Unexpected Guest

It was like something from a film set. Lady Freydis’ reception was in one of her favourite corners, an autumnal forest just after sunset, with a soft glow in the west and the stars slowly coming out. A faint mist hung around the roots of the huge oak trees and the air was heavy with the spicy scent of fallen leaves. Toadstools sprouted in odd corners and acorns were littering the floor with beechmast and fallen blackberries. A bonfire crackled in a fire pit in the centre of the clearing with two pigs roasting over it. Tables were heaped with apple pies glistening with sprinkled sugar, gleaming sausages, jugs of cider and dark wine and wheels of cheese stacked next to baskets of fresh bread and new butter. For the first time Lady Freydis had allowed baked potatoes which were heaped in a dusty brown heap with more butter and a heaping froth of grated cheese. There were discreet barrels of craft beer, lager, and some smaller barrels of brandy and rum. There was even a pallet of bottled water, stacked discreetly behind an oak trestle groaning with roast chestnuts and dusty bottles of elderberry wine.

Steve and Darren stayed close. Darren had reluctantly come as Jasmine’s ‘boyfriend’ and Steve was, of course, a member of Lady Freydis’ court, but there was something going on and neither could quite follow it. Ian and Kieran were making forced polite small talk, nodding and carefully smiling. Every woman from the werewolf pack was clustered in quietly gossiping groups, glancing around furtively and pausing when the men came too close. A few of the men of the werewolf pack were looking equally bewildered and throwing anxious glances around as they tried to get into the spirit of the evening. Lady Freydis, her face like thunder, was having a low-voiced discussion with Martin.

“What is going on?” Darren asked Steve quietly. “Is it safe?”

Steve looked around. “I have no idea.” He took a sip of his tonic water. “I think it has to be mainly safe. Ian would never allow Jeanette, Adele or Jasmine here if it wasn’t.”

Jeanette, Adele and Jasmine were huddled with Mrs Tuesday, Fiona and Elaine, all of them shooting anxious glances at Ian. Darren started to feel worried. “I don’t know about dangerous, but I think it’s going to be a pain in the neck.”

Ian looked like he was describing a car route to Kieran. Steve noted the expressive hands pointing left and right and the completely neutral expression as Kieran listened with carefully constructed interest. “It’s the werewolves. There’s something happening in the werewolves.”

Darren took a deep breath. “Great. Jasmine is finally feeling secure. I don’t want anything to upset her.” He frowned at his mineral water.

“I don’t think she will be upset.” Jack lounged up behind him, his eyes gleaming with mischief. “Lady Freydis is furious, Ian and Kieran are working out how to hide how thrilled they are and all the women will be worried that the men will be difficult.” Jack looked at Steve and Darren’s blank expressions. “Jeanette is in an interesting condition.”

“What, is she ill?” Darren looked at Jeanette who was looking pale and sitting on one of the comfortable wooden benches strewn around the clearing.

“She’s expecting – she is pregnant.” Jack grabbed a cup of spiced elderberry wine from one of the brownies circulating. “And everything is suddenly complicated. You see, the head of a pack decides who gets to have children, and transgressors are severely punished. Ian is the head of a sub-pack and Kieran has to be fine with it. He is, of course. He’s very proud of the work Ian has been doing and they have worked together extremely well, though they don’t admit it. All the ladies are having fits about what Ian will say and Lady Freydis is fuming.” Jack sighed happily. “She is failing to have the happy Easter joint wedding that she desires, and Fiona is being firm about having another ceremony.”

Steve looked at Darren. “Is the pregnancy a problem?”

Darren shook his head. “I once married someone who was in active labour. It wasn’t ideal, but I believed that they truly loved each other and were committed to each other for their lifetimes. That’s my line.” He grimaced. “I’m not keen on marrying divorcees. Lots are divorced for good reasons and there is every reason to think that they will make it, but the divorce rate for second marriages isn’t good and I worry.” He took another mouthful of drink. “But who am I to refuse to bless the marriage? Won’t it be better with God? I never know what to say.”

“And Ian was married before.” Steve said.

Darren nodded. “The divorce wasn’t anything to do with the marriage. It’s just that he summoned a demon and the pack kicked him out and insisted that he divorce his wife. I believe she has remarried.”

Jack looked impressed. “I didn’t think Ian had it in him to summon a demon. My respect for him has grown.”

Darren ignored him. “Ian was uncomfortable with a church ceremony anyway. His faith is important to him. I don’t doubt his commitment to Jeanette, he’ll never leave her, and I don’t doubt her commitment to him. But I think both Ian and me would prefer a quick civil ceremony and a blessing. I’d feel privileged to bless their marriage.” He looked over at Jeanette who was sitting miserably in the centre of a knot of anxious women. “And to be fair to Jeanette, I don’t think she was keen on the big wedding either.”

Jack looked at Jeanette. “They will be happy together.” For a moment he looked slightly wistful before grinning in mischief. “And Adele will have a fancy wedding, just as her mother demands.”

“I don’t get to do many weddings.” Darren said. “I’ve done more than my share of funerals, and a few baptisms, sometimes in unusual situations, but I don’t seem to get many big weddings. And after listening to Adele’s mother for five minutes, I’m grateful.”

“That bad?” Steve asked.

“She got upset when I wouldn’t put glitter on the altar.” Darren said. “As in, literally stick glitter to the literal wood of the alter. The woman is insane.”

“Hang on.” Jack said, standing straighter. “Things are becoming interesting.”

A sudden chill shot through the air, and every elfen stood bolt upright. Steve swore. Darren looked around. “What’s happening?”

“Someone wants to make an entrance.” Steve said.

Lady Freydis jumped to her feet as a sudden curtain of snowflakes drifted across the clearing, hissing gently on the roasting pigs. “How dare you!” she snapped. The snowflakes shifted into golden ash leaves which the brownies hastily brushed away from the food.

A huge figure strode out of the shadows, a man wearing a crimson tunic with dark breeches and a long fur cloak, followed by a dozen men, all dressed much the same. He looked like some Viking, towering over Lady Freydis and almost as broad as he was tall with flowing red hair braided back and a thick, red beard. “I have come to claim my bride.”

“And who may that be, Eorl Brand?” Ice dripped from Lady Freydis’ words.

“Do not play games with me.” Eorl Brand strode closer to the fire. “You may be a fine lady, but you understand the levers of power. You need a strong lord in York, and I do not hear of any strong men in your court.”

There was a slight movement and then Lady Freydis was surrounded by stern looking subjects. Kadogan and Atherton were on either side of her and Martin and Jack loomed either side. Suddenly Ian and Kieran were no longer looking neutral but instead were taking up a flank while Steve and the senior boggarts were ranged on the other side. Lady Freydis smiled coldly. “I have plenty of strength in my court, and plenty of subtlety. And better courtesy than to walk into another’s domain and shift the weather. How dare you? And how are you going to make amends?”

“My bride should have come to me already.” Eorl Brand said. “I have ruled Nidderdale on your border for centuries. Now is a time for to unite.”

Love Hearts

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Callum, in full fur, shot into the White Hart, yelping frantically, following by – Fiona blinked – dozens of flying, sparkling hearts about the size of her hand. They were twinkling and sparks were falling everywhere as Callum ran frantically around the athame display case.

“We’re about to open!” Adele yelled. “We can’t have this mess.”

Mrs Tuesday couldn’t stop laughing. “Callum, stand still, they won’t hurt you.”

Fiona picked up a sheaf of flyers and started wafting helplessly at the hearts. Dozens of them were in the shop now, and the scent of roses was becoming intense. “What the hell is this?”

Mrs Tuesday was holding onto the counter, crying with laughter. “Love letter.” She gasped out.

“I bet it was addressed to Lady Freydis.” Adele said.

There was an indignant ‘Woof’ from Callum as he skidded around the corner of the athame display case and headed towards the herbs.

“Well I didn’t think you would open something not addressed to the White Hart, but that’s what it looked like.” Adele said.

“Annexe.” Mrs Tuesday managed to gasp out, wiping tears of laughter from her face.

“But Lady Freydis isn’t here.” Fiona said. “She’s setting up the feast for tonight.” She looked around. Not all of the hearts were chasing Callum. Some were nestling together in the corner of the room, shedding crimson sparks that thankfully disappeared before they landed on anything. Others were perching on the edges of the bookcases and one or two were hanging on the light fittings and casting unusual shadows. “Let’s get them into the annexe. We can’t leave them out here.”

Jasmine came in from the back room. “What’s been happening in the back room? It looks like there’s been a fight,” she said, taking off her jacket and shaking out her apron. She looked around and stopped dead, staring. “These are terrifying!”

Mrs Tuesday had nearly got control of herself, but this set her off again. “Get them into the annexe.” She wheezed.

“I’m not going near any of them.” Jasmine said, her eyes wide. “They smell weird.”

Callum was backed into a corner by the herbs, his ears flat and his tail tucked between his legs. Adele ran over. “I’ll get this.” She started swatting the hearts away, although they kept dancing around as near as they could.

Fiona whistled for Armani. He flapped slowly downstairs and then lurched in mid-air, before landing on Fiona’s shoulder. “Bloody hell, miss, who sent that lot?”

“Help us get them into the annexe – gently!” Fiona said. “Jasmine, stay in clothes. They aren’t going to hurt you.”

“Are you sure about that.” Jasmine was almost frozen, her back pressed against the big fridge behind the counter. Mrs Tuesday lost her grip on the counter and slid onto the floor in near hysterics.

It took some time to get the flapping hearts into the annexe, where they settled around the room, humming gently. “What are we supposed to do?” Fiona snapped as Mrs Tuesday, still sniggering, started to switch on the grills. “We should have opened five minutes ago.”

“It’s all non-normals.” Adele peeked under the blinds. “And I think someone wanted an audience.”

Callum got out of fur. “The box was clearly addressed to the White Hart. I heard some movement and I double checked. I don’t make the same mistake twice.” He glared at Armani.

“The kitten was fine.” Armani hunched down even further.

Adele unlocked the door as Fiona wafted the last heart into the annexe. A few of the customers gave Callum interested looks, but most were used to naked werewolves and were more interested in the hearts who were grouping together mid-air to form the shape of a rose. Callum and Jasmine huddled together as the humming became more tuneful and the hearts were singing, “To lovely Lady Freydis… to lovely Lady Freydis… from loyal Jack… from loyal Jack…” With so many gathering at the White Hart for gossip, at least twenty non-normals heard the gentle notes sung by the hearts who then sighed and dissolved into a fine, rose scented powder scattered across the tables and chairs. Jack strolled in a second later, bowing a graceful acceptance to the round of applause from the audience.

“That box was addressed to the White Hart.” Callum snarled at Jack.

“I know.” Jack grinned wickedly, looking around the room.

“You should have at least put Lady Freydis’ name on the parcel.” Callum said, giving Jasmine’s hand a brotherly squeeze as she slowly started to relax.

“But Lady Freydis wasn’t the intended audience.” Jack said. “These were.” He nodded to the non-normals queuing for their drinks and chattering excitedly. “Don’t you think you ought to put some clothes on?”

Callum glared at him and stormed into the back room, Jasmine following him.

Fiona looked at the mess over the floor. “The brownies are going to really hate us.”

Fiona checked herself again in the mirror. She had no idea what to wear for a Halloween event in an elfen domain. It hadn’t been agreed what to call the event, either. Some were calling it Halloween, others calling it Samhain and one or two were calling it a pain in the neck. Lady Freydis had mentioned that the evening may be chilly so Fiona was wearing a long, black velvet skirt and matching jacket with a dark grey silk blouse and had a large woollen wrap over it all. It looked sombre.

“You look very pretty, miss.” Armani said, from his perch on the mantelpiece.

“Thank you,” Fiona said, aware that a fashion compliment from an imp with dirty jeans and a ragged t-shirt wasn’t exactly an award, but it was the best that she was likely to get. She looked around as Steve walked in. “What happened to your face?!”

“There were some minor issues.” Steve glanced in the mirror and winced. A livid red mark ran up his neck and splashed onto his cheek. “But we managed to hack the enchantment. All the skeletal hands now look like cats.” He shuddered. “But I don’t want to go through that again.” He glanced at the clock. “I’ll get a quick shower. I won’t be long.” He paused. “I nearly forgot. This is Mercator and he’ll be on duty when we move to the new house.”

He placed a large box on the table and rushed into the bathroom. Armani flapped down. “Is this what I think it is, boss? For me?”

“No, it’s a member of the household.” Steve yelled through the bathroom door. “Be nice!”

Armani slowly lifted up the flaps of the box and then grinned from ear to ugly ear. “Hello, Mercator. I’m Armani.”

What appeared to be a large ginger tom hopped gracefully out of the box and onto the floor. It gave Armani a look of utter disdain and started washing his face. Fiona bent down and tickled him behind his ear.

“You’re actually a hand, aren’t you?” Mercator looked at her carefully, then rubbed his chin against her hand before going back to his wash. Armani was almost vibrating.

“It’s a cat! I’ve got a kitty!”

“It’s a skeleton hand disguised as a cat that’s going to work with all of us in the new house.” Fiona knew she was talking to empty air. “But why don’t you see if you can cuddle it.”

Armani took a deep, wheezy breath and flapped slowly down to land next to Mercator. Mercator stopped washing and stared deeply into the imp’s dark eyes. There was a long, anxious moment and Fiona held her breath as the sound of Steve’s shower seemed to echo through the house. Then Mercator leaned forward and gently touched his nose to Armani’s nose before flopping down in front of Armani in a blatant invitation to a cuddle.

Armani swallowed before gently scratching Mercator’s head, a tear slowly trickling down his face. “I’ve got a kitty.”

Helping Hand

Photo by Sašo Tušar on Unsplash

Martin found Lady Freydis deep in her fairy domain, sitting at the foot of a huge oak, leaning back, her arms clasped around her legs. Stars wheeled above the clearing which was filled with oddly shaped stones and tree stumps. Martin sat down next to her.

“This is where Ragnar’s funeral feast was held, isn’t it?”

Lady Freydis looked around. “It’s where you declared me Prince. So many people were watching to see what I would say, whether anyone dared make a move against me, whether they could seize the moment. But you stood with me, you and those from the White Hart. I felt I had a shield wall for me.”

“You looked so beautiful.” Martin said. “I remembered how you stood strong during the attack on Lord Ragnar and his halls. I wonder how many people knew how much you had done all these years. Lord Ragnar was lucky.”

Lady Freydis hugged her knees tighter. “I have thought so much about it, how I loved him and he loved me, but we didn’t know and what if we had?”

Martin slid an arm around her and Lady Freydis snuggled close to him. He smiled sadly. “The saddest words in the world are, ‘it might have been’.” His free hand closed over hers. “It’s from a poem I read a long time ago. It’s very true.”

“I wonder if we really loved each other, or loved the idea of each other?” Lady Freydis moved closer. “Whether we really knew each other. Lord Ragnar hated that I could work with the fairy worlds.”

“Deep down, he was a great warrior and a good man.” Martin said. “He is gone and it leaves a shadow. But this is now. You have a wedding to plan.” He looked down at her. “You’re not planning on having the wedding in the same place as Lord Ragnar’s funeral, are you?”

Lady Freydis laughed. “That would be quite the insult to my husband, whoever he is. No, I will find somewhere else. I’m practising with the Samhain feast next week. I’ve shaped some halls and I’m planning wonderful decorations. It should be splendid. Everyone is invited.”

“It should be interesting. I shall enjoy watching all your suitors.” Martin relaxed against the tree.

“I know who I’m going to pick.” Lady Freydis said. “I’m just not saying anything until Easter, so I can have more fun.”

“What if he says ‘no’?” Martin said, dropping a kiss on the top of his head.

Lady Freydis relaxed and snuggled closer. “I’ll have to find a way to change his mind.”

Amani flapped awkwardly through the shop, swaying and lurching in the air as the tabby cat he was clutching fought to escape. Elaine watched as the cat defied all natural laws, nearly turned itself inside out, spat, swore and caught Armani with a swipe that scratched across his cheek and over his ragged and pointed ear before twisting free and dropping. It shot into the back room.

Elaine turned to Dave. “Do cats like werewolves?”

Dave shrugged. “I suppose we can wait and see.”

There was another indignant howl and the cat shot back out, across the floor, ran up the bookcase, freaked as the books it had dislodged clattered to the floor and started to race around the herbs. Elaine rushed over to the door and opened it. The tabby saw its chance, ran across a display of china fairies, and out through the door. Elaine leaned forward to the small knot of non-normals waiting outside. “We’ll be open in around ten minutes.” Before she could shut the door, however, Jack raced in followed by four skeletal hands.

“I said I was sorry.” He yelled as he raced towards the back room. “Lady Freydis, aid me!”

Adele stopped sweeping up the fragments of the china fairies and watched with interest as Jack raced around the herb racks, the hands in hot pursuit. “Lady Freydis isn’t here, something to do with the Samhain feast.” She watched Jack vault over the case with the athames. “I like working here. It’s a lot more interesting than the sandwich shop.”

Jack skidded into the café area where a fifth hand tripped him. He landed with a bone shuddering thud. “I’m sorry! What more can I say?”

The nearest hand jumped on Jack’s chest, wagging a finger.

“I know! It’s not my fault.” Jack said. “I can’t help what people say.”

The hand bounced.

“No, I can’t do that! I’d get into trouble.”

The hand bounced again.

“That is quite unfair. I don’t get into that sort of trouble. I get into interesting trouble.” Jack pushed himself up into a sitting position but the hand clung to the front of his shirt. “I would thank you for not repeating that.”

Callum stormed out of the back room and glared at Jack. “Did you just send a cat down into the back room?”

“I am getting falsely accused of so many crimes.” Jack said, gently disentangling the hand and setting it softly on his shoulder. “The cat had nothing to do with me.”

“Cats do not like werewolves unless they grew up with them.” Callum said. “It’s cruel to send a cat towards werewolves, and I can’t stand cruelty.”

“It wasn’t me.” Jack said, getting slowly to his feet. “I have my own issues.”

The hand tugged on his shirt collar.

“But what am I supposed to say? People are so unreasonable.”

“It was Armani.” Elaine said. “He still wants a pet cat.”

Callum stared. “But he’s an imp. Cats freak out at imps.”

Adele smiled at Callum, her heart in her eyes, before remembering about the broken china. “Armani is just being awkward.”

“Hang on,” Dave looked at Elaine. “When that Leanne creature was impersonating you, she suggested making a glamour part of the magic of the hands.” He looked at the bony hand on Jack’s shoulder. “That could solve a lot of problems.”

Jack looked at the hand. “I don’t know if that’s possible.” He said doubtfully. “I remember these creatures being created and it was a complex magic.”

“What’s that?” Steve came out of the back room. “Armani, you’re bleeding on the floor. You have to leave cats alone.”

Armani huddled down and took the tissue Elaine held out to him. “Sorry boss. I just want a kitty.”

“Why?” Elaine asked.

Armani huddled lower. “It just feels right, miss.”

“You’re not going to eat it, are you?” Elaine asked.

Armani looked offended. “Not at all, miss. I just want a little companionship in my humdrum life.”

Steve looked at Jack. “Did you teach him that?” Jack shrugged.

Dave looked at the hands jumping up and down and tugging at Jack’s jeans. “The hands seem keen on the idea, and Armani could have a sort of kitty. Everyone would be happy.”

Steve frowned. “That’s a tricky ask.” He looked at Jack. “Did you create these?”

Jack shook his head. “An incredibly talented sorcerer was overrun by mice and I believe he got drunk. The magic is quite…”

Steve pulled a magnifying glass from his pocket and muttered a few words before pointing it at the hands, who jumped up and down and made rude gestures. “Hang on.” Steve said. “If you want the magic to show you as cats, you have to let people look at the magic.”

“They got out of control last time, but no-one could deal with the magic.” Jack said. “I believe they were buried under the floor of the paladin’s kitchen, in their old lair. What happened to it, by the way?”

“It blew up.” Steve said, peering through the magnifying glass. “The magic is a mess. There are connections all over.”

“There is no need to be smug about it.” Jack said to the hands. “It just complicates things.”

Adele wandered over to Callum and gave him a brief hug before interrupting Jack and Steve. “We’re about to open the shop. Can you take this to the back room?”

The hands shot across the floor into the back room, followed by Armani, slowly flapping and holding a tissue to his battered face. Elaine shook her head and then smiled.

“You are absolutely right, Adele. This is a lot better than working in a sandwich shop.”

I will be winding down the White Hart and ending this series soon. There are three main reasons. The most important is that it is interfering with writing other stuff within this setting. I have around three novels in the pipeline and I keep having to jiggle things around to keep things consistent with the White Hart. This is a nuisance, and is slowing things down. The second reason is that I am running out of good stories to tell here. There are still stories, and I may post occasional pieces over on ‘Always Another Chapter’ but I am worried about keeping up any sort of quality. I sometimes I look back and because I am always scrambling to publish weekly, I don’t always give the White Hart the care and love it should have. I feel like I let readers down. And don’t pretend you haven’t spotted spelling mistakes – I am mortified sometimes! The third reason is that it is taking time away from me writing other stuff that I could get paid for. If I hit a block with the White Hart, I end up spending my energy trying to work around it instead of shaking things up, because I want to aim for a Friday deadline.

This blog site is coming up for renewal in the next few months. Depending on how things are, I may not renew this site but instead find another way to make the content on here available without charge. I have had so much wonderful support on here, for which I am incredibly grateful, and I am not going to forget that. You are all awesome. Thank you!

Challenge

Photo by Merve Aydın on Unsplash

Darren bowed his head and started to pray. He could feel something in the background. A loud banging started in the walls.

“It’s happening again!” Mrs Case wrung her hands. “It’s terrifying.”

Darren continued to pray, placing his hands over the walls. Strange vibrations were running through the modern plaster walls.

“These flats were only built four years ago.” Mrs Case looked around at the tasteful, minimalist décor. “Perhaps it was built on a graveyard.”

Darren tried to concentrate. A properly consecrated graveyard was safe enough. Besides, this wasn’t a departed spirit. Perhaps it was an echo of the issues with the revenants and the vampiric energy. He continued to pray.

“I blame them upstairs.” Mrs Case pulled her cardigan closer. She may look like a harmless little old lady, but Darren had seen the swathe of true crime murder books and dvds on her shelves and was not turning his back on her. Mrs Case shook her head. “They are always arguing, and you should see their tattoos! It’s not right.”

Darren kept praying, running his hands slowly over the wall. It felt alive. Darren stepped back. “I may need to do a full exorcism.”

“Really?” Mrs Case sounded thrilled. “I can’t wait to let my sister know.”

Darren tried not glare at her. Exorcisms were no a spectator sport. “I will need to have an empty room to work in.”

“Really?” Mrs Case asked. “I’m sure I could be useful.”

“I’m quite sure.” Darren began and then leapt back as the wall exploded. Plaster and shredded wallpaper tumbled down around Jack who was now sprawled on the floor. He jumped quickly to his feet.

“Thanks, padre, I thought I was stuck in there.” Jack brushed down his battered jeans. “You have powerful prayers.”

Mrs Case shrieked as a long, smoke-like arm reached to grab Jack’s leg. Jack swore and kicked back at it while Darren snapped out some urgent Latin. The smoke evaporated.

“I don’t think you’ll be bothered anymore, Mrs Case.” Darren said, rubbing his hands over his plastered-covered hair. “Now let’s join in a prayer of thanks.”

Darren looked at Jack, waiting expectantly at the passenger door of his car. “Do you want a lift?”

“I think the least I can do is buy you a drink.” Jack said. “I was having a look around some of the lesser corners of York and ran into that.” He shook his head sadly. “I’m losing my touch. I never thought I would be ambushed like that.” He knocked some plaster dust off his jacket as Darren opened the door. “I owe you a favour.”

“I’m fine, thanks.” Darren said. “Egerton is still too terrified to leave the house. Just take care next time.”

“Perhaps I should pay for some masses.” Jack said, sliding into the car.

“No, really, don’t bother.” Darren said. “Where can I drop you?”

“Egerton? Hmm.” Jack stretched his legs as far as the seat would allow. “Yes, I remember. He used to call himself Findlay and fancy himself a trickster. He was a sad little mouse. Why is he serving you?”

“Punishment for spiking my drink with an elfen love potion.” Darren said. “So, do you want a lift to the White Hart?”

Jack grinned. “Actually, yes, I have some events in motion that should be entertaining.”

“Put your seatbelt on.” Darren said.

“Aren’t you going to ask me what those events are?” Jack said. “And these seatbelts are irrelevant to me.”

“Nope.” Darren watched unmoving until Jack buckled up. “I’m sure I’m going to find out anyway.”

“I found that one could send chocolate to ladies without leaving a name.” Jack said. “It’s much easier now with this internet. I sent some chocolates to Fiona, to make her smile after the recent troubles.”

“I’m sure Fiona is glad to have them.” Darren started the car. “She has had a rough few years, but I think she’s okay.”

“Indeed. I sent her a small token.” Jack said. “And once she and Steve Adderson return from their holiday, I shall continue to be at her service. However I found that my friend, Kai, could also order chocolates to Lady Freydis.”

There was a screech and some loud voices. Darren glanced quickly at Jack. “Did you just change the traffic lights?”

“I dislike waiting.” Jack said, “Unless, of course, there is an entertaining altercation.”

Darren swerved around the road rage incident and headed back into York and towards the White Hart. “Don’t do that when I’m driving. What’s the thing with the chocolates?”

“I did not add my name.” Jack craned his neck to get a last glimpse of the havoc he had caused before settling back in his seat. “I just put ‘Guess who?’ I wonder how many will claim them.”

“Surely no-one would claim them if they didn’t send them.” Darren said. “They would know that the real sender would turn up.”

“But would that generous donor of chocolate be able to prove it?” Jack said. “I am sure there will be at least a little argument, and my Prince will have a tribute of chocolate.”

“Hmm.” Darren concentrated on his driving. “As long as normals aren’t involved.”

“How dull.” Jack craned his neck again. “Why, that house is still standing, and after I had such a fight in it!”

“When was that?” Darren asked.

“Last week, with Martin, just before I got stuck.” Jack turned back in his seat. “I am sure we broke a wall.”

Darren shook his head. “Why are you always fighting with Martin?”

“Because it’s fun.” Jack said. “Besides, he has the edge over me and has for centuries. I need to find a way to beat him.”

“And he adores Lady Freydis.” Darren said.

“He is probably worthy of Lady Freydis.” Jack admitted, “But he knows it, and there is no-one else that can even challenge him in combat.”

“Half of the trouble in York at the moment is because Lady Freydis took a vampire as her lover and gave him access to Fairyland.” Darren said. “It’s been a rocky year or two.”

“Martin is not like that.” Jack said. “He is dull, and sensible and generally unexciting.” Jack frowned. “And unexpectedly strong, even for a vampire.”

“Here we are,” Darren said with some relief as he pulled into the car park. He watched Kadogan dump two scuffling elfen out of the shop. “Looks like the chocolate worked.”

“I am so glad.” Jack bounded past Kadogan and into the shop. Darren shook his head and drove off.

Lady Freydis leaned on the counter and watched the discussions raging amongst the elfen. She smiled when she saw Jack. “Thank you for the chocolates.” She whispered. “They are most entertaining and wonderfully extravagant.”

“I should hope so.” Jack took in the row of hampers spilling curled ribbon, cellophane and handmade chocolates over the back counter of the café. “And my Prince is infinitely worth it.”

Lady Freydis looked up at Martin who was watching a shoving match in one corner. “You don’t buy me chocolates.”

“I don’t need to.” Martin said. “You know what I’m like and what I can do. I could have any lady I wished. You need to prove yourself to me.”

“What?!” Lady Freydis stared. “I’m the Prince of York.”

“And you know exactly what you’re getting with me.” Martin nodded to Mrs Tuesday who was grinning broadly. “A black coffee, please.”

“I’m your Prince.” Lady Freydis said.

“And I am the best lover in York.” Martin said, taking his coffee from Mrs Tuesday. “Thank you.”

“Prove it.” Lady Freydis said.

Martin raised an eyebrow. “Without marriage? That would be improper.”

Lady Freydis stamped her feet. “I can take any one I want in marriage.”

“Absolutely.” Martin said. “Excuse me, please. Kadogan is getting outnumbered.”

“And I had best help out to protect my fair Fiona’s fixtures.” Jack dumped his dusty jacket on the counter and followed Martin.

Lady Freydis looked at Mrs Tuesday. “He is indeed the best lover in York, damn him.” She frowned. “But he should still chase me.” She tapped her elegant fingernails on the counter. “Are there any coffee chocolates in there?”

Not the Front Door

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

It was early closing day, but it was already dark and rain splashed against the window as Fiona closed the shop for the evening. She shivered. “I think I’ll have a nice cup of tea. I think some Earl Grey. I think Earl Grey always tastes a little sunnier.”

“I’ll make some.” Jasmine said. “Would you like some, Mrs Tuesday?”

“Not for me, love.” Mrs Tuesday rubbed her back. “It always tastes like soap to me. But I wouldn’t mind a normal cuppa.” She opened one of the boxes behind the counter.

“You don’t need to sort through that stuff, you know.” Fiona said. “I brought a load in to look at just to keep me busy.”

“It is good to keep busy.” Lady Freydis stepped out of the annexe.

“I thought you had gone home.” Fiona said. “Yes, I’m staying here tonight while Steve and the others look for Elaine, so I brought a load of boxes from the house.”

Lady Freydis walked over and put a surprisingly gentle hand on Fiona’s shoulder. “Do not worry. Steve is very powerful, and he is accompanied by Dave and Martin. They will return safely with Elaine, ready to tell their stories. Until then we must keep busy and prepare for their return, guarding our homes so they have a haven where they may return.” She reached in and picked up a saucepan from the box. It was dusty and needed a clean. She sighed. “I can still touch iron. That is something. I can still move in this world.” She looked at the box thoughtfully. “But why so many cauldrons?”

“Saucepans.” Mrs Tuesday corrected her. “And frying pans. It looks like quite a collection.”

Jasmine came over. “They look quite expensive.” She said, putting down the drinks. “They are proper cast iron and really heavy.”

“The old man probably thought he could re-sell them.” Fiona said. “And Steve is planning to get them cleaned up and see if he can sort them out. There’s a lot of stuff in that house.”

“I can see.” Mrs Tuesday pulled out a large frying pan. “You could cook a fry up for a family in this.”

“I thought I would call in before I sealed this gate for the evening.” Lady Freydis said. “There is always the risk that Leanne could come after Fiona, and this portal could be a weak point.” She looked at Fiona. “Will you be alone?”

“Kadogan will be here soon, and of course there will be Dean and Mrs Tuesday.” Fiona said. “Sir Ewan said he would keep an eye out, and so did Luke. I’m sure it will be okay.”

“I’m not so sure.” Lady Freydis said. “Leanne is a disgrace and a baggage. I would blush to try some of her tricks, and I am shameless.”

“Yes, you are.” Mrs Tuesday said, hefting the frying pan. “And still with no fiancée. How is the wedding planning going?”

“I’m still not sure about the rose petals.” Lady Freydis said. “But Steve has sourced great quantities of mead so I am hopeful that at least part of the festivities will be appropriate. Also, I do not know what my intended will want.”

“He probably won’t be marrying you for a quiet life.” Mrs Tuesday said. “But I recommend neat vodka for him.”

There was a knock on the door and Jasmine bounded over to let Darren in. “It’s great to see you! I’ll get my coat.”

“You’ll need it, the weather is awful.” Darren said, brushing a hand over his head. “I got soaked just coming from the car.” He frowned at Jack who slipped in the door behind him.

“Don’t mind me.” Jack grinned, strolling over to Fiona and bowing low over her hand. “But this place is harder to get into than normal. However I thought I should attend on my fair Fiona. Leanne is known to be spiteful and she is as stupid as she is beautiful. She cannot believe Steve would continue to reject her if Fiona was out of the way.”

“Do you know, I’m getting sick of having bad guys after me.” Fiona said. “Still, at least this time it isn’t a vampire.”

On cue, Dean walked in. “This place feels odd.” He said.

“Steve has put extra wards around it.” Jasmine said as she wriggled into her coat. “And Lady Freydis has sealed off the annexe for the night.”

“Did anyone check for loopholes?” Jack asked, reaching across the counter to steal a muffin. “It’s almost impossible to get in without an invite, even for me, but Leanne was here for at least a few days in the guise of Elaine. She could have hidden one or two anywhere.”

“Loopholes?” Fiona stared.

“I had forgotten those!” Lady Freydis said, looking worried. “It is so long that I have seen them used. You need skill.”

“She is skilful enough.” Jack said, “And skilful enough to conceal them.”

“What are loopholes?” Fiona asked.

Mrs Tuesday shook her head. “I’ve sort of heard of them. It’s like this world that we are in is just like a page in a book for some of the elfen, or a door in a row of doors. Or it’s like a skin in a layer of skins. Some of them, including Lady Freydis and Jack, can slip between them easier than others. And sometimes they can leave little gaps or tears in a page, so that they can wiggle through even though everything is locked down.” She looked at Lady Freydis. “Can Leanne use loopholes?”

“I believe she can.” Lady Freydis said quietly.

“Pragmatically, she may be too busy trying to keep Elaine out of Dave’s reach or leading Steve a merry, primrose-strewn dance.” Jack said, unwrapping the muffin. “She may not waste her time here.”

“Or she may decide to double back and remove what she thinks is the main obstacle between Steve and her love.” Lady Freydis said. “That woman! She can’t believe that all who see her do not love her. She has no grasp of reality.”

“You are the one who booked the wedding without the groom,” Mrs Tuesday said without really paying attention. Instead she was glancing around the room and holding the frying pan tightly.

“Yes, but the attraction of power and the amazing amount of mischief that has been generated are gaining more interest than my appearance.” Lady Freydis said, also checking her surroundings. “I think it may be a good idea to set a room up as a fortress where Fiona may safely stay the night. I suggest this room. There is food, it is central, and it is the most magically reinforced part of the building.”

“I concur.” Jack said thickly through the muffin. “Perhaps the padre will say a few prayers over this room, while Lady Freydis and I check for hidden loopholes.”

“Are you okay?” Dean asked Fiona quietly as she sank into one of the chairs in the café. He gave her hand a squeeze. “You’re frozen! Do you have a sweater in the back?”

“Get that tea down you.” Mrs Tuesday said. “And don’t worry. They didn’t get you last time and they won’t this time, either. Remember how Steve ripped reality apart to get you? I think you’re pretty safe. And now you have Jack on your side.”

“I think I’ll just get into fur.” Jasmine murmured quietly. She looked at Darren. “Please will you ring Ian and let him know that I’m staying here. I know he’ll approve.”

Darren nodded. “And I’ll stay with you.” He took off his coat and hung it neatly on the back of a chair.

“I’ll stay around.” Dean said. “Fiona, should I get you a blanket or something? You are so cold.”

Fiona shook her head. Her teeth started to chatter. “It’s just the weather.” She wrapped her arms around herself and tried not to shiver.

“You’re wearing a name badge.” Lady Freydis said.

“Yes, we all wear name badges except you.” Jasmine said. “Kadogan said he thought it looked more like a real shop.”

“No, look at the badge!” Lady Freydis snapped.

“Bloody hell!” Mrs Tuesday grabbed the badge and ripped it from Fiona’s sweater, throwing it to the centre of the shop. “She used your damned name badge. She used your name!”

As the name badge fell to the floor, a darkness spilled from it, pooling wider and wider until Leanne stepped out, her auburn curls gleaming under the shop lights and her eyes luminous. “Hello, sister wife. Are you ready to admit that Steve is mine?”

“You’re not Steve’s type.” Fiona said, standing up straight. “You’re wasting your time.”

“And if it isn’t little Freydis.” Leanne looked around. “Am I meant to be intimidated by the people here? A new vampire who hasn’t worked out all his powers, an old and almost broken boggart, a misfit werewolf, a vicar who is dipping into his flock and a perpetual fashion victim.” Leanne looked straight at Lady Freydis, who lost her colour, before looking back at Fiona. “You have poor defenders, my dear, and are indiscreet. You told Elaine that you didn’t like rats.”

“I don’t like rats.” Fiona said. “That is true enough. But I never said I was scared of them.”

“We’ll see.” Leanne said, flicking her hair over her shoulder and then delicately gesturing. “You will feel different after this.” She smiled brightly. “If you can feel at all.”

“No!” Lady Freydis shouted, but it was too late. Rats started pouring through the gap behind Leanne, streaming into the shop, squealing as they ran at Fiona.

Jack laughed. “You think you can play rats with me?”

Leanne glared at him and gestured. A spark lanced from her finger towards Jack but his grin never wavered as the spark ricocheted back and danced wildly around her before fading. Leanne took a step back and gestured to the elfen coming up behind her. “Get that one,” she said, pointing at Fiona. “Leave him to me.” Then she stamped hard on the floor. Ripples spread out from the dark portal and seemed to grow across the floor as rats continued to flow out.

Jasmine was in fur and snapping at the rats, tossing them wildly around the floor. Mrs Tuesday was swinging with a saucepan and Darren was kicking them back towards the portal. Dean was desperately muttering as he struggled to control the rats racing towards him. He had practised controlling rats and mice, but he had never had to deal with the quantities swarming across the floor. Lady Freydis was obviously struggling as the darkness surrounding Leanne was oozing towards the annexe and she was shaking off rats as she fought for control of the elfen magic.

The two elfen advancing on Fiona were intercepted by Jack, who dodged their sword thrusts easily, grabbing the sword arm of the larger of the two and casually snapping it before taking the sword. He looked around, laughed out loud and caught up the nearest pan and hurled it with force at the shop window.

The window smashed and in tumbled dozens of the skeletal hands, quickly followed by dozens more. The floor became a sea of combat as rats and bones engaged. The hands were desperately outnumbered, but they were organised and fighting as a group, picking off rats as the hands defended a line. Mrs Tuesday and Jasmine joined their flanks, pulling together a defensive ring around Fiona and Lady Freydis.

“This is wonderful entertainment!” Jack shouted, ripping the head off one of the attacking elfen and throwing it back through the portal as the collapsing body fell into a pile of leaf litter, obscuring the rats and scattering across the floor.”

“Dean, get them scattered towards the door.” Mrs Tuesday yelled. “We can pick them off better there.”

“I’m trying!” Dean shouted, trying to keep his balance as the fight raged around his ankles. “Get off, dammit!”

There was a yelp from Jasmine then a snarl as a rat got through as she was prising two of the rodents off a beleaguered hand. Darren grabbed a decorative athame and started skewering the attackers, taking the heat off the hands. Lady Freydis swore and then there was a crack as the darkness started receding.

“I am no fashion victim, I am the Prince of York!” Lady Freydis snapped at Leanne who watched the other of her guards crumple in front of Jack.

“What is happening?” Leanne cried, as the rats stopped coming through and started to flee. “What is going wrong?”

“You picked the wrong man to steal.” Fiona grabbed the large frying pan, ran forward and swung hard at Leanne’s head. She didn’t expect it to connect, but it did, with a dull thud, and Leanne reeled back from the unexpected power. All of Fiona’s frustration, her anger and her fear, were poured into that blow and it carried a lot of weight. As Leanne staggered, Fiona swung the frying pan back hard into Leanne’s stomach. It was unnecessary. Leanne screamed as her face turned black.

“It’s iron!” She doubled up as the venom of Fiona’s second blow hit, sinking to her knees.

“My warrior lady!” Jack shouted. “You are magnificent.”

Fiona stepped back, appalled as Leanne crumpled in front of her. “I didn’t mean to…”

“Steve should have been mine.” Leanne muttered, falling backwards into the portal. A small drift of leaves blew out as the portal closed. Fiona looked at Darren, appalled.

“Did I kill her?”

Darren walked over to her and took hold of both her hands. “It’s hard to say. She won’t be back soon, anyway, and you have protected Steve. I’ve heard a lot about what Leanne does to men, and none of it good.”

“Indeed.” Lady Freydis nudged at the leaves with her foot. “Even the elfen thought she was excessive. And cheap.”

“She’ll be off licking her wounds for a century or so.” Mrs Tuesday said. “And perhaps she may learn a thing or two. Though I doubt it. Come on, let’s get this mess cleared up.”

Fiona looked around her. Dead leaves, twigs and husks littered the floor. The bodies of rats were piled in heaps as the last of them fled out of the broken window. Chips of bone and detached fingers showed that the rats had fought a hard battle and broken glass was scattered over the window display. “The brownies are going to charge us so much extra.”

Ouch!


Photo by Kenny Luo on Unsplash

Dave slammed into the side of his car and bounced across the country lane. Jack, having got the peacemaker out of the way, swung a punch hard at Martin who ducked, caught Jack’s fist and twisted. Jack somehow defied laws of gravity, momentum and anatomy and somersaulted around Martin’s grip but Martin was wise to his moves and caught him as he landed with a punch to the side of Jack’s head that slammed him into a gate post, which shattered.

Dave managed to pull himself to his feet. There were no witnesses in this deserted lane, but it was only a matter of time. Jack rolled upright and bounced over Martin’s head. Martin spun around before getting his legs swept from underneath him. He landed with a thud that dented the road, rolled out of the way of Jack’s stamp and grabbed his leg.

“Stop right now!” Dave yelled. It had no effect. He stumbled to the far side of his car for shelter, opened the door and grabbed something he had packed for the first time today. “Stop now! You are disturbing the peace!”

Martin grabbed Jack and hurled him into the hedge where Jack bounced and struggled, pinned in the centre of the brambles and hawthorn by the force of Martin’s throw. Martin advanced, murder in his eyes, when they were blown apart by a sharp, smoky explosion.

Dave had paid attention to the safety briefings on the flashbangs that the Home Office had reluctantly issued. He had mainly paid attention because he didn’t want to risk being on the wrong end of something allegedly non-lethal but still capable of blinding and deafening a man for minutes. He was pretty sure that he shouldn’t have thrown the flashbang quite so close to them, and he wouldn’t have dreamt of doing that with a werewolf, but with what appeared to be a force of nature going head to head with a vampire that came to York with the Roman Legions, he thought he needed to get their attention. It worked. Suddenly Dave was the focus of two powerful supernatural beings and it didn’t feel good.

“What did you just throw at us?” Martin said quietly, holding out a hand to Jack.

“Indeed, what was it?” Jack grabbed Martin’s hand and pulled himself out. “Because I really want one.”

“It’s not for the general public.” Dave realised that he had made a tactical error. “I mean, it’s government issue.”

Both of the men grinned wickedly. “That is so helpful. I can always get into the government buildings.” Jack’s grin widened. “And there are always so many people coming and going.”

“People are the weak point.” Martin nodded. “Working people is easy.”

Dave scrabbled desperately for ideas. “I’m a paladin. I cannot allow you to use military issue on unsuspecting normals.”

“Who said we were going to use it on normals?” Jack said with a sideways glance at Martin. “And is that what you call mortals these days? So insipid.” He looked at Martin who shrugged.

“I think Lady Freydis might have a few things to say about flashbangs going off in her domain.” Dave said, then regretted it.

“So that is what they are called! Flashbangs.” Jack clapped his hands together in delight. “I must find a score of them.”

“Lady Freydis wouldn’t need to know.” Martin said. “And, if we do it right, neither would the government.”

“That’s enough.” Dave pulled himself as straight as he could manage. His ribs hurt and his jeans were in tatters. “Do not fight like this in front of normals.”

“Or what consequence?” Jack asked, inspecting a deep graze running the length of his forearm.

“Or I will be forced to ask Lady Freydis for advice.”

Martin and Jack looked at Dave with respect. Martin nodded. “Well played.” He glanced at Jack. “I’m sure Jack and I can work something out.”

“If you get drunk, do it quietly.” Dave said wearily.

Jack shrugged. “Do you think we could actually get drunk?”

Dave held up a hand. “Don’t tell me anything. Just get out of here.” He shook his head. “And try not to be caught doing whatever.”

The two supernatural beings vanished, without smoke or noise, but were just suddenly not there. Slowly the birds began to sing again as everything in the area relaxed. Dave leant against his car and hurt. He had only been caught in a few of the side-swipes and it had been bad enough, so he wondered exactly what it would do to seriously hurt those guys. A skeletal hand skittered out of the ditch, patted Dave’s foot gently in commiseration and then scuttled back into the undergrowth. Dave ran a weary hand over his face. It was the most sympathy he had had all week.

At least Elaine was likely to be sympathetic. Dave tried not to look too injured as he turned up for his afternoon Tarot Reading appointments. After all, he and Luke were the only things standing between normal and non-normals and he shouldn’t show weakness. His ribs were only bruised, apparently, and the rest was surface damage, but he felt every ache. Lady Freydis ran over as he came in.

“Dave Kinson, what happened to you? You are injured!”

“I just have a few bruises.” Dave said. “Any chance of a coffee?”

Lady Freydis narrowed her eyes. “Have you disciplined any of my court? Do I need to defend them?”

“No, you do not need to defend them.” Dave said. He looked across at Elaine who was lounging against the counter next to Fiona who was re-stocking the greetings card. “I have not hurt any of your court today.”

“But you are injured.” Lady Freydis caught hold of Dave’s shoulder and he flinched. “Was someone from my court involved?”

“I’m not supposed to answer to you.” Dave wanted to keep Lady Freydis in reserve for dealing with Jack and Martin.

“So someone hurt you, but you did not hurt them.” Lady Freydis frowned. “I shall speak with Jack and Martin. Their arguments should not affect you.”

“What?” Dave stared.

“And I shall ask Mrs Tuesday to give you some of her special tonic, although after the Tarot Readings. Your judgement may be off after the tonic.”

Dave had had Mrs Tuesday’s tonic before. He had been barely able to walk afterwards but the glow that had surrounded him had been wonderful. “I’ll be fine.”

“I insist.” Lady Freydis said firmly. “Now I shall fetch coffee.”

Dave watched her dart back to the coffee machine and, ignoring the interested stares of the rest of the court, wandered over to where Elaine was lounging. It was a change to see her standing still instead of racing around the shelves. She ignored him and carried on chatting to Fiona.

“Is Steve seriously saying that he can’t make a deal work in Lancaster and he has to go back?” Elaine said. “I thought he could work any deal. He always could when I was with him.”

Dave blinked. There was something off with Elaine, and it didn’t sound like her. Those words had definitely hit Fiona hard, though she barely showed a reaction except for a slight tightening of the lips. She straightened a stand of ‘Get Well Soon’ cards. “It’s complicated, and as we’re moving to the house, he wants the money for renovations.”

Elaine glanced over to where Steve was dragging a box of flint arrowheads towards the back room. There was a gleam of hunger in her eyes. “And those arrowheads – you have so many of them. You need to unload them somehow.”

“Hi,” Dave said, standing in front of Elaine.

Fiona looked up. “Dave, you’re hurt! What happened?”

“Nothing much.” Dave said airily. “The weirdest was when one of those skeletal hands came and patted my foot in sympathy. I know we ought to do something about them, but they are useful, they’re killing the rats and they are kind of sweet.”

“Dead, skeleton hands are sweet?” Fiona said sceptically.

“Well, sort of cheeky.” Dave said. “And they can make some rude signs when they want to, but they aren’t harmful to normals.”

“I don’t know why you don’t just hack into the enchantment and give them a glamour.” Elaine was still looking at Steve who was manoeuvring the heavy box around a counter. “Make them look something like a cat. Then you have a reason why the rat population isn’t growing as quick as it should, no-one has a breakdown when they see a mouse speared on a bony finger and we can even pet the things.” She shrugged. “Easy.”

Dave frowned but was distracted as Martin and Jack walked in. He tried to look like breathing didn’t hurt. “Hi guys, everything alright?”

“I wouldn’t cause any trouble for my fair Fiona.” Jack said as he headed towards the counter. “And my good friend Martin would do nothing to upset the beautiful Lady Freydis.”

“Hmm.” Lady Freydis finished pouring Dave’s coffee. “Here, Dave Kinson, a mocha with a little hint of nutmeg. I think you will enjoy it.”

“Still trying to shift those arrowheads?” Martin asked. “Who would buy them?”

“At the moment I’m selling mainly to interior decorators, but I’ve been making a few calls to some film prop supply companies.” He shook his head. “I didn’t know they existed. But their back rooms look even stranger than ours. Next time I go to London, I’ll take Fiona with me and we can see if there is other business we can do.” He looked up at Fiona. “And maybe we can…” He trailed off, dropped the box and strode over to Elaine, grabbing her by the throat. “Who are you and where is the real Elaine?”

Elaine’s features shimmered and shifted and suddenly Steve was holding on to a slim, pale woman with a cascade of auburn curls and green eyes in her sweet looking, freckled face. Her expression was anything but sweet. “Sure, and you would like to know?” She said with a faint Irish accent, giving an artificial shiver. “And your touch is everything I imagined it would be. Perhaps I will let you know where Elaine is on our wedding night.”

Steve shifted his grip. “I’m already married, remember? I am married in the eyes of God.” He gave her a shake. “Do not push me, Leanne. Where is Elaine?”

“And your wifey so loyal?” Leanne shot a contemptuous glance at Fiona. “She never said a bad word about you, not even when she was sobbing her heart out. She would do better without you, and I’m sure your God would understand.”

Steve snarled. “I have ways of forcing you to talk that you would not like.”

“And you so sure about that?” Leanne tried a provocative tilt of her head despite Steve’s grip on her neck. Steve growled.

“Don’t kill her!” Dave said quickly. “Not until we find Elaine.”

“You were not prepared to hold me.” Leanne took a breath. “You should be more aware, Steve Half Elfen.” And then she was gone. Steve muttered some words and a fragment of green smoke issued from his outflung fingers, but it slowed and dissipated in the air.

Lady Freydis checked around the shop. There were a few wide eyed tourists but Mrs Tuesday was already ushering them towards free coffee. Everyone else was very watchful. “One of our own has been taken, one of us from the White Hart. I declare a Hunt!”

As Lady Freydis turned and started snapping out orders, Jack bowed low before Fiona. “My fair Fiona, do you truly want your rival back?”

Fiona nodded, her face white. “I didn’t understand why she was being like this. We were becoming such close friends. I hope she’s safe.”

“She’ll be safe up until now.” Steve said grimly. “That glamour was a close one. Leanne would have had to keep going back to Elaine to get a reference. And from the sound of it, Leanne will want to keep Elaine hostage to exchange for me.”

“Count me in.” Dave said. “Let’s find Elaine.”

Deal


Photo by Julius Drost on Unsplash

Darren rubbed a weary hand over his face. He had finished his sermon for Sunday, he had drafted his talk for the school and finally had sorted out the order of service for Harvest Festival. Now all he had to do was figure out what to say to the Mother’s Union on the subject of Harvest. He sighed. The chances of it being witty and captivating were low. To be honest, he was barely scraping together decent English, but trying to chase down the skeleton hands was wearing him out.

Today he was going to search the internet for Harvest Festival Thoughts to pull something together before calling in on Mrs Kingston who was having problems with her hip. The Mother’s Union weren’t meeting until next week, but Darren had learned from bitter experience that he could get called away without warning so tried to keep ahead of his schedule.

There was a quiet tap on the door. “Come in.” Darren said, bracing himself, but it was only Jasmine.

“Hi,” she said, smiling. “Ian asked whether you could call in this afternoon. He said that people would feel better to see you visiting.”

Darren was only too glad to abandon the speech to the Mother’s Union. “Sure, though I don’t know what I’m expected to do if Steve and Lady Freydis can’t contain this Jack.” He got up and grabbed his jacket before leaning in to kiss Jasmine. “Do you want to come for a drink tonight? There’s a quiz night on at the Red Lion.”

Jasmine regretfully shook her head. “Jeanette is planning out the winter schedule and Ian wants me to help her. Besides, is Egerton still refusing to leave the house?”

Darren nodded. “Though he cheered up when he heard Thistle had tried to gift Lady Freydis fairy gold. I may call in and see if I can have a word with someone sensible, like…” Darren trailed off. He couldn’t think of a sensible elfen.

Jasmine frowned. “I was surprised that so many people were taken in by the gold. I would have thought Kadogan would have spotted it straight away.”

Darren shook his head. “Some elfen have a knack, just like some have a knack for magic. Lady Freydis can usually see through something if she looks hard, and I wouldn’t like to try fooling Steve, but someone like Thistle can fool most. He’d have a tough job with a paladin, of course, but it wouldn’t be impossible, especially if the paladin was unsuspecting.” He paused and ran a gentle hand down Jasmine’s face. “Are you sure you can’t come tonight?”

Jasmine smiled. “If we finish early, I’ll come over. Jeanette won’t mind.”

“I hope you can make it.” Darren said. “Now I had better get down to the White Hart and I know you have college.”

“I’m on my way.”

The White Hart was full. The Christmas rush hadn’t quite started, but while there may have been fewer tourists, there were a lot more non-normals. Darren nodded to Martin who was browsing the books and went up to the café. Lady Freydis was still there and she had Darren’s cup of tea ready as he reached the counter. “It is good to see you, Reverend.” Lady Freydis smiled. “Between my courtship and the reappearance of Jack, there is a lot of energy in the air. Your visit is calming.”

“And calming is good, right?” Darren said. “Speaking of Jack, what is he?”

Lady Freydis shrugged. “It’s complicated. He’s very old. But he is such good fun. And he is picking up the modern age so well. He can trigger car alarms from a chain away.”

“So that’s why I didn’t get much sleep last night.” Darren said. “He was practising. Lady Freydis, you know that he has disrupted your court.”

Lady Freydis shrugged. “The novelty will wear off soon, and he will mostly stay in the background again. He is a threat to Steve Adderson at the moment, however, as Fiona is upset.”

Darren felt a sinking feeling. “And because Fiona rescued Jack, he now feels he owes her. What’s upset Fiona?”

“Steve has gone back to Lancaster. He was assured that Leanne was not there, and there is much business to be done, but Fiona is worried by Leanne. She is right to be worried.” Lady Freydis reached for the tiny espresso as Martin came back towards the counter. “Leanne is a trollop. She really is. She attaches herself to one young man after another and leaves them a husk. And she isn’t even that pretty! She tried to entice Lord Ragnar once, but of course got nowhere. She’s a complete slut.”

Darren took his tea to a table near the annexe and looked around. Lady Freydis was biased, obviously, but Leanne sounded like trouble. Leann sidhe were difficult at the best of times, and now her adopted father was becoming so sensitive to iron, he needed to hand over the reins to whoever Leanne could persuade to marry her. Steve was a great catch – half elfen, connected to some powerful families, on speaking terms with all the great lords and a dangerous sorcerer. A leann sidhe like Leanne was not likely to let a detail like a wife stand in her way.

There was a shimmer next to him and suddenly a handsome man was slouching next to Darren, smiling mockingly. “More tea, vicar?”

“Hello, Jack, good to see you. Thanks for keeping me awake last night.” Darren said, aware that all eyes were suddenly locked on their table. “But be a good bogeyman, don’t just appear from nowhere. Not everyone here is in the know and we don’t want to upset paying customers.”

“That would be bad for Fiona’s business.” Jack agreed. “I’ll remember that.” He waved an apologetic hand. “Sorry for keeping you awake. It should be that cute werewolf that’s costing you sleep, not me.”

Darren ignored that. “How long have you been away, Jack? Things are very different to how they were even fifty years ago.”

“They really are.” Jack glanced around the room. “I mean, we still can’t mention awkward facts like Martin’s feeding habits but when I was last here, the things on these shelves would get you imprisoned or sent to a madhouse. Now it is just seen as entertainment, like the notice for the Tarot reader.”

“There’s enough around to cause trouble.” Darren said. “But while you’re here, perhaps you can help out. What do you know about animated, skeletal hands catching mice and rats?”

“What do you know about Steve and Fiona?” Jack answered.

“I don’t interfere in a marriage.” Darren said. “And there has been enough of that, to be honest. That’s where a lot of the problems have come from. It would be nice to have some insight, but I’m not trading that for more trouble between them.” He glared at Jack. “If you care about Fiona, stay out of it.”

“Easy for you to say, padre.” Jack said. “But I am bound by obligations. She was crying in the backroom this morning, and it nearly broke my heart.”

“Do you have one?” Martin sat down next to Jack. “Darren is right. There has been too much interference. They are right for each other, but they never had a chance to find it out for themselves.”

Jack stretched out his long legs and lightly tapped the table with his fingers. “I cannot bear to hear Fiona cry. It’s burning me. But if she loves Steve – and she does – then what is to be done? I could school Steve, for all his power, but she may then take against me.”

“That would be a shame.” Martin said dryly. “I think they need a holiday together.”

“I overheard Elaine saying that it’s a shame that Fiona didn’t travel with Steve and protect him from other women, just like she had.” Jack frowned. “Though I did not realise that Elaine was Steve’s cast off.”

“It’s the other way around.” Martin said. “Elaine dumped Steve.”

“I am not happy that Fiona has another woman’s leavings.” Jack said.

Darren held up his hand. “I married them. I think they could have a good marriage if everyone kept out of it and once the deal with Lancaster has been made then it will all settle down.”

“The House of Lancaster and the House of York were ever at odds.” Jack said.

Martin sighed. “Don’t start. Perhaps you can have a word, Darren, and speak to Steve. He’s a good man. He’ll listen. And something has to be said now, just to get it back on track.”

“I’m too taken up with sorting out these skeletal hands.” Darren said with a pointed look at Jack.

“If Steve and Fiona are happy, I’ll have all the time in the world to help you, padre.” Jack said. “Deal?”

Darren closed his eyes for a moment. “I’m going to regret this. Deal.”

New Home


Photo by Fábio Alves on Unsplash

“So you’re definitely getting the house, then?” Mrs Tuesday said as she stood next to Fiona at the till. The shop was quiet and for once everything was ready at opening.

Fiona nodded. “It’s not far away, just outside Scholes, and it’s a nice big house with a lovely garden.”

“Are you getting the brownies to sort it out?” Mrs Tuesday asked.

Fiona doodled on the scratch pad next to the till. “We’re going to spend some time clearing it out first. It is absolutely full, but that was part of the conditions of sale – bought as is.” Fiona added a cute flower to the corner of the pad. “There’s a lot to do.”

“I daresay you’ll be doing most of it, with him always away.” Mrs Tuesday said. “I hope he knows how lucky he is.”

“Mmm.” Fiona kept doodling.

“He’s off to Lancaster again today, isn’t he?” Mrs Tuesday shook his head. “I hope he gets a good deal. But don’t worry about Leanne. She’s a baggage, but Steve won’t look twice at her. He knows what she is.”

Fiona turned the pad around to get a better angle on the kitten she was now sketching.

“He’s loyal to you, though I think he could do with a slap sometimes.” Mrs Tuesday said. “Leanne is a leanan sidhe. She’ll make a nuisance of herself until she finds someone else to obsess over, and then you won’t hear from her again. And Steve won’t be fooled.”

Fiona concentrated as she added a puppy to the kitten on the scratch pad, with a long, lolling tongue and huge paws.

“Even if he did like her – and he doesn’t – Steve wouldn’t be so crazy to get involved with a leanan sidhe. They are no better than they ought to be and they use men up before throwing them aside. And they sulk. Steve can’t bear someone who sulks.” Mrs Tuesday looked around for some sort of inspiration. “He does love you, you know. That’s why he’s so keen on the house.”

“I know.” Fiona said, ripping off the page and scrunching it up. “But is that the right reason to buy a house?”

“Don’t go looking for reasons to be unhappy.” Mrs Tuesday snapped. “You’re getting a nice house with a nice husband and there’s many people who would be grateful for it. You need to stop moping.”

Fiona took a breath. “You’re right. And could you cover for Dave if he can’t get here? He took the car over to Helmsley to check out the reports of the skeleton hands there, but he can’t get back. All the traffic lights in York seem to have gone crazy and everywhere is gridlocked.”

“And you know whose fault that is, don’t you?” Martin snapped, stalking in, looking very thin and pale. “Good morning, Lady Freydis, why didn’t you warn me that Jack is back?”

Lady Freydis dropped the tray of cups she was carrying. “Jack is back?”

Martin’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “You didn’t know?”

“When did you see him? What happened? Is that why you were so terribly injured? Where has he been?”

Mrs Tuesday looked worried. “Who is Jack?”

“Um.” Fiona wondered if she should have said something. “Um.”

“Yes, Jack is back.” Martin snapped. “Which is why none of the road signals are working correctly. It’s just his brand of mischief. I hadn’t realised how much I treasured the peace without him.” He looked at Mrs Tuesday. “Jack is complicated, difficult and unpredictable.”

“I know.” Lady Freydis sighed. “Do you remember the time he summoned all the rats within twenty miles to where the Legion was unloading its grain? They shrieked and wailed.”

“I know.” Martin said grimly.

“And the time he baptised a cat in the Minster?” Lady Freydis said. “The cat made such a singing.”

Mrs Tuesday rubbed her hand over her face. “Jasmine, clear up the cups, please, there’s a love. I need to find my Tarot deck. But is Jack a boggart or an elfen?”

“Um.” Fiona said.

“He’s complicated.” Lady Freydis shrugged. “But Martin, perhaps Mrs Tuesday has a tonic that may aid you. It must have been a hard fought argument.”

“Um.” Fiona looked around desperately.

“I will be fine after feeding a little more.” Martin waved an irritated hand. “Are you sure you didn’t know?”

“She didn’t.” Jack was suddenly there, leaning casually against the counter next to Lady Freydis.”

“Jack!” Lady Freydis vaulted the counter and hugged Jack. “Where have you been? What has happened?” She looked at Martin. “I am surprised Jack can even move! It must have been a battle indeed.” She looked back at Jack. “But your glamour isn’t showing a trace, which is impressive. It is so good to see you. I’m getting married.”

“To Martin?” Jack looked at the simmering Martin. “Congratulations.”

“I don’t know who I’m marrying yet.” Lady Freydis smiled happily. “It’s such fun.”

“What about Ragnar?” Jack asked.

Lady Freydis’ face suddenly stilled. “His is no more.” She straightened. “And I am the Prince and I am getting married to someone next midsummer.”

“I am sure it will be very entertaining for the next few months.” Jack smoothed a hand over his hair. “I may try courting you myself. I mean, you have always been delectable, but now with all that power and competition, you’re almost irresistible.” Lady Freydis giggled.

Martin noticed Fiona edging away. “Fiona, what is it?”

“I am sorry, my darling Lady Freydis, and I am sorry, my most dear Martin, but while I am so glad to see you both, I actually came here to meet with Fiona Adderson. I am at her service, you see. She freed me from my prison. I am bound to her for the rest of her life.” Jack swept gracefully over to Fiona, caught her hand and kissed it, bowing low. “Perhaps I could steal spices from the Orient for you, my most treasured lady.”

“We already have a very good stock of spices coming in.” Mrs Tuesday exchanged a worried glance with Martin. “Does Kadogan know you’re here?”

“I can’t wait to tell him!” Lady Freydis said. “Jack, may I offer you a beverage?”

“Wine, my sweetest Prince? It is scandalously early for wine.” Jack kept hold of Fiona’s hand as he grinned wickedly at Lady Freydis.

“Coffee, or hot chocolate with syrup and cream.” Lady Freydis said. “Watch this!”

Jack strode back to the café counter, dragging Fiona with him. “Chocolate?”

Fiona managed to extract her hand while Jack flirted with Lady Freydis and bickered with Martin. She sidled over to Mrs Tuesday. “I opened a pot when we were clearing the house. Armani was terrified and Steve was really worried. I don’t think he would have gone to Lancaster, though, if he thought Jack would come here. Who is he?”

Mrs Tuesday ran worried hands down her apron. “I’m not sure.” She took a cloth out of her pocket and wiped the clean counter next to the till. “I can tell he’s old, and I can tell he’s trouble.” She put the cloth back in her pocket. “Jasmine, keep an eye on the grills, please, I need to go and make some calls.”

“And you can tell everyone that I’m staying here.” Jack said, with another sweeping bow to Fiona. “That I may be of assistance to my lady fair at her place of business. I even have real money to pay rent.”

“How have you got real money?” Martin asked suspiciously.”

“I know where all the buried treasure is, so I dug some up and found a buyer.” Jack smiled wickedly. “And as she was willing to play fair, I was kind.”

“We have two paladins in York, now.” Martin said. “And I can see why.”

“And who are these fair maids?” Jack bounded towards the door as Adele and Jeanette came in, their arms full of boxes from the cash and carry.

“I’ll just go and make up your room.” Fiona said, and fled.

Jack in the Box


Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

“Thanks for helping out.” Steve said, looking up at the house. “I was told that it was likely to be full, but I wasn’t expecting it to be this full.”

“I suppose it counts as spending time together.” Fiona smiled up at Steve. “Only kidding. But it’s great to be involved.”

“And Mrs Tuesday will keep an eye on everything, won’t she?” Steve nudged his jacket pocket and Armani eased himself out and flapped lazily away, settling on the porch roof and hunching over.

“There are a lot of sensible people there.” Fiona said. “And it’s good to get away from work.” She started pulling supplies out of the car. “I couldn’t believe it either, when we had the walk through yesterday. I think we will be here for a while.”

Steve shook his head. “We are only taking care of the magical stuff. That’s the agreement. If they want anything else then they have to pay extra. And do something about the ghost.”

“She isn’t that bad.” Fiona said. “She probably only shows herself because of Armani. Anyway, let’s make a start.”

The house was a large, Victorian property with lots of gables and corners. The overgrown rhododendrons overshadowed the sash windows and the self seeded remnants of the flower borders rustled their dried seed heads as Steve unlocked the door and snapped on the hall light. “The son agreed to have the electric on for a week.” Steve said, “We can bring heaters with us if it gets too cold.”

“I’d rather keep warm by keeping busy.” Fiona dragged in the box of supplies. “So what are we looking for?”

Steve sighed. “Anything weird.” He looked around the large hallway with half a dozen coats hanging in the corner and dozens of paintings, pictures and mirrors hanging in the hall and stairs. Knickknacks covered every ledge and the four small tables wedged in the corners of the odd shaped room. “The trouble is, we share a shop full of weird things, and a mail order business full of weird things, and I work with weird things and you work with Lady Freydis which is pretty full of weird things. To us, weird is normal.”

Fiona laughed. “I know what you mean.” She looked around. “Let’s just be methodical. We start by the door, go along the walls from left to right, dealing with any furniture and cupboards as we get to them, then deal with anything in the centre of the rooms. We ignore anything that isn’t a problem, but if we go that way, we won’t miss anything.”

“Okay.” Steve looked back out through the door. “Armani?”

“I’m okay out here, boss.” Armani said. “Just doing a little bird watching.”

“Don’t upset any neighbours.” Steve said and then pulled the door almost shut. “Though I don’t think that there is anyone near.”

“It’s a shame,” Fiona said. “From what his son was saying, he was a nice old man but he didn’t really do much with people.”

“I know.” Steve said. “But I think he was happy enough. That’s what they said in the shop.”

“It’s lovely and quiet here.” Fiona said, “With a village shop and a pub and all the green spaces around. You can hear the birds sing – or you could if Armani didn’t chase them. Is he still after a cat?”

“Hmm?” Steve muttered a few words over a cardboard box and then pulled out a bundle. Still muttering he gently unwrapped the layers of silk before pulling out a prosaic hand mirror. Fiona kept respectfully quiet as he held the mirror up and angled it over his shoulder, glancing back to make sure he was getting the right view. “Fiona, could you get the angel?”

Fiona unwrapped the delicate figure from its silk coverings and held it up against the wall. Kadogan had given them the figure as a gift, and while they didn’t know what the enchantment was, it was definitely enchanted and great for seeing if detection spells worked. Steve kept his back to the figure but angled the mirror to see over his shoulder. He nodded. “I can see the angel glowing, so it’s working.” He took a deep breath. “It should be alright, if I get the angles right. Hang on…” He twisted the mirror a little. “That little picture to the right, I mean left, with the dog. There’s something there.”

It took most of the morning just to go through the hall and front parlour. Some of the items, like the picture of the dog, were just minor magic and Steve disabled and dissipated the magical charge easily enough. Other, more complicated items were photographed, documented and then wrapped in silk and packed in rowan wood shavings. It was slow and painstaking work, but Fiona found herself relaxing. “We haven’t spent this much time together for ages.”

“I know.” Steve rubbed a hand across his face, leaving a smudge. He looked down at his dusty t-shirt and dirty jeans. “It’s nice to be out of a suit for a change, and it’s been great working with you.” He smiled at Fiona. “We really need to do this more often.”

“Perhaps not something as hard as this.” Fiona shut the door on the front parlour and sighed. “But it’s been great.” For a moment the two looked at each other, enjoying the closeness. Fiona leaned forward and kissed Steve briefly on the lips. “Why don’t I make us some lunch. I’ve brought some stuff and the kitchen is okay.”

They ate lunch on a bench outside. Fiona looked around. “This could be a really nice place to live, if it was treated right.”

Steve nodded. “It has a good atmosphere.” He looked across to where Armani was trying to intimidate some crows and failing. “Despite everything.”

Fiona chuckled, then stopped. “How much is he asking for this place?”

“Have you any idea how much work it would take to clear this place?” Steve asked. “I mean, it needs completely gutting, the garden needs to be dug out and replanted and…” He trailed off. “We haven’t even looked at the sheds.”

“That would mean a lot of storage space.” Fiona said. “You’re right – the kitchen is a nightmare and I don’t want to think about the wiring, but…” She trailed off and looked around. “It’s not that far from York.”

“It’s technically in Leeds.” Steve said. “We would have to answer to Lord Marius.”

Fiona shrugged. “He’s your father and will enjoy annoying you, but it could be worse.”

“Yeah, it could be worse.” Steve took the last mouthful of coffee from his cup. “Come on, let’s try the back parlour next.”

The back parlour was always going to be the biggest challenge. The old man had used it just as storage and it was now a heap of cardboard boxes and crates. “We’re never going to get through these in a week,” Fiona said, standing in the doorway.

“We can just be methodical.” Steve said. “We can stack the stuff we’ve sorted through in the front parlour for now, and if we can get this done then we have got through the worst.”

“Is it even safe?” Fiona looked at the towering piles in front of them. “Perhaps we should get ladders?”

Steve whistled and Armani came reluctantly into the room. “You can start by bringing that box on the top down.” Steve said. He glanced at Fiona. “It’s about time Armani earned his tea and biscuits.”

Armani stared around the crammed room. “Bloody hell!”

It was quicker than they thought. A lot of the boxes were filled with books which could be easily sorted, and the old man had hoarded household supplies as well as magical curiosities. Some of it was just junk, but there were some interesting pieces.

“This is truly beautiful.” Steve held up the delicate porcelain candlestick to the light. “I can see why he wanted to keep it, but I don’t understand why it wasn’t out on display and getting appreciated. Get the next box, please, Armani.”

“No way, boss.” Armani started to shiver. “That’s a bad box. I’m not touching it, it’s more than my wings are worth.”

“What?” Steve stared at the imp. “I’ve seen you face down rogue vampires and crazed werewolves. What’s so bad in there?”

Armani shook his ugly head, wiping his hands down his filthy jeans. “I’m not going it near it, boss, and if it’s all the same to you, I’m going outside to sort out them crows.”

Fiona watched him flap quickly out into the hall and then looked at Steve. “How bad could it be?”

Steve frowned. “I’ve never seen him react like that. Not even when he was going in to rescue you and it was all going crazy.” He took a deep breath. “Hang on…” He placed his hands palms together and muttered a few words. With a struggle he pulled them apart and a glow formed in front of him, flickering and stuttering at first, but growing stronger. Sweat streaked down the dust on his face as he forced the light in front of him and up to the box. “This is tougher than I thought.” He twisted his hands and the light gently hovered over the nondescript cardboard box which started to glow. “It shouldn’t be doing that.” Steve struggled, trying to keep control as he gently lowered the light towards the box, which exploded.

Fiona screamed as the paper cascaded everywhere, shreds hanging from the curtains at the opposite side of the room and from the elaborate light fitting. The smell of scorched paper hung in the air and Steve staggered back, grabbing hold of Fiona to stay upright. Fiona clung onto him. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Steve looked pale but pulled himself upright. “That wasn’t what I expected.” He looked down at the small, lidded bronze pot lying at his feet. “This is the culprit.” He gently extended a hand, tentatively touching it before picking it up. “It’s not hot.”

Fiona came closer. “It doesn’t look like anything special.”

“I know.” Steve said. “That’s not a good sign. If it was meant to be opened then it would look a lot fancier.” He looked around at the cardboard-covered room. “Let’s get into the open air.”

The went outside and Steve placed the pot in the centre of a dried-up bird bath. “Fiona, stay there.” Glancing quickly around, Steve jogged to the house and came back with some supplies. “Armani, I know you’re out there. Get yourself next to Fiona.”

“I daren’t boss.” Armani was perched on the top of the house, clinging to a twisted chimney pot. “I daren’t go near it.”

“Then stay well clear.” Steve rigged up a circle of protection and braced himself. “Fiona, when I count to three, take the lid off the pot, then drop to the floor. I’ll be ready to deal with whatever comes out.”

Fiona took a breath. She had dealt with so many unexpected things – Mrs Tuesday, being fed love potions, Jeanette getting taken for a walk ‘in fur’ and coming back and shedding mud all over the floor, and she had faced them all. But now her husband looked pale and set and the imp that was normally loyal to the death was hiding behind a chimney pot and she had to set loose whatever was causing this. She tugged a stray shred of cardboard out of her hair, swallowed, and took the lid off the pot.

It was surprisingly easy. Fiona had expected there to be a struggle or stiffness, but it didn’t even feel like a snug fit. There was no flash or shout or explosion, just an incredibly handsome man standing in front of her, bowing low and kissing her hand.

“My lady, I owe you my freedom. I am Jack, completely in your debt.”

“Oh hell, not again.” Steve said.

Treasure


Photo by Pierangelo Ranieri on Unsplash

“I don’t see why you have to go to Lancaster again.” Fiona snapped as she stacked the bags of cloves that had just arrived.

“Listen, it’s a chance in a million. It would make a massive difference to our balance sheet.”

“Do you think that there actually is a stash of blue moonstones?” Fiona heaved the wooden box of nutmegs onto a counter and grabbed the nail puller. “And the shop is doing okay, thank you. It’s making a profit every month and we haven’t seen the effect of the extra seating and Lady Freydis’ announcement yet.”

“You are the one who wants a house.” Steve tried to pace in the small back room. “It’s not cheap getting one with decent storage.”

“We could probably get somewhere nice for the rent we are paying on the flat and just keep the lockup.” Fiona struggled as the nail puller slipped.

“When do you think we would have time to enjoy a bigger house?” Steve asked. “And we wouldn’t have time to look after a garden either. We are barely at the flat as it is. Let me do that.” He reached for the nail puller but Fiona snatched it away.

You may hardly be at the flat,” Fiona spat at him, “but I’m there loads. In fact, if I didn’t sometimes visit Jeanette or here with Mrs Tuesday, I’d be spending all the evenings there, mostly alone. I work the café on late nights for the company, because you are hardly at the flat.”

“That’s not fair.” Steve said, aware that there was some truth in what Fiona was saying. “I’m home sometimes.” It sounded hollow to him and he hurried on. “Listen, I know there are issues with Leanna at Lancaster, but I’ve got it under control. And even if the blue moonstones are an excuse, they have a hoard of Roman coins. They are worth working with.” He watched Fiona struggling with the crates. “Please, Fiona, let me do that.”

“I think you’re too busy because you’re getting ready to go to Lancaster.” Fiona could feel sobs rising in her throat. “And take the imp with you this time. He’s trying to adopt a cat and it’s getting on my nerves.”

Armani peered cautiously out of Steve’s jacket pocket and then sank slowly down again. Steve ignored him. “If you want to get into the crate, go for it. I hope you aren’t still working on it when I get back tomorrow.” He stormed out.

Fiona slumped on the chair in the corner, dropping the nail puller and trying to control her tears. The last thing she needed was for Kadogan or Lady Freydis to get involved. She shouldn’t have been like that. She should have sent Steve off with an image of a wife that was loving and sweet and welcomed him home. Now he was driving towards a fairy with a serious crush on him who would make him feel like a hero.

She didn’t look up when the door opened but braced. Then she relaxed as a large mug of Orange Pekoe tea was placed gently next to her.

Dean sat next to her. “I remembered that this was your favourite when things were going badly for you, and that you took sugar in this but not in your other teas.”

Fiona managed a smile. “Thanks.”

“Are you okay?” Dean asked. “I heard some shouting and Mrs Tuesday was looking worried.”

“Kadogan and Lady Freydis didn’t hear, did they?” Fiona said, alarmed.

Dean shook his head. “They said something about sorting out the van, so they are in the back yard. They’ll probably know something has happened.” He looked at the chipped edge of the crate. “Do you want me to open that?”

Fiona was too exhausted to argue but watched, blankly, as Dean stood and pulled the slats apart with little effort. He shrugged. “Vampiric strength has its uses.” He put the bags of nutmegs on a far counter and perched on the small table opposite her. “I’m not really in a position to give advice.”

Fiona took a sip of her tea. The strong and slightly sweet brew warmed her as she held on to the mug with both hands. “Please don’t. I’ve had enough advice on my love life to last a lifetime.”

“Steve loves you.” Dean said. “He really does. He’s just not used to being in one place for long. He’s spent the last few years travelling in all sorts of strange places and he’s had some seriously traumatic experiences, so it’s hard for him to change.”

Fiona took a breath. “Everyone else can see how much Steve loves me. Why can’t he show me?”

“Because he doesn’t know how, yet.” Dean managed a smile. “If I thought it was just empty words, I’d be begging you to come back to me. I messed up the best thing that ever happened in my life, and I can see Steve doing the same thing.” His smile faded. “Anyway, I thought I would bring in a cuppa and let you know that it can work out.”

“Thanks.” Fiona managed. “I appreciate that.” She hesitated. “It can’t have been easy. I’m sorry things turned out for you like this.”

“So am I.” Dean said. “But it is what it is. You and Steve…” He looked at the door. “What the hell is that racket?”

Fiona trailed after Dean, still clutching her mug of tea. For a moment, every scrap of strength she had drained out of her. A group of elfen were standing in the middle of the shop, right at the start of the lunchtime rush, and setting down boxes and bags in what looked like a choreographed heap. As more people started filing in and edging around the stack, Fiona scrabbled together what was left of her mental energy and carefully placed her mug next to her till with all that was left of her control. “You can’t leave that there.”

The man giving directions turned and sneered at Fiona. He was tall, slim and clean shaven and his mid brown hair was long and pulled into a loose pony tail. “You have no idea who you are talking to. I’m Thistle and I’ve taken over from Egerton at Tadcaster.” He dusted an imaginary speck off his silk shirt. “I’m here to see Lady Freydis.”

“I said – you can’t leave that there.” Fiona said. The café would be packed within the next twenty minutes. “Get it out of here.”

“I don’t talk to shop girls.” Thistle said. “Where is my prince?”

Fiona took a breath. “Out.”

“I have been sleeping with the owner.” Thistle said, smirking. “She seduced me. You will get fired.”

Lady Freydis appeared, “I somewhat doubt your passion, Thistle, as Fiona Adderson is very loyal to her husband.” She glanced briefly at Fiona who was white with fury. “Perhaps you should leave now.”

“Fiona would vouch for me.” Thistle waved a hand airily and ignored the elfen frantically tugging at his sleeve with magnificent unconcern. “She is a sweet little thing, but a candle to your sun, my lady.” He swept a bow to Lady Freydis.

Fiona stepped forward, her fists clenching and unclenching. “Perhaps Lady Freydis could introduce us.”

“I’m sure Thistle recognises you.” Lady Freydis weighed up the fury in Fiona and decided that today was not the day to play. “Thistle, you are talking to Fiona Adderson. She isn’t exactly just a shop girl.”

“Although any employee in this establishment should be treated with respect.” Fiona said. “I believe I asked you to leave.”

“We got off to a bad start,” Thistle smiled sweetly at her. “But it’s just a misunderstanding. Besides, I can’t leave without presenting my tribute.” He smirked again at Lady Freydis. “I have much hoarded treasure.”

“You surprise me.” Lady Freydis said.

“I have many ways to surprise you.” Thistle waved an autocratic hand and his helpers rushed forward, a few of them looking apologetically at Fiona.

Fiona blinked. As the boxes were cut down and the sacks and bags rolled back, treasure after treasure spilled out. Crystal drops on fine strands of horse hair were draped over soft, woollen cloth pattern with Celtic-style swirls. Petrified wood was carved into glowing, burnished figures and candlesticks and delicate, woven grass bowls held a tumble of jet and amber beads. She looked around. The shop was filling up. Some were tourists and were obviously interested in making a purchase. Others were members of Lady Freydis’ court and their eyes were gleaming at the display. Unfortunately that display was right were the queue for sandwiches normally formed and it was getting more complicated and confused by the second.

Lady Freydis stepped closer to Thistle and ran a feminine hand down his face. “All this treasure? To show your wealth?”

“To offer to you, my prince.” Thistle said, catching her hand and kissing it.

“This treasure is indeed of a splendid appearance.” Lady Freydis said. She raised an immaculate eyebrow and the boxes and bags collapsed suddenly into a pile of leaves. “You actually tried to give me a gift of fairy gold?”

“We’re trying out a new magic act.” Mrs Tuesday said hastily as the tourists gasped and stepped back.

“I’d like to book you for our Christmas function.” A portly, bald man said quickly. “That was seamless.”

“It needs some work.” Mrs Tuesday said, taking him by the elbow and discreetly guiding him to the counter. “But we are offering free tea or coffee to anyone affected by the inconvenience.”

Adele scuttled out with a brush as Elaine encouraged the queue back to its normal position before diving behind the counter to help with the drinks. Fiona was furious.

“How dare you drop dead leaves over my clean floor.” She hissed.

There was amusement in Lady Freydis’ expression, but she put a firm hand on Thistle’s shoulder. “Why don’t you come into the back room with me.” She said. “I can explain the right things and the wrong things to gift to a Prince.”

“It was an excellent illusion.” Kadogan said. “I was completely fooled.”

“Then I shall give an excellent explanation.” Lady Freydis said.

For one moment Fiona felt almost like the floor was shifting under her, as the confusion and worry washed over her in a wave that left her gasping for a breath. Then she ran past Thistle, who was obviously regretting his grand gesture, and started bringing up the extra supplies for the lunchtime rush.

For those interested, I am finally actually definitely going to be publishing a newsletter next week (if I can get it to work), and if you would like to subscribe, the link is here. I plan to include any news and links, a household tip from Mrs Tuesday and a piece of original fiction, ideally once per month. I’m doing all I can to make sure that it complies with all the legal stuff, but I am keeping to the spirit that I require enthusiastic consent to add you, that I will take you off the list as soon as you like, and I will treat any contact details you leave with respect and care.