afterlife to enforce a stricter rule on the mortal plane. The decree imposes a ban to all magic and gods outside of paradise. All life to inhabit the mortal pane is to have a soul formed by the creator, and as such they believe any creature without one must be removed and destroyed. As many of the magical races were created by extinct gods for their own use, their ultimate death awaits them when the order is put onto full effect. Some seek to break the gates of life and fight The New Order; others seek to leave through it and continue to exist in other realities.
Not much is known about the figure or figures behind the order. Note that the decree became what they are known as.
Remus and Romulus are twin brothers, sired either by Mars or Hercules. When born they are abandoned by the river Tiber and left to die. They are carried away however and saved by a she-wolf who raises them as her own. Later a shepherd finds them and raises them until they are adults. The two boys are natural leaders and people begin to flock to their side. They learn of their true parentage. The twins kill their uncle and restore their mother’s husband to kingship. Instead of waiting to inherit the throne they decide to build their own city. Romulus wants to build on the Palatine hill, while Remus favors the Aventine hill. There is an argument and Remus is killed. Romulus founds Rome and is eventually deified as Quirinus, the god of Rome.
Rome was considered the center of the world; therefore it was a good candidate for housing the prime gates of Life, the Porta Caeli.
Remus survives his brother’s intended fratricide, however, and escapes westward along The Road with the help of brother wolves. Near the gates of Death he founds his own city, Scelus. Remus seeds a people that are part beast and feeds them on suspicion and hate. Remus sought nothing more than to destroy Rome and Quirinus, its divine protector. Remus died under mysterious circumstances triggering a civil war amongst his sons. Themus was crowned the victor, partly due to his deal with Stephen and his marriage with Maighdlin.
The Sons of Remus still follow the ways of their father and seek to destroy Rome and the gates of Life, making all life untenable on the mortal plane, before sacking heaven and placing themselves on the silver throne. The Sons have spirit as their element.
A strange land populated with the souls of the departed; filled with magic, intrigue and danger. The afterlife is an infinite plain, filled with infinite possibility, stretching out in all directions. Where there is sentient life on the mortal plain, there is an associated paradise and hell for it. Two major factions are at war in the afterlife; pro-Life and pro-Death.
Those that fight for Life are following the teachings of the creator. They believe the purpose of life is found through the bevy of emotions, hardships and successes which come with a mortal life, that to stay in the comforts of the afterlife would cheapen ones existence. If there is nothing to lose then there is nothing to gain. Pro-Life forces dominate the halls of paradise as these symbolise their power.
Those that fight for Death are tired of the endless cycle of mortality and rebirth. They believe paradise should be open for all and not just a select few. With no need for life, what need is there for the punishments of hell?
A third, mysterious force spreads through the afterlife like a cancer, destroying souls in its wake. Nothing can sate its ravenous hunger.
A mystical island where England’s greatest warriors are taken to wait until Ragnarök comes when they will fight the demons and nightmares seeking to end the world. It is tended by the mysterious ‘silent sisters’ – creatures of the sea whose motives are unknown. Chief amongst its wards is King Arthur, Britain’s greatest warrior king.
Pennysworth is a magical place created by the collective minds of mankind. It embodies a perfect town or landscape that is dreamed about but never found, or similarly a place seen once but its location soon forgotten. The only way to find it is to be truly lost or have some connection to it. It is mainly populated with the descendants of the common people from legend. They are bigger, stronger and live longer than the average human as their blood-lines have not been diluted with the lesser mortals created after the New Order.
When The New Order was given, the magical lands and countries that inhabited the world were squeezed out of existence. They hang on by a thread, attached to the Semita Mortuis, known as The Road by many; the pathway of the souls for entering and departing the mortal plane. In the east stands the Porta Caeli, the gates of Life, symbolized by the rising sun and the cradle of humanity. In the west stands the Porta Ultima, the gates of Death, symbolized by the setting sun and the quest for new beginnings.
The fabled King of Britain whose existence has puzzled historians for years. The texts relating to Arthur straddle both the fact and fable. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae is the version that has inspired so many stories and is the basis for much of the Arthurian lore this book has incorporated.
A former naval cook with an inflated sense of purpose. Master of the kitchens.
The king of the Tuatha Dé Danann since they were exiled to their Sidhe mounds. He has lived an extraordinarily long life. Bodb is currently in negotiations with The New Order to leave the mortal plane. Bodb is very nervous about the Sons of Remus finding a way into his realm and seeks to find all born of Fairy, a condition set by the Order before his people can be safe.
Mary’s curly, blonde-haired nemesis at Pennysworth Normal School. The daughter of a prominent farmer.
The master alchemist and ingredients expert. Iona is a former voodoo witch from the West Indies.
The talented weaver of the adventurers’ signature garment.
The dangerous spymaster. Jeremy commands a wealth of strange and forbidden magic derived from the books and scrolls he specializes in.
A prince of the Ljósálfar. John hides in Pennysworth while his people prepare to fight their enemy, the dark-elves. John commands the light and air elements and can commune with his ancestor spirits.
The master-thief and commander of the adventurers. Kyron is rumored to be the descendant of a famous giant killer from ages past. Quick, strong and smart, he has no equal in all of the shop.
A princess of the Dökkálfar who can summon the shadows to her aid.
Mac was formerly a Fomorian sea pirate of renown. Now he’s a winged brute in The Old Man’s army.
Merlin is a key figure in later Arthurian legends and tales. Some stories have him as the bastard son of a mortal woman and an incubus or the union of a demon and princess who baptized him at birth. Merlin had many strange magical powers including prophecy and the ability to change shape and form. The figure of Merlin was originally created by Geoffrey of Monmouth for his Historia Regum Britanniae by combining Myrddin Wyllt (a prophetic madman) and Ambrosius Aurelianus (a Roman-British war hero).
Morgause is King Arthur’s half-sister and the mother of their bastard son, Mordred. While married to King Lot of Orkney, she also bore Gawain, Gareth, Agravain, and Gaheris who all served as knights for King Arthur. She is often attributed with her sister, Morgan le Fay.
The daughter of Stephen and Maudhnait. Maighdlin married Themus and bore Mary and Remy. Maighdlin was captured by her grandfather and taken back to the Sidhe realm after she fled Themus, fearing for her life.
The youngest member of the House of Horn. Mary is the daughter of King Themus of the Western Reaches and Maighdlin Derg of the Sidhe. As she is a mix of races, Mary’s magical abilities are unstable and often uncontrollable. She has a connection to spirit and another element which she is yet to master.
Daughter of Bodb Derg. Maudhnait met Stephen in Ireland while he was trapped in the fairy realm. They fled together when his time was up, and returned to Pennysworth. Maudhnait was taken by Bodb after the treaty between his people and The Sons of Remus fell apart.
Nuada was the king of the Tuatha Dé Danann when they first arrived in Ireland. They soon encountered the Fir-Bolg and fought for dominance of the land. Nuada lost his right hand during a battle against an enemy champion. The Tuatha Dé Danann won but Nuada was removed as king, due to not being physically perfect. After Nuada’s hand was replaced by an artifact of silver made by a physician and wright, he was restored as king. Years later he died during another fight with the Fomorians, but was avenged by Lugh. Stephen came into possession of the god’s missing hand through his deal with The Old Man.
Percival is one of King Arthur’s legendary Knights of the Round Table. He is attributed in Welsh mythology as Peredur. He is most famous for his quest for the Holy Grail. In some stories he comes from a noble background but is raised as a commoner in the woods by his mother, ignorant to the ways of men. Upon seeing a band of knights he fashions his own saddle and arms out of wooden branches and rides for Arthur’s court. Despite being laughed at and ridiculed by the noble knights, Percival proves his worth and joins the Knights of the Round Table.
The goblin quartermaster of the shop. Petri is slowly turning to stone due to The Old Man’s magical curse. A cudgel has replaced his cursed hand when it broke to pieces in a fight.
Mary’s older brother. Remigius has similar traits to Mary. His control of the magic he commands is far greater, however, due to his studies with his parents and the Dökkálfar. He is married to the Dökkálfar princess, Laedwynn and has a son who is yet to be named.
A fairy from Oberon’s court, also known as Puck. Goodfellow is a prankster who has appeared in many myths and tales over the centuries but is probably best known as one of the chief antagonists in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. It is unknown what faction he fights for or whether it is for himself.
A Victorian era villain in English folklore. His first sighting was as early as 1837 in London. Spring-Heeled Jack was described as having a frightful, diabolical appearance, clawed hands and red glowing eyes (I had done the red glowing eyes to death with the bugbears so I omitted that part). It was mentioned that he could breathe fire and perform amazing acrobatic leaps. Spring-Heeled Jack terrorized the suburbs of England, frightening and harassing women and beating men. Reports of him continued over the decades until 1904.
The eldest living scion of the House of Horn. Stephen describes himself as an occult scientist. Much of his mystery derives from his strange studies and the seemingly magical cane which travels with him everywhere. Stephen knows of his family’s dark past and seeks to right those wrongs.
An impish, goat-like cleaner for The Old Man. Timberash has been a fixture of the shop for many years.
Pennysworth’s postman. Tim found his way into the lost county after a horrendous bender and has never left. Has a talent for getting lost.
A bugbear created by Kyron and his chosen. Theotan specializes in artifacts from the various elves and their like.
A specialist in weapons and armour for Kyron. Vayn is a former Valkyrie of the Ӕsir ˗ winged angels who would collect the noble dead and bear them to Valhalla.
A Celtic word (pronounced ‘gas’) describing a fate imposed onto someone, compelling them to act in a certain way. The Geas can have a set amount of parameters that must be upheld or death/misfortune will ensue. Cúchulainn, the famous hero of the Ulster cycle of stories in Irish folklore broke several of the geasa imposed on him, robbing him of his super human skill and strength which led to his death.
In Norse mythology, Ragnarök is the end of the world, brought about by the destruction of Yggdrasil, the world tree upon which the earthly realms rest. The terrible wolf Fenrir is destined to devour the armies of the Ӕsir and wake the serpent which sleeps beneath the tree, destroying the earth, Asgard and everything in between.
The magic of the mortal plane is made up of the primary elements of AIR, EARTH, FIRE, WATER, LIGHT, SHADOW and SPIRIT. The various magical races have command over one or two of the elements. Mastery of one element can lead to some skill in another if the ability and cunning of the user is great enough. For example – moisture in the air, fire consumes air, etc. Spirit is the ability to commune with the lingering essences and souls that inhabit the mortal plane as well as the ability to force changes to one’s own essence which in turn changes the physical body. Due to the restrictions imposed by The New Order, there are many bitter souls trapped on the earth.
There are other sources of magic in the afterlife, some of which can be brought to the mortal realm and used to great effect.
I must thank my friends, Ryan and Steve, for the valuable feedback while writing this book. Both offered great insights and pointed out many, many spelling mistakes. Ryan in particular suffered through the early drafts to the detriment of his sanity. Sorry…
Thanks also to Michelle Elvy who helped with editing. Her ideas helped fill the spaces and enriched the story ten-fold.
To my wife, Kate, I cannot thank you enough. You have supported me from day one and tolerated me disappearing for hours at a time to beetle away at a manuscript that would probably never see the light of day.
Lastly, a big thank you to everyone else who has read this far. There is more adventure to come.
I live in The Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, with my wife and two sons. A cat lives with us too, but we can’t tell who owns who. My interests include playing the drums, watching good movies, making crappy movies, drinking craft beer and consuming all varieties of geek culture. I hope that satisfies whatever, morbid curiosity you have with a giant worm in an impeccable skin suit, posing as a man who pretends he is a writer.
You can write to me at if you desire to heap praise, discuss the book or join me and my evil, wormy brethren. We have secret handshakes and everything.
The story is set in a world parallel to our own, where the creatures, heroes and gods from folklore have been banished to live out the last of their days. As RagnarÃ¶k approaches, factions are forming and bonds are breaking. War threatens to sweep the land. Mortal life itself is threatened, but who will defend it? â€˜Tales of the Hornsâ€™ is primarily a fantasy novel flavoured with elements of steampunk and set in a contemporary, modern Britain. It revolves around Mary Horn (16), a girl dissatisfied with life, family and home. Her dreams of running away from her magically warded village come true one day when her brother returns from a decade long absence. Stephan offers many startling revelations about their familyâ€™s history, including their magical abilities, information on their missing mother and that Mary is almost anything but human. Soon after the reunion, Mary is taken captive by horrible creatures and carted back to Olde London when a contract between her grandfather and a mysterious sorcerer becomes due. Tainted with foul magic which will slowly transform her into a monster, Mary makes the difficult choice to work off her debt the fastest and most dangerous way possible; collecting rare and exotic items for her sinister overlord. Maryâ€™s first job is to locate and capture the Victorian era villain â€˜Spring-heeled Jackâ€™. The adventure takes her down and over the streets of Olde London, chasing the fire-breathing manic. Along the way she saves the local populace from a raging blaze and proves her worth to the dark-elf companion foisted upon her. Back at home, her dysfunctional family resolve themselves to rescuing Mary and preparing for RagnarÃ¶k. Meanwhile in the shop, treason is afootâ€¦ â€˜Hornsâ€™ explores themes of family, religion, race, morality and mortality. Family ties will be strained, old feuds will be aired and the gods will be challenged. Mary's journey from an innocent girl to saviour of mankind starts in this first book of the series.