It is said that hobgoblin babies are born wise, arriving into the world as brown and wrinkled as walnuts. Their faces change little as they grow so it is hard to place an age on them. As Gwin struggled to keep up with Gulpe’s brisk pace, his wooden clogs clicking on the cobbles of Midnight Lane, she realised he was not nearly as advanced in years as she had first suspected.
He finally stopped before a fountain, ornate once but now showing signs of wear. The constant flow of water into a great stone bowl at its base had worn smooth furrows into the surface and many of the blue and white tiles decorating the outside were loose or had fallen off completely. Rising rather majestically from the bowl and raised on a stone plinth was an enormous statue of a flying fish. Its jagged wings were outstretched mid-flight and its mouth gaped, pouting lips blackened by the stream of water falling from them. Gwin thought it may have had gemstones set into its eye sockets once, blazing rubies or gleaming emeralds perhaps. Now though the eyes were empty and blank, the jewels long stolen.
“Here we are,” Gulpe announced.
Gwin turned, looking for a doorway or a building. There was nothing but a dead end and a rising wall blocking any further passage beyond the fountain. “Where are we, exactly?” she asked.
“You are standing on the very last slither of old Armoria,” Gulpe said. “Once we called this place Kudann, the City of Sunlight. When Dewer arrived he built that wall you see there, right through the town square. His ugly excuse for a citadel sits on the other side. Kudann was almost destroyed completely.”
“You catch on quick, Mrs, I’ll give you that.” Gulpe looked behind him, making sure they were alone in the dark of the alley, before moving towards the fountain. “Follow me,” he said.
Gwin watched him step into the stone bowl and slip beneath the stream of water rushing from the fish’s open mouth. She almost laughed, wondering why he would soak himself in such a manner, before realising he had disappeared completely. She rushed forward, amazed, to search for him behind the fountain. There was nothing but the bright rushing of the water and the looming dark of the impenetrable wall.
“Are you coming, or what?” demanded a disembodied voice. It sounded as if it was coming from underneath the water, muted and thick.
Gwin quickly decided she had come too far to turn back now. Without giving herself time to think, she bent to remove her thin leather slippers and, holding them to her chest, stepped up into the fountain to duck beneath the falling water. She was expecting to be drenched but was pleasantly surprised to discover the water was warm, vanishing to cloudy vapour as soon as it touched her skin.
“Keep walking,” Gulpe called from somewhere on the other side.
Gwin forged ahead, one groping hand outstretched before her. She did not realise she had closed her eyes until Gulpe’s small, rough hand grasped hers and pulled her forward, out of the water and into a wide, open space. Gwin stared, open-mouthed in delight. The sun, so harsh in the cloudless blue skies above Armoria that morning, was shining low and pale here in Kudann. It flickered daffodil yellow through the leaping waters of a second, smaller fountain, fashioned into the shape of a lion’s head and set into a wall to her right. The air seemed to slow. A languid breeze moved through her hair, bringing with it the smell of incense and fragrant candles.
“Welcome to Kudann, Mrs,” Gulpe said.
￼They were standing before a courtyard, encircled by buildings rendered with a thick, white clay and inset with pieces of sparkling glass, shells and small carved faces. Covered passages, their ceilings heavy with flowering vines and their walls lined with brightly painted doors and window ledges sighing with pots of bluebells and sweet peas, led away in multiple directions.
“Speechless, are you?” Gulpe asked, studying Gwin’s face. “Can’t say I blame you.”
Hurriedly pulling her shoes back on, Gwin followed him into the courtyard and saw that many of the buildings were actually ornately decorated shops. She sneaked a look in their windows as Gulpe began to hurry her along. Many of the items being offered for sale were banned in Armoria. Magickal objects that shimmered in the strange pale sunlight with a raw, barely contained power.
At the head of the courtyard stood another statue of Thetia, much larger and grander than the one in Gulpe’s shop. This incarnation of the maternal goddess was no terrifying siren though. Her eyes were soft and kind. She gazed benevolently over Kudann as the snake in her hands coiled against her chest in an embrace, rather than wound about her wrists.
They moved deeper into the courtyard. Gwin noticed several smaller doors tucked into corners and along the bottom of the walls. Many had tiny moons and stars hanging from little brass knockers, fashioned from beads and crystals.
“Homes of the wee folk,” Gulpe explained. When he saw her confusion he sneered, his forehead crumpling like parchment. “Did you believe none survived the long years but you and the insidious humans? What have your kind been up to all these decades?” Gulpe did not give Gwin time to answer. “Hiding at the bottom of the world with your heads stuck in the snow,” he said. “That’s what.”
￼“Insidious, am I? That’s fighting talk, Gulpe and I will hear none of it.”
They both turned towards the speaker and Gwin drew in a sharp intake of breath when she recognised Barlo, casually lounging on the bottom step of a rickety looking flight of stairs. They led to a balcony running along one side of the courtyard.
“You know what you are, boy,” Gulpe replied with a gruff laugh.
“Good afternoon, fair Gwin,” Barlo said, leaping up from the step with a flourish to bow before her. “I thought you might find your way here eventually. My changeling friends have talked of little else.”
One of these friends was perched on a higher step. She was slight and angular, her skin glowing amber as though dusted with gold.
“This is Neave,” Barlo said, turning to introduce her. “The finest monologist the Barlo Players have to offer.”
Instead of reacting coyly, Neave simply nodded, accepting the compliment as fact. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said, extending a rather formal, gloved hand to Gwin. Gwin shook her hand, admiring the thick, blue cloak she was wearing. One half of it was covered in tiny, painstakingly stitched white stars.
“I was lucky enough to see you perform,” Neave continued. She sucked in her breath and half-closed her eyes. “It was breathtaking.”
“Thank you,” Gwin said, finding she was not quite sure how to react to such praise.
“Enough of this,” Gulpe said. He waved Neave and Barlo aside and pushed past them to climb the stairs. “We have business in the meeting hall. You two should join us.”