When Colin and Rob had dared her to spend the night in a haunted house, Tegan had laughingly agreed with hardly so much as a qualm. Even when they'd pulled into the layby and set her down at the bottom of the winding path, she'd bid them a cheerful goodbye and set off up the path with a light step. It was only after she'd crossed a rickety bridge, looked up, and seen the dark silhouette of the house, perched on the clifftop ahead, that she'd begun to wonder what she'd let herself in for. Perhaps it was just the slope, but the rucksack on her back seemed to be getting heavier with each step. In the sound of the waves, washing against the cliffs below, she'd started fancying she could hear mocking laughter, and the wind on her neck had felt almost like chilly fingers.
Though the ground floor windows of the house had been boarded, the front door opened at her touch. She stepped cautiously in, testing each floorboard in turn, the beam of her torch the only light in the musty gloom. It was best, she decided, to make a—
From directly behind her, a booming sound seemed to shake the entire house. She spun round, to see that the front door had blown shut. With her heart racing, she hurried back to it, only to find that the inner handle was missing. It would, doubtless, be a simple matter to turn the latch mechanism with a screwdriver or something of that kind, but she hadn't brought one.
Still, Tegan told herself firmly, there was no need to panic. Not, at least, until she'd explored a little further to see if there was another way of getting out. And, indeed, it didn't take much exploration for her to find her way to the scullery, where an empty doorframe opened to an overgrown wilderness that might once have been the kitchen garden. Reassured, she resumed her explorations.
Shortly afterwards, the plan of the house clear in her mind, Tegan decided it was time to set up her camp for the night. Out of some vague sense of defensibility, she felt a room upstairs would be preferable, and though most were obviously out of the question (thick with dust, spattered with the droppings of birds or bats, or one unusually cold room where a mouldering portrait still leered down at her), she eventually settled on what might once have been a servant's bedroom, in a turret overlooking the path to the front door. There was a small fireplace in one corner; a return trip to the kitchen garden netted her enough fallen branches to light a reasonable fire, and she had matches and kindling in her rucksack. With the warmth and light of the fire, the room looked... well, not welcoming, exactly, but a good deal better than it had been. She closed the door, unrolled her sleeping bag, and settled down for the night.
The house, it quickly became apparent, had its own ideas about how quiet a night Tegan was going to have. Now and then, at irregular intervals, it would break into her repose with creaks and cracks, presumably as parts of the ancient structure settled against each other. Gusts of wind rattled the windows, or howled in the chimney. And all the while, in the distance, was the murmur of the sea.
Tegan had just decided that she would never get a wink of sleep when a new sound sent her heart into her mouth: the boom of the front door slamming. The door, she knew all too well, couldn't be opened from the inside. Someone had come in from outside. Hastily, she struggled out of her sleeping bag and picked up a branch from her fast-dwindling stock of firewood. She could hear more sounds: slow, wet footsteps were making their way up the stairs. If she strained her ears, she could imagine she heard the sounds of dripping water. Or something worse than water. The footsteps came closer, paused before the door. Then, with horrible slowness, the handle began to turn. Unbidden, the notion sprang into Tegan's mind that when the door opened, she'd see a swollen, drowned corpse, somebody who'd long ago fallen from the cliffs here, returned to confront this usurper of their house.
The door creaked open. At the sight of the bedraggled, dripping figure in the doorway Tegan couldn't help letting out a shriek. Then the figure stepped forward into the light, and Tegan found herself annoyed at her own stupidity. This wasn't any sort of ghost — only a woman of her own age, soaked to the skin but undeniably alive.
"Sorry," Tegan said, hurrying forward. "You scared me. What are you doing here?"
The woman pushed her rain-soaked hair out of her eyes. "I had a puncture," she said. "I saw a light this way, so I came to see if I could get help."
"You've found it. I'm a dab hand with punctures." Tegan dropped the stick and held out her hand. "Tegan Jovanka."
"I'm Nyssa." She shook Tegan's hand. "Do you really live here?"
Tegan shook her head. "No, my cousin dared me to stay here for the night." She gestured at her sleeping bag. "Genuine haunted house, he said."
"Then I can't ask you to break your dare just to help me."
"Nonsense. Sorting out your car's far more important."
Nyssa put a hand to her head. "I don't think I can face it at the moment. Can I have a rest here, first?"
"Of course. I'm afraid there's nothing really to sit on." Tegan put her hand on Nyssa's arm. "You're soaking wet! It wasn't raining when I got here."
"It is now," Nyssa said wearily. "And I fell in a stream too."
"You'll get a chill. Let's see if we can hang those clothes up to dry or something. If that's all right with you?"
It obviously was all right, because shortly afterwards Nyssa's sodden trouser suit was hanging precariously from the mantelpiece, while Nyssa herself was huddled before the fire in Tegan's anorak. That left Tegan uncomfortably chilly, but Nyssa's need was obviously the greater.
"So when your car broke down you saw this house?" Tegan asked.
Nyssa nodded. "I saw the light of your fire in the window. That's how I knew someone was there. So I set out in that direction. I didn't have a torch, so I didn't notice the stream until I was in it." She yawned, and Tegan found herself yawning in sympathy.
"Let's rest for a bit," Tegan suggested. "I'll unzip the sleeping bag, then we can both lie down."
Side by side, with the stone floor all too hard under the thin padding of the bag, and with Tegan's anorak in lieu of a bedspread, the two settled down for their promised rest.
Tegan didn't know what time it was, but it was cold, and dark, and she couldn't move. Even breathing seemed to be a struggle, and each shallow breath was a rasping in the black stillness. The creaks and groans of the house, the rattle of the rain, the wailing of the wind, had all fallen silent. Beside her, Tegan could feel the faint warmth of Nyssa's body, but icy cold poured upon her from every other direction.
With a rush, all her previous imaginings flashed back upon her. But nothing came to her through her senses; there were no approaching footsteps, or drips of water or blood. Nothing could be seen, or smelt. Yet the feeling of an oppressive presence was creeping over her, bearing down on her with increasing force. Her earlier thoughts, it seemed, had been right in one respect. There was a presence here, and it did resent her as an interloper. It might tear her apart, or suffocate her, or leave her paralysed until she starved, but her fate was already written.
Making a supreme effort, she willed herself to force a single word. Or maybe she was just thinking it.
It didn't seem to make any difference. Coldness was pouring into her, and a crushing, impersonal weight was settling deliberately but inexorably on her chest. She couldn't feel Nyssa beside her any more, or the floor under her, or her clothes, or her skin. Only cold, and the knowledge that she'd stay where she was for ever. Still be heart and hand and eye / Here on stone forever lie...
Warmth and sensation suddenly poured back into her, spreading through her from the two hands she realised were grasping her shoulders. As she regained awareness of her body, she could feel warmth and weight: someone was lying full-length on top of her, interposing themself between her and the cold and the voice.
The person's lips briefly touched hers, and she could speak.
"Nyssa?" she asked. "Is that you?"
"It is," Nyssa's voice said, sounding calm but drained. "You're safe, at least for the moment."
She gently withdrew herself from Tegan, and could be heard walking across the room to the door. Tegan heard her murmuring something like "Iron and oak, be our guardians this night." Then Nyssa was back in the improvised bed beside her.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Apart from feeling like I've been run over by a steamroller," Tegan replied. "What... what happened?"
"You were right about the house being haunted. Something's taken up residence here — something from the other world. It hates you — us — and doesn't want us leaving in one piece."
"But you got rid of it? How?"
"I've kept it out for tonight, at least. But you mustn't go outside this room for anything."
"Suppose I need the toilet?"
"Use the floor," Nyssa said seriously. "Or the window. We mustn't open the door until it's light."
"You're the expert." Tegan thought the effect of whatever had attacked her must be wearing off; she was definitely thinking more clearly. "But you still haven't said what you did to keep it out."
There was a long silence. Then Nyssa said "Promise me you'll keep this secret?"
Gently, Nyssa took Tegan's hand and guided it towards her head. Tegan felt Nyssa's curly hair, and then the delicate curve of her ear... and a very definite point at the top of it.
"Who... What are you?" she asked.
"You've got a lot of names for us," Nyssa said. "Fae. Fair folk. Elves, if you like."
"But that's ridiculous. There's no such thing as elves."
"An hour ago you'd have said there was no such thing as ghosts, wouldn't you?" Nyssa let go of Tegan's hand. "To be fair, there aren't many of us left. It's very unlikely you'd have met one of us before. Anyway, it's the only explanation I can give you."
"Sorry. I didn't mean..." Tegan broke off, and decided to return to an earlier point. "Before, you kissed me."
"It was necessary."
"Can you do it again? Even if it isn't necessary?" Tegan felt herself blushing in the dark. "Whatever's on, I don't know if we'll get through it. We mightn't have another chance."
"I think you like to live dangerously," Nyssa said. She leaned closer. "Fortunately, so do I."
Their lips met, and stayed together for some time.
"What did you mean, live dangerously?" Tegan asked, once their kiss had finally ended. "Does kissing make it more likely that thing out there's going to get us?"
"You watch too many slasher movies," Nyssa said, her delicate fingers sliding through Tegan's hair. "It's exactly as safe, or exactly as dangerous, to keep our hands off each other or not."
"Then I'd much rather not," Tegan said, pulling the elf down on top of her.
As the rim of the sun rose above the horizon, Tegan and Nyssa plucked up their courage and prepared to make their escape from the tower room. Outside the door, the rest of the house was dark, the galleries and staircases filled with something that seemed to muffle even the light of the torch. Even though she was leading the way, Tegan found herself unable to let go of Nyssa's hand as they groped their way towards the back door.
Even once they were outside, with grey dawn revealing the near-forest that had swallowed the back garden, it was clear that they couldn't relax. Trying to get back to the front of the house on the landward side proved impossible, with a high garden wall and a jungle of undergrowth barring their passage. On the seaward side the only way was a path along the clifftop, a treacherously slippery ribbon of grass between the house and a fatal plummet to the sea below. Side by side, their backs pressed against the wall of the house, they negotiated this tightrope in a series of shuffling steps.
No sooner had the space between the house and the cliff widened, and Tegan begun to breathe more easily, than they arrived at the next obstacle: a marsh, black in the early morning light, that lay across their route. There was no way round, and neither of them could face the cliff path again. With no alternative, they waded into the marsh, struggling from one tussock to another through noisome, glutinous sludge that, if not actually bottomless, seemed quite prepared to swallow them whole given half a chance. Exactly what quirk of geology allowed there to be a marsh on a clifftop, Tegan didn't know; her concern with the marsh was the more immediate and practical one of getting to the other side.
"Can't your people just walk over this stuff?" Tegan asked. She was currently standing on what counted as firm ground in this morass, and was trying to drag Nyssa free of a particularly tenacious sinkhole in which she'd sunk almost to her waist.
"What makes you think that?" Nyssa asked.
"I dunno. It sounds like the sort of thing Elves do."
"Don't believe everything you hear about us." Nyssa grimaced as she tried to pull herself out of the ooze. "But even if I could, it wouldn't help you, would it? When I did— what I did— in the tower, that linked our fates together. I can't escape without you."
"Linked?" Tegan repeated. "For how long?"
"Until we get away from here, at least. Maybe longer." Nyssa wriggled, sending up bubbles of marsh gas. "Let go of me and you'll see."
"Just for a few seconds."
Reluctantly, Tegan released her grip on Nyssa. Instantly, agonising cramp seized all her limbs, which wasn't helpful to someone trying to keep her balance in a marsh. She tipped gently and ungracefully to her right, unable to put out so much as a finger to stop her fall, and had Nyssa not caught her arm would have ended up face down in the bog.
"Point taken," she said. The cramp had gone as suddenly as it had arrived, but her limbs still ached. "So we need to get out of here quick as we can." She renewed her grip on Nyssa's arms. "One, two, three. Pull!"
It seemed to take forever before the pair dragged themselves out of the marsh. They must look, Tegan thought, just like the drowned ghost she'd imagined yesterday: pale, gaunt, dripping with black slime. Still hand in hand, they staggered across a debris-strewn terrace to the gate that led to the path. Nyssa pushed the gate closed, muttering another mantra about iron, and then stumbled down the path in the direction of the layby. Exhaustion was clear in every line of her face, and if Tegan hadn't been supporting her she'd have fallen several times, but she refused to stop until they'd crossed the stream.
"That's it," she said. "We've crossed running water. It can't track us now."
Tegan slowly released her hand, waiting to see if the cramps returned. To her relief, they didn't.
"Rob'll be along to pick me up in a bit," she said, as they walked slowly towards the layby. "What about your car? Maybe he can help you fix it."
Nyssa shook her head. "My car won't be there any more. It'll have turned back into a turnip by now."
"That's the state of the art, I'm afraid."
Tegan shook her head. "I thought it was pumpkins, anyway."
"I couldn't possibly have afforded a pumpkin," Nyssa said, a faint smile briefly illuminating her weary features.
"You'd better come back to my place to get cleaned up. Heaven knows we both need it."
"That's very brave of you," Nyssa said, as they arrived at the layby. "Inviting one of the Fair Folk into your house. It's been known to cause awful trouble."
"More trouble than what we've been through already?"
"Well, you'd better make sure it doesn't, that's all."
Nyssa nodded. "Promise." She looked around. "Are my ears showing? They can make humans uneasy."
"Your left ear is, a bit." Tegan wiped her hands on her blouse, then leaned closer to tweak some of Nyssa's curls into position. "That's better."
And then, as she was so close already to Nyssa, she kissed her as they'd kissed the previous night, feeling the same thrill as their lips and tongues once more met, as Nyssa's arms pulled her close, as their bodies pressed against each other...
Somewhere in the distance, she could hear the approaching sound of Rob's ute, and the cheery blast of its horn. In about a minute's time, he'd be here and she'd have an awful lot of explaining to do. But right here and now, that didn't seem to matter.