Actions

Work Header

White Fort

Work Text:

Living at the Folly definitely has its advantages: a central location I could never afford even if I were to quadruple my salary, hot and cold running kippers, libraries and laboratories (plural), and genuinely aged and bum-conforming leather club chairs. In other words, all the accoutrements of nineteenth century white male privilege. I don’t even have to do my own washing (although I’ve drawn the line at Molly dusting my room or making up my bed), and unlike my digs at the station house, I never have to wonder who nicked my leftover kebab from the communal fridge. Unlike when I lived with my parents, I don’t have to hoard my belongings lest they be shipped to Sierra Leone. But there is one major disadvantage of Folly life: when you live where you work, you’re never truly off the clock.

My governor, Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, has lived and worked here for decades. And for most of those decades, he was a one-man force dealing with the uncanny, keeping a lid on the demi-monde, and generally managing any case that, in the elegant parlance of DCI Alexander Seawoll, “smells of weird bollocks.”

Nightingale, for whom work-life balance is something that happens to other, clearly inferior people, expects me to be available day and night, weekends, bank holidays, Bonfire Night, and even during the premiere episode of the newest series of Doctor Who. So that was why he looked so genuinely puzzled when he interrupted my practice on the firing range, holding an official-looking envelope.

“I’ve been informed that you have almost nine weeks of accumulated leave and that you must take at least 15 days off before the end of this year,” he said, extending the hand bearing the bad news.

I allowed my delayed-release fireball to dissipate with a small sigh. I had been expecting this. The emails from Human Resources had been becoming increasingly shrill in tone as my paid annual holiday bank swelled. In fact, I hadn’t taken a single day of leave since my probationary period ended. There just never seemed to be the time.

“Sorry, boss,” I said, taking a sip from my water canteen. “I tried to get them to let me cash out a few of the weeks, but according to Health and Safety, we’re required to take at least eight days of leave every year.”

“Eight days?” Nightingale looked shocked. “Eight days all at once?” He shook his head. “Never mind that. Peter, why haven’t you brought this to my attention? Would you like to go on holiday?”

I shrugged. “I’m not bothered.”

In fact, since my recent glimpse of how the one-percenters lived, I’d occasionally found myself musing about me and Bev on a beach somewhere. I could lie in the sun drinking cold beer until my skin turned IC6 and Bev could have tea with the local selkies and merpeople. At night we’d drink fruity drinks and dance, then retire to our rustic beach house (with all mod cons) for some happy holiday time on a super king-size bed.

But it was out of the question. Aside from my workload as an apprentice wizard and police constable, I was still paying off my dad’s new teeth. And my mum had been at me to “invest” in producing dad’s new CD. So I could afford neither the time nor the money to go on holiday.

“Peter, I believe I must insist that you take the requisite time off before year’s end,” said Nightingale. “Not only are you entitled to a respite, you have truly earned it.” He clapped me on the shoulder as we left the shooting range and said, confidentially, “It also appears that I may be sanctioned in some fashion if I fail to see that you expunge this accrual. So just you start looking at holiday brochures, Constable.”

It was a week later at breakfast when Nightingale asked me if I’d made any holiday plans. “The Highlands are lovely this time of year if you’ve a fancy to do some hiking. And the Scottish golf courses are legendary.” He smiled encouragingly and took a sip of his coffee. “Perhaps a bicycle tour in Ireland? Or were you thinking of venturing to the Continent, or even to America?” It all sounded exhausting to me. And completely out of my financial grasp. Something must have shown on my face because Nightingale trailed off in his enumeration of bracing ways for a young man to spend his mandatory vacation.

I noticed Molly hovering disapprovingly and I ate a mouthful of kedgeree to buy time before answering. “The thing is, boss,” I began. “I can’t really…”

“I understand,” Nightingale interrupted. “You’ll want some true rest and relaxation after the year we’ve had. How would you like to ruralize for a fortnight?” And that was how me and Bev ended up in what Nightingale called the Order’s “shooting box” in Wales.

 

As it turned out, Caerwyn was more of a mansion than a box. Bev crossed the threshold, dropped her pink sports bag, did a slow 360 in the entry, then fixed on the giant chandelier that hung from a medallion on the ceiling.  “Fuck me,” she said. “What the hell is this place, Peter? Are you sure you’ve got the right address?”

I was wondering that myself. Caerwyn, as I later learned, was an eighteenth-century, Grade II-listed Georgian country house. Apparently, this was just another of the Folly’s many real estate holdings. In the old days, members of the Folly could come here on holiday to massacre birds and recuperate from the rigours of life as dashing wizards-about-town in the metropolis. Nightingale had explained that the current caretakers regularly hired the place out, but it happened to be vacant just now. Of course it was.

I had been expecting a kind of picturesque hobbit hole but Caerwyn was, if not Pemberley, definitely Netherley Place. Complete with ballroom, billiards room, stables and, as I found out that night, one super king-sized bed.

I grinned at Bev. “Stick with me, kid. I’ll take you places.”

“Welcome to Caerwyn,” a pair of male, distinctly Welsh, voices called out in harmonious chorus. Which should have been creepy, but was actually quite pleasant. Apparently, all Welshmen can sing. I turned to see two white guys in their forties, one tall and thin with a shaved head and the other short and stocky with wild reddish hair and a full beard. They introduced themselves as Emrys and Owen, caretakers and genial hosts of the house.

Emrys and Owen greeted us warmly, in the continental fashion. “Mister Thomas wrote and told us we were to take special care of you, Mister Peter,” said Emrys.

“Yes,” agreed Owen, a little less effusive than his partner. “And may I say what an honour it is to have you, Miss Brook, staying with us.” He executed a little bow and waited for Bev’s acknowledgement before continuing. “You must be fatigued after your drive. We have refreshments set up in the garden room. Please allow me to show you the way.”

The garden room was a solarium at the back of the house, overlooking a formal garden. It was newer than the rest of the house, Edwardian if I had to guess, but the original panes of glass had been replaced with modern double-glazing. After pouring us each a glass of champagne, Owen formally pledged that we could eat and drink in this house without obligation. He handed me a card with mobile numbers for him and Emrys, and asked me to text him when we were ready for the tour. He left us to it, but not before performing another not-quite-genuflection to Bev.

After Owen had gone, I asked Bev what the hell that little dance had been in aid of. “He’s one of Uske’s acolytes.” She shrugged and clinked her champagne glass with mine. “Now aren’t you glad we stopped to say hello to them on the way here?” I had been a bit grumpy about spending an hour or more sitting on a piling under the motorway while Bev frolicked about with the incarnation of the River Uske, a small pink-skinned person of indeterminate age and gender whose hair hung past their shoulders in dark gold ringlets. They had a firm jaw that was at odds with their overall plumpness. Something about the way Uske moved and spoke reminded me of Sky, the late wood nymph of Skygarden. But they were also very much like the other rivers of my acquaintance – compelling and a bit scary.

I sat on a white wicker loveseat with lilac and green cushions and patted the seat next to me. “So what do you think?” I asked. “Nightingale made this place sound like a mouldering shack in the mountains, not lifestyles of the magical and infamous.”

Bev stepped out of her trainers, grabbed a mini sausage roll from the tray of nibbles on the coffee table and curled up next to me on the loveseat. “No complaints from me.”

“And no magical protections to keep the likes of you hovering on the threshold,” I said. “That’s a nice welcoming touch.”

“I noticed that,” Bev said. “There’s definitely some kind of power here, but nothing scary. What’s your spider-sense telling you about Caerwyn?”

You can sense vestigia in every old house. After awhile, you learn to automatically take note of it, then file it away unless you sense something truly disturbing. My first impression of Caerwyn was all lavender and lemon cake, happy anticipation, a frisson of sex and fading music from a baroque quartet. “Weddings,” I said. “Lots and lots of weddings. And just a hint of old cigar smoke, brandy, horses, rattling dice and magic. I guess that’s from the Folly’s old boys.”

Bev raised her eyebrows. “Impressive, young Padawan.” She popped the sausage roll in her mouth and said, “This is a good place. But something lives here.” I plucked a fallen piece of flaky pastry from her cleavage and fed it to her, watching the way she chewed and licked her lips. I pretty much stopped hearing what she was saying at that point, until she dipped her fingers in her champagne, flicked the droplets in my face, and laughed. “Focus, Peter!”

“Right! Yes! Focusing!” I took her hand and licked champagne from her fingers. “Totally focused now.” Bev grabbed the back of my head and pulled me in for a kiss, then pushed me back. “Work first, sunshine, then we’ll start, um, focusing,” she said with a smile that made work the furthest thing from my mind.

I pointed out that I had been ordered by my governor and the might and majesty of the Metropolitan Police to engage in rest, relaxation, and recreation (not necessarily in that order) in a charming rural setting.

“You will,” Bev promised. “But first close your eyes for a minute and really pay attention.”

“What am I looking for?” I asked. She told me she didn’t want to prejudice me and poured herself some more champagne. I did as I was told and took a deep breath. Genuine smells of the snacks on the table, the tart-sweet smell of champagne, the feel of Bev’s body pressed up against me, cocoa butter and river water from her hair, vague sounds of birds outside, normal background creaking of an old house, and then it hit me.

There was magic at Caerwyn. And not just the vestigia from generations of practitioners staying here. It was magic of a kind I hadn’t felt before. It wasn’t ghosts or unquiet spirits. It wasn’t Newtonian or any other magical tradition I’d been exposed to. It was a bit like the Fae who’d kidnapped two eleven-year-olds last summer, but not menacing. I got a flash of wood polish, warm milk, and a feeling of deep contentment.

I shook my head, sipped my champagne, and said, “Okay, I give up. I don’t know where that’s coming from but it’s not anything I’ve encountered before.” I picked up a piece of coconut shrimp from the tray and took a bite. “You’re right. It’s a good place, but definitely not a mundane place.” I sighed. Nothing threatening here, but I was going to have to figure out where the magic was coming from before I could even think about really relaxing.

 

Emrys and Owen gave us the grand tour of the house, the stables, the outbuildings, the wine cellars, and their own self-contained flat in the older part of the house. They explained that they’d had a pipe burst in the ballroom and a crew was repairing the damage to the floor and walls. That, as it turned out, was why they’d been conveniently vacant for us. I thought about the burst pipe and wondered if Nightingale was acquainted with the deity of the River Uske.

The magic was humming in the background in each room. Now that I’d separated this strand from the rest of the vestigia, I could pick it out, getting stronger as the rooms got smaller and the ceilings lower in the part of the house that predated the Georgian façade by at least two hundred years. It had been respectfully renovated, but you couldn’t miss the sense of age and the feeling of so many lives lived in these rooms.

Bev gave my hand a squeeze as we followed Emrys into the kitchen with Owen bringing up the rear. It was here. Contentment, wood polish, warm milk with honey, industry, almost as strong as I’d felt with Mellissa Oswald’s bees.

I mouthed “Bees?” to Bev, but she shook her head and nudged me toward the huge fieldstone fireplace opposite the Aga.

Before I could examine the fireplace, Owen introduced us to the chef, a white woman in her thirties who had disturbingly pale skin and the darkest eyes I’d ever seen on a white person.  Aerona Hill told us she was named for her grandmother and for the Welsh goddess of battle and slaughter. It’s possible she said that her grandmother was the Welsh goddess of battle and slaughter, but I could only follow the general lines of her conversation because she slid in and out of Welsh and English in a way that made me think she was speaking some new hybrid language.

Her husband and sous-chef, Max Hill, was a mixed-race man of about my age and height. He spoke very deliberately in RP English and, interestingly, did not flash even the tiniest of covetous glances at Bev. That was kind of uncanny. I’d never seen anyone, meeting Bev for the first time, look directly and only at her face. Even Owen and Emrys had taken a solid Kinsey 3 peek at Bev’s cleavage and the curve of her hips. But Max seemed a nice enough bloke, clearly smitten with his own goddess and with no eyes for any other.

While Max and Aerona told Bev about the gastronomic delights they had in store for us, Owen stepped away to take a call on his mobile and Emrys showed me around the rest of a kitchen that rivalled Caerwyn’s entry hall in size. The stone fireplace dominated the centre of the room, complete with those wrought iron things you use to swing heavy cauldrons over the fire. The closer I got to the hearth, the clearer I felt the vestigium, or whatever it was.

There was humming – definitely not buzzing – a kind of melodic calming vibration that I could feel in my chest. I smelled pine needles and beeswax, and there was a rhythmic sound like Molly sweeping the stone floor in the Folly’s kitchen. I had no idea what was doing this but, like Beverley, I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to try to kill us.

I noticed a doll-sized china plate and jug perched on a protruding stone. As I crouched closer to get a better look, the sounds and smells enveloped me. I reached a hand out to touch the tiny dishes when a hand grasped my arm and I whirled around, startled and off-balance. It was Emrys, asking if I was all right. I thanked him and made some excuse about the heat from the fire. He gave me a hard look, then continued telling me about the various wines we might want to sample during our stay. He explained that he was studying to become a certified sommelier and hoped he wasn’t becoming a dead bore on the subject. I smiled politely, dragged my focus away from the fireplace and said, “I’m the same way with architecture. At least your obsession has some bearing on your work.”

“Ah yes,” Emrys put one foot on the stone ledge around the fireplace, resting a hand on the mantle. “Your work must be truly fascinating. It’s years since I’ve been in the Folly. I wonder if you’ve ever seen…” He stopped, noticing Owen coming back to join us. Emrys blushed faintly and glanced guiltily at Owen. “Sorry, Mister Peter,” he said. “We are under strict instructions that you are to have a quiet and restful holiday with no thought of work.”

“You say you’ve been to the Folly?” I asked, wondering why Nightingale hadn’t mentioned this little detail to me.

“Not for years.” Emrys smiled and stroked his beard. “And really, you don’t want to be talking shop when you could be enjoying all the delights of Caerwyn.”

Owen nodded. “Yes, I hope you brought your swimming kit. We’re having such a mild autumn, I’ve left the pool heater on and you’ll have it all to yourselves.” He paused and did the little bow/bob thing as Bev joined us. “Miss Brooke, you will be pleased to know that ours is a salt water pool. I venture to guess that you find chlorine just as odious as I do.” Bev agreed. We thanked them politely, said good-bye to the Hills, and began the long trek to our suite.

Bev had accepted a small plate of warm, savoury pastries from Aerona and Max to keep our strength up on the journey. We needed it. The bed was, after all, super king-sized.

 

Some time later, a text from Emrys asked me to let them know when dinner should be served and offered to have Max bring it to the sitting room off our suite. Bev, whose metabolism was literally inhuman, was starving again and I was more than a bit peckish, so we asked to have our dinner sent up as soon as was convenient.

I can’t recall exactly what we ate, but there was a lot of it and it was ridiculously good. After we’d eaten and pushed the serving cart out to the hall, we took a bath in the tub that was even bigger than the one at Bev’s place.

Feeling clean and relaxed, if not rested, we found a plasma TV, a mini-fridge, and a drinks cupboard inside one of the antique armoires. I made Bev a Black Russian, opened a bottle of scrumpy for me, and found a satellite channel running a Time Team marathon.

We settled down on the messy bed, piling pillows up behind our backs, and watched Mick Aston get teary-eyed over some bits of Saxon pottery in the Cotswolds. After my second scrumpy, I asked Bev to just tell me what kind of magical being was in this house. “I already know Emrys is some kind of practitioner and Owen’s got that riverine devotee kind of look about him.”

Bev raised her eyebrows. “Takes one to know one, Peter,” she said, smirking.

I ignored that remark and went on. “Aerona’s a bit spooky, but Max is just a regular bloke. So, what are we looking at here? Genius loci? Someone like Molly who likes sweeping the floors?”

Bev sipped her drink and pursed her lips. “I think I should let you work that out on your own. Kind of like a practicum for a practitioner.”

I complained that I didn’t have my laptop or access to any of the reference material in the Folly’s libraries, but Bev reminded me that I hadn’t had any books on fairies when we were in Rushpool. I pointed out that I’d had books from Hugh Oswald’s library and that there was nothing more esoteric than The Water Babies on the bookshelves here. Nonetheless, I cast my mind back over all the spirits, creatures, monsters, and mythological beasts I’d studied or encountered since joining the Folly.

“It was strongest in the kitchen near the hearth,” I said. Bev nodded and made a “go on” gesture. “So there’s definitely some kind of connection there.”

“You’re getting warmer,” Bev said, encouragingly. “Think about the kitchen,” she went on. “Notice anything odd?”

“Other than the slaughter goddess speaking in tongues, the gay wizard who rejoices in the ever-so-subtle name of Emrys, the acolyte of the non-binary river, and the ghost of an overzealous scullery maid?” I got another bottle of scrumpy, made Bev another drink, and pondered for a bit longer as I sipped the deceptively fruity brew.

“I’m going back down there,” I said, putting my bottle down and pulling on my pyjama bottoms. “Without all the other magical interference, I might be able to tune in to this entity, or whatever it is.”

Bev checked her phone and stood up quickly. “Wait, Peter. It’s nearly midnight. You can’t go down there now.”

“Why not?” I stood up to look for my socks, remembering the flagstone floor. “I don’t want to go during the day when people are working in there.”

Bev put down her drink and came around to stand in front of me with her arms crossed. “It would be a bad idea for you to go down there before dawn.”

“Weren’t you the one telling me this thing wasn’t anything bad? Now you don’t want me to see what’s down there? What is it, Gremlins?” I asked, quite reasonably I thought, so, I was surprised when she shoved me backward onto the bed and pinned my arms under her knees.

“This isn’t a joke, Peter,” she said, settling her bum on my chest with an incongruous smile. “It is safe, but you don’t want to go down there at night. Trust me.”

I looked up into her beautiful face and all I could think of was the perfect little indent of her lips and her cat’s eyes that flashed when she was pissed off. I trusted her with my life and all I wanted to do was stay right there with Beverley Brook, goddess of a not-so-small river in south London, sitting on my chest for all eternity.

And then the part of my brain that wasn’t soaked in scrumpy and serotonin gave my mind a kick in the pants and the glamour collapsed. “Stop that, Bev!” I said, laughing and flopping around as I tried to dislodge her. “No mesmerizing the boyfriend, remember?”

Bev rolled off me in one smooth movement and straightened her bathrobe. “Nice to know I can still get you,” she smirked. “At least, I can for a minute when you’re nearly three scrumpies in.”

“Nice to know I can resist your glamour when I’m three scrumpies in.” I remembered that I had days ahead of me to investigate the creature of the kitchen, so I scooted back to my place in bed.

Bev got in beside me and handed me my bottle. “Finish that up, Constable, and we’ll see what you can do with me when you’re three scrumpies in.”

So I downed the bottle and, entirely of my own free will, I did as I was told.

 

After a few days, I could feel myself beginning to relax at Caerwyn. I hadn’t exactly forgotten about the entity in the kitchen, but it just seemed like it wasn’t all that important to find out exactly what it was. Especially since it seemed friendly. I was content to read novels from the library, listen to music, walk in the garden, frolic in the pool, ride the horses, eat and drink by day and be merry by night. I couldn’t entirely shake the feeling that something was out of place, but it didn’t seem to bother Bev, and I was, after all, on holiday. For two weeks, the weird bollocks would have to weird on without Peter Grant.

The weather was unseasonably warm, so we spent time at the pool every afternoon. Aerona and Max kept us well-fed and watered. Emrys and Owen were present, but not intrusive. They were there if we wanted them and out of sight when we didn’t.

It wasn’t until we’d been there for several days that I realized what was bothering me about Caerwyn. Essentially, this place was a hotel, hosting weddings and corporate getaways. Our bed was made and the room was cleaned every day. The grate was swept and ready for a new fire each evening. Empty bottles disappeared, and the million tissues Bev used for mysterious female purposes every day were gone from the wastepaper baskets. But I hadn’t seen any staff other than the Hills and the kid who looked after the horses. Where were the chambermaids, the porters, the gardeners, and the rest of the kitchen staff?

When I mentioned it to Bev, she shrugged and guessed that they’d been given leave until the work on the ballroom was finished. That made sense, but in a place this old, you’d need to be maniacal about keeping the dust down. There was no dust in the corners or under the clawfoot tub. Even the books in the library looked freshly dusted. In fact, Caerwyn was spotless. Did Owen and Emrys spend their nights cavorting about the place with feather dusters and bin bags?

I might be on vacation, but I was still a copper. And an apprentice wizard. Not to mention my mother’s son. Something was keeping this place spotless and I had to find out what it was. I needed to stake out the kitchen.

 

After a particularly fun-filled day of riding, swimming, and taking a walk into the village, Bev was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. She’d said not to go into the kitchen after midnight, but it was only half past ten, so I thought I’d do a little reconnaissance.

I slipped out of our suite and walked softly along the first-floor gallery. All was quiet, so I made my way downstairs and through the maze of rooms to find the kitchen. In the main part of the house, moonlight shining through the windows gave me enough light, but as I moved through the older rooms, I switched on my pocket torch. The little circle of light showed where the hardwood ended in a short flight of steps down to the kitchen. I paused, switched off the torch, and let my eyes adjust. The high windows of the kitchen cast shadows on the floor, lighter and darker patches of grey.

I eased down the stone steps, thankful I’d put on my socks, and looked around the huge room. Although the floor was cold, the room was comfortable with the ambient heat from the Aga and the glow of coals in the hearth. No real sounds but the ticking of a clock. The vestigia, on the other hand, washed over me. Rhythmic sweeping, humming, the scents of pine and beeswax, strengthening as I got closer to the fireplace.

It took me a little time and concentration, but I was able to push through the vestigia until it was just ambient noise. I noticed that the doll’s dishes now stood in front of the hearth. I picked up the little pitcher and sniffed. It was full of fresh cream. On the plate was a small slice of buttered bread. I was baffled. A misguided mouse trap, perhaps? I had carefully replaced the pitcher when I heard a noise like a broom handle hitting the floor on the other side of the fireplace and the slap of bare feet on the stone. I quickly circled the hearth and ran smack into one of those wrought iron arms. It swung and hit the stone fireplace with a kind of gong sound.

I was blinking the stars out of my eyes when I heard someone hissing my name. I turned to find Beverley Brook standing in the kitchen doorway.

Back in our room, Bev gave me a look that I’d previously only seen on my mum’s face. A look that said she just might let me live, if only to have something soft to rest her feet on. “What were you doing?” she asked, pinching me on the arm. “I told you about the kitchen after midnight!”

I looked at my phone. It said it was a quarter past twelve. “I went down at half past ten, I swear.” I checked my phone again. “I was only in there for a few minutes.”

Bev looked less like my mum now, for which I was grateful, and started pacing the room. “We’re gonna have to leave, Peter. First thing tomorrow.”

I watched as she went into the bathroom and started stuffing her creams and lotions into a little zippered pouch. I went in and put my hands over hers to make her stop. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what this is about.”

She sighed and kissed my cheek. “Think about where we are, Peter.”

“Caerwyn?” I said.

Bev moved past me and back into the bedroom. She sat on the edge of the bed and patted the spot beside her. “We’re in Wales, Peter. An old country house in Wales.” She could see I wasn’t following. “I guess there’s some stuff your master hasn’t gotten around to teaching you yet.”

Bev patiently explained to me that, in a house of this age in the Welsh countryside, you could almost always expect to find a bwbach in residence.

“A what-back?” I asked.

She sighed. “A bwbach, a pixie, a brownie. Like a household god, you know?”

I didn’t know. Bev went on to explain that the bwbach were helpful creatures who did the housework while everyone slept. They’d bring prosperity and good luck to the house so long as they received a tribute of cream and bread each night, and as long as nobody saw them at their work.

“That’s why we’ve got to go, Peter,” Bev said. “You disturbed the bwbach.”

I shook my head. For all the vampires, gods, ghosts, and other magical folk I’d encountered, I was having a hard time with this. “Can’t I just go down and tell it I’m sorry? Make it a cheese sandwich or something?”

Bev smiled. “No, you cannot make it a cheese sandwich. The only worse insult would be to try to baptize it or give it clothes. Best thing is just to leave quietly, Peter. We can spend the rest of your holiday at mine.”

“But I didn’t even see the thing!” I protested. “I heard a broomstick fall and someone running in bare feet. Maybe it was Emrys or the stable boy getting a snack.”

Bev gave this some thought. “It might be okay, so long as you don’t go near that kitchen again. Day or night.”

“Okay.” I said. “No more visiting the kitchen.”

We had gotten back in bed and turned out the light when something occurred to me. “Bev, you said it would be insulted if I gave it clothes. Are we talking about a house elf here, like in Harry Potter?”

She turned over and looked at me. “What?”

“A house elf, like Dobby. ‘Master has given Dobby a sock. Dobby is a free elf’? Any of this ringing a bell?”

Bev flopped back onto her pillows. “Sure, Peter. House elf, brownie, bwbach, whatever. It’s the same principle. But if you piss them off, everything turns to shit. They’ll wreck your house, steal your kids, basically fuck you up before they leave forever.”

I thought about that for a moment then sat up in bed. “Jesus Christ, Bev, that’s why there’s no staff. This is slavery!”

“No, it isn’t.” Now Bev was sitting up as well. “It’s a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship.”

“In which one party gets to sit on its arse while the other scrubs and cleans?” I said. “That’s not symbiosis, it’s exploitation.”

“Listen, Hermione, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bev fluffed up her pillows and lay down again. “It’s just a part of nature. Leave it be.”

“Says the woman with a former Russian mobster as a houseboy.”

Bev glared at me. “I pay Maksim a living wage, just like Mum takes care of Uncle Bailiff.”

I sighed, lay down beside her and brushed a stray loc off her forehead. “Can Maksim leave whenever he wants? Can Uncle Bailiff?”

She covered my hand with hers. “Of course, Peter. If they really want to leave, they’re free to go.”

“Okay,” I said and kissed her forehead. I snuggled down next to her and closed my eyes, wondering if Maksim and Uncle Bailiff knew they were free to go.

 

We woke to the sound of a fire alarm. Bev and me threw on some clothes, grabbed some shoes and legged it down the stairs. Owen was just coming up the stairs. “I am so very sorry, Mister Peter, my lady,” he said, “It’s a false alarm. Something tripped a sprinkler in the stables. We’re perfectly safe.”

The alarm cut off suddenly and Emrys came in from the back premises. “All’s well. Just a little glitch. We’re resetting the system now.”

Owen asked if we’d like breakfast now, or if we wanted to try to go back to sleep. We opted for sleep and trudged back up the stairs. As we reached our door, I started to giggle. Bev looked at me like I’d gone mad. With a little curtsey I said, “After you, my lady.”

When we finally came down to breakfast, Max apologetically told us that we’d have to make do with Weetabix since the pilot on the Aga had gone out in the night and it would be hours before it would get back up to heat. I told him I was quite fond of Weetabix. He delivered two bowls to us in the garden room with a pitcher of milk. When I poured the milk, it came out in lumps. Bev looked at the soggy mess in my bowl and glared at me. “You see?” she said. “You’ve gone and pissed off the bwbach.”

At first, I thought it was just an unrelated series of unfortunate events, but the pool had grown strange algae overnight, the horse I usually rode had gone lame, and while we were talking to the stable boy, there was a sudden crack of thunder and the heavens opened in an enormous downpour. We ran toward the house and in through the French doors to the garden room, where we clung to each other trying to get into the house proper without slipping on the wet tile. That was when the first pane of glass fell in from the ceiling.

We made it into the hall where I stood dripping on the carpet while the water seemed to bead off Bev’s hair and clothes. We stared at each other for a minute, then had to jump out of the way as Emrys and Owen ran past us to the garden room with a stack of towels and a plastic tarp. I felt a little surge of magic and…singing? The sound of rain in the garden room suddenly stopped.

I quickly pulled out my phone, relieved to find it was still working. I’d been far enough away from whatever spell Emrys had cast to stop the rain getting in. I passed a hand over my wet hair and waited a moment to see if anything else was going to happen. Then I shrugged, took Bev’s hand, and walked carefully up the stairs to our room.

The bed was unmade. The sink top was littered with Bev’s detritus, and last night’s glasses and bottles were still in the sitting room. Bev just looked at me and started a slow clap as she went into the bathroom and shut the door.

I skinned out of my wet jeans, t-shirt, and hoodie and headed for the shower room. When I came out and put on dry clothes, I heard the TV in the sitting room and headed in to see what Bev thought we should do to try and appease the bwbach.  

Bev wasn’t in the sitting room. I called her name. No answer. The suite was big, but not that bloody big. I checked the balcony and the bathroom. No Bev. I went downstairs where Owen was talking to an officious-looking person with a clipboard.

“So, you see, sir,” officious lady was saying. “You should have gotten valid permission from the Council before starting this construction work on your ballroom.”

Owen was a bit red in the face. “And I am telling you, Madam, that I filed the form, paid the fee, and received a building permit from the Council well before we commenced work.” He walked to the ballroom entrance, peeled a piece of paper off the door, and handed it to officious lady with a flourish.

She took some reading glasses from her breast pocket and examined the permit, clucking in disapproval. “I’m afraid this permit isn’t valid, sir. Now you will have to stop work immediately.”

I ducked into the library before she started telling Owen that he himself was invalid. The library was quiet, mercifully dry, and completely bereft of Beverley. I thought I should ask around before starting a room-to-room search, when a small glass-fronted book case caught my eye. I hadn’t noticed it before. Possibly it hadn’t been there before.

I pulled on the handle, but the door seemed to be stuck. I pulled a bit harder, and the door came off in my hand. I sighed and put it aside before checking the shelves. I had hit the motherlode. Here were books of magic left behind by those ruralizing wizards. I recognized some volumes from the magical library at the Folly, including a copy of the good old Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Artes Magicis. I was scanning the lower shelf for something that might tell me how to appease an agitated household god when Emrys came into the library, wiping his hands on a towel. “I see you’ve found my little treasure trove.”

“Where did you get these books, Emrys?” I asked, trying not to sound too accusatory.

Emrys grinned. “Where do you think? I got them at school.” He pulled the Principia off the shelf and showed me the imprint on the first page. It was from Casterbrook. Nightingale’s Hogwarts.

Emrys, as it turned out, was even older than Nightingale. He’d been at Casterbrook until 1904, when he was sent down in his final year. I didn’t like to ask how you get expelled from magic school, but I had a few ideas. He’d come home to Wales and one of his former teachers offered him a job as caretaker at Caerwyn. It seemed like a way to keep in touch with the Order to which he’d never be granted membership, so he took the post and had been here ever since.

“You’re like Nightingale, aren’t you?” I asked. “Aging backwards?”

He laughed, “Well, I don’t know about backwards, for I was always younger-looking than my true age. But one day in 1966, when I was seventy-nine years of age, I suddenly felt like springtime had come.”

I had about nine hundred questions to ask him, but first I wanted to know if he’d seen Bev.

Emrys took a deep breath and shook his head. “I’m afraid he’s taken her, lad.”

I jumped out of my chair and sat down again quickly. I was dizzy and thought I might throw up. “Taken her?” I whispered. “Taken her where? Who has Beverley?”

“Easy, lad.” Emrys laid a hand on my shoulder. “It’s the wee kitchen witch who’s taken your goddess, son. The bwbach.”

 

My first instinct was to call Nightingale, but Emrys asked me not to do that just yet. “We may be able to outwit the motherless wee beastie,” he said. “If we can find where he’s hidden her before sunset, we might have her back to you in time for dinner.”

As we went to the kitchen to start our search, I explained to Emrys that I was the one who had angered the bwbach. “But I didn’t see him. I just heard noises. And I swear I got to the kitchen at half past ten. I don’t know where the time went, but it was after midnight when Bev dragged me out of there.”

Emrys nodded and looked thoughtful. In the kitchen, we found Aerona and Max. Having gotten the Aga up and running, they were now dealing with a light coating of soot that had apparently blown out of the chimney and covered every surface, including Aerona and Max.

Aerona looked like she was ready to take up her grandmother’s mantle and start the slaughter. In her wrath, she’d gone full Welsh so I didn’t understand a word she was saying, but figured out enough to back away from her slowly without making any sudden moves.

Emrys, meanwhile, had both hands pressed to the stone of the fireplace and seemed to be listening with his eyes closed. Without moving he said, “Go around the other side, Peter, feel the stones and tell me what they’re saying to you.”

Keeping an eye on Aerona, who was still ranting as Max continued trying to wipe the soot off a bowl of apples, I gently placed my hands on the fireplace stones and closed my eyes. The vestigia was just as strong with the same elements as before. The main difference was the humming now sounded more like angry bees and there was no sense of contentment, only contempt. I told Emrys what I had felt and he began to sing softly.

There were no words in the song, just sounds blending one into the other. Aerona’s voice faded as Emrys’ song rose. I could sense the magic in the song as Emrys called for Bev without ever saying her name. The song was coaxing, appeasing, but soon turned angry and threatening. I clutched at the stone fireplace and felt as if it was moving. Flying. My hands seemed to be sinking into the stone and I felt as if I was being pulled inside the hearth.

 

When I opened my eyes, I was lying on the kitchen floor. “Emrys?” I called. “Bev?” Silence. I climbed to my feet and tried brushing the soot from my hands. I was alone in the kitchen. I looked around for sooty footprints leading somewhere, but there were none. Even my own prints from when I came into the kitchen were gone.  I glanced out the high windows. The sun was going down.

“All right, you bwbach,” I yelled. I had no strategy. No clever plan presented itself. I just wanted Bev back. “It’s just you and me now, sunshine. Show yourself! Are you frightened of the big bad wizard, you son of a bitch? Come out!”

Nothing happened. “Look,” I said. “What’s your name? I’m Peter. Peter Grant. Can we just talk about this? I’m the one who broke your rules, not Bev.” My voice started to get shaky. “I’m the one you want, not her.”

Nothing.

I sat on the hearth and put my head in my hands. What could the thing want? That was the first thing you were meant to do in a hostage situation. Find out what kidnapper wants and try to find some common ground. What common ground could I find with an ancient spirit, creature, house elf, or whatever it called itself?

“What does it call itself?” I asked aloud. Names have power. Naming something gives you a way in, doesn’t it? So, what the fuck was this thing’s name?

I wandered around the kitchen making sooty footprints wherever I went. “Names have power,” I muttered to myself. “Names. Power. Can you guess my name?” I wrote ‘name’ and ‘power’ in the soot that had accumulated on the butcher block counter.

I thought about what Bev had told me about the bwbach. They want to be helpful. They like butter and cream, no cholesterol issues then. They like cleaning. They don’t want to be seen. I hadn’t seen the bwbach, I’d only heard it. “I wish I’d heard your bleeding name, mate.”

And then I had it. I didn’t need the Folly’s library, or any defrocked Welsh magicians. I just needed to remember a story my dad used to tell. I cleared my throat and sang. “Today I brew, tomorrow I bake.” Possibly I was cracking up and not cracking the case.  “And then the queen’s child I shall take.”

Yeah, you miserable bastard. You took Mama Thames’ daughter? You’re going down.

Now I was singing for Bev.

“For no one knows my little game, THE BWBACH CAERWYN is my name!”

There was a little crash as the doll’s jug and saucer fell from their shelf and smashed against the stone floor. I looked around. No Bev. But the vestigia was gone. No more industrious humming and sweeping. All I smelled were kitchen smells and soot. Where was Bev?

I took the kitchen stairs three at a time and ran outside through the garden room shouting her name. “Bev! Beverley! Where are you?” The rain was blinding but I knew where I was going. I heard a noise like someone had pulled the plug from a giant’s bathtub, and there was Bev. Climbing out of the pool and looking every inch the goddess that she was.

 

Nightingale insisted that I write a detailed report for the files while it was all still fresh. He wanted more detail about everything I felt and heard, using interrogation techniques to get me to remember the nuances. He also took a statement from Bev and planned a visit to Wales for a long talk with Emrys. Later, over a cup of tea in the atrium, Nightingale asked, “What was the rhyme? The business with the queen’s child, where did that come from?”

I waited while Molly refilled my cup and held out the plate for me to take another custard cream. “It was this old book of nursery rhymes and fables my dad used to read. He’d had it since he was a kid, and his mum was Welsh.” I shrugged. “It just all suddenly came together, the helpful but dangerous elf, the bargain, and the name. There was a Welsh version of the story we read in school called Guess My Name. I knew it couldn’t actually be Rumpelstiltskin or even Garwyn-a-throt, so I thought, he’s a house elf, maybe his name is the name of the house.”

Molly gave me another custard cream before she glided away. Nightingale put down his teacup and said, “Now, Peter, there is another matter we must discuss.”

“Yes, guv,” I said.

“You still have seven days’ leave to expunge. Where would you like to go for your next holiday?”