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.’


Copyright Charlotte E. English. All rights reserved.