Childermass knew he was dreaming. If he were awake, he’d never have been caught in such a position.
He sat upon a tree-stump in the midst of a clearing in a forest of enormous gnarled trees, whose grey trunks stood wider than houses and whose leafless branches blotted out the sky. Twisted vines of thorns covered the ground like a carpet, and grew up between the tree-trunks like a wall. These same vines bound his wrists and ankles. He pulled against them experimentally. Before his very eyes, they grew thicker and wrapped themselves double around him, holding him fast.
Childermass raised his eyes from his bindings. Before him stood three persons. On the right stood a tall fairy with a beard like tree bark. On the left stood a slender fairy wearing naught but a mottled cloak in all the colors of dying leaves, with dried brown moss for trim. Between them, directly in front of Childermass, staring at him with deep-green eyes too wide by half for its delicate face, stood the fairy who’d spoken. Despite the abundance of fauna, the fairy’s eyes were the only green thing in the clearing.
“You are the Reader of the Raven King’s Book,” it continued.
Childermass twisted his fingers to get at his shirt-cuff, where his waking self kept a pin hidden. It was a habit left over from bygone days when manacles seemed a likely fate for his wrists. A pin would not be so useful against vines, but it was iron, and might be of some use against his captors. But the pin was not to be found in his dream, and so he let his hands fall still. “You have the advantage of me.”
The fairy on the left laughed, bubbling and mirthless. The other two ignored it.
“John Uskglass erred in putting such things in writing where any Christian might read them,” said the middle fairy. “Such power cannot be trusted in their foolish hands. You must give us the Book.”
“It is not mine to give,” said Childermass. “It belongs to my king.”
The middle fairy’s long grey eyebrows swooped down over its enormous green eyes. Wrinkles like whiskers proliferated across its cheeks in a scowl. “You will give us the Book.”
Childermass matched its scowl with a long, blank look. “I will not.”
“We will give you riches!” trilled the fairy on the left. “Silver and gold! Rubies and sapphires and diamonds! We will dress you in the finest silks and velvets, and you shall eat the choicest fruits!”
“Thank you,” said Childermass, “but I have no call for riches.”
“We will make you a king!” cried the fairy on the right. “You will have a magnificent castle, and thousands of subjects! You need never serve another as long as you live!”
Childermass couldn’t quite suppress the ironical half-smile conjured by that suggestion. “I should make a very poor king. Besides, I’ve a king already, and am happy in his service.”
“Then,” said the middle fairy, in a voice as cold and quiet as frost, “we will destroy you. And have the Book regardless.”
“Do as you like,” said Childermass. He rolled his shoulders as if to straighten them to face his fate. In doing so, he felt his chest and back all over with his muscles, to see if any secret pocket held a pen-knife or pistol. But he found no such object.
The three fairies set upon him.
The slender fairy seized his shoulders. The tall fairy caught his jaw and forced it open. The green-eyed fairy reached into a cobweb purse and produced a single seed no larger than a pea. The fairy popped it into Childermass’s mouth, then clamped its hands over his nose and lips.
Childermass struggled like a tiger in a net, like a man in a lion’s den, like a child-thief who knew he’d twist in the wind beside his mother if he let himself be caught. Such instincts had served him well in the past. But fairies with centuries to live had more patience than a mortal man. No matter how Childermass bit and thrashed, the thorn bindings held strong, and the fairies held stronger. Childermass had to swallow the bitter seed to breathe.
The green-eyed fairy removed its bleeding hands from Childermass’s face. Childermass immediately gagged, trying to force the seed back up from his stomach. The green-eyed fairy was on him again in an instant, both palms pressed tight over Childermass’s mouth. It leaned down close to whisper in his ear with a voice like wind through dry leaves.
“A year and a day, John Childermass. A year and a day, and the Raven King’s Book is ours.”
Then it drew back to slap him in the face.
Childermass awoke. Above him ran the familiar ceiling rafters of the garret of the Old Starre Inn. The rumble of Vinculus’s snores filled his ears. The faint light of sunrise struggled past grey English clouds to reach through the window-glass and fill the room with a soft white glow.
Childermass vaulted out of bed and rushed to the chamber-pot in the corner, shoving two fingers down his throat as he went. He fell to his knees gagging. His efforts brought up naught but acid and spittle. Another man might be tempted to take this as evidence that his dream was merely a dream. Childermass caught his breath, washed his mouth, and laid out the Cards of Marseilles. They told him quite plainly the dream had been all too real. Like many an unlucky maid before him, Childermass was in trouble.
As little pity as Childermass had for any creature crawling the earth, he had even less for himself. Thus he wasted no time in worrying for his own survival. He would find a way out, or he wouldn’t. But he would certainly make an attempt.
First, he examined the Book, both his own notes and the original text. Vinculus’s habit of sleeping past noon made this easy. Childermass made many more notes that morning, but in looking them and Vinculus over, he found nothing applicable to his predicament. While the fairies had given him a year and a day to prepare, he didn’t intend to spend all that time reading. The purpose of the thing within him was to steal Vinculus away. Better for Vinculus, Childermass, and all of English magic if the thing and the Book were separated sooner rather than later.
So Childermass sent notes to Dr Foxcastle and Mr Thorpe and bid them meet him at the Inn at their earliest convenience. Mr Thorpe arrived that afternoon. When he did, Childermass roused Vinculus.
“You’ve been reading me,” Vinculus groused as he pulled on the same filthy shirt he’d worn all week.
Childermass wondered aloud what else one was supposed to do with a book.
Vinculus laughed. “You’ve scoured my text for an answer—and found nothing.”
Childermass admitted as much and marched him downstairs to Mr Thorpe.
Mr Thorpe awaited them in the upper room of the Old Starre Inn. Childermass felt fortunate that it was Mr Thorpe who’d answered his call. He’d long ago identified him as the most sensible member of the York Society. Indeed, it was due to Mr Thorpe’s good sense that Childermass’s proposal--of a room for himself and Vinculus in exchange for granting the York Society the opportunity to study the Book--had gone over so well with the Society.
At present, Childermass explained to Mr Thorpe that circumstances in Faerie required him to go away for a while. For the sake of English magic, it would be best to leave the Book in the care of the Society. Would Mr Thorpe be so kind as to take up the charge?
Mr Thorpe agreed. In fact, he went so far as to offer to let Vinculus stay with him in his own house. Vinculus inquired after the state of Mr Thorpe’s wine-cellar. Mr Thorpe solemnly assured him it was extensive. Vinculus accepted his proposal. Childermass packed his possessions and departed the Old Starre Inn alone.
As Childermass walked out of the Inn to its stable, a twinge in his gut staggered him. He braced one hand against the alley wall and gingerly felt his stomach with the other. It twinged again, and whatever lay within gave a definite kick against his palm. The fairy whelp had quickened.
Childermass forced himself upright and continued walking as if, like most men, he carried no monster inside him beyond his own soul.
In Newcastle, Childermass secured a room in a lodging house and set to work on his predicament. On the advice of De viribus herbarum, he tried rue and tansy. Tansy’s camphorous scent seemed promising. Ultimately, its effects disappointed; the bloat worsened, and the thing inside him kicked with glee. Childermass, meanwhile, woke himself every morning by retching.
Remembrances of Black Joan inspired him to try pennyroyal. He wondered if she’d had similar designs when she found herself heavy with him. He couldn’t imagine he’d given her half as much trouble as the fairies’ whelp gave him—at least, not until he’d left her womb.
It took him a month to recover from the pennyroyal, and it left him with a twitch for two weeks afterward—though, in fairness to the midwife who’d sold it to him, she’d intended it as a tea, whilst he’d reduced it to an oil. The oil made the thing inside him squirm and writhe, causing him just as much discomfort as he caused it, but it ultimately survived, and seemed all the stronger for its ordeal.
Three months since he swallowed the seed, Childermass found he could neither sit nor stand comfortably, nor could he lie down without tossing and turning. The small of his back produced a constant ache. The pain ebbed and flowed yet never receded entirely. He grit his teeth against it and sewed mugwort into his pillow. Then, for good measure, he burnt more mugwort in a saucer and drank the rest in a tea. That night he dreamed of a hunt, and saw the fairies who gave him the seed driven before a pack of baying black hounds and feathered wolves. He awoke no better rested than he’d retired. The fairies might be destroyed, but the wretched thing within him remained.
At the five-month mark, Childermass’s swollen belly began to interfere with his trouser ties. He let out the waistband. The thing inside him pricked his guts whenever his needle pricked the cloth. With his mending done, Childermass tried calamus and dill. Calamus elicited no noticeable effect whatsoever. He’d hoped dill would at least settle his stomach, but found himself as nauseated as ever.
It took the creature six months to exhaust the store of fat under Childermass’s skin. After that, it began sapping his vital heat directly. His nail-beds turned blue with cold. No matter how he built up the fire in the grate, its warmth never reached him. He took to leaving it banked. After all, there was no sense wasting coal.
Eight months into the infernal gestation, Childermass began to overhear whispers from the staff of the lodging-house in which he stayed. The cook wondered how a man could grow such a round belly whilst eating almost nothing of her cooking. The maid wondered how a man so clearly a drunk—with the odd hours he kept, and such sallow cheeks, and unable to leave his bed for weeks at a time—could leave his room so clean of the evidence of bottles and alehouse slips. The landlady hushed them both; the man’s rent was good, after all. Childermass ignored them.
At nine months, a human child would’ve been delivered of a human woman. Childermass received only dreams of a girl with ragged black hair clutching a blood-streaked, squalling babe to her bosom. The thing within him continued to grow.
Childermass consulted with midwives and chemists on behalf of a fictional sister. But when he told them of all the things this “sister” had already tried to rid herself of her infernal babe, they expressed great surprize that the girl yet lived, much less the child, and they refused to prescribe anything more.
Seeking more general advice from others on how to rid oneself of a parasite, Childermass hit upon wormwood. The chemist warned him that while wormwood was vicious to parasites, neither was it kind to the host. Childermass thanked him for his guidance and ignored it. He drank the bitter tincture on the fifth of the month. He was bedridden until the twenty-ninth. The creature recovered before he did. Childermass supposed he should’ve expected as much by now.
In the tenth month, the chemist who’d prescribed wormwood recommended a distilled spirit with green anise and fennel, newly imported from Pontarlier. According to the chemist, it was a most promising patent remedy. Childermass dutifully took it. He was rewarded with dreams of his own destruction, of the creature within him clawing its way out from the inside, tearing him to shreds as it went. Childermass returned to the chemist a third time for laudanum and didn’t darken his door again after that.
In the midst of the eleventh month, Childermass began pissing blood.
As the fateful day drew ever nearer, Childermass considered abandoning the possibility of his own survival and killing the thing with arsenic or prussic acid. In the end, he decided against it. Not only did his sense of self-preservation prevail, but he couldn’t be certain the creature wouldn’t survive past his death to seize Vinculus and all the Raven King’s wisdom. No. Childermass would fight the thing to his last. If poison failed him, he would take up a blade. For the moment, he took up his pipe.
The final month passed slowly. Childermass spent it in his room. Every morning he woke himself up being sick. Then he attempted to eat a breakfast brought up by the maid. The last year had taught him to ignore the eggs, sausage, and ham. Tea and gruel brought cramps, but nothing worse. Usually. Some days he could even manage toast.
Once breakfast was swallowed (and probably brought up again), Childermass read his cards. For months now they’d shewn the same pattern over and over, told through different suits and pips: he’d been attacked, the battle was ongoing, the outcome was uncertain.
By this point, he was usually exhausted, and so crawled back into bed with his pipe. Tobacco helped the nausea, though it never truly banished it. If he felt well enough, he might rise again for tea or supper. More often than not he slept until dawn again—or until he woke thrashing from the violence of the creature in his guts.
The final week of the final month began the same as the fifty-one previous. But when Childermass read his cards, something had changed. Yes, he’d been attacked, and yes, the battle was ongoing, and yes, the outcome was uncertain. But the final card he turned over bid him go a-wandering. If he wished to have a chance against the beast within him, he had to leave Newcastle. Not wishing to return to the York Society and become another oddity in their collection (not unlike Vinculus), Childermass could think of but one other place where he might find discreet assistance to escape his predicament.
And so, for the first time in almost a year, Childermass saddled Brewer—with a great deal of assistance from the grooms of the stable where he’d boarded him. Between his own starved and weakened state and the thing scratching at his insides, it took two tries for Childermass to mount his steed. Brewer, good creature that he was, stayed very still through both attempts. Childermass patted his neck in gratitude and set off.
The ride was slow. With no fat left on his frame, every step of Brewer’s hooves jolted Childermass’s bones. He couldn’t bear to urge Brewer to more than a walk. What would’ve taken them two or three days to traverse a year ago took him the better part of the week now.
The day before the date the green-eyed fairy named, Childermass awoke in the last inn between himself and his destination. He expected to be ill. He did not expect to feel as if a barbed lance were driven through him, from navel to spine, and twisted to and fro until he had to bite the bedsheets to keep from screaming aloud. The pain lasted half a minute. As it ebbed, Childermass lay gasping, sweat beading his brow. He made to raise himself up on his elbows. Another bolt of agony laid him low. When it, too, faded, Childermass forced himself up to dress and stagger out of the inn to the stable. The third pang caught him as he saddled Brewer. He fell to his knees in the inn-yard, clenching his jaw so hard he cracked a tooth. The grooms helped him up and bid him stay while they fetched a surgeon from town. Childermass shook his head and dragged himself onto Brewer’s back.
The fourth pang found him a half-mile down the road. By this point, he felt justified in letting out a scream. Brewer’s ears flattened and he took off in a gallop. Childermass didn’t bother reining him in. The jolting pain in his bones was nothing to the tearing agony in his gut.
Childermass had awoken to a dark and brooding sky. Two miles into their journey, the clouds opened. Good English rain poured down. Its freezing drops splashed Childermass’s cheeks. He turned his face up to meet them, the cold offering some small relief from the fever boiling up within him. Brewer bounded on.
The York countryside flew past. For miles, there was no sign of civilization. Only barren moor. Then, out of the gloom, there rose the silhouette of a small, tumble-down village, scattered around a house. The atmosphere tingled with magical energy, lighting sparks on Childermass’s tongue as he approached. Starecross. Despite the best efforts of the fairy spawn, he’d reached it. His last chance at salvation was nigh.
Childermass, never foolish enough for premature celebration, ducked his head and kicked Brewer on over the bridge spanning the beck.
Brewer reared as Childermass halted him in the yard of Starecross Hall. Steam rose from the steed’s heaving sides as Childermass tumbled from the saddle and staggered towards the house. Thick mud-puddles sucked at his boots. He stumbled to one knee, twisting it, and forced himself up with a shout.
The only answer he received was a crack of lightning and rolling thunder.
Childermass reached the door and fell against it, then pushed himself off to abuse its knocker and slam both fists on the hard wood. The thing within him gave a wretched twist. Childermass wrenched his cry of pain into another shout.
He was on his knees again—he didn’t remember falling—he leaned his ear against the door. He thought he heard footsteps from within the house, and a voice inquiring after his name and purpose. Then he collapsed on the stone steps and thought no more.