Cleaning out the pond was the worst. Charles didn’t have to do it often, but it still sucked. Really sucked. He was ankle deep in unappetising mulch, made up of decaying leaves and discarded food and (although he tried not to think about it) fish poo. But when a job has to be done, it has to be done, so he trundled on, using the hose of the wet’n’dry vac to slurp up the debris as he went, goldfish darting past his head in alarm. Then they’d promptly forget they were frightened and start gobbling up the sediment he’d disturbed.
“You’ll make yourself sick,” he warned them. “It’s already been through you once, you don’t want to be eating it again.” The fish goggled at him, then went back to mumbling at the silt and spitting it out.
It took long enough, and in the pale light of the new moon it was hard to be sure he’d cleaned it well enough, but eventually he thought it’d pass. The worst was out, anyway, and you didn’t want to get it too clean. You’d just end up like Harriet, from down the road – she’d become so obsessed with keeping the pond spotless that she would scour it every night, then the next thing you knew it was daytimes too, and she had to be removed before a human spotted her. Someone said she was pretty old school, using scoops and strainers and things, but bollocks to that. The wet’n’dry vac he’d discovered in the garage made the job a lot easier. He was too damn old to be scrambling through the muck on his knees.
He trudged to the side of the pond and boosted himself out, a small leathery creature with webs between his fingers and toes, and shook off the worst of the water. It was cold, midnight sliding into the morning, and his breath steamed in the still air as he towelled himself down and pulled on a misshapen woolly tunic. Dressed, he trudged back to the garage with the vac (with difficulty – it was as least twice his size, but tiddy uns are disproportionately strong). Then he sat on his favourite stone and took a swig of gnome-made liquor straight from the bottle, chasing the last of the chill away, savouring the lingering pleasure of a job well done.
He was alone in the garden – the garden gnomes were more daytime creatures – so when he heard someone say, “Hi,” he jumped and almost dropped his bottle. He twisted to look over his shoulder, and found himself face to face with a small, scaled creature with a very pretty pink nose and green eyes that glittered in the moonlight.
“Hello yourself,” he said. “Where did you come from?”
“Not sure,” it said, and sat down to scratch the side of its head with a taloned back paw. “I think I may be lost.”
“I think you might be,” Charles agreed. He couldn’t place the little beast at all, although he had a niggling feeling that he should be able to – that it was important that he did. But he did know that it wasn’t a garden creature, or indeed any sort of urban creature, so it was most certainly lost. “What’s your name?”
“Petunia. What’s yours?”
She was beguiling in her forthrightness, and Charles smiled, exposing sharp black teeth. “Charles. You’re just a young one, aren’t you? Where’s your mum?”
“Not sure,” Petunia replied, without any particular concern. Charles supposed she was a lizard of some sort – they hatched, didn’t they? She might not have a mum as such. “Can I sleep in your pond? I’m really tired.”
“Um.” Tiddy uns are water guardians, and the idea of letting this creature he couldn’t even identify into his pond didn’t sit well. “No, you can’t. I’m sorry.”
Her eyes widened, starting to glisten. “But I’m so tired!”
Gods, she really was just a little thing. “I know, but can’t you sleep on the bank? You can lie down next to me, I’ll keep an eye on you.”
“No,” she said, a tremble in her voice that drew the word out into two syllables. “I can’t sleep on land.”
“Well, I’m awfully sorry -” He broke off as Petunia started to cry, little hissing sobs accompanied by fat pale tears that slid down her snout, which had darkened to violet.
“Please? Please? I’m so tired. I can’t go any further tonight, I can’t!”
“Um.” Charles’ niggling feeling had intensified, and he was quite sure this was a bad idea, but she really was a sweet little thing, and he couldn’t stand listening to her cry. What harm could it really do? “Just for the night, okay? You need to get out before it’s light, in case the humans see you.”
“I will. Thank you!” She sniffled, tears gone, then scuttled past him, slipping into the water and turning in happy somersaults that scared the goldfish, before sinking slowly to the bottom and curling up on herself like a small aquatic cat. The tiddy un watched her for a while, frowning and wishing he could put his finger on what was bothering him. But it remained teasingly just out of reach, so eventually he rolled a cigarette and settled down against the stones to watch the night turn slowly around him.
“Well, I didn’t, actually.”
Charles shook his head in frustration. It was getting lighter by the minute, and before long the house humans’d get up and let the cat out, and when they did that they often came down to inspect the pond – not that they did any work on it, other than pick up the odd leaf. But he rather thought, even as unperceptive as they were, they might notice a dragon in the fish pond. “You can’t stay here!”
“The humans won’t see me. Even if they can see Folk, look – I’m camouflaged.” She extended a paw the exact shade of the bottom, and Charles sighed.
“Well – they might. And you can’t stay here forever, you know. I don’t know how big you’ll get.”
“I won’t stay forever,” she said. “But I was really tired. I’m still really tired.” She looked at the tiddy un with big eyes, and he groaned. Some pond guardian he was.
“Fine. Just keep still. And don’t eat the fish. I’m serious about that.”
“Okay.” But he didn’t miss her guilty little sideways look any more than he’d missed the fact that there were now fourteen goldfish instead of fifteen. He huffed and made his way to the side of the pond.
He glanced up at the gnome as he pulled himself out of the water. “Morning, Scott.”
“You’re in the water late,” the gnome observed, picking up his fishing rod and settling himself by the edge of the pond.
“Yeah, well. We’ve got a visitor.”
“A visitor?” The gnome followed Charles’ pointing hand and peered at the barely distinguishable shape on the bottom of the pond. “What is it? A turtle or something?”
“I dunno. She says she’ll leave soon, but she needs a place to stay for the day. She’s only a little thing.”
“Oh.” Scott shrugged. “Cool, I guess.” He was about to say more, when they heard the click and roll of the lock behind them. Scott stiffened into place, and Charles ducked into the ornamental rushes, blending into the muddy background as the human’s voice drifted to them over the garden.
“There you go, princess. Outsides!”
Mew. “The new cat food is horrendous. What is it, Tesco’s own?”
“Oh, my pretty baby.” There were kissing sounds. “It’s cold, my darling. Maybe I should keep you in.”
Me-ow. “And smell your damn air freshener all day? I’d like to see you try.”
“Ooh, look at you wriggle. Off you go, then!”
Meow. “About bloody time. Simpleton.”
“Bye bye, darling!”
Charles waited until he heard the door close before he peered around the rushes. “Morning, princess.”
“Shut up, toad-man,” the cat said, without any real heat. She stretched luxuriously. “Honestly. Two squares a day, warm bed and treats, but the crap I have to put up with…”
“Whinge, whinge,” Charles said comfortably. “Look – we’ve got a visitor. Can’t for the life of me figure it out, though.” He pointed at the pond, and the cat squinted into the water.
“What -”She broke off, her hackles rising, scenting the air. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me -” She scuffled around the banks, while the gnome and the tiddy un exchanged uneasy glances. She looked up, pupils wide. “You let it in the pond?”
“She’s not an it. Her name’s Petunia,” Charles said, then took a step back as the cat hitched her lip up on one side, exposing an unnervingly sharp fang. “She’s just a baby!”
“Sure, she’s a baby now. You know how fast these things grow? She’ll be twice the size by tonight. And hungry.”
“She – what is she?”
“She’s a damn knucker.” The cat shook her head at the horrified look on the tiddy un’s face. “How did you even miss this? She’ll be ready to eat the village by the end of the week!”
“Oh,” Charles said in a very small voice.
“Yeah. Oh.” The cat sighed and peered into the pond again. “I’m going to need some help.” She turned and ran liquid over the morning-damp grass, vanishing over the garden wall, and Charles peered into the pond. He thought Petunia actually looked a little bigger already.
The cat wasn’t gone long – she was back in ten minutes, flanked by two skinny young toms with black and white markings that mirrored each other perfectly – where one had a black left paw, the other had a black right paw, where one’s right eyebrow was white against black, the other’s left was, and so on. Charles had stayed up, sheltering from the sun among the rushes and keeping an eye on the sleeping knucker.
“Hey, dude,” one of the toms said to the gnome as they crossed the garden. “Has it moved?”
“It’s not an it,” Charles said before Scott could reply, peering out from among the plants. The sun hurt his eyes, low as it still was. “She’s a she. Petunia.”
“Well excuse me all to hell,” the tom said, and his mirror image huffed amusement. “Has Petunia moved, then?”
“No. She’s sleeping.”
“Best get her out then, Mr Tiddles.”
“Have some respect, Charlie,” the other tom said. “What’s your name, tiddy un?”
“Sweet,” Charlie said. “Name twins.”
“Charlie.” The mirror cat sounded weary.
“Do you two actually know what you’re doing?” the she-cat interrupted. “I’m having doubts.”
“Never mind my brother, Lucy. He only acts like a idiot.”
“Harsh, Harvey. Harsh.”
“You bring it on yourself.”
“We have a knucker in the pond,” Lucy said sharply. “Can you two focus?”
“Oh, we are,” Harvey said, and yawned. “Charles, then – go wake the knucker up and we’ll see if we can talk some sense to her.”
“You’re kidding me. You’re going to wake it up?”
Both toms looked at the she-cat for a long moment, and it was Harvey that spoke. “What do you suggest we do then?”
“Get rid of it. It’s a danger to everyone. And it’s against Watch rules for them to come this close to humans. They know the consequences.”
“She doesn’t know anything!” Charles squeaked. “She’s a baby! She’s lost!”
“Chill, tiddy un,” Harvey said. “Everything’s in hand.”
“It bloody well isn’t,” Lucy snapped. “You two are off your heads, wanting to wake it up and talk to it. I’m going back to the safe house to get someone who actually knows what they’re doing. Don’t touch that damn knucker.” And she was gone before anyone could respond, arrowing across the grass and over the fence without looking back. The cats looked at each other, then at the tiddy un.
“Well, hurry up, then,” Charlie said. “We’re going to have to haul to get out of here before she gets back.”
“But -” Charles looked to Scott for support. The gnome shrugged, and shook his head. Bloody cats were all off their heads as far as he was concerned. “Won’t the Watch punish you?”
“Only if they catch us. Come on!”
“But aren’t you in the Watch? Won’t they know who you are?”
“No to the first, maybe to the second, now move.” Harvey gave the tiddy un a not particularly gentle nudge with one paw, and Charles splashed into the water. The cats watched him shaking Petunia, and saw a ripple of pink run across her nose as she started to wake.
“Aw,” Charlie said. “She is dinky. For a knucker.”
“Yeah. Lucky intercept, that. She’d be toast otherwise. Or worse.”
“It’s not her fault. It’s the migration routes – they’re all off . Too much electromagnetic interference.”
Harvey looked at his brother. “Do you even know what that is?”
“No. But it sounds cool as all hell.”
Harvey huffed, and looked back as Charles pushed himself over the edge of the pond. Petunia lingered in the water behind him, looking at the cats. “I was asleep,” she said plaintively. “I’m really tired.”
“Sorry about that,” Harvey said, “But no choice, I’m afraid. You can’t stay here.”
“Why not? I like it. He’s nice.” She nodded towards Charles, who rubbed his head in embarrassment.
“You’ll get too big, for a start. But it’s also not safe here. We’re going to take you somewhere better.”
“Really?” She looked dubious. “Better than the little orange fish?”
“Goldfish -” Charles peered in the pond. “How many did you eat?”
“I was really hungry, too.” A small pearly tear rolled from the corner of her eye, and Harvey thought the pixies’d pay a good price for access to those tears. Something the Watch knew quite well. The Watch’s guiding principle of no one kind raising itself above another could get a little fluid where profit was concerned. Which is why it was sometimes necessary to intervene when it came to creatures that could be seen as a commodity.
“Don’t cry,” Charles said, reaching out to pet her snout clumsily. “It’s okay – the humans can get more.”
“Really?” She looked around with interest, and he winced.
“Not right now, but yeah. Can you leave those ones?” He could see half a dozen goldfish circling anxiously against the opposite bank.
“Oh. Sure.” She subsided into the pond, her nose just above the surface, pulsing a sad dull green.
“We have to go,” Charlie said. “You need to come with us, Petunia. Come on.” He tried to sound as encouraging as possible, but she still stared at him suspiciously.
“Now, Petunia,” Harvey said. “This is really important. There’s other cats coming, and they might not be so nice to you.” She sank further into the water, blinking in fright.
“Nice,” Charlie said. “Well done, H.”
Harvey glanced towards the fence. “We’ve not got much time to convince her. Lucy won’t be hanging about.”
Charles looked at the knucker, and sighed. “Would it help if I came with you? Until you found somewhere safe?” Petunia blinked at him without answering, but he saw a hint of rose creep across her snout. He looked back at the toms and said, “Would that work?”
“Sure, dude. But what about your pond?”
He regarded it a little sadly, then said, “Scott’ll look after it, right?”
“Um, sure,” the gnome said doubtfully. “You’ll come back, though?”
“Sure I will,” he said, and beckoned to the knucker. “Come on, Pet. Let’s get ourselves a bigger pond.”
The knucker lifted her head out of the water. “With more orange fish?”
“Gold – never mind. Sure. With more orange fish.”
“And you’ll stay with me?”
“As long as you need me to,” he replied, thinking that if knuckers grew that fast, it wouldn’t be an impossible length of time.
Petunia thought it over while the cats waited, crouched on their haunches, only the soft tick of their tails giving away their impatience. “Okay,” she said finally, and dragged herself out of the pond, making Charles stagger back in alarm. She was already the size of a spaniel, her tail curling out long behind her. “I’ll go if Charles comes.”
“You sure?” Harvey asked the tiddy un.
“I’m sure,” he said, and pulled his tunic on. “Let’s go.”
“Alright then,” Charlie said, “Let’s get this crazy train on the road.”
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Harvey said, pressing his flank against the knucker’s while Charles clambered onto her back and settled himself between her tiny wings. “Trains don’t go on roads.”
“Picky, picky,” Charlie replied, pressing into Petunia’s other side while she looked down at them in alarm. “Always such a pedant.”
“Always such a gasbag,” his brother retorted, and then they were gone, the cats, the knucker and the tiddy un, the air rushing in to fill the space where they had been with a whispering pop, and Scott rubbed his head, then looked at the decimated goldfish.
“Narrow escape, you lot,” he said.
Lucy glared at the gnome. “What d’you mean, they took it?”
“They took her! And Charles. I don’t know what else you want me to say. They were here, now they’re gone, and they took her with them.” The gnome shook his head. “What was I going to do? Beat them with my fishing rod?”
“Useless damn gnomes,” Lucy snarled, and looked at the three cats that she had led into the garden. “They said they were Watch.”
“Yah,” a calico with odd-coloured eyes said, looking bored. “That’s why you come to the safe house rather than hooking up with random cats on the streets.”
“We could track them,” another cat offered.
“They’ll have shifted all over.” Calico cat got up, and glanced around the garden. “Be a bit more on it next time, Luce.”
“You’re not going to do anything? What about those two – those imposters?”
“They’re gone, your so-called knucker’s gone, the scent’ll be all messed up – it’s done.” The cat was already slouching away, and the other two followed her. She let them precede her over the fence before she turned those curious eyes towards the willow tree that hulked at the bottom of the garden. She said nothing, just nodded slightly and slipped away, while Lucy looked around in fury.
“So-called knucker,” she spat. “I know what I saw.”
Scott nodded. “It was a knucker, all right.”
“Oh, shut up,” she snarled at him, and stalked back towards the house, tail whipping in fury.
In the hanging branches of the willow tree, Charlie said, “Was that Claudia?”
“Ah, Claud’s cool. At the worst, she’ll bollock us for cutting it so fine.”
“I don’t mean damn, we’re busted. I mean damn, I didn’t know she was in town. Gutted.”
“No chance, C. No chance at all.”
Charles sat on the bank of the tarn, watching Petunia splashing happily in the water. It should have been cold, this high up, but there were thermal springs that threaded their way to the surface, not enough to make it really warm, but enough that the edge was taken off. He paddled his feet and lay back on the bank, heavy with exhaustion and homesickness.
“You can go to sleep if you want,” the knucker said, looming over him.
“I’ll need to find somewhere to bed down,” he said, looking around. “It’s a bit exposed here.”
“I’ll watch for you,” Petunia said. “I’m not tired anymore.”
“I imagine you’re not,” Charles replied, thinking of the three rabbits the knucker had caught once they’d arrived. She hadn’t been kidding when she said she was hungry. He put an arm over his eyes to block out the sun. “Okay. There’s some eagles around here, though. Don’t let them get me.”
“Never,” Petunia said, and settled herself next to him, her chin on the bank and her growing body suspended in the peaty waters of the tarn. “I won’t let anything get you.”
“There’s a girl,” Charles said, and fell asleep on the soft bed of moss, while birds of prey wheeled high overhead, and the knucker debated catching another rabbit. They were much better than orange fish.
It was a week before Charlie and Harvey went back to retrieve the tiddy un. The knucker incident had blown over easy enough, but there was an issue with some woodland gnomes, and things just got busy. They found the tarn empty, the hillside silent.
“Are we thinking this is good or bad?” Charlie asked.
“No idea,” his brother said, nosing around the reeds. “I can’t smell anything much – maybe they just moved on.”
“Mr Tiddles hanging with the knucker?” Charlie sounded sceptical.
“Weirder things have happened.” Harvey shook mud off his paw. “Come on. Let’s check the next tarn over.”
Which is where they found Petunia, sunk into a pool of warm mud, now the size of a small horse and with her wings folded gracefully around her. The cats looked at each other uncertainly.
“Petunia?” Harvey called. “Petunia, it’s us.”
She shifted in her sleep, whiffling in the mud.
She grunted in surprise and lifted her head, chin caked in mud. “Who’s there?” She blinked at them blearily. “Oh. Hi, cats.”
“Hi,” Harvey said. “Um – everything okay?”
“Great,” she said happily. “Goats are even better than rabbits.”
“Well, that’s good to know. Ah -”
“Where’s the tiddy un?” Charlie demanded. “Is he alright?”
A ripple of dark blue ran across her nose. “Of course he’s alright.”
“Where is he, then?”
She glared at them, then shook out the soft folds of her wings, full grown now. The sun shone through them, turning the veins into an intricate map of unknown waterways. “He’s here.”
Settled comfortably on her shoulder, Charles sat up, yawning. “What is it, Pet?”
“It’s the cats. I think they thought I’d eaten you.”
“Oh, no. You’d never do that.” The tiddy un patted her back and squinted at the brothers. “Hello. I’ve got a new pond.”
“Have you?” Harvey asked, sounding bemused.
“Yeah.” Charles pointed at the tarn. “It’s huge. And there’s no damn fish poo to clean up.”
“Oh.” The cats exchanged glances. “Well.”
“Yeah. And no cats, either. No anyone,” the knucker added. “This is our place. It doesn’t belong to anyone else. Just us.”
“Quite right, Pet. Every tiddy un and knucker should have their own place.”
For a moment no one said anything, then Charlie nodded. “Good enough. We’ll be off, then.”
There was no reply, so the brothers left the odd couple to their empty skies and dark-watered tarn, and slipped into the Inbetween and out again.
“Now I really have seen everything,” Charlie said.
“Nowt as strange as Folk,” Harvey agreed, and started grooming the mud from his paws.
I came across tiddy uns and knuckers in Carol Rose’s lovely books, ‘Giants, Monsters & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend and Myth’, and ‘Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia’. I’ve not been strictly true to the tradition of either of them, as Tiddy Muns (not uns – that was a typo and it stuck) aren’t traditionally pond guardians, but rather spirits of the marshes and fens. They could stop flooding if asked nicely, but also curse crops and households if offended. Knuckers, meanwhile (also known as Nickers, but that was too tempting) are Scandinavian water monsters that can look like horses, centaurs, boys or old men, and mostly just want to be left alone to play music.
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