Read Queen of the May
Queen of the May
Had the few tea leaves that swilled around the bottom of her mug been in a mood to say anything, and had she the skill to read them, Shakti would have seen that this was the day she would lose her life. As it was, she just muttered imprecations at her empty mug and picked her way towards the kitchen through half-filled boxes and piles of paper strewn across every flat surface of the living room. She thought for a moment about just throwing everything out, taking it all downstairs to the huge, stinking communal bins and dumping it. Instead, she would make more tea.
The kitchen was as yet untouched by the cluttered mania of packing, but the rest of the flat was drowning in a low flood of stuff. Some of it she could recycle or give away, but much of it would end up in her parents’ attic. Lecture notes. Lab notes. Drafts of her undergrad dissertation and her doctoral thesis. She couldn’t throw those out.
She flicked the switch on the kettle, selected a small tea caddy from her collection and spooned some leaves into an infuser, dangling it into her mug. She opened the fridge to discover a disappointing lack of milk. She’d got through ridiculous amounts of tea during the packing process and the last dribble of milk had gone into the previous cup. Oh well, it was beautiful out, and this errand was a chance to leave the flat and enjoy a cloudless spring sky.
Shakti threw on a light jacket and slipped on the red and gold hand-made mojari shoes that her grandmother had sent over from Mumbai. On such a glorious day it seemed a waste of a walk to simply nip to the corner shop beneath her flat. Instead, she headed over to Blackstock Road, then on down Gillespie Road, away from the traffic and the buses and the mothers driving their tractor-sized pushchairs.
Before she reached the milk-bearing grocery store that she was heading for, she came upon Gillespie Park. She had passed it, hidden behind high red brick walls, buttressed as if fighting to keep the wildness in, twice a day almost every weekday for four years. She made a quick estimate in her mind: that totted up to nearly two thousand times she had walked on by, not allowing her curiosity to overcome her.
She could let herself to take a moment to enjoy exploring this tiny pocket of green hemmed in amongst Victorian terraces, post-war flats from the brutalist school of architecture and the massive football stadium. It was close to being her last chance to nose about the place, so if she didn’t do it today, when would she? Soon, she and Richard would be catching a train northwards, leaving London behind for the blooming wildflowers of the machair and her new life as a research botanist. She smiled secretly to herself, excited once again that she and Richard would be moving to Scotland.
Gillespie Park was not at all what she expected. Far from the manicured pleasantries of nearby Clissold Park with its rose garden and newly restored manor house, or the sporty Finsbury Park with its baseball diamonds and football pitches, Gillespie was a wild place. Billed as a nature reserve, it felt like a tiny unkempt corner of the Chilterns had somehow insinuated itself into central London. As soon as she had crossed the threshold, she felt as if she had stepped into another world.
Partly obscured by the weeds beneath her feet were a number of neglected mosaics dotted amongst the paving slabs. A muddy green frog grinned up from a turquoise pond still bright despite the dirt. A goldfinch sat on a black twig, a grubby grey sky behind it. A dragonfly hovered under a carpet of decayed leaves. Grass pushed up through the cracks in little clumps. It must have looked lovely when it was new, Shakti thought, but no one had bothered to weed recently and the place felt abandoned.
She let herself be drawn along the path which soon turned to packed dirt and grass, lengths of timber laid crosswise to make low steps every few yards and stop the whole thing being washed away when it rained. With a meagre strip of scrub to her right and the high boundary wall blanketed with creepers to her left, the trail opened up a narrow passage between houses like a tendril of ivy forcing its way through the mortar of the city.
The track took Shakti into a small wooded area, then forked into three. She wondered for a moment which to take before realising that it didn’t matter — the park was small and all paths would lead to the same place in the end. Above her, the trees joined branches, cutting out the warm spring sun and making her glad she’d worn a jacket. There was still a wintry undertone to the heat, but the air smelt of fresh earth and new growth. Leaves and buds spattered the trees with a bright, young green which promised to soon fully cloak the branches.
This was a peaceful retreat from the madness of London. Shakti wished she’d explored it sooner than a week before she was due to leave the city. The pathway opened up ahead of her, emerging from the tiny copse to reveal a small grassy area, rimmed by trees high enough to hide the terraced houses and blocks of flats that lurked outside. The sounds of urban life were muted by the walls and a calm settled upon her.
Shakti glanced around the tiny dell and spotted a stone bench set in the margins, its front carved with blades of grass in outsized mimicry of the fronds that surrounded and threatened to overcome it. She crossed the green and sat herself down on the bench, putting her handbag down close to her feet so that it was safe from any light fingers that might pass by. As she did, she spotted what for all the world looked to her like an Angraecum, which couldn’t possibly be the case. She rummaged in her bag and pulled out her pencil and field notebook, already half full of precious notes and ideas. She began to sketch.
Three narrow white sepals, their edges curled backwards, were arranged in a triangular configuration, rather like the Mercedes-Benz logo. Two more white petals, looking just like the sepals although a little broader, sat to the left and right of the central vertical sepal. At the bottom, the rounder paddle-shaped labellum made a little platform where insects could alight whilst questing for nectar. But that nectar was at the bottom of a long S-shaped spur that hung down behind the labellum. Any insect seeking dinner would need a very long proboscis indeed.
With skilled strokes, Shakti drew the bloom in a simple but accurate style, labelling each part of the flower in precise handwriting. There was no doubt in her mind that this was an orchid, and a rare one at that. Most species of Angraecum had been collected almost to extinction after their discovery in 1804. They were protected now, but the loss of both habitat and co-evolved pollinators was still a major threat. What was this flower doing in a scrappy little central London park?
“No, Elliot, not like that!” the woman said, with frustration. She took the honeysuckle bloom from the boy’s hands. “Look, you pinch off the end like this, then gently squeeze the nectar into the bottle. Then put the flower into the tub. And you be careful to get every drop — a feast without enough honeysuckle nectar would be a disaster.”
“But Mum! It’s going to take forever! Why can’t Martha and Jemima help?”
“They’ve got their own chores. But don’t worry, your cousins are coming to help. If you get a bottle done before they get here, I’ll give you a treat. Now, did you wash your hands?”
“Good. Just because they can’t get sick doesn’t mean we can afford to be sloppy.” There was an odd emphasis there that Elliot didn’t understand.
The boy heaved the biggest sigh he could manage, for effect more than emotional release, and picked up a handful of honeysuckle from a large wicker basket at his side. He set the blooms carefully down on the clean towel draped over his lap, picked up a flower, pinched off the end and squeezed the single drop of precious nectar into the bottle. Forever, he thought, was an understatement. He’d be here for two forevers, maybe longer.
“Maggie!” At the sound of the high, tinkling voice, Elliot cast his eyes down, focusing tightly on his work and pretending that he didn’t exist. If he didn’t look at her, he thought, maybe she couldn’t see him.
“M’Lady.” He knew his mother would be curtseying, about now, without having to see her do it.
“Preparations are in hand?”
“Yes, m’Lady. George, Tom and John have already started taking the supplies up to the festival square, m’Lady. Jill and Jessica have prepared the flowers and will have the tables dressed by mid afternoon. The mead and wine, of course, has already been taken up, and we’ll have everything else in place shortly. We will be ready well in time.”
“I should hope so.”
Elliot, despite knowing that he wasn’t allowed to look at the Lords and Ladies unless they had directly addressed him, snuck a peek out of the corner of his eye. She was beautiful, he thought. So tall and slim and such clear blue eyes and wonderful long hair. Mind you, they all looked like that, so she really wasn’t anything special. But, in comparison, the human girls seemed so short and dumpy and, in many cases, downright ugly.
“And how is the other crop?”
“Harvested, m’Lady. Does m’Lady think that this is the time?”
“It’s possible, Maggie. We’ll find out soon enough. Please continue with the preparations.”
The boy made sure his hands kept working, but as he furtively watched, he saw expressions pass between the Lady and his mother that he wasn’t expecting. A look of an understanding reached.
“Good. Now, about the persimmon…” The Lady indicated that the woman precede her out of the room, which she did, curtseying before she approached.
Left alone in the kitchen, Elliot considered what he’d just seen. Unable to fathom it, but knowing only too well the risk of discussing it with anyone, he concentrated on his chore and hoped that forever wouldn’t take an eternity.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said a female voice from behind Shakti.
“The angrek. It’s beautiful.”
Shakti looked down at the bloom she’d been staring at. “Yes, it is. But it shouldn’t be here. This is a nature reserve in London, and that is an Angraecum magdalenae. It’s from Madagascar.” She looked up at the woman who’d addressed her, an uncommon enough incident in London to be remarkable, but the woman herself was… Shakti couldn’t put her finger on it. “I suppose it could be an ornamental escapee from a nearby garden,” she continued, although she didn’t for a second believe it.
Shakti stared at the thick, waxy petals, standing out pure white against dark green, fleshy leaves. Its scent reminded her of nutmeg and cinnamon. She wondered what the local moths would make of it.
“Every flower blooms here,” the woman said, sadness in her voice.
Shakti was about to smile politely and extract herself from further conversation with someone who clearly knew nothing about botany when the stranger suddenly stooped to pick the single rogue bloom. Shakti stared at her, aghast. The plant might not belong, but it was not for her or any other member of the public to remove it. That was down to the park keepers. Plants here were for looking at, not for touching. If the locals all came a-picking, the park would be stripped to bedrock within hours.
The woman gazed at the flower for a while, turning it slowly around, lost in private thought. Reluctantly, she held it out to Shakti, nodding slightly at her to take it but not meeting her eyes. Shakti wanted to chastise her, but instead found her hand automatically reaching out. As her fingers closed around the stem, she felt an odd surge of power or static or something run up her arm, filling her body briefly and then grounding itself through her feet. She couldn’t stop herself bringing the bloom up to her nose, taking a deep breath, inhaling the spicy scent which filled her mind with exotic Madagascan visions.
“Few people understand the meaning of flowers,” said the woman, her voice sounding oddly different. Mournful, Shakti thought, but strangely like her sister’s. Shakti was sure the woman had spoken with more of a West Country accent a moment ago, not the soft second generation lilt that she and her siblings sported.
Shakti looked at the angrek in her hands, hands which were as pale as the orchid, and then back at… How had she looked before? Tall, slim, blonde, almost stereotypically pale perfect skin.
The petite stranger now had long, dark brown hair swept back into a roughly made bun held in place with a pencil. Her skin had the mid-brown tones of the Indian subcontinent. She had deep brown eyes, rimmed with kohl. She was dressed in drainpipe jeans, a red top and a light linen jacket, and on her feet were a pair of beautifully hand-embroidered mojari shoes.
Shakti stood, now barefoot in the grass, staring.
“What…” Shakti stopped, shocked by the sound her mouth was making. This was not her voice. It was thin and high. Its accent was different, no hint of her parents’ inflections, which she’d picked up despite being born and bred in the UK. She tried again. “Who are you?”
“I’m sorry,” the woman said, and Shakti realised that it wasn’t hints of her sister she was picking up. No, the woman sounded just the way she did when she heard herself on recordings. She cringed when she heard her own voice and dreaded to think what others thought of it.
“What’s going on?” She stared down at her hands, the long slender fingers, the perfectly manicured nails. She saw her pale feet, pink against the grass which tickled up between her toes. She looked at the fine white dress she was wearing, sewn with white beads and sequins.
“Every year, there must be a new Queen of the May,” the woman said. She picked up Shakti’s handbag and looked inside, assessing the contents. “Today is May Day and it is my time to return to the human world. Next year it will be yours.”
“The Queen of the May reigns for a single year. Not a day longer, not a day less.” She paused briefly, her eyes distant. Breaking from the script she had seemed to be following, she said quietly, sadly. “I’m sorry. It goes really quickly once you let go.”
The stranger looked up and locked eyes briefly with Shakti, sorrow ageing her prematurely. A knot tightened in Shakti’s chest as the implications of the switch became clear.
“No, you don’t understand. I’ve got to get home. I’ve got to finish packing. I can’t miss my train! I can’t miss the machair blooming!”
“There’s nothing I can do,” the woman struggled for a moment to find the right name, feel it out in her mind before committing her tongue to saying it. “Shakti Nayar. I’m sorry. By May Day next year, you’ll have forgotten all about…” another pause whilst she sorted through Shakti’s memories, putting them in order and piecing together the jigsaw of the life she’d stolen. “You’ll forget about Richard and your new job. You forget who you were. We all had lives of our own, once, but we can never go back, even if we wanted to. Better to just accept it.”
“But I’ve got to get up to Scotland before the machair blooms. I don’t have time for this!”
“I’m sorry, my Queen. I have to go.” She looked nervously over Shakti’s shoulder. Her expression was so intense, Shakti couldn’t help but glance behind to see what was there. She saw nothing, and when she looked back, the woman was already striding away.
She was the spitting image of Shakti not just in looks but in the way she walked, the way she slung her handbag over her shoulder, the way she patted down her hair and felt the bun to makes sure that the pencil was still there. Every detail, every tiny gesture or movement or expression, was perfect. Except the eyes, Shakti thought. The eyes just hadn’t looked right.
“Stop!” Shakti shouted, lurching after her. But the woman carried on walking, her posture stiff, steeled against the guilt of the betrayal she’d just committed. “Come back!” The impostor didn’t hesitate, didn’t glance over her shoulder. Shakti ran ahead of her, but the stranger stepped around her, trying to pretend she didn’t exist. “You can’t leave me like this!” Shakti made a lunge for the woman’s arm, but her doppelgänger shrugged her off.
They were close to the main entrance to the park now, a pair of wrought iron gates in a simple Art Deco style, a G on one gate, a P on the other. They would have been stylish when new, but time and rust and too many coats of garish lime green paint had ruined the effect. Now they were just ugly reminders of the insignificance of this tiny city park.
Shakti began to feel a strange resistance as she neared the boundary, as if the air had thickened, forcing her to lean into it to make progress like a weatherman reporting from a hurricane. Each step was slower and harder than the last. She put her head down and kept pushing, still trying to reach the gate before her quarry. Yet that woman, the one who’d stolen her life, continued walking as if this was just a spring day like any other.
Shakti pushed forward, but the closer she got to the wall, the stronger the resistance. She staggered, a lance of pain burning through her veins, making her gasp. She took another step, slow and deliberate and agonising. She reached out with one hand, reaching for the stranger as if through willpower alone she could close the widening gap. Pain surged through her body. She felt packed earth beneath her knees and realised she had collapsed, but her mind was focused only on the back of the creature that now looked like her, was now walking away with her life.
She tried to shout, but all that came out was a strained wheeze. Then it was all too late, her imposter was out of the park and melting away into the anonymous city.
Shakti stared through the gate at the world outside, to the life she couldn’t reach, aching and confused. She forced herself to her feet and as she stepped back the pain eased. She stepped back again and it lessened further. Once more and it lifted completely. Tentatively she reached an arm forwards, towards the exit. An unpleasant sensation danced around her fingertips, as if she was being repeatedly zapped by some particularly shocking form of static electricity. She moved forward and felt pain scourge her body. She gasped. Another step and the gasp became a cry. She withdrew several paces and the agony left her once again.
Interesting, she thought. She took a deep breath, gritted her teeth and plunged on again, hoping that her mental preparation would make the pain seem less, but it did not. It still hurt like hell. At least this time she didn’t fall, she thought. But she simply would not be able to fight her way through to the gate. She’d black out before she got even halfway there.
She turned back towards safety and walked back to where she had first noticed the angrek. There it was, lying forgotten on the grass. She picked it up with the intention of inspecting it, but instead she was transfixed by her own, strange hands. Not a hangnail in sight. Her bare feet were as pale and as perfect. Not a wonky toe nor bunion nor corn. Her long white dress came down to her ankles and flowed like water as she moved. She lifted the hem to reveal sickeningly perfect legs. Long and slender with delicate ankles that would have had the most disapproving Victorian’s heartbeat stuttering with desire.
She looks like me now, thought Shakti, I look like her. She tried to remember the woman’s face — her face — but couldn’t in any detail. She kept a mirror in her bag, Shakti thought, but as she looked around for it, she remembered with bitter certainty that the impostor had walked out of the park with it slung over her shoulder. With that realisation came a lurch of fear. Her notebook. All her most recent research notes and ideas for the work she would be doing in her new job. She couldn’t face losing that.
She looked around, hoping against hope that she hadn’t slipped it back into the bag before the woman turned up. She spotted her pencil by the headless and forlorn angrek, now just an odd-looking green plant with nothing to distinguish it to the casual observer. And there, nestled in the long grass, her notebook. She inhaled deeply and let the relief out in a long, slow breath.
Checking her dress, Shakti was annoyed to discover that whoever had made it had not thought it necessary to provide pockets. Without thinking, her hands swept her long hair back to the nape of her neck with the intention of twisting it round, arranging it into a bun and shoving her pencil in to secure it, as was her custom. Instead, she felt the prickle of some sort of headdress in the way. Her hair immediately unfurled as she let go; fine and silken, it could never provide enough friction to hold a pencil in place anyway.
“Oh, bollocks to this!” She grabbed the pencil and notebook and rose sharply to her feet. Well if she couldn’t get out of that gate, there were at least two others to try. She’d get out, get home and have it out with this woman.
Shakti strode through the nature reserve, walking barefoot on grass or tarmac or gravel alike without pain or discomfort. She didn’t notice. Her anger drove her on, back through the woods, back towards the narrow path and the ivy-draped wall, down to the Gillespie Road gate. But as the boundaries of the park pressed in on her, the pain began to well up. She tried again to push through it, but it dragged on her, sapping her energy and thickening her blood. As she reached the narrowest part of the path, a full twenty yards before the gate and freedom, crushing agony forced her to her knees. She tried to stand but with every move a new crest of pain surged through her.
She felt the damp of soundless tears coursing down her cheeks, the reality of her entrapment now unavoidable. She made a last, feeble attempt to crawl towards the gate, but her blood burned in her veins as if it were the stinging acid of a million fire ants. Every capillary, every vein, every artery inflamed with this transformed, caustic haem. She could just die here, right now, of pain alone, she thought foggily.
Slowly, deliberately, she dragged herself away from that cruel, hateful gate. Every inch she put between her and the boundary saw the pain ebb further and her strength recover. A yard or two later she could raise herself to her knees, then she fought her way to her feet.
She retreated to the grassy field and sat herself again upon the stone bench. There, still, was the deceitful angrek that had stolen her life. There was a dandelion too, and a red clover, more in keeping with the flowers you’d expect to see in the middle of a London wildlife reserve. She wondered briefly what she would do next but was startled out of that thought by a male voice.
“My Queen!” Shakti turned sharply but there was no one behind her. She looked around, peering into the margins of the thin, spiteful wood that fringed the meagre meadow. “Ah, Your Highness,” came the voice again. “Allow me.”
Shakti triangulated on the sound and stared at the patch of air where she thought the owner of the voice ought to be. As she watched, the outline of a man emerged from the patterns of light and shade as if an expertly camouflaged soldier had moved, just a fraction. No, not a soldier, she thought as she looked at him, a lizard.
Tall, blond, cheekbones sharp enough to cut cheese but a frame so slender that she wondered if, given a well placed kick, she might snap him in two. She wasn’t sure why, but she immediately wanted to find out.
“You look as radiant as ever, my Queen,” he said, smarm oozing from his voice like honey from baklava.
“Who the hell are you?” she asked, her eyes taking in his foppish hair, his white blouse, loose white trousers gathered round the waist with a plaited leather belt. He looked like a reject from the early 80s and whilst it was true that particular decade was back in vogue, the billowing white cotton look had not successfully made the transition.
“I am but your humble King, my fair Queen.”
“What are you talking about?” Shakti found her disposition less than pleasant, and not just because her muscles were still sore after her most recent attempt at escape.
“Every year, on May Day, a new Queen of the May must be crowned and the old Queen must leave. You, my golden one, are my new Queen.”
“I am nobody’s queen. I am Shakti Nayar, and I demand to be allowed to go home!”
“This is home, my sweet flower.”
“This is not my home. This is a pathetic, miserable excuse for a park, and if you think I’m staying here a second longer…”
“My poor Queen,” the May King said, condescension laid on with a shovel. “You are no more Shakti now than your predecessor was… was…” he stumbled, searching his memory for a name, any name, and failing to find one.
“Her name was Janet,” Shakti said, unsure how she knew but very sure that she was correct.
“Whoever she once was,” the King said, “she is… Shakti Nayar, is that what you said? Yes, she is now Miss Nayar, and you are my bride. And, may I say,” he smiled lasciviously, “May I say how resplendent you look?”
Shakti could feel confusion and resentment stealing across her features. She’d never been described as resplendent before.
“You haven’t seen yourself?” he asked. He murmured, waved his hands in tight little gestures, and Shakti found herself outside her body, looking at herself. The suspicion she had harboured about her new form, based on the bare feet and floaty skirt, turned out to be all so horrifically true. She was tall and slender, long limbs and a perfectly proportioned body. Her dress was white and absurdly diaphanous, revealing the swell of her modest bosom. She saw her hand jerk self-consciously to her chest and forced herself to be still. She had pin-sharp blue eyes, the colour of glacier ice. Porcelain skin with a rose petal blush. Thick, long, shiny flaxen hair, a circlet of may sitting upon her head.
She glared at the May King and her perspective snapped back to normal.
“Gods and little fishes. I look like I just stepped out of a frickin’ shampoo advert.”
“Let us go, my Queen.”
“Where?” A flicker of irritation. “Your realm, my Queen.”
“Yeah… No. I don’t think so.” Shakti stared him down.
“So be it,” he said, smirking. The May King turned on his heel and, in a step or two, had faded back into the dappled shade, leaving Shakti alone.
She reached up to her head, her fingers closed around the circlet of may sprigs and she took it from her hair. The tiny blossoms and buds nestled white amongst the dark green leaves, sprigs so tightly interwoven that the circlet couldn’t spring apart. She felt a calmness sooth away her anger and the remnants of earlier pain. Comforted, she put it back in place. She shook her head experimentally but it seemed quite determined to stay put.
Well, she thought, not much point sitting around getting mopey. Might as well take a look at the rest of the park and find another way out.
She hadn’t gone far before she came up against a wooden gate blocking her way. She went to lift the chain that looped loosely over the post to hold the gate closed. A burning sensation shot through her fingers and up her arm as she touched it. She jerked her hand away, gasping with the pain. Had someone wired it up to a car battery so that it zapped the unwary as some sort of practical joke? She couldn’t see cables or a car battery, but found a stick with which to lift the chain aside, just in case.
She closed the gate behind her, although she left the chain hanging where it was. Someone else could deal with that. To her right was the Lupin Meadow, the sign said, although she could see no evidence of lupins. It was hemmed in by hedges and trees, almost claustrophobically small. Buried under unkempt grass was a tiny stone circle, made out of cheap, charmless concrete.
The path led onwards, past a pond into another small wood, Highbury Copse. Occasionally the sun speared a gob of shadow and insects danced in the lance of light. Beyond, she could see a gate, shiny curves welded up as if a giant metal robin had woven together fronds of steel to hold its blue glass eggs in an oversized nest. On the other side of that was the Education Centre, tatty and poorly maintained, its blue walls in need more of a slurp than a lick of paint.
Shakti stopped, her eye caught by two yews just ahead. Far from the imposing ancient edifices she had seen so often in churchyards, these were stunted, like everything else in this park. They needed at least another couple of centuries to mature.
There was an exit to the park through here, according to the park map she’d looked at earlier. She took a few steps forward then halted again. The yew was within touching distance but the gate and the Education Centre had faded from view. Instead of train wagons in the sidings she knew lay on the other side of the far hedge, instead of the blocks of flats and the enormous stadium, she could see rolling hills and a distant forest.
She took two paces back and looked again. The Education Centre was again in view. She found, with careful experimentation, the boundary point, just ahead of the yew. If she positioned herself just right and rocked back on her heel, she could see Gillespie Park with the city looming on the other side of the hedge. Rock forward and it was a bucolic, pastoral view. She spent a while just moving back and forth, watching the scene flick from the real to the… to the what, exactly?
“Come, my Queen,” came the voice of the May King, startling her.
“Will you stop doing that!” She looked around but couldn’t spot him. “Dammit! Show yourself!”
“I knew you’d realise your place is here, with me, at the head of our realm,” the May King oozed, fading into view as he walked along the path towards her. “It is time. There is a feast being prepared for you.”
“No, thanks. Not hungry. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to find a way out of here.”
“That, my Queen, is simply not possible. You may as well accept it. Come with me, come reclaim your throne.”
“Throne, my arse. I’m not going anywhere except home!” Shakti turned her back on him and retraced her steps, relieved that the annoying twerp didn’t follow.
As she wandered through the nature reserve, trying to think of what to do next, she spotted a young woman sitting on a bench, sketching. Shakti walked up behind her, but the girl was intent on her drawing and didn’t notice. Shakti peered at her sketchbook and watched as she drew small vignettes in blue pencil, each beautifully observed, no matter how brief or unfinished it was.
“Excuse me,” said Shakti. The woman didn’t respond, deep in concentration. “Hey, I’m sorry to interrupt but…” Still no response.
“You can talk all you like, your Highness,” came the familiar, grating voice. “But she will never reply. They don’t tread the same earth as us.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re not in the same world, my dear. This tiny fragment is where the fringes of our worlds meet, where our world and theirs overlap.“
She looked at the woman, still involved in her work. “But, that woman, Janet, she could speak to me?”
“In a year, you will understand. Now, come with me.”
Elliot watched his father and their neighbour load up the wagon with the trestle tables that had been stored in the village barn for the last year and bales of freshly laundered white tablecloths. The two men made short work of it, hitched the wagon up to Baker, the great cart horse, then helped Elliot up onto the driver’s seat between them.
The journey to Encampment took about half an hour, the rough dirt road rutted and potholed and bouncing Elliot around until his backside was numb. He wouldn’t admit to anyone that he was sore after the journey, not for all the honeysuckle in Faerie.
They drove the wagon through Encampment to the Festival Square, getting as close as they could to the wooden dais at the top of the open, grassy area. The dais had been scrubbed and repaired in the weeks beforehand, and now a white awning sailed above it. A team of people were decorating the awning, great swags of cloth and flowers and sprigs of this herb and boughs of that tree. There was almost more vegetation than there was cloth.
Elliot clambered down from the wagon and as soon as the first trestle went up at the top of the grass square, he grabbed a tablecloth from the first opened bale and spread it neatly over the table. He remembered his mother’s instructions, making sure that the cloth was positioned perfectly, wrinkle free.
He followed the adults as they systematically covered the open area with tables. Other villagers would be along with more swags and centrepieces and decorations to make the sea of plain white beautiful. He glanced up at the dais, empty and slightly forbidding, and wondered what the new Queen would be like. The last one was nice, he’d thought, though he had only other people’s opinions to go from. Vague memories told him that his parents hadn’t much liked the one before that though. She’d been a nasty piece of work, his mother had said when she thought he was out of earshot.
Soon they were done and back on the wagon, heading back to the village for the next run. There was a lot still to do: bringing up the freshly scrubbed benches and newly re-stuffed cushions; laying out platters, silverware and glasses; finishing off last minute food and drink preparations. Elliot was looking forward to changing into his best clothes and helping at the feast. It was his first year at the Changeover and he was excited to see what all the fuss was about.
Shakti sat furiously sketching the wild garlic she’d found growing near the pond, each stroke, thick and dark, slowly leaching away her anger at that pompous popinjay, the May King. She subsumed her frustration in her drawing and the calm of study swept her ire aside.
The distinctive, pungent aroma of the garlic hung in the air, thick and pleasant. Courage and strength, it meant. Richard had once given her a book about flowers and plants and their meanings, one of his earliest attempts to woo the botanist that shared a house with his friend. She’d played her cards close to her chest, never telling him how much that book meant to her.
She remembered every page in detail. Each plant was beautifully illustrated, complete with Latin name printed in immaculate handwriting underneath. The author had then provided a full scientific description before listing the meanings ascribed by folklore or inventive code makers. Without difficulty she brought to mind the page concerning wild garlic: Allium longicupis.
Memory was something Shakti was good at. She could quote passages verbatim, recall details of pictures, and conjure up facts whenever they were needed. As a child she’d learnt that she had a better memory than most and quickly realised that it was a useful skill to develop. Her memory got her through when her commitment to study faltered. And, as Richard was only too fond of pointing out, it made her insufferable in an argument.
As she mulled over the language of flowers, invented by sly Victorians to facilitate secret communications between lovers, she realised there were other meanings coming to mind. But these weren’t meanings that she had read in her book, of that she was sure. They were rising up through her mind from somewhere else.
White periwinkle symbolised memory, according to her book. But now she knew that it was not just referring to the longevity of recall but also the perfect recollection of events past, wherever and to whomever they happened. Winged seeds, on the other hands were messengers, but not just of feelings and emotions and desires, they were messengers capable of crossing realms, and between them.
Shakti fidgeted. There was something here, something obvious, so obvious that she couldn’t figure out what it was. White periwinkle, a simple flower with five broad petals and deep evergreen leaves, likes sun although can tolerate shade, blooms from spring through to early autumn. Winged seeds, like those of the maple, ash or elm, on the other hand were definitely an autumn thing and autumn was half a year ago.
She shut her sketchbook, stood, and looked round for a likely site for periwinkles. She walked back and forth, systematically examining every potential spot until she found a patch near the stone circle, their blossoms perfectly white. She picked a few sprigs and carefully placed them in her sketchbook between two unused pages.
The winged seeds, on the other hand were much harder to find. Those that may have fallen had long since turned to mulch. Shakti rummaged in the humus under a sycamore but none of its little helicopters remained. She looked up, then, searching for a sign of even just one stubborn seed still attached to its parent tree, hanging on despite all the winter storms and high winds that tried so hard to coax it down.
“And what could it be that my fair Queen seeks?” came the familiar voice, smug and self-satisfied.
“Oh, do eff off,” Shakti didn’t even bother turning round to try to find him. She kept scouring the twigs, searching for a hint of brown amongst the bright new growth. She must, she thought, be moving in the right direction if Prince Bouffant had decided to take an interest.
“You’ll have everything you need if you come with me, fair Queen. Servants to care for you, the most exquisite of pavilions, the rarest of delicacies to eat.”
“I’m really not interested.” She continued her search.
“And you’ll be happy, my Lady. You’ll forget all about… this,” she could feel his gesture ripple through the air around her, like a silent pressure wave pushing her about. “You’ll forget all about this creature you used to be, so small and insignificant, so meaningless. You can be Queen now, and not just any two-bit queenling, but a Queen of the Faerie, with more power than you ever imag…”
Shakti wasn’t sure which of them was most surprised when she spun on her heel, her wildly thrown punch connecting with his jaw, her knuckles crunching painfully on impact. He reared back, his hand clutching his face.
“Don’t you dare tell me I’m worthless, you snivelling little toerag,” Shakti seethed.
She shoved her sketchbook down her top, hoping it would stay lodged between her bosom and the strained fabric of the dress, and put the pencil behind her ear. Again, she cursed whoever had made this dress for not considering a concept as simple as pockets.
She grabbed a low branch of the sycamore and hauled herself up. Anger and resentment fuelled her climb and, there, almost out of her precarious reach, she saw a tiny bundle of seeds still attached to the tree. She grabbed them. And then she looked down.
“Crap,” she muttered under her breath.
She was much higher up than she had anticipated. The ground looked much further away. The branch she was clinging to was solid, though, so she swung one leg over to sit astride.
She pulled out the sketchbook, removed the squashed periwinkle from between its pages and laid it in her palm with the seeds. She had, she realised, absolutely no real idea of what to do next. Whatever old and distant memory had tickled her mind, it had failed to provide her with full instructions. She wasn’t even sure what she was trying to achieve.
“Come down, my sweet.” The May King had regained his composure and stood at the bottom of the tree, gesturing up at her as if to take her hand and help her descend. Shakti wondered if his face would bruise and whether that bruise would be sore. Her knuckles certainly were.
“I know you don’t mean that, my fair Queen.”
“No, I really do.”
She had to figure out what came next. There was something there, right on the edge of memory, but that idiot down there was distracting her, stopping her from remembering. She gently teased flat the creased white periwinkle petals, soft to her touch.
The May King had seemed to simply wave his hands and bingo, she was outside of her body looking at herself. Why did she need flowers to help her cast a spell? Memory and messengers. Messengers of memory. Which words would release whatever magical powers came with the position of the Queen of the May? What signs and signals changed the world?
It was like having a word on the tip of her tongue that she couldn’t quite reach. It was there, somewhere. She groped her way through the haze in her mind. What was it? Dammit!
“If my beauteous Queen would simply descend and come with me to Faerie proper, I’m sure her problems here would simply vanish.”
Shakti screwed her eyes shut, trying to block out the annoying little twat and think. She tightened her grip on the branch with both her hands and her thighs, not wanting to fall. Somewhere in the depths of someone else’s memories there was something important.
Janet had been through this. She must have. Shakti wondered how Janet had been tricked into becoming May Queen, whether it had been in Gillespie Park or some other soft place between the Faerie and Human realms. Gillespie Park, she suddenly knew. Same routine. Drawn to a pretty, unusual flower and then the Queen appeared, handing her the angrek, making the switch. There, however, their experiences diverged.
Janet, flustered and confused, had allowed the May King to take her straight back to Faerie where she rapidly forgot her previous self. She had been almost eager to shed her human identity, Shakti thought, feeling the shadows of memories purposefully forgotten. She didn’t have time for that mystery right now. Instead she focused on trying to remember the process of transformation, working her way through Janet’s memories, piecing them together bit by bit.
But when Shakti tried to delve further back, past Janet, she found the memories too fuzzy, as if one film frame had been exposed over and over again until it was impossible to discern which objects were originally in which scene. Janet’s memories were relatively fresh and crisp. That made sense, their being not only quite recent but also inherited directly from the source.
“My Lady,” the May King interrupted again, “You’ll do yourself a mischief up there, come down!”
“How many times do I have to tell you to bog off?” Shakti’s eyes snapped angrily open and fixed the May King with a cold stare.
“Bog off. Go away. Vamoose. Leg it. Shoo.”
“I fear m’Lady doesn’t understand…”
“I understand perfectly well, thank you very much. I shall come down when I am ready. And that won’t be until you’ve gone away.”
The May King visibly sighed, a theatrical, resigned sigh that indicated to all watching — although no one was — that he was on the moral high ground and merely giving in as an indulgence. Even with no audience, he couldn’t help hamming it up. What a twerp.
“You leave me little choice, m’Lady. I bid you goodnight.”
“Oh my word, at last.”
The May King bowed an extravagant bow, all flourish and no sincerity, and backed away, disappearing into the background once again. Shakti shook her head at him, and returned to sifting through Janet’s memories. The branch was getting very uncomfortable, but she didn’t want to get down just yet, lest the May King be waiting for her. Instead she fidgeted and worked her way, day by day, through what she could remember of Janet’s first weeks as Queen of the May.
The methodical approach bore fruit at about the same time as her buttocks started to feel numb. Shakti decided it was best to be on terra firma before she tried replicating Janet’s magic. She looked down and, although she was a fair way up, now that she was calmer she could see a sequence of branches that would see her easily to ground level.
Once down, she sat herself cross-legged on the grass, pulling out her notebook and taking the periwinkle and winged seeds into her hands. She closed her eyes and focused on the thread of Janet’s memory that she had just identified, tugging and pulling at it until it began to unravel in a satisfying manner. Finally, she had the words, words which had been said by every Queen before her to unlock the memories she’d been given. She clutched the periwinkle and the seeds and murmured sounds whose purpose she understood but whose shape and meaning were alien. She made little gestures with her hands that felt familiar but which she didn’t fully comprehend.
The dam burst. Shakti found herself drowning in other people’s memories, their emotions, their pain, their suffering, their elation, their discoveries, their frustrations. The deluge overwhelmed her, flooding through every crevice of her mind. It washed up upon the shores of her personality, threatening to erode it, scouring it clear under the sheer force of remembrance. She clung to who she was: Shakti Nayar, British-Asian, second daughter of immigrants from Mumbai, botanist, lover of cats and good food…
She opened her eyes and found herself lying on the grass. The memories were all there now, a giant library of biographies with everything that every Queen before her had experienced, right up to the moment that Janet had transferred her curse to a new victim. But, just like a library, you had to know where the knowledge was before you could access it. She sat, stupefied by all the information now in her head.
Four months earlier…
“Congratulations!” Richard smiled. “To the newly minted Doctor…” he lingered over the word, letting it roll around on his tongue, “…Shakti Nayar.” They raised their glasses, bubbles spiralling upwards, and clinked them together.
“Aww, thanks hon!” Shakti brought the glass of champagne to her nose and inhaled deeply. It smelled a bit of vanilla, perhaps, of green apple and citrus. She let her eyes close for a moment, letting her mind swim in the fragrance.
“I’m so proud of you, darling, I really am,” he said, beaming. “I know it’s been tough the last few months, but you’ve really done sterling work.”
“I can’t quite believe it’s over, to be honest. I keep thinking that there must be some last bit of paperwork I ought to be doing, or some missing chapter of my dissertation that I still need to write.” She smiled, and took a sip of her drink, the creamy fizz bursting on her tongue. She could, she thought, enjoy learning more about champagne.
“So, we get a holiday now?” Richard asked, playfully.
“Well, that depends, I guess.” Shakti set the glass down carefully, not wanting to spill it, or drink it too quickly. She toyed with the cutlery, lining it up neatly on the placemat.
“There’s a job going that I’d like to apply for.” She looked coyly up at her boyfriend.
“I’m sensing there’s more to it than just sending off a form and hoping for the best?”
“It is a little complicated,” Shakti prevaricated.
Richard sat back in his chair and raised a single eyebrow. “Sounds like this is going to be a good ’n,” he said. “Go on.”
“There’s an opportunity at the University of Aberdeen…”
“That sounds… I’m looking for words that aren’t ‘cold’, ‘dark’ and ‘very far away’. But seriously, I’ve heard Aberdeen’s lovely.”
“Shush!” Shakti started again. “There’s this incredibly rare wildflower habitat call the mack… mach…” She stumbled on the unfamiliar Gaelic word. “The machair.”
“Machair. It’s an incredibly…”
“…Rare wildflower habitat. Yes, I got that bit.”
“It’s a grassy coastal plain, actually. There’s a post-doc research position, part of the machair conservation effort. There’s a real risk we’ll lose the entire habitat to sea level rise and storms. It’s an amazing opportunity,” Shakti was warming to her subject. “There are over 200 species of flowering plants, some of them very rare. Orchids, too, the Hebridean spotted orchid and the heath orchid. It would be, well, it’s the chance of a lifetime, Richard.”
“Wait, did you say ‘Hebridean’?” Shakti looked down and fiddled with the silverware again. “I thought you said this was in Aberdeen?”
Shakti opened her mouth to answer, but bit off her response when the waiter arrived with the bread basket. She smiled her thanks and, as he served Richard, she tore a slice of fluffy white bread in two, dipped it in the olive oil and balsamic vinegar and took a bite. She loved the tang of the balsamic, more so than the slightly too peppery oil. When the waiter had gone and Richard had his mouth full, she continued.
“The post doc is with Aberdeen University, yes, but we’d be living in Lochboisdale.” She hoped she wasn’t mangling pronunciation of the unfamiliar Scottish name.
“Where?” Richard mumbled through the bread.
“It’s a town in Scotland. On, erm, South Uist.”
“I say again: Where?”
“South Uist. In the Outer Hebrides.”
“Outer? You want us to go and live somewhere that’s got ‘outer’ in the name?”
“They’ve got broadband, if that helps?”
Richard laughed. “You really are lucky that I’m pretty much geographically independent,” he said. “It might take a bit of persuading for some of my clients to stay with me, but love, if this is what you want, if this is important to you, we’ll do it.”
“Look,” Shakti said, waving a bit of bread about like it was a pointer. “It’s only for a couple of years. It’s not like it’s forever. And we can probably save a boatload of cash whilst we’re there.”
“No pun intended, obviously.”
“Never mind, hon. You don’t have to convince me. I’m totally up for a change of pace and some different scenery.”
“In all honesty, I probably won’t get the job. There’s a thing down in Kew I can apply for too. Then we wouldn’t need to move at all, though the commute would be a bit of a bitch.”
“Hey, if you want the job in Scotland, go for it. You know you’re good enough for it.”
It was Shakti’s turn to raise an eyebrow, this one skeptical. “We’ll see.”
“You are far too modest, Doctor Nayar,” Richard lifted his glass to toast her once more. “You are more than capable. No talking yourself down tonight — this is all about celebrating your doctorate!”
“My Queen?” the voice was tentative, gentle and, crucially, female. Shakti could not bear the idea of dealing with the May King at the moment. She turned her head until she could see a woman with green eyes and hair the colour of autumn leaves. There was an itch of near-recognition in Shakti’s mind.
“What is it?” she asked.
“If it pleases you, we have prepared a welcoming meal.” The woman curtseyed, and took a tiny step back.
Shakti sat up, feeling foggy and distant, though whether from the interrupted nap or the sudden influx of other people’s memories she wasn’t sure. She got to her feet, trying not to sway.
“What’s your name?” she asked, marginally annoyed at herself for having to ask.
“Faella, your Majesty. I am your…”
“My Lady in Waiting, yes, yes, I remember now,” Shakti said, although she didn’t really. The name was familiar, yes, but she could not have honestly said that her recollection was clear or complete.
“Are you hungry?”
Shakti could have cursed her for mentioning it. It had been hours since breakfast, but she’d been successfully ignoring the burgeoning hunger. She nodded and followed Faella to the Aster Meadow, a part of the park Shakti had not yet seen. As they entered the meadow, the skyline was populated with familiar yellow-brick blocks of flats, facing the railway tracks and, in the distance, Upper Holloway. But as they approached the far hedge all that melted away and the rolling hills of Faerie faded into view.
On the other side, firmly in Faerie territory, Shakti saw a large marquee, red and yellow, bright in the sunshine. She almost expected a knight to be reclining on some cushions in the shade, but whilst there was a thick, rich rug spread atop the grass, and plenty of cushions, there was no knight. No King either. Well, that was a start.
Faella held the gate open for Shakti, curtseying again and gesturing for Shakti to precede her. Shakti faltered. She could see a group of fae women, all tall and beautiful with long hair and fine features, gathered in a knot under the awning, clearly waiting for her. They were like the Stepford Faeries, all looking the same, dressed the same, ready to assimilate her into their ranks.
Even as Queen, she didn’t much fancy the life. Everything about this group of immaculately turned out faeries looked like some vision of the Middle Ages, concocted by Hollywood execs more to satisfy the stereotypes of mediæval life than depict historical reality. The last significant influence of human culture on faerie life had been over five hundred years ago. Shakti shuddered. They’d never developed technology, or penicillin, or pockets.
“I think I’ll just stay here, thanks Faella,” Shakti said, backing away.
“But m’Lady must be hungry?” the woman said.
“Yes, yes I am. I’ll manage.”
“You don’t have to just manage, m’Lady. A huge feast is being prepared for you right now in the Festival Square.”
“Tempting, but no.” Shakti thought of Richard, of her new job, of their future together. She wasn’t ready to walk away from that and just give in to whatever the hell it was that was actually happening to her. “I have things I need to attend to.”
Faella curtseyed, a tiny smile playing around the corners of her lips that vanished as fast as it had arrived.
“Of course, my Queen. Should you change your mind, we will be here awaiting you.”
Shakti looked at her, surprised at such rapid acquiescence. She’d been expecting Faella to try a bit harder, to be a bit more persuasive. Shakti nodded almost imperceptibly, acknowledging Faella’s acceptance of her decision.
Shakti took a few steps backwards and Faella, and all the Stepford Faeries clustered under the awning, vanished from view. She shivered, not from cold but in fear at what the coming night might hold. She couldn’t get out, but that didn’t mean things couldn’t get in. She wondered whether the faerie women would come back for her or if they would just abandon her here in this odd little hinterland, this place that was neither human nor faerie, whilst still managing to be both. Maybe they would just leave her here to rot for a year.
She couldn’t afford to wallow in self-pity, she told herself. She needed to analyse all these new memories she had acquired and figure out what was going on. She went back to the stone bench, finding it more comfortable to sit on the grass and lean her back up against it than to actually sit on it. It hadn’t really been designed to be sat upon.
She opened up her notebook and started to rummage round in the vast quagmire of memories she had, looking for notable events, the boldest, sharpest memories, the insights and understanding that previous Queens surely must have developed.
Janet’s memories were of little use. She had embraced the faerie way almost immediately, swiftly falling into her role as Queen. And she hadn’t been a good queen either, too timid to properly stand up to the May King, too keen to please those around her, too quick to toe the line. She was, Shakti thought, a bit of a cushion: she bore the imprint of the last person who sat on her.
Rabiya had resisted at first but didn’t have the stamina to keep it up. Neither of the women had delved much into fae magic, Shakti found. It was hard to sift through their memories, so many of them seemed the same, blurring into one big morass. She did learn, however, about life in Faerie, which seemed to consist mainly of eating and drinking, pageantry and pomp and the games. Maybe Faerie had been more interesting in the days when fae and human worlds met more frequently, but with only tiny scraps of hinterland left, the fae were a stagnant, dying race. The May Queen was supposed to bring in new blood, but now all it achieved was to ruin the life of one young human woman each year.
Shakti jotted notes as she went along, in the smallest, neatest handwriting she could manage. She wasn’t sure how much writing she’d have to do and wanted to conserve space.
Beyond the experiences of Janet and Rabiya, the memories in her mind were just a huge jumbled mess. Simply working backwards, event by event wasn’t going to help her get to grips with the rules of this place to see which could be bent, and which broken. She leant back, looking around once more. This time, though, there was layer upon layer of memory plastered over the bedrock of reality like beds of sediment at the bottom of the ocean. She couldn’t count the different women who had been caught up in this unceasing chain of abductions.
She closed her notebook, got to her feet, and started to roam the tiny park letting the things she saw prompt whatever recollections wanted to well up from the depths of her memory.
The oak bench, for example. Hannah had wept here. Jen had kicked it and bruised her toe. Ingvild had sat for hours wondering what to do, Rhiannon had… Rhiannon had… the knowledge filled her mind like flash floods after a hard storm, a swirling torrent of memory and understanding that came and vanished and left her mind changed in its wake. This was where Rhiannon had learnt the basic types of faerie magic:
Glamour, magic that affects how people see and perceive.
Enchantment, which changes the very essence of things.
Hex, malignant magic that ensures misfortune.
Indeed the back of the oak bench sported three carvings that made the point quite clearly: the apple, hiding a worm within it, symbolised the glamour; the butterfly showed enchantment and transformation; the snake, misfortune. But where did the flowers fit in?
The sounds of the city were muffled by the trees and high walls, but every now and then a siren pierced the veil between worlds and she thought of Richard and wondered if he had realised that the creature that had returned from her errand wasn’t her. She wondered if he would spot the deception. Or if the faerie cuckoo was smart enough to stay quiet whilst she acclimatised to a new body, new memories, new life.
The wall stood before her. It may as well have been a towering edifice fifty leagues high for all that she could scale it. Apple blossom for good fortune, bay for strength and eucalyptus for protection — everything really does grow in Faerie, she discovered — but yet she still couldn’t get near the damn thing. Edelweiss for daring, juniper for protection, oak leaves for bravery, but it still kept her at bay, crippling her with pain as soon she got within six feet. Maybe she could magic up a trebuchet to fling herself bodily over the brickwork.
She looked at the collection of flowers and sprigs of greenery she held. Each one symbolised a particular quality or action and by combining them in the right way she could shape the spell the way she wanted it. She still wasn’t entirely sure how the rest of it worked, but at least she had a hypothesis to test now. Enough time and experimentation should yield results, it was just a matter of figuring out the right combinations and, hopefully, triggering memories of the right words and gestures.
“Enough of this foolishness.“ The familiar voice interrupted her thoughts.
“Oh, it’s Captain Whup again. What do you want?”
“Men!” The May King issued his command and Shakti looked up to find herself surrounded by a dozen snarling faeries, their delicate features ruined by harsh expressions. They didn’t look as if they were about to pay homage to her Royal Personage. Wordlessly, they closed in.
Shakti panicked, scrabbling through her newly acquired but poorly understood memories and the flora now clutched desperately in her hands. Juniper for protection! Oak leaves for strength! Houseleek for, shit, domestic economy.
“Try your hardest, my Queen, but you barely know what an enchantment is, let alone how to cast one. Of course, a year in Faerie will solve that, but by the time you work it out, you’ll have forgotten what you were trying to achieve.”
The King’s tone changed, slipping from cruelty easily into insidious niceness. “Come with me to Faerie, my Queen. Come, feast and play and enjoy your year as Queen.”
She would have backed away from his advance if there had been anywhere to back away to.
“Oh…” dammit, she didn’t want to be lost for words. “Sod off.” Only marginally better than nothing, but it was the spirit that counted.
“If that’s how you feel… Take her.”
The faerie men advanced, tightening the circle around her. One grabbed her wrist, bared it and held it out to his fellow accomplice.
“Don’t struggle, your Majesty,” he said, “or it will hurt more.”
The second faerie wore long leather gauntlets which stiffly flared out halfway up the forearm, like a lance’s vamplate. Sewn to the leather were small fronds of may, leaves and white flowers looking old and dishevelled. He held long-handled, crossed and hinged silver tongs, their wooden ends gripping something that he clearly didn’t want to touch. Not a good sign. He squeezed the handles and Shakti saw the wooden jaws open wide.
Before she could struggle and pull her arm away, the tongs were released and she felt the cold searing pain of iron clamped to her wrist. She cried out but stubbornly bit the cry off. In a stupefied iron-burnt daze, she felt her other wrist taken, another handcuff snapped in place.
The silver chain between the handcuffs was long, but it didn’t matter, the fire burning through her blood made her insensible, unable to think let alone fight back. If her wits had been about her, she would have seen a thin, delicate band of iron closed with a simple box clasp. There was no key, no lock. They weren’t needed. No faerie shackled in iron had the strength to undo the clasp, and no faerie could help without the special, insulated tools and protective clothing created for the purpose.
Shakti felt her legs give way beneath her, the world receding into the distance. She realised that she had been caught by the fae menfolk as she collapsed and deposited gently on a stretcher. But little else made it through the searing agony of direct contact with iron.
The faerie men bore her through the park. With every tiny jostle and knock, the iron cuffs pressed harder into her skin, sending new waves of pain through her body. She tried to fight it, to see which way they were taking her, but her mind couldn’t even grasp that. She did feel them step into Faerie. The air changed, become warmer and drier, and the throb of the iron sharpened about her wrists.
The deeper they went into Faerie, she feared, the harder it would be to remember who she was. And if she forgot that, she would forget all about escape and they, the faeries and Janet, they would have won. She writhed on the stretcher, feeling increasingly as if she were laid out on a bier on the way to her pyre.
“Hush, my Queen,” came the hatefully familiar voice. “We’re nearly there now.”
Shakti felt the movement stop, felt the stretcher laid down on a bed. The iron sent tongues of fire up her arms, through her head and heart. There was nothing, nothing except the pain. She heard words, but not what they said. She felt her arm being lifted, then felt the agony ebb as one cuff and then the other were carefully removed.
The searing heat fell away rapidly. Somewhere in the back of her mind, the rational part of her observed that the effect of the iron seemed to follow an inverse square law, like gravity, light, sound and radiation. That would be why getting close to the walls in the park was so hard, and why the agony dissipated so quickly as she stepped back.
She opened her eyes in time to see the iron cuffs being cautiously deposited in an ornate box, covered in silver and jewels on the outside and crammed with the flowers and herbs of containment. Shakti stared as the faerie put the tongs in a special holder in the lid and removed the gauntlets, laying them in another special box. Juniper, oak, hawthorn, feverfew, white heather. Protection, strength, hope, protection again, and yet more protection. Interesting.
Shakti rubbed her wrists, feeling the strength coming back to her and the fog clearing from her mind. Protection, protection, protection. Glamour, enchantment and hex. Iron was the thing faeries hated. Iron was what was keeping her trapped in the park — the iron of the gates, the iron of the anchor plates and tie rods holding the old brick wall together, the iron spelling out the boundaries of her prison. She could have kicked herself for not realising earlier, not spotting the clue in the chain over the gate that had stung when she went to touch it.
“And how is my beautiful Queen feeling now?” The May King stood over her bed, smiling.
Shakti stared up at the faerie King, his thin face pinched with arrogance, his pale blue eyes cruel with mischief. She blanched. She was deep in Faerie, had no idea how to get back to Gillespie Park, and had no real idea how faerie magic worked. Worse, she had only a week to find a way to escape before the cuckoo would take her Richard out of her reach forever.
“When you have recovered your strength…” The May King turned on his heel and left.
Two months earlier…
Shakti rubbed at her eyes, tired already from staring at recruitment websites for postdoctoral research. She’d tidied up her CV, a chore that had taken her a lot longer than it should have, and now was searching for relevant positions to apply for. There was a plethora of sites to check, each one as tedious as the last. She’d see a position with a promising title, like ‘Postdoctoral Research Fellow’ in some School of Biological Sciences, only to find that they were looking for someone to study Alzheimer’s. Not her purview.
She’d already discussed her options with her PhD supervisor and various other professors and lecturers. There was no more fruit to fall out of that tree. Now she was rapidly coming to the conclusion that there simply were no more jobs to apply for, not in her field, anyway. She had already sent her CV off for the handful of positions that existed, so if none of them came through…
She pushed her chair back from her desk and stood abruptly, trying not to let herself feel the despair that was welling up inside. If the worst happened she’d get a local job, waitressing or something, and just keep looking for more opportunities.
She stormed into the kitchen, roughly grabbing the kettle, in the process knocking over a dirty mug by the sink. She saw it topple to the floor but was too slow to catch it before it splintered into tiny shards. She stood, staring at it, aware only peripherally that she had heaved a great sob as it broke.
“Hey, hey, what’s the matter?” Richard rushed up behind her, put his hands on her shoulders to turn her round. She couldn’t answer, the tears coursing down her cheeks. Richard pulled her towards him, hugging her, stroking her hair. “It’s only a cup, darling, it’s not important.”
“It’s not the mug, you stupid fool,” she wanted to say, but there wasn’t enough air in her lungs. She didn’t dare try to speak, to hear her own voice so broken and defeated. She didn’t want to give her despair form and power by talking about it. She could feel her tears soaking through Richard’s shirt as he held her tightly, gently rocking her, making soothing noises, whispering that it would be ok, that she would be just fine, whatever it was that had upset her. He’d tidy up the mess, not to worry.
Eventually there were no more tears to cry and Richard led Shakti by the hand into the lounge, sitting them both down on the sofa, facing.
“What’s up, my love? What was that all about?”
“Nothing,” Shakti managed, though her nose was all full of snot and her voice sounded raw.
“That’s not nothing, that’s one very upset Shakti.” He gave her a mock stern stare.
“I just… There just aren’t any jobs out there. I’ve applied for everything.”
“I’m sure there are…”
“No, really, genuinely, there aren’t. All my life, all I’ve wanted to do is study flowers. When I was little, I had a flower press and I drove my mum nuts picking all the flowers in the garden. Really, this is all I want to do. I don’t want to be a waitress!”
She wanted to stop them, but the tears flowed freely again. Richard plucked a tissue from a box on the coffee table, then leant forward to dab away the water. He took her hand and smiled, catching and holding her gaze.
“It’s going to be fine, love. One of those jobs will come through, and if they don’t, then we’ll figure out a way to get you doing something botanical. Making gin, maybe.” Shakti managed a smile. “You just have to have patience, darling. Really, it’ll come good.”
“It just feels so impossible. There are so many people out there better than me and so few jobs. Why would they choose me?”
“Hey, hey! Less of that! No one disses my Doctor! Everyone in your department had nothing but good things to say about you, Shakti. You know they’ve got a lot of respect for your work.”
“That’s just because they’re being nice.”
Richard paused to stare at Shakti, his stern expression this time authentic. “I’m not going to let you sit here and wallow in self-pity. I might not be a doctor, but I’m going to prescribe a matinee showing of whatever crap film’s on up at the Odeon. You get to choose, but you don’t get to say no. You need a break from all this job-hunting.”
Shakti mumbled a meek OK and smiled again, though her mind was still circling around and around, each time going over the speed bump of the fact that she just wasn’t good enough, just wasn’t going to get where she wanted to go. The realisation that she was going to have to put her ambition on hold hurt, but it was only a matter of time before the rejection emails came.
“Now come on,” Richard said, standing and holding his hand out to her, “give me a big hug and then we’ll go out and see what’s showing.”
The light filtered in through the brightly coloured canvas of the huge pavilion in which Shakti found herself, still lying on the stretcher which had been set down upon the bed amidst a pile of silk cushions, each delicately embroidered in silver and gold. Rich woollen rugs and sheepskins were spread over a waxed groundsheet. A low table sat to one side, a beautiful day bed and matching chairs arranged around it, all fitted with thick, plush cushions. Vases of flowers and greenery sat upon nearly every flat surface.
The pavilion had a single, central pole which held up a massive spoked wheel, like that of a cart, which rested on a brace at ceiling height. Canvas was stretched taut from the very top of the pole down over the rim of the wheel, then wall panels flared out to a pegged perimeter.
Shakti was a little surprised to find that there were no poles reinforcing the tent walls, the whole structure depended on the massive oak post in the centre and the enormous wheel it supported. It was a clever design, Shakti thought. Stable, quick and easy to put up, and probably quite weather resistant.
Slightly to her right she saw a flap in the tent tied back, revealing a rectangular enclosed porch. To her left she saw another flap that looked as if it was a doorway. She rose, unsteadily at first, rubbing unconsciously at her wrists where the memory of the iron burn still lingered. She pushed back the flap and found it opened up into a large corridor, about a third the width of the round pavilion. Its walls were lined with trunks and coffers and a large chest that stood head-high and sported dozens of tiny drawers. Two chairs were positioned either side of the doorway, next to small tables, both also festooned with fresh flowers.
Shakti was halfway down the corridor when she began to feel that she knew what was on the other side of the far tent flap. Logic dictated that it was probably her bedroom, but the knowing that she felt was more detailed than mere assumption, yet she couldn’t quite call the image to mind. As she pushed the flap aside, she was overwhelmed with recognition, although she could never have described the scene before she actually saw it.
This pavilion was the same as the first, except lengths of silk hung from the wheel spokes and the rails that cut across them, dividing it up into rooms. Some of the fabric was pinned taut, forming walls, other swatches hung loose to form doorways.
This antechamber had another chair in it, a large, ornate chair facing not inwards but towards the doorway where Shakti stood. She pulled aside one of the hangings to reveal a huge bedroom, an enormous four poster bed, complete with a wooden headboard and full tester overhead. Curtains could be drawn all the way around, giving the occupant, or occupants, complete privacy. Small, three-drawer chests stood either side of the headboard and a washstand stood next to a dressing table, with yet more flowers. They were obsessed with flowers, Shakti thought.
Through the final doorway Shakti found a dressing room. A huge wardrobe loomed over her, reaching up as high as the ceiling spokes. Ornate wooden chairs clustered around another table, and there were more chests of drawers.
The whole thing was bigger than her flat, Shakti thought, and all made of canvas and a few bits of wood. Of course, it’d be bitterly cold in the British winter to live in such a place, but it never got cold in Faerie. Shakti wasn’t even sure if the fae could feel the cold. She put that on a mental checklist of things to figure out, a checklist that was alarmingly long.
“My Queen?” the worried voice startled Shakti, but she relaxed when she recognised it. She strode quickly back through the pavilion to find Faella hovering in the porch, awaiting permission to enter.
“Faella.” The faerie woman curtseyed, then threw propriety to the wind, dashing over to Shakti, taking her wrists and inspecting them for damage.
“I’m so sorry, m’Lady, I had no idea that they would do this to you.”
“It’s not your fault, Faella.”
“But it is. Your wellbeing is my responsibility, at all times. I let you down.”
“You couldn’t have known.” Faella’s expression indicated that Shakti wasn’t the first person that the May King had forcibly dragged from the soft place to Faerie proper and that, as far as Faella was concerned, she really should have known. The faerie woman turned Shakti’s wrists over, making sure no lasting damage was done by the iron cuffs. “Really, Faella, I’m fine now.”
Faella relaxed a little, but didn’t let go of Shakti’s hands.
“I know this is the last thing you’re going to want to hear, my Queen, but we must prepare for the feast. You can’t anger the May King any further. The best thing to do for now is be ready before he returns.”
Shakti paused a moment to process her options and quickly decided Faella was right.
“Well, then, let’s get ready.”
Shakti wasn’t going to give the May King the pleasure of catching her on the back foot again, though it took some persuading to get Faella to walk her through Encampment to the King’s Enclosure. Her own tent stood alone in a sea of neatly cropped grass, a low rope slung between shin-high stanchions marking the boundaries of the protected area. A cluster of tents just outside the entrance way housed Faella and the other Ladies in Waiting.
Faella formed them up into the royal procession, the faeries blandly beautiful in their pale gowns. The white silk dress clung to Shakti’s body down to the waist, her faerie form not needing such a thing as a corset. The skirt was full, reaching her toes at the front and forming a long train behind. A girdle circled her waist twice and hung down one thigh. The sleeves were tight around the upper arm and flared out at the elbow, the cuff shaped into long points that reached her knee.
Her hair had been elaborately arranged, her crown of may removed, replaced by may blossoms pinned into golden tresses which reached her waist. Silver threads were woven into her hair to match the silver embroidery on the dress, which was festooned with silver sequins and precious beads. This would be heaven for mediæval re-enactors, Shakti thought. The dressing up had taken forever, though.
Encampment was huge, Shakti thought as she walked with Faella and her trail of Ladies in Waiting down the grassy avenue between pavilions and marquees towards the King’s Enclosure. The pavilion city sprawled like an out-of-control canvas suburb, with only two notable ‘roads’ — the path from the King’s to the Queen’s enclosure and, crossing that at right angles, the path from the lower end of the town to the Festival Square at the top. Away from these thoroughfares, tents, marquees and pavilions had been thrown up higgledy-piggledy, without thought or consideration.
The May King and his entourage were waiting for Shakti outside his pavilion which was, she saw, a mirror image of her own. He was dressed as ornately as she was, though Shakti did not want to pay him any more attention than she really had to.
“My Queen looks magnificent!” he said as she approached. His dipped a slight bow, his retinue bowing deeper in a perfectly timed exhibition of deference. He held a hand out for Shakti, which she reluctantly took. “Come!” he said, and led the way as his and her attendants fell perfectly into step behind as if they had done this a million times. Maybe they had, she thought.
They processed up through Encampment and as the Festival Square opened out in front of her Shakti saw rows of trestle tables, each delightfully decorated with flowers and sprigs of greenery, and heaped high with food and drink. The faeries were already seated and, as the royal couple arrived, they stood to honour their King and Queen.
Shakti and the May King walked up the central aisle to the dais whilst their entourage peeled off and took their places at the top table below the royal pair. On the dais was a magnificent oak table, carved with ornate depictions of oak leaves and acorns. Oak leaves for strength, Shakti told herself, acorns for immortality.
Two thrones sat behind the table, each as ornate as the table, each with lush velvet cushions embroidered in silver thread. She saw more oak, juniper for protection and may for hope on one, tiger lily for wealth and thistle for nobility on the other. She didn’t have to guess whose chair was whose, but waited for the King’s gesture anyway.
She looked out at the square, filled with the Faerie folk in their finery, glittering and twinkling as they moved. She didn’t think she’d seen as much silk all in one place before, and certainly not as much silver. For a moment Shakti suspected enchantment, the scene sparkled so. She wouldn’t put a cheap trick past this lot.
She wished for a moment that she was here with Richard. He would love the place, the dancing, the fun. She smiled brightly at the May King to cover pangs of loss and focused instead on the table centrepiece. White clover for promises, although whose promise to whom Shakti didn’t want to think, agrimony blooms for thankfulness, oxeye daisy for patience, sweet-pea for blissful pleasure, balsam for ardent love. Was that an enchantment she wandered, or wishful thinking?
The May King stood, lifting high a silver goblet. Shakti peered into hers and saw it filled with a golden liquid that looked too thick to be wine. She picked it up and sniffed. It smelt of honey and herbs, like some strange cocktail of mead and Becherovka.
“To the May Queen!”
Hundreds of heads bobbed in bows and curtseys and hundreds of voices echoed, “The May Queen.”
Shakti held up her goblet and smiled uncomfortably, then took a sip of the mead. Its warmth oozed down her throat and spread through her belly and she realised how long it had been since she had eaten. Whether her loss of appetite was faerie magic or stress, she was now acutely aware of her empty stomach and the food on the table, all fruits and roast meats and odd little delicacies she didn’t recognise.
The tight smile faded from her lips and, as the faerie crowd looked on, she picked up a honeyed bread and broke it apart, taking a small bite. On cue, her subjects sat and began their own meal.
“Here, try this,” the May King said, handing her a platter of fruits, a strange looking yellow fruit nearest to her. “Your favourite. You’ll remember soon.” Wordlessly, not meeting his eye, she took one. The corners of her mouth briefly twitched upwards in a poor facsimile of a smile and she looked away.
She didn’t want to eat this fruit, whatever it was. She didn’t want to know what her ‘favourite’ food tasted like. She couldn’t recognise it and feared that the taste of it would bring back too many of the wrong memories. But she couldn’t see how she could avoid taking a bite, not with the May King staring at her, expectant.
She raised it to her mouth, her teeth breaking its skin, its juices sweet on her tongue. And, just as she had worried, a cascade of memories broke over her, the first time she’d tasted a granum fruit so many, many years ago, the time she’d… She clamped down on the flow of remembrance and silently cursed the May King, quickly picking something else to eat whilst he smirked.
“Now, you know what to do?” Elliot nodded as his mother smartened up his shirt, laying her hands on his shoulders and looking at him sternly. “Take the plates from the girls, scrape the leftovers into these buckets using one of these spatulas, and anything else goes in the bin there.” She pointed.
“Remember, don’t eat anything. No matter how good it looks, how hungry you are, don’t touch the food on their plates with your fingers.”
“Right, off you go. And if you get too tired, we’re in that tent over there, you just come on over and have a nap.”
“Aww, Mum!” Elliot gave his mum an exasperated look and she, like mothers everywhere, knew that he’d do his best to stay up as late as everyone else but that she’d probably find him curled up asleep in a quiet corner somewhere long before the festivities, and the clearing up afterwards, was over.
Elliot shrugged off his mother’s hands and dashed off out of the tent. He wove his way through the stream of villagers ferrying food and drink to a staging area just out of sight of the Festival Square. The Lords and Ladies didn’t like seeing humans if they could help it, but they’d tolerate the girls, so they, all dolled up in white silk dresses, every square inch sequinned and beaded and embroidered, cleared the debris from the faeries’ tables, then ferried fresh food and drink back again.
The heap of dead plates at the staging area was growing, so Elliot grabbed what he could and carried them back to the clearing tent, which was set apart from all the others and as far away from the kitchen tent as possible. He scraped the uneaten food off into the bin, as he’d been told. Then the dirty plates went into a stack and the cutlery into baskets to be taken off down to the village where they could be washed up. The faeries refused to let the humans bring the boiler into Encampment to heat water because it was made of iron, so everything had to be done the hard way.
Elliot’s excitement at being a part of Changeover wore off rapidly. The stream of plates seemed endless, and he didn’t even get a chance to see the Ladies. Some of the girls from the village looked pretty in their dresses, he had to admit, but they weren’t as graceful or elegant as the Ladies were.
A long, clanging, crashing sound interrupted his rumination as he was scraping yet another perfectly good looking plateful of food into the bin. The adults in the tent rushed off to the staging area, where he guessed someone had knocked over a trestle table. It wasn’t fair that the Lords and Ladies got such delicacies, when the humans had to put up with boring food. He eyed a sweet concoction of fruit and pastry and felt the saliva welling in his mouth.
Shakti was grateful for the unending supply of food, hungry as she was, but wished that it was customary for faeries to serve water with a meal. As it was, she tried not to drink too much of the mead, hoping to avoid a fuzzy head and any potentially regrettable decisions that might thus result.
The sun set in the clear blue sky and candles, lamps and lanterns were lit all around the Festival Square. The moon rose fat and white, casting an argent light over everything. Somewhere a band started playing music that could have come from the court of some mediæval king, but was just different enough to have an edge of the surreal about it.
Shakti didn’t want to dance when the May King stood and offered his hand, but found she had little choice. The rest of the court was waiting on them and, in a ceremony that reminded her uncomfortably of weddings she’d been to, she and the May King danced the first dance alone.
Dance enough and your body learns the moves, bypassing the need for conscious thought. Shakti’s new body had danced a lot and she found herself moving in ways that in her previous life would have felt alien and awkward. Of that she was glad, because it was nothing like anything she’d ever seen before.
At first the dance seemed formal and distant, but as it progressed she could understand the frisson of excitement two clandestine lovers would feel as they stepped together, briefly touched hands, and stepped apart again. The waltz, she thought, would tear apart the very fabric of polite faerie society with its close and intimate moves. She hated to think what the Macarena would do. Probably make their poor heads explode.
Shakti felt nothing as she and the May King danced, however. Just a sense of going through the motions, fulfilling a duty. Yet again she wished Richard were here, that she was dancing with him instead. They’d never been out dancing, though they’d constantly promised each other that they would. Somehow life in London was too full to fit dancing in, although full of what she couldn’t quite remember.
The first dance ended with her and the May King positioned again at the top of the dance square. The assembled faerie citizenry bowed and curtseyed as one to the royal couple. The music started up again and almost immediately she found herself back in the dance, the intricate steps that led her around the square now entwining with those of the other faeries. Her movements traced out patterns that, had everyone trailed thread behind them, would have created a tightly woven cloth. Each step precise, perfect, so that she was always in exactly the right place, ready to move with the next dancer.
Soon her thoughts of Richard and samba lessons ebbed fully away and her only focus was on the next step, the next curtsey to the next faerie, the next twirl, the next parting, the next brush of fingertips against hers. She never once put a foot wrong, centuries of other people’s dancing had carved the moves indelibly into her mind.
The moon slid through the night sky overhead. Stars familiar yet strange tilted, dancing their own dance of precession and retrogression, spinning on axes invisible even to faerie eyes. Shakti was entranced by the motion, the mathematical precision of the steps, the rise and the fall, the coming together and the separation. There was nothing else but the dance.
The pain of cramps in Elliot’s belly that woke him in the small hours. He nearly cried out but bit down on the noise, not wanting to wake his sisters or his parents. The cramps came again and he curled up, clutching his stomach and hoping they would go away. The pain intensified and along with it came the certain knowledge that he needed the latrine.
He threw back the bed covers, swung his legs round and sat up, another wave of cramps forcing out a silent gasp. He could feel the bile rising now, nausea taking hold, the sensation that the contents of his stomach wanted to come both up and down at the same time. He didn’t have time to put his shoes or his dressing gown on, he was just going to have to risk the walk to the latrine barefoot. Indeed, stepping on a sharp stone at this point would probably feel like blessed respite.
Elliot and his family shared latrines at the bottom of the garden with two other families, each taking turn to clean and maintain the small hut. Mostly they avoided using it in the middle of the night, relying on chamber pots for relieving themselves if necessary.
Since he was little, Elliot had held a dread of the gazunder, as his father called it, the humiliating tinkling sound as his wee collected in the bottom and the inevitable waking of his two sisters and the teasing that would last for days. He’d rather not deal with that tonight, nor did he want to wake his parents. They’d be sure to ask awkward questions he didn’t want to answer. No, it would be easier if he could just make it to the latrine and then his tummy would calm down and he could go back to bed and no one would know he had been poorly.
He slipped past his sisters, both still fast asleep in their narrow beds, squeezed into the tiny room, and out onto the landing. Making it down the staircase without making a noise was going to be a challenge but Elliot knew, as all children do, where the squeakiest floorboards were.
Once he was downstairs, he was home free. Their cottage had just three rooms, a kitchen downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs, the single door on a side wall opening out on to a passageway that led from the road out front to the back garden. He slowly opened the door, nearly crying out as another surge of cramps doubled him up. He decided to leave the door ajar rather than try to shut it silently. It was all he could do now to stay on his feet, the need to vomit was almost as powerful as the need to let his bowels empty.
He staggered on, doubled over. Not far now, not far now. Just a few more yards. If only he could hang on just a bit longer. But he could feel his control slipping. He felt the vomit rising and before he could do anything to clamp it down he was violently retching. He collapsed to his knees, then all fours, puking and puking.
His bowels let go at the same time, he could feel the watery diarrhoea streaming down the inside of his pyjama legs, warm against his skin. When the vomiting and diarrhoea subsided, he found himself lying on his side, wet and cold and filthy, and without an ounce of energy left to get up.
He wanted to strip off all his clothes and wash off all the shit and puke, but he could barely lift a hand. He wanted to crawl back to his bed, he wanted his mum to come out and find him, to pick him up, and clean him off, to give him a lovely hot bath. But she was asleep, and would remain asleep until morning. And morning, Elliot knew, was hours away. He had to do this himself.
He pushed himself up almost to standing and, for a moment, he thought he there was a chance, but then the cramps came again and the vomiting and the horrible, humiliating stream of diarrhoea. And Elliot knew, then, that the best he could do was to try to not pass out in the pool of his own sick and hope his mother would wake early.
As Shakti began to slowly wake, a sensation of being somehow misplaced percolated through her thoughts. As her mind maundered through layers of sleepy fog the feeling slipped away. She laid her head back on the pillow, drowsy and more than willing to slide back beneath consciousness’ coverlet again.
Something niggled in her mind like a speck of grit in her eye, but she pushed it aside. There was nowhere she needed to be. She turned over and started to feel herself dropping off again. The bed was comfortable beneath her, the covers light but warm atop her, and the pillow had a slight fragrance of lavender. Lavender for devotion. Or distrust. Devotion or distrust, depending on who you believed.
As she mulled over the contradiction inherent in lavender, she felt the dryness of her lips and mouth, and rolled over, groping for the glass of water that was always on her bedside table. Instead, she found just more bed. Empty bed.
She woke fully, then, her heart lurched at the realisation that she was still here in this strange place, not back at home. Richard wasn’t lying there, next to her. She would not turn over in a moment to find him smiling at her as she blinked the sleep from her eyes. This would not turn out to be a mere construct of her imagination, created whilst she slept to sort and categorise her experiences into usable memories and pointless cruft that her brain could safely toss out.
That was one theory of dreaming, anyway, that it was a way for the brain to tidy up after each day’s messy experiences. After all, there’s no point remembering everything, the energy would be better used doing something else. Minds remember emotional things — a first kiss, a car crash, good exam results, falling in love or off bunk beds. They forget the boring stuff like breakfast or where the car keys went.
Memories. Memories were a big part of the problem here. Shakti had learnt early on that a good memory saved a lot of effort. Helping her revise for exams, her uncle had taught her a way of memorising lists of things in order, a trick which had seen her grades and her confidence bounce.
All these memories that had been jammed into her brain were just a jumble of random stuff. All the emotions that should come with the memories had been washed out by time and tide, the constant sloshing of memories from one Queen to the next.
She sat up in her bed and looked for her notebook, which she noticed placed tidily on the chest of drawers, her pencil next to it. She didn’t remember leaving it there. She read over her earlier notes, then jotted down the morning’s thoughts, making further observations about her pavilion and the previous night’s festivities.
By the end of the account, she found herself detailing the garlands on the table, the embroidery on the cushions and the carving of the table and chairs that she’d had nowhere near enough time last night to fully appreciate. The botanic theme was everywhere, she thought. Even here, on this very bed.
With her fingertip she traced the flower and leaf motifs that decorated the bedspread. The bed itself was carved with intricate wreaths of ivy and flowers covering every centimetre. Acacia and acanthus for elegance and art. Coriander and cornflower for lust and refinement. Queen Anne’s lace and quince for fantasy and temptation. It was, perhaps, a document of every possible charm that could be brought to bear on a woman who found herself unexpectedly married to a strange man.
Shakti remembered having it made, she realised. She reached back in her mind for the right memories, the moment when she gave an audience to the carpenter, explaining in precise detail what was to be carved, which plants in which groups. And then, yes, she remembered the secret meeting, away from the faerie encampment, dark at night, no moon, heavy enchantment to make sure no one followed or missed her.
“My Queen.” The now familiar greeting and bow from the carpenter who waited for her in the woods at the southern end of the valley, his lantern closed tight, no light escaping.
“Thank you for coming,” she — Elen — had said. She could see him clearly, fae eyes sharp in the gloom, whilst he had only the sound of her voice to go by.
“You are my Queen.” She could hear him bow again.
“Not many of your people see it quite like that.” She could sense the man’s discomfort with the political turn that the conversation had taken and cut to the chase. “The design is simple, Callum:Agnus castus for indifference, bay leaf for strength, bittersweet for truth, broom for humility, crown imperial for power, eucalyptus for protection, golden rod for precaution, grass for submission, lichen for solitude. Cover the slats, the hidden parts of foot and headboards, the sides, the top of the tester, anywhere that no one will see.”
“When it’s ready, speak with Faella and make sure it’s delivered when he is gone hunting.”
“I shall, m’Lady.”
“And again, I thank you. You do this not just for me, but for all of us.”
She heard the bow and the faint rustle as he withdrew into the darkness. She threw her black cape over shoulder and made her own way back to Encampment, satisfied. This would be a strong enchantment, one to last many lifetimes, one to protect many lives. So skilled had Elen been that the May King had never thought for a moment that there was anything amiss. Decades, centuries even, and the enchantment had never faded, fed regularly by Queens who fast learned that the best way to protect themselves in Faerie was to fight back with magic.
Shakti got out of bed and knelt by its side, almost as if about to pray. But instead of a plea for divine intervention, she peered underneath, then checked the slats that supported the mattress. Every one was carved, in impressive detail, just as she remembered. She sat back on her heels, her fingers gently touching the wood, feeling its warmth, hoping it would speak to her again, but her mind was silent.
She wandered over to the dressing table, noting there was no mirror. She was glad. She didn’t want to see this foreign face, her strange blue eyes or long flaxen hair. In her mind she still looked Indian, brown and expressive eyes and thick, glossy black hair. In her mind she was still her.
She picked up a silver hair brush and turned it over and around, hoping for that flood of recollection. She brushed her hair for a moment or two, but all she could think of was how her grandmother would make her hair look so pretty when she was little. The brush sagged in her hand and she let it fall to the table.
“My Queen?” she heard Faella’s voice just outside.
Faella bobbed a polite curtsey and Shakti suddenly wondered how old she was, how many queens she’d seen come and go. How long did faeries live? Did they have children? Did they even have sex?
“We have prepared a breakfast for you, m’Lady. If you wish, you can take it by the riverside,” Faella said.
“I would be delighted to,” Shakti found herself saying, slightly to her own surprise. She wasn’t all that hungry and didn’t want company, but it seemed churlish to turn Faella down. “I’d just like some time to sort myself out.” She realised that, although there was a night stand, there was no bathroom, no shower, nowhere to get clean.
“If m’Lady would allow?” Faella barely waited for an affirmative before walking through into the dressing room, opening up the huge wardrobe and selecting a dress. She held it out to Shakti, who took it and, left alone in the dressing room, changed. She felt mucky getting into a clean dress without having had a shower first, but figured that it was just one day, she could work out the bathing options later.
When she re-entered the bedroom, Faella murmured, gestured and cast her spell. Shakti’s dress was now wrinkle free, her hair perfectly arranged. She didn’t feel clean, but she didn’t want to argue back.
“Ah, thank you.”
Faella led Shakti out, through Encampment down past the edge of the town to a picket post. There, tied to a rail, was the most graceful horse she had ever seen. Its mane pure white, its coat a glistening silver. Humans called such horses ‘greys’ but Shakti had never thought the word more inappropriate than now. She laid her hand on its neck, wondering how she’d get on it with no sign of steps around, and found herself suddenly and unexpectedly on its back, sitting side saddle, except without the saddle.
There were a dozen other horses, each carrying one of the Ladies in Waiting, each shod in silver as she supposed her horse was too. Made sense, faeries could not touch iron, let alone work it, and it seemed logical that faerie horses wouldn’t care for it either. Not a single mount wore bridle or saddle and Shakti fervently hoped that hers wasn’t prone to bolting. But as they started off she realised that yet more faerie magic had essentially welded her bum to the horse’s back. There would be no falling off for her today.
“I hope you slept well, m’Lady,” Faella said.
Shakti didn’t know what else to say and the ride passed in silence. She kept a sharp eye out as they rode away from the faerie encampment, looking around for landmarks. Although the landscape felt familiar, she couldn’t predict what was around each corner, yet she felt no surprise when each vista was revealed. Every hill crested and valley crossed chipped away at the barrier between her and her predecessors’ memories. Estella had collected water from that well, Sharon had picnicked in that meadow and under that oak Lamorna had sheltered from a sudden cloudburst.
So caught up in the trickle of memories was Shakti that she barely noticed when they arrived at their destination. Already spread out on the grassy banks of the river was a blanket, cushions, and a wicker basket containing breakfast.
Faella and the other ladies in waiting slipped easily off their horses, but it seemed a long way down to Shakti.
“My Queen?” Faella held up a hand, and as soon as Shakti took it, she found herself back on the ground. Together they walked over to the picnic and settled down in the pile of pillows. A vast array of silver dishes set out on the blanket seemed to contain muesli in component form, a breakfast far healthier than Shakti was used to. She’d use up more energy just reaching for each nut and berry than she’d ingest eating the damn things.
But busying herself eating was preferable to trying to find a way to whip up a conversation. She found she had no opening gambit and the meal passed in a slightly awkward silence.
One month earlier…
There it was, now, sitting in her inbox, lurking. She had decided to stay overnight in Aberdeen after the panel interview, not least because it was an eight hour journey home and she didn’t fancy taking a sleeper. The email must have come in somewhere around York, but she’d stayed offline for the journey because she didn’t want to find out the result in public. But now she was home, and there it was, unread, subject line giving nothing away.
She stared at it. Considered opening it. Felt her stomach tightening with nerves at the merest whiff of a thought that perhaps there might be good news behind that click. There might, just as easily, be crushing defeat.
“Do you want a cup of tea?” she called out to Richard from the other room.
“Sure,” she heard him reply in the tone that indicated he was deeply engrossed in his work.
She glanced again at her computer screen, the Principal Investigator’s name bold in her inbox. She turned her back on it.
When she returned, ten minutes later with a cup of tea in her hands, the nerves were no better. Indeed they now threatened to engulf her in full-blown panic.
“What’s up?” Richard said, walking in behind her, seeing her staring at her computer from a safe distance.
“Nothing, my arse. You’ve got the email?”
“Yes, you have. I can see it from here. You want me to open it?”
“It’s not going to open itself, you know.” He took a sip of his tea and they stood, holding their mugs, in contemplation.
“Look, it’s like a plaster. The longer you wait to pull it off the more wound up you get about it, but if you just rip it off it won’t hurt at all.”
“Are you sure that you don’t want me to open it?”
Shakti looked at her boyfriend, let out a short, sharp sigh, and put her tea on the table.
“OK, you’re right. Just do it. What’s the worst that can happen? If they’ve turned me down, then I’ll just keep applying until someone says they want me. It doesn’t matter if I don’t get this post-doc. It doesn’t matter if we don’t move up to Scotland. Life goes on, there are other jobs.”
“Exactly! I mean, I doubt they’d be daft enough to turn you down, but…”
Shakti walked over to her laptop, her hands trembling, a slight feeling of nausea rising. She moved the cursor into place and clicked. Her eyes scanned over the words, barely reading them, looking for the most important bit but not finding it. She took a deep breath and started again, reading properly this time, however laborious that felt. But she didn’t need to read all the way through.
“Oh my god!” Richard wrapped his arms around Shakti, hugging her tightly.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” she said, the relief surging through her competing with Richard’s hug to make it even harder to read. But she refocused on the email and read it, word by word, carefully, making sure that he wasn’t mistaken. But no, there it was, right in front of her eyes, irrefutable.
“I’ve got it!” Shakti looked up at Richard, joyous, excited and just a little bit overwhelmed. “I guess we ought to think about packing. We’ve got a train to Lochboisdale to catch. Several, actually. And a ferry.”
Breakfast finished, the Ladies in Waiting splintered off into small groups, chatting, gossiping, talking about who knew what? Shakti had no idea what faeries talked about, what they cared about. She knew that all that info was in her head somewhere, but she couldn’t get at it and almost didn’t want to.
“Is my Queen finding things to her liking?” Faella asked.
“I really don’t know. What is there to like?” Shakti snapped.
“I know it’s difficult, m’Lady,” Faella began.
“Oh, you know, do you?”
“It is always hard for the first day or so, but you’ll get used to it.”
Shakti made a snorting noise, her glance casting around, searching the grass. She stood suddenly, took a few paces then stooped to pick a small flower, thrusting it at Faella.
“What I’m used to is this. Bellis perennis. You might know it as the common daisy, or maybe bruisewort or woundwort. If you were Welsh, you’d call it llygad y dydd, or ‘eye of the day’. Day’s eye, you see. Daisy. It’s a member of the Asteraceae family. See these little white petals? They’re not really petals at all, they’re tiny little flowers that we call ray florets. And these little yellow bits? Also individual flowers. It’s a composite flower. And a pretty common wildflower. That’s what I’m used to. Wildflowers. Botany. Not…” she gestured expansively. “Not whatever the hell this place is.”
“The daisy is an excellent choice of flower, my Queen,” Faella said, her calm voice soothing, which perversely irritated Shakti. “It stands for innocence, simplicity…”
“Yeah, yeah, innocence, simplicity, purity, faith. Whatever.”
“Please, my Lady, sit.” Faella put her hand gently on Shakti’s elbow, a light pressure guiding her down to sit on the grass. “Faerie must seem like a strange place you now, but soon it will be as if you had never been anywhere else.”
Shakti bit down on the sharp retort that was forming on her lips, something in the back of her mind telling her not to alienate Faella. There was something important about her, something Shakti needed.
“I don’t belong here. This isn’t my life.” Shakti’s voice was low, her tone soft but imploring. She gazed down at her hands, idly twining through the grass. She stared at the green, slowly recognising that it wasn’t grass that she was fingering. It was clover. A four-leaf clover.
The first leaf is for faith, the second for hope, the third for love, the fourth for luck. The memory sprang to the front of her mind, vivid and detailed. Pounded in a pestle and mortar with an oil, soft wax or other unguent the four-leaf clover created an ointment for the eyes that allowed the wearer to see through faerie glamour.
Shakti murmured something about it all being fine really, and how she’d get used to it, and not to worry, it’d all be OK. Faella smiled kindly and they sat for a while, quietly.
Shakti hadn’t noticed the human girls clearing up the remnants of breakfast, packing up the silverware and preparing to return to Encampment. They were silent in their work, uttering not a word. As they were working, one of them threw a glance at Faella, catching her eye.
“Excuse me, my Queen, I must supervise.”
The girls continued to work in silence, but whilst all the other faerie women ignored what was going on, Faella had a quiet word here and there, making sure that everything was put away in the right places. Shakti watched, saw one girl whisper something to Faella, as if trying to hide the communication from the others. Faella stiffened, then self-consciously relaxed. She gave the tiniest of nods, before announcing to the faerie women that it was time to return to Encampment.
Shakti hastily picked the clover and slid it up her sleeve, again cursing the seamstress who had deemed pockets unnecessary for a Queen.
The rest of the morning — the ride back, lunch, all supervised by the fastidious Faella — passed interminably. Shakti went through the motions, eager to meet her social obligations and finally, eventually, get some privacy. She had at least managed to slip back to her pavilion and hide the four leaf clover inside her pillow, but she didn’t have time to explore its powers right then.
After the midday meal she cried off, citing the need for sleep, and tried not to look hurried as she walked back to her own tent. As soon as she had fastened closed the door flap, all pretence at patience dropped, she rifled through every cupboard and drawer in the dressing table, searching for the right kind of unguent and something to grind down the leaf, but found nothing.
She moved on to the wardrobe, pulling out dresses and shifts and capes, throwing them onto the floor behind her. At the bottom of the wardrobe was a small heap of furs. One by one they followed the clothes until the wardrobe was empty. The only thing left was a simple wooden chest. It was undecorated with plain silver hinges and a silver lock plate. She pulled it out and set it down on the bed. She tried the lid, but it did not open. Now where was the key?
Somewhere in her mind lay the knowledge, she just had to find it. How did she normally find her house keys when she misplaced them? She stood still, and tried to remember the last time she had held this key. What had it looked like? Silver, surely, and from the size of the lock, it would be about the length of her little finger. She pictured the box in her mind, pictured her unlocking it with a key, a slender, silver key.
Once the box was opened it would have to be closed again and locked, and the key put somewhere safe. She clawed back through her memories, looking round at everything in the room for clues. She inspected the dresser, the wardrobe for cues but there were none. Where would she hide a key? Somewhere no one would notice or dare to look. Somewhere protected. Protected! The bed!
She ran to the four poster and started to inspect it, getting down on the floor again to look underneath. She hadn’t noticed anything last time but, then, she had not been looking. Her eyes scoured every corner. She looked up at the tops of the posts and the rails from which thick tapestry curtains fell. Then her eyes lit upon the headboard, ornately carved with flowers, plants and herbs. There, in the centre of one panel was the five petals of the thornapple. Ah thornapple! Crataegus monogyna, also known as hawthorn, hawberry, or may. The tree of hope and of weddings and of disguise, the tree that marks the boundaries between worlds.
Now she knew that she wasn’t just guessing, she knew that if she pressed on the mayflower just like… this… She heard a click and the bloom came away in her hand revealing a tiny chamber in which hung a silver key. She extracted it, pushed the cover gently back into place and finally unlocked the chest.
As she opened up the lid, the chest unfolded to reveal a number of velvet-lined compartments. In one was a tiny pestle and mortar. In another was almond oil, a common carrier for essential oils. There was purified beeswax, soft and malleable. There were empty glass phials and tiny jars, plus a number of other tools and ingredients that she didn’t currently need.
She put the four-leaf clover into the pestle and ground it into a green smear in the bottom of the dish. She wondered whether to add the almond oil or the beeswax. If she added oil, how much should she use? Would the beeswax be easier to apply? Was there a minimum concentration of four-leaf clover necessary for efficacy? If she diluted it too much, would it work at all? Or not work as well? How long would the effects last? Would they wear off or was the effect permanent?
She studied the sad remnants of the clover leaves and decided on oil, adding a few drops to the pestle. She continued to grind, making sure to pulverise even the tiniest lump until she had a smooth dark green, almost brown, suspension of clover in oil.
She knew she was supposed to apply it to the eye, but where? On the eyelid? Top or bottom? Both? In the eye? She didn’t like the idea of sticking oil in her eye so she wiped the end of the pestle with her finger and dabbed the unction on her top eyelids. It felt cool and slick but no different. The bed looked just as it had before. So did the apothecary box. Maybe it hadn’t worked. How would she know?
She looked round at the heap of dresses she’d made on the floor but saw not rich, silken gowns and robes she had seen earlier, but a selection of threadbare rags, filthy and tattered. She looked down at her own dress to see that it too was stained and torn. Her hands were dirty, her fingernails black underneath. She hated to think what her hair and teeth looked like.
She looked at the bottom of the mortar, realising that there was nowhere near enough ointment there to decant. She’d lose it all in the process. Instead, she looked for a way to seal the mortar. There, in a pocket in the chest, was a silver disc that could only be its lid. She secured the lid in place before wiping the pestle completely clean. She placed the mortar back in its spot, locked the box and hid it away under the moth-eaten furs in the wardrobe. The key went back in its hiding place.
She quickly tidied away everything else, trying not to retch as she picked up the grimy, threadbare dresses and tried to convince herself that she didn’t look like a total slattern. Well, she could see through the glamour but who else could? Her memory told her this wasn’t a commonly known spell, but surely others could see the difference? Was she the only one who realised how filthy everything was?
She needed to talk to Faella, find a subtle way to get new, clean clothes and at the very least a copper bath. Faeries didn’t have a problem with copper, did they? A silver bath would probably be safer but she didn’t want to have to wait for one to be made and she doubted there were any just lying about. She made her way out of her pavilion, noting as she did every mark and stain, every bit of mud and muck through the shimmer of the glamour that had previously disguised it.
Rotten stanchions supported frayed and decaying rope around her enclosure. The Ladies in Waiting’s tents were dirty and discoloured, canvas she previously thought bright and cheerful now faded and sorry. There was almost nothing in her immediate view, except the grass, that didn’t have the strange coruscation which betrayed the glamour cast upon it to change its appearance.
A group of three Ladies in Waiting were sitting on a grimy rug in a sea of dirty cushions. Shakti felt her stomach churn at the sight of it. The faerie women rose at her approach and curtseyed. Shakti forced a smile. Their hair was long, lank and matted, having never been washed or brushed. Their teeth were black and rotten, their skin sallow and smeared with dirt. Their dresses, which had once been beautiful, were torn and tattered, stitches pulled, braid dangling, beads missing. And the filth, the stains and smut, made the white silk grey, darkening to black around the hem where it dragged in Encampment’s mire.
“Can we help you, M’Lady?” one of them said, her voice thin and high and raspy, grating on Shakti’s ears.
“No, no, I’m fine, not to worry.” She hastily retreated to her pavilion and sat heavily on the bed. She had to find Faella, but she really didn’t want to have to explain how she could suddenly see through the glamours that infested the place. There had to be a way for her to find without being seen.
A thought tickled in the back of her head. She needed some kind of camouflage or, better yet, she needed to not be seen at all. Acacia for secrets, candytuft for indifference, to encourage those who did somehow see her to be entirely unbothered by the fact. Dogwood for durability, so that the spell would last. Feverfew for protection. And, of course, may for disguise.
Shakti looked at the vases of flowers that seemed to fill her pavilion and wondered. Elen had used a black cloak when she’d paid her secret visit to the carpenter. There had been several in the wardrobe, so maybe Elen’s was still there. Perhaps Shakti could use the same spell.
She sorted through the clothes and found the one she was looking for, hanging in the back, almost the only clean thing there. Clearly most of her predecessors had eschewed it for prettier apparel.
She searched the vases that covered every flat surface for the flowers she needed, slowly pulling out a stem here, a sprig there, until she had a whole posy in her hands. She refused to think about the convenience of having all these flowers, flowers she needed, turn out to be right under her nose.
Instead, she focused on the magic. She thought back to the spell that Elen had cast, tantalising fragments coming to mind. She grabbed her notebook and jotted them down as she remembered them, piecing together the spell bit by bit, flower by flower.
Elen hadn’t just used the flowers to focus her magic, though. She’d attached them to the cloak somehow. Shakti spread it out flat on the bed and saw thin pockets sewn at intervals, pockets just the perfect size for a stem here, or a twig there. She took the flowers and slipped each one into a pocket, then threw the cloak around her shoulders, fastening it with a brooch at her throat. Then with neat, precise gestures and neat, precise words, cast the glamour.
Nothing happened. Or rather, nothing noticeable happened. How would she know if it had worked? She wasn’t sure if she could feel the spell or not. Everything felt weird at the moment and any additional oddness such as the effects of the glamour would be just swamped by all the background peculiarity.
There was only one way to test it: She went to the doorway of the pavilion, nervously tweaked it aside just enough to slip out, then walked towards the Ladies in Waiting, all still sat in their filth, doing whatever it was they were doing. None of them noticed her. She went closer. Still nothing. She bent over towards them. Still nothing. She allowed herself a smile and, stepping carefully away, started to make her way through Encampment.
“Come on, Elliot, take another sip.” Elliot tried to drink as little as possible from the cup that Maggie held to his lips. He felt thirsty, but he knew that the water would either go straight through him or bounce, and he didn’t want to be sick.
He’d woken early that morning in a pool of vomit and diarrhoea with his mother leaning over him. Horrified at the state of him she’d carried him inside, wrapped him in a sheet and sat him next to the fire whilst she boiled enough water to give him a bath and clean him up. He tried not to, but he felt so humiliated that he couldn’t stop the tears. It wasn’t the pain so much as it was the continual vomiting and the loss of control over his bowels.
His dad had put up a cot by the fire, laid him down on it, and got two bowls to catch the puke and the nasty, watery diarrhoea. Immediately, he’d sent Elliot’s sisters off to stay with relatives.
Elliot tried to drink, but as soon as he swallowed, he retched. He had little left to come up, but his mum held the bowl in place anyway, murmuring soothing sounds and stroking his forehead. When he’d finished, she put the cup against his lips again, but he feebly pushed it away.
“You have to drink, Elliot. Come on now, try.”
Elliot took the smallest sip that he could and was relieved when the door opened and his father came in, taking his mother’s attention away from how much he had drunk, or rather, how little.
“How are the girls?” she asked.
“They’re fine, not showing any signs.” The ‘yet’ went unspoken. “How’s my little fighter?” He looked at Elliot, who laid on the cot, enervated, too weak to manage much of a smile for his dad.
“Did Sylvia get the message away?”
“Yes, she did. All we can do is wait now.”
Maggie stood and moved with her husband to the kitchen area. Elliot watched as they talked in hushed tones that he couldn’t make out. Every now and again, he’d see one of them throw a nervous glance his way. He was tired, though, and started to fade away into sleep.
He woke later to find his mother sitting in the chair next to him, sewing something to a large swatch of fabric across her knee. As soon as she saw he was awake, she put the sewing in a wicker basket at her feet and raised the cup of water again to Elliot’s lips, lifting his head so that he could drink.
Unable to resist the thirst that had built, Elliot gulped down the water, but it didn’t stay down for long.
Shakti began the walk through Encampment nervously, constantly expecting to be greeted by one of the faerie folk, but going entirely unnoticed. She walked down the main thoroughfare, peering intently down each side passage between the tents whilst simultaneously trying not to look too closely at anyone lest, somehow, the act of seeing would reveal her to the seen. It was a childish fear, but she couldn’t help it.
Eventually she spotted Faella in the distance, heading towards the edge of town. She hurried after her, but it wasn’t until she got close that she realised that Faella herself had a strong shimmer about her. She’d seem the same glimmering on the Ladies in Waiting where they’d cast a glamour to cover a stain or mark, but Faella almost scintillated with glamour. Head to toe, she was clothed in glamour. Shakti hung back a little, curious as to why Faella was so englamoured. She watched her pick a route past a group of faerie men. Not one of them greeted her or even seemed to notice her.
Why was Faella sneaking around too? Where did Faella need to go that she didn’t want any other faeries to know about it? Carefully, Shakti followed her to the edge of Encampment, then out along a path through an open copse. It was easy enough to keep Faella in view, the path was wide enough to drive a cart along it and the copse was airy and light, but she hung as far back as she could, not wanting to test the limits of her own glamour.
The pair of them walked for about an hour, through the copse, then through fields and meadows. The trackway led along the side of another wood, a thicker, more mature wood, and then they turned a corner.
Shakti nearly gave herself away with a surprised yelp. There, in front of her, was a house. Lots of houses. A village, in fact. Not made of tents, not made of canvas. This, she realised, was where the serving girls had come from, a human community tucked away out of sight of the faeries where they could pretend it didn’t exist.
As Faella reached the edge of the town, she paused, her hands making little gestures as she repealed the glamour. She stood now, completely free of magic. Unlike the Ladies in Waiting, her dress was spotless, her hair clean and smooth, her skin unblemished. She patted down her dress and set her shoulders, as if she was a nervous actress preparing to walk onto stage, and set off into the village.
Shakti paused. Could she just stroll on in behind Faella? Faerie magic did work on humans, didn’t it? She thought it must, otherwise the serving girls would have run screaming from the Festival Square at the macabre sight of all those greasy unkempt faeries. She moved forward, walking as quietly as she could, keeping to the side of the road to minimise her chances of revealing herself.
The village looked like a relic from the Tudor era, oak framed houses with wattle and daub infill. Lime wash whitened not just the daub but the wooden frames too, giving the houses a pale, ghostly look. The upper floors hung out over the ground floors, thatched roofs nearly touching over narrow alleys. Shakti remembered school lessons about the Great Fire of London and shook her head.
Faella made her way down the high street, the packed earth dry and dusty in the sunshine leaving smudges around the hem of her otherwise pristine dress. She passed an alley on one side carried on to a terrace of a half dozen tiny houses before turning down a pathway alongside the furthest house.
Shakti wondered how close she could get without being rumbled. Standing out on the street made her feel vulnerable, but following Faella down the narrow pathway that squeezed between the end of the terrace and the next building seemed like asking for trouble. She peered down the alley, just in time to see the door close behind Faella. She vacillated, but her curiosity got the better of her and she edged her way towards the door, hoping to hear what was going on inside.
“…with Maggie’s cousin…” Shakti could just make out the male voice, and was interested to hear a complete absence of deference in its tone. “…can’t get him to…” The man turned away from the door and his voice became muffled and unintelligible.
Faella then: “…have to get some…” Shakti cursed how they kept moving around inside. “He looks so pale.” There was worry in Faella’s voice, deep and pained.
Shakti strained to hear voices become more indistinct, and moved silently closer, trying to figure out what was going on that would bring Faella to the human village. So intent was she that she failed to interpret the footsteps inside as the warning they should have been and so startled as the door opened that she simply froze in place.
“My Queen!” hissed Faella, glancing nervously behind into the house, her face becoming suddenly neutral as she made eye contact with the people inside. “Oh, nothing, nothing. I’ll be back soon as I can. Take care of him.” The door shut. “What are you doing here?” she was back to whispering at Shakti.
“You can see me?”
“Of cour… Yes, I can see you.” Faella looked apprehensively around, her hand coming out to guide Shakti out of the narrow alley, out to the road. “Wait here.” There was a long pause, then an awkwardly remembered, “My Lady.”
Faella composed herself. She wore no glamour so that meant she could be seen. She had to make sure she didn’t draw attention to herself. She paused at the edge of the road, looked around, and saw no one paying her any heed. She glanced over her shoulder and beckoned Shakti forward, mouthing a ‘shhh’.
“Follow me. Quietly.”
Faella led them on a different route out of the town, one less well peopled, which took them to the edge of the forest they’d previously skirted. Rather than stick to the path into the woods, Faella took them cross country, breaking her own path through the trees. When she felt safe enough, she abruptly stopped and rounded on the May Queen, manners forgotten in her anger.
“What are you doing here? Why did you follow me? Are you sure no one noticed you leave?”
Shakti was speechless for a moment, unsure whether to react as Queen, unassailable and unquestionable in her authority, or as Shakti, meek and contrite.
“More to the point,” Shakti said, curiosity overwhelming imperiousness, “how can you see me?”
“That’s not important. Right now, we need to get you back to Encampment before the King realises you have gone.”
“Actually, I think it is quite important.”
“Come on, my Queen, we’ve got to get you back. You can’t be found out here.”
“Yeah, we’ll deal with that. I’d still like an answer to my question.” Shakti stood firm, and did her best to look set. Faella groaned.
“Soon, my Queen. Please, let us get back.”
Faella recast her earlier glamour and the two women, hidden from the world but visible to each other, walked as fast as they could through the woods to the main track back to Encampment.
They heard the uproar before Encampment came into view. Faella and Shakti simultaneously winced as they heard the May King screaming incomprehensibly at his entourage. Shakti cleared away her glamour, almost without thinking, and adjusted her dress.
“If you’ll permit me, my Queen?”
Faella took a long look at the Queen, then murmured and gestured and Shakti could see the shimmering around her that indicated a glamour was in place. If she focused, she could see the magic as others saw it, but as soon as she relaxed a little, she just saw straight through it to the reality beneath. Her dress now looked, to innocent eyes, several times more magnificent than any of the dresses she had worn so far, with silver embroidery and all manner of sparkling stones twinkling in the sunlight. Upon her head was a majestic filigree crown and her neck was draped with jewels. She smirked and imagined herself back home wearing such a glamour. One would be able to dress like the stars wearing just jeans and a T-shirt.
“Ready?” Faella said, her own glamour adjusted to its normal state.
“No, but let’s go. No point putting off the inevitable.”
They strode into Encampment, calm and unruffled at the chaos unfolding around them. Faeries were running around aimlessly. Were they looking for her? Did they know how to actually organise a search for someone, or was this mayhem all for show?
“My Queen!” Suddenly the May King was standing in front of her, taller than she’d remembered, looking down on her as if she were an ant. “Where have you been?”
“That is no matter of yours,” Shakti said, peremptorily, knowing that was the way the Queen was supposed to act.
“You cannot absent yourself like this!”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“I will not allow it!”
“Oh, really?” Shakti was getting annoyed now.
“You are the Queen of the May and your place is here, not…” He gestured dismissively to indicate the rest of Faerie.
“Right. So who’s going to stop me going…” She mimicked his gesture.
“If you will not abide by the laws of this land, I will be forced…”
“Oh, laws now, is it? Who the hell are you to tell me what to do?” She stepped up towards him, her anger boiling over. “You know what you can do, mister smarmypants? You can just go fu…”
The May King grabbed her wrist tightly and she bit down on a gasp.
“If you cannot behave as the Queen of the May should, I will restrain you again! Would you like to feel the cold touch of bloodmetal on your wrists again?”
Shakti snatched her hand away and scowled at him.
“You have no idea who you’re messing with. You’re a little boy prince, wishing he was a king. You wouldn’t know how to be a king if your life depended upon it. You’re just scum-sucking pond-life, you’re not even a man.” Furious, she pushed past him and strode through the cringing crowds of fae folk to her pavilion, Faella following meekly behind.
Shakti peeked out through the entrance flap of her pavilion and saw the May King’s men standing guard along the perimeter of her enclosure.
“Asshats!” Shakti spat and turned back to Faella.
“There’s little we can do at the moment, my Queen,” Faella said.
“Yeah, you can stop with all this ‘my queen’ shit.”
“Yeah, that, exactly that. Just call me Shakti. I know who I am, and it’s not your queen.”
“Shak… ti,” Faella struggled with the syllables, strange to her. “Shakti. Yes, my Queen.” Shakti glared at her. “Yes, er, Shakti.”
Shakti walked through the pavilion to the bedroom and plopped herself down on the bed. Faella followed and stood awkwardly in the doorway.
“Come on, come and sit down.” Shakti patted the bed beside her, then shuffled over a bit to make more room. Timidly, Faella approached and perched apprehensively on the edge of the bed. “Don’t be daft.” Shakti raised an eyebrow in admonishment, and Faella made herself properly comfortable.
“Just Shakti will do. Shakti Nayar.”
Shakti snorted. “What was going on back there?”
“Well, the May King has never been happy letting the Queen out of Encampment on her own, not since…”
“No, not that. I got the gist of what was going on there. I meant at the village.”
Faella blanched. “It’s the Grey Death.”
“The Grey Death?”
“My… it’s Elliot, the boy. He was one of the helpers at the feast. He’s sick. Vomiting and diarrhoea. It comes every ten years or so, one of the children will get sick and soon half the village has come down with it. Most of them don’t survive.”
“Oh my god. I’m so sorry.”
“We’ve tried everything, but all we can do now is keep the sick away from everyone else.”
Faella blanched, then continued, resigned to having to explain sooner or later.
“We. I am… Well, you asked how I can see through glamours, Shakti. I am not really one of you. Not truly fae.”
“No, not really human either. My father was a human, my mother was a faerie, the Queen’s head Lady in Waiting, in fact. Someone has to act as a messenger between the faeries and the humans, and it was my mother, Fionella. The humans provide what we need, and we…”
“And in return, the fae hold off on killing all the humans.”
“Elen was like you. She remembered herself, remembered who she was, what it was like to be human. She wanted to see if the humans and the fae could be brought together, so she engineered a love affair. I don’t think it was all that hard, to be honest. My father, John, was a good man, I’m told, and my mother one of the more open-minded fae. But it took considerable magic for, well, for me to even be conceived. My mother’s body tried to reject me, so Elen had to use more magic keep me alive until I was born. I’m told it nearly killed her.
“When the May King found out, he slaughtered my father and my mother. I was only saved because Elen hid me and made sure that I would be protected as I grew up. She gave me abilities beyond those natural to the fae, so that I could keep myself safe. My foster mother was another of her trusted Ladies, someone who would make sure that I was brought up to understand why I was different from the others, that I had a purpose.”
“So you’re a hybrid, both human and fae?”
“If you want to put it like that, yes.”
“And you wear this glamour all the time to make you look more like a proper faerie?”
“Yes. If they found out what I was, they would kill me.”
Shakti stared at her fingernails, still unnaturally pink to her eyes.
“I’m sorry. I nearly gave you away.”
“You didn’t know. Well, you did, you do, deep down,” Faella said, turning to Shakti. “All this is knowledge Elen possessed, so should you, you must have it somewhere in your mind.”
“I can’t access it all, Faella. I know there’s a lot in here, but most of it is locked away from me. Sometimes I see things that set off a memory, and sometimes I find myself doing things without knowing how or why, but no, I don’t remember this.”
“I suspect it’s because you remember you. You can’t be Shakti and the Queen at the same time. It’s one or the other.”
“You can see through glamours, then?” Shakti steered the conversation back to a topic that made her less uncomfortable.
“That’s the gift Elen gave me. So that I would never be fooled by the faerie lies. I see what is, not what they would wish me to see.”
“And the boy? Elliot? What relation is he to you?”
“He is my cousin. His mother, Maggie, is my father’s sister.”
“Wait, how old are you? You’ve seen how many Queens?”
“We age slowly here, even humans. I’ve lost count now how old I am, how many queens. Lots, though.”
Shakti fell silent. She couldn’t count back all the way through the queens, the memory just wasn’t there. She couldn’t do the maths on her own.
“And Elliot? You said he was sick. Tell me about it.”
“What can you do? Magic doesn’t work on sickness.”
“No, it never has.”
“Tell me anyway. I’ve spent most of my life hanging round biology departments. I’ve picked a few bits and pieces up.”
“Well, it normally strikes quickly. Elliott was fine at the feast last night, but he must have fallen ill in the small hours. Maggie found him in the garden, he’d been trying to get to the latrine.”
“Latrine?” Faella gave her a look and she quieted.
“The Grey Death causes vomiting and watery diarrhoea that smells odd.”
“Yes, odd. I can’t really describe it. It’s catching, though. The last time, nearly a quarter of the village died. Thomas took the girls over to stay with their aunt, but even so, it might be too late.”
“There has to be a way past these goons,” Shakti said, gesturing at the May King’s men who stood guard outside. Dinner served in the pavilion made it clear they were effectively under house arrest, or rather, ‘tent arrest’ as Shakti put it. “Can’t we just use the same glamour we used earlier?”
“I wouldn’t want to risk it, m’Lady,” Faella said. “It’s not a particularly strong glamour, fine so long as no one is really looking for you, but I wouldn’t trust it to get past this lot. We need something a little stronger.”
“How about teleportation? Can faerie magic do teleportation?”
“Teleportation. Instantaneous travel from one place to another.”
“Don’t you think that if our magic could do that, I’d use it to visit the village?”
“Fair point.” Shakti cast her eyes around the room, the dirty cushions she’d hoped to renew still discarded to one side.
“You have to really dig into your memories, my Queen. If there’s magic, you know it, you can do it. You are the Queen, like it or not.”
Shakti shook her head. “It’s just not there Faella. I can’t reach it.”
“You can. You really can. Everyone before you has, every woman brought to faerie on the May Day has.”
“Everyone? Well, I know that’s not true. Rabiya didn’t exactly embrace the faerie way of life, did she? She sank into a depression and barely left her pavilion for a year.”
“Apart from Rabiya.”
“Oh, you mean like Iris, then, whose grief at being ripped from her newborn turned her year in Faerie into torture? Or Jacquie, who tried to kill the May King and spent her time here pretty much locked up, rather like we are right now, as it so happens.”
“Well, ok, not everyone.”
“No, not everyone.”
“But you have to try to remember.”
“And how do you suppose I do that? I’ve a pretty awesome memory, by the way. I can remember every single flower I’ve ever read about. I can give you chapter and verse and Latin name. I can even give you the quaint little flower meanings cooked up by lovesick Victorians. See, acacia for chaste love, aconite for misanthropy, and I can tell you I’m feeling the aconite right now in effing spades. Acorn for life and immortality, Agnus castus for indifference. Agrimony for thankfulness, don’t think we’ll be needing that one. Almond for promise, amaranth for fidelity, anemone for either love and truth, or fading hope or sickness, depending on who you believe. Angraecum for royalty. Bloody Angraecum. If I hadn’t touched that damn angrek I’d be home with Richard, happily oblivious to the fact that bloody faeries really sodding exist. Gods and little fishes, what an effed-up world.”
Shakti stalked about the room, gesticulating wildly with every word. She caught sight of one of the many vases of flowers dotted about the pavilion and strode over to it, plucking blooms out into a posy in her hand.
“Flowers, it’s always about flowers,” she muttered. “Aconite, agnus castus, angrek, apple blossom for good fortune, bay… Bay. No bay. Bay for strength.” She walked over to the next vase, rifling through the blooms, searching. “Never mind, no bay.” She carried on sorting flowers, choosing some, discarding others, until she had a bouquet almost too big to hold in one hand. “Right, if this doesn’t do it, nothing will,” she said, looking apprehensively at Faella.
“I’m sure it’ll work, m’Lady.”
“You do appreciate that I have absolutely no effing clue what I’m doing? For all I know, I could turn the pair of us into frogs, and that would pretty much be that.”
“I do recognise that’s a possibility, yes.”
“And you’re happy to let me, a novice, just do magic?”
“You’re not a novice. You just don’t remember that you’re the most accomplished of all of us in these arts, m’Lady.”
“Didn’t I tell you not to call me m’Lady?”
“Yes, um, Shakti.”
“Better. Sort of. Right. Deep breath.” Shakti began the spell, but pulled herself up short. “No, no, this isn’t going to work,” she muttered. “I need may. May’s the key to all this.” She searched through the flowers left in the vases, but came up empty-handed. “Dammit, this is really not what I need…”
“Um, m’La… er, Shakti?”
Faella nodded at Shakti, trying to suppress a smile. “Your head?”
Shakti’s hand rose to touch her hair and there was the may circlet, still in place, almost forgotten. She took it down. It was a bit bruised and in places crushed, but it was may. She smiled sheepishly at Faella. “Thank you.” She carefully unpicked the circlet and added the sprigs to her bunch, then began the spell again.
The words and gestures came more smoothly than before, and Shakti felt as if she really understood them, which words and movements were achieving which part of the spell. And when it was done, this time, she could feel the difference.
“Let’s go,” Shakti said.
“You’re sure?” Faella asked, though more for Shakti’s benefit than hers.
“I’m sure. The spell has taken. It will be as if we simply are not there. They cannot see or perceive us in any way. And anyone who wishes to find us will simply forget that they are looking for us as soon as they come near the pavilion. Let’s go.”
The women took care leaving Encampment nonetheless, but once they were out, they moved as fast as they could through the evening dark.
Elliot woke at the sound of the door opening.
“What’s happened?” he heard his mother say as the faerie Lady came into the little cottage. “Why are you… oh! My Queen!” His mother dropped into a deep curtsey and stayed there, eyes cast to the ground, frozen in fear.
“Please, Maggie, I’m not your Queen,” said Shakti, as gently as she could manage. “Can we come in? I’d like to see Elliot.”
Elliot watched as his mother moved out of the way, her eyes still gazing at the floor, trying to sneak a glance at the Lady to find out what was going on. Elliot was too ill to care whether he would be chastised for not averting his gaze.
“It’s ok, Maggie,” the Lady said, “she’s not like the others. She remembers.”
“Oh! You were righ…” Maggie bit the end of the sentence off and shot a worried glance at the back of the May Queen’s head, but either her comment had not been heard or was being ignored.
The May Queen walked slowly over to Elliot’s side and crouched down beside him, laying the back of her hand on his forehead, her soft skin cool and comforting. Then she drew out the bowl that lay beneath his canvas cot, a thin, watery diarrhoea in the bottom. She gingerly sniffed it, her nose wrinkled in disgust, and Elliot looked away in shame.
“Hey, don’t worry,” the May Queen softly said to him. Then, to his mother, “He’s been sick and had diarrhoea?”
“Yes, almost constantly since we found him this morning. He said it started in the middle of the night.”
“Did you have stomach pains?” Shakti asked him. He nodded, and she turned back to his mother.
“You’re giving him water?”
“Good, key thing is to keep him drinking water, get as much in as you can. We don’t want him to dehydrate.”
“Dehydrate. His body needs water and if he doesn’t have enough he’ll dehydrate. Try to make him eat, too.”
“Eat? But he can’t eat. He’ll only bring it back up again.”
Elliot wanted to emphasise this point to the strange, kind faerie woman, but had neither the nerve nor the energy.
“Still, please try. Have you got salt and sugar?” His mother nodded. “Ok. Teaspoon of salt and a three tablespoons of sugar in a litre of water.”
It sounded like a disgusting concoction, Elliot thought, but it couldn’t taste any worse than vomit.
“How… how much?” His mother asked. He’d never seen her stutter before, never seen her sound so confused and alarmed, and it scared him.
Shakti, smiled reassuringly, then pointed at a jug on the kitchen table. “About as much water as will fit into that jug, with a little fingertip of salt, and a palmful of sugar. He’s losing electrolytes and they’ve got to be replaced otherwise his condition is going to deteriorate.”
“He’s losing what?” the Lady asked.
“Never mind, I’ll explain later. Keep everyone away from him. And wash your hands thoroughly, all the time. Slowly count to fifteen whilst you wash and make sure you get between the fingers and under the fingernails.”
“How do you know all this?” the Lady asked.
“It was a bad winter for norovirus, this stuff was all over the news. But I don’t think this is noro. There’s something odd about the smell of the diarrhoea. But I’m not sure what it is.”
“I’ll explain that later too. Look, we’ve got to go. There’s stuff I need to do.” She smiled at Elliot, then nodded kindly at his mother, who was still too off kilter to acknowledge it.
“Shakti, you go on back,” Elliot heard the Lady say, and wondered why the faerie woman was calling her that. What did it mean? “I’ve a couple of things I need to do here, too.” The May Queen nodded and slipped quietly out of the house.
“Maggie, you’ve got that other crop? I know with everything going on…” Elliot saw his mother brighten a little, and watched a conversation unfold that would never have been had in front of him had he been well. It felt like he was peeking into the secret world of adults.
“Yes, yes, Faella. You think she’s really the one this time?”
“I think she is, yes.”
“Wait a second.” His mother disappeared briefly out the back door, then returned with a wicker basket. “We harvested as much as we could and I’ve sewn it in place, as we discussed. I hope it’s enough.”
“It’ll have to be.”
Elliot wanted to know what was going on, but the excitement had exhausted him and as the women talked he drifted off to sleep once again.
Shakti barely stirred from deep sleep when Faella slipped back through the May King’s lines and into the pavilion in the small hours, her errand finally complete. The Lady in Waiting settled herself on a couch in the bedchamber and let sleep claim her.
But in the morning, it was the other way round. Faella was deep asleep when Shakti woke. She tiptoed around her Lady in Waiting and gathered key blooms from the vases again. She found her notebook and once more cursed the lack of pockets in this shabby excuse for a dress.
She tweaked back the door flap and saw a handful of fae men forming a perimeter guard, alert in the brightening morning. She could try the enchantment again and sneak past, but no. This time she would do things properly. Openly. She took a deep breath, then paused. It sounded like Faella was still asleep. Well, no time like the present. She threw open the door flap and strode out of the pavilion.
“You cannot leave, my Queen,” said one of the May King’s men.
“Oh yeah?” Shakti responded. “Watch me.” She walked right up to him and despite himself he stepped aside.
“My Queen, please, take yourself back to your quarters and await the King.”
“No.” She carried on walking, feigning insouciance.
“Bog off. And tell Prince Bouffant that he can bite me.”
“My Queen?” The man stepped forward, reaching to grab her by the arm, but she yanked her arm out of the way and rounded on him.
“How dare you touch the person of the Queen!” The faerie recoiled and the other guards, who had gathered to watch the show, took a step backwards. Shakti shook her finger at them all in turn. “You should all be ashamed of yourselves. Look at you.” She murmured and gestured, the memory of the four leaf clover sharp in her mind. “You cover up your filth with lies and pretend your world is perfect. There’s no liar worse than someone who lies to themselves.”
The faerie men looked shocked for a moment, then the spell took effect and a ripple of shame ran through them.
“My Queen!” Oh, that voice would never cease to make her blood boil, she thought.
“How many times,” she spun around to face the May King, “do I have to tell you not to call me that.”
“My Queen,” through gritted teeth, “please return to your pavilion and behave with the decorum appropriate to your station.”
“Oh, sod off.” Shakti noticed other faeries gathering, watching the kerfuffle from a safe distance. “I don’t have time for your nonsense.”
“You leave me no choice.”
“Oh, I think I do. You could choose to walk away, now, and leave me alone. You could easily choose to do that. In fact, I’d recommend it.”
“The Summer Lands need a Queen, you are that Queen, you have duties.”
“You don’t get it, do you? I’m Shakti Nayar, not your sodding Queen.“
“Men!” The May King’s entourage almost snapped to attention. “Take her!”
As the men closed in around her, Shakti’s anger erupted. The flowers she held in her hand fell to the ground as the magic trapped in her mind burst forth. She could feel the power surge through her, memories from the other Queens now bright and sharp as a silver pin. The spells formed in her mind before she had time to recall the flowery mnemonics and she cast them before she had a chance to reconsider their effects.
The May King’s men staggered back as she lashed out at them with a hex, knocking them off their feet. But the May King easily stood his ground, casting his own spells to mute hers. An enchantment turned the low rope that marked the borders of her enclosure into a lasso that caught the feet of those bearing down on her, but the May King turned the rope to dust.
“Don’t think you can win this,” the May King said.
“I don’t need to win,” Shakti said. She opened her hands and a swarm of butterflies issued forth. The men ducked, trying to protect themselves, and Shakti dodged through them, away from the May King and heading down to the edge of Encampment. Behind her she threw as many hindering spells as she could: boggy ground, thorn thickets, imaginary beasts lunging at her pursuers, vines rearing up from the grass to trip them.
She hurtled through Encampment, the May King lagging behind but not far enough. She reached the picket rail where four horses nibbled at the grass, grabbed the mane of one and was immediately on its back. She glanced behind, then spurred her mount onwards as the men chasing put on an extra spurt of speed to reach the other horses.
Shakti hurled glamour after glamour, hex after hex, enchantment after enchantment in the hope it would slow her pursuers down. She tried hard to remember the way to the boundary lands, but her predecessors had only ever made the journey once in each direction. The memories of the inward bound journey were confused and vague, consisting mainly of feelings of shock, anger and fear with very little attention to the path. And the journeys out were made almost entirely in fear: After a year of losing their grip on who they were, they were about to take on someone else’s life, not return to their own.
She could feel Janet’s bitterness most clearly, but the woman had taken no notice of the route, and that was only a few days ago. She felt a lurch as her horse leapt a fallen log and it was only the enchantment that had helped her mount the beast in the first place that stopped her falling off. Sadly, the spell didn’t extend to making the ride a smooth one.
The piercing wail of a hunting horn caused her stomach to clench and she knew without looking that there was a pack of hounds hard on her heels. A knot of bile rose in her throat before anger forced it down. They had stolen her from her life, they had no right to prevent her from leaving Faerie and going home.
But she was not just Shakti Nayar, she was the May Queen. She had absolute rule over her people. How dare they hunt her down like a beast? The anger burned in her blood as the iron had around her wrists and as the heat flowed through her veins it burnt away the last of the barriers in her mind that separated her from the innumerable Queens who had gone before. Their knowledge flooded her head, subsuming her, drowning her, threatening to erase her from her own mind. That, in turn, fired the stubborn, wilful anger that her parents had always chastised her for, that had been the source of both arguments and amusement on Richard’s part.
The pack of dogs were drawing close now, unaffected by the glamours that deceived human eyes. Dogs relied on smell, not sight, and they had no problem tracking horses. The pack’s leader was snapping around her horse’s hooves. Well, thought Shakti, dogs might be immune to glamour but enchantment is another matter. Before she had even fully understood what she was doing, she threw an enchantment at the animal. The transformation happened too fast for her to see it, but where the baying hound had been was now a squeaking mouse. She urged her horse on, still hoping it knew where she wanted to go. She had other things to focus on. The next hound barked, then found itself chirruping as it flew into a bush, now a small sparrow. The next dog a hare, it shot into the undergrowth, pursued by the rest of the pack.
But despite her magic, it wasn’t long before the men caught up with her. She was riding through woods and had to be careful of low branches or narrowings of the path where tree trunks threatened to take her knees off. She had to slow a little as she wove through the trees, but she was lighter on her horses then the faerie men. Shakti’s hopes that she could keep her lead crumbled as she heard the pounding of hooves behind her. She cast an enchantment as she had for the dogs and felt a painful shock through her body as the spell bounced off a protective charm. The ricochet made her gasp, but her horse didn’t falter.
Well, she thought, if I can’t dismount them one way, I’ll do it another. Behind her, at her hex’s request, a tree toppled into the path of their pursuers. Unable to leap the obstacle all the horses could do was skid through the humus to a halt and mill as they tried to find a way around.
Shakti slowed a little as they left the woods. She could feel the borderlands now, in her mind. She could not go much further on horseback. She continued through a meadow, the horse down to a reluctant walk, no matter how she urged it on. They were not far from the hedge when her mount simply stopped. She couldn’t cajole it to move forward an inch, so she gave in and dismounted.
Despite the assistance from the magic, her knees nearly buckled as her feet touched the ground and she had to grab hold of the horse’s mane to steady herself. She was not accustomed to riding and was sore from the effort she’d used to stay upright.
“You just stay right here,” she said to the horse, unsure whether she would need it again or not. The horse simply started cropping grass.
She moved as fast as she could through the hummocky field toward the stile she had crossed only a few days before. She could feel the air charge around her as she moved from Faerie proper into the strange superimposed borderlands of Gillespie Park. The air was colder and damper. She wished her dress was thicker.
She made her way back through the park, past the pond and the tiny stone circle, until she were standing before the iron gate that trapped her in Faerie.
“Remember,” she said to herself, “juniper, feverfew, and white heather for protection, oak for strength and may for hope.”
The hawthorn, also known as the may, was hers. It was the emblem of her people, the border faeries, and it was their border markers. The yew marked the boundaries for humans, the may for faeries.
“Bittersweet, fir and zinnia, for truth, time and friends.”
She had no time to think through what she was doing, she had to take the opportunity to escape before the May King came to force her back. She cast the spell and steeled herself to take the pain she remembered from before. Slowly, she began to walk towards the huge iron gates. The ache in her blood, the feeling of pushing her way through a wall of treacle, it all felt the same. She leant into the pain, gritting her teeth. She tried to hold the power of the spell in her mind, but it seemed to be making no difference.
“So this was your plan?” The May King sneered from behind her, although he stayed a safe distance away from the iron of the gates. “Run to the one place from which you can’t escape? Clever.”
Shakti turned to face him, stepping back from the pain. She wanted to come up with a snappy retort but nothing came to mind. The May King stood on the other side of the green, his men arrayed behind him. She could still feel the buzz of the iron gate, the iron stays and ties in the old brick walls, the spiky iron railings that topped the brickwork fizzing in her blood. She might as well have had her back against the wall itself.
“Sad little creature,” the King continued. “It’s been a while since we’ve had one as delusional as you, but no matter. You will return with me, and you will stay for your year and that will be that.”
“No she won’t,” came Faella’s voice from behind the faerie men. Shakti looked up. Over Faella’s shoulder was slung a large wicker basket.
“How dare you speak to me like that?” The King frothed with fury.
“How dare you kidnap humans from their world and steal their lives?” Faella snapped back. “How dare you keep the humans here living in squalor and fear?”
The King raised his hand and Shakti knew what was coming, the gesture bringing to mind a row he’d had with Elen and immediately Shakti remembered which spell had stayed his hand. She cast it, and the King rounded on her instead.
“Oh, you think you’re a match for me?” He advanced towards her; she cast an enchantment that made the grass beneath his feet grow upwards and entangle his legs.
“Yes, actually. Remember Elen? No? You can’t tell one Queen from another, can you? Well, Elen was the one who gave you all that trouble. I remember her very well indeed. Everything she learnt, in fact.”
As she was talking, the King had countered her spell, so Shakti threw another enchantment at him to bind his hands and at least slow him down.
“Men!” He shouted, and his entourage began casting hexes at Shakti.
“Shakti!” shouted Faella, casting her own blocking spells.
As Shakti frantically defended herself, she saw Faella open the wicker basket and lift out a cape, white silk embroidered with silver wire and covered in sprigs of may sewn in place. She flinched every time the men’s magic pierced her spells of protection, but as she threw the cape around her shoulders her wincing stopped and she could draw herself up to walk through the melee, unaffected by the magic that ripped the air apart.
The King turned his full attention on the Lady in Waiting, his hand now freed and flinging enchantment after hex. Faella stumbled as the spells hit home, despite the extra protection afforded by the cape. Shakti immediately switched focus and threw up as many protective spells as she could to ease Faella’s way, though she could see the effort it took to force her way through the barrage of magic.
“What are you doing here?” she asked as Faella drew close, alarmed at her Lady in Waiting’s now pale skin, whiter even than faerie skin should be.
“You need this,” Faella said, taking off the cloak and wrapping it around Shakti’s shoulders. The effect was immediate: Shakti felt the impact of the King’s spells, but they could do no damage. The cloak, around her shoulders, was many times more powerful than it had been around Faella’s.
But as Faella stepped away, the King rounded on her, determined to do as much damage as possible. She tried to defend herself, but was no match for the enraged King. He bore down on her, pounding her with magic until, screaming in agony, she fell to the ground.
Shakti flung a stream of hexes at the King, binding him, crippling him. She ran to Faella’s side, kneeling next to the faerie woman, gently brushing a strand of hair from her face.
“Faella! Are you alright?”
“Take the cloak,” Faella whispered, “the may will get you through. You are the May Queen, you command the strongest of all magic. Go. Do what you need to do.” Her head lolled and her eyes closed, and Shakti felt the King turn his attention back to her.
As a blazing anger rose inside her, Shakti balled up all her energy and cast the most powerful combination of hex and enchantment that she knew. An explosion of magic, the shockwave sent the May King and his men reeling. She took advantage of their temporary stupor to run for the gate.
She could feel the magic fizzing around her, surging like electricity around her body, sparking from may twig to may twig. She could still feel the iron, seeping through the gaps between the cuttings, but the cloak cut the pain to bearable levels. She pushed forwards, the may creating a bubble around her, protecting her.
“My Queen!” the May King shouted. “No! Do not do this!”
Shakti glanced over her shoulder to see the King imploring her to stay. She pressed on. She could sense the magic surging over the surface of the may. It made the hairs on her arm prickle, but the discomfort was bearable. She reached the gate and, with a murmur and a gesture, the simple barrel lock tumbled and the iron-barred gate that had kept her prisoner swung open. She crossed the threshold, elated.
No one paid Shakti any mind as she strode back down Gillespie Road. As the commuters walked home from the tube station in their own little worlds, elbows sharpened and ready to lever the unwary pedestrian out of the way, Shakti felt a stab of loss. The noise of the city pressed in on her and the people with their bubbles of self-protection showed an impressive ability to ignore the world around them. They made Shakti wonder what she had been missing that had made her so eager to get home.
She had stashed the may cloak in a flowerbed near the entrance to the park, casting a glamour to hide it before remembering that she was back in the human word. Did magic work here? Would a glamour that made her look like she was dressed normally, rather than like a reject from a mediaeval fair, work? She had not automatically become herself after her escape from Faerie — one glance at her hands had proven that — so she had cast a glamour to make her blend in. Now it was hard to know if the lack of reaction from the people she passed was because of the glamour or if it was just the usual London indifference.
One way in which London was now irrevocably different was the way her blood sang every time she passed a car or railings. It wasn’t pain so much as a hotness, an itch in her veins. She could contain it, for now, but she knew she’d never be able to live in a city again. She’d probably have to buy herself some silver cutlery too.
As she arrived outside her flat, the heavy rock of fear in her stomach battled with the discomfort of being almost surrounded by iron. She could feel every steel girder that held the building up, yet still it was her nerves that made her finger tremble as she pushed the intercom button. Would Richard answer, or the woman who stole her life? What would she say to either of them?
“Hello?” she heard her own voice coming from the entry phone system.
“l think you ought to come down here, Janet,” Shakti heard herself say, her voice tight.
“If you come down, I won’t have to come up, Janet. You do remember who you really are, don’t you Janet?”
There was silence for a moment then Shakti heard Richard’s voice in the background, asking who was there. She seethed even more at the reminder that this creature had been sleeping with her man.
The intercom went dead. A moment later, the door opened and Shakti almost faltered at the sight of her own face on the other side of the threshold. Janet stared for a moment too, aware fully now of the countenance she herself had worn for a year.
“Come,” Janet said, leading Shakti through the hallway into the communal garden, currently empty. Once she was sure they were alone, she turned to face Shakti. “How? How did you get out?”
“I used my brain, and Faella’s help.”
“Faella? Yes, Faella would.” The words were not a dismissal or a condemnation but were warm with affection.
“I want my life back, Janet.”
“It doesn’t work like that and you know it. The magic doesn’t work here.” Janet said, her voice more sorrowful than defiant.
Shakti faltered. Janet was right. No one had ever returned to their own life after their time as Queen was done, but then, no one had escaped Faerie, and she had.
“What do you see when you look at me?” Shakti asked, turning over the logic in her mind.
“At you?” Janet was confused for a moment. “Blonde hair, white dress, blue eyes. What do you think I should see?”
“And what do you see when you look in the mirror?”
“Well, a slim Indian woman, why?”
“Not a short, dumpy white woman?” Shakti said, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice.
“No, wh… Oh.”
“If enchantment didn’t work here, you couldn’t look like me. Obviously, things aren’t quite as clear cut as we’ve been led to believe.”
“Do you think you can…?”
“I don’t know, but I’m going to try.”
“Why not? Why wait?” Shakti readied herself to grab the woman if she tried to flee, but instead she found herself staring into imploring eyes.
“I can’t live your life, Shakti. I can’t love someone you loved. He doesn’t know me, he knows you, and I’m so very much not you. I don’t want your life, I want mine.”
Tears welled in Janet’s eyes and Shakti’s anger melted away into pity and compassion.
“Persicaria, for restoration, Janet, and bittersweet for truth, rudbeckia for justice, imagine them in your mind’s eye. Hold the picture in your mind, the purple and orange flowers of the bittersweet with the purple petals all curled back to reveal the stamen. The finger of red blooms of the persicaria, looking like a botanical bottle brush. And rudbeckia, the bright orange petals and black centre of the black-eyed Susan. Restoration, truth and justice, Janet! Picture it!”
Shakti held Janet by the shoulders, locked gaze with her, whilst her mind’s eye focused on the flowers, symbols, mnemonics, totems.
“Don’t we need…”
“No! Focus! We need to focus. The flowers are just a reminder, they aren’t the power.” She faltered for a moment. If they weren’t the power, why had she needed the May cloak?
“Focus!” She said, as much to herself now as Janet. She dug deep. Somewhere, buried in the memories, one of her predecessors had been the first to cast this spell. One of them knew it, and now she did.
Shakti felt the enchantment form in her mind, the magic tingling through her fingers and her hands, surging through to Janet, enveloping them both, transforming them, lifting the curse that had blighted so many lives. The sensation crescendoed and quickly died away.
She opened her eyes to find herself holding the shoulders of a short, unassuming woman, brown hair long and in dire need of a trim, her expression one of relief and release. Shakti looked at her own hands and saw… her own hands. Brown skin. Short nails. The hands she’d grown up with and which she never thought she would be so happy to see. She touched her face.
“Oh my god!” She stared at Janet, not quite taking it in. She checked her clothes. She was still wearing the faerie dress, and Janet was still wearing Shakti’s clothes. “God, I need to change.”
She grabbed Janet by the hand and pulled her up the stairs to her flat. She pushed open the door, left ajar, and gave Janet a gentle shove towards the lounge. “Make yourself comfortable. I need a quick shower.” She grabbed some clean clothes from a laundry pile that neither Janet or Richard had bothered to put away, and made a dash for the bathroom, eager to get the grime off her.
“Hey, who was it?” she heard Richard’s voice and her heart lurched happily.
“Nothing, love, just an old friend dropping in.” She tried to keep the ocean of relief out of her voice.
As she cleaned herself up, she wondered if she had lost all the echoes of past lives, as well as her faerie form. But she immediately remembered Elen and realised that she now had every memory, forever. She changed into combat trousers and a T-shirt, delighting in the vast number of pockets, and went into the lounge where Janet was staring out of the window, lost.
“What will I do?” Janet asked, forlornly.
“I can help you, Janet,” Shakti said, though she was unsure what exactly she could do.
“Help me what? Rabiya has been living my life for a year. Well, if she’s smarter than me, she’ll have left that arsehole and got herself a new job. What do I have to go back to?”
“You can make a new life?” Shakti said.
“With what! I have no money, no identity. I don’t exist here. This world is not my world.”
“You can make it your world. Be who you want to be! It’s a fresh start. God, there must be millions of people who wish they could start anew!” As soon as the words were out of Shakti’s mouth, she regretted them. It sounded so trite. Maybe once upon a time it would be easy to cut a new identity from whole cloth, but in this era of electronic records and bureaucracy it would be nigh on impossible.
“I don’t belong here anymore.”
“You want to go back to faerie?”
“I didn’t belong there, either.”
“I think things might have changed a bit over the last couple of days.”
Janet paused, thinking. “Do I have a choice?” she asked. “I can’t go back as Queen, though. The May King is an insufferable jerk.”
Shakti laughed. “He is, he really is. Right, have a seat for a minute, there’s something I need to look up.”
Shakti, still revelling in the fact she had her own body back, grabbed her laptop and opened it up. She tapped furiously at the keyboard for a moment, spent a short while reading, then carefully closed it up again. She stood, put on a jacket and nodded toward the door.
“Right, we need a few supplies.”
She picked up a rucksack, disappeared into the kitchen briefly, then went in to the bathroom and riffled through the medicine cabinet, Janet trailing along behind her.
“Richard,” Shakti called as they passed the office, “I’ve just got to nip out and give my friend a hand with something. Back in a tick. Well, several ticks, I should imagine.”
“Yeah, everything’s fine, hon. I’ve just got to help Janet move some stuff, her boyfriend’s crapped out on her. Be a few hours.”
“Er, alright. See you later.”
“Right, come on, Janet,” Shakti murmured. She shut the door behind them, not wanting to see Richard yet, not until she had got used to what had happened.
They made their way down the stairs but instead of turning left towards Gillespie Park, Shakti went right, this time taking advantage of the corner shop in the bottom of her apartment building. Then they dropped into the pharmacy on Blackstock Road before heading to the park.
“It was the iron of the gates and the S-brackets in the wall, you know,” said Shakti as the contemplated the gates. The dull iron buzz that she’d been feeling since her escape had intensified a little as they neared the boundary wall. “That was why we couldn’t pass.”
They reached the flowerbed where Shakti had hidden the may cloak. She was satisfied to find that not only was it still there, but that Janet couldn’t see it until she removed the glamour.
“You think we need this to enter?” Shakti mulled.
“Are we fae anymore?”
“Part fae, part human, I suppose. How did it feel when you left the park…” Shakti swallowed the rancour that popped up as she contemplated the memory, “…As me?”
“Nothing. I felt nothing, I assumed I was fully human again.”
“I feel the iron a little.”
They walked towards the gate, the discomfort intensifying with every step. Shakti threw the may cloak around the both of them, murmuring and gesturing as she had just an hour or so earlier, and together they pushed against the thickness of the iron-laden air.
“We can do it,” Shakti said, putting more belief into her tone than she truly felt. She grasped Janet’s hand and then put the other out towards the gate. The lock clicked open and the gate swung before her. Steeling herself, she stepped forward, Janet by her side. They both winced, but the discomfort was bearable. “Question is, can we still enter Faerie proper?”
They walked briskly through the park. Shakti kept looking for signs of Faella, but saw nothing. They reached the borderlands between the two worlds where the park gave way to Faerie, but it was too dark now to see whether they had the vista of Faerie before them or the bulky darkness of the shunting yards. They pressed on to the stile, crossing there, where they would be faced with either a railway line or…
Shakti gave a little sigh as they crossed through, the familiar meadow in front of them, woods in the distance. But instead of going back to Encampment, she headed directly for the village.
“Where are we going?” Janet asked.
“I have a little errand to run first,” Shakti said. As they reached the outskirts of the village, she cast a glamour, one that made her look like the May Queen once more.
“Why are you…?” Janet started to ask.
“Easier this way,” Shakti said.
Elliot was lying on his cot, not really awake but not really asleep, when he heard the knock at the door. He didn’t have the strength to get up and open it, but after a while of waiting and no response, it opened anyway. The May Queen slipped in, followed by a woman Elliot didn’t recognise. A human woman he didn’t recognise. Where had she come from? Elliot thought he knew everyone in the village, and new people didn’t just appear out of nowhere.
“Hello? Maggie?” The May Queen looked around the tiny cottage, then swung a large bag off her back and put it down on the kitchen table. It was bright red and blue, made of a fabric Elliot had never seen before, and had more straps and buckles hanging off it than horse tackle. He stared at it, unabashed now about his curiosity.
“Where’s your mummy?” The May Queen asked.
“Outside,” he murmured.
The May Queen opened up the top of the bag, and started unloading it on to the table. First out was a box. She ripped the top off and extracted four yellowy gloves that looked to Elliot as if they’d been made of a pig’s bladder, though how you turned a pig’s bladder into gloves without any sign of seams was beyond him. She handed two to the other woman.
“Put these on, Janet, fill the kettle over there and get it boiling, please. We’ll need a good supply of boiled water.”
Elliot watched as the May Queen pulled more strange and curious things out of the bag. A bright red beaker translucent like glass but without glass’ shiny hardness. Some bottles that looked like they might be made of ice. A round white pot and something small and flat. She took the latter, ripped off the top and it opened up into a pouch, from which she poured purple powder into the bottom of the beaker. She opened one of the bottles and water, not ice, sloshed from it. She swirled the water round in the beaker until she was satisfied.
“Come on Elliot, drink this,” she said, pulling a stool up by the side of his cot. She held the beaker to his lips and he took a sip and immediately wanted to gag. It tasted disgusting. “I know, I know,” the May Queen said, as if she could read his thoughts. “It’s supposed to taste like blackcurrants, but it never does. It’ll do you good, though. Try again.”
Elliot sat himself up properly, with the May Queen supporting him against her shoulder. He could never remember a Lady being so kind, let alone the May Queen. Except for the Lady Faella, of course, but she was different.
When he’d finally choked the vile mixture down, the May Queen poured more water into the beaker, then opened the bottled and took out two of the capsules inside. “Open wide!” She popped the pills into his mouth and he washed them down with another gulp of water.
“Antibiotics?” Janet said.
“Yeah,” said the May Queen. “Broad spectrum. Richard never finishes a full course. Once he feels better he thinks the rest is a waste. Idiot. Still, it’s come in handy this time.”
“Will they make a difference?”
“I don’t know, but it can’t hurt.”
The May Queen made Elliot comfortable in his cot again, and picked up the bowl stashed beneath it.
“Kettle’s on,” Janet said. “What’s going on here?”
“Cholera. I thought it might be when I came last night, but I checked when I was home. This slightly fishy smelling diarrhoea is characteristic. Dear lord, those faeries really are squalid little creatures.”
“Where are his parents?”
“Good question. Maggie’s been a long time.”
The May Queen headed out the door, Elliot could hear her walking out into the garden, calling for his mother. Then he heard an exclamation, and the May Queen calling for her human friend’s help. Five minutes later, the two women came back into the cottage, his mother held up between them, her skin bluish-grey, her eyes sunken.
“Come on, let’s get you inside,” Janet said.
“Stay away,” his mother said, her voice weak and faint. “You’ll catch it. We can’t have it spread.”
“It’s fine, Maggie, it’ll be ok,” the May Queen said, steering the woman through to the sitting area and laid her down on the window bench. “Where’s Thomas?”
“OK, Janet, find a bowl for Maggie here, if you can, and then get another beaker out of my bag, make up one of the sachets of rehydration salts for her. I don’t know if the antibiotics will help, but it’s got to be worth a go. Give her two.”
“On the case,” Janet said, glad to be able to do something positive.
The May Queen went upstairs and, after a moment of listening to footsteps going in and out of the bedrooms, Elliot heard a muffled exclamation, and guessed that his father wasn’t in a much better state than he was. Elliot had not seen him since earlier in the morning when he’d heard a big thump which he guessed was his father fainting.
“Janet!” The May Queen called down the stairs. “More rehydration salts and antibiotics up here!”
“Right, Thomas, we’re going to sort you out, I promise,” heard the faerie’s voice from upstairs. “You’re going to be fine.”
Janet mixed the rehydration salts and took them upstairs.
“Ok, drink this Thomas,” Elliot heard the May Queen say. Then, “Right, Janet, you get his legs and I’ll get him under the arms. I’d like to have everyone downstairs. Easier to keep an eye on.”
“He’s a bit heavy.”
“I’m sure we can manage.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“You’re a faerie.”
“Oh, yeah, right.”
A pause. Then footsteps along the landing and down the stairs. Then his father appeared, feet first, floating through the air as if on an invisible litter. Elliot stifled a giggle as the May Queen guided his father, who seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness, to lie on the floor by the fire. The May Queen settled him down, a few murmurs and gestures removing the spell. Elliot had never seen magic done so overtly before, and he was transfixed. Could he learn to do it? Or was it just a fae thing?
“I”m going next door,” the May Queen said. “We need something for Thomas to sleep on, maybe a cot like Elliot’s.”
“Let me go,” Janet said, firmly. “Just tell me what you need.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. It won’t be long before the May King realises you’re back. I suspect he already knows. We don’t want him finding you here.”
“OK. So I’m pretty sure this is cholera. It spreads through contaminated food and water, so I suspect our little friend here was a bit naughty at the feast and stole a bite of food from those disgusting faeries.” Elliot looked guiltily away and hoped that his parents hadn’t heard.
“And you think we’re ok because we’re part-fae?”
“I think so, yes. They seem to be able to live in squalor and feel no ill effects. Anyway, we need a pit dug, somewhere away from the houses and away from any wells. Dispose of all the contaminated waste and vomit there, and cover it with lye. Bury all the contaminated clothing and bedding too. In lye. Lots of lye.”
“And if anyone else falls sick?”
“Bring them here. Let’s keep everyone in one place. Lots of liquids, use the rehydration salts. We don’t have many antibiotics left so we’ll use those only for the worst cases. Oh, and I brought a big bag of rice. Let’s try to get them eating something, even if they bring it back. Anyway, there are full notes on cholera treatment that I printed out at home and stuck in one of the side pockets.”
“You sure you’re OK with all this?”
“I owe it to them,” Janet said, her voice tinged with misery and shame. “In the year I was Queen, I didn’t even know these people existed. I had no idea where the serving girls came from, and didn’t try to find out. I let them down.”
“You’re making up for it now, Janet.” The May Queen grasped the woman’s shoulder firmly, and smiled. Then she turned back to Elliot. “And how are you doing, young man?”
“A bit better, m’Lady,” he said, managing a smile.
“Good, you’ll be right as rain in no time.”
“So, are you going to be OK, dealing with the King?” Janet asked.
“Prince Smarmypants? Yeah, no problem,” the May Queen said, her confident tone belied by the worry in her eyes. “I’ll sort him out.”
“Where’s Faella?” Shakti demanded of the first faerie she came across in Encampment. The man stuttered a bit, then just pointed. “Right. And clean yourself up, you’re filthy,” her nerves making her snappy. She cast a spell to give the man a clear view through all the glamours that infested the place and got a muted sense of satisfaction at the shock on his face as he saw the world in all its repulsive reality. “Get some coppers boiling and some baths heating in the Festival Square. I want every bloody one of you squeaky clean by dawn.”
“Yes, my Queen, sorry my Queen, as you say…”
“Oh, do shut up,” Shakti snarled, and stalked off in the direction he’d pointed.
Shakti pushed open the flap to Faella’s pavilion and was met by a gasp from the other Ladies in Waiting. “Where is she?” Shakti said, quietly.
“She’s asleep, m’, m’, m’Lady,” one of them said and gestured into the bedroom. Shakti quietly moved through the group and made her way to the bed.
“Asleep or in a coma?” Shakti asked as she saw Faella’s unresponsive form. She knelt by the bed and touched Faella’s forehead. No fever. That was good. She sat quietly for a while, trying to figure out what to do. Elliot had been laid low by a bacterium and hopefully simple rehydration salts would see him through. But what ailed Faella? Magic had nearly killed her, could magic heal her?
“My Queen?” came the all too familiar and tedious voice from the entry way to the pavilion. “How did you… Why…?” He recovered his composure and drew himself up to his full, and not insignificant, height. “What are you doing in my Kingdom?
Shakti stood, turned and marched towards the May King.
“Firstly, oh dear Prince Bouffant, it’s not your kingdom.” She pushed a finger into his chest and he stepped backwards. “Secondly, get out of this pavilion now, before I do something we both might regret.”
“How dare yo…”
“Shoo, shoo, get out.”
“You do not understand the gravity of the situation, my Queen.”
“Oh, how many times do I have to tell you I’m not your Queen. I’m not your anything.” She shoved him back again, pushing him out of the pavilion and onto the sunlit lawn outside. Then a gesture and a murmur and her glamour was gone. She stood before him in her human form.
“But, you do not look like…”
“What do you think I really looked like, you idiot?” Shakti rounded on him. “Who did you think I really was? My name is Shakti Nayar. This is me. This. Not that wishy-washy Timotei advert girl.”
“But, how can this be? You left faerie.”
“Yes, I can, it seems, come and go as I like now.” Shakti let the smugness ripple through her voice. “Which means things will change around here. For one, you lot are filthy. Did you know you’re all carriers of cholera? I’m bloody surprised you haven’t wiped yourselves out.”
She flicked her hand and the glamours around her dissolved away, revealing the dirt and decay.
“Infectious disease. Causes diarrhoea, vomiting and sometimes death.”
The May King struggled to understand what was going on, his inability to grasp the situation threatening to turn to rage any moment.
“Who are you? You’re just a human, you are not the May Queen.”
“Oh, I’m more than just the May Queen, sweetie. I’m all the May Queens.”
Shakti could see the May King preparing a hex, flicked her hand and dispelled it.
“I don’t know who you are, human, but your power is no match for me!” He gathered another spell, and again, Shakti blocked it before it was sent. It was like swatting flies.
“I’m sorry, darling, but your reign is over.” Murmurs and gesture, long, more complicated, and then she was done. Outwardly the May King looked the same, but she could see the panic in his eyes as he felt his power drain away. “I’m not having you stomp around the place making things horrible for people anymore.”
“What have you done to me?”
“You took joy in ruining lives to feed your ego. Every year you took a life, and then a year later you spat that poor woman back into a world and a life that wasn’t hers. You destroyed people. For what? For your own entertainment? So that you could feel powerful? Or worse? Did you do it just because you could? Because it was tradition?
“Well, I am Rabiya and Hannah and Katia and Sharon and Elen and Janet. I am all of them. And I say it’s over. You don’t get to steal any more human women. Frankly, I’d take away everyone’s power if I thought you could survive it, but you’re too pathetic.” She looked around at the horrified faerie faces around her. “Don’t worry, I’ll leave you bits and pieces. But you,” she jabbed him in the chest again, “you are scum. You are done.”
She turned her back and returned to the pavilion, the gathered crowd of fearful faeries parted in front of her, their mouths slack-jawed. Shakti ignored them, making her way back to Faella’s bedside. The other Ladies in Waiting stood in a tight knot, their grimy hair hanging lank about dirty faces, their dresses soiled and torn, their distress almost tangible.
“Go and wash,” Shakti told them, not even looking at them. “Go make yourself clean. Honestly.” The women shuffled out of the pavilion, unsure quite how to carry out their Queen’s orders, unsure why their Queen looked now as she did. But her voice was hers and could not be disobeyed.
Finally, Shakti was alone by Faella’s bedside. Faella, who had remained immaculate all these years whilst the world around her sank into squalor. How had she managed to keep the bile down when she took her place to eat by these fetid creatures?
Shakti put the back of her hand to Faella’s forehead. No fever. No reason why there should be. She looked around. Faella’s pavilion was well stocked with flowers, much like hers had been. Almond for hope, alstroemeria for devotion, camomile for strength in adversity. Shakti didn’t really need the flowers themselves, now, though it was comforting to go through the vases and pick out the blooms that mattered. Canterbury bells for gratitude. Edelweiss for noble courage.
This wasn’t going to be simple. She first had to figure out what the May King had done, what spells were binding Faella, and only then could she start to undo them. She placed a hand on Faella’s chest, feeling her heart beat weakly, and concentrated. There, there was a hex, yes, a small one that was easily undone. She closed her eyes, slowly feeling her way through the tangle of magic that had laid Faella low. She didn’t know how long it took, but bit by bit she undid the May King’s worst, and Faella’s pulse strengthened.
Slowly, Faella’s eyelids opened, a weak smile spread across her face.
“Thank you, my Queen.”
“Oh, Faella, you daft git.”
“You’re my Queen, Shakti. I will always remember that.”
“Ah, I think I’m done with queening for a bit, Faella. I’m going to have to leave it up to you and Janet to sort out the mess here. I’ve my own mess to sort out.”
She thought of all the half-full boxes back at the flat and wondered whether Janet had made any progress at all with the packing.
“The King won’t…”
“Don’t you worry about him. He won’t give you any trouble.”
“We’ll do our best, Shakti. In your honour.”
“Don’t do it for me, Faella, do it for you. You’re the ones that have to live here.”
Shakti cast the invisibility glamour about herself, took one last glance around the pavilion and slipped away, avoiding the fretful throng of confused fae folk. They’d figure it out, she thought. Meantime, she had a train to catch. And a bus, and a ferry.
The sound of the waves swishing up towards the sand dunes always made Shakti happy. The July sun was warm on the back of her neck and the light breeze ruffled her hair like an old friend saying hello. She sat amongst the wildflowers of the machair, staring out to sea, fingering a blade of grass contemplatively. Her research was going well and she was looking forward to writing up her first paper on the use of seaweed vs. artificial fertilisers on biodiversity and crop yield. A corncrake cried in the distance and a bumblebee busied itself with pollen gathering, its yellow, brown and black pile distinctive amongst the flowers.
Shakti held out a finger to the bumblebee and murmured quietly. The bee stopped its foraging and flew the short hop to land on Shakti’s finger. She lifted it up to get a better look, and to gently stroke its fuzzy body before it finally flew off.
Bluebells, harebells, red clover, prunella, buttercups and white eyebright stood out against a dark background of mossy grass. Shakti lightly touched each bloom and smiled. She stood, picked up her rucksack and made the gestures. She took a step forward, no iron here to make the transition difficult, and the sea vista in front of her dissolved into a oak wood and she strode through the soft place into Faerie.
The walk to Encampment was short now that Shakti had learnt how to manipulate the boundary between the human and faerie worlds to her liking. She saw the gleaming new white canvas of Encampment and, on the edge of town, a brand new complex of baths were taking shape under Thomas’ careful management. She caught sight of Elliot and called him over.
“Hey, you little monster. Where’s your aunty Faella?”
“She’s up at the Festival Square with the Queen,” the boy said, smiling as hugged him.
“Yes, Shakti. Come on, I’ll take you up there.”
They walked off together through Encampment, parts of which Shakti barely recognised now, not least because everywhere she looked, she saw humans working alongside faeries in what looked like peaceful collaboration. Or possibly in fear of what Faella would do to them if they stepped out of line. Hard to tell.
“Shakti!” Janet picked up her skirts and came hurtling towards Shakti, embracing her in a long bear hug. “I didn’t think you were coming back!”
“Well, it took a while for me to figure it out, but here I am!”
“Did the move to Scotland go ok?”
“Smooth as you like. We’re all settled in, and Richard’s loving his new more outdoors-y life!”
“So look at you!” Shakti said, stepping back to admire the long red silk dress that Janet was sporting, her brown hair gleaming and held in place with gem-encrusted silver pins.
“Hey, Shakti!” Faella joined them now.
“What’s going on?” Shakti looked at the trestle tables, all laid out for a feast, as beautifully decorated as on May Day.
“We thought we’d bring a bit of democracy to Faerie,” Janet explained, smiling. “The position of Queen is now an elected one.”
“Wow! Good stuff! And who’s the lucky lady?”
“Landslide vote for Janet,” Faella smirked. “And very well deserved, I think. We’ve pretty much disbanded the royal entourage and replaced it with an elected Privy Council made up of both fae and human representatives.”
“No mucking about with you lot!”
“Well, things all started to fall apart a bit after you left. The fae really are natural followers and when the King deserted…”
“Oh, he bottled it, did he? I had a feeling he might.”
The three women walked up towards the dais, Elliot still in tow, and Faella pulled out three chairs for them to sit in and motioned for her nephew to sit on her lap.
“Congratulations, Janet! Will there be a vote for King as well?”
“I’d like to move away from the royal titles over time,” Janet said, “but they’re all so used to them. But no, no King for now.”
“Cripes, I leave you for all of two months and look what you’ve done to the place!”
“It’s the coronation tonight. Will you stay?”
“I can’t. I have to get back fairly soon, otherwise they’ll miss me and all hell will break loose. I don’t want to be responsible for search and rescue being scrambled from Stornoway.”
“Oh, that’s such a shame.” Janet looked crestfallen.
“It’s your night, Janet, I wouldn’t want to distract from that. Anyway, I brought you a few things.” She emptied her rucksack, this time full of chocolate and wine instead of water and rehydration salts.
“Aw, thank you!”
“You’ll come back?” Faella asked.
“Oh yes. Try and stop me!”
Queen of the May is also available as an ebook in ePub and mobi formats for just £2.49. If you enjoyed reading it, please consider supporting me by buying it!
Thank you to everyone who has helped me with this novella, especially to Kevin Anderson for his ongoing support, including but not limited to giving me feedback on early drafts and reading the final draft aloud to me so that I could hear where the lumps were.
Thanks also to John Rickards for his help with editing and story development; Dr Thorunn Helgason, Wieselkind, Sciencefox, Terence Eden and Owen Blacker for beta reading; John Rochester, Jaap Scherphuis and Nick Brown for proofing; and Thomas James for his gorgeous cover design.
Thanks, too, for the botanical advice from all those who gave it — you know who you are!
Queen of the May by Suw Charman-Anderson
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Seidr Press
© 2013 Suw Charman-Anderson
The right of Suw Charman-Anderson to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
This ebook by Suw Charman-Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
You may freely share, copy or distribute this work, but may not make derivative works without permission. If you would like to reuse or modify this work for commercial purposes, please contact the author via her website, chocolateandvodka.com.