There was one small coffee-shop in the town of Selkirk in the Scottish Borders. And then, quietly and without any fuss, there were two.
"Has that always been there?" said Janet to her two companions one afternoon on the way back from the bus stop. They paused in the street to consider the shop, which fitted nondescriptly in between the surrounding buildings. The facade was forest-green and peeling at the edges, but the name on the sign was bright and shining gold. Carterhaugh Café. There was no sign of life within.
"What's Carterhaugh?" asked Mary, who was new to the area.
"Big forest, out that way," said Janet, jabbing a thumb vaguely westward. "Look, I'm not going mad, am I? This has always been here, right? Back me up, Betsy."
Betsy looked up at the bright paintwork. "Must have been," she said, pointing. "Look, says 'Est. 1969'."
"Huh," said Janet. "So it does." Not that that meant anything, she thought; the chippie down the road claimed to have been there since the seventeenth century and sure, it looked like it was last redecorated in the fifties but claiming it was the 1650s was really pushing it a little.
"Hur, sixty-nine," said Mary, who was twenty-three but hadn't quite realised yet.
"Doesn't your da own the lease to this?" asked Betsy. "Sure I remember you mentioning it."
"Maybe," said Janet slowly. "He owns a few places this end of town. I'll ask him."
"Funny," said Betsy as they continued on their way. "I don't think I've ever seen that place open."
Janet said goodbye to her friends at the end of the road, where she turned left and they turned right. Betsy and Mary lived together in a tiny flat above a corner shop. Betsy taught history in the high school and spent her days trying to convince ungrateful teenagers that they should care about dead kings. Mary, who had blown into town on an east wind with only a backpack full of clothes and cheap pewter jewellery, worked in the corner shop and seemed content to remain there for the foreseeable future. The flat was cold in the winter and stifling in the summer, and there was a family of some sort of rodent living in the roof. Janet was rather envious.
She still lived in the attic of her parents' house in the slightly fancier end of town. Her father's family had been estate agents for several generations now, in a quiet, nondescript sort of way, and there had been a general thought that Janet would take over the business. Her mother, once a bright young thing from a good Scottish-Indian family in Dunfermline, had packed Janet off to St Andrew's in a last-ditch effort to stop that fate from befalling her. Now, four years and one degree in English with Scottish Literature later, a career in the property market was looking increasingly likely.
It being a weekend afternoon, her father was predictably ensconced in his favourite armchair, his face hidden behind the pages of the Southern Reporter.
"Da," she said.
"Hmm?" came the non-committal reply.
"The coffee shop down off West Port. That's one of ours, right? The building, I mean."
There was a long moment of silence.
"Aye," said her father finally, although he didn't sound very sure. "Aye, had that one for years. Me own da had it. I think." And he frowned, and turned the page of his newspaper. "Ah, bloody hell, look what that English prick's done now." And that was that.
Janet thought no more about it for several weeks, until she received a phone call from a rhapsodic Mary. The mysterious coffee-shop, Mary said, was open. And that wasn't all.
"And have you seen the lad working there? Oh my God. Janet, you have to go down there and see. I swear he's like an elf or something, and he has this hair, and these cheekbones, and this voice, and I swear to God he looked at me and he said 'Good morning' and boom. Pregnant."
Mary continued in this strain for some time. Janet nodded and made hum-ing noises where appropriate, but her expectations were not high. Mary found almost every person she met attractive. It wasn't so much that she had low standards, but more that she had a knack for always seeing the best in people. Sometimes it was very charming and restored faith in humanity. Others, like now, it was a little annoying.
"...so anyway, you need to go get coffee now," finished Mary.
"Oh," said Janet, who hadn't been paying that much attention. "Okay. You want to come?"
"I can't," said Mary morosely. "Betsy's new first-years gave her the plague and I don't want to leave her."
"Oh dear. Well, tell her to try not to die before Monday," said Janet sympathetically. "I hear history teachers are in short supply."
"Will do. Okay. You. Coffee. Now." said Mary, and hung up.
Janet looked at her phone for some time. And then, because she couldn't think of a good reason not to, she went out to get coffee.
The sign on the door of the shop said "Open", but there was absolutely no-one inside. Janet let herself in anyway and looked around, on the basis that if they really hadn't wanted her there they should have locked the door. In all honesty, it looked more like a tea shop than a café; there were little round tables with fussy doilies and lace-backed chairs, and vases of flowers on every flat surface. One wall was entirely taken up with a huge mirror. There were roses growing up a trellis to the side of the counter, the biggest, roundest and reddest roses Janet had ever seen. They looked exactly like roses were supposed to look, which was ridiculous because everyone knew that roses didn't really look like that. They were like something out of a fairy-tale. She reached out for a pair on the same stalk, growing so close they seemed like twins. They just didn't look real...
"I wouldnae touch those if I were ye," said a voice like raw silk. She turned, the roses forgotten, and stopped dead.
Janet had met many men that she would describe as "cute", several that she considered "extremely attractive" and the occasional one that warranted the adjective "gorgeous".
The man behind the counter would settle for nothing less than "stunningly beautiful", with a side of "ethereal". His hair was the kind of golden blond you only ever saw on shampoo adverts, pulled back into a ponytail that looked like it reached halfway down his back, and his eyes were the greenish blue of the Yarrow during a summer storm. You could have sharpened knives on his cheekbones. He smiled. Janet's respiratory system promptly failed to function properly. She managed to open her mouth to say "Hello", but to her lasting mortification what came out was a tiny "meep" sound.
Fortunately it was at this moment that the steamer to Janet's left let out a horrible gurgling noise, accompanied by a cloud of milky vapour. The beautiful, stunning, ethereal man turned, cried, "Ah, give over, ye piece o’ shite," and thumped the machine hard on the top. It made a melancholic squeak and was silent. He turned back to Janet. "Sorry about that, luv," he said. "What can I get ye?"
"Ah, caramel mocha latte?" Janet hazarded after a moment of bafflement. The man gave her a winning smile.
“So,” he said, scooping ground beans. “What brings as bonny a lass as ye out here?”
“Er, coffee,” said Janet and immediately felt very foolish. The man laughed, but not unkindly.
“Fair enough, ask a stupid question,” he said. “That’ll be two-thirty, luv. They’re real, by the by.”
“Excuse me?!” Janet exclaimed, caught in the middle of forking over a handful of loose change.
“The roses.” The man nodded at the trellis. “Dinnae look real, aye? Trick’s all in the soil.”
“You grew them?”
“Kinda. They’re the boss’s, but she has me look after ‘em.”
“They’re lovely, if unsettling,” said Janet.
“It’s probably a metaphor,” said the man, handing her a warm polystyrene cup with a nice pattern of... yes, uncanny roses all around it. “Come again, bonny lass,” he added with a wink.
“Janet,” she said unsteadily. “My name’s Janet.”
"Tamas Lane," said the man, after a pause. "Call me Tam."
Tam turned out to be very good company. Quite aside from being aesthetically flawless, he was also funny, friendly and understood Janet’s terrible jokes. He also seemed to be the only one who actually worked there; at least, whenever she went in, he was always there, waiting with a wink and a terrible opening line. She began to make a habit of dropping by at the times she knew the place would be deserted—and in a town of that size that was quite frequently...
"Cappuchino," said Janet, after some intense thought. Tam's eyebrows crept towards his hairline as he considered the back of his hand, the current subject of deep debate.
"Are ye sure? That's overly generous. I was thinking steamed milk."
"You're not that pale!" Janet laid her own hand on the counter next to Tam's. "What about me?"
"Espresso macciato," said Tam immediately, then looked rather embarrassed. It was extremely becoming on him.
"That's very precise."
Tam's eyes narrowed. "Are ye doubting me?" he said, mock-dangerously. "Must I prove it?"
"Go on, then." And Janet watched, fascinated, until two minutes later Tam set down a cup of hot brown coffee next to her hand, and she had to admit that, yes, the colours were almost identical. "Ah, ye have the kennings o' the coffee," she said in the best imitation of her superstitious Grandpa Patrick she could manage. It must have been pretty good because Tam burst into peals of laughter.
"Tamas!" A cold voice rang out from behind the back door. "Tamas, here. Now."
Tam grimaced. "In for it now, I am," he muttered darkly.
Janet mouthed "Sorry!". Tam gave her an apologetic look and disappeared through the door. Janet had a brief glimpse of sharp, stern eyes before it swung shut behind him.
She saw herself quietly out.
"So," said Janet finally one afternoon at the end of October, after three previous failed attempts to start the sentence. "Are you doing anything on Saturday?"
Tam gave her a long and considered look. "Working," he said eventually.
"Well, when aren't you working?" exclaimed Janet in frustration. Tam looked pained.
"Look," he said. "I ken what ye're asking, and I'd verra much like to say aye, but... I cannae. I'm sorry."
There was a long and terrible silence.
"You could just have said 'No, thanks', you know," said Janet. "I mean, it's not as if-"
"It's no like that!" Tam protested. His brow furrowed, and then he appeared to reach some sort of big decision. He looked over his shoulder furtively, then leaned over the counter towards Janet. "This is going to sound bonkers," he said quietly, "but my boss is the Queen of the Faerie Folk."
"Jog on," said Janet, after due consideration.
"I'm serious," Tam hissed. "I'm captive here; she's got me penned up like a sheep with her hag's magic."
"Oh yeah? Did she steal you out of your crib?" Janet laughed. "Vanish ye awa' in the dead o' nicht, that sort of thing?"
"Look," said Tam sharply. "Ye asked why I cannae go out, ye got your answer. Now, are ye gonna help me or no?"
Janet considered the alternatives. He was obviously having her on, because everyone knew faeries didn't exist, but it sounded like a great game, and she'd always wanted to try LARPing. "Okay," she said with a smile. "I'll play. How do I rescue you from the clutches of this vile creature? Do I have to beat her in single combat?"
"No! Will ye no listen? Tonight is Hallowe'en, aye?"
"Aye," agreed Janet carefully. "Betsy and Mary and I were going to do Rocky Horror. Again."
"Every Hallowe'en the Queen and her court o' fey things ride out, and it's the only time I get to leave this place. Ye can't beat her here, not on her own ground, but out there she's vulnerable. You can break her magic!"
"And how do I do that?"
Tam lowered his voice even more. "Ye ken the old well, out in the woods?"
"Carterhaugh Wood, you mean? I know it."
"Aye, in Carterhaugh. And ye ken the path from the well, and the milestone in the shape of a cross?" Janet nodded. "Can ye be there at midnight tonight?"
"Midnight?!" cried Janet, appalled.
"Hush yeself!" hissed Tam. "Or she'll hear ye and this'll all be for naught."
"Sorry," said Janet, lowering her voice. "But, midnight!"
"I wouldn't ask ye to do this if it weren't important." Tam glanced at the clock above the trellis of roses. "Ah, shite, closing time. Listen carefully, I've no got time. The stone cross, midnight. Wear something warm. I'll be on a white horse, can't miss it, big ugly beastie. Ye'll have to pull me down from it. And Janet, whatever happens, dinnae let me go, or it'll be the end of both o' us. Now, hurry, afore she finds ye here." He'd come round from the counter during this little speech and taken Janet's elbow, steering her towards the door. Now, with the door open, he hesitated.
"Tamas!" came the cold voice from the back of the shop. "Are we closed?"
"Aye, milady," Tam called back. "Just locking up." And with that, he pecked Janet swiftly on the cheek, pushed her out onto the street and closed the door behind her. She turned back just in time to see him disappear behind the blinds.
Despite everything, Janet found herself ringing up Betsy to ask if they could meet an hour earlier, then making excuses to leave as soon as the film was over. She came home, shook the rice out of her top and pulled on two jumpers and her thick green woollen coat. She put a torch, a compass, a map and her phone in her pocket and slipped out of the back door. She got as far as the garden gate before she stopped and wondered what the hell she thought she was doing. Faerie-hunting? In the middle of the night? She must be mad!
She made a mental note to deal with that later, and headed for her car.
The gates of the estate were locked up tight, so she left the car in the road and trusted that no-one else was going to come poking around an old wood in the dead of night.
Away from the road, darkness fell abruptly, and brought with it the myriad sounds of the forest at midnight. An owl hooted in the distance. Bats flitted to and fro among the trees, their squeaks just barely within the range of hearing. Things rustled in the undergrowth. Why was it even called the "dead" of night, Janet thought, when it was just as distressingly alive as any other time of day?
The path to the well was an old one, worn by horse and man alike, and it was one that Janet knew in her bones. They'd come exploring here when she'd been a child, climbing trees and hiding from the gamekeepers that prowled the old estate. She passed the well, and was pleased to see that there was still water in it, even though no-one drew from it anymore.
Finally she came upon a clearing, and there was the old stone cross, marking the miles as it had done for centuries. She checked her watch: five minutes to midnight. No sign of any faeries, though. What was she supposed to do now? She perched herself on the milestone and waited.
What if he didn't come? What if this whole thing was an elaborate joke on poor, gullible Janet? Who believed in faeries anymore? Only her old grandpa, and he swore he was nearly drowned by a mermaid that time he tried to sail to Norway, even though everyone knew their ship had just hit a reef off the coast. Right?
As she thought this, her ears registered a sound in the distance, a deep regular thudding and something else, high-pitched and sharp, and all her instincts told her to hide. She slid behind a tree just as the pale moon slid out from behind the clouds, and into the moonlit clearing came a huge black horse. It was massive, built on the scale of the shires that drew the brewery carts, shod in silver which flashed in the dim light. At first, Janet thought that it was wearing some kind of chain mail about its neck, but as it came closer she realised that onto every lock of its mane was threaded hundreds of tiny silver bells, which shook with the fall of each plate-sized hoof. And in the saddle...
Janet had never seen a faerie before, for fairly obvious reasons. She wasn't even sure that she was looking at one now. What she was sure, however, was that she really, really wanted to be somewhere else, because there was something about the dark, hooded figure on the black horse that turned her cold.
The horses next in the procession were smaller and brown, and wore no bells, and the figures on them had no hoods. They were beautiful, in an empty-eyed sort of way. The two closest to the front wore long swords at their waists, and that was worrying. Tam hadn't mentioned the possibility of swords; Janet really hoped he wasn't expecting her to literally fight for him.
And then, behind the brown horses, came a white one. Janet had a vague understanding that most white horses weren't actually white, but there was no doubt about this one. It gleamed. And on its back sat a very familiar figure.
She was running across the clearing before she even knew what was happening. "Tam!" she cried, grabbing his arm. He looked down at her, but his eyes were blank and unfocussed. "Tam, it's me! It's Janet!" Out of the corner of her eye she saw the brown horses wheel around and she knew she was out of time. She took hold of Tam's arm and pulled.
It's no mean feat pulling someone off a horse, but it's remarkable what can be achieved when there are mounted faeries closing in on you, especially if the someone isn't in a position to object if you drop them unceremoniously on the floor, which is what Janet did now.
"Wha is this?" came a voice like knives as Janet pulled Tam to his feet and turned to meet the eyes of the Queen. Her hood was back, and her eyes gleamed like gemstones in the darkness. "A ken ye," said she, and Janet recognised the voice, recognised the cold, sharp eyes. "Ye come frae the toun. Dae ye think tae steal awa whit be mine?"
"I can't steal what was never yours!" said Janet, before she could stop herself. The Queen laughed from atop her nightmarish mount.
"Insolent bairn," she said calmly, and somehow that was worse than shouting. "Dae ye ken wha ye face?"
"I don't care who you are! You're not having him."
"We sall see," said the Queen with a terrible smile, and raised one hand.
There was a whumph of inrushing air and Tam vanished. Suddenly overbalanced, Janet pitched forward. Half a second later, she landed on a snake. This was exactly as uncomfortable as it sounds. Normally, when one lands on a giant adder, one tends to try and get away from it at soon as possible, but Tam's instructions echoed in her mind, and she reached out and grabbed.
It turned out that holding onto a snake was actually quite difficult. It was like wrestling with a garden hose, except that one end was extremely sharp and, at least now that it had had a fairly substantial young woman dropped on it, extremely angry. She managed to get her hands around it just under its head, on the basis that that was probably the part she wanted furthest away from her, but that just left the other five feet of it flailing around madly. With some awkward twisting she managed to pin most of it down with her knee. It hissed furiously at her.
She heard the Faerie Queen's laughter like bells made of ice, and the snake expanded under her hands, blowing up like the balloons that entertainers twisted into poodles. Thick black hair erupted between her fingers, and then she was perched on the back of a huge black dog. Instinctively she threw herself forward and wrapped her arms around its neck as it snarled and snapped. It twisted and tossed every which way, trying to throw her off, but she clung on grimly, digging her heels into its sides.
"Ye cannae haud on for aye!" the Faerie Queen laughed from somewhere behind her. Then suddenly there was nothing supporting her. She hit the ground with her shoulder and then her head, her arms now wrapped around herself. Her vision swan, and for a moment she couldn't remember where she was or what she was supposed to be holding onto.
The heat came slowly, so that she didn't notice at first, until her arms and chest registered pain, like she was cradling a red-hot poker. The smell of melting nylon told her that her best coat was disintegrating. She screamed, and her cry was answered by a shriek of glee more animal than human. It pierced through the blurry haze of pain and ignited something deep within Janet, some deep primal rage. How dare she! In Janet's town, in the woods Janet had played in as a child! The anger brought with it a new strength, and the heat of whatever it was that was burning through her coat seemed lessened. She found her feet under her again. She looked up and met the Queen's terrible, empty eyes. And then she ran.
"After her!" came the scream, and the wild cries of horses answered. They would run her down in seconds, Janet knew. So she left the path, heading into the trees where the ground became thick with thorns and briars. They would never get the horses through the undergrowth. They'd have to leave their mounts, or go around. The shouts from behind her seemed to suggest that there was some disagreement about which of these it was going to be, which would buy her a few more seconds.
As she stumbled through the trees, Janet glanced down to see that she was cradling a lump of gently smouldering coal, which certainly explained the heat. If she didn't think of something soon, she was going to have third-degree burns on top of everything else.
In the depths of the forest, with the weak moon dribbling through the thick branches, she had no idea where she was, or which way she was heading, but she kept going. Twice she heard hoofbeats and the ring of bridles and had to flatten herself down behind a bush or on top of a rise until they passed. Then suddenly the trees fell away and she found herself standing on the path once more. And there, by the wall of the old farm, was the well.
Later, she'd wonder why she did it; it didn't make sense, and after all, Tam had said not to let go, no matter what. But her body moved itself. The burning coal hissed like the giant adder as it hit the water, clouds of steam pouring up into the night sky, and then in the middle was Tam, gasping and clawing at the sides of the well like... like someone who had just been dropped into ice-cold water in the middle of the night with no clothes on, Janet noted in a daze as she offered him a hand to haul him out of the well.
"Hide me," he hissed through chattering teeth. "Hurry!"
Thinking quickly, she peeled off the scorched remains of her favourite green coat and draped it over his shoulders like a cloak, then bundled the both of them into a bushy thicket just in time to hear hoofbeats on the road.
"Gane!" came the scream seconds later. The Faerie Queen had reached the still-steaming well. "Reft awa!"
"Ma Queen," tried one of her courtiers.
"Git awa, or ye'll be the ane that peys the Deil nou!" the Queen spat. "Gin A'd'a ken, A'd'a takken oot his hert mysel, the bastart. Ye hearken tae me, Tam Lin?" she cried, and her horse screamed with her and beat the earth with its hooves. "Yer ain hert and baith yer een, and yer bonny lass an aw! An ill deith mote she dee for this day!" She spat upon the ground and spurred her steed into life. With a cry it reared and thundered away down the winding path into the mist, followed by the throng of courtiers.
Amongst the brambles, Janet waited as the hooves and bells faded into the night. For what seemed like an age there was only the sound of breathing and the sensation of the left half of her slowly becoming more and more damp.
Then Tam said "Crivens, that was close!" and suddenly she was laughing so hard she could barely breathe.
"Did-did that actually just happen?" she gasped. "Did I just save you from a faerie? Who even does that?!"
"Aye, and a good job you did too," said Tam. "Now, I hate to seem churlish but I cannae help noticing that I'm sat in a forest in the dead o' a November night without ma trews, so perhaps we could have this conversation somewhere a wee bit warmer?"
"Sorry!" said Janet, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. "I'm parked outside the estate. Hang on, I should be able to get GPS on my phone..."
Finding their way out of the woods was surprisingly easy, between the well-worn paths and Janet's satnav. They saw not hide nor hair of anything fey, nor heard any hooves or bells.
"Will she come back, do you think?" asked Janet.
"No, or leastways not for me. She kens when she's been beat. We'll no see her round these parts for awhile."
"Good riddance," said Janet. "You can borrow the coat, for now," she added. "Suits you."
"Ah, shut yer mouth," said Tam fondly, and offered her his arm.
They parted on the outskirts of town, after Janet had offered her parent’s sofa several times and been politely turned down. After that, she heard no more from him, and by the next day she was quite convinced that she had dreamed the whole affair. She even told her mum, who laughed and said that telling tall tales was obviously in her blood.
Matters became confused when she passed the coffee shop on her way home later that week, or at least where she was fairly certain the coffee shop had been, because all that was left now was an empty shell. The only indication that it had ever been there was the peeling sign that said "Est. 1969". She kept going.
It was a long walk across town to the other coffee shop, and by the time she got there she only had the mental faculty left to stumble up to the counter and stare dumbly at the menu.
"Caramel mocha latte?" said a familiar voice. She blinked. Tam grinned back at her from across the counter.
"You!" It wasn't the most intelligent thing to say, but it did the job.
"Aye," said Tam. "Funny old world; ye escape from the clutches of an evil faerie only to discover that the world wants ye to be a grown-up and hold down a job and all that. Fortunately, seems I've the knack for coffee." He winked. "So, my bonny brown girl, what'll it be today?"
Janet looked up at the rows and rows of names and flavours for a long time. "You know what?" she said. "I think I'll just have tea."
There was one small antiques shop in the town of Hawick in the Scottish Borders. And then, quietly and without any fuss, there were two.