‘Just the young gentlemen being their usual selves, ma’am,’ Irene answered. ‘I think it’s one of the other Houses playing some sort of prank on them. With your permission, may I step out to the washroom to get myself cleaned up?’ She indicated the dirty wash-water stains on her grey uniform dress and her apron.
‘Be sure not to take too long,’ the housekeeper said. ‘You’ll be sweeping out the dormitories while the young gentlemen are in chapel.’
Irene nodded humbly, and left the kitchen. Still no alarm from upstairs. Good. She quietly opened the boarding house door, stepping outside.
The boarding houses were in a row along the main avenue, with a central quadrangle holding the chapel, the assembly hall and – most importantly to her purposes – the school library. Turquine House was the second along, which meant there was just one house to pass, preferably without drawing attention. Not run. She mustn’t run yet. If anyone saw her running, it would only attract suspicion. Just walk, nice and calmly, as if she were simply running an errand.
She managed a whole ten yards.
A window flew up behind her in Turquine House, and the master who’d spoken to her earlier leaned out. He pointed at her. ‘Thief! Thief!’
Irene picked up her skirts and ran. Gravel crunched under her feet, and the first drops of rain slapped against her face. She came level with the next boarding house, Bruce House, and for a moment she considered abandoning her arranged escape plan and simply ducking into there in order to break her trail and slow down pursuit. But common sense pointed out that it wouldn’t work for more than a few minutes –
The whistling screech from behind warned her just in time. She dived to the ground, throwing herself into a roll, as the gargoyle came screaming down, its stone claws extended and clutching for her. It missed, and struggled to pull out of its dive, its heavy wings sawing at the air as it laboured to gain height. Another one had swooped from the roof of Turquine’s, and was circling to reach a suitable angle of attack.
This was one of those moments, Irene reflected bitterly, when it would be wonderful to be a necromancer, or a wizard, or someone who could manipulate the magical forces of the world and blast annoying gargoyles out of the sky. She’d done her best to avoid attention, keep her cover, and not endanger bratty little boys who left mud all over the floor and didn’t bother to hang up their cloaks. What had it got her? A swarm of attacking gargoyles – well, only two gargoyles so far, but still – and probably a mass assault by pupils and masters within a few minutes. So much for the rewards of virtue.
She quickly reviewed what she knew about the gargoyles. There was one on the roof of each boarding house. They were even listed in the boarding school prospectus as a guarantee of student safety – ANY KIDNAPPERS WILL BE TORN TO BLOODY RAGS BY OUR PROFESSIONALLY MAINTAINED HISTORICAL ARTEFACTS! Though after working here for several months, she thought the pupils themselves were much more lethal to possible kidnappers.
On the positive side (one must always look for the positive side) the gargoyles were extremely showy, but not actually that effective over a short space of ground. On the negative side, running in a straight line to escape would make her a beautiful moving target. But getting back to the positives, the gargoyles were made of granite, as lovingly described in the prospectus, unlike anything else within earshot.
This would need careful timing. Luckily the gargoyles weren’t particularly intelligent so they would be focused on capturing her, not on wondering why she was standing conveniently still.
She took a deep breath.
The first gargoyle reached suitable swooping altitude. It called to the other gargoyle in a carrying screech, and then the two of them dropped towards her together, their wings spread in wide, dark traceries against the sky.
Irene screamed, at the top of her voice, ‘Granite, be stone and lie still!’
The Language always worked well when it was instructing things to be what they naturally were, or to do what they naturally wanted to do. Stone wanted to be inert and solid. Her command only reinforced the natural order of things. It was therefore the perfect antidote to the unnatural magic keeping stone gargoyles in flight.
The gargoyles stiffened mid-stoop, their wings freezing in place, and overshot her easily. One thumped squarely into the ground, pounding out a crater for itself, while the other came in at more of an angle. It ploughed a wide groove along the nicely smoothed gravel path, before colliding with one of the stately lime trees bordering the avenue. Leaves rained down on it.
There was no time for her to pause and feel smug, so she ran.
Then the howling started. It was either hellhounds or teenagers, and she suspected the former. They’d been in the prospectus, too. The prospectus had been very helpful about the school’s security precautions. If she ever had to come back here again, perhaps she could sell her services as a security consultant. Under a pseudonym, of course.
A sudden burst of red light sent her shadow leaping down the avenue ahead of her, and proved the hellhound theory. Right. She’d planned for hellhounds. She could plan for organized magic, even if she couldn’t perform it. She just had to stay calm and cool and collected and get to the fire hydrant ahead before they caught up with her.
Among its modern conveniences, the school included running water and precautions against fire. Which meant fire hydrants spaced along the main avenue. The one that lay between her and the school library was twenty yards away.
Ten yards. She could hear pounding paws behind her, throwing up gravel in a rattle of ferocious speed. She didn’t look.