© 2021 One Million Words
Plenty of stories have been penned about what happens when the World of Faerie overlaps with the World of Man.
You may know them as fairy tales, but the fay affix a different name to them: mortal lays. The double entendre is most certainly intended, since so many of these stories contain carnal interactions betwixt the two peoples. Most mortal lays position their fay heroes as cunning characters who outsmart the dull and greedy Children of Seth—while fairy tales, for their part, encompass everything from whimsical romances to dark yarns both cautionary and tragic.
Fairy tales are the farthest thing from Veda’s thoughts as she traverses a gloomy wood this fine autumn evening. She is a practical lady, as evidenced by her thick-soled boots, a faded yellow scarf wrapped about her neck, and the firearm at her hip. Her concerns center on more earthly threats, such as the wolves or drug-addled vagabonds rumored to haunt these acres of pine.
There is also a chance, however slim, that someone has followed her from the rustic village found on few maps, the one which rests just outside the ancient forest and where she parked her also-pragmatic pickup. She looks over her shoulder, but the halfmoon reveals neither shape nor shadow suggesting a pursuer. Though she carries a flashlight in the pack upon her back, she knows better than to waste time wresting it from the bundle.
One can never count on such contraptions in the Ringweald.
So Veda trudges forward, occasionally glancing down at the loadstone compass cupped in her finger-clipped gloves. With no man-made paths or even game trails to guide her, the simple device is her only means of reaching a destination that seems to settle in a different place each time she visits.
On the summer solstice, she had had to cross a stream whose still, stagnant waters showed a reflection with ominous disparities. Veda shudders at the memory of gazing upon her one-eyed twin with empty, bleeding socket. She is relieved when her next step takes her into a familiar clearing, though the circle of unevenly spaced stones makes her skin crawl just the same. For a moment, the thirty-eight rocks look to be perfectly round and of uniform size—all pristine models of the half-hidden moon above—but their mundane appearance returns just as quickly.
She pauses midway between the trees behind and the ring before her. While a part of her yearns for the euphoric effects that accompany a breech into the circle, she is also wary of losing any amount of clarity. Unconsciously, her bare fingertips graze the grip of her gun.
In the span of three deep breaths, the woman reminds herself that she has successfully negotiated this same situation twelve times before. Each encounter has proven easier than the last. And though she will never trust her contact completely, a mutual respect for their arrangement should ensure no harm befalls her this night.
Veda Shah closes her eyes, and while has never considered herself a remotely religious person, she mutters a prayer to Vishnu before stepping into the ring of stones and out of the English countryside.
* * *
Laughter, song, and the smell of flowers assail her senses. She keeps her eyes shut and focuses on the first lesson Lyr taught her: do not yield to the siren call during passage.
When at last the sounds of revelry fade, Veda looks around. The setting flickers between the ancient forest of back home and an expansive field spreading out from the hillock upon which she now stands. She grimaces against a surge of nausea, impatiently awaiting the reconciliation of Britain and Albion in her peripheral. Though she desires to keep watch for her fay counterpart, she is forced to look down at her feet as the scenery settles into a stationary blend of both worlds.
She waits for Lyr long enough to wonder what it would be like to step out of the circle in the midst of the tempest and during those moments when the horizon shows nothing but the faeries’ realm. Researching the possibilities in her own world proved limited at best. However, the direst scenario—becoming a captive of the fay and, ultimately, a depleted husk of a human—was enough to quash any wellsprings of curiosity and bravery alike.
Nestled firmly in the nexus between worlds, Veda taps her foot, crushing blades of bright green grass. The sky here is bright despite a conspicuous lack of sun. Conjecture and a fair number of stories suggest time works differently in the two realms. Yet Lyr has never been late before, not when the window of convergence is as limited as an hour during first- or third-quarter moons.
With the perfumed air cloying in her nostrils, she considers leaving. Instinct itches at the back of her mind, reminding her that she has survived this long in an admittedly dodgy lifestyle by not sticking around when situations sour. Her father had always told her to trust her gut and that no payout was worth risking her life.
Two steps backward, and she would find herself in the Ringweald once more.
Her pack feels twice as heavy, as though the merchandise inside is protesting the idea of making a return trip. Veda has no other buyer lined up. If she waits until the next opportunity to meet with Lyr, she will have to sit on the contraband for another month. Surely, she thinks, another few minutes can’t hurt.
Mid-yawn, she spies something moving in the distance. Even though she knows better than to try, she finds herself squinting at the traveler. No matter how hard she focuses, however, she sees naught but a vaguely human shape that she knows is not human at all. Not until her fay counterpart—her otherworldly business partner—breaches the stone circle will she see the elf’s grotesque countenance.
Her hand drops back to her hip when a creature much taller, masked, and not at all masculine enters the ring.
“Who the hell are you, then?” Veda demands. She does not draw her weapon, but neither does she loosen her grip. Her other hand tugs absently at the lucky yellow scarf.
Another shiver ravishes her as she stares into the empty eyeholes of a lupine mask. She looks away, suddenly reminded of the cycloptic vision of herself in the stream. Below the wolfish visage is an ethereal green gown that accentuates what curves it does not outright reveal. Were it not for the fear coursing through her veins, Veda might have found the faerie’s appearance arousing. Certainly, this lithe figure is far more alluring than Lyr’s hunched and shriveled form!
“You may call me Posey.”
Veda wrenches her gaze back up to the mask. Long golden tresses undulate in a wind the woman herself cannot feel. In other circumstances, she surely would have smirked at the irony of so pastoral a name being attached to so primal a personage.
“Where’s Lyr?” Veda’s question drips with suspicion.
The wolf mask cocks to one side before Posey answers, “I am afraid he will not be joining us tonight.”
Veda waits for the stranger to explain herself. When she does not, Veda says, “Me and Lyr have an arrangement. It’s just the two of us. That’s what keeps this thing we have profitable…and safe.”
Posey takes a step closer to Veda, leaving scarcely a yard between them. “My apologies for depriving you of Lyr’s company. Yet you would be naïve to believe your dealings with that wretched kobalt has ever been anything but perilous.”
Veda takes one step back. “What do you want?”
“I want what you and Lyr had…and more,” Posey says, unfolding her hands to gesture vaguely at the space around them. “Have you brought the munitions?”
Veda considers her options. Lyr is the only fay she has dealt with since stumbling upon the Ringweald folklore and then finding the elf stones on a drunken dare. He had not told her much about his kin—the relationship was strictly commercial—but she inferred, over the past year, that the fay arms dealer was supplying one faerie faction over the other.
She has no way of knowing whether Posey is a customer who decided to cut out the middleman, so to speak, or an agent of his enemy looking to capitalize on Lyr’s foreign connection. Her thoughts racing, Veda decides on the spot that she does not care about Posey’s faction or even the fate of gnarled, misshapen Lyr.
As long as Posey can make the payment, the weapons will be hers.
“Right. Let me show you what I’ve brought.”
Veda shrugs off her pack, unzips the bag, and removes three handguns and several boxes of ammunition. She arranges the goods on the ground between them because Lyr always refused to touch them, insisting that she put them into his sack after appraising the delivery. The surviving legends speak truthfully on at least one aspect of the fay: they cannot abide iron, including that which is rendered into stainless steel.
Posey regards the weapons wordlessly. Before Veda can react, the faerie lowers herself to her knees and picks up one of the pistols. Her pale arm jerks, and her delicate fingers tremble. Veda expects her to drop the piece. Instead Posey studies the gun for a few seconds before producing a deep pouch from somewhere beneath her gown.
As Posey drops the first weapon into the sack, Veda says, “Wotcher! We ought to discuss what you bring to the trade before you begin packing up, yeah?”
Only after she finishes packing up does Posey deign to reply. Standing tall once more, the fay reaches a hand behind her back. Veda holds her breath, ready to draw and fire. She lets out a silent sigh when Posey opens her grasp to reveal a roughly hewn chunk of gold.
“I assure you it is real,” Posey says, amusement rich in her dulcet voice. “You will not find a heel of bread in its place on the morrow.”
But Veda cannot bring herself to take the gold. “Ol’ Lyr offered me plenty of dosh, and I even took a few old coins when he was skint. Terribly hard to move on my side, though. The last bloke thought I nicked them from a museum. That’s why I now insist on items of a more unique nature from your land.”
The hollow eyes of the wolf bore into Veda.
“Magic stuff,” she explains. “They’re just trinkets on your side, eh? But back in Britain, they’re bloody priceless.”
The mask tilts upward, which Veda interprets as a sign the fay is lost in thought. Finally, Posey says, “Your terms are fair. I can secure some vestiges of my people…but only if you can procure much more of your dead magic.”
Veda recalls Lyr using that phrase once or twice. The best she has been able to deduce is that “dead magic” means technology. She cannot know how most faeries detest the Children of Seth’s soulless science or that they see it as the antithesis of their own natural and spiritual enchantments.
Indeed, dead magic is another instance of fay wordplay: not only is the source of the power lifeless, but the results unerringly lead to destruction and death.
Veda frowns and ignores her stomach’s lurching as she meets the empty stare of the mask. “More is something of a problem, actually. Small quantities is how I’m able to stay off the radar of the local constabulary, if you catch my meaning.”
The statuesque fay regards her silently.
“What I’m saying is,” Veda continues, “I don’t really have access to more guns.”
“What about larger weapons? Mortal lays from the past century speak of cannons that contain the power of a hailstorm and orbs that burst into plumes of fire and deadly steel thorns when thrown.”
Veda laughs in spite of herself. “I can’t get you machine guns and grenades. This isn’t the States, mate!”
The temperature within the circle plummets, wreathing Veda in a cocoon colder than the autumn night she left behind.
“Then you will find me a human who can,” Posey says softly.
“No. I won’t.” Veda scowls at the masked faerie. “You haven’t been listening. The reason this arrangement between Lyr and me worked so well is we kept it small. Can’t say I’m thrilled you’ve been brought into it, and I’m sure as shite not gonna bring a Yank into this madness.”
The sound behind Posey’s mask sounds like a hum at first, but as it grows louder, Veda knows it for the laugh it is. “And do you fancy yourself the only Child of Seth who can follow a compass? Alas, you are all replaceable.”
Veda raises her gun and aims at the wolf mask. “I’m definitely missing Lyr right about now. At least he was only ugly on the outside.”
“Put that away.”
The words flow from behind the mask. However, Veda hears two distinct voices—perhaps even three. She obeys, but before she can holster the weapon, she understands what is happening. Fighting the invisible hand of the glamor, Veda fights to bring the weapon back up, inch by inch.
“You will not shoot me,” says the elf or an angel or a legion of demons.
Veda tries to squeeze the trigger, but her finger refuses to cooperate. Her entire body quakes, and she knows the tightness in her muscles and the protesting pain in her skull will vanish the moment she stands down.
But she will not.
“No,” Veda spits. “I have protection from your charms…this scarf…”
Posey leans forward to study the old cloth wound around her neck. “Is worthless,” she finishes.
Veda swallows bitterness and bile while struggling to keep the gun level with her foe.
“Oh, did that ebon toad tell you it was enchanted?” the fay mocks. “Did he tell you it was a remnant of Titania’s mantle or some such fantasy? Hear me well, human, for all her faults, the Faerie Queen would not use that rag for a bog roll!”
Sweat drips down from Veda’s brow, stinging one of her eyes. Unable to endure the agony of defiance for a moment longer, she lowers her aim. The scream of frustration that escapes her lips sounds more bestial than human.
“Do you now comprehend your place…your inferiority?” Posey asks. “Truth to tell, I am amazed your kind has not yet learned the simplest of morals among my kind.”
Posey leans forward again, the lupine snout mere inches from Veda’s nose.
“Never, ever trust a member of the Unseelie Court!”
The sudden surge of anger in Veda’s breast is echoed by an intense heat around her throat. The faded yellow scarf shimmers brightly before disintegrating. Posey recoils, growling low behind her mask.
This time, Veda does not hesitate. She raises her gun and fires.
* * *
Veda Shah gasps for breath in the darkness.
Between the sudden shock of chilly nightfall and the searing burn on one side of her face, she cannot make sense of where she is and what has happened. Something pulls on her leg. Veda jerks back, losing her boot but freeing her foot from the circle of stones.
She desperately backpedals away from the seemingly empty portal, practically crab-walking across the glade until her shoulder strikes a tree. All the while, she stares at the ring, waiting for the wolf-masked elf to emerge.
Her gun is gone, and she knows with all certainty that if Posey pursues her, she will die tonight.
Watching the ring with one eye—for the other side of her face is covered in blood—Veda strains to recall her final moments with the fay. A jolt of joy shoots through her when she realizes the scarf freed her from Posey’s glamor. Any guilt over her unkind thoughts toward Lyr are washed away, however, when she understands what happened next.
Her aim had been true. By some miracle, the bullet penetrated the eyehole of the mask—except some spell had repelled the attack, redirecting the projectile back at its owner. Numb, trembling fingers reach up to the side of her face and explore the same empty eye socket she had glimpsed in the stream on the solstice.
Veda allows herself one whimper before dragging herself to her feet. Her run through the ancient wood will not be remembered. By the time she reaches the nameless village and raids the first-aid kit in her pickup, she has moved on from cursing her stupidity to thanking all the gods she is still alive.
Yet whether this fairy tale proves to be merely a cautionary tale or a truly tragic one remains to be seen, since any fay of worth can track a human if possessed of a single belonging. Even a solitary boot.