Challenger

Lord Ragnar sat, glowering, as his court milled around his hall.  The air was full of whispers and the tang of an oncoming thunderstorm.  Kadogan lounged in a chair nearby, his eyes watchful although his body looked completely at ease.  Lord Ragnar gestured for some wine.

“What am I supposed to do now?” he growled at Kadogan.  “It’s a Paladin’s lair.  I have no business there – and none of my people are involved.”

“The building and its neighbours are completely destroyed.” Kadogan said. “This is a shame.  I remember watching them being built and they were well constructed.  They stood for over a century.”

Lord Ragnar snatched the goblet of wine from the tray of a nervous server and took a long draught.  “At least I think it was none of my people.  Why should one of my people blow up the home of the Paladin when he is so reasonable?  Of course, the goblins have been a trial, but nothing out of the ordinary.”

“I remember them burying a witch bottle under the front step.” Kadogan said.  “It was a true trap, and I remember how it sparkled and gleamed as they buried it.  I don’t suppose the workmen saw that though.”

“First it is the White Hart burning, now the Paladin’s lair is destroyed.  It does not look well on me.” Lord Ragnar glared around the hall.  The normal atmosphere of a relaxed gentleman’s club was gone and instead the tension ran around the room like a live wire.  The black and white floor tiles were cracked and stained.

Kadogan nodded at the floor.  “Did you do that or is it a manifestation of problems in your domain?”

Lord Ragnar swore and waved a hand and the floor was restored to its usual pristine state with a sharp crack.  “And Freydis still talks of changing her name.  It is not appropriate.”

“You divorced her.” Kadogan reminded him.  “They had tiles like those in the halls when those houses were built.  They weren’t as good quality, but they looked pleasant.  One of the workers whistled very tunefully and I watched them work all that summer.”

“Those tiles are no more.” Lord Ragnar took another mouthful of the wine.  “And what are we to say about it?  If Paladin Dave Kinson, who has been an ally in our recent struggles, comes to see me now, what do I say?  Thank you for the help in fighting the revenants that were attacking our people, and thank you for the help in destroying Rey Baxter, and thank you for the kindness you have shown our people except possibly the goblins who deserve all they get in my opinion, and we have nothing to offer in return.”

“Dave Kinson and Darren King are staying at the White Hart for now as the Knights Templar are coming to York in force.” Kadogan said.

“I shall pay their rent.” Lord Ragnar said quickly.  “I insist on doing something.”

“Accepted.” Kadogan said.  “But an explosion of such size is not easily accomplished.  The newspapers were told that it was gas mains and so were the insurer people, but Detective Pierce says that there was no evidence of such things.”

“They do not allow my seers and soothsayers near the building.” Lord Ragnar said.  “Not that there is any magical protection there anymore.  It is unacceptable.” He threw his goblet hard into the fireplace.  The dregs of wine hissed and spat on the burning logs.

“They are reasonable not to trust elfen,” Kadogan said with a certain pride as he watched a brownie try to hook the goblet out of the fire.  “But it is still a nuisance.  And there are fourteen Knights Templar in York.  That has not been known for many centuries.”

A susurration ran around the hall as Martin strode in.  Lord Ragnar leapt to his feet.  “You!”

Martin approached Lord Ragnar and bowed perfunctorily.  “My lord.”

“I thought you were sleeping.” Lord Ragnar snapped as he glared at Martin.  He gestured to the servers.  “Bring wine.”

“I am taking no food or drink at this time.” Martin said politely but firmly.

“It is freely given, Aelfhelm.” Lord Ragnar sank back into his chair but Kadogan remained standing at his shoulder.  Elfen warriors started to appear in the corners of the room.

“I no longer use that name.” Martin said, watching the warriors with controlled confidence.  “My old friend died a millenia ago, and, while I still honour his memory, I use Martin now.”

“But why are you here?” Lord Ragnar took the wine offered by the server and waved him away.

“Who could sleep through this racket?” Martin said.  “You have mingled vampire and faery magic in your realm.  It is looking for ways to twist into the world.  If you do not heal your realm then it will be knocking at the door of the normal world.  It is not yet Midsummer and the days lengthen.  What will the dark faery magic do when the nights draw in?”

“What do you know of the faerie realm?” Lord Ragnar gripped the goblet tightly.

“I am not entirely out of touch.” Martin said.  “Your ex wife gave a portion of her kingdom to a vampire, did she not?  The vampire may be destroyed, but the energy is still there, the filter the power of your kingdom flows through is dark and poisoned.” Martin looked around.  “You need to heal your domain and you need to get all the vampires here firmly under your control.  Why are there no vampires here aside from myself?”

Lord Ragnar looked around.  “Where is Miss Patience?”

Martin shook his head.  “You let her control the vampires?  No wonder there are troubles.  And where is Freydis?  She was always skilled with the workings of a faery realm.”

“She is making coffee.” Kadogan said, moving a little closer to Lord Ragnar.

“You let her get a hobby?” Martin stared.  “Well, I am sure we will all benefit from great coffee.”  He bowed again. “I am your liegeman and I am bound to give you counsel.  My counsel is to either get your ex wife or someone of equal skill and mend your realm.  Until that happens, the problems will continue.”

“You are supposed to give me counsel when asked.” Lord Ragnar said.

“I’m sure you meant to ask.” Martin had a half smile on his lips.  “I thought I would save you some time.”

“As your lord, then, I ask you to do a task worthy of your station.” Lord Ragnar snapped.  “Bring me Miss Patience.”

Jasmine sagged a little as the coach party finally straggled out of the White Hart and onto their coach.  “These coach parties get very busy.” She watched in relief as the coach pulled out of the car park.

“They even bought the plastic fairies.” Adele said.  “Keep an eye out on the gifts for me, please.  I need to get up some more stock.” She disappeared into the back.

“They spent well, but they were also normals.” Freydis said.  “They can be trying.  They do not understand the dangers of having their head ripped off should they get too fastidious.”

“Did you see the lady getting cross at the books?” Jasmine grinned as she started clearing the tables.  “She kept complaining about the devil’s work and being cursed for looking at it.”

“It is as well that Mrs Tuesday isn’t here.” Freydis said.  “Although it is always enjoyable to watch her look so frail while being so, so…” Freydis waved a hand.

“She’s a complete wind up merchant.” Jasmine said.  “I hope her back gets better soon.”

“I am sure it shall.” Freydis ran a caressing hand over the coffee machine before sighing and starting to load the dishwasher.  “Though she is very old, even for a boggart.”

Jasmine looked over to Fiona.  “Do you think Mrs Tuesday will get better?”

Fiona looked into Jasmine’s anxious face.  “Of course she will,” she said with more hope than truth.  “And even if she doesn’t, she still has a place here if she wants it.”

“We are quite the community,” Frerydis said, “Though I’m not sure if we are a court or a pack.”

“We’re a shop.” Fiona didn’t want to think beyond that.  “Jasmine, can you keep an eye on the till?  Darren and Dave will be over in an hour and I want to check over their rooms.” Fiona disappeared upstairs.

Freydis cleared the counter as Jasmine wiped down the tables.  “I am so glad I found coffee.” Freydis said.  “It has made such a difference to my life.” She straightened the dried grasses next to the coffee machine and checked the cupboards.  “We have run out of the Ethiopian blend.  I shall be back soon.” Her smile was barely malicious.  “You will be the captain of this ship as the only one here while I am gone.”

Jasmine finished cleaning the kitchen and then went to stand by the till.  The shop seemed very big and she felt unnervingly small.  She found herself going over the till.  There were spare till rolls, plenty of bags and tape and not much to do.  She wasn’t going to touch any of Adele’s ornaments.  Adele was very clear that she had the final say in how the knickknacks were arranged.  Jasmine wandered over to the herbs and started straightening them.  Some of the coach parties were dreadful.  It looked like boggart kitlings had been playing here.  Jasmine looked over as the door opened.  “I’ll be right there.”

“No rush, love.” Ferdi sauntered towards the herbs.  “Well, if it isn’t Sweet Jasmine.”

Jasmine flushed.  “Hi, Ferdi.  How are you?”

“Doing okay, can’t complain.  You look good as well, Sweet.  It looks like you fell on your paws.” Ferdi stroked his knobbly hand over a pack of wormwood.  “Do they know what you’re like here?”

“They know everything.” Jasmine said.

“Are you sure?” Ferdi grinned.  “I could tell them a few things.”

“I’ve always told them the truth.” Jasmine said.  “I have nothing to hide.”

“But have you told them everything?” Ferdi asked.  “Listen, why don’t you come for a coffee with me, just one coffee?  That’s all I’m asking.  Then I won’t have any reason to say anything to them.  What’s the harm in one coffee?”

Jasmine shook her head and backed away.  “I don’t think it would be a good idea, and, besides, what about Samantha?”

“My wife wouldn’t bother about me having a coffee with a friend.” Ferdi said.  “After all, it’s just a coffee.”

“It’s never just a coffee with you.” Jasmine said, “And I don’t want to get into another fight.”

“After all, you don’t want to spoil your chances here, do you?” Ferdi said.  “If you get thrown out of here, who would take you in?”

“I can look after myself.” Jasmine said defiantly.

Ferdi took a step forward.  “Of course you can, Sweet, and that’s why it’s okay to come with me for a coffee, because you can look after yourself.”

“Shut up or get out.”

Ferdi spun around and found himself facing Darren.  “I was just asking an old friend for a coffee.  There’s no harm in that.”

Darren briefly glanced at Jasmine’s flushed face and focused back on Ferdi.  “She said no.”

“Well then, no harm done.  I can catch up with her another time.” Ferdi started sauntering towards the door.  “But you can’t blame a goblin for trying.  After all, everyone knows that Jasmine doesn’t like fur, so I had to think I was in with a chance.” He slipped out of the door before Darren could say anything.

Darren turned to Jasmine.  “It’s okay,” he said.  “Don’t worry about slimeballs like him.”

Jasmine stared at him, wide eyed, and then burst into tears.  As Darren awkwardly patted her arm and let her cry into his shoulder, he wondered what on earth was going on and how much trouble he could get into if he hunted down Ferdi right now.

Dean looked around.  This was only the second time he had visited Miss Patience’s home and he was just as intimidated.  Last time Miss Patience had sat him in her small parlour and charmingly terrorised him with an insistence that he did exactly as he was told and obeyed her unquestioningly.  Now they were in the larger drawing room.  Half a dozen vampires were seated around in the dim light of flickering candles.  Dean wondered why as it was still light outside, but heavy velvet curtains had been pulled over the windows.  It all felt so fake.  The former farmhouse was probably Elizabethan, stone built and sturdy near the edge of York, and surrounded by well planned and matured gardens, complete with a stone folly in one corner.  Miss Patience had bought it last winter, to get somewhere secluded for the vampires of York to meet.

Now things were getting strange.  The ‘acolytes’ that Miss Patience usually had drifting around were missing and there was an eerie silence in the room.  Dean didn’t really know the other vampires.  He had met most of them in Lord Ragnar’s court, but he hadn’t spent much time with them.  Now he was the only one that didn’t seem wide eyed and hyper.  He wished Martin were there.

“We all must stand.” Miss Patience said, rising gracefully to her feet and stood next to the fireplace.  “Form a circle.”

Dean felt awkward as he shuffled into a rough circle with the others.  The rest of the vampires, or coven as Miss Patience insisted on calling them, looked like they were taking part in a very bad horror movie, their lips parted and their fangs showing.

“Dean, stand to my left.” Miss Patience waved her arm and Dean squeezed between Vivienne and the couch and stood at Miss Patience’s left side.  The rest of the vampires seemed to sway around and fill the gap without any thought.  Miss Patience turned to Dean.  “You have never experienced a feeding circle, have you?  It is a mystical moment.  It will truly change your perception of everything.” She stroked down his cheek.  “You don’t share any blood with us, poor boy.  Rey was never part of the York vampires.  He came from elsewhere and you only are connected to him.  But we must correct that.”

Dean managed a smile and looked around at the others.  They were all watching him with piercing, hungry eyes and he didn’t want to look like that.  “Are you sure…”

“You will not disobey me, surely.” There was steel in Miss Patience’s voice.

“Of course not, Miss Patience.” Dean kept his eyes and voice steady but he wondered whether he was going to get out of here alive.  He had already checked for exits and he had chosen the French windows at the north end of the room as his best chance of getting out of there quickly.

“It is quite simple, and beautiful in its simplicity.” Miss Patience took a moment to sigh. “I take a sip of Jacob’s blood, he takes a sip from Amelia, who takes a sip from Melvyn and so on and so on until Vivienne takes a sip from you and you take a sip from me to complete the circle.  And so we start again, with me taking the smallest sip from Jacob, and round and round until the ecstasy is too much to bear.”

Dean tried to stretch his mouth into a smile.  “Great.” He wondered when the best time to make his break would be.

Miss Patience turned and took a large, wooden box from the mantelpiece and opened it with a flourish.  “We must have the correct atmosphere for this.” She dropped a handful of incense into the fire.

Dean was relieved that it wasn’t dragon’s blood but instead the heavy smoke from copal slid out of the fire and over the floor.  He wondered if Miss Patience knew about dry ice.  The rest of the vampires seemed to be preparing to lose themselves in the moment, but he felt real fear for the first time since he died.  Whatever happened, whatever he needed to do, he was not drinking from Miss Patience.

“Everyone link hands for a moment and draw closer.” Miss Patience caught Dean’s hand before he had a chance to think about it.  He reluctantly extended his hand to Vivienne and felt her cool, soft hand slip into his.

Dean knew he had to stay as calm as he could.  Any tension in his wrist would be read by Miss Patience.  He had to hold his nerve until it was time to run for it.

Miss Patience drew herself up.  “Now is the time for our communion.  We come together…”

There was a resounding crash as the French windows were torn out of their frame and thrown out across the garden.  This was followed by a clatter as Martin tore down the curtains and strode in.  “Hello Patience.  What sort of tomfoolery are you trying now?”

“How dare you!” Miss Patience hissed.  “I trust you will pay for repairs.”

“Of course not.” Martin said.  “Idiots should not be rewarded.  Are you trying that circle thing again?  I told you centuries ago that it was a bad idea.”

“You always were scared of what you were.” Miss Patience snapped.

Martin didn’t bother replying to that.  “Lord Ragnar requires your presence.”

“Why?”

“He didn’t say, and I didn’t ask.” Martin glanced around the room.  “Dean, your needed at the White Hart.  I’ll join you there.”

Dean had never felt so thankful in his life.  “Right, I’ll get straight over.”

“I think he needs my permission first.” Miss Patience snapped.

“And I think that Lord Ragnar’s orders overrule yours.” Martin said.

“I think I will not be going to Lord Ragnar’s court just yet.  Dean can stay until I leave.”  Miss Patience deliberately threw another handful of incense onto the fire.

Martin’s nose wrinkled.  “I think you shall attend on Lord Ragnar when he demands.”

“And are you willing to try to make me.” Miss Patience snapped.

“Of course.” Martin sounded bored.  He wandered over to the nearest window and threw open the curtains.  “Nice garden.”

“Get out of my home!”

Martin bowed.  “After you, Patience.” He caught Dean’s eye and as Miss Patience swept out towards her car, Martin and Dean followed, to Dean’s utter relief.

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