Same shit, different day.
The slogan had been on the ‘fridge so long that John opened the door without consciously registering it. Had he been asked about it he would probably say it was true; get breakfast, go to work, come home, have a pizza and a beer, watch some TV, play some games, go to bed, and repeat. That was just the routine of existence, common to most. He’d originally put the magnet on a different ‘fridge when he was fresh out the army. He’d been young, disillusioned and as cheaply cynical as the statement. But that was 12 years ago. John poured milk onto his muesli and shut the ‘fridge door.
He made a fresh coffee and took a moment to look out of the window at his garden. This was the best time of the year for it. Spring was really getting into gear and the garden was bursting with potential. Vibrant greens and freshly minted leaves were bringing hope and life back after the frigid void of winter. He took a sip of too hot coffee and just enjoyed the moment. Perhaps if he’d have been asked about the sticker he would just be a little embarrassed by its trite nihilism and dismissed it as an old memento.
After breakfast he ran through his mental checklist; food, flask, ‘phone, keys, boots, then set off for work. He worked for a van courier firm. He lived in Runcorn, between Liverpool and Manchester, so there was always plenty of work. He parked his Mercedes Sprinter van by the loading area and went in to collect his run paperwork.
“Morning Petr.” The office manager looked up from his laptop to grunt something noncommittal.
“What exciting things have you got for me today?”
Petr always gave the impression of doing ten jobs at once, always under immense pressure. It was just how he made himself feel important, John thought.
“Actually,” Petr said, as if suddenly remembering from the host of things he was currently juggling, “you’ve got an interesting one today.”
John was instantly suspicious. “Define ‘interesting’.”
“Well, you are going off the map.” ‘There be dragons!’ John thought, but didn’t know if Petr would get the reference. “It’s in Wales. We have instructions from after some place called Llangadog, but on Google maps it doesn’t exist.”
“Hang on, Petr. If I’m pissing about looking for a drop in Wales that’s off the satnav, I am going to be losing serious money.”
“It’s a special. The customer has agreed..” he paused a little too long “£200 for the one drop.”
“Nice try, Petr. How much is this drop worth?”
That was a lot of money for one drop. John suspected Petr was holding out on him, but he didn’t want to push his luck.
“OK. So what are the details?”
Petr tossed him a folder and went back to being performatively busy.
John looked through the pack. Go to Wales, LLangadog, then hand written notes, presumably taken from ‘phone instructions, detailing a route. Collect a parcel, take it to an address, again handwritten notes, in Salisbury. It must be new builds, John reasoned. Odd that both addresses were new build, but if the directions were good he was happy to do the job.
“OK.” John said. “Have a good one.” But Petr was far too busy to acknowledge him.
The journey to Wales was slow. M56, M53, then smaller and smaller A roads until he was on the A4069. Had the satnav not alerted him he might have missed LLangadog altogether. It was just cluster of houses built on what was roughly a T junction of the road. Apparently this was as far as the satnav could take him so he followed the notes, to the left at the junction. The next thing he had to look out for was a track between two oaks, just over a mile further. There was an underlined note saying he wasn’t allowed in before 12.00 noon. It was 11.35 now, he’d find it and see if he could take the collection early. Getting out of the heart of South Wales was going to take him long enough without waiting about. He checked the milometer. A mile. Nothing. 2 miles. Still nothing. Even down these small roads two oaks would be pretty hard to miss. He made it into another cluster of houses without seeing the oaks and pulled over.
He checked his notes again. LLangadog, left at the T, along the A4069, just over a mile later, turn left onto the track between two oak, collect from somewhere called Ethlethlon Care. Well, it wasn’t on Google maps. There was nothing for it, he’d have to ask someone. Grabbing his notes he got out of the van and approached an old woman walking her dog.
“Excuse me, love. I’m a bit lost could you help?”
The woman seemed pleased to help. “I should think so, there’s not much around here I don’t know. What are you looking for?”
“Well, my directions take me to LLangadog” she took a second with his pronunciation then nodded “left at the T junction” another nod “the the track between the two oaks” her brow furrowed “collect at Ethlethlon Care. A care home?”
She looked at his notes. “Ethlethlon Care? Oh dear.” She gave him a look. “I hope you haven’t come far.”
“Sorry? What’s up?”
” I think Ethlethlon Care is a bad English spelling of Ellyllon Caer. It means Fort of the Fair Folk, or Fairies. I think someone’s playing a prank on you.”
John bit back the impulse to swear. It wasn’t the woman’s fault. She was trying to helping him. He took a deep breath. And let it out. He tried a rueful grin that he certainly didn’t feel. “Well, they really got me. Thanks for letting me know before I wasted all day.” He turned back to the van. “If I find a pot of gold under a rainbow on the way home, I’ll give you half.
The old lady clucked her dog and wandered off.
That’s going to be all over Facebook in an hour, John mused. ‘English pillock looks for fairies, LMAO!’
As soon as he’d closed the van door he snatched his ‘phone out. Bloody Petr was paying him for this, practical joke or not. By the time he got back that would be a full day and a full tank of diesel wasted. No signal. Huh, they were right about that at least. He span the van around and headed back to LLangadog for a signal. He was furious. Petr was sure as hell paying him. One way or another. Petr had wound him up, made him think he was on a good money run, just to piss him off. Well, he’d succeeded 1000%, now he was going to pay for it. John was so incensed that it took him a second to register what he saw. On the right of the road were two huge oak trees with the barest impression of track running between them.
He pulled between the oaks and stopped. He opened his door to hear the last chimes of twelve drifting on the stiff, Welsh wind and and gawped at the oaks. He was a townie but he was sure oaks weren’t supposed to be that big. Or green. Or just tree-y. He couldn’t say why but they just seemed more tree-y than any real tree. Sort of uber-trees from which lesser trees had sprung. The one thing the oaks were not, was possible to miss.
John felt off balance, like he’d stepped off the last stair only to find he was already at the bottom of them. A sudden, jarring moment that shook him out of the ordinary. There were a lot of questions buzzing at the back of his head, but he felt too overwhelmed to think about them.
He dragged his gaze from the trees and let his eyes drift to the ground. Lush, verdant grass, too full of life. He turned around to face his van. White, solid, normal, somewhat out of place. He placed a hand on the reassuring normality of the van and dared to move his gaze. His eyes picked out the barely there impression of a trail and he followed it’s path. Flattened grass, the furthest reaches of twigs snapped off bushes and trees, around a further tree, then … a house?
A structure of some sort. It was too angular to be a natural formation.
With one hand touching the van at all times John returned to the driver’s side and got in. He slammed the door firmly and let out a deep breath he hadn’t been aware he was holding. A wave of relief he couldn’t explain, washed over him. Looking out of the window, feeling somehow safe, he immediately started rationalising. It’s just a field, he glanced in his mirrors, just trees. He couldn’t understand it. It wasn’t like him to get spooked over nothing.
He started the van and carefully inched towards the structure. He couldn’t see what was hidden in the grass and didn’t want to hit a rock. He rounded the tree and looked at Ellyllon Caer. The name was a lot fancier than the building, he thought. It was a one story, stone, square with what looked like tiles made of flat chunks of rock. It gave the impression of being more industrial than domestic, and sturdier and more resilient then either.
“Cosy.” John muttered. He pulled up outside and went to open the van door. He stopped, hand on the lever, overcome with reluctance. Just open the door. It’s just a field. And a stone house. Open. The . Door.
John stifled a scream as he snapped his head around, heart pounding, to see a man by his passenger door. The man knocked again and waved him out. John snatched the door open, angry with himself and got out before he could think about it.
TOO MUCH LIFE, EVERYTHING WRONG!
John forced a smile. Ignore it, ignore it. If you can convince other’s you’re sane you can convince yourself. Oh no, not this again. Please no. “Hi” he said brightly, “Rapido Couriers, here for a collection.”
John observed the man closely. He was taller then him, about 5′ 10″, medium build,possibly 50 or 60, very short brown hair and bald on top, and seemed overdressed for the location. He had on shiny black shoes, smart black trousers, a white shirt and tie. John would have bet money he had a waistcoat and a tweed jacket on the back of a chair inside the house. All of these details registered as John observed him closely for any telltale signs. There were none. The body language hadn’t changed, his face remained in a politely friendly expression. He hadn’t noticed, John was acting sane. He could do this. If he could just get the collection and get his arse back through those trees he felt he would be fine again. It’s just a blip. Bloody Wales.
The man took the few paces separating them and held out his hand, “Stephen Baxter.” John shook it and said “John Davies” in return.
“Nice to meet you John. I see you found the place alright, can be tricky, being off the map.” John still felt on the verge of panic and was ultra sensitive to every detail. As Stephen said that, John saw he was amused. It was the slightest crease of his eyes, but it leapt out at him. Stephen knew! It wasn’t him. There was something weird, it was real and external and that bastard knew it! He knew it was freaking John out, and was laughing at him!
Rage swept over John, washing away his fear. He consciously relaxed. Breathe, just breathe, he smiled with all the insincerity he could muster and said, “Wales, eh?”
The hidden laughter stopped. Stephen looked closely at John, suddenly cautious.
John stayed in character; inoffensive. Oblivious to the mood. A transparent and open honest Joe, working guy. Behind his smile he quietly raged.
Again he passed inspection, but the laughter didn’t return. “Right then. I’ll just go and get the package.” Stephen walked around the front of the house, disappearing from view down the opposite side. Even so, John walked around to the far side of the van before hissing “Find the place? Take the piss out me? Wanker!” He was furious. He stamped up and down the length of the van, resisting the urge to punch it. He allowed himself a minute then started his breathing techniques. In for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, all out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds. A few repetitions and he started to feel calm again. He walked back around the van and waited. Impassive and open.
Stephen returned shortly after carrying a rough cloth backpack and a three foot long bundle of cloth. John opened the van side door and reached for the bundle. Stephen hesitated, then reluctantly handed over the bundle. Something about it, perhaps the weight or the balance of the bundle, Stephen’s peculiar reluctance of to hand it over, or his sudden shift of body language, made John immediately think it was weapons.
He laid the bundle in the van then turned to Stephen. “I’m going to have to do a quick visual check of the load” he said, as though it was standard protocol.
Stephen clearly wasn’t happy, he started to reply but John beat him to it.
“This is not a standard delivery, is it? There’s something going on that I don’t know about. I don’t need to know about it, that’s fine, but I do need to know that those aren’t illegal weapons. If you don’t want to show me what this is” he gestured at the bundle “then I’m not going to be able to take it, sorry.”
As the words were leaving his mouth John was struggling to justify them. It was just a parcel. He’d never opened a parcel to check it’s contents in his life. If Stephen was part of a terrorist or criminal gang they wouldn’t want to hire a courier and make it traceable. On the other hand, why call someone from Runcorn to Wales, pay massively over the odds, for a van, to make a delivery that could easily be made in a car? This was just justification. His logical mind trying to rationalise what he already knew. This whole affair was bent and that bundle was weapons. He watched Stephen closely. He didn’t look like much of a fighter, but if he was an armed gun runner then things could quickly turn very serious, John feared.
Stephen eyed him for a few seconds as if testing his resolve. John radiated inoffensive placidity. He reached a decision and broke into a friendly smile that did the opposite of putting John at his ease. “How perceptive of you!” He chuckled at the big joke and reached past John. John swiveled to his side, never taking his eyes off Stephen’s hands. As Stephen leaned over the bundle John was searching him with his eyes for conspicuous bulges under his armpits or in his waistband. There were none. Stephen started to unwrap the cloth. John tensed, ready to throw himself forward and club Stephen senseless with his fists at the first sight of a gun.
“Ta da!” With a flourish and a chuckle he threw back the cover.
John stared at them, dumbfounded. He had known the bundle was dangerous weapons. Known it with absolute certainty. But they were just some old swords. He was going through too much to keep track. How had he known? Why was he so shocked to be wrong? “Just some”, his hand reached out to touch the hilt, “dumbarse swor”, his fingers touched the metal “LETHAL WEAPONS!” He snatched his hand back as though scalded.
Stephen chose not to notice. “Well, that’s all settled. Are we ready to go now?”
Act professionally, John. “Sure. Sorry about that. You can’t be too careful with the terrorists and such. You know how it is. Thanks for” he looked at the swords and suppressed a shudder “putting my mind at rest.”
He stepped into the van, carefully wrapped the swords without touching them, and lashed them to the bulkhead. Stephen passed him the sack, John was relieved to feel nothing from it, then quietly horrified he was starting to believe in some sixth sense intuition. He ran the ratchet strap through the shoulder straps and secured it. He looked at the vast majority of his van, empty. This was all wrong.
“Have you got the paperwork for me to sign?” John fell back into character to play the weird scene out.
“No, we’re good to go.”
Stephen opened the passenger door and sat in the van.
“Sorry. I am a parcel courier, not a taxi.”
“This is a special, you said so yourself. I need to travel with the parcel to ensure it’s safety.”
Today was going horribly sideways. John felt totally wrong footed. None of this had ever happened to him before, he had no precedent. He reverted to logic. “I’m sorry I can’t take you. I’m not insured to carry fares.”
“Don’t worry. You are being paid to carry the parcel. I’m just along for the ride.” He made a show of checking his mechanical watch.
John had had enough of today. He just wanted it over.
“OK. Let’s do this.”
John got in and started the engine.
“You’re probably best reversing out, it’s pretty rough ground off the track.”
The only real ‘track’ was the tyre tracks he had just left, John thought,but he was getting beyond the point of arguing.
He slowly reversed back out. As he approached the oaks Stephen said “Stop a second. I’ll get out and make sure there’s nothing coming on the road.”
John watched him in his mirror. He walked between the trees and waved for John to reverse. As the back of the van cleared the oaks there was a resounding BANG! of something smashing into his van. John stamped on the brakes and looked at the sound. There was a hole in the side of his van the size of a football, with pea sized holes surrounding it. Before he’d had time to process it, another BANG! and another hole, halfway down the van this time. “That was a gunshot! What the fuck?”
Stephen opened the passenger door, crouching low, and threw himself into the van. “Drive! Forwards! GO!”
John slammed it into gear and shot forward.
Stephen fumbled under his shirt, drawing out a chain with a rough medallion on it. He shouted a phrase John couldn’t understand and struck the medallion down hard onto the gearstick. On the second blow the medallion broke into three pieces. John felt a prickling sensation rush over him and a sense of vertigo.
“Stop now.” Stephen said, “They can’t follow us.”
John was more than ready to argue the point. “Are you kidding me? They are right” he dared a glance in his mirrors. The road was gone. Between the oaks was just more grass. “….What?” He stopped the van, leaving it running and jumped out. The road was gone. The trees were in an endless, well, landscape. He cautiously crept forward, ready to sprint back to the van. The road wasn’t there anymore. Stephen called him back but he ignored him. He got level with the trees, still no road. Through the trees and around them. Just more grass stretching to the line of trees that seemed to circle them, some way in the distance.
Stephen was standing by the van waiting for him as he returned.
John’s head was spinning. He looked at the holes in his van. “You’re paying for that.”
Stephen started laughing.
“Really? Someone tries to kill you, you’re trapped in Fairie, and you are bitching about holes in your van?”
John snapped back, anger consuming him again “You bet I’m bitching! You are going to… ” he trailed off as his brain processed the rest of Stephen’s sentence.
“Kill me? Fairie? What the hell are you talking about?”
Stephen gestured at the holes in the van “Kill you”, he swept his arm around to encompass everything else “Fairie”. He didn’t wait for John to reply. “Come on, looks like we are doing this the old fashioned way.” He slid the van door open and started to undo the ratchet straps. He pulled the sack onto his back and unwrapped the swords. As he lifted one up John saw it was on a sturdy leather belt. Stephen fastened it around his waist, then handed John the other. John looked at him blankly. “Put it on. It’s by far the easiest way to carry a sword.” That made sense. John gingerly took it LETHAL WEAPON! and strapped it on. “And your life may well depend on it.” Stephen added. “I expect you’ve got questions” the biggest understatement John had ever heard “but now is not the time. The door is shut, we haven’t got long.”
John wasn’t about to drop it. He opened his mouth to ask questions and demand answers but Stephen shushed him. “Listen.” John though he could hear a faint trumpet or something. He looked blank. “It’s a horn. The Hunt is coming.”
Stephen opened his rucksack and drew out two garments. He put one on and gave the other to John. They were full length, green/ brown, hooded coats. John knew camouflage when he saw it and put it on immediately. Stephen put a finger to his lips then, one hand holding his sword to his thigh, set off at jog. John looked at him, looked around and came to a decision. He ran around, pulled his keys and his bag from the van, and jogged after him.
Stephen kept up a steady pace away from the house and trees. Shortly they approached a hilltop and Stephen stopped. John took a second to look around. In front of them was a seemingly solid wall of trees, it swept along the bottom of the hill in both directions. It seemed the house was in a clearing of a massive, impenetrable woods.
Stephen waved John back, dropped down, then crawled forward to look over the crest of the hill. John hadn’t seen anything but trees, but rather than skyline himself he followed suit. He pulled his hood over his head and stared around, unmoving. He was used to ‘stand to’ from his army day, this was awakening old routines and habits. He heard something. Not moving his head he tracked with his eyes. The trees were too dense. He stared at the sound but couldn’t make anything out. He glanced at Stephen, ready to alert him, but he was already staring intently in that direction. Good.
The sweat from the jog was cooling and John was starting to get cold and itchy. Still he held his position.
The horn sounded again, but so loud and close as to make John start. He looked at Stephen, who hadn’t moved. John held.
The strange pricking and feeling of vertigo washed over him again. Where there had been an impenetrable wall of forest suddenly there was a gap and a path leading into it. It was quite a way to the left of their position, but it was made conspicuous by the light streaming through the otherwise dark trees. John stared at it. He was sure that hadn’t been there. He looked at Stephen again, wondering whether to risk asking him about it, but Stephen was focused intently on the path.
The horn sounded again, this time so loud that a small, animal, whimper escaped John before he could consciously stop it. Somehow, even over the blare of the horn, Stephen heard it. He glared at John, finger on his lips. John could only nod, shamed. They both turned their attention back to the path. John hadn’t realised how quiet and still everything was until the quiet was shattered as a party of bodies burst out from the trees along the path. They were too far away to make out details but John could make out light brown limbs flashing in and out of green and brown long cloaks. The cloaks were like black holes, noticeable by absence. A shimmer of blurry background from which sprouted limbs, incongruously. John wondered at the point of such exquisite camouflage when the people wearing them were screaming and whooping at the top of their lungs. The party looked to be about 30 or 40 strong. It was hard to hold any individual in focus so John was just working off an impression of their number. One of them stopped and raised a long, corkscrew shaped horn to his lips, John braced himself, the figure blew the horn. The noise was incredible. John felt it vibrate through his body, but he managed to stay silent. The pack cheered and laughed and carried on running, from the path between the trees, across the small divide, then up the side of the hill. As they disappeared from sight, blocked by the hill, Stephen gave an emphatic wave, got up to a hunched over stance, and started carefully descending. John crept after him. They got to the bottom and edged along in the direction of the path. The noise from the figures was receding as they worked their way along. Stephen stayed close to the hill and proceeded with caution. He got level with the path and stopped, listening intently. Seemingly satisfied, he signaled to John. Palm up, then he pointed at the path through the gap in the trees, pointed the finger to himself and John, then again to the path. He looked expectantly at John, who nodded, he nodded back. He raised one hand fingers splayed, 5,4,3,2,1, then thrust his arm forward as he sprinted across the open land, John besides him.
As soon as they cleared the treeline Stephen threw himself down and cautiously looked around. John stood in the middle of the path and gawped, stunned. Stephen quickly pulled him down. John was beyond confused. It had been a nice spring morning when he left for work. Bright, but a bit cold. Inside the trees, now he stopped to think about it, had been warmer and the grass was long, the trees in leaf, but now it was a roasting summer day. Ahead of him there was no forest, but fields of grass and beautiful, exotic flowers. He would have sworn there was a dense and seemingly endless forest. Had it just one layer of densely planted trees? He looked back and the path lead straight to the hill they’d just left, the tips of the giant oaks a green fuzz over the hill crest. There was no forest at all.
He’d been overwhelmed by the life and vibrancy of the place when he got out of the van. Now he realised that was just a sample, this was the whole. Everything here was so vital, so bursting with life and energy, he felt stunned by it.
He felt tears of joy welling up, all fear of the hunt forgotten.
If Stephen felt the awe and joy of this living world he gave no sign. Satisfied they hadn’t been seen, he again stood up, pulling John with him, and set off at a jog.
John had kept himself fit, but hadn’t run since he’d left the army. On another day, in another place, his legs would have been cramping and he would have been miserable by now. He didn’t even notice his legs,he felt like he’d just taken the best amphetamines ever made. He was flushed, indefatigable, and wanted to run forever. He’d got himself clean after a prolonged bad patch when he left the army, but in all of his drug binges he’d never felt this good. This didn’t feel like a false high, he felt literally high on life. Even as he was relishing it a part of his brain was wondering about the comedown, about cold turkey, about whether he would ever be able to give up feeling like this. He knew he had an addictive personality and a self destructive bent. There was lots to think about, but he was too far gone to care. It was all he could do to not throw his head back and laugh and shout in rapture. Stephen was keeping a stern eye on him and pulling him along whenever he seemed too distracted. It wasn’t until hours later, in the shelter of some orange and purple bushes, miles from the path, that he started to sober up. It was growing dusk when he looked around and was surprised to find himself sat in front of a fire.
Stephen noticed John regaining his senses and looking around confused.
“It can get you like that. The day life is winding down now, the night life is a lot less overwhelming.”
“What?” He gestured around to take everything in “What?” He had so much to ask he didn’t know where to begin “What?”
“You need to be alert and sober enough to frame question before you’ll absorb the answers. Here.” He stood up and demonstrated how to detach his sword and scabbard from his belt. He motioned for John to do the same. John held the sword and scabbard in front of himself, looking at it, confused. Stephen swung at him. By some reflex John managed to block the blow, stepping to one side. His legs cramped and with a grunt he stumbled forward. Stephen pirouetted with him, still holding him at bay with his sword, and laughed as he crumpled to the ground. “You really need to stretch off after running!” He laughed again. John realised he’d been through too much today to feel the usual flood of anger. At least his brain was working again. He flexed his legs then rubbed the sore muscles.
“Good, good. You seem back with us again. I’ll get some food on for you and tell you a story.” Stephen pulled a mess tin out of his bag, poured in some water from a canteen, then added something that looked like bright yellow carrots and a few other things John didn’t recognise, then put them on the embers at the side of the fire. He handed the canteen to John who took a mouthful then drank greedily, suddenly thirsty. He paused, reluctantly. “Can we get more water, or has this got to last?”
Stephen waved him to continue, “There are plenty of clean stream here. Most everything is clean here.”
The water had an immediate effect on John, all his confusion and weariness dropped off in seconds, his cramping muscles relaxed and his brain felt sharp and focused.
“Here?” he prompted.
Although he’d just promised a story, Stephen seemed reluctant to start explaining.
“OK. A lot of this is going to be a bit weird.” John thought he’d left weird between the uber oaks, since then had been psychedelically bizarre, but he didn’t interrupt. Stephen started ticking off his fingers. “Fairie and Human worlds co-exist. There are ways to cross between them. There are factions on both sides who are for and against that. Fairie draw their powers from the land, so the Human world is fairly safe from them, Humans on this side are either hopelessly outmatched or go over, so Fairie is safe from us. We, Humans, have outposts to observe and stop incursions. Fairie have The Hunt to dissuade stragglers on this side. Ellyllon Caer is an outpost, the space within the clearing is a no-man’s, well, no-being’s, land. That’s the status quo.”
John felt focused and alert. He didn’t even consider denying the fact of a Fairie realm. He felt he was absorbing so much information, from Stephen’s words, his posture, from the crackle of the fire, the dance of the shadows, the cool breeze on his skin, that to argue that such things couldn’t be true would be beyond absurd. He wasn’t high, this was just opening his mind to the minutiae of existence. He knew now that the subtlest intricacies of the universe could be extrapolated from the fall of a leaf. While he held this to be an absolute truth, the drugs part of his brain knew such clarity was sometimes just a psychotic break.
“The quo is not in status, is it?”
Stephen cast a surprised glance at John. His eyes dropped to the canteen, then looked away.
“No. We are approaching a Conjunction. An overlap if you like. Instead of being two separate world divided by