“It’s them. It’s got to be…”
Mistress Pattison peered around the curtains of her bedroom window at the top of the carriage which was proceeding above the garden wall. She glanced back at her husband, who was still fiddling with his boots and in his night-shirt.
“Get a move on Neville!” She gave a shudder. “Sweet Elder. The whole idea gives me the creeps.”
“It might just be — ”
“No one comes this far along the street, least of all this time of a morning.”
The carriage had stopped and was just visible beyond the wrought iron gate. A door shone as it opened and first one, and then a second, figure emerged.
“There’s two of them!”
“What did you expect, Nell?” Giving up with his boots, and rigorously scratching his thick grey hair, Master Pattison shuffled towards the bedroom door, where hung the old coat that he used as his dressing gown.
“You can’t go down like that.”
Dimly, a bell rang.
“Then you answer. The girls’ll hear — and you’re still dressed.”
“They’ll hear nothing. I put plenty in last night’s tea.” Mistress Pattison, a picture of exasperation in her stained apron and matron’s cap, dragged the night-shirt off her husband’s head, found him trousers and a shirt, and, between further peeks around the curtain and some confusion over his booted but sockless feet, crammed him into an approximation of his usual daywear.
“What time is it anyway? I’m sure they’re early.”
“Does it matter?” She attempted to comb his hair before he scratched it again. “Now get!”
Master Pattison made his slow way down the stairs. He glanced up at the bell in the front hall and the long mechanism which ran from it to the gate. It hadn’t rang again. It was as if they weren’t really there, which was what he was hoping. Between yawns, he breathed the spell which caused the door to unclick its lock and swing open. The air outside was misty and cold as his boots scraped the paving which ran between dried heaps of last summer’s lavender and sallow. The shapes were there beyond the spiderwebbed gate. Two of them, just as Nell had said.
The voice came as he fiddled with the freezing padlock on the gate.
He heard himself give a laugh. “S’pose that’s me.”
“And we’re expected?”
No, he thought. They were wearing grey-green cloaks and their faces, he was glad to note, were entirely invisible inside the gloom of hoods. Not things like you. Not — But he couldn’t think the word. Shouldn’t think anything. The gate finally gave, and he stepped back, and a stray bit of Nell’s voice reminded him of its need of oiling as it gave a tooth-aching screech, and they entered. Two of them. The changelings.
The parlour of St. Alphages Refuge for Distressed Guildswomen — which its occupants and the people of Bristol called Alfies — was an important but little-used room. It always seemed to Master Pattison that the short interludes of its occupation had soaked a needy solemnity into the velvet of its curtains and cold gleam of the firegrate. The pictures on the walls were of patrons, children, smiling families, list of donations and letters of gratitude, all of them resolutely jolly. But it was like the sun on this grey April morning; you knew its warmth was somewhere, but not here. The mistresses of the great and high guilds who came to sit in here — for the girls who dwelt at Alfies were never admitted — were almost always impossibly nervous, and there was a wanting in their eyes which had nothing to do with rank or age. If he was entirely honest, which wasn’t a luxury he regularly permitted himself, Master Pattison felt even more excluded from the life he was living on these occasions than he did in the generally happy bustle of day-to-day at Alfies. Both he and Mistress Pattison were members of the Matrons’ Guild, which was resolutely feminine in most of the thousands of its affiliations and members. The fact was, he much preferred the company of women to men. But to be here in the parlour which felt cold even when they did manage to get a fire going, and to witness the exchange of lives upon which Alfies was founded, always left him brooding.
Over the years, there had been tears and wild threats and offers of amounts of money so huge that only the sternness of their guild prevented them from accepting. Each exchange was unique, but there was something beneath, a steely template locked into the air of this room, which was always the same. Invariably, it was at some odd hour, which was dictated both by the guildsmistresses’ need for secrecy and the unpredictable circumstances of birth. Most of the clients arrived without husbands or companions. Many came padded as if they were heavy with child, shuffling the front hallway with a ponderousness which, after months of pretence, made a good likeness of Alfies’ genuine occupants. Some, the wealthiest or most driven, had swallowed potions and performed conjurations which truly caused the swellings and symptoms of pregnancy. But, even for those few women who were prepared to openly admit that they were adopting an infant from Alfies, and the custodians of the orphanages who collected those who were deformed or unfortunately coloured, all impression of frankness and honesty tended to fade once they were inside this parlour. Always, the house was unnaturally quiet, for Nell made sure she’d put a bit extra in the girl’s tea. Always, the Pattisons were tired after attending the labour. Often, although the girls signed up to this exchange as an essential part of the conditions of their admittance, there had been what Nell called awkward scenes. From there, to the calm of this moment, was like switching worlds.
Even though these visitors were changelings, Master Pattison still found himself trapped in the usual ritual. Should he offer refreshment, which was nearly always refused? Should he comment on the weather to set them at their ease? They sat down — yes, they used chairs — and Master Pattison found himself alone with his guests, just as he always did, whilst he waited for Nell to collect the baby from the alcove just off their bedroom, which was set well away from the sounds of rest of the house even though (for Nell had gifts of the Matrons’ Guild to which he was not privy) the infants invariably slept blissfully.
The creatures were still in their cloaks, those raised hoods, which were of a greenish shade similar to this room’s shadows. Master Pattison was, he realised, standing at his normal spot beside the fireplace. This was, after all, just another moment in the parlour’s thinly protracted history. His eyes, though, were drawn irresistibly towards the hand which now snaked out from the sleeve of the nearest changeling’s cloak, curling far whiter than the lace cover of the armrest on which it lay. Then it moved, and he started, seeing nails as black as the hand was pale play along the stitching with a gesture which, had the thing been human, might have been taken for impatience.
But what did he know? Never before in his life, Master Pattison realised, had he ever seen a changeling. Yet the thought came as a surprise to him. Somehow, they were always there from your earliest age. Tales mothers used to frighten their misbehaving children. A particular flap of shadow which had seemed to lie, on winter nights as he looked out from his window for fear of not looking, behind the dolly tub and the empty lines of washing. Then had come the Day of Testing, when he and his elder sister were lined outside the trollman’s caravan with all the rest of the local offspring. An odd moment alone inside that wheeled shed, which smelled of pipesmoke and sour bedlinen, as the trollman dripped your left wrist with some glowing stuff, which Master Pattison had never seen before in his life, but which even the most idiot child knew was called aether. And there you were. Your whole arm smarting and this blazing scab which would never really heal. It was called the Mark of the Elder, and some of the high guildswomen they’d had in this parlour ornamented it with cleverly constructed bracelets, but for the rest of the world it was soon tide-rimed with dirt and everyday life. But your Mark was never quite forgotten. It proved, as long as it didn’t fade and you were careful and worshipped the Elder and did all the things your guild expected of you and none of the things it didn’t, that you weren’t a troll, a changeling.
Master Pattison couldn’t help thinking as he leaned his left elbow on the cold mantelpiece in an attitude far beyond relaxation and began, unconsciously, to finger the gritty lump this pulled-up sleeve had revealed, that changelings had done something morally wrong to become that way. Whatever — for he could still see nothing but a slight dimming of the shade inside the nearest one’s hood — whatever that way was. For changing could happen to anyone. That was the thing to remember. They had all once been guildsmen just as he was now until some accident or poorly tuned spell tipped their souls into whatever lay on normality’s other side. And they were all different, he knew that as well; as different as the many workings of aether. There had once been long names and severe methods of study for these differences. Back in Ages less civilised that this one, changelings had been burnt, or chained and imprisoned and dragged around like familiars or drays under the auspices of the now greatly shrivelled Gatherers’ Guild. Now, though, such practices were frowned upon. Although there were rumours of changelings in attics, glimpses of covens on windy nights on Polden Hills, they mostly dwelt now at a place called Einfell, which lay not so very far from Bristol, although Master Pattison had never had cause to visit it and sincerely hoped that he never would. The changelings, the trolls, the hobgoblins — all the words he knew he shouldn’t be thinking — took care of their own. And the guilds — the guilds conspired forgetfully to allow them to dwell unmolested because it dealt with the problem and was mostly in their interest. But what went on inside Einfell’s walls, which Master Pattison had heard were of mile-high brick, or of glass, or of engine ice, or solid darkness, or all of those things, remained a mystery to far greater guildsmen than him.
“She shouldn’t be long…” He jerked his right hand, which he saw he had been picking at his Mark so hard that there was blood over his fingertips, away from his wrist and wiped it down his trousers where he hoped the stain wouldn’t show.
“We’re in no hurry. I understand how you must feel. This is a strange moment for us as well.” A lisp to the voice, and the trace of a more easterly accent. Otherwise, once Master Pattison had run the phrases around his head enough times to squeeze the sense out of them, it sounded ordinary enough. His eyes travelled towards the second creature sitting closer to the bay window in the morning’s slowly gaining light. The shape it formed in the chair was approximately human, but there was a lumpiness to the fall of its cloak suggestive of scales.
“You should call me Silus, by the way.” The lisp was more obviously pronounced around the name. “My colleague here is Ida. We have brought proof of identity. If you think that is necessary.”
“No,” Master Pattison shook his head and the room revolved. “I don’t think that will be…”
Here, at last, were Nell’s footsteps on the back stairs. The parlour’s further door creaked open and Mistress Pattison emerged carrying what looked like a trailing bundle of fresh sheets. Babies were such tiny things, really, to beset the world, in their growth and multiplication, with everything which filled this city which lay beyond.
Ahhhh… The sound swept through Master Pattison; a still wind. Then the changelings were up, just as the clients always stood at this moment, sighing across the carpet towards Mistress Pattison. “…So beautiful.” Now, there was definitely a voice, although the movement across the room had caused the hood of the one called Silus to slip back a little and both of its terrible white hands were extended. Master Pattison thought that Nell, who’d put on a fresh apron as well as collecting the baby, did extraordinarily well not to back away.
“It’s a boy,” she said with scarcely a quaver. “He hasn’t got a name. We always leave that up to the… The new family.”
“May I take him?”
This time she did hesitate. But to resist might have involved some sort of contact with the which creature loomed in front of her, so she let go, and the child seemed almost to fall between them in its drooping blankets. Then he was lifted and ahhh… that same soundless phrase, which felt to Master Pattison like a distillation of all the parlour’s quiet longing, swept through him again.
The changeling which was holding the baby settled back down in its chair. The other one crouched, with a rustling sound, beside it.
“I would never have thought,” the seated one called Silus murmured, its voice so quite now that the lisp was almost all there was, ”that I would live to feel this again.” It leaned over the baby. All pretence of the hood was gone now, and its head was as white as his hands, and the bones of the skull were oddly planed. The lips were indrawn, a mere gash, with no nose to speak of, and the eyes were like globes of moonivy; faintly glowing — entirely grey. “I used to be a guildsman, you know. I used to have a family. The monstrous thing about us — and I know that’s how you feel — is that we’re not monsters at all. I remember the fevered nights, that sense of a burden you would carry until the world decided to end. Scents like honey and the song of blackbirds. The sheer, inexplicable hope for everything you were and could never be… And it’s gone now and it’s here again and yet everything is different and I’m pulled by the ache of this room… I should never…
The baby, awake now, gazed up at the changeling, and, as much new-borns can feel or see anything, seemed confident and unafraid. The changeling’s words had rung in Master Pattison’s head; they rang there still. The other creature called Ida — the one crouching and rustling, and whose face was still hidden — reached out with pinecone fingers that the baby, as he mewled faintly and stretched an arm above his nest of blankets, enclosed in a minute ivory grip. That feeling came flooding over Master Pattison again. Too deep for words, wyrebright and flood-dark, it slowed his heart. Ida, he remembered, as he studied the scene before him, this triptych, was a woman’s name.
“There’ll be a few forms.” Nell unlocked the bureau in the corner and extracted the necessary quadruplicate sheets and stamped them and gave them a drying wave.
“There would be forms, wouldn’t there?”
Nell, who’d never been much of a one for irony, clipped them to a board and presented them to the seated changeling with an uncapped fountain pen. “You’ll need to sign here and here and also tick these boxes but you must leave that part blank — and also sign and date these and initial here but not here.”
The changeling freed a hand from beneath the baby and took the pen. It studied each clause with the air of one who had done such things many times before. Its breath gave a hissing sigh, and Master Pattison saw, entirely unwilled, the barred windows of a fine, sunlit office, files piled upon a fine leather desk; heard, even, the buzzing, itchy hum of some vast kind of industry. Then the vision was gone and the changeling had completed all the papers and Nell was blotting them.
“I once used to wonder,” he thought he heard it say, “what would happen to the world if we didn’t bother with all of this paper and ink. Would it cease turning? Would we learn to love or hate each other a little more or less?”
But Nell was too busy sorting the sheets to notice, and Master Pattison was no longer sure if what he’d heard had really been said. This is what it’s like, he thought, to be with these creatures. All the ordinary things of life start to unravel. It’s why they can’t live with us. It’s why people so fear them…
“Well.” Closing the bureau, Nell gave her usual brisk smile. She really was managing this most extraordinarily well. “That’s everything we need from you.”
The changelings rustled, stood up. The baby mewed. Outside, down in Bristol, the morning’s first shift sirens started howling. Sometimes, the guildsmistresses asked to have baby stripped. They would count fingers and toes and prod ribs and scan every crinkle and crease as if they were buying a goose for Christmas. Then there was all the talk about wetnurses and the boiling of nappies. But none of that seemed relevant today.
The changelings moved out into the hallway, and the parlour, even though its door remained ajar, seemed to snap shut behind them so tightly that Master Pattison wondered if things would ever be quite the same in there again. All the other exchanges now seem like rehearsals for this one. Ahead lay — but the future, despite the orderliness of the vaguely contented life he and Nell lived here at Alfies, suddenly seemed strange and harsh and dim.
“I know you won’t quite believe this,” the pale changeling called Silus said as it stood with the other beside the front door and Master Pattison, his hand eagerly on its handle, found himself close enough to be breathing the scent of the baby boy, which was of tallow and berries and new dough. “But this wasn’t of our willing.”
“Oh, that’s all right.” As if such things happened all the time, and eager to be rid of them before the girls began to stir, Nell gave a magnanimous wave. “Our instructions for this exchange came from very, very high. So high that we don’t even quite know — ”
“And I know that you’ll worry, when we leave you, and if you have any human hearts within you at all, that you’ve done something terrible, and that orders from on high and forms in quadruplicate are never enough — ”
“ — It doesn’t — ”
“ — and perhaps that may be true, although we’re all old and wise enough not to believe in things glimpsed through windows and stupid childhood tales. But we must all bow and bend to the ways of the Guilds — even us…” No word actually followed.
Master Pattison heard, felt, his hand opening the front door, and birdsong, all the stirrings of Bristol, flowed in. The baby, shocked by this strange new sense, tensed within his blankets. The face of the changeling which hadn’t spoken and was called Ida was half-visible now, and seemed to be made of crumbling charcoal. Something, the impossibility of a smile, twisted on the other’s lipless mouth.
“Day after day, year on year,” it said, “England seems becalmed. These Ages of ours seem incapable of ever ending. Then, suddenly a storm sweeps in from nowhere and bears everything away. Perhaps, when all of that has passed, any of us who remain will be fit to do the judging.”
“Well…” Nell, who was certainly unused to clients launching into odd philosophies at the end of an exchange, made a vague gesture.
Then the changeling raised its hood, and Master Pattison gave a small inward cheer as it and its companion turned to go. Then it paused. There was a silvered flash of cataract eyes.
“And the girl, the mother?”
On firmer ground again, Nell shook her head. “She’ll go away from here. She doesn’t matter.”
The changeling chuckled. It was the most human sound it had made. “I think you may be wrong.”
They turned and left.