Urban fantasy short story
On damp days, the fog would shroud everything in town until the buildings looked grey and faded. Geraint trudged along, just about as miserable as the weather.
He headed inside the shop, passing the loiterers in the entrance, those only there to shelter from the drizzle. As he grew closer to the tills, there was a strange tension in the air that made the hairs on his neck prick up.
“I said nymph, not nympho, you fuckwit.”
Geraint stepped closer and could see what was causing the commotion. A woman on one side of the counter, all he could see was her straight back, on the other side Jack and Martin sat smirking.
“Where’s the other one, the one who was here before?”
“Ger, looks like this one’s for you, mate.” Martin caught Geraint’s eye and grinned.
Geraint took a breath and stepped forward. “Can I help you?”
The woman spun around and gave him the briefest of glances. “Not you. The other one, the one from before.”
“There is no one else.”
It was clear she wasn’t listening, instead, she was looking closely round at the shop, her eyes skimming over the small crowd. “This place is different, it’s not the same as it used to be. There was a guy here before.”
“You mean Old Sam?”
Her eyes flicked onto his and she paused, shifting her head just slightly and sniffing the air and Geraint took a step back.
“Old guy, big bushy beard,” she said.
“That’s right. He owned this place up til about ten-fifteen years back.”
“So he’s not around.”
Geraint shook his head slowly. “He’s uh – well, he’s dead. Maybe I can help you with –”
But she’d gone before he could finish the breath. He looked questioningly at the other two, who shrugged and grinned widely at him.
“Looks like you struck out there, mate.”
“What did she want?” Geraint scratched at his stubble.
“Looking for someone, she said.”
“–Old Sam, I got that part.”
“Nah, she wanted him to help her find some bird. A nympho she said.”
“No no, she said she was the nympho like Sam’d understand what she was on about. I never knew he was kinky.”
“Sounds it,” Geraint said quietly, his eyes drawn back to the spot she’d filled; negative space. He could still smell her scent where it had trailed after her: woody, earthy, and a little bit wet dog.
The scent of mulch and leaves filled his nose until it was almost unbearable. He’d not been here before but somehow he knew the way, even in the darkness. It would be so easy to get lost in it.
A sound behind caused him to pause, picking up his head and listening hard. There was something after him. There was always something after him.
He set off running again, drawn on like a screw to a magnet. Through trees and branches, toward something, and still it chased him. He could sense it looming in the blackness of the forest behind.
He jolted awake.
These dreams always accompanied his sleepwalking and not for the first time, he’d woken up somewhere outside. There was the strong smell of damp leaves entwined with something faintly familiar.
Geraint sat up and could see that he was beside a lake of eerily calm water fringed by a thick layer of trees. His head was groggy and his body ached as though he’d run for miles. He rubbed swollen, tired, eyes. There was the smell of something else beyond the lake and the trees. The realisation struck him like a slap to the face; he wasn’t alone.
Blinking into the daylight, he saw her cross-legged on the damp ground, watching him. It was the woman from a few days earlier.
“Wh-whaa –” he croaked.
She raised an eyebrow. “I need you. At least, I need your help.”
Geraint realised he was shivering right about the same time he realised he was topless and the hair on his chest was bristling in the cold morning breeze. His hand went self-consciously to his stomach and to the layer of fat that shrouded what had once been muscle.
“You’re cold.” She seemed surprised and got nimbly to her feet. “Come on.” Holding a hand out, which he didn’t take, she led him around one side of the lake to just inside the treeline where the gloom of the forest shrouded a little stone cottage from view.
There were just two rooms inside, with a fire burning in one corner and a huge table filling most of one room. Geraint perched awkwardly on one of the wooden chairs, close to the fire as he waited for his skin to regain feeling while she disappeared into the other room, he could hear her rummaging about.
“Here.” She flung a man’s shirt at him. “My friend’s disappeared and I need your help finding her.”
Geraint cleared his throat. “And why do you think I can help?”
She glanced at him and blinked, producing a steaming mug of tea from somewhere and placing it in front of him. “Well, because. I don’t like to go into town much, but you’re from there. You can ask around and help me find her.”
“Shouldn’t you go to the police if she’s gone missing?”
“The p–” she paused, looking distractedly about her. “I don’t need police. I need you to help me find her.”
“Well, you found me, didn’t you.”
He shook his head slowly. “I was sleepwalking, I do that sometimes.”
She blinked at him again, her eyes were huge and the deepest brown. “Right, well look how easily you found me when you weren’t looking. You’ll find her no problem.” She paused. “Please.”
Geraint sat back in his chair, chewing his thumb and avoiding her eye. “Where did you last see her, or notice she was missing.”
“We were supposed to meet, but she wasn’t there. She never appeared.”
“Did you try calling her, leaving her a message?”
“I called for her, but she still didn’t appear. I went to find the man, the one from before but he’s gone now. They told me he died.” She eyed him curiously.
“I was the one to tell you Old Sam died.”
She shook her head. “I didn’t notice you properly. You’re one of his. He came here too when he was young.”
He nodded slowly, speaking like he didn’t want to startle her, he couldn’t help thinking she was a little unhinged. “Old Sam? He left the shop to me.”
She muttered something that sounded like ‘his clam’.
“How long have you lived out here?” He asked gently.
“A long time. Out here you miss things.” She stared out the window for a moment and then snapped her eyes back onto him. “How long’s the town been closed off like that?”
“What do you mean – closed off?”
She continued looking at him strangely. “On second thought, I don’t think this is going to work. I don’t think you’ll be able to help.” Before he knew it was shepherding him out the door, mug still in hand.
“If you can’t see the unseen, there’s no way you can help me.”
She shut the door in his face.
He was more than a little dazed and confused wandering back toward the town. The next day, he was tired, aching and distracted, and he couldn’t get his night-time sojourn out of his head. Every time he shut his eyes, there they were, two deep pools of brown staring into his soul.
“You ever been down to that lake the other side of Waneland Wood?”
“Lake of Sorrows, you mean. Some bad joojoo that way, my friend. My ma’d never let me near that place,” Martin replied with an exaggerated shudder.
“Don’t you boys have something better to talk about?”
“Sorry, Mrs. Higgins – Lake of Sorrows?” Geraint turned between Martin and the old lady he was serving.
“You’re as bad as my Arthur, you are. He’s always talking about awful things best forgotten. Tell you what though, my love. You can ask him all about it when you drop my order off tomorrow, eh? I’ll even stretch to a cuppa and maybe a biscuit.” The old lady smiled kindly and Geraint found himself smiling back.
The next day, his smile grew smaller by the second as he struggled the half mile down the road to the little house in the middle of a cul-de-sac that doubled as the Higgins’s bookshop. He wasn’t sure if it was sweat or drizzle that ran coolly down his back while both his arms were engaged in heaving their new purchase, a huge wooden rocking-sheep, along the road.
He was out of breath and more than a little sweaty when an elderly man opened the door, glaring stony-faced over his glasses.
“I don’t want your kind in here.”
“Arthur, please. It’s just Geraint, he took over from Old Sam at the Old Curiosity Shop, you remember.” Mrs. Higgins hurried to her husband’s side, shifting him out the way and gesturing for Geraint to enter.
“I bet he did,” Arthur growled from deep in his throat. “I don’t want no trouble from your lot.”
“Arthur.” His wife reprimanded him again. “If you’ll bring it through here Geraint, love. I’ve just made a fresh pot of tea.”
Geraint managed to put the sheep down without breaking it or knocking anything over; it was quite a feat in here. It was difficult to tell where the house ended and the shop began, each wall was thickly lined with books and every conceivable surface – dining table, end table, chest of drawers, dresser, sideboard – were all covered in trinkets and peculiarities. The stretch of bare table Mrs. Higgins was now gesturing for him to sit at looked strangely bare in comparison.
“I told Geraint he was welcome to pick your brains, Arthur love. He’s interested in some of that nasty stuff you love and I thought you could bend his ear for a change.” She gave a maternal smile and patted Geraint’s arm and he felt a little comforted, settling back into his wooden chair.
“Er – I was just curious about the lake the other side of Waneland Wood, I stumbled across it the other day. I thought you might help me understand any local folklore.”
“Plenty of girls used to drown themselves in that lake.” Arthur was busily inspecting the rocking-sheep for any defects, running his hands expertly over the varnished wood.
“In ancient times you mean?”
He turned to look at Geraint, who was trying to push away the mental image of Arthur atop the wooden sheep, rocking gently from side to side.
“Then, and as recent as fifty years since. Some of the young lasses we knew from the school, took ‘emselves off to drown there. They believed it had mystic powers, and the naiad who guarded the waters would turn ‘em into water nymphs.”
Geraint hesitated. “And what about the woman who lives there?”
“Ah the nymph herself, so you’ve heard about her.” Arthur appeared to have forgotten all his reticence from a few moments before and disappeared from the room, returning with a thick book bound in leather. He then sat engrossed, holding the pages with a lingering care.
“Here she is. They say she’s got a manipulative power. That’s why all the girls believed in her, she grew stronger with each sacrifice. I’d have thought she must be pretty weak these days.”
“Of course, it’s all just stories love. Arthur has a tendency to talk as though it’s all real.”
Arthur levelled his gaze at Geraint and gave an imperceptible nod. Geraint looked down at the open page on the table in front of him, he wasn’t surprised when he recognised the face of the woman by the lake.
Click the link below to read part two of this urban fantasy short story.
If your boots haven’t quite been filled with short fiction yet, you can check out my urban fantasy flash fiction Widows of Warcraft, or a realistic fiction short The Road I Know. Or if you’re in the mood for a murder at a garden party, there’s A Cold Shiver On A Sunny Day. You can also find some of my bite-sized fiction on Twitter @wildingwriting and Instagram.