A Determined Elf
Constance and Forbearance knocked on the door of Alexandra and Anna's room early the following morning. They were upset and anxious after Anna's hurried note the previous night. Alexandra was obliged to let them into the room, cast a Muffliato spell, and tell them the whole story. By this time their suitemates had woken up. When Sonja found the door from the bathroom locked, she went out into the hallway and knocked on the door there.
"Hey," she said, looking into the room when Anna opened the door. The other four girls fell silent. "Me and Carol are going down to breakfast. Are you coming?"
Alexandra shrugged and said, "Sure." After being lectured by Anna the previous night, she was happy to end the conversation here. She didn't need to hear the Pritchards add their two pidges about how 'high-headed' she was.
The six girls walked downstairs (Carol, as usual, hovering on the other side of Sonja from Alexandra). Alexandra read the morning ninth grade bulletins with a knot in her stomach. She was sure she'd see 'Alexandra Quick: report to the Dean's office.'
But her name was not mentioned. There were congratulations from the Dean and Assistant Deans to all the Halloween contest winners, and Alexandra had to see Larry Albo's hateful name: 'Twice-consecutive winner of the Charmbridge Dueling Competition.' She patted Anna on the back for winning third place in the Academic Magic Bowl, and Constance for winning a blue ribbon for her Magical Theory essay.
"Check it," said a boy's voice, "chess champion in the house!"
"Shut up, Dylan," David said. As he and his roommate walked up to the girls gathered around the bulletin board, Alexandra noted that his annoyed tone did not match his pleased expression.
"Third place?" Constance said, scanning the announcements.
David frowned, and Constance blushed. "What I meant to mean was... third place is right respectable. Congratulations, David."
"Thanks," David mumbled. He turned to Alexandra. "So, what did Albo want to talk to you about last night, anyway?"
"Just the usual crap – taunting and gloating and stuff." Alexandra tried to ignore Anna's disapproving look. David snorted and nodded.
The growing entourage picked up another member when Innocence joined her sisters as they made their way to the cafeteria. Innocence was dressed more 'proper' than usual, with a bonnet covering her head.
As they entered the cafeteria, William smiled hopefully in their direction from the seventh graders' table, and Innocence turned her head and pretended not to notice him. William sighed and looked down at his cereal.
"Is you'uns still quarrelin'?" Constance asked.
"We hain't quarrelin' an' it don't make no nevermind to you nohow. He hain't my chub." Head held high, Innocence pushed forward to get in line for breakfast.
"William throwed their duel, you know," Forbearance whispered.
"She's all in a snit on account o' it," Constance said.
Poor William, Alexandra thought. He couldn't win for losing.
She looked to the sixth graders' table, and was concerned when she didn't see Mary Dearborn there. Midway through breakfast, Larry shambled in, trailed by Wade and Ethan. He looked not too much the worse for wear, but Alexandra quickly looked away from him and kept her eyes fixed on her food or her friends for the rest of the meal.
She was, in fact, rather surprised when Larry did not drift over to enjoy his triumph. She'd promised to endure his taunts, and now he could humiliate her with impunity in front of her friends. She expected him to take full advantage. But he took his tray to his own table and ignored her, even as she left the cafeteria with her friends.
Alexandra walked with them as far as the hallway outside, then told her friends to go on ahead. Anna hesitated, but didn't argue.
It was almost time for breakfast to stop being served when Mary finally came walking down the hall, surrounded by four other sixth grade girls. She was obviously the center of the group, dressed in white and violet robes, looking pretty and fashionable and perhaps too elegant for a school day. There was nothing in her appearance to suggest that anything at all had happened to her last night.
She and Alexandra made eye contact and held it for a moment, while Mary's friends fell silent. Alexandra nodded. Mary looked away, and the younger girls resumed chattering. Alexandra let out a breath.
Mary was all right, and apparently Larry had not reported her. Alexandra could now put Darla's sister out of her mind. She pushed away from the wall she'd been leaning against and started to hurry off to her Confederation Citizenship class.
She froze when she heard the voice. She didn't move as footsteps approached her, but when they stopped, she slowly turned to face Larry.
His friends were hanging back by the cafeteria exit, nonplussed. Had Larry told them to wait there? Other students were passing by, some of whom recognized Larry and Alexandra, but no one stopped to watch the confrontation, yet.
At least my friends aren't here to see this, she thought, though she had no doubt she wouldn't be so lucky next time. She closed her eyes, preparing herself for whatever abuse he was about to inflict. All she could do was take it. At least he would graduate in two years. She only had to put up with it until then.
"Why are you protecting her?" Larry asked in a low voice.
Alexandra opened her eyes. "What?"
Larry leaned close enough to speak in a whisper. "Mary Dearborn. Why would you protect her?"
She looked up at him. "Why does it matter?"
His expression was more quizzical than angry. "She didn't just want to curse you. She wanted to kill you."
"A sixth grader? Come on."
"Everyone says you killed Darla Dearborn."
"Do you really think I'd still be here if that were true?" She regretted saying that as soon as the words escaped her lips. Of course he thought she'd still be here. Like everyone else, he probably assumed her all-powerful father, who'd been a fugitive since the day she was born yet was still able to do anything on her behalf, had somehow kept her enrolled at Charmbridge Academy regardless of her dark deeds.
Larry seemed to be thinking that over. Then he said, "The little brat wanted revenge, but you went out of your way to protect her. Why?"
Alexandra's jaw clenched. "I swore to yield to you and take your crap. I didn't swear to answer questions about my personal business. If you don't have anything else to say to me, I'm going now."
When she started to leave, he said, "It didn't happen."
She stopped. "What?"
"It didn't happen," he said tightly. "There was no duel."
Alexandra was speechless. Larry's brow remained furrowed in thought, then he spun around and gestured at Ethan and Wade. The two of them gave her puzzled glares, then stalked off down the hallway with Larry. The bell rang, telling her she was late for first period.
In the afterglow of her righteous fury, Alexandra had to admit that swearing vengeance against John Manuelito didn't mean much if she had no way to find him. Even if she had an idea of where he was (besides the vague rumors that he'd returned to the Indian Territories), she couldn't just leave Charmbridge Academy to go hunting for him.
Well, I could. But then she'd be a runaway. If she used magic outside of Charmbridge Academy, the Trace Office would send Diana Grimm or another Special Inquisitor right to her. And she couldn't imagine how she'd find John, much less deliver justice, without magic.
When she made the mistake of sharing these thoughts with Anna while they were studying in the library, Anna dropped her quill. It took her a moment to pick it up again. "You aren't seriously planning to go after John Manuelito yourself?"
"Not right away." Alexandra pushed away her magical theory textbook and opened a map of the Confederation in the book lying beneath it. "The Indian Territories are pretty big, and obviously I need to know more about the area. They don't teach us much in school about Indian magic or how they govern their Territories or what kind of magical creatures live there. So I figure it will take a while, and I certainly won't do it during the school year..." Her voice trailed off. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"You're crazy," Anna said. "This is seriously insane. Do you realize that? This is just like you going to the Lands Below, or stealing a Time-Turner, or trying to summon Death. You're planning to do something really dangerous that you're not even a little bit prepared for. And what good will it do you? Suppose you do find John Manuelito. What will you do then? Duel him? Kill him?"
Alexandra tried to speak, but Anna kept going. "Is it that hard to admit that you can't do everything? Let the Wizard Justice Department find John Manuelito."
"Yes, they've done a great job of finding Dark Wizards so far."
"And you're better than all of them?" Anna slapped her book shut and muttered something in Chinese. "Why don't you send your father after him if this is that important to you?"
Alexandra's expression changed, and Anna dropped her gaze.
Alexandra touched Anna's hand. "It's not like I'm planning to go chasing John Manuelito during the winter break. I'm just thinking ahead."
They stopped talking when Constance and Forbearance joined them at the table, the latter carrying an armful of scrolls.
"We'uns could hear y'all," Constance whispered. Alexandra flushed.
"If'n you're layin' plans for the future, maybe you oughter think 'bout matters closer to hand," Forbearance said, spreading a star chart over Alexandra's territorial map. "That matter of seven years belike?"
Forbearance ignored the baleful stare that had cowed Anna. Her finger traced a constellation on the chart. "Seven's a powerful number, Alex. It's got a powerful weight in your life. Seven sisters, seven years, and right now your star is in the seventh house."
"You could probably find sevens in anyone's life if you looked hard enough." Alexandra wasn't in the mood to rein in her skepticism.
"There's a ritual for drawin' down the stars," Forbearance said.
The non sequitur made Alexandra pause. "What does that mean?"
"It means consultin' the Stars Above." Constance sounded more scornful than Alexandra. "Just like we was ancient heathens. I told Forbearance this is foolishness..."
"You can't say it's foolishness when you don't understand it nohow," Forbearance said.
Alexandra interrupted them. "Forbearance, drawing my charts is one thing, but how exactly do you consult the stars? And what good will it do?"
Forbearance took out her wand and solemnly said, "Muffliato." No one else spoke as she put her wand back into a pocket in the front of her dress.
"When I say we'uns can draw down the stars, I don't just mean astrological chartin'. I know what you think, Alex, that this is all foolishness like them Muggle horror-scopes, but it hain't. The Stars Above are Named, Powers." Her eyes met Alexandra's, and her voice dropped to a whisper. "I know you believe in Powers."
Alexandra studied the charts. "Suppose they are real. What's that to me?"
"You went to treat with the Most Deathly Power 'cause he has power over the Lands Beyond. The Stars Above have power over fate 'n destiny."
"You think the Stars Above could free me from my... Geas?"
"Might could. Leastwise they could tell the nature of it: whether you really is fated, and what lies down the paths –"
"This is crazy." Anna's voice had the shrill quaver in it she got when she was upset. "You're actually encouraging Alex to go messing with Powers again?"
Constance nodded in agreement. Her arms were folded across her chest, but she looked more disturbed than dismissive.
"If we could all cast a spell and wish upon a star, every witch and wizard would be doing it," Alexandra said, though she wasn't quite as skeptical as before.
"'Course it hain't that simple." Forbearance opened another book, a very old one with a musty smell that was on the verge of falling apart. "Drawin' down the stars don't summon 'em or put 'em at your command. It just allows you to speak to 'em, with no guarantee they'll speak back. It's a plumb hard work and it requires – well, for you, now, seven people. That an' it bein' old and out of fashion and not 'zactly approved..." Forbearance glanced sidelong at her sister. "Hain't no surprise you don't hear much 'bout it bein' done nowadays, but that don't mean it don't work. We knows for a fact –"
"Forbearance!" Constance said sharply.
"I don't want you to get in trouble for telling me Ozarker secrets," Alexandra said.
"This hain't an Ozarker book." Forbearance laid the dusty tome on the table.
The cover was so faded that Alexandra couldn't even read the title. "Where did you get that?"
"You hain't the only one who can poke 'round in old books. Or talk to library elves."
Alexandra was surprised. "You talked to Bran and Poe?"
"You done mentioned 'em oftenish." Forbearance smiled. "They really is lovely fellers. And when I told 'em I was tryin' to help you..."
Alexandra knew it was silly – Bran and Poe weren't just her friends, after all – but she felt a stab of irrational jealousy. She pushed it out of her mind. "This ritual for 'drawing down the stars' requires seven people? Why?"
"That's just how it works out. You're one, so we need six more people who's bounden to you."
"Bounden to me?"
"It can't be just anyone. Only folks who love you, or 'least cares 'bout you. They has to be tied to your destiny."
Alexandra folded her arms. "Aren't people who hate me also tied to my destiny?"
Forbearance tsked. "Now you're just bein' pricklish. Don't make no sense to ask people who hate you for help, does it?"
Alexandra rubbed her forehead. "And where are we going to find six people who love me?"
Forbearance laid her hands on the book. "Me, Constance, Anna, an' David makes four."
"Have you asked David about this and told him he's supposed to love me?"
"You know it's true. I know he don't fancy you, but that's different." Forbearance bit her lip. "Innocence could stand on one o' the points..."
"I thought we agreed we're not going to involve Innocence."
"That just needs one more." Forbearance sighed. "If Innocence weren't still so provoked at William..."
"William? No way!"
"Well, there's Sonja. She's been studyin' Astronomy an' Astrology too an' I'm sure she'd love to help."
"She'd tell everyone in school about it!"
"Oh, Alex, I'm sure she wouldn't tat no tales."
"That would be a first. And what makes you think she cares about me?"
Anna spoke up. "Really?"
Alexandra gave her a puzzled look. Anna shook her head. "Sonja wants to be your friend. She's wanted you to like her since she moved next door last year."
Alexandra stared at her roommate.
Anna said, "Sometimes you're pretty clueless, Alex."
"Well," Forbearance said in the silence that followed, "I reckon Sonja will do."
Alexandra turned to her. "Forbearance, I don't see what good this will do even if we can get everyone together – which is a bad idea because I'm totally not cool with involving Innocence or Sonja. You think the Stars Above will tell me how to get out of my promise?"
Forbearance pursed her lips. "If'n this had been your idear, you wouldn't let no one tell you it was silly if'n you thought there was the least chance it might work. I done read up and studied this and I think there's a chance. It can't hurt, leastwise."
Anna and Constance both protested at the same time. Anna was worried, Constance was skeptical, and neither of them wanted to involve more people or risk getting in trouble.
Alexandra listened to them argue, then said, "We have to do it without telling Innocence or Sonja the details. That means either lying to them or telling them they can't know everything. Also, Anna and Constance obviously aren't exactly cool with this either."
Forbearance said, "Innocence will do anything if'n we tell her it's for you. Even keep her mouth shut. Hain't a lie not to tell Sonja what she don't ask. And Connie will come 'round. I reckon Anna will, too, if'n we give 'em some time to think on it."
"Hello? We are still here," Anna said.
There was an uncomfortable silence as Constance and Anna both fumed.
"I'm not going to try to make anyone do anything they don't want to do," Alexandra said at last. "And I'm not so sure about this 'Stars Above' thing. But I'm willing to try it."
Forbearance's face brightened. "Well, I'll get to work on the verse an' the diagrams, then. Sonja can help with that. So could Connie and Anna if they was a mind to. Anna's good with numerology..."
"You stop tryin' to guilt me 'fore I even agree to be part of this," Constance said.
Anna said nothing.
Alexandra said, "There's no hurry, right? If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. Anna, it's okay if you don't want to do this – really. I know I've gotten you to go along with things you didn't approve of before. I won't this time."
Anna laid her head down in her arms. "You're just making it harder to say no." And she refused to say anything else about it that night.
Alexandra didn't bring the ritual up again. She considered it mostly humoring Forbearance. She had a certain amount of curiosity about the idea of 'drawing down the stars,' but she had no faith in astrology, and she was deeply uncomfortable about getting more people involved in her problems.
Forbearance was determined, though. When Alexandra saw Forbearance and Sonja huddled together giving her meaningful looks, she knew it was just a matter of time before they would actually want to try their astrological ritual.
For the first part of November, Alexandra's mind was on three things: studying, dueling, and vengeance. The first took up most of her time, as she was determined to jump ahead to more advanced classes in January. She thought she belonged in higher-level Charms, Transfiguration, and Magical Theory classes, but skipping levels between semesters required 'A' grades and Superior SPAWN scores.
She enjoyed dueling more, even with Larry preening over his continued reign as Charmbridge's Dueling Champion. He never mentioned their encounter in the woods, but he took great delight in beating Alexandra again and again. Every time they dueled, she lost. It was more bruising and humiliating than she would ever admit. After every defeat, she gave him a bow and hobbled off the dueling platform, refusing to show discouragement beneath the eyes of Ms. Shirtliffe and the rest of the Dueling Club. No matter how many times she needed to be patched up by Mrs. Murphy afterward, she always accepted his challenges.
The problem of finding John Manuelito nagged at her without resolution until one afternoon when she went to the office to collect another letter from Payton. She had told him to stop addressing his owls to Anna, and also not to write anything mushy or romantic or private. Thus their correspondence had become banal descriptions of classes and plans to talk on the phone over winter break. Alexandra was walking back to her room while skimming his latest letter for any embarrassing passages she'd be mortified for Mr. Grue to have seen, when a thought struck her, causing her to stop where she was in the middle of the hallway, before tucking the letter into her pocket.
She had questions about elves, which meant she had to go see Bran and Poe.
She waited until late that night – almost past curfew for ninth graders – before she went to visit the library elves. Usually they hid in the room behind Mrs. Minder's office when there were students about. The library was mostly empty as Alexandra walked through it. It wouldn't be full late at night until December, when everyone would be studying for finals. But she paused when she saw Bathsheba Anderson sitting by herself at a corner table, scratching away with a quill on a very long piece of parchment with books piled around her.
Alexandra looked between Bathsheba, lit only by the glow of the lamp above her, and the darkened librarian's office, and glanced at the clock ticking its way toward closing time. She took a deep breath and walked directly over to the older girl. Bathsheba didn't notice her until Alexandra was almost at her side. Her books had titles like Thaumaturgical Approaches to Reification and Advanced Letters in Post-Modern Spheres. Bathsheba's brow was so furrowed that when she looked up, Alexandra thought guiltily that she must have torn the eleventh grader away from some deep, intricate thaumaturgical problem.
Alexandra cleared her throat. "I, um, I just wanted to say thank you."
Confusion replaced irritation on the older girl's face. "Thank me?"
Alexandra stuck her hands in her pockets. "You know. For talking Larry into letting me off."
"Letting you off?" Bathsheba continued to look baffled.
Alexandra sighed. "Our duel. I figure it was you who got him to forget about it."
"I don't know anything about your duel or what happened and I don't want to know. Frankly, I think you're both immature and ridiculous. You're just a freshman, but Larry has no excuse, and I told him so."
Alexandra stood there with her mouth hanging open, first to protest and then to ask something else, but she didn't know what. Bathsheba hadn't been to dueling practice in a couple of weeks. Had she even seen Bathsheba and Larry walking together in the hallways lately?
She closed her mouth.
"If you don't mind, I have a lot of studying to do," Bathsheba said.
"Sorry." Alexandra walked away, turned the corner around the long stack of shelves, and followed the back wall to the unmarked door behind which Bran and Poe were often working. She looked around to make sure no other students were in sight, then knocked on the door, very lightly.
"Bran? Poe?" she whispered. "It's me – Alexandra."
After several seconds, the lock clacked and the door swung inward. Alexandra stepped inside, and it closed behind her.
The two library elves were not repairing books or handling paperwork. They were both mending a huge, oversized sweater. Charmbridge's elves often wore discarded items taken from the Lost & Found, and Bran and Poe were fond of woolen caps and sweaters large enough for them to disappear into. There were several enormous balls of yarn on the floor, and Bran was holding a pair of knitting needles that looked like javelins in his tiny hands, while Poe was snipping off a piece of thread.
"Hello, Miss Alex," Bran said.
"We is very happy to see you," Poe said.
"Hi, guys." Alexandra sat down cross-legged on the floor in front of them. She watched as Bran continued knitting. "Can't you use magic to do that?" When Charmbridge students sent robes and other clothing to be repaired by Charmbridge's elves, they were always returned within a day, restored to perfect condition.
"Not for ourselves, Alex," said Poe.
"Besides," said Bran, "knitting and mending is relaxing."
"Bookses we fix with love, but clothing is just simple work."
"Oh." Alexandra watched Bran knit at a speed a sewing machine would have difficulty matching.
"It is almost time for curfew," Poe said.
"Miss Alex should ask what she wants to ask us so she can go to bed and not get in trouble," Bran said, with a sly wink.
Alexandra flushed, but she said, "My father's elves can find him, even though the Office of Special Inquisitions can't." She saw the look that passed between Bran and Poe at the mention of her father, but she went on. "Why hasn't an Inquisitor just made his elves lead them to him? If elves can find people that Inquisitors can't, why doesn't the WJD use elves in the first place?"
When they didn't answer immediately, Alexandra said, "I'm sorry if this is stuff you don't like talking about. If you don't want to tell me, it's okay."
Bran's face scrunched up. "Is Alex trying to find her father again?"
She shook her head. "Not this time."
"Who is Miss Alex trying to find?" Poe asked.
She looked down. "I'd rather not say. I don't want to get any elves in trouble, and I swear I won't do anything wicked."
Bran and Poe pondered that. Then Bran said, "There is two ways an elf can find someone who does not want to be found. The first is if that elf is a servant of that someone."
Poe nodded. "Miss Alex's father's elves is surely loyal to him. They can find him, but if they was forced to find him for someone else –"
"No. It is too terrible to ask any elf." Both elves shuddered.
So not even the WJD could make an elf turn traitor, Alexandra thought. "What's the other way?"
The elves grimaced.
"Elves has no magic to find a wizard in hiding," Bran said.
"But, elves can travel anywhere and very fast," Poe said.
"Elves can look in every corner of the world."
"And under and above it."
"High and low, from near to far."
"It is very hard to outrun a determined elf."
Alexandra thought that over. "So why doesn't the Wizard Justice Department just use elves to hunt for Dark Wizards?"
Bran and Poe looked horrified.
"Elves is servants," Bran said.
"Elves is meant to be helpful," Poe said.
"Asking elves to do things that is the work of wizards –"
"That is not part of the Compact."
"Is this Compact written down anywhere?" Alexandra knew immediately by their woeful expressions that her question was naive and inappropriate. "Sorry."
Bran and Poe sighed. "It has happened that an elf has been told to find someone. But this is not the normal duties of an elf."
"I see." Alexandra wasn't sure she did, not entirely, but she got the gist of it. Obviously, if the Wizard Justice Department could turn elves into Special Inquisitors, they would. "You're right, it is almost time for me to be getting back to my room. Thank you for telling me what I needed to know."
The two library elves looked a little uneasy at that, but she smiled reassuringly. "I told you, I won't ask any elves to do anything that would hurt them, and I'm not looking to get myself in trouble."
Bran said, "Miss Alex's intentions is always good."
Poe tapped an admonishing finger on his nose. "But her actions, sometimes not so much."
Alexandra turned a little red. "Okay, I deserve that."
Bran sighed. "Miss Alex had better be going."
She made them blush also by kissing each of them on the cheek. "I'll be back soon."
"We hopes so," said Bran.
"We hopes Miss Alex's friend Miss Pritchard will visit again, too," said Poe. "She is very nice."
"Although, we is not quite certain about what she is up to, either."
"Forbearance is very nice, and you don't need to worry about her," Alexandra said. "Trust me, her intentions and her actions are always good."
When she hurried back to her room, passing under the gaze of the portrait over her hall who tut-tutted as he tapped a pocket watch displaying the time, her mind was on the most important information Bran and Poe had given her, which was what they had left unsaid.
A determined elf could hunt to the ends of the Earth to find someone, but only if it fell within the elf's normal range of duties.
Or, she thought, if the elf wanted to do it.
She had only ever known one free elf: Quimley, the former house-elf who now lived among the Generous Ones in the Lands Below. He had saved her once, though he had not been able to save her brother. He had told her that if she ever summoned him, he would come.
The Dearborns' house-elf Nat had Apparated in and out of Charmbridge without being detected, so Alexandra figured that elves could bypass Ms. Grimm's wards. That didn't mean that summoning Quimley to her room was a good idea, if for no other reason than she could foresee Anna's objections.
Alexandra hadn't even decided yet what she would do if Quimley could find John Manuelito. As long as she wasn't actually taking any action, she reasoned that there was no need for Anna to know about this particular inquiry.
Alexandra sneaked outside one evening after dueling practice. November became cold quickly, and few students wanted to be out after dark, so no one else was in sight when she walked all the way back to the dueling field and climbed up onto the platform. From here, she could see the warm glow of light shining out of Charmbridge Academy's windows, and the black outline of trees against the dark sky in all directions, but she felt all alone beneath the stars above. She craned her neck and studied them, trying to identify the Seven Sisters and Troublesome, and wondered if there really were Powers up there who could see her future and tell her how to escape it.
No matter now. She wasn't dealing with stars or Powers: she was dealing with elves. She turned her attention back to earth, and recited the spell she had prepared for this occasion:
"Not with bindings or demands –
Free elves don't obey commands –
But by the name you gave me when
You said that I could call you friend:
Quimley, hear my summons where
You live in the Generous Ones' lair.
Come to me if you will."
She stood silent and motionless after the last, non-rhyming line. She thought it gave her verse a nice coda (a term she'd learned after reading about poetry in an effort to improve her own verses) but she wasn't sure whether this innovation would improve its effectiveness. As usual, she couldn't be sure her spell would have any effect at all, though she thought she'd wrapped words, intent, and magic into one – creating her own spell, exactly as Magical Theory said you could do, though her teachers had always told her doggerel verse was dangerous and ineffective.
Quimley had told her that if she summoned him, he'd come, but it might take a while. So she was hopeful as she stood there alone in the night, but not necessarily expecting the elf would appear before her just like that.
With a pop, he did.
Alexandra had never been able to determine Quimley's age. He was bald and a little wrinkled, but it was hard to tell whether his stooped posture was from age or the hard life he'd led, in which she suspected he'd been horribly abused by his former masters. He huddled before her, shoulders hunched beneath the oversized denim jacket he always wore, looking up at her with eyes that were the only part of his face she could make out in the darkness.
She fell to her knees in front of him. "Quimley! Thank you for coming." She put her arms around the elf and hugged him.
"Is Alexandra Quick well?" Quimley asked as she let go of him.
"I'm fine. How have you been? Are you still living with the Generous Ones?"
"Yes. Quimley does small things – mending, fixing, sewing, sometimes painting and pottery. It is not a bad life Quimley lives with the Generous Ones."
"Do you have friends there?"
Quimley's eyes blinked slowly at her. "The Generous Ones call no one friend."
That left her momentarily at a loss for words.
"Has Alexandra Quick told her father of her bargain with the Generous Ones?" he asked.
Quimley's eyes became wide. "Quimley does not understand. Why would Alexandra Quick not tell the great wizard Abraham Thorn of her pact? Surely she knows the Generous Ones will demand that she fulfill her promise?"
"I know they will, Quimley. I'm working on it, but my father – well, it's complicated."
Quimley stood there, wringing his hands slowly, then said, "Did Alexandra Quick call Quimley because she needs Quimley's help?"
"Yes. I want to ask you a favor."
"Anything Quimley can do for Abraham Thorn's daughter, he will do."
"Can you find somebody? Somebody who lives here in the Lands Above? Without them knowing you're looking for them?"
The elf tilted his head. "Alexandra Quick wants to find somebody?"
"A wizard. A Dark Wizard. I think he's in Chicago, dealing with hags and other members of the Dark Convention. I don't want you to do anything to him, Quimley. I don't want you to speak to him or be seen by him or anything. I just want to know where he is and how to find him. If it would be dangerous to you, forget it."
"Elves can do many things, but we have no magic to tell us where someone we do not know and do not serve is to be found. We must go looking."
"Can you do that? Without risking being caught or anything else bad happening? I was told elves have ways of finding people, even Dark Wizards who have hidden themselves."
"We can talk to many beings, and we can travel quickly. We have ways. But Quimley cannot promise, and Quimley cannot say how long it might take."
"Is there something I could do for you in exchange? I could... pay you."
She hoped that wouldn't offend the former house-elf, but his eyes merely remained wide and puzzled. "What payment, Alexandra Quick?"
"I don't know. I just don't want to ask for such a big favor and not offer anything in return."
"Alexandra Quick makes such offers despite knowing the dangers of bargaining favors."
"Can't be worse than the danger I'm already in. And any favor you want from me, Quimley –"
"Please," the elf interrupted, "do not offer such things so freely! Alexandra Quick is slow to learn." His worried tone took little of the sting out of his words.
"I don't believe you'd ask me for anything bad."
"Quimley would not." Quimley was silent for several moments. "What is the name of the wizard Alexandra Quick wants Quimley to find?"
"John Manuelito. I don't suppose you've heard of him?"
The elf shook his head.
"He's the one who sent Darla Dearborn to the Lands Below." Quickly, Alexandra told Quimley everything that had happened after he left her and Darla and Innocence in the sub-basement below Charmbridge Academy. His eyes became watery as Alexandra recounted Darla's death, unable to conceal her own feelings of guilt. Then she told him about the series of attempts on her life this year, and Mary's involvement.
Neither of them spoke for a while after that. Then Quimley said, "What does Alexandra Quick mean to do if she finds John Manuelito?"
"I don't know. I just want to know where he is."
"Quimley thinks Alexandra Quick doesn't ask for this favor because she is just curious."
She looked down at her hands, clasped and pressed between her knees to warm them.
Quimley said, "Quimley is worried that Alexandra Quick wants vengeance. That is not a good reason to look for someone."
"How about so he'll stop trying to kill me?"
Quimley scratched his one ear. In place of the other ear was an ugly scar that wasn't visible in the starlight. "What Alexandra Quick asks is not easy. But Quimley will look." Before Alexandra could thank him, he said, "Alexandra Quick must promise two things."
"First, be less quick to make promises. Think once, then twice, before promising anything else."
"If I say yes, am I breaking my promise?"
Quimley squinted at her. "Quimley means this seriously."
"I'm sorry." She took a deep breath. "I promise to think twice before making any more promises."
"Second, Alexandra Quick must tell her father about her bargain with the Generous Ones."
Now she was the one who squinted. "Why do you want me to tell him?"
"Because if anyone can help Alexandra Quick, her father can."
"I know you believe he's a great man because he was kind to house-elves, but I don't trust him as much as you do, Quimley."
"Trust Quimley, then. Tell Abraham Thorn."
She unclasped her hands and pressed her palms against her knees. "Can I promise I'll think about it? Twice?"
" Alexandra Quick is very stubborn."
"Also reckless, ruthless, and bold. So I've been told. Please, Quimley?"
Quimley sighed. "Quimley will not take Alexandra Quick to this bad wizard, even if he finds him. But Quimley will learn if John Manuelito is seeking to harm Abraham Thorn's daughter."
"He's dangerous. I don't want you to do anything that puts you in danger."
"Leaving the Lands Below puts Quimley in danger." When Alexandra winced, he added, "But Quimley chose it. Quimley will not be seen or heard and his name will not be learned, not by John Manuelito or any other wizard."
"Be careful, Quimley." Alexandra kissed the top of his bare, scarred scalp. "Thank you."
"Also be careful, daughter of Abraham Thorn." Quimley tugged the oversized collar of his jacket in the cold breeze rising from the woods, and then he vanished.