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A bag of nails and a pair of boots

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*

“-- it’s four in the bloody morning, mate,” he whispered. Peter looked…different, somehow. He seemed to glow, his eyes burning with a fierce, feral light.

“I danced till my shoes broke,” Peter said, his voice rasping like sandpaper. “Went up to the old hillfort and danced with them.”

“Who did you dance with?” He was fully awake, now. He could feel his heart beating in his chest.

“They were beautiful—like angels. They fed me and gave me sweet wine to drink.”

“Did you eat? Did you drink?” he asked, but he knew the answer. Deep in his heart, he knew.

*

 “Carry him out with his feet facing the house,” is all he can say. He feels grey, washed out. Hollow. Like nothing. This is important, though, in ways he cannot yet name. The undertaker blinks, shifts from one foot to the other. Perhaps he believes in the old tales, of the dead finding their way back to their houses, spirits along the corpse roads. Perhaps he makes sure to cross running water on the way to the graveyard, guards against corpselights on the moors. Alex doesn’t care. “Please,” he says. The undertaker nods. His name is Edward Jenkins, known locally as Ted the Dead. He is the fourth in his family to become an undertaker. His brother is a priest, his sister a ferris.

He's a calm, stolid presence, a mundane sort of Chiron, ferrying the dead in his sensible Clarks shoes. “Feet first. I’ll let the lads know.”

Ted the Dead has to duck to leave Peter’s cottage. He pauses for a moment on the threshold, the pale winter’s light catching his grey eyes, giving them a strange glow. Eyes that have seen the wind. Alex looks down at Peter. “See you soon, mate,” he says. He doesn’t look back when he leaves, crosses the threshold as soon as he can. If he doesn’t, he’ll want to stay forever.

*

“Those boots you were making for him,” he says, standing in his brother’s workshop. It smells of leather, woodshavings. The soft, sweet scent of honey. Tom nods, hooks his thumbs into the front pocket of his apron. “Can you finish them?”

Tom has made boots for them both before. Planed down a last for their feet so they fit like a glove. Sturdy boots, meant for work, with soles to grip the ground, the toes thick for protection. Peter always wears his down at the heel—it must be something to do with the way he walks. The miles they walk together, though, it’s no wonder. “Alex,” Tom starts, then stops, scrubs a hand through his hair. People have been doing that recently. “What are you up to, mate?”

“I don’t really know,” he says. It’s half of the truth. “I need them in three days. By the 21st.”

“Don’t ask for much, do you, mate,” Tom grumbles, but his grip on Alex’s shoulder is warm. “Leave it to me,” he says.

*

Peter’s feet face towards his cottage as the coffin leaves. Alex watches it go, takes off his woollen hat, bows his head. Ruth stands next to him as the miserere is intoned. It’s snowing slightly; the wind snatches the sound away. They grip each other’s hands. Neither of them cry. The priest is going to leave the church unlocked.

“What do you need?” she asks later, as they sit in the village pub. The fire lights her hair up, catches the strands of red and turns them to gold. They’re drinking a toast. A part of Alex wants to get blind drunk, but he has work to do.

“Bread. Apples, cheese. Some cider. Something to keep us going along the road,” he says. “A gift for the crossroads, to bring me luck.”

Ruth nods, her eyes narrowing slightly as she plans. “You’ll need to keep a fire going,” she murmurs, half to herself. “Mistletoe on the door to welcome him back. I’ll keep vigil.” The fire crackles, sending sparks onto the broad stone hearth. “It won’t be easy,” she says, looking straight at him, waiting for him to meet her eyes, “and it might not work.”

“I have to try,” he tells her, and she reaches across the table, takes both his hands in hers.

“I know,” she says. “That’s why you’re the most—the most— infuriating man I know.”

*

At uni, Peter had a motorbike he had bought as a wreck from one of his granddad’s mates. It had been spray painted blue at one point. He insisted on being called Fonz, and no one quite knew why. He wore his hair long for a term, tied the curls back with a rubber band. They got talking after they’d both been chucked out of a pub in Clerkenwell when one of Peter’s mates had decided to play shove ha’penny with beer glasses. Alex had been an innocent bystander, tarred with the same brush because he seemed to attract trouble.

They’d bonded over the bike, and then over an old wreck of a Massey Ferguson tractor that Alex found one day on a trip to Epping Forest and wanted to fix up for no good reason. They could talk for hours, walked together for miles through London looking for bits of the old city beneath the relentless newness of the place. They sat and drank until well past last orders, using pint glasses and beer mats to illustrate their points about this dig and that academic, this hillfort and that ploughshare. They even lived together for a few months when Peter’s digs had both dry and wet rot. They had almost—almost—kissed, one drunken night. Never talked about it again. Alex wonders, sometimes.

After uni ended, they drifted towards and away from each other in the usual ebb and flow, meeting when their friends paired off, bumping into each other at various weddings. A few digs together, sharing rooms in various bunkhouses, working in all weathers. Then, there was the farm, and several lives built together, moving through time side by side.

*

Bridget Jenkins finds him as he’s gathering mistletoe from the apple tree near the church. She’s tall, a few inches taller than him, with broad shoulders and scarred hands. She’s made a few things for Peter in the past, and they ask her for advice sometimes, bring her things they’ve found on digs together. They’re friendly, but not necessarily friends, and he’s already bracing himself for words of pity. She looks at the small sickle he’s using. “Would’ve been gold, if you wanted to go the full mile,” she says.

“Thought that was just druids,” he answers, lowering the mistletoe to the blanket he’s put on the ground.

“Always wondered about that. Gold doesn’t really hold an edge,” she says, looking up at the tree. A few of the branches have died this year, and are covered in lichen, their bark flaking, twisting back from the wood beneath. He stands next to her, looking up at the tree. The sky above is grey, heavy with snow. It’s not going to be an easy journey tomorrow. “Iron’s better.”

The sickle has a comforting weight in his hand. It used to be said that a blacksmith can recognise the devil however he’s disguised, that three taps with a hammer on the anvil can bind him for a week. He goes back to the tree, cuts some more from the lower branches, hands them to Bridget to put on the blanket. They work in companionable silence until he has taken all he can without a ladder.

Before she leaves, Bridget hands him a small cloth bag. It clinks as he slips it into his pocket.

*

They’re meant to start filming in three months. They’re going up to Hadrian’s wall, to try and reconstruct life on the frontier just after the wall was built. He hasn’t told anyone else about Peter. Only Ruth, the priest, the blacksmith and the undertaker know, and he’s sworn them to secrecy.

Thing is, Peter isn’t dead. Just…not breathing. His heart not beating. His soul not in his body. A part of Peter died years ago, when he went walking in the hills and heard horses and hounds in the distance. A part of him died when he fell in love with the fair folk, who bade him eat and drink, and had their musicians play for him, had their dancers lead him in their wild carouses on the hillside. They left him there, his feet blistered, throat dry, stomach empty, but they were never going to leave him there forever, and when Alex heard the silvery chimes of their bridles at the stroke of midnight a few nights ago, he knew.

*

The rope is six strands, twisted together. Alex made it a few years back on a ropewalk, kept it after filming for the series had finished. It was one of those things he just knew to keep, an instinct he has learned to listen to over the years. It’s why Bridget’s bag of iron nails is staying in his pocket, why he keeps a rabbit’s foot around his neck. Peter always laughed at him for it, but then, Peter has forgotten the night on the hillfort, the shortest night of the year, when he gave his soul for a beautiful woman on a horse. Alex drives up to London to pick it up from his flat, puts all the post flooding his doorway on the kitchen table and hopes that this isn’t the last time he ever crosses the threshold. Then, tapping the doorway three times on his way out, he locks up and drives back, the rope coiled on the seat beside him. He has work to do.

Tom dropped the boots off while he was away. They’re hung off his doorknob, the leather gleaming dully. Alex takes a deep breath, steam puffing out on the exhalation. No more waiting, no more preparation. One chance, and no more.

He puts on his own boots, ties Peter’s around his neck. Puts on his heaviest coat, slings the rope over his shoulder and slips the food into his pocket. He’s got a hipflask of gin from the illegal still round the back of the rugby club, a bag of iron nails in his pocket and some ash leaves. The corpse road snakes up from the church over the moors, down through the village. People living in remote communities needed a road to take their dead which wouldn’t be used for anything else. They’d carry their dead slung over horses in a shroud, or in a coffin, stones dotted along the corpse road so they didn’t put the coffin down on the earth.

The fire in Peter’s cottage is burning steadily. Greenery hangs everywhere, festooned along the mantelpiece, tied to the rafters, in every doorway. Ruth sits by the fire, notebook on her lap, a pile of sewing on the footstool in front of her. Apparently, she’s either going to do some mending, or finally start her historically accurate bodice ripper. He nods to her as he goes past, not sure what to say. She smiles at him, settled in for a long wait.

It’s dark outside already. He has a lantern, an old compass his father used to own; he might know the path by day, but by night, in the snow, it’s a different matter. His feet crunch, the sound muffled. Everything is quiet. Lights twinkle on Christmas trees, a glow coming from the cottage windows. The lantern does little here, but he will need it in time.

He feels the first tug as he gets to the bottom of the lane. It’s weak, but there, like a sound, just on the edge of his hearing. He follows the path, over the stile and then up the hill. The moon is waning, but the sky is clear, clear enough to see Orion as it makes its way across the winter sky. In the snow, the light is silver, casting deep black shadows, draining the colour from everything. In the distance, he hears hooves, the baying of the hounds. The hounds sound as if they’re right next to him—it’s when they get fainter that they’re close. And then he hears the hunting call, echoing across the valley. He’s never heard a horn like it. He feels like prey suddenly, heart beating rabbit fast. He keeps his pace, his fingers closing around the bag of iron.

Someone keeps turning the signpost around at the crossroads to confuse unwary travellers. There’s a hawthorn tree on the verge next to the lane, with a tattered ribbon hanging from it, a previous offering. Alex lets the honeycake Ruth baked fall to the snow, spills a little water from the spring near the church next to it. He doesn’t look back as he walks up the hill. It’s hard going. The lane becomes a track becomes a narrow path, climbing steeply up the hill. His cheeks burn with the cold; his fingers, even in his gloves, are seizing up. He grits his teeth, keeps walking, holds the lantern up to guide him, to keep him on the path.

The baying is quieter now. He checks for the rope and the nails every few paces, Peter’s boots a solid, comforting weight on his chest. At the top, he pauses to catch his breath. The valley below is a spread-out patchwork of tiny hamlets, lights twinkling in the houses, the headlights of cars ghosting along the lanes. Above him, the stars seem bigger—he can see the plough, the seven sisters. Venus on the horizon, blazing to outshine the moon. There’s a song Peter will sing when he’s had enough beer, about a fox who bays at the moon to give him light so he can reach the town. Many a mile to go this night, but the hounds are right behind him, now. The ground rumbles with the hooves, the horn blasts through the quiet of the night. Alex puts his lantern down, reaches into his pockets with fear-numbed fingers and fumbles the bag open.

The hounds are black, their bodies lithe and slender as they eat up the ground with their paws, streaking past him. Their eyes blaze red and their teeth are sharp, so sharp they cut their lips as they pant. The horses, too, are black, their eyes gaslight blue, breath steaming into the cold night. And their riders, oh, the riders. The fair folk, their faces pale as the snow, hair black as night. Too beautiful to look at for long, their slender fingers blazing with rubies and emeralds, the silver of their bridles gleaming and clinking as they ride. Alex grips the nails so tight that he draws blood, keeps his feet planted solid. He wants to worship them, for a moment. Wants to be their prey. It would be easy, easier by far, to give himself over to them, to eat their bread and drink their wine, to lose himself for a hundred years or more.

Then, he sees Peter. He’s riding at the back of the pack, his cheek streaked with mud, hair wild and his feet bare, and Alex nearly cries out when he sees him, out of relief and a dreadful grief for the half life he will lead when Alex rips him away from the fair folk, back into his old, comfortable life, a life that will never fit him properly again. The nails don’t make a sound on the snow, but the horse Peter’s on still rears up to avoid them, the whinny of distress almost a scream as Alex darts forward with his rope and drags Peter back with all his might as the hunt rides on, relentless in its pursuit of the unwary.

Peter is wild, frantic. He fights with a feral strength against the rope, against Alex’s hold on him. They roll through the snow together, staggering on the ice, tripping over rocks. They draw blood from each other, Peter in desperation, Alex in grim determination. Alex holds on as he bucks and struggles, bites and scratches like a wildcat. The boots fall from around his neck; the lantern topples over onto the ground, and still he holds on, waiting for the sound of the hooves and the horns and the baying of the hounds to fade away.

Down in the valley, the church bells ring. Midnight, and all’s well. The sound rolls across the valley, even with the muffling blanket of snow, blotting out the echoes of the fair folk. When the sound ceases, Peter goes limp, all fight gone from him. It’s as if he’s waking, like a child from a nightmare. Peter looks lost, so terribly confused, that all Alex can do is reach out, hold on tight. He smells like ozone, like the earth after a long-awaited rain. He’s a little cold, still; Alex wills every scrap of warmth from his body into Peter’s, would happily freeze if it meant Peter stayed.

“You—God, what happened?” Peter rasps. Alex leans back, gets the bread and apples out of his pocket. They’re a little battered from the struggle, but they’re still good. Then, he hands Peter the flask of gin.

“Drink this. Father Matthew blessed it when I asked,” he says. “Good bloke, doesn’t ask too many questions. Heard he did an exorcism on one of Mary Parsons’ sheep a few years back.”

Peter takes a swig, shudders. “If I have to drink it, so do you,” he says. Their fingers brush as he returns the flask. “I…they were so beautiful. I had forgotten.”

He doesn’t know what to say. They sit in silence, breaking bread together, sharing their drink. Cold, but alive.

“I ate their bread, heard their songs. How do I go back?” Peter asks at last.

Alex looks across at him, feels suddenly, unbearably tender. “I brought your boots. We can walk,” he says. In the distance, the bells toll, ringing them home.