Exchange on a Bridge
It was very different from his usual job at the Call Centre, Steve thought as he waited for his contact. The concrete bridge over the ornamental lake seemed an odd choice of meeting place, but what could go wrong in a public park? Steve pulled his thin jacket around him. The weather had been unseasonably warm, but the chill coming off the water was unexpectedly cold.
He shuffled his feet. The joggers and dog walkers out early in the morning were making the most of the golden early sunlight. He was on a late shift today, so he planned to make the exchange, walk up past the car park to the local burger place and then hit the car boot sale that had been advertised at the local sports centre.
Steve stamped his feet and turned around on the spot. The rest of the park seemed to be gleaming in the early sunshine, but it looked like mist was rising from the surface of the small lake. For a moment Steve seriously considered turning and walking away from the sale. It was a good deal, far better than he had thought to get, even for a relatively rare item, but he had spent several hours on the internet last night researching his buyer and he was not comforted. Still, he had accepted the payment and he would never get a as good a price as this. He looked over the rail of the bridge. The mist was rising higher and it was now hard to see the bank.
The sound of a motorbike broke the stillness and, in defiance of the park bye laws, approached the bridge. Steve watched nervously. It wasn’t a small bike, but one of the large, heavy duty types with more acceleration than a car and a deep throated growl as hit bumped over the gravel path towards him out of the mist and on to the bridge.
The motorcycle rider dismounted and removed his helmet. “Are you Mr Steve Adderson?” He asked.
Steve swallowed nervously. “I’m Steve Adderson.” He said, his voice almost breaking with fear. “Are you Lord Marius?”
“I am indeed.” There was a hint of impatience. “Have you brought it with you?”
Steve swallowed again. “Yes, I have.”
“And payment has cleared in your account?” Lord Marius asked.
“No offence, but when I was first contacted I read up a bit and they mentioned fairy gold…” Steve took a deep breath. Lord Marius was a lot taller than him, lean and dark haired with green eyes full of a cat like mockery. He had a dangerous edge that went beyond the trappings of a biker.
“As a kindness, and hoping for a speedy transaction, I will share some small information.” Lord Marius leant casually against the railings of the bridge. “If you are dealing with the elfen, never take food, or drink or cash. Cheques are usually safe enough, though nothing in any path is guaranteed. And this treasure that you bring me, which has been bartered hard for, well, that is an illustration of elfen foolishness. You were contacted by Lord Cerdig.” Lord Marius sighed. “He does not see a great deal of the sunlight realm. He ventures here rarely, and his influence is waning, particularly amongst the younger members of his court. He seeks to bolster his position, so he finds something that his more powerful neighbouring prince covets to buy aid and support.” Lord Marius shrugged. “This neighbour is in the grip of a strange obsession. It is a curse of our kind. He is quite desperate for treasure such as you carry, no matter how odd it seems to others, he pines for it. So, Lord Cerdig offered highly for it, lest another find it first and win it from you.”
“I was a bit surprised.” Steve said.
“Your treasure has some value in your world, but it is not the same value as that to a desperate elfen prince, buying the heart’s desire of a much-needed ally.” Lord Marius sighed. “Please give it to me.” He held out an imperious, leather clad hand.
Steve hesitantly handed it over. Lord Marius took out the object, removed his gloves and examined it slowly with careful fingers. He nodded.
“It is exactly as described.” Lord Marius said. “Here is a bonus from Lord Cerdig, all the papers are in order.”
Steve’s reflexes caught the car keys that Lord Marius threw at him. The very new BMW car keys. And then he watched Lord Marius wrap the package in layers of cloth, place it carefully in the large carrier on the back of the bike and ride off into the mist carrying with him a package that would cost, at the best valuation, one fiftieth of the price of the second-hand BMW Steve had been coveting in the local showroom. And some elfen was now the owner of a 1936 Rupert Bear Annual, mint condition. He held up the keys to the growing light as the mist faded. What was the car equivalent of fairy gold?
When One Door Closes
“It’s just a new way of working.” The new manager’s bland expression was getting on Steve’s nerves. “Head office have a great new vision and it means restructuring. It’s happening everywhere. People have new ways of working. Look at clothes.”
Steve kept his expression carefully neutral. He wasn’t really paying attention to what the man opposite was saying. Instead he was absently noting that the potted plant in the corner needed watering and wondering how he was going to pay his rent.
The manager didn’t notice the lack of response. “I mean, years ago all clothes were made by hand. People did the spinning and stuff at home and then it all went into factories. Amazing, really, how things change.”
Steve nodded blankly. How was he going to pay the rent on the lockup he had just rented? He had managed to get a few breaks with reselling, but he didn’t know if his luck would hold. Thanks to the Rupert Bear annual that he had sold for an obscene amount he had a small cushion of savings, but he was tied into the rent on the lock up for the next six months.
“And look at food.” The manager took Steve’s silence as an invitation. “I mean, once upon a time you had to spend days making bread and stuff and now it’s all done in factories.”
Steve thought about his landlady. She had strong views about people having regular jobs. The rent was cheap, but so was the room. Fortunately, she was used to him working shifts and he could do most of the reselling from the lockup.
“You’ll get excellent references, of course, and you’ve been a pleasure to work with in the three weeks I’ve been here.” The manager was leaning forward and looking business like.
Steve wondered what this manager would have been like to work with for more than three weeks. Inwardly he shuddered. He would have been hell. There would have been lots of ‘team talks’ and ‘positive affirmations’ and the ever-moving targets would have driven him crazy. He tried to hold on to that thought. He had a new car, some savings, a new business as a reseller ready to go and he was escaping from this manager. Steve tried to ignore the cold fear settling in his stomach.
“Most of all, you need to know that it’s nothing personal.” The manager smiled a ‘like me in spite of bad news’ smile.
Something in Steve snapped. He stood up and held out his hand. “Thank you for your time. It’s been an interesting meeting. I’ll just clear my desk now.”
Ten minutes later Steve was standing by his new car. There hadn’t been much to clear out. He’d thrown away the accumulation of half finished tubes of cough sweets and he’d happily left the tacky colour change much he had got in last Christmas’ Secret Santa. All he had in his hands were a large manila envelope with all the forms that came with redundancy and his BMW key fob. He was going to keep the car, no matter what, Steve decided. He could always sleep in it. He looked around the car park. It was disconcertingly empty in the middle of the day. The canteen staff were arriving for their shifts and a motorbike was roaring up beside him. Steve turned around automatically and then froze as the biker took off his helmet.
“Steven Adderson, call centre worker, do you remember me?”
Steve nodded carefully. “I remember you, Lord Marius. You are one of the…” Steve searched for the right words.
“I am one of the elfen, or faerie if you must, and you provided a coveted gift for Lord Cerdig.” Lord Marius put down his helmet and pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. “News of your sale has travelled. I have further requests from a number of powerful elfen Lords. Lord Lothar requires a new variety of tea. Lord Karum has requested that you find some Wedgewood china. Lord Laurentius has asked about your knowledge of mobile phones…”
As Lord Marius read the growing list Steve could feel his smile growing. What was it they said? As one door shuts another one opens. It was time for a career change.
It was an interesting place to meet, Elaine thought as she sipped her coffee. It was public, but not too public. She was sitting outside the café on the decking overlooking the park underneath the rustling trees. It was early in the year and not many people were braving the brisk spring sunshine, but Elaine was glad of the fresh air. It was public enough that she could call for help if she felt threatened, but quiet enough for a private conversation. The email she had received had stressed that the conversation should be private.
The cherry blossom around the café had just started to come out. It was a little early this year. Elaine looked at the breaking buds. Somehow it didn’t reassure her. There had been cherry blossom when she had met Keith, there had been cherry blossom when he proposed. She had hoped that there would be cherry blossom when she got married at the end of the month.
She pulled out her phone and tried to distract herself from running through the lists for the wedding. It wasn’t working very well. There had been something compelling in that email that meant that she couldn’t refuse to meet, but she really didn’t want to know what it meant.
She heard a car pull up and looked round. An immaculate BMW had parked next to the café and a slim man got out, holding a large manila envelope. He glanced around and then came over. “Hi, I’m Steve Adderson. Thank you for meeting me.”
“Why did you email me?” Elaine wished she could take the words back. She had wanted to be so reserved and dignified. She sounded desperate. A cherry blossom petal dropped onto the table in front of her.
“I’m here on behalf of a client.” Steve looked around quickly and sat down opposite Elaine.
“Who? Who are you acting for?”
“My client wishes to remain anonymous, but he knew your grandfather, Herbert Pettigrew.”
For a moment a pang squeezed Elaine’s heart. She missed her grandfather. “Did they work together? Or what? How did he know my grandfather?”
“My client felt indebted to your grandfather but never had a chance to repay that favour.” Steve smiled faintly. “You could call it a strange inheritance, a bequest of a favour owed. When he came into possession of some information he thought it important that he let you know at the earliest possible time.” He pushed the envelope over to Elaine. “He considers the debt paid.” Steve hesitated. “You may not like what you see, but there is no malice on behalf of my client. It’s well meant.”
Elaine watched Steve stand and walk briskly over to his car, get in and drive away. When he was finally out of sight she pulled the envelope towards her. Her fingers trembled as she opened it and pulled out a sheaf of blown up photos.
She had sort of guessed, sort of half known. Keith was very keen on getting married but not so keen on her. She slowly worked her way through the photos. Keith holding hands with a mystery blonde. Keith kissing the blonde. A candid shot through a window showing Keith and the blonde in bed. The picture that hurt the most, though, was perhaps the least compromising. Keith and the blonde were sitting opposite each other in a café. They weren’t touching, they weren’t even close, but they were sharing such a look of intense love that Elaine broke. She carefully slipped the photos back into the envelope with trembling fingers and watched the cherry blossom petals fall, too numb for tears.
“Hi.” Elaine smiled awkwardly at Steve. “The wedding didn’t go ahead.”
Steve stayed professional. “I’m sorry you had such an upheaval, but perhaps it’s for the best. Is this the piano?”
Elaine nodded. “My grandfather always said it was a gift from someone special. I suppose it’s a wrench to part with it, but I need to make some changes and the money will come in useful.” She managed another smile. “Cancelling a wedding with less than a month to go is expensive.”
Steve was checking the piano with care. “The money has arrived in your account, hasn’t it?”
Elaine nodded. “I triple checked.” She looked through the window at the movers Steve had brought. They were waiting patiently by the van and Elaine got the impression that this was a very specialist type of movers. “I’m planning on selling everything up and going travelling. Or perhaps I’ll go back to college. Or move somewhere exciting.” She shrugged. “I’m going to do something.” She ran her fingertips in a farewell over the battered upright piano. “It’s haunted, you know. I know lots of people don’t believe me, but I’ve heard it playing at night.”
“It’s not haunted, it’s enchanted. May I?” Steve pulled out a small, dusty button that looked like it had belonged to a long-discarded toy.
“Of course.” Elaine had no idea what she was agreeing to but watched with interest as Steve carefully placed it over a decorative rose on the top of the piano.
“You’re not easily shaken, are you?” Steve asked.
Elaine looked him up and down. He was a slim young man in a sharp suit who looked like this was the first time he had left an office in a decade. She had been raised with grandfather’s folk tales and horror stories. “I am really not easily shaken.”
Steve pressed the button. There was a faint click and then with no further warning a pair of ghostly hands appeared above the keys. They stretched professionally, ran themselves up and down the keys in some scales and then started playing a wild Hungarian waltz. Elaine didn’t recognise it, but it was evocative of moonlight, red roses and reckless romance. She found herself almost hypnotised with the swirl of music. She half closed her eyes and she could imagine herself dancing with dark strangers in a clearing in the wild woods. She felt a sense of loss when the music spun into a breathless crescendo and the hands disappeared. Steve put the button back in his pocket.
“Take me with you.” Elaine said impulsively. “It looks like the best adventure I could take. And you look like you need a PA. I am an amazing PA and I would be no trouble.” She put a pleading hand on his sleeve. “Please.”
“Are you sure?” Steve asked quietly.
“I’ve left my fiancé, quit my job and given up my lease.” Elaine said. “I’ve set myself up to go looking for adventure. I think that actually adventure has come looking for me.”
An Old Elfen
“…of course, the word ‘petrichor’ means the song of the stone. I think that is a word that is underused in these times. So much of the language of Shakespeare has been lost. Mind you, I only met him when he was drunk…”
Elaine and Steve exchanged glances. As the elfen lord carried on with his pedantic monologue Steve whispered, ‘He’s got it wrong, you know. It means ‘blood of the stone’. I looked it up once. It’s all the same with the older elfen. They get odder with age. The trouble is that as the elfen get older they get more and more powerful. They get better at controlling weather and seem to know more magic. I’m just grateful that they get a bit more caught up in the old stories.”
Elaine looked around the room. It had radiators but no central heating. There was a television in one corner, but it was surrounded by what looked like a lattice of hawthorn twigs. A silk cloth was neatly folded over the top of the television. Over the fireplace was an empty frame where a mirror would normally hang and the wallpaper, while new, was a pattern that hadn’t been current for fifty years or more. “So that’s why we couldn’t bring in anything made of iron.”
Steve nodded. “And why we have some clothes inside out. It’s a sort of protection.”
“…of course, nowadays the language changes so quickly. That is why I watch my television, through a scry glass of course, and I am quite concerned about some of the things I see. I noticed a programme on Tinkerbell, for one serious example…”
As the old elfen droned on, Elaine looked with concern at Steve. “But he wants us to buy what without iron!?”
Path in the Woods
Steve threw up noisily into a bush and shivered violently.
“I told you that you should not look away from the line of the path.” Lord Marius said calmly. “Faerie paths are not safe.”
Steve shuddered. “You’re not kidding.”
“Though it is fortuitous that you brought iron into the realm against my instructions” Lord Marius lounged against an oak. “I wouldn’t have considered that there could be iron within a shoe. I thought it was glue and stitching.”
Steve looked down at his expensive shoes, the laces tipped with steel tags. The elfen set a lot of value on appearances so he had reluctantly bought designer shoes. They had been worth every penny. “This suit cost £500, you know,” Steve straightened up, “And that was after hard bargaining.”
“You are known as a great merchant.” Lord Marius nodded. “And a great and skilful dealer in the delights of the elfen. I am sure that should an untouched mortal should attempt to purchase that suit it would be three times the amount.”
Steve looked down at the torn and stained remains of his suit. “I hope I get as lucky replacing this one.”
Lord Cerdig coughed in the background and Steve turned to face his host. The ancient elfen was wearing his shabby Victorian tweeds with a grand air. “Steve Adderson, great merchant to the elfen, I hope this has not affected our ability to do business. I will not offer you drink and food, but please be seated and let us talk.”
Steve bowed politely and sat carefully on the shaped tree stump. “How may I serve the Lord of Warrington?”
Lord Cerdig drummed his fingers on the arm of his own wooden seat. “I know of you as a great merchant.” Lord Cerdig said thoughtfully. “You have dealt honestly with my kind. However, you have always required payment in mortal money which I lack. However, I propose a trade.”
“What sort of trade?” Steve said cautiously.
Lord Cerdig waved imperiously and a boggart brought in a large chest. “All that is contained there is trade. There is nothing faerie there, nothing that will fade in moonlight or sunlight. The arrowheads are unenchanted.”
“That is a cautious and careful decision,” Lord Marius nodded thoughtfully. “Most have forgotten elf-shot and it is helpful to keep that.”
Steve looked at the heap of musket shot, strap ends, hack silver, Victorian and Roman coins and expertly knapped flint arrow heads. “This is a hard hoard to value.” He said with absolute honestly. “I will sell this treasure fairly and take the cost of selling together with a tithe to keep me fed and the rest of the money found can purchase your desire.” Steve hoped it would be enough.
“An excellent plan.” Lord Cerdig cried. “Brett will carry the chest to your vehicle.”
Back in his car, Steve wondered how much he could get for miscellaneous antiquities and modern knapped flints. And where he was going to get bulk quantities of Pokémon cards.
Lord Marius leaned against his motorbike looking at Steve with mocking eyes. “Are you sure you want to trade with the elfen?”
“I’ve done some trading already with the elfen over the last months.” Steve said with false assurance. “It’s an obvious step.”
“It’s a dangerous step.” Lord Marius smiled lazily. “I am happy I am here to watch. Lord Haron does not do much business outside his realm. Why him?”
“I know he has a feast coming up, and I know he has a hoard of snake stones. We can do business.” Steve took a deep breath. “Is this where we enter?” He looked down to the pool of water beside the country road. “I can’t see a gate.”
Lord Marius could taste the uncertainty in Steve and savoured it. “Let me tell you of this pool. There are legends in this area about Wicked Jenny. I was here when they started, years ago.” Lord Marius loosened his leather jacket. “It must have been at the time of the legions, before there were paladins to protect the people. This pool was covered in waterweed, thick and clinging. I watched a child drown here.”
“You watched a child drown?” Steve asked incredulously.
“You see us elfen quite tamed and trammelled.” Lord Marius sighed. “You have protectors now but then was different…” He trailed off at the sight of Steve’s face. “I told the locals that a monster with huge green teeth had come and pulled the child beneath the water. They believed me, of course. So they left offerings to keep Wicked Jenny from stealing more children. The fear and intense belief attracted one of the nature spirits and the legend became a useful fact.” Lord Marius waved a hand and an apparition rose from the water. Steve took several involuntary steps back and stared at the awful, weed draped shape with crooked, algae covered teeth that seemed to shamble onto the land. “Lord Marius, I did not realise that you had company.” it hissed. The monster shimmered and in its place was a young girl, about seventeen with an innocent smile and wearing cut-off shorts and a skimpy top. “I nearly got three teenagers last month, ” She told Lord Marius. “Such a shame I must behave these days, just keep the gate to Lord Haron’s realm.”
” Jenny, this is Steve Adderson who wishes to trade with the elfen.”
“A brave man.” Jenny commented “And what do you bring to trade?”
Steve waved a hand at his car. “Fourteen kilos of white sugar, ten kilos of California raisins, seven litres of rose water and this.” He shook a small pot and Jenny and Lord Marius were both suddenly transfixed. “Edible glitter. You may make food that sparkles!”
Without taking her eyes from the jar of green glitter, Jenny nodded. “That is great treasure indeed. I am sure Lord Haron will be glad to see you.”
“Are you really sure about this?” Elaine asked. “The last time I looked at a map this was a supermarket car park.”
“I can’t get a signal on my phone.” Steve muttered, shaking it and looking desperately at the screen. “But I think we are in the right place, the compass says so.”
“You ‘bought’ a compass from a faerie.” Elaine said flatly. “What made you think that you could trust Lord Marius?”
“Because a lot of the lords like using me as a supplier and he was getting bored of taking me in.” Steve said with honest realism. “And I paid him with a crate of his favourite coffee.”
Elaine slipped over a tree root, skidded down the path and steadied herself just in time. She inspected her stinging, grazed hands. “This forest is creepy.
“It’s faerieland.” Steve said absently as he peered through the mist. It was an elfen mist, elusive and intangible and with echoes in the swirling air. In the distance he thought he could hear mocking laughter and the yelp of dogs. “We need to stay on the path.”
“And if we don’t?” Elaine hefted her bag back onto her shoulder. She was regretting coming. “What did Lord Grey want anyway?”
Steve looked a bit uncomfortable. “Wormwood. Artemisia Absinthium. It’s the stuff they used to put in absinthe that sent people mad or blind. I was surprised that I managed to get so much so easily.”
Elaine looked around the pine forest. The trees loomed over her and the mist was soaking through her clothes. She shivered and behind her she heard a brief burst of flute music. Both she and Steve ignored it. “What would happen if it is the wrong stuff.”
“It is the right stuff.” Steve could feel the chill as well. “We need to stick to the path and we need to push on.” He hefted his own, heavier bags. “It will be alright.”
“Steve, you told me about being chased by Yell Hounds in the domain of Lord Cerdig.” Elaine looked around as mocking laughter echoed again.
“Nothing is going to happen.” Steve took a deep breath. ” We are on the safe path. We have trade goods for Lord Grey which he really wants. Besides, too many lords use my services. He wouldn’t offend them over nothing.”
“Are we safe?” Elaine jumped as something small skittered in the bushes behind them.
“I would not take the woman I loved into anywhere that was not safe.” Steve snapped. Then he paused. This wasn’t how he had planned things. However, he had to seize the moment. “Elaine Pettigrew, will you marry me?”
Elaine dropped her bag in exasperation and turned to face Steve. “What a time and place to pick!”
Lord Marius suddenly appeared out of the mist. “Congratulations, I am so glad that you have finally managed to find the courage. I trust I will be dancing at your wedding?”
Elaine whirled to face him. “I haven’t said ‘yes’!”
A Cold Picture
The cold leeching out of the picture burned Steve’s hands. “I thought deserts were hot.” he said, putting the picture down and rubbing his hands together.
“When I was at Acre I found the heat of the day and the cold of the night difficult contrasts.” Lord Marius looked thoughtfully at the picture. “You could refuse this request, you know. Taking a package from one faerie lord to another has its risks.”
Steve carefully wrapped the picture in its layers of silk. “Do I understand this correctly. Lord Ragnar in York is gifting this picture to Lord Justinian in Rochester. Lord Justinian will not be sending anything in return.”
Lord Marius seemed lost in his memories as he gazed at the silk wrapped picture. “It is such a remarkable picture, made many centuries before I went to Jerusalem.” He returned to the present. “Lord Justinian is having problems with a salamander which the picture will solve, and Lord Ragnar is in a weak position at the moment. He will rely on magical aid from Lord Justinian before long, I am sure. How is Elaine?”
Steve had wanted to avoid this part of the conversation. “She’s fine.”
“And you are still not married?”
“She didn’t think that a proposal in a magical land counted.” Steve held the picture lightly in his hands. Even the silk wrappings were icy. “She thought I had just got carried away. She says we need to wait a bit.”
“Is she performing wifely duties?” Lord Marius asked with helpful innocence.
“Why can’t one of the elfen take this package?” Steve changed the subject.
“Distrust and paranoia.” Lord Marius waved a hand. “A werewolf will give you the letter from Lord Ragnar to accompany the gift. You will meet him in the tea shop on Micklegate, near the bridge, on Monday at 11am sharp. Here is an image of him so that you are not mistaken. Another werewolf will collect the package in Rochester Cathedral tea rooms, once you have confirmed you have arrived. Their image is here.”
Steve nodded. Werewolves were usually trustworthy in this situation. “It’s not a bad journey. It’s motorway all the way.”
“Lord Ragnar is not popular.” Lord Marius warned. “He is only sending this treasure under great need. You are at risk of interception.”
“How great is the risk?” The cold stung Steve’s fingers as they clenched on the picture.
“Do not take unnecessary risks.” Lord Marius said carefully. “Be careful where you pause your journey and be particularly careful of strange weather.”
“I’ve taken precautions.” Steve shoved his hands into his pockets to try and warm them.
“I know I can no longer approach your car.” Lord Marius shrugged then changed the subject back. “How do you propose to make Elaine wed you?”
Steve concentrated on sliding the picture into its thick, insulated bag. “I don’t know.” He carefully buttoned the cover. “But it will be without elfen help, no matter how well meant. I’m already in enough trouble.”
Steve hated waiting at stations. He looked again at the oversized watch face on the cafe table in front of him. It looked dirty but with faerie creations it was hard to tell. He looked around. Ahead a woman in a tight blue dress was flicking through her phone as she sipped her coffee. A tired looking man on his right was sipping a glass of wine.
Steve shifted around to get a better look at the station concourse. He had no clue who he would meet here. Lord Marius had turned up unexpectedly and handed him the watch face. “I have to attend urgent business in Leeds. Wait at Paddington Station cafe with this on the table, tomorrow, between noon and one hour after. Someone will meet you with a package, directions and payment.” The faerie lord had strode off without a backward glance.
The man on his left was sipping a latte and working on a crossword. He was filling in two across and had spelled ‘ferrous’ wrong. Steve looked around again. He seemed to be the only person in the cafe not immersed in something, either their own thoughts, a phone or even a crossword. The woman was still flicking through her phone. Steve wondered if she realised how unflattering the tight dress looked. Elaine always wore clothes that fit just right.
Elaine had been understanding, but she had booked a table at their favourite restaurant for eight, and she had had to scramble to rebook it. “I know, it’s your job.” She had sighed.
“I’ll try and be back for tomorrow night. I’m not sure about what is happening.” Steve had said, “It’s not like Lord Marius to just dump stuff and run. I hope he’s alright. He usually likes to stay around and watch me suffer.”
Elaine had managed a smile, but it put off Steve’s attempt at proposing. He had been carrying the ring around for weeks. He had one more month before the guarantee of exchange ran out. It worried him, but it was nothing to the awful, icy chill at the thought of never marrying her.
The man in the rumpled suit was still sipping the wine. Steve wish he knew who would turn up. An elfen glamour could look like anyone. Steve tried not to look back at the woman in the tight dress, still flicking through the phone. She may get the wrong idea. He looked over to the man completing the crossword. He was still filling in two across. Steve closed his eyes briefly, then checked the watch face. The winder had slipped out when Steve had sat down. He pushed it back in and the woman threw her phone down in disgust as the man in the rumpled suit drained his glass. On his left the man realised his spelling mistake and tried to ink over the letters in his crossword.
And across the concourse Carl Armstrong was hurrying, holding a small, neatly wrapped packet.
You Own Me
Elaine sat down carefully at the kitchen table. “I can’t wait to hear your explanation.”
Steve shifted uncomfortably. “Well, I have been dealing with the elfen.”
“And werewolves, and goblins, and that nice Mr Beddoes is a vampire.” Elaine pointed out.
“It is dangerous to deal with the faerie.” Steve rolled up his crisp shirt sleeve. “You can still see the bite marks from when I got chased by Yell Hounds. These are real scars.”
“Yes, real scars that you got in the land of Faerie.” Elaine waited patiently.
“So I followed some instructions from an old book.” Steve glanced at the kettle. “Should I make us a coffee?”
“Not yet.” Elaine remained calm. “Where did you get the book?”
“It was part of the job lot from the house I cleared. You know, where the vampire had been staked. I sorted stuff out for the local lord.”
“I remember.” There was ice in Elaine’s voice. “That’s where the rug with the strange smell came from.”
“Anyway,” Steve desperately tried to get back on track. “I found the cave that it described, and all the strange jars. I should have paid more attention to the verse carved on the shelf.” He pushed a copy of it over to Elaine.
“‘You could’ve made a safer bet, but what you break is what you get, you wake up in the bed you make. I think you made a big mistake.’ Nice rhyme. What does it mean?”
“It means that I get whatever is in the one jar I am allowed to break. I can’t break a second, and I can’t change what I get. It’s a permanent deal. I was heading straight for the one with the golden flower on, right in the centre. Suddenly Lord Marius appeared. That was a bad sign.”
“Lord Marius has been reasonable in the past.” Elaine wasn’t going to allow Steve to get away with blaming Lord Marius. “And he was certainly not responsible for you being there in the first place. That’s all your own work.”
Steve looked hunted. “If he hadn’t turned up so suddenly I wouldn’t have jumped and knocked over the one at the corner. And if I hadn’t knocked that one over it wouldn’t have broken, and I wouldn’t be stuck with that!”
The imp sitting in the middle of the table looked at Elaine balefully. It’s bulging muddy green eyes were unblinking as it scratched at the seat of its dirty jeans and spat on the kitchen floor. Then it dragged out a miniature tin and rolled a cigarette.
“No smoking in this house!” Elaine snapped.
With studied insolence the imp lit the cigarette with a magical spark and took a long drag. As it coughed smoke oozed not only out of its pared nostrils but off the tips of its pointed ears and the ends of the bat like wings poking through its dirty t-shirt. It spat on the floor again. “Make us a cup of tea, will yer.”
The imp belched in Steve’s ear. “Someone’s coming, boss.”
Steve didn’t look around. He skimmed another stone across the lake.
“I see that the imp has its uses.” Lord Marius said coolly.
“His name is Armani.” Steve said, still gazing across the lake. He picked up another stone.
“On account of my style, yer highness.” Armani leered at Lord Marius.
Lord Marius took in the scruffy and torn miniature t-shirt, the filthy jeans and stained boots. “I can see that only a normal could call you that.” The imp chuckled coarsely and spat onto the rocky shore.
Lord Marius walked closer to Steve. “There is no door to a magical kingdom here.” He said.
“I know.” Steve selected another stone.
“You are not meeting anyone?” Lord Marius was sure he knew the answer but asked anyway.
“No.” The stone skimmed for four bounces across the still water. Steve bent to carefully select the next stone.
“But you are here.” Lord Marius persisted.
“I wanted a bit of peace and quiet.” Steve glanced a little bitterly first at Armani and then at Lord Marius. “And Armani is quiet enough.”
Lord Marius watched Armani roll one of his foul cigarettes. “Elaine is in Iberia.”
“Spain.” Steve skimmed another stone. It was only three bounces this time, but he seemed satisfied enough. “She’s gone to Spain with a friend.”
Lord Marius shrugged. “Spain used to be part of Iberia. No matter. Is she coming back?”
“To England, yes. She’s got a flat in Manchester and a good job offer.”
“Is she coming back to you?” Lord Marius asked.
Armani took a long drag of his roll up and gave Lord Marius a disbelieving look. As the imp oozed smoke Steve took his time selecting his next stone. Eventually he glanced up at Lord Marius. “No, she’s not coming back to me.” He said finally and skimmed the stone. It shot five bounces across the water sending ripples across the stillness.
“I am in contact with an elfen marriage guidance expert who…”
“Don’t you dare!” Steve whirled around and glared at Lord Marius. “Don’t you even dare. You think you know people, but you don’t. You don’t understand emotions or love or caring, and you don’t understand me. Elaine’s gone! That’s it. I can’t force her back. She couldn’t cope with the magic, the elfen, the weirdness. And even if I wanted to I can’t walk away from that because of Armani. And I don’t. This is who I am. This is what I am. And Elaine doesn’t want it.” Steve sagged. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
“I understand.” Lord Marius said quietly. “And I also am sorry, sorry that your love affair failed.” He picked up a stone. “We don’t understand, really. We try, but the elfen never quite understand the marvel that you are. We do love, in our own way, but not in yours.” And he skimmed his own stone across the cool water.
Why couldn’t they meet somewhere civilised, instead of in the middle of nowhere? Even his imp had gone to sleep. Steve looked around the desolate landscape. He was only a mile from the motorway, but the motorway was the M62, the highest in England, and after turning off at Saddleworth and then a few dirt tracks he had finally reached the spot marked only by a ruined shepherds’ hut. The air was damp with the threat of rain and apart from the distant hiss of traffic and a few sheep it was eerily silent. For once Steve had ditched the suit but the damp jeans were clinging to his legs and the thick jacket wasn’t keeping the cold out. Steve stamped his feet on the soggy earth and peered around for any hint of his contact.
Steve knew why Lord Lothar was being so cautious. The book he was supposed to hand over was dynamite. It should never have been in the hands of someone outside the world of the elfen. Fortunately, it didn’t look like it had been read regularly, or at all. When Steve had found it in the back room of a house clearance he had kept his countenance, bid hard on a different book, accepted his prize at a low price as consolation and put out tentative feelers to Lords who may be interested – after he had taken multiple, clear, double checked photos of every page. It may be the breakthrough he needed. Steve shifted the carefully wrapped package in his hands and hoped that the damp wasn’t getting through the outer layers.
Armani snorted and gurgled inside Steve’s pocket. He woke with a splutter.
“Trouble’s coming, boss.” There was an edge of panic in his voice as he struggled out.
Ambush, thought Steve, as he glanced up and down the moorland track.
“Hello, meat.” Out of nowhere a tall, rangy figure appeared, scruffy and unshaven with ragged jogging bottoms and a thin t-shirt. “You have a book for me.”
Steve felt in his pocket. “You don’t look like the messenger of an elfen lord.”
“Werewolf.” Armani hissed in his ear and flew off.
“I’m offended.” The thin man bared his teeth in a fake smile. “I’m what you would call freelance. I can get a good price for that book. Hand it over.”
“I don’t think so.” Steve found what he was looking for in his pocket.
“Brave words for a lonely place.” The werewolf smirked.
The werewolf was enjoying this too much, thought Steve. He extended his hand in his pocket. “Just a minute.” Then he punched the werewolf hard on the jaw.
Steve had come prepared and the silver knuckledusters fitted easily on his hand. He wasn’t prepared however for the hiss and the stench of burned flesh as the silver bit into the werewolf. It staggered back, clutching at his blackened face. Steve followed up with a hard punch to the side of the head and another, then a kick to the sternum as the werewolf fell onto its knees, clutching at its damaged head.
The kick didn’t do enough damage. Steve’s training and gym work were useless without the reinforcing silver and the werewolf rolled away still clutching its head. To Steve’s horror the werewolf flowed and suddenly there was a large wolf like creature in front of him, its fur matted, its ribs showing, and its head burnt and blackened.
Steve swore as the creature swung round at him. Desperately he punched at the great head snapping at him. I must not let him bite me, Steve thought frantically, I have to stay away from the teeth. Armani was hanging onto the werewolf’s back, his dirty claws sunk deep into the creature’s flanks. A part of Steve was impressed by the sparks the imp was shedding as Steve managed a lucky punch to the throat.
Then Armani flew up and a heartbeat later a second werewolf landed on the skinny attacker and bit hard down on the back of the neck. There was a sickening crack. Steve watched in horror as the skinny, dog-like shape flowed back into a dead, skinny, battered man, his head lolling at a strange angle. The attacker also flowed back into human form.
“Steve Adderson, do you remember me?”
“Yes,” Steve worked the knuckle duster from his sore hand. “It’s Carl Armstrong, isn’t it? I recognise you even without your clothes.”
The Wrong Portal
Steve froze. The door closely heavily behind him. Armani the Imp crouched low on his shoulder.
“This is bad boss.” The imp had faint wisps of steam oozing from his wing tips. Very bad.
Steve nodded. Ahead of him stretched an avenue of green and mist caressed trees leading to an idealised farmhouse. If he had come into the correct faerie domain, he should be looking at a stern stone corridor with an iron bound door leading to the court of Lord Ragnar. “I think we’ve been diverted. This feels like a magical domain, just the wrong one.”
“We went through the right portal.” Armani shifted nervously from foot to foot. “It stinks of leech here. I’ll have a look.”
As Armani silently flapped ahead, Steve started cautiously moving forward. All the vampires he knew were more than capable of creating a magical domain for a few hours, just long enough to trap an unwary traveller through a portal. Steve swallowed as he felt fear crawling down his back. Vampires were fast, strong and very, very ruthless. He pulled his stake out from his pocket and held it for an overhand thrust. Nothing behind the first two trees facing each other across the deceptively rustic pathway. Steve breathed deeply. He glanced quickly behind him. There was no way out there, the door had vanished and gentle fields of corn rolled into the distance.
Armani was using the trees’ canopy for cover as he hopped from tree to tree. Apart from the soft cooing of woodpigeons, the faint rustle of his progress was the only sound.
Steve took another few steps, stake ready. Why did it have to be a vampire? If it had been a boggart or a werewolf they would have just tried to rip his head off in a straightforward way. Vampires played games. The next two trees were clear as well. Steve checked his pocket with his free hand. He still had the package for Lord Ragnar. That was probably what this was all about. He wished he knew what was inside, but he wasn’t risking looking. The ground felt soft and springing under his feet. The next two trees were clear.
“Over here, boss.”
Steve strode over to where the imp was pointing. At the far side of a tree was a vampire bound with wire. He was cut almost to ribbons trying to get out and his eyes were wild. His lips dripped with froth. “He’s on dragon’s blood. It looks like it has rotted most of his brain. There’s no point in asking questions.”
As Armani finished the vampire off with the stake tucked thoughtfully in the wire at the side, Steve looked around for any further clues. There was nothing. The trees wavered and dissolved and then Steve and Armani were standing in the reassuringly spartan stone corridor looking at the iron bound door of Lord Ragnar. “I owe someone a favour.” Steve said thoughtfully, before knocking with the great iron knocker.
Sea and Selling
Steve gazed over the cliffs and drank in the view. The dimpled sea seemed to stretch to the end of the world as the sun gleamed on the rhythmic waves below. The seagulls wheeled insolently overhead, and the air was so fresh that it stung.
“Be careful here, the path is steep.” The young elfen taking Steve to the meeting had introduced herself as Tegan. She looked small and fragile with big dark eyes and a shy smile. Steve knew better than to trust appearances with the faerie, though, and he was being very respectful.
“It’s a beautiful place.” Steve said politely.
“The storms are magnificent with the waves hurling themselves at the land. The kelpies ride and chase the unwary sailors and the walkers on the beach.” Tegan looked sideways at Steve. “In these times of course, we only chase. We are well behaved.”
Steve nodded noncommittally and followed what the track down among the pinks and the tufts of grass. “The storms must be dramatic. It’s hard to imagine on a still day like today.”
“Have you heard from your fair lady who was lost?” Tegan enquired politely.
“Who?” Steve racked his brains to think who that could be.
“Elaine. Have you heard from Elaine?”
“No, I haven’t heard from my ex-girlfriend.” Steve clenched his fists. The elfen loved their games and gossip. “I think it is inappropriate to discuss her in this beautiful place. I have come here with commerce and business and trade and it would be wrong to sully the thoughts of my lost one with such matter.” Steve hoped that would get Tegan to shut the hell up.
Tegan’s soft eyes filled with tears. Steve did not believe them. Tegan wiped away a tear with delicate artistry. “It is sad but good for my lord that you drown your sorrows not in sweet wine but in the hard salt work of merchants.” She paused. “You haven’t brought anything salt, have you? We get all our salt from the kelpies.”
“I wouldn’t like to slight the kelpies. I don’t want a repeat of Chichester.” Steve paused and took a lungful of cool sea air. He didn’t want to upset murderous sea creatures with long memories.
“What happened in Chichester?”
“I didn’t realise that I was underselling some werewolves.” Steve shuddered. “A house blew up and I made a loss.” He tried to look suitably stricken by the loss. It was helpful for the faerie to just think of him as someone who sold useful things and not someone to play with.
“And you have brought us brass nails, rose petals and strawberry jam.”
“I have bought best quality brass nails, exclusive strawberry jam and sun dried rose petals from the gardens in Hertfordshire.” Steve smiled. “They are all in the van.”
“All in return for some stone bones.” Tegan shrugged. “I have heard that normals like these things but we like rose petals more.”
“It is a very fair deal.” Steve said carefully. “I shall not cheat you.” And 30% of an ichthyosaur fossil would easily cover his expenses. He would concentrate on getting a good price for that. He would not think of Elaine.
Steve looked at the foul imp digging its claws into his expensive suit jacket. “Are you sure it is this way?”
Armani belched, spat and scratched the dirty, tiny t-shirt covering his stomach. “That’s the way. Lord Darcy is through there.”
Steve stared at the wooden planks across his path. Why the hell had an elfen decided to call himself ‘Lord Darcy’. Where had he picked up the stupid name? The elfen lord would no doubt be wearing a velvet jacket and a lace up shirt. Steve leaned closer to the planks. The trouble with these older faerie lords is that they were insanely powerful. They were insane, they were powerful and this one wanted Steve to do something for him.
Steve considered turning back. A large trunk of guaranteed genuine medieval prayer books would fetch a very good price – but he had to strike the deal first. Was the money going to be worth the risk?
“It isn’t real, boss.” Armani looked bored. “Just walk straight ahead.”
Steve tentatively touched the wood. The grain of the planks ran from left to right, he could feel the tiny ridges and valleys and smell the pungent creosote.
“Seriously, boss, not real.” Armani chuckled coarsely as Steve pressed his fingers against the unyielding wood. Stretching out his wings, Amani hovered in Steve’s eye line. “Watch this.” Armani flapped forward and passed through the barrier as if it was mist.
Steve pressed his palm against the cool, grooved wall. It was still solid. Armani flapped back into view. He tugged nonchalantly at one of his tattered ears.
“Actually, boss, there’s a forty-foot pit with iron spikes on the other side of this. I think we need to find another way.”
“A pit with iron spikes?” Steve said levelly. “I was asked here, I don’t need to do this trade. Why are we getting these tricks?”
Armani shrugged. “Powerplay, ego trip, practical joke, fear that if he looks weak you’ll rip him off, placating an awkward courtier, worried about werewolves, forgot he put it here, someone else put it here to screw the deal, proving that you were up to making a deal with an elfen lord – take your pick. You’re the one that makes the deals with elfen.”
“How would it look if I just turned back?” Steve stepped back and looked at the barrier. Armani shrugged again.
Steve took a deep breath. He hated the elfen playing mind games, but this was a test. He strode confidently forward and through the planks as if they were just a dream. For a heartbeat his foot seemed to hover above the steep sided pit and the iron spikes and then was placed confidently onto the solid stone floor. He glanced at Armani. “Since when did ancient elfen tolerate iron. The older the faerie the less they can bear it. However, I don’t like being tested.” Steve was well aware he was being overheard. “My commission has just gone up.”
Strange Meeting Place
Steve worked hard to keep any expression from his face. All the older faerie had the ability to create their own pocket worlds, their own domains. So why this misfit was using an abandoned multi-storey car park for a meeting place was a mystery. Moss and weeds tumbled over the dark courtyards and the claustrophobic atmosphere was affecting more than him. Armani had taken one look at the place and climbed into Steve’s inside pocket.
Steve walked warily past the stained pillars and knots of people around the scattered braziers. Lord Gwill Mawr waited on a large makeshift throne at the far end of the central floor of the building. While the rest of the building huddled in gloom, Lord Gwill Mawr had arc lamps rigged around him, illuminating the ferns draping luxuriantly over the wall behind. It was very well staged.
“You sent for me, Lord Gwill Mawr,” Steve said respectfully.
Lord Gwill Mawr inclined his head regally. He was wearing the glamour of a street beggar with a tattered hoodie. “I thought it best to meet here, Steve Adderson, merchant. You are becoming quietly adept at elfen magic but here in your normal world you are slightly less dextrous. I thought this would make a good meeting place for trade and counsel.”
Steve glanced around at the miserable courtiers. “I have never thought to understand the complex depths of the elfen lord.” He said tactfully.
A smile flickered across the eyes of Lord Gwill Mawr. “I will be having my accustomed feast on the last day of October, and I would have great things. A few brief months ago there was no knowledge of such wonders as edible glitter and popping candy or the wonders of the colours that you have brought to so many courts. That Lord Ragnar has a candyfloss machine is a source of stories. But such things come at a cost, even with your known acumen and fair dealing.”
“I have to make enough to eat and pay my dues.” Steve said carefully. “I am sure no elfen would deny me the fruits of my hard work.”
Lord Gwill Mawr shrugged slightly, baffled as all elfen by the concept of working. “I can offer you little coin. However, I can offer something that while not currency may be of value.”
“I am willing to trade fairly, but Halloween is only a month away and negotiations take time.” Steve felt Armani digging deeper into his pocket.
“I can offer you the long, faithful love of Elaine, guaranteed for her mortal lifetime, to be ever true to you.” Lord Gwill Mawr studied his broken nails.
“A bought love is worthless.” Steve kept a lid on his emotions. He may be inwardly reeling but he couldn’t risk letting his guard down.
Lord Gwill Mawr sat back confidently “I can offer you something that you desire more, something that you have already touched on, something that drives your study of magic. I can offer you the name of your father.”
Steve had not expected to be invited to the celebration at Lord Lothar’s court. He was still not sure it was a good idea. Elfen are not safe creatures. They may give a convincing performance of humanity, but they are not human. It was also incredibly dangerous to accept food and drink from them, but Lord Lothar had waved aside Steve’s carefully worded concerns. The local paladin and exorcist were both here and both enjoying the hospitality, however, which was reassuring. Steve didn’t know them well but both Mike Doyle and Darren King had good reputations. Besides, it wasn’t just elfen. The faerie court had plenty of werewolves and boggarts around with a couple of vampires politely sipping red liquid in the corner.
In the main part of the hall the elfen were getting drunk. As Steve sipped his plain red wine with caution, the elfen were pouring honey into heated wine and adding suspicious spices. One fae was already sitting in a corner giggling and pointing at nothing. Steve had not needed Mike’s warning to stay off the honeyed wine.
More honey was being poured over fruit at the side and being brought around. Once again Mike gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head and Steve excused himself. Chopped strawberries and apples were handed round in bowls, shrouded in thick layers of the molten honey and sprinkled with more of the strange spice. Four of the elfen stood up and started to dance. Steve watched entranced. They wore human shapes, but they had never looked less human as they whirled and spun around the hall. Steve blinked and checked his wine. The dancers’ bodies seemed to flow from shape to shape as they traced their patterns around the room. Steve felt his eyes lose focus. There seemed to be trails of coloured light following their movements and hanging in the air to form intricate and elaborate geometry in the air. He glanced nervously around. The elfen seemed entirely at ease and he could hear a couple having noisy sex in the corner behind him but the others, the werewolves and the boggarts, were equally uneasy and the vampires had stood and were looking stern.
“Enough!” Lord Lothar’s voice thundered suddenly and for a heartbeat the coloured light froze and dropped splintering to the ground. “I will not have enchantments danced when it is more than elfen present. It is an insult to my guests and an insult that I will not tolerate.” There was an icy still in the hall before Lord Lothar waved a lordly hand. “But make merry. Today we celebrate the coming of summer – we must enjoy.”
As Mike made his way purposefully towards Lord Lothar, Steve found himself beckoned closer. Lord Lothar casually dipped a whole strawberry into the seasoned honey and looked at Steve. “You are surprised at me asking you to stay after your very welcome delivery of fifty barrels of honey. But have much to discuss. I need to speak to you about Lord Marius.”
“How can you be allergic to flowers?” Lord Marius looked blankly at Steve.
Steve sneezed again. He resisted the urge to rub his eyes and glared at the elfen lord in front of him. “It’s called ‘Hay fever’. People – normal people – sometimes get a reaction to pollen. Some people have a particularly bad reaction to grass pollen which is why it is called ‘Hay fever’. If you had warned me that I was going to be taking a car load of flowers across to Hull I might have realised that it was a good idea to get some antihistamines. You know, the stuff people take when they have a bad reaction to pollen.” Steve rubbed his eyes and swore.
“How can anyone react badly to flowers.” Lord Marius looked utterly bewildered. “They are merely a collection of petals.”
“They are not merely a collection of petals.” Steve sneezed again and fumbled in his pockets, shedding tissues. “They are a collection of petals and pollen. What type of plants are these, anyway? I’ve never been this bad, not even when I spent a week in a flower shop on work experience.”
Lord Marius ignored the werewolf grinning behind him. “They are a particular type of plant, normally grown only in certain faerie realms. Try and stop sneezing, you will feel better if you stop sneezing.”
“Bless you.” Carl said, handing over a fresh box of tissues.
“Thank you,” Steve said with real gratitude. “So, I get magical flowers…”
“They are not magical, they are faerie.” Lord Marius interrupted. “Your eyes are very red. Are you becoming vampiric?”
“I am not getting vampiric.” Steve glared at the faerie lord. “I am getting an allergic reaction to non-magical faerie flowers that I have just transported two hundred miles in a closed environment.” He sneezed again before he could build on that theme. “For the past one hundred and fifty miles I am not sure I was safe to drive.”
“Bless you.” Carl said again. The werewolf was trying not to laugh. “Perhaps I can take it from here.”
“The lord at Kingston upon Hull has a great desire to meet Steve Adderson, known merchant to the faerie.” Lord Marius said tentatively.
“I think a meeting today would not give Lord Wulfric the right impression.” Steve said in as cool a tone as he could manage. “However, if Carl would be kind enough to take these pollen shedding petals to Lord Wulfric I will certainly give a note to the effect that I will call in next week out of courtesy. I will try not to sneeze on the …” Steve sneezed again.
“Bless you.” Carl picked up the large crate of flowers. “I think I’ll manage without the note. Good luck getting the pollen out of the car.”
Steve opened his mouth to say something witty and then sagged as his sinuses started to close. “Thank you.”
“Are you sure you are not becoming vampiric?” Lord Marius asked carefully.
Message on the Wind
The wind rattled the ends of branches against Steve’s window. A patter of raindrops hit the glass.
Armani grumbled in his sleep. He had claimed the corner of the mantelpiece as his, a small, fetid corner of a neat room, but Steve could live with that. The wind, though, was getting on his nerves.
He leafed through his notebooks. He had a stack of notebooks, a folder on his laptop and his iPad and phone were stacked with note after note. He wasn’t getting anywhere.
The wind rattled again, moaning outside. Armani stirred and turned over. Steve could hear the rattle of autumn leaves being bowled down the path and whirled around the garden.
Armani sat up and scratched his crotch, knocking against a picture of Steve and Elaine on the mantelpiece next to him. His ex-girlfriend looked so full of life in the picture, taken as they had been joking on the steps of York Minster. Steve remembered that day. He had had the ring in his pocket ready to propose but they had had a few glasses of wine by the river and he had worried that she wouldn’t take him seriously.
Armani coughed and stretched. “Are you going to do something about that wind, boss?” he grumbled.
Steve looked back at his notebooks. He was getting very good at elfen magic, but he was still hitting a wall. He had been offered the love of Elaine by an elfen as a bargaining tool. It wasn’t what he really wanted, though, and the elfen had known it. That chapter had closed. He had forced magic to bend to his will, pushed back barriers that had been thought impregnable, he had fought and fought and fought. But he still did not know the name of his father. He did not know who the one-night stand was who had left his mother unexpectedly with him.
The wind rattled again, and Steve could hear something bouncing noisily off the kerb and rattling down the street. He pulled back the curtains. In the evening light everything was still. A few streets away the smoke from a chimney drifted straight up and there would be a cold dew by morning. Steve tapped his fingers thoughtfully on the sill. Then he closed the curtains. Once again the noise of the wind started up, howling and rising.
Steve opened the front door and looked out into the quiet street. “Lord Gwill Mawr, thank you for your presence. However, I am interested only in things I can trade fairly. There are two weeks before Halloween. The earlier I get a trade, the earlier I can get your fripperies at a good price.” Steve shut the door.
In the living room Armani was watchful at the window, but when Steve looked at him he shrugged. “They’re still here, boss, but it’s gone quiet. At least for now.” And he started rolling another of his foul cigarettes.
Steve took a suspiciously large bag from Lord Marius. “What’s changed?”
Lord Marius looked at him thoughtfully. He was looking casual in a slim fitting t-shirt and immaculate jeans. “Nothing has changed yet.” He said coolly.
Steve kept his cool. Elfen could feed off human emotions and some of the older ones, like Lord Marius, were connoisseurs. Lord Marius would find his frustration far too amusing. “So what is going to change?”
Lord Marius shrugged casually but Steve was not fooled. Lord Marius looked at his slim watch. “The Leeds train is due to arrive. I must not miss it.”
“The Leeds train is not due for ten minutes, and Huddersfield station is small enough that you won’t miss it. What do I need to know?”
Lord Marius looked carefully at Steve. “You are becoming remarkably competent at dealing with the non-normal community. What you need to know is that I cannot tell you everything, at least not for a while. But I do think you should take over some of my tasks.”
“Are you employing me?” Steve asked carefully.
“Not as such, no.” Lord Marius peered carefully down the track. “It is remarkable how the trains work, is it not? One minute in Manchester and the next minute in Leeds. I remember the first time I saw a train – I thought one of the devils had appeared again.”
“This bag is full of messages.” Steve said. “You’ve put notes on all of them, and they’re all places I’ve been. Are you training me to be your replacement?”
“I bought a ticket once.” Lord Marius craned his neck. “I put it in a frame, I thought it was so wonderful, a small piece of paper to allow me such liberty to travel and at such speed.”
“What are you up to, Lord Marius?”
“There are…” Lord Marius paused and waved his hands as he searched for the right words. “Lord Lothar warned you to never go with me into Leeds, did he not?”
Steve nodded. “You’ve never asked me to go there.”
“And I am still not asking you to go there. I am asking you to…” Lord Marius once again scratched for the right words. “You are not as good as I, but you are adequate to take the messages from lord to lord.” He glared at Steve. “You are barely adequate, but you will do. You will find many opportunities for business.”
Steve knew better than to risk the fragile ego of an elfen. “I can’t do all that you do, but you have given me enough training to manage a shadow of your skills.”
Lord Marius looked at Steve for long, long minutes. His face was entirely expressionless. “You have different skills. It is of particular interest that your skills with magic are starting to outstrip all but the most skilled elfen. You search for your father. I advise you to stop looking.”
Rose jerked awake from where she had been dozing. The knock on the door had sounded like thunder in her dreams. She rushed to the window and peered through the dusty nets.
Ellen joined her at the window. They both looked out at the slim young man. “Is this it?” Ellen asked. “Have they found Mary?”
Ruby stood at the entrance to the room, too nervous to join them at the window. “Does it look like good news or bad news?”
The door knocker sounded again. “We should answer the door.” Rose said, sounding braver than she felt.
“What if it’s bad news?” Ellen asked. “What if they haven’t found Mary? What if she can never come home with us?”
“Is it a man or a woman at the door?” Ruby asked, edging a little closer to the window.
“It’s a man.” Rose said, peering a little further then darting back against the cobwebs as their visitor looked up at the window. “He’s wearing a suit.”
“Does he have anyone with him?” Ruby clenched her hands into fists.
Rose shook her head. “He’s got a box, though, all draped with a silk cloth.”
“Is that good news or bad news?” Ruby asked.
“It has to be news about Mary.” Ellen said. “We should answer the door.”
“What if it is another ‘favour’.” Ruby said flatly. “We’ve worn ourselves to shreds doing ‘favours’ for those who should have helped us. Perhaps they think we need to do more.”
The knocker thundered again. “We have to answer the door.” Rose said. “We should all go.” The man was looking around curiously. An expensive car stood at the end of the weed covered drive. “He may leave and then we will never know.”
The sisters tiptoed into the hall. “We can’t ignore this.” Rose said. “We have to take courage and think of Mary.”
It was Ellen who finally slid open the chain and turned the stiff lock. The neglected door creaked a little as she dragged it open. It was a cold, late autumn day with damp in the air, but the man did not rush. He nodded politely and stepped in. He looked around, and, without saying a word, pulled the dusty hall table to the centre of the hall. Then he placed the box reverentially on the table. The sisters didn’t speak as he carefully pulled off the black cloth and folded it neatly, tucking it inside his heavy, expensive overcoat. The sisters could barely move, transfixed by black, lacquered box. The man deftly removed the lid and removed an urn. He checked that it was safe and centred. Then he looked around the hall. The sisters did not make a sound. The man bowed politely again and left, closing the door behind him.
The sisters finally relaxed as they listened for the old gate creaking shut and the car purring away. Then they crowded around the urn. The three ghosts, finally reunited with the ashes of their beloved sister, faded away.
Sleight of Magic
“It is good to meet you again, Steve Addison.” Lord Marius smiled with what looked like genuine warmth. “And so many people are impressed at your ability to provide honey from the other side of the world…”
The bar surrounding them slipped away. Steve looked around. Lord Marius froze. They had met in a bustling, upmarket London pub with a screen in the corner showing the big match. Now they were in a dark, cavernous space. Faint lights glowed some distance above, too distant to show the edges of the room. Cold, damp flagstones had replaced the pub carpet. Steve swore, and purple sparks arced off into the dark corners.
“Someone has pulled us into a dark realm.” Lord Marius said quietly. “And I know not why.”
“It always comes down to money.” The voice that floated out of the darkness sounded dry and dusty. “Money, power and sex. But money, mostly.”
“I only have small change on me.” Lord Marius said coolly as he watched the figure approach. “Steve Addison, have you met a lich before? Those who have died yet remain, animated by magic. They can be quite dangerous. This is Francis Howard. He used to be an apothecary in Leeds. We do not always see eye to eye. So, Francis Howard, how are the experiments progressing?”
“They are going remarkably well but I need more supplies. And supplies cost money, along with the silence of curious interlopers. Which is where you two come in.”
Steve could feel the tension in Lord Marius as he watched the violet flame encircling them flickering soundlessly as it marked a line that they should not cross. “I haven’t much money on me myself.”
The lich strolled casually into the faint light. Once he had been a handsome man, but now he looked dried out and papery, his sunken eyes looked mockingly at the two in the circle as he adjusted his old-fashioned velvet jacket. “Steve Addison has made a fortune trading with the elfen – and good luck to him. There are few who would take that risk. So, the plan is that Mr Addison is the hostage while Lord Marius goes and gets the money. I believe there is a cash machine less than a hundred yards from the entrance to my realm.” The lich smiled thinly. “Lord Marius, you can try your best, but your magic is no match for mine. I’ve bested you before, remember.”
Lord Marius glanced at Steve and stepped forward. “I do not forgive insults of such magnitude.” He said coldly, catching the lich’s gaze and keeping it. “I do not lightly accept such a slur on my honour to be a boy to fetch pennies.”
“You can take all the offence you like, as long as you pay me the money I need. I am this close to restoring my body.” Francis smiled. “I look forward to the day when I can once again stroll in the open fields and feel sunlight without fear of discovery. Perhaps, if you co-operate, I can share some of my techniques with you.” The lich chuckled, a dry, dusty laugh that was entirely empty of humour. “Your skill with magic is impressive for an elfen, but it needs a mortal to truly push magic.”
“It is inappropriate to use the word normal.” Lord Marius started pacing along the edge of the circle, always facing Francis. “You will find yourself out of step with the modern world should you succeed. Indeed, you are not aware of so many things even in the twilight world of our kind. You have missed information.”
“I have plenty of information.” Francis did not take his eyes off Lord Marius, following his every movement.
“If you had all the information you would not have summoned us in such a way.” Lord Marius spread his hands wide. “Perhaps you could have traded your magical secrets for money. I could pay well.”
Francis watched Lord Marius’ hands like a cat watches a spider. “There are too many that object to me regaining my youthful body. They say it is unnatural. You would never be allowed access to my secrets. So, I gain the money I need this way.” Francis smiled. “And it gives me a certain satisfaction to take from you and your protégé.”
“Then I will bid you farewell. I promise to give your remains a respectful burial.”
Francis started to laugh. “Lord Marius, your arrogance has never ceased to amuse me.” The lich’s mocking laugh started to break. He stared at Lord Marius. “What have you learned?” He held up his hand and a violet glow surrounded it as he pulled it back, claw like and ready to strike. Lord Marius watched impassively as the violet glow shimmered and the colour slid to scarlet and started to flame upwards. The lich stared in horror as his own magic changed and flowed over him, burning him up in a smoky pyre, Lord Marius stepped through the fading violet circle. “I have learned that Steve Addison is a far greater sorcerer than I will ever be. I have learned to allow him room to work. And, not least, I have learned the art of misdirection.” He bowed politely to Steve and the pub returned around them. “I believe I owe you at least a drink.”
Need to Know
Steve Adderson sat at looked at the result of months of hard work nestling in his hands. It looked like a conker case, the green, spiky shell that enclosed the polished brown nuts inside. It had taken him months of hard work, arcane research and difficult spell casting but inside was the answer to a question. He just had to choose the question.
“What are you going to ask?” Armani said, taking a lungful of foul smoke from his miniature rollup. The imp settled on Steve’s hand and spat on the table next to where it rested. “There’s no rush, boss, maybe just go for a walk, get some fresh air. It won’t hurt to sleep on it.”
Steve said nothing, continuing to stare at the cases.
Armani took another drag of his rollup and pinched it out. “Listen, boss, you could ask for the way to get Elaine back, to make her stay. You know she loved you really. She just couldn’t hack the weird stuff.” Armani grasped at straws. “I tell you what, I wouldn’t smoke in the house either.”
Steve said nothing. The cases felt cool and slightly damp against his palm, as if they had been freshly picked on a damp autumn day instead of being conjured in a converted garage.
“What would you really achieve if you found your father. He could be dead.” Amarni tried to read Steve’s face.” I mean, he never knew you, so he could be living with a family. He could have grandkids. He may not want to see you.”
Steve slowly moved his fingers over the cases. They felt rough and organic.
“You’ve missed Elaine a lot.” Armani persisted. “I know she’s just dumped her last boyfriend. Why don’t you just send her a text?”
Steve surfaced and looked at the scruffy imp on his hand. “It’s good to know when something is finished.” He said quietly.
“Then look for a new girlfriend.” Armani urged. “Ask who would make you the best wife and find her.”
“You know who my father is, don’t you?” Steve said quietly to Armani.
“I don’t know who.” Armani said. “I don’t have a name. But I’ve got some ideas and you’ve been a good boss and as a decent imp I’m telling you to step away from this because you had enough pain from Elaine.” Armani pulled out the dog end of the rollup and lit it again with a spark from his fingers. “And there’s no rush. We’ve got that shipload of dog chews for Lord Thibault to sort out. You can think it over.”
“I need to know who my father is.” Steve said firmly. “And I need to know now.”
Across a Misty Bridge
Steve stared down at the ornamental lake through the soft mist. Two years ago he had stood in this same place, nervous and unsure, with a Rupert the Bear annual from 1936 in mint condition. Since then he had dealt with the faerie realm, with arrogant lords and crazy tricksters, with werewolves and boggarts and all the madness that went with it. He had seen and done things he would never have thought possible. He had fallen in love, had his heart broken and acquired an imp. He could feel Armani in his jacket pocket, curled up and gently snoring.
The mist swirled gently over the lake and under the bridge. Steve stared at the glimpses of his reflection that broke through the haze. He looked the same. He took the same size shoes and the same size shirts, but he was completely different. For a moment Steve wondered about calling up his old friends from the Call Centre. What could they talk about? His friends were now paladins and princes, boggarts and elfen, the strange and the wonderful. He didn’t look up as he heard the motorbike, nor when he heard the figure approach.
Lord Marius leant on the rail next to him. “It seems many seasons since we met here last.” He said after a comfortable silence. “Although this time it is you that created this mist, not I.”
“Thank you.” Steve said. “It’s been an amazing adventure.”
“You are not stopping your work as messenger and merchant, I hope?” Lord Marius watched the ducks slowly circling.
“No, I shall not stop.” Steve didn’t look away from the water. “But I am grateful that you sent me on this wonderful journey. If I hadn’t had that annual, if Lord Cerdig hadn’t heard of the deal, if you hadn’t met me here, my life would have been much poorer. Thank you – father.”
There was a long silence. Faint echoes of the joggers and dog walkers reached through the mist and the ripples of the lake underneath them chimed gently.
“How did you break through my defences?” Lord Marius straightened and turned to Steve, tension in his lean body. “And, perhaps more importantly, how did you break through my defences without me noticing?”
“I didn’t.” Steve didn’t move. He kept watching the patterns of the mist over the lake. “I went through my mother’s memories, the traces of you through the traces of my mother. It was tricky.”
“I loved her, you know.” Lord Marius turned back to the lake. “She was so bright and joyful. I turned away from her before she knew what I was, before I burned her up.” His voice sank to almost a whisper. “Love for mortals so rarely ends well for us.”
Steve glanced at him. For once there was a gleam of genuine emotion in the emerald green eyes. “I think she loved you. It’s hard to know. She died when I was only a toddler. It was a hit and run accident.”
“I knew that she had been killed.” For a moment Lord Marius’ long fingers clenched on the rail of the bridge. “I dealt with the driver. But I did not know about you. Fates would have been very different if I had.”
“My grandad brought me up.” Steve turned fully towards Marius. “I think he did a good job, as well as anyone could. He died a few years ago, just before I met you.” Steve smiled briefly. “It was his annual that I was selling when we met.”
Lord Marius straightened up. “And what do you do now, with the father you never knew, who did not deliberately abandon you but who was absent nonetheless? What do you want from me?”
Steve finally stood and faced Lord Marius. He could read a gleam of uncertainty in the elfen eyes. “I don’t know, not exactly. I suppose I want to know if you are proud of me? If you think I’m worthwhile? Whether we should, I don’t know, be father and son?”
“No vengeance?” Lord Marius said softy.
“If you had known about me then the exchange on this bridge two years ago would have been very different.” Steve tried to gauge what was going on behind Lord Marius’ fixed expression. “You didn’t know. Once you did, you helped me out. Like that vampire that was waiting for me, outside Lord Ragnar’s realm. How many other times did you watch my back when I didn’t realise?”
“You are my son.” Lord Marius said helplessly. “We do not love as you love, but we love.” He held out a tentative hand.
Steve warily held out his own hand and their hands clasped. A wave of emotion he had not expected broke over him, leaving him stunned. Lord Marius’ head fell forward and Steve was shocked to see the trace of tears. From all he could tell, they were probably genuine. “Hello, father.”
“Hello, son.” Lord Marius took a deep breath. “So, what do we do now?”
Steve paused. He hadn’t thought about it. He had been so consumed with this meeting that he hadn’t considered what happened next. “I don’t know.”
“Meet up for a pub lunch once a month after church?” Lord Marius suggested.
Steve laughed. “It’s a good start. And, we’re friends?”
“I think we are more than that.” Lord Marius visibly relaxed. “So why don’t I buy my son a meal and a drink to show my pride in him?”
“That’s a great idea.” Steve let the enchanted mist fade. “There’s a great burger place just up the road.”
“I think I can do a little better for my son.” Lord Marius said loftily. “We have some time to reclaim.” He turned and looked at Steve. “I can feel your happiness overflowing from you, just like I felt it in your mother. I share it.”
Steve followed his father over the bridge and headed up out of the park. The sun was up, and the weather was fine. It had been an amazing journey.