Original Work Work Experience (Schooled In Magic IV)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Nov 24, 2013.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments?

    Chapter Fourteen
    It was nearly two hours before Lady Barb returned, two hours that Emily spent alternatively reading a book and keeping an eye on the boy. He twitched and moaned in his sleep, but not enough to break the spell. Emily watched him, wondering if there was something she could do to help, yet nothing came to mind. All she could do was watch.
    She shuddered as she looked down at the pale skin covering his back. It would be days, if she recalled correctly, before the skin had tanned enough to blend in with the rest of his body, but at least it wasn't scarred. Emily couldn't escape the memory of looking down at the scars and wondering just what sort of person would do such a thing to a defenceless boy. It wasn't punishment, she told herself firmly, it was abuse. No child deserved to be beaten within an inch of his life.
    The thought made her sick. How long would he have lasted without their help? His scars had already been infected, the infection slowly boring its way into his body. It wouldn't have been long, she suspected, before the infection killed him. Even a necromantic rite would have been kinder. She tried to concentrate on her book, but her thoughts kept mocking her, pointing out that her stepfather hadn't been so bad. He’d never laid a finger on her.
    She looked up as the door opened and a grim-faced Lady Barb stepped inside. Emily watched as she walked over to the child and cast a handful of spells, then swore out loud and rolled the child over. His chest looked unmarked, but he was so thin that Emily could see his bones clearly. He looked like a famine victim from the Third World.
    “I spoke with the headman,” Lady Barb said. “His ... aunt and uncle believe that he was possessed.”
    Emily stared at her in disbelief. Possessed?
    “Or so they claim,” Lady Barb added. “There are odd traces of magic on him, but nothing demonic.”
    “Oh,” Emily said.
    She struggled to remember what little she knew of demons and demon magic, but there was almost nothing in the open section of Whitehall’s library beyond a single world. Don’t. Shadye had wanted to sacrifice her to a demon-like creature, she knew that much, yet it was one of the few issues the Grandmaster seemed reluctant to talk about. The one time she’d asked, he'd told her to leave it alone.
    “It’s not uncommon for someone to be touched by wild magic to the point where their behaviour becomes erratic,” Lady Barb said. “You know just how many spells there are that influence behaviour.”
    Emily nodded. Even First Years knew a handful of mind control spells, as well as simpler tricks to influence and manipulate their rivals and enemies. It was yet another reminder of why Whitehall was so important. Someone on the outside, practicing on defenceless mundanes, could do a hell of a lot of damage before he or she was stopped. But this boy didn't seem to have any magic of his own.
    “It doesn't help that his parents died years ago,” Lady Barb added. “I suspect his aunt and uncle were reluctant to take him into their home.”
    Emily shivered, remembering her stepfather ranting about how much she cost him. It was almost nothing, she knew, because she practically brought herself up, yet cold logic was no defence against his words. He’d told her, time and time again, that he only put a roof over her head out of the goodness of his heart. Part of her had believed him – and part of her knew that he had resented her presence.
    It would be worse, she suspected, for peasants in the mountainside. There was no social security network, apart from what the other villagers could provide ... and they weren't wealthy enough to provide much, even if they wanted to. An extra mouth could make the difference between surviving the winter and starving to death. And a young boy, barely on the edge of his teens, would be little help on the farm.
    “I don’t think it matters,” she said, pushing her thoughts aside. “We can't send him back to them.”
    Lady Barb looked down at the sleeping child. “I don’t think we have a choice,” she admitted. “We have no legal authority to take the boy from his guardians.”
    Emily felt her mouth drop open. No words emerged.
    “We could take a magician – I have taken magicians, in the past,” Lady Barb continued, softly. “But this boy isn't a magician.”
    Emily found her voice. “You can't mean to say you’ll leave him here?”
    She pressed on before Lady Barb could answer. “This boy came very close to death,” she added. Her voice rose until she was almost shouting at the older woman. “If he goes back there, they’ll undo all the work we did and finish the job. We cannot send him back.”
    Lady Barb held up one hand, but Emily hadn't finished. “We can find him somewhere else to go,” she continued. “Or we can even take him with us.”
    “And then ... what?” Lady Barb said. She looked up at Emily, meeting her eyes. “Do you intend to keep picking up strays?”
    Emily remembered Jasmine and flushed. “Yes,” she said, bluntly. “If someone has to do it, I will.”
    “I understand how you feel,” Lady Barb said. “And I understand your feelings, but we don’t have any legal power to intervene.”
    “To hell with legalities,” Emily snarled. Magic billowed around her, feeding on her anger. “We can just take him from them. We ...”
    Her entire body froze, solid.
    “I understand how you feel,” Lady Barb repeated. There was a cold edge to her voice that made Emily shiver, inwardly. “Do you think this is the worst I've seen up here?”
    Emily tried to break the hex holding her in place, but failed.
    “People who become cripples, as you already know, rarely last very long,” Lady Barb reminded her. “Old men and women are lucky to be allowed to remain in the houses over the winter months, no matter how much they did for their children. I’ve seen girls and boys forced to marry each other, no matter what they think about it. I’ve seen husbands beating their wives and wives beating their husbands; parents beating children and children turning on parents when they’re old enough to claim their inheritance. It's a savage life up here, Emily, and you can't help them by fixing one tiny piece of the problem.”
    She caught her breath. “The law – such as it is up here – raises no objection to beating one’s children or relatives. Even if you took this boy, you wouldn't be able to help others ... and the peasants would start to hide from us. They don’t mind us taking magical children away, but they do object to losing mundane children. And we need to be able to work with them.”
    So we compromise, Emily thought, struggling to free herself. She wanted to shout and scream at Lady Barb for allowing this to happen, then rage at herself for not realising that she would see worse than natural injuries on the trip. She’d known – she knew enough about the past to know that peasant life was no bed of roses – and yet she hadn't really comprehended what it was really like. She recalled a handful of bucolic images she'd seen at school, during what had laughingly passed for history lessons, and shuddered. Life in the fields had never been fun for people who had no alternative.
    Lady Barb sighed. “I do understand how you feel,” she said, “and we will do something to try and make it better, but we cannot take the boy.”
    Emily cursed, mentally. The story about the boy being possessed was just an excuse, just something to give them justification for beating the tiny child to within an inch of his life. And yet, here, it might be believed ... Lady Barb had even said that there were traces of strange magic on him. She silently promised herself that there would be laws in Cockatrice against child abuse as soon as she had a chance to write them. And those laws would be damn well enforced.
    But childhood isn't the same here, she reminded herself. Earth decided that a person moved from childhood to adulthood at sixteen – or thereabouts – while Zangaria tended to have a far more flexible definition of adulthood. Some children were counted as adults from the moment they took up adult responsibilities, while girls were considered adults the moment they started their first periods. Imaiqah had effectively been an adult before she’d gone to Whitehall, while Alassa had remained an immature brat. No wonder Imaiqah had always been the most mature of the three of them.
    “The aristocrats are far more genteel, but they can be just as bad,” Lady Barb said. “I wish I could show King Randor and his Barons what it is like to live as a peasant, but they would never understand. They might as well come from different countries.”
    Emily understood. The aristocracy in Zangaria believed – genuinely believed – that it was superior to the commoners, almost a different race. It was absurd, she knew, if only because Imaiqah’s father had been ennobled after the attempted coup in Zangaria, yet they believed that nobility was something separate. But then, there had been cultures on Earth that believed that knighting someone automatically gave them knightly characteristics. And yet they should have known better.
    She staggered as Lady Barb released the hex. “I ...”
    “Just sit down,” Lady Barb advised, tartly. “Are you going to shout at me again?”
    Emily gritted her teeth. Lady Barb was her mistress, at least for the summer months. She’d read enough about the role of an apprentice to know that she’d broken several rules, starting with always being polite to one’s master. If Lady Barb decided to punish her ...
    “No,” she bit out. “What are you going to do with him?”
    “Have a few words with his guardians,” Lady Barb said. “And then see what we can do to make it better.”
    Emily watched as she turned and started to dress the young boy with practiced ease. “Can you threaten their lives?”
    “I can do worse than that,” Lady Barb said, quietly. “But there are limits to what we can do.”
    Emily nodded, feeling helpless. She’d understood, intellectually, just how brutal life could be in the countryside and the mountains, but she’d never really understood what it meant. And she hated feeling helpless ...
    “This isn't going to be allowed to happen in Cockatrice,” she said. “I won’t let it happen.”
    “Good luck,” Lady Barb said. She sounded perfectly serious. “But it won’t be easy. How do you tell the difference between justified punishment and excessive punishment?”
    “I’ll know it when I see it,” Emily said.
    Lady Barb snorted. “And how do you plan to write that into law?”
    Emily flushed. If excessive punishment depended on the eye of the beholder, she would either have to write laws in great detail, describing precisely what was acceptable and what wasn't, or rely on the common sense of her underlings. But common sense was rare; besides, her underlings might well take bribes to interpret the law in a particular direction. The former Baron had been deeply corrupt and so had his underlings, ensuring that no one with any sense placed trust in the law.
    “Something else,” Lady Barb added. “Was there ever a time at Whitehall when you were punished unjustly?”
    “Master Tor’s werewolf essay,” Emily said, after a moment’s thought. “He didn't like me asking too many questions.”
    “Which betrayed your ignorance,” Lady Barb pointed out. “I’m sure the essay taught you something useful.”
    She picked up the boy and looked down at him for a long moment. Emily saw a hint of wistfulness in her gaze, as if the older woman was feeling maternal. Did Lady Barb have any children? Or a lover? Sorceresses enjoyed a freedom unknown to mundanes – she knew that some of her classmates were in relationships, which she assumed were sexual – but she knew almost nothing about Lady Barb’s private life. It wasn't something she wanted to ask about.
    “He’s too thin,” Lady Barb said, softly. She looked over at Emily. “So were you, when you came to Whitehall.”
    Emily nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She’d had to fend for herself from a very early age, buying her own food and cooking her own meals. And she’d been an indifferent cook at best. If it hadn't been for meals at school, she suspected that she would have been far thinner – or dead – by the time Shadye kidnapped her from Earth. She’d filled out considerably since coming to Whitehall.
    “You weren't there,” she said, suddenly. “How do you know ...?”
    “Your records,” Lady Barb said, dryly. “I read them very carefully when you selected me as your Advisor.”
    Emily mentally kicked herself. That was obvious. “What did they say?”
    “I believe you were given a full medical scan after your escapade in Dragon’s Den,” Lady Barb said. “Underfed, underweight and potentially at risk was the general opinion. The Healer was rather puzzled by some issues with your body, but the Grandmaster vetoed asking you any questions. Instead, they just gave the Sergeants potions and told them to make sure you took them.”
    “I never realised,” Emily said. The thought that Whitehall’s staff had cared enough to take care of her health was staggering, even though rationally it shouldn't have been a surprise. She wasn't unwanted at Whitehall. “I thought those potions were for Martial Magic.”
    “Some of them were,” Lady Barb said. “A handful to help build muscle, a potion to help limit your menstrual cycle, a couple more. Others ... were specifically brewed for you.”
    She turned and walked towards the door, carrying the boy in her arms. “Stay here,” she added. “If someone comes, tell them to wait for me unless it’s a real emergency. In that case, summon me at once.”
    Emily watched her go, still trying to process the revelation. She’d honestly never realised that anyone cared enough to help her, even at Whitehall. No one on Earth had noticed her second-hand clothes, her isolationist habits, the showers she took at school ... and anything else that might have suggested that her home life was less than ideal. God knew her mother had never visited the school, even to discuss Emily’s progress. No one seemed to have cared about the children who weren't either brilliant or bullies.
    But Whitehall had cared. An unaccustomed sense of warmth spread through her body as she realised just how much they’d cared. Even if the Grandmaster had vetoed the Healers speaking directly to Emily – she wondered, absently, just what the scan had found – they’d still tried to help. She pulled back her sleeve and looked down at her arm, watching as her muscles flexed. Thanks to them, she was stronger and healthier than she’d ever been on Earth.
    And yet there was nothing she could do for the boy.
    She walked back over to where she’d left her bag and produced a sheet of parchment, then started to scribble out a letter to Imaiqah. Alassa, for all of her intelligence, wouldn't really comprehend Emily's feelings ... but then, she'd grown up feeling superior to anyone apart from her parents. No, it went beyond feelings; she’d known she was superior. Even Emily hadn't managed to convince her to question her fundamental worldview.
    There was a knock at the door. Emily stood, walked over to the door and opened it – and scowled inwardly when she saw Hodge. The young man smiled at her, rather unpleasantly, and then looked past her, searching for Lady Barb. Emily felt an odd twinge of irritation as he looked back at her. What was he looking for?
    “My father wishes to invite you both to the dance,” Hodge said. His smile seemed to widen, as if he were thinking of the punchline to a joke. “Will you come?”
    It was the last thing Emily wanted to do, but she suspected that Lady Barb would insist they went. “I will ask my Mistress,” she said, trying hard to convey the impression that she couldn't tie her own shoelaces without instructions. “She will decide for us both.”
    Hodge nodded, then stood on the doorstep and waited. Emily wondered, absurdly, what the etiquette for this situation actually was. Should she invite him in? She took another look at him and decided that would be a bad idea. Instead, she promised to inform Lady Barb as soon as she returned and closed the door in his face. It was rude, she knew, but she just didn't want to talk to anyone. Walking back to the table, she resumed work on her letter.
    “I talked them into swearing an Oath,” Lady Barb said, when she returned. “They won’t punish him excessively in the future.”
    Emily's eyes narrowed. “I thought mundanes couldn't swear Oaths,” she said. “How ...?”
    “I used a compulsion curse,” Lady Barb said, shortly. “The results of hurting him will not be pleasant.”
    “Good,” Emily said.
    But she wasn't sure if it was good. Oaths couldn't be broken deliberately, but there were loopholes that could be used to avoid punishment if the Oath wasn't written carefully. A curse might just be easier to wriggle around, if the person hadn't chosen to have the curse imposed on him.
    “Anything they do to him will hurt them too,” Lady Barb explained. “Beating him to death will take them with him.”
    Emily nodded. It might work, she told herself.
    “We’ve been invited to the dance,” she said. “Do we have to go?”
    “I’m afraid so,” Lady Barb said. “It’s part of the job. But you can bow out early, if you wish. Just remember to take an anti-alcohol potion before we go.”
     
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments?

    Chapter Fifteen
    Emily heard the music echoing over the village as she followed Lady Barb towards the barn, trying hard to look like a determined and untouchable magician. Lady Barb walked with a steady confidence that suggested she wouldn't give way to anyone, but Emily had to fight to keep from slouching. Nothing, not even Alassa’s patient lessons in proper comportment, had managed to have her walking upright without effort. It just wasn't something that she’d mastered yet.
    She blinked in surprise as she saw a haystack shivering, although there was no wind. Lady Barb looked back, smirked and motioned for Emily to hurry along behind her. Emily took one last look and obeyed, wondering just what was happening inside. Was there an animal caught in the hay?
    “The beast with two backs,” Lady Barb whispered, when Emily asked. “There will be a young couple in there, enjoying themselves.”
    Emily flushed, then stared at the nearby barn. “Don’t they know?”
    “Of course they know,” Lady Barb said. She shrugged. “But as long as the happy couple remains out of sight, their elders will pretend not to notice.”
    Just like Zangaria, Emily thought. Aristocrats seemed to care more for appearance than reality. The rules could be broken as long as they weren't broken too often, while the formalities were often nothing more than shadow plays. But maybe they were also part of the social glue holding society together, she decided, absently. Politeness did help prevent outright conflict between lords and ladies.
    The music grew louder as they reached the open band and looked inside. A makeshift band, composed of a pair of accordions, a guitar-like instrument and a set of drums was playing a merry tune, although it seemed somewhat unfocused. Behind them, several couples were moving in the centre of the barn, dancing. Emily frowned as she studied their movements. Unlike the dances at Whitehall and Zangaria, the dancers seemed to be making it up as they went along. There was no formal structure at all.
    She scowled, inwardly. It had taken her months to get used to the elegant formal dances of Whitehall, which had prepared her for Zangaria. But this was different ... she looked at a middle-aged woman with a pleasant smile, hurling her husband around the dance floor, and knew she couldn't join them. The handful of younger girls seemed to be talking to the younger boys, watched by a gimlet-eyed lady who seemed to be in charge of making sure they behaved themselves. Beyond them, a handful of children were tossing a ball around in one corner of the room.
    “Welcome,” the headman called. “Come and join us.”
    Emily fought to keep her expression blank. The headman and a number of other men were sitting next to several barrels, drinking heavily. Two of them looked to be well on the way to drunkenness already, but they were still drinking from wooden mugs. Emily grimaced as Hodge pushed a mug into her hand, then took a sniff. It smelt worse than the cheap wine and beer she’d watched helplessly as her mother drank.
    “One mug only,” Lady Barb said, warningly.
    Emily nodded. They’d make fun of her for drinking too little, she’d been warned, but they wouldn't say a word if she was ordered not to drink too much. It wasn't just the men who were drinking, she realised, looking around the massive barn. A number of women were drinking too, gathered on the other side of the room. Even some of the children were drinking alcohol ... she shuddered, inwardly and took a sip. She might have taken a potion to ensure she couldn't get drunk, but it still tasted thoroughly unpleasant.
    She held the mug in her hand and listened as Lady Barb chatted to the headman, collecting rumours. There were some odd stories about missing children, passed from village to village, and concerns that a pack of slavers were hunting for victims. Emily listened as the headman was interrupted by another man, who sneered at the whole suggestion of slavers. It was more likely, he insisted, that the children had been eaten by werewolves. A third man injected that he believed that the children had been stolen by dark sorcerers. He threw Lady Barb a particularly nasty look as he spoke.
    “You’d better pray that they weren't,” Lady Barb said, evenly. “A single child’s life could be used to raise hell.”
    Probably literally, Emily thought. She’d come across references to spells that demanded a human life in payment, but none of the books had been too clear on what the spells actually did. Shadye had presumably expected something from the Harrowing in exchange for Emily's life. She wondered, absently, what a powerful and non-too-stable necromancer might have wanted. Hadn't it been the Joker who had traded his soul for cigars?
    Hodge pulled at her arm. “Come onto the dance floor?”
    Emily shook her head. Even if she'd liked him – and she didn't – she wouldn't have wanted to join the dancers. They seemed to be cavorting around the dance floor, making up their own steps as they went along. She couldn't endure it, she knew, not when some of the couples were practically making out in public. No wonder the kids were hiding in the rear of the room, even though they probably knew more about the practicalities than Emily had at their age. She doubted the parents had kept their children ignorant of sex.
    “Taxes are being raised again,” another man said. “The lord wants his tribute” – he spat “in rare animals.”
    Emily frowned. Taxes weren't only collected in money, not when the peasants rarely had any money. The lords took food, meat and service, little else. But rare animals? What sort of animal was rare?
    “Last week, he even sent his huntsmen out after a Centaur,” the man continued. “I think he wanted the beast for entertainment.”
    “And he wanted us to serve in his army,” the headman added. “His recruiters took five boys only two weeks ago.”
    That was odd, Emily knew. The mountain lords didn't have large armies, they just didn't have the manpower base to support them. Besides, the terrain made it harder for them to fight their fellows. The book she’d read had suggested that each lord kept a small army of retainers and little else. Why would they want more soldiers? The only major threat was the necromancers and soldiers wouldn't be much help if one of them came calling.
    Unless one of the nearby Allied Lands is considering an invasion, she thought. But it seemed unlikely. Even without the looming threat of the necromancers, there was nothing in the mountains worth the effort of taking it. The only thing the mountains had, as far as she could tell, was timber and the lords made a tidy profit selling it down the river to shipbuilders. They didn't need to launch an invasion to take it ...
    The night wore on, leaving her feeling tired and worn. Lady Barb drank enough to keep up with the men, but showed no signs of drunkenness. The men, on the other hand, started to act more and more badly; one of them started to thrash his wife, in public. Not, Emily had to admit, that the men were the only ones behaving badly. One thick-set woman knocked her husband down and started to pound heavily on his chest. Another threw a mug at her husband, then fled out the door. The dancers scattered as several men rolled onto the dance floor and started to wrestle, their fellows cheering loudly and placing bets. Emily couldn't help overhearing some of the bets being unspeakably rude.
    “They don't have much else to do with their time,” Lady Barb pointed out, as Emily slipped closer to her. The headman was watching the fight with a gleam in his eye. “Fighting is one of their pastimes.”
    Emily shuddered. The Sergeants had introduced her to the concept of controlled violence, but this was different. They weren't really trying to win, she realised, merely beat on each other. It seemed pointlessly sadistic to her – and it would be hellish for anyone who wasn't strong enough to fight. But then, the more intellectually-minded children would probably have had it beaten out of them.
    “I want to go home,” she said, miserably.
    “You can go back to the guesthouse,” Lady Barb told her. “You remember the way?”
    “Yes,” Emily said. The village wasn't really very big, nothing more than a handful of houses and shacks gathered together. It would have looked idyllic if it wasn't for the people. “I won't get lost.”
    “We’re leaving tomorrow morning,” Lady Barb added. “Go straight to sleep – take potion if you want. We have a long walk ahead of us tomorrow.”
    Emily nodded, put the mug of beer on the table and walked out of the barn. Outside, it was pitch black. There was no trace of light anywhere, even in the larger houses. But then, most peasants didn't have the option of making magic lights or even simple lanterns. They went to bed when the sun went down and awoke when it returned to the sky. She hesitated, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, then cursed her own hesitation. Sergeant Miles might have warned her of the dangers of using light globes in the countryside, but they weren't a danger here.
    She cast the spell, then followed the globe back towards the guesthouse. It was strange – almost eerie – just how quickly silence fell over the village. The sound of music from the barn faded away into nothingness. She couldn't hear anything, not even the tiny river on the far side of the village. It seemed as cold and silent as the grave.
    They must all be in the barn, she thought. It hadn't seemed large enough for everyone, but perhaps it was. The rest of the village is empty.
    She paused as she passed the headman’s house, then walked past it towards the guesthouse, looking around at the smaller houses. There was a social structure within the village, she knew, even if she didn't fully understand it. But she suspected she didn't really want to understand it. She caught sight of the moon, rising slowly above the horizon, casting rays of silver light towards the village. It was far brighter than she'd ever seen it on Earth.
    Was it the same moon? She had no way of knowing. The arrangement of the continents were different, but what did that prove? Maybe, just maybe, the continents had taken on a different form in this world. Or perhaps she was on another planet as well as another dimension. There was no way to know.
    She heard something behind her and spun around. Hodge appeared, staring at the light globe as if he were hypnotised. Emily started, feeling alarm flashing through her mind. Had he followed her? What did he want? She hadn't heard him before, but that meant nothing. The Sergeants had tracked her through the forest at Whitehall effortlessly, never betraying their presence until they were ready to show themselves. A boy who’d grown up in the countryside would know how to move with stealth.
    Hodge shook himself and looked directly at Emily. Up close, it was clear that he was more than a little drunk. The look in his face reminded her far too much of her stepfather ... she took a step backwards, feeling a very old fear crawling up her spine. She wanted to run, yet she could barely move. It felt like a very bad dream.
    “Come with me,” Hodge said. He was far too drunk to realise just how stupid he was being. “There’s a nearby haystack ...”
    “No,” Emily said, fighting to remain calm. The memories of her stepfather held her firmly in place. “You don't want to do this ...”
    He reached for her and caught her shoulder. Emily shuddered, snapping out of her trance, and batted his hand away. He growled, pulled back his fist and threw a punch at her face. Emily blocked it automatically ...
    Hodge stared at her in numb surprise. Emily felt equally surprised.
    But she shouldn't have been, she realised, as the pain from the impact jerked her awake. She’d had Sergeant Miles and Lady Barb teaching her how to fight, battering lessons into her through pain and hardship ... and none of the boys in Martial Magic had gone easy on her, just because she was a girl. Hodge had no formal training at all. He looked almost as if he didn't quite grasp what had happened.
    “The average man is stronger than the average woman,” Lady Barb had told her. “If you try to grapple with one, chances are he will beat you. You have to be sneaky, determined and, above all, you have to keep your wits about you.”
    Hodge growled and threw himself at her. Emily stepped to the side, then threw a punch at the back of his neck. She hit him, but he was tough enough to shake it off. Even so, a strange glow of pleasure ran through her mind as she realised she could win. She didn't have to be helpless ... and the memories of her stepfather didn't have to hurt her. Hodge pulled himself around, then glared at her.
    “Bitch,” he growled. “They say magical girls can do anything.”
    Emily felt cold hatred raging through her soul. He thought he could just ... take her? He thought that his position as the headman’s son gave him the right to have any girl he wanted? He thought that she would agree to it just because she was magical? Outrage blazed through her mind, pushing away fear and hatred. She wasn't frozen by her own fears any longer. How dare he? How dare he?
    She shaped a spell in her mind, just as he threw himself at her again. This time, he crashed right into her and sent her falling backwards to the muddy ground, pressing down hard on her body. His hand clawed at her breast. Emily gasped in pain, then unleashed the spell. There was a blinding flash of light and Hodge’s weight shifted, then fell off her altogether. Emily looked to the side, dazed. A pig sat there, staring at her in incomprehension. It’s eyes were disturbingly human.
    Hodge, she thought. She sat upright, then pulled herself to her feet. The pig emitted a sound, almost as if it was trying to talk. Emily knew it wouldn't work. Even if Hodge had been used to regular transformations, the pig’s snort wasn’t really designed for human speech. It was quite possible that he wasn't even sure what had happened. The spell would ease the transition from human to pig. A nasty thought occurred to her and she cast a reflective spell before she could think better of it. Hodge saw himself, turned and fled.
    Emily stared after him, feeling a strange mixture of emotions. Pride, delight, triumph ... and a strange kind of bitter regret. What would this do, she asked herself, to relationships between magicians and villagers? She'd turned the headman’s son into a pig! But her breast still hurt ... he’d deserved it, she knew. Whatever his father said, whatever Lady Barb said, he’d deserved it. She hadn't asked him to attempt to rape her.
    And he would have raped her, she knew. She had no doubt of it.
    She swallowed hard, then opened the door to the guesthouse and stepped inside. As soon as she had closed the door, she started to cast new protective wards. None of them would last very long, but the only person in the village who could dismantle them was Lady Barb. She would know that something was wrong ... Emily hesitated, wondering if she should summon her teacher, then shook her head. She needed time to sort herself out. Casting another light spell, she started to undress. Her tunic was muddy from where she’d fallen, but otherwise unmarked. Her body, on the other hand, was bruised.
    Gritting her teeth, she touched her breast lightly. It felt ... dirty, unclean ... and yet she knew it could be much worse. How many girls had Hodge forced into bed? But if there was so little privacy in the village, surely his father and their parents knew? Didn't they care? Or was there some reason Hodge was allowed to roam free? Did he have enough sense not to pick on his fellow villagers?
    She reached for the cloth and washed herself, thoroughly, then pulled on her spare set of walking clothes. The nightgown wouldn't be enough for the night, she knew; she wanted to wear something more covering. Lady Barb wouldn't care; Emily had seen her sleeping in a full suit of armour before, back at Whitehall. She finished pulling on her clothes and walked over to the bed, picking up the potions bottle on the way. Before she could take a swig, she felt Lady Barb starting to dismantle the wards.
    Emily hesitated. She could drink the potion and fall asleep, evading the older woman’s questions that way, but it wouldn't last. And it would be cowardly. Part of her didn't want to talk, part of her knew she had no choice. If nothing else, Lady Barb would have to say something to the headman. Emily knew what she wanted to say to him.
    The door opened. Lady Barb stood there, staff in hand. Her face was pinched and worried.
    “Emily,” she said, as she closed the door. “What happened?”
    Emily hesitated. She’d won ... but part of her felt as though she had lost. It would have been easy to end the fight almost before it had begun, yet she’d been too startled to try. Lady Barb would have understood, she knew that now. But her fears ran deeper than the older woman’s anger ...
    Or they had. Somehow, she wasn't afraid any more.
    Slowly, leaving nothing out, she started to explain.
     
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Sixteen
    They left the village the following morning, after Lady Barb had a brief talk with the headman. Emily didn't know what she said to him, but no one turned out to wave goodbye as they walked out of the village and headed down a track that ran beside the river towards their next destination. Lady Barb walked in silence for nearly an hour, which was fine with Emily. She wanted time to think for herself.
    “Emily,” Lady Barb said, finally. “Do you want to talk about it?”
    Emily hesitated, then shook her head.
    “I think you should, this time,” Lady Barb said. “What happened ... could easily have been a great deal worse.”
    Emily nodded, mutely. Hodge could have knocked her out before she even knew he was there ... or she might have hesitated long enough for him to do real harm. Or ... her imagination provided too many possibilities. She didn't want to think about any of them.
    “He thought he could just ... take me,” she said, softly. “I didn't do anything to suggest I might be interested.”
    “That isn't uncommon,” Lady Barb said. “You’d think he know better than to try it on a sorceress.”
    Emily looked up, surprised. Hodge had been an idiot; Emily could have done a lot worse than turn him into a pig. If she’d panicked, she might have accidentally blown him into atoms – and no magic could bring someone back from the dead. What had made him think he could succeed? And he hadn't even been smart enough to knock her out when he had the opportunity.
    “You ... do not present the appearance of being able to defend yourself,” Lady Barb added, warningly. “I’ve watched you ever since I first knew you; you flinch away from men. I think Jade was the only boy near your own age you even talked to, if it could be avoided. Every other man in your life is much older than you.”
    Emily had to admit that Lady Barb was right. The Grandmaster and Void were ancient – Void was over a hundred years old – while Sergeant Miles, Professor Thande and even Master Tor were all in their forties, at the very least. It had been impossible to estimate Sergeant Harkin’s age, before he'd died, but he'd probably been in his late thirties at the very youngest. And even Jade had been several years older than her.
    Which didn't stop him proposing to me, she thought. It had honestly never occurred to her, she reminded herself, that he might be interested in her. There was at least five to six years between them. But just how serious was he?
    She looked down at the ground, then at the running river. Memories rose up in her mind, memories of her growth into a young woman ... and how her stepfather had watched her, almost constantly. She didn't want to face those memories again, yet she suspected she no longer had a choice. Lady Barb wouldn't let her avoid them any longer.
    “I don’t know,” she burst out. “Is there something wrong with me?”
    Lady Barb lifted her eyebrows. “Is there something wrong with you?”
    Emily found her hands twisting together and angrily told them to stay still. “I don't know,” she said. “I ... don’t even know what I felt for Jade. If I felt anything for Jade.”
    She hesitated, then pushed on. “He kissed me, last year,” she admitted. “I liked it. And yet I didn't like it. And now ... he feels like my brother, rather than anything else. Is that wrong?”
    “Probably a good thing you didn't agree to his proposal,” Lady Barb said. “It might have ruined both of your lives.”
    Emily swallowed, feeling tears prickling at the corner of her eye. There wasn't anyone else, she knew; she’d never looked at any boy with interest. Part of her felt that no boy would be interested in her, even though Jade had clearly wanted her. But she also wondered if his proposal had been made out of misplaced pity rather than anything else. Emily had been isolated at the end of First Year, feared by many of the other students. She had had no reason to expect anything better than Jade’s proposal.
    Lady Barb reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder, steadying her. “Are you interested in girls instead?”
    “I don’t think so,” Emily said, after a moment’s thought. She’d been careful to try to undress when no one else was around, but her roommates hadn't been so careful. And yet she’d seen almost all of them naked. But she hadn't felt anything beyond abstract admiration for the sheer perfection of Alassa’s body. “I’m not interested in anyone.”
    “It isn't uncommon for it to take time before someone develops an interest in the other sex,” Lady Barb said, dryly. “What happened to you on ... where you came from?”
    Emily swallowed. “Do we have to talk about it now?”
    “This is the best place for it,” Lady Barb said. She gave Emily an encouraging smile. “Or would you like to sit down?”
    Emily looked down at the muddy path, then shook her head. “No, thank you,” she said. “Will you keep it to yourself?”
    “As long as you wish me to,” Lady Barb said. Her smile grew wider. “You still have to listen to my advice.”
    Emily hesitated, organising her thoughts. The hell of it was that her stepfather’s treatment of her had been nothing like as overt as the treatment of the poor boy in the village. There had been days when she was sure that he meant her nothing but harm and days when she had been able to convince herself that she was imagining it. It might have been easier if he had beaten her, she reflected. She could have taken that to her teachers and asked for help.
    “My father left us when I was very young,” she said. Her memories of him were faded and worn, leaving her wondering if they were just the product of her imagination. “I don't know why. My mother never talked about him.”
    Lady Barb nodded, inviting her to continue.
    “She married again, soon afterwards,” Emily said. “My stepfather ignored me as much as possible. I don’t know what he was thinking. My mum crawled into a bottle soon afterwards and never really emerged long enough to look after me. I had to cook my own food and sort out my own clothes.”
    The memories mocked her. Cooking hadn't been easy, not when she was still a child. She’d lost count of the number of near-disasters she’d had trying to cook with an oversized pan, learning the hard way. And then she'd had to buy clothes on her own ... and manage what little money her stepfather had given her. Most of her clothes had come from charity shops and second-hand stores. She simply hadn't been able to afford anything from designer shops, no matter how fashionable they were. It was a mystery to her why so many other poor children could afford cell phones and fancy clothes.
    Lady Barb said nothing, merely listened. “I could never bring other children to the house,” Emily confessed. “They started to mock me because of my clothing, so I retreated into myself once I learned to read. Books were my friends; most people simply ignored me as much as possible. When I grew older ...”
    She swallowed, feeling her throat constrict. “I started to grow breasts,” she admitted. “And I grew up, despite the food.”
    Lady Barb tilted her head. “And people started to take an interest in you?”
    “It took me a long time to notice,” Emily said. “My stepfather was looking at me. He would watch me from time to time ... and he never showed any interest in me before. I used to think he didn't even know that I existed.”
    “You could have been tapping into your magic, without knowing it,” Lady Barb said. “Some very young magicians do it. Remaining hidden isn't difficult if you’re not trying to hide from a magician.”
    Emily shook her head. Outside rumours, Earth had no magic ... at least as far as she knew. It was vaguely possible, she supposed, that Hogwarts really existed and Harry Potter was a genuine person, but it seemed unlikely. The existence of cell phones with video cameras and orbital satellites would inevitably lead to the end of the masquerade. Besides, she’d never managed to cast a spell until she’d reached Whitehall. But then, she'd never even tried.
    “I don't think so,” she said, finally. “I think he just didn't care.”
    She looked down at the ground. “He kept staring at me ... and I kept trying to avoid him,” she explained. “I wore shapeless clothes, showered at school and spent as much time as I could away from home. He ... just kept looking at me.”
    “And you were afraid that, one day, he would rape you,” Lady Barb said. There was no condemnation in her voice, only quiet understanding. “Did you not have anyone else?”
    Emily shook her head. Her mother had been an only child, as far as she knew, and she had no idea what had happened to her father. She wouldn't have asked her stepfather’s family for water if she was dying from thirst. And she’d never trusted her teachers enough to ask for help.
    “Then Shadye kidnapped me,” Emily added. “I’ve never looked back.”
    “Nor should you,” Lady Barb said, simply. She hesitated, then pushed on. “It's no consolation, Emily, but I have seen worse.”
    “I know,” Emily said, quietly. She’d seen worse too now. “But I still felt vulnerable.”
    “Which is why you froze in Zangaria,” Lady Barb said, thoughtfully. “It isn't everyone who can take lessons learned during training and apply them to the real world.”
    Emily nodded. Once, she'd looked up military training, thinking that it might provide a way out of her dead end existence. Soldiers on Earth were pushed to the limits during Boot Camp, trained extensively by men who’d been there and done that, but even they sometimes froze up when faced with real combat. Training was made as realistic as possible to hammer it out of them, but it wasn't perfect. It couldn't be perfect.
    “So tell me,” Lady Barb added. “How do you feel now?”
    Emily hesitated, trying to parse out her own feelings. The sense of fear had faded, somehow, after watching Hodge run for his piggy life. She knew she could have taken him even without magic, after spending two years practicing with the Sergeants and boys who were bigger and stronger than Hodge – and better trained too. But she still wasn't sure how she felt about men.
    “Strange,” she said. “I don't feel so scared anymore.”
    Lady Barb smiled. “He’s the one who’s scared,” she said. “You taught him a lesson.”
    Emily looked up. “You're not mad at me?”
    “Should I be?”
    “I don't know,” Emily said. Lady Barb had told her to try to avoid using magic where possible, but she hadn't told Emily not to defend herself. “Did I do the right thing?”
    “Tell me something,” Lady Barb said, crudely. “How many girls do you think he’s forced into opening their legs for him?”
    “Too many,” Emily said. It was the only possible answer. “Even if it wasn't the girls in the village ...”
    Her voice trailed off. “The headman was appointed by the local lord,” Lady Barb told her. “I doubt the morals of his son were considered when the man was given the job. All that mattered was squeezing as much tax from the village as possible – and the headman is very good at that. As long as he keeps the tax and tithes coming, the lord wouldn't care if every girl in the village was attacked by Hodge. I’d bet good money that he forced himself on most of them.”
    Emily shuddered. If she’d grown up in such a place ...
    “Not just him,” Lady Barb added. “There are places where it is traditional for the husband’s father to have ... access to his daughter-in-law, if he feels like it. Or where a widow can be pushed into marrying a man who already has a wife, if she wants someone to help take care of the kids. Or ... there are countless horrors hidden here.”
    “So you said,” Emily said, feeling sick. She didn't want to know, but she thought she should ask. “What happened to him?”
    “Hodge?” Lady Barb smiled. “I turned him back, told him that the curse would snap back if he ever tried to force himself on someone else, then gave his father a stern warning. If nothing else, the lord wouldn't have objected if I’d killed him – and he knew it. But I think he’s a changed man.”
    Emily shook her head, doubtfully.
    “Oh, he is,” Lady Barb assured her. “He spent several hours as a pig, without any mental defences or prior experience. What do you think that did to his mind?”
    “I used a prank spell,” Emily said. “Didn't I?”
    “You didn't cast it perfectly,” Lady Barb said, reprovingly. “Let's just say that parts of him are still convinced he’s a pig.”
    Emily snickered. She knew it was wrong, yet she couldn't help it. The thought of Hodge eating at the trough instead of at the table, convinced it was where he belonged, was darkly amusing. She recalled the struggle to recall who and what she was when she'd turned herself into a rat and snickered again. Hodge would have absolutely no preparation for the transformation at all. Somehow, it was hard to feel any pity for him.
    “You need practice,” Lady Barb added. “We’re going to work on that once we get back to Whitehall.”
    She shrugged. “I also told him that he was lucky that I hadn't turned him into dinner,” she said. “I think the lesson will have sunk in – and if it hasn't, the next time he transforms will leave him stuck that way.”
    Emily nodded, wondering if a girl in the village would be brave enough to manipulate Hodge into trying something. The thought of leaving someone – anyone – stuck as a pig forever was nightmarish, but it would be worse in Zangaria. She still shuddered when she thought about the wild boar Alassa and her suitors had hunted, wild boar that had actually been transformed humans. It had horrified her at the time – executions would have been kinder – and she’d banned the practice in Cockatrice.
    Lady Barb clapped a hand on her shoulder. “You made a good stride forward today,” she said, as she turned to lead the way further down the path. “All you have to do is build on that success.”
    Emily hesitated, then asked the question that had nagged at her mind earlier. “Did you ... did you take a lover?”
    “I was a little older than you when I fell in love for the first time,” Lady Barb said. She didn't seem offended by the question. “It didn't last. He was a little too much like my father and wasn't too keen on the idea of marrying a combat sorceress. We parted reasonably kindly.”
    She looked back at Emily. “Is there a reason you asked?”
    Emily looked down at the ground. “Is it normal to be so conflicted?”
    Lady Barb laughed. “Welcome to the wonderful world of adulthood,” she said. “People mature at different speeds, Emily. You may be physically seventeen, old enough to be a mother, but you may not be mentally ready to have a relationship with anyone. And, unlike most of the boys and girls in the Allied Lands, you will have all the time you need to make your choice.”
    “I don't,” Emily said, miserably. “I have to provide a Heir for Cockatrice.”
    “True enough,” Lady Barb agreed. “And it would have to be your child. You couldn't simply adopt someone and declare him your heir.”
    She looked back along the path. “What sort of man do you want?”
    Emily shook her head. Once, she’d dreamed of Prince Charming ... but that had been part of her childhood. After she'd started to mature, she’d become too unsure of herself to dream of a Prince – or even a Princess – coming to take her away. It struck her suddenly that she could get a Prince now and she giggled, despite herself. But if the Princes who had courted Alassa were any indication, she wouldn't want any of them.
    But what did she want?
    She mulled it over as she walked behind Lady Barb. A gentle man, she decided, someone clever enough to hold a conversation, yet also willing to give her time to herself. Jade wouldn't be that kind of husband, she had to admit, not if the way he’d courted her was any indication. He would always want to be doing things with her; riding, swimming, exploring ... and everything else. She would never be alone.
    “This looks a good place to stop,” Lady Barb said, as they reached a large clearing. It didn't look particularly natural. Someone had carved it out of the trees and then done something to ensure that nothing grew to replace them. “Set up the caldron and make us some Kava.”
    Emily realised, to her surprise, that her legs were aching. How far had they walked? She nodded and set to work, while Lady Barb paced the clearing and set up a handful of wards, then strode back to her and watched as the Kava boiled. Emily poured it into a pair of mugs, then blew on the liquid to cool it down. Using magic to cool drinks never seemed to work quite right.
    “So,” she said, as she took a sip. It always tasted better in the open air. “Why are we here?”
    “Miles from anyone else,” Lady Barb said. The smile on her face took the sting from her words. “Good a place as any to practice some magic that cannot be performed in Whitehall.”
     
  4. STANGF150

    STANGF150 Knowledge Seeker

    more please :)
     
  5. Grizz-

    Grizz- Monkey+

    This story is riveting, The depth of what Emily is learning/needs to learn is huge, And the picture of what others lives are like is excellent. THANK YOU for sharing your vast talents with us
     
  6. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Very happy to see a continuation of this tale. Emily is getting a good chance to see the real world she is now living in, and an excellent chance to make a difference in its development.
    Thank you!
     
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Thank you!

    Chapter Seventeen
    Emily couldn't help feeling a flush of excitement as Lady Barb started to draw runes on the ground.
    “The first time you tried to create a pocket dimension,” she lectured, “you tried to do it inside another pocket dimension. You were very lucky not to be expelled for gross stupidity.”
    Emily winced, remembering Master Tor’s anger – and the dead Warden. Most students were given a list of things they shouldn’t try to do in Whitehall, but Emily had accidentally fallen through the cracks in the system. Void had assumed that the Grandmaster would teach her, she suspected, and the Grandmaster had overlooked the fact Void hadn't taught her. And, as Master Tor had believed Void was her father, he had assumed that she was deliberately breaking rules.
    “This time, you shouldn't have any external problems affecting your magic,” Lady Bar continued. “However, you should still be very careful. Pocket dimensions can be tricky things to create and maintain.”
    She finished drawing runes, then reached into her bag and produced a handful of sticks, which she fitted together to make a square. Emily looked down at it in puzzlement, then realised that they were going to focus on the most basic pocket dimension design of all. There was no point in trying to run, she knew, before she could walk. The book Yodel had loaned her had skipped quite a few steps.
    “The simplest form of pocket dimension is a bubble attached to an object,” Lady Barb continued. “They can be moved with the object, but not separated from it. Nor can they be easily accessed without the object. Should it be destroyed, the pocket dimension will collapse, blasting its contents outwards. Most dimensions have safety spells woven into their structures to prevent that from happening.”
    Emily nodded. There were pocket dimensions that could be assessed from anywhere, or not bound to a particularly object, but they were far more complex. Even the most powerful sorcerers, she'd been told, preferred to avoid them, if only because anyone with the right coordinates could get into the dimension. It was easier to carry a bag that was larger on the inside then risk losing one’s property.
    “Sit down,” Lady Barb directed. She passed Emily the square, motioning for her to hold it up so she was looking through it. “Are you ready?”
    Emily nodded, wordlessly.
    “I want you to close your eyes and imagine that the interior of the square is soild,” Lady Barb said. “I want you to try to visualise the fabric of reality itself.”
    Emily concentrated. It was easy to imagine a shimmering layer inside the square, like a soap bubble, but harder to convince herself that it was real. The pocket dimension would expand outside reality, just like a far smaller version of the TARDIS ... or was she actually expanding the space inside the square? Not entirely to her surprise, the books hadn't been too clear on what she was actually doing. There were entire fields of study that were unknown at Whitehall.
    “Now,” Lady Barb said. “I want you to imagine the fabric expanding, becoming a bubble.”
    Just like blowing bubbles, Emily thought. She felt her magic shift in response, then fade back again as her imagination faltered. The pocket dimension didn't seem to be manageable without her constant attention and she couldn't concentrate on anything for that long. She opened her eyes, just in time to see a distorted series of images ... and then the pocket dimension collapsed.
    “Not too bad, for a first attempt,” Lady Barb said. She didn't sound angry, merely calm and thoughtful. “Try again?”
    Emily nodded and closed her eyes again. This time, the magic seemed to flow easier and, when she opened her eyes, she had the strange impression she was looking through a reversed telescope. It took her a moment to realise that light itself was actually bending around the dimension, distorting her perceptions. A moment later, the dimension snapped back out of existence. Emily rubbed her forehead and felt sweat prickling there. It might not feel like a huge effort, but it was definitely draining.
    “Close enough, for the moment,” Lady Barb said. “The real trick is stabilising it, then binding it in place.”
    She rested a hand on Emily's shoulder. “Ready to try?”
    Emily swallowed. Two years at Whitehall had helped her get the art of casting basic spells down to a fine art. Where she’d once had to build the spells up piece by piece, she could now cast many of them with a thought. But now she would have to go back to first principles and start building the spell-structure up from scratch. And she would have to do it while maintaining the pocket dimension in place.
    “Yes,” she said. She took out her notes and stared down at them, then closed her eyes. “I’m ready.”
    It was, she decided, rather like building something that had to be anchored to the seabed. An open tube could be lowered to the bottom of the water, then the water could be pumped out and concrete poured into the tube. This time, the spells that held the pocket dimension together had to be placed, one by one, inside the dimension, each one forming part of a chain that was greater than the sum of its parts. Each of the spells were simple in themselves, but the real trick was getting them to work together.
    Her first attempt at splitting her attention failed miserably. One of her teachers on Earth had assured her, with a particularly nasty smile, that girls could do two things at once, but she couldn't hold the dimension in place and assemble the spells at the same time. The second time, she managed to get two spells inserted before the dimension collapsed, striking her with a backlash from her own magic. Crossly, she tried again for the third time ... and discovered that she could only get a handful of spells inserted before her concentration slipped. She honestly didn't understand how Yodel had made something as complex as her trunk.
    “Drink this,” Lady Barb said. “And then try to relax.”
    Emily took the mug of water and sipped gratefully. She hadn't realised how parched her throat had become until she drank something. Lady Barb passed her a bar of sour chocolate and she ate it, wondering bitterly how Yodel managed to make a living. It was terrifyingly easy to manipulate dimensions with a nexus point – Emily knew that, better than anyone – but without one at her disposal she was just playing with sticks and stones There had to be something she was missing.
    “Figure it out,” Lady Barb said, mischievously. “You should know the answer.”
    “I don’t,” Emily said, casting her mind back to recall what had been written in the books. None of them had suggested anything other than what she was doing ... but she knew, from bitter experience, that some textbooks left out steps to force the reader to actually comprehend what they were doing. She had to admit that they were quite effective at that, far better than anything she’d read on Earth. “The spells just don’t form ...”
    She swore under her breath as she made the connection. Mistress Sun had taught her how to prepare spells ahead of time, nestling them within her wards. There was no reason why she couldn't do the same with the spells for the pocket dimension, apart from the fact that she would have to push them away from her wards and into the dimension rather than simply triggering them. She explained her breakthrough to Lady Barb and was rewarded with a brilliant smile.
    “Good thinking,” Lady Barb said. “Try it.”
    Emily picked up the square again, then put it on her lap as she built up the dimensional spells, one by one. They were actually simpler than most of the spells she’d lodged within her wards, something that actually worked in their favour. The more complex a spell, the more likely it was to degrade rapidly over time. Once she was ready, she picked up the square, concentrated on the dimension and thrust her spells forward, into the growing bubble. There was a flare of magic as the bubble tried to collapse, but found itself firmly anchored in place. And yet it still wasn't right ...
    “The spells aren't chained together perfectly,” Lady Barb said. She held up a hand before Emily could banish the dimension and start again. “But you should be able to modify them without collapsing the dimension.”
    Emily reached out with her magic ... and realised, once again, just how skilled Yodel actually was. She’d tampered with her trunk on the road to Zangaria, damaging the spells that held it together, yet it hadn't collapsed or exploded. Her dimension was nothing more than a bubble of space and yet she was nervous about touching anything. The slightest movement could collapse the entire dimension into nothingness. It took her several minutes to lock each of the spells in place ...
    “Good enough,” Lady Barb said. “The walls of the dimension are anchored firmly in place.”
    Emily opened her eyes and looked. Inside the square, she could see a thin grey space, oddly disconcerting to her eyes. She’d never really seen the raw material of her own trunk, even when she’d been trying to work out a way to safely retrieve her books without releasing the Cockatrice. And the dimension she’d tried to craft at Whitehall had been neutralised by the wards before she’d had a chance to see inside it.
    Her eyes hurt suddenly as she stepped backwards, one eye seeing the trees at the edge of the clearing while the other looked into the dimension. She understood, suddenly, just how confused the Doctor’s companions had been when they’d opened the TARDIS doors for the first time. The police box was tiny, but inside was an entire universe ... it was difficult, somehow, to reconcile the two. Human understanding found it hard to grasp that an object could be bigger on the inside than the outside.
    Perhaps it’s easier for the people here, she thought. They’re used to magic.
    “This dimension won’t last that long,” Lady Barb warned. “You’d probably need to carry it with you or make sure it could draw a trickle of power from the ambient magic in the air.”
    Emily nodded. She’d have to draw runes around the square ... how the hell had Yodel done it? She hadn't seen runes on her trunk.
    “Part of the stasis charm holds the trunk secure,” Lady Barb told her. “As long as that's in place, the decay is minimised.”
    Emily took one last look into her dimension, then put the square down on the ground. Someone could fall right inside, she told herself, a moment later. A hidden pitfall ... she’d seen something like it when Shadye’s forces were besieging Whitehall. But she couldn't leave it around indefinitely.
    “No,” Lady Barb said. “You’ll have to dispose of it, then start again.”
    The next two hours were spent creating, dissolving and recreating the pocket dimension. Like all magic, it grew easier the more she practiced, although there were hitches every time she tried to make the spells holding the dimension together more complicated. Emily remembered her notes for a dimensional shelter and realised it might be months before she could perfect the technique, if she could perfect it at all. She wasn't even sure what it would be like to hide in a pocket dimension. Technically, she'd done just that at Whitehall, but Whitehall was special. The entire castle rested inside a pocket dimension.
    “That’s what they do for certain prisoners,” Lady Barb said. “They craft a pocket dimension and toss the prisoner inside. No one, not even the most powerful magician, could break out without help from the outside. Sometimes they’re not even aware of time passing.”
    Emily felt her blood run cold. That was close – alarmingly close – to what she'd done to Shadye. A normal pocket dimension couldn't be snapped out of existence, along with its contents, but she'd used the nexus to erase Shadye from existence. Under the circumstances, she was surprised that no one had ever guessed the truth.
    She pushed the thought aside. They knew that a collapsing pocket dimension would expel its contents back into the world. It was quite possible that they wouldn't accept that could be changed. Besides, without the nexus, it would be impossible to repeat the feat.
    “I need to see what it’s like to be inside,” Emily said, pushing the thought aside. She wasn't sure why, she just wanted to know. “Can you hold it open for me?”
    Lady Barb gave her a long considering look. “Not this one, I think,” she said. “You couldn't fit through the entrance.”
    Emily flushed. The square wasn't large enough to allow anyone bigger than a baby to climb inside. In hindsight, she really had been lucky when she'd bagged the Cockatrice. Lady Barb smirked at her expression, then started to draw up another pocket dimension of her own. Emily watched as it took on shape and form, attached to a specific location rather than an object, and then yawned open in front of her. Somehow, looking into the drab greyness, stepping inside no longer seemed a good idea.
    She braced herself and stepped inside. The icy cold hit her as she crossed the threshold, forcing her to hug herself as she turned, just in time to see the entrance vanish. She was surrounded by greyness, a pulsing mass of ... something that pressed against her mind. It was easy to imagine something watching her, even though she wasn't sure why. She reached out and touched ... nothing. The pocket dimension, she realised slowly, was like a giant hamster ball. No matter how hard she ran, she would never escape. It felt like a prison. Hell, it was a prison.
    There was a sudden shiver as the entrance reopened. Emily cringed back from the light, then stepped back out into the normal world. It was so colourful compared to the greyness of the pocket dimension. Lady Barb collapsed the dimension behind her, then gave her a rather droll look.
    “Satisfied?”
    Emily nodded.
    Lady Barb rolled her eyes, then put her back to work. Emily crafted two more basic dimensions, then started to experiment with some of the spells. Half of them collapsed as soon as she altered the spells too far, but the remainder held together remarkably well. A little fiddling, Emily decided, and the dimension could be programmed to collapse at a preset time. Combined with the nuke-spell ... the possibilities were endless. What would happen, she asked herself, if a nuclear-level blast had nowhere to go?
    “You have to be very careful,” Lady Barb said, as she collapsed the final dimension. “It’s quite easy to drain yourself trying out new spells.”
    Emily nodded. She felt tired ... not completely exhausted, but tired enough not to want to continue. It felt like experimenting with some of the more complex spells Mistress Sun had taught her, including a handful that had forced her to lie down right after casting them. But it had all been worthwhile ...
    “One last experiment, then,” Lady Barb said. She picked up the square and broke it down into its component sections. “I want you to try to anchor the dimension to this clearing, rather than to an object.”
    “I’ll try,” Emily said.
    She concentrated, but it was far harder to envisage the opening into the pocket dimension without something to serve as a guide. Every time she tried, the dimension refused to work properly or drained her too far to hold it together. She ground her teeth in frustration, then looked up at Lady Barb pleadingly.
    The older woman took pity on her. “I’d be astonished if you managed to master it so quickly,” she said. “It took me weeks before I could even shape a basic dimension without an anchor.”
    Emily was too tired to be angry. “Then why did you ask me to try?”
    “Because some students leapfrog ahead if they don’t know the limits,” Lady Barb told her, sardonically. “You’ve already shown a definite talent for charms and spell improvisation. I thought ... why not let you try to build a proper dimension?”
    She shook her head. “But it will take time for you to master it, I think,” she added. “I think you can do a little practice each day.”
    Emily nodded.
    “But you will not experiment with pocket dimensions without supervision,” Lady Barb warned her. There was a grim note in her voice that left Emily with no doubt that disobedience would be a very bad idea. “If you do, you will not enjoy the consequences – if you survive.”
    “Understood,” Emily said, looking down at the ground. She'd learned that lesson, even if part of her sometimes resented being held back. But then, she wasn't really being held back at all, was she? “I won’t experiment without you.”
    Lady Barb passed her some more water, waited for her to drink it and then stood. “It's another hour or two to the town,” she said, “and it looks like rain.”
    Emily glanced upwards. Dark clouds were already forming, high overhead, and the temperature was dropping rapidly. The weather here wasn't as variable as the weather surrounding Whitehall, owing to the high concentration of magic in the air, but it was still capable of changing at remarkable speed. She stood, packed the mug away in her bag and followed the older woman as she turned and led the way from the clearing.
    “How long will it be,” she asked, as they walked, “until I can make a dimension within seconds?”
    “You have the power,” Lady Barb said. “All you need is the skill ... and that will come, in time. Practice makes perfect.”
    “Thank you,” Emily said. “I won’t let you down.”
     
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eighteen
    The rain struck them thirty minutes later. Lady Barb erected a ward to keep it from falling on them, but water still splashed around their feet as it ran down the path. Emily was silently grateful for the charmed boots she’d purchased at Dragon’s Den; no matter how wet it became, they didn't allow water to soak her feet. But it was still a relief when the rainstorm came to an end and they looked down into another valley.
    Emily sucked in her breath as she saw the town. It was larger than the village, with a castle on the nearby peak looming over the valley. She’d learned more than she wanted to know about good locations for castles, thanks to Alassa, and she had to admit that whoever had designed the castle had done an excellent job. It would be extremely difficult to get an army up the hillside without being seen. Magic could probably even the odds a little, but if the defenders had magic too ...
    Lady Barb led her down the path and into the village. The houses seemed better than the ones in the village too, almost all of them being made of stone. Oddly, to Emily's eyes, their rooftops were covered in grass, as if they were growing it deliberately. But there was almost no one walking through the streets ... she felt a chill running down her spine as she realised just how few people there actually were. And then they walked into the centre of town and saw the soldiers.
    Emily had never met a soldier before travelling to Whitehall, but she’d learned a great deal since then, thanks to the Sergeants. The soldiers looked professional, wearing leather armour and colours that marked them out as household troops. They all wore the same outfits too, which suggested they weren't mercenaries. And they didn't seem to be harassing the townspeople too much ...
    She shook her head, mentally. The Sergeants had told their classes that many soldiers couldn't be trusted not to harass the local civilians, no matter where they were based or what they were ordered not to do. Looting, rape and even fights weren't uncommon, even when the soldiers were at home. When they were on the march, invading another kingdom, it grew worse. Emily wasn't too surprised. The aristocrats, even enemy aristocrats, were off-limits, but civilians were fair game. Europe had seen the same pattern until the First World War.
    Lady Barb stopped as one of the soldiers marched over to confront them. Emily suspected, looking at the slightly finer cut of his clothes, that he was an officer, although it was difficult to be sure. The Allied Lands had hundreds of different military units and they all had different ways of signifying an officer. But his outfit was clean, suggesting that he wasn't used to actually going out and about with his men. Or maybe she'd imbued more of Sergeant Harkin’s feelings about officers than she’d realised.
    “Lady Sorceress,” the officer said, addressing Lady Barb. He didn't look at Emily, for which she was grateful. Most of his men seemed to be carefully looking elsewhere. “We are looking for the missing heir.”
    Lady Barb’s back seemed to stiffen, just slightly. “The missing heir?”
    “Rudolf, the son of our lord,” the officer informed her. “He has gone missing. We have searched the town, but he is nowhere to be found.”
    There’s an entire mountain range to search, Emily thought, sardonically. She kept the thought to herself, preferring to stay unnoticed as long as possible. Maybe the town could be searched rapidly, but it was right underneath the castle. If Rudolf had wanted to hide, he could have left his father’s lands completely. It wasn't as if it had taken more than a few hours for them to leave one lord’s territory and move into the next.
    “He may well have hidden elsewhere,” Lady Barb said. Perhaps she’d had the same thought. “Do you have any objection to us moving into the magician’s house?”
    The officer shook his head. “The building remains sealed,” he said. “I don't think he’s hiding there.”
    “We will be sure to check,” Lady Barb assured him. Emily could hear a hint of mockery in her tone. “And if you’ll excuse us ...”
    She walked past the officer and headed down the street. Emily followed, feeling eyes watching her as she strode past the soldiers. Some of them looked alarmingly young, others looked as old and scarred as Sergeant Harkin. She wondered, absently, just why they’d joined the lord’s army. And then she remembered what she’d overheard at the dance.
    “The other lord was building up his army,” she muttered, as soon as they were out of earshot. “Is this lord doing the same?”
    “Probably,” Lady Barb said. “That isn’t a good sign.”
    She said nothing else as they walked down the street. Emily looked around, catching sight of a temple built out of stone, resembling a Greco-Roman building from the classical age on Earth. It didn't look to be dedicated to a particular god, she decided; there were no statues outside, indicating who or what was worshipped within its walls. That wasn't too surprising; the locals simply didn't have the resources to build many temples. Their gods would have to share.
    The thought made her smile. Religion was odd in the Allied Lands, at least compared to Earth. There were hundreds of gods, but a person might worship only one or two in his or her lifetime, making the choice when they reached adulthood. Parents didn't seem to expect children to follow in their footsteps; instead, they taught the children that all the gods were real and let them choose their own to worship. In some ways, she had to admit that it worked better than the system on Earth, where parents were known to disown or kill children for changing their religion.
    She straightened up as she heard a clap of thunder in the distance. The rainstorm seemed to be moving back towards the town. Lady Barb stopped outside a long low building, then pressed her hand against the door while casting a series of charms. The door unlocked itself, allowing them to step into the building. It was as dark and silent as the grave.
    Emily watched as Lady Barb cast a light-spell, then covered her eyes until they became accustomed to the glare. The main room was dusty, while the next two rooms looked disordered, as if the people who’d last been in the building hadn't bothered to clean up before they’d departed. Lady Barb muttered a vile curse, just loud enough for Emily to hear, as she peeked into the kitchen. A vaguely unpleasant smell drifted out at them.
    “I shall be filling official complaints,” Lady Barb said, tartly. “They should have cleaned the damn place before they left.”
    Emily looked back into the main room. It wasn't even remotely clean – and they were meant to be seeing patients. The magicians knew the importance of basic sanitation, but not all of them seemed to care. They could cure almost anything that didn't kill them outright. She glanced into the next room and scowled. The potions table – she recognised its purpose because of the burn marks – was dangerously unstable.
    Lady Barb climbed up a ladder into the loft. Moments later, her voice drifted back. “They cleaned the beds, at least,” she said. “We’ll have to hire some people to help clean the building before we start seeing patients.”
    Emily followed her up the ladder. The loft was smaller than she’d expected – she had to duck her head to avoid the ceiling – but there was something about it that charmed her. Two glass windows – rare outside the big cities – allowed her to look down into the street, while four beds, pressed close together, provided sleeping accommodation. Lady Barb pointed to a cupboard and ordered Emily to make the beds, then clambered back down the ladder and vanished. Sighing, Emily did as she was told.
    It still amused her just how few of her classmates at Whitehall had known how to make their own beds when they'd come to the school. Even some of the poorest students hadn't known, while Alassa and her fellow aristocrats had always had servants to do the work for them. Emily had been making her own bed since she was a child, as well as washing her own sheets, something they didn't have to worry about at Whitehall. Everything was washed by the servants and then returned to the student bedrooms.
    She made up two of the beds, then scrambled back down the ladder in time to see Lady Barb re-entering the building. “I’ve had a word with a couple of people,” Lady Barb said, as she closed the door. “The entire room will have to be cleaned thoroughly, so they’ll be coming in the morning. There's no point in expending outside the potions lab. I want you to clean it tomorrow.”
    Emily wasn't sure if she should be angry or relieved. Cleaning was something else she’d done as a child, but she’d never liked doing it. And, at Whitehall, she'd once been forced to clean an entire suite of rooms by hand as a punishment. She’d found a way to cheat, slightly, but it still hadn't been a very pleasant experience.
    “They shouldn't have left it in such a mess,” she said, tiredly. “Why ...?”
    “The runes seem to have been degraded slightly,” Lady Barb said. “Several of them have been destroyed completely. I think someone tried to break in at one point.”
    “And disabled the runes that should have kept the building safe,” Emily concluded. She felt oddly better to hear that it might not have been their predecessor’s fault. “Who would try to break inside?”
    “I don’t know,” Lady Barb confessed. “A mundane couldn't have entered the building without permission, while a magician shouldn't have had any problems breaking and entering. The wards weren't designed to keep out anyone with magic.”
    She stroked her chin. “An odd puzzle,” she added. “Maybe we’ll stay long enough to figure out the answer.”
    Emily frowned. “The missing heir?”
    “It’s a possibility,” Lady Barb agreed. She turned and started to pace the room. “I don't recall if there was any magic in the lord’s bloodline, but it is definitely a distant possibility.”
    She paused, then turned to look at Emily. “But local politics aren't one of our concerns, not now,” she said. “Our task remains the same.”
    Emily wasn't so sure – the heir could easily have been kidnapped by the unknown magician, if there was a magician – but she held her peace. Their task was to use magic to help people while searching for new magicians, not get involved in local politics.
    “The town is effectively occupied,” Lady Barb added. “I’d advise you to stay inside unless you’re with me. Or are you feeling confident enough to stand up for yourself?”
    “I am,” Emily said. After what she'd done to Hodge, she felt more confident than she’d ever been in her life. “I can go out.”
    “Make sure you wear your robes,” Lady Barb told her. She paused. “There's no point in trying to cook here. We’ll go eat outside. Go get changed.”
    Emily nodded and scrambled back up the ladder, carrying her bag with her. It would be so much easier, she knew, to carry a bag that was linked to a pocket dimension, but Lady Barb had forbidden it. Instead, she opened her bag, removed her robes and then looked around for the sink. It turned out that the only place to wash was in the main room. Silently grateful that there were no boys around, Emily carried her robe back down the ladder, then washed and dressed quickly and silently. Lady Barb merely pulled a robe over her outfit.
    Something clicked in Emily’s mind. “How did he know you were a sorceress?”
    “Few women would move from place to place here unescorted,” Lady Barb told her. “The ones who do have protections ... magic, for instance.”
    She opened the door and led the way outside. Night was falling over the town, the final rays of sunlight cascading off the darkened castle. Emily shivered, then followed Lady Barb through a twisting network of streets and into a small inn. Inside, it was warm, but there were only a handful of visitors. The innkeeper looked up at them with interest, then pointed to a table. Emily sat down gratefully as Lady Barb pointed to a chalkboard. It listed only three different kinds of food.
    “There are only a few people here,” Emily muttered. “Is that a bad sign?”
    “There are soldiers in the town,” Lady Barb muttered back. “Most visitors will have moved on, even if they were planning to stay for a few days.”
    The innkeeper marched over to stand by the table. Emily had to smile when she saw him clearly; he was a fat balding man with a pleasant smile and a tunic that clung to the wrong places. But he was definitely a decent person. Compared to the people she’d met in the last village, it was something of a relief.
    “Lady Sorceress,” he said, addressing Lady Barb. “What can I get for you?”
    “The meat pie would be fine,” Lady Barb said. “Millie?”
    Emily started, then remembered what she was being called. “The meat pie for me too,” she said, quickly. “And drinks?”
    “Two beers,” Lady Barb said. Emily gave her a sharp look. “Your finest, if you please.”
    Lady Barb waited until the innkeeper had retreated, then explained. “You can use spells or potions to remove the alcohol,” she reminded Emily. “But you shouldn't drink water in the towns up here, not unless there’s no alternative. There’s no way to know what might have gone into it.”
    Emily shuddered, remembering her reading. Alcohol was often safer to drink than water, certainly in eras before they'd understood the value of using boiling water to kill germs. It made sense for the villagers – even the children – to drink alcohol all the time, but it did nothing for their behaviour. The innkeeper returned, carrying two foaming mugs of beer, and a large sheet of paper. Emily looked at it and had to fight down a laugh.
    “The latest broadsheet,” the innkeeper assured them. “It came all the way from Garn, it did.”
    Emily took the paper and examined it, carefully. It was shoddy material, compared to anything from Earth, and there were only a handful of pages, but it was far superior to anything they’d had before she’d arrived. The words used English letters – she parsed them out, one by one – and talked about news from across the Allied Lands. There was even an article on the Mimic attack on Whitehall!
    “Your influence,” Lady Barb said, once the innkeeper had departed. “You should be proud.”
    “Maybe,” Emily said. She read through the article – noting just how many inaccuracies there were – and then passed the paper to Lady Barb. Investigative journalism clearly had a long way to go. But then, the writer had probably only heard garbled rumours. “At least they're not printing nude pictures yet.”
    She shook her head. Somehow, an entire market for romantic stories had appeared in Zangaria, competing with regular news and informational bulletins. King Randor had encouraged the spread of such bulletins, hoping to ride the winds of change. Emily had a private suspicion that he’d come to regret it, even though it did have some advantages. The population of Zangaria seemed to have an instinctive respect for the written word, perhaps because so few of them had been able to write in the old system. That was probably about to change.
    The meat pie smelt good when it was placed in front of her, but Emily found it hard to eat. Much of the meat was gristle, rather than actual meat, and the potatoes that came with it were either too hard or too soft. It was a far cry from the food at Whitehall or Zangaria’s castles, a reminder that anyone who went to Whitehall might well be seduced away from their homes and families.
    “There's only ever one inn in the major towns,” Lady Barb explained, once she’d erected a privacy ward. “The innkeeper has a captive audience. But if you were born here, you wouldn't be rejecting the meat.”
    Emily flushed, ashamed of herself for being picky. She wouldn't have rejected the meat on Earth, either. But Whitehall’s food was perfect.
    “I see,” she said. There were several inns in Dragon’s Den, encouraging competition. But here, one innkeeper could charge whatever he wanted. “What happens if there’s no inn?”
    “Travellers tend to offer money to locals in exchange for a place to sleep,” Lady Barb said. “But accommodation can be uncomfortable.”
    Emily envisaged sleeping on the floor in a cramped room and shuddered. It was bad enough sharing a room at Whitehall, even though there was some privacy. The peasants and their guests ... would have a far harder time getting any privacy. And there might not be enough food to drink, no matter how much money the guests offered. What good was money to the peasants if there was nothing to buy?
    They finished their dinner, paid the innkeeper and walked back to the building. Darkness had fallen completely, a faint glow over the horizon showing that the moon had yet to rise. Emily followed Lady Barb – the older woman seemed to have no difficulty in navigating in the dark – carefully avoiding a handful of soldiers on patrol. The soldiers gave them a wide berth.
    “Don’t forget the insect ward this time,” Lady Barb reminded her, as they climbed up the ladder and into bed. “You don’t want to be bitten again.”
    Emily nodded, cast the wards, then lay down on the bed without bothering to undress. She was asleep almost before her head hit the pillow.
     
    bagpiper, kellory, techsar and 2 others like this.
  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nineteen
    The sound of a cockerel jerked Emily out of a dreamless sleep, leaving her staring around blankly for a long moment. It was an unfamiliar room – another unfamiliar room – and there was no sign of Lady Barb. After a moment, Emily rolled over and stood up, silently cursing her decision to sleep in her clothes. They felt icky and uncomfortable after a night in a hot bed.
    “Better get up and washed quickly,” Lady Barb called, from the lower floor. “They’ll be here soon enough.”
    Emily scowled and headed for the trapdoor. Once she was downstairs, she washed herself quickly, then donned her working clothes. Lady Barb passed her a plate of bread and cheese, then told her to eat it quickly. They had plenty of work to do.
    “I think you’re giving me all the boring jobs,” Emily said, as she tucked into the plate of food. “Is that what always happens in an apprenticeship?”
    “Of course,” Lady Barb said. There was no rebuke in her tone, merely a hint of droll amusement. “The apprentice trades her services in exchange for training.”
    Emily nodded, finished her plate of food and walked into the potions lab. It was a mess, worse than she’d realised yesterday; several bottles of potions and ingredients had been left unsealed, their contents decaying and leaking into the air. She cursed under her breath, trying to imagine Professor Thande’s reaction to such carelessness in the alchemy classroom, then started to sort out the damaged bottles. She knew better than to risk using any of the decaying ingredients. Anything could happen if she did.
    “We're short on a dozen ingredients,” she said, once she’d separated out the useable ingredients from the unusable ones. “I don’t know if I can brew all of the potions.”
    Lady Barb stepped inside and examined the damaged bottles, then nodded. “It looks as though our mystery burglar actually did manage to get inside,” she said. “Such carelessness would be rare for a trained magician.”
    Emily couldn't disagree. One lesson that had been hammered into her head, time and time again, was that stupid magicians tended to kill themselves before too long. Magicians who pushed the limits, in the meantime, were often exiled to deserted mountaintops or deserts where they could carry out their experiments with no risk to anyone else. There were very definite limits to just how far an untrained magician could go before they started risking madness – or death.
    “Put the spoiled ingredients out for disposal, then clean up the rest of the lab,” Lady Barb ordered. “Once that's done, brew pain-relief and quick-heal potions first; we’ll see what you have left afterwards.”
    Emily nodded and started to work. There were spells to clean tables and instruments, but Professor Thande had told her that alchemical tools should never be cleaned by magic. He’d told his class enough horror stories to convince even the laziest that there were worse things that could happen then spending a few minutes washing their tools manually. But, after scrubbing the table until it gleamed, Emily found herself wishing she could use magic. The table had been used for years and it showed.
    Muttering under her breath, she gathered herself, then found a handful of caldrons in one cupboard. Three of them looked clean, but one had clearly been used and not put away because it was still coated with the remains of the last potion someone had brewed. Emily swallowed a curse, then washed the caldron thoroughly and placed it out to dry. It struck her, a moment too late, that she should have tried to study the residue to determine what the last brewer had actually tried to brew.
    She heard the sound of voices, male and female, outside as she set out the clean caldrons and filled them with water, then lit fires under them. Once the water was heating up, she glanced out the door and saw a handful of young men and women enthusiastically scrubbing the floor and table in the main room. Lady Barb was nowhere to be seen, but Emily could hear her voice drifting back from the kitchen. Emily had to smile – Lady Barb could pay the teenagers more than they would earn elsewhere – and turned back to the caldrons. Brewing more than one potion at a time required careful concentration and was generally discouraged unless there was no alternative. She dropped in the first set of ingredients and watched, carefully, as the potions slowly brewed.
    Lady Barb stepped into the room and nodded, approvingly. “Keep a sharp eye on that one,” she instructed, pointing at the last caldron. “It smells funny.”
    Emily flushed, embarrassed. Alchemy was definitely not one of her skills. Professor Thande seemed to have a sixth sense for alchemical combinations that were about to go disastrously wrong, but Emily didn't share it. There were time she suspected that she wouldn't be allowed to take Alchemy past Fourth Year, no matter how well she did in other subjects. No matter how she tried, she had no idea that something was going wrong until it was too late to fix.
    “I will,” she promised. She glared down at the shimmering green liquid, trying to tease out whatever it was Lady Barb had sensed. But nothing came to mind. “What can you smell?”
    Lady Barb shrugged. Emily gritted her teeth in frustration. Some magic senses could be described easily, but not alchemy. Either she understood it instinctively, she suspected, or she would never understand it at all. She shook her head, then lowered the temperature for four of the caldrons. The potion needed to cool down before it became drinkable.
    “We’re short of bottles,” she said, as Lady Barb inspected the potions and pronounced them satisfactory. “Can we buy more here?”
    “Perhaps,” Lady Barb said. “Bottle up what you can, then put a preservation spell on the remaining potions. I’ll use them first.”
    She left, leaving Emily to finish the job. The final potion suddenly emitted a shower of sparks, then died. Emily swore under her breath, then carefully disposed of the wasted materials. Lady Barb had been right. Something had definitely gone wrong during the brewing process.
    One of the ingredients must have decayed, she told herself. She’d been careful to make sure that the right proportion of ingredients had been dropped into each of the caldrons. Professor Thande had taught them to make sure they used properly-prepared ingredients, but there was no alchemical supplier in the town as far as she knew. Whoever had raided the store hadn't bothered to make sure they didn't damage any of the remaining supplies.
    She bottled as much as she could, checking the preservation spells carefully, then carried one of the caldrons into the main room. The floor shone, having been scrubbed vigorously, while the tables looked perfectly clean. Emily caught the eye of a handful of youngsters eating at the table, no older than herself, before they looked away. She felt an odd sense of loss, knowing that she was from a different world in more ways than one. They couldn't be friendly with Apprentice Millie, let alone Baroness Emily.
    “Good work,” Lady Barb said, as Emily placed the caldron on the nearest to the wall and attached a handful of spells to ensure it wouldn't spill. She pointed into the kitchen, warningly. “Get some lunch.”
    Emily was surprised at the brusqueness of her tone, but supposed Lady Barb didn't want to appear too familiar with others around. She nodded and stepped into the kitchen, finding more bread and cheese under a preservation spell. There was nothing meaty at all, as far as she could tell. Regretfully, she started to chew the bread without going back into the main room. She didn't want the others staring at her while they ate their lunch.
    There was a loud knocking at the door. Emily stood upright, hastily replaced the preservation spells, then walked back out into the main room as Lady Barb opened the door. A heavily-pregnant woman stood on the other side, sweat pouring down her face. She started to gasp out an explanation, but Emily already understood. The woman’s contractions had begun and she was about to give birth. A moment later, she staggered and fell to the ground.
    “Help me get her onto the table,” Lady Barb snapped. She waved her hand, banishing the food and drink to another table. The visitors started backwards in shock, even though they'd known that Lady Barb was a sorceress. Magic wasn't really part of their lives. “Hurry!”
    The two boys ran forward and helped the woman to her feet, then half-carried her towards the table. Emily picked up a bottle of relaxant and carried it to the table, passing it to Lady Barb. Something nagged at the corner of her mind as the woman was placed on the table, an odd sense that something wasn't entirely right. But she couldn't place it.
    Lady Barb looked at the two girls. “Do you know who she is?”
    “Jeanette,” the older of the two girls said. Or at least Emily assumed she was the oldest. It was hard to tell in the countryside, when a young girl could look at least a decade older. “She’s married to my cousin.”
    “Go tell him that she’s here,” Lady Barb said. She passed her hand over Jeanette’s chest, casting a diagnostic spell. “She’s going to give birth in a few hours.”
    The girl nodded and fled out the door. Lady Barb carefully poured the potion into Jeanette’s mouth, then held her upright so she could swallow safely. At least there wouldn't be much pain, Emily told herself. Theory lessons on attending a birth had noted that relaxant potion could prevent pain from overwhelming the mother, without harming the child. Emily could only hope they were right.
    She frowned as the two boys stepped closer, eager to see. Something was wrong with them, something that kept nagging at her. It didn’t feel dangerous ...

    “Go,” Lady Barb ordered them, shortly. “There may be more work later.”
    Emily saw it, suddenly. One of the boys had calloused hands, the legacy of hard work since he was old enough to walk on his own two feet, the other ... had soft hands, the hands of someone who had never lifted anything heavier than a sword. He reminded her of some of Alassa’s suitors ... she looked up into his face and knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she was looking at the missing heir. He’d hidden out in the town right below his father’s castle!
    He looked back at her and knew she'd made the connection. Before she could say a word, he turned and bolted from the house, fleeing into the countryside as if devils were after him. Emily hesitated and looked at Lady Barb. The older woman seemed to have made the same connection.
    “Go after him,” she snapped, as Jeanette let out a moan. “Find out what he was doing here.”
    Emily turned and ran out the door. The missing heir – Rudolf, she reminded herself – had vanished into the countryside, running down, jumping across the stream that marked the edge of the town and losing himself among the trees. Emily cursed and gave chase, remembering all-too-well just how easily she’d been outrun by the boys during Martial Magic. She had to hope that Rudolf didn't have any magical assistance or she’d never find him at all.
    The trees closed in rapidly as she followed him, hearing the sounds of a body crashing through the undergrowth ahead of her. She gritted her teeth as branches seemed to lash out at her, holding her hands up to protect her face as she ran. The sound of his footsteps seemed to fade as she ran faster, although she couldn’t tell if he was outrunning her or if he'd decided to go to ground somewhere. It would be far too easy, she reflected sourly, for him to hide. She hadn't had time to even think of attaching a tracking hex to his back.
    She paused as the sound of footsteps faded away completely, breathing hard as she stared into the shadows. Sergeant Harkin had followed his students through the forest without breaking a sweat, without the use of any magic at all. It hadn't been so surprising, somehow, at the time, but in hindsight ... he’d been a remarkable man. A twinge of the old guilt rose up within her – Sergeant Harkin had been one of her few father-figures – but she pushed it away ruthlessly. There was no time to let her mind wander.
    What did Rudolf want? The question nagged at her mind. Why had he run from his father? And why hadn't he run further? Emily knew she was observant – it was one of the things she’d been taught in martial magic – but surely someone who actually knew him might have spotted his disguise earlier. Hell, why hadn't the other teenagers betrayed him? The town wasn't large enough for a stranger to remain unnoticed?
    And was it any of their business?
    Emily listened, carefully, but apart from the chirping of birds she heard nothing. Rudolf had either outpaced her completely or he was hiding, trying to sneak away as quietly as possible. The question nagged at her mind. Was it any of their business? Lady Barb had told her, time and time again, that they had to stay out of local politics. But Emily couldn't help feeling sorry for someone fleeing an abusive parent – if, of course, the lord was abusive. Was that why Rudolf had fled?
    She shook her head, dismissing the thought, then slipped forward as quietly as possible. The undergrowth was even murkier than it was at Whitehall, she realised; it was quite possible that she would walk very close to Rudolf and miss him completely. If he'd been running through the forest as a child, he’d be able to hide ... she glanced around, looking for signs of his path, but saw nothing. No doubt he knew how best to hide himself.
    Should she call for him? Emily considered it, then dismissed the thought. Anyone could hear her shouting, including the soldiers. If they’d noticed Rudolf as he fled ... no one seemed to have followed Emily, but that didn't prove anything. She continued creeping forward, listening carefully. Something moved, far too close to her, and she jumped, then stared at a shape crouching on the ground.
    She found her voice. “Rudolf?”
    The shape moved, rolling over and standing up. Up close, even wearing peasant clothes, Rudolf was a handsome youth. His dark hair fell over an elegantly-shaped face, with no trace of any of the blemishes she’d seen on the other town children. In some ways, he reminded her of Jade, but there was a harder edge to his smile. He watched her with the deepest of suspicion.
    Emily readied a spell, in case he attacked her, then held up her hands. “Why are you running?”
    Rudolf stared at her. “It’s none of your business,” he snapped. “Get out of my life.”
    “You’re the one who walked into our building,” Emily pointed out. It wasn't very mature, but she couldn't help it. “I need to know what you were doing there.”
    “Hiding,” Rudolf said, after a long moment. “I wanted to be safe.”
    Emily lifted her eyebrows. “In the middle of a small army of soldiers?”
    “Those dunces never see anything,” Rudolf snapped. The disdain in his voice made her wince. Sergeant Miles had taught her that even an untrained opponent could be dangerous. “Father has been pulling in more recruits than he can train.”
    Emily shrugged. Clearly, Rudolf knew his father’s men better than she did. And she had to admit that he’d been right. It had been an outsider who had finally spotted him. “Why are you on the run?”
    Rudolf met her eyes. “Can I have your word you won’t betray me?”
    “I don’t know,” Emily said. Oaths were dangerous things and she'd already sworn one, which might come back to haunt her sooner or later. “Can I have your word its none of our concern?”
    “My father wants me to marry someone,” he said. “I don’t want to marry her.”
    Emily winced. She understood the impulse, all right. God knew she’d had enough marriage proposals from people she didn't even know to be grateful that Void wasn't trying to sell her to the highest bidder. Some of the girls and boys she knew at Whitehall had precisely that problem. Their families saw them as breeding stock first and individuals second. It was even worse among the aristocracy.
    “Don’t come after me,” Rudolf said. There was a pleading note in his voice. He was begging her, she realised. Whoever his father wanted him to marry had to be horrible. “Please!”
    He turned and fled at blinding speed. Emily gave chase, but this time Rudolf had a definite advantage. She reached for a spell, shaping it in her mind, then dismissed the magic before it had properly formed. Rudolf had done her no harm. Instead, she followed him through a tangled mass of trees ... and ducked, too late, as something came lashing out at her head. The world seemed to explode into darkness ...
    ... She hit the ground, hard enough to hurt. Her head spin madly; she’d hit a branch, she realised, through the haze covering her thoughts. She felt sick; she rolled over, swallowing desperately. The world seemed to fade in and out of her awareness ... she wondered, in a moment of clarity, if this was how she was going to die. After everything she'd done, it was a little anticlimactic. Her body seemed too weak to move.
    There was a hiss, right in front of her. Emily opened her eyes, unaware of exactly when she'd closed them, and looked. Her entire body froze with fear.
    She was staring into the golden eyes of a Death Viper.
     
  10. STANGF150

    STANGF150 Knowledge Seeker

    Damn you an your Cliffhangers Chris!!! o_O
     
  11. Sapper John

    Sapper John Analog Monkey in a Digital World

    Awesome work Chris, thank you for sharing it!
     
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twenty
    Emily caught her breath, unable to move.
    The snake was sitting on her chest, it’s eyes eying her face with unblinking malice. It wasn't very large, barely thirty centimetres long with blue-gold scales, but she knew it was absolutely lethal. Even touching it with her bare skin risked losing her hand; a single bite would kill her within seconds. It’s head slowly rose, moving from side to side in a hypnotic pattern. She couldn't escape the sensation that it was biding its time before striking at her.
    She tried frantically to think of a plan. A movement, any moment, might cause the strike to strike; there was no way she could simply brush it away from her. She could try to use magic, but if she alarmed the snake she might be bitten faster. And her body would be warmer than the surrounding environment. It was unlikely the snake would want to move elsewhere until it got hungry and it might bite her before then anyway.
    The snake hissed. Emily felt a shiver running through her body as she stared at it, wondering if she dared try to jump upright. If she did it fast enough, maybe she could throw the snake away before it could bite her. But her mind refused to believe it; fear kept her still, as motionless as possible. It was only a matter of time until the snake bit her. She wanted to use magic to call Lady Barb, but she wasn't sure she could cast the spell without alarming the creature. Lady Barb might find her dead and rotting body after the snake had eaten its fill.
    She met the golden eyes again and shuddered, despite her best efforts. The snake seemed to reach out and invade her mind, although she wasn't sure if it was real or if it was just her imagination, aided and abetted by outright fear. There was something about it that held her frozen, something more than the threat of being bitten or merely touched. She felt a sudden warmth against her chest and realised, in horror, that the snake was slowly burning through her shirt. It wouldn't be long before the poison sank into her body and killed her outright.
    A thought occurred to her and she stared at the snake. She knew the spells for taking a familiar, an animal companion, but she’d never been able to bond with anything. It wasn't uncommon – only a handful of magicians ever bonded with an animal – but the spells had been hammered into her head in Second Year. Did she dare try to take the snake as a familiar? She tried desperately to recall what she’d been told about such creatures; they couldn't harm their humans, if she recalled correctly, and they aided with certain types of magic. But there was a price in return ...
    The warmth against her chest grew stronger. There wasn't much time left. Emily braced herself, then cast the spell. The Death Viper hissed angrily as the magic reached out to touch it, then there was a sudden blur of sensation that threatened to overwhelm Emily's mind. It felt like she'd been transfigured into a snake herself, but different ... as if she was both human and snake at the same time. She had a sudden vision of her body, her pale face staring down in fear, then the magic faded away. The Death Viper hissed – somehow, the sound was no longer so threatening – and slid off her chest. Emily let out a sigh of relief and, despite her exhaustion, stood upright. The Death Viper looked up at her with a curiously biddable expression, insofar as it could have an impression. It took her a moment to realise that she was reading its emotions through the familiar bond.
    It felt ... strange. Every work of fiction she’d read concerning familiar suggested that they could talk to their pet humans. Instead, all she received from the creature were impressions, half of which didn't even make any sense. The ground was warm, she was warm, the rest of the world was not ... she shook her head, unsure what to do. Most familiar bonds were forged under controlled conditions. But she'd never heard of anyone trying to bond with a Death Viper.
    She looked down at her shirt and gasped. There was a dark mark on her chest where the snake had sat, slowly burning through the material. Emily gritted her teeth, then carefully – very carefully – pushed the shirt away from her body and disintegrated it into dust, acidic poison and all. There was an odd resonance in her magic – it was linked to the snake now, she realised – which faded away almost as quickly as she noticed it. Her undershirt felt thin and revealing against her chest, but there was no alternative. Rudolf had hardly given her time to snatch up her bag before she’d run after him.
    Shaking her head, she looked down at the snake, which looked back at her. The waves of snakelike sensations grew stronger as she met the golden eyes. It loved her, she realised dimly, even though part of it realised that the feeling wasn't natural. But then, what sort of idiot would try to domestic a Death Viper? The snakes were so lethal that nature hadn’t even bothered to provide them with any form of camouflage.
    “So tell me,” she said, out loud. “What should I call you?”
    There was no response. Emily rolled her eyes at herself; of course there wouldn't be any response. The snake wasn't human, it wasn't even intelligent in its own right. She suspected it wasn't even touched by wild magic or deliberately altered to be intelligent. It was just a snake, even though it was now bonded to a human. It didn't make it automatically intelligent enough to hold a conversation.
    “Maybe I should call you Voldemort,” she said. The thought made her snicker. A snake called Voldemort. It sounded like a piece of slash fan fiction. “Or maybe Scales.”
    The snake didn't seem to like either of those names. It moved, curling up and uncurling with astonishing speed. Emily couldn't fear it any longer, but she still felt a cold shiver as she realised just how quickly Death Vipers could move. She’d never had the impression snakes could actually chase humans down, yet now ... there was an odd sense from the Death Viper, an impression that there were dead humans nearby. Emily hesitated, then followed the snake as it plunged into the undergrowth. It seemed to want to show her what it had seen.
    She half-expected to see Rudolf. She had no idea how Death Vipers mated and bred, but she was sure that where there was one there would be others. Maybe Rudolf had run into a Death Viper too and been killed. Surely, someone who lived near such creatures would know better than to be caught by one, but the snakes were lethal. She had a vision of a snake dropping down from the trees to land on its target and realised, a moment later, that it came from her new familiar. Reluctantly, she looked up and saw ... nothing.
    The bodies came into view a moment later, lying in a hollow off the beaten track. Emily gagged at the smell ... and gagged again when she realised just how many animals had taken bites out of the corpses. Several of them had been so baldy gnawed that it was hard to tell just how many of them there actually were, but there were at least three reasonably-intact bodies. All three of them were children – and all three of them had died from multiple knife wounds to the chest.
    She felt her senses shiver in response to magic as she stepped closer, fighting to keep herself from throwing up. The bodies were coated in magic, magic that reminded her of the feeling that had surrounded Shadye. It had to be the residue of a necromantic rite. She looked closer, feeling an odd sense that something wasn't entirely right. Two of the three children had been stabbed in the wrong place. Their mana, if they had mana, couldn't have been drained properly.
    Odd, Emily thought. It looked as if the necromancer – and she had no doubt there was a necromancer – had wanted life energy, rather than magic. Would that be enough to drive him mad? She wondered just how long the bodies had been lying there and received a handful of impressions from the snake, but none of them made any sense to her. The Death Viper didn't keep track of days or weeks, not like a human. All it could tell her was that the bodies hadn’t been there for longer than a season.
    The snake hissed. There was another bizarre sense of impressions, followed by a sudden terrifyingly fast movement. Emily turned, just in time to see a rat-like creature swallowed whole by the Death Eater. She stared at the sudden bulge, wondering just how long it would take the snake to digest its meal. The impressions she was receiving suggested that it wanted to sleep now. She yawned in sympathy, then shook her head. Who knew what else was lurking in the dark forest.
    “Come on,” she said, taking a look up at the sky. She’d been away for hours. Lady Barb would have to be getting worried. “Let's go back to the town.”
    She cast a glamour over herself, hiding her undershirt, and then started to walk. There was a reluctant hiss as the snake started to move, sliding along behind her as if it were perfectly natural. Oddly, Emily felt reluctant – no, unable – to leave the snake behind. It was hers now, no matter what it had been in the forest. Besides, it could navigate the interior quicker than herself. It would have been hard to get back to the town without it.
    “Don’t do anything to alarm anyone,” Emily instructed the snake. She wondered if she could pick it up safely, then decided not to take the risk. Familiars couldn't harm their owners, not directly, but the rotting touch could be unintentionally lethal. There were plenty of cautionary tales of magicians who’d bonded with horses and then fallen off at a gallop. “I don't want you dead.”
    She slowed as she reached the outskirts of the town, then walked up towards the guesthouse. A handful of soldiers stood outside, surrounding a large carriage that reminded Emily of the carriages she’d seen in Zangaria, only less elegant. The soldier looked at her, then stared in horror as they saw the Death Viper slithering after her. Emily had never seen grown men panic before, not outside a handful of group exercises in Martial Magic. They seemed torn between running and finding something to throw at the snake, hoping to drive it off.
    Emily held up her hands in supplication. “It’s perfectly fine,” she said. They looked at her as though they thought her insane. “Really.”
    She walked past them, the snake dogging her heels like a tiny dig, and pushed open the door to the main room. Inside, the woman lay on a mattress, a baby lying next to her, while a grim-faced man was speaking quietly to Lady Barb. She'd erected a privacy ward, Emily saw, as she closed the door behind her. All she could hear from her mentor was gibberish.
    “Emily,” Lady Barb said, cancelling the ward. “I ...”
    Emily had to smile as Lady Barb saw the snake. Her mouth dropped open, then she lifted her hand, preparing to cast a spell that would reduce the snake to raw materials. Emily hastily stepped in front of the snake and explained, bracing herself for the older woman’s reaction. But there was no choice. Losing her familiar, if she recalled correctly, would be wrenching at the very least.
    “We shall discuss this later,” Lady Barb said, finally. The snake hissed at her tone, then crawled over to the fire and curled up in front of it. “What happened to Rudolf?”
    The man looked over at Emily. “What happened to my son?”
    Emily looked at him. He was older than Rudolf, with more lines on his face, but otherwise very like him. There was something about him that bothered her; he reminded her, she realised slowly, far too much of her stepfather. His hands twitched, as if he was restraining himself was jumping up and beating answers out of her physically. She wasn't sure what she wanted to say to him.
    She knew that aristocrats weren't often given a choice in who they married. Even Alassa had been expected to make her choice from a shortlist her father had composed, all princes and all second sons. Somehow, it was worse to hear about a girl being forced into marriage than a boy, although she had to admit that there was little real difference. But perhaps there was; a man could go out and enjoy himself, even start an affair, while a woman wouldn't have the same licence. She had to carry the legitimate heir, after all.
    But there are spells to ensure fidelity, she reminded herself. Was Rudolf threatened with one?
    “He vanished into the countryside,” she said, carefully. It was true enough, although she suspected that Lady Barb would see that she was leaving part of the story out. “I couldn't follow him.”
    “You could have used magic to stop him,” Rudolf’s father snapped. He rose to his feet. “My son has got to be found.”
    “Sit down,” Lady Barb ordered. “Lord Gorham ...”
    “I will not permit him to be hidden from me,” Lord Gorham said. He glared at Emily, fists flexing violently, then he turned on Lady Barb. “I want her to talk.”
    “She has talked,” Lady Barb said. There was a cold note running through her voice, one that would have made Emily think better of whatever she was doing, if it had been aimed at her. “She was certainly not ordered to bring back your son.”
    They stared at each other for a long moment. “She should have known better,” Lord Gorham insisted, finally. “I will not have her ...”
    “But you don’t have to have her,” Lady Barb snapped, cutting him off. “I will deal with my apprentice, if necessary.”
    “It is necessary,” Lord Gorham said, subsiding slightly. “She let my son escape.”
    He looked over at Emily, then back at Lady Barb. “I expect you to handle it.”
    “I will do so,” Lady Barb said.
    Emily swallowed. She knew from Zangaria that innocence wasn’t always a defence, if the local aristocrat took a dislike to someone. Her predecessor as Baron had been a very nasty man.
    “And you’re both invited to dinner tonight,” Lord Gorham added. “It would be my pleasure to host you. You could tell me much about the Allied Lands.”
    The sudden change left Emily feeling oddly disconcerted. Lady Barb’s face showed no reaction.
    “We will be ... occupied this evening,” Lady Barb said, throwing an unreadable glance at Emily. “But we will be happy to join you tomorrow.”
    Emily lifted an eyebrow. She might not be as versed in aristocratic etiquette as Alassa, but she did know that turning down a dinner invitation was insulting. The aristocrats of Zangaria carefully kept each other informed of their plans, making sure that there was no opportunity to deliver an accidental insult. They might cut each other dead in public, but even the worst of enemies were prepared to cooperate long enough to prevent social disasters.
    Lord Gorham stood, bowed to Lady Barb, then turned and strode out of the door without looking back. Lady Barb watched him go, then walked over to Jeanette and checked on her and the baby. Emily followed, marvelling at just how tiny and fragile the baby seemed to be. It was impossible to believe that he would grow up into a large man ...
    “Don't worry,” Lady Barb said, softly. She picked up the baby and cradled him for a long moment, then put him back down beside his mother. “Your child will be fine.”
    There was a knock on the door. Emily opened it, bracing herself for more surprises, but it was merely Jeanette’s father, husband and sister. The men helped the tired girl to her feet, then carried her out the door, while the sister took the tiny baby and carefully carried him after her. Emily wondered, absently, what happened to mothers who had just given birth. Aristocratic women were expected to go into seclusion, but could a peasant woman afford to take so much time away from work?
    “The birth went well,” Lady Barb said, once the door was closed again. “Mother and son are both doing fine, though I had to give her a little extra potion midway through the birth. The excitement didn't really do her any good.”
    Emily winced. Most townsfolk, she suspected, wouldn't want to draw the attention of their lord. Jeanette had been giving birth when Lord Gorham had stormed into the building. If he blamed her, no matter how irrational it was ...
    “Someone must have told him his son was here,” Lady Barb continued. “He came here barely twenty minutes after you left, demanding answers. You may have made yourself an enemy today.”
    Emily sighed. There were at least twenty necromancers in the Blighted Lands who hated and feared her, thousands of guildsmen whose livelihoods had been upset by her innovations and half the remaining aristocrats of Zangaria, who resented her sudden elevation over their heads. Enemies were the one thing she wasn't short of. It was part of the reason she'd agreed to be Millie for the summer. No one would connect a shy apprentice with the Necromancer’s Bane.
    Lady Barb looked over at the snake. “I think it's time you explained yourself,” she added, sharply. “What happened to you and where did you get ... that?”
    Emily swallowed and started to explain.
     
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twenty-One
    “Only you, Emily,” Lady Barb said, when Emily had finished. “Only you.”
    The older woman shook her head in disbelief. “A Death Viper as a familiar,” she added, looking over at the snake. “I don't know if you’ll be allowed to keep it at Whitehall.”
    Emily winced. Somehow, the thought of being separated from the snake was unbearable. She knew, logically, that it was part of the bond she'd formed with the creature, but it didn't matter. There was no way she wanted to leave the snake behind when they left the mountains.
    “There are students with other dangerous pets,” she said. First Years were rarely allowed animals, but she’d seen older students with large dogs or other familiars. “Why not a Death Viper?”
    “Because,” Lady Barb pointed out sarcastically, “none of the other pets are lethal to the touch.”
    She shrugged. “You are immune to the snake’s poison,” she added. “You may be immune to the rotting touch. But, for anyone else, your pet is a deadly menace. And you do know how the bonds work? If you get angry at someone, the snake might attack them.”
    Emily shuddered. She could understand why Lady Barb was concerned, but at the same time she honestly couldn't get rid of the snake. There were ways to break the bond, she knew, yet she’d never heard of them being applied willingly. The snake was effectively part of her now.
    “I will have to give the matter some thought,” Lady Barb said. She motioned for Emily to sit down at the table, then produced yet more bread and cheese from the kitchen. “What happened between you and Rudolf? I hope it wasn't he who took your shirt.”
    Emily flushed. Lady Barb had seen right through the glamour. “It was damaged,” she said, shortly. If she went into details, Lady Barb might destroy the snake at once. In hindsight, she'd come far too close to death. “It wasn't his fault.”
    “Glad to hear it,” Lady Barb said. She put a piece of cheese on bread and nibbled it slowly. “And what actually did happen between you?”
    “He told me that he was running away from an arranged marriage,” Emily said, softly. “Is that actually true?”
    “It isn't uncommon,” Lady Barb said, thoughtfully. “Why didn’t you stop him?”
    Emily hesitated, then pushed forward. “I thought we weren't meant to get involved in local politics.”
    Lady Barb gave her a sharp look. “And the answer?”
    “I felt sorry for him,” Emily confessed.
    “His father was unhappy,” Lady Barb said. “But there was something odd about him, something that bothered me.”
    She looked down at the table, then back up at Emily. “What were your impressions of him?”
    “The father?” Emily asked. “I think he is the sort of person who will ignore his son’s feelings when he stands to benefit.”
    “Something most aristocrats have in common,” Lady Barb said, dryly. “I believe he was under the impression that you were going to bring him back.”
    Emily met her eyes. “Should I have brought him back?”
    “Perhaps not,” Lady Barb said. “We aren't meant to get involved in local politics.”
    “We may not have a choice,” Emily said. “I found several bodies too.”
    Lady Barb stared at her, alarm in her eyes. “That is the sort of thing that should be mentioned first,” she snapped, as soon as Emily had finished. “Why didn't you tell me at once?”
    Emily stared down at her hand, unsure. Lady Barb was right. She should have mentioned the bodies at once, even dragged Lady Barb out to see them. But they’d slipped her mind ...
    Lady Barb stood up and touched Emily's forehead, casting a light spell. “Someone used magic to hide the bodies,” she said, grimly. “Quite a subtle spell; if you hadn't been banged on the head, you might have forgotten the bodies altogether.”
    “I didn't notice,” Emily confessed. She cursed under her breath. Lin had used subtle magic to avoid detection, but this was far worse. “I ...”
    “That is something of the point,” Lady Barb pointed out, dryly. “But it’s odd.”
    Emily looked up at her. “How so?”
    “Necromancers are rarely subtle,” Lady Barb said. “Why would one of them take a handful of children and use them for power, then hide the bodies?”
    “I ... I don't know,” Emily confessed. Necromancers went insane; the first touch of necromancy started them on the path to madness. It was a law of nature. But it did take time for them to collapse completely. “It could be a newborn necromancer.”
    “Perhaps,” Lady Barb said. She looked over at the snake. “Can your friend tell us anything useful?”
    Emily shook her head. “The bodies weren't there last season,” she said. “But I don't know what it means by a season.”
    Lady Barb nodded. “I think I should take a look at the bodies,” she said. “If there is a necromancer running around, we have to deal with him.”
    Emily shuddered. The spell had left her feeling violated, even though she knew she had been lucky. If she’d forgotten the bodies completely, the necromancer would have hidden his victims successfully. It was quite possible that the parents of the missing children had forgotten they’d even existed ...
    “Someone broke into this building,” she said. “Could it be the necromancer?”
    “It's a possibility,” Lady Barb agreed. “But there’s too much about this case that doesn't make sense.”
    She cleared her throat. “Lord Gorham expects you to be punished for not bringing his son back to the castle,” she said. “You can stay here while I go hunting for the bodies. Don’t go outside, but help someone if they come here and ask for it.”
    “And pretend I’ve been thrashed,” Emily said, crossly. “Can you find the bodies without me?”
    “I can follow your tracks, I think,” Lady Barb said. Emily wasn't sure that it would be easy, but held her tongue. “In the meantime, I want you to write out a full report for the Grandmaster. We can put it in the postal coach before we leave town.”
    Emily nodded, reluctantly.
    “Then draw up some basic runes,” Lady Barb added. “We can provide ourselves with some basic protections, now we know to be alert.”
    “Understood,” Emily said. She hated sewing – unlike most of the female students, it wasn't a skill she'd been taught as a child – but there was no alternative. “If someone is using subtle magic, is it possible that Lord Gorham might be affected?”
    “It is,” Lady Barb said. “It’s also possible that he or Rudolf might be the mystery magician. That’s why we’re going to his castle tomorrow.”
    She picked up her staff, then walked out of the building, closing the door behind her. Emily looked over at the snake, then stood and retrieved parchment and a pair of quill pens from Lady Barb’s bag. Carefully, she wrote out an account of everything that had happened, silently grateful for the essays Sergeant Miles had made her write. He’d taught her how to be observant – and to make sure she wrote down everything, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. The smallest clue, he'd said, could lead to the most significant piece of information.
    Emily felt her fingers ache as she finished the letter, but she retrieved another piece of parchment and carefully started to draft out a letter to Jade. The words flowed easier, she was relieved to discover, now that they’d sorted out their relationship. Perhaps they could be good friends, after all. She smiled as she reread it, wondering what he would make of her observations of village life. The only detail she'd glossed over was Hodge’s attempt to rape her. Jade didn't have to know about it.
    The sun was setting in the sky when Lady Barb returned, looking tired. Emily took one look and hurriedly boiled water as Lady Barb sat down, looking too exhausted to move. She made a mug of Kava, passed it to the older woman, then sat down facing her. Lady Barb gulped the liquid down, despite the heat. Emily watched, worried. She'd never seen Lady Barb so exhausted before, even when they’d walked all day.
    “The bodies were very well hidden,” Lady Barb said, once she'd finished drinking. “A handful of glamours, a handful of runes ... and a spell of forgetfulness, intended to prevent anyone from walking away with any memory of what they saw. But it’s a little harder to fool animals. Your snake clearly knew they were there.”
    Emily nodded.
    “Whoever did it isn't a classically-trained magician,” Lady Barb continued. “It would be simple to destroy the bodies beyond recognition, but they settled for abandoning and concealing them. There were hints of vast power, combined with absolute ignorance. I think I might have noticed them even if I hadn't been looking. There's little so conspicuous as someone trying to hide.”
    Lady Barb took a breath. “And the rite was strange too,” she added. “Necromancy isn't that difficult.”
    “I think he was going for life force, rather than magic,” Emily said, quietly. “The wounds were in the wrong place for magic.”
    “It looked that way,” Lady Barb agreed. “But it doesn't quite make sense.”
    She shook her head. “Let me see the letter to the Grandmaster.”
    Emily passed her the scroll of parchment. Lady Barb read it quickly, then added a note of her own at the bottom and sealed it up, casting a handful of spells to ensure that the Grandmaster was the only one who could read it. Emily took it back and placed it by the door, intending to give it to the post office before they left.
    “I’ll have to write another one,” Lady Barb said. “If there is a necromancer on this side of the Blighted Lands, we may have a real problem on our hands.”
    She looked over at the snake for a long moment. “I had an idea,” she added, changing the subject. “You can transfigure the snake into something less harmful.”
    Emily narrowed her eyes. “A dog or a cat?”
    “I was thinking a bracelet,” Lady Barb said. “You wear it, all the time. No one thinks anything of it. But when you need a secret weapon ...”
    “The snake comes back to life,” Emily said. She hesitated, wondering if it was a good solution to her problem. The part of her that was linked to the snake seemed divided on the issue. She wasn't sure how the snake itself felt about it. “I’d have to keep the spell in place permanently.”
    “You wouldn't be the only person to carry a secret weapon,” Lady Barb pointed out. “And you are in far more danger than most of your classmates.”
    Emily nodded, remembering the knife Alassa had strapped to her leg. It had saved both of their lives in Zangaria. A hidden snake – a hidden absolutely lethal snake – would make a very useful weapon. If another necromancer came after her, she could order the snake to bite him ... if a necromancer could be killed by snakebite. But poison had been used to kill necromancers in the past, hadn't it?
    And there was a necromancer roaming the mountains right now ...
    “There's little hope of replacing the supplies we used in this town,” Lady Barb said. “I want you to write up a list of everything we used, then we can send it and a letter down to the nearest city. They’d have supplies to send back up here.”
    Emily nodded and left the table. The guesthouses were meant to be kept fully stocked, but the mystery thief had taken too much to be easily replaced. Someone would have to see to it before any further help could be offered to the townsfolk. She wondered, absently, if she could work out what the thief wanted from the stolen ingredients, before deciding that it was probably pointless. There hadn't been anything unique to one or two potions in the storehouse, not when such ingredients were too expensive to waste. Everything that had been taken had a multitude of uses.
    She wrote out a list anyway, careful to separate ingredients she'd used from ingredients that had been stolen, then walked back into the main room. Lady Barb had fallen asleep, resting her head on her arms as students had been known to do in the library. Emily smiled, placed the sheet of parchment on the far table, then looked over at her snake. It was still lying beside the fire, asleep. Emily crept around Lady Barb and clambered up the ladder into the bedroom. It was dangerous to disturb sleeping magicians.
    Despite her own tiredness, she didn't really feel like sleep. Instead, she wrote out another letter, this one to Imaiqah. She was a little more honest with her oldest friend, but kept the details about Hodge to herself. It wasn't something she wanted to talk about, even to the only one of her friends who might have understood. Alassa would have wanted to know why she hadn’t killed the young man.
    Finishing that letter, she wrote out another one to the Gorgon. She wasn't actually sure if it would reach her – the Gorgon lands weren't on the formal postal routes, which meant the letter would have to be delivered specially – but it was the thought that counted. Besides, the Gorgon had even fewer close friends than Emily herself. She finished the letter, undressed rapidly and walked over to the window. Outside, the moon was rising in the sky, casting eerie light over the town. No one, even soldiers, could be seen in the streets below.
    Emily had always liked the darkness, but this was different. The shadows could have hidden anything, from a vampire to a merely human enemy. And it did hide a necromancer. She peered into the darkness, wondering if the faint hints of light marked where someone had built a fire for the night ... or if it was something more sinister, waiting for them. A shape fluttered across the window and she jumped, catching her breath, before she realised that it was nothing more harmful than a bat. Shaking her head, she turned and walked back to bed.
    There were no marks on her skin, she discovered, not from where the snake had rested on her chest. She didn't know if she was unharmed because of the bond or because the snake’s skin hadn't had time to reach her bare flesh. Even now, with the snake downstairs, she could still feel it at the back of her mind, something that wasn't quite there, but still present. There were some stories about mental links between humans and animals that had chilled her to the bone, but she didn't seem to have picked up any of the bad effects. Or so she hoped.
    She closed her eyes and tried to sleep. But it was a long time before she dropped into a dark dreamless sleep.
    Lady Barb woke her the following morning as she undressed and changed into a new set of clothes. Emily found herself staring at the scars covering the older woman’s back, including a handful that looked as if she'd been flogged months ago. Outside, the sun was barely rising in the sky, but Emily didn't feel like going back to sleep. She pulled herself out of bed and looked over at her mentor. The scars went all the way down to Lady Barb’s buttocks.
    She found her voice. “What ... what happened to you?”
    “You don't want to know,” Lady Barb said, darkly. She was clearly in a vile temper. “Get dressed, then brew up the remaining potions. We will have more visitors this morning.”
    She kept Emily busy all day, moving between brewing potions to helping patients who needed some additional treatment. Emily tried to speak to her a couple of times, but after she was snapped at she decided to leave the older woman alone until she was ready to talk properly. She paused long enough to feed the snake something for lunch, then returned to work. Lady Barb wanted to get through the patients as soon as possible.
    “You know how to make your own protections,” Lady Barb said, when the last patient had departed and the door was firmly closed. “Have you tried applying the same principle to a transfiguration spell?”
    Emily shook her head. Transfiguration spells eventually wore off – or at least the prank spells did. Hodge would have turned back eventually, unless someone turned him into pork roast without realising what they’d done. But protections drew on her power permanently ...
    “You’ll need to keep the bracelet on or near you at all times,” Lady Barb instructed, as she showed Emily the spell. “Once it is too far from you, the snake will revert to normal. I suggest you add anti-theft jinxes to the snake, once it's a bracelet.”
    Emily shuddered. Someone might steal the bracelet ... and find out that they were clutching a lethal snake. She cast the spell carefully, keeping her eyes on the target, and sighed in relief when the snake became a simple metal bangle. There was a faint scaly pattern on the outside, she realised as she picked it up, but nothing else to indicate that it was anything other than a piece of jewellery. She added the two protective spells, then pulled it over her arm. She’d never been one for jewellery – she’d never had the money for anything special – but she had to admit it suited her.
    She closed her eyes, concentrating. The spell had frozen the snake’s mind – and it felt almost as if the snake was asleep.
    There was a sharp rap at the door. “That will be the carriage,” Lady Barb said. She sounded calmer now that the snake was harmless. Had it rattled her in the morning. “Go get into your dress robes. I’ll delay them.”
    She reached out and caught Emily's arm before she could reach the ladder. “And make sure you pack your staff,” she added. “You might need it.”
     
    bagpiper, kellory, STANGF150 and 2 others like this.
  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twenty-Two
    Whoever had designed the castle, Emily decided as the carriage wound its way up towards the grim forbidding mass, had read too many gothic horror stories. The towering battlements loomed over the countryside, giving it a distinctly sinister appearance. She didn’t even want to look at the road as it wound its way up towards the castle, plunging cliffs on both sides. A single strong gust of wind would blow the carriage over the side, sending them falling towards the jagged rocks below. Without magic, she decided, the castle would be almost impossible to take by force.
    It was smaller than her castle in Cockatrice, she realised, as they passed over the bridge – there was no moat, merely another plunging cliff – and into the courtyard. A handful of grim-faced soldiers strode about, several clearly being trained by men who resembled Sergeant Harkin. They didn't look very happy, Emily decided, although she shuddered to think about how she must have looked after her first class. A man dressed in red swept past them and down towards the carriage. Emily couldn't help noticing that several of the soldiers made rude faces at his back.
    “Lady Sorceress,” he said, addressing Lady Barb. “I welcome you to my lord’s castle.”
    “Thank you,” Lady Barb said. “We are honoured to be here.”
    Emily remained behind Lady Barb, like a good little apprentice. The man ignored her, concentrating on trying to impress Lady Barb. Emily rather doubted he was succeeding; the man reminded her far too much of one of Alassa’s servants from Zangaria, a little creep whose power depended on pleasing the King. But she followed the two of them down a series of stone corridors and into a large dining room, far larger than it needed to be. There was one table, with one chair placed at the end and two more midway down the side. Emily guessed that Lord Gorham would take the chair at the end, being the master of the castle, and she and Lady Barb were expected to take the other two chairs.
    “I welcome you to my castle,” Lord Gorham said, emerging from a side chamber. He sounded ... kinder than he'd sounded the previous day. “It is always a honour to play host to a sorceress.”
    “I think you,” Lady Barb said, as Emily hastily curtseyed. Her tone was surprisingly warm. “It is always a honour to visit a lord.”
    “Please, be seated,” Lord Gorham said. “We have much to talk about, I'm afraid.”
    Emily took her seat, wondering why the aristocracy either went for sinfully comfortable chairs or chairs so hard that they hurt the posterior. Lord Gorham seemed to believe that the latter was ideal; his chair might be larger than theirs, but it had the same solid wooden seating. Emily watched as Lady Barb sat down, sensing magic flickering around her mentor as she looked for trouble.
    “My son will return in time, I am sure,” Lord Gorham said, as the servants brought in the first dishes. Emily hadn't seen so much food for so few people since she'd last been in Zangaria. It looked as though they'd slaughtered the fatted calf. “He will take his place in my plans for the future.”
    Lady Barb looked over at Emily. Lord Gorham didn't sound angry or upset, merely ... unconcerned about Rudolf’s disobedience. It didn't make sense. Emily recalled just how angry he'd been when he’d heard that Emily hadn't retrieved his son. Had he thought better of snapping at a pair of magicians or was something else going on?
    “You may have another problem,” Lady Barb said, as Lord Gorham began to slice the meat, piece by piece. “We found a handful of dead bodies in the forest. A handful of dead bodies concealed by very powerful spells.”
    Emily watched Lord Gorham carefully, but he showed no reaction at all. Instead, he finished carving the meat and distributed it. That was not a normal reaction, she told herself; even if the aristocracy didn't care about the peasants, they had to care about a magician who was preying on their population. And then there was the proof of necromancy ...
    “My son will marry Lady Easter’s daughter,” Lord Gorham continued, as if Lady Barb hadn't spoken. “Together, they will unite our lands into one.”
    “The bodies were clearly used to power a necromantic rite,” Lady Barb said, sharply. “You have a rogue necromancer running around in your territory.”
    Lord Gorham still seemed unaware of her words. “Please, eat,” he said. “My cooks are the best in the maintains.”
    Emily took a look at the meat. It seemed undercooked, as though they’d merely waved the pig in front of a fire and then declared it done. The bread looked more appetizing, she had to admit, but the gravy smelt unpleasant. Cooking in Zangaria wasn't very elegant, not compared to cooking in Dragon’s Den, yet it was better than this!
    She took a nervous bite, then winced. It tasted unpleasantly fatty, as if the cook had carefully removed the good meat before starting to cook. Even the half-burnt rabbits and birds they’d cooked during camping trips for Martial Magic tasted better. She nibbled her bread, wondering just what atrocities the cook had performed to make the gravy. It looked as though the cook had merely melted some fat, then added a hint of flavour. She'd seen more appetizing food in the guesthouses she’d visited with Lady Barb.
    Maybe I can turn it into something more edible, she thought, desperately. But that would be rude.
    “Tell me,” Lady Barb said carefully, “why you want your son to marry Lady Easter’s daughter?”
    “Because it will unite our lands,” Lord Gorham repeated. “Lady Easter only holds the lands in trust for a male heir. My son will automatically become her lord, once he marries her daughter. And then he will succeed me and our lands will be joined.”
    He beamed, as if he expected them to bow down in wonder at his sheer brilliance. Emily had her doubts; Rudolf clearly hadn't wanted to marry the daughter and, for all she knew, the daughter felt the same way. And if Lady Easter was giving up political power when her daughter wed, she had a good reason to make sure that her daughter never married. Emily couldn’t recall if anything like it had happened on Earth, but she was fairly sure it must have done at one point.
    Lady Barb’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know that Lady Easter will allow your son to marry her daughter?”
    An odd look flickered across Lord Gorham’s eyes. “She will,” he said. There was nothing, but absolute confidence in his tone. “She will love to have my son married to her daughter.”
    “Why?” Lady Barb asked. “Why do you think she would give up power so readily?”
    Lord Gorham stopped, suddenly. “I ...”
    “And this marriage will upset the balance of power between the mountain lords,” Lady Barb added. Her eyes never left Lord Gorham’s face. “It could spark off a war. Why do you feel it is necessary?”
    Subtle magic, Emily realised. Lord Gorham had been programmed, to all intents and purposes, programmed to encourage his son to marry and ignore all traces of necromancy. A necromancer could dance in front of him, stark naked, and even that might remain unnoticed. But what necromancer could make subtle magic work? The stronger the magician, Emily knew, the harder it was for them to make subtle magic work well. It tended to be either blatantly noticeable or useless.
    She stood up and checked under her seat. It was a breach of etiquette to rise before the lord, but Lord Gorham barely noticed. The human mind didn't like being controlled, certainly not so subtly that it was impossible to notice without someone pointing it out. There were no runes scratched under her chair, but there was a thin trace of magic glittering across the floor.
    “I ... I don't know,” Lord Gorham said. “I ...”
    Emily threw caution to the winds and looked under Lord Gorham’s chair. There were four runes carved into the underside, one concealing the other three. She had no idea what they did – they weren't ones she had been taught at Whitehall – but they were clearly having an effect on Lord Gorham.
    “You're not in your right mind,” Lady Barb said, quietly. “What happened to you?”
    Lord Gorham rose to his feet, then staggered and collapsed. Lady Barb bit down an oath, then drew her staff from her pocket and enlarged it back to normal size, just as a handful of guards charged into the room. Emily groped for her own staff and raised a ward, while Lady Barb cast a spell that knocked the guards over. The staff twisted in Emily's hands, reminding her of the dangers of using one. She gritted her teeth, then put the staff down. As always, it was difficult to let go. It seemed to ensnare her mind.
    “Your master has been attacked,” Lady Barb said. “If we'd wanted to kill him, we could have done it by now.”
    She ignored the guards and concentrated on helping Lord Gorham to his feet. Once he was away from the chair, she snapped her fingers and the chair collapsed into broken splinters, destroying all trace of the runes. Emily felt the magic flicker out of existence, but she knew there would be more runes in other parts of the castle. Like Lin, Lord Gorham’s mystery opponent had probably hidden some in his bedchamber.
    “There were three runes I didn't recognise under the chair,” Emily said, as Lady Barb carried Lord Gorham over to the fire and placed him on the ground beside it. “Do you want me to draw them out?”
    “Better not, at least not now,” Lady Barb said. “You stay with him while I go search the castle. If he starts to wake up, summon me at once, but don't let anyone else near him.”
    Emily nodded. Lord Gorham had been under the influence of hidden runes for months, perhaps years. They’d worked on his mind like post-hypnotic suggestions, working their way into his innermost thoughts. A simple compulsion spell would be simple enough to break, but this was worse. Even with the runes destroyed, it would take years for him to return to normal.
    She looked around as Lady Barb stepped through one of the doors and vanished. A handful of swords and shields hung from one of the walls, while the others were just bare stone. She couldn't see anything to suggest why they were there, unless they were intended as concealed weapons. Sergeant Miles had told her that every aristocrat had a handful of concealed weapons in his home – and seemingly decorative swords might surprise someone. A chambermaid poked her head into the room, then fled when Emily looked up at her.
    Lord Gorham moaned, then subsided again. Emily heard a sound and looked up, just in time to see Lady Barb stepping back into the room. “There were runes everywhere,” she said, grimly. “Under his bed, in the bathroom ... quite a few more in Rudolf’s room. But they don’t seem to have had any effect on him.”
    Emily blinked. “Is he a magician?”
    “Subtle magic works on magicians too,” Lady Barb reminded her, rather sarcastically. “As far as I can tell, they should have worked. Perhaps the runes affecting Lord Gorham pushed him into trying to force his son into compliance, which made it harder for the runes targeted on him to work.”
    It sounded plausible, Emily decided. Subtle magic worked best when it was unnoticed and unquestioned. If someone didn't ask the right questions, they wouldn't even get a sniff of the framework the magic had made for them, let alone manage to break out. If Lady Barb was right, Rudolf had reacted badly enough to his father’s orders to override the runes.
    “There were quite a few different ones too,” Lady Barb continued. “One of them was designed to hide all traces of magic – I think it was partly to ensure that the mystery magician’s activities went unnoticed. Another was designed to make him listen to his advisor. I had a look around, but the man seems to have vanished. The guards said he left the castle as soon as the lord collapsed.”
    A Wormtongue, Emily thought. It had been years since she'd read The Lord of the Rings, but the principle of an evil advisor manipulating his monarch was far from uncommon. But is he the necromancer?
    “I couldn't find anything magical in his rooms, not even a trace of magic,” Lady Barb said, when Emily asked. “But that means he might well have been working for someone else.”
    “Shadye had at least one ally in Dragon’s Den,” Emily said, remembering the Dark Wizard who’d helped to steal some of her blood. “Why can't another necromancer have an ally?”
    Lady Barb shrugged. “Call the servants and get them to bring in some blankets,” she ordered, instead of trying to answer the question. “We may as well make him comfortable.”
    Emily nodded and obeyed. When she returned, she saw Lady Barb holding one hand against Lord Gorham’s forehead, as if she were feeling his temperature. The man's eyes were open, staring up at the sorceress. His face was twisted in a confused grimace, as if he didn't quite know where he was. Emily rubbed her own forehead in sympathy. The bruise from where she’d hit her head had yet to fade, even if it wasn't sore.
    “My son,” he said, between gasps. “Call him.”
    “I don't know where he is,” Lady Barb said. She shot Emily a questioning glance, but Emily shook her head. “He could be anywhere by now.”
    Emily nodded. It hadn't occurred to her until too late that Rudolf probably knew the forest like the back of his hand. If he’d wanted to hurt her, he could easily have led her into a trap or circled around and attacked her from behind. Or he might just have lit out for the next little kingdom and hidden until his father’s madness faded away. Now the runes were gone, it would start to abate.
    But Rudolf won't know that, she reminded herself. How will he know to come home?
    “The runes won’t be pushing on his mind anymore,” Lady Barb said. “But I find myself caught between two problems. Do we stay here and look after him or do we start looking for the necromancer?”
    Emily shrugged. She’d faced one necromancer and she didn't want to face another one, certainly not away from Whitehall. They might well not want to find the necromancer, if they searched for him. But their best chance of removing the threat was to find him before he started the transformation into an eldritch abomination. She felt the metal bracelet at her wrist and smiled, inwardly. Perhaps she could just let the necromancer take the bracelet and find that they were holding a poisonous snake.
    Lady Barb cleared her throat. “Well?”
    “We wait for a day or two,” Emily said, realising that Lady Barb expected her to try to answer the question. No doubt it was a Secret Test of Character or something like it. “If he recovers, or if Rudolf returns, we can move onwards and try to find the necromancer.”
    She scowled. Aristocrats had very firm ideas about who should be in charge. Even if there was a trusted subordinate around, he couldn’t be left in charge for very long. Emily privately thought the whole concept absurd, but it was Tradition. If something happened to her, she had no idea what would happen to her Barony. It wasn't as if she had a child to take over in her place.
    “Good thinking,” Lady Barb said. She gave Emily a tight smile. “Go organise the servants into making up some new rooms, but check the beds first – carefully. I will be very annoyed with you if you miss a single rune.”
    Emily nodded. “This is what you meant, isn't it?”
    Lady Barb lifted her eyebrows.
    “About magic being feared out here,” Emily explained. “Someone was working magic and no one even noticed until we arrived.”
    Lady Barb nodded. “Too many odd things have happened,” she said. “Lords building up their armies, preparing for war. A necromancer who doesn't seem to have gone completely insane, one capable of using subtle magic. A aristocrat trying to make a match that would shatter the balance of power and unite his enemies against him; a son who seems immune to the runes pressing his father on towards disaster. Missing children ... and no one seems to have noticed.”
    “There were rumours,” Emily reminded her. “We heard them during the Faire.”
    “True,” Lady Barb agreed. “But if the children vanished from the town, someone would have noticed. Wouldn't they?”
    Emily nodded, mutely. Maybe her stepfather and mother hadn't noticed her disappearance, but not all parents were so careless. King Randor might have raised Alassa as a spoilt brat, yet he clearly loved her. And Imaiqah’s father loved her too. They would have noticed if either of their children had gone missing. But she remembered the abused boy and grimaced. Perhaps, if the children had been unloved, they would have been taken and no one would have cared.
    But she had a hard time imagining that no one had noticed.
    “It would be hard for even subtle magic to make them forget,” Lady Barb added. “A child is terrifyingly important to the parents.”
    “I forgot the bodies,” Emily said. In hindsight, it was easy to tell that magic had worked its will on her mind. If she hadn't been asked for a full explanation the bodies might have vanished from her memory completely. “Could magic have made them forget their children anyway?”
    “I very much hope not,” Lady Barb said. “Go organise the servants. I’ll stay with Lord Gorham.”
    Emily nodded and obeyed.
     
    bagpiper, kellory, STANGF150 and 2 others like this.
  15. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

     
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twenty-Three
    Being an apprentice, Emily had been told, meant taking on some of the mistress’s power and position. She hadn't really understood what that meant until she'd found herself issuing orders – and being obeyed. A sorceress was, to all intents and purposes, an aristocrat, equal to almost any mundane aristocrat. ‘Millie’ might not be an entitled aristocrat, but she could issue orders and everyone assumed she spoke with Lady Barb’s voice.
    “I want you to sew out these patterns,” she told the maids. Unlike Emily herself, the serving girls knew how to sew properly. “Sew them into cloth, then make sure everyone in the castle is carrying at least one.”
    She watched the maids go to work, sewing protective runes. If she recalled correctly, it didn't take much effort to counteract the dangerous runes, once they were actually detected. Runes were only dangerous when they were unseen, she knew; once they were noticed, their influence could be easily countered. Lord Gorham and his men would question everything they’d done for weeks, exposing the less sensible and logical decisions for what they were.
    Lady Barb took care of Lord Gorham, leaving Emily to roam the castle looking for additional runes. They were scattered everywhere, blindingly obvious once people knew to look for them, as if the advisor had carved them into every last room. Emily was unwillingly impressed. Even a Runecarver might have been unable to achieve such through saturation of a castle. But then, he would have been carving defensive runes.
    “My Lady,” one of the guards said, breaking into her thoughts. “We found a body at the bottom of the abyss. The Advisor is dead.”
    Emily winced. One thing she hoped she would never get used to was how cheap life was in the countryside – and everywhere else. The guard didn't seem concerned by the body, no matter who it had belonged to. She pushed the thought aside as she considered the problem, carefully. No doubt the mystery necromancer had killed the Advisor when he had outlived his usefulness – or included a suicide command in whatever instructions he’d been given, if he hadn't acted of his own free will. There was no way to know.
    “Thank you,” she said, carefully. “Where there any wounds on the body?”
    “Merely a broken neck,” the guard informed her. “What do you wish done with the body?”
    Lady Barb would want to take a look, Emily knew. “Put the body in storage for the moment,” she ordered. “Once my mistress has looked, it can be destroyed.”
    She watched the guard go, then walked through into the tiny library. There were only a couple of dozen books in the room, stacked up on one shelf. Emily couldn't help thinking that her quarters in Whitehall deserved the title of library far more than the castle’s library, at least if one went by sheer volume of books. She’d bought more books than she cared to think about over the last year, storing them in her trunk. Clearly, the Cairngorm Lords were not great readers.
    One of the books was a genealogical table, tracking the bloodlines of the different aristocratic families in the area. Emily had seen something like it in Zangaria, owned by the Royal Family, but this one was different. It took her several moments to work out that while King Randor and his family had never acknowledged anyone as their equal, the mountainside lords accepted their fellows as being on the same level as themselves. She couldn't help wondering if it gave them a greater chance of breeding strong sons and daughters, not when Zangaria had had real problems with the Royal Bloodline. The wider the range of potential mates, the greater the chance of healthy children.
    Lord Gorham only had one son, she noted, and no daughters. That made him unique, among the mountainside lords; the second smallest brood consisted of three children, all sons. She wondered, absently, why Lord Gorham had never married again. It wasn't as if there would be any question over who would succeed him to the lordship. Or was there? What would happen to the younger sons and daughters once their father died?
    Earth’s history provided several examples, none of them good. The Ottoman Sultans had butchered all other possible heirs, preventing civil war at the cost of mass slaughter. Europe had tried to find uses for younger sons, marrying them off to the right girls or sending them into the army. But how many of those were possibilities here? She traced the lines of descent and swore, inwardly. Lord Gorham’s plan to marry his son to Lady Easter’s daughter would definitely spark off a war. A daughter couldn't inherit power, so it would fall naturally to her husband.
    He needed a second son, Emily thought, morbidly. King Randor had tried hard to produce more children, but Lord Gorham, it seemed, had just abandoned the thought after producing Rudolf. He would have been a safer choice.
    She put the book to one side and looked through the other titles. None of them seemed interesting, apart from a couple of dusty history books. Emily pulled one of them off the shelf, marvelling at just how old it was, and placed it carefully on the table. There were ancient books at Whitehall, she knew, but they were touched with preservation spells. These books were steadily decaying into dust. She briefly considered taking them with her, then resolved to ask Lord Gorham to take better care of his books. Reading would only become more and more important as the New Learning spread through the Allied Lands.
    Even so, deciphering the book’s text was difficult. Emily had learned to speak the common tongue shared by the Allied Lands, but reading was another matter. She had to cast a translation spell to make any headway at all, yet half of the words still didn't quite make sense. Gritting her teeth, she started to read what she could, only to wind up more and more puzzled. The author didn't seem to be aware of the difference between writing history and historical fiction. It was difficult to tell when any of the events had actually taken place – and almost all of the credit for gallant deeds went to a single family. Emily guessed that the writer was being paid by them to rewrite history in their favour.
    But even so, it was an interesting read. The writer talked about the wars with the Faerie, of the days when monsters roamed the lands and hordes of dragons flew through the skies, breathing fire on all who dared to oppose them. Emily smiled as she read an account of a young boy taking on a giant – it sounded like David and Goliath – and beating him through trickery. Other accounts talked about fighting strange monsters that remained unnamed and unrecognised. Sometimes, the writing became completely illegible, no matter what spells she used. The writer might not have dared write everything down.
    She toyed with the snake-bracelet as she returned the book to the shelf, then looked at the remaining titles. None of them seemed interesting, so she turned and walked out of the library, through a series of dark stone corridors. The castle didn't even have mounted torches, let alone lanterns, to light its interior. Emily wondered, absently, if it was intended as a defensive measure or if servants were simply expected to carry lights everywhere they went.
    Lady Barb looked up as Emily slipped into the makeshift bedroom. Lord Gorham lay on the mattress, sweating heavily. Emily didn't recall feeling such effects when she’d realised just how badly she’d been influenced by Lin’s runes, but then she'd been trapped as a stone statue for much of the time. It still chilled her to realise just how close she'd come to being petrified forever.
    “He’s recovering, but very slowly,” Lady Barb said. “It may take some time before he’s completely healed.”
    Emily nodded. She’d been shocked when she’d first discovered how easy it was to use magic to manipulate a person’s mind, but she’d been at Whitehall, where help had been on hand if necessary. Here, there was no one to help Lord Gorham ... and he wouldn't want to admit, even to himself, just how easily he’d been manipulated. His pride wouldn't let him. It reminded her of a lecture from her professor, months ago.
    “The mind exists within a framework – and if that framework is warped by subtle magic, it is impossible to tell from the inside that it has been warped,” the Professor had said. “A person on the outside might notice odd behaviour, but a person on the inside will accept it as completely normal. Given time, they will betray everything they hold dear, still convinced they are doing the right thing.”
    She shivered. Or, as Earth had put it, if the universe was shrinking, and all the tools one used to measure it were shrinking as well, how would anyone know the universe was shrinking?
    “Get some sleep, then go down to the town and speak to the headman,” Lady Barb added. Emily glanced at her watch and realised, to her shock, that it was three bells in the morning; she’d quite lost track of time. “Ask him if the dead children came from his town – and if Rudolf is still around. Someone must have known he was there.”
    She smiled. “And post the letters at the same time,” she ordered. “We need to alert the White Council.”
    Emily yawned, then walked into the next room. The maids had set up a small bed for her and a larger one for Lady Barb, but she cast wards and checked for runes before climbing into bed. If nothing else, she told herself, she could have a proper wash in the morning. But when she awoke, she discovered that the maids had to carry in a large bathtub, followed by buckets of water. Guiltily, she cursed her own oversight, tipping the maids with coins from her pouch. Of course they wouldn’t have hot running water in the castle.
    She washed herself thoroughly, then wrapped one of the cloths around her wrist. The rune the maids had sewn into it looked to be firmly in place, but she checked it anyway, just to be sure. She’d been told that a sewn rune would start to unpick itself if it was on the verge of being overwhelmed, yet there had been so many runes in the castle that she wasn't sure if that would still hold true. Perhaps there had been so many, she decided, that the runes intended for Rudolf had been drained of power by the ones affecting his father. But, as far as she knew, there was no limit on how many runes a magician could use.
    Lady Barb was still sitting next to Lord Gorham, asleep in his chair. A protective ward spat sparks at her as she approached, so she left Lady Barb alone and walked into the main hall. The maids had already set out breakfast, which – thankfully – looked more appetizing than the meat from the previous night. Emily ate quickly, thanked the maids – they seemed astonished to be thanked for anything – then walked to the castle gates. The Captain of the Guard bowed low to her and offered an escort down to the town. Emily thanked him, but declined. She wanted a chance to clear her head.
    She regretted it almost as soon as she started to walk. The road was narrower than she’d realised, with plunging cliffs on both sides. It was easy to imagine accidentally walking over the edge in the darkness – or being thrown off the road, if she was trying to attack the castle. She couldn't help thinking of some of the pictures she’d seen of homes built by mighty sorcerers, sorcerers with more power than common sense. They’d balanced castles on tiny threads of land or sculpted them out of clouds. But it didn't take much magic to disrupt the spells holding them together, allowing gravity to reassert itself. Void’s tower was far simpler, she remembered, and safer for him.
    It was a relief when the road finally reached bottom and headed down into the town. Someone had pulled the soldiers back to the castle, she saw, and crowds of people were bustling around, their faces torn between worry and relief. She wondered just how much they knew about what had happened in the castle, then decided it probably didn't matter. The rumours would be much – much – worse. Several people cast odd glances at her, then looked away hastily. Emily forced herself to stand upright as she strode towards the headman’s house, trying to project a display of confidence. She wasn't sure it worked.
    The town was definitely better organised than the first village they’d visited, she decided, as she walked past a blacksmith’s house. Behind it, there was a fishmonger, calling for people to come and eat his fresh fish. The blacksmith – one of the beefiest men Emily had ever seen – didn't seem impressed, either with the shouting or with the stench drifting through the air. Emily wrinkled her nose, then walked onwards to the headman’s house. Behind her, she heard the sounds of a fight breaking out. She didn't look back.
    There were two men outside the headman’s house as she approached. Emily forced herself to keep projecting confidence as she walked up to the door. One of them opened it for her and called inside, the other bowed deeply, but kept one hand on his sword. Emily wondered, absently, just why they were guarding their headman, before deciding it didn't matter. She stepped inside and blinked in surprise as she saw the headman, sitting on a chair that seemed to balance on top of a ladder. It had to be his version of a throne.
    She concealed her amusement as he stepped down and bowed to her. “Lady Sorceress,” he said. Up close, he was shorter than she'd realised – and fat enough to roll downhill. She couldn't help wondering how he managed to eat so well, particularly when she hadn't seen any other fat men since leaving the Faire. But he certainly looked kinder than Hodge’s father. odgebn“What can I do for you?”
    Emily reminded herself, firmly, that she wasn't a supplicant. “There are two matters that need to be discussed,” she said, trying to channel Lady Barb. “Have any children gone missing from your town?”
    The headman looked surprised. “Of course not,” he said. “We haven't lost anyone.”
    But you gained one, Emily thought. Somehow, Rudolf had managed to pose as a townsperson for several days. She kept that thought to herself.
    “No one,” she said. Surely, even the most powerful runes couldn't hide a missing child from her parents? “The next issue, then; where is Rudolf?”
    The headman started. Clearly, he'd been anticipating some uncomfortable questions from his lord after Rudolf had been discovered in his town. Emily wondered, absently, just what Lord Gorham would do, then decided that it was likely to be horrific. Or perhaps he would just invite Lady Barb to use magic to interrogate the headman.
    “I don't know,” the headman said, finally. “He ran into the countryside and vanished.”
    Emily studied him for a long moment, then decided he seemed to be telling the truth. “Tell him that the matter has been solved and he is welcome to return home, should you see him again,” she said. She suspected that Rudolf had friends in the town, insofar as he could have friends. The social gulf between him and the townsfolk was staggering. “But the countryside isn’t safe.”
    The headman’s eyes narrowed. “Why not?”
    Emily hesitated. She could tell them about the necromancer ... but what good would that do? It wasn't as if they could do anything about it – all they could do was flee. But if they did, where would they go? She doubted that any of the other tiny kingdoms in the mountains could handle a horde of refugees. And yet, if they stayed where they were, they would be nothing more than fodder for the necromancer.
    “It isn't safe for him,” Emily said, weakly. She dreaded to imagine what one of the other mountain lords would do with Rudolf, let alone the necromancer. Lord Gorham would have to make whatever concessions they wanted, just to have his son returned. “Please tell him, if you see him. Spread the word.”
    “Of course, My Lady,” the headman said.
    Emily flushed, half-convinced she was being mocked. Sergeant Miles used the exact same tone when he was pointing out one of her mistakes, although he was an equal-opportunity mocker. She might have been his youngest student, but he had no qualms about mocking anyone older when they screwed up either. And yet she respected the Sergeant and she didn't know or like the headman.
    “Thank you,” she said, tartly.
    She turned and walked out of the house, heading towards the post office. The postal service in the Allied Lands was run by the White Council, rather than any of the independent kingdoms or city-states; in some ways, it reminded Emily of the Pony Express. But, compared to email, it was slow, cumbersome and unreliable. Magic could be used to move messages faster, but that required careful spellwork. She suspected she would have to look into it when she reached Fifth Year. Linking two crystal balls together was more complex, apparently, than it seemed.
    The officer on duty – a part-time worker – took the letters, checked the seals and then stowed them away in a box. Emily thanked him, then picked up a copy of the latest broadsheet. She snorted in amusement as she read the front page story, discovering that it was focused on the antics of Princess Lucinda, a person who lived on the other side of the Allied Lands. Would anyone in the mountains, she asked herself, really want to know?
    She was still smiling at the thought as she returned to the castle.
     
    bagpiper, kellory, STANGF150 and 2 others like this.
  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    DOH!

    Chris
     
  18. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Heck, if that's the worst you ever do, you're doing quite well! ;)
    Thanks for all the work you put into these stories. Excellent at capturing the reader's imagination.
     
    kellory likes this.
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twenty-Four
    “He doesn't remember much,” Lady Barb said, two days later. “I wish I could say I was surprised.”
    Emily nodded. Lord Gorham seemed to have blocked the whole experience out of his mind, leaving them without any leads to follow. None of his servants had any idea when the runes had first started to appear either. The more Emily looked at it, the more she thought the mystery necromancer had covered his tracks well. But why would a necromancer bother to hide?
    Lady Barb smiled at her. “You did well with the sewn runes, by the way,” she added. “I think it will be a long time before anyone tries the same trick again.”
    Emily let out a breath she hadn't realised she’d been holding. There were rules on sharing magical knowledge with mundanes, even though telling the maids how to sew protective runes had seemed the only answer. If Lady Barb had chosen to be annoyed ... but Lady Barb was practical, certainly more practical than whoever had dreamed up the rules. Spreading that sort of knowledge far and wide would certainly make it harder for the mystery necromancer to spread his influence.
    “We can't stay here any longer,” Lady Barb continued. “I think we need to head onwards to Easter.”
    “Where Lady Easter rules,” Emily said. She tried to recall the map she'd seen of the mountain states. “Isn't that two days away?”
    “More like four,” Lady Barb admitted. She grinned at Emily’s expression. “The direct route leads far too close to old ruins, so I’d prefer to avoid it.”
    Emily shivered. Old ruins could only mean one thing, buildings constructed during the days of the Faerie. She’d seen one of them up close in the mountains near Whitehall and still had nightmares, sometimes. There were too many dangers in such ruins for anyone to be complacent about approaching them. Even a necromancer would have second thoughts about trying to enter such a place.
    “Go pack your bag,” Lady Barb added. “And make sure you pack extra clothes with sewn runes. We might need them.”
    Emily hastened to obey. When she returned, she found Lady Barb deep in conversation with Lord Gorham. He looked pale and wan, but at least he was moving around. Emily waited at the door for them to finish, wondering just where Rudolf was now. He’d never returned to the castle. Maybe he was just waiting for the two magicians to leave.
    “Come on,” Lady Barb said, finally. “Let’s go.”
    The walk down the mountain path was no better, this time. Emily kept her eyes firmly on the road until they reached the valley, then followed Lady Barb through the town and onto a path leading through the forests. This one was harder than the last, she decided, after spending thirty minutes scrambling over rocks and streams that were deceptively small, but treacherously fast. By the time they passed the river that marked the edge of Lord Gorham’s territory, she was exhausted, sweaty and desperate for a break.
    “Not too much further to go,” Lady Barb said, encouragingly. For once, she looked exhausted too. “You can do it.”
    Emily scowled. The older woman had never shown a trace of being tired before, so why was she tired now? God knew Lady Barb had joined route marches with Martial Magic before ... she hadn't shown any real tiredness then either, any more than Sergeant Miles. She couldn't help a flicker of concern. Was something wrong ... or had her lack of sleep finally caught up with her. She doubted Lady Barb had had more than a few hours of sleep while they’d stayed at the castle.
    She pressed onwards, somehow, until they reached another clearing. This one looked wilder than the last, as if someone had cut down the trees without bothering to do anything else to prevent them from growing back. Emily puzzled over how they’d removed the logs, then looked at the river and knew the answer. They’d simply floated the logs down to the town below, one by one. It was simpler than trying to drag them down overland.
    “They prefer not to cut trees too close to the town,” Lady Barb explained, as she shrugged off her pack and placed it on a rock. “There's an old tradition about what happens to towns that aren't surrounded by trees.”
    Emily removed her own bag and placed it next to Lady Barb’s. “What is it?”
    “They believe that the trees provide some manner of protection,” Lady Barb said. “If they’re cut down, the town itself will die soon afterwards.”
    It didn't seem anything more than a superstition, Emily decided. The forest might make it hard for an invading army to reach the town, but it was far from impossible. A small band of raiders might manage to destroy the town before help could arrive from the castle, if Lord Gorham cared to try to save his people. He would, wouldn't he? Lord Gorham had seemed more concerned about his people – and his son – after the runes had been removed. But she understood just how strongly people could cling to tradition.
    Lady Barb held out a hand. “Pass me your staff,” she ordered. “Now.”
    Emily hesitated, then removed the shrunken staff from her sleeve and passed it to Lady Barb, feeling the odd reluctance to let go of it she always felt. Lady Barb enlarged it, then cast a spell that removed the others embedded within the wood. Emily felt an odd flicker in the local magic field, which faded away rapidly into nothingness.
    “You remember the rules, I assume,” Lady Barb said. “Or do I have to repeat them?”
    “I remember,” Emily said. Sergeant Miles had gone through the rules every time he'd allowed Emily to use her staff, reminding her that she didn't dare become dependent on it. She found it humiliating to be warned, time and time again, but she understood the dangers well enough to be careful. Alassa would never have progressed beyond First Year if she hadn't rid herself of the wand. “I know the dangers.”
    Lady Barb returned the staff. Emily took it, feeling an odd mixture of relief and revulsion. It was strange to realise that she was considered too young to use a staff, but there was no choice. Dozens of necromancers wanted her head, with or without it being attached to her body at the time. And then there were her other enemies. Even so ... Sergeant Miles had once knocked her out, just to get her to let go of the staff. He’d had no choice.
    “You are aware, of course, how to create a fireball,” Lady Barb said. “I want you to create the spell, then embed it within the wood.”
    Emily closed her eyes, caressing the staff with her fingers. It was strange, she realised, just how close the embedding process was related to the power-sharing ritual. Sergeant Miles had never mentioned the latter, but they were definitely linked. One shared raw power, the other shared the spellwork that directed the power. She shaped the spell in her mind, then envisaged it moving into the wood. There was a quiver of magic, then it was done.
    “Good enough,” Lady Barb said. “It won’t last, of course.”
    “I know,” Emily said. Even the hardest wood couldn't hold spellwork indefinitely. Most magicians had to constantly renew the spells they kept in readiness. Alassa’s former cronies had done it for her, back when she'd been dependent on the wand. Some magicians, she’d been told, were never taught how to cast spells without a wand. Somehow, they were kept from realising that they didn't need one. “But it will last long enough.”
    Lady Barb nodded and pointed to a tree. “That will do as a target,” she said. “Blast it.”
    Emily held up the staff, then channelled magic into the embedded spell. There was a flash of light as the fireball streaked across the clearing and struck the tree, blasting it out of the ground and sending it falling against another tree. Emily stared in astonishment as the tree slowly crashed to the ground, smashing itself into splinters. It was so much easier to use magic with a staff.
    Which is the trap, she reminded herself. It's too easy to forget how to cast spells in your mind.
    The staff seemed to glow with power as Lady Barb directed her to embed another two spells within the wood, then trigger them one after the other. Emily concentrated, feeling her power sucked into the wood as she triggered the spells. Two more trees were destroyed, one turned to ice and shattered, the other yanked out of the soil and dashed to the ground. It was suddenly very hard to let go of the staff. No matter how she tried to tell her fingers to let go, they refused to move ...
    She yelped in pain as Lady Barb slapped her rear. Her fingers unclenched, allowing the staff to fall to the ground. Lady Barb picked it up, then shrank it back down to pencil-size and shoved it into her pocket. Emily glowered at her resentfully, rubbing her behind, but she knew better than to object. She’d come too close to dependency.
    “No more experiments with the staff for a week,” Lady Barb ordered. There was no give in her voice at all. “And if you touch it, you’ll regret it.”
    Emily nodded, shamefaced. There were older boys at Whitehall who'd tried to sneak into the sealed section of the armoury and recover their staffs, despite the Sergeant’s strict orders. It was an additive sensation, she knew; the temptation was almost overpowering. Even the threat of dire punishment wasn't enough to prevent an addict from striving for his fix. One boy had even been forbidden to touch his staff ever again.
    She blushed, remembering. Aloha had made a crude joke and the rest of the girls had started giggling. And then Emily had taught them the words to A Wizard’s Staff has a Knob on the End. The boys hadn't seen the humour at all.
    Lady Barb snorted, rudely. Emily realised she was waiting for an answer.
    “I won't,” she promised. How could she when Lady Barb was keeping it in her pockets? But then, an addict might be stupid enough to try to steal it anyway. “Why does that keep happening?”
    “You’re not mature enough to handle it,” Lady Barb said, tartly. “If the Grandmaster hadn't insisted ...”
    She shook her head, long strands of blonde hair coming loose and falling down around her skull. “I told him that it wasn't a good idea,” she added. “You keep dancing on the edge of addiction.”
    Emily blanched. Addicting her to the staff would be the easiest way to render her powerless, once the staff was taken away. She trusted the Grandmaster ... but what if she was wrong to trust him? Might he be hoping that she would destroy her own ability to cast spells ... or would he merely be relieved if that happened? But why would he want to cripple her?
    She pushed the thought aside. It was nothing more than paranoia, driven by her feelings of loss whenever she let go of the staff. The Grandmaster controlled Whitehall and the nexus under the school. If he'd wanted to kill her, he could have done it at any moment and made it look like an accident. Besides, he wasn't an evil man. He didn't have to take her into the school and teach her how to handle her magic.
    “Start carving out the runes,” Lady Barb ordered. “You can make another few pocket dimensions.”
    Emily nodded and started to work, unable to avoid noticing how the older woman sat down to watch rather than peering over Emily’s shoulder. Normally, she would be grateful to avoid such close supervision, but now it bothered her. Lady Barb seemed to be weaker than normal, far weaker ... and there was a necromancer running loose. Emily watched her out of the corner of her eye as she set up the square, then started to craft out the pocket dimension, piece by piece. This time, the magic flowed easier than before.
    “Good work,” Lady Barb said. “Now, dismantle it and then start a new one.”
    Emily glanced at her in concern, then went back to work. Lady Barb said nothing as she completed the next dimension, so she dismantled it and build up a third. This time, she tried adding some modifications to the programming, trying to program it to reopen and collapse at a specific time. The spells didn't seem to work quite right; it took her a moment to realise that she was actually putting the timing spells in stasis, along with whatever was in the dimension itself. It seemed that wrapping two layers of spells inside the dimension wasn't possible, at least not for a single magician. Building something the size of Whitehall would be impossible without a dedicated team and a colossal power source.
    The dimension collapsed and she swore, out loud, then glanced nervously towards Lady Barb. The older woman was looking into the distance, a dreamy expression on her face. Emily blinked at her, then turned and ran to grab the woman’s arm. There was a flash of light and the world spun around her, then seemed to grow much larger. Emily had only a moment to realise that she’d been turned into a mouse – or something smaller – before Lady Barb waved her hand and her body snapped back to normal.
    “I’m sorry,” Lady Barb said, softly. She sounded very tired and worn. “You surprised me.”
    “You should be looking at me,” Emily said, in a tone she would never have dared use on anyone at Whitehall normally. “I was building dimensions and ...”
    Lady Barb had told her never to try experimenting without supervision. But she’d been the one to lose interest in what Emily was doing. Emily stared down, deeply worried for the woman she had come to think of as a mother – or a big sister. Lady Barb looked too weak to care.
    “You’re not well,” she said, quietly. “What happened to you?”
    “None of your business,” Lady Barb said. Her voice was too weak to hold any real sting, despite her irritation. Emily would almost have welcomed a scolding if it meant Lady Barb was feeling better. “And don’t try any diagnostic spells.”
    She rose to her feet, then wiped the sweat from her brow. “Come on,” she said, tiredly. “I want to get further than this before we set up camp for the night.”
    Emily hesitated. They weren’t that far from the town. She could use a levitation spell and carry Lady Barb back there, where they could find a bed in the inn if not in the guesthouse. And she could brew potions that might help ...
    Lady Barb strode off without looking back. Emily hastily grabbed up the square and their bags, then followed after her, silently wondering what Lady Barb had packed in her bag to make it so heavy. Lady Barb seemed determined to force her way onwards, despite the sweat and tiredness. Emily found herself wondering if she should stun her, before dismissing the thought. Lady Barb would be absolutely furious when she woke up – if she woke up. They’d been warned that elderly or weak humans could be killed by stunning spells. What if she accidentally killed her teacher?
    The march rapidly became hellish. Emily struggled under the weight of both bags, only deterred from complaining by the simple fact that Lady Barb was clearly unwell. The older woman stumbled from side to side, as if she were drunk ... Emily had to fight down the urge to cast the diagnostic spells anyway, no matter what Lady Barb had said. She told herself that it wouldn't matter what Lady Barb did, as long as she knew what was wrong. But then, Lady Barb clearly knew that something was wrong ...
    They reached another clearing and Lady Barb came to a halt, then half-stumbled, half-collapsed to the ground. Emily tried to catch her, but the weight of the bags made it impossible. She shrugged them off as quickly as possible, then peered down at her mentor. Lady Barb was sweating badly.
    “I’m going to cast the spells,” Emily said, finally. “I ...”
    Lady Barb reached up like lightning and caught her arm. “No,” she hissed. “Put out the blankets, then cast protective wards. This isn't a good time to use magic on me.”
    “Why not?” Emily asked. “What’s wrong with you?”
    Lady’s Barb’s grip tightened. Emily winced in pain. “Put out the blankets, then cast protective wards,” Lady Barb repeated. “Do not try to use magic on me.”
    Emily hesitated, then did as she was told. They hadn't been able to pack a tent, but magic could provide a shelter against the elements ... unless it rained so heavily that the clearing turned to mud. As soon as she had one of the blankets in place, she helped Lady Barb to lie down on it and sat next to her, staring down at the older woman. She seemed to be worsening by the second.
    “Give me some water,” Lady Barb ordered, between breaths. Emily passed her the bottle of water, wondering just where she would be able to find more. There didn't look to be a convenient stream anywhere in sight. “Whatever you do, don’t use any magic on me.”
    “Understood,” Emily said. She hated the pleading note she heard in her voice. “But what’s wrong with you?”
    “Lord Gorham needed a boost,” Lady Barb admitted. “I pushed him as far as I could, at an immense cost. It’s finally caught up with me.”
    Emily stared at her in horror. “Are you going to die?”
    “I may wind up wishing I had,” Lady Barb said. She chuckled, harshly. “Let me sleep for a few hours. I should be better soon enough.”
     
    bagpiper, kellory, STANGF150 and 2 others like this.
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Thank you!

    Chapter Twenty-Five
    Emily had camped out before, with the Martial Magic class, but she’d never had to spend time camping on her own. Or effectively on her own, she corrected herself, as she gathered firewood and turned it into a small fire. It took several minutes of careful searching to locate a spring, much to her relief. There were spells to draw water out of the ground, but they could be very dangerous. She filled the bottle, then put the caldron over the fire to heat up to boil the water. It wouldn't be safe to drink without boiling thoroughly.
    She glanced down at Lady Barb, worriedly. The older woman looked surprisingly vulnerable asleep, her skin pale and wan. Emily wanted to sit beside her and hold her hand, but there was no time. Instead, she walked back into the forest and set a magical trap. When she checked back, twenty minutes later, she discovered that she’d caught a fat rabbit and a handful of rodent-like creatures. Grimacing in disgust – she’d never liked hunting, even with the Sergeants – she broke the rabbit’s neck, wishing she’d paid closer attention when the Sergeants had been explaining how to make the trap lethal. She knew she needed to kill in order to eat, but she still disliked it.
    Carrying the rabbit back to the campsite, she braced herself and started to cut it up, removing the meat and placing it under a preservation spell. The remainder of the rabbit’s body was effectively useless, so she dug a hole at a corner of the clearing and buried the rest of it under the soil. She suspected a fox or something nastier would dig it up, sooner or later, but it couldn't be helped. Once it was buried, she found the mugs and made herself a cup of Kava. Lady Barb twitched in her sleep, but didn't awake. Emily hesitated, then started to cook the rabbit over the fire.
    The smell must have woken Lady Barb, for she opened her eyes just as the sun was starting to set in the sky. Emily, more relieved than she cared to admit, found one of the metal plates, dropped a piece of rabbit onto it and passed the whole thing to Lady Barb. The older woman smiled gratefully, then blew on the meat and started to chew. Emily watched, concerned, as she ate her food, then took a drink of Kava. Even so, she still looked tired.
    “It’s very good,” Lady Barb said. “Thank you.”
    Emily suspected flattery. She'd never been very good at cooking, even on Earth. But then, she’d never had any proper lessons. She nodded in thanks anyway, then ate her own rabbit, noting absently that it tasted rather overdone. But better overcooked than undercooked, she reminded herself. There were no modern preservatives in anything from the Allied Lands.
    “You're welcome,” she said, absently. “How are you feeling?”
    “Weak, but better,” Lady Barb admitted. She changed the subject before Emily could press her for details. “Check the wards before you go to sleep. There are wild animals out here that could be dangerous.”
    Emily nodded. Darkness was falling steadily now, deterring her from venturing back under the forest canopy. She silently thanked the Sergeants for lessons in camping, particularly the suggestion to pile up firewood while the sun was high in the sky. They shouldn't need to leave the clearing until morning. If Lady Barb could leave ... she gritted her teeth at the thought, praying silently that Lady Barb would recover. Emily didn't know what she would do if Lady Barb died.
    Probably walk back to the town and ask for help, she thought. If she could find her way back to the town. She pushed the thought aside, then checked on the wards, one by one. If someone wanted to disturb them, he would have to break through, which would alert her to the threat.
    “My father rarely left his house,” Lady Barb commented. “But my mother’s people always slept out under the stars. They believed it brought them closer to the world around them.”
    Emily shrugged. The Sergeants had talked about the wonders of the great outdoors – and told horror stories about places they’d slept during wartime – but she hadn't been too impressed, even though some of the camping trips had been enjoyable. She preferred civilisation, libraries and hot running water than sleeping out in the wilds. But if someone knew no better ... why would they not want the countryside?
    “They used to tell stories too, around the campfire,” Lady Barb added. “I wonder if I can recall ...”
    She launched into a story, speaking in a sing-song voice that made her sound years younger. There had once been a haunted forest, inhabited by ghosts, demons and all manner of fell creatures. No one dared go near the forest for fear that the evil monsters would devour them, until one day the monsters had fallen on one another in a frenzy of supernatural bloodletting. By the time the fighting had come to an end they’d wiped themselves out. In the aftermath, humanity had colonised the abandoned forest, banishing its reputation once and for all.
    Emily couldn't help wondering just how much of the story was rooted in reality. Most stories did have some basis in history, even if the grain of truth had been surrounded by hundreds of lies and exaggerations, until the whole story became unbelievable. Was it something to do with the Faerie? Or was the story completely unrelated to them?
    There was no point in asking. Instead, Emily listened as Lady Barb told a second story, one about a young man who had walked into a ogre’s cave, only to discover two children – two ogre children – crying for food. He'd fed them, then fallen asleep – only to be discovered by the ogress. She’d thanked him for feeding his children, then given him magic gifts he'd used to found a kingdom of his own. Compared to some of the stories written to explain why the Kings of the Allied Lands held power, it was almost reasonable. Emily rather doubted it was true, though. It wasn't like anyone in the Allied Lands to leave ogres alive, no matter how young they were.
    She felt a sudden surge of affection for the older woman as the tale came to an end. Was this what it was like, she asked herself again, to have a mother? Somehow, she couldn't imagine her biological mother going camping with anyone. But she knew so little about her mother’s past. It wasn't as if they’d ever sat down and talked about it. There had been times when she'd wondered if her father would come back for her ...
    ... And instead she'd fallen through the looking glass.
    Lady Barb looked over at her. “Do you want to tell a story?”
    Emily was struck dumb. Public speaking wasn't something she enjoyed, even though it wasn't really public if it was just her and Lady Barb. She thought, rapidly, wondering what sort of stories she could tell. Most of the fantasy books she’d read were long and wordy, too long for a single night, while few of the others would have any meaning for Lady Barb. She wondered absently how one would explain Star Trek to someone who had no referents for the concept of a starship, then decided it was probably impossible. Instead, she told a story about a good witch who’d gone to a school for wicked witches.
    “I don't understand why she didn't become evil,” Lady Barb said, when she'd finished. “Or why they didn't just kill her outright.”
    “It's a ... story,” Emily said. Mentioning that it was a fairy story would probably be a bad idea. “I don't think it was meant as anything else.”
    She paused, remembering Lin. “Is Mountaintop a school for wicked witches?”
    “It tends to cater to magical families and new magicians,” Lady Barb said. There was something in her tone that bothered Emily. “But it doesn't produce evil sorcerers or wicked witches.”
    Emily nodded, relieved. “How many other magical schools are there?”
    Lady Barb smiled. “Six or seven, in the Allied Lands,” she said. “Whitehall is the best, naturally, with Mountaintop a close second. Then there’s Laughter Academy, which only caters for girls; they’re very traditionalist, but still honour the shared curriculum. Stronghold is an oddity; it takes only boys, but combines magical and non-magical children in most classes. Quite a few royal brats are sent there for education.”
    Emily looked up, surprised. “They put boys with magic together with boys without magic?”
    “I believe so, in most classes,” Lady Barb said. “Most of their students are trained in combat; they’re either snatched up by various armies or become Mediators. And, to answer your next question, their tutors come down hard on bullying, of either kind.”
    She shook her head. “The remaining schools are quite small, with only a handful of pupils and teachers,” she concluded. “More like homeschooling, but with several families sharing their resources to teach their children. There used to be two more, but both of them were destroyed by the necromancers.”
    Emily nodded. “I meant to ask,” she said, hoping that talking would make Lady Barb feel better. “How are exams arranged?”
    “The White Council assigns examiners for graduating students at the end of their terms,” Lady Barb said. “In Whitehall’s case, there are external examiners in Fourth Year and Sixth Year. If you pass the exams, you get a degree recognised all over the Allied Lands and you can look for a master for an apprenticeship. Not every student bothers to take the exams, though.”
    “I didn't realise that was a choice,” Emily said, surprised. “Can I evade my exams ...?”
    “Not unless you want me very angry with you,” Lady Barb said, dryly. “And I dare say Void won't be pleased either.”
    Emily swallowed. Everyone, even the Grandmaster, seemed to be more than a little nervous when they spoke of the enigmatic sorcerer. But then, she'd seen him jump into a necromancer’s fortress, knock Shadye down for a few seconds and teleport out, taking Emily with him. No one else in her experience had shown so much power merged with skill. Few sorcerers would dare to consider facing a necromancer alone.
    “Alassa might be wise to evade hers,” Lady Barb added. “She can't really be an apprentice, so exams won't give her any support and a great many problems, if someone uses them to deduce her abilities. I wonder if the Grandmaster will arrange matters so she’s expelled just before taking the exams.”
    “He can't,” Emily said, shocked. “She’s worked hard ... it would disgrace her.”
    “It would also conceal her true capabilities,” Lady Barb said. She snorted. “Believe me, she would hardly be the first aristocratic brat to be expelled from Whitehall.”
    Emily rolled her eyes. Alassa’s behaviour in First Year had been awful, even though she knew – now – that it had more to do with her insecurities and badly-chosen friends than genuine malice. If that hadn't been enough to get her expelled, what was? Even voyeurism hadn't been enough to earn more than a month of detentions. And the destruction of whatever plans the boys had had for the summer, she reminded herself.
    “It doesn't seem right,” she mumbled.
    She knew that, barring unexpected events, Alassa would leave Whitehall at the end of her Fourth Year. Alassa was a Royal Princess, the confirmed Heir to the Throne; it would be time for her to return and start acting like a Crown Princess. King Randor would start passing some of the burden of governance on to his daughter, preparing her for the day she would assume the throne. But Emily knew that she would miss her friend terribly.
    It was still two years away, she reminded herself. And they would still be friends. But it still felt immediate. She'd gone through so much of her life without friends that having some now made it hard to face the prospect of losing them.
    “I don’t think it would blight her future,” Lady Barb said. “She is the Crown Princess, after all, and the Barons have been thoroughly cowed.”
    Emily had to admit she was right. King Randor had taken advantage of the chaos caused by the attempted coup to remove a handful of ambitious noblemen who hadn't been directly implicated in the conspiracy. Between the purge and the ennoblement of others the King wanted to reward – including Emily herself – the remaining noblemen weren't sure quite what the new rules were. By the time they figured it out, Alassa would be solidly in place.
    “She still needs a husband,” Emily said, mournfully. “Is she going to find one?”
    “Let us hope so,” Lady Barb said. “She'd be better off with someone who isn't aristocratic, someone who can introduce new blood into the Royal Family. But he would have problems being accepted.”
    Emily nodded, ruefully. Alassa was smart – but she was also the product of her culture, a culture that looked down on people without aristocratic blood. It was odd to realise that they would sooner accept a bastard child than someone who was perfectly legitimate, at least as long as the child had aristocratic blood. And, if the father was high enough, they could even overlook the mother being a commoner, no matter what she did for a living. But they didn't extend such licence to the aristocratic women.
    Would Alassa accept a commoner? It didn't seem likely, somehow. And would King Randor accept it if her father brought a commoner back to Zangaria? Perhaps Alassa should find someone at Whitehall, a powerful magician who would be on a social level of his own. But, as far as Emily knew, she’d never shown any interest in dating anyone at Whitehall. Only Imaiqah had shown any real interest in the opposite sex.
    The thought reminded her of her own predicament. “I was a fool to accept the Barony, wasn't I?”
    Lady Barb looked over at her, her face unreadable. “Most of your loyal subjects think otherwise,” she pointed out. “You could hardly do worse than your predecessor.”
    Emily cringed, mentally. She’d looked at the laws the previous Baron had written – and enforced, when he felt like it – and banished all of them to the fiery depths of legal hell. It didn't take a lawyer to realise that the laws contradicted one another in several places, or that the peasants barely had enough food to survive the winter. In the end, she'd designed a handful of laws and left Bryon to ensure that they were not perverted. It hadn't taken long for the peasants to start reaping the benefits of some of her innovations.
    But she wasn't sure if she wanted to remain Baroness Cockatrice.
    “That wouldn't be difficult,” she said, tartly. “If only molested ten girls a month, I'd still be a net improvement.”
    She shook her head. Sorceresses had sexual freedom ... and aristocratic girls did not. How was she meant to act? She shook her head again, a moment later. It was hard enough to imagine being touched, let alone going further. Even the memory of Jade kissing her felt like it had happened to someone else. But eventually she would need to give Cockatrice a heir.
    “I could adopt someone,” she said. It had worked well enough for the Roman Emperors, at least until Marcus Aurelius had been succeeded by Commodus, his biological son. The more she thought about it, the more she thought she saw advantages. Her adopted son would be an adult by the time she chose him, allowing her to judge his character for herself. If Marcus Aurelius had been able to do that, perhaps Commodus would have been quietly strangled one night and dumped in the river. “Can’t I do that?”
    “The bloodlines would be disrupted,” Lady Barb pointed out. “Unless you used an adoption rite and they can go wrong, if you picked badly.”
    Emily rolled her eyes. What was the obsession with aristocratic blood? She was no aristocrat. Maybe, just maybe, it was vaguely possible she was related to an aristocratic family on Earth, but she had to admit it was unlikely. Even if she was, the aristocracy on Earth was hardly acknowledged by the Allied Lands. Or would they recognise an aristocrat from Earth?
    “Magic runs in the blood,” Lady Barb reminded her, when she asked. “So do any little ... quirks someone might have engineered into their line.”
    “I have none,” Emily pointed out, tartly.
    “You might have, sooner or later,” Lady Barb added. “Besides, there would be no questioning of a legitimate child – or even one born out of wedlock, as long as you were the mother.”
    Emily shook her head. “I don’t think I want to do it,” she said, unsure precisely what she meant. “It’s a terrible mess.”
    “If you want to remain Baroness, you have to learn to come to terms with its obligations as well as its rewards,” Lady Barb said. She shifted slightly, then lay back on her blanket. “I should say, though, that there are worse things in life than raising children.”
    “How would you know?” Emily asked, before she could stop herself. “I ...”
    It said something about how tired and ill Lady Barb was, she realised mutely, that she didn't get her head bitten off for cheek. “My father always said I was the best thing in his life,” Lady Barb said, instead. “Even though he would be happier digging through dusty archives than bringing up a child, he still didn't abandon me to the tender mercies of the servants. He was always there for me.”
    Emily felt a flicker of envy. Void might be the closest thing she had to a father in this world, but he showed himself only rarely – and always on his own terms. She didn't even know how to contact him, short of writing letters. Lady Barb, on the other hand, had been very lucky.
    “I need to sleep,” Lady Barb added. “Make sure you keep the fire from burning out. We might need the warmth.”
    Emily nodded, banked up the fire, then settled down on her own blanket. But it was a long time before she fell asleep.
     
    bagpiper, kellory, STANGF150 and 2 others like this.
survivalmonkey SSL seal        survivalmonkey.com warrant canary
17282WuJHksJ9798f34razfKbPATqTq9E7