THE CHANGELING

From Winter, Spring is Born

FIRST 5o-odd PAGES

Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.
Who saw him die?
I, said the fly,
with my little teeny eye,
I saw him die.
Who caught his blood?
I, said the duck,
it was just my luck,
I caught his blood.
Who’ll make the shroud?
I, said the beetle,
with my thread and needle,
I’ll make the shroud.
Who’ll dig his grave?
I, said the owl,
with my pick and trowel,
I’ll dig his grave.
Who’ll carry the coffin?
I, said the kite,
if it’s not through the night,
I’ll carry the coffin.
Who’ll bear the pall?
I, said the crow,
with the cock and the bow,
I’ll bear the pall.

ACT 1

1

ᚄᚓᚓᚈ ᚇᚓᚐᚈᚆ

SWEET DEATH

SPARROW

Blood makes petals in the snow. On nights this cold most of it freezes before it hits the ground. Poppy petals. Reminders of all the dead boys at Flanders. At Ypres. The men whose bodies she’d loved in her dreams and her fantasies, and how blown apart they’d been, with less than a second to register the tragedy of betrayal by those who sent them to this doom. Before they even had time to recognize how seemingly random violence mostly is. She is Sparrow, a name she is known by out of a fondness for reminiscing, and to fool the nuns; something small to identify this snitty, hungry figure of a seeming woman who is gamin and eldritch, almost childlike, but with blades hidden in the folds of seemingly soft flesh. She took to the streets when she escaped Our Ladys, to either make it because she is sufficiently strong and cunning or to be erased for her negligence at pretending to the garment of humanity. None of the faerie—the Gentry—have found her, no Aos Sídhe. And the Mystery—has she forsaken her? Or is she, as is so often the case, distracted by her own intrigues? Sparrow is resigned, now. To becoming winter leaves. And dust, and the rubble of a broken heart.

She ghosts towards the night shadow of a six-foot-something high brick wall, wondering if the body she’s wearing will bleed out before the whole story can reach some kind of resolution. Sorry, sort of, that she’s been such a juvenile, playing catch me if you can with the slúag whose job it is to track her. A hunt that no one, or nothing, would ever really want, but that some poor bastards have been tasked with. Well, she’s evaded them so far. Left them lost, somewhere in the ice of the labyrinthine alleyways that will kill a body, unprepared for this kind of cold, for the desperation of those who live in the squats, and how ferocious they get when in need of whatever is their necessary poison. Down here, around the southside.

Sparrow believes they’ll eventually find her because of those petals. But belief can be stupid.

Like breadcrumbs, she thinks—a throwaway line from a story-gone-wrong, that was just as biased and futile as her own cynicism. Breadcrumbs that Hansel figured were a clever idea when the pebbles didn’t solve the problem set up by hunger, meant to help him and his sister find home again after the shit-show between their father and his new wife. Like always. What he’d been duped into believing was home, but that had been, instead, a brutal place of lies and intimidation. Just like the news. Like power taken, for power’s sake alone. Breadcrumbs meant to be a means to find the way to come back from the old woman’s cottage in the forest should she be a witch of evil intent the church made her out to be. Somebody should warn kids about birds.

She snorts what would have been a laugh, had it been a sound and not frozen air.

Sparrow didn’t realize when she ran away so long ago now, that she’d have to pass through mythworld; through the towering giants that form the first forest, that shrouds Forgotten Lake, that is also, in legend, Hy Brasil. That she’d become the focus of all these creatures. She had been so flippant. Simply made up her mind to live in flesh for a while. She had not, at first, known that the slúagbatshit bad bullies, like two-legged raptors made of teeth and fog, and fitted out to appear like human men—would come, once her scent was discovered, where she had landed, in New Rathmore, the city’s stink concentrated to a point of suffocation for those assuming the guise of mortals. She didn’t know that the slúag had been assigned the task of bringing her to the Monstrum or taking her out for being the witness to what had happened to those children in the institution. So now that she is aware, she runs.

They shoot her. Miss the vital organs. The arrow, instead and maybe luckily, penetrates her shoulder. It passes right on through. She is weak and jaded, but her pursuers will be kicking themselves for not enacting a clean kill or capture, and will know by now that they’ve fucked up. That she’ll find herself a holt. She knows she should shift, become mist or something, but blood and pain, while in a mortal shape, have a way of distracting techniques that should have been as easy as lying. And now, as she slides to the snow, almost forgetting herself, almost dying like some silly victim, she would have patted her own back for evading the scent of those poorly qualified unseelie bogles if she’d had the wherewithal to have thought her escape through a little better.

She tries to be oblivious to the harm she’s suffered already, and what she has had to do to endure, while, in truth, being breathtakingly aware that she will never evade this travesty.

Sparrow does not think she has outfoxed the slúag.

2

ᚈᚏᚔᚉᚕᚄᚈᚓᚏ

TRICKSTER

DÉJÀVU DELACROIX

Two-twenty in the wee hours before dawn and the ice bomb locks the city down. It’s minus twelve degrees. The roads are a disaster of black ice. No social services getting through to deliver soup and coffee. No extra blankets. Not tonight. Maybe not any night soon. The broken dead all over the city, in back alleys, antiquated apartments where the heating failed three days ago, old people, poor people. They’ll be found in the late spring. A body just has to make it through one night at a time, in this. That’s the only way.

Here, in the sheltered corner of the abandoned bakery left to rust, its former purpose dissolving into some destiny as landfill, Déjàvu Delacroix is barely recognizable, even though most here know her face. She’s rummaged through dumpsters for newspapers and discarded clothing, outfitting herself like a squat mountain. Giant of a woman, topping six foot. Keeping company with these discarded people. Men mostly. Silent, lost, belligerent men. Angry. Conspiracies, their only shelter from the facts of their failures. Their regret. The knowledge that they didn’t love enough. Passing the goon between them, the pot, a lot of cigarettes. The day’s begging money was spent on these off-switches. They keep as warm as is possible, hugging the ground around a forty-four gallon drum, flame cracking and spitting, savage with hunger, consuming packing-case wood and expertly busted up, discarded pallets that’d been abandoned down the side alleys, out back of shops and restaurants.

Laid out, all respectable, are two bodies frozen in a rictus of passion, identities that’ll probably never be known to anyone. Seeming ordinary, just dead. They’d been found a few hours back, huddled together under that section of corrugated iron roofing that had fallen in, its back broken by the unprecedented snowfall. Discovered in a semblance of embrace. Warriors? Lovers, maybe? Their sweat, at the exertion of carrying the responsibility of staying alive into the futility of this little safe harbor, their doom. Bad mix, sweat and ice. Kills easily; them probably thinking they’d fulfilled their reason for having been born. Stopping to plan a way home, all so futile. Sweet death, it’s known as. That innocent desire to just lie down. The exertion that becomes all too much. Stop, now, for just a minute or so. Maybe two of the pack from the unseelie court, silent hunters of Sparrow. And failing miserably. Screwed, because they’d promised the current regent that they’d hole her up, as hounds would; wear her down. Sparrow is certain of none of it. Her capacity to obscure a scent is beyond their skill at nosing her out. Maybe. She had thought she’d be alright, hanging loose from all those expectations. She’d born the daughter, hadn’t she? Had hidden in that terrible place? Pretended to their shame and anonymity? Vanished, like haar in the morning of an infant spring. Never once considering the impact of her eventual testimony. Never wavering from a bottomless well of inherent justice.

Déjàvu relaxes, spread-legged on the bench—the only thing not looted when all these shops got themselves abandoned. In the relative snow-free protection of this part of the building where the roof still hangs in. She subtly guards Sparrow, silent and now-bandaged, who shares the dregs of her tobacco pouch with this monster of a woman, a possible ally.

The raggedy folk, silent and frost-breathed, watch for as long as they can remain interested, the fair-skinned, pale-haired stray, with the shine, who has wandered, half dead, into the flicker and haunt of the fire and been tended by the big woman. She should have been dirtier, thinks one. Should have been loved by her mummy, thinks another, remembering his own daughters from before he came back from Afghanistan a beaten man, dishonorably discharged for disobeying a command he knew to be obscene, having realized the whole debacle of a pretend-war was destroying the world a bit more every day. Knowing he’d been conned. Running from the nightmares but with nowhere to go except away from anyone who might care. Care is pity and that’s worse than anything.

Should be me, thinks one of the thin girls, hiding her gaunt starvation beneath scruff and anarchy. Terrified of being recognized and dragged back to the facility.

Why do these people hang with Déjà? Because the older woman looks like she does, all muscle and angles. Even her tattooed knuckles are weapons. And why hang out with? What happens to the homeless girls who make the mistake of thinking it’s okay to sleep at night? To be alone? Taken. Dog-companions abandoned. Them, left to howl with loss once the ketamine drains off their bodies. No one knows where those girls mostly end up, although one was found, like some raggedy, torn up doll, all blood and tendons and bone shards, unnamed and unidentified, down by the old wharf at the end of Copperhead Lane. Tied to a bollard by her shredded clothing. Left to bleed out.

Déjàvu hides the scarification patterns on her forehead beneath the hard, wool beanie, beneath a veil of perfectly symmetrical, individually defined silver and ice-light dreadlocks, the fringe all blasphemous curls that shouldn’t look this good on someone most people think of as just another rough-sleeper, maybe with a habit they don’t know about because she never touches the booze. Some quietly presume she’s a bouncer when she can get the work. Those markings, down her throat and along her clavicle are the deterrent, and etchings all her kind are born with. Blood red, like liver. Look closer and a body could just make out the map. Though no one could tell where that coastline is, where that chain of mist-and-spruce-covered mountains lie. No. To humans, it’d be damn-awful ugly on a white woman, let alone one whose skin emanates light and depths, like birch. A dark scarlet birthmark disfigurement that got her thrown out of home. Or helped her survive. Foster care, juvie, locked up for looking at a cop with unreadable eyes. Or else marking her as someone you wouldn’t rent a room to, even if she did have money.

She’s here because of the killings. This darkest hour, even before the cold came; that paramedic and the cops call dead zone time. It’s when babies are stillborn, and old people die. It’s when that woman’s husband has fallen into a drunken stupor and, with all the might left in her unbroken arm, she does him in with a hammer because she knows she won’t survive another beating and neither will her kids. It’s when the runaway opens the window and shimmies down the drainpipe, and hitches on down the highway, taking a risk every time a ride pulls over.

Déjàvu’s not her real name, of course. Creatures like her don’t have names. They check in, as humans, from time to time, because the gifted, like Sparrow, have a destiny that can fix a hole in the world, that somebody—probably a riddling joke invoked by Madoc Morcant, the up-and-coming bad boy of the unseelie court, the Monstrum—purposely pickaxed, intent on fulfilling some monkishly whimsical narrative of his own making. Like World of Warcraft or some other mindlessly violent attraction. Or else somebody fool enough to order a forest cut down, not thinking about what and who might live there. Things of that ilk and dumbness.

And Sparrow’s saying nothing. Seemingly amnesiac. A ruse, of course. A mother bird protecting her nest, dragging a wing to distract the predator. It’s always tricky when folks don’t remember where they come from. Or pretend not to. Interrogation and prying don’t work on faeries like Sparrow. It turns them onto junk and despair. They forget to be vital. Turpentine, or cheap tricks to pay for a habit because they don’t cope with the cruelty of humans. Lot of these people around fires like this one, all over the country tonight. Heck, all over the world, truth be told. But Sparrow’s fresh still. Like seawater crammed with bull kelp and a clean salt tang, somewhere off the shore of Clew Bay. Déjàvu can smell her, like a piece of preciousness, or an unused razor.

Déjàvu was once the water of many rivers; many seas both inland, and off a vast and invaded Atlantic ocean. In her true shape she—or it, if one is rude, into objectification of otherkin—was a river, too long, too wide, too deep to even imagine anymore; too long in the mortal world but that’s a necessity in times like these. She was once upon a time a vast piece of magic, from when the world first breathed life, but nowadays (because they’ve learned they have to hide) they’re remembered only as some old-person story. She’s ox-strong. Like as not she could rip a truck in half if the mood took her so, in that sense, Sparrow’s intuition is as clean as she is capable of being.

The question is why Sparrow’s here in the deserted, deadly district of New Rathmore at all? Why does she need protection? To a degree, over hushed whispers, Déjàvu is aware of an enemy—of enemies—of creatures out of mythworld that want what? That secret’s yet to fully unfold. And it’s too complicated for her to explain yet so Sparrow confides part of the truth. It’s because of the stories she draws.

Because the stories Sparrow draws, with just those pencils she keeps hidden in the deep inside pockets of her hoodie, come to pass. Happen. Sparrow has the sight and uses it through her art, a birthright had she ever actually been born.

She depicts each murder and madness—despite the horror that they are—days before the event. She thinks she makes the names up, of both the victims and the killers. But she doesn’t. She’s always right. Up until now, nobody’s seen her sketchbook. Not anyone human that is. But it came to the attention of critters of the mortal world a while back. Rats and bats in the night when she’d sit under the streetlight, tongue between her teeth in concentration. Pigeons during daylight hours. Blackbirds. Cats on walls, seemingly sleeping. That’s what she’s doing now, and Déjàvu doesn’t ever look at the faces, cause she knows just about everybody, and it’d be shocking, somehow, to see a death in the charcoal afore she’d seen a body.

The word spread to the wisdom-holders, remaining out of sight through necessity and disbelief, that Sparrow broke out of the prison and into the world and needs attending to because she’s not supposed to be doing magic—draíocht—just in case. She was to merely witness the swap of the mortal with the changeling, make certain no one saw; that the procedure was performed flawlessly by the ghosts of abandoned islands. She has, however, a destiny of her own here amongst mortals.

And because, then, she chose not to—rebel that she is—a major hubbub broke out across sky and sea, mountain and mythworld. A mighty council convened. Night mares came. Pleasant dreams ceased sanguinity and took a serious turn, Enbarr de Manannán, the white horse from the sea, from the wild west coast off Weary Bay, sent envoys, night owls known to call a body’s name, predicting their death a week or two before (so’s to give them a chance to make peace), turning when into resolution. Well, they came as thick as crows and as murderous as ravens. Baba Yaga, the forests of Europe, along with her trees, stones. People of every species, conspiring with mist and fog and hoarfrost giants who have heard tell of this one little chit of a woman, her drawings and her rebellion all potentially damaging to their hiddenness. The conjecture about what could happen if predestination was ever realized as real. Déjà, well, she’s already where she’s supposed to be.

Oh, they all know. Her fate. If any of the unseelie catch her. She’ll end up a slab of meat rotting in some derelict place, or else someone will burn her hands off, so she can’t pick up a pencil again. No… she’ll be dead. As dead as they are all going to be if nobody works out a way to get her out of the world again.

Come morning the world is blinding. Snow, mist, sky. But there’s green a little further from the heart of the city. Snowdrops understand change. Humans have forgotten that springtime comes around eventually.

3

ᚋᚑᚅᚄᚈᚏᚒᚋ

MONSTRUM

MADAWG MORCANT

Morcant is thirty years, going on ten thousand years, maybe. His true name is Madawg Morcant, but he doesn’t use it for the simple reason no one in New Rathmore can say without it sounding like they got a cockroach down behind their back teeth, so he’s known as Mad Dog Morgan. He looks young. A lie. He’s been to the other side of the city and now he’s sniffing the air along Napier Lane where in milder days, and before the lockdowns, it had been a hub. Bohemian impoverished savvy and exotic, with market stalls and scents of Lebanese and Chinese cooking, marijuana, incense, and other, less pleasant, unidentifiable scents hinting at decomposition and neglect. This part of town is best for hunting the ones he likes to fuck and forget, discarded like flotsam. He catches the subway every so often, from somewhere to here, no one watching the ticket-scanner, or riding the line, even soft-eyeing messages to his ownsome hounds, all seemingly asleep, blurry, and loveable should he need himself a happy, jolly young thing likes a good pat. Before prey.

Morcant sniffs the ice in the air like it’s lavender or jasmine or the mane of a sleeping, raggedy old bear. Something exquisite is rolling up from Copperhead. Something odd. And because of the oddness, he wants it. He does that. With memories, with awe, with plans. Snorts ‘em like thick lines of cocaine as likely cut with bathroom cleaner as old-fashioned plain white flour. But not like this. He hasn’t smelled anything like this since before the cold came. Before the dark.

It’s Mercy. Thought safe in the prison of the nuns. The child those uppity bastards from Inishrún think will have a part in saving the world from the bane of human ineptitude. Magic and art. Mountains torn down, and horses slaughtered in the high country. Her, born of that other daughter, What’s-Her-Name who, like him, is trapped in the surface world. Perhaps. He has that niggle in his scrotum he gets when he’s in doubt; that happens when it’s just him who wants conjecture to be fact. The scent of her on this night of frozen air is exquisite, so beaten and silent, he has to hold his hands across his crotch to stop the thing there from distracting his attention.

Sparrow draws his scarred, white face in graphite pencil on black paper.

4

ᚃᚑᚏ ᚈᚆᚓ ᚃᚑᚏᚂᚇ’ᚄ ᚋᚑᚏᚓ ᚃᚒᚂᚂ ᚑᚃ ᚃᚓᚓᚚᚔᚅᚌ

ᚈᚆᚐᚅ ᚆᚑᚒ ᚉᚐᚅ ᚒᚅᚇᚓᚏᚄᚈᚐᚅᚇ

FOR THE WORLD’S MORE FULL OF WEEPING

MERCY

In the long-ago cobbles were living fire. They knew flight. They soared as savage liquid miles high into an infant sky. They splashed and splattered onto the grey-green liquid crust of a slowly awakening earth and sank. Plummeted deeply to within her labyrinthine young breast, five hundred million trips around the sun ago. All inexorably crystallized into an aware, interconnected family of ancient stone that, over many more millions of years, slowly swam, sperm-like, from the deep beneath, instinctually reaching for the warmth of the sun that had been but a legend to the younger stones.

They lived with mountains. At the base of the runic chatter of brooks and burns. The backbones of arctic forests where they slumbered through the deep cold only to embrace the sun of brief summer.

The abrupt wakefulness that disrupted the slow discourse between diverse and widespread clusters. This was when humans began quarrying them and their families, gouging them from the landscapes before forming them into intersecting lines for horse carriages to ride upon and it was, to the majority, quizzical. Sadly peaceless. Graceless without ill intent towards their captors.

In the centuries of late, cobbles murmured amongst themselves of this or that change, of the addition of buildings forged of molded and fired river clay, shaped in ovens into even more rigid straight and intersecting lines, shackled together with ash and sand, each with their own legends and stories of the ancient of days. Others, fresh kids on the block but old friends from within mother volcano, were the limes and gravel that formed concrete.

The cobbles had speculated amongst themselves, since being shaped and trapped by countless now-dead quarrymen, that one day they would understand why they had been so disturbed, why they could not have rested in their slow-moving habitats without thought for their silence.

Then Mercy Riley came. A sentient animal with legends in her veins and tales of the ocean in the skin cells she shed. Now they knew new things. Mercy had sat with them and whispered under her breath Hello people.

When she laid her blanket down it was not simply to sit on. No. She consciously warmed the stones with the soft wool things that held the sun in them even on a shadowy afternoon. The dried blood red bricks of the hundred year old wall that supported her torso were reminded of the river and the shore of the deep-bottomed lake, and that one day they would share a very different destiny. They will not always be one shop or another. They will scatter and know individuality.

‘But,’ Mercy says, resting her head against them, ‘community is important. You can’t love alone. I know.’

5

ᚔᚋᚁᚑᚂᚌ

IMBOLG

WINTER’S END

Twenty five year old Mercy Riley inhabits the pavement outside the 7Eleven on Copperhead Lane, just before the corner of Wharf Road in downtown New Rathmore. The docks. She and the year old, hip-high brindle wolfhound pup named Revel. Grandson of Cullyn, the first of the spirit dogs to roam the city at the summons of two bright pennies, set spinning in a ritual as old as memory. The companions of a warrior woman named Scáthach who walked out of a legend to also challenge the air of this world. That was just over twelve years ago.

Mercy’s pockets would have jangled louder, with more coin, had she marked out her territory deeper within the city center but being away from this bit of wind off the sea, the comings of the boats and the pleasure Revel gets from flocking a scavenging of gulls into a pale afternoon sky, would feel like death to them both. She gets by.

Other women wander here sometimes, homelessly, bodies weighed down with worldly goods, their faces ruined by the reasons they are here. They inform her to stay awake at night. To keep moving. To keep to the lights. Predators live in the shadows. In the dark places. Hungry for the ones still pretty, or else paid to pick up those worth selling. Mercy heeds them out of respect but doesn’t do as they suggest. Mercy isn’t afraid of anyone. She isn’t really homeless although New Rathmore is not home. She is waiting.

She couldn’t be missed because of her distinctive appearance. Local people talk. Notice. Speculate in low voices. They’d been curious when she had first set herself up. She has a wilderness of ice-white hair and skin as pale as porcelain. Her eyes are mismatched, one deep brown the other hazel, eyelashes and eyebrows so black they seem made of night. She is beautiful. With scars of acne that had been as severe as smallpox; the craters that pit both cheeks attesting to the lie that of you don’t squeeze them they won’t leave a mark.

Copperhead Lane is New Rathmore’s hidden treasure. Hundred year old brownstone buildings, the windows demure behind lace curtains, idly moldering towards abandonment, each apartment occupied. Mostly by people who lived here all their lives. The old women sweep the snow off the concrete. Sit outside on the bluestone steps every fine day smoking joints or small pipes of tobacco, drinking thick Turkish coffee and telling each other’s fortunes in the dregs; cat-calling old men on their habitual way to play Backgammon in the warmth of the pub. Students and visionaries hang out at Dimity’s café, talking Lorca or revolution. A woman and her daughter, once from Birmingham, sell the best of meat pies anywhere from a stall beside a firelit ten gallon drum out front of their basement apartment. When spring finally arrives and thaws the dead the street will fill, more even than now, as the smells become more acute. That man who looks too young to know the trade will sharpen knives and scissors, and the spades and secateurs of gardeners. Foreign voices will hawk their produce, and the mouthwatering scents of barbecued lamb and garlic will vie with the background smells of seaweed, barnacled wood, and maritime fuel.

Many on Copperhead Lane and thereabouts are aware of who and what Mercy is. Not, however, the flower sellers or the old women—not consciously anyway—nor the kebab shop owners, or the baker, leaning into the frigid wind and making it alive to their job at the boulangerie at four in the morning. But the cats behind the windows know. And the puppies passing Revel, who are all desperate to play with one such as him. Rats in holts know and so do those on the docks waiting for the thaw. For the fishing boats. Certainly, the raven parliaments and their rookeries, and the families of mice under the floor of the 7Eleven. Even the windows and streetlights know what Mercy is. Know who she knows.

A shine of a deeper time, a kind of ammil, mists the afternoons of this now very special early February day with the glow that each particle remembers of the first and forever forest when they too dwelt in or around Forgotten Lake. The place legend calls Hy Brasil.

Dimity’s Books and Café: City’s Largest Collection of Second-hand Books/Scifi/Best Coffee is proclaimed in vivid colors on the sandwich board in the middle of the sidewalk. That’s where Mercy and Revel hole up on the nights when the cold is too unforgiving. Even for her. And Dimity or Merrin, a goth witch with a long black braid and bright red lipstick, delivers Mercy coffee and breakfast every morning, just as soon as she settles on the cobbles. Because both Dimity and Merrin also know who and what this lodger is. They have history with the Travelers and Merrin is Willie-the-Red’s love. They are woven into the tapestry of stories the people who ride with them and are no longer quite mortal, tell at the summer gatherings up north at the old O’Neil place. Merrin also knows, because Willie had whispered to her just before Mercy had camped at her post, that Mercy could be called upon whenever there comes a need. That there will come a need.

Beside Mercy’s small bag of personal belongings is a rolled up yoga mat she found discarded that makes a comfortable seat if someone stops. Revel’s bowl. Their blankets and a rug for visitors. A cardboard sign on which she’s written Homeless not Clueless. She sits for hours on end, her hands in mittens with the tips chewed off, a book in one, tarot cards in the other in offering. Most people keep walking. A few drop coins into the beanie at her crossed ankles. Begging always gets her enough to feed them both at the end of the day, though. And once in a while enough to buy black nail polish.

Funny thing is, Mercy does tell the future with her cards. Disturbing future things. It is not her grace to see the bright joys, the contented love. She cannot predict emotions she has never known. And she’s yet to meet a punter who comprehends the wild as she does. She’d recognize it straight off. Doesn’t need tarot for that.

Occasionally a woman—it is always a woman—with a day to kill and a need to stay away from what was once home, curiosity born of desperation and a need to know hope, sits awkwardly on the folded up mat and shuffles Mercy’s cards. Looks into her eyes. Only then does she realize her mistake. Mercy’s eyes are not those of desperation. They are fathomless. Portals to knowledge that the passer-by won’t want to hear. That is usually when they hand the pack back, the prophesy unspoken, the money freely given. Because the truth is, only the shy ones who’ve lost everything but who cannot look at Mercy straight in the face, get told the date of their death, when they’ll get beaten up and why; the destiny of their daughters.

6

ᚑᚅᚉᚓ ᚒᚚᚑᚅ ᚐ ᚈᚔᚋᚓ

ONCE UPON A TIME

DO A RUNNER

Mercy was born up along the rugged, salt-scoured coast where Weary Bay offers the only harbor. In the crabbed little delivery room of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow Mother and Baby Home, now accommodation for nine nuns, leftover detritus from earlier lives of pencil jabbing and hair-cutting-with-shears-make-em-suffer heyday, a barred, brown brick ever-suppurating wound—like a curse-bound ogre, on the hill outside the village. The nuns had pulled her into the world, like all the others, oblivious to who this child would grow to become. Though none of the girls or women were ever supposed to leave. Mercy hadn’t known which of them was her mother. Never knew to be curious enough to ask.

Baby Riley, they’d called her for the first two weeks. Riley could be anyone here. Or no one. Named Mercy for the baptism simply because it couldn’t be put off. She had grown up within the fortress, unfortunate enough to be rejected for adoption every time. It was the eyes, people said. Unnerving. Neglect was the only emotion Mercy knew until she was thirteen. That and the humiliation experienced by all the rejected children. They were caned on the palms of their hands on a Monday by the nuns in case they sinned during the coming week, across their buttocks and thighs if they talked back or refused their share of laundry chores. Taught to read and write and sew and launder, other basic skills, while excellence and curiosity were punished mercilessly.

Every one of the girls and women had been brought, against their will, to that fortress, of primness and suffering. Sometimes because she was pregnant, sometimes because she might get pregnant. Occasionally because she was too pretty. Too old to find a husband or no longer wanted by one. Often because abuse at home became public knowledge and the church thought she would be better off put away. What a lot of grief. What sadness. Mercy heard stories and sometimes asked questions. Learned to ask even more explicit questions as she got older. The girls taught her things she could do to give herself pleasure. They were often at it with each other after lights out. No one had touched Mercy like that though. Thought too young. In the early days.

Mercy weathered many beatings from her tenth birthday because she didn’t keep her mouth shut about the first priest to interfere with her. Nor the next when they sent the first away. It happened to other girls. The severity of their welts informed her. Their downcast eyes. It was never talked about, but Mercy knew. Shame does that.

Sometimes girls ran away. They left messages with friends, of hopes and dreams. Whispers after lights out were like clouds of soft bees throughout the dormitories. There were tears. Of joy. And maybe’s. Always maybe’s. If the escapee was not returned it was one more flint in the eyes of those remaining. Mercy learned that the world beyond this compound was lipstick and boys and the cinema and MacDonald’s and cell phones. She knew about them from contraband magazines that got chucked over the walls sometimes. By old friends. By locals. Who knew? Cosmopolitan. Marie Claire. Woman’s Weekly. Modern life.

Even from behind the walls and up that hill Mercy could smell the sea. The brine of it. The clean of it. And always the call of gulls by day and plovers at night. She knew she belonged with the sea and would one day live closer.

Come twelve when her period began and her face erupted in the first of the boils and the nuns called her a filthy girl. She knew she would escape.

It ended up being easy. The food was delivered from Brokeshire, a city miles away that catered for institutions. The food vans came on Tuesdays. Mercy scored kitchen duties and gave favors to the older girls for the chance at the morning shift. She had been lucky. She was on her own when the bread delivery man came in. She whispered to him that she would do for him what the priests had made her do if only he’d give her a lift. He said he’d be happy to, but she’d have to cover her face because he didn’t want to look at it while she was down there, and she’d promised. He made a covey for her in the back behind the racks. She hardly breathed while the nun unlocked the high iron-barred gate.

They drove for ages. Then the truck stopped. When the man opened the truck door Mercy used her feet. Shoved the bread racks at him with all her strength. Scrambled. And ran.

He followed her for a while calling out coomeer ya fookin little cunt at the top of his lungs, and to get back or he’d do this or that. Until his vitriol became as indistinct as the decibels of wind in her ears. She outdistanced him and ran down the hill towards the abandoned jetty at the edge of town, at such speed that it seemed to Mercy she had never truly known her legs.

Then she hid.

7

᚛ᚒᚅᚄᚓᚓᚂᚔᚓ᚜

WEARY BAY

AND ICE, MAST-HIGH, CAME FLOATING BY AS GREEN AS EMERALD

Not a place to visit. Not even a place to travel through on the way to somewhere else. On the surface of things, that is. A bent little town with a post office, a Sizzlers takeaway food joint where the youth hang out pretending to be rappers or gangsters. From the corner of the road that runs up the hill to Our Ladys, to the war memorial in the park that overlooks the protected aspect of Weary named Seal Bay, is everything the local people need that they can’t get a bus ride away in Brokeshire. Walled to keep the tide out. Or the people in. Currachs and fishing boats moored to iron rings embedded in the rock wall, safely inside the zig-zag, hand-hewn stone protection reefs. Manic when the tide is in, stranded on their sides, along with careless rubbish and the ribs of long-dead dinghies when at ebb. The skies are grey, either threatening rain or delivering it in horizontal sheets ten months of the year, or swathed in fog or mist, ghostly, ever-moving, an illusion of soil and asphalt. Anybody on welfare—and there is a hunger of them—is sooner or later diagnosed with depression and medicated. That’s the end then. That or the drink. Or they leave and are not heard from again. Suicide, a bigger and crueler solution as the years yawn.

The work on the fishing boats is done by the men. Work that, beyond the cloister of Seal Bay, is an ever-present roiling, white-capped, mountainous madness of black ocean. Legend has it the sea along this stretch of the coast is bottomless which is why none of the wreckage of the drowned ever washes up on the shore. No fisherman is ever buried in the graveyard up on the cliffside, only old men who’ve been mutilated, rendered unemployable and unforgiven for some seeming failure, and so stayed home to grieve that their father’s living was denied to him. Mute with their fated impotent.

Tattery farms scar the landscape, most derelict and in ruins, those still working mostly run, shear, and butcher sheep. The biggest, still occupied, is owned by Barney Rumford who runs his milking cows and who drives the only Massey Ferguson for a hundred miles and whose own and only son drowned at sea. His wife Janey is thought to be the town psychic—tealeaf reading—but Barney hated it so she stopped for years. She suffers that she didn’t use her talent, despite him, because to this day she believes she could have warned her lovely boy.

The pub and lodgings are owned by Henry and Alice Poe. They won’t be locals until they’re old. They came down from New Rathmore twenty years ago. Saw the ad for the hotel’s sale in the paper, and it’d been cheap. He’d been an I.T. man and Alice, a commercial lawyer. Their daughters had gone, each doing well without the need for parenting, so Alice had suggested a sea-change. They’d bought Oonah out, old Jim Pemfrey’s wife. Jim’s memory loss had taken a severe turn for the worse and he was diagnosed with dementia. Then the incontinence had set in. He was moved away and Oonah’d never set foot in the establishment after that. Hated the grog. Devout Catholic. Still. Rumor had it she’d poisoned him to get it over with. Sell the lot off and take his money. But ill will and whispers always insinuated slander around small villages like Weary Bay when boredom is such a tyrant.

Those that do well, do very well. Have been here for generations. Clan together over seafood chowder at the pub and tell each other stories. Play music. Exchange hydro tips. Not one person anywhere in the vicinity is away or ill when the matches are on because Henry was savvy enough to put in a big screen plasma TV.

The catholic church had dominated in earlier times. Ridiculous for such a small area. The trade in babies delivered at Our Ladys sufficient reason for a diocese back when Mercy was born. Most of the town’s inhabitants had attended mass every day. Except for the Poe’s. Except for the Rumfords. Never discussed religion. Everyone knew about the dark brick prison, but no one spoke of it openly.

Not until the place had been closed down to the public and the church had abandoned the now-profitless village, lying when asked. Stating that all records had been destroyed in a fire. And before the inquiry that eventuated, no one thought to challenge the author of such duplicity; some sort of confession of error.

The thing is that Weary Bay, like Inishrún, the little island off its coast, holds secrets. Holds them dear. If the clergy had known of them nothing was ever admitted.

Once a year, after the first hoarfrost, the rolling, custard mists descend the mountains behind the village, the rowan leaves turn red and yellow of the birch’s turning informs of the death of summer the nomadic come. One kind of traveler. The kind with a lower-case t. Erroneously called gypsies but, as ‘gypsy’ they called themselves. To the tract of unfarmed land called Tír naTsamhraidh but referred to as Úllcran Ciallmhar, Apple Tree Wise, on account of the legend that once, in this place, there stood a mighty and magical apple tree forest inhabited by bards and seers, seekers and visionary mad people, its paths scattered with silver leading to other times and lost worlds. If that were so it is long gone. Except for one tree, still fruiting in summer, so ancient she could have lived for a thousand years or two or more. Spoken to as a person. Given offerings of whisky and meat. Said to have a druid trapped within with all her knowledge in the fruit. The gathering place just up the road from the village. The gypsies bring business to the region and have done for centuries. They come from all over the country, drive their horse-drawn vardos or big old cars pulling gaudy fancy caravans to the perimeter of the field, pledging unfailing allegiance to the tree, and setting up butcheries and hearths. The young men ride the horses into the river, bare-chested despite the cold, challenging each other, teaching the boys and girls, and flirting with the young women from other clans. They stay for two weeks. With music and dancing and contraband anything. Bare-knuckle fighting with big money for the winners with all the regional lads from as far away as Brokeshire and Orm Bay to the north and east as far as Lorridge and Knockhaven and St Albanshire trying their luck. Usually a pointless effort. Horse dealing is ceaseless, wet weather or dry, fortunes are told, and the spring maiden is chosen from among the local girls, never their own. The mothers and aunts and grandmothers of Weary Bay and beyond relentlessly condemn the practice, but they’ve never managed to get it banned. Some things are just superstitious and crossing the ways of these visitors is sure to bring those savage storms that summon the beast called the kraken from the depths of the bottomless sea, and drown the men, boat by boat, all season. Till the other Travelers—the ones to be afraid of, the ones to respect for their draíocht(magic), also sometimes called the Aos Sídhe, Gentry, Good Folk, or other things behind closed doors and in whispers—come and break the curse at All Hallows.

Crowned with apple blossom Mercy’s mother, fourteen years old and considered a woman, presented herself at the dance, compelled by dreams and desire of a man whose face was so bright and intelligent it was an impossible geis to ignore. Fate demanded that she find him. Destiny. In the firelight of the encampment. With that certain tough man with the softly hooded, erotic eyes the bottomless black of a selkie, hair as dark with gold glinting at each exposed and lickable, proclaimed king for a year. The man who’d won all the fights. For this only occasion, on their final night’s stay, she’d been crowned with apple blossom their version of springtime-made-manifest, and they had danced for hours. Had ended the night in the bushes. The day after, the gypsies drove and rode away and, three months later, pregnancy confirmed, the people who had taken her in as a foundling in a cardboard box, and who considered themselves her family, gave her over to the nuns of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow Mother and Baby Home where she disappeared, her future supposed to be deleted. Or so it was rumored.

She’d escaped only a month after the birth of that child and the erasure of her infant’s identity.

The fish factory, down along the pier, provides work for most, but especially for the wives and widows. Five miles north along the isolated road, on the isthmus where the underwater rock shoals are most treacherous, is the lighthouse that also doubles as the coastal patrol headquarters. The Tower. For forty years it has been manned by the socially inept and bad tempered Les Oldfield. A single-person job so that, except for working the radio once or twice a year, he is not required to speak with anyone.

Barney Rumford delivers milk to the local shop every day. Up before dawn, his urns were still cleaned and sanitized with iodine solution so people in the village never suffer from the thyroid problems of other towns, his milk was unregulated and so unpasteurized. And Sheena Healey, the only Marilyn Munro peroxide blonde in the village, loads her wares into her mum’s old lorry every Friday night at six and delivers deep-fried chips, potato scallops, and battered fish wrapped in newspaper, to half the town in defiance of the fast food franchise.

Summer is always short, under the shadow of an ever-lowering autumn when the village prepares for the arrival of those other Travelers. A rare race that only fools denigrate as diminutive winged silliness, because in the month leading up to All Hallows, which the old people still call Samhain, stalls are dragged from sheds and mended. Awnings are stitched where the mice have chewed edges off for nests, turnips and gourds are harvested and carved in preparation for the Jack o’Lantern to sit on the doorstep or the window ledge, crafts made to sell and barter, and silverware, everywhere, is polished on the off chance a visitor would deign to knock on a door for tea.

The Travelers are only pausing close to Weary Bay, however. It is not their destination. They are all headed across the water to Inishrún for whatever it is they do there. The people in the village don’t want to know. It is still thought of as the devil’s business, but the bunch of them have been coming and eating the pastries and drinking the Guinness and the uiske beatha, single malt whisky, at the pub for as long as anyone remembers. They also attend Tír naTsamhraidh; also pay homage to the now gnarled and skeletal winter tree, leaves dropping early, probably to give the druid some quiet time. They leave their vehicles parked there. Some put up their hand-painted, talisman-hung tents if they are a day or two early, while they wait for Raurie Mór’s boat to tack her way up from the summer coastlands as there is no other ship will take to the water this time of the year. The current has come. The rips. The Rosie Rua, an bád mór (big boat) is forty four feet long with mainsail, foresail and jib all black and made of calico in the old way. Always impressive as she closes the distance, more often than not appearing from the deep sea mist, maneuvering her sharp splendor—like something out of myth—around the curragh, small craft, fishing boats, and trawlers moored in the bay. And the seals. Seal Bay within the folds of Weary Bay is named for them. A rookery exists amongst most of the coves along the rugged coastline with the great stone outcroppings. But here they come because some amongst them have relatives that walk on two legs.

8

᚛ᚇᚓᚂᚔᚃᚓᚏᚐᚅᚉᚓ᚜

DELIVERANCE

BLACK ANNIS

Mercy hid the better part of a day and a night, hungry and cold and without any plan at all. Hid well beyond the sea wall where traffic or pedestrians might notice her, perhaps ask questions. She had no idea if the nuns sent out hunters for runaways, but she thought they would, and Mercy was not of a look to blend in. Out amongst the dunes with their feathery grasses and the threat of plover attack. She clearly had not thought this through. Autumn had always been her favorite time of year. The smell of things breaking down. The smoke in the air, the rot of leaves as they become earth. The air ripping at the scents that summer hid for so long, within her swift-moving, quickly-spent brightness. She’d heard squirrels in the rowan trees, the oak trees, all that remained of a once-forest. Heard them and heard owls. Heard ravens and rooks like at no other time of year. Knew their preparations. Could almost make out the words. And it never occurred to her that other people did not.

But right now, out here, the only hint that autumn was her friend was the bull kelp gluggle, a noise she knew well as the shoreline summoned it into the shallows for warmth. And who are you, she thought, as the heads of seals came above the froth and roil, one after another, simply to vanish beneath. All looking towards the shore. Almost, she thought, looking right at me. Mercy felt afraid then. Not of the air, not of the grey of rain that plastered her hair to her head and fell from her eyelashes, not of the smells and sounds she had lived her life by, but of how little she knew. Cloistered and imprisoned, there was now no wall to keep her spirit in. The bigness of everything was overwhelming.

‘You lost, mo chroí?’

Mercy near jumped out of her skin as she uncoiled towards the voice.

Black Annis was only five yards away. Had somehow managed to get so close without a sound, without a smell. Short and thin, her hair shaved into intricate swirling patterns, eyes the color of yellow, amber-dappled hazel. Faded tattoos on her chin. Leg-hugging dirty jeans and a duffel coat two sizes too large. Bare feet. Gloves with the tips bitten off. She looked to be about sixteen till eye contact. Then it was anyone’s guess. She smiled at Mercy in an attempt to calm her, but the exposure of teeth only frightened the girl more because Black Annis’ incisors were longer and sharper than those of anyone she’d ever known at Our Ladys.

‘Don’t run,’ Annis whispered. ‘I can help. I know what you are, and I know where you’re from.’

Mercy didn’t move. Didn’t know what to do.

‘You feel pretty fuckin stupid about now I’m guessing.’ Black Annis frowned to hide her smile and squatted, holding out an ornate silver hip-flask. ‘Here.’

‘What is it?’

‘Uiske beatha. Waters of life. It’s medicinal.’

Mercy took the flask and unstoppered it. She smelled it and recoiled.

‘You don’t smell the fuckin stuff, do you? You’ll never get it down. Hold your breath and gulp it.’

Mercy did. And it almost sucked the air out of her lungs it burned so strongly. Eyes as wide

as the wingspan of a lark, she recoiled from Black Annis in fear. For a moment. Until the whisky blasted through her bloodstream like bullets of sunshine. This time both of them grinned and Mercy was no longer afraid.

‘Give it here,’ said Annis holding out her hand. ‘One’s enough for you. What’s yer name?’

‘Mercy.’

‘Mercy. Is that a name or are you begging me for more?’

‘Mercy Riley.’

‘Ah. Well, I’m known as Black Annis.’

‘Known as?’

‘Sort of the same as having a name but I’ve never had a name, so I’m known as Black Annis. Semantics. I didn’t think they taught you a fucking thing in the women’s prison.’

‘It’s not a prison.’

‘Then why did you escape? And what’s the plan? Look at you. They’ll find you. They’ll take you back. Do you believe the shite they taught you about god, with a big jee, and his only begotten son then?’

‘What?’

‘The dead body and nails and the blood? And his mother being a virgin and all?’

‘No.’

‘Can you elaborate?’

‘No.’

‘Fair enough. I’m soft. You can come with me to the others. We won’t dob you in.’

‘What’s dob you in?’

Black Annis wiped the lip of the flask with her gloved hand, taking a long draft, screwing

the lid back in place and pocketing it, like a vanishing trick, somewhere deep inside the folds of her jacket.

‘Tell the authorities where you are. We won’t.’

‘Where are we going and who are the others?’

‘To the island soon enough. Up to our camp at the apple tree till then, make you disappear. Here.’

She pulled a brown and shapeless wool beanie from one of her pockets and thrust it forward.

‘We’ll go around the village but keep to my side. They won’t come near without an invitation, promise you.’

Mercy covered her hair with the offering, stood, and brushed the sand from her uniform.

‘For fuck’s sake,’ repeated Annis, frustrated. Unbuttoning her coat and tugging it off, revealing a thick shabby sweater that made the Traveler woman look fat around her middle, but spindle thin everywhere else. She helped Mercy into the cave of each sleeve, putting arms around her and holding her close. Summoning a sensation Mercy did not recognize.

‘And say goodbye to your relatives, mo chroí. It’s not nice to be impolite.’

‘What?’

Black Annis tilted her chin towards the still-curious heads of the seals bobbing up and down in the rolling sea.

‘Um—’

‘Just do it. Everything in its time and place, Mercy.’

Mercy looked back over her shoulder, staggering a little in the boggy sand and the deep coat, and waved. Every one of them dropped beneath the surface and was gone. Just like that.

8

ᚂᚑᚃᚓ ᚈᚆᚓ ᚂᚐᚅᚌᚒᚐᚌᚓ ᚑᚃ ᚈᚏᚓᚓ ᚓᚐᚏᚈᚆ ᚐᚅᚇ ᚔᚂᚇᚅᚓᚄᚄ

LOVE, THE LANGUAGE OF TREE, EARTH AND WILDNESS

ONCE UPON A TIME CONTINUED

The two made their way with the darkening sky that was inches above their heads. Clouds like islands rolled in from the western sea. The wind picked up and tore at Mercy, stinging her face with sand and danger. Who was she with? What was that about spells? What work of the devil had trapped her? Had she run away from that terrible place to become a victim of another evil?

She was mentally at war, yet she walked with Black Annis who did not slow her pace even when the sky broke and Mercy thought she would drown on the land. Not in her entire life had she been outside when it rained. You’ll catch yer death. If there was washing to be brought in and the women were caught unawares it was left to the older penitents to brave a drenching. And some did die. Hacking their lungs out in the night. Whisked away by the nuns. Nobody said anything. Legend had it that when any of the women died they were returned to their families for a decent burial. Not true.

So, Mercy began to pray under her breath. ‘Hail Mary full of grace—’

‘Are you a liar after all, Mercy Riley?’

And again Mercy was afraid because of the flint and ice in the other’s whisper.

‘Sorry. Yer orrite. I won’t hurt you,’ Annis said quietly, head down.

She took Mercy in a great hug. ‘You’ll learn. Not your time to die. Might never be, neither. Almost there. Look now.’

Up ahead was a field with only one tree. Wide-limbed and skeletal. Almost human. Branches and trunk bearded in yellow and rust-red lichens; moss too green to be looked at for long, where the trunk met the soil. Couties in the lower branches. Every color. Some so old they were grey gossamer rags. And big old cars and mobile homes. A transit van or two that had once been rustless, some with windows in the back with faces in the shadows. A big old faded red double-decker bus with lace curtains and a riot of culinary herbs huddled inside oddly assorted wooden crates at the bottom of the back stairs. The vehicles formed a ring around the camp and a hearth still burned in the center of the open ground. One person, holding a wide black umbrella was sitting in a director’s chair, spread legged in an old man’s pants, their gender eluding Mercy until a sleeve rolled up revealing a delicate wrist. This woman added split logs that hissed and spat as they landed, sending up sparks and ash. She stoked at the embers and moved the already-steaming iron kettle deeper into the coals.

The rain switched itself off as abruptly as it had dumped down. And as Annis and Mercy approached, one by one other people began gathering at the hearth. Nobody spoke. The woman holding the black umbrella closed it. She looked directly at Mercy.

Brighid appeared to be anywhere from forty to seventy years old. It was hard to tell as something seemed to adapt and change with every blink. Her hair, black as crows’ wings, had been worked into intricate small braids every one of which ended with a bronze ring. Skin, as luminescent as pearl, a landscape of old scars and feathery lines of both laughter and grief. Almost completely patterned with faded tattoos of whorls and spirals, bird and beast of the forest inked here and there with one story or another, all linked. Her forehead was lined with Ogham script as though that of an ancient parchment meant to be read before humans stood upright. Her eyes were as white as winter. Mercy wondered momentarily if she was blind. Only for a moment though as that pale gaze immediately pinned her. Trapped her so she could not look away.

‘Brought your dinner back alive did you, Annis?’

‘Stop it. She’s frightened enough as it is. Mercy, this is Brighid.’

Annis pulled the beanie from Mercy’s head in one fluid moment.

‘See?’

‘Oh,’ and Brighid sat slowly upright. ‘Unexpected, this.’

‘What’s happening please?’ Mercy grabbed the ragged hat, feeling naked before the older woman.

‘Gonna need spells to keep her hidden, see?’

‘Where’s she from?’

‘I’m right here. You can ask me if you want to know anything about me.’

‘That you are. And you’re as wet as the sea. Come back when you’re better prepared to speak to me.’

Fuck, mouthed Annis, dragging Mercy towards the bus.

Mercy watched as ten or more people strode towards the fire in the company of dogs, of every shape and size. The strangers, exotic and peculiar. All of them. Mercy was ensorcelled. Something romantically familiar about many of them. They dressed like certain people in the picture books that had been read to her when she was small. Old books. Dick Whittington, At the Back of the North Wind and Dealings with the Fairies. David Copperfield. The Owl and the Pussycat, Puss in Boots, Cinderella, King of the Golden River. Mad mixes. Lace and jeans and top hats and earrings. Big leather coats and baggy pants with steel-capped boots or ones that went to the thigh that looked embroidered with stories like on a tapestry. All were tattooed in various stages of Brighidness. Nothing like the women and men in Cosmopolitan. Marie Claire. Woman’s Weekly. But they all smiled at her.

Annis, pulling at the front door of the bus, was beaten to it by the tall dark, dangerously beautiful man, in kneeless denim jeans and a thick Aran sweater under a ragged-cuffed pea-jacket. He dropped back the hood and stared, open-mouthed, at Mercy. His hair plaited into two braids, black and thick. The upright lines between his eyebrows made him look angry despite the unnerving black of the irises of his eyes. He blocked the door. Then he rounded on Annis.

‘Fookin stranger, is it? And a fookin child?’

‘Fuck off Raven. She needs help.’

‘And I’m not a child so fuck off yourself,’ brazened Mercy, her eyes glaring but her heart pounding.

‘Keep her hidden lest the cops come sniffin about before we move camp.’

‘Mind yourself, you,’ Annis warned. ‘Brighid’s going to fix it so she gets unseeable.’ She paused in her explanation when she realized what his scent meant. What those feral eyes mean. ‘Please don’t go again.’

‘I never came back, Annis. It’s a ghost, I am. Tell Hunter I’m sorry.’ He pushed past, shouldering a pack and a bodhràn in a tattery leather case. He headed for the gravel in the distance. He left a smell in his wake. Loam, was it? Or peat? Or the pelt of some animal? Mercy didn’t know what it was, but the effect he’d had shocked her. Her knees were liquid and she wanted to touch him.

Inside was like a home. With beds and side tables, suitcases and trunks, and mirrors. Lamps and a guitar and a piano accordion. A harp of old oak. Ornaments on shelves loaded with books. An astrolabe in a nook. Rolled up scrolls and bowls of jewelry that might or might not have been precious. Eiderdowns and ceramic ducks and cooking utensils, plates and cutlery, neat rows of boots at the back towards the stairs. Bottles of whiskey and plates of half-eaten food. A pile of newspapers. A radio.

‘This is my section.’ Annis pulled a cream leather trunk with brown corner supports from beside one of the mattresses. She opened it. Nothing was folded. ‘Pick what you like.’

‘It’s all a ‘tangle.’

Won’t be, once you wear it, though, I don’t want it back so I’m freely giving you whatever you choose.’

‘Okay. I think you’re weird Annis.’

‘Met a lot of people like me in the fucking lour tower, have you? Enough to have an opinion, is it?’

‘Don’t be cross.’

‘I’m not cross. I don’t get cross. I’ve got a lot of work to do with you, you know. Strip.’

She threw her a towel.

‘Um—?’

‘No one’s coming. I’d smell em. So, strip.’

Mercy took off the coat, quite dripping, and handed it to the faerie. She hung it over the railing that led upstairs. Annis reached into the pile and grabbed jeans, a big grey sweater and a pair of woolen socks. ‘What about these then?’

‘Can I have some undies?’

‘What?’

‘Undies. Can I have some underpants and a bra?’

‘A bra?’

She looked at the thin girl with the flat chest and the next-to-nothing hips and growled to prevent laughter.

‘Got knickers. You alright with knickers?’ And she opened the bottom drawer, of a set of drawers made of walnut wood with a fine polish and tiny brass fittings and pulled out panties. Slipper satin with hand-embroidered lace edging.

‘I’ve collected them because I like pretty things. Never wore em. Never wear pretty things, like cats never eat the quarry they kill. By way of explanation, in case you need one. Just collect them. Here.’ And she handed them to Mercy. ‘Now get those bloody wet things off or you’ll catch your death.’

‘Can you turn around or go outside, please?’

‘Fer feck’s sake.’ But she turned her back anyway and pulled up a stool.

‘What did you mean before about work to do?’

Mercy unpeeled the sodden uniform, pulled off the wet petticoat, unclipped the next-to-nothing cotton bra, slid off her underpants, and roughly dried her body as Annis thought about how to explain.

She sat on the stool with her back to Mercy and rested her head on her arms on the windowsill, contemplating. It would be dark soon. Time to go to the pub and play a few tunes.

‘What do you believe in?’ she asked, to break the silence.

‘What? Nothing.’

Mercy got the jeans done up and sat on the mattress for the socks as her feet were like ice. ‘I do the prayers like I was taught and listen to all the stories they told us but no. Not a word of it. Things happened to me there.’

‘What things?’

After she pulled on the sweater that was miles too big, she rolled up the sleeves, relishing in the unfamiliarity of everything.

‘Don’t really want to say much but it meant everything they told me was a lie if they could hurt me for doing nothing.’ She paused, seeing another pair of mittens the same as Black Annis wore. ‘Can I have these?’

‘Can I turn around so I know what you want?’

‘Yes.’

‘Yes.’

‘I believe in badness,’ Mercy continued, donning the gloves and flexing her fingers. ‘How’s that then? Is that a good enough answer?’

She bent double and rubbed at her hair till it stuck out at all angles.

Annis’ mind was a whirl. At the way Mercy answered her. At the way she thought.

What have you got here then, ya fookin faerie, she thought. More interesting than simply being a mortal, that was certain.

When they returned to the fire outside there was no sign of Raven. Annis knew he was in love again and he always runs when that happens.

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