The Striding Spire: 2

‘Just the one rumour?’ I said. ‘Remarkable.’

The Baron’s irresistible smile flashed. ‘Actually, more than one.’

‘Let’s have the first one, then.’

‘Is it true that there’s a leak inside the Society?’

That was unexpected. I filled my mouth with ice cream and fruit, stalling for a few moments to think. What should I tell him?

He wasn’t wrong. Things had got pretty interesting at work lately. We’d discovered an incredibly rare and indescribably valuable artefact (a book, talkative); faced off against a new, but nonetheless powerful rival organisation with the downright fatuous name of Ancestria Magicka who were determined to steal it; and almost got eaten alive by a haunted house and its trio of unfriendly ghosts. In the middle of all this, we’d found that word of the chatty book (Bill) had somehow leaked out, despite the fact that it had never left Home. That’s how we ended up with Ancestria Magicka on our tails.

Furthermore, it wasn’t just information that had gone farther than it should. Someone had actively sabotaged us by putting tracker spells on the book itself. It was clear that somebody at the Society was a turncoat, and that was alarming. But how had the Baron found out?

‘Who told you that?’ I finally said. ‘I wasn’t aware that Milady was disposed to chat about it.’

‘Someone high up in the Society contacted the Troll Court a few days ago with word of a problem,’ answered the Baron. ‘Probably Milady herself, in fact. She requested aid.’

‘Did they send you to nose around?’

He smiled, sheepish again. ‘Might have.’

Hmm. It was plausible enough that Milady might seek aid from the Court. I’d become aware of more than one link between Milady, whoever she was behind the vague title, and the Troll Courts of old; if she could no longer be sure of who to trust at Home, it was not so far-fetched that she would consult her allies.

She might have mentioned it to me, though. Did that mean I, too, was suspect? I didn’t think so, but I still felt a slight twinge.

I gave the Baron a brief precis of everything that had happened with the book, which he heard without interruption. ‘At present we have no idea who it might be,’ I said in conclusion. ‘Bill caused a sensation at Home, as you might imagine. For a little while, everybody found some excuse to pass through the Library and gawk at the book. Any of them could have passed information to Ancestria, and far too many had at least some opportunity to plant a tracker spell on it. We know that someone’s rotten, but we have no leads whatsoever.’

The Baron took a forkful, and chewed meditatively, his eyes faraway. ‘There is a reason Milady contacted the Court,’ he finally said. ‘There are some ancient magicks that are only really practiced by a rare few nowadays, and the Court makes a habit of collecting them up. Sort of the way you do — preservation tactic. If we don’t find and nurture those talents, the magicks might fade away altogether.’

‘Quite,’ I murmured.

‘There used to be something called a Truthseeker, or so it was known until about the middle of the nineteenth century, by which time there were so few of them left that the word itself fell out of use. There are no human Truthseekers anymore, but there is one living who can still employ that art, and he’s at the Court.’

This sounded promising. ‘And Truthseeking consists of what?’

‘A Truthseeker is unusually sensitive to…’ He took a mouthful of his drink, and shrugged. ‘I don’t pretend to know how it works, Ves, you’ll have to ask him. But where you and I can only guess at whether or not we’re being told the truth, a Truthseeker has a much more solid idea. What’s more, they can, to some degree, compel a person to speak the truth. Milady means to question the Society about the Bill incident, and she’s requested our Truthseeker’s presence at those interviews.’

‘Fair enough. But what’s your role in all this?’

‘I’m the advance party. Seeing as I already have a contact at the Society, and a pretty spectacular one at that—’ He paused here to waggle his eyebrows at me, which was far more charming than it had any right to be —’I was sent to get the details straight from the source.’

‘Well, you’ve got the details.’ I smiled at him, hoping my lips were not as visibly sugar-crusted as I feared. ‘I doubt I’ve told you anything more than Milady already relayed, though.’

‘It’s good to get a fuller account.’ He was being generous, but he was good at doing it unobtrusively, so I overlooked it. ‘The other thing…’ he said, and hesitated again.

‘Oh yes, rumour number two. Let’s hear it.’

‘You found something…unusual, recently?’

‘My dear Baron, we are the Society for Magickal Heritage and I am one of its finest field agents. Our entire job consists of going out into the world and finding highly interesting things whose existence is probably under threat. Could you be more specific?’

That sheepish smile again. ‘Of course. Uh, the existence of this particular thing is not so much under threat as… disputed? Extinguished? Impossible?’

‘Oh! You mean the puppy.’

He blinked at me. ‘It’s a puppy?’

‘Not in the way you are thinking. Miranda called it a dappledok pup. No relation to the canine species of creature, I’m fairly sure. I may someday get very, very tired of asking you this, but: how did you hear about that?’

‘Milady again, but she was cagey about it. Dropped a hint, primarily by asking if we happened to have any experts on extinct magickal beasts mooching around at the Court.’

‘Do you?’

‘Yes, but she’s somewhere in the Caribbean right now, on the trail of some impossibly rare bird whose name I have forgotten.’

‘Were you sent to ask me about the pup, too, or is this mere private curiosity?’

‘Some of both.’ His eyes strayed to the bag I had left leaning innocently against the back of the adjacent chair.

Too sharp for his own good, that Baron.

‘All right, all right,’ I said, rolling my eyes at him. ‘I’ll show you.’ I lifted the bag’s flap, carefully in case the puppy fell out. But she was still tucked securely in the nest I had made out of three pairs of socks, and still asleep. She was so motionless that for a moment my heart stopped. But when I touched her, I could feel the slow rise and fall of her furred side. I tickled her.

She did not move.

‘She sleeps like a champion,’ I said to the Baron. ‘She has had a hard time of it, though. Her siblings starved, and she wasn’t far off going the same way when we found her.’

‘Let her sleep, then,’ said the Baron, staring at her with his eyes as wide as saucers and a dopey grin on his face.

It wasn’t just me who found her utterly charming, then. Reassuring.

She was looking particularly cute, all curled up in a tiny ball barely larger than an orange. She has tufts of goldish hair growing around the base of her little unicorn horn, the tips of which swayed with the rhythm of her breathing.

‘I imagine she will wake up soon, for it’s time for her feed, and she’s not one to miss out on breakfast.’ Neither am I, of course, though I have nothing like her excuse. Nobody’s ever tried to starve me. Nonetheless, I felt that it made us kindred spirits.

I noticed Baron Alban eyeing my cleared plate, probably thinking along similar lines. He refrained, however, from comment.

Wise man.

It probably was more than an hour since she had last had her milk, so I opted to tickle her until she woke. She did so at last with a grumpy little snort, and sat up, stretching. I was ready with her bottle, and she soon clamped her jaws around the teat and got to work.

The Baron and I watched with the breathless silence of brand new, doting parents.

‘You know what a dappledok pup is, of course?’ said the Baron after a while.

‘Other than the fact that it’s been completely extinct since the eighteenth century?’

‘It has indeed. But before that?’

‘No. I asked Miranda but she gabbled something largely incoherent — she was wrestling with a clawed, very unhappy creature at the time, in her defence — and I never did make sense of it.’ I’d asked Val, too. Her response had been, “I’ll get back to you,” which meant that she did not know at that precise moment where the books were on that topic, but she would soon find out.

‘Spriggans,’ said Alban, incomprehensibly.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Fae-folk, native to Cornwall. Fond of shiny stuff. They bred the dappledoks out of a few other fae beasts, the goal being to create a species with a nose for treasure. They were said to be amazing trackers of anything or anyone carrying gold.’

I was quiet, because only the previous day I had gone into my jewellery drawer for my favourite gold ear-studs and found them missing. I’d assumed I had simply put them somewhere they shouldn’t be, but suddenly I wondered.

‘How did they come to die out?’ I asked.

His mouth twisted in a grimace. ‘Think it through, Ves. Cute, largely defenceless little creatures that are literally the road to riches? Spriggans can be unwisely boastful, to boot. Word spread, everyone wanted a dappledok, and… the rate of thefts across Britain, the Enclaves, the Dells, everywhere, positively soared. In the end they were banned. It became illegal to breed them. They survived a while after that, of course, through secret breeding-programmes, but eventually they petered out.’

‘Spriggans,’ I said.

‘Spriggans.’

This was not the very best of news, for the fae-folk can be tricky. To say the least. There are more of them still about than non-magickers tend to think; they’ve just learned to hide better than they used to. But they can still cause a world of trouble for magickers and non-magickers alike, and spriggans… well, they have a reputation for being among the worst for sheer hell-raising mischief.

I’ve tried to avoid tangling with the fae as much as possible.

‘So did I tell you where I found this pup?’ I said.

‘Pray do.’

Remember when I said we’d almost been swallowed by a haunted house? That’s where we found the pup: curled up in a corner with two others, both dead. And this particular house was the kind that moves around, courtesy of its resident ghost of a Waymaster. It dated from the fourteen hundreds, if not even earlier, and it really felt like it.

I told all this to the Baron.

‘Triple haunting?’ he mused. ‘That’s unusual.’

‘Yes. But. While I did not have much opportunity to chat with the residents, it did not strike me as likely that any of them would have cared much about operating a secret dappledok breeding programme. What would be the point?’

‘So you think someone else might have been using the cottage?’

‘Presumably with their consent, yes. It’s possible. Or someone merely dumped the pups there. Or the pups might even have found their own way in.’

‘In other words, you have no idea.’

‘None whatsoever.’

The Baron’s green, green eyes laughed at me again. ‘Excellent,’ he said. ‘Good talk.’

I grinned back. ‘I might be able to find something out,’ I offered.

‘Do you know, I was hoping you might say that?’

The Striding Spire: 1

Let’s just say that my first date with Baron Alban did not go quite as I was hoping.

Expectations: me in a very good dress. High heels, great up-do, a bit of lipstick (or perhaps a lot). The Baron looking gorgeous as always in one of his many fine suits, escorting me upon one muscular arm to somewhere lovely. Somewhere with music, perhaps, and good cake.

Reality: Somewhat different.

It began with a phone call.

‘Morning, Ves,’ came the Baron’s deep voice when I picked up. ‘Do I disturb?’

‘Not at all!’ said I brightly, and not altogether truthfully. It was, I had blearily noted as I scooped up my phone, all of half past six in the morning; it was Sunday, and I’d had no intention of getting up for at least three hours yet. I was in bed with my duvet around my chin, and the UniPup, all yellow fur and tiny puppy snores, was asleep on my neck. ‘What can I do for you?’ It wasn’t so easy to speak with a weight on my throat. I hoped she would grow out of that habit by the time she grew much bigger.

‘We’ve been talking about going out sometime for a while, and I was wondering — are you busy today?’

‘Today?’

‘Yes.’

I thought furiously, but only for about two and a half seconds. ‘No!’ I said with emphasis. I might have been smiling like an idiot, but that I cannot confirm.

‘Great!’ He sounded happy, too, which I will not deny was good for my ego. ‘I’ll pick you up in half an hour.’

Half an hour?!’

‘Is… that okay?’

I’ve been on a few dates in my time, and I will be self-aggrandising enough to own that some of those gentlemen were flatteringly eager. But this was something else. 7am on a Sunday morning? Nobody was that eager for my company. ‘It’s fine,’ I said, scooping the puppy off my neck. I laid her gently on the pillow next to me — she didn’t wake — and stumbled out of bed. ‘As long as there is going to be breakfast involved, and soon.’

‘That can be arranged. See you soon, Ves.’ And he hung up.

Odd.

But with only twenty-eight minutes of the promised half hour left, I had no time to puzzle over it. What did a Cordelia Vesper wear on a shockingly early-morning breakfast date with the handsomest troll alive? This Cordelia Vesper had no idea, and she’d have to figure it out pretty fast.

 

I made it down to the hall with exactly thirty-seven seconds to spare. With May dawning dewily outside, the day promised to be warm and fine, so I had chosen one of my favourite dresses — a knee-length confection of red viscose, printed with roses — and thrown a light cardigan over it. My trusty hair-fixing Curiosity had done fine work for me again, turning my long, loose curls to a deep red almost the same hue as my dress.

There the elegance ended, for it had quickly occurred to me that I couldn’t leave the puppy alone. I’d thought briefly of taking her back to Miranda, Boss of Beasts, for the morning’s activities, and collecting her again when I got back. But I abandoned that idea almost as quickly as it came up, because the puppy was unlikely to consent. It did not matter what Miranda did to keep the puppy under her eye; she would always escape, by means largely unknown, and find her way back to me. If I left her with Miranda, she’d escape again and come looking — but she would find no trace of me. Would she be upset? I could not take that risk, for she had been starving to death when I’d found her and that was only a few days ago. She was frail, and in need of constant care. I wasn’t leaving her behind.

The fact that I had entirely lost my heart to the little beast was neither here nor there, of course. But who could help it? She was completely adorable. She had the kind of silky fur that begged to be touched, and it was bright gold. Perky little ears, enormous nose, tiny unicorn horn — what’s not to love about all that? She was affectionate, too, and she made me feel needed.

If that makes for a rather pathetic vision of me, I can only apologise.

Anyway, having decided to take her along, I was then obliged to add an inelegantly enormous bag to my attire. It had to be big enough to hold a significant supply of milk for the puppy, for she had to be fed once an hour and I had no idea how long the Baron intended to monopolise my company. She got cold easily, too, even in the balmy weather, so I stashed blankets and fluffies galore to wrap her up in at need. Then I made a nest in the top for the puppy, installed her therein, and tramped down to the hall, already annoyed by the heavy, unwieldy bag by the time I had made it down a mere two of the House’s many winding flights of stairs.

C’est la vie.

There was no sign of the Baron, but when I peeped out of the grand front door I saw him at once. Being Baron Alban, he simply cannot do anything in either a conventional way or a low-key way. Why wear a typical suit, however well-cut, when you can appear in a splendid top hat and a nineteenth-century frock coat? Or a nice set of nineteen-thirties tweeds, as was the case today, and he had the car to match. Don’t ask me what kind of car it was, for I haven’t the first clue, but it had the swanky, exaggerated curves of a proper old-time automobile, and it gleamed in gorgeous British Racing Green. Alban sat at the wheel, wearing tan leather driving gloves and a dark fedora. He grinned as I trotted out into the driveway, and tipped his hat to me.

He then proceeded to get out and hold the passenger door for me, which made me feel quite the lady — at least until the shoulder-bag I had lumbered myself with swung around as I was getting in, knocking me off-balance, and I all but fell into the seat. My poor dignity.

I hastily checked to make sure the puppy was unharmed, and found her to be fast asleep.

Alban returned to the driver’s seat, and I took the opportunity to stash the bag safely by my feet, propped securely upright so the puppy would not fall out.

‘I know the best place for breakfast,’ he informed me as he turned the car, and my stomach was very happy to hear it.

We drove for about twenty minutes, and I began to suspect some kind of shenanigans. Now, I am notorious at Home for being spectacularly poor at finding my way around, and it is partly because I struggle to recognise places I have already been to, if it is nowhere especially familiar to me. So at first I was not troubled by the fact that the roads we were hurtling down rung no bells whatsoever with me; was I likely to remember this particular country road, hedge-lined and flanked by fields, over another almost exactly like it? No.

But after a while, there began to be a change. The hawthorn, blackthorn and hazel hedges ceased to look quite so much like hawthorn, blackthorn or hazel and developed a different appearance altogether. They were taller, for one, and thicker, their leaves a brighter green and oddly curly. Some of them were dotted with star-like flowers of unusual size. The roads that ran in between lost their tarmac-look and became a smooth stone, pale and apparently indestructible, considering the total lack of holes (and believe me, back country roads with no holes in are pretty rare). When a bird flew overhead that in no way resembled an English bird, but more nearly reminded me of a hare with wings, I was certain. ‘Just where exactly are we?’ I asked.

‘The Troll Roads,’ answered the Baron serenely.

‘And they are?’

‘Hidden ways across the world. It’s a tradition dating back hundreds of years, though these days the standard of the roads is a bit higher. They had to be upgraded when cars happened.’

I could see there were a few advantages to these Roads, one of them being a total lack of other traffic. This particular one also had the look of a place where it literally never rains. Quite possibly it did not.

‘We’re going to my home Enclave,’ offered the Baron, when I said no more. ‘Rhaditton.’

Rhaditton. The word had the old-fashioned air of a top boarding school, and considering that the Baron was attached to the Troll Court, I could well believe it was a salubrious place, and probably exclusive. ‘I did not know you lived so close to us at the Society,’ I said.

He grinned at me. ‘I don’t. That is why we’re taking the Troll Roads.’

I blinked. ‘They’re faster?’

‘Much.’

‘How?’

‘Because they’re magick.’

Of course.

He laughed, inferring from my silence — rightly enough — that I found this answer inadequate. ‘Waymasters,’ he said, more helpfully. ‘Quite a number of them have worked on the Roads over the years. The routes aren’t as good as a Waymaster in person, of course, but they’re not a bad alternative.’

‘So what do they do, sort of… swoosh you along?’

‘Something like that, yes. Waymasters used to be adept at a range of travel arts, once upon a time. One or two of them still are.’

Jay had said something like that, recently — that Waymastery was a diminished art these days, with magick on the decline. Jay, of course, was still quite able to spirit himself and others from henge to henge in a single step, across vast distances, so his “diminished” arts still looked pretty impressive to me.

Ten minutes later, we rolled up outside the vast, gleaming walls of a city. Seriously, it looked like Minas Tirith or something, all white stone and shining in the sun like a slice of heaven on earth. The gates opened as the Baron’s car approached, literally like magick, and in we went.

Aaaand I have never been anywhere so glorious in my life. Eerily glorious, because to go with all the polished stone buildings, intricately carved walls, gilding — yes, actual gilding — and general air of improbable luxury, there were none of the things one might normally expect to see in a city that’s lived in by real people. Litter here and there, for example. Peeling paint, shabby old houses in need of maintenance, an occasional abandoned bicycle or shopping trolley.

I was left wondering how far people like Baron Alban qualified as real. Everything about him was improbably fabulous, including his choice of abode.

I tried not to gawk too obviously as we rolled through street after street of this opulence, and in all likelihood failed. At last we drew up outside a low, greyish stone place with an ornate roof and an array of elegant chairs and tables arranged outside. I don’t think they were solid gold, but it was hard to tell.

‘Ah, of course,’ I said as the car drew to a stop. ‘This is how you do cafes in Rhaditton.’

‘They do fantastic pancakes,’ said the Baron.

Pancakes seemed mundane under the circumstances, but I was soon reassured on this point. A few minutes later, I was seated inside the building in what was probably the best seat in the place, with a fine view out of the grand window all the way down the wide boulevard beyond. Baron Alban sat at my elbow; the bag with the puppy in was set on the seat beside me; and I had a plate of pancakes before me that would make any reasonable person cry with happiness.

Point one: they were troll-sized helpings, approximately the size of dinner plates, and there were a lot of them.

Point two: they were smothered in everything. Everything, everything. Ice cream, fruits in improbable colours that I’d never seen before, some kind of sticky sauce that glistened so invitingly it could only be (as the Baron would put it) magick.

I took a spoonful of all this glory, and almost died.

As I was busy winging my way to heaven upon a tide of sweet delight, Baron Alban sat sipping a tall cup of something steamy, his own plate virtually untouched. He was watching me, with a smile that said, you are inelegantly devoted to food, but I like it.

I was unmoved. Nothing was getting in between me and those pancakes, not even the desire to appear cool before the fabulousness that was the Baron.

‘What’s the bag for?’ he said after a while.

Having by that time devoured enough to quieten the complaints of my half-starved stomach, I found myself at leisure to answer him. ‘I’ll tell you later.’

All right, briefly to answer him.

He grinned. ‘Fair.’

‘If you aren’t going to eat,’ I said, eyeing his plate with disfavour, ‘then you can talk. What’s the hurry today?’

‘The hurry?’ he smiled at me, far too innocently for my liking. ‘Just wanted to finally get some time with you.’

‘At seven in the morning? I do not buy it, Mister.’

‘Actually, “my lord Baron” would be more appropriate,’ he said, his grin widening.

‘Diversion failed, my lord Baron. What are we doing here?’

‘Is it so hard to believe I might merely want your company?’

Thinking of the salubrious city and its equally glamorous residents — I’d seen several gorgeous and gorgeously dressed troll ladies wandering those streets, and an example sat not six feet away at another table — I said, ‘Yes.’

To my mild regret, the Baron began to look sheepish. I suppose a small part of me had hoped he was just desperate for my company.

Such is life.

He picked up his fork and took a bite of pancake, clearly a delaying tactic.

‘Spit it out,’ I recommended. ‘Not the pancake! The problem.’

‘I didn’t want you to think I’d invited you just to—’

‘I know, I know,’ I said. I thought it best to interrupt before things could get any more awkward. ‘You were positively dying to see me, and it also happens that there’s something on your mind?’

He smiled at me, with that twinkle in his bright green eyes that makes it impossible to be annoyed with him. ‘Exactly.’

‘Always nice to kill two birds with one stone.’

‘I always thought that expression unnecessarily bloodthirsty.’

‘It is. So the problem is what?’

‘Right.’ He pushed aside his plate, quite flabbergasting me, and folded his arms upon the table-top. ‘I heard a rumour,’ he began.

Toil and Trouble: 18

Miranda was not only eager to assume charge of our find; she was electrified.

Jay and I proceeded directly to her domain once we reached Home. She is the head of our Magickal Beasts division, and presides over extensive premises in the east wing. We found her in the veterinary department, tending to the damaged wing of a black bird with an unusually long, blue beak. ‘Can it wait just a second?’ she said when we went in, without looking up.

‘One or two, but not more.’ I didn’t say that lightly. Our puppy had abandoned its attempts to eat my fingers almost the moment we had stepped out of the ruined cottage, and over the journey home it had seemed to lose all energy. It (or she, I think) now lay inert in my palm, worryingly lifeless.

‘Right.’ Miranda gently returned her bird to a large cage near the back of the room, and set it carefully atop a padded perch inside. Then she bustled back to us. She’d had a long day of it herself, by her appearance: her white coat was streaked with bird poop, some kind of animal feed and who-knew-what-else, and her blonde hair had mostly fallen out of its usually neat ponytail. She looked tired and shadow-eyed.

I held out the puppy to her. ‘Starving to death. Please help.’

Miranda took my puppy, handling her very gently. She said nothing for several seconds, examining the creature with great care. Her eyes grew rather wide. ‘Ves,’ she whispered at last, her voice emerging as a croak. ‘Where did you find this?’

I told her.

‘Hnngh,’ she said, and swallowed. ‘Er.’

‘What?’

‘This is a…’ she began, then stopped. ‘I mean, it can’t be, but it is.’

‘Not making sense,’ I offered helpfully.

Miranda shook her head, disbelieving. ‘It’s a dappledok puppy. They’re extinct.’

‘What?’

‘Dead as dodos. The last known sighting of a live one was recorded in a letter in, like, the late seventeen hundreds.’

I stared. ‘Oh.’

‘So!’ she said. ‘I’ll be off moving heaven and earth to save this one’s life, and later we’ll talk more about where you got it. Okay?’ Without waiting for an answer, she charged off, taking my tiny puppy with her.

I looked at Jay. ‘You’ve a talent for stumbling over long-lost things, it seems.’

His smile flickered. ‘We still have to figure out what to do with the last one.’

I gave a long, long sigh at that, and said: ‘I’m pretty sure I know exactly what will become of poor Bill.’

 

Baron Alban arrived bright and early the next morning. Too bright and early. I had no idea how he had managed to receive Milady’s summons and act upon them so fast, but I supposed he must have a Waymaster at his disposal. If he wasn’t one himself.

Having developed a more than passing acquaintance with the Baron by that time, I was prepared for his probable promptness, and so he found me awake, dressed and intent upon the consumption of my second cup of tea. I was only slightly droopy, and gazed at him with bleary-eyed alertness as he wandered into my usual nook in the first floor common room.

‘Ves,’ he said with his broad, charming smile. ‘You look like you fell under a ceiling.’

I gave him my most withering look, and swallowed a great deal more tea. ‘You usually manage to be more complimentary.’

‘You look gorgeous. Bruises suit you.’

I waved him to a chair, ignoring that. He looked as well turned-out as ever in a dark blue suit and white shirt, his purple tie elaborately knotted. ‘Please take care of Bill,’ I implored him.

One brow went up. ‘Bill?’

‘The book. We call him Bill.’

He inclined his head, as though this declaration made perfect sense. ‘Bill will have the best care, naturally. I’ve hopes that our bookbinders can patch him up a bit, and he’ll be safe from your friends at Ancestria Magicka.’

I shrugged at that, and set down my empty cup. ‘I doubt they will care about him much longer. They’ve had time enough to study all his workings, and will probably produce replicas soon enough.’

‘And will the Society, also?’

‘I have reason to believe that Milady cleared Orlando’s agenda entirely in favour of the project.’

He nodded, studying my face. ‘You’re sad about something.’

‘I am sorry for the loss of Bill. He’s the most charming book I ever met.’ My leave-taking from Bill the night before had been a little painful; he had not been delighted to be separated from me either, though his vanity could not but be pleased at the prospect of becoming a prized treasure of the Troll Court. I’d heard unpromising reports of the puppy, too; Miranda could only confirm that she was still breathing, and wouldn’t hazard more.

‘The most charming troll you’ve ever met is still waiting to take you out,’ said the Baron, and gave me a hopeful smile.

I couldn’t help perking up a bit at that. ‘How obliging of him.’

‘Just say the word.’ He got up, and made me a graceful bow. ‘I’d love to stay, but I need to get the book back to the Court. I have an escort and everything.’

‘Six ruthless bodyguards?’ I peeked behind him, as though there might be a team of dreamily muscle-bound trolls waiting by the door.

‘Something like that.’ He winked, and gave me a tiny salute. ‘Call me.’

I promised.

On his way out, he passed Jay and Indira just coming in. I was intrigued to note that none of them seemed a bit surprised to see one another. ‘Good timing,’ said Alban with a smile, and then he was gone.

I raised my brows at Jay, but he ignored my silent question and flopped into a chair without speaking.

I looked at Indira, who was taking a seat with more care and more grace, keeping her injured arm well away from the table. ‘What was that about?’ I asked.

Indira looked guiltily at Jay, and said nothing.

Jay smiled at her. ‘Well, go on.’

She glanced at me, and looked quickly away again. Carefully, she bent to retrieve a soft cloth bag from the floor by her feet; I hadn’t noticed her carrying it when she came in. She placed this on the table before me, and sat back.

I waited for some explanation, but nothing came. ‘I’m to open the bag?’

Indira nodded.

Mystified, I peeped inside. A book lay at the bottom. It was of an ancient style (thick leather covers, vellum pages, heavy silver hinges) but it looked pristine and new. Extracting it with care, I discovered that the covers were tinted dark purple, and the front was embossed with a twelve-pointed star. It weighed less than it looked like it should.

‘A book!’ I said, not at all enlightened.

‘Open it,’ said Jay.

I obeyed.

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

‘Perfect,’ whispered Jay, and the book gave a rather smug rustle of its pages.

‘Bill?’ I choked. ‘But— but the Baron just took him!’

‘Bill the Second,’ said Jay. ‘Indira’s been working on it ever since we left.’

‘Well, Orlando has,’ said Indira, hastily disclaiming. ‘I’ve just been, um, helping.’

Jay shook his head slightly. ‘More than that. You can’t deny this is mostly your own work.’

Indira looked like she wanted very much to deny it, but couldn’t truthfully do so.

‘That’s extremely clever of you,’ I said, with total sincerity. I couldn’t imagine the depth of skill required to produce such a grimoire; my talents definitely don’t lie in that direction. I stroked Bill the Second’s covers with faint regret (all right, more than faint), and handed him back to Indira.

She did not take him. Instead, she gave me a stricken look. ‘Um, don’t you want him?’

‘Wha… he’s for me?’

Indira nodded furiously.

‘Am I… am I allowed?’

Indira nodded again. ‘This is a, um, prototype. Orlando’s working on the finished design and, well, this one’s spare. Milady said it was all right.’

Jay’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, but he said nothing.

I was only too glad to gather Bill Two back into my arms and give him a tight hug. ‘Thank you,’ I said, beaming. ‘It will be my honour to work with him.’

Indira smiled back, visibly relieved. ‘I’m glad you like him,’ she said, already getting out of her chair.

‘Won’t you have some tea?’ I offered, but she was in full retreat by then, and only shook her head as she vanished out the door.

I looked at Jay, and waited.

‘She made him especially for you,’ he said. ‘Stayed up most of the night to finish him, too.’

‘Um,’ I said. ‘Why?’

He shrugged. ‘Might be that she’s savvy enough to cultivate connections amongst those who are popular at Home. Or… maybe she just likes you.’

‘Likes me,’ I repeated numbly. ‘Right.’ Indira was always polite, but she still gave me the impression that she was petrified of me.

I decided that the Patels in general were a hard-to-read bunch.

Before Jay could decide upon a reply, there came the sound of tiny claws clicking against the hard floor, and the yellow dappledok puppy came creeping around the door. Her ears were down, her tail drooped and she trudged wearily in my direction as though the distance between us were almost insurmountable.

But she was alive!

‘Puppy!’ I blurted, overjoyed. ‘Come here!’

The moment she came within reach of the table, Jay bent to scoop her up, and handed her to me. I put her in my lap, whereupon she crawled, shivering, inside my cardigan and disappeared.

I tucked the folds of my clothes around her and sat, smiling like an idiot, until Miranda inevitably appeared. ‘Ves!’ she said, slightly out of breath. ‘Don’t hate me, but I think I’ve lost the puppy.’

I merely pulled aside my cardigan, displaying the ball of yellow fur. ‘Winnie the Unipup is fine.’

Miranda sagged against the doorframe in relief, though she looked annoyed, too. ‘Look, she shouldn’t be taken out of care just now at all, but at the very least you need to tell me.’

‘I didn’t take her! She showed up at the door about four minutes ago.’

Miranda blinked. ‘She found her way up here?’

‘I swear. Jay, back me up.’

‘Every word of Ves’s is the truth,’ he dutifully declared.

Miranda sighed. ‘Fine. Bring her back down once an hour for milk, okay?’

I tucked my cardigan back over my unipup once more, and beamed at Miranda. ‘Got it, boss.’

Toil and Trouble: 17

A long-dead, tormented and frightened Waymaster proved not to be the best or safest of pilots. We departed Tut Hill with a sickening lurch, and a rumbling shudder which sent everyone in the room crashing to the floor. We came down some interminable time later with an unpromising crunch. For a little while I lay inert, my every muscle aching and my poor head spinning dizzily.

Then Jay was at my side. ‘Hup,’ he said, and mercilessly hauled me to my feet. ‘Steady?’

I was, just about. Shaking knees aside.

Zareen was already vertical, and on her way to the door at a bouncing trot. Katalin and Mercer were on the far side of the bare little room, looking (to my secret relief) quite as shaken as I felt. And wary, too. Why? Had they not got what they wanted in bringing the cottage here?

Assuming we had arrived at the right place, of course. Zareen soon confirmed this, for having opened the front door a crack and peeped through, she proceeded to hurl it wide open and stomped out into the darkness beyond. ‘Ashdown ahoy!’ she called back.

That was when a third voice spoke. ‘Ashdown,’ it said, low and cracked. ‘I remember that name, of my youth.’ It was an old woman’s voice, the tones worn and faded by the passage of many a long year.

Dio sighed. ‘Go back to sleep, Maud.’

‘I think I will not,’ said Maud.

‘Ah!’ I cried. ‘How nice to make your acquaintance, Maud Grey. Or is it Greyer?’

‘Tis Greyer,’ she allowed.

‘Good. Excellent.’ I looked around. ‘And where might you be?’

‘They buried me in the back bedchamber,’ said Maud.

‘Buried?’ scoffed Wester. ‘Walled thee up, like the devil thou art!’

‘I am no devil,’ said Maud, winter-dry. Then she laughed, wheezing. ‘At least, no more than any Greyer.’

‘Who is “they”?’ I wondered aloud. ‘Who walled you up?’

‘My grandson,’ she said, with chilling indifference. ‘And granddaughter.’

Considering that Maud Greyer had herself interred the body of her own, freshly-hanged sister inside the cottage’s walls, I decided I did not wish to know any more about the Greyer family.

Bill, though, had no scruples. ‘Ves,’ he hissed, still stuck to the wall. ‘Have a care! There is nothing but evil in that one.’

‘How do you know?’

‘My mistress always greatly feared her sister.’

‘That is not true!’ shouted Dio.

But Maud chuckled. ‘It hath the right of it, thy odd creation. Thou wert always easily cowed.’

I felt a chill of foreboding. Dio Greyer, necromancer and High Witch of a powerful coven, found reason to be terrified of Maud? That did not bode well.

Whatever Katalin and George Mercer might know about Maud Greyer, it wasn’t reassuring them either. They had gone from wary to outright alarmed at the exchange, and I heard Katalin say in a fraught whisper: ‘She was not supposed to be here!’

‘Aye,’ said Maud. ‘They made fine work of me, did they not? Put it about that I had died of the Sweat, and into the wall I went with none the wiser.’ She paused, chillingly, and added in a musing tone, ‘I wonder what hath become of my descendants?’

I, for one, did not want to know.

‘I would like to be rid of these confines,’ continued Maud after a moment. ‘These rude walls, how they chafe after five hundred years!’

‘You must free me, but not her!’ Dio said. Her manner was commanding, but I detected a shrill note of fear somewhere behind.

‘And me,’ added Wester. ‘But never her.

‘Thou shalt not leave without me.’ Maud’s words emerged barely above a whisper, but with a ringing power behind them that rooted me to the spot. ‘Thou shalt none of you leave without me.’

The door banged shut behind me. I could not even turn to see if Zareen had come back in; my muscles were frozen, and I could not move an inch.

‘I suppose you had to make her angry?’ said Bill venomously.

The walls rattled, and something dark and liquid began to seep through the whitewash and trickle towards the floor. ‘Um,’ I said, my lips numb. ‘Is that… that isn’t blood, is it?’

‘Yep,’ said Zareen, and walked past me into the centre of the floor. ‘You’d better stop, Maud Greyer,’ she said severely. ‘I will stand for no more shenanigans.’

I adored Zareen just then. Not only for facing Maud Greyer and her bleeding walls without a blink, but also for using the word shenanigans to describe them.

How exactly she was perambulatory when Jay and I and the two Ancestria Magicka operatives remained glued to the floor, well. That was another question.

‘Thou art no match for me,’ crooned Maud. ‘Fair potential thou dost indeed possess, but thou art but an acorn to my mighty oak.’ Blood began to drip from the ceiling, too, and to my horror a crack opened in the floor and swiftly widened. Something pale, unwholesome and smoky seeped through from below.

Zareen took all of this in with narrowed eyes, and nodded. ‘You might be right,’ she allowed. ‘Mercer!’

George Mercer’s head snapped up. ‘No!’

‘It’s necessary.’

‘It’s not. Do something else!’

‘Like what?’

Judging from the silence, Mercer had no answer to this.

‘Stop being a wimp,’ Zareen ordered. ‘And stop pretending. The sheep routine’s getting boring.’

Mercer growled something, but he proceeded to push away from the wall he’d been leaning on, and ambled over to Zareen. This, apparently, came as much to Katalin’s surprise as to mine.

‘Zar?’ I tried. ‘What exactly is going on?’

‘Don’t worry,’ she said briefly. ‘But grit your teeth.’

‘What?’

She’d linked hands with Mercer, and to my stark horror her eyes turned black. I  mean, Zareen’s eyes are almost black anyway, but all the whites filled in with solid black, too. ‘Can’t guarantee this won’t hurt a bit,’ she said.

Then the same thing happened to the eyes of George Mercer, and I shut my stupid mouth.

‘Ves?’ said Jay uncertainly.

‘Just do as she says,’ I said tightly.

Maud Greyer had figured her out, too, and she was not pleased. ‘Betrayer!’ she shrieked, losing her cool in fine style. ‘How durst thou turn the Arts against me!’ The floor washed over with blood, and it was bubbling and boiling; my feet began to burn. The walls shook so hard I expected the ceiling to come down at any moment and bury us all, and I could hardly hear Maud’s continued vituperation over the sounds of stones, tiles and beams all rattling against one another.

Zareen raised her voice to shout over the tumult. ‘Five hundred years!’ she intoned in an oddly ringing voice. ‘Ought to have been enough to learn some bloody manners!’

‘Spare me!’ shrieked Dio. ‘Spare John! We will do as thou dost bid us, and never seek to do thee harm!’

‘Sorry,’ Zareen said flatly. ‘Time’s up.’ Drops of blood leaked from the corners of her eyes, and from Mercer’s.

And, I realised, from mine.

A sharp, fierce pulse of pure power shot through the floor and raced up the walls. It manifested itself as a sea of shadow pouring forth from Zareen and Mercer and swallowed everything in its path — me, Jay, the book, all of it. That sea burned like lava and froze like ice, and every cell in my poor abused body screamed with pain.

So did I.

Somewhere in the distance I was aware of Dio and Maud Greyer and John Wester, making a cacophonous orchestra of indignation, fury and pain. But I had other things to consider, for besides the minor inconvenience of searing agony in my every organ, there were a few structural problems developing. The ceiling was raining chunks of plaster into the pools of blood below, and there came the splintering sound of stone cracking into pieces.

‘Zareen!’ I bawled. ‘You’ll bring the roof down!’

Too late. The splintering intensified, and a great, groaning tumult heralded the imminent collapse of the cottage. I had time only to grab what little magick I could muster, tears of blood pouring from my eyes, and weave up a shield before the roof shattered into chunks and rained down upon us.

My shield, shaky and feeble, did not last long. Neither did I. I’d thrown it clumsily over Jay, Zareen, Mercer and Katalin as well as myself, and I had the satisfaction of seeing it deflect at least the first wave of falling stone. But it could not bear up under the rest; my glorious, shimmering bubble dissipated into the air, a great slab of something distressingly solid collided with my head, and I passed out.

 

I woke up bathed in blood.

I cannot say it is the worst thing that has ever happened to me (don’t ask), but it may be imagined that I was not best pleased.

The cottage lay in rubble all over the once neatly-swept floor. Moonlight shone upon the pale face of Zareen looming above me, her eyes thankfully restored to their usual colour. ‘You alive, Ves?’ she was saying.

I took a breath, every second of which hurt like hell. ‘I wish I wasn’t.’

Her lips twitched. ‘Lies.’

‘Fine. I hurt, but I am relieved you didn’t manage to kill us all with your freaky shit.’

‘Nice work with the shield.’

‘Thanks.’ I sat up. Jay was leaning against the remains of a wall a few feet away, his black hair almost white with dust and a fresh bruise added to his already sumptuous collection. ‘Hi,’ he croaked.

‘You’re not dead either.’

‘Nope.’

Mercer was prone, apparently still out cold. Katalin sat guard by his side, cross-legged and heedless of the sticky, congealing blood she was sitting in.

All was quiet. The silence was eerie after all the noise of the past hour or so.

‘They’re gone?’ I said to Zareen.

She nodded once.

‘Uh huh. And what was that you did, exactly?’

‘Forcible exorcism.’ Zareen turned away and bent to pick something out of the rubble.

‘Did I know you could do that?’

Zareen didn’t answer.

‘Zar. Are you a necromancer?’ I looked sharply at Mercer. ‘And him, too?’

Zareen gave me a long, measuring look, and for a second her eyes flickered once more into deep, black pools. ‘Toil and trouble, remember?’ she said, and her voice was as bone-dry as Maud Greyer’s.

‘Does that mean yes?’

‘It means, don’t ask.’ Before I could speak again, she handed me her find — a book.

The book.

‘Oh, Bill,’ I sighed, stricken. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘It would be ungenerous of me to reproach the heroine of the hour,’ said Bill.

I didn’t think so. It had not occurred to me to include Bill in my shield, and as a consequence he had been sadly crushed. He now sported three dents in his formerly pristine covers, and some of his pages were torn.

‘Zareen’s the heroine of the hour,’ I said. ‘Does it hurt?’ I tried to smooth his pages as best I could, a useless gesture.

‘I do not possess nerves, Miss Vesper.’

I winced, my own agonies not yet forgotten. ‘That sounds nice.’

‘It has its moments.’

‘What is that noise?’ said Jay, and hauled himself to his feet.

‘What noise—’ I began, but then I heard it: a thin, high-pitched whimpering coming from somewhere nearby.

Walking like an old, old man, Jay limped off into what remained of the next room. There were only the two rooms to the cottage, apparently, and the one we were in was by far the largest. Following Jay, I found what had probably once been the back bedchamber where Maud’s remains were interred. It was as empty of furniture as the other room, boasting only a dusty (and now broken) chair. The floor was thick with blood, rubble and debris, but in the wan moonlight that filtered through the empty window-frame I discerned a glimpse of something incongruously brightly coloured.

The whimpering gained in volume.

‘There’s an animal,’ said Jay, and ventured towards the window, stepping through the fallen stones with unusual care. He crouched, and began to pull away the wreckage from the corner.

A flash of pale, yellowish fur emerged, and Jay scooped up something tiny enough to fit into one cupped hand.

‘Here,’ he said, turning, and offered it to me.

I took it with infinite care, for it was a tiny, delicate creature, probably only recently born, and obviously in distress. It resembled a puppy, except its nose was much larger than that of a typical dog, and its forehead bore the tiny nub of a horn. I suspected, moreover, that when cleaned up and viewed in daylight, its fur would prove to be not so much yellowish as bright, sunny gold.

It was hungry, I concluded, for it seemed intent upon devouring my thumb. Fortunately, it had not yet developed much in the way of teeth.

‘Ouch,’ I said anyway, wincing a bit.

Jay smiled. ‘I think you are the properest person to take care of a tiny fluffy thing, don’t you?’

I beamed at him. ‘Without doubt. But how did it come to be here?’ I made to step past him to investigate the spot in the corner, but Jay got in front of me.

‘I wouldn’t,’ he said.

‘Why not?’

His face turned grim. ‘There were more.’

I didn’t miss his use of the past tense, and my heart sank. ‘How many?’

‘Two more like this one.’

I tried to get past him again, but he caught me and pushed me back. ‘They’re dead, Ves. No sense in upsetting yourself.’

‘Yes, because I’m marshmallow. You, of course, are made from solid rock.’

He just looked at me, his mouth grim and his eyes sad.

‘Fine, fine,’ I sighed and turned away, cradling the sole survivor of the wreck. ‘Zareen’s going to cry, you realise.’

‘She shouldn’t. They were not crushed. I would rather say they starved.’

‘Right. We’d better get this one to Miranda as soon as possible.’ I would have fed it on the spot if I could, but what did a baby horned puppy eat? I could offer it a whole feast of only slightly congealed blood only lightly seasoned with dust, but I doubted that would serve the purpose.

In the next room, Katalin and Mercer were deep in conversation with Zareen. I watched them for a moment, eyes narrowed, for it seemed to me that Zareen and Mercer were not quite strangers. Indeed, Zar’s actions of half an hour before had strongly implied that she knew more about George Mercer than we did. ‘Old friends?’ I said at last, when a lull offered in the conversation.

Zareen just flashed me an enigmatic look.

‘I know, I know. Don’t ask. We’re leaving on a mercy mission,’ I said, showing Zareen the puppy. ‘Can you deal with all this?’

It wasn’t fair to land her with that job, since by “this” I meant the wrecked cottage, the scattered bones of those who had once been interred within its walls, the sea of blood leaking all over the grounds of Ashdown Castle and, of course, the problem of the two Ancestria Magicka operatives who were still hanging around. But Zareen is equal to anything.

‘Go!’ she commanded. ‘Save the tiny, defenceless thing.’

‘We’ll send help from Home.’

‘That would be nice.’

‘Where’s the nearest henge?’ I said, turning back to Jay.

‘Assuming you don’t want to break into Ashdown itself at this hour, and in this state… too far to walk.’

I nodded. ‘Well then. I wonder if our Chairs are still there?’

Toil and Trouble: 16

Tut Hill proved to be a long, long road clambering gently up an incline. It ran from Bury St. Edmunds out to a village called Fornham something, and it was mostly house-free. Only once we got as far as the village did we begin to see low stone walls and a smattering of properties set a little way back from the road.

It would have been nice if we had arrived to find a crumbling old cottage conveniently glowing in the dark, or overflowing with angry spirits, or something of the kind. But the houses there were mere ordinary brick structures, varied in style and age, all looking perfectly innocuous in the low light of late evening. A few had lights shining in the windows.

‘What a fine vision of peace,’ murmured Zareen approvingly.

I felt somewhat crestfallen. ‘Either the cottage is very well camouflaged,’ I suggested, ‘or it is not here.’

‘Could be either,’ said Zareen cheerfully. Checking her maps, she pointed back the way we had come. ‘I don’t think any of the sightings ever came up this far. We’ve overshot the mark.’

My feet were hurting by then, for we had been trekking a while, and for a moment I felt like applying a heavy object to the general area of Zareen’s head. I swallowed these unworthy feelings, and turned about, dragging Bill out of my bag as I did so. ‘Bill,’ I said gravely, ‘we are in dire need of your assistance.’

‘How may I be of use, Miss Vesper?’

He sounded sleepy. ‘You weren’t dozing, were you?’

‘No! I have been fully alert since our last conversation! I assure you, I have not missed a single—’ He stopped, and if a book could be said to grow tense, well, Bill was about as relaxed as a block of concrete just then. ‘My mistress!’ he said, in a proper hollow gasp, like he was in a highly dramatic stage play.

‘See. I was hoping you might say something like that.’ I held him out before me as we trudged a ways back down the hill. ‘Lead the way, Mister Bill, if you please.’

Bill was off like a shot, dragging me behind him like he was an overexcited terrier and I the mere human appendage on the other end of the lead.

We plunged through a gap in the blackthorn hedge, and into the field beyond. Near enough pitch dark by then, and free of the lights of any nearby houses, there was little to see by; I had to trust to Bill’s good sense (did he have any?) and hope he did not lead the three of us into a pit or something. Stumbling over uneven ground, we ventured perhaps a hundred metres into the field — and then stopped.

‘She is close,’ hissed Bill.

I still saw no house. ‘Um, you sure?’

A spectral head flickered into view not two feet from my face, and my heart gave the kind of lurching shudder people sometimes die of. ‘What’s yer business wit’ the Grey house?’ it said, teeth clattering. It had hair but no skin, and great hollow eye sockets.

‘Social visit,’ said Zareen coolly.

There came a sudden rushing noise, as of the displacement of an awful lot of air. It was attended by a distant, high-pitched screaming which grew rapidly closer, and then there was the shadowy bulk of a cottage looming directly before us. It screamed wordless fury in a woman’s voice, and Bill flinched in my hands.

‘Say no more,’ I muttered.

‘Hello, Mistress,’ said Bill weakly.

The screaming stopped.

The front door opened, and an eerie glow emanated from within.

‘Right then,’ I said, and stepped forward, Jay at my elbow.

Zareen flung out an arm, halting us both before we’d gone more than a pace or two. ‘Please,’ she said witheringly. ‘If this doesn’t qualify as Toil and Trouble, I’ll eat my skulls.’

‘Thank you for that mental image.’

‘You’re welcome.’ Zareen sauntered off in the direction of the beckoning door, and Jay and I fell in step behind her.

‘Where are they?’ I whispered to Jay.

‘Gaining on us. We have, maybe, ten minutes.’

‘Excellent.’

‘Excellent?’ It was too dark to see Jay giving me the side-eye, but I could feel it. ‘You’re hatching plots, aren’t you?’

‘Jay. Always.

‘Right.’

Zareen stopped in front of the door, and gave her Society symbol. We all have the three-crossed-wands part, that’s the Society bit. Mine has a winged unicorn superimposed over them. Zareen’s turned out to have a skull added on. Not quite human; the eyes were too big, and it had horns.

‘Er,’ said Jay.

‘Don’t ask,’ I said hastily. ‘Never ask.’

‘Dio Greyer?’ Zareen was saying. ‘Maud Grey? We are here from the Society for Magickal Heritage to—’

‘—warn you of a dire plot against you,’ I interposed. ‘Formulated by a vile organisation calling themselves Ancestria Magicka.’

‘Er,’ said Jay and Zareen as one.

There was a tense silence, and then the door yawned wider. Zareen rolled her eyes at me as she went in.

‘You managed to use the words “vile” and “dire” in the same sentence,’ muttered Jay as he followed. ‘Nice work.’

‘There’s much to be said for drama.’ Jay, sadly, beat me to the door, so I contented myself with bringing up the rear.

The interior was a low-ceilinged, white-washed, scrupulously neat little cottage, with all the leaning door frames, exposed beams and stone floors one would expect of the period. Some things were unusual, though — like the lumpy stonework just inside the door behind which Dio Greyer’s bones were presumably interred, considering the way Bill instantly plastered himself to it.

‘Bill,’ I hissed. ‘You’re hugging a wall.’

‘Communing with my creator,’ Bill replied, rather muffled.

Considering the kind of company I was in just then, I refrained from pointing out that Bill’s creator was deservedly hanged for some decidedly questionable behaviour. I suppose it’s like continuing to love your parents, even if they turn out to be psychos. The argument usually runs along the lines of “Well, I only have one mother/father/creator/whatever,” as if that’s reason enough all by itself. Apparently, for Bill, it was.

Then again, I had no actual proof that Bill’s endearing gesture was voluntary. I certainly found it impossible to peel him off the wall again, when I tried.

Hmm.

‘My codex!’ said Dio Greyer’s voice. ‘Thou has’t returned!’

‘Well…’ I demurred, redoubling my efforts to retrieve Bill. ‘We had not exactly intended to—’

I stopped, because she was not listening to me. The floor shook, and the walls howled: ‘Hear that, wretch! Five hundr’d years to right thy miserable failings!’

Somebody replied, a somebody with the baritone rumble of a large man. But he, I was guessing, was probably as corporeal as Dio Greyer by this time, for those tones came out of thin air, and seemed to emanate from everywhere at once. ‘Beef-witted churls!’ he snarled. ‘Have I not faithfully served thee these five centuries and more? What use these gudgeons?’

‘Gudgeons they may be, but they have brought my codex,’ purred Dio. ‘Which is more than I can say for thee.

‘Had thou not made a puppet of me, I would have done all that and more! But thou must be jaunting hither and thither, and ever on! Have me hauling thy stone and bones and plaster about like turnips, because thou didst require it, and never a day’s rest!’ The walls shuddered, and the floor trembled so hard I almost lost my footing. Stones rumbled, plaster flaked, and somewhere at the back of my mind Dio Greyer was screaming again.

‘Er,’ I intervened. ‘Mr. Wester?’

There came a shocked silence. Then: ‘How didst thou come by my name?’

‘It’s in the book,’ I said, apologetically. ‘Why did you sell it?’

And there I’d made a mistake. ‘Sold?’ shrieked Dio Greyer, at such a pitch as to shatter my ears. ‘SOLD! Lying wretch! Thieving lily-liver! Didst thou not have courage enough to speak truth to thy mistress!’

‘Thou didst slay me anyway,’ rejoined Wester. ‘I ought to have spoken truth to thee, were it all the vengeance I could win. Yes, I sold thy miserable codex! A foul-mouthed object! I was well rid of it.’

‘And if it was foul-mouthed, I know at whose door to lay the fault!’

The argument went on in similar style for some time, and with such heat that the three of us were forgotten. We gathered into a protective knot (for we felt as though an earthquake raged around us, so much did the cottage rumble and sway with the force of Greyer and Wester’s fury).

‘So,’ I said. ‘Wester discovered where to find Dio, and got rid of Bill along the way — only she was not quite as dead as she was supposed to be, and he found himself slightly unpopular when he arrived. With Maud, too.’

‘Understandably,’ said Zareen. ‘And the sisters slew him and stuffed him into the walls.’

‘Not quite so understandably.’

‘It was rather rude.’

‘What did he mean about hauling the house around?’

Jay frowned. ‘I have an idea about that.’ He strode to the nearest wall and hammered upon it, ignoring, with enviable dignity, the rain of plaster-powder that fell upon his head. ‘Hey!’ he bellowed. ‘Shut it!’

To my surprise, this worked. ‘Hast thou something to share, little man?’ said Dio acidly.

‘A question,’ Jay answered. ‘For John Wester.’

‘Speak,’ said Wester.

‘Were you a Waymaster, in life?’

‘I was among the finest!’

‘I suppose that explains why you were tapped to find Greyer’s grave.’

‘And find it, I did. Along with my own.’

‘It was, what, 1508?’

‘Mayhap.’

I put the pieces together then, too. Maud Grey had lived in the house for twelve years after her sister’s death, and then it had vanished. Courtesy of Wester, an enslaved Waymaster. ‘But there’s no henge…?’ I began.

‘Didn’t always have to be,’ said Jay briefly. ‘We’re crap at it these days, need all the help we can get. Magickal decline, and all that.’

‘So you can’t haul entire houses around?’

‘No.’

‘I’m disappointed.’

Jay stuck out his tongue at me.

‘What became of Maud?’ I said, more loudly. ‘Where’s your sister, Dio?’

My question went unanswered, because the front door blew open and two people burst into the room. One of them promptly fell over the worn oak chair I had quietly placed directly in the way of the entrance, and went sprawling. That was Mercer.

The other, Katalin, managed to avoid sharing her colleague’s fate by virtue of (apparently) greater dexterity, and instead darted around it. She was aiming for me, but she did not get far. It was as though she ran into an invisible wall, or was grabbed by a pair of invisible hands, for she came to an abrupt stop and was left straining uselessly at thin air.

‘What are these?’ said Dio dispassionately, as though these new visitors did not even qualify as human.

‘Ancestria Magicka,’ I said with a bright smile. ‘Come to dig out your bones, Dio, and take you away to Ashdown Castle. Isn’t that right? And John, too! You will have a fine new home, with a great deal more space to rattle around in.’

‘And a much, much bigger building to haul about,’ added Zareen silkily. ‘Like turnips.’

‘Lots of turnips,’ I added.

Katalin stopped striving to get past Dio’s obstruction, and instead bent to help George Mercer to his feet. He had cut his lip on something on his way down, and looked fiercely angry. ‘You cannot know what an advantage it is to you,’ she said. ‘Your House, I mean. To achieve something of the same must be a primary goal of my organisation.’

‘We do know it,’ Zareen replied. ‘And the likes of Greyer and Wester are not going to get you anything like the same effect.’

‘Setting aside minor issues such as the ethics of the whole thing, or lack thereof,’ I amended.

‘Right. There is also that.’

‘An approximation will suffice, if it must,’ said Mercer.

He did not add that a teleporting castle would have its own benefits, of which we could know nothing. For all our dear House’s many talents, perambulating about under its own power isn’t one of them.

Wester, however, was not quite pleased with the notion. ‘A castle?!’ he bawled. ‘Never! I refuse!’

‘Why don’t we all go and have a look?’ said Katalin peaceably. ‘You may find that you like Ashdown. And, Mr. Wester, you will not be unaided.’

That was interesting — and horrifying. How many dead Waymasters did they propose to dig up?

… or kill? Their eagerness to recruit Jay suddenly began to look sinister, and I found myself inching nearer to him.

The same idea had occurred to him, too, judging from the appalled look on his face.

Katalin smiled at him, rather kindly. ‘Oh, no,’ she said. ‘Living Waymasters are much more useful.’

‘Reassuring,’ muttered Jay. ‘Thanks.’

Wester may not approve, but to Dio, the idea of Ashdown held some appeal. ‘A castle,’ she purred. ‘I was made to be a grand lady.’

‘Weren’t we all,’ I said, sotto voce.

‘I have fine manners,’ she continued. ‘And all the graces.’

‘I do not!’ bellowed Wester.

‘Thou wilt keep shut thy mouth, John!’ Dio snapped. ‘And do as thou art bid!’

Whatever it was that Dio did to give emphasis to her words, it could not be felt by the living save, perhaps, as a waft of freezing wind that raised the goosebumps on my skin. But that it hurt the dead was indubitable, for Wester gave a great, tearing scream, and began to babble helplessly.

‘To Ashdown,’ purred Dio. ‘The castle. And quickly, my John.’

Toil and Trouble: 15

I fumbled the bag open and dragged Bill out. ‘What do you mean, she isn’t here?’

‘She is not here. I detect no trace of her presence.’

‘Bill, she’s been dead for more than five hundred years. There is nothing left of her to detect.’

‘That is not necessarily true. A strong bond was formed between us, and I would know if she was nearby.’

Damn it. ‘I take it you haven’t sensed any trace of her presence anywhere else?’

‘I am afraid not.’

‘Not even at the churchyard?’

‘No.’

I felt, for one awful moment, like hurling Bill into the nearest of the puddles left by last night’s rain. I contained the impulse. It wasn’t his fault that we were apparently barking up the wrong tree.

‘Any sign of them?’ I asked Jay.

He shook his head. ‘Nowhere near here.’

I began to get a bad feeling. ‘Bill. Are you certain your mistress died here?’

‘Perfectly.’

‘I hate to be insensitive, but truly? You… did you see her die?’

Bill hesitated. ‘Well, no.’

Damn it.

‘She became very ill indeed, and with such speed that her imminent demise was inevitable. Soon afterwards, she… well, she never came back for me again, and some little time later the contents of her house were removed, including me.’

‘Maybe she didn’t die.’

‘But.’ Bill’s voice developed a forlorn quality. ‘Why then did she never return for me?’

‘Good question.’

‘Call Val,’ said Jay.

My thought, too, but it was not necessary. My phone began to buzz at that moment, and it was Val calling. I put her on speaker.

‘Ves!’ she said. ‘We have all been a bunch of idiots, and I thought you would like to know.’

‘You mean our favourite plague-ridden sorceress didn’t die in Lavenham?’

‘So you figured that out.’

‘Only just.’

‘How?’

‘Well, we’re in Lavenham and she isn’t.’

Val snorted. ‘Zareen’s idea interested me, so I went looking in some other, less accessible places—’

‘Which ones?’ I said quickly. If you catch Val off guard, she will occasionally let something slip.

Not this time. ‘Let’s just call them the dark depths of forbidden knowledge and leave it at that. Anyway, there is no record whatsoever of any sorceress, witch or other magicker anywhere in Suffolk of the name of Drogryre. Not five hundred years ago, and not ever.’

‘Oh.’

‘There is, however, quite a lot about a major sorceress called Diota Greyer, commonly called Dio.’

This time, it was my own self I felt like hurling into a puddle. Dio Greyer. I had seen for myself that Wester’s handwriting was terrible, and Val had told me that his spelling and punctuation were decidedly eccentric. Why had it not occurred to me that we might have interpreted her name wrongly? And for that matter… ‘Why didn’t we stumble over her before?’ I asked Val.

‘Because she’s not the type of sorceress we like to remember. She was the High Witch of Lavenham’s black coven until 1485 when she suddenly disappeared. Serious necromancy, Ves, the really nasty stuff.’

‘Bill’s absolutely certain she was very ill.’

‘She might well have caught the Sweat, but not everyone died of it. Or it might have been something else, like a hex. This is an era when people lived in daily terror of demons and evil spirits, after all. Remember Wharram Percy? Graves stuffed with decapitated corpses? People believed the dead could come back and attack the living, partly thanks to the activities of people like Dio Greyer. And they were terrified enough of this to mutilate and burn their recently deceased in order to prevent it. She would not have been popular, if her neighbours discovered what she was doing.’

That raised some interesting possibilities. ‘Do you think that was why people were looking for her grave? To burn her bones, so she couldn’t come back?’

‘Maybe. Doesn’t explain Ancestria Magicka’s interest in her now, though.’

‘Harvesting the bones as talismans? Protection against undeath, or the undead?’

‘Maybe, but it seems a bit far-fetched. There are plenty of easier ways to accomplish that.’

‘What about Wester?’

‘Wester. Well. Either he gave up, or he, too, figured out she wasn’t in Lavenham and followed her trail somewhere else — leaving Bill behind, for some reason.’

‘Where does her trail go, Val?’

‘Brace yourself.’

‘Braced.’

‘Right. There aren’t any more recorded references to a Dio Greyer after 1485, so at first I was still inclined to think she’d died that year. But! A few years later, there was a kerfuffle at a town only about fourteen miles from Lavenham when a conspiracy was uncovered. Somebody called Edyth Grey (and coven) was brought in to resurrect a recently-deceased earl and restore him to power instead of his son, who was unpopular. A couple of years after that, an alderman was witnessed to have died suddenly one night when he choked on a bone at dinner — only to reappear the next morning, in poor health but apparently alive. He “lived” for another week, during which time he completed some important business which was very much in the interests of the masters of a local wool guild. There are half a dozen more stories like this one across Suffolk, all within an approximately ten-year period.’

‘So Dio Greyer survived the Sweat (or her dose of hexing), fled Lavenham in a hurry on pain of decapitation and burning, and became a freelance necromancer-for-hire elsewhere.’

‘Looks like it.’

‘I think I’m going to like her,’ said Zareen.

‘Undoubtedly. In case you’re interested, Edyth (or Edita) Grey died in 1496 at Bury St. Edmunds.’

‘Of?’

‘Hanging.’

I felt a chill at those words, and Bill’s earlier warning floated back through my mind. If death-by-hanging did not qualify as untoward circumstances, what could? ‘You’re certain?’

‘Yes. Unfortunately, so’s Ancestria Magicka. Amelia’s notebook mentions “Bury”, which threw me off for a while because there’s a town in the Manchester area with that name. But it’s common shorthand for Bury St. Edmunds, too.’

‘Val, you are a miracle.’

‘I know.’

‘Bury St. Edmunds?’ said Zareen when I’d hung up. She had an arrested look, and her mind was obviously somewhere else.

‘Does that ring some bells?’

‘Maybe.’ She disappeared into her phone.

‘There’s a bus,’ said Jay. ‘Leaves from the Swan in ten minutes. Half an hour’s ride.’

‘Where’s the Swan?’

‘We passed it twice an hour ago, but… no, never mind. This way. We can make it if we run.’

We ran.

 

‘They’re here,’ said Jay the moment we got off the bus in the centre of Bury St. Edmunds.

‘Where exactly?’ I asked.

‘Look, I don’t know what Indira and Orlando did to these things to get so specific a reading on my position at Ashdown, but I can’t replicate it. You’ve used these things, Ves.’

‘Not much, actually. I rarely lose things.’

Jay looked faintly abashed. ‘Oh. Well, they work best within a fairly short range. The closer you are to the tracker-bead, the more accurately you’ll be able to pinpoint its location.’

‘Oh! A warmer-warmer-warmest type thing.’

‘Exactly. We aren’t close enough to Mercer right now to pin him down to a street or whatever, but he’s within probably about ten miles of us.’

‘You should ask Indira what they did. It might be useful to know.’

‘She probably wouldn’t tell me. Keeping secrets is the only way she can one-up me, most of the time.’ He stuck his hands into the pockets of his favourite dark leather jacket — now happily restored to him — and looked around. ‘So, where did they bury hanged corpses five hundred years ago?’

‘Forget it,’ said Zareen.

‘What?’

‘Forget where they buried anybody. She isn’t there.’ She spoke with a kind of suppressed excitement, and her eyes were shining. ‘Who’s up for a ghost hunt?’

Jay looked uncertain, as well he might. It was almost eight o’ clock, and the sun was sinking into the horizon. ‘Explain?’ he said.

‘What do you two know about haunted houses?’

‘Sod all,’ said Jay.

‘Same,’ said I. ‘Is there much to know?’

Zareen rolled her eyes. ‘All right, my sceptical friends. Most so-called haunted houses aren’t haunted at all, I grant you that much, and many that are can boast no more than an occasional flicker of spirit activity. But this is not the whole story. Scattered across our beloved country are a handful of seriously, properly haunted buildings. They could more accurately be termed possessed, in fact. This rarely happens by accident, and it’s difficult to arrange.’

‘We’re a bit pressed for time, Zareen,’ said Jay.

‘I know. This is important.’

‘Okay, sorry.’

Zareen took a deep breath. ‘A spirit is more likely to linger after death if they died suddenly, or at a time when it seemed particularly important to them to be alive for a while longer. If you want to harness such a spirit for something like this, it’s customary to bury the body under the floor of a house, or better yet in the walls themselves. Then, through use of a few charms and spells which (I need hardly add) are horribly illegal these days, you can bind the poor soul to the house itself.’

‘Why would you want to?’ I asked.

‘It makes for a kind of bastardised version of our House. Doors that open and close by themselves, hopefully when you want them to. Lights which switch on and off as required, temperature regulation, immediate repulsion of anybody you don’t want stepping over the threshold. Et cetera. The more powerful the spirit and the better the binding, the more interesting the options.’

It turned my stomach to imagine such a practice in anything like the same context as our beloved House. Magickal slavery of a tormented spirit wasn’t something I wanted to connect with my Home, or with Milady. But I put the idea out of my head; something to think about later. ‘All right, so… you think this is what’s become of Greyer?’

‘Her last known place of residence prior to her execution was at the end of Maynewater Lane. About a year after her death, people began to say that the house was haunted. The residents fled, and it was taken instead by one Maud Grey, who lived there in spite of its haunting for twelve years before the house mysteriously disappeared.’

‘A house disappeared?’ said Jay incredulously.

‘Well,’ Zareen amended. ‘It was only a small one. A cottage, really. It reappeared here and there for the next couple of decades before vanishing for good, and eventually a new house was built on the spot. And look.’ Zareen held out her phone. On the screen was a picture of an old, hand-inked map of the town in the fifteenth century; she had zoomed in over Maynewater Lane. ‘Can we have Bill a sec?’

I saw her point at once. I hauled Bill out of his bag and opened him up to the page with Wester’s crude map. The lines obviously correlated with those of the map Zareen had found, and my heart leapt with excitement. ‘The X is where her house used to be?’

‘Yep!’

‘Hey, we’ve found her. Good job.’

Zareen beamed at me.

‘Maud Grey,’ Jay mused. ‘Family?’

‘Probably a sister.’

Jay nodded. ‘So we’ve found her, but on the other hand… er, any idea where the house went to?’

‘Well, there are scattered accounts over the next few hundred years of people sighting cottages or even entire mansions which vanish into the mist, or which simply aren’t there when they come back. There appear to be three such stories that match up.’ She checked her screen. ‘1572. A timber-framed cottage was spotted by a farmer on Tut Hill, but a day later it was gone. 1678, the sister of the local vicar saw a cottage fade into the mist in much the same spot. And in 1737, a tradesman’s wife was held up on the road outside a ramshackle cottage in the same parish. The highwayman went in and the carriage rolled on, but the next day the cottage was gone and the robber was never found.’

‘On to Tut Hill!’ I said. ‘Um, where is it?’

Zareen smiled at me. ‘It’s close.’

‘Quickly,’ said Jay. ‘Because unless my trackers are talking rubbish, we’re likely to be beaten to it.’

Toil and Trouble: 14

‘Undead sorceresses,’ I said. ‘Lovely.’

‘I love you,’ said Zareen.

I blinked. ‘Thank you. Er, why?’

‘It’s been an age since I last had a good corpse-raising mystery to sink my teeth into.’

I winced a bit inside. The near juxtaposition of corpse and teeth-sinking was doing unfortunate things to my brain. ‘Thank you for those mental images.’

‘Always welcome, my darling.’

‘You really are pleased with me, aren’t you?’

She beamed at me.

‘Then you should be pleased with Jay, too. He got the book.’

Her smiled faded. ‘So, new questions. I cannot yet say whether Drogryre was involved with any of these covens, or if so, which type. But somebody really wanted to find her grave, and I’d say it’s an awfully big coincidence that the area happens to have a history of necromancy as well.’

‘Bill said Wester expected to find some kind of treasure.’

‘He might have been promised something by way of a reward, if he was successful. Or they might have guaranteed his interest by telling him there were riches to be uncovered.’

‘So you don’t think there was treasure?’

‘From what you’ve told me, Bill dismissed the idea, and he ought to know. That said…’ Zareen sat back again. ‘There was sometimes a tradition for magickers being buried with things like their grimoires, their Wands, their familiars (mummified), or any other personal artefacts they possessed some strong connection to. But I think Bill would have known about things like that.’

‘Bill was her grimoire.’

‘Eventually. I doubt she pulled Bill out of her hat the moment she took up magick. He’s the kind of accomplishment that crowns a lifetime career, and presumably she had some other, more ordinary grimoire throughout her life up to that point. Even if she did, though, it’s unlikely either Wester or Ancestria Magicka had any interest in that. Bill ought to have been enough.’

‘So no treasure, no grimoire, probably no artefacts.’

‘I’m telling you! It has to be necromancy.’

‘Maybe back then, but now? The woman’s been nothing but bone for centuries. What could anybody hope to accomplish with the skeleton of a long-dead sorceress? If they want to raise a strong magicker from the dead, how about somebody, er, fresher?’

That gave Zareen pause. ‘It is harder with the recently deceased,’ she said, though with a little doubt. ‘People keep track of corpses nowadays. Nobody dies of plague and gets chucked into mass graves anymore. It’s one thing to go dig in a field somewhere for somebody long-forgotten; quite another to crash an active graveyard and walk off with someone’s grandmother.’

‘Still, though,’ I persisted. ‘When you raise a magicker from the dead, what’s the intent?’

‘Enslavement to your will.’

‘Right — as an undead being still capable of practicing magick, in some form or another. You want to purloin their abilities for your own use, which is why deceased Waymasters tend to have a round-the-clock guard posted over their graves for about six months straight. If this is the goal, do you think a crumbling old skeleton would be of any interest to anybody?’

Zareen frowned. ‘I feel like I know the answer to this, but it’s not coming to mind.’

‘The answer?’

Zareen lunged for her tab again, and then wandered off to feverishly scan her bookshelves. ‘There’s something about skeletons,’ she muttered. ‘I once read about a spate of grave-robbings — fifty years or so ago now — that puzzled everyone at the time for the same reasons you’ve just come up with. The graves that were targeted were all the resting places of magickers, and all ancient. None of the disinterred were under three hundred years dead. What would anybody want with a crop of crumbling old bones, as you put it? I don’t remember now if that mystery was ever solved, but, there was another case in the late Victorian era where someone went so far as to advertise. Advertise! Some chap was paying well for the bones of magickers, with a fat bonus offered for a complete skeleton. He was shut down pretty quickly, and no record remains as to what he wanted to do with the bones.’ Zareen wandered from shelf to shelf as she spoke, occasionally tapping at her tab. I realised I had entirely lost her attention, and stood up.

‘Let me know what you dig up,’ I said.

Zareen grinned, not too lost in thought to appreciate my execrable pun. ‘Will do.’

My phone buzzed as I stepped out into the corridor. Jay calling.

‘Can I borrow Bill?’ I said without preamble.

A slight pause. ‘By “borrow”, do you secretly mean “elope with to the border”?’

‘No.’

‘Then yes. But quickly, we’re leaving for Lavenham any minute.’

‘We are? What for?’

‘Drogryre’s grave.’

‘You found something!’

‘Not as such. It occurred to Milady that Amelia will notice her notebook missing as soon as she wakes up — which probably happened about an hour and a half ago — and she and her esteemed colleagues will probably speed up the timetable on whatever they are doing accordingly. Ergo, she would like us on the scene.’

‘Genius.’ Why bother figuring out the site of the grave ourselves, if we could just let them do it and then follow? ‘Provided we can find them, of course.’

‘I put my tracker on Mercer.’

‘You… you did? When?’

‘In the middle of that fist-fight you were so eager to break up.’

Ah.

To hide my embarrassment, I hastily told Jay about Zareen’s theory. ‘Great,’ he said. ‘She can do that, you and I are going to go do this.’

‘Yes, sir.’

He hung up.

It had not occurred to him to mention where he was, or anything useful like that. Nor had it occurred to me to ask. So, I merely checked that I still had my Sunstone Wand within reach, and headed off to the Waypoint in the cellar.

Though I did pop back into Zareen’s room first.

‘Zar, we’re going grave-hunting.’

She was up out of her chair like a shot. ‘Don’t you dare go without me!’

‘Wouldn’t dream of it.’ I grinned.

She tried to take all seven of her books along, then regretfully bowed to practicality and set four of them back. Then another one.

‘Corpse-hunting now, reading later,’ I told her.

The last two went back onto the desk with a thump. ‘There’s vital information somewhere in there.’

‘They will wait for you. Boots! Phone! Quickly!’

Zareen scurried about in a brief frenzy, and within moments we were both on our way downstairs.

I could have left her to read in peace, of course, and in some ways that would have been ideal; we were in need of information. But I wanted her with us for two reasons.

One: the pall of corpse-thieving, bone-harvesting, undead-raising shenanigans hanging over this business was growing thicker by the hour, and we had no one better to deal with that kind of thing than Zareen.

Two: If we went grave-robbing without her, she would literally never forgive me.

Jay took Zareen’s presence with admirable grace, while Zareen took the simpler expedient of virtually ignoring him. That was all right. Better that than sniping at each other. Jay had Bill with him, and I could not contain a coo of delight as the lovely heavy tome was put into my hands. ‘You have five minutes,’ said Jay. ‘Then put him somewhere out of sight.’

‘Bill!’ I said, as Jay began his preparations for departure. ‘Quick! What do you know about raising the dead?’

‘I can assure you!’ said Bill. ‘My mistress was never a friend to that sort of activity!’

‘So you don’t know anything?’

‘Nothing at all!’

Was it my imagination, or did cool, composed Bill sound a little bit shrill?

Hmm.

Zareen said, ‘How about bone-harvesting, Bill? Specifically magicker’s bones.’

Bill merely said, ‘How good it is to see you again, Miss Dalir.’

‘Thank you,’ said Zareen. ‘That’s lovely.’

‘I am rather lovely,’ said Bill.

‘Utterly. Now answer the question.’

Bill gave a bookish sigh, and shuffled his pages. ‘I am no expert, you understand…’

‘We understand completely.’

‘…but my mistress did have one or two bone talismans in her possession at the time of her death.’

‘Talismans?’ said Zareen. ‘What were they for?’

‘They held unusual protective powers, usually along similar lines to their original owners’ abilities.’

‘So if I died, someone could use my bones to protect against curses?’

‘If you possess a talent for hexes, Miss Dalir, then yes.’

Zareen shrugged this away, unimpressed.

‘Superstition?’ I asked her in an undertone.

‘Sounds like it to me. Codswallop.’

We weren’t getting very far with Bill, and Jay’s whirling Winds were beginning to whirl in earnest. I raised my voice to be heard over the noise and half-shouted, ‘What about a complete skeleton, Bill? What if somebody got hold of every bone in Zareen’s body?’

Bill went very quiet.

‘Bill!’

‘Miss Vesper,’ he finally said. ‘Miss Dalir. I hold you both in the very highest esteem, and therefore permit me to advise you never to allow yourselves to be caught up in anything of that nature.’

‘Why? What does it do?’

‘And should you happen to die in untoward circumstances, I hope you will ensure that your loved ones will keep your remains safe from any such interference.’

Zareen’s eyes may have lit up at the words untoward circumstances, but I felt confused — and slightly alarmed. Bill was serious, very serious. ‘Why, Bill?’ I tried again.

But Bill would say no more.

‘Put the book away, Ves!’ Jay ordered, and I obeyed, because to drop Bill somewhere in between here and East Anglia would be more than my job’s worth.

And away we went.

 

I could not decide whether I was more relieved or disgusted by Zareen’s manner of handling the journey, for she was untouched by it. We emerged inside a circle of sapling birches in the midst of a tiny copse, and Zareen strolled into the adjacent wheat field not only with perfect composure but actually with a great yawn, as though the whole process was on the duller side of human endeavour.

Jay and I exchanged a look of mutual aggravation, and I am certain we shared a mutual resolve to show no sign of discomfort whatsoever.

Said copse proved to be in between two great, rolling fields, and on the not-too-distant horizon was a town. ‘Is that Lavenham?’ I asked Jay.

‘Well,’ he said with a tiny smile. ‘I hope so.’

‘Are they here yet?’

Jay shook his head.

‘Onward!’ said Zareen, smiling in the evening sunshine as the spring breezes ruffled her glossy black hair. She took off for Lavenham at an easy, loping run, looking like an advert for washing powder, or possibly for hair care products.

‘She doesn’t get out of the study much,’ I said to Jay by way of apology.

He grunted.

Lavenham, to my delight, was roaring drunk. The buildings looked as though it had been raining brandy for the past two hundred years and they couldn’t stop giggling. Crooked, timber-framed, oddly-coloured old things, they wobbled and swayed and leaned against each other for support. Next to this wild display of character, the newer constructs looked drab and featureless. It wasn’t difficult to find our way to the oldest parts of the town, where Drogryre’s grave must be. We bought chips from a tiny chip shop and hastily devoured them on our way through the narrow streets, eyes everywhere at once, yet with no idea what we were looking for. I suppose we thought something obvious would pop out at us when we walked past it; that we’d know it when we saw it.

Well, it didn’t.

‘So,’ I said after a while, when we had walked past the same perpendicular-gothic church twice over. We had checked the graveyard, just in case there happened to be a stone conveniently engraved with “Here lies Drogryre, sorceress and possible necromancer, 1485.” There was not. ‘If you were a fifteenth-century grave digger, where would you say is the most obvious place to bury a plague victim?’

‘Or several,’ said Zareen.

Or several. How were we going to pick Drogryre’s individual skeleton out of a whole pile of bones? A problem to deal with… later.

‘Church graveyards would fill up pretty quickly,’ said Zareen. ‘They’d be buried in a plague pit.’ She had her phone out as she said this and was furiously typing something.

‘Somewhere out beyond the edges of the town,’ added Jay. ‘I wouldn’t bury plague-ridden corpses in my back garden.’

‘Good point.’ We needed to avoid the old town, then. What was empty land a few hundred years ago had probably been developed with new buildings somewhere in the last century or so, and these were spread out around Lavenham in every direction. Where to go?

‘That way,’ said Zareen after a minute, and pointed in what seemed to me to be a random direction.

‘What?’

‘This way.’ Zareen set off, waving her phone at us. ‘A probable plague pit was discovered in 1963 when the foundations were being dug for a new building.’

‘They built a new house over a pitfull of plague victims?’ Revolted, I hurried after Zareen.

‘No, they built the house somewhere else.’

Jay said: ‘Er, how did you find this out?’

A fair question. I had conducted a thorough search for information about the town and its environs, too, and come up with very little on the topic.

‘Database,’ said Zareen unhelpfully.

‘What?’

‘I have access to a database for this kind of stuff.’

‘Plague pits?!’

‘Plague pits, burial sites of unusual significance, haunted houses. Mostly with some link to magick somewhere along the line, but not always.’ She turned to flash a brilliant smile in Jay’s direction, thoroughly aware of how appalled he was. ‘That kind of stuff.’

Jay walked in silence for a moment. ‘I don’t know whether to be more aghast that such a thing exists, or that you take such obvious delight in it.’

‘This is why I brought Zareen,’ I told him. ‘She’s vital to our quest.’

Jay muttered something I could not hear.

We trawled all the way to the other side of the town again, and at length arrived at… a car park.

‘Hm.’ Zareen frowned. ‘I didn’t notice anything about it being paved over.’

I stamped a foot on the smooth tarmac. It yielded not one whit.

Jay coughed. It sounded suspiciously like a strangled laugh.

‘It is of no consequence,’ said Bill suddenly from inside my bag. ‘My mistress is not here.’

Toil and Trouble: 13

By the time we arrived back at Home, Jay still had not quite forgiven me for bundling him out of Ashdown library like a sack of clothes. He was waiting for me in the hall, cool as a marble statue, with Indira at his elbow and no sign of Melissa.

‘Hello,’ I said, with a hopeful smile. I cannot absolutely confirm that I did not employ surreptitious use of the puppy eyes, too.

‘We need to see Milady right away,’ said Jay, unmoved.

‘I did not, by my interference, mean any slight upon your very excellent abilities.’

‘I was fine.’

I tried not to stare too obviously at the bruises on his face. ‘I know!’

Apparently I failed, for the brow came down in annoyance and he involuntarily touched the biggest of the bruises: a great monster of a thing adorning his right cheek. ‘No one’s ever died of a little bruise.’

‘I mean… I’m not a doctor, but that probably isn’t true.’

I thought I saw the corner of Jay’s mouth twitch, but I was probably mistaken. ‘Shall we go?’ said he, and gestured for me to precede him up the main stairs.

Desperate times, desperate measures. ‘How many times, can I say I’m sorry…’ I said, drawing out the last word.

Jay blinked. ‘Once would—’

‘Yes, I’m sorrrrryyyyy.’ I was singing by then, there was no other word for it.

‘Is that… are you using Phil Collins against me?’ It wasn’t his mouth that was twitching this time; there was a definite spasm going on in his left eye.

‘Who can resist Phil!’

‘One or two people,’ muttered Indira, though when I looked at her she tried her best to outdo her brother’s statue impression.

‘So,’ said Jay meaningfully, and pointed in the direction of Milady’s tower: up. ‘Heaven’s that way.’

Oh,’ I sang, and sashayed up the stairs. ‘Think twice!’

‘It can’t be heaven and paradise up there,’ said Jay. ‘Pick one.’

‘I say both.’

‘You’re just hoping for a promotion.’

‘I was recently offered a rather tempting job opportunity, which I very loyally turned down. A raise isn’t too much to hope for, is it?’

‘Wretch.’ I may not have been able to see Jay anymore, having smartly turned my back upon him. I could, however, hear the smile.

Hah.

‘Bill!’ I called. ‘I have no doubt that you and Milady will be delighted with one another.’

‘I shall be happy to make the acquaintance of so esteemed a person,’ Bill replied  ‘Her ladyship…?’ Bill trailed off into an expectant pause.

‘Yes,’ said Jay.

‘Her ladyship of which family?’

Bill, bless him, was labouring under the impression that Milady had a name. Or that any of us might know what it is.

‘Just Milady, Bill,’ I called, as Jay floundered for a response.

‘Milady is a title, not a name.’

‘In this case, it is both.’

Bill was silent, either with indignation or with shock, I couldn’t tell which.

‘Welcome back, Jay,’ said Milady when we reached her tower room. The air sparkled with a special brilliance which usually meant that her ladyship was extra pleased. That of course meant that she had been extra worried, even if she had shown little sign of it before.

‘Thank you, Milady,’ said Jay with a bow. ‘It is good to be back.’

‘Indira rocked it,’ I announced, making the poor girl blush.

‘Did she? I cannot say I am surprised.’

‘And Jay was not kidnapped at all, the wretch.’

Silence. There was a quality to the air that suggested Milady’s eyebrows might have been raised a little high, had she corporeal presence enough to display it.

Jay rolled his eyes at me. ‘May I explain?’

‘Pray do.’

He explained. I did not find his reasons any more satisfactory than last time, though to his credit he only made himself out to be somewhat stupendously the hero. He accepted Milady’s admonishments — rather milder than mine — with reasonable grace.

Then Milady ruined everything by saying: ‘That was very clever, Jay. Good work.’

Jay smirked at me. I considered it only fair to respond by sticking out my tongue at him.

Indira watched this exchange with wide, wide eyes.

We followed this by apprising Milady of everything that had happened since our urgent departure for Ashdown Castle, a discussion that proceeded at some length. At long last, Bill made himself known by shuffling his covers in irritation, wafting dust everywhere.

‘Where have you been keeping that?’ I said to him in astonishment. He’d spent several hours in Val’s care, and ought therefore to have emerged spotlessly dust-free.

‘I reserve a small supply in case it should prove necessary,’ said Bill loftily.

‘Displeasure registered.’

‘Thank you.’

I made introductions, which was an awkward business considering it was between an unusually loquacious book and an unusually disembodied voice. Bill, to my disgust, turned on the charm so much that I suspected him of snobbery.

Jay passed Amelia’s notebook to me. It was open at the page with her ink-drawing of the map. ‘There’s something odd about them,’ he said, interrupting Bill’s compliments upon the unusual beauty of Milady’s rich, heavenly voice (his words, not mine). It occurred to me to marvel a moment at the transformation: that we (or Zareen) should have succeeded in turning a foul-mouthed wretch of a book into a silver-tongued charmer. Behold, the power of literature.

‘In which particular respect?’ said Milady.

Jay paused a moment to gather his thoughts. ‘Amelia spent a long time with Bill,’ he began. ‘Studying him, probably, at least at first. But she spent a lot more time talking to him.’

‘Impertinent woman,’ muttered Bill.

Jay smiled faintly. ‘Or trying to, as Bill flatly refused to talk to anyone but me or Ves. So, they pulled me off supervising the construction of their new henge, and—’

‘A new henge?’ interrupted Milady.

Apparently we had forgotten to tell her about Milton Keynes. ‘At the top of a tower,’ said Jay. ‘Breeze blocks. Ugly in the extreme, but functional enough.’

I almost dropped the notebook. ‘They’re making a henge out of concrete?’

‘I’m afraid so.’

‘Have they no soul?’

‘Not a scrap between them. Anyway, they had me interrogating Bill on Amelia’s behalf for more than half the day, and she chose a strange line of enquiry. I expected the kinds of questions our lot were asking — burning historical questions no one has ever found the answer to; details about his life and history; the nature of the enchantments that made him; that sort of thing. But all Amelia wanted to know about was his creator, and where she is buried.’

‘I see,’ said Milady. ‘And what is known about this person that might account for so extraordinary a display of interest?’

‘Nowhere near enough. Even Bill’s information could not satisfy Amelia, exactly.’

‘I was unable to give information about the precise location of my former mistress’s grave,’ Bill put in. ‘On account of not having been chosen to be present at her burial.’

I eyed the map in Amelia’s notebook. Her annotations were difficult to read, but they looked like place names, sometimes scrawled with a question mark beside them. The map itself wasn’t very helpful, not even the original; it had no distinct features about it, no labels, no directions. It consisted only of a few hastily-inked lines which might have related to virtually anything — roads, hills, rivers…

‘It may seem obvious,’ I began apologetically, ‘but did you ask Amelia why she wanted to know about Bill’s former mistress?’

‘I did, as nonchalantly as I could. She just looked at me like she couldn’t believe I would ask such a stupid question, like the answer should have been perfectly obvious.’

I sighed. ‘Any guesses, Bill?’

‘I know nothing of my mistress that might explain this unseemly interest in the manner or location of her demise.’

John Wester, whoever he was, had been peculiarly absorbed by the search for Drogryre’s grave. Ancestria Magicka, centuries later, were intent upon following in his footsteps — indeed, by Jay’s account they were more interested in that question than they were in anything else Bill had to offer. Which, considering the utterly remarkable nature of him, was extraordinary. What did they expect to find in Drogryre’s grave that was of greater value than Bill himself?

‘Do you know where she died?’ I asked him.

‘Lavenham. That is the town in which we had taken up residence when she became ill, and quickly died.’

‘Of the plague.’

‘The sweating sickness.’

My ears pricked up a bit at that, which may sound macabre but many a historian would react the same way. The sweating sickness was a strange form of plague which cropped up out of nowhere in about 1485 and vanished some sixty or so years later, never to be heard of again. More oddly still, it was confined to England for some years, and only belatedly spread into Ireland and Europe. It’s still sometimes referred to as the “English Sweat”. No theory as to its possible causes can account for all of its recorded symptoms.

And the best part of all, of all, is this: the very first symptom of having contracted this plague consisted of an overpowering sense of dread. In other words, one felt one’s doom rapidly approaching.

I realise I sound like Zareen, but how fabulously weird is all of that?

Of course, all things considered (especially that last part) it is highly likely that the sweating sickness was of magickal origin. While it is fair to say that the historians of the non-magickal world are a shade more confused about it all than we are, it is also fair to note that none of us has ever yet managed to uncover the plague’s original author either.

‘Bill!’ I said. ‘What was the cause of the sweating sickness?’

‘I have no information on that topic.’

It was worth a try.

So, Drogryre rocked the magickal world back in the fifteenth century, produced a feat of such remarkable power as Bill, but somehow never achieved any prominent position within magickal history in spite of this — perhaps because she died of the sweat soon afterwards.

Or perhaps not.

‘I need to talk to Zareen,’ I said.

‘An excellent notion. Go at once,’ said Milady. ‘There’ll be chocolate in the pot.’

 

There was, too, though it took a few moments to spot it in the midst of Zareen’s clutter. One of Milady’s favourite eighteenth-century tea pots, an elegant silver specimen, stood at one corner of the desk, its tall spout steaming in a promising fashion.

Zareen lounged in her chair, booted feet on the desk as usual. She had one smallish ancient-looking book in her hands and about seven more stacked in front of her. When she saw me, she set down her book and adjusted her posture to a more respectable configuration — sweeping the pot onto the floor in the process.

I caught it with a flick of a finger, and carefully floated it back up to the table-top. ‘Don’t waste the chocolate!’ I chided.

‘Never,’ said Zareen fervently. Milady had thoughtfully provided two cups — two, because Jay and Indira had taken themselves off someplace else. To my regret they had escorted Bill along with them, though no one had seemed very interested in explaining to me where they were going or what they proposed to do with the book.

I tried not to feel hurt.

Zareen and I fell upon the chocolate (not literally). I was feeling strained and tired after such a long, chaotic, stressful day, and guzzled my restorative chocolate more quickly than could ever be called ladylike. I felt better.

This done, I caught Zareen up on recent developments. Her eyes, like mine, brightened at the words “sweating sickness”. We are a peculiar bunch, aren’t we? ‘So Drogryre was part of the first wave of the sweat,’ Zareen mused when I had finished. ‘One of the very first to die.’

‘Seems so.’

‘Hmm.’

‘Do you suppose that has anything to do with this unseemly eagerness to dig her up again?’

‘I don’t see how, but you never know.’

I dismissed this with a wave. A careful one, since I was on my second cup of chocolate. ‘Questions! What’s so special about Drogryre? Why haven’t we heard of her, when she seems to have been absurdly powerful and pretty clever besides? How have they heard of her, and what’s the interest in her place of rest? And who the hell is John Wester? — Oh! Wester. Right.’ I’d forgotten I had sent the pages over to Val, nor had I checked since for a response. I did that.

There was a string of messages from Val.

Ves, said the first one. Much as I applaud your initiative, you’re an idiot if you think I hadn’t taken copies of my own the moment I got your precious book into my sticky little hands.

Well, that was fair.

Idiosyncratic use of English, said the next one. Generally classifiable as Late Middle English, but eccentric enough in spelling, grammar etc to suggest Wester wasn’t far from being illiterate. Wondering therefore why he purloined Bill at all, and what motive he had for writing any of his adventures down.

Good questions, those.

About half of his entries are of little use. They ramble about seemingly irrelevant incidents: what he procured for lunch that day, for example, and an insult that was levelled at him by a rude cloth vendor, where (more interestingly) he was trying to buy silk. Silk!

Nothing we know about W suggests he was rich enough for silk garments, or of that kind of social standing either. The man seems to have come into some money and was blowing it in fine style. Surmising that his pursuit of the grave might not have been spontaneous. Somebody paid him. Theft of Bill no coincidence, perhaps. Was he keeping records to satisfy whoever was bankrolling his quest?

He hated Lavenham. Noisy, crowded and without beauty, he says. But he had no thoughts of going elsewhere; too convinced that D’s grave must be somewhere nearby. Guessing that his rough map shows some part of the town, though comparing it to contemporary maps of the place has not yet yielded anything. Little indication of where he got the map, though he does say he paid a grave-digger ten shillings for information.

Ten shillings! That was a lot, for the time.

Journal ends abruptly, said Val’s final message. Seemed to think he was near to finding the grave, though did not give further details. Off he went in a spirit of high expectation, and… who knows. Did he find the grave, but for some reason abandon the journal? Did something happen to him? Cannot discover. No reference to a John Wester anywhere that seems relevant.

As I read this last message, a final one popped up saying simply: Nor Drogryre either.

‘Zareen,’ I said. ‘We are in dire need of your macabre mystery-solving skills.’

Zareen smirked. ‘What is my quest?’

I thought. There were lists of outstanding questions here, but I couldn’t reasonably dump them all on Zareen. What did we most want to know?

‘Drogryre,’ I decided. ‘There is something about her that doesn’t add up. Why is there no record of her? We know of many powerful witches and sorcerers from the time; why not her?’

‘There must be something, somewhere,’ said Zareen, already reaching for her tab. ‘Something’s put the wind up our friends at Ancestria Magicka, anyway.’

‘Exactly. They’ve found something that we haven’t, perhaps because they’re looking in different places.’

Zareen frowned, thoughtful. ‘I wonder if she was a sorceress,’ she mused.

‘What?’

‘Well. We prize some magickal history, but there are parts we would prefer to forget. Or if not to forget, exactly, then we at least refrain from honouring those kinds of practitioners. Think black magick, Ves. Simplistic term, I know, but it’s your necromancers, your wicked witches, your demon-summoning gutter-dwellers… those kinds of people.’ Zareen maintained this narration without looking at me, her fingers flickering over her screen. ‘Real life as we know it is full of shining characters, of great deeds, grand powers and magnificent achievements… course, it’s also full of shit, and history is no different. But nobody wants to turn over the rocks and look at the shitty stuff.’

‘Except you,’ I said.

Zareen’s smile flashed. ‘Except for me. You need a strong stomach for it, sometimes, but there’s some interesting stuff down there. And I happen to think it is important to know the worst of one’s past as well as the best. Now, here’s something interesting.’ She passed her tab to me.

She had found an entry from somebody’s blog, dated 2012. Lavenham’s Secret History of Witchcraft, read the title.

I skimmed through the post (it was long). Written, I had no trouble guessing, by a non-magicker, it nonetheless contained some promising hints: Did you know that the quaint, quirky town of Lavenham was once the site of some of the most horrific witch trials of the 1600s?

‘They had a coven?’ I said, blinking. ‘Huh.’ I shouldn’t have been surprised, really. Lavenham might be a small, nothing-much place now, but back in Drogryre’s time it was a bustling merchant town. It wasn’t that unlikely for a coven to put down roots there.

Zareen retrieved her tab. ‘By the looks of it, more than one, and not just the shiny kind either.’

‘You mean they had one of those kinds of covens?’

‘Ohh, yes. The town’s supposed to have declined a long way by the seventeenth, so if they had that much activity still going on even then, I’d be willing to bet it was quite the happenin’ scene a century or two earlier.’

Magickers only form covens when they want to do something really difficult, something requiring the pooling of a lot of magickal power. Sometimes people do it for good, noble reasons; lots of covens were formed to battle the Sweat, for example. Lavenham might well have had one or two of those.

But as with all areas of human endeavour, some covens were (or are) formed for slightly less heroic reasons, too. Like, just for instance… ‘Raising the dead?’ I suggested.

Zareen grinned. ‘Oh, I hope so.’

Toil and Trouble: 12

Somehow, the Patels were ready for this. Indira had a very good, very stout shield charm up in no time, which absorbed the first wave of the indignant woman’s hexery. Jay meanwhile threw a hex of his own in response, a neat, clever piece of magick which would have knocked her out on the spot if it had hit her. Sadly, she proved to have remarkable reflexes, too, and ducked.

Through all of this ruckus, Bill warbled on.

‘Come on, Amelia,’ said Jay, throwing another hex. ‘You know the book isn’t yours.’

She made no reply to this, choosing to focus all her attention on the next wave of dark curses.

Hm.

I plucked a sleep-bead from one of my emergency supplies pockets. No use expecting to get her to swallow it; not with hexes, reflexes and a Wand at her disposal. Instead I threw the bead up, blasted it with a shot of energy from my own spangly Wand, and watched in satisfaction as it sprayed the curse-happy woman in the most potent sleep potion our technicians are capable of brewing.

The woman uttered a word I shall not repeat here, cast me a look of utter hatred, and dropped like a stone.

‘I need some of those,’ said Jay.

Greensleeves was all my joy! sang Bill.

I went over to him at once and patted his pages. ‘Bill.’

Greensleeves was my delight!

‘Bill! Stop!’

Bill stopped. ‘Miss Vesper?’

‘The same. We are about to effect your rescue, and it would be preferable if you were a bit quieter. Early modern love songs might be delightful but they do attract more notice than would be desirable.’

‘I cannot begin to express the extent of my gratitude,’ said Bill. ‘I shall consider myself under an obligation to you for the rest of my natural life.’

How long is a book’s natural life? Probably much longer than mine. ‘You don’t like Ancestria Magicka, I take it?’

‘If you are referring to these scoundrels who have wrested me from you, then your surmise is correct.’

They did not appear to have mistreated Bill, in fairness to them. He lay atop a particularly plush cushion, his spine perfectly supported. He had an entire table to himself, and they had let him go on singing to his heart’s content (though that might have been because he would not oblige them so far as to shut up). He had not been damaged, as far as I could see.

I thought it interesting, and possibly significant, that the woman I had felled had apparently been studying John Wester’s journal entries when we had come in. In all the excitement about Bill’s unusual composition, we had rather overlooked the contents of his pages; what were they but the ramblings of a robber and a thief? But if Ancestria Magicka thought differently, then I wanted to know why. I busied myself snapping pictures of each of Bill’s pages that bore writing (except for Zareen’s section). These I sent through to Val. I sent a note with them: Decipher?

Then I scooped up Bill.

‘It is good to be with you again,’ said Bill, which was sweet of him.

‘Sometime you’ll have to tell me who Milady Greensleeves is,’ I said.

During my hasty camera-session with Bill, Indira had busied herself with searching the outer garments of the sleeping woman. Jay snatched up the notebook she had left upon the table, and leafed speedily through it. He showed me something interesting: Amelia had made an ink sketch of the map at the back of Bill’s pages, with annotations.

‘Hang onto that,’ I said.

‘Mm.’ Jay pocketed it. There were two doors in the room: one leading back the way we had come, the other to who-knew-where-else. Retracing our steps was the obvious solution if we wanted to get out, and Jay clearly agreed, for he made for the door at speed. But before he reached it, there came the sounds of heavy footsteps approaching from the other side. ‘Uh oh,’ said Jay, pivoted, and dashed for the other door at a run.

Indira got there before him. She tugged mightily upon the door but to her chagrin, it did not budge. ‘Locked,’ she reported.

Well, no surprise there. They had stashed the most valuable book in the world in this tiny library, with only Amelia to look after it; they were hardly going to leave the main door unlocked.

The other door swung open to reveal George Mercer, and Katalin Pataki right behind him.

‘See,’ said Mercer with grim satisfaction. ‘I knew he was full of shit.’ He had the air and the accent of a public school boy, and the clothes to match. I wondered which of our most respected establishments had been responsible for turning out such a fine specimen.

Katalin regarded Jay with some disappointment, though she said, in her thick Hungarian accent: ‘Is he, though? Let me have the book, Jay.’

‘That is Mr. Patel to you,’ said Bill.

Jay grinned, and backed up until he was shoulder-to-shoulder with Indira and me. He took Bill from me, probably in order to leave my hands free to wield my Wand.

Katalin, though, interpreted his actions differently. ‘Good,’ she purred. ‘Mr. Patel has more sense than to imagine us as the enemy. Our goals are the same, are they not?’

‘As what?’ I demanded. ‘The Society doesn’t steal.’

‘We stole nothing. Upon learning that an active Waymaster happened to be the current keeper of a remarkable book, we naturally approached him with an attractive offer of employment. One which he would be a fool to turn down.’ Katalin smiled at Jay.

‘It is not my book, of course,’ said Jay. ‘If anyone can claim right of ownership over it, that would be the Troll Court.’

Katalin’s smile widened. ‘Finders, keepers,’ she purred.

My mind travelled back over all the Treasures, Curiosities, rare books and other artefacts I had tracked down and rescued from destruction over my decade with the Society. Finders, keepers? ‘Oh, if only! I would be filthy rich by now, and retiring to my own island.’

‘About that,’ said Mercer. ‘We’re instructed to extend a similarly lucrative offer to Specialists Cordelia Vesper and Indira Patel.’ He waved a document at me, as though that might convince me if his words did not. ‘Ancestria Magicka is in need of people with your unique talents.’

Indira looked flabbergasted.

I felt a twinge of curiosity. ‘Are you?’ I murmured. ‘Instructed by whom?’

Mercer’s mouth twitched with annoyance. ‘You will meet your new employers once you have accepted their generous offer.’

‘Like Jay has?’

Mercer looked Jay over expressionlessly. ‘Mr. Patel’s actions have delivered not only a Waymaster and the book to our Castle but a highly experienced acquisitions specialist and one of the most promising spellwrights the University has ever encountered. Our organisation is very pleased with him.’

All of this was sounding horribly like they had no intention of allowing us to turn down their offer. ‘We do have a choice, I suppose?’ I said acidly.

‘Of course,’ said Mercer, and gave me a polite, insincere smile. ‘You will find us to be perfectly civilised. Regrettably, however, it will not be in our power to permit you to leave Ashdown with the book in your possession.’

‘Think about it, Ves,’ said Katalin, and I blinked at her in surprise at her use of my nickname. ‘Ten times the salary, ten times the freedom! We are sent all over the world, to the farthest corners of the globe. We have already retrieved ancient Treasures the likes of which you have never seen.’

I admit, I experienced a faint twinge of wistful desire at this picture of well-salaried freedom. But the feeling did not last long. ‘All of which you directly repatriated to their home countries, of course?’ I said.

Katalin’s mouth set into a hard line of disappointment. ‘You are wasted on the Society.’

‘It may be something of a raggle-taggle organisation,’ I admitted, ‘without the resources to pay island-purchasing salaries, and I cannot deny that I am sometimes chafed by Milady’s rules. But the work we do is far more important than you will ever understand.’

Katalin shrugged, and looked at Indira.

I wondered what the poor girl would manage to say under such pressure as that; even small-talking with her new colleagues at the Society’s cafeteria often left her tongue-tied.

But I underestimated her. She might only have been able to utter one word, but it was the right word, and spoken with a conviction which must preclude all argument. ‘No,’ she said.

Katalin sighed. ‘I suppose that means you will be leaving us too, Mr. Patel?’

‘Correct.’

‘The book, then, please.’ She held out her hands to receive it.

Jay only gripped it tighter. ‘I’m afraid not.’

Katalin and George Mercer exchanged the kind of grim glance that had to mean big trouble for the three of us. Fortunately, we were all at that moment distracted by the terrific sound of crashing glass that might, for example, be indicative of a window breaking.

‘Ah,’ said Rob, peering in through the ragged hole where there had, only a moment ago, been big, bright panes of glass. I caught a glimpse of Melissa standing just behind him.

Excellent.

‘Indira. Chairs,’ I said, already making for the nearest one to me. I did not have time to explain, and could only hope that she would grasp my meaning.

See, Rob and I have been out on quite a few missions together before. There was this one time, several years ago now, where he and I got into a pretty difficult situation. There was Rob, there was me, there was a locked room halfway up an unreasonably tall building, and there was a rabid ogre. Enough said? But Rob had put his hand to the glass and pulled one of his fabulously destructive tricks; the entire window turned black-as-night and fell outwards, and when I had witched us up a couple of Chairs we flew serenely away into the sunset.

I never did find out what became of the ogre.

The timing had been slightly tighter before, but then, I had not had the Wand. This time it was the work of a few seconds to persuade my chosen chair — a fairly comfy, tapestry-clad armchair type thing — that it was livelier in nature than it had ever before imagined itself to be, and might rather enjoy taking flight. Indira, to my relief (if not much to my surprise) caught on right away, and made short work of an engraved oak desk chair until it actually began to dance on its four rigid legs.

We witched up three more, during which time Katalin Pataki was unwise enough to make an advance upon Rob and Melissa, while George tried to wrench Bill from Jay. The latter encounter ended with Jay shoving the book through the window into Melissa’s hands — a risky manoeuvre, which very nearly resulted in Katalin’s swiping it on the spot — and then (to my exasperation) he abandoned magick altogether in favour of fisticuffs.

I did not linger to watch the two men swing at each other. I pointed my Wand in Katalin’s direction. It was unfair, really; she was facing Rob and Melissa, and too engaged in opposing their joint attacks to have any leisure to attend to me. I shot a binding charm at her, nicely amplified by the power of the Sunstone Wand, and she collapsed in a motionless heap. Almost motionless. She was twitching a bit.

I assuaged my slightly guilty conscience by remembering how very unscrupulous most of her organisation’s activities had thus far been, and shoved her out of the way of the window. ‘Sorry,’ I said brightly, ignoring the way her eyes blazed hatred in my general direction. ‘But I can’t let you have Bill. We’ve grown fond of each other.’

I bundled Indira out of the window next, desk chair and all. She shot into the sky beyond, clutching the side of her Chair with her one good arm, and almost as rigid with fright as Katalin was with magick. I made a note to send her to the infirmary once we got home; she might be in need of a little therapy.

Melissa went next in my fine tapestry Chair, taking Bill with her. Good.

As one, Rob and I turned to Jay.

He wasn’t doing badly, to be fair to him. Not badly at all. His face displayed the evidence of George Mercer’s talents at fisticuffs, and he had obviously taken more than one hit judging from the damage. But Mercer was little better off, and I admit to taking some small satisfaction at the mess Jay had made both of his artlessly tumbled curls and his coolly self-possessed demeanour.

Nonetheless, it was high time to cut in. Rob — taking advantage of Mercer’s distraction in much the same shameless way I had taken advantage of Katalin’s — felled our public school tosser with a solid punch to the jaw, while I shoved a Chair under Jay’s legs until he toppled into it. I sent him out the window with a flick of the Wand.

With a startled yelp and what might have been a vicious curse upon my ancestors, he disappeared.

Rob and I followed.

Flying by Chair is quite the experience, and it’s really something to do it as part of a small flock. I lounged back at my ease, much better off than poor Indira, for my chosen vehicle had a wide seat and tall arms to keep me from falling out. But it was her first time; she would soon develop a better eye for this kind of thing. And she had got herself out of the library speedily, efficiently and successfully. I was very pleased with her.

Melissa, I noted, had caught up, and steadied Indira with a firm grip on the back of her Chair. She was in no danger of falling off, injured arm notwithstanding; good.

I steered clear of Jay, at least until we made it back to our abandoned cars. He had a fine brooding-glower-of-displeasure going on which I did not wish to tangle with.

He opted to ride with Indira.

I opted to attribute this to a positive cause, like brotherly concern rather than Ves-avoidance.

We made it back to our cars unpursued, piled hastily into them and drove away, Bill in such fine fettle that he began singing again. The strains of Greensleeves hung dulcet upon the air, fading into silence as Melissa’s car pulled out ahead of us.

We had to leave the Chairs behind, of course, and I do wonder a little what might have become of our escape-pods. I would like to apologise right now to any dog-walker or jogger who might have been puzzled to discover a cluster of library chairs abandoned on the edge of a field, apparently a long way from anywhere. I promise, the explanation is perfectly reasonable.

 

Toil and Trouble: 11

I tensed, trying to keep Indira behind me while I kept a close watch on the two Ancestria Magicka agents. Would they spot us? Melissa’s plan of serving as decoy had been put to an unexpectedly early test.

They did not. Something caught Mercer’s attention; his eyes shifted briefly in our direction, and a faint frown flitted across his face. But Melissa spoke up just then, and his attention returned to her.

‘Hi,’ she said. ‘So we know that, officially, you had nothing to do with the disappearance of Jay Patel and the book he found at Farringale. But unofficially, we all know that’s rubbish. We come to offer a bargain. Keep the book. Return Jay.’

Katalin smiled. ‘And if Mr. Patel does not wish to return to the Society?’

Mercer said, at the same time, ‘You propose to do what to us, exactly, if we do not agree?’

They needed a lesson or two in negotiation, I thought privately. Typically it would be more productive to pursue only one line of argument at a time; two would confuse the issue and weaken the impact of both. But perhaps they had not been working together long.

Lucky that I had often had cause to test my concealment charms before. I know them to be virtually foolproof. I walked nonchalantly past Pataki and Mercer, drawing Indira with me. She looked far more concerned by the situation than I felt; she crept past them, oh-so-carefully, casting frequent nervous glances in their direction. I tried to reassure her by patting her on the arm, but I do not think my gesture was much heeded.

She relaxed a bit once we were safely past, and had covered a distance of some thirty feet or so. We were rapidly drawing up to the castle by then, and I was engaged in searching for the nearest and most convenient way in.

Indira gave a tiny sigh of relief.

‘We were in no danger,’ I told her.

‘No danger? We were practically standing on their toes!’

‘No danger whatsoever.’

Indira frowned. ‘What did she mean about Jay’s not wanting to return to us?’

‘She was trying to manipulate Melissa, that’s all. Obviously they would like to keep both Jay and the book, and without our making too much trouble for them over either.’

‘I don’t think they can care all that much about our making trouble. This seems like an obvious challenge to the Society.’

‘Not quite, as they’ve officially denied it from the beginning. It’s a gambit, a throw of the dice to see what happens. It isn’t a declaration of war, yet.’

‘Yet?’

‘That will probably come in time.’ We were prowling around the base of the turret by that time, and I’d spied a way in.

Good points: the door was not barred or padlocked and a cautious probe of its magickal defences revealed nothing I did not feel able to handle with the help of my spangled Wand.

Bad points: Historic buildings have a way of being odd, whimsical and downright contrary sometimes, and this one was a prime example. There was a door in the tower, but it was inexplicably situated halfway up the building. There were no stairs leading up to it, nor any sign that there had ever been any.

‘Hm,’ I said. I wished for a second that I had brought my Chair with me. I, like everyone else, have a flying specimen; Val and I had both gone for tall, wing-backed chairs with comfortably padded seats, high-rising armrests and plush velvet upholstery. Hers is in green, mine’s burgundy. With my Chair, we could whizz up to the door in no time; in fact we could go all the way up to the window, and skip the door entirely.

Of course, I would have had to travel the entire distance by Chair, for there’s no way I could ever fit it in my Mini. And two hours by Chair in uncertain April weather is nobody’s idea of a good time. Not now that there are cars.

So, no Chair. We would have to do it the tiring way.

‘How far has your education progressed?’ I asked Indira.

‘My magickal education? Um, the… the usual?’ She looked at me uncertainly.

‘More specifically, can you levitate?’

‘Oh! Yes.’ Indira proved this by instantly levitating herself up to a distance of about two feet from the ground, smiling at me in that hopeful, shy way she has, like a puppy wishing for praise.

‘Er,’ I said. ‘Yes, that’s very good.’ It was more than good. Levitation is one of the more difficult arts; some otherwise very powerful magickers at the Society cannot manage it at all. Even one such as yours truly, among the finer practitioners of levitation at Home, can do it only with difficulty, and I have never managed to levitate myself more than about ten feet up without serious strain.

Indira levitated in the same way she breathed: effortlessly. And she hovered there, two feet up, with no visible sign that she was tiring at all. She looked like she could sail up ten feet and more still with similar ease, and I suppressed just the faintest, unworthy tinge of jealousy.

She will be the best of us, Jay had said, and I could see what he meant.

I took a deep breath.

‘Right,’ I said decisively. ‘We’re going to levitate to the door.’ Which, happily, looked to be only eight or nine feet up; I might manage to accomplish the business without embarrassing myself. ‘I will take care of its defences and then we’ll go in and get Jay. He’s still in there?’

Indira nodded. ‘Probably in the top— oh, no. Wait a moment.’ She frowned and consulted her book of Jay’s charms again. ‘He’s moved a bit, he’s— oh! He’s coming down.’

The door swung open above our heads, and Jay appeared. ‘Hi,’ he said, and then dropped down to land beside us with the grace of a panther.

I eyed him with some displeasure. ‘Hi? That’s it?’

‘Hail, fair rescuers,’ Jay said, with a smile for me. ‘I am full honoured by your braving the dangers of Ashdown in order to retrieve me… oh, wait. You are here for me? You aren’t just here for the book?’

I waited for him to explode at me over Indira’s presence, but he greeted her with a swift peck on the cheek and a brotherly pat of approval, and showed no signs of displeasure.

I felt, once again, that I had not quite got the measure of Jay.

‘We’re here for both,’ I said, and Jay made a show of wiping his brow in relief. ‘Do you have the book?’

‘No, but I know where it is. Come on.’ Jay led the way around the turret and on, presumably leading us to some other entrance. Mindful of threats and bristling with caution, Indira and I followed.

Indira put Jay’s charm book into her brother’s hand, and he tucked it away with a smile of thanks. ‘I knew you’d figure that out,’ he told her.

She gave that shy smile. ‘How did you know we were here?’

‘Because Ves shines like a bloody beacon.’

I blanched. ‘Er. I do?’

‘Yes, but don’t worry. Anyone who didn’t know you would just think that a small sun had popped by for a visit.’

‘Reassuring.’ I wasted a little time trying to decide what Jay meant, exactly; it’s never been mentioned before. But probably it had something to do with my being unusually, er, amplified by the Sunstone Wand, and anyway, the more important question was: had Pataki and Mercer observed the same thing, and pretended not to notice?

‘We might want to be careful, then,’ I said. ‘They probably know we are here.’ I wrestled with the Wand a bit, hopeful of diminishing my beacon-ness by a shade or two.

Jay dampened me with a wave of his hand. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that; I felt quenched, like he had thrown a bucket of water over me. Then I understood what he had meant: I had been positively ablaze with magick, and had not even noticed.

‘Were you angry, by chance?’ Jay said to me.

‘Of course I was angry! They thieved Bill and kidnapped you!’

‘They certainly did thieve Bill, which was disgraceful and nothing can exonerate them from that piece of infamy. But they did not kidnap me, precisely.’

‘They didn’t?’

‘They offered me a job.’

I blinked. ‘And?’

‘And I accepted.’

Indira gasped. I stifled an impulse to kick him somewhere painful.

Jay laughed. ‘Only temporarily. What better way to get a look around their HQ than to walk in here as a new recruit? And I wanted a shot at getting Bill back.’

‘So they just let you walk in here?’

‘Sort of. I’ve been under close supervision, and they have as yet withheld all privileges.’

I looked around. ‘You are remarkably alone for a man under close supervision.’

‘Well, when I saw you two on the approach I knew it was time to end the charade. I ditched my supervisor and broke out of the tower.’

Indira clutched at her brother’s arm, probably experiencing feelings of knee-weakening relief.

I was experiencing feelings more like incandescent rage.

‘You’re blazing again, Ves,’ said Jay, and I again had to suffer the quenching sensation. It is not especially pleasant.

‘I would not blaze if you wouldn’t keep making me angry,’ I said tightly.

He stopped, and looked at me in genuine surprise. ‘How did I do that?’

I controlled myself with an effort. ‘You let us imagine you kidnapped.’

‘I thought you would realise what I was up to.’

How was I supposed to realise that?!

‘Um.’ Jay looked at his sister. ‘Right. I see. I’m sorry.’

Indira looked at the floor.

I took a slow breath, and let go of my need to punch him. Not without some regret. ‘Another time, could you possibly get word to me about your wily plans?’

‘I can try. I didn’t have a phone, of course, and nobody would let me borrow one for some reason.’

For some reason. Are you sure they believed your show of willingness to jump ships?’

‘I don’t see why not.’ Jay began walking again. ‘They asked me what the Society was paying me, then offered me ten times that.’

TEN TIMES?

Jay cast me a look of mild irritation. ‘Ves, if we are going to engage in any kind of stealth mission here you’re going to need to stop with the blazing.

Ten times. For goodness’ sake! The Society paid its staff as well as it could afford to, and if Jay’s salary was anything like mine (and it would be, considering his Waymasterness) then he was by no means hard done to. Ten times more! Who could afford that?

I felt a faint twinge of nerves. ‘Er. You do actually intend to turn that down, right?’

Jay rolled his eyes. ‘Obviously.’

‘Obviously? Not many people would say no to that kind of money.’

‘I think you are doing “people” an injustice, but since I at least am not overburdened with avarice I think we can all stop worrying about that. Ah.’ Jay stopped before an apparently featureless patch of brick wall, and stared at it with palpable satisfaction. ‘Here we go.’ He spoke a word I did not understand, and one of the bricks glowed. He touched his fingers to the shiny brick, and the wall fell away.

‘Secret passwords?’ I said in disgust. ‘Really?’

Jay grinned. ‘These people are a bit old-school.’ He led the way through the not-wall, while Indira followed and I brought up the rear.

‘The irony of hearing the words old school uttered with such derision by a member of the Society for Magickal Heritage.’

‘Fair. Perhaps I meant staggeringly cliché, but I’m not complaining. My sojourn into espionage has borne fruit.’ He stopped talking and stopped walking at the same time, though we had not yet proceeded far into the castle. The door-in-the-wall had brought us, incongruously, into a muddy boot-room wherein many pairs of Wellingtons and assorted hiking boots were littered about. Beyond that was the kind of chilly, bleak hallway to be found in the servants’ quarters of any house of at least moderate size that saw use during the Victorian period. Jay stopped us before the typical green baize-covered door, the more or less soundproof kind that muffle all those undesirable noises that emanate from the service parts of the house. Perfectly insufferable to have to listen to the clamour of one’s dinner being cooked, isn’t it?

Only this one was not quite soundproof, because I could hear something coming from the other side. Someone was singing.

 

If you intend thus to disdain,

It does the more enrapture me,

And even so, I still remain

A lover in captivity.

 

The melody was familiar, and so was the voice.

‘Why,’ I whispered to Jay, ‘is Bill singing Greensleeves?’

‘Er.’ Cautiously, Jay pulled open the door an inch or so. The song immediately swelled in volume, as Bill launched full-throated into the chorus.

 

Greensleeves was all my joy!

Greensleeves was my delight!

Greensleeves was my heart of gold!

And who but my lady greensleeves!

 

‘Were you wearing green yesterday?’ Jay murmured.

‘With pink hair? Don’t be ridiculous.’

Jay swung the door open. Considering this decision I expected to find the room beyond empty except for Bill, but it was not.

We’d come out in what looked to be a tiny library, though the chamber was barely larger than the boot-room. The walls were crowded with bookcases fitted edge-to-edge, each crammed full of books. Bill lay enthroned in splendour upon a central table, open to display one of John Wester’s journal pages.

Seated before him and wearing a long-suffering expression was the kind of cardi-clad middle-aged lady you might expect to see serving dinner at a school cafeteria, or perhaps selling raffle tickets at a Women’s Institute fundraising drive. Whatever instant (and doubtless unfair) judgements one might make about such a person, the last thing I expected was that she would detect the sounds of Jay’s approach almost before it seemed possible, be out of her chair and facing us in about two seconds flat, and hurling hexes at us with the help of a pretty jade Wand.