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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

Naturally that next morning we went to look at the top of the mansion first. Christopher was seriously anxious about this girl Millie, and I was really excited about what we'd see there next. We went to the attics as soon as we were free.

On the way, I dodged into our room and got my camera. I wanted to have proof that we weren't imagining the strange towers. As it was a dull sort of day, with fog down in Stallchester valley and only Stall Crag sticking up out of it, I made sure the flash was working.

Christopher jumped at the sudden brightness. "Don't count your chickens, Grant," he said while we crept along to the streak of paint on the wall.

"You may not have anything to photograph."

This made me sure that my bad karma would cancel out any chance of the mansion changing. But we were in luck. Just as we passed the stripe of paint, there was the most almighty sideways wrench. Christopher and I were thrown against each other and sort of staggered around in a half circle, with me hanging on to Christopher's neckcloth for balance. And as soon as we were facing the other way, we realized that the passage we had just come through was now a tall pointed archway made of stone. Beyond it was somewhere so shadowy and stony that I was glad I'd remembered my camera flash.

"Looks like that tower we hauled the dog up again," Christopher said as we went through the archway.

It was nothing like the slate tower. The archway opened into a stone-floored gallery held up on one side by fancy stone pillars, each pillar a different shape. The roof was a basketwork of stone vaulting, and the other wall was blank stone. The vaulting and the carvings on the pillars must have been picked out in gold paint once, but a lot of the gold had flaked off, leaving the patterns hard to see. From the space beyond the pillars there came vast, soft, shuffling echoes. It felt huge out there, but not as if people were living in it. It was more like the time my school had gone around Stallchester Cathedral, when the guide had taken us up into the passages in the dome.

Christopher said, "Millie's here! Quite near!" and set off at a run to the other end of the gallery, where the gloomy light came from.

I raced after him with my camera bouncing on my chest. The gallery opened into a big curving stone staircase, leading down into the gray light. Christopher went plunging down the stairs, and I followed. And as soon as we came around the first curve, we realized we were on an enormous spiral - a double spiral, we realized after the next curve. There was another staircase opposite ours, sort of wrapped around the one we were on. When we leaned over the high stone side, we could see the two staircases spiraling down and down. When we looked up, we saw the inside of a tower overhead. It had fancy windows in it, but they were so dirty that it was no wonder the place was in such gloom.

Footsteps rang, like an echo of ours. We looked over at the other staircase, and there was a girl there, hurrying down to get to the same level as us.

"Christopher !" she shouted. "What are you doing here?"

It was hard to see what the girl was like because of the gloom and because the staircases were so big and so wide apart, but her voice sounded nice. She seemed to have a rounded face and straight brownish hair, but that was all I could see. I swung up my camera and photographed her as she dashed down opposite us, which made her stop and try to cover her eyes. "Meet us at the bottom!" Christopher shouted at her. His voice boomed around in a hundred echoes. "I'll tell you then."

In fact he tried to tell her as we dashed on down and around, the two of us circling around Millie and Millie circling around us, while the space rang with our hurrying feet and the voices of the other two. They kept shouting at each other as they went, trying to explain what they were doing here, but I don't think either of them could hear properly because of the echoes. I could tell they were truly glad to see each other. I took several more photos as we went. It was such an amazing place.

I think Millie shouted something like "I'm so pleased you came! I've been having such a frustrating time! This house keeps changing, and I can't seem to get out!"

"Me, too!" Christopher bellowed back. "I had to take a job as a lackey. What do you get to eat?"

"There's always food downstairs," Millie yelled in reply, "but I don't know where it comes from."

"How did you get in?" Christopher roared. The echoes got worse and worse. Neither of us could hear what Millie shouted in answer to this. Christopher roared again, "You know the main changes happen at the top of the house, do you?" I think Millie yelled back that of course she did, she wasn't a fool, but she never seemed to get anywhere. And she seemed to try and describe her frustrations as we all hammered down several more spirals. Then Christopher began bellowing, across her description, that one of the places was bound to be the perfect place for the two of them to live in secret - but we shot down the last curve at this point, and there was ceiling over the staircase. The echoes quite suddenly cut off. And we found ourselves in a plain stone hallway. Christopher stopped shouting and turned to me. "Quick, Grant. Where's the other stairway?"

We both ran along the hall to the place we thought the other spiral ought to come out, but there was only wall there. It had little windows in it that looked out on to woodland, so it was obviously wrong.

"We got turned around," Christopher panted, and he dashed back the other way so fast that I could barely keep up.

There was a door at the end of the hall that way. Christopher thundered through it and on into the middle of a largish room, where he stopped dead beside a pile of sofas and armchairs with a sheet draped on top of them. Beyond that, big windows showed a garden that was mostly weeds. Rain was falling on the weeds. There were more windows, showing more weeds, in the left-hand wall, a harp or something in one corner, and nothing but a big empty fireplace in the right-hand wall.

"Not here," Christopher said in a defeated way.

I only had time to take one photo of the harp thing before he was off again, back the way we had come, to the hall and the staircase again. "I think I saw a door," his voice said in the distance. "Ah, yes."

The door was behind the stairs. Christopher had opened it and rushed through before I caught up, but when I did, he was moving slowly and cautiously down the dark stone passage beyond. There was a door on each side and a door at the end. The door on the right was open, and we could see it was a sort of big cloakroom with a row of dusty boots on the floor, several grimy coats on pegs, and a cobwebby window that looked out onto wet woodland. Christopher made angry noises and barged me aside to open the door across the passage. The room there was a dining room, as neglected and dusty as the cloakroom, and its window looked on to the weedy garden.

Christopher expressed his feelings by slamming that door before I could take a photo. He plunged on to the door at the end of the passage.

There were kitchens beyond that, two quite cozy-looking places with rocking chairs and big scrubbed tables and some kind of a stove in the farther one. There was a scullery beyond that which opened into a rainy yard with red tumbledown sheds all around it. By this time even Christopher was having to admit that this house we were in was much, much smaller than the place with the double staircase.

"I don't understand it!" he said, standing miserably beside the table in the second kitchen. "I didn't feel any change. Did you?" He looked almost as if he might cry.

I wished he would keep his voice down. There were definite signs that someone had been in this kitchen recently. Warmth was coming from the stove, and there was a bag of knitting on one of the rocking chairs. I could see crumbs on the table around a magazine of some kind, as if someone had been reading while they had breakfast. "Maybe the change happened while you were shouting at Millie," I said, very quietly, to give Christopher a hint.

He looked around at the stove, the knitting, and the table. "This must be where Millie comes to eat," he said. "Grant, you stay here in case she turns up. I'm going back up the stairs to see if she's there anywhere."

"Does Millie do much knitting?" I asked, but he had dashed off again by then, and he didn't hear me. I sighed and sat in the chair by the table. It was clear to me, if not to Christopher, that the two staircases split apart somehow on the last spiral. Millie must have ended up somewhere as different from this house as the wooden tower was from Stallery. And I didn't like this house. People lived here. They had left furniture, coats, and knitting about, and they might come back at any moment and accuse me of trespassing. I had no idea what I would say if they did. Ask if they'd seen Millie, perhaps?

In order not to feel too nervous, I pulled the magazine across and looked through it while I waited for Christopher. It was quite, quite strange, so strange that it fascinated me - so very strange, in fact, that I was not surprised to find it was dated 1399, February issue. It could not have been anything like that old. It smelled new. It was printed on thick, furry paper in weird washed-out blues and reds, in the kind of round, plain letters you get in books in infant school. Gossip Weekly , it was called. There were no photographs or advertisements in it at all, and it was full of quite long articles that had titles like "From Rags to Riches" or "Singer's Lost Honeymoon" or "Scandal in Bank of Asia." Each article was illustrated by a drawing. Blue and red drawings. I had never seen such bad drawings in my life. They were so bad that most of them looked like caricatures, though I could see that the artist had put in lots of red and blue shadings, trying to make the drawings look like real people. And here was the really queer thing - about half of them looked like people I knew. The lady at the top of "Rags to Riches" could almost have been Daisy Bolger, and one of the drawings for the bank scandal looked exactly like Uncle Alfred. But it must have been bad drawing. When I turned to the big picture beside an article called "Royal Occasion," the picture looked like our king, except the caption called him "Prince of Alpenholm." One of the courtiers bowing to him might almost have been Mr.Hugo.

Now come on, I thought. This is, actually and truly, a magazine from another world. For all I know, in this world someone just like Hugo really is a royal courtier. How amazing. And I started reading about the royal occasion. I had got most of the way down one washed-out blue column, without understanding what the occasion was, or why it happened, when I heard heavy, slow footsteps coming in through the scullery.

They were the footsteps of a person you definitely did not want finding you sitting in their house. They stamped. There was angry puffing with them, and bad-tempered grunting. I dropped the magazine and tried to slide quietly away into the farther kitchen. Unfortunately, my foot knocked the chair as I slid out of it, and it scraped on the floor, quite loudly. The person in the scullery put on speed and arrived in the doorway while I was still in the middle of the room. This is my Evil Fate at work again, I thought.

She was a heavily built woman with a blunt, mauve face. I could see at a glance she was the kind of woman who knows you're up to no good, even if you aren't, and calls the police. She had a rubber sheet over her head against the rain, and she was wearing big rubber boots and carrying a can of milk. And she was a witch. I knew this the moment she put the milk can down and said, "Who are you? What are you doing here?" I could feel the witchcraft buzzing off her as she spoke.

"A mistake," I said. "Just going."

I backed away toward the door as fast as I could. She came trudging toward me in her big boots with her hands hanging, ready to grab. "They always find me," she said. "They send spies, and they find me wherever I hide."

She was saying this to make me think she was mad and harmless. I knew she was because I could feel her casting a spell. It buzzed in my ears under her words until I could hardly think or see. So I did the only thing I could manage. I raised my camera and took her picture. She was nearer than I realized. The flash went off right in her face. She screamed, and her rubber sheet fell off as she put her hands up to hide her face. I heard her fall over the chair I had kicked as I pelted away through the other kitchen.

I ran like mad, through the corridor and out into the stone hall. I raced up those stone stairs, around and up, around and up, with the other set of stairs spinning dizzily past as I climbed, until my breath was almost gone, but I still hardly slowed up when I met Christopher coming down.

"Run!" I shrieked at him. "There's a witch in that kitchen! Run!"

He said, "We can do better than that, Grant," and seized hold of my elbow.

Before I could shake him off, we were somehow at the top at the stairs in a strong buzzing of magic. This buzzing was somehow wider and cleaner feeling than the buzzing the witch had made. As Christopher pulled me by my elbow along the gallery I remembered that he was supposed to be a nine-lifed enchanter, which made me feel a little safer, but I didn't really feel safe until we came out through the archway into the smell of warm wood and plaster in the attics of Stallery.

"Phew... !" I began.

Christopher said, "In our room first, Grant," and turned me around. The archway had gone then, and we were able to scurry along the attic passages to our room, where we both sat heavily on our beds, me panting fit to burst and Christopher all limp, white and dejected. "Tell," he said, with his head hanging.

So I told him about the witch.

Christopher's head came up, and he said, "Hmm. I wonder if she's the reason Millie can't get out of there. Millie's an enchantress, you know. She ought to be able to leave. Instead, she seems to keep being shunted on to another probability. There was no sign of her on those stairs, and it could well be the witch doing it. We'd better go back and deal with the witch, then."

He got up. I got up, too, although my legs were weak and shaking, and followed him out beyond the stripe of paint again. Christopher groaned when we got there. There was no archway - nothing but the ordinary attics we had just come through. We sat on the floorboards for quite some time, waiting, but there was no change.

"You panicked me, Grant," Christopher said. "We should have gone down, not up. Oh, damn it! We were so close!"

"It was probably my bad karma," I said.

"Oh, don't talk nonsense!" he said. "Let's go and look for secret books in the library. I'm sick of sitting here. One of the maids is going to see us breaking the rules if we're not careful."

He was probably right. There seemed to be a lot of female noise coming from the other end of the attics suddenly, as if all the maids had arrived there at once. The empty space by the windows echoed to shrieks and giggles, and I could feel the floorboards creaking under me, the way they always did when everyone came up to bed. When we got up and went through our side of the attics, we found there was a fair amount of noise there, too. There were doors being slammed, running feet, and men laughing. A big deep man's voice was singing inside the nearest bathroom. It was so out of tune that I giggled.

Christopher raised his eyebrows at me. "Gregor?" he asked.

"Mr.Amos?" I said.

Christopher laughed then. It seemed to do him good. He was a lot more cheerful as we went down in the lift. He nodded at my camera, still hanging around my neck. "Are you intending to photograph the books, Grant?"

"No," I said. "I'd need a different lens. I just forgot I'd got it. Why are we getting off at floor two? The library's on the ground floor."

"Ah. Admire my forethought and cunning, Grant," Christopher said. "That library has a sort of minstrel's gallery, and the door to it is on this floor. We can sneak in and make sure the Countess isn't in there consulting a cookery book or something."

"Ha, ha," I said. I was glad Christopher had cheered up, but there were times when his jokes really annoyed me.

But there was a woman in the library. When we softly opened the low wooden door and crept through onto a high balcony lined with shelves of books, we could see her through the carved wooden bars at the front of it. We both ducked down and knelt on the carpet, but she could have seen us through the bars, even so. She was sitting at the top of a long wooden stepladder, reaching for a book on a high shelf. The one good thing was that she wasn't the Countess, because she had dark hair, but that didn't alter the fact that she only needed to turn her head to see us there.

I grabbed for the door, ready to crawl out through it at once. "Never fear, Grant," Christopher said. I judged from the buzzing feeling I was getting that he had put a spell of invisibility around us on the spot. Then I gathered it was probably a spell of silence, too, because Christopher first sat down comfortably with his arms around his knees and then spoke in his normal voice. "We wait, Grant. Again. Honestly, Grant, I've never done so much waiting around as I have in this place."

"But she could be here for ages ," I whispered. The stepladder was so close to the balcony that I couldn't help whispering. "I think she must be the penniless student who's supposed to catalog the books."

Christopher looked critically through the bars of the balcony. "She doesn't look penniless to me," he said.

I had to admit that she didn't. She was wearing a dark blue dress that was both flowing around her and clinging to her in an expensive way, and her feet, hooked on a rung of the ladder, were in soft red boots, really nice ones. Her dark hair fell to her shoulders in the same sort of costly hairstyle that Lady Felice had.

"She's a friend of the Family come to borrow a book," Christopher said.

While he was saying it, the lady took down a book and opened it. She looked at the title page, nodded, and made a note on the pad on her knee. Then she leafed through the book, shut it, looked at the binding, and shook her head. She slipped some kind of card into the front and turned to put the book carefully into a box that was fastened to the back of the ladder.

She was my sister, Anthea.

I stood up. I couldn't help it. I nearly called out. I would have done if Christopher had not grabbed me and pulled me down. "Someone else coming!" he said.

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