Jay had never met a spriggan before.
Neither had I, in fact, but since it was my sacred duty to be the knowledgeable, world-wise one, I had no intention of telling him that. I went forward to meet Mabyn Redclover with a practiced air of confident ease, and bid her warmly welcome to the Society.
Not that there was anything in her appearance to disgust, or even to disconcert. True, her head was a little overlarge for her body, but she was well-dressed and impeccably groomed and I respect that. She was a foot or so shorter than me (so, in other words, very short), and appeared to be of advanced age, judging from her wizened skin and white hair. She wore a sixties-style two-piece suit, jacket and skirt perfectly matched, with low heels and gold earrings. She hadn’t gone for the beehive hair, slightly to my disappointment; instead, she had a nicely coiffed bob. We arrived in the hall to find her standing in the middle of it, looking around with obvious interest.
She took off her gloves when I went to greet her, and shook my hand warmly. ‘Mabyn Redclover,’ she introduced herself. ‘I’m with the Ministry. Department of Forbidden Magicks.’
My eyebrows rose. Milady had reached rather high, and was it a coincidence that Ms. Redclover was an expert in magickal misdemeanours? I imagined not.
Jay and I introduced ourselves.
‘Pleasure,’ she said briskly. ‘You are the two I was invited to meet, are you? What may I do for you?’
‘Any connection at all the Redclovers of Dappledok?’ asked Jay.
A faint grimace flickered over her lips, and was gone. ‘Once. A long time ago.’
I suppose you would distance yourself from family connections like that, in her line of work. But I wondered, then, why she had never changed her name.
Jay nodded. ‘Has Milady described our current situation to you?’
‘An outline only. A Dappledok beast has been found?’
‘One of the questionable ones.’ Jay proceeded to fill in the details. I, meanwhile, tried not to look as though I had the creature in question tucked into the bag hanging from my left shoulder, and hoped that the pup would not choose this of all possible moments to stick her head out for some air.
She didn’t, but Ms. Redclover’s eyes settled upon me with a shrewd expression I could not quite like. ‘You have the pup here?’ she said.
I sighed, and lifted the flap of my bag. I did so with some trepidation, in case Ms. Redclover, of Forbidden Magicks, should decide to confiscate her — or worse. But she only looked briefly into the bag, noted the dark shape of the pup curled up in the bottom, and withdrew. ‘Disguised?’
I smiled, uncertain. Chit-chat? Surely she must feel some disapproval. ‘There were three of them in the cottage,’ I elaborated. ‘Two failed to survive. We believe there must be some manner of secret breeding programme going on somewhere, and we’d like to get to the bottom of it.’
‘So would we,’ said Mabyn Redclover, with a thin smile. ‘Milady has assigned you to assist me, so we will be working together for a time. I trust that will be agreeable?’
I felt a little surprise. Assigned to work with Mabyn? Had she not been sent to serve as our guide? Just who was in charge here?
It was typical of Milady to couch the situation in rather different terms to us, but the melancholy truth was: Ministry employees outranked us, especially the higher ups. And Ms. Redclover had every appearance of being one of those, from her manicured nails to her air of business-like efficiency. She was the kind of person who confidently expects to be obeyed without question, and that spoke volumes.
‘Well, actually—’ said Jay.
I coughed, interrupting him. ‘That will be fine,’ I told her. ‘We are ready to depart for Dappledok at once, if that is acceptable to you.’
‘Quite.’ She looked at Jay. ‘You are a Waymaster, yes?’
She nodded, and took — I kid you not — a plastic rain-hood out of a pocket of her suit. This she unfolded, and placed carefully over her perfectly coiffed hair, tying the strings under her chin. ‘Right away, then,’ she said briskly.
Jay looked at me, and I shrugged. I hoped my shrug would convey something along the lines of, best to do as the nice lady says, but to Jay it apparently said something more like I have no idea, it’s your problem, for his mouth tightened, and he walked off with only a brief nod for Ms. Redclover.
She fell in beside me as I wandered after Jay, fussily adjusting the sit of her rain-hood. ‘Terse young man, isn’t he?’ she said in an undertone.
‘He’s only been with us for a few weeks yet. I think he’s still finding his feet.’
‘Ahh,’ she said wisely. ‘I remember those days.’
I was tempted to ask her how long it had been since she’d felt young and uncertain, but wisely restrained the impulse.
‘You were lucky to get him,’ she added after a moment.
‘We were. He’s a highly talented Waymaster. One of the best, I understand, though you’d never hear him say it.’
‘The Ministry wanted to bid for him, but Milady was too fast. One or two people were mighty displeased about that.’
My mouth twitched, though I managed to suppress the smug smile that threatened to emerge. ‘I am sure Milady was duly apologetic.’
‘Most apologetic. Not at all sorry, of course, but most apologetic.’
I did smile at that. Plastic hats or no, I began to feel that Ms. Redclover and I might just get along.
Ms. Redclover went through the Winds of the Ways with her hands carefully clamped over her hair. I privately thought it absurd, until she emerged at a windy henge atop a cliff somewhere in (presumably) Cornwall with her hair intact and I… didn’t.
As I nonchalantly shook out my tangled curls I reminded myself that perfect hair isn’t everything.
‘So,’ I said to Jay with a brilliant smile. ‘Er, whereabouts are we?’
I looked around. We stood high up over the water on rocky ground covered in feathery green grasses. Great boulders lay everywhere, protruding pugnaciously from the earth, and the sun shone gorgeously over a patchwork of meadows stretching away into the distance. ‘Edifying.’
He smiled faintly at me, and pointed over my shoulder. ‘That’s the sea.’
I stared out over the expanse of glittering blue water. ‘So that’s what the sea looks like.’
With a tiny sigh, he said, ‘We are as far west in England as you can get, and a long way south. We’re somewhere along what they now call the Penwith Heritage Coast, which means we are smack in the middle of spriggan country, and the entrance to the Dappledok Dell is not far from here.’
I gave him a tiny salute. ‘Thank you, Captain Geography.’
‘You are welcome, Captain History.’
I had half expected him to call me Captain Sparkle or something, but I liked his alternative. ‘I’ve never been to Cornwall,’ I admitted.
‘Never?’ He looked incredulous. ‘I thought you’d been in Acquisitions for ten years.’
‘I have, but somehow I never ended up in Cornwall.’
Ms. Redclover gave a slight cough. ‘The day marches on,’ she observed.
It did, at that. It must be well past noon already, and Jay and I were bantering the afternoon away. ‘Sorry,’ I said hastily. ‘Lead on, Jay?’
He led on. We wended our way around the coastline for half an hour or so, and I had cause to be thankful that I had chosen a jeans-and-flat-shoes combination that morning. I wondered if Ms. Redclover might be regretting her shoe choices a bit, but she trudged on with unimpaired composure and seemed unaffected.
I wondered if her unruffled attitude was Ministry-issue, or innate.
After a while, Jay stopped at what must be a specific point in the largely featureless landscape, though I could see no way to tell. We had gone down a sandy incline to a beach littered with stones, and the cliff rose above us, jagged and rocky and just a bit forbidding, if it hadn’t been for the balmy, sunny weather. He stood staring at the rock wall. ‘Ms. Redclover?’ he said after a while.
‘Mabyn, please, Mr. Patel.’
He flashed her one of his charming smiles. ‘Jay, then.’
She inclined her head.
‘I believe we will need your help to get in.’
Mabyn stepped forward, lips pursed. ‘Likely, yes. Dappledok closed its doors to outsiders a long time ago, though never entirely. It has been a long time, however…’ She let the sentence trail off and began to wander up and down the beach, her keen eyes scanning the rock for signs of… something? Jay and I stood, patiently waiting.
‘Ah,’ she finally said, and stepped forward. Lifting one thin hand, she knocked thrice upon the rock face and said something in a language I had never heard before.
‘Ancient Cornish?’ guessed Jay.
‘Probably,’ I whispered back.
Whatever it was she had said, it soon proved effective. A line of sea-green light snaked down the cliff face, and with the horrific groaning sound of grinding rock, a crack appeared, just wide enough for a spriggan — or indeed, a human — to pass through.
Mabyn went in, beckoning over her shoulder to the two of us.
‘After you,’ said Jay with a half-bow.
‘I promise you, even I cannot manage to get lost between here and the cliff.’ The distance was all of, what, twelve feet?
Jay grinned at me. ‘I’d like to make sure.’
I stuck my tongue out at him, and followed after Mabyn. And into the Dappledok Dell went we, agog with curiosity (or maybe that last part was just me).
Well, let me tell you, my first glimpse of that ancient Dell was… a little bit of a let-down.
Not that it wasn’t beautiful. It was, gloriously so. I have probably mentioned the tendency of the magickal Dells to look… well, magick-drenched. Everything practically glows with vitality and beauty, at least with those that are still thriving; the abandoned ones are a different matter. Dappledok wasn’t abandoned. It glittered and glowed.
But it was exactly the same landscape as the one we had just left; in fact, it looked identical, save only for the extra blush of vibrancy to the blue-green water, and the sparkle to the sunlight. I don’t know what I had been hoping for. Skies full of rainbows? Meadows chock-full of cute puppy-like creatures frolicking in the sunlight?
Ms. Redclover behaved like a native, for all her attempts to distance herself from her ancient familial home. She set off along the beach at a purposeful walk, with the air of a woman walking a long-familiar route. ‘Dapplehaven is just around the corner,’ she called over her shoulder.
‘What is Dapplehaven?’ I asked, hastening to catch up with her.
‘The largest town in the Dell. The Redclover School is there.’
Straight to the point, hm? I smothered the desire to go for a long, exploratory hike, and dutifully trotted after Ms. Mabyn Redclover.
But we had not gone very far before three most unpromising things happened one after another.
First, it literally went dark. Not completely pitch, but the sun went pale and watery, like someone had turned down a dimmer switch.
Next, the magickal equivalent of a klaxon sounded from somewhere nearby. It sounds less like a car horn and more like an entire flock of griffins all screaming at once.
When a dark speck appeared on the horizon, I knew we were somewhat in trouble.
‘This does not seem good,’ said Jay, coming to a sudden halt, and warily eyeing the skies.
Ms. Redclover gave a huffy sigh, and fussed with her hair. ‘Always so prone to overreaction. Some things never do change, do they?’
I was watching that dark speck in silence. It grew rapidly bigger, proving itself to be winged, with a snaky body and four legs. ‘Yep,’ I said as it drew nearer. ‘Dragon.’
It wasn’t all that big of a dragon, in fairness, but it was plenty big enough to ruin our collective day. As it swooped down upon us, jaws gaping, with green fire streaming from between its fangs, Ms. Redclover shook her head with another huffy sigh and said, ‘Oh, Archibald.’