Sunday, 29 July 2012

Kingsford: The Scent of Magic


The ground was dry beneath Yelena’s paws as she slipped along the back ways of the town in the early morning light. Most of the town still slumbered, unwilling to face the sudden summer heat. Kingsford had been rain clogged for weeks, water soaking everything and the lack of clouds in the sky was welcome, as was the break from the little earth she had dug at the rear of the boys’ garden. During the wet weather she had only ventured out to find food, on most nights returning with her fur all risen in spikes, as if she went out a fox and came back a hedgehog.

For the rest of the time she had watched the house and its occupants. The boys’ words had proven correct; their father did not notice her lurking in the tall grass even when he stared out of the window, seemingly looking straight at her. He was a short, round man, with more salt than pepper in his hair though he did not seem unkindly, but bookish and detached from the world. He spent little time at home and the boys, which increasingly only meant Aiden; Brendan was bouncing back and forth between his family home and the flat he had moved to in order to study Drama, were left alone in the house to fend for themselves. When that was the case, she was far more open, lying out and soaking the sun’s rays up, so that they could see her.

When Brendan was home he would inevitably place a gratefully received bowl of water and a few table scraps out on the weed choked patio. He would sit near her whilst she ate, making idle conversation, mostly telling her about the flat and the friends he was living with and the preparation he was making for the course’s start in September.

Aiden was a different matter; he kept his distance, offered no such treats. Often he would simply appear after a day’s work at whatever he did, check she was still there and slip into the house without a word. It was not that he was unfriendly; he smiled and waved but he clearly did not feel the attachment to her that his brother did.

Although she did not wish to admit it, the young men were the chief reason she had not just disappeared once she had recovered from her flight from Faerie. Both of them carried something about them, a hint of something more than the muck and mire of the world she found herself in; a hint of Faerie that she had smelt the day that Brendan had carried her home. She was still unused to the scents and sounds that filled the town, the cough of car engines, and the hum of electricity. The boys unwittingly gave her hope that there was something more to the world than what the eye saw.

During the brief dry patches she had picked her way about the town, exploring it's layout, negotiating the streets and alleys that inevitably sprang up between buildings. She had learnt too, what belonged to whom. Not in terms of human buildings, that was obvious, but in a more primal sense, where the local animals had established their territories, where the more dangerous of them dwelt. She had learnt the hard way that the big dog on Shakespeare Avenue was not to be trifled with. Now, she could cross from one side of the town to the other without incident, skirting her neighbours’ complex boundaries.

This morning she headed back towards the woodland, partly to hunt but also to attend to something else that nagged at the back of her mind. In the weak morning light, she paused every so often to let the sun warm her coat as she made her way back to the river and the bridge. She moved cautiously, keeping her senses keen for things other than rival foxes or other animals; keeping them sharp for Faerie magic.

She slowed as she approached the riverbank, stopping at the water’s edge before tentatively she stepped into the water and lowered her nose. There was no sign that the gate had reopened, but she could not discount the possibility; Oberon had enough pet sorcerers and witches under his sway that if he chose to the gate could be reopened easily. Still there was the scent, light and clinging. It hung in the air still as if the door was not shut but ajar and stuck fast. She smiled in the manner of foxes, it might just be enough.

Gently Yelena took a deep breath and cleared her mind. Standing stock still in the shallow water she smelt Faerie, breathed Faerie and called the image of her other form into her mind’s eye. Willowy limbs, fine features, long red hair that swept down her back. She recalled her face, her long fingers and slowly began to will herself to change form. Her knees shook as she gathered herself. She shut her eyes as a tingling feeling swept over her, making her fur stand on end. She focused, trying to hold the image in her mind but it swam away, becoming the image of a fox. A frown crossed her face, nothing was happening. Her limbs remained stubbornly vulpine, ending in paws rather than hands and feet. Her brush remained where it was, refusing to transform into part of her long mane of hair.

She tried again, banishing the image of the fox and making the image of herself as a woman sharper, realer with more details. She breathed deep picturing herself, catching the green of her eyes, the curve of her lips; the pertness of her breasts. She saw her fingernails, in her mind long and delicate, though weeks of living as an animal doubtless would have left them ragged and misshapen, pictured her clothes, the long green robe she had worn the night that the king had turned upon her family. Again her body filled with tingling, shaking energy, again her fur rose. Her brow furrowed as she focused, a thin whine escaped her black lips.

A forepaw rose, pain shooting through as toes lengthened, gained new joints. Her bone structure changed, as the vestigial thumb travelled south to her hand, which was growing wider, longer. She risked peeking at the limb, opening her eyes just a crack and at that moment the feeling fled. She just had time to see the long delicate fingers shrink back into fur covered toes. A frustrated whimper burst from her throat as her thumb returned to its position on her leg.

She tried again, and again. Each time she was almost successful, she felt her body change but every time something drew her back into the form of the fox and every time the pain of the transformation grew worse. Eventually she had no choice but to admit that today, she was defeated. There would be no pale lady to greet the people of the town, only the vixen sneaking through the back ways.

Behind her there came the tread of feet, she ran to through the ford and into the bushes on the other side; stopping to look back once she had gained cover. It was only when she moved that she realised how tired she was, and how she ached from her failed cantrips.

Aiden came down to the ford’s edge, paused and looked up and down the river. A puzzled look crossed his face as he peered about. “Not here either, where the hell has she gone?” He asked the air.

Yelena glanced up and suddenly realised that the sun was directly overhead; she had spent the entire morning trying to shift form. No wonder she was sore and tired. She stumbled out and yipped quietly at the boy, making her way to him.

Aiden did not speak, but crouched beside her, pulling a slice of cheese and some bread from one of his coat’s big pockets. He laid them on the ground and watched her eat. When she had finished he straightened again, “Are you coming home now? Brendan’s home this evening, he wouldn’t want to miss you.”

He moved off, walking slowly, and she fell into step beside him.

*

Unseen, across the border three men stood at the edge an almost identical ford. They were clad in dark clothes, so that in the shade of the forest they were almost invisible save for the cold white of their skin. Their faces seemed to hang, disembodied in the air.

They stared across the water, to the gap between worlds. Only a sliver showed barely wide enough for a rat to scurry through let alone anything larger. It was only through dint of their sorcery that they could see anything at all, with Feydo of the Crimson School, oldest of the Faerie enchanters, holding images from the far side before them whilst his apprentice Alastair and the courtier Darian looked on.

They watched the vixen’s attempts to alter her form, one with cool detachment, the others with a morbid curiousity that in the Darian’s case bordered on amusement and he had to stifle his chuckles at her plight behind his gloved hand.

They watched too as the pale boy came into view and escorted the fox away. “Who is that youth?” Alastair asked softly.

How should I know?” Darian retorted, “A human from the look of him, nothing for us to concern ourselves with. The bitch is our target.”

Vixen,” Feydo corrected absently, not lifting his eyes from the panorama before them.

Darian’s brow furrowed, “What?”

Feydo ignored the question, “You are sure that the beast is the rebel?”

Of course I am! I saw her flee through the gate with my own eyes.” Darian paused, “I just wish I knew how she’d done it; her family never had that sort of magic before.”

Feydo grimaced at him from the corner of his eye and shook his head at the courtier’s stupidity. “Whatever world she resides in she must be captured or destroyed, is that the case?”

Yes, but what should we do? Gate magic is the rarest of all isn’t it?” Darian asked a touch wildly. “Can you widen it and let us go through?”

I cannot,” Feydo replied in a wintry voice before lapsing into thought. Minutes passed, and he lifted his head again, “Alastair, hand me the black cloth.”

Of course Master,” the younger wizard pulled forth a black silk rag from one of the pouches that mired his belt. He handed it to Feydo, who held it up examining it closely.

It was long and tattered, with pieces that hung off it in tapering slices, wending to points. White runes were stitched into its surface, seemingly twisting and turning as if they did not want to be read, but there was a large blank patch in the very centre of the scrap.

Yes, this will do,” Feydo pronounced. “There is but one more mark to make, to give it life.” He made a strangled noise in his throat and spat something out onto the silk. When he lowered the rag the others saw a final rune, stitched in spidery white thread in its centre. Feydo released the edges, letting the cloth float before him. Then, it tipped until it was horizontal and flew unerringly towards the sliver and disappeared from sight.

With a sigh Feydo let the clairvoyance spell end, the mild panorama of the English woodland fading away until there was only the deep Faerie forest in view. “It is done,” the sage announced. “Let the vixen defeat it if she can.” He turned to Alastair, “Take us home, I weary of this place.”

A moment later, a flash of light lit up the woodland shadows. When the light faded the men were gone.


Sunday, 15 July 2012

Acres of the Dead: Zombie Apocalypse Book Reviews

I'm sure it hasn't missed anybody's notice that zombies have become a little bit popular over the last few years, to the point of almost over saturation. In terms of books the big, definitive 'novel' in the sub-genre is probably World War Z, Max Brooks' global account of a zombie epidemic that nearly wipes out the human race.  Having read this book a little while ago and also having read the rather similar Zombie Apocalypse, Stephen Jones' mosaic novel which in some respects take on a similar pattern in its organisation, it made sense to me to put them up against each other (in the words of Harry Hill - Fight!)


Starting with World War Z, the first thing to say is that it's a well conceived work, which takes in the sheer scale and suffering of this kind of disaster as it takes apart the human world piece by piece.  Brook's decision to present the work not in real time but as a series of accounts from people across the world is a sensible one, it allows for the worldwide nature of the disaster to be played out without becoming bogged down in the minutiae of the survival.  It also allows Brooks to maintain a level tone overall without worrying too much about giving different characters  hugely developed voices, they're around for a chapter at most and then gone, and much of their accounts is reported speech.  

The narrative takes us carefully through the apocalypse from its Chinese origins, as Brooks quite cunningly echoes the SARS outbreak, to the final almost victory the living attain over the undead.  Like many post apocalypse novels and stories the genie can't quite be put back into the bottle and humanity is forced to rebuild around the fact that the zombies are still out there and that new people will be infected, and the living are forced to adapt as a concequence, here building special communities that are more defensible and taking advantage of the slow moving but ultimately flammable nature of their foes.  One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the way that military tactics used to try and defeat the zombies change from shock and  awe to almost a World War 1 set up, with soldiers waiting for the zombies to advance and methodically picking them off with a series of kill shots.

Where the novel falls down is that American-centric nature of the writing, this makes the parts of the novel based in the USA very strong indeed and its at its best when discussing the fall out in North America, but the rest of the world seems to often be reduced to a series of stereotypes that do little to satisfy the reader.  Britain slips back to castle reliant feudalism, the Japan section focuses on someone becoming almost a wandering monk and Russia slides back into an oppressive regime, this time dominated by the Orthodox Church.


Zombie Apocalypse in contrast concerns itself only with the UK and at first sight seems much stronger.  The novel's conceit, a group of horror and science fiction novelists building a mosaic of the UK sliding into madness and destruction at the hands of an army of zombies in a vaguely dystopian future where the government is throwing money into a Festival of Britain to try to turn the economy around.  In doing so they disturb something that should stay buried and catastrophe, as always, follows.  Again the novel tracks through the development of the apocalypse from before the point that the threat becomes imminent to the conclusion usually through a sort of "found footage" device in the form of tweets, blog entries, mobile phone messages etc.  This is a nice way to do it but does bring up the problem of it often not being very emotive.  In fact a lot of the novel feels as if it's actually told in the same voice and not a great deal of it is that memorable.  The honourable exceptions to this are Sarah Pinborough's pieces, a diary written by a teenage girl, and Kim Newman's hodge podge of reports and emails that somehow strike enough of a chord to stand out, though this may be largely to do with the fact that the survival plan initially hatched is "run like fuck" or words to that effect which chimes so neatly with the Freedom of Information requests in Leicester and Bristol in the last year.

I think, that because so much of the novel's pieces end the same way, with the people dying at the hands of the undead that it's very hard to feel that anything significant happens and it leeches out much of the detail, leaving only a sort of fog where things have definitely happened but the specifics are lost, despite there being stronger plotting than in World War Z and with Zombie Apocalypse being a more ambitious project.

Both novels have issues, one that's common to both of them is that after a while it's hard to keep zombies interesting, they're a pretty limited monster and one that has been, perhaps over exposed.  I'm not sure that either novel really manages to keep them interesting, but World War Z just gains an edge because it's so much more sweeping and in many ways less about the nitty gritty business of surviving.  

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Review: Darkening Skies by Juliet E McKenna


The second volume of the Hadrumal Crisis, Darkening Skies depicts events in the immediate aftermath of the original volume, Dangerous Waters (which I've reviewed already).  The book depicts a period of rebuilding, either literal as buildings are repaired and demenses reconstituted or personal, as new roles are discovered and  settled into.

This last is handled skillfully and the writing adapts easily to address the new challenges the characters discover and how they rise to meet them. Corrain, the vengeful captain from the first book, settles into an uneasy existence  as Halferan's Baron, haunted by his past and in many ways caught between his old role and his new one. Lady Zurenne, whilst not exactly burning her wimple gains a new, more conniving edge, using her daughter's new authority as "Lady Halferan" to effectively get what she wants without having to engage in any sort of confrontation.  Other characters are similarly developed, particularly Hosh, a young man who was left behind during Corrain's escape from the corsairs, who now gains far more in personality and purpose than he had before - even if at least part of his role is to be Anskal, the barbarous wizard's, punching bag.  One nice thing is that  Hosh gets to have revenge for being enslaved by the raiders in a particularly satisfying scene.

Elsewhere Ms McKenna brings the other crisis, the politics of the wizards's isle, into sharper focus and lets it become more enmeshed as the "hawk" faction becomes more vocal in its demands that something be done about Anskal, and stamping their authority as the premier mage faction onto the world.  This is a development from the first volume and the political action feels a lot less slow and cumbersome in comparison to Dangerous Waters.  Whilst Planir, the Archmage, successfully establishes his authority by the end of the book, he does so in such a manner that makes the reader wonder if he has simply stored up trouble for the future; if he can take the steps to stamp Hadrumal's authority in such a dramatic fashion, then what stops him interfering at other points if magic is involved?  I can't help but feel that this is a theme that will return to haunt him in the third book. 

The book ends with a terrifying display of wizardry that leaves the reader in no doubt as to how much damage magic can create in warfare: Dungeons and Dragons sorcery this isn't.  In fact the magic employed reminds me more of the wizards of Roke in the Earthsea books, albeit without the desire to maintain balance.  You're left with little doubt that magic, once allowed off its' leash could level mountains and boil seas and that a full scale wizards' war would probably bring ruin to the world.

What is interesting to me is that by the end of the book the crisis looks as if it has been averted, and that peace will return to the world in a way that Dangerous Waters didn't - it was obvious that Anskal was going to make trouble and that his presence wouldn't be tolerated by Hadrumal.  It will be interesting to see where the third book takes things and how the politics on the wizard isle will develop, in the wake of his apparent defeat especially as Ms McKenna has mentioned "eldritch kin" and it seems highly unlikely that having mentioned them they won't be used.

To return to the point I made about feminism in the first book, Darkening Skies seems to sit a lot easier in this regard.  The female characters are much more effective and in general they feel a lot less stifled and restricted.  Jilseth, with her magic returning, gets to make several significant discoveries and its a relief not to have her spend most of the book as a sort of invalid, moping about her lost magic. In addition she seems to evolve being Planir's catspaw to having a greater role of her own; whilst the addition of powerful, influential lady mages operating away from Hadrumal helps cement the idea that women can be powerful on their own. On the mainland, in Halferan we see the women managing to wield influence perhaps, rather than power, and see an interesting contrast between Zurenne, using what might be considered wiles to get her way, and her daughter Ilysh who sees nothing wrong with commanding like a man.  Perhaps a further contrast is made when Corrain has to make another trip to Solura, a nation to the far north where women have the ability to reach positions of authority on their own merit - making Calahadria look even more like a backwater to a 21st century reader.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Solstice Morning


 The vixen ran. Trees with heavy moss beards flashed past; she squeezed through loops of thorn studded bramble, ducking under ever fruitful vines, heavy with berries, and did not slow. Behind her was the crash of footsteps, the blare of horns. Occasionally there were rough, barely understandable calls as the pack members communicated with each other.
Her pursuers made no effort to hide their presence, even though they knew that to trespass so far into the woods was foolhardy. It had a reputation for danger, even malice; there were traps for the unwary and lures to draw you into the trees. Farther in, there were blood oaks, nourished by the obvious, and swarms of gossamers, tiny insects that hung upon the air, awaiting victims to latch onto and feast upon. The forest was truly wild, and formed an ever shifting maze that was impossible to navigate. Even now only the fringes had been mapped, set in a solid shape by landmarks and ink on seers’ parchment. Most of the realm's denizens had scarcely even passed the forest outskirts to forage for fallen branches, nuts and fruit. Even then they kept the path in sight and offered thanks for what they took. Failure to do so would only invite ruin, a curse on their farms, or worse. It did not do to provoke the old things that lived in the forest's heart. The vixen knew she was taking a gamble even coming here, but she had not counted on the goblin troopers fearing their master more than they feared the woods.
She stopped suddenly, sinking down onto her belly in the foliage; ahead there were pinpricks of light, something sniffed incessantly. Low voices growled to each other in a gruff wordless way that seemed to carry some sort of meaning.
“Can't smell nothing,” a thick voice announced suddenly. “What are we looking for anyway?”
“She'll look like some sort of woodland creature,” a smooth voice replied. The vixen's hackles rose; that was Darian's voice; she wondered what he was doing all the way out here. Surely the king did not think he could be useful?
“She comes from a family of shape changers, a most unsound group of people, if one could refer to them as that; a low and duplicitous family at the best of times.” He sounded almost authoritative as he said this, as if his was the last word on the matter, which perhaps it was. Darian had shagged and back stabbed his way from page to courtier in a matter of years rather than decades. She wondered how he had ended up in the middle of the forest and, with that thought in her head, she crept forward, keeping low and with her head turned slightly to the side to keep her eyes from reflecting the lantern light.
Closer she saw Darian, still clad in his court clothes, a foppish doublet and hose, shifting from foot to foot as if he feared his long toed shoes getting dirty. He clutched a long staff with a crystal set at its head tightly, as if he feared to release his hold on it.
A group of goblin soldiers surrounded him, as rough and crude looking as he was smooth and dandyish. She recognised them; they hailed from the Winter Mountains, a place where even the king’s sway, that had cast the rest of Faerie into the balmy grip of late summer, had not melted the ice. They were hardy hunters and good fighters but not noted for their intelligence, hence the king's favour. Beside the courtier a strange figure hovered, sitting on a storm cloud; an old woman whose immense nose jutted, beak-like, from her face. Under a broad brimmed hat, her gimlet eyes tracked the clearing's perimeter; the vixen prayed that they were not as sharp as they appeared to be.
“Of course not all the family's skilled enough to completely change their form,” Darian said, a little uncertainly. “Some can change but their scent stays the same. So she may not smell like an animal at all.”
“And she'll smell like what?” The woman asked, thickly. Her accent was strange, her speech almost stilted.
The vixen, who only days before had dwelt in the king’s court as Lady Yelena, backed away, wriggling through the undergrowth. Once the group had receded back into being a simple collection of lights she risked standing and heard a huge intake of breath through the jutting nose. “There!” the woman on the cloud barked and without waiting Yelena turned and ran in a long, curving arc deeper, always deeper, into the woods.
She heard the goblins give chase, heard them loose arrows, bowstrings twanging, the ground vibrating from the impact as they, thankfully, missed. She dared not look back; she kept her eyes fixed ahead and she fled, as if she truly were a beast.

*

Aiden woke early, stirred by the insistent tones of his mobile's alarm. He muffled it, dragging it under the bedclothes; the light from the screen was just enough to operate it in the darkness under the covers. It was early and the sun was not due up for half an hour or so. That meant he had not missed sunrise, he thought with a half smile. He scrambled out of bed, pulled on yesterday's clothes, which he had discarded only hours before, and picked his way to the door. Out on the landing he paused by his father's room, listening, there was only the ragged snore Dad had cultivated over the last couple of years; though there was no danger of him waking up this early in any case. Aiden crept past to the far door and pushed it open.
Brendon lay half out of his covers, curled into a foetal ball. His shaggy blonde hair contrived to look even more tousled than usual. As Aiden shut the door behind him he shifted, sprawling out across the bed.
Shielding his eyes Aiden reached out and shook his brother's shoulder. “Wake up,” he hissed. “Are you coming?”
Brendan grunted and woke, “What is it, we don't have school,” he protested sleepily.
“It's time, remember?” Aiden whispered.
“You really want to go? Aren't we getting a bit old for this stuff?” Brendan asked groggily, only half awake. Both boys could move from sleep to wakefulness quickly; Dad said they got it from their mother.
“We've been doing it half our lives,” Aiden pointed out. Years ago, when they really were boys, they had acquired a habit of rising before the sun on the Summer Solstice and sneaking out to watch the sun rise. Neither of them now remembered why they had started to do it, only that it had suddenly felt important to do so. “And it might be the last time, if you're serious about going away.”
Brendan sighed, “Okay then, one last time.” He pulled himself up unselfconsciously and drew jeans and tee shirt over his tanned skin. He wanted to be an actor, and had talked their father, a professor at a nearby university, into allowing him to go to stage school next year. He was handsome and talented enough to have a shot at it, and now that the boys' summer exams were done he was making plans to leave home and live away. He pulled on his battered trainers, “Come on then.”
The boys quietly made their way downstairs and out of the house, pausing only to make a thermos of coffee and so that Aiden could pull on his boots, big knee high ones from a catalogue. He was the only person to have them in Kingsford and, even a year after he had got them, there were mutters from the older townsfolk. Apparently they made him look like a thug, hilarious given that he had only been in two fights in his life, and started neither of them.
Outside, the two boys made their way down towards the woods, though that was hardly the right word for the poor, stunted collection of trees that grew beside the river. Years ago the twins had found a copse out there and found it perfect for viewing the rising sun or the stars on clear nights. As dawn's pink fingers started to muscle over the horizon they leant against a central tree and began to watch.

*

Yelena found the road suddenly, stumbling onto it with a shocking force as she burst from the undergrowth. She skidded to a halt, staring up and down the long bare eddy in the forest floor. It was a road, one untouched for a long time but with an aura of peace that the surrounding forest lacked. How long it had been here was she could not begin to imagine, but it was old and fragile. Yelena sensed that within a century it would be utterly swallowed, overrun by the forest, its protective magic sundered by encroaching roots and branches. In the meantime, it would serve to escape the King’s wee bastards.
She began to trot along it briskly; heading towards what she hoped was the forest edge, on the far side of the woods, away from the place where the goblins and other creatures would be searching for her. Hopefully the road would offer some respite, the older roads were often protected against the more bestial faeries, or so her grandmother had told her. They had been made centuries ago when the old king reigned. When the new monarch, this self-styled Oberon, had swept to power on the backs of an army of the brutes the old strictures and protocols had been overthrown, the price of the Horde's support.
The vixen slowed; she was tired from running and the scents along the road confused her. The normal forest aromas and the smell of the road mixed together unpleasantly, and there was something else, a scent that seemed to gather up ahead; that made her hackles rise. She skulked forward, hearing the sound of water up ahead, gurgling and babbling.
As she drew nearer she saw a river and a deserted ford. The smell was stronger here, it was an ugly scent, acrid and burning in her nose. As she made her way down to the ford it grew stronger. The sound of the water grew louder and thirst nagged at her. She bent her head to drink and as she did so, saw a sliver in the air where the forest on the other side rippled with an alien quality.
Before she could investigate, there was a flash of light, the eternal twilight of the realm. Just off the road, on the other side of the ford figures, shadows against the brightness of the light emerged, stabilising into the silhouettes of Darian's group.
“There, I find her for you,” the witch boomed, pointing out at the water.
“You're sure?” Darian asked, squinting a little.
“Of course, why do you wait?”
He glanced up at her, “She's on a road, did you not notice? The hunters can't reach her.” The goblins, as if to prove his point ran along the edge, splashing down into the water. They snarled angrily but to no avail, the magic of the old road kept them at bay.
Yelena lifted her head, watching. She crossed to the far side of the road, the one free of goblins and started forward, keeping to the edge as best she could. She could pass the troopers and the witch easily enough, especially as the woman seemed uninterested in doing anything more to capture her, instead sitting on the storm cloud watching the others’ efforts with mild interest. Only Darian posed any danger to her as long as she kept to the road.
“Do something you clods,” he shouted at the soldiers. “The days of the ban are long gone; surely an old track like this is no match to you?”
One of the goblins glanced up at him angrily, growling. The seal of office he wore on his collar spat sparks from the strain of trying to overcome the old, but powerful, enchantment.
“Fine then,” the courtier spat in frustration, thrusting the travel staff to the witch. “I'll do it myself.”
He jumped down onto the road, the spell parting for him as it sensed his sidhe blood. A sigh escaped his lips as he settled onto the old flagstones. “How curious it feels, so much more peaceful than outside,” he commented as if to himself. The goblins growled angrily at that, but he ignored them. Instead he descended to the ford splashing into the water. As he did so he drew his sword, making an experimental cut in the air. “Not what I'd use for fox hunting myself, but I suppose I must make an exception.”
She made no move; if she had more strength she could shift to another form, but that would be impractical now. The chase had taken so much that attempting to shape change would spell disaster. Instead she stared back, trying to work out if she could dash past him and away up the road. Leaving the road on the other side was an option, but the travel staff would have drawn the attention of local predators and she was no more equipped to deal with them than she was to take a new form. Without speech her other abilities were lost to her, spells required speech and fingers, unfortunately. She found herself staring at the gap, situated just behind Darian. It suddenly had an air of inevitability about it.
“What are you staring at, vixen? Don't tell me that you're going to your death with the memory of the night I tumbled you first and foremost in your mind?” The courtier smirked and dropped into a fighting pose. From the other side of the road there was a splitting sound and an approving growl. One of the goblins shouldered its way through the ailing enchantment and began towards her, hefting a heavy club resplendent with spikes.
Yelena moved. Using the last of her strength she pushed herself through the water straight at the courtier. A look of surprise crossed his face, he hastily swung his blade in a clumsy blow; his power had been made in beds and baileys, not battlefields, and whilst he could fight after a fashion, it was not his greatest skill. She dashed between his legs and beyond, letting the gap take her, feeling something change as she passed through.
There was darkness, billowing up about her. Somewhere there was a thundering, a cacophony of noise as if an immense smith pounded on his anvil in the darkness. She tried to turn back but as she turned a force picked her up and carried her forward, through the shadows until in a glare of brilliant, bright white light the world came back and she found water about her legs and stones under her paws again.
Suddenly it was no longer dusk but dawn, the sun coming up to her left. The air stank of chemicals and the feeling of enchantment was gone, leaving only a sense of emptiness. The road and the great forest were gone. Instead she was standing in a woodland of small, sad trees in the middle of a shallow river, a pale imitation of the ford back on the other side of the gap. There was an old bridge, much carved and covered in graffiti, as she stood there a great, long metal thing rushed past with a deafening rattle. She turned back, to see if there was pursuit and found herself staring at empty air. The gap, the gate, she supposed it was, had gone.
She yipped softly, a noise that unmistakably sounded like, “Shit.”

*

The boys watched as the sun rose. “How come Jessica didn't come?” Jessica was Brendan’s girlfriend, another Drama fiend. They were going to the same university, determined to be leading man and woman to the course by Christmas break from the sound of it.
Brendan stirred, “She thinks its stupid hippy shit.”
“She's right,” Aiden told him, grinning.
“This was your idea,” his brother reminded him dryly.
“Yeah,” Aiden did not remind his brother that once, not so long ago, he had been the first up on solstice morning, dragging Aiden out of bed to watch the rising sun, his hair shining in the dawn light. Age had dulled it just a little, mixing brown in with the shining gold.
Growing up had changed Aiden too, shifting the pallor that had earned him mockery as a child, when the two boys had been inseparable. As teenagers school had taken them in different directions, Brendan to Drama Club and under the spotlight; Aiden had become a ghost boy, spending his lunchtimes in the library, nose in book.
“What are you going to do after summer?” Brendan asked suddenly as he poured a cup of coffee from flask.
“No idea, I guess I'll go to college and study something.” Aiden replied, not sounding as if he really cared. He slid down to sit at the base of the tree, “You know what you want to do, right?”
“Of course.” His brother looked across at him, “How about you?”
“Not really,” Aiden sighed. “I don't seem to be good at much, unless it's reading.”
“You could be a librarian, like Humble;” Brendan teased, referring to the school librarian.
“Thanks, just want I want, Fair Isle cardigans and a beard like a hedge.”
“They'd suit you,” Brendan teased and stopped suddenly, looked back into the trees. “What's that?”
There was a rustling, a flash of russet and a hint of white fur; a fox trotted slowly into view. The creature paused, as if it was surprised at their presence. It rushed off in a suddenly dash. The boys heard it fall seconds later.
“What's wrong with it?” Aiden asked, as Brendan hurried back across the clearing. He passed the trees, saw the fox lying next to an oak tree; he ran down to crouch beside her. She growled at him, staring up with golden eyes, wild and tired. Her flanks heaved up and down with exhaustion; Aiden sensed the animal was too tired to run.
“Easy now, I don't mean you any harm.” Brendan kept his voice soft, level. The fox quieted as if she understood, letting him run his hands over her flank.
“Is it alright?” Aiden asked from the tree line. The fox started briefly but flopped back down again, not resisting as he drew close. She sniffed rapidly, turning her head to track Brendan's hand.
“She's fine, I think anyway.” Brendan assured him. “But I don't think she's going to get far in this condition.” He paused. “Do you think she'd come back with us?”
“What? You want to bring a fox back home? Do you know what Dad will say if he sees her?” Aiden protested.
“Dad won't notice her,” Brendan assured him. “He won't even know she's there unless he trips over her. We'll keep her in the garden for a few days, just until she's got more energy.”
“I don't like it,” Aiden said, pulling a face. “What do we feed her? If it is a her.”
The fox yipped, as if she were confirming that she was indeed female.
“You can blame me if you like, I think Dad's given up on me anyway.” He reached out and scooped the fox up in his arms. She thrashed in his arms for a moment before growing still, letting him carry her. All the while though she sniffed at the air, looking worried.
They made their way back home as gently as they could, staying off the road in case a car came past and frightened the animal. Aiden opened the back gate with a stick, teasing the latch open and they went into the wild overgrown back yard. Tending the garden was one of their responsibilities, one that was routinely neglected by both boys. Consequently the grass grew long and ragged, transforming the garden into the haunt of cats and other local creatures. If asked by their father either boy would shrug and say something about a wild life garden, and Dad, who really was not that interested to begin with, would let the matter drop.
Brendan settled the fox on a bed of grass and stepped back. She scrambled up, investigating her new surroundings before settling down in a tight curled ball as if in approval. She laid her tail over her nose and stared up at the two young men.
Aiden looked towards the horizon, “Looks like we missed most of the sunrise.”
“There's always next year,” Brendan said absently, not looking away from the fox. “I'll go and see if I can find something for her to eat, are you coming?”
“Sure,” the pale youth said uncertainly. They moved off, wading through the grass towards the back door.

*

Yelena watched the boys go into the house and lowered her head, draping her tail back over her nose. She felt confused and exhausted, but grateful for the unexpected act of charity. The boys, men really though neither of them knew it yet, smelt strange but under the unnatural scent of the world there was a hint of faerie, something that was a comfort and a puzzle. She wondered how that could have happened, it was not as if there was much traffic between Faerie and the world of men, not any more.
The rising sun warmed her fur and she found herself relaxing. Her limbs felt heavy, she decided sleepily that the mystery of the boys could wait until she had rested and knew more about where she was. She heard the house's door open again and the boys re-emerged, walking back towards her. She watched them as they set a pair of dishes down near her and then, hesitantly, started back to the house.
With a sigh she laid her head back on her paws and let herself drift off to sleep.