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the question of the bridge house

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There must have been a bridge there once. Why else would such a name come about? The pub may once have been a toll house of sorts, or a place for weary travellers to pass the night before crossing that bridge- wherever it was, and wherever it led, for Keats could see no trace of it, or need for it. But it must have been there. Yes, and Doolin must once have had a point, had a purpose, at least as a place of passage to somewhere else. Somewhere else...those travellers must have been glad of the pub by nightfall. Somewhere else, indeed, he thought darkly. It was a trifle amusing to think of the gate to the Endless Corridor floating unseen, just outside the Bridge House’s front door, while superstitious folk hid from the darkness inside, not knowing but still feeling Doolin’s eeriness.

Of course, Keats had no idea of Doolin’s true past. It was nothing, a nowhere place, barely on the map; a handful of dwellings huddling on a cliff edge hardly came into the history books. It was his nature to seek an explanation, a truth; it was his job to elaborate on it. And so he sat outside the Bridge House in bright, grey daylight, the sky white with clouds but ever threatening to show a glimpse of the sun, and let his mind wander, telling a tale of the past to himself and trying his best to ground it in fact.

They had come back to the village since the matter at the core of the Netherworld had been settled, Keats and his...charge. They might have left forever, after all was said and done, but in shaking off the fog and darkness of the past, their attachment to the old place seemed to have been renewed. Or hers had, at least. Her childhood was still another life to her, something she could not quite reconcile with her current self, but she had grown fond of Doolin of her own accord. Well, she was always soft. And he was softer, apparently, following her there despite his disinterest.

There had been a strange moment after they had left the village for the first time, where neither knew what might happen next, or if they would continue to see each other. The mundane awkwardness of parting after a brief partnership was, of course, complicated by the interfering supernatural. Ellen had taken on a job of sorts, after all- and it was hardly gainful employment. And Keats’ own career- so to speak- felt suddenly quite tenuous. However, it seemed that some pity had been taken upon him (at last), or perhaps it was the Messenger’s own strength of will at play. He remained a long suffering journalist, and she remained with him, stubbornly inserting herself into his life and his office, selfishly repurposing the place- now securely in the city, but ever with one foot in the unseen world- for her base of operations. So, a long suffering paranormal investigator would be the more proper term, perhaps. He had certainly had plenty of practice in Doolin.

And Doolin was where he found himself now. It had been a few days already, and somehow the two of them had settled back into a routine, going about their days mostly separately. Normally, this would see Ellen running around doing (inane) favours, while Keats would sit in the gloom of the pub, nursing a dusty glass of some very old whiskey and listening to the landlord’s soothing drone of local folklore. He explained little things to Keats, satisfying his curiosity about the village of the dead piece by piece. For example, how did anyone living there buy groceries? How did they leave the village at all? Why the hell did anyone live there in the first place? (He had yet to hear a satisfactory answer to this last one, though questions of infrastructure had been appeased by the knowledge of trade by sea, and at least one usable road.) These were the mundane questions he had occasionally wanted to ask, but never found time for, between it all.

But today he had taken his drink and his notebook outside. It was as fair a day as could be expected of Doolin, the salty breeze having died down enough for him to take off his coat. The pub’s door was open, and he could hear the landlord humming and spring cleaning from his seat just in front of it. A lot of things in the village seemed better maintained than before.

Today, he had a d- an appointment. A particular favour, begged of them by Ganconer, required his cooperation with Ellen; furthermore, it would have to be attended to this night, and this night only. Bealtaine, the festival of fire marking the turn of the season to summer, had arrived, and- how convenient- so had they. Keats did not believe in coincidence. Like Samhain, today the Netherworld was close at hand, close enough to cause upset to the living.

Keats drummed his fingers on the table as he mused on this, growing slightly impatient. It had been Ellen’s task to glean what information she could from the villagers regarding Bealtaine, in the usual manner- dreams, rumours, superstitions and legends. It was fortunate that Doolin’s population had increased since their last visit, or they would be quite out of luck.

“Keats!”

Hastily catching his glass as the unsteady table jolted under his hands, he looked up; she had returned, jogging breathlessly from the direction of the beach.

“About time. What kept you?”

She dropped into the extra chair he had brought out with him, brushing escaped strands of hair back from her face. “They’ve put a maypole up down there. It was hard to get them to tell me anything between all their planning. They’re going to be having a bonfire tonight but by the sound of it, it’ll be kept to the shore, so we won’t have interruptions.”

Keats scoffed, taking a swig of whiskey and regretting it. “The...what was it, Celtic Neopagan Revivalist Society? It’s amazing, the lengths those types will go to indulge in their nonsense. I hope they won’t be visiting the henge.”

“Yes, that would be difficult tonight...” Ellen’s gaze wandered in the direction of the stone monument in the distance. Even now, it was both inviting and imposing. To the tourists, it would seem like a simple historical site, where they could cheerfully mangle a few ancient rituals and then head to the pub afterwards. Neither activity would be safe or wise tonight. “I expect the landlord is happy to have the business, though. It’s been a long time since there have been this many people here.”

They both paused to look around; indeed, there were people walking past now and then, hikers and spiritualists for the most part. The landlord was a savvy one, Keats had to admit; he knew how to market even a ghost town like this. He watched a couple walk off towards the lighthouse, dragging his gaze back to his drink when they passed out of sight; it took him a moment to notice Ellen’s sidelong glance.

“What?”

“You can’t say it’s nonsense after all the things we’ve seen, Keats.”

“I can. These people have no idea. If they knew anything at all about the Netherworld, they’d go back to Somerset or wherever they came from and leave it well alone,” he groused, drumming his fingers again. His sceptical nature had been beaten into submission in the most thorough way possible, and he still wasn’t happy about it. He had resorted to getting quite offended by mere mortals infringing on what was now- against his will- his territory.

Ellen chuckled softly, shaking her head. “I think it’s nice to see people take an interest. If they didn’t, Doolin would empty and be forgotten. Anyway...” She reached into her jacket, producing a piece of paper and handing it to him. “I got this last night. From Bogle. He was pleased to see me.”

“I’m sure he was,” Keats replied, his tone slightly derisive as he studied the page. Runic writing he could not read, and a scratchy, inky illustration of what seemed to be a fearsome creature, wreathed in ribbons of flame. Various small creatures were pictured holding their own against it, dousing it with water and earth. “Well, we know what to do, at least. That’s something. What is this thing, again?”

“He called it Walpurga. Apparently, it wakes around this time every year and causes trouble for the faeries. Rampaging around when you’re on fire like that is pretty destructive in a forest.” Ellen leaned back in her chair, looking around at the pub’s entrance; she was getting thirsty. “We can ask the halflives about it one last time before we head out, I suppose.”

“Hmm. Well, it’s getting on. We ought to rest up in preparation. This nocturnal lifestyle is going to rob you of your youth, you know.” Keats stretched out his arms, giving her a sly look. She laughed, incredulous.

“And yours?”

“Oh, journalism robbed me of mine.” While she chuckled at the thought of Keats frantically trying to meet his deadlines and finding grey hairs in the process, he stood, retrieving his coat and stashing the picture book page in his notebook. “I think it’s time for dinner. Care to join me?”

Ellen, somewhat startled, scrambled to her feet. They had eaten together at the pub plenty of times- they had little choice in the matter, really- but he rarely actually asked her. “Oh! Yes- Mrs Lester’s cooking is much better than the landlord’s was, isn’t it? I’m glad she has something to do.”

“Don’t let him hear you say that.” Keats swept inside the Bridge House, Ellen following, and that was the last of their business talk for the afternoon; the influx of hungry tourists made it much harder to speak freely. Still, the atmosphere was lively and warm, and the pair exchanged pleasantries with the other patrons. Awkward silences were, for once, thin on the ground.

As the evening wore on, the crowd thinned out, with many heading back outside to attend the celebrations at the beach; others excused themselves to go to bed, whether in one of the pub’s few guest rooms, in rented cottages, or (for the very brave) in tents pitched on open ground. Keats could only marvel at the way people had flocked to Doolin. Madness, in his opinion.

“You should build a hotel,” he suggested to the landlord as the man collected glasses. “If you’re bent on encouraging them, that is.”

The landlord chuckled, methodically stacking plates on a nearby table. “I shall have to think about that. Might be worth it to bring a bit of life back to the old place, eh? Are you alright there, Ellen?”

“Mm? What?” She gave a start at the sound of her name; she had been drowsily slipping down in her seat. “Ah...yes, just a little tired.”

Nodding sagely, the landlord balanced his precarious stack of crockery in his arms, heading back for the bar. “You want to take the young lady to bed, Mr Keats. Up all hours of the night and morning...”

Keats’ eye twitched behind his glasses, mysteriously opaque in the firelight. At least Ellen was too tired to be listening. “Yes. Quite. Come, Ellen.”

One benefit of the new developments was considerably better lodgings. Ellen might have been alright with her hut- at least it had a bed- but Keats was glad to see the back of the glorified wine cellar he had been living in previously. He and Ellen now had rooms- plural- at the pub, refurbished and quite comfortable. And it was high time they got some sleep; it would be pointless to try to reach the Netherworld for a few hours yet.

The two of them paused as they reached the landing, their rooms just feet away from one another.

“If you’re not up by midnight, I’ll knock, shall I?” Keats asked, stifling a yawn. “I’ll set an alarm...”

Ellen nodded, eyelids threatening to close. “Yes, please. Once this is settled I’m going to sleep all tomorrow, anything else can wait!”

“Ngh...I may have to join you.” Damn that landlord. “I mean- “

“Yes- I know what you- er...” Floundering, Ellen turned to her room, an embarrassed smile twisting her lips. She paused at her door, looking back. “Goodnight, Keats. See you later.”

“Yeah, night...” She closed the door, leaving Keats to slump against the wall. “Ugh. I should have known not to drink that ancient swill.”

He slunk into his room, discarding just enough clothing to be comfortable as he fell into bed, and soon he slept; the witching hour drew close all too quickly.

***

“Ellen?” She stirred at her name; the ground was hard under her back, and she could not put her finger on what was wrong with that. Shaking herself awake, she sat up. Keats stood ahead, just at the edge of the cliff, the rising sun behind him obscuring his features in shade. He stepped towards her, coming into focus as the lighthouse shielded him from the light, now; offering her his hand, he said her name again. “Ellen? Come here.”

“Is it time to go already?” She took his hand, letting him pull her up, and he held her close to his chest. His touch was soft; his voice had been, too. Where were his glasses? The familiar glare should have been there to shut her out as she looked up at his face. He didn’t answer her, but he was smiling. “Keats, I think we need to go.”

It seemed late. The portal would be closing, surely. She looked over his shoulder, squinting against the light to search for the gate to the Faery Realm; she could not see it, it was too late, but high above them, there was an eye-

“Keats!” Ellen grabbed his shoulders, shaking him, but he stood unmoving, his grip on her suddenly tight. Behind him, the rays of the sun shimmered and grew blurry; as she stared, they seemed to take shape, writhing and burning and reaching for her, reaching past Keats’ smiling face and strangling her in flame-

“Ellen?”

“Keats!”

The dim shape in her doorway paused. “Yes?”

“Oh...” Ellen shook her hair out of her eyes; she had shot up suddenly, breath tight in her chest, but now that she realised her surroundings, the tension began to slowly leave her body. It was only a dream. A strange one, to be sure.

Keats hovered around the doorway; it was too dark to see much more than the silvery sheen her hair seemed to have even in low light, but he was reluctant to risk seeing more than he should. “Did I knock too loudly?”

“No- sorry, I was dreaming.” She had no such reservations, being quite covered up by her nightclothes, and she slipped out of bed, reaching for the bedside lamp. The soft glow lit up her tired face, and Keats’ too; the familiar sight of the light glancing off his spectacles made her feel slightly better.

As she got her bearings, looking around for scattered items of clothing, Keats watched her curiously, forgetting his manners for the moment. “A dream, eh? Why the name-calling, may I ask?”

As she bent to pick up a dropped sock, she was half hidden by shade; he could not see her expression. “Oh- you were there. In my dream. It was nothing, really. I suppose you gave me a start when you came in. Ah, would you mind if I just got dressed...?”

Hastily excusing himself, Keats shut the door; he leaned against it, running a hand through his hair in sleep-deprived exasperation. What a thing for her to dream of- for he’d run headlong to a troubling conclusion already. And of course, it did not occur to him that she was likely to have been a victim of the village’s strange influences, causing fitful dreams in those attuned to the other world; in a more reasonable frame of mind, he would suspect as much. It was unfortunate, then, that his dreams featuring her had been of a different sort altogether, and quite troubling indeed. Though he’d had the manners not to shout her name to the whole building, at least. (He took solace where he could.)

It was no good; he would have to push the matter from his mind for now. A lively fiddle solo floated up the stairs, signalling the start of the festivities. Bealtaine had begun.