When last we left our heroes, the faerie lady Valende swore vengeance against the Society in the name of her missing brother and the Queen of the Unseelie Court visited her latest captive… Mister Coble!
Kenneth, Lord Marston, crested the hill with Mrs. Chatterton’s hand in his. The sky was blue and spotted with the most benign white clouds. They walked along a small stone trail that had been beneath their feet from the moment they first arrived in the Fair Lands. Lord Marston had pointed out the “don’t leave the path” rule about a dozen times since they started out. It was starting to get on Mrs. Chatterton’s nerves.
For the last mile or so, they had seen signs of life ahead; several wispy plumes of smoke rose from the other side of the hills and the sounds of civilization echoed in strange ways.
As they came over the hill into a mossy glen, the sight of merchant carts loaded with fruits and nuts and manned by strange goblin-men greeted them.
“Well, it looks like we’ve found the goblin market,” Lord Marston said.
“You’ve been here before?” Cassandra asked for reassurance.
“Me? Dear Lord, no,” Kenneth chuckled. “I’m just making it up as I go along.”
“You’re…” she started, then thought better of the criticism. “Thank you,” she said instead. “It seems to be working.”
“Luck of the Valences,” Kenneth laughed, and hand in hand the two mortals followed the path down the hill towards the bustle of the market.
“Come buy! Come buy!” said a twisted-faced goblin carrying a basket made of thorny rose-stem filled with shiny fruits. “Our grapes fresh from the vine! Pomegranates full and fine!” He or she or it thrust the basket forward at the two humans.
“You know, this seems… oddly familiar,” Mrs. Chatterton said with a furrowed brow.
“Yes,” said Lord Marston, pushing the proffered basket away and continuing into the market holding Mrs. Chatterton’s hand tight. “I must say, it’s pretty much exactly what I thought it would be.” After a moment’s musing, he added under his breath, “That’s a bit of a disappointment.”
As the two walked through the market, little men of varying animal aspect milled about them. One with a cat’s face hauled a basket, another bore a plate and like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry. They sounded kind, and full of loves in the pleasant weather.
“Come buy! Come buy!” was their shrill repeated cry. “Come buy our orchard fruits! Apples and quinces! Lemons and oranges!”
“…plump unpeck’d cherries,” whispered Mrs. Chatterton.
“Plump unpeck’d cherries!” came the goblin cry.
Cassandra and Kenneth shared a glance of simultaneous realization.
“Come buy, come buy,” Lord Marston said, nodding. “It’s that damn Rossetti poem!”
“How can that be?” asked Mrs. Chatterton. “Did she… did she actually come here?”
The goblin men continued to turn and troop about them, signaling each other, brother with queer brother.
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said Lord Marston with a shrug. “Sir Charles would have a two hour theory about this. Good thing we’re here alone.”
“Still,” mused Mrs. Chatterton thoughtfully, “if this is just like the poem, we’re rather forewarned of the danger.”
“Yes. Keep you hair on your head.”
Breaking script, Lord Marston turned to one of the goblins, prowling like a wombat, obtuse and furry, and addressed it directly. “We’re looking for a guide,” he said.
The goblin reared his plate and simply replied, “Melons and raspberries! Bloom down-cheeked peaches!”
Tiring of the poetic mummery, Mrs. Chatterton took a stance of authority and shouted, “We wish to find the citadel of the Sluagh Queen!”
The goblins, stunned by both the departure from their script and by the sheer brazenness of the unbelievable demand, stopped still and fell silent.
For a moment the length no one, man or goblin, could tell, no one moved or spoke.
Finally, a black dog that had been hanging in the background, nosing around the carts like an unwanted cur, broke the silence.
“Come by, come by,” it said as it strode up to Lord Marston. Like a shadow extending in late afternoon, the hound’s form stretched. With a sound of rusty chains, it took on a bipedal form, taller and darker than the goblins but no less inhuman. Its mien was still canine, but its eyes burned like fire.
“I go by Barguest,” it said, its voice halfway between a growl and an oration. “What do ye offer for my services, mortal man?”
Lord Marston adjusted his tie and cleared his throat. He knew that the game of words with this denizen of the Fair Realms had begun.
“It depends on the services that you offer,” he said. “We’re not in the mood for pellucid grapes or such.”
“I be a co-walker,” Barguest said, “and such as ye’ll need to breach the Dark Lady’s keep. I know the way. What offer ye?”
“I suppose money wouldn’t do?” offered Mrs. Chatterton.
Barguest’s only response was a withering expression of disdain.
Lord Marston stepped between the two, whether to protect Mrs. Chatterton or to keep her from speaking again, Cassandra was uncertain.
“Nothing that forces either of us–or the child we seek–to stay in these realms,” Lord Marston said, each word thought out. “Nor to go back and find that a hundred and thirteen years have passed or similar whatnot. And nothing that harms any of us three. Beyond that, name your price.”
Barguest rubbed the rough black hair on his chin. “How about a human heart?” he asked. “All my own? One I can crush and eat?”
“Not likely!” cried Lord Marston.
“Could I have ye’r will to live?” Barguest asked.
“Sorry, I actually have need of that, I’m afraid.”
The faerie’s eyes squinted with annoyance. “Ye swore I could choose my boon, mortal man. If ye deny me my third price, then you forfeit your life to me, ye know?”
Lord Marston nodded.
Barguest smiled nastily as he ruminated.
“Give me your name,” he finally said.
This time, it was Lord Marston who paused before speaking.
“Fair enough,” came his eventual reply. “If you get us into the Unseelie Citadel, I’ll give you my name.”
“Ke–” started Cassandra, but Lord Marston put two fingers to her lips.
“Shh,” he said. “Anything for our daughter.”
Barguest clambered into the closest cart, tossing out onto the ground the carefully stacked damsons and bilberries. Taking up the reins of the fearful horse, he gestured to Lord Marston and Mrs. Chatterton to climb in.
Cassandra watched pensively as Kenneth enthusiastically got into the cart.
She was starting to think she had made a terrible, terrible mistake.
To be continued…
© 2014 by Douglass Barre, All Rights Reserved.