The Hidden Door EXCERPT

1.  Home Again

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Te Waiwai, Southern Isles, September 2013

“Brilliant! It’s just brilliant.” George leaned forward, an enormous pair of goggles sitting fly-like on his beaming face. He looked rather like a mad scientist off TV, Ash thought, especially with the way his curling blond hair had been blown upright by the forceful spring breeze. “Have you seen this, Ashlea?”

“Mm…yeah. It’s cool, I suppose.”

“Cool!? It’s marvellous.” George’s jaw fell open. “Ooh. Ooh, look.”

“Has he never seen a kaleidoscope before?” Karen O’Reilly whispered in an aside. “We bought it for the baby…”

“No, he hasn’t,” Ash replied honestly, resisting an affectionate eye-roll. This sort of thing happened often when George was here in her time. “Mum, I told you his upbringing was very…old-fashioned.” Like, two-hundred years out of date, old-fashioned. Literally.

“Hmm. Well, he is very well-mannered. Where did you say he was from again…?”
Ash coughed a little into her hand. 1819. “A little Anglish town in Leister County. Nowhere, really.” Sort of like the Anglish equivalent of where they were now. They’d gone for a picnic on the riverbank. It was one of those early spring days where the sun showed its face, and so she’d pulled out a wide-brimmed hat, startling her mother who’d never thought she’d see the day Ash voluntarily wore such a thing. They sat on large smooth rocks at the riverside, with a bag of fresh bread rolls, a bottle of fizzy drink, and some deli salads and meats. Yep, this was luxury alright. George was even wearing jeans with his light woollen sweater, and in Ash’s unbiased opinion he looked very good indeed.

Fine, so they didn’t have any servants, or multiple courses, or the meticulous social rules from George’s time. But they did have the natural beauty of this green, damp, mountainous land, the convenience of everything being made for them, and of course…kaleidoscopes. Even this sort, which was fancy enough to be in the shape of binoculars.

George was still oohing and aahing, so Ash turned back to her mother. “The baby is the size of a broadbean, Mum. I don’t even have a proper baby belly yet! It won’t be able to appreciate anything like this for years. But at least someone does.”

“Hmm. Well, have you thought of a name? Time flies.”

Ash bit back a giggle. Yes, it does when you’re a time traveller. “We’ve had a few ideas, but haven’t yet agreed on anything.”

“Horatio,” George said suddenly, thus proving that he was listening after all. He lowered the binocular-glasses, smiling at her so that a dimple appeared in one cheek. “Or if it’s a girl, Horatia. Now that’s a strong, noble name.”

Eeek. But Ash’s mother came to the rescue. “Perhaps a little dated, George dear. And besides, children can be so cruel with nicknames.”

His strong brow creased in confusion. “What kind of nicknames can come from Horatio?”

Now Ash did roll her eyes. “Just say the first syllable by itself, and you’ll see.”

He actually mouthed it out, then she knew he’d got it when his cheeks flushed pink. “Oh. I say, that’s a bit much. My brother’s middle name is Horatio.”

“Edward Horatio Seymour,” Ash murmured.

“Wow,” her mother agreed. “That’s a really Anglish name, isn’t it?”

“Sounds like some kind of lord,” Jacob O’Reilly said from where he stood ankle-deep in the river, a long-handled net in one hand. “Ha. Lord Edward Horatio Seymour, at your service.”

Ash’s father’s Anglish accent was dreadful, but he’d been so close to the mark that she and George exchanged alarmed glances. But no, it had just been a coincidence, she realised. Her father had gone back to focusing on the water and the cockabillies he was trying to catch. He planned to donate the tiny fish to the local kindergarten’s aquarium.

“By Jove,” George murmured, sidling over to Ash. “Do you think he suspects…?”

“He suspects something,” she murmured back. “That’s the kind of guy my dad is. He’s been looking into conspiracy theories my whole life. Political, alter-power, man-never-walked-on-the-moon, you name it. But I doubt he’d guess the truth on this one.”

The truth being that George didn’t just act like a regency gentleman, he was one. And when Ash went to visit his family at such short notice? She was actually stepping through a gateway in time and space, one that happened to have a supernaturally-charged midpoint now. In fact, their exit was just up the road from this very location. Not that Ash’s parents knew about it. They thought the two had made their way here from the airport.

Lies were ugly and difficult, Ash mused once again. But in this case, the truth would be even more difficult.

“You need a classic name,” her mother said thoughtfully, having missed their whispered conversation. “Something that would please George’s family, and still fit in here. How about…Anne?”

“Mum, that name is dated,” Ash argued. “It’s practically medieval.” No, really. Anne of Covington was a good friend of theirs, and she was practically medieval.

“No, I meant Anne. Isn’t that your little red-haired friend walking towards us right now? The one you flatted with last year in Angland. I didn’t realise she’d come with you.”

Ash followed her mother’s pointed finger, and saw that indeed, their quiet, green spot on the riverbank wasn’t quite so quiet. A petite figure was strolling towards them on the little-used path, her long, paisley skirt just brushing her ankles. Her red hair was tied loosely behind her head, and she wore a zipped-up hooded sweatshirt. A sparkly, purple pair of shoes sat on her little feet, and that was how Ash knew it was really her rather than some creepy, evil copy. They’d met more than a few of those. Whenever Anne would travel through time, her clothing would change to fit the time period. But since recently, one thing would never change – those eye-popping shoes.

“Anne!” Ash cried, jumping up out of her seat and running over to give her smaller friend a hug. “What are you doing here? Is Elspeth here too?” Elspeth was Anne’s half-sister, who’d been last seen in the Mountain of Glass. Ash lowered her voice. “Did Amaranthus send you?”

“Squeeze me that hard and you may regret it,” the redhead replied tartly, widening her brown eyes. “I’ve just eaten.” Then she smiled. “’Tis good to see you too, Ash. But no, ’tis just me today. Amaranthus did send me, and ’tis for a matter of grave import.”

Ash paused, mentally translating the old-fashioned Anglish into something logical, then decided it didn’t sound good. “What’s happened?”

Anne turned towards where the others sat or stood near the picnic blanket, watching her curiously. She smiled again, waving, but this time her smile was tight. “Good day, Mrs O’Reilly, Mr O’Reilly. I trust you are well?”

“Well enough, thank you Anne. And nice to see you again in person,” Karen replied politely.

“Lord, she speaks like he does,” Jacob muttered, but Ash saw him studying Anne curiously. “Sounds a hundred years out of date.”

Try five hundred, Ash thought.

“I do apologise for interrupting your leisure, but I bring news. George, if we might speak privately?”

George stood, his eyes widening, and followed Anne off to a space away from the others. Ash followed, because…if it was for him, then she could hear it too. Right?

“’Tis your brother,” Anne said finally. Her expression was sombre. “You must come at once.”

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Mountain of Glass, time irrelevant

Elspeth, formerly of Covington, was on fire. And ’twas not in a manner of speaking, as some might say. She was quite literally on fire: covered in the silvery flame that would destroy evil, but leave anything else untouched. For her, she found it merely tickled.

She stood in a hollow at the inner Mountain’s base. There was smooth rock underfoot, and on three sides around her, creating a sort of stone alley. On the flat rock wall up ahead she had painted a simple target with concentric rings, each smaller than the other. She took a deep breath, let the fire build up until it felt white-hot within her small hand, then launched it towards the central ring.

A silvery stream shot out in front of her, then splashed harmlessly off to the left of the target before dissolving into nothing. “Oh, z’wounds!” she swore crossly. A moment later she recalled she was not alone, and glanced guiltily to one side. “My apologies for my language, Jon. I quite forgot myself.”

“Er…what language?” Jon looked up at her from where he’d been seated nearby, his brown eyebrows raised. When she’d met him some weeks ago, he’d been as pale as milk, but since then his skin and hair had slowly been darkening to more natural shades. ’Twas a most odd change, but to her surprise, she rather liked the darker version.

“Z’wounds. I said z’wounds.” Elspeth repeated, then felt her cheeks heating. “Oh, and now I have said it yet again!”

“Have you? What does it mean?”

“Er…” Elspeth paused. If he hadn’t been offended by her language, it seemed of little value to explain to him why he ought to be. “’Tis of little import. I was merely disappointed at my own lack of aim once more. You would think that if Amaranthus gave me a gift such as this, then I would also have the means to use it correctly!”

“Don’t worry, Bets,” Jon said casually, using his usual nickname for her. “It’ll all work out with your, er, invisible flame.” Then he sighed.

She was mildly offended that yet again, he could neither see nor acknowledge her gift, but pushed that aside. She’d been born crippled and illegitimate in sixteenth-century Angland, and merely being overlooked was normal enough, even now that she was healed and well away from her birthplace. Even so, she felt irritated. But because she was quite infatuated with Jon, she focussed on his sigh. “What ails you? Have you seen something new in the viewing pool?”

At the top of the Mountain of Glass’s own glass city, there was a pool. ’Twould show one literally anything, which Elspeth found quite disconcerting. But Jon spent a great amount of time there, peering at images which she could not see.

“No.” He paused, then sighed again. “It’s something else. Something – from home.”

Elspeth was silent a long while. She burned with curiosity, but she knew well that if she were to ask about his home, he would simply change the subject once again. So instead she asked delicately, “If you cannot tell me of your home, then might you tell me of your travels instead?”

“What do you mean?”

She shrugged, spinning a ball of silvery flame in one cupped palm. “How did you come to arrive here in the Mountain of Glass? You know that I left my home by means of the Eternity Stone, which allows travel across time and space. If not for that, ’tis certain I would either be buried in the Iversley graveyard, or else working in some low, servile position without my sister’s help. We used the Stone to travel to the Other realm, then after much confusion, we fell through a secret entrance into this place.”

Jon’s serious expression faded as one side of his mouth quirked into a grin. “Heh. It still makes me laugh to think of your expressions as you came in.”

Elspeth recalled it well. She’d feared for her life, then had found herself in a place of unimaginable beauty, with this most comely, pale young man awaiting them…and laughing like a loon. It had been their first meeting. Her sister Anne had been most offended, but Elspeth had seen past the laughter to the person beneath. “So did you fall in also?”

“You know I was brought by alter-power,” Jon replied dismissively. “But tell me more about the Eternity Stone. Where did it come from? Where is it now?”

’Twas a clear deflection of her question, but she found herself answering anyway. “Forsooth, ’tis a question that burns me still, yet I always forget to ask Amaranthus. I understand that ’tis from this place, yet he and his People cannot touch it. I forget the reason why-”

“Oh look!” Jon cut in suddenly, pointing across the garden to where a short, balding figure moved by, heading towards the main city itself. “Isn’t that Amaranthus? Why don’t you ask him?”

Elspeth glanced over long enough to see that ’twas in fact their host, then turned back to Jon with narrowed eyes. If he wished to be alone, or to change the subject more thoroughly, she thought, he might merely have said so. “Indeed I shall,” she agreed with dignity, deciding not to be offended. Taking offense would be easy, and would in time be the death of their friendship.

She bid him farewell and moved quickly after their retreating host, who had slowed as if expecting company. Elspeth knew him well enough that he would not have been seen if he did not wish to be, so was confident in her welcome. “Good morn,” she said cheerfully, her spirits lifted merely by being in his presence. “Where do you go today?”

Amaranthus’s dark eyes crinkled with a smile. He wore that plain form in which she’d first met him, the one where he could easily be mistaken for an ordinary, somewhat elderly man. “Here and there, dear Bets, but for now, the Tapestry Room. Will you join me?”

She already had, Elspeth thought, but agreed happily anyway. She glanced back over her shoulder to see if Jon might like to accompany them, for he was still within earshot, but he had almost vanished from sight. Her heart sank.

“He will be returning home soon,” Amaranthus said mildly. “He cannot stay here. Most cannot, as you know, not in these mortal forms. It weighs upon his heart.”

“But I am here, sir,” Elspeth pointed out, her shoulders slumping in dismay. Jon would be leaving. She’d known it must be coming, and yet it saddened her. “And you promised Anne and I should not ever have to return home. Do you not remember?”

Amaranthus smiled at her, a secretive glint in his dark brown eyes. ’Twas as if he knew some jest that Elspeth did not. “Indeed you are right, dear one. You are here, and you and your sister do not ever have to return to your place of birth. But you shall make yourself another home, and it shall not be here.”

Elspeth sighed in relief, and a moment later her imagination pulled up an idea; that of her going to wherever it was that Jon called home. She would arrive at his front door, wearing some lovely local garb and bouncing with excitement. Then when he opened his door to see her standing there, he’d beam with unexpected happiness at the wonderful surprise, and say….

Ah, here we are, Amaranthus cut in, speaking straight to her mind.

Well, I do not think he would say that, Elspeth thought, but dismissed the fantasy. While she’d been lost in thought, they’d somehow moved from outside in the Garden, into the Tapestry Room without her even noticing. By this point, such supernatural things bothered her not at all. Her host did not follow the usual rules, even those relating to time and space. They were now inside an enormous round room, with its walls filled with one enormous tapestry in shades of grey. She knew that the grey was merely an illusion. In truth ’twas fine threads of black and white, interwoven to create a pattern. Or so one might think. To Elspeth, it had always looked like a right mess.

The pattern is on the other side.

Amaranthus had vanished from his place next to her, and she looked about in surprise before spotting him in the distance, at the other side of the room. He crooked a finger, indicating she should join him. She took a step towards him, then whoosh. Her head spun a little as she found herself right next to him once again. She’d crossed half a mile in one step.

“Now,” he said aloud. “Let me tell you about the Eternity Stone.”

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Erastus, north border of the Secular Republic of Lile, 2598 AD

Kamile sat under the shelter of a spreading pine, watching as her sort-of husband muttered unhappily and tried to grab back the large hammer-gun he’d been using. But the tree, a copy of the very one she sat under, had caught the tool in its tangled, hanging roots and was currently in the process of floating off with it.

Aras let out a frustrated huff, then grabbed a handful of the tree roots and dug his feet into the ground, trying to pull the thing down. Enormous, muscular man vs overactive, supernaturally-charged pine tree? Guess which one was winning. Hint: it wasn’t the man.

“Do you want a hand?” she called out.

Aras flicked her a brief glance, blowing aside the lock of blond hair that had fallen over his scowling face. His gaze settled on the bundle in her arms, and one eyebrow raised. “I’ll pass.”

She’d known he’d say no, and didn’t bother arguing. Even if she’d been big and strong like him, instead of literally half his size, and if she hadn’t been recovering from a life-threatening injury, he still would have said no. Besides, what would she have done with Isla?

The baby in her arms blinked as if in surprise, then scowled. Her face might be tiny and squished just like any other one-month-old child, Kamile mused, but somehow she still looked like her father…

Kamile looked up again just in time to see the pine tree give one last burst of strength and literally soar up into the sky, with Aras still hanging onto its dangling roots. Her jaw dropped, and a moment later so did he. He let go, landing heavily on his feet, then fell backwards with a shower of dirt over his head. He swore again.

Kamile bit back the words ‘are you alright’, since the answer would be ‘grunt’. Judging by Aras’s behaviour, tough men didn’t show emotion…except when someone died.

“It was a nice idea to create a grove of trees outside our new house,” she said instead. “But I think that particular pine didn’t want to cooperate.” Even though Erastus was still in the normal realm, the very atmosphere of this small area was so charged with alter-power that flying trees were the least of the weirdness. On the upside, someone like her with Other blood could also live quite comfortably.

When she and the others had arrived three months earlier, the locals hadn’t been unfriendly. Aras had found a place quite quickly, since he looked strong and capable and so forth. More recently he’d been hired by the town’s mayor to contain the many flying trees that were becoming a nuisance. It was easier said than done.

Aras climbed to his feet, gesturing at the tree she sat beneath. “I got that one. I’ll get another, once I can find a new hammer-gun.”

He’d quite impressively nailed the first tree down just this morning, creating shade on an otherwise too-warm day. “Maybe it warned the others, and that’s why they gave you trouble,” Kamile joked.

There was a long silence, and she added, “Just kidding. I’m pretty sure the trees aren’t sapient.” She hoped they weren’t. They’d not been here for long, and no doubt there’d be more to see. The tiny town of Erastus was set in a quiet valley, a bit dry except for the wide river that ran down its length. In certain areas the trees had a tendency to roam, and there were odd doorway/portals set randomly around the valley. They mostly looked like stone doorframes or archways, and Kamile could sense the alter-power emanating from them even from a distance. She didn’t know what was on the other side. Something supernatural, she knew, but it could be anything.

Just then a shadow passed over her. She looked up and saw the escaped pine tree, back for a second pass. She could just make out the hammer-gun hidden in its dangling roots. Was it loosening? “Hey…”

Then the tool fell.

“Look out!” she cried.

It seemed as if it would hit Aras right in the head – in which case she’d definitely say the tree knew what it was doing – but he moved at the last moment and it hit him on the shoulder instead. She heard the crack of the impact from here, and gasped. “Chaos, are you alright!?”

Isla let out a startled wail.

Aras shook himself, then with a grunt, bent down to pick up the hammer-gun. “It was my left arm.”

The metal prosthetic, that was. “Oh. Good.”

“But if it had hit you or Isla, you’d be dead.”

Probably. Kamile warily looked up at the sky again as if there’d be a whole flock of travelling, violent trees. “Maybe I’ll sit inside,” she suggested.

He grunted again in what sounded like agreement. Then he nodded at her, turned and walked away.

She watched him go with something like longing. She didn’t know where he was going. It didn’t really matter, but the fact that he hadn’t said anything just confirmed they didn’t have a relationship. Just a baby, a shared history, and two dead friends that had meant a lot to them in different ways.

Well, Coryn had meant a lot to both of them. Kamile was pretty sure Aras didn’t give a damn about Trennan, except that Coryn had been in love with him, and therefore not with Aras. That was how they’d got into this whole situation, in fact. One hundred years ago…or actually just under one year, but it felt like longer…they’d been living with the Chosen, a group of people who’d made their home on the borderlands between the normal realm and the Other, supernatural realm.

It had been a dangerous lifestyle since they’d been living in a stringent secular republic, but back then, they’d thought it was worth the risk. The custom among their people had been to handfast with the intention of having children. One year of faithfulness, no unpleasant long-term attachments. Except, presumably, for the children.

Kamile had never questioned the idea, not until she’d found out that the leadership of the Chosen – both Other and human – were very, very wicked. Oh, yes they were. Then she’d decided that if the people making the rules were actually evil, then she oughtn’t to be following those rules. That had led to a whole lot of nastiness, a near-death experience, and ending up…here.

She got up carefully, shifting Isla to one arm as she did so. The movement made the wound at her throat tug again. In these last months it had progressed from ‘horrendous and almost fatal’ to ‘horrendous and uncomfortable’ which she figured was a step up. Even here in Erastus, where some of the locals were weird, she still got a few strange looks. Although she was almost alone here at the edge of the valley, she still shifted her scarf to cover her neck. Her straight, mid-length brown hair wasn’t nearly enough of a shield.

Her house was built of huge sheets of metal. It had three small rooms, plus a primitive bathroom detached from the house, and the whole of it was raised up on an enormous, thick metal pillar. Cheap. Mostly safe. Apparently the river was prone to flooding every ten years or so, and raised houses were standard.

The inside of the house was sparsely furnished, since they’d literally arrived with the clothes on their backs, but given enough time they’d make it nicer. Or she would, Kamile thought as she carefully climbed the metal steps. She didn’t know about Aras, or even if he’d still be here in two weeks’ time when their year of handfasting was up.

She wondered if they were still keeping to those traditions. Well, he hadn’t said that they weren’t. All she knew was that at the last Summer Solstice, he’d wanted to handfast with her dear friend Coryn. But Coryn hadn’t been so keen – for some reason not finding the giant, impressively muscular Aras as attractive as Kamile found him – and so Kamile had stepped in. She’d offered to handfast with Aras for a year instead, and he hadn’t pulled out. No double meaning there, even though the one time they’d slept together, she’d got pregnant.

And then she’d discovered that the Fey weren’t the only Others. There was another place, one full of life and purpose. Oh, and then the Chosen Elders had killed Trennan and tried to murder her, and a helpful sort-of-Creature called Shulamithe had possessed her body just long enough to keep her alive. And then she’d been rescued, sort of, and Coryn had been killed too, and then…

Kamile sat down with a bump on the edge of the house’s metal frame. Isla’s tiny face screwed up again, and she let out a hearty wail.

“Ooh, is she hungry? Can I feed her?”

Kamile glanced behind her to see one of the house’s other occupants. “Oh, hi, Poli. I thought you were still out with Magdalene.”

Poli came to sit beside Kamile, stretching out her arms towards the baby. She was only fourteen, auburn-haired, freckled and round-faced, but she was several inches taller than Kamile. But wasn’t everyone? “I was, but then she wanted to go see her friend.” The redhead screwed up her nose, but kept talking as she took Isla. “She met him after school the other day, but I didn’t see who he was. Then today, when I asked if I could come to meet him, she acted all cagey. Said they had plans.”

Magdalene, or Mags, was also fourteen, although shorter than Poli and brunette. She was also a refugee, just like Kamile and Aras and many others, and she was dealing with the upheaval in her own way. They’d done their best to fit into this new town, enrolling in their version of school and living here with Kamile, who they’d known for a while. They visited the River frequently too, but it was still hard. Kamile could see it in Mags’ moodiness, and Poli’s clinginess. But they didn’t have anyone else. Even before they’d fled their old home in Lile’s capital city, they’d been orphans in the care of the state. Along with Aras’s son Ric, that meant a very full house right now.

“We’ll ask her about it when she comes home,” Kamile said instead. “Shall I get a bottle?” Part of the issue with her almost-dying, and so forth, was that bottle feeding seemed a darned sight easier than the alternative.

Poli leaned over the baby, making cooing noises. “Do you want a bottle, Isla Coryn? Do you- urgh.” The baby had made another scowling face, there was an intense noise somewhere around the other end of the parcel, and then her expression settled. “I think she needs her nappy changed.”

Which Poli was rather less happy to do, Kamile thought wryly as she took her daughter back. And she’d had another realisation. “She looks grumpy when she needs the toilet,” she said with some humour. “Perhaps that’s why Aras always looks grumpy too, hmm?”
Poli laughed, and Kamile set herself to finding the washcloth. She had to take her fun where she could find it.

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