The Road to Farringale: 13

‘Dear House,’ I said. Only as I spoke those words did it strike me as odd that the house had no other name. Such grand places always have spectacular names of course — think of Chatsworth, or Castle Howard, or Buckingham Palace. Iconic buildings, memorable names. Why was this one so different? Had it ever been named, at all? If not, why not?

I had never heard of its ever being called anything but “House”, or “Home”, or something along those lines. It had never felt strange to call it such before. But now I was addressing the building directly, and it felt as strange to call it “House” as it would be to address a friend as “Person”, or perhaps “Human”.

‘Dear House,’ I said again, trying to sound less doubtful about it. ‘I… need your help.’

I paused — to collect my thoughts, and to give House an opportunity to turf me out, if it wanted to. I mean, if it was going to be totally uninterested in rendering me any assistance at all, better to know that right away and save both of us the time.

But nothing happened, so I went on. ‘There is a problem with the trolls, you see. They are sick, dying. We’re going to lose a few of their Enclaves altogether if we don’t figure out why, and who knows where it will end? Perhaps they will all go. Something has to be done, but nobody knows where to start.

‘We think it might have something to do with Farringale. Baron Alban and I, that is — do you know him? He is the Troll Court’s ambassador to the Hidden Ministry, and he knows things about the Old Court, even if he won’t confide in me. We want to go to Farringale, so we can try to find out what destroyed it. If it’s the same thing that’s wiping out Glenfinnan and Darrowdale and Baile Monaidh, well, maybe we will be able to do something about it. Before any more are lost.’

I took a deep breath, encouraged by the continued lack of dire consequences to my narration. ‘You’ve probably guessed why I’m here by now. Alban has two of the keys, but we cannot go without the third. I… may as well own that Milady forbids the venture entirely. I don’t really blame her, either. If Farringale was half as vast and splendid as the legends say, then whatever destroyed it was probably not something we want to poke with a stick. But I think we have to try.

‘Val thought you might help me, and… I am hoping she is right. Do you have the third key? Will you lend it to me? I promise to bring it back.’ An unpleasant thought entered my head and I felt obliged to add, in a lower tone, ‘Assuming I get out of Farringale alive.’

Silence. Seconds passed, then minutes, and I heard no sound but the gentle ticking of the grandfather clock; saw nothing move, save the clock’s swaying pendulum.

Was that a refusal? Was the House even listening to me? I didn’t know, couldn’t tell. All I could do was wait, which I did with increasing impatience and dismay as minute after minute passed and the chocolate went cold in the pot.

Five minutes. Seven. Ten.

Fifteen.

How was I going to explain to Baron Alban that I had failed? He had asked me specifically, with a flattering confidence in my ability to deliver. I did not want to disappoint him. And if we could not get into Farringale, how else were we to save the Enclaves? What else could we do?

Twenty minutes, and no sign of a response. Either House had not heard me at all, or it had chosen to side with Milady. ‘Very well, then,’ I said. ‘Thank you for listening to me. And for letting me see your favourite room.’ I took a last look around, for the chances were that I would never see it again.

The clock ticked on.

I hauled myself out of the chair — really, they were surprisingly comfortable, for all their formal magnificence — and shook out my hair.

Something fell from my lap with a clink.

Ohgod. Was it my cup? Had I left that dainty and probably priceless antique upon my knee? But no; there had been no shatter, no crash of porcelain breaking into pieces.

A key lay upon the floor, not three inches from my left foot. It was a large, handsome, silver-wrought thing, intricately engraved, and it bore a blue jewel that glittered with its own light.

‘Oh.’ I bent to pick it up, carefully, as though it might be fragile. But it was heavy in my grasp, sturdy, and faintly warm to the touch. That jewel shone when my fingers touched it, mesmerising.

‘Thank you,’ I whispered. This was no small thing. House was trusting my judgement over Milady’s — mine and Alban’s. ‘We won’t fail,’ I said, so rashly, for I had no idea what we might find in Farringale; how could I be sure that we would not?

My show of confidence pleased the House, though, for a ripple of warm air shivered over my skin like a balmy summer breeze, and the key glimmered on in my hand.

‘Onward, then,’ said I, and left the parlour. When I stepped over the threshold of the door, I found myself back in the first floor common room.

And there was Jay, lounging in an arm chair not three feet away and looking at me like I had just grown a second head. ‘Where did you spring from?’

I glanced about, confused. ‘I came in through a door… oh.’ The door was on the other side of the room, and I was nowhere near a window.

‘You walked out of a wall,’ said Jay.

‘Doesn’t seem unlikely.’  Happily, nobody else was around to witness my involuntary feat of defiance of all known laws of nature, if not Magick; the common room was empty besides him. I wandered over to my favourite chair — the wing-back one with the red upholstery — and flopped down into it with a spectacular lack of grace. I was feeling a bit weak at the knees, which was probably a sign of incipient panic. What did I think I was doing, proposing to waltz into Farringale? A place nobody had set foot inside in centuries, which had collapsed due to reasons unknown but undoubtedly dire? I was mad. Baron Alban was mad.

And the next thing I had to do was convince Jay to get us there, the same Jay who was scowling at me with that fierce frown of his.

‘Are you okay?’ he said abruptly.

‘What?’

‘Are you all right? You look a little pale.’

‘I am always a little pale.’

He rolled his eyes. ‘Paler than usual. You look like a bowl of yoghurt.’

‘I’m fine.’ The question discomfited me, because it was unexpected. From his face, I’d assumed he was displeased with me for some reason. Instead, he had shown concern.

It did make it harder to proceed to knowingly pissing him off.

Oh well. Delaying unpleasant duties never made them any easier to perform. ‘Jay, I need your help with something.’

He sat up a bit, and focused a more alert gaze upon me. ‘That is why I am here.’

‘It isn’t exactly why you— oh, never mind. I need to go somewhere quickly, together with… someone else.’

‘Someone who else?’

‘Baron Alban.’

He nodded, unconcerned. So far, so good. ‘Where are we going?’

‘I don’t… know, exactly, but Alban does.’

The frown reappeared. ‘We are following the intriguing baron into parts wholly unknown? Are we trusting him enough for that? He’s a total stranger.’

‘It isn’t… entirely unknown. I know where we are aiming for, I just don’t know where it is.

‘Enough mystery, Ves. What’s going on?’

So much for breaking it to him gently. ‘We are going to Farringale.’

‘Farri— the Troll Court? The lost one? Seriously?’

‘That’s the plan.’

He stared at me.

I stared back.

If I had harboured any hopes that he might assume Milady had given the order, those hopes were swiftly dashed. ‘Why,’ said he with detestable and inconvenient astuteness, ‘is it you asking me about this? Why aren’t we up in the tower hearing all about it from Milady, together?’

‘Because she said no.’ Screw trying to be subtle, if he was going to be so bloody clever.

‘Then we aren’t going.’ Jay said this with aggravating serenity, picked up the book he’d been reading when I came in, and to all appearances forgot my existence altogether.

‘We are. Look.’ I fished the key out of the pocket I’d hastily stuffed it into, and held it up. The blue jewel blazed, which made for quite the impressive effect.

Jay didn’t even look up.

Jay. Look at this thing!’

He raised his head, and subjected the glittering key to a dull, uninterested stare. ‘What of it?’

‘It’s the key to Farringale. The third key, of three. House gave it to me.’

‘The House gave it to you?’

‘Yes.’

‘This House?’

Yes.

And I’d got him, I could see that. He still did not like the idea, but he was listening to me. ‘Why would House give you that key if Milady said no?’

‘Apparently it isn’t up to Milady to decide about the key.’

Jay put away the book. ‘All right. Why did Milady say no, if House is in favour?’

‘She thinks it’s too dangerous to open Farringale.’

‘She could well be right.’

‘She might be, but so what? How else are we going to help the Enclaves? Do you have a better idea?’

‘There are probably hundreds of other ways we could find out what’s going on with those Enclaves.’

‘Probably. Name one.’

He opened his mouth, hesitated. ‘The… the library probably has some relevant materials somewhere, or some other library.’

‘That could take forever to dig up.’

‘There are teams at Darrowdale and South Moors right now, looking for a source of the trouble—’

‘Which they apparently aren’t finding in a hurry, as we’ve heard nothing. And this is urgent, Jay.’

‘I am not sure why you expect to walk into Farringale and have the answer handed to you on a plate.’

‘I don’t, but we might. How do you know?’

‘You could die. We could die.’

‘Maybe. Maybe not. Meanwhile, a lot of trolls are dying.’

Jay began to look a little desperate. ‘Ves… you might be able to openly disobey Milady, but I can’t. You’ve a ten-year history with the Society, a blazing track record. However angry Milady might be with you, the chances of her chucking you out are practically zero. But me? I’ve only just got here!’

‘You’re a Waymaster, the only one we’ve managed to get hold of in about a decade. She won’t discard you lightly.’

‘It would be neither wise nor classy to presume upon that.’

‘House is in favour!’

‘Which is useful to know, but House doesn’t pay my salary, and House isn’t going to be writing me a reference if I have to go looking for a new job.’

‘You’re a Waymaster, you don’t need a reference. You could walk into a new job this afternoon.’

‘It’s about professional standards, pride—’

‘Jay, the important thing here is to get the job done. And the job is to preserve. The Enclaves are folding around us and nobody knows how to stop it. This is the best way I can think of to find out why — the best, the most direct, hopefully the fastest. Can you think of a better one? Really?’

Jay sighed, long and deeply, and shook his head. ‘Nope.’

‘Right.’

‘Right. So.’ He scowled at me and chucked his book at my head. ‘Damn you and your rule-breaking ways. You’ll make a disgrace of me.’

‘Or a hero.’

‘Or a hero.’ He stood up, stretched, shook himself, as if to shake away his doubts. ‘Since this is all kinds of urgent, I imagine you want to get going. Where’s Alban?’

‘I’ll find out.’ I took out my phone and called the baron’s number. His reply was immediate.

‘Ves? Did you get the key?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is Jay with us?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then we go. Meet me in the conservatory in five minutes.’

‘Ten,’ I countered. ‘We need to grab a few things first.’

‘Ten it is.’

The Road to Farringale: 12

‘So you need this key.’ Valerie tapped a pen thoughtfully against her lips, a characteristic gesture. I said nothing, letting her think in peace. I have great confidence in Val. She always comes up with something. ‘I wonder why Milady has custody of it,’ she said at length.

A good question, one I had not really considered. ‘The Society’s entire existence is about protecting rare old stuff, isn’t it?’

‘Might be reason enough.’ She thought some more, her eyes straying to the books on the far shelves. ‘The House predates Milady by quite a margin, of course. I wonder why Alban is so certain Milady is keeping the key.’

A faint suspicion entered my head. ‘Predates? By how far?’

She nodded, following my train of thought perfectly — or perhaps I was following hers. ‘The House’s precise date of construction is not known for some reason, but a few particular architectural features have led me to conclude that it was built somewhere around the early 1660s. Give or take a few years.’

‘And the decline of Farringale took place in 1657! Or so Milady said.’

Val’s eyes narrowed. ‘That was unusually forthcoming of her.’

‘Wasn’t it? I have no idea what came over her.’

‘It makes sense that those three keys were hidden away sometime fairly soon after the close of the Enclave, which was probably somewhere in the 1660s. Is Milady personally keeping the third key, or was it given to the House?’

‘Given… to the House?’ I was sceptical, I couldn’t help it. ‘Come on, Val. I know it’s an odd House and rather more aware than most Houses are, but still. It doesn’t have a mind, exactly, or a consciousness the way we do—’

‘Doesn’t it?’

It might have been a coincidence, but something creaked in the library just then. I don’t mind admitting that it gave me the chills. ‘All right,’ I said, prepared to accept the possibility, for what was ever normal about the Society? ‘But if House has got it, that’s a problem. If I couldn’t persuade Milady to let me have it, I… have no idea how to convince a seventeenth-century country mansion.’

Valerie smiled. ‘House can be very helpful, if it likes you.’

I cast a slightly trepid glance at the stately shelves nearby, and the graceful ceiling arching far overhead. ‘How do I know if it likes me?’ I whispered.

‘I wouldn’t worry, Ves. You are very likeable.’

‘That’s comforting.’

She sat back, eyeing me speculatively. ‘I will tell you a secret about the House. Maybe it will help.’

I blinked. ‘Wait. There are secrets about the House that you haven’t told me?’

‘Yes, but we can wrangle about that later. Is this urgent or not?’

‘Sorry.’

Out came the secret. ‘House has a favourite room. Few have seen it, for it is so well hidden, you really have to know that it’s there in order to find it at all. And I don’t think House likes visitors in there too often, so it doesn’t exactly help you out if you go looking for it. But it’s there, somewhere near the heart of the building. A sitting room, prettily decorated, and as far as I can tell it’s unchanged since the sixteen hundreds. I believe it most likely belonged to whoever built this House, and House keeps it just the way it is.’

‘Fantastic,’ I breathed. ‘So you’ve been inside it?’

‘Twice.’ She did not elaborate, and I didn’t push. ‘Anyway, if you go there, I think House might listen to you. And if it does… well, House and Milady are usually in accord with one another, but it wouldn’t be the first time they have disagreed.’

‘Dear Val, you are a jewel in the Society’s crown.’

She smirked. ‘I know. Got some paper? The directions are a little convoluted, you’ll want them written down.’

 

She wasn’t kidding. I left the library a few minutes later with a sheet of notepaper in my hand, both sides of it mostly covered in Val’s flowing handwriting. According to the directions, there were at least three times as many staircases at Home than I had ever seen or imagined, and far more corridors than the place should reasonably have room for. Not that this should have surprised me either. I had more than once suspected that the House was somewhat larger on the inside than its exterior would lead a person to expect.

Val’s route started, helpfully, from the library, but I soon began to feel that I was lost. I trotted along several winding corridors, up a few twisting staircases and down several more. At first I knew exactly where I was, but after a while I realised I recognised nothing that I saw around me. When I opened an occasional door to take a peek inside, I saw rooms I had never seen before either.

This frankly flabbergasted me. I had lived for more than a decade in that House, and I’d been comfortable that I knew it inside out. How could so much of it have been hidden from me all that time? And what else was there that I still did not know about?

It grew quieter as I walked, a clear sign that I was travelling farther and farther away from the House’s centres of activity. There was a stillness to the air that made me feel very alone, and my footsteps rang out, crisp and sharp, echoing off the aged stonework.

And then the corridor ended. I turned a corner and saw before me nothing but uninterrupted stone walls and a clean stone floor — curiously free of dust and debris, for all its remote atmosphere. There were no windows, no doors, no stairs; no way out at all, except back the way I had come.

I consulted Val’s directions again, to no particular avail. Honestly, the sense of giving a woman like me so complex a list of directions and expecting me to traverse them without getting lost! For an instant I suspected Val of playing a trick on me, but dismissed the idea. She would not. Her faith in my ability to find my way through this maze of a castle must be rather higher than my own.

Turn left, said the last of Val’s notes, which I had just done. Turn left… and then what? I considered calling her to ask, but dismissed that idea, too. She hates to have ringing phones around when she’s reading, and would undoubtedly have switched hers off.

I felt my way along the walls for a while, checking for hidden doors, stones that might obligingly slide aside to reveal secret staircases, that kind of thing. No luck there either.

I chose a corner at the end of the corridor and sat down with my back against the stone wall, surveying the empty passageway before me with some dismay. How could I be so inept? The answer was probably obvious, so obvious that it had not occurred to Val that I might need help. Jay would have got it in an instant, and treated my confusion with that faint but distinct disbelief I have sometimes detected in his eyes. I could have called him, but my pride revolted against that idea.

‘Well, House,’ I said aloud as I hauled myself back to my feet. ‘Your secrets are safe from me.’ I walked back along that puzzling corridor and turned right, following Valerie’s directions backwards.

Memory is a strange thing, is it not? I remember names, dates, faces and all manner of minute details with the greatest of ease, but I am not so well able to recognise places I have already been. So it took me much longer than it should have to realise that the passageway I was walking down was not the same one I had traversed perhaps half an hour before. The great stone blocks that made up the walls were limestone of a slightly different shade, and cut a little on the smaller side. The air smelled faintly of chocolate, which I had not noticed before. When I passed a gilt-framed painting of an eighteenth-century landscape I did not remember seeing before, I was certain I had gone wrong.

My stomach fluttered with nerves at finding myself so much at a loss, for I had clearly strayed from Val’s directions and had no idea where I was. If I became hopelessly turned about in House’s twisting corridors, would it consent to rescue me? I could be lost for hours. Days.

But then there was a door. It obtruded itself upon my notice so suddenly as to arouse my suspicions. Had it been there a moment before? Was I so oblivious as to have missed it? It looked innocuous enough: an ordinary-sized door painted bright white, with a single, large pewter knob set into the centre.

‘All right, then,’ I muttered, game to try anything that might get me out of that mess of a maze. I grasped the knob, finding it strangely warm under my hand, and turned it.

And there it was: House’s favourite room. It could only be that, for before me lay a perfectly preserved parlour whose fittings and furniture clearly proclaimed its provenance. The wallpaper was prettily figured with scrolling flowers, all rosy and lavender and ivory in hue; three elegantly-curved seventeenth-century chairs had been upholstered to match, in handsome ivory silk; portraits in oval frames hung upon the walls, and an exquisite old grandfather clock occupied one corner. It was still ticking, its pendulum keeping time with a drowsy, soothing sway.

A little white tea table stood in the centre, atop which sat a silver chocolate pot not wholly unlike Milady’s. A puff of steam drifted from its spout as I stepped over the threshold, and a cup appeared beside it.

‘Is that for me?’ I said.

The pot puffed steam again, which seemed a clear enough response. So I settled into the nearest chair — carefully, carefully; one is used to treating antique furniture with great care. But these chairs, while they had obviously been much used and loved, displayed none of the frailty or decay they ought to have accumulated over the better part of four hundred years.

I took a moment to examine the portraits, idly curious as to whether I might recognise any of the faces depicted therein. I did not. They were ladies and gentlemen for the most part, sumptuously garbed in the silk and lace gowns, the elaborately curled wigs, the velvet coats and jewelled extravagance of the sixteen hundreds. There were one or two exceptions, however. I saw a young, dark-skinned man clad in much simpler garb, his expression earnest and intense. On the other side of the room, a little girl in a plain dress played with a doll; next to her portrait hung that of an elderly woman wearing an eighteen-thirties day dress and a wide straw bonnet, smiling in the sunlight of a bright spring day.

‘Dear House,’ I began, setting down my empty cup. ‘Thank you for the chocolate, you are always such a gent. Or a lady, it’s… hard to tell. I have come to entreat your help. May we talk?’

It felt odd, sitting alone in that eerie little parlour out of time, literally talking to the walls. But a faint creak of assent answered my question to the apparently empty air — or at least, I took it as assenting. Nothing leapt out to cut me off, or to hustle me out of the room again. And so I began.

The Road to Farringale: 11

‘Farringale,’ I repeated.

‘Yes,’ said Baron Alban.

‘Mythical, mysteriously abandoned, long-lost seat of the Troll Court for hundreds of years Farringale?’

‘That’s the one.’

‘The unfindable version, or is there some other Farringale that’s still marked on a map somewhere?’

‘Why don’t you let me worry about how to find it, while you worry about how to get in?’

‘All right. Be right back.’ I slid past him and made for the door.

‘Uh, Ves?’ he called. ‘Where are you going?’

‘I’m going to ask Milady.’

‘What? Why! She will only say no.’

‘You don’t know that for sure.’

 

‘No,’ said Milady.

I’d given it my best shot, honest. I had begun with a polite enquiry after her health, paired with my usual curtsey, and opened the discussion with: ‘It emerges that our excellent Baron Ambassador suspects a close connection between the afflicted Enclaves and Farr—’

‘No,’ said Milady.

‘—Farringale, and seeks an opportunity to investigate the precise causes of its demise in a more direct fashion—’

‘No.’

‘—in hopes of uncovering some new, hitherto unsuspected information which might enable us to save Baile Monaidh and Darrowdale and—’

‘No.’

‘—any others that might come under similar afflictions in the future, or even to—’

‘No!’

‘—to learn enough to avert such calamities from ever occurring again at all. ‘

‘Vesper! I do not know how many times you require me to repeat the same word before you find yourself able to comprehend it.’

‘But why! The Baron’s theory is sound and his cause is more than just—’

‘The reasons he saw fit to present to you, and to me, are just, but I suspect the Baron of harbouring a few other ideas.’

‘If he draws some other benefit out of the venture while also resolving an emergency which threatens the life of many of his people, I see no cause for complaint.’

‘His theory might be sound, or it might be hogwash. There are reasons aplenty to avoid Farringale. Why do you think it was closed in the first place?’

‘If it is sound, much may be accomplished. If it is not, we will have learned something.’

‘And the risks?’

‘Baron Alban is prepared to face them, and he has already secured two keys—’

‘The keepers of those keys cannot have been any more delighted with this plan than I am, so I am moved to question just by what means his lordship secured them.’

‘That is his own affair. I did not ask.’

Milady sighed, its manifestation a soft puff of glittering light. ‘Vesper. I understand your point of view, truly, and I applaud your passion. But consider. The risks involved in opening Farringale are not necessarily limited to those holding the keys. We do not know what may come forth, were those doors opened, and therefore we cannot consider ourselves prepared to deal with the consequences.’

‘The only way to learn something is to ask! To explore, to find out! No secret ever did anybody any good for long.’

‘Vesper.’ Milady’s tone turned less strident, more… resigned. Wearily so. ‘I cannot permit this.’

‘I can only continue to fervently disagree with that decision.’

‘You are one of my very best, and you know it. But I hope you understand that your job will be in some considerable danger, should you choose to disobey me in this.’

‘I understand.’

‘Very good. Please accept my regrets, Ves.’

 

I did, of course, with the utmost politeness. But while I understood Milady’s position well enough, I do not think she understood that keeping my job was not my primary priority. Oh, I would be devastated if she carried through her threat, and ejected me from the Society. It has been my home and my world for so long, I cannot imagine my life without it. But it is a job with a purpose. The work that I do matters. I am here because I want to save our beautiful magickal beasts, our wondrous books and charms and artefacts and Curiosities and plants and Dells and all the rest. And yes, if I get the chance, that absolutely includes the Troll Enclaves, whether they fall strictly under my purview or not.

If I lost my job, I could get another. But if we lost half our Enclaves? How could that ever be justified?

So I set forth to disobey Milady, heavy of heart but firm of purpose. And if, lurking behind all those noble ideals, there was another reason — namely, that I simply cannot resist an ancient mystery — well, nobody needed to know about that but me.

 

‘The problem,’ I said, having rejoined Baron Alban and borne his inevitable I-told-you-so, ‘is that I have not the first idea where to look for the key. I do hope you have furnished yourself with something along the lines of a clue.’

‘None whatsoever,’ he said. ‘But I can assure you that it will be virtually unreachable, and secreted somewhere with fiendishly excellent security.’

‘How very encouraging you are.’

He bowed. ‘Honesty is my policy. Be careful, Ves. I would not make such a request of you, were it not—’

‘Urgent. Yes, yes, I know.’

‘I have given you a way to reach me,’ he said, and when I took out my phone I found a text from an unknown number saying: ‘Tally ho!’

‘Do you take anything seriously?’ I said.

‘I’m taking this problem seriously. Just not all the way seriously, all the time.’

‘Where would be the fun in that,’ I agreed.

The baron gave me a swift grin, and tipped an imaginary hat. ‘Good luck, Ves. Text me when you’ve got it.’

With which buoying words he was gone, leaving me with a big problem and a dearth of possible solutions.

 

Trying to second-guess Milady is… not the easiest task I have ever been given. I mean, where to begin? If I was a disembodied voice with a penchant for tower-tops and chocolate pots, where would I hide the key to a lost Enclave? Absolutely no idea.

I thought about all the obvious places, and dismissed them as too obvious. The tower? On the one hand, at least she could keep an eye on it up there. No one was likely to be pilfering it out from under her very eyes. But it did not strike me as likely, because whenever any of us thinks of Milady, we think of the tower. It is the first place any of us would choose to look for something Milady had hidden, and therefore, I had to cross it off the list. She was too subtle for that.

Stores? That made a lot more sense to me, and I considered it an attractive possibility for a while. Where better to hide something like that than in plain sight, so to speak? Buried under so much other, random paraphernalia that nobody would ever realise its importance? Maybe. But this, too, occurred to me too early and too easily, so I had to discount it. Anything that seemed very likely probably wasn’t.

I thought about the Enchanting labs for similar reasons. They spend all day tinkering with various charms and imbuing them into various objects, so those labs are always littered with stuff — keys included. But that struck me as too random. Such a key could get lost in there, or worse yet, its operating charm overwritten with something else entirely. Milady wouldn’t be that careless.

And so I went on, eliminating every idea I came up with as too obvious, too unlikely, or too risky, until I had nothing left.

I toyed briefly with the idea of asking Jay. I’m not sure why, only that he was bright-minded and obviously saw the world very differently from me. He would probably see some possibility that would never have occurred to me. But I kept coming back to the unavoidable fact that he would heartily disapprove of the whole venture, so I stayed away from him.

In the end, devoid of further ideas, I went to see Valerie.

 

Valerie Greene has a job I rather envy. She’s Queen of the Library, Head of History, Boss of all Secrets, and it is her official duty to uncover exactly the kinds of ancient mysteries that I cannot resist. I applied to join the Library Division when I arrived at the Society, but Milady said my varied talents rendered me better suited to my current, rather more eclectic role, and I cannot say that she was wrong there.

Nonetheless, when I walk into the grand library at Home and see Valerie at the main desk there, absorbed in some promisingly huge and dusty tome and with her name engraved upon a shiny brass plaque, I always suffer a mild stab of regret. It is one of those libraries that dreams are made of: all soaring ceilings and shelves by the thousand, everything all ancient oak wood and leather-bound tomes. It smells like knowledge and mystery and time, and when I went in that day I paused to take a great lungful of that familiar aroma, as I always do.

Valerie looked up from her book. ‘Morning, Ves.’ She had a smile for me, as usual. She is one of the few people at Home that I would call a close friend; we’ve both been here for years, and have spent many hours chattering about books and speculating as to the truth behind some mystery or another. She and I are roughly the same age, she being the elder by only a few years. She has a neatness and a chic style about her that I have never been able to match, her dark hair and skin always perfectly complemented by her ensemble. She favours the swept-up look by way of hairstyle, which is practical; when I read, my hair is always falling all over the pages. You would think I would learn.

‘Val.’ I sidled up to the desk — a mildly undignified form of movement it may be, but it cannot be helped; sidling is exactly what I did — and sat down across from her. ‘I need to ask you something.’

‘Is this going to be one of those juicy requests?’

‘It is the questionable kind. Is that juicy enough?’

‘Plenty.’ She closed her book with great care and set it aside, laying it atop a soft, protective cushion. ‘What are we digging up today?’

I grinned. Val knows me far too well. ‘A key,’ I said. ‘Actually, before we get to the sticky part, let’s begin with Farringale. What do you know of it?’

That word definitely got her attention. ‘Farringale? Much the same things everybody knows about it, I imagine. Seat of Their Gracious Majesties, the kings and queens of the Troll Court since time immemorial, up until a few centuries ago. Its last known rulers were Hrruna the Third and Torvaston the Second, whose reign ended somewhere in the mid sixteen hundreds but who knows when exactly, because it—’

‘—inexplicably faded out of all knowledge. Exactly. That’s the part that I’m interested in.’

Valerie folded her arms and gave me the narrow-eyed look. ‘Theories abound as to why, as I am sure you know, because you have read every book we own about Farringale from cover to cover. So why are you asking me?’

‘I might be under the impression that you know something that isn’t in any of those books.’

‘I wish I did, but no. The current Court keeps that place shrouded in the kind of secrecy that can only be termed impenetrable.’

I nodded, more impressed than I cared to show. Valerie is tenacious with this kind of thing, even more so than I am, and she has the stature and credentials to make legitimate requests for that level of information. If even she couldn’t get past the Troll Court, they were really serious about keeping it under wraps.

‘Somebody at the Court disagrees,’ I said, and I told her about Baron Alban and his proposition. Her eyes grew rather wide as I hurried through my tale, and when I had finished she said: ‘Ves, I don’t know whether you should… are you sure about this?’

‘Of course I’m sure,’ I replied, all incredulity.

And then came the grin I had expected. ‘Of course you are. As if I would make any other decision in your shoes.’

‘I wouldn’t suspect you of it for an instant.’

The Road to Farringale: 10

And there he was, in all his gorgeous glory. He had chosen a red leather duster coat that day, worn with dark combat trousers, boots to match, and an ivory shirt. No hat; instead, his golden-bronze locks had been brushed into an attractively wind-swept arrangement, and a jewelled pin winked at this throat.

I was suddenly wide awake.

‘Hello, the Baron,’ I said lightly, wishing I had taken a minute or two longer over my hair before I’d come downstairs. It probably resembled a hedge more nearly than I would like.

The Baron, though, did not seem displeased, for he looked me over with a twinkle and a smile, and made me a bow. ‘It is early. I apologise.’

‘The pot would like to offer you some tea,’ I observed, for the delicate glass teapot I favoured was bobbing lightly up and down, its spout emitting enthusiastic puffs of steam.

‘Thank you, pot. I shall be delighted.’ He took a seat, and his cup shortly after, and sat looking thoughtfully at me. ‘How are you getting along with the matter of the Enclaves?’ he said.

I sat up a little more. ‘Well, I have a theory, though it has some holes in it. But maybe you can help fill them in.’

He smiled faintly. ‘Perhaps I might.’

‘I think there is some kind of wasting sickness. They eat and eat and still starve; clearly they are ill. But there has to be more to it than that, because there are too many questions. It seems to be affecting only trolls, but why only a few of the Enclaves? And there is no discernible link between those communities that are sick. They are situated far apart from one another, so how is the disease spreading? And they aren’t just starving, they are… it’s almost like their minds are starving, too. They have no energy for anything but eating, and barely that. They don’t speak; it’s as if they have forgotten how to form words, or simply lack the energy or the will to make the effort.’

‘All good points.’

‘And they are eating magickal creatures, almost exclusively. Why? That suggests it is about something more than mere physical sustenance. Any kind of food would suffice there, but they are going for meat, and the meat of magickal beasts in particular. What’s that about?’

Alban’s green, green eyes twinkled with amusement. ‘So many questions. You have some theories to advance, too?’

‘Of course I do. But I did not share them with Milady, yet, for I have no evidence.’

‘Let’s hear them.’

‘Right.’ I set down my empty tea cup. ‘The disease spreads, but if it were contagious in any conventional way, surely we would be seeing either a wider problem — or a more confined one. Some of the affected Enclaves have been at least partially Reclusive for years, with little or no traffic going in or out of their towns. How did they catch it? And since they did, why hasn’t it spread farther? I don’t think it is a contagion.

‘Meanwhile, their desperate need to eat, eat and eat is telling, but the fact that they are starving anyway tells me that whatever they are feeding, it isn’t themselves. I think there is some kind of infecting body — a parasite, if you will. And it is taking so much from each host that it’s killing them. But it does not need meat to survive.

‘We know that many magickal beings feed as much off magickal energies as from more conventional foods. Trolls are an example. You need meat, grain, vegetables to survive, but you need a replenishing diet of magickal energies in order to flourish. This is why Troll Enclaves tend to be located inside Dells; those structures as a whole are built around sources of strong magickal energy. It’s perfect. At a place like Glenfinnan, you eat, sleep and breathe magick, literally.

‘These parasites, then. I think they feed off magickal energy. If we go back to Glenfinnan, say, track down what is, or more probably was, their source of magick, I imagine we will find it drained. And that is what happened to its citizens, too. Whatever parasite they were carrying sucked them dry.’

Alban just watched me, his face unreadable, and I began to feel a flicker of doubt. The idea made sense to me, but he did not seem to be impressed. ‘Is all of this based purely upon logic and deduction?’ he asked.

‘Is that not good enough?’

To my relief, he grinned. ‘I suspect your theory of such a high level of accuracy, I wondered if you had access to some secret source of information after all.’

‘Some secret source of information I ought not to be going anywhere near?’ I tried to look coy, as though I might have just such a source.

‘Exactly.’ The grin faded and a frown appeared, the unsettling kind.

So much for making of myself a woman of mystery. ‘Alas, no,’ I sighed. ‘You do, of course, but the likes of a Vesper can only dream.’

The grin flashed again, wry this time. ‘You are occasionally talked of in my circles, you know. Your track record is impressive — so much so, I think there are those who suspect you of harbouring secret resources. But I begin to think it is merely an astuteness of mind that’s hard to hide from.’

‘So you do have a secret library!’

He laughed. ‘Point ably proven.’

‘May I see it?’

‘Of course not.’

Curses. ‘So why are you visiting me this morning?’

‘Take a guess.’

‘There is something you want me to do.’

‘You and your partner, yes. Jay, was it?’

‘It is.’

Baron Alban paused, and looked around. The common room was mostly empty at that hour of the morning, but not quite: Miranda sat wearily nursing a coffee on the other side of the room, and another chair was occupied by somebody from the Restoration department whose name I could never remember. ‘Is there somewhere more private we can talk?’

‘It’s never promising, when they say that in films.’

His lips twitched. ‘I have nothing nefarious in mind, I assure you.’

‘I don’t object to a little villainy, mind. I only draw the line at a lot.

This he acknowledged with a gracious salute, and stood up. ‘The matter is somewhat urgent.’

‘Ohh.’ How interesting. I led him out of the common room at once, down to the ground floor and around to the south side. One of my favourite retreats is the expansive conservatory that occupies about half of the south wall. It belongs to the Botany department, and they do a fine job of keeping it filled with all the most interesting magickal herbs and plants, many of which bloom gloriously and smell delicious. I cannot understand why it isn’t constantly swarming with people, but I seem to be one of very few who visit if they don’t have to.

As I’d hoped, we arrived to find damp stone floors and the scent of wet earth in the air: the watering had already been done for the morning, and we could expect to have a quiet corner of the greenhouse to ourselves for a few minutes. I chose a sunny nook beneath an arching trellis heavy with something blue-blossoming and fragrant, and adopted a posture of intent interest.

The baron was uncharacteristically hesitant. He looked at the flowers, and at me, and at the clear glass ceiling, and appeared to be struggling to discover what to say.

‘I need your help,’ he finally ventured.

‘So you said.’

‘On an errand of a… slightly questionable nature.’

‘I was getting that feeling, too.’

His eyes smiled at me. ‘There is somewhere I urgently need to get into. It relates to the Enclaves, you see, so it is an emergency. But the place in question is locked. Extremely locked. And there are one or two other obstacles…’ He trailed off.

‘If Jay told you I have a taste for breaking and entering, he is quite wrong, and I deny all charges,’ I said serenely.

Alban lifted a brow in my general direction. ‘He’s said nothing of the kind, in fact. Do you indeed?’

‘As I said, all charges denied.’

‘That might not be a bad thing, at all.’

‘I grow ever more intrigued.’

Alban sighed. ‘Right, the fact is… there are three keys to the place in question. I have secured two of them, at some risk and cost to myself, but they are useless if I can’t get all three.’

Uh huh. ‘Where is the third one?’

He smiled at me, hope and mischief and sheepishness mixed up into one rather adorable, hard-to-resist package. ‘It’s, um. It’s here.’

‘Let me guess: you absolutely are not supposed to have it.’

‘Let’s just say Milady refused.’

It was my turn to raise a questioning brow.

‘She threatened to throw me off the tower top,’ he admitted.

‘Just how locked is this place?’

‘Extremely, thoroughly, completely and forever locked.’

‘I might guess that it is dangerous.’

‘Probably. Maybe. Who knows, anymore?’

I folded my arms. ‘So. Milady held the prospect of your swift and inescapable death over your head if you pursue this venture and you still want to find the key?’

‘No.’ His smile broadened, turned achingly hopeful. ‘I want you to find the key.’

‘That is spectacularly unflattering.’

‘Depends how you look at it.’ He leaned closer to me, so close that I could smell the fresh, cologne scent of him. ‘Do I consider you expendable? In no way whatsoever. Do I think you are a match for Milady? Why, yes. I absolutely do.’

My eyes narrowed. ‘You cannot flirt me into it, Lord Baron.’

That smile turned wickedly mischievous, and the twinkle reappeared in his eyes. ‘Can’t I?’

Damn him, he was far too good.

Though, he did not know me perfectly if he thought he needed to flirt me into it. I would have done it just for the sake of curiosity alone. A super-locked, mysterious somewhere, filled to the brim with who-knew-what manner of juicy secrets? Yes please. You can sign me up for that, zero questions asked.

‘What is it that you needed Jay for? I possibly don’t need to tell you that he will be firmly opposed to this proposition.’

‘Quite,’ agreed the baron. ‘We do not need to tell him about this particular part of it, perhaps, if you think he will disapprove. I will need his Waymastery skills later on, once we have secured the final key.’

‘One last question, then.’

He made a show of bracing himself. ‘Let’s hear it.’

‘What, or where, are you trying to get into?’

‘I can’t tell you that.’

‘No good! Try again.’

‘Vesper. I can’t tell you that.’

‘Right. And you were planning to waltz off there with Jay and leave me languishing at Home alone, I suppose?’

He did not answer that in words, but his face told me everything I needed to know.

‘You’ll tell me, and you’ll take me with you.’

‘I can’t.’

‘No deal.’

‘Ves… you don’t understand.’

‘And I never will, if you keep me in the dark.’

He sighed, ran a hand over his hair — unwise, for those wavy locks were so perfectly ordered before, and what a shame — and eyed me with strong disfavour. ‘I could find someone else to get hold of the key.’

‘If there is a better choice, why are you talking to me?’

‘Fine.’ He made a don’t-blame-me-when-you’re-dead gesture and said, with strong reluctance: ‘Where we are going, if you really want to know—’

‘I do.’

‘—Is… is Farringale.’

The Road to Farringale: 9

I do not know how Miranda got down to Gloucester so quickly.

It wasn’t that fast, I suppose; not compared to the (relative) ease with which Jay darts about the country. But she arrived a full hour sooner than I’d expected, and she brought approximately half of the Society with her. Soon, those eerily quiet caverns were awash with frantic Society agents racing to save, protect and preserve as much as they could.

The worst discovery was the crude pit that had been dug at the rear of the Enclave. Its aroma first announced its presence; we lifted our noses to the putrid scent of something rotting, and followed the stench.

It proved to consist of lots of somethings rotting. The pit lurked behind a pair of ramshackle, abandoned buildings both leaning dangerously to the left. A narrow track wound in between, and at the rear was the crater: perhaps ten feet deep and eight wide, roughly covered over in tarpaulin in a crude, futile attempt to conceal the horror of its contents. It was a bone pit, and filled nearly to the rim with the half-rotted corpses of dead animals. Most of them had had their flesh roughly stripped from their bones before they were discarded, though by no means expertly. Looking at the mess of bloodied flesh, the pale glint of bone here and there, the thick carpet of maggots crawling with grotesque enthusiasm over the whole, I could imagine the clumsy haste with which each beast had been dispatched to its fate.

They were not all magickal beasts, but too many were. Severed heads and tails and paws, dislocated beaks and feathered crests, claws and teeth, patches of decaying fur — each sad little remnant announced that here lay far too many of the precious creatures we fought so desperately to save.

I wished, too late, that Miranda had been far away when we found that pit. It broke her heart. She stood on the edge of it, shuddering uncontrollably, and looking so near to collapse that I had to steady her.

‘How could they?’ she gasped. ‘How could they do such a thing?’

‘Miranda.’ I gripped her arm hard, holding her up by sheer force of will if I had to. ‘They are sick. Can you understand that? This is not cruelty, it is desperation. They’ve been eating this much and they are still wasting away. They are starving.

I don’t know if she heard me, or registered the import of my words, for she made no reply. She took a deep, deep breath, mopped her damp cheeks on the sleeve of her jumper, and left me. ‘Right,’ I heard her calling as she walked away. ‘There must be some creatures still alive down here, let’s find them! Quickly, please!’

Well and good. Miranda’s job was to take care of the animals. I needed to find someone who could help the trolls.

They were already being helped, I soon saw as I trotted gratefully away from that terrible pit. But ineptly. The Society had not yet realised how futile it was to try to communicate with the trolls of Darrowdale; we were too late for that. They needed more direct help, though of what nature, who knew?

A young man in a blue jacket raced past on his way to somewhere; I caught hold of him. ‘Did they send any of the medical staff down here? I need to talk to them.’ I’d asked for a doctor, but requests and instructions sometimes got a little garbled along the way.

‘Uh,’ said the boy. ‘Foster’s here somewhere.’ He did not stay to argue the point any longer, but dashed off again.

That was all right. They’d sent Rob, and that was all I needed to know. Robert Foster, with all his might, was also a doctor, a fact I sometimes forgot. I went in search of him, but ran into Jay first.

‘I was looking for you,’ said Jay. ‘We’re finished at Darrowdale, they can handle it from here. We need to move on.’

‘Yes, but first I have to talk to Robert.’

Jay’s brow snapped down. ‘Can’t it wait?’

‘No. Help me.’

‘Right.’ We resumed the search together — a frustrating process, for there were so many people down there, so much furious activity taking place, that it was hard to know where to begin. I saw Miranda once, striding past us with a thunderous look, and Zareen looking unusually grim, but no Robert.

It was Jay who spotted him at last. We had found our way back to that odd little square, where we had met the troll in the suit. Where it had been serene before, it was now swarming with people. ‘There,’ said Jay, pointing.

Rob was bending over the old lady under her blanket, tending to her with all the gentle care so characteristic of him. He was not trying to speak with her, but examined her face with a look of intense focus.

‘Rob,’ I said. ‘I think there’s some kind of a sickness here. They’ve all got it. Have you been to South Moors?’

Robert straightened up at my words, and directed a frowning look at me. He shook his head. ‘Should I?’

‘Yes. South Moors is going to end up like this, I know it. They’re displaying the same kinds of symptoms, only I think they are at an earlier stage. It’s like… some kind of wasting disease, and they’re all eating and eating but it’s not helping them.’

He nodded thoughtfully, casting an eye over the old lady, who still had not stirred. ‘That would make sense with what I am seeing. I’ll look into it.’

‘There’s another thing. The things they are eating — they’re mostly going for magickal beasts. Not exclusively, for I saw a fox and a lot of rats in that pit. But either by knowledge or instinct they’re targeting the magickals, and that has to be relevant.’

‘Thanks, Ves.’ He nodded to me and to Jay and turned back to his patient.

‘Can we go now?’ said Jay.

‘Immediately, and at once.’

 

If I could, I would be delighted to forget the urgent bustle of the next two days. Jay took us across England, into Wales and Ireland and back again; three great, gigantic, exhausting leaps every day. By the end of it, I was ready to collapse. Jay looked like he wished he had died three weeks ago.

From Darrowdale we proceeded to Parrow Hollow, Warwickshire, which to our relief was hale and well — merely Reclusive. Five of the other names on our list proved much the same, but the final one… that one was as bad as South Moors and Darrowdale put together. Baile Monaidh Enclave was a decimated wreck, well on its way to becoming a ghost town like Glenfinnan. Its handful of surviving citizens were skeletal, withered almost to the point of desiccation, and sunk in such deep stupor they were barely breathing. We summoned all the help we could, but we both knew it was bordering upon too late for them.

By the time we finally made it Home, my trembling legs threatened to dump me face-first into the cold, unforgiving stones of the cellar Waypoint, and I came close to decorating them with a liberal helping of my stomach contents besides. How Jay held himself together I do not know, but somehow he did. As the swirling winds of our passage slowly died away, he stood with his arms tightly folded, jaw clenched, sweat pouring off him.

I eyed him with a view to offering assistance, but he would not meet my gaze.

‘I want a bath,’ I announced. ‘A bath, two meals, three desserts, six cups of tea and sixteen hours in bed.’

Jay made a faint sound that might have been a chuckle, or perhaps it was a choked gasp of pure longing. ‘Three meals for me, and make that twenty-four hours asleep.’

‘You’ve earned it.’ I hesitated, reluctant to give voice to my next thought. But it couldn’t be helped. ‘Right after we talk to Milady.’

Jay backed up a step, his eyes widening in horror. ‘No! I am not doing that climb!’

‘Well…’ I forced my jellied legs to walk me to the door, and took hold of the handle. ‘This might be one of those times when…’ I opened the door and took a peek beyond. ‘When House loves us. Look.’

Instead of the narrow, dark passage and staircases of the cellar, the room beyond the door was clearly Milady’s tower. ‘Just six or seven steps and we’re there.’

‘Three, if you don’t have short legs.’ Jay demonstrated one of his long strides, which dwarfed mine. But he never made it to a second. He wobbled and stopped, swaying like a sapling in a strong wind.

‘Right, come on.’ I took his arm, propped him up against my shoulder, and hauled us both through the door.

Jay promptly collapsed all over Milady’s floor. I winced, for he hit the ground with a thud and that had to hurt. The carpet might be handsome, but it wasn’t especially thick.

The air sparkled.

‘Jay Patel,’ said Milady. ‘Are you well?’

‘Fine,’ croaked Jay. Probably. It was hard to understand him with his face buried in the rug like that.

Milady let the matter drop. ‘Welcome Jay, Ves. You have news for me, I collect.’

‘Tons of it.’ I gave myself permission to sit, too, if Jay was going to, though I managed the business with a touch more elegance than he. With the help of an occasional, muffled interpolation from Jay, I told Milady everything that had happened since she had sent us off to Glenfinnan.

She heard us out in her customary courteous silence, and then said: ‘Very good. There’s chocolate in the pot.’

I blinked, taken aback, for I had expected some form of comment upon our labours. A question or two, perhaps; confirmation of a point of detail somewhere; even a titbit of information we might yet be unaware of.

Ah, well. If chocolate was all I could have, chocolate I would most certainly take.

‘Do take them back down, House?’ said Milady, which surprised me again, for I had never yet heard of anybody directly addressing House and actually receiving a response. But Milady spoke with the confidence of being not only heard but attended to, and so she was, for when we opened the door again we found ourselves stepping over the threshold directly into the first floor common room.

‘I like you,’ said Jay.

‘Thank you.’

‘I was talking to the House.’

‘I know.’

He gave me a tiny smile, barely more than a twitch of his lips, and sank heavily into the nearest arm chair. The chocolate pot, apparently taking its cues from Milady in the same fashion as House, obligingly poured itself out for both of us, and we disappeared into all the sweet, spicy pleasures of hot chocolate for a blissful two or three minutes.

‘Is that it?’ said Jay, when he had finished slurping up every last trace of chocolate from his dainty cup.

‘Doubtful. Now we wait.’

‘For?’

I shrugged. ‘Milady does not yet know how to proceed, I would guess. She is most likely awaiting the return of our colleagues from Darrowdale and Baile Monaidh.’

‘Why do we have to wait for Milady? Isn’t there something we can do in the meantime?’

‘Besides sleeping?’

‘After the sleeping.’

‘Maybe, yes, and I do have an idea. But I want to sleep first. Don’t you?’

‘Desperately.’

So we did that.

 

My idea involved a day or two spent searching the libraries; always an appealing prospect, whatever the occasion. But before I had chance to get started, someone swept in upon me and knocked all my plans awry. I was reclining in the common room at the time, stretched across two wing-back chairs and half asleep. It was first thing of the following morning, in my defence, and though I had slept a great deal it did not yet feel like enough.

‘Vesper?’ said a low, beautiful voice, and I jerked upright, for I knew those delectable tones.

Baron Alban was back.

The Road to Farringale: 8

That changed things. After Finnan, there was no more wandering through the spring sunshine admiring the scenery. We had several more distant Enclaves to visit, and every reason to expect trouble at most of them.

Jay called Nell, and gave her a terse, hurried report. She went away to consult with Milady, and called back barely ten minutes later. Jay listened in taut silence.

‘There’s a team on the way to investigate Finnan,’ he said when the call was done, shoving his phone back into his pocket. ‘And South Moors. We’re to go on to Darrowdale.’

‘All right.’

‘That’s in Gloucestershire,’ he added helpfully.

‘I knew that.’

‘Really?’

‘No.’

There might have been a roll of the eye in answer, but I couldn’t be sure, because Jay turned his back on me and marched off.

The disappointing part about the Ways is that you cannot drift away to one of them from literally Anywhere. In that, I suppose it isn’t much different from driving. You can go more or less anywhere you like by car, but if you get out and wander away from your vehicle, you’ll have to go find it again before you can drive on.

At least Jay and I did not have to contend with the misery that is traffic. It was, however, necessary for us to trawl our way back to the henge, at a pace which left both of us sweating and winded. From there, Jay whisked us off before either of us had chance to catch our breath.

The process was less disordering the second time, at least for me. I was no longer alarmed by the whirling winds, or the disorienting sensation of far-too-rapid movement. My insides objected a little less, too.

Jay, though, looked every bit as distressed as the first time. He spent a half-minute or so doubled over, elbows on his knees, shaking and gulping in air like a drowning man.

I began to feel concerned for him. We had several more Enclaves yet to visit, and must contrive to travel to at least three a day. Would the impact upon him grow more bearable, or less so? Would he cope?

I knew better than to express any of these thoughts, though. We were strangers to one another, near enough; would he hear concern in my words, or doubts as to his competency? I could not guess, and therefore did not take the risk.

‘We’re looking for the Giant’s Stone,’ said Jay once he had dragged himself upright. ‘I think that’s what they call it, around here.’ The henge he had brought us to was even more underwhelming than the last: just a circle of earthworks, no standing monuments of any kind. Had there never been any, or had the remnants faded with the passage of time? The henge was situated in the kind of copse that could exist pretty much anywhere in Britain: a raggety cluster of birch and oak trees randomly spread about, the floor carpeted in ivy and ferns. I could only take Jay’s word for it that we were in Gloucestershire — or, in fact, that there was a henge there at all, for the ground was so overgrown with ivy, I saw little but an indeterminate array of dips and slopes.

The Giant’s Stone, though, was much more distinct: twin slabs of ancient stone, prettily grown over with moss. I suppose they did look rather like sleeping giants; was that why they had been given the name? Or had somebody once seen an unglamoured troll hereabouts, and misinterpreted the vision? Happily for us, the Stone was not too far from the henge we’d used, perhaps only a mile. Still, it felt far enough away under the circumstances. I am by no means unfit, but I’m not a jogger.

I made a mental note to take up running when I got home. Apparently Jay and I were to be working together for a while, and with him… for all his dissatisfaction with the stairs, I was starting to think I might need to up my game.

Following my earlier lead, Jay set his palm to the nearest stone and entreated entrance. And…

…entrance was granted. Instantly. One of the stones ponderously rolled aside, revealing a grand subterranean entryway. Or in other words, a dirt tunnel heading deep underground.

‘That’s refreshing,’ I said. ‘How lovely and hospitable.’

But Jay was frowning. ‘I don’t think so. It’s more like the door was open anyway. I just gave it a little shove.’

Nobody leaves their front door open like that, not intentionally. My heart flickered with alarm. Jay disappeared into the downward-sloping tunnel and I followed; we all but ran the quarter-mile or so until the tall, earth-walled tunnel opened out into Darrowdale Enclave.

There is a large, populous Troll Enclave somewhere else in Gloucestershire:  the Enclave of the Forest of Dean. It, too, is subterranean, spread across a network of natural caverns beneath the forest. Apparently Gloucestershire trolls tend to be underground dwellers, for the smaller, lesser-known Darrowdale is much the same. We stepped out into a large cavern, its ceiling so far above our heads I couldn’t begin to imagine how far up it was. The rock walls were of mottled colours, scattered with chunks of raw iron ore and daubed with reddish purple ochre. The houses here were built into the rock walls, sloping structures made from irregular stone blocks fitted into place like some kind of Tetris puzzle. They had made significant use of the ochre, I judged, for red, purple and yellowish colours predominated in the paints and stones they had used.

Darrowdale was not abandoned. The trolls there strongly resembled the inhabitants of South Moors, only they were… worse. Jay and I walked the length of a wide main street unchallenged; its residents watched us pass with dull, uninterested eyes and made no move to stop us, to welcome us or to talk to us at all. I saw one old lady stretched across a low bench positioned in a pretty square at the end of the street; she lay covered with crocheted blankets, and looked as though she had not moved in a long time. In fact, she looked as though she may no longer be capable of movement at all. Only the faintest rising and falling of the blanket told me she lived at all: she was still breathing.

Everywhere we looked, the trolls of Darrowdale drifted in some kind of stupor. Many sat slumped upon benches or chairs or even upon the earthy, rock-inset floors, unmoving and uninterested in moving. Those who were still on their feet slouched and shuffled their way around, as though the effort of putting one foot in front of the other was almost insurmountably difficult. If nobody was speaking to us, they were not speaking to each other either, for the Enclave was eerily quiet.

‘No one’s doing anything,’ whispered Jay, appalled.

It was an appalling sight. So much life, there, in that populous little town, and yet no life at all.

‘That’s not quite true,’ I replied, struck by a sudden realisation. ‘They are eating. Look.’ The square we were standing in was ringed with houses; a suit-clad troll sat before one of them upon a stone bench, a chunk of raw meat in one hand. He ate with no apparent pleasure whatsoever, no relish, no attention for whatever he was eating. His jaws moved slowly, chewing his food with a methodical, mechanical determination to imbibe.

The image was faintly obscene, perhaps because it was so incongruous. His suit, though in dire need of laundering, was neat and smart and looked quite new; his house, too, had obviously seen a lot of care over the years. But he clutched his hunk of meat in a clawed grip, heedless of the blood that ran over his fingers and down his wrist to stain the cuffs of his white shirt. He was so expressionless I might have taken him for a statue, were he not moving. His teeth were stained, and flecked with torn-off flesh and blood.

Jay eyed him with poorly concealed disgust. ‘Trolls aren’t normally given to eating their meat raw, are they?’

‘Well, you’ve met Baron Alban. Do you think he’d go for that?’

‘He did say that trolls will eat pretty much anything.’

‘So they will. Lightly fried in butter, delicately sauteed, oven-roasted, a la sous vide, you name it. There is a reason why the Society employs a couple of troll chefs.’

‘Then why are they eating raw meat?’

The suited troll wasn’t the only one. Now that I thought to look for it, it was everywhere: most of the people we could see had a chunk of something raw and bleeding in one hand, even if they had yet to muster the energy to actually consume it. I took a closer look at the old lady on her bench, and saw that she had a morsel of something red and glistening clenched between her teeth. ‘Good question.’

‘And why are they all eating, all the time? Especially when they aren’t doing anything else.’

‘Also a good question.’ I approached the troll in his suit, moving slowly and carefully. I didn’t want to startle him; that would be neither to his benefit, nor mine.

I needn’t have taken such care. He did not even look at me as I drew near, only continued his grim war of attrition against the meat he held.

‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Good afternoon. We come from the Society for Magickal Heritage, in Yorkshire. May we ask you a couple of questions?’

I was not particularly expecting a response, nor did I get one. But he tried. His gaze flicked to me, and he spent some ten or fifteen seconds merely looking at my face. Then his mouth moved. At first I thought he was chewing again, but no. He made several attempts to form words, his lips struggling to shape syllables which did not emerge.

At length, he abandoned this effort and went back to his meat.

I frowned, noticing something else. The fabric of that natty suit hung oddly. The fit was wrong. That alone is no surprise; few people buy bespoke tailored suits anymore, they are largely purchased off-the-peg. When you do that, who knows what you are getting yourself into? But a perfectly-fitted ensemble isn’t likely to be it.

This was different. This troll had lost weight since he’d bought that suit. A lot of weight. The folds of fabric hung off him.

‘Why are you eating that?’ said Jay, coming up behind me. ‘Why is everybody eating all the time?’

He did not receive an answer either. The troll did not even look at Jay, but went on chewing, oblivious.

I turned away from the uncommunicative troll and stared around in dismay. ‘You know, Jay, while that’s a relevant question and all… I’m also inclined to ask what they are eating. Where did they get all this meat?’ I was thinking, of course, of the two alikats at South Moors, who had been seconds away from being turned into dinner when we had intercepted them.

‘Oh,’ said Jay, and then added: ‘Shit.’

The Road to Farringale: 7

Jay looked like he was strongly disposed to vomit.

‘Are you all right?’ I said. Quite uselessly, for he clearly was not.

‘Fine,’ he replied through gritted teeth.

‘Your legs are shaking.’

‘My everything is shaking. But I’m fine.’ He got to his feet and stood, visibly trembling. But since he was also wearing the clenched-jaw look of a man who will not be helped, I left him to it and devoted myself to a largely futile attempt to figure out where we had ended up.

We were in the middle of a henge, of course, though it was not the flashy kind that hordes of tourists come to see. Little remained of it but a ring of decaying wooden posts half-sunk in wet earth, and surrounding that (and us) were… trees. Straggly ones, thick enough to obscure whatever lay beyond but otherwise rather sad-looking.

‘Place requires some tending,’ I said.

‘Most of Britain requires some tending.’ Jay took a deep breath, stretched, cast a quick glance around himself and set his face resolutely in what appeared to me to be a completely random direction. ‘Ready to go?’

‘Where? I have no idea where we are.’

‘Somewhere in the vicinity of Glenfinnan. We’re a few miles away from Finnan Enclave.’ He checked my shoes and, oddly, smiled. ‘Boots. Good.’

‘Why do you seem surprised?’

‘I thought you might have shown up in heels or something.’

‘I am not that much of an airhead, Mr. Patel.’ I haughtily shouldered my bag. ‘Lead on.’

Jay’s comment did not much surprise me. I am not expected to be much of a walker; you wouldn’t anticipate that about a woman with a fondness for delicate, impractical clothes and improbable hair, would you? But actually, I love to walk. I enjoyed our hike, for the environs of Glenfinnan proved to be green hill country, dotted with patches of woodland, and here and there glimpses of an expanse of clear, serene water.  The air was bright and crisp and I breathed deeply, somewhat regretful that our errand was of such urgency as to prevent of our exploring.

Jay clearly had no soul for scenery, for he marched on without ever pausing to admire. Nor did he ever waver as to direction. He certainly had focus. He seemed so little inconvenienced by his obvious shakiness before, I didn’t want to admit that my knees were shaking, too, and it took half an hour for the waves of nausea to stop assaulting my stomach. I pretended I was fine and so did Jay, and we accomplished our forced-march in rather less than an hour.

Finnan Enclave’s front door proved to be at the base of one of those gorgeous, craggy hills, a bit like at South Moors. We stood in the twin shadow of two swelling peaks, one rising on either side of us. Drifty clouds had raced over the sun, and we stood bathed in a mild, unpromising gloom as we studied the green, heathery slopes before us.

‘Are you sure this is it?’ I said after a while, when Jay seemed undecided.

‘Yes.’

All right, then. I waited while Jay rambled about a bit, looking this way and that in a decisive fashion, and occasionally touching protruding rocks.

‘Do you know where the door is?’ I said at last.

‘Of course I do.’

I waited a little longer, watching in idle delight as a tiny pink skreerat poked its head out from in between a tuft of grasses, eyed Jay beadily, and vanished again.

Jay finally gave up his futile search. ‘It’s one of these,’ he said, gesturing broadly at a tumble of fallen boulders.

‘How do you know that?’

‘I looked them up on Nell’s system before we left.’

Clever of him, though it was not currently availing us much. I rummaged in my satchel, ignoring Jay’s disbelief as I extracted rather more objects from within than could reasonably fit inside. ‘Aha,’ I murmured, drawing forth my oversized key and a pendulum, the kind that had probably once belonged inside a grandfather clock. ‘This,’ I said to Jay, ‘is a basic burglar’s toolkit, magicker style.’ It was the work of a moment to coax the pendulum into activity and it began to swing gently in my hand, back and forth, back and forth. ‘It is a little clumsy, the pendulum,’ I observed as the charm did its work. ‘I would have enchanted a pathfinder’s charm onto something a bit more elegant, myself. A filigree compass, for example, with quartz fittings and a handsome chain. But—’ I paused as the pendulum’s sway slowed and eventually stopped, leaving the device pointing unerringly at a large, craggy black boulder about six feet away from where Jay had stopped. ‘It works, proving that elegance is not at all necessary in life.’ I smiled, packed the pendulum away again, and advanced upon the boulder.

We had to go through the usual process of requesting entrance, of course. I laid my palm against the boulder and announced us. When that didn’t work, Jay tried.

We were not surprised to find that the silent hills remained silent. There was no promising creak of an opening door, no gust of air to welcome us into a yawning portal.

‘Breaking and entering it is, then,’ I said, with a sense of satisfaction I could not disguise. I can’t help it: I love doing things the sneaky way.

Jay was not so thrilled. He did not object, for Milady had essentially ordered us to get into these Enclaves one way or another. But he was visibly uncomfortable as I employed my unlocking charm upon the boulder and…

…and nothing. It did not work. Oh, the key worked all right; it glimmered with that promising aura of power, and the boulder glittered in response. There was communication between the two charms, as there should have been, but the boulder declined to be affected by it. The rock remained untouched, stubbornly inert and immoveable.

‘Some burglar you are,’ said Jay.

I put the key away. ‘On to Plan C.’ That skreerat had to have come from somewhere. Magickal beasts don’t typically wander the wilds as freely as, say, wood mice or stoats or whatever. They mostly stick to the Dells, which are pockets of Hidden landscapes folded between the Ways. Finnan Enclave had firmly closed its outer doors upon the non-magickal world, as they all did, but its regular entrance would undoubtedly be situated on the edge of one of these Dells. If we could not walk straight into the Enclave, we’d have to get into Finnan Dell first and then break into the Troll settlement. Their back door, so to speak, was unlikely to be so well protected as their front door.

I went back to the spot where I’d seen the skreerat, and kept walking that way. It wasn’t too long before I saw it again: a glimpse of pinkish-grey fur whisking into the concealing cover of a cluster of frondy grasses.

I delved into my satchel again, removed an object which markedly resembled an ordinary torch (because, in essentials, it was), and switched it on. Its beam blazed forth, illuminating the grassy path the skreerat had followed in a haze of misty light.

‘Is there anything you aren’t carrying in that bag?’ said Jay.

‘Nope.’ I waved the torch around a bit, but the quality of the light did not change.

Hm.

‘The wonderful thing about the Society is its forward-thinking attitude,’ I told Jay as I clomped around in circles, throwing hazy light everywhere. ‘Somewhere in the attic is Orlando’s lab. Nobody is allowed in there, not ever, but the most wondrous things come out. Including this torch. It’s a hybrid, see? It is electronic in its basic function, but Orlando blends these things with charms in some unfathomable way and comes out with totally unique effects.’ There: a flicker of bright energy in the near distance, lancing through the brumous glow like a lightning strike. ‘This particular one illuminates traces of magickal energy, making them visible to the eye in ways they usually aren’t. See that?’

Jay saw it. He was off before I could say another word, striding ahead of me at such speed I found it hard to keep up.

About twenty seconds later he disappeared.

I found the spot where I had last seen him, and shone my torch about one more time. There was a long, vertical split in the air: a thin, wavering line about twelve feet high, traced in white light.

I turned sideways, and fell through the tear in the atmosphere.

There are those who manage this procedure with rather more grace than I. I can only achieve a chaotic tumble, so of course I ended in an undignified heap upon the floor of the Dell beyond. I chose not to worry about what Jay might think of this display of clumsiness and quickly picked myself up, dusted bits of grass off my coat with studied nonchalance, and took a look around.

Jay, thankfully, was about ten feet off, and not looking my way. No wonder, either, for when one is surrounded by such spectacular beauty, why waste your glances upon me? Finnan Dell was like Glenfinnan, only more colourful. We stood at the top of a low, sloping hill; ranged around us was a lusciously rolling landscape composed of several more peaks and dales, all dusted with heathery grasses ranging in hue from serene jade to vivid emerald. Clumps of bushes painted in shades of blue were dotted here and there, sprouting spring blossoms in glorious profusion. The air was balmy, and held that slightly hushed, hazy quality the outer world only displays at the height of summer, and early in the morning. A lake lay spread at the bottom of the valley before us, adding the clean scent of fresh water to the bouquet of floral nectar I was luxuriating in.

‘The Enclave is this way,’ said Jay in a no-nonsense tone, proving once again that he has no heart for beauty.

I fell in behind him anyway. We did have a job to do.

And there we were, faced with another dreaming hillside, though this one was attractively sun-drenched. Finnan Enclave’s Dellside door was another huge, black boulder embedded into the hill’s face. No one answered this one, either, but my excellent key worked like a charm (…so to speak). The boulder groaned mightily and heaved itself aside, and in we went.

My first impression of Finnan Enclave was that it was, unbelievably, messier than South Moors. The winding, curved stone streets were familiar enough, though their houses were of a different architectural style: stone and wood-built with little arches, and some intriguing polychromatic brickwork. Grand, handsome and sweet in equal measure, and most attractive. I’d live in such a house.

But those streets were thick with debris. A heavy, not unpleasant scent of compost hung in the air, the source of which proved to be the piles of long-rotted something heaped up in every sweeping corner. A thick, oppressive silence hung over everything, and though we walked down street after street, we saw nobody about. No one at all.

Jay and I exchanged twin looks of concern. ‘I think it is time for a little more breaking and entering,’ I suggested.

I expected a refusal from Jay, and he did hesitate, but finally he nodded. ‘I don’t think we’ll even need your key, here. Look.’ He indicated the nearest house, whose grand elmwood door hung slightly ajar.

Not a good sign.

‘None of this mess is litter,’ I said, upon a sudden realisation.

Jay, already halfway up the path to the house, stopped. ‘What?’

‘There’s no litter. This is all leaves, twigs, branches, dead flowers… swept in off the hillsides, probably. There is nothing here that looks like it was dropped by somebody living.’

Jay frowned, and made for the house again at a half-run. I followed.

The house was gorgeous inside, all wood panelling and sweeping archways. There was an entrance hall hung with tapestries, a dining room, two parlours, a handsome stone kitchen… whoever lived here lacked for neither money nor taste, clearly.

Only, it was empty. Not only were there no signs of life, there were no signs there had ever been any life. Everything was dust and desolation, like some kind of show home that had fallen out of use.

‘This is weird,’ said Jay, and I agreed, for it was weird.

It wasn’t just that house, either, for a quick survey of the next few along the street told the same story. They were all empty, dust-laden, abandoned.

‘This entire town is dead,’ said Jay wonderingly, when we regained the street.

‘As a dodo,’ I agreed.

Jay took out his phone. ‘We’ve got a big problem here.’

The Road to Farringale: 6

‘Nobody thought to mention this before?’ I asked, unable to suppress a trace of bitterness.

‘It was not considered wise to make this ability widely known.’

Waymasters are rare. That is an understatement. One who knows the Ways can make use of all the ancient portals that are spread all over Britain — and indeed, the world. Around here they take the form of henges, for the most part. The big, shiny, popular ones like Stonehenge are never used anymore; too many tourists in the way. But the country is littered with the more humble kind, henges of rock and wood and earth. If you can walk the Ways, you can step from one to another in the blink of an eye. It is an ability that used to be common, but like so much else of magick it has been fading away for generations. Nobody knows why.

I understand that some would find all kinds of interesting, nefarious ways to exploit such an ability as Jay’s. But I wouldn’t. Did they not trust me?

‘Jay was assigned to you because you were the best person to train him,’ said Milady. ‘I wanted you to treat him as an ordinary recruit. I wanted him to learn how we manage day by day, with or without a Waymaster to hand, for he will not always have the ability freely at his disposal. It was not intended that you should be kept in the dark about it forever.’

I did not feel much mollified, but I kept my dissatisfaction to myself. It is unprofessional to put one’s irritations on display. ‘Very well.’

‘What would you like us to do?’ asked Jay.

‘Baron Alban is well-travelled, and frequently visits the more populous and central Enclaves. He is not concerned about the well-being of any of those. There are a few far-flung or mildly reclusive settlements, however, whose fate is more in question. I need you to discover whether they are showing any signs of decay, like South Moors, or any unusual behaviour.’

A mission that proposed to take me all over the country in a trice, and gave me the opportunity to explore several places I had never before visited, could only be welcome to me. ‘Yes ma’am!’ I said with enthusiasm.

‘Thrice the usual budget, Ves,’ added Milady, ‘and take whatever you need from Stores. You have one week.’

Resources: Great. Time: Less so. I swallowed a mixture of mild panic and exhilaration and made my usual obeisance. ‘We’d better get started at once, then.’

‘That would be lovely.’

 

It is possible that when Milady said take what you need from Stores, she did not mean rob the place of everything that might conceivably come in handy, under any circumstances whatsoever. But if that wasn’t what she meant she ought to have particularised, for Jay and I had a daunting job to do and no time at all to do it.

‘See, when Milady says “a week”,’ I said to Jay as I palmed a handy sustenance charm, ‘she really means about three days.’ I found an unlocking charm — enchanted, unimaginatively, upon a huge bronze key — and pocketed that, too. The Stores at Home are wonderful: half a dozen rooms of varying size, the walls all lined with shelves and cabinets laden with all manner of artefacts, trinkets and Curiosities — and even a few genuine Treasures. Some of them are aged and delicate; you need a special permit to take any of those out. I didn’t touch them. I was more than contented with enchantments more recently Wrought, for they offered everything we could need, and one did not have to live in fear of breaking or losing one of them along the way.

‘Three days,’ murmured Jay. ‘Let’s see that list again?’

I handed over the slip of paper I’d received from Nell: a computer print-out of all known Troll Enclaves still extant in Britain. The list consisted of twenty-six names, more than half of which she had subsequently crossed out in red pen. Baron Alban’s territories, I presumed; we did not need to investigate those. South  Moors and Farringale were also crossed off, which left us with nine places to visit.

Nine towns in three days.

Feasible, I hoped, since one of us was a Waymaster. But damn. It was going to be intense.

I could see when Jay had finished counting up the names, for his face registered the same dismay as I felt. I quickly took back the list. ‘One at a time. That’s all we have to think about.’

‘Right.’ He returned to watching me strip Stores of everything remotely useful, though I felt that his gaze rested more on me than on the surrounding treasures. How did that make sense? New recruits tended to salivate when we brought them in here, and I’d taken Jay straight to the largest of the storerooms. A fabulous late nineteenth-century statue of a mermaid rested on a shelf about three inches from his face, a lovely thing Wrought from jade and something nacreous which visibly rippled with power. A protection charm of some kind was probably embedded therein; it was the kind of thing the wealthy used to like to keep on display in their fabulous houses, to keep thieves and such away.

Jay didn’t even glance at it.

What?’ I said after a while.

Jay chewed his lip. ‘I, uh. Think we may have got off on the wrong foot, just a little.’

Well, he was right. I turned away again to hide my blush, for I had messed up. ‘I fear I have been patronising, and I apologise. But really. If they’d just told me that you were—’

‘Relevant?’ Jay offered.

‘Yes. Exactly.’ I took down a sweet little teacup painted with viper’s bugloss, but regretfully put it back again. I wanted it, but the chances of either of us coming down with a fever in the next three days were not high.

‘Apology accepted. But I was speaking more of myself.’

‘Oh?’

‘I think it was the unicorn symbol, and your…’ He trailed off. When I looked back, his gaze was travelling thoughtfully from my wildly-coloured hair, past my madly-coloured dress and all the way down to my whimsically-coloured shoes. He wisely chose not to finish that sentence. ‘Ves,’ he said instead. ‘That’s all anybody ever calls you. But you turn out to be Cordelia Vesper.’

‘Does that name mean something to you?’

He grimaced. ‘I read your thesis. “Modern Magick and—”‘

‘—Magickal Heritage: The Changing Times.  I remember.’

‘Right.’

I waited, but that seemed to be it. ‘Did you…’ I paused to reflect, discarding my instinctive question, because did you like it? sounded appallingly needy. ‘Did you find it… useful?’ I hazarded.

‘It was interesting.’

Interesting. Right.

I took down one last Curiosity — a floral charm bracelet which, if I knew my charms, purported to change the colour of any bloom I chose to so deface — and stuffed it into my pocket. There was no possible way we could find a use for it, but what did that matter? Life is complicated, and happiness is made up of the little things. I’d bring it back when we got home.

‘Shall we go?’ I proposed.

‘At once, and immediately. Faster than the speed of light. We’ll arrive yesterday.’

I blinked. ‘Really?’

‘Wha— no. No! It was a joke.’

‘Oh.’ Anything Jay did could only seem sadly mundane after hype like that, but perhaps that was well enough. Who knew what could be going on behind that impassive visage? Maybe Jay suffered from performance anxiety.

 

And lo, it was my turn to be ignorant.

Jay led us down into the cellar. This is not a part of the House I have ever had much cause to visit, before. It is mostly used for storage — the boring kind, not relics and artefacts and such — and one or two minor departments I never go to. Our destination therein proved to be a small chamber tucked into one corner, which we reached by way of a lengthy staircase and three winding corridors.

The heavy oak door creaked horribly as Jay coaxed it open.

‘Here we are,’ said Jay, ushering me inside and closing the door behind me. ‘The Waypoint at Home.’

I looked around, unimpressed. The room was barely furnished; naught but a single couch rested against one wall, looking inviting enough with its plump upholstery and overstuffed appearance, but it was not at all elegant. The walls could have used a new coat of paint, or perhaps just a thorough scrubbing; what had probably once been white had dulled to a drab cream. The floor was well enough, but its bare oak boards had not been swept in about a decade either, if I was any judge.

There was nothing else in there, save only for one thing: a ring of nubs of wood, set into the floor. The remains, I judged, of an ancient henge, over the top of which the House had been built.

Clever.

Jay puttered about doing nothing that I could make any sense of, and I waited. I was already beginning to regret my excess of enthusiasm in Stores; the shoulder bag I carried seemed to be growing heavier by the moment. I occupied myself in transferring some of the smaller of its contents into the pockets of my long purple coat, pleased to find that the redistribution helped. A little.

Curse my magpie tendencies.

‘So,’ I said after a while, when Jay still did not appear to be doing anything productive. ‘What happens now?’

‘Seriously?’

‘Uh… yes?

‘How can you have no idea how a Waymaster works?’ Jay was incredulous, which was unfair of him.

‘Jay. Nobody knows how a Waymaster works. Our last one left eight and a half years ago to take up a tempting employment offer in Jaipur, and that was the last I saw of her. And she never took me travelling with her anyway.’

‘Really?’ Jay was silent for a moment. ‘What kind of employment opportunity?’

‘Jay. Focus.’

‘Just how tempting was it?’

‘Jay!’

He rolled his eyes, and… a lot happened all at once. He was standing in the middle of the room, and when he raised his arms the air swooped and whirled and gathered itself into a vortex of stars. That is the nicer way I can think of to describe it. If I said it also resembled a twinkly tornado, however, perhaps that better conveys its more alarming qualities.

‘Why do people call you Vesper?’ he yelled. I still couldn’t figure out what he was doing, but it involved some effort, for sweat was forming on his brow. ‘Why not Cordelia?’

‘I hate my name!’

‘It’s… it’s pretty.’

‘Cordelia? Yes! It’s a doll name, for pretty, well-behaved girls who take a lot of ballet classes and wear their hair in buns.’

I thought he actually laughed, though that might have been a trick of the light — which was turning awfully peculiar. ‘Why not shorten it?’

‘To what? Cord? That’s a type of string. Dell? That’s a magickal reservoir. Or a computer.’

‘Ves is unique.’

‘Exactly. It—’

I did not make it to the end of this sentence, for with a roar and a swoop and a nauseating sensation of the world tilting upside down, we were gone from the Waypoint in the cellar and deposited in an untidy, aching heap somewhere altogether else.

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.

 

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.’