It should have been impossible to ambush Badb, goddess of war. Every crow in Belfast lent her their senses. She soared over a bleeding city, from one pocket of violence to the next. From the women shaving the head of a weeping collaborator to the screams of a man shot through the back of the knees. The city had half the population it should have had. Its buildings crumbled, paint flaking away except from slogans that every day were refreshed: NOT AN INCH!, BRITS OUT!, NO NATS HERE!
She had caused it all. Manipulating the angry; creating heroes and renewing herself through their sacrifice.
But she hadn’t expected this.
Three teenaged boys with hurley sticks caught her in an alleyway.
“Hand it over!” cried the nearest, his voice breaking mid-sentence. He had blond hair and a shamrock tattoo that might get him killed only three streets from here.
Behind him, a second boy, darker this time, pushed forward. “Yeah,” he cried. “We want all of it!” Despite the braggadocio, this was their first robbery. Badb could tell such things. Their knuckles were white on the wood of the hurls. Their Adam’s apples bobbed and bobbed.
“Let me get my purse.”
She really didn’t have time for this. Something was very wrong. She left her body, flicking from crow to crow, finding nearby streets to be far too quiet. No bombs went off. No snatch squads screeched out of police stations.
“Smash her, Paddy!” the second boy said as she returned to her body. “She’s delayin’. It’s on purpose.”
“I have it here,” Badb said, allowing a quiver of fear into her voice to make them feel more manly. “Please don’t hurt me!” She knew what they were seeing. An old, old woman. Which she was. With aching joints to slow her movements and additional indignities they couldn’t imagine—constant bleeding from cracks in her skin that only a layer of sopping bandages hid from view.
“Hit her, Paddy.”
But Paddy probably had a granny of his own at home, and a conscience too. “No,” he said, and licked his lips. “Not if she hands over the pension money. An Irishman keeps his word.”
Badb’s arthritic fingers got the purse open as the three boys crowded closer. Inside was a razor blade. With shaking hands, she drew it across Paddy’s throat. While he stared, amazed, still on his feet, she hobbled forward two more steps and got the second boy too.
Badb’s hips stabbed at her as she turned. She would need to regenerate very soon, or old age would leave her incapable of any movement at all.
By now the third boy was turning to flee. But she had a crow waiting. It swooped down from a nearby building, a missile of beak and black feathers, aimed straight at the teenager’s eyes …
And that’s when it happened. A pain such as the goddess had not felt in the longest time. A wrongness that jerked her out of her body and flung her awareness across the city to Sandy Row.
Disoriented, she tried to understand what had brought her here.
It had begun to drizzle. Boys and girls stood by the gable end of a house where patriotic hands had painted Queen Margaret on the day of her coronation. Badb watched the children from the eyes of one crow and then another until, suddenly, the gang sprang forward as one. A boy and a girl carried a net between them, she in sneakers, he in boots, the laces dangerously trailing.
What are they hunting? Badb wondered. But only for a second, because then, the net came down over the crow she occupied. She flicked to another bird and then, another, but they too had been caught. Other children smashed at the birds with planks of wood. With rocks. With the soles of their Doc Martens. The pain! The pain!
Half the flock escaped, and Badb with them. What was going on? Who had ever heard of such a thing? Even in this city where the spilling of blood had not slowed in fifty years?
Badb wheeled with the other crows, toying with the idea of sending the flock back to peck some manners into the children, but she knew better than to give herself away like that. Over the last decade she could count on two hands the number of people her flock had killed. Even so, the idea had leaked out into the city’s subconscious. “Crow” had become a slang term for treachery or for informers. Criminals and terrorists regularly warned each other to “keep your beak shut.”
She led the surviving birds over the Peace Wall between Sandy Row and Belfast’s jokertown, known locally as “the Island.”
They would be safe there, she felt sure, while she tried to figure out what was going on.
She returned to her body in the alleyway to find the third boy had escaped. Inconvenient. A loose end that would need snipping and she—
The crows in the Island were under attack now, too. Again, it was children. Misshapen ones that not even Picasso or Dalí or Goya might have imagined. Their assault on the crows was less organized, but several birds were taken out before the flock could flee once more.
Finally, the exhausted crows came down in the grounds of St. Louise’s Comprehensive School, where thirty girls stopped their game of camogie to stare at the arriving flock. As one, they charged forward and began stamping on wings and feathered bodies. A nun and two other teachers looked away, as though indifferent to what must have been a shocking sight.
Each time Roger Barnes felt he had adapted and made peace with his body, it found some new way to betray him.
He sighed and took off his robe. He always liked to consider himself a practical man, but of late, the rituals of self-care left him glum, all too aware of how much he had changed, and was still changing.
He stood before an antique full-length mirror with doors that contained additional side mirrors when opened. The frame was scuffed by time and travel, but still sturdy. Appropriate, thought Roger. Like all the things he owned, it was purchased with cash, and by someone else. There were no accounts in his name; the cards and phone that he sometimes carried were not registered to him and they were cycled at regular intervals, just to be on the safe side. They, much like the basement he currently dwelt within, were transitory parts of his life; functional, impersonal, disposable.
The fingers of his right hand were too thick to manage the delicate clasps holding the doors of the mirror in place. Roger knew this but tried anyway. It was a little game he played with himself. Perhaps this time I’ll manage it, he’d think. As if the passing of the seasons would grant him more manual dexterity rather than less. Three times, his thumb was tantalizingly close to hooking the thin strip of gold metal, but it soon became clear that it wasn’t going to happen, so he switched to his left hand and the clasp opened easily, though not, he noted, as easily as it once did. Compared to his right hand, his left was positively normal, but the wooden fingers were still longer and thicker than they once were.
For years Roger had not thought of himself as Roger at all, but as Green Man. Green Man was many things to many people. To some he was a prominent figure of London’s underworld. To others he was a benefactor to be approached by those unwilling or unable to call on the authorities. And to a select few he was the head of the Twisted Fists, an infamous group of joker terrorists. In the three and a half decades since his card had turned, Green Man had been labelled killer, savior, traitor, and monster; simultaneously a champion of the oppressed, an opportunist thug, and a dangerous revolutionary.
But at these times, when he stood naked, exposed, his Green Man mask sitting on the desk next to his wardrobe, he saw something of the man he once was. A small, neat man. Conservative in politics and manner. A man of principle. A family man.
Nearly all traces of that man were gone. Roger Barnes had been short, and Green Man was now well over six-and-a-half feet tall. Roger Barnes had been slight, and Green Man was, while still long-limbed, undeniably sturdy. Roger had kept his hair neat, while Green Man had no hair at all, unless one counted the persistent moss he was forever having to trim.
Roger sighed a second time, picked up a pair of clippers, and started to prune the shoots sprouting from a spot on his chest. He’d been shot there, many, many years ago, and like all of his injuries, it had healed swiftly, but never quite the same as it was. This was most evident in his right arm, which he’d lost in a fight with … with … He paused, shocked that he couldn’t immediately recall her name.
He could picture her face, could hear her voice in his head; swearing, predictably. But her name eluded him. How could I forget the name of that foul-mouthed creature?
A twinge in his shoulder brought his attention back to the mirror. His body hadn’t forgotten. Thanks to her, one arm was now thicker than the other, rough to the touch, and prone to sprouting leaves, which he found terribly embarrassing. He flexed the bark-heavy fingers on his right hand, working them until they were no longer stiff.
Wielding the clippers awkwardly in his left hand, he trimmed his right as best he could and then turned his attention to his back. There were several old bullet wounds there. All caused by his daughter when she’d tried to kill him—do not think about Christine, he admonished himself sternly, not today. Though they’d healed, they’d now become a never-ending source of itching and unsightly growths. Being on the middle of his back, they were devilishly hard to reach too.
There was one he just couldn’t get. It was tempting to call Wayfarer and ask her to clip it for him but he resisted. In part because he would be crossing a line—What next? Have her clip my toenails? Polish my head? Ugh, the very idea!—but mainly because it would be showing vulnerability. It was fine for Roger Barnes to ask for help, but not Green Man.
He took another look at the mournful face in the mirror and then redoubled his efforts with the clippers. And there, at last, was the satisfying clip, and a whisper of pain that meant he’d got the bastard thing.
The clippers were put back down, and the mask picked up. It was lavishly carved, every leaf lifelike, from stem to tip, linked together to form the shape of a face. A trio of leaves stood proud at the forehead like a badge of office. It was larger than life, larger than Roger Barnes, both a shield for him to hide behind and a symbol to inspire others.
He put it on.
Green Man again.
Then he reached for his suit, not the dark green he usually favored, but his funeral suit. One of his jokers had died, and though any public appearance carried its risks, Green Man must be seen to pay his respects.
Green Man must be seen.
It took longer to dress than usual. His trimming had been less than perfect and he had to ease his shirt over his arms and back for fear of tearing it. The knot in his tie threatened to be too much for his fumbling fingers, but in the end, it succumbed to his slow, persistent assault.
When he was done, however, the lines of his suit were crisp, the tailoring doing much to smooth his uneven limbs. He silently thanked Bobbin for his skill. Such a blessing that one of the few tailors willing to cater to the needs of jokers was the protégé of London’s finest.
“Yes,” he said to himself. “This will do.”
With a satisfied nod, he shut the mirror, trapping Roger Barnes and all of those old, ugly thoughts inside.
It wasn’t the cold, gray, misty day that made Constance cross. London weather was so predictably appropriate for a funeral. It wasn’t even the crush of mourners—that was to be expected when a celebrity died. It was knowing that Glory lay in the casket before her, that the flowers on Glory’s head—the expression of her joker—were rotting away, soon to be joined by Glory’s flesh.
With a shudder, Constance remembered the time Glory’s flowers were brutally shorn from her head. The blood. The dying lilies. Constance tried to shy away from the memory, but it was still there, same as ever, sharp and clear as glass.
Bobbin took her hand in his. It was warm and surprisingly soft despite his constant handling of fabric. He was careful not to squeeze too tightly. The bony protrusions between his long, spindly fingers—so often helpful when he was sewing—could also hurt like nothing else. She glanced down and was amazed by their wrinkled, veiny hands. When had they become so old? She didn’t feel old at all. It was but a breath in time and here she was seventy-six and Bobbin but a few years behind.
Bobbin tucked her hand into the crook of his arm, then gave it a pat. The small gesture almost made her cry. But Constance wasn’t a crier—at least not in public. If there was any crying to be done, she’d do it in private, where such things belonged.
“How’re you holding up, m’dear?” Bobbin asked. His face, as familiar to her as her own, was blessed by beautiful and kind, gold-rimmed, cerulean eyes. She let that kindness wash over her. Normally, she might have shied back a bit from it—even with Bobbin she was careful not to get too close—but today was an exception.
He knew the answer to his question. After all, they’d known each other for forty years. He knew her moods. Knew when to jolly her and when to let her be. She leaned on him. Depended on him. And yet had kept one thing from him. (Not just one thing, my girl, she thought.) The dark, secret thing she and Glory shared.
She studied the mourners. The cast from Wannabe a Hero were clumped together. She appreciated them showing up. Glory had been a guest judge on the episode where the American ace, Golden Boy, had humiliated all comers—just as he had on the American version of the show.
But the majority of the mourners were jokers. Normal people whose lives had been destroyed by the alien wild card virus.
Certainly, there were jokers who had managed to do just fine. Jokers like Turing or the woman with the talk show, Peregrine. But that wasn’t the bulk of them. And her anger grew, because she burned with hatred for the Takisians, and—fair or not—that included Dr. Tachyon.
And hating jokers? It didn’t supplant the old animosities; it just gave people an extra, new thing to hate.
Bobbin squeezed her hand again and she managed a quick smile at him and some of her rage drained away.
Bobbin had grown so important to her and the business that making him her partner seemed sensible. And in addition to hiring as many female tailors as they could, they also made a point to hire jokers, no matter the gender. If you wanted a Constance original, then you had to accept that it was lovingly made by women and/or jokers.
But that all seemed rather unimportant standing here beside Glory’s casket. At the head of the casket was Mick Jagger in his lycanthrope form. It seemed as if time had taken its toll on him only in the sprinkle of white on his muzzle. Tears wetted the fur under his eyes, turning it dark.
A massive blanket of white roses covered the casket. Constance knew this gesture was Mick’s because Glory had sprouted those flowers whenever he was near her. He may have had a lot of other women, but his only real love had been Glory. And that had been a tragedy.
On the other side of the casket, hanging back near the edge of the cemetery, she saw Green Man. He was shadowed by a few dangerous-looking jokers. But then he was almost always in the company of dangerous-looking jokers. She knew he was a gangster and might even have ties to the Fists. Everyone in the East End suspected as much. It didn’t matter that she’d moved away decades ago; she still had deep roots in the community and was perfectly well aware of what was happening there.
The vicar began intoning yet another prayer. Constance tuned him out. Her eyes burned, and things got blurry. She told herself it was because the wind had picked up, but that was shite and she knew it. The sharp pain of losing Glory wouldn’t leave and, unconsciously, she gripped Bobbin’s hand tighter, not even noticing when his thorns pierced her knuckles.
“I’m always here for you,” Bobbin said softly. “I know I’m not her, but you can count on me.”
“I know,” she replied just as softly. There was a hitch in her voice and a lump in her throat that made it hard to swallow. The vicar kept droning on, and Constance thought she might scream, Get on with it, you git!
At last, the vicar was done, and the mourners began to make their way past the coffin. White flowers—lilies, chrysanthemums, and gladiolus—were lovingly placed around the casket. She saw Green Man begin to make his way through the crowd, carrying a delicate bouquet of violets.
It made her like him a little, but only just a little.
It pained Green Man to arrive anything less than early, but it wouldn’t do to be hanging around. He’d learned long ago that the trick to maintaining any kind of mystique was to give people as little time to talk to you as possible. And so, at the very last minute, he slipped in quietly at the back of the cemetery.
Manor Park had lost none of its gravitas over the years. Even under a drab London sky, it managed to look stylish and timeless, from the clusters of mature oak, ash, and birch trees; to the wrought iron gates tipped with gold; to the neatly kept grass. Where many places of this caliber would have turned their back on the resident jokers, Manor Park and the rest of the East End had welcomed them with open arms. To them, jokers were just another quirk of an already vibrant community.
A good-sized crowd had assembled to pay their respects to Glory Greenwood. She’d been something of a star during the sixties, and always popular. That was the thing about being different: to be accepted, you had to be easy on the eye, and mostly harmless.
Glory had been both, and charming with it. A little bit of brightness in the East End that would be sorely missed.
He allowed himself the slightest smile as the crowd became aware of him. Furtive glances were cast his way and a little ripple of reactions passed out from where he stood. He watched carefully, noting which faces seemed pleased, which afraid, and the few that were openly hostile—he’d make a point of talking to them later.
Copyright © 2022 by George R. R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust