The Dragon and the Goddess: Top Ten Reads of 2014

  1. The Turn of the Story – Sarah Rees Brennan
  2. Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
  3. Fairytales for Wilde Girls – Allyse Near
  4. On the Steel Breeze – Alastair Reynolds
  5. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  6. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie
  7. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin
  8. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
  9. Rose Under Fire – Elizabeth Wein
  10. Nimona – Noelle Stevenson

As if these books are not all wonderful enough, two are available for free online. Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Turn of the Story was intended as an extra for her short story ‘The Wings of the Morning’ (published in Monstrous Affections: an Anthology of Beastly Tales) but kept getting extended into more segments and sort of turned into a novel. It includes the most dangerous pacifist you’re ever likely to meet, his mildly concerned friends, matriarchal elves, a judgemental unicorn and all the fabulous fantasy meta you can stab with a sword. Links to all the chapters are compiled here.

I can LINK again! It’s exciting!

Another excellent online project that engages with fantasy traditions while at the same time totally inverting them is Noelle Stevenson’s webcomic Nimona, about an idealistic supervillain and his entirely unmanageable shapechanging apprentice. It can be read in full here, and a print edition will be released in 2015 with an exclusive epilogue. Creators in any medium usually face a difficult balance between making what they love and making a living; that these women have chosen to share so much of their amazing work free of charge is incredibly generous, and could not be more appreciated.

Happy New Year, and happy reading in 2015!

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Review No.238 – To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

Triad/ Panther Books, 1977

Originally published in 1927

They gather on the island, a motley collection of artists and philosophers, all drawn together by the magnetic presence of Mrs Ramsay. She wears her ageless beauty carelessly and shares her warmth with them all, but always there is a part of her beyond anyone’s reach – beyond her demanding husband, who lays his fears of obscurity upon her shoulders; beyond his adoring protégé and her restless younger friends; sometimes even beyond herself. But within Mrs Ramsay’s circle, the boundaries are shifting. The smallest of moments can haunt you for a lifetime.

This is such a very strange book it is difficult to compose a blurb at all; there is only the vaguest suggestion of a plot, barely any action at all and the stream of consciousness sentence structure is mostly bewildering. It is the first Woolf novel I’ve tried and at first it didn’t engage me at all. The more I read, though, the more fascinating the characters became; the angles from which they see each other, the ways in which they see themselves, and particularly the way Mrs Ramsay’s friends’ fantasies about her clash against the real woman. It’s startling and refreshing how honest it feels. A dreamily melancholic atmosphere suffuses the book, but there is a strong vein of quiet, dry humour here too. Woolf’s other works include Mrs Dalloway and Orlando.

A Lane of Locks: Part 4

A Lane of Locks

by Faith Mudge

Part 4

It took twice as long to get home. I was supporting Agnes most of the way, but she seemed barely aware of me, staring off into the distance and drifting away if I didn’t keep firm hold of her arm. When I finally got her through her own front door and settled her in the bath, with towels wadded up behind her head as a pillow, she fell asleep almost immediately and I went to show the map to Robert.

It made much more sense to him than to me. I had studied maps in the schoolroom, but whenever I had been on a journey someone else had planned it for me and driven me there. Robert, prone to spontaneous travel whenever he couldn’t bear talking to Papa any more, knew how to use a map. There were two within the twist of paper, the directions to the den and, as Crane had promised, the layout inside.

“Trows are very small,” Robert said, “and they will have their children there. They will be afraid of us. It may not be too hard.”

“You can’t come with me,” I exclaimed, shocked. “What about Agnes?”

“If we leave now, we may return before she wakes.”

“And if not? If she sets fire to the house?”

Robert lifted his head. “Geraldine,” he said softly, “we are all each other has, in this place. You are not going alone, and there is no one else to help us.”

I mouthed a wordless protest. Robert turned his attention back to the maps.

He was right, as I had been right with Agnes; and wrong, as I had been, because we needed each other but we also needed to be in three places at once, at home and at the shop and in the hidden bolthole of wicked creatures that burned people from afar. Robert had better reasons than mine to be afraid and he still meant to go. I had no way to stop him.

According to the map, the den was on the borderline between the Viridian district and the Northern Gardens. Neither of us had been in that part of the city before. I had to pay a foul-mouthed little winged man to catch us a bus timetable, then we had to fold out the paper wings and interpret the tiny writing within. By the time we were underway, it was almost noon. The clouds were heavy overhead, sheeting petals and thorns, and the gutters ran crimson. Robert’s face was very pale, his lips tight. He wore a long coat and underneath it, a sword I had not seen him handle since the day we threw his armour in the river and reclaimed him from the Game. I didn’t like to see it.

I had watched him execute a goblin in the Game, poor frozen thing, with a face blank as marble and that sword shining in a bright terrible arc. I wondered if he had killed humans with a look like that on his face, in Crimea. He had never talked about it. He had not talked much at all, when he came home from the war.

We were the only humans on the bus. Everyone was staring at us and Robert in turn stared fixedly ahead, his hands fisted so hard the knuckles strained white under the skin. A satyr brushed past us to leave the bus, deliberately shoving Robert sideways. Robert snarled under his breath. It didn’t sound like him at all.

This city was poison to people like us.

* * *

This time we had kept the moth; I unfurled it every so often to remind myself of our stop. Hob Place, when we reached it, was a gloomy square of tall grey houses thatched with moss. A fountain at its centre spat irregular jets of dirty water. Robert took another look at the map and went over to the fountain. The pool at its base was grotty with wet dead leaves and the fresh fall of rose petals were already turning brown.

“It’s under there,” he said glumly.

“How do we get at it?”

“There are some spiralling arrows, but I’m not sure what they mean.” He sat on the edge of the fountain and held the map in front of his face, turning it slowly around to try different angles. I leaned over his shoulder to see, feeling increasingly panicked. The bus ride had taken well over an hour; what if, in our absence, the flames set a spark and the flat caught fire? Agnes might not wake in time. What if the curse worsened faster than Absolution Crane had expected?

Robert stood suddenly and circled the fountain, staring at the paving stones. He slammed his boot down and there was a crack – the paver tipped down like a trapdoor and we both leaned forward to look at the descending line of steps.

“It’s so small,” Robert said, dismayed.

“You won’t fit,” I agreed, with mixed relief and anxiety. “I think I will.”

Robert didn’t reply for a long moment. Then he pushed both maps into my hand. “For Agnes,” he said. “But if you need me, I will find a way to reach you.”

Did he know he had one hand on the sword?

“I’ll be quick as a mouse,” I promised, and squeezed through the gap.

I am quite small, but it was still a narrow fit. The steps led to a tunnel, floored with shimmering dust, silver spoons of all sizes hanging from the ceiling like tiny silver stalactites. I had to crawl along on my stomach so as not to set them all chiming.

A bit further along the ceiling lifted and the spoons petered out. Little tunnels started branching off at the sides. It was very dark, with only the occasional lamp sconce to light the way, but that was enough to set alight the gleam of silver: bent forks, goblets, all manner of coins, pressed into the packed earth and forming painstaking patterns across the walls and floor. I stopped at the first sconce and held the second map up to its light. There were more of the circling arrows. I studied them carefully, then hurried down one of the branching tunnels, marked by a silver fob watch embedded in the wall above.

The patter of footsteps in the tunnel behind made me glance quickly back, catching sight of my first trows. They were passing through the main tunnel, a pair of women half my height, grey-skinned with bulbous features and bright kerchiefs tied over their heads. One held a grousing baby. They were heading the way I had come; I was unexpectedly afraid for them. The look on Robert’s face as he watched me go had not been marble-cold, but if they took him by surprise – if he thought I was not coming back –

I walked very quickly.

This tunnel twisted like the arrows, and without the map I would soon have lost my bearings. Then I smelled smoke. Around the umpteenth corner the tunnel suddenly ended, leaving me at the mouth of a room bathed in red firelight.

There was no question I had found what I was looking for. A pair of rough wooden effigies stood in the middle of the floor, and a male trow sat by the fire with several prongs heating in the coals. I plunged into the room.

“Not a sound,” I hissed at the trow, who had jumped to his feet and opened his mouth. I flourished the wrench to emphasise my point. Backing towards the female effigy, I looked it over frantically. It was terrible work, not like Agnes at all, but there were two long brown hairs encircling its wrists and when I snapped those away the trow swayed toward me, making a protesting noise.

“You bastard,” I said, with feeling. “How dare you?”

Fixed under my glare, he hunched his shoulders protectively. “You?” he asked, gesturing at the effigy.

“My friend,” I growled. “What did she ever do to you? Or do you just like setting people on fire?”

He spread his hands placatingly. His eyes were on the wrench.

“Promised silver,” he said, like that explained everything. “Great insult – bad hurt. Valentine says, penance.”

“Well, he can’t have it,” I said furiously, and tore the scrap of red cloth from around the second effigy’s throat. The trow groaned.

“Don’t you dare move!” I flourished the wrench forcefully. “What you are doing is wicked and if you come after me or any of my friends again I – I’ll sell maps of this warren in the street. I will tell everyone I meet how to find you. Then you’ll know what it’s like to be at someone’s mercy. As if this foul city has any mercy at all! For any beauty it has there’s a counterweight of cruelty and you never know when it’s coming for you. How can these things happen? Why does no one make you stop?”

There was a hysterical edge to my voice now. I had been wanting to put my rage into words for so long. “I didn’t want to come here! I’d leave in a breath if I could, and take Robert with me, and Agnes too. I want muddy fields and dressing for dinner and knowing everyone I meet is human. That they aren’t about to eat or enspell me. I want to be safe again! I want to go home!”

The trow shuffled his feet and twisted his fingers. I thought he was frightened; that was a silly mistake. He only wanted to get close enough to the fire to knock out the prongs. They made a terrible clatter together, falling onto the hearthstones. Jumping well out of my reach, he started shouting.

I turned and fled. Where before the tunnel had been empty, hidden doors were now opening from the earth walls and other trows were emerging: men and women, a few children, all wearing silver in their ears or around their necks, some with it embroidered into their clothes. A babble of cries erupted around me. Some of the trows shrank back, clutching at their children; others gathered, trying to block my way, but I was taller and stronger and very determined. I had my wrench – I didn’t use it. I used my elbows and knees instead, kicking away the tiny hands seizing on my skirt, wrestling my way to the main tunnel and running as fast as I could, straight through the jangling spoons with one arm raised to shield my face. When I looked up, I saw Robert’s hand thrust through the trapdoor.

He hauled me out. A trow clung to my ankle; Robert slapped it away and it tumbled across the cobblestones with a mewl of pain. The sword was suddenly unsheathed in his hand; he was standing over the trow, his foot pinning its raggedy coat to the ground. I opened my mouth to cry out, then let the breath go – Robert had stepped back, the sword falling limply to his side. The trow scrabbled away, down into the warren.

“The bus is coming,” Robert said, catching my arm to pull me to my feet.

We attracted even more stares this time, me being so smeared in shining dust, but I didn’t care much. The combustion curse was broken. We had been victorious.

I looked at Robert. He was staring out the window with a wondering expression.

“I didn’t do it,” he said softly. “I stopped. I could stop.”

“Of course you did,” I said fiercely. I leaned my head on his shoulder, and he sighed quietly. For once he didn’t sound sad.

* * *

Agnes was not there when we got back.

The bath had been drained and the worst of the mess cleaned up. By the time I found her note, pinned to the front door (we had not even looked as we pushed it open) I had already realised what she must have done. Washing off the silver dust and dressing afresh, I set off into the lengthening shadows of afternoon. The rain had eased and the air was heady with the scent of crushed petals.

The Chamomile Heart was open, spilling golden lamplight into the street. I paused at the window, watching Agnes mix leaves at the counter. She looked very tired, but not hurt. As she passed over the cup, she caught my eye and her face lit up with a smile.

“You’re all right,” she said, coming quickly to the door. “And Robert?”

“He’s…” I didn’t want to risk saying out loud, I think he’s getting better. “I left him copying the maps. Just in case, he said.”

“I should have waited for you,” Agnes said apologetically. “But I’d left the shop too long. Next time I need to see an apothecary, I’d like to be able to pay in coins.”

“I would like to never see an apothecary again,” I said.

Only that was not really true. Absolution Crane had said she could give me a way home, if I could pay. And I could not. There were things I wasn’t desperate enough to sell yet – my memories, my secrets, the colour of my eyes. Still, I would not stop dreaming about it. There might be a way.

Agnes held the door open. “Can you help? There’s a bit of a crowd.”

I took off my coat and picked up the teapot. This, I could do.

© Faith Mudge 2014

A Lane of Locks: Part 3

A Lane of Locks

by Faith Mudge

Part 3

Doors should not appear from nowhere. I feel very strongly about this.

Walking into the residence of Absolution Crane gave me a horrible sense of dislocation. From the outside, the wall had been about a foot taller than myself and we had been able to hear sounds from the street on the other side – the rattle of carriage wheels, the shouts of drivers, the wails of a distant siren and her sisters. Once inside it was clear only the doors had anything to do with that part of the city. We were standing on a wooden gantry that ran the entire circumference of a vast ovoid chamber, like the belly of an enormous ship. The ceiling vanished into darkness somewhere far above me; the ground below was almost as obscure. For a few minutes I just stood there, gripping a tarnished brass railing and wondering how to get the door back.

A flame broke out on Agnes’s shoulder. She stifled it with the flat of her hand and sighed. “Let’s find Apothecary Crane, shall we?”

The stairs deposited us in a forest of oddments. Piles of strange treasure tottered high on either side, leaving only the narrowest of paths to pass between. We walked past stacks of feather mattresses and heaps of ship’s rigging, a wooden chest spilling jewels, a gilded sarcophagi, the startled-looking statue of a man wearing a crown. I counted turns, determined not to be lost again. At last we came to a clearing defined by a circle of ornate iron street lamps, in the middle of which sat a billiard table and a cage suspended from the ceiling by a very long chain.

“Hello?” Agnes called cautiously. The place might be a warren, but its acoustics were excellent; if the apothecary had not known where we were from the moment we set foot through the door, he must know by now. How many other patients were wandering around that labyrinth? Would they all come out again?

“You smell like scaredy-bird.”

The voice was hoarse and male and alarmingly close. I whirled around to see a white one-eyed rat thrusting its nose between the bars of the cage. It bared yellow teeth in what was unmistakeably a leer.

“Hello, poppet,” it rasped.

I jerked back instinctively. Rats should not speak English. Rats shouldn’t smile.

“Are you the apothecary’s assistant?” Agnes asked coolly.

The rat spluttered indignantly. “Assis’ant? Assis’ant? Oh, I’ll not be forgetting that, me girl, I’ll be putting the quakes and plague on you for that – “

Agnes looked him over, wrinkling her nose. “You’re not the apothecary. A rat, perhaps, but a rat in a cage? I don’t think so.”

An arm wrapped around my shoulders, bringing with it a smell of cities and storms. “That’s marvellous logic, my dear. Flawed and a little confrontational, but still, well thought of. Who is your pretty friend?”

Absolution Crane was a woman. She was very tall and very thin and glittered in a disturbing sort of way. This was, I realised, because her black frock coat was sewn all over with shards of broken glass and metal filings. On her feet, contributing to her towering height, were a pair of precariously high heeled black boots; on her head, a tricorn with a dagger thrust through one side like a feather. Her grin was very wide. What big teeth you have, Grandmama, I thought, and wished I had not.

Agnes introduced us. Absolution Crane stared at her intently while she spoke.

“My, my,” she purred, “where did you come by that combustion curse? It must be terribly uncomfortable! Take a seat at once!”

She pushed me. I thought I was going to land flat on my back, but the wide leather arms of a wingback chair caught me halfway down. Crane slid around me so smoothly it seemed as if she had wheels attached to her outrageous shoes and snapped her fingers, summoning up a rocking chair from the shadowy junkyard. Agnes sat with enviable composure, and though flames licked up and down her legs, the chair did not burn.

“We were accosted by an incubus last night,” she explained. “We used necessary force to repel him, but as I woke up hours later covered in flames, I assume he did not take the rejection with dignity.”

Crane tutted. I noticed, as her long fingers prodded experimentally at Agnes’s burning leg, that each had an extra joint. Her skin was the colour of sand and it glittered a little too, when it caught the light just so.

“No incubus could manage a combustion curse,” she said matter-of-factly. “Their magic is all glamour and shadow, no knack for detail. Have you annoyed a trow lately, perhaps? Caught it picking your purse, denied it silver?”

Agnes shook her head. “I don’t recall any trouble with trows.”

“Then the incubus must have paid them a pretty penny or two to do it for him,” Crane decided. “They’ll have made an effigy of you and be poking it with hot coals. You have some sort of protection, I’m thinking, a charm?”

Reluctantly, Agnes extended her wrist. A silver bracelet slid out from under her cuff. It was a thick chain of twisted links, with two keys hung on it and a small wooden heart. Crane caught at the pendant, hissing a little as the wood brushed her skin.

“Rowan,” she murmured. “Ah. Perchance you have been cursed before?”

Agnes smiled tightly. “I prefer to be prepared.”

“Where rowan goes, rue will follow,” the white rat sang.

Absolution kicked absently at the cage, her attention fixed on the charm for a moment longer before she let it go. “This won’t be half of half enough,” she announced. “The Valentine must have taken something of yours for the spell to catch and the flames won’t stop until that thing is yours again, or the trows grow bored with the work. Or the effigy is ash. That may take awhile.”

We waited. She poked interestedly at a flame on Agnes’ shoulder.

“What should we do?” I asked, at last.

The apothecary grinned again. “There’s a question! I could remove the curse myself, with some time and effort – for which I must be duly compensated. Or I could give you a map to the trow den in question, and you could remove it yourself, and only perhaps make things worse. It’s entirely up to you, or rather it is entirely up to your personal finances. Think it over a minute.”

“But she’s on fire!” I protested. “Isn’t that doing her harm?”

“Of course it is. Within a day or two the charm will fail and her skin will start burning. It may kill her, eventually. I can sell you a charm to delay that.”

Seeing my horrified expression, Crane spread her hands. “Everything has a price. Sabbath here will tell you that.” She tapped the white rat affectionately on the nose. He hunkered down, teeth bared. “Do tell me you’re not the tiresome sorts who think I should make everything better for the satisfaction of it? Because I don’t like those people at all.”

There was still the hint of a smile on her face, but no warmth.

Agnes eyed the nearest statue. “No. We’re not like that at all.”

“Splendid!” Crane threw herself onto a crimson love seat that had not been there a moment before, crossing her ankles comfortably. “What will you have, then?”

“The map.”

“That would be worth a week of dreams,” Crane said thoughtfully, “but I’ll accept your first memory of summer.”

“A memory of sunlight,” Agnes offered quietly, “one of my own choosing.”

“Then I’ll need three memories.”

“I’ll give you two, both of summer.”

“Make them of the sea.”

“One, then, of sunlight and the sea.”

Crane reclined in her chair, studying Agnes as if she could see through her skull to the promised memory within. “Does it involve your mother? Some clients are partial to mothers.”

“It can,” Agnes said. I looked at her, appalled.

Crane clapped her hands decisively. A small twist of paper fell from between them and rolled across the floor, fetching up against my feet. I bent and unrolled it; the scroll was covered in the intricate lines of a very small map.

“I’ll take it now,” the apothecary said. “You may think my terms excessive,” she added, and I realised she was talking to me, “but I deliver what I promise, which is considerably more than you can say about life in general. Isn’t that so, Sabbath?”

The rat muttered something profane. Crane laughed.

“He used to be a pirate, you know,” she remarked. “The bloodiest blade on the seas! Then his ship caught the wrong tide and washed up in redder waters than even he knew how to bear. Ruthlessness stood him in good stead for a while, but he took a little too long to understand some people should not be cheated. He knows some wonderful shanties, though, so it’s not all bad!”

“Really,” I breathed faintly.

“You are a sweet thing,” the apothecary said, giving me an appreciative look. “Such lovely green eyes. Have a care someone doesn’t steal them away.”

My eyes might be pretty, but they couldn’t catch the movement between Crane lounging back in her chair and being suddenly on her feet. Even Agnes flinched. She sat very stiffly as Crane approached, but took the tiny vial she was offered and drained the contents without hesitation, like she had done this before. A shudder passed through her, and Crane caught her hand, pushing the vial close to her mouth; one jewel-coloured breath refilled the vial and Agnes slumped, one hand going to her forehead with a dazed expression. I came to my feet and hesitated, utterly unsure what I should do.

Crane drew back with a small sigh, cradling the vial carefully between both hands. “Never mind, pet,” she said quietly to Agnes. “The sea will give you another memory, one day. Better take her home,” she added to me, “let her sleep. Don’t lose the map, mind; you’d have to pay for a replacement.”

“Is it worth so much?” I asked, staring at Agnes. “A memory of her mother?”

“You have a map to one of Candlebridge’s trow dens and the warren inside,” Crane said slowly. “That is worth a very great deal, and memories are what she has to give. You would be surprised what people will sell to get what they want. What would you pay, after all, for the right Door?”

She snapped her fingers and a roll of tapestry tumbled down, revealing a door suspended in midair. It was otherwise plain, painted a well-weathered white with a round brass knob. A sound broke in my mouth.

It was the servant’s entrance at Musgrave Park.

It was my home.

“This would cost more than memory,” Crane said calmly. She snapped her fingers and the illusion disappeared. “Doors are not lightly made. But you probably have something within you worth the making – most people do – the question is, would you sell it, and would you still want to go home if you did? I am an apothecary, my dear, I give people what they ask for and they pay me what they have. It’s a fair arrangement.”

I tore my eyes away from the empty space where a wish had been and pulled Agnes to her feet, holding her upright when she swayed. I had to leave this place.

“Wait,” the apothecary called. I turned a little, holding Agnes like a talisman – then had to let her go and reach out as something shining spun through the air into my hand. It was a key.

“You know the way now,” Absolution Crane said. “Good luck fighting the fires.”

© Faith Mudge 2014

A Lane of Locks: Part 2

A Lane of Locks

by Faith Mudge

Part 2

It was a horrible night. None of us had much sleep. Shortly after dawn, I was roused from an uneasy doze by a knock on the door and went cautiously to answer. Standing outside was a grubby little boy holding a large net. Something small and pale fluttered against the threads.

“Message for Miss Chandler,” he announced. “You Miss Chandler?”

“I’ll give it to her.” I held out a hand and the boy shrugged, tipping the net over my palm. A white moth patterned in curling dark lines flickered in the air above my hand and I quickly folded my fingers to enclose it. The boy waited expectantly. Clearly, the sender of the message had arranged for the boy to be paid upon delivery – or he was simply an enterprising little trickster. I fished a penny from my skirt pocket and he ran away without another word.

Closing the door, I rubbed my eyes with the back of my free hand. Usually the flat was kept reasonably tidy, due largely to the fact none of us owned very much, but today the sitting room floor was strewn with scraps of burnt blanket. I opened a door that led into the cramped little hall off the main room and saw Robert sitting outside the bathroom door, reading aloud from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. He looked up as I approached.

“What is that?” he asked, looking at my closed hand.

“I’m not sure yet. How is she?”

“She can hear you.” Agnes’s voice drifted through the crack, uncharacteristically sharp. “Come in, won’t you, don’t hover.”

Tentatively, I pushed the door the rest of the way open. At some point while I had been asleep, Agnes’s nightdress had burned beyond repair and now she wore a sodden chemise. She looked cold, wet and decidedly tetchy.

“Robert won’t come in,” she said, confirming the tetchy part. “He doesn’t think it’s appropriate to see me like this. Personally I think ‘appropriate’ isn’t the right word for any part of this situation, but that’s Victorian propriety for you. Has the message arrived?”

I nodded and sat on the rim of the bath to show her. Paper moths were a common means of communication in Candlebridge, the pattern across their wings revealed upon close inspection to be very small writing. Where they came from, I had never understood, nor whether they were truly alive or only an enchantment, but you saw them everywhere and the catchers who made a living pursuing them. I had not yet mastered the art of interpreting them, so Agnes carefully parted the wings herself.

Turn into the lane opposite the House of Rivers,” she read aloud. “Continue to the bell under the moon and ring eight times. Yours truly, Absolution Crane.

I waited. “Is that all?”

Agnes got stiffly to her feet and unlatched the bathroom window, releasing the moth. “I think I can follow those directions,” she said. “Absolution Crane must be the name of the apothecary.” She wrapped the wet blanket tightly around herself and raised her voice. “Robert! Come here.”

He leaned around the door. “Yes?”

“I’ve been given an appointment,” she explained. “Today, so at least I can go at once and get it over with.”

“I’ll come with you,” Robert offered, “if you like.”

It was lightly said, as if it didn’t matter, as if every step outside this flat did not cost him. By my reckoning, the time between his disappearance and his rescue had been a matter of weeks, but by his it could have been a lifetime. I had not dared ask. I knew that it was not easy for him, trying to trust that the same thing would not happen again. I also knew that if Agnes said she wanted him to come, he would do it.

“Nonsense. Don’t pander to me.” She dredged up a smile. “It’s sweet of you to offer, but I’ll be perfectly all right.”

“Of course we will,” I said.

She frowned at me. “No, I need you to look after the shop.”

“Agnes, you’re catching fire.”

“Perhaps that will make the apothecary see me faster, out of self preservation.”

“You are ill, and you are not going alone.”

I won the point by refusing to argue it at all. Instead, I put on my coat and hat and sat by the door, ignoring her exasperated protests until she gave up and went to get dressed.

By then Robert had retreated to the balcony. It was a tiny outcrop of concrete that Agnes had mostly ignored during her solo occupancy of the flat, but Robert had done mysterious things with seeds and earth and chipped bowls, and now there was a garden on the other side of the French doors. Though I had been educated in botany, most of what he grew was unfamiliar to me, some of it unnervingly so. I avoided it on the whole, but when I poked my nose through the doors to say goodbye, I stopped to watch him. He was crouched on the mossy cement, sunlight in his hair and earth on his fingers.

He had been a soldier, in our world, made a captain in the Crimean War. When he came home he wasn’t the same, and now sometimes I saw expressions on his face I didn’t know at all. When he was like this, I saw the brother I understood. He could fill every room with blackbells and luminescent roses if it would only make him happy again.

“Be careful, Geraldine,” he said, straightening up. “Ask no favours without agreeing on payment first, and if anything frightens you, come back at once. Do you have the wrench?”

I patted my reticule. I had made the bag myself, larger than was common and with cunning pockets hidden by the pattern. It was still full of keys. I should have hit the incubus with this instead, but I could only think of it because I wasn’t terrified any more.

“I’m ready,” I said, which we both knew was not true.

Agnes’s flat was on the fourth floor. There was theoretically a lift, but it had last been seen weeks ago lurking inside a broom cupboard, refusing to stop at the ground floor. It was easier to take the stairs than search, though that generally meant running into quarrelling neighbours or random explosions of magic. Today a little girl with wings like a dragonfly was playing a complicated game of hopscotch on the second landing. Agnes gave her a key as we passed, so I did too. She gave a delighted shriek and ran to show her parents.

“It’s so exciting for the little ones,” Agnes observed, fondly.

In the foyer, we crunched our way across a carpet of dry leaves underneath the towering branches of a magnificent maple – the building’s landlord had a particular passion for autumn – and pushed open the door to the street. It was beginning to rain…roses, a drifting drizzle of red like the sky itself was bleeding. I put out a disbelieving hand to catch the petals. Agnes sighed and put up an umbrella against the thorns.

The address we had been given was, according to Agnes, within an hour’s walk. Huddling together under the umbrella, we started down the street. It was like walking along the floor of a ravine, between towering apartment blocks so swathed in vines that they could have been overgrown cliff-faces if not for the irregular dotting of windows. They were divided by narrow gated laneways that were always dark, even when the sun was at its zenith. Agnes had advised me to avoid them, but was unable to say where exactly they went.

The ravine ended where it met a wider avenue, forming a crossroads of three ways. Behind us lay quiet and green shadow – ahead, a cacophony of traffic, where chariots, clockwork automobiles and cycles with every imaginable number and configuration of wheels streamed in both directions. I saw riders upon horses of living flesh and of bronze, and a carriage drawn by animated bones, a mane of bright ribbons flapping in the breeze.

This was an altogether grander part of the city than that to which I was accustomed. A stone amphitheater stood in verdant green gardens, echoing with the shouts and cheers of an unseen crowd; beyond that, an onion domed clocktower neighboured a long baroque façade. From every window of the latter gushed a shimmering waterfall. All around I saw eras of human construction jostled together in improbable alliances, juxtaposed with architecture for which I had no adequately descriptive words, wrought as it seemed to be from entangled briars, eggshell, and bone.

My feet slowed of their own accord as I tried, and failed, to take in the scene. Not so Agnes; she led the way along the footpath that bordered the busy street, deftly manoeuvring around minotaurs in velvet trews and naiads trailing silvery water with every step, keeping a firm grip on the umbrella and an even firmer one on my arm so as not to lose me in the crush.

Abruptly she dropped both with a bitten off ‘damn!’ as her sleeve caught fire. I stooped to snatch up the umbrella while Agnes thrust her arm into a nearby fountain. The water smelled strangely floral, as if it was in fact perfume flowing through the bronze spirals; the flames changed colour before they went out. One or two passersby gave us curious looks. None stopped to ask questions or offer help.

Turn into the lane opposite the House of Rivers,” I quoted, nodding towards the streaming windows of the baroque edifice across the way. “Do you think that’s it?”

“Well, it looks rather more like the House of Waterfalls, but I don’t suppose there can be many other houses that look like they’ve swallowed an ocean.” Agnes withdrew her sopping arm from the fountain and shook it, glaring at the blackened sleeve. “I hope this apothecary is worth the trouble.”

The directions took us down a narrow sidestreet that soon splintered further into a warren of alleyways. The buildings here were considerably smaller and less impressive than those we had left behind, designed for practical use above grandeur – terraced houses with gated courtyards and balconies that dripped grapevines or sarsaparilla, stone stairways leading both up and down through shadowed arches, small restaurants that listed nightshade wine on chalked pavement menus and dusty shop windows displaying fish scale armour. There were fewer people about, too, but I felt eyes on us nevertheless, a prickling weight that lifted the hairs on the back of my neck. I let my reticle slide off my shoulder into my hand, ready to swing.

“Ha!” Agnes exclaimed, pointing. Ahead of us was a downward slope, two flights of steps, and one of those mysterious arches. Its sides were engraved with all the phases of the moon and from the peak of the arch hung a little ceramic bell, trailing a pair of beaded leather cords. We looked at each other, then Agnes took hold of the cords and pulled eight times. It had a surprisingly deep, sorrowful tone for such a small thing. We waited.

“Are we meant to do something else?” I asked, eventually, when the silence had stopped feeling tense and started feeling silly.

“Perhaps this is the wrong lane.” Agnes slapped angrily at a fresh flame on her hip. “Or the apothecary doesn’t want to see me. I don’t feel in the mood to play games, Geraldine, let’s try somewhere else.”

With a last disappointed glance at the swaying bell, we turned to retrace our steps. I had paid careful attention to the way we’d taken, memorising markers that would lead us out – a crimson curtain, a sign in the shape of a dove – but between one and the other something went wrong. We did not lose ourselves. The lane lost us. We turned a corner and were looking once again down at the bell and the moon.

“That,” Agnes said, “is just nasty.”

I had heard of places like this: lanes that twisted around whilst you were walking through them and spat you out where you had started, doorways that could only be found if you already knew they were there. For once, I knew as well as Agnes what to do. There was a paper twist of salt in my reticule for emergencies; a sprinkle at the mouth of the lane and I felt a shudder through my shoes as it stilled.

“The moth,” Agnes groaned. “I should have kept the moth!”

“If an apothecary is so powerful, shouldn’t he know who you are? He knew where you lived.”

“It’s worth a try.” Agnes stood in front of the bell and cleared her throat pointedly. “My name is Agnes Chandler! I believe I have an appointment.”

The door faded into existence in front of us, the moulding of its frame seeming to push through the surrounding brickwork until it was so solid it felt ridiculous not to have seen it at once. It was a large affair in huon pine with a life-sized hyena’s head in the middle for a knocker. We looked at each other doubtfully, then Agnes reached out to swing the ring suspended between the hyena’s shiny bronze teeth.

At the first thud of impact the door swung obediently inwards.

“Well,” Agnes said unhappily, “now I suppose we have to go inside.”

© Faith Mudge 2014

A Lane of Locks: Part 1

Foreword: A Lane of Locks was originally meant to be published all in one post, but it grew a bit…long. The first two parts are being posted today, and the last two will go up tomorrow. Just for clarification, as I’ve seen other writers who post free content have had problems – this story is my original work, the sequel to last year’s ‘A City of Leaves’. I very much hope you enjoy it!

A Lane of Locks

by Faith Mudge

Part 1

“The hand is mightier than the sword,” the red-winged woman said, “and the heart mightier than the hand.”

Her eyes were entirely black and faceted like those of a fly, fringed by the most improbable looking lashes I had ever seen. I caught myself staring and looked at her hands instead, trying to unravel what she meant.

“The hand isI beg your pardon, what does that actually mean?”

The woman gave me the flat look of all eyes everywhere when someone asks a stupid question. She took her cup of vanilla chai and departed to her table. It was shared by a lady in a black cheongsam with green tendrils laced through her hair and an elderly daemon in a dusty frock coat.

“That’s the Festival of Keys for you,” Agnes remarked, coming up beside me with a tray of empty cups. “As if anybody in this city needs an excuse to talk nonsense.”

Agnes was my benefactor, font of wisdom and friend. She was also the owner of the Chamomile Heart tea shop, where I had been in service for the past three festivals, and I was currently staying in her spare room. I had lost track of the favours I owed her. The living arrangements were intended to be temporary, while my brother Robert and myself were finding our feet, but that had proved more difficult than I had anticipated; and I had never expected it to be easy.

I was born in England, in the middle of the 19th century. In that age of steam and steel, fairies were a fancy of nursery stories. But then Robert was taken, and I followed, and I found him here in Candlebridge, imprisoned in a psychotic Game of the Gentry. It was only with Agnes’s help I was able to free him, and some nights he still woke screaming. He would not tell me what they had done to him, and I was not sure I wanted to hear.

To summarise our circumstances: we had no family, no currency, and only a passing grasp of how reality was meant to work in this world. I feared we would be Agnes’s houseguests for a long time yet. It was an achievement whenever Robert set foot outside; as for me, every morning meant fighting the impulse to hide in bed instead of going out to face another day.

Added to our other difficulties were the vagaries of each Candlebridge festival, which turned a place already incomprehensible into one positively raving mad. I had, since my arrival, survived five of the nine that made up the city’s calendar. The Festival of Keys would be my sixth.

“At this time of the nonne it is traditional,” Agnes continued, disappearing into the kitchen at the back of the shop, “which is to say, unavoidable, for people to come up and ask you riddles or tell you things you will need to know, but don’t know you need to know quite yet. I’m not sure which you just got.”

“When will I find out?”

“Once a goblin came up to me in the street and told me ‘the fire does not consume, only transmute’, and I still haven’t the foggiest what he meant.” Agnes emerged, covering a yawn. “It’s also traditional to give people keys. Not keys to anything specific, just the odd ones that don’t fit anywhere. It’s good luck.”

“I know.” I gestured to my reticule, hung on a hook behind the counter and bulging with uninvited gifts of theoretical luck. “I don’t know what to do with them all.”

“Keep them until next festival, then give them away,” Agnes advised. “I expect those keys have travelled more around this city than I have.”

She returned to her circuit of the tea room, stopping at the table of the red-winged woman and her friends to listen attentively to some complaint or remark. Managing the counter was her duty, but she had taken to handing over the till every so often, giving me practice at preparing the different orders. Today was proving a trial. I had had to call her over twice, once when I could not make out a lady’s request – phrased as it was half in French and half in high-pitched tweets – then again when the next customer wanted a ghastly combination of blackcurrant leaf and jasmine. Agnes drew me aside for that one.

“Ignore the good sense of your taste buds and just give him what he wants.”

“But it will be undrinkable – “

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from serving tea in Candlebridge, there is no such thing as undrinkable. Unthinkable is quite another matter, and not your problem. If we have the ingredients in stock, just make it.”

The last customers of the day were a sullen young man in a toga and a wizened creature – resembling an unpleasant combination between a very old monkey and a very large spider – that was perched on his shoulders. One set of legs were hooked around his neck, two more tangled in his long hair. It grinned at me malevolently the entire time it was in the shop. The man did not meet my eyes once, staring blankly at the counter as he muttered a request for gunpowder. I was not entirely sure he meant tea, but that was all we had, so I just nodded, made up the tea and waited for the two of them to go away.

It was a very delicate balance, in this city, between living a moderately civilised existence and being dead or enslaved.

I was glad to turn over the ‘Closed’ sign – my feet were sore and a headache had become rooted behind my eyes. While Agnes wiped tables and ran a broom across the floor, I piled the dirty dishes high in the kitchen sink and put out the dish of cream that was the agreed daily payment between Agnes and the shop’s resident bruney. I had never seen it myself, and even Agnes was very vague on what it looked like. Apparently it was so self-conscious that it would only come out when no one was there to see.

“And for God’s sake,” she had told me, when I first started helping in the shop, “don’t spy or you’ll drive it away! Then it will be you doing all the dishes.”

“Good night, sir,” I called softly, as Agnes pulled the door shut. The Chamomile Heart was shuttered and silent, with no sign that magic of any sort was about to take place. The door was solid, the grain of wood scratchy under my hands. The lane outside the shop was paved in large round cobbles and quite as grimy as any lane in London.

But this was not London. Here, it was always safe to assume that something magical – and possibly terrible – was about to take place. Agnes had lived here for thirteen nonnes; her definition of ‘ordinary’ was nothing like mine.

Even she was not prepared for the devil waiting in the dark.

He was leaning on one elbow against a door across the lane. At first all I could make out was the lit end of his cigarette and the oddly sweet smell of the smoke; he was just a man. Then he lowered the cigarette and smiled by its burning light.

“Hello, lovely,” he said. “Come talk to me.”

I stopped where I stood, my hands frozen in the act of pulling my scarf straight. He’d stepped forward as he spoke and now I could see him properly. Loose-limbed and lean, he was dressed like a highwayman from a penny dreadful in a greatcoat and cravat, dark curls spilling across his shoulders, his broad-brimmed hat tilted up so I could see his long smiling mouth. I was seized by a sudden fierce desire to kiss it.

Fortunately, Agnes seized me first. “Find your prey elsewhere, sir,” she said coldly, clamping her fingers around my arm and swinging me about. She added as a hiss in my ear, “Incubus. Double-dyed bastard. Keep walking.”

I shook my head, blinking, trying to clear away the glamour. “Incubus?”

“A devil of the night,” she muttered, pushing me ahead of her. I stumbled, and fell against the lapels of a black coat. I had not seen the incubus move, but now he was in our way and his hands were curled around my wrists.

“I call that rude,” he said softly. “Interrupting a conversation that way. And I have so much to say to you.”

Agnes tried to lever his fingers loose. “Leave her alone,” she growled.

“It won’t do her any harm,” he said, laughing. “I only want to play.”

I felt giddy and strange, as if I had been drinking a great deal of wine, but those words made my eyes snap wide. The smiling devil bent his head towards mine.

I hit him with a wrench.

A solid piece of iron can do a good deal of damage to a real man; when iron strikes a human, however, it doesn’t send him reeling back with a burning welt across his cheek, spitting terrible things from between his teeth. We didn’t wait to see what might happen next – Agnes grabbed my hand and we ran down the street, scrambling aboard the first bus that came along, my heart pounding with the rattle of wheels as it put yard upon yard of distance between us and the incubus.

When we reached the flat Robert took one look at my face and dropped his book with a half-uttered question. I burst into tears before he could finish and he gathered me into his arms, looking at Agnes for explanation instead, which she gave as briefly as she could.

“Incubi are seducers,” she told us both wearily. “The ones I’ve met, anyway, which is thankfully not many. They get tired of their lovers fast, are always looking for a fresh source of adoration, and don’t often hear the word ‘no’. Where did you get that wrench, Geraldine? Iron is hardly easy to come by.”

“I traded for it,” I said, my hands curling defensively around my elbows. “At the goblin market on Fortune Bridge, when I first got here. I wasI needed to feel safe.”

Robert’s arm tightened around me. “What would he have done to her?”

“Maybe no real harm if she’d managed to keep moving – though that’s hard to do with a head full of valentine smoke. Night devils like the lost, the grieving…people who will welcome them in. This one expected an idle amusement and got a scar for life.”

“He deserves it,” Robert said vehemently.

“I’m not arguing that,” Agnes said. “I just wish it hadn’t happened outside the shop.”

“Oh God,” I breathed. “You think he’ll come back? What will he do?”

She gave my arm a reassuring squeeze. “Don’t worry. I doubt he’ll come back. Incubi are not Gentry; the only magic they have is glamour, and he’d probably think twice before taking on the bruney. Household wights fight dirty when their ground is invaded. The worst he can do is probably break a couple of windows.”

Hours later, Agnes caught fire.

* * *

“I shouldn’t have hit him with the wrench.”

“Oh, Geraldine, stop it.” Agnes sat fully dressed in the bath tub, a wet blanket draped around her shoulders. The flames did not seem to hurt her, though she said they itched terribly, but anything that came in contact with them could and did burn. Her mattress was ruined and her room reeked of charred wool. Robert was on the floor beside the tub, wearing a badly buttoned shirt that was drenched all down the front from the bucket he’d had to hurl over her.

“It might have nothing to do with the incubus,” she suggested. We both stared and she sighed. “Well, that’s a possibility, even if it is an unlikely one. Either way, it’s pretty clear that I’m under a curse.”

I sank down on the floor opposite Robert. “What are we to do?” I asked, twisting my hands in my lap. “Can anything be done?”

“Of course,” Agnes said patiently. “I’ll go to an apothecary and have it removed. This sort of thing happens, people go to their regular apothecary for anything from a minor bewitchment to a broken ankle. They should be able to fix this.”

“What is the name of your apothecary?” Robert asked.

“I don’t have one,” Agnes admitted. She shivered and leaned forward to pull the plug, letting the bath drain before running more hot water. “I managed without. They’re pricey.”

My stomach twisted. In my own world, I had money, or rather my father did. We had lived at Musgrave Park, the largest house for miles around; my name had been good credit in any shop I chose to visit. If a friend had been in trouble there, I could have been constructive. As it was, I could offer nothing but useless sympathy.

“Besides which,” Agnes added, reluctantly, “apothecaries scare me a bit.”

I looked up, astonished. In the time I had known Agnes, I had seen her face goblins, daemons and every other manner of strange thing with unshakeable equilibrium. She treated everyone she met without fear or judgement, which was a wonderful thing but also an intimidating one when I could not do the same and could not bring myself to tell her so. If apothecaries frightened her, God help me.

“It’s silly, though,” Agnes said firmly. “I’m sure all those stories are medical ignorance, like you get with dentists. As long as I can pay, I’ll be perfectly – oh, damn!”

While she was refilling the tub, she had let the blanket slide and little flames had broken out across her shoulders. I rolled onto my knees and caught the blanket, dragging it up to smother them. She hunched miserably underneath it.

“What can I do?” I asked, appalled. “Where does one find an apothecary?”

“You don’t,” Agnes said grimly. “They find you. Wait until morning, you’ll see.”

© Faith Mudge 2014

Beyond the Ever After

Once upon a time, I started talking about fairy tales and I have not stopped.

Today I posted up my hundred and twenty first Fairy Tale Tuesday, and my last, and I’m feeling a bit emotional about that. This project has been a big part of my life for the past two and a half years, almost since I first started blogging. Because of this project I’ve found some of my favourite stories ever – like, up until a year ago I had never heard of Princess Blue-Eyes and now I drop her into conversation WHENEVER I CAN because she’s the best (I’d include a link but WordPress is still having none of that. Try searching ‘ivan and the princess blue-eyes’ on my blog). Because I was writing Fairy Tale Tuesdays and I needed another story fast, I grabbed books off my shelves I’d never got around to reading before. That’s how I met Tokoyo and the Sun Princess and so many others. I shared my favourites here, the stories I felt like only I had ever read, and I like to think there are people out there I will never meet who now have those stories in their heads too. I shared the ones I hated, the cockroach stories that made me grind my teeth and growl over my keyboard. Folklore has a nasty side. It’s not wise to forget that.

I started this project mostly because I really love fairy tales, but I was also infuriated at the way I kept seeing them diminished to cardboard clichés. Though people tend to revert to the same core of classics when they think of fairy tales, there’s a wide wicked world out there where all your expectations will be ripped into tiny pieces and trampled by the hooves of a really vicious unicorn. Heroines are not always beautiful, or good, and they’re sure as hell not all confined to towers. They can go on quests, learn sorcery, battle their enemies, marry sorcerers or witch’s sons. You don’t need to shove a sword in your princess’s hand to make her strong. If she wants one, she’ll take it. In fact, she might not be a princess at all. Royal blood is not a requirement for kindness or courage.

Princes can be evil. They can be innocent. They can be ensorcelled and imprisoned, in need of a brave maiden’s rescue. A youngest son isn’t always right and an eldest isn’t always wrong. A troll’s daughter can become a queen. Dragons can become foster parents. These are stories that need to be remembered, retold, reimagined. Fairy tales are anything but simple. They are wild and thorny and strange, tangles of gold and briar, and in their bittersweet soil grow the most fantastic flowers of the imagination.

I am not ending Fairy Tale Tuesdays because I’ve run out of material. There are enough folk tales in the world to keep me going for many years yet, but this road has become too familiar and I need a new horizon. So I’m starting a project on an altogether larger scale – one I’ve been planning to try for years. I’m going to read my way through the entire Thousand and One Nights and blog the whole thing. The first part will go up on the 6th of January, 2015.

It may take a while.

I would like to say thank you to every reader who has shared the Fairy Tale Tuesday project with me. To everyone who commented and linked to my posts, particular good wishes go your way – sometimes writing is a little like singing from a tower, never really expecting to be heard, and it can come as the best surprise to know someone cares about the same thing you do. I hope that you will have just as much fun with the Sharazad Project. In the meantime: may there always be a path in your dark forest and a happy ending waiting over the next page. The story you need most is out there somewhere.

So go find it.