Fern made her way through the subterranean streets, trying to smile, though the stench of troll filled her nose. It was important to appear business-like, after all, they didn’t see many faeries down here, in fact, she was practically an ambassador. Yes, that sounded good, Fern Grandheart, Ambassador to the lower orders, benevolent faery dedicated to the betterment of underlings. She could see it now, her face across the London Chronicle (or at least Magic Weekly, she’d take whatever she could get). That would show Lachlan! And they weren’t so bad, really, perhaps not as fresh as she had hoped but not so bad for creatures with peanuts for brains. In fact-
“Hey, Nixie, You can make magic with me!”
Ugh! They were intolerable! Fern shot the gnome a look which would wither even the toughest inhabitant of the Netherworld, but he just laughed.
“Watch out!” Called out a troll from her other side, “She might cast a spell on you. Oh, wait. She can’t.”
That was the worst thing, she thought. That they all knew. Knew that she was now no better than them, the dirty, stinking Underlings, unable to access the Netherworld and living instead in the bowels of London city. It wasn’t fair! It wasn’t like she’d made an obvious mistake, everyone knew the Human tax system was indecipherable. How was she to know that a truckful of pennies was not an acceptable way of paying Starbucks’ taxes? The only reason she was under such scrutiny was that the previous account holder hadn’t realized that you had to pay taxes at all! And the owner didn’t care, she was somewhere in the midpacific, probably making her way from Atlantis to the holiday home in Bermuda. It was Lachlan! So paranoid!She thought as she made her way onto the shuttle that would take her through to the Netherworld. Still, she was lucky she had kept her job, though lucky was a term she hesitated to use when her face was squashed into the unwashed armpit of a maintenance troll. At least now she had a chance to get it back, to prove her worth to Lachlan and the rest. She was qualified! She had the fastest Drachma to Dubloon calculations of anyone she knew! She was probably faster than Lachlan, at any rate, the worm. What right did he have to delay her beautiful wedding?
“Morning Princess.” Fern looked up into the leaf green eyes of an Elf.
“Chris! What are you doing down here?” Fern’s fiancée looked severely uncomfortable in the lift, and appeared to be attempting not to touch his neighbours. And why should he? He’s Chrysanthemum Grimm (his mother liked traditional names), of The Grimms, CEO of everything and Magic Weekly’s third most eligible bachelor, Fern thought as he gingerly handed her a Cloudspresso.
“Walking my fiancee to work. Take my willingness to rub shoulders with the Nonmagical as a sign of my true love for you.” He grimaced as he attempted to move towards her and brushed past a gnome’s scaly face. Next to her a pixie snorted and tossed her white blond hair over her shoulder. Metal piercings showed from every orifice. From the faint tingling in her right arm, Fern could sense they were at least part iron. How sadistic. Why anyone would give up magic by choice, she couldn’t understand. The piercings didn’t even look nice and she could have been so pretty with a bit of lip gloss. Perhaps her real issue with the Pixie’s metalwork was that it reminded her of the iron bangle around her wrist. She rubbed at it self-consciously. It didn’t hurt so much as tingle uncontrollably. It’s what it represents, though, she thought, standing in the shuttle. An outcast, a failure. Yet here she was, being offered coffee by Magic Weekly’s third most eligible bachelor. He was still whittering away. “- and you know you can always stay with me, I do worry about you here with these, these Nonmagicals.”
I’m Nonmagical, you snob, she thought, and you know, we do have ears. But he was a Grimm, and in love with her, so she laughed and accepted the coffee.
“And look,” He was saying, “It’s not from Starbucks! Do you know how hard it is to find a decent Cloudspresso anywhere else?”
The doors rumbled open, and they spilled out of the shuttle, a stream of inhumanity. And here it was, the Netherworld. The assorted underlings dissolved into the city, and all at once she was surrounded by her own kind, Faerys and Fays, Elves and Sprites, rushing around the financial district. Behind them the doors rattled open again. New York, a soft voice announced from the tannoy. Trolls spilled out into the street on their way to wash dishes and mop floors, and Fern walked into the city on the arm of the man who employed them all. “Have a good day at work, honey.” He said as she peeled away. She looked back and he winked, before vanishing into the crowds.
“No, Iron bars aren’t an acceptable currency in England, Sir… No. No, not since the middle ages.” “You can’t keep paying your employees with Leprechaun gold, Mr Green. It keeps disappearing.” “She would prefer English pounds to Drachmas, but we can organise that for you.”
Fern closed her eyes and let the wash of voices crash over her. For a moment she could forget, could imagine she had got in by Rainbow and was still getting her hair done at The Three Bears (Everyone worth knowing got done there. Just last week she had seen Miss Lott going blonde. Lott had become a superstar even in the Human world, though, as she had told Fern (or at least Fern had been close enough to hear, since their stylists were conversing), due to an awful misunderstanding on the Surface Reidentity Form, Pixie had been put down as name rather than species.). Fern closed her eyes and began to mentally prepare herself for the day, perhaps she could try that rooftop yoga they had going on at the Skygym…
“Fern!” Fern jumped. Before her stood Lacey, Lachlan’s beautiful, but insufferably efficient secretary. “Finally. You’re late. The Boss wants you in his office.” She could almost sense the capitalization. “I’d go now. He’s not in a waiting mood.”
“Fern! Thanks for getting here so promptly!” Lachlan smiled at her as she entered his office. He didn’t sound annoyed. “Sit down, sit down, I just wanted a chat. Whiskey?”
“It’s half nine, Lachlan.”
Lachlan looked at his watch as if surprised. “Ah, so it is. Here’s to half an hours good work! And to your engagement!”
“The wedding’s been delayed.” As well you know. Slightly difficult to perform ancient binding rituals when you have no magic.
“That’s what I wanted to talk about. Mr Grimm, that is, your fiancé, has bought out the company.” Her boss gave a strained smile, and took another sip. “What he wanted with it I’m not sure, perhaps he wants to take an interest in your work. Anyway, we hadn’t caught up in a while and so I thought we could have a chat.” Poor Lachlan, Fern thought. Word was he was hoping to take on the company from Hardlers next year, but now clearly he thought she would get him fired. I could as well. He stopped me from getting married. He would deserve anything he got. Yet there was something pathetic about the old Faery, he seemed to shrink in his chair as she looked at him. His fingers shook as he put the lid back on the bottle. He could have fired you, a voice in her head said, he would have been well within his rights. She sighed.
“I didn’t want to, you know.” He said quietly. “I didn’t ask to have your magic revoked. The Bureau takes these things very seriously. It was that or have you fired. I convinced them it was an honest mistake rather than an attempt to reveal our existence to the Humans. I can get that band off, but I need to be able to prove that you are more of an asset to the Netherworld with your powers than a
‘I can get that band off’, were there ever more beautiful words? She could still get married in the summer, at solstice maybe, perhaps even at Stonehenge, Chris had the connections! “I’ll take on more accounts, work for longer, whatever you need! Just please, please, get this band off.”
Lachlan smiled. “That’s good to hear, but it won’t be necessary. I’ll just need your help on one extra case. One Geranium Carter nee Cross has passed on in Ireland. You met her a few years ago. She put you down as professional executor of her will.” Fern tried to remember, the name did ring a bell. But she saw so many people. “She is the sister of Cowlick Cross, head of the Magic reissue office. Her son should be the sole eligible inheritor. I don’t need to say that assisting Mr Cross could help you hugely.”
“No, I mean yes I would be happy too. Anything to help.” One case? That was it? Fern felt like laughing. She was getting married! Someone needed to check if Stonehenge was free immediately, and send out the invites. It was frightfully bad form to send them late and besides then people might have other plans and she needed everyone who was anyone to come. Lachlan was still talking.
“-so it should be a simple case of locating any additional funds and organising the inheritance tax. It shouldn’t take more than a week or two. I thought you could treat it like a holiday, get to know The Homeland a little bit. People just don’t seem as interested in it as they used too.”
Fern froze. “A holiday? In… in Ireland? I have to, I have to go to… Ireland?” But it was cold in Ireland. And it rained. Rain was an awful side effect of the Human world, that resulted in unpleasant dampness and colds. Other than that Fern knew nothing about it.
Lachlan had either not noticed her dismay or was valiantly ignoring it. “Yes, but like I say, not for long. Many would jump at the chance, Mortalworld visas just aren’t given out like they used to be. It’s a golden opportunity.” Fern felt herself shrink into herself. ‘A golden opportunity’, easy for him to say, he didn’t have to go. She found herself thinking up an excuse, any excuse to not have to travel to the birthplace of her species. But then she caught sight of the iron band around her wrist and straightened up. One week in Ireland and then the wedding. One week in Ireland and then the rest of her three-hundred years as a part of High society, with expensive dresses and her magic back. She could do this. If Chris could buy out an entire firm for her then she could do this!
‘Now boarding shuttle to Galway, Ireland.’ The words flashed up on the screen as the occupants of the previous shuttle (Madrid) dispersed into the crowd. Fern looked back at the busy terminal. He hadn’t come. She was doing all this for him, for their wedding and he hadn’t come! Standing on the cobbled streets of the Netherworld, Fern tried to resist the urge to cry. It wouldn’t be professional, and her outfit was perfectly put together to look professional. With one final glance she spun on her (well-shod) heel and marched into the shuttle, flashing her visa card. As soon as the doors slid shut she burst into tears.
The only occupant of the shuttle was a tall old man, having a coughing fit in the corner. Fern grimaced and turned away, wiping her eyes. As she did so she caught sight of herself in the window, dark as the blackness of the inter-dimensional void whipped past. She looked good, if she said so herself. Smart, professional, accountant-y, but still pretty, in a knee-length dress that matched her candy-floss hair. So what if he hadn’t come? He was a busy man, and she was a strong independent woman, who didn’t need to be cooed over. She felt herself straighten up. If she worked fast perhaps she could do it in a day or so and get back to the cosmopolitan metropolis that was her natural habitat. Besides rural-style weddings were in, she could just look at the whole thing as an inspiration gathering expedition. The shuttle hit turbulence and she sat down, pulling an empty notebook (pink, of course) from her handbag. Wedding Ideas – property of (nearly!) Mrs Fern Grimm. There! She put down the pen and smiled, holding up her ring to the light and watching the tiny dancing dots of light that it cast upon the walls. It was going to be alright.
Ding! Fern jumped. ‘Now approaching Galway.’ the voice of the Tannoy announced. Hurriedly, she shoved the notebook into her bag. As she did so, an envelope fell out. Briefing. It was Lachlan’s typical scrawl. She opened it. Enclosed is a copy of The Will. She checked. There it was along with a scrawled home address and a packet of bank notes. You will need to locate the son. I have very little information about him, except that his name is Fergus Carter. I also need you to organise accounts and taxes and check that there are no conflicting wills. You are the professional Executor, and I need you to deal only with the physical financial assets, Mr Cross was very clear about that. All details must be kept absolutely confidential. Please be discreet. The deceased lived in a Human area.
A Human area. Ew. Fern thought as she folded up the note and slid it into the envelope. The Shuttle doors opened. Outside the sky was black with rain, the streets empty. So much for my beautiful outfit. Picking up her suitcase she marched into the storm, feeling immediately the water seeping down into her very core. Hair plastered to her face, she stepped out into the street, looking for any sign of where exactly she was. Behind her the shuttle doors closed and it vanished back into the void. Where it had stood was a low, rickety shed in some human’s front garden. No going back now. “Taxi!”
“Are you certain you’re thinking of the right place?” They had been driving for hours, and she had watched as the houses had turned into cottages and the cottages had turned into trees and the trees had turned into hills with sheep perched precariously on them. Night had fallen. It was still raining.
“As certain as te las’ t’urteen times ye asked.” The taxi driver turned round and looked at the woman in the back of his cab. Somehow she reminded him of a fluffy dog that had got caught in the rain; smaller than expected, hopelessly bedraggled, and yapping constantly. Londoners. “Nearly dere now though. Dare’s te town up ahead.”
‘Town’ seemed to be a slight overstatement to Fern. It was a jumble of low lying buildings that seemed to be trying to shelter themselves from the never-ending rain by huddling together. The driver turned off before they reached it and drove up a muddy track. If the houses below were sheltering, then the building at the top of the hill was the village idiot. Low and weatherbeaten, but with firelight blazing from one window, it seemed to be taunting the wind to come and get it.
Which, under the circumstances seemed dangerous. “Tat’ll be seventy, Ma’am.” Yes. Money. Fern unpeeled a few of the little bits of paper. Human money made no sense. The driver looked down at the pile of fiftys in his hand, then up at the pink haired woman getting out of the car. “Er, D’ja want change from that? Ma’am?” But she was gone, trying to lug the suitcase up the remainder of the hill in heels. One came off and stayed stuck in the mud. “God help her.” He muttered as he turned the cab around and began the long drive home.
Fern rang the bell, and looked down at herself. So much for professional. She could feel the mascara on her cheeks and the one stocking leg covered in mud. In one hand she held her suitcase, in the other, one shoe. The lack of heel made one leg look longer than the other, so she tilted like a sinking ship. The door opened.
“Hi there.” The man inside was tall and would perhaps have been handsome if it weren’t for the three-day beard and tired eyes. He spoke with an Irish accent, but it was softer than the cab driver’s. If he was surprised to see her, he didn’t show it. Fergus, I’m guessing. “What do you want?”
“I’m sorry for calling so late-”
“You should be. People could be sleeping.”
“And yet you weren’t.” She could feel the rain trickling down her neck. Careful, Fern, she told herself, he’s a new client and has just come into a lot of money. It would be good to keep him in the firm. In Chris’ firm. You work for him now. “I’m here to discuss the affairs of a Mrs Geranium Carter.”
“Geranium?” She saw a smile through the fuzz on his chin. “Now that’s a stupid name.”
“Sorry, sir. I was informed that-”
“That a Mr and Mrs Carter lived here?” He rubbed his eyes. “Come on in. You’ll be meaning Jenny Carter.” He stepped aside, and walked to the stove. “I didn’t mean to be impolite, I’m just not used to being called upon in the middle of the night. I thought all the paper work and pleasantries were done for the day.” He went to the cupboard. “Tea? Or something stronger?” Fern smiled as she stepped into the house. The room was small, but cozy, filled with racks of pans and shelves of cups wreathed in dry hops. It smelt of the fire that cracked in the corner. “Close the door. Were you born in a blinkin’ barn?”
She did so hurriedly and sat down at the wide table which almost filled the room. It was wooden, and covered in dark rings. Not the type to use coasters, I see. “Tea please, and I’m sorry if I woke you.” She watched as he filled the kettle and placed it on the stove.
“I haven’t slept much, if I’m honest. I don’t understand how you can be here on minute and then gone.” He paused and looked out at the night. She saw him swallow and then shake his head as the kettle began to whistle. She watched him make the tea. A moment later he was sitting down across from her, two steaming cups in his hands. She loved tea, not that she would admit it. It was much more cosmopolitan to love espressos or Skinny Chai Lattes. “But,” He began again in that lilting accent, “you’re not here to listen to me talk about them. You’re here about money, I’m guessing.”
“Yes, I’m Jenny’s accountant.”
He nodded. “I thought so, though you don’t look like one. You’re too… Pink.”
She rolled her eyes. “I like pink! And I am really sorry to call so late, the journey was further than I thought it would be. Do you know any hotels nearby?”
“No Hiltons, though there is a little B and B, quite quaint I’m told, with a ruggedly handsome farm hand.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card that read ‘Brede’s Farm Bed and Breakfast’. She picked it up and examined it.
“Quite right, Your room is right this way ma’am.” He picked up her suitcase and bowed low like a servant to some conquistador. She laughed.
She awoke to the smell of sizzling bacon, and for a moment forgot where she was. There was a strange music coming from outside the window. Flutes maybe? Birds, her brain filled in the gap and it all came rushing back. She dressed (pink shift dress and flats- no more heels were to be eaten by Irish mud) and made her way to the kitchen. A steaming plate of eggs and bacon, black pudding and beans sat at one end of the table. Fergus was nowhere to be seen, though the discarded muddy boots and open door told her he was up. She went to the door to close it, and felt her breath catch in her throat. It was like flying. She could see for miles. There was nothing but rolling hills and blue sky and the smell of grass crushed by the rain. “Beautiful, huh?” He was walking towards her round the side of the house, clean-shaven and with a handful of green. He really was very good-looking. She opened her mouth to reply but then stopped in shocked horror and began to laugh.
“Are those… are those… Crocs?” She said between gales of laughter. He looked down. “Yes. Why are they funny?”
She was bent double, “You’re still wearing socks! As if it wasn’t bad enough already!” He looked at her and began to smile.
“At least they’re not heels. At least I didn’t try to come to the Irish countryside in heels! In spring! You’re completely batty.”
“I’m not taking fashion advice from a croc-wearer!” “Crazy-lady!”
“I know you are, but what am I?”
“You just- Did you- With insults like that, about ten years old, I hoping!”
She laughed and stuck out her tongue. “You started it. Is all that food for me? I haven’t eaten that much for years.”
He kicked off the disgusting shoes and she followed him into the kitchen. “You’ve got to eat to keep your energy up. I’m surprised you’re not sick after yesterday. Must be some kind of pink magic.” He began to rip up the greenery he had brought in from the garden and sprinkle it on the eggs.
She smiled. “Something like that. Parsley?” He nodded.
“Jenny and Niall grew all their own herbs, most of their own food full stop to be honest. I helped with the livestock side of things, I suppose. They were a lovely couple, and Jenny was like a sister to me, I can’t- I can’t believe they’re gone.” He swallowed, hard. Then looked up with a practised smile. “Which we should probably talk about, since it’s why your here. I imagine, financially, she gave it all to her son.”
“I thought- I’m sorry, there’s been a misunderstanding. Jenny wasn’t your mother?”
“No, no. I’m just the sheep guy. Look, hang on.” He left the room. When he returned it was with a child in tow. “This is Fergus. Jenny’s son. I-I suppose my- my ward? I don’t know. Neither of them had family so they left him to me.” The boy had a crayon in his hand. He looked up at her with disinterested eyes, then tugged his arm away from the man who (she now realized) wasn’t Fergus. “He doesn’t like strangers. Autistic and just…” Fern watched as the boy walked away. “Don’t take it personally. He-He hasn’t spoken since it happened, not even to me and I’ve known him since he was born.”
“I’m sorry, I hadn’t- I hadn’t realised. Gods…” The man, this man that wasn’t Fergus put his head in his hands. “This… Changes things. You need to speak to the Bureau.”
“The Bureau? I don’t- I’ve sorted most things out, including Fergus, but you have to help with the financial side of things, I just don’t understand it.” He pulled a sheaf of papers from a shelf. “Here’s the information regarding Fergus, I thought I’d done everything. What’s the Bureau?”
She took the papers from him and looked through it. This wasn’t Bureau legal information. “Gods… Are you… human? Was his father human?”
“What sort of a question is that? Just tell me what I need to do so that Fergus gets the estate when he comes of age. Am I even allowed to live here?”
He’s human. Gods he’s… he’s human. “I have to go.” Fern got up shakily and put down her fork. “I have to- I’m sorry.” The air was cool against her face as she ran down the hill toward the main road. She could hear him calling after her. She fumbled in her handbag for the Magic-mirror (only 6 drachmas from all major retailers, the must have void-messenger!) and threw it into the air. A shimmery circle appeared. “Chris, please.” she told it.
“Connecting to… Chris.” murmured the soft androgynous voice of the circle, then, “Chris couldn’t be reached at this time. Try again?”
Gods, Chris, just once, just once when I need you. “No. Lachlan, please.” This time someone picked up. “Lachlan, gods am I happy to see you!”
“Good to see you too, how’s the case going? Why do you look so worried?”
“Worried? I’m not worried, I just have a question. Not even a relevant question just… a wondering question.” Lachlan nodded. She realized he was in pyjamas. What time was it in the Netherworld? “What would happen if a halfling were to be left in the care of a human? Legally I mean.”
“The son is a halfling! And a child!” Lachlan sat up. “The Bureau would never allow it. Not unless a Feyfolk was present.”
“I didn’t say that! I didn’t say anything! …But supposing he was, and in good hands, what should I do?”
Lachlan picked up a second magic-mirror and threw it into the air. A second circle appeared in the air next to Fern’s head. Moment’s later it was filled with an angry sleep-tousled head. “What the hell is the meaning of this Lachlan? It’s three in the bleeding morning for gods’ sake!”
Lachlan’s voice was cold. “The meaning of this, sir, is that you did not inform us that there was a child involved. Not just any child, a halfling, which, as I’m sure you are aware is a clear breach of the Bureau’s no-contact rule with Humans! Would you rather that I was calling them?”
Mr Cross looked stunned for a moment. When he spoke it was quiet, almost to himself. “Jenny had a kid. She never told me. I knew she was with one of them, a human, but it would have been the end of my political career so I never did anything about it. I thought it was a phase, I thought she’d come home.”
Lachlan shook his head. “Well she didn’t. Her car was hit by a truck and she died and now we have an illegal child to deal with. This is the end of your political career, Mr Cross.”
“Not necessarily.” Fern said quietly. “The child will need a member of the Feyfolk nearby. They could live here, in the human world. The Bureau has no authority here.” Behind Lachlan’s head she could see the cityscape of the Netherworld, all twinkling lights and skyscrapers. Her world, a world she loved. But outside the floating sphere was another world, one that smelled of rain-soaked grass and looked like sheep and crocs-and-socks. Mr Cross was shouting that he couldn’t possibly be expected to give it all up and move to Ireland. “No, sir. But I could.” There was silence. Then Lachlan spoke.
“Fern, think about this. Think what you’ll lose. You’ll age normally in the human world, grow old, die. The magic will disappear. Look at what happened to Jenny. She’s gone. That’s it.”
“Look at the sky, Lachlan.” Behind him, the sun was beginning to rise. “Look at it and think about eternity. An eternity of blue skies, day after day. Can you think of anything worse?” Outside the shimmering sphere she saw the grey clouds approaching. “Goodbye Lachlan, and thank you. Mr Cross, if you could forget we ever had this conversation I think it would be best for all of us.”
“Call disconnected.” whispered the machine. She slipped it into her bag and caught sight of the notepad inside. Wedding ideas. As if reading her thoughts the magic-mirror murmured “Chris calling. Connect?”
Fern took a deep breath before answering. “Yes.” “Darling! You called?”
“Yes. I needed to-”
“Gods, what’s happened to your face? You look awful!” Fern touched her face. “I-ah-I haven’t had time to put on my make-up yet, but listen I needed to-” “Well, do. You look like a hag. I can’t get married to a-”
“We’re moving to Ireland.”
“Don’t interrupt me, darling… Also don’t be stupid. Of course we’re not moving to Ireland.”
Fern looked up at the hill, where the little house stood, bravely facing off against the wind. “Actually, I am. But you don’t have to move with me.”
“I just bought a firm for you! If I tell you not to move to Ireland you bloody well don-” “Call disconnected.”
Fern turned and began her ascent up the hill. Inside the man was sitting with his head in his hands. He looked up at her as she came in, like a drowning man at a boat. “You came back.”
“Thank bloody God, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”
She laughed and sat down next to him. “It’s fine, I’ll sort it.” She said, looking over it with a critical eye, pretending she knew what the hell an Office of Revenue Commissioners was. “That’s why I’m here. But first, why don’t you tell me your name?”
by Isobel Thomas Horton from the United Kingdom