Toil and Trouble: 14

‘Undead sorceresses,’ I said. ‘Lovely.’

‘I love you,’ said Zareen.

I blinked. ‘Thank you. Er, why?’

‘It’s been an age since I last had a good corpse-raising mystery to sink my teeth into.’

I winced a bit inside. The near juxtaposition of corpse and teeth-sinking was doing unfortunate things to my brain. ‘Thank you for those mental images.’

‘Always welcome, my darling.’

‘You really are pleased with me, aren’t you?’

She beamed at me.

‘Then you should be pleased with Jay, too. He got the book.’

Her smiled faded. ‘So, new questions. I cannot yet say whether Drogryre was involved with any of these covens, or if so, which type. But somebody really wanted to find her grave, and I’d say it’s an awfully big coincidence that the area happens to have a history of necromancy as well.’

‘Bill said Wester expected to find some kind of treasure.’

‘He might have been promised something by way of a reward, if he was successful. Or they might have guaranteed his interest by telling him there were riches to be uncovered.’

‘So you don’t think there was treasure?’

‘From what you’ve told me, Bill dismissed the idea, and he ought to know. That said…’ Zareen sat back again. ‘There was sometimes a tradition for magickers being buried with things like their grimoires, their Wands, their familiars (mummified), or any other personal artefacts they possessed some strong connection to. But I think Bill would have known about things like that.’

‘Bill was her grimoire.’

‘Eventually. I doubt she pulled Bill out of her hat the moment she took up magick. He’s the kind of accomplishment that crowns a lifetime career, and presumably she had some other, more ordinary grimoire throughout her life up to that point. Even if she did, though, it’s unlikely either Wester or Ancestria Magicka had any interest in that. Bill ought to have been enough.’

‘So no treasure, no grimoire, probably no artefacts.’

‘I’m telling you! It has to be necromancy.’

‘Maybe back then, but now? The woman’s been nothing but bone for centuries. What could anybody hope to accomplish with the skeleton of a long-dead sorceress? If they want to raise a strong magicker from the dead, how about somebody, er, fresher?’

That gave Zareen pause. ‘It is harder with the recently deceased,’ she said, though with a little doubt. ‘People keep track of corpses nowadays. Nobody dies of plague and gets chucked into mass graves anymore. It’s one thing to go dig in a field somewhere for somebody long-forgotten; quite another to crash an active graveyard and walk off with someone’s grandmother.’

‘Still, though,’ I persisted. ‘When you raise a magicker from the dead, what’s the intent?’

‘Enslavement to your will.’

‘Right — as an undead being still capable of practicing magick, in some form or another. You want to purloin their abilities for your own use, which is why deceased Waymasters tend to have a round-the-clock guard posted over their graves for about six months straight. If this is the goal, do you think a crumbling old skeleton would be of any interest to anybody?’

Zareen frowned. ‘I feel like I know the answer to this, but it’s not coming to mind.’

‘The answer?’

Zareen lunged for her tab again, and then wandered off to feverishly scan her bookshelves. ‘There’s something about skeletons,’ she muttered. ‘I once read about a spate of grave-robbings — fifty years or so ago now — that puzzled everyone at the time for the same reasons you’ve just come up with. The graves that were targeted were all the resting places of magickers, and all ancient. None of the disinterred were under three hundred years dead. What would anybody want with a crop of crumbling old bones, as you put it? I don’t remember now if that mystery was ever solved, but, there was another case in the late Victorian era where someone went so far as to advertise. Advertise! Some chap was paying well for the bones of magickers, with a fat bonus offered for a complete skeleton. He was shut down pretty quickly, and no record remains as to what he wanted to do with the bones.’ Zareen wandered from shelf to shelf as she spoke, occasionally tapping at her tab. I realised I had entirely lost her attention, and stood up.

‘Let me know what you dig up,’ I said.

Zareen grinned, not too lost in thought to appreciate my execrable pun. ‘Will do.’

My phone buzzed as I stepped out into the corridor. Jay calling.

‘Can I borrow Bill?’ I said without preamble.

A slight pause. ‘By “borrow”, do you secretly mean “elope with to the border”?’

‘No.’

‘Then yes. But quickly, we’re leaving for Lavenham any minute.’

‘We are? What for?’

‘Drogryre’s grave.’

‘You found something!’

‘Not as such. It occurred to Milady that Amelia will notice her notebook missing as soon as she wakes up — which probably happened about an hour and a half ago — and she and her esteemed colleagues will probably speed up the timetable on whatever they are doing accordingly. Ergo, she would like us on the scene.’

‘Genius.’ Why bother figuring out the site of the grave ourselves, if we could just let them do it and then follow? ‘Provided we can find them, of course.’

‘I put my tracker on Mercer.’

‘You… you did? When?’

‘In the middle of that fist-fight you were so eager to break up.’

Ah.

To hide my embarrassment, I hastily told Jay about Zareen’s theory. ‘Great,’ he said. ‘She can do that, you and I are going to go do this.’

‘Yes, sir.’

He hung up.

It had not occurred to him to mention where he was, or anything useful like that. Nor had it occurred to me to ask. So, I merely checked that I still had my Sunstone Wand within reach, and headed off to the Waypoint in the cellar.

Though I did pop back into Zareen’s room first.

‘Zar, we’re going grave-hunting.’

She was up out of her chair like a shot. ‘Don’t you dare go without me!’

‘Wouldn’t dream of it.’ I grinned.

She tried to take all seven of her books along, then regretfully bowed to practicality and set four of them back. Then another one.

‘Corpse-hunting now, reading later,’ I told her.

The last two went back onto the desk with a thump. ‘There’s vital information somewhere in there.’

‘They will wait for you. Boots! Phone! Quickly!’

Zareen scurried about in a brief frenzy, and within moments we were both on our way downstairs.

I could have left her to read in peace, of course, and in some ways that would have been ideal; we were in need of information. But I wanted her with us for two reasons.

One: the pall of corpse-thieving, bone-harvesting, undead-raising shenanigans hanging over this business was growing thicker by the hour, and we had no one better to deal with that kind of thing than Zareen.

Two: If we went grave-robbing without her, she would literally never forgive me.

Jay took Zareen’s presence with admirable grace, while Zareen took the simpler expedient of virtually ignoring him. That was all right. Better that than sniping at each other. Jay had Bill with him, and I could not contain a coo of delight as the lovely heavy tome was put into my hands. ‘You have five minutes,’ said Jay. ‘Then put him somewhere out of sight.’

‘Bill!’ I said, as Jay began his preparations for departure. ‘Quick! What do you know about raising the dead?’

‘I can assure you!’ said Bill. ‘My mistress was never a friend to that sort of activity!’

‘So you don’t know anything?’

‘Nothing at all!’

Was it my imagination, or did cool, composed Bill sound a little bit shrill?

Hmm.

Zareen said, ‘How about bone-harvesting, Bill? Specifically magicker’s bones.’

Bill merely said, ‘How good it is to see you again, Miss Dalir.’

‘Thank you,’ said Zareen. ‘That’s lovely.’

‘I am rather lovely,’ said Bill.

‘Utterly. Now answer the question.’

Bill gave a bookish sigh, and shuffled his pages. ‘I am no expert, you understand…’

‘We understand completely.’

‘…but my mistress did have one or two bone talismans in her possession at the time of her death.’

‘Talismans?’ said Zareen. ‘What were they for?’

‘They held unusual protective powers, usually along similar lines to their original owners’ abilities.’

‘So if I died, someone could use my bones to protect against curses?’

‘If you possess a talent for hexes, Miss Dalir, then yes.’

Zareen shrugged this away, unimpressed.

‘Superstition?’ I asked her in an undertone.

‘Sounds like it to me. Codswallop.’

We weren’t getting very far with Bill, and Jay’s whirling Winds were beginning to whirl in earnest. I raised my voice to be heard over the noise and half-shouted, ‘What about a complete skeleton, Bill? What if somebody got hold of every bone in Zareen’s body?’

Bill went very quiet.

‘Bill!’

‘Miss Vesper,’ he finally said. ‘Miss Dalir. I hold you both in the very highest esteem, and therefore permit me to advise you never to allow yourselves to be caught up in anything of that nature.’

‘Why? What does it do?’

‘And should you happen to die in untoward circumstances, I hope you will ensure that your loved ones will keep your remains safe from any such interference.’

Zareen’s eyes may have lit up at the words untoward circumstances, but I felt confused — and slightly alarmed. Bill was serious, very serious. ‘Why, Bill?’ I tried again.

But Bill would say no more.

‘Put the book away, Ves!’ Jay ordered, and I obeyed, because to drop Bill somewhere in between here and East Anglia would be more than my job’s worth.

And away we went.

 

I could not decide whether I was more relieved or disgusted by Zareen’s manner of handling the journey, for she was untouched by it. We emerged inside a circle of sapling birches in the midst of a tiny copse, and Zareen strolled into the adjacent wheat field not only with perfect composure but actually with a great yawn, as though the whole process was on the duller side of human endeavour.

Jay and I exchanged a look of mutual aggravation, and I am certain we shared a mutual resolve to show no sign of discomfort whatsoever.

Said copse proved to be in between two great, rolling fields, and on the not-too-distant horizon was a town. ‘Is that Lavenham?’ I asked Jay.

‘Well,’ he said with a tiny smile. ‘I hope so.’

‘Are they here yet?’

Jay shook his head.

‘Onward!’ said Zareen, smiling in the evening sunshine as the spring breezes ruffled her glossy black hair. She took off for Lavenham at an easy, loping run, looking like an advert for washing powder, or possibly for hair care products.

‘She doesn’t get out of the study much,’ I said to Jay by way of apology.

He grunted.

Lavenham, to my delight, was roaring drunk. The buildings looked as though it had been raining brandy for the past two hundred years and they couldn’t stop giggling. Crooked, timber-framed, oddly-coloured old things, they wobbled and swayed and leaned against each other for support. Next to this wild display of character, the newer constructs looked drab and featureless. It wasn’t difficult to find our way to the oldest parts of the town, where Drogryre’s grave must be. We bought chips from a tiny chip shop and hastily devoured them on our way through the narrow streets, eyes everywhere at once, yet with no idea what we were looking for. I suppose we thought something obvious would pop out at us when we walked past it; that we’d know it when we saw it.

Well, it didn’t.

‘So,’ I said after a while, when we had walked past the same perpendicular-gothic church twice over. We had checked the graveyard, just in case there happened to be a stone conveniently engraved with “Here lies Drogryre, sorceress and possible necromancer, 1485.” There was not. ‘If you were a fifteenth-century grave digger, where would you say is the most obvious place to bury a plague victim?’

‘Or several,’ said Zareen.

Or several. How were we going to pick Drogryre’s individual skeleton out of a whole pile of bones? A problem to deal with… later.

‘Church graveyards would fill up pretty quickly,’ said Zareen. ‘They’d be buried in a plague pit.’ She had her phone out as she said this and was furiously typing something.

‘Somewhere out beyond the edges of the town,’ added Jay. ‘I wouldn’t bury plague-ridden corpses in my back garden.’

‘Good point.’ We needed to avoid the old town, then. What was empty land a few hundred years ago had probably been developed with new buildings somewhere in the last century or so, and these were spread out around Lavenham in every direction. Where to go?

‘That way,’ said Zareen after a minute, and pointed in what seemed to me to be a random direction.

‘What?’

‘This way.’ Zareen set off, waving her phone at us. ‘A probable plague pit was discovered in 1963 when the foundations were being dug for a new building.’

‘They built a new house over a pitfull of plague victims?’ Revolted, I hurried after Zareen.

‘No, they built the house somewhere else.’

Jay said: ‘Er, how did you find this out?’

A fair question. I had conducted a thorough search for information about the town and its environs, too, and come up with very little on the topic.

‘Database,’ said Zareen unhelpfully.

‘What?’

‘I have access to a database for this kind of stuff.’

‘Plague pits?!’

‘Plague pits, burial sites of unusual significance, haunted houses. Mostly with some link to magick somewhere along the line, but not always.’ She turned to flash a brilliant smile in Jay’s direction, thoroughly aware of how appalled he was. ‘That kind of stuff.’

Jay walked in silence for a moment. ‘I don’t know whether to be more aghast that such a thing exists, or that you take such obvious delight in it.’

‘This is why I brought Zareen,’ I told him. ‘She’s vital to our quest.’

Jay muttered something I could not hear.

We trawled all the way to the other side of the town again, and at length arrived at… a car park.

‘Hm.’ Zareen frowned. ‘I didn’t notice anything about it being paved over.’

I stamped a foot on the smooth tarmac. It yielded not one whit.

Jay coughed. It sounded suspiciously like a strangled laugh.

‘It is of no consequence,’ said Bill suddenly from inside my bag. ‘My mistress is not here.’


Copyright Charlotte E. English. All rights reserved.