by Matthew Steer
Two lovers faced each other across a small road, beneath the low redbrick arch of an old railway bridge. He was tall, and of noble bearing, a handsome figure who caught the glance of young women as they echoed beneath the bridge on their way to and fro. Sir Raedan ap Fiona, Knight-Protector of Goldenleaves Freehold and Firstcomer. She was stooped and aged, wearing an old grey coat over cast-off clothes. Her grimy appearance, camouflage to the dirty brickwork behind her, caused the shoppers passing to leave a little gap around her. Most people wouldn't know her name. Motionless in a river of life, their eyes were locked.
Sinking coldly in his gut, Raedan's heart denied what his eyes could plainly see. Old. She was old and worn beyond words with a tired gaze that seemed to draw all warmth from his spirit. He tried to recall his memories, of the days of love and laughter in Arcadian fields. Before this parody of his beloved Veronya, the picture crumbled. He had come looking for her, had failed and lost heart, and now found her in the last place he would ever have looked. In the face of an old woman. As the bottomless pit opened before him, Raedan panicked. Feet jerking into life, he turned his face from her and strode quickly away. But this could not be the end. He would have to return and face her, talk to her.
From the rain-washed streets of Brighton, to a warm bedroom in a comfortable house. Aliana danced, the rain and mercifully, her singing, drowned out by the systolic thumping of Aerosmith from big speakers. "Crazy". The song always gave her a warm-hearted glow and, coupled with the excitement of the evening to come, she found that there was no possible way she could ever stop dancing. The gyrating fox-eared figure in the full-length mirror grinned back at her, then frowned and stopped. She threw off the suede waistcoat, digging out a sky-blue one from the heap of clothes on the bed. Electric blue jeans, sky-blue waistcoat, her favourite white blouse with puffy satin sleeves, all offset by shocking red hair and a matching tail of great fluffiness and warmth. He was just going to have to pick his jaw off the floor himself. She giggled at the image and began to dance again.
Two hours later she lingered in the open front door peering out through the rain towards the end of the drive. Her tail sat on the floor behind her, unused to being kept waiting this long. Excuses fought for attention in her head. An accident, an urgent quest, a sudden dragon attack.
"Close the door dear, it'll get cold."
Aliana ignored her mother, silently swearing again to move out the very next day. It was a constant source of amusement for most of her changeling friends. Still living with her parents, and eighteen years old. Okay, she had a comfortable life, this was true. Her folks were well off, rich even, and quite happy together, allowing their only child nearly all her whims. And she did spent nearly all her time out and about. But that final step out into the rain, that still bothered her. She didn't like to get wet, and if she had to get wet then she did like someone to make a cup of cocoa for her while she dried off. Iain might suggest she had led a sheltered life. Abby would say she was a useless wuss. Aliana scowled at the world.
And then, figuratively, the sun came out. A tall figure emerged from the grey curtain at the end of the drive, rain dripping from his umbrella. Aliana made a dash out into the downpour, desperate to avoid any unplanned meeting between parent and date. She skidded under the umbrella and Sir Raedan caught her by the arm, smiling slightly.
"Princess, your carriage awaits. It is high time we sampled dinner at this restaurant I have heard so much about."
Raedan was not honestly in the mood for companionship. Still, he was a knight and could not ignore his commitment to the young pooka. He had come to the barony of Brighthelmstone at the behest of a friend, a seer, who was certain that Lady Veronya had awakened there. After a week of searching, however, Raedan had lost hope and finally allowed himself the pleasure of making friends and enjoying himself. He had agreed to take Aliana out because she had been helpful and sweet. And very persistent. But as his car wound towards the centre of town, only one face was reflected in the windscreen.
Veronica was deeply troubled, trudging quickly along Sydney street with her shoulders hunched against the cold. Old memories were bleeding again like unhealed scars. The man beneath the bridge was one of them, she knew, but he also meant something else. Her fractured mind crushed the image of the noble sidhe, reducing him to a handsome man in a smart suit. But the memories kept crowding in on her. Fey, faerie, changeling, kith. Dizzy, with her eyes locked on the past, she walked straight onto the heels of a dawdling pair of youths and tripped. Snarling, she lashed out and they scattered in surprise as she fell. One of them stopped, an apologetic look written on his pallid features. He seemed on the verge of turning to help the old woman but his partner pulled him on down the lane.
No one else stopped to help her up, so she remained where she sat on the wet curb, lost in thought. That damnable stranger had opened a floodgate and she recalled it all with clarity. They had taken her in, the changelings, shown her their world. An old woman, too long on the streets, and now she should believe that her soul was that of a creature of glamour. Fresh memories of her own had mingled with their excited talk, and she became aware that she should have awoken many years before. Should have come to this world with the Firstcomers, nearly thirty years ago. Veronica Lawrence was in fact Veronya ap Fiona, a maiden betrothed to a dashing knight. And they both had been thrown into exile together when the lunar landing threw open the gates to Arcadia for a brief time. None of them was able to explain why so much time had passed before her Chrysalis had finally taken hold. "Do not worry," they said. " There are days of joy ahead of you, the Dreaming will be yours to wander, you’ll never want for friends and warmth."
Remember their faces as she fled, spitting venom and scorning their fairytales? How the hell could she believe them? Believe that she had lost the chance at a life of limitless joy to this cruel and colourless world? The days of her youth could have been spent in an endless adventure with one that she loved; she could still radiate youth and beauty even now. Instead? Homeless at thirty-five with a bruising, bone-breaking marriage behind her and no hope ahead. Despair had threatened to swallow her whole then, but on the brink of a razorblade's cold release her mind had snapped. And suddenly none of it was real. There were no faeries, no Arcadia and no beloved knight. That was the end of the whole stupid episode.
Until two years ago when her feet had carried her to Brighton and within a week she had spotted a girl with red spiral patterns on her face, wispy black eyebrows and pointed ears. And from a locked door in her mind one word had crept - nocker.
Ah, but here was living proof that there were truly no such things as faeries. Trudging down the narrow road towards her was that very same girl, older now, weighed down by two heavy canvas bags of provisions. But of pointed ears and patterned skin, there was no sign; she was as normal as the next person. Elsewhere, the nose stud and seven earrings might have caused comment, but as a visitor to the North Laines of Brighton would soon notice, these were as much badges of conformity here as the tie-died shirt and check-patterned cotton trousers she wore. The fragments of memory Veronica’s encounter beneath the bridge had conjured blew away on autumn breezes. She stuck her booted foot out into the road and glared upwards.
Jane had been lost in thought, hurrying back to the Dumb Waiter café with emergency supplies. An unexpected lunchtime rush, caused by the pouring rain had left them short. Now it was getting dark and the shoppers had thinned out, there was time to stock up for tomorrow. As usual, she’d dawdled for a while outside Good Times and was currently feeling the irrational twinge of guilt that the wasting of two minutes on an hour’s errand can cause. Good Times was the little shop on Gardener Road which packed its window with clocks of every shape and style.
She felt an odd fascination for clocks and watches. The regular spasms of their tiny cogs and levers stirred murky waters deep inside her and left her on the edge of some elusive awareness. This was both thrilling and depressing, leaving her thoughtful for hours afterwards. In some way she knew that clocks and watches connected her to that time a couple of years ago when everything had been better, better in some way which seemed impossible to define now. Some special way of living, a way of enjoying life, that she had lost through two years and a whole bunch of changes. She’d started working to help out mum, she’d moved on to a new crowd of friends and, oh yes, she’d met Veronica. Not quite sure when or how their lives had crossed, but it was about two years and yes, it had been in autumn. Around about that time the waters had closed over her childhood for good. Somewhere beneath those murky waters lurked a fey girl with angry red skin and thin, watchmaker’s fingers, swearing and cursing her fate with tears in her eyes. Nearly, so nearly drowned, now. No sign of that girl on the rain soaked face of Jane, lost in thought.
Veronica broke this reverie, her presence obvious amongst an anonymous crowd. Jane awkwardly transferred both bags to her left hand and reached out with the other. The old woman's hand was huge and warm wrapped around hers and were it not for the heavy shopping she was sure she'd have been dragged from her feet. As it was, Veronica rose to her full height and spoke, in a voice that was gravely from ill health but still powerful and commanding.
"I'm starved. I'll be wanting some lunch, girl." And now Veronica's bearing had changed; though she might never have noticed herself. None of the grime had gone but it took second place to the sweeping gaze of ocean deep eyes and the strong chiselled features of a proud face, still half-hidden by the lines and creases of a long fifty-five years. With her back straight, walking a pace ahead of her companion, Veronica Lawrence stood almost six feet tall.
Gary looked up as the door to the Dumb Waiter café jangled briefly. Jane walked in with the shopping, dwarfed by the old lady following. Her grandmother, she always insisted, but if there was any shared blood between the two then Gary was a bloody Chinaman. Still, Jane always paid for the old baggage’s food, so he couldn’t do much more than call her a bloody fool for wasting her money. Out of the woman’s hearing of course, because it was bloody obvious she had some hold over the poor girl and Gary wasn’t one for shoving his nose where it wasn’t wanted. He wiped his hands on the apron draped over his gut and took the heavy bags from her with a smile of thanks. "Tea?"
"Thanks, Gary. Two please." She moved round behind the counter and went to set a frying pan on the hob as Gary selected a couple of mugs from the miss-matched selection behind the counter. They moved about in the tiny kitchen with practised co-ordination, their only patrons the miserable old woman studying with little interest the club event posters on the walls and a couple upstairs perusing their newly purchased graphic novels over coffee. Jane flicked her fringe of dark hair out of her eyes and dropped a couple of bangers in the pan. Any wistful teasing at daydreams of ticking hands and turning hours were long forgotten.
Over the spitting pan of browning sausages, she considered which pub to settle in tonight for a drink with friends.
Talking too much, she was talking too much. Or perhaps about the wrong things. What did knights talk about with ladies? Perhaps he usually eats better. Maybe he was expecting something continental, higher classed. Why was he so preoccupied? Aliana chewed up the last of her noodles and picked up the discarded conversation one last time.
"What do you think of the aubergine bake, hmm?"
Yes? "Did I tell you, I saw a unicorn yesterday evening?"
"On the pier it was. It won a teddy bear at the shooting game. Which it gave to its companion, the lady dragon, which I thought was sweet."
Very? She glared at her distracted companion, her pointed teeth slightly bared. The long, tired face contemplating its food softened her scowl. Aliana licked the tip of her finger and dragged it around the lip of her empty wineglass, holding onto the base. After a few revolutions a high-pitched whining noise began, rising in volume until at least five other patrons were staring at her table with undisguised irritation. One man, a walrus in a blue-grey suit, coughed, a thoroughly disapproving noise. She ignored them all and continued. Finally, Raedan blinked and looked up.
Tipping her head to one side and taking the fork from his hand. "What’s bothering you, Raedan? Was your mother an aubergine, or something?" This at least raised a smile, albeit ephemeral. He shook his head, dispelling the glimmer of good humour.
"I’m sorry. I… perhaps you could help me?" He asked, with one eyebrow arched in a gesture which, calculated or not, Aliana loved. She beamed.
"Do you know of an old lady, probably homeless, who begs around or under the bridge near the railway station? Big coat, boots and…" his voice caught briefly, before finishing, "Fair hair. Though a little unkempt." And this last comment sounded more like an apology than anything else. Curious.
"I think so," said Aliana, treading rather carefully. "She’s quite well known. We tend to keep quite clear of her. I’m sure that it’s down to her bad breath rather than the, well, Autumnalness of her. I guess she must live in one of the squats around there. Why?"
"Is that really a word?" He smiled, but briefly. "Never mind. Aliana, I’m afraid I have to go and find that lady. I’m sorry I can’t say more. My apologies for this evening. I swear to you now that I shall honour our tryst some other night, soon." Already standing up, already pulling his coat on.
A quest then. A strange old crone to seek, perhaps a witch or a sorceress? A rush of excitement mingled with the wine, made Aliana’s head spin as she stood up too fast. "I’ll come with you, I can help. I know all the squats ‘round Brighton. I know loads of bums," she fibbed, holding the chair to steady herself. Raedan was already signing a cheque, Ryan Chadwick, his mortal birth-name. "I must do this alone. Once more, I’m sorry," he said without meeting her gaze. And within a handful of seconds he was gone through the door, leaving a baffled and dejected pooka staring at the space where he had been. Feeling a little distant, Aliana collected her jacket and slipped out into the rain, tail dragging.
Raedan strode along the platform, nostrils filled with the oily reek of the trains. There had been no sign of the old woman beneath the bridge. No sign of her in the station either, amongst the snack bars and late evening commuters. But he had spotted a figure hopping down onto the tracks that could probably help him out. Unusual for a sluagh to be found in such a noisy place. The slamming of doors and the clattering of trains in and out of the huge Victorian station was nothing short of cacophonous. Still, there he was, haunting the black pit of the tracks like a shadow. Stooping now to fetch a lost toy, which had fallen beneath the departed train.
"Friend. I would speak with you," he called out over the noise, trying not to draw mortal attention to the figure beneath him. The sluagh ignored him, stuffing the teddy bear into a big pocket and moving away up the tracks. "Stop there. Please, I need information." Raedan clenched his fists, scowling as the dark fae’s back remained turned from him. He had met the pale one’s studied insolence before now, but his mood was bleak and his patience thin. Heedless of onlookers back along the platform, he ran ahead of the figure and leapt down to the oil soaked gravel. "Ignore me at your peril, sluagh, for I am in no mood for games this night."
Two watery eyes took in Raedan’s glowering frown and tense frame. The thin young man raised his hands and placed spidery fingers over both ears. "I am deaf," he mouthed in a drowned whisper. Without further comment, he pulled himself slowly out of the pit, a spider from a plughole. Thrusting both hands into the deep pockets of his shabby black mackintosh, he walked towards the end of the platform and through a gap in the fence into the night. Luke stopped by the fence at the edge of the wasteland, beyond the station arches. Turning around, he was pleased to see that the sidhe had followed him, though he refused to let the smile reach his lips. Instead, he whispered in a monotone, "What would you know? And what do you offer? I can read your lips," he added before the question was asked.
Leaving the matter of reward aside, the sidhe spoke of a lady whom he sought. The description he gave was that of the iron-cold woman who lived in the tunnels beneath the station, Luke had no doubt. The desperation evident in the knight’s words dropped another piece of the puzzle into place. So this was Sir Raedan, the Firstcomer knight who had travelled here to look for his lost love. And who had failed to find her, from what had been whispered at Katy’s house last week. And now, from the cracking sound in his beautiful voice, the knight had concluded that this terrible woman was his lady. An icy needle of suspicion slid along the length of Luke’s spine, chilling him through his coat. So the thick, painful taint of Banality that surrounded her could have one meaning. She was Dauntain. Waking from his drifting thoughts, Luke looked up into a face full of beauty and nobility, made weak by hope and fear. He could save him. He could tell him that he had no clue, or lead him away from here to some other part of town. But he saw in those entrancing eyes that it would be futile. Here was a man who had boarded his train. He would not be able to get off until his destination was reached. Raedan would search until he found her, and the more time that passed the less hope he would have of surviving.
His decision reached, Luke still tried one token effort to dissuade him. "Very well, sidhe," he whispered, using the most contemptuous, bubbly whisper his lungs could muster. "The price is dear. I would have everything of value you currently carry." Raedan’s fair features wrinkled in disgust, as much at the obvious avarice as at the corpse-voice that spat the words. Luke felt contemptible beneath that gaze, realised why many of his peers spoke bitterly of the nobles, but continued speaking. "However, if you return to me here, I shall give back all I have taken." He searched Raedan’s eyes and found, as he’d really expected, that his clumsy attempt had fallen on deaf ears. "Done," snapped Raedan, "for all that I truly value awaits me somewhere in this dark night. So you may have your reward and, I hope, learn something of higher value from the exchange." With that, he produced car keys, a wallet, a bright golden watch, a topaz pendant on a leather thong from beneath his shirt, a handful of coins and the key to a house. All were thrust into Luke’s cupped hands, a couple of coins slipping through thin fingers and spinning in the moonlight to the muddy ground. Luke bit the inside of his cheek, salt tears threatening. This act was hard to maintain in the face of the arrogant sidhe’s cruel words. He forced himself to swallow and to remind himself that, if he sent this fae to his end, then he was by far the crueller. But he had no choice now and, starting slowly, he described the route that Raedan must take to his fate. When he had finished, Raedan departed without a word. Luke gazed at the items held loosely in his hand. He let them slide into his pocket and exchanged them for the grubby little teddy bear. Then leaned against the fence to wait.
Raedan recalled Luke’s words as he returned through the rain to the old railway bridge. "Beneath the bridge you will find several doors in the wall of the arch. One belongs to an old toy museum, another holds electrical equipment. A third one, green painted, is padlocked. But the padlock does not close. It is broken."
Raedan found the door without difficulty, unhooking the padlock and pushing it open. Warm air spilled out. He slipped inside. Luke had not mentioned the stink; urine, mildew and wet stone. Wrinkling his nose, Raedan peered down the long passage, dimly lit.
"There are a few lights hooked up inside and small fires. You will, dressed like that, receive looks of unguarded contempt. Unless you are lucky, you will be accosted by violent men." Two men had stepped forth before he’d gone ten yards. Big and grim, dressed in cast-offs, with the stink of beer on their breaths. Who the fuck was he, then? Why doesn’t he bugger off, right now? With little patience, Raedan called upon his glamour to command the two thugs. The deep echoes of the tunnel lent power to the spell, forcing the pair to bow and scrape before backing up into their alcove.
"Few dreams and little hope dwell amongst the people in this tunnel. They have been forgotten by society and live in the shadows. You must guard yourself well against their despair." The tunnel was apparently home for almost twenty of society’s unwanted and unknown. Bleak and uncurious faces peered at him from alcoves and rooms furnished with rubbish. Partway along an old tape player blared out Queen from a shadowy chamber. "Who wants to live forever?" Freddie Mercury’s haunting lament rendered by ancient speakers and strange acoustics into a banshee wail, rolling around the darkness like waves in a sea-cave. A heavy pall of banality lingered in the air and Raedan felt his spirits sapped as he echoed past.
"The woman you seek dwells almost to the back of the tunnel, in a long room which lies beneath this very station. And this finally I have to say. Tonight I pray that I have not made of that room a mausoleum for a soul." Raedan stooped through the low doorway. Veronica’s face, lit eerily by a crackling fire, twisted into a snarl of hatred as he entered.
Two lovers faced each other, across a spitting fire of scrapwood in a forgotten room beneath Brighton station. Pain held them apart, kept them silent. One fought against the agony of seeing his dreams laid bare before him, incarnate as a broken woman steeped in bitterness. The other fought to hold her sanity against the marvellous, awful brightness of the figure before her whose existence made her whole life a miserable mistake. But she had fought this battle before, and won, and so it was she who spoke first.
"Get out. I dunno who you are, with yer fancy suit and yer shiny hair, but you can bugger off back to the hole you crawled out of," she snarled, advancing past the fire. And as her body blocked the flickering light, autumn leaves drifted over her eyes. It seemed to her that perhaps he was just a suit. Just some bastard from the welfare come to cart her off to some home. Not bloody likely.
As she thought these thoughts, Raedan staggered, a sharp iron blade of banality slicing through his chest and into his heart. "Stop! Veronya, please. You don’t know me now, but you must let me explain. Please."
His words were stricken with emotion, both fear and love. Her fae name spoken aloud broke the fragile illusion she was building. Once more he stood before her, the proud and handsome sidhe, with his cloak of crimson and a blade at his side. Glowing with the glamour of his faerie soul. And now she knew him. His name spoke to her from behind its prison walls, her one true love, her Raedan.
"Veronya, it is not too late. I shall always love you. Come with me, come to Goldenleaves and I shall bring you magic and glamour." Love and fear still mingled in his words, both directed at her.
Not too late! How many years ago had it become too late? Five? Ten? Was it even possible to pick one particular day, even one year, when her youth fled from her and left her alone? Veronica strode up to the sidhe before her, unconsciously drawing herself to her full height. Her finger stabbed at his chest, a dagger-thrust, punctuating every word she spoke.
"Freak. There is no magic and no glamour!" For if there was, then fate had denied her its company for twenty-eight years. And Raedan flinched.
"You are really, truly screwed up, mate! Nutcase!" For if his words were true, then the pain of her loss would drive her into the most awful insanity. Raedan spoke, but all she heard was the tone in his voice. Fear growing stronger as his glamour flowed from him.
"I’ve never been anyone else but Veronica and you’re just a childish dream. Veronica! Homeless, loveless, bloody ruthless Veronica!" For if she could have been someone else, someone perpetually young and beautiful living a life of wonder, then all the years of her youth had been stolen from her. And Raedan’s glamour drained away, like fine wine down a gutter.
"There are no faeries, there is no Arcadia, you’re a screwed up, deluded little shit!" she screamed, her every muscle rigid with fury. For if all that was not true then the most hideous joke in the whole hideous world was her own life story. And Raedan’s cry of terror matched her scream. He dragged his shining sword from its sheath and swung, a desperate sweeping blow that sliced straight through Veronya’s midriff. It met no resistance at all. Instead, the treacherous blow struck straight into Raedan’s heart. Her terrible words had destroyed his love. And without his love, he lost his faith, lost his belief in himself and everything nobility stood for. To try to cut his beloved Veronya down in defence of his soul was the final confirmation that he had fallen. The sword slipped through his fingers but instead of an echoing clang, it melted and vanished in the shadows. In that moment, Sir Raedan ap Fiona died. Raedan’s body fell back and cracked its head against the doorway, dropping to the ground like a discarded marionette. Breathing hard, a gaping hole in her memory where the last few minutes had been, Veronica staggered away. She leaned against the wall gazing blankly at the unconscious stranger on the ground, unaware of where she was, who he was. A minute, and she had her wind back. A few moments more and she was crouched over him, picking through his pockets, cursing when she found no money. She rose slowly and stepped across the body, stooping through the doorway. Oh, but she would have words with those two louts by the door, letting a lunatic like this in. She marched down the tunnel towards the distant entrance, her cracked mind already weaving a patch across the hole in her day. Some weirdo, perhaps, who thought she had something worth taking in her dingy room.
Ryan Chadwick picked himself up off the wet pavement, gingerly touching the back of his head. Damn, stupid, shitty Brighton. It was a dumb idea, coming down here for a day of shopping on his own. So he’d been mugged by one of those bloody homeless thugs that this crummy seaside town was crawling with. Groping in his pockets he found no car keys, and cursed again. It’s not as though they even know which car was his! Treading carefully down the wet street, each footfall pounding in his head, Ryan went off in search of a police station and someone to swear at.
"Well, it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year…" The perky song grated against Aliana’s glum mood. How long could she put off returning to court? Aliana sat staring at her beer in the warmest corner of the Hobgoblin while her active imagination put the meanest comments into the mouths of her friends. And how was your date with Romeo? Back so soon? Well then, you must be here to pack you bags, huh? Don’t tell me, he was called away at the last minute on an important quest? Or maybe one of your better jokes made him choke on a mushroom? Perhaps she could never, ever go back. Never go home, either. Sympathetic cooing would be ten times worse.
She pulled back her sleeve and glanced at her watch. Five o’clock? She unstrapped it and shook it vigorously. Still no ticking. So now her watch had let her down too. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the entire evening was a daydream and was still yet to happen. Maybe she’d get on the bus and arrive home just in time to catch Raeden half way out of his car. Better, he’d arrive on a milk-white stallion, in desperate need of a companion for a quest! Aliana thumped the watch idly on the table, taking some frustration out on it as her mind wandered through the perfect evening that never was.
"Hey, there’s no need for that," a voice interrupted, reproving but friendly. A girl she’d never met frowned at her over a pint of beer. Leaving her friends, the girl pushed her chair across the few feet separating their tables and plucked the watch from Aliana’s surprised fingers. She flicked a fringe of dark hair from her eyes and turned the reluctant timepiece over in her hand, peering at the back in the poor light. "Watches are like people, you know. You’ve gotta look inside to see what makes them tick."
But that is another tale.