Allan woke up that morning with a headache. He had bad dreams about his little brother, once again. Or maybe it was the excessive amount of ale he had drunk the night before. He got up, and Rainbow said, in his odd bird voice: « Mornin’, sunshine! ». Allan threw a malevolent glare at his familiar, who loved to tease him when he was in a bad mood, then he went to the tiny kitchen corner of his little own room in the London suburbs, near Regent’s park, and began brewing willow tree leaves and bark, with a bit of thyme, and some other plants he knew. He filtered the brew after cooking, and drank it all. In a few minutes, he would feel better.
The young man had to hurry, he had a shop to run, since he had made a living of selling his potions to people in the suburbs. He owned a cart with a marquee, in which he settled when he wanted to sell potions and charms to the clients. He also read their future in northern runes like Vera had taught him, except his runes were carved into wood, because that worked better for him. He put on his coat and took his haversack, then left home. He put some fresh potions and charms in the cart, which was stored in a rented shed in front of his ground floor apartment. He was proud to have managed to buy himself a place, even a tiny one, with his hard work. Rainbow went to sit on his shoulder. Allan pushed the cart towards his spot on Albany Street, then displayed the potions to sale, from the headache potion to the « love potion » (as he liked to call it), including tonics, balms agains the sore muscles, and all.
He was very surprised when, instead of the usual clients he got, a man he only knew from sight came to him, and said he should move before people started to get angry. What, in the name of the Wood, was that? He tried to ignore the warning, but soon, Miss Coventry, a regular customer of his, came to him with a frown. « Well well, young man. You really shouldn’t be there, you know? Didn’t you hear? Woodwives are not welcome in London anymore. At least some people think so ». Allan was taken aback. « And why is that, please, Miss Coventry? » he asked, puzzled. « You know that pub, the Hind and Hound, where young Bill Mason used to go for a drink? It was destroyed last night. Some claim it has something to do with Woodwives. Old Ben Harlow – do you know him? He lives on the docks – says a kind of monster came to the pub and threatened them all, before sprouting antlers and leaving the place a mess. Of course, nobody believes a word of what old Ben says, because he’s a know drunk and irredeemable liar, but he’s not alone on this one, and even the constabulary came to the Hind and Hound on the morning. » She stopped, breathless from all the talking. Allan frowned. « Allrighty, Miss, thanks for the warning, I will close the store for the day. You need something before I go? » he asked, in case. As a matter of fact, yes, she needed some balm for her sore knees, and a tisane for a better sleep. He sold her the two flasks, put the rest of his goods back in the cart for the day, and headed home.
Rainbow couldn’t stop talking on their way back. He blabbered about the ungratefulness of people, the money they wouldn’t make because of this, and all. Allan told him to shut up, and when he arrived to the shed to secure his cart, he took all the the bottles and boxes off the cart, put them into his haversack, and headed to the nearest druggist. He knew the man, who sometimes bought some of his products to sell them to his clients. When Allan got inside the store, the old man looked at him above his glasses, and it was not a welcoming look. « Hum, hello Mister Twigg. Would you buy some potions and balms from me today? », Allan asked shyly. The man didn’t answer instantly. He kept staring instead. After a moment, he seemed to come to life, and replied: « I think so. Obviously you won’t sell any on your own for a while, so you’ll have to give me a discount, or all the stock will be lost. » Allan sighed. He had dreaded that. But it was better to sell them at a low price than not at all. He agreed to the ominous bargain Mr. Twigg offered, and took the money.
When he was home, out of a job for now, idle and confused, Allan thought about the strange story he heard, and decided Miss Coventry’s version of the story wasn’t enough. Obviously, he had to hear the tale from someone who had been there, or he would never understand what had happened. He decided to go undercover – which meant no Woodwife coat, and more risk – and try to find Old Ben Harlow. The man seemed to be a good start, since he babbled about the events, and he might point Allan to someone else who had been there. The young man decided he couldn’t take Rainbow with him either, for he might be recognized easily. He took a regular coat, a worn one he had accepted once in exchange of a potion, instead of the money the man obviously lacked. He had regretted for a long time to have accepted it, because he couldn’t help thinking that the man couldn’t afford another coat, and would probably catch a fever from the cold. But he had decided to let go, and to learn from this adventure: he now gave the medicine for free to the poor ones, only in another place and time, to avoid any jealousy from his usual customers. Every now and then, he went to the a poor suburb on foot, and distributed some potions to the people he had once been part of. The rejected ones, the left over. The poorest of all, discarded by society.
With the old coat on, no exotic parrot, and a few coopers in his pockets to help people remember things – the best truth potion he knew on the docks! –, he left home, closed the door on a very disappointed Rainbow, and tried to remember his old life. Headed to the docks, he couldn’t help but feel a dull pain, a remnant of the loss of his brother, so many years ago. He walked to the docks, watched the boats and barges on the Thames, and felt like he had never left. Dockers worked on the cargos, and the smell was a strange mixture of spices, mud, dirty water, and sweat. It reminded him of his childhood. Like he thought, nobody seemed to notice him in his old plain coat, and he began asking about Old Ben Harlow. Some people wouldn’t let him finish a sentence, even if he still had the accent of the docks in his voice. But with a few coins, as he knew he would, he got some answers, and finally located Old Ben’s place.
In a narrow street near the docks themselves, there was a house. A decrepit, tumbledown old brick house, two stories high, with water dripping from the rooftop into the street. Allan didn’t politely knock on the door, he knew it was useless. Old Ben was said to be sleeping it off, and he wouldn’t answer a regular knock, so Allan pounded the door with a clenched fist, like he was trying to wake up the dead. For a few minutes, nothing happened, and Allan kept pounding, but his hand began to hurt. At long last, he heard the creaking of a door bolt, and the door cracked open, just enough for the resident to have a sneak peek at the visitor. Allan put his strong hand on the door to keep it from closing on him, and said: « Old Ben, I’d pay to hear that story of yours! Let me in so we can talk », and saying that, he spun a coin around his fingers, taunting the old man’s greed.
The door opened. Allan resisted the urge to wrinkle his nose at the smell that came from the man and room. With an easy smile, he gently pushed his way in, throwing the coin at the man, who caught it swiftly despite his age and seemingly poor condition. When the door closed behind him, Old Ben asked : « Who the hell are you to wake up a man at such an ungodly hour? ». It was eleven in the morning. Allan took a conspiratorial look, and said, in a lower voice: « I heard you had quite an adventure last night. I want to hear it all. I’ll give you more money if it’s a good one ». Old Ben seemed to hesitate, but when he saw another copper shine in the dim light of the day coming through the only window, he surrendered, and came to sit on an old chair, which squeaked under his weight. He waved Allan to the only other chair on the room, and the Woodwife sat with caution, afraid he would break it. Old Ben took a dirty glass and poured himself something that had to contain some alcoholic beverage of dubious origin. He didn’t offer a drink to Allan, but then, there was no other glass in sight, and Allan wanted to keep a clear head to hear what the old man had to say.
« Y’know that Hound n’ Hind pub, just next door? » Old Ben began. « Well it’s no more. It been crushed to the ground by some sorta weird monster. » He looked at Allan, obviously thinking the boy wouldn’t believe him. « You’re some kinda paperman? From the news? » he asked. Allan shook his head. « Nah, just a local boy being bored » Allan answered vaguely. Old Ben looked disappointed, but continued his story, which was about a strange man with glowing eyes asking about Woodwives (« them strange people in fancy cloaks » were his words) in the pub, very pressing. The trouble had begun when Young Bill Mason, whose sister was with a Woodwife, had asked why the stranger was asking. Old Ben stopped in his storytelling abruptly. His face went white. Allan pressed him, but he didn’t want to say more. The young man picked a few more coins from his pockets, and kept asking what had happened next.
Old Ben pocketed the coins and, reluctantly, tried to described the scene. « I didn’t see much. Every damn thing turn’d dark. Like, real dark, kinda solid dark. The stranger, he grinned, and it made us all shiver like he was the Devil himself ». Old Ben crossed himself, turning pale. He mumbled: « Maybe was the Devil himself, God save us! ». He stopped talking again, and seemed to be really frightened, and lost in some dark daydream, his eyes vague, his lips moving but no sound coming from them. Allan patted him on the shoulder, and poured him another glass from the unlabelled bottle. Old Ben drank it to the bottom in a long gulp, then seemed to regain some capacity of speech. « I don’t remember well… » he began, and Allan obliged and gave him two more coppers. Old Ben’s eyes lit. He began to realize how many coins he just earned. Maybe it was wise not to cross his new friend, who seemed very liberal with his money. « One more copper and I tell ya the whole story. And its helluva story, I swear ». Allan sighed. « It’s my last coin, Old Man. Can’t give you no more after that. Will have to beg for a supper tonight », he said to Ben, who seemed to understand, but still wanted said last copper. « Better you than me, pal. Wanna hear the story or nah? » he shrugged.
Allan feigned a great reluctance while taking another coin from his pocket, and gave it to Old Ben with a look of deep regret. The old man smiled a toothless grin. « There ya go. The monster – for it was a monster, no doubt! – made us all uneasy and uncomfy. I wanted to go, but I was stuck on me chair! Ya know, sum’times you’re stuck on chairs at the Hind n’ Hound, but usually it’s only leftover ale clingin’ on yar bottom. This was different. Couldn’t move at all. And the beast, he sprouted some damn antlers on its devil head, and we got real scared, ya ‘now, stuck with the Devil in that damn pub!It was dark ‘nuff n’ we had to listen to him, couldn’t even cover our ears. Said sumthin’ bout them strange people in cloaks having to be warned, that their masters were comin’ or sumthin’ like that. Tried to not listen, ya know. But it stuck anyhoo. ’t was that: » and then, Old Ben’s voice seemed to change, he lost his accent, and his eyes went almost void. He quoted, as if from the Beast’s mouth itself, sending shivers of fear to Allan’s skin: « Tell them we are coming. Tell them their masters have a message for them, and that if they are wise, they will listen. ». He didn’t seem to notice at all he was telling that in a different voice than his, and he continued his tale without pausing: « Then comes the weirdest part. He changed. Turned into a freaking deer! Not only the antlers, the whole stuff! ’N jumped out the damn window, shatterin’ it to pieces. Stomped the tables too. Tore the whole room apart. Whatta misery. » Old Ben sighed, and shivered at the memory. « I for sure ain’t gonna put no foot in that pub for a while », he concluded.
Allan hid his fear under a fake smile. There were way too much details in that story for it to be made up by some drunkard. Plus, there was the fact that everyone in town seemed to want badly to avoid contact with Woodwives. He thanked the man, shook his wrinkled, dry hand, and showed himself out, leaving Old Ben Harlow with enough money to drink himself to death if he ever found a new pub. Allan had spent too much money, he knew that, but he thought it was worth it, because the warning had to be taken seriously. He would stay out of the Wood for a long time. He had to warn Victor and Vera to stay put too. Even if none of them was Woodtouched, they could be targeted by some Lords of the Woods anyway. And that, he didn’t want to happen. Like, ever.
When he headed home for a light meal, Allan decided that he would avoid getting out unless absolutely necessary. He paid a street boy to deliver a letter to Victor’s workshop and Vera’s house, explaining the whole thing to them and warning them to stay put. Then he went to the grocery store, bought as much canned food he could afford and some ale to go with it, then he locked himself inside his apartment, not knowing if he would dare to get out anytime soon.