Challenge

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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

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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!


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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.