Once upon a leap through time, there fell a young woman and her zeitgeist in an abandoned cottage.
‘Can we stop?’ asked the zeitgeist.
‘We don’t have a choice,’ said the time traveller. ‘There are zeitfressers outside. Don’t let them get our stories.’
The zeitgeist was named Curio: he had wings on his back and was no bigger than a robin redbreast. The time traveller was named Ashlyn: she wore time-beaten goggles and a messy hair braid.
The air was humid and riddled with the sound of purring. Ashlyn produced an aerosol can from beneath her cape coat and used it to spray the walls with glistening white frost. It was typical that the spray should turn to spit before she could reach the last two walls – and one of the walls happened to have the door in it.
‘I brought this on myself,’ she grumbled.
She heard Curio say, ‘Zeitfresser.’ Then she shouted, ‘Don’t touch that!’ before booting out a cat-like creature and slamming the door shut again.
‘Zeitfressers are interesting up close,’ Curio said.
‘They want to eat your face!’ cried Ashlyn. ‘I’m out of zeitgeist breath,’ she added, chucking the empty can at a zeitfresser that was climbing in through the window.
Fortunately, Curio had taken less time than usual to break out of his reverie. The cottage interior, apart from the dusty floor, had already been treated with his icy breath. He was now sealing the broken window.
‘How long until it melts?’ Ashlyn asked as he secured the door.
‘Time sands are scarce,’ said Curio. ‘There wasn’t much to freeze.’
Zeitgeists find any means of measuring time difficult to understand, so his reply was characteristically vague. Ashlyn, however, was able to discern that they only had a few minutes.
‘Bloody fressers…’ she muttered.
Countless memories and stories would have settled inside the cottage over the years. Time travellers call this fine powder “time sands”. Each grain is like a crystal ball that holds a piece of the past. In Fairyland, there are only two creatures known to have the ability to look inside time sands and watch the memories that lie within. Whenever the greedy zeitfresser reads time sands, it gets hungry, because the sands happen to be its only food source. Whenever the docile zeitgeist reads time sands, it gets life energy, because it happens to like a good story. To travel through the time of Fairyland, one needs either a zeitfresser, a zeitgeist or a lot of time sands.
Outside, the rustling and scuffling had stopped. The zeitfressers were mewing at one another in puzzlement. They are, as a species, highly sensitive to the sounds, smells and visuals of a memory. By freezing the time sands that bordered the cottage, Ashlyn and Curio had muted the sounds, diluted the smells and frozen the visuals. It was a temporary barrier that confused the zeitfressers’ senses and dampened expectations of a fat meal.
Both the time traveller and the zeitgeist carried more than their fair share of time sands. Ashlyn collected and kept them in the many vials she had on her person, but it was the heirloom hidden in the satchel on her back that held the most sands. As for Curio, his entire little body was made of sands. For the time being, they were safe.
Taking care not to touch any of the ice, Ashlyn proceeded to scurry around on the floor like a hungry rat. Time sands collect on objects with great sentimental or historical worth, but whoever once lived in the cottage had left little behind. Worse still, the best of the crop would have already been harvested by the zeitfressers outside. Curio looked sleepy and was in desperate need of something new to read. Ashlyn placed anything that might be a hidden gem in front of him.
‘What do you see?’ she asked.
She held up her most promising find: a piece of chain that might once have been part of a necklace. Curio was having trouble keeping his eyes open, so she said what she could to keep his attention.
‘A white rabbit’s pocket watch could have hung on the end of this. Or it could have been paid to Rumpelstiltskin before he tore himself in two. Maybe it isn’t an accessory at all – or a chain, even. Maybe it’s a line of long-lost single men cursed to look like a chain by a princess –’
‘– who found rhyme and purpose in the magic of the Dark Lord –’
‘It plugged a bidet,’ said Curio, who regretted his decision to learn this.
Ashlyn discarded the chain.
‘Will you not apologise to me?’ the zeitgeist asked.
‘I can’t read time sands, so how was I supposed to know… I mean – sorry – that must have been graphic,’ admitted Ashlyn.
‘I am tired,’ said Curio.
‘But look at this junk! There must be plenty of good memories here!’
With bated breath, Ashlyn presented a piece of broken pottery. She lowered herself and her voice to the zeitgeist’s eye level.
‘This might have seen a lot of porridge.’
‘It’s a bedpan,’ said Curio.
Ashlyn bolted upright and discarded the pottery.
She continued, ‘Well, there is –’
‘Will you not apologise to me?’ Curio asked.
‘You read it, but you didn’t touch it,’ said Ashlyn, getting a little bit impatient.
‘I am bored,’ said Curio.
‘This is a brick. It must be a brick. Can you find good reading here?’
Curio looked at the brick. Then he looked at Ashlyn. He appeared to be losing interest, which was a worrying sign, but then he said to her, ‘Your hair has new things.’
Ashlyn reached up and almost cut herself. The time door they came through earlier had not dropped them inside the cottage; it had decided to open outside one of the windows, the remains of which were now in her hair. Stuff had a habit of sticking to her hair, which was dark and relied on rainy days to give it a rinse.
‘Glass!’ Ashlyn exclaimed.
She took out one big and dangerous piece and set it next to the brick.
‘Read this,’ she said excitedly.
Curio inspected the objects with the tip of his long and thin beak-like horn. After a patient moment of reading, he said with mild intrigue, ‘A librarian used to live here.’
Ashlyn leaned in and her chunky braid swung forward. Time sands aren’t only a source of energy, but also a source of knowledge. Up to now, the zeitfressers’ leftovers had been quite disappointing.
‘He was unhappy,’ said Curio.
He looked upon the other object with some solemnity.
‘A local hand had shaped this brick. The water used to shape this brick originated from a great lake not far from this cottage. The clay soil used to shape this brick –’
Ashlyn pushed the brick out of sight and replaced it with the glass shard. Curio said, ‘Through this glass, passers-by saw many books of forgotten lore.’
Feeling heartened, the time traveller asked, ‘What about the Changeling Treehouse? Did the librarian have a connection?’
Curio pondered over the glass. Finally, he said, ‘The view from this window was limited. He saw only the night’s Plutonian shore.’
Ashlyn’s heart sank. She asked, ‘You mean to say he was another victim of the ominous bird of yore?’
Curio confirmed, ‘For evermore.’
Ashlyn stood up. The glass wasn’t interesting after all.
‘At least we’ve found your bedtime reading,’ she said. ‘Even if it is about ravens and their mind games.’
‘Nevermore,’ said Curio.
‘Just read to yourself quietly,’ said Ashlyn gently. ‘I need to work out how to get past the zeitfressers.’
‘Shall we not pick the usual course?’ Curio asked. His eyes were already beginning to shine brighter. ‘Shall you not throw your defective time bombs as a means of distraction? Shall I not stop the zeitfressers’ time fields, nor quicken our own?’
‘Keep your head down and read,’ said Ashlyn, who never could be bothered to think of a Plan B.