THE CHANGELING’S GIFT


The distant bells of Westminster Abbey tolled suddenly and the sound, wafting over the cold morning air, made Arthur Freeborn stop in his tracks.


“What is it?” Nairn asked. “Do you see something?”


Freeborn shook his head. “The bells. Westminster. Her Majesty and Prince Albert are proud parents once again.”


Nairn gave Freeborn a wry smile. “God bless good Queen Victoria. Do those keen ears of yours tell you if it’s a boy or a girl?”


Of course Nairn could not hear them, not this far away. Freeborn smiled and then rubbed the tops of his ears in a self conscious gesture, his fingertips trying to rub warmth into the furrowed scars they found there. The scars, which he’d had since childhood, felt the cold December wind quite keenly as it whistled over them beneath the brim of his stovepipe hat.


Nairn squeezed Freeborn’s arm in a warm gesture. “We’ll have to have a tot of rum at The George in celebration. Once we’ve found our quarry.”


“Indeed,” Freeborn agreed. He resumed his course, walking a steady pace, his shoes sinking into the newly fallen snow, his ears and eyes alert for their quarry, a murderer the yellow journals had named  the Eastcheap Phantom. It was that pursuit that had brought them to this lonely cemetery near Wanstead. 


There were no mourners this morning neither was there any sound that Freeborn could detect other than the tramping sound made by Nairn’s boots as he trudged through the snow. Not that Freeborn was expecting to hear anything. Their quarry was a cunning one. He knew how to move silently and swiftly and hide in plain sight from most human eyes. But Arthur Freeborn was a Fey, despite all his attempts to appear human, and he could sense the other’s presence and the other was close.


He stopped moving and closed his eyes. He could still hear Nairn moving. Nairn probably thought he was moving quietly, but to Freeborn’s sensitive ears the dour former jesuit was lumbering around like a bull. But Nairn was a good man. He had always treated Freeborn fairly, even stood up for him against his fellow constables at the Yard who were prejudiced against him because he was a Fey.


Being a Fey was a secret that Freeborn was never able to keep despite his efforts to look and act like a human. Despite the painful disfigurement that he had put himself through in early childhood to make his ears look normal, Arthur Freeborn could do nothing to disguise his willowy frame, his ethereal manner and his startling bottle green eyes. He could not disguise the softly lyrical quality of his voice, nor could any amount of coloring agent cover up his golden hair. Despite this he had tried to live as a human, but it had never been easy. Even achieving the status of police constable at Scotland Yard had not lessened the prejudice, the taunting nor the outright hate that he experienced daily.


If it hadn’t been for Nairn, Freeborn didn’t think he would have lasted as long as he had. The kindly ex-priest had been supportive and had sponsored each and every one of his promotions. Rather than being frightened or intimidated by Freeborn’s Fey qualities, Nairn had known enough to put them to use in their work. Freeborn’s uncanny senses and attention to the most minute detail had put more than one villain behind bars.


Nairn had stopped moving. He had finally noticed Freeborn’s stillness and had stood still himself, trying not to breathe too loudly or to interfere with Freeborn’s perceptions. Freebornr could still hear his partner’s breathing, the ragged wheeze of his lungs that had survived consumption and still worked despite the foul smoke inflicted upon them by Nairn’s pipe. He could hear the bustle of daily commerce in the nearby market. He could hear all of these things but he could ignore them all to concentrate upon the one sound, the single noise that should not be there.


It was difficult because his quarry made almost no noise when he moved, seemed not even to breathe. It seemed the Phantom could mask himself completely from attentive ears, but he could not disguise the quiet whisper of a blade as it slid out of a hilt.


Freeborn was able to pinpoint where the sound came from and he sprang into action. Too late he realized that he had made the wrong move.


As fast as Freeborn had sprang, the Phantom had sprang as well, and the Phantom was faster. He felt the other brush past him and Freeborn turned, but too late. The other’s blade whistled in the air. Freeborn could only watch, helpless as Nairn’s expression registered shock. Nairn’s hand went convulsively to his throat and he dropped trying to stop the sudden flow of blood to no avail.


Freeborn froze for a moment only, but it was enough. The Phantom made a dash for stone wall that enclosed the cemetery. There was no chance that Freeborn could catch up with him now and the Phantom knew it. He stopped and stood stock still for a fleeting moment. Human eyes would barely have noticed but it was long enough for Freeborn to get a look at his enemy.


He… no… it was she!… wore a cloak of deep green. Raven hair, darker than the blackest night spilled out from underneath the hood. She wore a leather jerkin and leather breeches. and boots of animal skin. Her flesh bore marks… some sort of tattoo or scarification. Her eyes were darkened like they were smudged with kohl… more tattoos perhaps? Her eyes were white within the dark smudge and they seemed to taunt him. The edges of her crimson stained lips drew up into a smile. She knew he could see her. She had stopped this long just so that he could see his enemy.


Then she moved and faster than Freeborn thought was possible, she was over the wall and gone.


#


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