The streets of Woking were crowded that Saturday afternoon, much more so than usual owing to the commotion in the sandpits outside of town. There, the boffins and such folk as didn’t have enough business of their own to mind had gathered to gawk at a great cast-iron capsule fallen from the sky. Some knaves chattered ridiculously that it had come from the planet Mars, and some others were fool enough to believe them. Most sensible people agreed that it was a shell launched by that giant German gun, a boast from the Kaiser that Her Majesty was sure to answer in a way not to the liking of her churlish grandson.
there were a few people who hardly gave a thought to such matters,
and one of them was a young lady – let’s call her Mary, as so
many young ladies are, for no one knows her name for sure – a new
mum, very pretty and proud of her baby boy, whom she pushed around in
a cozy little pram. All her thoughts were on this little boy, who was
born the previous Sunday eve, nearly a week old now, and was to be
baptized tomorrow at old St. Peter’s, the church of his namesake.
it was generally believed to be bad luck to take a child out before
he was baptized, but Mary wasn’t raised to be superstitious, and
this strong young girl had been cooped up in bed for too many days,
and now that the weather was bright and sunny she felt she just must
have some air, and it would do no good to go promenading without
little Peter, since all of the neighbors would be asking about him.
And she went alone, because her husband, a strapping young lieutenant
in the 11th Hussars, had to be about on maneuvers.
Mary might have been better off if she’d been a bit more
superstitious, because she never made it home that day – or at
least not the home she was expecting. But then again, many people in
Woking who stayed in their homes and businesses fared no better, and
expired in the flames or under collapsing timbers. It was the oily
black smoke that did in Mary and her darling little boy, sadly
unbaptized as I have already reported.
the sun went down, the smoke had mostly cleared, and the bodies lay
in the streets right where they first fell. For a little while there
was no more commotion on the streets of Woking, and then, gradually,
it returned. The rats came out, along with a few mewling cats to
pester them. A riderless horse sometimes clopped by from the Common,
and later on, when the moon rose high, mangy dogs with their stomachs
clung to their ribs came on and had their unwholesome victuals. At
midnight, the beasts were joined by other things that came around at
such times as this, things without form or flesh – at least not the
flesh you’re used to. Things that men saw only with great
difficulty; things that, in these days, most men dismissed even
though their ancestors huddled around bonfires in fear of them.
some of these creatures came from the worlds sidewise to this one,
moving in wispy black shrouds that might have been cloaks, with
bone-white fingers wrapped around translucent scythes that cut loose
the struggling spirit from its shackle of flesh. Others were golden
hued and rosy cheeked, and they blew on flutes or plucked lyres, and
those trepidatious souls who had not already shuffled off were
charmed into following. Some they led to good destinations, and
others to not so good ones, but the weak, sickly spirit of little
Peter they passed by. That forlorn numen could barely even
peek outside the prison of his own eyes, through which he could only
dimly see the other dead folks go marching.
into the night, some other creatures came by – clad in form and
flesh somewhat more like what you’re used to – and had a look
around. They laughed a bit, and generally approved of the change.
haven’t had a walk around here in quite a long time,” one of them
said. “It feels good to get my toes in this old dirt again.”
but they’ve made quite a mess of this place,” said another.
these were wicked sounding words, but the creatures weren’t really
wicked, no more than a bear or a lion is wicked. Cruel, perhaps, and
certainly savage, but they lacked that divinely bestowed discernment
that made man culpable for his sins. These creatures were the Fey.
take a good long time to be put back to right,” agreed a third. “If
they don’t come back.”
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they all had a look around, and some of them thought that maybe this
time the men really wouldn’t come back. Then the world could return
to what it used to be, back when it was still old, but young in their
memory. For the Fey had lived in these isles when they were greener
and more pleasant, before even the first brute men in shaggy cloaks
trod across the dry English Channel.
fairy of the Airish sort, a pixie with bright butterfly wings,
fluttered over little Peter’s body and, for the first time that
night, someone paid him notice.
this pixie was a girl, or at least a girlish sort of Fey, for sex,
like the other human qualities they adopted, was more of something
they aped rather than something they really possessed. And she had
learned to ape some other human qualities in line with her sex, like
sympathy, affection, and even a desire for motherhood. Like all fairy
qualities, even the positive ones, these were not fully wholesome
attributes, and so she didn’t react to the sight of poor Peter’s
suffocating spirit the way a human would have. Instead, she felt a
selfish delight, like a child who finds a discarded toy in the rubble
of a burned down house.
out, little boy!” she cooed as she bent down to his prison, and
beckoned him out with her finger. Out rose his weakling spirit,
slowly, cautiously. A breath of sweetness, a struggling flicker of
light, an echo – little Peter’s numen was none of these
things, but might remind you of each of them.
won’t do, little boy!” she giggled. “Don’t you know what you
are? Don’t you know how to behave?”
fairy danced around him and waved her arms and her wings, and he
floated up like a feather. She teased and she breathed, she thought,
and weaved, and pulled, and then little Peter’s numen was
not a breath or an echo or a flicker of light anymore, but a definite
shape and solidity, the makings of a body perhaps like the one he
might have had if he had not choked on the black smoke, a body made
of the same tenuous matter as the fey girl. Through the long night
she helped him grow, and his head was covered with wild brown hair,
and his clever eyes had color. And then, discovering he had a voice,
he laughed with pure joy.
little explosion sent the fairy reeling, and she felt as if she might
grow herself, or sprout a new pair of wings. She laughed and cheered
and scooped up Peter into her arms, cradling him against her bosom
like his own mother might.
racket didn’t go unnoticed, and some of the other Fey gathered to
see what had happened. Most of them quickly lost interest, as they
did with most things, but the few who stayed looked on
disapprovingly. But whether their disapproval grew from a sense of
violated propriety or from jealousy, no one can really say.
satyr called out to the pixie, whose name in the Fey language sounded
like the tinkling of a tiny, silver bell, and asked just what she
thought she was doing.
found a little boy! His name is Peter. He’ll be my son now, and
I’ll be his mother,” she replied.
know you can’t do that, it’ll be the end of you! Leave him where
you found him, for the psychopomps will be looking for him,” the
can do what I want! This one hasn’t gone down to drown in the
bright water, and the psychopomps already passed him over. He’s my
son, and I am his mother now!”
satyr’s stern face frowned in disagreement. “That’s a man child.
You’ll never be his mother.”
the fairy whose name sounded like the chiming of a tiny bell stomped
her foot and shouted. “Fine! Who needs a mother, anyway?
Nevertheless, he’s coming back with me, and we will do things that
you’ve never imagined.” The pixie went about her business,
picking through the rubble for things her little boy might like: a
toy wooden sword, a peacock feather from a lady’s hat. In a flash
of inspiration, she decided that he would need stories for his
bedtime reading. In the ruins of a bookseller, she picked two volumes
at random – not that it mattered, since she couldn’t read anyway
– A General History of the Pyrates and Song of Hiawatha.
satyr looked on and said nothing, but he was very troubled. No human
child had ever been brought to their country, but he had heard of the
trouble they caused whenever one had come to other realms in the
Dreamscape. He had heard dreadful stories of how their minds, every
bit as mercurial and capricious as the Fey, altered the very stuff of
the Dreamscape at their whim, transforming it until there was nothing
recognizable – until there was no room left for the Fey. In other
words, just like the way things were here.
Did she want there to be no place left for the Fey anywhere in
Tellus? The satyr said all these things to her.
don’t care! I will do what I want, and so will he! And if there’s
no place left for you, then it will be even better!” She laughed
spitefully. “But I’ll give him your name so we can remember you
when you’re gone! Peter Pan, I’ll call him!”
Dawn was coming, and there was no time left to dawdle; the gates of the Rampart were closing. The pixie soared into the twilight. Nestled in her arms, little Peter’s eyes were filled with mischief and cunning as he bid good bye to the world of his birth.
The story you’ve just read is an excerpt from Population of Loss, the first volume in the Martian War Chronicles. Buy the book online or learn about the other ways you can support us.