The small boy in the over-sized coat sat on the edge of a river looking at a notebook. It was filled with scrawling, childish script, and sketches that were rudimentary but somehow accurate. Even if you didn’t know what the creature labelled barguest was, you knew you’d recognise it if you saw it. Particularly if those teeth were to scale.
“What d’you think, Marguerite?” he said. “This looks like the place, right?”
A sleek brown rat looked up from her grooming. “What do we know about pixie hunting, Patrick? Really?”
He frowned at her. “We’re not hunting them. Come on, you have to help me – this is our first time out alone. I want to get this right.”
The rat rolled her eyes, but sat up and examined the notebook. “Yes,” she said after a moment. “Those symbols there look a lot like the marks on the base of the tree trunk.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Patrick said. “Because those are troll tribal tattoos.”
Marguerite glared at him. “Well, I don’t know! They’re scratchy things! What do you want me to look at?”
Patrick sighed. “These ones here.” He tapped the other side of the page, and she muttered angrily as she scrambled onto his lap to get a closer look.
“Rats are not good at this two-dimensional stuff, you know.”
“I know.” He’d been happy when Marguerite turned up – Guillaume had lived a long life for a rat, but by the end anything more than snoozing in the sun at the Watch house had been exhausting for him, and Patrick spent most of his time out with the cats. Which was fine, but it was nice to have another non-cat around. Marguerite, however, was not the same rat as Guillaume. She was his second cousin’s niece’s daughter twice removed, or something like that – it all seemed very complicated – and she, unlike anyone else except the mildly psychic and slightly potty cat lady he was currently living with, treated him like a nine-year-old boy. Which he was, but it didn’t mean he appreciated it.
“Alright,” Marguerite said, after she’d looked at the sketches carefully. “I don’t think this is the place.”
Patrick groaned, and flopped back onto the ground, arms spread wide. “But we’ve been walking around this same hill for days. It shouldn’t be so hard to find!”
“I guess pixie hooligan hide-outs are designed that way.”
“I can’t believe Anna gave me such a hard job on my first time out.”
Marguerite gave him a severe look. “Hard? Find some young pixies on one particular hill that have been engaging in the heinous practice of snail tipping? Young man, you may have to redefine ‘hard’.”
Patrick stared up at the autumn sky, a study in various shades of grey, thinking about all the jobs he’d done with Anna or her calico lieutenant Claudia, she of the mis-matched eyes and odd humour. In the last year and a bit – he wasn’t sure how long exactly, just that it had been summer when he left home, and they’d just left another summer behind them – he’d seen treaties brokered between warring gnome clans, and small aquatic piasts re-located from village duck ponds, and city pixies stealing from the homeless severely disciplined. Some of those things had gone smoothly, others hadn’t. He had a scar on his arm where an angry kelpie had bitten him, and another on his cheek where a dwarf had punched him (the dwarf had apologised later, and explained that he’d been quite drunk, and thought Patrick was just a very small grown-up). He’d watched cats cajole and threaten and berate and, eventually, fight, and yeah – some of those jobs had been hard. Humans took up so much space, and the Folk, the magical people, were forced to the very edges of the world. They got protective of their patches. So, alright. On reflection, it wasn’t a hard assignment. But it was proving to be more difficult to find the pixies that he’d anticipated.
He sat up again. “You’re right,” he said. “Let’s keep going.”
The day was drawing to a dull and unremarkable close, grey light darkening and deepening, and still they hadn’t found any sign of the pixie hangout. Claudia had said it’d be a rough sort of place, where all the young pixies went to drink fermented honeysuckle nectar and play pixie hard rock/folk fusion. The signs would be hard to spot, because they wouldn’t want to draw too much attention to it, but they’d still have avoidance sigils out to make sure no humans tripped over it. Patrick was starting to wonder if he was human enough that the sigils were working on him, too.
They emerged from the trees and walked along the edge of a concrete-walled culvert, Marguerite balanced comfortably on the boy’s skinny shoulder. He walked softly, feet light on the scuffed dirt of the trail, eyes on the still, murky water below them. This was where the snails had been tipped over the edge after the pixies had rolled them down the hill, racing each other to be the first to get their snail into the water. It wasn’t an unusual activity for young pixies, but it didn’t make it right – the snails took forever to make it back up the steep walls, and some of them were so confused that they ended up on the wrong side. No one was quite sure if this bothered the snails, but Patrick thought it probably would. He knew it’d bother him.
“Are we going home?” Marguerite asked. “I’m starving.”
He sighed. “We may as well – I can barely see anything now. “
“We’ll find them, you know. I’m sure Anna never expected you to be done in a day.”
“It really is taking ages, though. And I just know she’d come over here and find it in two seconds.”
“Yeah, well. She’s been doing it a long time,” the rat said.
“Still.” They crossed a little footbridge and rejoined the path that led them into the houses beyond the hill. “We should come up here tonight and see if we can catch them in the act.”
“Oh, that sounds super,” the rat replied.
Patrick gave her tail a teasing tweak and trudged on, legs tired and belly empty. Hopefully the safe house would have some good food tonight. Last night it had given them fish stew, which he supposed was fine. If you liked fish.
The safe house in this town was a garden shed. Well, it looked like a garden shed, with one mildew-darkened window and a wooden door that hung askew on the hinges so it didn’t close properly. It sat behind an actual garden shed in a yard that belonged to an old man who fed birds and shouted at small children, and if you’d asked him about it he’d have told you you were crazy and to get off his land.
Patrick was just swinging his leg over the low fence when they heard the scream.
“Did you hear that?” he said to Marguerite.
“I did, but it’s not going to be frightened snails. Stick to the task.”
“Someone was screaming.” As he spoke, it came again, a shriek of pure panic, hanging on the evening air.
“Not our business.”
He hesitated, one leg on the way to a warm meal and safety, the other lingering in the darkening day. There were no more screams – whatever had happened was either over, or past screaming about. It was almost certainly a human scream, and so really none of his business.
“Patrick.” Marguerite’s voice was firm. “We don’t interfere with humans. And you shouldn’t be doing anything off task. Not yet.”
She was right. Of course she was right. He didn’t have any experience, he didn’t know how to deal with half the creatures out there. What if a freybug had attacked a human? What was he going to do about it? Hit it on the nose with a stick? Yeah, that’d work out just fine.
So he swung his leg back over the fence and headed in the direction of the scream.
It didn’t take long to find out who had been screaming. A woman stood on the front lawn of a row of semi-detached cookie-cutter houses, a bath towel clutched tightly around her and her feet bare on the cold lawn. A man in socks stood on the doorstep, looking at her dubiously.
“I’m not going back in there,” she told him, her voice spiking into little quavers. “Something touched me.”
“How could something have touched you in the bath?” he asked, sounding bewildered.
“I don’t know! But it did. It did, and you don’t even believe me!”
“Well, it’s not that I don’t believe you, it’s just -” he waved at her vaguely, as if not sure whether he was beckoning her in or trying to shush her. “Would you just come inside, Lil?”
“I’m not going in there!” Her voice was almost a scream again, and the man winced.
“Not upstairs, just come in the kitchen.”
“What if it’s in there? What if it’s come downstairs while we’ve been talking?”
“What if what has? The bathtub monster? What on earth -” he broke off as she started to sob, looked about for his shoes, then gave up and stepped gingerly onto the lawn in his socks. “I’m sorry. Lil, I’m sorry -”
Patrick waited until the man was rubbing the woman’s goose-bumped arms, still apologising, before he walked up the path and in the door, ignoring Marguerite berating him in a furious hiss. One thing to be said for being not quite human – you could sneak in most places. It made you faint, and people’s eyes just slid off you. It wasn’t the same as being invisible, of course – if he was spotted in the house he was in trouble. But it was unlikely that anyone watching the drama from behind some neighbouring curtains would notice him.
“Gods damn it Patrick -”
“Marguerite, if you’re not going to be helpful you can wait outside,” he said, his voice low. The stairs were just inside the door, and they were carpeted. He looked down at his muddy boots.
“No time!” the rat hissed. “If you’re going to be stupid, at least be quick about it.”
Patrick supposed she was right, but still – he wiped his feet hurriedly on the mat, then went up the stairs on his tip-toes, listening to the voices below. It sounded like Mr Lil wasn’t having much luck getting Lil inside, which was all for the good.
It wasn’t hard to find the bathroom – a trail of damp footprints were splattered across the cream carpet in the upstairs hall, some of them still festooned with bubbles.
“You realise she probably just dropped the soap?” Marguerite whispered.
“And that sent her running out of the house in a towel? I doubt it.”
“This is still none of our business.”
“If it’s Folk business, it’s Watch business. That makes it mine.” There was an uncharacteristically hard edge to his words, and Marguerite didn’t answer. He was sick of this. He knew he was only young, knew that the cats were having trouble working out how to teach him what he needed to know – it should have been another peacekeeper doing it, but all Anna said when he asked about his predecessor was that he was better having some gaps in his knowledge than he was learning from Ben. Even if Ben could be found. Then Claudia had said something about it being pretty easy to find him, you just had to follow the trail of bar fights and vomit, and Anna had hissed at her, which never happened. But, whatever – in cat years he was positively ancient, and this was more promising than pixies. This was his chance to stop being a peacekeeper in training and actually be a peacekeeper.
He paused in the doorway of the bathroom. The lights were off, and it was lit by an array of scented candles on the windowsill and the last of the grey light from outside. The bath mat was soaked, and there was water splashed beyond it as well – Lil must have really thrown herself out. The foam was still high in the tub, and he took a couple of steps closer, trying to see if there was any movement below. Marguerite shifted anxiously on his shoulder, sniffling at the air.
“Anything?” he whispered.
“No,” she whispered back. “The candles and the soap are messing up the smells – I can’t tell what’s meant to be here and what’s not.”
From downstairs came the sound of the door being pushed closed, and voices, clear at first then muffled as they moved deeper into the house.
“Patrick! They’re inside!”
“I got that. They’re not going to come up here though. Not yet. She’ll still be freaked out.” He hoped. As long as Mr Lil stuck around to make her a cup of tea and didn’t just abandon her in the kitchen.
He crouched by the bath, scooping foam out of the way and dumping it unceremoniously on the floor. His boots were bleeding mud everywhere, but there was no helping it. And still – no movement. He shoved his sleeve up and went searching for the plug, Marguerite clinging on precariously as he leaned over.
They spotted it together, a fin sliding up through the foam then slipping away again, and the rat shrieked.
“Is that a shark?”
“Shh! And of course it’s not a shark. What would a shark be doing in a bath?” But he pulled his hand away anyway. Just because it wasn’t a shark didn’t mean it wouldn’t bite.
“Gods, you were right about this. Let’s get it and get out of here, then.”
“Yeah.” He stuck his hands in his jacket pockets hopefully – sometimes useful things appeared in there when he needed them. Plus boiled sweets, which weren’t his favourite, but they were okay in a pinch. Maybe there’d be a net. A net would be good.
The jacket offered him some goggles, and a snorkel, which was quite hard to force back into the pocket, and they were both useless. The bathroom wasn’t exactly well-equipped for trapping monsters, but he grabbed a towel and approached the tub again with it held out like a matador’s cape.
“Hello,” he called softly. “Umm – you can’t be here. Can you come out?”
There was nothing for a moment, just the soft crackle of popping bubbles, then a small round head surfaced, topped with a cap of foam. It squeaked at the boy and the rat, then vanished again. Patrick straightened up.
“Did you get that?”
“No idea,” Marguerite said. “I don’t think it was a language.”
“Well. It seemed friendly, right?”
“The bubbles might be misleading you.”
Patrick gave a little gasp of laughter, then looked around nervously. “Ah, bath monster? C’mere boy. Or girl.”
They waited, Patrick with the towel held ready, but the head didn’t reappear.
“It might not be a boy or a girl.”
“Well, what do I say then? I don’t even know what it is yet.”
“I don’t know – but it could be hundreds of years old and you’re calling it like a puppy.”
“That’s helpful, Marguerite.”
“I’m just saying.”
They watched the bath for a moment longer, then Patrick opened his mouth to try calling again, and several things happened at once.
Someone bellowed from behind them, “What the hell are you doing in my house?”
Someone else screamed, a terribly high sound that sliced into Patrick’s head and sent him stumbling towards the bath in fright, and the monster in the bathtub shot out of the water with a shriek of its own, slamming into the boy and sending him to the ground on his back as the rat jumped clear.
Lil screamed again, and Mr Lil was shouting and swearing, and the monster was all limbs and lavender-scented slippery skin, and Patrick rolled on top of it, feeling it squirming and squeaking unhappily against his belly. It wasn’t biting, at least. Yet.
“Sorry!” he shouted. “I’m so sorry! Really, really, I am, I’m so sorry, but my mum’s going to kill me, he got out, my iguana got out, and I saw you shouting, and I knew it had to be him, and I’m so, so sorry, please, please don’t tell my mum, she’ll make me give him away, and he’s my best friend, he really is, so please, please…” he let his voice trail away, staring up at the couple in the doorway with wide eyes and a trembling lower lip.
“It – it’s your lizard?” Mr Lil said, sounding bewildered.
“Yeah. He probably climbed in the window.” Patrick nodded to the half-open window above the bath. “He loves baths, he does.”
“He – climbed.”
“Yeah, he loves climbing, too. I have like a harness? And I take him out and let him climb trees and stuff.” He gave a tentative smile, perfectly aware that he was missing a tooth. Claudia had told him he looked like a Charles Dickens orphan, and he figured that meant something good. It seemed to work – Lil stepped around her husband and looked down at him with a smile of her own. It was a little wobbly, but it was a good start.
“You know you should have just told us.”
“I know. But I didn’t want to get into trouble.” He let his lip tremble again. “Are you going to tell my mum?”
“No. No, I don’t think we need to, do we, Gav?”
“He did break into our house,” Mr Lil pointed out.
“I didn’t break anything,” Patrick protested. “Honest! And if Ferdinand did, I’ll pay for it. I have some pocket money.”
“Your lizard’s called Ferdinand?” Liv asked, kneeling down in front of Patrick. When he nodded, she grinned up at her husband. “His lizard’s called Ferdinand.”
Mr Lil shook his head, trying to look exasperated, but not managing it very well. “Fine,” he said. “Just keep that thing under control from now on, alright?”
“I will, I will! I promise!” Patrick’s voice was a little high, but that was because the monster had stuck its nose into his armpit, which both tickled and felt very vulnerable. “Let me just – I’ll just -” he bundled the towel around the creature as well as he could while he was still lying on it, trying to corral wriggling limbs and get the heavy tail under control. “Be still!” he hissed at it. “Trust me, and just be still!” Wonder of wonders, it did, and he stood up, sweating, the monster swaddled in the soaking towel. He tried another smile at the grown-ups, but they were looking at him dubiously.
“Ah – I’ll wash the towel and bring it back tomorrow, okay?”
“Is that – what sort of lizard has a tail like that?” Mr Lil asked, pointing at the slender appendage that was curling and uncurling to the boy’s shins and back up again. It was dark grey, almost black, flecked with glittering reds and blues, and it ended in a paddle that looked remarkably like the spades symbol from a deck of cards.
“He’s very exotic,” Patrick said, trying to skirt around them to get to the door.
The man put a hand on his shoulder. “No – let’s see it.”
“I really can’t. He’ll get away again, and then I’ll never catch him.” The tail continued to swing hypnotically, and Patrick gave the little creature a squeeze, trying to tell him to stop. He didn’t.
“So pretty,” the woman breathed. She reached out to the tail, then looked at Patrick almost timidly. “Can I touch it?”
“No, really -” He took a step back as Lil reached forward, and bumped into the wall behind him. Mr Lil had let go of his shoulder, but was still staring. Gods. He needed a distraction. He needed –
There was a crash from the sink, and the adults spun around to see a sleek brown rat dancing on its hind legs among the creams and moisturisers and gels, swinging a toothbrush like a baseball bat and sending bottles and tubs flying to the floor.
“What the hell?” Mr Lil bellowed, and Lil screamed, “That’s my toothbrush!”
Patrick dived out the door and ran for the stairs, hoping Marguerite had a plan to get out. She was smart, she’d be okay. He jerked the front door open and plunged through, straight into a musty smelling chest, crying out and almost falling, clutching his precious bundle closer. Hard hands grabbed his shoulders.
“Boy! You! I’ve seen you! I’ve seen you hanging around, all suspicious-looking! What are you doing? Are you stealing? I bet you’re stealing!” It was the grumpy man whose yard hid the safe house, and he was already tugging at the towel.
Patrick jerked backwards. Feet were pounding down the stairs behind him, and he changed direction again, charged forward with with his head down like a small and ferocious mountain goat. He collided with Grumpy Man’s belly, hearing the air leave him in a whoosh, and barely kept his feet. Then he was sprinting down the path, seeing a flash of furry movement as Marguerite scampered down the wall and fled across the lawn after him. There was a lot of shouting going on, but he didn’t look back, just took a swerve to the left and hurdled a hedge of ornamental roses, hearing Mr Lil curse as he grabbed air instead of collar.
Patrick could hear the man gaining, bare feet slapping on the pavement. He wasn’t going to outrun him on the road like this. He shot down the side of a bungalow, skirted a sleeping dog on the back lawn, then looped back to the street and straight down the side of Grumpy Man’s house, hearing his shouting rise an octave or two.
Mr Lil wasn’t shouting, though. Mr Lil was running with furious determination, but Patrick had gained some time with his circuit of the bungalow. He dived behind the normal garden shed, sketched a rapid pattern on the door of the one that was faint, pulled it open and tumbled in, Marguerite skidding across the floor as she ran past him. He slammed the door, catching a glimpse of Mr Lil reaching out to it, the dusk visible through gaps in the wood. He was still drawing the locking sigil when Mr Lil hit the door with the sound of splintering wood. The door shivered, but the gaps were filling rapidly in, the rotten slats swelling and bulging into sturdy logs, and the man’s yelp of surprise faded to nothing.
Patrick’s shaking legs let go and he slid to the floor, releasing the monster. Marguerite rolled onto her back, four paws in the air, chest heaving alarmingly.
“We got him,” Patrick said tentatively.
“Woo-fricking-hoo,” the rat replied, and tried not to sound amused as the boy dissolved into giggles.
“It’s a Nessie,” Anna said, watching the little monster swim circles in a wooden half-barrel in front of the safe house fire. “Good catch.”
The monster squeaked. It had a very long neck and a small head with huge, beguiling eyes, and its whole body glimmered with those reds and blues, like some precious living opal.
“I thought Nessie was a plesiosaur,” Patrick said. He was eating some stew he couldn’t really identify. This house wasn’t great for food.
“That’s a human theory,” Anna said. “Although I guess they’ve got that shape. But they’re magical creatures – once a human sees one they become obsessed, and nothing will do but they have to spend the rest of their lives trying to get close to them. Good thing you found this little one – they’d never have let him out of the tub.”
“Why the obsession? Is it to lure people in so they can eat them?”
The monster squeaked indignantly.
“No, it’s just a side effect. It’s dark in the bottom of the lake, and they communicate with the colours. But it sort of enchants humans.”
“Oh.” Patrick dipped some bread in the stew and offered it to Marguerite. “So what do we do with him?”
“Take him home, of course. A bathtub’s no place for a Loch Ness Monster.”
“Cool.” Patrick put his plate down reluctantly, and said, “I haven’t found the pixies.”
“Haven’t you?” Anna said mildly. Claudia, her paws on the edge of the barrel while the monster rubbed his face against hers, gave a snort of amusement.
“No. I’m sure we’ve covered every inch of the hill, but I just haven’t been able to find the sigils. I’m really sorry. I really am.” He didn’t want to look up. He didn’t want to see if Anna was disappointed, or if she’d expected it, and he didn’t want to hear Claudia laugh and say how easy it was. He’d tried, he really had. And he’d found a Nessie, so that should count for something, right?
“There were no snail-tipping pixies,” Anna said gently. “Do you really think we’re bothered by young pixies pushing snails down hills?”
“What? But why – why did you -?”
“To see if you could follow instructions. To see if you’d do a proper job. To see what you’d do when we weren’t watching.”
“But that’s mean! We’ve been walking for days! And I studied pixies, and -”
“And you did everything a peacekeeper would do if he was told about a problem,” Anna said. “And you did it well.”
“Boy did good,” Claudia added. “He found something completely unrelated, investigated, and closed the case.”
“Hardly,” Patrick said, although he could feel his cheeks heating up. Claudia giving praise was about as common as finding a Loch Ness Monster in a bathtub. “There’s three of them out there that saw it – or saw the tail at least. They’ll still be looking for me.”
“Nah,” Claudia said. “There’s a few cats up there suggesting a squirrel got in through the window and fell in the tub. The humans’ll be making a pilgrimage to Loch Ness to buy crappy souvenirs every year, nothing we can do about that, but they’ll have no memory of small curly-haired boys stealing monsters out of their bathtubs.”
“Oh.” Patrick thought about it for a moment, feeling that heat spreading from his cheeks to his chest. “So – it’s all okay?”
“Better than okay, kid.” Claudia said.
It was quiet then for a moment, before Anna said, “I think it’s fair to say we have the right human for the job.”
And Patrick wanted to hug them both, but you don’t hug a cat without its consent, so he wrapped his arms around himself and bounced on the big floor cushions that passed as furniture until the cats gave in and came to rub his face with theirs.
Later, staring at the low wooden ceiling, he said to Anna, “How did the Nessie get in the bathtub?”
“Nessie eggs are really small. They end up in the water supply from time to time, and the heat activates them and accelerates the growing process. About once a year we get one in a bath, or a sink, or even a washing machine. Now that’s a pain to deal with.”
“Oh. So how big do they get?”
“Big. The initial growth’s just so they’re big enough to stay warm at the bottom of the Loch, in the caves down there.”
“There’s caves? They live in caves? Have you seen them? Can we see them?”
“Gods, Patrick. Maybe one day. Go to sleep.”
He fell silent, listening to the fading fire and the purring cats, Marguerite warm on his chest, and thought that the world was at least as strange and wonderful as he’d ever imagined.
Not for the first time, I’m indebted to Carol Rose’s Giants. Monsters & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Myth and Legend. I may take a few artistic liberties with the monsters, but the ideas come from there.
Barguest: A monstrous bogie that usually resembles an enormous dog with horns, fangs and fiery eyes. Just seeing it is a sign of impending disaster, and it inflicts wounds that never heal. Charming, really.
Piast: A fire-breathing, water-dwelling monster, part serpent and part salmon. I gather you really don’t want one living in the village duck pond.
Freybug: Another monstrous black dog, although this one mostly just liked scaring people and making them run away in terror. All in good fun.
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