In a corner of the city where the people lived huddled against the weather all the year, behind an old textile importer, and a never-open second-hand furniture shop filled with unlovely and unwanted things and stood three houses. Their names were Forlorn Hope, and Misbegotten, and Moonshine Promises.
They had stood there longer than the city, and only the land beneath them remembered the time before they were built, for the land is old, and alive, and it remembers things that should have been forgotten long since.
The travellers who came to the houses came always by accident, for the path was not one that could be found except when you were thinking of something else. They were always the sort of people who never listen to instructions. They would look at each house, consider it, and one or other of the houses would choose them, and they would enter.
The young man who stood before the three houses had been a mischievous youth, a long time standing before them, and on his way to work. At length, a door in the house on the left (which was sometimes Forlorn Hope, and sometimes Misbegotten, and sometimes Moonshine Promises) opened, and a young woman appeared. Around her the air felt like impatient practicality, and there hung about both woman and house the humid calm before a tropical storm, and the scent of unknown flowers.
“Come along then,” she said, her tone suggesting she had been waiting for him, and he was very late.
She used the same tone for everything, telling off servants, guests, and furniture as they walked through the house, people and things hurrying to be to her liking.
They entered a library filled with titles he had never seen but had somehow heard of. He stopped and reached out to pull out a title, which started to become a book as he reached out for it.
“Don’t touch that!” she reprimanded, “They’re still percolating.”
“Where are we going?” he asked her, for it seemed they walked with a purpose and he thought he would like to know what it was.
“The river,” she said simply, pushing open a door to reveal a sunlit garden which he was sure could not be there. The weather when he had got off the bus had been muggy and threatening rain. Also, it was winter. The garden was too warm.
She led him through a meadow, and at a place between trees, beside the river, she stopped. He had been watching her as she walked and realised, slowly, that she was beautiful. He had not noticed it at first, and perhaps she had not been at first, but now it seemed that every aspect of her appearance was the kind he found most appealing. Her hair was shining blue-black, her eyes were the colour of ice at dawn, and he longed to reach out and run a finger along the sensuous curves of her waist, legs and mouth. She gasped with surprise as he thought about it, turned, and smiled.
“Where are we?” he asked her, blushing slightly.
“Oh, all sorts of places,” she replied, bringing a checked cotton cloth out of a basket that was just now in her hand, and placing it among the flowers and the stones and the objects lost and forgotten that littered the meadow, and sitting down.
“But where, specifically?” he ventured.
“Beyond the London Wall, and outside Jurisdiction. That is the only where you need to know.”
Her answer made little sense, and he knew that it should have chilled him, but she was beautiful, and calm, and offering him an orange as big as his fist. She poured tea from a steaming flask into little china cups painted blue and white with great battles, and he found that somehow he trusted her.
He sat looking at the glittering river and the brightly painted row-boats drifting past on it, eating the orange, tasting the sharp juice and feeling it making his chin sticky, when a thought struck him.
“What do you want of me?” he asked her.
“Love,” she answered, and held out a small silk purse embroidered over with vines, open, as if she expected it to be filled.
Surprise shivered along his spine, and he opened his mouth to answer that love did not work like that, one could not store it like sugar, or tea, or tins of tomatoes, when he heard the bubbling rush of the river in the awkward silence, reached into his pocket and brought out his heart. It was larger and more expensive than he had thought.
She drew the strings of the purse tight and placed it gently in the pocket of her apron, then kissed him gently and full on the mouth, and it seemed that this was not their first kiss, could not be.
She took him by the hand, and led him to the water’s edge, where she took out the little china cup, painted, he saw, on the inside and the outside, and drew some water up. She beckoned him to look into the cup, and the heroes seemed to move, under the water, trapped in an endless, epic battle, and she laughed like a child at the fighting. While she was thus engaged, he turned back to look at the house. It was only then that he realised the danger he was in.
There were children leaning out of every window, desperately reaching towards the morning sun, as if it would somehow free them. He had not heard them before now, but as soon as he saw them, he heard their wails, small voices crying for help, or their parents. He turned back to the woman, as she poured away the cup of water and tossed it aside with a bored expression.
“Who are they?” he asked, pointing at the house.
“They are mine.”
“You stole them!” he said, and knew it was the truth as he spoke it.
Her face, a picture of serenity until a moment before, was suddenly enraged. Her hair moved dangerously in an unseen, unfelt breeze, and the silken tatters and feathers of her dress shifted in a way that unsettled him entirely.
“That is a lie,” she said, “I may take only what is given to me, and that right freely. They are mine, for I bargained for them. If I got the better part of the deal, well, that is none of my concern.”
He stood up to return through the house to the street. He knew he would not be able to take the children with him, though it broke his heart to realise it.
A hand caught him. She was back to serenity and smiles, and to intoxicating beauty.
“Where are you going?” she asked sweetly.
“I’m leaving,” he said, struggling against the grip of her hand on his arm. Her nails dug into his flesh, and she kissed him once more, laughing.
“Why would you want to go?” she said, “you and I shall travel together, there is much you might experience with me,”
“And if I don’t want to go?”
“Then you are free to leave, on one condition,” she replied, “you must have a name to go back to, and you must say it. Tell me, what is your name?”
As he cast about in his memory for it, he found that it was gone. She had taken it, he knew, with his heart, for the places where it should be- in the sound of his mother’s voice, in the arguments with his ex-girlfriend, the cheering of his childhood classmates, the drunken calls of his university friends- were empty, neatly removed and the edges of his memories carefully cauterised to seal them shut.
He looked at the house, and the children leaning out of every window were silenced, as if she had stuffed cotton in his ears. He looked back at her, dismayed, as she smiled and drew the white sash from around her waist and a mirror from her pocket.
He sighed and held out his wrists for her to bind them, and she laughed her child’s laugh once more. “Oh, I don’t need this to bind you,” she said, “you know that.”
“You shall travel blind,” she answered, “that is what you wish to do.” It was not a question. She held the mirror up, and he saw that he would be much better off without sight- it would protect him from the things he saw approaching behind him. She took his hand and rested it on her breast, as she tied the sash fast about his eyes.
Perhaps he was taken by darkness and desire.
Perhaps he travelled blind through delightful experience.
Perhaps he awoke as if from a dream, leaned out of a window in a high, dark tower and cried out for love and the return of his heart, never seeing that it was in his captor’s apron pocket, as it had been since he gave it up.
Perhaps he escaped, and returned to find he still had time to get to the office.
But the three houses at the edges of the Lost Places beyond the London Wall are sometimes one house, and sometimes another, and perhaps all these things happened, because all these things were possible.
Only the land can say, for the land is old. And it remembers.