“Peter, whatever it is, will you just get it off my back, please,” Nightingale said. The wings rustled tentatively, half-unfolding and then settling back again. If they spread to their full span he was going to sweep half a dozen things off the lab benches, including a microscope; I grabbed it out of the way.
“I don’t think I can,” I said. “Uh.”
Molly was standing in the doorway with her hands clapped to her mouth, Toby peering out cautiously from behind her skirts, the first time I’d ever seen her genuinely startled. Nightingale tried to crane his head to see what we were all staring at and got a faceful of feathers for his trouble. A basket of apples went tumbling. He really didn’t seem to be in full control of them.
“Peter,” he said again, a strange expression crossing his face. This time, when the wings flexed, it seemed more…deliberate. “Have I…are these…”
“Wings,” I said. “Yep.”
“What kind?” he asked, like that was any sort of reasonable question when wings. A pinion feather as long as my forearm detached itself from a lower edge and fluttered to the floor; Toby raced to sniff at it.
Nightingale stared down at it. It was a plain, dull brown, just like a - well. I bet you can figure it out.
“I’ll give you three guesses,” I said, “but you’re not going to need them.”
Me and Molly managed to get Nightingale down to the atrium without damaging either him, his new wings, or anything else, although it was a close-run thing - you know that story about how a swan can break a full-grown adult’s leg with its wings? Well, imagine getting whacked by a wing sized for a six-foot-tall human. I was pretty sure I was going to have an impressive and weirdly-shaped bruise across my upper back. It was Toby’s fault, anyway, getting underfoot. But at least once we got to the atrium Nightingale could spread or fold the wings without worrying about anything getting in the way.
His balance was still a bit off. I wondered if the bones were hollow, like birds’ bones. Either way that was a lot of extra weight to be carrying around. And to have sprung into existence, because if the old E=mc2 equation applied – energy is mass times the speed of light squared – the spontaneous creation of two wings would have taken more than a few nuclear bombs’ worth. Unless magic worked on a different scale, somehow.
“How heavy does it feel like they are?” I asked as I reached for the phone.
Nightingale gave me an odd look, and shifted on his feet, assessing. “Fifteen or twenty pounds, perhaps. May I ask why you want to know?”
“Einstein might have missed a thing or two,” I said. Nightingale just about kept a straight face, but Molly rolled her eyes magnificently, still hovering like she thought he really might fall. “I’m just calling Abdul, all right?”
Dr Walid picked up on the first ring. “Hello, Peter. Unless this is an –”
“It’s an emergency,” I said. “Just come over as soon as you can. Uh – nobody’s in any immediate danger, it’s just – you want to see this, okay?”
Because Walid knows me, and has been working with Nightingale for a lot longer than that, all he said was that he’d be around as soon as possible. I could have warned him, but I didn’t think it would help, and besides where would be the fun in that?
When I put the phone down, Nightingale was pulling at the remnants of his jacket; it had shredded right down the back, along with his shirt. Molly had gone back to twisting her hands in her apron. Normally she didn’t have to watch us do anything too terribly stupid, and she must feel about as helpless as I did, maybe more.
“Molly, would you fetch a blanket, or a sheet?” Nightingale asked her. “I’m afraid these have had it.”
She nodded, and whisked out of the room practically faster than the eye could follow. Toby settled on an armchair, having apparently decided we weren’t going anywhere.
“I’ve got one other call I think is worth making,” I said. “That is, if –”
“Certainly,” Nightingale said right away. “While you haven’t yet asked, I have no recollection of hearing about anything like this, ever, in the Folly’s records or anywhere else.”
I dialled Beverley. For a wonder she picked up right away as well. Not that I have any room to judge, usually.
“Bev,” I said. “Hi. Question. Have you ever heard anything about people spontaneously growing wings?”
There was a stunned silence on the other end.
“Okay,” she said. “Is it you, or the Nightingale, or someone else?”
“I didn’t say anybody had grown them.”
“Is it –”
“Nightingale,” I said, because I couldn’t help it.
I glanced over at him, but he’d managed to disentangle himself from the remnants of his shirt and jacket now and I looked away quickly, because that was just too weird. Even without the wings.
“Right,” Beverley said, having made up her mind on something. “I’m coming over.”
“To the Folly?”
“This,” she said, “is worth any amount of putting up with those stupid wards.”
“So have you or haven’t you –”
“We’ll talk when I get there,” she said, and hung up.
I put down the phone. Molly had come back and was helping Nightingale wrap a blanket around himself, a little awkwardly; she had his ruined clothes over her arm.
“Bev’s coming over, too,” I said.
“Oh, I’m sure she is,” Nightingale said dryly, extending a wing so he could grimace up at it; he was getting better with them. “Well, it’s not a bad idea; she may have heard something we haven’t, or know someone who does.”
“That’s the idea,” I said. “Any books you want me to go fetch? I think we’d better keep you out of the library, for the time being.”
“Yes,” Nightingale said, and gave me a couple of titles. He looked after Molly as she left, I presumed to dispose of his sadly departed clothing. “You know, I think that’s possibly the most annoying thing; that was my favourite jacket.”
I just looked at him for a second. “Seriously?”
His expression didn’t change much, but it was enough; the bastard was fucking with me. He doesn’t do that as much as I probably deserve. Well, not quite as much.
“Argh,” I said, eloquently. “I’m going to go get those books. Just don’t - don’t, okay? Please. Sir.”
I heard him laugh quietly as I headed for the library doors, which was all right; at least somebody was getting some amusement out of this.
“Oh my god, Peter, what did you do?” Beverley asked.
“I didn’t!” I said indignantly, at the same time as Nightingale was saying “We can’t blame Peter this time, he’s not nearly capable of something like this.”
This was both true, because I’m realistic about how far along I am with the whole wizard training thing, and less supportive than it could have been, but to be fair Nightingale was having probably his most trying day since the last time I’d been involved of the destruction of a major London landmark. So I let it pass.
“I must say,” said Dr Walid, “this really wasn’t what I was expecting when Peter said it was an emergency.”
“I can’t say it was what any of us were expecting, up until about an hour ago,” said Nightingale. He should have looked a bit silly, or at least cold, standing there in his suit trousers and a tartan blanket and what I estimated to be a fourteen-foot wingspan, but he was very nearly pulling it off. Only the slightly too firm grip he had on the blanket said anything else.
“I think it’s amazing,” said Beverley, then pursed her lips like she hadn’t quite meant to put it that way. She was sort of hovering in the door between the foyer and the atrium, evidently feeling the effect of the protective spells on the Folly, but not enough to leave. Nightingale gave her a tentative half-smile, like he thought that might be a compliment but wasn’t quite sure he wanted it to be.
“You should definitely check the DNA on the feathers,” I told Walid.
“To see if it’s human or bird?”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “I mean, we don’t have the genes to grow feathers or wings, right? Birds evolved from dinosaurs after dinosaurs and mammals split off -”
“True, but until I get one under a microscope there’s no way to tell if they’re actually bird feathers or just a similar structure,” Walid said. “Because I’m also quite certain nightingales don’t have the genes to grow that sort of wing structure, the closest thing is a condor and I believe they’re a totally different order.”
“Are you two serious,” said Beverley.
“They do this,” said Nightingale. “Unless active intervention occurs.”
I was tempted to keep going just because of that, but it was an emergency, technically, and also Molly was sitting in one of the armchairs doing something complicated with a needle and thread and what looked like one of Nightingale’s shirts, while glancing up to glare at Walid and me with a look that said get on with fixing this.
We’d abandoned books already; there just wasn’t even the slightest reference to anything like this, at least in any of the titles Nightingale had told me to grab.
“So, Bev,” I said. “Any ideas? Does this happen regularly and nobody told the Folly about it? Is there a hidden community of people with wings living in Epping Forest?”
Beverley shrugged and shook her head. “I want to tell you yes just to see your face, but nope; haven’t got the first clue. I’m not even sure I know anybody who could do this. When you called me I thought you meant maybe little wings, not…this.” She waved a hand at Nightingale. He seemed to have settled on a sort of half-furled position as the most comfortable, but even like that the wings dominated his frame. “It could be something older, something Mum or the Old Man knows about, but I figure you’d rather not get the word out quite yet.”
“If possible,” Nightingale said. “On the other hand, I can only avoid leaving the Folly for so long.”
“It does put me rather in mind of…” Walid’s face was troubled. “Well. The chimeras.”
“Right, but the Faceless Man’s not lurking in the Folly,” I said. “And this seems a bit – um – non-fatal for his sense of humour.”
“I’d have noticed a Newtonian spell,” Nightingale said firmly. “It’s not that.”
“Something must have happened,” Walid said. “You can’t have just spontaneously grown wings.”
“That’s pretty much what it looked like,” I said. “And we didn’t do anything unusual today – well, I didn’t.”
“No,” Nightingale agreed. “That archaeology site visit in the morning for the Murder Team, then your lesson, and then –”
“Hold on,” said Beverley and Walid at the same time.
“No,” I said at once. “I’m ninety percent sure Seawoll just wanted to make our day more difficult.”
“It wasn’t magical at all,” Nightingale agreed. “Although…”
I could see where this was going. “Yeah. We might have missed something. Time to go annoy the forensics people again.”
“Would you mind going along?” Nightingale asked Beverley. “I’m sure Abdul’s going to want to do some poking and prodding.”
“For science, Thomas,” Walid said. “And to make sure you’re in good health, of course.”
Nightingale looked rather as though he wished those statements had been in the reverse order, but that sounded about right to me.
“I really wish you’d gotten over this unreasonable attachment to Minis,” I complained to Beverley for the third time.
“Tough,” she said. “Persuade another manufacturer to set up in the Thames Valley and then we’ll see. You doing okay back there?”
“I’ll cope,” I said, but it was through gritted teeth; there really just wasn’t enough room back here for me to lie sideways, but sitting up wasn’t exactly an option right now. I did hope we weren’t pulled over. Not that Beverley would have any trouble getting out of it, but I always feel vaguely guilty when she or one of her family uses the glamour on a fellow officer in front of me. I mean, not enough to try telling them to stop, I’m not stupid.
“On the bright side,” she said, “we definitely know where the problem started.”
“Yeah, but,” I said. “We’re not exactly any closer to a solution.” I winced as she took a corner a tiny bit too fast.
“Oooh, sorry,” she said, glancing in the rear mirror. I must have made a noise or something “We’re almost back there, okay?”
“No problem,” I said. I wished we’d taken the Jag. Or even the Asbo.
Nightingale and Walid had decamped to the reading room when we got back, Nightingale apparently feeling enough in control of his new appendages to risk the smaller and more cluttered space. He also had a shirt on, which must have been what Molly had been doing. That was great, because it meant I could borrow the blanket.
“Well,” said Walid. “I gather we know where the problem started.”
“I didn’t even touch anything,” I said. “I just want that to be clear.” A couple of black, iridescent feathers drifted to the floor; Molly appeared with a dustpan almost before they got there, frowning at me like I was moulting on purpose. Getting out of the Mini had been a bit rough, even with Beverley helping. I had aches in muscles I hadn’t, up until about forty-five minutes ago, even had.
“He didn’t,” Beverley said.
“That’s somewhat concerning,” said Nightingale. “It’s an active archaeological site. It looked like they’d been there for several weeks, but nobody mentioned a rash of – well – this, and I would think it’d have come up.”
“They’re not wizards, are they?” Beverley replied. “And I’m not exactly sprouting wings.”
“Fins, surely,” I said. “Considering.”
I knew what sort of feathers I was shedding, after all, and I can jump to a conclusion when my nose is shoved in it – or when it’s magically attached to my back. But Beverley was a river goddess, so it only stood to reason.
Nightingale and Walid made sort of choking noises at this comment, and Beverley took the custard cream I’d been reaching for, which was probably fair retaliation. (Nightingale had already done the disclaimer bit when Molly had offered her tea.)
“An early Roman temple, you said?” asked Walid, dragging us back on topic.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “So we could ask Father Thames, but it might even be before his time.”
“It’s nothing to do with him,” said Beverley. “If it was it’d be Mum’s now, being in the city, and it’s not; I’d know.”
“What did you mean, earlier?” I said, suddenly realising something. “About the archaeologists not being wizards?”
“You did magic,” Beverley said. “That’s when it started to happen. You didn’t notice?”
“Oh,” said Nightingale. “And he didn’t do any this morning; I did.”
“No, I didn’t notice!” I said. “The whole – wing situation – didn’t start until we were on our way back to the car –”
First it had felt like itching, then pressure, and then very much like someone had just attached a heavy backpack to my shoulderblades, which I suppose was why Nightingale had asked me to get it off my back when it’d happened to him, except I’d had a pretty good idea what was going on. I knew now why he’d had so much trouble; they’d started off numb, like my nervous system didn’t know what to do. They were half-folding and opening now like his had been, but I was slowly bringing them under control. Or I thought I was. It took a lot of concentration.
Good thing I’d worn one of my least-favourite t-shirts when we went back, you know, just in case. Sometimes I hate being right.
“No, but the magic did, whatever it was,” said Beverley. “It just took a bit to do its thing.”
“Well,” said Walid, “I think there’s only one thing for it. We need a control.”
“Right,” I said, “but don’t the archaeologists count? Not to mention the forensics team.”
“I was thinking you could do a werelight while I’m around, and see if it’s doing it or just being near it.”
“Huh. Okay. Are you sure we shouldn’t go and grab – Abigail, or somebody? We might need you for, I don’t know, medical stuff.”
“Oh, no,” Walid said. “Experimentation on minors would be totally unethical. And I’m afraid I’m short on graduate students right now.”
“I could always give Guleed a call,” I suggested.
Nightingale put his hand over his face, but it was pretty late in the afternoon by this point, so he might have just been getting tired.
“I’m almost disappointed,” Walid said, after a full five minutes of werelight conjuration - by Nightingale, then me - had failed to have any effect whatsoever. I kept the werelight going regardless and stuck it to the wall; we were below ground level and the archaeologists had shut down all their floodlights for the evening before they’d left. The forensics people were gone, too – not that it seemed likely the murder they were there for had anything to do with our little feathery problem. Turned out graduate students failing their exams and pickaxes were a bad combination.
Nightingale snorted, one wingtip flicking slightly. “Don’t be.”
“It took Nightingale about forty minutes,” I said, “and fifteen for me. There’s still hope.”
Genuine alarm flashed across Walid’s face, which I took to mean he really wasn’t that disappointed after all.
“Don’t worry,” Beverley told him, after leaning in slightly closer than social etiquette really called for, “nothing’s going to happen.”
“How do you know that?” I asked her.
“You started to smell different, after,” she said. “I wasn’t sure before, but I am now. Noticed in the car.”
She’d borrowed Fleet’s Range Rover – no hope of getting me and Nightingale in the Jag or the Asbo in our present conditions, and while a police van would have been just the thing we’d have had to call somebody, probably Guleed, to sort it out. And then we’d never have heard the end of it. I was pretty sure we weren’t going to hear the end of it from Fleet or her family either, since I doubted Beverley had failed to explain why she needed the car, but they were much more likely to understand that sometimes these things just happened. Really, they did.
“Ah,” said Walid. “Well. That’s one theory down, I suppose.”
He shrugged very slightly, like he was testing out the feel of his back. I didn’t blame him.
“Some sort of trap for wizards?” Nightingale said, sounding unconvinced of his own hypothesis. There wasn’t anything obviously trap-like around us; the space was apparently of great archaeological interest, but the worn stones and carefully spread tarpaulins had no particular magical significance that I could see or feel. Not even much of a sensus illic, for somewhere so old.
“Yeah, but where?” I was feeling cramped in the underground space. My control of my new appendages wasn’t as good as Nightingale’s yet, being a few hours behind him, and I kept wanting to spread them and only half-managing not to. I’d already hit Walid by accident getting out of the car, and I was worried I was going to break something.
“Curse tablets,” Beverley said suddenly. “Look for those. People wrote any old thing on them.”
“Curse tablets?” asked Walid.
“Like at Bath?” I said. “Is that how you know about them, a friend complaining about the littering?”
“Basically,” Beverley said. “You wouldn’t believe what people chuck into bodies of water if they think they’re sacred. It’s shocking, is what it is.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow,” Nightingale said.
“They found them in the seventies,” I explained. “It was a thing the Romans and Greeks liked to do – write curses on lead tablets and throw them into sacred pools or bury them in sanctuaries or whatever. The Bath ones are mostly about cursing people who stole their clothes while they were bathing. Or love spells. But, I mean, it’s not – magic, right? It’s like alchemy or astrology. Just people complaining about other people and hoping someone’s listening.”
“Nothing I’ve ever heard of,” Nightingale agreed, “and I can’t imagine why an ancient Roman would have the slightest interest in cursing someone this way, or how it might last two thousand years, let alone work, magically speaking, but –”
“Over here,” said Walid, who’d prosaically started hauling back tarps – we were going to have to put those back the way we’d found them – and revealed a row of dull pieces of metal, laid out under the protection of a clear sheet of plastic.
I won’t bore you with the details, because staring at barely-readable text was pretty boring for me at the time, but we found the right one eventually. Or at least we were pretty sure; it was in Latin as she was spoke in second or third-century Britain, not the classical Latin your posh wizard type uses, and the spelling wasn’t that great either. It’s the first time I’ve seen Nightingale struggle translating something and I may or may not have smirked.
I got a wingtip in my face.
“Oops, sorry,” said Nightingale, sounding not sorry at all. “Still not quite sure what I’m doing with them.”
I didn’t retaliate, but only because I’m a better person. And also the potential for weirdness was way too high.
“Right,” said Beverley. “Destroy it and we’re done, I reckon.”
“Or…we’re stuck,” I said. “Let’s not discount that possibility.”
“Let’s not,” Nightingale agreed. “On the other hand –”
We looked at each other; there was really no way we could manage like this on an ongoing basis, and the terrifying thing was that after just a few hours it almost looked normal, seeing Nightingale like this, and that - that wasn’t right. I wondered what I looked like. There hadn’t been much of an opportunity to look in any mirrors.
It probably looked daft, anyhow, since I was still stuck with the blanket. Molly hadn’t bothered to alter one of my shirts.
“Do you think it’s safe to use magic?” I asked him.
“Perhaps best not,” he said. “Who knows if any of these other tablets are going to have any other sort of side-effects. Or if magic will just make it do something else.”
I looked over at my werelight on the wall, but it was a bit late to be worrying about that.
“I used to have some friends in archaeology at university,” Walid mused. “There’ll be something suitably destructive around. As well as a lot of very small brushes. And alcohol.”
“Are you sure your friends weren’t in dentistry?” I asked.
“Oh, quite,” he said. “The dentists had their own special variety of oddness.”
I did not make a Little Shop of Horrors joke, but this was principally because Beverley and Nightingale cleared their throats loudly when I opened my mouth.
I’m still not sure what the archaeologists were doing with a welding torch, and I’m really not sure why Beverley knew how to use it – Nightingale watched with the fascinated expression of somebody who’s been able to melt steel with magic since his teenage years and has almost forgotten there’s a normal way to do it – but you know what? It worked.
I was sort of expecting a flash of light, or maybe a loud whooshing noise, which is entirely a product of my modern media consumption habits and not my practical experience as a wizard, but it felt more like something melting; a weight was suddenly gone from my back, and I nearly fell forward. Luckily for my dignity Nightingale did something similar, although I will grant that he recovered a bit more gracefully. We were both surrounded by a shower of feathers, brown for him and black and sparkly for me.
It was weird; my back muscles kept twitching as I tried to balance wings I didn’t have any more. I suddenly wanted to say no, it’s okay, I’ll take them back, but that was stupid and temporary.
“Well,” said Walid. “That was much easier than I thought it would be.”
He’d probably been contemplating the possibility of surgical removal or something creepy like that. I tried not to think about it too hard. Nightingale’s expression said he was thinking the same thing.
“Huh, yeah,” said Beverley. “Normally Peter makes stuff way more complicated than this.”
“Quite,” agreed Nightingale, and I viewed with dawning horror the prospect of them ganging up on me, which I probably should have foreseen after he asked her to go to Herefordshire to help me but really, that’s not fair.
“Right,” I said. “And on that note, I think we’ve all earned our dinner.”
We did have to tidy the place up a bit but we left the feathers, because it was going to make somebody’s day more interesting and mysterious and Walid had sufficient samples back at the Folly and also it had already been a very long day. So we did as all self-respecting British policemen and doctors and river goddesses do after a very long day, and went to the pub.
While we were walking back to the car, Nightingale fell into step beside me, glancing up at the night sky; or as much of it as you can see in London, what with the buildings and the light pollution. Although it was a clear night, otherwise.
“Do you think,” he said quietly, “that we could have -” He lifted his chin upwards.
“What,” I said. “Flown?”
He shrugged. “I suppose.”
I thought about this. “I’m not sure – condors are the biggest flying birds, right? They only weigh about fifteen kilos. Even Quetzacoatlus might not’ve weighed a lot more than a human, and they had a fifteen-metre wingspan. I don’t know if it would have been physically possible. Or physiologically.”
“Quetzil – what?” said Nightingale blankly.
“Biggest flying creature ever,” I said. “A pterosaur.” He continued to look blank.
“Flying dinosaur,” I said, and offered up a silent apology to palaeontologists everywhere.
“Ah,” Nightingale said, in the tones of one who doesn’t understand but doesn’t want to inquire further. “So – no.”
I shrugged. “Well. Magic, right? Humans can’t hold their breath for more than three or four minutes, and I’ve seen Bev go under for hours.”
See also: the spontaneous creation of a fourteen-foot wingspan, times two. Enough magic to partially counteract the forces of gravity for two adult humans was nothing compared to that.
“Right,” said Nightingale, with a slight smile. “Magic.”
We both glanced up again, and – yeah, okay, I wondered too. My back felt cold. I’d brought a shirt, but it was in the car with Nightingale’s jacket; I was still stuck with the blanket for now.
“Hurry up,” called Beverley from next to the car, “whatever it is, you can talk about it over a pint, and maybe tell us, too!”
“Okay, okay,” I called back, and we hurried up, but I knew already whatever else we did talk about over a pint – and I really should clarify the flying dinosaur thing or it was going to come back to haunt me somehow – it wasn’t going to be that.
Some things you only want to wonder about with someone who’s been there.