I had to make a quick call. The bag strap stuffed in my pocket was a sling but I wasn’t sure I could dig out and arm it with the right payload in time to launch it with useful effect. Instead I reached into my kit bag, dropping it to the floor to reveal the sword now in my right hand. That had their eyes widening, and more than from the foxfire.
I don’t keep it particularly sharp for the same reason I carry a sword rather than a knife: I can pass it off as recreational were I to be searched by the authorities.
(Only happened the once. It went okay except that the damned plod in question took the time to radio it in and used the word ‘larper’ as often as he could despite my solidly expressed and repeated insistence that I was a re-enactor (the misrepresentation of myself I found the more palatable). I was close to calling him a dickhead in order to establish a scale of accuracy for further dialogue but decided against it. That’s me, diplomatic to a fault.)
Anyway the sword was rather longer than their knives and with my human length arms they were going to have a considerably tougher time getting at me, even en masse. And it was made of iron, cold iron, and on this the folklore is spot on. Otherkind really do not like it.
‘Hold it,’ Charlie rasped to the more skittish of his crew. ‘E’s all alone an’ en’t none of that Company goin’ to give a crap if ‘e e’nt comin’ back. And the package s’worth plenty.
‘Spread. Spread round ‘im an’ e’ll be crappin’ it.’
Oh Charlie knew what he was doing. If they could get behind me or press me to the wall I’d be in trouble. Goblins may lack reach but they’re damn quick and damn sneaky…
‘Eel: lefty-sinister. Nik: righty-dex…’
‘AAAARGH!’ I articulated, charging straight at them with sword raised in a high guard before any had taken more than a few steps. Course then they were legging it as fast as bloody possible… most of them anyway. Charlie and Eel (who I gathered was the beanpole) stayed put, at least until the last few seconds when they scarpered as well.
I nearly tripped over Travers.
I got quickly to work on the rope that bound him with the bronze knife one had dropped, keeping my sword up ready in one hand. The goblins began to collect their wits, turning round after their flight. Shortly they’d realise they’d got me surrounded after all. The one plus side was that releasing Travers was a step in the right direction, a step towards ending this one way or another; also that, however scared he was he could at least cover a few of them with the knife I’d acquired. And something told me they wanted him in one piece…
‘What the… what the f…’ Travers began.
‘I’m Marwood. This is a knife. Take the knife Aidan. Take the knife, get up, and stay behind me.’
‘Holy Mary…’ Aidan said taking in the scene.
‘We’re going to get you out of this.’
‘This is fucking mental.’
Nik and Eel and the others were edging round and closer but, of more immediate concern, was the look I saw Charlie give another and what that other was now doing. Maybe Charlie was the brains and some others the brawn, but it seemed this one had a few magics of his own. I could feel he was doing something just as I could hear it, some kind of curse: a befuddlement at least if not some less pleasant kind of enchantment. I was damn grateful right then that I’d been drilled with at least some basic counters with fae magic in mind. I handed Aidan my sword and got to it.
‘Bind ‘im,’ Charlie demanded.
‘Ee’s slippery, Chompin’ Charlie,’ the goblin gurgled, ‘sneak-slippery…’
My fingers curled and straightened, touched tips and came apart as I felt the flow and intuited the most useful retorts to the little bastard’s spell-bindings. Gestures in working magic can certainly help; we tend to use them though they aren’t strictly necessary.
But right then they seemed to be making all the difference. I could feel the contest as an abstract pressure in my hands and fingers and I sensed how to press back rather than just defending myself. My right digits began to lock into something someway to that arrangement that shadowcasts a duck on the wall but I didn’t let that bother me. It felt… appropriate – and I could feel advantage build.
‘Daaaah,’ the goblin scorned, though in a more strained fashion. ‘Yer e’nt gettin’ nowhere with that hedgey… And me pals… me pals’re gettin’ round yer both.’
‘Don’t mark ‘im,’ Charlie urged his goons, doubtless with reference to Travers rather than me (joy). ‘Missis won’t like it if e’s cut.’
Right then I was too busy to think about what Charlie was saying. I was aware of Aidan was waving my sword, inexpertly but effectively – I couldn’t see it but thought I could feel it, iron moving through an air unfamiliar with its presence. But the fact that the encircling goblins were hamstrung rather by Charlie’s edict meant I could focus more on my immediate problem. I pressed the binder again.
‘S’not bad wizard… But y’en’t… getting me like that… Y’ent got me calling, me name…’
‘Well,’ I began, bringing forth that oh-so recent early memory of him waving his stiletto at me. ‘Then I’ll name you. I name you Mack, Mack the Knife. I back-bind you in that name, by oak, by ash and by thorn: Back-bound, broke and beat.’
I hadn’t a clue who Mack the Knife was (only that that bloke from Take That covered it) and the rest of it just came to me. But judging by the expression on Mack’s face it seemed to have done the job. Like I say bluff has its own magic in this place. I held my fingers as they were and (it seemed like the thing to do) sliced my hand thrice through the air, towards him with the last cut. Mack took a step back, astonishment plastered across his face.
‘Wossit… wossit do to I Chompin’ Charlie?’ he faltered, ‘Wossit do?’
‘Get the wizard!’ Charlie demanded as Mack dropped despondently to the floor. ‘Dancer-boy en’t going nowhere!’
‘We prefer magician,’ I retorted grabbing back my sword, ‘as it happens.’
I kicked one of the smaller ones before it could get a stab in. It went a satisfying distance and Aidan took my lead to do the same to the one called Nik. Three-ish down. Better odds. Nowhere near over.
‘What do you reckon Charlie?’ I addressed the brains while swinging a warning stroke back at Eel who I’d caught edging towards us in the corner of my eye. ‘Call it quits?’
Charlie looked unsure. The fight was still in him but he was taking stock.
‘Aidan listen to me,’ I whispered, ‘can you see my kit bag? Okay, we’re going to move over towards it, right? Slowly. Now…’
I had the smallest sense there was a remnant of the way through to Soho-normal, back the way we’d come. If so…
Charlie didn’t look like he’d given up on his prize just yet though and I gave warning flicks of cold iron to any goblin that looked like it might fancy its chances as we moved.
‘Marwood,’ said Travers, ‘Marwood, can you hear… horses?’
Now he mentioned it I could and so could the koboloi. Through those distant half-remembered notes of a good old music hall knees-up grew a freeform clatter of hooves on stone, accompanied perhaps by an afterthought echo of bullshit poetry and whispered jazz.
Through the lingering fog a hansom cab burst.
The horses were reined in noiselessly by the driver on the sprung seat behind, a frozen thin-limbed man-shaped scarecrow in beret and scarf and black roll-neck. He remained unmoving. After moments the door opened and the scent of parks and cut grass, garlic, coffee and car exhaust reached and churned in my mind, perfume against the faint odours of frying onions, and of retched alcohol and alleyway debauchery, of human effluence dried by an absent sun.
This would be the individual to whom the koboloi, now prostrating themselves in varying degrees and styles of fawning, had been bringing Aidan Travers. Maybe the real-world market had influenced the nature of this place, centuries of barrow-barter and exchange seeping through to make it auspicious for deals and trades regardless of how tangible the currency or commodity. The discomfiting warmth seemed to clench and my blood ran cold.
Her attire spoke of mad kings and unexpected queens: a pastel yellow muslin gown over a terracotta skirt, its cut revealing a pressed cleave of bosom. She hoisted her skirts in hands covered by long silk gloves as she stepped out and down (we got a shameless eyeful of ankle beneath, and what I was half-sure were a pair of Nikes). Her hair, scandalously uncovered, was the colour of never-seen corn sung of at the harvest festivals of inner-city schools, crayon golden; her skin was of peaches-and-cream, brick-buff and soiled alabaster.
‘Marwood,’ Aidan gasped, ‘I think I… I think I know her. She’s come to the ballet – three times at least. I can’t… I just… don’t know if I saw her then or… or if I’m just remembering her now. But I can see her there in the audience, clear as now: watching me.’
Oh fuck. Fucking fucking fuck.
Fuck on toast.
It was beginning to make sense, a pretty scary and now rather obvious sense.
This was fae aristocracy, at least I guessed it was – what passed for it round here anyway. With koboloi I mostly knew what I was doing, black shucks and trolls and spirits likewise. But this was totally off-script.
‘Evenin’ missis,’ Chomping Charlie gushed, coming upright and bowing again with a flourish. ‘We brought ‘im, the dancer-boy; just like yer arksed missis.’
‘Do not call me missis Chomping Charlie; not now, not ever.’ Charlie wasn’t looking quite so full of himself under her glare. ‘Moreover, I did not ask you to kidnap a mortal and bring him here.’
‘But… but you sez to brings ‘im mi… milady, and ‘ow gratefuls y’d be to oo would does it…’
She’d taken out a fan to wave which now she snapped shut. She jabbed the end under Charlie’s chin and pulled upwards.
‘I little goblin? I said nothing of the sort.’
‘Marwood,’ Aidan whispered, ‘can you tell me what the fuck’s going on?’
‘She likes you,’ I said after a moment.
‘But… I’m gay.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Maybe a guy – or a girl – is inclined to get freaky with her… maybe they’re not. They can’t change you like that, not if it’s not there already. They wouldn’t want to anyway. What her kind are after is… intensity. I imagine centuries of consciousness can lead to… boredom… ennui. They fall in love with mortals. Can be anyone really, just some random thing about a certain someone that sparks something in their… soul. But they tend to get bored rather easily.
‘Now someone with art, well that’s different. Art is sex to them, a drug. She’s seen you perform. She’s not after your body. She thinks she’s in love with you. But you’re her drug of choice; to her you’re a balletic motherlode of Columbian freebase.’
She strode through the prostrate koboloi (treading only on one) addressing them all in a voice that somehow combined Tara Palmer-Tomkinson with Eliza Doolittle after Henry Higgins had done his bit, all with a bit of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction lurking in the background.
‘We do not kidnap mortals,’ she chastised, possibly for my ‘benefit’ though she’d yet to acknowledge my presence. ‘We do not break the accords. I merely mused on what a happy chance it would be for a mortal of such art and spirit to be encountered; for we could offer them a life of art and pleasure in exchange for the simple pleasure of their company for the duration.’
‘See,’ I whispered to Aidan, ‘If she’d ordered them to kidnap you as she surely wanted she’d be breaking the rules. She wouldn’t do that – maybe can’t. The accords are as binding as chains of iron to their kind. Instead she’s nudged them to do the job so they’re in the firing line if they cock it up.’
‘So… what happens now?’
‘She offers you exactly what she said and the chances are you’d take it. They can’t make you do anything but they can be very convincing.’
‘A… life of pleasure… and art? I could think of worse things…’
‘Yeah, I hear heroin’s quite good fun as well. But even if I could afford the habit it’s hard to believe I’d make the choice to spend the rest of my life befuddled and half-aware and not giving a damn about who I am or anyone I’ve cared for because there may have been a worse option.’
Aidan had been watching her admonish the koboloi up to that point.
Getting it, now he looked at me.
Then she looked at us.
She didn’t move though it was as if she had, like the zooming refocusing of a camera, she shooting forward to fill your field of view, fierce in seeming and wrathful in intent should her will to be thwarted.
So it was a good job I wasn’t here to thwart her.
Wait – no that was exactly what I was here for.
Back in the old days, back when I ran with the old crew, this was the point someone would say something suitably righteous like “we’re going to kick your arse”. Or “your reign of terror is over you complete tosser”. Or – reserved for the most heinous wrongdoers of all and never uttered without good reason: “Brian Blessed does not like you – and he never will.”
But I wasn’t with the old crew, or any crew for that matter. And this was a member of urban fae aristocracy – that was a game-changer and even I know when to put the smart mouth and wise-cracks aside. Yes I do. Mostly. Sometimes. Well then anyway.
What I had by way of training was kicking in and an apotropaic incantation mumbled itself through my lips. I worked it as close to perfect as it could be, laying down some esoteric defences and markers around us; enough for a bluff but not so much as to be an outright challenge. That rushing vision of supernormal beauty became terrible, cruelty and malice writ across a face you could worship, whose retribution you’d welcome as deserved and just, coming ever closer but never arriving…