I fumbled the bag open and dragged Bill out. ‘What do you mean, she isn’t here?’
‘She is not here. I detect no trace of her presence.’
‘Bill, she’s been dead for more than five hundred years. There is nothing left of her to detect.’
‘That is not necessarily true. A strong bond was formed between us, and I would know if she was nearby.’
Damn it. ‘I take it you haven’t sensed any trace of her presence anywhere else?’
‘I am afraid not.’
‘Not even at the churchyard?’
I felt, for one awful moment, like hurling Bill into the nearest of the puddles left by last night’s rain. I contained the impulse. It wasn’t his fault that we were apparently barking up the wrong tree.
‘Any sign of them?’ I asked Jay.
He shook his head. ‘Nowhere near here.’
I began to get a bad feeling. ‘Bill. Are you certain your mistress died here?’
‘I hate to be insensitive, but truly? You… did you see her die?’
Bill hesitated. ‘Well, no.’
‘She became very ill indeed, and with such speed that her imminent demise was inevitable. Soon afterwards, she… well, she never came back for me again, and some little time later the contents of her house were removed, including me.’
‘Maybe she didn’t die.’
‘But.’ Bill’s voice developed a forlorn quality. ‘Why then did she never return for me?’
‘Call Val,’ said Jay.
My thought, too, but it was not necessary. My phone began to buzz at that moment, and it was Val calling. I put her on speaker.
‘Ves!’ she said. ‘We have all been a bunch of idiots, and I thought you would like to know.’
‘You mean our favourite plague-ridden sorceress didn’t die in Lavenham?’
‘So you figured that out.’
‘Well, we’re in Lavenham and she isn’t.’
Val snorted. ‘Zareen’s idea interested me, so I went looking in some other, less accessible places—’
‘Which ones?’ I said quickly. If you catch Val off guard, she will occasionally let something slip.
Not this time. ‘Let’s just call them the dark depths of forbidden knowledge and leave it at that. Anyway, there is no record whatsoever of any sorceress, witch or other magicker anywhere in Suffolk of the name of Drogryre. Not five hundred years ago, and not ever.’
‘There is, however, quite a lot about a major sorceress called Diota Greyer, commonly called Dio.’
This time, it was my own self I felt like hurling into a puddle. Dio Greyer. I had seen for myself that Wester’s handwriting was terrible, and Val had told me that his spelling and punctuation were decidedly eccentric. Why had it not occurred to me that we might have interpreted her name wrongly? And for that matter… ‘Why didn’t we stumble over her before?’ I asked Val.
‘Because she’s not the type of sorceress we like to remember. She was the High Witch of Lavenham’s black coven until 1485 when she suddenly disappeared. Serious necromancy, Ves, the really nasty stuff.’
‘Bill’s absolutely certain she was very ill.’
‘She might well have caught the Sweat, but not everyone died of it. Or it might have been something else, like a hex. This is an era when people lived in daily terror of demons and evil spirits, after all. Remember Wharram Percy? Graves stuffed with decapitated corpses? People believed the dead could come back and attack the living, partly thanks to the activities of people like Dio Greyer. And they were terrified enough of this to mutilate and burn their recently deceased in order to prevent it. She would not have been popular, if her neighbours discovered what she was doing.’
That raised some interesting possibilities. ‘Do you think that was why people were looking for her grave? To burn her bones, so she couldn’t come back?’
‘Maybe. Doesn’t explain Ancestria Magicka’s interest in her now, though.’
‘Harvesting the bones as talismans? Protection against undeath, or the undead?’
‘Maybe, but it seems a bit far-fetched. There are plenty of easier ways to accomplish that.’
‘What about Wester?’
‘Wester. Well. Either he gave up, or he, too, figured out she wasn’t in Lavenham and followed her trail somewhere else — leaving Bill behind, for some reason.’
‘Where does her trail go, Val?’
‘Right. There aren’t any more recorded references to a Dio Greyer after 1485, so at first I was still inclined to think she’d died that year. But! A few years later, there was a kerfuffle at a town only about fourteen miles from Lavenham when a conspiracy was uncovered. Somebody called Edyth Grey (and coven) was brought in to resurrect a recently-deceased earl and restore him to power instead of his son, who was unpopular. A couple of years after that, an alderman was witnessed to have died suddenly one night when he choked on a bone at dinner — only to reappear the next morning, in poor health but apparently alive. He “lived” for another week, during which time he completed some important business which was very much in the interests of the masters of a local wool guild. There are half a dozen more stories like this one across Suffolk, all within an approximately ten-year period.’
‘So Dio Greyer survived the Sweat (or her dose of hexing), fled Lavenham in a hurry on pain of decapitation and burning, and became a freelance necromancer-for-hire elsewhere.’
‘Looks like it.’
‘I think I’m going to like her,’ said Zareen.
‘Undoubtedly. In case you’re interested, Edyth (or Edita) Grey died in 1496 at Bury St. Edmunds.’
I felt a chill at those words, and Bill’s earlier warning floated back through my mind. If death-by-hanging did not qualify as untoward circumstances, what could? ‘You’re certain?’
‘Yes. Unfortunately, so’s Ancestria Magicka. Amelia’s notebook mentions “Bury”, which threw me off for a while because there’s a town in the Manchester area with that name. But it’s common shorthand for Bury St. Edmunds, too.’
‘Val, you are a miracle.’
‘Bury St. Edmunds?’ said Zareen when I’d hung up. She had an arrested look, and her mind was obviously somewhere else.
‘Does that ring some bells?’
‘Maybe.’ She disappeared into her phone.
‘There’s a bus,’ said Jay. ‘Leaves from the Swan in ten minutes. Half an hour’s ride.’
‘Where’s the Swan?’
‘We passed it twice an hour ago, but… no, never mind. This way. We can make it if we run.’
‘They’re here,’ said Jay the moment we got off the bus in the centre of Bury St. Edmunds.
‘Where exactly?’ I asked.
‘Look, I don’t know what Indira and Orlando did to these things to get so specific a reading on my position at Ashdown, but I can’t replicate it. You’ve used these things, Ves.’
‘Not much, actually. I rarely lose things.’
Jay looked faintly abashed. ‘Oh. Well, they work best within a fairly short range. The closer you are to the tracker-bead, the more accurately you’ll be able to pinpoint its location.’
‘Oh! A warmer-warmer-warmest type thing.’
‘Exactly. We aren’t close enough to Mercer right now to pin him down to a street or whatever, but he’s within probably about ten miles of us.’
‘You should ask Indira what they did. It might be useful to know.’
‘She probably wouldn’t tell me. Keeping secrets is the only way she can one-up me, most of the time.’ He stuck his hands into the pockets of his favourite dark leather jacket — now happily restored to him — and looked around. ‘So, where did they bury hanged corpses five hundred years ago?’
‘Forget it,’ said Zareen.
‘Forget where they buried anybody. She isn’t there.’ She spoke with a kind of suppressed excitement, and her eyes were shining. ‘Who’s up for a ghost hunt?’
Jay looked uncertain, as well he might. It was almost eight o’ clock, and the sun was sinking into the horizon. ‘Explain?’ he said.
‘What do you two know about haunted houses?’
‘Sod all,’ said Jay.
‘Same,’ said I. ‘Is there much to know?’
Zareen rolled her eyes. ‘All right, my sceptical friends. Most so-called haunted houses aren’t haunted at all, I grant you that much, and many that are can boast no more than an occasional flicker of spirit activity. But this is not the whole story. Scattered across our beloved country are a handful of seriously, properly haunted buildings. They could more accurately be termed possessed, in fact. This rarely happens by accident, and it’s difficult to arrange.’
‘We’re a bit pressed for time, Zareen,’ said Jay.
‘I know. This is important.’
Zareen took a deep breath. ‘A spirit is more likely to linger after death if they died suddenly, or at a time when it seemed particularly important to them to be alive for a while longer. If you want to harness such a spirit for something like this, it’s customary to bury the body under the floor of a house, or better yet in the walls themselves. Then, through use of a few charms and spells which (I need hardly add) are horribly illegal these days, you can bind the poor soul to the house itself.’
‘Why would you want to?’ I asked.
‘It makes for a kind of bastardised version of our House. Doors that open and close by themselves, hopefully when you want them to. Lights which switch on and off as required, temperature regulation, immediate repulsion of anybody you don’t want stepping over the threshold. Et cetera. The more powerful the spirit and the better the binding, the more interesting the options.’
It turned my stomach to imagine such a practice in anything like the same context as our beloved House. Magickal slavery of a tormented spirit wasn’t something I wanted to connect with my Home, or with Milady. But I put the idea out of my head; something to think about later. ‘All right, so… you think this is what’s become of Greyer?’
‘Her last known place of residence prior to her execution was at the end of Maynewater Lane. About a year after her death, people began to say that the house was haunted. The residents fled, and it was taken instead by one Maud Grey, who lived there in spite of its haunting for twelve years before the house mysteriously disappeared.’
‘A house disappeared?’ said Jay incredulously.
‘Well,’ Zareen amended. ‘It was only a small one. A cottage, really. It reappeared here and there for the next couple of decades before vanishing for good, and eventually a new house was built on the spot. And look.’ Zareen held out her phone. On the screen was a picture of an old, hand-inked map of the town in the fifteenth century; she had zoomed in over Maynewater Lane. ‘Can we have Bill a sec?’
I saw her point at once. I hauled Bill out of his bag and opened him up to the page with Wester’s crude map. The lines obviously correlated with those of the map Zareen had found, and my heart leapt with excitement. ‘The X is where her house used to be?’
‘Hey, we’ve found her. Good job.’
Zareen beamed at me.
‘Maud Grey,’ Jay mused. ‘Family?’
‘Probably a sister.’
Jay nodded. ‘So we’ve found her, but on the other hand… er, any idea where the house went to?’
‘Well, there are scattered accounts over the next few hundred years of people sighting cottages or even entire mansions which vanish into the mist, or which simply aren’t there when they come back. There appear to be three such stories that match up.’ She checked her screen. ‘1572. A timber-framed cottage was spotted by a farmer on Tut Hill, but a day later it was gone. 1678, the sister of the local vicar saw a cottage fade into the mist in much the same spot. And in 1737, a tradesman’s wife was held up on the road outside a ramshackle cottage in the same parish. The highwayman went in and the carriage rolled on, but the next day the cottage was gone and the robber was never found.’
‘On to Tut Hill!’ I said. ‘Um, where is it?’
Zareen smiled at me. ‘It’s close.’
‘Quickly,’ said Jay. ‘Because unless my trackers are talking rubbish, we’re likely to be beaten to it.’