Faye woke up to a ray of light on the wall where it shouldn’t have been. Her breath tightened and she froze, trying to remember where she was. Someone yawned and shifted beside her and she rolled over to see Ira, still asleep.
They were at the hotel. The meeting was today.
She felt a surge of nausea and got up, her feet hitting the ice-cold floor. She stumbled to the chamber pot and collapsed to the floor, shaking. There were beads of sweat on her lip and it felt like someone had lit a bonfire in the room. She heaved nothing but air and bit her lip till it bled, clenching her arms to her chest.
“Faye,” Ira said, her arm suddenly on her shoulder. “Breathe. It’s going to be alright.”
“I know,” Faye gasped. “I know. I don’t know why… we should get ready before –”
Ira knelt beside her and hugged her in, rubbing her shoulder while she cried. They sat there together for a few minutes until Faye dried her eyes and got up.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what came over me.”
She walked to the bedpost and grabbed her robe, tying it on in a quick knot. Ira got up and leaned against the wall watching her pull clothes out of the carpet bag.
“It’s alright to be worried,” Ira said softly. “It’s only natural.”
“Well, we don’t have time for that sort of nonsense,” said Faye, not looking up. “The boys had better be up by now. Do you have the time?”
Ira took a pocket watch from her purse and sat on the bed, winding it. “It’s about eight o’clock.”
“Eight o’clock?” Faye stopped. “We need to leave right away!”
“It only took us twenty minutes to get there yesterday. We need to eat something first.”
“I’ll go wake George and Skander.”
Ira sighed and put the watch back in her purse as Faye strode out the door. George and Skander were sleeping just across the hall, and she pounded on their door until George answered, hair a mess and squinting.
“Faye,” he groaned. “What is it?”
“Time to get up,” Faye answered. “We’ll meet you downstairs for breakfast.”
“Mmm,” George grumbled and turned slowly.
“We don’t have all day,” Faye said after him as the door creaked shut.
She hurried back to their room. Ira was dressing behind the divider and Faye slipped into her clothes by the bed. By the time Ira stepped out, dressed neatly in a maroon day dress edged with cream lace and silk lining, Faye had already donned her brown bustle-less dress and slammed a bent hat on her head, curls springing out everywhere from the half-tamed bun she’d tied them in.
“Are you ready, then?” Faye asked.
Ira sat in front of the small looking glass by the window and started pinning up her hair delicately. “In a moment,” she said, pin in her mouth.
Faye sat down and watched her pin up each curl and place her hat, made specifically to match the maroon dress. The dress was lower cut than was fashionable, but Ira had always had her own sense of fashion and seemed able to bend the rules of acceptability to whatever she fancied. She took a medicine chest from her carpet bag and made her toilette, massaging creams and oils into her skin, plucking her brows, and finished by rubbing rouge into her cheeks and lips, which was definitely unfashionable, but Ira was too beautiful for anyone would notice or complain. Ira flicked the case closed and set it back in her carpet bag, looking stunning and radiant and, Faye thought, somewhat ridiculous. This wasn’t a party – it was a ransom meeting. Faye watched her dress rustle as she got up.
“Alright,” said Ira. “Thank you for waiting.” She turned back and caught Faye staring. “Faye?”
Faye heaved a sigh and stood. The innkeeper had breakfast ready for them in the common room downstairs, where George and Skander were already eating. They stood when Faye and Ira entered, and George held out a chair for Ira. Skander seemed to suddenly realize his social duty and hurried to hold a chair for Faye.
“Ira, lovely as ever,” said George. “You know, you’re probably the only person I know who’d take the time to dress like that for a… you know.”
Ira smiled. “Even if the world’s ending, that’s no reason to show up for it in shambles.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” George said, who was almost as well-dressed.
Skander was not. In fact, it was hard to say if he’d even changed from what he’d been wearing yesterday. His suit was crumpled so thoroughly, it appeared he had slept in it. They ate breakfast in silence.
“There is one thing we haven’t talked about,” Skander said abruptly. “What if they don’t have Silas with them?”
“We’ll tell ‘em no Silas, no ransom,” said George.
“Faye will tell them, you mean? We’ll be hidden and only come out if absolutely necessary.”
“And if they refuse?”
“Then it’ll be absolutely necessary, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes, but only if that happens,” said Faye. “I’ll call you if I need you.”
“Right,” said George.
“And you’ll keep a distance of at least ten feet between you and them at all times,” Skander added.
“And at the first sign of any trouble, you’ll shout and run back to where we’ll be hiding.”
“We’ve been over everything already. We should go soon.”
“There’s no rush,” said Ira. “We have time, and we really ought to make sure we’re all together on the plan.”
“We can talk on the way,” Faye said, inhaling the rest of the food and getting up from the table. “I’ll go pack and be down in ten minutes.”
She strode out of the room and they heard her quick footsteps pounding up the stairs. George sighed and leaned onto the table.
“I woke up with this funny feeling that maybe we’re making the biggest mistake of our lives,” he said. “Anyone else feel something like that?”
“You are feeling this just now?” Skander asked.
“I’d say we should rethink things, but I’m not sure I can get Faye to understand. I mean, we can always haul her back to Boston kicking and screaming, but she might try to murder us, and she’s pretty strong. She’d probably succeed.”
“This is the only thing we can do,” said Ira, leaning back in the chair and biting her nail. “The situation is more complicated than you think.”
Ira looked up. “You could call it a family problem.”
“If there’s something we should know about before –” Skander started.
“No. It won’t make a difference. What we’re doing now is the only way out of this, though. Please trust me on that.”
“If you say so,” George shrugged.
“You’re good friends, both of you. Thank you for what you’re doing for Silas… and Faye.”
“It’s our skin on the line, too. I’ll be glad to get rid of that spooky, rude book. Can’t imagine what anyone would want with it. You want to know what it said yesterday when I looked at it?”
Neither of them particularly cared at the moment, but George told them anyway. Due to Faye’s persistence, they were out the door and in the coach in barely a half an hour, shivering in the morning cold. As Faye had promised, they talked on the way, Skander pointing out everything that could possibly go wrong and George dismissing it, Ira offering helpful suggestions and Faye ignoring everyone.
They arrived at the meeting place more than an hour early and jumped to the ground to stare at the square rock. No one was in sight.
“Marvelous,” said George. “Now all we have to do is freeze to death waiting.”
“Would you be serious for just two minutes?” Skander snapped.
“Seriously frozen,” George muttered under his breath.
“Turn the coach around,” said Faye. “I saw a dry patch we can leave it in.”
They drove back and parked the coach.
“Here you are, boys,” said Ira, taking two revolvers from her messenger bag.
George took the one she handed him, flipped it over in his hands, checked to make sure it was loaded, and twisted it on his finger. He stuffed it in the back of his pants while Skander held the other gun by the edge of the grip and set it cautiously in his coat pocket. Ira pulled the strap of the bag over her shoulder, checking her own revolver.
They jumped to the ground and picked their way through the snow to the road. Behind the trees, the coach was almost invisible. They walked down the road, their shoes sinking into the wet slush. When they were closer to the designated meeting place, Skander pointed to a cropping of bushes.
“We can hide there. It’s close enough to help if we need to.”
George took a step toward it, hands in his pockets, his foot plunging deep into the snow. It came up to his calf and he pulled his foot out, holding it in the air and looking at his incredibly obvious footprint.
“Ah…” he started.
“Fill it in, idiot. If they see it…” Skander said. “We’ll circle around the back.”
George kicked snow into the hole and made a mess of it. Skander shoved him away and filled it in, smoothing out the top making it invisible again.
“Come on, genius,” he said, walking back the direction they’d come. “You’ll go first since you’re so good at making a footprint. We’ll follow in your steps, and I’ll fill them in behind us.”
“I feel like there may have been a veiled insult in there somewhere,” George said. “But, because I do, in fact, make excellent footprints, I will consent to go first.”
“Thank you kindly,” Skander muttered. “Faye, will you be alright waiting by yourself?”
“Yes, fine,” Faye said, absently.
“We’ll be right behind you. If anything feels wrong, give us the signal and run.”
She nodded and turned, trudging back down the road toward the square rock. The closer the hour came to ten o’clock, the more she felt like she was going to throw up. Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it. But what if Silas… don’t think about it. But what if they… don’t think about it.
There was the rock. It was half as tall as she was. Someone must have put it there as a signpost of some sort. She walked to it and looked back at the crop of bushes Skander had chosen. It wasn’t terribly far away, but she couldn’t see them until George stood up and gave her a wave. When he knelt, he disappeared again completely. She let out a foggy breath and leaned against the stone to wait.
She checked one more time to make sure the locket was still safely inside its box. The dull metal glowed faintly in the sunlight. She closed the box again and looked up and down the road. Still no one. They were quite early, after all. She sighed and set the box on top of the square rock, opening the copy of the Dascyleum Text to the front page. Her name was there in the unfamiliar handwriting. It still made her nervous.
She glanced up and down the road again, hearing nothing but a breeze in the trees and the few winter birds chirping. She turned the page. Skander had said it could be portentous. She didn’t believe in such things normally, but today she would make an exception because she needed to know what was going to happen or she felt like she would explode.
In a village in the woods, there lived an orphan child.
She skipped ahead.
The goblin harrumphed, quite put out, but let her sit down. He harrumphed and walked around the fire, he harrumphed and kicked a log back to the flames, he harrumphed and looked at the night sky, and with a final harrumph he sat down.
“I s’pose you want a wish granted,” he grumbled.
“I didn’t know goblins granted wishes,” she answered.
“THEY DON’T,” he shouted.
The goblin harrumphed.
“What do they call you?” she asked him.
The grasshoppers chirped for a while.
“My name is Deidre.”
“DOES IT LOOK LIKE I CARE?”
This had nothing to do with anything. Faye flipped ahead as she peered up and down the road, then looked down at the book again.
“STOP CRYING! YOU’RE GIVING ME A HEADACHE!”
“I’m sorry, I can’t,” Deidre sobbed.
“STOP IT I TELL YOU!”
“Leave her alone,” the mouse interrupted, gnawing on a bone left behind in the damp dungeon cell.
“I’m so sorry I brought you two into this,” Deidre sobbed. “This is all my fault. You’re trapped here because of me, and I can’t make the magic the king wants. We’ll be trapped here forever.”
“You will, maybe,” Rikvikck grumbled. “But I’m a goblin. I can leave whenever I want.”
Deidre realized then that Rikvikck meant to stay with her to keep her company in this dark hour, even though he very well could escape back to his hole and armchair and larder of smoked meats. She felt an overwhelming urge to throw her arms around his small shoulders and thank him with all the tears she had to give, but she knew this would only irritate the goblin, so she instead said, “Oh, how cruel you are.” And he was quite pleased.
Faye flipped another page, irritated.
“You mustn’t talk like that,” the mouse chided her, though gently, as only a mouse can chide. “It won’t do to give up hope, even in a bad place like this. Why, you never know what good could be twisting itself together from it. In fact, one time I was caught in a flood which destroyed my entire home. I was swept away in the torrent and fell down a drain and found myself in a dark hole. But do you know what I found there? I found a small staircase and when I climbed up it, I found myself in the king’s larder. O, blessed saints of cheeses! O, odiferous treasures of nuts! I can tell you that at that moment, the entire ordeal fled from my mind as I found myself in as close a place as heaven as a mouse could dream of.”
“You’re head’s full of nuts for brains,” Rikvikck harrumphed. “This isn’t a king’s larder. It’s his dungeon. How do you s’pose that’ll twist itself into a dream come true, eh?”
“Oh,” the mouse curled his tail around his foot. “You never know, now, do you?”
Well, that might be something. So a bad situation would turn out to be a good one in the end? Perhaps things would all work out and the adventure would better them somehow? She peered up and down the road. Still no motion. She flipped a few pages more.
Deidre covered her mouth with her hand and stifled a cry. It barely seemed possible, but it was certainly true. Despite all odds, what couldn’t get any worse had just done so. Much, much worse.
Faye slammed the book shut on the words, as if to keep them from escaping. She stood there with it clamped between her hands, breathing heavily, until she shook her head. What a load of nonsense. Idiotic magic book, twisting stories around and playing with her mind. She couldn’t wait to be rid of it.
She set it on the rock and wrapped her arms around her chest, watching the road in both directions. The air grew no warmer. It appeared it would be a cold day despite the brief warm spell. She glanced back at the bushes but couldn’t see anyone. That was good. But she would have very much been comforted to see them.
A noise sounded in the distance and her back stiffened. She listened as the sound grew louder, the sloshing clop of horses and a jingle of reigns. In a few minutes, a coach appeared from the trees, driven by a man, masked and wearing grey. Faye took in a sharp breath and the cold stung her throat.
It was the same men who had either attacked them or helped them escape the phony police officers. But if they were the ones behind the ransom note… she was leaning toward the former guess. The coach drove close to the rock and stopped. The man jumped to the ground and walked toward her. She reached behind her and grabbed the book, the money, and the box with the locket in it, clutching them tight against her chest.
“What are they saying?” George whispered as they watched from a distance.
“Shut up,” Skander shushed him.
“Can you see inside the coach windows?”
George shut up. Faye was saying something to the man, and the man gestured toward her. She shook her head and cocked her chin the way she did when she was being stubborn. That was good. She wasn’t an easy target, that one.
“Why’s it taking so long?” George whispered again.
“Shut up,” Skander snapped.
“I don’t like it,” said George, taking the revolver from his pants.
“Just wait!” Skander hissed, holding out his hand and pushing the gun back down.
“I’m waiting, I’m waiting.”
The metallic sound of a cocking hammer broke through the quiet forest.
Skander looked at George in disbelief.
George grimaced and met his eyes slowly. He shook his head.
Skander looked confused.
Then they looked behind them.
“No. I told you,” Faye said to the grey man, who was holding out his hand for the book and the locket. “Not until I see Silas and know he’s safe.”
The man kept his hand outstretched and stared at her.
“Where is Silas?” Faye repeated, feeling a flush of anger.
“Safe,” the man said in a low voice. “We will take you to him.”
Faye stiffened and took a step back. “I’m not coming with you. There are armed people close by. I only have to give the signal and –”
The man stopped her and pointed.
Faye took another step back and stole a glance behind her. Her foot froze before it hit the ground. George, Skander, and Ira were walking toward them, hands held in the air, and behind them walked three men in grey with revolvers at their backs.
Faye felt her chest start shaking and she turned back to the man, at a loss for what to do. She could run. Maybe.
The man took a revolver from his pocket and held out his hand again.
“Where is Silas?” Faye whispered as he took the book and the box from her, checking inside to make sure the locket was there.
He gestured to the coach.
Faye stared at it, and at the gun in his hands, disbelief making it impossible to move. She looked back at the others, who were now very near, stepping through the deep snow. There was something odd about the way the grey men walked, and it took Faye a moment to realize it was because the grey men were walking on top of the snow, not sinking into it, and left no footprints behind them. Like ghosts.
The man near Faye opened the door of the cab and gestured again for them to get in as the others neared. George glanced around at the grey men and the guns and the open meadow. “Right. I’m thinking maybe not.”
He swung a fist at the man behind him, and at the same time, Skander twisted around and kicked at the man’s legs. His foot passed straight through him. The momentum carried him through and he landed on his back in the snow while George’s hand sailed through his man’s head and he stumbled. The man took a step back and took advantage of George being off balance, pushing him to the ground and raising the revolver again.
George raised his hands slowly from the ground. The man pointed toward the cab, not breaking eye contact.
George and Skander looked at each other, both gone white, and got up.
“What are you?” Skander asked in a whisper.
They didn’t reply and prodded them toward the cab. George and Skander climbed in first, followed by Faye and Ira, and they all crammed into one side while the grey men sat opposite, revolvers still trained on them. The door slammed shut, the coach went dark, and the reins snapped the coach to motion.
“You know, my old pal O’Brian likes to say,” George whispered an encouragement. “There’s nothing so bad it couldn’t be worse.”
“Don’t say that,” Faye said, quickly.
She felt herself shaking and couldn’t stop. Ira reached a hand onto her shoulder and leaned close.
“Everything will be alright,” she whispered. “I promise.”
A revolver cocked and Ira looked up to glare at the grey man. She went quiet, though, her hand still on Faye’s shoulder which she pressed reassuringly from time to time, though Faye barely felt it. They didn’t ride long in the coach before it stopped again. That didn’t make any sense. They were in the middle of the woods. Why would they stop here unless… unless they meant to kill them and hide their bodies deeper in the forest.
You don’t know that, Faye tried to tell herself, but she could feel herself about to pass out. The coach door opened – to a cottage. Faye frowned. There was a cottage all the way out here?
The grey men nudged and shoved them out of the coach and inside the house. It was warm and almost welcoming inside. A strange contrast to the cold metal pressed against their backs. The grey men led them up a flight of carpeted stairs. At the top was a short hallway with doors on either side. One of them opened the first and pointed inside.
George paused and the man behind him prodded him with the revolver.
“Alright, alright,” George winced, stepping forward. “I wish you’d be patient. We’re going. No need to get antsy.”
They followed him into the room and the door slammed behind them. They heard a key lock, and they were alone.
“George,” Skander started.
“Oh, it’s my fault, is it?” George huffed.
“Why are we in a library?” Faye mumbled, turning around.
It was then she saw something that made her confused and relieved and happy and furious all at once. Silas was sitting barefooted in an armchair by the fire with a book in his lap, clean shaven and neatly dressed, looking perfectly alright apart from the expression of pure horror on his face.