by Stephen J. Herron
The old man walked through the back streets of the Belfast, coughing painfully into a rotten piece of cloth. It was a bitterly cold day, the sun ironically sharp and clear. The streets were dry, but that hardly seemed to matter.
He was heading home.
The old man fumbled with a set of keys, deep in his pocket. With a shaking hand, he placed it into the bright brass lock of his front door, and turned it. He walked into the dark warm interior of his home.
Lorenzo sat in the empty throne room. He sniggered, and the sound echoed around the chamber, coming back as a cackle. He was impressed with the way the chamber focused his emotions, and his Glamour. It had taken to the Dark Glamour very well, leading him to believe that he was not the first Duke to have a preference for the more acid taste of fear and suffering.
The manor house was empty. Lorenzo was staying here alone until the Court sent him some more...assistants. Then the Ravaging of Belfast would continue. The city had become too hopeful in the last year, too many dreams of pleasant futures without pain or trouble.
That would all end soon. There was a fluctuation in the flow of Glamour, and a stabbing pain racked through Lorenzo. He stood, and cried out, clutching for the chirping mobile phone that gushed banality. He slipped back into his mortal seeming, a tall thin man, with long dark hair and sparkling green eyes.
He flipped down the mouthpiece of the phone, and spoke into it.
"Lorenzo here. This better be good."
The voice on the other end was distant, yet full of laughter and song. The laughter was cruel, the song a dirge.
"My Liege. This is Folly. We have been following the Nocker. He has returned to his home."
"Go and get him. Don't kill him. But make sure he hurts. And Folly ?"
"Yes, Leige ?"
"Get it right."
He snapped the phone shut, and walked off, grinning.
The old man loved his home. He could remember the day he bought it, just after the war. He had demobbed and had married his wife a few weeks later, in that most perfect of autumns back in 1945. Agatha had lived with him here for fifty years, until she had died at the age of 72 a week after their Ruby Anniversary. He mourned her passing, yet was not sad. She had suffered towards the end, and the release from pain was welcome for them both. He knew, deep down in his heart, that she was happier now.
The back room of the small house was warm and perfect, her touch upon the room eternal. He smiled to himself, and took a moment to look around the room. He had loved his time with her, even if it had cost him the memories he had once sworn never to forget. He had been given the choice long ago, and he was sure that he had chosen well.
He coughed again, feeling a warm liquid on his tongue afterwards. He swallowed- he already knew what the liquid was, and what it meant- it was too late to care about.
He walked on through the house to the kitchen, and on out into the garden. It was long, thin, but rich with life and seemed to glow with the decades of effort that he and his wife had put into the place. At the bottom of the garden, behind a wall and just before the back gate, was a shed. It had been converted from the outside lavatory a few years after they had moved in.
The old man reached into his pocket, and took out a strange long iron key. It seemed to give off a cold air, as if it had slept within an icebox for a century. It was knotted and organic in appearance, like a long thin metal twig.
The very feel of the key made the man's heart heavy. It brought close the memories of his wife and their years together. Or it kept other memories far away.
The old man opened the door to the shed, and entered its cramped interior. Within lay shelves of half-empty tins, filled with paint, turps, and a hundred other smelly sticky liquids. Various cuts of wood were scattered around, like half-started masterpieces. On the floor was the remains of three different machines; a lawn-mover, a hoover and a washing machine. It looked like a bomb had gone off.
With a strength that seemed remarkable, the old man lifted the various bits of metal out of the way to reveal the lid of a metal box that had been set into the ground. The top was made from the same material as the sides and bottom. Iron, like the key.
The old man trembled as he stared at the box lid. A small hole stared back up at him like an expectant and ever patient eye. He was remembering more and more now, and it was like an avalanche. It had started at Agatha's funeral.
The minister finished his ritual of burial, and the mourners began to file past the open wound in the earth, dropping clods with a wooden clatter onto Agatha's box. He couldn't bear to call it by it's real name. Box felt better. It sounded better. She would have laughed at him, called him an old eejit.
He recognised almost all the faces. Her friends from her school were there, she had been headmistress there for fourty years, after all. He saw some of her pupils, now with grandchildren themselves. He saw his own children and their children too. But there were three faces he didn't know.
Two men and a young girl, a teenager, perhaps. They were all dressed casually, yet with a quiet reserve that seemed more honest than the dour old suits and dresses that had been dusted off by most of those here. He had noticed the girl first, as she was the youngest there. Her hair was bright red, and she sobbed with grief. He didn't know who she was. Beside her was a giant of a man, holding her hand in his. His face was grave, and he watched the girl. The third was looking straight at him, bright blue eyes and long blonde hair, tied back in a pony tail. The old man felt strange. His mind searched for an explanation, but he felt as if he was in a dream. The three figures were as they had been, but even as he watched, they seemed... different.
The girl reminded him of a bird, they way she moved, and the sing-song quality of her voice, grief-stricken though it was. The tall man seemed even taller, noble and ancient. The final man seemed like a shining star, yet like a king without a crown. The old man felt like looking away, but was caught by the stare of the young man.
Memories began to trickle into his mind, distant and imperfect. It began with a single word, a sense of identity, which over the days and weeks became a trickle, then a stream, then a torrent. Nocker.
Lorenzo looked out over the wide slope that lay out in front of the house. It was soft and green, and reached down to the River Lagan which snaked lazily along between Lisburn and Belfast. Spring was here, and the large estate was becoming bright with early flowers.
Lorenzo sniffed disdainfully at the sight, and tossed his empty packet of cigarettes onto the grass.
Nature, he considered, was highly over-rated. He knew that the Garou had a caern nearby, within a few miles, but he didn't care. He had met enough of them to know that they
He closed his eyes, and felt the air before him shift as he looked with Fae eyes at the scene. The Glamour was strong here, but it was no Freehold. The previous Duke had been very careful, concealing the true locations of the various fonts of Glamour from the Irish Court. He must have suspected their Unseelie nature from the start. The old locations, known for centuries, had long been Ravaged by the Court, and now stood as tourist attractions, ruined forever by visitor centres and postcards. The glamour that flowed from these places was now tainted and unusable.
The old Duke couldn't keep the remaining Freeholds hidden forever. The very nature of Glamour meant that it could not be controlled, or contained. At some point, he would discover their locations. Then there would be war.
The old Nocker had secrets, well, one at least. It had taken a lot of research to find out everything about him, his Choice and his Decision. The emotion behind it escaped Lorenzo, especially considering the Nocker's last Creation. It was this Treasure that Lorenzo wanted. Deep down in his heart, though, he doubted if he would ever see it, hold it. Perhaps he was sending his man just for the act of trying.
The new Duke finished his last cigarette. He took it from his mouth, and began to channel Glamour through his body. The smoke from the dying butt lifted and transformed. The words to a song ran through Lorenzo's mind, and the song came out unbidden, the magical price for the illusion he was forming.
" SÃ na Samhna, tôs na Bliain Ur, sÃ an Chrann Marbh, Deireadh an Tua. "
The words still pushed their way out of his mouth, uncontrollable, and the smoke began to coalesce into a vast shape that curled and twisted. The Glamour rushed through and around Lorenzo, alive and dark. Even as he felt the hairs on his arms begin to stand up with the power that flowed in him, he felt a deep sadness well up from somewhere deep inside his heart. The words came again, the song a cry of despair that echoed around the trees.
"It is November, beginning of the New Year, it is the Dead Tree, the End of the Tribe."
The song was finished, the Cantrip complete. With a roar that shook the ground, the smoke Dragon swooped down the hill towards the river and vanished upwards into the low stratus cloud.
It began to rain.
The old man had finally remembered his heritage this morning, a month after the funeral. He remembered how he had come back from the war, tainted by Banality, the curse of Reality that most humans take for granted. Banality, the dread bane of his kind. He had remembered that he was not completely human. He was a Changeling, and always had been.
He had fallen in love with Agatha whilst suffering from the war-caused Banality. Instead of receiving healing at the hands of his own kind, he chose freely to live his life with Agatha, as a mortal. The Irish Court had accepted his decision, and had let his memory fade. He had kept his best invention, however, with the permission of the Court, under the condition that he could only remember when and if Agatha died first. Otherwise, he would have never remembered.
It was like his second Chrysalis. His first, as a child, had changed his life. It had been his first realisation of his true nature. This had been the second time. It felt as good as it had before.
He stared downwards at the box in his shed, lost inside the memories he had repressed for so long. Inside the iron box lay the past. And, possibly, the future.
A figure walked slowly down an alleyway between the backs of two long streets of houses. He couldn't see over the walls, but didn't need to. He was looking with unhuman eyes. The walls dripped with banality, and he felt very uneasy. However, here within this grey was a bright flash of colour- the soul of a Changeling. The Nocker's fae nature was like a bright star in the black night of humanity. He felt that Glamour on the edge of his awareness, and began to move towards it. He pulled out a long stiletto, forged from dreams. To human eyes,. it was invisible, as tangible as the dreams it was made from. But to the Nocker, it would tear out his Changeling heart.
The old man inserted the long cold key into the lock. There was a soft click, inaudible to human ears. The key was turned and removed. Softly, with a sigh, the lid of the box opened by itself, a perfectly orchestrated clockwork mechanism that still worked after fifty years. Inside was a beautifully crafted wooden ball, the size of a small child's heart. It was inlaid with brass and silver, gold and ebony. It lifted itself from off the velvet cushion upon which it had slept for half a century. It whirred and chirped as it rose, spinning slowly at first, then with increased speed. The patterns that decorated it's side began to blur, and a soft note began to rise, a perfect middle C.
"My old friend !" smiled the old man, sniffing back a tear. The ball bobbed at the old man's eye level, spinning this way and that, the light glinting off the metallic inlay. It stopped spinning suddenly and let out a hiss.
Behind the old man, stood another Changeling.
Like all Nocker inventions, it was flawed. Not a big flaw, as everything worked exactly the way it was meant to. The only problem was that it had a heart, a mind, a personality. It had been built as a focus of Glamour for mortals. For it was those dreamers who stood on the edge of reality, whose imagination soared within, that created the Glamour itself. It was their imagination that kept Changelings alive, that kept humanity sane. The ball would take their imagination, focus the Glamour and send it back to them in the form the dreamer had imagined.
It made wishes come true.
There wasn't a Changeling alive who wouldn't want it. Nor any human, with eyes to see and a mind to wonder.
The old man recognised a fellow Changeling. He also knew that the cold dark blade it held tightly in its hand was dangerous. It was being held by a Sidhe, he could tell that by the way the man stood, the very sense of nobilty around him. The light was cold, that came from this one, cold and tainted, like the light on a Winter's day, the illusion of Summer.
"I'm not here to kill you, Nocker," said the Changeling, spitting the word out, "but my boss wants the Wishmaker."
The old man looked at the blade. In his Wilder days, he could have fought this insolent Sidhe, and thrashed him soundly. But he was old, and had almost lost hope. If it came to a fight, he would lose.
Behind him, the Wishmaker whirred and pulsed. It almost seemed to be growling, like a faithful dog. It had been without Glamour for too long to do any good here. The old man hushed it.
"Tell your master that it is not for him. It is not to be owned. It is much more than a toy for an Unseelie fool such as he."
The old man was surprised at the words that he spoke. He was remembering more and more now, more than he should, in fact. This was puzzling him when, like a blur, the Sidhe lunged forward at him.
Almost as fast came a ball bearing, like a bullet from a rifle. It glistened with blood as it shot through the Sidhe's chest, fell to the ground at the old man's feet. The Sidhe stopped, and looked down at his chest. A soft gurgle came from his lips like a groan, and he fell down to the floor of the shed, breathing unsteadily. Blood seeped from his lips.
The old man looked up, and saw a young boy, maybe eleven years old...no, he was more than that, another Changeling, standing at the kitchen door, facing the open door into the shed. He wore a red baseball cap, and had a huge, wide grin that had too many teeth.
"A....Redcap ?" stammered the old man. The boy nodded.
"Call me Seamus," he drawled in a thick West Belfast accent. He walked into the shed, and kicked the dying Sidhe.
"Looks like a loser now, don't he ?" he chuckled. The old man looked on in amazement.
"Who...who sent you ?" he asked. The Redcap knelt down, and lifted the Sidhe's left hand.
He looked back up at the Nocker.
"Ah....you might want to look away, Grand-dad."
The Nocker, revolted, looked away. The sickening crunch-snap of the Sidhe's finger being bitten off turned his stomach.
"Must you...really ?"
The Redcap laughed.
"Yes, I really must. The Duke sent me...well, the old Duke, not the new one."
The old man looked back.
"The young man at Agatha's funeral ? I see..."
It all started to make sense.
"Does he want the Wishmaker ?" The old Nocker was dubious. Was he saved from one fight just to have another ?
Wiping his mouth, the Redcap stood up. The little finger of the Sidhe's left hand was in his hand. Seamus took a key-ring from a pocket, and after biting a hole through the bone, placed the trophy onto it. He slipped in inside his coat, but the old man heard a macabre rattle of similar items from within it's folds.
"Nah," grinned the Redcap, "He's got more sense than that. He just wants you to keep it safe. He doesn't even want to know what you do with it. I'm just here to give you the message."
He glanced down at the still dying man, now in his mortal seeming.
"Although the entertainment was good."
The old Nocker turned, and held out his hand to the Wishmaker. It cooed and floated into his outreached palm. He turned back to the dying man.
"I wish you well, but far from here."
The words were spoken softly. The Wishmaker spun rapidly, flashed twice, and the body of the man was gone.
"Where'd he go ?" ask Seamus curiously. The old man coughed painfully- he could feel the Glamour, the little he had of it, fade rapidly.
"I don't know. But he will live."
The Redcap looked at the old man with concern. He licked his lips.
"You alright ?"
The man grinned.
"I've never been better. Leave me, please. Thank you...and thank your master for me,"
"Sure. My pleasure. See you."
The old man felt the Childling's Glamour race, it's freedom and extent much more than the old man's. The boy moonwalked backwards, the Cantrip's asking price, and he vanished with a squeek.
"Well, " said the old man to the Wishmaker, "It's been a strange day. Strangest one in a long time."
The Wishmaker hummed in agreement.
"It's about time we had a talk. Let's go."
The pair left the backyard, and entered the house.
"I wish the door to be locked," he asked, "And a nice cup of tea to be sitting waiting for us."
And so it was.