From the author: A story about festive gatherings, new partners and strange family dynamics.
"Cripes, woman, got enough quiche?" Alice rolled her eyes, slipping the seat belt on around the Pyrex dish on her lap.
"It’s plenty to share," she said, ignoring her brother in laws raised brows and smiling at her niece, Becca. She was dressed up as one of the Disney princesses in some giant golden skirt and brocade monstrosity. She was also distracted, fussing over the confused looking pug strapped beside her. The dog was bedecked; a frilly pink tutu, some contraption on its head that was part reindeer antlers, part crown. Sparkly wings stuck out of its back at flattened angles. "What's with the dog?"
"He's called Pugsley, a friend’s pride and joy. She's in hospital so we’re looking after him. Becca loves him to bits, hence he's dressed up as her Disney companion," Idris said.
"He's the Christmas Fairy," Becca supplied.
"Does Aunt Sally know?" Alice asked as they merged with the traffic.
"Carol warned her. Sort of. Said she was stuck with the weather but we'd be bringing another mouth along."
"He'll not complain about the sprouts I suppose. Why does she have to do them in bacon?"
"Doesn't sound so bad to me. The roast potatoes should be ok?" he asked.
"Not necessarily, Idris, last year she did them in goose fat and forgot to tell me."
"Fair play." He nodded, getting into lane and bopping the GPS into life. "Why’d you keep coming then?"
"Aunt Sally’s the last of that side of the family, except the siblings. She was good when Mum was ill."
He nodded, glancing back at Becca. She was showing Pugsley her colouring book and the dog was putting up with it, tongue lolling out with the occasional snort.
"So, despite her continued refusal to make anything vaguely vegetarian, I keep showing up. And if I bring enough for everyone she can't grumble."
"She wouldn't actually grumble, just sniff at you over the whisky."
"Or comment on how pale I am and that I need some iron in me, which I'm ready for."
"Spinach in the quiche?"
"Spinach in the quiche."
"You're a terror, Alice Burton."
"A terror you'll be grateful for when Mick's been on the sauce."
"He's gotten a lot better." Idris sighed, sharing a look. "At least not as loud."
"I'll distract him with some eco-talk, he can only be so causally racist when he's worked up about recycling."
"He's never said anything in front of her." He tipped his head back. “I'm hoping it continues."
"We can always escape for a walk if needs be."
A grumbling howl came from the back seat and Alice peered round to be met by the beady eyes of Pugsley. Big, brown orbs looked at her, pleading, before his face was covered over with the colouring book.
"He likes walks," Becca said, hugging the dog and petting his head.
"I didn't know they made that noise," Alice said.
"They sing too," Idris supplied with a grin. "It grows on you."
"At least the carols will go well then," Alice muttered.
"It should be fun – her new squeeze is coming. She'll have him bring along some friends, surely, rather than just expose him to the rest of us?"
"The mysterious Obe, yes. Sally seems taken with him."
"Suppose it's good to have some young blood about."
"Is he younger? I thought he was about ages with her."
"Maybe he's just really active." Idris shrugged, checking their route. "You packed for a couple of days?"
"Yes and no more –I love seeing everyone but I have to get back in time to prepare for my dig."
"Where are they sending you?"
"The Orkney Islands, one of the ancient villages. Late stone age we think."
"Will there be lots of bones?" asked Becca.
"Probably not, darling, it’s old houses with bits and pieces left over." Alice worried what her sister told Becca about archaeology, but bones were a logical question for a five year old.
"So you couldn’t bring Pugsley a bone back with you?"
"Not from her dig, princess, those have to go in the museum," Idris laughed, patting his daughter on the knee.
"But he hasn't got any presents," Becca said, pouting.
"I'm sure Aunt Sally will be able to magic him up something for Christmas," Alice promised, making a mental note to nip out and get a doggy stocking.
"Is she really magic?" Becca asked.
"Aunt Sally's always been magic. She was the person who had Father Christmas' phone number for if we were naughty, and she had fairies in the bottom of her garden. That was before she moved but I'm sure they still have her address."
Becca hummed at this, turning to whisper conspiratorially with Pugsley. Idris gave her a look and Alice shrugged.
They reached the house at the cusp of darkness. Mick's car sat in the driveway, heralding their tardiness.
"You take Becca in, I'll get the bags?” she offered as Idris parked.
"I'll get these two settled in first then come back for the bags. Anyway, you have to lug that gargantuan thing."
Alice hummed her disapproval, hefting the quiche and slipping out of the car. Idris gathered Becca and took Pugsley's leash, princess and companion in hand as they walked up the drive. It was one of the old sandstone townhouses that dotted places like this, all long, guarding windows and doors broad enough to fit a cart through. Alice knocked, balancing the quiche on a bent knee to reach the wood.
The door opened to show a tall man, almost broad enough to fit the frame. He had tawny, golden skin and hair dark enough to match the encroaching night, a neat beard covering his lower face. Springing curls were pulled back into a low ponytail and he was dressed like a Duke, a burgundy frock coat paired with a green waistcoat and cream shirt. Alice didn't dare look down to see the trousers. He looked older than her certainly, maybe early forties? She wasn't sure but now she was staring and bit her tongue to spark it into action.
"We were expecting Sally.”
"She's led down, a touch of a headache from the fruit cake," the man replied, voice as deep as a well. He was ridiculous. Alice cursed, of course crazy Aunt Sally had found this creature somewhere and she would have to avoid drooling all weekend.
"You Obe?" came Idris voice behind her and Alice heard the growling howl of Pugsley, yapping at her ankles.
"I am, you must be Carol's partner. Which means you must be the archaeologist, Alice?" he asked, looking between the two.
"Yes, I brought a quiche," Alice replied, biting down on her tongue again. Goddamnit.
"Very generous of you, would you mind putting it through to the kitchen?" Obe said, smiling in a way that would get him everywhere. Alice nodded, moving past him and down the corridor.
She barrelled in to be met by the smell of roasting fat then something fruity and sweet, potent enough to knock her back into the door. There was a woman Alice didn’t recognise beside the oven; willowy and tall, pale as milk and with moss green hair. Swirling patterns looped over her arms and shoulders, disappearing under a bustier top she seemed to be pairing with leather leggings. Those could not be safe for cooking in.
"I'm sorry, didn't mean to interrupt," Alice said, shimmying past the sturdy oak table and digging for a flat surface amongst the packets and utensils.
The woman jumped back, knocking into the counter. The front of her top had peacock feathers, the eyes wilted in the heat and near blinking. "I didn't hear you! Are you the archaeologist?"
"I am. You are?"
"Everyone calls me Lou." The woman smiled, clearing a spot for the large dish weighing Alice down. "You brought an offering?"
"Much as I love Sally, she manages to get animal in just about everything and I'm vegetarian. Thought I'd avoid the fight."
"A resourceful woman, I like it." Lou grinned, wolfish, and arched a brow.
"You could say so," Alice said, offering a hand for shaking. Lou took it instead, pecking a kiss to the knuckles and winking.
"You sound the most fun, from what Sally’s said."
"I dread to think." Alice laughed, taking her hand back. "She used to tell me the most amazing stories when I was a child, tales as tall as you. Are you with Obe?"
"Yes, I'm his plus one. He technically plus two'd, my friend is through with your brother and his wife."
"How are they doing? Mick can be a little… prickly."
"They're fine, Puddy's entertaining them."
"Puddy?" Alice asked, fanning herself with the tea towel.
"Our other friend, company for when Obe's too busy being sickeningly devoted to your dear Aunt. He's just head over heels."
"I suppose that's good?"
"If he's happy, we're happy," Lou said with another wink. Alice felt the creep of a blush and scolded herself.
"What're you cooking? It smells good."
"I've got the roast in the oven, the hors d'oeuvres are already out and I'm making spiced mead, as well as cocktails."
"I don't remember hors d'oeuvres on the menu Sally sent round?"
"Slight confession there," Lou said, laughing in the forced way Alice recognised from cocking up presentations. "I lost that, and she's too far gone to help, so I'm winging it. Homemade mushroom hors d'oeuvres, try one.” A slim circle was pressed to her lips, loaded with storm grey segments. It melted in Alice’s mouth, earthy and succulent, and she eyed the tray.
“May I?” she asked, grabbing three.
“Of course. There’s a roast peacock for main, and jelly for the fruitcake. Obe was so upset he'd gotten her drunk; he didn't want it to spoil your Christmas. She loves seeing you all so much, even when your brother's a racist idiot – her words."
"How sweet. Too much sherry I take it?" Alice asked between bites.
"Absinthe. We like a lot of green," Lou said. Alice paused her chewing.
"Yeah, that'll need to be slept off. Will she be ok for the meal?"
"Surely, and if not I'll save her some back. She will be though."
"Do the others know?" Alice asked.
"No, he's telling everyone it's a headache from the fruitcake fumes."
"I'll just join Mick and Sarah with Puddy, was it? Unless you need a hand?"
"No, I'm fine, I'm used to summoning up big meal."
"Great. Did you know there's a dog? They're looking after it for someone; he's a cute little pug."
"I'm more of a cat person but I'll save him some thigh meat."
"Thanks, Lou. Oh, is there anything non-alcoholic? We also have a five year old."
"I have her very own drink ready for her." Lou dove into the fridge, pulling out a jug of something luminous blue with flecks of pink petals on the top. Alice blinked at it and looked up to Lou's satisfied smirk.
"And that is?"
"Moon juice –fruity and fun. She can feel like she's drinking with the grown-ups."
"Thank you so much."
"Not a worry – if she's half as sweet as Sally makes out, it'll be worth it."
Alice laughed, a lighter thing than she remembered it being, and smiled back to Lou. "Sally will be so grateful. Obe too I bet."
"It's all part of the job, can't let Sally's favourite family thing go wrong. Go see how the rest of them are doing and I'll finish off the mead." She nodded, prim and proper for as long as she could keep the infections grin off her face, and Alice retreated. She bundled straight into the cavorting figure of Becca, giggling wildly and chasing a yapping Pugsley.
"She's giving him a tinsel necklace," said Obe, materialising out of the shadows and making Alice squeak. "Apologies, I forget it’s dark in this house."
"No problem," she said, stamping her heartbeat back down. "Lou told me Sally's been having some fun with the green fairy."
"That’s not how I’d put it," Obe replied, eyebrows rising to such a peak Alice could have skied down them.
"It's ok, I'll not mention it. Lou also said she thought Sally would be ok for dinner, so I'll maybe take her a cup of tea up."
"She’d appreciate that. She speaks so fondly of you, and your siblings. She’s proud you’re still curious." He said it in such a matter of fact way that it hurt Alice's chest.
"You know what families are like. Good to hear she likes having us."
"She values you very much. It’s good to see family ties lasting past the point of forced interaction."
"Thank you. We rub along. I don't know if Idris told you, I brought a bottle of wine too?"
"That’s most kind of you."
"I'm not so sure, I can never remember which she drinks, so I alternate each year…" she trailed off, distracted again by the gremlin shriek of Pugsley.
"Resourceful and sensible. No wonder you’re her favourite."
"I wouldn't go that far."
"She's said it." Obe shrugged, watching her intently. Alice dithered, settling on a change of subject.
"How are the others getting on? I know Idris was aiming to get things settled so we could have a catch up."
"I haven't had the pleasure yet, I was seeing to Sally and watching over the little one. It’s a big house, she could vanish off anywhere."
"That's thoughtful, you have kids?"
"None myself, but I've been involved in the raising of many. It stays with you, the urge to watch over them. It’s foolish of me: she has a doting father." He smiled, broad and a little like Lou's wolfish grin.
"I'm sure he'll not object to someone else having an eye out. Everyone thinks Becca's lovely. And it leaves him free to deal with Mick."
"Yes, I wonder how your brother is getting on with my companion."
"Lou mentioned someone, Puddy. Sounds like a cat’s name."
"We are more cat people really." He nodded, a wicked little smirk on his face. "You go and rescue your brother; I’ll keep watch here."
"Thanks," Alice said, nodding and heading past him towards the door. The room was a wall of warmth and Sandalwood scent, brushing up against you like a cat winding around your legs.
"Alice, you're here!" Micks voice rolled out of the cloud of perfume and she spotted him on one of the overstuffed sofas, Sarah wedged into the corner beside him.
“Course I am, dafty, how are you doing? How are you, Sarah?” She smiled, walking over to them.
“We’re good, glad to see you. We arrived early so I expected to get a few drinks in with Sally and her new gent, but she’s flat out,” Sarah said, emerging from the sofa and giving Alice a tight hug.
“Sherry fumes can do that can’t they?” Alice smiled, looking about for the others. No sign of Idris but the person curled into the high-backed reading chair had to be Puddy. So that’s what Obe meant.
“This is Obe’s, um, friend? I think friend. Puddy’s the name. Am I saying that right?” Mick asked, nodding to the silent third. They were tall as well – did Obe only know tall people? – and had skin so white it was almost translucent, paper thin. Legs folded underneath them in the seat, they were flicking their eyes around the others, a small smirk tugging at cherry dark lips. They wore a dapper pair of dark green trousers and matching waistcoat, velvet if Alice had to guess, and a blood red shirt that shimmered with the firelight. It covered everything from their neck to their ankles, flowing over the impression of strong limbs.
“Quite correct,” they said, eyes raking across Alice in her over large jumper and ragged jeans. “Pud is fine. You’re the archaeologist?”
“Yes, lovely to meet you, Lou was telling me Obe brought you both for the meal.” She moved closer, holding her hand out. Pud slipped an elegant palm forward in turn, the handshake firm and measured. Wicked sharp nails were coloured to match their lips.
“He’d hardly need us.” Pud blinked up at Alice. “I always have my eye out for him, anyway, so I’d expect to be around.”
“I’m sure he’s grateful, sounds like you and Lou keep him right. Has Idris been in yet?”
“Still setting the room up for his child. She’s a precious little thing, plump enough to eat.” They purred the words out.
“I must ask him to bring that bottle of wine down, if he’s brought my bags in?”
“I’m sure he said he would, though you may wish to check – he did rather have his hands full.” Pud smirked again, eyes alighting over the fire
Alice’s response was interrupted by the door slamming open as Pugsley barrelled into the room, tinsel trailing behind, the wings somehow gone. He skidded to a stop in front of the fire, shaking himself until the tinsel feel free, then faced the room. Eyes landing on Pud he began to howl again, rearing off to crash into Alice’s legs. She leaned down, scooping him up before plonking him on her hip.
“Shush, you were so good in the car,” she said, fussing the top of his head.
“He’s quite intent on escaping his new adornments, he’s probably over warm. I’ve heard small dogs get that way,” Pud said, lips drawn into a thin line.
“I’ll take him out to the garden for a little walk, cool him down,” Alice said as he wriggled in her grasp. “Lou said she’d have the roast out soon so no harm in getting him calm.”
“You’re just a gem,” Pud said, grinning as they turned back to the sofa. “Now, Sarah dear, you were telling me about your work?”
Alice made for the door, bundling Pugsley up into the excess of her jumper so he didn’t fall. “Come on, let’s get you out in the fresh air.”
She heard a grumble of something from him and made for the front door, out to the cooling evening. It was pitch now and she could see the specks of stars above them, a fat moon hanging low. Her breath puffed out in front of her like smoke and she leaned against the wall, revelling in the cold bricks against her back.
“I don’t know what you think, Pugsley, it all seems a bit odd in there. It’s not like Sally to go daft on the sauce. Obe seems lovely but the other two are a bit…”
“A bit blood psychotic?” came a voice Alice didn’t recognise and she flinched from the wall, looking for the owner. “Oi, down here.”
She glanced down to see Pugsley staring back up at her.
“Ok, I’ve hit exhaustion point, great move Alice,” she said, pushing a hand over her face.
“Hey, Bone Woman, focus,” said Pugsley and Alice felt a giggle well up in her chest, fear thrumming along her ribs.
“See, no, you don’t get to tell me to focus, because you’re a dog, and dogs can’t talk,” Alice said, backing up into the wall again.
“Glad we cleared that up, now can you get your bipedal ass back in there and get the child? We’re surrounded by goddamned fairies and you’re out here under a full moon like that’s a good idea. Eating their food and sharing jokes with them. They eat you, you know – make humans into stew. Or make you dance till your heart bursts.” He sat down, scratching one ear under the fake antlers, tongue lolling out. The tutu was pushed up behind his leg with the movement, wobbling like wings.
“How are you talking?” Alice squeaked, trying to swallow her heart back down into her chest.
“I don’t know, magic? I tried to warn you at the door.”
“I must be having a stroke,” she said, pulling both hands up to in front of her face. They were both there, so not a brain bleed.
“I don’t care what you’re rationalising this into but they’re going to steal my princess so get moving!” he barked, standing up on his back legs.
“What are you talking about?”
“Becca, the little girl – they’ll steal her. Fairies do that, take children off to be raised with them, or breed with them. I don’t want that, I like her, but I can’t do anything without an iron dagger or my witch and she’s not here.”
“You have a witch?”
“My mistress, she practices. And she’s not here, so I’m stuck with you.” He blinked at her in the dark, the moonlight making his eyes glow.
“This is crazy.”
“Oh for goodness sake,” he sighed, lolling onto his side on the path, antlers going askew. “You can understand me talking to you now. What has changed since we arrived?”
“Nothing, except heat stroke from how hot that place is,” Alice said, slipping down the wall. She pulled her knees close, focusing on the cold from the bricks, the air spiking in her lungs. Those were real, she knew those sensations.
“You didn’t eat anything offered to you by that slip of a thing in the kitchen? Flirts with everything like she wouldn’t kill you. I saw her with Idris, battling lashes at him like she couldn’t see the wedding ring.”
“How? He was upstairs.”
“Was he? What time is it? What did you eat?” The pug glared over at her with as much of a frown as the wrinkled face could give him.
“I had some of the starter, mushrooms, but that was only a handful….”
“Mushrooms off a fairy, that’s going to go well. You at least brought your own food, you’ve given a fair trade.” He shook his head, pulling himself back into a sit as the antler fell off.
“What does that even mean?” she asked with a groan.
“Fairies have to be fair – you took food and you brought food, so you’re equal. You brought wine too, so you’re owed something. That makes you the best bet for saving Becca. Now get up and go back inside: we need to make sure she’s safe.”
Alice put a hand over her eyes, breathing in through her nose to lessen the sob creaking in her chest. This had to be a mental break. Anxiety about that dig.
“This is insane,” she whispered, wiping the hand down over her face.
“Bone Woman – look at me,” Pugsley said, walking up to her and nudging her leg with his stout body. She met his eyes. “Say this is crazy, and I’m not really a witch’s familiar and those aren’t really fairies running around playing house. You go back inside, you see that’s the case, we all have a fun family meal. If I’m right, you get to save your niece from, best case scenario, being made into stew. Best case.”
“Does Carol know your owner’s a witch?” Alice asked, rubbing his forehead. It felt as real as the cold in her back.
“No; my mistress is private. Normally I’d be in trouble for intervening, but I won’t see a child harmed.”
“Fair.” Alice nodded.
“Bone Woman I need you to go inside now,” he said, nudging into her palm.
“I think that’s a good idea, yes,” she said, pushing herself up to standing. She shivered with the effort, the jumper no protection against her fear. “My name is Alice, by the way.”
“You dig up bones, you’re a Bone Woman to me. It’s good.”
“Nice to know. Am I picking you up?”
“So long as you don’t throw me at one of them, sure.”
She scooped Pugsley into her arms, crushing the tutu against her side, before turning back to the door. Pushing it open she slipped into the house in darkness, the heat and scents of cooking still lingering but suffused with something earthy and rich. Pugsley sneezed and snorted with it, shaking his head.
“Why is it so dark?” Alice whispered, holding the dog tighter.
“Fairies don’t need a lot of light to see, humans do. Gives them an advantage,” he said.
“Right. Why do they need one?”
“Not the main issue, Bone Woman,” he huffed and she nodded, creeping forward. Aunt Sally kept candles near the door, in case of a black out. She could get one in a lantern if she was careful.
Inching onward, Pugsley’s panting breath the only sound, she was rewarded by bumping into the drawers. Swallowing her curse down she felt about, fingers curling around one. She slipped it into the lantern and clicked the lighter that sat beside it, heaving a sigh when it caught and spilled yellow light. Pocketing the lighter she threaded the loop of the lantern over her wrist, gripping it tight.
Turning to the corridor she let out a squeak as Pud materialised from the gloom, grinning like a feral thing. Their hair was messy, loose tangles spilling down their back, and their sleeves were rolled up to reveal tattoos like Lou’s.
“You were gone a long time,” they said, looking over the dog and the lantern.
“Dog needed a run,” Alice said, unable to keep her voice from wavering. “Where is everyone, Pud?”
“Here and there. Off with the fairies, in some cases.” They giggled, covering their mouth with a hand and turning their face half away with it. They snapped back, leering forward to sniff the air in front of Alice. “You’re a tricky one. A witch’s pup and an iron lantern, bringing gifts. Can’t make hide nor hair of you.”
“Where’s Obe?” Alice asked, watching the twitches in Pud’s hands. Something was dripping from them but the candlelight didn’t show the colour.
“Off caring for your darling Aunt. He forgets how fragile humans get in their old age.”
“She’s only in her fifties,” Alice said instinctively and got a kick to the ribs from Pugsley.
“That used to be old,” Pud said with a shrug, turning to stand in profile. “Humans used to die younger. So safe now, no idea how many risks there are.”
“Pud, do you know why the lights are off?” Alice asked, grip tightening on the lantern.
“Because I wanted them to be. Idris went looking for his little princess and I wanted it to be harder for him. Desperation is so fetching.”
“Typical trickster, loading the dice,” Pugsley snorted and Pud pulled back, hissing.
“It speaks!” They spat, curling one hand in front of them as if to ward him off.
“Not my fault you’re leaking magic all over the place. If you’ve hurt the child I’ll gnaw your heart out,” he said, baring his teeth.
“They’re a bit short for that.” Pud sneered.
“Just means it’ll hurt more,” Pugsley said, wriggling in Alice’s hold.
“Stop it,” she said, eyes still on Pud.
“A wager then, to the little digger and her dog too. If you can find them, you get to keep them. If not then I get to do what I like. Your brother and his wife are in the living room and off bounds, by order of my lord, but Idris and that darling little thing aren’t Sally’s blood. They’re fair game.”
“Becca’s a blood relation,” Alice said, raising the lantern up closer to Pud’s face.
“Only a half, not close enough. Have fun.” They giggled again, sharp teeth gnashing together, before melting back into the shadows.
“What was that?” Alice asked, squeezing Pugsley tight enough that he nipped her wrist.
“The trickster of the court, getting bored. Don’t suppose your Aunt has a stash of old farm tools?”
“Of course not, why would she?”
“Well if she’s necking the king of fairies I’d hope she’d keep some protection around. Iron tools, saltwater, something.” Alice let the comment roll around her head for a minute, trying to make it work.
“She’s doing what now?”
“Obe – Oberon. King of the fairies. Shakespeare had a whole bit about it in a play.”
“How does a pug know about Shakespeare?” Alice muttered.
“How does an archaeologist not?” he snorted back, eyes rolling. “We should try and find your brother in law and niece before they get eaten.”
“I suggest we start upstairs.”
“Not the kitchen?”
“When I said they want to eat them I meant in the fairy lands, not right now.”
“Naturally,” Alice said.
“Just get upstairs, Bone Woman, we’re dealing with a trickster. Delays won’t help.”
Alice swallowed her response and held the lantern higher, tracking light over the house. The staircase was to her right, she could feel its shadow like a presence, and the silence stretched around her.
“Right, come on Alice, we can do this. One foot in front of the other,” she said, making herself turn to face the stairs. The candle cast shadows up the wall, twisting and leaping as it moved, and she held her breath as she forced her foot onto the first step. It creaked and she cursed, yanking her foot off it.
“Steady there,” Pugsley said. “The stairs won’t eat you.”
“Easy for you to say, you’re used to this.” Alice gave an unhappy laugh and continued up the steps, the creaks dying away.
“Not overly, my mistress is too smart to get in a house with fairies. She’s never tried a relationship with one, to be fair.”
“Noted –fairies off the dating list.”
At the top of the stairs the darkness seemed to breathe, rippling under the light. Alice struggled to hear anything against the blood rushing through her head. She put the hand holding the lantern against the wall, inching forward in the pool of illumination.
“Where’s your aunt?” Pugsley asked.
“Her room’s at the end of the corridor, biggest one in the house.”
“Large house for a woman on her own.”
“She wasn’t always on her own, she took us three in when our mum died.”
“Sorry for your troubles.”
“S’ok, was a long time ago.”
A noise came from ahead, the wet drip of something landing on wood, a rasping scrape. Alice paused, lifting the lantern higher. She was greeted with more darkness and the noise changing to a quick lapping, hurried and greedy.
“That can’t be a good sound,” Pugsley said. “Go after it.”
They pushed forward and were greeted by Idris’s feet sticking out of a doorway. The sight made Alice’s heart stutter and she dropped Pugsley in fright, rushing to him.
“Idris,” she hissed, falling to her knees. His body was in the room, led on his front with his arms trapped under him. Something was snuffling around at his head and the lapping sped up. Alice’s stomach churned.
She held the lantern up to see a squat little man, skin wrinkled and grey with age, hunched over Idris. He wore faded clothes and a bright red flat cap. The man’s eyes were wide and purple, the colour of heather, and blood coated his lips and chin. Too many teeth, all red, were crammed in his mouth.
She screamed at the sight, the air squeezing out of her lungs like a wrung rag, and batted a fist at him. He hissed, swiping at her with a hand ending in shining claws. Shrieking again she pitched back to crash into the corridor as a bundle of fur flew past her. There was a horrid, wet tearing as they scuffled about the floor. Snapping herself into action she grabbed Idris’s feet and pulled him out into the corridor. Rolling him over on to his back, she winced at the cut snaking down his forehead and back to his ear, torn and flapping low as she sat him up.
“Idris, come on,” she said, slapping at his face.
“Not much hope with that,” came Lou’s voice from the corridor and Alice leapt up, swinging the lantern to show the woman. She didn’t look much like one now, still tall and slim but her skin green, the tattoos glowing. Her eyes shone too, luminous blue.
“You too?” Alice asked, knowing it was pointless but disappointed anyway.
“I mean no harm, but no help either. Pud’s far too scary for me to want to interfere.”
“Good to know. Don’t suppose you’re likely to help Idris?”
“He’s been had by a red cap, only way he’s waking up is if you kill it. They’re vicious little things, the worst of us. Outside of Puddy.”
“That old guy was a fairy too?”
“Sorry, comes with the territory. Your man will die, either by the red cap eating him or the venom in the bite.”
“Why are you haunting the corridor?” Alice asked, keeping the lantern between her and Lou.
“No point in wasting a good body.”
“Oh sod off,” Alice said, shoulders slumping. “I’m not even up for having a fight, just get gone.”
“I’ll just take him from you,” Lou said, looming at the edge of the light.
“Not so fast you scavenger,” said Pugsley, waddling out from the room. He had a thick cut down his ribs and his face was covered with black, sticky liquid that made Alice’s eyes burn.
“Who enchanted you?” Lou asked, skittering away from the dog.
“No one, you lot ’ve messed the place up. I’m just taking advantage. And killing the pests you’ve left dotted around.” He sneezed, shaking his head, and winced at the movement.
“You killed a red cap?” Lou was wide eyed, her gaze flicking between the two of them.
“And lived, so far. They smell awful.”
“Getting that impression, yes,” Alice agreed, pulling a sleeve low to cover her nose. A groan came from behind them and Idris started to cough, hacking against something in his throat.
“You’d best patch him up, he’ll be hurting for weeks. I’m going somewhere far from this little slice of disaster,” Lou said, before her tattoos became brighter and she winked out of the corridor with a soft breeze.
“What on earth?” Alice sighed.
“Bone Woman, focus,” Pugsley said, sitting down heavily next to Idris. Alice put an arm round Idris’s shoulder to help keep him upright as he shook with the coughing.
“I think I’m going to vomit,” he choked out.
“Aim for the bedroom, it’s already a mess in there,” Pugsley said and Idris froze, eyes moving to the dog and then back to Alice.
“Don’t ask,” she said, shaking her head. He gave a small nod and then shifted onto his hands and knees, crawling back into the other room.
“Poor chap, he’ll scar,” Pugsley said.
“Not the worst outcome,” Alice replied and heard a snort of a laugh beside her.
There was the clunk of glass on wood and Idris stumbled out of the room, shirt pulled off and vest untucked from his jeans. He wiped his face off as he passed Alice the wine bottle.
“Meant to give you this.”
“Thanks,” she said, tucking it under her free arm. “You ok?”
“Feel like a truck hit me. Why is it dark? Where’s Becca?”
“Evil fairy, evil fairy, currently trying to find her,” Alice said, looking him over. He was sweating and the blood that had leaked out from the head wound cast half his face in half relief, but he looked better than he had.
“I’m really hoping this is just a food poisoning dream, but ok,” he said, nodding. He tossed the shirt back into the room and leant against the wall, head down and breathing through his mouth. “Let’s do this,” he said.
They moved forward, Pugsley now cradled by Idris and Alice in the lead, the corridor stretching before them in the dark. After longer than Alice could remember the house being they came upon the door to Sally’s room, the frame ornately carved with leaves and vines chasing each other.
“Tasteful,” Pugsley said and both humans glared at him.
Alice grabbed the handle, steeling herself for another body, and thrust it open. It swung in, bashing off something with an almighty bang. They stood for a beat, peering, before Alice slipped in and Idris followed her.
The room was cooler than the rest of the house, a wind blowing through. It smelled of moss and grass, and the sound of water burbled from somewhere inside. Once they were through the door they could see the room stretched on, larger than it could be, shapes in the gloom suggesting trees. A bed sat at the centre, moonlight hitting it impossibly from above. Alice could see Sally propped up on pillows, sleeping.
“What’s going on?” Idris asked.
“Portal – we’re not in the house.” Pugsley said, sniffing the air. “Probably Obe’s land.”
“Good to know,” Alice said, shifting the bottle of wine so she held it by the neck. She could always just down it…
“Do we wake her up, or what?” Idris asked, setting Pugsley down on the mossy floor.
“Daddy!” A squeal erupted from the far side of the room and a little body shot forward, racing out of the shadows to meet them.
“Becca, sweetheart, I was so worried,” Idris said, kneeling with open arms for her. She tumbled into him, arms slipping around his neck. Alice sagged with relief, the anxiety leaving her in such a rush she went woozy.
“I need to see if Sally’s ok, you stay here,” she said to Idris, going towards the bed. Pugsley ran after her, snorting with the effort.
“I don’t trust this,” he said.
“Don’t you need something for your side?” she asked, sitting on the bed and shaking Sally’s shoulders. She looked pale but otherwise fine, red hair spilled over her pillows like the wine Alice was still gripping, white knuckled.
She groaned and frowned, blinking like an owl before her eyes focused on Alice.
“Darling, you’re here. I’m so glad to see you. Have you met Obe and his friends?”
“We have. They tried to eat Idris. Becca too.”
“They can’t have done that to Becca, she’s here,” Sally said with a smile, pulling the covers up to show Becca curled into her side, snoozing with a book and pen light caught under her arm.
“Idris!” Alice shouted, springing up from the bed and running towards him.
“Too late,” Pud giggled, Idris held unconscious in their arms.
“I found him before you did,” Alice shouted, stopping in front of them.
“You killed one of my men.”
“He was eating Idris,” Pugsley said, waddling up to join them.
“Not my concern.” Pud shrugged, flashing their teeth again.
“What’s all the shouting?” Sally called from the bed.
“Your boyfriend’s pet asshole is hurting Idris,” Alice shouted and felt Pud’s growl.
“Careful with your words.”
“Screw this,” Pugsley barked, lunging forward and sinking his teeth into the flesh of Pud’s leg, tearing back and forth. Pud yelled with shock, kicking at the dog with a vicious grunt. Alice surged forward, smashing the bottle over Pud’s head and grabbing Idris, pulling his body towards her.
Pud howled, flinging themselves back towards the door and hissing at them.
“Pud!” Obe’s voice rippled through the room, making Alice freeze.
“My lord,” Pud said, scrambling to stand and bow.
“You’ve taken this too far,” Obe said, stepping out of the twilight.
“They killed Marius,” Pud said, glaring at Pugsley.
“You let Marius feed on the human. That was not permitted. Fear was fine, but you know the venom would kill him.”
“I’m sure we could have done something,” Pud muttered, having the decency to look uncertain.
“Enough. I’ll deal with you when we return home. Go back to the other humans, and behave,” Obe said, pointing to the door.
“Yes, my lord,” Pud said, bowing again and leaving.
Obe watched them go and shook his head, brows going high again. “I’m sorry for Pud’s behaviour. This isn’t the impression I wished to leave you with.” He looked to Alice, bowing his head low. Horns nestled in the curls of his hair, peaking out to shine in the moonlight. When he looked back his eyes were violet, glowing like Lou’s had in the corridor.
“Told you she was with the king of the fairies,” Pugsley muttered.
“It’s been memorable. Any chance you could fix all this?” she pointed to Pugsley and the abandoned form of Idris on the floor.
“Naturally, this should never have occurred.” He passed a hand over Pugsley and then Idris, a sprinkle of silver ash settling on them. It sparked on their wounds, twirling up in the air like dust motes. “I would ask you not to disclose the nature of our relationship to anyone. I don’t wish Sally bothered by jealous parties. You’ve seen how quickly desire turns to action in my world.”
“Obe, with all due respect I’m never talking about this evening ever again.”
“A wise choice. Might I suggest we return to the dinner as planned?”
“Isn’t it like midnight?” Alice asked, picking up Pugsley and scooping him into her jumper.
“It’s whatever time I wish it to be,” Obe said with a smile. “I could wake Sally properly and start the evening afresh. No one would know any different.”
Alice watched the man before her, terrifying in how alien he was, familiar in the care she saw directed to her aunt.
“Sounds good. Could you magic me up something veggie?”
“You don’t want your quiche?” he asked.
“I think I’ll leave that for you guys to share. Gesture of good will, and all that.”
“As you wish, Alice,” he said with a smile, nodding to her. He offered his arm, leading her towards the doorway. “I’ll take care of Idris and the others. You’ll find Pud behaving in the living room, and Lou will give you something to lift your spirits.”
Alice left the room, Pugsley held tight and the lantern tighter. The lights were back on and the corridor seemed as it should be, no walls shifting or angry little men lurking at the corners.
“I still think you should buy her an iron trowel,” Pugsley said as they walked downstairs.
“I think I’ll be investing in a fresh digging set, indeed,” Alice said, planting a kiss to the grumpy pugs head and fluffing his tutu.