The Road to Farringale: 5

I think it was the word famous which rattled Jay, for he transferred his attention from the gorgeously arrayed consultant and blinked incredulously at me. ‘Are you?’

‘No,’ I said crisply, and then amended that to, ‘Not really. Baron Alban flatters me.’

‘Only a little,’ said the baron, and that twinkle deepened. He fingered his cravat and added, ‘How did you guess my name?’

‘Your reputation precedes you.’ Oh, I’d heard about the baron all right. The Troll Court’s ambassador to the Hidden Ministry (the magickal government of England), and a prime favourite everywhere he goes. His reputation for flamboyance far exceeds my own — or shall we say, his notoriety? He is also known for his wit, his cleverness and his knowledge of magickal creatures, history and communities, but people don’t talk about any of that so much as they talk of his hats, his coats and (by rumour at least) his ladies. I’d wanted to meet him for years.

I was still surprised, though, to find him at the House. When Milady had spoken of a “consultant”, I had at least half expected a troll, but I had pictured… what? A scholar like myself, perhaps; someone who was several years into an exhaustive study of troll customs, habits and history, to be published in about fifteen years’ time. An anthropologist, a psychologist, a folklorist… anybody but Baron Alban.

Since he had made no move to get up and did not appear to wish to stand on ceremony, I took a chair and a cup of chocolate. ‘What can we do for you?’ I said.

Jay followed my example, but he was wary. I could see that in the rigidity of his posture as he sat across from me, looking ready to run at a moment’s notice.

This amused the baron all the more, and he grinned. ‘I understand there is a problem at South Moors.’

‘Milady spoke of a consultant.’ I laid a slight emphasis on the last word, hoping my tone would convey a polite question rather than incredulity.

‘So I am. I was not born into a barony, you know, and I certainly was not appointed to the post of ambassador at birth. I spent many years of my youth as a rootless vagabond with a tendency to get myself thrown out of every town I lived in, which had its drawbacks. But since I developed an unusually broad knowledge of troll life across most of its strata, it has, on occasion, made me a useful person to consult.’

He spoke with the smoothness, the confidence and the vocabulary of a highly educated man, so I guessed that these rootless, drifting years had been followed by several more of focused study. I wondered what Alban had done to net himself a barony — other than smile gorgeously, which he was doing in my general direction at that very moment.

All right, then.

‘What would be your summary of the problem?’ Alban asked.

Jay did not seem inclined to lead the way at communicating, which suited me just fine. ‘If I had met any of the inhabitants of South Moors individually, I would have said they were… depressed,’ I said. ‘There is an air of apathy, a greyness, a blankness — though even to call it depression is to state the case too mildly, for they scarcely seemed to hear me when I spoke, and no one vouchsafed any reply. What could possibly afflict a whole village with such symptoms is beyond me to imagine, and I have never heard or read of such a case occurring in history.’

‘And the alikats,’ Jay put in. ‘It is not usual for them to make a meal of such beasts, is it?’

‘Not now,’ said Alban. ‘Many of us will eat just about anything, of course,’ — he gave a feral grin as he said this — ‘but the Accords have been in place for long enough to deter even a backwater like South Moors from snacking on endangered species.’ He winced. ‘How many alis were lost?’

‘We rescued two,’ I said. ‘We saw no sign of any others, but who knows what they were eating before word reached us.’

Baron Alban raised his cup to his lips and delicately sipped, silent in thought. The cup ought to have looked tiny and fragile in his huge hands, but it, like the baron’s chair, had fitted itself to his proportions. ‘Milady was right to summon me,’ he finally decided. ‘The matter requires the immediate attention of the Court.’

That took the problem neatly out of my hands and Jay’s, which was well enough. But I was a little sorry that our meeting with Baron Alban would soon be over, and we would probably never cross paths with him again. I studied him closely, committing points of detail to memory: the exquisite cut of his coat, the sharp points of his superb lapels, that expertly knotted cravat. His sculpted jaw, prominent cheekbones and wickedly twinkling eyes…

He caught me at this scrutiny and gave me a wink, which, for the sake of my dignity, I pretended not to have observed. Setting down his empty cup, he said: ‘I’d like to hear the whole story, please. Everything that happened, and everything that you saw.’

This we gave, in as much detail as Jay and I could remember between us. We did a fair job, I think. We are both graduates of the University; we’ve been taught to observe, and to question. Baron Alban heard us out without interruption, save once or twice to clarify a point of detail. His troubled look deepened as we spoke, and when we were finished he gave a great sigh and rose from his chair. My goodness, but he was tall. ‘Her Majesty will need to know at once,’ he said, gazing down at me with a smile that looked — was it wishful thinking? — a little regretful.

He bowed to us, already taking out his phone, and was gone before I had time to realise that he had given us no insight, no advice, no information at all. But then, he was not there to consult for our benefit; he was there to consult for Milady’s.

Jay helped himself to more chocolate — he was swiftly growing to like it, that’s for sure — and sat back with a sigh. He had that wide-eyed, flabbergasted look again. ‘Strangest day of my life,’ he said. ‘No contest.’

Poor boy. Little did he know. ‘It gets worse.’

‘How… how much worse?’

‘Or better,’ I amended. ‘Depends how you look at it.’

Maybe I needed to work on my strategy, for Jay did not look encouraged.

 

We were back in Milady’s tower by nine o’clock upon the following morning. Jay kept his dissatisfaction with the climb to himself this time, which I appreciated, for the morning dawned bright, sunny and beautiful and I wanted to enjoy it. ‘Glorious sun,’ I observed unnecessarily as we toiled up the stairs.

Jay treated this offering with all the interest it deserved, and said nothing.

This time, when we presented ourselves before Milady, Jay bowed without my encouragement. He really did like that chocolate.

‘Vesper. Jay. Good morning,’ said Milady’s voice, the air twinkling brightly with every syllable she uttered. ‘I hope you are in the mood to travel.’

I perked up at that, for when I am not in the mood to explore? ‘Always!’ I declared.

Jay’s enthusiasm did not quite equal my own. ‘Probably,’ he allowed.

‘You will be familiar with the Farringale Enclave, of course?’

Of course I was. Farringale was legend. The site of the Troll Court back in the middle ages, it was renowned for everything — art, scholarship, philosophy, ideas. It was a magickal hub, overflowing with magickal energy; some of the most powerful and most visionary feats of magick ever heard of were developed there, performed there.

Its decline is a sad tale, though not an uncommon one. Time passed, and gradually left Farringale behind. Other schools of magick and ideas supplanted it; other libraries and universities came to be pre-eminent. The Troll Court moved southwards in the early eighteenth century, and Farringale became increasingly isolated from the rest of the world — so much so that there is now considerable debate as to where it is actually situated. Far in the north of England; that is about as much as we can all agree upon. ‘Are we going there?’ I blurted. What a dream! A place steeped in such history, such mystery, such intrigue… what if its legendary libraries were still intact?

‘No,’ said Milady, and my hopes died. ‘You may not be aware that there is suspected to be some key to its decline that is not widely known about, though its precise nature has never been confirmed.’

‘Some catastrophe, you mean?’

‘Perhaps. Scholars at the Court have traced its deterioration to a mere handful of years, beginning around 1657. In March of that year, the Enclave was thriving. By December, it had shrunk to half its former size. Whether its inhabitants fled or died we do not know, but that there was something gravely amiss is not in doubt.’

‘Does Alban suspect a connection with that and the fate of South Moors?’ It seemed far-fetched to me, but apparently the baron had access to information I lacked. I felt the familiar envy grow in my breast: a kind of lust for knowledge denied.

Someday I would need to cultivate a connection at the Troll Court, no doubt about that. What other secrets were they hiding in those libraries of theirs?

‘It is not an isolated occurrence,’ said Milady. ‘In 1928, the Garragore Enclave went fully Reclusive. It closed its doors to all outsiders, which is not in itself unusual; but nothing has ever been heard from it again, which is rather more so. It is thought that the settlement faded altogether, and is now barren. But its doors remain sealed, even to the Court. No explanation for its demise has ever been uncovered.’

I’d heard of Garragore as well, though it was nowhere near in the same league as Farringale. Its name appeared in documents from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from time to time — mentions in private journals, newspapers, advertisements, that kind of thing. It had not occurred to me to notice that its name had stopped showing up after 1928. I’d had no reason to pay attention to it.

‘Are there more such stories?’ I asked, feeling slightly sick. Here was a most unpromising pattern.

‘There are. Baron Alban is greatly concerned that South Moors may go the way of Farringale and Garragore and the others, if help is not given. But how to help is a question no one can yet answer. The baron has requested our assistance.’

‘Why?’ said Jay. ‘Cannot the Troll Court muster the manpower to do it themselves?’

‘They are employing their own resources as they see fit. When it comes to the kind of investigation he has in mind, however: we can do it faster.’

‘Can we?’ I asked. ‘How?’

‘Because we have Jay.’

That took me aback. Jay? What about him? Alas, my thoughts must have shown on my face, for Jay rolled his eyes at me, his lips twisting in irritation. ‘I am more than a chauffeur,’ he said.

‘Oh? What are you?’

Jay’s face set into a disgusted expression and he said nothing, so it fell to Milady to explain. ‘I recruited Jay the moment he was free to join us, for one particular reason. He is a Waymaster.’

Oh.

The Road to Farringale: 4

Nothing ever worries Milady. I could tell her an army of hostile magicians was advancing upon the House with a legion of direbeasts in tow, and she would merely say, ‘Unfortunate. Very well,’ dispense a simple, efficient plan for containing the problem which would work perfectly, and then invite us all for tea afterwards.

She heard our account of the South Moors Troll Enclave in thoughtful silence, a silence she maintained for some ten or fifteen seconds after I had finished speaking. That, it seems, was as much time as she required to consider our information, place it in context, and devise her response.

‘You did well to retrieve the alikats,’ she said. ‘There are but twelve breeding pairs left in England, at least that are known. We could not easily bear to lose one of them. They are in Miranda’s care?’

‘Yes, Milady.’

‘Then they will be well tended to. Regarding the trolls, their behaviour is cause for concern. I will arrange for a consultant to meet with you. He will be here this afternoon.’

This was vague, but I knew by then that Milady’s plans always became clear soon enough, so I curtseyed again and murmured something agreeing. Jay gave me the side-eye, and said nothing.

‘Return to me once you have met with my consultant, for I shall have a new assignment for you this evening. Jay Patel.’

The name was spoken in a tone so indistinguishable from the rest, it took Jay a moment to realise he was being addressed. ‘Yes?’ he said hesitantly.

‘This was your first assignment with Vesper. Are you contented with her?’

Privately I thought that Milady might have done better to ask this question of Jay when I was not standing right next to him, but he took it in stride. ‘We work well enough together, Milady,’ he replied.

‘Very well. Vesper?’

I thought of the hesitancy he had shown when faced with even the apathetic trolls of South Moors. I had wondered a little about his courage, but that was probably unfair of me. He was new. If he had met any trolls at the Hidden University, it might well have been limited to old Maj, professor of anthropology, and she was ancient, wizened, soft-spoken and totally unintimidating. He had faltered, but he’d held. He would get used to it. ‘I am happy to continue our partnership,’ I said. ‘We made it through the mission without getting even a little bit lost, and I can’t remember the last time that has happened to me.’

‘He is more than your chauffeur, Vesper.’

‘I know that,’ said I hastily. Did I though? It occurred to me that I knew little about Jay’s specific abilities, and the only reason Milady had given for assigning him to accompany me was my deplorable tendency to lose my way — besides his obvious need for basic induction to the Society, of course, which anybody might have provided him with. It did not much surprise me to learn that there was more to Milady’s thinking than that, but as to what it was, I was in the dark.

No matter. This, too, would become clear in time.

‘You will find chocolate in the pot,’ said Milady, which befuddled Jay but I knew it for one of her characteristic, mild dismissals. I made a final curtsey, motioned Jay into a parting bow, and hustled both of us out of the tower room.

Jay was silent all the way down four staircases. Then he said: ‘What?’

‘To what are you referring?’

‘All of it.’

‘More specifically?’

‘Let’s begin with: who exactly is Milady?’

‘No idea,’ I said brightly.

Jay stopped, and stared at me.

‘Nobody does,’ I said with a shrug. ‘Some say she’s the latest scion of the aristocratic family who built this House, which makes sense. Some say she is the same woman who built this House, which is less likely, as she’d have to be centuries old. But who knows? She could be either of those things, or neither. We know her as the founder and benefactor of the Society, She Who Pulls Our Strings, the Bosslady, and that’s enough for most of us.’

‘Why is she a disembodied voice?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Why did you keep curtseying to a disembodied voice?’

‘Oh, I’m sure she can see us. That window, I think, though I’m not sure how.’

‘You don’t think that curtseying is a little old-fashioned?’

‘So’s Milady.’

Jay sighed, and ran a hand through his hair. ‘You know, when I got this job offer, they told me. At the University. They told me it was strange up here.’

‘They weren’t wrong.’ We’d made it back to the first floor by then; I steered Jay back to the common room, where, as promised, we found a welcome addition to its equipment. An oversized, eighteenth-century silver chocolate-pot stood upon one of the tables, wisps of steam curling invitingly from its spout. A pair of chocolate-drinking cups had been set beside; these, of course, were the delicate, porcelain kind, with gilding around the rims.

‘You are kidding me,’ said Jay in blank disbelief.

I took a seat and poured out chocolate for both of us. It was sweet and spiced, dark and rich, pure luxury: exactly the way we don’t drink it anymore. ‘Have a bit,’ I encouraged Jay. ‘One tends to feel better afterwards.’ And I did, already, even after only a few sips. I was less tired, less hungry, and the scratches striping my arms were already stinging less.

Jay did not believe me, clearly — not until he had drunk half of his share of the chocolate.

‘Strange but good?’ I invited him to allow.

He drained his cup and poured out another. ‘Strange,’ he said with emphasis.

I raised a brow, and waited. Sure enough, a reluctant smile crossed his face and he sank back into his chair with a sigh, visibly more relaxed than he had been half an hour earlier. ‘Strange but good,’ he conceded.

This concession was fully deserving of my most dazzling smile, which I bestowed upon him forthwith.

 

We were at leisure to amuse ourselves for the next two or three hours. I spent the time changing my ruined blue dress for a printed cotton one in spring-like rose, worn with a light shawl. It clashed with my cerulean hair, so I employed my wonderful Curiosity — a ring, this one, with a charm embedded — and adjusted the latter to a more complementary blue-lavender hue.

I don’t know what Jay did. We separated after we had finished with Milady’s chocolate, and did not reconvene until we were called to meet the consultant. I made my way back down to the soaring, marble-floored entrance hall to find Jay already waiting, jacket discarded. He wore jeans, and a simple pale blue cotton shirt which contrived to look simultaneously neat and lightweight and casual. I approved.

My admiration was not mutual, for Jay looked me over and said: ‘You look like a bouquet of flowers.’ The words sounded complimentary enough, but he spoke them so tonelessly, his face so expressionless, that I could not help concluding that some unspoken criticism lay behind them.

So I ignored this.

‘Where—’ I began, for the hall was empty other than the two of us; no sign of our promised consultant could I discern. But as I spoke, Nell — Nell Delaney, of media and tech and suchlike — stuck her exquisitely greying head around one of the doors and said: ‘Ves? Convention Chamber. He’s waiting.’

That made me raise my brows, for that particular room is arguably the finest at Home. It’s usually used for large gatherings of the significant kind. We only put individuals in there if they’re important, and we want to impress them. Not, of course, if they’re the important kind of people we’re hoping will agree to fund us. Such a show of magnificence would be quite misplaced there. So who had Milady found to meet us?

I adjusted my hair, checked that my attire was immaculate, and adopted my most confident stride. It wouldn’t do to appear unsure.

‘I don’t suppose…?’ said Jay, trailing after me.

‘Nope,’ I said, without waiting for the rest of his sentence. It didn’t matter what he intended to ask about this afternoon’s adventure; I had no more idea than he did.

The grand double doors of the Convention Chamber had been invitingly flung open, and we were able to walk straight in — stopped only briefly by Robert Foster, who had obviously been given Brawn Duty outside the doors. He’s a big man, Robert, and commensurately impressive at all the arts one might wish to employ if any conceivable variety of threat might chance to be mounted in one’s vicinity. Or in other words, he’s Scary Rob.

‘Ves,’ he said to me with a nod. He doesn’t exactly cultivate the air of a man of force. He favours the neat, plain attire one might adopt to work as, say, a school teacher, or a general practitioner (the latter of which is not misplaced, since he… is). His tightly-curled black hair is always in need of a trim, and I’ve never seen him with less than three or four days’ worth of stubble. But I suppose he has no need to dress the part. You can feel the danger in Robert; not by any overt signs of menace, for he is a careful and essentially gentle man. But he is so chock-full of magickal energy — the strong kind — that it’s hard to miss.

He cast a vaguely suspicious eye over Jay, who stared back.

Silence.

They could be sizing each other up for half the afternoon, and we had no time for that. ‘Jay Patel,’ I said quickly. ‘My new sidekick. He’s with me.’

‘Wha — I’m not with — sidekick?!’

I ignored these incoherent protestations, took Jay’s arm, and at Rob’s nod — faintly amused, judging from the involuntary curve of his lips — steered Jay into the Convention Chamber.  The room takes my breath away every time I see it, which is not often. If the entrance hall is impressive, the Chamber is staggering. It has the kind of high ceiling which seems to soar on for half of forever, held up by buttresses of the flying type. Everything is marble and exotic wood and crystal and gilding. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the House too well, so it’s my belief that it is a later addition. As to when, how or why it came into being, however… who knows. I have been trying to get my hands on a history of the House for years, but if such a book exists, it’s very hard to find.

Our contact sat at one of the graceful crystalline side tables, one of Milady’s chocolate pots set before him. He had been served with the best our kitchens could offer, which made me mildly envious, for those pastries are to die for. I wondered vaguely if he might be disposed to share.

I could see little of the man himself, for he sat partially concealed behind an enormous folio. So absorbed in his book was he, he seemed unaware of our entrance. I had time to note that he was a man of some height and, apparently, strength; the mere weak and feeble amongst us (like me) would have spread that heavy book open upon the table, but he held it up before him with no sign of strain whatsoever.

Good, then. Milady had found us a representative of the troll communities. An important one.

I cleared my throat. ‘Good afternoon, sir.’

The book was instantly closed, and set aside. I received an unimpeded view of by far the most gorgeous troll I have ever beheld, and I mean gorgeous in the sense of spectacularly well-presented as well as… well, rather handsome. All height and muscle and perfect posture was he, his bulky shoulders encased in a dark blue velvet coat over a silk shirt. He wore a kind of cravat, and an actual top hat lay on the table beside him. A top hat. No wonder he and Milady were acquainted. His skin was a pleasing jadeish hue, his features perfect. All this splendour and privilege might lead one to suppose he’d have an attitude problem, but his vivid green eyes twinkled with good humour as he looked the two of us over. His gaze lingered upon the vibrant mass of my hair.

‘The famous Vesper,’ he said in a low, rich voice. ‘I hear much of you.’

The Road to Farringale: 3

Jay stared at the staircase in consternation.

‘Thanks,’ he said faintly.

I made a flourishing gesture of invitation, indicating the proffered stairs with a sweep of my free arm. ‘After you.’

‘Uh. Why don’t you go first?’

‘Don’t worry, the House won’t hurt you.’

Jay gave me the are-you-crazy stare. ‘I’ve narrowly missed having my car crushed by a ball of earth the size of four of my heads, almost been flattened by a flying set of stairs, and all of this has happened in the last ten minutes of my life.’

‘All right. I’ll go first.’ I picked up my discarded creature carrier and set off up the steps. After a few moments’ hesitation, I heard Jay’s footsteps ringing behind me.

There was no door at the top, but there was a long window set with many small panes of glass. When I reached the top, about fifty of those panes flickered and vanished, creating an entryway just large enough to admit Jay and myself.

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘How convenient.’ For beyond the makeshift doorway I could see one of the larger, oak-panelled drawing-rooms of the first floor, or what had been a drawing-room once. It was now used as a kind of common room, and one of its occupants was Miranda Evans, our vet and specialist in magickal beasts of all kinds.

‘Hi,’ I said as I wandered through the window, and set the creature carrier down at her feet.

She was lounging in the kind of shabby, velvet-clad wing-back chair in which Home abounds, her red robes partially open to reveal a chunky hand-knitted jumper worn underneath. Her blonde hair was half out of its bindings, as usual; she took one look at me and Jay and the present we’d brought for her, and immediately scraped it back into a more business-like ponytail. ‘More work,’ she said with her quirk of a smile. ‘Lovely.’

‘Alikats, breeding pair. Extracted from South Moors.’

Her brows went up at that, and she hastily swallowed the dregs of her cup of tea. ‘Injuries?’

‘None visible. I think they’re unharmed, they just need a check-up and then resettling.’

By the time I had finished this sentence, Miranda was already on her knees, peeking through the bars at my slumbering alikat. ‘Gorgeous,’ she commented.

I’d lost her attention altogether, but that was all right. Jay and I watched as she gathered up our beleaguered pair; with a nod to us both, she left the common room at a smartish pace.

Jay glanced behind himself. The door we’d used had sealed itself up again, turning back into a window. ‘Is it a coincidence that we found Miranda right here?’

‘No,’ I said, making a beeline for the kettle and the tea cupboard. ‘That was the House helping us out. It does that.’

‘When it isn’t trying to kill us.’

‘It wasn’t trying to kill us.’

‘Yeah, right.’

‘It was trying to kill you. I was fine.’

This was a joke, of course, but I regretted it when Jay developed an expression of mingled anxiety and affront. I put a cup of tea into his hands to pacify him, or at least to distract him, neither of which worked. ‘Haven’t you seen the House do that before?’

‘Nope.’

‘It’s because you’re new,’ I decided. ‘It hasn’t figured you out yet. It will soon.’

‘Then it will stop trying to kill me?’ Jay looked profoundly sceptical.

‘No. Then you’ll stop being careless enough to get in the way of House’s helpful gestures. Or Zareen’s pranks, for that matter.’

Jay took a long gulp of tea, like a man chugging something strong and alcoholic. ‘Survive a few more weeks for optimum results. Got it.’

I chugged mine, too, for we did not have time to linger. Somewhat to my regret, for the first-floor common room is one of my favourite places at Home. It’s something to do with the quality of the light, I think; those long windows somehow admit the perfect degree of it, in the perfect quantity, keeping the room bathed in a peaceful glow that perfectly brings out the mellow tones of the wooden walls and flooring. Those chairs are remarkable, too. We might not have had time, but I sank into one of them anyway, the crimson one. Its proportions immediately adjusted around me, creating of itself a seat of perfect size and dimensions to accommodate my frame. The cushions softened, too, since I prefer a pillowy structure, and the back shortened a little to suit my height — its previous occupant was apparently rather taller than me, which isn’t unusual.

‘Lovely,’ I said, wearing my smile of serene contentment.

‘Out you get,’ said Jay unsympathetically. ‘We’ve a report to make.’

I sighed, deeply, but he was right. Something was very much amiss at South Moors, and the Powers needed to know about it right away. ‘Fine, fine,’ I said with decided ill grace. I threw a cushion at him as I rose; unlike the loose earth from Zareen’s inverted trees, this he dodged with easy grace, and raised a single brow at me.

‘Have you no mischievous side?’ I asked him in exasperation.

‘None whatsoever.’ He said it with such a straight face, I had to believe him.

‘You and Zareen should get on like—’

‘Cats and dogs,’ he interrupted. ‘We do.’

I tossed the tangles from my hair, adjusted my poor ruined dress, and made for the door. ‘They should have given you someone much more serious to work with.’

‘But you’re the one who needed me.’ Jay somehow beat me to the door, opened it, and held it for me with an ironical little bow.

Considering the most prominent of the reasons why I needed him, that reflection was mildly embarrassing, so I responded only with a haughty look of disdain and strode forth.

Jay was kind enough to fall in behind me without further comment, and I was able to pretend that I didn’t hear the low chuckle that was almost masked by the sound of the door closing behind us.

 

The process for seeking an audience with Milady is rather particular.

First, one is expected to present oneself in her preferred location, that being at the very top of the very tallest tower of the House. And why not? There is something agreeably fairy tale about it, even if the physical exertion required is not always well received by her supplicants.

Jay managed the ascent of three narrow, winding stone staircases in increasingly strained silence. They are the kind with uneven steps (charmingly worn by time, and the passage of a million footsteps); spiralling construction (tightly wound, so as to make of them the greatest possible obstacle); and occasional landings, randomly dispersed (the kind with dark, shadowy corners, wherein one half expects to find all manner of disagreeable creatures residing). And of course, none of them has fewer than thirty or so steps. All things considered, I was impressed that he made it halfway up the fourth staircase before the complaints began.

‘Isn’t there a lift?’ He sounded faintly breathless but not excessively so, which wasn’t bad. Jay obviously kept himself decently fit.

‘Of course not,’ I said, in the ringing tones of a supremely fit woman (a boast, but what can I say? I’ve been climbing these staircases every day for more than a decade. That alone will give a woman lungs of steel, and the hind quarters of a racehorse).

‘What do you mean, of course not? Lifts are wonderful.’

I cast him a withering look over my shoulder. ‘This is a seventeenth-century mansion. Where do you suggest we put an elevator? Which priceless and irreplaceable features shall we rip out in order to make room for it?’

‘Fair point. What about the house itself, then? If it can present you with a staircase straight up to the common room, it can whisk us up to the top tower in a jiffy.’

‘Are you in a wheelchair, Jay?’

‘Uh… no.’

‘Valerie Greene — have you met her yet? Library? — is wheelchair-bound. Dear House takes the very best care of her. Any door she approaches opens upon just the place she wants to go.’

‘That’s good of it.’

‘Isn’t it? And quite ingenious.’

‘So we’re left to haul ourselves up all these stairs because…?’

‘Because we are able-bodied, fit young people, Jay, and I don’t think House approves of laziness.’

I fancy it was the word laziness that silenced him, or perhaps he simply ran out of breath. Either way, he had not another word to advance until we arrived at the top of the sixth set of stairs and stood, briefly winded (or he was, at any rate; I deny all such charges), and taking great gulps of air. We were in a cramped, rounded tower; before us was one of those narrow, arrow-slit type windows filled in with glass, through which we were afforded a fine view of the green, sun-dappled hills beyond the gates.

‘Lovely,’ I commented.

Jay said nothing, so I turned to the one other feature of that stark little tower: a heavy oak door, closed and barred.

I knocked.

‘What now?’ whispered Jay, when nothing happened.

‘House is consulting with Milady as to whether she wants to admit us.’

‘Does she ever decline?’

‘Me, no. You, however… who knows.’

Jay allowed that to pass in silence. ‘Does she really live up here?’ he said after a while — just as the door unbarred itself with a clang and swung slowly inwards.

‘In a manner of speaking.’ Jay made no move, so I entered the room first.

Milady’s room is only about six metres across, its walls curved most of the way around. Those walls were fitted with panelling at some point in history, though not with the smooth, warm-hued oak that’s prevalent across most of the House. The tower’s walls are sheathed in iridescent crystal. There’s one window, but it doesn’t look over the countryside like the one in the antechamber. Through it one can see only swirling white mist.

I stepped into the centre of the room, and positioned myself in the middle of the thick, royal-blue rug that covers the floor.

‘Afternoon, Milady,’ I said cordially, and curtseyed.

‘Uh.’ Jay came up next to me and turned a full circle on the spot, neck craning, as though Milady might be hidden somewhere in a room with no furniture and no corners. ‘Where is she?’ he whispered to me.

I elbowed him. ‘Say hello,’ I hissed.

‘Hello, Milady.’

That was it. I elbowed him again, a bit harder this time, and by way of judicious application of pressure to his upper back I contrived to force him into a semblance of a polite bow.

The air sparkled. ‘Cordelia Vesper,’ said a low, cultured female voice. ‘Jay Patel. What have you to tell me today?’

The Road to Farringale: 2

Damnit.

I threw caution and dignity to the winds and made a leap for the alikat. We fell in a blur of flying hair and fur and deeply unhappy beast, and I’m pretty sure that cleaver missed my shoulders by a mere two inches but it was worth it, because I came up with an armful of kat. The creature was hissing and writhing like a mad thing but she was, blessedly, still alive.

‘Right,’ I snapped, eyeing the hunchback with all the justifiable anger of a woman who has only narrowly escaped death by cleaver. He stared back at me with the same dull lack of interest as the rest of his kin, which took the proverbial wind out of my sails just a little. ‘Society,’ I said firmly, and my identifying symbol (a purple unicorn against the Society’s backdrop of three crossed wands) flashed briefly in the air before me. I fear the dignity of the moment was somewhat impaired by the antics of my rescuee, which continued to thrash and claw at me as though I was its tormentor. Honestly, did the absurd creature not realise I had saved its skin? I tightened my grip upon it, trying to ignore the way its black claws sank deeper into my poor flesh, and lifted my chin haughtily. ‘The Rules for possession, care and treatment of Magickal Creatures are well known to you, are they not? And upon this point, they are very clear. No endangered species may be owned without a valid permit, and they are never to be put on the menu!’

I expected some manner of objection to be raised to this, if to nothing else that I had done. But the hunchback only stared at me for several long seconds, mouth slightly agape. Then, finally, he shrugged, letting his dirty cleaver drop heedlessly onto the cobbled stone square at his feet. The sharp clatter of its fall split the heavily silent air with a crack, and I jumped.

The hunchback made no attempt either to defend his conduct, or to reassert his ownership of the alikat. Instead, he turned away and shambled off, his candy-striped companion shuffling after. One by one, the other half-dozen trolls scattered, leaving me alone in the square. I watched them go, stunned.

There was definitely something odd going on. Why were the trolls so apathetic? What had prompted them to try to make a dinner of an alikat? They did know the Rules. These policies had been in place for many years.

The quiet at least gave me an opportunity to pacify my poor alikat. I gentled it with a little charm I learned from my mother — handy when I was a child, she once said, which does not speak well of my temperament at that age, but never mind. The kat relaxed in my arms, affording me with the leisure to observe the toll its understandable distress had taken upon me. My arms were striped with stinging wounds that oozed trickles of blood into the shredded sleeves of my lovely silk dress, and I could not hold back a sigh. This line of work is, all too often, fatal to skin and clothes alike.

Jay reappeared. To my vast relief, he was carrying the other alikat. Definitely a male, this one: it was half again the size of the little female that now lay so quiescent in my arms, its fur dappled in deeper shades of indigo and black. To my mingled admiration and disgust, the second alikat embraced Jay as though the two had been best friends since their earliest youth. It lay twined around Jay’s neck and half down one of his arms, its whiskers vibrating with the force of its purr. I detected no signs of injury in Jay, though the thick leather of his jacket might have had something to do with that.

He took stock of my bloodied state and the alikat lying in my arms, and gave a tiny, satisfied nod. I tried not to feel offended by his visible lack of concern for the fate of my poor arms. ‘Vaporised the lot?’ he guessed, glancing around at the empty square.

‘Nothing but dust and ash.’

He grinned. ‘What did you really do with them?’

‘Nothing. They submitted to my withdrawal of the alikat without a murmur, and left.’

Jay’s brows went up. ‘Odd.’

‘Very. Shall we take these poor little soldiers home?’

‘Lead on.’

‘Uh, no. You lead on.’

Jay gave me a tiny salute. ‘You are the boss.’

‘Fine.’ I cast a quick look around to get my bearings, and set off.

‘That’s the wrong way,’ Jay helpfully observed.

I stopped. ‘Remember why they assigned you to me?’

‘I just… didn’t think you could really be that bad.’ Jay picked a direction almost the opposite of the one I had been wandering in, and marched off.

‘I’d love to take offence,’ I said as I fell in behind him. ‘But the truth is, I couldn’t find my way out of a bucket.’

‘Noted.’ Jay sounded perfectly composed. Not a quiver of mirth could I detect.

‘Are you laughing at me?’

‘Never.’

‘You are.’

His shoulders began to shake, which prompted a dissatisfied mrow from his alikat. ‘Yes. Yes, I am.’

I caught up with Jay, and expressed my disapproval with a disdainful toss of my cerulean curls. ‘I have other talents.’

‘I am sure you do.’

‘Aren’t you going to ask what they are?’

‘I’ve been told what they are. Vast knowledge of magickal history. Specialised knowledge of ancient spells, beasts and artefacts. No insignificant skill with charms.’

‘Great hair.’

Great hair.’

I smiled, mollified. ‘What are your talents?’

‘I,’ said Jay, ‘can find my way out of a bucket.’

‘I am speechless with admiration.’

And the South Moors Troll Enclave. There’s the door.’

 

 

Burdened as we’d hoped to be by a pair of frightened (and possibly injured) animals, we had judged it best to eschew flight this time and travel by car. At least, this was the official motive. I prefer cars anyway, for two reasons. One: it is unnecessary to manage the thorny problem of finding one’s way to somewhere while maintaining an invisibility or deflection glamour, all without falling off one’s choice of steed (chairs are popular). And two: call it vanity, but I hate what the high winds do to my hair. Cars, of course, have heating and sat nav and roofs overhead, which is delightful of them. They also have traffic jams, but I consider that a price worth paying for comfort.

Since Jay would be driving, he had insisted we use his car. I’d half expected it to be some kind of zippy, sporty thing with too few seats and overly glossy paintwork, but instead he drove a shabby-looking Ford Something in a respectable shade of dark red. It displayed the kinds of scratches and minor dents suggestive of a car that is well-used but not quite so well-loved. We carefully loaded our (thankfully uninjured) alis into a pair of cat carriers, settled them in the back, and headed for Home.

When I say “Home”, I mean headquarters. The Society for Magickal Heritage is officially called The Society for the Preservation and Protection of Magickal Heritage, or SPPMH for short. But while lengthy and convoluted acronyms might work beautifully for, say, the RSPCA, we summarily rejected the garbling and spitting involved and opted for the serene simplicity of merely: The Society. And the Society is housed in a gorgeous country mansion which is, considering its size, surprisingly hard to find.

We like it that way. The house has no official name; that’s why we just call it “Home”. Like the Hidden University, it isn’t marked on any map. It has no website, and no sat nav will direct you to it. This, as you may imagine, has frequently caused me no little difficulty. I was two days late for my first day of work.

The house dates from the mid seventeenth century. It was once owned by one of the more prominent magickal families among the nobility of England and Ireland, so they say, though reports vary as to which family it was. Officially, it was knocked down after the Second World War, like so many of our country houses; this piece of misdirection, combined with a liberal application of deterrent charms, keeps us largely secure from the outside world. It drowses, quietly hidden, somewhere near the border of South Yorkshire and Derbyshire, ringed by peaceful hills, and as wholly unspoilt as a building that’s Home to two hundred people can possibly be.

Not being directionally impaired, Jay got us there within a couple of hours. I felt so many things upon approaching that beautiful house, as I always do. Admiration for its rambling stonework, its fanciful little towers, its long windows, parapets and soaring archways. Fondness, for the place I’ve called home for more than a decade. Pride, for the work we do; we’ve saved and restored countless books and artefacts; rescued many species of magickal creatures from the disaster of extinction; tracked down and extracted magickal Treasures and Curiosities without number, sometimes from situations of considerable danger. What kind of work could be more important than that?

This array of warm feelings suffered an early check. As we drove slowly up the spacious driveway, I noticed that Zareen had turned the flanking rows of stately, centuries-old oak trees upside down. Again.

‘Is it too soon to revoke her Curiosity privileges?’ I sighed, wincing at the exposed roots sagging helplessly in the air.

‘It appears to be too late,’ said Jay.

‘It’s never too late.’

‘You’ll have to talk to Milady. She—’

A great, groaning creaking sound interrupted whatever Jay was about to add, as the tree nearest to us flipped right-side-up again. Dislodged earth rained down upon the car like a shower of hail, and I was thankful anew that we had not come swooping in upon a pair of inconveniently open-topped chairs.

Definitely talk to Milady,’ growled Jay, narrowly avoiding a falling clot of earth of alarming size with a neat swerve of the wheels.

It was good to be Home.

 

 

Jay was only recruited by the Society a couple of weeks ago, and it shows.

We parked, retrieved our alikats and made for the house. I was aiming for a side door that would take us straight into the Magickal Creatures wing, but as we approached, the little green-painted portal faded into the stonework and disappeared.

I stepped back.

‘Uh,’ said Jay, blinking and pointing at where the door had been. ‘Is… it supposed to do that?’

‘No, but all attempts to dissuade it have failed. I think Milady’s given up. Take a step back, Jay.’

‘What?’

I don’t know whether it was the vanishing door that did it or the inverted trees beforehand, but Jay definitely wasn’t at his sharpest. I grabbed him and pulled, just as an elegant spiral staircase made from solid wrought iron descended from above, slamming into the ground a little too close to where Jay had been standing moments before.

The Road to Farringale: 1

The troll was not especially large, as trolls go: six feet and a bit, maybe seven at most. He had a run-down look about him, like he hadn’t washed in a while and had no plans to do so anytime soon. He wore a ratty zip-up jumper with the air of a charity-shop purchase about it; had it been only second-hand when he’d bought it, or already third? Its faded navy colour did nothing for his sallow complexion, and the tracksuit bottoms and trainers he wore with it were no better. His bulbous eyes rested a moment upon me, took in my coiffed hair and silk dress, then shifted to my colleague, Jay, who stood nervously unsmiling beside me.

I expected an enquiry of some kind. A greeting, maybe, or even a challenge. But he said nothing; only stared at us with dull, incurious expectation.
I tried to look past him into the Enclave, but he’d opened the stone slab of the door only just wide enough to talk to us. Obstructive. Not a good sign. ‘Morning,’ I said brightly, and it was a bright morning: mid-April and balmy, sun high in the sky and rosily smiling. A perfect day for a drive into the hills. ‘We’re from the Society for Magickal Heritage,’ I told him, using my official voice. ‘We have received word of a pair of unregistered alikats in these parts. Would you know anything about that?’

The troll’s answer was to slam the door on us, setting up a fine, booming echo that reverberated along the grassy hillside.

‘He knows nothing,’ Jay translated.

‘They never do.’ I stepped back from the door, or what had once been the door, and surveyed it speculatively. Now it appeared to be nothing but a slab of bare stone in a rocky cliff face, patches of heathery grass scattered above and before it. We were deep in the Yorkshire Moors, not far from the town of Helmsley (or so Jay informed me). I wondered if the powers back Home knew how far the South Moors Troll Enclave had deteriorated. Considering the state of their Doorkeeper, the signs were unpromising.

‘Ves,’ said Jay, eyeing me. ‘What are you doing?’

‘I am wondering if there is another way in.’

‘There won’t be another legal way in. You know the rules.’

I rolled my eyes. Jay was only a few years younger than me, I judged, so he was no wide-eyed intern. But he was fresh from the Hidden University. The tutors there spend a lot of time drilling the students in The Rules, of which there are many. For example, one does not chatter about magickal stuff to those without the Vision to see it for themselves. And, one does not visit the private spaces of Hidden Communities without their express invitation, which means one is only allowed to use their front door. With one of the residents on the other side of it, politely holding it open.

‘All very true,’ I said. ‘But that’s the official policy. In our line of work, it is sometimes necessary to bend the rules a bit.’

‘Aren’t there complaints?’

I smiled mirthlessly. ‘They try that, once in a while. It rarely ends well. In this instance, I’m pretty sure these fine folk are illegally holding at least two alikats, and if it’s a breeding pair that’s even worse. How are they going to report us for misdemeanours without revealing their own transgressions?’

Jay narrowed his deep brown eyes at me. ‘That does not make it all right to freely break all the Rules.’

‘No? How else would you like to get those kats out of there, then? I make it about half an hour before the first one gets eaten.’

‘I’m sure we can come up with… wait. Eaten?’

I couldn’t help sighing. These fresh graduates, so… naive. ‘Why do you think Trolls are generally discouraged from keeping alis?’

‘Because… because alikats are considered endangered.’

Jay obviously hadn’t thought that one through. ‘Exactly.’

‘Ah.’ Jay stopped arguing and joined me in searching for a way in. We proceeded to spend half an hour or so inspecting the hillside for something conveniently resembling a back door, and came up with nothing. We ended up back in front of that stone portal, which was still firmly closed.

‘Oh well,’ said I. ‘We’ll have to do it the fun way.’

‘The fun way?’

‘I, um. I meant the questionable way.’

Jay folded his arms and stared me down. ‘After you, then.’ I do not know why he insists on wearing leather jackets but I do wish he would not; they suit him far too well.

I rang the bell again. It wasn’t a bell at all, in the usual way of those things, but the expression’s apt enough. I laid my right hand, palm-flat, against the stone and politely requested entrance.

As per the Magickal Accords, the inhabitants of the South Moors Troll Enclave — if they weren’t known to be in Recluse — were pretty much honour bound to answer the door. They were required to co-operate with Jay and I as well, of course, but that hadn’t held much weight with them, so who knew? Jay and I waited in hope, and our patience was rewarded. Eventually. About four long minutes later, a thread of dull topaz light raced around the cliff face, tracing the outline of a door, and that door creaked open.

They had changed their Doorkeeper. Mr. Tracksuit and Trainers was nowhere in evidence; replacing him was a larger, lumpier, and rather more belligerent fellow — no, lady — who wasted no time whatsoever in demonstrating how matters stood between us. She bared her yellow teeth and I waited for the spectacular roar of displeasure, most likely preparatory to tearing off our heads, which would undoubtedly follow.

Trolls have a certain reputation, do they not? Not only among those with the Vision to see them. Even the Magicless tell stories like The Three Billy Goats Gruff, in which trolls are hideous beasts who’ll eat practically anything.

Usually, they are wrong. I’ve encountered trolls whose manners, tastes and general refinement would put the finest of the British aristocracy to shame. Trolls whose delight in beauty, culture and the arts go virtually unrivalled across the world; trolls whose academic aptitude and scholastic achievements far exceed my own.

Then again, I have periodically encountered the other sort, too. The ones the Norwegians were talking about when they began telling that story about the Gruffs. Those trolls really will eat almost anything, provided it’s raw and fresh, and in a pinch that would certainly include yours truly.

So I had to forgive Jay for his obvious unease, faced as he was with a displeased Doorkeeper who possibly hadn’t eaten for an hour or two. He backed away, leaving me to face the good lady alone.

In his defence, it did look like an involuntary step back. Those survival instincts, they’ll put paid to your manly courage any day of the week.

Fortunately, nothing put paid to mine. I smiled my nicest smile at the Doorkeeper — who had not, after all, chosen to treat us to a vocal display of displeasure — and said, in my friendliest tone, ‘We’d really like to come in. Just a quick visit, nothing to—’

I stopped because the Doorkeeper was opening her mouth. She was probably preparing to shout at us, or roar at us, or something of the kind, though her movements were peculiarly slow. It seemed to cost her a lot of effort merely to part her lips, which was odd indeed, but convenient because it presented me with a wide open mouth to throw my neighbourly offering into. My gift was a tiny pearl of a thing, all pale, lustrous beauty and lethal potential.

Well, not really lethal. It was a sleep draught, the kind of thing that was once served oddly-coloured and bubbling in peculiar glass jars. The technicians at Home have started compressing them into these bead forms instead. It’s the same potency, only smaller, and easier to deliver. Every bit as fast-acting, though; the jelly-type shell that holds everything together dissolves in the mouth in seconds.

It took only slightly longer than that for the Doorkeeper to evince a promising swaying upon her boot-clad feet.

‘Back a bit more,’ I warned Jay, who’d begun to show signs of plucking up his courage for an advance. I wandered back a bit myself, and waited.

The troll pitched forward, and landed upon her face. All ten feet of her hit the ground with a powerful thud, which resonated so powerfully I was even moved to hurry a little.

‘In we go,’ I said, and grabbed Jay by the arm. ‘You can study her later, if you like, but just now we need to get on with the job.’

‘I don’t want to study her,’ Jay retorted, pulling his arm out of my grip. ‘I was just interested. I’ve never seen a troll like her before.’

‘You can admire her later, too. Maybe she’ll take your phone number.’

‘I didn’t mean—’

‘Alikats,’ I reminded him. ‘Quickly.’

He muttered something inaudible, then added snidely: ‘I just find it hard to take you seriously with that hair.’

I tossed the hair in question, undaunted. Just because it was cerulean-blue, and arranged in impossibly perfect ringlets; did that give him any excuse to question my authority, or my expertise? ‘I know you are jealous, and I can’t blame you, but this is only our first assignment together and I’d like to survive it intact. If you help me retrieve these kats without anybody losing a limb, I’ll get you a Curiosity all of your own. A wardrobe that spawns a new, jazzy leather jacket every morning, say. Or a mirror that shows only your best features.’

All Jay’s features are his best features, in fairness. He flicked his pretty, pretty eyes at me in annoyance — they’re the colour of dark chocolate, those eyes, and they have that velvety quality, too. It’s all decidedly unfair, and I can’t decide yet whether or not he knows it. ‘Lead on,’ he said, choosing (perhaps wisely) to ignore my facetiousness.

I led.

The Enclave proved to be much as I expected: a jumbled mess. The town was built in circles — they do like curves, trolls — and formed of tall, imposing block stone houses built in sinuous lines. Those houses were probably handsome, once, but they’d been allowed to deteriorate. Some of them had lost their original carved oaken doors, and had others tacked on in place; the new ones looked as though they’d been ripped off some shoebox of a concrete dwelling, probably from a local housing estate. Nothing had been painted in at least ten years. Rubbish lay stacked in piles in every corner, and discarded refuse lined the cobbled stone pathways.

The aroma of the place might best be termed Unpleasant. Let’s leave it at that.

There weren’t too many residents about, which was fortunate for us, though I wondered where everybody was. I saw a few listless-looking souls trudging purposelessly hither and thither, their heads covered with cheap knitted hats. They wore the same fashion of frayed, mismatched clothes as the Doorkeepers.

Nobody stopped us. I’d half expected the noise of the Doorkeeper’s fall to attract some kind of attention, but either they had not heard (was that possible? The woman fell like a tree!) or they did not care. Nor did they question the sudden appearance of a pair of humans, one all improbably-coloured hair and spectacular fashion sense, the other all cinnamon skin, chocolate eyes and tousled cuteness (should I stop making Jay sound edible…? Okay then). I suppose they had no particular reason to interfere with us. If they were unaware of what we’d done to their Doorkeeper, they’d assume we had been given clearance to enter.

It did not take us long to find out what had become of the alikats. The Enclave was eerily quiet; the sound of a distressed yowl carried nicely. Jay and I veered as one, and made for the alikats at a run.

There proved to be a little square in the centre of the town (or shall I call it a round? For it, like everything else in the place, was pleasingly curvaceous). A cluster of trolls had gathered in an eager knot around a fire pit — or what passed for eager around here; they were at least visibly breathing, which gave them the edge over the rest of the townspeople. The leader of this little group was unquestionably the hunch-backed one in the middle, whose broad shoulders and massive hands looked more than capable of ripping me to pieces. He held a cleaver. To his left stood a troll in a candy-striped jumper that looked like it was knitted by somebody’s grandmother. For his convenience, she was obligingly holding out one of our missing alikats. The poor creature’s indigo-shaded fur bristled with fright, and it fought mightily to free itself, but to no avail; nothing could dislodge the fierce grip in which it was held.

I noticed that its captor had painted her fingernails a charming cerise, which was a nice effort, even if the lacquer was rather chipped.

‘See the other one?’ I asked of Jay as we approached.

‘Nope. You do this, I’ll do that.’ He veered off, went around the knot of trolls and disappeared.

I didn’t argue, even though his desertion left me to deal with six or eight trolls unaided. Two alikats were missing, only one was in evidence; I felt a stab of fear, for those kats are more than merely endangered. Like many magickal creatures, they feed off magickal energies (in a manner of speaking), and there are blessed few of those bouncing around nowadays. Things were different back in, say, the middle ages. In those days, practically everybody was Magickal and alikats, and all their ilk, were a dime a dozen — or comparatively, anyway. Here in the early twenty-first century… well. I can’t even guess at the approximate value of a breeding pair of alis, they are that rare. The Powers would have my head if Jay and I returned with only one.
And these idiots were trying to eat them.

‘Stop!’ I barked. The trolls’ absolute obliviousness to my presence — and Jay’s — was curious, and I had to repeat the word twice more at increasing volume before one of them finally looked up at me. This alert, lively specimen fixed his muddy grey eyes upon me with a dull spark of awareness, and nudged the hunchback.

But too late, because that cleaver was already swinging down, aimed unerringly for the yowling alikat’s neck.