Toil and Trouble: 2

In my room at Home, I’ve got a little stash of Curiosities, minor artefacts, and assorted odds and ends. Some of them are useful, some of them aren’t. Probably my favourite of the latter category is a beautiful old scroll, the real kind, made of vellum and with rowan-wood supports. It even has a tooled-leather case. It’s paired with a quill pen — owl feather, not goose! Both are enchanted, so that anything I might choose to write upon mine will appear at once upon the matching scrolls of some other member (or members) of the Society. They used to be standard issue, but they had stopped handing them out by the time I joined. I once found a whole, sorry stack of them in Stores, and took pity on this set because… because they’re pretty.

What can I say.

The reason for their obsolescence, of course, is the mobile phone. When we all wander about with smartphones surgically attached to our wrists, who needs quills and scrolls anymore? A sad casualty of cruel, inexorable time.

But, I have to admit, a fair one. For when, a few hours later, my own personal scroll-killer buzzed and began to play Sussudio, it got my attention at once, and within two minutes I was rattling back down to Research and Zareen’s broom-cupboard of a room.

Zareen opened the door right away. ‘You’re going to like this,’ she said, grinning and ushering me inside.

I eyed the book with misgivings. It lay quiescent upon the desk, quiet as a proverbial church mouse, but I didn’t trust it. ‘I rather doubt that.’

‘Oh, don’t worry. It’s much nicer now.’

‘It is? What did you do to it?’

Zareen wouldn’t meet my eye. ‘Uh, just some minor tweaks. Never mind that. What do you think I found inside?’

‘You’ve read it!’

‘Sort of. There isn’t much to read, as it turns out. Only a few pages have been used. It looks like a journal, used to record somebody’s progress upon some kind of journey. The destination’s  unclear — at least, it was at first.

Zareen was bursting with news, and very smug about it too. I didn’t want to stop her, but I had to ask: ‘Wait, where’s Jay?’

‘No idea. Anyway, the—’

‘Stop right there.’ I grabbed my phone and called Jay, ignoring Zareen’s eye-rolling disgust. ‘Toil and Trouble,’ I told Jay when he answered. ‘All due haste.’

‘Be right there.’

I put my phone away. ‘It’s Jay’s book,’ I said. ‘And I’m his… mentor, I suppose. Can’t leave him out.’

Zareen waited with an exaggerated display of patience.

‘What’s the problem with you two, anyway?’

‘Oh, nothing really. I think he’s a prude and a stick-in-the-mud and he thinks I’m reckless and irresponsible.’ She gave me a half-smile. ‘Just squabbles, Ves. Don’t worry about it.’

Me, worry? I wanted to disclaim this charge at once, until I realised I was wearing my worried face. I hastily smoothed out my features and adopted an air of proper unconcern. ‘I feel responsible for him,’ I said by way of explanation.

‘I don’t think you need to be. I’ll say this for him: he’s far from stupid, and he’ll always be okay.’

‘Mm.’ I was convinced — sort of.

Zareen looked at me shrewdly. ‘He feels responsible for you, too, I think.’

‘Me!’

Zareen grinned. ‘Surprised? He was given the job of making sure we don’t lose you somewhere.’

‘Making sure I don’t lose myself somewhere, you mean? Fair.’

‘No easy task.’

I couldn’t argue with this judgement, since it was true. Thankfully for my dignity, Jay showed up just then. He was polite enough to greet Zareen with a nod, and looked at me. ‘What’s the news?’

‘Your moment’s arrived,’ I said to Zareen. ‘We’re ready to be impressed!’

Zareen leaned back in her chair, put her booted feet up on her desk and said, ‘It’s a treasure map.’

‘What?’ said Jay. ‘Bill?’

‘Sort of. The book, as I’ve just said to Ves, contains a somewhat wandering and confused account of somebody’s journey in search of something unidentified, to places unspecified — not at all edifying, and so poorly written I can’t even decipher all of it. Only the first few pages have been written on — and one page at the back, which contains a sketch.’

‘A map!’ I said.

Zareen nodded, grinning. ‘It’s got an X-marks-the-spot and everything.’ She displayed for us a piece of notepaper, upon which she had apparently copied the map in red pen. Her X in the middle was huge and exuberant, marked in bold.

‘How do we know it’s a treasure map?’ said Jay, prosaically.

I sighed. ‘Ancient maps with an X marked somewhere upon them are always treasure maps.’

Zareen nodded. ‘That, and there’s an obscure reference on the third page to a bounty of some kind. There’s no description as to what manner of treasure the writer was after, but he obviously expected to discover some grand prize.’

‘Any idea as to the identity of the writer?’ I asked.

‘None.’

‘Did you ask Bill?’ said Jay.

‘I tried. He wouldn’t stop insulting me long enough to answer my questions.’

Jay and I both looked in silence at the book. It hadn’t spoken a word since I’d entered the room, fully quarter of an hour before. ‘I’m curious,’ said Jay. ‘How did you shut it up?’

Zareen shifted in her seat, and avoided Jay’s eye. And mine. ‘Er, I haven’t. He’s just a bit less noisy now.’

I considered pressing the matter — Zareen was obviously skirting around the edges of something — but on reflection I let it pass. Sometimes it’s best to circle around the point. So I said: ‘What’s the likelihood that Bill, or wherever that voice is coming from, is the same person who wrote the journal entries and sketched the map?’

‘You mean, is this a haunting? I don’t think so. When he wasn’t insulting me, he was protesting against the very idea that he’d write such uncouth nonsense, or hare around searching for treasure just because somebody drew a map. Whatever became of the writer, I don’t think it’s Bill. And I’m not convinced that the book’s haunted by anybody else, either, for he’s showed no signs of having any kind of history that he can remember, and ghosts can usually talk about little else. You’ll want to interrogate him a bit more yourself, see if you can’t get more out of him.’

I reached for the book.

‘Later,’ added Zareen hastily.

I sat back again. ‘So it’s not a haunting. A curse, then?’

‘Could be, but it’s the oddest curse I’ve ever come across if so. Yes, he was keeping idle hands from opening the book and thereby keeping anybody from reading it, but it’s a clumsy form of protection. It didn’t take much to get around that problem.’

‘Oh?’

Zareen indicated a pair of heavy marble paperweights upon her desk. ‘It took a few tries, but I peaced it and put weights upon its pages. Bill went off for a nice little nap, and when he woke up it was too late to take up snapping at my fingers again.’ She paused and added reflectively, ‘He took it rather well, all things considered, which again leads me to think that he isn’t there to deter people from reading it. He’s just a bad-tempered grouch.’

‘But if he’s not a ghost or a curse, what is he?’

‘A spell,’ said Zareen with a shrug. ‘Though I grant you, it’s a sophisticated enchantment, and more complex than anything I’ve ever met with before. Quite intimidating, even. But considering where you got the thing, I shouldn’t be surprised.’

I took it from this that Zareen had no more idea what the spell was intended to accomplish than I did. And how intriguing a puzzle. A complicated enchantment which had gifted an (apparently) ordinary book with sentience — and an extraordinarily foul vocabulary? One which had, considering the nature of that vocabulary, been placed upon the book some four or five hundred years ago? And one which, for all its sophistication, Zareen had managed to get around with quite a simple charm?

Very curious indeed.

‘If someone was going to go to all that trouble,’ said Jay, ‘I wonder why they didn’t make it more… polite.’

‘A good question.’

I couldn’t help but be tickled by the idea. ‘That’s a sense of humour I can appreciate.’

Zareen grinned. ‘It doesn’t quite fit with the legends of old Farringale, though, does it? The royal court, a place of learning and high art, blah blah.’

‘You’d expect it to express itself in the courtliest language, and with perfect etiquette.’

Zareen looked shifty again. ‘Er, yes. You would.’

‘So the map,’ said Jay, and leaned over the book to get a closer look at it. ‘Where does it lead to?’

Zareen pushed her sketch nearer. ‘Might want to consult Val. There’s only one word on it, and when I did a search I didn’t get any hits.’

Drogryre,’ read Jay.

‘No hits at all?’ I repeated, incredulous.

‘Not one. So this place is—’

‘—even more lost to the mists of time than Farringale,’ I finished.

‘Or just an extremely well-kept secret,’ suggested Jay. He picked up the map and stuck it in his pocket, then made to collect the book, too.

Zareen stopped him. ‘Where are you going with those?’

‘To find Drogryre. Isn’t that what we do next?’

‘Give the book to Ves.’

This requirement made as much sense to me as it did to Jay, who looked irritated. But he complied, stepping back to make room for me.

I picked up the book very carefully, still expecting it to hurl abuse at me. But it remained blissfully quiet.

‘Don’t open it until you get to the library,’ Zareen recommended, and seemed in a hurry to usher us out.

‘Why not?’ I said.

‘It’s asleep right now.’

‘What do you mean by—’ I began, but the door was already closing behind us.

‘Bring me back something with bones!’ yelled Zareen through the door as we walked away.

‘There’s something fishy about all that,’ said Jay.

I had to agree. We made it halfway back to the library before curiosity overcame the both of us. ‘I have to open it,’ I said.

‘Go on,’ said Jay.

We stopped in an alcove beneath a big, bright window and I took hold of the front cover. ‘Here we go.’

To my relief, the book suffered itself to be opened without trying to bite my fingers; without even snapping itself shut again. Nor did it drown me in a barrage of abuse.

But it did speak.

‘Madam,’ said the book. ‘You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’

I slammed the book shut again.

Silence. Then Jay said, in a strangled voice, ‘Is Bill quoting Pride and Prejudice?’

‘Dear Jay,’ I said faintly. ‘I could not be more impressed with your familiarity with the utterances of Mr. Darcy, I assure you.’

‘Why is it coming out of this book?’ said Jay, ignoring my implied question with superb grace.

Gingerly, I opened it up again. And there, on the first unused page, was the whole of Mr. Darcy’s ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, written out in Zareen’s rounded handwriting.

‘Val,’ I said slowly, ‘is going to kill all of us.’

‘Probably with a dessert spoon.’

Toil and Trouble: 1

Guess who was landed with the job of looking after the foul-mouthed book?

‘Get this horrid thing out of my library!’ said Val, and it was unmistakeably an order, but she looked at me in a desperate, pleading way which, as her friend, I could not ignore.

‘Something must certainly be done about it,’ I agreed, though my mind was blank as to what, exactly, one could do with an unusually lively sixteenth-century tome with all the tender sensibility of a guttersnipe.

‘Base, beetle-headed fool!’ raged the book, hovering still before poor Valerie’s face. ‘Thou hast cracked my spine!’

‘Beetle-headed?’ whispered Jay to me. ‘Now it’s just making them up.’

‘I have not!’ protested Val, and truly, I could hardly think of a more vicious insult to direct at our head librarian. She’d probably die before she would handle an old book so carelessly as to damage it. ‘But I will, if you don’t stop,’ she added, and I blinked, shocked.

Cracked,’ repeated the book. ‘Next thou shalt bend thyself to the creasing of my pages! To the turning of my very corners, and the pinching of them, until, full broken, they have not the means of righting themselves!’

‘I suppose “dog-eared” must be a recently coined term,’ reflected Jay, watching the book with the dispassionate, arms-folded stance of an intrigued scholar.

‘I like his version,’ I protested. ‘Verbose, elegant, poetic—’

‘Windy, flowery and over the top.’

I had long suspected that Jay lacked something in the way of soul. Here was all the proof I needed.

Jay!’ thundered Valerie, making both of us jump. Admittedly, she did have to raise her voice considerably in order to be heard over the abominable book, which ranted on and on, unabashed. ‘This is your doing, and you will fix it at once!’

‘Mine?’ gasped Jay. ‘How is it my fault?!’

‘You brought it here!’

‘Together with several other works of great historical interest, and far better-behaved,’ I reminded her.

‘Yes,’ said Valerie, and smiled. ‘Thank you for those, Jay.’

‘You’re welcome.’

‘But get rid of this one!

Jay looked not only reluctant to saddle himself with such an object (and who could blame him), but also completely at a loss as to what to do with it if he did. It was only about his third or fourth week with the Society, after all, and this was a species of magickal heritage that even the veterans amongst us had never seen or heard of before (most assuredly including yours truly). So I hastily stepped forward and, feeling heroic and martyred, swept up the book.

‘Thank you, Ves,’ said Valerie, instantly mollified.

I only sighed. ‘May I ask how it came to start talking? For it was as silent as any a book should be, all the way here from Farringale.’

‘I opened it.’

‘That’s it?’

‘That’s it. It started shrieking blue murder at once, and I did not even get to read any of it because the vile thing kept slamming itself upon my fingers.’

‘Deserved, craven wench,’ the book informed her.

Valerie cast it a look of intense dislike. ‘Sorry to land you with that, Ves,’ she said. ‘But I can’t have it in the library all day. It’s making far too much noise.’

She was right, of course. We were only in the library’s entrance hall, in fact, where Val’s grand desk stood; the library itself was through a handsome archway a few feet to my left, whereupon it stretched away and away for some distance. Nonetheless, I had no doubt that the book’s ringing tones could be distinctly heard all the way at the bottom of the library, which would be pleasing the Society’s scholars to no end.

‘I don’t suppose you have any suggestions…?’ I ventured, feeling almost as much at a loss as Jay.

Valerie massaged her temples. There were deep shadows under her dark eyes, and I wondered how long she’d been grappling with the book before we’d finally arrived. ‘I don’t know exactly, but there’s no doubt this is one of our weirder acquisitions. A curse, or a haunting? You might try—’

‘Zareen,’ I said. ‘This is right up her alley.’

‘Good luck.’ She gave me a wan smile, which I just about managed to return.

Away went Jay and I.

 

Ordinarily, Jay is much better at finding his way around than me, and I am forced to follow him about like a trusting little lamb while he marches us off to wherever we’re going. But not at Home. It’s a huge, sprawling old place, and while it was built in the sixteen-hundreds it’s had all kinds of additions, alterations and expansions made in the centuries since. Having spent more than a decade wandering its winding passages, I know it extremely well, but it will take Jay a while yet to get the hang of it.

Thus I was able to sweep out of the library, chin high, and strut confidently away, with Jay trailing meekly along behind me. Felt good. I waited for Jay’s inevitable complaint — on the topic of Zareen, most likely, towards whom he has reportedly developed an instant (and mutual) antipathy — but he was silent.

So was the book.

This surprised me so much that I stopped walking, having travelled only about twenty paces down the betapestried corridor. ‘Hello?’ I said, tentatively.

‘To whom do you speak?’ said the book, after a moment’s pause.

‘Why, to you.’

‘Well met, lady.’

‘How polite. I had rather expected curses.’

‘Thou hast not merited such treatment.’

Jay said, ‘Better not open it.’

I had to agree. Cradling the book carefully, I ventured on, and Jay fell in beside me. We had not far to go. The structure at Home is as chaotic in the organisational sense as in the geographical; we are loosely separated into divisions but there is so much bleedover between the daily duties, challenges and obstacles faced by our various groups that the structure often falls down. Jay and I, for example, are officially part of Acquisitions, but I’m periodically seconded into Research (happy days, those), and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Jay ends up handed off to Zareen’s division more often than he’s going to like.

Technically, Zareen is part of Research, albeit in an unusual capacity. But she consults for Development from time to time, and I bump into her in Research here and there, too. She runs an obscure little division almost single-handedly, clumsily shelved under Research because nobody knows what else to call it. And since it has never been given its own, official name, we’ve collectively dubbed it the Toil and Trouble division.

In other words: when anything particularly weird comes up, we all call in Zareen.

She’s usually holed up not far from the library, in a tiny nook of a room buried deep in the west wing. The door is always shut.

‘Would you mind knocking?’ I said to Jay once we had arrived. ‘I don’t want to risk dropping the book.’

‘Perish the thought.’ Jay shuddered, and knocked smartly upon the door. He then adopted a pose of such studied nonchalance as clearly displayed his discomfort, and I tried my best not to notice.

‘Hang on a minute!’ yelled Zareen. There came some clattering noises from the other side of the door, and we were left to enjoy the chill of the dim, stone-walled corridor (bare of tapestries, paintings or anything else in this part of the House) for half a minute longer.

Then the door swung open, apparently by itself, revealing Zareen seated at a desk tucked into the corner of the room. The place was a mess, as usual; books and notepads were stacked everywhere, along with a host of such peculiar paraphernalia I’d have no idea where to begin in describing it. Case in point, though: a collection of skulls, apparently human, clustered at one end of her desk, except that they were palm-sized, and as usual she had an odd contraption made of woven string, jewel-charms and bones hung upon the wall above her chair. Her curse-catcher, she calls it. I’ve never been able to figure out whether its purpose is merely decorative, or functional — and if the latter, what its function is supposed to be.

The lady herself looked me over with considerable goodwill, and Jay with rather less. She had green streaks in her black hair today, very neat ones, and she sported a matching green jewel in her nose ring.

‘Peridot?’ I enquired.

‘It’s new.’ Zareen grinned and swung around to face me, giving me a full view of the new jewellery.

‘Suits you.’

‘Doesn’t it?’ Zareen turned her amused gaze upon Jay, who bore it rigidly. ‘I’m still working on Ves. What do you think, nostril or septum?’

‘I’ve told you,’ I said hastily. ‘I’ll think about it when you find me a good unicorn stud, and not before.’

‘You can’t wear a unicorn in your nose. Pick something smaller.’

‘I can’t? Then I’m not getting my nose pierced.’

‘Navel maybe,’ murmured Zareen, but she was watching Jay.

‘Do the women of this miserable country commonly engage in bodily mutilation?’

It was the book speaking, of course, but since I had yet to warn Zareen of its capacity to do so, she narrowed her eyes at the only male in the room: Jay.

‘That was not me!’ he protested. ‘Did you see my mouth move?’

‘Just the kind of prissy thing you would say,’ retorted Zareen, ignoring his question.

I headed off what was clearly an impending fight by laying the book in front of Zareen. I’d been clutching it to my chest until then, with my arms wrapped tightly around it, and since she was used to seeing me carting books everywhere (who wasn’t, indeed?) I don’t suppose it had occurred to her to take note of it. But the book got her attention at once, as I’d known it would, for on the front of its dark leather cover there was engraved a motif of a complex star, a flame blossoming at each of its twelve points.

‘Ooh,’ said Zareen, captivated.

‘Don’t open it yet,’ I warned.

She was itching to do so, already reaching for it. ‘What?’

I explained.

Zareen was not impressed.

‘You’ve brought me a centuries-old book from Farringale,’ she said with emphasis. ‘A book no one’s read since the sixteen-hundreds, containing who knows what esoteric wisdom, and I can’t open it?’

‘Well, you can,’ I allowed. ‘Only get some ear plugs first, maybe.’

‘And watch your fingers,’ put in Jay.

Zareen scowled at him. ‘I’ve handled difficult artefacts before.’

Jay rolled his eyes. ‘By all means, try it.’

Zareen did, though to her credit she looked a little wary, and opened it with a hesitancy not at all characteristic of her.

‘Fool-born haggard! Dost thou dare to venture upon mine innards? Thou wouldst disembowel me of all my goodness, wouldst thou, and with narry a by-your-leave!’ The book slammed shut with a crisp snap of disapproval.

‘Ow,’ said Zareen, shaking the pain out of her fingertips.

Jay, wisely, refrained from airing the I-told-you-so I could see hovering upon his lips. Instead he said, ‘We’re calling him Bill.’

‘As in Shakespeare?’

‘Quite.’

‘Slightly less elegantly verbose, I’d say?’

‘His full name is Bill the Boor.’

‘Churl,’ said the book.

‘Boor,’ said Jay.

‘So,’ I said brightly. ‘Bit of a problem, no? Val would’ve skinned me alive if I hadn’t taken it away at once, and I’m afraid nobody could think who could possibly fix it but you.’

Alone among those who had come into contact with the wretched book, Zareen looked intrigued — even a little bit excited. ‘Nice,’ she murmured, and turned the book around on her desk, examining all the features of its covers and spine. She ignored its ongoing diatribe with admirable grace.

‘Curse or haunting, do you think?’ I asked, remembering Val’s words.

‘Could be either! Really interesting stuff.’

‘I can’t tell you how glad we are that you think so.’ I had no hesitation in speaking for Jay as well as myself, for I could see the relief on his face.

Zareen was barely listening, already absorbed in the many questions posed by the book. ‘Thanks, Ves,’ she said vaguely. ‘I’ll call you when I’ve figured it out.’

What bliss it was to walk out of that room, and close the door behind us! We walked quickly away, pursued by the muffled and increasingly distant sounds of sixteenth-century cursing.

‘She’s got a strong stomach,’ I offered.

‘Madwoman,’ he replied, though he didn’t sound as negative as I’d expected. Perhaps Zareen had actually won herself a few points with Jay for her willingness to take the thing off our hands.

‘Cup of tea?’ said I.

Yes.

The Road to Farringale: 20

Later, Jay and I lay slumped in opposing chairs in the first-floor common room. We had adopted identical postures of exhausted inactivity, flopped like a pair of stringless marionettes.

On the table before us stood an emptied chocolate pot.

We had not spoken for a while. Neither of us had the energy, I think, or perhaps our minds were too busy with their own thoughts. It had been an unusual week, after all.

But it occurred to me that Jay wore an expression of particular, and deepening, despair, and I felt moved to enquire.

‘My first assignment,’ he said, as though that explained everything.

When nothing more was forthcoming, I cautiously prompted: ‘And?’

‘Going to get fired.’

‘For what?’

‘Disobeying a direct order.’

I scoffed.

‘What?’ he said. ‘You heard Milady.’

‘Yep.’

He nodded, confirmed in his woes. ‘How long does it usually take them to give notice?’

Like he was expecting the letter of doom any moment now. ‘In your case,’ I told him, ‘I’d say you’ll be losing your job in about fifty years. More, if you eat right and exercise regularly.’

He blinked at me. ‘You heard Milady.

I had indeed. And it was fair to say that Milady was not at her most delighted with us. She had not been outright angry; that was not her way. But there had been a crispness to her tone, a certain air of cool, brisk efficiency not characteristic of her, which was only apparent when she was displeased. Despite his inexperience with Milady, Jay had certainly picked up on that.

On the other hand…

‘See that?’ I said, pointing to the shining chocolate pot.

Jay’s frown deepened. ‘The pot? Yes. I see it.’

‘Means we’ve done well.’

‘But—’ Jay began.

I cut him off. ‘No. It always means we’ve done well. If you’ve underperformed but given it your best shot, you’ll probably get tea. Good tea. Or coffee, if that’s your preference. If you’ve really screwed up and it’s genuinely your fault, well… I once heard of somebody getting a bowl of stagnant rainwater.’

Jay grimaced. ‘Harsh.’

‘Not really, he was a prat. But you see my point.’

Slightly, slowly, Jay shook his head.

I tried again.

‘We did disobey a direct order. And Milady can in no way endorse our actions because she is our boss, and no employer alive wants to encourage a regular display of such outright disobedience. But we had due reason, and she knows that now.’

I recalled the high points of the conversation well.

‘How did you get the key, Cordelia?’ Milady had said (like a displeased parent, she resorted to my true, full name when she was unhappy with me).

‘The House gave it to me,’ I’d replied.

Prior to that moment, she had been all cool displeasure. That disclosure was the turning point. The chill in her manner did not noticeably dissipate, but I’d been able to recount the outcome of our journey without interruption.

And the chocolate had been waiting for us, upon our descent.

‘I suppose,’ said Jay dubiously.

‘Due reason,’ I repeated. ‘And the support of the House, which is by no means inconsequential. On top of which, we came back from Farringale alive, without leaving the place a smoking wreck behind us, and with the means secured to help Darrowdale and South Moors and the rest. The chocolate is Milady’s way of acknowledging our blinding heroism, without having to go so far as to own herself mistaken, or to congratulate us upon our disobedience.’

Jay began to look more hopeful. He sat up a bit. ‘Maybe you’re right.’

‘I am,’ I said serenely. ‘You’re not getting fired, because by consequence of being my partner in crime, you’re the hero of several Troll Enclaves. And who knows! Maybe Farringale can be restored.’

‘Maybe.’ Jay was dubious, and I didn’t blame him. He hadn’t seen what I had seen at the lost Troll Court, but my account of it had been graphic enough.

Nonetheless. Milady had given orders that the book, or at least its contents, were to be put into Orlando’s hands without a moment’s delay — orders which I had been absolutely delighted to perform. Orlando is a genius, there is no other word to describe him. He and his technicians would blend the contents of Baroness Tremayne’s book with the very best that the modern world had to offer, and come up with… well, a miracle. Maybe.

Copies of the book were also slated to go out to some of the other teams — Rob’s, for one. There was a cure in there. It was not described as being fully effective in all cases, and some of the trolls we had seen would undoubtedly be too far gone for help. But some could be saved. South Moors would survive, and there was hope for Darrowdale and Baile Monaidh. While Jay and I lay, inert and weary, in our matching arm-chairs, many of our colleagues were preparing to depart the House for the days, weeks or months necessary to pull the Enclaves back from the brink of destruction. In this, I had no doubt they would be joined by the Troll Court’s best — led, in all likelihood, by Baron Alban.

Silence fell again, for a little while. It was broken by Jay, who said, with the randomness of a man emerging from deep reflection: ‘I am glad we did it.’

‘Me too,’ I fervently agreed. ‘Not least because of those books! A hero on two counts, Jay! I told you Valerie would adore you.’

She really had. Assuming at first that the theft — er, retrieval — of the books had to be my doing, she had showered me with such delicious praise and affection, I had been reluctant to admit that I’d had nothing to do with it, thereby transferring all her heart-warming admiration onto Jay. But it was deserved. ‘You are her new favourite person.’

‘Next to you, perhaps.’

‘You’re my new favourite person, too,’ I said, letting this pass.

His head tilted, and he regarded me thoughtfully. ‘Am I?’

‘Assuredly.’

A faint grin followed, tentatively mischievous. ‘I thought that was the baron.’

I thought about that. ‘He does have excellent hair,’ I had to concede.

‘He was asking me questions about you. While you were off in the library’s cellars.’

‘Oh?’ I sat up, too, my interest decidedly piqued. ‘Like what?’

‘Just, general stuff about you. How well I knew you, what kind of a person you are. I got the impression…’ He hesitated.

‘Go on.’

‘I thought he might be angling for information on whether or not you’re involved with anyone.’

Aha. ‘What did you tell him?’

‘Nothing. I have no actual insights on that point myself.’

That went some way towards explaining the text I’d received from Alban an hour or so earlier. Our brief conversation went like this:

Alban: Will take time to sort out this mess, but how about coffee after?

Me: Make it tea?

Alban: 🙂

So, I would be seeing the baron again.

Jay waited, leaving space for me to respond, but I chose not to. After a while, he hauled himself out of his chair with a groan, saying, ‘I don’t care what time it is, I am going to bed.’

‘Good plan.’

He paused on his way past, and looked down at me with a slight frown. ‘Ves.’

‘Yes.’

‘Thanks for being a bad influence.’

He sounded sincere, but with the frown? I couldn’t tell, so I decided to take it at face value. ‘You’re more than welcome.’

Jay nodded, apparently satisfied, and dragged himself to the door. ‘No doubt you’ll get us into plenty more trouble,’ he called back. As he vanished into the corridor beyond, I heard him say, distantly: ‘Hopefully the heroic kind.’

I could be relied upon to do the former, most certainly. Whether it would also be the latter, who knew?

 

It later proved, however, that Jay is more than capable of making trouble all on his own. He doesn’t even need my help.

Halfway through the following morning, he and I were called to Milady’s tower. House and I had been on the best of terms since I had returned the beautiful silver key, so it was maybe that alone which prompted it to whisk us straight up to the tower, saving us the wearisome climb.

Or perhaps it was urgency. That prospect made my heart beat faster, and I hastened into Milady’s tower-top chamber with some speed.

My curtsey was sloppy. ‘Milady,’ I said.

Jay, right behind me, made his bow with no prompting from me. ‘Good morning, Milady.’

‘Vesper,’ she said. ‘Jay. Thank you for coming so quickly.’

‘House gave us a lift,’ I said.

‘Thank you, House.’ The air glittered. ‘I am sorry to dispatch you again so soon after your last… adventure. I am aware that you must both be tired. But there is a matter of some urgency requiring immediate attention.’

How intriguing. ‘We are at your disposal,’ I said.

‘Always,’ said Jay. Was he still worried about getting fired?

Milady actually hesitated. That is never a good sign. ‘Jay, you showed enormous presence of mind in thinking to extract books from Farringale, and I applaud you.’

‘Thank you,’ he said.

‘But on that topic…’

My heart sank with a nameless sense of foreboding — and quickened with an equally nameless feeling of excitement. I exchanged a look with Jay, whose face registered much the same feelings as my own.

‘Yes?’ said Jay.

‘There is something of a problem. Please report to Valerie at once.’

‘Yes, Milady.’ Jay and I turned as one, already hastening away.

But Milady wasn’t quite finished with us. ‘Ves?’

‘Yes ma’am.’

‘Please prepare yourself for some instances of… poor language.’

‘From Val?’ I said, incredulous. I have never known Valerie to use even a mild expletive. But supposing she did, why would Milady think it necessary to warn us?

‘You will see what I mean when you reach the library. Go quickly, please.’

We went.

 

‘Gudgeon!’ roared a voice as we approached the library door. ‘Canker-blossom! Dismal, hedge-born, logger-headed puttock! Churlish, thou art, and full beef-witted! A plague upon thee, and thrice over!’

Needless to say, it was not Val.

As Jay and I burst through the door and arrived, breathless and astonished, in the library foyer, the voice — a full-throated, sonorous male roar — took up its insults anew. ‘Weedy dewberry!’ it cried. ‘Idle-headed wagtail!’

Val was seated behind her desk, remonstrating wearily with the voice by way of sentences but half-uttered. ‘I meant only that–’ she began, but was interrupted with a renewed cry of: ‘Hedge-born!’

‘Now really, that is too much!’ said Val sharply.

‘Too much for thee, lily-liver, and no doubt!’ retorted the voice.

This exchange continued, but Jay and I were none the wiser for listening to it, for as far as we could see, the library was empty besides ourselves and Val.

‘Er, Val?’ I said after a while.

She looked at me with an air of long-suffering irritation, her hands folded tightly around a large, leather-bound book. ‘Hello, Ves, Jay. Sent by Milady? Lucky you.’ Her words were half drowned out by a renewed tirade from the disembodied voice, which she did a creditable job of ignoring.

Jay gave up. ‘Valerie,’ he said gravely. ‘What the hell is this?’

Valerie rolled her eyes towards the ceiling, and dropped her ancient, fragile, handsome-looking tome onto her desk, where it landed with a great thump.

I had never seen Val so careless with any book, let alone one of great age, and could only stare in astonishment.

But the book did not lie meekly where it had been put, as most are wont to do. This book leapt smartly off the desk, took up a position some three inches before Val’s face, and began to dance up and down in a fine display of high temper. ‘Hedge-pig!’ it roared. ‘I shall have thy guts for such goatish treatment!’

‘The book,’ said Jay faintly. ‘The book is talking.’

Val merely nodded once.

‘That’s… different,’ said I.

Val sighed, and put her face in her hands. ‘Tell me about it.’

The Road to Farringale: 19

To my renewed horror, the ortherex on the baroness’s palm was by no means content to lie passive. It twitched and writhed, bunching its body into a tight coil, its mouth fixed upon her skin in a manner that to my eyes looked highly unpromising. The baroness winced, and quickly dropped it back into the mass of its brethren.

The thing was gamely trying to eat her.

I stared at the baroness, and I dare say my eyes were as wide as saucers. In the midst of my horror, a thought occurred to me. ‘How is it that you are still here?’ I gestured at the ortherex. ‘I mean, it is not merely the passage of time — for you have been here since the fall of Farringale, have you not? Hundreds of years?’

She looked gravely at me, and said only: ‘I have.’

‘Time aside, then, how have you survived proximity to these horrors? The rest of Farringale fell!’

She turned away from the wriggling parasites and began, slowly, to ascend the stairs. ‘Some few of my kind are resistant to the ortherex. Our blood will not nourish them. From us they cannot feed, and so they die.’ Her lips quirked in a faint smile. ‘Still, they try.’

I thought of the way that tiny mouth had fastened upon the baroness’s skin, the way she had hastily thrown it off. Apparently, the ortherex could still hurt, even if they could not kill her. ‘How many of you are still here?’ I asked her.

‘Three, by my life. Once, there were more.’

They were dying out, then, these lingering guardians of Farringale. I pictured her centuries-long vigil, the loneliness of her state here, cut off from the wider world; condemned only to wait, and watch as her few fellows died around her. I shivered.

A theory as to the nature of her longevity was forming in my mind, and I hungered to ask questions of her. But I restrained the impulse. There was not time, now, to pursue that topic. The matter of the ortherex was far more pressing. We reached the top of the stairs, and those enclosed walls now made sense to me. Perhaps there was the outline of a lost door, somewhere inside that walled-off corridor; someone had bricked it up, perhaps in hope of containing the tide of ortherex which had taken possession of the cellars. A doomed effort, and futile.

The baroness took us back through the wall, and paused. How grateful was I, to return to that light, airy hallway after the dank misery of the passageways below! I stepped into the patch of sunlight which shone through the main doors, welcoming its soft warmth upon my skin. It was faded and wan in this strange place the baroness had brought me to — between the echoes — but comparatively, it was bliss. ‘Baroness,’ I said. ‘Please, tell me you have a way to stop these creatures. Can they be purged? Destroyed? Repelled? Anything.’

A faint smile curved her lips: of satisfaction, perhaps. ‘I do,’ she said, and my hopes swelled. ‘Alas, too late we were for Farringale. But down the long ages we’ve toiled, and our work is finished. The tome I put into your hands; you have it still?’

Of course I did. I took it out to show her, and she nodded approval. ‘Therein lies the key. Know that nothing can purge the ortherex once they grow too strong; perhaps Glenfinnan is already lost beyond recall. But it is not too late for Darrowdale. If you love magick, Cordelia Vesper, then save our Enclaves. I entreat you.’

‘I will. We will, now that you have given us the means.’

She nodded again, though her attention had wandered from me, her thoughts turned within. ‘If but one is saved, all is justified,’ she mused, and I saw a sadness and a weariness in her that all but broke my heart. ‘It will be enough.’

I wanted to ask more of her. Perhaps  I could get away with an enquiry after all; just one or two probing questions about these echoes, and her surviving colleagues, and the people she referred to when she said our. But the light slowly brightened around me until I stood blinking in pure, unimpeded sunshine, and I realised I was alone. The baroness had faded away like smoke.

‘Thank you,’ I called. Too late, too late, but perhaps she heard me, somewhere within the echoes of lost Farringale.

I stood for a moment, a little dazed by what had just happened, what I had seen. Had I really spent the last half-hour in conversation with a woman whose birth predated mine by centuries? One of a mere few survivors of the disasters that had destroyed Farringale, a mere three, who—

And my train of thought ground to a halt.

Only three?

‘Baron?’ I called, feebly at first. But urgency swelled my lungs, and I bellowed as loudly as I could: ‘Baron Alban!

It might have been uncouth of me, standing in the hallway of Farringale’s library shouting at the top of my lungs. But it was faster than going from room to room searching for him, and that was rather more important than good manners at that moment.

To my relief, he came into the hall at a half-run only a few seconds later. ‘Ves? What’s the matter?’

I looked long at him, standing there in all his trollish glory. I pictured those wriggling creatures fastening their hungry mouths upon his perfect skin, sucking him dry of all the magick he possessed. I pictured them laying their clutches of eggs in his ears, his mouth, his hair; those eggs hatching, growing, killing him from the inside out. I took a deep, steadying breath and said: ‘Much as it pains me to abandon this library, it is imperative that we get out of here. Right now.’

Rob and Jay had come running, too; all three of them stared at me. ‘You can’t be serious,’ said Jay at last. ‘Not after all the trouble we went to.’

I held up the book. ‘We’ve got what we need. I don’t have time to explain, Jay, you are just going to have to trust me. We need to get Alban out of here. Now.’

Rob nodded once. ‘Right,’ he said, and made for the door. He stood there awhile, carefully checking the horizon, and I knew he was looking for griffins. ‘Coast is clear, for now.’

Alban looked strangely at me. I detected a trace of alarm in his eyes, though he kept its effects well under control. ‘You’ll explain, later,’ he said, and it was not a question.

He was as reluctant to flee Farringale as I, but I couldn’t help that. He would thank me, once he knew. ‘I will,’ I promised.

That was enough for Alban, who joined Rob at the door.

Jay, though, whirled about and vanished back into the library.

‘Jay!’ I called, furious. ‘Jay! This is serious.

He reappeared twenty seconds later with an armful of books — books he clutched tightly to his chest, with as much care and desperation as he might cradle his own child. ‘I’m here,’ he panted. ‘Go.’

My heart warmed to him on the spot.

 

Our retreat from Farringale could at best be termed disorderly. I did my best to keep the baron away from anything that looked like rock, which inconvenienced us several times, and confused my companions to no end. I had neither time nor attention to spare for explanations.

To their credit and my relief, they followed my lead anyway.

Or Alban’s, in the end, for nobody in their right mind would trust me to find our way from the library back to the gate. That map of his proved invaluable again. We wound our way back through those beautiful, heartbreakingly empty streets, and this time I barely glanced at the structures we passed, hardly paused to speculate at the contents of those abandoned houses. If Alban got infected it would be my fault, and what then? I hoped that the baroness’s journal might include a recipe for a cure, but perhaps it would not. She had made no such promise.

For the first time in my life, I felt deeply, personally responsible for someone else’s safety, and under circumstances which made it deplorably difficult to be certain they would make it out okay.

I made a mental note not to keep putting myself, or anybody else, in that position.

The griffins, thank goodness, did not bother us on our return trip. We moved too fast, perhaps, or they were still drowsy from the charm I had spun. I thought I saw unpromising flickers of lightning in those distant clouds as we arrived, breathless, at the gate, but I could not be sure.

We surged through the door en masse, snatched the keys from the worn stonework of the bridge, and watched, panting with exertion and tension, as the door shut behind us. The light of Farringale faded.

Carefully, Baron Alban folded his map and returned it to a pocket in his trousers. It was covered in writing, which it had not been before, and I wondered what the baron had found to make notes about, while I was busy wandering the bowels of the city.  He put away the gold and the bronze keys, too, and held out the silver one to me.

I took it.

‘I think,’ said Baron Alban, ‘that it’s time for you to explain.’

Please,’ said Jay.

So I did.

 

I troubled my Adeline, again, and her trio of friends. They came to us at Alresford, and bore us back to Old Winchester Hill. How comforting it was to feel the warmth of her flanks beneath me, to wind my fingers through her silken mane. It is hard to dwell on darkness, disease and fear when you have a unicorn nearby.

Jay’s windstorms swept us off that hilltop and back Home, where we parted ways.

But not without some argument.

‘The book, please,’ said Alban, and held out his hand to receive it.

‘Not yet,’ I said, making no move to hand it over.

He stared at me. ‘What?’

‘I need to give it to Milady. It has to be processed by our library, its contents given over to our technicians. Then it may travel to the Troll Court. Believe me, the Society will fully understand the urgency of the situation. I imagine a copy will be made for our use, after which the book will be sent along to you with all due speed.’

‘Nonsense,’ he said sternly. ‘This is a matter for the Court. We have all the right people to—’

‘How many Enclaves are there?’ I interrupted.

‘I don’t know, quite a few—’

‘Exactly. Do you want help, or not?’

He stared helplessly at me, and heaved a great, exasperated sigh. ‘If that book doesn’t find its way to the Court within two days — preferably less — I’ll be back.’

His tone fully conveyed what that would mean for me. ‘Yessir,’ I said.

He smiled at that, albeit crookedly. ‘Bid you farewell, then.’

I glanced, briefly, at Jay, whose state was much as I imagined. But Rob was tending to him, so I had a couple of minutes. ‘Wait,’ I said to Alban.

He paused, one brow raised.

‘It is not my place to interfere, but I’m going to anyway.’

That crooked smile flashed again. ‘All right, I am duly braced.’

‘This problem should have been caught sooner. It’s telling that it wasn’t. Am I right in thinking that the Court allows full autonomy to each Enclave? That they may live as they choose, according to their own rules and laws?’

‘More or less. There are some laws which apply to all our kind, but Their Majesties do take a general policy of non-interference with individual Enclaves.’

‘Right. And sometimes Enclaves choose to go Reclusive. They shut their doors, cease to communicate with the Court at all — or anybody else, much — and nothing is heard from them for years.’

‘Decades, sometimes. Yes.’

‘Yes. So. If someone had made a point of checking up on these people, maybe Glenfinnan wouldn’t have been wiped out.’

Alban began to show signs of a great, heavy weariness. His shoulders sagged, and shadows deepened under his eyes. He dragged a hand across his brow. ‘Oh, Ves, you are opening a whole can of worms with that one. You have no idea…’

‘I don’t need to have an idea. I’m just pointing it out. This one’s a matter for the Court.’

He nodded and straightened, all business once again. ‘I understand.’

With that, he was gone, striding through the door without so much as a farewell. I watched as he turned towards the stairs that would take him out of the cellars at Home, and from thence away. Back to his own world, where I could not follow.

Then I turned back to the others. Rob had Jay on his feet again, though Jay’s books had not fared so well. I stooped to pick them all up, stacking them carefully atop one another. They were old and fragile and infinitely precious, and my heart fluttered with excitement. When I took a quick look through the titles, I almost fainted with joy.

‘Jay,’ I said gravely. ‘I love you, just a bit.’

‘Help yourself,’ he said, with only a faint trace of sarcasm.

‘Oh, I will. And believe me, Val is going to love you too.’

‘Great,’ said Jay, and swayed as his knees gave out. ‘I could use some love.’

‘You and me both. Next stop: Milady. And she is not going to be pleased.’

The Road to Farringale: 18

The lady was a troll, no mistaking that. She had features of aristocratic character, finely sculpted like marble, though the fine wrinkles that mapped her face spoke of advanced age. Her hair was all white wisps, a mass of snowy locks artfully curled and beribboned. She wore a gown of crisp blue silk, with lace about the wide-cut neckline and wide, full sleeves. The skirt was very full, and at once I understood the source of those rustling sounds. Not curtains, but a dress. She had walked right up to us, and though we had not seen her, we had heard the motion of her skirts.

At least, I had. What did that mean?

I made her a curtsey, for she was evidently a woman of stature — in the sense of rank, at least, if not height, for she was only a little taller than me. ‘Madam,’ I said, with scrupulous politeness, for her faded blue eyes were fixed upon me with no friendly expression. ‘We trespass, I cannot deny, but it is not our intention to disturb your peace. We come upon an urgent errand.’

No response was made me, but nor did the lady interrupt. She waited, impassive, listening.

So I went on.

‘Is this…’ I began, and paused, blinking away the uncomfortable effects of another flickering surge of shadows and light. ‘Am I gone back in time?’

‘Nay,’ said the lady. ‘Tis beyond the power of magick, that.’

‘Then what is this? Where have I gone? For I am not where I was before, of that I am certain.’

‘You have not moved, I vow, save in time.’

‘But you said—’

‘You are caught between the echoes, and shall here remain until it please me to release you.’

I do not know if I was expected to make any sense out of these impenetrable words, but my comprehension or lack thereof did not seem to trouble my reluctant hostess. For the moment, I abandoned my line of questioning.

‘My name is Cordelia Vesper,’ I said — judging it best to offer my full name, for to a woman who, I strongly suspected, had survived somehow since the fall of Farringale, the old-fashioned formality of “Cordelia” would sound better than the terse modernity of “Ves”. ‘I work for the Society for Magickal Heritage. I came here with two colleagues, as well as Baron Alban, a representative of the current Troll Court. May I know whose acquaintance I have had the unexpected pleasure of making?’ I ended this speech with a winning smile, the kind that invariably puts people at their ease.

She scrutinised me in silence, not softening towards me one whit. ‘You address Baroness Tremayne.’

I curtsied again, a gesture she deigned to acknowledge with a nod of her head. I wondered, briefly, why she had selected me, out of the four of us, for interrogation. Would she not more naturally have chosen Alban? ‘We are here to—’

She spoke abruptly, cutting me off. ‘Long ages have passed, since last came the footsteps of another in these lost halls. How came you here? What arts carried you past our thrice-locked doors?’

‘Keys,’ I said promptly, wishing I had been able to retrieve one of them on our way in. Presumably they were still embedded in the side of Alresford Bridge. ‘Baron Alban secured two from the Court, I know not by what means. Mine was the third, given into my keeping by…’ I hesitated, suddenly much inconvenienced by the House’s lack of an obvious title. ‘By the House in which my Society is based,’ I said, much disliking the awkwardness and imprecision of this designation.

But its effect upon Baroness Tremayne was curiously profound. ‘A House?’ she repeated, laying just such emphasis upon the word as to suggest that she knew precisely what kind of House I was referring to. ‘Say on.’

So I told her about Home, but I had not proceeded much further than to mention its approximate location and date of construction before she stopped me.

‘It is well known to me.’ She looked at me afresh: less with suspicion, more with respect. ‘Your errand? Quickly.’

I did not need to go into great detail about that, either. I had scarcely got into the malaise at South Moors before she began to nod with evident comprehension, her gaze sharpening — and turning alarmed. She knows, I thought, with infinite relief. She recognised the problem, knew what it was. She would know how to help.

Baroness Tremayne listened in silent sorrow through my account of deserted Glenfinnan, and the moment I had finished outlining the turmoil at Baile Monaidh and Darrowdale, she came alive — all action and urgency where before she had been all silent stillness.  ‘Something of a hurry, I find it,’ she said, and with a rustle of skirts she turned, and marched away across the hall. I trotted after, followed her into another grand library chamber much like the first, only larger. Jay had already discovered it, I quickly saw, for he was on the other side of the room, intent upon the shelves. He was difficult to see clearly, however, for like the shadows and the light, he flickered strangely in my vision, and moved from place to place in jerky, darting motions most unnatural. He did not appear to see the baroness, or me.

‘Your companion?’ said Baroness Tremayne.

‘Yes.’

The baroness made no move to approach Jay or to talk to him, in spite of her question. She ignored him entirely, and crossed instead to a shelf in a different part of the room. A quick, deft movement; she reached out, selected a single, slim volume, which she put into my hands; then away she went, quick of step and purposeful. ‘It would be well to hurry, Cordelia Vesper,’ she called over her shoulder to me.

I looked longingly at the book. It was bound in dark leather, quite blank; not a single word was embossed into its aging covers. I hungered to open it then and there, devour its contents immediately, and it cost me every shred of willpower I possessed to tuck it carefully away into my bag, unopened.

Jay had seen something. He was at a far shelf, back turned, reading. Then he was on the other side of the room, near where the baroness had stopped, hand outstretched towards the slim gap in the shelves that had not been there moments before.

Mischief welled up in me, irrepressible, and I succumbed to temptation. As I darted past Jay in the baroness’s wake I trailed my fingers over the back of his neck, a feather-light touch which would certainly make him jump.

I did not pause to observe the effects of my misdemeanour, for the baroness was disappearing back into the hall. I hastened to catch up, forgetting Jay in an instant when I realised that her ladyship was walking straight into the far wall.

Not into it — through it. This was so powerfully reminiscent of what I myself had recently done at Home, courtesy of House, that I was much struck. Were such arts commonly employed, long ago? I needed no further proof of the deleterious effects of time, the way our magick had faded, dimmed. The baroness was mistress of magicks so long forgotten, most of us did not know they existed.

I followed after, approaching the wall with some trepidation. It had swallowed the baroness without trace, but to me it looked as solid as ever.

So it proved to be, for my face met cold, unyielding stone and there I stayed.

‘Baroness?’ I called.

Seconds ticked past, and my trepidation grew. Had she simply left, and abandoned me? I no longer felt that she intended to leave me stranded between the echoes, as she had earlier threatened to do. But since she had not explained what that meant, perhaps she was doing me the undeserved honour of assuming that I knew; that I could manipulate the echoes as she did, and find my own way out. ‘Baroness Tremayne?’ I called again.

Her head appeared through the wall, devoid of neck or body; a disconcerting sight. ‘Follow, child,’ she chided me, and I was too embarrassed by my ignorance to take exception to the term child. In her eyes, I probably was, and more or less deservedly.

‘I cannot,’ I confessed.

Her disembodied head tilted strangely; she was puzzled by me. ‘Strange,’ she commented. Then her arm appeared, reaching for me. I permitted myself to be grabbed. A swift, sharp tug, and the wall melted before me.

I fell through, with a regrettable lack of grace.

On the other side was a spiral staircase winding its way down into some subterranean space. There were no doors or windows set into the walls, just unbroken stone. Baroness Tremayne was already halfway down the stairs.

‘Wait,’ I gasped, hurrying to catch up. ‘Who are you? What are these magicks you perform with such ease? They are forgotten now.’

‘Not forgotten, while the House remains.’

‘But they are not learned, not taught. We know nothing of them, not even at the University.’ Her stride was long for her relatively insignificant height, and I had to work to keep up. The air cooled as we descended, the light dimmed; this place was obviously not intended for use by such folk as I. ‘I do not know what you mean by the echoes.’

‘Spells, rare and strange,’ said the baroness, whisking out of sight around a corner; we had reached the bottom of the stairs. ‘Dark arts, to the minds of some. They were afeared. No university has ever taught our ways.’

‘Our ways?’ I repeated. ‘Who do you mean by that? How are you here? Who are you?’

It did not matter how insistent I was with my questions; they all went equally unanswered. Baroness Tremayne stood motionless at the foot of the stairs, her gaze intent upon something I could not see until I joined her.

Then, all at once, I understood.

We had travelled into the depths of a network of cellars. Low-ceilinged passageways spread before me, intersections branching off into the darkness. The light was so low I could see little but great, craggy blocks of stone stacked into graceless walls, each set with heavy oaken doors held shut with black iron bars. The only light in those cellars was of a faded, sickly character, and its source was no sconce or torch or globe of wisp-light. The light came, somehow, from the floor, and it glimmered and shifted in a way that suggested ceaseless, writhing movement. I did not immediately understand.

I looked closer, stared harder. The floor surged and wriggled in waves of frantic motion, as though it was alive.

Which, effectively, it was.

‘They are… worms?’ I whispered, appalled. ‘Maggots?’

Baroness Tremayne shook her head, her gaze never wavering from the mass of pale, writhing creatures that carpeted the floor and the weird light that clung to their tiny, repulsive forms. ‘Ortherex,’ she said, and the word struck me as vaguely familiar. I had heard it before, somewhere — or more probably, I had read it. ‘Parasites,’ the baroness continued. She bent from the waist, a slow, stately movement, and extracted a single worm from the writhing mass. This she held up for my inspection.

I grabbed a glow-sphere from my bag and activated it with a flick of a finger. A clear, bright white light shone forth, a comfortingly clean radiance compared to the sickly glow of the ortherex. Thus illuminated, I could clearly see its plump, segmented, legless body, its toothless mouth, its covering of fine hairs. It had no eyes. ‘Parasites,’ I echoed, intrigued and disgusted. ‘They feed off a living host?’

The baroness nodded. ‘They prefer my kind, though it is not known why. Inside our soft bodies they lay their eggs. Their young swell and grow, feeding from our heart’s energies and the magicks woven into our blood. Such theft will kill us, and swiftly. Then, forth go the ortherex. Their preferred home thereafter is a deep place, dank and dark. Into the rock they go, to drink up such magicks as they find in our Dells and Enclaves, and to find new hosts.’

I felt sick, for by the baroness’s words I realised that the carpet of ortherex I could see was but the surface of the problem. Into the rock? How far down did that mass of parasites go?

And this was the cellar of the library alone. One building, out of a whole city.

Just how many billions of ortherex were there?

The Road to Farringale: 17

My ears rang with the raucous shrieking of the griffin as it descended upon me, all screaming fury and intent to kill. How beautiful it was in that moment, I thought, as I rummaged frantically inside the neck of my dress. What sleek lines, what elegance, what gleaming, velvety hide—

Then Rob was there. Of course he was; that’s what I’d brought him for. He was so heroic as to cover my body with his own, making of himself a shield between me and the griffin. How lovely was that? Unfortunately, he also had a knife in each hand. They were the charmed kind: fearsomely sharp, wrought from something silvery and glinting with the light of enchantment. He would throw them and they would not miss. They would bury themselves in the eyeballs of those fierce, glorious, terrifying creatures and the griffins would die and it would be all my fault.

No!’ I screamed, and rolled away from Rob. I had what I needed: my pipes. I scrambled to my feet, shoved Rob aside as the first griffin went swooping past, and raised my precious syrinx pipes to my lips.

The melody I played was markedly different from the tune that had summoned Adeline and her unicorn friends. This one began as a sharp, penetrating sequence of notes, a blast of charmed music intended to interrupt our assailant, to halt it in its tracks. It worked. The griffin stopped abruptly and hovered there, only ten feet from me. What a pity that I could not hold it for long! For I wanted to go up close to it, to study it, to admire it. I could sketch it, take back a detailed record of its surprising existence for the Society.

But no charm could hold so powerful a creature for long, even with my pipes to amplify the effect. My melody changed: from my silvery flutes poured a slow, languid stream of notes, a drowsy lullaby, a tune to invoke yearning thoughts of nests and safety and warmth and sleep…

The griffin drifted a while, caught in the grip of a waking dream. Then, slowly, it floated away upon somnolent wings, returning to its nest in those glorious golden clouds. Its brethren followed, and soon the skies were clear of griffins once more.

Rob was not pleased with me.

‘What did you mean by stopping me?’ he demanded. ‘It nearly killed you!’

‘I couldn’t let you destroy it.’

‘It nearly killed me.

‘I am most assuredly sorry for that, but it did not kill you.’ I went to help him up. He took my hand with poor grace and rose with a groan of effort, or perhaps pain.

‘I am getting far too old for this,’ he muttered, eyeing me with no friendly feelings whatsoever.

Jay and Alban came cautiously out of the mansion again, searching the sky for griffins. ‘Are they gone?’ said Jay.

‘Yes.’

‘Was it the pipes? We heard music.’

‘It was.’ I stashed them in their usual place, a process from which all three gentlemen politely averted their eyes. ‘Shall we move on?’

‘I definitely need to get me a set of those,’ muttered Jay.

Rob was not finished with me. ‘Ves,’ he said firmly. ‘If you bring me along to help keep you from not dying, then I need you to let me do my job.’

‘I will, I promise, and I really am sorry. But I did not expect griffins. Griffins, Rob! They’re supposed to be extinct!’

‘And you were almost dead.

‘Almost! But not! All is well, and nobody had to die. Not me, not you, and not the magickal beasts of legend which we all thought we’d lost centuries ago.’

Rob sighed and said no more, but he trudged on beside me with a weary air that I did not like. He was not as young as he used to be, I supposed, though I had not considered that fact. When I had first joined the Society, Rob had been about the age I was now: somewhere between thirty and thirty-five. He had been all power and energy and a grim kind of competence that seemed immune to fatigue, or pain, or anything we lesser beings suffered from.

But rather more than ten years had passed. Rob looked almost the same as he had on my very first day at Home: tall, muscled, his sleek dark skin unlined, his curling black hair as thick as ever. But for all his ageless looks, he must be nearing fifty. I shouldn’t be hurling him around with such abandon. Not anymore.

‘I am sorry, Rob,’ I said, with more sincerity.

He side-eyed me, still unmoved. But then he sighed, and gave me a rueful smile. ‘You’re always an experience, Ves,’ he said, which did not quite strike me as a vote of confidence. ‘Nobody does things the way you do.’

‘It’s why I am good at my job,’ I said hopefully.

‘True. Nobody else would come out of this adventure with the local population of deadly griffins fully intact.’

I beamed.

‘Let’s just hope we can come out of it with our local population of Society employees fully intact as well.’

Yes. True. ‘And our Troll Court representative,’ I added.

‘Him, too.’

Alban went back to his map. He walked off with the purposeful air of a man who knows exactly where he is going, calling, ‘This way! Quickly.’

We followed, and with all due haste. The griffins might be gone for now, but they could certainly come back. Even I could not have said with any certainty how long my charm would hold.

‘Do you suppose those griffins are the reason Farringale was abandoned?’ said Jay.

‘That would make sense,’ Rob replied.

I did not want to agree. If Jay’s speculation was correct, what did that do to my theory, and Alban’s? There were no griffins at Glenfinnan or Baile Monaidh or South Moors, and Darrowdale was underground. If griffins had driven away the residents of Farringale, then its demise had nothing whatsoever to do with the other Enclaves, and we were wasting our time in coming here at all.

Nonetheless, it was impossible to dismiss the theory. Griffins were known to be touchy, territorial creatures, as we had just seen. If a large colony of them had claimed Farringale Dell as their home, the trolls who lived there might well have concluded that moving on was simpler (and safer) than trying to stand their ground.

Even to the extent of abandoning their Court, though? Would they really? I frowned, unable to make any sense of it. It was all guesswork, whatever we concluded. We needed the library.

‘Aha,’ said Alban, stopping at that moment before one of the largest buildings we had yet seen. Wrought from snowy stone in great, square blocks, it towered four tall storeys high, and boasted a crowning roof of magnificent proportions. The walls were lit with long, wide windows fitted with tiny diamond-shaped panes of glass. Massive double doors guarded the entrance, set beneath an ornate lintel.

Alban walked up the three wide steps and rapped upon the door.

‘I don’t think—’ I began. I was going to add “that anyone’s home”, but the doors moved of their own accord and slowly swung open.

Baron Alban gave me a dazzling smile. ‘We trolls are known for our hospitality,’ he said as he led the way inside. This did not quite fit with my experience of the Enclaves, but I let the comment pass.

Nothing could have exceeded my eagerness to hasten up those steps and into the library. But I was brought up short again by another flicker of colour: something moved in the hallway beyond. Or someone.

But when I mounted the steps and stepped through that handsome doorway, I entered a grand white-stone hallway empty of any other living soul save only for Alban. There was nothing there to explain the glimpse of blue I thought I had seen, the flash of gold; just serene white stone and a pair of pale statues.

‘Did you see anything odd in here, when you came in?’ I asked Alban.

He quirked a quizzical brow at me. ‘Like what?’

‘I don’t know.’

He shrugged, already turning away from me towards one of the great stone arches that led off the hallway. ‘Just an empty hall. What else would I expect to see?’

What, indeed? I could not shake the feeling that these glimpses of colour came from no static objects; there was a sense of movement about them, like somebody had just whisked past me. But how could that be? There was no one around but the four of us. That fact was indisputable.

Furthermore, it did not appear that the rest of my companions were suffering from these hallucinations. Neither Jay nor Rob showed any sign of having noticed anything untoward; they were following Alban into the library, leaving me alone in the hall.

Jay, though, noticed my absence and turned back. ‘Ves? Everything all right?’

An intriguing oddity it was, and I wanted to pursue it. But where could I begin? I did not know where to look. So I said, ‘Yes,’ and followed him into the library.

We entered a large chamber with the kind of soaringly high ceiling that can only result in dizziness if you stare at it for too long. Its walls were lined, floor-to-ceiling, with shelf after shelf of books. Books beyond counting, all leather or cloth-bound and looking far too new considering their advanced age. The library had broad, stout, troll-sized ladders via which one could reach those high-up shelves, and a complement of polished wooden research tables, each with its own cushioned chair.

I was in heaven, and clean forgot about the peculiarity of the colours.

All four of us stood just inside the door, staring at that array of ancient knowledge with, I am sure, identical expressions of breathless awe.

‘Well,’ said Jay at last. ‘Next question: how do we find what we need in all of this?’

‘There are twelve more chambers like this one,’ murmured Alban.

‘Twelve.’

‘Mhm.’

There followed an appalled silence.

‘Best get started, then.’ That was Rob, of course, unflappable as always.

Where?’ spluttered Jay.

‘Alban,’ said Rob. ‘Your map. Is there any indication as to where history books are shelved?’

The baron slowly shook his head. ‘I could not find anything so detailed. I hoped that something would guide us, once we got here—’

‘Hanging aisle signs, like at the supermarket,’ put in Jay, with what I considered to be pardonable sarcasm under the circumstances.

‘Something like that,’ Alban said, unruffled.

I heard something, then. Not the calm, deep tones of Rob’s voice as he made some reply, nor the sound of Jay’s boots thudding across the aged wood floor as he wandered off in search of who-knew-what. It was a sound out of keeping with any probable noise the gentlemen might have made: a whisper, a rustle, as of stiff silken curtains being drawn back.

Turning away from that glorious array of books, I followed the sound as it came again, and again. Back through the majestic archway and into the hall, across the echoing stone; veering left and through another arch—

I did not make it that far, for someone caught up with me. Someone I could not see, but whose footsteps I clearly heard: the rhythmic swish, swish as of silken slippers brushing lightly over those cool stone floors, but how could that be? I was alone in there, or if not precisely alone, none of my colleagues were wearing silk—

My thoughts tumbled apart as the world tipped sideways and revolved, dizzily, around me. When it settled and my watering eyes could once again distinguish details beyond an indistinct blur, I found I was… still in that same hall. Despite the sensation of disorienting movement I had experienced, I had not moved at all.

But my surroundings were not unchanged. For one thing, the hall was darker than it had been before, with an odd, flickering quality to the light that soon began to play merry hell with my eyesight. There came odd shifts in the atmosphere with each wavering of the light; shadows leapt across the room, rays of light darted from one archway to another. It was, to say the least, unsettling.

For another thing, I was… no longer alone.

‘Art trespassing,’ said the author of my woes. ‘What will you with Farringale?’

The Road to Farringale: 16

As one, the three gentlemen around me tensed, and stared into that pale light with wary intensity.

I didn’t. I did not really believe that anything horrible was going to come barrelling out of Farringale the moment the door was opened, nor did it. Nothing happened at all, actually, save that the breeze died down, leaving the air still and fresh once more.

I settled my bag more comfortably across my shoulders, briefly wishing that I had not filled it quite so enthusiastically. ‘Onward, then,’ I suggested, and went through the gate, water swishing soothingly about my ankles.

The gentlemen let me go first, and alone, which was not very gentlemanly of them at all. But Rob quickly caught up with me, fine fellow that he is, and we advanced together. For a few moments we were walking near-blindly into that cool light and could see nothing that awaited us, which was a little alarming, I will admit. But nothing leapt out at us; no unpromising sounds of rapid, unfriendly approach assailed our ears; all we heard was our own footsteps ringing, curiously melodically, upon a hard floor.

The light gradually ebbed. We passed through it, finding beyond an enveloping musty aroma, air thick with dust which caught in my throat; a noticeable drop in temperature, not at all welcome after the warm spring sunshine we had just left; and the silent remains of a dead street.

It was curiously narrow, that road, considering where we were. I had expected more from Farringale than a thin, crooked street lined on either side by high stone walls. Those walls were golden somewhere under the caking dust, which was more promising. But still, as entrances went, it did not seem fitting for so legendary a place.

Then we turned a corner, and there was the grandeur. The portal we had used was some kind of side entrance, I guessed, for we turned off it onto a wide, sweeping boulevard all paved in golden stone. Ornate lampposts lined the roadsides, each bearing an orb of crackling white light suspended by no obvious means. That those lights still operated appeared at odds with the deathly silence of the city; their eerie, lonely glow illuminated streets abandoned for hundreds of years. Why did they still burn?

Houses of golden stone or white brick were spaced out along the road, set some way back from the street. Each had a wide square of empty space before it, once host to gardens, perhaps, but now as dead and empty as everything else. Pools of still water had collected in some of them and gone green and stagnant; they gave off an unpleasant smell.

Above the hushed remains of lost Farringale rose sky upon sky upon sky. I have never seen sky like that, before or since. It was the deep, rich blue of twilight, though not because evening approached; the sun was high, the city well-lit. Airy palaces of roiling clouds hung heavy above us, as golden as the stone beneath our feet. It was a display of staggering beauty, which ordinarily would have pleased me greatly, but something about that vast sky made me uneasy. I walked a little nearer to Rob.

The boulevard veered gracefully to the left in a smooth curve, and we followed it. Jay and Alban had caught up with us by then, and we walked four abreast, our eyes everywhere. I began to realise something else strange, which did nothing to enhance my comfort: the city was too clean. The passage of more than three hundred years ought to have taken more of a toll, surely; Farringale should have resembled Glenfinnan in its decay, only being more advanced. But the streets were pristine; not even a single leaf presumed to drift over the smooth paving stones. The houses looked aged, but they were whole and sound, not crumbling as I would have expected. I could have moved into one of them and lived happily there, untroubled by leaking roofs or collapsing walls. There was no mess, no disorder. Only the dust, thick and clinging and smelling of dirt and age.

Was somebody keeping the city tidy? But that did not make any sense. We had seen no sign of life whatsoever, and moreover, the city felt empty. There was a depth to the silence, a profound hush, that precluded the possibility that Farringale was home to a company of fastidious street-sweepers. Something kept the city preserved — the same enchantments, perhaps, that kept the lights burning in the street lamps.

What any of that had to do with the strange sky was anybody’s guess.

‘Has it always been like that?’ I asked of Alban, gesturing at the sky.

‘I’ve never heard anything of the kind.’ He gazed long upon those vast golden clouds, and I saw that his eyes were very wide.

‘Interesting.’ I was feeling deeply unsettled, this I will admit. But I smothered the feeling and walked on, for I was as intrigued and excited as I was afraid. Farringale! My scholar’s heart danced with joy at the prospect of so many mysteries, all laid out here for my perusal.

Jay drew nearer to me. ‘I have a question,’ he said in an undertone.

‘Yes.’

I expected a question about Farringale, naturally, or some related topic. Instead he said: ‘Where did you get those pipes?’

‘That is a secret.’

‘Why?’

‘Because it pleases me to remain a woman of mystery.’

That won me an unfriendly stare. ‘How does that help you?’

‘Because I cannot otherwise get you to take me seriously. Something to do with my colourful dresses and mad hair, wasn’t it? How else am I going to hold my own with you?’

‘Okay, okay. I’m sorry I suggested anything of the kind. Please tell me about the pipes.’

‘Why do you want to know?’

‘Are you kidding? You whistled up a quartet of unicorns. Of course I want to know.’

Fair point. ‘I can’t tell you,’ I said, and cut off his objections with a wave of my hand. ‘I really can’t. I am not allowed.’

‘According to who?’

‘The Powers That Be.’

‘Aren’t you the rule-breaker extraordinaire?’

‘When I have good reason. This isn’t one.’

Jay gave a long, sad sigh. ‘I have another question.’

‘Yes.’

‘Why do you keep them in your, uh, undergarments?’

‘Imagine you suspect me of harbouring some magickal object of deep and ancient power, and you want to take it from me. Where are you going to look?’

‘Bag,’ said Jay promptly. ‘Pockets, maybe.’

‘Bra?’

‘Never.’

‘Right.’

‘Very clever.’

‘Thank you. I know that—’ I stopped talking, distracted by a flicker of colour glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look, but saw nothing that could explain the soft flash of light, the blur of colours I’d thought I had seen. Just the same empty street, and a deserted, white-tiled plaza branching off it. Nothing moved.

‘What is it?’ asked Jay, who’d stopped a few paces farther up the road.

I shook my head, and caught up with him. ‘Nothing.’

We arrived at a wide intersection, and there we stopped, for nobody knew which of the three other streets that opened before us would take us where we needed to go. For that matter, nobody knew what we were aiming for. Our plan had not been a sophisticated one; it consisted of “Find Farringale and search it for clues.” So far, so good, but since answers had yet to leap out of the air to oblige us, what did we do next?

I looked long and hard down each street, noting that all three hosted buildings of promising-looking grandeur. ‘I wonder if any of those is the library?’ I mused aloud.

Alban had a piece of paper in his hand, to which he kept referring after every searching glance at the streets around us. I sidled closer.

It was a map, roughly hand-drawn in biro on basic, white A4 paper. But if I was disposed to dismiss its significance on account of its humble appearance, I was soon moved to reconsider, for Baron Alban’s thumb was positioned over the outline of an intersection just like the one we were standing on. One of its four converging streets outlined a smooth curve, from the other end of which branched a tiny side-street. Where this terminated, a blocky doorway was crudely drawn in. All of this looked… decidedly familiar.

‘My dear baron,’ I said. ‘Wherever did you get a map of Farringale?’

The look he shot at me could only be termed shifty. ‘The library is here,’ he said, and I could see him dodging my question but how could I care, when instead of an explanation he offered me a library? He was pointing one elegant finger at a hastily-drawn square on his map, which I was encouraged to note was not far away. Unfortunately, he did not excel at drawing. The library seemed to be positioned about equidistantly between two streets; which one actually hosted the door?

‘There are four of us,’ I observed. ‘Two to take the left fork, two to go straight ahead.’

‘Haven’t you ever played games?’ Jay said. ‘Never split the party.’

I looked around at the silent, empty city. ‘We don’t seem to be in any danger. Where’s the harm?’

‘Not yet,’ said Jay. ‘But something emptied this place, and if it is the same something that destroyed Glenfinnan and is presently decimating Darrowdale, I’d rather take a little care.’

‘I have to agree,’ murmured Alban.

I looked at Rob. I had invited him to be our Captain of Health and Safety, after all. On this point, his opinion mattered to me the most.

‘No need to rush, I think,’ he said.

Or in other words, no splitting the party. ‘Random pick, then,’ I said with a shrug. ‘We can double back if we get it wrong.’

We went left. The street narrowed there, and I was intrigued to notice a distinct change in its architectural character. The houses were smaller, and very differently built: most of them were timber-framed, with great, dark beams and white-washed walls. Some few farther along were made from brick, the deep-red, uneven kind: hand-crafted, and crumbling a little with age. They were human-sized and human-built, if I did not miss my guess, and dating from the sixteenth century. I’d seen many such buildings all over Britain.

‘They must have had a human population here, once,’ I said. ‘Look at this house! Tudor, has to be. Handsome, but not too grand: merchants? There was once a lot of trading back-and-forth between the Troll Enclaves and our own towns.’

I don’t think my fascination was fully shared by my companions. A medical treatise from the fifteen hundreds might have interested Rob, but a building? He cast it a polite glance, clearly did not see what had got me so excited, and found no comment to offer. Alban was focused on his map, and did not even look.

Jay, though… ‘It’s a shame all of that’s gone,’ he said, gazing at the merchant’s house with an air of faint wistfulness. ‘Can you imagine trying to get that kind of free trade and travel going nowadays?’

I could not. Magick used to be commonplace; it was widely used among humankind, and universally accepted even among those with no ability. That is no longer the case. It’s dwindling in humans, so much so that it now qualifies as a decided rarity. To those with no magickal talent, it simply does not exist. Our magickal communities have shrunk to mere pockets of activity, carefully hidden from the rest of the world. We survive, and we try to carry as much of that heritage forward as we can. But it isn’t easy, and for folk such as the trolls, it’s much harder to pass unnoticed.

Rob stopped, so suddenly that I almost collided with him. He stood tense, alert, his head lifted, scanning the sky.

‘What is it?’ I said.

He made no reply for a while, and finally shook his head. ‘Nothing, I think.’

But then I heard it, too: a swoosh of air from somewhere overhead, like the slow flapping of vast wings.

‘Hear that?’ said Rob, in a whisper.

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘But I see nothing…’

‘That cloud,’ said Jay. ‘It’s… is that lightning?’

He was facing the other way, arm lifted to point. I spun around, stared hard at the hazy mass of clouds he indicated. Naught but serenity met my eyes, all golden peacefulness like a lazy summer afternoon…

…and then a ripple of searing golden light, there and gone so quickly I almost doubted the evidence of my eyes.

Wingbeats again, so close I almost felt the brush of feathers against my hair…

Rob backed up. ‘We might want to get out of the open air,’ he suggested.

‘You don’t think—’ began Jay.

‘He’s right,’ interrupted Alban. He was already making for the nearest building: that same Tudor townhouse I had been admiring only a moment before. He talked on as he walked. ‘There’s an old myth about Farringale Dell. There was once a mountain somewhere in there, so tall that its peak touched the clouds. And nesting thereupon were the kinds of creatures we do not want to tangle with, so, Ves? Jay? This way, and quickly.’

‘What kinds of creatures?’ said Jay, though he did not argue with the baron: he made for the mansion at a jog.

‘Big, winged ones,’ muttered Rob, who was retreating backwards, his gaze still locked on the sky.

As was mine, for erupting out of the clouds was a mass of big, winged creatures, all wreathed in crackling golden lightning. Big creatures. They were tawny in colour or white, their gigantic wings luxuriously feathered. They had the bodies of lions and long, sinuous tails…

‘Griffins,’ I breathed, torn between awe and fear. Because if we want to talk about rare magickal beasts, it doesn’t get much rarer or more magickal than the griffin. We’ve thought them extinct for years.

I had time only to register that my frozen-in-wonder awe was sadly misguided, for the nearest of the flock was bearing down upon me with alarming speed, and growing larger by the second… good heavens, how big were they?

Ves,’ shouted Rob. ‘These creatures are not friendly!’

He was right, for that marvellous bird’s beak opened wide and it shrieked at me, unmistakeably a challenge. An angry challenge. Its cloak of lightning crackled and blazed with heat, filling the air with the scent of ozone.

‘Shit,’ I observed, and threw myself to the ground. Wicked talons missed me by a hair; lightning flashed, searing my eyes, and my dress began to burn.

The griffin banked, turned, shrieked its fury anew. Then, with one powerful beat of its sail-like wings, it renewed its attack.

The Road to Farringale: 15

Alban took the stallion, of course, it being the only beast large enough to bear the baron’s rather bulky frame. Twenty hands high if he was an inch, the stallion rippled with muscle, his hide almost as gleamingly bronze as the baron’s hair. They made a handsome pair.

My own unicorn was white, though her coat and horn glinted silvery in the right light. She and I made friends years ago, and we’ve been on several adventures together. The second time we met I gave her a name: Adeline. ‘Addie,’ I greeted her warmly, as she nosed and lipped at my cardigan. I gave her a kiss, and a ball of sugar. She dipped a bit to permit me to spring up onto her back; I took hold of the silver rope she wears which more or less keeps me from falling off, and we were ready to go.

Rob, too, was mounted up, sitting competently astride a night-black unicorn I felt a bit envious of. What a majestic creature she was! Her tapering horn was indigo traced with silver, her mane black glittering with stars. I had never seen her before; a new friend of Addie’s, obviously.

Jay, though, was in trouble. There was but one unicorn left for him to choose: a little mare of pale golden hide and rippling white tresses. She seemed friendly enough, but somehow they were not getting along. Jay stood several feet away from her, hands on hips, eyeing her with no friendly spirit, and the mare was dancing nervously from hoof to hoof.

‘Up, Jay!’ I called. ‘No time to waste!’

‘It may come as a surprise to you to learn that I have never ridden a unicorn.’

‘No problem. It’s much like riding a horse, only more… airborne.’

‘What makes you think I’m capable of riding a horse?’

That did surprise me a little. Who didn’t know how to ride a horse? But I suppose the arts of chair-riding, and related charmery, are more likely to appear on the university’s curriculums these days. Winged horses and unicorns, like so many other magickal beasts, are becoming scarce.

‘What do you think, Addie?’ I whispered to her, patting her silky neck. ‘Do you think you could carry two of us? We’re both skinny and on the short side, nothing too burdensome.’ That wasn’t an altogether fair way of describing Jay when he was almost six feet tall. Compared to the baron, though, he was a lightweight.

My darling Adeline indicated her approval by trotting over to Jay and halting right beside him. She lowered her graceful form to the ground, and waited patiently for him to notice her.

Which he did, though with almost as much delight as he had greeted the rest. ‘What’s this?’

I patted Addie’s back. ‘Join me, and the world will be ours.’

Jay raised his brows.

‘I’ll keep you from falling off,’ I translated. ‘Not that Addie would ever drop us.’

Jay was not impressed, but he did not argue. Within a few moments Addie had both of us astride her elegant back, Jay sitting behind me as stiff as a board.

‘Try to relax,’ I told him. ‘You only make it harder for yourself otherwise.’

He tried, with some success, but that was before Adeline rose to her feet again and began to walk. Jay clutched me so hard that it hurt, but I let it pass; he’d had a hard day already, and they don’t issue unicorns with seatbelts. No wonder he was uneasy.

‘Here we go,’ I murmured, as Addie began to trot, then to canter. She launched herself into a tearing gallop, her glittering wings spreading wide and beating with long, powerful strokes. Her hooves left the ground and we were away, spiralling up into the sunlit sky.

Jay wrapped his arms around my waist and buried his face in my shoulder. I suppose he didn’t want to see the view, which was a shame, because we flew higher and higher; so high, anybody who saw us from the ground would take us for a distant flock of birds. Old Winchester Hill dwindled to nothing beneath us, lost in the expanse of rolling, vibrant green countryside over which we flew.

‘Open your eyes!’ I called to Jay. ‘You have to see this!’

‘Gladly,’ said Jay. ‘As long as you’re okay with my vomiting all over your dress.’

‘On second thought, maybe stay as you are.’

‘That’s what I was thinking.’

I was glad of Jay’s warmth as we flew, for however glorious the April sunshine, the winds were cold so far above the ground. The journey was not long, for my unicorns were fast beyond belief; those glorious wings gobbled up the miles, green meadows sailing by below us as we flew. Nonetheless, by the time we spiralled down to the ground I was frozen stiff. I did not so much dismount as fall straight off Addie’s back, landing on my feet by happy fortune alone.

Jay walked about, waving feeling back into his arms and shaking himself. I expected him to look nauseated or petrified, but if anything he looked exhilarated.

‘Not so bad, eh?’ I said, smiling at him. ‘Air Unicorn, I mean.’

He grinned at that, taking me by surprise again. ‘Eight out of ten, would fly again.’

‘Eight?’

‘One point deducted for sub-optimal temperatures. One point for the screaming terror.’

‘Unfair. There was no screaming.’

‘In my head, I was screaming the whole time.’

‘I salute your courage,’ I told him, matching action to words.

He rolled his eyes and turned away from me, which was rather unfair considering I had been serious. But never mind. I certainly wasn’t going to admit that my knees were a bit weak, too; I’ve flown by unicorn a few times, but the combination of height and speed combined with the lack of safety features always takes a toll.

‘This is the right place,’ said Alban, striding up with his bronze stallion trailing behind him. ‘Near enough.’ The wind had done terrible things to my hair, I had no doubt, but the baron merely looked handsomely windswept. Some people spend a lot of quality time with a hairdryer trying to achieve that effect, and without much success.

We had come down in a field, just within sight of a pretty village — Alresford, presumably.  I was not worried about being spotted; Adeline is used to passing herself off as a swan, or a goose, or some other large bird, under the cursory glance of a non-magickal observer. Nonetheless, I judged it best to dismiss her and her little herd as soon as we were certain of no longer needing them.

‘Thank you,’ I whispered to Addie, kissing her soft nose, and she whickered at me before trotting off.

The closer we got to Farringale, the more Baron Alban’s urgency increased. He led us off towards the old town at a storming pace, and I had little time to admire the neat terraced houses with their bright paintwork, the tiny shops, or the delightful old timber-framed mill with its crown of thatch. Sun dappled the broad streets, the air was fresh and bright, and I wished we had gone there with a picnic or something, ready to enjoy the day. But Alban looked as grim as death, which was helpful in recalling my mind to our real purpose. We passed occasional strollers and shoppers as we tore through Alresford, but the baron attracted no real notice whatsoever; no doubt he was adept at concealing his unusually tall frame, unusual features and distinctive skin colour behind a glamour charm.

We stopped at last not far away from the lovely old mill. A sturdy bridge arched over the clear water of the River Alre, a blocky construct built from stone and brick. Clearly ancient, it must date, I guessed, from somewhere in the medieval period — a rare survival from such far-distant days. The bridge dwarfed the narrow waterway running beneath it; its pointed arch rose high enough for us to walk right underneath. We stopped on a little ledge next to the water, and looked expectantly at Alban.

‘Key?’ he said, looking at me.

I withdrew my beautiful key from my pocket. To my delight, the sapphire blazed when the light hit it; was it the sun that lit its internal fire, or proximity to the gate it was intended to open?

Baron Alban took two more keys out of his own pockets: one shining gold set with a ruby-red stone, the other glinting bronze and cradling a stone of vivid green, like emerald, or peridot. Both keys radiated coloured light, like mine, and I was moved to gratitude that we were, at least for the moment, alone at the bridge.

I thought Alban would know what to do with the keys, but he did not appear to. He stepped back a few paces and stared at the bridge, brow furrowed, clearly perplexed.

I could see why. There were no signs of anything like a keyhole anywhere upon that aged stonework. Not even one, let alone three. How were we supposed to open the gate?

‘May I borrow that?’ Alban said to me, indicating my key with a nod of his head.

Reluctantly, I handed it over.

‘Thanks.’ The baron held all three keys in one of his large hands and stepped into the water, heedless of the damage to his polished boots. He walked all the way under the arch, dipping down as the roof sloped lower. Nothing happened, save that he got rather wet. He turned about and made his way back to us, shaking his head.

‘I thought merely holding the keys might be enough, but no.’ He went back to searching the stonework for a clue, pacing back and forth impatiently.

‘There.’ Rob pointed a finger over the baron’s head, at the smooth stonework just above the bridge’s pointed arch.

I saw nothing. ‘What? What are we seeing?’

‘Wave those keys around a bit again, Baron,’ said Rob.

Alban complied, looking like he felt a bit foolish. But as he stretched up his arm and waved the keys back and forth, a faint, answering glitter of colour rippled over the stones.

‘Well spotted,’ commented the baron.

He was the only one of the four of us tall enough to do anything about this discovery, of course. This was troll country, all right. Alban laid each key in turn against the stones until something else happened: the gold key flashed red and sank into the stone, fitting into a perfectly-shaped depression we had not been able to see before. There it lay, twinkling jauntily red.

The baron had no trouble fitting the second key alongside it: within moments, the bronze key with its green jewel had taken up a neighbouring spot, and the two shone side-by-side like early Christmas lights.

Only one key, my key, was left, and its home was soon revealed by way of a sheen of blue lighting up the grey stone. But Alban hesitated.

‘Are we ready for this?’ he asked of us, looking over his shoulder and down at his audience of three.

‘Yes,’ said Rob. He looked prepared, his posture confident, his manner composed. But so he always did. I have never seen Rob at a loss, or afraid.

‘I am,’ said Jay, though he looked and sounded less certain than Rob.

‘Onward,’ I said, and tried to sound staunch and imperturbable. Was I ready? How could you be prepared for something you could not predict?

This was no time for doubts, for the baron nodded his acknowledgement of our enthusiasm and reached up to place the third key.

Rather a lot happened.

First, the light. If the keys had shone brightly before, now they fairly blazed, and a rainbow raced, swift and glittering, over the arch of the bridge.

The bridge shuddered under some force we could neither see nor feel, shedding earth and stone dust into the water. I winced, suddenly anxious, for the bridge was irreplaceable; what if the passage of centuries had weakened it? What if it was no longer capable of bearing the pressure of the Farringale enchantments, and collapsed? Milady would never forgive us. I would never forgive myself.

But it held. The shaking stopped, the rainbow of light faded, and all became still once more.

With one change. A serene white light shone from underneath the bridge, marking the outline of an arched portal. A breeze gusted forth from within, bringing with it the musty scent of lost ages.

The way into Farringale was open.

The Road to Farringale: 14

The things I had in mind were not supplies, as the baron probably imagined. I still had my stash of toys from the Darrowdale expedition, and I keep a basic travel kit ready at all times because I am often sent off somewhere at a moment’s notice.

No, the “things” I planned to grab in passing consisted of just the one, really. A tall, reassuringly bulky, Rob-Foster-shaped thing, to be precise.

I like Rob so much. He is so calm, and so obliging. I found him in the infirmary tending to a forlorn-looking soul with her arm in a cast. Broken bones aren’t too uncommon around here, at least among those following certain fields of specialisation (mine included).

‘Much as I hate to disturb you,’ I said to Rob as I swept in, resembling, most likely, a small, vibrantly-coloured whirlwind, ‘I have an urgent matter on hand.’

Rob acknowledged my appearance but did not answer me until he had finished whatever he was doing for the girl — I call her such because she was very young, perhaps fifteen or so. She seemed a bit too young for a Society recruit, but perhaps she was here on some kind of internship or work experience thing. We sometimes get them.

Anyway, Rob dismissed her, all calm reassurance and comforting professionalism, and the girl — Indian, at a guess, and very smartly dressed — went away looking less forlorn.

‘All right, Ves,’ said Rob, taking off his doctor’s coat. ‘What may I do for you?’

‘Jay and I are going to Farringale,’ I told him.

‘Ah.’

Unflappable, Rob. ‘Nobody’s been there in centuries,’ I added.

‘Indeed.’

‘Since we have no idea what we might find there, and whether or not it will prove to be friendly, I’d like to take you along with us.’

Rob looked curiously at me. ‘What do you need me for?’

‘I’d like your help with not dying.’

He smiled faint amusement. ‘Playing the damsel? You could probably hold your own against pretty much anything, and Jay’s no slouch either.’

He wasn’t wrong — about me, at least; I had no real idea what Jay’s abilities might be. Anybody taking up my line of work with the Society is obliged to take a rigorous series of courses in what Milady, by way of adorable euphemism, terms “the Direct Arts”. And while I am no prodigy by any means, I can be plenty direct when I need to be. I’m still breathing, aren’t I? And believe me, Milady has thrown me at all manner of risky adventures down the years.

However.

‘It’s the “probably” part that bothers me,’ I answered. ‘And I’ll have Jay with me. He is something of a protege and I do not want to have to admit to Milady that I got him sliced up and made into mincemeat.’ Particularly when the mission was unauthorised in the first place.

‘I’m surprised Milady didn’t think of sending me along,’ said Rob, brows slightly raised in mild enquiry.

People are too sharp around here by half. ‘She doesn’t know we’re going,’ I told him. I mean, why bother lying? ‘Actually, she outright forbade it. But House disagrees, so we’re going anyway.’

Rob absorbed this in stoic silence, his gaze on me thoughtful. ‘All right,’ he said, to my relief. ‘You can explain the rest on the way.’

I gave him my best, absolutely my sunniest smile, and my most exquisite curtsey too. ‘You are a gentleman above any other, Mr. Foster.’

‘I know.’

 

It was only once we arrived at the conservatory that I realised I’d forgotten to mention Baron Alban to Rob. And I had, of course, neglected to mention Rob to Baron Alban. Oops.

The two gentleman took the surprise well, however, electing only to eye one another up in a manner assessing and wary but in no way hostile.

‘Our party’s expanding,’ noted the baron.

‘I like breathing,’ I told him. ‘And Rob’s the best we have at keeping all those kinds of procedures going. In numerous ways.’

Alban accepted this with a nod. Rob asked no questions at all, so I left the problem of explaining the Baron’s presence for later.

‘The key?’ prompted Alban.

I fished it out of my pocket and held it up. Rob stared at it with more interest than he had yet shown in anything, that I could remember, but he made no move either to touch it or to ask me about it.

Baron Alban, however, did both.

‘No,’ I said, snatching it out of his reach. ‘I will hang onto this one.’

Alban’s eyes narrowed. ‘I have the other two.’

‘Which you are welcome to keep. House gave this one into my care, however, and I promised to give it back.’

‘And so you shall, once we return.’

I shook my head, and tucked the key away again safely out of sight. ‘I live here, and I’d like to continue to do so for a while yet. Would you like to break a promise to a castle, voluntarily or otherwise?’

The twinkle returned to the baron’s eyes, and he made no further effort to persuade me. ‘Where did you find it?’

‘That’s a secret.’

He rolled his eyes. ‘You people eat, sleep and breathe secrets.’

‘Pot, meet kettle.’

‘Fair.’

Jay arrived just then, looking a little out of breath. I wondered what he had been doing with himself for the last quarter-hour. ‘The Waypoint’s ready,’ he said. He looked at the baron. ‘Where are we heading for?’

‘I’ll tell you when we get to the Waypoint.’

Jay shrugged and turned away. ‘Let’s go, then.’

A few minutes later we were back in that cold cellar room. It was even colder than last time, and I shivered. Did I imagine the faint, chill breeze coiling sluggishly over the stone floor?

Jay shepherded the three of us into the centre of the floor, right where the winds of travel had manifested last time. Then he looked questioningly at the baron.

‘Winchester,’ said Alban. ‘Or thereabouts.’

Winchester? As far as I had ever heard, scholars were agreed upon just one point regarding Farringale: it lay somewhere in the far north, either in England or in Scotland.

Winchester is in Hampshire. In fact, it is almost as far south as you can go before you hit saltwater. How could so many fine minds be so spectacularly wrong, and about so basic a fact?

Pot, meet kettle. Indeed. ‘Misdirection?’ I said to Baron Alban, failing to conceal my sourness.

He grinned at me. ‘Best way to keep a secret I know.’

‘You all have been mighty determined to keep this one.’

He shrugged. ‘Not my call, but I’m sure their Majesties have their reasons.’

‘They aren’t going to be pleased with you.’

‘About as pleased as Milady’s going to be with you, I imagine.’

There was time for no more words, for the breeze became a strong wind and then a howling gale, and then away we were once again.

 

Winchester made some sense, I thought, and it was a thought I clung to as I was whirled about, doll-like, in the winds of Jay’s magick on the way to Hampshire. After all, while ancient England cannot be said to have had a fixed capital in the modern way, Winchester was its principal city before London supplanted it. It did not surprise me greatly that the Troll Court should choose to anchor itself in the same environs as the monarchs of England, though that did not answer the question of why either party had chosen Winchester in the first place. What was it about the city? It was one of the very oldest settlements in England, true, but the same could be said for many another place.

Such reflections carried me through the worst of the journey, until I was at last set down — surprisingly gently — atop a wide, green hill in some pleasingly sun-dappled countryside. Vibrant meadowland stretched before me, dotted with yellow-flowering bushes and low, dark green shrubs. A brisk wind blew up on the heights there, which would have pleased me more if I had not just been subjected to rather an excess thereof.

I cast a quick glance at Baron Alban, who looked unaffected. Interesting. Did they have a Waymaster at the Troll Court? Most likely. He had the serene air of a man well used to travelling by high winds.

Rob, I knew, was considerably less accustomed to it, but he stood admiring the scenery with his customary stoicism, so I felt no concern for him.

Jay was another matter. I swiftly concluded that it must be much harder to convey four people to the other end of the country than it was to convey two, for he had collapsed into a boneless heap upon the grass and was performing a creditable impression of a dead person.

When a couple of minutes went by and Jay did not get up, Rob knelt beside him and subjected him to a cursory examination. ‘You all right, lad?’ he said quietly.

‘Be fine,’ Jay mumbled.

Rob did not argue with this announcement, but took a charm bead out of a pocket somewhere and put it between Jay’s lips. They tend to be colour-coded; this one was yellow, and as far as I could remember that meant it was a restorative.

A most effective one, for Jay was soon sitting up and then back on his feet, shaking himself like a dog and breathing great gulps of air. ‘Ouch,’ he croaked after a while.

Rob clapped him on the shoulder. ‘How long have you been using the Ways?’

‘About five minutes, as these things go.’

‘You did well.’

Jay said nothing in reply, but he accepted the praise with an air of quiet gratitude of which I took careful note. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might lack confidence, or that a simple compliment would go such a long way.

‘To Winchester, then?’ said Jay, looking at Baron Alban.

‘Actually, to Alresford.’

That won him a blank look. ‘Where?’

‘It is a tiny old town a ways north-east of Winchester.’

Jay tapped away at his phone for a minute. ‘Ten miles away,’ he said lightly. ‘Or a bit more. No problem, we’ll be there by nightfall.’

‘We should have brought some chairs,’ said Rob.

Jay had the look of a man just barely resisting the temptation to roll his eyes. I didn’t blame him. Four chairs, large enough to fly in without falling overboard, would not be easily portable. He set off down the hill, moving at a brisk march. ‘Better get going,’ he called back.

‘Wait, I have a better idea.’ It was me who spoke, and by way of response I received from all three gentlemen an identical quizzical look. ‘I have, um, a small secret,’ I ventured.

Really.’ Jay’s voice dripped sarcasm.

Baron Alban merely raised a brow at me that said: Is that supposed to be a surprise?

I did not try to explain, which might have been a mistake, since my next move was to stick my hand down the front of my dress and start rooting about in there.

‘Um, Ves…?’ said Jay.

‘Hang on.’ Almost… ah, there they were. I withdrew my hand, bringing forth a set of tiny silver pipes.

Jay’s confusion only grew. ‘Panpipes?’

‘Syrinx pipes,’ I corrected. The baron knew what they were, for his grin flashed bright and he chuckled.

I blew a trilling melody upon my beautiful pipes and in response, a breeze swirled through my hair. Not a frantic, grabbing breeze like the Winds of the Ways, but a gentle wind, warm and serene and scented with flowers.

I shoved the pipes away again and faced the horizon. ‘Any moment now.’

‘Should I ask why you keep charmed syrinx pipes in your undergarments?’ Jay said, apparently more intrigued by that question than whatever might come of my music.

‘They’re safe in there,’ I murmured, not paying him much attention.

If he made any response, I missed it, for there in the sky was a pinprick of colour, growing rapidly larger and more distinct. Three others formed around it. They flew fast, feathered pinions spread wide to ride the winds, and soon they were swooping in to land upon the hilltop nearby.

Unicorns?’ said Jay, incredulous. ‘You just whistled a quartet of winged unicorns out of your bra?’

‘Never underestimate the benefits of a good bra,’ I told him with dignity. ‘As many a lingerie company will tell you.’

Jay, for once, had nothing to say.

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.’