As one, the three gentlemen around me tensed, and stared into that pale light with wary intensity.
I didn’t. I did not really believe that anything horrible was going to come barrelling out of Farringale the moment the door was opened, nor did it. Nothing happened at all, actually, save that the breeze died down, leaving the air still and fresh once more.
I settled my bag more comfortably across my shoulders, briefly wishing that I had not filled it quite so enthusiastically. ‘Onward, then,’ I suggested, and went through the gate, water swishing soothingly about my ankles.
The gentlemen let me go first, and alone, which was not very gentlemanly of them at all. But Rob quickly caught up with me, fine fellow that he is, and we advanced together. For a few moments we were walking near-blindly into that cool light and could see nothing that awaited us, which was a little alarming, I will admit. But nothing leapt out at us; no unpromising sounds of rapid, unfriendly approach assailed our ears; all we heard was our own footsteps ringing, curiously melodically, upon a hard floor.
The light gradually ebbed. We passed through it, finding beyond an enveloping musty aroma, air thick with dust which caught in my throat; a noticeable drop in temperature, not at all welcome after the warm spring sunshine we had just left; and the silent remains of a dead street.
It was curiously narrow, that road, considering where we were. I had expected more from Farringale than a thin, crooked street lined on either side by high stone walls. Those walls were golden somewhere under the caking dust, which was more promising. But still, as entrances went, it did not seem fitting for so legendary a place.
Then we turned a corner, and there was the grandeur. The portal we had used was some kind of side entrance, I guessed, for we turned off it onto a wide, sweeping boulevard all paved in golden stone. Ornate lampposts lined the roadsides, each bearing an orb of crackling white light suspended by no obvious means. That those lights still operated appeared at odds with the deathly silence of the city; their eerie, lonely glow illuminated streets abandoned for hundreds of years. Why did they still burn?
Houses of golden stone or white brick were spaced out along the road, set some way back from the street. Each had a wide square of empty space before it, once host to gardens, perhaps, but now as dead and empty as everything else. Pools of still water had collected in some of them and gone green and stagnant; they gave off an unpleasant smell.
Above the hushed remains of lost Farringale rose sky upon sky upon sky. I have never seen sky like that, before or since. It was the deep, rich blue of twilight, though not because evening approached; the sun was high, the city well-lit. Airy palaces of roiling clouds hung heavy above us, as golden as the stone beneath our feet. It was a display of staggering beauty, which ordinarily would have pleased me greatly, but something about that vast sky made me uneasy. I walked a little nearer to Rob.
The boulevard veered gracefully to the left in a smooth curve, and we followed it. Jay and Alban had caught up with us by then, and we walked four abreast, our eyes everywhere. I began to realise something else strange, which did nothing to enhance my comfort: the city was too clean. The passage of more than three hundred years ought to have taken more of a toll, surely; Farringale should have resembled Glenfinnan in its decay, only being more advanced. But the streets were pristine; not even a single leaf presumed to drift over the smooth paving stones. The houses looked aged, but they were whole and sound, not crumbling as I would have expected. I could have moved into one of them and lived happily there, untroubled by leaking roofs or collapsing walls. There was no mess, no disorder. Only the dust, thick and clinging and smelling of dirt and age.
Was somebody keeping the city tidy? But that did not make any sense. We had seen no sign of life whatsoever, and moreover, the city felt empty. There was a depth to the silence, a profound hush, that precluded the possibility that Farringale was home to a company of fastidious street-sweepers. Something kept the city preserved — the same enchantments, perhaps, that kept the lights burning in the street lamps.
What any of that had to do with the strange sky was anybody’s guess.
‘Has it always been like that?’ I asked of Alban, gesturing at the sky.
‘I’ve never heard anything of the kind.’ He gazed long upon those vast golden clouds, and I saw that his eyes were very wide.
‘Interesting.’ I was feeling deeply unsettled, this I will admit. But I smothered the feeling and walked on, for I was as intrigued and excited as I was afraid. Farringale! My scholar’s heart danced with joy at the prospect of so many mysteries, all laid out here for my perusal.
Jay drew nearer to me. ‘I have a question,’ he said in an undertone.
I expected a question about Farringale, naturally, or some related topic. Instead he said: ‘Where did you get those pipes?’
‘That is a secret.’
‘Because it pleases me to remain a woman of mystery.’
That won me an unfriendly stare. ‘How does that help you?’
‘Because I cannot otherwise get you to take me seriously. Something to do with my colourful dresses and mad hair, wasn’t it? How else am I going to hold my own with you?’
‘Okay, okay. I’m sorry I suggested anything of the kind. Please tell me about the pipes.’
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘Are you kidding? You whistled up a quartet of unicorns. Of course I want to know.’
Fair point. ‘I can’t tell you,’ I said, and cut off his objections with a wave of my hand. ‘I really can’t. I am not allowed.’
‘According to who?’
‘The Powers That Be.’
‘Aren’t you the rule-breaker extraordinaire?’
‘When I have good reason. This isn’t one.’
Jay gave a long, sad sigh. ‘I have another question.’
‘Why do you keep them in your, uh, undergarments?’
‘Imagine you suspect me of harbouring some magickal object of deep and ancient power, and you want to take it from me. Where are you going to look?’
‘Bag,’ said Jay promptly. ‘Pockets, maybe.’
‘Thank you. I know that—’ I stopped talking, distracted by a flicker of colour glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look, but saw nothing that could explain the soft flash of light, the blur of colours I’d thought I had seen. Just the same empty street, and a deserted, white-tiled plaza branching off it. Nothing moved.
‘What is it?’ asked Jay, who’d stopped a few paces farther up the road.
I shook my head, and caught up with him. ‘Nothing.’
We arrived at a wide intersection, and there we stopped, for nobody knew which of the three other streets that opened before us would take us where we needed to go. For that matter, nobody knew what we were aiming for. Our plan had not been a sophisticated one; it consisted of “Find Farringale and search it for clues.” So far, so good, but since answers had yet to leap out of the air to oblige us, what did we do next?
I looked long and hard down each street, noting that all three hosted buildings of promising-looking grandeur. ‘I wonder if any of those is the library?’ I mused aloud.
Alban had a piece of paper in his hand, to which he kept referring after every searching glance at the streets around us. I sidled closer.
It was a map, roughly hand-drawn in biro on basic, white A4 paper. But if I was disposed to dismiss its significance on account of its humble appearance, I was soon moved to reconsider, for Baron Alban’s thumb was positioned over the outline of an intersection just like the one we were standing on. One of its four converging streets outlined a smooth curve, from the other end of which branched a tiny side-street. Where this terminated, a blocky doorway was crudely drawn in. All of this looked… decidedly familiar.
‘My dear baron,’ I said. ‘Wherever did you get a map of Farringale?’
The look he shot at me could only be termed shifty. ‘The library is here,’ he said, and I could see him dodging my question but how could I care, when instead of an explanation he offered me a library? He was pointing one elegant finger at a hastily-drawn square on his map, which I was encouraged to note was not far away. Unfortunately, he did not excel at drawing. The library seemed to be positioned about equidistantly between two streets; which one actually hosted the door?
‘There are four of us,’ I observed. ‘Two to take the left fork, two to go straight ahead.’
‘Haven’t you ever played games?’ Jay said. ‘Never split the party.’
I looked around at the silent, empty city. ‘We don’t seem to be in any danger. Where’s the harm?’
‘Not yet,’ said Jay. ‘But something emptied this place, and if it is the same something that destroyed Glenfinnan and is presently decimating Darrowdale, I’d rather take a little care.’
‘I have to agree,’ murmured Alban.
I looked at Rob. I had invited him to be our Captain of Health and Safety, after all. On this point, his opinion mattered to me the most.
‘No need to rush, I think,’ he said.
Or in other words, no splitting the party. ‘Random pick, then,’ I said with a shrug. ‘We can double back if we get it wrong.’
We went left. The street narrowed there, and I was intrigued to notice a distinct change in its architectural character. The houses were smaller, and very differently built: most of them were timber-framed, with great, dark beams and white-washed walls. Some few farther along were made from brick, the deep-red, uneven kind: hand-crafted, and crumbling a little with age. They were human-sized and human-built, if I did not miss my guess, and dating from the sixteenth century. I’d seen many such buildings all over Britain.
‘They must have had a human population here, once,’ I said. ‘Look at this house! Tudor, has to be. Handsome, but not too grand: merchants? There was once a lot of trading back-and-forth between the Troll Enclaves and our own towns.’
I don’t think my fascination was fully shared by my companions. A medical treatise from the fifteen hundreds might have interested Rob, but a building? He cast it a polite glance, clearly did not see what had got me so excited, and found no comment to offer. Alban was focused on his map, and did not even look.
Jay, though… ‘It’s a shame all of that’s gone,’ he said, gazing at the merchant’s house with an air of faint wistfulness. ‘Can you imagine trying to get that kind of free trade and travel going nowadays?’
I could not. Magick used to be commonplace; it was widely used among humankind, and universally accepted even among those with no ability. That is no longer the case. It’s dwindling in humans, so much so that it now qualifies as a decided rarity. To those with no magickal talent, it simply does not exist. Our magickal communities have shrunk to mere pockets of activity, carefully hidden from the rest of the world. We survive, and we try to carry as much of that heritage forward as we can. But it isn’t easy, and for folk such as the trolls, it’s much harder to pass unnoticed.
Rob stopped, so suddenly that I almost collided with him. He stood tense, alert, his head lifted, scanning the sky.
‘What is it?’ I said.
He made no reply for a while, and finally shook his head. ‘Nothing, I think.’
But then I heard it, too: a swoosh of air from somewhere overhead, like the slow flapping of vast wings.
‘Hear that?’ said Rob, in a whisper.
‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘But I see nothing…’
‘That cloud,’ said Jay. ‘It’s… is that lightning?’
He was facing the other way, arm lifted to point. I spun around, stared hard at the hazy mass of clouds he indicated. Naught but serenity met my eyes, all golden peacefulness like a lazy summer afternoon…
…and then a ripple of searing golden light, there and gone so quickly I almost doubted the evidence of my eyes.
Wingbeats again, so close I almost felt the brush of feathers against my hair…
Rob backed up. ‘We might want to get out of the open air,’ he suggested.
‘You don’t think—’ began Jay.
‘He’s right,’ interrupted Alban. He was already making for the nearest building: that same Tudor townhouse I had been admiring only a moment before. He talked on as he walked. ‘There’s an old myth about Farringale Dell. There was once a mountain somewhere in there, so tall that its peak touched the clouds. And nesting thereupon were the kinds of creatures we do not want to tangle with, so, Ves? Jay? This way, and quickly.’
‘What kinds of creatures?’ said Jay, though he did not argue with the baron: he made for the mansion at a jog.
‘Big, winged ones,’ muttered Rob, who was retreating backwards, his gaze still locked on the sky.
As was mine, for erupting out of the clouds was a mass of big, winged creatures, all wreathed in crackling golden lightning. Big creatures. They were tawny in colour or white, their gigantic wings luxuriously feathered. They had the bodies of lions and long, sinuous tails…
‘Griffins,’ I breathed, torn between awe and fear. Because if we want to talk about rare magickal beasts, it doesn’t get much rarer or more magickal than the griffin. We’ve thought them extinct for years.
I had time only to register that my frozen-in-wonder awe was sadly misguided, for the nearest of the flock was bearing down upon me with alarming speed, and growing larger by the second… good heavens, how big were they?
‘Ves,’ shouted Rob. ‘These creatures are not friendly!’
He was right, for that marvellous bird’s beak opened wide and it shrieked at me, unmistakeably a challenge. An angry challenge. Its cloak of lightning crackled and blazed with heat, filling the air with the scent of ozone.
‘Shit,’ I observed, and threw myself to the ground. Wicked talons missed me by a hair; lightning flashed, searing my eyes, and my dress began to burn.
The griffin banked, turned, shrieked its fury anew. Then, with one powerful beat of its sail-like wings, it renewed its attack.