"...and all poor God Gibbons could think to say was, 'But, ma'am, it's got a bend in it!"
Ayna doubled up. Albert Campion, with a distinct air of steeling himself, dropped back a few steps to rejoin his wife.
"Thus supplying the Deserving Comics with a catchphrase that shall be lo, a staff of life to them, these many years to come," he remarked. "May I drag you off this excellent young lady before you get to the one about Beattie Davenport, and ruin her vocals completely? Her father and I have come up with a few little historical curios, and I think you ought to be the first to know..."
The young Siren, still making faint harmonica noises, had already got the hint, and trotted forward to her father's side. Amanda regarded her fondly.
"That girl's going to be one of the special ones," she confided. "In ways besides the obvious, I mean. What's up, Albert? You look as though you've just swallowed a prune."
He coughed, and looked uneasily across at the knots of Doctors to their left. "I might have, rather. What do you think of her A.P.'s claiming to be one of Clio's little helpers? A history muse, no less; though whose muse is not apparent, and it didn't seem quite the Young Man's Etiquette Guide to ask."
Amanda considered this briefly. "Under the circumstances," she decided, "I can't think of many things more likely."
"Me neither." Albert gave one of those thin, nervous shivers she knew too well the invariable sign that he was on a scent that he didn't much care to follow. He always did, though: an embarrassing little foible of which Amanda particularly approved.
"I'm very much afraid," he said haltingly, "that it seems I may have been inveigling you under false pretences..."
"This isn't the time or place for inveigling," she declared, in a spirited voice with no hint of panic about it. "But it's just the hour for socking you in the chops, if you will go around babbling pernicious nonsense like that. I bet this ring'd make a good knuckle-duster. Speak, sir, and be damned!"
#Dad?# Ayna had picked up the tone, at least, of what the Campion Doctor wanted to discuss with his wife. #You didn't...?#
"I'm a History Muse, sweetling. He came to me, because his memory and judgement are stirring already. I'm not in the business of feeding comfortable lies any more than, pace the Philistines, are Allie or her colleagues..."
Dominic relented slightly, and ruffled her hair. "No, I didn't tell him that..." He glanced significantly in the other Doctors' direction. "I don't think either of us could have borne that, just yet. I did help him pick apart some of the more outrageous rationalisations of his supposed past. He knows this isn't a dream, you know. He needs to start making sense of it, very soon."
#He's going to leave her when he remembers, isn't he?# Ayna's voice was very small.
"That isn't really our business," Dominic told her firmly, "and it's hardly polite to discuss it. They'll do as they think best." Ayna produced a muted, piccolo sniffle. Dominic took her hand, held it until she was drawing breath for some belated comeback. "What bothers me is Carrie's part in this whole business. I'd give rather a lot for a word with her, at this point."
As he intended, this diverted Ayna at once. Allie, Yokoi, Nyssaias and Embericles had all been very clearly spooked by Carrie's revelation as the Steward's Muse, and Allie wouldn't even hear Xeffy's or Ayna's questions about that. #Dad? Why don't Allie or the others like Carrie? Don't you feel the same way about it?#
Dominic's sigh was unfeigned. "I wouldn't say dislike exactly, but she makes them very nervous. They haven't forgotten Calliope's ordering her destruction...."
#w h a t?#
"She's an artificial intelligence, created soulless. A soulless Muse seemed like a very bad idea all around. Carrie slipped the Collegium's security, acquired a soul somewhere along her adventures, and made her peace with the Powers that Be in her own fashion. Calliope must have sanctioned her to work with Gray, but... she still has the notoriety, and she's a known loose cannon."
#She doesn't worry you, though, Dad?#
"Not particularly up until now." He frowned. "But now she's working something with the Steward that leaves them out of touch in different time-frames. Neither of them should ever have agreed to anything like that, unless there's some serious trouble between them. And I don't like this game she's playing with 'Albert'. Amanda says he vanishes from her life in 1944. The last things Albert remembers is chasing a consignment of suspicious Spam the meat, not the Evil. Carrie's investigating Spam in the same year, which is not an easy trick for a disembodied computer program if you remember your technical history; and then she used the Steward as a catspaw to deliver that quote that brought all the Campion memories to the front of Fifth's mind. And we know that someone went to a lot of trouble to set up the Campion persona, and trap Fifth into it for more than twenty years..."
#I hate her#, Ayna decided bitterly. #Maybe she has a soul, but she doesn't have a heart! They're such nice, funny people, and she's ruined both their lives for some silly Spamplot...#
"That isn't yet decided," Dominic pointed out. "Nothing is history until it's happened, and it might even turn out that she's been protecting them against the sort of manipulator we're suspecting her of being. We shouldn't jump to any conclusions, just yet." He frowned. "But I would very much like to hear that young sprite explain herself!"
"You never remembered anything before you woke up at the Talbots'?"
"Nary a sausage," Albert admitted, "despite extensive misdirection, tomfoolery, and plain barefaced effrontery in the noble cause of shunning the funny farm. I did come to think I remembered several things, after I'd read or been told about them often enough; but it looks more and more as if I couldn't really have been Rudolf K_____, you know. I've got a feeling the Hun really did subtract that wild young man during the Great War, and that 'Albert Campion' was rather conveniently attached to the identity of someone who was, shall we say, about as nearly an island as a man may well be. Except, of course, for his sister Val, and thereby hangs a tale."
"I just bet it does," said Amanda warmly. "Val isn't one of your ersatz people, and you can't make her out so. Rather puts the kybosh on this whole secret history, doesn't it?"
"I thought so." Albert looked blankly remote. "Did you know that Val and I don't seem ever to have talked about our childhood? Mother being what she was, I can see how the subject might have tended to trespass on our mutual patience; but nothing at all is laying it on a bit, I suppose. I was ever so pleased to be able to squash Prof. Dominic with Val, and then he goes and winkles that out of me. She might even be the distaff of what I am..."
"So when I thought you were running about dodging machine-guns and carrying pigeons between command-posts and generally setting yourself up for a course of rather excessively maniacal self-destruction for your country," Amanda said rapidly, "you were actually a member of this Society of Doctors, and doing the same kind of stuff for no intelligible cause and over some inhumanly long course of time?"
"Hence the familiarity," he said unhappily. "That's about the size of it."
"And given that, Albert you old cold fish you," Amanda returned, slipping an arm through his own and leaning slightly into it, "you let me know about your being all hearts before I got to find out 'perforce'; so I knew I was getting some kind of Hyperborean or Martian or hemisemidemigod before you'd let us get engaged for real and true why should you possibly think I'd mind your being immortal as well? It's got all sorts of advantages."
"I'm rather dreading I might be some kind of sleeper. I think the Doctors are some kind of Arts & Crafts Communists, if you want to know the truth. Haven't you heard how they mangle the language whenever they refer to each other? The worst of it is, a couple of times it's been on the tip of my tongue to do the same..."
"So the Primrose League will cut you in the street. Hah, what do we care? I'll stop taking bread from starving peasants and do hard honest dirty work like oh, well, I got there before you did. And we'll share all you have in loving communal harmony, excepting me, for whom they can jolly well whistle."
"Amanda!" He stiffened, truly scandalised, and looked ready to shake her.
"I'm sorry, but you ask for it. This is all too ridiculous. You," defined Amanda passionately, "are the loyalest man ever invented. It's ridiculous to think of you as a traitor or deserter or anything worse than a part-time clot. You're stuck with me for the duration, and where Orph. leads, the Lieut. shall continue to follow, with the toe of her boot wherever it does the most good. Oh!"
"Invented," mused Albert. "Invented does rather look like being the watchword..."
"Then a right good piece of work you are too, and I claim credit for the later design tweaks. Look sharp, Albert. I've used up my next month's sugar ration already, and in any case something seems to want our attention."
For indeed, the others, who had been wandering about in groups of twos and threes, had now come together again. They were staring at something on the ground, and murmuring in very earnest tones. "Do you suppose," one of them said, "that this could be the 'Sauvage Gard'?"
"'Savage?!" another the one dressed in what Amanda could only consider a sort of accidental motley sputtered. "That is hardly more than a glorified cellar door. And I use the term 'glorified' very reluctantly."
The door was, indeed, something less than entirely impressive. 'Large for a cellar door' rather exhausted its allotment of glory. It was made of thin, bark-covered sections of a twisty-grained wood, which seemed more to have grown unevenly up against each other than to have ever been on intimate terms with a plane. There was no metal about it anywhere. For a handle there was only a rough knob of wood bulging out of one of the loglet. Even the hinges, if such they could be termed, were simply a mass of tough roots growing directly out of the ground.
"It is not for no Dishonest Soul to enter..." yet another quoted. "If it were "Not for Any dishonest soul, then only the honest could enter. Not for no dishonest souls' means only the dishonest may enter... Why is that, do you think? Hmmm?"
Eloise stared at the monitor of "the rock", thrumming her fingers on its edge.
"That's funny," she said. "That's very strange, indeed. They haven't moved from where I left them they're in the same spot just going in circles. It's almost just like... No! It can't be!"
"What?" Cameron asked.
"Trolls," Danik answered. There were stories told on Ruritania," he said, "of invisible nets cast by trolls in order to snag unwary travellers."
"Nasty trolls, here?" Cameron asked. "Impossible!"
"That's what I said," Eloise agreed. "...Though it would explain why I was able to break out of the circle when no one else was. Trolls are immune to troll magic cast by others"
"You don't think one of your guests..." Cameron let his voice trail off.
"No. I don't. I think it's some technological rendering of troll magic. Otherwise, I would have smelled it. Now, the question is can we free them before who or whatever set the trap comes to collect the quarry?"
She and the others climbed Sweetheart's back, once more, and they were off.
No-one had a ready answer to that, though Dominic and several of the Doctors were plainly giving themselves furiously to think. The Fourth said hopefully, "Am I the only one who's noticed this is a trap door? T-R-A-P? Just thought I'd mention it..."
"The hell with this," the Steward snarled. He bent down and, before anyone could stop him, hurled the thing back on its hinges.
There was a general sharp intake of breath. Whatever they'd expected, it hadn't been this.
There was nothing beneath the door but flat dead earth, and woodlice scurrying hastily for cover.
The Steward howled in disappointment, and scrabbled at the moist soil. For his pains he got dirty fingernails. Like, these were something novel?
Albert Campion coughed. "Someone's sense of humour," he opined, "leaves a shocking lot to be desired. What say we take a vote? Call this whole line off, start excavating, or carry on the way we were going?"
"Excavate," said the Third, looking very grave, "or exhume..."
 Sorry about that...
#!# A painful whistle escaped Ayna.
"I," said the Steward, biting off each word savagely, "Have. Had. Enough. Of. Magic. Graves. They're Celia's department anyway, and she's gone. This is bullshit. I'm going to try something I was talking over with some of you. I think maybe what we're looking for corresponds to the Sampo, the ultimate treasure in the Finnish Kalevala. They've got an Ice Queen called Louhi there, who very much wants it and carries on pretty much like ours. I think it's time to find out whether that's more than just a pair of handy labels." He showed his greyish-white teeth. "Finnish magic is heavily into illusion. Real, tough, tangible illusion, that works just like the real thing until you can dispel it. If this door is spelled, we could excavate all day and not find the real Sauvage Gard behind it!"
"Yes, yes, yes," put in Eighth, drumming his fingers abstractedly on the back of his hand, "we might do something if we knew what we were looking for!" His enthusiasm drained away in a rush. "Except that that won't work. We don't know. If we assume it's the power-source, or Xeffy and Anya, and we're wrong or we misdescribe it... No. You might get a counterfeit, or leave a worse enchantment on the original. It won't do at all!" He glared down at the obstinately useless door.
"Then there must be a more reasonable solution..." Third began to mull this, but the Steward was irrepressible.
"That had occurred to me. I'm not up to Naming spells, or anything particularly fancy. I was just thinking of bashing my way through the spell by good old-fashioned magical brute force."
"You?!" The Sixth's tone was scathing. Most of the others regarded their Muse-bereft companion with a little more sympathy, but little or no more confidence.
"Yes, me," said the Steward flatly. "I ought to have a bit of Maker's might in a Finnish context. I've spent a long time writing the Bat Sea Coast stories: they've got a couple of para-Finnish cultures in them, and some really heavy-duty sorcery in the same style. One of the minor characters is even a superannuated Lemminkäinen. And I think I see the lines for a general-purpose counterspell that ought to let just about any enchantment know it's been nudged.
"If it turns out I'm all hot air, and our context is really more like the Knight of the Cart or The Intoxication of the Ulstermen or, Harpo help us, Culhwch and Olwen, then no harm done." He scanned the party quickly. "The music is going to be the weak link. Lemminkäinen got away with having a voice like a corncrake, but I doubt I've got his raw firepower. Ayna " His voice became, briefly, less abrasive. "You can probably make up for a lot of that. If I hum the thing through without words, could you give me a wordless backing on the actual casting?" She nodded. The Steward cast an appealing glance at Dominic, whose mouth was already opening. "Comrade," he said formally, "I'll understand if you can't allow this, and in that case I'll try on my own. I don't see any possible danger in this, or I shouldn't ask."
Dominic took a moment, but said only, "This is your decision, Ayna."
It was altogether too transparent whom Ayna hoped they would be able to liberate from the Sauvage Gard. Amanda elbowed Albert sharply in the ribs. He looked away.
Ayna and the Steward went into a brief huddle, with Dominic, Eighth, and Second assisting. The huddle turned out not quite as brief as intended, due to the Steward's execrable sense of rhythm and differently-carrying-tunes-in-a-sack-enabled condition; but presently they were ready.
Ayna began to croon. After a few bars, the Steward evidently felt he was as close to following the tune as he was ever going to be. He took up a heroic stance, pointed at the door, and declaimed:
|"I know the Origin of magic."|
"This should be good," Sixth murmured sarcastically to Fourth.
"Shhhhh. Have a jelly dinosaur, there's a good chap..."
And the great magus continued:
"A clever carle rose up, a likely fellow,|
And said, 'Now I shall work the lovely land,
With sweat and wits. I'll put my back in, labour
And feed my household threefold!'
With that a harsher man, his helmet gleaming,
Said, 'I will take the brand's view,
And the whip's wisdom. You must be my serf,
And give me all you make, or else you die,
So I shall gain gold tenfold!"
A third, word-weaver, cunning cuckoo-caller,
Said, 'I shall harden will, and burn with such desire
That what I sing must be: so at my whimsy
Muck shall turn to meal, slag to silver,
And maiden into slag, and think my lusts her own.
Who heeds me not, I'll haunt their dreams with demons
So I shall win the world!'
"The ploughshare's is a fair view,
"I invoke the Dialectic!
"You clouds upon our eyes, begone!
"Should not enough come of that,
The binding snapped like a rotten rope.
Ayna's final note cracked and shattered in the air.
The Grey Steward fell over backwards, bruising his bum most mightily.
Everyone else staggered around in a brief dizzy daze. When the confusion had cleared, the first distinct sound among them was the Steward's howl of unbelieving outrage.
The door was still a crappy cellar door.
The dirt beneath it was still solid dirt.
Nothing had changed about it except the absence of woodlice and millipedes, which had long since skulked off to find more pleasing venues.
"Very impressive," said the Third dryly.
"Something happened," Eighth pointed out. He cast about restlessly for clues.
Everyone turned to look at First, whose beady old eyes were a-glint.
"Doesn't any of this suddenly seem rather familiar? H'mmmm?"
Amanda frowned. "Now you come to mention it..."
"Oh, my word!" Second was pointing down at the soft leafmould of the forest floor. "Tracks ahead of us..."
"The Ice Queen?" Dominic's voice was frigid as he hastened over to take the needful decko.
"No, many more people than that," Second informed. "And their tracks curve rather sharply." He looked about, and saw the horror dawning on the parties' faces. "It looks terribly likely, you see, that we've been following in our own footsteps ever since we passed this spot the first time..."
The ensuing rhubarb, though somewhat blanched for Ayna's and Amanda's benefit, was nonetheless quite sufficiently profane.
"Well," said Sixth disgustedly, "I suggest we now get out of these pointless purlieus, and attempt to do something more constructive back at the crystal castle!"
"Steady on!" Amanda protested. "We haven't got the Flame of Heart's Desire yet, and now we can go ahead, so of course we ought..."
"I don't know, F.o. my H.D.," Albert returned, causing his blaze-haired wife to flush immediately, and pretty much everyone else just as soon as the mental penny had time to drop. "That door seems gratuitous, even for this place. I'm not sure I care about leaving it behind us."
"No!" endorsed the Steward, who seemed have recovered his bearings such as they were. "A door onto nothing. A door of may-wood, of hawthorn. Why would anyone make a door of that? What's it for? This has to be staring us in the face..."
"To shut in something that burrows underground," suggested Third slowly.
"And stuff that, for a start. I've had enough of ghouls in Celia's bloody serial!"
"An honest man can't enter," Dominic reminded everybody. Everybody looked right back at him. "I suspect that's what we need to remember."
"A dishonest one isn't having much damned luck!" The Steward kicked the structure irritably.
"...You broke the illusions that bound us," said Eighth. "Which this isn't. Tangible, real illusions, you said. As good as reality until you see through them."
"So maybe you need to try dishonesty. To cast an illusion of a way in. And then walk into that..."
"For all the tea in China! That's " The Steward broke off mid-way through punching the air. "How the hell can I cast an illusion of something I don't know what it is?"
"Well," said Amanda, "if you do know your own heart's "
"Oh, no!" interrupted Albert hastily, a hair ahead of everyone else. "Put that right out of your head. We haven't completed the quest yet, and we all know what happens to people in fairy-tales who start getting grabby."
"The idea is in any case cobblers," returned the Steward with dignity. "Alas, I'm stuck for anything better myself."
"The door," murmured the Eighth. A virtual light-bulb began to brighten above his Byronic bonce. The Alliteration Police came hammering on the Author's door and gave him a darned stiff talking to.
"The door," echoed Fourth, encouragingly.
"I can tell it is a door." The Steward was not vastly impressed. "We have decided this by unanimous consensus, no debate has even been moved upon the subject, motion is dismissed for lack of any bloody substance!"
"And the dirt is dirt, indeed," Eighth beamed. "Not a doorway. Just dirt, don't you see? You don't have to worry about what ought to be behind it. There doesn't need to be anything."
"Then what bloody illusion do you want us to bleeding well set up?!?"
"Just of the door. The right door. The one that gives on the right place."
"Which. Looks. Like. WHAT????"
"A hawthorn tree?"
"YEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!" The Steward did a stomping little victory-dance in his big lead-heeled boots.
"It's certainly got the mystic associations," Amanda muttered aside to Albert, amongst the scenes of Eighth-lionising and public jubilation that followed. "I just hope this one's are more Glastonbury than the other kind. Still, I'm looking forward to seeing anyone work that, aren't you?"
Albert nodded with slight reserve. "I," he confided, "am looking forward to watching that man trying to walk through a thorn-bush." He flashed her an edgy grin. "It's terribly liberating to learn that one really hasn't been properly brought up, don't you know?"
"I ought to, if anyone does!" said Amanda, and gave him the fwap for which he was so plainly bidding.
And then they all got to work.
Danik smiles suddenly, his face relaxing from its unaccustomed frown, and Eloise directs an enquiring upward glance at her guest. He grins back.
"Why, I was thinking "
"Don't think!" Eloise tells him, quickly. "The Ice Queen can hear our thoughts." She hesitates. "Just... just open your mouth and let your ideas spill out without thinking about it too much..."
"For him, that will be no trouble," Osman remarks before swaying sideways on his perch to dodge a friendly buffet from his captain.
The latter shrugs off the comment cheerfully. "Well then, without further thought still it seems to me that our problem is, at the heart of it, very simple. The Dark Lady, the Ice Queen if you will, has taken as prize one of our number; has captured her body and shape as a vessel to serve her purpose in place of hazarding her own. Now, with the girl under enemy colours, we cannot aim to cripple our foe without grievous hurt to one of our own, and maybe her loss."
He glances over at Eloise, raising an eyebrow in query, and she nods.
"Thus," Danik concludes calmly, "we have no choice. Before we can act we must recapture the prize by stealth. Force our enemy into transfer to another vessel of our own choosing, one under close watch, in such a manner that it will seem the better choice.
"We must bait a trap, my lady, and bait it with guile and honey enough to tempt a wily foe. Only then " he grins "may we venture to try this lady's metal, and see if some among us cannot melt her ice!"
"That's all very well," Cameron points out, "but Xeffy's a person, not a prize of war. What are we supposed to make this empty 'vessel' out of to tempt the Ice Queen with? And how do we persuade her to jump ship?"
"That, dear fellow," Danik retorts, taking two steps backwards with a sweeping bow, "is altogether beyond my sphere. The strategy I commend to your judgement; the details " another, deeper, flourish, with a hint of respect, in the direction of the avocado troll "I leave to you."
[There was a loud crack and a ten foot high column of smoke formed, there was a strong smell of brimstone. Magnus walked out of the column coughing slightly. From above Varne still in firedrake form circled down and settled on his shoulder.]
Amanda: "Now that's what I call a good entrance."
Varne: "Indeed, my Lord goes to far too many pantomimes."
Magnus: "Sorry, but it fits with the current world view. Anyway my quest failed. The enemy manifested as the Morigan and I was forced to dismiss my tracker, far to risky to have a bound demon around when my will could have been broken. The problem is according to the terms of the bond I can not summon it again this lunar month. Now what do we have here?"
Doctor One: "Hmph, how did you find us young man?"
Magnus: "Well apart from the fact that Varne is here, someone used my name, or to be strictly accurate, part of my name, in a spell."
[Varne, who had been observing the party from above brought him up to date.]
Magnus: "The door is hawthorn, those two saplings which seem the right distance apart are oak and ash, which seems unlikely to be natural. Now if we place the door between them and come up with a suitable spell we might get somewhere. Unfortunately the only door opening spells I know involve blowing holes in them. Besides I know my limits when it come to poetry."
With much huffing and grunting, Third, Fourth, and Nth shifted the door into position.
#Well, it could have been worse.# Ayna observed.
"Hmm, my dear?"
#When is a door not a door? When it's ajar.#
"Oh, that would have been all we bloody needed!" the Steward muttered. "Some lunatic jokester running riot."
"A-hem." the Doctors, Dominic, Amanda and Albert said.
"I beg your pardon, but am I not the master of magic here? Now, let's see what we can do about this..."
"A castle in the clouds, a vision in the air,|
Such the people's paradise I seek to build,
For I am the master of magic, the People's Champion.
Let the visions of the proles, the songs of the siren,
Rooted firm in the ground, between ash and oak,
From oak, ash and thorn I conjure thee,
The door flickered briefly.
"...Was that it?" Sixth said.
#Umm... excuse me# Ayna interjected before the Steward exploded, #but we've got incoming. Sounds like a dragon...#
"Eloise!" Fourth exclaimed.
Eloise was the first to hop down from Sweetheart's back and run over to the little band. "There you are "
When she saw the door, she stopped and stared. "Oh my... oh, my."
Danik of Ruritania was the next to touch ground, turning to offer Cassie and Cameron a hand down.
"Doctors!" he greeted. "A pleasure to meet you all again though I wish t'were under other circumstances than these."
Osman fluttered off Danik's shoulder and over to Ayna.
#Hey, that tickles!# Ayna chimed, as Osman made himself at home on her shoulder.
"He likes you," Danik said, a smile tugging at his lips. "Do I take it I address yet another of the sisterhood of Muses?"
#Er... actually, I'm a Siren. Dad's the Muse.# Ayna explained, blushing slightly.
Danik bowed. "When they said that a Siren's voice could enthral a man, little did I know how true they spoke. Truly, a man would dash himself upon the rocks to hear that voice."
Ayna's blush deepened.
Eloise broke her attention away from the door. "Hm... I wonder who cast that spell, then? It was meant to entrap you, I'm sure of that... technological rendering of troll magic... but then why go to all the trouble of putting in the door? That's too subtle for this... unless...
"I know. I know! Enchantments! That's what all these have been enchantments. Break the illusion that stopped you seeing you were going in circles, solve the riddle of the door that leads nowhere, and then..." Eloise trailed off. "And then... what? Enchantments come in threes. Troll magic "
She stopped short. "Troll magic. Oh, Sweetheart... did you do this?"
The dragon shook its head. :::No. Another manifestation of myself could have, though...:::
"Or our foe."
"No, that's not how this works. This is supposed to entrap those who can't work it out riddles that have to be solved before you reach... whatever it is you seek." Eloise said reflectively. "And I think our foe doesn't want to throw obstacles in our way..."
"Then... where is she?"
"Seek your solution. Then will I come." Dominic said heavily. "I rather suspect our enemy laid a trap for anyone trying to track Xephanya the Morigan.
"The Morigan. Ice Queen. The Kalevala.
"The Steward was right. We do seek a Louhi.
"But why..." Dominic shook his head. "Holding Xeffy and Anya hostage to the success of our quest was only a secondary objective and I don't believe she had only one reason for stealing them. Where are they?"
"Her shard shall place the flame in her hands, and the weft of the world shall be ravelled... for she needs face and form, hands willing or no, to do her work."
Cassie looked around at them. "She needs one of our world for it will work for no other, least of all she, she whom the world has long forgotten. She has readied the key and rose. All that remains is the coming of the flame."
"One of the Nine and Ninety, then." Magnus concluded. "I thought as much."
"No." Cassie shook her head. "No. The smith seeks his box of tricks, and much trouble has that quest caused. No."
Forest-green eyes regarded Dominic. "She did this for hatred of you, historian, took your daughter in hatred's name. She hates you, despises you and she will see you broken by your daughter's hands."
"Who is she?" Dominic demanded. "Who is she?"
"I..." Cassie opened her mouth. "I... don't know. She is... is darkness to me. I cannot see her. Only what she has done her titles, her deeds.
"And even then, only that which this brave Ship learned.
"I do not know."
#Dad...?# Ayna said.
Dominic shook his head. "I don't know, sweetling. I don't know."
He looked down, closed his eyes.
"I don't know."
"But I get the feeling," Eloise said, carefully, "based on that first telepathic contact with Sweetheart, before her mind started to break, that whomever we are up against is acting blindly seeking only the Secret Thing which Sweetheart's pilot failed to hand over to her so long ago... It just has that feel to it that's she's opening up Sweetheart's mind with single-minded determination like a treasure hunter digging for a buried chest of gold... She doesn't care if she breaks the chest open in the process, and she doesn't care for us we're like a colony of ants who just happened to build their nest over the spot she wants to dig. Why would it now be personal?
"Unless," she continued, "it's not personal in the way we normally think of it... maybe (to extend this treasure hunter metaphor to its limit) she started to dig with her bare hands, felt the handle of a shovel and picked it up and started using that instead. Maybe there is some quality of Xeffy or Ayna, or the two of them together, that she recognized and knew how to use." She shrugged, throwing up her hands. "But I don't know for sure..."
"Oh, I think it is personal, Eloise. Was personal ever since we entered this world.
"Ever since the Ice Queen could see us for what we are.
"I think you were right, Eloise. The Sampo was her first concern... has been all along.
"But then she saw me.
"Didn't you wonder why Xeffy was taken so soon? It took us a couple of minutes for Sweetheart to get us to the castle, for us to get down to debating the SKoLD...
"Then she grabbed Xeffy at the first opportunity.
"Then, she reshaped Xeffy's body to match her own.
"And her form looks like an older Xeffy.
"Am I too blinded by rage? Perhaps. This is a very personal take on the evidence, after all...
"...but then, I am a historian.
"She took all the opportunities she could...
"And then she took Xeffy.
"I think she's thinking very coldly. Very impersonally.
"She's using Xeffy and us to achieve her goals.
"To bring back the flame. To set the Sampo in motion.
"Using one goal to achieve another.
"As for what the Sampo does..." Dominic frowned. "She who the world has long forgotten... and she must be forgotten. If she is of my family... I don't know any who look like her... and even after nine hundred years, my memory shouldn't be unreliable..."
"NINE HUNDRED YEARS?!" Cameron gawped.
"Yes. Nine hundred years. Nine hundred and ten, to be specific. Born 1092 CE." Dominic said testily. "We have more important matters at the moment...
"A forgotten entity. A non-physical entity, if I read Cassie's words right... which is why she needed a proxy... then and now.
"It works only for one of this world why she took Xeffy. I don't think she was expecting us to find that out. I think she was expecting us to go along as we have done to bring her the flame in the hope she'll free Xeffy.
"She won't. She needs her.
"So... that is where we stand." Dominic shook his head. "If we do not get the flame, the SKoLD will power the Sampo for her. If we do get her the flame... she gets everything she wants. And if we thwart her, she still has Xeffy and Anya and the will to hurt them.
"And we still don't know what she wants the Sampo for."
"Well, we're not going to find out here!" the Steward declared.
He opened the hawthorn door.
"Now that's interesting..." First said. "Wouldn't you say?"