It was early closing day, but it was already dark and rain splashed against the window as Fiona closed the shop for the evening. She shivered. “I think I’ll have a nice cup of tea. I think some Earl Grey. I think Earl Grey always tastes a little sunnier.”
“I’ll make some.” Jasmine said. “Would you like some, Mrs Tuesday?”
“Not for me, love.” Mrs Tuesday rubbed her back. “It always tastes like soap to me. But I wouldn’t mind a normal cuppa.” She opened one of the boxes behind the counter.
“You don’t need to sort through that stuff, you know.” Fiona said. “I brought a load in to look at just to keep me busy.”
“It is good to keep busy.” Lady Freydis stepped out of the annexe.
“I thought you had gone home.” Fiona said. “Yes, I’m staying here tonight while Steve and the others look for Elaine, so I brought a load of boxes from the house.”
Lady Freydis walked over and put a surprisingly gentle hand on Fiona’s shoulder. “Do not worry. Steve is very powerful, and he is accompanied by Dave and Martin. They will return safely with Elaine, ready to tell their stories. Until then we must keep busy and prepare for their return, guarding our homes so they have a haven where they may return.” She reached in and picked up a saucepan from the box. It was dusty and needed a clean. She sighed. “I can still touch iron. That is something. I can still move in this world.” She looked at the box thoughtfully. “But why so many cauldrons?”
“Saucepans.” Mrs Tuesday corrected her. “And frying pans. It looks like quite a collection.”
Jasmine came over. “They look quite expensive.” She said, putting down the drinks. “They are proper cast iron and really heavy.”
“The old man probably thought he could re-sell them.” Fiona said. “And Steve is planning to get them cleaned up and see if he can sort them out. There’s a lot of stuff in that house.”
“I can see.” Mrs Tuesday pulled out a large frying pan. “You could cook a fry up for a family in this.”
“I thought I would call in before I sealed this gate for the evening.” Lady Freydis said. “There is always the risk that Leanne could come after Fiona, and this portal could be a weak point.” She looked at Fiona. “Will you be alone?”
“Kadogan will be here soon, and of course there will be Dean and Mrs Tuesday.” Fiona said. “Sir Ewan said he would keep an eye out, and so did Luke. I’m sure it will be okay.”
“I’m not so sure.” Lady Freydis said. “Leanne is a disgrace and a baggage. I would blush to try some of her tricks, and I am shameless.”
“Yes, you are.” Mrs Tuesday said, hefting the frying pan. “And still with no fiancée. How is the wedding planning going?”
“I’m still not sure about the rose petals.” Lady Freydis said. “But Steve has sourced great quantities of mead so I am hopeful that at least part of the festivities will be appropriate. Also, I do not know what my intended will want.”
“He probably won’t be marrying you for a quiet life.” Mrs Tuesday said. “But I recommend neat vodka for him.”
There was a knock on the door and Jasmine bounded over to let Darren in. “It’s great to see you! I’ll get my coat.”
“You’ll need it, the weather is awful.” Darren said, brushing a hand over his head. “I got soaked just coming from the car.” He frowned at Jack who slipped in the door behind him.
“Don’t mind me.” Jack grinned, strolling over to Fiona and bowing low over her hand. “But this place is harder to get into than normal. However I thought I should attend on my fair Fiona. Leanne is known to be spiteful and she is as stupid as she is beautiful. She cannot believe Steve would continue to reject her if Fiona was out of the way.”
“Do you know, I’m getting sick of having bad guys after me.” Fiona said. “Still, at least this time it isn’t a vampire.”
On cue, Dean walked in. “This place feels odd.” He said.
“Steve has put extra wards around it.” Jasmine said as she wriggled into her coat. “And Lady Freydis has sealed off the annexe for the night.”
“Did anyone check for loopholes?” Jack asked, reaching across the counter to steal a muffin. “It’s almost impossible to get in without an invite, even for me, but Leanne was here for at least a few days in the guise of Elaine. She could have hidden one or two anywhere.”
“Loopholes?” Fiona stared.
“I had forgotten those!” Lady Freydis said, looking worried. “It is so long that I have seen them used. You need skill.”
“She is skilful enough.” Jack said, “And skilful enough to conceal them.”
“What are loopholes?” Fiona asked.
Mrs Tuesday shook her head. “I’ve sort of heard of them. It’s like this world that we are in is just like a page in a book for some of the elfen, or a door in a row of doors. Or it’s like a skin in a layer of skins. Some of them, including Lady Freydis and Jack, can slip between them easier than others. And sometimes they can leave little gaps or tears in a page, so that they can wiggle through even though everything is locked down.” She looked at Lady Freydis. “Can Leanne use loopholes?”
“I believe she can.” Lady Freydis said quietly.
“Pragmatically, she may be too busy trying to keep Elaine out of Dave’s reach or leading Steve a merry, primrose-strewn dance.” Jack said, unwrapping the muffin. “She may not waste her time here.”
“Or she may decide to double back and remove what she thinks is the main obstacle between Steve and her love.” Lady Freydis said. “That woman! She can’t believe that all who see her do not love her. She has no grasp of reality.”
“You are the one who booked the wedding without the groom,” Mrs Tuesday said without really paying attention. Instead she was glancing around the room and holding the frying pan tightly.
“Yes, but the attraction of power and the amazing amount of mischief that has been generated are gaining more interest than my appearance.” Lady Freydis said, also checking her surroundings. “I think it may be a good idea to set a room up as a fortress where Fiona may safely stay the night. I suggest this room. There is food, it is central, and it is the most magically reinforced part of the building.”
“I concur.” Jack said thickly through the muffin. “Perhaps the padre will say a few prayers over this room, while Lady Freydis and I check for hidden loopholes.”
“Are you okay?” Dean asked Fiona quietly as she sank into one of the chairs in the café. He gave her hand a squeeze. “You’re frozen! Do you have a sweater in the back?”
“Get that tea down you.” Mrs Tuesday said. “And don’t worry. They didn’t get you last time and they won’t this time, either. Remember how Steve ripped reality apart to get you? I think you’re pretty safe. And now you have Jack on your side.”
“I think I’ll just get into fur.” Jasmine murmured quietly. She looked at Darren. “Please will you ring Ian and let him know that I’m staying here. I know he’ll approve.”
Darren nodded. “And I’ll stay with you.” He took off his coat and hung it neatly on the back of a chair.
“I’ll stay around.” Dean said. “Fiona, should I get you a blanket or something? You are so cold.”
Fiona shook her head. Her teeth started to chatter. “It’s just the weather.” She wrapped her arms around herself and tried not to shiver.
“You’re wearing a name badge.” Lady Freydis said.
“Yes, we all wear name badges except you.” Jasmine said. “Kadogan said he thought it looked more like a real shop.”
“No, look at the badge!” Lady Freydis snapped.
“Bloody hell!” Mrs Tuesday grabbed the badge and ripped it from Fiona’s sweater, throwing it to the centre of the shop. “She used your damned name badge. She used your name!”
As the name badge fell to the floor, a darkness spilled from it, pooling wider and wider until Leanne stepped out, her auburn curls gleaming under the shop lights and her eyes luminous. “Hello, sister wife. Are you ready to admit that Steve is mine?”
“You’re not Steve’s type.” Fiona said, standing up straight. “You’re wasting your time.”
“And if it isn’t little Freydis.” Leanne looked around. “Am I meant to be intimidated by the people here? A new vampire who hasn’t worked out all his powers, an old and almost broken boggart, a misfit werewolf, a vicar who is dipping into his flock and a perpetual fashion victim.” Leanne looked straight at Lady Freydis, who lost her colour, before looking back at Fiona. “You have poor defenders, my dear, and are indiscreet. You told Elaine that you didn’t like rats.”
“I don’t like rats.” Fiona said. “That is true enough. But I never said I was scared of them.”
“We’ll see.” Leanne said, flicking her hair over her shoulder and then delicately gesturing. “You will feel different after this.” She smiled brightly. “If you can feel at all.”
“No!” Lady Freydis shouted, but it was too late. Rats started pouring through the gap behind Leanne, streaming into the shop, squealing as they ran at Fiona.
Jack laughed. “You think you can play rats with me?”
Leanne glared at him and gestured. A spark lanced from her finger towards Jack but his grin never wavered as the spark ricocheted back and danced wildly around her before fading. Leanne took a step back and gestured to the elfen coming up behind her. “Get that one,” she said, pointing at Fiona. “Leave him to me.” Then she stamped hard on the floor. Ripples spread out from the dark portal and seemed to grow across the floor as rats continued to flow out.
Jasmine was in fur and snapping at the rats, tossing them wildly around the floor. Mrs Tuesday was swinging with a saucepan and Darren was kicking them back towards the portal. Dean was desperately muttering as he struggled to control the rats racing towards him. He had practised controlling rats and mice, but he had never had to deal with the quantities swarming across the floor. Lady Freydis was obviously struggling as the darkness surrounding Leanne was oozing towards the annexe and she was shaking off rats as she fought for control of the elfen magic.
The two elfen advancing on Fiona were intercepted by Jack, who dodged their sword thrusts easily, grabbing the sword arm of the larger of the two and casually snapping it before taking the sword. He looked around, laughed out loud and caught up the nearest pan and hurled it with force at the shop window.
The window smashed and in tumbled dozens of the skeletal hands, quickly followed by dozens more. The floor became a sea of combat as rats and bones engaged. The hands were desperately outnumbered, but they were organised and fighting as a group, picking off rats as the hands defended a line. Mrs Tuesday and Jasmine joined their flanks, pulling together a defensive ring around Fiona and Lady Freydis.
“This is wonderful entertainment!” Jack shouted, ripping the head off one of the attacking elfen and throwing it back through the portal as the collapsing body fell into a pile of leaf litter, obscuring the rats and scattering across the floor.”
“Dean, get them scattered towards the door.” Mrs Tuesday yelled. “We can pick them off better there.”
“I’m trying!” Dean shouted, trying to keep his balance as the fight raged around his ankles. “Get off, dammit!”
There was a yelp from Jasmine then a snarl as a rat got through as she was prising two of the rodents off a beleaguered hand. Darren grabbed a decorative athame and started skewering the attackers, taking the heat off the hands. Lady Freydis swore and then there was a crack as the darkness started receding.
“I am no fashion victim, I am the Prince of York!” Lady Freydis snapped at Leanne who watched the other of her guards crumple in front of Jack.
“What is happening?” Leanne cried, as the rats stopped coming through and started to flee. “What is going wrong?”
“You picked the wrong man to steal.” Fiona grabbed the large frying pan, ran forward and swung hard at Leanne’s head. She didn’t expect it to connect, but it did, with a dull thud, and Leanne reeled back from the unexpected power. All of Fiona’s frustration, her anger and her fear, were poured into that blow and it carried a lot of weight. As Leanne staggered, Fiona swung the frying pan back hard into Leanne’s stomach. It was unnecessary. Leanne screamed as her face turned black.
“It’s iron!” She doubled up as the venom of Fiona’s second blow hit, sinking to her knees.
“My warrior lady!” Jack shouted. “You are magnificent.”
Fiona stepped back, appalled as Leanne crumpled in front of her. “I didn’t mean to…”
“Steve should have been mine.” Leanne muttered, falling backwards into the portal. A small drift of leaves blew out as the portal closed. Fiona looked at Darren, appalled.
“Did I kill her?”
Darren walked over to her and took hold of both her hands. “It’s hard to say. She won’t be back soon, anyway, and you have protected Steve. I’ve heard a lot about what Leanne does to men, and none of it good.”
“Indeed.” Lady Freydis nudged at the leaves with her foot. “Even the elfen thought she was excessive. And cheap.”
“She’ll be off licking her wounds for a century or so.” Mrs Tuesday said. “And perhaps she may learn a thing or two. Though I doubt it. Come on, let’s get this mess cleared up.”
Fiona looked around her. Dead leaves, twigs and husks littered the floor. The bodies of rats were piled in heaps as the last of them fled out of the broken window. Chips of bone and detached fingers showed that the rats had fought a hard battle and broken glass was scattered over the window display. “The brownies are going to charge us so much extra.”