Darren looked over the packed church and felt inadequate. So many of his fellow students in theology college had had the gift of comforting the bereaved. He had been blessed with the gift of fighting monsters. Darren was fine with that most of the time, but sometimes, when faced with such a packed memorial service, he felt the yawning gulf between him and the mourners, and it hurt.
Freydis was sitting motionless at the front, next to Lord Marius, Kadogan and Atherton. She was worryingly pale, and Darren desperately wished he had the right words to say to her as the final hymn finished. He sent up a quick prayer for help to join all the others he had said before and during Lord Ragnar’s memorial and, as the final hymn finished, stepped forward and concentrated on the blessing.
Darren led the procession out of the church and felt the mourners falling in behind him. It took all his courage to keep his face solemn and his composure in place as he felt the wave of grief as he passed the elfen, boggarts, brownies and werewolves that were packing the church. There were even more watching through a screen linked to the church hall. The more important had found places in the church, overfilled and overflowing, but the lesser mourners, those who had been late and those who, for whatever reason, could not venture on to holy ground had not been turned away but gently directed to an equally packed hall. He paused at the doorway to stop and try and find words of comfort for those leaving.
Darren was deeply worried by Freydis. She was elegant and poised, moving with complete control over every movement of her body and every movement was deliberate and planned. She looked like she could shatter like glass. Her sober and modest black dress and unobtrusive veil clearly said that she was not here for drama and it looked like people had respected her wishes so far. She was silent as she shook Darren’s hand, nodding as he offered her his sympathy and an assurance that his door was always open and then moving with curated precision out into the summer rain.
Kadogan was being supported by Suzuki who was holding tight onto his arm and casting frequent and worried glances at his pale and tear stained face. Atherton wasn’t in much better condition. In fact, most of the elfen of the court seemed to genuinely be mourning him. Darren had very limited experience of elfen memorials, but there was often an element of smug relief that there was now a little less competition. Today that was missing. Even Egerton seemed subdued, and he was certainly not tactless enough to look relieved.
Many of the other non-normals were equally subdued. Darren had heard many of Lord Ragnar’s acts of kindness over the last few centuries. He may have got some things wrong, but he had done a lot of quiet good in York, and was already missed.
Sir Ewan shook Darren’s hand. “That was a good service.”
“Thanks.” Darren said. “He will be missed.”
“Yes, he will. I hope his successor can live up to his example.” Sir Ewan sighed, aware that a lot of ears were listening in. “We’ll meet you at the funeral feast.”
“Yes, I have to lead prayers in the hall before I can come down, but I’ll be there.” Darren said.
And that was the other hard, heavy emotion hanging over the memorial service – fear. No-one, not even the oldest elfen, could remember when a Prince last died without there being someone who had killed him to get their power. No-one knew what was going to happen now, but disputes about princedoms were notoriously violent. Darren kept his composure and kept silently praying.
Fiona kept her hand slipped into Steve’s arm. All the group from the White Hart were staying close together. Freydis had, with reluctant permission from Darren, built a temporary pocket of faery realm just outside the lych gate and the vans from the White Hart, judiciously parked, now hid people walking up to an old tree trunk, running their hands down its trunk and then stepping inside. Fiona had never seen anything like it. Outside was a summer’s day, albeit rainy and cold for the time of year, inside was a warm summer’s night. She stepped inside a tree, which was unnerving enough, then she walked down a plain, flagged passage with smooth plastered walls, then through an unassuming smooth wooden door into a forest clearing. The air was warm and the scent of the forest hung in the air. There was a sensation of being in the middle of a vast and empty forest. Stars crowded the sky, undimmed by any streetlight. A great fire burned in the centre of the clearing, the flames dancing high and sparks cracking as the bonfire the size of Fiona’s bedroom cast out a welcome warmth as the cool night breeze rustled the surrounding trees.
Ian helped Jeanette into one of the seats scattered around the clearing. Jeanette was still looking pale and sank into the strangely formed tree stump with some relief. Jasmine was standing nearby with Callum and Adele, ready to help.
Fiona looked up at Steve. “When is the next full moon?”
“Next Thursday.” Steve said, looking around. “Of course, it will be late at this time of year.”
“Will Jeanette be okay?” Fiona asked.
Steve turned from his admiration of the shaped wooden seats and benches scattered around and the huge sandstone slabs that Freydis had caused to surround the clearing to act as great stone tables. “Of course. I don’t think Ian meant to change her when he licked her cut face.” He looked across to where Ian was fussing over Jeanette. “Poor lad feels guilty enough that she got injured instead of him.”
“But she will be okay?” Fiona said.
“Yes, she’ll be fine.” Steve put his arm around Fiona’s shoulders and gave a quick squeeze. “Don’t worry.” He looked around. “I’m more worried about Freydis.”
Freydis was standing at the head of the table. She was keeping her glamour up and her golden hair gleamed in the soft light of the lanterns in the trees, but her motionless poise was unnerving. Fiona’s heart ached in sympathy.
“She’s mended the realm, though, hasn’t she?”
“Yes, she’s done a very thorough job.” Steve looked around. “And this place is a work of art. I wouldn’t be surprised if these trees weren’t favourites of Lord Ragnar. Not all of the flowers are in season.”
“That is indeed true.” Kadogan came up behind them. He was wearing a sharp suit and black shirt with a black tie. He also looked pale and strained. “See, there are Michaelmas daisies which he adored, although I found them ragged and unkempt. They do not usually bloom until much later in the year.” He waved at the stand of pale yellow blossoms in one corner. “And Lord Ragnar always looked for the first bloom of celandines when they flowered at the first hint of spring and there is a carpet of them under the oaks. But the honeysuckle and roses he also adored are right for the time. Freydis has honoured him well.”
“How are you feeling?” Fiona asked him quietly.
“With difficulty.” Kadogan hunched over. “It is hard to know that my good friend is silenced.”
It was hard to know what to say to that. Steve looked around. There were a lot of powerful elfen lords present from all over the country and there was a lot of quiet business being done. Steve had spotted Egerton talking discreetly to most of them and he was currently deep in conversation with Lord Wilbur of Hull. All around the room were knots of people talking in low voices. “Come on, we don’t leave Freydis alone.”
“Indeed.” Kadogan said with more strength in his voice than he had shown over the last four days. “She avenged Lord Ragnar’s death. And all know that she is the key to power. She should not be abandoned.”
“I’m happy to walk over there.” Jeanette said. She smiled up at Ian. “I’m a little sore, but not so hurt that I can’t stand by Freydis.”
“If you’re sure.” Ian gently helped Jeanette up. “Yes, I know I’m fussing. But it’s good if we can stand by Freydis.”
“If we don’t, then who will.” Mrs Tuesday shifted her black patent leather handbag onto her shoulder.
The group from the White Hart made their way over to where Freydis stood. Her face was still fixed but her eyes were grateful. It was an odd assortment that joined the nearly-widow at the head of the table. An elderly boggart and her great nephew, a few elfen, werewolves and their partners, a magician and his wife and the only two local vampires left in York. Dean had hung around awkwardly at the edge of the group and drifted with them, Martin joining them and standing close to Freydis. Finally, Dave left Darren and the representatives of the Knights Templar and joined the rest of the White Hart.
Dave approached Freydis with caution. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” Freydis managed a smile. “I miss him a great deal.”
Mrs Tuesday nodded. “I know, love. It never goes away, but you deal with it better.”
Freydis nodded. “At times I could feel your grief for your late husband, nearly eighty years after your loss. I shall take you as an inspiration.”
Kadogan frowned. “Not too much. That would terrify the customers.”
A ghost of a smile flickered briefly on Freydis’ face. “Thank you for being here for Lord Ragnar.”
“And you!” Jasmine said quickly. “You are one of us.”
“It is a very odd sensation, to be part of such a close group.” Freydis said. “I wish Lord Ragnar had known it.”
The head of the brownies approached, dithering a little at the edge of the group before pushing past Fiona and bowing to Freydis. “Should we bring the food out now?”
“Yes, thank you, Gavin Brown.” Freydis nodded and took a breath. “I am confident it will be a great feast, such as Lord Ragnar deserved.”
“Indeed it will, miss, indeed it will.” Gavin pulled himself up to his full height. “Nothing has been lacking.”
Freydis watched, mesmerised, as the brownies brought out food and drink with clockwork efficiency. The stone slabs were laid identically. A large hog roast was placed in the centre, with a large carving knife attached to the huge pewter platter by a silver chain. At corners were placed wide trays of chicken legs and bread rolls, surrounded by deep pots of mustard and pickles. At the cardinal points were platters of stand pies, glistening in the light from the fire, already sliced into substantial wedges and surrounded by wheels and truckles of cheese. Like a choreographed dance, the brownies slid smaller plates into the gaps filled with quivering lemon jellies, piled cubes of Turkish delight, pyramids of hard boiled eggs, delicate sand biscuits, fragile wafers, stone creams, trifles, vol-au-vents and after dinner mints.
Other brownies were setting up the drink in between the stone slabs. Barrels of wine, mead and old fashioned ale were hoisted on trestles with aluminium kegs of premium lager, and smaller, wooden kegs of brandy and whiskey stood on wooden benches, surrounded by an incongruous selection of colas and bottled waters. Drinks were already circulating, the brownies skilfully keeping the strong stuff away from the goblins.
When everyone had a drink in their hand, Freydis stepped forward and waved. A clear, bell-like note rang out and raised her goblet. “Lord Ragnar!” She said and hundreds of voices echoed the brief toast. Then Freydis started to sing.
Steve held Fiona close. The songs of the elfen could be dangerous. They could sing the wits out of your head and your heart out of your body. Tonight Freydis was singing goodbye to Lord Ragnar, in an old, old song. It wasn’t the English of Shakespeare or Chaucer. It wasn’t the language used when William the Bastard harried the north. It was older than the Vikings who turned Eorwic to Jorvik, older than the Angles who had renamed Eboracum and older than the Roman invaders who had laid down the stone roads over the Celtic pathways. It was the language of the first people that wandered past the joining of the Ouse and the Fosse rivers and down to where the Ouse met the Trent and became the Humber. It was the language of those who traded amber for jet with those who travelled across the wide, grassy plain that was now under the North Sea. It spoke of loss, and grief and darkness and broke your heart. A tear slipped down Steve’s face as the song finally faded, and silence rang out.
Martin raised his glass. “My princes, lords, ladies and all – kneel to your new Prince – Prince Freydis!”
There was a shocked moment of indrawn breaths and frantically exchanged glances. Steve noticed that Freydis looked briefly as shocked as anyone before she pulled herself up and looked around, defying contradiction.
Steve held up his glass. “To our new Prince!” and he knelt, along with Fiona. With very little hesitation the rest of those who could kneel did so. Dave couldn’t kneel to a non-normal Prince. He was the paladin that was supposed to be the balance to the Prince, completely independent and, if necessary, the main opposition. Instead he bowed, a low, sweeping bow that was echoed by the other Princes and the Knights Templar. As he glanced up, Lady Freydis looked brighter than ever, her gold hair gleaming, her blue eyes shining and an aura of glory around her as she held up her goblet to return the toast. But Steve was close enough to see the panic in Lady Freydis’ eyes behind the confident tilt of her head and she was holding the goblet so tightly that her knuckles gleamed white.
Dave was glad of an excuse to get away from it all. He, along with Darren, the Knights Templar and the rest of the White Hart crowd, had left when the elfen started dancing. It could get crazy when elfen started dancing and he wasn’t sure he wanted to hang around to see which way it went after Martin’s surprise announcement. He supposed it would keep Lady Freydis busy and stop her brooding.
He hefted the package. He could understand why Ian wanted to deliver this as he passed rather than spend the fortune on postage. It felt like books and it was heavy. He jogged up the steps and knocked at the door. It wasn’t the best neighbourhood, but he had been in worse. He knocked again and heard feet pattering down stairs. His eye was caught by a picture propped against the porch window. He frowned. It was the Seal of Solomon. Dave peered closer. It wasn’t activated, though, just a picture. He tilted his head. It looked like it was meant to be in a protective position, but it wasn’t protective at all.
The door opened and Dave looked up at the young woman in her early twenties. She had short, dark hair, a closed expression and was wearing bunny slippers. “Chloe Markham? Some books for you.” He held out the package.
Chloe was staring at him, her eyes wide and colour draining from her face. Then she took a breath and managed a smile. “We have met before. I don’t know if you remember.”
Dave frowned. She looked sort of familiar, and he was pretty good with faces, but he couldn’t quite place her. The package was growing heavy in his outstretched hand. “Are you Chloe Markham?”
Chloe took the books and shook her head. “You don’t remember me, do you? I’m not surprised. You had a lot on your mind at the time. You saved my life when I was attacked by werewolves. Please come in. I have a few questions.”
“Where did everyone come from?” Jasmine said, wide eyed as she dragged up yet another tray of cans of pop.
“Just get them in the fridge, love, then I’ll need you to clear tables. Where’s Callum?”
“He’s just gone for some more milk and bacon.” Jasmine quickly unloaded the cans into the drinks fridge.
“I’m here now.” Callum hefted the large packs of milk and bacon around the corner. “I’ve got some more downstairs.”
“Jasmine will put those away.” Mrs Tuesday ran a quick cloth over the counter. “I want you to bring out some tables and chairs from the back room and set them up here. Squeeze them in if you can.” She smiled up at the tall man at the counter. “How can I help you, Lord Spike?”
Jeanette perched uncomfortably on the stool behind the shop till. She was still aching and bruised and while she had insisted on working, Fiona and Ian between them had insisted that she worked sitting down. It was just as well as the shop was heaving with people. The shop had only been open an hour and already she was running low on bags. She looked around. Adele was restocking the herbs, Callum had pitched in at the café and Steve and Fiona were helping Lords with their long shopping lists.
Almost every Prince in the UK had either attended Lord Ragnar’s Memorial yesterday or they had sent a representative. And they all seemed to have had the same idea. While they were in York, they could call in and see what all the fuss was about at the White Hart. Many of the Princes were handing over long lists of items to be shipped, but one or two were taking an interest in exactly what was on offer. Even worse, one of the Princes had brought a shopping list from the members of his court and Jeanette suspected that more would follow.
As Jeanette watched Callum dragging the tables around and putting out extra chairs, she realised another reason why the shop was so packed. Everyone was here for the gossip. Suddenly Freydis was Lady Freydis and no-one knew what that meant. People had been writing Lady Freydis off for centuries and now suddenly she was a power to be reckoned with.
Ian came up behind her and dropped a light kiss on the top of her head. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, honest.” Jeanette smiled up at him. “But busy.”
“I’m just checking what I need to bring up.” Ian said. “You need more bags and I’d better bring up a box of till roll.”
“There are a few here already.” Jeanette said. The ledges under the till were still comfortably full.
“This isn’t the busiest it’s going to get.” Ian said. “I’ll be back in a tick.”
Jeanette watched him walk around, noting down gaps in the shelves on his phone and dodging enquiries. Her heart turned over.
“So you’re Ian’s girlfriend?” The man at the counter placed down a stack of books and a dog biscuit selection box. “I used to be his pack leader. He’s a good man.”
“I think so.” Jeanette started scanning the books. “He’s very good to me.”
“I should hope so.” The man looked to where Ian was helping Adele explain the differences between Tarot decks to a bewildered vampire. “I’m Mike, by the way, and if he ever gives any trouble, give me a call.”
“I can’t imagine him causing me any trouble.” Jeanette glared at Mike. “He’s been a perfect partner.”
Mike laughed. “I’m glad to see that he’s fallen on his paws with you.” He looked back over to where Ian was now quickly listing the gaps in the display of herbs. “I’ve still got a lot of time for him. How did you get the bruising?”
“A tree fell on me.” Jeanette said bluntly.
“Hmm.” Mike passed her a card. “Seriously, if you need help with him, or if he needs help with something, give us a call. We’ll be there for him.”
Jeanette packed the books and dog biscuits as she tried to process it, adding in the staff discount. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”
The morning rushed by. Mrs Anderson and Mrs Cadwallader were called in to help with the lunch rush, Dave brought up stock between readings and, with the help of some teenagers from Kieran’s pack and a few of the younger boggarts, the shop staggered on. Egerton had claimed one of the tables in the café and was effectively holding court to anyone who would sit next to him. Atherton was keeping a close eye on him from the other side of the shop where he was loitering near the plastic pixies.
Fiona felt like she was losing her mind as the shop was getting more visitors but most weren’t leaving. It was too tempting to hang around and catch up with gossip that was now rattling around visitors from Kent to the Orkneys and from Newcastle to Caerphilly. Knots of visitors were hanging around the sunny car park and spilling out onto the pavement. “I can’t deal with this.” She whispered to Steve as she passed him on the way to fetching a sample of their silk Tarot bags for Lord Lothar.
“I know.” Steve said, juggling the packs of wormwood he was bringing out for Lord Gwill Mawr. “Oh no!”
The groups in the car park were scattering as a large transit van backed into the space, heedless of obstacles. Steve thought he heard one of the brownies groan as a planter was knocked but his eyes were fixed on the driver. “Who the hell allowed Lady Freydis behind the wheel of a van?”
Lady Freydis was half leaning out of the window and watching almost carefully enough as she manoeuvred nearer the doors. There was a rush to the windows. Very few elfen ever got the hang of machinery and, with the exception of Lord Marius, elfen preferred someone else doing the hard work of driving. She caught Steve’s eye and waved, before coming to an immaculate stop. She jumped out and opened the rear doors before beckoning to Steve. “I have brought something perfect.”
“Stay at the till.” Steve said quickly to Jeanette before racing across.
“Behold!” Lady Freydis waved an arm. “A coffee machine!”
Steve peered into the van. “We already have a coffee machine.”
“But now this machine is for me when I make coffee in the mornings and Jasmine can use the shop machine when she makes coffee the rest of the time.”
“What an excellent idea.” Egerton said, coming up behind Steve.
“Hang on a minute…” Steve looked around the packed store. “Can we at least keep it in the warehouse until later?”
“Absolutely not!” Lady Freydis said. “Evan Tuesday and Ian Tait will aid me to move this over to the kitchen and you can add an extra cupboard next to the drinks fridge.”
“No, wait…” Steve watched helplessly as Evan and Ian manhandled the heavy machine out of the van. “Lady Freydis – who taught you to drive?”
Lady Freydis waved a vague hand. “It’s not that hard. Please, place it gently next to the other Coffee Machine, so that they are in company.”
“Have you even got a licence?” Steve trailed after Lady Freydis as the crowded shop jostled and shifted to make room.
“Hmm.” Lady Freydis sighed as the coffee machine was tilted, turned and swung into place. “I expect so. Don’t you think it looks splendid? It’s the latest design.”
Steve ran a hand through his hair. Then he took a breath. He needed to pick his battles and let Dave or Luke try and explain what Lady Freydis shouldn’t do to any police that stopped her. “I’ll get it plumbed in as soon as I can, but as we are a little busy right now, it will have to wait, possibly until tomorrow.”
“Of course.” Lady Freydis looked around the packed shop. “I wouldn’t interrupt this wonderful gathering for anything.”
“What about the van?” Steve asked. Lady Freydis had left it parked directly outside the shop door and a few puzzled faces were peering around the doors.
Lady Freydis shrugged. “I paid real money for it, so I suppose I ought to get enjoyment out of it. What do you suggest?”
Someone had sold Lady Freydis a van? Steve’s felt a shiver pass through him. But all the problems that could come from that could wait. “I’ll drive it around to the back and park it outside the storerooms.”
“Excellent.” Lady wasn’t paying attention. Instead she was advancing on Lord Darcy with an outstretched hand and a bright smile. “How wonderful to see you before you leave. I trust you are finding York pleasant.”
Finally the last straggler left for the journey home or the ongoing networking at the court of Lady Freydis. Mrs Anderson and Mrs Cadwallader had left long ago, along with the cubs and kitlings that had been helping out. It was just the White Hart crew, slumped at the freshly wiped and finally clear tables near the café.
Steve brought in a stack of pizza boxes. “I thought we all deserved pizza. Everyone help yourselves. I’ve got some news to share.”
Dave looked up wearily. “As long as it doesn’t take too much energy.”
“It’s okay.” Steve started handing out plates. “I wish Kadogan was here, but he’s been missing, so I’ve gone ahead with things on the understanding that if Kadogan objects then it all goes back.”
“Within reason,” Ian added.
“Within reason.” Steve waited for everyone to get pizza and settle down. “Right, first of all, Ian is leaving us – sort of.” He looked over to Ian. “Ian is going back to his trade of plumber and setting up his own business.”
“It makes sense, now that we are settling down as a pack.” Ian said. “It’s good to have more than one workplace. Jeanette is growing her business as well, so while she will be here to help out now and again, she’s not going to be here full time.”
Steve nodded. “Callum is taking over the warehouse, Evan Tuesday is taking over the post and deliveries, and Mrs Anderson and Mrs Cadwallader will be helping in the café part time on a proper rota. We’ll also be getting a lot more casual staff in, some for just a few hours a week, others more regular. We should be able to deal with rushes like today just a little easier.”
“Today was crazy.” Jasmine said.
“And apparently Jasmine is taking over as barista from Lady Freydis,” Steve sighed. “And that means that mornings are going to be busy as lots of people call in to get an informal chat with Lady Freydis.” He looked over at Callum. “We are going to have to expand the café.”
Darren stared at his laptop screen. He was nowhere near finishing his sermon. He ran a weary hand over his face. Perhaps he was in the wrong job. He always struggled with the basics. The weekly challenge of sermons and visiting was wearing him down. He had felt so inadequate at Lord Ragnar’s Memorial. Most of all, he felt old. He looked at the scatter of books on his desk and the swathe of open tabs on his laptop. Perhaps a run would clear his mind. He froze as he heard a knock on the front door.
Darren forced a smile as he saw Callum standing outside. He recognised the tense expression of someone who needed to talk. “Come in. Tea?”
Callum shook his head. “I’m fine, thanks. I hope you don’t mind me coming around, but I needed to ask you something.”
“Sure, not a problem.” Darren said, hoping it was a straightforward theology question that he could just rattle off. He led Callum into the sparse sitting room and waved him into an armchair. “What’s the problem?”
Callum took a deep breath. “I want to marry Adele.”
“Congratulations!” Darren relaxed a little. “I can get my diary out and set a date.”
Callum shook his head. “I can’t ask her. I can’t get married until Ian gets married.”
Darren’s heart sank. The ranks of a werewolf pack could be complicated and inflexible. “Do you think Ian wants to be married?”
Callum took a deep breath. “I think you should tell him to get married. He’s reading the Bible and all that, but he’s living in sin with Jeanette. That’s adultery, isn’t it?”
“Fornication.” Darren corrected absentmindedly as the horror of what Callum was asking sunk in.
“It’s just, he loves Jeanette, and I love Adele, but I can’t do anything until he marries.” Callum twisted his hands together. “I can’t even hint to Adele until Ian makes his move.”
“Perhaps it’s Jeanette that doesn’t want to get married.” Darren suggested. “It’s a big decision and shouldn’t be made lightly.”
“But they’ve known each other for months.” Callum said. “They should know by now.”
“A wedding is a big expense.” Darren said. “And it can be a lot of work.”
“I know,” Callum said. “Adele’s sister is getting married next month and it’s been crazy at her house. But if they at least got engaged I could say something to Adele. She has no idea how I feel about her.”
Darren suspected that Adele had already picked out a practical, in budget engagement ring and chosen her dress. “As you say, it’s only been a few months. Marriage is too serious to rush into. It’s a big commitment that shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
“Us werewolves know.” Callum said. “You have to tell Ian that it’s time he got married. It’s up to you.”
“We can’t wait any longer.” Steve said. He looked at Fiona. “It’s bedlam.”
Fiona nodded. The café was packed beyond belief as far too many elfen were hanging around, mesmerised as they watched Lady Freydis creating lattes, cappuccinos, mochaccinos and all the rest of the range of the barista’s art. “We’re making a lot of money on this.”
Steve wondered if that was part of Lady Freydis’ plan. Elfen could be strange when it came to obligations and the White Hart had stood with her when she was at her lowest. Profits on the café were significantly up. “The trouble is, Kadogan isn’t here. No-one has seen him or Suzuki for the last three months. We can’t ask him what he thinks.”
“He didn’t have many ideas when we first set this up.” Fiona said. “He left most of the decisions to me. I never thought that having a café area would cause so many issues.” She watched Lady Freydis smile as she created another latte for a bewildered tourist before handing over to Jasmine and wandering over.
“I shall create a domain.” Lady Freydis said. “It will not take long.”
“No.” Steve said. “No magical realms.”
“It would be a small, self contained room, just through a curtain.” Freydis watched Egerton squeezing his way past some worried looking brownies and into space before he could get to the spices. “In fact, it could be quite a large space and we could expand considerably. I believe that there is sometimes barely room for the knit and knatter group.”
“No fairy kingdoms.” Steve said. “Not everyone who comes here has even heard of non normals. Christmas isn’t far off and then York will be crammed. Tourists won’t come in here for the books or the incense. They won’t even come in for the cards and the gift wrap, though they’ll probably pick up a few bits from the ornaments as presents. Instead they will come in here because their feet are hurting and they are desperate for anywhere they can sit down for a coffee. We can’t let them wander into magical areas.”
“Why not?” Lady Freydis asked. “I’ve seen the extra bookings you have taken on the run up to Halloween, the ornaments and gift shop part will do very well over Christmas, as I believe it did last year, we need even more space now that Mrs Tuesday is getting spices sent wholesale from those charming jinn over in Dubai and I saw the catalogue that the book companies sent and we could be stocking double the number of titles. I could just move the café seating into a separate area.”
“How did you see the catalogue?” Fiona asked. “It was in an email. Can you look at computer screens?”
Lady Freydis looked smug. “I came up with a little cantrip. I had to do something because of the van’s satnav. The screen was quite an issue and I became stuck in a lane up on Nidderdale.” She frowned. “I suppose I ought to put the wall back to what it was, but I think there are far too many rigid things around and sometimes a slight change makes all the difference.”
“What did you do to the wall?” Steve asked.
Fiona interrupted. “We can’t run a coffee machine in a fairy world. It wouldn’t work.”
Lady Freydis frowned. “But you can have the machines at the entrance on this side, then the vast seating space would be through a beaded curtain.”
“No.” Steve said.
“How about a lace curtain?” Lady Freydis said.
There were times when Steve hated dealing with his father’s kin. “We can’t risk upsetting the normals. York is confusing enough as it is.”
“Thank you.” Lady Freydis said. “They would not know the difference. I have created such things many times and have been successful in hiding the nature of the rooms.”
Steve narrowed his eyes. “Really? And why did you make these rooms?”
“I can match the décor perfectly.” Lady Freydis said. “And you would have space for, say, three score more seats. That is the usual capacity of a coach, is it not?”
Steve hesitated. This was how the elfen got you. They offered an apparently reasonable idea, danced around with all sorts of distractions, like an altered wall in Nidderdale, then sprang something completely different on you. Steve was sure that Lady Freydis had done something dreadful to one of the dry stone walls up there, but was equally sure that she had mentioned it as a distraction. She was his Prince and she could order the creation of this extra room but was at least being polite about this, which was something. But why was she offering? Steve had learned to be deeply suspicious of elfen gifts. “What’s the price?”
“That’s a blunt question.” Lady Freydis said. “I appreciate it. I will create a domain and you will give free tea or plain coffee to anyone who shows my token.” She smiled up at Steve. “I’ll purchase the tokens from you. I’ll need about 200, and I would like them to be pretty.”
Fiona and Steve exchanged glances. Steve shrugged. “Make it space for 150, I’ll sort out a good deal on some wholesale tokens. And no strange paths leading off to entrap the unwary!”
Lady Freydis pouted, but nodded. “Agreed. I shall start work tomorrow evening.”
“See, there it is.” Ian shone a torch at the wall behind the sink. “It’s not rats.”
Darren peered over his shoulder, squinting against the glare. “It looks like some sort of glyph or magical mark.” He pulled out his phone and took a picture. “I don’t recognise it. Do you?”
“It’s not a common mark.” Ian said. “I think it looks like some of the seventeenth century stuff. I’d have to check.”
The two men pushed themselves up and looked at each other. Darren dusted himself down. “Why were you called in?”
“Mrs Gittens thought there was a leak. She said she kept hearing a dripping.” Ian switched off his torch. “But she wasn’t sure whether it was rats. It smells like there have been mice, but there aren’t any around.”
“What do you think?” Darren asked. He looked around the well worn kitchen. It was cleaned almost within an inch of its life, but the garden outside was overgrown and a loaf of bread was out on the counter. He reached up to one of the higher cupboards over the counter and opened the door. This cupboard hadn’t been used for some time and the evidence of mice in the moribund cereal packets was depressing. “There have definitely been mice. But you can’t smell anything?”
Ian shook his head. “Obviously I can’t get into fur around here, but I’d say they were gone. I can smell some sort of magic, though. And it’s a dead magic. That glyph doesn’t look life positive.”
“I’m not ‘sensitive’, but there’s something around.” Darren prowled around the kitchen. “It just feels, I don’t know, off.”
Both men spun around. There was a delicate tapping on the window and a snick as the window closed. They rushed over but all they could see was a skeletal hand disappearing into the autumnal undergrowth. Ian looked at Darren. “Follow that hand!”
The men shot out of the back door and into the overgrown garden. It was long, narrow and had once been filled with vegetables. In the pale October sun, the ranks of drooping runner beans and bolted cabbage made a dense undergrowth. “We’ve got to catch it!” Ian started rustling through a stand of slug-bitten kale. “We can’t leave it!”
Darren looked desperately around. “I’ll start at the far end.” He dashed down the long, narrow garden, skidding a little on the grassy path and nearly bouncing off the honeysuckle at the end. “I hate honeysuckle. The elfen always have the place full of it.”
“Look out for bindweed.” Ian was moving with speed, rifling through a row that was now just a mass of weeds. “That’s a sign of the bad stuff.”
Darren pulled his hand quickly back from a nettle. “Not nettles?”
Ian flinched back as a straggly frond of rosemary slapped him in the face. “Don’t worry about the nettles! Ugh, there were strawberries here.” He wiped his hand on a tuft of damp grass. “Over there.”
The blackcurrant bush was shedding leaves but was still hiding something in the grass tufted at its base. Darren picked up a discarded bamboo cane and poked cautiously at the small gap between the stalks. “There’s something in there.”
Ian leant a little closer. “I wish I could go to fur. I can’t smell anything over the garden. It hasn’t been tended for months.”
Darren leaned in closer, pulling the dried stalks apart, then quickly recoiling as two skeletal hands shot out, past his feet and diving into the shock of ivy overhanging the neighbour’s wall, one making a rude gesture just before it slid down into the woody undergrowth.
Darren sighed. “Well, they’ve gone.” He peered at the nest left behind. “Are these mice?”
Ian prodded at the sad heap with a twig. “I think they were once mice. Now they’re remains.” He stood and looked at Darren. “There were mice in the house, then there were those hands, then there were only mice remains. Do they feed on mice?”
Darren ran a hand over his short hair. “They haven’t got teeth. They’re just hands.” He looked closer at the remain. “On the other hand, they seem to have caught a lot of mice.”
“Let’s get back to the house and tell Mrs Gittens the good news – she hasn’t got mice and she hasn’t got a leak.”
Ian drew up outside the vicarage. Darren took a breath. He had been trying to find a good way to talk to Ian for months now. “Ian, could I have a word?”
Ian looked at him suspiciously. “Okay.”
Darren jerked his head at the vicarage. “It may take a few moments, best to come inside. We don’t want to upset the neighbours more than I have to.”
“I don’t know what they expected when they bought a house next to a vicarage.” Ian said, climbing out of the van and glancing at Darren. “I mean, there are bound to be visitors at odd times.”
“To be fair, the drunken banshee trying to start a fight on the front lawn at 3am was probably not what they were expecting.” Darren said.
Ian laughed. “Didn’t she apologise with flowers the next day?”
Darren nodded. “It was a massive bouquet as well. She didn’t mean any harm, it’s just that she got ditched by her new normal boyfriend and was going through some issues.”
Darren let them in and switched on the kettle, trying to ignore Ian’s hard stare. None of his prepared speeches seemed to work. “Ian, you should marry Jeanette.”
Ian opened and shut his mouth for a few moments and then nodded. “I should.”
“So why haven’t you?” Darren didn’t look at Ian. Instead he pulled two mugs out of the well-ordered cupboard.
“What if she says ‘no’?” Ian stared at the floor. “What if she thinks I’m only asking her because of the werewolf thing? What if she thinks I’m only asking her because she owns the house the pack live in? What if she thinks I’m only after keeping her as pack mother? What if…” Ian trailed off and took a breath. “What if she thinks I’m still in love with Ann and that she’s second best? I mean, I loved Ann, and she will always have a place in my heart, but it’s different with Jeanette. Besides,” Ian shrugged, “It’s too soon. Anyway, I can’t get married in a church. I can’t give her a white wedding.”
Darren dropped the teabags into the mugs, carefully not looking at Ian. “What if she thinks that you don’t love her enough to marry her?”
Ian watched Darren pour the boiling water, struggling to find words. “Do you think that she doesn’t know? I’d do anything for her.”
Darren shrugged and got the milk out of the fridge. “What does she say?”
“We haven’t talked about it.” Ian said quietly. “I never thought about it like that.”
Darren thought back to all the lectures and courses on personal counselling that he had sat through at theology college. “Perhaps you should speak to her.”
“What could I say?” Ian looked blankly at the mug of tea Darren was holding out to him. He shook his head. “I think I need to get home. I’ll see you tomorrow evening, for Bible study.” He closed the door quietly as he left.
Lady Freydis scowled at the wall, then sighed and turned around. “Egerton, I do not need any help.”
“I assure you, Lady Freydis, I am merely here to assist you.” Egerton smiled and lounged against the counter. “I wish to see how a master creates a domain.”
“I deliberately did not tell Steve Adderson that I would be working tonight. I wish it to be a lovely surprise and also I wished to work without interruption.” Lady Freydis gently placed her hands together and then spread them, feminine and graceful. Part of the wall changed and a green, swirling light reflected around the dark shop.
“I believe that the brownies who come to clean will be here soon.” Egerton wasn’t paying attention to the gap in the world but instead hungrily gazing at Lady Freydis.
“It will not take long.” Lady Freydis was stroking the air between her hands. “Fiona Adderson told me that I could not have too many steps as many will be carrying trays and heavy bags.” Lady Freydis sighed. “I love putting in stairs, especially if they twist.”
“When are you taking a consort?” Egerton asked.
A purple crackle of energy arced across the gap in the wall and Lady Freydis frowned. “I still mourn Lord Ragnar.”
“But it is in our nature to change.” Egerton said. “And the realms need a balance, male and female.”
“Things change.” Lady Freydis said, her hands still moving. “I do not need a consort.”
“Lord Ragnar failed to listen to counsel.” Egerton said, moving closer.
“Touch me and I will rip your heart out and keep it beating on a string for a toy.” Lady Freydis said calmly. “It has not been a full turn of seasons since we lost Lord Ragnar. I will consider my position later.”
“The realms need the poles. They need male and female, hot and cold, light and dark, black and white – you have to take a consort.”
“Do not try and force me to make choices.” Lady Freydis pushed against the air and then nodded. “There is much of interest to be found in palettes of grey.”
“But not in fae.” Egerton insisted.
“Are you determined to prove that there is only room for opposites within the realm or are you merely trying to make an argument for me choosing you as a consort.” Lady Freydis stepped back. The green glow faded and now there was an arch next to the coffee machine with warm, dark shadows stretching away.
“I would make an excellent consort.” Egerton said.
“And I will take a consort when I am willing.” Lady Freydis said. She dusted her hands on her skirt. “It is the time for the drunken students to be thrown out of the clubs. I am going to play there. Do you wish to accompany me?”
Egerton bowed low. “It will be my pleasure.”
Love and Other Complications
“There was no need to give me a lift.” Jasmine stormed into the shop followed by Darren. “It’s perfectly safe and I need the exercise.”
“It’s not safe to just wander around lonely lanes, and if you want to exercise then join a gym. It’s much more time efficient.” Darren snapped.
“I can take care of myself.” Jasmine pulled off her jacket and marched into the back room.
“I’m sure you can, but it doesn’t look good on Ian if there are predators with unexplained bite marks. And it looks even worse on him if you’re mobbed by a bunch of strays. With all the changes going on, anyone could be coming to York.” Darren yelled at the doorway to the back room.
Jasmine stomped out again, tying her apron. “I don’t think Lady Freydis would allow just anyone to turn up.” She looked pointedly in Lady Freydis’ direction.
“That’s the proof.” Darren snapped. “Lady Freydis is here. She keeps her court in good order, no doubt about that, but it’s nearly noon and she’s still here.”
“We’ve got extra coaches cominga.” Jasmine said. “Everyone’s working this afternoon – and Lady Freydis can do anything.”
Lady Freydis exchanged an amused glance with Egerton who was lounging with cat like ease against the counter. Darren looked over.
“Of course I mean no disrespect.” Darren visibly struggled to calm down. “And we all know that any transgressions would be firmly punished. But it’s not always safe for young girls to walk several miles especially when they don’t need to. What does Ian think about you walking?”
Jasmine ignored the question. “I’m not that young.”
“You act young enough.” Darren said.
“That’s not fair!” Jasmine frowned as she realised how much water she was splashing as she washed her hands. “Just because you act like you’re ninety. I’m just acting normal for my age.”
“That’s enough!” Jeanette looked between Darren and Jasmine and sighed. “Jasmine, please will you clear the tables in the annexe. Darren, what do you think of this for the church decoration for the wedding?”
Darren looked with horror at the floral arrangement in the magazine that Jeanette held out to him. “That monstrosity is not coming anywhere near my church.” He took a deep breath. “We can talk dates after church on Sunday.” He looked at the gaggle of women clustered around the magazines. “Are you still considering a double wedding?”
Jeanette and Adele exchanged glances and nodded. “It would save a lot of money on the flowers.” Adele said.
“Okay, I’ll check up what the rules are and the fees I have to charge.” Darren said. He watched Jasmine head towards the archway that marked the entrance to the magical annexe that Lady Freydis had just added. “Don’t forget that you are supposed to be coming to the vicarage tonight. Ian said that you would help me go through the records.”
Jasmine froze. “I’d forgotten about that.”
“It’s okay, I’ll get pizza. There’s just so much to go through that all help is appreciated. I’ll pick you up – for convenience. About 6.30?”
Jasmine nodded and smiled. “Okay.” She vanished into the annexe.
Darren came over to Lady Freydis. “How safe is that realm?”
“It’s very safe, remarkably roomy and the brownies are giving a Fiona a discount because apparently all the little quirks I built in are a challenge and useful training.” Lady Freydis said smugly.
Darren looked between Egerton and Lady Freydis and was not reassured by their equally bland expressions. He changed the subject. “I wonder if you could help me. Can you ask if any of your court remembers anything about disembodied skeletal hands that ate rats, mice and any caged rodent? They’re becoming quite a problem.”
“I don’t know why you’re complaining.” Lady Freydis said. “They’re being incredibly useful. There is a problem with vermin, and these things, whatever they are, solve that problem.”
“People don’t like seeing a skeleton’s hand trotting down their hall with a dead rat clutched between two fingers. They find it disturbing.” Darren said. “And Dave, Luke and I had to be on guard all the way through the York Dungeon’s Rat Café. I have better things to do with my time.” He sighed. “Please. We think that they escaped or woke up or whatever when the old Paladin’s house blew up. Unfortunately a lot of the records blew up as well and what has survived is muddled. I’d really appreciate the help.”
“What’s in it for our Prince?” Egerton asked. “She is not some servant of the Templars.”
“It’s okay.” Lady Freydis said, shooting a warning look at Egerton. “This is the Reverend King, after all. He has been of help to our court many times and did not charge for the funeral of Lord Ragnar.”
“That is a debt.” Egerton nodded.
“And you have little Jasmine for the evening.” Lady Freydis’ smile had a wicked edge.
“I’m glad of the help with the records.” Darren said. He looked through the arch to make sure Jasmine was well out of even werewolf earshot. “I think I’m babysitting her. Ian and Callum have stuff to do with Kieran and Jeanette and Adele are at a wedding fair for most of the evening. She sees me as a father figure, I think, so Ian wants me to keep an eye out for her.”
“She still seems stuck in the teenager mind.” Egerton said, amused. “Although she is older.”
Lady Freydis looked even more amused. “Now she is in a safe place, she can feel confident answering back. Thus, she is making the most of her opportunities. Ian and Darren must feel so delighted.”
“We’re thrilled.” Darren said. “I need to get off. There are a lot of records still to go through.”
Egerton watched him leave and then turned his attention to the rest of the staff. Dave was standing by the window, showing Elaine how to cut a deck one-handed while Jeanette, Adele and Fiona huddled around a cascade of wedding magazines. He turned to Lady Freydis. “Love appears to be in the air, even though it is autumn. Perhaps you should consider it.”
“I am not in the mood for love.” Lady Freydis stroked the cloth over the coffee machine, tenderly wiping over the nozzles. “It is not yet a year since I lost my husband.”
“You may not be in the mood for love, but perhaps you should consider duty.” Egerton leaned forward. “I may not have your touch with the Realms of the Fae, but even I can tell that rebuilding the balances would be easier with a lord at your side.”
Lady Freydis sighed. “The two most loyal to Lord Ragnar are Atherton and Kadogan. There are good reasons why neither should be asked to marry me. There are some sacrifices a lord should not ask of good men. And Egerton, we would not suit. There needs to be less turbulence in the realms, not more. There are corners that have not been stable for a thousand years. I do not sit idle.”
“Perhaps you should.” Egerton said. “Then you can see what benefits there would be if we joined forces. We are not so ill suited.”
Lady Freydis slapped her hand hard onto the counter. It echoed around the shop and everyone looked around. “This is the last I will hear of this. I work because then I do not remember Lord Ragnar. Even a fae can break their heart. Now, if you will permit your prince, I have work to do.” She spun around and headed into the back.
Martin stepped quietly out of the annexe. “Egerton, with all due respect, leave our Prince alone. Now is not a time to push emotions on her.”
“You know much for a vampire.” Egerton tried to hide his fear. “You can see that there needs to be balance.”
“I can see that forcing Lady Freydis into emotions she isn’t ready for is not only unwise, and foolish for those who dance the masked pavane, but dangerous for anyone connected to the realms.” Martin stepped a little closer. “Perhaps you need to reconsider your ambitions.”
Dave grinned at Elaine. “It’s not just about being quick. It’s about making sure people see what they want to see. And while they’re looking at that, they don’t see the switch.”
Elaine shook her head. “Even when I know what’s happening, I still can’t follow it.”
Dave laughed. “It’s a useful trick. I don’t do it much when I’m using the Tarot, but it’s helpful sometimes.”
Elaine smiled wryly. “I’m used to things not being quite what they seem,” she said. “The new annexe that Lady Freydis added is amazing.”
“I think I ought to have objected more.” Dave said. “I’m one of the paladins. If anyone walks around the back of the building and then tries to compare what’s inside with what’s outside, we’ll be in trouble.”
“It’s usually just coach parties, and they don’t have time to do that.” Elaine said. “And speaking of coach parties, I need to get busy. A coach party from Southampton have requested goody bags and I need to finish them off.”
“People are coming here from Southampton?” Dave said, surprised.
“We’re not that popular.” Elaine said. “But we are now an established stop on all non-normal coach tours. They’re stopping here after seeing York centre and then they’re lodging with Kieran. Yesterday they did Nottingham and tomorrow it’s Durham. I couldn’t do that myself.”
“I know.” Dave nodded. “You have to check the date and the itinerary before you know where you are. It must all blur into one.” He hesitated. “Before you go, do you want to come out for a drink tomorrow night? Maybe go into Tadcaster or Malton, away from the tourists.”
“That would be great.” Elaine said. “Malton is lovely.”
“I’ll pick you up here, then.” Dave said. “Around 7? We can just go somewhere casual.”
“I’ll meet you here around 7.” Elaine smiled. “And I really need to get moving.”
“See you tomorrow.” Dave said.
Dave was whistling as he met Luke at the Paladin’s house. Luke looked up from the coffee he was making and pulled out another mug. “You look happy.” Luke said. “You’ve either won the lottery or finally asked Elaine on a date.”
Dave got the teabags out of the cupboard. “You’re definitely on duty tomorrow night.”
“If we don’t have an issue.” Luke said.
“Mate, don’t do that to me.” Dave stopped mid pour and put the kettle down. “I can’t stand a girl up on the first date.”
“She’ll understand.” Luke said. “She knew Steve for years.”
“Yeah, well I’m not Steve, okay. She ditched him.”
“Okay.” Luke held up a hand. “Changing the subject, I’ve taken the last of the old records over to Darren’s place. We can take it in turns to wade through it.”
“Jasmine’s going to help out.” Dave said. “Ian said he didn’t want to leave her alone in the house.”
Luke shook his head. “She was on the streets for quite a while. Does he think that she’d be scared in a house?”
“Perhaps it’s time she was protected, then.” Dave said. “She’s a good kid.”
Luke grunted and drained his coffee. “I’m getting back to work.” He hesitated. “It means a lot to you, doesn’t it? Getting a date with Elaine.”
Dave shrugged. “I can’t exactly go on a dating site and list that I’m a Tarot reader who doesn’t believe in Tarot readings and I spend half my life breaking up fights between goblins and their normal neighbours. And Elaine’s…. nice.”
Luke slotted the mug into the dishwasher. “Well, I’ll see you later.”
Egerton sauntered back into the White Hart. The shop showed all the signs of too many coach parties. There were gaps in the displays and Adele was wearily re-stocking the gift section. Jasmine trudged out with a tray of mugs. She placed them carefully next to the dishwasher and picked up a spray and cloth. “I think I’ve got most of the crockery.”
Fiona nodded. “Just have a quick wipe around. Darren will be picking you up in a second.”
Jasmine managed a smile. “I’m trying to look forward to wading through a load of dusty books, but at least there’ll be pizza.”
Elaine staggered in from the warehouse with a box of books. “Please tell me we won’t get four coaches in an afternoon again.” She said. “It’s been insane.”
Fiona followed her with another box. “It will be worse nearer Christmas, but some of the cubs from Kieran’s pack will be helping out. Today was crazy.”
Egerton leant forward on the freshly wiped counter and pulled out some money. “Lady Freydis, please could you make two hot chocolates with extra glitter and cream. One for me and one for my puissant Prince. You will accept tribute, won’t you?”
Lady Freydis nodded. “I am always happy to accept tribute.” She stroked her hand over the coffee machine. “The Machine has worked hard today and worked well. It is incredibly reliable.”
“Like all of the staff.” Fiona said as she staggered past.
“Indeed.” Lady Freydis poured the exact amount of milk with practised precision. “Are you still coming with me to the Oak Green this evening to sort out that difficult patch of toadstools?”
“Why else would I be here?” Egerton watched as Lady Freydis frothed the milk and added the exact quantity of chocolate powder. “They have been troublesome for a while and their mould is leaking through to the normal world in some places.”
“I have the utmost respect for the paladins.” Lady Freydis poured the drink into take out cups and added a flourishing swirl of spray cream. “I do not wish to antagonise them unnecessarily.” She smiled with a hint of malice as she dusted the cream with green edible glitter. “Of course, sometimes a little antagonism is entirely necessary, just so they do not become too comfortable.” She turned to put the money in the till. Egerton looked around. Jasmine was in the annexe, Mrs Tuesday was loading the dishwasher, Fiona, Adele and Elaine were re-stocking shelves, and Mrs Cadwallader and Mrs Anderson had already gone home. He quickly tipped a light dusting of delicate, shining powder over the glitter already on the hot chocolates.
“I look forward to subjugating those unruly toadstools for my Prince.” Egerton said. He sighed as Darren strode in, carrying a large pizza box.
“Is Jasmine ready?” Darren looked around. “I don’t want the pizza to get cold. And can I have a couple of hot chocolates to take away.”
“You do not normally bother with hot chocolate.” Lady Freydis said. She leant towards the annexe. “Jasmine, your evening work awaits you.”
Jasmine trudged out of the annexe. “I think I’ve got all the tables, but it’s hard to tell.” He face brightened when she saw Darren. “You’ve got pizza!”
“Extra large, deep pan, meat feast pizza and I’m picking up hot chocolates.” He turned to Lady Freydis. “I have a cold starting and a hot chocolate is just what I need.”
“You should add alcohol to it when you get home.” Lady Freydis said. “Take these two already made, on the house. You should leave before the pizza grows cold.”
Mrs Tuesday nodded. “Leave your apron with me, love.” She told Jasmine. “Get off and get your dinner.”
“I shall make our hot chocolates afresh.” Lady Freydis said to Egerton who was watching as Darren and Jasmine jogged out of the shop and into Darren’s battered Range Rover. “We are not so pressed for time and may savour our drinks before work.”
Egerton nodded. “Of course. And we may discuss many obscure things. For example, have you ever heard of elfen aphrodisiacs being used on mortals?”
“On normals.” Lady Freydis said, pointedly. “I’ve heard a few legends and it has never ended well. Why?”
“I thought it might make a good tale.” Egerton said, a malicious smile playing around his lips. “If I were a bard, I should like to see how it unfolds.”
Darren had always enjoyed the Morning Office. The pattern of prayers and readings were a predictable, soothing, regular start to the day, and gave a rhythm to his life that could be incredibly chaotic. Today, however, it felt like dust. He gently closed the prayer book and turned around to face the empty church.
He was supposed to carry on sorting through the old papers from the Paladin’s Citadel, but his heart wasn’t in it. For once, doing his duty seemed like a long, dry stretch. Perhaps if he went for a run first, he may find the clarity of mind he needed.
The church door clanged, and Darren winced. He wasn’t up to parishioners today. He turned his attention to a stack of tattered hymn books that needed to be junked and hoped that whoever was marching in with such purpose would take the hint that he was extremely busy. He looked up and his stomach seemed to freeze. “Jasmine, what are you doing here?” He looked around quickly, but she was on her own.
“You never called me!” Jasmine strode up until she was barely inches from his face. “You never called once!”
Darren looked away. “I didn’t know what to say. I’m sorry…”
“Look at me when you’re making pathetic excuses.” Jasmine snapped. “Why didn’t you call?”
It took all of Darren’s legendary willpower to look fully at Jasmine. “I didn’t think you would want to talk to me.”
“We had the most amazing…”
Darren held up his hand. “Not here, we could be overheard by anyone coming in and I don’t want you to get into trouble.”
“Ian is not my keeper.” Jasmine followed him into the vestry. “It’s nothing to do with him.”
“He’s the head of the pack.” Darren said. He stumbled over the words. “He may think less of you.”
“Are you worried that he’d beat you up?” Jasmine asked.
Darren shrugged. “I’d deserve it. You were drugged. It wasn’t fair.” He turned away, unable to look at her anymore.
“We had the most amazing night of sex that I could ever imagine.” Jasmine said. “And, yes, we were drugged by something, but it wasn’t your fault. And it wasn’t mine.” She took a deep breath and added quietly, “but it was… It was fantastic.”
“I’ve seen something like this in others.” Darren said, still unable to look around. “It’s an elfen aphrodisiac. They spike each other’s drinks with it or they use it to spice up their bedrooms. They’re careless with it, though, and it gets complicated.”
“Like us?” Jasmine sank into one of the hard, wooden chairs against the wall. “Why won’t you look at me?”
“Because I’m ashamed of taking advantage of you.” Darren said with his usual honesty. “It was… It was extraordinary and amazing, and you are so beautiful, and the drug meant that it wasn’t real.”
“I want to do it again.” Jasmine said.
“Well, we can’t.” Darren turned around finally and saw the determination on her face. He didn’t want to deal with this.
“Why not?” Jasmine said. She stood up and moved closer to him.
Darren could smell the scent of her shampoo, fresh and clean, and see too clearly the fear of rejection in her eyes, but she wasn’t backing down. “I’m a vicar and I’m old enough to be your father.”
“But you’re not my father and even vicars get married. I’m not suggesting marriage,” Jasmine added hurriedly, “but we’ve already had sex.”
Darren said. “We were drugged. And Ian wouldn’t like it.”
“Are you seriously so afraid of Ian?” Jasmine asked.
Darren frowned. “It’s about respect. But I am still far too old for you and…”
“Are you gay?” Jasmine asked.
“What?” Darren looked at her blankly. “No, I’m not. But it doesn’t matter. It would be wrong.”
“It’s just that most men don’t turn down sex.” Jasmine said. “Not if they’re single. And you’ve said I’m beautiful.”
“But you’re so young.”
“I’m 24, old enough to make a decision.”
“And I’m 38.” Darren took a deep breath. Their night spent under the influence of the elfen aphrodisiac had been one of the most amazing of his life, and he had never wanted to love someone so much in his life. But he had to do the right thing, no matter how hard. “You should be with someone your own age.”
“I left the Liverpool pack because I made my own choices.” Jasmine said. “You can say ‘no’ because you don’t want me, but don’t say ‘no’ because you don’t respect my choice.”
“It’s not as easy as that.” Darren said. He could remember with excruciating clarity the softness of her hair and the taste of her lips.
“Why not?” Jasmine said. “Is it because you don’t find me attractive? I’ll know if you lie.”
“And so will I”
Darren and Jasmine whirled around. Ian was standing in the doorway and looking furious. Darren’s shoulders slumped. “It’s all my fault.”
“It really isn’t.” Jasmine rushed in. “There was something in the hot chocolate, but we didn’t realise.”
Ian held up a hand. “Whatever was in that hot chocolate, it’s still affecting you.” He looked at them, anger growing on his face. “A respected exorcist and a member of my pack were drugged with an elfen drug and all you talk about is dating? You should know better, Darren. Accidental or not, it’s an attack and we need to send a message.”
“But what will people say about Jasmine?” Darren said. He swallowed. “They could say that she’s…”
“They will say that she’s well protected, just like the rest of my pack. And you need to speak to Dave and the Templars.” Ian looked ready to shake Darren. “You’ve just been drugged by an elfen. What if someone had needed you that night? What if there had been a demon? Or a bad haunting? How about someone possessed that were losing control? How about one of your flock needing you because they were losing a loved one, or dying? Something needs to be done. I’m going to speak with Kieran and Lady Freydis.” He turned towards the door. “Darren, get on that phone and make some serious calls. And yes, you can date.” Ian turned back to give Darren a very hard look. “As long as it all stays respectful. And at least your mouse problem is getting dealt with.” Ian waved at a skeletal hand which was scuttling past with a small, furry shape impaled on its middle finger, before sweeping out, slamming the door behind him.
Darren watched the hand dive behind the heavy bookcase in the corner and decided that he could shelve that problem. He turned towards Jasmine who was looking smug.
“So, are we meeting for coffee?” Jasmine asked.
“I’m taking you to dinner, tomorrow night, no arguments.” Darren said. “Wear something nice but not too fancy. And then we can come back to the vicarage and work on those papers like we should have done that night.”
“Just work on the papers?” Jasmine asked carefully.
“We can take a few breaks.” Darren said, suddenly feeling energised. “Now, I need to make some calls.”
Dave parked the car and looked at Luke sitting next to him. “We don’t have a legal leg to stand on.”
Luke shrugged. “Ian asked nicely. And from what Callum said, being a stray is tough. He was probably desperate. And at least he’s not on drugs.”
“So we’re just dealing with a desperate werewolf, not a drugged up and desperate werewolf.” Dave sighed. “If it comes out, the police could still be called in. You know, they won’t ignore it. They treat a crime as a crime.”
Luke grimaced. “Ian may be able to speak nicely to Ms Royston, but let’s worry about what could happen later. Let’s just deal with what’s happening now. As far as anyone can tell, it’s the first time he’s crossed a line. We may be able to put him on the right path.”
“If anyone can, Ian can.” Dave said. “He handed out a few lessons to Callum and he takes no nonsense.” He sighed. “Let’s get on with it.”
The two men left the car, looking around carefully. It wasn’t a bad part of town, but it wasn’t the best. Dave locked the car and walked up to the flats. The buzzer system was broken and someone had helpfully propped open the entrance. Dave raised his eyebrows and eased inside. Luke checked behind him and followed Dave.
The flat they were looking for was up echoing concrete steps and Dave and Luke didn’t bother trying to hide their approach. Werewolves had notoriously sharp ears, even in human shape. Dave ignored the bell and rapped on the door. It echoed. There was a long pause and then the door opened.
The man the other side was not what Dave expected. For one thing, he was barely a man, looking in his late teens or early twenties, his straight brown hair hanging limp around his thin face and the t-shirt and jeans hanging off his skinny frame. And he looked far too nervous to be the expert stalker who tailed a business man to and from his date with his mistress. Instead he looked like he was waiting for the next kick. Dave could understand why Ian wanted to give him a chance, but he had learned never to trust a werewolf in loose clothing.
“Hi, my name is Dave Kinson, this is Luke Fawcett. May we come in?” Dave stepped forward with assurance, not giving the young werewolf a chance to reply. Dave glanced around the bedsit. There was no-one else in the shabby space. Luke strode over to the door to the small bathroom and glanced in. He looked back at Dave and shook his head. No-one else was around.
“Do I know you?” The lad cleared his throat. “I mean, I think you should leave.”
“You’re Trent Robson, aren’t you?” Dave said. “And you’ve been a naughty boy. Have you handed over the photos yet?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Trent backed away. “If you don’t leave, I’ll call the police.”
“Go ahead,” Luke said calmly. “It’s Tim Pierce who deals with non-normals.”
Trent sagged. “Who are you?”
“We’re paladins, but we are here because Ian Tait asked us nicely.” Dave said. “He’s asked us to give you a chance.” He exchanged a glance with Luke. “So, tell me all about it.”
“Do you know how hard it is to get a job without the proper ID?” Trent asked. He sat down, hopelessly, on his unmade bed. “And no experience? And I daren’t ask for references.”
“Your pack got scattered, didn’t it?” Dave asked as he walked over to the window and checked outside. “There was a dispute over leadership.”
Trent shrugged. “I thought it would be okay. I’d heard Old Phineas talk about York having opportunities to work below the radar, so I came up here.” He looked between the two stern faced men. “But it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Listen, it was good money, and no-one would get hurt.”
“It wasn’t an affair.” Luke said from his place by the door. “He was visiting his sister. He would have spotted any other private investigator following him, but he wouldn’t notice a large dog, would he? It was perfect. It’s a shame that the guy that hired you wasn’t an offended husband, but a stalker. Have you passed over the information yet?”
Trent went pale but shook his head. “I’m supposed to be meeting tonight.”
“Give us the details and we can make sure someone who can deal with breach of a restraining order can be waiting for him.” Dave said. “But why don’t you come with us and we’ll introduce you to Ian Tait. He may give you a chance, if you keep your nose clean.”
The atmosphere in the Lady Freydis’ Great Hall was tense as small and awkward knots of non-normals waited for her to appear. Darren stood next to Dave, Luke and Sir Ewan, his face immobile. Jasmine looked pale, standing next to Ian and Kieran who were both looking furious.
Lady Freydis appeared, striding through a door tucked behind one of the Victorian ferns and dragging Egerton along the floor behind her. She threw him down in front of her favourite chair. Egerton sprawled helplessly in front of her. His glamour could only hide so much, and he looked very much the worse for wear. Martin and Atherton followed, their faces stern.
“Do not think to try me.” Lady Freydis looked around her court. “I will not brook such behaviour. It is one thing to be careless but to try and drug your Prince but fail and instead drug a respected and admired exorcist and a member of a werewolf pack in very good standing is unacceptable.” She kicked Egerton hard in the ribs and he groaned and rolled over. “I am not to be trifled with!” She kicked Egerton again. “You think because I am a widow that I am easily played? I think not!” She grabbed Egerton by the hair and dragged him to his feet. “I am feeling inclined to mercy, as no permanent damage has been done.” She looked around the court to make sure everyone was getting the message. Egerton was barely conscious and swayed gently as she held him upright with a hand on his neck. “This miscreant who so misjudged matters is to be a servant to the Reverend Darren King for the rest of the minister’s life. He is to wait on him and do his bidding.” A brief flicker of horror ran across Darren’s face at the thought before he controlled himself. “Do not worry. He will serve in spirit as well as to the letter.” She gave the unfortunate Egerton a shake and his teeth rattled. “And when he is not in service to the good minister, he will be watching the fields of the Tait pack and ensuring their fertility for the lifespan of Jasmine, in good faith.” Lady Freydis gave Egerton another shake and dropped him.
“Thank you for your judgement.” Darren bowed politely. “Perhaps I should take him back to the vicarage?” Darren looked at the heap on the floor and wondered how you nursed a well beaten elfen.
“An excellent idea.” Lady Freydis said. “He can be ready to start any duties you assign him.” She nodded to Atherton. “Help this creature to the vicarage with the Reverend, please.”
“Thank you for your wise and merciful judgement.” Ian Tait said as he bowed. “We are grateful that your loyal werewolf subjects were heard.” He glanced at Atherton hoisting Egerton over his shoulder and leading Darren out. “It is a graceful judgement that shows your power and your mercy.” He followed Darren out and gradually the Hall returned to normal.
Lady Freydis sat in her favourite chair. “I wonder if Egerton knows how lucky he is?” She said quietly as Martin brought her a glass of wine.
“He does now.” Martin said. “But he has a point. The healing of the realm would go much faster if you were married.”
“You too?” Lady Freydis sipped her wine. “I know what you’re thinking. But if I were to marry you, I would break your heart. I would destroy you.”
“I’ll take that risk.” Martin said. “And you need someone loyal at your side. Someone who has your best interests at heart.”
“There are many stories about marrying an elfen and regretting it.” Lady Freydis said softly. “And I would not wish to hurt you.”
“I know.” Martin said. “That is what is heartbreaking. Near but not quite there.”
Lady Freydis looked around the Hall. “We’ll talk about this later, in sunlight, and everything is calm.” She sighed. “I fear for you, Martin, but you will not hear it.”
Martin shrugged. “Let us look forward to lighter things, my lady. I cannot wait to see the havoc that Egerton can cause in a vicarage.”
Lady Freydis didn’t even flinch as Kadogan stepped out from a doorway, matching her step as she walked through York from the White Hart to her domain. “Kadogan, it is good to see that you are safe.”
“I am conflicted, Lady Freydis.” Kadogan said “I still mourn Lord Ragnar, but you need to marry. You should marry soon. I can feel the tension in the realms.”
“Is that why you came back?” Lady Freydis said, sliding gracefully through the crowds of tourists as she headed towards the Shambles. “To give advice.”
“To give counsel to the widow of a good friend, yes, I came back for that. And also to put right my mistakes.” Kadogan slipped almost unnoticed between a couple staring at the buskers as they crossed Parliament Square.
“What errors are those?” Lady Freydis looked at him with genuine curiosity. “You were loyal to your lord, you repaid your debt to Fiona Adderson, you gave great leadership in the White Hart – I cannot see an error.”
Kadogan sighed. “I can see many. I should have counselled Lord Ragnar in different ways.”
“We both tried, Kadogan.” Lady Freydis said quietly. “It was his fate. He was a good man who had faced cruel tricks.”
Kadogan managed a shrug. “And then there is the White Hart. I am not sure that I should have started that.”
Lady Freydis stopped dead and stared at him. Kadogan realised she had stopped two steps further on and had to turn around to see what had happened. Lady Freydis placed a tentative hand on his chest. “Are you well?” she asked. “Are you Kadogan?”
Kadogan hunched his shoulders and looked miserable. “Fiona Adderson is sad. I can feel her sadness as a deep well. She feels that Steve Adderson does not sufficiently love her due to the nature of their courtship. She also fears the influence of Elaine.”
“Elaine is lusting shamefully after the paladin, Dave Kinson.” Lady Freydis said, waving a dismissive hand. “It is quite outrageous how she is flirting, and it is reciprocated, I believe.”
“Fiona Adderson does not see it that way.” Kadogan said quietly. “She saved my life, but now she is sad.”
“I can feel her pain when she sees Adele and Jeanette reading through wedding magazines.” Lady Freydis said. “And I must also take some blame for that.” She suddenly looked smaller. “She has a kind heart and has never flinched.”
“I must take action, and I urge you to take action as well.” Kadogan said. “But I do not know what that action should be.”
“We will take counsel, among the fae.” Lady Freydis said firmly. “Both Steve Adderson and Fiona Adderson are well liked. Between us, how can we get it wrong?” She looked at the hesitation in Kadogan’s face. “You and I have separately made bad decisions, but the wisdom of a fairy council is deep.”
“Do you think we should consult Mrs Tuesday?” Kadogan asked.
“Hmm?” Lady Freydis looked thoughtful. “No, she is busy with the weddings and her nephew. Besides, this is our error and it is our duty to put it right. We will take council tonight.”
Darren sat quietly in a corner amidst the bustle of York Minster. It was a good place to go when he needed to be undisturbed as none of the locals he knew came to the Minster on a regular basis. He watched the tourists taking their time around the amazing architecture, reading the plaques and memorials and getting lost in the medieval stained glass. He wasn’t likely to be disturbed.
For the first time in years, he didn’t know what to do. His certainty had kept him alive in Afghanistan, Iraq and a few other places that he wasn’t supposed to talk about. It had kept him safe in battles against ghosts, demons and malevolent non-normals. Now he was dating a werewolf that was far too young for him and had had an unwilling elfen forced into the role of servant as a sort of compensation for a misplaced love potion.
It was a mess. Darren loved Jasmine completely. He had never felt like this before and couldn’t imagine feeling like this again. These feelings had started long before the mix up with the potion but before his drink was spiked he had been strong enough to resist them. Now he wasn’t sure if he could do the right thing and give Jasmine a chance to live her life. She deserved better than him.
Then there was Egerton. Darren had braced for the sort of mischief an elfen could manage. Any elfen could make a three act tragedy out of a request to pass the sugar, and anything more complicated would be creatively misunderstood until the poor normal went mad. However Lady Freydis had extorted a promise that Egerton would serve Darren properly and in good faith, and Darren was now bewildered by Egerton’s attempts at genuine helpfulness. Egerton had even learned to use the washing machine.
Darren bent his head. So where did that leave him? He was a minister of the church and an exorcist, with a werewolf for a girlfriend and a magical being as a servant. All he could do was pray and hope.
Dave chose his moment. Elaine had finished serving the last customer, the shop was empty and Lady Freydis had gone with Mrs Tuesday to clear the tables in the annexe. He swooped in from the space behind the till and kissed Elaine quickly on her cheek.
Elaine jumped and, after a quick check to see if it was all clear, turned around and kissed him on his lips. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Dave grinned. “Are we still on for tonight?”
“You haven’t told anyone, have you?”
Dave shook his head. “It’s completely our secret.” He said. “I’ll bring in wine, you get pizza and we can stay in and chill, away from the crowds. Just us.”
Elaine sighed happily. “I’ve seen what’s happened to the romances here. Jeanette and Adele are fine, but Fiona is still upset about missing out on the wedding she wanted. It’s not like she wanted anything too fancy. She just wanted a choice.”
Dave nodded. “We keep this quiet.”
“And you’ve definitely got the night off?” Elaine asked.
“Absolutely.” Dave kissed Elaine quickly. “Luke has promised that he’ll be keeping an eye out. But it’s all quiet. Even the goblins down near Fulford have been behaving.” He jumped away from Elaine as Ian came racing in.
“Dave, you’ve got to come with us tonight.”
“What?” Dave tried to look casual as he stepped away from Elaine.
“Luke thinks he’s found the nest of those skeletal hands.” Ian said. “There’s an abandoned chapel on the edge of York, not far from the old paladin’s house, and Luke says it’s absolutely full of them. Well, full of moving hands, dead rats and disjointed arm bones.”
“Lovely.” Elaine said. “I’m glad I’m staying at the shop.”
“Darren thinks we should spend some time observing.” Ian shrugged. “I thought a few gallons of petrol and a few matches would be a better way, but who knows.”
Dave carefully didn’t look at Elaine. “No problem. Are we going there now?”
Ian shook his head. “No, Luke thought we would be better going after dark, just in case. We don’t want to worry the neighbours.” He turned to Elaine. “By the way, Dave doesn’t like chicken on pizza, he prefers ham or pepperoni. Thought you would want to know.” He grinned at Dave’s appalled expression. “I’ll meet you at the new citadel tonight, around eight.” And he jogged out of the shop.
A Quiet Night In
“You got away after all!” Elaine smiled as Dave rushed up to her and gave her a quick kiss.
“It was just observing.” Dave said. “On one hand it’s nothing obviously special. It’s just that there is a disused chapel full of animated, disjointed bones.” He looked around quickly to make sure that they were not being overheard. “And lots of dead rats.”
“I want to hear more when we get to my place.” Elaine said. “But it’s not really something you can talk about in the supermarket.” She looked at the wine he was carrying. “That’s my favourite. How did you know?”
Dave grinned, “A lucky guess.” Or noticing the receipt for wine over the last three weekends and memorising the brand. “It’s not bad.” He looked at her basket. “Double pepperoni pizza – a good guess on your part as well. It’s my favourite.”
“I thought it was a man’s pizza.” Elaine said, skipping over that she had asked Jasmine. “I got cheesecake as well.”
They paid for the food and then started walking towards Elaine’s flat. Dave caught her hand. “There’s no point in trying to hide that we’re dating. Werewolves are the worst gossips.”
Elaine laughed, squeezing Dave’s hand. It felt hard and warm and strong. She glanced sideways at him. “I was so embarrassed when Ian shouted out about what you liked on pizza. I suppose they smelled something.”
“I bet Mrs Tuesday worked it out and told them.” Dave said. “She notices everything.”
“She is a scary old lady.” Elaine said. “You know those old ladies that can seem really tough but have a heart of marshmallow? She isn’t one of them.”
Dave searched for words. “She probably is mostly harmless.” He said.
Elaine looked sceptical. “She doesn’t miss much.” She shrugged. “She’s not bad for a boggart.”
Dave looked at her curiously. “You know a lot about non-normals, don’t you?”
“I suppose so.” Elaine pulled her keys out of her bag. “When I was helping Steve out, we ended up in all sorts of places and with all sorts of non-normals. It got a bit much for me by the end, especially Armani.”
“He terrorises the pigeons near the White Hart.” Dave said. “Hardly any of them come near now.” He watched Elaine open the door. “Do you miss all the trading?”
“Not a bit.” Elaine said. “I like the White Hart. I’m not shut away from the non-normal world. I missed it a little, though not enough to get too deep. Besides, there are great people there.”
“Yes, there are,” Dave looked down at Elaine, a glint in his eyes. “Let’s leave talk about work out here. Come on, we have pizza to eat, wine to drink and the possibility of …cheesecake.”
Elaine giggled. “Let’s not forget the …cheesecake!”
Jeanette smiled as Trent jogged into the room, fresh from the shower. “Hi, it’s just you and me for dinner tonight.”
Trent looked uncomfortable. “Is that okay?”
“Of course.” Jeanette looked confused. “Adele is having dinner with her mother and talking weddings, Callum and Ian are trying to track down some skeleton hands and Jasmine is visiting Darren again. Though I think that they are genuinely working on the old papers to find out what actually caused these hands.”
Trent slid into his place and then bounced to his feet. “Is there anything you want me to do, ma’am?”
Jeanette looked baffled. “No, it’s okay, take a seat.”
Trent sat back down and kept his eyes on his plate setting. “Yes ma’am.”
“If there is something werewolf going on, I don’t know what it is.” Jeanette said, putting a large plate of cottage pie in front of him. “Would you like tea or coffee?”
“Tea, please.” Trent kept his hands on the table in front of him.
“Of course, it was Lynette that caused so much trouble.” Jeanette put a large mug of tea next to Trent’s plate and sat down. “It doesn’t work like that here. Go on, eat up. Ian says that you need to put some weight on.”
Trent took a hesitant forkful of the cottage pie. It was hot and savoury and he found himself clearing his plate with speed. “This is great.”
“Thanks.” Jeanette said. “And just because it’s not like your old pack doesn’t mean that you don’t have duties. You can load the dishwasher and clean up before you get on with your homework.”
“No problem.” Trent took another hearty mouthful. “I’m really grateful for Ian taking me in like this and sorting out papers and college and that.”
“He’s happy to help.” Jeanette had finished her smaller portion and was sipping her tea. “He was a stray as well, you know. So were Callum and Jasmine. He knows what it means.” She watched Trent scrape up the last few scraps of cottage pie. “There’s some banana bread in the cupboard, if you would like some.”
“Yes, please.” Trent sprang to his feet and over to the cupboard.
Jeanette watched him. The skinny kid who could hardly meet anyone’s eyes was already starting to blossom. She smiled to herself. He may have a way to go before he had the courage to be cheeky to Ian, but he was already looking healthier and managing whole sentences in company. “How is the coursework going?”
“It’s great.” Trent said as he hacked off a large lump of the banana bread. “Mr Sykes set us to code up movement of an object in a populated field. It’s tricky, but if you use…”
Jeanette zoned out a little. She couldn’t follow Trent’s computer course, but was glad he was so happy. She finished her tea. “It sounds complicated.” She looked out of the window. The nights were drawing in and, despite her best efforts, the garden looked bedraggled.
“How is the wedding planning?” Trent asked. “I mean, is it getting complicated.”
Jeanette realised she had forgotten about the wedding. “It’s all in hand. There’s not actually that much left to do. I’m more worried about getting the greenhouses cleaned out before the cold really sets in so I can overwinter some of the plants. I’ll want to get a good start on some of the seedlings for next year as well.”
“I can give you a hand.” Trent stuff the last morsel of banana bread into his mouth. “You need to be able to work on the wedding.” He added indistinctly.
Jeanette laughed. “I’m not worried about the wedding. I just want to get it over with. We need to get this little farm ready for winter. I do a lot of crafts over winter and I’m hoping that they will sell as well at the White Hart this Christmas as they did last year. It’s a nice side hustle, and with Ian’s plumbing business taking off as well, there’s a lot to get in order.” She finished her tea. “I’ll be working you hard later on, but for now you can just clean up the kitchen and get on with your coursework.”
“Yes ma’am.” Trent smiled happily with contentment.
Steve pulled up at the lock up and his heart sank. Fiona was there, sorting through some of his boxes. “Hi, Fiona, I didn’t think you would be here.”
“Mrs Tuesday is closing tonight with some of the younger boggarts.” Fiona said. “I thought it would be worth having a sort out here.”
Steve recognised stress sorting. The air hung heavy with dust and there was a tang of old incense and patchouli. “I know I shouldn’t take in the house clearance stuff, but I’ve had some good finds over the years and, to be honest, it takes a burden off the families.”
Fiona turned around and dusted down her t-shirt. It didn’t help, but added long, dark streaks to the patches already there. She had dust smeared on her face and she was thankfully unaware of the cobweb that had caught at the back of her ponytail. “I know. I remember how grateful Mr Evans’ daughter was when we cleared the house. She had no idea of her father’s interests. And it was just as well.”
“I’m sure she would have seen ‘Seducing a Succubus’ as rather spicy fiction.” Steve said. He took off his jacket. “I’ll give you a hand.”
“And then there was, ‘Inviting an Incubus’. That could have gone wrong in so many ways.” Fiona said. “Have you even opened some of these boxes?”
“It’s been a bit busy.” Steve said. “There was that trouble over in Lancaster.”
Fiona sniffed and then sneezed. “These look old,” she said, changing the subject.
Steve rolled up his sleeves and took the box from her. “They do, don’t they.” He set the box down on the bench just inside the door and started taking the books out. “These are handwritten.” He said. “And I think this is vellum and not paper.”
Fiona pulled out another box. “I think these can just be thrown out.” She tipped out a jangling heap of dirty brass candlesticks and stained incense holders.
“Hmm?” Steve kept turning the pages.
“These, they’re worthless.” Fiona pulled out a black bag.
“Hang on.” Steve gently placed the book back in the box. “The brownies will take stuff like that. It’s not worth us cleaning it up, but they enjoy a challenge and then they donate the stuff to charity shops.”
“I’ll leave this stuff in the White Hart with a note, then?” Fiona said, picking the box up.
“Just a sec.” Steve waved his hands in a graceful pattern. “I need to check…”
Fiona jumped back as three of the candlesticks and an incense burner started glowing with a dull, red aura. “They are enchanted?”
“That’s probably why he had an unexpected heart attack.” Steve said dryly. “There should be at least four enchanted candlesticks. It looks like some of work didn’t take. And those books have some heavy duty stuff in them. I’m going to have to get Ian over to look at them. He really knows his stuff.”
“Tonight?” Fiona asked carefully.
Steve didn’t answer straight away as he muttered some words over the glowing brass. The colour cycled from red, through orange and yellow, to green and finally blue before fading. “I don’t see why not. We’ve not got anything planned.” He turned back to the books before he registered the sudden tension in the atmosphere. He resisted the books with an effort. “We don’t have anything planned, do we? And you like Ian. He’s a good guy.”
“Can you remember the last time we had a date?” Fiona asked.
Steve’s mind went blank. “I’m trying to think…” He stalled for time.
“The last time we had a date was around a month before our wedding.” Fiona said. “How about a quiet night in? When did that last happen?”
“We stay in sometimes.” Steve scrabbled for details of the evenings of the last few months.
“Staying in and a quiet night in are two different things.” Fiona snapped. “Last Thursday you were home around dinner time, but you spent all your time working on that recording cube.”
“It just needed a few tweaks and I know Lord Cedric would pay good money for it…” Steve trailed off.
“Why did you marry me?” Fiona asked. A tear slid down her face leaving a pale trail in the dust. “Why did you marry anyone?”
“I loved you?” Steve forgot all about the books. “I mean, that’s why I married you. I still love you.”
“Then spend some damn time with me.” Fiona brushed away another tear, leaving dark streaks across her face.
“It’s not my fault.” Steve tried to justify himself. “The business means that sometimes I have to travel, I’m not always home…”
“You’re not with me even when you are home.” Fiona said. “You’re looking at the books or sorting out flint knives, or just anything except with me.”
“That’s not fair.” Steve said, stung by his guilty conscience. “Besides, why did you marry me? Were you just desperate for a wedding? You were spending a lot of time with Dean, but he let you down.”
An electric silence fell. Fiona broke it first. “You know why I was spending time with Dean. He was trying to seduce me to get to Lord Ragnar. And no, it wasn’t just about a wedding. And that’s perhaps just as well, as I don’t think a quick ceremony in a hospital chapel is a little girl’s dream of a special day. And perhaps it would have been nice to have had a special day with you as I haven’t had much time since.”
“Is that what this is about?” Steve tried to divert the argument away from him. “You missed out on a fancy day?”
Fiona looked at him for a long moment. “I’m going down to call on Jeanette. I know she wants some help with the place cards. I’ll see you later.”
Luke was paying an infrequent visit to the White Hart. As the second paladin, he tried to distance himself from the non-normal world as much as possible, but his mother had sent over a new recipe for jollof rice and the White Hart was the best place to get the good spices. As an honoured guest, he was ushered into the back room with a free coffee. He smiled at Chloe. “What a wonderful place to work.” He waved a hand around the spice room, kept well away from the werewolves’ sensitive noses, and filled with fresh spices and incense sent by Mrs Tuesday’s contacts. It was all immaculately kept with the grinders and scales clean and dust free and the fresh, whole spices carefully sealed in large, plastic tubs.
Chloe smiled. She was bundled up with her hair covered and a little mask over her face, which she pulled down. “It’s amazing. I never knew the difference between the fresh spices and the stuff you get in the supermarket. It’s amazing.” She went over to the storage unit. “What are you looking for?”
“Ground coriander.” Luke smiled apologetically. “My mother would tell me to grind my own, but I don’t have much time.”
“Yes, you’re one of those internet consultants.” Chloe pulled out one of the big boxes. “How is business?”
“Not bad,” Luke said, “Could be a lot worse, and at least I get my lodgings.”
“And a few meals from Mrs Tuesday.” Chloe said, pulling out a large packet. “On the house.”
“Are you sure?” Luke asked, taking the packet.
“Of course.” Chloe said. “I have strict instructions from Steve and Fiona. You and Darren don’t get charged. Dave doesn’t get charged as long as he doesn’t take advantage.”
Luke laughed. “Dave is a reformed character,” he said. “but I understand your caution.”
Jasmine rushed into the room, her nose wrinkling at the intense smell. “Luke, you have to come. Lady Freydis has happened.”
Luke stood next to Steve and looked up. He was one of a small circle around a large horse chestnut tree next to a piece of waste ground. To everyone’s relief, it was on the edge of York, but it wasn’t completely hidden. Sir Ewan joined him, looking up. “She was bound to do something like this eventually.” He said. “And at least no-one’s got hurt so far.”
“How long do you think the tree can take the weight?” Steve asked. He looked at Luke. “It’s up to you.”
“Has anyone managed to get hold of Dave.” Luke asked desperately.
“Still out in the Dales with Elaine.” Steve said. “And if he has a clue that this is going on, he’ll stay there.”
Luke shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun. All it needed was some kids to come past and try and film this on their phones, or some students who would want in on the joke, and it could go very wrong indeed. “Lady Freydis,” he called up to the figure at the top of the tree, “Why did you take the van up there?”
Steve exchanged a glance with Sir Ewan. It was as good a start as any with a crazed elfen, and Lady Freydis was looking crazed. “Get her talking,” Steve said quietly. “She can get things off her chest.”
A flurry of autumn leaves fell as the van, wedged in the upper crown of the tree, shifted. The group of normals and non-normals surrounding Lady Freydis took a collective step back.
“I want to speak to Fiona.” Lady Freydis said and took a mouthful from a large earthenware pitcher. “She will understand.”
Luke glanced at Steve who nodded and took out his phone. Luke took a deep breath. “Lady Freydis, are you well?”
There was a loud wail from the top of the tree. “I am not well. I am suffering.” Lady Freydis took another gulp. “Also, there isn’t a latte up here.”
“Why don’t you and the van carefully come down and we can get you a latte.” Luke thought for a second. “Although I think the best latte in York is the one that you make, I’m sure we’ll be able to find something almost as good nearby. Then you can tell us everything.”
“A Prince cannot tell everything.” Lady Freydis took another large gulp from the pitcher, coughing and spluttering.
“If she’s sick from up there, there’s going to be a heck of a coverage.” Sir Ewan said quietly.
Luke tried to keep a straight face. “Lady Freydis, you are among friends. Why don’t you and the van come down carefully and we can look after you.”
There was another wail from the top of the tree. Sir Ewan leant closer to Luke. “This is perfectly normal behaviour for an elfen under stress. We just need to do damage limitation.”
Steve came back. “Fiona’s on her way and she’s bringing some hot chocolate with her.” He looked over at Luke who shrugged. “Lady Freydis, what is the matter.”
“Fiona will understand.” Lady Freydis took another large swig, lost her balance, slipped and grabbed wildly before settling on a slightly lower branch. One of the wheels of the van slipped free and there was an ominous creaking. “She understands the pain of failing at marriage.”
“Fiona has not failed at marriage.” Steve took a deep breath. “We are very happy.”
“I can tell when people lie, you know.” Lady Freydis hung upside down to give Steve a drunken and malicious grin.
“That is a very nice tree.” Luke tried a different tactic. “I’m worried that the van will break it.”
“I could lay waste to York again.” Lady Freydis said. “My grief runs so deep. What is a tree?”
“Trees are important.” Atherton said. “And the dryad is a lovely woman, just sleeping at the moment.”
Lady Freydis scowled. “Where is Fiona?”
“It takes time for her to travel.” Luke said calmly. “Why did you take the van up there?”
“I call her Bucephalus,” Lady Freydis said, “For I shall conquer.” She pulled herself up and tried to take another swig from the pitcher. There was another wail. “I have no latte and no moon-mead. This is unacceptable.”
“Why don’t you and Bucephalus come carefully and gently down and we can see what we can do about drinks of all types.” Luke said. He glanced quickly at Sir Ewan. “Who was Bucephalus?”
“Alexander the Great’s horse.” Atherton answered, looking very worried.
“I shall stay up here until I can drink the moonshine.” Lady Freydis announced. “The court can attend me here.”
“Lady Freydis, you are being ridiculous.” The deep voice of Martin carried across the crowd. “You do not appear powerful.”
“Have you any drink for me?” Lady Freydis asked, leaning precariously across a branch.
“I will not discuss anything until you and the van are safely on the ground.” Martin said firmly.
“Bucephalus.” Lady Freydis said. “The van is called Bucephalus.”
“I don’t care.” Martin said. “Not until it is on the ground and ready to drive.”
“I could make it fly.” Lady Freydis said.
“And that would make you look even more ridiculous, copying films.” Martin said. “Come down now.”
Then suddenly Lady Freydis was standing safely on the ground, the van neatly parked on the nearby lane and she was pouting at Martin. “I am your prince,” she said.
Martin bowed deeply. “And now I can respect your dignity. Now, what is this about?”
“Kadogan suggested that I marry to aid Fiona’s marriage to heal,” Lady Freydis said. “But I still mourn.”
“What!” Steve stared at Lady Freydis and then looked around to see if Kadogan was nearby. “There is nothing wrong with my marriage.”
Luke stepped forward. “Lady Freydis, I am so sorry that you are sad. Why don’t you head back to the White Hart and have a herbal tea? I’m sure that will help.” Every eye looked in disbelief at Luke. He waved a helpless hand. “It always helps my mother.”
“Lady Freydis does not need to calm down.” Martin said firmly. “She needs to step up and to be a prince. She needs to rule.” He looked hard at Lady Freydis. “Princes do not rule effectively from the top of a horse chestnut tree.”
“How about an oak?” Lady Freydis’ heart wasn’t in it. She ran a hand through her hair and looked ruefully at Martin. “You are correct, as always.” She sighed. “And so is Paladin Luke Fawcett. Though I shall take my pleasant refreshment in my domain.”
Luke looked at the leaves and twigs strewn around and the strain on everyone’s faces. “I hope you feel better soon.” He managed.
“And I think I need to have a word with Kadogan.” Steve said carefully. “In fact, I may need several words.”
How Bad Could It get
Fiona opened the door to the White Hart and flinched. She had never seen it so clean. Mrs Tuesday was re-racking all the herbs with the jerky energy that said it was extreme displacement. “What’s going on?”
Jasmine came from out of the back with an armful of coffee bags. “Callum’s gone to get some extra milk, and Adele said she would call her cousins to see if they can help out if the rush gets bad.”
“What rush?” Fiona half expected to skid on the floor which had been polished to within an inch of its life. The old boards gleamed.
Mrs Tuesday took a deep breath. “Lady Freydis made an announcement last night.” She started slotting the hangers back into position. “She is going to get married next midsummer.”
“Who to?” Fiona hung her coat in the back room and came out, bewildered. “Not Kadogan as he is pretty loyal to Suzuki and Atherton is besotted with the young lad who works at the garage down the road. Surely she won’t go for Martin after all that happened? And who else is there? Egerton is too scared to go near her.”
“Egerton’s mostly healed and is doing okay.” Mrs Tuesday was struggling with the bags of herbs as the fine control needed to get them on their hangers wasn’t being helped by her temper. “But that’s the thing. She hasn’t got anyone. She has decided that she is going to marry someone – just someone! And she’s going to marry at midsummer.”
“Jeanette and Adele are taking it okay.” Jasmine said, “But I would be furious.”
“What?” Fiona looked at the extra stock of till rolls and bags at her till and started to get an idea of what was coming.
“Lady Freydis decided that Jeanette and Adele are getting married on Easter Monday. Darren wasn’t happy. He said that she may be the Prince and in charge of non-normals but he was in charge of his church. He was seriously considering not doing the ceremony, but he thought he would for the sake of Jeanette.” Jasmine unloaded the bags of coffee into the cupboards. “But he said he was going to have a Word.”
“And you had better brace yourself.” Mrs Tuesday threw a cardboard box out of the way with some venom. “She wants you and Steve to have renewal ceremony. Where was Steve last night?”
“He’s over in Lancaster.” Fiona said, tight lipped.
Elaine came in and paused in the doorway, just as struck as Fiona at the high sheen of the White Hart. “What’s going on?”
“The brownies clean extra when they’re stressed.” Mrs Tuesday said. “Lady Freydis has decided she is going to marry at midsummer, and the shop is going to be over-run with candidates until she picks a suitor.” She stood up creakily and brushed off her skirt. “She has also picked the date for Jeanette and Adele and was talking about Fiona and Steve renewing their vows in August.”
“No!” Fiona said firmly. “No vow renewal.”
“Good luck.” Elaine said, with genuine sympathy.
“There’s someone outside already!” Jasmine said, “And we don’t open for another half hour.”
Mrs Tuesday swore loudly, at length and with great inventiveness. “Well, at least we’ll get some profit out of this mess.” She said, looking at Fiona. “But I may ask for a raise.”
“You’ve got it.” Fiona said. “They can see us, the shutters are up and the door isn’t locked. Is the café ready to go?”
Jasmine nodded. “Mrs Tuesday started everything off early.”
“We open now.” Fiona took a deep breath. “Tomorrow we make sure that the door is kept locked and the shutters down until opening time or we will be open around the clock. I’ll give you a hand with those herbs, Mrs Tuesday.”
Lady Freydis was sitting in one of her favourite corners of her realm, perched on a high rock and watching the sea crash wildly at the cliff below. Martin walked easily up behind her.
“Leeds is about as far from the sea as you can get in Britannia.” He looked over her shoulder at the salt spray arcing over the rocks.
“I know.” Lady Freydis kept her eyes at the swirling water below her.
“And yet you have this illusion realm, always stormy and wild.” Martin ran a gentle finger over the back of Lady Freydis’ hand. His touch lingered as he circled around the inside of her wrist, slowly up her arm, his other hand caressing her palm as he leant in and lightly kissed her neck.
Lady Freydis shuddered with pleasure and sighed. “I adore the tricks you play when you seduce, but do not expect them to work on my mind.”
“I just enjoy touching you.” Martin said. “And you have never objected to that.”
Lady Freydis stretched and smiled lazily. “I always enjoy your touch.”
“And what when you marry?” Martin said. “Will I be able to touch you then? It won’t be the same as it was for Lord Ragnar. You will hold the power and anyone trying to get to power through you won’t tolerate a threat to his position.”
“I imagine most candidates will want to get power transferred to themselves at some point.” Lady Freydis slid gracefully off the rock and smiled up at Martin. “I will not just be looking at self-declared candidates. I am sure some will bring interesting companions.”
“It’s not a good idea to set a man above his lord.” Martin shook his head. “You have mixed gunpowder and Greek fire. It’s going to be crazy. And you should get over to the White Hart. They will be wanting to see you there.”
“It’s likely to be busy, which is fun.” Lady Freydis started walking away from the realm, “But Mrs Tuesday will be cross with me.”
“I’m cross with you.” Martin said. “But I know my limits.” He turned her around suddenly and kissed her hard on the lips. He stepped back and shook his head at the smug smile on Lady Freydis’ lips. “I’m surprised Lord Ragnar didn’t beat you.”
“He didn’t dare.” Lady Freydis said. “Now, I need to take a swift path to the White Hart to tend to the Coffee Machine. Will you accompany me?”
“As long as you understand that I am not afraid of you.” Martin said.
“Of course.” Lady Freydis said, sliding a hand smoothly over a rock to show an unexpected entrance to a green, sunlit path. “And that is what makes all this so much fun.”
The White Hart was looking battered. The tables had been cleared and the dishwasher set off with the last remnants of the café’s busiest day ever, but the gaps in the bookshelves and knickknacks had been left until tomorrow as the crew of the White Hart slumped wearily over the pizza Fiona had ordered.
Dave had managed to get Elaine sitting alone with him at a table a little way away from the rest. He looked over to where Fiona was slowly writing lists with the help of Jeanette and Mrs Tuesday. Jasmine had already left to visit Darren, but Chloe had stayed as she had done extra duty in the shop. He looked at Elaine. “That was crazy. And I can’t believe how many non-normal men I had booking Tarot readings and asking about their future love lives.”
“I’ve overheard one or two arranging to get married quickly so that they don’t become eligible.” Elaine said. “It’s like she’s thrown a grenade into the middle of everyone’s lives.”
“I’m safe because I’m a paladin,” Dave said smugly, and then paused. “I think. He looked at Elaine. “She hasn’t said anything to you, has she? I mean, we’ve only just started dating but that doesn’t seem to stop her.”
Elaine shook her head. “I think she’s backing off from arranging the love lives of normals,” she said, “At least for now. She feels a little responsible for the mess between Steve and Fiona.”
“She wasn’t too involved.” Dave said, “Not like Lord Marius and Kadogan. But she feels bad for them.” He took a large bite of his pizza. “Steve and Fiona would probably be fine if they hadn’t interfered.”
“Fiona hates Steve going to Lancaster.” Elaine said. “There’s a sidhe there that has had a crush on him for years, but Steve has never been interested. I think he would avoid the place if he could, but the deal is too good to miss. He’s had to go quite deep into Faerie, I believe, and he won’t be back until tomorrow.”
“That’s not good.” Dave realised he was stroking over the back of Elaine’s free hand and stopped in confusion. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry.” Elaine smiled. “I don’t know how much free time I’ll have, but why don’t you come around to my flat tomorrow evening. I can make something to eat and we can watch a film. I’ve got a few cued up.”
“Sounds great, if we have the energy.” Dave said.
“I’m not cooking anything that needs more than two pans.” Elaine said. “Today has been crazy and I don’t think it’s going to get better.”
“It will have to die down soon.” Dave said. “I mean, how bad could it get?”
“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.
Jack in the Box
“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.