Back in the olden days, the world abided by natural rules, the spheres of heaven and earth in their rightful places. The High Fae imperiously watched over all, ready to judge and punish. The Low Fae dallied with the mortals, allowing them to hear, for a moment, the ethereal music of the spheres. Below them, dark spirits dwelt, trapped in the earth where they slept and dreamt restlessly of light and freedom.
So the Earth spun in the universe, everything and everyone in their place. Then came the age of reason. Great men in their periwigs expounded new sciences and the earth ran red with the hot steel of their industry. When Canal Fever hit the fair country of Britannia, the natural order was disturbed as never before–cuttings and tunnels carved their way through the countryside; the spheres were shattered and the Fae were tumbled about; some said they perished where they fell, ploughed by the new world order, but some say they abide still…”
The Wandering Fae, a traditional narrowboat decorated with colourful canal roses, lay moored to a richly wooded bank on the River Weaver. In the dusk light, the water was still, motionless as molasses, reflective as quicksilver. At the edge of the reflections, the real and virtual worlds were stitched along a seam of land and water. The sky was at the cusp of night and day. To the west, the sun donned a pale pink nightdress as she sank gracefully into her bed. To the east, a yellow moon rose, hungover, and drew her star-glittered gown around her shoulders, ready for a night on the tiles.
In the cosy cabin, Finn lounged on the sofa with his shaggy deerhound, Fergus. They lay on their backs, feet in the air, squiggling and farting contentedly.
“That was a meal fit for a king,” said Finn, patting his stomach, then patting Fergus’ belly.
Belladonna looked up from her spinning wheel. Fergus’s shaggy fur made a fine yarn that she knitted into hardwearing socks and gloves. She snorted. The males in her life were ridiculous, yet she loved them with all of her heart and soul.
“Get out, the pair of you!” she commanded. “If the air in here was any thicker, I could saw it into planks and build a shed!”
“Ah, Fergus,” said Finn, “Looks as if we’re both in the doghouse. Maybe if we stay here on our backs and submit, we’ll be in for a belly rub.”
Belladonna grinned. “Away with your nonsense,” she said. “I’ve work to do.”
Finn reached for her hand and kissed it extravagantly. “Aaah, you push the dagger of your disapproval into my heart, yet will I use the broken pieces to love you.” His eyes twinkled with mischief. He prodded Fergus and peered out of the porthole.
“Is it all right?” Belladonna asked.
“Aye, my love, this is a natural river. Mother Earth’s fair hands have gentled her. It’s safe for us here.”
He gathered the hound and vanished into the night.
Belladonna concentrated on her spinning, casting a little domestic magic to strengthen the fibre. Anything she knitted with the yarn would protect the owner from injury, no matter how sharp the blade.
The hypnotic thrum of the spinning wheel took her to the centre of her power. It was a deep reservoir of potential, yet Belladonna chose to draw her magic from a shallow wellspring. A long time ago she had chosen to turn away from absolute power to become a grey witch, her benign magic tinted with a hint of spite.
Half an hour later, her musing was interrupted by Fergus’s flying leap from the deck. He landed on her lap with a flump. “Why do we keep you, you big oaf?”
Fergus turned his soulful amber eyes towards her and slid off her lap, leaving clumps of damp fur on her dress. She gathered it into her raw wool basket; everyone paid their way however they could.
Finn strolled into the cabin and sat beside her. He gazed into her hazel eyes; his own golden eyes shimmered like a midsummer meadow. In his long years, he had enjoyed dalliances with many women. The Fae loved deeply but briefly, leaving their human playthings full of wistful longing. But Belladonna captivated him.
He recalled the day he met her. She’d been picking blackberries on the riverbank. He’d mistaken her for High Fae, her poise and assurance belonged in the Faerie Queen’s court. He remembered how she had called to him, “Fairy, stop your staring and get those lazy hands moving. These berries won’t pick themselves.”
He’d been surprised. It was rare for a human to recognise a Fae. But then he’d seen the shimmer of magic around her knitted gloves as they turned away the fierce thorns. He’d looked deep into her eyes and when Fergus the hound decided to lie at her feet, he knew that she would become the keeper of his heart.
He had picked a sturdy bulrush and knelt at her feet, presenting it like a jewelled sceptre.
“Queen of my heart,” he’d said.
“Get up from the mud, you feckless fairy,” she’d said, but her eyes were filled with love.
That had been 80 years ago; easy years of companionship and comfortable passion, cruising the rivers and canals in the Wandering Fae, selling their wares at waterside fairs. Belladonna made things for the home and hearth; impervious knitwear, sweetly fragranced soaps and candles, woven dreamcatchers, all imbued with her protective magic. Finn had a gift for releasing beautiful objects from the soul of the wood that he whittled. Their wares were prized, but the couple moved often and resisted the urge to crow about their talents. Belladonna confined her spell casting to the boat, where the thick steel hull shielded her magic from the High Fae and their arcane punishments.
Not that their union was forbidden as such, but a lasting bond between a Fae and a witch could never be sanctioned as the children would be all powerful in both realms. The Faerie Queen need not have worried; they were never blessed with a child, but caution was a difficult habit to break.
“Tomorrow, we have to venture onto the canals. The summer fairs will be starting soon,” said Belladonna.
Finn scowled. The canals had been gouged from the earth by men of industry and reason. They could not have guessed how many Dark Fae they had released from their subterranean prisons. The shady places were full of strangeness, for those who had the sight to see it.
Belladonna saw the frown creasing Finn’s ageless face. “I have a gift for you,” she said, handing him a hinged wooden casket.
When he opened the lid, he saw scores of bright orange clay marbles, perfectly fired. He picked one up. A burning tingle nipped his fingertips. He quickly dropped the marble.
“Harecastle?” he asked
She nodded. The Harecastle Tunnel had always been a fraught place for them, but it was an unavoidable gateway between the South and the North. They passed through infrequently, planning their trips carefully. In the morning, the water was clear and undisturbed, the Dark Fae lying somnolent on the surface. If they could be the first to pass through the gloomy tunnel, moving slowly and quietly, they would be safe. But the last time they’d traversed it, a boat had darted in before them, thrashing its propeller and raising iron-rich orange mud from the bottom of the canal. The cold iron had inflamed the spiteful sprites, who rose vengeful from the poisonous water and harassed them with pinches and mocking laughter for the whole length of the dark space. It was then they had discovered that if they sprinkled the Dark Fae with the iron-rich water, they would retreat as if scalded.
Belladonna had dredged some orange mud from the tunnel entrance and used a little magic to transform their wood burner into a kiln. There she baked the clay marbles into hard ceramic pellets for Finn’s slingshot.
“Be careful now,” she warned. “These have the cold iron in their making. They should buy us time to escape any Dark Fae, but mind you wear your gloves when you sling them.”
“Ach, I think I’m immune to cold iron now,” he said. His first year onboard the Wandering Fae had been a challenge until they lined the cabin with green oak panels.
“You were always a reckless fairy,” she replied. The thought of losing him made her brusque. Finn had brought a lightness of joy to her contented life, embracing her emotionally, spiritually and physically. They were bound on every plane of existence. Belladonna was 40 years old when they met, but she had not aged a day since. Sometimes, she was tempted to trace the magic that allowed it, but when she started the reasoning spell, Fergus had laid a vast paw on her arm, lolled his long tongue and winked at her. She’d let it be; gift horses, and hounds, were not to be trifled with.
Wandering Fae left the river the next day. The Weaver flowed in a deep valley, accessible only via the great edifice of the Anderton Boat Lift. No one now alive understood why the boat lift had been so grossly over-engineered, but in truth, its mighty iron girders and pillars protected the river from incursions of Dark Fae from the canal above. Man-made for industry, the canals looked like scars in the landscape to Finn’s far-seeing eyes, for all that they were now surrounded by lush countryside. They moved quickly and warily, but in the summer sunshine, the Dark Fae stayed hidden…until they reached the Woodseaves Cutting.
Without magic, the great men of reason had been tested. Water always found its own level, so how could canals traverse Britannia’s ample curves and contours? Some engineers tunnelled under the hills; others built great flights of locks to carry boats over them. Some waterways meandered around the contours, perched on embankments far above the surrounding valleys. But the bosky depths of the Woodseaves cutting had been carved through the hill by navvies, driven by the thrill of conquest over nature and the rich earnings from their labours. The cutting was deep. Weak light filtered down from a thin slice of unreachable sky, barely illuminating the steep and shady walls. It was cold, and its rocky ramparts dripped with moisture. Ferns of all shapes and sizes grew luxuriantly on every ledge and in every crevice, lending a prehistoric air to the confined landscape.
The Wandering Fae passed the first portal, a high stone bridge which carried a road across the cutting, far above their heads. Belladonna slowed the engine, making sure that the propeller barely stirred the water. Finn stood on the front deck with Fergus, alert, slingshot in hand. Belladonna held the tiller, moving the rudder gently. Her eyes darted around. The Dark Fae could emerge from anywhere.
As Wandering Fae passed under the bridge, a loud splash disturbed the water behind them. Belladonna looked up. Far above her, a group of lads were snickering as they threw trash into the canal. Using the waterways as a midden had always been abhorrent, but to throw an iron-rich shopping trolley into the water was madness.
“Finn!” she cried, her voice shrill with fear.
Finn turned to look at her. A heron took off from the towpath, large and ungainly. He relaxed. The cutting had gone back to nature many years before, maybe their old fears were unjustified.
“Watch out!” Belladonna yelled.
Finn ducked as the heron dived towards him, transforming from benign bird into toothed pterodactyl. Fergus leapt up to snap at the beast. It turned away with a raucous screech.
Around them, the ferns undulated and exuded a swampy miasma. Creeping wildlife transformed into giant prehistoric creatures; foot-long millipedes crawled between the leaves, dragonflies the size of blackbirds buzzed from the water’s edge, gigantic leeches oozed from the canal, their sightless mouths swaying as they scented warm-blooded prey on the boat. A swan abruptly shed its feathers and grew into a towering T. rex. It roared with rage.
All around them, the Dark Fae giggled. They usually traded in small harms; pinches, punches and visions to torment their human victims. They could create wormholes between times and dimensions, but it was scarcely worth the bother when humans dismissed them as dreams. However, creating a Time Slip for magic-users who could perceive its full effect was top entertainment.
Finn and Fergus leapt onto the boat’s roof, both running back towards the helm to protect Belladonna. Finn raised his sling and fired iron-rich marbles towards the angry dinosaur, but they barely penetrated the reptile’s skin. Fergus growled and launched himself into the air as the T. rex lunged for Finn.
The growling deerhound looked tiny in the dinosaur’s jaws. The T. rex moaned in distress. Its vast teeth seemed to be bending out of their sockets, drawn by the effort of trying to chew on the hound. It dropped the dog and shook its head dazedly. Fergus sprang up, uninjured and barked furiously. Finn was astonished. Fergus had always seemed a little fey, resisting the homely magics that Belladonna used around the boat, but who knew that his fur was that enchanted?
Finn vowed to start charging more for Belladonna’s knitwear, if they got out of this alive.
His relieved musings were interrupted by Belladonna’s cry.
“Finn, watch out! The marbles won’t work. It’s not Fae. It’s real!”
The T. rex put one clawed foot on the front deck, tipping the boat forward and reaching for Finn, now perched precariously on the tilted roof. In desperation, Belladonna cast a transformation spell, releasing the vast power that she’d kept contained for almost a hundred years. There was a blinding flash. When her sight cleared, the T. rex was gone, replaced by a richly plumaged ostrich wading towards the towpath, flapping its wings in distress.
The boat righted itself. Finn and Fergus ran to the back deck.
“May as well rev that engine, love. The sooner we’re through, the better.”
Belladonna pushed the throttle. She expected Wandering Fae to surge forward, but the boat was held. She pushed the throttle further. The engine whined, but the boat was stuck fast.
Belladonna saw Finn’s elfin face go pale. She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to face the Faerie Queen, Monarch of the High Fae. The boat was surrounded by her warriors. Although none would touch the cold iron of the hull, they used their magic to freeze the canal solid around it.
“At last we meet,” said the Queen. “I have sought you these many years, but you have been very clever–for a human.” Her voice was like oil on water as her grudging respect spread over her underlying contempt.
“Finn, my son, I have missed you in court. I would have you home.”
The Queen’s will rippled like a riptide. A window shimmered into being showing the Faerie Queen’s opulent court. The vision showed Finn, dressed as a regal prince, taking his velvet seat next to the throne as the sycophants of the court applauded and showered him with praise. Belladonna’s face creased with grief, not knowing whether Finn could resist the deep undertow of his mother’s desires.
Fergus growled, breaking the thrall. The Queen waved her hand, casting a sinister web of enchantment over the hound. Fergus shook vigorously, filling the air with flecks of the broken web and thick clumps of dander. The Queen coughed and covered her mouth. Finn grinned. He’d found Fergus as a puppy, urinating vigorously against the great elm tree that marked the boundary between the demesnes of the High and Low Fae. Since then, the hound had resisted the queen’s omnipotence at every turn.
Fergus growled again and leaned against Finn and Belladonna. As Finn took Belladonna’s hand, he felt the power of three fill them.
“No, Mother, you do not need another idle ornament for your throne. Let my brothers carry your sceptre. I need to stay on the waters, with my family.”
“You would stay with this mortal?”
“She is more than mortal. She is my own true love. Her magic has captured my soul.”
The Faerie Queen laughed. “Fae do not have souls. That is a human concept. Are you so reduced?”
“I am enhanced. Wandering Fae has a soul, my family has a soul, and their souls rest in my heart.”
As the Queen pondered his words, Belladonna stepped forward, being careful to keep one hand on Fergus’s rough fur.
“I love your son with all my being, but I see that I have taken a valuable asset from your court. May I offer you a gift in exchange?”
“What could you offer me?”
“I will enchant something from this world for you, something that can cross from our realm to yours. Its beauty will be stable, and you will not need to consume your power to maintain its glamour.”
The Queen tilted her head. The High Fae loved a bargain. She waved for Belladonna to proceed.
Belladonna cast a spell at the confused ostrich. It shook off its feathers and shrank back into a swan, its original form. The enraged bird pecked at each of the Queen’s warriors before swimming away victorious. Belladonna gathered the luxuriant ostrich feathers and started to weave them together, years of practice making her fingers quick and deft. As she wove, she muttered her spells, adding a charm that would last forever in both realms.
A few minutes later, Belladonna presented her gift. The Queen shook out the bundle–a soft cloak shimmered across her arms and wrapped itself around her shoulders. It draped perfectly, enhancing her regal demeanour.
The Queen would never admit it, but the cloak pacified the deeply buried anxieties in her heart, her hidden worries about the retreat of the natural world and the steady vanishing of the fairy realm into disrespectful legend. She unconsciously wriggled with pleasure as the cloak fulfilled her. She looked around, her warriors were kneeling around her, overwhelmed by her royal presence.
The Queen looked at Finn and Belladonna, who were embracing their fearless hound. She laughed. “So be it!” and snapped her fingers. As she vanished, the landscape billowed back into the present. Birds twittered where dinosaurs had roared, ladybirds scuttled where giant cockroaches had scavenged.
Belladonna grasped the tiller and gently eased the throttle. Wandering Fae drifted forward slowly, soon passing under the stone arch which marked the far boundary of the cutting. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Finn emerged from the cabin carrying a tray with a large teapot, a bottle of milk, two large mugs, and a tin of Belladonna’s homemade cookies. He poured the tea and handed a mug over to his lady love. Fergus nudged him imperiously. Finn poured a mugful of milky tea into the hound’s bowl. They cruised on contentedly, heading for the haven of Tixall Wide, where the narrow canal loosened its tight corsets and flowed into a broad basin lined with trees and iridescent kingfishers.
In the east, the light dimmed as the moon stepped into her own spotlight. In the west, the sun settled under a cosy duvet of tinted clouds to sleep, to dream, until the next adventure.