Part One: A Snowflake
Afterwards, when telling the story to anyone except Marianne, Cat said it started with the snowflake. This wasn’t quite true. It actually began with his signature.
Someone had decided, in the middle of some rush of conversation, that he was old enough to be taking an active role in the bofficial side of things now. Some of it he enjoyed, the parts that were an extension of what he had been doing already: the trips offworld and the following of leads to track down magic that somebody had twisted or mangled out of shape. He liked solving mysteries, he had discovered, and had a knack for untangling things without quite knowing how. What he didn’t like, he had discovered more recently, was the resulting paperwork.
He had a particular problem with official signatures, he soon discovered. He could put a seal on his own name, and had been doing so for years. Cat Chant was easy, all curves and squiggles, and he could knot his seal into it like tangled vines. Chrestomanci-in-waiting, however, felt like barbed wire, and needed to be sealed with lightning and panache. Cat’s seal kept faltering out in a rather limp and polite way that wouldn’t hold off a minor ill-wishing. Sealing a signature wasn’t even hard magic. It was supposed to be something he could do like snapping his fingers.
“You know,” Chrestomanci remarked at last, “I have no intention of retiring anytime soon. If you really don’t want to—”
“It’s not that,” Cat said hurriedly, and put enough force in the next one that it burnt a hole in the bottom of the letter.
“Clearly not,” Chrestomanci remarked, dispelling the smoke with a raised eyebrow. “Perhaps a break over Christmas?”
Cat sighed. It wasn’t that he wasn’t looking forward to Christmas, of course. Janet and Julia would be back from Oxford, which meant he would have to pretend to be interested in rowing and suffragettes. Roger and Joe had been locked in their laboratory for weeks, promising something revolutionary in the way of Christmas decorations. Tonino and Angelica were in London to introduce her to his English relatives before their wedding in the spring and would be arriving on Christmas Eve. Marianne, who had traveled back from Italy with them, was already back in Ulverscote. The only one who wouldn’t be there was Klartch, who had flown off with his mother to spend the solstice in Persepolis.
It would all be very jolly, as castle Christmasses always were, with holly over every window and the smell of mince pies and mulled wine drifting through the halls. There would be carol singing, and the Yule log to bring in, and a tree to decorate, and someone would inevitably start talking about pagan traditions or Renaissance nativities, and something would probably blow up at some point in the festivities. It was just that it would be happening around him, somehow, rather than happening to him, and he couldn’t quite make himself feel excited.
“Yes,” he said belatedly. “I suppose.”
When they stepped out into Whitehall, it was snowing, the air full of whirling flakes and the rooftops were already covered. The statues all wore white caps, and the few civil servants making their way along the street had their heads bowed into the wind and were grasping their hats firmly. A few hansom cabs were making their slow way along the road, but the horses’ hooves were muffled.
They had come to London for one of the type of meetings Cat disliked the most, the ones full of murmuring men in expensive suits, who rustled important documents back and forth across the table, and made Cat feel very small and grubby and unimportant.
“Almost makes London look pretty,” remarked Tom, Chrestomanci’s secretary, as he waved down a cab. “Let’s hope it hasn’t stopped the trains, though.”
“Given what the railway companies pay their wizards,” Chrestomanci remarked, “one would hope not.”
Cat reached up to wipe the snow off his face and something stung his hand, as hard and sharp as a thorn. Glancing down, he saw a snowflake had caught on his palm. It was bigger than a normal snowflake, almost the size of his hand, its edges all sharp glittering ice, like shards of glass. As he stared, it melted, leaving nothing but a faint blue mark on his skin to show where it had been.
“Er,” he said, because he had learned over the years that some things needed mentioning, even if it pained him to have to put them in words.
“Hurry up, Eric,” Tom said cheerfully. “It’s too cold to be lingering.”
By the time the cab was moving, Cat had decided to wait and mention it on the train. The creak and rattle of the cab made conversation hard, and as they made their way along Oxford Street his teeth began to chatter. By the time they got to Paddington, he was more interested in getting onto a nice warm train than anything else, and he sank into his corner seat with a sigh of relief.
“You look like you’re about to turn blue, Eric,” Tom said, sounding concerned.
Chrestomanci looked up from the papers he was already perusing and said, “Oh, really, Cat.”
Immediately, Cat began to warm up, from the the toes and fingers. It helped, though he was abashed not to have thought of it himself, but it didn’t do anything for the cold shivers which seemed to have lodged in his gut and lungs. Just before Reading, Tom hurried off down the train and came back with a tray full of hot, milky tea. He topped one up with a tot from his hip flask and passed it over to Cat with a wink. “That should warm you up. Looks like you’re coming down with something.”
Cat smiled back and sipped the tea. It did help, though it didn’t chase the cold away completely. It was enough that he could relax enough to look out the windows though, and the scene outside fascinated him. It was Midwinter’s Eve, and the light was already beginning to fade. Outside, the snow was falling steadily, covering the fields. A lines of trees stood out, and the odd dark-walled house, but the snow was gradually taking all the local character out of the countryside, turning it all blank. Only the station names as the train stopped gave him any clue where he was, and as the dusk fell it became harder to read those.
The train groaned around every bend, and shuddered on the uphill stretches. The lights flickered, and cold draughts licked under the seats. At Didcot, the train stopped, long enough that Tom went to find the guard and ask if they were stranded. He came back not quite managing to hide his excitement. “They’re getting the snow ploughs out of the engine shed to fix on the trains,” he announced. “First time in thirty years, the guard says. Marvelous great things.”
Chrestomanci shuddered faintly, but Cat managed to dredge up a smile. “Shame Roger’s missing it.”
It was very late by the time the train stopped at Bowbridge, and Cat was shivering again. For once, he was actually keen to get into the car. Better queasy than cold, and at least it was fast. Instead, they were met by Joss Callow and the old pony trap.
“The car wouldn’t start, sir,” he said by way of apology. “We’re near snowed in.”
Cat, relieved to be close to home, went to greet the horses, big Castor and Pollux. He could feel their dim dislike of the cold and eagerness to get home. He fished in his pocket for peppermints, but both turned their heads away, shying a little. Disheartened, Cat went to help Joss pull a tarpaulin over the parcels they had brought with them, and said to Chrestomanci, who was looking stoic under a light covering of snow, “You could always teleport from here. I don’t mind. I’d rather ride, though.”
“Well, if there’s teleporting happening, I’m all for it,” Tom said.
Chrestomanci gave Cat a thoughtful look. “You are not permitted to be ill over Christmas.”
“I feel better already, for being out of London.” It was no lie. The air tasted better here, cold but so clean. The night felt deep, rather than filled with the muck and clutter of London, and the steam of the horses’ breath shone in gold clouds under the lamplight. The snow was slowing now, and a deep frost beginning to settle.
Chrestomanci and Tom vanished with a faint pop, and Joss shook his head. “Now, why not do that all the way from London?”
“Christmas shopping,” Cat said. “Teleporting puts bubbles in the port.”
“Can’t have that, can we?” Joss muttered. “Away now, boys.”
“I’m sorry we brought you out in this weather,” Cat said, and wrapped a warming spell around Joss’s feet. “It wasn’t this bad in town.”
“Ah, well,” Joss said. “It’s a night to remember, at least. Never seen snow like it.”
“Thirty years, the guard said.”
Joss shook his head. “I remember that winter, just about. This is worse.”
By the time they were halfway back, the snow had stopped falling and the clouds had parted to reveal the moon, which was full and bright. A flight of geese went whirring overhead, their calls echoing across the quiet night. Joss muttered, “Yellhounds.”
“What’s that?” Cat asked, startled. He had been lost in the night, the cold of it sinking through him slowly, bleaching all his thoughts and worries into clean nothingness.
“Just geese, here’s hoping,” Joss said. “It’s the longest night, though. All sorts of hidden things go riding.”
It was then that Cat heard the bells. They were quiet but clear, ringing softly on the road behind them. Cat twisted round to look.
The road was empty, gleaming under the moon.
The sound of bells had faded again. Cat shook himself and said, “Nothing.”
A few minutes later, he heard it again, and a softer sound with it, the hiss of a sleigh running over the snow. There was still nothing there, though. Still not quite sure if it was real, he asked, “Can you hear anything?”
“No,” Joss said and gave him a funny look. “Mind you, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. You want to be careful of the hidden folk playing tricks.”
The sound of bells followed them all the way to the castle gates, but stopped once they were through. Cat sighed with relief and Joss nodded. “Must say I’m glad to be back too.”
Inside, it was warmer, and Cat found himself whirled upstairs to be plied with tea and a late supper. He still felt frozen, even though his hands were pink again and he had stopped shivering. He did try to tell everyone, but all that came out was, “I’m cold.”
“I’m not surprised,” Janet said. “Sitting on the trap like that.” Then Roger was talking about self-heating railway tracks, and Julia was wondering what they’d done with the sledges, and nobody thought to ask him why he was still cold. He missed Klartch, who would have noticed without being told, and he missed Marianne, who could think about things like snow in the right way and knew the difference between being quiet because you had nothing to say and being quiet because you had too much in your head to put into words.
It wasn’t their fault. They would help if he could find a way to ask. It was just that the longer he sat there, the colder and lonelier and more faraway he felt. In the end, he made some vague excuse and left them there to wander through the castle. He could feel it pressing down on him again, as it hadn’t for years, warm and stuffy and oppressive, and he found himself longing for the clean snowy fields again, with a sharp pang that lodged in his heart like a splinter of ice.
He had made it almost back to the parlour where the others were when the side door from the gardens opened and Marianne came in, shaking snow out of her hair. She smiled when she saw him and said, “I had to borrow Mum’s broomstick again. The snow’s up to the windows in Ulverscote.”
Cat breathed in a great sigh of relief at the sight of her, warm and round and sensible. He hadn’t realized until that moment how much he’d missed her while she’d been away.
“I’m cold,” he said urgently and held out his hand. The little blue mark had blossomed into jagged lines, a snowflake painted on his palm. He didn’t know if she could see from there, but he had to try.
Then the door to the parlour creaked open and someone exclaimed, “Marianne!”
Cat hesitated a moment too long, and then everyone was rushing past him.
“You’re so brown!” Janet cried enviously. “Was Italy amazing?”
“Did you get out of Caprona at all?” Julia demanded. “Tell me you saw Venice! Is Paolo still gorgeous? When did you get back?”
In all the tumult, Cat backed away quietly, unable to stop his feet from carrying him further and further away from the warm racket. He climbed up now, higher and higher through the castle, until he found his way to one of the smaller turrets, where the castle spells were thin and brittle. They snapped like ice when he pushed through them, and he instinctively dampened the alarms that should have set off and stepped out onto the snow-shrouded roof.
As soon as he stepped through the spells, the snow rose on a sudden gust of wind, the flakes whirling together closer and closer and closer until they took form. His dwimmer-sense told him she was nowhere near being human, but she was beautiful, pale and slender. Her hair was as pale as snow and her eyes as blue as ice, and she wore white, a dress that looked like lace where it skimmed over her breasts and fell in folds from her narrow waist, but glittered like ice. She wore a crown of icicles, gleaming like diamond under the moonlight, and she held out her arms to him.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, her voice as clear and bright as the winter moon. “Just for you.”
“What are you?” Cat breathed, fascinated. Was she the one who had followed them down the road?
She reached out and took his hand, the one marked by the snowflake, and smiled at him slowly. Her touch sent shivers up his arm, but he didn’t resist as she drew him near, too fascinated by the gleaming, shivery magic that gathered around her like mist.
“I’m the Snow Queen,” she said, “and you’re mine now.”
And she kissed him, once, twice, again, and with each kiss the ice crept a little further into his heart until it was frozen solid. Then, with a sigh of sleigh bells, the Snow Queen took Cat away.
Part Two: A Witch
Marianne was the first to realize Cat was missing. He hadn’t looked right, and now he had slipped away. It took her a while to convince the others to look for him, and she suspected they were humouring her at first. As they searched the castle, though, it became apparent that he wasn’t in any of his usual haunts.
“We could search all day,” Julia said, sounding worried. “Even I don’t know how many rooms there are.”
“Really?” Marianne demanded, faintly horrified. Every time she thought she knew how different they were, she got another shock like that.
“I found a whole new corridor last year,” Roger confirmed gloomily. “Has anyone tried a finding spell yet?”
“They bounce off him,” Marianne said absently, trying to remember what it was that had worried her so much. Cat had just looked like Cat, tall and fair and quiet. He hadn’t been fading into the wallpaper in the way he sometimes did, but that was more likely because it was her. Cat didn’t seem to feel the need to conveniently disappear with her quite as often as with others. “He was cold.”
“He came from the station on the pony trap,” Janet started.
Marianne, rather to her surprise, teleported to the stableyard. After checking she still had the right number of arms and legs, she hurried inside in search of Joss. Outside, the wind was starting to rise again, wailing around the castle. A few minutes later she dashed back inside to find the others. To her immense relief, Michael Saunders had joined them and was asking, “Has anyone been onto the roof? A tear in the spells has just registered, but no alarms went off.”
“No, but we can’t find Cat,” Janet said, looking increasingly worried.
“Joss says something unseen followed them up the road from the station,” Marianne shared.
Michael’s eyes narrowed and a moment later he and Marianne were on the roof.
There was a faint pop as Chrestomanci joined them. “You called?” he inquired. Then he paused and looked around, “Oh, something wicked this way comes.”
“Came,” Michael corrected, “and no one can find Cat.”
“No, he’s not in the castle,” Chrestomanci said after a moment. “What mischief have we here, then?”
The clouds were closing over the moon again, making it hard to see, but the air tasted bitter, as sharp as frost. Looking about worriedly, Marianne saw a little quivering shape tucked into the corner of the wall. It was too big-eyed for a bird, so she knelt down and said, “You don’t need to be scared.”
It was a little scrap of broken slates and moss, and it flitted into the curve of her hand so fast she barely saw it move. Clutching its spiny arms around her fingers, it stared up at her, shivering hard. She cupped her other hand over its back to warm it and asked, “Did you see what happened to my friend?”
She got a tumbled rush of images, cold and fear and a spiked crown of ice, before it leapt off her hand and went scuttling away along the gutters. Marianne blinked after it, not sure if she’d understood the meaning of its thoughts right. “It says the Snow Queen took him.”
“The snow queen?” Michael repeated incredulously. “That’s a children’s story.”
A flake of snow landed on Marianne’s sleeve and she shivered. “My gaffer used to say that they were the strongest ones.”
“Can you reach him?” Chrestomanci asked, his face vague. Marianne wondered if Cat knew that he did exactly the same thing when he was solving a problem. Biting back a smile, she reached out, trying to find Gaffer in the woods.
All she found was snow, whirling down fast enough to make her feel dizzy. She shook her head and looked at Chrestomanci, who was looking vaguer and vaguer by the second. “I can’t get out,” she said.
A moment later, they were standing in the castle foyer, with the rest of the Family hurrying towards them. As they stood there, the wind slammed against the door hard enough to make it groan, and all the lights went out.
“We appear to be trapped in the castle,” Chrestomanci said, which stopped all the questions. “See if you can find a way out. Marianne, with me, please.”
Before she could say anything, they were on the steps up to the walled garden. Marianne wished, rather fervently, that was the last bit of teleportation for the day. All this sweeping from place to place was beginning to make her dizzy, and she was already feeling queasy with worry.
Then the wind came spearing down at them, full of sharp ice and trying to drag them off the steps.
“Make your feet heavy,” Chrestomanci said. “Into the garden, quickly.”
Marianne dashed after him, holding her skirts down with one hand. She had only been in the walled garden once before, and it had made the hair on the back of her neck stand up, because the dwimmer had been so dense and ancient in there. Now she only thought of the shelter that thick walls would offer from the wind. Was Cat out in this somewhere?
Inside the garden the snow was falling more slowly, drifting down to coat the leafy tops of the trees and drift over the banks of crocuses. Leaning back against the wall, she asked, “Shouldn’t this bit be spring?”
“Yes,” Chrestomanci said, eyeing the snowdrifts with faint dislike. “I was afraid of this. Someone has turned the seasons themselves against us.”
“And winter has kidnapped Cat?” Marianne said, trying to think it through in a Gammerish way. “To use him for what?”
“To stop the solstice, by the feel of it,” Chrestomanci said. “To make sure the days never get longer and the snow never melts.”
“Is that possible?” Marianne asked, startled. Everything she knew about nature said not.
“For a few weeks, perhaps. It will inevitably break, but the amount of damage it will do to nature when it does grows by the hour.”
“Damage?” Marianne asked, imagining the seasons trying to catch up with themselves.
“The last people to try creating an eternal summer were the Atlanteans.”
“Oh,” said Marianne. “What do you need me to do?”
“The garden is my responsibility. Beyond that, I’m not much suited to dwimmer, so I need you to follow the trail. Find Cat. I’d start with the stream, if I were you, since it hasn’t frozen yet.”
Marianne made her way towards the stream, the snow creaking under her steps, and reached out to touch the water. It was cold, but not icy, so she pulled her shoes off and stepped into it, thinking hard. In a place like this, when the seasons were running amok, she needed to think back to the oldest, simplest things she knew. Running water undid misdirection spells, and could clear an illusion, if you dunked the victim. Glancing back, she saw Chrestomanci setting off between the trees, his steps slow, and followed in the same direction, collecting snow-damp leaves and frozen flowers from the banks as she went: snowdrops for hope, hyacinth petals for new life, bluebells for constancy, and then, as she moved into what should have been summer, rose petals and wild briony and willowherb. Soon she had to stop and use magic to slice off the hem of her skirt to make a pouch. She smoothed over the edges, and hoped it wouldn’t show.
By then she had lost sight of Chrestomanci between the trees, but she let the stream lead her on, ignoring the way the garden turned around her. It was such deep old dwimmer that it scared her, but the only way to work with such deep magics was to move with them. You could persuade them to flow along a slightly different path from time to time, but you couldn’t stand in their way.
When she reached the centre of the garden, the stream ran straight on through the broken archway. It hadn’t done that last time she was here, she was sure. There was no sign of Chrestomanci.
Standing still in the water, Marianne thought about Cat, as hard as she could. He had been asking for her help, in a quiet Cattish way, and she hadn’t reacted fast enough. Carefully, she tried to fix a picture of him in her head. He was tall now, and looked more like a blond version of Chrestomanci with every year that passed. Whereas Chrestomanci carried his looks and power with a sort of sleek panache that demanded attention, Cat however exuded mild inconsequence so fiercely that people sometimes tried to walk through him. Not many people could see past that, but Marianne was one of them, and she thought, not for the first time, that he was handsome, in a quietly polite way. He was also the one who had taught her that she was allowed to be brave and that she could speak up and demand to be heard. She knew, too, perhaps more than anyone else, that what Cat said mattered. He didn’t say much, but when he did, the world needed to listen. He was her dearest friend.
Taking a deep breath, she opened her eyes and reached into her flower pouch, pulling out a sycamore pod, for finding, and hawksbeard, for protection. After a moment’s hesitation, she forced herself to be honest, because anything else wouldn’t work now, and added a single rose petal, for love. Reaching out, she dropped them into the water, where the gate was reflected dully, and then, in one stride, stepped through.
On the other side, she was still ankle-deep in water, but she knew at once that this was a different river, slow and sleepy and sandy. It meandered across a low marshy meadow, and in the distance, she could see the lights of London, rising above the icy mist. Closer still, a cottage stood by the riverside, all its windows lit up. It had a thatched roof and a little squat chimney, and reeked of spells. It could only have been more obviously a witch’s cottage if it had been made of gingerbread. Warily, Marianne stepped out of the river and started down the front path.
The door creaked open as she approached, and a wavering voice called, “Are you lost, little girl? Do come in.”
Really? If there were any open ovens in there, she was going to do her utmost to avoid them. She had no desire to be baked, and wasn’t going to be doing the baking, either. Resolutely, she stepped inside, and forced herself to say, a little flatly, “I was lost in the snow, and thought I might perish. Oh my.”
The little old lady in the rocking chair by the fire looked very sweet and harmless, with her round pink cheeks and white curls sticking out from under her cap. Her cottage wasn’t quite cozy enough, though, with cobwebs hanging in the corners and across the ornaments on the mantelpiece, and dust everywhere. There was a black cat dozing on the hearth, but the canary in the cage in the corner was stuffed. The powerful Trust Me she hurled at Marianne was not particularly welcoming either.
It bounced off, of course, but the witch didn’t seem to notice. “Come and sit down, dear,” she said, waving at the stool by the fire.
Marianne decided to play along and see if she could find out why the spell had brought her here. Sinking down on the stool, she widened her eyes and said, “Oh, grandma, have you seen my friend? He’s a tall fair man, quiet-like, in a smart suit.”
The cat on the hearth stirred, looking up, and a crafty expression crossed the witch’s face. “Well, I might have done, my sweet. Do me a favour. My lazy servant ran away a week ago. She’ll be back before the spring, of course, but my house is dirty. Clean it, and I’ll tell you everything I know about your boy.”
Marianne bit back a sigh. There had been about a day, years ago, when she’d thought that being an enchanter might get her out of ever having to do cleaning again. Fat chance. She started on the cobwebs without demur, aware that the cat was watching her intently.
The forgetfulness spell hit her hard in the back of the head. It fell to the floor, and she hurriedly swept it into the fire with the next load of cobwebs, blinking a little. That had been strong enough that it would have worked on even the most powerful of witches. It wasn't much use against an enchanter, though, which made her wonder about the runaway servant. How had she escaped when the witch had spells like that at her command?
“What’s your name, girl?”
She pretended the spell had worked and said, trying to sound dazed, “I don’t know.”
“Well, I called the last one May, so you can be June. Make sure you get every cobweb off that mantelpiece, June. Don’t slack.”
“No, ma’am,” Marianne said, and kept sweeping as the witch heaved her way out of her chair.
“I’m off to bed. You can sleep on the hearth, but not until it’s clean enough to eat off, hear me, girl?”
She kept sweeping until the witch had gone creaking upstairs and then put the broom down to speak to the cat. “She doesn’t know anything about Cat, does she? Perhaps you’ve seen him. He’s got a powerful lot of magic in him.”
The cat regarded her silently, but then leapt up onto the crowded mantelpiece, picking its way along so carefully that it only knocked one thing down: a little wooden toy soldier with a painted red jacket. Marianne caught it, and noticed the enchantments it was wrapped in at once, twisted around it like a sticky knot of cobwebs. “Should I take this?” she asked the cat.
It nodded at her so she kept a hold of it, wishing that Chrestomanci had given her long enough to the grab her coat. It was all very well for men, she thought irritably. They had pockets. In the end, she stuffed him down the front of her dress, with her pouch of flowers.
The cat was standing impatiently by the door. Marianne went to let it out, but once through the door the cat waited for her, head cocked. She followed it, because in a choice between a cat and more sweeping, it was an easy decision.
There was a tissue of spellwork sealing the door, one she had to lift aside carefully to avoid setting off alarms. Had this all been here for the previous girl, or was it a new security measure? If it had been here, that suggested the last girl had enough magic to spell her way out of the cottage. There was all sort of mischief here, and she took a moment to fix the sense of the place very firmly in her head. They would need to come back, once Cat was found, and put a stop to this.
The cat led her out across the marshes, picking its way sure-footedly. The snow wasn’t as deep here as at Chrestomanci Castle, but it was still enough to hide the places where the tufty grass dipped down into thin puddles. More than once, her foot slipped through the crust of snow into icy water below. She was no longer walking along a magic river, and her feet rapidly got so cold that warming spells only made them a little less numb.
She kept her eyes fixed on the cat, which was how she saw the exact moment when it stepped sideways, over a little fold in time and space, and disappeared. A moment later it reappeared, and mewed at her demandingly.
“I’m not sure people can travel that way,” Marianne told it, shivering. It looked very unimpressed, and stepped sideways again, with exaggerated slowness. This time she managed to catch onto the edge of the movement and pull herself after the cat.
They came out in the centre of London, which to her mind explained a great deal about cats. It was snowing here too, and London looked startlingly clean and pretty under it. The air still tasted grimy, though, and the pavements were still busy, although the streets were quiet. Someone bumped into her with a muttered curse and she stepped back against the wall, trying to place herself. It looked familiar, somewhere near Hyde Park.
The cat sauntered across the street, and stopped on the steps of the very exclusive hotel opposite. Marianne looked up at the pillared entrance, guarded by liveried footmen, and then down at her bare and muddied feet, her ragged hem and the cobwebs staining the skirt of what had been her second-best dress, and sighed. “I don’t think they’ll let me in. Is he really here?” It didn’t look like the sort of place where she’d expect to find either Cat or a snow spirit.
The cat sighed and headed off along the pavement again, turning into a side alley beside the hotel. There another cat, this one a plump and pampered white Persian. The two cats rubbed against each other in greeting, and Marianne’s heart sank. Had they come all this way just so the cat could visit her sweetheart?
Then they both turned to look at her, in clear summoning, and hurried on down the alley. They took her to a staff door, and then up through the backstairs and corridors of the hotel. At last they both stopped before a door in one of the less ornate sections of the hotel, sitting down to stare at Marianne.
“Here?” she said doubtfully, but reached out to knock on the door anyway. A moment later, it swung open and she found herself staring at Tonino Montana.
He looked almost as surprised as she did. Then his eyes widened and he said, “The cats want to know if they found the right enchanter?”
Part Three: A Puzzle
Cat sat in a palace of ice and could not feel the cold. He was vaguely aware that he should have been panicking about that, but he couldn't seem to feel anything beyond a vague intellectual interest in his surroundings. It was a very odd palace, each wall one sheer sheet of ice and everything running in straight lines, with perfect corners. The floor was ice too, tiles of perfect squares, and the throne the snow queen sat on and the stool she had given him were just as geometrical.
He approved of it, as much as he could approve of anything with his cold heart. It was all very orderly, all the pieces fitting together into one precise whole.
"Wouldn't it be easy," the snow queen said, her voice as sharp as falling ice, "if the whole world was just this neat. Nature needs reordering. It's too messy, don't you think. It should be more like this. There's no confusion when it comes to ice. No one expects snow to be anything other than snow."
"People make shapes from snow," Cat said, frowning as he tried to remember. There had been children once, making foolish shapes. He might have been one of them.
"Because humans can't bear to leave something tidy," she snapped. "They have to keep changing things, and making a mess, and asking for the impossible. Wouldn't the world be better if everything was as simple as ice?"
Cat considered it logically. Some part of him thought there was a fallacy in her argument, but his frozen heart approved. All the same. "Magic is never tidy."
"But it could be," she murmured, leaning forwards towards him. "Help me make the winter last forever, and we can make magic as simple as ice. Wouldn't it be easier if it was all regulated? Imagine if nobody could misuse it, because it only ever did precisely what it was supposed to do. You could rule it all from here, enchanter, with my help."
A world where no one misused magic? A world where he would never have to be Chrestomanci? It sounded interesting, although he wasn't sure how she proposed to make it work. All the same, a little part of him was sceptical. "How?"
"All we have to do is make midwinter eternal," she said. "When it's all frozen, we can start again, and make it as it should have always been."
"Winter always becomes spring," Cat pointed out. He didn't mean to be unhelpful, but it seemed like an essential flaw in her plan.
She narrowed her lips, and pointed at the floor, her sharp nails gleaming. "Make eternity, then, enchanter. Make it right there."
There were shards of ice gathered on the floor. Looking at them, he could see at once how they would fit together to make the word "ETERNITY". They were more enchantment than ice. It was a fascinating bit of magic, and he rather wanted to try, just to see how it would work.
He reached out and picked up the first piece of ice, slotting it into place.
Part Four: A Reindeer
"Oh," Marianne said in dismay. "I was looking for Cat. he's not here, is he?"
"I thought he went back to the castle," Tonino said, pulling her into the room. The cats came with her, weaving around her bare feet. "What's happening? We've been trying to telephone."
Inside the room, what had obviously been a nice parlor an hour ago had been hurriedly transformed into a wizard's workroom, with the furniture pushed to one side and spells fizzing across the tabletop. Angelica Petrocchi was leaning over the spells, chewing her lip as she hummed at them. She looked up as Marianne drew near. "The cats say you asked them to find a blond enchanter. They're quite pleased with themselves."
"Damn!" said Marianne, hard enough that they both stared. She took a deep breath, swallowing back the threat of tears and said, "The snow isn't natural."
Angelica dashed forward to hug her. "We worked that out. What's happened? You look awful."
"Cat—" she started and welled up again, to her disgust. She hated being a weepy person, but she had just started to hope she was on the right track.
"He's in trouble?" Tonino asked, his face suddenly flushed with concern. She was so used to thinking of these two as her friends, after spending six months in Caprona bustling between one spellhouse or the other, that she had forgotten Tonino had known Cat first. "And the castle?"
"Cut off by the weather," she managed, taking a breath and mopping at her face with the handkerchief Angelica pressed on her. "And the Snow Queen took Cat."
They both blinked at her, and then Tonino laughed, shaking his head a little. "Never boring, England."
She smiled a little, because they had been teasing her for months for being flustered by Italy, and said, "I thought the cats had a clue where he'd gone. Could you ask them?"
While Tonino did, crouching down politely, Angelica dragged her to the table. "We thought something was wrong. It's too cold, even for England, but there's nothing to hold onto. Just snow. Can you see anything I can't?"
After their first meeting, which had not gone well until the incident with the angry satyr and the flying goat, they had learned to work around each other's strengths. Marianne generally found Angelica's approach to magic exhilarating and disturbing in equal measure. There was no tradition in it, and she couldn't make head nor tail of the mess of spells across the table. Diplomatically, she said, "Is there any way to trace where the weather is particularly bad?"
Tonino straightened up behind them. "They say the witch's apprentice is the winterthief, and we should ask her what she did with the nine-lifer. Does that mean anything to you?"
"Thank you," Marianne said, to him and the cats. "Did they have any idea where she might be?"
"By the docks," Angelica said, listening just as intensely. "Under the sign of the dolphin. I think I have the idea of it." And, before the others protest, she reached out and grabbed their hands, pulling them across London in a giddy whirl.
They landed on the docks, where the snow was coming down heavily. There were only a few gaslights along the walls, but Marianne could hear the river slurping at the quay and smell tar and salt and dank water. It didn't feel like a friendly place to be at all.
"I don't see anyone," Tonino said, squinting along the quay.
Marianne could see a tracery of frost over the grubby snow that wasn't there when she stopped using witchsight. "This way," she said and started along the trail.
The river slopped hard against the quay, the wind hurling snow into her eyes, and Angelica gasped. Something wet and weedy was crawling over the edges of the quay, its webbed hands slapping against the drifts. All three of them took a step backwards in alarm.
Behind them the snow made the same gulping noise and something equally dank and loathsome began to rise up.
"Go!" Tonino snapped. "We'll deal with this."
Marianne didn't want to leave them, but she ran anyway, stumbling through the sludgy snow, following the trail of ice. Behind her she heard the sizzle of fire in the air, and two voices lifting in chorus in some spell she didn't know. She couldn't look back, not without losing her balance, but she was so frantic that she didn't notice the winged creature crouching on top of the next pile of pallets until it moved, the smutty gaslights reflecting off its glittering wings.
It came down on her before she could frame more than a quick repelling spell. It went tumbling back across the dock, wings flaring and beaked face fierce and furious. Marianne took a breath and reached out to find out what kind of creature it was.
And someone slugged her across the back of the head.
When she opened her eyes, she was indoors and her wrists were tied together. She kept her eyes half-closed and studied the situation, trying not to show that she was awake.
It was a very small room, poor and plain but clean, every board polished. Witchlights hung awkwardly off the walls, casting an eerie glow on the cheap furniture and the skinny, hollow-cheeked girl sitting on the windowsill, twisting one hand in her skirt. She was younger than Marianne and as neat and desperate as the room, everything she wore carefully patched and a neatly tied ribbon holding back her hair. In her other hand she held a little painted wooden reindeer, the kind peddlers sold children. She was watching the sky, her full mouth drooping.
Above Marianne, something rustled and she looked up to see movement in the rafters. The room was full of pigeons, sheltering from the snow.
"They're my friends," the girl said, her voice country-rich. "They talk to me."
"Are you May?" Marianne asked carefully, sitting up. Her head hurt and she put her hand to it with a wince.
"Yes," the girl said, with a sudden startled smile. She came over to Marianne and laid her hand on the sore patch. Immediately it stopped aching and May said, her voice small, "I'm sorry I hit you so hard. I had to, you see, to keep winter from turning."
"Why?" Marianne asked.
"Because it's the only way to find my boy. When the days start growing long, I have to go back, or she'll have him, that witch. She said it and she said it true. I can tell truth when I hear it. So I've got to save him, and I haven't got time. So I made some."
"My Jack. My soldier boy. He came marching by the witch's gate, when the roses were in flower, and I ran away with him. She found us, though, and she hid him from me, and I've got to get him back, before morning comes."
“Is that why you called the storm?” Marianne could feel the magic rushing off the girl, clumsy and barely taught but so strong it made the air crackle. How had a country witch managed to force someone so strong into being her servant. “How long did you work for her?”
“She bought me at the hiring fair, miss, after my dad died. There was no one else who’d take one as young.” May shivered. “I thought I was in luck, then, you see, but she worked me hard, and I did my best to please her, but then Jack came by and she wouldn’t even let me speak to him when he came calling nicely. Everyone’s allowed to have a sweetheart, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” Marianne said, and swallowed hard. This wasn’t some evil sorcerer she was chasing, which made it harder in some ways. She knew what she needed to say to this girl to win her over, but May could hear truth and Marianne wasn’t quite ready to put it into words, for all she’d had the courage to use rose petals to track Cat. “May, did you summon the Snow Queen?”
“I remember my mum telling me about her, the queen of winter. I thought she’d be able to help me, even if no one else could.” May looked down at the toy in her hand. “She scared me, though. I didn’t think she would be so sharp.”
“Did you ask her to steal Eric Chant?”
“Who?” May asked and then her face cleared. “Oh, the enchanter. I never thought that he must have a name. I suppose they must, even folks like that. She said she needed him, to make the spell set.”
Marianne closed her eyes and made herself speak, with the weight of truth in her words. “But he has a sweetheart too, who is just as worried about him as you are about your Jack.”
“Oh?” said May, as if she had never heard anything so strange. After a moment, her eyes widened, “It’s you, isn’t it? I thought you’d come to stop me. Oh, I don’t know what to do!”
She sounded so lost and wretched that Marianne had to feel sorry for her. “Can’t you call the Snow Queen and tell her not to cast the spell? I’ll help you save your Jack, but we have to stop her first.”
“I tried!” May cried, dropping her face into her hands. “I didn’t think it would be like this. I thought time would just stop! I didn’t think it would get so cold, so I tried calling her, and I tried and I tried, and she won’t come!” And she sobbed, loud and hiccuping, like a child.
Marianne passed her Angelica’s handkerchief, more than a little confounded herself. The only advantage she had over the weeping girl beside her was being a little older and far better taught. Thinking aloud, she asked, “Do you have any idea where she took him?”
“Why, to the Arctic, of course,” May said soggily.
That helped a little. She could set up a portal to get that far north, though the Arctic was a big place. “I don’t suppose you know the exact coordinates.”
“Not the real Arctic,” May sniffled. “The story one, where she has her palace all made out of ice and snow and the winter winds.”
“And how do you get there, in the stories?”
May looked up, a sudden flicker of hope on her face. “You fly, of course, on a reindeer’s back.” She held up the wooden toy in her hand. “You say you can save Jack?”
“I can try.”
“He gave me this, last Christmastide. It’s not a real reindeer, but it might be enough, and maybe it’ll help you find Jack too, once you’ve got your boy back.” Even as she spoke, the reindeer was growing in her hand, bigger and bigger until it went leaping down to the floor, still growing. Marianne threw her heart into it as well, thinking fiercely, Help me find Cat! Help me!
And the reindeer shook its head, the bells on its collar jingling, and turned to face her, its eyes bright and merry. “Well, then,” it said, its voice deep and cheery. “Let’s go! Let’s go! There’s a long flight ahead of us!”
It was a long flight, but nowhere near as long as it should have been. Much sooner than she had expected, Marianne caught sight of the ice palace sitting on the snowy plain. The reindeer set her down outside, snow spraying up as he landed, and said, “I’ll wait for you here. Good luck.”
“Thank you,” Marianne said and took off into the palace at a run. Immediately, she got lost in a maze of passages, the walls reflecting her face back at her in pale echoes. Cross, she skidded to a stop, and decided that enough was enough. She had no time for mazes.
Blowing a hole in the walls was satisfying, right until the halls suddenly filled with snowflake soldiers. She hadn’t expected there to be any guards, and was unready when they came charging around the corners towards her. They were cold and dreadful things, she saw at once, too shocked to react, winterlings stretched into the shape of snowflakes, their spindly limbs frozen solid.
Frozen or not, they managed to surround her, dragging her away through the ice palace.
Part Five: A Holly Crown
Cat had made the first half of the word before stopping. It just didn’t feel right, as if he’d spelt it wrong or got the wrong word entirely. Frowning at it, he swapped a shard from the “E” for the stem of the “T” and sat back to look at it again.
His heart still felt as cold as rock, but some part of him was increasingly sure that this was all wrong. Eternity wasn’t supposed to look like this.
When the snowflake soldiers dragged Marianne into the hall, he looked up, cross at the interruption. “I can’t make it right.”
She stumbled when the soldier let go of her, but then came rushing towards him, her cheeks flushed. The Snow Queen on her throne stood up in indignation, but he ignored her. Logically, she was more powerful and beautiful, but the little bit of him that was resisting logic thought he might like Marianne more.
The ice around his heart cracked a little at that thought, and then she was hugging him tightly, warm and human and real. “You’re alive.”
“I’m frozen,” Cat said sadly into her hair. He should have been able to hug her back, but he couldn’t. His cold heart wouldn’t let him.
She drew back, frowning a little. “What do you mean?”
He held up his hand, where the snowflake was dark on his cold skin. “She froze my heart with a snowflake.”
Marianne took her hand in both of hers, and her touch was so warm that another little crack appeared in the ice around his heart. “I’ve seen that before,” she muttered to herself, biting her lip. “Or heard of it. Not as snow, I don’t think…” She looked up at him, her brown eyes wide, and he thought they weren’t as dazzling as the Snow Queen’s eyes, but they were pretty and much kinder. “You’ve been elfshot.”
“Elfshot?” Cat echoed. It felt like a very illogical word for the way it had made him feel so very far from the world.
Marianne went rummaging in the front of her dress, fishing out a pouch full of leaves and drooping flowers. Some of the leaves went skittering across the ice as she reached into the pouch. “I can fix that. Pinch the sorrel between your fingers, and give me your hand.”
The Snow Queen was walking towards them, her icy eyes cold with rage. Cat quickly did as he was told, and Marianne leaned forward, her cheeks much pinker, and kissed his hand where the snowflake had touched. Her lips were warm and soft, and Cat suddenly felt like he could breathe properly, for the first time in months.
“You have to suck it out, like poison,” she explained anxiously, pulling back. “Did that help?”
His heart was beating hot again, although it was still wrapped in ice. He managed to say, “Yes, but I’m still cold.”
Marianne looked more worried still. “Did she lay anything else on you? Oh, I can’t remember what I know about elves.”
“She kissed me,” Cat admitted and the ice was melting fast enough that he felt a little sheepish and embarrassed about that. “Three times.”
“Oh, did she?” Marianne muttered, a little dangerously. “Well, she can’t have you.” And she stood up on tiptoe and kissed him herself.
The ice around his heart cracked in two on the first kiss. On the second one, he realized why he’d missed her so. By the third kiss there was no ice left in him, and he could lift his arms up to wrap around her and kiss her back.
They were so distracted that they didn’t notice the wind rising until it almost buffeted them off their feet. They broke apart, and both turned towards the Snow Queen. All the plants that Marianne had dropped were whirling in the air in front of her, a thin wall of green driving her back as she snarled with rage.
“Why eternity?” Cat wondered, the logical part of him folded back to a sensible size but not gone.
“To make midwinter last forever,” Marianne said. “But what is she? May thought she was calling up a fairytale, but she’s too strong. There's something wild there, trapped in May's spell.”
“She wanted me to write “eternity” out of ice,” Cat said, reaching for the answer. He was almost there; could almost see the shape of the whole thing.
Marianne followed his gaze and shook her head, looking puzzled. “Out of that? But eternity can’t be made from straight lines. It goes in curves.”
“So it does,” Cat said, understanding. He reached for the shards of ice with his magic. He could feel Marianne’s magic mingling in with his, helping him melt the pieces. He was the one that reshaped them, though, not letters but a loop, twisted into a figure of eight, always flowing onwards. They both drove it towards the Snow Queen, through the wall of greenery. It struck her hard, and she cried out, her voice echoing like the whoops of geese flying across the winter sky.
Then her crown of ice exploded and the palace with it.
Cat wrapped them both in the strongest protection spell he could manage and hung onto Marianne as splinters of ice flew around them, blocking out the sky.
When the storm stopped, the palace was gone, but the Snow Queen was still there. They weren’t in the furthest north anymore, but standing on a snowy hillside above London, beside a grove of bare oaks, their branches heavy with glossy mistletoe. A little wooden reindeer lay in the snow by their feet, scattered with some of Marianne’s herbs.
The rest were in the Snow Queen’s arms, grown into a great bouquet of fir boughs and pine cones. Her crown of ice had gone, replaced by a ring of spiky holly leaves, and she was smiling. Her face was still proud and fierce, but the bitterness had gone.
“Winter’s not just ice, is it?” Cat said to her. “Things are always getting ready to grow, under it all, or still green, some of them. So the Queen of Winter can’t just be a Snow Queen, can she?”
“Holly,” Marianne said, her voice soft. “Midwinter is when holly reigns.” She bowed her head politely, and added, “Wassail, lady.”
“Wassail,” the Holly Queen said in reply, and there was more to her voice than snow now. There were bells in it and the yellhounds calling, as well as the shiver of ice. “And thank you.”
And then she was gone, fading into the copse until only the scent of pine lingered on the air.
“Can we go home now?” Cat asked hopefully. All of a sudden, he was looking forward to Christmas.
Marianne crouched down to pick up the toy reindeer. “We need to find a missing soldier first. I promised I’d try.”
She told Cat the missing part of the story then, sitting on a tree stump and trying to rub warmth into her feet. Cat conjured her a pair of shoes, feeling all flushed and smug at her gratitude. It made him want to kiss her again, and they were sitting under mistletoe, which was enough of an excuse.
Kisses made her pink and flustered, and a little prim. “We haven’t fixed everything yet.”
“Take us to London, then,” Cat suggested with a sigh. The sooner they were done, the better.
They found Tonino and Angelica waiting for them in May’s room. Both turned round as Cat and Marianne arrived, their faces lighting up.
“Cat!” Tonino said, sounding so glad and relieved to see him that he lost the last of his sense of being not-quite-wanted. “What happened?”
May started up. “Did you find him? Did you find my Jack?”
“Not yet,” Marianne said, “but a finding spell should work now—”
May began to sob again. Tonino sighed, and muttered, in Italian, “She’s like a leaky tap. She just keeps dripping.”
“Be nice,” Angelica chided and pitched her voice over May’s. “What can you tell us about Jack, May?”
“He’s good and kind and swe-eet!”
Cat rubbed his forehead. He was beginning to think he would never get home in time for Christmas.
“What about the reindeer?” Marianne suggested. “Could we make him talk again. He was a gift from Jack, so—”
Cat turned the reindeer real again, a little impatiently. It began to bounce around, hooves clattering. He cut off its chatter with a slice of his hand. “Where’s Jack?”
The reindeer blinked at him and then inclined its head towards Marianne. “She has him under her dress.”
“I do not!” Marianne squeaked indignantly. Then she tilted her head to one side and said, “Oh.”
Cat and Tonino both looked away politely as she reached into her bodice, but Angelica said wisely, “No pockets.”
“Isn’t it a nuisance,” Marianne agreed and pulled out a small toy soldier. “The witch’s cat gave me this. It’s got a mighty strong enchantment on it.”
“Let’s get it off then,” Tonino said and they all reached out for it. The spells wrapped around it were as thin and sticky as cobwebs, but they all managed to get their nails under them. The moment they peeled them all off, the toy soldier shook and shuddered and then vanished.
The soldier who had appeared in its place rubbed his eyes and said, “Lawks!” Then he looked around, puzzlement working its way across his broad, honest face and said, “Where the devil—?”
May launched herself at him with a whoop of joy and he caught her, swinging her up in his arms. “Hey, girl. Did we do it then? Did we escape her at last? I had such an odd dream. Eh, enough of the waterworks, May, my lovey. We’ve got fine company.” He steadied May against his shoulder and reached up to take off his hat. “Good evening, sirs and ladies. I’m not rightly sure what’s going on here.”
“All’s well now,” Marianne said, and she took Cat’s hand again, squeezing it. Cat saw Tonino hide a smile at that, but didn’t let go.
“Just a little matter of misused magic,” he said, sounding stuffy even to himself. May was a danger to everyone, though. “May, you need a teacher for your magic. I can arrange—”
“I don’t want it!” she said fiercely, lifting her head from Jack’s shoulder. “I don’t want to be a witch. I want to be a soldier’s wife.”
“No reason you can’t be both,” Jack said, though he looked a little nervous. “I don’t mind a bit of white witchery.”
“I do!” she snapped at him and turned to face Cat. “Can you take it away?”
“It might grow back,” he said. “Or you might change your mind.”
“I won’t,” she said, lifting her chin. “I’m sick of magic.”
So he took it out of her. As it went, the reindeer dwindled back into wood, and he stowed her magic carefully inside it, in case she ever wanted it back.
After that there was only one more stop and an arrest to make. With four of them, it was swift work, and he even managed the paperwork while the others transported the witch to a police cell. He signed the list of charges neatly, and even sealed it with a hint of frost and evergreen before he realised what he’d done.
He was still staring at that very official looking signature when the others got back to him. As they trooped into the cottage, chattering warmly, he decided that perhaps it wasn't so bad, after all, this kind of job, not when you had friends at your side. Tucking the papers away inside his jacket, he turned to join them, putting an arm around Marianne, because he could now, and offered Angelica his hand.
“Cat, when does Klartch get back?” Angelica asked, linking her arm through his.
“Christmas Eve,” Cat said and smiled at his friends. “Soon. Now let’s go home, before they run out of mince pies.”
"Or Joe and Roger blow the place up with their decorations," Marianne added with a sigh, and then they were back in the castle foyer, with lights glimmering softly in the Christmas tree and people already hurrying to welcome them back.