A Doomsday Book for Queen Mab – Entry #6
A census taker travels the length and breadth of the British Isles to survey the land’s supernatural inhabitants.
(I’ve decided to do a series of short vignettes inspired by the December 2012 prompts from the International Story a Day Group. Mostly to keep myself regularly writing and posting in this blog. This is based on the December 6 prompt “One True Path”.)
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“I’m not much of a morning person, but in this case, I vote that we come back tomorrow at eight AM.”
The census taker took out a blue crystal pendulum from her pocket and held it out with an outstretched arm. The pendulum was a pathfinder of somewhat limited use. It could only be used during dusk. Which was why she and the kelpie stayed inside the Sheffield Botanical Gardens after its gates closed for the day. Their natural glamour made sure that they went unnoticed by the human gardeners.
There was no wind and the census taker’s hand was quite still. But the pendulum swayed, giving a tug towards the south.
“Why? We have a full schedule tomorrow. If we want to find Professor Underhill’s cousin, now’s the time to do it.” She did not add that if they found Edward Underhill, she would also gain a clue to the whereabouts of her sister’s stolen pelt.
The kelpie glanced around at the surrounding birch trees that stood towering over the small clearing where they had stopped. In the twilight, the birch trees could have been mistaken for large, shaggy giants. He thought he heard the rustling of leaves even though there was no wind. Was that the sound of a loud squirrel? Or something more dangerous?
“This place is rather unsettling,” he told her.
“Now that’s something,” she said with an amused tone in her voice. She tucked the pathfinder back into her pocket and began walking further into the grove of birch, forcing him to follow. “One would think you would be happy here, being part Unseelie.”
“Ordinarily I would, but I don’t sense any sort of fae powers here.”
“But there is power here. I suppose I can see why you don’t like this place. These trees are listening to us.”
“You’re right. There is power here. But it’s not about the trees. The powers are far more ancient. More elemental.” He shivered and shoved his hands further into his jacket pockets. “I’ve only met an Ancient One once before. I don’t care to meet another one again. I’d rather work as Queen Mab’s court jester.”
She glanced at his hunched figure. “You must have had a rather bad experience.”
“To put it mildly.”
No insect or bird made a sound as they walked toward the southern part of the botanical garden. The ground eventually sloped upward revealing the birch hill. And it was then, when they stepped past a short ridge, that they saw the dark stone wall surrounded by greenery. As they approached, it became apparent that it wasn’t a straight wall. Instead, it curved into a wide circle. A newer iron railing had been installed on top of the wall, but old magic seeped out from the stones to stain the surrounding ground with a thin oily sheen that only certain creatures could detect.
And when the census taker and the kelpie looked over the wall, they saw nothing but impenetrable darkness below.
The census taker took out the pathfinder again and it glittered and twisted when she hung it above the pit. Expecting that particular reaction from the object, she uttered a satisfied exclamation and then took a step away from the wall to look around.
“Well, there’s nothing here so we should probably get going,” the kelpie said in false cheer. “There’s probably a pub downtown with some nice plump bankers. They’re particularly tasty because they’ve mostly been fattened up with expensive company lunches.”
“That does not sound particularly appetizing to me.” The census taker pushed away a couple branches to reveal a flight of stone stairs etched into the side of a ravine. “Come on. This probably leads to the bottom of the pit.”
With a sigh, he trudged after her. “I’m sure we could find one for you who has eaten mostly shrimp cocktails and crab legs.”
“Maybe later. We should…”
A loud, panicked shriek rent the air, cutting off the census taker’s comment. The noise galvanized them and they clambered down the stairs. At the bottom of the ravine, they found a dark, winding pathway leading to the bottom opening of the pit. The census taker reached into her messenger bag to pull out a torch and switched it on. The artificial light did little to penetrate the murk.
“You are one brave selkie,” the kelpie whispered.
“I’m brave because I have to be,” she replied without looking back at him. “My sister’s life depends on it.”
The bottom of the pit was completely subsumed with elemental power. To the ordinary eye, it was an unremarkable bear pit. Dry, round, the dark sky and stars above, and a stone statue of a black bear on its hind legs below. But to the fae eye, the air carried glimmering currents of power swirling and twisting like the coils of an angry serpent. These currents brushed by the census taker and her assistant, briefly curling around them, testing them, but sensing that they were of no consequence to whatever more powerful being resided here, the currents mostly left them alone.
The cry came again. Now closer, the kelpie was more certain of its frequencies now. “No mistaking it,” he said. “That’s definitely a gnome. The only other creature who sounds more annoying than that is Puck, after he’s smoked one too many dandelions.”
Beside the entrance to the pit were two other openings to other dark stone chambers. Most of the magical currents were flowing to and from the right opening so naturally, that was where the census taker went first. And despite the cold sweat that had broken out on the kelpie’s brow, he followed her again even though he was certain that this was probably a very stupid thing to do. One of his hands crept up to touch clasp of the saddlebag draped on his shoulder. If worse came to worse, there was always the molasses.
Around a short curve of the wall from the opening, they came to a stone room, weakly lit by moonlight which shone through a window barred by more iron. But that was enough light for them to see a gnome with a large gray beard and a red conic cap, wrapped up in rope and strung from the ceiling. A gigantic black bear with silver eyes played with the gnome like a swingball by using his wide fat paws with curving claws as racquets.
The bear wore the magic currents like a swirling cape. An Ancient One. At that realization, the kelpie could not help but to grab the census taker’s arm, ready to flee if the bear decided he wanted new toys.
“Help! Help! Help!” screamed Edward Underhill.
At the gnome’s pleas, the bear gave him a particularly powerful swat before turning to look at his new visitors.
I SEE YOU’VE COME FOR THE GNOME.
“Yes,” said the census taker. Her voice was calm, but her hand had found the kelpie’s. He felt her fingers bite into his palm, but he made no sound or indication that he was feeling any pain. “His cousin is very worried about him. We’ve come to take him home.”
THE GNOME HAS PROVIDED MUCH AMUSEMENT THIS PAST WEEK, the Ancient Bear replied. IF YOU WANT HIM, YOU MUST TRADE FOR HIM.
“Trade?” she glanced at the kelpie, her eyes gleaming with nervousness. “What do you want as trade?”
SOMETHING THAT WILL AMUSE ME. IT IS BORING IN THIS PIT.
“Ah, I know!” said the kelpie suddenly. He hastily opened his saddlebag and drew out one of the jars of magical molasses that he had bought at the record store. “How about this?” He tossed the jar at the bear.
The Ancient Bear easily caught the jar with a paw and managed to unscrew the lid with a dextrous use of his claws. He dipped a claw into the molasses and then gave a lick with a large pink tongue. His silver eyes turned red, then purple, then gold, and then silver again.
THIS IS BETTER THAN HONEY.
With a swipe of a claw, the Ancient Bear sliced down the rope holding the gnome. Edward Underhill crashed down onto the ground, wailing like a banshee. The census taker made her way toward the gnome and made a shushing motion.
“Quiet. We’re getting you out of here,” she whispered. She cast a brief glance at the Ancient Bear who was at the moment, preoccupied by the jar of molasses.
Quickly, the kelpie tucked the crying gnome under one arm. And the three of them pushed past the thick magical currents to get out of the pit. As they finally crossed the threshold to set foot on the winding path at the bottom of the ravine, they could still hear the Ancient One, humming in pleasure.
YUM, YUM. BETTER THAN HONEY. BETTER THAN HONEY.
“We can’t stop now,” the kelpie said as the census taker paused to look back. “We need to be very far away from here when he realizes that I only gave him one jar.”
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Additional note: Yes, the bear pit at the Sheffield Botanical Gardens does indeed exist.