Blanche wanders through the main bar of the pub one morning having spent the past hour or so up in Jack’s office discussing Spring business. Spotting Shae sitting on a table over to one side trying to take in the newspaper she checks her watch and heads over.
“Do you mind if I join you, Shae? I thought I’d see how you were getting along after our last meeting.”
Shae looks up and then pushes the paper to one side. “Of course not. Please, have a seat.” He smiles broadly, hiding his slight nervousness. “How are you this morning?”
“Oh, not too bad. Which is to say not too busy, but still busy enough to give life meaning. I generally find that having something to do with my time makes the past seem that much easier to bear. Do you find the same is true for you?”
“I wish I could say that I remember my past.” Shae perks up. “But it does keep me from becoming bored. I’m grateful that Jack let’s me work round here. Keeps me busy enough.”
“Even so, I expect you’d like to find something that is your own to focus on once you’re more settled?”
“Yes, I would.” Shae replies without hesitation, he then pauses, taken back by his own reply. “I mean… I’m grateful to Jack for what he has done for me and all, but I feel like I am missing something.” He looks up at Blanche. “Almost like I am still running.”
“Some of our kind never stop running, Shae. But I feel that to run, to hide, to let what happened dominate our lives is a mistake. Once free of them, we are our own people once again. Why should we let our anger at them, and our fear of them dominate our lives still? And once we accept that we have lost that which we had before, then surely it makes more sense to find new enjoyment in the life that remains?”
“So move on and do what I feel is good for me? The past is irrelevant?”
“The past is important, but you can’t change it and shouldn’t dwell on it to the point that it dictates your actions going forward. Far healthier for you to find a new source, or sources, of inspiration around which to build your new life. Or reclaim an old passion and live it anew if you so choose. But either way you said yourself that it helps to stay busy and make your life your own.”
“But I don’t even know my past or where to begin to learn of it.”
“If that is what motivates you right now then I might be able to find someone who can help you.”
“I want to discover it, but at the same time, I’m not sure if I do. I heard that sometimes, it can be a bad thing to rediscover. Too difficult to get over emotionally.”
“It can. You might find, for example, that you have a wife and children, that a fetch has taken your life and for any number of reasons you cannot hope to take it back. Is that something you would be prepared to risk? Winter would have you wallow in that despair, Spring offers the alternative of a new life built around new passions.”
“So Spring will be more supportive of me?”
“We are the truest family that the Lost can know, and we support each other whatever our individual differences.”
“I’ve seen how everyone has quite a bond with Jack. How do the other courts come into it all? Like DJ. He’s not Spring, but is very close.”
“DJ has a lot of the Spring spirit about him – plenty of passion – and in spite of his Summer connections I believe that Lord Greene still has hope that DJ might come over to us in due course. The bonds between Spring and Summer in this Freehold are strong regardless, and I believe Jack is as well regarded by them as DJ is by us, if not more so.”
“How is the relationship with Autumn and Winter?”
Blanche smiles slightly before answering. “Autumn usually keep to themselves. I believe they consider themselves somewhat above the other courts. They don’t actively maintain a distance, they send just enough people to just enough functions to remain polite, and we do much the same during their rule, although many of their more particular festivities are private. They seem to thrive on the mystery of their reputation. As for Winter, well, there are only a few of them and they actively stay out of everyone’s way. If Autumn is the polite neighbour who always says ‘good morning’ but whose name you can never quite recall, then Winter is the shady neighbour who keeps his curtain closed at all times.”
Shae seems to become distant as he thinks to himself so Blanche makes her excuses and leaves.
* * *
One evening spending time with the bridge guard a week or so after the encounter with the Mist, Sara Slate sits down beside Shae, offers him a can of cider (it was DJ’s turn to buy and he still has trouble with lager, although can now manage to drink it if offered).
Leaning on the low wall and looking out over the river, she asks, “You seem to enjoy hanging out with the Guard, have you given any thought to joining us properly?
Shae takes the can of cider and takes a long draught. “It’s been fun. DJ does make me a bit nervous sometimes. But…” He pauses and considers his thoughts a moment. “He knows how to stand his ground.”
“Yes, he does. DJ is a natural Summer courtier really – he’ll stand his ground on any issue without fear or hesitation, and he’ll never let himself become a victim again. Not all of us find that courage so easy to come by, of course, but I feel it’s worth pursuing. Better to stand up in the fullness of our fury and face the danger than to go to our graves cowering, don’t you think?
“Yes… I suppose so.” Shae takes another draught of his drink. “I never want to run again as I did that night. I won’t ever again. As DJ says, square up and punch it.” Shae gives a quick laugh at the thought of DJ shouting at the mist then brings his drink up to his mouth.
“‘Square up and punch it’ yes! But it helps to have the confidence to do so, and the skill to carry it off when facing something more threatening than fog. Many of our kind would like to stand up for themselves, but few actually can.”
“Thing is, I’m not as comfortable up front like DJ.” He turns to look at Sara. “The other night was incredible. And the way that DJ just jumps in… it makes me nervous. Does that sound stupid?”
“Nervous is never stupid, Shae. Quite the opposite – the graveyards are full of fearless men, but the pubs serve beer to men who show caution. There is a place for bravery in the face of a known threat but I’d rather put my trust in someone who isn’t in such a hurry to throw his life away without cause. It’s not the caution that should concern you, it’s what you can do when the need arises to put that caution aside, and you went into that fog after DJ when it mattered.”
Shae stands a bit taller and smiles. “I did, didn’t I? I didn’t really think about it.” He pauses and relaxes again. “But the feelings I get in my stomach. It makes me… it makes me feel like I need to get away sometimes. I almost collapsed in the fog because of it.”
Sara looks at Shae closely. “What causes these sensations, Shae? Is it fear or something else?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s fear.. ‘Least I didn’t feel scared. It’s more like a massive cramp or a kick in the guts. But it was the worst ever in the fog. Last time I felt it was when at the Market with Jack and the lady was there.” He looks at his can of cider. “I felt worse the closer to her I got.”
“Sounds like the thing that Tall Tom used to get,” Sara nods, thinking aloud. “They say that Tom could feel Them approaching so they never took him by surprise. If Tom was still around then maybe he could tell you more about it. I’m sure someone must know something, though, if you ask around.”
“I shall!” Shae could hardly conceal his excitement. “Thank you Sara.” He quickly finishes the rest of his drink. All thoughts now being of who he could go speak to.
* * *
A note arrives in the post one Tuesday morning addressed to Shae and inviting him to lunch at the Dulwich House that Friday. It is signed Artemis Bligh. In the note Artemis promises to send a cab for Shae if he is willing to attend.
And so it is that Shae finds himself deposited that Friday at twenty five minutes past midday in front of the Dulwich House, home to the Autumn court of the Southern Fields.
For details see Will’s earlier visit during Interlude One.
By the time Shae reaches the front door, knocks and is admitted by some sort of strange automaton which leads him, in jerky steps, down a corridor to a dining room over looking the rear garden.
Seated at the large table, at one of only two place settings, is Artemis Bligh, who stands to greet Shae when he enters. “Welcome. I hope you don’t mind me showing off my latest project” – he gestures towards the automaton – “but I made some amendments only yesterday and have been lacking an audience since. Please take a seat. Red or white?”
“I’ll have red if I may, please.” Shae makes his request as he takes his seat. “Your project looks very impressive.” Shae hides the fact that he doesn’t understand the automaton at all but is none-the-less impressed by it and watches it as it moves about.
“Thank you. I know that some of our kind find the idea of creating such toys disturbing. Those elementals unfortunate enough to have suffered at the hands of Keepers who favoured servants of artifice to those of pure flesh chief are among them, but others too draw parallels.” Artemis pours the wine himself rather than allowing his construct to do so. “I’ve always felt that testing our limits, our new limits I mean, is something we owe to ourselves in this new life, though. And if we go further in so doing than some of our more squeemish peers might prefer then that can only be their loss.”
Shae watches Artemis pour the wine. “I’m still learning what new limits i have before me now. I’ve discovered a few things, but I know it will take time.” He lifts his glass up and watches Artemis return to his own seat. “Thank you.” He brings his glass up close to his nose and inhales deeply of the wine as he waits for Artemis.
“To limits and surpassing them!” Artemis proposes the toast.
Shae returns the toast and takes a drink of his wine.
Once lunch has arrived, the Autumn courtier picks up the subject once again. “Of course, if one is to test limits and find ways to overcome them, it helps to have the support of those who have already undergone the process.”
“Well so far, I have the close support of Jack and DJ. They have both helped me.” He pauses and laughs. “At least I’ve been told that DJ is helping.”
“I can’t say that I know either of them well. Jack Squire seems like an ambitious young man, the sort that does well in Spring. As for your other friend, I understand that Summer has taken him in, which given his background doesn’t seem all that surprising, although I would have thought he’d be happier kow-towing to Sally then standing watch with Syud’s people around the river. But they both seem to overlook the simple fact that their existence has changed. They both strive to cling on to a familiar world and refuse to face the unknown, to face their fear, embrace it, and step boldly into a new world.” He pauses to let his words sink in before continuing in less dramatic tones, “We are not, and cannot ever be, what we once were. The only choice, it seems to me, is whether we confront that truth and all it entails, or whether we seek false comfort in familiar pursuits.”
“Is it somewhat better to not know what our past was then? Best not to try to find it again? Instead, to just move on with my life now, as it is?” He takes a deep breath. “Move on with life as it is now, don’t look back.” It was more a statement than a question.
“Whether you wish to know what your past was is a matter for you to decide. But that was a mortal past, and you are no longer that creature. Your soul is lost, torn away by the thorns, and what remains is the tattered remnants supported by a construct of pure Faerie magic. You should embrace your inhumanity and draw strength from it, that is the way forward. Not an easy road, to be sure, but for those who can endure it there is no better approach.”
Shae thinks for a moment before cautiously moving on. “I’m not sure how to yet.”
“Naturally not, but if you have the will then perhaps we can teach you.”
Shea smiles at this. With a slight eagerness, he responds. “I want to learn.”
“That’s always the most important step. Of course, the secrets we have to teach are not for everyone, and any prospective pupil of the Autumn court must be carefully assessed. We don’t waste our efforts on everyone who shows an interest, though, that you are here at all shows promise.”
“What would Autumn ask of me?”
“You must be prepared to devote yourself to your studies, and to proceed, if necessary, past the point of comfort. The power we can tap comes at a price, and many of our old customs and limitations must be willingly overcome. Not everyone is able to confront their fears and use that strength to become an object of fear themselves.”
“Well… I don’t know my limitations. Least, not that I am aware.” He takes a long drink of his wine, his food before him forgotten now. “If I can’t overcome my fears?”
“Then they will ultimately overcome you. And there will be a limit to what we can teach you. But fear of failure is a fear in itself. Confronting that fear, using it to give you strength in defiance of it is the very first step.”
Shae finishes his glass of wine. “I think that maybe it is best for me to find myself before I am ready for the Autumn court. Everything sounds right, but I need to be more sure before I begin. I don’t wish to fail… anyone.”
“Take your time, Shae, by all means. If the court of fear is right for you then you can seek us out when you are ready.”
Shae finishes off the last of his lunch and places his knife and fork together on the plate. “Thank you for the delicious lunch Artemis. And also, for your words. You have given me plenty to reflect on.”
* * *
Shae is helping out at the pub one evening, taking a pair of heavy black plastic bags out to the large bins behind the pub, when he becomes aware of a figure standing in the secluded spot.
Simon Sleet is a short swimmerskin beast with the sleek oily fur of an otter atop his head and in patches on his face in place of stubble, and a dark animal nose. “I hope you don’t mind me approaching you like this, but I was hoping that you would agree to speak privately with some friends of mine.”
Shae pauses for a brief moment and studies the figure before him. He deposits the bags into the bin and then turns back to the figure, moving into a darker spot himself. “I don’t mind.” He considers the figure a moment longer. “It’s Simon, right?”
“Right.” Simon extends a clammy, cold hand to Shae. “If you have a moment, come with me.” So saying, Simon Sleet sets off in a furtive dash away from the pub towards the nearby row of small terrace houses.
Shae looks back at the pub door, shrugs and then with a bit of a laugh, chooses to run after Simon.
Sleet slips down a narrow alleyway behind the houses, the path lined with bins but otherwise still tidy in this affluent area of London. Checking behind him to ensure that Shae is keeping up, he scurries to the end of the path and turns the corner into a slightly larger but still secluded space where he stops and turns to face Shae.
“It’s safe enough here, and safety is the greatest concern of our kind. We can never reclaim what was taken from us, but we can make sure that They don’t take anything else.” He pauses before continuing, “I understand that you have little memory of your life before Jack and his people found you?”
Shae nods as he catches his breath. “I have no memory and have yet to learn where to start.” Shae begins to look around the area where they have stopped.
Simon Sleet nods before continuing at a slight tangent, “Has anyone told you how few of our kind remain free of Them for long and never find the time to recover the memories they have lost?”
Shae looks back at Simon. “No.” He looks uncomfortable at the question. “What do you mean by not remain free? You mean taken back through the Hedge?”
“Not to put too blunt a point on it, yes. Most of the freehold like to convince themselves that they are safe, or at least pretend that’s the case, but the truth is that we lose people every year, especially those who are only recently returned and don’t yet know enough to protect themselves. It would be a scandal to admit it, but there are loyalists operating even in the Southern Fields. The only way to be safe is stay hidden, even from many of our own kind. Your friend Jack has a high profile, and look what that got him at the Market. Is that a risk you’re prepared to take?”
“Not at all.” Shae instinctively readjusts his hoodie to cover his face better. He looks back at Simon. “I… I think…” As he hesitantly proceeds, his face contorts slightly, before taking on a pale green hue. “I can keep myself hidden a bit. Maybe?” With a new recognisable guise, he smiles back at Simon.
“Perhaps you can at that,” Simon agrees with a smile, “But do you would be far safer with our support. All too often the more prominent courts use their influence to seduce new escapees, never explaining the dangers to them. But we like to offer security where we can, and once secure you can take the time to look back and recover what you have lost. And Winter can help you.”
“I like the sound of that.” Shae’s removes his disguise and wears on his face a broad smile. “Very much so.”
“Good. I must warn you that what we offer isn’t the easiest life. Safety comes at a price and you must be willing to step aside from the spotlight that your friends seem to relish, at least for now. Only a rare and brave few of our kind are granted full leave to operate openly with the freehold at large.”
The last words land hard on Shae and cause him to pause. “Do you mean by that that I’d have less to do with The Gentlemen as part of Winter?”
“That may be necessary. Many of us manage to maintain ties with friends in other courts, but most of the motleys are content to keep a lower profile than the Banksiders. Ask yourself, though, whether such a high profile is really in your own best interests. You’ve seen first hand the attention that Jack gathers – do you want to risk being taken again?”
“I… I can’t turn my back on my friends. They’ve been too good to me Simon.” Suddenly it all dawns on Shae. “They are all I have and have been good to me. I can’t accept this. I’m sorry.”
“I understand,” Simon says, in a voice that suggests he does. “When we first come back the need for any family is strong. But the offer remains open, we don’t turn our backs easily on those in need of our help. If you change your mind, or even want to talk further, then just ask.”
“Thank you Simon.” Shae smiles broadly and offers out his hand. “You’ve helped me to understand a lot tonight and I am very grateful for it. And I would like it if I can talk to you again… more often maybe.”
* * *
A week later, his mind made up, Shae walks steadily up the driveway to the Dulwich house of the Autumn court. He raises the heavy brass knocker on the door and waits while the echos of the knock fade out in the hallway beyond.
After a few minutes, the door opens a crack, and the pale face of a small darkling peers at him through the gap. “Yes?” the face asks, suspiciously.
“I’d like to see Artemis Bligh, if I may.” Shae smiles politely, holding in check his nervous excitement.
“Artemis is busy,” the face replies as the door begins to close.
A skill roll was involved – Shae cannot tell if this is true or not.
Shae doesn’t turn his gaze away. Unable to decipher the other’s expression, his smile remains. “Artemis has expecting me. So, if you will, please advise him I am here. My name is Shae Brock.” He then turns away slightly, waiting for the other to move off at his request.
“He’s not here,” the face repeats slowly, as if talking to an idiot. “But you can wait in the hall until he comes back if you want.” The door swings open to admit Shae, and the darkling shows him to a seat over to one side of the entrance hall. “Wait here.”
“Thank you.” He moves in and patiently sits and waits.
The clock ticking in the hallway, an elaborate grandfather clock in dark, aged wood, is the only sound that breaks the silence. Five minutes. Ten. Twenty. Nearly half an hour passes without a single living creature so much as entering the room until at last Shae hears the sound of footsteps coming from one of the two corridors leading away from the entrance. The footsteps are accompanied by a familiar voice, high pitched and slightly maniacal, talking to itself.
“What’s this, then?” Asks Jack O’Nine Tails when he sees Shae sitting. “A nice fresh bit o’ meat come to offer i’self up for dinner?” Jack pauses to lick the short curved knife in his hand, smearing blood over the blade from his cut tongue as he does so, and all the time keeping a close eye on Shae.
Shae looks ahead at Jack and thinks back to his first encounter with the short darkling. He studies Jack for a moment before replying. “I’ve come to accept Artemis’s offer.” He ignores the bloody blade that is being waved before him and keeps his eye on Jack.
“‘E’ll test ya first, you little shit. ‘E’ll let me ‘ave some time wiv you. Fun time. Gotta be nice and scared for when you join us, but you don’t gotta be in one piece. Knives’ll scare you proper.” Jack begins to approach Shae, spitting blood on the floor as he does so, and brandishing his knife.
Keeping silent, Shae rises from his seat and as he does so, his features begin to distort. Though he’s now standing, his height has been reduced so his head is about the same level as when he was seated. The features of his face and skin alters, presenting Jack with a perfect impression of himself. He adjusts his stance with one leg forward and both slightly bent while he brings both hands up slightly in a defensive position before him.
Jack, the real Jack, hisses slightly and circles to one side instead of approaching, re-evaluating his new target with a wicked grin on his face. “Cute trick, boy, but it won’t help you.”
Before Shae has a chance to respond, the tension is interrupted by a third figure appearing suddenly between them. The woman is pale, although not as pale as many darklings, and slim, although not gaunt as some. Smartly dressed in a tail coat and wearing a top hat she stands taller than either Jack or the altered Shae. Facing slightly more towards Shae’s tormentor, Malady Nox raises a hand and shakes her finger at the real Jack before turning sharply on her heel, beckoning Shae to follow with a quick crook of the same finger and setting off briskly down the nearest corridor.
After a brief pause, Shae relaxes his guard and lets his skin return to his pale shade of grey and his height and features revert back to his natural self. He then starts off after Malady Nox, ignoring Jack as he follows the lady.
Malady leads Shae along the corridor and around one corner to a door which apparently leads out onto a small enclosed and slightly sunken yard at the rear of the house. A door to some utility room, perhaps, stands closed on the left, and steps lead up to a gate set in a wooden fence that presumably leads to the garden beyond. Roaming free in the midst of the courtyard are no fewer than five large dogs. Their heads prick up as Shae stumbles forwards into the courtyard from a hard push. The door closes behind him and Malady is nowhere to be seen. The dogs begin to growl.
Panic over takes Shae as he rushes back and scrabbles at the door. Unable to open it again, he looks round for an exit, looking back at the dogs and then beyond for a means of escape, always checking where the dogs are. He maintains his futile efforts to open the door behind him, slamming his fists hard down on it, but keeps silent, fearful of setting the dogs off.
Shae loses track of exactly how long he sits there, wedged into the corner by the dogs. It feels like hours but is probably only moments, before a shudder overcomes him and his vision clears to reveal Malady standing before him in place of the dogs, the faintest hint of a smile at her tightly stitched mouth. She beckons once again and leads Shae through the gate in the fence opposite and out into the garden.
The garden beyond the fence is a study in contrasts. An area maybe an acre in size is bounded by a thick wall of foliage that hides the space from outside view. A neatly manicured lawn spotted with isolated trees, water features and flower beds coming into full bloom, all dissected by a series of gravel paths, takes up most of the space, but towards the rear of the garden the grass grows thick and long, bushes and trees merge into a dark tangle and a single path runs into the gloom beneath the twisted branches. It is this final path that Malady follows, moving rapidly into the shadows.
Following her Shae comes soon to a small, paved clearing between the trees that stinks of rot. The centre of the clearing is dominated by a large archway, maybe ten feet high and half that wide, that seems to be cast or hammered from dark iron and spotted with rust in spite of the obvious care that it taken to preserve it. In the clearing before the archway stands a small garden table, painted lattice top on a trio of slender legs.
Malady stands beside the table and points to a small box no larger than a match box wrapped in faded blue paper and tied with an old yellow ribbon. The tag attached to the box reads ‘eat me’ in an elegant, italic script.
Confused, Shae looks at Malady. “What is it?” Receiving no response other than a renewed point at the small parcel, he tentatively reaches forward and picks it up. Holding it before him, he looks at Malady again, seeing impatience written upon her face. Slowly, he undoes the bow and opens up the parcel.
The package is almost weightless. Inside the wrapping is a slightly grubby matchbox which, judging by the feel of it, contains no matches, but opens to reveal a live spider trapped within. As the box opens the spider immediately makes a bid for freedom, crawling swiftly up Shae’s hand and starting up his arm.
Cautiously, Shae puts the spider up to his mouth and then, with his eyes closed tight, he eats it.
The look on Malady’s face is hard to evaluate, but on a less encumbered face it might be described as happy. Once Shae had swallowed, she produces a prompt card from one pocket with an oath to serve the Court of Fear written out in the same neat hand…