Background: Lee Townsend is an undergraduate taking a degree in Mythological Studies at University College London in 1959. He is a foundling who was rescued as an infant the night after a bombing by the side of the River Lea, which he was named after.
Rating: Teen and up
Warnings: Period-typical homophobia
“John?” He’d been right behind Lee, surely, but now as Lee turned around, the wind lashing rain across his face, his friend seemed to have disappeared utterly. All he saw was the grey blurred grass beneath the grey blurred sky.
“Down here, dammit.”
Lee looked down. The specimen kit had skidded across the muddy grass and John was curling over his ankle with an expression of obvious pain on his pale face.
“What happened?” Lee knelt by him immediately.
“I caught my damn ankle in a damn hole,” grunted John. “Wrenched it quite badly, I think.”
“Oh dear.” Everything seemed to be going wrong with this trip. First they had missed the morning train and had to wait for the next one, then John had had a row with one of the park gatekeepers over some of his bulkier and odder looking equipment, so all they ended up being able to bring was the picnic basket, the specimen kit, and three of Lee’s sketchbooks. Then they had been out on the moors for less than an hour when a truly terrible thunderstorm had descended out of absolutely nowhere, and now John had wrenched his ankle, and god only knew where the nearest civilization was.
“I knew we ought to have brought the compass,” Lee sighed. “Do you think you can walk if I give you my shoulder?”
“Haven’t much choice, have I?” John asked shortly. “What a wretched trip this has turned out to be.”
“Well, we did find that nest of an unattested species of pixie,” Lee pointed out.
“And then the storm came on right away, we’ll never find it again.”
“We’ve got your photos and my sketches, it’s not a total loss.”
“I suppose,” grunted John unwillingly. “Ouch, be careful.” Lee’s foot had brushed against the side of his painful ankle.
“Sorry,” Lee said, slowing slightly and once again wishing for the compass. He squinted against the heavy grey rain, turning his face in all directions, but everything was just different shades of grey, other than the tops of the heather, which even in the faint light had a dim purplish hue.
He felt out of sorts and awkward out here on the moors. He enjoyed sketching, but nature wasn’t really his boon companion. All he wanted right now was a nice cup of tea being warmed over a gas heater. Even in his mackintosh he was soaked nearly through, and John couldn’t be doing much better.
“Do you have any idea which way we should go?” he asked John, but his only reply was a tired grunt, followed by a cough, which Lee took to be an embarrassed ‘no.’ Fantastic. Well, perhaps they’d be able to find a cave or a bush that didn’t seem likely to be struck by lightning and wait out the storm there. With some luck, it would be easier to find the road—to find the way they came—or to find some sign of civilization when all of heaven wasn’t emptying itself onto their heads. Lee tried not to think about what might happen if they couldn’t.
But there did not seem to be any shelter. The further they walked, the more tired Lee became, and the more John drooped heavily against him. For John, usually frustratingly independent, to be letting Lee take almost all of his weight was deeply concerning. But then he hadn’t been sleeping well the week before, Lee was nigh certain. He’d fielded a number of calls from John in the middle of the night, to the extent that his landlady was starting to make very non-empty threats about evicting him, and John always seemed to have great dark circles beneath his eyes whenever Lee saw him. It was probably because of his doctoral thesis, since he was supposed to be defending that in under a month. The combination of fatigue from that and pain from the twisted ankle could very well be enough to have him drooping like this.
All of a sudden, so suddenly it seemed as if it had appeared by magic, a bright light flickered into being ahead of them, and Lee sighed sharply with relief. “John, I think there’s shelter ahead,” he said, and John managed a limp nod.
They staggered up to what turned out to be a low stone building with a heavy wooden door, the architecture difficult to make out through the fury of the storm. Lee reached for the handle and tugged at it, but it was either locked or impossible for him to open against the wind, at least not while off-balance from supporting John. In frustration, Lee pounded desperately at the door. They were so close to shelter; it wasn’t fair. John murmured something into Lee’s hair, but a glance sideways told him that his friend’s eyes were narrowed to slits; he couldn’t be more than semi-conscious. “Please,” Lee choked out. “We need help—”
With a sudden blast of warm air, the door swung open. Deeply grateful, Lee managed to stumble inside and over to a nearby long, low bench, where he deposited John, who sighed heavily and managed to blink his eyes open. “Ugh,” he muttered. “Where—oh, this is interesting.”
“John,” Lee sighed. “You’re exhausted and injured. Let yourself rest.”
“But look,” John argued. “We’re out on the moors in the middle of nowhere, and this—” he indicated the dim, lofty space around them, “—this is clearly some sort of religious building, but it has a roof, wooden pews, the stone of the walls and floor is not crumbling. This can’t be a normal church.”
A round little light broke the dimness ahead of them as a white-clad figure moved towards them. “Aye, it’s an abbey,” said a new voice. “Welcome, travelers.”
She wore a straight white habit with a hood wrapped close about her head and hiding her hair. Her pale face was tinted golden by the candle she held in one hand, and flames danced brightly in her dark eyes. Something about her face made Lee think of old stone beneath water: that same fragile, smooth, worn quality. It gave her an ageless, inhuman appearance.
A glance to the side told Lee that John was, of course, immediately fumbling for his Brownie, digging it out of its waterproof casing. “Who are you?” Lee asked, before John could ask the much less diplomatic, “what are you?” which he would do any second now.
The dark eyes blinked. “I—am a daughter of god,” responded the woman.
“The light’s terrible,” John muttered, but he was already setting the camera up.
“John. Ask first.” John’s manners were terrible, but at least he would treat a mythological being no worse than the son of a lord.
John rolled his eyes. “May I record your appearance, ma’am?” he asked stiffly, and the head tilted at him curiously.
“You are an artist?” she asked.
John shrugged. “Of a sort.”
“We both are.” Lee drew his sketchbook out from his bag, relieved to see that the waterproof paper had not shifted and the sketchbook had been protected from the fury of the storm. With the poor lighting quality in here and the possible distortion from the mirror effect on a photo, he knew a sketch would be necessary as well. A pity they wouldn’t know until they developed the photographs—the hand mirror that they usually carried had been packed in one of the parcels that had had to be left at the hotel.
The woman smiled. “I am not young anymore,” she said. “But yes, you may. Be kind to an old woman’s appearance, though.”
John took several shots of her and of the building itself, muttering to himself and wincing every time he moved and forgot to favor his injured ankle. Lee sighed and sat quietly, his sketchpad open on his lap. Normally when doing technical drawing for John, he chose a pencil on the harder side of the scale, but he did not think he would be able to capture the strange softness of the woman’s countenance with that, and atmosphere could be a real piece of data in John’s line of work. In their line of work, really, Lee supposed, although he did not expect that he himself would ever be earning a doctorate. An MPhil might be optimistic; his sketches and fieldwork were good, but his classwork was really rather a muddle, even with John as a tutor.
Selecting a BB pencil, he began to draw. The candle was bright enough to cast interesting shadows, and they were the shadows he would expect, so there was no magical effect on the lighting, at least.
“No thermometer,” John muttered sadly, then coughed, rough and hollow, his shoulders shaking. “No barometer, damn those interfering idiots. Do you think it feels colder than you would expect?” he asked Lee, who gave him a long, steady look.
“We are soaked to the skin,” he said. “I am too cold, and that’s about all I can tell you.”
“I am afraid I have no linens for you,” the woman apologized. “I can give you bread and cheese and hot cider, though.”
“Please,” Lee said gratefully, and even John gave a nod of thanks.
“Do something for this wretched sore throat,” he muttered, and Lee looked at him worriedly again. There was a flush growing on his cheekbones. John did not take ill easily, but when he did take ill, it was usually rather spectacular.
“Lie down,” he said. “You’ve taken enough photographs. You need some rest or you are going to be miserable company tomorrow.”
John grunted but did not protest, which was worrisome. The woman gave them another faded smile and moved away, and Lee sat beside John, shrugging off his mackintosh. “Lie down.”
“All right,” John sighed. “What do you think she is? Ghost or wraith, perhaps, but making this place appear out of nowhere—very good odds of a genius loci, I should think.”
Despite the fact that John was utterly obsessive and could find a genius loci in his morning cup of coffee, Lee had to admit that their host was a likelier candidate than most. It was a pity they didn’t have most of their equipment with them.
“Do you think we should eat the food?” Lee asked worriedly, now that said host was presumably out of earshot.
“Mmm, probably fine,” John murmured back drowsily. “Nothing fey-like about her, the church has seeped into the bones of this place. Worst it will be is an illusion, I’d wager.”
By the time the woman returned, John was nodding off, but he dragged himself awake for long enough to consume three mouthfuls of bread and cheese and an entire large mug of cider before curling up on the wooden pew and succumbing to sleep once again.
“Thank you,” Lee told their host wearily as he sipped at his cider. Then he frowned as John shivered in his sleep, removed his mackintosh, and tucked it carefully about John’s shoulders, hardly able to suppress a fond smile. There was no one like John.
“You’re welcome.” The figure stooped a little to look down at them.
“What do you remember?” Lee asked after a moment. More data for John.
The dark eyes moved from him to some distant shadow in the corner. “Long years,” the woman answered. “I remember long years and prayer to the lord. Though I am no longer sure I know the feeling of faith, I know that it burned in my breast. I remember fire warping these stones and the growth of the heather around the abbey. I remember my mission.”
“I am to offer weary travelers food and shelter and safety.”
“Do you—remember anything else?” There was no good way to ask about the millennia-long gap, if, indeed, she had been born before the purported disappearance of magic and had not just arisen sometime near or after the end of the first World War. Though even that might be interesting, because the memories had to have been held somewhere.
The candle guttered slightly, and the eyes of the woman in white moved from Lee to John with some kind of strange curiosity. A small smile curled at her lips. “Yes,” she murmured. “I remember love.”
Lee blinked at the seeming non sequitur. “Love?”
“I loved a woman once.” The short figure in its indistinct robes seemed to smile. “The curve of her breast, her thigh, the chime of her laugh—” She sighed. “Love is not a sin, my son. I never told her how I felt and I have had a long, long time for regrets. Tell him.” Lee looked down at John’s form, stretched out along the hard wooden pew, with both their mackintoshes thrown across him, a slight fever-flush standing out along the tops of his cheekbones and thought. The slim form of the ghost or wraith or genius loci hovered for a moment, then spoke again. “I’ll leave you,” she said. “You’re safe here, child of the River Lea.”
She gathered her white habit about her and made her way humming down the stone aisle, the little ring of light of her candle following her, a white, white figure in the vast dimness.
Lee looked back at John. The thought of telling him rose up, awful and impossible, but the thought of not telling him—the thought of him never knowing—
“I think I might love you, you know,” he said, and John murmured in his sleep. “I know it’s rather peculiar, but I find myself watching the way your idiotic mustache twitches when you’re nervous, and my sketchbook has a number of pictures of you, which I imagine you would find quite silly.” Tiredly, he slumped onto the bench beside John and could not stop himself from reaching out touch his hair, still wet from rain and sweat. “I don’t know how to love someone,” Lee continued. “It’s—it’s not something that was covered in my lessons.” He snorted a little. “And you are the most impossible man. And you are a man. But I want to tell you when you’re awake, and maybe—maybe someday I will. God,” he hiccupped in a sudden breath. “I hope you’re queer. I—even if you’re not, you wouldn’t—” No. John wouldn’t.
For an instant, Lee imagined him reciprocating. Imagined John’s eyes opening, John’s smirk in response to his words. John wouldn’t kiss gently; John did nothing gently. But he might do so carefully. On the bench, John sighed and coughed and shifted, eyelids fluttering, and Lee’s heart leaped into his throat, but no true wakefulness bloomed in the pale blue. He shifted restlessly, squirming up the bench, and Lee gasped as John curled on his side and laid his cheek on Lee’s thigh, reaching up firmly to curl his fingers in the base of Lee’s sweater.
“Oh, John,” Lee said aloud, letting his hand fall onto his friend’s back. More than he ought to allow himself, perhaps, but with John all but in his lap, he could not find it in him to refuse himself this. When had he fallen in love with this utterly frustrating genius? Somewhere in between the lessons and the laughter and the trudging all over the damn countryside, John had wormed his way into Lee’s heart, and it didn’t seem likely that he was ever going to leave.
Are you or aren’t you? Lee thought in frustration. If only he knew, he could react appropriately, but the question itself was such an impossible gulf to traverse. The dim emptiness of the strange building seemed hollow around him, as if simulating the unknowable space between himself and John.
Well, he thought practically. I’ve got to sleep. After half-carrying John across the North York Moors, he was rather tired himself. Partially out of habit, partially out of respect for their location, he murmured a quick prayer before shutting his eyes. Sleep claimed him soon after.
He woke to the clear sunlight of early dawn on the moors. John’s head was still in his lap, but there was stone, not wood, beneath them. The high rough grey grass and heather bloomed around them, growing between the few crumbling white stones that still marked out a rough rectangle. Lee shifted and coughed, taking a deep breath, and John’s eyes fluttered open above his ridiculous mustache.
“That was an absurd night,” he yawned. “And I am in an absurd position. Sorry, Lee.”
“Wait.” Lee splayed a hand down across John’s face to stop him from sitting up. “You ridiculous man. How are you feeling?”
“My back hurts,” John groused. “My head—best not speak about the state of that. Nothing worse than I’ve had after a night at the bar, though.”
John moved and swore. “That is also unpleasant, but I expect I’ll live.” The fever-flush, at least, had faded from his cheeks. In the bright light filtering down from a surprisingly non-cloudy sky, the terrain around them was picked out in sharp relief; a few miles ahead, Lee could see the blocky outlines of buildings standing out against the sky.
“Do you think you can make it a few miles?” he asked, pointing ahead.
“Oh, good god, civilization at last.” John sat up and stretched gingerly, pulling down his sock to inspect his ankle. “It’s badly bruised but there’s not much swelling; I expect with a little help I can make it there. If you’re not too tired of lugging my bulk from one end of the moor to the other.”
“I’ll live,” Lee said dryly. “Up you get, then.”
As he helped John to his feet, Lee’s mind slid back to the strange quiet of the night before, the candlelight surrounding the strange figure—the spirit of a person or a place who had risen just to give shelter to two travelers lost in the storm. It was a much kinder story than many he’d heard of such beings, but something was niggling at the back of his head, and when he realized what it was, he paused and frowned, his hand arrested beneath John’s shoulder blade.
Child of the River Lea. How had she known?
Copyright © 2018 by Mertiya. All rights reserved.