On the seventh day of Robot Christmas, our machine overlords gave to me: “Wassailing,” a new story by Peter McLean featuring a Christmastime case for Mr. Drake, a detective in a grimy, magical alternate London. Peter McLean was born near London in 1972, the son of a bank manager and an English teacher. He went to school in the shadow of Norwich Cathedral where he spent most of his time making up stories. By the time he left school this was probably the thing he was best at, alongside the Taoist kung fu he had begun studying since the age of 13. He grew up in the Norwich alternative scene, alternating dingy nightclubs with studying martial arts and practical magic. He has since grown up a bit, if not a lot, and now works in corporate datacentre outsourcing for a major American multinational company. He is married to Diane and is still making up stories. Drake will be published by Angry Robot in January 2016. You can find him online or follow him on Twitter @petemc666.
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“The Mummers took my son,” the woman said.
I looked at her, sitting across the desk from me in my office. She was about forty and well dressed, too well dressed really to be out and about in the haunted wilds of South London at this time of night.
“Mummers,” I repeated. “Right.”
Mummers are only one up from Morris Dancers in my book, a bunch of folk-dancing ponces with painted faces and feathers in their hats. It’s the sort of twee Olde English tradition that only seems to come out at Christmas.
“I know it sounds ridiculous, Mr Drake, but it’s true,” she said.
“Right,” I said again.
Her eyes were red-rimmed from crying and she had that slightly glazed look about her that made me think her sedatives hadn’t quite worn off yet. I wondered if she was really supposed to be out on her own at all.
“The police don’t believe me of course, as no one else even seems to remember seeing them except for me. But I know what I saw.” She rubbed her raw eyes and looked up at me. “I’m desperate, Mr Drake. I wouldn’t be here talking to you if I wasn’t.”
Oh thanks love, I thought. That’s charming that is.
I knew what she meant though – I’m not exactly what you’d call reputable, if I’m honest about it. Oh sure I had a proper office, above the Bangladeshi grocers on the high street. Classy, I know. At least I had my own front door at street level, with my own sign on it and everything. Don Drake, Hieromancer, that sign said, although I’m a little bit more than that.
Just a bit.
“Where did you see these Mummers?” I asked her.
“At the local market,” she said, “when the Medieval Faire was on at the weekend. My poor little Josh was just captivated so I left him watching them, just for a moment you understand, while I got some mulled wine. When I turned back he was gone and so were they.”
“Down the market,” I said, with a sinking feeling in my stomach. “Right.”
I knew exactly which market she meant. There had been a Christmas market held there every year since about Twelve Hundred AD, and then they only picked that site because it had been a traditional Yuletide festival ground for hundreds of years before that. Since pagan times, in fact.
“Can you help me, Mr Drake?”
“Call me Don,” I said. “And yeah, I think I can. I can certainly try, anyhow. Call it a grand for expenses and then we’ll see.”
Her eyes widened at the price. Sorry, but I’m expensive. She paid up.
Of course she did.
I got rid of her sharpish after that and went to speak to the Burned Man.
“You’ll like this one,” I said to it as I opened the door to my workroom.
“Oh yeah?” it said.
The Burned Man was a nine-inch tall fetish that stood on the altar at the far end of the room. Tiny iron manacles encircled its wrists and ankles, linked to chains that were bolted firmly into the solid oak top of the ancient altar. Every millimetre of its tiny naked body was blackened and blistered, its skin cracked open in places to show the livid, weeping red burns beneath. It was thoroughly revolting, truth be told, but it had its uses. I stepped carefully over the grand Summoning circle that was inscribed into the floor, and nodded.
“Mummers,” I said. “Down the market.”
“Oh cocking hell, them,” it said. “Are they nicking kids again?”
“Looks that way,” I said. “Well, a kid anyway, that I know of. I’m not having it, not in my manor.”
“We’re going to have to teach those tossers a lesson,” the Burned Man said.
“My thoughts exactly,” I said. “What’ve you got?”
“Hmmm,” it said. “Dust off the circle then come here and listen for a minute.”
It started to whistle a tune.
It was about half eleven before I was ready to head out. I walked a few streets to the market, my hands stuffed into my coat pockets and my collar turned up against the biting December wind. The marketplace was deserted at that time of night, but all the same I could feel the eyes on me.
The market stalls were skeletal metal frames in the dim orange glow that was as close to darkness as you ever got in the city, their awnings taken down so they didn’t blow away. All the same I could see the wooden planks of the makeshift stage still set up in the middle of the marketplace, left there for tomorrow. Right in the middle of the marketplace, right where they used to light the Yule fire all those centuries ago.
There was magic in this place, the sort of old, pagan magic that still hung around in parts of Britain. Especially here in South London where the Veils between this world and the others were worn so horribly thin by the passing of thousands of years of human habitation.
I stood in front of the stage and took an old tin whistle out of my coat pocket. Now I can’t carry a tune in a bucket to tell the truth, but even I had managed to learn the first few bars of the song the Burned Man had taught me. I put the whistle to my chapped lips and started to play, repeating the notes over and over again.
It was a Wassailing song and it dated back to early Saxon England if not before. Wassailing is an old pre-Christian Yuletide custom, in case you didn’t know, and it has a forgotten magic all of its own. As I played the simple reel I felt the temperature falling rapidly. I must admit I had been expecting them to appear on the stage, so I nearly jumped out of my skin when someone tapped me on the shoulder.
I spun around to see six figures standing there dressed in colourful streamers of russet and red and green, all the traditional festive colours of the season. In contrast their faces were painted with stark black and white designs, skull-like and threatening. I slipped the whistle back into my pocket and gathered my thoughts.
“Evening,” I said.
The nearest Mummer inclined her head to me and smiled, and I looked at her more closely. Their faces weren’t painted, I realised. That was actually their skin. These guys definitely weren’t human, that was for sure.
“Magician,” she said.
“Diabolist,” another hissed.
“Flattery gets you nowhere,” I told them. “All you’ve got to know is, this is my manor now. No one nicks kids around here anymore, you understand? I don’t like it.”
“We do as we please, magician,” she said, and I took her to be the boss. “The sacrifice will be made. The hlaut must flow.”
Hlaut. That was Old Norse for ‘sacrificial blood’ if my memory served.
No, I wasn’t having that at all.
The Mummers closed in around me, chanting their Wassailing song as they advanced. There were six of them and one of me, and as they smiled I could see just how long and sharp their teeth were.
I put two fingers in my mouth and whistled.
Three Vorehounds padded out of the silent shadows between the market stalls and advanced on the Mummers. A Vorehound is something like a wolf, if a wolf stood three feet tall at the shoulder and weighed two hundred pounds. A Vorehound is a pure apex predator, a demonic landshark, and I had taken the precaution of Summoning three of them before I came out. I’d had a feeling I was going to need them.
“I want that boy back,” I said. “Right now, or I’ll set my fucking dogs on you.”
The Mummer looked from me to the Vorehounds and back again.
“You’ll be sorry,” she said.
“Now,” I said again.
One of the Vorehounds obliged with a low growl that made the hairs on my arm stand up with simple animal fear. I was the one controlling them and they were still bloody terrifying.
She held my gaze for a moment then nodded.
“Very well,” she said.
Her group of Mummers parted and a little boy waddled towards me, wrapped up in his scarf and a big red winter coat.
“It’s alright Josh,” I said. “I’m a friend of your Mum. I’m Don.”
He looked at the nearest Vorehound.
“Doggy,” he said.
It’s eyes glowed like coals in the dark, but it didn’t growl again. When I looked up the Mummers were gone.
“Come on then, son,” I said, “let’s go and phone your Mum shall we?”
He took my hand and let me lead him from the marketplace, humming softly to himself as we walked.
We were half way back to my office before I realised he was humming the Wassailing song.