Addressed to: P______, Master of Her Majesty’s Chamber of Secret and Shroud, ℅ the Resplendent Court of Her Majesty Queen Whisht, Sovereign of the Eight, etc. etc. etc.
[[This message decrypted by Her Majesty’s Chamber of S&S on four and twenty of the Month of Moths, Year Three of Her Reign]]
P________: Thank you, as ever, for your kind correspondence. Please find the below account as a reply to your concerns, ever-wise as they are. We understand that the queen’s war master has voiced frustration with the timing of this report, given Her Grace’s rather brisk timetable. We hear that a punishment may await us, and that it could involve the war master’s dread flaming battle hounds. Do pass on our apologies, but burning us to death is not advisable. We respectfully remind you that we have supplied the fae with the swiftest of intelligence for six millennia; we have many more secrets—the type that tend to win or lose wars. We’d rather share them, instead of carrying them with us into the spiraling ash. That said, should it please Her Majesty to see us dance at the end of a gout of black flame, we, as ever, live to serve.
So. To the question at hand. Now that she’s become what she’s become, what are we going to do about Helen Couch? Our plenary report follows.
My group blew into Cornwall in early spring and reached the human village soon after. We’d received our brief. It seemed straightforward: Observe. Report. Assess any potential resistance. Mark any threats. Determine whether the stubborn mortals who remain are speaking of your illustrious race in proper terms: good folk or fae, not ever fairy. Queen Whisht, never Queen Witch. Determine whether this burg might offer any trouble ahead of the inevitable arrival of their magnificent liberators.
We were operational within a ten-day. A few of us set up inside the human “resistance,” such as it was, headquartered inside that Tudor-era fort her majesty’s war master covets so dearly. But for the most part, we were scattered between the few remaining civilians and the abandoned crisps factory. You could have looked at the trunk of a tree, a dormer window, and you would’ve looked right through us.
We had no reason to suspect any real challenge to her majesty’s sovereignty. All was quiet on the mortal front. That is, until the day Helen Couch emerged into her tiny back garden on that fateful morning, seeking her dog. I speak of a slight mongrel, sized between an overfed vole and a proper corgi, and old enough that patches of the pitiful creature’s hide resembled some manner of jerky. This particular beast liked to burst though a hinged flap in his cottage door, seeking hedgehogs to blink at. Just outside this door, a fresh carpet of moss had sprung up on the ground, Nile green and soft. The dog treated it like a mat in a mudroom.
On the morning in question, Helen had exited from the large door surrounding the little flapped door. She squinted about, looking for her cur. No dog. She settled her flinty blue eyes east, toward an elder tree in the back corner. No dog under the boughs. For a moment, Helen looked darkly at the tree—one might even say suspiciously. In this region, every tree of a certain age has an Elder Mother living in it. The boughs of this one spiraled into claw-like appendages. Its shadows reached longer than its meager height could explain. On certain nights, whispers seeped out of it, speaking of pacts with lopsided terms.
Helen went back inside.
She found the trail of blood just inside her back door. She hadn’t even looked down on her way out. She was wearing slippers and would have felt no wet under her feet.
The blood trail led past her first-floor bedroom, then upstairs to a second story, running halfway down the hallway before stopping abruptly. A patch of Ceratodon moss had formed on her ceiling a week ago, but she hadn’t had the wherewithal to knock it off. Now, where the ceiling gave way to an attic trapdoor, the moss had a black, shiny quality to it. Helen craned her neck. Blood had soaked from above into the unfortunate clump, threatening to drip onto the floor.
You may ask why Helen did not call local authorities. Again, like most of its 21,500 citizens and all 16 of its parish counselors, this town’s constabulary has fled. And if you’re wondering why Helen didn’t call the “resistance,” we invite you to keep reading.
Instead, Helen procured a rusty fireplace poker. Using it as a grapple, she drew down a recessed attic ladder.
“Whoever you are, I’m not afraid of you,” she called.
“Good on you, Helen Couch,” came a voice. It was low and gravelly, but not uncivilized.
“I’m armed. This poker is cold iron. Show yourself.”
A chuckling from above.
“So are our halberds. But we’re not here to fight. We were going to show ourselves in a bit.”
“I’m fetching the resistance.”
“We regret to inform you that they’ve already been ex-sanguinated,” the voice in the attic said. “Well, two of them. They were such botheration. You may as well come up. And don’t think of running off. Running is our forte, if I may.”
Did Helen realize at that moment what awaited her? Probably. But what could she do? She came up.
Usually, Helen’s attic had two dormers, two rickety commemorative folding chairs left over from her doddering queen’s Silver Jubilee, and nothing else. Now it had two dormers, two rickety chairs, and 13 redcaps.
We have no record of this type of fae having appeared in Helen’s village for at least 400 years. But the people here have a decent understanding of most immortalkind, whether or not those races have joined Queen Whisht’s Splendid Crusade. It’s safe to say that Helen took in the broad faces; short-ish builds (within measure of a brownie and a hollowback); oily black coifs; pupils and skin whiter than halibut bones; and heavy halberds strapped across humped backs, and put two and two together. If she didn’t, the pointy, blood-soaked caps likely gave away the game.
Some of them were unpacking clothing or strange pieces of metal. Others lollygagged by a window at one end of the attic, picking like neanderthals at moss caked on a sill. The opposite window overlooked Helen’s elder tree.
The one who had spoken before stepped forward. He wore his hair in a plait, woven through with gold filament. Fresh blood crept down from his cap into the folds of a thick, felt tunic. Dangling from his left hand, swinging by a scruffy leg, was the ragged corpse of Helen’s dog.
Helen gripped her poker. A less clever person might have tried kissing the nearest redcap with it. It would have stung, just as cold iron would have hurt any fae creature. But Helen could also count to 13. She was outnumbered, and knew it.
The plaited redcap spoke over his shoulder.
“Our client,” he said, “is upset about our repurposing her creature. I told you, humans really do keep dogs as companions.”
A snarl floated up from behind him. Another redcap was squatting on the attic floor, unpacking some headgear.
“But the yapper was so old,” the squatting redcap said. “Was a mercy kill.”
At this, Helen’s eyes began to glisten, but then she swallowed and willed the tears back. After a moment, she found her voice, thin as it was.
“This town is still human territory,” she said. “You wanted some blood for your hats, fine, you have it. I’ve no quarrel with you, so you’d best be moving on.”
The plaited redcap looked pained.
“I’m afraid we’re going to need a good deal more blood.” He stuck out his free hand. “I am Robin the Baron Liddesdale. I bear ill news, I’m afraid. Your father has—how do humans say it?—shed his mortal… foil?”
Helen neither took Robin’s hand nor corrected his diction. She’d spotted something in the far corner, beyond the redcaps: a vague lump only partially visible in watery morning sunlight. Shaking, she picked her way closer. Crumpled in a heap of gore and matted hair lay the nude bodies of two men, bloodless and limp. A stench of rust and piss hung over them. Their faces were turned toward the wall.
Helen turned to face Robin. Did she even think of running? Not likely. Even most races of fae can’t outrun redcaps, a fact that likely stung her at this very moment1.
“You killed him,” she rasped.
The baron looked perplexed.
“Those are just your local resistance. I told you about those. No, your father killed himself, back at your childhood stead. Please accept my condolences.”
“How? How do I know you didn’t do it?”
“Because he cut his wrists before throwing a lit cigarette onto a carpet soaked in petrol. Sound familiar?”
Robin nodded to a nearby redcap, who was lounging on one of the Jubilee folding chairs. The lackey popped up and brought the seat to Helen before fetching the other for the baron. Robin gestured for Helen to sit. This time she did as she was told.
“No one told you of your father’s debt?” he asked.
“Dad didn’t take on debts.”
“He didn’t, but a few hundred years ago, a Couch did.”
“A human? Borrowed from one of yours? That’s mad.”
The baron shrugged.
“He didn’t borrow from me. He borrowed from a leprechaun, who repackaged the debt and sold to us. We’ve been trying to collect ever since. In our currency, we’re looking at ten pints of adult Couch.”
Helen’s eyes drifted over Robin’s shoulder, toward the remains of the resistance fighters.
“Not Couch bodies, I’m afraid,” the baron said. “Anyway. You know well that the past five generations of Couch matriarchs or patriarchs all died of unnatural causes—drinking lye, running into landmines in far-flung hamlets. You never wondered why?”
“Great Uncle Jago was killed in the war.”
“By his own self. Sister, your Couch family tradition of grievous self-harm hasn’t been about depression or tragic love gotten away. It was to shirk your family’s debt to us. I gather the pater never told you.”
“So now it falls to me. Do you need all of it? At once?”
The corners of the baron’s mouth curled up like the red smoke from a night hag’s stove.
The lackey redcap stepped forward. He brought a bundle of flax caps. They were white.
“We need to sanguinate these,” the baron said.
“You could do it over time. Come once a year.”
“Aren’t we brassy!” Robin said. “No, can’t mix red and brown, dry and wet. We’re a civilized firm. Don’t tell me: you think we just poke you to death, yes? Absolutely not. You’re not some swithering dog. You’re clientele. You get a bleeding chair. Custom—crafted. Very shiny.
“Your package comes with Seelie ointment, too. So, no pain! I wish your people would’ve believed that when we told them all this. We told every one of them, so much good it did.”
“I don’t see a chair,” Helen said.
“Takes a few days to set up, but it’s worth it. Eee, sister. You’re looking a little peaked. Tell you what. We’ll throw in a banshee. To sing your life song. On us.”
Helen launched into a flurry of negotiation. She demanded the paperwork detailing her family debt. She asked for the value of her dog’s blood, insisting that it should count against her balance due. She turned down the banshee, hoping to trade the service to spare more of her own blood.
Lastly, Helen pointed out that Robin the Baron Liddesdale was immortal, and she was not, and that she was only pushing 50, and it would be nothing for a redcap to wait a few more decades for Helen to be good and old before they cashed in.
The redcap baron, who had not come upon his wealth and title by birth, had responses ready. He produced a sheaf of paperwork, hand-calligraphed in a fading brown substance that discouraged close examination. Helen also got nowhere with the dog argument. Dog blood fades into a common reddish-brown dye, barely valuable enough to ante a dice game. But human blood ages into a refined roan. Refined roan hats fetch deference on a battlefield. A fae war on mortalkind was underway—as the ragged remains of Helen’s village amply demonstrated—and the recaps must prepare to fight for whatever side might hire them. These times called for refined roan.
As for Helen’s age, the baron admitted he had no idea what the fifth decade of a human woman’s life looked like. Helen was neither pliant and fetching, nor plump and matronly—the only two types of human female, according to native texts he’d read. Still, he praised Helen for “asking so nicely,” and took four percent off her balance. That whole attic knew four percent wouldn’t save anybody.
“There now,” Robin said. “Dry your eye. You’re not dying of lingering ague. This is an excellent death.
“And it isn’t even here yet! You’ve a few days to settle your affairs. Who gets that kind of advantage these savage days? Edmund, see the lady out. Edmund! Get away from there!”
The lackey had wandered over to the dormer window overlooking the elder tree.
“No branches this high,” Edmund said. “It can’t get me.”
“It’s in the shadows that an Elder Mother lurks. Gads, Edmund, are you a fae or a flounder2?”
Helen ignored Edmund’s proffered arm. From the look of her, she’d already moved past grief, past paralysis. As we’ve learned, much too late, she was now the whispering end of a shrinking fuse. Tossing the poker down through the square hole, she stepped onto the ladder on her own, descended, slid on her walking clogs, and went out.
It’s a fifteen-minute walk from Helen’s cottage to the “resistance” headquarters, such as it is, and another five to its companion gun tower. The building is a stack of mottled grey, overlooking the no-man’s water between the Celtic Sea and what, until recently, had been called the English Channel.
The militiaman called Clem stood atop the tower, clad in helmet and camo, the lower half of his face covered in a surgical mask. He was firing at an outcropping of bedrock near the high-water line. Down below, a cluster of moss careened through the air.
Helen called out and waved, and he bid her come up.
“You missed,” she said. “And take that mask off. You look like you’re ready for germ warfare.”
“It’s the moss I want,” Clem said. “You notice it wasn’t here a month ago?”
“It’s been raining.”
“It’s fairy moss,” Clem said. “I bet it’s like their rabbits, the ones with people faces that the fairies use as spies. Look at the color.”
Helen squinted. “It’s green.”
“Bright green. What’s green like that, other than things what fairies have got to? Nothing. I bet that moss has a way of seeing and hearing everything we’re doing.”
“Clem. They’re plants.”
His eyes grew wide.
“They make spores, what get puffed, into the air. Spores what can travel miles and miles. They can go in your hair, up your nose. There’s nowhere they can’t be at.”
Clem peered into the sky.
“I bet that moss is listening to us right now. Hey! Fairy queen! You like that fancy speech? Here’s some. Off is the direction in which you must fuck3.”
He turned to Helen.
“You haven’t seen Arby, have you? Or Steve? They went out on patrol last night, never came back.”
Helen peered under Clem’s helmet, seeking his eyes.
“They’re dead, Clem. I’m sorry. Fae.”
He put down the gun.
“Nah. We’re not invaded yet.”
“It was redcaps. They’re still neutral in the war. They’re—operating on their own.”
“Well how’d you learn this?”
Helen told him. His face grew hard and he spat on the ground.
“So it was you brought them here.”
Did Clem catch that brief flash of outrage in Helen’s eyes? Unlikely. We made note of it with our usual acuity, may it please her highness.
“I am so very sorry,” Helen said. “Avenge them both. Bring the automatics and the cold iron bullets. You’ll be fighting fae. Just like you’ve been practicing for. Please, Clem. Please.”
Clem stared between his boots. A puff of moss was growing there in a riot of April green.
“You ask the general?” he said quietly.
“Oliver? I didn’t see him on the way over. He wasn’t on the parapet.”
“You try the fort basement? Under the kitchen?”
“What’s he doing there?”
“Inventory. Good time to barter. Might even let you hide out there if you put on a smile.”
He spat on the moss at his feet. It was a vile gesture and totally unwarranted.
I can see why the queen’s war master has his eye on this area’s Tudor-era fort: flat grounds, parapets as squat and menacing as Henry VIII himself, fine view of Her Grace’s blockade ships. We ourselves prefer the kitchen underneath; the moss on the walls is so fine it could be mistaken for lichen.
When Helen arrived, two dozen or so locals were hanging around the kitchen, mostly families, hoping for shelter. One of them pointed Helen to a door in the floor.
The stairs down were so uneven that Helen had to hang onto the walls on either side. A right alcove was stacked with black boxes bearing logos of red horses and “5.56 mm.” Hand-written labels said: LIMITED EDITION/COLD IRON. Olive-drab duffel bags filled the left alcove, all of them stuffed.
Oliver sat on the floor below, surrounded by cans of food and prescription bottles, all camouflage greens and combat boots. His helmet was festooned with fresh twigs and leaves4.
“Where’d you get all the meds?” Helen said.
He didn’t look up.
“Hi Helen. Donations from the civvies upstairs.”
She squatted and picked up a small vial of clear liquid.
“They donated? Their insulin?”
Oliver ignored her. “Help me inventory. I’ll even pay you. A place on the shelter wait list in exchange for some women’s good cheer.”
Oliver held out two small plastic bins, one labeled “birth control,” the other “allergic reactions.” She ignored them.
“I’ve a redcap debt,” she said. “I don’t intend to pay it.”
“Redcaps? Nah. Probably just a bunch of brownies who forgot their manners. Throw some rocks at them and they’ll scatter.”
“Just loan me a gun, please, or a man or two, until the actual invasion comes. Which it hasn’t.”
“I appreciate you asking so nicely, Helen. The civvies upstairs whine like babies. But no. We’re down two men. They likely deserted last night.”
Helen’s voice grew quiet.
“They didn’t desert, Oliver. The redcaps got them.”
“You don’t need to cover for Steve and Arby. We know they’re jellyfish.”
Helen sighed. “What’s in the duffels?”
Helen reached over and took Oliver’s chin in her hand.
“Ollie. I’m about to be bled to death. And we both know you’re just sitting here hoarding. And probably fixing to abandon the folks upstairs on top of that.”
Oliver made an effort to look pained. We would give him top marks for it.
“You know, citizen, you should be happy,” he said. “You saw those civilians, all queued up, whinging for handouts. And here I am, I offering you a place on the wait list, just for mucking about with some bottles. Now give us a smile. The invasion isn’t even here yet.”
A new thought occurred to him. One could almost hear the squirrels clattering between his ears. “Hey, why even come to me?”
“Where else would I go?” Helen said.
Oliver leaned in and lowered his voice.
“The spirit. In your tree. Wouldn’t normally bring her up, but… can’t be any scarier than brownies in your attic, right?”
Of course Helen tried to run, impossible odds be damned. It was mid-morning by the time she reached the chips factory, one of the few places left in town with a working vehicle.
She broke into the transpo manager’s office, found a tire iron and some keys, lit around the back and opened the factory garage door.
Three chips lorries sat dormant on the oil-dappled cement, tires flat.
Robin the Baron Liddesdale was leaning against the one nearest her, standing on a hardy patch of moss, spinning his weapon like a baton twirler in a solstice parade.
“I don’t know why I deflated the spares,” he said. “Wait, yes I do know why I did it. It was fun!”
Helen stormed up to Robin, brandished the tire iron and swung, slamming it just under his knees. Robin cried out, but redcaps are built low to the ground. He wobbled, steadied, took the butt-end of his halberd and smacked it across Helen’s calves.
She, too, wobbled but stayed upright. Then she raised the tire iron again. Robin grabbed at it, but not before Helen managed a sloppy crack across his temple. Black redcap blood ran down his neck.
“Now that,” Helen said, “would make a fine dye.”
This time the flat end of Robin’s halberd connected with Helen’s face. The tire iron clattered to the dust. Her hands flew up to her eyes. Blood gushed from her nose and down her chin. She swayed, spat, and finally, without a sound, slumped, with stubborn slowness, to the ground.
“If I wanted to,” Robin said, “I could’ve pushed that hard nose of yours all the way back into your nutlike brain. You’re lucky I’m a gentleman who keeps his word or I’d bleed you right here. Speaking of blood, that’s mine that I’m letting you spill on the ground. Say thank you.”
Helen muttered something.
“I can’t hear you.”
“Fuck you,” Helen said.
He left her sitting there in a gritty patch of oil, and she was still sitting there when the sun dipped below the horizon.
You’ve asked what it takes for a human to cross the shadow of an Elder Mother. We humbly submit that at this point, anybody might cross the shadow of an Elder Mother.
She crawled back to her house on her hands and knees. It took her all of the afternoon, stopping on occasion to rest. She had left her iron poker at the edge of her property, and when she arrived, she used it as a crutch to get herself standing.
As she approached, white-on-white eyes appeared in the windows of her attic. They watched her shamble past her front door, into a side yard and round the back. Hisses and jeers floated down to her as she limped to the very tip of the longest shadow of her elder tree.
And there she stood as the moon rose, waiting.
Ill at ease, the redcaps at the windows fell back into shadows. Fresh sounds replaced the chuckles: the pings of small hammers on metal.
The next voice came up from the shadows on the ground5.
Helen swallowed. “To live.”
“I cannot hear you. Closer.”
Helen didn’t move. With whatever strength she had left, she raised her voice and repeated herself.
If you’ve never heard an Elder Mother laugh, we do not recommend seeking it out.
“Close your eyes,” the Elder Mother said.
“What am I seeing?”
“That’s my garden. But that’s not my house. And where are you?”
“Felled,” the Elder Mother said. “Perhaps by the fae queen. Or not. I cannot see.”
“So the queen’s finally coming to conquer us.”
“She thirsts, as all queens thirst. But I am a queen, too. A primeval mother of shade. I sang with the Earth before the first fae ever burst screaming from a berm. This land is my right. I will not accept this fate.”
Helen opened her eyes.
“So you’ll help me.”
Another eldritch chuckle.
“I’ll release you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I take your death, not the redcaps. My wood colonizes your bones and my bark cakes upon your skin until it’s harder than any fae armor. My branches burst triumphant through your skull, their ends as razors that would flay a war hound’s stinking flesh. I call forth sleeping fae terror birds from the cracks of the earth, to nest in my new crown and fell all who cross me.
“Six times as tall I grow, brown the pupils of your blue eyes turn. I walk in your shell, wreak terror from the ever-marching siege tower of your body until every last fae pleads for my grace.”
A pallor was creeping up Helen’s neck.
“There must be some other way. I’m asking, no, begging you.”
Do elder trees sigh? We suppose we should research that.
“Asking has no worth in a time of war. Asking has no worth in a land of kings. Any monarch who lasts longer than a season has no such language. He only pretends to. There is only take, and be taken from, and take some more.”
“It is the way of majesties,” the Elder Mother said. “Come.”
The moon had vanished behind a cloud, but the shadows of the elder tree lengthened further still, reaching for Helen’s foot.
She gripped her poker.
The shadow crept further, wrapping around one ankle, snaking vine-like up to her knee.
In a single fluid motion that betrayed a body’s worth of broken cartilage and countless bruises, Helen swung the poker straight down into the artificially darkened earth.
The instrument was as rusty as ever, but it was still cold iron.
An hour later, the redcaps finalized their work, and a bleeding chair was born. The frame was molded from silver in the shape of hawthorn branches. The two arm rests, seat, and filigreed back splat, all made of tin, sported dozens of needle-like thorns. The four legs, arm restraints, leg shackles, side rails, and corner blocks gleamed in tones of rose gold and white lead. Robin the Baron Liddesdale had kept his promise. Helen’s bleeding chair was shiny.
She was in her kitchen when they came for her. The lights were off. She sat at her nook, unmoving.
“Thought I heard a scream earlier,” Robin said. “You all right?”
Helen smiled but said nothing. Up they went to the attic. She glanced at the chair and pointed to something on the seat. “Is that mine too?”
The baron picked up a hammered-tin cylinder, 23 inches in circumference and two inches in height. Sprouting from inner rim was a circle of inch-long thorns.
“Your bleeding crown,” he said. “Isn’t it pretty?”
“Fit for a queen.”
“And we promised you Seelie ointment. No pain. You’ll see. No need to strip completely, just down to your small clothes. There’s a girl.”
Helen pulled down her trousers.
A few of the redcaps gasped. Off in a corner, a halberd clattered to the floor. A carpet of grey bark was creeping up from Helen’s left foot toward her corresponding knee.
“Does it look that bad?” Helen said.
“I don’t know what pointless bargain you struck with that dried-up sack of splinters out there, but it’s too late. Sod the Seelie ointment. Lads, get this ingrate into the chair.”
It took six redcaps to subdue her, press her into the chair and fasten the limb restraints. Her hips cracked as they bent. It didn’t sound like bones. The baron lowered the crown onto her head, and turned two pairs of gleaming valves, one behind the back splat, the other on the back of the crown. Metal thorns spiraled into Helen’s flesh. Rivulets of blood began to pour from her temples, thighs, wrists.
Other redcaps stepped forward carrying white hats. They lay them in a gold trough at the foot of the chair. Out of kindness or cruelty—we can’t say—Robin had built the bleeding chair without a neck restraint. Helen lowered her head, blood dividing and rejoining as it made its way down her face. She watched, her eyes unreadable under gore-slicked clumps of hair, as the hats at her feet darkened to a sopping crimson.
It was Edmund. He was leaning out of the dormer window overlooking the elder tree.
“Come sanguinate your cap, Edmund,” Robin said.
“But sir. It’s the elder, sir. It’s gone. All of it.”
Robin strode over to the window. We can confirm that at that moment, all vestiges of the elder tree had vanished. Not even a stump nor a twig remained. Her sudden departure left not even a hole in the earth.
A sound rose up around Helen’s bleeding chair, a soggy tearing paired with the creaking of young wood. Robin and his men turned, and froze.
Helen’s hands were still pinned to the chair by metal thorns and restraints. But Helen’s arms, from the wrist joint up, were free. From the nubs where her hands had been, a new flesh, the color of tumbled stone, began to sprout, divide. Twigs leafed around Helen’s metal crown, weaving among the gold thorns, engulfing them.
Backed by an anthem of splitting bone and snapping wood, Helen’s thighs thickened, her flesh hardening into—not bark, exactly, and certainly not the shadow limbs of an Elder Mother. Helen had not counted on the Elder Mother asking such a high price. But the Elder Mother hadn’t anticipated a person as tooth-tough as Helen Couch. What emerged now was a terrifying amalgam of both, something entirely new.
Shackles popped. Precious metal shrapnel flew into walls and rafters. Helen—or what had been Helen—rose and took a lurching step toward Robin.
The baron craned his neck and stared. One of Helen’s eyes remained blue as ice. The other was now as brown as the earth. Long thorns were emerging from the branches in her hair. They looked very much like a new crown.
Twelve cold iron halberds slid out of shoulder holsters and belt loops. Edmund broke into a forward sprint, business end of his weapon aimed at Helen’s neck. Helen reached out a hand. It was broader now, and greyer, but still sporting five finger-like appendages. She caught the instrument by its handle and flung it aside. With her other arm, she grabbed Edmund’s neck and squeezed. Other halberds swung at her legs and back, but she did not stop squeezing until both of Edmund’s fishy white eyes were rolling about on the floor.
She handled the rest of them with an almost regal calm. With a dip of her chin, her vicious crown of newly sprouted thorns made ribbons of redcap faces, filets of their bellies. As redcaps dropped to the floorboards in shock, bleeding out, Helen stomped each one with a hard, flat foot, crushing their necks like kindling.
Robin waited until all 12 of his fellows were still before he unsheathed his own weapon. He lasted no longer than any of the others.
The fort looked fat and sleepy in the moonlight as Elder-Helen approached. Her limbs creaked as she ducked into a patch of shadows under a barbican wall.
Oliver emerged balancing four stuffed duffel bags, two on each shoulder. He carried a rifle.
“Where you headed then, Oliver?” Elder-Helen said, her voice as brittle as branches scraping a wall.
“Helen?” Oliver said into the dark. “That you?”
She stepped forward. Oliver gaped, hoisted his rifle into ready, and fired.
The bullet was cold iron, and it chewed through Elder-Helen’s torso, leaving a hole the size of a golf ball. But, as is her wont, she remained standing. Nubby grey skin knit back up like a sock darning itself.
“Well that’s new,” Elder-Helen said.
She yanked the rifle from Oliver’s hands and snapped the weapon in half with a single arm-like appendage. With her other, she reached out and broke four of Oliver’s fingers. He tore away, stumbling back toward the inner wall.
“Hey,” Elder-Helen said. “I didn’t say move.”
He crept back. “So what… what happened to you?”
“I happened to someone else, actually.”
With a gesture, she bid him follow her, and the two of them left the fort behind, making for the gun tower. She strode fast, stray leaves from her crown trailing behind her like rose petals at a wedding.
As she approached the tower wall, strange tendrils, not unlike ivy, erupted from her fleshbark, seeking tiny footholds in the old stones. In this way, she climbed the tower. She reached the top, faced out to the west, and said nothing more.
Since that night, she has not moved from her position, though we have seen no roots forming under her feet.
This concludes our report. If the Elder Mother’s predictions of an offensive are true, please convey our best wishes to the queen’s war master. We are sure he will have no need of them.
—Report from 20th day of the Month of Moths
From: Spy Moss Unit 4066 Southwest
Her Majesty Queen Whisht’s Royal Moss Intelligence Network, Cornwall.
1. Please reference our plenary report dated 7 June 1307, titled “Redcap Running Competition Near Newcastleton.” In summary: One evening early in the reign of Robert the Bruce, a clan of redcaps gathered outside a castle they were squatting in. They loaded up one of their own with more metal weapons, jewelry, and smithing tools than a Viking grave. (Our observer estimates the weight at 18 British stone.) A human prisoner, likely a debtor, was given a swift horse and told he could have a week’s head start. Said human’s corpse was found drained of blood within the ten-day, half-submerged in the River Tummel.↩
2. For the record, the eyes of this redcap looked very much like a flounder.↩
3. I of course take no pleasure in repeating these aspersions against Her Majesty, Queen of the Eight, may a shadow never cross her white cheek, etc.↩
4. Should her majesty’s spy master inquire: we are not sure what manner of tree, war willow, or Elder Mother this person was paying tribute to.↩
5. We use the word “voice” loosely. Please refer to our file on Elder Mothers for the timbre of one’s typical speaking voice. We’d rather not describe it if we don’t have to.↩
|Hammond Diehl is a journalist chronicling the ongoing fae invasion from an undisclosed safe location in Los Angeles. Diehl’s work also has appeared in the Bear Creek Gazette and Strange Horizons. Follow Hamm, if you like, on Twitter at @saltysaltyhamm.|