Hi folks. I write to you all today to announce my next book, which is due out next month and is now up for pre-order (at a reduced price, just for fun: it will be 2.99 until a day or two after release). Tis called Gloaming, which is a fine old-fashioned word I’ve been dying to use since forever, and it’s kind of along similar lines to Faerie Fruit in that it is slightly mad, very colourful and totally magic-drenched. As is now customary, I offer you the blurb followed by a chapter or two to sample: read on!
Once upon a chime…
Every day at four o’ clock, an enchanted twilight sweeps over Vale Argantel. Strange things happen under its eldritch influence: mists boil up out of the ground, rain pours out of a cloudless sky, and the roses grow wild and fey. Such is the way of things.
But when her friend falls through a magic mirror and disappears, Margot realises something’s changed. An ancient enchantment has gone awry, and chaos quickly spreads. Magic-drunk, confused and hampered at every turn, Margot must find a way to reclaim Oriane — and before anybody else disappears.
But for Oriane, things are stranger still. Lost in a topsy-turvy world, how can she ever find her way home? For she’s adrift in a place very like Argantel — eerily familiar, yet strangely different; a place which follows none of the usual rules…
The great, rambling mansion-house of Landricourt stood quiet and empty, for the winemakers had finished their labour and gone home. All save one, who lingered in the cooling halls, her footsteps echoing in the hushed silence of the twilight hours. She loved the crumbling stone walls and the great windows, bare now of glass, through which the warm summer breezes drifted softly through the corridors. At this time of the year, the scent of rose hung heavy upon the air, so thickly floral that it grew almost cloying. The winemaker lingered near the long, empty windows of the long gallery, grateful for the cool, evening wind that brought respite from the clinging heat of the day.
It pleased her, when she walked there alone, to cast her mind back and back, through years of lost time, to the days when Landricourt was new. She imagined, as best she could, the elegance of the wood-panelled walls, when they had been whole and intact; the grandeur of the house’s winding stone staircases, sound and adorned with statuary; its great, imposing windows, glittering with panes of glass. A tapestry remained, here and there, though they hung in ragged shreds, naught left of them but a glimpse of the vivid colour that must once have flooded these abandoned halls. Some furniture lingered, a mismatched array evocative of Landricourt’s long history: the great, heavy oak table that stood in the hall was largely untouched by time, while the chaise longue that lingered in the drawing-room had lost most of its exquisite amber silk upholstery, and none now dared to recline upon its fragile mahogany frame.
She had been gathering rose petals all afternoon, and when she had gazed her fill at the long gallery, and wandered through the decayed beauty of the drawing-room, she bore her two wide trugs down to the cellar, and emptied their contents into the vat that stood waiting. Others had already filled it half full, and on the morrow, the process of preserving the pale, delicate petals as rosewater would begin. She would have lingered longer in the cellar, for it was cool and dark where the day had been too bright and too hot. But the aroma of rose filled the confined space, too pungent, and she made her escape. At least twilight had carried away the glare of the sun, giving her tired eyes some respite.
She turned from the vat full of petals, and from the stone jars filled with the produce of weeks prior, and set out to return to the narrow stone staircase that had brought her into the depths of the house. Her work done, she had little excuse to linger any longer, and duties awaited her at home.
But as she set her foot upon the first of those steps, wincing at the ache in her calves that protested against the forthcoming climb, a glimmer of light caught her eye. Prominent in the twilight-darkened cellar, the light was silvery and strange, and instinctively she turned towards it. It glimmered again, beckoning her some way down a shadowy passageway she had seldom had cause to explore before, and at last through an arched doorway whose door was long since lost.
The light glittered, turning from silver-pale to faintly blue, and — somehow — it came from the far wall, a wall that was naught but bare, unadorned stone. No lantern hung there, no torch, no window.
She approached, curious and puzzled. It would not be the first time that strange things had happened at Landricourt; the winemakers sometimes shared tales amongst themselves, little anecdotes of strange happenings and peculiarities. But she did not recall that anyone had yet mentioned a light like this, as pale and tantalising as the stars, its presence here incomprehensible.
Upon the wall hung a mirror without a frame. It hung by no visible means, the glass flat against the stone, and dark; so much so that she had not seen it from the other side of the room. It could scarcely be distinguished from the wall at all, save only when that glimmer came.
And there it came again, and winked out.
Like a pale torch flaring in the distance, its intermittent comings and goings resembled that of a lantern held by someone who passed, periodically, behind a tree or perhaps a pillar. Her hand stretched forth, only half voluntary, and when her fingers met the glass it gave beneath her touch in a way that cold, hard glass should not.
She thought she heard the distant sound of bells upon the air, and a note or two of a melody sung in high, strange voices.
And then she was no longer in the twilit cellar, and her half-formed wishes of a quarter of an hour before were abruptly given her. For she stood somewhere else — somewhere new, but familiar. She would have said she had not moved at all; that the sensation of falling, the momentary disorientation she had experienced, had all occurred inside her own mind, and signified nothing. The cellar-room in which she now stood was identical, in all its particulars, to the one that she had left.
Except that the light was wrong. A moment ago, she had stood shrouded in the deepening shadows of twilight, the cellar almost full dark around her. This cellar-chamber was bright with the soft daylight that streamed through its single, high-positioned window, so golden a glow that she would have placed the time at high noon.
The mirror was gone.
A few brisk steps carrying her to the door, she saw that the passageway was the same one down which she had walked only a few minutes before, or it looked the same. Only now it was neat and clean and well-swept, and flooded with light.
Quickly, she half-ran along that passage and up the stairs, and thence through a maze of passages and halls and chambers which she knew as well as she knew her own home; only this Landricourt was not ruined at all. Tapestries hung against pristine walls; carved wooden panels were well-kept and polished; everywhere there were drapes and rugs and furniture, and though it struck her, on the very edge of her flustered awareness, that they were of a style she had never before seen, and could never have dreamed, they were distinctly whole. The only mark of familiarity about the place was the occasional gap in the ceiling, through which an array of invasive rose-vines had determinedly crept. But these blooms were not silver or even white; they were pink and crimson and violet, a range of hues not seen at Landricourt in living memory.
She was not alone, either, for she passed men and women clad in raiment equally outlandish. They moved as quickly as she herself, only with purpose rather than fear, and paid scant attention to her hurried flight through the halls. Their garb was simple, their movements brisk, efficient; were these guests, residents or servants? She could not tell, and none paused to address her, nor gave her opportunity to ask. They did not seem even to see her.
When she arrived at last at the long gallery, she found it filled with people full strange to look upon, their garb the finest she had ever seen. Though it was broad daylight, somehow, in this place that was other, they were drinking a rich wine, and there was much laughter and merriment among them. These were the voices she had heard singing, perhaps.
For some time they did not notice her, and she began to wonder whether, in addition to her involuntary translocation, she was also turned invisible. But when at last one of them glanced her way — a gentleman of some age, she judged from his silvery-white hair, his coat the colour of plums in red wine — she found herself fixed with a stare neither welcoming nor otherwise.
‘Ah,’ he said at last, and she could discern nothing from his colourless tone.
Where was she? This was not her Landricourt. She was come, somehow, to a vision of the past — the past it must be, by some means beyond her comprehension. But who were the folk who dwelled here, and who gazed upon her with at least as much curiosity as she beheld them? For the faces of all in the gallery were turned towards her now, and she felt obliged to make a trembling curtsey, mindful, among such magnificence, of the stained and much-mended state of her cotton petticoats.
She wished in her secret heart that she had never wished at all, for she was alone in this Landricourt of strangers, and how was she ever to return home?
‘Your name,’ said the gentleman in the plum coat. He was not peremptory, but nor was he kind, and to her regret her discomfort caused her to stammer as she answered: ‘I am c-called Oriane, Seigneur. Oriane Travere.’
His pale eyes narrowed as she spoke, his gaze sharpened upon her. Did she imagine an increase in alertness, an air of suppressed excitement about him? He looked at her closely; her face, her hair, her clothes, all came under his scrutiny. At last he said: ‘And where have you come from, Oriane Travere?’
‘Landricourt,’ she whispered. She did not know how to explain, did not expect to be believed; how could she tell these strange, grand folk that she had come from some other Landricourt, a ruined one, which even now was sunk in the twilight of the Gloaming?
But she did not need to, for at her words his face cleared, and again he said: ‘Ahh.’
PART ONE: Margot
The day was warm for hard work, and Margot De Courcey hitched her green cotton skirts a little higher, tucking folds of the fabric into the waistband until the hems rose above her knees. She spared a blush for propriety’s sake, but only a fleeting one, for who was to see her, save those employed in a similar labour? And every one of the winemakers of Landricourt wore their skirts the same way, today.
The summer was well on its way towards the fall of the leaves, and the air was thick and close. Margot had made her way as far as the dining-room, where the empty windows allowed only occasional wisps of a sluggish breeze to touch her damp skin. The roses had come in through the ceiling in this part of the rambling old house, and by now the thicket of thorns and bright, burnished leaves had claimed two of the walls and half of a third. All summer long they had been abundant with fat, heavy blossoms, their translucent petals hovering somewhere between silver and white; pale like the moon, folded around a clear glimmering heart like the wrappings of some promised gift. Such roses only grew at Landricourt. Some of them flourished still, but many had bowed their majestic heads and spilled their petals all across the dining-room floor. Only the hearts remained, and these plumped and fattened as the days passed, forming round, polished hips fragrant with a tantalising scent all their own.
These Margot was engaged in gathering, her hands clad in thick leather gloves against the prickling thorns. It was a shame to wrest them from their stems, she always thought; they glittered faintly, as though a mote of starlight slumbered somewhere within, and she felt like a thief stealing nature’s finest jewels. But they were succulent and fragrant, and the wine made from these fruits of autumn was beyond compare.
‘They are a gift,’ Maewen Brionnet had once said, and she had been a winemaker at Landricourt for years beyond counting. ‘Shall we leave them to rot, ungathered? Tsh! Such would be a crime.’
It sometimes fell to Margot to cut the roses from their stems before they had chance to wither, for it was also tradition that the petals should be pressed and distilled into rosewater, and this added to the brew. Where these traditions had come from, no one knew; nor who had been the first to harvest the strange, moon-pale roses of Landricourt and craft them into wine. It was only known that this was done, year upon year, and under Maewen’s direction the process had continued uninterrupted since before Margot’s birth.
It must be growing late, Margot felt, and even as she formed the thought the song began: a low, wordless humming, Adelaide’s rich voice leading the others. The Quincy family had always led the song, and Adelaide was a true daughter of theirs. For a few moments Margot merely listened, for Adelaide’s voice was like warm, rich chocolate mixed with honey — if her glorious notes could be likened to anything earthly at all. When Margot’s ears had drunk their fill of the melody, she lifted her own, less spectacular voice in her accustomed harmony. There were never words to the eventide song, but all knew the melody — even if its source was as lost to time as the tradition of wine-making at Landricourt.
The chimes came, melding with the music so perfectly that Margot struggled to make them out at all. One chime, two, three — grand, ringing sounds which echoed across the whole of Vale Argantel, emanating from the very skies.
A fourth resonant chime announced the arrival of four o’ clock, and, as was the way of things, the Gloaming swept across the valley. The sun dimmed and faded, lingering only as a faint, muted presence upon the far horizon. Shadows crept out of the corners and danced across the dining-room, and what light remained turned as silvery as the stars.
The sun took most of the day’s fierce heat away with it, and Margot wilted with relief. She clambered down from her perch atop an aged wooden step-ladder near the grand double-doors, holding her skirts carefully to keep her harvest of rosehips from spilling to the floor. Maewen had given her a basket the week before, a lovely woven thing more than capacious enough to hold many a rosehip. But Margot found it cumbersome, and preferred to continue using a fold of her skirt, turned up at the hem to form a cloth bag.
She regretted this a moment later, when a sudden hollering at the door caused her to start so severely that she dropped her skirt altogether. Her rosehips bounced and rolled away all over the floor, and Margot was left to curse both her own clumsiness and that of the visitor as she chased after them. She loved the evensong; it soothed and transported her, perhaps rather too much.
‘I suppose you have brought something, Master Talleyrand?’ she said tartly, for the noisy young man who had upset her harvest was Florian from the emporium in town. In the doorway he stood with his hands in his pockets, a flush staining his brown cheeks. He had got flour onto the tan cotton of his waistcoat somehow, and wisps of grass stuck out of the sage-green thicket of his hair.
Raucous he might sometimes be, but he was not boorish, for he flushed with dismay at the results of his too-eager greeting and hastened to help Margot collect them all up. ‘Sorry,’ he mumbled, and by the time all the pale rosehips were gathered and placed in Maewen’s wicker basket, he was as red and perspiring as she.
Margot straightened her aching back with a wince, feeling far older than she ought at her relatively youthful age. Working all day in the heat had its deleterious effects; that must be her excuse. ‘Well, what is it?’ she prompted, when Florian seemed disposed only to stand there and observe her discomfort in silence.
‘Actually, Seigneur Chanteraine requests your presence.’ Recovering his composure, Florian said this with a bow, as though he were inviting her to attend a dance rather than to attend upon his employer at a moment’s notice.
‘I shall come at once,’ she replied with a small sigh, for she had hoped to go directly to one of the streams behind Landricourt and wash away the day’s aches and grime. But a leisurely walk home through the cool of the Gloaming would be pleasant enough. ‘Why is it that I am wanted there?’ she enquired. The request had perhaps come from Sylvaine, Seigneur Chanteraine’s daughter and her occasional friend.
‘He asks that you bring a bottle of the new season’s rosewater.’
‘I?’ This was curious. ‘Why does he not direct such a request to Oriane? She is his usual aide at Landricourt, is she not?’
‘He did in fact ask for her at first, but I am told there is no sign of her today. I could only find Madame Brionnet, who sent me in search of you instead.’ He added, with his swift grin, ‘I found her at the top of the south-west turret, all used up for the day. I didn’t know that snoring was a component in the evensong.’
Margot felt a moment’s chagrin, for while she had been breaking her back in the dining-room, Maewen had been resting at her ease in a breezy tower-top! But the feeling melted away soon enough, for Madame Brionnet rarely allowed her age to slow her down. Instead, she laughed. ‘Only if it is suitably melodic snoring, in keeping with the harmony.’
‘It was, of course,’ said Florian, undoubtedly with more gallantry than truth.
‘Help me carry this basket,’ she pleaded, for though she was strong she was weary, and Florian made a fine picture of boundless energy. He fell to the task willingly enough, and accompanied her through the rambling old mansion as she went in search of the rosewater. They left the basket in the main hall, with the rest of the day’s harvest; a fine medley of containers was already deposited there, all brimming with rosehips.
Madame Brionnet stood over them as superintendent, and fixed Florian with a gimlet eye as he passed.
‘I have said nothing, ma’am,’ he assured her, mendaciously and in a loud whisper.
‘I am sure there is nothing of which to speak,’ said she stiffly. To Margot she added: ‘Take two bottles of the water, my dear, and quickly. Seigneur Chanteraine may be pleased to have a little to spare.’
Maewen’s eagerness to oblige the Chanteraines did not surprise Margot, for it was an attitude shared by many in Argantel. She hastened to obey the directive, glad to have Florian to assist her, for the great clay bottles were large and bulky and she did not feel equal to carting more than one of them across the valley.
As they left Landricourt in the deep twilight, the roses woke up around them, stretching their sparse petals under the soft, blue light. Their hearts swelled and shone, drinking up the effulgence, and Margot knew that when she returned in the morning there would be many more to collect. It was raining a little, though the sky was clear, and the distant strains of long-lost melodies drifted upon the wind.