The Banshee's Walk
If you’re a finder, you never know who might next knock at your door. People are always losing something-husbands or wives, sisters or sons. Faith or hope. Trust or money.
If you’re a finder named Markhat, well, then you’re me, and you know exactly what I mean.
It was barely sunup, and it was hot. Hot days in Rannit raise a mighty stink from the Regent’s new sewers, and since half the damned ogres this side of the Divide haul their manure carts past my door, I get a double dose of stink ’til sundown.
I resolved to just start walking north and not stop until my boots sank in fresh snow when someone started pounding at my door.
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they knock. Women usually don’t do more than tap. A woman with husband troubles tend to dart up and tap twice and then turn and scurry away, as if they weren’t in any way associated with my door and its painted finder’s eye. Heavens no, I was just standing here waiting to cross the street.
But this was a man’s knock. Knock, knock, knock. Good and loud, with a pause to listen, followed by another fusillade of determined thrice-struck knocks.
I swung my feet off my desk, and Three-leg Cat scurried for the back. I got up and opened my door to trouble.
“You hight Markhat,” she said. Her words lay halfway between a question and an accusation.
I’m never at my best before noon.
“Well, ’ere you Markhat or ain’t you?”
“I am indeed,” I replied. I motioned her in, which was wasted because she was already stomping inside, her big blue eyes taking in my office and me and showing every sign of finding us an immediate and sore disappointment.
“Mama said you was a man to be reckoned with.” She spoke the words as if the statement invited spirited debate. “But I reckon she ought to know.”
She was tall. Easily as tall as me. Clad in long skirts and a high-necked, long-sleeved smock made of a coarse plain cloth with all the femininity of old burlap, if less of the comfort. The smock was belted, none too tightly, at the waist with what looked suspiciously like a length of tattered bell-pull rope. The toes of the scuffed country boots that peeped out from beneath her skirts reminded me of Army issue doggers and a second glance revealed that’s exactly what they were.
I decided she was what doting aunts tend to refer to as big-boned. Her hands, which she kept crossed over her bosom, lest, I suppose, I have a look, were large and showed evidence of hard work.
Her hair was a pleasant surprise. I imagined the tight severe bun, if released, would reveal the kind of pale gold tresses even Elves get envious over.
Her jaw was strong, her teeth were good, her nose was-
Oh Hell. Her nose, her eyes-
“Are you by any chance related to-?”
I never finished my sentence.
“I hight Gertriss.” She damned near did a clumsy little curtsy, thought better of it and dipped her head instead. “Missus Hog is my mother’s eldest sister.”
I remembered my manners, made a small bow and motioned Gertriss, daughter of Mama Hog’s eldest sister, to my chair.
“Any niece of Mama’s is welcome here, anytime,” I said. I meant it too. Already, I was thinking, poor kid, first time in the city, must be so lost and alone…
Like I said, I’m just not at my best in the mornings. That little voice wasn’t even awake yet-the one that should have not only raised red flags when Mama’s name came up, but set them afire and waved them under my nose.
So all I did was smile and ask “What brings you to Rannit, Miss Gertriss?”
Gertriss smiled. She had a good smile. I figured her for twenty, maybe a few years older, not much.
“I’m ready to get started, Mister Markhat.”
That little voice inside me woke up then and started screaming bloody murder.
“Started?” My smile froze on my big dumb face. “Started?”
Mama, you scheming, conniving old witch…
Gertriss nodded, eyed my office, sniffed and wrinkled her sun burnt country nose at a lingering odor Three-leg Cat must have left behind.
“Reckon where I’ll sit?”
“Mama!” I said, in a loud, dry whisper. “I know damned well you’re in there. Open this door right now.”
I banged Mama’s door once, just for emphasis.
I heard cussing and rattling inside, and then Mama’s bolt threw and she opened her door, just a crack.
At least she had the courtesy to keep her beady little Hog eyes on the dirty street below.
“Now, calm down, boy, it ain’t like you can’t use the help.”
“Help? Help?” I nodded back toward my place and glared, not wanting to discuss Gertriss where she might hear. “Open up, Mama. We really need to talk. Now.”
Mama grumbled, but unfastened half a dozen useless door-strings and finally ushered me inside.
Mama’s card and potion shop is a bit larger than mine, a hell of a lot more cluttered. Three-leg Cat and fifty of his rat-gobbling pals could break wind for a solid hour in my place and the stench still wouldn’t come anywhere close to matching the odors wafting from Mama’s two bubbling iron cauldrons. Mama can deny it all she wants, but I’m dead certain the lack of rats on our end of Cambrit Street is largely due to Mama’s ever-present concoctions and the pungent vapors thereof.
If Mama’s shop is a hovel, Mama fits right in. She’s every witch-woman cliche ever spoken, stitched together, peppered with warts, covered in a mane of wild white hair, given two teeth, and turned loose with a taxidermist’s cast-offs and a finely-honed cackle.
Right now, she was shuffling and hunched, putting on a doddering old lady act I knew was a lie. Mama had been among those who faced down a halfdead blood cult a few months back. Word was she’d taken down a furious halfdead on her own, with nothing but a meat cleaver and a bloody-minded resolve that impressed even the ogres at her side.
I turned Mama’s single rickety chair around and sat hard.
“Mama,” I said. “You’ve pulled some real stunts, but this-”
Mama raised a hand. “I meant to tell you sooner, boy. I swear I did.”
“Tell me?” I stared up at the ceiling. Soot-covered sigils and signs stared back. “Mama. I am the Finder Markhat, of the firm Finder Markhat. That is my business, my livelihood, my butt on the line-you don’t get to tell me squat.”
“Ask, ask, I meant ask, boy.” Mama shook her head. “When you gets to be my age, boy, sometimes things gets confused, slips your mind…”
I made a rude noise, and I swear some of the dried birds in their dusty jars turned to face me.
“The only thing wrong with your mind, Mama, is that you let it do the thinking for other people,” I said. “Me, mainly. Now Gertriss is a sweetheart, and a rare fine girl, I’m sure, but what makes you think she can just step out into the street and be a finder? What makes you think I can afford to pay her, or watch her, or…”
A sudden awful thought blossomed.
“Mama. You aren’t trying to marry her off, are you?”
Mama’s eyes went cold and bright.
“You listen here, boy,” she said. “I ain’t thinkin’ no such thing, you hear? No such damnfool thing. I sent her to you ’cause she needs to learn city folk and their ways. She needs to know what makes ’em act the ways they do, if she’s goin’ to take over for me one day.”
I frowned. Mama sounded sincere. But…
“If you want her to take over here, what’s that got to do with me? I can’t show her how to shove bats in a pot.”
Mama snuffled. “I can teach anybody to make potions and read the cards, boy. But that ain’t all of it. That there girl needs to know how to look past what people are sayin’, and see what they mean, what they wants, what they needs. And not just any people. These here people.”
“Mama. What I do. It isn’t always safe. You know that. Better than anybody.”
Mama nodded. “You think what I do is safe, boy?”
“Aside from the risk of succumbing to the smell, I do. You get bad paper cuts from those cards, sometimes?”
“I ought to hex that mouth of yours one day, boy.” She picked up her favorite dried owl and shook it menacingly at me, an effect largely ruined by the number of feathers it shed. “Ought to hex it good.”
A knock came at Mama’s door.
I knew the knock, so I opened it, while Mama stroked her mummified owl and glared at me.
Gertriss poked her head in, frowning.
“Mister Markhat?” she said, eyeing Mama’s grim demeanor. “There’s a woman down to your office. She’s got some troubles, so I come to fetch you, seein’ as how she didn’t want to wait.”
Gertriss looked me in the eye. She smiled. It was a big, good-hearted, smile, wide as a country lane, free of guile or artifice. It was a rare kind of smile, innocent and fragile, and easily, permanently slain.
I rose. “Thank you, Gertriss. We’d best get back then. We finders don’t like to waste a client’s valuable time.”
Mama grinned at me, triumphant.
“I’ll have ham and biscuits later,” she said. “If’n y’all finders have the time.”
I closed the door softly behind me and made a solemn vow to march toward the snowy distant north at the very first opportunity.
“So who’s the client?” I said, as we marched toward my door.
Gertriss frowned. “Said her name is Lady Erlorne Werewilk,” matching my own low tones. “I reckon I ain’t no expert on city folk, Mister Markhat, but she seems a might…diff’rent.”
I chuckled. “Gertriss, there’s one thing you’ll need to learn fast, about Rannit.” We got to my door, and we stopped, and I leaned close and whispered in her ear, “We’re all a bit diff’rent here.”
I opened my door, and motioned Gertriss inside.
The Lady Erlorne Werewilk was already standing. Posed in my corner, so that the light from my bubbly glass door slanted down across her. I like a woman with a sense of drama. Especially a woman with a sense of drama who can manage to suggest all manner of things merely by leaning against my none-too-clean office walls.
“You must be the famous Markhat,” she said. Then she took a long inhalation from the tobacco stick she was smoking while she looked me straight in the eye.
“I wouldn’t have used the word famous,” I said. “But since you did I’ll be polite and agree. You are Lady Erlorne Werewilk?”
Another drag of her smokestick, another practiced exhalation. The smoke wandered lazily in the still air. At least it masked the scent of Three-leg Cat’s most recent digestive adventures.
“Have a seat, Lady Werewilk,” I said, motioning her to my famous client’s chair. I crossed behind my desk and in a stunning display of old world manners waited for Lady Werewilk to be seated before I did so myself.
Gertriss shot me a look, and I folded my fingertips together and nodded toward her as if we’d done this same thing a thousand times.
“Gertriss, bring us tea, and an empty saucer for the Lady’s ashes, please,” I said.
Gertriss nodded and stamped out to Mama’s.
Lady Werewilk turned her face to avoid blowing smoke my way.
She had a good face. Not so young as to be girlish, not so old as to remind one of grandmothers or matrons. Her eyes were the grey of boiling summer thunderheads. Her nose was long and just sharp enough to hint at a pixie or two in her ancestry. Her teeth were straight and white, and her skin was pale, but not cadaverously so. She wore a clingy high-necked black dress that reached from her soles to the top of her neck. Lady Werewilk was made for that dress, or maybe it was the other way around, but in either case her slim figure made the visual journey downright epic. Her black-veiled hat, which managed to obscure her eyes, added a hint of well-coiffed mystery.
Her flair for the dramatic extended to her makeup. Darla has taught me a thing or two about the female arts of cosmetic deception, as she calls them, and if Darla was an expert, Lady Werewilk was an artiste. Big soft eyes, high cheekbones, the almost Elvish nose-I stared until she caught me looking and then I smiled.
“I’m rendered speechless, Lady Werewilk,” I said. “But I’m sure you didn’t come all the way to Cambrit Street just to show off your good dress. What can I find for you?”
She blew smoke and lifted a narrow black eyebrow. “Peace of mind, Mister Markhat. I believe someone intends to steal my house from me. This I will not have.”
I nodded. “Good for you.” I opened my desk, pulled out the new yellow-paper notepad Darla had given me just yesterday, and found one of the perfectly sharpened pencils Darla had left right next to the pad. “Tell me about your house, Lady. You’ll forgive me if I’m unfamiliar with your family name.”
She nodded. “Few people know of Werewilk. I prefer it that way. The house is located in the Wardmoor district, south of the old wall. I believe the locals call my neighborhood the Banshee’s Walk.”
I nodded. I knew of it, though it had been years since I’d passed that way. A few old fortified manor houses were all that remained. Each stood outside Rannit’s Middle Kingdom walls. Half the old homes were abandoned, the others lost in woods and treacherous roads and bridges that the country folk often quarried for their granite stones when the Watch wasn’t looking.
Rannit had moved up and away from Wardmoor, even before the War. The big farms were north and west. The new reservoir was east. The only roads I knew of that went south were logging roads, and even those were seldom used, since it was easier to float timber down the Brown than it was to haul it through the woods and the mud.
“I run the House now,” said Lady Werewilk. “I’ve made it an artist’s colony. I house thirty-five of Rannit’s most talented painters and sculptors. One day their works will be known as the single most important body of work since the end of the War.”
I nodded, as if that was of course a widely known fact.
“Do you know of anyone who might wish a different direction for the House, Lady?”
Lady Werewilk frowned. “I do not, Mr. Markhat,” she said. The ashes at the end of her tobacco stick were getting dangerously long, and I hoped Gertriss was hurrying.
“You have family?”
She nodded and inhaled. “I have a brother. Milton. Our parents are long dead, no aunts, no uncles, no distant cousins, no one left. And Milton-well, Mr. Markhat, Milton is simply incapable of plotting to seize the House.”
“We’re very relaxed here, Lady Werewilk,” I said. “I’ll sweep the floor later.”
She thumped her smoke stick, and the ashes fell, and she used those few moments to gather her words. I pretended to scribble notes and gave her some time. No one, rich or poor, likes to be rushed when showing the family skeletons to tradesmen.
“Milton served in the War,” she said. “When he came back, he was…changed.”
I nodded. Some called them changed. Others called them the Broken. You see them all over Rannit, slumped and silent and vacant-eyed, still fighting their own dark battles years after the last bugle sounded. “I served too,” I said. “And I saw a lot of changed men, Lady. I understand.”
She smiled at me, for the first time. It was brief, but bright.
“Milton is not insane,” she said. Her smile vanished. “He is not-what do they call it? Broken. But he has retreated. Into a world of his own making. He has no interest in the House, or anything else, for that matter. He would no longer eat, if I didn’t have Singh sit him down twice a day and force him to chew and swallow.”
“Butler,” said Lady Werewilk. “He’s been with us for forty years. He amassed a small fortune himself, during the War. His loyalty is without question.”
I nodded as though I agreed, although questioning unimpeachable loyalties is often what I’m paid to do.
Gertriss knocked once and then came bustling in, balancing a tea tray carefully in one hand. On it, a silver teapot gleamed, and I wondered just where Mama kept her good china.
“Lady Werewilk was just telling me about her House, Gertriss. She has reason to believe someone might want to remove it from her control.”
Gertriss, bless her, just nodded and set about pouring tea.
“Go on, Lady Werewilk,” I said. “So you have thirty-five artists, Singh the butler and your brother Milton. Who else?”
“A staff of ten, not counting Singh.” She took a dainty sip of her tea, her grey eyes intent on Gertriss, who blushed. “Forgive me,” said Lady Werewilk, to Gertriss. “But you, young lady, have a unique look. I believe some of my artists would be fascinated by you, those skin-tones…that face. Would you be interested in posing at Werewilk, dear? There would be no pay, of course, but I believe some of our works are destined to be masterpieces.”
Gertriss wrinkled her brow. “Me, my Lady? Pose for a picture painter? Why, I wouldn’t even know what to wear.”
“You’d wear nothing, of course. We are interested in the nude human form, not any passing fad of fashion.”
“Gertriss, I need more sugar,” I said quickly. “I’m sure Mama has some, will you see?”
I was relieved that Gertriss didn’t slam the door on her way out.
Lady Werewilk laughed. “Oh dear,” she said. “I’ve ruffled some feathers, have I not?”
I nodded and made a rueful face. “This is her first day in Rannit,” I said. “And I’m sure it’s also the first time she’s ever been asked to be painted in the nude. It may even be the first time she’s ever heard the word nude spoken aloud.”
Lady Werewilk stubbed out the remains of her smoke stick on the saucer left by my fleeing Gertriss. “Pity,” she said. “Most of the models I get are stick-thin rich men’s daughters who starve themselves because they think it looks Elvish. She has a certain earthy appeal, your Miss Gertriss. Tell her the offer still stands, should she change her mind.”
“I’ll do that, Lady Werewilk.” I leaned back in my chair and did my best to appear studious. “Now, tell me about your staff. All of them. Start with the most recent ones hired and work backwards.”
Lady Werewilk nodded, lit another smokestick with one of those newfangled red-tipped matches, and set about describing her household while smoke-wraiths swirled and danced.
“Come on in, Gertriss,” I said. “Lady Werewilk is gone.”
Gertriss, still blushing, stomped in.
“I’m sorry ’bout that,” said Gertriss. “I reckon I’ve got to get used to city folk and their ways, and turnin’ red and puffin’ up ain’t the way to handle it.”
I nodded, though I could almost hear Mama’s voice coaching Gertriss to say just that.
“You did fine. Lady Werewilk was unusual even by my standards.” I picked up the long thin birchwood stick that was lying on my desk and handed it to Gertriss. “Do you know what this is?”
She took it, eyed it gravely. “Looks like a surveyor’s marker,” she said.
I beamed. “That’s what it is. It doesn’t have a maker’s mark on it, so I don’t know who it belongs to, but it’s a surveyor’s stick. Lady Werewilk has been finding them all over her property for the last several weeks.” I motioned Gertriss into the client’s chair. “Nobody admits to planting them, or to knowing anything about them. What does that suggest to you, Gertriss?”
She wrinkled her brow. “Somebody wants her House or her land. Or at least part of it.”
“One thing a finder should never do is jump to conclusions.” Her big blue eyes fell, so I spoke again quickly. “But that’s what I’m going to assume too, at least until we find otherwise.”
She smiled and put the stick down. “She got brothers, sisters, cousins?”
“One brother,” I replied. “He came back from the War broken. She doesn’t believe he is capable of dressing or feeding himself, much less snatching the House out from under her. We’ll assume that’s true too, at least until we meet him in person.”
She brightened at that. “I’ll be goin’ with you, Mister Markhat?”
I nodded. “You won’t be much use to me sitting here. But I have conditions, Miss. First, you stay quiet as much as possible, but you listen.”
She bit her bottom lip and nodded.
“Next, while you listen to what people say, watch what they do. Watch where they go. Watch who they talk to or don’t talk to. Sometimes that tells you more than their words ever do.”
Again, a nod. I chuckled inwardly.
“Oh, and Miss Gertriss. No posing nude while you’re on my payroll.”
Finally, she laughed, and her eyes twinkled.
“I weren’t plannin’ on no naked shenanigans. On your pay or off it.”
“Good girl,” I replied. “Now here’s the plan. We head south tomorrow, first light. We’ll be staying at the House until we find our mystery surveyor or until Lady Werewilk gets tired of paying us, whichever comes first. As junior member of the firm Finder Markhat you get one of every five crowns we’re paid. Do good, and the next case might get you one and a half. Is that a deal?”
She went wide-eyed. I guess by backwoods standards a crown was a small fortune. In Rannit, she’d learn soon enough, it was somewhat less than that.
I held out my hand. She took it, shook it, and the Finder Markhat agency officially doubled its staff.
I let her take a breath.
“All that means we’ve got some things to do today,” I said. “We want to blend in, Gertriss. We want people to forget who we are and where we are, as much and as often as possible. And that means we’ve got to get you into some city clothes, before we go.”
She blushed again, and her right hand instinctively caught at the rough unsewn hem of her coarse handmade blouse.
I raised a hand before she could protest.
“I have a lady friend who will handle all the personal attention,” I said. “And don’t worry about the cost. One thing Darla has is plenty of clothes and a soft spot for young ladies dressed in burlap.”
“But, Mister Markhat, Mama said I could borrow some of her old…”
I had a flash, saw Gertriss arrayed in moth-eaten rags four feet too short for her that trailed owl feathers when she walked.
I stood up. “I am the boss, am I not, Gertriss?”
“Then here’s another condition. No wearing anything Mama gives you. Ever. Got that?”
I smiled, rose, nodded for her to do the same.
“Glad that’s settled,” I said. “Let’s go meet Darla. I’ll tell you about House Werewilk on the way.”
Gertriss rose. I guessed she was still none too sure about dressing in lewd, lascivious city garb but determined to hang onto her pay even at the cost of burlap-enforced modesty.
“Will we be walking or taking a cab, Mister Markhat?” she asked.
I thought about those Army-issue doggers she was wearing and the long hike to Darla’s and added the cost of a cab to my loss of every fifth crown and forced a big wide city fella smile.
“Why, a cab, of course,” I said, snatching my good grey hat off its peg and offering my arm to Gertriss. “We city folk never walk when we can ride in style.”
Gertriss looked at my proffered elbow in sincere puzzlement. “Somethin’ wrong with your arm, Mister Markhat?” she asked.
I laughed, and we made for the street.
It was a day of firsts for Gertriss. Her first ride in a cab, her first sight of ogres walking shoulder to shoulder with human folks, her first sight of red-clad street preachers and the bridge clowns on Cyrus and the short skirts and open solicitations of the whores that line the streets between Camus and Drade. And everywhere, of course, the ragged Broken, the nimble beggars, the ever-present cries of the whammy men and the clanging of distant foundry machines in the factories that line the south bank of the River.
I tried to fill Gertriss in on the Curfew and the dead wagons on the way. I explained about the Big Bell banging out Curfew every night, and how the halfdead were legally entitled to snack on anyone who wasn’t Watch or a marked city employee after Curfew. I explained about the dead wagons that stalked the streets each morning, and what caused that smoke that wafted from the tall crematorium chimneys along the Brown.
“Missus Hog claimed you broke Curfew all the time,” sputtered Gertriss, unable to tear her eyes away from the antics of the bridge clowns that paced our cab as we crossed over the canal at Drade.
I shrugged. “I’ve had to break Curfew a few times,” I said. A clown caught hold of the cab’s window and capered along with us, gibbering and hooting at Gertriss until the cabbie landed a whack on the top of his head with a stout shaft of oak. “That doesn’t mean you can do it. If you’re ever caught out, and you hear that bell ring, you get indoors if you have to break in somewhere, you understand? The halfdead won’t enter a business or a dwelling. That’s the law. They don’t break it.” Because they don’t have to, I added, mentally. The sad fact is that there is a more than sufficient supply of idiots and criminals. So many, in fact, that most Curfew-breakers never see a halfdead, much less wind up dead by one.
Gertriss nodded, still mesmerized by the capering clowns. “Too, I have this,” I said. I produced the medallion Evis gave me, a while back-it marked me as a friend of House Avalante, and while that wasn’t an iron-clad assurance of safety, it meant that anyone harming the wearer would face the wrath of a Dark House, and even other Dark Houses weren’t usually that hungry.
The cab clattered along, and Gertriss drank it all in, gabbing happily along the way. I managed to learn that she’d been a farmhand back home, mainly dealin’ with hogs. She reported she was the oldest of six sisters, and she had once seen a Troll in the woods taking a shit in a creek. Not exactly a sterling resume for becoming a street-wise finder. But there was an intelligence behind her countrified accent and naivete, so I resolved to give her a chance. One chance, and no more, and if Mama took that hard that was just too bad.
We reached Darla’s, and I paid the cabbie, and as Gertriss noted the fare she got her first taste of the high cost of living in the city.
I shrugged and grinned. “Welcome to Rannit,” I said, pulling her quickly onto the sidewalk before a passing cab spun her out of the way.
She looked up and around, gawking openly at the wonders of three-story wood-front buildings and the glass windows that revealed everything from jewelry to clothing to fancy lamps for milady’s tea room.
“This is Darla’s,” I said, easing her toward Darla’s fancy oak and glass entry. “Darla is a friend of mine.”
“More’n a friend, way I hear it,” said Gertriss with a sly grin.
“It’s a wonder Mama Hog ever gets any sooths said, the way she gossips,” I noted. A bell on the door chimed, and Darla herself came darting out from the back, a long black gown twin to the one Lady Werewilk had been wearing in her hands.
“Darla dearest.” I probably smiled. “I’d like you to meet someone.”
Darla smiled back. She has a good smile. And big luminous brown eyes and short dark hair. She draped the gown over a mannequin and came quickly over to meet us.
“Miss Darla, this is Gertriss.” Gertriss blushed and wondered what to do, until Darla stuck out her hand to shake. “Gertriss is Mama Hog’s niece. She’s come to Rannit to learn Mama’s trade.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Gertriss. “I’m working with Mister Markhat, for now.”
Darla lifted a narrow brown eyebrow and tried to hide a grin. She’d sized up the whole morning’s events faster than I could have explained them.
“We start our first case in the morning,” I said. “Miss Gertriss needs some new clothes.”
Darla nodded and took my hand and squeezed it. The twinkle in her eye said “And then she needs to burn all her old ones.”
“You know, I believe we have some casual day-wear that would fit without much alteration,” she said. She eyed Miss Gertriss critically, walking around her, while Gertriss blushed even deeper.
Darla didn’t start out as a dressmaker. But since she lost her job at the Velvet-my fault, I’m afraid-and was now co-owner of the dress shop with Martha Hoobin, she’d become quite a competent seamstress in her own right, as well as the book-keeper and general money manager.
“I’m thinking three new outfits, one new nightgown, two pairs of shoes, one pair of slippers, a bathrobe, a dressing gown, two pairs of lady’s trousers, four blouses, two hats and a coat,” said Darla, as she walked. “I’ll just add all that to your account, shall I, Mister Markhat?”
She grinned, full of sudden mischief.
I sighed. “Make it three hats,” I said. “No one’s ever accused me of being cheap.”
Darla laughed. “Three it is, then,” she said. “Now, Mister Markhat, if you’ll excuse us, I need to take some measurements, and we won’t need your services for that. Why don’t you go pester some vampires or tug at ogre beards for, say, two hours? Then you and I have a lunch date, if you’ll recall.”
I didn’t recall, but being a quick-thinking street-wise finder I merely nodded quickly.
“Back in two hours, then,” I said.
Darla stood on her tiptoes and planted an ambush kiss on my lips. Her perfume enveloped me, and I scandalized Gertriss by wrapping Darla up in my arms and kissing her back, maybe longer than propriety demanded.
“Not a minute longer than two hours,” she said, when she stepped back.
I nodded, breathed in more perfume, and headed out the door.
I had two hours to kill. Ordinarily, I’d have headed to Eddie’s for a beer, but that day, I decided to immerse myself in the heady, erudite world of Rannit’s burgeoning art community.
My previous experience with art was limited to sneering at outdoor statues of War Hero This or General That, and cheering on the pigeons that managed to sum up my opinion of them perfectly, day after day.
My mother once found a case of mostly-empty paint jars and a pair of camelhair brushes, and she painted a surprisingly good portrait of my father with it, and even though she ran out of black before finishing his moustache and his right eye was a darker blue than his left, her painting hung above out mantel for all my childhood. That was the only fine art the Markhats had ever owned.
It’s never a good idea to head into the heart of a mess that may well center around some walk of life you know nothing about. That worried me about the well-dressed Lady Werewilk’s situation. I might be staring right at the obvious lynchpin of the whole thing, but because I don’t know my red paints from my antebellum surrealists, I might not ever see it.
So I told the cabbie to head for Mount Cloud and ignored his snort of derision.
Mount Cloud isn’t a street. It’s a neighborhood, one I’d only passed through a few times. It’s where the Regent’s Museum had stood, until the fire in the opening years of the War had gutted it. Reconstruction had only just begun, and although the surviving pieces of Rannit’s thousand-year art history were still safely tucked away somewhere in a deep, secret Regency subbasement, the neighborhood itself was lousy with galleries and art sellers of every description.
We clopped along. I tried to recall what little I’d ever known about art-it was once taught, here and there, before the War brought such frivolity to a halt-and decided I remembered only two things.
One was that bad old King Throfold had outlawed the depiction of bare-chested ladies in 1276. The other was that the worth of such paintings had tripled or quadrupled immediately thereafter, which resulted in a veritable flood of bare-chested ladies in paintings for two centuries thereafter.
I was never much of a student, but for some reason that stuck with me.
I grinned and wondered for the thousandth time if that hadn’t been King Throfold’s idea all along and then the cab pulled onto Cannon and I had arrived.
I tipped the cabbie and set foot along the cheery galleries and elegant cafes that lined the shaded streets.
I took in a few window-fronts as I walked. It seems art doesn’t keep banker’s hours, something I hadn’t considered when I set out, and every gallery I passed was most unapologetically locked up tight.
But the windows were open, and the sun was out, so I could see what passed for art in Rannit these days well enough.
I wasn’t impressed. Like old Throfold, I preferred my art to be pleasant to look at. What I saw, in window after window, was the War.
Heroic soldiers faced down slavering Trolls. Banners waved majestically in smoke-choked winds. The fires that ringed every battle only served to illuminate the fierce patriotic resolve that lined each soldier’s face with courage.
I was there, people. It wasn’t courage that kept us fighting. It was the simple lack of any other choice.
I fell into a damned march cadence without realizing it, and into a deep scowl when I did. Window after window revealed paintings of battles, sculptures of upraised swords, and tattered old regimental flags encased in glass and the like.
I did come to one conclusion. No veterans ever shopped these places.
They’d just not have the stomach for it.
I was about to hail a cab and head for Eddie’s when I came upon a door propped open with a brick and a pair of workmen carefully easing a blanket-clad canvas into the place. Being an inquisitive fellow, I fell into step right behind them and became the day’s first patron at Moorland Galleries, Established 1998.
“Where does this one go?” asked the nearest workman, of me.
“With the others, please,” I replied. No need in prompting a fusillade of questions at this hour of the day, after all.
They grunted and made their way through a rear door, and I took a moment to browse.
General Stark on horseback, sword uplifted. The Battle of Three Gates, ringed by fire. The Charge at Impriss, wind blowing the majestic banners the wrong bloody way. And then something unexpected-the Fall of Right Lamb.
I was gritting my teeth and thinking inartistic thoughts when someone softly cleared his throat right beside me.
“One of my personal favorites,” said a voice from below my shoulder. “It’s a Kelson, as I’m sure you know. Only Kelson can do twilight with such foreboding, don’t you think?”
I nodded. To me, it looked like someone had painted the awful thing using only three shades of dark bloody red and then blotted it liberally with lamp oil before leaving it out in the rain.
“Kelson is a master of subtle twilights,” I said, sensing mention of lamp oil or rain might offend my new friend’s delicate sensibilities. “Are you perhaps the proprietor?”
Laughter, mild and polite. “Goodness, no, sir. I am Steven, the manager. I wake before noon, you see.”
I chuckled and turned, and we shook hands. It wasn’t his fault the War was staring me back in the face from all sides.
“My name is Markhat.” Steven was a short skinny man, pale and bookish, but he had a scar running all the way from the crown of his bald spot to his shoulder, and I had a feeling he didn’t like these fine works of high art any better than I did. “You’ve got some interesting pieces here.”
“Thank you, sir. Is there an artist you’re interested in? We have quite a range of styles and techniques.”
I nodded, tried to tear my eyes off the Fall of Right Lamb. I’d been there. I’d seen it. Hell, I’d nearly died there, half a dozen times in that awful last night.
“Actually, I’m wondering if you know of a Lady Erlorne Werewilk,” The faces fleeing the Trolls in the painting before me at once became familiar-there was Otter, there was Walking Paul, there was the Sarge, flailing away at Troll heads with his crossbow when the bolts ran out. “I hear her House has produced some interesting pieces of late.”
Steven who rose before noon looked suddenly and furtively about.
“I know something of her,” he replied, his voice a terse whisper. “The name is not known to me,” he then said, in a much louder voice tinged with disdain.
I nodded knowingly, and a pair of jerks made their way to my palm, and then quickly into his.
He motioned for me to follow, and I ambled away in his wake, happy to be rid of the Kelson and its unsubtle remembrances.
“Here we have a pair of remarkable Galways,” he said, in a loud stage voice. “She’s not exactly embraced by the bosom of Rannit’s art community,” he added, in a soft whisper. “She refuses to depict anything involving the War. That doesn’t follow in line with the galleries, or even the Regent’s Council of Art. Makes her a pariah, truth be told.”
“So is she able to sell anything?” I asked, whispering.
“Sir, one of her artists could smear manure on a soiled bed sheet and sell it for twice anything here. The galleries claim they don’t want her, but the truth is it’s Lady Werewilk who doesn’t need the galleries. One vet to another.”
I grinned, and another jerk appeared and just as quickly disappeared.
“I find his use of perspective somewhat disturbing,” I barked.
Steven made commiserating noises. We moved on, circling the gallery, and while Steven prattled on about this use of color or that sense of scale and perspective, I mused on more worldly matters.
Lady Werewilk’s House might lack political power or even the kind of wealth that might make the Hill crowd nervous, but she had certainly caused an uproar in Mount Cloud. And if her crowd was selling their paintings like deep-fried money, that had to be putting a crimp in the coffers of every gallery on the street.
Lady Werewilk hadn’t ever alluded to any such thing, and probably had never considered it. I doubted she thought of the money itself as anything but a way to keep track of whose art was lining the most walls.
We’d come full circle, and I found myself standing before the Kelson that depicted Right Lamb. I inquired about the price just to be polite.
Eight hundred and ninety-five crowns. That was an easy fifteen years of work for most of Rannit.
“None of that is right, you know,” I said, not caring who might hear. “There weren’t any mounted lancers left, by dusk. And even if there had been, no one ever convinced a horse to charge a line of Trolls at night.”
“Indeed, sir,” said Steven, with a small disgusted sniff.
But he pointed as he spoke. Bottom left of the painting, a tiny hillock, one burned oak tree atop it.
“I’m sorry you are not interested, sir.” he said. His eyes were grim. One Tree, they called it. Only six men out of two hundred left that hill alive.
“Maybe another day,” I said, and then I got out of there.
I guess I’ll never understand art.
I ambled around Mount Cloud for another hour, and actually caught two more art shops open. I was shown out of both at the mere mention of Lady Werewilk’s name, the last time accompanied by a rather snippy “we deal in art at this establishment, sir, not amateur dabblings, good day.”
Which only confirmed everything early-rising Steven had said. Lady Werewilk may or may not be making art history, but she was making enemies.
Enemies who might be leaving surveyor’s sticks littered around her property.
I checked a big brass clock in a shop and decided I had time for a cup of that high-priced coffee that I got hooked on during the War. Of course, we’d strained it through scraps of tent-cloth and used creek-water heated over a campfire, but I must admit I like the fancy cafe version better.
I sat and sipped and watched people pass. Not once did I see anyone walk past with a just-purchased painting, but there was a lot of traffic in and out of the galleries. Some were workmen, some were clerks hurrying to work, some were bleary-eyed owners squinting in the sun.
None looked particularly formidable. But of course if Lady Werewilk’s troubles were coming from Mount Cloud, they’d hire out the dirty work. People who don’t get up past noon are hardly likely to know anything at all about the surveying trade.
But of course plenty of people did. With the slow but steady post-War boom, surveying was a big business. Trying to sift through the thousands of people who might know enough math and have some experience setting marker sticks would be a lot more difficult and time consuming that shaking down every gallery owner in Mount Cloud, and even that was impossible.
I drained my cup and waved the waiter off. I’d be back to Darla’s in exactly two hours, which I figured would be at least an hour early but if anyone was going to gloat it was going to be me.
Finding a cab was easy. I let Mount Cloud roll past, and I kept my gaze out of those windows.
The Big Bell was banging out the appointed hour when I returned to Darla’s. Neither Darla nor Miss Gertriss was available, quoth little Mary the salesgirl, though from the giggling and hushed words coming from the back I didn’t have to guess where they were.
Darla keeps a chair for me in the corner. I’ve always been a little nervous about that chair and its quiet implication that I’ll be spending so much time waiting for her that I might as well have a seat and fossilize. But it’s a nice chair, so I sat and pulled down my hat and was more than halfway to a snooze when someone tapped lightly on my shoulder.
A woman was standing over me, smiling.
My mouth was open to say something-I still don’t know what-when the woman laughed, and it was only then I recognized Gertriss.
Her hair fell down on her shoulders in a smooth blonde wave. Her eyes were luminous, her lashes long and dark, her skin aglow as if from candlelight. She smelled of soap and a hint of Darla’s own perfume.
Gone was her burlap smock. She was dressed smartly, not seductively, in black pants and a dark red blouse and shiny leather lady’s boots. Her waist was belted with a silk sash, and Mama was likely to emit steam when she saw the figure Gertriss was hiding under all that sackcloth.
“Damn,” I said. Gertriss went wide-eyed and jumped back, as though I’d sprouted horns and cursed, and I realized with instant regret she was half right.
“I meant you look amazing, Miss Gertriss,” I said, rising.
“She does, doesn’t she?” said Darla, stepping out from behind her counter. “A little make-up, a few simple street clothes, and I believe she’s ready for life in the big city.”
Gertriss blushed, deeply and suddenly. She kept her hands together, as if hiding them, and Darla grinned and caught them both up in her own.
“We’re going to get you a manicure right now,” said Darla, with a sideways wink to me. “Mary, wrap up her things, will you? And see that Mister Markhat here gets the bill.”
Darla took Gertriss by her elbow and led her toward the door. “We’ll be back in a bit, Markhat,” she said. “By the way, I left you a note.”
And then she blew me a kiss, and left with Gertriss in tow.
I shook my head and grinned. Mary darted up to me, curtseyed and handed me an envelope.
“Thank you,” I said, as she busied herself wrapping and hanging what appeared to be the entire shop’s inventory of clothing.
The bill wasn’t as bad as I thought, and since that would be Mama’s burden anyway I managed a smile and put it away. Darla’s note was folded in the far-too-intricate way of hers, so I took again to my chair and unfolded it and read.
Darling, it began. I grinned. She always pronounced the word with a put-on aristocrat’s air, and I could hear it plainly in the letters she’d written. Your new protege mentioned Lady Werewilk, and the case, and it just so happens one of our clients has a brand new Coltin-that would be one of Lady Werewilk’s resident artists-hanging above her mantle. It also happens that our client is to have a gown delivered this very morning-so if you could be persuaded to take a parcel to her, you might strike up a conversation about Lady Werewilk from someone who knows her. I have no idea how well they know each other, or if my client will even speak to such a rogue as yourself, but I know you’d prefer tramping around Rannit to sitting comfortably in my chair. Mary will give you the gown and the address. Mind you don’t let the hem touch the ground. Dinner tonight at seven. Love, D.
And there was Mary, grinning that female-conspiracy grin, address in one hand and gown wrapped in linen on hanger in the other.
“I’ve never worked at a dressmaker’s shop before,” I said. “Do I curtsey before I hand over the gown, or after?”
Mary wordlessly handed me her things and darted away. I tramped out the door, the famous finder Markhat abroad, gown in hand against a sea of troubles.
Mary, at least, had the good grace not to giggle.
The name on the card was Mrs. Adorn Hemp. The address was a complicated mess of turn lefts at the butcher’s and go right three blocks down from the Hanged Man and then look for a half-painted house-half red, half white-that stood next to a cab-stop.
I wondered how many half-red half-white houses I was likely to encounter, next door to cab-stops or not, as I plunged into traffic and headed south and east. I judged the Hemp residence to be about five blocks, total, when I set out. It turned into an easy fifteen by the time I backtracked and wound through the old Spice District and finally gave up and asked a blue-capped Watchman for directions.
Turns out they’d finished painting the house just that morning. All red, this time. I pondered the danger of relying too much on assumption all the way to the Hemp’s sturdy, tall walk-up.
The stairs were freshly swept, and the door was ajar, and there were voices inside. Raised voices, a man and two women, the man choosing to employ bellowing and the women opting for a duet of high-pitched shrieks.
I looked about. There were people nearby a-woman digging in a flowerbed, a man and a boy playing catch on a lawn smaller than my office, another woman staring at the sky while her poodle-dog defiled a rather nice rosebush with fertilizer of its own. I know they had to hear the voices, but none of them so much as glanced in my direction.
I was about to knock when the man bellowed out “I’ll kill you both,” and then a woman screamed.
I dropped the gown and charged through the door.
The door opened into a foyer, and it opened into a great room, and I came stomping through it. There was a man a good four strides from me, his hands clamped around a tiny woman’s throat, while another woman looked on in horror.
The man was wearing a badly fitted black suit and a monocle. The woman being choked was a busty brunette who managed a healthy squeal despite the large hands wrapped around her pale white throat. The other woman, a tiny blonde, stood by the fireplace and screamed, her hands raised to her chin in a useless expression of horror.
The man doing the choking and the woman being choked were far too occupied with the business at hand to even notice me. A fireplace poker was leaning against the wall, and I took it and raised it and would have brought it solidly down on the gentleman’s murderous head had not the tiny blonde woman spoken.
“You’re not Robert,” she said, in a voice far too casual to be used at the scene of a brutal murder. “Don’t tell me he’s claiming sick again.”
She never lowered her hands from her mouth, or lost her expression of dawning horror.
“He’d better not be,” added the woman being choked. Her tone indicated the sort of offhand annoyance one might express as being short-changed a penny by the kindly old apple-seller. “Or I swear I’ll see him replaced, today.”
The monocled choker nodded, released the chokee, frowned at the poker in my hand, and then reached into his jacket pocket and produced a dog-eared sheaf of papers.
“I thought I got hit with the poker in Act Three,” he said, rifling through the pages. “They haven’t changed it again, have they?”
I lowered my poker.
The woman being choked produced a similar document and, frowning, began to leaf through it.
“You’re not Robert,” repeated the blonde. She finally lowered her hands, and looked confused rather than terrified. “You’re not even in the cast, are you?”
“My name is Markhat,” I replied. Confused glances were exchanged all around. “I heard what sounded like a woman being murdered, so I let myself in.”
The blonde raised an eyebrow. “So when you lifted that poker…”
“I was about to enact Act Three a bit too early and a bit too hard,” I said. I leaned the poker carefully back where I’d found it. “I apologize for barging in. Are you Mrs. Hemp?”
“He thought we were real,” said the brunette, beaming. “He thought you were really about to kill us.”
The man grinned. “Not bad for a stand-in, huh? I haven’t rehearsed Robert’s role.”
I stuck out my hand. It was the least I could do, after nearly braining the man.
“You had me thoroughly convinced,” I said. Then I turned again to the woman while we shook hands.
“Oh, yes, yes, I’m Mrs. Hemp,” she replied, smiling. “I’m sorry. I should have closed the door, but I didn’t want to leave Robert out on the stoop.” She stepped forward, laughed again, and offered me her hand to shake. “We’re rehearsing,” she said, as we shook hands. “Of course we rehearse at the theatre as well, but this scene is so sticky we wanted to work on it here.” She brightened suddenly. “Are you with the theatre, Mister Markhat?”
I grinned back. “I’m not, Mrs. Hemp,” I said, while the brunette and her murderous male friend sat down on the couch and began a whispered exchange punctuated by numerous stabs at the script. “Actually, a friend sent me by with a parcel for you. She knows I’m interested in art, and I understand you have a new piece by-”
I trailed off as Mrs. Hemp flew into a silent but furious flurry of shushing signs at me. She glanced at the pair on the couch, sighed in relief when she decided they hadn’t been listening, and ushered me out of the room, through the foyer, and out the door, which she closed with a solid bang.
“That’s a secret, Mr. Markhat,” she said. “I’m not even going to hang it until the evening of our cast party for Three Murders by Midnight. It’s a Werewilk,” she whispered. “The best I’ve ever seen.”
I winced. Darla’s linen clad gown lay crumpled on the stoop, so I bent and picked it up and handed it ruefully to Mrs. Hemp.
“It’s from Darla’s,” I said. “I dropped it when I thought your friend was being throttled.”
She brushed it off and smiled. “Well, I can hardly blame you for that,” she said. “I doubt it’s hurt. Darla always double-wraps.”
“I’ll make it good if a stitch is out of place,” I said. “Now, about the you-know-what.”
“You can’t see it,” said the blonde. “Not unless you come to the cast party.” She grinned a sly grin. “It’s two weeks from Saturday,” she said, looking up at me with an ever-widening smile. “If you’re interested?”
I smiled back. I’m a generous fellow, with my smiles.
“Oh, I’m interested,” I said, with commendable accuracy. “Do you know Lady Werewilk? Personally, I mean.”
Mrs. Hemp nodded a happy yes. I began to wonder where Mr. Hemp might be, and if he himself had access to any wrought iron fireplace pokers.
“Erlorne? Oh yes, I know her quite well,” said Mrs. Hemp, with an unwifely gleam in her eye. “Very well indeed.”
Mrs. Hemp’s hand had made its way to my collar, and was adjusting it. Ordinarily, I’d have made mention of Darla and her collar-straightening duties, but in the interest of keeping Mrs. Hemp talking I let her correct whatever imperceptible flaw had crept into my shirt.
Inspiration struck. “Let’s say I wanted to get my hands on a Werewilk right now, Mrs. Hemp,” I said. “You know the art community. How would an outsider go about that?”
“Well, Mr. Markhat, if you’re so eager to get your hands on something, I suppose you could just go visit the woman herself,” she cooed. “You know, like you did with me. Just show up at the door.”
Now it appeared my neck needed attention. I’d run out of stoop on which to back up. She knew it, and grinned, showing teeth that were white and straight.
“Oh, bugger,” she said. “At least have the kindness to tell me I almost had you.”
I frowned before I could stop myself.
Mrs. Hemp pouted. “That was my best femme fatale,” she said, stepping back. “Or are you in love?”
I stared and she laughed. “You are in love,” she said. “That’s all right, then. No wonder you didn’t succumb to my wiles.”
“I was succumbing, really I was. Another minute, I’d have been in a swoon, proposing marriage, assuming your husband wouldn’t mind.”
“Mr. Hemp did me the courtesy of dying on our wedding night,” said Mrs. Hemp. “But I’d have said no, in any case, Mr. Markhat. I know all about you and Darla Tomas, you see, and I simply couldn’t lose access to Rannit’s best dressmaker’s for any mere man.”
I grinned and wiped sweat I hadn’t known was there off my brow. “Good show, Mrs. Hemp,” I said. “And all that without a script.”
She bowed. “Now then,” she said. “What is it you want to know about Lady Werewilk?”
“Anything you can tell me,” I replied. “I’m not out to hurt her. The opposite, in fact. But the art scene isn’t one I know, Mrs. Hemp. And I don’t have much time to learn it.”
“All right,” she said. She paused to let a gaggle of pedestrians pass. “I’ll tell you what I know. But only because you came charging to my rescue, you understand?”
“Erlorne Werewilk wanted to be an artist, Mr. Markhat,” she began. “But she had an accident as a child. You’ll never see her with her gloves off, but if you do, you’ll see she’s missing three fingers on her right hand.” Mrs. Hemp shook her head sadly. “She’s had a lot of bad luck, now that I think about it,” she added. “That. Her poor addled brother. The Regent’s Council of Arts refusing her admittance, bad-mouthing her artists. And the rumors too…”
She shut up, realizing she’d said something she hadn’t intended.
“Oh, the rumors,” I said, with an air of dismissal. “I’m not interested in those. Nonsense, every word.”
She nodded assent. “I never believed them,” she said. “Her fiance had no business being on that horse in the first place.”
“He certainly didn’t. And Lady Werewilk certainly had nothing to do with that accident.”
“She couldn’t have,” agreed the helpful Mrs. Hemp. “Even the stable-boy agreed she was never anywhere near the saddle.”
I nodded, hoping more was forthcoming, but the brunette called out to Mrs. Hemp from inside the house and that was all I was going to get.
“I have to get back to rehearsal,” she said. She flashed me another big toothy smile. “But I meant what I said about the party. Bring your Miss Tomas. I’m sure she’d enjoy herself too.”
“Thank you. Tell your strangler he needs to grit his teeth more, and keep his elbows down.”
“I’ll do that, Mr. Markhat.” She suddenly stood on tiptoe and planted a none too chaste kiss right on my lips. “See you soon.”
And then she was gone, gown swirling around her back as her door slammed shut.
I found a handkerchief and mopped away any trace of foreign lipstick as I headed back toward the freshly painted red house by the cabstand and the labyrinth of streets beyond it. I figured Darla and Gertriss would be back by the time I got to the dress shop, which would leave me about three hours to deposit Gertriss back with Mama and get ready for dinner with Darla.
I decided that after I got the finely dressed Gertriss tucked safely away I’d make one more stop before calling it a day. I hadn’t seen Evis in nearly a week, and it was my turn to show up on his stoop. And while I’d never seen much in the way of paintings adorning the dark wood walls of House Avalante, Evis or one of his staff might know more about what happened to Lady Werewilk’s late fiance than even the knowledgeable Mrs. Hemp.
I briefly considered taking Gertriss along to Avalante. She’d need to meet Evis sooner or later, if she was going to work for me. And that was just the kind of needling I thought Mama needed. But then I made a rough estimate of the pitch, volume and duration of the screeching Mama was likely to emit in the wake of such a visit, and I decided to put off any visits to halfdead Houses until they were absolutely necessary.
I backtracked, using the Big Bell’s spire for reference, and made it back to Darla’s right on time, and a full half an hour before the girls did.
Gertriss was radiant. She’d had a manicure, a pedicure and tutelage in eye makeup, and I swear she was already losing the farm-girl stomp and barnyard voice.
Darla saw it too. “She’ll never go back to the pig-pens,” she whispered, as Mary and Gertriss giggled and chirped in front of a tall mirror.
“Not dressed like that,” I agreed, chuckling. “Mama is going to have a spitting fit.”
“Seven o’clock sharp,” said Darla. “I’ll be here. Someone put me behind in my work today.”
“Seven sharp,” I said. We stole a kiss, and I got Gertriss out of there before she bought anything else.
Visiting my halfdead friend Evis is a little more complicated than just walking up and knocking.
House Avalante is monstrous. I often wondered how long it would take me to jog around the thing, even if fences and gardeners and butlers would allow it. And that’s just the five stories above the ground-most of Avalante is well below that, and even though I’m privy to Evis and his inner sanctum I’ve never seen the bottom of the subterranean House.
I make sure I wear my Avalante pin, and even then I introduce myself a half a dozen times to a half a dozen blank-faced minions. They know me by now, but the questions and the hard looks never change. I’m frisked for weapons, I’m told to sit and wait, once I even brought a bag with an apple and two sandwiches, and they searched that too.
Evis always apologizes, and I always shrug it off-my reception at most of the other halfdead Houses would be far worse, and would most likely culminate in unpleasantness of the fatal variety. So being patted down for knives or siege-engines doesn’t upset me too much.
Evis was sleepy-eyed and yawning that afternoon, and by his standards, he was hardly dressed-his jacket was unbuttoned, his shirt was wrinkled and his tie was draped across the back of his chair.
“Long night?” I asked, settling back into his luxurious leather reclining chair.
“Annual House financial meeting,” said Evis, with a toothy yawn. “Takes forever. Boredom would have killed me, if I weren’t already dead. Cigar?”
“Certainly,” I said. Evis grinned and produced a pair of Southlands, and we cut and lit and puffed.
“I doubled my staff today,” I said, once we got the stogies going and the brandy decanted. Evis lifted an eyebrow and chuckled.
“Did Three-leg Cat take a wife?” he asked.
I explained about Gertriss and Mama. Evis guffawed and grinned throughout.
“You’re a soft touch, Markhat,” he said. “Mama’s got you wrapped around her little finger, and you know it.”
I nodded. It’s never wise to argue with the man who just poured you a snifter of brandy older than all your grandparents. “She’s a good kid,” I said. “I’m letting her stay on for one case. Then we’ll see.”
“Bring her around,” said Evis. “She’s got to be better to look at than you.”
I nodded. “When we get back,” I said. “We’re heading out of town tomorrow on a case. Probably be in Wardmoor for a few days.”
Evis frowned. “That’s almost Troll country,” he said. “Past the old walls, isn’t it?”
I nodded and sipped. “House is called Werewilk, place is called the Banshee’s Walk. Ever heard of it?”
Evis frowned. “Crazy artist lady, is that her?” he said. “Offed her fiance a few years back?”
I sat up straight. “I heard there was an accident. Something about a horse.”
“Word was she put a bur under his saddle,” said Evis. Then he shrugged. “But who knows. It was just gossip. Rich man falls off a bucking horse. Woman doesn’t attend the funeral. Tongues wag.”
“How rich was he?”
“He was the eldest son of Horave Elt. Heir to the Elt foundry empire.” Evis raised his cigar. “He can afford more of these than I can.”
I whistled. “Did father Elt take it hard?”
Evis shrugged. “You’d have to ask him that, Markhat. That’s all I know.”
I sighed, turned my attention back to my cigar and Evis’s brandy.
“That’s some strange country, Markhat,” noted Evis, after a while. “Lots of stories about Wardmoor.”
“Every house is haunted, every shaded lane infested with ghouls,” I agreed. “But don’t worry, I’ll sleep with the sheets pulled up way over my head.”
Evis chuckled. “Just a lot nonsense, those stories. People probably say the same about the Heights.”
I shrugged. People actually said a lot worse, and Evis knew it, but it wasn’t worth pointing out.
“Still, that reminds me, Markhat. There’s something I’ve been meaning to give you, ever since you made the acquaintance of Encorla Hisvin. I’ll be back in a moment, help yourself to another glass.”
Evis rose and padded silently out of the room. I poured, sniffed and drank, alone in a dim chamber deep in a house full of vampires and oddly and completely at ease.
I heard a door click, and Evis was back, a narrow wooden case in his hands.
“Mind you don’t wave this around at the Watch,” he said, handing me the case. “It’s not legal, in the strictest sense, unless you’re a city employee.”
The catch wasn’t locked, so I opened it.
Inside was a sword. A shortsword, about the length of my forearm, with a double-edged silver blade that gleamed with the promise of ready mayhem and a dark wood grip already stained here and there with something that was not applesauce.
“It’s ensorcelled,” said Evis. “Blows struck against reanimated corpses will be particularly efficacious.”
I took it gently from the case. The edges glowed a faint ghostly silver in the candlelight.
Just perfect when dealing with someone named the Corpsemaster, I thought. I wondered briefly if it was also intended for use against the halfdead.
“The spellwork will also be potent against halfdead,” said Evis, very quietly. “It’s the same one we use on our crossbow bolts. Though of course I hope you will use it carefully in that instance.”
I put the sword back in its velvet-lined case and closed it firmly shut.
“I’m always careful with big butter knives,” I said. “And thanks.”
Evis sat. “Don’t thank me,” he replied, grinning. “I have no idea where you got that, never seen it before, anyway I prefer a crossbow myself.” He produced a deck of cards from somewhere in his desk, shuffled them with an expert’s ease and let his dirty white eyes meet mine.
“Surely you have time for a few hands,” he said. “Luck might be with you, tonight.”
I laughed. “Luck lost my address years ago.” I am a lousy card player, and Evis knows it, which is why we never play for real money. “But who knows. Deal, and we’ll see if she’s found me tonight.”
Evis shuffled, and I cut. By the end of the night I was down another four hundred and fifty crowns.
It seems Luck gets lost as easily as I do, in Rannit, these days.
I’m never late for a date with Darla. She’d be more likely to forgive dirt under my fingernails or Evis’s brandy on my breath than a lack of punctuality.
So I was at her door, with a cab no less, before the Big Bell clanged out seven. We were dining by seven thirty, back at her tiny walk-up by Curfew, and if you want to know anything more than that you’ll have to ask Darla, and good luck.
My Avalante pin on my lapel, I walked home well after midnight. Evis’s magic sword hung beneath my jacket, the tip of it shining every now and then in the moonlight. Darla had frowned and turned away at the sight of it.
“Every sword needs a name,” I said aloud, as I walked. I heard boots scrape somewhere behind me, heard a furtive whisper.
I yanked out the sword, held it high, let it glitter. Boots and whispers withdrew. Rolling Curfew-breaking drunks is one thing, I suppose, but tackling a gleaming sword is something else entirely.
“I dub thee Toadsticker,” I said. “Slayer of miscreants, opener of packages, occasional carver of baked turkeys. Let all men hear, and know mild caution.”
I swear the steel flickered.
I slipped Toadsticker back under my belt. The reason the Army never bothered with hexed weapons was their legendary lack of reliability. It was too easy to turn a hideously expensive magical dingus into a mundane lump of metal by turning it north and sneezing, or by unknowingly performing some other random act that unlatched the hex. Even the mighty wand-wavers occasionally found themselves betrayed by their own fickle handiworks. Like the time old Hooler’s famous iron staff melted right in the face of a Troll charge. They said later the wizard had spilled salt on it while eating supper. A pinch of salt goes astray, and a city falls. Hurrah for modern sorcery.
But you never know when a good sharp length of steel will come in handy, as I’d just demonstrated. I patted Toadsticker’s hilt and hurried home.
Three Leg Cat got me up way before I meant to rise. I groaned and threw pillows, but Three Leg merely shouldered them airily aside and insisted I serve him breakfast.
I was up and shaved and bathed and packed before Mama and Gertriss darkened my door.
“Morning, ladies,” I said, motioning them inside. Mama held a basket that smelled of hot biscuits, and Gertriss carried a big pot of coffee.
Mama merely grunted as she shuffled inside. Gertriss was all smiles, and dressed in the blouse and pants she’d worn home yesterday. She’d also dabbed something fragrant behind her ears, and was making sure I caught a whiff of it by leaning close and fussing with breakfast.
They do learn fast.
“Did you sleep well, Mr. Markhat?” she asked.
“I did indeed,” I answered, rifling through Mama’s basket and selecting a huge biscuit stuffed with thick slabs of ham. “You?”
Gertriss nodded while Mama glared. I grinned and sat.
“You seem a bit quiet this morning, Mama,” I managed, between mouthfuls. I winked at Gertriss, and she perched on my desk and took dainty bites. Mama stood and huffed and refused to sit in my chair. “Run out of bats for the cauldron?”
“You know damned well why I ain’t happy, boy,” she grumbled, with a sideways glance at Gertriss. “Weren’t no need for such things.”
I swallowed and lifted a finger. “That’s where you’re wrong, Mama. You want Gertriss to learn finding, she’s got to look the part. No one is going to open up to a swineherd, much less hire one for finding, and you know it.” I wiped my chin. “That’s how us city folk dress. You don’t have to like it, but if she’s going to work for me that’s what she’ll wear, and that’s final.”
Mama made snuffling noise that might have been grudging assent or a sign of early pneumonia and sat.
I tried not to let too much triumph creep into my tone.
“All packed, Miss?” I asked. “I figure we’ll be there two days, maybe three.”
“All packed, Mr. Markhat,” said Gertriss. She made no effort to conceal the glee in her voice, and I felt a brief stab of sympathy for Mama, who appeared to be learning that young-uns plucked from the country and given a taste of city life might be harder to keep in wholesome, modest burlap than she’d ever dreamed. “Are we leaving soon?”
“As soon as we’ve finished eating and I’ve laid out a few things I learned yesterday.” I launched into a retelling of my gallery visit and the interrupted strangling at the Hemp house and my talk with Evis. Mama lost most of her huff and forgot to pretend she wasn’t listening.
“And that’s all I know right now,” I said, draining the last of my coffee. Gertriss was nodding, taking it all in, and Mama was trying to choke down a hunk of ham so she could speak.
“People just told you, all that?” Gertriss asked. “You didn’t even ask them much, sounds like.”
I nodded. “The trick is just to get them talking, most of the time. You come up to a stranger and start hammering them with questions, usually what you’ll get is silence or a blow to the head. Best thing to do is draw them out. Let them decide to show off by telling you something they think you don’t know.”
Mama guffawed. “Same as with card-readin’,” she said. “Half the time, the real trouble is getting ’em to shut up long enough to say anything yourself.”
Gertriss tilted her head in question. “Is that what we’ll do at House Werewilk?”
“That’s part of it,” I said. “We’ll go, we’ll listen. We won’t start pushing until and if we get the lay of the land and haven’t heard anything suggestive in the first day or so. But I’ll handle most of the talking, this time out. I mainly want you to be another set of ears, another set of eyes.”
“She can do more’n that, boy,” said Mama. “She’s a Hog in more than name. She’s got the Sight, all right, and don’t you forget it.”
Gertriss rolled her eyes. She stopped herself when she realized she was doing it, and Mama didn’t see, but I did.
I let it lie, though. Provoking more of Mama’s familial wrath wasn’t what I had in mind for the start of my day.
So I just nodded sagely. “Noted, Mama,” I said. The light through my door was good and strong, and I had a belly full of ham, and as much as I hate working even I have to admit that’s a good place to start.
“So what about you, Mama?” I asked. “Got any mystical warnings for us, before we head out? Surely a place called the Banshee’s Walk rates an eldritch utterance or two.”
Mama snorted. “Boy,” she said, “don’t think I don’t know what goes on in that thick head of yours. I know you pretends you don’t believe a word I say-but I also know he listens,” she added, with a nod at Gertriss. “’Cause he knows my cards can see what others can’t, sometimes.”
I rose and stretched and yawned. “So spill it, Mama. We need to get moving. Wardmoor is a long way, and part of it on foot.”
“I seen a sword, boy,” snapped Mama. “Ain’t no ordinary sword, neither. Got magic all around it.”
“Have you ever seen me carry a sword, Mama?” I asked.
“I ain’t,” said Mama. “But I reckon you’re carryin’ one now. It’s in your rucksack, ain’t it? I can see it clear from here.”
I frowned. I hadn’t mentioned Toadsticker, wasn’t going to. Sometimes the best weapon is the hidden one.
Maybe Mama saw me with it coming home the night before. Or maybe not. “Keep going,” I said. Mama saw my look and shrugged and dropped it.
“I seen secrets,” she said. “Secrets, and men screaming. Army men. I seen the sky fill with smoke. Fire and death, boy. Lots of it. All around.”
Gertriss looked at me, questioning. I lifted my hand for quiet.
“The Army is nowhere near Wardmoor,” I said. “You know that.”
“I’m tellin’ you what I seen, boy, not what I know,” snapped Mama. “And I seen Army men and fire and death. Might be what’s done happened. Might be what’s to come. Ain’t for me to say.”
Gertriss was getting pale. “All right, Mama,” I said. “Fires and mayhem. How original. Anything else?”
Mama stabbed a stubby finger at me. “I heard wailing, boy,” she said. “Wailing. Like I ain’t never heard before. It was long and loud and, boy, it meant somebody was goin’ to die.” She lowered her hand and sighed. “Just make sure it ain’t goin’ to be you, boy. And make sure it ain’t goin’ to be my niece, neither. You got that?”
“I got it,” I said. “No dying by me or Gertriss, at least not without your permission.”
Mama rose and snatched up her empty basket. “You remember who you are, young Miss,” Mama said to Gertriss, with a glare that would have withered ironwood. Gertriss met it evenly and even managed a smile in return.
“I will, Mama,” she said. “Please don’t worry.”
Mama grunted and caught me in her famous Hog hex-stare.
“You mind you keep that there sword close to hand, boy,” she said.
My yawn wasn’t intentional. But Mama took it as such and whirled and stomped out, cussing and wheezing.
Gertriss wiped crumbs off my desk and stood up. “Is it true?” she asked. “Do you have a sword in there?” She pointed with a nod toward my rucksack in the corner.
“Got a horse and a trebuchet too,” I replied. “I’d bring the catapult, but I like to travel light.”
Gertriss grinned. “So anytime you answer a question with a joke, that’s probably a yes,” she said.
“Sure it is,” I agreed. I stood and heaved my old Army rucksack over my shoulder. “Where’s the rest of your luggage?” I asked. “We should get going.”
“Just inside the door at Mama’s. I’ll fetch it and meet you outside.” She was honest to angels excited about going to work. I shook my head at such a marvel, wondered how long it would last.
She darted away, and I walked out into the light.
It took us two cabs to get to the south end, through neighborhoods that changed quickly from moderately inhabitable row houses to buck-roofed slums and finally to the stink and noise and even worse stink of the cattle yards and slaughterhouses that buttressed the remaining Old Wall on the south.
Even Gertriss, who’d spent her life doing whatever it is country folk do with swine in their swine-yards, held one of my handkerchiefs tight over her nose and mouth and pulled herself as far away from the windows as the cab allowed.
“Not much further,” I said, over the din of frightened cattle and furious drovers. “Then it’s sweet country air and wholesome country sunshine all the way to Wardmoor.”
She nodded, her eyes dubious.
“There are more than six hundred thousand people in Rannit,” I said. “All of them hungry, all of them demanding leather shoes and leather belts and leather coats. This is the only way to keep them fed and hold their pants up.”
She may have grinned behind the handkerchief. I shrugged and leaned back until we rounded the last row of stinking slaughter-barns, and I caught first sight of the Old Wall’s gap-toothed bulk over the rooftops.
“Nearly there,” I said. I shuffled in my seat, ready to get out, even if it meant a long hike. I hoped Gertriss’s new leather boots were a good fit, because blisters or no we were heading to Wardmoor. She was too heavy to carry and it was too far to turn back.
She must have seen me regarding her boots. “I brought my old ones just in case,” she said, her words muffled by the handkerchief. “You won’t have to carry me, Mr. Markhat.”
I lifted an eyebrow. I hadn’t said a word aloud.
Maybe the Hog women do share the gift. That thought sent shivers down my spine.
If Gertriss saw, she had the good grace not to show it.
I hadn’t been south of the city since I was kid. All I remembered from that trip was the cool shade cast by the Old Wall, the lush mosses and huge ferns that covered the shaded parts of it, and the way the noise and stink from the city stopped right as the scent of wet stones and moist soil and green growing things began.
Back then, the cattle roads were well east of where Gertriss and I stood after leaving the cab. Back then, the road I’d taken had been a well maintained if narrow affair made of smooth, carefully set flagstones that wound between arching old pines. Tidy little stone bridges spanned clean, burbling creeks. I’d spent the whole trip fully expecting to see Elves cavorting in the sun-dappled wood at any moment.
My, how things had changed.
The cabbie had laughed when I’d asked him how far he was willing to go. Now I saw why.
The road, or more precisely the wide, flat old pavers that made up the road, was gone. Hauled away by industrious country folk during the War, I surmised, when the Watch was gone fighting and the locals decided their houses and barns needed a new stone or two.
Gone also were the quaint moss-covered stone bridges. Ramshackle post and beam affairs stood in their places, showing profound signs of neglect and weathering.
The clear burbling creeks were foul, muddy rushes, polluted and defiled by the cattle roads, which were now in plain sight and raising a stink even though the wind was blowing toward them.
I regretted not hiring a pair of horses for a week. Gertriss might have brought old boots, but I hadn’t, and we both stood a good chance of turning an ankle on the treacherous, muddy trail ahead.
“Lady Werewilk came through this?” asked Gertriss, incredulous.
“She had a horse and a butler, I imagine,” I said. “Anyway, we don’t have to walk the whole way. She said she’d have a wagon waiting for us up where the road hasn’t been quarried.”
“How far is that?”
“Not sure,” I replied. “Only one way to find out.”
But Gertriss wasn’t listening to me or looking at me anymore. “What’s that?” she asked, taking a step off the trail toward a big swaying pine tree.
I followed her eyes.
The pine had sprouted feathers. Black feathers, crow’s feathers, three of them arranged in a neat triangle right about eye level.
Gertriss touched the ends of them just as something streaked past her shoulder, close enough to ruffle a few strands of her hair.
I was maybe three long strides away. She saw me coming and put up her hands and that’s all she had time to do before I hit her midways and took her down. We rolled, and she snarled and clawed. Despite my weight and experience the only way I got her to be still was by pinning her shoulders and head with my rucksack.
“That was a crossbow bolt,” I said. “Shut up and be still.”
She growled something that didn’t sound much like assent but at least she quit trying to knee me in the groin.
I rolled off her, kept low and kept my rucksack in front of me, and peeped around the big old pine long enough to scan the woods before I pulled my fool head back. I’d seen nothing but trees and scrub, heard nothing but wind and the far-off lowing of cattle, but I knew at least one crossbow-wielding Markhat-hater was lurking somewhere near.
Gertriss scooted closer, biting her lip. I felt blood running down my face, shrugged. “Hush,” I said. “You didn’t know.”
“How many?” she whispered.
“I figure two,” I whispered back. One to reload. One to fire. If they were smart they had at least two crossbows, probably sturdy, quiet army-surplus Stissons.
“What do we do now?” asked Gertriss. She was eyeing my rucksack. It dawned on me that they’d wanted her dead first so she wouldn’t scream when I went down.
I shook my head. “Crossbows trump swords,” I said. “So we wait.”
Gertriss frowned. “Wait for what?”
I heard a tromping in the woods. They were on the move. Hoping to flush us out, flank us, just walk up and bury a pair of black-bodied oak bolts right in our chests.
“Keep your head down low,” I said. “Sidestep every third step. Move fast, be quiet, and don’t stop, not for anything.”
Gertriss went wide-eyed. “But-”
“Just do it.” I fumbled in my rucksack, found Toadsticker and yanked it out in a shower of fresh socks and at least one clean pair of underpants.
I stood, pulled Gertriss to her feet and gave her a shove.
Then I took a deep breath and stepped out of cover.
A couple of things happened then, more or less at the same time. First, a muddy, wild-eyed bull calf came trotting out of the trees on the other side of the old road and sauntered right toward me, bound, I suppose, for anywhere but the cattle-paths and the stink of the slaughterhouses and the city.
Next, from the ruined road that lead south toward Wardmoor, a pair of skinny, cloak-clad teenagers trotted up, jaws agape, their pimpled expressions those of confusion giving quickly way to fear.
Finally, and much to my relief, dogs started barking. Out of sight, but close and loud and getting closer and louder. I knew the Watch uses dogs outside the old walls, and I knew my crossbow-fancier knew that too.
The kids stopped, eyed my sword warily. The bull calf snorted at me and without slowing, ambled past, passing so close I could have patted his muddy head had I been so inclined. I suppose bleeding man, indifferent cow and upraised sword made quite a scene, because the youths exchanged looks and took a step back before speaking.
Neither held a crossbow. Neither would have known what to do with a crossbow had they held it.
“We’re looking for a Mr. Markhat,” said the taller of the two. He had long greasy hair and his boots didn’t match. “We’re supposed to meet him and take him to Wardmoor.”
“We don’t have any money,” said the other kid, quickly. “And we didn’t see nothing, either.”
I listened. Wind and trees and barking dogs. No telltale whisking of bolts through pine needles, no clunk and throw of a Stisson. But I did hear the rattle of a wagon, just around the bend, and a man urging on a horse and another man yelling something as he laughed.
“Gertriss,” I said.
“I’m here,” she replied. I didn’t think she’d taken more than four steps despite my shove and my warning. She had a big stick in one hand and what appeared to be one of Mama’s well-worn kitchen knives in the other.
“Come on out,” I said. “Let’s get moving. It’s bad business to keep the client waiting.”
“So you’re Mr. Markhat?” asked the tall kid. He didn’t try to hide a frown. “We made it over the old Bar bridge after all, got further than we thought. What happened to you?”
Gertriss stepped out into the road, her hands suddenly empty, pine needles in her hair, dirt on both the knees of her good new britches.
“Nothing,” I said. A fat drop of blood formed at the tip of my nose, and I wondered just how deep and long my new scratches were. “The cow made lewd remarks about my apprentice. We had to have words. How far to House Werewilk from here?”
The wagon rolled into view. Two men rode the wagon, one driving, one stretched out in the back with his hat covering his face. By now I was sure that my new friend with the crossbow and the grudge was halfway to the cattle-road if not already across it. Three barking jumping mutt-dogs followed, nipping at the wagon wheels and yelping at each other and even though they were not and would never be huge somber-eyed Watch dogs, I could have hugged them all.
“Not far,” said the greasy-haired kid, who was already eyeing Gertriss with the kind of leer she’d teach him to regret if she caught him in reach of those finely sharpened claws of hers. “You and the lady can ride.”
I hefted my rucksack, and only then did I discover the crossbow bolt lodged deep within it. I’d later find it had penetrated two boot soles and a book before stopping, as well as my best white shirt and a wool sock embroidered by Darla with my initials.
The kid saw and went pale. I shrugged. Let them think I spend every day casually picking crossbow bolts out of everything from my laundry to my oatmeal. If I needed to shake in fear, I’d do so later, in the privacy of my own locked room.
Gertriss came to stand close to me and wiped pine needles and loam off her knees. “They’re gone?” she whispered.
I nodded. “For now.”
I could tell by her look she was having second, third, and possibly fourth thoughts about life as a highly paid finder. But in the end, she picked up her bag and made for the wagon, giving the leering kid a good hard country glare as she marched.
I followed, and we got ponies and dogs and wagons turned around then headed down the ruined road toward the Banshee’s Walk.
The ride was slow and rough.
The sun peeked through, but not often, and as we entered Wardmoor proper the high, thick boughs overhead blotted out even the narrowest shafts of daylight.
And naturally, in the shadows, the huldra came out to play.
I saw shadows flit and tumble between the limbs and the massive black trunks. I heard whispers and sighs just beneath the soft rush of the wind and the ever-present scratching of branch and leaf. The deeper we went, the louder the whispers became. The closer they came to forming words. Strange words, words not spoken in Kingdom, words that only a sorcerer or their dark kin might understand.
It’s been that way since the night I held the huldra. Even though I broke it, even though I let it fall from my hand, I cannot deny that I told it my name. And even broken, even burned to ash in Mama’s black iron cauldron and scattered over an ogre’s manure-cart, the huldra still has a hold on me, at least in the dark.
The wagon jerked. Gertriss fell against me, and caught my hand. At once, the tumbling shadows vanished, and the whispering was just the wind.
“I am awful sorry about that,” she said, looking at the deep scratches she’d raked across my face when I’d tackled her. Although most of the bleeding had stopped, I could feel them oozing and beginning to itch. “I just didn’t know what had got into you.”
I shrugged and forced a grin. “I’m just glad you didn’t whip out that knife. I need both my kidneys.”
She blanched and bit her lip.
“Not much farther,” said Marlo, the wagon driver. “Round the bend and across another creek. Might have to wade the creek-hard enough on the ponies without a load.” Marlo turned around and regarded us quizzically from beneath his furry white eyebrows. “Now, what you reckon is a’ goin’ on with the Mistress and them there surveyin’ stakes?”
I wiped fresh blood from my chin and pondered my reply.
I don’t generally like to talk shop with the hired help until I get them all in the same room. That way they hear the same thing, and I eliminate the inevitable wild rumors that fly when private conversations get retold a few dozen times.
I gave Gertriss a sideways glance that I hoped meant here’s an old finder’s trick.
“Too soon for me to have much of a reckoning,” I said, amiably. “But you live there. You see everything, hear everything, know everybody.” I tilted my head just so, furrowed my brow with just the right mixture of interest and concern. “Why not tell me what you reckon is going on?”
Marlo laughed. “Now what makes you think an old dried up road apple sech as me knows anything ’bout the goins’on in that there House?”
“You’ve got a good pair of eyes and a sharp pair of ears. I bet you knew about the stakes on the grounds before the Mistress did.”
That made sense. It would be a gardener or a stable boy or a driver who found the first surveyor’s stake. I doubt Lady Werewilk, or any other Lady, did much traipsing around in the weeds as a part of her daily routine.
Marlo chuckled and turned back toward the road. “It were Skin what found them first stakes,” he said. “Dern fool didn’t know what they was. Brung ’em in for kindling-wood.”
“He keeps the bees,” said Marlo. “I reckon Skin might be a bit tetched. In the head, you know. But he’s a deft hand with them bees.’
“How long ago did he find the first stakes?”
“Reckon it were the first of the month. Yea, that would be right, it were payday.”
I shot Gertriss a look. Lady Werewilk had put the discovery of the stakes only two weeks past-as usual, the communication between masters and servants was showing a few holes.
Gertriss nodded, understanding.
“How many times since then?”
“Damn near every other day,” grumbled Marlo. “Never in the same place, you understand. Sometimes here, sometimes there. Onced they was right in the middle of Skin’s beehives. I thought he was gonna bust a gut, made him so mad, them messin’ with his bees.”
I nodded, went quiet while Marlo urged his ponies in and out of a ditch with a series of grunts and foot-stomps.
“Lady Werewilk said she’s had people out at night watching the grounds,” I said, once we were back on the road. “Why do you think no one has ever seen the surveyors laying the markers?”
“I reckon they’s awful sneaky,” said Marlo. He spat. “We’s housekeepers n’ cooks and one daft beekeeper. Ain’t a soldier in the lot. No, sir. And this be the Banshee’s Walk.”
Gertriss poked me. I nodded since Marlo couldn’t see. I knew we’d both come to the same conclusion-Lady Werewilk might well have ordered her staff to walk the grounds at night and keep watch, but the only walking they’d likely done was well within their doors, and the only watching they’d done was between naps and from behind their windows.
“I wonder why it’s called that? Banshee’s Walk, I mean. No such thing.” I let the wagon roll over another bone-jarring bump. “Is there?”
Marlo snorted. I watched him look around, watched him gauge the distance between us, the kids and Gefner, who were lagging a good thirty paces behind the wagon and were well out of easy hearing.
“You can think what e’re the Hell you want,” said Marlo. “I know you city folk don’t hold no truth to old stories or old pony-masters. But I’m gonna tell you, you and your lady friend, that there’s more than just big old trees out here in these woods.” He raised his hand in protest, though I’d not said a word. “Now I ain’t sayin’ there’s banshees. I ain’t saying there ain’t, neither. I’m just sayin’ that people ought not to think that everywhere in the world is just like it is back there in that city, ’cause it ain’t.”
“I’ve been a lot of places,” I said, after a moment. “I’ve seen a lot things that people said I wouldn’t see. And one thing I never do is ignore what the people who live in a place say about a place.”
“Then you’re smarter than you look.” Marlo gruffed out a laugh to show, I suppose, he meant that as a compliment. “You just remember what ol’ Marlo told ye if you take a notion to go out of doors after dark. Might be more’n wild boars to worry about. Might be worth a damn sight more’n you’re gettin’ paid.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Marlo spat again, feigned a sudden interest in the road ahead.
I got nothing out of the rest of the crew. The skinny kids, Scatter and Lank, were stable boys who tagged along ostensibly to help with bags but were actually out to escape a morning shoveling the stables while sneaking gulps out of the bottle of still-brewed whiskey they utterly failed to hide. The other adult, Gefner, had introduced himself as a carpenter and hadn’t said a word to us since, although he was verbose enough with Scatter and Lank. I caught enough words on shifts of the wind to guess the topic of conversation-women-and gather that Gefner had quite a few opinions on the subject. I hoped Scatter and Lank had better sense than to take Gefner’s words at truth, though I doubted it.
Aside from Marlo’s dire warnings of supernatural ne’r-do-wells in the woods and Gertriss beginning to dab at my wounds with one of my own clean white socks, the ride grew uneventful. An hour passed and I finally settled into a rhythm, swaying and bobbing with the wagon, watching the shadows, seeing them once again begin to tumble and dart and wave.
Gertriss pinched me hard on the side of my leg. Her eyes were wide as saucers.
“What the Hell?” I batted her hand away.
Her eyes weren’t looking at me but out into the leafy murk.
“Mister Markhat,” she whispered. “I saw a woman, up in that tree.”
Marlo heard, turned, his eyes bright and sharp.
“Hush,” he barked. “Missy, you hush, and you hush now, you hear me, or so help me Angels you’ll be a walkin’ all the way to the House.”
“The lady won’t be walking anywhere,” I said. I meant it. “What did you see?”
Gertriss swallowed, stared. “It’s gone.” She swallowed. “I reckon my eyes were playin’ tricks on me.”
Marlo grumbled something. And behind us, the dogs began to bark and snarl, and I heard Scatter, Lank and Gefner break into a sudden determined run.
I whirled, but all I saw were three chagrined looking men being easily outpaced by the dogs, who overtook them and then overtook the wagon and ran quickly out of sight, tails tucked, fur on end, paws flying.
“Anything back there?” I yelled.
“Thought we heard a boar,” said Scatter. His long greasy hair hung down over his face.
“Boar my ass,” began Lank, who caught a boot to his shin by Gefner for his troubles.
“Boar,” said Gefner. “Reckon we’ll stick a might closer.”
Scatter cussed and muttered something uncomplimentary, but didn’t expand on his thoughts at that moment.
And Lady Werewilk would never hear a word of any of this, at least not from her staff. I wondered how many other things she’d not been told. I suspected there were more than a few.
I tried, but couldn’t pry anything else out of them. Gertriss all but moved into my lap. The shadows tumbled and capered, and until I slid my hand in my rucksack and found Toadsticker’s smooth hilt I heard the whispers begin anew.
“I know you think I’m crazy, Mr. Markhat, but I swear that’s what I saw.”
Gertriss spoke in a whisper, but Marlo heard anyway. He might have had something to say in rebuttal, but I decided Toadsticker’s blade needed a bit of polishing and he swallowed his words with a grunt.
“I don’t think you’re crazy.” Toadsticker gleamed in the shadows. “During the War, six of us were camped out on the bank of some lake. Never did find out if it had a name. But all six of us were awake and sober as stones, and we saw every damned fish in that lake just come jumping out of the water, right onto the bank. Flopping around by the thousands. Big and small and long and short. All flopping in the moonlight, all at once.”
Gertriss raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Really. We hauled ass out of there. Caught up with our company the next day. Nobody ever believed us. But I saw it.”
Marlo spat, and there may have been an earthy word mixed in with the expulsion. I grinned.
“So when I’m told there might be women in the trees, I say that’s a possibility. Especially since it doesn’t appear you’re the first to see this arboreal female-isn’t that right, Marlo?”
That shut Marlo up for the rest of the ride. I could tell, though, we were nearly to the House when the ponies picked up the pace and the old road showed signs of frequent use and the odor of wood smoke began to waft through the walls of forest. We rounded a wide bend, and dogs started barking. I heard a snatch of far-off laughter.
Marlo dropped his reins. The ponies didn’t need to be told or led or cajoled any longer, as they knew water, oats and rest were close.
Leaving the woods and entering the House grounds was such a subtle change I’d almost missed it. The shade was the same, cast by the same enormous old blood-oaks that ruled this patch of the forest. The road merely widened a bit, and there it was, the House Werewilk, shaded on all sides by trees that hung over it and kept its peaked roofs in dapples of shadow.
The House was old. Very old. You don’t see those roofs anymore, except in paintings. Slate tiles covered them, at angles so steep the moss could barely grow. The idea was to make it hard for Trolls or Elves or ambitious neighbors to climb around up there, and for flaming arrows or the like to slide quickly off.
The House was tall and square. It rose up five extra-tall pre-War stories, with a six-story turret at each corner. The tiny turret slot-windows provided for archers were all bricked up, but I could see plain where’d they’d been.
The whole place was brick and stone. Any wood that did show was ornamental. The old places had been built to resist burning, whether caused by careless cooks or oil-soaked missiles.
The tiny glass windows, set way back in their barred iron frames, were small and so thick they showed nothing but blurs behind them. I wondered if it was dark inside then decided it always looked like midnight, behind those doors.
The doors themselves were massive iron-banded garrison gates that someone had painted a merry and highly inappropriate bright red. The knocker in the middle had been given a garish coat of sunflower yellow. Such decor in Rannit proper would have brought out the Historic Preservation Society with battering rams and whole battalions of grim-faced lawyers.
Gertriss gawked and forgot herself and put a hand on my arm and then snatched it quickly away.
“That’s the biggest house I’ve ever seen, Mr. Markhat,” she said.
I chuckled. She’d seen places far bigger in Rannit, but I guess seeing Rannit’s houses crammed together made her think of them as less than this.
“It’s a nice place for a summer home,” I said. Marlo climbed down and started fussing with his ponies, Gefner followed him, yammering suddenly away and the kids Scatter and Lank vanished like yesterday’s dew.
I grabbed up my rucksack and offered to take Gertriss’s bag, but she leaped down with it in hand before I could say a word.
I laughed and nodded at the bright red doors.
“I guess we’ll just show ourselves in,” I said.
She nodded, listening to something.
I listened too.
There was music coming from inside the house. Music and clapping and probably two dozen people laughing behind those massive shut doors and those thick, bolt-proof glass windows.
“Does anyone work around here?” she asked.
“Just us tireless finders,” I said. We set out across the weedy lawn, past ward statues covered in vines and neglect, over stepping-stones that had sunk into the grass so deeply they were nearly covered over. I noticed that someone had painted smiles on the faces of the more somber yard wards, which is not only not seen in Rannit’s better neighborhoods but is actually illegal even in the shabby ones.
Bold red fox squirrels chattered and barked above us as we passed beneath them, and their shadows flew as they flanked us. The canopy was tall and thick, and the military part of me groaned at the thought of trying to ever defend this place now-the carefully planned fields of fire afforded by the corner towers were useless, cluttered up by limb and bough, leaving the house vulnerable to an easy assault on the doors.
Gertriss frowned. “You don’t much like this place, do you, Mr. Markhat?” she whispered.
I shrugged. Being in the woods was enough to spook a city boy, even one without crossbow bolts buried in his rucksack. And maybe there was something to Mama’s claims of Gertriss and the Sight.
“It could use some work,” I said. We were a stone’s throw from the red door now, and the laughter and music from inside was loud enough to make insulting our hosts aloud perfectly safe. It was obvious no one was watching out for visitors from town.
“Remember what I said. I’ll do most of the talking. You are my eyes and ears. I’d rather know what people do, who they look at, which ones say too much and which ones don’t talk at all. Got it?”
Gertriss nodded. We hiked up the big old granite steps, put our bags down in the weeds that sprang up through the cracks, and I gave the yellow doorknocker a good solid half-dozen blows.
I might as well have dropped a sack full of shadows. If anyone inside heard me, and over the din it seemed unlikely, no one bothered to come to the door.
I took up the knocker and gave the door another half-dozen whacks. “Hello,” I shouted. “City Watch. Your house is on fire. Trolls in the yard. Tax collectors.”
I put my shoulder to the door and shoved.
It wasn’t even latched. Sunlight spilled in, three dogs and a pair of cats spilled out, and the musicians didn’t miss so much as a single beat.
The doors opened into a standard three-walled alcove. The missing wall, to our right, opened into a Great Room, and it was there the party remained in full swing.
A band of sorts was parked up and down the grand, swooping stairs that led up into darkness. There was a pair of shaggy-haired skinny kids on long-necked Southern guitars, another pair whistling away on flutes, and another banging out a rhythm on a pair of old infantry drums. The drummer was so drunk he could barely stand, but his drumbeats were perfect.
At the foot of the stairs, there were more kids, two dozen at least, mostly paired off in the usual boy-girl fashion doing what were either dances or some sort of fever-induced fits. They weren’t all dancing. Naturally, there were a half-dozen partiers of either sex hovering in ragged circles around the dance floor, either staring into their cups to make it obvious they didn’t care much about this dancing foolishness anyway or giggling at each other and whispering behind raised hands.
I stepped inside. Gertriss followed. I let the door slam with a monstrous thud and it was only then that anyone noticed the House had been invaded.
The place was dark, and it took my eyes a moment to adjust. I saw mouths drop open and dancers turn and go still. By the time I was used to the lamplight and the candles, the last beats and bangs from the musicians died and the House was suddenly silent.
“You must be the finder,” said a kid.
“We’re supposed to fetch Lady Werewilk,” said another.
“Get him a beer first,” said a third.
And, lo and behold, someone pressed a tall cool beer right in my outstretched hand.
There was ice in it. Actual ice, cut out of a frozen stream last winter and stored in sawdust since.
I saw Gertriss frown as I lifted the glass to my lips. Maybe a touch of sight runs in my family too because I heard, clear as day, Mama warning Gertriss that I was too much fond of all things fermented.
It was good beer. Not one I recognized, either. A local brew, probably, one redolent of honey and an unusually sweet variety of hops.
There was a sound on the stairs, way up in the dark, and before I could take a second drink the musicians and the dancers and the hangers-on scattered. Within seconds, nothing was left but empty glasses, a few scarves and a lone white dog, that tilted his head and looked up at me with innocent doggy bewilderment.
“I do not ask for much,” said an icy voice from above. Gertriss mouthed “Lady Werewilk” as quick footfalls wound down toward us.
“But I suppose even what I do ask is too much,” continued Lady Werewilk. “I apologize for your reception, Goodman Markhat. You were supposed to be greeted like a guest, not thrust into the midst of a drunken bacchanal.”
Lady Werewilk reached us, somewhat winded and obviously annoyed. She was wearing another tight black dress, the skirt long but slit up her right side nearly to her waist. I decided to entertain the assumption that she had a pair of very nice legs, since what I could see of the right one invited further scrutiny.
I hefted my beer. “The greeting was perfectly acceptable, Lady Werewilk,” I said. “You have a lovely home.”
“Thank you, Goodman. It is a pity those who live here under the benefice of this House do not see it with such high regard.” She clapped her hands. “Emma! Ella! Bags!”
Feet scrambled, presumably those of Emma and Ella.
“It seems your trip was not without adventures.”
Beer and skirts. I’d forgotten about the claw-marks on my face.
“We ran into some trouble on the road south,” I admitted. “Bandits, probably.”
I shrugged. “That’s as good as any explanation for now, Lady.”
Emma and Ella appeared, clambering down the steps with twin expressions of exasperation. And twin everything else, right down to their maid’s outfits and the way their shiny leather shoes each sported a loose buckle on the left. They were tiny, compact girls, blonde haired, blue eyed, with just a hint of Elvishness in their long fingers and delicate noses.
“May we-” said one.
“-take your bags?” finished the other.
Gertriss let her jaw drop. I shot her a look, and she closed it. I knew from Mama that a lot of country people held some odd superstitions about twins, but this wasn’t the time or the place to air them.
“Please do,” I said. I’d worked the crossbow bolt out of my rucksack on the ride through the woods.
“Your rooms will be on the third floor,” said Lady Werewilk. “Emma, take Goodman Markhat’s bag. Ella, see to Miss Gertriss.” She frowned in concern, and I saw her resist the urge to touch my wounded face. “I’ve arranged to have the entire household present for the evening meal,” she said instead. “I believe you wanted to speak to everyone at once.”
“I do, and I thank you.” Emma picked up my rucksack with no apparent effort despite her diminutive size. Ella did the same with Gertriss’s bag, which from its heft must have contained both Mama’s card and potion shop and Darla’s entire inventory of summer gowns.
“You’ll hear a bell half an hour before the meal is served,” said Lady Werewilk. “Another will sound at five minutes until. The dining room is that way.” She motioned toward a wide, dark hall that led off to the right. “You’ll have no trouble finding it. Just follow the noise.”
“We’ll be there, Lady.”
Lady Werewilk nodded, oozed down the few remaining stairs and made off down the hallway she’d just shown us, doing fascinating things to her dress on the way.
Gertriss poked me in the ribs.
“You’re bleedin’ again, Mister Markhat.”
I felt a big fat drop of blood gather precariously at the end of my nose.
“So I am. Lead on, Emma. I may need to be stitched up before we dine. Have you ever stitched up a wounded man before?”
Emma giggled, and she and Ella sped up the stairs in absolutely perfect time.
My room-which was actually three rooms joined by two doors and one archway-was on the west side of the House. The tiny windows let in just enough afternoon sun to throw long shadows across the floor. I had to light candles just to keep from stumbling into things.
Gertriss was four doors down, on the same side. The walls were so thick I couldn’t hear a sound, though I knew she was prowling around and taking it all in.
I dropped my rucksack on the vast plane of clean linen that was my bed and started pounding on the wall.
A moment later, I heard a pounding in response, and muffled shouting about my lack of manners and how it had been a long and trying ride.
I left Gertriss to her explorations and sought out the fancy water closet. There was running water, both hot and cold, and the same newfangled flush toilet I hear the Regent squats over twice a day.
Feeling very cosmopolitan, I unpacked my shaving kit, ran enough hot water to fog the mirror, and set about seeing to my thoroughly clawed face.
I whistled. It was worse than I’d thought. Even with her claws blunted by a manicure, Gertriss had managed to give me a good country raking. I washed the cuts, which of course started the bleeding all over again, and by the time I was done it looked like an army surgeon’s tent had emptied itself on the floor.
Not an auspicious way to appear at the evening meal. But between the story of the crossbow bolts and the sword, which I imagined was spreading like wildfire below courtesy of Scatter and Lank, a few recent battle-scars might at least put the innocent off guard just enough to make tongues wag.
And wagging tongues are what line my purse.
I washed. I shook the wrinkles out of a good shirt and donned a pair of new shoes that sported a hole in the sole from a crossbow aimed at my favorite head. I combed my hair back and smoothed it down with the hair oil Darla bought me for Victory Day. Even so, I figured we had a good hour before the first of Lady Werewilk’s dinner bells rang.
I grinned. Time to show my young apprentice a thing or to about how finders spend their spare time.
I closed my door quietly behind me, stuck my hands in my pockets and ambled to Gertriss’s door. My hand was raised to knock, very softly, when various latches and locks began to click and loose until the door swung open just far enough to reveal a finger’s breadth of Gertriss’s face.
“Mister Markhat.” She spoke in a whisper. “You are the boss. I respect that. Believe me I do. But there is a bathtub in here. A bathtub with running water. Hot running water. A bathtub with hot running water and fancy store-bought soap and some kind of smell-good stuff in a jar. Is anyone about to kill us?”
“Not at the moment.”
“So I’ll close the door, but not lock it. And you can count to ten and come inside and wait for me in the front room. Can you do that?”
“I can do that. Except maybe the counting to ten part. What comes after four?”
The door shut. I heard feet dart quickly away.
I counted to ten, fingered my wounded face, counted to ten again just in case I’d counted too fast the first time. Then I went inside.
The next door was shut. Tendrils of steam wafted underneath it, and I could hear splashing.
Country girl. Hot bath.
I found a chair, folded my hands and let her take her time.
House Werewilk was a noisy place. Even the thick stone walls couldn’t block out the sounds of thirty-odd artists and the staff of ten banging, shouting, and stomping through their day.
Dogs were barking. I closed my eyes and counted at least six different barks. I didn’t think they were barking at anything in particular-each other, the wind, a squirrel-but the presence of so many dogs and so many people ought to have made it very difficult for a surveyor and his crew to slip unnoticed through the grounds.
Of course, from what Marlo had said, a circus complete with elephants could have paraded past the House’s red door, and it’s unlikely any of the staff would have done so much as peeked outside. And the artists all seemed to be kids, who doubtlessly had better things to do than be curious about any goings-on outside.
And the crossbows on the road. A random encounter with bandits?
I didn’t think so. The road we were traveling was seldom used. It seemed a poor choice for locating well-heeled prey.
I shifted in my chair, uncomfortable in the realization that someone might have been willing to commit murder just to keep me from reaching the House. Not that my murder would have necessarily roused the Watch from its perpetual bureaucratic slumber-but Evis, for instance, might be inclined to poke around. A vengeful Avalante is not a thing the casual killer is likely to merely shrug off.
And what exactly had Gertriss seen, in the trees? She claimed it was a woman. I was hardly an expert on the ways of the sturdy country folk hereabouts, but finding their women ascended into the boughs seemed unlikely. But what else could she have seen?
Her Sight. A trick of her Sight. I decided to ask her about that, and right on cue water splashed beyond the door and she spoke.
“She was there, Mr. Markhat. It weren’t no trick of my Sight. There was a woman sitting up there in a big old oak.”
I rose. I paced. It’s a bad habit, but having somewhere bigger than my tiny office to pace was just too much of a temptation.
“Maybe she was picking apples.”
“It was an oak tree, Mr. Markhat. She wasn’t picking anything. She was watching us. She didn’t think she’d be seen.”
The dogs had seen. So had Scatter and Lank. And all their reactions to seeing the woman had been to run.
“What did she look like, Gertriss? Why did the dogs spook, and the kids run?”
I could tell by the sounds that Gertriss was trying to figure out how to make the tub drain. Finally, there came a gurgling gush of water.
“She was maybe as tall as Mama, but thin, Mr. Markhat.” Glassware tinkled. “Thin like a bird. Wild hair. She was-well, nude, mostly.”
I grinned, hearing the obvious blush in her voice.
“Starkers and up a tree. You’d have thought Scatter and Lank would still be rooted to the spot. But they ran, Gertriss. Tell me why.”
Gertriss hesitated. That bothered me. I can’t have my eyes and ears editing their truths. Not at one out of every five crowns.
“Spill it, Gertriss. I’m the boss, remember?”
She sighed. I could hear a brush being drawn through her hair.
“She was wearing spider webs, Mr. Markhat. And not many of them. Just dirty spider webs, wrapped around her-her, um, body.”
“She was pale. Deadly pale. Her fingers were long-too long. But her eyes-they were big, too big. And dark and …” she trailed off, looking for words.
“Scary?” I suggested. “Eldritch? Foreboding? Inflamed?”
Clothes rustled. Shadows flew beneath her door. Finally, Gertriss herself emerged.
I’d have to start watching my reactions to Gertriss. Darla would not approve of how my jaw tended to go slack and my eyes fixed themselves on places that were not on the approved list of viewing sites for semi-attached males.
“They weren’t normal eyes, Mr. Markhat.” She breezed past me, all soap and fresh linen, and sat in the chair across from me. The thick bathrobe, twin to the one hanging in my closet, left her legs bare well above her knees. I shifted my gaze north and forced my mind heavenward.
“Not normal how, Gertriss?” Inspiration struck. “Look, I know Mama has told you a lot of things about me. One being that I’m pigheaded about accepting advice based on Hog Sight. Maybe that’s true, and maybe it isn’t. But I am asking. And I do want to know.”
Bingo. Gertriss beamed.
Everyone likes to think their opinions are sought after.
“She saw right inside you, when she looked, Mr. Markhat. More than that, when I saw her, she knew it, somehow, and when she looked at me, she…was getting in my head.” She shook her head and shivered, not from any chill in the room. “I know what that sounds like. But it happened. She has something like Sight, but different. Stronger. Older.”
I nodded. “Did you get a sense she wanted to hurt you?”
Gertriss shook her head. “I couldn’t make no sense-I couldn’t make any sense out of what I felt,” she said. “Just…one minute, she was way off up in that tree. The next, her face was right in mine.”
“No wonder Scatter and Lank took off.”
Gertriss nodded. “No wonder.”
“All right. So we’ve got a scary witch-woman watching us from the trees. We’ve got equally scary men with crossbows trying to pin us to the trees. And in a little while we’ll sit down to dinner with forty-six strangers and ask them all kinds of rude questions. Then we’ll spend the night watching the haunted forest for signs of mysterious land surveyors. Still glad you got the job?”
Gertriss managed a laugh. “Beats hog farming. I should finish getting dressed.”
Her robe had slipped. I was having trouble concentrating on all things good and holy.
“Yes. Be quick about it-we’ve got a few things to do before the dinner bells ring.”
She rose, her expression questioning.
“An old finder’s trick, Miss. Everyone heard Lady Werewilk tell us the last bell sounded five minutes before the meal. Everyone will assume we’ll spend the entire time before that relaxing in our baths and pilfering various small household items. So, instead, we’re going to take our very own tour of the grounds.”
Gertriss grinned. “I got Miss Darla to show me some shoes with rubber soles. Perfect for sneakin’ around big old tile-floored houses.”
I grinned back. “You’ve the makings of a finder,” I said, as she scurried off and shut her door behind her. “Or a first-rate thief.”
“I heard that.”
I laughed. I’d have to work very hard to keep any secrets from Gertriss. Very hard indeed.
Sneaking around House Werewilk turned out to be so easy Gertriss need not have bothered with soft-soled shoes.
As I’d hoped, the staff were in or around the kitchen or the dining room preparing a feast fit for a finder. That left only the resident artists underfoot, and the party we’d interrupted when we arrived was back on, musicians and dancers and all, at the very same spot at the foot of the grand old staircase.
I waved off half a dozen offers of beer and two invitations to dance from girls young enough to be my daughters but too good-looking to have ever branched off my family tree. Gertriss even got an offer, which she returned with a look that she probably last used on recalcitrant swine. It certainly sent at least one tipsy young painter backpedaling toward safety.
“I think that lot could use a taste of honest work.” The euphoria left by her first hot bath was quickly fading.
I just nodded. Part of me agreed. Part of me was howling about the injustice of it all-at their age, I’d been slogging it out in the West, fighting Trolls or hunger or the ever-present cold.
But part of me was glad to see kids being kids.
I made a finger to lips motion for silence, and we skirted the hall that led to the dining room, heading the other way.
Mice would’ve made more noise than Gertriss did. Mice wearing mouse-hair slippers. I crunched and squeaked and huffed. Gertriss paid me the courtesy of not commenting upon it.
The hall went straight then hit a room. The doors were open, so we just ambled on in.
Easels. Easels and canvases. And chairs, and couches, and at least a couple of beds, all scattered haphazardly about the room.
Lamps were everywhere, but none were lit. The windows did little more than cast a few weak shadows.
I wandered. Most of the works in progress were covered, but a few were not. I let my eyes adjust, and was still doing so when I heard Gertriss gasp.
She’d lifted the corner of a cloth draped over a canvas. Beneath it, even in the murk, was a work of art.
No swords, upraised or flashing. No banners. No Trolls.
But there was a woman, in flowing robes, clutching a wilted bouquet of roses to her chest. She was on her knees, and she was weeping, and something not in the painting cast a long tall shadow over her.
A wardstone. Her father’s. You could see that plain in her face.
Gertriss let the cloth drop back down.
“Good. Damned good.”
I walked, picked an easel at random, lifted a canvas cloth.
A ring of children at play. Flowers that swayed on a mild summer breeze. In the middle of the ring of children, an old man laughed, his feet caught in mid-jig, his smile wrinkled and weathered, but his eyes caught alight, young again, just for that instant.
Gertriss joined me, wordless.
“I reckon I might have misspoke.”
I let the cloth drop. “No wonder she’s not worried about the galleries. I may buy this one right now.”
Gertriss tore herself away, chose another. More wonders were revealed. I did the same. Another masterwork.
Gertriss gasped. I followed her gaze down to the canvas. A man and a woman danced. They’d left their clothes somewhere but didn’t seem concerned.
The painting was so good you nearly forgot they were naked. The artist had caught them in the midst of a twirl, had caught the fluid motion of their bodies, the look in their eyes. The Regent’s Council of Art would have an apoplexy at the nude bodies, but the painting wasn’t dirty. It just wasn’t.
“Something isn’t right,” I said, quietly. I let the cloth fall back down on the canvas. “They can’t all be prodigies.”
“Prodigies. Persons of unusual and rare skill or talent.” I swept my arm across the room. “We ought to find one or two we can’t take our eyes off of. Not every one of them.”
Gertriss frowned. “Maybe this Lady Werewilk has a good eye for painter-folk,” she said.
“Maybe.” I resisted the urge to go methodically about the room, lifting every canvas. “Let’s see what else we can find while we wander lost, looking for the dining room.”
Gertriss giggled. I chose the door set in the far side of the room from the one we’d entered.
And I reluctantly closed it behind me.
The rest of the House wasn’t nearly so artistically inclined. There were storage rooms and rooms full of stored furniture and rooms full of barrels and rooms full of crated art supplies. And then there were the rooms, which housed the artists themselves.
The artists were housed barracks-style, with a half-dozen single-occupant rooms set aside for special stars of either gender. I poked my head in here and there, finding nothing but the clutter and mess you’d expect a gaggle of perpetually drunk teenagers to leave behind. The smell was exactly that I remembered from my army days. I gathered Ella and Emma had long ago abandoned any pretense of maid services in the artist’s wing.
We made it as far as the laundry unchallenged. Inside that room, though, stirring an enormous vat that boiled and smelled of bleach so strongly it made my eyes water were two of Lady Werewilk’s staff.
They gave us the usual stink-eye but neither said a word. Clouds of blinding caustic steam rose up with every slap of their paddles. I rummaged through the list of servants Lady Werewilk had provided and decided those two worthies were Eegis and Gamp.
Neither appeared inclined to speak, much less confess to nefarious deeds, and Gertriss was turning an interesting shade of blue.
“Excellent work,” I offered, as we brushed past them. “Mind that wine stain on my pantaloons.”
And out the door we went.
I blinked. We were outside, though in a shade so deep it might as well have been in the dark heart of the House. But the air was cool and sweet, and we both just stood there and blinked away the bleach for a minute.
Gertriss put her hand on my arm just as I was about to speak.
“…heared nothin’ good about him,” said a gruff man’s voice.
The door we’d stepped out of opened to the side of the House. A rough gravel wagon path wound around to the door, which I gathered was used for deliveries coming in and trash being hauled out. Parked there in the gravel round was a wagon, sans ponies. The wagon was tipped back and away from Gertriss and I, and from the sound of it a couple of layabouts were reclining in the empty wagon bed, taking advantage of the cool evening breeze and the apparent absence of any watchful eyes.
Oh, but there were ears. Four of them.
“Still, I don’t think Weexil had nothin’ to do with no foolishness with crossbows. Them people is from town. You know what happens when town-folk get kilt.”
Silence. I assume someone nodded in grave agreement. I all but shouted for them to keep talking.
“Well, even if he does come back, I reckon Lady Werewilk won’t be havin’ none of him no more. I’m lookin’ to take on his job. Maybe that little split tail of his too.”
Lustful guffaws all around. Gertriss blushed, and she nearly let her nails do to my elbow what they’d done to my face.
“You’re twiced too old to be chasin’ anything that young,” opined one unseen lounger. “You better stick with old widow Henshaw down the road.”
More laughter. And then a graphic exchange of speculation involving the Widow Henshaw that was proving far too earthy for Gertriss’s delicate ears.
I reached behind me, opened the door very quietly and then let it slam shut.
The wagon nearly flipped over as it disgorged a trio of wide-eyed drovers, all of whom hurriedly set about trying to look busy despite their empty hands and equally empty wagon.
“Evening, gents,” I said, greeting each with my famous friendly smile. “My name’s Markhat. Who might you be?”
Sputtering. Exchanges of sideways glances. Three different versions of why it only looked like they’d been idling on the job.
I held up my hands. “Relax,” I said. “I wasn’t hired to supervise the unloading of turnips. Nobody is going to tell tales later on of a few men taking a break after a long day’s work. I only asked your names to be polite.”
“Hell, we don’t work for Lady Werewilk anyhow,” said the boldest of the lot. “My name’s Left. This is Tombs. That there is Polton.” He spat. “Must be havin’ quite a feed in there tonight. This was the second wagon-load of vittles.”
I nodded. “The whole house will be there. Except maybe Weexil. I guess everybody knows about him, though.”
Left nodded. “Took off. Packed up and left before dawn, not a word. Damndest thing.”
I kept my mouth shut and looked hopefully expectant. Sometimes it works.
“Burned all his stuff. Every scrap of it. Least that’s what they say. Old butler found what was left in the oven.”
“Boots too,” I offered, as though I’d already heard that. I was just guessing.
“That’s what we can’t figure,” offered Tombs. “Who the hell burns a good pair of boots?”
Sometimes I’m good at guessing.
“We need to get the ponies,” said the third man. Maybe he was smarter than his companions, or maybe he just needed a privy, but he’d had enough gabbing with the people from town, friendly smiles or not. “Need to get back on the road.”
And they went.
Gertriss and I watched them go.
I shrugged as soon as they were out of sight.
“Do you reckon-do you think that this Weexil told someone we were due here today, Mr. Markhat?” asked Gertriss. “Maybe he didn’t want to be around when word got out we’d been murdered on the road.”
I nodded. “The thought crossed my mind,” I said. Weexil, what had been his last name? Weexil Treegar. Bought all the art supplies for the painters. I tried to remember when the Lady had hired Weexil, decided he’d been there since the first batch of artists had taken up residence-well before the first surveyor’s stake was ever found.
I motioned in the direction the drovers had taken. “We might as well see the grounds in the daylight,” I said.
Gertriss walked, frowning. “But why did he burn everything?”
“He didn’t burn it,” I said. Gertriss sets a good pace. I had to move faster than my customary amble to keep up.
She turned her face toward mine.
“If he didn’t, who did?”
“His lady love, of course. Look. She either wakes to find him gone, or maybe he leaves behind a note of some kind. Either way, she’s not happy. So what does she do?”
“She finds anything he left behind and she stuffs it in the only fire still burning early in the morning. The cook stove fire.”
“Which makes me think he left a note,” I said. “Something sappy and overdone. I’d bet you two new horseshoes he even asked her to burn his note in the note. That’s probably what gave her the idea to toss in his boots as well.”
Gertriss nodded. “Reckon the worthless lying bastard had that coming.” She practically dripped venom when she spoke, and for the first time I wondered if perhaps Gertriss had left her quaint country village for reasons that might surprise even Mama Hog.
“What matters to us is finding out who he left behind. She’s the only one who might tell us what he was doing, and who he was doing it for.”
“So you reckon he did set them bandits on us?”
“Set those, not them. And yes. I think friend Weexil may have been someone’s eyes and ears here at House Werewilk, and I think someone didn’t want us to arrive on time and breathing.”
Gertriss just nodded, and kicked at a pinecone.
We tramped about, not talking, just looking. House Werewilk covered a lot of ground, as did the other structures that filled the woods behind it.
Arranged in a ragged half-circle a bowshot from the main house were two barns, overflowing with loose hay, a huge old slate-roofed stable, three two-storey houses much newer than anything else that looked to be servant’s quarters, a smithy, a lumber-mill, a fenced vegetable garden sporting thirty rows of tall green corn, a well-house, and a row of privy-houses that must have made Gertriss long for the plain country comforts of home.
Cows mooed and dogs barked and chickens clucked, but Lady Werewilk’s command that all should dine in the House was obviously being obeyed by one and all.
“Remember where things are in relation to each other,” I said to Gertriss. “And let’s make it a rule now. If we should get separated, never mind the reason, let’s try to meet back at the far barn. Yes, that one, with the bad roof.”
“Good place to hide.”
I looked around. Huge old blood oaks surrounded us, their boughs tangled overhead, all but blotting out the sky.
A shiver ran right the Hell up and down my spine.
The dinner bell clanged.
“I don’t like it either, Mr. Markhat. I tell you plain, someone is watching us, right now.”
I’d left Toadsticker upstairs. I wasn’t even wearing my armored dinner jacket. The tiny hairs on my arms and the back of my neck began a desperate attempt to crawl to safety.
Way up above the blood-oak limbs, a cloud raced across the late afternoon sun. Midnight’s ghost swallowed us suddenly up.
“I need to know, Gertriss. How good is your Sight?”
“It’s good, Mr. Markhat. Very good.”
“As good as Mama’s?”
“Better.” She crossed her arms, but that didn’t stop me from seeing her shiver.
“So we’re really being watched. By someone with eyes.”
She nodded, took a deep breath, closed her eyes.
I’ve seen Mama do the same thing over and over. But when Gertriss did it, the wind suddenly bore whispers, and the shadows around us began to dart and scurry.
The huldra. Back again, risen from its hiding place.
“There,” said Gertriss, pointing, but my eyes were already fixed on the spot.
Ahead of us. Two hundred feet, maybe. Call it thirty feet off the ground. My eyes told me there was nothing there but the same shadows that enveloped us, but the remnant of the huldra saw something else.
“What is it?”
“It watches,” replied Gertriss. Her eyes were still shut. Her hands were outstretched, moving, as though performing some intricate unraveling of the empty air before her.
I shook my head, willing the huldra’s dry crackling voice to be silent.
“Does it have a crossbow?”
Gertriss opened one eye.
“You are not going to just go stomping up to it, are you?”
“Not if it has a crossbow. Is it an it or a he or a she? Or a them?”
Gertriss started moaning.
I whirled. Her eyes had rolled up, so that only the whites showed. Her hands twitched and groped. She took a step forward, and I caught her by her elbows.
She tried to keep walking. Her moaning rose and rose, becoming a shriek.
A shriek to match the one now sounding through the blood-oaks.
I felt it too, now. Eyes, eyes upon me. The huldra’s ghost gibbered and screamed, telling me words I didn’t know, urging me to hurl magics I no longer commanded.
“Sorry,” I said.
And then I grabbed the back of Gertriss’ hair and yanked.
She erupted into a whirlwind of claws and knees, but her howl died and her eyes rolled back down, wide and angry and hurt.
The shriek in the trees died with hers, choked off just as suddenly.
Gertriss stopped struggling, grabbed my hand and charged for the House, dragging me along after.
I didn’t resist. Much. One-man charges against unknown foes may be the stuff of legend, but then so are gruesome deaths and shallow graves.
We hoofed it back to our side door and didn’t stop until it was securely closed behind us.
We leaned on the walls and panted. Gertriss wrapped her arms tight around her chest and fought back a serious case of the shivers. I patted her shoulder in a fatherly there, there fashion and tried not to shake myself.
“I begin to see why the staff doesn’t line up to patrol the grounds.”
“Any idea at all what that was?”
She shook her head.
I gave up trying to coax words out of her just yet. But of course there was only one word on both our minds anyway.
What else lurks about, ready to issue its trademarked plaintive howl upon being spotted? The howl, together with Gertriss’ earlier sighting of a near-naked woman, certainly suggested it.
But even Mama had scorned the idea of a real banshee. Mama, who routinely trafficked with everything from haints to clover-fairies.
But something had been in the trees. Something had howled. Something had nearly drawn Gertriss into a trance that would have sent her stumbling blindly into the woods.
A Banshee. Or some sort of sorcery.
“Take your pick,” I muttered.
“Pick of what?”
“Bad or worse. You all right? What happened out there?”
“I saw something, Mr. Markhat. So I looked closer, and then it saw me.”
She shivered again. I urged her down the hall, away from the door. Just in case.
“Male or female? Armed, unarmed?”
“It was the same woman I saw on the way here,” said Gertriss. She set a brisk pace and impressed me by lowering her arms to her sides and forcing a deep breath. “Unarmed. Watching. No, more than just watching. I think…I think she’s looking for something.”
We were back in the painting room. There was no sound from the hall, so I hoped our arboreal howling witch had decided to remain outdoors.
“Any idea what?”
Gertriss shook her head in an emphatic no. “As soon as she knew I saw her, she just…took over.” The second dinner bell rang out, and I heard footfalls and voices throughout the House.
I stopped, faced Gertriss.
“All right. We’ve got something in the forest. Something strange, something that may be dangerous. Neither of us goes out there alone. Got it?”
“Now it’s time for dinner. And questions. So I need you to forget about what just happened, until we have time to think about it later. Can you do that?”
She nodded, managed a weak grin.
We followed the hall and the noise. The dining room wasn’t hard to find.
The big oak double-doors, which were worked with carved dragons, were open. The aromas of fresh hot bread and roasting beef poured from between them, along with a blast of noon-day heat.
The dining room at Werewilk probably seated sixty with room to spare. As it was, maybe a dozen seats were empty, and they were the ones closest to the monstrous fire roaring in the cavernous fireplace that dominated the north end of the room.
I was mopping sweat before I’d taken a dozen steps.
“Welcome to House Werewilk, Mr. Markhat, Miss Gertriss,” said Lady Werewilk. She was again wearing black-black trousers, black waistcoat, black gloves-but tonight’s ensemble was more mannish than provocative. At her words, the entire assemblage stood, and a more miserable lot of sweaty-faced dinner guests I have never seen.
I recognized a few faces, of course. Marlo and Gefner, Scatter and Lank. Emma and Ella, looking wilted from the heat. I assumed the grizzled, stooped old man next to Lady Werewilk was Singh, and the vacant-eyed man who had to be prodded into standing by a poke in his ribs was Milton, Lady Werewilk’s War-broken brother.
“We thank you for your hospitality,” I said. Lady Werewilk made a small nod, and the gathered sank into their seats. I watched Singh lower Milton into his chair with gentle pressure on both his shoulders. Only when he was seated did Lady Werewilk take her own seat.
The enormous table was laden with a feast. Meats sizzled and smoked. Bowls of fresh-cooked vegetables simmered and steamed. Flagons of lovely golden beer sparkled in the candlelight. Markhats sweated profusely and sought out empty chairs.
We’d been placed at the head of the table opposite Lady Werewilk. That put the raging inferno close at her back, though she remained miraculously unfazed by the heat it poured forth. Napkins started mopping at faces, though, as we lesser beings began to slowly succumb to the heat. I had to bite back the helpful observation that food was customarily cooked in various ovens before the meal was served, not atop the table as people ate.
I took in the faces, the expressions, the postures. Most exchanged what-the-hell looks and mopped sweat. A few looked down or away. Milton’s gaze fell on his empty plate and remained there, unmoving.
“This is Mr. Markhat,” said Lady Werewilk, above the crackle and roar of the fire. “The finder from town. You will answer, honestly and without regard to my presence, any question he puts to any of you. Failure to answer, or to answer truthfully, will see you removed at once from my House. Is that clear?”
A chorus of “Yes ma’ams” sounded in reply.
Lady Werewilk nodded. “Good. I would be remiss if I failed to remind you all of the curse laid upon this hearth by my great-great-great grandfather Lint, which describes a variety of unpleasant demises that will pursue anyone who speaks a lie while basking in the warmth of his fire.” She smiled. “And as I see you are basking, we may begin. You may dine as we speak.”
Forty-five forks clattered on forty-five plates. Mine was not among them.
“We’ll start by going around the room,” I said, over the din. “Say your name, how long you’ve been here and what you do here. I’ll start. Markhat. I’m a finder. Been here three hours.”
I nodded at Gertriss. She introduced herself, and then the fun began.
I won’t bore you with the repetitions of forty-five names, except to say that Skin the beekeeper spoke in such low tones his every word had to be repeated aloud by Marlo, and Milton Werewilk would only speak his own name when prompted by Singh the butler in the same coaxing tones one might use with a shy child.
The rundown revealed the same names and times that Lady Werewilk had provided back in Rannit. I wasn’t expecting anything different. I just wanted to put names to faces. And to pick up any oddities the speakers might present.
I got a couple of those before I speared my first slice of crisp red apple.
The second of the artists to speak was a buxom, dark-haired beauty named Serris Eaves. Serris was maybe seventeen. She managed to state that she was a painter of the school of Wiltic impressionism, and that she’d been at Werewilk for a year. Then she choked up and had to fight off a bout of crying. Her unhappiness would have been obvious even if her voice hadn’t betrayed her. She’d made efforts to conceal her distress, but her eye-liner was running and her nose was red. She kept making both worse by dabbing at her eyes and nose with her dinner napkin.
Gertriss shot me a look. Weexil’s lady love?
I nodded in response. We’d see.
Milton Werewilk was the other oddity. He was a small man. Pale. Well-groomed and well dressed, unlike the Broken you can find collapsed in any ditch in Rannit. But what he shared with those men were the eyes.
Vacant. Oh, his eyes were fixed on something-a bowl of mashed potatoes, a bottle of wine-but he wasn’t really seeing it. His eyes just happened to be fixed there, while his mind was somewhere else.
I wondered where. I saw swords upraised. The huldra let me smell smoke, and I decided I probably knew.
He had Lady Werewilk’s dark hair and delicate features, but none of her animation. Singh fed him with a spoon. He chewed, but only as long as Singh mumbled to him.
I turned away.
“All right,” I said, as the last artist pronounced his name around a mouthful of green beans. “We all know each other. You all know why I’m here. So here’s my first question-where is Weexil Treegar?”
Serris Eaves broke out bawling. The pair of male artists flanking her laid hands on each shoulder and glared at each other while making soothing noises at Serris. I chuckled at the folly of youth.
Heads shook. Faces fell down, fixed on their plates.
“I know Weexil left early this morning,” I said. “I know his belongings were rather carelessly left in a cook stove fire. What I don’t know is who this Weexil was or what might have caused him to suddenly leave such lovely company and strike out for parts unknown. So someone tell me. Who was Weexil?”
The eager young painter seated on Serris’s right was the first to chime in, earning him a glare from the young man on her left.
“Weexil Treegar was a poser,” he said. “A poser and a cad.”
Serris burst into full-on hysterics.
“So he wasn’t an artist.”
My eager young man, who had introduced himself as Nordred Vasom, had a lot to learn about women.
“Weexil was a tradesman.” He sneered. “He fetched us things from town. Paints, canvases, brushes.”
Serris whirled on him, eyes flashing.
“He’s more than that,” she said, her voice ragged and quavering. “He has the soul of an artist. His songs…”
“His songs were stolen,” said the would-be suitor on her left. I glanced at Gertriss, who mouthed his name “Calprit Homes”.
The young man rolled his eyes. “Everyone knew it, Serris. He just took old ballads and made your name fit.”
Serris shrieked, flung a full beer into his face and fled the room. I made to signal Gertriss to follow, but she was already halfway out of her chair.
Laughter rose, quickly silenced with a sweeping, icy stare from Lady Werewilk.
“Continue, Mr. Markhat.”
I nodded. Calprit Homes mopped beer and blushed and glared at Nordred Vasom. I wanted to tell them they’d both better give Serris a wide berth for a long time or they’d get worse than beer in the face, if her expression as she fled was any indication of her fury. But some lessons have to be learned the hard way.
I put my fingertips together and assumed my All-Knowing Finder expression.
“Weexil’s departure makes me wonder,” I said. “It makes me wonder what else he did here, beside fetching you brushes and paints and canvases.”
“He did Serris,” muttered a painter, from behind his napkin. Nervous titters sounded, but quickly died.
“Which was apparently common knowledge,” I said. “So let’s talk about other happenings that were also common knowledge.” I leaned forward. “Let’s talk about the woman in the woods.”
Someone dropped a fork. Someone else coughed and choked. And not a single man-jack nor lady lovely in the entire blazing room would so much as meet my eyes.
Except, of course, Lady Werewilk.
“Those are mere legends,” she said, after a moment. Her tone made it clear my subject for dinner conversation failed to please her. “They were born before Rannit was walled. Perpetuated by a hundred generations of fearful peasants all eager to embrace any excuse to get them home and inebriated before dark.”
Marlo made a wordless gruffing sound. Lady Werewilk did not turn to fix him in her glare, and I gathered that was because she knew it was a contest she’d probably lose.
“Them what lives in the Wardmoor been seein’ that there woman for twenty-five, thirty years,” he said. “Them what lives here say she comes around when Death is a fixin’ to visit.”
“She ever been known to give Death a helping hand?” I put the question to Marlo, while keeping my eyes on Lady Werewilk. She still wasn’t happy, but she kept her lips tight together.
“Not that I know of. Reckon she just knows when to be, and where.”
I nodded, not committing to anything, hoping Marlo would go on.
Instead, he shrugged and filled his mouth with an enormous chunk of Lady Werewilk’s finest roast beef.
I watched Skin for a moment. The man was just pushing perfectly good food around on his plate. He hadn’t taken a bite since sitting. He was gaunt, tall and thin as a stick, and I suppose now I knew why.
“All right,” I said, beginning to wonder where Gertriss was. “Let’s talk about the surveyor’s markers.”
More sidelong glances and sweat mopping. Half of them would have darted, had not Lady Werewilk been perched at the head of the monstrous old table.
“Starting with Skin, I want to know who found them, and where.”
I pulled out my notepad and a brand new pencil as I spoke.
Marlo managed to choke down a good portion of a cow’s hindquarters and answered for Skin. Others piped up grudgingly, and after a lot of back and forth and arguing over days and times I finally established something like a timeline, and a map.
If Lady Werewilk noticed the discrepancy between the dates she’d been given and the dates I was getting now she showed no signs of it. I did catch Marlo giving a few hard glares, and I decided he was a close second to being in charge. Interesting, I thought. It’s usually the butler who runs the show, but Singh showed no interest at all in anything but Milton Werewilk.
I chewed a mouthful of sweet potatoes and studied the map I’d made.
My hand-drawn map of the Werewilk grounds was hardly to scale, but the marks I’d drawn didn’t suggest even a hint of a pattern. If someone was trying to define a property line, they needed fancy eyeglasses. It appeared the stakes were being placed with all the methodical precision of a child’s game of Kick the Wagon.
“Now I’m going to ask a question none of you probably want to answer. If you’d rather catch me alone later, that’s fine. I won’t name names, and you have my word on that.”
Lady Werewilk lifted an eyebrow, but didn’t say a word.
“It’s possible some of you may have been approached by whomever is putting out these stakes. Maybe they wanted information. Maybe they wanted a blind eye turned here or there. Maybe they even offered payment. Maybe you even took it. But I’m telling you now that if someone grabs this House you’ll all likely be turned out. So unless they paid you enough to set you up for life, you’d be better off coming to me. Like I said, I won’t name any names.”
Lady Werewilk stabbed a fork into something so hard people started. I grinned.
“Anyone have anything to say?”
Silence all around.
I shrugged. I hadn’t been expected anything. At least not right under the Lady’s nose.
“Fine. I thank you for your time and your cooperation. My partner and I are going to poke around for a time. If anyone wants to talk, I won’t be hard to find.”
Nods, and a few mutterings. Marlo and the staff, sensing business was done, set about mopping sweat with fancy napkins and eating everything in sight. The artists rose and departed in groups of twos and threes, taking most of the beer with them and stuffing their pockets with rolls and slabs of corn bread.
Talk was sparse. I ate my fill, and then some, while I watched people watch me. The heat kept anyone from lingering too long. Last to go were Singh and Milton, who was led out by hand. He placed his feet oddly, haltingly, moving like a very young child or a very old man. After they were gone, I sat sweating across an empty table from Lady Werewilk.
The blast from the fire still hadn’t raised a sweat on the woman.
“I never particularly liked Weexil,” she said, toying with her food. “Had he not always returned from his buying trips with money left over, I’d have let him go months ago.”
“Money left over? Large sums?”
She shrugged. “Large enough to make keeping him viable, despite his disruptive influence,” she replied. “Is that significant?”
It was my turn to shrug. “Might be. Might not. Did he keep receipts? Do you know where he shopped?”
“Marlo would know. I’ll have him come round and speak to you about it.”
“I thought Marlo ran the stables. He handles the money too?”
She smiled. “Marlo does what I tell him, though he’d deny that with his last breath. Singh used to handle the money, but Milton needs him all the time now. And gruff as Marlo is, he has a good head for figures, and he’s honest.”
I nodded. Sweat dripped off my nose. “How do you stand it?” I asked. “You must be half-baked by now.”
Lady Werewilk laughed. “I’m going to let you in on a little secret, Mr. Markhat. The spot on which this chair sits is hexed. I feel nothing from the flames.” She pushed her chair back, rose, took a single step to her right.
I watched the heat wash over her. She immediately began to sweat.
“House lore claims my great-great grandfather, five times removed, had this charm set beneath the foundation. His reasons for doing so are lost. But my father, and his father, and his father before him all knew of it, and all used it for the same purpose I did tonight.”
“To show the help who’s boss?”
She fanned herself and moved quickly away from the fire, coming toward me in the process.
“The Lord of Werewilk’s legendary ability to sit close to that inferno and not sweat hasn’t been seen here in years,” she said. “I thought tonight it might inspire some honesty.”
I grinned. She moved to stand at my side. The heat raised her perfume, and brought a hint of color to her cheeks, and I might have been inspired to say something far too honest had not Gertriss charged in. She had some color in her cheeks too, but the set of her jaw and the way her hands were clenched into fists made her agitation all too obvious.
“Weexil’s lady love?” I asked.
Gertriss nodded, moved to stand with Lady Werewilk and I. I caught her eyeing the ravaged table, and felt a pang of guilt that she’d missed supper.
“She was,” said Gertriss. “Had been, the whole time he was here. Love at first sight. Songs under the moonlight.” She gave Lady Werewilk an accusing eye. “The locks on both barns need to be replaced. They weren’t the only ones disturbing your hay.”
I didn’t need a catfight, so I chimed in before Lady Werewilk could do more than inflate.
“She shoved his things in the oven? Was there a note?”
“She did, and there was. She burned it too. I love you, but I have to go. I’ll never forget you, but you should forget me. And there’s more.”
She was grim-faced. I didn’t think I’d have to guess more than once.
“She’s with child.”
“She thinks so. I think it’s too early to tell, but she’s convinced.”
“Had she told Weexil?”
“She hadn’t told him outright, but she’d hinted. She thinks that’s why he left.”
I cussed. Because if Weexil was just a rake who’d fled at the first sign of fatherhood, then he wasn’t a link to the crossbow on the road or the stakes in the yard.
Gertriss gave me a look that said she didn’t like me very much right then.
Lady Werewilk sighed. “I suppose this-event was inevitable,” she said. “Still, I had hoped it wouldn’t be Serris. She has a rare talent.”
“Seems all your artists have a rare talent,” I said. “Isn’t that unusual, Lady Werewilk? So many absolute geniuses, all here at once?”
“You’ve seen their work?”
“I’ve seen a few. All were marvelous.”
Screams broke out from down the hall. Screams and shouts, though I couldn’t make any sense of the shouting.
I was already at the door when Marlo charged through it. “Lady,” he boomed, ignoring me completely. “It’s Serris. She’s on the roof.”
Lady Werewilk blinked. “On the roof?”
I put myself between Marlo and the lady. “Show me. Right now.”
“Go,” said Lady Werewilk.
Marlo turned and charged. Gertriss and I followed, clambering up the stairs, darting down twisting halls, shouldering our way through thirty assorted artists, and finally bursting up into the attic via a narrow spiral stair and a warped trap door.
The attic was finished, in at least there were plain plank floors and even plaster on the walls. Junk haunted the corners-crates and chests and old saddles and old tools.
There was a lamp burning in the middle of the floor. Blankets and empty bottles littered the place, evidence of many a late-night tryst. Moonlight streamed through a panel in the wall that was open and creaking in a breeze-a panel that opened into nothing but a few inches of ledge and the long, deadly drop beyond it.
I cussed. That wasn’t a door, never had been. Some impatient carpenter a hundred years ago had just sawed a hole in the wall and stuck a crude hinged cover over it, making an opening a kid might fit through, probably to scurry up on the slate roof and replace a few broken tiles.
I cussed him for not nailing the damned thing shut and plastering it over fifty years before my parents were born.
I raced to it and dropped to my knees and exhaled, hoping I could get at least my shoulders through.
My head fit, and part of one shoulder, but that was it.
I could see her legs. Serris was barefoot and wearing a nightgown, and I could hear her crying. Her toes hung over the narrow ledge, and I heard her fingernails scratching on the slate roof tiles at her back, and I knew that even if she didn’t jump in the next few minutes she’d probably lose her balance and fall.
She painted her toenails the same shade of red as Darla used.
“Say something,” hissed Gertriss.
“Miss,” I said. “Please come back inside.”
She was sobbing so hard I couldn’t make out her reply beyond “no”.
Mama, I thought, where are you when I need you?
The girl’s feet shifted and jerked, whether from nearly slipping or working up the courage for a jump I couldn’t tell.
“Tell her he ain’t worth it,” whispered Gertriss. “Tell her something, dammit!”
“Miss. Please. It’ll all seem better in the morning. I promise it will.”
Gertriss punched me in the back. I heard the girl on the ledge take in a long, deep breath.
“I don’t care to live,” she whispered. “Not anymore. Not now.”
“You mean that, don’t you?”
“Yes.” She spat the word. Her legs began to tremble. “I mean it.”
“We’re probably sixty feet off the ground,” I said, keeping my tone casual. “You’ve chosen a good spot. It’s high enough to kill you, all right. Trouble is, Miss, it won’t kill you all at once.”
Gertriss grabbed my right arm and yanked. “Mister Markhat,” she whispered. “What the hell are you doing?”
She said it loud enough that I figured Serris heard.
“I’m just explaining a few things about falls to Miss Eaves. I once saw a Troll fling a man named Other Albert off a cliff about this high. Other Albert landed on sand. But even that broke him up inside. Took Other Albert all night to die, hacking up blood the whole time, when he wasn’t screaming.” I kept my tone cheerful, as though I was retelling a favorite Yule story. “If Miss Eaves decides to die like this, fine, but I think she should have all the facts before she jumps, don’t you?”
Miss Eaves didn’t speak. I thought I could detect a lessening in the volume and intensity of the sobbing.
“Sixty feet. It’ll take a while to fall that far, Miss. Long enough to count to five or six. Long enough to feel death coming. Long enough to realize what you’ve done. Maybe long enough to change your mind. But that’s the thing about jumping off roofs. There’s no changing your mind, once you take that leap. You’ll fall, and you’ll hit, and you’ll die. Bleeding out your mouth and your nose and your ears. And screaming, of course. Just like Other Albert. ”
“He left me,” she said. “He left me.”
“I know he did. And I’m sorry for that, I really am. And maybe right now you honestly don’t want to live, and I’m sorry for that too. But, Miss, it’s one thing to wish you could make the pain go away. It’s another to fall sixty feet. I know. I’ve seen. Come back inside.”
Serris quit bawling. Her feet stopped shifting, her toes curled uselessly around the ledge, and at last she spoke to me, in a very faint whisper.
“I can’t get back,” she said. “I’ll never make it back.”
“You don’t have to move at all,” I said. “Just be still. Take a deep breath. We’re going to come get you. Don’t look down. You hear me? Be still.”
She didn’t answer.
I popped out of the hole and back into the attic.
“Rope.” And hurry, I added, silently. She’s not going to last.
Marlo appeared, lunging out of the trap-door, a coiled rope already in his hand. I could have hugged his grizzled ugly face.
“You are never going to fit through there,” said Gertriss.
I was ready with half a dozen useless arguments, but they died on my lips. She was right. Too many years of good beer and Pinford ham sandwiches had passed.
I handed her the rope. She took it, tied a competent sliding loop in the end of it, was kneeling at the opening when we all heard the howl.
It was a woman. A woman screaming. I was sure for a single awful second that Serris had fallen, or jumped. But the sound of it rose up and up and grew in volume until it rang like a Church bell through the attic.
It came from outside, from inside, from far away, from a lover’s place right by your ear. And it sounded loud and high when it should have died and it went on long after human lungs should have been emptied of air and it sounded louder than thunder, louder than any blast of magic, louder than Other Albert’s most desperate agonized cry.
Gertriss was pale. Pale and shaking and saying something urgent, though her words were lost. She put the free end of the rope in my hands and, when I just stood there gaping, she slapped me hard across my wounded face and she wrapped the rope around my waist.
I came out of it enough to take the rope and brace myself, and then Gertriss kicked off her shoes and darted through the open panel and out into the night.
The rope jerked and dragged and went taut. I had just enough time to grab it hard with both hands when Gertriss came flying back inside and I was yanked off my feet and we wound up in a tangle on the floor, being dragged by the rope, which suddenly bore a young artist’s worth of weight bolstered by a short fall’s determined momentum.
Hands fell on me, as Marlo and Lady Werewilk yanked and pulled and cussed.
The scream died, cut off as suddenly as it began.
My ears rang. Gertriss and Marlo and Lady Werewilk all spoke, but I could hear nothing, and from their expressions I could tell they were experiencing the same sudden deafness.
Still, we managed to all take hold of the rope and pull, which brought the limp Miss Eaves finally up to and then through the open roof access panel.
The rope was looped under her arms. We scratched her up a bit dragging her back inside, and she lost a lock of golden hair in the corner of the opening, but she was breathing. I let Gertriss and Lady Werewilk adjust her flimsy nightgown while Marlo and I averted our eyes and collapsed against the wall.
“And that there is what we call a banshee,” were the first words I was able to hear, spoken by Marlo.
If Lady Werewilk heard she pretended not to.
Serris began to stir.
“She all right?” I shouted.
Gertriss nodded, spoke words I still couldn’t quite hear.
I shouted. “That was damned brave of you.”
“Grave for who?”
“Never mind,” I yelled. I rose, forgot to duck, banged my head on the low ceiling.
“I’m going outside,” I said.
“You’re a damn fool,” opined Marlo, who then surprised me. “I’ll go too.”
Serris came to her senses and erupted into shrieks and cries. I still wasn’t catching every word, but I gathered she’d seen something out there, and I had a good idea what it was.
Gertriss held Serris close and began to rock her. Before I’d managed to turn away she went quiet.
“Don’t waste your time, Mr. Markhat,” said Gertriss. “It’s gone.”
“I’m sure.” She murmured something to Serris. “We both saw it leave.”
The girl started shaking again.
“We can talk downstairs,” I said. “Lady Werewilk? Can you arrange for someone to stay with Serris tonight?”
“She won’t be left alone, I assure you,” said Lady Werewilk. She moved to stand by Serris and Gertriss, leaned down, and laid a hand awkwardly on Serris’ shoulder.
“There, there,” she said. I gathered Lady Werewilk’s stock of comforting truisms designed for hysterical teenage mothers-to-be was nearly as limited as my own. “Everything will be all right. There’s no reason you can’t be an artist and a mother.”
Which nearly resulted in a fresh round of renewed bawling, an event avoided only by fervent whispering from Gertriss and her insistence that we leave the attic at once.
The banshee’s howl had scattered the artists and staff. They were beginning to creep back up the stairs, though. Most were brandishing walking sticks or chunks of firewood, so I called out before we descended lest some nervous pre-War abstract impressionist decide to wax heroic.
Serris and Gertriss were quickly mobbed by artists, who cooed and wooed at the same time and generally embarrassed the poor girl to death.
“All right,” I shouted over the din. “The young lady is fine. The sound you heard came from outside. No, I don’t know what made it. No, we didn’t see anything. You, you, and you-” I pointed at random, picking out the three largest male painters who weren’t wobbling. “-get downstairs. See that the doors are locked. All the doors. Right now, son.”
I said the last in an Army bark perfected during my eight years in the War. Earnest young men darted for the stairs.
Gertriss chuckled despite herself.
“You’d make a fine pig-herder,” she said.
“Great. Let’s get out of here and buy a herd of swine.”
“Be a might safer.” Gertriss let Serris go into the hands of a trio of female artists, who covered Serris in a blanket and made what I assumed were the appropriate noises of commiseration and encouragement.
Marlo appeared at my side. His face was grim. “Need to get a few things. Meet you at the front door.”
And he lumbered away, bowling over artists as he went.
Lady Werewilk and Gertriss raised eyebrows. I suppose Lady Werewilk hadn’t heard Marlo and I plan our expedition.
Both began to question the wisdom of proceeding outdoors. I raised my own eyebrow at Lady Werewilk, who had not very long ago cast scorn on the very idea that banshees walked her woods.
“You’ve got the whole estate cooped up in here. Unless you want start assigning them bedrooms, we’ve got to make sure it’s safe for them to go home,” I said, resorting to practicality. “Marlo and I are going door-to-door before anyone leaves. Lock your doors behind us. We’ll need torches.”
“I’ll be right back. Have the torches ready.”
I hit the stairs, huffing and puffing. Gertriss caught up to me easily, her face set in the same expression of unshakable pig-headedness Mama wore when she got her dander up.
“Don’t even bother, Mr. Markhat,” she said. “I promised Mama I’d keep an eye on you.”
“I promised Mama the same thing.” I couldn’t get all the words out in one breath. “Last thing I need out there is another body to watch.”
“And what you need most is somebody who can use Sight to see in the dark.”
“We’ll have torches.”
We finally reached the landing. I hustled into my room, Gertriss still on my heels, and yanked Toadsticker from his wrapping of old shirts.
“Torches won’t show what you need to be a seein’.”
“You slip back into country talk when you’re agitated, Miss.”
“And you change the subject when you know you’re wrong, mister.”
I shrugged. Gertriss went still, and I swear the room got cold.
She closed her eyes.
The hairs on the back of my neck tried to fall in formation and march.
“What are you doing?”
“Having a look,” she said, slurring her words.
“It’s back. Not close, but thinking about it.”
Gertriss lifted her right arm, pointed, then turned. I figured she was facing the barn we’d set as out last-resort meeting place.
“Has it seen you?”
“Not yet.” She opened her eyes, blinked, shivered.
“We’d better hurry. You can’t tie me up and leave me. You haven’t got time.”
I sighed, cussed.
“Stay behind me. Don’t use your Sight outside without warning me. Your word now, or I send you back to Mama, no second chances.”
She nodded. We made for the ground floor. I drew a frown from Gertriss by darting momentarily back into the kitchen. And then we trooped for the big red doors and the dark beyond them.
Marlo was there, an axe in his hand. The blade gleamed, and though it had never chopped anything but firewood that blade wasn’t anything I’d want swung at me.
A crowd had gathered. Those who could clustered at the three-bolt windows and peeped out, oohing and ahing at the dark like they could see anything at all.
No one stood anywhere near the doors though.
“I reckon you know your own business,” said Marlo, after a glance at Gertriss.
“And I reckon you should mind your own,” said Gertriss.
Marlo puffed up and went red, but before he could sputter out a response Lady Werewilk appeared.
She was dragging an umbrella stand that she’d stuffed with swords. “I thought you might need to be armed,” she began, trailing off when she saw Toadsticker and Marlo’s well-honed axe.
But Gertriss grinned like she’d just knocked over a bowl full of earrings.
“Oooh, I’ll take this one, if I may,” she said, yanking a short straight blade out of the jumble.
Lady Werewilk nodded, bemused.
“I believe it was actually used in the War.” She eyed the blades critically, selected one very similar, and damned if she didn’t spin it around in her left hand with as much skill as my old army sword master.
“I’ll be by the door with this, Mr. Markhat.”
I saluted her with Toadsticker, and she returned it-perfectly.
“I’m full of surprises.”
She threw back the bolts, and pulled the door open.
Marlo grunted, laid the axe on his shoulder and marched outside. I followed, Gertriss on my heels, and the three of us went half a dozen paces and stopped.
Gertriss laid her unlit torch onto the one burning by the door. It flared to life, trailing the stench of pitch. I grinned as Gertriss tried to figure out which hand to use for the torch and which to hold the sword.
“Torch in your right,” I offered. “Sword in your left, and then stick it point first in the dirt. You’re better off in a pinch with the torch anyway, unless you’re trained with a blade. Are you trained with a blade, Miss?”
The look she gave me would doubtlessly have sent an entire herd of pigs running for the stable or wherever it is that pigs are domiciled in quaint, scenic Pot Lockney.
Marlo helped by guffawing. Before Gertriss could turn on him, I motioned toward the barns.
“The woman with the big lungs is that way,” I said.
Marlo nodded. “So that’s where we head?”
“Nope. We go door to door like we don’t know where she is. That’ll take us that way anyway, but it won’t be quick. Gertriss, you keep an eye-a regular eye-out for women in the trees. Marlo, you watch the ground. If anybody’s been out here planting stakes while everyone was eating I want to know it.”
Marlo frowned. “We got banshees in the pines, and you’re worried about some damned surveyor’s sticks?”
“That’s what I was hired to worry about. And for all we know the banshee is the one leaving the stakes.”
“Banshees don’t give a damn ’bout land deals.”
“I’ll ask her when I meet her,” I said. My eyes were adjusted to the dark, helped by Gertriss’ flickering torch.
“Let’s get started.”
Gertriss managed to shove her shortsword through her sash. I put her at the back of the line so the light from the torch wouldn’t blind Marlo and I.
Eight outbuildings. It took us maybe twenty minutes to make a show of checking the windows and doors to see if they were all locked or shuttered-they were-and to light the door torches that flanked every opening. By the time we were nearing the barns, there was just enough stray torchlight flickering about to turn the Werewilk estate into something out of a nightmare.
Shadows danced. Huge old blood-oaks towered above us, spreading their boughs wide and blotting out the sky. The dancing red torchlight illuminated tossing leaves far above, giving the impression of furtive movement to join the dry, wooden whispers of the night.
Gertriss whispered occasional updates. She seemed sure the banshee was staying put, well out of the farthest reach of the torchlight.
I kept my eyes out for surveyor’s stakes and hoped she was right.
Marlo kept a white-knuckled grip on his ax and nearly let fly with it when a rooster flew down on his head from an outhouse roof to our right. Truth is, I nearly did the same with Toadsticker while Gertriss shamed us both by shooing the dim-witted bird away with her torch.
Finally, the last dwelling checked and found secure, we halted, gathered in the flickering half-circle of light cast by the door torches.
The barns loomed up a short distance away, more shadow than shape. A wind walked through the corn, and the ways the stalks bent and rasped made the hairs on my neck crawl the same way they had done on a regular basis during the War.
Gertriss caught my eye, glanced at the furthest barn, nodded slightly, just once.
“You two start bringing people out.” I spoke during a lull of wind so my voice would carry. “I’ll stay here, keep an eye out.”
Gertriss started to argue. I gave her a hard look. Marlo turned his back and started walking.
Gertriss handed me her torch.
“I hope you know what you’re doing.”
And then she was off, rushing to catch up with Marlo.
I figured I had maybe a quarter of an hour. It would take that long for the gaggle of staff to find their way home. So I stuck Gertriss’s torch in the ground, and then I walked to the edge of the light and I put my back to the barns.
Toadsticker’s hilt was warm and reassuring in my hand. Which made sticking it through my belt a difficult action to take.
The corn rustled. Leaves and limbs made dry furtive noises overhead. I imagined all manner of creeping horrors, slinking up behind me.
I’d had my back to the barns for maybe three long minutes-just enough time for Marlo and Gertriss to reach the House-when I heard a twig snap behind me.
I judged the distance to be maybe twenty feet.
And that, I decided, was plenty close enough.
My hand was already in my pocket. I moved it slowly.
I turned around. Slowly. Calmly. In my outstretched right hand was a slice of warm corn bread with a chunk of butter still melting in the middle.
And there she was.
Just standing there.
Every hair on every spot of my body stood on end.
She appeared to be a tiny woman, naked save for a liberal coating of dirt and spider-webs. I don’t mean a woman of small stature-I mean a human woman who had grown to full size and then been somehow shrunk down to a stature befitting a child. I’ve seen trick mirrors at Yule houses that can either shrink or enlarge reflections. The banshee might have stepped out of the former.
Except for perhaps her ears. In the dim light, and under all that matted hair, I couldn’t be sure, but it looked as though her ears might be pointed, as those of the Elves were said to have been.
Her hair was the color of dusty hay. It was wild and matted, encrusted with spider webs and leaves and twigs. Her eyes, though, were big and bright and blue.
I looked into them. The ghost of the huldra let out a scream that nearly brought my hands to my ears. But it made me look away, and that spared me the experience that had nearly overwhelmed Gertriss.
I fixed my gaze on the tiny woman’s filthy chin. Her face was a mask of indifference.
No fear, no anger, no emotion whatsoever. She just stood there, halted in mid-step, watching me with those wide blue eyes.
“I’ve never met a person of your lineage before,” I said. “What do I call you?”
She tilted her head and eyed me quizzically, but neither spoke nor howled.
“My name is Markhat. Do you have a name?”
Again, a blank stare. A vagrant breeze arose, and carried a whiff of her scent to me. I had to fight not to gag. I’d have to tell Mama banshees weren’t strong proponents of bathing.
My banshee kept staring. But she still wasn’t running.
I laid the corn bread and the napkin down on the ground and took three long steps back away from it. The corn bread was mashed a bit, but the butter had melted into it and the smell was heavenly. “Well, I’ll call you Buttercup for now. Is that all right with you? May I call you Buttercup?”
I heard voices from the House as Marlo and Gertriss brought out the servants. The banshee heard them too.
She just-left. Vanished. I saw only the briefest suggestion of movement, and then there was just an empty spot where she’d stood. No footfalls, no sound at all. I couldn’t even guess at the direction she might have taken.
I didn’t even notice, at first, that the hot buttered corn bread was gone too.
She’d left the napkin, but not a crumb.
I scanned the shadows.
“Good night, Buttercup.”
An owl hooted. A couple of dogs began to bark. People and torches began to fill the night.
“Next time, I’ll bring a biscuit.”
I bowed and turned and grabbed up the torch and drew Toadsticker just for show.
Gertriss was at my side in mere moments.
“I saw her get very close to you-did you see her? Did she try to hurt you?”
“When we’re inside.” People streamed past, all in hurry. Half were armed with the contents of Lady Werewilk’s basket of mayhem, and I hoped no one managed to cut off a finger or a toe before they put themselves to bed. A few were still chewing, not content to let a night of leaping ladies and menacing banshees put them off Lady Werewilk’s generosity.
Gertriss nodded. “If anyone did any surveying out here tonight they did it in a hurry, and they didn’t set out any stakes.”
I nodded and returned a few good evenings and set a leisurely pace back to the gaudy red doors.
“The night, as they say, is still young.”
“I had Lady Werewilk start some fresh coffee. Will I be taking the first watch, or will you?”
I smiled as we crossed the threshold of House Werewilk and the massive doors slammed shut behind us.
“You’ll have the first one. But all you’ll do is listen for the dogs, and you’ll wake me up if you hear them. You won’t go outside. For any reason. Is that clear, Miss?”
“I won’t go outside. I’ll wake you if the dogs raise a ruckus.”
The House was quiet. I could hear Lady Werewilk speaking to someone upstairs, but that was it.
“She told the lot of them that anyone not in their bed by the time we got back would be leaving for good in the morning.”
“And they obeyed?”
Gertriss nodded. “She meant it. Even the drunk ones could see that. Too, she was holding a bow at the time.”
“That does sometimes serve to emphasize one’s point.” I used Toadsticker to gently pry a pair of snoring hounds off the nearest couch before I flopped down across it myself. “I’ll be right here, Miss, sword in one hand and lightning in the other. Don’t let me sleep more than three hours.”
Gertriss nodded and was off, her eyes alight with the same youthful zeal for her new duties that I imagined I once wore.
Age takes it toll, though. I was sound asleep before either of the dogs dared join me on Lady Werewilk’s poor abused settee.
The night passed uneventfully, if one discounts the inherent discomforts of sleeping with restless canines and keeping one hand on the hilt of one’s newly acquired enchanted sword.
Gertriss and I traded watches every three hours. If Buttercup made any furtive dashes toward more of Lady Werewilk’s corn bread, she did so without alerting the resident dogs or Gertriss and her Sight.
I hadn’t told Gertriss about my trick with the corn bread yet. I told her most of the truth-that the banshee had simply stared at me, and then vanished without so much as a goodbye shriek. I decided I wouldn’t talk about any table scraps, unless they appeared to be luring the banshee within grabbing distance. I could just hear Mama cawing about the folly of feeding banshees from one’s pocket, and believe me Mama doesn’t need anything new to caw about.
We did talk about other things, though. Gertriss agreed that Weexil’s timely vanishing act was probably related to our arrival, and not just to coincidence. I couldn’t get much more than a vague description of what Gertriss had seen when she was out on the roof-ledge trying to loop a rope around Serris. According to Gertriss, Buttercup had just appeared behind them, standing there on the tiles as easy as a blue-jay. And then she’d turned those big luminous eyes on them, and let loose her trademark banshee howl.
The rest was a blur of falling over the ledge, grabbing at ropes and nightgowns and being sure she was about to plunge to her death.
Which she very nearly had. I cringed at the thought, suddenly aware that I’d taken her on as an employee with no warning as to the risks involved.
And though I’d not spoken a word of that, Gertriss had frowned at me over her coffee and informed me that she was a grown woman who had made the decision to come to Werewilk all on her own, thank you very much.
I was too tired to snort and mention Mama’s authorship of the whole plan. But I guess Gertriss saw that too, because she sighed and changed the subject.
“So tomorrow. What then?”
I shrugged. “First, we tell Scatter and Lank to spread the word that the market price for fresh surveyor’s sticks is a pair of coppers apiece.”
Gertriss cocked her head. “How will finding more of them help? We already know they don’t have any marks.”
“Greed, Miss. Pure and simple greed. A pair of coppers is a nice sum, out here in the rustic wild. Now, it’s one thing to ignore Lady Werewilk when she orders you to patrol the grounds at night. But I’m offering coin, just for bringing in sticks. In the daytime.”
Gertriss nodded in dawning understanding.
“And you think they’ll fan right out in a frenzy, scour the woods for you, maybe even find out where the surveyors are camped.”
It was my turn to grin and nod.
“And here I was, thinking we’d be riding out at first light doing the looking ourselves.”
“I might have done just that, back when I first started. These days, I try and let human nature do some of the hard labor for me.”
“And Lady Werewilk? Will she be happy when you tell her she’s buying up surveyor’s stakes?”
“She’s got banshees in her well-house and panicked painters under her roof. Come daylight, I’d bet my best socks that at least two of her staff quit. Two more if-” I nearly slipped up and called her Buttercup, “-if the banshee puts in another appearance the night after that. She won’t blink at buying stakes for two coppers each, Miss. That I can promise you.”
“You can stop calling me Miss, Mr. Markhat.”
“Certainly, Miss.” I heard a clock strike somewhere off in the shadows. “My turn to listen for the mutts. The couch has lumps and it smells like beer.”
“Everything in this place smells like beer.” Gertriss rose and rubbed her eyes. “See you in three hours.”
And so she had. By the time the sluggard sun managed to lumber high enough to cast some light through the trees, we’d both come to loathe that beer-scented couch.
On the heels of the sunrise came the breakfast crew. They were four in number, each apparently vying for the coveted title of Most Surly Woman South Of Rannit. I asked my usual questions, got nothing but grunts and glares and mumbled denials.
I kept on, planting myself firmly in their way, and making it painfully obvious I wasn’t going to budge until one of them deigned to speak.
Her name was Gladys. She’d been at House Werewilk longer than all but three of the staff, not counting Singh, who had apparently dropped fully formed straight from High Heaven on the Day of Creation and assumed his duties as butler right before the formation of firmament.
And if there was one thing Gladys hated, she opined, it was people getting between her and her cook-stove when there were biscuits to be baked.
I just kept grinning and kept reclining on the aforementioned cook-stove.
“So tell me, Gladys. When did the banshee first start coming around the House?”
Gladys gave me a hard glare and set her jaw. The rolling pin clutched in her flour-crusted right hand looked less like a cooking utensil and more like an instrument of mayhem with each passing moment.
I crossed my arms over my chest and widened my smile.
“I first heard talk of it back in mid-summer.”
Victory. I nodded.
“What kind of talk?”
“People sayin’ they’d seen it, plain as day, up in the trees, or wanderin’ the roofs.” She stamped her feet and broke out into a sweat. “Look, Mister, I’ve got work to do. I can talk and do it, but if’n I don’t get these biscuits in the oven right now I’m gonna let you explain to everybody why they ain’t got no breakfast.”
The stove was getting hot on my fundament anyway. I moved out of the way.
“There’d always been stories, though, hasn’t there?”
Gladys charged her precious stove and started laying out biscuits in a pan.
“Why you think they call this the Banshee’s Walk? ’Course there’s always been stories. I ain’t talking about stories.” She dusted the pan of biscuits with flour, gave them a good hard glare, and shoved them in the oven. “I’m talking about people seein’ that there thing out in the woods. Sober people. Hunters. Trappers. Them what knows what they’re seein’.”
“So she’s been seen other places than just here?”
Gladys charged across the kitchen, bent on another urgent culinary task.
“Ain’t too much huntin’ and trappin’ going on in Lady Werewilk’s yard, now is there?”
“I suppose not. One more question, and I’ll leave you be.”
“Are there any quaint local customs about keeping the banshee happy? Do people put out food for her, bowls of milk, tie crossed ash sticks above their doors, anything like that?”
She turned and regarded me as if I’d just suggested we both climb aboard a flying pig and make for the Regent’s house.
“What kind of damn fool stump-jumpers do you take us for, city fella? Put out food for a haint? Listen, we works for our food around here, ain’t none of us hold it so cheap you’ll catch us leavin’ it outdoors for the coons…”
She had more to add, but I’d heard enough. I did leave like a gentleman, and refrained from slamming the door.
Gertriss caught me just outside it, stifling a bleary-eyed snicker. “That’s an interesting interview method, Mr. Markhat.”
“I like my coffee black. And find a big cup. The fancy ones don’t hold enough.”
Gertriss threw me a mock salute and passed bravely into the kitchen. I made for my room upstairs, and the fancy flushing toilet and hot bath therein.
Every time I visit a wealthy estate, I vow to renounce my sluggard ways and become rich myself so I too can have hot running water and the other comforts only serious coin can buy.
I lay back in the gleaming copper bathtub and let the steamy bath soothe the aches I’d earned sleeping downstairs. I let handful after handful of hot soapy water rush down over my cuts on my face. It stung, but not as much as I’d feared, so I decided I would probably live.
Or at least not die from an infected cut. Oh, banshees or mysterious bandits might get me, but probably not in the tub.
I closed my eyes and tried to map out the day. First I’d need to spread word of my stake-buying campaign during breakfast. Then I’d need to corner Singh and the last surviving Werewilk male and see what, if anything, I could get out of them.
I’d half-expected to spot Milton faking his condition, since he was the obvious, indeed the only, choice as a suspect in some sort of inter-family land grab. But after watching him at supper the night before, I was all but ready to discount that theory. The man just wasn’t there.
I let more hot water run down over my face while I chided myself for drawing conclusions without gathering any evidence. Maybe the man was just a rare fine actor.
I couldn’t even suggest that for my new friend Buttercup. She wasn’t human. And since she had the howl and the stealth that legend always relegated to banshees, I was fairly comfortable calling her just that.
Of course, she might not be anything of the sort. Sorcerers have spent the entire long march of history meddling with everything from humans to mice. If the stories coming out of Norvalk can be believed, there’s an entire race of tall, feathered humanoids gradually creeping out the jungle. They can speak, they’re handy with tools, and they claim they’ve spent the last ten thousand years waiting for someone called the Longfather to return to his mountain fortress and take them all to Paradise.
I suspect they’ve got a much longer wait than even their own history suggests.
Whatever she was, I still couldn’t put Buttercup at the center of any clandestine surveying of the Werewilk place.
People only survey for two reasons.
To draw up boundaries, usually preparatory to a land sale or as the result of a squabble over lines and fences.
That had been my first thought.
But there was another reason.
I rose splashing, got water everywhere and didn’t care. I found a towel and dried off and then found the notes I’d taken at last night’s meal.
I’d drawn a crude map of the stakes, and the dates they were found.
I sat down, found a pencil and made new scribbles of my own.
It still didn’t make any sense.
My crude map already included the approximate boundaries of the Werewilk estate, which gobbled up vast tracts of the surrounding forest.
The stakes were nowhere near the legal lines. Of course, the only ones I had drawn were the ones the staff had found, and they’d hardly canvassed the entire Werewilk estate. But even so, by drawing lines through the rows of stakes, I could see that none of the lines bore any relation to the property borders.
But, by squinting just right and nudging a few of the locations a bit here or there, they did seem to suggest a single long line, from which other shorter lines branched off.
Or not. I realized I was jumping to conclusions again, and I stamped back into the bathroom and mopped up my mess with the towel and was nearly dressed when Gertriss knocked.
“Coffee, black, in a small keg.”
I grunted and opened the door.
She had coffee and biscuits on a tray. There were chunks of ham stuffed in the biscuits.
“I should give you a raise.”
Gertriss breezed past me.
“You can’t afford to.” She sat the tray down on a dresser. I gulped coffee.
“So who do we pester first today?”
“First, we find Scatter and Lank, about the bounty on the stakes.”
“Done. They came in while I was pouring your coffee. Tore out of here before the cup was full. They’re probably halfway to Rannit right now grabbing up any piece of lumber small enough to carry.”
I laughed. “Good work. So now, we corner Singh and Milton.”
“You want me there for that?”
“The more the merrier.” I gobbled the last biscuit and washed it down with coffee. I’d bathed in hot water and enjoyed a rich man’s breakfast.
“Time to get to work.”
Finding Singh and Milton wasn’t hard.
Getting Singh to talk, though. That was a different story.
Milton takes his morning meal in his room, alone with Lady Werewilk and Singh. Lady Werewilk was gone by the time Gertriss and I knocked on the door. I was glad. I wanted some privacy for this conversation.
Singh let us in without a word. He shut the door behind us and then padded without a sound back to the small plain table at which Milton Werewilk sat.
Milton was chewing. His mouth was open. He was losing most of his breakfast down the front of his chin. Singh sat, reached out and closed Milton’s mouth.
The man kept chewing.
Not everyone who fought in the War and lived is able to share in the victory.
I pulled out a chair for Gertriss and then seated myself. I was where I wanted to be, across from Singh.
Singh was seventy years old, I guessed. Maybe seventy-five. He’d always been a small man, but never a weak one. The years had melted away most of his muscle, but not all of it. Where other men his age might be flirting with frailty Singh just looked like he’d had the fat baked out of him, leaving behind gnarled muscles that still knotted and flexed beneath skin the texture and shade of well-worn leather.
He moved like a ghost too. He’d glided across that floor, pulled back his chair without a scrape. He even handled his fork without allowing it to clink or scrape on the plate.
Sometimes I like to start by stating the obvious.
“So you’re Singh.”
He wiped Milton’s chin clean and nodded. He wasn’t looking at me.
“Look. We both know you’ve got better things to do that talk to me. So I’ll make it quick. The surveyor’s stakes. Do you have any idea who’s laying them, or why?”
I’d expected nothing but a shake of the head. His voice was as quiet as the rest of him.
“The banshee. Were you aware of it before now?”
Singh spoke the last to Milton, who obeyed. Singh put oats on a spoon and held it to Milton’s lips.
Milton obliged. I saw Gertriss shiver.
“You understand I’m not accusing you of anything, Mr. Singh. I’m not here to cause you any grief. I’ll be gone as soon as I can give Lady Werewilk some answers.”
Singh looked at me, finally, while Milton chewed.
“If I knew anything that could help my Lady, I would tell this thing to you.”
He had a ghost of an accent, one I couldn’t place.
“It doesn’t have to be something you know,” I said. “It can be something you suspect. Something that just doesn’t feel right. Something that stands out as odd for no reason at all you can see. Anything, Mr. Singh. You live here. I’m just passing through.”
Milton swallowed. Singh shook his head and said something that wasn’t in Kingdom.
“It is an expression from my homeland,” he explained, before I could ask. “Literally, it means no one envies the man who must drain the lake with his mouth.”
I sighed. “If you think of anything, anything at all, find me, please.” I rose. My chair made a scrape and a bump. Singh looked away, back to Milton Werewilk, who had begun to drool.
Gertriss rose too. She was staring at Milton and trying not to let her face show her feelings.
We left in a hurry. Gertriss shut the door behind us without any sound.
The House below was full of noise. People were talking and laughing and shouting.
We left the silence behind us and headed down the stairs.
“So that got us nowhere.”
“We’re not nowhere. We’re draining a lake a mouthful at a time.”
We were sitting outside House Werewilk, on the front steps. Squirrels chattered and scampered in the shaded weeds. People further out were making a fair amount of noise while engaging in agriculture. Hard work sounds comforting and quaint as long as I’m nowhere near it.
Gertriss had her elbows on hers knees and her chin on her fists. She didn’t look the least bit happy. Something she’d seen up in Milton’s room had disturbed her. I’d decided to wait and let her bring it up. Given the Hog tendency to blurt things out with a minimum of internal brewing, I didn’t think I’d have to wait long.
“Shouldn’t we be doing something?”
“We are. We’re waiting for the lads to drop bundles of surveyor’s markers at our feet. We’re waiting for a baker or a carpenter to come sidling up, prepared to whisper secrets in our ever-attentive ears. We’re actually quite busy, if you look at things from the right perspective.”
Gertriss made the same grumpy snorting noise Mama makes when I disparage her magical bird-carcasses.
“But if it’ll make you feel better, there is something you can do.” I found the folded list that named every member of the household and unfolded it on my knee.
I picked out five names at random, pointed them out and gave the list to Gertriss.
“Look this bunch up. Make them stop whatever it is they’re doing. Bring them right here, right now.”
Gertriss repeated the names back to me.
“Why these people?”
“Why indeed? Makes you wonder just what I’m thinking, doesn’t it? I mean, there’s one artist, a couple of row-farmers, an assistant cook and Skin. I’d bet a shiny new crown that half of them have never so much as spoken to the other.”
“You’re just making things up as you go along, aren’t you, Mr. Markhat?”
“One mouthful at a time, Miss. Now scoot. I don’t care what excuse they cough up. All of them, right here, right now.”
Gertriss nodded, rose and left. She might not appreciate my methods, but I could see that she meant to follow my instructions whether the subjects were willing or not.
Alone on the porch, I eyed the swaying trees, pondered how different they looked in the sunlight.
No one was around, at least not close enough to see. I rose, sauntered around a bit, finally chose a ward statue at the edge of the wild lawn.
I don’t know my angels. This one was female. She’d been spared any festive paint, and I was glad. The sculptor had left something very much like compassion carved on her face.
Her right hand was outstretched and open, palm up. I laid a biscuit in it.
“This is for you, Buttercup.”
I spoke in a voice just shy of a shout, aimed out into the close-set oaks.
If anyone heard, there was no reply.
I waved and was back on the porch before the first of my chosen ones showed.
It only took Gertriss about half an hour to track down the five I’d chosen. Four made their way to the porch on their own. Skin arrived last, being herded by Gertriss, who was all but poking him with a prod.
“I ain’t got time for this,” he announced, in his customary near whisper. “Don’t like bein’ told around by no woman, neither.”
Gertriss gave him a withering glare.
“I’m not concerned with what you do or don’t like,” I said. “The sooner you stop mouthing off the sooner we’ll be done here. I can work fast or I can take my time. Which way you want it, Mr. Skin?”
He glowered and folded his arms across his chest but kept his mouth shut.
I rose and turned so I could see every one of the five faces before me.
“So let me get this straight. None of you know anything about the stakes, or who put them there, or why.”
The ones who didn’t nod “no” spoke it in grumpy mutters. Skin did neither, until I stared at him, and he finally relented and shook his head no. “What about strangers? What about people showing up asking for directions, asking about the people who live here? Anything like that happen recently?”
“You’re the only strangers we’ve seen.” That came from an assistant cook named Teon.
“What about Weexil? He have any friends drop by? Any visitors at all?”
No’s and shakes. Skin was shifting his weight from one foot to the other and grinding his teeth.
Time to stir the pot.
“So let’s talk about the stakes. Someone in this house knows a lot more than they’re pretending. Skin. You said you found sixteen stakes that first time, isn’t that right?”
“Yeah.” He licked his dry lips. “Look, I’ve got queens to move-”
“Teon. You ever see any stakes?”
“I work in the kitchen.”
“I didn’t ask you where you worked.”
“No, I ain’t seen any damned stakes.”
“What about people sneaking into the woods after dark, Teon? You ever see any of those?”
Teon’s fat face flushed.
“I ain’t seen nothing, mister.”
I whirled on the slight, tired-looking oldster at my right.
“What about it, gramps? People in the woods when they ought to be in bed?”
“He’s deaf, Mr. Markhat,” said the lone artist there. “Well, he’s not if you scream in his ear, but-”
I raised my hand for silence.
“I’m tired of wasting my time. You lot had your chance to talk. Lady Werewilk gave her word no one would be sacked if they came forward just now. Too bad. She won’t make that offer again.”
Confused looks all around.
“That’s all. Beat it. We’re done here.”
Protests arose, but I cut them off by retreating through the door. Gertriss held them off, and they finally dispersed.
Muttering and footfalls finally died away, and Gertriss came in and shut the door firmly behind her.
“What was all that? People in the woods at night? What people?”
I shrugged, replied in a whisper.
“Hell if I know. But if someone in here is talking to someone out there, there’s been some sneaking going on. And if they think we know about it, they might…”
“Might point crossbows at us again?”
I ignored that. Although it was a possibility.
“They might make a mistake,” I said. “Look. So far we’ve been reacting. It’s time someone else was forced to react. Word of our little talk here will spread. Our villains might decide they’ve been seen. They don’t know by whom. They don’t know when they were seen, or what they were doing at the time. They’ll break out into a cold sweat. They won’t have any appetite. With any luck, they’ll break out in hives and scratch themselves half to death and confess to their misdeeds in a fevered rush.”
“So you’re hoping they’ll try to cover their tracks, even though they never left any.”
“Sort of. You wanted us to do something. It was that or shuck corn.”
“This isn’t what you expected, is it, Miss?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t know what to expect, Mr. Markhat. I reckon I thought you’d take them by their shoulders and shake them until they told the truth.”
I laughed. “That’s always an option. We can save it for tomorrow, though.”
I could see she was biting back a lecture on my work ethic when the sound of running feet sounded just outside the door.
My name was being called in a shout as well, by either Scatter or Lank or both.
I opened the door just as they charged in, faces ashen, mouths wide open and gasping.
Both held bundles of surveyor’s stakes. Both let them fall clattering to the floor. Both started ranting at once.
“Camp” and “woods” I caught first.
And then “body.”
“It was Weexil,” said Scatter. “Dead. Throat cut. He was dead, Mr. Markhat. They didn’t even bury him.”
Gertriss slammed the door shut and bolted it.
They exchanged a brief but guilty glance.
“I know there was a camp, lads. I didn’t know where, but I knew there had to be one. So spill it.”
“’Bout a quarter of a mile north of Hobson’s Creek,” said Scatter. I hadn’t seen any creek, Hobson’s or otherwise, noted on any of the maps of the Werewilk property.
“Three miles due west of here,” reported Lank. “Ain’t much of a creek.”
“But I’m guessing it’s a good place to hide.”
They both nodded. Gertriss watched, arms tight across her chest, her face reddening.
“Kind of in a gulley. Hides light and smoke from cook-fires.”
I nodded. That’s the kind of place I’d look for too, were I hoping to keep the presence of ten or fifteen men from becoming common knowledge.
“You boys ever see the camp before today?”
Gertriss cussed under her breath. “What makes you think they’d tell the truth about if they had? They knew about the camp. Knew right where to look for stakes.”
“Because they want to be paid,” I said, to Gertriss. “Don’t be too hard on them. We’re strangers from town. Talking to strangers from town about goings-on in the woods didn’t seem like a good idea, did it, lads?”
Heads shook in unison.
“I don’t blame you.” I did, but not much. “You found Weexil. You’re sure it’s him?”
“We’re sure,” said Lank. He paled. “He stunk. Flies all over him.”
“You know I’m going to ask you to take me there.”
“They’ve broken camp, I presume?”
“Nothing left but trash on the ground. Tents gone, wagons gone, horses gone. Just trash. And Weexil.”
“Round up some shovels. One for me too. Meet back here as soon as you’ve had some water and calmed down. Gertriss. Go fetch Lady Werewilk, please. And Marlo. I think we’ll ask Marlo to join our little picnic.”
“Mister. Weexil. Why’d they kill him, like that?”
It was Lank who spoke. I could see by his pale face and wide eyes he was reliving the moment he’d stood over poor dead Weexil.
“I don’t know yet. I hope to find out. Now scoot.”
Not exactly profound words of comfort, but they were the best I had to offer.
I rummaged around upstairs while waiting for my army to assemble. Toadsticker I’d take, of course, but I secreted a few less obvious instruments about my person as well. I’ve got a pair of Army flash papers left over from the War, and they went in my pocket. I have no idea what they’d do if I tore them now, so many years after the company sorcerer put his spell on them, but if I ever needed a quick distraction maybe I’ll find out.
While I was sorting through brass knuckles and short daggers, I found something else.
Darla had somehow snuck a letter into my bag. To this day, I have no idea how or when she did it. I’ve got to stop surrounding myself with women who continually outwit me.
I sat and unfolded the letter and read.
Darling, it began, and I smiled at the word. If you’re reading this, it’s because you’re arming yourself. This is not a happy thought for me.
That said, though, if you’ll look in the right toe of the nice new socks I gave you, you’ll find something that I hope you’ll never need to use. Yes, I know it’s illegal. Yes, I was very careful about buying it. You’ll know what it is when you find it.
There was more, but it was largely concerned with herb-gardening and would be of very little interest to anyone but Darla and me.
I burrowed through socks until I found one with a lump in the toe. I turned it inside out, and there was Darla’s charm.
I whistled. She’d paid dear for it. Your run-of-the-mill alley wand-waver hangs their charms on sticks or scribbles them on paper or weaves them into cheap jewelry-anything that can be easily torn or broken to release the hex.
There was nothing cheap about the charm Darla had sought out.
Take a hex. Work it inside a globe of blown glass. Enhance the hex further by covering the tiny globe in silver letters that crawled and spun when looked at. Throw in the odd bolt of miniscule lightning from deep within the roiling hex trapped by the glass and the silver.
I’ve always known Darla is good with money, but I’d never dreamed she could afford a rich man’s charm like the one I held.
Someone knocked at my door. I wrapped Darla’s charm in a clean handkerchief and put it safe in my right front pocket.
“Finder? It’s Lady Werewilk. She wants to have a word.”
“Coming right down.”
I made a few final adjustments to my gear and then tramped downstairs to get my little expedition on the trail.
The entire house was assembled at the foot of the stairs. I could hear Serris sobbing from the couch, flanked by a mob of cooing females.
Lady Werewilk met me at the foot of the stairs.
“I gave instructions that Serris was not to be told,” she said.
“She’d have found out sooner or later.”
“Once we were sure, yes. But I would have preferred you verified the story first.”
I shrugged. Scatter and Lank may not be finders or even shaving regularly yet, but I had no doubt they knew a corpse when they saw one.
Lady Werewilk let out a long sigh. “So you believe this encampment to be the one used by the surveyors?”
“They found a few bundles of fresh stakes there. Makes sense. They’d need somewhere to make up maps, plan their next survey.”
“And exactly what, Mr. Markhat, were they looking for?”
I had an audience.
“Best we talk about it later.” It sounded better than I have no idea. “Right now we need to get going. Is Marlo ready with the horses?”
“Ready and waiting,” replied Lady Werewilk. “I am of course going as well.”
“You are of course not doing any such thing.”
“Marlo has already tried and failed to dissuade me, Mr. Markhat. I will remind you as I reminded him-I am the Mistress of this House. I control not only its direction but its payroll. Is that clear?”
“I’m telling you it’s a bad idea.”
“I acknowledge that. But I’ve stood back and allowed assaults on my House for long enough. I will not hide in my dressing room if one of my own has been murdered.”
Serris let loose a fresh howl.
“Yes, Mr. Markhat?”
“Was there another leather shirt up there, one that would fit Lady Werewilk?”
Gertriss had the good sense not to grin. “I believe there was.”
“Would you go and fetch it for her while we get saddled up?”
Lady Werewilk rewarded me with a single curt nod.
“Singh,” she said. Her voice carried above the rising din of the artists. “You’re in charge until I return. Keep the doors locked. And keep the staff inside their homes.”
Singh nodded and toddled off, Milton shambling at his side.
My mount was named Lumpy. Lumpy was a mule, as were all our mounts, and after we found the barely visible game trail that led to the encampment I realized why mules were the order of the day.
Mules, unlike horses, can see all four of their feet at the same time. That makes them ideal for any trail that involves negotiating steep hills or winding around narrow high passes, and we did both, one right after another, the whole trip.
The forest was ancient. I ducked under boughs and reflected that the trees around me were older than anything I’d seen outside the East. Hell, Elves might once have sneaked about on various murderous errands beneath these very behemoths.
Marlo led the way. Scatter and Lank were right behind him. Then there was a husky carpenter named Burris who was said to be an expert bowman and then Lady Werewilk, Gertriss and finally myself atop my majestic steed Lumpy.
The forest floor was wet loam. None of us spoke. Aside from the faint stretching of leather or the occasional soft snuffling of a mule, we made our way like a bevy of spooks.
Marlo stopped and dismounted, as did Scatter, Lank and Burris. They’d crouched down in a circle around a featureless patch of loam to exchange whispers and nods. I was about to dismount myself when Scatter came tip-toeing back to explain that they’d found sign of a man on foot, a day or two old.
The spot they indicated looked like every other bit of ground in sight to me, but I didn’t argue the point.
It took us a little over an hour to get near the camp. Finally, Marlo raised his hand, listened for a long minute, and signaled for us to dismount.
We tied the mules, and crept up the last ridge on foot.
Marlo was the first to pop his head over. He looked, and we listened.
Squirrels chattered and leaped. Birds sang. Crickets and cicadas chirped and sounded.
“Let’s go,” said Marlo, rising. “Camp’s empty. They’re gone.”
And they were. Even my city-bred eyes could see where the camp had been, could tell there had been tents and a corral and half a dozen campfires. I wanted to try and get a rough count of the camp’s population, but there was time enough for that after we found Weexil.
Scatter and Lank pointed out Weexil’s resting place, but refused to return to it. The spot they indicated was right behind a thick copse of chokeweed, at the base of a lightning-struck blood oak. It wasn’t in the camp proper, but it was right where I’d put a latrine, if I was the one arranging secret camps.
Not exactly a dignified way to die.
There was blood on the ground, right behind the chokeweed bush. The blood was pooled in a flat, smooth depression in the loam. And there were still fat blue-green flies haunting the air.
But there wasn’t any Weexil.
I dropped to my knees and tried to see drag marks or footprints.
If they were there, I couldn’t see them.
Marlo and Burris joined me. Marlo sniffed the air and made a face.
“Stinks like a dead one.”
It did, though I’d not noticed the stench immediately. I’d learned to not smell that during the War.
I pointed at the blood. Blue-green flies took flight at the movement.
“There was a body here. Someone moved it, which means someone has been here since Scatter and Lank found Weexil this morning.”
Marlo squinted at the ground. “Don’t see no drag marks.”
“One got his arms, one got his legs.”
“Don’t see no fresh footprints neither. Look.” Marlo poked a finger into the ground. “The loam takes a while to spring back up. Aint’ nobody been here.”
I shook my head. Weexil had died at the latrine all right. There was a clear, oft-used trail, and a freshly filled trench. They’d even left a shovel behind, stuck upright in the dirt. The amount of blood drying on leaves left no doubt. He’d died there, but he sure as Hell hadn’t strolled away alone afterwards.
I stood. “Let’s get back to the women. I don’t like the idea that someone came back to tidy up.”
Burris wordlessly nocked a long, lethal arrow. He favored an old-fashioned longbow made of wood so old it was black. His steel-tipped hunting arrows looked meaner than any crossbow bolt.
“I reckon I ought to shoot any body what didn’t come here with us.”
“I reckon you ought,” I replied. “I just hope you don’t have to.”
We moved quietly back to the mules and the rest of our party. Lady Werewilk was holding a fancy black-lacquered crossbow that must have been concealed in a saddlebag. Gertriss was trying to feed her sleepy-eyed mule a carrot.
“Was it Weexil?” asked Lady Werewilk.
“I believe it was,” I replied, keeping my voice low. “But the body has been removed.”
Scatter and Lank went ashen. Gertriss dropped her carrot in favor of her short plain sword. Scatter and Lank found their voices and began to protest that they hadn’t been lying.
They forgot to keep their voices down. “Hush,” I said. When that didn’t work Gertriss grabbed Scatter, who had the misfortune to be the nearest to her, and twisted his arm around to the small of his back.
“The man said be quiet. Remember where we are.”
Amazingly, that worked. Gertriss even got a nod from Lady Werewilk.
“We have a quick look around. Everyone in pairs or better. No one gets out of sight of everyone else. No shouting unless you see a stranger. If you find something you want me to see just stay there and wave. Got it?”
A chorus of yeses was my reply. We struck out. Scatter and Lank stuck close by Burris and his famous deer-slaying longbow. Marlo and Lady Werewilk took off in a different direction. Gertriss joined me, her borrowed sword at ready.
It had been a fair-sized camp. I’m thinking twenty men. There’d been six three-man tents, four of the much larger tents we’d called officer’s halls in the army, and then a single massive tent that had been filled with rows of long tables.
There had been numerous cook-fires. They’d set up a temporary corral for the horses. They’d had six wagons.
And they’d been very careful to leave absolutely nothing behind. What they hadn’t carried out they’d burned.
I found a stick and poked through the ashes. They’d burned papers. Lots of papers. And tools-I found hammer handles, I found shovel handles, I even found a handful of half-burned pencils, the fancy kind, with gum erasers stuck to the blunt ends.
“Who the Hell burns perfectly good pencils?”
Gertriss had crouched down beside me. I hadn’t noticed. I chided myself for letting my attention lapse while pilfering the enemy camp.
“Look what I found.” I waved the pencil stubs. “They left in a hurry and burned what they didn’t feel like packing.”
Gertriss frowned. “You know those fancy figuring machines, the ones with the wires and the beads?”
“I found one of those in yonder fire. Aren’t they expensive?”
“They are. Odd.” I used my stick to move aside ashes, put my hand down on the ground beneath them. It was dry, and still faintly warm.
Gertriss put her hand down beside mine.
“They left late yesterday, didn’t they?”
“Pretty close, I’d say. Right after they killed Weexil.”
Gertriss shivered. “And he’s gone now?”
“Afraid so. Maybe somebody up the chain of command didn’t approve of them leaving corpses behind.”
“Marlo is waving, Mr. Markhat.”
I looked up. He was. Lady Werewilk was on her knees beside him, poking at something on the ground with a long thin dagger.
Crossbows and daggers. “I’m surprised she doesn’t clank when she walks,” I muttered.
Gertriss giggled. “I was just thinking the same thing,” she said. “But she has some of the most interesting items, Mr. Markhat. Look what she gave me.”
From the top of her boot Gertriss revealed a good five inches of slim steel. The blade had been blackened to prevent it from flashing even in firelight, but the razor-sharp edge glinted and shone.
I raised an eyebrow. “Is that what the ladies are wearing to Court this year?”
Gertriss pushed her black dagger back down. “We’d better go.”
Marlo was dancing an angry little jig by the time we arrived.
“Nice of ye to drop by. Thought you might need to see this.”
We knelt by Lady Werewilk, watched her stir the ashes with her blade.
“There,” she said. Her knife coaxed something solid out of the ashes.
It was a finger. A skeletal finger, attached to a skeletal hand, a hand which had been stuck upright in the ground, buried, and then burned.
The burned bones jerked. The dead fingers flexed. It made a fist, and then relaxed, and then it start turning on its wrist, fingers grasping at ash and empty air.
I threw Gertriss back with one arm, shoved Lady Werewilk down on her side with the other. Marlo bellowed, eyes full of murder, his axe turning and preparing to swing my way.
I leaped to my feet and whacked him hard and straight in the gut with Toadsticker’s hilt. He didn’t go down, but he did back up.
“Get back.” I kicked at the skeletal hand and missed.
It extended a bony forefinger, pointing it right at me.
And then the banshee sang.
She howled. She keened. Buttercup rent the air with that penetrating howl of hers, and she was somehow at my side and she gave me a pitiful little yank, as if trying to pull me away.
Marlo bellowed and brought up his axe, slashing at Buttercup.
Buttercup screamed, and was gone.
I brought Toadsticker down on the hand with all the strength I could muster. Ashes flew. The bony finger pointed.
And that’s when I felt the fingers close around my neck.
Close, and begin to squeeze.
Marlo caught on. He swung his axe down, brought sparks when he struck Toadsticker, but failed to damage the bones.
I tried to tell him not to bother, that the spell had been sprung, but I couldn’t speak.
Gertriss spun me around, and I felt her hands on my throat, but she couldn’t feel the hex choking me, much less grapple with it.
I let go of Toadsticker and stepped away. The spells our sorcerer corps had cast in the Army always had limited ranges. I took a useless pair of steps back, but could feel no lessening of the grip around my throat.
The traps left by our sorcerers were always designed so that by the time the victim realized what was happening, flight was simply too late.
I couldn’t speak. My lungs were burning. My vision was beginning to blur.
Gertriss was screaming at me, as was Marlo. Their voices were growing fainter.
Run into the forest and hope I got beyond the choking spell’s range before I died. Or…
I rummaged in my pocket. Darla’s charm was there.
My world was getting dark. I tried to draw in air, couldn’t. I resisted the urge to flail at the invisible hands closing around my neck.
Instead, I took out the charm, threw it at the skeletal hand.
The charm lay next to the bones, unbroken.
I remember dropping to my knees.
I remember Gertriss holding me up.
And I remember a bright flash. But that’s all. Just a flash, and the echoes of Buttercup’s final cry echoing in my mind.
And then the tightness at my throat circled all around it, and I fell a long time through the dark.
It turns out Marlo saved my life.
He’d taken his axe and smashed the glass charm I’d tossed at the skeletal hand. And as soon as he smashed it, the bones simply fell apart, and after Gertriss slapped me hard across the face a few times I’d started coughing and wheezing.
I don’t remember leaving the abandoned encampment. I came to my senses nearly halfway home, draped across Lumpy’s broad back.
We were moving at a good clip. I’m told Burris loosed a pair of arrows at something he thought he saw in the forest. Gertriss tells me Buttercup followed us until I awoke, though she alone could see her.
Scatter and Lank were at Lumpy’s sides, making sure I didn’t fall off and break my fool neck and finish whatever some nameless sorcerer and his choking spell had begun.
“He’s awake.” Scatter had spoken. He moved in close and helped me right myself in Lumpy’s worn saddle. “Mister, can you breathe?”
I coughed and hacked but finally managed a few words. My throat-well, I’ve never been hanged before, but that must be how the morning after feels.
“You ought to see the bruises, mister.”
I tried to grin.
Gertriss turned in her saddle. “Was that aimed at you, boss?”
Had it been? It seemed that way. Otherwise why didn’t it go after Lady Werewilk?
“Could be,” I croaked. “No way to know.”
And there wasn’t. If it was just a foul-natured parting shot at anyone rummaging through the camp, it might have been designed to go after someone at random as easily as the first one to see it. Sorcerers are tricky that way.
But while they might be tricky, they aren’t cheap. Neither are their magical snares. Someone had paid dearly for the privilege of choking me half to death, and they couldn’t have known for sure I or anyone else would ever uncover their bony little surprise.
I shifted uneasily in my saddle. I don’t like seeing money spent so casually. It’s a sign of either desperation or access to wealth so vast such paltry concerns as paying sorcerers simply isn’t a factor.
Desperate people, like cornered beasts, are always dangerous.
And so are the kinds of people who can literally throw money away. Because they can always buy more trouble than the likes of me can afford.
Lady Werewilk wanted to say something, but I shook my head and urged Lumpy on to a slightly less leisurely amble.
We made it back to House Werewilk without encountering any more cursed skeletal remains or agitated banshees. Lady Werewilk insisted on helping get the mules squared away, much to Marlo’s dismay. Gertriss and I exchanged a secret smile. The way Lady Werewilk and Marlo sniped at each other, you’d think they were married already.
I hoofed it back inside. My throat was raw, and I was coughing often and hard enough to make me wonder if my injuries went deeper than mere bruises.
Once indoors, I shooed dogs off the couch and sent a painter to fetch a bucket of beer. Gertriss seated herself beside me and fixed me in a harsh Hog glare.
“The last thing you need right now is beer.”
“The last thing I need is a discussion about my beer.” A sudden fit of coughing didn’t help my case.
Gertriss’ glare intensified.
“So let’s talk about the banshee instead. She just appeared right by you, Mr. Markhat.”
“I think I prefer boss, Miss.”
“Boss, then. She wasn’t there and then she was. Howling. And it looked like she touched you too. Grabbed your hand.”
I nodded. Had Buttercup been trying to pull me away from the trap? I wanted to think so.
“Did you see her at all before that? Even a glimpse with that famous Hog Sight?”
“No. She wasn’t there. Then she was. Then she was gone, right after Marlo swung that axe at her. Next time I saw her we had you laid across the saddle. I reckon she was maybe fifty feet ahead of us, looking down from an oak.”
I tried to speak but coughed instead.
My bucket of beer arrived. Gertriss rolled her eyes but poured me a glass and even handed it to me.
“You do know banshees only show up when somebody dies, don’t you, boss?”
I let the beer work its golden magic. It did feel good going down.
“Nobody died,” I said. “See? I’m as good as new.”
“Somebody had just died, boss. Weexil. Who knows who else?”
“Weexil had been dead long enough to draw flies. You’re thinking ghouls, Miss. Banshees vacate the scene right after Death performs his handiwork.”
“This ain’t…this isn’t a joke, boss. You can’t go around making pets out of banshees.”
“Pet? What pet? I didn’t call her, didn’t even know she was around. She just appeared.”
Gertriss made a derisive snorting sound.
“Think she was looking for corn bread, boss?”
Gertriss sighed and rose.
“My sight. It isn’t like Mama’s. Isn’t like any Hog I know.” She crossed her arms and began to pace, stepping carefully over dog’s tails now and then. “They can call it up, send it back. Mine-well, I see things all the time. Even things I don’t want to see.” She balled her hands into fists. “Especially things I don’t want to see.”
“Mama know about that?”
Gertriss shook her head no.
I put down my empty glass. “That must be an awful burden.”
She just shrugged. Her jaw was trembling.
“I knew a man during the War who had the Sight. Sort of like yours. Couldn’t make himself see things that might have helped, might have been useful. Saw all kinds of horror instead.”
I poured up a glass of beer, offered it to her. She refused.
“Got worse and worse. He quit sleeping at night. We had to gag him in case he started screaming, when we were in Troll country. You really ought to have a taste. This is really good beer.”
She halted, let out a long ragged sigh, and plopped back down beside me.
Much to my surprise, she took the glass from my hand and sniffed at the contents.
“So what happened to this man?”
“He withdrew. Stopped talking. Went further and further inside himself. One day, six of us were out on patrol. We knew there was a Troll force nearby. We weren’t to engage them, just to watch. Hillard-that was his name, Hillard-saw a pair of trolls fishing in a creek. Before we could stop him, he just walked right up to them, empty-handed. Go ahead. You’ll wish you had.”
She did. I watched her drink it, wondered if it was her first taste of beer.
It was. Her eyes widened. She smiled a ghostly little half-smile.
“This is good.”
“Told you so. Go ahead, that’s yours. One glass won’t make you drunk.”
She took another sip.
“And Hillard? What happened to him?”
“He walked up to the bank. The Trolls came striding out of the water. We were too far away to hear, but I think they talked, for a moment.”
“And then a Troll knocked Hillard’s head off. One swipe. Dead and gone.”
Gertriss shivered. “Is there a point to this, boss?”
“The point is that I’ll always believe Hillard asked that Troll to kill him. It wasn’t murder, or even an act of war. It was a mercy. And that’s sad, Miss, because if Hillard had made himself talk about his Sight, about what was eating him alive, he might be sitting on a couch somewhere telling war stories to pretty young women instead of …”
“Instead of being dead. I get it.” She raised the glass, emptied the beer. “Well. I should tell you the real reason I left Pot Lockney.”
But she didn’t. The great doors opened, and Lady Werewilk and Marlo came stomping in, still arguing.
Marlo marched right up to me. It was clear he didn’t approve of my beer.
“I say we ought to go get the Watch,” he said. “I say we’ve got murder being done, and it’s time we got some law in here before there’s more blood spilt.”
I nodded amiably. “You’re exactly right.”
Silence. Lady Werewilk walked up behind Marlo.
“I said I’m going to send for the Watch.”
I shrugged. “Go right ahead.”
“Figured you’d object to that. Seeing as how it might take you off the payroll.”
Gertriss started to speak, but bless her, she looked to me first, and I silenced her with a quick shake of my head.
“Wouldn’t be any point in paying me if you’ve got the Watch on the case.”
Lady Werewilk joined the fray. “As the Mistress of this House, I and I alone will decide when and if the Watch is called, and who works for me afterward. That is final.”
Marlo’s expression made it clear what he thought of the finality of Lady Werewilk’s pronouncement.
“You going to go yourself, Marlo?”
“If I have to.”
I filled my glass with Lady Werewilk’s beer. “Have you had extensive dealings with the Watch, Marlo?”
“No more than anybody hereabouts.”
I sipped beer. “Then you might not know how the Watch is likely to respond when you start telling tales of banshees in the trees and bodies that get up and go for hikes right before they can be produced as evidence.”
Marlo puffed up. “Now look here, Mr. Markhat. I know I ain’t a city man, but we pays our taxes, same as anybody inside them walls.”
I had to stifle an outright laugh. “Mr. Marlo. You could produce a century of tax receipts and throw them in the Watch’s face, and the most they’ll probably do is cite you for littering. You don’t have a body. You’ll be telling tales about banshees and stakes left in the yard. Look. If I thought I could get a pair of Watchmen down here, I’d have sent for them already. But I’m telling you plain, Mr. Marlo. You’ll be wasting your time.”
“Which is precisely what I said,” added Lady Werewilk.
“Your family has been in the House for four hundred years,” growled Marlo. “First they fought Elves. Then they fought Trolls. Now they’re fightin’ something new, and by damn them what’s in the City are going to send help this time. I’m going. I’m taking Burris. With or without your blessing.”
“It will be without. And if you go, don’t bother to return.” Marlo’s face went the red of day-old meat.
“You keep an eye on her for me, Finder. Lady or not, sometimes she ain’t got much sense.”
And with that, he turned, walked out and let the big old doors slam behind him.
Lady Werewilk glared. The ragged circle of artists that had gathered to watch the show withered and dispersed. Even the dogs got up, tucked tails and slinked away, their nails tap-tapping on the tiles.
Gertriss rose, found another glass, filled it and handed it to Lady Werewilk, who drained it without a breath or a word.
Gertriss filled the silence.
“So you don’t think the Watch will come, boss?”
“Not a chance. We’re on our own.” I stood. My head still hurt, and my sideways ride on Lumpy had done bad things to my lower back, but the last thing an angry client wants to see is the finder she’s paying lounging on her couch and drinking her beer.
“The camp,” Lady Werewilk spoke. “Who occupied it? Why?”
When I opened my mouth, I fully intended to speak the words ‘I don’t know.’ I knew Lady Werewilk wasn’t going to like hearing them, but I’d been nearly strangled by a pile of bones and a banshee had tried to hold my hand and neither activity had done much to improve my mood.
But in that instant before I spoke, some tiny fragment of memory was dislodged.
The big tent. The big tables under it. The abacus. The pencils. The stakes.
If we’d kept looking, there’d have been metal screens set in shallow wooden boxes too.
“Damn me,” I muttered. “Of course.”
“Of course what, Mr. Markhat?”
“Lady Werewilk. I assume your House contains a library?”
Lady Werewilk frowned. “Of course. It’s in my suite of rooms.”
“And does this library contain a great number of old books which detail the early years of the House and the grounds?”
“I need to be in that library, Lady. Right now.”
“First you’ll tell me why.”
“It’s not your House they’re after. It never was. But there’s something on your land. Buried, probably. That’s what they’ve been looking for. And they’ve been using a map so old the land itself has changed.”
“All that, from looking at the empty camp?”
“I saw a camp just like it, once. Right after the War. Royal archeologists. They were excavating an old Elvish burial site the Trolls had found. They were using stakes to mark out the crypts and the catacombs. An abacus to help with the math. A big tent to bring in loads of dirt and sift through every shovel-full by pouring it through wire grates. Sorcerers all over the place to find old spells and handle the items they dug up.”
“An Elvish burial complex? Here? On my lands? Nonsense.”
“I didn’t say it was Elvish. But I need to have a look at your library. If there are old maps there, maybe I can take the sketches we made of the stakes you found and figure out where they were looking.”
“But they’ve gone now. The camp is deserted. Surely that means they found what they were looking for.”
I thought about the bony hand they left behind, about Weexil’s’ missing corpse, about the banshee in the trees.
“Maybe. And maybe it means they just found out where to dig. Which means somebody will be back. Maybe somebody worse. We need to figure out what they were looking for, Lady. And where. I’ll sleep a lot better if we can find a big empty hole.”
Lady Werewilk sighed. “Very well. Please come this way. You too, young lady. I assume you can read?”
Gertriss nodded, and off we marched.
Lady Werewilk’s rooms took up the entire second floor of the House. Her bed was the size of a wagon. Both Gertriss and I pretended not to see the toe of a Marlo-sized man’s boot peeking out from under it.
The library was a single square room set into the southwest corner of the House. The windows actually let in light, and there were three big comfy leather chairs and three plain but sturdy reading desks, all arranged to take advantage of the sunlight. There was even a fancy globe of the world mounted in a shiny brass apparatus that allowed it to spin at the touch of a finger.
The globe was pre-War. It still showed human cities and settlements out East. It’s all ghosts and ruins out there now, and even if the Trolls let us move back that way it’ll be decades before anyone dips a toe in the Great Sea again.
The walls were covered in shelves, floor to ceiling, and the shelves were stuffed and crammed with books.
Lady Werewilk paused and considered the books, forefinger to her lips.
“Yes. I believe this series is a good place to start.”
With that, she walked to a shelf, removed half a dozen massive old tomes, and plopped them down on the nearest desk.
I carefully took up the oldest one. The leather used to bind it threatened to flake away into dust before my eyes. I took it to my desk, carefully opened it and began to educate myself concerning the Auspicious Origins and Heroic Deeds of the Mighty House of Werewilk, est. in the Year 453 of the Kingdom of Man.
The light from the windows had faded and died before I closed my last book.
Gertriss was bleary-eyed and yawning. Lady Werewilk had retired an hour ago, citing some pressing House business.
But I’d found what I was looking for.
The stakes had been laid out right in the bed of a creek that once cut right through the Werewilk estate. The creek was gone now, and had been for a century, sipped empty by a series of irrigation canals north of here. The tiny trickle that remained fed into the cornfield and never emerged.
But it had been mapped, in those first books. And there was no mistaking it. The surveyors had even marked the creek’s four small tributaries, one of which ran through the very spot where Skin would one day tend his precious bees.
The creek had meandered on, heading South, ending or joining a bigger one somewhere well beyond the concerns of any ancient Werewilk.
What Lady Werewilk’s forebears had mapped was intriguing.
There was the creek. There was the Old Road. There was an old quarry, abandoned even before the first Werewilk laid claim to the oaks.
And there was something else, a place mentioned only twice in the fifteen old tomes we’d read.
They’d just called it the Faery Ring. Called it that, and then issued some pretty stern warnings about “Disturbing, Molesting, or otherwise visiting or Trespassing on this ancient and malevolent Site.”
Literal shivers had run up my spine when I read those faded old words.
Instantly, I wondered who else had read them. During the War, as one old estate after another fell to the Trolls, the Regent made it law that scribes could come in and copy any private library, belonging to anyone, at the whim of the local governor. Even after the War, the law stood, the intent being to prevent unique historic treasures from being eaten by termites. I’d heard getting scribes in to some private libraries required troops and scuffling.
I asked, keeping my tone casual, if the Regency had ever copied the Werewilk books.
“I told them library was destroyed in a house fire a century ago,” Lady Werewilk replied. “The bastards,” she added.
I grinned. The Faery Ring was right on the creek the mystery surveyors were mapping. In fact, I was nearly ready to bet my good boots that the Faery Ring was what they’d been looking for all the time.
Which meant that whatever once lay within that Ring might be more than just a local legend. Someone else out there had a map, a map that hadn’t been drawn by a Werewilk. Even Weexil had never dared Lady Werewilk’s rooms-of that she was sure.
The light had nearly failed. Lady Werewilk took her leave, citing the need to oversee the preparation of the evening meal. I suspected she was instead dying to know whether Marlo had actually taken Burris and headed for Rannit, despite her directives to the contrary.
I figured he’d done just that. I pondered that dark, narrow path beneath those shadowed boughs and I wished them both well.
Gertriss was seated close beside me. She’d been marking our maps with the stake locations and the route of the old creek.
She stabbed her pencil down in the center of the Faery Ring she’d just sketched.
“I don’t think there’s enough daylight left to head out today.”
“We won’t be heading out at all, Miss. Not there, anyway.”
I rose and stretched my arms. “Let’s say we’re right in this. Our camping friends have sorcerers in their number. They left a killing trap in a campfire. What kind of nasty surprises do you think they might have hidden at the location of the buried treasure?”
“You think it’s old gold?” She was perking up.
“I have no idea what it might be. I know some very determined and well-financed people want it, and they want it badly enough to kill for it.” I rubbed the bruises on my neck. “Marlo and his axe might not be enough, next time.”
Gertriss rose and joined me in a round of pacing. I reflected that my office back in Rannit was too small to accommodate us both this way.
“So what’s next, boss?”
“Supper. Afterward, we speak alone with Lady Werewilk.”
“About our clever plan to keep her and her household safe. Now scoot. Check on Serris. Find Lady Werewilk. Get her permission for us to enter the gallery. I want to look at those paintings. All of them. And, Gertriss, bring me more corn bread. Buttered, of course.”
“Beer.” I stood in the dying sunlight, let its feeble rays cast a barely perceptible warmth over my face. “And bring me a blanket. Nothing a dog has slept on. Wool. Plain.”
She made a puzzled face, but nodded and closed the door softly behind her.
Alone at last, I rolled my neck around on my shoulders and worked the pops out. Then I took my boots off and engaged in some first-class sock-foot pacing, trying to put together the clever plan I’d mentioned to Gertriss before Lady Werewilk came around eager to hear it.
I had my beer, my cornbread, and my blanket. I put my boots back on, combed my hair, and even shaved. My fresh scratches gave me a faintly piratical appearance.
I knew Lady Werewilk would insist on speaking after the evening meal. That suited me just fine. It was much lighter outside than indoors, so I spent some time before supper wandering around the borders of the House lawn, whistling and generally making my presence known to any spectral howling ladies who might be hiding just inside the ranks of massive blood oaks.
I selected a spot not far from the angelic statue I’d used before. I folded the blanket and placed it in the crook of a crape myrtle, and I left the cornbread on top, wrapped in one of my own linen handkerchiefs. I also left a small bowl of beer, in case Buttercup fancied an evening nip.
I sat under the spreading branches of the myrtle, for a while. I talked, about nothing, about everything, on the off chance my voice was being heard. I got no replies, but wasn’t expecting any.
I did draw numerous odd looks from a couple of gardeners, but they scurried away whispering when I waved at them.
I was ready to head inside myself when Gertriss came out to fetch me. If she had opinions about my preferred method of banshee hunting, she kept them to herself.
“That clever plan you mentioned? Got it all plotted out?”
“Indeed I do, oh junior member of the firm. Plotted and hatched. Another mystery made mundane, another client rendered a bit poorer but far wiser.”
Gertriss frowned at me. We were walking toward the big doors, and she stopped and stopped me by taking hold of my elbow.
“Really? You know what to do next?”
I adopted an expression of deep hurt.
“Have you truly known me long enough to have arrived at such a low opinion of my skills already?”
“You know what I mean, boss.”
I grinned and motioned for her to start walking. “I know. But my answer is the same. There is a way out of this, a way that protects Lady Werewilk and her House and, incidentally, you and I.”
I was at the door. I put my hand on it but didn’t open it.
“You know you and I can’t take on a small army with sorcerers in the ranks.”
She just nodded. Her relief was obvious.
“We’re not going to just walk away, either. But there’s another way. You’ll see.”
I opened the door. It still wasn’t locked. The sounds of the kitchen staff setting out plates and utensils while engaging in hushed conversations filled the hall.
“Let’s go see the paintings, first. Did Lady Werewilk have a problem with us looking?”
“She told me ignore anyone who protested our presence. Well, she used different words, which I won’t repeat, but that’s what she meant.”
I chuckled. “And Marlo? Did he leave?”
We made for the big gallery room. A pair of curious dogs followed us, just in case we happened to drop baked hams.
“He took Burris, a wagon and two ponies.” Gertriss lowered her voice to a whisper. “She’s mad enough to choke a wolf.”
“Think she meant what she said about not letting him come back?”
“She meant it, boss. At the time. But she’s already watching the doors and keeping track of the time. She’ll forgive.”
We were at the gallery door. I pushed it open. The dogs trotted through first, tails in full wag.
The room was dark. But it wasn’t empty-a full dozen of the artists were there, silent, each so intent on their canvases none acknowledged our presence or that of the dogs, who ran from place to place to finish the abandoned, half-eaten meals that littered the place.
Gertriss frowned. We both halted just beyond the door.
“How do they see anything?” whispered Gertriss.
“I don’t know.” There were lamps and candles aplenty, but only one lamp, just to our right, was lit. The sunlight that managed to creep in over the windows was yellow-pale, more like bright moonlight than day.
But brushes moved, scrape-scrape, scrape-scrape.
I picked up a five-candle candelabra and lit each white candle with the lamp.
Still, not a single face turned toward us.
“Look, I have beer.”
Still, no acknowledgement.
I motioned Gertriss ahead. She went, keeping close to me, her left hand on my arm. She hadn’t done that outside in the dark of the night.
We reached the first painter. Her name was Lissa. Her young face was a study in rapt intensity. She painted left-handed, and though she held the brush awkwardly there was nothing awkward about her painting.
I brought my light up close to the canvas.
Gertriss gasped. I may have too. I can tell you that we saw young man and a donkey standing at the edge of the field they’d come to plow, early on a bright spring morning. I could tell you about the wild daisies at their feet, tell you about the young man’s vivid blue eyes and hay-colored hair and the set of his strong country jaw, but unless you’ve seen the same painting you just won’t understand.
Lissa, I recalled, came from a middling rich family in Rannit. She’d never in her life seen a field being worked. I doubted she’d ever seen a donkey fitted with a harness and a plow. But she’d painted them perfectly, flawlessly, right down to the kind of knots in the harness and the wear on the plow-handle from hour after grueling hour of being pushed down by the plowman.
“Beautiful,” I said aloud, to Lissa.
She didn’t hear me. I said it again, louder.
She made an ugly smudge near the donkey’s tail and whirled toward me, startled.
“Didn’t mean to scare you, Miss,” I said. “I just wanted to tell you how much I love your work.”
She stammered a thank you. Her eyes went back to her canvas. She frowned at the smudge, and her brush dipped into paint, and she was gone again.
Gertriss pulled me away.
“Something ain’t right.”
“Something isn’t right.”
She glared. “Either way. You know this isn’t natural.”
I nodded. “I don’t need Hog sight to see that. Let’s see if the others are the same.”
I lifted the drop cloths off the works in progress that weren’t being added to. Each was a masterpiece, at least to my untrained eye.
We were still stalking around when the dinner bell rang. The artists kept dabbing. The dogs, sated but hoping for handouts of leftovers, followed us out.
“Mister Markhat, there’s something going on in this place.”
“Really? You mean aside from banshees and walking corpses?”
She poked me in the ribs with her sharp Hog elbow. “Hush, Serris might hear.”
“You mean something back there, in the gallery.”
“I think so too. Think about all the paintings we saw. What did they all depict?”
“What were they all of. What did they all show. How did every one of them make you feel?”
We were nearly to the dining room. Voices and even the odd laugh rang out.
“Happy. Or sad, but sad about good memories-does that make sense?”
“Couldn’t have said it better myself, Miss. Now then. If some mysterious force makes people see happy, good things, what does that tell you about this mysterious force?”
We paused at the door. Gertriss thought for a moment.
“Well, it’s either a friendly ghost what misses the happy things it left behind, or it’s a complete bastard, trying to be smiles and music until you get close enough to be grabbed and gutted. I reckon it’s probably the last.”
I was impressed. I opened the door and held it for her.
“You have the makings of a great finder,” I said. “Now let’s eat.”
The smell was heavenly, though. The table didn’t sport the same volume of food it had that first night, but it was ample nonetheless. Lady Werewilk had decided not to employ her hexed hearth again, which meant none of the candles were melting from the heat.
We sat, and dined. Marlo’s customary chair was empty. Lady Werewilk gave me a quizzical raised eyebrow look from her seat at the end of the long table, and I replied to it with a smile and a nod.
The conversations, of course, all centered on the killing spell at the empty camp, the banshee and the likely whereabouts of Weexil’s ripening remains. The story of the day’s events certainly had the staff spooked-even the gardeners and the stable hands were wearing swords, and there were a dozen halberds, flails or just plain wooden clubs leaning against the wall near the door.
Every metal surface sported rust. Few attempts had been made to remove it. The soldier in me cringed.
I was asked a few times what I intended to do about the situation. I replied with vague affirmations that all would be well between mouthfuls of beef.
No one mentioned anything helpful about a Faery Ring, and I decided not to ask.
The artists were the least concerned of the bunch. None carried so much as a dagger. They were far more interested in beer and Serris, who joined the meal late, looking pale and tragic in a flimsy lace gown that suggested far more spirited activities than mourning the passing of a lover.
She didn’t look at me once during the meal. She avoided speaking to Gertriss too, which I found odd. Gertriss just shrugged when her calm greeting wasn’t returned. If they’d had terse words during the day, Gertriss hadn’t told me.
The food vanished, forkful by forkful, and the crowd with it. After a time, no one was left but Lady Werewilk, Gertriss, a few artists and myself.
The artists were arguing about something artistic and sloshing beer on the floor. Lady Werewilk finally had to get up and lead them both out by the elbow, much to Gertriss’ amusement.
She closed the door behind them, then took the seat beside me.
“So, Finder. What now?”
“We call the Watch.” When her brow furrowed, I spoke quickly. “Marlo isn’t going to get any help. I was right about that. Because he won’t be telling the right things to the right people. Hear me out, Lady Werewilk. It was your library that gave me the idea.”
“What did you find?”
“I think I found what your sneaky stake-layers were looking for. It was mentioned in a couple of old books, and they had maps. The Faery Ring? South of here? Ever hear of it?”
She shook her head. “I’m ashamed to say I haven’t, Mr. Markhat. Or if I have, I’ve forgotten it. What is it?”
“The books didn’t say. But it was located right on the banks of the old creek the clandestine surveying crew was staking out. It can’t be coincidence. Your forebears said the place was dangerous. I’m thinking an Elvish burial site, maybe. Or something worse. But what it was doesn’t matter-the fact that it’s there at all is what I’m counting on to get you out of this mess.”
She figured it out. “I forget the name of the Act. It’s the one in which the Crown-the Regency, I mean-assumes control over any site believed to be Elvish or pre-Kingdom sorcerous in nature?”
“The Regency Archeological Preservation Act,” I said. “Look. The last thing these people, whoever they are, want is for the Regent to send a few hundred soldiers and half of a dozen Army sorcerers down here with shovels and spells. Because as soon as the Regent’s sorcerer corps show up, there’s no chance anyone else will ever get their hands on whatever they think is buried out there.”
“You don’t think they have it yet?”
“Not if it’s Elvish they don’t. They didn’t have time, once they found the creek. The Elves buried their dead deep. And our friends from the camp didn’t have enough men or equipment to start a major excavation, much less finish one. Twenty men couldn’t possibly have been enough.” I caught my breath. “Either they found what they were looking for, or not. But either way, once the Regent gets involved, no one else does. Which means you and your house will be safe.”
She nodded. She wasn’t sold yet, and I didn’t much blame her.
“I know you’re thinking the Regency will come in here and make a huge mess and dig up half your estate and take whatever they find without so much as a thank you,” I said. “And that’s exactly what they’ll do. But at least they’ll make some compensation for the dig, and they’ll fill in the holes when they’re done, and while they’ll be a pain in the ass they won’t knock down your doors and cut all your throats in the night. Which, Lady, I do believe the other bunch might just do.”
I let that sink in.
“There’s something else, Lady. And if I’m right, it isn’t good news either.”
She sighed. “Go on.”
“The paintings. I said before they were masterpieces.”
“They are. What are you suggesting?”
“I’m suggesting that the inspiration for these masterpieces might have its origins in something other than pure artistic talent.”
“Maybe. I hope so. But Lady-have you seen those kids, when they’re working?”
“Yes. They’re focused. They’re artists.”
“They’re kids,” said Gertriss. “Half of ’em drunk. The other half hung over. Now Lady, I reckon you know your business, and I reckon they can paint, drunk or sober. But the Sight runs in my family, and it’s as old as yours. And my Sight tells me there’s something in that gallery room that ought not to be.”
“Please don’t be insulted if I find that hard to believe, dear.”
“I don’t. But I’m telling you plain there’s something else here. I don’t know what it is. And I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. But it’s here.”
I nodded. “Lady Werewilk, if it’s true there’s something worthy of a sorcerer’s attention in the old Faery Ring, you’ve got to at least consider the possibility that it’s influencing your artists. It wouldn’t be the first time something old or something Elvish gave people close to it nightmares or visions.”
“And now you believe it’s expressing an interest in oil paintings of the School of Realism?”
I shrugged. “I’ve seen stranger things, Lady.”
Her expression told me plainly the she hadn’t, and she doubted that I had.
“Look. Forget what might be buried under the Faery Ring. Forget what it might or might not be doing to your painters. The fact remains that someone who’s proven they’re willing to kill-more than once-may be sneaking toward your door. And I say the only way to stop that is to get the Regency involved.”
Lady Werewilk deflated.
“On that, Mr. Markhat, I’m afraid we agree.”
Gertriss spoke. “Is it too late to send somebody back to Rannit now?”
I’d dreaded this discussion. “We can’t send just anybody. It’ll have to be me. And I’m going alone. On foot. No horse, no stable boys.” I looked Gertriss in the eye to let her know I meant no assistants too.
“Look. I can march into House Avalante and have a chat with a halfdead named Evis. Evis has pull. An hour after I speak to him, he can have the Regent’s top archeologist sitting in his office. I can wave a few maps around and make mention of unauthorized artifact hunts and I’d bet my favorite boots we’ll be headed back here an hour after that with fifty troops and a pair of Regency sorcerers, with another two hundred men on the road by daybreak. Without Evis and Avalante, all that could take days. Maybe a week. And that’s just too long to take chances.”
“Alone? Are you crazy, er, boss?”
“I can move faster and a lot quieter by myself. It’s maybe fifteen miles to Rannit. I can do that on foot in seven hours, even moving slow and keeping the noise down. I can stay off the road. If no one here knows I’m gone, well, I should be perfectly safe.”
I wasn’t convincing anyone. But I reminded myself that as the boss I didn’t need to convince Gertriss. And Lady Werewilk might not like it, but she was biting her lip and being quiet.
“So it’s settled. I’ll sneak out right after breakfast. Dawn is a good time for sneaking. Anybody asks, I’m up in my room, pondering my misspent youth.”
Gertriss opened her mouth. I prepared myself for a tirade, having recognized the slight creasing of her forehead and the way she made her hands into fists from Mama’s similar habits.
At that moment, though, Buttercup let loose a long, plaintive cry from somewhere out in Lady Werewilk’s overgrown lawn.
We all bolted for the door. Artists and staff were already in the hall, on the move, though every one of them stopped well before the doors.
Buttercup’s howl rose up and up, growing louder and clearer with every passing moment. Gertriss brandished her new sword, but I put the blade down with the palm of my hand.
“No need for that, Miss,” I said. My words barely rose above the banshee’s wail. “I don’t think she means us any harm.”
I reached the door. I had my hand on the latch when Buttercup’s cry rose sharply and took on a certain unmistakable urgency.
I opened the door, poked my head just around it.
There was no Moon. The torches on either side of the doors illuminated a semicircle of weeds and cracked flagstones, but only for a weak stone’s throw. Beyond that was shadow and forest and night.
One moment, shadow and forest.
The next, shadow and forest and Buttercup, at the edge of the lawn. She was wild-eyed, and her hair swirled around her as though she’d just paused in the midst of a spinning dance step.
Her right hand moved, the motion so fast it was only a blur.
When I could see her hand again, it held a crossbow bolt. A black one, twin to the one I’d pried from my boot.
Blink. Buttercup and bolt were gone.
But from the trees came the sound of horses. Fast cavalry mounts, not any of Lady Werewilk’s plodding mules.
“Stay put.” I pulled Toadsticker from my belt. I expected Gertriss to argue, but she just nodded and took the door. “Douse the lights so you don’t make a good target. Get ready to open the door if I need inside in hurry.”
And then I was on the move.
I wish I could say I glided ghostlike from shadow to shadow. Truth is, I was too full of roast beef to do much more than shuffle and grunt. But I managed to shuffle my way across the Werewilk lawn without being seen or shot.
The crape myrtle in which I’d left the blanket and corn bread was empty. I hid myself beneath it, taking advantage of the weeds and the moonless night. The horses were close, still running at a suicidal gallop through thick forest, and I wondered just what kind of madmen they bore.
Buttercup cried out again, from just inside the trees. I saw a hint of motion, wild hair in the starlight, and then she was gone, but the horses were nearly on top of us.
The first of the horsemen broke from the trees.
I very nearly failed to bite back a curse word.
Black mare. Black saddle. Rider small and slight, swathed in black robes, black hood, black sleeves and gloves and boots. Had there been daylight, I might have glimpsed the black mask he wore, with its careful slit for the eyes.
A sorcerer. Worse, a sorcerer who’d sidestepped the arduous and expensive process of being vetted and named by Rannit’s established sorcerous corps.
Which made him a doubly dangerous man, in that his life was already forfeit by law and the ire of beings like Encorla Hisvin and all the other monsters who had survived the War.
He held a staff. Atop it was a glowing blue globe that hissed and sparked.
Buttercup howled, appeared maybe fifty feet from the horseman, and did that odd little side-step that had been, until then, the very last thing I saw her do before she vanished.
This time, though, she fell.
The sorcerer bore down on her, calling out to his comrades, who were so close to the tree line I could hear the strained breathing of their mounts.
She rose, but the blue light played oddly about her, and she struggled and fell again, as though fighting her way through a briar-patch.
She looked back at me. She wasn’t howling anymore. She was screaming, but it was just a scream, with none of the volume of her eerie howls.
I cussed and charged out of the myrtle tree, Toadsticker held low, my supper weighing me down like a belt made of stones.
I’d never reach the sorcerer in time. I knew that. He’d be able to run Buttercup down half a dozen times before I huffed and puffed half the way to him.
And to make matters suddenly worse, four other black-clad sorcerers burst from the trees. Each carried a glowing staff similar to that of the first. When the light from them all fell over Buttercup, her scream fell to a whimper and she sank to her belly and pulled my plain grey blanket over her and began to cry.
The first sorcerer reached her, pulled to a halt, and kept his staff over her huddled form. He barked something to the others, and they turned their black mounts to face me.
I stopped. I went quiet. I was too far from the Werewilk house to make a run for it and too far from the woods to escape there either.
I was in the middle of a patch of knee-high weeds with a short sword, facing five outlaw sorcerers armed with the kind of nasty that only outlaw sorcerers can offer.
Crickets sang. Horses shuffled. The rogue sorcerers sat and stared. One chuckled and muttered something unintelligible to his fellows.
“I’ll give you boys one chance to surrender,” I said, after a time. “After that, things are going to get ugly.”
One of them barked something, and his blue staff blazed blood red, and he pointed it at me.
I raised Toadsticker. I know I did, because Gertriss saw me do it from the door. I only vaguely remember my arm going up, and what little I do recall makes it feel as if the sword moved on its own, and my hand and arm merely followed.
The sorcerer’s red-globed staff flashed, and the lawn lit up bright as day, and a crack of Heaven’s own thunder picked me up off my feet and threw me back a dozen long strides and dropped me on my ass right in the middle of a razor-thorned wild rose bush.
And as I flew, the lightning fell. It came crackling and flashing, blinding bright. Long burning white arms of it reached down from the sky and plucked the sorcerers from their mounts and took them up and up and up, robes and staves and screams and all.
And then it was over.
The weeds broke out into a dozen small fires. The five black mares scattered, hooves thundering, bridles dragging. A hot wind thick with smoke began to blow.
I tore myself loose from the rosebush. Toadsticker lay at my feet, the blade smoking, the hilt so hot I couldn’t hold it.
I left it there, dodged fires, found Buttercup’s blanket, heaped amid the weeds.
I spoke the name I’d given her, but she didn’t stir. I lifted the blanket.
She was gone.
But from the trees, I hear a cry. Not a scream or a howl, just a wordless proclamation that let me know where to look.
Motion, a flash of dirty white arms, and she was there.
I balled up the blanket and threw it to her. She caught it in the air, and made that diving half step, and she was gone.
The lawn was a few good puffs of wind from being engulfed in hungry flames. I yelled for Gertriss, yelled for help.
I didn’t think we’d need to worry about mere archers when the skies themselves were out plucking sorcerers from their mounts.
It took the entire household to keep the neglected Werewilk lawn from turning into the flash point of a house-gobbling forest fire.
Everywhere, yelling, cursing people beat at flames with blankets or hauled buckets of water from the three wells or stomped out embers with their feet.
Gertriss had gone to help with the bucket brigade. She’d seen the five wand-wavers taken up into the sky. She claimed the sorcerer-snatching lightning had leapt from Toadsticker’s modest blade. Until I sent her off to haul buckets, she’d eyed me warily, as if she expected me to sprout horns or start tossing around random bolts of lightning at any moment.
The fires were small, but numerous. Years of neglect had made the lawn a tinderbox. Stamp out one tiny inferno, and two more sprang to life in revenge. Within moments, the entire House, with the exception of Singh and Milton, was outside, battling flames in the night.
I was side-by-side with Marlo before I even realized it.
We were both throwing wet blankets over the same patch of burning chokeweed. His face was covered in soot and streaked with sweat and grim beneath it all.
“You’re back,” I stated, when we’d beaten the flames down. I lacked the breath for any more elaborate greeting.
He nodded and tottered. I realized he was on the brink of collapsing from exhaustion.
“Dead. Didn’t make it five miles. Woods are full of ’em.” He spat. “Saw the lightning, smelled the smoke. What’s happening, Finder?”
“They were out hunting Butter-the banshee. Almost got her and me too. Lightning struck them down first.”
Marlo spat again and muttered an unkind word.
“Lightning. Just happened. To strike.” I think he would have hit me, had he retained the strength.
“I’m telling you what I saw. I can’t explain it either.”
People were shouting all around us. Some for water, some for shovels or blankets, some for help. But Lady Werewilk’s cry of Marlo’s name sounded above them, and erased any fears that Marlo would be lacking a place to sleep once the fires were out.
Lady Werewilk and Gertriss came charging up. Both looked rather singed and sooty. Marlo turned to face them.
“I can’t even go to town without the place catching fire,” he observed.
Lady Werewilk coughed, slapped him and immediately caught him up in a brief fierce hug.
“He needs to get indoors,” I said. I surveyed the lawn. I saw smoke rising here and there, but no flames. “Same goes for everybody else. This is about to turn ugly, Lady. They’ve killed Burris, and I just watched five of them die. Time to get everyone inside and lock the doors.”
“Is that true, Marlo? Burris is dead?”
He nodded, and would have fallen had not all three of us taken hold of him.
My hand, where it gripped him, came away wet. A glance confirmed that it was blood.
“Everyone!” Lady Werewilk had a good voice. People all around turned. “Stop. Go to your homes. Bring whatever food you can carry. Lock your doors behind you, and come to the main house. I want everyone, and I mean everyone, inside, right now. Go!”
People went. Gertriss and I carried Marlo, who remained on his feet but could do little more than shuffle. Singh and Milton met us at the door. Milton stared and drooled. Singh handed me a bowl of clean water and a towel.
“For his wounds,” he explained, before returning to tend the empty-eyed Milton.
I maneuvered Marlo to the couch, sat him down, fumbled with his shirt.
“How many?” I asked.
“Lost count. Lot more’n fifty. They were waiting. Burris got a bolt in his chest before we knew they were there.” Marlo winced as Gertriss loosed the last button and lifted his shirt away from the wound.
It wasn’t fatal. He’d been slashed, long and shallow, right above his left kidney. A doctor would probably have stitched him up. Lacking a doctor, we’d be forced to clean the wound and bind it and hope he didn’t tear it open every time he moved.
“How long ago?”
“Not sure. Seems like hours and hours. I turned Hilly loose, started running. They didn’t even try to be quiet. Didn’t care who saw ’em, who heard ’em. All over the damned woods. Like ants. That hurts.”
“It wouldn’t hurt so much if you’d be still,” said Gertriss. She mopped away dried blood, and while a few beads of new blood weeped from the wound, she managed not to tear it open and cause a fresh round of heavy bleeding.
“It was dark by the time I got back here. I was hiding close to the road. Trying to see if they’d hit the House yet. I heard that banshee howl. Then I heard thunder.” He bit back a yelp of pain. “Ain’t no storms out tonight, Finder. I could see stars when the trees got thin. Where you reckon that lightnin’ came from?”
Gertriss raised an eyebrow. “Maybe you ought to be asking Miss Banshee instead of Mr. Markhat,” she said. “Seems to me she’d be the one to know about magical storms and what-not.”
I pondered that. I honestly hadn’t thought about it. I knew neither myself nor Toadsticker normally commanded the ability to call down fire from the heavens, but what did I know about banshees?
My last sight of Buttercup had been of her hiding beneath a blanket, like a child.
No, I decided, whoever or whatever had struck down the sorcerers outside hadn’t been Buttercup.
Which could mean only one thing. There was another sorcerer in the mix. Someone who didn’t want to see Buttercup captured or killed. I’d gotten lucky, I surmised. Had I run into the black-clad sorcerers alone, I doubted they’d have been consumed by any well-timed lightning.
People began tramping in, coughing and swearing. They bore bags of apples and the like, or bundles of clothes, or both. Marlo tried to start barking out orders, but fell into a fit of coughing.
Gertriss pushed him onto his side. Singh had produced a roll of clean white cloth and a bottle of something dark that stank of sulfur.
Gertriss sniffed at it, wrinkled her nose and poured it liberally over Marlo’s wounded side. Marlo gritted his teeth and bit back a scream.
Lady Werewilk came charging up.
“He’ll live,” I said, before she could ask. “Long wound, but shallow. Didn’t hit the kidney or anything else he can’t live without.”
Marlo issued a choked yet very colorful assessment of my medical skills. Gertriss blanched, but continued to bandage him.
“Everyone is inside,” said Lady Werewilk. She wore a sword. Her black hair was singed, and both her arms sported numerous small burns. Her face was as dirty as everyone else’s.
“We need to talk, Lady. Privately.”
“We do indeed, Mr. Markhat. As soon as everyone is settled.”
I nodded. “Which should be soon. Our friends outside may be mad enough to take a whack at us. And if they are, it’ll be tonight.”
“Even after what happened to their wand-wavers?”
“You saw too?”
“I did.” She looked down at Toadsticker. “It appears to be perfectly ordinary.”
“It’s got a charm against the halfdead, Lady. Nothing else.”
“If you insist, Mr. Markhat. Though I imagine the five sorcerers you just slew would claim other wise.”
I bit back a denial. I hadn’t slain anyone. Magic swords, at least ones that spat lightning, were the stuff of hoary old legends and nothing more. Even during the darkest days of the War, no one tried to charm swords with anything but simple hexes-sorcery is just too damned unpredictable, just as likely to spew fire down your trouser-leg as it is in the face of the enemy.
But from the looks I was drawing, I could tell my reasoned arguments would fall not on deaf ears but downright hostile ones.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” I announced, loud enough for all to hear. “I don’t have some legendary mass-murdering sword. I can’t go skipping out into the woods and come back with a bag of severed heads. If we have to fight, and I hope we don’t, you’d better all fight hard, because if you’re waiting for me to start some epic supernatural smiting you’ll be waiting a long long time. Got it?”
People scurried away. Gertriss bit her lip and shook her head but kept busy tying Marlo’s bandage around his hairy belly.
“Gertriss, find me when you’re done with him. And you, keep your ass on this couch. We don’t have enough hands to fight off bandits and stop you from bleeding all over the Lady’s good couches.”
Marlo glared, but nodded.
“Lady Werewilk. Let’s go.”
I rose and went stamping off toward the kitchen. Lady Werewilk followed.
“All these old places have secret escape tunnels,” I said, when we were out of earshot of Marlo and Gertriss. “Please tell me yours is no exception.”
She hesitated, and for the first time since we’d met I caught her shaping a lie.
“There’s no time, Lady Werewilk. We may have to use it ten breaths from now. Spill it.”
She paused at the kitchen door.
“I’ll need time first,” she said.
“Time to bolt the door on your secret room, Lady? The room where you keep your black cloak and your magical implements? That room?”
She glared. “Lower your voice.”
“So I was right. You’re my secret sorcerer. You’re one who called down the lightning.”
She shook her head. “All right. Yes. Like my mother and her mother before her, I have some training in the arcane. It’s a House tradition, one that has defended not only Werewilk but Rannit, down through the years. But I tell you this plain, Mr. Markhat. I lack the talent to do to those men what was done to them. I did send a working outside, one that I hoped would help you escape. But the lightning was none of my doing. It came from your sword.”
“Like Hell it did.” I put my hand on the door and pushed. “So show me the trap-door or the secret staircase or whatever it is. It’s in here, isn’t it?”
She followed me inside. “Yes. There are two entrances to the old tunnels. One is beneath the stove. There is a much larger one hidden in the back of a closet in the laundry room.”
“The tunnels. Where do they go?”
“One ends in the middle of the cornfield. The other extends much farther, to a point deep in the forest. Unfortunately, that tunnel has suffered a series of collapses, and the last fifty feet can only be crawled through, single file.”
I grunted, eyeing the stove. The builders had been clever. I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary at all.
“Marlo knows about them? Anyone else?”
She shook her head. “Marlo knows. No one else knows. Except Singh, of course.”
Of course. Singh, who knew all and said very little.
I did some math in my head. Thirty artists, twenty odd staff — it would take a couple of minutes to evacuate everyone to the tunnels, even using both entrances.
A couple of minutes doesn’t sound like a long time, unless you’ve got a mob breaking down the doors at your back.
“We’ll need to split everyone up into two groups. One group is yours and the other belongs to Gertriss. If you yell for a retreat, your group goes down below with you from here. Same for Gertriss. You’ll need to show her the closet entrance, tell your people who to follow.”
“And which group will you follow, Mr. Markhat?”
“I’m my own group, Lady.” I gave the stove a pat and headed out of the kitchen. “Don’t worry about me.”
If she replied, I didn’t hear it. I was far too busy worrying about me.
She didn’t seem to be lying when she denied casting any deadly lightning charms. Of course, with sorcerers, even amateur ones, you could never tell. But she certainly had nothing to gain by denying her actions, if indeed they’d been hers.
Too, reaching down from the sky and catching up five adult humans and snatching them into the heavens was way beyond the ability of all but the most accomplished sorcerers. I hadn’t seen a stunt like that since the War.
I pushed that thought aside. If creatures on a level with Hisvin and the other sorcerous War heroes that haunted the High House were mixed up in this, the likelihood that any of us mortals would survive was dropping by the minute.
Toadsticker was still warm where it touched my hip and leg. I put conjecture concerning the Corpsemaster aside and grasped at straws instead. Had Evis snuck a major spell into the sword, somehow? I doubted it. A minor charm against the undead wouldn’t raise any hackles anywhere, unless you count any undead I happened to impale. But putting military-grade spellwork into a civilian trinket would be a risk even Avalante seemed unlikely to take. Especially just to protect a small-time finder with offices on Cambrit Street.
And if I put Lady Werewilk out of the running too, things were bleak for finders and clients alike.
I frowned and stomped. Chasing down errant husbands or wandering wives was beginning to look better with each passing moment.
Gertriss came running up, her eyes flashing. “All right, no more stalling. Tell me how you did that, out there.”
“Later, oh junior member of the firm,” I said. Lady Werewilk was coming up fast behind us. “Right now we have to get this lot ready for a siege. Lady Werewilk is going to show you something, and tell you part of our plan. Go with her. And listen.”
Gertriss glared. I failed to help matters by returning a jaunty wink.
Behind her, Marlo grimaced and rose, clutching at his side. The bandage wasn’t showing any blood yet.
Lady Werewilk loosed a string of shouted obscenities so virulent Marlo settled back down on the couch.
People stared. She took advantage of the sudden silence and started splitting people into the two escape groups. Gertriss soon found herself surrounded by a wide-eyed gaggle of artists and a handful of equally terrified household staff.
She immediately started prowling among them, adjusting their grip on whatever tool or club they’d managed to arm themselves with.
I grinned. My admiration for Hog women was rising. Like Mama, Gertriss was obviously not going to let anyone ever know she wasn’t the master of all situations.
Lady Werewilk led Gertriss out, to show her the secret door to the tunnels. I was left with Marlo and a nervous crowd of painters.
I plopped down on the couch beside the wounded man.
“I didn’t have time to compliment you on your woodcraft before,” I said. “Getting past that crew alive was no small feat.”
He grunted. His wound and fatigue were catching up with him.
“Wouldn’t be too quick on that,” he said. “Don’t think they tried to kill me too hard. Not once I started heading back this way.”
“You sure about that?”
“I ain’t dead. Proof enough for me. Fifty men, more?” Marlo fell into a coughing fit. “They was watching the roads, Finder. They don’t want anybody from here telling tales in town. That’s what they was out to stop. Leastways I hope so.”
I nodded. He might be right, I decided. Because if they did break down the doors with murder on their minds, they’d have to kill thirty of Rannit’s rising young artists. And even the Regent wouldn’t decide to turn a blind eye toward an atrocity on that scale.
If what Marlo suspected was true, we’d be safe, at least for a while, as long as we stayed indoors. Long enough, say, for a few hundred men to dig something valuable out of the ground not far from here.
There was only one way to test this theory, though.
“Oh Hell no.” Marlo put his calloused hand on my elbow. “I know what you’re thinkin’, Finder. I’m telling you it’s a sui-i-cide.”
I pulled away. “Maybe. Tell Gertriss she ought not to cuss like that, when you tell her what I’ve done. And when she calms down, tell her she needs to drop that blasted sword and find herself a smallish crossbow.”
Marlo shook his head. His bandage was beginning to show tiny spots of blood. “I ain’t got the strength to wrestle with you, son. I wish your fool self luck.”
I nodded, made for the door, then veered off toward the kitchen.
“Almost forgot my corn bread,” I said.
Marlo’s only response was a long, loud snore.
I knew the massive cast-iron stove was rigged to move, but even so I nearly had to risk the ire of Gertriss by fetching Lady Werewilk to show me the secret lever.
But I found it, and with a surprisingly small bout of grunting and gasping I managed to pull the hot oven out from the wall, revealing a dark recess beneath it.
I heard female voices, so I felt for a ladder or a stair and found a flight of nice solid stair treads leading down into the dark.
The dark. I hadn’t planned my expedition very well. I spent a frantic moment rummaging through the kitchen drawers, found a box of matches, and fashioned a makeshift torch for myself out of a long-handled soup spoon, a dry dishrag, and a dip in the grease-pot on the counter. A second dishrag went in my pocket for the return trip.
I hoofed it down the secret stairs. Fifteen steps down-I counted in case I was in the dark coming up-I encountered a complicated set of gears and pulleys. A cable led up beside the stairs, towards the stove and the secret door. Another cable was attached to a trio of hanging barrels, each filled with sand.
I found a lever and pulled. Above me, the stove groaned as it was pulled back into place by the lowering of the heavy barrels.
I grinned. The machinery was well oiled and nearly silent. But of course it would be, since Lady Werewilk presumably used it often to reach her secret sorcerer’s lair.
The rectangle of light above me winked out as the secret door closed. The barrels hit the earth with a soft thud-thud-thud.
I cranked them back up, hurrying to spare my torch.
That done, I descended the rest of the stairs. It was wide enough for two to walk side by side. It ended on hard-packed earth, in a tunnel made of very old bricks.
I waved my torch around. My choice of paths was limited. The tunnel behind the stairs ended abruptly in a blank brick wall. The tunnel ahead stretched out straight and dark and doorless.
Doorless but not empty. Junk of every description was stacked against both walls. Half a dozen torches were among the leaning items. They’d been left ready to light, with pitch already soaked into the rags wrapped around the top.
There was also a pair of bent brass candelabras perched atop a rickety old curio table. The candles showed some use, but had plenty of light left. I chose a torch instead, on the off chance I needed to shove it suddenly into a stranger’s face somewhere down there in the dark.
The ghost of the huldra, of course, came out to play. I heard it begin to whisper its nonsense words, felt it try to show me secret things, hidden things, useful things, all lurking in easy reach, just at the edge of the torchlight, just in the spaces between the tumbling shadows.
I countered the huldra’s unintelligible ramblings by muttering an old Army marching song.
But the truth is, I hadn’t been in a tunnel since the War. I’d been a dog handler, back in the day. Rooting out dug-in Trolls, in places deeper and darker than this.
I felt for Petey’s doggy head, remembered where I was, and how long it had been since I buried him in a ditch a thousand miles from home.
The huldra tried to show me how I could raise his shade with a few strange words and an eye-blurring turn of my shaking right hand.
I cussed aloud and lurched ahead, shouting the song in my head.
My new torch sputtered and hissed. Shadows darted and spun at my sides, cast by the irregular mounds of junk that lined both walls. There were old farming implements mixed with hat-racks and odds and ends of lumber and tight-wrapped canvas tents and bits of armor and equine tackle. Rat’s feet scampered amid it all, fleeing my wobbling circle of light.
The huldra whispered to me a word that would send them all away.
I shivered, because for an instant I almost understood it.
I hurried on. A break in the refuse heap on my right revealed a plain wooden door. It was banded with old iron, and showed faint marks from an axe. I decided that Lady Werewilk’s sorcery room lay behind it, which meant only a fool would so much as peep through the key-hole. Bad things happen to those who would trespass a sorcerer’s tool room. Even if the sorcerer wasn’t among the favored in Rannit.
I kept walking. The huldra kept talking. I tried to keep the marching song in my head, but I kept forgetting the words.
Finally, a new tunnel joined mine. I could see it veer off, straight and even more packed with refuse than this one, until it too rose up in a wide iron stairs.
“The laundry room,” I said aloud. Echoes spoke in reply.
I kept going toward the deeper dark.
Lumber, on both sides. A stench hit me then, that of rot and decay. My hand was on Toadsticker’s hilt before I realized I smelled a stack of burlap potato sacks that had been down here a year or two too long.
A bit beyond that, though, were stacks and stacks of squarish flat parcels covered by big canvas sheets.
I paused, lifted the sheet, tore open the brown paper that covered the parcel.
Even the huldra shut up.
It was a painting.
I didn’t need a good strong light and a lecture in fine art to decide it would never grace the walls of a high-priced gallery in Mount Cloud, either.
I’ve never understood the attraction some artists have to a bowl of fruit. It’s a bowl. There is fruit. I fail to comprehend the need to immortalize the scene in oils.
But that’s what I saw. Even my untrained eye aided only by fickle torchlight could see it was a poor effort. The colors were all wrong, the bowl looked more like a sagging gourd than baked clay, and the stacked fruits might as well have been drawn by a child.
I ripped away the paper on the next, and the next, and the next.
Each was exactly the sort of amateurish failure I’d expect out of most young artists. Bowl of fruit. Sad-eyed puppy. Girl in sunset. More fruit with bowl.
The next one, though-woman reaching out and up to release a yellow butterfly. It was breathtaking, even in the torchlight. I spent a few precious minutes checking the names and dates helpfully printed on the back of each canvas frame, and discovered that none other than Serris Eaves had painted both the loathsome bowl of fruit and the stunning butterfly woman, a scant four months apart.
I had no idea what it meant, but I knew it meant something. In the back of my mind, the huldra’s shade chattered and railed. It knew, of course. But we no longer shared a language, and even at that moment I was glad of the lack.
I let the paintings fall back beneath the canvas. So. Lady Werewilk’s artists started out as rank amateurs. Now they were raising ire and eyebrows in the finer galleries of Mount Cloud.
And Lady Werewilk turns out to be a sorceress, with something worth raising a small army for hidden on her estate. She claimed she’d never suspected any old magics lay slumbering nearby.
Which might be true. She had after all hired me.
I hurried on. The tunnel got colder and wetter. The floor was slippery now, and big black blind crickets crept quietly along the walls. They did not chirp. I wondered if they even remembered how. Water began to drip, somewhere ahead.
I’d hated the sound of dripping water, when I was down deep with Petey. The Trolls tended to stay close to running water, even if it was only a drip. Petey could smell them, feel their great wide eyes upon him, but I had no such senses. After a while, I always felt their eyes on me, could always feel their hot breath warm on the back of my neck. I’d spent days down in the tunnels, absolutely sure my next and last sensation would be a Troll claw raking down my spine.
I’d learned early on to ignore my own senses. Petey’s doggy senses never lied.
Mine never stopped lying.
The flames from my torch began to gutter and smoke. The tunnel’s builders hadn’t thought about hiding vent pipes anywhere. I fought back a cough — wouldn’t do to alert some sharp-eared sorcerer that people were sneaking around beneath their heels — and I hurried on.
The brick walls grew coats of slime. Rivulets of water slithered down them. Drips from above sputtered in the flame of my torch.
I came upon the first section of collapsed bricks. Part of the ceiling had caved in, narrowing the tunnel by half. I was able to squeeze through, fouling my clothes as I did.
A few steps, another collapse. The earth was wet, and it stank. I knew the stink well. Though this time, it lacked any hint of Troll.
A few hops over mounds of mud, a few slides through narrow openings, and I was on my hands and knees, pushing the torch forward as I went. My hands were covered with mud. My knees were soaked and torn.
I’m not sure how long I crawled. Time took on that odd quality it had during the War. I stopped being aware of minutes or hours or even days. There was only the present, only the movement at hand. Put this knee here, put this hand there-stop, listen, breathe, move. Hand, knee. Hand, knee. And again. And again, and again.
I was well out into the sudden opening before I realized I no longer needed to crawl.
I lifted the torch. The walls and the ceiling were intact. The floor was muddy, yes, and even puddled with water in places, but it no longer stank of old decay.
I rose. A few dozen steps brought me to a rusty iron stairs, and it cast shadows on a blank wall, right behind it.
I’d made it. I was either under the cornfield or well inside the forest. I wasn’t sure, though I was betting I was in the forest. Judging from the amount of torch left, I’d been crawling for quite some time. I hadn’t seen the place where the tunnels branched. I hoped it wasn’t buried by a hundred tons of fallen earth.
Beside the stairs was another barrel, and in it were fresh torches. I didn’t dare light one to take out into the woods. I’d need to rely on starlight out there.
I mounted the stairs, testing each gingerly before trusting it with my weight. The rust was superficial. I climbed up. Six treads took the top of my head to the bottom of the ceiling.
There was another mechanism here, different from the one at the kitchen end. This one appeared to lift a flat iron panel on a set of epically rusted hinges. The handle and the crank bore flakes of rust too, and though they appeared to be functional I cringed at the thought of the noise they’d probably make.
I crept back down the stairs, hoping some thoughtful Werewilk had left behind a pitcher of grease for just such an occasion. They had not.
So I climbed back up the stairs, seated myself by the crank, and snuffed out my torch on the stairs.
Then I took the crank in both hands, gritted my teeth, and slowly put my weight against it.
It turned. It creaked. It groaned. It made each and every noise one could ever hope to attribute to centuries-old ironwork whose constant companions were moisture and neglect.
I made a few very soft noises of protest myself, but I kept the damned thing turning and hoped the din wasn’t drawing every well-armed murderer from here to Rannit to a spot right by my hapless head.
It took me half an hour to lift that bloody trap door high enough for me to squeeze my muscular, youthful frame through it.
But at last, that’s just what I did.
I was a long way from the cornfield. Towering blood-oaks rose up about me close on every side. The door had been cleverly set in the midst of a ring of oaks. I hoped that had dulled any of the sounds the gears had made.
I lay there for a long time, listening.
I needn’t have been so worried about making a bit of a racket. The bugs were singing and buzzing and chirping. A wind was tossing the heavy limbs around, filling the leaves with endless whispering and the scratching and rubbing of limb against limb. Thunder rumbled in the distance, though a few stars peeked down through brief clearing in the boughs.
I hadn’t lain there very long before I heard voices too.
Voices and clattering and even a snatch of laughter.
I moved very carefully, after that.
I couldn’t see enough sky to get my bearings. I looked at the trees to see which side the moss grew on, but it grew thick and lush everywhere.
But I wasn’t vexed. I just followed the sound of the voices, because I knew they’d lead me back to Werewilk.
And they did. I crawled a hundred yards, peeped over the rotting trunk of a fallen behemoth, and there they were.
I counted twenty-four of them. All armed. Their horses were tied just beyond the light of their fires. They were gathered around a campfire, passing bottles around, foolishly watching the flames and thus rendering themselves blind to sneaky persons such as myself lying a stone’s throw away. They were cooking and drinking and cussing at each other, while two of them sat well away from the fire and peered into the woods at lights I could just barely see.
Music rode the winds, from time to time. The band was playing at the foot of the staircase. Holy heavens, I thought. They’re surrounded by an army and the first thing they do is break out the beer and tell the band to play something cheerful.
I don’t think I was ever quite that young.
Marlo had been right. They were just watching. They had enough men to break down Werewilk’s door, if they were so inclined, but apparently they were content for the moment to simply watch and make sure no one got word to Rannit.
I debated getting closer. I could catch snatches of conversation now and again, but not enough to discern who they were or what they hoped to gain.
In the end, I decided on the legendary better part of valor, and stayed where I was. Odds are, I’d have gotten nothing but half-drunk ramblings about their romantic exploits anyway.
So I made a mental map instead. If Werewilk was there, and if that’s the forest road over there, then that means south was that way.
And that’s where I needed to go. South and east, toward the Faery Ring, and the place I hoped I’d find men digging.
I backed away from the fallen log, moving slowly, keeping low. I was glad Toadsticker and I were covered in dark slime and mud. I looked and smelled like another rotting stump.
I paralleled the road. It was tempting to assume they weren’t watching it south of the estate, but I wasn’t willing to risk encountering some clever lad with a crossbow trying to work his way up the ranks. So I stuck to the forest, moving when the wind blew and being still when it was still. I crawled from cover to cover, I waited and listened more often than I moved.
Which is why I’m still alive. Twice I nearly ran across mounted patrols. Twice I had to skirt small groups of two or three men who had the sense to keep their backs to their campfires and their eyes on the dark.
Someone with deep pockets was determined to keep the treasure hunt a secret.
I wondered about the neighbors. I gathered the next of the old Houses still inhabited was a good eight miles east. There was a tiny village of sorts about three miles past that.
I took a deep breath, made myself count ten more. No help was to be had. Fine.
Just like the old days with the Sixth.
I pressed on. Moving through a forest at night is a perilous business. You can’t see briars before they tear through your clothes and into your skin. You can’t see rattlesnakes until you’ve annoyed them and they bite. And Heaven help you if you run into a wild boar sow with piglets nearby, because boars are worse than snakes and briars combined.
I never saw an example of any of those. All I saw were soldiers, some mounted, most on foot. These weren’t all kids, either. Half were my age, which meant they were vets who done this sneaking around business before.
I just hoped none of them were better at it than me.
The stars wheeled by above. The coward Moon never rose. The wind kept blowing, howling now and then, reminding me of Buttercup. I still had a hunk of corn bread for her, mashed flat and wrapped in one of Lady Werewilk’s good cotton napkins.
I topped a tiny little hillock, made my way between the trunks of two mighty oaks, popped my head up long enough to count fires. I saw two.
And something else. A faint blue radiance, bobbing and trailing sparks that lay there glowing but didn’t touch off any fires.
I bit back a curse word. I’d watched five of the black robed bastards be yanked up into the sky and I’d been sure, absolutely sure, that I’d seen the last of sorcerers at least for the night.
But here was at least one more, still on the hunt.
I hoped Buttercup was somewhere safe. I wondered why they were so determined to snatch her.
I eased my way back down the hill on my belly, and then I crawled on, heading for the Faery Ring.
I chided myself a dozen times on that dark journey, about my destination. I was making an awfully long leap of faith, going from two mentions in an old Werewilk family history to being sure something ancient and potent was hidden along a creek that had dried to nothing generations before the War even broke. You’ll feel pretty foolish, I told myself, if you reach the Ring and all you find are oaks and midnight.
You’ll feel even more foolish if someone sees you and puts an arrow through your gut.
I couldn’t argue with either sentiment, but I kept going.
Halfway there, I began to see signs that I might have been right after all.
I found rutted wagon tracks, in the forest. Wagons had left the old road. I counted at least five. Men had cleared the way with axes, oxen and ropes. Some of the cut timber was so fresh it still wept sap.
But there were no men. Not a single sentry had been left in the wagons’ wake.
Although men had accompanied the wagons, in single file on either side of them, in numbers I couldn’t even estimate.
I stayed thirty feet or so off the new-cut road. I moved as quietly as I could, but I no longer crawled. Instinct told me that, at last, I was about to learn just what the fuss was about.
I smelled smoke from the fires before I saw them. A few moments later, I heard the first voices, and the first sounds of hammers and picks and axes. And then I topped another gentle rise, and it all came into view.
A ring of torches. Wagons. Men moving and shouting and working. Most were digging. Others were erecting a scaffold of fresh-cut timbers over the deep wound they’d dug in the soft, wet earth.
As I watched, chains were dragged from a wagon, and a heavy block and tackle, and ladders were propped against the scaffold and men clambered up them, chains and tackle in tow.
I felt a tiny hand slip into my right pocket. I didn’t even smell her over my own enthusiastic stink.
“Hello, Buttercup,” I whispered.
She found and unwrapped the corn bread, frowned at its mashed state, and then shrugged and began to gobble it down, using the napkin to keep the crumbs in place.
She stood pressed to my side, her right hand filled with corn bread and her left wrapped around my waist. The top of her filthy little banshee head failed to even meet the middle of my chest.
She was shaking. I didn’t dare move. I didn’t want to spook her, even though the realization that she was probably being tracked by at least one determined sorcerer was sending shivers up and down my spine.
“Did you lose your blanket?”
She looked up at me again and grinned.
And then she coughed, choking on a mouthful of dry corn bread.
It wasn’t the loudest cough I’d ever heard but it was close. But I dropped to my knees and dared putting an arm around her as I did so.
She didn’t bolt. She was shaking. She huddled close, still chewing, her eyes locked on mine.
I raised a finger to my lips.
She hesitated a moment, and then did the same.
I almost laughed. But instead I watched and listened.
The workers down below kept working. The movement of the torches and lanterns kept on as before, with none of them heading suddenly our way.
No booted feet rushed towards us. No iron hooves, either. I decided we’d found Fate’s favor, that time. I hoped the rest of the night would prove as fortunate.
“Do you know what they’re doing, down there?” I asked, in a whisper. I wasn’t really expecting a reply. I had no way of knowing whether Buttercup could speak or understand speech.
She tilted her head and eyed me curiously. I shrugged.
“No matter. We’ll just watch for a while.”
And we did. They dug. Dirt was hauled the edge of the light and dumped. I tried to pick out the ringleaders by looking for anyone not carrying a tool. Part of the activity right at the edge of the excavation was obscured by a tent that was being erected as I watched, and I wasn’t willing to risk moving just to see around it.
A horn blew, three short blasts. In the Army that meant archers to the fore. To the men below, it meant more shovels, on the double, because a mob of them leapt from the backs of various wagons and hoofed it toward the hole.
It was then I caught a brief glimpse of what I decided was the man in charge. A small group of men made a slow circle of the pit. Three of them carried odd glowing implements that they held out over the hole on lances.
The fourth was twice the height of any man I’d ever known, and as thin as he was tall. If he were a he at all. No way to tell, since he or she was wrapped in white robes from head to toe.
I tried very hard to sink back even further into the shadows. My knowledge of Rannit’s sorcerous crowd was by no means exhaustive, but anyone that odd would have been mentioned, here or there.
Which meant an out-of-town wand-waver was in the mix.
I thought back to those stories we told each other in the trenches. There had been something about an inhumanly tall wand-waver, way up in the Northlands. Longshanks or Longlegs or some such, fond of using plagues as weapons. The diseases had killed humans as well as Trolls. There had been grumblings that our losses to illness had been at least as numerous as those of the enemy.
After the War, the bulk of the Regency’s sorcery corps moved with the Regent to Rannit, which had survived the War with relatively little damage. The sorcerers who didn’t make the move were generally the ones who’d made powerful enemies among the wand-wavers who did.
Buttercup gobbled down the last of her corn bread. She then licked the napkin clean of crumbs and butter before deciding my other pockets might bear more yummy treasures.
“Whoa, sister, that’s no way to act.”
I grabbed her hands. They were tiny, but strong. She smiled and before I realized what was happening she leaped up in my lap and kissed me, square on the lips.
I fell over backward. Dry leaves crunched. Tattletale twigs snapped. Buttercup fell with me, giggling and redoubling her grip. I tried to pry her away without hurting her, but her tiny stature belied a powerful frame.
I was about to stand up and take her by the shoulders and just push her an arm’s length away when we both heard the sound of a horse trotting through the trees.
She let go. She drew her hands up over her mouth, covering a tiny mewling noise.
The blue glow shone through the limbs, coming our way.
I cussed. Buttercup buried her face in my side.
The blue light bobbed and flickered, growing larger and brighter as it came. Where it touched me, I felt an odd sensation, as though a spider web was being pressed against my skin.
Buttercup’s mewl became the tiniest of whimpers, but that was enough.
The sorcerer spurred his mount and came directly at us, crashing through the forest as though it was noonday bright.
I put my hand on Buttercup, intending to push her behind me before I drew Toadsticker.
She took my hand in both of hers and dashed out in front of me. I was about to yank her back when she made that odd dancing little side step.
The ground spun. I dropped a half an inch. The wand-waver, who had been bearing down on top of us, charged past on my left.
Buttercup gasped, pulled hard on my hand.
I drew Toadsticker left-handed as the sorcerer whirled.
And the light from his blue globe fell full on me from my waist up.
I tried to move, couldn’t. I’d been tied into place by a thousand sneaky spiders. The blue light was sticky, and it coiled about me, tightening and going suddenly rigid.
I did the only thing I could do, which was let my legs go limp. I fell, and fell into shadow, and the invisible bonds went limp and loose.
The wand-waver spurred his mount again, charging me. Buttercup screamed and heaved, and again we moved, landing directly behind the furious mount and its befuddled sorcerer.
His own body blocked out the light from the glowing orb he bore. It also outlined man and mount in a brief, perfect silhouette.
I landed a solid left-handed blow right across the horse’s ass with the flat of Toadsticker’s blade.
The horse reared, struck a solid limb, neighed and bucked and leaped. Hooves flashed so close to my face I could smell loam and fresh horse flop.
I managed another solid blow before Buttercup took us a few paces away.
Bucking horse and hapless rider parted ways. The sorcerer pitched forward, but his right foot hung in the stirrup. I heard his leg snap, heard a muffled cry.
His frantic black mount charged on, dragging the wand waver by his broken leg. I saw his head strike no fewer than six very solid tree-trunks before mount and former rider were swallowed up by the night.
The blue-tipped staff lay on the ground a few steps from us. It no longer glowed.
Buttercup refused to loosen her grip on my hand. I dragged us over to the staff despite her mewls of protest and attempts to drag me in the opposite direction.
A glance down at the camp revealed the source of her agitation. Men were shouting and lights were moving up the hill toward us. Another horn blew, twice this time, and horses began to move.
I snatched up the staff, relieved that it didn’t cover me with fire or turn me inside out.
Buttercup let out the beginning of a long, loud banshee’s wail.
I didn’t bother to try and silence her. They’d seen the glowing staff fall and go dark. Men and horses were charging toward us. It didn’t matter that they couldn’t see us. They’d be all over us before we’d gone fifty paces.
Buttercup grabbed my hand, did her tiny jumping sidestep. Again, the ground tilted, trees appeared where there had been none a blink ago.
I whirled, found the torches, heard the men. We’d not covered much ground.
Buttercup wailed, skipped again.
She must have been getting weaker. We probably didn’t move more than a dozen paces.
“Go,” I said. I tried to let go of her hand, but she held on. “Shoo. Beat it. Go hide.”
She might not have understood the words, but she must have gleaned their meaning, because she set her jaw and jumped again.
When we landed, she fell gasping to the leaves.
Hooves thundered toward us.
Buttercup fell silent in mid-wail. Her eyes went wide. She lifted her left hand, pointing back toward the camp, and then she leaped toward me, her back to the torches and the men, burying her face in my ragged, soiled shirt.
The ground shook. There was a noise, a sound pitched so low and so powerful the first hint of it literally knocked the breath right out of me.
And then came the light.
The forest lit up, noonday bright, then brighter, brighter, and brighter still. I saw trees and leaves and then just limbs and trunks and then just a wash of pure white light, and the awful bass rumble that rose up from the earth grew louder, became a voice, and then a scream.
My eyes were closed. My fists were upon them. But the light blazed through skin and bone and just for an instant I saw something monstrous etched against it, something so large it took up a quarter of the sky.
It was a face. A face so thin and worn it was more bone than flesh. Its eyes were mere shadows, but its mouth was open, and from it that terrible sound shook the ground.
I may have screamed. I still don’t know.
The face looked down on me, from so far above, and I knew it could see me, that I could hide myself in the deepest darkest cavern but I would never be hidden from it, never escape its unblinking gaze.
And then, there was silence.
Silence and darkness.
Or, more precisely, blindness and deafness. The light had left my eyes useless. The roaring word had left my ears ringing.
But I could still feel Buttercup, feel both her tiny hands on me, feel her trying to pull my limp bulk to safety.
I don’t remember much about the next half-hour or so. Buttercup led. I stumbled. Together we made our way through the forest. I made the acquaintance of several dozen sturdy trunks and a greater number of cruel whipping limbs.
But I’d begun to see a bit, and could hear my own labored breathing, before we encountered the first of the men in the woods.
Buttercup had the sense to stop and drop silent to the leaves. She struggled not to gasp. Her whole frame shook. She didn’t look up, or try to take my hand.
We got lucky, the first two times. I still couldn’t see or hear well enough to fight. The men we encountered weren’t much better off. I could hear them cussing, stumbling and running into oak trunks and ditches and each other.
I caught snatches of conversation too.
I heard one man breathlessly report to his fellows that the thing in the ground had stirred in its slumber. He was quick to note there wasn’t much left of the camp at the dig site. Even the steel chains and iron-shod wagon wheels had been melted into shiny iron puddles by the heat from the flash.
Someone asked if they were pulling out, and got told a resounding no. The dig had been resumed as soon as the fires were out.
In the wake of that news, I learned that more than one of the hired help was reconsidering the value of their employment.
“So am I, brother,” I mouthed, silently. Buttercup frowned at me and snuggled closer. At least she wasn’t trying to wax romantic anymore.
We lay there and waited. I kept Toadsticker under me so the blade wouldn’t give off a tell-tale gleam and give us away. I didn’t figure I’d be able to save us by swatting a horse’s ass twice in the same evening.
I wished for the thousandth time I’d kept my grip on the fallen sorcerer’s staff. Lady Werewilk might have been able to use it somehow. More importantly, if might have eventually told me who was paying the black-clad wand-wavers.
But I’d dropped it somewhere back in the forest a mile away and it might as well have been on the Moon. Neither Buttercup nor I was in any shape to think about trotting back for it.
I was far more worried about the diminutive banshee than myself. She was truly struggling. Her last banshee skip-hop had left her quivering and gasping, and we’d traveled just a few steps.
They’d been enough. But I wasn’t going to let her do that again, even if it meant facing down angry men in the dark.
I waited until the half-dozen men a dozen feet from us stomped away, grumbling and batting at low limbs. Then I caught Buttercup up and began to carry her.
She mewled protest at first, but then looped her arms around my neck and put her head on my shoulder and went fast asleep.
I navigated by guesswork and assumption. It’s a minor miracle I didn’t walk full into the Frontier that very night. But somehow I found the old road, and somehow I dodged the ragged patrols along it, and by the time the eastern sky was showing the very first blush of dawn I’d found the ring of trees and the secret door to the Werewilk tunnels.
The door was undisturbed. I’d left a couple of twigs propped against the opening. They were still there. I threw caution to the wind, mainly because I heard a pair of very distinct male voices nearby, and I stuck my head inside for a quick look.
No one knocked it off. I lay on my side and slid and wiggled onto the top of the stairs, and then I caught Buttercup’s still form by her arms and I dragged her beneath the earth as well.
She mumbled, but didn’t waken.
I took her quickly to the bottom of the stairs. I had nothing to put under her, except my ragged shirt, and given its state of scent and dampness it didn’t seem to be worth the time. In the end, I laid her down on the wet ground and promised her I’d hurry.
I hurried back up the stairs, and spent another eternity lowering the steel trap door, sure that the creaks and groans were drawing the attention of every surviving miscreant in the neighboring eighty miles. I swore if I survived I’d come back here and grease the damned works myself.
Finally, it closed. I sat there, my ear pressed to the damp steel, listening, but I never heard voices or footfalls.
We’d made it.
I sagged. Every bruise and cut and burn and welt fell upon me at once. My legs were pillars of aches. My head pounded. My ears still rang. I was thirsty enough to actually consider licking the cricket-covered walls.
But we were alive, my Buttercup and I.
I had to force myself to get off my butt and march down those stairs. “Keep moving,” I said aloud. “You stop now you’ll never get back up.”
Buttercup stirred when I spoke, but still didn’t wake. Her tiny hands moved, though, fluttering and grasping, as though searching for something in her sleep.
For the first time, it dawned on me that I was bringing a living, breathing banshee into the world.
I pondered that, while I got a fresh torch lit. Rannit wasn’t any place for any folk that even had the faintest hint of Fae in their features.
All Buttercup needed was a pair of dainty wings, and she could pass for a sprite or a dale elf.
I stooped and scooped her up. She was limp, like a basket of rags, and that was a good estimate of her weight.
“What am I going to do with you, Buttercup?” I asked. My voice echoed in the shadows.
It was a long way back to the House. I’d spend most of it crawling. My poor sleepy banshee was about to be literally dragged through the mud.
“First thing we do is bathe,” I noted. Buttercup wrinkled her tiny nose.
I sighed and cussed and set out. The fat black crickets watched me go.
Buttercup slept through the whole wretched journey. I wasn’t so lucky.
I was nearly exhausted to the point of just sleeping where I lay myself, despite the cold mud. Instead I set a steady rhythm-push the torch ahead. Crawl back. Grab Buttercup’s wrists. Drag her forward. Crawl back to the torch. Push it ahead.
And repeat, over and over and over.
If the first time through the collapsed portion of the tunnel had taken hours, this one took lifetimes. But somehow, we made it.
I found an old blanket in a chest and wrapped the banshee in it, since the rest of the tunnel would allow me to stand and carry her. Still, she showed no sign of waking, despite being dragged and held and carried.
I hoped she wasn’t injured in some way I couldn’t see. There was no way for me to know what a good dose of that blue light might have done to her.
I pressed on. I nearly fell myself a time or two, just from carelessness and fatigue.
I was nearly to the stairs below the kitchen when I came to Gertriss.
She too was fast asleep, seated in a wooden chair, a sword across her lap. She was snoring, lightly and daintily.
I shifted Buttercup, checked her face. She was still in the grip of a deep slumber. For the first time I was glad-I wasn’t sure of a lot of things, but I was sure I lacked the strength to wrestle with a panicked banshee no matter how small her stature.
I covered Buttercup’s face with a fold of the blanket, just in case.
“No napping during office hours,” I said. I kept my voice low. Gertriss didn’t stir.
I nudged her right foot with mine.
Her eyes flew open.
“Easy,” I said, quickly. “No loud voices, no sudden moves. I brought company.”
Gertriss stood. Her sword clattered to the damp ground. I cringed, but Buttercup didn’t stir.
“I thought you were dead, Mr. Markhat,” she whispered. “What have you got? Is that a child? Is she hurt?”
“Me? Dead? I hardly ever get killed these days, Miss. And this is Buttercup. She’s probably older than all of us added together. And as for hurt, I don’t know-I think she’s just exhausted. We had quite a night.”
I shut up. Gertriss wasn’t listening. She’d pulled back a bit of blanket, and was getting her first good look at the not-quite-so-mythical banshee.
“Well I’ll be damned.”
“Miss, you’ll never get invited to any of the best society teas, talking like that.” I was ready to drop. “Think you can carry her upstairs? I’m spent.”
Gertriss lifted the blanket a little higher and went wide-eyed. “Mister Markhat-she’s starkers!”
“I’m going to go broke buying up wardrobes for naked women,” I said. My arms were beginning to shake. Hell, all of me was. “Burlap was the best I could do.”
Gertriss took Buttercup from me. Still, the banshee slept, not even stirring.
“Where are we going to put her? What’s she going to do when she wakes up?”
“Put her in my room. Can you get upstairs without raising half the House?”
Gertriss snorted in derision. “Nobody but the cooks stirring. Laziest bunch I’ve ever seen.”
We both started walking for the stairs. I could see light from above. Gertriss had left the trap door open. As we neared, clanging and clanking and voices sounded from the kitchen.
“Seems they had a party last night,” I said.
Gertriss nodded. “That was my idea. Keep that lot in the woods looking at the House. Was trying to give you a distraction.”
I managed a grin. “It worked. Remind me to give you a raise.”
We halted at the bottom of the stairs. I looked up them. My legs begged me to sit down for a year or two and rest.
“Up we go,” I said. I could smell bacon, hear it sizzle and pop, smell strong hot coffee brewing. “Remember, if anyone asks, Buttercup here is our secret love-child.”
Gertriss laughed, gently arranged the cloth so that Buttercup was covered, and we ascended wearily into the light.
We made it up to my room without raising a single eyebrow. Oh, the pair of cooks gave us a good sideways glare as we sidled around the cook-stove and I happened to snatch up a couple of biscuits and a handful of bacon to keep them warm, but neither of them spoke a word to us. Not even when I liberated a pitcher of clean water and a chunk of salted ham.
The House beyond the kitchen was quiet. Even the ever-present dogs, that lay slumbering three to a couch, did no more than glance our way as we passed.
I pondered that. I know they smelled Buttercup, who possessed the kind of body odor only lifelong non-bathers could achieve.
But they didn’t react.
Probably because they were accustomed to her presence.
Once I closed the door behind me, I crossed to the big cushioned chair and collapsed down into it. Gertriss laid Buttercup out on the settee, kneeled on the floor beside her and fixed me in a piercing Hog stare.
“That was mean of you, sneaking off like that.”
I munched biscuit, gulped water.
“Had to. Two bodies would have been spotted.”
The word she gave in response was not a word which Mama would approve.
“So what happened? What did you see?”
I laid it out between bites. The soldiers, the sorcerers, the excavation, Buttercup, the face in the sky. All of it.
I had hoped it would make sense, when I laid it out. It didn’t.
What the Hell had I seen?
“We saw the flash and heard the thunder,” said Gertriss. “Rather, they saw the flash, and we heard the thunder. I was in the tunnel, convinced my boss was dead.”
I groaned inwardly, knowing I’d never hear the last of that particular jibe.
Buttercup shifted in her sleep. Gertriss watched her for a moment, then wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“I hate to say this, Mister Markhat, but if we’re going to keep her indoors she’s going to have to have a bath. Soon. Now.”
I nodded. The food and drink was settling in. I was fatigued, but not quite ready to collapse anymore.
“Might be easier while she’s asleep.” I hated to do things that way, but Gertriss was right-we’d never be able to keep her hidden when a blind man could smell her from thirty feet away.
“I’ll go get bathrobe and some soap,” said Gertriss. “Lots and lots of soap. Why don’t you start a warm bath.”
I rose. “You handle her by yourself?”
“I think you’ve seen enough naked females for one night, Mister Markhat. You can sit right outside the door. And you come in only if I holler-call, understood?”
“Understood.” I got my aching feet out of my boots and padded back toward the fancy hot running water and the iron bathtub.
Marlo showed up, grumpy and glaring, before I finished filling the tub. I hauled Buttercup back to my bedroom and laid her on the floor and shut that door behind me before I let Marlo in my room.
The first thing he did was scrunch up his nose. “Damn, what have you been rolling in, Finder?”
“Trouble. Is that coffee for me?”
He handed me the cup and frowned. “You ought to have told the Lady you was back.”
I gulped it down, burning my tongue in the process.
“I figured word would get around. Anyway, as you pointed out, I need a bath. We’ll talk after that.”
“What’d you find, out there? Anything?”
“Too much. A couple of hundred men, I figure. Wagons. Horses. Wand-wavers. Oh, and something came up out of the hole they were digging and blasted a fair-sized chunk of the Lady’s timber flat.”
He just nodded, like that sort of thing went on all the time out here in the wholesome country air.
“I reckon they’re still watching the roads.”
“I reckon they are.”
“So what you gonna do about that, Finder?”
“Me? I’m going to change clothes and eat some more ham. And if people will let me think, I’ll do that too. In the meantime, everyone needs to stay indoors.”
“Horses and goats and cows got to be fed.”
“Not by me they don’t. Thanks for the coffee. Tell the Lady I’ll be downstairs shortly. Until then, nobody so much as sticks their nose outside, got it?”
“Skin left at first light to tend his bees. Ain’t seen him since.”
I was tired.
“Better find another bee-keeper.”
He snorted and stomped off. I slumped down onto the couch and seared the rest of my throat with the coffee.
Gertriss returned as I swallowed the last drop. She was clad in a dressing gown she’d probably found in her closet, because Darla would never have given her anything that much too small.
She bore an armful of towels and cloths and bottles. Judging from the number of soaps and shampoos and perfumes, I decided Gertriss was going to try and introduce poor Buttercup to the entire gamut of female make-up in one frantic go.
She saw my lifted eyebrow.
“Oh, hush. I won’t do anything to the poor creature she doesn’t want done.”
“Considering it’s entirely possible she’s lived her life in the forest without ever seeing a bathtub, that’s a potentially dangerous statement to make.”
Gertriss shook her head. “She’s tiny and maybe she’s not entirely human, Mr. Markhat, but I think she knows what a house and a bath is, from somewhere, even if it was a long time ago.”
“You’re the one with Sight, Miss. I’ll take your word for it.”
Gertriss sorted through her stack and pulled out a pair of dark pants and a plain white blouse and a few unmentionables. She put them on my couch.
“I’ll need those when I’m done,” she said. She shot a look toward the closed bedroom door. “Is the bath ready?”
“Ready and waiting. You sure you don’t want me there? Or maybe Serris, one of the female staff?”
She shook her head. “They’d gawk and stare and treat her like a monster or an Elf. She may be wild, boss, but she’s not stupid. She’d sense it. And I don’t think she’d like it.”
I rose. “Look. Modesty is well and good. But we don’t know what she’s capable of. So if she wakes up, and trouble starts, you yell, you understand? I’ll fight with one eye closed and the other pointed at the ceiling.”
She grinned. “I will. Here goes.”
“Good luck. Don’t look her in the eye.”
“It’s a bath, boss. How hard can this be?”
A quarter of an hour passed. I changed my filthy clothes for fresh ones and wiped off the worst of the filth with a wet face cloth. Gertriss assured me through the door that all was well.
I wasted a few minutes trying to peer outside through the thick window glass. I could tell it was daylight, and see smudges of green, but an army flanked by parades of leaping clowns could be down there and I’d not have seen a thing.
The windows were meant to swing inward so archers could open them and fire through them. These windows would swing no more, though-the hinges were gone, replaced with a solid and thoroughly immobile peacetime window-frame.
Which left us with no way to lob unpleasantness down on miscreants in the yard. Or to even see miscreants. The thick glass would stop the bolt from all but a siege piece, but now that none of them would open we were half-blind and helpless.
I heard a splash. Gertriss murmured, her voice soft and soothing. I knocked gently on the door.
“She stirred a bit, boss, that’s all. Still asleep.”
“You almost done?”
“Getting there. You’ll be able to raise tulips in this bathwater. Her dirt has dirt.”
I didn’t reply. I’d hoped Buttercup would sleep through being bathed and dressed. Now I was beginning to wonder if the little creature would ever wake up.
Had she caught the edge of a spell I couldn’t see, out there in the woods? I had no idea what else that wand-waver’s globe could do, other than emit sticky blue light. Had he had time to rattle of a spell before his head met the first of many tree-trunks?
I didn’t think so. But with wand-wavers, it was never safe to make assumptions.
More splashing. Gertriss assured me again all was well.
And why was Buttercup here, anyway?
Was she really a banshee?
Sure, she was able to do those strange little hop-skips and howl. But she’d howled when Serris had tried to jump, and Serris was alive.
She’d not howled when the wand-waver died. That seemed a bit un-banshee-ish. The legends claimed banshees could sense death, and the lore was adamant that when a banshee howled, death was at hand.
Maybe all those old legends were exactly the sort of bunk I’d thought from the beginning.
Which, if true, meant I knew exactly nothing about banshees or Buttercup.
Music started up downstairs. Music and hooting and stomping. The artists were at it again, right after breakfast, while the woods ran thick with hidden soldiers bent on errands which might include mayhem and slaughter.
I shook my head, more envious than angry.
I heard another splash, from behind the door.
And then tiny Buttercup awoke.
The banshee howled. She didn’t give it her usual slow buildup-no, she went from silence to ear-splitting shriek all at once.
I went deaf. I clamped my hands over my ears.
And then the cry went silent. My ears rang, but I could still hear a sort of burbling whistle, muffled and lent a gurgling quality as though it were being issued from under a body of water.
Gertriss cried out. I hit the door.
Gertriss had Buttercup’s face submerged in the tub. The tiny banshee clawed at her with arms and legs alike. Gertriss held on, but was clearly losing her grip on the tiny creature’s wet, slippery body.
I rushed to the tub. “Blanket blanket blanket,” shouted Gertriss. I saw a nice thick blanket laid out on a vanity and grabbed it, and had almost managed to fling it over Buttercup when she freed herself from Gertriss’s grasp and launched herself from the tub in a wide, tall fountain of hot soapy water.
“Buttercup!” I called out, hoping she would respond to my voice. Instead she fled, darting away from me, her tiny hands rubbing at her eyes beneath her tangle of dripping hair.
I lunged. Gertriss lunged. We caught the banshee between us, held her for an instant.
But only for an instant. The effort cost me my shirt. Gertriss’ already brief night-gown was ripped from one shoulder. I felt Buttercup tense, felt her start one of her magical banshee side-steps. I managed to grab her left forearm and go with her, slowing her down and preventing her from traveling more than a few steps toward the door.
“Buttercup! It’s me. Corn bread man. Slayer of wand-wavers. Calm down. We’re not here to hurt you.”
She turned toward me, one hand still rubbing her eyes. I thought perhaps she recognized my voice, thought she was calming down. She even stopped trying to twist her arm away from my grasp.
So when she stepped close to my waist and then head-butted me right below my belt-buckle, I wasn’t prepared to dodge.
I didn’t. I sank to my knees. Gertriss made a grab, but the banshee made a faster little dancing step and she was gone.
Gone. Out of the room. Gertriss went wide-eyed.
“Where-?” she began.
“Other. Side. Of door.”
We both heard crashings and thuds and footfalls from my front room. Gertriss snatched up the blanket and charged through the door.
I followed with somewhat less energy and verve.
Buttercup was frantic. She was running into walls, knocking over furniture, tearing cushions off the couch, looking anywhere, everywhere, for a way out. She wasn’t howling anymore. It took me a moment to realize that mewling sound she was making was crying.
I struggled to stand upright. I forced my voice to some semblance of normalcy.
“You know me,” I said. The banshee hurled a lamp at the wall, started clawing at the wood. “Buttercup. Listen to me. I am not going to let anyone hurt you.”
She began to strike the oak panels with her fists. Her back was to me. I walked slowly toward her, and when I was close enough I laid a hand on her shoulder.
“You know me,” I said. “Remember? Corn bread? The woods?”
I tried to smile. I managed not to step back.
I reached forward, pushed her hair out of her face. She managed to open her eyes. It was only then I realized they been stinging from the soapy water. “See? It’s me. You’re not afraid of me, are you?”
Gertriss wisely stood very still, and remained very quiet. Buttercup’s eyes darted toward her, and her mouth turned down in a tiny pout.
“That’s Aunt Gertriss,” I said. “She’s nice too. She was just giving you a bath. She has clothes for you too. Pretty clothes.”
Buttercups’ gaze turned back toward me, and she smiled, and took my hand.
“Good,” I said. “Now then-let’s put this gown on you. Gertriss? Very slowly?”
Gertriss took a small, slow step.
Buttercup snatched my left shoe off the floor and managed to fling it right toward Gertriss’s face. Gertriss deflected the shoe with the blanket, which she then flung at Buttercup, and Buttercup managed to move herself and me right behind Gertriss, where the banshee grabbed Gertriss’s dressing gown at the neck and gave it a good furious banshee yank.
Gertriss shrieked, and her dressing gown fell. Buttercup giggled, and at that very moment Fate arranged for my door to fly open and for Darla, my Darla, to walk in.
For a moment, all was stillness and silence.
There was Gertriss, mostly naked. There was Buttercup the freshly bathed banshee, completely naked and hanging onto a Markhat who was naked from the waist up. The floor was covered in cast-off clothing of both male and female varieties. Obeying some capricious law of garment behavior, a pair of Gertriss’s bloomers was hanging from a lamp.
Darla merely nodded at me, raised her right eyebrow and put her left hand on her left hip.
“I see you’re keeping busy, darling. I didn’t knock because I was told you were mortally wounded. I’m pleased to see you’re not. Yet.”
Momma Hog stepped into my room, joined by Evis, who was swathed from head to toe in yards of pure black silk.
Mama gobbled something incomprehensible at Gertriss, who wrapped herself in the blanket and fled for my bathroom.
Evis broke into hissing vampire laughter. He doubled over. He did manage to hide his mouthful of fangs behind a black-gloved hand.
And then Darla marched past Gertriss, pushed Buttercup gently aside and kissed me on the lips.
“So dear, tell me all about your day.”
I seated Darla on my right and Momma on my left. Gertriss wound up beside Mama, who was still clearly not in a mood to forgive Gertriss’s earlier state of dishabille. Buttercup tried to sit in my lap, but hopped up on the huge empty dining table after Darla fixed the banshee with her trademark icy stare.
Evis fidgeted in his chair right across the table from me. Even buried beneath a tent’s worth of silk and wearing tinted spectacles, the light was obviously causing him great discomfort.
Lady Werewilk herself had shooed her idling household staff out of the kitchen, which had taken on the role of gathering place for all of her displaced servants. She hadn’t had to ask twice after word got around that the funny man dressed all in black was a halfdead from town.
“I’m sure you’d all enjoy a bit of privacy,” said Lady Werewilk, before she opened the door to the hall. She’d impressed me by not treating Evis as anything but another guest in her home. She’d even inquired as to any special accommodations she could make on behalf of Evis.
Evis had politely declined.
Once we were alone, we all swapped stories.
Darla and Mama, it turned out, had both received messages that claimed to be from Lady Werewilk. The message was the same to both, short and simple-Markhat is dying. Come at once.
No details. Nothing but that. Mama had been determined to set out, on foot, at that very moment, but Darla had convinced her to head to Avalante before leaving Rannit.
Which brought Evis, genteel halfdead, aboard. Upstairs, Evis had told me in a hushed voice that he’d also brought Victor and Sara, the married halfdead couple I’d met some months back. Victor and Sara were lurking somewhere shaded, out in the forest, waiting for night to fall before coming to the House themselves.
He never stated it, but I knew they’d have a good look around on their way. They’d spot the army of watchers. Vampires would be able to sneak right up to campfires and have a good listen without raising an alarm. Maybe we’d get lucky and someone out there would mention a name or two.
Once Darla and Mama had demanded to see Evis at Avalante, they’d relayed the message they’d received. I was touched to learn that Evis had simply ordered a carriage brought around. No delays, no consulting with his superiors at the House.
I’d need to get him an extra nice pair of mittens for Yule.
Darla, Mama and Evis had then made their way from Rannit to House Werewilk in a carriage emblazoned with Avalante’s crest. I wasn’t even sure if Momma and Darla knew they were being flanked by two more halfdead. And I wondered if the Avalante crest on the carriage left the men in the woods leery of carrying out an ambush.
Evis and Mama and Darla denied ever seeing any hint of the secret forest army.
That didn’t sit well with me. Marlo had seen them. I’d seen them. They were as thick as briars out there, and weren’t taking great pains to conceal that fact-so why hadn’t Evis or his vampire shadows detected even a hint of snacks on the hoof?
There was only one answer to that, and it raised the hair on the back of my neck.
Sorcery cast by someone who knew me and my associations well enough to bring us together at Lady Werewilk’s big oak table with just six short words.
Mama and Darla saw it too. Evis took a moment, maybe because his own lexicon of mortal enemies is much longer than any of ours.
“Hisvin. The Corpsemaster.”
I just nodded, unwilling to speak the creature’s name aloud.
Darla’s face went dark. “Has to be,” she whispered. She squeezed my hand. She’d had her own brush with Hisvin, the same night I walked with the huldra. We’d neither of us ever forget, ever be able to forget.
It’s a hell of a bond to share.
Mama made growling sounds in the back of her throat.
“I should have seen the lie in them words,” she muttered. “I knowed good and well you wasn’t dead.”
Darla managed a smile. “I didn’t think so either. Not in my heart.”
Buttercup scowled at Darla and tried to slide off the table and wiggle between us. Darla pulled her into her own lap instead. Amazingly, the banshee not only tolerated the act, but smiled and settled against Darla.
Evis’s chair legs made a loud shrieking on the floor. He pushed it back into a shadowed corner and propped his hands against his chest, gloved fingertips together. “What a fascinating creature,” he said, quietly. His dark spectacles were fixed upon Buttercup. “She seems to be quite taken with you, Finder.”
His grin was wide and toothy.
“He’s been sneaking around feeding her corn bread since we got here,” added Gertriss, without the least hint of accusation.
Darla smiled at me. “Now that’s enough, both of you,” she said. “Markhat can’t help it if women find him charming. I myself do, at times.”
Mama snorted. She was clutching a dead bird in either hand, and she was careful to keep them both between her and Buttercup.
“That there ain’t no normal livin’ creature,” she said, putting a lot of rasp into it. “There’s old magic in its veins. Old dark magic.”
Buttercup responded by turning up her nose at Mama and resting her head on my chest. Darla laughed, and stroked the banshee’s hair.
“Poor dear. He’ll only break your heart.”
I sat Buttercup upright and shoved a biscuit in her hands. She took it and began to nibble, watching us from beneath that mane of clean but wild yellow hair.
“All right. It seems fairly obvious who brought you here. What escapes me is the why.”
“If-he-wanted us dead, there’d be no need to call us together first.” Darla made vague wand-waving motions with her hands. “He could just say poof, and we’d be gone.”
Mama nodded grudging assent, still keeping her suspicious Hog eyes fixed on the biscuit-gobbling banshee perched happily in Darla’s lap.
I nodded. “Well. Let’s assume for the moment that you-know-who lured you out of Rannit. I’m sure the Corpsemaster has his reasons. Unfortunately, there’s only one way to find out what they are.”
“You don’t mean that.” Darla’s hand closed on mine.
“I’m afraid I do,” I said. “I’ll wait ’til dark. Perhaps Mr. Prestley will step out with me. If that’s acceptable to Avalante, of course,” I added.
Evis waved a gloved hand dismissively. “I’m not here on behalf of Avalante,” he said. “I just happened to be visiting in the neighborhood and decided to drop in when I heard music. But I will be only too happy to accompany you later this evening.”
Mama made a snorting sound. “How you plan to find that devil, boy? You know where he is?”
I shook my head. “I have no idea, Mama. But that won’t matter. He knows exactly where to find me.”
“I don’t like it. We all ought to pile back into that fancy wagon and head for home, right now.”
“We wouldn’t make it a mile.”
“Boy, I told you I didn’t see nobody in them woods. Not a soul.”
“You’ll just have to trust me on this, Mama. They’re out there. None of us are going anywhere until this mess gets sorted out.”
Mama cussed. “What’s all this about things buried in the woods, boy? And what’s that there critter got to do with it?”
“Her name is Buttercup.” When I spoke her name, she looked up at me and smiled. Maybe she did understand speech, or was learning. “And I told you all I know. There’s a couple of hundred men out there, digging a big hole not three miles from here. Something came out of it and ruined a lot of timber. We were too busy running to see much more than that.”
Darla shivered. Buttercup gave her a quick hug.
At least the scratching and clawing had stopped.
“She’s really a banshee, isn’t she?”
I shrugged. “Beats me. She can howl loud enough to wake the dead. She can move without moving. And the people around here have been seeing her for at least thirty years, more or less.”
Darla produced a comb from somewhere, and began to gently pull it through Buttercup’s hair. Buttercup started when the comb first pulled, but after Darla let the tiny creature see and sniff the comb, she closed her eyes and let Darla begin to work out the tangles.
I ogled. “How do you do that?”
“She knows I don’t mean her any harm. Maybe she didn’t always live in the wild, either. Did you, Buttercup, honey? Did you ever live in a house, ever comb your hair and wear pretty gowns?”
Buttercup smiled, but didn’t open her eyes or reply.
“You ought not to make a pet out of that there thing,” said Mama.
Darla ignored her. Mama fumed.
“If the boss hadn’t brought her inside they’d have put her in a sack by now.” It was Gertriss who spoke, and her words only worsened Mama’s funk. “Banshee or not, it doesn’t deserve that.”
Before Mama could reply I asked Darla again about the message that had brought them all to Werewilk.
Delivered by a courier, one of the outfits downtown. She’d signed for it and even tipped the runner, who was the usual fleet-footed teenager with the pointed red messenger’s hat and traditional yellow shirt. Ditto for Mama.
Neither of them had thought it odd that two messengers had been dispatched, with their runs timed so that they would reach Mama and Darla at precisely the same time.
Next, I quizzed Evis about Toadsticker. He calmly but flatly denied it had any ability whatsoever to throw lightning around or yank full-grown wand-wavers out of their saddles.
I mentally chalked that small bit of arcane theatrics up to Hisvin as well. He’d find it amusing, no doubt, to saddle me with a reputation for wielding some fearsome magic sword.
Evis began to snore softly. Mama excused herself, claiming the need for a nap, but I suspect she intended to bully the nearest bunch of artists out of their beer. Gertriss and Darla remained. Gertriss because she dared not face the wrath of Mama alone, and Darla because she was hoping to talk me out of seeking Hisvin later.
I’d spent the night fleeing monsters in a midnight-dark forest. I’d crawled through tunnels, squeezed through stinking mud. I’d slain one wand-waver and saved one banshee and ruined one new brown shirt.
So I put Darla’s hand in mine, and I leaned back in the big old chair. I joined Evis in slumber land, just as the band started up somewhere in the House.
Neither Evis nor I got more than a couple of hours of sleep.
Lady Werewilk came back in well before lunch. Darla woke me by waving coffee under my nose.
I eyed the room. Buttercup was gone. Evis and Gertriss were gone. Mama was poking at something in a skillet on the stove while the cooks huddled in a corner and glared.
“Your assistant has the banshee upstairs,” said Lady Werewilk. “I believe she is trying to introduce it to shoes.”
“I wish her luck.” I took the coffee from Darla and had a sip. She’d put sugar and milk in it. I don’t normally take sugar and milk, but she knows just how much to add.
She’d also changed clothes. Gone were her brown pants and white blouse. Now she was all in sensible black, from her leather boots to her high-necked, long-sleeved black shirt top.
I pushed aside the realization that she’d dressed for a stroll in the yard, right after dark. I meant to go alone to seek out the Corpsemaster and Darla meant to go with me. One of us wasn’t going to get her way.
I managed a smile. “Morning,” I said. My back hurt, so I rose and stretched. “No invasions while I slept?”
“Not yet.” Lady Werewilk permitted herself a small frown. “But they’re not even bothering to hide anymore, Mr. Markhat. You can see them milling about just inside the tree line.”
I grunted. That wasn’t good. Darla nodded as though I’d spoken my thoughts aloud.
“I counted sixty-two about an hour ago,” she said. “And what’s this about you nearly getting choked by a skeletal hand? Something you forgot to mention?”
I shook my head to clear it. “I might have. I beg your pardon for the omission. But really, it was only a cursed skeletal hand. These days, that’s hardly worth mentioning.”
Darla frowned, crossed her arms over her chest.
“We’re going to have a long talk at the first opportunity, aren’t we, sugar lips?”
“Oh yes we are,” said Darla. “But right now you and the Lady need to speak. I’ll go upstairs and help Gertriss with Buttercup. Mama, care to join me?”
Mama grunted a negative. She was rummaging through cabinets now, muttering and grabbing, obviously in charge of Lady Werewilk’s spacious kitchen.
Darla rolled her eyes, flashed me a grin, and left. The scent of her perfume lingered.
“Let’s take a walk,” I said, to Lady Werewilk. Mama obviously wasn’t taking any hints this morning.
“Certainly. I need to make my rounds.” She smiled and brandished her short but lethal looking sword. “Have to keep up morale, you know.”
We left the kitchen. The hall was deserted. Music piped and tootled just ahead. Another party was in full swing.
“You are a remarkable woman, Lady Werewilk.”
She seemed pleased. “Why yes I am. But others so seldom realize this. What gave me away?”
“You’ve got a sinister army at your door. There’s a banshee upstairs trying on shoes. There’s a vampire somewhere taking a nap. And you take it all in stride. By the way, Evis is a friend of mine. I thank you for being so hospitable to him.”
She laughed. “Your friend from Avalante is the most gracious, well-spoken man I’ve met in years. He is always welcome here. Tell him so.”
“I will.” We left the hall, entered the common area at the bottom of the stairs. The band was playing, but no one was dancing.
“I’ve called a halt to the dances and the drinking. But I’ve ordered the music to continue. It keeps the soldiers outside confused.”
“Good idea. So they’re painting now?”
“They’d better be.”
I glanced behind us, peered ahead. No one was in earshot. “I may need some help tonight, Lady Werewilk. Think you can get me outside without getting me filled with arrows?”
She frowned. “Outside?”
“It’s necessary. You’ll sleep better if you don’t ask why. I can use the tunnels again, if I need to, but I’d rather not risk being seen popping out of one if you think you can render me unseen by other means.”
She pondered that. “I might get you outside, Mr. Markhat, but once out, the door would be your only way back in.”
“I was afraid of that. Still…can you make preparations, in case I need to call on you? Just after dark?”
She just nodded. We heard voices nearby. The door to the gallery wasn’t far away.
A sleepy sort of inspiration struck.
“Mind if I have another look at your artists at work?”
“Not at all. The door is never locked.”
“Thanks. Oh. One more thing, Lady. I understand that when we spoke before about the old Ring you were reluctant to disclose your practice of you-know-what. So that may have colored your answer somewhat. But since I know about that now, is there anything else you can tell me?”
“I wish there were, Mr. Markhat. I truly do. I find it disconcerting that I’ve lived my entire life here and never once detected the presence of anything extraordinary in a magical sense. You may find that hard to believe, but I assure you it is the absolute truth.”
“I believe you.” I thought about the face in the sky. “Whatever this thing is, it seemed determined to stay buried.”
“I make no claims to being an expert, Mr. Markhat, but one hears things, things related to the Art. And what you told me makes me suspect that what you saw wasn’t the subject of the excavation at all, but a ward laid down by the persons who buried something there at the Ring.”
I stopped walking. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“There are certain very old stories, none of which are set anywhere near here, which describe the elaborate magical guards set in place in the tombs of Elvish sorcerers, for instance. And human ones as well. Which is one of the many reasons I would never take a shovel to the Ring, even if I suspected the ground beneath it to be quite literally composed of gold dust and diamonds.”
“I wish others hereabouts shared your opinion.”
“I’m off to check with the staff, Mr. Markhat. No one has seen Skin. Did you know he left?”
I did. I’d forgotten, but I’d known. “I don’t suppose he’s been seen since?”
She shook her head. “He did love those bees. Poor fool. Call me if you need anything. I have watchers posted upstairs, by the way. They are to blow trumpets if the men move across the yard.”
“Good idea.” And in truth her idea wasn’t a bad one, but between the thick bubbly three-bolt glass and the weeds and the shadows from the untrimmed trees, I wasn’t sure anyone would see anything before the first axe bit into the door.
She turned and walked away, swinging her sword and whistling a tune I suddenly recognized as one of the more depraved marching songs from my glorious days in the army.
Something told me the Lady Erlorne Werewilk not only knew the words but enjoyed them.
One day I’d have to ask how she’d learned such a common earthy tune. But today, I had other plans.
So I marched myself down to the gallery and opened the doors and stepped right in.
The place was silent. The artists stood in ranks, faces fixed and intense, arms moving, brushes darting and dabbing.
No one spoke. No one giggled or laughed or flirted or drank.
There were a few vacant easels. I picked one out. I found blank canvases stacked against the wall. I shamelessly pilfered brushes and paints and rags here and there from the artists. Each was so engrossed in their own work they paid me absolutely no attention.
I propped my blank canvas on my easel and watched the kids around me while I figured out what hand held what. I scooped globs of paint out of glass bottles and onto a board fitted with a handle. The paint board, which probably had a fancy name in some dead pre-Kingdom tongue, had obviously been used over and over again, and scraped clean after each new use.
Finally, I dipped my brush in a smear of dark red paint, and I held it poised just over the canvas.
I held my breath.
“Start simple,” I said, in a whisper. “A dog. I’d like to paint a dog. Anything but a bowl of fruit.”
My brush showed no signs of being guided by any supernatural forces.
I closed my eyes.
A fly buzzed my face and lit on my nose.
I batted it away, kept my brush poised, and sought artistic inspiration.
“Listen,” I said, after a while. “My name is Markhat. I’m no artist. I’m here because…”
Someone shushed me with a hiss. I stopped speaking aloud.
I closed my eyes again. I went back to Lady Werewilk arriving at my office. I tried to dredge up images of her, of Gertriss, of our trip here, of everything.
The room was dark and warm. I’d had a couple of hours of sleep after a hard night of skullduggery and derring-do. So maybe I went into that same half-asleep daze I used to slip into during parade dress.
So maybe I dreamed that something was listening. Maybe I dreamed that somewhere something just out of my sight was nodding and urging me to keep telling the story. Maybe I was kidding myself the whole time.
I was still dreaming, I suppose, when Darla slipped up beside me.
“Buttercup is wearing shoes,” she whispered. She kissed me on the cheek. “Care to tell me what you’re doing?”
“Completing my masterpiece.” I put down my brush. “What do you think?”
The canvas was blank. My brush was stiff with dried paint.
“I think you’re a man in need of a bed,” she said. She took my hand. “Come on. Another hour. I insist.”
I didn’t argue. We passed through the silent ranks of painters, who did not watch us pass.
So much for revelation through art.
Buttercup was indeed wearing shoes. Gertriss had found a pair of child’s slippers, and Buttercup was marching around my room, showing them off.
She leaped into my arms when Darla and I entered. I let her hug me briefly, and then I gently disentangled her and put her down. She ran a quick circle around me, pointing to her slippers as she went.
In addition to shoes, Gertriss had managed to tie the banshee’s mop of hair back with a bright pink ribbon. She’d also belted the gown with the same, which rendered Buttercup less childlike.
“She barely even fought,” said Gertriss. She looked behind Darla and I.
“Mama’s not with us,” I said. Gertriss sighed with relief.
“She still giving you trouble? I’ve explained to her what happened.”
“I know, and I thank you. But you know Mama.”
“All too well. She’ll pout and make a show, but she’ll get over it.”
I plopped down on the couch. Darla sat quickly beside me, narrowly beating Buttercup to the space. The banshee pouted but scampered away.
Gertriss found a chair and sat. “Boss, you look like the goats have been chewing on your beard.”
“I don’t have a beard.”
“It’s a saying. Means you look exhausted.”
“He is,” said Darla. “I’m putting him to bed for a bit. Especially since we’re going back outside tonight.”
Gertriss frowned. “We are?”
“No we are not,” I said. “Neither we. Not you nor you. No one but only me.”
Darla winked at Gertriss. “He’s incoherent. Let’s you and I raid this armory you spoke of. I’ll wake you up soon, dear. Do try to avoid skeletal hands for a bit, won’t you?”
I lay back. Buttercup darted past Darla’s agile hands and planted a kiss right on my lips.
“That is quite enough of that, young lady,” said Darla, who grabbed Buttercup’s pointy right ear and took her squealing from the room.
Gertriss followed, smirking.
I was asleep before the door even shut.
Darla didn’t wake me up in an hour, or even two.
The room was dark when I awoke. House Werewilk was always dark, but the shadows in my room bore the unmistakable weight of dusk.
I leaped to my feet, found my boots, found a dark shirt and my black felt hat. I got dressed, stuck Toadsticker through my belt, splashed water in my face and brushed back my hair.
The fancy mirror mocked me. Something Gertriss had said ran through my mind-you look like goats have been chewing on your beard.
I certainly did. A whole herd of goats. And chances were that I was going to look even worse later on.
I stomped downstairs, found another party in full swing. Buttercup had been introduced to the artists, who were taking turns dancing with her. Gertriss and Darla and Mama looked on. Darla was smiling, Gertriss was yawning and Mama was glaring at all and sundry.
“Good evening, ladies and gents.”
“Darling.” Darla grabbed me and pointed me toward Buttercup. “Look. Isn’t that amazing?”
I nodded. I smelled supper.
“Oh you poor man. You need your coffee. But she’s dancing, Markhat. Perfectly.”
And she was. The tiny banshee was spinning, stepping, swapping off partners and letting herself be picked up and set down and moved about the impromptu dance floor like a courtesan.
“She knows how to dance, hon. Think about it. She didn’t learn that in the woods.”
It finally dawned on me. Darla was right.
Buttercup had once lived with people.
The banshee whirled past me, grinned and waved. Her tiny skirt flew up as the spun, revealing legs that were quite shapely, if half-sized, now that they weren’t covered with a century or two of grime.
Mama Hog sidled up beside me.
“’Twere bad enough making a pet of that critter. Making it a plaything for this lot is gonna wind up bein’ a mite worse, Finder. You mark my words.”
I groaned, remembering the banshee’s determined little hands out in the forest.
“Gertriss. You’re the banshee-minder for tonight. She doesn’t get out of your sight, understand?”
“Boss, what about-?”
“Apprentice Hog. Do you enjoy having a job?”
She bit her lip. “Yes, boss.”
“Good answer.” Darla let a sly grin slip. “And you, oh blossom of my heart. You need not plan any picnics out in the yard either, because you’re staying put too.”
She stuck out her tongue.
“You can’t fire me. I quit. When do we leave?”
Mama cackled. Marlo, who had just stomped his way down the stairs, heard enough to chuckle and smirk.
I turned and headed for the kitchen. I always think better on a full stomach.
Darla had the grace not to follow.
Mama lacked that grace, though, falling into step beside me after grumbling something to Darla and Marlo. Her boots fell heavy on the tiles, and she put a lot of wheezing and whistling into her breathing until we passed through the kitchen door and were alone.
“Better make it quick, Mama. This is a popular room.”
Mama frowned and knotted her brow. Whatever words she’d chosen in the hall weren’t coming out easily.
I rolled my eyes. “You know damned well Gertriss wasn’t cavorting up there. Certainly not with me.”
“Oh, I knows it.” She flung up her hands and muttered a cuss word. “It ain’t that. But boy, she’s actin’ all strange. Takin’ on bold ways.”
I pulled out a chair and sat. “Bold ways? Gertriss? She’s still afraid to call me by name. She’s behaved herself perfectly, Mama. Despite plenty of temptation.”
“Them clothes. And that talk.”
“Mama. She was wearing a burlap sack and talking like a pig farmer. Like it or not, she’s come to Rannit, and not to farm pigs.”
Mama huffed and sat down herself, deflated.
“Your job and mine have a few things in common, you know. One of them being that we both see how blind people are when it comes to family. Am I right, Mama? You know exactly what I mean. We’ve both seen it a thousand times.”
Mama made a huffing noise that might have been assent or the early death of a sneeze.
“She’s a good kid, Mama. She’s smart. She’s brave. She’s loyal. And she’s hurt because she thinks you think less of her, when all she’s trying to do is what you told her to do in the first place. Don’t make a mess out of people doing what they were told. We’ve both seen too much of that to let it happen to us.”
Mama wouldn’t meet my eyes. “I’m thinkin’ she ought to quit her job with you when we gets home. Might have been a bad idea, her learnin’ finding.”
“Then you’re in for a shock, Mama. Because she’s actually pretty good at it. If she wants to stay on, I might just let her. You don’t get to decide that. It’s up to Gertriss. Which is the way it ought to be, and you know it.”
“I don’t know nothin’ of the sort. She’s my kin, and I’m her elder.”
“That might mean something, back in Pot Lockney. But, Mama, we’re a long way from there. And like it or not, that’s not how things are done in Rannit.”
Mama snuffed. “I know. But, boy, there’s things you don’t know.”
“That’s the damned truth, Mama. There are lots of things I don’t know. And most of them don’t matter. What I do know is that you’ll either start treating Gertriss like the smart young lady she is, or you’ll lose her for good. You don’t want that.”
“I reckon not.” Mama sighed. “She tell you why she left Pot Lockney?”
“She started to. We were interrupted. I’m sure she will, when the time is right.”
“Had to do with a man.”
I made sure my voice was gentle. “It’s not for me to know, Mama, unless she tells me. So stop right there.”
“I gets word from Pot Lockney, now and then. Just got some after you left. This man. She might have kilt him, boy.”
“If she did, I’m sure she had her reasons. Not my problem. Not my business.”
Silence. I let it linger, and then got up and started rummaging around for food. I heard the door open behind me, and got a glimpse of Mama walking through it.
“You’re welcome,” I said. And then I ate.
In the end, I wound up sneaking outside via the tunnels.
Lady Werewilk’s homebrew charm might have gotten me a step or two beyond the door before some sharp-eyed lad at the edge of the yard ruined another of my hand-stitched shirts with his rude crossbow. The lady of the house seemed, for the first time since I’d met her, a bit crestfallen by the admission.
I’d had coffee and a roast beef sandwich, though, and I assured her I’d put her hard work to good use.
I had a plan. Lady Werewilk would loose a purposely-clumsy charm at the clump of singed chokeweeds just beyond the door. The weeds would quickly begin to shake and toss about, and they’d light up like a beacon to any wand-wavers nearby. Meanwhile, I’d rise out of the ground in the distant cornfield, while Darla stayed behind to lower the works and let me in only after I issued the secret password. Marlo would be handy to keep her company. Evis would be at my side. Victor and Sara would be somewhere nearby, ready to engage in halfdead mayhem at any threat to Evis and, coincidentally, me.
I felt as safe as I could possibly feel, going outside to meet the likes of Encorla Hisvin.
Darla, Marlo and I waited until what Marlo called hard dark before we moved the oven aside and descended into the dark. That’s when the only variation to my clever planned emerged, in the form of Mama and her infamous oversized meat-cleaver.
“Boy! You down there?”
I cringed. We’d not even reached the bottom of the stairs, and there was Mama’s shaggy head blocking out the light up above.
Darla clutched at my arm. “I swear I didn’t arrange this.”
Mama came stomp-stomping down the stairs. The freshly honed edge of her cleaver gleamed in Marlo’s torchlight.
“Don’t you even think on sending me off to baby-sit no banshees,” she gruffed.
“Wouldn’t dream of it. I don’t suppose I could impose on you to keep your voice down to a mere shout?”
“I’m as quiet as a mouse, and you knows it. You better wipe that fool grin off your ugly mug or I’ll wipe off for ye, Farmer Brown. I ain’t to be trifled with.”
The last was delivered to Marlo, who wisely turned away so that the torch no longer lit his face.
“Hush,” I said. “Voices carry, Mama. I know better than to argue with you, and you know better than to get in my way. You speak when you’re spoken to, and you follow my lead, whatever that is. Got it?”
She just nodded. It was the best I could hope for. Whether she’d actually do anything I asked was anybody’s guess.
Evis came ghosting back out of the shadows ahead.
“All clear,” he whispered.
We set out. Darla kept her hand in mine, and I kept my free hand on Toadsticker’s hilt.
We hadn’t gone far when Marlo halted and began to carefully pick up and move the various cast-off treasures that made their home down in the dark with the crickets and the ghosts. Now I knew why I’d missed the cornfield tunnel my first time here-the entrance was covered with junk.
We all joined in, moving slowly and carefully. There might be soldiers hiding ten feet up, through the roots and grubs and soil. The last thing anyone wanted to do was bring a mob with shovels and picks down on our heads.
We cleared the entrance to the new tunnel in minutes. Marlo’s torch illuminated a much smaller, narrower passage, lined with bricks obviously older than the ones used elsewhere.
Marlo pointed, and aside from Mama we ducked and pressed on.
I picked half a dozen crickets out of Darla’s fine black hair. They never fell into anyone else’s. Darla never made a sound, though the things were fat and cold and wet in my hands.
I tried to picture our location, imagining that we walked up on the lawn. The tunnel ran more or less straight, which meant it took us under a couple of outbuildings. In three places, huge old blood-oak roots broke through the bricks, and by remembering the trees I was able to sense we were very close to the end of the tunnel.
I was right. Iron stairs, like the others, shone from Marlo’s torch.
We all moved to the foot of them and stood looking up.
These stairs were practically new. There was rust, here and there, but only in small patches, and they’d been sanded and painted recently.
The same system of chains and weights and pulleys was in place. But again, these lacked rust, and much to my delight they were liberally coated in a thick, fresh application of grease.
And I knew.
This was how he managed to spend the night with the Lady without raising eyebrows at such a mismatched pairing. He could sneak in and sneak out of the House proper, at least while the corn was up. And I imagine he and his ladylove had a way to accomplish the same even in the cornless dead of winter.
Love will find a way, as they say. Often it’s a way that doesn’t speak well of the intelligence or maturity of the lovers in question, but it finds a way nonetheless.
I spared Marlo any speculative comments on the well-maintained state of the workings.
“I go first,” I whispered, as I put boots on the treads. “Then Evis. Then Mama.”
Nods all around. Darla squeezed my hand, and let it go.
“Not to worry,” I said. “Let’s go.”
And up we went.
Marlo worked the crank with practiced ease. Chains moved over pulleys with all the fuss and commotion of a carefully stirred cup of tea. I stood under the steel slab and watched it rise. Within a few moments I could see cornstalks, and a few moments more revealed sky.
Marlo stopped and nodded. I lifted myself out of the ground, lay flat and rolled away from the door.
Evis popped up next, rising like a shadow from the dark. Mama was next, silent save for her usual huffing and puffing.
Darla popped her head up, and before I could speak she was out too.
I glared. She pretended not to see.
Marlo reversed his machinery, and the door closed. It had a lip that ran all the way around and held an inch or two of dirt. We smoothed out the crack left in the earth, shuffled around on it a bit, and after a few minutes all sign of the opening was obliterated.
Darla came and stood beside me, not saying a word. I let her hand take mine.
“I go alone.” She squeezed my hand twice, our secret code for yes. Heads nodded in the starlight.
I let go of Darla’s hand, and walked down the row, toward the woods.
No one followed, though I knew Evis was probably slipping off and flanking me a row or two on my right.
I kept walking. The wind rustled the stalks, surrounding me with dry whispers.
And there he was.
I halted, for a moment, my heart pounding, trying to pick out some detail in the dark.
All I could see for certain was that a man knelt in the dirt a stone’s throw away. His back was to me, his head bowed. He might have been sketching something, in the soil.
I dared another dozen steps, and then stopped.
The man rose. I could see a little better. He was tallish and thin and-
Skin, the beekeeper. It was Skin, no doubt about it.
I let out my breath.
Skin turned to face me.
There were four crossbow bolts buried in his chest. His face was the pale bloodless white of the new moon. His eyes glinted like dirty marbles in the dim light. He didn’t blink.
He didn’t need to blink anymore.
He smiled a wide, dry corpse’s smile and began to walk towards me. His steps were halting and stiff. His arms hung limp at his sides.
I counted his strides. I did not draw Toadsticker. I did not turn and run.
But oh, how I wanted to.
The dead man stopped six feet from me. That was close enough to hear the sucking noises from the holes in his chest as he walked.
Poor dead Skin worked his jaw experimentally, and then wet his lips with thick dried blood from a tongue gone white and stiff.
“Fancy meeting you here, Finder.”
His voice was Skin’s but slurred and weak. The wounds around the shafts of the crossbow bolts gurgled and hissed. I gathered the Corpsemaster was having trouble forcing air through the pierced lungs.
“Corpsemaster.” I nodded in what I hoped was a polite sign of deference. “I was hoping we could speak.”
Skin raised an eyebrow and feigned an expression of surprise. “Why, isn’t that a change of heart, Mr. Markhat. You, wanting to speak to me. I feared that after our last meeting we would never meet socially again.”
I kept my face carefully blank and my mouth even more carefully shut.
“I trust your stay at the Werewilk estate is proving interesting?”
“Very.” I realized I’d fallen into attention, and made myself relax. “I suppose I ought to thank you for what you did in the yard.”
Hisvin raised a dead hand in a gesture of dismissal. “Not at all, Finder. I was merely enforcing Regency law-rogue sorcerers, caught in the act of using magic against a law-abiding citizen of the realm? I simply had no choice but to take action. Though it was fortunate I happened along, when I did.”
“A happy coincidence, all around.” I made myself take a couple of slow, deep breaths. “I’m in over my head here. Your presence proves that. I’d like to know what I can do to keep myself and these people alive.”
Hisvin made wet chuckling noises. “I do admire your blunt nature, Finder. To a point.” He coughed up a mouthful of dark blood and spat it to the dirt. “But to answer your question. Remain indoors. Remain vigilant. Remain prepared to fight or to flee, as circumstances dictate.”
That wasn’t what I’d expected to hear. My expression must have conveyed what I dared not voice.
“I’ve disappointed you.” More blood came up. I studied the tips of my boots. “For that, I am chagrined. But you see, Finder, regardless of what you think about me, I am determined to remain honest with you. It’s a bit of a game, if you prefer to think of it in that way. The first time I lie to you, I lose. And I do not love to lose.”
I didn’t like the sudden change in Hisvin’s tone. I decided to risk changing the subject. “Why bring Darla here? Why bring Mama?”
The Corpsemaster pulled Skin’s lips back in a grin. “Your involvement in this matter is known, Finder. The other parties involved were already scheming to use Miss Tomas and Missus Hog as hostages. I brought them here, using the most expedient means possible, so that I could protect them. Even I cannot be all places at once.”
“You’re making me nervous, admitting things like that, sir.”
“As I said, I am resolved to tell the truth, even if it casts me in less than an omnipotent light.”
“I’m honored. Really. But I’m still in the dark about what’s going on here. Who are these people? What are they after? Why are they shooting anyone who ventures outdoors, and why haven’t they stormed the house?”
Before Hisvin could reply, a ruckus sounded from the House, and I knew Lady Werewilk had unleashed her spells on the yard. There were shouts, and the faint whish-thunk of crossbows throwing, and the much fainter splintering cracks of bolts shattering against Werewilk’s sturdy walls.
And now the Corpsemaster knew the Lady herself was a rogue sorceress.
Hisvin smiled. “You need have no concern for her safety, Finder. I myself trained her in certain aspects of the Arts, though she of course does not know this. She will suffer no consequences for her small departure from Regency law.”
“You trained the Lady?”
“My association with House Werewilk is long and subtle, Finder. For reasons you will soon understand.” Shouts rose up, from men in the yard, and Hisvin made a small motion with two fingers on his right hand.
Lightning fell from the sky. Men screamed, but only briefly.
And then there was silence.
“Time is short. They want the banshee, Finder. They now suspect you have it. Had I not brought your womenfolk here, Miss Tomas and Missus Hog would even now be in the hands of persons who lack my own delicate sensibilities. You still blame me for Miss Tomas’s recent misadventures at the hands of the blood cult. I refuse to allow another act of violence to be laid at my feet.”
“Why not send them down the Brown, or out West?”
Hisvin sighed. “Because the persons against whom I am aligned have long reaches, Finder. I assure you of this. There is no safer place than here, where I can extend to them my protection. Until and unless I fall, that is. Should that occur, I suggest you run as far and as fast as you can.”
“If you fall?” I shivered. The wind was chilly. It smelled of smoke and burning hair. “Corpsemaster, if I may again be blunt, what the hell is going on out here?”
“History,” said Hisvin. He smiled a small rueful smile. “History is being made, and we shall have the misfortune to play a role in it. You may sit, Finder. And you as well, Mr. Prestley. What I have to say will take a bit of time.” The dead man dropped to his knees, then back onto his ass. The bending caused a slow gush of old blood to ooze from his wounds. “We might as well be comfortable.”
Evis joined me, gliding out of the shadows without a sound. I shrugged and sat, and Evis followed suit.
“Once upon a time,” said the Corpsemaster, “monsters walked the earth.”
“Some might observe that they still do.”
“Some might. But Finder, the monsters I speak of were far greater and far more terrible than anything you know. They walked the lands like furious mountains, and their mere words were sufficient to bring wrack and ruin to all they beheld. These were not mere sorcerers, Finder, Mr. Prestley. They were primal forces embodied, made nearly divine by the magics they wielded. Such was their power that the spells they spoke may never be spoken again.” Hisvin frowned. “Even now, I fail to convey the extent of their abilities. Suffice it to say, though, that even a person of my stature and prowess would be utterly insignificant in the face of these creatures. Yes. Think of it that way-take all of my sorcerous kin, resurrect all of us who perished during the War, and if all were arrayed at the height of their powers and put in the path of the least of these ancient beings, we should all be crushed underfoot in an instant.”
Evis tilted his head and spoke a soft word I didn’t know.
Hisvin repeated it. “Yes,” he said, beaming. “I did not know you were a student of pre-Kingdom history, Mr. Prestley. But you are correct. I speak of the alarkin. The Old Ones.”
“Never heard of them,” I whispered. “But I went to a public school. Are you telling me that’s what’s buried under the Ring, sir? One of these alarkins?”
Hisvin shook his head. “What was buried beneath the old stone ring was a mere bauble placed there by myself some eighty years ago. I also laid the stones, some years before that, and spread false rumors of their origins. The Ring was meant to discourage further excavations. Similar measures have, in the past, proven more than sufficient to either kill the excavators or convince them further efforts were simply too risky. But not this time, I fear. No. Today, the other parties show the rare and irrepressible determination of madmen and fools.”
“I saw an unusually tall person at the excavation yesterday. Might that be one of your foolish mad sorcerers?”
“One of them. I suspect there are at least three.”
I whistled. Even during the darkest days of the War, wand-wavers working together was well nigh unheard of. They historically seemed unable to remain on the same continent without quickly resorting to sorcerous blood feuds.
“Anyone else on your side?”
The Corpsemaster shrugged. “No. We stand alone.”
“Three to one. The odds aren’t exactly encouraging.”
“True. But I suspect the three, should they survive long enough to reach the tomb, will fall upon each other the instant it is uncovered. I have no such concerns, nor will I be forced to expend any effort to protect myself from partners who are destined to suddenly become deadly rivals. But I digress. I came here to discuss your role in this small confusion, Finder.”
“You mean aside from my role as your stalking horse.”
“I did not bring you here, Finder. Although I must admit I was most amused when I learned that the Lady had retained you.”
I shivered at the thought of being one of Hisvin’s amusements.
“How do you know I won’t run and tell the Lady that some prehistoric boogeyman and his treasure-trove is buried right under her roses?”
“Because you are not a fool. And because you have no more desire to see such a creature raised than do I. Consider it, Finder. Imagine a being infinitely more powerful than myself. Now imagine that it lacks my own considerable sense of restraint and decorum. Add its understandable annoyance at being buried for most of the Kingdom’s history.”
“I thought you said it was dead. In a tomb.”
“I did indeed mention a tomb. I did not employ the word dead. The alarkin was put down, and bound with ancient magics, and then sealed beneath the earth in what was then a lonely, unpeopled waste. But dead-perhaps so, perhaps not. Death for such a being might well prove to be temporary. And if not, its shade would be nearly as devastating as the being itself. No. We can be assured the alarkin is buried. But we cannot assume it is dead.”
Evis broke his silence. “Why would anyone seek to disturb such a thing?”
“Greed,” replied Hisvin. “The alarkin was doubtlessly entombed with certain artifacts. If one were to raise them, and learn their use-well. That is another point of the history I spoke of, because the Regency would certainly fall before the onslaught of such objects.”
I must have raised an eyebrow. Either that, or Hisvin can read minds.
“No, Finder, I myself have no desire to seek such artifacts. I will make no claim that I am somehow immune to greed, but neither am I insensitive to the cost of such an effort. No. I mean to keep these things buried, though it costs me my life.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“Let us hope so indeed. Now. As to your roles. The banshee must be protected. I assume you do in fact have it safely inside?”
No point in denying what I suspected he had the means to know. “I do. But I have to tell you, she’s not very, um, banshee-like. More like a kid. She seems harmless. Might I ask why all the interest in her?”
Hisvin made Skin’s dead face frown. “If my studies are to be believed, she was a creation of the alarkin who lies nearby. I believe, as do my rivals, that the banshee holds the power to call the alarkin back. Probably by shrieking in close proximity to the tomb.”
“Buttercup could bring Old Bones back just by howling?” I rose. “Do you believe that?”
Skin lifted his grey hands. “Close proximity, Finder. Very close. There is no immediate danger. Unless, of course, these other sorcerers take her and put her in the tomb.”
“They’d do that?”
“I simply do not know. They might only be after the artifacts. Or they might have fallen to the alarkin’s shade already, and are working to effect its release. If that is true, they will come for the banshee, Finder. And that I cannot allow.”
Footsteps sounded, shuffling and faint, behind Skin. Footsteps, and a smell.
Evis didn’t stand, but his arms moved. I assume he was readying a weapon.
“Don’t be alarmed,” said Hisvin with a dead man’s smile. “Meet another of my little family. I believe he was known as Weexil. He betrayed you to our common enemy, Finder. I thought it only fitting that you behold him, to see that justice has been done.”
Another dead man shambled down the cornrow. This one was already bloated, already drawing flies. I was glad Hisvin did not force it to speak.
In the thick stiff fingers of its black right hand, it held a dagger. I held my breath while Weexil’s corpse shuffled to my feet, dropped the dagger, and then turned and walked slowly away.
“You need not mourn him, Finder. Nor does his young lady. Did you know he planned to murder her and hide her body in these very woods, simply to avoid the dual blessings of fatherhood and matrimony?” The Corpsemaster shook his head in mock surprise. “I despair for the Regency’s future, given the youth of today.”
The dagger was small, as daggers go. The blade and the hilt were worked with symbols that danced and moved as I watched.
“And this is?”
“This is for you, Finder. The banshee is both long-lived and deceptively durable. But a single cut from this blade will prove fatal to it. It need not be a mortal wound. If blood is drawn at all, the banshee will perish.”
“With respect, sir. Perhaps it should be I who takes the weapon. I believe Mr. Markhat has developed a certain paternal affection for the banshee.”
Hisvin laughed through a dead man’s throat. The sound was not at all pleasant.
I took the dagger and stuck it down inside Toadsticker’s scabbard.
“I’ll hold on to this. No need to go cutting any throats just yet.”
“There is indeed a need, Finder. And if you were a practical man, you’d kill the creature immediately, and throw its body into the yard, and thus spare the lives of everyone you hold dear. Surely you can see the value of such a strategy.”
“If it were that simple you’d have killed her yourself.”
Hisvin shrugged. “There are reasons I myself cannot slay her. None of these reasons apply to you.”
I realized I was glaring. “I won’t kill any banshees tonight, Corpsemaster. If that’s the easy way, I’m afraid it’s not the path we’ll take.”
“As you wish. The choice is yours.”
“So. What’s next?”
“The dig at the Faery Ring has been abandoned. Even now, they are preparing to lay siege to the House, capture the banshee and use it to determine the actual location of the alarkin’s burial site. By dawn, House Werewilk will be surrounded by approximately five hundred mercenaries, a variety of heavy siege engines, and a much reduced but still considerable number of minor sorcerers in the employ of three persons of my own stature, or greater. I suspect your breakfast plans will be rudely interrupted.”
Evis spoke. “Do you know the actual location of the alarkin’s tomb, sir?”
“Naturally. I built Werewilk upon it. It seemed the best way to keep the site under careful scrutiny.”
I fought back a shiver. I’d been sleeping over the grave of a monster. Buttercup was even now dancing over its tomb.
“Does Buttercup-the banshee know that?”
“I have very little knowledge of the banshee’s abilities. But if it was drawn to the resting place of its master, it seems it would have been drawn here millennia ago, does it not?”
“Makes sense. From what I hear, she only showed up thirty years or so ago.”
Hisvin nodded. “Which coincides with the last attempt to disinter the alarkin. I suspect the banshee was brought to Rannit at that time by a sorcerer who, sadly, fell quite ill soon thereafter.”
“Bad case of a fatal head wound?”
“Indeed. The banshee escaped. I presume it has been living in the forest since then. My own attempts to capture it failed, time after time.”
Evis perked up. “Does it have access to magic of its own, perhaps?”
“It may. I simply cannot say. And I refuse to place myself in close proximity to the creature. If the alarkin is indeed alive, doing so would expose myself to it, and that has proven universally fatal to the persons who have risked it.”
“So. We hold the House. You slay the sorcerers. And when they’re puffs of smoke, we hope the army itself just shrugs and walks away, is that it?”
The dead man sighed. “You damn me with your lack of faith, Finder. While I cannot simply dismiss all our foes with a single wave of my hand, I am who I am. I shall not be vanquished easily, or quickly.”
“Glad to hear it.” There came a sound from the House-Buttercup, winding up for a good long shriek. “Sir, unless there’s anything else, we’d better get back.”
“Sounds like your banshee girlfriend is getting anxious,” said Evis. His grin, even in the dark, was toothy and wide.
Hisvin rose. We did too.
“I doubt we shall speak again until this is done,” he said. “I wish you both luck.”
Evis and I chorused the same to the Corpsemaster, and he turned and walked away.
I wiped sweat from my forehead.
“Bet you wish you’d stayed home.”
“What, and miss all the fun? Victor. Sara. You can join us now.”
Two halfdead, clad in loose black, glided out of the cornstalks on either side of us.
“You heard nothing of that,” said Evis. “Not a single word.”
Two single nods, and not a whisper of sound.
“What’s out there?”
“Five hundred men. Three catapults.”
“Sorcerers.” That from Sara. “We counted six.”
Evis pondered that. “What of escape? Is there any way to move through their lines?”
“None. The estate is encircled. The circle is closing. By dawn, they will be at the House.”
“All right. Return to Rannit. Inform the Elders. Make no mention of Hisvin.”
Silence. Evis frowned.
“Did you hear me?”
“We heard,” said Victor. “But our orders are to remain at your side.”
“Your orders are to return to Avalante this instant.”
Victor shook his head. “Only if you accompany us.”
Evis growled something at Victor in a language I don’t know. Victor replied calmly in the same tongue. The other halfdead, Sara, repeated Victor’s brief reply.
Buttercup wailed again, louder and longer, this time.
“We’re going to have to continue this fascinating debate of House dynamics inside, people,” I said. “Bad things are going to happen if Buttercup slips loose and winds up in the yard.”
Evis snarled and whirled, making for the secret door in a very unvampirish huff. I motioned for Victor and Sara to follow, and they fell behind Evis in silence.
I brought up the rear. A wind rustled the cornstalks. I thought of the two dead men still nearby, and I hurried back to Darla, Toadsticker’s hilt in my hand.
Mama eyed the dagger Hisvin had given me with a potent Hog scowl.
“I ain’t never seen the likes of that, boy.”
“Me neither,” added Gertriss. “It…it looks back.”
I took the thing and wrapped it in a dishrag and put it in my jacket pocket.
Buttercup smiled up at me. She’d shown no interest in or fear of the dagger. If she understood what had been said about it, she also showed no interest or fear in that.
We were seated in the kitchen. The oven had been moved back, which cut off the damp smell from the tunnels. Biscuits were cooking inside it, which made the scene almost homey, except for the knowledge that a siege and assault by sorcerers was due with the sunrise.
Gertriss had managed to trim Buttercup’s fingernails. The banshee even wore a ring now. It was fashioned from a twist of yarn and the jewel was a gumdrop, but Buttercup showed it to me with the gravity of an heiress. Shoes were still a problem, Gertriss reported. Oh, the banshee would parade around in them for a few minutes, giggling and clapping, but she quickly lost interest and stepped out of them as soon as she spotted something shiny.
Lady Werewilk had met us underground. I stalled until we were assembled in the kitchen while I decided what to tell and what to hide and what the Hell we were going to do to prepare for a war that had the likes of Encorla Hisvin questioning his own mortality.
In the end, I’d spilled most of it. I hadn’t used Encorla’s name, didn’t mention that he’d laid the Faery Ring or had a long-time hand in Werewilk’s history. I didn’t mention alarkins or artifacts, although the Lady guessed right away that something old and sorcerous was involved.
And I’d told her about Buttercup. And the dagger.
I hadn’t wanted to tell that. But the Lady was my client. I don’t lie to my clients. Especially when Evis would have revealed all of it anyway, in my presence or outside it.
“So the banshee may be the key to all this?”
The Lady is good at keeping her face blank. I resolved never to play cards with her.
“She may be. I’m not convinced of that. Others are.”
“And that dagger has the power to kill her.”
I just nodded.
The Lady took a sip of coffee. “I will have no murder in this house,” she said. “Certainly not of my guests. Most especially not of poor wild creatures who have seldom known kindness. You need not fear for her, Finder. Like you, I refuse to spill innocent blood in the interest of expediency.”
I felt a knot loosen in my gut.
“I’m very glad to hear it, Lady. But in the interest of safety, I’ll volunteer to take the banshee out of your House myself. I think we could slip away, if we leave now.”
“You would die. It is too late for flight.”
Victor had spoken. His voice was dry and flat. Sara, seated beside him, nodded beneath her black hood.
“You managed to sneak past them.”
“I am a vampire. Even so, we moved ahead of them, not through them. You would die. There is no doubt.”
Darla squeezed my hand, which was already numb from being held and squeezed and clung to.
“Fine. No early morning hikes in the dew, then. I guess we get ready to fight.”
“They are many. They have siege engines. And sorcery.”
“We have some small sorcery of our own.” Lady Werewilk grinned. Marlo made frantic shushing noises.
“The time for secrecy has long since passed. I cannot simply stand by and watch my House be assaulted without employing every means of defense available.”
“You know the law,” began Marlo.
“The law is subject to interpretation,” said Evis, smoothly. “In fact, if Lady Werewilk were to engage in some minor acts of the arcane while in the employ of Avalante, I believe the likelihood of any legal action in the matter is quite low.”
“Practically nonexistent,” I added. “Hell. She might even rate a medal.”
“Indeed.” Evis allowed himself a tight-lipped smile, aware that his audience was human. “You may proceed without fear of prosecution, Lady. I speak for Avalante.”
The Lady rose.
“Oh, Lady Werewilk. One more thing. I quit.”
She laughed. “Now, Finder?”
“You hired me to find out who was surveying your land. I’ve told you as much as I can about them. No need for you to keep me on the payroll.”
“Fair enough. Marlo. Pay the man. I do hope you’ll accept my invitation to remain here, as my guest, until this is over.”
I nodded. “Thank you, Lady.”
She pushed back her chair and sailed from the room, Marlo close on her heels.
Evis sniffed the air. “I believe the biscuits are about to burn.”
“What would you know ’bout biscuits,” muttered Mama Hog.
“Enough not to burn them.”
“Oh hush, both of you.” Darla let go of my hand and rushed to the stove. I opened and closed my fingers a few times to make sure they still worked.
“Throw a couple of those on a plate, will you, Darla, my dear? Then bring them upstairs. I get terribly grumpy if I have to go to war without a nap first.”
“You’re gonna sleep, boy? Now?”
‘For an hour or so, Mama. Unless you can think of something better to do.”
“We can be a sharpenin’ blades and piling furniture against the doors.”
“We could start boiling water to pour down the trap doors, in case they find the tunnels,” added Evis.
Mama cackled. “Good idea, boy. I likes that one.”
Evis smiled. “Then you’ll love what I have in mind to put in jars that can be tossed from upstairs to the lawn,” he said.
Evis nodded. “With soap mixed in, to make it stick.”
Mama slapped him on the back. “I likes the way you think, boy.”
I hustled Darla out of there, before they started hugging.
Later, Darla and I watched the sunrise.
As sunrises go, it lacked spectacle. The window was so thick we could barely see through it in the first place. And then there were the trees, which drank up the sun as it climbed.
But some light crept through nonetheless. First came the dawn, red and slow, and it gave way to day. There was no warmth in it. No bird song, either. Just a pale grey light that seemed reluctant and shone cold.
Darla was at my side, leaning against me. Her hair was mussed and her eyes were red, but she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
I told her so. She smiled and called me a liar.
And then the first siege engine broke from the trees, and men came shouting with it.
Horses galloped into the Lady’s charred and unkempt lawn. There were more shouts. I could make out movement, but not detail. There came crashings and the neighing of horses, and then the chop-chop-chopping of axes biting into trees.
Darla regarded it with a sleepy sort of detached curiosity.
“They’re clearing the trees so the catapults can fire.”
“You know the very words to melt a girl’s heart.”
“That’s me, all right. Charming to the last.”
“Is this the last, Markhat?”
I forced a smile. “Not a chance, Missy. All they’ve got are catapults. The Corpsemaster has worse than that in his pajama pockets, and you know it.”
“Maybe. But if it is, I love you, Markhat.”
Masonry shattered, down below. The horsemen were using ropes to topple the ward statues.
“This is the part where you tell me you love me too,” said Darla.
“You know I do.”
“I don’t know anything unless you tell me.”
“I bought you velvet gloves for Yule. If that isn’t love, I don‘t know what is.”
She turned to face me.
“I am not going to die without hearing the words, Markhat. Give me that.”
Hammers joined the axes as the catapult began to take shape. Footfalls sounded beyond my door, rushing from the stairs and down the hall towards us.
“I love you, Darla Tomas. Happy now? There is an invading army forming up on the lawn, you know. They have a catapult. Did I mention they have a catapult?”
She smiled. “So we’ve established that I love you, and you love me. Agreed?”
“No arguments here.” Knocks fell on my door. Mama bellowed my name.
Darla didn’t let go when I made to turn away.
“When men type people and women type people fall in love, they often start setting certain dates.”
Mama, bless her heart, gave the door a shove and barged on in, bellowing and stomping.
“Boy! Wake up, damned if they ain’t about to start flingin’ rocks-”
Darla skipped away from me, a hint of triumph on her face. Mama blushed and shut up.
“It’s all right, Mama. We were just about to get dressed.”
Mama gobbled something apologetic and backed away. I grabbed a shirt and hastily donned it, while Darla glided to the fancy bathroom and closed the door.
“You said something about rocks and the flinging thereof.”
“They’s pushin’ machines out of the woods. Three so far. Men an’ horses everywhere.”
I sat and pulled on boots.
“We knew this was coming, Mama. And you know who’s on our side.”
Mama snorted. “The one we ain’t naming ain’t on nobody’s side but his own.”
I found Toadsticker hiding under the couch and yanked him free. The Corpsemaster’s dainty dagger went in my right boot, where I planned for it to stay.
“What’s going on downstairs?”
“Them painters is paintin’. The rest of the lot is runnin’ around with swords they don’t know how to swing. The Lady has took to her wand-wavin’ room. Her man is stompin’ around givin’ orders and getting’ mad when nobody pays him no mind.”
I had a good idea who was foremost in paying Marlo no mind.
“Evis and crew?”
Mama cackled. “Boy, I got to say, that Evis is a likeable feller, if you can get past that face. He’s made up a batch of sticky lamp oil and if he’s as good at throwin’ as he thinks he is we might just set them cat-a-pults on fire before they get them built.”
“Victor and Sara?”
“The other two halfdead.”
“Ain’t seen hide nor hair of them. Reckon they’re about, though, getting’ ready to spread some vampire nasty when the doors go down.”
Darla emerged from my bathroom. Her hair was combed, her clothes were fresh and the red was gone from her eyes.
“We’re engaged,” she said, without preamble.
Mama barked a laugh and slapped her knee. “And high time, I reckon.”
“Don’t look so terrified, darling. It happens all the time.”
“I don’t look terrified.”
“Last time I seen bug eyes like that, boy, they was in a toad a coach run over.” Mama grinned and bowed. When she straightened up, there was a dried owl in her hand. “Upon this joining, I confer my blessing.”
Something exploded out on the lawn. Tiny bits of sod pecked at the window.
“Downstairs, ladies. War starts early, in these parts.”
Darla took my arm. “Let’s get it done quickly, shall we, dear? We have rings to pick out.”
I’ve never hurried toward the sound of battle with such eagerness.
Downstairs was pandemonium.
Gardeners and stable boys and carpenters and cooks were charging from window to window and door to door, shouting and knocking holes in the plaster with their makeshift armor and tripping over each other everywhere the hall got narrow. Half a dozen dogs trotted happily behind them, not sure what game it was they were playing but determined to enjoy it anyway.
Marlo brought up the rear, bellowing and cursing and red-faced. He carried no weapon, but his hands were balled into white-knuckled fists, and I figured he was one shout away from grabbing the nearest of the staff and beating them until they listened.
I parked Darla at the foot of the stairs and charged into the fray, grabbing Marlo by his elbow.
“Let me show you an old trick my sergeant showed me.”
The mob reversed and was upon me, responding to a shout that troops were at the door. They weren’t, but I planted myself in the way, smiled a big wide smile, and laid out the first two males who got within arm’s reach of me.
That halted the charge. And like the Sarge used to say, a bloody nose never killed anyone.
“Shut up. All of you. Shut up and be still and listen, or you’ll get the same, and worse.”
One of the men I’d disciplined muttered something uncomplimentary. Marlo responded with a boot to his gut.
“You can’t see a damned thing out of any of these windows. And since they don’t open, they might as well not be there. So I want you, you, and you-” I pointed three worthies out at random, “-to find some tools and go to the top floor and take out a window on each wall. Got that? Just smash the damned things until they break. We can’t defend the House blind like this.”
“But the Lady-”
“I speak for the Lady,” snarled Marlo. “And this man speaks for me. He wasn’t asking, either. Get hammers, get upstairs, get moving.”
The trio conferred briefly about workrooms and hammers and then off they went.
Marlo’s face was the color of fresh cut beef.
“The rest of you barricade the doors. Start with the main doors, but don’t forget the side doors. Mr. Marlo, is there any furniture you want spared?”
“Hell no. Break it all to splinters if you have to. Just keep the doors from coming down.”
“You heard the man.”
A surly-eyed gardener in the rear of the pack perked up.
“What if they set the place afire? What do we do about that?”
“Slate doesn’t burn, Burns, and if you keep up with that sort of talk I’ll haul your whining ass up to the roof and throw you down myself.”
The man blanched. Marlo glared.
The floor shook as a mighty ironwood tree went down. The uppermost branches of it struck the House as it fell. There was a splintering and a rending, but the walls took the blow easily.
“The doors,” I said. “Heavy big stuff first. Nail it in place if you can. Smaller junk behind it. Go.”
They scattered, leaving Marlo and I alone.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Don’t mention it. Easier for me to do. They don’t know me, and I don’t have to live with them later.”
“If there is a later.”
“Been through worse. Still here to complain about it.”
Marlo snorted. Another tree fell out on the lawn. They’d soon have a clear field of fire, from anywhere they chose.
“Down in her room. Brewing up something, don’t know what, ain’t gonna ask.”
“Let’s hope it’s good. Seen Evis?”
“In the gallery. Dark in there.”
Buttercup came flying down the stairs. I say flying. It might have been a leap, might have been some unusual display of agility that only a creature as small as the banshee could execute. I never saw her do it again. But it looked as if she simply picked up her feet and came gliding down that stair.
Flying or not, Darla managed to grab her before she could pass. The tiny creature struggled for a moment, then buried her face in Darla’s hair and begin to whimper.
Darla looked at me and was about to say something, but then her eyes went wide and she whirled and put her back to me and tried to run.
She slipped on a spot of beer, went down on one knee.
I had Toadsticker out and level with my waist before I got turned around. Marlo was hurled into the far wall with a thud and a curse. Something black and shapeless, like a shadow given substance, fluttered by me, making a sound somewhere between wings flapping and the pages of a book being fanned. I made a slice at it with Toadsticker, met some resistance, heard a high keening screech before I felt the blade yank free.
I followed with a leap, shoved Toadsticker in the biggest part of the boiling black mass. It shrieked again. Darla screamed and rolled, and the wad of shadows and I fell and rolled and struggled.
It was cold. I never saw a face or a claw or a body of any kind. Something pushed at me and tore at my clothes, though, and it tried desperately to wrench Toadsticker free. I got on top of it. I managed to get my knees around it and then Mama appeared with a bucket full of fire. She dumped it on the shadow thing with a scream and a kick.
Whatever it was, it would have made damned fine kindling. It shrieked and spasmed and then it burst into flames that quickly engulfed it.
If Marlo hadn’t yanked me to my feet, I’d have been burned myself.
I kept it pinned as long as I could, only withdrawing Toadsticker when the thing stopped struggling.
It didn’t burn long, after that. And it left nothing but a handful of ash behind.
“What the Hell was that?”
I sat on my ass and puffed. Darla and Buttercup joined me.
“It was after the banshee,” said Mama, stirring the remains with a boot. She spat in the ashes. “Bet it meant to pick her up and fly her out, owl-like.”
“The chimneys,” I puffed more air. “Light a fire. In all of them. Must have come down a chimney.”
Marlo barked orders. He had the presence of mind to order torches brought to us all. This time, his orders were heeded.
“Thanks, Mama. How’d you know it would burn?”
“I didn’t,” she replied. “It was that or a chamber-pot. Ain’t you glad I chose like I did?”
Evis came gliding up. He regarded the ashes and frowned.
“Looks like.” I stood. “Make a circle. Darla, you and Buttercup in the middle. Might be more of those about, until we get some fires burning.”
We arranged ourselves. I felt Buttercup’s tiny hand on my back as she grabbed a handful of shirt and held on.
Upstairs came the sound of windows breaking. I cringed. “Better get a torch behind all those too,” I said. “If they can fly high enough to come down chimneys they can fly through windows.”
Marlo repeated what I’d just said. There were nods and then running feet.
Buttercup still whimpered. I wondered what she could see that we couldn’t, whether she knew what was being arrayed against us outside. If Hisvin had been telling the truth, Buttercup was a creation of something so ancient it predated all of Kingdom history-what, I wondered, would be sufficient to frighten a creature which had seen all the horrors it must surely have witnessed?
Mama broke the silence by beginning to sing.
It was a lullaby. I knew the tune, but not the words. My own mother had hummed it, over and over, as she mended the whole neighborhood’s shirts with the same century-old needle and threads she salvaged from the trash-heap of a grave clothes maker.
I guessed the song itself was as old as the language.
“Don’t you fret child
Don’t you cry,
Mama’s gonna make the black-birds fly.
And when those black-birds fly away,
Mama’s gonna make you a bed to lay…”
Buttercup stopped whimpering. Mama kept humming, probably because she either didn’t know any more of the song or she hadn’t come up with a rhyme yet.
We heard shouts, hammers beginning to fall inside, the scraping and shoving of heavy chests and tables and cases. Glass shattered, up above.
And then behind me, a tiny voice that was not Darla began to sing as Mama hummed.
The words weren’t clear. After an instant I realized they weren’t even Kingdom. But the voice, tiny and high as a bird’s-
“Darla? Is it?”
“She’s singing, Markhat. It’s her.”
Buttercup sang, her words still strange, but obviously sang in accompaniment to Mama’s hummed tune.
“Buttercup? Do you understand me?”
No response, except more song.
“She was raised, I knew it,” said Darla. “You didn’t always live in the trees, did you, honey?”
Buttercup stopped singing, but if she meant to reply she didn’t get the chance. Shouts sounded above, and blows, and then a second ball of black came soaring down the stairs, headed right for Buttercup.
This time it was Evis who attacked. He simply leaped up, grabbed the black mass, and wrestled it to the floor. It thrashed and grappled, but Evis kept it down, pinning it with hands and knees.
Gertriss came charging down the stair, a cut on her temple and bloody murder in her eyes. The sword in her hand gleamed.
“Flew right through the window,” she said, taking the last few treads with a jump. “I’m sure I hit it, but it kept flying.”
I leaned over it. Evis grinned, having no trouble keeping the flapping thing pinned to the floor.
In the light, it looked like black paper, wadded and glued and stuck together at random. There was no face, no body, no wings as such.
I grabbed a corner of the thing.
It tore like paper.
Hell, it was paper. Black paper, that somehow moved in my hand, trying to fold its way out of my grasp.
I poked and prodded while it flapped. There was a cavity in the middle of the thing. A cavity just big enough to hold most of Buttercup.
A bevy of gardeners came charging up, bearing the torches Marlo had ordered. I took one and thrust it down into the thing after pinning it with Toadsticker and my boot.
It went up as quickly as the first one.
Everyone grabbed a torch. Gertriss came around to stand on my right, which put her well away from Mama. I surmised their relations were still a bit strained.
We put another of the paper things to the torch before the fires in the chimneys and the torches at the windows rendered the House impassable to them.
Mama hummed some more, but Buttercup didn’t sing. She just clung to either Darla or Gertriss and when she did peek out from behind them her eyes were wide and fearful.
Another tree fell outside. I smelled the first faint stench of smoke, and I wondered if our besiegers would have the sense to pile the cut timber against the house and set it afire. The House would resist burning, to a point, but if the walls themselves got hot enough we’d find ourselves in a well-furnished oven.
“Gertriss. Darla. Keep torches handy. Stay with Buttercup.”
Evis whispered something. Shadows moved at the end of the hall, as Victor and Sara flitted away on some errand of their own. I lifted an eyebrow at Evis, but he just grinned and winked at me over his dark spectacles and I let it go.
“Reckon we might ought to move the banshee to a room,” said Marlo. “One on the second floor with no windows, one door, stone floor, timber ceiling. Nothing getting in there unless we let it.”
“They’ve got wand-wavers. We keep her moving. Make it harder for them to aim another spell at her.” Marlo didn’t like my plan, but he had the sense not to argue.
“Mama, keep an eye on things. Evis, you’re an art enthusiast, are you not?”
The vampire shrugged. “The House maintains a modest collection,” he replied. “Seems an odd time to discuss it.”
“Walk with me. I have some interesting works to show you.”
I turned before anyone could argue and headed for the gallery. Evis fell into step beside me while Mama began bellowing orders designed to move Buttercup up the stairs.
“What have you got on your mind, Markhat?”
We reached the door to the gallery and I pushed it open and motioned Evis inside.
“Hell if I know,” I whispered. “But have a look. Tell me what you think.”
The gallery was just as I’d left it. The silent ranks of artists worked feverishly, wordlessly, oblivious to anything and everything save their paints and their canvases.
The only sounds were those of brushes.
Evis pulled down his spectacles. All but two of the lamps had gone out. The room was dark enough for vampire comfort, and yet the painters painted on.
“Oh my.” Evis stepped cautiously into the room. He moved to stand fang-to-face beside a skinny young woman with big mouse eyes.
She gave no sign of knowing a halfdead was beside her.
Evis reached up, stroked her pale neck. Nothing, save the darting of her brush.
He put his hand before her eyes.
She made no reaction at all. Her brush stabbed and scraped, as purposefully as before.
“Looks like. But it isn’t the Lady. And I don’t think it’s our friends on the lawn.”
Evis frowned. “The Corpsemaster?”
“Yes. No. Maybe. But if it was his, why not tell us? And what on Earth is he hoping to accomplish?”
Evis frowned, and his gaze moved from the painter to the painting.
“I can’t quite make out the subject here. Interesting.”
I squinted, but in the dark all I saw were blotches. “Mind if I light a few lamps? I don’t see in the dark as well as some persons.”
It took us a few moments. The lamps had run out of oil, and a couple needed new wicks. I realized some of these kids had been at it for hours on end.
But what they’d been at wasn’t obvious, even with fresh lamps lit.
I brought my lamp close to the nearest canvas. On it was a splash of grey, a few apparently random black lines, and a hint of reddish glow at one corner. I could have done much the same just by smearing one of the paint-boards across the canvas with my eyes closed.
“This is not what they were doing yesterday.”
Evis regarded another canvas. His was similar to mine. If either painting depicted anything at all, neither of us could discern it. Yet the painters continued their work with precision and care.
“Perhaps the magic that led them to create masterpieces has failed, or been corrupted by the intrusion of magics from elsewhere.”
I snatched a brush from the hand of the nearest artist. Without pausing, they took up a fresh one and resumed their work. I took that brush too, and they dipped their finger in the paint and carried on, never taking their eyes from the canvas.
“It’s gotten stronger.” Realization hit. “They couldn’t stop now if they wanted to.”
“They’ll start dropping from exhaustion soon,” said Evis. He laid a hand on the neck of the nearest, and I realized he was feeling for a pulse.
“This one isn’t far from it.”
“They’re dead if the doors are breached. We don’t have enough hands to pick them up and carry them to the tunnels.”
“We need to get the Lady in here. See if she can wake them up. Unless she’s the one who did this in the first place.”
“I don’t think she has this kind of range.”
“The Lady looks hot in a tight black dress. So you’re biased. Look. You heard the Corpsemaster. Whatever is down there, — ” he tapped his foot for emphasis, “-isn’t thrilled about it. Maybe the Lady got to dabbling, maybe she made contact, maybe all this fine art pouring from nowhere is something’s way of pushing the door open, bit by bit. Think about it. The Lady starts getting rich, she lets more and more mojo leak out, then the alarkin gets free.”
“With the Corpsemaster watching over her shoulder?”
“Nobody’s perfect. Even Hisvin blinks. It’s just a theory.” Evis glanced toward the hall. I didn’t hear anything, but then I’m not a vampire.
“I’ll keep it in mind,” I said. “But I don’t think I’ll mention it to Hisvin.”
Evis smiled. The lamplight glinted on the tips of his teeth.
“Yes, you probably don’t want to go upsetting the Corpsemaster any more than necessary. You may have noticed that she has a nasty temper.”
Icicles scampered down my spine.
“That’s the conclusion around Avalante. We don’t spread it around. But it’s been known to us for years. You do attract the most fascinating women, Markhat.”
I made frantic gobbling noises of denial. Evis laughed, clearly enjoying himself.
“Come now. She pops up here the instant your hide is in peril, she saves you from the sorcerers, she even gives you a shiny dagger? What more do you need? Long walks in the Park? Flowers and poetry?”
I turned and made for the door. Evis set his lamp down and followed, still chuckling.
Mama was keeping Buttercup on the move. Marlo had taken up a station on the third floor, squinting through a freshly broken window and cussing.
They were burning the outbuildings. The barn had gone first. Marlo’s hut was being set aflame as we watched.
“Bastards.” That was all he said, over and over. The way he said it spoke the mayhem he was longing to visit upon them. “Bastards, bastards, bastards.”
I couldn’t think of any comfort to offer, so I watched in silence.
There were two more catapults on the lawn. Both were nearly assembled. A crew was winding the ropes on the nearest engine. From the looks of it, they were within an hour of being ready to load the basket up with stones and hurl them against Werewilk’s venerable walls.
The House was as solid as it could be. But three catapults, each able to hurl their loads unimpeded?
I figured the first wall would be breached well before dark. After that, matters would proceed quickly, with either a panicked flight through the tunnels and the woods or a massacre inside the shattered walls.
The dagger in my boot was cold. I’d hidden the hilt. No point in tempting Marlo or anyone else to solve our little problem with a bit of theft and a quick stabbing.
Voices sounded behind us. The Lady came marching in.
Her eyes were weary and her hands were stained with soot, but her smile was wide and not entirely friendly.
“Gentlemen,” she said. “The catapults. Are they nearly assembled?”
We nodded. The Lady widened her predatory smile.
“Then it is time. Observe.”
She produced a bundle of thread and silver needles and held it to her lips. She whispered a word, one we couldn’t quite hear, and then she cast the bundle out the broken window.
It fell. The Lady began to count.
Marlo frowned. “What have you done?”
Mama came stomping up, scowling and clutching at her dried owl. “Darla wants you downstairs. Who’s been castin’ hexes?”
Shouts rose up outside. Shouts and thuds and rasping noises. I looked to the catapults, and could see men rushing around them in alarm, but at first I couldn’t see why.
Then I saw a catapult rope simply unravel and part. The tension mechanism sagged, clearly undone.
The Lady sank against Marlo, her eyes fluttering and showing only the whites.
Mama grabbed her, and together with Marlo eased her into a chair.
“It worked,” she gasped. “Bought us time.”
And then her eyes closed, and she went limp.
Marlo shook her. Mama shoved him back and cussed.
“Let her be!”
“She’s sleepin’, you daft old fool. Wore herself out on that hex. Needs to rest. Gonna rest, whether you likes it or not.”
Marlo stroked the Lady’s cheek. “You sure?”
Mama shook her bat authoritatively in Marlo’s face. “I damn well reckon I knows sleep when I sees it. Get her to somewheres safe. If she asks for water get her some. Can you do that, you reckon?”
Marlo picked up the Lady and hurried away. Mama chuckled.
“That there man needs to quit pretending he’s just a hired hand.”
I nodded, still watching the catapult crews gather around their stricken machines. “She bought us some time.”
“How much, you reckon?”
“Depends. They’ve either got more rope or they don’t. If they do, another five or six hours. If they don’t, another day, maybe two.”
Mama put her face to the window and snuffed.
“I bets they do, boy. But that ain’t gonna matter neither. Guess where your vampire friends is, right now?”
“Playing pinochle in the basement?”
Mama laughed. “I reckon they’s on the roof. Watch this, boy. You’re gonna like it.”
I watched. Nothing happened for a moment, until a black-clad wand-waver rode up next to a catapult and started yelling at the crew.
Something arced down from above and struck the siege engine right on the throwing arm and burst with a tinkling of glass. Flames splashed, spreading over the timbers and scattering the crew.
Men shouted. Archers whirled and let loose on the House. I pulled Mama away from the window and dodged away myself as the sounds of bolts and arrows splintering on the walls outside the room.
More shouts from below. I dared not look, but I hoped the other two catapults were in flames as well.
“That boy can throw as good as he said.”
“That something you and Evis cooked up?”
“Like I said, the boy has his talents.” Mama waggled her owl at the window. “All they’ll do when they start dowsing it with water is make it spread.”
I dared a quick glance. The catapult frame was engulfed in oily black flames. But the timbers were massive, and the iron bolts huge. I knew in my heart we’d inconvenienced the crews, but we’d hardly damaged the actual machines.
“Don’t look so glum, boy. Bet they wasn’t expectin’ wand-wavers and halfdead. At least we’re makin’ ’em work for it. Now are you going to see Darla or not?”
“I’m going. Keep your head out of the window. Lots of archers down there. A few of them might be that good.”
Mama cackled. “I didn’t get this old by acting the fool, boy. And today ain’t the day I die, neither, so don’t you be worried about me.”
I made for the door. When I left, Mama was shaking her owl at the yard and muttering hexes under her breath.
I was halfway down the last flight of stairs when Evis caught up with me. He was wrapped in black, against the sun, and he smelled of lamp oil and soot.
“Just getting a bit of exercise,” he replied. “They won’t be using their siege engines for a while.”
I grunted, not quite ready to start sounding any victory trumpeting just yet.
“Saw something strange in the woods. Not sure what it was. Come nightfall, Victor is going to slip out and see.”
I slowed a bit. “Strange how?”
Evis glanced around. “Not the time or the place. But if I’m right, the catapults are the least of our problems.”
I stopped and turned to face him and kept my voice at a whisper. “Worse than catapults? What the Hell is worse than catapults from forty feet?”
Evis put his finger to his lips. “You don’t want to know, and you’ll just have to trust me on that. I will say this much-if I’m right, and if I give the word, you’ll want to grab Darla and Mama and Gertriss and get to the tunnels. There won’t be time to haul every soul down there, and you won’t be able to stop this and you won’t be able to save them.”
Hell. Evis was scared.
“I’m serious, Markhat.”
“Remember the worst thing you saw used during the War. This makes that look like a snowball fight.” Footsteps and voices sounded, coming up the stairs toward us.
Evis put his hand on my shoulder. “Trust me. If I give the word, you grab your women and you run for the tunnels. Got it?”
Evis removed his hand. There’d be a bruise on my shoulder that would linger for weeks. I doubt he ever realized how hard he’d gripped me.
A bevy of grim-faced carpenters came stomping up toward us. The carpenters put their backs to the wall as they sidled around Evis. One made some sort of holy sign with his hands as he passed.
“I’m having them make a couple of new openings in the attic,” said Evis. We started back downstairs. “Our friends on the ground know about the existing bolt hole, and are watching it now. But with any luck, we can open a new one in secret. Victor and Sara have expressed a desire to take a stroll around the property in the moonlight.”
I grinned, sure they’d find numerous ways to amuse themselves, each at our attackers’ expense.
I found Darla and Gertriss in the hall, right beyond the gallery doors. Buttercup was between them, prancing around in a pair of slippers twice the size of her feet.
“Mama said you were looking for me.”
“I was. Gertriss? A moment?”
Gertriss nodded and caught Buttercup up by her waist and spun her around. The banshee clapped and squealed. Gertriss dropped to one knee a few paces away and began a game of hidey-face with the giggling banshee.
Darla took my elbow.
“Someone around here listens at doors,” she whispered. “Gertriss and I both heard some of the staff talking about daggers and how no one here need die just to protect some half-Elf wild thing you dragged in from the woods.”
I cussed. Darla pretended she didn’t hear.
“It’s just talk right now, my intended. But let things go a little longer, or get a little worse, and it might turn out to be more than idle conversation.”
I made sure no one was idling nearby, and then I bent, pulled the dagger from my boot, and handed it hilt-first to Darla.
“I can’t be forced to give it to anyone if I don’t have it. Get it to Evis if things get complicated. Like to see one of these bumpkins take on three halfdead.”
Darla frowned, but took the thing. She withdrew a prim but freshly sharpened dagger from her own right boot, slipped the Corpsemaster’s dagger in its place, and then gave hers to me.
“Give them this one, if they insist,” she said. “They might be inclined to be civil if they think they’re getting what they want.”
“Not a bad idea.” I put Darla’s dagger away. Gertriss danced with Buttercup, who was having trouble keeping her feet in her too-large shoes.
The House shook. Dust and bits of plaster fell from the walls and ceilings. Shouts rose all around.
Buttercup shrieked. Gertriss wrapped her arms around Buttercup and put her back to the wall.
“Markhat. Come quick.”
“Stay with Gertriss.” I gave Darla a quick kiss on the cheek. “Keep the tip of your blade level with your waist. They’ll likely come in overhand. Sidestep and stab. Works every time.”
I ran. The shouting continued. I burst into the front room and was met by a mob of panicked household staff, with Marlo at the fore.
“They’ve done something to the sky.”
I frowned. But the room was dark, and getting darker by the second.
Evis darted down the stairs, pausing halfway to the landing to motion me up.
“He’s right,” he said. “The wand-wavers are busy.”
“Busy doing what?”
“Come and see.”
“Keep this lot right where they are,” I snapped, when feet began to shuffle my way. “Wash some dishes. Mop some floors. Just keep your fool heads away from the windows, got it?”
I dashed up after Evis.
I was panting by the time we reached the attic. Victor and Sara were already there, as were the carpenters, who had dropped their tools in favor of huddling in a corner and engaging in silent prayers.
I put myself by the opening Serris had nearly leaped from, opened it quickly and glanced up.
Then I slammed the makeshift door shut and held it closed as a trio of arrows broke against it.
The sky above was gone. Just gone. Instead, and impossibly, it appeared as though a vast flat mirror hung just above Werewilk’s peaks. I’d even seen my own frightened face reflected back at me, seen the upraised faces of the men on the ground, the tops of the roofs, the ravaged, burned yard.
The carpenters paused and looked my way. “Pray harder,” I said.
Evis snorted. “Ever seen anything like that?”
“I’ve never had that much to drink. You?”
“Never saw it. May have heard of it, used at a place called String during the War. If that’s what it is, it’ll drop slowly lower and lower. Anybody it touches gets pulled into it. They still move, still try to talk-but they never come out. When it hits the ground, it breaks up and melts like ice.”
“Marvelous. Wonderful. Any defense against it?”
Evis shook his head no. “The wand-waver that cast it was called Three Eyes. Heard of him?”
“Maybe. Didn’t hear much if I did. Died during the war.”
“Didn’t die. Just didn’t resettle in Rannit. Went into hiding in what was left of Prince. Fits with what else I saw out there.”
“This day gets better and better, doesn’t it?”
“Seems that way. Look. If you have any more chats with a certain mutual acquaintance of ours, she needs to know all this. Make sure you tell them, or that I’m there to tell it myself.”
“I’ll have the invitations printed right away. What about this lot? Any point in keeping them working?”
Evis sighed. “No. We’re going to lose the attic soon to that.” He hooked a thumb up toward the missing sky.
“You lot. Beat it. Change of plans.”
They scurried off, leaving their tools behind.
Evis lit a candle and handed it to me. “We’d better get downstairs. The Lady. She out of the picture, as far as wand-waving goes?”
“Looks like. That one trick with the ropes laid her out.”
Evis’ face didn’t change.
“Hisvin is still in the mix. If I know what’s up there, there’s a good chance she does too. Maybe she knows a way to turn it all into a flock of geese or something.”
“You trying to make me feel better?”
We headed down. Evis grinned.
“You’re on your own, pal. I’m trying to talk myself into feeling lucky right now.”
A flood of shouted questions met us on the stairs. I lifted my hands and yelled for silence and made reassuring noises that sounded pretty strained even to me.
The House was engulfed in darkness now. People were carrying candles or lighting lamps. A clock didn’t help morale by striking out noon in a lull amid the grumbling.
I was glad Darla and Gertriss were keeping Buttercup out of sight. I was also acutely aware of how few places they’d have to hide her, should the mood in the House turn ugly.
I looked at the faces glaring up at me and amended that. The mood was already ugly. The sudden descent into midnight dark at noon had just completed the transformation.
Evis moved first, simply marching down into the mob. I’m not sure they’d have parted for me, but Evis sent them tripping in their haste to give him room.
I followed in his wake. Marlo came thundering down the stairs and fell in behind me with a curse and a piercing glare. The crowd broke up. This time.
“What have they done to the sky?” Marlo had the good sense to whisper.
“No idea. But it isn’t an immediate danger.” I explained that it would lower itself very slowly. Marlo took little comfort from that.
“Looks like they’re planning on just squeezing us out.”
“They don’t want to hurt the banshee. They can’t bring down the House without risking that.”
Marlo snorted, obviously unconvinced. I changed the subject.
“How’s the Lady?”
“Resting. Took a lot out of her. And no, she ain’t up to another hex, and ain’t gonna be for a while.”
“I wasn’t asking.”
“Right. But that’s your answer anyway. Reckon that man in the cornfield is brewin’ up something for us about now?”
“Bet on that.”
“Reckon he’d better be quick about it.”
“Can’t argue with that.”
Darla and Gertriss came darting out of the gallery hall, Buttercup dangling between them. The banshee was giggling and swinging, one hand clutched on Darla’s shoulder, the other on Gertriss.
“You two. Upstairs. Find Mama. Stay with her.”
Gertriss nodded, all business. Darla gave me a weak smile and hurried off up the stairs.
Marlo glanced around before he spoke. “Just so you know, Finder. There’s been talk about that there banshee of yours, and how it ought to be gutted and thrown out the door.”
“Thanks for the warning, Mr. Marlo. And just so you know, the first one to try it will likely experience some gutting themselves.”
“Just watch your self, that’s all I’m saying. People are scared. You know what happens when people get scared.” He looked suddenly thoughtful. “Maybe I ought to show them a room with a good strong door. Might be best to get them out of sight.”
I just nodded, and was suddenly glad that Mama and her cleaver were handy.
The catapults didn’t burn.
I hadn’t really thought they would. The timbers were too green, and the crews managed to get the fires out far quicker than we’d hoped. Worse, the ropes Lady Werewilk had ruined with her sorcery were being replaced on two of the engines as we watched, which meant they’d be ready to start tearing down our walls by sunset. Two catapults would wreck the House just as effectively as three.
All our efforts might have bought us another few hours of safety. No more.
I hoped Hisvin’s bag of tricks was deep and potent.
Evis dared the top floors long enough to measure the reflective spell’s descent, and placed it at about a foot an hour. That gave us maybe forty hours before we’d be forced into the tunnels. It also meant the army outside would need to pull back. We couldn’t see the edges of the spell, so we had no idea how far it extended, or if even the deep woods tunnel would carry us beyond it.
We could hear the soldiers outside, winding the catapults again, using a team of Lady Werewilk’s plowing oxen to speed the process. The soldiers in the yard ambled freely about now, sometimes shouting at us, or hurling debris at the door amid hoots of laughter. All the outbuildings were burned or aflame, and I could hear half a dozen women sobbing as they realized the smoke they smelled was the smoke from their burning homes.
Aside from Marlo and Evis, no one spoke to me. Oh, they glared and they whispered, doubtlessly laying the blame for their current ills at my feet, but they dared not call me out directly. I kept Toadsticker in plain view just in case someone got brave.
An hour passed. Outside, ropes were wound, wagons were parked, men idled or ate or sharpened their blades.
Somewhere a clock was striking off the third hour when they finally approached Lady Werewilk’s door and the moment I’d been dreading arrived.
“In the house,” called a man. He had a faint accent I couldn’t place. “You’ve got something we want.”
The Lady was nowhere to be seen. Neither was Marlo. I ignored the glares of the household staff and shoved my way close to the heap of furniture stacked in front of the door.
“We’re all out of turnips,” I shouted. “But if it’s onions you want, you can have all you can carry.”
“I’m not going to ask more than once.”
“Ask for what? You haven’t been very clear about what it is you’re after. We simple country folk simply don’t understand your subtle big-city ways.”
Something struck the door. I guessed it was an axe. Behind me, the gardeners and cooks and carpenters were beginning to hiss and mutter.
I turned to face them, whipped Toadsticker out of my belt, and grinned.
“Anybody else wants to take over, step right up. Otherwise shut it. What’ll it be?”
They inched back. I heard feet on the stairs, heading for the Lady’s room, but that was just fine by me.
“Give us the banshee.”
“The banshee. Give it to us, and you live. Make us come and get it, and everybody dies.”
“So you have no interest at all in onions?”
“You’re dead,” said the man outside. “How long do you think those walls will stand? My engineers tell me three throws from each ought to open you right up.” He raised his voice, making sure everyone around could hear. “Why die for the banshee? It’s not even human. Give it to us. Or die. Your choice.”
The muttering behind me got suddenly louder. Words emerged.
“Why not?” said someone.
“Ain’t ready to die,” said another.
“We can take him,” said a third.
I put my back to the nearest clear patch of wall.
They rushed me. Two carpenters. Two gardeners. A stable boy. A woodsman. Two had swords, the rest held makeshift clubs.
Had they been soldiers, I’d have died there, right by the Lady’s big red doors. But they came in a bunch, elbows touching, feet nearly tangled, eyes mad with more fear than fury.
I sidestepped, brought Toadsticker up horizontally, deflected a pair of clumsy overhand blows, landed a solid kick on one knee and a nice hard punch in a beer-reddened face. Bodies collided, one fell, another went down with him in a sudden tangle of limbs. I thumped the woodsman on his cheek with the flat of Toadsticker’s blade and gave a carpenter a long shallow cut across his forehead and the stable boy dropped his club and ran and it was over as suddenly as it had begun.
They scrambled away. The man outside shouted again.
“Give us the banshee.” He struck the door again. “Last chance.”
“Tell him to go to Hell.”
The Lady’s hirelings whirled to find her leaning wearily on the stair. Marlo was at her side, holding her upright.
“This House has stood for three hundred and seventy years,” she said. “Stood through Elves and Trolls and fires and storms. How dare any of you decide this is the day we turn into a House of cowards.”
The Lady’s eyes flashed. “Tell him,” she said, to me.
“Nothing doing,” I shouted, at the door. “No banshees for you today. I’m also told you can go to Hell. Furthermore, a suggestion was made that your mother was a donkey. I myself dispute that last part, because-”
Something struck the door. The timbers buckled visibly inward. The makeshift barricade shifted and groaned.
The Lady stiffened. Marlo opened his mouth to issue a protest, but too late. She raised her hands, made a gesture that blurred the air, and spoke a harsh strange word.
Outside, men screamed.
The Lady sagged. Marlo caught her. She smiled weakly back at him.
“Another of Grandmother’s old spells,” she said. “Not mine. I’m fine.”
There was a thud outside, as something large and heavy was dropped. The screaming continued, growing weaker. Men shouted.
I smelled burning flesh.
Evis came gliding down the stairs, halting a respectful distance from Marlo and the Lady.
“Finder,” he said. “Accompany me.”
I put Toadsticker back in my belt and shouldered my way through the mob. They didn’t like it, but no one got in my way.
The Lady pulled herself together and started exhorting her troops. I sidled past her and accompanied Evis upward.
“Developments?” I whispered. The Lady was talking about courage and honor. I remember the same pep talks from my Army days, and after reflecting on the contempt we’d harbored toward those same speeches I knew she was wasting her breath.
“I think so,” he said. “Good news for us, for a change. Looks like the Corpsemaster has decided to start his show.”
I let out a sigh of relief. Part of me had been wondering if Hisvin had just gotten bored with the whole affair and had simply gone home to have a drink and curl up with a good book.
“You sure it’s Hisvin?”
“It killed a couple of soldiers while you were engaged in diplomacy. It’s Hisvin, all right.”
We reached the third floor and left the stairs. Evis darted down a hall, took a right, stopped at the third door, knocked softly in a one-two one-two pattern.
Locks clicked. I could hear furniture scrape the floor as it was pulled away from the door.
Finally, Gertriss peeped out. “Boss,” she said. More scrapings, and then she opened the door wide enough for us to squeeze through.
Mama and Darla were on the floor, playing dolls with Buttercup. At sight of me the banshee leaped to her feet and sprang across the room to hug my knees.
The door shut behind us, and Gertriss threw the lock and then put a hastily improvised bar across the middle of the door.
“This the room Marlo gave you?”
“No, it isn’t. But everyone knew about that room. This is one smaller, but the walls are thicker and that door is a solid piece of blood oak. I thought we’d be safer here.”
I gave Gertriss a smile and disentangled Buttercup.
“Good thinking. You’re getting a promotion, first thing tomorrow.” I tousled the banshee’s hair and turned her around. “Go play, honey. The grownups need to talk.”
Darla held out a doll with corn-silk hair, and Buttercup squealed and leaped for it.
“Over here,” said Evis. He was standing by a window. The window itself was covered over with a burlap sack. Marlo lifted the corner of the sack and motioned me forward.
Someone had pulled away the window frame on the right side, and had managed to go through the inner wall and pull away a chunk of limestone the size of my fist, leaving a hole we could see through.
Mama cackled, suddenly beside me. “Have a look, boy. We ain’t the only ones with sorcery troubles now.”
I put an eye to the hole and prayed it hadn’t been noticed from the ground.
It hadn’t, mainly because the people on the ground had more pressing matters to attend to.
Something had broken through the scorched turf about twenty feet from the wall. From my vantage point, I could discern that it was a smooth, glassy cylinder of some dark material. The top was flat. Earth and burnt grass still rested on it.
It was maybe five feet in diameter. And it was still rising, albeit slowly.
About it were shouts and one long, agonized scream. I couldn’t see the source of the screams, but I could see soldiers keeping well beyond it shouting and loosing arrows and yelling for wand-wavers.
The arrows they loosed simply vanished. I never heard them strike the cylinder, never saw then ricochet off it. They just ceased to be.
As did the screaming, suddenly, and with a certain air of mortal finality.
Two wand-wavers on black mounts came galloping up. They consulted with the soldiers, who still loosed volley after volley of useless arrows at the thing.
After a few moments, one of the wand-wavers dismounted, produced one of the blue-headed staves they favored, and cautiously approached the cylinder.
He made a few waves with his staff. The head of it began to glow and trail mist. He called for the arrows to cease, and they did, and the blue radiance from his staff engulfed him, and he kept walking.
I didn’t see what happened next. The top of the rising cylinder blocked my view of the black-robed figure, and then there was a flash, and shouts from the soldiers beyond.
Another flash. Another scream. The other wand-waver leaped from his horse and set his staff alight and hurled a bolt of blue at the cylinder, but the screaming didn’t cease and the light joined the arrows in silent oblivion.
The second wand waver hurled another pair of useless bolts at the cylinder, but he kept his distance.
The screaming of his comrade reached an agonizing peak, and then it too was snuffed out, and there was a moment of stunned silence from the soldiers in the yard.
Inside the cylinder, something moved, thrashing about as though trapped in dark fluid.
More movement, slowing, and a man’s bare hand pressed itself to the inside of the cylinder, struck it once in a useless attempt to break free, and then slid slowly out of sight.
I let the burlap sack fall back down over the hole.
“It’s not Hisvin’s usual style, but it’s certainly effective.”
I nodded. The screams echoed in my mind. Despite their murderous intentions concerning us, I felt a moment of pity for the fallen wand-wavers. They hadn’t died well.
“I imagine he’s trying to keep them from putting a name to the enemy.” I turned from the wall. “Using magics he isn’t known for, to keep them from deciding it’s him.”
“Probably,” replied Evis. “Of course, that means we’ll be the only ones who do know. Lucky us.”
I shrugged. Being privy to another of Hisvin’s secrets was a worry for tomorrow.
“Look on the bright side,” said Evis. “Maybe it’s not the Corpsemaster at all. Maybe the ruckus has made Old Bones begin to stir.”
“That’s the bright side?”
Evis laughed and grinned. “At least we’re not the only ones with worries. Any enemy of my enemy, you know the rest.”
Footfalls sounded in the hall outside. Lots of them. Someone tried the door, found it locked, gruffed something about a key.
Even Buttercup had the sense to be quiet. She looked up at me, her doll in her hand, her expression touched with an oddly adult worry.
Boots stomped away. All of us, banshee included, let out a collective sigh of relief.
“This isn’t going to end well.”
“Hush,” snapped Mama, at Evis. “Where’s them other halfdead? I reckon we all ought to be in the same place, come the time.”
“They’re nearby. Believe me, they’ll make their presence known, should anyone try to breach this door by force.”
Mama chuckled, sat, and laid a whetstone against the blade of her meat cleaver. “I’m thinkin’ they’ll do just that, first time that there cat-a-pult throws and cracks a wall. When that happens, it ain’t gonna be them soldiers we got to worry about. No sir. It’s gonna be every man jack under this here roof, aside from the Lady and that fool man of hers.”
“I know it.”
Mama didn’t look up. Her whetstone scraped hard against the bright steel.
“You ready to spill blood to keep that there banshee alive?”
Darla hugged Buttercup close to her. “Mama!”
“It’s got to be said, young ’un. Are you?”
“Nobody takes the banshee. Nobody kills the banshee. I’ve got reasons. It’s better if they aren’t discussed.”
Mama nodded. “So be it.” She held her cleaver up to the dim candlelight, squinted along its edge. “I’m ready, then.”
Gertriss put her ear to the door. “They’re gone,” she announced. “Down the stairs. Boss, what about making a run for the tunnels?”
“It may come to that. But not yet.” I never liked being herded. One thing I’d learned from being chased by Trolls across hill and dale, during the War. Never take the obvious route, when another presents itself. The moment you let your enemy dictate your next move, you’re on the road to an early grave.
Or, in this case, a very old tomb.
“Nope. Evis. You say Victor and Sara are watching this door?”
“They’re watching me, actually, but I can arrange for a change in assignment. Should I?”
“You should. You and I have business downstairs.” Both Darla and Gertriss turned to protest. “Absolutely not,” I said, keeping my voice low. “Evis will be with me. I’ll be fine. There’s still one avenue we need to explore, and I can’t guard a whole parade now that the household is up in arms.”
“He’s right,” said Mama. “But, boy. When them soldiers start taking down the walls. We head for the tunnels, fight our way down, if’n we have too. Meet you down there if you ain’t with us. That sound about right?”
“I hope you know what you’re doin’, boy.”