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"Conrad's Fate"

Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Christopher set off through the wet wood at a gallop. On the level grass beyond I had to work hard to keep up. He had such long legs. But he had to stop in the ditch in front of the ha-ha and wait for me to boost him up the wall.

"Found the dog?" Smedley called out from farther along.

"No," I panted, boosting hard.

Christopher held down his hands to help me scramble up and hauled me up as if I weighed nothing.

"What's the hurry, then?" Smedley said as my feet met the top of the wall and we both set off running again. "I thought the dog was after you!"

We were too breathless to answer. Christopher dropped to a jog-trot and kept on in a straight line toward the house, past yew hedges and tiny box hedges, and then between the banks of flowers. I had a feeling that some of this was new, but it all jogged past so fast that I was not really sure anything had changed until we came to the open circle where Christopher had leaned on the sundial. The chubby boy statue was now a stately stone young lady carrying an urn, which was spouting water.

I couldn't help laughing. "Lucky it didn't do that while you were leaning on it!"

"Save your breath," Christopher panted.

We jogged on, pounding on gravel, then clattering up stone steps, and more stone steps, until we were charging across a wide paved platform in front of the house itself. I tried to stop here. It was obviously a place where Staff were not allowed. But Christopher trotted on, into the house through an open glass door, across a parquet floor in a room that was lined with books. While Christopher was wrestling open the heavy door, I saw there was a ladder up to a balcony where there were more books, under a fancy ceiling, and I knew this was the library and we shouldn't be there.

The heavy door brought us out into the hall, with the main stairway ahead in the distance. Andrew was ]ust crossing the black floor, carrying a tray. He said, " Hey !" as we dashed past him. I knew then that Christopher, in his hurry to discover what was making the changes, had clean forgotten to make us invisible - and forgotten that he had forgotten. Andrew stared after us as Christopher skidded around the banisters and led me charging up the forbidden stairway. I was just glad it was Andrew and not Gregor. Gregor would have reported us to Mr. Amos.

At the top, outside the ballroom, Christopher had to stop and bend over to get his breath. But as soon as he could stand up again, he stared around in a puzzled way and then pointed toward the lofty ceiling.

"I don't understand, Grant. I thought we'd be on top of it here. Up again."

So up we went again, to the floor where the Family bedrooms were. Here the next lot of stairs were not in a straight line from the lower lot. We had to tear along the palatial passage to get to them and around a corner. When we whirled around that corner, I thought for a moment we were in a riot. There were squeals and screams and girls in brown-and-gold uniforms pelting everywhere. They all froze when they saw us. Then one of them said, "It's only the Improvers," and there were sighs of relief all around. I could see they were all the younger maids. None of them were much older than me or Christopher.

"It's line-tig," one of them explained breathlessly. "Want to play?"

"Love to," Christopher said, quite as breathlessly. "But we have to take a message." And he charged on to the next stairs and up those. "I suppose... have to have... fun... somewhere," he panted as we pounded upward.

"If I was them, I'd go and chase about in the nurseries where it's empty," I said.

"No... excuse for... being there," Christopher suggested.

He did not pause on the next floor with its smell of new carpets. He just shook his head, chased along to the next stairs, and clattered up them to the nursery floor. "Getting warmer," he gasped, and we trotted along to the creaking wooden stairs to the attics.

By this time I could feel the strangeness, too. It was buzzing actively. It did not surprise me in the least when, as soon as we panted into the attics, Christopher plunged away past the lift toward the center of the house. I knew we were going to end up in that space beyond the line painted on the wall.

Christopher was galloping along, excitedly puffing out, "Warm, warmer, almost hot!" when we both more or less ran into Miss Semple coming away from the clothes stores.

"Steady on!" she said. "Don't you know the rule about not running?"

"Sorry!" we both said. Then, without having to think, I added, "We need new clothes. Christopher got mud on his breeches."

Christopher looked down at himself. He was covered in brick dust and moss as well as mud. "And Conrad's ruined his stockings," he said.

I looked at my striped legs and discovered that at least four of the stripes had converted into ladders, with my skin showing through. There were willow leaves stuck behind the buckles of my shoes.

"So I see," Miss Semple said, looking, too. "Come along, then." She marched us into the clothes room, where she made us change practically everything. It was such a waste of time. Miss Semple said we were a disgrace to Stallery. "And those stockings will have to come out of your wages," she told me. "Silk stockings are costly. Be more careful in future."

Christopher scowled and sighed and fretted. I whispered to him, "If we hadn't met her, she'd have gone down and caught those girls playing tig. Or she might have caught us going past the painted line."

"True," Christopher muttered. "But it's still maddening. The changes have stopped now, damn it!" He was right. I couldn't feel the strangeness buzzing at all now.

When we were clean and neat and crisp again, Miss Semple picked up the pile of towels she had been carrying and sailed away to the lift with them.

"Now, hurry," Christopher said, "before anything else interferes."

We tiptoed speedily and cautiously toward the center of the attics. In the distance, floors creaked and someone banged a door, but no one came near. I think we both gasped with nervous relief when we passed the line painted on the wall. Then we sprinted to the wide space with the row of windows.

"Here - it is here, the center of things!" Christopher said. He turned slowly around, looking up, looking down. "And I still don't understand it," he said.

There really did seem to be nothing but flaking plaster ceiling above and wide old floorboards underfoot. In front of us, the rather dirty row of windows looked out over the distant blue mountains above Stallchester, and behind us was just wall, flaking like the ceiling. The dark passage on the other side that led to the women's side was identical to one we had come along.

I pointed to it. "What about Millie? Is she along there?"

Christopher shook his head impatiently. "No. Here. Here is the only place she feels anywhere near at the moment. It looks as if these changes are somehow connected to the way she's not here, but that's all I know."

"Under the floor, then?" I suggested. "We could take one of the floorboards up."

Christopher said, in an unconvinced way, "I suppose we could try," and we had, both of us, knelt down near the windows to look at the boards, when another sideways jolt happened. It was lucky we were kneeling. Up here the shift was savage. We were both thrown over by it. My head cracked against the wall under the windows. I swore. Christopher reached out and hauled me up. "I see the reason for these painted lines now," he said, rather soberly. "If you'd been standing up, Grant, you'd have gone straight through the window. I shudder to think how far it is to the ground from here."

He was pale and upset. I was annoyed. I looked around while I was rubbing my head, and it was all exactly the same, wide floorboards, distant mountains through the windows, flaky plaster, and the feeling of something strange here as strong as ever. "What does it?" I said. "And why?"

Christopher shrugged. "So much for my clever ideas," he said. "If I have a fault, Grant, it's being too clever. Let's go down and check the nursery floor. Nothing seems to have changed at all this time."

Famous last words, my sister Anthea used to say. Christopher strode away down the passage, and there was a door blocking his way, a peeling red-brown door.

"Oh!" he said. "This is new!" He rattled at it until he found the way it opened.

It blew inward out of his hands. We both went backward.

Wind howled around us, crashing the door into the wall and flapping our neckcloths into our faces. We both knew at once we were somewhere different and rickety and very, very high up. We could feel the floor shaking under our feet. We clutched at each other and edged cautiously forward into the stormy daylight beyond the door.

There Christopher said, "Oooh!" and added airily, "Not afraid of heights, I hope, Grant?"

I could hardly hear him for the wind and the creaking of wood. "No," I said. "I like them." The door led out onto a small wooden balcony thing with a low, flimsy-looking rail around it. Almost at our feet, a square hole led into a crazy old wooden stairway down the side of what seemed to be a tall wooden tower. Our heads both bent to look through the hole. And we could see the stairway zigzagging giddily away, down and down, getting smaller and smaller, outside what was definitely the tallest and most unsafe-looking wooden building I had ever seen. It could have been a lighthouse - except that it had slants of roof sticking out every so often, like a pagoda. It swayed and creaked and thrummed in the wind. Far, far below, something seemed to be channeling the gale into a melancholy howling.

I tore my eyes from that tottering stairway and looked outward. Where the park should have been, the ground was all gray-green heathery moor, but beyond that - this was the creepy part to me - there were the hills around Stallery, the exact same craggy shapes that surrounded Stallchester. I could see Stall Crag over there, plain as plain.

After that I stood by the railing and looked upward. There was a very small slanting roof above us, made of warped wooden tiles, with a sort of spire on top that ended in a broken weathercock. It was all so old that it was groaning and fluttering in the wind. Behind and around us, the moor just went on. There was no sign of Stallery at all.

Christopher was white, nearly as white as the neckcloth that kept fluttering across his face. "Grant," he said, "I've got to go down. Millie feels quite near now."

"We'll both go," I said. I didn't want to be up at the top of this building when Christopher's weight brought the whole thing down, and besides, it was a challenge.

I don't think Christopher saw it as a challenge. It took him an obvious effort to unclench his hand from the doorjamb, and when he had, he turned around very quickly and clenched the same hand even harder on the rail beside the stairs. The whole balcony swayed. He kept making remarks - nervous, joky remarks - as he went carefully down out of sight, but the wind roared too hard for me to hear them.

As soon as Christopher was far enough down that I wouldn't kick his face, I scrambled onto the stairs, too. A mistake. Everywhere groaned, and the staircase, together with the balcony, swayed outward away from the building. I had to wait until Christopher was farther down and putting weight on a different part of it. Then I had to go slowly because he was. I could tell he was scared silly.

I was quite scared, too. I'd rather climb Stall Crag any day. It stays still. This place swayed every time one of us moved, and I kept wondering what lunatic had built the thing, and why. As far as I could tell, nobody lived in it. It was all cracked and weathered and twisted. There were windows without glass in the wooden walls. When Christopher was being particularly slow, I leaned over with the wind thundering around me and peered into the nearest window, but they were always just empty wooden rooms inside.

There was a door on each balcony we came to, but when I looked down past my own legs - not a clever thing to do: I went quite giddy - I saw that Christopher was not trying to open any of the doors, so I left them alone, too. I just went on to the next flight, slanting the opposite way.

About halfway down, the sticking-out roofs were much wider. The stairs went out over the roofs there, to mad little spidery balconies hanging on the very edge, and then there would be another stair going down under that roof to the next one. When Christopher came to the first of these balconies, he just stopped. I had to hang on to the ladder and wait. I thought he must have found Millie, and that the howling sound I could still hear was being made by an injured girl in mortal agony. But Christopher went on in the end. And when I got to that balcony, I knew why he had stopped. You could see through the floor of it, down and down, and it was rocking. And the howling was still going on, below somewhere.

I got off that balcony as quick as I could. So did Christopher after that. We had to climb over three more of the horrible things before we came to a longer, thicker stair, where there was actually a handrail. I caught up there. We were only one floor up by then.

"Nearly there," Christopher said. He looked ghastly.

"Millie?" I asked.

"I can't feel her at all now," he said. "I hope I don't understand."

As we clattered down the last few steps, the howling became a sort of squeaking. At the bottom, a great brown shape hurled itself at us, slavering. Christopher sat down, hard. I was so scared that I went up half the flight again without even noticing. "They left a wild beast on guard!" I said.

"No, they didn't," Christopher said. He was sitting on the bottom step with his arms around the creature, and the creature was licking his face. Both of them seemed to be enjoying it. "This is the guard dog that went missing today. Its name is" - he reached around the great tongue and found the name tag on the dog's collar - "Champ. I think it's short for Champion and not a description of its habits."

I went down the stairs again, and the dog seemed glad to see me, too. I suppose it had thought it was permanently lost. It put great paws on my shoulders and squeaked its joy. Its massive tail thumped dust out of the ground, which whirled in the wind, stingingly. "No, you've got it wrong," I told it. "We're lost, too. We are, aren't we?" I asked Christopher.

"For the moment," he said. "Yes. Stallery seems to have been built on a probability fault, I think - a place where a lot of possible universes are close together and the walls between them are fairly weak. So when whoever - or whatever - keeps shifting to another line of possible events, it shifts the whole mansion across a bit, and that bit at the top of the house gets moved a lot. The top gets jerked somewhere else for a while. At least, I'm hoping it's just for a while. Now we know why those painted lines are really there."

"Do you think it's the Countess doing it?" I said. "Or the Count?"

"It may be no one," Christopher said. "It could just happen, like an earthquake."

I didn't believe that, but there was no point arguing until I met the person causing my Evil Fate and knew . Come to think of it, my Fate must have landed us here anyway. In order not to feel too bad about it, I said to Christopher, "You worked out what had happened on the way down?"

"In order not to think of dry rot and planks snapping," he said, "or the distance to the ground. And I realized that Millie must be stuck in one of the other probabilities, just beyond this one. Maybe she hasn't noticed which part of the mansion moves - Oh dear!"

We both understood the same thing at the same moment. In order to get ourselves back to the Stallery we knew, we had to be at the top of the tower when another sideways shift happened. We looked at each other. We got up, towing the dog, and backed away to where we could see the whole unpainted wooden height of the thing, moving and quivering in the wind, and the crazy stairway zigzagging up it. It looked worse from the ground even than from at the top.

"I don't think," Christopher admitted, "I can bring myself to climb that again."

"And we'd never get the dog up it anyway - Hang on!" I said. "The dog can't have been in the attics when it got here. It lives in the grounds."

"Oh, what a relief!" Christopher said. "Grant, you're a genius! Let's sit on the right line and wait, then." So we did that. Christopher very carefully paced from side to side, and then back and outward, until he found the spot where the strangeness felt strongest. He decided that a lump of rock about forty feet from the tower was the place. We sat leaning against it - with the dog between us for warmth and the wind hurling our hair and neck-cloths sideways - staring at the derelict front door of the tower and waiting. Gray clouds scudded overhead. An age passed.

"It's funny," Christopher said. "I have no desire at all to explore that building. Do you, Grant?"

I shuddered. The wind sort of moaned in the twisted timber, and I could hear doors opening and slamming shut somewhere inside. I hoped it was only the wind doing it. "No," I said.

Later on, Christopher said, "My stockings have turned into ladders held together by loops. If they take them out of our wages, how much do the things cost?"

"They're silk," I said. "You've probably worked all last week for nothing."

"Bother," he said.

"So have I," I said, "only I've ruined two pairs now. How long have we sat here?"

Christopher looked at his watch. It was nearly five-thirty. We were going to be late back on duty if another shift didn't happen soon. A whole set of doors slammed inside the tower, making us jump.

"I suppose I deserve this," I said.

"Why?" Christopher demanded.

"Because..." I sighed and supposed I might as well confess. "This is all probably my fault. I have this bad karma, you see."

"What bad karma?" he said.

"There's something I didn't do in my last life," I said, "and now I'm not doing it in this life either..."

"You're talking perfect codswallop," Christopher said.

"Maybe it's something you don't have in your world," I said.

"Yes, we do. I was studying it, as it happens, just before I came away, and I assure you, my dear Grant..."

"If you're only in the middle of learning..." I started to say when we both realized that the wooden tower was now a dark stone building. Without any kind of warning, or blurring, or any sort of sideways jerk, it had become twice as wide, though no less derelict. It seemed to be built of long blocks of dark slate, sloping inward slightly, so that it tapered up to a square top, high, high above us. Its square stone doorway gaped in front of us, breathing out a dank and rather rotten smell. There were no stairs anymore.

"That's odd," said Christopher. "I didn't feel it change, did you? What do you say, Grant? Do we risk looking inside?"

"It looks more like a house than the wooden place," I said, "and we're stuck here if we don't do something ."

"True," said Christopher. "Let's go."

We got up and lugged the dog over to the empty square doorway. The place smelled horrible inside, and it was absolutely empty in there. Light came in through enough small windows - just gaps between slabs of slate, really - to show us that the stairs were now indoors. They went zigzagging up one of the walls, and they were simply steps, with nothing to stop a person falling off the outside edge. They were made of slate like all the rest, but they were so old that they sort of drooped outward toward the empty middle of the place. And the trouble was, this building was as high as ever the wooden tower had been.

I told myself that it was no worse than Stall Crag. Christopher swallowed, rather. "One slip," he said, "one stumble, and we'll be dogmeat for Champ here. But I think I can keep us stuck to them by magic if we stay close together."

The dog refused to go inside at first. I knew it was the smell combined with the sight of those stairs, but Christopher explained cheerfully that poor Champ lived out-of-doors and was probably forbidden to go inside a house. It could have been true. Anyway, he towed the resisting beast to the bottom of the stairs. There Champ braced all four gigantic paws and would not budge. We tried climbing up a short way and calling beguilingly, but he simply went out into the middle of the dark, smelly floor and began to howl again.

Christopher said, "This is hopeless!" and he went down and tied his neckcloth into Champ's collar for a lead. He hauled. The neckcloth stretched. Champ stopped howling, but he shook all over and still refused to move.

"Do you think he knows something we don't?" I suggested. I was resting a hand on a step two stairs up, and it was slimy. It would be nice to have an excuse not to climb the things.

"He knows exactly what we know. He's a coward, that's all," Christopher said. "Champ, I refuse to put a compulsion spell on a mere dog. Come on. It's getting late. Supper, Champ. Supper!"

That did the trick. Champ came up the steps in a rush. I was barged into the slate wall, first by the dog and then by Christopher as Christopher was towed upward, and I had to scramble like a maniac to keep up with them. We took the first three zigzags at a mad run, but after that, when the hollow building was like a deep, smelly well around us, Champ seemed to realize he might need to save his breath, and he slowed down.

It was worse like that. I climbed sliding my back up the rough wall and hoped hard that Christopher's spell was a good strong one. Some of the steps higher up were broken and slanted outward more than ever. To take my mind off it, I asked, "Why did you say my bad Fate was codswallop - my karma?" My voice made a dead sort of booming around the place.

Christopher's voice made more dead echoes as he called downward, "I don't think you have any. You have a new, fresh feel to me. Either this is your very first life or your earlier ones were blameless."

I knew he was wrong. He was making me seem so childish. "How do you mean?" I boomed up at him.

And he echoed back, "Like Lady Felice. I don't think she's been around more than once at the most. Compare her with the Countess, Grant. There's an old soul if ever I met one!"

"You mean she has bad karma?" I boomed.

"Not particularly," he echoed down. "Not anything very bad from before, I think, though mind you she's laying up a bit this time round, if you ask me."

This made me sure he was just guessing. "You don't know really, do you?" I shouted back. "Other people can see my Fate! They told me!"

"Like who?" Christopher called down.

"Like my Uncle Alfred and the Mayor of Stallchester," I yelled upward. "So!"

By now it was getting hard to hear. The place was filling with echoes, and Champ, up ahead, was rasping out breaths as if Christopher's neckcloth were throttling him, but I am fairly sure Christopher said, "If you ask me, Grant, they were probably smelling their own armpits."

"Will you stop calling me Grant in that superior way!" I shouted at him.

I don't think he heard. Champ at that moment dived away sideways. I thought he was simply diving up the next zigzag, but it turned out to be the top of the stairs. Christopher, with his arm stretched out to hang on to the neckcloth, was jerked after Champ and out of sight. I thought for a moment that they had disappeared, but when I sidled up after them, I found a square slate passage leading through the top of the wall. There was light at the end of the passage, lighting up every slimy slab, and Champ was towing Christopher along it at full gallop. I sprinted after them, expecting to come out on the roof.

But we all burst out onto big floorboards, in a place full of the warm smell of wood, where I saw that the light had been coming from a row of dusty windows looking out to the mountains above Stallchester. The ceiling was flaking plaster, and all around us was the feel, like an engine in the distance, of other people living and moving around here.

"Grant," Christopher whispered, "I believe we're back." He looked ghastly. It wasn't just that he was white and shaking and his stockings were laddered. He was covered with dark slime and cobwebs, too. And if the back of his waistcoat was anything to go by, mine was ruined. I could see my breeches were. And my stockings. Again.

"Let's go and check," I said.

We tiptoed back along the passage we seemed to have just come in by. It was wooden now. At the end of it we came to the streak of paint on the wall. Then we had only to peep around the corner to see we were certainly in Stallery. Andrew and Gregor were just coming out of the clothes store, adjusting crisp new neckcloths. People were hurrying and calling things and coming in and out of doors in the distance. We could tell that everyone was getting smartened up for supper and Dinner after that.

We dodged back into the part with the windows.

"We'd better let them go downstairs before we get more clothes," I said.

"I approve of the first part of your plan," Christopher said, "but you're forgetting Champ. We have to account for him, too. We must go down as we are. Then, if anyone sees us, we can say that we found him stuck in the drains. And if nobody does see us, we let him out of the nearest door for Smedley to find and then sneak up here for more clothes."

"Drains right up here?" I said.

"There have to be," he said firmly. "Where does our bathwater go - and so forth?"

I supposed it might work. It seemed to me a recipe for trouble. "Can't you magic our clothes?"

"Not for a whole evening," Christopher said. "It would be an illusion, and illusions wear thin after an hour or so."

I sighed. "Anyway, thanks for keeping us on those stairs."

Just for a second Christopher had such a blank, dumbfounded look that I knew he had forgotten to work any magic on those steps. I was glad I had not known while I was on them. "Think nothing of it, Grant," he said airily.

Then we hung about for a boring ten minutes. Champ did not help. He whined and drooled and made little rushes toward the passage. Either he knew he was not meant to be here or he could smell all the suppers cooking.

At length the bell went for maids' supper, making us all jump. Champ turned his jump into another surge down the passage. This time we followed him. There were still people about in the distance, and we could hear the lift working. That meant we had to go down the stairs, trying not to let Champ tow us down them too fast.

He took us in an eager rush down onto the matting of the nursery floor. Here he broke into a gallop whatever we said. Perhaps he thought the matting was grass and he was allowed to run on it. Anyway, he ran us straight past the top of the next stairs and dragged us on down the passage, to where the door was open on that long, empty nursery.

As we hurtled up to it, a young man in evening dress came out of the nursery. The dim light there showed his fair hair and the lost, rather drooping way he looked. But the look changed as he saw us. His head went back, and he went ramrod straight, with his face all firmed into haughty surprise.

"What the devil do you think you're doing?" he said.

It was quite obvious to all three of us that he was Count Robert.

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