Christmas was best time of year for time-traveling.
It has to do with — well, calling it the spirit of Christmas sounds more sentimental than it really is. It has to do with the zeitgeist of a season. All of those repeated patterns of Christmas traditions — same music, same decorations, same trees, same whispered words — it makes it easier to slip into another version of yourself, which is, of course, what time-traveling really is.
On Christmas Eve, I left my body behind and let myself slide back, back, back through the years. All around me was the scent of smoldering fires, pine needles rubbed between fingers, cinnamon spilled across counters, and it was easy to believe that I was just another missing piece of the equation. Just a piece of time. It was easy to lose yourself when you left your body behind. You had to know who you were without any of your physical attributes.
But I knew. I couldn’t forget.
I let my consciousness catch hold on time, snagging me to a stop. For a moment, all I felt was frigid cold, biting and twisting at me, assaulting my new senses as I picked up this old version of me and climbed from the snowy bank. Swiping the snow from my legs, I first saw my fingers — dead-white, nearly blue, from this body being abandoned in the cold too long — and then saw my clothing: leggings, tunic, wool cloak. Heavy, gilded shoulder clasps and brooch meant that I had money in this time. The silk edge to my tunic meant that I had a lot of money.
I clenched my fingers into slow fists to warm them and turned toward the building behind me, looming stone hiding under a layer of new snow. Thysdowne Hall.
I’d been here before.
* * * *
The smell of the place was amazing. To be poor in the early Middle Ages was hell, but when you were rich, there was nothing better. The hall smelled of pork, venison, spices, pine needles, perfume, bodies dancing close together. The dresses were a riot of deep, earthy colors, like a handful of berries, and I stretched and searched for a familiar face above them.
“Nicholas?” A voice at my shoulder asked. I turned to see a short, slender man, blonde and startlingly blue-eyed. He recoiled from me, just a little. “Oh, not Nicholas. Who’s in there?”
I didn’t recognize him, but he must’ve been one of the Tuatha de Danann — the court faeries that often emerged for the feasts near Solstice. They were particularly sensitive to time-travelers, which was disconcerting when you were used to anonymity. I said, “You can just call me Nicholas.”
“And why would he call you a name that wasn’t yours?” A second faerie joined the first, and this one I recognized; a taller faerie, and brutally handsome in a way that was all edges. He smiled at me, mouth sharp. “Happy Christmas, Devlin.”
“I didn’t know you celebrated,” I said. I added, “Periwinkle,” so that he’d remember that I knew his name and hence shouldn’t try anything funny.
Periwinkle’s smile widened. “Oh, I don’t. I believe in celebrating real holidays.” We both looked out over the hall, my eyes following the dancers, his eyes following the musicians. The lutes were playing a vaguely familiar wassail. He asked, “So, are you still following the Lady?”
My chest tightened. “Is she here?”
The blonde faerie groaned. “He is one of her devotees too?”
Periwinkle’s expression was one of tolerant mirth. “They all are, beag. It’s why they travel as they do.”
“It is not,” I said, although I was scanning the faces now for hers. I hadn’t seen anyone wearing white, but the Lady wasn’t tall, and I might have missed her.
Periwinkle took my elbow and guided me towards the Christmas tree, hung with ribbon and gilded birds. “You look famished,” he said, leading me past the tables piled with fruit and tiny quail. “Eat something and stay with us awhile.”
“Stay with us forever, you mean,” I said. My stomach pinched at the smell of roasted nuts and mincemeat. “I would miss electricity and central heating too much. I’m fond of my modern time, thanks.”
“Are you really?” Periwinkle said. “And where is your modern body while you’re here?”
“Screwing two beautiful women at the same time,” I told him, because it was none of his business. I wondered if another version of me had taken over my body yet, slumped over the Good Times bar, shots lined up in front of it.
“How lucky for that traveler,” Periwinkle observed. “Ah, there she is.”
There, passing in and out between the musicians, head tilted as she listened to the lutes and whistles and drums in turn, dressed all in faded white as always. The Lady. I don’t know as she was particularly beautiful, or if her enigmatic smile was any more lovely than a rose, but when I saw her, I felt the aching pleasure of time-traveling. That simultaneous whirling loss of self and connectedness to everything else.
“I have to go,” I said, wresting my arm free from Periwinkle as she passed near us. “I’m sorry.”
He shook his head and popped a chestnut into his mouth. “You will pursue her again? You know she will be gone before you ever reach her. She always is. How many hundreds of years have you followed her through?”
“I have to,” I said, my eyes still on her as she wove through the crowd, they oblivious to her and yet her somehow a part of them. “I have to try.” I turned away from the faeries, shouldering my way past a square of dancers. I smelled cider on their breaths. Beyond the dancers, I could just see the edge of her white dress trailing through the wine-colored dresses that surrounded me. A few steps more, and maybe I could touch the fine linen sleeve of her dress. Maybe speak to her.
“And what if you caught her?” Periwinkle called after me. “If you are not chasing something through time, then that just means you were running from yourself all along.”
My steps slowed in the crowd. The Lady was nearly through the room, her chin lifted, her eyes on the massive doors that led out into the snow. I already knew that when she went through the doors, she would be in another time before they closed behind her. Unlike me, taking her body and her face and her identity with her.
Periwinkle was suddenly at my shoulder again. “Why chase something that you don’t know? There are pleasures to be had here. Pleasures to be had in the now. In the then. In any time. Why do you chase a ghost?”
I turned to him. “Why do you stop me?”
His smile was sharp as a knife.
I bolted after the Lady.
Author’s Note: Merry Christmas! The Merry Sisters of Fate will be taking a holiday until January 5th — see you all then!