Copyright © 2007 by Barbara Davies.
This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.
This is the sequel to Bourne's Edge
THE DOLL HOSPITAL
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Tarian held the haunch of wild boar out of reach of her two wolfhounds.
"That's for later, greedy guts. Stop it." Anwar and Drysi whined and gave her their best mournful looks but her heart was as stone. "You've already had your breakfast," she reminded them. Tails drooping, they lay down on the gravel, resting their heads on their front paws and doing their best to look put upon.
She stifled a grin and squeezed the joint of meat into the tiny boot alongside the rest of the dogs' supplies and the two overnight bags. The bags bulged. Tarian wasn't taking much, but Cassie... you'd never guess they planned to be away a week at most.
The sound of footsteps made her look round just as Cassie emerged from the front door of the forester's house. Gaily-wrapped parcels, piled in her arms, almost hid her from view. Tarian went to help her before she dropped something.
"What's all this?"
"Presents. Thanks." Cassie relinquished two parcels to Tarian's care.
"Did you buy up the gift shop?"
"Well, I couldn't go empty handed. I had to get something for Rosemary for looking after Tiddles. And for Mum and Dad too, to thank them for inviting us to dinner tomorrow. And I couldn't leave out Louise (that Armitage business made me miss her birthday, you know) or Danny and Justin or—"
"Forget I asked."
Cassie threw her a grin and together they stowed the parcels in what little space remained. "There." She closed the car boot and stood back.
"That the lot?"
"Going somewhere nice?" came a man's voice.
A spiky-haired young man, wearing what had once been white overalls, was grinning at the two women from the pavement. Several fresh oil streaks almost hid his acne.
"Depends how you view Birmingham, Mike," Tarian told the owner of Bourne's Edge's one and only garage.
He grimaced and gestured at Cassie's blue Toyota. "Last time, I had to hammer the dents out of Miss Lewis's boot and fit her a new bumper." He grinned. "Not that I'd mind the work. Business is pretty slack at present."
"Those were exceptional circumstances," said Cassie, sounding slightly peeved. "And Birmingham's really nice in parts now. Anyway, we're only going for a little while. To sort out my flat."
"And to meet her parents," added Tarian.
"Oh!" Mike threw Tarian a sympathetic glance. "Good luck with that." He lifted his hand in farewell and set off back down the hill. She watched him go for a moment then turned and became aware of Cassie's quizzical gaze.
"You aren't worried about meeting them, are you?"
Tarian shrugged. Nothing should be able to daunt a former champion of the Queen of the Fae, yet she had to admit she was feeling a little... apprehensive. "What if they don't like me?"
"Too bad. It'll make no difference to how I feel about you."
That remark deserved a kiss, so Tarian gave it to her, and a hug. "I could always put a spell on them," she said.
The mortal's eyes widened. "Don't you dare!"
"Just joking," said Tarian, though she hadn't been. Oh well. She released Cassie. I'll just have to charm them the hard way.
She glanced at the fully laden car then at Cassie's jacket. "All ready?" Cassie nodded. "Need to use the bathroom?"
"No." Cassie opened the car's back door and waited expectantly. "In," she told the dogs.
They got to their feet, yawned, stretched their backs and back legs, and padded over to the open door, taking their time about it. Tarian sent them a mental command to hurry up.
Cassie had placed a car rug over the back seat to keep off the worst of the muddy paw prints and dog hairs, and the two dogs sprawled on it quite happily. She wound down the window half way, then, making sure no paws were in the way, closed the door.
"I'll close up the house and be right with you," said Tarian.
Cassie nodded and took her place in the driver's seat.
It took Tarian only a few minutes to use the bathroom, check that the back door was locked and bolted, that the curtains in her studio were drawn, the lights off, and the embers in the Aga and the sitting room hearth out. She slipped into her well worn leather jacket, pulled the front door closed behind her, activated the wards she had erected earlier, and walked towards the car.
"Should we ask someone to keep an eye on the house while we're away?" asked Cassie, as Tarian got in, straightened the rucked up sweatshirt beneath her jacket, and shoved back the passenger seat as far as it would go.
"No need. Anyone who tries to break in will be overwhelmed by a compulsion to go home. ... Why don't these things come with more leg room?"
"It fits me," said Cassie. "If you want a car that fits you, you should buy one."
Tarian snorted. "And have it sit idle outside the house all day? Waste of time and money."
"It goes without saying that you'd have to learn to drive."
Tarian did up her seat belt. "Give me a warhorse any day."
"You could get a motorbike and be a biker chick." Green eyes looked off into space. "Actually, that's not a bad idea."
Her lustful expression amused Tarian. "I don't think so."
Cassie came back to herself. "It was just a thought. Ready?"
Tarian nodded, and Cassie started the engine, released the handbrake, and set off.
They had gone ten yards down the hill when she glanced at Tarian. "It's really nice of you to come with me like this. Especially as I don't need your protection from Armitage any more."
The police had told Cassie that the criminal landlord who'd been trying to kill her was no longer a threat. To her or anyone else for that matter. He was in a coma, in Winson Green's medical wing. And it looked like he would never wake up. Tarian felt a sense of grim satisfaction. The bespelled painting I sent him must have done the trick.
She glanced at Cassie. "It's no fun moving house on your own."
"True. But I know you don’t like towns and cities much." Cassie slowed to let the Reverend Wright cross the road, exchanged a wave with the bearded vicar, and picked up speed once more. "You're just a little old country girl at heart."
Tarian arched an eyebrow. "It's more than that. The Fae live in harmony with Nature. We draw energy from oak and ash, river and sky."
Cassie threw her a concerned glance. "Why didn't you tell me this before? Are you going to be all right?"
"It won't kill me, and it's only for a week."
They drove past the little B & B where Tarian, and then Cassie in her turn, had stayed when they first came to Bourne's Edge.
"Well there are plenty of parks in Birmingham," said Cassie. "Maybe you could visit one, recharge your batteries?"
"Depends. It needs to be natural, ancient ... like Bourne Forest. An ornamental garden built by the Municipal Council in the 60s won't be of much use." Tarian twisted round to check on the dogs, and saw that they had stuck their heads out the half open window and were enjoying the breeze. She faced front again, and saw that Cassie's expression had become triumphant.
"Would a park that's been around since the 9th century do?"
"Ha!" Cassie drummed her fingers on the steering wheel in obvious satisfaction. "Sutton Park dates from then, and my parents live right next door to it. We'll go there before we visit them tomorrow."
Cassie unlocked the door to her flat and opened it. Or rather tried to. A pile of circulars, letters, and bills must have built up behind it while she was away. She leaned her hip against it and forced her way inside.
The curtains were still drawn, and it smelled stuffy. Even though Tiddles no longer lived here—her neighbour had taken the ginger cat next door in preference to having to pop round constantly to feed him—there was a faint musky whiff of tomcat about the place.
She crossed to a window and opened it, but the roar of traffic and stink of fumes made her close it again almost at once. She had grown used to the peace, tranquillity, and forest-scented air of Bourne's Edge.
Hands on hips, she surveyed her surroundings. The place seemed smaller than she remembered. And though it had been her base of operations for the past three years it just didn't feel like home any more. Which was probably just as well, as it wouldn't be hers for much longer.
It was strange being back here again and in such altered circumstances. Last time, she'd been on the edge of panic, making arrangements for Tiddles, emailing and ringing friends and family to say she'd be out of town for a few days, gathering together the few things she might need and shoving them into a travel bag before running for her life. Now... It astounded her how much her life had changed in a mere six weeks.
She straightened a sofa cushion, and wondered what Tarian would make of the flat. The Fae had carried the luggage up from the car for her, then disappeared with the dogs for a much needed leg stretch. She was just walking around the block, so she'd be back soon. In the meantime....
Cassie carried the luggage inside and closed the door. She stacked the presents on a table and dumped the overnight bags in the cramped bedroom, viewing the double bed that had once felt too large and lonely with new eyes. (Who would have believed it? I have a gorgeous girlfriend and a sex life.) Then she sorted through the presents, grabbed the one with Rosemary's name on it, and went next door.
"You're back!" said her neighbour, blinking at her in pleased surprise. "Oh you didn't need to—" But she accepted the present, a box of her favourite milk chocolates, readily enough and stepped back to allow Cassie entry. "Come in."
"Of course I needed to, Rosemary," said Cassie. "You saved my bacon, looking after Tiddles at such short notice. Um. I hope he hasn't been too much trouble?"
To her relief, Rosemary shook her head. "Though it took him a few days to settle in."
As they talked, Cassie was scanning the flat for signs of tomcat. Movement attracted her attention—a furry ginger head ducking back under the settee. Tiddles clearly wasn't as glad to see his mistress as her neighbour was. She couldn't blame him. After deserting him, she couldn't expect to be in his good books.
"I spy a familiar face," she told Rosemary with a smile. She crossed to the settee and knelt in front of it, hand extended. "Here, Tiddles," she crooned. "Mummy's here to collect you." A faint miaow greeted her but Tiddles stayed put.
After five minutes of increasing frustration, Rosemary knelt next to her.
"Perhaps if I—"
"Please do," said Cassie crossly.
She watched as Rosemary quickly and easily coaxed Tiddles out of hiding and scooped him up in her arms. "There's a good boy. Ooh. Yes you are. Good boy. Oochie coochie coo." Affection softened her usually severe features. Rosemary worked for the Civil Service—in what capacity, Cassie had never been quite sure but she suspected it involved cowing members of the public. Certainly Rosemary's manner could be offputting, and it had taken some time before the two neighbours had become friends.
"There there," continued Rosemary, soothing the cat. "You've had a nice little holiday, haven't you? And we enjoyed ourselves, didn't we, Tiddles?" Cassie tried not to roll her eyes at the gushing tone. "But now, it's time to go back to your mistress. Oh yes it is." Rosemary turned to Cassie and held out the tomcat. At once, Tiddles began to squirm and wail in her hands.
Cassie grimaced. "Why all this fuss?" He gave her reaching hands a baleful stare. "Oh don't be like that. You know very well who I am." His tail lashed. "Don't be such a— Ow!"
"Are you all right?" asked Rosemary, shocked.
Cassie sucked her scratched hand and scowled at Tiddles. "At least he didn't bite me. Stupid cat! Let's try that again, shall we?"
A dubious Rosemary held him out rather gingerly once more. But this time the transfer went smoothly, and having got the mindless act of violence against his fickle mistress out of his system, Tiddles even began to purr in her arms.
She stroked him under his chin, just the way he liked it. "How much do I owe you?"
Rosemary crossed to a phone table and picked up a piece of paper on which was a dauntingly long list written in her crabbed handwriting. "He wouldn't eat the cheaper brands of cat food, I'm afraid. And I had to take him to the vet for an infected scratch—"
Cassie accepted it from her, looked at the grand total, and winced. "Um. Will you take a cheque?"
"Great. I'll pop it round later, if that's all right."
She carried Tiddles towards the front door, then paused. "Oh, by the way, I should warn you, I've given notice on the flat. I'll be leaving by the end of the week."
Rosemary's face fell. "I'm very sorry to hear that, Cassie. You never know what new tenants are going to be like, whether they're going to make your life a misery or not."
Her neighbour shrugged. "So where are you off to?"
"Have you heard of a place called Bourne's Edge? Near Ludlow?"
Rosemary shook her head.
"Oh. Well. I'm moving in with a friend who lives there. Her name's Tarian. You'll probably see her around during the next couple of days as she's helping me to pack."
Cassie paused as a thought struck her. "Um, she's got her two dogs with her. They're wolfhounds, but they look far fiercer than they are. They shouldn't cause you any bother, but.... Well, if you can grin and bear any disturbance they might cause for now, I'll be grateful, Rosemary. They'll be gone by the end of the week. Promise."
Rosemary gave her a rueful glance. "Thanks for the warning."
Tiddles wriggled, threatening to break free, and Cassie got a firmer grip. "I'd better go. He's getting restless. Thanks again for looking after him, Rosemary. I'll pop that cheque through your letterbox. OK?"
Tarian took the stairs two at a time, Drysi and Anwar keeping pace, their claws clacking on the concrete steps. As she strode along the landing towards Cassie's flat, she noticed that the bags had disappeared from where she left them. The handle turned under her hand, and she pushed open the front door and walked through, almost stumbling as the dogs took her by surprise and streaked past her.
Something small and ginger let out a terrified wail, zipped off the settee, and vanished through a doorway on the other side of the room. The dogs followed, hard on its heels.
"What the—" Cassie gave Tarian a startled glance then got up from the settee and dashed after them.
"Stop it, you two," Tarian heard Cassie shouting above the frenzied barking, which from its slightly echoey quality, must be coming from a bathroom. "Leave Tiddles alone."
She sighed and yelled, "Drysi, Anwar, heel!" Seconds later, the wolfhounds were standing beside her, ears flat against their head, tails down. Drysi rubbed her cheek against Tarian's thigh, her eyes mournful. Anwar did the same on the other side.
"Bad dogs," said Tarian. "What were you chasing?" An image of a small ginger cat, its bristling fur making it look twice its natural size, popped into her head.
Cassie re-emerged, the same cat cradled protectively in her arms. "How could they?" she fumed. "I'd only just got him settled in again, too."
"Sorry." Tarian took off her jacket and hung it from the row of four hooks that had Cassie's suede jacket hanging on it. "It's instinct. They won’t do it again." She gave the dogs a stern look. They dipped their heads in submission, and she pushed them away and went to join Cassie.
Tiddles hissed at her from the shelter of Cassie's arms and glared.
"I don't think he likes Fae. Or maybe it's just me."
"Can you blame him? He's just been scared half to death."
Tarian arched an eyebrow at Cassie's heated tone. "I said I'm sorry."
Cassie bit her lip then sank onto the settee. "Me too. I shouldn't take it out on you." She sounded subdued. "I half expected this to happen. I should have made better arrangements. It doesn't seem fair to send him to the animal shelter."
Tarian sat next to her and draped a companionable arm round her shoulders. It brought her closer to Tiddles, who stretched out a paw, claws extended.
"Ah ah." She raised a finger in warning.
Cassie watched their interaction with interest. For a moment the tomcat glared at Tarian, then, very cautiously, he retracted his paw and began to wash himself. His studied air of nonchalance was somewhat undermined by constant peeks in her direction.
A surprised gurgle of laughter escaped from Cassie. "Well I never! He knows he's met his match."
She placed him on the floor. The washing continued, with alternating glances at Tarian and the dogs, now settled under the table, eyes closed, affecting indifference. A status quo of sorts had been reached.
Now that the tension in the room had dissipated, Tarian relaxed and gave the slender shoulder under her arm a squeeze. "Maybe your neighbour could take him off your hands."
"She might but...." Cassie's brow creased. "Oh Lord! I bet she's wondering what all the barking was about. Good job I warned her." She fell silent for a moment. "I could always try Louise, I suppose."
"The friend whose birthday you missed?"
"Mm. She likes cats but she hasn't got around to buying one of her own yet. And she has a house and a garden, so he could go outside. I've always felt rather guilty about keeping Tiddles indoors, but the traffic around here is so bad. Can't remember how her husband feels about cats though." She frowned, drummed her fingers on the arm of the settee, and eyed the phone sitting on the coffee table. "Tiddles could be a belated birthday gift." After a moment, her forehead smoothed, and she said, her tone decisive, "I'll ring her."
She dialled a number from memory. "Hello, Lou? ... Yes, I just got back. ... I missed you too. Sorry about your birthday. Listen." Her voice became a wheedle. "I've got a big favour to ask. ... No I don't want to borrow that dress. ... Or your handbag. ... If I can just get a word in edgeways ... Thank you. Look, you like Tiddles, don’t you? ... I thought you did. Well, I have this teensy weensy problem. My girlfriend has these dogs, you see and ... What? Of course I mean Tarian. Who else would I—" She rolled her eyes. "It's not like I've got girlfriends coming out of my ears, Lou. ... What? ... Yes she is here with me and giving me very strange looks. ... Of course you can meet her, just don't show her any incriminating photos. ... Oh hell! What was I talking about? Oh yes: Tiddles. I was wondering—
"Does he eat what?" She gave Tarian a bewildered glance. "What do bluebottles have to do with it? ... Oh. Ooh! ... How horrid! ... No. He doesn't eat flies. Does that mean you won't take him? ... Yes, of course he's been 'done'." She crossed her fingers before adding, "Not really. He'll eat pretty much anything. ... You will? And you're sure Sam won't mind?" Her face became wreathed with smiles and she gave Tarian a 'thumbs up'. "Brilliant. ... Um, how about ten tomorrow morning? You can meet Tarian then too.... Great. See you then. ... Bye." She put down the receiver with a satisfied grin. "Sorted."
"She'll take him?" asked Tarian. Cassie nodded. "What was all that about bluebottles?"
"Oh, that was odd. Louise says their house is suffering from a fly infestation. No sooner do the people from Pest Control succeed in wiping out one lot than another lot arrives. They don't know where they're coming from or how to put a stop to it. It's driving her and Sam nuts."
"And we're going round there tomorrow?" Tarian grimaced.
Cassie gave her a playful slap on the arm. "The pest control people came yesterday. We should be safe for a few hours. By the way, Louise says she can't wait to meet you."
"I can imagine."
From the branches of the oak tree a song thrush added its loud, clear notes to the rustle of leaves in the breeze and the crunching of acorns between porcine teeth. For the first time that day, the pigboy's shoulders relaxed. If he had his way, he'd spend all his time in the wood. The pigs didn't pick on him just because he was different or give him the most disgusting tasks to do.
He made himself comfortable on his tree stump, rested the willow switch on his knees, and found a suitable twig to chew.
At first, the pigs jostled and trod on each other as they rooted for acorns, but contented snuffles and snorts soon replaced the squeals and indignant grunts. Disputes among the herd never lasted long. They were family, something he would never know.
His thoughts turned inwards, and he dreamed of a world where his carrot-coloured hair and lack of height didn't count against him. Where he was comely, graceful, and could work magic like everyone else. Where he had a name, friends and family, slept in the great hall and ate the same food as the other servants....
The sun had moved in the sky when the pigboy came back to himself. The pigs, having gorged themselves, had lain down for a nap. He gauged how much time had passed, then grabbed his switch, straightened his tunic, and scrambled to his feet. It was later than he had intended. They would be wondering where he had got to.
His shoulders tensed. It didn't pay to make them come looking for him. Once, they had turned him into a pig for seven days. Then there was that fortnight spent without a mouth—
"Here, pigs," he called, a little desperately. "Here."
Sleepy eyes turned towards him then away once more. He raised his willow switch and said more forcefully, "I said, here, pigs."
With a grunt of annoyance, the herd matriarch heaved herself to her feet and trotted to his side. The others would follow her. "Good girl, Blacktail." He patted her on the rump. "It's time to go home."
Cassie put on the handbrake and switched off the ignition. "Here we are." She undid her seatbelt and stretched.
Beside her, Tarian peered through the windscreen at the house—a large semi detached with a spacious front garden. "Nice. How long has your friend lived here?"
Cassie considered. "Just over a year. They bought it after they got married. Before that Louise had a flat."
"And her husband's name is... Sam, you said?"
"That's right." Cassie reached for the door handle. "But he's away on business, thank God. Having a husband around really changes the dynamic. You know?"
Tarian undid her seatbelt. "Louise is your friend, not Sam."
"Exactly." Cassie went round to the Yaris's boot, and opened it. An indignant miaow greeted her, accompanied by the sound of frantic claws shredding cardboard. "There, there, Tiddles. It's nearly over." She reached for the cat carrier, pausing as she heard the sound of the house's front door opening.
"I thought it was you," came Louise's shout. "Need any help?"
"Yes," called back Cassie. "Come and collect your new cat."
A grinning Louise trotted down the drive towards her. She was wearing a pinafore apron and pink rubber gloves. "I was just making the place presentable," she said as she drew nearer.
"Are those new specs?" asked Cassie. Her old friend had never got the hang of contact lenses but at least she no longer wore the heavy frames that had marred her looks at school. "They suit you."
"Thanks." Louise nodded a shy hello to Tarian, then accepted a peck on her cheek and a warm hug from Cassie, who pointed to the cat carrier.
"He's in there. And he's not happy."
Tiddles let out a series of mournful cries.
"Sounds like the understatement of the year." Louise picked up the carrier by its handle with one gloved hand, supported it with the other, then turned and stopped in her tracks. Tarian had let the wolfhounds out of the back seat and they were sniffing around. "Er...."
The Fae registered her trepidation and clicked her fingers. Anwar and Drysi went to her side at once.
"They're very obedient." Louise sounded both relieved and impressed.
"And not as scary as they look, Lou," soothed Cassie. "Tarian's got them well trained. They'll be OK in your back garden for a bit, won't they?"
Cassie turned to Tarian, "Tell them not to dig up the roses or leap over the fence." Tarian rolled her eyes and Louise looked amused at the byplay.
"It's that way." She pointed to the side gate. Moments later Tarian had lifted the gate's latch and disappeared with the dogs along the side passage.
Louise took the opportunity to raise her eyebrows at Cassie and murmur, "She's gorgeous. And those eyes!"
Cassie gave her a goofy grin and murmured back, "I know. I still have to pinch myself some days."
"Where did you say you met her?"
"It's a long stor—" A loud hiss came from the cat carrier interrupted Cassie, and the sound of claws scrabbling intensified. "We'd better get him indoors."
She reached for the laundry basket she had filled with tins of cat food, a half used sack of dry food, his bowls, cat scratching post, litter tray, and favourite toys. A catnip-stuffed mouse made a bid for escape and Cassie grabbed for it and put it back.
Louise gaped at her. "Sure you can manage all that?"
"If we're quick about it." Cassie steadied the basket on one knee while she slammed the boot closed. Then she followed Louise back up the drive, through the front door into the hall, then into the kitchen.
"You've had this room redecorated," she commented, glancing approvingly at her surroundings. On a granite countertop lay two tea trays. On one sat a coffee cake, a knife, and three plates, on the other a jug of milk, a cafetière, and three cups and saucers. The cafetière contained freshly ground coffee, which only awaited the addition of boiling water. Must be for us. "Nice kitchen units."
"Thanks." While Cassie dumped Tiddles's possessions in front of the washing machine, Louise set the cat carrier in the middle of the vinyl-tiled floor, knelt beside it, and opened the top.
"Miaow." Tiddles glared up at her, tail lashing.
"Don't you want to get out of that nasty old box?"
"Careful, Lou," warned Cassie, as an unsheathed paw lashed out at her friend.
"It's all right. I came prepared." Louise took off her gloves, dipped a hand in her apron pocket, and came out with something held between finger and thumb. It was a dark reddish brown, and looked meaty. "Here, Tiddles. Look what I've got for you."
The tail stopped midwave and a ginger nose thrust itself forward. Then Louise's fingers were empty and Tiddles's jaws were moving as he chewed. He swallowed, considered for a moment, then let out the high-pitched miaow he only used when he was being affectionate.
"What was that?" asked Cassie.
Tiddles batted Louise's empty hand with his paw, claws sheathed this time. "Want some more?" A rough pink tongue appeared and rasped her fingers. "I'll take that as a yes." She pulled out a second piece of liver, which quickly went the way of the first.
After that, the tomcat allowed Louise to lift him out of the container with no trouble at all. She took off her apron with a free hand, then carried him into the sitting room, and sat in one of the two armchairs with him in her lap. He even allowed her to stroke him.
"Bribery and corruption," said Cassie not sure whether to be admiring or peeved. Fickle cat! She flopped down in the middle of the 3-seater settee. "Why didn't I think of that?"
Louise mimed buffing her fingernails on her apron. "Some of us have it, kiddo, and some of us—"
A shadow darkened the doorway leading from into the hall and they looked round to see Tarian standing there. Her forehead was creased as though in discomfort or puzzlement.
"Dogs settled OK?" asked Cassie.
Tarian nodded and came into the sitting room. "May I?" At Louise's nod, she sank onto the settee beside Cassie and stretched out long, jean-clad legs. "Your garden's much larger than I expected."
Louise beamed. "That's one of the reasons we bought this place. When these houses were originally built, developers were much more generous with land."
She reached over and held out a hand, careful not to disturb the cat purring in her lap. "I'm Louise by the way."
"Tarian. Pleased to meet you." The Fae shook Louise's hand. "Were you at school with Cassie?"
"That's right." A wicked grin lit up Louise's face. "The tales I could tell you about—"
"But won't," interrupted Cassie.
"Spoilsport." Louise gave Tiddles a glance. "I don't think I should move for a bit. Could you do the honours with the cake and coffee, Cass?"
"Glad to." She stood up and went through to the kitchen.
While the water in the electric kettle boiled, she gazed out of the window into the back garden, where Anwar and Drysi were tussling. Louise and her husband had spent a small fortune on renovating the lawn and flower borders, and the result looked a picture. She hoped the dogs' exuberant play wouldn't damage it too much.
The kettle clicked off, and she poured boiling water on the coffee, set the timer, then carried the tray with the cake on it into the sitting room. Tarian had squatted next to Louise's armchair, and was looking at some photographs. Cassie put the tray on the coffee table and glanced apprehensively at her.
"They're not incriminating photos of me, are they?"
"Tsk!" said Louise. "Self-centred or what? No, Cass. I reserve the right to bring out those photos later. These are of my bluebottles."
"Sorry. I'd forgotten all about those." Cassie frowned. "Come to think of it, I haven't seen any sign of flies around the place."
Louise grimaced. "Count yourself lucky then. I found a couple in the bedroom this morning. It won't be long before they're back."
"Let me see." Cassie held out a hand, and Tarian obligingly placed a couple of photos in it. She turned them this way, then that, not quite sure what she was looking at. Then they sprang into focus. A dense, glistening, blue-black mat of flies covered the countertops in the kitchen. It made her skin crawl just to look at them. She glanced at the second photo. Flies coated the taps and sink in the bathroom and came halfway up the walls.
"My God, Lou! When you said you had a fly problem I didn't imagine anything like this."
"Aren't I the lucky one?" Louise gave her a wry smile.
"And they don't know where they're coming from?" The faint beeping must be the timer in the kitchen. The coffee was ready.
"Haven't a clue. It's not even the right time of year. Fly infestations normally occur in July or August, apparently, when farmers spread chicken manure on their fields." She gestured, vaguely. "Do you see any farms round here? Or smell any chicken manure?"
Cassie shook her head and handed back the photos to Tarian who passed them on to Louise. "Coffee's ready. I'll fetch it."
She brought the second tray into the sitting room and poured the coffee into the cups. Tarian settled herself back on the settee.
"Help yourself to cake," said Louise.
Cassie cut them all thick slices. "You're very quiet," she murmured, as she handed Tarian's slice to her. Come to think of it, the Fae was looking quite peaky. Her naturally pale skin looked even paler, and there was a tightness around her eyes. "Are you all right?"
"Headache," said Tarian shortly.
"You should have said," chided Cassie. "I have some paracetamol." She reached in her jacket pocket but Tarian put out a hand to stop her.
"Thanks, but that won't help." She pinched the bridge of her nose.
"What is it?" asked Louise, who had been watching the exchange.
"Tarian has a headache but I've only got paracetamol and she says that won’t work."
"I have some aspirin. Want me to get you some?"
"No thanks. I'll be fine," said Tarian, around a mouthful of coffee cake. "This is delicious. Did you make it yourself?"
Cassie frowned at the patent topic change but didn't say anything.
"Marks and Spencer," said Louise at once. She grinned. "Why bake a cake yourself when you can buy one of theirs?"
Cassie sipped her coffee. It occurred to her that Tarian's headache could be a reaction to being away from Bourne Forest. She hadn't expected the effects to manifest themselves so strongly or so quickly. If she'd known they were going to be this intense, she'd have insisted Tarian didn't come with her. Not that she'd have taken any notice. The Fae had a stubborn streak. It was just as well they were going to Sutton Park next. Tarian could recharge her batteries before they went to Cassie's parents for dinner.
Ever the good hostess, Louise moved the conversation on to the subject of painting—Cassie had told her that Tarian was an artist—and Bourne's Edge, and it was Cassie's turn to pull out photos she'd taken of Tarian's house, the little village on the side of the hill, and the picturesque view across the valley.
"Wow!" said Louise. "You're really in the sticks, Cass. Don't you miss the city? I thought you were a suburban girl."
"Me too." She became aware of Tarian's gaze on her face. "But you know what? I must have changed. Because it feels like home." Tarian smiled.
"Don’t you miss the cinema? Danny and Justin were grumping because you're not around to go with them any more."
Cassie chuckled. "Well, it had its disadvantages. My tastes weren't always the same as theirs, but..." She glanced at Tarian. "If there's anything we particularly want to see, we go to the cinema in Ludlow, don’t we?"
"May I use your bathroom?" asked Tarian suddenly.
Louise blinked. "Of course. Top of the stairs, on the right. You can't miss it."
"I don't know what's up with her this morning," said Cassie, after Tarian had left the sitting room.
"Time of the month?"
"Maybe." Cassie had yet to get to grips with the reproductive cycle of the Fae. She suspected Tarian rarely got periods, because from what she had let slip, Fae children were rare, produced only when both parents consciously set about creating them. She couldn't very well tell her friend Tarian wasn't human though, could she?
While Louise chattered on about the holiday in New Zealand she and Sam were saving up for, Cassie kept one ear cocked. She heard the sound of water flushing, followed by footsteps descending the stairs.
Tarian reappeared in the doorway, clutching a large china doll. "Is this yours, Louise? I saw her on the landing."
"Mitzi." Louise grinned at her. "She was my mother's and before her my grandmother's." She turned to Cassie. "Remember what a dreadful state she was in, Cass, her dress in tatters, paint chipped, one leg hanging off? Danny and Justin told me about a Doll Hospital that's opened recently near them. I took her in last month, and now she looks good as new."
Cassie had never liked Mitzi, who was one of those ultra feminine dolls popular in Victorian times. Her dress was a monstrosity of lace and pink ribbons, frills and furbelows.
"I didn't know you liked dolls, Tarian," said Cassie, even as it struck her that the way Tarian was holding the doll indicated the opposite.
"I don't," said Tarian, resuming her seat on the settee next to Cassie. "But there's something about this one...."
Fortunately Louise took that as a compliment. "She is striking, isn't she?" Tiddles chose that moment to vacate his spot in Louise's lap and race towards the kitchen. Louise pouted. "Looks like the effects of the chicken liver wore off."
She held out a hand for the doll, and after a pause Tarian obliged—a pause during which Tarian's lips moved, and, hidden from Louise's view, her finger traced a complicated design.
Cassie narrowed her eyes. Was Tarian working a spell? Moments later, the Fae palmed something that looked like a wrinkled brown kidney bean.
While Louise fussed over her doll, straightening its dress, and gabbling about its history, and how good a job the restorer at the Doll Hospital had done, Cassie caught Tarian's gaze and held it.
"What did you do?" she mouthed.
Tarian pressed a finger to her lips then gestured. With a faint popping noise, the bean vanished.
"What was that?" asked Louise, looking up in surprise.
Until that moment, Cassie hadn't realised how tense and uncomfortable she had felt since entering her friend's house. Relief made her feel a little lightheaded. It was as though—she searched for a simile—as though the imminent threat of a thunderstorm had vanished. She glanced at Tarian and saw the tightness around her eyes had gone and her colour was returning to normal.
"What did you just do?" she mouthed.
Tarian smiled and mouthed back, "Later."
"You didn't hear anything, feel anything?" asked Louise.
Cassie shrugged, and Tarian reached for what remained of her coffee cake and began to eat. Louise shrugged and let the matter drop.
A miaow heralded Tiddles's reappearance from the kitchen, and all three watched him stroll across the carpet, climb into Louise's lap, and make himself comfortable.
"Changed your mind, have you?" She laughed as he butted her hand with his nose, and obediently set aside the doll and began to stroke him. "He's quite at home here already, isn't he? I don't think you'll need to worry about him, Cass."
"That's a weight off my mind. You've seen Tarian's dogs. Keeping him just wasn't an option. I can't thank you and Sam enough."
Louise looked guilty. "Actually, Sam doesn't know about him yet. But I'm sure he'll be all right. Oh, he'll sulk about not being consulted, but I'll tell him it was a birthday present from my best friend, and he'll come around."
"I just hope the flies don't give Tiddles a stomach upset," mused her friend. "Cats sometimes eat flies, don’t they?"
"There won't be any more flies," said Tarian.
"No?" Louise looked at her in surprise. "Well," she said doubtfully, "I suppose we can always hope. "
"You're sure the flies won't come back?"
Tarian glanced at Cassie. "Positive." There had been a thoughtful silence all the way from Erdington, ever since she'd told Cassie about the artefact. That silence appeared to be over.
Cassie turned right at the crossroads. The road began to dip. "And all because you destroyed the kidney bean?"
"Ill luck attractor," corrected Tarian, eying a group of walkers with rucksacks on their backs.
"It's easier to say kidney bean."
To their left, on the other side of the metal railings, was a steep grassy bank. Tarian wondered what it was hiding. Sutton Park? Perhaps the walkers were intending to go rambling there. She could sense it was close by. There was a refreshing scent and a fizz to the air coming in through the half open window that had been missing since Bourne's Edge.
"And you've seen one before?"
"An attractor? Yes."
She nodded. The creation of ill luck attractors was one of the first spells taught to young Fae (lessons in detecting and destroying them followed soon after), and it was common to use them to play tricks on their peers. The novelty soon wore off, though.
The road began to rise. Up ahead she could see park gates and a large sign saying, "Boldmere Entrance. Opening hours: 10am - 7pm."
"How on earth did a Fae artefact get inside Louise's doll?" Cassie braked to negotiate the cattle grid at low speed. Once they had bumped over it, she turned left, following the sign for the car park.
Cassie backed the Yaris into a vacant parking spot, put on the handbrake, and turned off the ignition. Tarian looked around her with interest. Ahead and to her left stretched a grassy area, bounded on two sides by a belt of trees. The grass was badly worn in places, from drought or overuse. On it several families were picnicking, playing ball games, or throwing frisbees to one another. She twisted and through the back window made out a pub called La Reserve, a children's funfair, and a vast expanse of water on which several sailing boats were tacking to and fro.
Cassie saw the direction of her gaze. "Powell's Pool," she said.
"Nice." Tarian faced front again and picked up the thread of their conversation. "Obviously, someone must have put the attractor in the doll."
"I know that, silly. But who? And more to the point why?"
"The answer to that depends on 'When?'"
"What?" Cassie blinked at her then shook her head and muttered, "Could this conversation get any more cryptic?"
Tarian grinned and undid her seatbelt. "Think about it. When did the plague of flies first start bothering Louise?"
Cassie considered. "Um. Sometime last month, I think she said."
"And when did she get that doll repaired?"
"About the same time. Oh!" Blonde eyebrows shot up. "You mean... the Doll Hospital? Someone at the Doll Hospital put the bean into the doll?"
Tarian nodded and reached for the door handle.
She got out of the car, and turned to let out the dogs. They shook themselves, and set about sniffing everything within reach. "A malicious prank?"
"Some prank! Those flies looked like something out of a biblical plague."
"Shall we get some lunch?" Tarian pointed to the pub. A large sign over the door read 'Beefeater'. She wondered if beef was all they allowed their patrons to eat. Strange.
Cassie grimaced and patted her belly. "Um. Those two slices of coffee cake haven't gone down yet. And we don't want to spoil our appetites. Mum and Dad will be stuffing us tonight for certain."
She looked faintly embarrassed, which made Tarian smile. "They're allowed to spoil you," she said. "You're their only child."
"I suppose. No doubt they'll be trying to impress you too."
Tarian was sceptical—Cassie's parents would surely be more likely to resent this stranger who had changed their daughter's life so dramatically—but she said merely, "Of course."
Cassie had been scanning her surroundings and now pointed to the children's funfair. Tarian was wondering what a carousel, a go kart track, and swing boats decorated with the skull-and-crossbones could have to do with lunch when she realised Cassie was actually pointing at the little refreshment kiosk. A queue of children next to it showed it was doing a roaring trade.
"Let's get some ice cream," said Cassie, confirming her guess. "That should be enough to keep us going until dinner."
They had set off towards the kiosk, the dogs circling them, when they heard a loud "Oi!"
Tarian halted and looked round and saw a man in uniform—a Park Ranger—striding purposefully towards them. She arched an eyebrow and pointed to herself and Cassie.
He nodded and halted in front of them, frowning up at Tarian—he was at least a head shorter than she was. "Dogs should be kept on a lead, miss. Especially dogs that size."
"Sorry," said Cassie. "We didn't know. Is it because of the children?"
His stern expression softened as he turned to her. "No, miss. Because of the wildlife. At this time of year, dogs are in danger of disturbing ground-nesting birds." Tarian thought it highly unlikely there were any ground-nesting birds in such a busy part of the park, but he forestalled her objection with, "And because the Park's bylaws say that during April, May and June, in all open areas of the park, dogs must be kept on leads."
"Oh." Cassie glanced at Tarian. "We must have missed that sign."
Tarian shrugged and called the dogs to heel. The speed with which they came clearly impressed the ranger though he tried to remain impassive.
"Their leads are in the car," she sad. "Can we fetch them after we've had our ice creams?"
He cocked his head, as if he suspected her of being impertinent, then said grudgingly, "All right. But see that you do. Big dogs like those... even if they're well behaved they can scare people."
"Thank you," said Cassie. "We won't be long."
As he wandered off in search of more lawbreakers, she gave Tarian rueful glance. "They've obviously tightened up the rules since I was here last."
"When was that?"
"Um. Probably when I was still at school. We came to walk one of the Nature Trails."
Cassie treated them both to an icecream called a 'Ninety-nine'. Tarian had never eaten one before and enjoyed it, though she wished they'd been a bit more generous with the small stick of flaky chocolate protruding from the vanilla icecream. The cornet was a bit boring though, so she broke up the last of it and tossed it to the dogs, who wolfed it down in an instant and looked eagerly at her for more.
"No more food until dinner," said Tarian. "Can't have you getting fat." Their looks were the equivalent of canine outrage, and she smiled as she retrieved the leads from the car's glove compartment.
Anwar and Drysi submitted gloomily while she attached the leads to their collars. "I'll let you off when we get to the woods," she promised, letting the leads unreel to their full extent. Now both dogs and Park Ranger should be happy. She handed Anwar's lead to Cassie and took Drysi's herself.
"Which way?" asked Cassie.
Tarian pointed to the belt of trees that separated the grassy picnic area from the rest of the park. She had become aware of a tingling energy emanating from that direction. It hovered at the edge of her senses, tugging at her with its familiarity and was the last thing she had expected to find here.
She debated whether to tell Cassie about it or not, then said, "There's something I want to investigate."
"Oh?" Green eyes drilled into her. "What?"
"I'm not sure. It's just... It's faint, but I can sense something. A couple of leagues in that direction." Though there was nothing to be seen, both wolfhounds turned their heads to follow her pointing finger.
"How far's a league?" wondered Cassie under her breath. Then, "It's not another of those kidney bean things, is it?" Tarian had told her about the jarring, jangling feeling that struck her the moment she entered Louise's house.
"Well, I wouldn't want to tire you out, but you look all right." Cassie scrutinised her face. "In fact you seem to have perked up since we arrived."
"I feel brighter already," admitted Tarian. "So, can we take a look?"
"OK. We have to leave here by five at the latest though," warned Cassie. "I promised Mum." She set off walking in the direction Tarian had pointed, and Tarian followed her.
They reached the belt of trees, crossed the bumpy, rutted cycle track that lay behind it, and started up the heather-covered slope. As they walked, the dogs ranged out as far as the leads would allow then circled back, making a game of it. Tarian grew tired of having her arm almost jerked from its socket, and when the lead threatened to trip up Cassie for the third time told them sharply to cut it out. After that, the walking was easier.
In the sky ahead a number of dark shapes swooped and banked. Tarian squinted at them in puzzlement. "Crows?" But they didn't move like birds.
"Model airplanes," corrected Cassie.
She grunted. The tingling feeling was getting stronger. She corrected their course slightly, steering more to the right. They crossed the road.
"Holly Hurst," said Cassie suddenly.
"That's where you're heading. I think it's one of the oldest woods in the park."
There was indeed an area of woodland directly ahead of them. If the density of the trees didn't prove a deterrent to members of the public, the two-bar fence enclosing them might. They halted in front of it and Tarian made out the shapes of individual trees and bushes. Oak, holly, alder, silver birch.... Native species.
"There are footpaths, but I don't think many people use them," said Cassie. "Odd how I never played here as a child. I was a great one for climbing trees. I must have found this place too... daunting."
Anwar and Drysi took advantage of their long leads to duck under the fence and sniff around. Anwar cocked his leg against a tree trunk and returned to Cassie's side.
"So are you going to tell me about this 'feeling' then?"
Tarian glanced at her. "I'm fairly certain there's a crossing into Faerie here. It feels the same as the one in Bourne Forest."
Cassie's eyebrows shot up. "Really?"
"I'd like to investigate it. Not now, because we haven't got time, obviously." She went on before Cassie could object, "And I wouldn't go myself. I'd send the dogs through and get them to report back."
"Oh." Cassie subsided and looked thoughtful. "Well, I don't suppose that would do any harm." She grimaced. "Trust you to get exiled from Faerie twice!"
"It's not as if I planned it," said Tarian, amused rather than offended by the observation. She slipped her arm round Cassie's waist. "Later then. Shall we head back to the car?"
As they walked down the hill, Cassie was pensive, and Tarian was content to leave her to own thoughts while she enjoyed the feel of Nature all around her and sucked untainted air into her lungs.
They had almost reached the belt of trees beyond which lay Powell's Pool when Cassie said, "About that kidney bean."
"It's something only someone from Faerie could have created, isn't it?"
"And now we've found this. An entrance to Faerie close by. It can't be a coincidence."
"There are entrances all over the British Isles, Cassie. Though most have fallen into disrepair."
"Since you can sense it, let's suppose this one hasn't."
"Let's also suppose a Fae came through it, made his or her way to the Doll Hospital, planted the bean in Louise's doll and went home again."
"It's not something a Fae would do," objected Tarian, wondering how to put it without being insulting. "We're a proud people, Cassie. Targeting a mortal at random and from a distance would be... um...."
"Right. Perhaps if Louise offended the Fae enough for them to bear her a grudge... But even then...." She grimaced. "An ill luck attractor? Not likely."
"But let's suppose just for argument's sake, such a thing happened."
Tarian sighed. "All right."
"Have you sensed any Fae in the vicinity?"
"Apart from me?" She shook her head.
Cassie bit her lip. "Bang goes that theory then." She wrinkled her nose in thought. "And more to the point," she said, as though speaking to herself, "where in heaven's name is Louise likely to have come across let alone offended any of the Fae?"
Cassie let out a frustrated grunt. "So what other explanation is there?"
They emerged from the trees, saw the Yaris ahead, and headed for it, shortening the dogs' leads in case the Park Ranger was lurking. Cassie felt in her jacket pocket for her car keys and moment later the car locks clunked open.
"I don't know yet." Tarian detached leads from collars and urged the dogs up onto the back seat. "But I will."
Cassie pushed open the front door. A wonderful aroma of roasting lamb assailed her nostrils.
"Mum. Dad. We're here." She turned to Tarian, who was standing just behind her. "Come in, and bring the dogs."
The Fae was making sure the dogs didn't trap their tails in the closing door when the kitchen door opened and Cassie's parents appeared.
Her mother hurried along the little hall towards her and she found herself enveloped in a hug and felt warm lips pressed to her cheek. She had been to the hairdresser's recently. In Tarian's honour?
"It's great to see you, love." She held Cassie at arm's length and examined her then gave a relieved smile. "You're looking much better than the last time we saw you."
"Yes she is," said her father, looming, if a man of five foot seven could be said to loom. "Thank God you're back safe and sound. Don't I get a kiss?" He had dressed for the occasion in a new pair of chinos and the navy Argyle sweater she had bought him for Christmas.
Cassie kissed him fondly on his cheek then stood back and indicated the Fae. "This is Tarian Brangwen."
"Pleased to meet you, Tarian." Cassie's mother held out a hand, realised it was greasy, apologised, wiped it on her apron and held it out again.
"How do you do, Mrs Lewis," said Tarian, shaking it. "And you, Mr Lewis." He didn't offer her his hand, just nodded. Cassie recognised that reserved expression. He hadn't made up his mind about Tarian yet.
Anwar let out a tiny whine and all eyes turned towards him. He licked his chops and nudged the foil-wrapped parcel Tarian was carrying. Tarian rolled her eyes, which made Cassie's mother grin.
"I'd better feed them," said Tarian. "Is it all right to take them outside?"
"Of course, dear. You can get to the back garden through the kitchen." She pointed. "Help yourself."
Tarian disappeared into the kitchen followed by the two dogs, tails wagging, and Cassie found herself alone with her parents.
"We were so worried when you disappeared into the back of beyond," clucked her father. "We didn't know what to think."
"I know, and I'm sorry, Dad. I couldn't think what else to do." They'd had this conversation several times already over the phone, but the threat to her life had left him unsettled, and she suspected it would be a while before he stopped rehashing events. "Everything's all right now," she soothed. "Armitage is in a coma. He's no threat to me anymore."
"You shouldn't have got mixed up with someone like him in the first place."
Cassie shrugged. "You can't choose your landlord, Dad."
"Oh leave her alone, Rick," said her mother. "It's all over, and she's here and in one piece. Aren't you, love?" She beamed. "We're honoured you brought Tarian to meet us."
Her father sniffed. "She knows she can always bring her friends home for a visit."
It hadn't been her home for years, but Cassie kept that thought to herself. As for the 'friend' remark....
"Tarian's much more than a friend," she protested. "I'm moving in with her."
"We know that, silly." Her mother gave her father a sharp glance. "How's the packing going?" A distant timer pinged. "Never mind." She ran a distracted hand through her hair. "You can tell us all about it over dinner. I've got mint to chop and vegetables to check on."
She disappeared back into the kitchen and Cassie was left alone with her father. Silence fell, then he said, "It's a long way from Birmingham to that Bourne's Edge place of yours."
"Not that far."
He held her gaze. "Are you sure you're doing the right thing? You've only known her a few weeks."
"How old is she?"
"Early thirties, I think." She hadn't plucked up the courage to ask Tarian how old she was yet. She looked in her thirties, but the Fae aged more slowly than humans. Besides, learning that Tarian was older than her parents might be ... disconcerting.
"She looks like she should be on the catwalk." He frowned. "What on earth does someone like her want with someone like you?"
Cassie put her hands on her hips. "Thanks, Dad!"
He waved dismissively. "You know what I mean. She's not been taking advantage of you, has she? Forcing you to do anything you don't want to?"
"Dad!" Cassie blushed. What she and Tarian did in the bedroom was none of his business. She was certainly not going to tell him that, when it came to their love making, Tarian was knowledgeable, open minded, and generous, and Cassie for one was eager to repeat the experience as often as possible. "I'm twenty-seven not seven. I can look after myself."
He looked sceptical. "Didn't seem that way when you had to go on the run."
"That was different. Anyway, things turned out all right, didn't they?" Thanks to Tarian. "In a way, I'm grateful to Armitage. If it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't have met Tarian."
He changed tack. "Giving up your perfectly good job at the library too. What will you live on? Is she wealthy?"
"To be honest, I have no idea how much she earns from her paintings. Enough to get by, I imagine. It doesn't matter. I've got myself a new job, Dad. I start next week."
"Driving the mobile library."
His eyebrows shot up. "Driving the—"
"Don't be such a snob! It's not that different from what I was doing in Birmingham."
"Hm." But he didn't sound convinced.
The kitchen door hall opened and Tarian stepped into the hall, bringing with her the appetising smell of the dinner to come.
"Dogs are fed." She glanced from Cassie to her father and back, and arched an eyebrow.
Silence fell, then Cassie's father asked, rather awkwardly, "What breed are they?"
He picked an imaginary piece of lint off his sweater. "Need exercising a lot, I suppose?"
"Quite a lot. Fortunately, where I live, it's safe to let them off their leads, so they can exercise themselves." Tarian came to stand next to Cassie.
"And how long have you lived in Bourne's Edge?"
"Two years, going on three."
"And before that?"
"Dad!" Cassie slipped her hand into Tarian's and gave it an apologetic squeeze. "Sorry about the third degree."
"Don’t be. He's your father. Protectiveness goes with the job." Tarian's statement earned her a look of approval, his first, and Cassie felt some of her tension ease.
Movement at the end of the hall turned out to be her mother putting her head round the kitchen door. "What are you lot doing still standing around?" she called. "Dinner's nearly ready. ... Cassie, love, come and help me serve up. Rick, show Tarian where she can wash her hands."
"Right." Cassie's father looked discomfited again. "It's um ... through here."
While he led Tarian to the little downstairs toilet off the hall, Cassie joined her mother in the kitchen. In companionable silence, they sliced the joint, which was slightly tinged with pink in the middle, the way she liked it, and drained the peas, carrots, and potatoes.
Cassie turned to her mother. "How much shall I put?"
"You know the size of Tarian's appetite better than I do. Put as much as you think she can eat. But give your father plenty of spuds. You know he likes them."
When all the food had been doled out, Cassie helped her mother carry the heavy plates into the dining room. The scent from a vase of freesias wafted over to her as she took her seat, and she was touched to see her mother had used her best table linen and wine glasses.
Cassie's father was in the middle of trying to sell Tarian a car—he was the manager of the local car showroom and liked to wax knowledgeable about the latest makes and models.
"Dad!" she hissed, while her mother asked Tarian if she'd like some mint sauce. "She doesn't drive."
He looked at his daughter as though she were insane. "Everybody drives, Cassie."
Tarian passed the sauce jug to Cassie, followed by the gravy boat, and said, "She's right, Mr Lewis. I don't drive. I ride horses though."
Silence fell, and Cassie's red-faced father busied himself pouring out the wine. For a while after that, the only sounds were of contented sipping and chewing. Then, evidently feeling it was incumbent upon him as host to keep the conversation flowing, he cleared his throat and cast around for a new topic. Cassie suppressed a wince and braced herself.
"How's the packing going?"
She relaxed. "We've made a start, but there wasn't much point getting stuck in until the packing cases arrive. They're being delivered tomorrow."
Her mother finished chewing a mouthful of food and swallowed. "Have you got much to take with you, love?"
"More than I thought." It was surprising how much junk you could accumulate over the years. And then there was the TV, DVD player, hifi system, and computer—how Tarian managed without such necessities she had no idea. "It's just as well most of the furniture came with the flat, because Tarian wouldn't have had room for it."
Tarian shrugged. "I'd have made room."
Cassie's father leaned forward. "How big exactly is this house of yours? I wouldn't like to think that my daughter—"
"It's huge, Dad," interrupted Cassie, before Tarian could reply. "There's plenty of space for both of us. I've brought some photos of it with me. And some of the village and the views too. You can see them after dinner. All right?"
He sat back. "All right."
They finished the first course, and Cassie' mother collected up the plates—declining her offer of help—then brought in dessert.
Cassie's eyes gleamed as she saw it was a childhood favourite: blackberry and apple pie. They had often gone bramble picking as a family in Sutton Park. The taste of the wild fruit more than made up for any aching backs and scratched fingers and the palaver of soaking grubs out of berries with salted water.
She added a dollop of cream and took a mouthful. Flavour exploded on her tongue. "Mm." She swallowed. "Did you pick these yourselves, Mum?"
"Yes, love. Last year. They've been sitting in the freezer, waiting for a special occasion." Her mother smiled.
"As it happens, we popped into the park before we came here. Powell's Pool and Holly Hurst. Gave the dogs a good run."
"That's nice, love. You haven't been in the park for a while, have, you?""
"No." Cassie scooped up another mouthful of pie, and noticed that Tarian was enjoying hers too.
"So, Tarian," said her father, looking satisfied as he put his spoon down on an almost clean dish, "How long have you had those dogs?"
"Since they were born."
"You breed them?" Cassie's mother sounded surprised. "I thought Cassie said you were an artist."
"I am. But I like having wolfhounds around. They're company. I spend a lot of time on my own." She glanced at Cassie and amended, "Or rather I did."
"When I was little, I wanted a dog," mused Cassie. "But I wasn't allowed to have one."
"Because you'd have got bored with it and guess who would have ended up looking after the poor thing?" said her mother.
There was some truth in that. "I know. But I really wanted a dog." Cassie pouted, remembering how much a doggy companion would have meant to the often lonely only child she had been.
"You have two dogs now," said Tarian.
Cassie smiled at her. Anwar and Drysi were Tarian's dogs and always would be, and they both knew it, but the sentiment was generous. "Thank you."
"In my favour," continued her mother, "I was never really convinced you were serious about wanting a dog, Cassie. If you were, the first thing you would have done when you got your own place would have been to get yourself one."
"The flat was too small," said Cassie. "I shouldn't even have had a cat really."
"Will Tiddles be going to Bourne's Edge with you?" chimed in her father.
"Um, no. He didn't take to the dogs, nor the dogs to him, so Louise agreed to adopt him. We took him round to her this morning."
"How is Louise? It's been a while since we saw her and that husband of hers—what was his name, Sam?" He frowned. "We heard something strange was going on. Involving flies?" He looked at his wife for confirmation. She nodded.
"That's right, Dad," said Cassie. "The people from pest control practically moved in, they've been such a problem. But it's under control now." Cassie glanced at Tarian who was finishing off her last spoonful of pie and smiled.
"Glad to hear it," said Cassie's mother.
"What is it about your friends?" wondered her father.
Cassie blinked at him. "What do you mean?"
"Danny and Justin are going through the wars at the moment too."
"Really?" Cassie exchanged a glance with Tarian, who was listening intently.
"Haven't you heard about the freak tornado? Or the lightning strike? Or the burst water main?"
Cassie blinked at him then shook her head. "They probably tried to email me, but we're not online at Tarian's yet."
"Well, they need part of the roof replaced, a new TV and computer, new carpets throughout. Heaven knows what else." He pursed his lips. "What's more, their house was the only one in the street affected."
"Poor things! When did all this happen?"
"Not all at once or they'd be wondering if someone had painted a large bullseye on their house." He grinned to show he was joking, but it occurred to Cassie that he might not be far off the mark. "The tornado was three weeks ago, wasn't it, Sarah?" He looked to Cassie's mother for confirmation and she nodded. "The lightning strike was the week after that. And the water main was only last week."
"I don't suppose they've had a doll mended or restored, recently, have they?" asked Cassie.
Her parent's exchanged astonished glances. "What an odd question," said her mother. "What does it have to do with anything?"
"As if Danny and Justin would have dolls," scoffed her father.
Cassie stifled a grin. She knew for a fact that Danny had a collection of superhero figures. "Never mind. I'll ask them myself."
"Talking of dolls," said her mother. "I was having a clear out of the spare room last week, and I came across Teddy."
Cassie blinked at her. "My teddy?"
"Yes, love. That ugly little bear that went with you everywhere when you were a child."
Memory flooded back. "I used to suck his ears."
"Unhygienic," muttered her unsentimental father. Cassie frowned at him.
"Anyway, he's in an awful state," continued her mother. "He's threadbare, the stuffing's coming out, one eye is loose, an ear's ripped, and his legs have come off. He doesn't squeak anymore, either. ... But I thought I'd better check with you before I threw him out."
"You can't throw Teddy out!" said an indignant Cassie.
"Oh come on, love. After all these years you can't still be attached to him, surely?"
"Yes I can. And if you aren't going to give him a home any more, then I will."
"Tarian's dogs will tear him to pieces," warned her father, glancing at Tarian.
"Not if I tell them not to," said the Fae.
Cassie threw him a triumphant glance. "I'll take him. No matter what state he's in. He deserves some TLC, after all I put him through."
Her mother laughed and shook her head fondly. "Have it your own way."
The pigboy leaned on his pitchfork and wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. He'd been mucking out the stables for several hours and was exhausted. Straw dust clogged his lungs and stuck to sweat-slicked skin and hair, and his bare feet were coated in dung. He must stink even worse than usual, he supposed, but he had grown accustomed to the stench.
"Boar's entrails! Not finished yet?" came a deep voice.
The farrier looked irritable. The rhythmic clangs of his hammer had provided an accompaniment to the pigboy's work as he shaped metal into horseshoes then fitted those same shoes to his lord's mounts in the yard adjoining the stables. His tunic was as soaked with sweat, but unlike the pigboy's it had at least been clean on that morning.
"Lazy, good for nothing runt." The Fae scowled and took a step towards him, one meaty fist raised. The pigboy flinched but held his ground. At least the farrier's beatings never involved magic.
"I'm going as fast as I can, sir. I've two more barrow loads to shift, then I'll be done. By oak, ash and thorn."
"Speak back to me, would you?" The farrier seemed determined to pick an argument and the pigboy braced himself. "Insolence!"
In the event, it was the other hand that struck him, the one holding the horseshoe, and the blow knocked all sense out of him for a while. When he returned to himself he was staring up at the rafters, and he was soaking wet—the farrier had thrown a bucket of water over him.
"Finish your mucking out." The Fae's gaze was unapologetic. "And be quick about it. The horses need stabling."
With a headache that would fell an ox and ears still ringing, the pigboy heaved himself to his feet. He searched for the pitchfork in the gloom and grabbed it from where it had fallen. "At once, sir."
Tarian sipped her beer and took in her surroundings. Only a few of the other tables in the pub's back garden were occupied—by office workers, if the conservative cut of their clothes was any indication. Monday lunchtimes clearly weren't the busiest of times, or perhaps most people preferred to eat and chat indoors.
More fool them.
She was glad to be out in the open. She and Cassie had spent the morning cooped up in the little flat, dividing Cassie's possessions into piles labelled 'Chuck' and 'Keep', but as Cassie was reluctant to throw anything away, the 'Chuck' pile was almost nonexistent. They had just got started on wrapping Cassie's china and glassware in sheets of newspaper—getting newsprint everywhere, even on the dogs' noses—and putting them in the packing cases when, to Tarian's relief, Cassie glanced at her watch and announced it was time to keep the appointment she had made on the phone last night.
Tarian set down her half empty beer glass, leaned back in her chair, and closed her eyes, enjoying the warm sunshine on her eyelids and letting her senses roam. That steady breathing and slight shift and rustle of clothing was Cassie, sitting on the bench opposite her in the shade provided by the parasol—her fair skin had a tendency to freckle. A blackbird was trilling in a jasmine bush close by, fighting a losing battle against Erdington High Street's traffic roar. Those lapping and splashing sounds must be Anwar and Drysi exploring the ornamental fishpond.
"Don’t tease the goldfish," she called, and heard Cassie chuckle.
A canine sneeze was followed by the sounds of paws padding across the concrete slabs towards her, then two warm, furry shapes slumped against her ankles and something heavy, presumably a head, settled on her left boot.
"Comfortable?" she asked. An image of Anwar's satisfied face appeared in her mind, and she grinned.
"Where are they?" fretted Cassie. "They should have been here ten minutes ago."
"I'm sure your friends will be here any minute," said Tarian, not opening her eyes.
"Ha! That's shows how much you know. Justin is always late. It drives poor Danny up the wall."
Tarian opened her eyes. "They'd have rung you if they weren't coming."
Cassie gave her a plaintive look. "I know. But I'm hungry." Her growling stomach confirmed as much. "And you know how I get when I'm hungry."
Tarian grinned and sat up straight. "We don't have to wait." She reached for the menu propped between the salt and pepper pots and handed it to Cassie, whose face brightened.
Silence fell while Cassie considered her choices. "Lasagne, I think." She glanced at Tarian. "What about you?"
"I'll have the same."
"OK. I'll go and order."
Cassie grabbed her purse from her shoulder bag and set off purposefully towards the pub's back door. Tarian watched her go, dwelling appreciatively on the jean-clad, shapely rear.
Cassie halted at the door, her path blocked by two men wearing faded blue jeans and black T-shirts sporting the white lettering 'J & D Collectables'. The darkhaired one was tall and slim, with a delicate bone structure that made him look pretty rather than handsome, and shoulder-length curls in need of a trim. His blond-bearded companion was short, stocky and almost bald, with a snub nose and ears that stuck out like jug handles. From their delighted grins, the pair were Cassie's friends. Cassie confirmed as much when, after a brief discussion, she turned and pointed towards Tarian's table.
As Cassie continued on her quest inside the pub, the men made their way over. Tarian's scalp prickled and she felt the familiar discordant jangle of an ill luck attractor. It was coming from the plastic carrier bag the blond man was carrying. She winced as the sensation grew stronger.
They stopped in front of her table, and the dogs rose and went to investigate. The man with the dark curls gave the wolfhounds a wary glance before holding out his hand.
"I'm Justin. You must be Tarian."
"Hello." She shook his hand and gestured towards a free chair. He smiled and took it.
"And I'm Danny." The blond's handshake was firmer than his partner's.
"Nice to meet you, Danny." While he too sat, Tarian extended her senses towards them, finding only a mix of nervousness and friendly curiosity. They were unaware of what was in the carrier bag. Good.
The dogs settled on their haunches next to Tarian and yawned.
"We passed inspection then?" asked Justin.
"For now." She didn't tell him she had conducted an inspection of her own.
Danny dumped the carrier bag on the floor between his feet. Tarian tried to ignore its baleful presence, but it wasn't easy—already she was feeling nauseous and getting a headache. He surveyed the people chatting and eating at the other tables, drummed stubby fingers on the beer-circle stained table, then said with slightly flushed cheeks and a weak smile, "Nice day."
Justin shot Danny an incredulous glance before turning his gaze on Tarian once more. "So," he said, "you're Cassie's girlfriend."
She returned his direct gaze with one of her own. "I am."
"Great!" He grinned. "We've been trying to get her fixed up for ages, haven't we, Danny?"
"Picky," muttered his partner, nodding. "Very picky."
Tarian was about to ask him what he meant, when movement in the pub entrance proved to be Cassie coming back so she let it go.
Cassie resumed her seat in the shade of the parasol and said slightly breathlessly, "I've paid for everyone. My treat. Chicken Kiev for you," she told Danny, who beamed. "And Shepherd's Pie for you, Justin. It'll be ready in quarter of an hour. The beers are on the way." Her gaze tracked between the two men and Tarian. "Have you introduced yourselves?"
Tarian nodded and reached for her glass.
"No more lightning strikes since I rang you?" Cassie took a sip of her orange juice.
Justin grimaced. "No, thank God! Our insurers are beginning to give us very funny looks."
"They think someone's made voodoo dolls of us and stuck pins in them," joked Danny.
You're not that far off the mark, thought Tarian.
"Shop going OK?" continued Cassie. Her friends sold comic books and something called 'collectables', apparently.
"Great." Justin smiled at the middle-aged barmaid who was transferring brimming beer glasses from her tray to their table. "We're shifting as many DCs and Marvels as we can get. And loads of Cybermen figures too." He took a gulp of Guinness, wiped away the resulting foam moustache, and gave a satisfied sigh.
"Those radio-controlled K-9s are popular too," said Danny, draining half of his lager in one go. He frowned and shook his head. "Even though its tail doesn't wag."
Cassie exchanged an amused glance with Tarian. "Wonder what Anwar and Drysi would make of K-9."
Tarian gave her a helpless glance. She had no idea what they were talking about.
"Doctor Who?" prompted Cassie.
Tarian shrugged and gave up.
"Anyway enough of that stuff," said Justin. "What's all this about wanting to see the action figure we had repaired three weeks ago?"
Cassie sniggered. "'Action figure? It's a doll, Justin. Why can't you admit it?"
He ignored her and turned to Danny. "Go on. Show them."
Danny reached down and grabbed the carrier bag from between his feet. He dumped it on the table, fished inside, and pulled out a garish cardboard box. He eased open the flap at one end and pulled out a 7-inch tall doll.
Tarian winced as the jangling sensation increased and Cassie threw her a concerned glance. She shook her head.
The doll was male, its musculature that of someone who spends all day in the gym. It reminded Tarian a little of Cadel, the brutish Fae who had succeeded her as Mab's champion. She studied the doll. A mask obscured its eyes, and it was clad in a skintight costume of green and black. On its right hand, over his white gloves, oddly, he wore an outsized green ring. And clutched in his left hand was an outsize lantern.
"Green Lantern," breathed Cassie. "I loved reading his comics when I was a kid."
"You mean you aren't a kid any more?" Danny grinned at her. "Looks brand new, doesn’t he?" She nodded. "The paintwork was flaking but the Doll Hospital fixed it. They do good work."
"Thanks. That's worth knowing. ... You asked what it's about. This." Cassie reached in her shoulder bag and pulled out the disgraceful mess that had once been a teddy bear. "Oops!" A glass eye bounced across the tabletop. Tarian grabbed it before it could fall onto the floor and handed it back.
"Good grief, Cassie!" said Justin. "Why don't you just buy yourself a new one?"
She stroked the bear's threadbare stomach. "Sentimental reasons." Its left leg fell on the floor. Drysi nudged it back to Cassie with her nose.
"Thank you, sweetie." Cassie bent and retrieved the leg.
"The dogs have taken to you, I see," said Danny, looking impressed. "Just as well, given the size of them.
"Who ordered lasagne?" The barmaid had reappeared, this time bearing two steaming plates.
Tarian indicated herself and Cassie and the woman set the plates in front of them, then departed to fetch their remaining orders.
"May I?" Tarian held out a hand towards Danny who regarded it in puzzlement. Then his brow cleared and he handed over Green Lantern.
Under the pretence of examining the action figure, it took her only a moment to determine that the ill luck attractor was inside its torso. When she returned Green Lantern to Danny, the attractor was nestling in her palm; seconds later it had ceased to exist.
"All right?" mouthed Cassie.
Tarian nodded and smiled. Her nausea had gone and the backwash headache was already easing.
"That's that then." Danny placed Green Lantern back in his box and stuffed the carrier bag between his feet once more. He turned to watch the barmaid making her way towards him. "Here's our lunch."
Cassie stopped pacing and looked at her watch. Nearly three p.m.
She'd needed to shop for groceries and Tarian wanted to walk the dogs, so after leaving the pub they had agreed to meet outside the Doll Hospital in half an hour and gone their separate ways. The little supermarket had been deserted though, perhaps because it was a Monday, so Cassie had finished her shopping sooner than expected.
She hoped the Doll Hospital's interior was in a better state of repair than its exterior. The plasterwork was crumbling, and old lettering—'Christian Science Reading Room'—struggled to resurface through the thin coat of whitewash.
Tarian wouldn't mind if she went in on her own, would she? It might even be for the best, because if someone from Faerie ran the hospital they'd sense the presence of a Fae at once, whereas a mere mortal like herself.... She smiled wryly, knowing she was just bored and making excuses.
What the hell.
Cassie pushed open the creaking front door, and went in. She found herself in a cramped vestibule that contained a three-legged table on which sat a mangy looking spider plant in a pot and a pile of badly printed leaflets—price lists, she saw when she picked one up. The door off the vestibule made a bell tinkle when she opened it, and led her into a large, high ceilinged room, smelling of glue and crammed with tables strewn with teddy bears and dolls in various states of repair.
A doll version of the Somme! was Cassie's first horrified thought. Then she saw that the rows were orderly and each doll's body parts neatly arranged, and revised her opinion. A field hospital.
The room was deserted, but a light coming from the half open door at the far end showed someone was on the premises. The doorbell should have alerted them to her presence. Until they came to investigate, she would explore.
Wooden shelves against one wall held a variety of baskets, bowls, and containers, that closer inspection revealed contained spare parts. Some were instantly recognisable—tiny eyelashes for dolls, replacement pads for bears' paws—some not. One basket held plastic arms and legs of different sizes, another their equivalent in porcelain. A biscuit barrel held brown and blue glass eyes. She decanted a few into her palm, stirred them with her forefinger, then poured them back.
On another shelf lay what must be the hospital repair kit: pots of glue and small brushes, balls of what looked liked string but was actually elastic, scissors and pairs of pliers, a candle (useful for its wax?), rolls of tape, swatches of leather, suede, and fabric fur, a fluffy mass of kapok for restuffing teddy bears, and a box of pins and needles. The heap of white plastic cylinders puzzled her and she picked up one. Its loud "Mama!" startled her and she put it back hurriedly and turned to survey the tables once more.
It was a production line, of sorts. The jumbles of body parts on the table to the far left were the 'Before', the pristine looking dolls and bears on the table to the far right the 'After'. Each doll required different treatment. On some, the plastic was discoloured, paintwork flaking. Others needed stuffing replaced and seams restitched. A few needed more drastic treatment.
Which made her think of her own teddy bear. She pulled out the price list she had stuffed in her pocket and scanned it. Refitting a bear's leg cost £5 and providing a new glass eye £7. She wondered how much simply reattaching an eye would set her back.
"Can I help you?" came a man's voice from behind her.
She turned, hand pressed to her chest. Her heart was going like the clappers. "You startled me!"
"Sorry, Miss. I'm James Farley, proprietor of this establishment. Have you a doll you wish me to repair?"
Cassie found it hard not to stare. Danny and Justin had said the doll hospital's owner was strange and they hadn't been kidding. His hair was a bright, carrot red, and though he looked to be in his early twenties, he dressed like an old fogey--that shabby corduroy suit with its embroidered waistcoat and fob watch wouldn't have looked out of place on an Edwardian teddy bear.
She unzipped her shoulder bag and pulled out Teddy. "I was wondering...."
Farley accepted the bear from her and peered at it through horn-rimmed spectacles. "Hm." His tone was one of disapproval. "He's in a bit of a state, isn't he?"
"Afraid so." She gave a nervous laugh. "But I expect you get far worse, don't you?" Somewhere, a door creaked open and a bell tinkled.
"Not often," he said bluntly.
"I was only a child," she said defensively, then she fell silent. Why am I making excuses? She took a breath then exhaled. "So. Can you fix him?"
He was about to reply, when he froze, his face a mask of horror.
She blinked at him. "Are you all right?"
He was looking over her shoulder, she realised. She turned and saw that Tarian and the two wolfhounds were standing just inside the door leading from the vestibule. The Fae's pale blue eyes were as wide as Cassie had ever seen them.
"Tar—" she began.
An iron band clamped itself around her throat, yanking her backwards. The proprietor held her tightly against him, so tight she could feel the buttons of his waistcoat digging into her back. She tried to protest, but couldn't. Tried to breathe, and couldn’t.
Panic surfaced and she dropped her shoulder bag and reached with both hands for the imprisoning arm to pry it loose. His grip tightened even more, until white specks flecked her vision and blackness began to crowd the edges. She gaped at Tarian, begging her wordlessly for help.
"You don't belong here, Fae." The red-haired man's voice was shrill with fear and vibrated through Cassie. "Get out or I'll kill her."
"Let her go." Tarian's voice was as icy as her expression. "Now." She raised her right hand and pointed at him.
"No!" he cried, as she traced an intricate design in the air. Her lips moved. "You can't—" His words became a high-pitched shriek.
The arm around Cassie's throat was suddenly easy to pry loose. She broke free, elbowing her captor in guts that seemed surprisingly hard. He slumped to the floor with an odd muffled clatter, but she paid him little attention. She was too busy rubbing her bruised elbow and sucking in great gulps of air, wonderful air.
Tarian's arms enclosed her. "Are you all right?"
Cassie leaned into her embrace and croaked, "I think so." She raised a hand to massage her throat, but Tarian's long fingers got there first. The burning ache eased. "Thanks!" she murmured, wrapping her arms around Tarian and holding on for dear life.
After a while the terror had ebbed enough that she could take in her surroundings once more. She blinked in startlement. At their feet lay a man-sized doll, sprawling like a puppet whose strings have been cut. Coarse red wool sprouted from its crudely carved head, horn-rimmed spectacles perched on its wedge of a nose, and a corduroy suit with an embroidered waistcoat clothed the solid wooden torso and jointed limbs.
A sense of unreality stole over her. "He was a doll?"
"A changeling. I knew the moment I saw him."
Claws clacked across the floorboards. Anwar gripped one of the doll's sleeves between his teeth and shook it, flopping the wrist and hand to and fro. Drysi did the same with a trouser leg. Satisfied that it posed no threat, the wolfhounds released their grip and turned to look at Cassie. She smiled at them and after a moment, they wandered off to sniff the rest of the room. She turned back to find Tarian regarding her.
"I thought changelings only existed in fairy stories."
"No." Tarian pinched the bridge of her nose. Only then did Cassie register the tightness around her eyes and the paler than usual pallor.
"Are you OK?"
"This place is crawling with ill luck attractors."
"Oh! Sorry, love. Don't mind me. Do what you have to do."
Cassie stood back and watched as Tarian crossed to one of the biscuit barrels she had not yet examined. The Fae removed the lid, revealing dozens of kidney beans. Tarian's lips moved and she gestured. With a popping sound, the artefacts disappeared.
Tarian reached out blindly for support and a worried Cassie surged forward to provide it.
"It's just the backwash. I'll be all right in a moment." Tarian straightened and flashed Cassie a smile. "See."
A relieved Cassie stood back. "Is that the lot?"
"Unfortunately not." Tarian pointed to the table of completed dolls and bears. "There are more in those. They look like they're awaiting collection."
"Oh crap! He must have repaired dozens of dolls. How many more are out there, do you think?"
"No idea." Tarian's frown cleared. "But I know how we can find out."
She strode through the half open door into the little office beyond. Cassie followed her and found her bending over an untidy desk, sorting through sheaves of papers and wobbly stacks of account books. Farley's method of bookkeeping was as antiquated as his attire. After a short while Tarian gave a satisfied grunt and straightened. She waved a shabby book at Cassie.
"Receipt book." She opened it at random and pointed to a page full of spidery handwriting. "Names and addresses." The ink had browned and faded in places. "He must have been repairing dolls for years."
Cassie's heart sank. "We won’t have to track them all down in person, will we?"
Tarian shook her head. "I'm going to use the addresses to fuel the spell. It will track and dissolve the attractors for us."
"Thank God for that."
"God has nothing to do with it." Tarian gave her a smile. "Now hush and let me work." She thought for a moment, then traced a symbol and murmured the gibberish that Cassie had learned was arcane Fae.
When the spell's backwash had passed and Tarian's colour was looking a lot better, Cassie asked, "Has that done the trick?"
"My headache's gone," said Tarian.
"That's good. But I was talking about the dolls."
"So was I," said Tarian. "There are no more attractors in the vicinity, but getting rid of those further afield will take a few more days."
"But then," persisted Cassie. "No more runs of bad luck?"
Cassie gave her an enthusiastic hug. "Wonderful!"
They went back through to the other room and halted by common consent beside the huge doll.
"Why on earth did he do it?" Cassie gazed down at the sprawl of clothing and wooden limbs. "Why inflict bad luck on complete strangers? What had they ever done to him?"
"Who knows why changelings ever do things?"
Tarian's comment reminded Cassie of something. "They're usually left in exchange for human babies, aren't they?"
"Used to be. Mab outlawed the practice 30 years ago."
She's older than she looks. "But a Fae could still have broken the law. Somewhere in Faerie could be the real James Farley, the human child taken from its parents at birth?"
"Could be. But no Fae crosses the Queen if they can avoid it. It's too dangerous."
Mab was a formidable foe. Especially as she alone had the power to 'unmake' her immortal subjects. But if the motive were strong enough— "Why would a Fae want a human baby anyway?"
Tarian shrugged. "Why do humans want pets at Christmas?"
Cassie gave her a stricken glance. If the Fae treated snatched babies the way some people treated pets after the novelty had worn off....
"But it wouldn't be a baby now anyway," continued Tarian, sounding indifferent. "Judging by changeling's appearance, the child must be in his early twenties."
"Will he be all right?"
"Who knows? He might even be dead by now."
"And if he's still alive?"
Tarian's expression became uneasy. "Some Fae doted on the babies they stole," she said evasively
Cassie folded her arms. "What about the rest? If he's not dead, and not doted on, what then?"
Tarian sighed. "There have been cases where the Fae used a human child as a servant," she admitted with obvious reluctance. "But such cases are rare."
Cassie stared at her in dismay. "Then we have to find out what happened to the real James Farley." Tarian opened her mouth then closed it again as Cassie pressed on, driven by a strong sense of injustice, "Don’t you see, if we don't find out whether he's all right we'll be as bad as those who abducted him in the first place?"
Tarian gave her a wan smile and said in a resigned voice, "I'll see what I can do."
"Thank you." Cassie stood on tiptoe and pressed a kiss against her cheek. Then she bent to retrieve her shoulder bag, from which Teddy appeared to be trying to escape.
"What about him?" asked Tarian, as Cassie tried to shove the bear back inside. "Who's going to repair him now?"
Why didn't I think of this before? "Couldn't you put a spell on him? Make him as good as new?"
Tarian grinned. "If you ask me nicely," she said.
CONTINUED IN PART 2