Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back 
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath 
That the rude sea grew civil at her song. 
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres, 
To hear the sea-maid's music. 
--William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream
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Chapter 1

Thursday: Thames Valley

 The Thames is liquid history.
—John Burns (1858-1943)

Gaudy as a gypsy caravan, beaded curtains rattling at her windows, the narrowboat Darling Girl danced a bit as her skipper cut the engine and let her coast into the launch lock on momentum alone. With only the lightest squeal of rubber bumpers, she slipped in snug between two others just like her. Paddy Casey signaled that he was in; exchanged greetings with his counterpart across the way.

The lock at Teddington would be packed like a tin of sardines before they could move on into the lower reaches of the Thames. Behind them sat a tour boat; then some kind of pleasure cruiser with a scowling captain chomping on an unlit cigar; and at the very last, like the cork tamped into the bung hole, an outsized houseboat with only inches to spare between its bumpers and the concrete curbs. In short order, the lock started to fill.

Paddy tied down the helm and called to Ben Harper sunning himself among the coiled ropes and herb pots on the beetle-green crown of the roof.

“Oi! Hollywood! Are y’all right?”

Rising up like a banner, a tanned, well-muscled arm and hand appeared clutching a beer bottle, reversed. A pleasant voice called,

“It’s broken.”

A moment later the empty bottle came rolling to the edge of the roof and dropped off into Paddy’s hand. The brosey Irish face broke open in a grin. He still didn’t know how the American managed to do that, though his grandmother could probably have told him. “Faeries,” she might have said. Paddy just knew it was a good trick.

“And you want me to fix it, yeah?”

No answer.

He might have heard a sound that might have been a grunt. Or not.

“Just me, then,” Paddy said, and ducked down into the dim closeness of the galley.

“Hang on!” Ben Harper’s sandy head popped up blinking, fringe falling across his eyes, wire-rimmed glasses askew. He straightened one and brushed back the other, and vaulting to his feet, he sauntered back to Darling Girl’s helm and followed.

For weeks, he had hauled his harp into every folk club and wedding ceilidh in the Thames Valley, or so his aching fingertips told him. He’d made a whole lot of music, traditional and brand new. He’d made friends too, and gotten some rare child-free time with his wife, whenever Mellis could spare a few days from her summer teaching schedule. He loved it, no question, but it wasn’t just for fun. Instead of being overworked producing and presenting a popular TV programme for the organizationally challenged, he was chatting up his new recording studio down in Devon, pushing the band’s first CD, and still over-worked, and never at home. Only the hours were different. Plus he no longer had an assistant and the mighty BBC behind him, at least not for much longer.

Sure, it was fun, but he was starting to feel just as fraught as he had before a kick in the arse two years ago from his friend Aubrey, who was also Oberon king of Faerie, had turned his life around. So when Casey, a gypsy guitarist from Clapham Road, had offered a slow ride into the City, Ben had jumped at the chance.

One does not just walk away from television at the top of a show’s popularity. It’s not that easy. Ben had to be at the studio on Friday morning for a day of voice-over and ADR looping for his last episode of 'Now or Never'. And film the hand-off to his replacement. And sign a contract for a guest appearance. So yeah, he’d be there, no question. But right now he just wanted to put his feet up in touristy bliss and watch long patchwork stretches of England roll by at a leisurely three knots. The river did not encourage haste. Neither did the speed regulations.

A happy passenger, he settled into a deck chair on the compact deck at the bow in the warmth of a fading afternoon. He could ignore everything else while he sipped on a beer and watched the light go all golden and soft around him as the boats spread out and separated as they spilled through the lock. From Teddington to the sea, the river was a breathing thing, rising and falling with the tides. A place of transitions, a gateway, a point of departure and arrival. Ben felt a new tune coming on, taking shape just in front of him, bouncing in and out of the laughter and gossip.

The lock opened. Paddy goosed the engine, and they danced out—a sedate, leisurely pavane—into the tidal and ever-widening Thames. Ben let his head drop, conjuring his harp in front of him with half closed eyes. Lightly, lightly his fingers moved through the air as though the strings buzzed beneath them, trying a passage, altering, trying again, following the strain. Long minutes passed, the river and the music.

A cloud of dragonflies hovering near the shore skimmed the bronze surface of the river. They paced the Darling Girl for a few minutes in the dappled light of overhanging leaves, diving in and out of the sunlight. And while they did, they called out in a high piping language of their own, which meant they weren’t dragonflies at all. One of them zoomed up to Ben, a tiny opalescent, humanoid form with the wind of its wings a soft crackle like tinkling ice. It stared at him out of a pinched, almost human face. Inquisitive eyes met his, making them cross. 

“Hullo,” Ben murmured, and inclined his head in a kind of bow from where he sat. The creature started a bit, surprised perhaps that he could see them, then dashed back into the long shadows and disappeared.

The plop of a fish, or maybe just a falling leaf, broke his concentration as if a bell had sounded. Curious, he got up and leaned over the starboard rail, squinting into the bouncing light. He pushed his glasses up his nose with one finger. A long, dark shape in the water was matching speeds with Darling Girl—an otter maybe, or a dolphin of some kind. The changing light tricked and baffled the eye. Then trailing willow leaves shattered the image entirely.

Ben’s mouth drew into a curious frown, aware of the tingle of magic. Kneeling on a wet locker he hooked an arm through a looped cable, and leaned as far over the side as he dared. Blinking, he peered into the leaf-littered water, dark in the sliding shadows, clear as ice.

With a low cry, he rocked back.

“What’s that, eh?” Paddy asked around the pipe in his teeth.

“Ah,” said Ben carefully. “Uhm, nothing. Slippery, is all.”

“Aye, I did say so. Mind the gap.”

He smiled at the misplaced warning and leaned forward again, and felt something in the universe shift, just slightly. The riverine world closed in: the rich green smells of the mossy bank, the chuckle and lap of the water, the rise and fall of insect hum all brightened around him. And there it was, floating just under the surface: a young woman’s body lying in repose just inches from the hull, the pontoon to his outrigger.

He swore, then blinked and cleaned his glasses on his t-shirt. He looked back at Paddy, calmly at his post far away. From where he stood, his friend shaped a bare outline in a kind of mist, as if a mantle of fog had been drawn around him. Or perhaps around Ben, cutting him off from the mundane world. Passing terraces of expensive flats, docks, restaurants disappeared as well, and all the other watercraft but one—the big blue houseboat. With the ease of stepping through a beaded curtain into another room, Ben had crossed over, just a little, into Faerie.

Resigned, he leaned out and looked again, really looked. She was still there, only clearer, brightly hued and very fair. Only it was no woman that skimmed along a few inches or maybe a few feet beneath the surface. Pale hair that might be blonde and might be shades of teal and gold swirled over small, quite naked breasts, haloed her head, breathed back and forth across her childlike face like seaweed on the strand, caught in the draw stream of the canal boat. It curled and twined down to the tips of her green, webbed fingers. 

As his eye travelled along her length, he could see where the soft rounding of her belly changed gradually from pink-edged celadon to iridescent jade into what Ben thought at first must be a mermaid’s tail. When he looked properly, though, he saw the tail divided into two slender legs, deliquescent with jewel-like scales. Not a woman, no, but no mermaid he’d ever heard of, either.

Pale hands floated calmly beside her, as if she only slept. Like Ophelia in the river, she lay surrounded by eglantine and violets, and trailing nameless vines. Her black eyes were open, sad and staring.

Words came to his lips almost without realizing:

  There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
  Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
  When down her weedy trophies and herself
  Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
  And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
  Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes...

Ben whispered, half-quoting, half-overwhelmed.  “She is drowned. How can she be drowned?”

A rush of long silver fish swarmed between them. The world shifted again. Paddy goosed the engine, and flung Darling Girl into the midstream sunlight. The Borderland fell away. The mortal world snapped into place with its busy sounds and sharp edges. Ben swung back inboard and sat down hard on the rust-colored locker, shaking his head. Among his several talents he could, as Aubrey said, hear the bells of Efland; the doors of Faerie were open to him. He’d been in some strange places and seen a lot of strange stuff, but this was new. Quite new, and troubling.

For a moment, he sat back and just stared into the middle distance, trying to figure it out.

“What am I supposed to do?” he muttered. Then he looked up and shouted into the afternoon, “What am I supposed to do?”

Only echoes returned from the opposite bank. Paddy, grinning, answered,

“Drink more beer!”

Ben ignored him. Just ahead, the fancy blue houseboat was tying up on the northern bank. Gates of Dawn, she was called. A white-bearded grandfatherly type on the deck turned when he shouted, laughing like Father Christmas. Whatever he thought Ben had hollered, he waved and shouted something back. It sounded a bit like, “Trust the water!” whatever that meant.

Ben smiled and waved in return, making all the usual gestures to indicate he couldn’t hear or didn’t understand. After a few fruitless exchanges, they both shrugged and went back to their own business, and Darling Girl motored on. 

Ben turned around and sank into the music of the river lapping at the hull, the hum of insects, the shrill cry of a hawk in the distance, and closed his eyes. A few minutes later, he opened them again.

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