The Road to Farringale: 10

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And there he was, in all his gorgeous glory. He had chosen a red leather duster coat that day, worn with dark combat trousers, boots to match, and an ivory shirt. No hat; instead, his golden-bronze locks had been brushed into an attractively wind-swept arrangement, and a jewelled pin winked at this throat.

I was suddenly wide awake.

'Hello, the Baron,' I said lightly, wishing I had taken a minute or two longer over my hair before I'd come downstairs. It probably resembled a hedge more nearly than I would like.

The Baron, though, did not seem displeased, for he looked me over with a twinkle and a smile, and made me a bow. 'It is early. I apologise.'

'The pot would like to offer you some tea,' I observed, for the delicate glass teapot I favoured was bobbing lightly up and down, its spout emitting enthusiastic puffs of steam.

'Thank you, pot. I shall be delighted.' He took a seat, and his cup shortly after, and sat looking thoughtfully at me. 'How are you getting along with the matter of the Enclaves?' he said.

I sat up a little more. 'Well, I have a theory, though it has some holes in it. But maybe you can help fill them in.'

He smiled faintly. 'Perhaps I might.'

'I think there is some kind of wasting sickness. They eat and eat and still starve; clearly they are ill. But there has to be more to it than that, because there are too many questions. It seems to be affecting only trolls, but why only a few of the Enclaves? And there is no discernible link between those communities that are sick. They are situated far apart from one another, so how is the disease spreading? And they aren't just starving, they are... it's almost like their minds are starving, too. They have no energy for anything but eating, and barely that. They don't speak; it's as if they have forgotten how to form words, or simply lack the energy or the will to make the effort.'

'All good points.'

'And they are eating magickal creatures, almost exclusively. Why? That suggests it is about something more than mere physical sustenance. Any kind of food would suffice there, but they are going for meat, and the meat of magickal beasts in particular. What's that about?'

Alban's green, green eyes twinkled with amusement. 'So many questions. You have some theories to advance, too?'

'Of course I do. But I did not share them with Milady, yet, for I have no evidence.'

'Let's hear them.'

'Right.' I set down my empty tea cup. 'The disease spreads, but if it were contagious in any conventional way, surely we would be seeing either a wider problem — or a more confined one. Some of the affected Enclaves have been at least partially Reclusive for years, with little or no traffic going in or out of their towns. How did they catch it? And since they did, why hasn't it spread farther? I don't think it is a contagion.

'Meanwhile, their desperate need to eat, eat and eat is telling, but the fact that they are starving anyway tells me that whatever they are feeding, it isn't themselves. I think there is some kind of infecting body — a parasite, if you will. And it is taking so much from each host that it's killing them. But it does not need meat to survive.

'We know that many magickal beings feed as much off magickal energies as from more conventional foods. Trolls are an example. You need meat, grain, vegetables to survive, but you need a replenishing diet of magickal energies in order to flourish. This is why Troll Enclaves tend to be located inside Dells; those structures as a whole are built around sources of strong magickal energy. It's perfect. At a place like Glenfinnan, you eat, sleep and breathe magick, literally.

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