To my renewed horror, the ortherex on the baroness’s palm was by no means content to lie passive. It twitched and writhed, bunching its body into a tight coil, its mouth fixed upon her skin in a manner that to my eyes looked highly unpromising. The baroness winced, and quickly dropped it back into the mass of its brethren.
The thing was gamely trying to eat her.
I stared at the baroness, and I dare say my eyes were as wide as saucers. In the midst of my horror, a thought occurred to me. ‘How is it that you are still here?’ I gestured at the ortherex. ‘I mean, it is not merely the passage of time — for you have been here since the fall of Farringale, have you not? Hundreds of years?’
She looked gravely at me, and said only: ‘I have.’
‘Time aside, then, how have you survived proximity to these horrors? The rest of Farringale fell!’
She turned away from the wriggling parasites and began, slowly, to ascend the stairs. ‘Some few of my kind are resistant to the ortherex. Our blood will not nourish them. From us they cannot feed, and so they die.’ Her lips quirked in a faint smile. ‘Still, they try.’
I thought of the way that tiny mouth had fastened upon the baroness’s skin, the way she had hastily thrown it off. Apparently, the ortherex could still hurt, even if they could not kill her. ‘How many of you are still here?’ I asked her.
‘Three, by my life. Once, there were more.’
They were dying out, then, these lingering guardians of Farringale. I pictured her centuries-long vigil, the loneliness of her state here, cut off from the wider world; condemned only to wait, and watch as her few fellows died around her. I shivered.
A theory as to the nature of her longevity was forming in my mind, and I hungered to ask questions of her. But I restrained the impulse. There was not time, now, to pursue that topic. The matter of the ortherex was far more pressing. We reached the top of the stairs, and those enclosed walls now made sense to me. Perhaps there was the outline of a lost door, somewhere inside that walled-off corridor; someone had bricked it up, perhaps in hope of containing the tide of ortherex which had taken possession of the cellars. A doomed effort, and futile.
The baroness took us back through the wall, and paused. How grateful was I, to return to that light, airy hallway after the dank misery of the passageways below! I stepped into the patch of sunlight which shone through the main doors, welcoming its soft warmth upon my skin. It was faded and wan in this strange place the baroness had brought me to — between the echoes — but comparatively, it was bliss. ‘Baroness,’ I said. ‘Please, tell me you have a way to stop these creatures. Can they be purged? Destroyed? Repelled? Anything.’
A faint smile curved her lips: of satisfaction, perhaps. ‘I do,’ she said, and my hopes swelled. ‘Alas, too late we were for Farringale. But down the long ages we’ve toiled, and our work is finished. The tome I put into your hands; you have it still?’
Of course I did. I took it out to show her, and she nodded approval. ‘Therein lies the key. Know that nothing can purge the ortherex once they grow too strong; perhaps Glenfinnan is already lost beyond recall. But it is not too late for Darrowdale. If you love magick, Cordelia Vesper, then save our Enclaves. I entreat you.’
‘I will. We will, now that you have given us the means.’
She nodded again, though her attention had wandered from me, her thoughts turned within. ‘If but one is saved, all is justified,’ she mused, and I saw a sadness and a weariness in her that all but broke my heart. ‘It will be enough.’
I wanted to ask more of her. Perhaps I could get away with an enquiry after all; just one or two probing questions about these echoes, and her surviving colleagues, and the people she referred to when she said our. But the light slowly brightened around me until I stood blinking in pure, unimpeded sunshine, and I realised I was alone. The baroness had faded away like smoke.
‘Thank you,’ I called. Too late, too late, but perhaps she heard me, somewhere within the echoes of lost Farringale.
I stood for a moment, a little dazed by what had just happened, what I had seen. Had I really spent the last half-hour in conversation with a woman whose birth predated mine by centuries? One of a mere few survivors of the disasters that had destroyed Farringale, a mere three, who—
And my train of thought ground to a halt.
‘Baron?’ I called, feebly at first. But urgency swelled my lungs, and I bellowed as loudly as I could: ‘Baron Alban!’
It might have been uncouth of me, standing in the hallway of Farringale’s library shouting at the top of my lungs. But it was faster than going from room to room searching for him, and that was rather more important than good manners at that moment.
To my relief, he came into the hall at a half-run only a few seconds later. ‘Ves? What’s the matter?’
I looked long at him, standing there in all his trollish glory. I pictured those wriggling creatures fastening their hungry mouths upon his perfect skin, sucking him dry of all the magick he possessed. I pictured them laying their clutches of eggs in his ears, his mouth, his hair; those eggs hatching, growing, killing him from the inside out. I took a deep, steadying breath and said: ‘Much as it pains me to abandon this library, it is imperative that we get out of here. Right now.’
Rob and Jay had come running, too; all three of them stared at me. ‘You can’t be serious,’ said Jay at last. ‘Not after all the trouble we went to.’
I held up the book. ‘We’ve got what we need. I don’t have time to explain, Jay, you are just going to have to trust me. We need to get Alban out of here. Now.’
Rob nodded once. ‘Right,’ he said, and made for the door. He stood there awhile, carefully checking the horizon, and I knew he was looking for griffins. ‘Coast is clear, for now.’
Alban looked strangely at me. I detected a trace of alarm in his eyes, though he kept its effects well under control. ‘You’ll explain, later,’ he said, and it was not a question.
He was as reluctant to flee Farringale as I, but I couldn’t help that. He would thank me, once he knew. ‘I will,’ I promised.
That was enough for Alban, who joined Rob at the door.
Jay, though, whirled about and vanished back into the library.
‘Jay!’ I called, furious. ‘Jay! This is serious.’
He reappeared twenty seconds later with an armful of books — books he clutched tightly to his chest, with as much care and desperation as he might cradle his own child. ‘I’m here,’ he panted. ‘Go.’
My heart warmed to him on the spot.
Our retreat from Farringale could at best be termed disorderly. I did my best to keep the baron away from anything that looked like rock, which inconvenienced us several times, and confused my companions to no end. I had neither time nor attention to spare for explanations.
To their credit and my relief, they followed my lead anyway.
Or Alban’s, in the end, for nobody in their right mind would trust me to find our way from the library back to the gate. That map of his proved invaluable again. We wound our way back through those beautiful, heartbreakingly empty streets, and this time I barely glanced at the structures we passed, hardly paused to speculate at the contents of those abandoned houses. If Alban got infected it would be my fault, and what then? I hoped that the baroness’s journal might include a recipe for a cure, but perhaps it would not. She had made no such promise.
For the first time in my life, I felt deeply, personally responsible for someone else’s safety, and under circumstances which made it deplorably difficult to be certain they would make it out okay.
I made a mental note not to keep putting myself, or anybody else, in that position.
The griffins, thank goodness, did not bother us on our return trip. We moved too fast, perhaps, or they were still drowsy from the charm I had spun. I thought I saw unpromising flickers of lightning in those distant clouds as we arrived, breathless, at the gate, but I could not be sure.
We surged through the door en masse, snatched the keys from the worn stonework of the bridge, and watched, panting with exertion and tension, as the door shut behind us. The light of Farringale faded.
Carefully, Baron Alban folded his map and returned it to a pocket in his trousers. It was covered in writing, which it had not been before, and I wondered what the baron had found to make notes about, while I was busy wandering the bowels of the city. He put away the gold and the bronze keys, too, and held out the silver one to me.
I took it.
‘I think,’ said Baron Alban, ‘that it’s time for you to explain.’
‘Please,’ said Jay.
So I did.
I troubled my Adeline, again, and her trio of friends. They came to us at Alresford, and bore us back to Old Winchester Hill. How comforting it was to feel the warmth of her flanks beneath me, to wind my fingers through her silken mane. It is hard to dwell on darkness, disease and fear when you have a unicorn nearby.
Jay’s windstorms swept us off that hilltop and back Home, where we parted ways.
But not without some argument.
‘The book, please,’ said Alban, and held out his hand to receive it.
‘Not yet,’ I said, making no move to hand it over.
He stared at me. ‘What?’
‘I need to give it to Milady. It has to be processed by our library, its contents given over to our technicians. Then it may travel to the Troll Court. Believe me, the Society will fully understand the urgency of the situation. I imagine a copy will be made for our use, after which the book will be sent along to you with all due speed.’
‘Nonsense,’ he said sternly. ‘This is a matter for the Court. We have all the right people to—’
‘How many Enclaves are there?’ I interrupted.
‘I don’t know, quite a few—’
‘Exactly. Do you want help, or not?’
He stared helplessly at me, and heaved a great, exasperated sigh. ‘If that book doesn’t find its way to the Court within two days — preferably less — I’ll be back.’
His tone fully conveyed what that would mean for me. ‘Yessir,’ I said.
He smiled at that, albeit crookedly. ‘Bid you farewell, then.’
I glanced, briefly, at Jay, whose state was much as I imagined. But Rob was tending to him, so I had a couple of minutes. ‘Wait,’ I said to Alban.
He paused, one brow raised.
‘It is not my place to interfere, but I’m going to anyway.’
That crooked smile flashed again. ‘All right, I am duly braced.’
‘This problem should have been caught sooner. It’s telling that it wasn’t. Am I right in thinking that the Court allows full autonomy to each Enclave? That they may live as they choose, according to their own rules and laws?’
‘More or less. There are some laws which apply to all our kind, but Their Majesties do take a general policy of non-interference with individual Enclaves.’
‘Right. And sometimes Enclaves choose to go Reclusive. They shut their doors, cease to communicate with the Court at all — or anybody else, much — and nothing is heard from them for years.’
‘Decades, sometimes. Yes.’
‘Yes. So. If someone had made a point of checking up on these people, maybe Glenfinnan wouldn’t have been wiped out.’
Alban began to show signs of a great, heavy weariness. His shoulders sagged, and shadows deepened under his eyes. He dragged a hand across his brow. ‘Oh, Ves, you are opening a whole can of worms with that one. You have no idea…’
‘I don’t need to have an idea. I’m just pointing it out. This one’s a matter for the Court.’
He nodded and straightened, all business once again. ‘I understand.’
With that, he was gone, striding through the door without so much as a farewell. I watched as he turned towards the stairs that would take him out of the cellars at Home, and from thence away. Back to his own world, where I could not follow.
Then I turned back to the others. Rob had Jay on his feet again, though Jay’s books had not fared so well. I stooped to pick them all up, stacking them carefully atop one another. They were old and fragile and infinitely precious, and my heart fluttered with excitement. When I took a quick look through the titles, I almost fainted with joy.
‘Jay,’ I said gravely. ‘I love you, just a bit.’
‘Help yourself,’ he said, with only a faint trace of sarcasm.
‘Oh, I will. And believe me, Val is going to love you too.’
‘Great,’ said Jay, and swayed as his knees gave out. ‘I could use some love.’
‘You and me both. Next stop: Milady. And she is not going to be pleased.’