Disclaimer: Neverwhere belongs to Neil Gaiman.
A/N: Written for Eida for the 2009 Yuletide
In London Above getting to Headstone Lane Station is fairly simple. All you have to do is descend into the gaping maw of the public transport system and – barring technical difficulties, terrorist bombs or it being one of those days of the week that ends with a y – you'll find yourself disgorged at about the time the train schedule claimed you would.
In London Below, the journey to Headstone is a little more complicated, though it has one thing in common with the journey in London Above – they both involve a train. As a matter of fact, by train is the only way to get to Headstone in London Below.
There are three places in London Below where you can board the train. The first place is in the very centre of Ravenscourt, but few and far between are the travellers who find favour in the eyes of the Raven King, and so, despite it being where the train stops most frequently, it is the least used. The second place is located at Hornchurch, where a traveller can be assured to find the train a couple of times during any given week – unfortunately, a traveller can be equally assured of finding Hornchurch full of stampeding horned beasts on a daily basis, and since it is widely considered bad luck to start a journey by being gored to death by a random rhinoceros, it's nearly as disused as the one in Ravenscourt. The third and final place, however, is located at Kingsbury – one of the most peaceful and safe places in all of London Below – well, unless you can in any way, shape or form lay claim to being royalty, in which case you might do well to take your chances elsewhere – and while the train will sometimes go several weeks between appearances, it is in general the most used.
The train itself is old and majestic. Tickets are bought from the conductor at the price of two silver coins and a piece of pastry (the latter will promptly be devoured by the conductor, who will then smile his slightly too toothy smile before turning towards the next passenger) and you're expected to find an available seat yourself. The ride is a fairly bumpy one – but then, it is an old train – and fairly long. The train regularly grinds to a halt with sufficient abruptness to ensure that anyone not prepared will become quite intimately acquainted with the floor. People – for a given value of people, anyway – will board or leave the train at a number of stops. No one is quite sure where those stops are – the names called are strange collections of garbled sounds and no one has ever managed to leave the train at a stop other than his originally stated goal.
Some parts of the journey the train moves aboveground. Wise travellers make a point not to look out the windows then. The less wise, well, the less said about them the better.
Eventually, after an eternity has passed, the conductor will call out the name of Headstone and you will leave the train to find yourself in a regular maze of long, echoing corridors edged with doors. Closed doors. Mostly locked doors. Sometimes, once in a very rare while, one of the locked doors becomes – unlocked. Somewhat rarer – though not entirely unheard of – is the door that relocks itself.
Upon each door is a name – some long, some short, some in alphabets yet unseen by mortal man or symbols that nobody has used for untold millennia. Of course, there's also some in plain old English, like the one you've found yourself in front of today. You trace the edges of the name with the tips of your fingers before trying the handle.
Inside is a chamber that at first glance appears circular, but upon closer inspection a better word would be – many-sided. The walls are made up of decorated panels, each more imposing than the other. You glance back at the door, reading the name out loud for no better reason than because it seems right so to do.
The first panel is one large piece of wood, old and dark. The carving of the bear is rough, almost jagged, and most of it's in profile, like an oversized heraldic symbol, but the head is twisted impossibly on the neck, facing straight out at you, impossibly lifelike, a looming threat, darkness ready to devour the unwary. It's odd, though – if you look at it out of the corner of your eye, you could almost swear it's just supposed to be a man in a heavy fur coat.
The girl takes a single look back at the woman in the chair – it's been three days since last she stirred and she's beginning to smell. She's quite young, this girl, yet she has no tears to spare today – she ran out of them days ago, when the man came by with the stuff for her mother, but her mother had no money. The child is still sore now, as she turns away, grabs her baby brother's hand tightly and walks out the door.
The alligator is huge, gleaming white mother-of-pearl, white as death. Its jaws are closed right now, but it somehow seems as if they could easily open, open wide and swallow the world whole. The beast is a silhouette, twisting and turning across a brightly coloured skyline, familiar and yet not. You wonder if it's mere coincidence that the twin towers are right in front of the reptile's snout.
They had been walking for days through the dark tunnels – cold and scared of the thing they knew was there, huge and old and reeking of blood. She thinks it came close at one point, close enough for her to smell its foul breath, feel its heat, but perhaps that was just a dream. Finding the stable – warm and full of hay – it had seemed like luck. But the woman in white is tall and terrifying and the girl finds herself begging her to "take me, let my brother go, take me instead."
It rises impossible huge, the sloth, dwarfing the mountain and the statue at its top, the whole city in its shadow – at least, that's one way of interpreting the twisting lines and wavy patterns of the panel. It might simply be that the artist had a unique take on the concept of perspective. The claws might not really be supposed to appear to impale men, almost cutting them in half without even trying. It's hard to tell. Maybe if you squint – or maybe not.
The girl is a young woman as she walks out the door of Serpentine's house, shouldering the heavy bag that the mistress of the house insisted she take, a young woman who picks her way through the labyrinth of the undercity, searching and asking wherever she goes. When she curls up and sleeps, sometimes she dreams of half-forgotten darkness and things never quite seen, and she wakes terrified and forces herself to move on. Eventually, she finds a gangly youth sleeping in a living pile of cats, speaking with the felines in their feline tongue. She thinks perhaps, perhaps there's something familiar about the nose, the eyes, but he runs away, yelling at her not to follow. She cries herself to sleep, finding the familiar nightmare waiting for her.
It's white and huge and it wants to eat the whole world or at least the city, if a city it be. It might be a sea – part of the background looks sort of like a full set of sails. The panel's decoration is almost abstract, the art appearing to be either very modern or very old, you can't quite decide. Still, the artist must be a genius – you can't imagine the skill required to make a humble rabbit fill you with such dread.
Serpentine listens to the young woman as she talks – rambles, really, about nightmares and hunting and needing, about serving a decade and going out and everything being wrong, all wrong. Mostly she's quiet, only occasionally encouraging her to drink her tea. Eventually the young woman falls silent, words all spent. That's when Serpentine leans forward, touches her cheek gently. "What you want, I can teach you, yes – or make sure you're taught, at least. But there's a price." The woman just nods, then she leans suddenly forward, boldly, to plant a kiss on Serpentine's mouth. At first Serpentine looks surprised, then pleased and then – well, that's not for anybody but the pair of them.
At first you think it might be a snake, long and sinewy. Then you notice the legs, the claws and you realize it's some form of weasel or ferret, far too huge, though that might just be yet another trick of perspective, like the background, which sometimes looks like a city and sometimes like a steaming jungle. Tiny details appear and disappear seemingly at random - like the tiny, somewhat stylized girl wrapped in a fur or the detailed ruins of some ancient temple of some sort. It's unsettling.
The woman stands in front of the huge man, ignoring the bustle of the market all around them. Eventually he slowly nods, yes, he can do that, he can make a good knife for her. A very good knife, proper and sharp like a knife should be. Of course, he can make it even better if he knew what she wants it for – is it for cooking or fighting or gutting fish, perhaps? Hunting, she tells him, a knife fit for a hunter, as she hands him the bag that Serpentine gave her as they parted. It only hurts a little to see it disappear, and when she has the knife in hand the hurt is soon forgotten. It really is a very fine knife.
At first you think it's supposed to be a panther, but then you realize it's a tiger, vast and fierce and hungry like only tigers are hungry. It's just a picture, you tell yourself, just paint and stone, but you can't help shivering at the vivid images of being eaten by that wet, red mouth that your mind won't stop conjuring up.
The woman tries not to look at it directly – it's too bright, too – not pure, not really, but somehow that still seems like the right word. Anyway, she can't help herself – can't help looking at the angel, and it smiles at her and keeps talking, making such promises, an offer she simply can't make herself refuse. One last hunt, one last nightmare before laying it to rest – besides, why should some random strangers matter to her?
The wolf is cold, frozen in marble, a bitch with rivers of marble milk flowing from her teats, milk that flows and rises as buildings, towers and temples and arenas. She is immense and dreadful, life and death in equal measure, old and wise and greed incarnate. Her claws are like swords, each paw a legion ready to crush the world beneath it.
It's dark in the tunnel, dark and terrifying – just like she remembers it. But this time she isn't just a little girl, isn't helpless, isn't scared – she refuses to be. She is hurt, true, but she isn't going to let a little thing like that stop her. Admittedly, the man by her side isn't the ideal hunting partner, but beggars can't be choosers – not when she can hear it, in the darkness just outside of her field of vision.
In the centre of the room stands – well, at first you think it's just a statue, but then you notice the sarcophagus underneath it. The statue is of a boar, huge and bristling and so very lifelike that you can almost see it breathing. The tusks are red, red like blood, and when you can't resist anymore and reach out to touch, your fingers come away red. You back away, slowly, almost convinced that the statue might at any moment prove not to be a statue. Only when the door closes behind you do you breathe a sigh of relief.
In London Above leaving Headstone Lane Station is perfectly simply – all you have to do is repeat the procedure that brought you there. The same applies in London Below. The train always returns, eventually, to pick up passengers. The wise traveller paid for a round-trip from the start (there's a discount, so it's only three silver coins and two pieces of pastry) and will be waved aboard by the conductor. The less wise traveller will have brought along the necessary funds for a new ticket, which will be accepted by the conductor, although his smile is a little less genuine if the pastry has gone stale.
The unwise traveller, on the other hand – well, let's say it like this: there are no pastry-sellers in Headstone. And unlike in London Above, where a traveller might choose to walk or drive or catch a bus, there are no other ways to leave Headstone. Only by train. Only ever by train.
Let's hope you were one of the wise, shall we?