My ears rang with the raucous shrieking of the griffin as it descended upon me, all screaming fury and intent to kill. How beautiful it was in that moment, I thought, as I rummaged frantically inside the neck of my dress. What sleek lines, what elegance, what gleaming, velvety hide—
Then Rob was there. Of course he was; that’s what I’d brought him for. He was so heroic as to cover my body with his own, making of himself a shield between me and the griffin. How lovely was that? Unfortunately, he also had a knife in each hand. They were the charmed kind: fearsomely sharp, wrought from something silvery and glinting with the light of enchantment. He would throw them and they would not miss. They would bury themselves in the eyeballs of those fierce, glorious, terrifying creatures and the griffins would die and it would be all my fault.
‘No!’ I screamed, and rolled away from Rob. I had what I needed: my pipes. I scrambled to my feet, shoved Rob aside as the first griffin went swooping past, and raised my precious syrinx pipes to my lips.
The melody I played was markedly different from the tune that had summoned Adeline and her unicorn friends. This one began as a sharp, penetrating sequence of notes, a blast of charmed music intended to interrupt our assailant, to halt it in its tracks. It worked. The griffin stopped abruptly and hovered there, only ten feet from me. What a pity that I could not hold it for long! For I wanted to go up close to it, to study it, to admire it. I could sketch it, take back a detailed record of its surprising existence for the Society.
But no charm could hold so powerful a creature for long, even with my pipes to amplify the effect. My melody changed: from my silvery flutes poured a slow, languid stream of notes, a drowsy lullaby, a tune to invoke yearning thoughts of nests and safety and warmth and sleep…
The griffin drifted a while, caught in the grip of a waking dream. Then, slowly, it floated away upon somnolent wings, returning to its nest in those glorious golden clouds. Its brethren followed, and soon the skies were clear of griffins once more.
Rob was not pleased with me.
‘What did you mean by stopping me?’ he demanded. ‘It nearly killed you!’
‘I couldn’t let you destroy it.’
‘It nearly killed me.’
‘I am most assuredly sorry for that, but it did not kill you.’ I went to help him up. He took my hand with poor grace and rose with a groan of effort, or perhaps pain.
‘I am getting far too old for this,’ he muttered, eyeing me with no friendly feelings whatsoever.
Jay and Alban came cautiously out of the mansion again, searching the sky for griffins. ‘Are they gone?’ said Jay.
‘Was it the pipes? We heard music.’
‘It was.’ I stashed them in their usual place, a process from which all three gentlemen politely averted their eyes. ‘Shall we move on?’
‘I definitely need to get me a set of those,’ muttered Jay.
Rob was not finished with me. ‘Ves,’ he said firmly. ‘If you bring me along to help keep you from not dying, then I need you to let me do my job.’
‘I will, I promise, and I really am sorry. But I did not expect griffins. Griffins, Rob! They’re supposed to be extinct!’
‘And you were almost dead.’
‘Almost! But not! All is well, and nobody had to die. Not me, not you, and not the magickal beasts of legend which we all thought we’d lost centuries ago.’
Rob sighed and said no more, but he trudged on beside me with a weary air that I did not like. He was not as young as he used to be, I supposed, though I had not considered that fact. When I had first joined the Society, Rob had been about the age I was now: somewhere between thirty and thirty-five. He had been all power and energy and a grim kind of competence that seemed immune to fatigue, or pain, or anything we lesser beings suffered from.
But rather more than ten years had passed. Rob looked almost the same as he had on my very first day at Home: tall, muscled, his sleek dark skin unlined, his curling black hair as thick as ever. But for all his ageless looks, he must be nearing fifty. I shouldn’t be hurling him around with such abandon. Not anymore.
‘I am sorry, Rob,’ I said, with more sincerity.
He side-eyed me, still unmoved. But then he sighed, and gave me a rueful smile. ‘You’re always an experience, Ves,’ he said, which did not quite strike me as a vote of confidence. ‘Nobody does things the way you do.’
‘It’s why I am good at my job,’ I said hopefully.
‘True. Nobody else would come out of this adventure with the local population of deadly griffins fully intact.’
‘Let’s just hope we can come out of it with our local population of Society employees fully intact as well.’
Yes. True. ‘And our Troll Court representative,’ I added.
Alban went back to his map. He walked off with the purposeful air of a man who knows exactly where he is going, calling, ‘This way! Quickly.’
We followed, and with all due haste. The griffins might be gone for now, but they could certainly come back. Even I could not have said with any certainty how long my charm would hold.
‘Do you suppose those griffins are the reason Farringale was abandoned?’ said Jay.
‘That would make sense,’ Rob replied.
I did not want to agree. If Jay’s speculation was correct, what did that do to my theory, and Alban’s? There were no griffins at Glenfinnan or Baile Monaidh or South Moors, and Darrowdale was underground. If griffins had driven away the residents of Farringale, then its demise had nothing whatsoever to do with the other Enclaves, and we were wasting our time in coming here at all.
Nonetheless, it was impossible to dismiss the theory. Griffins were known to be touchy, territorial creatures, as we had just seen. If a large colony of them had claimed Farringale Dell as their home, the trolls who lived there might well have concluded that moving on was simpler (and safer) than trying to stand their ground.
Even to the extent of abandoning their Court, though? Would they really? I frowned, unable to make any sense of it. It was all guesswork, whatever we concluded. We needed the library.
‘Aha,’ said Alban, stopping at that moment before one of the largest buildings we had yet seen. Wrought from snowy stone in great, square blocks, it towered four tall storeys high, and boasted a crowning roof of magnificent proportions. The walls were lit with long, wide windows fitted with tiny diamond-shaped panes of glass. Massive double doors guarded the entrance, set beneath an ornate lintel.
Alban walked up the three wide steps and rapped upon the door.
‘I don’t think—’ I began. I was going to add “that anyone’s home”, but the doors moved of their own accord and slowly swung open.
Baron Alban gave me a dazzling smile. ‘We trolls are known for our hospitality,’ he said as he led the way inside. This did not quite fit with my experience of the Enclaves, but I let the comment pass.
Nothing could have exceeded my eagerness to hasten up those steps and into the library. But I was brought up short again by another flicker of colour: something moved in the hallway beyond. Or someone.
But when I mounted the steps and stepped through that handsome doorway, I entered a grand white-stone hallway empty of any other living soul save only for Alban. There was nothing there to explain the glimpse of blue I thought I had seen, the flash of gold; just serene white stone and a pair of pale statues.
‘Did you see anything odd in here, when you came in?’ I asked Alban.
He quirked a quizzical brow at me. ‘Like what?’
‘I don’t know.’
He shrugged, already turning away from me towards one of the great stone arches that led off the hallway. ‘Just an empty hall. What else would I expect to see?’
What, indeed? I could not shake the feeling that these glimpses of colour came from no static objects; there was a sense of movement about them, like somebody had just whisked past me. But how could that be? There was no one around but the four of us. That fact was indisputable.
Furthermore, it did not appear that the rest of my companions were suffering from these hallucinations. Neither Jay nor Rob showed any sign of having noticed anything untoward; they were following Alban into the library, leaving me alone in the hall.
Jay, though, noticed my absence and turned back. ‘Ves? Everything all right?’
An intriguing oddity it was, and I wanted to pursue it. But where could I begin? I did not know where to look. So I said, ‘Yes,’ and followed him into the library.
We entered a large chamber with the kind of soaringly high ceiling that can only result in dizziness if you stare at it for too long. Its walls were lined, floor-to-ceiling, with shelf after shelf of books. Books beyond counting, all leather or cloth-bound and looking far too new considering their advanced age. The library had broad, stout, troll-sized ladders via which one could reach those high-up shelves, and a complement of polished wooden research tables, each with its own cushioned chair.
I was in heaven, and clean forgot about the peculiarity of the colours.
All four of us stood just inside the door, staring at that array of ancient knowledge with, I am sure, identical expressions of breathless awe.
‘Well,’ said Jay at last. ‘Next question: how do we find what we need in all of this?’
‘There are twelve more chambers like this one,’ murmured Alban.
There followed an appalled silence.
‘Best get started, then.’ That was Rob, of course, unflappable as always.
‘Where?’ spluttered Jay.
‘Alban,’ said Rob. ‘Your map. Is there any indication as to where history books are shelved?’
The baron slowly shook his head. ‘I could not find anything so detailed. I hoped that something would guide us, once we got here—’
‘Hanging aisle signs, like at the supermarket,’ put in Jay, with what I considered to be pardonable sarcasm under the circumstances.
‘Something like that,’ Alban said, unruffled.
I heard something, then. Not the calm, deep tones of Rob’s voice as he made some reply, nor the sound of Jay’s boots thudding across the aged wood floor as he wandered off in search of who-knew-what. It was a sound out of keeping with any probable noise the gentlemen might have made: a whisper, a rustle, as of stiff silken curtains being drawn back.
Turning away from that glorious array of books, I followed the sound as it came again, and again. Back through the majestic archway and into the hall, across the echoing stone; veering left and through another arch—
I did not make it that far, for someone caught up with me. Someone I could not see, but whose footsteps I clearly heard: the rhythmic swish, swish as of silken slippers brushing lightly over those cool stone floors, but how could that be? I was alone in there, or if not precisely alone, none of my colleagues were wearing silk—
My thoughts tumbled apart as the world tipped sideways and revolved, dizzily, around me. When it settled and my watering eyes could once again distinguish details beyond an indistinct blur, I found I was… still in that same hall. Despite the sensation of disorienting movement I had experienced, I had not moved at all.
But my surroundings were not unchanged. For one thing, the hall was darker than it had been before, with an odd, flickering quality to the light that soon began to play merry hell with my eyesight. There came odd shifts in the atmosphere with each wavering of the light; shadows leapt across the room, rays of light darted from one archway to another. It was, to say the least, unsettling.
For another thing, I was… no longer alone.
‘Art trespassing,’ said the author of my woes. ‘What will you with Farringale?’