Her headmistresses were always prating on about the need to act in a more ladylike manner, but behaving in a ladylike manner had never done Maria a lick of good.
Against all odds and her own expectations, her fourth school had turned out to be the charm. Her parents were overjoyed at what they took to be her sudden change of heart towards school, but Maria could have told them, had they asked, that since Christmas 1928 she simply had more important things on her mind than playing her old games. Things like magic.
Her parents never asked.
Still, there had been little enough magic in the world the past four years that at first Maria barely gave the man on her train to Tatchester a second glance. He was tall and beak-nosed, with a grim mouth and a bony forehead, cloaked and muffled against the December cold as everyone was so near the holidays. He had changed at Musburough Junction just like Maria, but she could not remember seeing him on her first train that morning. Now he sat in the corner of the car with a silent air of watchfulness that Maria noticed more and more as the miles wore on. His dark blue coat or cloak, stained by travel, was fastened with a tarnished silver pin in the shape of a circle, quartered by a cross.
His eyes flickered to Maria as the train rounded a bend, and Maria forced herself to meet his deep-set gaze unflinchingly. She put one hand through her coat pocket to feel the derringer pistol strapped to her thigh, and at the same instant the man’s grim mouth fractured into a small, knowing smile. The warmth of the expression surprised her; Maria had ceased to expect fellow-feeling from her fellow-men long ago. She trusted her siblings, and Kay to a point, but even Kay was as likely as not to say that the entire affair of the Box of Delights had been a dream.
But this man’s smile felt knowing, yet not unkind, as if he had somehow read the very thought in her mind.
Unsettled, Maria got up as the train slowed into Tatchester Station and hauled her hand-luggage down from the rack, shouldering her satchel. In the confusion of disembarking and the warm greeting of Caroline Luisa, who had volunteered to meet her at the station in light of the Joneses going abroad again, the thought of the hawk-nosed man went clean out of her mind.
Maria would never have admitted it, but when Caroline Luisa swung the car round past the ha-ha and into the front drive, the sight of Seekings did lift her heart.
Kay and Peter were already down after the end of term, and Susan and Jemima had come back from the flat they shared in London. Their infrequent letters were filled with references to people, places, and parties in which Maria had little interest. She was much more interested in trying to talk to Kay and Peter about what they might have learned of magic at the Bodleian Library, though she suspected that Peter would most likely be useless. But with the hustle and bustle of greetings, and Ellen’s excellent underdone chops, Maria put it out of her mind.
The next day she went into town to finish her Christmas shopping, trying to think what she could buy in Tatchester that might suit two older sisters who were now so glamorous as to live in London. For herself, she would have taken a new pistol as happily as a genuine grimoire, but neither of those were available in the high street. Eventually she bought Susan a smart pair of leather gloves and Jemima a gold-backed upright mirror for her vanity and took herself to the tea-shop for well-earned scones.
Emerging, she bumped straight into a tall man, with queer reddish-brown hair tickling his shoulders, dark-cloaked. “I say!” Maria said indignantly, but the man did not apologize. Instead he stood staring down at her, something cold in his blue eyes.
“Mind your feet, Maria Jones,” he said softly. “It is perilous to go astray in these days of midwinter.”
Maria lifted her chin. “It’s just as dangerous not to watch where you’re going,” she retorted. “And how do you know my name?”
“I know many things,” the man said, a hint of an icy smile passing over his features. “But I am not presently interested in you. Be glad of it.”
“Be glad I promised not to shoot anyone until after Christmas!” Maria shoved past him, overcome with a sudden fury, and made sure her shoes rang on the stones.
At the cross street her eye was caught by a fine brass pen on display in the window of the stationer’s shop. Peter might like it, she thought, and began mentally reckoning the tally of her pocket change. As she stood there counting sums, she realized that she was not the only person staring into the glass.
It was the hawk-nosed man from the train. “Well met,” he said, glancing at Maria in the pane of the window. His expression was still grim, but there was a hint of humor in his deep voice. “I wonder, Maria Jones—might I ask you for a favor?”
“That depends,” Maria said. “What’s in it for me?”
“I understand you are interested in gramarye,” the man said. “Magic.” By the easy way he spoke the word, Maria realized she had at last found someone who not only believed in it, but knew.
“So what if I am?” she asked, glancing up at his reflection. The arrogant profile was unchanged.
“You seek a foothold in a world that at present is closed to you. I cannot grant you what is not yours by birth, but I can put you on the path to learning, if that is what you desire. The time is coming when your country shall need what skills you may acquire.”
The newspapers had been full of news from Germany for the past month, and Maria had received a breathless letter from Jemima detailing a riot between the blackshirts and the communists she’d walked past in London the week after the election. In the tea-shop the papers had been saying that the National Socialists were going to form a cabinet soon, and that the National Government was only a fig-leaf for the Conservatives. Whatever the man meant, it didn’t seem good—but it did sound exciting, and Maria was powerfully desperate for some excitement.
Maria reached for her pistol through her coat-pocket. “What do you want me to do?”
Getting Kay to accompany her on a tramp to King Arthur’s Camp took more persuasion than it might have four years ago. Since earning his place at Oxford his practical streak, for which Maria had always admired him, had attenuated greatly; he had become downright moody at times. But Midwinter Day dawned clear and bright and after a breakfast of eggs, toast, and rashers of bacon, they set out down the snow-covered roads with warm boots and willing hearts.
“What did you want to come out here for anyway?” Kay asked as they drew up to the great earthen mound where Arthur and his knights had once made their camp. “Whatever was here before, it’s gone.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Maria said, looking around and keeping one hand on her pistol through her coat. Mr. Lyon, as he had named himself, had warned her to keep a weather eye peeled for anyone who might try to interfere, especially the man in the black cloak. “In any case, it’s jolly fine weather today.”
Under the sunshine, Kay relented. “It is, at that.”
The mound was long and low, barely a three-foot berm, and they scrambled up it with little difficulty. At the top Maria looked around, turning in all directions. In the trees somewhere to the north a rook crowed loudly, and despite herself she shivered.
Kay, damn him, noticed. “Are you cold?” he asked, concerned, and Maria shook her head.
“Just the breeze catching my coat wrong,” she said, starting forward through the snow to the place where a low hillock emerged from the snow. “Come on!”
The hillock had definitely not been there four years ago. When she and Kay rounded the little pile of earth, they stood speechless: though it could not possibly fit in the space, beneath the mound there lay a kind of passage leading into the hill itself, disappearing into gloom. The packed earth of the barrow stood bare despite the weather. In the distance, she thought she heard the whinnying of a horse.
“That wasn’t here before!” Kay exclaimed, which at least answered the question of whether he could see it.
Maria reached for her matches, then caught Kay’s look. “You may stay here if you like,” she told him, and saw his mouth firm.
“Give me one of those,” he said, and together they made their way down the passage into the dark.
It was not very long, though the earth pressing closely about her shoulders reminded Maria unpleasantly of her time as a guest of Abner Brown and Sylvia Daisy Pouncer. There was no door to the barrow, though there did come a point where Maria felt she had crossed a threshold, but when she glanced back she could still see the light of day in a narrow rectangle above.
She had expected—hoped—to find gold, or jewels, or weapons, or some kind of fantastic thing. But what they saw in the low earthen chamber, in a kind of diffuse pale light that came from no discernible source, was altogether different: a beautiful lady with a kind but strong face, neither young nor old but with an unmistakable air of wisdom, lying on an earthen bier. She might have been dead, but there was no touch of decay about her, though her chest neither rose nor fell.
Kay let out a strangled sound. “Who is she?”
“I don’t know,” Maria admitted. “But we have to wake her.” And so saying she crossed the dirt floor with a confidence she did not altogether feel, coming to stand alongside the lady. She was clad in a rich green dress of velvet, embroidered at the hem and sleeves with gold designs that Maria did not know, though she recognized the same crossed circle that Mr. Lyon bore on his cloak. Her hands were clasped below her bosom, and on her right hand she bore a great gold ring with the same design.
Maria took a deep breath, and reached out to put a hand on the lady’s brow. “Please,” she said. “Merriman Lyon sent me to find you. He says the Rider is abroad, and worse.” Underneath her hand, the lady did not stir, but the expression on her fine features slowly changed from one of peace to one of firm resolve. “Kay,” Maria said, looking back at him and reaching her other hand into her right coat pocket to bring out the bell that Mr. Lyon had given her. With her hand still on the lady’s brow, she had no way to reach for her pistol, and it made her back itch. “Take this bell and ring it.”
“Where did you get this?” Kay asked, but he did as she said, and took the tiny silver hammer she handed him too. Taking a deep breath, he held the bell in one hand and, with a nod, struck the hammer against it.
The sound was sweet and clear, but rather than dying away in the muffled silence of the chamber it seemed to grow and grow, until Maria felt the very air in her lungs resonating in time. Beneath her hand, the lady’s eyes suddenly opened. They were warm and blue, but the instant she turned her head and looked around her whole demeanor changed, and she sat up suddenly. “Well met, Maria Jones, Kay Harker,” she said, looking at them. The sound of the bell still had not abated. “Come, we must leave this place immediately, or risk being trapped here until the circle turns again.”
She swung herself off the bier and seized Maria and Kay by one hand each, forcing them to drop the matches they carried in her rush to get out of the chamber. Maria could not have let go if she wanted to, but as she clutched her pistol in her other hand, she had the wild thought that the surface was retreating from them rather than getting closer, and they would drown in the earth together long before they ever reached—
She had never been so grateful to see the blue sky and to feel the weak warm sunshine on her face. Maria was so preoccupied gasping for air that she almost failed to see the red-haired man, black-cloaked on a great black horse, waiting for them at the foot of the berm. The trees around the horse and its rider were black with rooks, all of the birds looking at them beadily. Despite herself, Maria felt a cold thrill, and with a start she recognized it as an unfamiliar emotion: terror.
“Maria Jones,” he said when she looked at him, and the corner of his mouth lifted in a cruel smile. “I told you to keep your nose out of what did not concern you.”
“And I told you that I promised not to shoot anyone before Christmas,” Maria said, pulling her pistol out of its holster and raising it to point straight at him. She was a crack shot with either hand, which was a jolly good thing at the moment as the lady still had not let go of her and Kay. “But I lied!”
The man threw back his head and laughed. “Your weapons are no use against me, girl.” He looked at the lady, who stood with the hem of her gown trailing in the snow as though in a palace. If she felt the cold, she gave no sign; horsed, he was taller than her, but seemed lesser all the same. “Well met, madam,” he said, and there was respect in his tone, however grudging. “I had not thought to find you here in this time.”
“I am in all times as I must be,” she said tranquilly. “It is not yet time for your great rising, but I see you and yours are determined to cause mischief as you may.”
The man might have almost been handsome, until the ugly expression of triumph twisted his features. “You will fail,” he said in a low voice, almost a hiss. “The armies of darkness shall march all over the face of the earth, and you and your defenders shall not avail against them. The years ahead are ours, and you shall rue them bitterly.”
“Perhaps,” said the Lady. “But perhaps not. I say to you, Rider, that you do not yet see all ends. And however strong the dark grows, the light of a single candle is strong enough to cast it back. Maria! Kay! Now!”
Maria knew what she had to do as soon as she heard her name. Without another thought, she fired two shots from her pistol not at the man, but at his horse, and he cursed as the beast reared beneath him. She had aimed for the thick leather of its tack, and shot true; a derringer pistol didn’t have enough force to do more than wound at this range, but the shock was enough to startle the most stalwart horse.
For his part, Kay had dropped the Lady’s hand and rung the bell once again, the sound echoing through the winter wood as though it had come from Old Truepenny himself. At the sound, both horse and rider screamed, the man reaching up to clasp his gloved hands over his ears.
The commotion made a jolly good opportunity to sprint for the enormous Daimler that had just swung into view in the road off the field below. With the Lady behind them, she and Kay pelted for the car, whose doors swung open as they skidded to a halt in front of it in the mud and snow.
“Get in!” Mr. Lyon said from the driver’s seat, and Maria flung herself into the front of the car beside him, with the Lady and Kay taking the seats in the back. No sooner had they slammed the doors shut did he put his foot on the gas pedal and the Daimler smoothly accelerated away, leaving rider, horse, and crows behind in the smoke of the exhaust pipe.
“Well done, Maria, Kay,” Mr. Lyon said to her and Kay. “We owe you a debt.” He lifted his eyes to look at the Lady in the mirror. “Madam.”
“Merriman,” she said, with a hint of humor in her voice. “It has been too long. Or is it too soon?”
He grimaced. “Both, I am afraid. Though it is out of season, their power grows, and the circle is not yet complete. We must rely on those from the track if we are to prevail in the coming battles.”
“I have never questioned your methods, Merlin. And I never shall.”
“This is a splendid car,” Maria said, looking around at the leather upholstery and the shiny chrome-trimmed dash. “Where are we going?”
Mr. Lyon—Merriman—seemed to collect himself. “Seekings,” he said crisply. “Caroline Luisa will doubtless be glad to see you return in time for tea.”
“Are you some kind of—magician?” Kay asked, his brow furrowing.
“Some kind,” Mr. Lyon said, with a very slight smile. “I teach at Oxford. If you like, Kay, you may join my tutorial next semester.”
“I should like that very much,” Kay said. Maria held her tongue.
Too soon, they swung round the curve past the ha-ha and into the drive at Seekings. The Lady got out of the car and opened Kay’s door for him as though she were a servant, leaving Mr. Lyon and Maria alone in the front. Her gown now seemed to be a great forest green coat, trimmed with gold buttons.
“Thank you, Maria Jones,” Mr. Lyon said, turning to face her after he shut off the engine. “You went where I could not, into the teeth of the enemy. Your courage has helped us win—a skirmish, shall we say. But out of such skirmishes are battles built, and wars won.”
“I want to do more,” Maria said in a rush. She had quite enjoyed the whole thing, though the icy spike of fear that the sight of the rider had driven into her heart had not yet wholly melted. “I want to learn magic. I want to fight.”
Mr. Lyon nodded. Outside the car, the Lady was explaining to Ellen that she and her brother had found Kay and Maria cold and wet in the snow and offered them a ride back to Seekings on account of the weather, which looked like it was about to storm. “If that is so, there are ways for you to learn, and to join our cause. It will be dangerous, but I expect that is just as you prefer it.” He sighed, then reached into the glove compartment and withdrew a small thick cream-colored card, embossed on one side with that same quartered circle and on the other with an Oxford address. “Write to me here after the new year, Maria. There is a place at Oxford for you, should you want it, to learn magic and more besides. There is a war coming in this time, and we must fight on many fronts.”
“Jolly good,” Maria said, tucking the card into the pocket of her coat that did not have a hole in it. She had already returned her pistol to its hiding place through her other pocket. A derringer only had two bullets; she needed to reload it posthaste. “Well—I shall see you again soon, I imagine. Are you sure you don’t want to come in? Ellen makes an excellent tea.”
“No thank you,” Mr. Lyon said. “We must be on our road, and out of Tatshire by tonight.”
“Suit yourself.” Maria opened the door and climbed out of the car, where the Lady stood waiting to take her place. The kid slippers she had worn in the chamber had become a lovely pair of low boots. Maria helped her close the door. “Happy Christmas!” she told her on impulse, and the Lady turned her head and smiled at her.
“And to you, Maria Jones,” she said through the car window in her clear, low voice. “Keep that pistol handy.” From the driver’s seat, Mr. Lyon gave her a nod, and then the engine coughed into life.
“I shall,” Maria said, and she stood in the drive and watched until the great car had swung round out of sight.
“However did you meet those two?” Kay asked when she finally went into the hall. “And how did you know the Lady would be there this morning?”
Maria smiled. “Magic.”