Witch’s Daughter FREE NOVEL IN INSTALLMENTS

Witch’s Daughter

by Sarah A. Hoyt

The Letter

 

It has often been said that dead men don’t talk.  In Avalon, this wasn’t necessarily true.  Dead men could talk if a reasonably talented necromancer were willing to risk the death penalty for reanimating a corpse.

But Michael had never heard of a dead man who wrote letters.

The letter lay on the breakfast table, next to the only setting on it, on a silver salve between the spoon and the porcelain creamer.

Michael Ainsling, youngest son of the late Duke of Darkwater and brother of the current titular, eyed it suspiciously, while he took his seat.  His eyes widened slightly at the name of the sender, then he frowned at his own name in the space reserved for the recipient.

He hadn’t slept well, and dark rings marked the pale skin beneath the dark green eyes he shared with all his male relatives.

A well grown boy at the age when one resented being called such, he had that look boys have when they’ve achieved adult height but not yet had time to fill in. He’d been the quiet half of fraternal twins, his sister Caroline being the garrulous and outgoing half until six months ago.  Then Caroline had been sent to an academy for young ladies, where she was presumably still garrulous but far away from Michael, so that Michael had to do his own talking and endure social interaction.

It had been thought – then – that Michael’s recent experiences had left him too frail to attend Cambridge.  Michael frowned with distaste at the thought, as he folded and refolded his napkin.  He did not understand why it had been thought better to leave him here on the deserted estate.  With Caroline gone, Seraphim — now the tenth Duke of Darkwater and the prince consort of the Princess Royal — spending most of his time in London and Mama having left no one knew very well where, Michael’s was the only place setting at the table designed to accommodate seventeen.

Most of the days he swallowed tea and toast and rushed off to work in his workshop.  Today…  He glared at the letter by his cup.

And realized that the footman who’d discreetly followed him into the dining room hovered near his chair.  “You may go, Burket,” he said, without taking his eyes off the letter.

“Will you need anything else, Lord Michael?” the man asked and made a broad gesture as though sweeping the breakfast spread clustered around Michael’s place setting: fried kidneys and some sort of pie, and toast and butter and something else that looked suspiciously like fish cakes.

Michael didn’t sigh.  “No, thank you, Burket.  I have everything I need.”

Truly he wanted the man gone so he could look at the letter at leisure.  The sender’s name was Tristram Blackley, and surely there couldn’t be more than one of those.  The writing and the paper both looked fresh, as though someone had dashed off the note just this morning.

But Tristram Blackley had been dead for sixteen years.  Michael had studied him among the great inventors of his time, the man who had created the carpetship liners that crossed the air between Britain and the Americas and took the upper classes of Avalon on pleasure cruises the world over. He remembered mama telling him, once, that she’d known Tristram in youth, that he was a lot like Michael himself, always dreaming up new magical machines, but how he’d died young and how sad it was.

“Beg your pardon, Milord,” Burket said, which was when Michael realized the man had leaned over to pour him tea, and had almost poured it on Michael’s lap as Michael lifted his head.

“Thank you,” Michael said.  “But you don’t have to pour my tea.”

Only now the man was buttering Michael’s toast and setting it on a plate, and smiling enticingly at Michael while nodding at the toast as though, for all the world, Michael were a toddler in need of being tempted to his food.  “I know, milord, but you haven’t been eating, and what are we to tell his grace, should he ask?  And he does ask, you know?”

Michael picked up the toast, with what he knew was ill-grace, and took a bite, while still frowning at the letter.  He could well believe that Seraphim worried about his eating and his health and everything else.  And that was nothing to what Gabriel, his older half-brother, once Seraphim’s valet and now the king of fairyland would do.  Those two had always mistook themselves for parents of Michael and Caroline.  Michael was sure someone in the household was in Gabriel’s pay, too, and sent him regular reports.

When you have two older brothers who are far more powerful than you, and determined to protect, cosset and annoy you within an inch of your life, sometimes all you can do is play along.  But Michael wished they’d let him read his letter in peace.

He took another bite, gulped down the tea, which was still hot and made his tongue sting, and then took another bite of toast, doing his best to simulate appetite he didn’t feel.

He had spent a restless and turmoil filled night, dreaming of fairyland and his recent captivity in it, and it was all he could do not to allow a long shudder to go through him at the confused and patchy memory of that dream. That was the problem, too.  In dream and memory fairyland was never anything clear and solid, anything you could rebel against and resent.  It was a foggy, threatening recollection, in which places and people changed shape and essence, and in which pain and worse happened to you without warning.

“That is better,” Milord, Burket said, in the sort of kind, patronizing tone that made Michael wish they hadn’t forbidden duels and that it weren’t frowned upon to duel one’s social inferiors.

“Would you fancy a kidney?  Perhaps a fish cake?”  At Michael’s headshake, Burket stepped back, but didn’t leave, as Michael expected.  Instead, he cleared his throat and looked towards the entrance door to the room, set next to the window that looked out over the gardens.

There was movement, and then two women and a man came in, all of them smiling widely, but all of them looking just the slightest bit embarrassed, as though they were doing something they shouldn’t be doing. The women were Mrs. Hooper, the housekeeper, starched and stiff in her black dress with its immaculate white collar, Mrs. Aiken, the cook, and the man was Dyer, the Butler.

What on Earth could be the matter?

Before Michael could even think to ask, Mrs. Hooper advanced, curtseyed, advanced again, curtseyed again, then beamed at him, again, as if he were an infant in the nursery, and spoke, “Lord Michael, since today is your seventeenth birthday, we thought it only fair…”  She stopped and sniffled, as though she were fighting strong emotion, though Michael had no idea what that could possibly be.  “That is, last summer, Milord, we thought you lost, and we wish you to believe we all hold you in the greatest affection, and therefore…”  She blushed, which gave Michael all he could not to let his jaw drop in astonishment.  Mrs. Hooper had never seemed fully human, much less capable of embarrassment.  “Therefore we got you this gift, from everyone on the estate, to commemorate your seventeenth birthday Milord.”

She dropped a parcel wrapped in silver paper, and neatly tied with a silk ribbon upon the table, just north of the letter from the dead man, then beat a hasty retreat.

Michael’s turn to blush, and to fumble with the paper.  And then he had the devil’s own time concealing the expression of astonishment on his face, and overlaying it with gratification.  “Oh, thank you,” he said, staring at the tiny gold box with the miniature scene of Zeus in judgment worked painted upon the porcelain lid.  A snuff box?  Why in heaven’s name did they think he’d take snuff?  Even Seraphim didn’t.

But he also understood, immediately, how expensive such a thing was, and how much of a sacrifice it had been to the servants to contribute to it.  That colored his voice and his expression, as he stood and said, “I am not good at flowery speeches, but—” He lifted the box and looked it over, “I am most gratified at your kind thought.  Thank you. I thank you most heartily.”

The four of them curtseyed of bowed according to their different sexes, looking gratified, and left.

Which is when Michael opened the letter from the dead man.

 

 

Escaping The Tower

The problem with a wicked stepmother, Miss Albinia Blackley thought, as she stood in front of the mirror, wearing Geoffrey’s clothes, and tucking her abundance of red hair into a hat rakishly set on her red curls was when the wicked stepmother was in fact your real mama.

It was all very well, after all, for Miss Albinia’s brothers – who always called her Al – because Mama was just the woman who had married papa when Geoffrey, the youngest, was seven, and was in fact no blood relation to them.  So they had nothing to be either sorry or worried for.  It wasn’t their mama who mistreated them so.

Oh, it had been terrible for them, from what they’d said, to find that their kind and absent-minded father had married a forbidding and interfering woman who was a powerful witch to boot.

But at least all of them, even Geoffrey, remembered papa.  Albinia didn’t.  She didn’t remember anyone but Mama, the sole authority and arbiter in her fifteen years of life.  Albinia locked the door to her room as she thought this, and sighed, because now she was on limited time.

Mama didn’t like her to lock her door, ever, and there was no point at all imagining that mama didn’t spell that lock, so that she knew the moment Al locked it.  Mama spelled everything and kept track of everything Al did, which is what made this so devilishly difficult.

But spell or not, Albinia must lock the door, to at least delay mama and give her a chance to escape.

Because the thing was, Mama or no Mama, Al must leave and go find the boys.

She didn’t know if the boys had felt this way when papa left shortly after marrying mama. She didn’t know because they never spoke to her of that time, before Al was born.

What she knew was that papa had disappeared shortly after marrying Mama, and had never returned and was presumed dead.

And now the boys had disappeared.  Al didn’t know where, but she knew two things.  One, that mama had made them leave against their will.  And two that wherever they were they needed Al. And at any rate, Al needed them.  Even if Mama was her real mama, Al was not going to stick around and have the full benefit of mama’s attention for the duration. Whatever the duration was.

She scrunched under the bed to find the old sheets she had torn and tied together.  They had to be old and discarded, because that was the only way to make sure they were no longer bespelled.  It had taken her six months to find some and to braid them into a passable rope, in the few minutes a day mama left her alone.

Tying the sheet to the foot of the bed and throwing it out the window was the work of a moment.  Al’s mind ticked where mama would be now.

Even if she were close by, say in her room, as she would be at this time, she had to come up the North staircase, down the hallway and up to the door.  Right now, she would be on the top step.

Al got the magical kit, likewise assembled painstakingly over a year, of discarded bits and ends, so that she could be sure no one had bespelled or could track any part of it.  The hard part of it had been buying the herbs, because she’d had to spend her allowance on them, in a shop at the other end of Wulffen Downs, so that mama wouldn’t hear about her purchases.  And she’d had to wrap them so they looked like candy.

It had earned her a sermon from mama about spending her money on tooth-rotting sweets.  But she had got the herbs necessary for enchantments.   She tied the pouch to a cord under her jacket, and then slipped the few silver coins left of her allowance into her sleeve.

She could now hear Mama’s step in the hallway outside.  Mama was clearing her throat, preparing to call her name.

Albinia pushed the window fully open, knelt on the parapet, and held on to the rope with both hands.  She had remembered to put knots on the rope, and she set her feet on the first one, carefully, otherwise it would be like when she tried coming down from the cliff when she’d been bird watching with Edmund, and had got her hands burned, with the speed of sliding down the rope.

She clambered down the rope as, from above, came the sound of knocks and mama calling “Open up.  Open up immediately young lady.”

She felt the little puff of magic as mama opened the door with a spell, and she moved faster down the rope, because she had to be on the ground, and running by the time mama got to the window.  She had to go to her brothers. Geoffrey needed someone to help him make himself understood when he started stuttering and Edmund was likely to lose everything, including his paints, and Aaron, Jeremy and Joshua would argue about everything, and William was likely to disappear into his music, and Samuel would just go all extremely disappointed…

Albinia looked down to see how far the ground was.  She had measured the tower where her room was situated.  She’d calculated the height to the window five different ways.

But as her stomach sank to her feet, she realized none of that mattered now.  Because she was not suspended from her own home’s window, but from a window open on a façade of glass. In fact, it looked like she was hanging from a giant glass rectangle.  Except that as she looked forward, she could see these were windows and that oddly dressed people were pointing at her and a woman was covering her mouth, but looked like she was screaming something.

Gone was the tower of the manor house on the cliff, overlooking the ocean and the familiar marshes.  Mama.  Mama and mama’s magic!

She could feel as though an abrasion upon her magic, as if something, in this strange place were trying to get through her shields.

Beneath her, there were flashes of moving things that she couldn’t understand and the sound of klaxons superimposed on a low roar as of a million voices.

She had no idea where she was, dangling here, between Earth and sky, on her fragile ladder of sheets.

All she knew was that the ladder ended far short of the ground. More than the height of Al’s tower.

Far above, Mama leaned out the open window, and Mama’s voice called, “Albinia Blackley, you little idiot.  Hang on.  I shall pull you in.”

And Al let go of the ladder.

She let go before she could think. She let go, knowing only she couldn’t stand to go back in and explain herself to Mama.  She let go knowing that she must get to her brothers, somehow, but not knowing how, except that she must get away from Mama and Mama’s magic, first.

She tumbled downwards, head over heels, wondering how it felt to hit the ground so far behind.

Would it hurt?  Would she even feel it?  She hoped she didn’t land on some innocent and kill them, even as air escaped her lungs.

 

Rescuing the Dead

Michael frowned at the letter.  It was undoubtedly addressed to him, by a man who couldn’t possibly have known of his existence, unless he had read the announcement of Michael’s birth in some society newspaper.

Swallowing tea and toast as fast as he could, Michael put the snuff box in his pocket and retreated to his workshop.

Properly speaking, he had two workshops: one in the house proper, a room that had taken his father a substantial portion of the family fortune to build and the other far deep in the garden, where Michael assembled and tested those experiments that might explode or other otherwise cause damage to the family.

The workshop in the depths of the garden, he’d all but abandoned.  Even if a changeling had been left in the inside workshop, it was from the outside workshop he’d been abducted with a cunning spell from the now fortunately dead king of fairyland.  And though Michael was quite sure the present king of fairyland, his brother Gabriel, had no intention of kidnapping him, yet he felt alone and vulnerable in that building.  It had been violated once, and could be violated again.

The inner workshop would be harder to breach.  For one, when it had been claimed from its previous use as a ballroom, it had been lined in leather between two layers of copper, the whole bespelled, forming an impassable barrier to both organic-affecting and inorganic-affecting spells.

In the ballroom, a sort of platform had been built, and up on it, Michael had his sky-observing apparatus, which observations came in handy when calculating what form of spell to use.

The rest of the workshop was machines of Michael’s own invention, many of which now seemed impractical and childish to him.  Take for instance his careful replica of the planet Earth, in brass, rotating in proportional time around a miniature sun.  It had been fun to build, but what practical use was it?

Since Seraphim had visited the strange planet without magic where the Princess Royal had been raised, and brought back ideas for useful machines, like shavers and mixers and clothes and dish washers, Michael had been working hard on magical replicas for such wonders.

The clothes washer was a success, except that the housekeeper had banned its use saying it was an abomination and would run laundresses off their jobs by the score.  However, Seraphim had arranged to have it tested in the royal palace and it was well on the way to becoming accepted in other, less hidebound households than the Darkwaters’.  Seraphim said it would make Michael a fortune.

The automated barber, though…  Michael frowned at his creation standing by the workbench near the far wall of the room.  It was not a little portable thing, as Seraphim had described, because Michael had believed by making it large and capable of giving haircuts as well as shaves, it would be more popular.  Particularly if it could also dress the hair of young ladies.

But all the thing had done, in actual fact, was chase Michael through the house, trying to cut… not his hair.  The bits of his jacket it had got had been enough.  Michael was not sure what had gone wrong with the animating spell, because when a cylindrical, man-high thing is wheeling after you brandishing knives, razors and scissors in its many arms, the only possible thing to do was to run as fast as possible.

Which he’d done, until Dyer had shot the mechanical barber through the head with a fowling piece.  Michael stared at the creature with multiple holes through the space where its directing magic had been.  Well, never mind that.  This was not a good time to attempt to reproduce that… experiment.

Michael perched on a high stool and tore into the letter, breaking the seal which showed – he’d swear to it – a lamb eating a wolf.

The letter started formally enough, “Dear Lord Michael Ainsling, You’ll forgive my addressing this letter to you, though we’ve never been formally introduced, or, indeed, introduced at all.”

And it proceeded strangely, “You might have heard of me, and have some idea that I am dead, but do not let that concern you, as rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

Michael chewed the corner of his lip, perceiving that the person who’d written this letter, in strong angular letters, was what Mama would have called an original.  And by original she normally meant that they needed help finding their way across a street, and were none too certain where they might have placed their head that day.  She had been known to describe Michael himself in such a way.

“I suppose it will be a matter of some concern to you how you come to be receiving a letter from me, whether you think me dead or alive, and also possibly some curiosity as to what you can do to help me, or hinder me, or indeed do anything in my case.

“I’ll tell you the truth.  I do not know.  I have cast and recast these runes, and all I can tell is that there is only one person in the world capable of understanding my work – and you must understand what keeps me prisoner here is my own work – and disabling it, so I might perhaps be set free.

“I have never had the pleasure of meeting you and the last thing I’d expect would be the Ainslings to throw any kind of magical genius in the normal way.  I mean, you’ll pardon me for saying so, but your father was one of the accredited adventurers of my time, in more ways than one, meaning he was rather more adept at using other men’s magic all too often in order to use their wives likewise.  And while your Mama was one of the beauties of her day, and indeed a diamond of the first water, I never found that she had an inquisitive and mathematical turn of mind.  But then, of course, sometimes every breed throws a sport, and my runes assure me that you are that.  A magical genius, I mean, not a sport, though I suppose that also.”

By this time Michael’s head was whirling and he felt he should have had rather more than one cup of tea to fortify himself to deal with this very strange missive.  Or brandy for a choice, except that none of the servants would let him have it, or at least not without telling Seraphim. And maybe Gabriel.

“However, before I can request that you rescue me, though I do, of course, request that, I must ask you to find my sons.  You see, the woman I married, in what I’m sure now seems to me like a fit of madness, has applied some sort of spell to them, so I can no longer track them nor communicate with them.

“I’m afraid she means to do away with them and use the lands of my ancestors to form a dowry for her whelp.  And while I have nothing against the mite, who was not born by the time I got confined to this place, and whom my sons inform me is a pretty good sort, in the way young females sometimes are, and not at all like her mother, I do not wish for my legacy to pass wholly into her hands and those of whichever rogue Augusta chooses to marry her to.

“I presume you have a row boat of some sort on your property, as I vaguely remember there was a lake there, in which much boating was done in the summer.  I remember the lady your mother looking very fine in a lace dress upon a boat, in fact.  At any rate, if you apply the formula I enclose onto a rowboat, it should bring you where you need be to start unravelling this knot.

“Since the full extent of the knot laid by the one I must call my lady wife is not known or understood even by me, I must trust in the formula and in the kindness of a total stranger to do what must be done.  And my scrying assures me you’re the only stranger who can do so.

“In full hope, if not trust, of your doing what is needful, I subscribe myself your most grateful and devoted servant, Tristram Blackley.”

Having laid the letter down on his workbench, Michael stared at it, fully wondering whether the person who’d written was the – presumed dead – author of magical carpet travel on a grand scale, or simply a madman possessed of illusions of being such a parsonage.

It was not till he turned the page and looked through the formula, written in a hand that gave the impression of impatience with writing, that Michael blinked, whistled under his breath, and realized that this was indeed the work of Tristram Blackley.

No one else, barring an equal genius, could have come up with such a strange mix of magical formulae, turning a simple rowboat into a vehicle of both magical transport AND divination.

And Michael knew, as he knew his own name, that he would have to try it out.  It was like climbing the tallest tree or exploring the dangerous path of the woods.  He’d like to believe he was doing it for the sake of the unknown Mr. Blackley who seemed to be in a terrible position, but in his heart of hearts, he knew he was doing it for the thrill of it and to prove that he could.

Enough of nights hemmed in with nightmares of fairyland, and of moping the otherwise deserted estate.  Michael wanted to be doing.

 

 

The Kindness of Strangers

 

Miss Albinia Blackley didn’t scream.  Or at least she tried, but as she turned over, her hair falling out and her cap being lost in the street below, it seemed to her that the air robbed both her ability to breathe and her ability to make a sound.  From above she heard her mother scream, but not what her mother said.  From below other screams joined, together with some sort of strange musical instrument that sounded like a crazed goose.

She caught glimpses of the street below, the glint of something like metal but in many colors.  She tried to use her magic to slow the fall, but of course it didn’t work, when she couldn’t even think clearly.

And then from somewhere she heard a male voice.  It said a jumble of words. Or at least the words sounded like a jumble in her, though of course, right then anything would.

Her fall arrested.  Not suddenly, but first slowing down, like a leaf falling gently from a tree onto the welcoming ground.

Only she didn’t fall on the ground.  Or get a chance to straighten up.  Instead, she fell face first onto something hard and wooden.  As she recovered breath, she realized that the something she’d fallen on was moving, gliding rapidly through the air.  Or perhaps not gliding, because…  She blinked as she picked herself up to sitting on the floor of a small rowboat and looked at the boy who was rowing it.  He was tall and dark, and scowling, and plying the oars with a will.  And they were charging through the air, weaving and twisting, while mama screamed above, ever more distantly, and below the screams had changed from a horrified to a strangely excited tone.

“What?” Albinia heard herself squeak.  “How?  Who—”

“Not now,” the boy said, between panting breaths.  “We must get out of here, before the location affects the spell.”

Like that, they seemed to push through… something, and there was the brief cold of what Albinia had learned to call In Betweener.  She’d never experienced it, of course, not being allowed to perform spells that dangerous – or really to escape Mama’s orbit that easily – but she’d read about it in her instruction books.  It was supposed to be the time you slipped between one world and the next, and you were nowhere.  There were horrible  warnings against getting stuck in the In Betweener, unable to breathe, forever.  Albinia had always wondered how anyone knew you could get stuck there, or if you died or if you just stayed suspended forever. Since there was no time in the Betweener, could you die there?

When she’d tried to ask such questions of Mama, mama had told her that young ladies of refinement didn’t ask stupid questions. But she’d never explained to Albinia why the questions were stupid, or, indeed, what refinement had to do with it.

Now going through, for however brief a moment she was, she realized what had originated the talk of dying in the In Betweener.  Even if no one could know if it had ever happened. Only that someone hadn’t arrived to the place where they’d meant to go. The seconds – minutes?—in Betweener felt like she’d been dragged head-first through hell. No. Not hell, hell would have something, even if the something was pretty unpleasant. This was just…nothing. Humans shouldn’t live in nothing.

She’d had no more than time to think this – or perhaps think was too clear a word. She’d in fact only had a moment to feel it, like one groping in the dark for an unfamiliar shape – than they were out, into cool clear air, with bright son and a smattering of snow flakes dancing in it.

And the boat was falling.

The young man whose boat it was – unless, of course, he’d stolen it – rowed more frantically, and the fall slowed down and changed into a glide.

“We’re in London,” Albinia said, delightedly, recognizing things only seen in woodcuts, the Thames and the Bridge, the tower of London, as they turned and glided in the air above the city.

The boy only gave her a dirty look. But maybe he couldn’t speak.  He was read in the face and rowing fast enough that if they were on water they’d be achieving quite a speed.  Maybe. Because he was rowing faster with a hand than the other, and seemed to be controlling it, to make them fall slowly in circles.

They weren’t the only traffic in the air. There were magic carpets, as she expected, some of them pretty scruffy and small, probably pieces of bigger gliders cut and sold at a knock-off price.  Those seemed to be barely above the trees, and piloted by scruffy boys carrying packages.  She’d never thought of that but she supposed it made sense, to deliver purchases to ladies – and gentlemen – not willing to carry them.

There were only a couple of floating carriages, both with crests on their doors, and both, fortunately, well above them, so that there was no fear of being hit by them.  She’d heard of those, or rather, read of those, in romantic novels of the kind mama most strenuously disapproved of. They were expensive, both to build and to bespell, which meant that only the wealthiest who could command the best magicians had them.  A lot of them connected to the royal family.

The only other air traffic, but too far away for her to see clearly, was what appeared to be a sort of airborne building.  It would be one of those carpet – liners, the vast magic carpet supporting a first class hotel. Such plied the routes between Europe and other continents, and Albinia had often dreamed of going on a round-the-world tour on one of them.

She was looking longingly towards it, and thinking it was unfair she’d never been on one of those, when her papa had invented them, as they careened downwards at speed, towards a sort of little wilderness in the middle of busy London streets.

She screamed and held to the side of the boat.  The boy was almost not rowing. Was he mad? He didn’t even look at her when she screamed, his eyes fixed downward.

They fell past the small rug messengers, past the trees. Albinia kept trying to keep her eyes open, while they closed in sheer terror, and she forced them open again.

She must have closed them momentarily, because the first she knew about the small lake was when they splashed with force into the water. Water splashed on her face. Ducks screamed. She opened her eyes to see a flurry of feathers and ducks.

The boy was bent forward, his hands clasping his arms, his breath coming in ragged gasps.

She was dripping water, trying to wipe at her face, her hat sodden and soaked on her head, when the boy recovered enough breath to look up and fulminate her with as hateful and dark a glare as he’d given her before, “I—” he said.  “I think you must be the most cowardly boy in the whole world. Why did you scream like that?”

Answers flitted through Albinia’s head, including that she had screamed because she’d been scared, that she didn’t think she was cowardly at all, and finally that she wasn’t a boy.

But the truth is that there was a reason she’d put on Geoffrey’s suit. It wouldn’t do for a young woman, much less what Mama called – heaven only knew why – a “gently reared female” to be traipsying around by herself and under her own recognizance.  Men – if Albinia understood correctly from the novels she’d consumed – were forever wanting to do something called “stealing the virtue” of women.  She had absolutely no idea what that meant. No book she consulted explained it – just like not really explaining if you could die in the Betweener —  but she assumed that it meant they could take your magic or steal your magic, because after all when a magical object stopped working it was said to have lost “its virtue.”

But that had never been very clear, because a lot of the protagonists in the novels didn’t have any magical power.

All the same, and just in case, she made sure there were protective spells over her, so he couldn’t steal any of her magic – however that was done – and decided to not tell him she was a girl.  Instead she said, her voice scathing and her diction precise, “Well, and you’re quite the rudest boy I’ve ever met.”

To her surprise, he laughed aloud at that, the anger disappearing. “I suppose you can’t help it,” he said. “You’re just a scrub, aren’t you. How old are you, twelve?”

She started to protest then grunted something that could be taken either way.

“And what’s your name?” he asked. “I presume you’re Master Blackley…”

How did this rude boy know her name.  “I’m Al,” she said. “Call me Al.”

He opened his mouth. Closed it. “I’m Michael,” he said.

He took up the oars again, and started rowing more gently towards the edge of the park.  You’d think there would be people gathering and pointing at them by now, even if it was a cold day.  Albinia wondered why there weren’t, and if the boy realized this was wrong.  Then she realized he hadn’t given her a last name and looked at him curiously.  Right. Well, then she wouldn’t ask. You could tell from his clothes and the way he talked he was a gentleman. But why wouldn’t he give her his name?

“Where are we going?” she asked instead.

He looked embarrassed. “I thought you might want to get dried and changed before I explain.”

Clear as mud, wasn’t he?

She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of getting upset though. “Very well,” she said. Could it be any worse than being caught by Mama?

It wasn’t till they’d stowed the boat, and he’d done something that obscured it as it had become invisible, then led her across a busy street and galloped up the steps of an elegant townhouse, that she wondered if he was kidnapping her for nefarious purposes, like those things she had read about.  Again she made sure the shield was fastened over her magic.  She wondered if he had enough magic to feel her spell work, as he looked over at her out of the corner of his eyes, the green flashing in a way that made her think he was amused.

He knocked at the door to the townhouse, and stood back, waiting, his body posture denoting impatience.  She wanted more than anything to ask him who they were calling on.  But she didn’t fully realize how much trouble she was in, until the house was opened by liveried footman, whose face seemed permanently arranged in an expression of something like disdain. Which changed almost immediately.  The man’s eyes widened, his mouth dropped open, and he said, “Lord Michael!”

She was well brought up. Well, in some things. One of the things Mother had made sure she consumed was the manuals of peerage and etiquette. All of them.

If this young man was being addressed with Lord and his first name that meant only one thing: not only was he of a noble family, but one of the noblest.

After all, only the sons of dukes granted that courtesy title.

Michael forged ahead, a look over his shoulder calling her, “Come!”

And they were into the house, the footman barely jumping out of the way.

“Is Seraphim in?” Michael asked.

And then she realized: the name was unusual enough, she had to be at the home of the prince Consort. There was no other possibility.

Embarrassment

Michael forged ahead, dragging Al into his room at the townhouse, and casually tossing over his shoulder at the butler “Hodges, can you get someone to bring up water and clothes for us to change? Will Seraphim be in at dinner?” He turned to Al by way of explanation, “We probably should dress for dinner. I don’t know if my brother will eat in our house or at the palace. I’m not sure how they manage but—”

“Lord Michael!”  the butler sounded shocked to his core, and Michael stared at him, in complete confusion. It was his experience that he sometimes couldn’t even remotely guess at what other people were thinking.  This seemed to be one of those situations, as he had no idea what the look of deep reproach in the old retainer’s face was all about.

Hodges cleared his throat, “You cannot possibly mean to wash and change in the same room.”

Michael paused, suddenly alarmed. It wasn’t so much that he could guess what the butler was thinking – he couldn’t – but the man looked as if there would be some high impropriety in changing clothes in the same room with a friend.  Michael couldn’t really guess why, since in the past he had brought home play friends and changed for dinner in his room, if they weren’t staying overnight.

However, that had been some years ago.  Without being able to fully comprehend it, Michael had a strong feeling that some threshold had been crossed since he’d started having to shave.  Once a week maybe, but all the same.

To this was added the memory that his half-brother Gabriel was known to prefer the company of males to that of females.  At least Michael had heard that without fully understanding it, and it seemed to him it meant he fell in love with gentlemen, not ladies.

Michael didn’t fall in love with anyone. The whole thing seemed to him a passel of trouble. Look at Seraphim having his life upended ever since he fell in love with a woman whose social consequence was greater than Seraphim’s home.  And as for Caroline and her romance – well.  He wasn’t even human, in some ways.

In Michael’s world, which he intended to keep as rational as possible as long as possible, romance was not only an infernal nuisance, but an irrational one. And he would have none of it.

And certainly he’d never, under any circumstances have anything to do with a scrubby schoolboy who fell out of windows in other worlds.  At any rate, Michael – for all he didn’t care at all – had started to realize that some women – particularly very beautiful and intelligent ones, like that Miss Monkton who had given a talk on magical electricity, which he had attended last summer – had… effects on him.  His palms sweated, his throat grew tight, he couldn’t think of anything to say, and altogether a lot of effects took place which Michael had never expected and didn’t like in the least.  So he knew for an absolute fact that when it came to avoiding romance, it was romance with women that he was avoiding.

Which meant that he should be offended by Hodges’ implication.  He tried to sound severe when he said, “Oh, no one cares for that. We should have some clothes that fit Al. Maybe from when I was younger? I don’t think he’ll be staying the night. He’s only here till dinner, I think. Just have some clothes and warm water brought up.  Er…. Not a bath. We’ll just wash our hands and faces and change?”

“Sir!”

“No, Hodges, I must insist.”

“And I, sir, must insist that no such thing will happen under his Grace’s roof.  If you please, follow me,” And Hodges led them into the small parlor.

Michael blinked.  Either his brother’s butler had gone completely insane, or there was something of a magical nature going on that messed with people’s heads.

It wasn’t just the refusal to let them wash and change in the same room. No. It went well beyond that. It was that they were being shown into the parlor.

Michael paced like a caged tiger by the windows, while Al sat, subdued, on a chair, his hands in his lap, as if he were still in the nursery.  Good heavens, was the boy still in the nursery? Was that why Hodges was acting so strangely?

But next a maid came in, bringing tea and cakes, which was a crowning insanity.

Surely, Al was too young for liquor. Michael was too young for liquor, besides not liking the stuff. But lemonade and cake would be a more appropriate snack for a schoolboy, would it not?

“I have no idea—”  he began, but Al was already pouring tea for both of them and helping himself to cakes. There was a vertical wrinkle between his eyebrows, as though he were trying to decipher a very difficult puzzle.

There was noise in the hall, noise unheard of in this elegant house: an argument and raised voices, between a man and a woman.  And Mrs. Hodges came in.  She was the housekeeper at the townhouse, a very respectable woman, who wore somber colors and whom Michael had never before seen disturbed.

He’d always assumed that she could plan a party for three hundred or nursery tea without getting flustered.  But now she looked flustered. Or she looked flustered until three steps in. And then she looked like she was trying very hard not to laugh.

She curtseyed to Michael, but spoke to Al, “Well, my dear,” she said, a hint of a smile on her lips.  “He has no idea, does he?”

Al shook her head.

“So I take it your acquaintance is recent?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Al said, his voice sounding a little shy and strangled.

“I see. And here is Hodges,” she looked over her shoulder at the her husband, “Saying that Lord Michael is getting ready to set up a Corinth.  You must forgive them. They are fools. They never actually grow up, they just stop having spots.”

Michael would have been offended, if he had the slightest idea what she was talking about. Except of course, that it included him and Hodges. Hodges, whose eyes he met, looked as dumbfounded as Michael himself.

“Go you, Lord Michael,” the housekeeper said, sounding exactly as commanding and maternal as she had when Michael had been ten years younger. “To your room. Have a proper bath and change.”

“But Al—”

“I’ll take care of your friend, sir. Do not fear.  We’ll bring… we’ll bring you both here when you’re done.  Word has been sent to your brother, but whether he will be in for dinner or not, we do not know.  There is some crisis involving fairyland, and it is that important.  But never fear, we’ll take care of the two of you.”

Michael was so confused he not only let himself be herded to his room, but he let his brother’s superior valet choose his attire after bath, so that when he dressed, he realized he was wearing the most formal of dinner attires, complete with breeches.

He thought to protest because while his brother might be married to the heir to the throne, he was still very much at home, and if anyone else were at dinner it would be family and….

And he forgot it all when he entered the drawing room.

There was a young lady there, who had a passing resemblance to Miss Monkton.  At least she had the same red hair, a mass of it, loose down her back, and very large green eyes with a startled expression in them.

Oh, she also had freckles, masses, but Michael had never understood why people would mind freckles. He found them charming.  She wore a very beautiful dark green gown, with … well, he was sure it was very nice lace, though he had no words to even think on it, much less describe it.

“Miss–  Madam—“ He stumbled.

Suddenly the features rearranged themselves, and he realized she was…  “Al!” he said.

She curtseyed. The damned chit curtseyed, very proper and all to him, as though he were some kind of important person and she a stranger! As though she hadn’t fallen from a window onto his magical row boat.  As if—

“Albinia Blackley, milord. At your service.”

Michael realized, with a start, this must be the whelp that Tristam Blackley had spoken of.  A bastard child?

He opened his mouth to answer, though he was not sure with what

That was when the window exploded.

Shadow

Before Albinia had realized what was happening, Michael had jumped on her, and was holding her down, while there was a curious sound like hail all around, combined with a sound of howling wind.  And she tried to protest, but he wasn’t letting her up.

Things that Mrs. Hodges had told her flitted through her mind in sudden panic.  When she’d told Mrs. Hodges that she’d rather not let Michael know she was a girl, because, she thought, men could steal a woman’s virtue, Mrs. Hodges had told her not to let him touch her, or force her into any position, and that she’d be all right.  Though it was also a good idea not to be alone with him behind closed doors.

The later accorded so much with things Mama had said, that Al could only imagine it meant that when alone with a girl or in a position of command over her, a man could then steal her magic and do with it as he wished.

Panicked, unable to see, because part of Michael’s — or should that be Lord Michael’s? — cravat had come undone and flopped in front of her face, Albinia made futile attempts to get up.

The worst part is she knew they were futile. First because the big lump must outweigh her by double, and second because as the youngest sister of six boys she knew that it was almost impossible to overpower them, even the ones who were about her size.  Which was why she’d learned early on to use her magic–

The though was useful. She didn’t need to maim him, or even seriously hurt him.  She’d learned early on that sharp and concentrated force applied to a vulnerable area would get the young man distracted enough for her to then fight free.

Of course, if  he’s already stolen my virtue–

But she’d try. The other thing she learned, growing up, is that you always tried.

With everything in her, she closed her eyes, and concentrated on the back of his neck.  she’d had a view of it as they came into the house, and remembered it clearly: the pink skin beneath his hair.  And then under her breath she muttered the easiest incantations for effect.  If she still could do it, and had it right, it would feel like a giant mosquito sting on the back of his neck.

She aimed for effect and let it fly.

“Ouch!” came from above, and for just a moment, she felt his reaction, a slight movement, as probably his hand went to the back of his neck.

She took the opportunity to lever herself on one elbow, dig the other into what she hoped was his mid-riff, as she shoved with her whole body to get him off her, and then, before he could get hold again, before she even blinked, to leap away from him and–

That was when she slowed down enough, even as Lord Michael shouted, “Hey, I was trying–” to realize that the window that had been behind them: a vast affair composed of many little squares of glass encased in a framework of lead had broken inward, with force.

There were little pieces of glass all over the floor.  She assumed that was the sound of hail that she had heard.  She realized he’d been trying to protect her, probably guessing — accurately — that the impact of the glass would be less on the sturdier fabric of his suit.  Even so, she realized that the back of his neck wasn’t exactly as her mental image had been.  There were now myriad tiny cuts, as though he’d been excoriated by the glass, which now she thought about it, he had been.  As he turned around, anger in his eyes, she said, “I’m sorry.  I know you were trying to protect me, but I couldn’t see–  I had to see–”

He looked confused, but only for a moment.

The gale force winds, which must have blown the window in hadn’t abated at all, and now, through the window, came something dark and formless, something immense and man shaped but which looked like it was made wholly out of smoke.

Al didn’t even mind that Lord Michael stepped in front of her.  She could feel him, vaguely, because she sensed that he was working with forces bigger than she could command, assembling something magical.  But it was complicated, and difficult, and the figure coming through the window swatted it aside with a giant hand made of shadow and smoke.

And then…..
She would never be clear precisely what happened next, but she saw the thing grab Lord Michael, like a kitten by the scruff of the neck.

Albinia didn’t think. If she’d thought this would be the last thing she’d do.  But her body reacted before her mind could. She grabbed for him, around his midriff.

And suddenly she was suspended middair, holding on to the young man, while — inexplicably — they both flew suspended over London, much higher than even the boat had flown.

Albinia was not stupid, or at least no more stupid than anyone else.  At least from reading novels and listening to Mama’s stories of Mama’s own youth, Al thought she might be rather cleverer than the common run of people.

But right now all her belief in her excellent intellect amounted to nothing.  What a ridiculous situation to be in.

She recognized what the monster was, of course — any half trained witch would do so, and she  was a little more than half trained — he was a Gather.  Gathers were creatures created entirely by a spell, and formed of the nearest, most abundant material.  She should possibly be happy that the creature had been made of the pervasive coal smoke that permeated the city and not, say, from the equally pervasive stone used to make the buildings.  Or perhaps from people, she thought, as that too was abundant in London. She shivered.  She was not absolutely sure if Gathers would collect people, should they be directed, say, to the middle of a crowd.  She was sure, however, no people would survive such an experience.

Her arms aching, getting increasingly cold this high, where the wind blew with an extraordinary chill, she returned to her impossible predicament.  The problem with this is that, while she knew very well how to form a Gather, and therefore was absolutely capable of un-forming it, to dissolve this one meant to fall head first into London.  And die. There was no way in that short space she would have time to say a spell to break her fall.  But her arms hurt, where she held on to Lord Michael, and she was cold, and she was sure wherever the Gather was taking them it could be no good place.

Just as she thought that, she heard Lord Michael shouting, “Miss Blackley!”  As he spoke, he reached out his arms, and held her in turn. “You should not have held on to me. My family would have given you hospitality. There is–”

It occurred to Albinia, and what a time to think of it, that not only had she been very forward and rude in holding on to a man she barely knew but that he might very well think she was trying to trick him into marriage.  She had some idea that mama and her friends had tried such tricks when young, and even though she didn’t know much of society, she knew they were wrong.

“I couldn’t let you be taken alone. The creature is probably evil. And you’d saved me before,” she shouted back.  Her voice was not very loud, and he looked back at her, and she could see he was trying to make an attempt to understand.  Just as she thought this, she saw his lip twitch in amusement and didn’t know why.

“I thank you,” he said, his voice very formal.  But she could tell he was upset.

 

The Tower

Michael had never understood why people fell in love. It seemed an extraordinary thing to happen, that suddenly upended all your thinking and all your plans for the future. A very uncomfortable thing, too, since he couldn’t imagine marriage would be very comfortable, forever having to consider another person in your plans.  Bad enough that one had siblings whom one had to consider and plan for.

And of course he was not falling in love with Al–  Miss Blackley. For one, he barely knew her.  And for another, he wasn’t quite sure what falling in love was like. When Caroline had come back from her adventures in fairyland, it had all been about how Akakios gave her flutters in her stomach and made her mouth dry.  Michael had thought that it might be successfully treated with a purgative and some bleeding, but when he’d told Caroline that, she’d punched him.

However, now, being carried by a smoke Gather over the city of London — and what a spectacle it must be. He could almost hear the shouts from the people below — he realized that while he still did not have any intention to fall in love, he could almost understand why people did.

Not only was Al quite beautiful — well, maybe not conventionally beautiful, but he found her very pleasing to the eye — but also she was the bravest girl he’d met since his sister Caroline.  Ridiculous, of course. What did she think she could do to save him from someone who had sent this large a Gather was quite beyond him. And she must know, from the spelled boat, that he was quite a competent magician himself.

But of course she had not thought of that. She had simply charged in to protect him. Which was beyond stupid very endearing.  He held on tighter to her, her warmth welcome, and did a minor spell so he could speak without having to shout, and be heard too.  “I have no idea where it is taking us.”

“Nor I,” Al said. “Though I can’t believe something that broke into your brother’s house can have good intentions towards us.”

“No,” Michael agreed. “And it is quite stupid too. Because he must know that the moment he stepped away, my brother would be called there would be quite–”

At that moment he stopped. Not because he wanted to, but because everything must stop in the In Betweener.

He did not even know you could take any Gather through the In Between, and he held his breath — not that it made any difference, since you couldn’t breathe in the sheer nothing of the place, and hoped that the creature, such as it as, had enough purpose to be able to drag them through and to wherever it had come from.

This of course resolved the problem of how the smoke Gather had dared to break into the house of the prince consort, let alone how he intended to get away with it.

You could track people through the In Between. Unless where they landed was time dislocated or indeed a parallel universe, he would be found. Sooner, rather than later.

But the finding would take time.  And Michael had learned, long ago, that there was only one reason for someone to take him and delay pursuit, but know they could not evade it.  That reason was undoubtedly murder.

Oh, sure, there were times when kidnappers wanted money, but the son of a duke and brother of the future prince consort, from a family with extraordinarily high magic would be too high a prey for that. If all they wanted was money there must be far less dangerous people they could kidnap. And with more to give.

And also kidnappers would need to be reasonably sure they could extract money before the victim was found. No such thing here.

So the only reason they could have for kidnapping Michael in this fashion was because they wished to kill him, and perhaps disappear into the multi-verse before they could be traced.

The idea was obscene, and he felt his stomach clench in a ball of ice as he realized he’d brought Albinia, an innocent, into this perilous situation.

Just as he thought that they came out of the In Betweener, and the Gather was now taking very large strides in fog over the tops of a seemingly endless green forest.  In the far distance, he could see a stone tower, but in the fog he couldn’t even tell if it was a functional tower or just ruins.

Why would anyone want to kill him? People might have vendettas against his brothers, both very important people, or even against his father, though his father was vanished and officially dead. But why kill him?

The Gather was moving lower.

“Do you think we could survive the fall?” Al asked, showing she was in the same point in her thought.

He shook his head.  And then why they might want to kill him came to mind with a startling clarity.

He had never paid much attention to Seraphim’s job as the Royal Witchfinder.  The position entiled going to other worlds and rescuing people from where magic might be forbiden.  But Seraphim said onne had to be careful. Loathing magic per se was not a bad thing, if most people in the world were without magic. Because magic practicioners, given their immense advantage, could do very bad things indeed.  One of which was gather power through virgin sacrifice.  And those  sacrifices seemed to work better with a person of high birth.

The Gather was now at a point they could jump and perhaps even survive the experience.  Feeling cold all through, with a cold that had nothing to do with what appeared to be a pleasant, cool morning in this universe, he frantically assembled the spell that would drop the Gather.  As he clamped it on the creature, he had a feeling it would fail, which meant the magic making it was immense.

“Hold,” Al said, before he could pull the final twist that would cause the Gather to– well probably not to do much, given his insufficient power.  “I will help.”

On top of his she threw her magic, which he was surprised to find was quite powerful.

And then she pulled the piece holding the creature together.

It sounded exactly like a balloon out of which air had been let: a long prolongued whine of air excaping.  And then it came apart, suddenly, in a noxious smell of coal smoke.

And they were falling.

Michael fell to the branches of a tree, managing to shift position just enough to land solidly on his behind.  It rattled his brains, nonetheless, which must explain why the first thing he did, as soon as his head cleared was to look around and yell “Al, where are you?”

Strangers In the Night

Al wasn’t sure where she was, but to her Michael’s voice–

No, Lord Michael’s, she had to remember she was consorting with the highest levels of nobility in the land. Mostly she had to remember because she wasn’t sure what the rules were and she despised situations where she had no idea what was expected of her. It was the type of situation in which she did something that made Mother scream at her, or worse, put watchers on her.

Lord Michael’s voice seemed to come from an entire world altogether.  For a moment she wondered if she’d got stuck in the in-betweener and his voice was coming at her from one of the real worlds.

Was that what happened when people got lost in the in-betweener?

Then she realized she was most uncomfortable. There was something poking her in the back, and something else covering her eyes.  She could feel rough leaves on her forehead. And of course, this was not the sort of thing that should happen in the in betweener, where nothing existed but yourself.  She drew a deep breath and it came in scented of pine.  Moving her arms, and hands, she felt fairly sure she was laying on a pine branch.  A pine branch that was wider than her body, and–

“Al?” Somehow a Lord’s voice shouldn’t sound that tremulous, should it? They were trained from infancy to know exactly what to do, right?

“I think I’m on a tree,” she managed.  She cleared her throat, “It’s just really dark.”

“Oh,” he said, and she could tell his voice was somewhere beneath her.  She thought he chuckled, though he tried to make it sound like he’d just cleared his throat.

Al sat up and felt for the branch she was lying on, and then towards the trunk. “I’m not sure I can get down,  without seeing the branches,” she said, and her own voice trembled, which made her feel like a fool.

“Um,” he said, which wasn’t exactly informative. Or the sort of speech one expected from a high nobleman.

And then there was a long, long silence.

“Mich–  Er…. Lord Michael?” she asked.

And then there was light.  It was a ball of it, climbing, climbing.  By its light, Albinia saw that she was up a very tall and ancient pine tree. “I think,” she said.  “The branches are close enough for me to climb down.”

He didn’t answer.  She could see him far below, a small figure, his face a pale oval looking up at her.

Right. She was going to have to climb down, and the distance seemed as high as the tower where her room was in her father’s house.  But this time she didn’t have a rope ladder made of old sheets.

For a moment she considered asking if someone who had the kind power where he could conjure a big light out of nowhere with so little effort, and keep it shining and stable, couldn’t somehow float her down.  But then she took a deep breath. No. She’d be damned if she’d ask his help and catch herself at his mercy. She didn’t even know him very well.

So, fighting an inner certainty that she was about to lose her footing and crash down, she slowly slung herself off the branch, searching with her feet for the branch below her.  She found it, solid, under her foot, let go of the top branch, and sat on that one, before she managed to swing herself from that one, holding on to it with her hands, while her feet looked for the next branch.

There was a dangerous moment, after several hundreds of branches — okay, probably dozens, but it felt like hundreds — when she couldn’t quite reach the branch below with her feet, and then she heard Lord Michael’s voice, “Pardon me, I’m going to touch your ah, limbs,” and then his hands clasping around her ankles.

She screamed, but his hand guided her foot to the limb, while her hands groped around for a hold, and then found the trunk, and looking down, she realized she was at head level with Lord Michael.  He let go of her ankles, as though he’d been burned.

Well, it was shocking, but she didn’t think her legs were actually on fire.  She managed another branch down, and then she jumped, falling on what felt like springy moss.

And Lord Michael was reaching out with a hand, as though offering her balance.

He let got of the energy that kept the light going.  She could feel him withdrawing his power and she said, in a shaky voice, “I thank you. I know that must have taken a lot of power.” In fact, she was starting to wonder if he needed her virtue at all.

“It’s not the power,” he said, and his voice sounded tight. “I’m afraid someone will find us by the light. We can’t be sure everyone in this forest is friendly.”

Just like that, out of the dark forest, they heard the sound of a howling wolf.

The howling wolf had a sort of magical property of its own. Albinia had heard wolves before, of course. She’d been born and raised in a remote domain, except for that very brief — and odd — visit to London when she was six. But this wolf sounded like a thing composed of night, darkness and fear.  It was like the wolves one heard of in fairytales, who got into cottages and devoured entire families.

There was a feeling of hunger and frustrated rage to its voice, a sense that there lived something more than mortal, common wolf.  And Albinia found this created a telekinesis of sorts that propelled her against Lord Michael’s all too human and comforting warmth.

She expected a shocked sounnd from him. She understood from mama that only quite abandoned females flung themselves headlong at men. Not that she didn’t sympathyze, if the poor things had been abandoned and had no other means of comfort, but she also didn’t understand what flinging oneself at a gentleman would do. Unless of course the gentleman’s arms were broken and couldn’t fend such an attack off?

Like most of what mama said, it seemed a complete mystery. On the other hand, now she had actually flung herself at a young man, and she fully expected some sort of reproof. What she got instead was Michae– Lord Michael’s arm going around her middle. It seemed to her it trembled a little, but she was sure that couldn’t be true. Not of someone with so much magic. It must be her shaking communicating itself to him.

She was of two minds on whether to ask him to make the light shine again or not. She couldn’t remember the lore servants and woodsmen had told her in childhood and didn’t know if light scared wolves or attracted them.

But just at that moment, as though some malevolent intelligence controlled it, a sliver of moon, pale and silvery like something drowned, peeked from behind clouds and cast its cold light onto the scene.

What it revealed was both more and less scary than Albinia expected. The forest showed again, in its dark glory bringing to mind all the stories of children abandoned in forests to die.  The trees were tall enough they seemed to disappear into a sky where a few scraps of violet or grey cloud floated, looking much like curdles in unnatural milk.

The wolf was not visible, though it sounded again and closer, that sound that was hunger and anger and terror, all lashed together.

Lord Michael’s arm tightened around her.  “There is nothing to be afraid of,” he said, even as his voice cracked a little. Wolves are afraid of light, see.”

And with that, he made a gesture, and she could feel the magic going from him, and quite suddenly — above them — a light appeared, the same light that had guided her down from the tree, but larger, brighter and very, very comforting.

“Oh,” she said, stepping away from him, just as he seemed to leap away from her, as though shocked he’d been grasping her so tight. “I’d been wondering if light attracted or repelled wolves.”

He frowned a little, and seemed to be trying to remove twigs and leaves from his clothes.  Looking down at herself, she too seemed to be impersonating a tree, and she forebore to think of what her hair must look like. She was sure it was a mess all around her head, and filled with twigs and branches. She must look quite demented.

“I actually don’t know,” Lord Michael said hesitantly. “Whether light attracts or repels wolves.  I don’t think no one ever told me.” And then, as though embarrassed by his lack of knowledge, “You see, the domain at Darkwater, where I was raised is… quite large, and we have…. ah, games keepers and grounds keepers to keep the wild animals at bay.  Besides…” He looked uncomfortable. “Besides I was never the sort of child who goes for rambles in the woods or has adventures. That would be my brothers, at least from what I heard. My … I have a workshop, see, and I like to invent magical things.”

She didn’t see at all. If she’d been allowed to roam, instead of being locked in the tower all the time, she’d have roamed. She’d know every inch of the domain, including the woods and the beach. And she’d probably know all about wolves, including whether or not they liked light. But she knew, from dealing with her brothers, that it didn’t do to laugh at a boy or say he was silly. They were quite ridiculously fragile in their pride.

At any rate, right then the wolf howled again, quite close. Lord Michael ceased his brushing of his clothes, and Al stepped closer to him, though not quite touching, and this time she forebore to fling herself.

“It appears,” Lord Michael said, his voice gone unsteady again.  “This one doesn’t fear light.”

“No,” Albinia said, and looked into the darkness, trying to see the creature.

It was odd, because though she could hear it, she couldn’t see it at all. She thought perhaps it was just a figment of her imagination? Or perhaps an insubstantial creature, like the smoke Gather, and not real in any sense?

But just as she thought this her eyes adjusted, and like in the moment when you blink your eyes in the dark and realize what you thought was a monster is really only the curtain blowing in the wind, she saw it.

It was only that it was so large and so dark she’d thought he was a dark spot in the trees.  He — and from the feel of the creature there was no doubt it was a he — was a vast beast, his shoulder towering above her head, his eyes glimmering yellow and feral.

As she looked, he opened his mouth to howl again, and large fangs, as long as her fingers, glimmered in the light.

Lord Michael was pushing her behind him.  “It’s not a natural wolf,” he said.

“I know,” she said, because she did.  No natural wolves grew to that size.

And just as she was thinking what to do, the creature advanced on them, a low growl coming from its throat.

She forgot everything she was thinking. Her mind blanked, and she couldn’t move if she–

She felt the magic work, and didn’t even know if it was flowing from her or Lord Michael.  Or which of them threw the fireball, which went flying to strike the animal on the nose.  It screamed.

In that second, Lord Michael screamed also, “Run.”  And grabbing for her hand, he pulled.

They ran headlong into the dark forest, while the light of magic above them extinguished itself.

Comfort

It was dark and Albinia was tired.

They’d run madly through the forest, leaves and twigs poking up through her indoor slippers and catching at her gown.

And then she stumbled, and Lord Michael put out a hand to stop her falling.  for a moment they stayed like that in the dark.  She realized she couldn’t hear the sound of pursuit.  There was no way that wolf could be chasing them without making any sound.

“I don’t hear it,” Lord Michael said, with a kind of gulp, as if he were trying to get air in , as though he too were breathless after their run.

Albinia shook her head, then realized he couldn’t see her, and said, “I don’t either. I don’t think it…. it is following us.”

For a while they stood.  She could hear him breathe, but all she could think of was how much her legs hurt.

“We…. should find a place to…. spend the night, until the light comes up.”

She had a moment of fear, wondering whether the light would come up.  Her heart thumping, she wondered if they were in some unnatural land, where the light would never come, day never break.

“I believe it’s just night time,” Lord Michael said, his voice hesitant. “I can’t …. be absolutely sure, but it doesn’t feel like a place of night.” He sounded very tired too, and not just physically.  “Perhaps…. He said, we can make a bed of leaves or–”

He stopped because there was a sound like a child screaming.  his hand which had let go of her arm came back again, and held her wrist. Albinia wondered if it was meant to reassure her, or if he was seeking reassurance.

The cry sounded again.

Memories of early childhood when they’d visited Albinia’s grandmother who had a lake filled with swans came to Albinia, and she said in relief, “It’s a swan.”

The cry echoed again, and then Albinia felt a beak against her leg.  It wasn’t done hard or viciously, but more as though calling her attention.  And then she heard the sound again and Lord Michael said, “Ow.”

She felt him move power, and the light came on again, a witchlight, soft in glow.  Albinia knew how to do it, of course, but she also had been taught not to use it unless in absolute necessity because it used a high level of power and would make you very tired. By rights Lord Michael should not be able to bring the light up, as tired as he sounded before he did.

But the light was enough to see a very large swan.  It seemed completely unsurprised by the sudden light, and in fact — though it was impossible for a swan to do such a thing — Albinia had the impression it was smiling.

It flew near the ground, ahead of them, a short flight, then stopped and waited.

“I think it wants us to follow it?” Lord Michael said.
Albinia forebore to say “Obviously.”

“I sense no evil from it.”

Albinia also didn’t, but all she did was nod, and the two of them followed the swan.  After a while, through the trees ahead they saw a sort of glow.

“If it’s a spun sugar cottage remember how the story ends,” she said, mock-sternly, mostly to distract herself from her own fear.

“This is not fairyland,” Lord Michael said. His voice sounded very odd.

The swan led them nearer the light.  As they got close they realized it was the tower they’d seen from a distance,a ndn the light shone through a window on the bottom floor.

The swan opened the door. Albinia was sure of it, though she couldn’t see how.

It went in, and they followed it.  But when got in, it was nowhere to be seen.

Instead, they were in a tidy room, with a fire burning.  On the table there was a warm pot of soup, and a loaf of bread.  There were two beds made up, one on either side of the room.  Candles burned on candlesticks on the table.

Albinia hesitated.  “You are sure this is not fairyland?” she asked Lord Michael.

“Absolutely,” he said.  “I was kidnapped into it, you see.”  He said it very simply, like he might say that he’d spent some time at a country estate. “And had to be rescued.  I know fairyland.”

“This is good, because I am very hungry,” Albinia said, having just realized it when she smelled the soup.  It smelled like the beef vegetable soup her brothers used to make.

She realized, at the last moment, that there were three bowls set out on the table.  And then she heard light steps down stairs, a door opened next to the fireplace and a familiar voice say, “Al, I’m so sorry. I had to got put clothes on, or it would be quite shocking to receive you.”

Standing in the doorway, impeccably dressed in a brown suit, with white shirt and neatly tied cravat was a young man four years older than her.  She knew this precisely because they shared a birthday.

“Geoffrey!” she said, and ran into her youngest brother’s arms.

Happy Families

When it came to having strange relatives, Michael Ainsling felt he couldn’t throw stones.  Or rather he could, but it would be akin to standing atop a tower made entirely of glass and throwing stones at your neighbors’ windows.  Sooner or later, it was your tower that would come crashing down.

After all, his brother was the royal Witchfinder and had continued his avocation for decades, while the king himself had forbid it by decree.  Seraphim, in fact, had broken royal edict to go to other world where magic was forbidden and punishable with death, and rescue magic users and shifters from the jaws of death.  In this he’d been aided by his valet, whom they all knew to be his father’s byblo.  What they didn’t know was that Gabriel was also half-elf and in the royal line of fairyland… of which he’d become king.  In fact, he was now the king of fairyland. And Seraphim, despite his transgressions against royal decree, had become the prince consort of the princess Helena, who would eventually inherit the throne.

His father, who wasn’t dead, had gone adventuring among the many worlds, with his mother.  His twin sister, Caroline, had gone to fairyland herself — he’d never understood why, and no one had ever explained — and fallen in love with a centaur named Akakios who had, for reasons also never made clear, been banned from fairyland forever, thereby.

During the adventures leading to that outcome, Michael had been kidnapped into fairyland. He wasn’t sure what had happened to him there.  He had memories. They were all unpleasant ones.  But he couldn’t pin them down. The details, the certainty of what happened to him, tended to twist and turn in his mind, when he tried to think of them, leaving him confused, and more scared than the son of such illustrious parentage should be.  He couldn’t dodge the feeling that while in fairyland he had become something less than fully human. He’d been known to wonder if his family suspected the same and f that was why he’d been left alone at their country home while everyone else pursued their destinies.

But at least he thought, none of his siblings had ever turned into a goose.  He thought.  At least he hoped not.

He ran his hand over his face, feeling as though he’d been sandblasted since he’d first read the dead man’s letter over breakfast.  He’d somewhere along the line come to the conclusion the dead man was Al’s father.  But did that make her the whelp he’d talked about? Or was it instead one of his sons he referred to.

He watched, past wonder, as Geoffrey, a tall lanky youth who should be presented at court and start his adult life, were this any kind of sane world, hugged Albinia, then gently nudged her aside.  Michael noted that Albinia was crying and wiping her eyes to her sleeve.  Since neither Albinia nor — Michael was sure — himself were noticeably clean after their adventures, this meant she was adding grey streaks to her face, to replace the dirt the tears were washing off.

He felt as if he’d fallen headlong in some kind of dream — at least it wasn’t the screaming nightmares he experienced after his return from fairyland — and waking up was long delayed.

Geoffrey advanced on him, full tilt and extended a hand, “Lord Michael,” he said. “my father talks much of you. He considers you the only genius to equal his to come along… well, ever. Or since Da Vinci’s magical inventions, whichever you prefer.”

“Your father talks…” Michael said.  He remembered heated discussions about the evil of necromancy around the dining room table and one thing he was absolutely sure of: without necromancy dead men didn’t talk.

“Oh. You imagine him dead,” Geoffrey said. He did not look a thing like Albinia, not having even the vaguest shred of red-headed bone structure.  His hair was dark, very straight, unruly, and looked like he’d cut it himself, in irregular swathes, by the method of chopping off whatever protruded onto his field of vision.  His eyes were also dark, and he had the jagged nose that Michael knew best from certain statues of the antiquity.  At the moment he looked amused, his lips twisting right in a smile that made Michael want to scream.  It was the sort of smile his older brothers knew better than to engage in, though they were much older and really royalty, or perhaps in Seraphim’s case, close to it.  It was the smile of an upperclassman laughing at the follies of a new student, or of a young man laughing at a toddler.

Michael refused to answer, because a succession of nannies, tutors and, yes, his older brothers, had beat into his skull that politeness was the requirement life placed on the gentle born, no matter what the temptation.  Instead, he raised an eyebrow, inquiringly.

The trick, which had taken him weeks to acquire, in front of the mirror, having seen their butler reduce an under-footman to incoherence by that expression, worked. Geoffrey seemed discomfited, as likely an outright rude response wouldn’t have managed.

“Oh. Well. Perhaps it is not surprising. But he’s not. He was put under a spell, you see, and whisked…. well…. here.”

Albinia made a sound of shock, as if the air had been punched out of her stomach, and as Geoffrey turned to her, she said, “It was mama, was it not?”

Geoffrey seemed to have forgotten his sister, so he looked surprised, then sighed, “Well, yes, Al. Who else? Who could have thus got under his guard?”

“And you?” Albinia said. She clenched her fists at her side and for the first time looked like she didn’t trust this man, whether he was her brother or not.

“Myself? What do you mean? I did nothing to Father!”

She made a huff of impatience. Michael felt as if he were familiar with it, having experienced it a few times during their adventures. He was also fairly sure that Albinia didn’t know she made that sound.

“Stupid,” she said, with remarkable forthrightness.  “Of course I didn’t mean that. I meant, did mother also spirit you away? Here? Wherever here is?”

Geoffrey pursed his lips. It was an odd expression, as though he were considering what to answer.  Which made Michael think meanly of his mind.  After all, if he knew he was going to meet them, and clearly he did so.  And if he knew Albinia’s curious nature, shouldn’t he have a slew of answers ready, whether they were the full truth or not?
But yet Geoffrey demurred and said, “Well, not precisely, but I think we can safely say it was at her command and instigation.  At any rate….” He sighed.  “The thing is our father was turned into a werewolf and sent back in time…. or perhaps to a world that doesn’t show to anyone’s scans.  And our attempts at freeing him have only locked him tighter.
And our father worries, which is why he decided to recruit you, Lord Michael, into helping us.  We wanted to do it earlier but Father said we had to wait until you’d reached the age of reason and could decide whether to help or not.”

Various things fell in place in Michael’s mind, starting with the fact that the letter, and possibly the fetch, as well had been sent by that old wizard who had set the modern age in motion.  And that he’d — or probably she’d — hit Albinia’s father on the nose with light and force.  Well, that was an introduction.

But then his reason intruded, as it had the habit of doing, “What do you mean I could decide? You as good as kidnapped me and brought me here.”

Now it was Geoffrey who looked pained, as though his head hurt.  He rubbed with — Michael noted — exceedingly well manicured fingers at a spot above his nose.  “I’m not sure of that, milord,” he said.  “As nothing is as we planned.  We did not, for instance, plan to have Al come with you, and I’m at a loss for how you even met.”

Albinia and he spoke at once.  She said “He saved my life,” while Michael, his memory on that moment when she’d grabbed onto the smog-fetch and come with him said “She tried to protect me.”

Then Michael cleared his throat, “That is a discussion for another day,” he said.  “Are you saying that if I don’t wish to help you, I can just return to my family’s estate and my normal life?”

The smile was still sardonic, but Geoffrey looked bitter, “Father says without a doubt. Is that what you wish?”

“Geoffrey,” Al interrupted.  “You shouldn’t be the one doing this.  Where are our brothers?”

“Well,” Geoffrey said.  “That is part of the trouble. It’s…. complex.” He then turned to Michael, “So, milord, you’ll turn tail and run and leave us mired in our own difficulties? I guess it’s your prerogative.”

Michael tightened his jaw so hard it hurt.  He knew what he must look like, having watched both his brothers do it. He knew he’d thrust his chin forward, and that his eyes reflected his anger at this Turkish treatment.  He took a deep breath, and when he spoke, his voice was so precise, so cultured, no one could accuse him of incivility, but he knew he was being grossly uncivil all the same.  “You have a curious means of applying for a boon.” He dusted an imaginary speck of dirt from his sleeve, which in fact was so tattered and suit covered that it would be impossible to tell dirt from fabric, and spoke in tones that did their best to ape Seraphim’s.  “Let’s suppose you behave like a normal human being seeking a troublesome favor from another and tell me what this is all about, all of it.”

He looked over at Al, who hesitated. For a moment he wondered if she’d be offended at him, and for some reason the idea bothered him, though he could not say why.

But Al squared her chin, and stepped over to stand next to him.  “Yes, Geoff, suppose you tell us.  Everything, please. Half truths are no way to go about requesting someone leave everything to help you.  It pains me to agree with her but you know what mama always said about your manners and temper!”

Geoff opened his mouth, then snapped it closed.  He flushed a dark red, which proved that Al’s hit had gone home. “Very well,” he said. “if that’s what you wish. But it is a great waste of time.”

Complex

Albinia was mortified.

She’d read novels — to be truthful mostly because Mama had forbidden her from reading novels.  In those works, it seemed that whenever a young lady brought home a suitor of higher status or magical rank or fortune, the young lady’s family would conspire to unwittingly embarrass her mortally.

Albinia had read with great amusement a hundred such scenes of the character being mortified by the behavior of her relatives.

Fine, so Lord Michael wasn’t her suitor, but still! He was the son and brother of a duke, and here was Geoffrey behaving as though he’d been reared in a stable… or worse.

She scratched at her nose, as he promised to explain everything and how everything was so complex.  It wasn’t so much that her nose itched, as that she felt something was very wrong, but couldn’t quite figure out what.  Other than the fact that her brother apparently could change shapes and become a swan and that papa might be the werewolf they had smacked on the nose.  She was trying very hard not to think of the implications of this, since papa had never met her. If she understood the timing correctly, he had left — disappeared — around the time mama was approaching her confinement with Albinia.  How terrible to first meet one’s father with such an unfilial action as smacking him on the nose.

Scratching at her nose was what Albinia did when she was confused and trying to gain time.  Usually trying to gain time to think of something not quite a lie to tell mama in order to stop her asking inconvenient questions.

Geoffrey made a big show of being offended by Lord Michael asking perfectly reasonable questions, then crossed his arms on his chest and said,

“Very well. We’re under a geas, you see, when none of us can be human at the same time. So I was trying to say my piece, because I don’t know–” Suddenly his voice shook, which to Al was the scariest thing of all, because she thought Geoff was going to break down and start crying.  “I don’t know if the others might have need of changing at any time.”

More to ward off his possible tears — she knew from when they all lived together how much any of the boys hated crying — than because she was incensed, she said, “What do you mean by that, Geoff? Surely you could leave each other notes and plan your human–”

To her horror this made things worse. Geoff’s lips trembled, and his eyes shone, and he said “W-w-we d-d-d-did f-f-f—”

And Al realized what had been bothering her.  Geoff hadn’t stammered at all through the previous speech, but now it was back, in full bloom. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lord Michael’s horrified expression and wasn’t sure why, but she reverted to what always worked and said, “Geoff! Deep breaths, and speak slowly.”

This brought a wan smile to Geoffrey’s face.  He said “D-d–  Darn it, Al.  I rarely stammer anymore, because I have had years of solitude to p-p-practice, but…”  He took two deep breaths.  “Forgive me, Lord Michael.” Then to Al, “You see, at first we did just as you said.  We had a big board in this house, and w-we used to have a schedule.  And we also left notes and letters to each other.  That’s how father told us that L-Lord Michael should be able to free us from this geas, and also how he told us to wait until he came of age. B-b-b–”  Geoff took a deep breath.  “We couldn’t wait, you see.  You have no idea how terrible it is to spend years and years really alone.  Though I can see the others when in swan form.”

“Swan, not goose,” Lord Michael muttered under his breath, but Al chose to ignore that ornithological observation. She didn’t suppose that sons of dukes spent much time in the poultry house.

Geoff looked at Lord Michael and the wan smile became more pronounced, even if still wan, “Right. Swans. My step mother got the idea from some old tale or other. But seeing each other as swans doesn’t help much, as there’s a limited degree of what you can communicate by body language.  And Papa–  Well, it is best at any rate for any of us not to meet papa when he’s a wolf, since he becomes quite a ferocious beast.” He paused for a moment. “To be fair, even as a human, he used to be ferocious if we interrupted him while he was working, though at least as a human devouring people was not in his range of ideas.”

“I imagine not,” lord Michael said, drily and stepped back till he sat on one of the chairs.

“But as I said, we grew impatient. And we had some idea of how to break the spell. Or at least–” He paused.  “Papa thought it involved taking the path out the back door and meeting the challenges. He just thought the challenges required g-g-g-genius. And he said none of us had it to that degree… So the others–”

Albinia knew her brothers too well not to know what was coming next “They took the path?”

“One by one,” Geoff said.  “Till only I was left.”

She opened her mouth, closed it. There was a cold feeling of dread in her middle.  “And none came back?”

Geoff shook his head.  Now he sat on one of the chairs as well, and his hands were visible trembling. “Till only I am left.”  He looked at Michael.  “And if you won’t help us, I’ll have t-t-t-to go myself.  Only if none of the others could do it–  And papa doesn’t know. I didn’t dare leave him a note telling him what happened.  And, oh, Al, it’s been hell.”

And Al fell into the role she’d had all through childhood, when she — incongruously — tried to look after all the boys, “There, there, Geoff, it will be well.” But she didn’t dare ask Lord Michael to help. They’d already put him to so much trouble.

She looked to the side, where he — under the grime and dust of their adventure — looked very solemn.

Well. Never mind. If he wouldn’t, she’d have to do it. Even if she wasn’t a genius. Not even as much of a genius as the boys.