It was a dark and stormy night. The clock was driving Aidan mad.
It seemed to match the beating of his heart. Except every time it went Tock Tick his heart seemed to be beating wrong. Backwards. As though it was doing things the wrong way around. Everything seemed wrong. The set of his legs, the weight of the sword between his fingers. That was the nature of the Widdershins Knight.
According to the stories, he’d been a squire. When he’d been asked to follow the chivalric code, to become a knight, an Unseelie Faerie cursed the paper he was given. Made it backwards, made it wrong- turned it all around. He had read it aloud, and been made into the Widdershins Knight, who defied the Church, who struck at all weakness like a mad beast, who loathed his country and fled from a strong enemy, who was the champion of Injustice and Evil against the Right and the Good.
Who was standing before him, terrifyingly huge, and mercilessly deadly. Against the Tawny Tiger, he would have fled like the coward he was. In any fair fight, you’d never find the Widdershins Knight.
“Big sister, big sister, what a puny sword. You wield it so well,” said the Widdershins Knight. He tossed Jenny aside, and the hare-eared girl spun wildly through the air, striking the jungle gym, her limbs tangled in the steel frame, ears limp. Aidan let out a cry of rage, and ran forward.
Suddenly, the sword seemed positively light in his hands, lifting into the air, spinning and dancing wildly. Aidan clung tightly to the hilt as it seemed almost to leap at the knight, dragging him along, his run becoming a stumbling gait, trying to keep up to little avail. The Widdershins Knight raised his blade in response, but at the very last moment, stepped aside, moving with astounding grace and speed as the blade scythed through the air where his sword had been.
“Such a weak thrust, and with so little murder in your eyes. What an ordinary sword. How mundane.”
The Widdershins Knight moved like lightning, his blade sweeping forward. The sword in Aidan’s hands swung backwards, dragging Aidan with it, and the Widdershins Knight again disengaged, pulling back rather than following through on a strike that could have torn Aidan’s head from his shoulders. He took three steps back, and his eyes flickered over to Jill, who was disentangling herself from the jungle gym. “Trust him, big sister, for his intentions are pure.” Then, as Jill ran for her rapier, he vanished.
Tick Tock. Tick Tock.
Aidan’s heart started to beat normally again, and he sank to the ground, his arms aching, quivering with the exertion of the fight. He could barely lift them above his head, let alone with the sword. Who knew how long he would have survived if the Widdershins Knight was not a coward. “The knight- What the hell was he talking about?”
“Who knows,” said Jill, rubbing her ears, frowning. One of them had bent over, and try as she might, she couldn’t make it stand up straight again. “Oh, bother. He’s a madman, my dear boy. You can’t trust a thing that he says to have sense, nor purpose. A game of telephone would produce a more rational response. Oh, that gives me an idea-” She shook her head. “No, no. For once, it is not a time for games. We must get to the costume shop, immediately. I thought that we had a bit more time to laze, but it is Samhain’s Eve, and before night falls, every child must be in a costume, so the faeries do not know who is prey.”
“Are… evil faeries really that easy to trick?” Aidan asked, a tad skeptically.
“Oh, yes. After all, they don’t know how humans are supposed to behave, and they always act like they’re supposed to. They would naturally be confused by someone who claims to be scarier than they are. Dress as a demon, a corpse, or another faerie, and they’ll never make trouble for you, so long as they don’t suspect. Just don’t talk with them, my darling.” She smiled, and bent forward, kissing Aidan’s forehead gently, her chest shifting in a way that made Aidan’s heart race again. She stood up straight, and pointed back into town, where a few straggling children were visible, still running. “There. Let’s keep our eye on the hindmost.”
He and Jill kept up a steady pace, the two of them side by side, soon catching up with the rearmost children. “Jill?”
“Do you know where Jenny Greenteeth is lairing? She got-” He paused, his eyes moving forward to the children in front of them. He continued, his voice dropped to a whisper. “She got one of the kids at the swimming hole. She doesn’t eat them right away, right? He might still be alive.”
“A disguise won’t protect you if you enter her territory,” murmured Jill. “You won’t be safe. And I can’t accompany you to protect you. Me and Tawny and Raggy need to be around to take care of the children. Until dawn on Samhain, they’ll be in danger, while the Queen of the Snowflakes seeks you out, with her children in tow.”
“Where’s my godmother?” He asked, softly.
“She is the one maintaining the enchantment over the city, keeping the adults asleep. It would be dangerous if they were awake. Imagine what might happen if the Unseelie knew that there were witnesses to their misdeeds… They might leave none alive. Children- Children can see the truth, because people don’t believe them when they say it.” She smiled softly, and ruffled his hair, her arm resting around his shoulder companionably, leaning lightly against him. “Thank you for saving me, Aidan. You were terribly brave.”
“It scared the heck out of me,” he murmured softly, brow furrowed. “I don’t know what happened. The sword just- fought on its own.”
“Swords will do that, sometimes,” said Jill, nodding sagely. “Well-known fact. I would say be glad for it- Oh! Tawny!” She smiled, and waved, as the Tawny Tiger approached, a group of children- All looking well-fed, and with more than a few showing off cheeks smeared with sugar and chocolate- followed along after him.
“You alright, Jill?” He asked, his brows furrowed. “I thought I smelled the Widdershins Knight, and decided I should come to check on you.”
“All fine, thanks to Aidan. He saved my life!” She giggled, and leaned against Aidan’s side a little bit harder. The Tawny Tiger frowned at that, and shook his head.
“Glad you were alright. Worrying that he went right for you. He should know better.” He turned towards the kids. “Alright! Let’s get those costumes, then, we can start trick-or-treating! And remember, if you see anyone scary on the streets, just nod your head and pass them by!”
The children seemed encouraged by this, and began to speak more cheerfully, talking with one another as they kept walking. The Tawny Tiger, Sweet Jill Harears, and Aidan put up the rear guard, marching along behind them. Before long, the costume shop came into view.
This building- Well, of course there was a costume shop in town, because what kind of town wouldn’t have a costume shop? But it had been a small, dull affair, staffed by an endless sequence of teenagers who appeared to have absolutely no interest in anything whatsoever, save maybe the flasks they snuck drinks from. It had been a single story building, small and cramped between a bar and another bar.
This place towered three stories, bigger than anything in town save the church and the school, and sprawled across most of the block. The bar and the other bar were still visible, but squeezed and cramped looking, on the very edge of the block. An endless stream of children walked in, and shortly after walked out, dressed in all manner of costumes- Somewhat ragged, stitched together, but surprisingly beautiful despite their patchwork nature. Here a ghostly sheet, there a Frankenstein, and then a devil with bright red horns made from paper mache, every costume different in subtle ways.
Raggy Stitchems was in the back of the costume shop. The first floor was filled to the brim with costumes, complete ones. As a child stepped up to her, she rubbed her felt chin with one yarn finger, and reached out for a pair of silver shears, and a costume. She began to slice and cut, tearing the costume to pieces, repeating the process with another, and a third. The costumes in pieces before her, she drew out a long silver needle, wound with thread the same color as her yarny fingers. She looked up with two big black button eyes, and smiled warmly. “Hello, Aidan.” In a flash, her hands blurred, and a delicate silken outfit hung in her hands, gossamer and pretty, a tiara hanging from one arm.
“But I’m a boy!” said the child, pouting up at her. “I’m not supposed to wear things like that!”
“Is it not what you wanted?” Asked Raggy, a smile on her yarn mouth. The boy flushed, and grabbed the costume quickly. Another boy laughed, and Raggy held up a finger. “Today is a day when all may dress as they truly wish to be. Never mock another for their dreams, children. That is what adults do. And who on earth wants to be an adult?” She laughed softly, and a few of the older children joined in, Aidan among them. “Aidan. Come forward.”
He stepped closer to her, and she smiled softly. “Happy Birthday. I don’t need to ask to know what you want to be inside- That big sword certainly spells it out, doesn’t it?” She smiled.
“Raggy… Why aren’t you just using the costumes on the hangers? You’re going to a lot of trouble.”
“Ah, yes.” She smiled, waving a felt hand towards the scraps. “Your godmother has told you about us, of course, the stories. But not the bones behind the stories. We four are of the Spring Court. Every faerie feeds by inspiring emotions- Whether bluntly, or subtly. The court we choose depends on how we prefer to inspire those emotions. The Spring Court is the place where creators go. Those who wish to make things, who build the world up.” She frowned. “The Winter Court- Well. They are the ones who are defined by… lack. They think the only way to make people feel things is to take things away.” She smiled. “We can’t hate them for what they are, any more than we could hate a cat for pouncing on a mouse. We can only fight against them, as best as we can.” She waved her hand at the ragged remains of the garments. “Make something new, that will protect children from Jenny Greenteeth, and the Widdershins Knight, and… Her.”
“Cai-” he began, and Raggy Stitchems soft yarn finger pressed against his lip.
“Your godmother dares say her name only softly, and only when she is far away. She hears her name. Do not say it this day. Or any other, if you can help it.” She lowered her finger, and studied him. “As for you- Yes. I think I know precisely what garment you need, my dear Aidan. After all, a knight must have his baldric, and his standard.” Her fingers trimmed through an even dozen costumes, stitching them together in mid-air as fragments fell and flew. When she finished, the costume was presented before him. Brilliant fabric of every color, blending together in ways that should have been clownish, buffonish. But it was glorious, shining, a cape hanging across the shoulders, and a leather belt strapped over one shoulder, sized perfectly for the scabbard, completed the garment.
“Thank you, Raggy,” he said softly.
“You know why the hero experiences pain, Aidan? Why he suffers, is left alone, is ignored by his peers, is abandoned by his parents, why he is hated by the world?”
“Because it makes the moment of triumph feel real,” he said, softly. “Godmother always said that a hero was defined by their pain as much as by their triumphs. That if a hero didn’t hurt, they’d just be a lucky bastard. That people shouldn’t want to be heroes, unless they had nothing left to lose.”
“Just so,” said Raggy, and she smiled softly. “She knows how a good story works. And that’s what every faerie is, at their heart.”
“I need to go fight Jenny,” he said, softly. “I can’t let any of the children be taken.”
“Of course, dear child. Tomorrow is the Teind. If the Unseelie are collecting children now, it is no doubt as a tithe to Hell, and that means that you have time to save them.” Raggy looked up, her expression stern. “Jill. Keep watch over him to the edge. Make sure that he is safe.”
“Always!” said Jill, her arms going around his shoulders, squeezing him tight, the kind of hug that was meant to embarrass more than embrace. He squirmed a bit in her grasp, but she just squeezed tighter.
“Not to fight in his place, Jill. He has to stand on his own two feet. But you can help, the ways you know best.”
“Dear me,” murmured the Tawny Tiger, his eyes travelling across the children waiting for a costume, licking his chops. “I’d best go and make sure that the children in the line are comfortable.”
The two of them strode out onto the streets, under the bright golden sunshine of midday. They had passed approximately a block when something leapt out of the bushes, grabbed Aidan by the shoulders, and lifted him bodily. A screaming, red-furred apparition-
“Where the fuck’s my sword, you thieving little catholic mongrel?!”
Aidan blinked. His eyes readjusted. The short man holding him up in the air with no apparent effort was wearing a skirt. His eyes seemed to be heavily lined in some sort of dark makeup, and he glared up at the boy.
“Dougal! For gods sakes, put the boy down. We aren’t in the business of terrorizing children.”
“Oh, a damn shame, because business is fucking wonderful!” said Dougal, with a thick scottish burr trilling the Rs. Aidan’s eyes lifted up, and met with the tall, well-dressed man, whose eyes were similarly surrounded by what Aidan was prepared to swear was eyeshadow. “My fuckin’ sword, ye little fairy-frigging turncoat!”
“I- I was scared! There were bad faeries out there, and I needed something iron, and I thought you two were asleep like the rest of the adults- Wait.” He frowned at the two. “Why aren’t you asleep?”
“Oh-ho,” said Dougal, grinning. “Know about fairies, do you? Though not enough to know that every fairy’s a goddamn bad fairy.” He set the boy down, and grabbed the scabbard, tugging the blade forward. “Damn kid. Aislingbane ain’t a toy.” He tested the edge, frowning at it. “You used this?” He looked down at the kid, an eyebrow raised. “For a fucking catholic, you’ve got cajones, kid. And your arms aren’t broken, which is all the more surprising!”
“Why are you still awake?” Aidan asked, his eyes flicking to the side. Jill stood there with her rapier, still as a statue, edging very slowly towards the taller man.
“Well,” said the man, smiling. “First, allow us to introduce ourselves. I am Lord Martin. This is Punk Dougal. We are representatives of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Exquisition. We are the ones who Her Highness, Queen Elizabeth the Second, relies upon to deal with those of the Gentry who have… misbehaved.”
“When we find a fairy who fucks around with humans, we fuck them right back,” said Dougal, nodding sharply.
“Quite so. I could give an endless lecture on the nature of things, but- Well, as a Lord, my job is to know things. The type of fairies we are dealing with, the way to counterbalance them. My counterpart, Dougal here, is in charge of…”
“Fucking!” interjected Dougal, with unsettling joy.
“Quite,” said Martin. “As to our current state of consciousness… That is somewhat more complex.” Aidan nodded along as Jill slowly, carefully unsheathed her rapier. “Loosely- Well, you are familiar with fairytales. Do you know of Fairy Ointment? A common plot device, wherein someone becomes knowledgeable of the existence of the Gentry. Normally, of course, any Fair Folk who discovers such a state of affairs is driven to annoyance by having their tricks undone, and so, they put out the eye of the one so adorned. So naturally, we would never use such an ointment.”
Jill froze, as Dougal’s eyes shifted in their sockets. Without moving his head, his gimlet stare fixed directly on her. “Of course, myself, I always believed in doing unto others before others can do unto you.” His lips split into a broad grin.
Jill bolted, and Aidan cursed.
“An important thing to remember,” said Lord Martin, his brow furrowed. “The fae- Well, it is not as simple as my companion says. There are fae who can be friendly, even downright helpful. But Fae can never be trusted. You can never take their loyalties for granted.”
“If you’re here- Help me. I’m trying to track down a boy who was stolen by the bad faeries. Jenny Greenteeth.”
“I am afraid that our mission is on a somewhat higher level. We are here to break this enchantment over this place- Awaken the sleeping, and set time at its proper place.” Lord Martin frowned. “Whoever is responsible for this magic is… uncommonly powerful. Terribly so, in fact. To affect time like this is a rare feat. We thought such things had ended with the Founding of the Fifth City.” Lord Martin looked up towards the west. “A God walks the earth once more.”
“Fucking God shoulda kept its ass in its coffin, where Nietzche put it,” growled Dougal. “I can take a fucking fairy God. They’re all pansies.” He slapped the hilt of the sword once. “Ainslingbane’s had a taste of ’em before.”
“Of course,” said Lord Martin, soothingly. “But first comes negotiation. An attempt to get the god to stand down, before the Redcoats, the Polaris Missile System, or gods above and below forbid, Punk Dougal, are forced to step in.”
“A god?” said Aidan, nervously. “What kind of God?”
“That is the question, isn’t it?” murmured Lord Martin, his eyes returning to the west, where the snow clouds were visible. “You’re looking to fight monsters. I recommend you start with the local Church. As to fighting… That sword is much too large and dangerous for a boy like you.” He reached into his pocket, and drew out a long, slender stiletto knife. It was definitely not the sort of thing one would expect a Lord to have. “Here you are, my boy. A fine cold iron knife. This will gut any of the Gentry you should use it on. Be careful, though; The blade is brittle. And my merely mentioning that fact makes it all the more likely that it will fail you in a critical moment.”
“Thanks. I think,” said Aidan, frowning.
“Oh, and if we should survive this… I think I may take an interest.” Lord Martin smiled. “We could always use an able mind among the Punks. Unfortunately, only noble blood is permitted to become a Lord, but…”
“How’s the job?” Aidan asked, his eyes flicking to Dougal. The burly man shrugged.
“Hours are miserable, pay stinks, but the benefits are great. How many jobs let you stab a bloke and don’t require you to cut your hair?” He brushed his hands through his muttonchops, grinning wildly. “Good luck there, you fucking Catholic scum.”
“Thanks, you mad Scottish arsehole,” said Aidan, and sprinted off, chased by a litany of deeply amused curses from the Scotsman. Jill ran alongside him.
“Strange men,” she said, frowning back at them. “I should warn the others. They might be trouble.” She smiled down at him. “I would’ve had them, though.”
“Of course, Jill,” he said, grinning up at her.
His was a one-church town, which was unusual. The Church was Anglican, specifically of the Church of Ireland. Its steeple stood over the city. As Aidan approached it, he frowned. No children here, likely in part because the storm clouds had grown more ominous. As they approached, the snowflakes began to fall, accumulating in drifts against the sides of the church. He shivered, as he approached the building. It took on a strange, forbidding mien as he approached those great doors.
There was a soft crunch from somewhere ahead, and Jill froze. In an instant, she vanished, as thoroughly as if she had never been there. Aidan turned towards the building.
From the left side of the church emerged a woman. She was taller than Aidan, nearly as tall as the Tawny Tiger. He blinked, and realized that was wrong. She was bent, so deeply that she was almost bent in half, carrying a staff in one hand, leaning heavily on it, and in the other hand, a wicker basket that dipped nearly to the ground, filled to overflowing with stones. Her skin was dark blue, almost black. Her hair hung around her like a veil, white as snow. And her teeth… Her teeth were the color of rusted iron, flecked with blood.
“Hello, old woman,” he said, his voice shaking slightly. She turned towards him, her head tilted.
“Do I know you?” She asked, and her voice was ragged and hard as a rusted steel knife, creaking in the air. She took a step towards him, and he took a step backwards. She shifted her gait, circling to her right, and he stepped a little closer to the church. “You… What are you?”
“Just one of the Faeries, out to enjoy the night,” he said, softly.
“Seelie, or Unseelie?”
“That doesn’t matter to a faerie,” he said. “That’s what the humans care about. I wonder, old woman. Are you truly a faerie? Or are you something… human? Hiding in a disguise?”
“Do you think faeries are so blind?” She asked, her voice soft, rasping. “That we would be so fooled by a simple disguise, by a foolish trick?”
“Well, you did not seem to recognize me. Why are you here, old woman?”
“I am the Cailleach,” she whispered. “My missteps shaped these isles. My sickle cut throats to teach men the need for iron. I am the Queen of Winter.” She stepped towards him again, and he stepped back. She was moving constantly, now, pacing towards him, as he paced backwards, the two of them circling the church.
“Your Highness, I should have said.”
“Am I Your Highness?”
“Perhaps. I seek Jenny Greenteeth. I have found children to steal away. To send for the Teind.”
“Oh? And why do you not take them yourself?”
“They are defended by one of the Seelie Fae. I could not stop him alone. With her help…”
“I see.” She tilted her head. “Did you ever wonder why it snowed every day on your birthday? Why the heavens poured jewels down no matter what?”
He stiffened, his jaw gritted. “I… don’t know what you’re talking about.” Every November 1st. Every birthday. The snow. Mocking him. Searching for him.
“Did you ever wonder why his blood froze on the windowsill?”
“I do not know, Your Highness,” Aidan said, his voice as low, as raspy as hers.
She shook her head. “It is terrible luck to circle a church widdershins. To go against the sun’s passage… To reverse time. Terrible, terrible luck.” She looked to her left, and Aidan looked to his right. They’d completed a full circle of the church. “I will show you to the lair of Jenny Greenteeth. In exchange for what is in your pocket.”
He felt the heavy weight of the iron knife in his left pocket. The thing that would show he was not fae. That would reveal him for a human. His heart sunk.
“Your right pocket.”
His hand went down into the pocket, and tightened around the thing there. The small yarn-and-wood emblem. His fingers tightened a little bit more. “That is precious to me,” he said, softly.
“More precious than the life of the child? Interesting.”
He gritted his teeth. “I can find-”
“The Leanan Sidhe will not be sorely tested by the lack of that item in your pocket,” murmured the Cailleach. “It is but a sliver of her power, a way for her to find you. She has given them out in the thousands over the years.”
“The Leanan Sidhe?” He asked, frowning. He’d never heard of that faerie before.
“Oh, she didn’t tell you? What an unaccountable gap in your education.” Her fingers flickered, and suddenly, she held the object. His fingers closed around nothing in his pocket. She raised it to the air. “God’s Eye. What a strange object for her. From far away, and a distant land. Perhaps… she learns from her enemy?” She looked back towards Aidan. “Why do you trust her?”
“She was there,” said Aidan, his voice very stiff. “She was there for me when no one else was.”
The Cailleach didn’t answer, her expression very still. For a moment he thought she might simply have… frozen, right where she stood, as unmoving as an icicle. But after a few moments, she nodded slowly. “Of course. An impeccable reason.” She pointed. “There. The river behind the church, where the ice has grown. Crack a hole in the ice, and you will find Jenny Greenteeth. She waits there, beneath the ice, for her brother.” The Cailleach opened her mouth, as though about to say something else, but then closed it, turning away. “I must go meet the Leanan Sidhe.”
“Of course, Your Highness,” murmured Aidan, bowing at the waist, keeping his eyes on the blue-skinned woman. Then he paused. “Your Highness. Did you truly make a deal with the devil?”
“Oh, yes. Or something like it.” She tapped her teeth. “The mark of my gift. I gave it back, though, all in due time.”
“Why?” He asked, softly.
“Why? I should think the answer obvious,” said the Cailleach, as she began to walk, hunched and bent. “Children.”
With that last enigmatic word dancing on the breeze, she vanished into the snowstorm. Aidan shivered, and turned back towards the church. The river was behind the church. Widdershins, or Sunwise?
He turned to the right, and continued the trend of widdershins. They never said whose luck would be terrible because of it, after all. And in the stories, widdershins around a church was one of the roads to Faerie.
The river waited for him, still. Trees hung over it, still green, but covered over with snow, hanging heavily beneath the weight. He saw snapped branches, where some of them had not survived. This snow would kill many of them, unnatural as it was. Another example of the cold harsh touch of Winter. The touch that delighted in taking away the world, that exulted in pain. He gritted his teeth as his cape snapped and whipped about in the wind.
Jenny had taken the child. The Widdershins Knight had tried to take Jill. The Cailleach was going to try to take his godmother.
He’d take them. His fingers closed around the knife. It’d betray him, the man had said- But a hero suffered setbacks so he could come back, stronger than before. He squeezed the knife tighter as he approached the river.
His eyes narrowed. There. A single rock emerged from the frozen water, partway through. He carefully stepped onto the ice, listening for groans and cracks, but it had frozen solid. He made his way out across the slippery ice, each footstep done as confidently as he could, listening for the telltale crackle that would presage a sudden and violent death by hypothermia. When he reached the rock, he crouched down. He wedged the knife into the ice against the rock, and heaved.
It took- He didn’t know how long. At first it seemed like the rock would never move, but then, it began to budge. He had to work the knife constantly, listening for any sound of the blade straining, but it continued to worry the rock out. Finally, his hands frozen to the point of near-immobility, the rock heaved out of its place, leaving a perfectly circular hole into…
“Are you sure about this?” asked Jill, and he nearly leapt out of his skin. “Ah! The look on your face!” She grinned for a moment, and then the grin faded as her eyes drifted towards the hole. “It looks… dangerous. And dark. And really lonely.” She wrapped her arms around herself, frowning. “I want to come with you, but-”
“Jill, you’re a coward.”
“That’s not a bad thing, Jill. Just a part of who you are. It’s part of why you’re so cute. You’re a coward, but when you have to protect something, you’re dangerous.” He smiled softly up at her. She bit her lips, and then darted forward suddenly, her hand on his cheeks. Her lips met his, and her tongue slipped into his mouth quickly. She withdrew just as quickly, blushing, a hand over her mouth.
“Don’t tell your godmother about that.” She winked. “I’ll do something much nicer for you when you come back. Okay?” She squeezed him once, tightly, and then was gone, leaving him feeling like God was about to throw a fit.
He took a deep breath, steeling himself, and stepped forward, dropping down into the darkness. And he found himself elsewhere.
The air was cold, but still. That alone actually made it warmer than the surface. It was dark, but lit strangely, eerily, by a blue light that seemed to suffuse the walls. He swallowed hard, and turned his head this way and that, until he spotted a path forward.
Ice. He was surrounded by ice. That was terrifying. He checked above him, and saw the hole, still open. He had to hope it would stay open. He held the iron knife in front of him, and carefully stepped forward in the gloom. Jill’s kiss still burned on his lips, leaving strange thoughts lingering in his head as he stepped forward, into the gloom.
There- In the gloom, on the ground- He saw the boy, lying on the ground, breath fogging in the air, shivering violently, naked. He rushed forward, pulling the cape off of his outfit, wrapping it around the boy. He leaned forward.
The sharp smell of dead fish filled the air. A half-eaten trout fell to the ground, flopping slightly.
Two bright green eyes flashed in the darkness above him.