The door to the Little Drawing Room cracked open, letting in a rush of icy air, and a relieved voice said, "Oh! Conrad! Thank goodness. I was beginning to think everyone had vanished off the face of the planet."
I turned round, my spirits lifting a little, to see Elizabeth standing in the doorway. I hadn't seen her for weeks, not since Gabriel sent her away to investigate a magical imbalance in Wiltshire, and I was getting sick of my own company.
"I'm told they've all gone out to cut holly," I said. "I've only been back an hour myself."
"Oh, yes," she said distractedly, pulling the door closed. "Your interview. How did it go?"
I shrugged, watching her sink into one of the window seats. She was wearing a drab grey dress and her fair hair was pinched back. She looked tired, shadows under her eyes.
"They more or less told me it was a formality. Anyone trained by Gabriel is good enough for their department of Magic."
"Oh, I'm glad for you. Strange to think we'll have two scholars in the Family soon, with you there and Michael at Oxford."
I shrugged. I was finding it difficult to look forward to my return to Series Seven, necessary as it was. My friends were all here in Twelve and I was dreading the day I would have to leave the Castle for good. I changed the subject.
"When did you get back? Are you here for Christmas?"
"About ten," she said. "I've been in a meeting with Gabriel all morning."
"Lizzie?" I said slowly, trying to push aside my own woes. "Are you all right?"
"I- It's- Con, can you?" She waved her hand vaguely.
I knew what she meant, so slipped quickly into witch-sight. The room suddenly glimmered with cobwebbed spells - generation upon generation of protective weavings, the lowest layers going grey and soft with age. There was a red glimmer of warming spells laced over everything, but no active listening spells.
She gave me a quick grin, the first genuine one of the day. "How are we ever going to scheme without you next year, Con?"
I grinned back at her. "You'll just have to teach Christopher to be more discreet. What's wrong?"
"I think something terrible is about to happen at Missel Hall," she said. "Gabriel won't do anything until after Christmas and I don't think we have that long. I need Christopher's help."
"You can't deal with it alone?" I asked sharply. Elizabeth was as strong an enchanter as any of us except Christopher and Millie.
She shrugged, face twisting with frustration. "Too elusive. There's dwimmer involved and some sort of misdirection. I could use you as well - you might be able to see through the tangle. I'd take everyone if I thought I could get us all out from under Gabriel's nose."
"Don't get your hopes up," I told her, thinking quickly. We'd managed a few adventures before, but Gabriel was getting wise to our tricks. We'd be pushed to get more than three or four of us away from the castle at once. "Let's find the others and see what we can come up with."
At that moment we heard the sound of voices outside. I crossed to the window in time to see the rest of my Castle family appear out of an archway, dragging a large sled across the snowy lawns. It was heaped with greenery - holly and ivy covering what looked like a fair sized tree. Millie and Jason had a rope each, and were dragging it bumpily. Millie was so bundled up against the cold that she kept falling over her own feet and Jason kept swinging round to shout to the others. Bernard was jogging beside the sled, holding the tree steady as he talked. Michael was swooping about in their wake, his coat billowing as he ducked down to collect stray twigs. The younger enchanters were milling around the sled. As I watched a couple of the girls ran ahead, their heels striking up sprays of snow.
Christopher was walking beside Bernard, a spring of mistletoe tucked nonchalantly under one arm. His scarf was tied in a perfect, flamboyant knot, and he alone was neither red-faced not smeared in snow.
We hurried round to meet them in the front hall. We arrived just in time to hear Millie complain, "I can't believe that your feet are dry. Didn't you do anything to help?"
"I reserve my talents for when they are needed," Christopher said loftily. "Oh, hello, Conrad. Give me a hand with levitating this tree?"
I avoided Millie's glare and hurried to help. As we coaxed the tree into place beside the stairs, greenery went flying across the hall behind us, twining into wreaths which then settled over doorways and around the banisters. As we coaxed the tree into its stand, some of the younger members of the Family came dashing downstairs with more dusty boxes of decorations.
I went to help them untangle a knot of spell-ribbons, and from the corner of my eye I saw Elizabeth catch Christopher's elbow, talking urgently. Millie slipped across to join them, but I was distracted by a tricky knot and Henrietta's barrage of questions about Ludwich and how it differed from London.
Behind me, a series of tinkling howls and squeals burst out, and I swung round in time to see a red glass dragon pursuing a gilt lion around the hall, breathing out glitter. Michael and Bernard were both honking with laughter.
"Mind the pentagram, you idiots!" Christopher roared and went bounding after the dragon. It promptly started climbing up Millie's skirts, and the lion shook its mane and shot off to hide under the tree.
At the top of the stairs, the black door cracked open and Gabriel looked out.
The dragon launched itself off Millie's head, glass wings flapping desperately. Several of the girls ducked and squealed.
"Michael!" Christopher boomed. "Bernard! Enough!"
Gabriel's eyebrows twitched and he retreated back into his study.
Three glass griffins suddenly shot by my feet, claws scratching against the marble as their wings spread as they launched themselves at Christopher's knees. A blue swan went waddling away from the tree, trying to get airborne.
Dinner was a noisy, cheerful affair, with six or seven conversations running simultaneously. I found myself divided between Flavian Temple's questions on the political situation in New Rome and Michael's cheerful interrogation about university architecture in Series Seven. I could see Christopher at the far end of the table, talking smoothly and seriously to Gabriel. I knew him well enough to see the slight tension in his shoulders which meant that Elizabeth had him worried.
It wasn't until we began to move through to the drawing room after dinner that he made his move.
"Gabriel, I'm going to be abominably rude and kidnap our newcomers. We've some catching up to do and I wouldn't want to bore you."
"Boredom would be a pleasant change," Gabriel said dryly. "Go ahead, Christopher. We old fools will cope without you for an hour or so."
Christopher grinned and headed for them door, gesturing to me to join him. The others began to extract themselves from conversations.
"Ah, Christopher," Gabriel said as we reached the door. "I do hope the castle will still be structurally sound come morning."
Christopher's face lit up with indignation, but Millie was near enough to stand on his foot and we managed to bundle him out of the drawing room before he could answer.
"When was the last time I destroyed a wall?" he muttered as we made out way upstairs, past the Christmas tree which was now decorated with inanimate glass animals.
"All Hallows," Millie said promptly. "After that thing with the salamanders and the firework maker."
"That wasn't deliberate," Christopher protested and they began to argue about it.
I'd had years of experience of filtering out their bickering, so I ignored them and hurried ahead. Michael soon caught up with me and launched off about architecture again.
The old tower room had been our meeting place for as long as I'd lived in the Castle. It had the advantage of not only being a decent distance from the rest of the Castle, but being so soaked in old spells that it was almost impossible for anyone to spy on us by magic. Over the years its furnishings had changed as our interests altered and as magical accidents took their toll. At the moment it was half workshop and half sitting room. All the furniture was either singed or battered.
Christopher had only pulled out six of us. I was the youngest there and Elizabeth the oldest. There were just enough chairs to go round, though Millie chose to lean against the back of Christopher's chair instead of sitting down. Someone got a fire going faster than was natural, and the room soon filled with the warm light and crackle from the hearth. Outside it was snowing again.
"Right," Christopher said. "Elizabeth has a problem and Gabriel can't help. Even if he was inclined to, his whole staff is tied up in that mess down in Kent. So it's up to us. Elizabeth, I know where you were sent and why, but the others don't and I don't know what you found out. Go on."
She took a deep breath. "Gabriel sent me to Missel Hall back in November. It's just outside the village of Misseldon, near Avebury There have been minor reports of magical disruptions in that part of Wiltshire for almost two centuries now - frost out of season, paths turning back on themselves, the odd golden egg, new nails rusting overnight. The sort of thing you'd expect around sloppy witchcraft. Previous Chrestomancis have investigated it before without success and the problems have always been too minor to pursue any further. Gabriel, on the other hand, spotted that the area affected has been gradually widening, and the incidents have been getting stronger over the years. Midwinter is always the worst time, so he arranged for me to go down there to teach music to the daughters of the house."
"And?" Christopher prompted.
She hesitated. "Understand that this will sound vague. I can tell there's a misdirection going on, but I can't get past it. The whole house feels as if it's under a curse. As soon as you step through the door, something starts to leech your energy away. I've been sleeping under the strongest protections I can cast and I still feel sick most days. The Chelwyths are a nice enough family, but they all seem to suffer from listlessness."
"Tell us about the family," Millie said, leaning forward.
"There's Lord and Lady Chelwyth and the twins, Sophonisba and Desdemona-"
"Good Lord," Michael Saunders said faintly. "There's child cruelty."
"They're about Conrad's age. There's also a cousin of some sort - Francis. He's the heir. The twins' brothers both died young, as did their uncles and male first cousins."
"The male Chelwyth line seems to be somewhat unlucky," Christopher said. He was looking thoughtful.
"And has been for generations," Elizabeth said, nodding. "That's one of the things that worries me most. That and the atmosphere. Over the last few weeks there's been a real sense of, well, anticipation. I constantly feel as something is about to happen. Some of the guests have been complaining about nightmares, and the servants are unhappy."
"Guests?" Michael asked. He was frowning slightly.
"The Chelwyths put on a Christmas play every seven years. It's some sort of mummers' play I can't tell you more than that because I've not been allowed to attend rehearsals. It's quite a tradition, though. The house is already filling with guests and we've got a week until the performance at Midwinter."
"Midwinter?" Christopher said sharply. "Not Christmas?"
"Do you see why I'm worried?" she said. "I know it's not much time, but I admit I'd be hugely relieved if any of you can be there for the performance."
"I think we can do better than that," Michael said suddenly. "I was at prep school with Francis Chelwyth. He went to Eton. I came here."
Elizabeth sat up, relief brightening her face. "Francis is in London this weekend. It shouldn't be hard to engineer a chance meeting."
"Better if you don't get an invitation for yourself, though," Christopher said. "Chelwyth will know you're an enchanter. We can be-"
"-a friend of mine from Oxford," Michael said promptly. "A fellow member of the folklore society. Millie had better be my sister - no one would believe she's related to you."
"Thankfully," Millie said darkly.
"Who else are you taking?"
"Conrad," Christopher said quickly. "That gives us a good balance amongst the four of us - two male, two female, two native wizards, two from outside this Series. From the little I do know about dwimmer, balance is vital."
"Well, right now," Elizabeth said grimly, "things at Missel Hall are thoroughly out of balance."
By Tuesday morning Michael and Christopher had managed to acquire us an invitation to Missel Hall and had convinced Gabriel that we were visiting a cousin of Christopher's who lived not far from Salisbury. Elizabeth had already gone back, and I could tell that the others were as worried about her as I was.
We set off on Wednesday morning. Flavian had offered to drive us to the station, but was called at the last minute to deal with an urgent missing person's request from one of the Italian embassies. One of the grooms drove us instead.
"Well, I'm relieved at least," Christopher said blithely. "Lying to Flavian always makes me feel like I've kicked a puppy."
"I notice that doesn't stop you," said Millie, clutching her hat as the carriage bumped over a pothole. She was dressed in her smartest, and looked as little like an enchanter as it was possible to look.
"Duty over conscience, my dear," Christopher said loftily. "I must suffer for our cause."
"Conscience?" Millie echoed. "You?"
Christopher clapped his hand to his heart. "You wound me to the quick."
"I couldn't wound you if I dropped you off a tower."
"Ah, but your words are like daggers to my heart," Christopher said soulfully, and was rewarded with a snort of laughter.
I sighed and settled down to watch the snowy landscape bounce past the window. The occasional flirting was almost as irritating as the bickering. Over the last few years it had been a subject of some speculation at the castle over just how long it would take before Christopher finally realised he was in love with Millie. Bernard was running a sweepstake.
I was down for February, but I was beginning to think I had been optimistic.
The train journey wasn't too long, but we almost lost Millie at Old Basing when we changed, and we did lose one of Christopher's many suitcases at Salisbury and so missed our connection while he retrieved it. We eventually arrived at Misseldon just before two.
"Right," Christopher said, as we watched the train heave itself away. "Michael's putting up at the village inn, so that's where we'll convene in a real emergency. Let's see if there's a man who can take us up to the Hall. It's supposed to be a little way out of the village."
When we got out of the station, however, there was a motor car waiting for us. I stared at it in delight - they were far less common here in Twelve A than they were back in Series Seven, and were one of the few things I admitted to missing whilst I was here. The driver was a fair-haired boy about Christopher's age, in a heavy overcoat and a faded school scarf, and he looked up as we approached, beaming with delight.
"Hello!" he shouted. "Are you Michael's friends?"
"Guilty as charged," Christopher said mildly.
The boy came leaping out of the car at us, holding his hand out. "I'm Francis Chelwyth. Good to meet you. I'm damn glad to see some new faces. Most of my uncle's guests are either as old or as dry as he is. The girls and I have been wild to meet you. I'm delighted, absolutely delighted."
"Likewise," Christopher said coolly. "Er, introductions-"
Francis beamed at him. "You must be Christopher. Michael's description was unmistakeable."
"I'm sure it was," Millie murmured and Francis turned to her, grabbing both her hands.
"And you're Michael's sister. Wonderful."
"What a lovely welcome," she said, extracting her hands.
"Effusive," Christopher said expressionlessly.
Francis' smile faltered slightly.
"And I'm Conrad," I put in hurriedly. "It was kind of you to meet us."
He beamed again. "No problem, old boy. Let's get these cases in, then. I say, how were you planning to get all these up to the Hall, eh? Unless one of you happens to be an enchanter."
"Gosh, no," Millie said hurriedly. "Regular dunces in magic, all of us."
"Oh, me, too," said Francis. "Never could master more than the odd charm. Not a spark of magic in the whole family."
Christopher made a vaguely sympathetic noise and met my eyes over Millie's head. I gave him a faint nod.
To my witch-sight, Francis Chelwyth was glowing with magical potential.
As we drove away from the village, his stream of chatter began to falter, and I didn't think it was just because Christopher's side of the conversation was so stilted. Francis seemed paler too, the nervous energy that had been so apparent earlier fading away.
The sky was as grey as slate, but there was no snow here. Instead, frost still lingered in the dips of the looming hills. The road was narrow and grassy in the middle, and frequent puddles gleamed with ice.
Millie shivered and said to me, "I was expecting Wiltshire to be prettier than this. This feels haunted."
Francis stopped the car. He didn't say anything until the rumble of the engine had faded, but then he said hoarsely, "Look, you seem good sorts, so I'll warn you. The Hall has a reputation. Bad things have happened there, too often to be coincidence. Be careful."
"That sounds rather threatening," Christopher said.
Francis looked up. "It's a warning. Accidents happen. Don't put yourself in a place where they might happen to you. I've gone into the history of the place, and there's no record of a curse, but just because something's not written down, doesn't mean it doesn't exist."
"You should get an expert in," Christopher said casually.
Francis started the engine again. "My uncle doesn't care for magicians. Be careful, eh."
"Oh, we will be," Millie assured him.
Christopher just blinked vaguely.
A few minutes later, we turned off the main road into a long tree-lined driveway. The branches were bare, but every tree was heavy with knots of mistletoe, dripping with white berries.
Millie shivered again.
The Hall itself was a square manor in a vaguely Italianate style which seemed ill at ease with the tangled gardens. If Michael had been with us, he would probably have commented at length on the architecture, but I merely said, "What an interesting building."
"Drafty as anything," Francis informed me. "There isn't a door in the place that fits properly. Wouldn't take much to get it up to scratch, but my uncle's an antiquarian. Likes to keep the place as it was when he was a boy."
He ushered us through to a warm drawing room as efficient servants whisked our cases away. The room was surprisingly full, and Francis wasted no time in introducing us. The twins, two rather insipid blondes, were so shy that Sophy was unable to speak to me at all, although Desi managed a blush and a giggle. Lady Chelwyth was such an exceedingly proper matron that Christopher slithered away as fast as he could, leaving Millie in her clutches. I wasn't quite as adept at slithering as Christopher, but I managed to follow in his wake as he headed for the corner where Elizabeth was sitting, engaged in quiet conversation with a dark-haired young man.
Francis came after us. I managed to keep a straight face when introduced to, "Miss Fairfield, my cousins' governess," but Christopher just grinned widely and bent down to kiss her hand.
"A pleasure," he murmured and winked.
Elizabeth glared at him, and I tried not to wince. Christopher was the only person I knew who got worse at subterfuge with age and experience.
The man beside her was glaring even more than Elizabeth. He was obviously not related to the family, but was younger than all of Lord Missel's other guests.
"Oh," Francis said belatedly. "And my uncle's guest, Antonio Montana."
Christopher shot upright again, eyebrows arching. "Of Caprona?" he demanded incredulously.
"That's right," Montana said, his face going suddenly stiff.
"Niccolo's son, Antonio?"
Something flared in Montana's eyes. "You know my father?"
I kicked Christopher in the shin as discreetly as I could, and he said, "Er, only by reputation."
Montana looked faintly disappointed. As Christopher opened his mouth to add something else, a quiet voice behind us said, "I would like to meet your friends, Francis."
"Oh, of course," Francis said, sounding nervous. "My Uncle, Lord Chelwyth. Sir, this is Christopher and Conrad, ah-"
"Grant," Christopher supplied, turning round. Then he froze, going pale.
I looked past him. Lord Chelwyth was a tall, thin man with a mane of white hair and little round spectacles. Despite the physical differences, he reminded me instantly of my Uncle Alfred.
He was also, quite clearly, an enchanter of significant strength.
Fussing with his glasses, he leant towards Christopher. "Are you quite all right, young man?"
Christopher seemed to recover some of his equanimity. "Forgive me, sir. You bear a startling resemblance to an uncle of mine."
Behind him, Millie's head swung round, eyes wide with shock. Elizabeth froze. I felt nothing but relief. By all accounts Christopher's uncle had been even more despicable than mine, which meant that Christopher too had seen what I had. If Missel Hall really was cursed, I was willing to bet that Lord Chelwyth was at the heart of the problem.
Christopher woke me up in the middle of the night. He shook his head at me when I started to ask what was going on and gestured at the door. I managed to pull some clothes on and stumbled out into the corridor where the girls were waiting. Elizabeth, looking anxious, led the way down through the house. We took the servants' stairs and then crept out of the back door.
The night was cold and clear, with the mistletoe-heavy trees casting shadows against the starry sky. The frost was already settling and the grass was hard under our feet as Elizabeth led us out through the shrubbery. At first we felt our way through silently, relying on the moonlight. Then, to my relief, Elizabeth stopped.
"We're just out of sight of the house," she said. "A few more minutes and we'll be safe to talk."
"Somewhere warm, I hope," Millie whispered. I could hear her teeth chattering.
"No, but it's private. Sorry," Elizabeth murmured back and started down through a sloping wood. We came out at the top of a deep bowl in the hillside. I could see what looked like low walls and a building of some sort at the bottom of the dip. Then the moon came out from behind a cloud and I bit back a gasp. We were standing at the top of a small Roman amphitheatre which was set into the hillside.
"Can we get inside?" Christopher asked.
Elizabeth shook her head, her fair hair gleaming silvery under the moon. "It's always locked. There are supposed to be tunnels leading from here to the Hall and out towards the river. The Chelwyths supported Queen Caroline during the Civil War and they hid survivors in the tunnels after the Battle of Roundway Down."
"Fascinating as that is," Millie said, shoving her hands into her armpits. "Can we discuss the modern Chelwyths?"
Christopher wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close. "Spell yourself warm, you idiot."
"I am," she said, shivering. "Every time I try the magic just seeps away."
"Seeps away?" Christopher repeated.
"And I can't see a thing with witch-sight. It looks like I'm standing in a fog-bank."
"Well, just brush the ambient magic aside, then," Christopher said, but he had his vague look on again.
"Easy for you to say," Elizabeth said. "It's worse since I got back. I used to be able to call a light. Antonio says-"
"You've talked about this with Montana?"
She crossed her arms, breath huffing out in a pale cloud. "He's nice, Christopher, and he's an enchanter."
"Of course he is," Christopher said impatiently. "He's probably the strongest Italian enchanter of his generation."
"Then what's he doing in Wiltshire?" Millie demanded from under Christopher's arm, as Elizabeth gaped at them.
"I'd very much like to know that myself. What does he have to say, Lizzie?"
"Just that his spellwork is getting harder as well, which is bad news because the Italian style-"
"-is very different from ours," Christopher finished for her. "Be careful with him, Elizabeth. The only sensible reason for him to be here is if he's been hired to create a spell of some sort."
"The problems here have been going on for centuries!" Elizabeth snapped.
"How's your witch-sight, Conrad?" Millie said hurriedly, rolling her eyes at me.
"Still working," I said. "I haven't tried anything else. But for a man who doesn't care for magicians, Lord Chelwyth is surrounded by an uncommon number of them."
"Who else besides Montana?" Christopher asked, nodding as if I'd confirmed a guess of his own.
"The twins," I said, ticking them off on my fingers. "They're not quite enchanters, but they're strong. Francis isn't far behind them. Lady Chelwyth isn't much more than a hedgewitch, but his Lordship is an enchanter. And worse than that, I think."
Christopher nodded sharply. "I thought you'd picked it up. He stinks. Whatever's wrong here, he knows about it, I'm sure."
"But-" Elizabeth burst out. "But I've never seen any of them perform a single spell. Lord Chelwyth has always been very kind to me."
Christopher shrugged. "He may have good intentions, but he's misusing magic. It's unmistakeable."
Elizabeth looked at me, and I nodded at her. She took a deep breath, and then said, "So what do we do now?"
"We find out as much as possible about the family, about any history of magic use and about this play," said Millie. "Elizabeth, you talk to the twins, I'll take Lady Chelworth and the guests, Conrad can talk to Francis and Christopher can annoy some answers out of Lord Chelworth."
"Michael's in the village," Christopher added. "And Bernard's in London researching everything. In a week we'll know everything there is to know about this family."
"But the play's on Saturday," Elizabeth said grimly. "We-"
"Quiet!" Christopher said, lifting his hand.
In the sudden hush we all heard the crunch of footsteps in the wood. In the same breath, we all tried to turn invisible.
Only Christopher succeeded.
"Oh, drat," Millie said and dropped down to crawl into a shadow.
"Ow," said the empty space of air beside her. "That's my foot."
I found myself another shadow as Elizabeth squashed between the roots of an oak tree on the edge of the wood.
As we watched, a man emerged from the wood and began to pick his way down the rows. He made his way along the edge of the stage and tried the door. It didn't open, and his shoulders twitched in annoyance. Then he stepped back onto the moonlit stage and I finally saw his face.
It was Antonio Montana.
I heard Elizabeth gasp, but then Montana began to sing, his deep voice swelling out in command. The door jumped in its frame, but did not open, but Montana continued to sing. The acoustics carried his voice up to us clearly, but he was singing in Latin and I couldn't understand a word.
Then the clear click of the lock echoed up to us, and the door swung open. Montana stalked into the dark space beyond and pulled the door shut after him. The lock clicked again.
"Well," said the empty space beside Millie after a moment. "That was interesting."
I was awake early the next morning. I'd slept badly, and every time I'd woken it had been to the feel of the ambient magic stirring and sighing around me. It was not quite light, and I could barely see the edge of the terrace from my window. Fog shrouded the grounds, leeching the colour from the bare and shadowy rosebushes below.
It was too early for breakfast, so I contented myself with staring out into the fog, trying to fit together what we knew. If we couldn't solve this riddle discreetly, we would have to confront Lord Chelwyth, and that worried me. Even the mildest of villains can turn violent when threatened, and I never let myself get overconfident about danger. Someone has to keep his head, after all.
I was startled by the knock of the door, and even more surprised when the obviously distressed maid asked me to go down to the library.
"Is something wrong?" I asked.
"It's the police, sir. They want to interview all the guests. There's been a murder!"
Immediately I thought of the four of us last night, bumbling in here to stir up trouble. My stomach clenched as I managed to ask, "Who?"
"Lord Chelwyth, sir. Miss Desi found him in the theatre this morning."
By the time I'd got over the shock of that, she'd disappeared down the hall. I made my way down to the library. I felt ill and tired. Was this our fault? Had our arrival pushed someone over the edge?
Antonio Montana had been in the theatre last night.
The sound of pounding footsteps interrupted my thoughts and I looked up just in time to see one of the twins come running down the corridor towards me, her face red and wet with tears. The other girl was behind her, shouting, "Sophy! Sophy! I'm sorry!"
Sophy shoved past me, knocking me off balance, and I stumbled into the corridor in time to collide with Desi. By the time I'd caught her, Sophy was out of sight.
Desi wasn't crying, but there were shadows under her eyes and she was pale. She was shaking, little sharp shivers like someone on the verge of hypothermia. She had found her father, I remembered.
"I'm sorry for your loss," I said, feeling stupid. I couldn't think of anything more profound to say.
She pushed away from me with a snarl. "Don't be sorry! He ought to be dead!"
Then she went running after her sister and I carried on to the library, shaken. The only person in the library when I arrived was Antonio Montana. He was flicking through a book, smiling slightly.
"Romeo and Juliet," I read off the spine.
"By a respected playwright from Twelve B," he said.
"A little escapism?" I asked, studying him. He didn't look like a murderer.
He smiled suddenly, his worried expression dissolving. "It reminds me of home. Do you have any idea why the police are here, Mr Grant?"
"Lord Chelwyth has been murdered," I said, watching him closely.
He said the things I'd expected, shocked and awkward. I waited until he finished, aware that Christopher had arrived and was watching us from the doorway. Then I said, as casually as I could, "They found the body in the amphitheatre."
Montana went silent, his strained, worried look coming back in force. He stared at me in silence, as if his words had escaped him.
Then a nervous voice said from the doorway, "Please, Mr Montana, the police would like to speak to you now."
Without another word, he hurried out after the maid.
We were all interviewed by the police that morning. Lunch was a grim affair. Lady Chelwyth didn't join us, but the rest of the family were there. Francis dealt with the shocked guests with a sort of weary politeness, and the twins clung to his side. Midway through the meal one of the older guests murmured something about the play being cancelled.
"The play goes on," Francis said harshly.
"We can't!" Sophy exclaimed looking up. "It will be all wrong!"
"It's our inheritance. We will do our best to make it right."
"It can't ever be right again!" Sophy wailed, jumping to her feet. "He's taken everything now!" She backed away from the table, eyes bright with tears. "Even you can't save us!"
She fled, and Francis went after her.
After lunch both Christopher and Montana vanished. Millie and I found Elizabeth in the schoolroom, pacing up and down miserably.
"I don't want to talk about any of this," she said tightly. "I don't want to know."
So we talked about home instead, about the Christmas preparations at the Castle and what we were missing. It reminded me that next Christmas I would be back in Series Seven.
"You're being silly, Conrad," Millie said gently. "It's not the place you'll miss. It's the people."
"And most of us won't stay at the Castle forever," Elizabeth said. "Between the universities and the jobs Gabriel has waiting, we'll nearly all be gone in a few years."
"And some of us might get married," Millie said cheerfully and a faint blush rose in Elizabeth's cheeks.
I rather thought they were missing the point, but at that moment Christopher got back. He looked tired and shaky.
"They're focussing on the cooks," he announced. "It seems they found tracks in the frost leading from the kitchens to the amphitheatre. Imagine that."
I winced. None of us had mentioned our little excursion to the police. I felt terrible about the servants.
"Is that where you've been all afternoon?" Millie asked.
He leant on the desk beside her. "Not at all. I threw Gabriel's name around until they let me see the body. They've brought him up to the chapel."
"What happened to him?"
"He was hit from behind," Christopher said, his face carefully blank. "Then, while, he was unconscious, the murderer cut his heart out and stuffed it down his throat."
The girls both blanched, while I shuddered. Millie reached up to take his hand. "Did you see?" she asked gently.
He nodded curtly, squeezing her hand. "I want to know what Montana was doing in that theatre last night. I wouldn't have thought it was his style, but it's looking bad for him."
"Antonio didn't do this!" Elizabeth snapped.
"Can you prove that?" asked Christopher.
She flushed angrily. "Why would he have done it? He has no motive! I know him, Christopher, and he's a good man. You can't just condemn him because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time! It's not right!"
"Thank you," a weary voice said from the doorway. We all turned to see Montana standing there. He looked exhausted and worried, and his shoes were streaked with mud. He took a step in and looked at Christopher. "As the police have yet to interrogate me about my visit to the theatre last night, I assume you haven't spoken to them about this."
"Not yet," Christopher said vaguely. "I find it is rarely helpful to complicate matters for the local constabulary. Better to wait for Scotland Yard."
"You could just ask whether I did it," Montana said.
Christopher raised an eyebrow. "Did you kill Lord Chelwyth, Montana?"
"No!" the Italian burst out. "I did not, and even if I had, it would have been entirely pointless! Nothing here has changed."
He left as abruptly as he had arrived.
"I do believe that man thoroughly dislikes me," Christopher remarked to the room.
Elizabeth pursed her lips furiously. "There are days when I thoroughly dislike you, Christopher Chant."
Millie and I spent the evening playing lookout whilst Christopher rigged up a contraption with string and bells to warn us if Montana left his room in the night.
Sure enough, for the second night in the row, I was woken in the early hours of the morning.
"Quickly," Christopher whispered. "He's heading back to the theatre."
We stumbled through the fog after Montana. By the time we got to the amphitheatre, his voice was curling richly out of the fog. Christopher strode down into the fog, heading for the hidden stage. We reached the stage just as the door clicked open.
"Returning to the scene of the crime?" Christopher asked, seizing Montana's wrist before he could step inside.
Montana stared at us in surprise. "Mr Grant? Elizabeth? What are you doing?"
"Following you," Millie said, stepping forward to stand beside Christopher. "I think you owe us an explanation. What's so important about this theatre?"
Montana folded his arms and glared at us all. "You are not the police. I do not have to answer your questions."
Christopher cleared his throat, peering vaguely into the darkness behind the door. "Not the police as such, no. We work for Gabriel de Witt."
"Gabriel de Witt," Montana repeated and then his face cleared. "Chrestomanci! You have come to rescue me!" And a rush of pure relief crossed his face, wiping out the worry and mistrust. "I can go home!" Then he stopped and swung to stare at Elizabeth. "All of you?"
She was wringing her hands in her skirt. "I had to use a disguise. Lord Chelwyth would have never knowingly let an enchanter on the grounds."
He seized her hands. "An enchanter and a musician! Elizabeth-"
"Can we take this conversation somewhere warmer?" Christopher interrupted. "Millie's cold."
"I'm not that cold," Millie grated out, gazing at Montana and Elizabeth with an expression of gleeful interest.
"Of course," Montana said, releasing Elizabeth's hands to usher us into the theatre.
I distinctly heard Millie mutter, "Tactless ass," and Christopher reply indignantly, "What did I do?"
Montana lit a lantern just inside the door, and then pulled it shut. The room behind the door was a small, stone vault, its walls hung with masks and whites robes. A clutter of dusty props stood in one corner, and there were two more doors set into the wall. Elizabeth headed straight for the masks.
"Look," she said. "The actors play the same roles every time. It's an incredibly ancient tradition. There's a number of minor roles which are played by men from the village but the main roles are the Hero, the Fool and the Doctor. The Fool and the Hero fight until the Hero is killed, and then the Doctor brings him back to life. Those roles are always played by the family."
Montana moved to stand beside her. "From what I've been able to discover from the family records in the library, until two hundred years ago, the Fool from one performance would play the Hero seven years later, and the old Hero would become the Doctor."
"What changed?" Christopher asked.
"Since then, every man who has played the Fool has been dead within the year."
"And who was due to play the Fool this year?"
Elizabeth answered, voice unsteady. "Francis."
"Hmm," Christopher said thoughtfully. "Death and healing. And a man with an excellent motive for murder. I assume Lord Chelwyth played the Hero? Young Francis seems to have stepped into his uncle's shoes in more than one respect. Interesting. I think I'm beginning to understand what's happening here."
We all looked at him, but he didn't add anything more. Millie, a faint note of annoyance in her voice, turned to Montana and said, "But what are you doing here? Why do you need rescuing?"
"Because I can't leave," he said, the worry settling onto his face again. "I met Lord Chelwyth in London in October, and he invited me down here for a weekend. When I arrived, he informed me that he had a commission for me. He wanted me to create a spell to permanently separate an enchanter from their magic. I refused and tried to leave. He stopped me."
"How?" Christopher asked. "At a glance, I'd say you were a stronger enchanter than him."
"He's a parasite. He started drawing magic from me as soon as I arrived. He is able to draw on the ambient magic here, so everything he steals he simply releases until he needs it. When he does use it, he is vastly powerful."
"So the only enchanter he'd fear is someone else with the same talent," Millie said. "Most likely another member of his own family. Killing them would prevent the play from going ahead, so the only logical solution was to cut them off from the magic."
"Quite," Christopher said. "So why are you still here, Montana?"
"Because I still cannot leave. There is the strongest misdirection I have ever seen preventing anyone from leaving the estate. I have been coming down here to try the tunnels, but even they all lead me straight back here. I thought it was Lord Chelwyth who held me here, but he is dead and I still cannot leave."
"So the play is still the thing," Christopher said.
We made our way back to the Hall. Millie had linked arms with Christopher and me, holding us back so the other two could go ahead, and we followed them through the mist, talking quietly.
"Do you trust him?" she said.
"More than I did," Christopher replied. He seemed distracted.
"That missing persons request Flavian was dealing with," I said. "Which embassy did it come from?"
"One of the Italian ones," Millie said. "Do you think it was for him?"
"If he's been missing since October, the Montanas must be frantic by now," Christopher said.
We'd reached the front of the house by then. As the others turned back inside, Christopher hesitated, gazing speculatively down the foggy drive.
"I wonder what Michael's found out," he said.
Millie sighed. "Can't you just take Antonio's word for it?"
He flashed her a quick grin. "I'm curious."
"Be careful," she said. "Your last life is a long way away."
"I should give it to you," he said. "You'd look after it better than I would."
She bit her lip, but after a moment she said, "That's not very reassuring."
He touched her cheek lightly. "I'll be careful. Go back inside. I'll see you sometime tomorrow."
I caught sight of her face as we made our way inside, and wished there was something I could do. For a brilliant man, Christopher could be strangely blind to the obvious.
I tried to get to Francis the next morning, but some of the older guests turned out to be the family's lawyers and he and the twins were caught up with them all morning. I returned to the schoolroom, where Millie was pacing up and down.
Antonio had appeared midmorning, having purloined the family bible from the library, and he and Elizabeth were pouring over the family tree for clues. I'd glanced at it, and the list of actors' names on the neighbouring page, and already seen that his assertion about the Fools was right.
Just after lunch, raised voices outside brought us all to the window. The twins were on the terrace below. Sophy was shaking her head, cheeks wet with tears, as Desi advanced on her, shouting. After a moment, they disappeared into the fog.
We went back to pacing, until Millie said suddenly, "What was Lord Chelwyth's first name?"
"Ronald, I think," said Elizabeth. "Or Robert."
"Look at the list of actors who've played the Hero for the last two centuries. Robert Chelwyth, Ronald Chelwyth, Roger Chelwyth. The same three names again and again, all the way back to Jasper Chelwyth two hundred years ago."
"In the same year that the Fool was played by a Ronald Chelwyth," Antonio said, pointing at the facing page.
"Are you suggesting that they're all the same man?" I said.
"It would explain a great deal," a weary voice said from the doorway. "Resurrection seems to be the key to all this."
"Christopher!" Millie said in relief, rushing across to him.
He caught her hands tightly, but looked over her head to Montana. "I owe you an apology. Even I couldn't break that spell. I've been walking around the boundaries all morning."
By the amount of mud he had brought into the room with him, it hadn't been a pleasant walk.
"Should we call Gabriel now?" Millie asked.
Christopher shook his head. Even his hair was untidy. I hadn't seen him this dishevelled in years. "I'd rather not. I don't want him involved unless we're desperate. He needs the rest, and to be honest, my dear, I'm much stronger than Gabriel now."
"Much stronger!" Montana burst out. "Who are you?"
"He's the next Chrestomanci," I said, ignoring Christopher's irritated glare. I knew he hated that particular phrase, but it cut through a lot of problems. "Look, it must be possible to get out. Lizzie came home, didn't she? And Francis met us at the station."
"Francis took me to the station," Elizabeth said. "And when I've been into the village the twins have been with me. Perhaps there's an exception for family."
We spent the rest of the afternoon trying to unpick the problem, whilst Elizabeth went looking for the twins and Christopher changed his clothes. When we started going in circles, Millie changed the subject and we talked about Christmas. I told her about the ridiculously flamboyant dressing gown I'd found in Ludwich, and she described her search for a particular plant Jason had set his heart on. Montana described an Italian Christmas, while Elizabeth listened, eyes dreamy. Christopher wandered back in and invited Montana to the Castle for Christmas and got an approving nod from Millie.
We all tried to ignore the fear that we might still be trapped here.
Then, just after dusk, Francis appeared at the door. He was wearing an ill-fitting black suit, which drained the colour from his face, and was quite clearly panicking.
"The girls!" he blurted out. "They're missing! And my uncle's body! His body's gone!"
"Have you checked the theatre?" Christopher said, rising to his feet.
Francis stared at him for a moment, before he turned and ran.
"After him!" Christopher snapped and we all went thundering down through the house.
Francis was well ahead of us by the time we got outside and Christopher went bounding after him, his long legs covering the ground quickly. The rest of us caught up with him at the top of the amphitheatre. He was holding Francis by the arm, watching the mist swirl across the stage.
There was no wind, but the trees were moving behind us, and when I used witch-sight I could see all the ambient magic moving, twisting down towards the stage like water running down a plughole.
The twins were standing on the stage, facing each other from either end. One of them wore the doctor's mask. Between them lay their father's body. The mist hid their faces just enough that I could not tell them apart. Flaming torches hung around the edge of the stage, lighting up the fog.
"You can't bring him back!" the unmasked girl said, her voice desperate. "He deserves to be dead."
"I know," the masked girl said, her voice calm. "But you killed him before he could pass the inheritance on. I need him back to do that, or everything will stay as bad as it did when he was alive." She knelt beside the body, reaching out.
"No!" the unmasked girl screamed, lifting her hands, and the magic came roaring down. Above us the trees groaned, branches snapping. Twigs came roaring down in a great wind, twisted threads of mistletoe like arrows. We all dived for cover, pressing ourselves against the cold stone.
When I looked up again, I could see the power churning around the unmasked girl, whipping at her skirts and hair. Her sister had been flung across the stage, but as I watched she stumbled back to her knees.
"Desi," she said, reaching out with a bleeding hand.
"He doesn't have the inheritance any more!" Desi said, eyes wild. "He's had it for two hundred years! It's my turn now!"
"It's not yours," Sophy said, crawling forward. "It doesn't belong to us, Desi."
"It belongs to me now!" Desi shouted.
Beside me, Christopher sat up. He lifted his arm to let Millie crawl forward and then said, "I need a shield, and some help. I can't do a thing with that storm leeching my magic away."
"Let me help," Montana said. "Elizabeth, Wren's Canon?"
She nodded, drawing in her breath, before she began to sing. Montana waited and then added his voice in, following her through the melody in a steady loop.
Immediately, I felt better, and I could see the colour coming back into Christopher's cheeks. Millie sat up, her magic curling around us steadily, and I added mine to the mix, letting Christopher see what was happening. With us anchoring him, he began to reach down to the stage, tugging at the roiling magic.
We had forgotten about Francis. On the stage, Sophy was still pleading with her sister. Desi was advancing across the stage, and I could see her magic reaching out in tendrils to fasten onto Sophy, leeching from her.
Then Francis heaved himself onto the stage. His face was bleeding and there were twigs in his hair. He was holding a splintered branch in his hand like a stave.
"No!" he said hoarsely. "Leave her alone."
"Keep out of this," Desi snarled. Her magic had recoiled back, unable to pass Francis."
"You can't finish this play without a Fool, Desi," he said steadily.
"Get out of my way," Desi said, face twisting. "I can kill you."
He lifted his branch in challenge. "Try."
She brought her magic down, and Christopher pulled. I threw everything I had to him and felt Millie doing the same. Magic roared through me, and I closed my eyes and let him use it.
When I could see again, Desi had collapsed onto the stage, shaking with sobs. Francis had dropped his branch and had his arms round Sophy. Christopher was leaning against Millie, cradling something that looked like a ball of mistletoe. He grinned at me weakly.
"This always looks easier when Gabriel does it," he said. "Come on. I need to speak to Sophy."
We helped him down to the stage. Sophy saw us coming and stepped away from Francis, eyeing the mistletoe magic miserably. The mask was hanging over her shoulder, one string broken. Her white dress was torn and filthy, and her arms and face were scored with bleeding scratches.
"Your sister won't be using magic again," Christopher said to her. "And I believe you are the best person to look after this."
She shook her head quickly. "I don't want it."
Christopher's eyebrows went up and he repeated incredulously, "You don't want it."
"It's not mine," she said. "That's what they - Desi, Daddy - they didn't understand. The inheritance doesn't belong to us. We just use it for a while."
"If you understand that," Christopher said irritably, "then I have no doubt that you are the best possible person to look after it for the next day or so. I certainly don't want it."
She bit her lip, but held her hands out. Christopher passed it to her and stepped back. The moment he released it, it began to glow, the light spreading around Sophy's hands and sinking into her skin. As the light faded, so did the scratches on her skin. As the light changed, so did everything else. The ambient magic settled to a thin fog around us. The sense of waiting returned, but it felt less ominous now.
Francis and Sophy went to help Desi. I watched them, wondering what would happen to her.
"Poor girl," Millie said softly.
"She did murder her own father," Christopher pointed out, sitting down abruptly.
"He needed murdering," she said coolly, and I remembered that she had grown up in a far less forgiving world. "Are you all right?"
"I will be," he said. "That was harder than I expected."
She sat down beside him, and I joined them. The fog was clearing, and stars were beginning to show in the sky above us.
"Do you think there really is a secret passage up to the Hall?" I said. "It's damn cold to be running around outside."
"The longest night of the year," Christopher said lugubriously. "The bleakest midwinter. `Ware wolves."
Millie laughed at him. I sat back, grinning stupidly. I hadn't realised how much Missel Hall was oppressing me. But we'd be home at the Castle for Christmas, and everything was would be back to normal.
Above us Montana was murmuring something to Elizabeth. She laughed breathlessly, and said, "You're too kind. But you - you were wonderful."
"Nobody ever says I'm wonderful," Christopher said mournfully.
"You're egotistical enough without help," I told him.
Millie laughed and stood up. "I'm going get everyone back into the warm." Then she ducked down and dropped a kiss on his cheek. "Christopher, you were magnificent."
He stared after her as she walked away. After a moment, he said, "Magnificent."
"That was the word," I said, biting back a grin.
There was another uncharacteristically long silence, before he said, "You know, Conrad, I think I've just realised something quite extraordinary."
"It took you long enough," I said, with a sigh. It looked like I'd lost the sweepstake after all.
I woke late the next morning, after the first decent night's sleep I'd had since arriving at Missel Hall. The Hall was in turmoil, as guests arrived to see the play and staff ran around trying to tidy the gardens. All over the grounds, mistletoe had been ripped out of the trees, leaving only the odd knot here and there.
"In moderation, it supports any number of species," Michael Saunders informed me. He'd made it up from the village before any of us were awake. "It's a fascinating species, you know, plenty of uses in spells. I've been reading up on it while I've been stuck in the village."
Over lunch Elizabeth informed us that she and Antonio were getting married.
"Doesn't he have to ask my permission?" Christopher muttered as we walked down to the theatre after lunch. The ground was hard and slippery under our feet, and I could hear the squeals and laughter of other guests as they made their way over the lawns.
Millie and I both stared at him. At last I just said, "No."
"Hmm. What am I going to do with Elizabeth in Italy? Why does everyone insist on moving away?"
"I'll inform my suitors that they're expected to move into the Castle, then, shall I?" Millie asked dryly, slipping on a patch of iced over mud.
He caught her arm, eyes narrowing. "What suitors? You're not supposed to have suitors!"
I hurried ahead to join Michael and Bernard before I got caught in the middle of that one.
To my surprise, Gabriel was among the audience. He looked up as he found his place, scanning the crowd. Christopher waved, and Gabriel nodded to him. It was the sort of greeting you would give an equal.
"He's thinking about retiring," Millie whispered to me. "He's not a young man any more."
I nodded. It was another thing to consider. However, much I disliked it, my friends were gradually moving away. There would be more weddings, and more jobs in faraway places. Christopher would become Chrestomanci, and I hoped desperately it wouldn't crush the life out of him as it had Gabriel. Everything was changing, and I couldn't stop that.
The play, when it started, was something of an anticlimax. The village boys clowned across the stage as the holly king and his soldiers, stumbling over their lines and improvising wildly. The innkeeper's son, who was distantly and dubiously related to the family, was shy and tongue-tied as the Fool, while Francis acted the Hero in an embarrassed mumble.
It wasn't until the melodramatic death scene that the atmosphere changed. As Francis lay on the stage, clutching his heart with a grimace, he was so still that I thought for a moment that he was really dead. The wind whispered across the stage, and the audience grew quiet.
Sophy stepped out in her doctor's mask and made her way gravely to the front of the stage. Her hair was loose around her shoulders, and her head wreathed with mistletoe. She said her lines clearly, and then knelt beside Francis to administer her medicine.
Their faces were radiant as he returned to life, and every magic user in the audience drew breath. All the ambient magic was flowing down towards Francis. As he spoke his next lines, some doggerel thanking the doctor, it began to move again. Now the magic moved out from him, moving peacefully over the land.
"Ah," Christopher said softly.
Then the clowns came bursting on again, and the moment was lost.
After the performance, we sat and waited for the rest of the audience to leave. The sun was warm, although the afternoon was already beginning to fade.
"No more frost out of season," Christopher murmured. "The inheritance has been passed on properly."
"All this because one man couldn't let go," Millie said thoughtfully. "Seven years wasn't enough."
"People do stupid things in the search for immortality," Christopher said, frowning faintly. "I wonder how much else happens under our noses because it's all too subtle to draw out attention."
"Leave it," Millie said, putting her hand on his shoulder. "This is over and we're going home tonight. We'll all have a wonderful Christmas and you can go back to saving the world in the new year."
"Worlds," Christopher corrected her. "We save worlds."
I looked away from them, thinking about Millie's point. There would always be a home for me in this world, but trying to keep it from changing was as unnatural, in its way, as Lord Chelwyth's twisting of the resurrection play to his own ends.
On the stage below, Sophy and Francis came out of the door into the hill, their heads close together. They both looked happy. When I looked at them with witch-sight, I could see the magic moving comfortably through Francis. Sophy, who had glowed last night, had nothing more than her own power now.
"Aren't they sweet?" Millie said wistfully. "That'll be two weddings next year, I suspect.
"At least," Christopher murmured, smiling down at her.
She looked up, obviously not listening. "What was that?"
"Oh, nothing," Christopher said airily. "I'll tell you later. Let's get back to the house before Bernard polishes off the mince pies."