This work is a coming of age story and not a romance. There will be no romantic relationships depicted (beyond Angeline/Artemis Sr).
Set after The Time Paradox and diverges from canon there.
Fowl Manor brooded over the dawn like a stone dreadnought anchored in rippling mists, surrounded on all sides by dew-soaked slopes and the bleak emptiness of altitude. A lark warbled somewhere, but otherwise the silence gaped wide over the hilltop and down into the valley below where, around the flat silver disc of the lake, naked trees speared the shore. When dawn broke, the Manor looked much as it had almost a thousand years ago: a soundless headstone cresting the grass, the mute liege lord of the churning Irish mists.
Clustered some distance from the manor proper was a collection of sheds and small buildings, some of squat, practical concrete build that dated from the sixties, and some of more recent construction. The most newly built of these were the stables, an addition made to the Fowl estate only three years previously. It housed three Arabian geldings: one chestnut, one black, and one grey, and each of splendid build and somewhat less splendid character. On this morning, like most mornings of late, the stables housed a fourth individual, though one who would rather be beginning his day with a five mile run than tending to three temperamental horses.
While the addition of the Fowl stables and current lack of a stable-hand had initially presented to Domovoi Butler only another list of thankless tasks to accomplish, he had found himself warming to the animals; excepting, however, the grey who had the nasty habit of biting at whomever tried to brush him (which was invariably Butler), and so Butler had taken a grudging dislike to the creature. The black horse, Strider, was more placid and would contentedly inhale apple chunks from Butler's massive palm, but it was only the chestnut, Rembrandt, for whom Butler had developed a particular affection. Whether this was because the horse was Master Artemis's preferred mount or because it had clearly warmed to the man who fed and watered it Butler did not know, but he had formed an undeniable bond with the creature.
This morning, like most mornings, he let himself into Rembrandt's stable and ran a hand over the animal's neck.
'Good morning, old boy. Do you know what day it is today?' The horse, as ever, did not respond, but Butler did not take offence. The horses were much easier to talk to than people. 'It's my birthday. Did you get me anything?' Rembrandt blinked and Butler let it nuzzle his hand, the velvet nose searching fruitlessly for sugar lumps. 'Don't worry, you're not the only one.'
His birthday had always been an uncelebrated affair in the Fowl household. Juliet was notorious for forgetting, though she would try to make up for it with a card and slice of lopsided cake a week late. But she had been absent at various wrestling events the past three years running and so Butler had grown content to let his birthday pass with little regard, although he occasionally bought for himself a new novel or fresh addition to his collection of Heckler & Koch pistols. Sometimes he forgot the date entirely and so took little affront when Artemis consistently displayed the same indifference. Birthdays were simply a barometer of looming mortality, one to which Butler paid little attention as someone who got shot in the chest for a living. As long as he was fit and able, his job was guarding Artemis; and, of late, caring for Artemis's horses.
Butler set to work on Rembrandt's mane, combing it out, rubbing the animal's nose with a hand that almost spanned the length of its head.
'Forty-eight. I never expected to live this long.' Rembrandt snorted loudly and Butler nodded in agreement. 'I know. Maybe it'll be time to retire soon. On the other hand, what with all the fairy magic, I'm not sure I actually know how old I am physically.' He dropped his voice conspiratorially. 'And between you and me, retirement might not be something I ever get round to. I'm not sure Artemis will notice when I turn sixty-five. He's not very good at keeping track.'
'You wound me, old friend.'
Butler turned sharply, his soldier's instincts raring and then gently falling as the rest of his brain caught up. Artemis had clearly been waiting in the stables for some time, judging by his pale lips and the red flush dusting his nose and cheeks. Though wrapped in a heavy winter coat and his head enclosed in a fluffy ushanka, he was visibly shivering. He still looked very much a boy, a miniature in comparison to his bodyguard even in his heeled riding boots. They gave an infinitesimal height boost to a stature that, even at seventeen, did not clear five foot seven.
'No offence, Artemis, but you did once forget your own mother's birthday.'
'I was preoccupied with some vital research,' Artemis said, offended. 'I can't be expected to capitulate to every arbitrary celebration my family commemorates.'
Butler wanted to chide, but his feelings were the same. Juliet's birthday was the only one he celebrated. Artemis only cared about his birthday insofar as he could use it as an excuse to wrangle additional funds for his environmental science experiments out of his parents. And even then, said wrangling was only to be polite. Artemis had hacked his father's bank accounts seventeen times.
'So,' said Butler, 'what are you doing out here at four-thirty in the morning?'
Artemis's lips slurred into a grin. 'Come out back.'
Butler raised his eyebrows but followed Artemis's bundled figure without comment, out the back of the stable and around to a small yard where several sheds stored spare tools and machine parts. Butler stopped short when they rounded the corner and Artemis came to a halt a few paces further, turning on his heels and smiling.
The beast that stood tethered in the centre of the yard was of such enormity that Butler, for the first time in his life, felt dwarfed. A magnificent Belgian mare, she breached seventeen hands at the very least, her withers almost at the height of Butler's crown and her head towering even higher. The muscles beneath her chestnut coat shifted tectonically and her hooves left trenches in the mud where they pawed. She was of such colossal proportions that she more resembled the wooden horse of Troy than the Fowl Arabians. She regarded them both with huge, deep eyes and snorted with a sound like a dampened rifle.
'You kept complaining that my early morning rides were a recipe for potential assassination,' said Artemis, 'and so I thought it might be prudent to procure for you your own mount. It was difficult to find a horse to fit your proportions, but Dido here should be up to the task.'
'She is beautiful,' Butler managed, stepping forwards to touch the animal's neck. Dido's ears twitched, but she didn't spook.
'Don't get sentimental. I bought her out of necessity.' His voice dropped. 'Also to make up for the past seventeen birthdays I've missed. And hopefully the coming seventeen as well, because I am in all likelihood never going to remember your birthday again.'
Butler didn't reply. While he was well aware horses most always fell short of the level of intelligence attributed to them by their riders, there was nonetheless a kind of knowing relentlessness in Dido's stare.
'She's eighteen point two hands, two thousand two hundred pounds, and cost more than I would customarily spend on a horse, but I could hardly get you an Arabian; you'd crush the poor thing.' Worry twitched his brow. 'You can ride, I assume?'
'Of course. Madam Ko taught riding in the first few months at the academy. Never know when a horse is going to be your only mode of transport.'
'Well then, I would like stop standing around in this abominable cold as soon as possible. Saddle her up.'
'You did remember to buy a saddle that'll fit her?'
Artemis's withering expression would have crumpled a lesser man, or one who had not been subjected to it daily for seventeen years. 'And a helmet for you. Come on, I've been waiting here for half an hour and I want to ride.'
They took Artemis's usual route, down the slope surrounding the manor and into the mist-thick valley. Artemis rode ahead, cutting an elegant though slight figure in his black velvet helmet and mint grey jodhpurs. Butler had not been horse-riding in a long time, but he had forgotten very little Madam Ko had ever taught him and was soon at ease, shifting rhythmically with the horse as he watched his charge. It was an unusual experience to be carried in such a manner, having spent so much of his life carrying Artemis, Holly, Juliet, and the twins around in various circumstances. Dido carried him as capably as Rembrandt did Artemis and took steps that echoed like shots when her steel-shod hoofs hit the path. From a distance the casual observer might mistake the fog-smudged silhouettes of the two riders for a huge stag and its fawn wandering the wet Irish dawn.
Artemis usually enjoyed the solitary soundlessness of his rides, but he was not-so-secretly pleased with his ability to obtain such a rare creature and wanted to indulge his success. Butler, who was well-accustomed to indulging Artemis, answered his charge's many questions without complaint.
'She has no difficulty carrying you?'
'None at all. I'm not that heavy, Artemis.'
'Too heavy for most horses to carry without ruining their backs. How is her temperament?'
'Seems good so far. I couldn't get near your mother's horse for a week when he first arrived, remember? The thing was terrified of me.'
'I remember. And Dido has no such complaints?'
'Nope. She's probably reassured to meet another living creature on her scale.'
Artemis turned in his saddle, a smile in his eyes. 'Projecting, are we?'
It was true, there was something comforting about riding an animal of the same vast scale as yourself. Butler went through life constrained by miniature chairs, cars that gave him neck pains, meals he could swallow in several bites. He felt an immense sense of peace astride an animal that was the 'right' size. He suppressed a smile at the thought that the same was true for Artemis. Rembrandt was small even for an Arabian and fit Artemis very comfortably. Although not a tiny young man, Artemis had his mother's slim frame but none of her willowy height. It didn't seem to bother the boy. He had spent his whole life being underestimated; what could a couple of missing vertical inches matter?
'I would prefer to take my rides alone,' said Artemis, 'but you are, as usual, quite right that I am putting myself in unnecessary danger with a daily routine of solitary exercise.'
Butler snorted. 'Exercise. If you say so.'
'When you're bow-legged with saddle sores, then you can be superior with me about horse-riding as exercise, but not before.'
'Artemis Fowl, giving his Butler a lecture about the physical pains of exercise. I never thought I'd see the day.' Butler shook his head at the slim black-and-grey figure in front. 'Madam Ko once had us ride for three days bareback in a monsoon carrying a bag of rocks on our shoulders. We would have given our little fingers for the comfort of saddle sores.'
Artemis didn't reply, but Butler saw his shoulders twitch slightly with the kind of snide exhalation that, for Artemis, generally passed for laughter. Conversation was light-hearted, which is one of the great effects that enjoyable exercise, even horse-riding, could have in a freezing Irish morning. Butler had often thought a little invigorating exercise might be good for his charge, but horse-riding was the only activity Artemis had ever taken to. Although Butler had found himself frustrated again and again with Artemis's staunch commitment to horse-riding in the face of all other forms of exercise, it was clear to him why this of all physical activities had appealed. On horseback, Artemis commanded a certain slender physical elegance. He flicked the reins and twitched his boots in the stirrups with the same attitude as when he sat at piano, hands on the keys, feet on the pedals: arranged in self-flattering poise. If any sport appealed to Artemis's aesthetic sensibilities then it was horse-riding. Butler wouldn't be entirely surprised if Artemis had got the idea from spending too long staring at that ugly Picasso print he seemed to like so much.
'Horses have an intrinsic beauty that dumbbells do not,' Artemis had once argued, and Butler had found it difficult to pose a counter argument. Although he would never admit it, Artemis was a shameless aesthete and rarely willingly participated in any activity that didn't lend him some air of elegance. There was a reason Artemis never wore anything - outside of life-threatening situations - that couldn't be mistaken for something from a Tom Ford collection, and it wasn't practicality. Simply convincing Artemis to put on gym shorts and a T-shirt could take Butler an hour. And on horseback, it was difficult not to admit that Artemis had found a physical activity that catered to his particular aesthetic tastes. Still, Butler wished Artemis would take up one form of cardio.
By the time they arrived back at the stables Artemis was in good spirits. The cold pink flush his cheeks had born that morning had been replaced with a more even, warm glow and he resembled most uncannily a well worn-out teenage boy. Butler dismounted first, patting Dido appreciatively on her massive neck. Artemis turned in the saddle and half-lowered himself into the stirrup, then allowed Butler to grip his waist and lower him to the ground. Artemis had discovered quite early in his riding lessons that his limited agility did not allow him to make an elegant, or even necessarily vertical, dismount.
Artemis unbuckled his helmet and lifted it, freeing the black flare of his hair.
'You need a haircut,' Butler observed, removing his own.
'You too. The greys are getting noticeable.'
Butler ran a hand over his bristled scalp, having foregone shaving once again in order to tend to the horses.
'Ever think of hiring a stable-hand so I don't need to do all the work around here?'
'If you dislike the horses so much, why are you always talking to them?'
'Well, they don't constantly rib me, unlike some people.'
'I don't constantly rib you,' said Artemis as they exited the stables. 'But you are getting extremely easy to tease. I mean, really, Butler, they're horses not débutantes. If you're that lonely call Juliet.'
'I don't talk to them out of loneliness. They're just good sounding boards.'
'You never did strike me as the type to be bothered by solitary living.' A frown stretched between Artemis's pale temples. 'What you said about retirement... It is an option. There are other Butlers and you have given this family nearly twenty years of service. You were completely correct earlier. Forty-eight is old for a soldier and if your age is compromising your skills or your reaction times, then-'
Butler snatched a fat midge from the air and presented the red smear to his employer.
'My reaction times are fine.'
'Yes, thank you for saving me from the risk of a mild itch. Whatever would I do without you?'
'Probably burn yourself on the toaster, then fall off your horse, and die starving in a ditch somewhere.'
'I can work a toaster,' Artemis said, which was a complete lie.
They crossed the threshold into Fowl Manor and Butler shut fast the gaping oak door, then typed in the security code to prevent the alarm system from doing what Juliet described as 'losing its shit.' The house was dark, huge, and still, heavy with early morning sleep. Emptied of the twins' shrieking or social functions, the manor's usually dour attitude metamorphosed into something more grim, a giant walk-in coffin. Artemis's pale face hung in the gloom, its pink warmth gone, a soft frown still weighting his features.
Butler paused beside him. 'Do you want me to leave, Artemis?'
'Of course not.'
'Then why bring it up?'
'I thought you might be unhappy here.'
'I'm not.' Butler's tone was abrupt. 'Why are you asking me this now? I've been with you seventeen years.'
A small shrug rippled through Artemis's shoulder. 'I'm nearly eighteen. A biological adult, although legally I'm almost twenty-one. If you wanted an excuse to leave the Fowls' service, now would be the time.'
'That's good to know, but I have no intention of leaving either the Fowl family or you in particular. Is that a problem?'
'No,' Artemis said. He looked about to say something else, his lips parting once then sealing shut, smothering the thought. A thin smile stretched his mouth. 'Do you really want to put up with me for another seventeen years?'
'Can't imagine any place I'd rather be.'
Something passed over Artemis's expression: a sweep of premature dusk. But then it passed, and he was Artemis again.
'In that case, I'll take breakfast in the study.'
'What do you want?' Butler made a mental guess: eggs benedict, cappuccino. He had successfully guessed Artemis's breakfasts now fifty-six days running, though he had not shared this streak with Artemis.
Artemis tapped his chin. 'Eggs benedict.'
'A cappuccino. But add less milk than you have been doing lately. You turn them into frothy lattes.'
'If you want less milk in your coffee then stop not finishing your meals. Sometimes the only calories you get in a day come from milk.'
'My bodyguard. Defending me against midges and calcium deficiencies.'
'Those and trolls are my specialities.'
They parted in the hall and Artemis went to dress, spending what even the most fashion-forward teenagers would consider an inordinate amount of time selecting his outfit. Since he would be eating dinner with his mother he decided to keep it casual for her sake ('No suits at the dinner table except on special occasions, Arty. You look like an undertaker.') and so donned tan chinos, brown suede derbies, a cornflower blue shirt and forest-green sweatervest. He was almost successfully out of the door when he hurried back to his wardrobe to tear off the sweatervest and knot (in half-windsor) a coffee-coloured knit tie around his neck before pulling the sweatervest on again. His mother might mock his proclivities, but somebody in the house needed to know the difference between hopsack and fresco, for goodness' sake.
After a day of pleasant private research in his study, a bell sounded in the belly of the house to announce dinner.
The meal was a quiet affair, attended as it was by only Artemis and his mother. Angeline Fowl had been recently complaining that the twins' tendency for turning family dinners into food fights was fatiguing her, and so Artemis Sr had offered to take the boys on a brief holiday to London where they could get measured for their first suits. Myles had already sketched out a design for a modest three piece navy worsted; Beckett had brought a photo of Christopher Lee's Dracula. Regardless of what the twins brought back with them, the trip allowed Angeline a few days of quiet in the house and Artemis the opportunity to get some work done without Myles bothering his research with claims that a neoliberal economy would never accommodate eco-friendly alternatives that compromised even slightly capitalism's relentless onward march to a blasted earth. Artemis cursed had himself for ever lending Myles a copy of Naomi Klein in the first place.
After dinner, Artemis and Angeline both took coffee (Angeline still forbade her son alcohol, which quite inconvenienced Artemis's wine collecting) and the conversation turned once again to the topic of Artemis's higher education.
'There are wonderful courses at both Oxford and Cambridge, Arty,' she said, 'so if you decide to go to either just choose whichever you prefer. But there's no need to restrict yourself to Oxbridge, of course. St Andrews is somewhere you said you quite liked, and the social experience there is, I hear, quite wonderful-'
'Mother.' Artemis stirred his cappuccino listlessly, one hand propping up his head from boredom.
'Look, Arty, if you want a more exciting location we can look at city universities like UCL or even Trinity College if you'd like to stay closer to home. If you don't, the University of Tokyo is-'
'Mother, I am not going to university. I have been very clear about this.'
Angeline Fowl's brow tightened with deep distress. She had not risen from bed until dinner. A translucent white gown cobwebbed her slender frame and silk chemise, her hair a tumble of loose curls, an espresso poised daintily between lip and plate.
'Arty, dear, it would be so good for you.'
'I received my doctorate last year. What could another bachelors possibly offer me?'
'You could study something new. What about literature? You always said you never get to spend as much time reading as you'd like.'
'I could teach myself with far more efficiency than any of those insipid professors.'
Angeline brought her cup down onto her plate with rather more force than was necessary.
'Artemis. Some of these men and women are the top authorities in their fields. Even you would have something to learn from them.'
'True,' conceded Artemis, taking a sip of his drink (too milky, again). 'But not enough to waste three years of my life.'
'You could do a fast track course.'
'I am not doing it, mother. It is a waste of time.'
'And what about your social development?'
Artemis lay the cup down and leaned back in his chair, resting his wrists lightly on the table.
'Am I not socially developed? I have a wide network of friends and business associates with whom I am able to converse freely and authoritatively on a great variety-'
'How many friends do you have, Arty?' He opened his mouth to speak but his mother cut him off. 'Friends you've spoken to in the past six months.'
Artemis withdrew his hands from the table. 'Holly. Butler. Do email exchanges count?'
'Well, Holly and Butler, then. Both fine friends.'
'We pay Butler.'
Artemis felt his voice wither in his throat. 'That's irrelevant,' he finally managed.
'The fact that you think a man who is paid handsomely to put up with your every self-indulgent, narcissistic idiosyncrasy constitutes a fine friend speaks very well of your so-called social development, don't you think? And Holly, when was the last time you spoke to her?'
'She has been busy.'
Angeline threw her napkin onto the table. 'There you go. No friends at all. You're a sad little boy, Arty. Sad sad sad sad.' She stood violently, upsetting her cup with the gesticulations of her thin, fluttering hand. 'Sad sad sad.'
Artemis remained seated, his eyes on his drink, trying to regulate his breathing. His mother's shrill voice curled out of the room and along the corridor, rising and fading as it climbed the stairs, then disappearing sharply when she slammed her bedroom door. Artemis's ears continued to ring with her voice, like his whole body was a tuning fork that had been violently struck against the table.
'Is everything alright?'
Butler stood, aproned, in the doorway.
Artemis's glanced up to meet Butler's eyes. 'Fine. Mother is just having one of her turns.'
'Again? That's the third this week.'
'I am well aware.' Artemis watched the vestiges of his mother's espresso slide thickly over the lip of the cup. 'Father comes home tomorrow. I will speak to him about it then. There is no point ruining his holiday over mother feeling a little over-tired.'
'Of course. Should I go check on her?'
'No, I'll do it. You might frighten her.'
One of the reasons they had initially invited Juliet to live in Fowl Manor was Angeline's memory problems. She had called the police twice on Butler, not recognising him and thinking him an intruder. Butler had suggested that, if Angeline had to continuously forget someone's identity, better it be a fourteen-year-old girl than a hulk who terrified her.
'Artemis, did she say something to upset you?'
Artemis was quite certain his face had been arranged in a perfect null expression, but having spent seventeen years a scholar of his charge's moods, Butler could quite easily interpret every shade of blank that Artemis was able to draw up.
'I'm fine,' he lied. 'Just another disagreement regarding my higher education.'
Butler said nothing. Just as Butler could interpret Artemis's guarded expression, Artemis could decode the varieties of silence Butler frequently offered in place of comment. He lingered for a moment in the dining room but could not quite rake enough words together to repeat his mother's accusation.
'I'll be upstairs,' he said, and left the room. The hall's floor was of dark mahogany, bisected by the sprawling tongue of a Persian rug in deep reds and blues, the same shade of red that painted the pressing, textured wallpaper. Previous Fowls stared impassively out of their portraits as Artemis passed and groped after him with blind gazes, centuries of dead lords and ladies bearing the Fowl name whose winding line had come to coalesce on him, Artemis II, the boy heir to this ancient house.
Ascending the stairs, Artemis noted almost unconsciously the creak, creak, thud, creak rhythm of the stairs he had passed up so many times. It was just one more part of the irregular pulse of the house that sounded in the grandfather clock in his study, the rain on the windows, the settling of the pipes, the pawing hoof-beats of the horses. We are a living thing, we Fowls in our warren.
At his mother's door Artemis paused, collecting himself. He had been in this position so many times before. He would open this door and his mother wouldn't recognise him, or she knew him but despised him for crimes he had not committed. For two years he had not known who lay behind that bedroom door. Russian roulette, only you had to keep going about your business even when your heart was bleeding out your chest.
Artemis knocked twice. 'Mother?'
'Come in.' Her voice was light, feathery.
Artemis pushed the door open. His mother had changed out of her nightclothes and into a periwinkle gown in layers of sheer lace, dusting the floor around her. A little formal perhaps, but otherwise the outfit of a sane woman.
'How are you feeling?'
'Oh, much better, thank you.' She smiled and the room glittered. 'How are you, dear? Did you get some dessert?'
'I despise dessert, mother. I always have.'
'You must eat, dear, you need your strength.' She turned to a full length rococo mirror to fasten on a pair of large pearl earrings. 'I do worry, you know, that... that I'm a bad mother.'
'You're a wonderful mother.' Artemis felt his throat constrict. 'The best a boy could hope for.'
'I wish I could believe that. I fear I gave little Arty such a fright.'
Artemis's careful expression faltered. 'Excuse me?'
'I saw him again, Timmy. I saw little Arty. All grown up, come back to us.'
Regret lilted her voice. 'I know he's dead. I know it. But sometimes I feel that he's here with us, watching over me and you, and the boys. I wish he could have met them. He would have been a good brother.'
'Mam, I'm right here,' said Artemis, part of him drenched in primal terror and wanting to call out for Butler.
Angeline's eyes alighted on her son as though she had only just noticed him and she blinked, recognition settling in her irises.
'Arty? Do you need something?'
'No,' he whispered.
'If you don't mind, Arty, I'm feeling a little tired. I'd like to lie down.'
'Of course.' His voice was tiny. 'I'm sorry to have disturbed you, mother.'
Artemis let himself out and pulled the door closed. He rested his head against the grain and breathed deeply. His thoughts spun around on themselves too fast for him to catch. The past two years had seen Angeline tired and often angry, but never psychotic. Something was wrong with her.
Artemis drifted downstairs like the fragment of a leaf, the walls full of red worms, his brain throwing up a list of contextless facts and words that he had once known intimately, after his father's disappearance. Delusional disorder, lucid periods, paranoid delusions, a sense of unreality, many live satisfying lives. He stumbled on the bottom step and wavered to the middle of the rug, floating through nausea. She had been so well, for so long.
Or had she?
After Holly's healing she had been her old self again, yes. But Artemis had been at boarding school most of the time, so how could he be certain? And then he had disappeared to Hybras for three years. He had no idea what her mental state was like. She had been tired these past two years, true, though not unstable. But Opal had climbed inside her body and tore her insides apart. How could he know? What if there was a physical illness? A brain tumour, encephalitis, an abscess...
The questions threw themselves at the walls of Artemis's skull like drunk bluebottles. His hand reached out, the palm damp, his vision a fireworks display, a buzzing crescendo spilling out of his ears. Then a clean wave of nausea rose through him in a broiling column, quaking, cresting, then it crashed through his head and Artemis fell forwards in a dead faint.