Patient as a gargoyle, the ilf waited for the sunrise.
The wind had dropped, as it always did in the pre-dawn gloam. Bucklebee Hazeldust adjusted his leather jerkin, sniffed under his beeskin hat and squinted up at the mighty iridescence that comprised the peak of the upper tower of Windspire.
He rested a hand on the crank that controlled the lung-valves of the statue of Nel that towered eight hundred feet closer to the sky above him. Her enormous wings, frozen in replete grace, arced majestically above her haloed and sorrowing countenance and one hand was stretched out beseechingly, palm up, towards the burgeoning dawn.
Her fingertips were polished to a burnished sheen, ready to catch the first touch of sunlight in a glittering array that appeared to the observer as if Nel had caught five new born stars on them and was gifting them to the world.
These celestial mirrors now flared in a lambent corona of morning light., Buck turned the valve under his sap-stained fingers, at the same instant that a brisk wind materialised across the rafters.
Through frictionless bearings and ancient pulleys, Nel’s mouth primly slid open, almost sensuous in its fluidity. And she sang.
A continuous, perfectly timbred note with just the slightest vibrato rang from her lips. It spread out from the spire, falling in harmonic iridescence on the roofs of the township almost a quarter of a mile below where Buck now stood. The treetops of Brackenbough pierced the perpetual sea of mist that surrounded the community, giving the impression of a sturdy forest border.
In fact it was illusory. The ilfen township of Wardhome sat on titanic and ancient wooden pillars, several miles above Brackenbough’s true forest floor where an abundance of other creatures dwelt – some friendly, more often fiendish but all as enchanted as the endless woods that surrounded them.
The ilfs were special. Slight of stature, they were an ancient order of sprites whose descendants were a radical and florid mix of faery and elf with some mongrel boggit thrown in for good measure. They had heads like pale acorns; long, golden feline eyes that stretched across their faces and lived in this blessed loftiness known as Wardhome, protected from what dwelt below by powerful magical fences at the borders of their community.
Buck had never seen them. As tower-hand to the holy sanctum of Windspire, his place was inside its bevelled and fluted walls and he rarely ventured beyond the town’s four compass-points of entry. He didn’t need to – all of that gallivanting was better protected by those more heavily armoured and spirited than he. No, he was quite happy up here.
Here with Nel.
Buck wiped his brow and engaged the bellow-chocks on the enormous statue. Ancient chains muttered and creaked before locking into place with an authoritative c-clunk.
The ilf held onto his furry cap in the teeth of the ncreasingly torrid wind-shear and raised a squinting glance upwards to where Nel was still ululating ceaselessly. Her fluted lungs were powered by wind-traps concealed beneath the stone hem of her perpetually flowing robes that stood out behind her, frozen in artful repose.
The call to ilfmoot was already attracting the faithful as Buck weaved and stumbled his way back to the service door which stood at the foot of the crenelated pedestal that Nel stood upon, buffeted by a drunken wind that chivvied, pushed and slapped at him from all sides.
Heaving open the solid oaken portal, he wedged himself between the door jamb and the stairwell beyond. This action goaded the wind that harried him from a basso thunder to a shrill, startled scream which was abruptly terminated as Buck half-dived into the upper service atrium and the the door clapped shut on its venomous coat-tails.
The atrium was welcoming after the maelstrom outside. Flickering red torchlight lit the walls, describing a vaulted ceiling which rose smoothly up in inverted curves to join in a gleaming vanishing point of mighty, ancient brass pipes: the hidden heart of Nel’s aria which ran through the insides of her shining feet above and up into her body.
The tone of the wind was different here – an amorphous, contemplative drone that pulsed and eddied. At the top of the atrium staircase was a polished wooden chair, carved and weighty that seemed to hover above the first step. It was, in truth, mounted on a sturdy spindle that protruded from the base of its frame and disappeared into the wall in a grooved and fluted track that wound parallel to the flight of steps.
Bucklebee approached and climbed into the chair, settling himself in. The chair sighed and shifted with his weight, perfectly cushioning him to a nicety.
He tapped the chairs arm twice briskly and cleared his throat: ‘Hummble traps, please.’
Nothing happened. The ilf cast a golden-eyed glance about him, questioningly.
‘Hello? Pyx?’ he asked. ‘Hummble traps, please?’
Still he was blessed with no resolution. Nel’s pipes throbbed distantly, but nothing more.
Buck was about to holler a third time when he was curtailed by an enormous, grating yawn. Slowly, reluctantly the polished malachite brickwork on the opposite wall clatteringly began to tessellate and rearrange itself into the semblance of an angular face. Two of the nearest torches rolled languidly horizontal and slid upwards to settle into place under the clicking brow of this emerging visage before dying down to glittering embers that sparkled and danced like distant fire-gems.
The tower guardian stretched his stony, beak-like mouth and yawned again, sending an eddy of dusty breath into the atrium.
‘Bucklebee,’ it wheezed. ‘What do you want? I was sleeping.’
Buck was incredulous. ‘Sleeping?’ he snorted. ‘Pyx, you’re over 40,000 years old. You’re also immortal. You don’t need to sleep.’
‘Rrrrrrr… who says’ Pyx retorted. ‘Do you know how many bricks there are in this tower? Hmm?’
Buck smiled wanly. ‘No. But I have a feeling you’re about to enlighten me…?’
The guardian bristled, making a sound like smashing crockery. ‘Thirteen billion, six thousand, nine hundred and seventy-nine,’ it croaked ‘And that’s not counting the sluice-pans… those that go… you know where. Underneath.’
He wheezed again. ‘All enchanted. All crying out for Nel and St. Beri.You haven’t known tedium until you’ve had to take a petition from sewage-masonry…’
‘Pyx,’ Buck interrupted, ‘this is stimulating but I have exactly fifteen minutes to get this morning’s hummble hooked up or the reverend will be flying my flayed hide from the spire. If you want to discuss the working rights of enchanted brickwork can it at least wait until after ilfmoot?’
The guardian regarded him silently for a moment, his torchlight gaze hissing and puffing meditatively. Finally, it sighed dustily: ‘Hummble traps. Hang on.’
With a neck-snapping jerk, the chair took off down the wall at a frightening clip, charging into the depths of the tower on almost soundless bearings. Only a very faint, sweet aroma of heated lubricating oils betrayed the enormous kinetic friction being generated by the enchanted gearing spinning at breakneck speed beneath Buck’s bottom.
The tower-hand’s stomach described a gyroscope of fireflies as the wall-chair spiralled down a baker’s dozen of service-floors. So rapid was their pace that the brickwork on the opposite wall flickered lazily, forward and then back, in an aurora of colours that threatened to lull the observer into a stupor…
‘Oi,’ came a grating voice. ‘Wake up.’
Buck snapped his eyes open. He had drifted into a sudden doze.
His ilfen senses expanded from the pointed crescents of his ears. The chair had slowed and flattened out and, with a discordant wooden chuckling, switched planes from the groove in the stair wall into a matching track that now cut through the floor.
A panoply of noise and chatter greeted Buck as the chair now glided, discreet and shaded, along the eastern wall of the Great Hall. Hundreds of ilfen and ilfesses were heading for the main chancel and narthex of Windspire for the daily sermon from Beri Magpielane, the current Reverend.
They filed in their hubbub across its tiled floor which depicted a multitude of Windspire’s former clergy – all centuries into dust and ash but frozen in beatific repose, their countenances glowing and ruddy as the time of their prime and dressed in sumptuous clerical robes that shimmered and flushed in rapturous colour.
‘See them?’ croaked a voice from behind Buck’s head. ‘Break my bricks, they do. You have any idea how much mana it uses to keep those hoary old gravestones looking as fresh as a daisy’s derriere?
Buck rolled his eyes. ‘You amaze me, you know,’ he said. ‘A living building, charged with the most awesome celestial power and… what? You’re an atheist? Where’s your gratitude?’
‘It’s a point of view,’ the guardian said archly, rolling the carved eyes of the wooden phoenix he was manifesting on the back of the chair. ‘You don’t ask to be built, do you? The starfold just drops you into an engine, cranks the handle, mumbles a few sanctimonious words and hey morko… you’re an edifice with a job. Responsibilities.’
‘So – what would you have rather been? A sandbar? A latine?
The chair rocked up and down alarmingly, jarring Buck’s teeth together like castanets.
Pyx growled warningly. ‘Watch it. Oh, hell’s pickles – here comes Mother Moonshine.’
Buck swung his head in the direction the guardian was waving a wooden wing. Standing at the junction of the chair tracks, in the far north-eastern corner of the Hall, the Reverend Beri Magpielane was waiting for them.
She was tall, even by ilfess standards, and clad in a soft woollen grey habit. Dark, chestnut hair tumbled in ringlets, framing her plump, acorn-shaped head. Her eyes were fixed on Bucklebee and as they drew closer, she smoothly brought up one dainty hand and pushed it, palm-down, towards the floor: Stop. Now.
As the chairlift whispered to a halt, Buck suddenly reflected on how superfluous he was in his custodial duties for the tower. Honestly. I sit in an enchanted chair. I’m heckled and moaned at by an enchanted building. And now I’m about to get harangued by an enchanted vicar about a job that could do itself in a heartbeat.
What exactly am I doing here?
The ilfesss cleric greeted him sonorously: ‘Master Hazeldust. Good morning.’
Magpielane;s irises were the colour of morning mist. They drifted and roiled, describing nebulous orbits around her pupils in a somnambulistic dance that soothed and beguiled. Over her left shoulder floated her cimber - a tiny sprite, not much bigger than a tennis ball. All ilfs possessed one and they were intrinsic to the persona and soul of their owner.
Buck had his, although it suffered from something of a personality disorder and unlike Beri’s, seemed unable to make its mind up as to what it wanted to be. One mintute it was a churning water wheel; the next it was a sleeping donkey. At the moment it was sitting in one of its typically nondescript forms – a small, damp wooden farm gate, crumbling under a rain shower.
Buck could feel its presence over his right shoulder – it felt like he was dipping his shoulder into a swimming pool. He could never understand quite why his cimber couldn’t settle down and just be¸ or even why it insisted on taking such depressive manifestations. He wasn’t a melancholy ilf – at least, he didn’t think he was – and his cimber’s erratic behaviour often gave him pause to peek into a place he’d rather not go… that there was a deeper, more sinister side to him cruising back and forth silently just under the surface.
Plus, he was fed up with feeling like something had had an accident next to his chin.
Beri waded, sylph-like, into the thick, awkward silence that was blooming between them: ‘Well,’ she said. ‘I trust that Nel was in fine voice this dawnside?’
‘Oh… most certainly,’ gabbled Buck. ‘Yep. No probs. A-okay. Peachy.’
‘… And Pyx?
… Pyx? ‘Y-y-y-yees. He was in…. fine voice too.’
The working perils of sewage masonry. Tell you about it sometime – it’s a doozy.
Buck smiled what he hoped was a brisk but warm smile. What actually appeared on his face was more akin to sudden chlorophyll poisoning: ‘Actually, vicar – I was just on my way to girdle the hummbles for today’s sermon so…’
They all turned as one towards the source of this brazen, brassy hail – although Buck already knew with a sinking heart who it rang forth from. No other ilf had that sort of intonation, clanging like a temple bell and just as jarring.
Striding towards them, resplendent in fine, tan-broidered red leathers and a diaphanous cloak studded with tiny bluestoned spiders was a broad, imposing ilf of immense stature. Long, shining blonde hair that was artlessly hanked into two heroic-looking braids jiggled and wriggled against the bright-red fletches of an impressive quiever of arrows slung across his back.
Reverend Beri did not exactly simper and gush at the sight of this approaching warrior – it would not have been becoming of an ilfess of her standing – but her demeanour was clearly warm and politely accommodating.
She inclined her head: ‘Master Whetstone. Good morning. We shall be honoured to have you address the moot this dawnside.’
Cornwell Whetstone came to a parade-rest in front of the small group with many a creak and jingle of gorget and mail. All told, he was precisely the type of lantern-jawed clot Buck couldn’t stand. Even his cimber looked imperious and smug – a blood-red sphinxes head in a nebulous cloud. Its eyes flashed like distant lightening, and its growl was a rasping mutter.
Whetstone sketched a fluid bow that was almost a curtsey, drawing up his shining cape in one delicately bunched fist with a flourish: ‘You honour me, your holy Eminence,’ he purred, demurely. ‘Far be it from me to impose upon your sacred preaching with mine own fumblings, but this I shall with humble…’
‘Farp,’ honked Buck under his breath in practiced mimicry of hummble flatulence.
Cornwell stopped and turned his cat’s-eye gaze down at the tower-hand. ‘Ah,’ he breathed, loftily. ‘Well. The honourable Mr. Hazeldust. How lovely to see you...’
He reached down and peeled a track of congealed pollen from Buck’s ratty jerkin. ‘To see you’ve barely moved, that is. Still diligently picking out humble-dung from beneath those scabrous-looking fingers?’
Buck did not rise to the taller ilf’s hectoring tone. He shrugged. ‘It’s a living,’ he answered, evenly. ‘You should try it sometime.’
Cornwell burst into a peal ofmodulated laughter. His cimber joined him in a growling, parrot-like imitation; its cloudy jaw hanging down like a dislocated barn-door, it described a threatening arc around Bucklebee’s head, harrying him like an angry wasp before coming to rest above Cornwell’s shoulder.
The tall ilf wiped his eyes superfluously. ‘Oh… Mr. Hazeldust, You are a ruby. Do you not think I have not grafted in the green leaves for this rank that I hold? That I have not toiled, bare-breasted in the lower hum and cloy? Swung a sheaving-scythe ‘til mine blisters bled…’
Actually, no, thought Buck. The Whetstone’s were one of the most powerful and wealthiest families in all of Brackenbough, second only to the Stormwings in influence, affluence, prominence and… lots of other words ending with the suffix ‘ence’.
Probably, he thought, the closest this prancing bell-clap got to humble-dung was when he drunkenly kicked his poor squire into a midden-heap of it.
The old hymony droned in Buck’s mind: Give a man a spade and yea, shall he toil into the starfold…
… Yep. And give him a flash cloak, some fancy gilded breadknives that have never been out of their wrappings, much less seen a ruck, and ye shall have ilfesses lining up around the block..
Cornwell seemed, at that very moment, to be re-enacting such a battle to a politely attentive Beri. He had unsheathed his twin blades in the interim and was jigging and jogging, parrying and prancing, all the while keeping up an exhaustive commentary of the incursion. Twice, his exuberance brought the shining steel of his weapons within inches of her face, prompting her cimber to pulse rapidly and send up a hair-trigger shield of energy to protect its mistress.
It needn’t have panicked. Before taking her clerical vows, Beri had been a Fernmaiden – an élite troop of warrior-ilfesses who were ruthlessly battle-hardened in long patrols along Brackenbough’s forest floor, protecting the borders of Wardhome from all that creeped and screeped up to their feet in the dead hours.
Thus, she didn’t even flinch as Whetstone’s wild arabesque; merely, she discreetly evaded her head in clearly long-drilled response. Buck was impressed – he’d heard the stories about Magpielane’s past but never, until now, has he actually seen evidence of her time with the Maidens.
It seemed almost impossible, in truth, to equate the beatific, passive Reverend with that rowdy, rough-singing bunch of banshees. Yet he’d always wondered why, whenever the Fernmaidens cmae to hear the sermon of Harridan(the Wench of the Woods, may her breastplate be pointed and her braids uncut), a long-dusted cleric who, like Beri, had wieleded a blade before a bible, they always became quietly respectful, filing into the Chancel in good military order.
Were it not for their rough-tanned leather hairbands that cocooned their long locks in concical sheaths, or their lethal-looking twin tulwars strapped across their backs, one would not have observed a more disciplined outing from a group of ilfess school girls.
Such was Beri’s influence, and it was this she now deployed on Cornwell. Gently, but firmly she laid her hand on his forearm – again, despite the neutrality of the gesture Buck could easily see in its rapidity how quickly it could turn into one of disarmament – and brought a halt to his tale.
“Thank you, Master Cornwell,’ she said, encouragingly. ‘I see that we are indeed in safe hands from what dwells below… may She stay below.’ She rapidly genuflected across her chest as she said this.
‘May She stay below,’ echoed Cornwell, repeating the gesture. His gaze drifted artlessly over the Reverend’s shoulder; lost in a sudden memory.
As quickly as it came, however, it went. Blinking suddenly, as if emerging from a short sleep, the haughty ilf became brsik: ‘Well – the faithfiul await. Your Eminence.’
Bowing, he wheeled and strode off, not even acknowledging Buck.
Pyx groaned in his wooden casement: ‘Ffft. What a prince,’ he muttered.
Beri watched him melt into the throng before turning to the pair. She smiled patiently: ‘He means no ill. His is a world where coin is the name of gods. He has yet to face his true test.’
She glanced back over her shoulder to where Whetstone was little more than a blond blur among a hundred heads.
‘But he will,’ she added softly, apropos of nothing.
As she did, she caressed her right hand which had slid out from beneath her habit. With a start, Buck realised she was missing part of the little finger of that hand.
‘Reverend,’ he breathed. ‘Your hand…’
Beri glanced down at her maimed digit. ‘Oh,’ she said – laughingly, although there was an underfrost of ice and steel in her voice as she spoke: ‘A souvenir. From long ago’
She slid her hand out of sight. ‘Now,’ she said, briskly. ‘We will be preaching the sermon of Herod Avunculus so I require a hummble with excellent range. I hear Otto is in good fettle?’
At last, they were on common ground. ‘He surely is, your Eminence,’ affirmed Buck, a little too eagerly. ‘For a hummble approaching 1,000 years old, he can still blow the butt off a gadfly…’
It was a common uncouthness and Buck regretted it as soon as it tumbled out, but Beri was magnanimous. ‘Indeed,’ she chuckled. ‘Well – let us hope none manifest. To our posts, one and all.’
She turned and gided towards a semi-hidden postern door, set flush against the northern wall, that led to her private vestry to prepare for the sermon.
Buck watched her go. A ripple of embarrassment eddied through his body, causing his cimber to dramatically change its shape into a frozen tidal wave, surging in a perpetual crest.
He glanced at the sprite. ‘Spot on,’ he muttered.
A nagging vision was in his head – when deep in his cups, he’d often visualised that beneath her habit, Reverend Magpielane was actually on wheels. Pivoting and wheeling about like a motorised pepperpot.
Now though, truly seeing the quiet grace that she displayed for the first time he no longer thought she was on wheels.
Rather, she wasn’t touching the ground at all. That she was hovering. Like an angel.
‘… spectacular,’ he muttered.
Pyx croaked and creaked a questioning threnody: ‘Eh? What was that?’
Buck smiled faintly. ‘… Nothing. Come on – let’s get ‘em hooked.’