Toil and Trouble: 7

By the time I reached Jay, I was already scrambling to retrieve my syrinx pipes. Rooting around inside your own underwear is an inelegant business, but I had not the leisure to care just then. Why do the damned things have to wriggle around so much in there? It’s not like there is much room to manoeuvre; I cannot be said to be incapable of properly filling out a brassiere.

Fortunately, Jay has observed this process before.

‘Behind us!’ I panted, and then wished I had not, for Jay took one look and sped up into a proper sprint, and soon began to draw away from me.

Stop!’ I yelled. ‘We can’t outrun them, idiot!’ They were gaining on us already, not least because Katalin, curse her, had legs about three times as long as mine.

There — I had it. My fingers touched metal, and I drew out my tiny silver pipes, warm from their snug little hiding place. I set them to my lips and played an urgent melody, no easy task while I was still moving.

Jay didn’t stop, but he did slow down. ‘How long does it usually take Addie to—’

He didn’t need to finish the sentence because Adeline, my beauty, was already whistling down from the skies, her silvery-white coat glittering in the sun. Addie, a rare winged unicorn, and my friend of some years.

‘I asked her to hurry,’ I said and ran forward to meet her. I was up on her back in seconds and ruthlessly hauled Jay up behind me. Catching hold of the silver rope she’s kind enough to wear, I gasped, ‘Away, Addie! Doesn’t matter where, so long as it’s fast.’

She leapt, her huge wings flapping, and we were airborne. Jay clung to me with one arm and clutched Bill with the other, while I kept my anxious gaze upon Katalin and her companion.

‘Oh, no…’ I muttered after a moment.

‘What!’ yelled Jay.

‘That man! He’s got a Wand and he’s… yes, I really think he’s going to—’

A missile like a tiny, crackling lightning bolt shot past my nose. ‘He is!’ I gasped, outraged.

‘They’re shooting at us?’ Jay shouted.

I was too busy scrabbling for my Sunstone to reply.

‘What was that you were saying about not being in mortal danger?!’

‘I acknowledge myself mistaken upon that point.’ I had the Wand out by that time, and as Addie gathered herself and put on an extra burst of speed, I mustered my wits, my resolve and my magick and sent an answering shot back. Then several more for good measure; I was feeling a trifle irritated.

I had the satisfaction of seeing Katalin’s companion drop his Wand and go on the retreat, arms raised.

My next missile hit him in the stomach, and he dropped.

‘Hah!’ I crowed, arms raised. ‘It’s victory for the Sunstone Team!’

‘Don’t celebrate too early,’ cautioned Jay, which was not unreasonable of him, but quite unnecessary. Addie was flying like a bolt of lightning herself by that time, and the two Ancestria Magicka agents soon diminished into tiny, indeterminate specks and disappeared from sight.

I glanced down at the city of Milton Keynes spread out below us. ‘Miserable spot, but there’s probably some good tea down there somewhere.’

Jay shook his head. ‘Too close. We’d better fly on a while.’

Addie bore us generally west. We passed over a number of villages, and when the larger sprawl of Buckingham (thank you, phone) came into view we decided to land.

That part is always tricky; where to come down that’s sufficiently discreet? It’s always inconvenient when local papers start reporting unicorn sightings. But Addie’s far cleverer than I and found us a tree-shaded spot a short walk from the outskirts of the town.

I checked her carefully to make sure she hadn’t been hit. She was unharmed, but she was also displeased with me.

‘Sorry,’ I told her, shame-faced. ‘I did not expect to come up against a lightning-throwing Wand-wielding sidekick.’

We left her drinking her fill from a charming river, her silvery sides heaving with exertion. There was plenty of grass about for her to snack upon, and better yet, some tasty-looking spring flowers.

I kissed her nose before we wandered off. ‘Best unicorn ever.’

Addie flicked her ears at me, and decisively bit through a sunny narcissus flower. The first of many, I had no doubt.

‘Eat them all!’ I encouraged as we walked off. ‘You’ve earned them!’

‘You’re a terrible unicorn parent,’ was Jay’s verdict upon my behaviour. ‘She’ll be sick if she eats all those flowers.’

‘How do you know?’

Jay had no answer to that.

We found a tea-room in Buckingham and partook liberally of its finest beverages (and a cake or two. How could I help it, when they were serving carrot cake and Victoria sponge?). The first thing Jay did (after gulping down a liberal quantity of reviving tea) was to take out Bill and comb through his pages more minutely than before. ‘Try not to get too chatty, Bill,’ he said in an undertone. ‘The people here would be more horrified than charmed by a talking book.’

‘Non-magickers?’ Bill whispered.

‘I’m afraid so.’

There were not many people besides us, thankfully: a pair of elderly ladies having afternoon tea at a window table, and a middle-aged man in a suit drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. None of them paid us the smallest attention.

I could still wish Bill’s whisper somewhat less penetrating. ‘Am I correct in supposing that I was almost absconded with a little while ago?’ he demanded.

‘Quite incorrect,’ I said with dignity. ‘We rescued you in the nick of time.’

‘I am glad to hear it. I should not like to fall again into the hands of villainy.’

It took me a moment to remember what he meant by again: John Wester, of course, with his grave-robbing tendencies.

While Jay was thus employed, I called Val, and informed her in hushed tones of everything that had happened.

‘Crap,’ she said, succinctly.

‘It was, rather. But we’re fine.’

‘I’ll tell Milady. In light of what you’ve just said, I doubt she will object to sending Rob after you.’

‘I wouldn’t mind some help,’ I admitted.

‘Keep me informed of your whereabouts.’

‘Will do.’ I hung up.

‘I don’t see any more tracking charms,’ Jay said, and handed Bill off to me. ‘Want to check as well?’

I did so, enjoying the feel of Bill’s exquisite vellum pages under my hands. They don’t make books like that anymore. I reached the end without finding anything untoward, either; but that brought me face-to-face with John Wester’s clumsily-sketched map and its label: Drogryre.

I handed Bill back to Jay, thinking. ‘Why did John Wester want to find that grave?’ I mused aloud. ‘Specifically? Bill says he’s an opportunist, but he must have had some reason to fix upon that particular spot.’

Jay opened his mouth, but blinked and hesitated. ‘Er,’ he said.

‘Right? Why did he think there was something valuable in there with her?’

‘Sometimes people were buried with valuable objects?’ suggested Jay.

‘That might be it, if she was wealthy. Was she, Bill?’

‘Not particularly. My erstwhile mistress did achieve some modicum of prosperity by the end of her life, due to her being in increasingly high demand. But she began destitute, and never arrived at anything that might be termed wealth.’

I frowned. ‘So why did Wester think her grave was so important?’

‘Are you sure it’s her grave that’s marked here, Bill?’ said Jay, tapping the heavily-inked X with one finger.

‘Quite certain. He spoke of it endlessly.’

Reminded of the early journal entries, Jay flipped back to the front of the book. But he was soon obliged to abandon his efforts to make it out, and gave it instead to me.

I saw his problem at once. Neither of us had yet had chance to take a close look at those entries; once we had realised how precious Bill was himself, the scribblings of a thief like Wester had ceased to seem important. I now saw that Wester’s musings were written in a style of English which predated anything we might consider easily comprehensible; virtually Chaucerian, in fact. And his handwriting was abominable.

‘Of course it’s Middle English,’ I said with a sigh. ‘Zareen said as much. I can read it, but not easily, and not here.’

‘We shouldn’t linger here any longer, either,’ said Jay. ‘The trackers may be gone but Katalin and Co. saw the direction we were heading in, and we aren’t that far from Milton Keynes.’

I agreed to this without much regret, having finished my tea and sustenance some time since. We packed up and left. I considered retrieving Addie and flying onward, but there were a few objections to that idea, not the least of which was that she was already unhappy with me. So we got on a bus, and spent the rest of the day dawdling dully from town to town by way of a series of rattling, pootling old vehicles. It was quite peaceful, considering the events of earlier in the day, and since nobody showed up to try to wrest Bill from us, neither Jay nor I had any real complaints.

We ended up at a bed-and-breakfast in a town called  Quainton, dined in true British fashion upon fish and chips, and then fell asleep in front of my TV.

I woke up just before dawn, and was pleased to note that Jay did not appear to be prone to snoring.

I woke again an hour or two later to find he had unsprawled himself from the other side of my bed and gone back to his own, leaving me in full possession of all the space. This pleased me.

The fact that he had taken Bill with him did not please me nearly so much, as it ruined my plans of having a private chat with the book. I wanted to examine him some more on the topic of Drogryre, her life, and especially her death, in case he should be able to shed any more light on the activities of John Wester. That would have to wait.

I wandered down for breakfast, half expecting to find Jay already there; he was usually an early riser, like me. But I was served with cereal, yoghurt, toast and eggs alone, despite the fact that it was well past eight o’ clock.

I took my tea upstairs and tapped upon Jay’s door.

No answer.

‘Jay?’ I put my ear to the door, but heard nothing.

I tried the handle, and finding the door unlocked (… not good), I went in.

No Jay. He was not in the bathroom, either.

What was still there was all of his belongings — except for Bill. The shoulder-bag stood empty of book; even the cloth wraps were gone. His favourite leather jacket, the dark one so well-loved its cuffs and collar were scuffed, hung over one of the brass bed-posts.

I stood a moment in growing horror, trying to convince myself that there was some plausible, non-terrifying explanation for the dual and unscheduled absence of both Jay and Bill.

There was not, of course.

Copyright Charlotte E. English. All rights reserved.