Toil and Trouble: 16

Tut Hill proved to be a long, long road clambering gently up an incline. It ran from Bury St. Edmunds out to a village called Fornham something, and it was mostly house-free. Only once we got as far as the village did we begin to see low stone walls and a smattering of properties set a little way back from the road.

It would have been nice if we had arrived to find a crumbling old cottage conveniently glowing in the dark, or overflowing with angry spirits, or something of the kind. But the houses there were mere ordinary brick structures, varied in style and age, all looking perfectly innocuous in the low light of late evening. A few had lights shining in the windows.

‘What a fine vision of peace,’ murmured Zareen approvingly.

I felt somewhat crestfallen. ‘Either the cottage is very well camouflaged,’ I suggested, ‘or it is not here.’

‘Could be either,’ said Zareen cheerfully. Checking her maps, she pointed back the way we had come. ‘I don’t think any of the sightings ever came up this far. We’ve overshot the mark.’

My feet were hurting by then, for we had been trekking a while, and for a moment I felt like applying a heavy object to the general area of Zareen’s head. I swallowed these unworthy feelings, and turned about, dragging Bill out of my bag as I did so. ‘Bill,’ I said gravely, ‘we are in dire need of your assistance.’

‘How may I be of use, Miss Vesper?’

He sounded sleepy. ‘You weren’t dozing, were you?’

‘No! I have been fully alert since our last conversation! I assure you, I have not missed a single—’ He stopped, and if a book could be said to grow tense, well, Bill was about as relaxed as a block of concrete just then. ‘My mistress!’ he said, in a proper hollow gasp, like he was in a highly dramatic stage play.

‘See. I was hoping you might say something like that.’ I held him out before me as we trudged a ways back down the hill. ‘Lead the way, Mister Bill, if you please.’

Bill was off like a shot, dragging me behind him like he was an overexcited terrier and I the mere human appendage on the other end of the lead.

We plunged through a gap in the blackthorn hedge, and into the field beyond. Near enough pitch dark by then, and free of the lights of any nearby houses, there was little to see by; I had to trust to Bill’s good sense (did he have any?) and hope he did not lead the three of us into a pit or something. Stumbling over uneven ground, we ventured perhaps a hundred metres into the field — and then stopped.

‘She is close,’ hissed Bill.

I still saw no house. ‘Um, you sure?’

A spectral head flickered into view not two feet from my face, and my heart gave the kind of lurching shudder people sometimes die of. ‘What’s yer business wit’ the Grey house?’ it said, teeth clattering. It had hair but no skin, and great hollow eye sockets.

‘Social visit,’ said Zareen coolly.

There came a sudden rushing noise, as of the displacement of an awful lot of air. It was attended by a distant, high-pitched screaming which grew rapidly closer, and then there was the shadowy bulk of a cottage looming directly before us. It screamed wordless fury in a woman’s voice, and Bill flinched in my hands.

‘Say no more,’ I muttered.

‘Hello, Mistress,’ said Bill weakly.

The screaming stopped.

The front door opened, and an eerie glow emanated from within.

‘Right then,’ I said, and stepped forward, Jay at my elbow.

Zareen flung out an arm, halting us both before we’d gone more than a pace or two. ‘Please,’ she said witheringly. ‘If this doesn’t qualify as Toil and Trouble, I’ll eat my skulls.’

‘Thank you for that mental image.’

‘You’re welcome.’ Zareen sauntered off in the direction of the beckoning door, and Jay and I fell in step behind her.

‘Where are they?’ I whispered to Jay.

‘Gaining on us. We have, maybe, ten minutes.’

‘Excellent.’

‘Excellent?’ It was too dark to see Jay giving me the side-eye, but I could feel it. ‘You’re hatching plots, aren’t you?’

‘Jay. Always.

‘Right.’

Zareen stopped in front of the door, and gave her Society symbol. We all have the three-crossed-wands part, that’s the Society bit. Mine has a winged unicorn superimposed over them. Zareen’s turned out to have a skull added on. Not quite human; the eyes were too big, and it had horns.

‘Er,’ said Jay.

‘Don’t ask,’ I said hastily. ‘Never ask.’

‘Dio Greyer?’ Zareen was saying. ‘Maud Grey? We are here from the Society for Magickal Heritage to—’

‘—warn you of a dire plot against you,’ I interposed. ‘Formulated by a vile organisation calling themselves Ancestria Magicka.’

‘Er,’ said Jay and Zareen as one.

There was a tense silence, and then the door yawned wider. Zareen rolled her eyes at me as she went in.

‘You managed to use the words “vile” and “dire” in the same sentence,’ muttered Jay as he followed. ‘Nice work.’

‘There’s much to be said for drama.’ Jay, sadly, beat me to the door, so I contented myself with bringing up the rear.

The interior was a low-ceilinged, white-washed, scrupulously neat little cottage, with all the leaning door frames, exposed beams and stone floors one would expect of the period. Some things were unusual, though — like the lumpy stonework just inside the door behind which Dio Greyer’s bones were presumably interred, considering the way Bill instantly plastered himself to it.

‘Bill,’ I hissed. ‘You’re hugging a wall.’

‘Communing with my creator,’ Bill replied, rather muffled.

Considering the kind of company I was in just then, I refrained from pointing out that Bill’s creator was deservedly hanged for some decidedly questionable behaviour. I suppose it’s like continuing to love your parents, even if they turn out to be psychos. The argument usually runs along the lines of “Well, I only have one mother/father/creator/whatever,” as if that’s reason enough all by itself. Apparently, for Bill, it was.

Then again, I had no actual proof that Bill’s endearing gesture was voluntary. I certainly found it impossible to peel him off the wall again, when I tried.

Hmm.

‘My codex!’ said Dio Greyer’s voice. ‘Thou has’t returned!’

‘Well…’ I demurred, redoubling my efforts to retrieve Bill. ‘We had not exactly intended to—’

I stopped, because she was not listening to me. The floor shook, and the walls howled: ‘Hear that, wretch! Five hundr’d years to right thy miserable failings!’

Somebody replied, a somebody with the baritone rumble of a large man. But he, I was guessing, was probably as corporeal as Dio Greyer by this time, for those tones came out of thin air, and seemed to emanate from everywhere at once. ‘Beef-witted churls!’ he snarled. ‘Have I not faithfully served thee these five centuries and more? What use these gudgeons?’

‘Gudgeons they may be, but they have brought my codex,’ purred Dio. ‘Which is more than I can say for thee.

‘Had thou not made a puppet of me, I would have done all that and more! But thou must be jaunting hither and thither, and ever on! Have me hauling thy stone and bones and plaster about like turnips, because thou didst require it, and never a day’s rest!’ The walls shuddered, and the floor trembled so hard I almost lost my footing. Stones rumbled, plaster flaked, and somewhere at the back of my mind Dio Greyer was screaming again.

‘Er,’ I intervened. ‘Mr. Wester?’

There came a shocked silence. Then: ‘How didst thou come by my name?’

‘It’s in the book,’ I said, apologetically. ‘Why did you sell it?’

And there I’d made a mistake. ‘Sold?’ shrieked Dio Greyer, at such a pitch as to shatter my ears. ‘SOLD! Lying wretch! Thieving lily-liver! Didst thou not have courage enough to speak truth to thy mistress!’

‘Thou didst slay me anyway,’ rejoined Wester. ‘I ought to have spoken truth to thee, were it all the vengeance I could win. Yes, I sold thy miserable codex! A foul-mouthed object! I was well rid of it.’

‘And if it was foul-mouthed, I know at whose door to lay the fault!’

The argument went on in similar style for some time, and with such heat that the three of us were forgotten. We gathered into a protective knot (for we felt as though an earthquake raged around us, so much did the cottage rumble and sway with the force of Greyer and Wester’s fury).

‘So,’ I said. ‘Wester discovered where to find Dio, and got rid of Bill along the way — only she was not quite as dead as she was supposed to be, and he found himself slightly unpopular when he arrived. With Maud, too.’

‘Understandably,’ said Zareen. ‘And the sisters slew him and stuffed him into the walls.’

‘Not quite so understandably.’

‘It was rather rude.’

‘What did he mean about hauling the house around?’

Jay frowned. ‘I have an idea about that.’ He strode to the nearest wall and hammered upon it, ignoring, with enviable dignity, the rain of plaster-powder that fell upon his head. ‘Hey!’ he bellowed. ‘Shut it!’

To my surprise, this worked. ‘Hast thou something to share, little man?’ said Dio acidly.

‘A question,’ Jay answered. ‘For John Wester.’

‘Speak,’ said Wester.

‘Were you a Waymaster, in life?’

‘I was among the finest!’

‘I suppose that explains why you were tapped to find Greyer’s grave.’

‘And find it, I did. Along with my own.’

‘It was, what, 1508?’

‘Mayhap.’

I put the pieces together then, too. Maud Grey had lived in the house for twelve years after her sister’s death, and then it had vanished. Courtesy of Wester, an enslaved Waymaster. ‘But there’s no henge…?’ I began.

‘Didn’t always have to be,’ said Jay briefly. ‘We’re crap at it these days, need all the help we can get. Magickal decline, and all that.’

‘So you can’t haul entire houses around?’

‘No.’

‘I’m disappointed.’

Jay stuck out his tongue at me.

‘What became of Maud?’ I said, more loudly. ‘Where’s your sister, Dio?’

My question went unanswered, because the front door blew open and two people burst into the room. One of them promptly fell over the worn oak chair I had quietly placed directly in the way of the entrance, and went sprawling. That was Mercer.

The other, Katalin, managed to avoid sharing her colleague’s fate by virtue of (apparently) greater dexterity, and instead darted around it. She was aiming for me, but she did not get far. It was as though she ran into an invisible wall, or was grabbed by a pair of invisible hands, for she came to an abrupt stop and was left straining uselessly at thin air.

‘What are these?’ said Dio dispassionately, as though these new visitors did not even qualify as human.

‘Ancestria Magicka,’ I said with a bright smile. ‘Come to dig out your bones, Dio, and take you away to Ashdown Castle. Isn’t that right? And John, too! You will have a fine new home, with a great deal more space to rattle around in.’

‘And a much, much bigger building to haul about,’ added Zareen silkily. ‘Like turnips.’

‘Lots of turnips,’ I added.

Katalin stopped striving to get past Dio’s obstruction, and instead bent to help George Mercer to his feet. He had cut his lip on something on his way down, and looked fiercely angry. ‘You cannot know what an advantage it is to you,’ she said. ‘Your House, I mean. To achieve something of the same must be a primary goal of my organisation.’

‘We do know it,’ Zareen replied. ‘And the likes of Greyer and Wester are not going to get you anything like the same effect.’

‘Setting aside minor issues such as the ethics of the whole thing, or lack thereof,’ I amended.

‘Right. There is also that.’

‘An approximation will suffice, if it must,’ said Mercer.

He did not add that a teleporting castle would have its own benefits, of which we could know nothing. For all our dear House’s many talents, perambulating about under its own power isn’t one of them.

Wester, however, was not quite pleased with the notion. ‘A castle?!’ he bawled. ‘Never! I refuse!’

‘Why don’t we all go and have a look?’ said Katalin peaceably. ‘You may find that you like Ashdown. And, Mr. Wester, you will not be unaided.’

That was interesting — and horrifying. How many dead Waymasters did they propose to dig up?

… or kill? Their eagerness to recruit Jay suddenly began to look sinister, and I found myself inching nearer to him.

The same idea had occurred to him, too, judging from the appalled look on his face.

Katalin smiled at him, rather kindly. ‘Oh, no,’ she said. ‘Living Waymasters are much more useful.’

‘Reassuring,’ muttered Jay. ‘Thanks.’

Wester may not approve, but to Dio, the idea of Ashdown held some appeal. ‘A castle,’ she purred. ‘I was made to be a grand lady.’

‘Weren’t we all,’ I said, sotto voce.

‘I have fine manners,’ she continued. ‘And all the graces.’

‘I do not!’ bellowed Wester.

‘Thou wilt keep shut thy mouth, John!’ Dio snapped. ‘And do as thou art bid!’

Whatever it was that Dio did to give emphasis to her words, it could not be felt by the living save, perhaps, as a waft of freezing wind that raised the goosebumps on my skin. But that it hurt the dead was indubitable, for Wester gave a great, tearing scream, and began to babble helplessly.

‘To Ashdown,’ purred Dio. ‘The castle. And quickly, my John.’


Copyright Charlotte E. English. All rights reserved.