The word around the Freehold is that the next market will be on the Tuesday a week after the May. Tensions are still running higher than normal with many of the Lost openly proclaiming that they’ll be giving the market a wide berth until the situation settles, and almost as many, notably those with close ties to Spring or Summer, seeming to relish the added hint of danger. Calmer heads, those who have lived through other periods of heightened Keeper activity, seem agreed that the market is always safe ground, although none are aware of any explicit rule to that effect.
The Tuesday market meets in a more cultivated corner of the Hedge accessed through a gate in Nunhead Cemetery. The cemetery itself is conveniently located between the three court bastions of Greenwich to the East, Elephant & Castle to the North and Dulwich to the West and as such is typically more popular with the freehold in general than the Friday market held on the river. Shortly before sundown a steady flow of motleys and individual changelings can be seen moving down the narrow streets, slipping carefully between the iron railings of the high fence surrounding the site and disappearing inside to the gate that lies hidden in a small copse.
The Gentlemen of Bankside join the procession filing towards the Gate. Jack seems to be in his usual high spirits. “So Shae, this will be your first official public appearance at a Freehold function as we can probably rule out the May.” Jack produces a friendly smile after mentioning Shae’s recent escape, then becomes more serious as he lowers his voice. “A word of warning dear boy, these merchants cannot be entirely trusted. Your common market trader would stuff their own grandmother and sell her as an armchair if he thought it would turn a profit.”
Shae nods his head in understanding as he listens carefully to Jack.
Will offers a pointy-toothed grin. “Don’t let them sell you a line. Or pressure you into something you’re going to regret later.”
“Freaky bunch n’ all”, DJ observes. “Still, useful lot to get to know for access to those ‘special items’.
“Absolutely my good fellow. Which is precisely the reason I am interested in visiting the Market today. I intend to do some real haggling today Gentlemen.” Jack has trouble hiding the concern in his voice for a second as the Hedge Gate comes into view. The Gentlemen of Bankside had suffered some bad experiences with them of late.
Shae looks at DJ and asks. “Special items?” Then looks back to Jack as he continues on with the reason they are here.
Jack dances a couple of light steps as he recites. “We must not look at goblin men, We must not buy their fruits: Who knows upon what soil they fed their hungry thirsty roots?" He bows low as he finishes, an impish grin spreading across his face. “They sell almost anything you can think of, mainly Hedge Bounty purloined from deep within The Hedge; Hedge Fruits, Hedgespun garments and other enchanted items ranging from entirely useless nicknacks to legendary artifacts of great value. Be sure you know what you are buying and exactly what it costs.”
“I think I shall just watch and learn this time Jack.” Shae responds, still smiling at Jacks recital. “I wouldn’t know what to do or where to begin.” He pauses for a moment. “What do we buy with? Goblins wouldn’t want normal currency, would they?”
Jack continues his recital almost as if he knew what Shae was going to ask. “Good folk, I have no coin; To take were to purloin: I have no copper in my purse, I have no silver either, And all my gold is on the furze that shakes in windy weather above the rusty heather." Jack almost sings the next part in an odd croaky voice. “You have much gold upon your head, They answered altogether: “Buy from us with a golden curl.” She clipped a precious golden lock, She dropped a tear more rare than pearl…” He laughed at this last phase of verse causing a few straggling fae to turn their heads in their direction. "Their currency is odd to say the very least. They will accept a promise, a pledge, a memory, a stolen kiss, a wish, a song, the moon from the sky or your first born child. Be very wary of their requests.”
“A promise?” Shae questions in disbelief and looks at DJ for support. “Their requests? I think I shall watch your lead Jack.”
“Right you are to do so, li’l Lost!” a harsh cackling voice interrupts from behind. A voice that mixes the promise of pain with mirth at that thought. “A tasty dupe like you would wind up back with Them before you could unpack whatever trinket you bought with your freedom.” The figure skulking beside the path is clad in a hooded cloak that does little to conceal the sharp, stunted body within. A grin that borders on the maniacal leers out from the shadow of the cowl as Jack O’Nine Tails appraises the Gentlemen.
“Why don’t you leave ‘im with me? I promise to take good care of ‘im ‘til you Gentlemen” – and the distaste behind the word is palpable – “are done.”
Jack shoots a warning glance at Will and DJ while stepping towards the cowled darkling and bows slightly, opening his hands in a peaceful gesture. “That is a very generous offer Jack. I have, however, promised to show Shae around the Market and I always keep a promise. Happy hunting in the Market Jack.” Jack turns to walk away from the malicious little fae hoping to put a swift end to the encounter before it sours.
“Bunch of faggots!” Jack calls after the Gentlemen, clearly annoyed to have had his entertainment cut short so soon. “I’ll ‘ave some fun with the new boy yet the instant you ain’t watching ‘im!”
DJ turns and moves towards Jack, “You wanna fuckin’ start something, start something, don’t just give it mouth if you ain’t got the stones to back it up”. He stops just shy of their aggressor and puts on a determined face, daring Jack to come at him.
Nine Tails lets out a slow hiss and the mouth inside his hood stretches into a wide, sharp-toothed grin. “I’ll start something when I’m good and ready, when you and your friends least expect it. Then we’ll see which of us is all bark when he has a motley to back him up, and which of us has the real bite.”
DJ continues to stare at the hooded creature in front of him for a few moments until the Darkling makes a sudden snapping snarl in his face. Utterly unperturbed DJ continues to face him down and Nine Tails steps back with a mocking bow, turns swiftly and fades into the growing shadows. The Darkling’s departure eases some of the tension and DJ returns to his companions.
Squire looks slightly concerned at the exchange. “He is a nasty piece of work and not to be underestimated.”
“He’s a fucking bell-end”, DJ wanders past where the rest of the Gentlemen are stood with a moody air.
[They are both right, but personally I feel DJ has the better turn of phrase.]
Will regards the point where Jack O’Nine Tails vanished with a flat stare as the Gentlemen move on, tapping one black nail against his trouser leg. “He can keep his nastiness to himself Jack. We’ve got problems enough.”
As they walk away, Shae leans over towards DJ and whispers. “What’s with him?”
“You know I said it helps to find something to do, some kind of profession or hobby? Well Jack O’Nine Tails has made it his hobby to be as vindictive as possible. He really is a spiteful individual and should be given an extremely wide berth,” warned Jack.
Shae smiles. “Each to their own.” He walks to catch up with Jack. “Umm… Jack? Without sounding too stupid. You said that a promise could be used as currency at the market?” He pauses and looks a bit embarrassed. “what happens if a promise is broken?”
“That is a very good question Shae. The Glamour we channel all come from pledges, contracts, oaths etc. The ancient contracts that have bound themselves into the very core of The Lost are immutable and constant. Payment for those is usually pure Glamour or strength of will, but there are always catches or loopholes if you will that will allow us to produce the desired results for free.”
“So if anyone asks me to promise something, I need to be very careful?” Shae asks with an edge of concern in his voice.
“In a word, yes. The term Goblin is used to describe any slightly twisted magic. The traders we are about to meet are not all short with green skin and pointy ears, no offence William. They will be a mixture of Hobgoblins; creature who reside in the Hedge, fae like us and maybe even some mortals who have dabbled in Magic. The point is nothing is to be entirely trusted. Many of the Goblin fruits will have some odd side effects and Goblin Contracts have some twists to them. Just have your eyes open and ask one of us to check anything before entering into an agreement.” Replied Jack in normal tones now that his namesake was out of earshot.
Shae nods his head. “I will. Thank you Jack.” He looks around as the party continues walking on, not actually paying attention to what is about him but instead thinking hard on all that Jack has impressed upon him.
* * *
The gate to the hedge is guarded by Sebandus, who gives a polite nod to the motley and a murmur of acknowledgement to DJ as they pass. Once through the worn, stone archway the path opens into a modest clearing in the Hedge itself, perhaps twenty feet across, with numerous short pathways heading off towards other openings in the dense greenery. The scene is lit by all manner of lanterns hanging in both the foliage and over individual stalls, while a clear dark sky blazes with the light from countless stars and a full, bright moon.
All of the clearings, including the first, are crammed with stalls of all varieties; brightly coloured barrows laden with goods sit beside rough planks laid across wooden crates filled with wonders. Here and there throughout the market are small tents and the occasional caravan, and wandering hobs with trays supported by straps around their necks wander to and fro in search of customers. There is no organised pattern to the market that changelings can perceive, individual vendors seem to set up shop wherever there is space to fit them making it a challenge to locate any favoured stalls.
[While I personally strive for originality, it appears that my NPCs are content to shamelessly raid the works of Neil Gaiman for inspiration. What is a GM to do?]
Before the Gentlemen have the chance to move more than a few yards inside the market, a small figure with a tray of oddly shaped pies oozing the orange juice of some goblin fruit bustles up. He stands only a little over five feet tall and is dressed in what looks like a ragged morning suit, complete with tarnished top hat. “Staying alert in the market can be hungry work, gents! One of my pies will keep you well fed and alert. Only cost ya the memory of your breakfast. You won’t get a better offer than that, any cheaper and I’d be breaking my oaths as a salesman!”
[And Terry Pratchett too, it seems!]
“Ooo, Pie”, DJ wanders up to the little goblin, having seemingly forgotten about his encounter with Nine Tails only moments previously now that the chance at a reasonably free meal was available. “Sorted, breakfast this morning was 2 fags and some leftover Tennants, can’t be any worse than that”.
Jack muses for a moment. “I quite enjoyed my breakfast to be perfectly honest, but in for a penny…” He reaches down and picks out a nice pie.
Shae smiles and follows suit. “Was only a couple slices of Marmalade on toast.” And he picks himself a pie, proud of making his first purchase.
Will, then, is the only Gentleman to demur. “No thanks… I ate quite well.” He does his best not to look too dubious about the pies, but has clearly decided that prudence is the better part of valour in this instance.
[And so it came to pass that Jack ignored his advice to Shae of only moments earlier, and Will alone was left with the memory of what he ate for breakfast. DJ is temporarily off the lager and cigarettes (quite the health kick!), Shae has no inclination towards toast and marmalade, and Jack wouldn’t know what to do with coffee, orange juice, bacon or croissants if he saw them. On the plus side, those three do get a small bonus to dice rolls in the market]
* * *
Walking into the relatively open space in the path between the trader’s stall Jack starts to look around for a specific tailor dealing in hedgespun garments. “Well here we are Gentlemen, let us shop!”
Unable to see the particular tailor he desires Jack starts to wander the stalls, moving further from the gate, and deeper into the market. “I am heading in this direction. Anyone care to join me?”
“I’m going for a wander over here, catch up with ya later”, calls DJ.
Shae watches DJ disappear off into the crowd then looks at his clothes and mutters almost to himself. “Well, I did come to get some clothes of my own.” He then looks back to Jack. “I think I’ll be sticking with you here again, if I may Jack.”
“Of course old man, pleasure to have you along.” Jack replies as he nods to a trio of Spring Court fae from the Freehold and starts to browse the stalls.
The path through the stalls leads away from the first clearing through a narrow tunnel where the hedge is held back by a heavy wooden lattice that runs alongside and over the path. After a few yards lit only by lanterns suspended from the tunnel roof, Jack and Shae emerge into a clearing considerably larger than the first. A number of more permanent stalls line the edges, purpose build shacks generally available to the earliest arrivals display an array of goods. The centre of the clearing is home to a pair of marquees serving some sort of food. A large number of hobs are milling around together with maybe a dozen members of the freehold.
Off to one side of the clearing, Jack spots a few stalls displaying bales of fine cloth and a few garments woven from it so he wanders towards the finest looking stall and starts to peruse the wares.
An endlessly different array of hob faces seek to catch Jack’s eye as he heads over to the stalls and begins to peruse, and all manner of voices make him offers, “A bale of finest moonspider silk for you first born daughter! Come, Sir, no man needs a daughter!”, “Velvet and oak moss as worn by the Lost Prince of Henderland, won’t cost you an arm and a leg.”, “Cloth sewn from the dawn on the first day of winter – just the thing to keep you cool with summer approaching. Make me an offer?”. It seems that all manner of cloth might be available here if someone wants to commission an outfit.
Catching the attention of one of the Hobs Jack asks “I wonder if you have anything in the way of a protective textile. A material that can ward off both blades and bullets while remaining supple and stylish?”
The hob in question, a slender, dapper fellow, looks at Jack closely before asking, “What colour did you have in mind?”
Jack smooths down the forest green, faux military Hedgespun suit he is wearing, “Something along these lines would be perfect.”
“Green?” The hob seems alarmed, his slender triple-jointed fingers covering his mouth in shock. “So functional and aggressive – if you want to wear a suit like that then there hardly seems any point in hiding it. Are you sure you wouldn’t want something in a nice deep blue? I could weave something truly unique combining shavings of ice from purest unending winter with the wake of a gilded sky-yacht… It might clash with your hair, though.” So saying the hob reaches out a curiously long fingered hand to feel a length of Jack’s hair. “Of course, if you were to offer the hair in payment that would hardly be an issue.”
Jack looks aghast at the very suggestion of losing his hair. “Blue I can live with, although I fear it may clash with my skin. The hair I will keep, I am sure we can agree some other payment. Can you show me a sample of the shade?”
The hob’s eyes light up at the prospect of a sale, and he strides towards the small tent behind the stall. He begins pulling out some blue cloth in a variety of shades ad a large wooden case with a frost tinged lock. Pulling on some gloves he opens the case to reveal a number of icey shards in differing sizes, each shot through with all manner of blues and purples ranging from electric and neon colours to those barely a whisper away from black. The cloth he indicates is itself a pale blue threaded with faint hints of silver and gold.
“Now, we would need some padding around the ice to protect the skin, but the ice should form around the cloth enough to provide some protection without stifling movement. Shall I put you down for one suit or two?”
Jack feels the cloth but keeps his expression neutral. “Not too bad, I think I can pull that off, but it is less than perfect. Let us first discuss payment.”
“Unending Ice isn’t easy to come by, it claims as many as try to claim it and fewer suppliers risk the trip each year, it seems. Wake thread is more available, but this is an exceptionally fine weave. And the work itself is challenging, it would take up much of my time. Why, you’d be lucky to find anyone prepared to part with a suit such as I could make you for less than the life blood of a fair-haired, first-born child.”
Jack coughs and clutches his chest. “What! The life blood of a fair-haired, first-born child! Surely that is a jest dear boy. Why, I was offered a similar suit not two seasons back for a full rendition of Heart of Oak!”
The hob smirks at the audacity of Jack’s claim, “If that is so then you should have bought it there and then. But these days, with the trouble brewing among Them, I can’t do the work for less than the first sheering of a full grown ram and the answer to a riddle that no one has asked. But if you throw in your rendition of Heart of Oak then I might be able to find a way to turn the suit oak leaf green.”
A hob on the adjacent stall gives a loud snort of derision.
Turning his head toward the interruption Jack asks the hob. “Do you have something to add to this exchange friend?”
“‘Ee’ll never be able to make that suit green, not for all the ballads in the world beyond. And I dare say the ‘ole thing ‘ll be unbearably cold if ‘ee wants to put that much ice in it.” The speaker is a squat hob, only a little over four foot tall and almost as broad again. He peers up at jack with small red-rimmed eyes set in an otherwise toadish face beneath a cloth cap. “If it’s a new suit you’re wantin’ then you’re goin’ the wrong way about it.”
This time it is the taller hob’s turn to snort as he crosses his arms in a show of evident disdain.
With his attention fixed on the toad-like hob Jack asks. “Please enlighten me, my good man. How would be the best way to go about it?”
His blunt fingers begin to pick at Jack’s coat as he speaks, “Well, you wanna keep the line o’ the jacket as it is, that means no thick or bulky additions. No paddin’. You want to keep the same sort of colour, that means no exotic ingredients, or at least only a limited list, an’ ‘ee won’t ‘ave ‘em. You don’t wanna look too bright and shiny, that’ll draw Their attention. You probably don’ even wan’ a new suit, you wanna get that one enchanted nice an’ subtle, like.”
Jack smiles broadly, taps his cane on the ground and points the handle towards the Hob. “You, Sir, have hit the nail squarely upon its head. That is precisely what I have in mind. Do carry on.” He turns fully away from the other hob and steps towards the new purveyor.
The short hob smirks over his shoulder at his taller rival before leading Jack towards his own stall. “The secret is in these ‘ere threads, woven from the tail of a unicorn untouched by mortal ‘and, an’ the ‘air of a nymph cut whilst bathing in the midday sun, soaked in the blood of a dragon and seared in the fire of the phoenix’s rebirth. Such enchantments they can ‘old and so strong is they as ta render the cloth they bind proof against any blow. And don’t the golden colour go nice with green?”. As he speaks the goblin pulls out a coil of rich golden thread tinged with the slightest hint of red.
[I’m wondering if anyone will spot that one, certainly none of the players did.]
Jack tries his best to hide his desire for the gossamer strands. The red/gold thread would finish the suit perfectly; piping fit for an admiral. He wrinkles his nose before replying. “That might work, indeed it might. But at what cost?”
“Ah, well, it don’t come cheap, do it? Them’s a selection of ‘ard to find ingredients. Let’s say the song you was promisin’, together wiv one of me choosin’ will cover the cost of the work. But the cost of the materials is another matter. I could always do wiv’ the petals from a perfect rose, that’d cover one of them. I’m open to offers on the rest – what sort of stuff can you provide that I might use?”
“For the work, you have a deal. Unfortunately I have no petals from a perfectly formed rose. I do, however, have the eye-piece of Sir Francis Drake; used when sighting the mighty Spanish Armada approaching the English Channel.” Jack’s description of the historically significant, but otherwise mundane item is full of enthusiasm.
“Is it… old?”
Jack shakes his head and looks and Shae, slapping him upon the back. “Is it old, he asks!” He repeats the question to the Hob. “Is it old? It is from the reign of the greatest Monarch this green and pleasant land has seen, The Virgin Queen; Elizabeth I. It has seen more than four centuries, its case has felt the spray of all seven seas and has heard the death roll of a thousand guns.” Jack really starts to get into it, pouring his heart and soul into the performance.
The hob’s greedy eyes light up at Jack’s elaborate description of the telescope. “Done!” He declares. “The eye-piece for the ingredients and your songs for the work.” He spits in his palm and holds out his hand to Jack.
Jack takes the outstretched hand and shakes it vigorously. “You have yourself a deal, old boy! I shall return within the hour with the suit, the eye-piece and my baritone in fine fettle. He bounces his cane on the ground, catches it and turns on his heel. “Come along Shae, we shall return presently.”
Shae is still in awe at what he saw Jack run through with the Hobs. He nods his head and turns to follow Jack but stops when an article of cloth catches his eye. He tentatively reaches out and feels the dark material.
Jack stops and takes Shae by the elbow, steering him away from the stall. “We have no time for dilly dallying. We will be back before you know it.”
Shae looks back at Jack and nods, falling into step with his lead, but taking a further glance back at the stall. “Did you see how it seemed to disappear Jack?” he whispers.
“Sorry? What? Disappear? No I must have missed that.” Jack replied offhandedly, clearly not listening to Shae in his single minded determination to fetch payment for his new suit.
Shea looks back over his shoulder towards the stall. “The hoo…” he turns back to carry on walking with Jack. “It was a hooded top that just seemed to vanish. Can’t see it now. Funny that.” He gives a half hearted chuckle to himself and continues to walk on following Jack out of the market, not really minding whether Jack heard him or not.
* * *
Will pauses briefly as the others head further into the market, feeling no particular urge to shop. “Maybe I should have gone with Jack… oh well,” he mutters. He allows his feet to guide him around the market, waiting for something or someone to catch his interest.
Half an hour later, Will is still wandering between the bewildering array of stalls when a soft voice from close behind him says, “Hello, Will”. Turning he sees Darla standing quite close with a distant look in her eyes.
“Darla?” Will jumps back a little, surprised. “I haven’t seen you since… the coronation, right? Are you keeping well?”
“Oh, quite well, I suppose.” Something about Darla seems less vibrant than the rest of the marketplace, as if she is slightly washed out even beyond her normal shyness and pale complexion. “I’m been asked to ask you… that is, some of us feel… erm, would you mind not bringing that with you here?” She indicates the sword slung over Will’s shoulder.
“I’d never want to upset you, Darla. If it’s a problem having the sword here I don’t mind going – I haven’t seen anything I fancy anyway. Why does it bother you though?”
“It’s not me personally, well, it’s not just me. It’s just that it’s… well, after the May, you know? And what one of Them said. And it makes people feel a little nervous, so they asked me to tell you, or ask you rather, since I kinda know you.”
Seeing how pale Darla is Will desperately searches for something reassuring to say, but comes up blank. “Err… surely Nemi isn’t one of the people who feel that way, right? I can’t imagine her afraid of anything, honestly. Let alone Them, or the sword… or me.”
Darla manages only to look uncomfortable and two things occur to Will; part of Darla’s discomfort comes from her own fear of him and/or the sword, but her somewhat ephemeral mien stems from the fact that she literally is less vibrant, for some reason, than the majority of other changelings present.
Will’s eyes narrow as that thought takes him. “It just seems a bit cowardly, you know? Sending you when they could have come talked to me themselves if it’s such a bother. Who did you say it was again?”
“Oh, well, it wasn’t Nemi, just some people I know. They just thought that maybe you might be more willing to listen to me since you know me and… um… well, you don’t know them, I guess.” She seems to consider for a moment before adding, “I’ve not seen Nemi for a while anyway.”
“What? You two not together? I never would have expected that! What happened?”
“She’s been busy, I guess. I mean, I think so. She has other friends now. She spends most of her time in Dulwich so she moved in there a few weeks back. It’s ok, though, I’ve got new friends too.” She offers a shy smile as if to support the fact.
“Me among them, I hope.” Will tries on a lopsided smile in return. “You can count on me if you need… well, if you need anything, right?”
“Oh, yes. I mean, thanks Will. And you can do the same, with me, I mean.” There is a pause before Darla continues, “Well, you’ll think about what I said, about the sword?”
“Sure thing. Look… is something else the matter? You look pale,” Will tries a bit desperately.
“Oh, no! I mean, nothing’s the matter. It’s just something I’m learning. It’s really working?”
“Err, I suppose so. You’re supposed to look ill, then?”
Darla offers another shy smile as she turns to leave, “I’m not ill, silly boy, I’m hiding!” And with that she steps neatly behind a passing ogre and into the crowd beyond.
* * *
[Coming soon – What DJ got up to in the market before Jack decided to make a spectacle of himself]
* * *
Within the hour, Jack returns to the market wearing a fresh set of clothes, carrying both his green suit and the promised telescope, and with Shae in tow. At the sight of the telescope in its case the hob’s eyes light up and he reaches out a pair of eager hands long before Jack is within reach.
Jack approaches the Hob and reverently hands over the relic and then the suit. “Here is your part payment my friend. Would you like the songs now?” Jack asks, clearing his throat.
“Wait, wait! Lemme get my little recording box ready first!” The hob pulls out an old cassette recorder from beneath his stall, pats down his pockets until he discovers a battered tape (along with a couple of sticky glace mints, a keyring bearing the slogan ‘Visit Rye – 1066 Country’ and a torn notebook covered front and back in illegible scrawl) which he then inserts into the player and, with a nod to Jack, presses deliberately on both the ‘play’ and ‘record’ buttons.
With one hand on his chest Jack begins to burn with rich emerald flames that flare across his body while his eyes glow with a golden light. The eyes of fae and Hobs alike are drawn to him as he starts to sing loud and clear, for all to hear;
“Come, cheer up, my lads, ‘tis to glory we steer,
To add something more to this wonderful year;
To honour we call you, as freemen not slaves,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves?”
Heart of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men,
we always are ready; Steady, boys, steady!
We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again…”
Shae pauses for a minute and then begins to look about the stall again for the hooded garment he saw earlier. His hand tingles slightly as he picks up what appears to be some sort of knitted poncho, and he feels the soft fabric of the hoody moments before it shimmers back into visibility beneath it. His smile is broad and plain for all to see. Still holding the hoody, he turns back and excitedly starts to ask. “Jack! What do I…” But he soon realises that there is no chance of him getting through to his mentor, currently lost in his own enthusiasm. Shae turns back both excited and nervous and mutters to himself, “Can’t be that difficult. Can it?”
“We never see the French but we wish them to stay,
They always see us and they wish us away;
If they run, we will follow, we will drive them ashore,
And if they won’t fight, we can do no more…”
Jack is in mid flow and largely oblivious, but Shae, looking around for someone to help with his purchase, notices a large crowd of hobs, and a fair few changelings among them, gathering to listen to Jack sing. One changeling in particular, a female fairest that Shae doesn’t recognise, seems to be paying him particularly close attention. As he watches her, Shae is struck by a sudden hollowness in his stomach, as if the floor had just dropped out beneath him. The sense that she is working some sort of potent magic is accompanied by the certainty that he has seen this woman somewhere before.
Shae tries to shrink back into the shadows but there is no where for him to go. He looks over to Jack but there is no chance of gaining his attention. He turns back to the woman. He pauses and then with renewed vigour he gathers himself and boldly approaches the watcher.
Shaking off a compulsion to watch Jack, Shae approaches the woman as she joins the crowd in applause, although her applause is slower, almost mocking, in contrast to the genuine enthusiasm of the other spectators. As her hands move, he catches sight of an ugly scar, like a large burn mark, where a wedding ring would normally sit. Almost at the same time Shae becomes aware of a gentle heat in his pocket.
Shae’s advance towards the woman falters. He reaches in to his pocket with his left hand and feels the ring heating up. His advance comes to a full stop and he can’t take his eyes off of her.
Turning slowly to face Shae, the woman inhales deeply. She fixes her eyes, solid orbs of black, on the frozen changeling and her mouth breaks into a smile that looks at once both content and cruel.
Shae removes his hand from his pocket, keeping the ring hidden and instinctively adopts a defensive stance.
Spotting the movement and stepping slowly towards him, the woman asks the obvious question in a silky, suggestive voice, “What has it got in its pocket?”
Shae reaffirms his stance without realising he is doing so. “Nothing.” he replies, attempting to hide his lie behind his unyielding position. “Who are you?” he asks boldly as the woman continues her advance.
Meanwhile, the hob is congratulating Jack on his performance and handing him a sheet of paper. “This one ain’t my first choice but you’d best sing it quick if you want t’ see your friend safe,” he explains, pushing Jack forward towards the audience once again.
Jack seems slightly flustered at the unusual remark from the Hob but seeing the urgent look on his face he skims the sheet and begins to sing:
“O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms!
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too…”
There is clearly more than just the lyrics recorded on the page as Jack seems to know the tune by heart. The haunting melody is in stark contrast to rousing military tune he has just finished.
“I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
As soon as Jack begins to sing, the woman stops dead in her approach to Shae and turns to listen.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
The woman joins in on the female part, her soft, clear voice at odds with the twisted look of bitter resentment on her face:
“I love thee true.”
And Jack continues, unfazed by the unrehearsed duet:
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Without warning the gathered Freehold members all join in, practically shouting the final lines of the stanza:
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
At this line the woman shudders visibly and Shae is struck by the sudden need to run, get away, get out of her sight.
Keeping his guard up, and resisting the urge to flee, Shae backs away from the woman while she looks away. When the distance between them is enough, he melts away into what shadows he can find. Once he reaches the safety of the shadows, he reaches in to his pocket to reaffirm that the ring, now much cooler, is still with him.
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.”
As Jack finishes singing the entire market falls silent. No voice breaks the stillness, and even the subtle chatter of birds and buzzing of insect in the Hedge is absent. At some point during the song, the crowd of assembled Lost and hobs has stepped away from the woman, leaving a small space around her as she stands staring at Jack in impotent fury.
“You!” she hisses in a harsh voice that contrasts shockingly with her soft appearance. Then she seems to reconsider and continues in a far sweeter tone, “Jack, my precious, how kind of you to honour me with such a commanding performance.”
Jack’s smile fades as the pieces fall into place, this is the day he had feared for so long; finally coming face to face with The Lady. His knees buckle slightly, although he remains on his feet, his pupils dilate and the emerald skin on his face deepens a shade. Jack also remembers where he is as the faces of the crowd come back into focus and he attempts to subdue the multitude of emotions that are swelling within his chest ready to burst forth. He takes a noticeably deep breath and bows to The Lady; “A pleasure.” He replies through gritted teeth before turning back to the Hob and whispering in hushed tones. “I believe payment has been made friend. When will the item be ready for collection?”
The hob seems about to reply when he is interrupted. “Will you now return with me to our home in the deep woods, my beautiful boy?” The Lady’s voice rings out clear in the silence that still fills the clearing, apparently unconcerned by Jack’s reluctance to continue the conversation.
Jack ignores the question keeping his back turned to Her and the silence builds to a crescendo before Jack snaps at the Hob. “I asked you a question friend, when shall I return for the suit?”
The hob stares past Jack at the figure behind him, but manages to squeeze out an answer, “I’ll ‘ave it ready ‘alf an ‘our before the cock crows, sir.”
By now the silence is beginning to break as the assembled changelings and no few of the hobs make a hasty move away from The Lady, Jack and anyone else associated with them.
Jack composes himself for a moment before turning, his face seems to have returned to some semblance of normality. His voice, however, has no hint of Jack’s usual cheerful lilt. “Thank you for your kind offer My Lady. But I will have to respectfully decline.” His expression darkens slightly as his resolve grows. “I am no longer yours, and never shall be again. Good day to you.” He turns and walks hastily away towards the entrance, followed swiftly by Shae.
“I’ll see you half an hour before the cock crows, my sweet!” She calls after Jack.
Jack’s steps slow slightly at this remark, before continuing to the Hedge Gate and back to the churchyard beyond.
Shae quickly follows Jack through the Hedge Gate, not once looking back behind him. Once the motley are clear of the Gate, Shae runs up to Jack. “Jack. I need to tell you about something… important.” He looks about cautiously and doesn’t wait for a response, instead he swiftly moves on to the waiting car.
* * *
By the time he reaches the car the other three motley members are waiting in the shelter of the vehicle. Jack turns to his friends in the back, his pale face bares a deep frown. “That was troubling. We have crossed paths with two True Fae in as many weeks. To make matters more concerning they were both Keepers for two of our Motley. This worries me deeply.” After a moment he remembers that Shae had something important to tell him. “I am sorry Shae, what was it you needed to tell me, my friend?”
Shae looks worried and after a brief pause he shifts and reaches into his pocket. He cautiously brings his hand out before Jack and seems to have second thoughts about what he’s doing. Slowly he opens his hand to show the ring he’s been keeping. “I don’t know how I came to have this.”
The ring looks familiar somehow, but Jack can’t immediately place it, although vague memories of a warm summer afternoon in a leafy glade and some sort of celebration begin to stir.
“That seems to be familiar somehow. Something from Arcadia?” Replies Jack with a far away look in his eyes. “Did you have it when you came through the Hedge?”
“Yes… But I didn’t know. Honestly. When that Fae called me a thief, I couldn’t understand why. And when you took me to the Crown and Antlers… then I found it in my pocket.” She looks very concerned. “I don’t know how I got it.”
“Have you noticed anything unusual about it?”
“Yes.” Shae looks scared. “It got hot… The closer she came to me, the hotter it became.”
Jack’s eyes narrow as he regards the ring. “She? You mean the lady in the market just now?”
“Yes. The lady who was interested in you.”
“So you have come out of The Hedge right on top of The May, with what would appear to be DJ’s Keeper hot on your heels, and with a ring in your pocket that is linked to . . . to . . HER?!” Jack growls the last word through clenched teeth, a rare look of anger on his face.
Shae closes his hand and pulls away from Jack. “I didn’t know anything about it. I’m sorry Jack.” He pauses briefly. “There’s something more though.” He looks Jack in the eye. “ As I said, the closer I got to her, the hotter the ring got. I wasn’t too close, but I noticed that she had a burn mark on her finger. She was more interested in you and so I left.”
Jack’s expression softens. “Sorry Shae, I am not angry with you. I am just vexed that after all this time she has caught up with me. Coming face to face with one’s keeper is an unnerving experience. It is a curious set of coincidences that lead me to believe that there is more to this than meets the eye. Not to mention the fact that we have come under attack from parties unknown.” He smiles at Shae after a moments pause, a mischievous look upon his face. “We could always up the stakes. What attachment do you have to the ring?”
Shae relaxes and looks more comfortable. “I don’t even know why I have it or what it’s worth. But I do know that I can’t ever take it back in to the market with me again. She asked what I had in my pocket, but she never saw anything.” He holds the ring out once more, offering it to Jack to have a closer look. “What do you make of it all?”
Jack takes the ring and inspects it closely. He draws on his reserves of Glamour and attempts to rejuvenate himself with a Gift of Warm Breath.
Jack feels a slight tingle in his palm as the glamour flows through him leaving him feeling sharp and refreshed. Looking back down at the ring he notices that the design has changed and the simple geometric pattern offset by a single diamond has been replaced by a more solid golden design bearing his old family crest.
Jack looks more confused by that outcome. “Well that is rather unexpected. Has the ring changed at all while in your possession Shae?”
“No… not that I know. It always had a diamond in it.”
Jack hands the ring back to Shae. “Will you try something for me? Hold the ring and show me the contract you have been practising. Try and look like me.”
Shae takes the ring and closes his hands round it. He looks straight at Jack and instantly, his skin turns emerald and his face alters to that of Jack. Then, slowly, he opens his hand. Although Shae felt the ring tingle in his palm as he changed, upon opening his hand the ring remains the same. “It tingled a bit Jack. It never did that before when I held it. Only got hot near the lady.”
Jack smiles in understanding. “Now try and look like Will.”
With a smile, Shae looks across at Will and the emerald of his skin deepens while his hair turns silver and the goblin is mirrored in his face. Again the ring tingles, but this time appears as a mass-produced, thick band of heavy, brushed steel.
“That is interesting. I will undoubtedly cross paths with the lady again when I return to pick up my suit. If things turn sour I would like to maybe use the ring as a bargaining chip. That is if you do not mind Shae.” Jack pauses and a thought appears to occur to him. “Although there may be a reason why you are in possession of it. What do you think?”
His skin returns to his normal complexion. “Well… I truly don’t know why or how I came to have the ring. So, I’ll leave it to your better judgement.”
“Very good of you. Indeed it is. You hold onto it for now I dare not take it with me later. We are almost back at the Crown and Antlers, I need a drink, and maybe a bite to eat; I skipped breakfast.”
Shae looks at the heavy steel ring in his hand and then tucks it away in his pocket. “I think I could do with one too.” He pauses briefly. “I never did try the ring on… never seemed right.” He looks out the window of the car then turns back to Jack a bit puzzled. “You had quite a hearty breakfast as I remember Jack.”