The gang at my publisher, Crooked Cat, are throwing a little party on Facebook all through December, and every day one of our authors is posting something appropriate to the season. I have a piece in the works myself for later, but just now I thought I'd get into the spirit with this little extract from King's Raven - most of which takes place at Christmastime.
In this scene, set in 1850s London, Susan Pickering has taken the rare indulgence of a hansom cab to get home from the Crystal Palace where dire things are about to take place. It is about two weeks before Christmas, and Faerie is only steps from her door.
What happened to Susan
A fog was creeping up from the river, hugging the cobblestones. Tendrils of grey reached into the snowy lanes, kicked up in ghostly swirls under all manner of cabs and carriages. Safely boxed behind the hansom’s beveled windows, Susan watched it come toward them then fall behind as they turned up the gentle slope of Albany Road that parted the once grand establishments—one of them her own—from a once mighty forest. In the grey afternoon, it looked like a street of haunted houses faced by a haunted wood. A good day to be at home, safe and warm, and tonight in her parlour, poetry and music and laughter would hold back the dark.
Like many of the larger homes in the district, the Hollytree, Miss Pickering’s inheritance, had seen better times—most of them before she was born. Its many rooms were capacious and afflicted with rising damp, the ceilings high and crumbling. After several years of economy and careful planning, ceilings patched, plumbing managed, it had become a comfortable, slightly shabby but clean and well-tended home. She had filled it with a small handful of respectable lodgers: an unmatched pair of young bachelors who toiled for the Crystal Palace; a sturdily genteel maiden lady who gave lessons in the pianoforte and the harp; and a rather sprightlier maiden of more tender years who lived by the prick of her needle, sewing costumes at the Winter Garden Theatre where she was not an actress. The elderly couple who smiled their secrets over the dinner table seldom came down at all except for meals and an occasional walk in the park.
To keep them all, she had taken on a pair of maids—Ellen, furiously industrious, and Daisy, somewhat less so but good hearted and a fair hand with a needle herself—and a boy for general work. Mrs Nixon, the rosy-cheeked cook from the depths of Ayrshire, kept them plainly but thoroughly fed. If it was not a family, it was certainly home.
Why then, Susan wondered when the cab set her down at her own front gate, did she still feel so unsettled. Climbing down with the driver’s assistance, she noticed the fellow’s hands were shaking, not entirely from the cold. They trembled so when he took her money that he dropped the silver he couldn’t afford to lose. A moan escaped him as as he stooped to retrieve them from the dirty snow at the curb, all the while throwing nervous glances toward the wood.
“Are you all right?”
“Eh?” The face that jerked up to her was white with panic.
“It’s all right, you know, it isn’t really haunted.”
At last he swarmed up into his seat, cracked the whip, and turned the hansom hard about. As it clattered away, the low mist swirled up behind and followed along, swallowing up the sounds of iron-shod hooves and iron-rimmed wheels in seconds.
“How very odd,” she said aloud, and had just put a hand to the gate when she thought she heard laughter. The bright, tinkling laughter of very small children coming from across the road.
She turned to look, squinting a little. The light was dim, and the fog rising, but she could see well enough through the tall iron palings of the fence and into the trees a little.
Nothing, and no one. “My ears must be playing tricks.”
But as she set her hand to her low gate, she heard it again, little ones chattering, giggling, then hushing each other, hiding. One little voice began to sing not a Christmas carol but an old lament.
Oh don’t you remember a long time agoThose two little babies whose names I don’t knowThey wandered away on a dark winter’s dayThose two little babies got lost on their way.Poor babes in the wood!
Susan was shivering; she was anxious, and desperate for a cup of tea. The paving stones icy and slick under her boots threatened, but she kept her feet. The wood wasn’t terribly deep, though it was old. And she stood there, drawn by an old song.
“Oh now really,” said sensible Susan, and she started to turn away.
They wept and they cried, they sobbed and they sighed;
These two little babies they lay down and died.
She put both gloved hands to the iron gate and pushed. It swung aside for her, gliding over the snow as silent as a kiss. She slipped inside, walking where she knew the path must be and walked—carefully, now!—with only the crunch of her boots for company. No footprints marred the pristine surface ahead of her. There was no sign of anything alive but the ancient trees, a last remnant of the ancient Norwood slept around her. It had been a great forest of oak and hornbeam, holly and tall ash, where kings and bishops had hunted and fought since before the Normans came. Its timber had been felled for the ships that sailed against the Armada, and for the charcoal that stoked the fires of Cromwell’s armorers.
Now the robins so red, so swiftly they sped,
They put out their wide wings and over them spread.
There had once been a spring in the haunted depths, known for healing properties, but it was gone now, remembered only in the village name. It must once have had wild boar and wilder men. Now it was no more than a leafy retreat and a path to the Lion pub.
Then why was she trembling?
“Who’s there?” Susan called. Her voice dropped into the white, white silence as into an empty room.
A few more steps in, and small changes began to appear in the land and in the light. The shadows that should have been deepening around her instead fled away as she approached, and though the deep fog was folding London into darkness, within she could see quite clearly. And the air was no longer cold.
“Why are you hiding!”
Not hiding, Miss! Right here!
A burst of giggles exploded somewhere over her head. When she looked up, she saw only a cluster of mistletoe in the uppermost branches. the pale buds of new leaves had begun to appear, dotting the fingers of the oaks.
With another few steps she noticed that the snow, instead of drifted and piled, had become patchy, melting as she watched. A week before Christmas, and yet Spring ruled this part of the wood.
“Of course! It’s a dream! I’m dreaming, that’s all. Very well.”
Though fancy delighted her when she encountered it, Susan was not a woman given to flights of it. Sensibly, therefore, she concluded that yes, of course, this was a dream, and now that she knew it, she would awaken.
But no waking came, only a balmy breeze that tickled her nose, bearing on it the sweetest perfumes of melons and sweet cherries, and honey cakes! Some new kind of tune hung on the air, light and playful; a harp, she thought. Growing warmer, she took off her coat and muffler and hung them on a flowering branch.
Dreaming or waking, Susan Pickering remained stubbornly curious, so taking her courage in both hands, she took two more bold steps in pursuit of the lilting music. The trees parted and the snow disappeared altogether, her boots finding nothing but green grass springing underfoot, and green leaves bursting from their buds and filling the trees, filling the blue sky over head, filtering the light of a summer’s morning. And everywhere, bluebells nodded.
“What is this place?” she whispered. Then she cleared her throat and said more boldly, “Where am I, please? And what do you want of me?”
And there they were, one by one they popped into view before, above, and beside her, six tiny people on impossible, moth-like wings. They took turns dashing forward to touch her face, her hair, her sober dress and giggling as they fluttered away again.
“Took you long enough!”
Susan looked down at once, then stepped back. “I beg your pardon?”
Before her, dressed in discontent, stood an old man of sorts, not as high as her knee. He was clothed in a ragged coat of brown and green, with a red hat that was partly leather and partly oak leaves, and a white owl’s feather. His nose was so long and so curved down that it came almost to his chin, which was so long and so curved up that it came almost to his nose.
“Say me a riddle!” commanded the wee man, and the winged children—the faeries—chirped their agreement, spinning and dancing in the air to the sound of chiming crystal. Other tiny figures, even smaller, she thought, were peeking and poking out to watch her, some from behind the new leaves, some from a tumble of mossy stones where a spring burbled to the surface and streamed away.
Susan frowned, thinking.
“But that is backwards, surely,” she said. “In all the old tales I ever heard, the hero is asked questions and expected to answer correctly.” She thought further. “Unless an old hermit happens by, I think.”
“More stories than you know, human child! Say me a riddle!”
When dealing with the fae, it is best to be honest. Fortunately, that was her nature. “But I don’t know any riddles.”
The wee man looked disgusted, as if she had failed him. “Say what I say,” he snapped in his wee voice. “What is the difference between Joan of Arc and a canoe?”
“Very well,” said Susan dutifully. “What is the difference between Joan of Arc and a canoe?”
“One is Maid of Orleans, and the other is made of wood!”
Everyone but Susan exploded with laughter, rolling on the ground or spinning cartwheels in the air. Then one by one as they had come, each bowed to her and kissed her cheek, and vanished with a single delicate chime, except the wee man and his white owl’s feather.
“You must take a message to the harper,” he said.
“I must— What?”
“The harper, human child.”
“But I know no harpers, although one of my...”
Again the sorry look. “When you see the harper, give him this,” the wee man insisted, and reached up to give her a little packet like a dried leaf folded up into an envelope. Within it she could feel a number of small, hard objects like seeds or berries.
“What is it?”
“The harper must give this to the raven boy. Only this and nothing more!”
“I don’t understand. What is—”
A single chime shook the air. Sunshine, leaves, grass, wee man were gone along with the summer day, and suddenly she was freezing in the dark. Frightened at last, she clutched the little packet in one tight fist, and hugged herself for warmth.
“Wait! Who are you? What do I...” The cold grabbed her by the throat, and the next sound was a whimper. “My coat!”
Casting about, at first she saw nothing but naked trees piled like the earth with snow. Then down the hill and away off to her left, the amber glow of gaslight flickered against the darkness, and yellow lights floated here and there. Black shadows moved—ordinary human shadows bearing ordinary human-made lanterns.
Someone was shouting—not children this time, not a hazy voice out of a mirror, but three or four living men and boys crying, “Susan! Miss Pickering!”
Tears formed into icicles as they fell, and her head pounded. “I’m here,” she tried to say, but no words formed. “Oh, I’m here. Help!”
Brittle voices tinkled invisibly, and a cloud of tiny white moths swarmed out of the air around her head, fluttering against her freezing hands and face and somehow warming her just a little. Clever voices urged her, teased, cajoled her to walk on nearly frozen feet to where the old path cut a swath to the road.
Her faerie helpers vanished as suddenly as they had come, and to her utter and permanent mortification, Susan swooned.
For the rest of the story, you'll need to make your way to your favorite online bookstore and pick up a copy of King's Raven, the second in the best-selling Harper Errant series.
You can also join the gang at my Facebook fan group: Under the Tiara.
And please do drop by for the on-going delights this month at Christmas with the Crooked Cats!