It’s the longest winter on record in Scotland, so the headlines say. They are even predicting snow tomorrow, on the first of May, the official start of summer. The meteorologists are tying themselves in knots trying to put it down to global warming or climate change or whatever it is that they are being paid to research at the moment.
I had a hunch that it was something else. The rise in traffic accidents could be put down to the icy roads but why were there so many petty accidents occurring in Edinburgh? Could a whole city just be having a run of bad luck?
My hunch was confirmed when I took my first sip of tea with my breakfast in the hotel. I spat it back in the cup, much to the disgust of the only other guest who was having breakfast this early.
“The milk has gone off,” I explain but he ignores me and disappears behind his copy of The Scotsman.
In my line of work, bad milk and bad luck usually mean just one thing: bad fairies.
I push my plate aside and do a quick tarot reading on the table in front of me to confirm it.
I still don’t believe it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of dealings with the Fae folk, I know they exist, but this close to a major city? This close to so many people who wouldn’t believe it even if Titania herself walked naked down Princess Street (that’s the kind of thing she might do, believe me). None of it makes any sense.
I’m guessing some kind of unnatural rift between our world and theirs has opened nearby. Unnatural isn’t really the right word, anything involving The Veil is inherently unnatural.
So, where to start? Arthur’s Seat is the most obvious place. The ancient volcano which forms the main peak of the hills overlooking the city has more than its fair share of myths attached to it but these have been mostly forgotten since the town developed. Urbanity is anathema to the Fae. Still, there is enough wilderness in the hills to make it a plausible location for a rift.
I’ve missed the dawn and I don’t want to wait until twilight, the two most auspicious times to catch a glimpse of The Veil, so I order myself an espresso, black, and drop a micro-dose of LSD to help me “see”. Sure, I’d prefer natural mushrooms but sometimes a modern-day shaman has to compromise.
So, off I go to Camelot. I’m carrying limited ordnance since the UK gun laws make it difficult to get hold of much but I do have a few silver 9mm bullets in one of my pair of CZ 75s should things turn nasty.
A steep trail takes me past the ruins of Saint Anthony’s chapel and on to a slowly rising plateau between Whinny Hill and Hunter’s Bog known as Long Row. Halfway along, a thick mist comes out of nowhere and I can barely see the trail.
My spidey-sense tingles.
OK, it’s the drugs but they are doing their job. In a clearing in the mist, I spot a perfect circle of green grass in the middle of the field of frost-covered vegetation which shimmers in my peripheral vision.
Halfway up the slope under some rocky outcrops, I can see a man sitting on a rock. He looks exhausted.
I say a man but he has albino skin and short, spikey blue-tinged hair. He’s as thin as a rake and his facial features and limbs are almost geometric in their pointedness. His unusual garb, a smart blue doublet and silver hose, also marks him out as Fae or an ostentatious reenactor who got lost on his way to a Renaissance Faire.
“Hail!” My greeting surprises him and he looks up. He’s probably not used to being spotted by mortals. He watches me as I climb towards him, making no effort to flee my approach.
“Greetings,” I say as I approach him with my arms down by my sides, palms turned towards him. “I’m Malik.”
“Jack,” he says with a sigh that forms a white cloud which hangs in the air in front of him.
“Frosty Jack Frost,” I joke but he seems startled by the appellation.
“How does a mortal have my name?” He stands upright, he can’t be far from seven feet tall. “What harm do you mean me?”
So it is Jack Frost, high-ranking Fae not just some low-level fairy pleb that’s causing the problem. I’m honoured and I bow.
“I mean you no harm, my lord.” They love the flattery. “I am merely trying to establish why you tarry so long in this place. Surely it is time for the Summer Court to rule.”
“Tell that to the bloody queen!” he said with unexpected vitriol. “Six months I’ve been here, maintaining the veil of winter. I’m knackered.”
I notice a tiny little man in a conical black hat standing at my feet holding a pair of scissors. I jump out of the way but my shadow stays rooted to the ground and the grinning little man starts cutting around it.
I have no idea what losing my shadow might do but I don’t like the idea of it at all. I draw a pistol and point it at his tiny face.
“Gofus! Stop that!” Jack chides. The little man looks disappointed as he pockets his scissors and walks back up the hill, kicking at the ground in a huff.
“Forgive the gnome,” Jack says. “He is only doing his job.”
What kind of job is that? I wonder and I imagine a business meeting between gnomes with a presentation slide saying, Shadows > ???? > Profit.
I kick my left leg and I’m relieved when its shadow rejoins my body.
“So what’s up, Jack? Why are you still here? Summer starts tomorrow, you should be elsewhere. In fact, why are you here in the first place, Edinburgh is hardly a place for the fair folk anymore.”
“We have been gone a while, it is true, centuries in your years,” Jack says. “The place became mundane and the people forgot the rituals. We were diminished and our powers waned so we fled to the highlands.
“Then we felt the call of the Beltane fire. We believed that the old ways had returned so we came to witness the ceremony and accept the sacrifice but there was none.
In place of the reverence we craved, we witnessed a mockery. Strange tunes from foreign instruments accompanied grotesque contortions that had replaced the graceful dances of old that used to welcome the summer and bid us farewell. Only the fire remained.
“The Winter Queen has grown bitter and wishes to punish those who mock her and she has refused to prepare for the transition. The court will not move on without her permission, so here we are, after our time.” He sank back into an exhausted seated position on the rock.
It takes me a while to realise what he is talking about, then I remember the posters I have seen all around town, advertising the Beltane Fire Festival which will be taking place later today.
“Follow me,” I say and we climb to the top of the escarpment.
“I think that is what is causing all the problems.” I point west to Calton Park where the preparations for tonight’s festival are well underway. I fish my binoculars out of my tactical bag and hand them to Jack.
“Is that old Cragingalt underneath those monstrous buildings?” Jack asks, peering in the direction of the park where yellow-vested workers are building a stage in front of the pillars of the uncompleted National Monument and a labyrinth of crowd control barriers fills the park.
“I don’t think they intentionally meant to mock the queen,” I say. “It’s a bunch of kids looking to have some fun but it’s become something of a big deal in recent years.”
Hundreds of performers and tens of thousands of spectators would be crowding the place tonight to witness a modern reconstruction of the old Beltane festival. I kind of understand how that could piss off a curmudgeonly, old fairy queen who was used to getting all the attention. I can’t imagine what kind of pastiche a bunch of neo-pagans and Wiccans have conjured up from their internet searches about the old ways. I’m sure they are trying their best to be sincere but you don’t get to fully understand the old ways without first-hand experience. It’s not all crystals and runes.
“I have a plan,” I say to Jack.
“Are you going to sacrifice the instigators of this travesty? I think that might please the queen,” Jack says, perking up.
“I was thinking more of having our own festival but with blackjack and hookers.”
“I do not know this ‘Black Jack’ of whom you speak. Is he of the Seelie or the Unseelie?”
“Never mind,” I say. “It’s just something we used to say.” I need to update my memes.
I’ll skip the details on how we got ten tons of coal and ten barrels of tar to the top of Arthur’s Seat in broad daylight but let’s just say that it involved a lot of gnomes and a lot of glamour (that’s fairy magic for those that don’t know). The little fellas are all quite exhausted.
Apparently, they can use people’s shadows to pass unseen and it protects them from the mundanity of our world which normally saps their strength. There might be some profit in it after all.
The May Bushes were easier to come by although the park wardens might be wondering where all the vegetation from the hillsides has gone. Oh, and there’s a lamb and some cakes. I’ll come to those later.
Everything is prepared for the festival. Now, all we need is an audience. Thankfully, I know where to find one.
The public has been queueing up to get into the park for most of the afternoon but the ceremony won’t start until after nightfall. We have plenty of time, it’s just the plan that is a little shaky but what have we got to lose? Apart from the summer, that is.
For once I’m not the weak link in the plan, Jack is. He has to come into town and perform in front of tens of thousands of people who won’t believe what he’s doing, which will make it so much harder for him to actually do it. We’ll only get one shot.
Jack begins to look more and more human as we approach the crowded park, even his clothes resemble a pair of faded jeans and a tatty t-shirt. I don’t know if it is intentional on his part or if it is the effect of maintaining his existence in this world that doesn’t believe in him anymore. He’s reduced to leaning on me for support by the time we reach the entrance.
I’d wrangled my way onto the guest list earlier in the day with a few phone calls so we go straight in and find a spot to watch the procession go past, near to where we came in and where we would hopefully soon be leaving from.
Night falls and the ceremony begins, over on the west side of the park, with a display of fire juggling and drumming. Lots of drumming. We stay where we are. We aren’t interested in the procession; it’s the public we’re after.
We hear the procession approach in a cacophony of out-of-tune whistles blown by dancers dressed as grotesque birds. The ubiquitous drumming gets louder as they are followed by a troop of drummers playing Caribbean rhythms. The parade is bounded on either side by people in various costumes and make-up carrying flaming torches.
Next comes a group of semi-naked dancers covered in body paint, writhing and simulating sex in front of a confused public.
“Why are they undressed?” a bemused Jack asks me as they pass us.
“Isn’t this supposed to be a fertility rite?” I say, surprised by his prudishness.
“It is but this kind of cavorting is usually saved for later, behind closed doors. Lasciviousness like this is the reserve of witches.”
“You’re not wrong,” I say as I notice the tattoos and facial piercings that adorn most of the participants.
The head of the parade has reached the endpoint where they have their sorry excuse for a bonfire. The final group, led by the May Queen and her court, approaches us. The queen is a pretty woman in a plain white dress with a green sash tied around her waist. She is wearing an elaborate crown of flowers that looks more Asian in design than European. She is surrounded by a bizarre mix of Halloween-costumed people, presumably representing whatever mythical figures the Wiccans have decided to venerate this year.
“Now, Jack!” I say.
Jack starts rising in the air on the whirlwind that is forming around his lower half. He’s about ten feet above the ground when he begins spinning at an incredible speed and an icy blast of air shoots out from him in all directions, extinguishing all of the torches and fires that had been illuminating the park.
The park is plunged into darkness and I speak to the wee fairy who is flying at my shoulder, “Fire at will!”
One by one, two columns of fairies burst into bright lights in a wave that forms an illuminated pathway from here to the top of Arthur’s seat.
The crowds’ twitters of confusion turn into gasps of awe. So far so good.
Two fairies approach the May Queen and she stares at them in wonderment. If all is going to plan, they should be using their glamour to charm the woman and convince her to follow our path to the bonfire on top of the hill.
She seems to hesitate for a while but when I move the barrier in front of her, she leaves the path of the parade and starts walking along the fairy-lit road. Her companions are a mix of confusion and fascination but they follow on. I encourage the onlookers to follow her and soon, twenty thousand people are winding their way across Edinburgh and up to Arthur’s Seat.
“It’s working, Jack,” I say but he doesn’t reply. He’s collapsed to the ground, exhausted. He’s still breathing but unconscious.
I ask one of the fairies to go for help and I wait with him until a dryad arrives. He lifts Jack up in his branch-arms and we join the procession.
When we reach the point in the trail where I first saw Jack, there is a large group of richly clad people watching the procession from in front of the crags at the top of the slope. I guess we’ve got the queen’s attention. We’ll have to wait and see what happens next.
The dryad leaves the trail and carries Jack up to join them while I follow the procession to the top where a large crowd has formed around our bonfire.
I take a torch from one of the bemused onlookers and use it to light the fire. It bursts into flames, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd.
I pick up the bleating lamb and hold it tight under my arm as I slit its throat with a swift knife stroke. I let its blood fall on the ground then throw its little lifeless body onto the fire.
The act draws gasps from a few who witness it but it’s OK, we’re going to eat it later. Where do you think your plastic-packed meat in the supermarket comes from? It doesn’t grow on trees, you know.
Anyway, it has to be me. If any of the Fae got involved in the cooking it would cause all kinds of trouble. Half the crowd could end up crossing The Veil or going to sleep for a century or two after eating fairy food.
The crowd of onlookers parts and a beautiful, ethereal figure walks into the circle. She is seven feet tall, clad in shimmering samite and cloaked in a misty haze. I notice Jack amongst her menagerie of an entourage. He seems to have recovered somewhat.
She approaches the woman who is playing the part of the May Queen. The woman drops to her knees. The real queen takes the gaudy crown from her head. Fairies fly around her head, quickly undoing the pins and braids that attach it to her hair so the Winter Queen doesn’t pull her head off with it.
She tosses the crown into the fire and turns her attention back to the woman. Her visage is inscrutable. I wonder if she’s considering throwing her on the fire too.
She clicks her fingers and a satyr comes forward. It kneels before the queen and presents her with a garland of flowers. The queen touches the woman under her chin with one, long elegant finger, lifting her head up to face her. Her head turns quizzically on her slender neck as she holds the woman’s gaze.
As if on some unspoken command, the May Queen gets to her feet. The Winter Queen takes the garland from the satyr and places it on the woman’s head.
A great cheer bursts out from the watching Fae which spreads to the mortals in the crowd.
I breathe a sigh of relief. It seems that the Winter Queen had found the ceremony worthy of her and she had passed on her role to the next incumbent.
The Winter Court dissipates into a sparkling cloud of snowflakes and diamond points of light and then they are gone.
I distract some members of the crowd and get them to cook some Beltane bannocks, oatmeal cakes, in the fire and encourage them to crumble a bit into the flames as an offering to the spirits.
The mortals seem to be enjoying themselves so I leave them to it. I don’t want to be around when the effects of the Faes’ glamours start to wear off and people start asking questions.
Halfway down the hill, Jack Frost joins me, fully recovered and in full on Fae aspect. There is an aura of cold around him so I don’t get too close.
“What happens next?” he asks.
“I was about to ask you the same question,” I say.
“We are returning beyond The Veil until Samhain.”
“Well, you’d better warn the queen that this lot does the same thing for that too. Probably best that she doesn’t get involved.”
“I shall inform her and suggest that she follows your advice. And what of your people?” Jack says “How will they deal with what has transpired?”
“Oh, we’re a pretty mundane bunch. Most people will remember a wonderful show with fantastic special effects and amazing costumes because that’s all they can imagine. A few might remember the reality of it but it will soon fade.” I shrug.
The bonfire casts a long shadow in front of me as I head back to town. I pop in my earbuds, put on some Ennio Morricone and walk off into the night: job done.
Shock and Awe: Mythocide Level One available from Amazon