The things I had in mind were not supplies, as the baron probably imagined. I still had my stash of toys from the Darrowdale expedition, and I keep a basic travel kit ready at all times because I am often sent off somewhere at a moment’s notice.
No, the “things” I planned to grab in passing consisted of just the one, really. A tall, reassuringly bulky, Rob-Foster-shaped thing, to be precise.
I like Rob so much. He is so calm, and so obliging. I found him in the infirmary tending to a forlorn-looking soul with her arm in a cast. Broken bones aren’t too uncommon around here, at least among those following certain fields of specialisation (mine included).
‘Much as I hate to disturb you,’ I said to Rob as I swept in, resembling, most likely, a small, vibrantly-coloured whirlwind, ‘I have an urgent matter on hand.’
Rob acknowledged my appearance but did not answer me until he had finished whatever he was doing for the girl — I call her such because she was very young, perhaps fifteen or so. She seemed a bit too young for a Society recruit, but perhaps she was here on some kind of internship or work experience thing. We sometimes get them.
Anyway, Rob dismissed her, all calm reassurance and comforting professionalism, and the girl — Indian, at a guess, and very smartly dressed — went away looking less forlorn.
‘All right, Ves,’ said Rob, taking off his doctor’s coat. ‘What may I do for you?’
‘Jay and I are going to Farringale,’ I told him.
Unflappable, Rob. ‘Nobody’s been there in centuries,’ I added.
‘Since we have no idea what we might find there, and whether or not it will prove to be friendly, I’d like to take you along with us.’
Rob looked curiously at me. ‘What do you need me for?’
‘I’d like your help with not dying.’
He smiled faint amusement. ‘Playing the damsel? You could probably hold your own against pretty much anything, and Jay’s no slouch either.’
He wasn’t wrong — about me, at least; I had no real idea what Jay’s abilities might be. Anybody taking up my line of work with the Society is obliged to take a rigorous series of courses in what Milady, by way of adorable euphemism, terms “the Direct Arts”. And while I am no prodigy by any means, I can be plenty direct when I need to be. I’m still breathing, aren’t I? And believe me, Milady has thrown me at all manner of risky adventures down the years.
‘It’s the “probably” part that bothers me,’ I answered. ‘And I’ll have Jay with me. He is something of a protege and I do not want to have to admit to Milady that I got him sliced up and made into mincemeat.’ Particularly when the mission was unauthorised in the first place.
‘I’m surprised Milady didn’t think of sending me along,’ said Rob, brows slightly raised in mild enquiry.
People are too sharp around here by half. ‘She doesn’t know we’re going,’ I told him. I mean, why bother lying? ‘Actually, she outright forbade it. But House disagrees, so we’re going anyway.’
Rob absorbed this in stoic silence, his gaze on me thoughtful. ‘All right,’ he said, to my relief. ‘You can explain the rest on the way.’
I gave him my best, absolutely my sunniest smile, and my most exquisite curtsey too. ‘You are a gentleman above any other, Mr. Foster.’
It was only once we arrived at the conservatory that I realised I’d forgotten to mention Baron Alban to Rob. And I had, of course, neglected to mention Rob to Baron Alban. Oops.
The two gentleman took the surprise well, however, electing only to eye one another up in a manner assessing and wary but in no way hostile.
‘Our party’s expanding,’ noted the baron.
‘I like breathing,’ I told him. ‘And Rob’s the best we have at keeping all those kinds of procedures going. In numerous ways.’
Alban accepted this with a nod. Rob asked no questions at all, so I left the problem of explaining the Baron’s presence for later.
‘The key?’ prompted Alban.
I fished it out of my pocket and held it up. Rob stared at it with more interest than he had yet shown in anything, that I could remember, but he made no move either to touch it or to ask me about it.
Baron Alban, however, did both.
‘No,’ I said, snatching it out of his reach. ‘I will hang onto this one.’
Alban’s eyes narrowed. ‘I have the other two.’
‘Which you are welcome to keep. House gave this one into my care, however, and I promised to give it back.’
‘And so you shall, once we return.’
I shook my head, and tucked the key away again safely out of sight. ‘I live here, and I’d like to continue to do so for a while yet. Would you like to break a promise to a castle, voluntarily or otherwise?’
The twinkle returned to the baron’s eyes, and he made no further effort to persuade me. ‘Where did you find it?’
‘That’s a secret.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘You people eat, sleep and breathe secrets.’
‘Pot, meet kettle.’
Jay arrived just then, looking a little out of breath. I wondered what he had been doing with himself for the last quarter-hour. ‘The Waypoint’s ready,’ he said. He looked at the baron. ‘Where are we heading for?’
‘I’ll tell you when we get to the Waypoint.’
Jay shrugged and turned away. ‘Let’s go, then.’
A few minutes later we were back in that cold cellar room. It was even colder than last time, and I shivered. Did I imagine the faint, chill breeze coiling sluggishly over the stone floor?
Jay shepherded the three of us into the centre of the floor, right where the winds of travel had manifested last time. Then he looked questioningly at the baron.
‘Winchester,’ said Alban. ‘Or thereabouts.’
Winchester? As far as I had ever heard, scholars were agreed upon just one point regarding Farringale: it lay somewhere in the far north, either in England or in Scotland.
Winchester is in Hampshire. In fact, it is almost as far south as you can go before you hit saltwater. How could so many fine minds be so spectacularly wrong, and about so basic a fact?
Pot, meet kettle. Indeed. ‘Misdirection?’ I said to Baron Alban, failing to conceal my sourness.
He grinned at me. ‘Best way to keep a secret I know.’
‘You all have been mighty determined to keep this one.’
He shrugged. ‘Not my call, but I’m sure their Majesties have their reasons.’
‘They aren’t going to be pleased with you.’
‘About as pleased as Milady’s going to be with you, I imagine.’
There was time for no more words, for the breeze became a strong wind and then a howling gale, and then away we were once again.
Winchester made some sense, I thought, and it was a thought I clung to as I was whirled about, doll-like, in the winds of Jay’s magick on the way to Hampshire. After all, while ancient England cannot be said to have had a fixed capital in the modern way, Winchester was its principal city before London supplanted it. It did not surprise me greatly that the Troll Court should choose to anchor itself in the same environs as the monarchs of England, though that did not answer the question of why either party had chosen Winchester in the first place. What was it about the city? It was one of the very oldest settlements in England, true, but the same could be said for many another place.
Such reflections carried me through the worst of the journey, until I was at last set down — surprisingly gently — atop a wide, green hill in some pleasingly sun-dappled countryside. Vibrant meadowland stretched before me, dotted with yellow-flowering bushes and low, dark green shrubs. A brisk wind blew up on the heights there, which would have pleased me more if I had not just been subjected to rather an excess thereof.
I cast a quick glance at Baron Alban, who looked unaffected. Interesting. Did they have a Waymaster at the Troll Court? Most likely. He had the serene air of a man well used to travelling by high winds.
Rob, I knew, was considerably less accustomed to it, but he stood admiring the scenery with his customary stoicism, so I felt no concern for him.
Jay was another matter. I swiftly concluded that it must be much harder to convey four people to the other end of the country than it was to convey two, for he had collapsed into a boneless heap upon the grass and was performing a creditable impression of a dead person.
When a couple of minutes went by and Jay did not get up, Rob knelt beside him and subjected him to a cursory examination. ‘You all right, lad?’ he said quietly.
‘Be fine,’ Jay mumbled.
Rob did not argue with this announcement, but took a charm bead out of a pocket somewhere and put it between Jay’s lips. They tend to be colour-coded; this one was yellow, and as far as I could remember that meant it was a restorative.
A most effective one, for Jay was soon sitting up and then back on his feet, shaking himself like a dog and breathing great gulps of air. ‘Ouch,’ he croaked after a while.
Rob clapped him on the shoulder. ‘How long have you been using the Ways?’
‘About five minutes, as these things go.’
‘You did well.’
Jay said nothing in reply, but he accepted the praise with an air of quiet gratitude of which I took careful note. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might lack confidence, or that a simple compliment would go such a long way.
‘To Winchester, then?’ said Jay, looking at Baron Alban.
‘Actually, to Alresford.’
That won him a blank look. ‘Where?’
‘It is a tiny old town a ways north-east of Winchester.’
Jay tapped away at his phone for a minute. ‘Ten miles away,’ he said lightly. ‘Or a bit more. No problem, we’ll be there by nightfall.’
‘We should have brought some chairs,’ said Rob.
Jay had the look of a man just barely resisting the temptation to roll his eyes. I didn’t blame him. Four chairs, large enough to fly in without falling overboard, would not be easily portable. He set off down the hill, moving at a brisk march. ‘Better get going,’ he called back.
‘Wait, I have a better idea.’ It was me who spoke, and by way of response I received from all three gentlemen an identical quizzical look. ‘I have, um, a small secret,’ I ventured.
‘Really.’ Jay’s voice dripped sarcasm.
Baron Alban merely raised a brow at me that said: Is that supposed to be a surprise?
I did not try to explain, which might have been a mistake, since my next move was to stick my hand down the front of my dress and start rooting about in there.
‘Um, Ves…?’ said Jay.
‘Hang on.’ Almost… ah, there they were. I withdrew my hand, bringing forth a set of tiny silver pipes.
Jay’s confusion only grew. ‘Panpipes?’
‘Syrinx pipes,’ I corrected. The baron knew what they were, for his grin flashed bright and he chuckled.
I blew a trilling melody upon my beautiful pipes and in response, a breeze swirled through my hair. Not a frantic, grabbing breeze like the Winds of the Ways, but a gentle wind, warm and serene and scented with flowers.
I shoved the pipes away again and faced the horizon. ‘Any moment now.’
‘Should I ask why you keep charmed syrinx pipes in your undergarments?’ Jay said, apparently more intrigued by that question than whatever might come of my music.
‘They’re safe in there,’ I murmured, not paying him much attention.
If he made any response, I missed it, for there in the sky was a pinprick of colour, growing rapidly larger and more distinct. Three others formed around it. They flew fast, feathered pinions spread wide to ride the winds, and soon they were swooping in to land upon the hilltop nearby.
‘Unicorns?’ said Jay, incredulous. ‘You just whistled a quartet of winged unicorns out of your bra?’
‘Never underestimate the benefits of a good bra,’ I told him with dignity. ‘As many a lingerie company will tell you.’
Jay, for once, had nothing to say.