Aphelion Issue 287, Volume 27
September 2023
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First Date

by Anil Balan

"So you're a witch, right?"

Bethany's eyebrows rose in an expression of mock horror.

Alan noticed for the first time that her green eyes were flecked with purple, a detail that he was only now able to discern because of his proximity to her. In other circumstances he might have appreciated being this close to the girl with whom he had, for the past term and a half at least, been madly in love. To his own surprise, however, romance was the furthest thing from his mind just then.

"Being called a witch on the first date doesn't strike me as being a healthy indicator for a relationship," said Bethany, the sting taken out of her words by the smile on her lips and bantering tone in her voice.

Unfortunately Alan could not bring himself to respond in kind, despite the fact that everything about Bethany's posture implied that she was flirting with him and everything about the situation seemed to suggest that they were meeting as more than just friends. That they had arranged to meet here, in the Indigo café, also almost screamed that this was indeed a date.

The Indigo was a tiny coffee shop just opposite King's College, which for some reason was a popular place for students in Cambridge to go on first dates. The reason perhaps lay in its intimate atmosphere -- the main seating area upstairs was barely larger than a college dorm and it was inevitably full, especially at weekends -- which strangely tended to settle first date nerves rather better than the somewhat larger but inevitably more sterile chain coffee houses that now crowded King's Parade, the most iconic street in Cambridge. Alan himself liked the Indigo because, with its walls papered with notices of poetry readings, plays and concerts and the steady background hum of the jazz music that was always on, it tended to project the right sort of mixture of 'cultured and highbrow' that he liked to put across on a date. When he had finally, after weeks of thinking about it, worked up the courage to ask her to meet him there, Alan could hardly believe it when Bethany Rowan had accepted his invitation (with no hesitation!). It should have been everything that Alan had been looking forward to for so long; would have been, in fact, if only it had not been for what he had seen Bethany do earlier that day in the gardens of Clare College.

"But what you did, it was m... magic!" said Alan, embarrassed when he stumbled on the word.

"'Witch', 'Magic' -- really Alan, do you have to use such ignorant terms? You're a student at Cambridge, for God's sake!" Bethany said, annoyance in her tone for the first time. "If you're going to use labels, then at least use the right ones. We call ourselves Wydda and what you refer to as magic we call the Dwimmer."

Alan could not have cared less at that point; he had too many unanswered questions and could not understand all of the odd terms that she was now using.

"You said 'for God's sake' -- aren't you Wiccas meant to be pagans and worship a Goddess or something?"

The irritation that had briefly flickered across Bethany's face disappeared and was replaced by an expression of weary resignation.

"I didn't say Wicca, Alan, I said Wydda. We don't have anything in common with people who run around naked and draw pentacles all over the place. I'm part of a tradition that has existed almost unchanged for literally thousands of years, not a pseudo religion that was started in the sixties by a bunch of college dropouts as a cover for experimenting with sex and drugs. And as you saw, what we do is real -- it doesn't involve parlour tricks and playing upon other people's superstitions."

Alan paused, trying to take in everything that he was hearing. He had ignored most of his friends when they had warned him that there was something a little off kilter about Bethany Rowan.

His best friend Martin had summed it up best in a conversation that they had had shortly before Alan had asked Bethany out on a date. He had decided to reveal to Martin that he had fallen for someone and had simply been after the usual friendly advice from a male perspective. He had been surprised by what he had heard.

"Look, I know she's a bit of a stunner, Al, but there's just something about her," Martin had said. "I mean, she's always on her own, and that's on the rare occasions that you see her. She's always disappearing off somewhere -- who knows what she gets up to?"

Alan had of course done the gentlemanly thing at that point and leaped gallantly to the defence of the object of his affections.

"There's nothing unusual about that, Martin -- you know what it's like living in a college. It can feel like being inside a goldfish bowl sometimes -- you can't blame the girl for wanting to get away from it sometimes. I've done the same thing myself, and I'm sure you have too."

Martin had raised his hands in surrender, but still tried to warn him. "It's not that, it's just, well -- haven't you ever wondered why it is that Bethany doesn't have any friends? And doesn't it strike you as odd that a girl as good looking as her has never been asked out or had a boyfriend?"

Martin's response had placed the first seed of doubt about Bethany in Alan's mind. It was true that Bethany was always perfectly polite and friendly to anyone who spoke to her and he knew that he was not the only male student at Clare who had noticed how pretty she was. In that context it was therefore indeed strange that Bethany did not have a boyfriend, or apparently friends of any type. Girls as bright and vivacious as Bethany tended to be very popular at Cambridge (and at most other universities, Alan suspected) rather than being social outcasts, intentionally or otherwise. The fact that, on the few occasions on which Alan had spoken to her, Bethany had not appeared to lack social skills was what made her apparent isolation all the more inexplicable. Where Bethany went when she disappeared from college for those long periods had also, at that time at least, been a complete mystery to Alan.

It was in a large part because of this conversation that Alan had, much to his own embarrassment, decided to follow Bethany just before their date was due to take place. He had spotted her at breakfast in hall and had purposely avoided her, hiding (with great skill so he had thought at the time) behind a lunch menu.

After breakfast she had gone on to the Art Faculty building for her morning lectures with, still unknown to her he hoped, Alan in tow. It was at this point, stuck in the Art building listening to a lecturer drone on about the Impressionists while knowing that he was missing his own lectures in the Law Faculty, that Alan had begun to regret listening to Martin.

Despite all of the rumours to the contrary it had become increasingly clear that there was nothing odd or even out of the ordinary about Bethany. Alan suspected that the only reason that she had not been seen much in college was that Bethany was studiously attending lectures and probably preferred to hang around with artists at other colleges in her spare time rather than with people from Clare. That was hardly a hanging offence, and given what people like Martin felt and said about her, Alan could hardly blame Bethany for wanting to keep her distance.

Alan had suddenly begun to feel very uncomfortable in the lecture theatre. What if Bethany saw him? He could not believe that, having finally got a date with her after months of pursuit he was actually jeopardising his chances with Bethany for no other reason than idle gossip. In all likelihood her next destination would be the faculty library, which was probably another place that she would rather spend her time than in college.

Alan decided that he would leave as soon as the lecture ended and get back to doing what he should have done in the first place -- minding his own business. The only reason Alan did not walk out of the lecture theatre right then and there was to avoid drawing attention to himself.

Alan had been surprised, however, to see that as soon as the lecture was over Bethany had not stayed for more lectures or gone to the library. Instead, she had gone back to college.

This struck him as odd because at that time of day, in the middle of the morning during the week, most colleges in Cambridge were virtually deserted. Most of the staff and students were out at lectures, seminars and supervisions and did not get back until lunchtime.

Of course there were plenty of students who simply didn't bother going to lectures -- one of his other friends Scott made it a point to stay in bed until midday but, of course, he read Geography and lectures (and, from what Alan had seen, work in general) were strictly optional in that subject. Bethany, however, appeared to be a model student -- what could have caused her to write off the rest of the morning and return to college?

Alan had been surprised when Bethany had gone in the direction of the Fellows Garden rather than heading back to Clare College's Memorial Court, where most of the student lodgings were situated (the grounds of most of the older Cambridge colleges were divided up into separate areas called Courts, a relic of their cloistered heritage as academic 'monasteries' founded in the middle ages).

Of course, she might just have wanted to rest and enjoy the scenery; after all, Clare's Fellows Garden was generally regarded as one of the most beautiful spots in the entire University. It was a triumph of eighteenth century landscape gardening, full of serpentine paths and concealed boundaries, with an irresistible combination of formal design and thickly planted borders of wild flowers. In an echo of the manner in which the College grounds were split into distinct Courts, the gardens were similarly arranged into a series of open air 'rooms' of carefully gradated colours and levels.

The gardens were often open to the public and on a sunny summer day such as this they would normally have been alive with visitors lingering in the shade of the elms and willows to admire the elegance all around them. However, with exams not far off the gardens were now closed to tourists and they were now empty of people apart from Alan and Bethany. In full daylight it seemed eerie and unnatural that the grounds should have been deserted like this and Alan had begun to feel ever more uncomfortable the deeper he had followed Bethany into the gardens. What made things worse was that he could not shake the nagging feeling that he was being watched.

Eventually Bethany had come to the very heart of the Fellows Garden, where the other rooms were grouped around a central sunken garden with a lily-pool. Remembering his college history, Alan knew that this part of the gardens was much newer than the rest, having been redesigned just half a century earlier by the 'mad' Professor, Nevill Willmer, who had been inspired by a similar arrangement that he had once seen on a trip to Pompeii. No one really knew what this place had looked like before the Willmer-engineered facelift, but it was said that the lily-pool had always been there, pre-dating the gardens themselves.

The lily-pool had always, much to his shame, unnerved Alan slightly. On the few occasions on which he had stared into its calm waters he had been troubled by what he had seen or perhaps imagined in its depths. The lily-pool was deceptively deep and Alan could have sworn that in a certain light, shapes could be glimpsed moving far beneath its surface, which should have been impossible since it was not connected to any external lake or stream. No fish could have entered the lily-pool's waters, so what could he have seen moving in its depths?

Regardless of Alan's misgivings, Bethany had approached the lily-pool without any fear and had knelt at its edge calmly. She had then, almost under her breath but loudly enough for Alan to tell that she was speaking, begun to chant in a soft voice.

Whilst Bethany had been quiet, Alan doubted that he could have understood her even had she been chanting in a normal voice. The few snatches that he heard were, as far as he could tell, in a foreign language that he could not recognise. It was an odd tongue, sounding harsh like Arabic at times and then mellifluous like French or Italian on other occasions. Listening to it, Alan had found himself slowly lulled into semi-sleep so that he was barely paying attention when things had for the first time started to become really strange.

The waters of the lily-pool had started to bubble, so gently at first that it was almost imperceptible. Alan had tried to rationalise what he was seeing but, as the bubbling grew gradually stronger until the surface of the lily-pool was white with froth, this had become increasingly hard to do. There was something in the water and it was about to emerge.

At that point he had remembered all the tall tales and urban legends told around college about the lily-pool. Some said that an undergraduate had once committed suicide in it while others spoke of some sort of man-eating sea creature that lurked in its depths -- wild stories that Alan had never credited with a grain of truth until now. There was something in the pond, and what was more, Bethany appeared to be summoning it.

Despite the fact that he should have felt curious at that point, strangely the reason Alan had remained where he was had had nothing to do with curiosity. It was as if he had been rooted to the spot by some other force, unable to move by his own will. For a moment the feeling of being watched had become stronger than ever.

Then Bethany had turned to look at him with her green, green eyes and the spell had been broken.

"What did you see Alan?" said Bethany lightly.

Alan's eyes snapped back to her and suddenly he was back in the Indigo café and no longer in the gardens of Clare College. Bethany's green eyes were not looking at him but were instead cast down almost demurely, as if she was embarrassed by the question she was now asking him. Alan was glad not to be the subject of that emerald gaze -- he did not think he could have lied as well if he had been.

"Nothing! I ran as soon as soon as you saw me. I suppose I suddenly got self-conscious about stalking you." Alan said, making an attempt at humour to hide his nervousness. He was not sure what kind of a witch Bethany was, whether she could sense when someone was hiding the truth from her or what she would do to such a person.

"Oh, Alan."

That was all she said but the instant that those two words escaped her lips Alan knew that he had made a mistake. He looked up and in Bethany's eyes he saw sorrow, which was bad enough, and hurt, which was worse. Knowing that she knew that he had lied to her Alan felt suddenly unwilling to meet Bethany's gaze and tried to look away. He found himself unable to break Bethany's hold on him, however, held in place by the intensity of her staring eyes, which suddenly seemed huge and luminous in her face.

"I'm truly sorry, Alan, but I have to know," Bethany said, reaching out to place both her hands on his face. She did so tenderly, so that the other patrons of the café might have viewed it as a gesture of affection, but Alan could more easily have broken the grip of a vice.

Alan found himself back in the Fellows Garden hiding in the shrubs beside the lily-pool once more. It was the same memory that he had relived earlier but this time there was one important difference -- he recognised that the sensation he had had of being watched earlier was more than just a feeling. He had been observed from a distance by Bethany, not the Bethany that he had followed that morning but the one sitting opposite him in the Indigo café there and then, who had somehow infiltrated his waking memories and was observing him. The Bethany in his head was the one who was about to catch him in a lie.

When the waters of the lily-pond had turned to froth Alan had not turned away, believing that Bethany had not noticed him when she looked in his direction, instead he had watched awestruck as a shape had broken its surface. It had looked at first to be a young girl but Alan had quickly realised that it was not human when he had seen that its form was made up entirely of water, water that swirled ceaselessly through all the creature's limbs. There was no expression on the water-creature's face, not even any features apart from two holes empty of water which might have been its eyes.

Bethany, who had not even flinched at the appearance of the watery apparition, spoke more words in the Arabic-Mediterranean language in which she had chanted earlier. The creature had appeared to reach inside itself in response and then produced a small shiny object which it had given to Bethany. Alan had been too far away to discern exactly what the trinket had been but from the way it had sparkled in the sunlight it had looked to be an item of jewellery. As soon as it had placed this in Bethany's hands the elemental of the lily-pond had given a great sigh, as if relieved of a heavy burden, and had literally collapsed in on itself, merging with the pond once more in a burst of froth. Only at that point did Alan's memories of the morning end.


Back in the café, Bethany let her hands drop from Alan's face. She was weary, spent from the effort of probing Alan's memories and hurt that she had been let down by him. She should have trusted her instincts more, for they had warned her to heed the advice that her grandmother had given her when her powers had first Quickened.

"We, the Seeing, can never reveal our existence to the rest of humanity, the Blind, for to do so would mean catastrophe for both our kind -- it is simply not meant to be." That was what Elizabeth Rowan, her grandmother, had told her. This custom, called the Shroud among Bethany's people, was one of the oldest and most important tenets of the Rede, the ancient code that the Wydda lived by. Even those who otherwise scorned the Rede, living selfishly and using their powers for personal gain, considered the Shroud to be inviolable and yet she, Bethany Rowan, child of one of the eldest and most respected Wydda families, had come close to breaking it. And for what?

Bethany looked across the coffee table at Alan. She knew what other students at Clare College thought of her -- that she was weird, a loner, perhaps even dangerous -- and most of the time she did not care. She had more than enough to keep her occupied since, as well as having lectures to go to and essays to hand in like most other undergraduates, she also had to keep up with her other, Thaumaturgical studies, learning to become a Wydda like the rest of her coven.

But sometimes she missed just being a normal girl her age, with friends that she could just be herself around sometimes, perhaps even a boyfriend that could be something more. She had thought that Alan could at least be the former, perhaps even the latter given time but, not for the first time since her Quickening, she had found that the reality of being a Wydda meant that being normal simply was not an option any more. As her Grandmother had said, for her the world was now divided into two, one mundane, the other arcane, and she did not belong fully to either one. She now knew what that truly meant.

"I have to go," said Bethany, pushing back her chair.

"Wait," said Alan, half-standing, "there's so much that we have to talk about -- isn't there?"

Was there? Bethany thought, aloud saying "What do you want to talk about?"

"It must be so difficult for you, living two lives like you do..." Alan started, stopping nervously to watch her face and gauge her reaction to what he was saying.

For a moment Bethany's resolve weakened, so earnest did Alan look at that moment and so closely did his words mirror her own recent thoughts. Perhaps...

"... could I see what the -- the thing in the pond gave you?" Alan said.

Bethany sighed and looked down at the ring on her finger, a simple signet in which was embedded a tiny but precious jewel: Bergelmir, the gem that the Nereid of the lily-pool (or 'thing in the pond' as Alan had called her) had placed into her safe-keeping. Among mortals, only the Seeing were immune to Bergelmir's charm -- all others felt an intense need to possess its beauty for themselves. Such a desire only grew over time, until it overtook all other cravings and consumed a person entirely. Already this dark yearning was growing inside Alan and Bethany realised that she could not stay a moment longer.

"I'll call you," Bethany said, making for the door.

Alan tried to move to stop her, his lips parting to form a sentence as he did so. Before he could say anything, however, Bethany reached out and touched her index finger to his mouth gently. He froze.

"Hush, Alan, we can talk another time." Not about any of this, of course, but perhaps they could talk again one day.

Bethany almost ran down the stairs of the café after that, leaving Alan standing there. He would remain there in that position, in a mild trance state, until someone nudged him out of it. At that point he would wonder what he was doing there, remembering the rest of the day only dimly. If he thought of Bethany at all it would be only as a date that had failed to turn up -- always a risk the first time. Whatever happened, Alan would bear no scars from today; which was something that Bethany herself could not be so sure of.

When she got outside Bethany turned right, leaving the narrow alleyway down which the Indigo café was situated and walking onto the broad expanse of King's Parade. She needed to be out in the open, somewhere there was plenty of fresh air. Already she could feel her eyes brimming with tears and felt angry at herself for being so foolish.

Then she felt a hand on her shoulder.

Bethany spun round in panic, the words of a hex ready in her mind, thinking that Alan had somehow shaken off the memory charm and trance spell that she had cast on him. Some Blind mortals had greater resistance to Dwimmercraft than others after all.

But it took only a split second for Bethany to sense that the touch was in fact that of another Wydda, one that she knew.

"Nathan," she said, even before she looked at him.

Sure enough Nathan Moon, a member of Bethany's coven, stood in front of her, as powerful a presence as ever. As usual Nathan looked like he had not shaved or bathed in days, his hair was unkempt and his face covered in stubble. He wore a battered jacket which barely fit his broad shoulders and his well over six feet frame towered over her. Many found Nathan Moon intimidating, especially when he was as angry as he was at that instant but, just then, Bethany had rarely been as glad to see anyone. She threw herself into his arms, burying herself into his broad chest and taking comfort in his reassuring presence.

Nathan, clearly taken aback, awkwardly held her for a few minutes, unsure what else to do or say.

"Here now, Red, what's wrong?"

Bethany, still holding him tight, grinned against Nathan's chest: 'Red' was his pet name for her. It supposedly derived from the colour of her hair although if so that was wildly inappropriate since Bethany's hair could accurately be described at most as a light auburn. For once though Bethany did not scold him for using the moniker -- just then hearing it was as reassuring as having Nathan there.

"He didn't hurt, you did he?" Nathan said softly, a low growl in his throat as he asked the question.

Bethany disengaged herself from him at last and shook her head.

"It's not him," she said, then opened her arms in a gesture that might have encompassed just the street they were on or perhaps the whole world, "it's all of this."

Nathan nodded but said nothing.

"You fixed things?" he said.

It was Bethany's turn to nod this time. He was referring to Alan.

Nathan's voice assumed a brisker tone then.

"Do you have it?"

Back to business. Bethany showed him Bergelmir and Nathan nodded in satisfaction.

"Good work, Red," Nathan said, then moved off down the street, his stride as graceful and powerful as a hunting cat. He stopped when he saw that Bethany had not moved immediately to follow him and looked at her quizzically.

"Is there something wrong?" he said.

Bethany paused before answering, then looked down at the ring on her finger and decided to change what she had been about to say.

"No there's nothing wrong."

"Then come on, Red -- we have work to do."

Nathan took off again, like a panther stalking his prey, and this time Bethany went with him.


© 2012 Anil Balan

Bio: Anil Balan is a British writer of fantasy (urban and myth-based) who has self-published a collection of ghost stories and two fantasy novels. For more of his work, and articles about related matters, visit his websites, Ghost Cities and Fabulous Realms.

E-mail: Anil Balan

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