Fourty minutes before dawn, Henry stops the car by the graveyard fence. The barest hint of grey is touching the eastern sky and aside from one early riser walking a large dog, the streets appear deserted. There are certainly none of the Lost still abroad.
The graveyard itself is as silent as befits its nature. Only two changelings remain outside the gate – Sebandus stands on guard and offers a strained smile as the motley enter the gate, while Jack O’Nine Tails smirks viciously but also says nothing. At least until the Gentlemen have just past him by, when a sudden “Boo!” is followed by a nasty cackle.
Inside the gate, much of the market has closed and gone – stalls and small huts alike vanishing to wherever the hobs come from. One or two stragglers remain, hastily piling unsold goods into barrows, one pair loading a large box covered by heavy cloth onto an open wagon.
The clearing where Jack sang is entirely devoid of hobs save for the tailor and his booth at the far side, where he sits at a table apparently polishing buttons on Jack’s jacket. The centre of the clearing, however, is far from empty. A extensive picnic has been laid out atop what appears to be a large Persian rug. Three dishevelled figures, one male and two female, dressed in little more than the rags of what may once have been expensive attire are hard at work consuming the rich food, while La Belle Dame sits on what could only be considered a throne watching them and facing the Gentlemen as they arrive, her back to the tailor.
“Welcome, Algernon. Won’t you and your friends have something to eat while we wait for your tailor to finish?”
Having spent the last few hours plucking up dutch courage and steeling his nerve, Jack just about retains control as he confronts his former Keeper. The inhuman torment and torture at her hand remains as a vivid scar upon his soul after their recent meeting but it is now covered by a bandage of resolve and determination. Forcing himself to maintain an expression of mild interest and gentlemanly civility he replies.
“Unfortunately not, my dear. I know what happens when I accept one of your invitations. A mistake I do not intend to make a second time.” He glances down at the poor souls at her feet and a flash of recognition mixed with extreme sympathy and guilt overcomes him – names still elude him but these wretched figures were his fellow captives. He tears his gaze away and turns to the Hob.
“I see you recognise your fellows, my dear Algernon, my pet. Won’t you say hello to them? I’m sure they miss you – Graham even calls out your name in his nightmares, cursing you. The poor boy has been filling in for you since you left, his punishment for letting you escape and not having the sense to follow.”
“I will not play your games Madam.”
“My dearest boy, after nearly one hundred years by my side you should know that everyone plays my games, whether they want to or not.” The words are soft, but the tone is menacing. “I will give you a gift, if you return to me. Graham, perhaps – I will let him go. Or Sarah, if you prefer, or even little Jessica.”
Jack gives her a sad smile. “Very clever. You know what strings to pull, but sadly it will not work; I can smell your fear from here. I escaped, they know that. It is only a matter of time before they follow. You want me back to make an example of me, to ensure they remain subservient to your whims. I am no longer yours to command.” Jack turns to the hob. “Is the suit ready friend? I have a pressing . . . engagement.” He placed an emphasis on the last word.
The hob looks up at Jack and seems to be about to speak before the Dame raises her hand slightly without even turning to look at him. The hob falls instantly silent, returning to his work polishing the buttons.
“You may have your suit when we are done – you can wear it back to my bower.” The Belle Dame’s smile twists slightly before she continues, “I need not fear them leaving, Algernon. They love me. And they love each other. Graham’s duties for letting you escape are nothing compared to the suffering of Elizabeth – There was definitely an Elizabeth too, Jack recalls; she had dark hair and cried when she remembered her family – so I need not trust to their love of me alone to hold them any longer. You taught them to depend on one another, didn’t you, Algie, and now they do. Jessica, for example, depends on Sarah to give me no reason to wear her skin for a season. I should thank you for that, but I have no fear of them following your example.
“Are you sure you won’t come back to be with them once more?”
With his anger barely held in check Jack reaches for the suit and manages to smile at the Hob. “Thank you, it appears to be a fine piece of work. It has been a pleasure doing business with you.” Bundling the suit under his arm he turns towards the exit. “Good day to you Madam,” and starts to walk away from her.
The Hob instantly begins to pack his goods with surprising speed, the entire hut folding down into smaller boxes which he hefts onto a long, low barrow.
The Belle Dame calls out to Jack as he and the Gentlemen make their way out of the clearing and towards the exit. “I know where you are now, Jack Squire, and one day soon you WILL come to me willingly!”
Jack sets a fast pace out of The Hedge, but not too fast to appear panicked. Within moments The Gentlemen are back in the graveyard and heading towards the waiting car. Jack smiles unconvincingly at his friends concerned faces. “Well, it could have been a lot worse.”
* * *
Jack closes the door of his office behind him and finally drops the blasé facade he maintained throughout the morning while he and his Motley discussed the events at the market. He pours himself a large glass of rum and after taking a sip holds the cool glass to his forehead. How could this have happened? After all this time she had caught up with him and now knew where he was. So much had come flooding back today, so much was clearer than it had been since the day he escaped. How he wished it hadn’t.
As he closed his eyes he could almost see the pain on the faces of the other captives and knew instantly the anguish they felt at being held in the clutches of that she-devil, but worse even that that was the realisation that the pain had been mixed with a sickeningly devoted pleasure.
Seeing the new suit hanging up on the bookshelf Jack steps over and feels the new golden stitching. “You had better be worth it.” Jack walks over to his desk and sits down. He dials a number on his phone, one he knows by heart…
* * *
Jack wakes the next morning as the sun blasts through his bedroom window, his senses overwhelmed by the scent of sweet, fresh flowers. He opens his eyes to find an alabaster shoulder protruding from the petal strewn sheets, nestled beneath blossoming hair the colour of dark rich earth. He pulls Lily close, the memories of day before temporarily banished…