The draft horse better suited to plodding along behind a cart heaved as Jurgen pulled into the city stables. Sliding off the sweaty beast, he thrust the reins into a stable lad’s hands with a coin and rushed off without a word. The boy’s face was frozen in shock—Jurgen imagined it wasn’t every day a troll galloped bareback into the city—but there was no time for explanations. Old Henry would be fine after a good fill of hay.
While not a frequenter of the city, and certainly not the witches academy, Jurgen knew which lanes to slip down to get there as directly as the winding roads allowed. She had to be there. If the message with that bat was anything to go by, Gretchen must have thought she was being particularly clever about her sudden disappearance.
Ignoring those who shrank from him in the street or openly pointed, Jurgen plowed onward, and took the academy’s steps two at a time when he arrived at the looming building. Piper would be in class. He had no other option than to ask for Gretchen directly, or go snooping around to find her.
But the girl who stood behind a desk in the lobby wouldn’t have any of it, despite her face paling on seeing him.
“What do you mean she’s not here?”Jurgen barked.
The girl’s lip trembled and she held a hand to her chest, reminding Jurgen to keep from snarling with his fangs out. “She’s wanted by the constabulary,” she blurted. “There’s no way she would return—”
“Her sister then,” Jurgen clenched his fists behind his back to keep from frightening her. “Cordelia. I must speak with her at once.”
The girl opened her mouth as if to protest, but must have thought better of it. Clearing her throat, she turned to a wall with pipes opening into some kind of mouthpieces, and Jurgen began pacing the marble floors.
Burned to the ground. The only remnants left were broken stone walls, scorched cauldrons, and a fireplace. The culprits had long since ridden away— Jurgen had noted the mess of hoofprints in the lane— and the last of the roof beams smouldered as he poked around the perimeter. He’d searched the surrounding countryside for any sign of Mulligan, but the little scamp was nowhere to be found. Jurgen had a terrible feeling that—
“Master Jurgen.” A crisp voice carried across the vacant room and Jurgen halted to turn toward the stairs. Cordelia Murkwood, Vice Chancellor of the Witches Academy stood on the lower landing with her hands clasped in front of her. Her face was unreadable, and Jurgen swallowed as he realized the cottage must have been her home too once.
“Vice Chancellor.” Jurgen approached and chose his words with care. “I’ve come bearing most unwelcome news.”
Cordelia’s eyes swept the foyer and she held up a finger. “Come.”
Jurgen followed her upstairs in a bewildering set of stairwells and curved mezzanines. How witches got anything done with all the twists and turns was beyond the troll, but he kept the notion to himself. Cordelia said nothing as they ascended toward her study. Jurgen wondered if Gretchen would have his hide for blabbing about her circumstances to her.
But when Cordelia opened the door with a nod for the troll to enter, he sagged with relief as he spotted a wicker basket in the corner, with an unmistakable purple ball of fluff inside.
“Mulligan!” Jurgen rushed over to sink to his knees and the sleepy cat blinked his eyes open. He gave the familiar a scratch behind the ears with a wide grin before recalling Cordelia was waiting on his account. Clearing his throat, he stood and turned, his face somber. “Vice Chancellor, I’ve come from your sister’s cottage in Edgewood. I’m afraid…” he heaved a deep breath. “It’s been razed to the ground, madam.”
Cordelia, who Jurgen knew from previous encounters was an unflappable sort, gasped and pressed a hand to her mouth. Her eyes glittered with emotion, and Jurgen wrung his hands uncomfortably. Mulligan, who’d evidently decided he was happy to see the troll, threaded his way around Jurgen’s legs. Absentmindedly, Jurgen stooped to pick up the scraggly feline and nestled him in the crook of his arms.
“I know who it was.” Cordelia’s voice was strangled, and she leaned against her desk to rub her eyes. “Even so. This is well beyond the reach of the arcane constabulary.”
Jurgen wasn’t sure what to say, and whether he should enquire after Gretchen, but Cordelia saved him the trouble.
“I don’t know where she is, and that’s probably for the better.” She poured a measure of a clearish purple liquor from a decanter on her desk and offered it to him. Surprised, Jurgen juggled Mulligan to accept the offer, though he wasn’t a fan of witches brew. “You must know at least something if you’ve come here. Best not to exchange information. Information can become a liability.”
The woman’s eyes were haunted, and Jurgen threw back the dram as she poured her own and gulped it down. It tasted of herbs and brimstone, with a fiery burn which Jurgen knew from experience would be uncomfortable later.
“I don’t know where she is either.” Jurgen met the Vice Chancellor’s eyes. “But I want to help. She is coming back, isn’t she?”
Cordelia huffed bitterly and poured another drink. “Who knows with my sister? She’s been in tight spots before and came out the other side unscathed. But this? This is something else.”
“Piper?” Jurgen arched an eyebrow.
“Safe.” Cordelia nodded. “Though she threw quite the fit when she realized Gretchen had left her here. You won’t tell her about the cottage, will you?”
Jurgen appraised the woman, who he’d previously concluded had little regard for anyone without a title, and decided he had the wrong end of it. Piper would throw a bigger fit when she realized Jurgen had kept the news from her, but he could see why Cordelia wouldn’t want to upset her any further. Jurgen couldn’t begin to fathom what trouble Gretchen had gotten herself into this time, but trouble seemed to be a close companion of hers.
“I’ll stay in the city.” Jurgen stroked Mulligan and set him back in his basket. “To be on hand if you have need of me. Gretchen has stuck her neck out for me on more than one occasion. It’s time I repay the favor.”
Cordelia chewed her lip, and seemed to come to some conclusion as she nodded slowly. Circling her desk, she rifled through a drawer and pulled out a purse. She crossed the distance between them to press what he presumed was coin into his palm and stared up at him with the severity he was more accustomed to.
“Stay at The Swine and Claw. I’ll get a message to you if I have news. Cross my sister, and I’ll unravel whatever enchantment has you upright and talking.”
Swallowing, Jurgen acknowledged the threat with the barest of nods, pardoning it already as a show of familial protectiveness. “Understood.”
Gretchen losing her cottage was a big moment
But in the story itself we didn’t get to see the ruins or the initial shock. While Cordelia shows an unusual amount of sentiment over the ordeal, it’s this little story which shows how much it rocked her. Haven’t read The Kingmaker’s Sword? No problem, you can check it out here.
Looking for more bonus content? Head back to the episode page where I keep it curated in the one spot.