Copyright © 2007 by Barbara Davies.
This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.
This is the sequel to Bourne's Edge
THE DOLL HOSPITAL
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Tarian held the haunch of wild boar out of reach of her two wolfhounds.
"That's for later, greedy guts. Stop it." Anwar and Drysi whined and gave her their best mournful looks but her heart was as stone. "You've already had your breakfast," she reminded them. Tails drooping, they lay down on the gravel, resting their heads on their front paws and doing their best to look put upon.
She stifled a grin and squeezed the joint of meat into the tiny boot alongside the rest of the dogs' supplies and the two overnight bags. The bags bulged. Tarian wasn't taking much, but Cassie... you'd never guess they planned to be away a week at most.
The sound of footsteps made her look round just as Cassie emerged from the front door of the forester's house. Gaily-wrapped parcels, piled in her arms, almost hid her from view. Tarian went to help her before she dropped something.
"What's all this?"
"Presents. Thanks." Cassie relinquished two parcels to Tarian's care.
"Did you buy up the gift shop?"
"Well, I couldn't go empty handed. I had to get something for Rosemary for looking after Tiddles. And for Mum and Dad too, to thank them for inviting us to dinner tomorrow. And I couldn't leave out Louise (that Armitage business made me miss her birthday, you know) or Danny and Justin or—"
"Forget I asked."
Cassie threw her a grin and together they stowed the parcels in what little space remained. "There." She closed the car boot and stood back.
"That the lot?"
"Going somewhere nice?" came a man's voice.
A spiky-haired young man, wearing what had once been white overalls, was grinning at the two women from the pavement. Several fresh oil streaks almost hid his acne.
"Depends how you view Birmingham, Mike," Tarian told the owner of Bourne's Edge's one and only garage.
He grimaced and gestured at Cassie's blue Toyota. "Last time, I had to hammer the dents out of Miss Lewis's boot and fit her a new bumper." He grinned. "Not that I'd mind the work. Business is pretty slack at present."
"Those were exceptional circumstances," said Cassie, sounding slightly peeved. "And Birmingham's really nice in parts now. Anyway, we're only going for a little while. To sort out my flat."
"And to meet her parents," added Tarian.
"Oh!" Mike threw Tarian a sympathetic glance. "Good luck with that." He lifted his hand in farewell and set off back down the hill. She watched him go for a moment then turned and became aware of Cassie's quizzical gaze.
"You aren't worried about meeting them, are you?"
Tarian shrugged. Nothing should be able to daunt a former champion of the Queen of the Fae, yet she had to admit she was feeling a little... apprehensive. "What if they don't like me?"
"Too bad. It'll make no difference to how I feel about you."
That remark deserved a kiss, so Tarian gave it to her, and a hug. "I could always put a spell on them," she said.
The mortal's eyes widened. "Don't you dare!"
"Just joking," said Tarian, though she hadn't been. Oh well. She released Cassie. I'll just have to charm them the hard way.
She glanced at the fully laden car then at Cassie's jacket. "All ready?" Cassie nodded. "Need to use the bathroom?"
"No." Cassie opened the car's back door and waited expectantly. "In," she told the dogs.
They got to their feet, yawned, stretched their backs and back legs, and padded over to the open door, taking their time about it. Tarian sent them a mental command to hurry up.
Cassie had placed a car rug over the back seat to keep off the worst of the muddy paw prints and dog hairs, and the two dogs sprawled on it quite happily. She wound down the window half way, then, making sure no paws were in the way, closed the door.
"I'll close up the house and be right with you," said Tarian.
Cassie nodded and took her place in the driver's seat.
It took Tarian only a few minutes to use the bathroom, check that the back door was locked and bolted, that the curtains in her studio were drawn, the lights off, and the embers in the Aga and the sitting room hearth out. She slipped into her well worn leather jacket, pulled the front door closed behind her, activated the wards she had erected earlier, and walked towards the car.
"Should we ask someone to keep an eye on the house while we're away?" asked Cassie, as Tarian got in, straightened the rucked up sweatshirt beneath her jacket, and shoved back the passenger seat as far as it would go.
"No need. Anyone who tries to break in will be overwhelmed by a compulsion to go home. ... Why don't these things come with more leg room?"
"It fits me," said Cassie. "If you want a car that fits you, you should buy one."
Tarian snorted. "And have it sit idle outside the house all day? Waste of time and money."
"It goes without saying that you'd have to learn to drive."
Tarian did up her seat belt. "Give me a warhorse any day."
"You could get a motorbike and be a biker chick." Green eyes looked off into space. "Actually, that's not a bad idea."
Her lustful expression amused Tarian. "I don't think so."
Cassie came back to herself. "It was just a thought. Ready?"
Tarian nodded, and Cassie started the engine, released the handbrake, and set off.
They had gone ten yards down the hill when she glanced at Tarian. "It's really nice of you to come with me like this. Especially as I don't need your protection from Armitage any more."
The police had told Cassie that the criminal landlord who'd been trying to kill her was no longer a threat. To her or anyone else for that matter. He was in a coma, in Winson Green's medical wing. And it looked like he would never wake up. Tarian felt a sense of grim satisfaction. The bespelled painting I sent him must have done the trick.
She glanced at Cassie. "It's no fun moving house on your own."
"True. But I know you don’t like towns and cities much." Cassie slowed to let the Reverend Wright cross the road, exchanged a wave with the bearded vicar, and picked up speed once more. "You're just a little old country girl at heart."
Tarian arched an eyebrow. "It's more than that. The Fae live in harmony with Nature. We draw energy from oak and ash, river and sky."
Cassie threw her a concerned glance. "Why didn't you tell me this before? Are you going to be all right?"
"It won't kill me, and it's only for a week."
They drove past the little B & B where Tarian, and then Cassie in her turn, had stayed when they first came to Bourne's Edge.
"Well there are plenty of parks in Birmingham," said Cassie. "Maybe you could visit one, recharge your batteries?"
"Depends. It needs to be natural, ancient ... like Bourne Forest. An ornamental garden built by the Municipal Council in the 60s won't be of much use." Tarian twisted round to check on the dogs, and saw that they had stuck their heads out the half open window and were enjoying the breeze. She faced front again, and saw that Cassie's expression had become triumphant.
"Would a park that's been around since the 9th century do?"
"Ha!" Cassie drummed her fingers on the steering wheel in obvious satisfaction. "Sutton Park dates from then, and my parents live right next door to it. We'll go there before we visit them tomorrow."
Cassie unlocked the door to her flat and opened it. Or rather tried to. A pile of circulars, letters, and bills must have built up behind it while she was away. She leaned her hip against it and forced her way inside.
The curtains were still drawn, and it smelled stuffy. Even though Tiddles no longer lived here—her neighbour had taken the ginger cat next door in preference to having to pop round constantly to feed him—there was a faint musky whiff of tomcat about the place.
She crossed to a window and opened it, but the roar of traffic and stink of fumes made her close it again almost at once. She had grown used to the peace, tranquillity, and forest-scented air of Bourne's Edge.
Hands on hips, she surveyed her surroundings. The place seemed smaller than she remembered. And though it had been her base of operations for the past three years it just didn't feel like home any more. Which was probably just as well, as it wouldn't be hers for much longer.
It was strange being back here again and in such altered circumstances. Last time, she'd been on the edge of panic, making arrangements for Tiddles, emailing and ringing friends and family to say she'd be out of town for a few days, gathering together the few things she might need and shoving them into a travel bag before running for her life. Now... It astounded her how much her life had changed in a mere six weeks.
She straightened a sofa cushion, and wondered what Tarian would make of the flat. The Fae had carried the luggage up from the car for her, then disappeared with the dogs for a much needed leg stretch. She was just walking around the block, so she'd be back soon. In the meantime....
Cassie carried the luggage inside and closed the door. She stacked the presents on a table and dumped the overnight bags in the cramped bedroom, viewing the double bed that had once felt too large and lonely with new eyes. (Who would have believed it? I have a gorgeous girlfriend and a sex life.) Then she sorted through the presents, grabbed the one with Rosemary's name on it, and went next door.
"You're back!" said her neighbour, blinking at her in pleased surprise. "Oh you didn't need to—" But she accepted the present, a box of her favourite milk chocolates, readily enough and stepped back to allow Cassie entry. "Come in."
"Of course I needed to, Rosemary," said Cassie. "You saved my bacon, looking after Tiddles at such short notice. Um. I hope he hasn't been too much trouble?"
To her relief, Rosemary shook her head. "Though it took him a few days to settle in."
As they talked, Cassie was scanning the flat for signs of tomcat. Movement attracted her attention—a furry ginger head ducking back under the settee. Tiddles clearly wasn't as glad to see his mistress as her neighbour was. She couldn't blame him. After deserting him, she couldn't expect to be in his good books.
"I spy a familiar face," she told Rosemary with a smile. She crossed to the settee and knelt in front of it, hand extended. "Here, Tiddles," she crooned. "Mummy's here to collect you." A faint miaow greeted her but Tiddles stayed put.
After five minutes of increasing frustration, Rosemary knelt next to her.
"Perhaps if I—"
"Please do," said Cassie crossly.
She watched as Rosemary quickly and easily coaxed Tiddles out of hiding and scooped him up in her arms. "There's a good boy. Ooh. Yes you are. Good boy. Oochie coochie coo." Affection softened her usually severe features. Rosemary worked for the Civil Service—in what capacity, Cassie had never been quite sure but she suspected it involved cowing members of the public. Certainly Rosemary's manner could be offputting, and it had taken some time before the two neighbours had become friends.
"There there," continued Rosemary, soothing the cat. "You've had a nice little holiday, haven't you? And we enjoyed ourselves, didn't we, Tiddles?" Cassie tried not to roll her eyes at the gushing tone. "But now, it's time to go back to your mistress. Oh yes it is." Rosemary turned to Cassie and held out the tomcat. At once, Tiddles began to squirm and wail in her hands.
Cassie grimaced. "Why all this fuss?" He gave her reaching hands a baleful stare. "Oh don't be like that. You know very well who I am." His tail lashed. "Don't be such a— Ow!"
"Are you all right?" asked Rosemary, shocked.
Cassie sucked her scratched hand and scowled at Tiddles. "At least he didn't bite me. Stupid cat! Let's try that again, shall we?"
A dubious Rosemary held him out rather gingerly once more. But this time the transfer went smoothly, and having got the mindless act of violence against his fickle mistress out of his system, Tiddles even began to purr in her arms.
She stroked him under his chin, just the way he liked it. "How much do I owe you?"
Rosemary crossed to a phone table and picked up a piece of paper on which was a dauntingly long list written in her crabbed handwriting. "He wouldn't eat the cheaper brands of cat food, I'm afraid. And I had to take him to the vet for an infected scratch—"
Cassie accepted it from her, looked at the grand total, and winced. "Um. Will you take a cheque?"
"Great. I'll pop it round later, if that's all right."
She carried Tiddles towards the front door, then paused. "Oh, by the way, I should warn you, I've given notice on the flat. I'll be leaving by the end of the week."
Rosemary's face fell. "I'm very sorry to hear that, Cassie. You never know what new tenants are going to be like, whether they're going to make your life a misery or not."
Her neighbour shrugged. "So where are you off to?"
"Have you heard of a place called Bourne's Edge? Near Ludlow?"
Rosemary shook her head.
"Oh. Well. I'm moving in with a friend who lives there. Her name's Tarian. You'll probably see her around during the next couple of days as she's helping me to pack."
Cassie paused as a thought struck her. "Um, she's got her two dogs with her. They're wolfhounds, but they look far fiercer than they are. They shouldn't cause you any bother, but.... Well, if you can grin and bear any disturbance they might cause for now, I'll be grateful, Rosemary. They'll be gone by the end of the week. Promise."
Rosemary gave her a rueful glance. "Thanks for the warning."
Tiddles wriggled, threatening to break free, and Cassie got a firmer grip. "I'd better go. He's getting restless. Thanks again for looking after him, Rosemary. I'll pop that cheque through your letterbox. OK?"
Tarian took the stairs two at a time, Drysi and Anwar keeping pace, their claws clacking on the concrete steps. As she strode along the landing towards Cassie's flat, she noticed that the bags had disappeared from where she left them. The handle turned under her hand, and she pushed open the front door and walked through, almost stumbling as the dogs took her by surprise and streaked past her.
Something small and ginger let out a terrified wail, zipped off the settee, and vanished through a doorway on the other side of the room. The dogs followed, hard on its heels.
"What the—" Cassie gave Tarian a startled glance then got up from the settee and dashed after them.
"Stop it, you two," Tarian heard Cassie shouting above the frenzied barking, which from its slightly echoey quality, must be coming from a bathroom. "Leave Tiddles alone."
She sighed and yelled, "Drysi, Anwar, heel!" Seconds later, the wolfhounds were standing beside her, ears flat against their head, tails down. Drysi rubbed her cheek against Tarian's thigh, her eyes mournful. Anwar did the same on the other side.
"Bad dogs," said Tarian. "What were you chasing?" An image of a small ginger cat, its bristling fur making it look twice its natural size, popped into her head.
Cassie re-emerged, the same cat cradled protectively in her arms. "How could they?" she fumed. "I'd only just got him settled in again, too."
"Sorry." Tarian took off her jacket and hung it from the row of four hooks that had Cassie's suede jacket hanging on it. "It's instinct. They won’t do it again." She gave the dogs a stern look. They dipped their heads in submission, and she pushed them away and went to join Cassie.
Tiddles hissed at her from the shelter of Cassie's arms and glared.
"I don't think he likes Fae. Or maybe it's just me."
"Can you blame him? He's just been scared half to death."
Tarian arched an eyebrow at Cassie's heated tone. "I said I'm sorry."
Cassie bit her lip then sank onto the settee. "Me too. I shouldn't take it out on you." She sounded subdued. "I half expected this to happen. I should have made better arrangements. It doesn't seem fair to send him to the animal shelter."
Tarian sat next to her and draped a companionable arm round her shoulders. It brought her closer to Tiddles, who stretched out a paw, claws extended.
"Ah ah." She raised a finger in warning.
Cassie watched their interaction with interest. For a moment the tomcat glared at Tarian, then, very cautiously, he retracted his paw and began to wash himself. His studied air of nonchalance was somewhat undermined by constant peeks in her direction.
A surprised gurgle of laughter escaped from Cassie. "Well I never! He knows he's met his match."
She placed him on the floor. The washing continued, with alternating glances at Tarian and the dogs, now settled under the table, eyes closed, affecting indifference. A status quo of sorts had been reached.
Now that the tension in the room had dissipated, Tarian relaxed and gave the slender shoulder under her arm a squeeze. "Maybe your neighbour could take him off your hands."
"She might but...." Cassie's brow creased. "Oh Lord! I bet she's wondering what all the barking was about. Good job I warned her." She fell silent for a moment. "I could always try Louise, I suppose."
"The friend whose birthday you missed?"
"Mm. She likes cats but she hasn't got around to buying one of her own yet. And she has a house and a garden, so he could go outside. I've always felt rather guilty about keeping Tiddles indoors, but the traffic around here is so bad. Can't remember how her husband feels about cats though." She frowned, drummed her fingers on the arm of the settee, and eyed the phone sitting on the coffee table. "Tiddles could be a belated birthday gift." After a moment, her forehead smoothed, and she said, her tone decisive, "I'll ring her."
She dialled a number from memory. "Hello, Lou? ... Yes, I just got back. ... I missed you too. Sorry about your birthday. Listen." Her voice became a wheedle. "I've got a big favour to ask. ... No I don't want to borrow that dress. ... Or your handbag. ... If I can just get a word in edgeways ... Thank you. Look, you like Tiddles, don’t you? ... I thought you did. Well, I have this teensy weensy problem. My girlfriend has these dogs, you see and ... What? Of course I mean Tarian. Who else would I—" She rolled her eyes. "It's not like I've got girlfriends coming out of my ears, Lou. ... What? ... Yes she is here with me and giving me very strange looks. ... Of course you can meet her, just don't show her any incriminating photos. ... Oh hell! What was I talking about? Oh yes: Tiddles. I was wondering—
"Does he eat what?" She gave Tarian a bewildered glance. "What do bluebottles have to do with it? ... Oh. Ooh! ... How horrid! ... No. He doesn't eat flies. Does that mean you won't take him? ... Yes, of course he's been 'done'." She crossed her fingers before adding, "Not really. He'll eat pretty much anything. ... You will? And you're sure Sam won't mind?" Her face became wreathed with smiles and she gave Tarian a 'thumbs up'. "Brilliant. ... Um, how about ten tomorrow morning? You can meet Tarian then too.... Great. See you then. ... Bye." She put down the receiver with a satisfied grin. "Sorted."
"She'll take him?" asked Tarian. Cassie nodded. "What was all that about bluebottles?"
"Oh, that was odd. Louise says their house is suffering from a fly infestation. No sooner do the people from Pest Control succeed in wiping out one lot than another lot arrives. They don't know where they're coming from or how to put a stop to it. It's driving her and Sam nuts."
"And we're going round there tomorrow?" Tarian grimaced.
Cassie gave her a playful slap on the arm. "The pest control people came yesterday. We should be safe for a few hours. By the way, Louise says she can't wait to meet you."
"I can imagine."
From the branches of the oak tree a song thrush added its loud, clear notes to the rustle of leaves in the breeze and the crunching of acorns between porcine teeth. For the first time that day, the pigboy's shoulders relaxed. If he had his way, he'd spend all his time in the wood. The pigs didn't pick on him just because he was different or give him the most disgusting tasks to do.
He made himself comfortable on his tree stump, rested the willow switch on his knees, and found a suitable twig to chew.
At first, the pigs jostled and trod on each other as they rooted for acorns, but contented snuffles and snorts soon replaced the squeals and indignant grunts. Disputes among the herd never lasted long. They were family, something he would never know.
His thoughts turned inwards, and he dreamed of a world where his carrot-coloured hair and lack of height didn't count against him. Where he was comely, graceful, and could work magic like everyone else. Where he had a name, friends and family, slept in the great hall and ate the same food as the other servants....
The sun had moved in the sky when the pigboy came back to himself. The pigs, having gorged themselves, had lain down for a nap. He gauged how much time had passed, then grabbed his switch, straightened his tunic, and scrambled to his feet. It was later than he had intended. They would be wondering where he had got to.
His shoulders tensed. It didn't pay to make them come looking for him. Once, they had turned him into a pig for seven days. Then there was that fortnight spent without a mouth—
"Here, pigs," he called, a little desperately. "Here."
Sleepy eyes turned towards him then away once more. He raised his willow switch and said more forcefully, "I said, here, pigs."
With a grunt of annoyance, the herd matriarch heaved herself to her feet and trotted to his side. The others would follow her. "Good girl, Blacktail." He patted her on the rump. "It's time to go home."
Cassie put on the handbrake and switched off the ignition. "Here we are." She undid her seatbelt and stretched.
Beside her, Tarian peered through the windscreen at the house—a large semi detached with a spacious front garden. "Nice. How long has your friend lived here?"
Cassie considered. "Just over a year. They bought it after they got married. Before that Louise had a flat."
"And her husband's name is... Sam, you said?"
"That's right." Cassie reached for the door handle. "But he's away on business, thank God. Having a husband around really changes the dynamic. You know?"
Tarian undid her seatbelt. "Louise is your friend, not Sam."
"Exactly." Cassie went round to the Yaris's boot, and opened it. An indignant miaow greeted her, accompanied by the sound of frantic claws shredding cardboard. "There, there, Tiddles. It's nearly over." She reached for the cat carrier, pausing as she heard the sound of the house's front door opening.
"I thought it was you," came Louise's shout. "Need any help?"
"Yes," called back Cassie. "Come and collect your new cat."
A grinning Louise trotted down the drive towards her. She was wearing a pinafore apron and pink rubber gloves. "I was just making the place presentable," she said as she drew nearer.
"Are those new specs?" asked Cassie. Her old friend had never got the hang of contact lenses but at least she no longer wore the heavy frames that had marred her looks at school. "They suit you."
"Thanks." Louise nodded a shy hello to Tarian, then accepted a peck on her cheek and a warm hug from Cassie, who pointed to the cat carrier.
"He's in there. And he's not happy."
Tiddles let out a series of mournful cries.
"Sounds like the understatement of the year." Louise picked up the carrier by its handle with one gloved hand, supported it with the other, then turned and stopped in her tracks. Tarian had let the wolfhounds out of the back seat and they were sniffing around. "Er...."
The Fae registered her trepidation and clicked her fingers. Anwar and Drysi went to her side at once.
"They're very obedient." Louise sounded both relieved and impressed.
"And not as scary as they look, Lou," soothed Cassie. "Tarian's got them well trained. They'll be OK in your back garden for a bit, won't they?"
Cassie turned to Tarian, "Tell them not to dig up the roses or leap over the fence." Tarian rolled her eyes and Louise looked amused at the byplay.
"It's that way." She pointed to the side gate. Moments later Tarian had lifted the gate's latch and disappeared with the dogs along the side passage.
Louise took the opportunity to raise her eyebrows at Cassie and murmur, "She's gorgeous. And those eyes!"
Cassie gave her a goofy grin and murmured back, "I know. I still have to pinch myself some days."
"Where did you say you met her?"
"It's a long stor—" A loud hiss came from the cat carrier interrupted Cassie, and the sound of claws scrabbling intensified. "We'd better get him indoors."
She reached for the laundry basket she had filled with tins of cat food, a half used sack of dry food, his bowls, cat scratching post, litter tray, and favourite toys. A catnip-stuffed mouse made a bid for escape and Cassie grabbed for it and put it back.
Louise gaped at her. "Sure you can manage all that?"
"If we're quick about it." Cassie steadied the basket on one knee while she slammed the boot closed. Then she followed Louise back up the drive, through the front door into the hall, then into the kitchen.
"You've had this room redecorated," she commented, glancing approvingly at her surroundings. On a granite countertop lay two tea trays. On one sat a coffee cake, a knife, and three plates, on the other a jug of milk, a cafetière, and three cups and saucers. The cafetière contained freshly ground coffee, which only awaited the addition of boiling water. Must be for us. "Nice kitchen units."
"Thanks." While Cassie dumped Tiddles's possessions in front of the washing machine, Louise set the cat carrier in the middle of the vinyl-tiled floor, knelt beside it, and opened the top.
"Miaow." Tiddles glared up at her, tail lashing.
"Don't you want to get out of that nasty old box?"
"Careful, Lou," warned Cassie, as an unsheathed paw lashed out at her friend.
"It's all right. I came prepared." Louise took off her gloves, dipped a hand in her apron pocket, and came out with something held between finger and thumb. It was a dark reddish brown, and looked meaty. "Here, Tiddles. Look what I've got for you."
The tail stopped midwave and a ginger nose thrust itself forward. Then Louise's fingers were empty and Tiddles's jaws were moving as he chewed. He swallowed, considered for a moment, then let out the high-pitched miaow he only used when he was being affectionate.
"What was that?" asked Cassie.
Tiddles batted Louise's empty hand with his paw, claws sheathed this time. "Want some more?" A rough pink tongue appeared and rasped her fingers. "I'll take that as a yes." She pulled out a second piece of liver, which quickly went the way of the first.
After that, the tomcat allowed Louise to lift him out of the container with no trouble at all. She took off her apron with a free hand, then carried him into the sitting room, and sat in one of the two armchairs with him in her lap. He even allowed her to stroke him.
"Bribery and corruption," said Cassie not sure whether to be admiring or peeved. Fickle cat! She flopped down in the middle of the 3-seater settee. "Why didn't I think of that?"
Louise mimed buffing her fingernails on her apron. "Some of us have it, kiddo, and some of us—"
A shadow darkened the doorway leading from into the hall and they looked round to see Tarian standing there. Her forehead was creased as though in discomfort or puzzlement.
"Dogs settled OK?" asked Cassie.
Tarian nodded and came into the sitting room. "May I?" At Louise's nod, she sank onto the settee beside Cassie and stretched out long, jean-clad legs. "Your garden's much larger than I expected."
Louise beamed. "That's one of the reasons we bought this place. When these houses were originally built, developers were much more generous with land."
She reached over and held out a hand, careful not to disturb the cat purring in her lap. "I'm Louise by the way."
"Tarian. Pleased to meet you." The Fae shook Louise's hand. "Were you at school with Cassie?"
"That's right." A wicked grin lit up Louise's face. "The tales I could tell you about—"
"But won't," interrupted Cassie.
"Spoilsport." Louise gave Tiddles a glance. "I don't think I should move for a bit. Could you do the honours with the cake and coffee, Cass?"
"Glad to." She stood up and went through to the kitchen.
While the water in the electric kettle boiled, she gazed out of the window into the back garden, where Anwar and Drysi were tussling. Louise and her husband had spent a small fortune on renovating the lawn and flower borders, and the result looked a picture. She hoped the dogs' exuberant play wouldn't damage it too much.
The kettle clicked off, and she poured boiling water on the coffee, set the timer, then carried the tray with the cake on it into the sitting room. Tarian had squatted next to Louise's armchair, and was looking at some photographs. Cassie put the tray on the coffee table and glanced apprehensively at her.
"They're not incriminating photos of me, are they?"
"Tsk!" said Louise. "Self-centred or what? No, Cass. I reserve the right to bring out those photos later. These are of my bluebottles."
"Sorry. I'd forgotten all about those." Cassie frowned. "Come to think of it, I haven't seen any sign of flies around the place."
Louise grimaced. "Count yourself lucky then. I found a couple in the bedroom this morning. It won't be long before they're back."
"Let me see." Cassie held out a hand, and Tarian obligingly placed a couple of photos in it. She turned them this way, then that, not quite sure what she was looking at. Then they sprang into focus. A dense, glistening, blue-black mat of flies covered the countertops in the kitchen. It made her skin crawl just to look at them. She glanced at the second photo. Flies coated the taps and sink in the bathroom and came halfway up the walls.
"My God, Lou! When you said you had a fly problem I didn't imagine anything like this."
"Aren't I the lucky one?" Louise gave her a wry smile.
"And they don't know where they're coming from?" The faint beeping must be the timer in the kitchen. The coffee was ready.
"Haven't a clue. It's not even the right time of year. Fly infestations normally occur in July or August, apparently, when farmers spread chicken manure on their fields." She gestured, vaguely. "Do you see any farms round here? Or smell any chicken manure?"
Cassie shook her head and handed back the photos to Tarian who passed them on to Louise. "Coffee's ready. I'll fetch it."
She brought the second tray into the sitting room and poured the coffee into the cups. Tarian settled herself back on the settee.
"Help yourself to cake," said Louise.
Cassie cut them all thick slices. "You're very quiet," she murmured, as she handed Tarian's slice to her. Come to think of it, the Fae was looking quite peaky. Her naturally pale skin looked even paler, and there was a tightness around her eyes. "Are you all right?"
"Headache," said Tarian shortly.
"You should have said," chided Cassie. "I have some paracetamol." She reached in her jacket pocket but Tarian put out a hand to stop her.
"Thanks, but that won't help." She pinched the bridge of her nose.
"What is it?" asked Louise, who had been watching the exchange.
"Tarian has a headache but I've only got paracetamol and she says that won’t work."
"I have some aspirin. Want me to get you some?"
"No thanks. I'll be fine," said Tarian, around a mouthful of coffee cake. "This is delicious. Did you make it yourself?"
Cassie frowned at the patent topic change but didn't say anything.
"Marks and Spencer," said Louise at once. She grinned. "Why bake a cake yourself when you can buy one of theirs?"
Cassie sipped her coffee. It occurred to her that Tarian's headache could be a reaction to being away from Bourne Forest. She hadn't expected the effects to manifest themselves so strongly or so quickly. If she'd known they were going to be this intense, she'd have insisted Tarian didn't come with her. Not that she'd have taken any notice. The Fae had a stubborn streak. It was just as well they were going to Sutton Park next. Tarian could recharge her batteries before they went to Cassie's parents for dinner.
Ever the good hostess, Louise moved the conversation on to the subject of painting—Cassie had told her that Tarian was an artist—and Bourne's Edge, and it was Cassie's turn to pull out photos she'd taken of Tarian's house, the little village on the side of the hill, and the picturesque view across the valley.
"Wow!" said Louise. "You're really in the sticks, Cass. Don't you miss the city? I thought you were a suburban girl."
"Me too." She became aware of Tarian's gaze on her face. "But you know what? I must have changed. Because it feels like home." Tarian smiled.
"Don’t you miss the cinema? Danny and Justin were grumping because you're not around to go with them any more."
Cassie chuckled. "Well, it had its disadvantages. My tastes weren't always the same as theirs, but..." She glanced at Tarian. "If there's anything we particularly want to see, we go to the cinema in Ludlow, don’t we?"
"May I use your bathroom?" asked Tarian suddenly.
Louise blinked. "Of course. Top of the stairs, on the right. You can't miss it."
"I don't know what's up with her this morning," said Cassie, after Tarian had left the sitting room.
"Time of the month?"
"Maybe." Cassie had yet to get to grips with the reproductive cycle of the Fae. She suspected Tarian rarely got periods, because from what she had let slip, Fae children were rare, produced only when both parents consciously set about creating them. She couldn't very well tell her friend Tarian wasn't human though, could she?
While Louise chattered on about the holiday in New Zealand she and Sam were saving up for, Cassie kept one ear cocked. She heard the sound of water flushing, followed by footsteps descending the stairs.
Tarian reappeared in the doorway, clutching a large china doll. "Is this yours, Louise? I saw her on the landing."
"Mitzi." Louise grinned at her. "She was my mother's and before her my grandmother's." She turned to Cassie. "Remember what a dreadful state she was in, Cass, her dress in tatters, paint chipped, one leg hanging off? Danny and Justin told me about a Doll Hospital that's opened recently near them. I took her in last month, and now she looks good as new."
Cassie had never liked Mitzi, who was one of those ultra feminine dolls popular in Victorian times. Her dress was a monstrosity of lace and pink ribbons, frills and furbelows.
"I didn't know you liked dolls, Tarian," said Cassie, even as it struck her that the way Tarian was holding the doll indicated the opposite.
"I don't," said Tarian, resuming her seat on the settee next to Cassie. "But there's something about this one...."
Fortunately Louise took that as a compliment. "She is striking, isn't she?" Tiddles chose that moment to vacate his spot in Louise's lap and race towards the kitchen. Louise pouted. "Looks like the effects of the chicken liver wore off."
She held out a hand for the doll, and after a pause Tarian obliged—a pause during which Tarian's lips moved, and, hidden from Louise's view, her finger traced a complicated design.
Cassie narrowed her eyes. Was Tarian working a spell? Moments later, the Fae palmed something that looked like a wrinkled brown kidney bean.
While Louise fussed over her doll, straightening its dress, and gabbling about its history, and how good a job the restorer at the Doll Hospital had done, Cassie caught Tarian's gaze and held it.
"What did you do?" she mouthed.
Tarian pressed a finger to her lips then gestured. With a faint popping noise, the bean vanished.
"What was that?" asked Louise, looking up in surprise.
Until that moment, Cassie hadn't realised how tense and uncomfortable she had felt since entering her friend's house. Relief made her feel a little lightheaded. It was as though—she searched for a simile—as though the imminent threat of a thunderstorm had vanished. She glanced at Tarian and saw the tightness around her eyes had gone and her colour was returning to normal.
"What did you just do?" she mouthed.
Tarian smiled and mouthed back, "Later."
"You didn't hear anything, feel anything?" asked Louise.
Cassie shrugged, and Tarian reached for what remained of her coffee cake and began to eat. Louise shrugged and let the matter drop.
A miaow heralded Tiddles's reappearance from the kitchen, and all three watched him stroll across the carpet, climb into Louise's lap, and make himself comfortable.
"Changed your mind, have you?" She laughed as he butted her hand with his nose, and obediently set aside the doll and began to stroke him. "He's quite at home here already, isn't he? I don't think you'll need to worry about him, Cass."
"That's a weight off my mind. You've seen Tarian's dogs. Keeping him just wasn't an option. I can't thank you and Sam enough."
Louise looked guilty. "Actually, Sam doesn't know about him yet. But I'm sure he'll be all right. Oh, he'll sulk about not being consulted, but I'll tell him it was a birthday present from my best friend, and he'll come around."
"I just hope the flies don't give Tiddles a stomach upset," mused her friend. "Cats sometimes eat flies, don’t they?"
"There won't be any more flies," said Tarian.
"No?" Louise looked at her in surprise. "Well," she said doubtfully, "I suppose we can always hope. "
"You're sure the flies won't come back?"
Tarian glanced at Cassie. "Positive." There had been a thoughtful silence all the way from Erdington, ever since she'd told Cassie about the artefact. That silence appeared to be over.
Cassie turned right at the crossroads. The road began to dip. "And all because you destroyed the kidney bean?"
"Ill luck attractor," corrected Tarian, eying a group of walkers with rucksacks on their backs.
"It's easier to say kidney bean."
To their left, on the other side of the metal railings, was a steep grassy bank. Tarian wondered what it was hiding. Sutton Park? Perhaps the walkers were intending to go rambling there. She could sense it was close by. There was a refreshing scent and a fizz to the air coming in through the half open window that had been missing since Bourne's Edge.
"And you've seen one before?"
"An attractor? Yes."
She nodded. The creation of ill luck attractors was one of the first spells taught to young Fae (lessons in detecting and destroying them followed soon after), and it was common to use them to play tricks on their peers. The novelty soon wore off, though.
The road began to rise. Up ahead she could see park gates and a large sign saying, "Boldmere Entrance. Opening hours: 10am - 7pm."
"How on earth did a Fae artefact get inside Louise's doll?" Cassie braked to negotiate the cattle grid at low speed. Once they had bumped over it, she turned left, following the sign for the car park.
Cassie backed the Yaris into a vacant parking spot, put on the handbrake, and turned off the ignition. Tarian looked around her with interest. Ahead and to her left stretched a grassy area, bounded on two sides by a belt of trees. The grass was badly worn in places, from drought or overuse. On it several families were picnicking, playing ball games, or throwing frisbees to one another. She twisted and through the back window made out a pub called La Reserve, a children's funfair, and a vast expanse of water on which several sailing boats were tacking to and fro.
Cassie saw the direction of her gaze. "Powell's Pool," she said.
"Nice." Tarian faced front again and picked up the thread of their conversation. "Obviously, someone must have put the attractor in the doll."
"I know that, silly. But who? And more to the point why?"
"The answer to that depends on 'When?'"
"What?" Cassie blinked at her then shook her head and muttered, "Could this conversation get any more cryptic?"
Tarian grinned and undid her seatbelt. "Think about it. When did the plague of flies first start bothering Louise?"
Cassie considered. "Um. Sometime last month, I think she said."
"And when did she get that doll repaired?"
"About the same time. Oh!" Blonde eyebrows shot up. "You mean... the Doll Hospital? Someone at the Doll Hospital put the bean into the doll?"
Tarian nodded and reached for the door handle.
She got out of the car, and turned to let out the dogs. They shook themselves, and set about sniffing everything within reach. "A malicious prank?"
"Some prank! Those flies looked like something out of a biblical plague."
"Shall we get some lunch?" Tarian pointed to the pub. A large sign over the door read 'Beefeater'. She wondered if beef was all they allowed their patrons to eat. Strange.
Cassie grimaced and patted her belly. "Um. Those two slices of coffee cake haven't gone down yet. And we don't want to spoil our appetites. Mum and Dad will be stuffing us tonight for certain."
She looked faintly embarrassed, which made Tarian smile. "They're allowed to spoil you," she said. "You're their only child."
"I suppose. No doubt they'll be trying to impress you too."
Tarian was sceptical—Cassie's parents would surely be more likely to resent this stranger who had changed their daughter's life so dramatically—but she said merely, "Of course."
Cassie had been scanning her surroundings and now pointed to the children's funfair. Tarian was wondering what a carousel, a go kart track, and swing boats decorated with the skull-and-crossbones could have to do with lunch when she realised Cassie was actually pointing at the little refreshment kiosk. A queue of children next to it showed it was doing a roaring trade.
"Let's get some ice cream," said Cassie, confirming her guess. "That should be enough to keep us going until dinner."
They had set off towards the kiosk, the dogs circling them, when they heard a loud "Oi!"
Tarian halted and looked round and saw a man in uniform—a Park Ranger—striding purposefully towards them. She arched an eyebrow and pointed to herself and Cassie.
He nodded and halted in front of them, frowning up at Tarian—he was at least a head shorter than she was. "Dogs should be kept on a lead, miss. Especially dogs that size."
"Sorry," said Cassie. "We didn't know. Is it because of the children?"
His stern expression softened as he turned to her. "No, miss. Because of the wildlife. At this time of year, dogs are in danger of disturbing ground-nesting birds." Tarian thought it highly unlikely there were any ground-nesting birds in such a busy part of the park, but he forestalled her objection with, "And because the Park's bylaws say that during April, May and June, in all open areas of the park, dogs must be kept on leads."
"Oh." Cassie glanced at Tarian. "We must have missed that sign."
Tarian shrugged and called the dogs to heel. The speed with which they came clearly impressed the ranger though he tried to remain impassive.
"Their leads are in the car," she sad. "Can we fetch them after we've had our ice creams?"
He cocked his head, as if he suspected her of being impertinent, then said grudgingly, "All right. But see that you do. Big dogs like those... even if they're well behaved they can scare people."
"Thank you," said Cassie. "We won't be long."
As he wandered off in search of more lawbreakers, she gave Tarian rueful glance. "They've obviously tightened up the rules since I was here last."
"When was that?"
"Um. Probably when I was still at school. We came to walk one of the Nature Trails."
Cassie treated them both to an icecream called a 'Ninety-nine'. Tarian had never eaten one before and enjoyed it, though she wished they'd been a bit more generous with the small stick of flaky chocolate protruding from the vanilla icecream. The cornet was a bit boring though, so she broke up the last of it and tossed it to the dogs, who wolfed it down in an instant and looked eagerly at her for more.
"No more food until dinner," said Tarian. "Can't have you getting fat." Their looks were the equivalent of canine outrage, and she smiled as she retrieved the leads from the car's glove compartment.
Anwar and Drysi submitted gloomily while she attached the leads to their collars. "I'll let you off when we get to the woods," she promised, letting the leads unreel to their full extent. Now both dogs and Park Ranger should be happy. She handed Anwar's lead to Cassie and took Drysi's herself.
"Which way?" asked Cassie.
Tarian pointed to the belt of trees that separated the grassy picnic area from the rest of the park. She had become aware of a tingling energy emanating from that direction. It hovered at the edge of her senses, tugging at her with its familiarity and was the last thing she had expected to find here.
She debated whether to tell Cassie about it or not, then said, "There's something I want to investigate."
"Oh?" Green eyes drilled into her. "What?"
"I'm not sure. It's just... It's faint, but I can sense something. A couple of leagues in that direction." Though there was nothing to be seen, both wolfhounds turned their heads to follow her pointing finger.
"How far's a league?" wondered Cassie under her breath. Then, "It's not another of those kidney bean things, is it?" Tarian had told her about the jarring, jangling feeling that struck her the moment she entered Louise's house.
"Well, I wouldn't want to tire you out, but you look all right." Cassie scrutinised her face. "In fact you seem to have perked up since we arrived."
"I feel brighter already," admitted Tarian. "So, can we take a look?"
"OK. We have to leave here by five at the latest though," warned Cassie. "I promised Mum." She set off walking in the direction Tarian had pointed, and Tarian followed her.
They reached the belt of trees, crossed the bumpy, rutted cycle track that lay behind it, and started up the heather-covered slope. As they walked, the dogs ranged out as far as the leads would allow then circled back, making a game of it. Tarian grew tired of having her arm almost jerked from its socket, and when the lead threatened to trip up Cassie for the third time told them sharply to cut it out. After that, the walking was easier.
In the sky ahead a number of dark shapes swooped and banked. Tarian squinted at them in puzzlement. "Crows?" But they didn't move like birds.
"Model airplanes," corrected Cassie.
She grunted. The tingling feeling was getting stronger. She corrected their course slightly, steering more to the right. They crossed the road.
"Holly Hurst," said Cassie suddenly.
"That's where you're heading. I think it's one of the oldest woods in the park."
There was indeed an area of woodland directly ahead of them. If the density of the trees didn't prove a deterrent to members of the public, the two-bar fence enclosing them might. They halted in front of it and Tarian made out the shapes of individual trees and bushes. Oak, holly, alder, silver birch.... Native species.
"There are footpaths, but I don't think many people use them," said Cassie. "Odd how I never played here as a child. I was a great one for climbing trees. I must have found this place too... daunting."
Anwar and Drysi took advantage of their long leads to duck under the fence and sniff around. Anwar cocked his leg against a tree trunk and returned to Cassie's side.
"So are you going to tell me about this 'feeling' then?"
Tarian glanced at her. "I'm fairly certain there's a crossing into Faerie here. It feels the same as the one in Bourne Forest."
Cassie's eyebrows shot up. "Really?"
"I'd like to investigate it. Not now, because we haven't got time, obviously." She went on before Cassie could object, "And I wouldn't go myself. I'd send the dogs through and get them to report back."
"Oh." Cassie subsided and looked thoughtful. "Well, I don't suppose that would do any harm." She grimaced. "Trust you to get exiled from Faerie twice!"
"It's not as if I planned it," said Tarian, amused rather than offended by the observation. She slipped her arm round Cassie's waist. "Later then. Shall we head back to the car?"
As they walked down the hill, Cassie was pensive, and Tarian was content to leave her to own thoughts while she enjoyed the feel of Nature all around her and sucked untainted air into her lungs.
They had almost reached the belt of trees beyond which lay Powell's Pool when Cassie said, "About that kidney bean."
"It's something only someone from Faerie could have created, isn't it?"
"And now we've found this. An entrance to Faerie close by. It can't be a coincidence."
"There are entrances all over the British Isles, Cassie. Though most have fallen into disrepair."
"Since you can sense it, let's suppose this one hasn't."
"Let's also suppose a Fae came through it, made his or her way to the Doll Hospital, planted the bean in Louise's doll and went home again."
"It's not something a Fae would do," objected Tarian, wondering how to put it without being insulting. "We're a proud people, Cassie. Targeting a mortal at random and from a distance would be... um...."
"Right. Perhaps if Louise offended the Fae enough for them to bear her a grudge... But even then...." She grimaced. "An ill luck attractor? Not likely."
"But let's suppose just for argument's sake, such a thing happened."
Tarian sighed. "All right."
"Have you sensed any Fae in the vicinity?"
"Apart from me?" She shook her head.
Cassie bit her lip. "Bang goes that theory then." She wrinkled her nose in thought. "And more to the point," she said, as though speaking to herself, "where in heaven's name is Louise likely to have come across let alone offended any of the Fae?"
Cassie let out a frustrated grunt. "So what other explanation is there?"
They emerged from the trees, saw the Yaris ahead, and headed for it, shortening the dogs' leads in case the Park Ranger was lurking. Cassie felt in her jacket pocket for her car keys and moment later the car locks clunked open.
"I don't know yet." Tarian detached leads from collars and urged the dogs up onto the back seat. "But I will."
Cassie pushed open the front door. A wonderful aroma of roasting lamb assailed her nostrils.
"Mum. Dad. We're here." She turned to Tarian, who was standing just behind her. "Come in, and bring the dogs."
The Fae was making sure the dogs didn't trap their tails in the closing door when the kitchen door opened and Cassie's parents appeared.
Her mother hurried along the little hall towards her and she found herself enveloped in a hug and felt warm lips pressed to her cheek. She had been to the hairdresser's recently. In Tarian's honour?
"It's great to see you, love." She held Cassie at arm's length and examined her then gave a relieved smile. "You're looking much better than the last time we saw you."
"Yes she is," said her father, looming, if a man of five foot seven could be said to loom. "Thank God you're back safe and sound. Don't I get a kiss?" He had dressed for the occasion in a new pair of chinos and the navy Argyle sweater she had bought him for Christmas.
Cassie kissed him fondly on his cheek then stood back and indicated the Fae. "This is Tarian Brangwen."
"Pleased to meet you, Tarian." Cassie's mother held out a hand, realised it was greasy, apologised, wiped it on her apron and held it out again.
"How do you do, Mrs Lewis," said Tarian, shaking it. "And you, Mr Lewis." He didn't offer her his hand, just nodded. Cassie recognised that reserved expression. He hadn't made up his mind about Tarian yet.
Anwar let out a tiny whine and all eyes turned towards him. He licked his chops and nudged the foil-wrapped parcel Tarian was carrying. Tarian rolled her eyes, which made Cassie's mother grin.
"I'd better feed them," said Tarian. "Is it all right to take them outside?"
"Of course, dear. You can get to the back garden through the kitchen." She pointed. "Help yourself."
Tarian disappeared into the kitchen followed by the two dogs, tails wagging, and Cassie found herself alone with her parents.
"We were so worried when you disappeared into the back of beyond," clucked her father. "We didn't know what to think."
"I know, and I'm sorry, Dad. I couldn't think what else to do." They'd had this conversation several times already over the phone, but the threat to her life had left him unsettled, and she suspected it would be a while before he stopped rehashing events. "Everything's all right now," she soothed. "Armitage is in a coma. He's no threat to me anymore."
"You shouldn't have got mixed up with someone like him in the first place."
Cassie shrugged. "You can't choose your landlord, Dad."
"Oh leave her alone, Rick," said her mother. "It's all over, and she's here and in one piece. Aren't you, love?" She beamed. "We're honoured you brought Tarian to meet us."
Her father sniffed. "She knows she can always bring her friends home for a visit."
It hadn't been her home for years, but Cassie kept that thought to herself. As for the 'friend' remark....
"Tarian's much more than a friend," she protested. "I'm moving in with her."
"We know that, silly." Her mother gave her father a sharp glance. "How's the packing going?" A distant timer pinged. "Never mind." She ran a distracted hand through her hair. "You can tell us all about it over dinner. I've got mint to chop and vegetables to check on."
She disappeared back into the kitchen and Cassie was left alone with her father. Silence fell, then he said, "It's a long way from Birmingham to that Bourne's Edge place of yours."
"Not that far."
He held her gaze. "Are you sure you're doing the right thing? You've only known her a few weeks."
"How old is she?"
"Early thirties, I think." She hadn't plucked up the courage to ask Tarian how old she was yet. She looked in her thirties, but the Fae aged more slowly than humans. Besides, learning that Tarian was older than her parents might be ... disconcerting.
"She looks like she should be on the catwalk." He frowned. "What on earth does someone like her want with someone like you?"
Cassie put her hands on her hips. "Thanks, Dad!"
He waved dismissively. "You know what I mean. She's not been taking advantage of you, has she? Forcing you to do anything you don't want to?"
"Dad!" Cassie blushed. What she and Tarian did in the bedroom was none of his business. She was certainly not going to tell him that, when it came to their love making, Tarian was knowledgeable, open minded, and generous, and Cassie for one was eager to repeat the experience as often as possible. "I'm twenty-seven not seven. I can look after myself."
He looked sceptical. "Didn't seem that way when you had to go on the run."
"That was different. Anyway, things turned out all right, didn't they?" Thanks to Tarian. "In a way, I'm grateful to Armitage. If it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't have met Tarian."
He changed tack. "Giving up your perfectly good job at the library too. What will you live on? Is she wealthy?"
"To be honest, I have no idea how much she earns from her paintings. Enough to get by, I imagine. It doesn't matter. I've got myself a new job, Dad. I start next week."
"Driving the mobile library."
His eyebrows shot up. "Driving the—"
"Don't be such a snob! It's not that different from what I was doing in Birmingham."
"Hm." But he didn't sound convinced.
The kitchen door hall opened and Tarian stepped into the hall, bringing with her the appetising smell of the dinner to come.
"Dogs are fed." She glanced from Cassie to her father and back, and arched an eyebrow.
Silence fell, then Cassie's father asked, rather awkwardly, "What breed are they?"
He picked an imaginary piece of lint off his sweater. "Need exercising a lot, I suppose?"
"Quite a lot. Fortunately, where I live, it's safe to let them off their leads, so they can exercise themselves." Tarian came to stand next to Cassie.
"And how long have you lived in Bourne's Edge?"
"Two years, going on three."
"And before that?"
"Dad!" Cassie slipped her hand into Tarian's and gave it an apologetic squeeze. "Sorry about the third degree."
"Don’t be. He's your father. Protectiveness goes with the job." Tarian's statement earned her a look of approval, his first, and Cassie felt some of her tension ease.
Movement at the end of the hall turned out to be her mother putting her head round the kitchen door. "What are you lot doing still standing around?" she called. "Dinner's nearly ready. ... Cassie, love, come and help me serve up. Rick, show Tarian where she can wash her hands."
"Right." Cassie's father looked discomfited again. "It's um ... through here."
While he led Tarian to the little downstairs toilet off the hall, Cassie joined her mother in the kitchen. In companionable silence, they sliced the joint, which was slightly tinged with pink in the middle, the way she liked it, and drained the peas, carrots, and potatoes.
Cassie turned to her mother. "How much shall I put?"
"You know the size of Tarian's appetite better than I do. Put as much as you think she can eat. But give your father plenty of spuds. You know he likes them."
When all the food had been doled out, Cassie helped her mother carry the heavy plates into the dining room. The scent from a vase of freesias wafted over to her as she took her seat, and she was touched to see her mother had used her best table linen and wine glasses.
Cassie's father was in the middle of trying to sell Tarian a car—he was the manager of the local car showroom and liked to wax knowledgeable about the latest makes and models.
"Dad!" she hissed, while her mother asked Tarian if she'd like some mint sauce. "She doesn't drive."
He looked at his daughter as though she were insane. "Everybody drives, Cassie."
Tarian passed the sauce jug to Cassie, followed by the gravy boat, and said, "She's right, Mr Lewis. I don't drive. I ride horses though."
Silence fell, and Cassie's red-faced father busied himself pouring out the wine. For a while after that, the only sounds were of contented sipping and chewing. Then, evidently feeling it was incumbent upon him as host to keep the conversation flowing, he cleared his throat and cast around for a new topic. Cassie suppressed a wince and braced herself.
"How's the packing going?"
She relaxed. "We've made a start, but there wasn't much point getting stuck in until the packing cases arrive. They're being delivered tomorrow."
Her mother finished chewing a mouthful of food and swallowed. "Have you got much to take with you, love?"
"More than I thought." It was surprising how much junk you could accumulate over the years. And then there was the TV, DVD player, hifi system, and computer—how Tarian managed without such necessities she had no idea. "It's just as well most of the furniture came with the flat, because Tarian wouldn't have had room for it."
Tarian shrugged. "I'd have made room."
Cassie's father leaned forward. "How big exactly is this house of yours? I wouldn't like to think that my daughter—"
"It's huge, Dad," interrupted Cassie, before Tarian could reply. "There's plenty of space for both of us. I've brought some photos of it with me. And some of the village and the views too. You can see them after dinner. All right?"
He sat back. "All right."
They finished the first course, and Cassie' mother collected up the plates—declining her offer of help—then brought in dessert.
Cassie's eyes gleamed as she saw it was a childhood favourite: blackberry and apple pie. They had often gone bramble picking as a family in Sutton Park. The taste of the wild fruit more than made up for any aching backs and scratched fingers and the palaver of soaking grubs out of berries with salted water.
She added a dollop of cream and took a mouthful. Flavour exploded on her tongue. "Mm." She swallowed. "Did you pick these yourselves, Mum?"
"Yes, love. Last year. They've been sitting in the freezer, waiting for a special occasion." Her mother smiled.
"As it happens, we popped into the park before we came here. Powell's Pool and Holly Hurst. Gave the dogs a good run."
"That's nice, love. You haven't been in the park for a while, have, you?""
"No." Cassie scooped up another mouthful of pie, and noticed that Tarian was enjoying hers too.
"So, Tarian," said her father, looking satisfied as he put his spoon down on an almost clean dish, "How long have you had those dogs?"
"Since they were born."
"You breed them?" Cassie's mother sounded surprised. "I thought Cassie said you were an artist."
"I am. But I like having wolfhounds around. They're company. I spend a lot of time on my own." She glanced at Cassie and amended, "Or rather I did."
"When I was little, I wanted a dog," mused Cassie. "But I wasn't allowed to have one."
"Because you'd have got bored with it and guess who would have ended up looking after the poor thing?" said her mother.
There was some truth in that. "I know. But I really wanted a dog." Cassie pouted, remembering how much a doggy companion would have meant to the often lonely only child she had been.
"You have two dogs now," said Tarian.
Cassie smiled at her. Anwar and Drysi were Tarian's dogs and always would be, and they both knew it, but the sentiment was generous. "Thank you."
"In my favour," continued her mother, "I was never really convinced you were serious about wanting a dog, Cassie. If you were, the first thing you would have done when you got your own place would have been to get yourself one."
"The flat was too small," said Cassie. "I shouldn't even have had a cat really."
"Will Tiddles be going to Bourne's Edge with you?" chimed in her father.
"Um, no. He didn't take to the dogs, nor the dogs to him, so Louise agreed to adopt him. We took him round to her this morning."
"How is Louise? It's been a while since we saw her and that husband of hers—what was his name, Sam?" He frowned. "We heard something strange was going on. Involving flies?" He looked at his wife for confirmation. She nodded.
"That's right, Dad," said Cassie. "The people from pest control practically moved in, they've been such a problem. But it's under control now." Cassie glanced at Tarian who was finishing off her last spoonful of pie and smiled.
"Glad to hear it," said Cassie's mother.
"What is it about your friends?" wondered her father.
Cassie blinked at him. "What do you mean?"
"Danny and Justin are going through the wars at the moment too."
"Really?" Cassie exchanged a glance with Tarian, who was listening intently.
"Haven't you heard about the freak tornado? Or the lightning strike? Or the burst water main?"
Cassie blinked at him then shook her head. "They probably tried to email me, but we're not online at Tarian's yet."
"Well, they need part of the roof replaced, a new TV and computer, new carpets throughout. Heaven knows what else." He pursed his lips. "What's more, their house was the only one in the street affected."
"Poor things! When did all this happen?"
"Not all at once or they'd be wondering if someone had painted a large bullseye on their house." He grinned to show he was joking, but it occurred to Cassie that he might not be far off the mark. "The tornado was three weeks ago, wasn't it, Sarah?" He looked to Cassie's mother for confirmation and she nodded. "The lightning strike was the week after that. And the water main was only last week."
"I don't suppose they've had a doll mended or restored, recently, have they?" asked Cassie.
Her parent's exchanged astonished glances. "What an odd question," said her mother. "What does it have to do with anything?"
"As if Danny and Justin would have dolls," scoffed her father.
Cassie stifled a grin. She knew for a fact that Danny had a collection of superhero figures. "Never mind. I'll ask them myself."
"Talking of dolls," said her mother. "I was having a clear out of the spare room last week, and I came across Teddy."
Cassie blinked at her. "My teddy?"
"Yes, love. That ugly little bear that went with you everywhere when you were a child."
Memory flooded back. "I used to suck his ears."
"Unhygienic," muttered her unsentimental father. Cassie frowned at him.
"Anyway, he's in an awful state," continued her mother. "He's threadbare, the stuffing's coming out, one eye is loose, an ear's ripped, and his legs have come off. He doesn't squeak anymore, either. ... But I thought I'd better check with you before I threw him out."
"You can't throw Teddy out!" said an indignant Cassie.
"Oh come on, love. After all these years you can't still be attached to him, surely?"
"Yes I can. And if you aren't going to give him a home any more, then I will."
"Tarian's dogs will tear him to pieces," warned her father, glancing at Tarian.
"Not if I tell them not to," said the Fae.
Cassie threw him a triumphant glance. "I'll take him. No matter what state he's in. He deserves some TLC, after all I put him through."
Her mother laughed and shook her head fondly. "Have it your own way."
The pigboy leaned on his pitchfork and wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. He'd been mucking out the stables for several hours and was exhausted. Straw dust clogged his lungs and stuck to sweat-slicked skin and hair, and his bare feet were coated in dung. He must stink even worse than usual, he supposed, but he had grown accustomed to the stench.
"Boar's entrails! Not finished yet?" came a deep voice.
The farrier looked irritable. The rhythmic clangs of his hammer had provided an accompaniment to the pigboy's work as he shaped metal into horseshoes then fitted those same shoes to his lord's mounts in the yard adjoining the stables. His tunic was as soaked with sweat, but unlike the pigboy's it had at least been clean on that morning.
"Lazy, good for nothing runt." The Fae scowled and took a step towards him, one meaty fist raised. The pigboy flinched but held his ground. At least the farrier's beatings never involved magic.
"I'm going as fast as I can, sir. I've two more barrow loads to shift, then I'll be done. By oak, ash and thorn."
"Speak back to me, would you?" The farrier seemed determined to pick an argument and the pigboy braced himself. "Insolence!"
In the event, it was the other hand that struck him, the one holding the horseshoe, and the blow knocked all sense out of him for a while. When he returned to himself he was staring up at the rafters, and he was soaking wet—the farrier had thrown a bucket of water over him.
"Finish your mucking out." The Fae's gaze was unapologetic. "And be quick about it. The horses need stabling."
With a headache that would fell an ox and ears still ringing, the pigboy heaved himself to his feet. He searched for the pitchfork in the gloom and grabbed it from where it had fallen. "At once, sir."
Tarian sipped her beer and took in her surroundings. Only a few of the other tables in the pub's back garden were occupied—by office workers, if the conservative cut of their clothes was any indication. Monday lunchtimes clearly weren't the busiest of times, or perhaps most people preferred to eat and chat indoors.
More fool them.
She was glad to be out in the open. She and Cassie had spent the morning cooped up in the little flat, dividing Cassie's possessions into piles labelled 'Chuck' and 'Keep', but as Cassie was reluctant to throw anything away, the 'Chuck' pile was almost nonexistent. They had just got started on wrapping Cassie's china and glassware in sheets of newspaper—getting newsprint everywhere, even on the dogs' noses—and putting them in the packing cases when, to Tarian's relief, Cassie glanced at her watch and announced it was time to keep the appointment she had made on the phone last night.
Tarian set down her half empty beer glass, leaned back in her chair, and closed her eyes, enjoying the warm sunshine on her eyelids and letting her senses roam. That steady breathing and slight shift and rustle of clothing was Cassie, sitting on the bench opposite her in the shade provided by the parasol—her fair skin had a tendency to freckle. A blackbird was trilling in a jasmine bush close by, fighting a losing battle against Erdington High Street's traffic roar. Those lapping and splashing sounds must be Anwar and Drysi exploring the ornamental fishpond.
"Don’t tease the goldfish," she called, and heard Cassie chuckle.
A canine sneeze was followed by the sounds of paws padding across the concrete slabs towards her, then two warm, furry shapes slumped against her ankles and something heavy, presumably a head, settled on her left boot.
"Comfortable?" she asked. An image of Anwar's satisfied face appeared in her mind, and she grinned.
"Where are they?" fretted Cassie. "They should have been here ten minutes ago."
"I'm sure your friends will be here any minute," said Tarian, not opening her eyes.
"Ha! That's shows how much you know. Justin is always late. It drives poor Danny up the wall."
Tarian opened her eyes. "They'd have rung you if they weren't coming."
Cassie gave her a plaintive look. "I know. But I'm hungry." Her growling stomach confirmed as much. "And you know how I get when I'm hungry."
Tarian grinned and sat up straight. "We don't have to wait." She reached for the menu propped between the salt and pepper pots and handed it to Cassie, whose face brightened.
Silence fell while Cassie considered her choices. "Lasagne, I think." She glanced at Tarian. "What about you?"
"I'll have the same."
"OK. I'll go and order."
Cassie grabbed her purse from her shoulder bag and set off purposefully towards the pub's back door. Tarian watched her go, dwelling appreciatively on the jean-clad, shapely rear.
Cassie halted at the door, her path blocked by two men wearing faded blue jeans and black T-shirts sporting the white lettering 'J & D Collectables'. The darkhaired one was tall and slim, with a delicate bone structure that made him look pretty rather than handsome, and shoulder-length curls in need of a trim. His blond-bearded companion was short, stocky and almost bald, with a snub nose and ears that stuck out like jug handles. From their delighted grins, the pair were Cassie's friends. Cassie confirmed as much when, after a brief discussion, she turned and pointed towards Tarian's table.
As Cassie continued on her quest inside the pub, the men made their way over. Tarian's scalp prickled and she felt the familiar discordant jangle of an ill luck attractor. It was coming from the plastic carrier bag the blond man was carrying. She winced as the sensation grew stronger.
They stopped in front of her table, and the dogs rose and went to investigate. The man with the dark curls gave the wolfhounds a wary glance before holding out his hand.
"I'm Justin. You must be Tarian."
"Hello." She shook his hand and gestured towards a free chair. He smiled and took it.
"And I'm Danny." The blond's handshake was firmer than his partner's.
"Nice to meet you, Danny." While he too sat, Tarian extended her senses towards them, finding only a mix of nervousness and friendly curiosity. They were unaware of what was in the carrier bag. Good.
The dogs settled on their haunches next to Tarian and yawned.
"We passed inspection then?" asked Justin.
"For now." She didn't tell him she had conducted an inspection of her own.
Danny dumped the carrier bag on the floor between his feet. Tarian tried to ignore its baleful presence, but it wasn't easy—already she was feeling nauseous and getting a headache. He surveyed the people chatting and eating at the other tables, drummed stubby fingers on the beer-circle stained table, then said with slightly flushed cheeks and a weak smile, "Nice day."
Justin shot Danny an incredulous glance before turning his gaze on Tarian once more. "So," he said, "you're Cassie's girlfriend."
She returned his direct gaze with one of her own. "I am."
"Great!" He grinned. "We've been trying to get her fixed up for ages, haven't we, Danny?"
"Picky," muttered his partner, nodding. "Very picky."
Tarian was about to ask him what he meant, when movement in the pub entrance proved to be Cassie coming back so she let it go.
Cassie resumed her seat in the shade of the parasol and said slightly breathlessly, "I've paid for everyone. My treat. Chicken Kiev for you," she told Danny, who beamed. "And Shepherd's Pie for you, Justin. It'll be ready in quarter of an hour. The beers are on the way." Her gaze tracked between the two men and Tarian. "Have you introduced yourselves?"
Tarian nodded and reached for her glass.
"No more lightning strikes since I rang you?" Cassie took a sip of her orange juice.
Justin grimaced. "No, thank God! Our insurers are beginning to give us very funny looks."
"They think someone's made voodoo dolls of us and stuck pins in them," joked Danny.
You're not that far off the mark, thought Tarian.
"Shop going OK?" continued Cassie. Her friends sold comic books and something called 'collectables', apparently.
"Great." Justin smiled at the middle-aged barmaid who was transferring brimming beer glasses from her tray to their table. "We're shifting as many DCs and Marvels as we can get. And loads of Cybermen figures too." He took a gulp of Guinness, wiped away the resulting foam moustache, and gave a satisfied sigh.
"Those radio-controlled K-9s are popular too," said Danny, draining half of his lager in one go. He frowned and shook his head. "Even though its tail doesn't wag."
Cassie exchanged an amused glance with Tarian. "Wonder what Anwar and Drysi would make of K-9."
Tarian gave her a helpless glance. She had no idea what they were talking about.
"Doctor Who?" prompted Cassie.
Tarian shrugged and gave up.
"Anyway enough of that stuff," said Justin. "What's all this about wanting to see the action figure we had repaired three weeks ago?"
Cassie sniggered. "'Action figure? It's a doll, Justin. Why can't you admit it?"
He ignored her and turned to Danny. "Go on. Show them."
Danny reached down and grabbed the carrier bag from between his feet. He dumped it on the table, fished inside, and pulled out a garish cardboard box. He eased open the flap at one end and pulled out a 7-inch tall doll.
Tarian winced as the jangling sensation increased and Cassie threw her a concerned glance. She shook her head.
The doll was male, its musculature that of someone who spends all day in the gym. It reminded Tarian a little of Cadel, the brutish Fae who had succeeded her as Mab's champion. She studied the doll. A mask obscured its eyes, and it was clad in a skintight costume of green and black. On its right hand, over his white gloves, oddly, he wore an outsized green ring. And clutched in his left hand was an outsize lantern.
"Green Lantern," breathed Cassie. "I loved reading his comics when I was a kid."
"You mean you aren't a kid any more?" Danny grinned at her. "Looks brand new, doesn’t he?" She nodded. "The paintwork was flaking but the Doll Hospital fixed it. They do good work."
"Thanks. That's worth knowing. ... You asked what it's about. This." Cassie reached in her shoulder bag and pulled out the disgraceful mess that had once been a teddy bear. "Oops!" A glass eye bounced across the tabletop. Tarian grabbed it before it could fall onto the floor and handed it back.
"Good grief, Cassie!" said Justin. "Why don't you just buy yourself a new one?"
She stroked the bear's threadbare stomach. "Sentimental reasons." Its left leg fell on the floor. Drysi nudged it back to Cassie with her nose.
"Thank you, sweetie." Cassie bent and retrieved the leg.
"The dogs have taken to you, I see," said Danny, looking impressed. "Just as well, given the size of them.
"Who ordered lasagne?" The barmaid had reappeared, this time bearing two steaming plates.
Tarian indicated herself and Cassie and the woman set the plates in front of them, then departed to fetch their remaining orders.
"May I?" Tarian held out a hand towards Danny who regarded it in puzzlement. Then his brow cleared and he handed over Green Lantern.
Under the pretence of examining the action figure, it took her only a moment to determine that the ill luck attractor was inside its torso. When she returned Green Lantern to Danny, the attractor was nestling in her palm; seconds later it had ceased to exist.
"All right?" mouthed Cassie.
Tarian nodded and smiled. Her nausea had gone and the backwash headache was already easing.
"That's that then." Danny placed Green Lantern back in his box and stuffed the carrier bag between his feet once more. He turned to watch the barmaid making her way towards him. "Here's our lunch."
Cassie stopped pacing and looked at her watch. Nearly three p.m.
She'd needed to shop for groceries and Tarian wanted to walk the dogs, so after leaving the pub they had agreed to meet outside the Doll Hospital in half an hour and gone their separate ways. The little supermarket had been deserted though, perhaps because it was a Monday, so Cassie had finished her shopping sooner than expected.
She hoped the Doll Hospital's interior was in a better state of repair than its exterior. The plasterwork was crumbling, and old lettering—'Christian Science Reading Room'—struggled to resurface through the thin coat of whitewash.
Tarian wouldn't mind if she went in on her own, would she? It might even be for the best, because if someone from Faerie ran the hospital they'd sense the presence of a Fae at once, whereas a mere mortal like herself.... She smiled wryly, knowing she was just bored and making excuses.
What the hell.
Cassie pushed open the creaking front door, and went in. She found herself in a cramped vestibule that contained a three-legged table on which sat a mangy looking spider plant in a pot and a pile of badly printed leaflets—price lists, she saw when she picked one up. The door off the vestibule made a bell tinkle when she opened it, and led her into a large, high ceilinged room, smelling of glue and crammed with tables strewn with teddy bears and dolls in various states of repair.
A doll version of the Somme! was Cassie's first horrified thought. Then she saw that the rows were orderly and each doll's body parts neatly arranged, and revised her opinion. A field hospital.
The room was deserted, but a light coming from the half open door at the far end showed someone was on the premises. The doorbell should have alerted them to her presence. Until they came to investigate, she would explore.
Wooden shelves against one wall held a variety of baskets, bowls, and containers, that closer inspection revealed contained spare parts. Some were instantly recognisable—tiny eyelashes for dolls, replacement pads for bears' paws—some not. One basket held plastic arms and legs of different sizes, another their equivalent in porcelain. A biscuit barrel held brown and blue glass eyes. She decanted a few into her palm, stirred them with her forefinger, then poured them back.
On another shelf lay what must be the hospital repair kit: pots of glue and small brushes, balls of what looked liked string but was actually elastic, scissors and pairs of pliers, a candle (useful for its wax?), rolls of tape, swatches of leather, suede, and fabric fur, a fluffy mass of kapok for restuffing teddy bears, and a box of pins and needles. The heap of white plastic cylinders puzzled her and she picked up one. Its loud "Mama!" startled her and she put it back hurriedly and turned to survey the tables once more.
It was a production line, of sorts. The jumbles of body parts on the table to the far left were the 'Before', the pristine looking dolls and bears on the table to the far right the 'After'. Each doll required different treatment. On some, the plastic was discoloured, paintwork flaking. Others needed stuffing replaced and seams restitched. A few needed more drastic treatment.
Which made her think of her own teddy bear. She pulled out the price list she had stuffed in her pocket and scanned it. Refitting a bear's leg cost £5 and providing a new glass eye £7. She wondered how much simply reattaching an eye would set her back.
"Can I help you?" came a man's voice from behind her.
She turned, hand pressed to her chest. Her heart was going like the clappers. "You startled me!"
"Sorry, Miss. I'm James Farley, proprietor of this establishment. Have you a doll you wish me to repair?"
Cassie found it hard not to stare. Danny and Justin had said the doll hospital's owner was strange and they hadn't been kidding. His hair was a bright, carrot red, and though he looked to be in his early twenties, he dressed like an old fogey--that shabby corduroy suit with its embroidered waistcoat and fob watch wouldn't have looked out of place on an Edwardian teddy bear.
She unzipped her shoulder bag and pulled out Teddy. "I was wondering...."
Farley accepted the bear from her and peered at it through horn-rimmed spectacles. "Hm." His tone was one of disapproval. "He's in a bit of a state, isn't he?"
"Afraid so." She gave a nervous laugh. "But I expect you get far worse, don't you?" Somewhere, a door creaked open and a bell tinkled.
"Not often," he said bluntly.
"I was only a child," she said defensively, then she fell silent. Why am I making excuses? She took a breath then exhaled. "So. Can you fix him?"
He was about to reply, when he froze, his face a mask of horror.
She blinked at him. "Are you all right?"
He was looking over her shoulder, she realised. She turned and saw that Tarian and the two wolfhounds were standing just inside the door leading from the vestibule. The Fae's pale blue eyes were as wide as Cassie had ever seen them.
"Tar—" she began.
An iron band clamped itself around her throat, yanking her backwards. The proprietor held her tightly against him, so tight she could feel the buttons of his waistcoat digging into her back. She tried to protest, but couldn't. Tried to breathe, and couldn’t.
Panic surfaced and she dropped her shoulder bag and reached with both hands for the imprisoning arm to pry it loose. His grip tightened even more, until white specks flecked her vision and blackness began to crowd the edges. She gaped at Tarian, begging her wordlessly for help.
"You don't belong here, Fae." The red-haired man's voice was shrill with fear and vibrated through Cassie. "Get out or I'll kill her."
"Let her go." Tarian's voice was as icy as her expression. "Now." She raised her right hand and pointed at him.
"No!" he cried, as she traced an intricate design in the air. Her lips moved. "You can't—" His words became a high-pitched shriek.
The arm around Cassie's throat was suddenly easy to pry loose. She broke free, elbowing her captor in guts that seemed surprisingly hard. He slumped to the floor with an odd muffled clatter, but she paid him little attention. She was too busy rubbing her bruised elbow and sucking in great gulps of air, wonderful air.
Tarian's arms enclosed her. "Are you all right?"
Cassie leaned into her embrace and croaked, "I think so." She raised a hand to massage her throat, but Tarian's long fingers got there first. The burning ache eased. "Thanks!" she murmured, wrapping her arms around Tarian and holding on for dear life.
After a while the terror had ebbed enough that she could take in her surroundings once more. She blinked in startlement. At their feet lay a man-sized doll, sprawling like a puppet whose strings have been cut. Coarse red wool sprouted from its crudely carved head, horn-rimmed spectacles perched on its wedge of a nose, and a corduroy suit with an embroidered waistcoat clothed the solid wooden torso and jointed limbs.
A sense of unreality stole over her. "He was a doll?"
"A changeling. I knew the moment I saw him."
Claws clacked across the floorboards. Anwar gripped one of the doll's sleeves between his teeth and shook it, flopping the wrist and hand to and fro. Drysi did the same with a trouser leg. Satisfied that it posed no threat, the wolfhounds released their grip and turned to look at Cassie. She smiled at them and after a moment, they wandered off to sniff the rest of the room. She turned back to find Tarian regarding her.
"I thought changelings only existed in fairy stories."
"No." Tarian pinched the bridge of her nose. Only then did Cassie register the tightness around her eyes and the paler than usual pallor.
"Are you OK?"
"This place is crawling with ill luck attractors."
"Oh! Sorry, love. Don't mind me. Do what you have to do."
Cassie stood back and watched as Tarian crossed to one of the biscuit barrels she had not yet examined. The Fae removed the lid, revealing dozens of kidney beans. Tarian's lips moved and she gestured. With a popping sound, the artefacts disappeared.
Tarian reached out blindly for support and a worried Cassie surged forward to provide it.
"It's just the backwash. I'll be all right in a moment." Tarian straightened and flashed Cassie a smile. "See."
A relieved Cassie stood back. "Is that the lot?"
"Unfortunately not." Tarian pointed to the table of completed dolls and bears. "There are more in those. They look like they're awaiting collection."
"Oh crap! He must have repaired dozens of dolls. How many more are out there, do you think?"
"No idea." Tarian's frown cleared. "But I know how we can find out."
She strode through the half open door into the little office beyond. Cassie followed her and found her bending over an untidy desk, sorting through sheaves of papers and wobbly stacks of account books. Farley's method of bookkeeping was as antiquated as his attire. After a short while Tarian gave a satisfied grunt and straightened. She waved a shabby book at Cassie.
"Receipt book." She opened it at random and pointed to a page full of spidery handwriting. "Names and addresses." The ink had browned and faded in places. "He must have been repairing dolls for years."
Cassie's heart sank. "We won’t have to track them all down in person, will we?"
Tarian shook her head. "I'm going to use the addresses to fuel the spell. It will track and dissolve the attractors for us."
"Thank God for that."
"God has nothing to do with it." Tarian gave her a smile. "Now hush and let me work." She thought for a moment, then traced a symbol and murmured the gibberish that Cassie had learned was arcane Fae.
When the spell's backwash had passed and Tarian's colour was looking a lot better, Cassie asked, "Has that done the trick?"
"My headache's gone," said Tarian.
"That's good. But I was talking about the dolls."
"So was I," said Tarian. "There are no more attractors in the vicinity, but getting rid of those further afield will take a few more days."
"But then," persisted Cassie. "No more runs of bad luck?"
Cassie gave her an enthusiastic hug. "Wonderful!"
They went back through to the other room and halted by common consent beside the huge doll.
"Why on earth did he do it?" Cassie gazed down at the sprawl of clothing and wooden limbs. "Why inflict bad luck on complete strangers? What had they ever done to him?"
"Who knows why changelings ever do things?"
Tarian's comment reminded Cassie of something. "They're usually left in exchange for human babies, aren't they?"
"Used to be. Mab outlawed the practice 30 years ago."
She's older than she looks. "But a Fae could still have broken the law. Somewhere in Faerie could be the real James Farley, the human child taken from its parents at birth?"
"Could be. But no Fae crosses the Queen if they can avoid it. It's too dangerous."
Mab was a formidable foe. Especially as she alone had the power to 'unmake' her immortal subjects. But if the motive were strong enough— "Why would a Fae want a human baby anyway?"
Tarian shrugged. "Why do humans want pets at Christmas?"
Cassie gave her a stricken glance. If the Fae treated snatched babies the way some people treated pets after the novelty had worn off....
"But it wouldn't be a baby now anyway," continued Tarian, sounding indifferent. "Judging by changeling's appearance, the child must be in his early twenties."
"Will he be all right?"
"Who knows? He might even be dead by now."
"And if he's still alive?"
Tarian's expression became uneasy. "Some Fae doted on the babies they stole," she said evasively
Cassie folded her arms. "What about the rest? If he's not dead, and not doted on, what then?"
Tarian sighed. "There have been cases where the Fae used a human child as a servant," she admitted with obvious reluctance. "But such cases are rare."
Cassie stared at her in dismay. "Then we have to find out what happened to the real James Farley." Tarian opened her mouth then closed it again as Cassie pressed on, driven by a strong sense of injustice, "Don’t you see, if we don't find out whether he's all right we'll be as bad as those who abducted him in the first place?"
Tarian gave her a wan smile and said in a resigned voice, "I'll see what I can do."
"Thank you." Cassie stood on tiptoe and pressed a kiss against her cheek. Then she bent to retrieve her shoulder bag, from which Teddy appeared to be trying to escape.
"What about him?" asked Tarian, as Cassie tried to shove the bear back inside. "Who's going to repair him now?"
Why didn't I think of this before? "Couldn't you put a spell on him? Make him as good as new?"
Tarian grinned. "If you ask me nicely," she said.
"There's one," said Tarian, pointing to an empty parking space. In fact they were spoiled for choice. It was ten minutes to Sutton Park's closing time and the little carpark was practically empty.
Cassie parked the Yaris, switched off the ignition, undid her seat belt, and stretched. "The rangers patrol, you know. What if one of them spots the car?"
Tarian opened the passenger door and got out. "I'll cloak it with a spell."
She took a deep breath, enjoying the freshness and the feeling of invigoration the park air brought with it, then opened the back door. The dogs bounded out, shook themselves, and set about investigating interesting smells.
"I don't know about this." Cassie eyed Holly Hurst, which was only a short walk from here. "I've never been camping without proper gear and supplies. And as for spending the night.... Suppose it rains?"
Tarian considered the cloud formations. "It won't."
"And suppose it gets cold."
"I'll keep you warm."
Cassie threw her a sly glance. "Promise?"
Tarian laughed and draped an arm round her shoulders. "We can do that too," she whispered in a shapely ear. "We'll have plenty of time while we're waiting."
Green eyes brightened. "Good." Cassie checked her watch then glanced round nervously. "Almost time. We'd better hide the car and get under cover."
"All right." It was the work of a moment for Tarian to invoke the cloaking spell—even though she was prepared, Cassie couldn't help letting let out a yelp of dismay when her car disappeared—then they set off towards Holly Hurst. She hadn't put the dogs on leads this time so they careered around enjoying themselves.
"How long do you think it'll take?" asked Cassie as they drew closer to the two-barred fence that enclosed the wood.
"As long as it takes," said Tarian. "There's no guarantee the dogs will find anything," she warned. "The scent could have gone cold after all these years."
"I know. Have you got the doll?"
Tarian patted her jacket pocket, feeling the lump inside that was the changeling, and nodded.
"It was weird seeing you shrink it like that," said Cassie with a grimace.
"Much easier to carry."
"I know but — Hey. Can you make things taller too?" Cassie scratched her nose. "I get tired of being called a titch."
Tarian arched an eyebrow. She didn't think Cassie was being serious, but she wasn't entirely sure. Their relative heights made it easy for the mortal to nestle her head against Tarian's breasts. Why would Tarian want her to be taller?
"Where would be the fun in that?" she asked.
Cassie had evidently been thinking the same thing because she snickered and said, "Never mind."
They reached the fence. The dogs slunk under it, Tarian vaulted over it, and Cassie squeezed through the space between the two cross bars. The scent of foliage and leaf mould was strong in her nostrils, and Tarian inhaled, separating and identifying its constituent parts. Oak, ash, rowan....
Cassie sneezed and blew her nose on a hanky. She gave their surroundings a helpless look. "Which way?"
Tarian extended her senses until she could feel the tingling sensation that was the boundary with Faerie. It felt stronger than before, but that was because they were nearer. She pointed and set off, pushing her way between the tree trunks.
"Keep up or you'll get scratched," she told Cassie, as she invoked a spell to make the branches twist out of their way. In response Cassie pressed so close to Tarian's heels she was in danger of tripping her. The dogs brought up the rear, snuffling at leaves and toadstools, and occasionally darting off to investigate rustlings in the undergrowth.
In Faerie Tarian would have kept a weather eye out for stag and boar, but the wildlife in Holly Hurst would be smaller and less dangerous—birds, squirrels, stoats, badgers.... Her thoughts flashed ahead to supper. Roast hedgehog made good eating but it took some time to cook. And would Cassie be prepared to eat the result?
"How much farther," puffed Cassie, when they had been walking for quarter of an hour and had negotiated a dense coppice of silver birch.
"Not far. Can't you feel it?" The nearness of the boundary was making the hair on Tarian's arms stand up. The dogs too were excited, forging eagerly ahead.
Cassie's gaze turned inwards and she cocked her head. "No."
A few more paces brought Tarian to the edge of a glade. From the look of it, it had once been light and airy, but over time trees and shrubs had encroached —in a few more years there would be no glade left. At its heart stood two alders, their twisted black trunks covered with moss and lichen, and twisted and fissured with age. There must have been a spring here once, or a stream, for alders always grew near water, but there was no sign of it now. Perhaps the waters' disappearance had added to the trees' distress, for one of them was dying.
The narrow gap between the alders shimmered like a heat haze. The crossing.
Tarian called the dogs to heel. Twigs cracked and bluebell bulbs crunched under her boot soles as she stepped into the open.
"I think I can feel it now," said Cassie, coming to join her. "Like static electricity. I can't see anything though. ... It's weaker than the one in Bourne Forest, isn’t it?"
Tarian nodded. "It's failing along with that alder." She pointed to the dying tree. "In a few years this entrance to Faerie will be inaccessible."
She squatted on her heels and pulled the dogs close. "Anwar, Drysi." She delved in her pocket and pulled out the crudely carved doll with the red woollen hair. "Smell this and remember its scent."
Both dogs snuffled its clothing and limbs for several seconds, then let out a soft bark.
"Good dogs." She fondled soft ears and sent mental images to match her words. "Once you're on the other side of the boundary, seek out the same scent. Understand?" They barked again, to show that they did. "If you can't find it, return at once. But if you can, follow it to its source then report back here to me. Whatever you do, don't get caught."
Their eyes were bright with intelligence, as they nosed her, tails wagging. She gave them a last pat, stood up, and shoved the changeling doll back in her pocket.
"Go." She pointed to the gap between the alders, and with an excited yelp the two dogs sprang through it and disappeared. She turned to Cassie. "Now we wait."
Loud birdsong woke Tarian from her doze and she glanced up. The sky between the branches of the gnarled oak that had sheltered them was lightening perceptibly.
Almost dawn. Glad it didn't rain.
Careful not to wake the soundly sleeping Cassie, she disentangled herself and stood up. Leaves and stalks of dry grass from their makeshift bedding clung to her jeans, and she brushed them off then stretched and yawned. She grinned at the blue and white petals decorating Cassie's hair—she had amused herself by threading woodland flowers through it while Cassie slept—and wondered what the mortal would say when she discovered them.
Turning, she sought the shimmering space between the alders.
No sign of the dogs yet. They must have found something. I wish they hadn't. That last thought made her cast a guilty glance at Cassie, who, as she watched, rolled onto her back and lay sprawled in a state of utter relaxation, mouth open, snoring.
The stone-ringed fire pit, where the branches had burned down almost to embers, was still emitting a faint warmth. Beside it lay the bark pieces that had serves as plates and the remnants of their supper. During the night a woodland animal—a fox, probably—had finished off the rabbit. Cassie had gaped as Tarian charmed the fat buck into the glade then killed, gutted, and skinned it. She had stuffed it with a few leaves of Jack-by-the hedge—she liked the tang of garlic—then spitted it and set it to cook over the flames. She grinned, remembering what had come next. They had made love by firelight until supper was ready. By the time they were ready to eat, the rabbit was charred, but none the worse for that.
Cassie's breathing caught. She snorted and opened her eyes. "Where—?" Confusion turned to comprehension as her gaze swept the glade, stopping at Tarian.
"Good morning," said Tarian.
"Is it?" As if in answer, the sun finally rose, turning the sky the colour of honey. Cassie sat up, groaned, and pressed her fist into the small of her back. "I could have done with a firmer mattress."
"Here. Let me." Tarian crossed to her side in two strides, knelt, and replaced Cassie's fist with the flat of her hand. She invoked a healing spell and felt the answering tingle of warmth surge from her fingers into Cassie's lower back.
"That feels wonderful. Thanks."
Tarian sat back on her heels. "You're welcome."
After a moment, Cassie got to her feet and looked around. "No sign of the dogs? What the—" She had been running her fingers through her hair and now blinked down at her hand in surprise. "How did these get here?" Her palm was full of petals.
"I can't imagine."
Cassie looked up at her then smiled and poked Tarian with a forefinger. "Couldn't resist turning me into some kind of woodland nymph, eh?" She patted Tarian's cheek, then turned the pat into a caress and kissed her on the lips. Tarian kissed her back, soundly.
At last they parted and Cassie regarded the flowers again—their petals were now rather crushed. She raised them to her nostrils and sniffed. "I recognise the bluebells. But what are the pink-tinged little white stars?"
"Do I get breakfast too?"
"Always thinking of your stomach."
"If I don't, who will?"
Tarian remembered the bar snacks she had seen on sale in the pub. They wouldn't miss one, would they? A moment later, a small packet lay in her hand.
"Here." She handed it over.
"Nuts and raisins! Thanks."
Cassie was tearing her way hungrily into the packet when a series of barks, faint at first but rapidly becoming louder, made Tarian turn. She was just in time to witness Drysi and Anwar leaping through the shimmering barrier that separated Faerie from the mortal world.
"They're back!" said Cassie indistinctly round a mouthful of nuts and raisins, as the two wolfhounds, ears pricked and tails wagging, came to greet them.
Tarian fussed over them and told them they were good dogs, then crouched next to them and asked, "What did you discover?"
Drysi looked at her partner, as if to say, "Your turn," and lay down, resting her chin on her extended front paws.
Anwar locked gazes with Tarian, and a series of vivid images popped into her head.
Heathland dotted with gorse, heather, and whortleberry.
In the distance a herd of wild horses gallops, manes streaming. A herd of red deer turn their heads towards her (or rather Anwar), eyes wide with alarm. They stand like statues, ears pricked, bodies shivering, poised on the edge of flight. Then they relax, put a few yards more between themselves and the watcher, and resume their quiet grazing.
The view shifts. In the distance are thickly wooded slopes and on the summit of one hill stands a crumbling watchtower.
Tarian sucked in her breath. She had seen that watchtower before, she was sure of it. But where? And when? On one of her hunting expeditions?
"What is it?" Cassie rested a hand on Tarian's shoulder.
"This entrance must lead to the outskirts of Faerie. Few Fae choose to live there any more."
"That's a good thing, isn’t it?"
"If you mean that it's as far from Mab's domain as it's possible to get and still be in Faerie, then yes." Tarian turned back to the waiting Anwar. "Go on," she ordered.
A rutted track winds past the ruined watchtower, down a steep hill and past a water mill, where the miller is loading sacks of flour into a wagon. The track continues, past bustling hamlets and smallholdings, until a walled manor house comes into view.
"Any sign of James Farley?" asked Cassie, putting the now empty packet of nuts and raisins in her pocket.
The scene has changed. It's evening, and she's looking at a pigsty. Pigs and piglets shove and jostle one another, struggling to get their snouts into the trough.
A huge sow with a black tail moves to one side and Tarian catches a glimpse of something that shouldn't be there: a gaunt young man with hair the colour of carrots. He reaches both hands into the trough and scoops up something unidentifiable. He crams it into his mouth, chews, swallows, and goes back for more.
The resemblance between the man and the changeling is instantly obvious, but where the changeling's features were rough, reflecting the crudeness of the underlying doll, this man's features are softer, more human. The gaunt frame, the scars from old injuries, the cuts and bruises from more recent ones, tell the story of his life.
"Of course." Tarian stopped the flow of images with a gesture and thanked Anwar with a pat. He grunted, sank down next to Drysi, and rested his head on his front paws.
"What?" prompted Cassie, almost tearing her hair out with impatience.
"It was his hair that caught their attention. No Fae has red hair."
Cassie blinked at her in disbelief. "They abducted him simply because he had red hair?"
"Humans buy puppies for their looks, don't they?"
"But—" Cassie shook her head. "Oh, never mind. Is he all right at least? Are the Fae doting on him as you said they might?"
Cassie's hand flew to her mouth. "How bad is it?"
Should she tell Cassie he was eating with the pigs? "Bad."
"Then we can't leave him there." Cassie's tone was decisive. "We have to return him to his parents, where he belongs."
Tarian's heart sank. She had been expecting this, but still.... "They may not even be alive, Cassie. And it they are, well, they won't have been aware their son was missing. The changeling was their son as far as they were concerned."
"But he's dead now."
"Missing," corrected Tarian. "There is no body for a funeral."
"We have to get the real James back," repeated Cassie. Her jaw had taken on that mutinous jut it acquired whenever she was determined on something. Did she realise what she was asking of Tarian? Probably not.
Tarian continued to fight a rearguard action, despising herself even while she did so. James's life must be hell, but why must they be the ones to fix it? "The shock of coming to your world could be more than he can handle."
"It can't be worse than leaving him where he is." Cassie stared at Tarian as if seeing her for the first time. "Why are you creating obstacles? If it were me, you wouldn't leave me there, would you?"
"No it isn't."
Boar droppings! Still. She had tried. "Very well. I'll go and get him."
Her sudden capitulation took Cassie aback. "You? But.... You can't. When I said we must get him back I didn't mean that you personally should do it." Green eyes filled with panic. "Tell the dogs to guide me and I'll go. Mab didn’t threaten me, after all."
"Over my dead body."
Cassie put her hands on her hips and glared but Tarian was unmoved.
"Besides, what good would it do? Do you really think the Fae who kidnapped him are just going to hand him over to a mortal if she asks nicely?"
"Perhaps that was a bit naïve," conceded Cassie. Her face cleared. "I know! Send word to Einion. He'll get James back if you ask him to."
Tarian considered the suggestion seriously for a moment then shook her head. "It won't work. Einion would do it for friendship's sake, but he's loyal to Mab first and foremost. He'd feel bound to tell her what he was doing, and she'd thwart him just for the fun of it. No, I must go myself."
"But Mab threatened to unmake you!" Cassie's voice became a wail and Tarian wrapped comforting arms around her.
"Hush. I told you. This part of Faerie is a long way from Mab's domain. If I act quickly, the chances are I can get in, get James, and get out again before Mab even knows I was there."
"'Chances are'?" Cassie gave her a bleak look.
"You said it yourself, love, we can't leave him there." Well, I could, but you couldn't, not with that tender mortal heart of yours.
"Hell!" Cassie sagged against her. "I wish I'd never mentioned tracking him down in the first place."
Tarian smiled. "Nevertheless. ... I must go for him. You know I must."
The jut returned to Cassie's jaw. "Then I'm coming with you."
"Somehow I knew you were going to say that."
"What do you mean, no trace?" yelled Angor.
The pigboy was glad the steward was on the receiving end of their lord's anger for once. That two strange wolfhounds had been sighted hanging around the pigsty, spying on him, was black mark enough. He touched his split lip and winced, knowing that he had escaped lightly. But even the violence-fond steward had realised that a beating wasn't going to elicit from the pigboy information he didn't have.
"My magic is but feeble. Perhaps if your lordship himself...." The steward trailed off under Angor's glare.
"Boar's entrails! Must I do everything myself?" But the black gaze turned inwards and the narrow lips moved. Pigboy recognised the signs of a spell in progress.
Long moments passed then the dark brows drew together. "Their trail does indeed run cold." Angor's tone became thoughtful. "As if the hounds had disappeared from Faerie altogether, crossed over into the mortal realm perhaps. As if they came from there and have returned whence they came. But who would send —" His face cleared. "By oak, ash and thorn! Could it be her?"
"My lord?" asked the steward, clearly baffled.
"I know of only one Fae who could be behind this." Angor's eyes tracked to the pigboy then away again. "But of what possible interest could such a pathetic creature be to her? For an exile to risk so great a penalty...." He shuddered at something only he could see.
"My lord?" repeated the steward, looking even more adrift.
Angor waved a gloved hand at him in irritation. "By oak and ash, but you're slow on the uptake sometimes, Clud!" He pursed his lips. "Still, it matters little if you understand or not. For I have the measure of her now. And should her dogs return, or she herself decide to pay us a visit, we shall be more than ready."
The strange sensation, like the buzzing of bees combined with the prickle of electricity, faded as Cassie stepped through into light much softer than that she was used to.
"All right?" asked Tarian.
Cassie let go of Tarian's hand and surveyed her surroundings. The bluebell glade in the heart of Holly Hurst had vanished. She was standing in the middle of wild heathland, bounded on all sides by pine-forested slopes. On the top of one hill perched a ruined tower. This landscape might be more barren than the pastures around Mab's palace, she decided, but it had its own beauty. Heather streaked it with shades of pink and purple, and gorse in full bloom added attractive splashes of yellow. In the distance hovered a skylark, its song exuberant.
Anwar and Drysi came through, their joyful barks disturbing a cloud of small brown butterflies.
A thought struck Cassie. "How one earth will we be able to find the crossing point again?" There were no distinctive landmarks except that distant tower.
"You may not be able to see it but I can," reminded Tarian.
The climate was slightly cooler than Cassie remembered, but still pleasantly warm. A light breeze brought with it the sweet smell of gorse. Last time it had been honeysuckle.
"We're going to need mounts." Tarian shaded her eyes and turned in a circle. "Ah."
Cassie followed her gaze. A herd of wild horses was grazing several hundred yards away. One of the stallions raised its head and looked at Tarian and Cassie realised that she was working a spell. As the Fae's hand dropped back to her side, the stallion began to canter towards them. A smaller horse—a mare?—set off after him. The drumming of their hooves, faint at first, grew louder.
"You're not going to expect me to ride bareback, are you?" Cassie's heart sank. "There's nothing to hold on to."
Tarian gave her an amused look. "You'll be quite safe."
The stallion slowed and covered the remaining distance at a trot, coming to a halt directly in front of Tarian and pawing the ground with one hoof. It gave the intrigued wolfhounds a wary look before deciding to ignore them. Moments later, the mare joined it.
Tarian held out her hands, palm up, and let the horses nose them. "You won't mind carrying us for a little while, will you?"
Cassie restrained herself from pointing out that the horses had no choice. Tarian urged her towards the stallion.
"Shouldn't I ride the smaller horse?"
"I'm keeping that for James."
"We're both riding the stallion?"
"How else am I to keep you from falling off?"
Relief flooded through Cassie. "That makes sense, I guess."
"Up you go."
Tarian boosted her onto the horse's broad back then swung herself up behind her. Muscular thighs pressed against Cassie's hips and strong arms held her firmly around the waist.
"Better?" Tarian's breath was a warm tickle against Cassie's ear.
She relaxed back, feeling the softness of Tarian's breasts through her sweatshirt. "Mm."
Tarian sent the wolfhounds bounding off ahead, following the scent trail they had followed last time. After a moment, the stallion followed; the mare trailed along, a few yards behind. And Cassie found herself too engrossed by Tarian's nearness and by the way she was guiding their mount—every squeeze of her knees and kick of her heels was transmitted—to be scared, even when they broke into a gallop.
The track down from the summit on which the crumbling grey tower stood was steep. Cassie glanced down to the wolfhounds waiting at its foot, and scrunched her eyelids closed.
"What was that place?" she asked, trying to keep her mind off what would happen if the stallion lost his footing.
"A watchtower." Tarian leaned back to aid their mount's balance, forcing Cassie to do the same.
"What did it watch for?" she managed.
The stallion stumbled, jolting Cassie forward, and she opened her eyes in fright just as Tarian's arms tightened around her waist.
"It's all right. I won't let us fall."
Cassie wondered if the Fae could feel her heart pounding in her chest. She clutched Tarian's hands. "Promise?"
With a whicker of annoyance, the stallion found its footing again and continued its descent. The mare, unencumbered by riders, had a much easier time of it.
It helped her not to panic if she concentrated on the view, so she did. A river snaked through the fertile plain stretching into the distance, and a multi-coloured patchwork of fields and hedges showed it was under cultivation. She wondered if the water mill in the distance was their destination.
"Fae have enemies?" She resumed their earlier conversation. "Who are they?"
"Other Fae," said Tarian. "Like humans, we've had our civil wars."
"How long ago was the last one?"
"A thousand years, give or take a century."
A thousand years with no conflict? The idea was as staggering to Cassie as Tarian's indifference to centuries. Immortals must judge time differently. "But things are peaceful now? Right?"
Tarian gave her a reassuring squeeze. "Of course. Once the realms of Faerie were brought under the sway of a single ruler, the need for such conflicts ceased."
"So Queen Mab is sole ruler here?"
"How long has she been queen?"
"Seventy years," said Tarian.
"Really?" Cassie blinked and compared that titbit of information with Mab's youthful appearance. "How old is she?"
Tarian thought for a moment. "One hundred and thirty-six."
Cassie gulped. "And how old are you?"
There was a long pause before Tarian answered, and Cassie thought she detected a note of apprehension. "One hundred and fourteen."
Well, I did ask!
"Does that bother you?"
Cassie twisted around and looked at Tarian, saw that a crease had appeared between her brows. "A little," she said truthfully. "But I'll get used to it." On that she was determined. The crease disappeared. She smiled and faced front once more.
"So what happened to Mab's father?" she continued. "I thought Fae were supposed to be immortal."
"There comes a time, even for immortals, when they grow weary of life," said Tarian.
"It's inevitable, Cassie. How did that Japanese sage put it? 'If life were eternal, all interest and anticipation would vanish.' Perhaps he visited Faerie."
"So what happens then? When you're weary, I mean."
"We petition the Queen for release, and if she looks kindly on us, she grants us that wish."
Cassie chewed on that unsettling thought as the horse scrambled down the last few feet of incline. "By 'release' you mean she unmakes you?"
"But what if the Queen herself grows weary? Can she unmake herself?"
"No. But the power to unmake runs in the royal bloodline. That is why one day she must create an heir."
The implications were staggering. "Are you saying that Mab unmade her own father?"
"And her mother too ... It is common for couples that still love one another to petition for simultaneous release. My own parents made such a petition and I was there to witness the granting of it."
Tarian sounded unperturbed, but Cassie could not say the same of herself. My God! To witness the death of your parents. And in Mab's case, to kill them yourself.... The Fae were made of stern stuff indeed.
The horses reached the bottom and Cassie let out a sigh of relief as the dogs greeted her and Tarian with wagging tails. Tarian let the stallion catch its breath, then urged it on once more. The mare left off cropping a juicy patch of grass it had found and followed.
"Where exactly are we going?" asked Cassie, glad to leave the minefield topic of immortality behind. They were following the track past the water mill, skirting the hamlet beyond it, where a Fae woman hanging washing on a line gave them a curious look.
"The manor house." Tarian adjusted her grip around Cassie's waist. "It's not far."
There were seeing more and more Fae about. Cassie had only ever encountered nobles and livery-clad servants, and she was surprised to see Fae labouring in the fields and smallholdings, looking like peasants in their sweat stained tunics and breeches.
"I don't understand," she said. "Why work so hard when you can do things by magic?"
"They're lesser Fae," said Tarian, as though that should be explanation enough.
"They can't cast spells?"
"Only weak ones, like producing Fae light."
Cassie pursed her lips. That must put them at a disadvantage. "Do they own their own land?"
"Of course not. Those aren't their houses either." Tarian sounded surprised and Cassie twisted round to see her face.
"They are tenants and must pay their lord or lady with labour and loyalty for the cottage and the land that comes with it," explained Tarian.
"But that's... that's Medieval!" said Cassie.
"It has always been this way." Tarian sounded indifferent. "Nobles rule; the lesser Fae serve them."
"Why can't the nobles serve themselves?"
"Magic has its limits and its costs." Blue eyes pinned her. "You have seen how a spell backwash affects me. The larger the spell, the worse the drain." Cassie opened her mouth, but Tarian hadn't finished speaking so she closed it again. "It would be foolish to use magic when the lesser Fae can achieve the same end by mundane means. Besides, it would be taking the bread from their mouths. Without employment, they would starve."
"I doubt that!" muttered Cassie.
Tarian arched an eyebrow. "It’s not all one way, Cassie. If a servant falls ill, it’s the duty of his Lord or Lady to cast a healing spell."
How generous! But it was obvious they weren't going to agree on the merits or otherwise of serfdom, so Cassie let the matter drop. "So... the manor house is where we're going?"
Tarian gave her a relieved nod. "It's not far now, according to the dogs."
They rode on for a while in silence, Cassie's eyes roaming the fields while her mind wondered what they would find at their destination. Tarian had said James Farley's circumstances were 'bad'. Being mortal, he must be bottom in the pecking order. In the light of their discussion about how the lesser Fae lived, what did that mean?
At last, a walled estate came into view. Her eye was drawn to the large, stone manor house within the wall. To its side and rear lay a complex of barns and outbuildings, and she could see a horse being led to what must be the stables.
Tarian turned in at the front gate. A servant scything the long grass in front of the house stopped work and stared at them.
"Aren't we going to sneak round the back?" asked Cassie. They hadn't discussed how they were going to handle getting James Farley back, but she hadn't expected a frontal attack.
"Best not to sneak up on Fae," said Tarian dryly. "They always know you're there and it tends to antagonise them."
She halted the stallion by the front entrance—an arched stone porch—and slid off then reached up to help Cassie down. The mare stopped a few paces away. Cassie was glad to dismount, and groaned with relief as she was able to massage some of the ache from buttocks and thighs. The servant hurried towards them, presumably to take the horses, but Tarian waved him away. He shrugged and went back to his scything.
While Tarian spoke to the dogs, telling them to wait here and stay alert, the stallion and mare wandered over to the scythed grass, nosing one another and tossing their manes, and began to graze. Cassie glanced anxiously at them—what if the spell wore off before they needed them again?
"So what are we going to do? Ask the Fae to give James back?" She folded her arms. "I thought you said that wouldn't work."
Tarian arched an eyebrow at Cassie's tone, but said merely, "I'm going to bargain."
While the dogs made themselves comfortable on the benches that lined both sides of the porch, Tarian crossed to the small door within the larger one. She raised her hand to the knocker, but before she could knock, the door opened, revealing a livery-clad Fae with a drooping black moustache.
His bowed, causing the bunch of keys hanging from his belt to jingle, then straightened and stepped back.
"My master is expecting you. Please enter. My name is Clud, and I am Steward here."
'Expecting'? Cassie felt as if she'd been kicked in the stomach and, from Tarian's suddenly still face, the Fae felt the same. They exchanged a glance but said nothing, and followed the steward inside.
A blast of heat struck her cheeks, and Cassie saw that it was coming from a huge oven and that they were in a kitchen. At one table, two red-faced women were scraping and chopping vegetables while a third made pastry, and at another a sweating man with massive shoulders was jointing a side of lamb with a cleaver.
Clud glanced back impatiently, and she hurried to catch up. A wooden screen separated the kitchen from the next room and she found herself in a large hall with a high timbered ceiling. The hall was draughty, even so a blue smoke haze hung in the air, its source the huge central hearth.
The steward led them past servants, trestle tables, and the hearth towards a raised dais at the far end of the room. On it were placed two ornately carved chairs, and in them sat a man and a woman, obviously the lord and lady of the manor, watching their progress with hooded eyes. At their feet sat a pair of wolfhounds.
"Do you know them?" whispered Cassie.
"Angor and Ysbail. They're distantly related to the royal bloodline. If they hadn't blotted their copy book, they wouldn't be living in the back of beyond."
"What did they do?"
"Got a bit above themselves. Mab's father had to slap them down."
Cassie glanced at the seated pair again.
The woman was handsome rather than pretty, her dark eyes watchful, her lips pressed together in what Cassie took to be disapproval. Her ankle-length gown was magnificent—red silk, bound with a golden girdle—and showed off her figure to good effect. The man was thickly bearded and dressed in a black tunic and breeches that highlighted the solid gold torque around his neck. He was powerfully built for a Fae, his neck thick, his torso well developed—from pursuits like archery and spear throwing, presumably—but he wasn't as muscular as Cadel had been. He looked down his hawk nose first at Tarian then at Cassie as they halted in front of him. Clud bowed and backed away.
"Tarian," said the man in black. "What a pleasant surprise." It was obvious he thought the opposite. "Welcome."
Tarian bowed her head. "Angor." She glanced towards his seated companion and inclined her head. "Ysbail. Well met." She turned and gestured towards Cassie. "Let me introduce my companion. Cassie Lewis."
Cassie wasn't sure whether to curtsey or bow so she restricted herself to a nod and a smile. "Pleased to meet you."
Angor didn't return her greeting. He frowned and turned his gaze back to Tarian. "You keep company with mortals?"
"Indeed," said Tarian, before Cassie could react. "And she is under my protection." She locked gazes with him, and after a moment he shrugged.
Tarian scanned her surroundings openly. "Are guests not permitted to conduct their business with you in comfort, my lord?"
Ysbail flushed at the implied slight and beckoned a servant over. Moments later two more chairs had been brought.
Tarian sat, and waited until Cassie had done the same and made herself comfortable. Then she said, conversationally, "You were expecting us, I gather."
Angor's lip curled and he gestured at the wolfhounds lying at his feet. "Did you think my dogs would be unaware of yours?"
"It was a risk," said Tarian evenly.
"Now here you are, in person." He drew himself up in his chair. "You mentioned business dealings. Well?"
Tarian nodded and pulled out the changeling doll. "Yours, I believe."
It was just as well she had put a protection spell on the doll, thought Tarian, as Ysbail's lips moved and she raised a slender hand. The crude wooden artefact remained intact, and a flash of unease crossed Ysbail's face, gone as quickly as it had appeared.
Angor threw his wife a warning glance then turned back to Tarian. "You're mistaken. That... thing has nothing to do with us."
"Then why did your wife just try to destroy it?"
For a moment he was at a loss, but he recovered quickly. "You know as well as I that our present Queen outlawed such things. My wife was but abiding by the law."
Tarian arched an eyebrow. "So you admit you know of Mab's decree? I thought you might plead ignorance, living on the outskirts of Faerie as you do. You knew of the decree, yet still you created and used a changeling?"
With a show of indignation, he rose to his feet. "Who says so? Point him out and I'll rip out his lying tongue." He paused. "Or is it you yourself who slanders me?"
Cassie shifted nervously in her chair, and Tarian threw her a reassuring glance. Angor's bluster didn't scare her.
"Perhaps you were unaware, my lord, that when a changeling doll is created, a bond links it to its maker." She cocked her head. "Perhaps you thought that trail would fade with time? Well it didn't. My dogs followed that trail, and it led me to you."
Was that panic in his eyes?
"So you say. But what good is the word of an exile? Oh yes." He made a show of scanning the watching faces of those retainers and servants who had edged closer, eager to know what was going on. "We may be on the outskirts of Faerie, but we still hear tidings. Such as that Tarian daughter of Brangwen daughter of Eyslk, the Queen's former champion, was exiled from Faerie and told never to return—" his gaze returned to her face, "—on pain of her unmaking."
Silence fell, a silence so intent Tarian could almost hear Cassie's heart beating. She made no attempt to break it, but prepared herself for the worst.
"Mab knows you're here, you know," added Angor softly. His smile was full of malice. "I sent word."
Beside her Cassie sucked in her breath. "I see." Tarian kept her voice steady.
A small hand slipped itself into hers. "We must go," said Cassie urgently.
Tarian glanced at her. "Not yet."
"But if the Queen comes—"
"We haven't got what we came for."
"Hush." Gently, Tarian extracted her fingers from Cassie's, and turned back to Angor. "You sent word to the Queen?" She shook her head in mock pity. "Rash. Very rash."
His smile disappeared.
"Never mind what will happen to me. What do you think Mab will do to you and your wife when she learns you broke her edict about changelings?"
His mouth opened and closed but no sound emerged.
"Husband!" Ysbail looked frightened. He shook his head at her and she fell silent.
"I propose an exchange. The doll—" she held up the changeling doll, "—for the red-haired babe you stole."
"Don't play games with me, Angor. He's a man now, that's true. But he was a babe when you stole him from his crib."
Angor shifted in his seat and she watched him like a hawk. "Suppose we had done such a thing?" There was uncertainty in his eyes now. Good. "What concern is it of yours?"
Tarian gave him a smile. "Beyond the natural concern of any good and loyal subject, you mean?"
His lip curled but he nodded.
She let her mask of good humour drop. "Don't try my patience, Angor. We both know you have the man. Bring him to me. Now."
He bit his lip while he considered, then pointed at the doll. "Will you remove the protection spell?"
For a moment more he hesitated, then he turned to the waiting steward and beckoned. After a brief conversation, Clud nodded, bowed, and hurried away towards the exit.
"I have sent for the pigboy," said Angor, making a production of smoothing his robes.
"Pigboy?" muttered Cassie indignantly. "His name is James."
"Good," said Tarian.
A ripple of laughter and crude comments marked James Farley's appearance in the Great Hall, and followed his progress towards the dais. A ripe smell of pigs accompanied the red-haired human, and the lord and lady of the manor adopted identical expression of distaste, produced perfumed silk kerchiefs, and held them to their noses.
A big Fae in a farrier's apron was with James. He jerked the mortal to a halt in front of the seated Angor and Ysbail and swiped his legs out from under him with his foot.
"Show some respect for your betters, pigboy!"
The thud as James's knees hit the hard floor made Tarian wince. James pulled himself upright, bowed his head, and hunched his shoulders.
"The pigboy as requested, my lord," said the farrier with a bow.
Tremors shook the red-haired young man's gaunt frame; he clearly had no idea why he had been summoned and was terrified. Cassie made a choking sound in her throat. She had covered her nose and mouth with one hand against the stench, but her eyes spoke eloquently, and Tarian could see that she was distressed on James's behalf.
"Well?" Angor looked at Tarian and gestured towards the doll.
"Do we have a deal?"
"Your word on it?"
Tarian gave a satisfied nod. "A moment. I must remove the protection."
She didn't tell him that she was transferring it to James. When she had finished, she handed Angor the doll. He grinned as he accepted it. Second later it was a pile of ash. He brushed a stray white flake off his tunic, and directed a servant to sweep up the mess.
"Is James ours now?" Cassie asked Tarian.
At that Cassie rose from her chair and rushed forward, crouching by the kneeling man and putting her arm round his trembling shoulders. "You're safe now," she told him.
He gaped at her and Tarian wondered if he had ever seen another mortal before.
"We're taking you home," continued Cassie, smiling encouragingly.
James turned a baffled glance towards Angor. The lord of the manor curled his lip and remained silent.
"Will you tell him he doesn’t belong to you any more or shall I?" asked Tarian, annoyed. Angor shrugged.
She stood up and squared her shoulders. "Pigboy," she said, her commanding tone getting James's wide-eyed attention at once. "Your master has sold you, and now you belong to me." She glanced at the watching Angor. "Is that not so, my lord?"
For a moment she thought he wasn't going to answer, then he gave her an ironic smile and inclined his head. "It is so."
"From now on you will answer to the name 'James Farley'. Do you understand me, James?"
He blinked at her, then nodded and mouthed, "James." Cassie beamed and patted him on the back.
"Good." Tarian beckoned. "Come with me, James. Now." Her tone brooked no disobedience, and he reacted as she had hoped he would. He scrambled to his feet and hurried to her side. Cassie followed.
"Are we leaving now?" she asked Tarian in a low murmur.
"As fast as we can."
"Good." Cassie glanced at the watching Fae. "They're getting off too easily," she muttered. "Can't you at least hide an ill luck attractor somewhere in this hall? If anyone deserves a plague of flies, this lot do."
Tarian stifled a smile. "They'd destroy it."
"Shame. They should be punished for what they've done."
"They will be. But not by me."
Cassie looked a question at her, but Tarian gave her head a small shake. Now was not the time. She gave Angor a half bow. "My business here is concluded, my lord, so I will take my leave of you." She glanced at Ysbail and nodded. "And of you, my lady."
Ysbail's dark eyes were malevolent. "I do not think we shall meet again," she said. "You have left it too late."
Tarian's heart missed a beat but she kept her expression neutral. "You may well be right."
She turned on her heel and strode towards the exit. And after a moment, Cassie and James followed her.
"What did she mean, 'left it too late'?" asked Cassie, as Tarian ordered the wolfhounds to leave James alone and helped Cassie up onto the stallion's broad back. "Please tell me she wasn't talking about Mab."
"I fear she was."
Tarian turned to help James onto the mare. To her surprise, he was undaunted by the lack of a saddle and reins and eager to mount. Anwar and Drysi hadn't scared him either—he had smiled and petted them. Yet whenever Tarian or Cassie addressed him he trembled like a leaf.
It made a kind of sense, she supposed. Only the beasts have treated him kindly.
She mounted up behind Cassie, settled her arms around her waist, and urged the stallion forward.
Cassie clasped Tarian's wrist. "But... I thought you said this place was miles from Mab's domain." She sounded tense.
"The Queen is the most powerful of the Fae," reminded Tarian. "She can travel hundreds of leagues in seconds."
Cassie's grip tightened until it was almost painful. "What are we going to do?"
"Get back to the crossing."
Tarian twisted round to check on the mare. Her red-haired rider's expression was dreamy, his lips curved in a half smile. Satisfied, she faced front once more, kneed the stallion into a canter, and headed back the way they had come.
They were galloping past the ruined watchtower when the air above the track ahead began to shimmer. Cassie gasped as an archway appeared out of nowhere. For a moment it remained empty, then through it came four riders.
The first was unknown to Tarian: a herald wearing the livery of Queen Mab and carrying the Queen's narrow white pennant. After him came three much more familiar figures. The first wore his long hair tied in a ponytail and was wearing a russet coloured tunic and breeches, over which he had thrown a cloak of forest green. The second's silver armour was dazzling in the sunlight—purely for show, of course, as Cadel, like all the Fae, considered it cowardly to wear armour in battle. And bringing up the rear on a magnificent charger was the Queen Mab herself, dressed in a gown of midnight blue with a silver girdle.
Einion's gaze softened when he saw Tarian, and he gave her a brief, sad smile. The look Cadel threw her was not so friendly, but then, on their last encounter, she had smashed in the champion's head with her morning-star. As for Mab.... The Queen's eyes were unreadable as they met Tarian's. Cassie moaned low in her throat.
Tarian called the wolfhounds to heel and reined in the stallion to a halt.
"What are you doing?" hissed Cassie, twisting to look at her
"We cannot escape her. It will only anger her further to try."
"Hush," said Tarian. "Trust me on this. I might be able to make it to the crossing, but— She would use you against me, love. I will not risk that." Her resolve hardened. "Leave Mab to me. And try not to draw attention to yourself." Whatever happens to me, I will make sure you and James get back safely.
She slid off the stallion's back, and turned to help the stunned Cassie down. The mare halted too, pawing the ground while her rider sat as still as a statue, transfixed by the sight of the proud and beautiful Queen.
"Get down," Tarian told him.
James blinked at her then slid from the mare's back. She called the two horses to her and whispered the words that would release them. They startled and tossed their heads, as though they had just come back to themselves, then stood still, the whites of their eyes showing, taking in their surroundings.
"There, there," she soothed, stroking a quivering flank. "I have no more need of your services. Accept my grateful thanks, and go."
For a moment longer they stood, eying the dogs warily, though Anwar and Drysi had sunk to their haunches at Tarian's command and were no threat to anyone. Then with an exchange of whinnies, they galloped off down the hill, manes streaming out behind them.
Tarian extended her senses after the horses, smiling at the feelings of exuberance and exhilaration that flowed back to her. Then a distant shimmer on the heathland below caught her eye and her smile faded.
So near and yet so far.
With a sigh, she turned to face the Queen.
Cassie watched, dismayed, as Tarian walked towards the Queen, halted in front of her now stationary mount, and dropped to one knee.
Why isn't she running? Or putting up a fight? I can't lose her. Not yet. It's too soon. Much too soon. She's meant to outlive me, not the other way around.
The Queen's expression was unreadable as she gazed down at Tarian's bowed head. Cassie bit her lip. Would she be fair, impartial, open to persuasion to give Tarian a second—or was it third?—chance?
Who am I kidding? This is Mab we're talking about. That bitch is unpredictable, and Tarian disobeyed her explicit instructions. Cassie swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry.
At Mab's signal, the herald dismounted and knelt on all fours next to her horse. She used his back as a dismounting block, straightened her gown and settled her girdle, then stalked over to Tarian.
Cadel and Einion dismounted too. Cadel looked down his nose at Cassie then made a point of ignoring her, but Einion threw her a look of apology.
"A seat, Einion," commanded the Queen.
With a bow and a gesture, he materialised a plush red chair at Mab's elbow. She smiled at him and made herself comfortable on it. And all the while Tarian knelt in front of her, not moving a muscle.
"I'm glad to see you haven't forgotten all your manners, Tarian," said Mab at last.
"No, your majesty." Tarian kept her head bowed.
Mab cocked her head to one side. "I was surprised to hear of your return."
Cassie would never have guessed from the conversational tone that Mab was discussing a matter of life and death. Tarian's death. Cassie had never witnessed an 'unmaking', but Tarian had told her what was involved. What had the Fae said? That the body collapsed in on itself like an empty wineskin? A shiver ran down Cassie's spine and she felt sick.
"Look at me," ordered Mab.
Tarian raised her head and the two Fae locked gazes. Cassie wondered if they were remembering how things had once been between them, when they were lovers. A pang of jealousy shot through her before she remembered that Mab had wiped all that from her memory. Would that act of forgetting help or hinder Tarian?
"At our last meeting, did I not make it clear what would happen to you if you were to return?"
"You did, your majesty," said Tarian.
"Yet here you are." Mab's voice had gone hard.
Cassie's palms felt clammy. Don't just kneel there. Tell her it was my fault that you came back. But Tarian remained silent.
"Be merciful, I beg you," blurted Cassie, unable to stay silent. All eyes swivelled to regard her. She fought not to hunch her shoulders and belatedly remembered Tarian's instruction not to draw attention to herself. Oh well! In for a penny.... "She only came back because of me, your majesty."
"And who said you may speak?" Mab's tone could have curdled fresh milk.
Cassie gave a nervous curtsey. "I apologise, your majesty, if I am breaking court protocol or something. But if Tarian won't speak up for herself, then I must." She ignored the warning glance Tarian threw her way. "She was reluctant to come back, but I persuaded her."
"You?" barked the Queen, eyebrows raised. "I remember you, mortal. Cassie, isn’t it? Were you not the one who asked me to give you Tarian as your champion?" She paused and frowned. "Are you always so careless of your champion's welfare? And so soon?"
Her remark bit Cassie to the bone, and she flushed. "It appears I am, your majesty."
A long pause followed her pained admission, then Mab said, "What could you possibly say that would make her agree to risk her life?" She sounded genuinely curious.
Cassie took a breath before answering. "I told her about the changeling, your majesty."
Mab's expression darkened. "Changeling?" She darted a glance at James, who until now had seemed beneath her notice. She gestured and he went rigid, eyes rolling in panic.
What is she doing?
The Queen was staring at the red-haired man as though she could see into his very soul. And perhaps she could, because as Cassie watched, the Queen's expression changed from one of fury to comprehension.
"I see." She waved a dismissal, and James staggered and began to rub his temple. "You told the truth, it seems." Mab pointed at the still dazed James, "To retrieve him is why you returned?"
Cassie nodded. But Mab was no longer addressing her but was looking at Tarian.
"He is mortal," said Tarian. "He was stolen from his parents when he was a babe, a doll left in his place."
"I saw his abductors' faces in his mind," agreed Mab. She became thoughtful. "Angor and Ysbail seem bent on causing me as much trouble as they did my father."
"They've mistreated him for years," interjected Cassie. "You only have to look at him to see that." She trailed off as Mab's eyes pinned her once more. "We were only doing what's right, your majesty." Though if I had it to do again, I wouldn't. That realisation heated her cheeks. "How can it be fair to penalise Tarian for that?"
Mab's gaze lingered on her for a moment before returning to Tarian. "Do you agree with your companion?" she said softly. "Do you think that rescuing this mortal should exempt you from punishment?"
Tarian replied just as softly, "No, your majesty."
"Tarian!" yelled Cassie. What the hell are you playing at? She just gave you a chance and you blew it.
Mab ignored her outburst and regarded her former champion with a thoughtful frown. Then her lips curved into a half smile. "A wise decision." She glanced at the ruined watchtower beside the track, her gaze distant. "For you know as well as I that a Queen's authority rests on the obedience of her subjects. And those who flout it must be punished." She came back to herself and her face darkened. "Just as those who created a changeling against my express orders must be punished."
For a moment Cassie pitied Angor and Ysbail, but only for a moment. An idea had come to her. "Your majesty," she said, before she could think twice about what she was doing.
Mab turned an irritated glance her way. "How Tarian puts up with your babbling is beyond me. You are worse than a whining pup. What is it now?"
Cassie tried to slow her racing pulse and ignore Tarian's glare. I know you wanted me to stay out of this, love, but how can I? "This is my fault, your majesty. So I should pay the price, not Tarian."
"You?" Mab's exclamation drowned out Tarian's protest. "You wish me to unmake you instead?"
"No!" yelped Cassie, then, in a more measured tone, "Certainly not, your majesty. I have no wish to die before my time. Something less drastic, maybe." She thought quickly. "I could be your servant. Your lady in waiting, perhaps."
Mab arched an eyebrow. "And never see your beloved Tarian again?"
Cassie hadn't considered that. But I'll lose her anyway, if you unmake her. "If it will save Tarian's life, then, yes, your majesty." She refused to meet Tarian's eyes. This is hard enough as it is.
"I confess, I have no great desire to unmake my former champion," said Mab. "But she, or someone else, must be punished." She pursed her lips and considered Cassie, then gave a small nod. "Very—"
"I won’t allow it." Tarian's words drowned out the Queen's.
"'Won't allow'?" Mab's back straightened and her eyes gleamed. For a moment Cassie feared it was with fury, but Mab's next words disabused her. "I was wondering where that spirit of yours had gone." Her lips twitched with what looked like amusement.
Tarian rose stiffly to her feet. Her glance flicked between Cassie and Mab. "Pardon my presumption, your majesty. But may I offer a possible compromise?"
At her words, a sense of foreboding stole over Cassie. What is she talking about?
Mab looked as surprised as Cassie felt, but inclined her head. "I'm listening."
"Take my immortality from me."
Cassie's gasp joined that of all the riders. From Cadel's horrified expression, he considered this fate even worse than being unmade.
"Your immortality!" repeated the Queen. Startled eyes tracked to Cassie's face then away again. "You would forfeit that for a mere mortal?"
Tarian squared her shoulders. "I would, your majesty." She turned and smiled at Cassie. "But only for this particular mortal."
Tears pricked Cassie's eyes and she bunched her fists. Is this what you were planning all along? I can't let you do this! But what choice did she have?
"What you suggest is of course possible," mused Mab, her gaze turning inwards, "but rarely done. The last occasion was five centuries ago, during King Kynan's reign. The archives say that his great friend, Talyessin, betrayed him. The punishment was banishment, but, even after what had passed between them, Kynan could not bear to be parted from his friend." She looked at Tarian and said softly, "It is written that later he regretted his decision."
Tarian remained silent, her gaze watchful. Mab pursed her lips, stood up, and began to pace.
"It would involve a great working, a spell that only those of royal blood have the delicacy and power to cast."
Tarian nodded. "So I believe, your majesty."
Mab halted in front of her, brows knitted. "Are you sure you are want to do this, Tarian? I deem it a fitting punishment considering the severity of your crime, but once done it cannot be undone."
Tarian hesitated for only a moment. "I'm sure."
Mab sighed. "Very well."
She straightened to her full height and adopted a more formal tone and demeanour. "Tarian daughter of Brangwen daughter of Eyslk, your punishment for returning from exile shall be as you desire. You will lose your immortality." She gestured towards Cassie. "Join your companion while I prepare."
Tarian strode across the heath towards the crossing in silence, aware of Cassie's concerned glances. Fortunately, Cassie was occupied with making sure James kept up. As for the dogs, they stayed close, as though sensing their mistress's need of reassurance.
She hadn't sorted out how she felt about what had happened and she didn't feel up to talking about it yet. It had taken all her fortitude to remain unresisting while the pale green light that was the Queen's spell enveloped her. The working hadn't taken long, considering its magnitude, but by its completion she had given in to the urge to close her eyes, if only to block out the sight of Cassie's distressed face. Then a hand had cupped her chin and lifted it. She opened her eyes to find Mab regarding her from close quarters, her expression revealing an emotion Tarian had thought foreign to the Queen of the Fae: pity.
"From this day forth, Tarian, you will age as mortals do." Mab straightened and stepped back, as though distancing herself both physically and mentally. Her voice and expression changed, became cool and self-contained. "And as I have no wish to witness such an abomination, swear to me, upon your family's honour, that you will never return."
So Tarian had. She shivered, remembering. Never had the word 'never' seemed so final.
A cold nose pushed itself into her palm, and she glanced down and saw Drysi regarding her with anxious affection.
"I'm all right," Tarian told her.
But she was far from certain. The details of Talyessin's life after his punishment were sketchy at best. But he wasn't happy. He had betrayed his best friend, and Kynan had forgiven him, but they hadn't lived happily ever after. Talyessin had had been a notable worker of magic, an exhibitionist who loved nothing more than to amaze his fellow Fae and have his deeds recorded for posterity. In the end, that weakness had led him to betray his king. But after Talyessin's immortality was stripped from him, there was no mention of any magic. As far as the annals were concerned, he had dropped out of sight. Perhaps it was simply that the heart had gone from him. Or perhaps it had been something more.
When you lose your immortality, do you lose your magic too?
Tarian grimaced. It's a bit late to think of that now!
These past few weeks with Cassie, she'd been happier, more content, than she could ever remember. Perhaps that was why, just recently, she had been thinking of something Einion said.
He had stood in her kitchen, frowning. "There's no future in such attachments, Tarian," he'd warned. "Mortals live but mayfly lives. Could you watch one grow old and die? You grieve when one of your dogs dies."
Which had been unpalatable but true. And the knowledge that Tarian's time with Cassie would be so brief might have weighed heavily on her if she'd let it. So she'd pushed it to the back of her mind and tried to forget all about it. But when the chance came to save Cassie's life, relinquishing her own immortality had seemed an answer of sorts and not much of a sacrifice at all.
But if I've also lost my magic—
A mental image of Tarian kissing Cassie in the sitting room of the forester's house while Anwar looked on approvingly popped into Tarian's head—Anwar's attempt at comfort. The link between mistress and dogs was as strong as ever.
"I still have that, at least." She patted Anwar's head.
"Have what?" Cassie had caught Tarian's mutter.
"Later," said Tarian. "Let's get across first."
"You're not still mad at me for offering to be her lady in waiting, are you?"
In truth, Cassie's spur of the moment offer had almost given Tarian a heart attack. She wouldn't have put it past the Queen to take Cassie up on it, just to enjoy seeing Tarian squirm. But she sighed and said, "No. I'm not still mad at you."
Sunlight flashed off something shiny in front of the watchtower on the hill summit. Tarian shaded her eyes. Armour. That group of small figures must be Mab and the others, watching.
"Mab wouldn't change her mind, would she?" asked Cassie, anxiously following her gaze.
"No." Best not to chance it though. She increased her pace.
"Keep up, James," called Cassie.
The young man grimaced. They had exhausted his meagre energy reserves ten minutes ago; already his breathing was ragged and he had pressed a fist into his side. For all her sense of urgency, Tarian took pity on him and slowed.
"I can feel it," said Cassie, as they closed the distance to the shimmering boundary. "It’s making my hairs stand up." From James's consternation, it was having the same effect on him.
Tarian reached for Cassie's hand. "Grab hold of James. After all this, we don't want him getting left behind."
Cassie nodded and gripped the startled James's hand.
"Anwar. Drysi." Tarian pointed and with a joyful woof they left her side and bounded ahead. One moment they were there, the next they weren't. James's eyes widened and he began to whimper.
"Hush," Cassie told him. "They're all right. You'll see them again in a moment." She looked expectantly at Tarian. "Shall we?"
"Wait," said Tarian, wanting to commit to memory as many of the sights, sounds, and smells of Faerie as she could. The wild heath with its splashes of yellow and purple; the clouds of butterflies and liquid trilling song of the skylarks; the herd of wild horses racing, the drumming of their hooves both heard and felt; and the red deer grazing quietly in the distance.... At last, the pine-covered slopes drew Tarian's gaze towards the skyline, back to the crumbling watchtower and the indistinct figures standing in front of it.
She took in a last deep draught of the sweet-scented air, then looked at Cassie and smiled. "I'm ready," she told her, tightening her grip. "Let's go."
The glade was exactly as Tarian had left it, down to the scattering of blue and white petals on their grass and leaf bedding. Tarian ignored the dogs cocking their legs against a tree and glanced up at the sky assessingly.
"Late afternoon." She released her grip on Cassie's hand.
Cassie threw her a smile tinged with anxiety before turning to calm James, who looked on the verge of panic.
"It's all right," she soothed him. "You're safe now. This is your home. This is... Sutton Park." She threw Tarian a wry glance. "Not that that will mean anything to him."
"Home," he said quietly, looking around with new eyes.
The dogs bounded back to Tarian's side and nosed her for attention. She crouched and stroked their brindled coats, smoothed their sleek muzzles. She felt wrung out, exhausted. Is this what being mortal feels like?
"We're going to take you back to your parents," continued Cassie to James.
"Don't make promises you can't keep," cautioned Tarian.
A shadow fell over her, then Cassie's arm draped itself around her shoulders.
"Are you all right?"
Finding himself abandoned, James sat cross-legged on the dry bedding and began to plait stalks of grass together, humming to himself.
Tarian looked at Cassie. For a moment she wondered whether to lie. But only for a moment. "I don’t know."
"Do you feel...." Cassie paused. "Different?"
Cassie played with a strand of Tarian's hair. "That could be just stress, love. ... You've just sacrificed a vital part of yourself. It'll take a while to adjust." Her eyes crinkled with amusement. "At least you didn't do a She on us and get all wrinkled and crumble to dust."
Tarian blinked at her. "What?"
"Rider Haggard? Never mind. Feeble attempt at humour. Sorry."
They regarded one another in silence. "I never thought I'd say this," said Cassie, "but you look to me like you're in a funk."
The accusation stung. "A funk?"
Cassie nodded. "Something's scaring you half to death. What is it?" Tarian swallowed on a throat gone suddenly dry. "Tell me."
She was reluctant to put into word her fears in case it made them a reality. But Cassie held her gaze, her expression patient.
"Mab's spell may have stripped me of more than my immortality," said Tarian at last.
"What do you mean?" Cassie looked puzzled for a moment, then her brow smoothed. "Oh. Your magic. You're worried you might not be able to cast spells any more?"
"Is that a known side effect?"
"No one's done this often enough to know."
Cassie gave her a considering look. "Well, then there's only one way to find out, isn’t there? Try talking to the dogs."
"I have already."
"That still works."
"Well why didn't you say so?" Cassie looked relieved. "Isn't that magic?"
"I'm not sure," said Tarian. "The dogs are from Faerie too."
The compassion in the green eyes almost made Tarian want to weep. Snap out of it, she ordered herself. It made no difference.
"Look," said Cassie gently. "You know what you have to do. "
"Try casting a spell," said Tarian grudgingly. But what if it doesn't work?
"That's right. Start with something small. What was that spell you mentioned earlier? The thing the Lesser Fae can do? Fae Light."
Tarian took a breath then let it out. Cassie was right. The spell was a trivial one. She could manage it, couldn't she? "All right."
But she couldn't remember the spell or the glyph that went with it and she began to panic. Has Mab wiped it from my memory? A squeeze of Cassie's hand brought her back to her surroundings.
"You've gone pale and you're hyperventilating," she said matter-of-factly. "Take a few deep breaths and calm down."
Tarian gave her a sheepish look and did as she was told.
"And don't think too hard," advised Cassie. "This is something you've known since you were a child, isn't it? Something that should be second nature. Like riding a bicycle."
"Fae don't ride bicycles."
"You know what I mean."
Tarian gave her a wry smile then took another deep breath before trying again. As Cassie had advised, she didn't think deeply this time, just focussed on what she wanted to achieve. As if they had a will of their own, she found her lips moving and her fingers tracing the design that had popped into her mind.
In the middle of the glade, a small globe of pale blue light popped into existence. Its appearance elicited an excited exclamation from Cassie, but James gave it a bored look, as though he witnessed such things everyday. Perhaps he did. He went back to his plaiting.
Tarian's knees gave way and she sat down hard in the middle of the glade. Anwar and Drysi licked her face, and for once she let them. She felt relieved beyond measure. Cassie flopped down next to her, pushed the dogs away, and gave her a hug. Tarian returned it and kissed her hair
"I should have known."
"Known what?" asked Cassie, relaxing against her.
"That Mab was too skilled to accidentally strip me of my magic."
"She could have done it deliberately. I wouldn't have put it past her."
"You forget, we were friends once... more than friends."
"And you forget. She exiled you twice. That woman is one unstable bitch."
Cassie's vehemence startled Tarian into a grin. She waved the Fae light out of existence then glanced to where James was sitting and belatedly took in his battered appearance. She invoked a healing spell, and Cassie's hand flew to her mouth as she watched his bruises and cuts disappear and his cheeks gain more colour. At bone deep level, old hurts and fractures would be healing too. Tarian let out a satisfied grunt.
James looked up, his gaze puzzled, aware that something had changed but uncertain what it was. He blinked at Tarian, then at Cassie, then resumed his plaiting and humming once more.
"That was kind," murmured Cassie. "Angor could have done that, but I suppose he couldn't be bothered."
Tarian shrugged and waited for her throbbing head to ease. "I could erase his memories of Faerie too," she said. "But it seems a bad idea to take what little memory he has from him. What do you think?"
Cassie's expressive face reflecting the pros and cons as they occurred to her, then she sighed and said, "You're probably right."
The exhaustion seemed to be receding, noted Tarian. Perhaps it had been, as Cassie said, merely stress. And fear.
They sat for a little while longer, just holding one another, then exchanged a smile, helped each other up and brushed off the dirt and bits of leaf mould that still clung.
"So you still have your magic," said Cassie, as they left the glade behind them, retracing their steps out of Holly Hurst, with James trailing after them. "Does that mean you can still heal yourself? Because that's as good as immortality, isn’t it?"
"I can keep myself healthy," corrected Tarian. "But I can't keep wrinkles and grey hairs at bay." She put an arm round Cassie's shoulders and hugged her briefly. "I'm going to grow old alongside you, love. Whether you like it or not." The thought brought satisfaction tinged with apprehension, but she pushed the latter to one side. What's done is done.
Cassie sighed. "And I was really looking forward to people wondering why a gorgeous young thing like you was hanging out with a withered old bat like me." She cocked her head and considered Tarian. "You know, a grey streak would probably look gorgeous on you. Something like Susan Sontag's, maybe."
Cassie rolled her eyes. "Cultural references fly straight over your head, don't they?" She glanced back at the red-haired man, who was taking in his surroundings with interest, and sighed. "It's going to be much worse for James. He didn't even know his own name until you told him what it was. You warned me our world might be too much of a shock, and you were right. There's no way he's going to be able to cope."
Tarian shrugged. "People are tougher than you think. He'll be all right, Cassie. He just needs to be taught everything from scratch."
At her words Cassie became thoughtful. "I saw this program on TV a few months ago. About a man couldn't remember the last 37 years of his life. He'd been in what they call a 'fugue'. He had to start from scratch."
She caught Cassie's drift at once. "So James could be suffering from the same thing?"
Cassie nodded. "We could drop him off at the Good Hope."
"Is that a hospital?"
"Mm. We could take him to A & E, tell them that we found him wandering in the Park, and that it looks like he's lost his memory...."
"Would they take care of him?"
"I think so. They'd get the police involved, work out who he is, track down his family and friends.... "
"If the changeling version of James had any," warned Tarian. "They're not usually the type. He was probably so hateful he alienated everyone close to him."
"Our James will be different. They'll like him, I think. And they'll be able to say the personality change is down to the fugue," said Cassie.
Up ahead the trees were thinning. They had almost reached the edge of the wood.
Cassie chewed her lower lip. "He needs some kind of ID, though, to get the ball rolling and make sure he's not stuck in hospital longer than necessary."
Tarian vaulted over the two-barred fence then, while she waited for Cassie to squeeze between the bars, cast a suitable spell. The credit card she had last seen lying on the desk in the doll hospital's tiny office appeared between her finger and thumb. When Cassie straightened up, she held it out. "Will this do?"
Cassie gave her a look. "Lost your magic," she scoffed affectionately.
Cassie examined the card. "Perfect." She glanced up as James made his way towards them. "Even so it's going to be tough for him, catching up on everything he's missed. I wonder if he'll ever feel at home in our world."
"I do, and I've only been here a couple of years."
"Yes. I have you to help me. James will be fortunate if finds himself a Cassie."
"Yeah, yeah." But Tarian's words brought a blush of pleasure to Cassie's cheeks.
They joined hands and set off back towards the carpark, James traipsing a few yards behind. When they were almost there, Tarian gestured, and Cassie's little blue car reappeared, drawing a gasp of amazement from the red-haired man.
"Show off," murmured Cassie.
Tarian grinned and directed the dogs towards the back seat, which James would have to share with them as far as the hospital.
"Whatever happens, he'll will be better off here than he would have been with Angor and Ysbail," said Cassie, opening the driver's door. "And that's a start, isn’t it?"
Tarian opened the passenger door. "It's a start," she agreed.
"Tarian was right about the flies," came Louise's voice down the phone. "Whatever the pest control people did that last time did the trick."
That's what you think. Cassie glanced round her flat to where Tarian was wrestling the last of the bulging suitcases closed, and being hindered rather than helped by the wolfhounds. It was strange seeing the place so tidy and bare. Hard to imagine she had lived here for three years.
"It's just as well about the flies," she said. "Tiddles would have gone spare."
"Oh I don't know," said Louise. "He might have acquired a taste for bluebottles."
"Are we talking about the same cat? Lazy, selfish, so picky he'd rather starve than eat cheap cat food?"
"You told me he'd eat anything."
Louise laughed. "He's settled in really well. Sam adores him."
"Thank heavens for that. I don't know what I'd have done if you'd had to bring Tiddles back."
"Sam's annoyed, by the way, that he missed meeting Tarian. Especially after I told him what she looks like."
"Men! There'll be other occasions, Lou. Mum and Dad insist we come back and visit often, though what he and Tarian are going to find to talk about I have no idea, as Tarian has no interest whatsoever in cars." She caught Tarian's grimace from the corner of her eye. "Be nice," she mouthed.
Tarian grinned at her and hauled the now shut suitcase over to the door to join the others waiting to be taken down to the Yaris. She straightened and pressed her fists into the small of her back then invoked what Cassie now recognised as a healing spell. Getting the packing cases ready for the removal men had taken its toll on both of them. And there was still the drive ahead....
"You could always come to stay for a weekend," she told Louise.
"In Bourne's Edge?"
The incredulity in her friend's voice made Cassie roll her eyes. "Hey!" she protested. "It's not Timbuktu. It's really nice. Peaceful. With beautiful views."
"Boring, you mean."
"Not that boring. I'm sure we can find something to keep you and Sam occupied for a weekend."
"Question. Do you have cable or satellite?"
"Not yet," admitted Cassie.
"No but I'm looking into—"
"I rest my case," said Louise.
Cassie laughed. "Well, if you should change your mind, you have my number."
"Great." She glanced to where Tarian was leaning against the wall, arms folded, expression patient. "I'd better go, Lou; we were supposed to be on our way half an hour ago. Give my love to Tiddles, won't you?"
"Will do. Safe journey, Cass. Bye."
Cassie replaced the receiver then unplugged the phone from its socket.
"All done?" asked Tarian.
She nodded, her gaze skimming over the stained table on which her computer had sat, the rickety cupboard now empty of her videocassette collection, the shelves devoid of her well worn paperbacks, and the unfaded rectangles of wallpaper where her paintings had hung.
"You'll miss this place, won't you?" said Tarian, following her gaze.
Cassie tried to read her expression. Was Tarian feeling guilty about whisking her away to Bourne's Edge? If so she had no need to.
"Not really." She crossed to Tarian's side and pulled the Fae's arms around her. After a moment, Tarian hugged her and rested her chin on the crown of Cassie's head. "I didn't have much of a life before I met you," said Cassie. "This was never 'home', just the place where I slept."
Cassie glanced up at her. "It's my friends I'll miss, but I intend to keep in touch with them." She paused. "If that's all right with you."
Tarian blinked. "Of course."
"Good." Cassie snuggled closer, then peeked up at her again and saw Tarian gazing fondly down at her. "What?"
"Nothing. Only if we're going to get home before it gets dark...."
"Don't wanna move," she complained, pressing herself into Tarian's cleavage and inhaling the enticing scent of her. "Comfy, right here."
She basked in a feeling of well-being until a thought struck her and she pulled back. "Do you think James is all right? He looked... well, you saw him. He looked terrified when we left him at the hospital. Maybe we should try to keep an eye on him."
"He's been terrified all his life," said Tarian matter-of-factly.
Cassie blinked at her. "That sounds a little... cold."
"Does it?" Tarian cocked her head. "It’s just the truth, Cassie. At some basic level James was, is, and I'm afraid always will be terrified of the Fae. You saw how he was around me. Trembling, wary. The best thing is for me to stay as far from him as possible."
Cassie sighed. "And yet you're the one who rescued him and healed him too. It's not fair." Especially since rescuing him robbed you of your immortality. Oh, my love, I hope you don't ever come to regret that. But she thought she knew Tarian well enough by now to know that if Tarian did have regrets, it would only be in passing. The Fae lived in the moment. It was a trait Cassie envied.
"One act of kindness set against a life time of cruelty." Tarian shrugged. "It hardly balances the scales."
"I wonder what will become of him."
"He'll get a job involving animals."
Cassie gaped at her. "Can the Fae see into the future?"
Tarian laughed. "No. But James was a pigboy, and you saw how good he was with the horses... and with these two." She gestured towards the dogs, who had settled themselves next to the suitcases and were watching her with lolling tongues.
"Oh." Cassie's glance fell on the keys waiting to be returned to the landlord, and she sighed. "I suppose we should get going."
"Mm." Tarian yawned. "Can't wait to get back. Who would have thought moving you out of your flat would be so eventful?"
"Don't be. I got some great ideas for a new painting out of it. That watchtower on the hill...."
Cassie hugged her.
"I wish I could share the driving," continued Tarian, stroking Cassie's hair, "but when we get back, we'll have a good long soak in the bath, then," she looked meaningfully at Cassie, "go to bed."
How does she know that's what I've been thinking about? "Have you been reading my mind again?"
Tarian chuckled. "No, just your emotions and your body language."
"Hm." It always disconcerted Cassie when Tarian did that, but, on the bright side, she would never have a girlfriend who 'didn't understand her'. "About the driving," she said, "don't feel bad. I'm glad I have something to contribute to our relationship. Because with your magic... well, a girl could get an inferiority complex."
"But you won't," said Tarian, making it sound like an order.
"OK," agreed Cassie peaceably.
She reached for the keys. "Shall we go?" At her movement, the dogs got to their feet and panted eagerly.
Tarian nodded. "Let's go home."
The man in the white coat tugged the door closed behind him. Left alone once more, James relaxed back against his pillows.
"Dr Stuart, clinical psychologist." He tasted the words.
So many new words, sights, smells, and flavours. It was... overwhelming. And the most overwhelming thing of all? That apart from the Fae who had brought him to this place and given him the name he'd always craved, everyone looked like him. Was like him.
People were imperfect, ugly. Dr. Stuart was stoop-shouldered and wore things called 'spectacles'—to correct his poor sight, apparently. Nurse Williams was so fat she waddled. And no one worked magic. In fact, they laughed uproariously whenever he mentioned it.
He was glad they were no longer sticking sharp needles in him and asking questions that made his head ache. They believed he had lost his memory.
"You've been ill, James," the nurses had told him, and Dr Stuart had repeated it this morning. "But you're in good hands. No one knows what trauma—" Another new word. " —made you lose your memory. But in time it should return."
James didn’t disabuse them, though he wished he had lost his memory. He still woke often during the night, fearful he would find that this had all been a dream, and he was back in the shed with Blacktail and the other pigs. But each time the bright light streaming through the window from the corridor's strip lights reassured him.
The door opened and Nurse Williams put her head round. He was pleased to see her. She smiled with a genuine warmth that he had never encountered before.
"Your parents are here to see you, James."
She came fully inside the room. "Don't you remember them either? The police traced them. Their names are Janet and Phil Farley. They've come all the way from Croydon. They've agreed to look after you, until your memory comes back."
James blinked at her.
"Chin up. They may be strangers, but you'll soon get to know them again."
There was movement in the corridor outside, and he caught a glimpse through the window of three people. One was a straight-backed middle-aged man with hair as red as his own and a bushy moustache. He was deep in conversation with Dr. Stuart. The woman with him was shorter than he was, fair-haired and rather plump. She looked tired and apprehensive.
Something about the couple's features reminded James of the face he had seen whenever he washed his face in the water trough. Could they really be my parents? His heart hammered in his chest.
"May we come in?"
Phil Farley was standing in the doorway, stroking his moustache—a nervous habit? He looked an enquiry at Nurse Williams then at James.
"Of course," said the nurse, beckoning. "Now don't be scared," she told James.
"He looks... different, somehow," said Janet Farley, coming to stand next to her husband. "Smaller. Frailer. Not so... vicious." She spoke in a low voice, but James's sharp hearing picked it up.
"Hush," said her husband quickly. "Don't let him hear you. You know what he can be like."
That puzzled James. As far as he knew he had never met them before. Perhaps he should say as much. He took a deep breath and held out his hand.
"My name is James Farley. They tell me you're my parents, but I'm afraid I don't remember you at all. Perhaps we can start again?"
The glance they exchanged was unfathomable, but they drew closer, and the tension in their faces and shoulders eased.
"Hello, James." Janet gave him a searching look.
He put on his best smile. "Pleased to meet you." Her lower lip trembled and her eyes looked suspiciously wet.
Phil slipped his arm around her waist. "Hello, son," he said gruffly. "Pleased to meet you too."
My thanks to my Yahoo mailing list for their comments on the beta version of this story. :)
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