Original Work Work Experience (Schooled In Magic IV)

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


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twenty-Six
    She awoke, unsure of what had startled her.
    For a moment, she lay still, remembering the day a maid had tried to kill her in Alassa’s bedroom, back on the road to Zangaria. An alarm bell yammered in her mind, but it took her a long moment to realise that something was pressing against the wards. She heard the sound of breathing as her eyes snapped open, peering upwards into the darkness. The moon was descending in the distance and the clearing was wrapped in shadow. But there was no sign of anything outside the wards.
    Bracing herself, Emily sat up, one hand reaching for her staff before remembering that it was hidden in Lady Barb’s pockets. The wards shivered again and her head snapped round, but she still saw nothing where something had touched the wards. Carefully, she cast the night vision spell over her eyes, casting the clearing into eerie light, but still saw nothing, apart from a faint disturbance in the ground. It looked as though a giant invisible creature was prowling the edge of the wards.
    Emily hastily tested the wards, just as they shivered for the third time. They didn't look as if they were going to break. Even so ... she stood upright, staring towards where she knew the creature had to be. Faint clouds of dirt rose up from where it placed its feet, suggesting that it was the size of a lion, perhaps bigger. The sound of deep heavy breathing grew louder as Emily carefully added a pair of extra wards. If the first set collapsed, they wouldn't be left defenceless.
    An invisible creature ... she'd never heard of anything like it, at least as far as she recalled from class. But there were quite a few stories of people encountering monsters and never managing to report back, although she hadn't been able to avoid asking how they knew that monsters were involved, if no one had escaped to report. What if their missing explorers had run into an invisible monster too? But the creature didn't seem that dangerous, not compared to a Mimic or a Werewolf.
    Could it be a Werewolf? Werewolves could use magic – could one of them have cast an invisibility spell on himself before transforming? But it seemed unlikely ... she prepared a cancelation spell, then dismissed the thought. Without clear eye contact with her target, it was quite possible that she would accidentally disarm her wards instead. She rose to her feet and crossed the gap to the edge of the wards, staring outwards. Warm breath touched her face and she stumbled backwards, breathing in the stench of rotting meat. The giant dogs she’d played with, back when she was looking for a familiar, smelled nicer. And she’d hated them.
    “A Night Walker,” Lady Barb’s voice said.
    Emily jumped. She hadn't realised that the older woman had awakened. Grimly, she turned away from the wards and peered towards Lady Barb. Her face looked pale in the darkness, a thin sheen of sweat was covering her face – and her hand was trembling slightly. Emily felt a cold shiver running down her spine. She couldn't imagine Lady Barb ever trembling.
    “He can’t get through the wards,” Lady Barb added. “But he wouldn't hesitate to attack if he could.”
    Emily sighed. “What do I do with him?”
    “Nothing,” Lady Barb said. “Just sit still and wait for him to lose interest.”
    The sound of breathing grew louder as the wards shimmered. Emily watched the interplay of magic around the creature, shuddering inwardly. If the creature was completely invisible – and none of her spells showed her anything other than its footsteps – it would be deadly dangerous, even to a sorcerer. She suspected she wouldn't sleep a wink all night – and then be terrified when she walked through the forest, the following day. How would she know there wasn't a creature after her?
    “They sleep during the day,” Lady Barb said, when she asked. “I think it’s part of their magic.”
    Emily scowled. Another Faerie-created monster, then, just like almost every other magical creature. She could imagine what use they’d had for an invisible creature. If nothing else, it would be a very effective terror weapon. Maybe it was meant to discourage people from visiting the Faerie ruins in the mountains. But hardly anyone would go visit unless they were compelled.
    She settled back on the ground, resting her hands in her lap, and felt the wards shimmer as the creature paced the edge of the field. Time and time again, it brushed up against the wards, then retreated, apparently balked. Lady Barb closed her eyes and returned to sleep, but Emily couldn't force herself to relax. Just knowing the creature was there ... she kept trying to see it, even though it was definitely futile. All she could see were the signs of its passage.
    Maybe there was a captured Night Walker at Whitehall and I just couldn't see it, she thought, with morbid amusement. Mistress Kirdáne would love a new pet.
    Sergeant Miles had taught his students that invisibility was only as good as the sorcerer who cast the spell. It was easy to turn invisible, harder to hide the tracks of one’s passage. Emily had watched him point out how they still disturbed the world around them – and how a simple spell could reveal their location, even if it didn't break the invisibility spell itself. And besides, there was no such thing as a perfect invisibility cloak. A properly constructed set of wards could rip it to shreds.
    Her fingers itched, ready to cast a spell that would create a mist or something else that would show the creature’s rough location and form, but she held the impulse under control. Instead, she toyed with the bracelet around her wrist. She could release the Death Viper, send it out after the creature, and then ... she shuddered, unable to contemplate the prospect of seeing the lethal snake crushed under the creature’s feet. The bond had tightened around her mind, as the books had warned. But she hadn't paid close enough attention at the time.
    She looked over at Lady Barb, sleeping peacefully, then returned her gaze to the creature, trying to gage its size and shape. Her first impression had been correct, she decided; it definitely walked on four legs. Other than that ... it was hard to estimate anything else about the creature. The way it walked suggested it was large, but was it really as big as she’d thought? Or was it just playing games with her mind?
    A shiver ran down her spine as the wards shimmered again, right in front of her. She peered into the darkness, unable to escape the feeling that the creature was looking right back at her, but saw nothing. High overhead, she heard something hooting and glanced up, just in time to see an enormous Snowy Owl flying through the darkness. A wriggling shape was caught in its talons, desperately trying to escape. When she looked back down, the creature was gone.
    Or was it? Emily slowly rose to her feet and paced over to stand at the edge of the wards. As long as the creature stayed still, it wouldn't reveal anything to show where it was hiding. It could be crouched right in front of her and she would never see it. She listened, carefully, but all she heard was the faint sounds of rustling from the undergrowth and owls hooting in the distance. A faint glow seemed to flicker within the forest, then faded away into nothingness.
    Emily peered into the darkness for a long chilling moment, then turned and walked back to her blanket. If the creature was lurking outside the wards, it could wait until doomsday. She had no intention of crossing the wards until the sun rose and she had to find water and perhaps another rabbit. A motion caught her eye, at the edge of the clearing, and she looked over sharply, just in time to see ... something moving through the air. For a long second, her mind refused to process what she was seeing. It looked like a blanket hanging in the air, yet the way it flapped told her it was a living creature. She wasn't even sure how it flew.
    They used to prove that bumblebees couldn’t fly, she reminded herself. She’d ridden on a dragon and she had no idea how it managed to fly, save by magic. But then, Alassa hadn't believed Emily when she’d tried to explain about jumbo jets. It sounded absurd, completely impossible, to someone raised in Zangaria. And yet she could turn someone into a frog with a wave of her hand.
    The newcomer seemed to hesitate, then flapped its way into the clearing. Emily stared, fascinated, as several others joined it, spinning through the air like dishcloths as they moved. She’d never seen anything like them on Earth, or in classes at Whitehall. Had they even been discovered officially? They didn't look dangerous, merely absurd.
    A low growl echoed through the air. Emily started, realising that she’d been right and the first creature had been hiding near the wards, hoping she’d be stupid enough to step outside and be eaten. The dishcloths – as she couldn't help thinking of them – stopped their flapping and advanced towards where the first creature had to be. There was a rustle of motion, but it was already too late. Powerful jaws savaged the first dishcloth, but its companions fell on the creature and attacked it. Emily saw hints of giant teeth – she had no idea where they’d been hiding – before the brief bloody battle came to an end. Victorious, the dishcloths retreated, carrying their prey with them. She couldn't help noticing that, enfolded by the dishcloths, the invisible creature was actually larger than a lion.
    Shaken, unable to sleep, Emily watched as the nightlife flowed through the forest. Some wildlife was mundane enough to have come from Earth, others were strange and wonderful creatures, including several others she hadn't seen at Whitehall. Foxes sniffed at the edge of the wards, then ran off; tiny spiders scuttled along the edge of the clearing, moving in large groups. Emily remembered the warped spiders near the Dark City and shivered, feeling sorry for whatever creature the spiders overwhelmed. Individually, the spiders were largely harmless, their poison insufficient to kill a grown human. Collectively, they were absolutely lethal. And, unlike spiders on Earth, they preferred to move in groups.
    She looked up, just in time to see something large flying high overhead, blotting out the stars as it moved. The magic field seemed to shift around her as she realised she was staring up at a dragon, the first she'd seen since her passage to Whitehall. Dragons weren't exactly rare, but the ones old enough to be intelligent stayed away from humanity. She still had no idea what Void had done to earn a favour from a dragon, let alone one that had been expended so casually. Void could easily have teleported her to Whitehall if he hadn’t wanted to use his favour. But she had to admit that being flown by a dragon had allowed her to make one hell of an entrance.
    Golden eyes glinted, peering down at her. Emily stared back, wondering if it was the dragon she’d met, years ago. But the dragon made no move towards the clearing. It merely flapped its wings and flew away, into the darkness. She was sure it had noticed her ...
    Feeling an odd sense of loss, Emily lay down on the blanket and stared up at the night sky. The moon was rising now, casting rays of silver light over the ground. Magic seemed to dance in response, now they were well away from human settlement. She remembered all the tales about people warped and twisted by wild magic and, suddenly, believed them all. There was something eerie about being outside in the forest, with the moon calling to the magic in her blood. If she’d been a werewolf, she realised, she would have transformed by now.
    The lunar magic gives them a boost, she thought, as she tried to relax. Their curse is charged up by the moon, allowing them to transform. Like most transfigured people, they lose themselves in the transformation – and, even when the spell snaps, they still carry the mental scars.
    She must have dozed off, despite the danger, for the next thing she knew was warm sunlight playing across her body. Her eyes opened and she hastily scanned the clearing for danger, but saw nothing, apart from a handful of splashes of blood and scales where the Night Walker had been killed. She stood up, brushing down her shirt, and walked over to the edge of the wards, looking for any hints that they were being watched. But there was nothing there, as far as she could tell.
    Carefully, she checked the caldron and discovered that there was enough water left to make two mugs of Kava. The fire had dimmed low, but it was still alight. She pushed pieces of wood into the fire, built up a blaze and then started to boil the water. Lady Barb moaned slightly, then opened her eyes. Emily shivered, deeply worried. Every day, Lady Barb had awoken first and left Emily to sleep. But now ...
    “I’m making Kava,” she said, as she poured the water into the first mug and added the ground powder. It reminded her of instant coffee, save for the taste. She’d grown used to it, but she doubted she would ever like the flavour. “Are you ... are you all right?”
    “I’ve been better,” Lady Barb grated. She managed to sit upright, crossing her legs. “You may have to entertain yourself today.”
    Emily looked at her, stung. She might be inexperienced – perhaps even naive – compared to the older sorceress, but she didn't know she was being babysat. Or perhaps she was. There were dangers in the countryside she wouldn't even have noticed, if Lady Barb hadn't pointed them out to her.
    She finished making the cup of Kava and passed it to Lady Barb, who took it and drank carefully. Every movement she made looked precisely calculated, rather like Professor Lombardi; it took Emily a moment to realise that Lady Barb was carefully controlling herself, trying not to lose control of her body. She had to be dangerously ill.
    “I need to know,” she said, quietly. “What is happening to you?”
    “I told you,” Lady Barb snapped. She took a breath, then continued in a quieter tone. “I spent a great deal of magic to repair the damage Lord Gorham suffered, under the influence of the runes. In doing so, I weakened my life force and became vulnerable to backlash shock.”
    She finished her mug and passed it back to Emily. “This is manifesting as a disease,” she added, darkly. “Don’t worry. You can't catch it from me.”
    Emily winced. She hadn't even considered the possibility.
    But she should have done. Whitehall’s residents came from a world without vaccines, without even a proper theory of medicine. Or at least not a non-magical one. Emily knew she was unprepared for diseases that had been wiped out on Earth decades ago, diseases that would eat her up as soon as they infected her body. Smallpox would run riot on modern-day Earth. What might she catch, simply by not having the immunities that were conferred by being born in the Allied Lands?
    “I was hoping that it would fade today, but no such luck,” Lady Barb added. “That means it has yet to reach its peak. When it does ... just keep giving me water, when I ask for it. Don’t try any magic, whatever happens.”
    Emily frowned. “Why?”
    “Because my magic will regard yours as an intrusion,” Lady Barb explained. She sighed and lay back on the blanket. “This isn't a normal disease or a broken bone, just my magic responding to my abuse. Give it time to recover and I’ll be fine.”
    “What if you're not fine?” Emily asked. “What should I do?”
    Lady Barb gave her a long considering look. “If I die ... you should have a contingency plan for it,” she said. She chuckled, rather harshly. “You seem to move between complete dependence or complete independence, depending on how far you trust your companion. Go back to the town, use the money in my pouch and catch a ride with the postal coach. He can take you down to the nearest city, where you can get a portal to Dragon’s Den. Make sure you take everything useful from my body before leaving it.”
    Emily swallowed. The matter-of-fact instructions were more worrying than shouts and screams. “What should I do with your body?”
    “Burn it to ash,” Lady Barb said. “Don’t worry about prayers. You don’t know the ones my family uses, so ...”
    She shook her head. “Just leave me to sleep, now,” she added. “Make yourself breakfast, then do some practicing ... but nothing with the staff. Leave the staff alone.”
    “I will,” Emily promised. Lady Barb had told her not to experiment without supervision, but she hadn't expected to get unwell. “Can I practice with pocket dimensions?”
    “Carefully,” Lady Barb said. “Very carefully.”
    She closed her eyes. Emily watched her for a long moment, then turned and stepped past the wards, one hand raised in a defensive posture. Nothing moved to attack her, nothing moved at all, apart from a rabbit at the edge of the clearing. Emily shot a stunning spell at the creature and knocked it out before it could escape. The Sergeants would have reproved her for wasting magic, but she didn't have time to set traps. She certainly didn't want to leave Lady Barb alone for longer than strictly necessary.
    Gritting her teeth, she picked up the creature, snapped its neck and started to cut it apart for food.
     
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twenty-Seven
    Lady Barb remained asleep, even when Emily cooked several pieces of rabbit in the fire and ate them with Kava. Emily watched her, concerned, then placed several more pieces of meat under stasis spells, so they would be ready when Lady Barb was awake. Reaching into her bag, she found one of her notebooks and started to brainstorm, working out how best to create a pocket dimension that could serve as an emergency shelter. When she ran out of ideas for that, she jotted down everything she could remember about the very first aircraft to leave the ground on Earth. Maybe, just maybe, a craftsman in Zangaria could produce his own version of the Kitty Hawk.
    She looked back at her earlier pages, then sketched out an idea for a slide rule that might be useful for craftsmen. But she couldn't remember enough about the concept without memory spells to write down everything. She made a silent promise to herself to explore the concept more thoroughly when she returned to Whitehall, then opened a new page and jotted down more ideas for her bank. One branch would be opened in Cockatrice, but another would be opened in a nearby independent city-state. She had the feeling that it would be better to keep the bank as separate as possible for her other innovations.
    It would be a headache to make it work properly, even with magical versions of ideas from Earth. She would need to find someone to manage it full time, someone she could trust, but who could do that in Zangaria? Bryon was busy with Cockatrice, Imaiqah’s father had his own business ... and besides, neither of them could stand up to King Randor. And yet, political interference would doom her bank as surely as anything else. She might be better starting the whole project somewhere well away from Zangaria.
    “I wonder if Aloha would like the job,” she mused, out loud. Aloha had worked out a word processor-like device, using the concept Emily had taught her, even if it would be years before they came up with a working computer. But it was possible to devise a spell processor ... Emily had sketched out notes, although she wasn't sure how to make them practical. Or, for that happened, what it would do to society if it worked.
    Shaking her head, she touched Lady Barb’s forehead and winced at the heat. The older woman had a fever, seemingly burning up from the inside. Emily placed a mug of water next to her, then stood up and walked out of the wards, carrying the bag with her. Once she was outside, she started to practice with the pocket dimensions again, carefully. She managed to put together two stable dimensions in a row using the square before placing it behind her and concentrating on creating one in thin air. But it took several tries before she managed to make it work properly.
    “The wood must be a crutch too,” she muttered, as she sat down, exhausted. She didn't see how the square prevented the pocket dimension from expanding outwards, but perhaps it was just a matter of perception. She saw nothing, so there seemed to be no barrier to prevent expansion. Concentrating, she tried to visualise it in her mind, but she lost it every time she opened her eyes and saw nothing. “Or maybe I’m not doing it properly.”
    She glanced over at Lady Barb, then retrieved one of the books she’d brought along and started to read. It wasn't as interesting as she'd hoped, but it did help to pass several hours while she recovered from using so much magic. The writer knew what he was talking about, yet he wrote about it in such a boring manner that Emily found herself yawning halfway through the first chapter. It was odd – Alchemy was exciting, sometimes terrifyingly so – but it seemed to be typical of half of her textbooks. But then, maybe the writer was trying to discourage experimentation.
    Emily sighed as she reached the end of the third chapter. Part of her just wanted to whine that Alchemy would never be one of her skills, part of her knew that she needed a basic grounding in the subject even if she never sought mastery. Potions and concoctions brewed by oneself worked better, she’d been told, than anything brewed by anyone else. But her rational mind refused to grasp why this was so. Maybe it was just the simple fact that she'd never been very good at cooking ... or maybe it was her inability to understand things that the locals took for granted.
    She wondered, absently, if she would even pass her exams in Fourth Year. Like Alassa, she could skip the exams without threatening her future ... but she didn't want to skip or fail them, not when she'd worked so hard. Exams on Earth were largely useless, in her opinion; exams in Whitehall were terrifyingly important, at least to students without an aristocratic background. And she didn't want to disappoint her supervisors by refusing to take the exams or flunking them. And yet ...
    Maybe I can hire a tutor, she thought. Professor Thande was a genius, but he didn't have enough time to give one-on-one coaching to his pupils. Whitehall’s teaching staff were overworked and underpaid, yet they weren't the only masters of their subjects. Emily made a private resolution to hire a tutor at the end of Third Year, if she didn't improve by then, and study intensely over the summer.
    She looked over at Lady Barb, then stood up and started to cast spell after spell, cycling through every pattern she remembered. Her magic seemed to sparkle as it danced around her, then faded back into nothingness as she finally relaxed, gasping for breath. Her tutors had told her to practice often, but they probably hadn't expected her to practice so furiously – or to be alone, without supervision. Not for the first time, she realised just how lucky the students were to have Whitehall. Their spells could be carefully monitored, even without a tutor in the room, and emergency measures could be taken if necessary.
    Tiredly, she sat back down and tried to relax, feeling boredom at the back of her mind. The book was boring and she was too worried about Lady Barb to do any more brainstorming. Instead, she pulled the bracelet off her wrist and placed it on the ground, then undid the spell keeping the snake as a bracelet. Her mind twisted uncomfortably as the snake returned to its natural shape, then relaxed. It seemed unbothered by the experience of being held in stasis.
    Emily reached down to pet it before catching herself. The snake might not be poisonous to her, but the only way to test the snake’s skin was to touch it – and if it still threatened her, she would risk losing a hand. She got an odd sense of reassurance from the snake, yet she still didn't dare touch it. Instead, the snake slithered over towards the bloodstains on the ground and sniffed at them. Emily had a mental impression of a reptilian-like creature stalking the countryside in pitch darkness. It didn't seem to worry the Death Viper.
    “But it wouldn't bother you,” Emily said, addressing the snake. “Would it?”
    The snake didn't seem to understand. Emily was almost disappointed. Some familiars she'd seen at Whitehall seemed almost intelligent – but then, they’d spent long enough with their owners to bond with them completely. They’d picked up a little of human intelligence, if she recalled the books correctly, although they would never be autonomous entities. The Death Viper, on the other hand, hadn't been with her for more than a day, as it perceived time.
    “Not fair, is it?” She said. The snake seemed to bob its head in agreement. “I have to wear you as a bracelet, so the bond can never really deepen.”
    On impulse, she picked up a twig and tossed it towards the edge of the clearing. The snake gave her an unreadable look – she felt a sense of puzzled amusement coming from its mind – then gave chase. It picked up the twig in its mouth, then carried it back and dropped it in front of Emily. Emily smiled and looked down at the twig. It was marred slightly where the snake had bit it. She didn't dare touch it with her bare hand.
    The snake’s amusement seemed to grow stronger. It was laughing at her!
    “I should have gone for a dog,” Emily said, reprovingly. “What do you think of that?”
    The snake seemed to twitch, as if it knew the humans didn’t really get to choose what animal they bonded with. Dogs were among the best, because they were faithful and loyal; cats seemed more inclined to take advantage of the bond, as if the human was their slave. Snakes ... she knew nothing about how snakes reacted to the bond, if only because there were no other snake familiars in Whitehall. Maybe they were just as faithful as any other familiar, then just showed it differently.
    Emily sighed and reworked the spell. The snake shrank down into a bracelet, which she picked up and returned to her arm. It wasn't intelligent enough, she realised, to know that it was losing time by being transfigured. She felt a moment of guilt – being an inanimate object was bad enough, but she thought it would be worse if she wasn't even aware of time passing – which she ruthlessly pushed aside. The snake was simply too dangerous to treat as a normal pet. She heard a gasp and spun around. Lady Barb was twitching, as if she were choking on her own tongue. Emily had thought that was impossible.
    She jumped through the wards and lifted the older woman into a sitting position, grimacing at the sweat that now stained Lady Barb’s clothes. There were spells to help someone who was having difficulty breathing, yet she didn't dare use any of them. She tried frantically to remember how to give CPR, but apart from a few snide jokes she couldn't recall a thing. It was a skill that should be taught in school. Desperately, she took a breath and then pressed her mouth against Lady Barb’s lips, blowing into her chest. There was a hiccupping sound, then Lady Barb started to breathe again. Emily almost collapsed in relief.
    This must be the peak, she told herself, as she held the older woman tightly. Lady Barb was shaking, magic sparkling around her body. Emily tightened her grip, shivering herself as the temperature started to drop. She couldn't tell if it was a side-effect of the magic or something else, something darker. Could Lady Barb’s coldness be seeping into her? Or was she just imagining it?
    The older woman let out a strangled cry, then subsided. Emily took her pulse – at least she knew how to do that, thanks to lectures at Whitehall – and realised, to her relief, that it was growing stronger. She didn't let go until Lady Barb sagged, then fell into a more comfortable sleep. Emily lowered her back into the blanket, then stood up and walked back to the stream to pick up some more water. When she got back, Lady Barb was lying still, but clearly breathing normally. Emily mopped her forehead, then settled down to wait.
    Magic can't solve everything, she thought, bitterly. It would have been so much easier if she could just click her fingers and put everything to rights. But she couldn't. Magic had caused the problem in the first place – and, unlike some of the nastier hexes and curses she'd seen, it wasn’t something magic could fix. What if it had been worse?
    She reached for her book and tried to read another two chapters, but her mind refused to concentrate, leaving her with no memory of the words she’d read. Frustrated, she stood up and started to pace the edge of the wards. It was early afternoon and it didn't look like they would be moving anytime soon. She damned herself for her selfishness a moment later. Lady Barb had been on the verge of a very serious illness, perhaps death, yet she’d been thinking more of her own convenience rather than her mentor.
    A rustling sound behind her made her snap round, just in time to see Lady Barb sitting upright. “That was unpleasant,” she said, tartly. She still sounded weak, but she was definitely getting better. “Water?”
    Emily filled a mug from the caldron, then used a spell to cool the liquid before passing it to Lady Barb.
    “Thank you,” Lady Barb said, between sips. She finished the water; Emily hastily filled the second mug, then refilled the first. “You're a good nurse.”
    Emily flushed, wondering just how much Lady Barb remembered.
    “We’ll stay here for the night,” Lady Barb said, looking up at the sky. “We should be able to start walking again tomorrow.”
    “Good,” Emily said, carefully. She looked the older woman up and down, noting just how badly her clothes were soaked in sweat. “Will you be alright to walk by then?”
    “Probably,” Lady Barb said. “Once the peak is over, magic tends to replenish itself fairly quickly. A few more hours of sleep probably won’t hurt.”
    She pulled herself to her feet, then staggered through the wards and over into the bushes to answer nature’s call. Emily returned to the caldron and brewed up another mug of Kava, although she knew she'd have problems sleeping. She didn't have any way to calculate just how much caffeine was in the drink, but a mug or two had kept her awake over long nights when she'd been trying to finish an essay at the last moment. There was probably more in Kava than the average cup of coffee.
    Lady Barb returned, stumbling slightly as she walked. “Thank you for taking care of me,” she said, as she sat down on the blanket. “I don't know if I would have made it without you.”
    Emily gave her a long look. “Did you know that would happen?”
    “I knew it was a possibility,” Lady Barb said, mildly. “But it had to be done.”
    “You shouldn't have risked your life,” Emily protested. “I ... you could have died.”
    Lady Barb coughed, rudely. “Remind me,” she said. “Just who was it who stormed King Randor’s castle, alone, to save her friend?”
    “That’s different,” Emily said.
    “Oh,” Lady Barb said. “How so?”
    Emily found herself struggling for words. The truth, she suspected, was that she didn't want to lose the older woman. They might have started with a slightly prickly relationship, but they’d become friends – or as close to friends as they could, given their relative positions. And there were times when she thought of Lady Barb as a mother ...
    “I don't know,” she said, finally. She wasn't sure she wanted to confess the truth. “I just ... I don't want to lose you.”
    Lady Barb reached out and touched her hand. “I am a Mediator of the Allied Lands,” she said, softly. “Putting my life in danger is part of the job. In this case, we have a rogue magician – perhaps a necromancer – running around, doing something that is almost certainly dangerous. It is my duty to take whatever risks are necessary to stop him before it gets too far out of hand.”
    Emily scowled. As soon as a necromancer went to work, she suspected, it was already out of hand.
    “And in this case, I needed to snap Lord Gorham back to normal as soon as possible,” Lady Barb added. “Whatever the necromancer wanted, Emily, those runes were a big part of it?”
    “But what did he want?” Emily asked, mournfully. “It makes no sense!”
    “That generally means that we’re missing part of the puzzle,” Lady Barb reassured her. “But the sooner we get on to Easter, the better. I have a feeling we’ll find our answers there.”
    She looked over at the preserved rabbit. Emily took the hint, cancelled the spells and then passed the warm meat to Lady Barb.
    “We will take a slight detour to a village on the route,” Lady Barb said, as she ate. “I’d prefer not to have to forage for food any more than strictly necessary.”
    Emily nodded, remembering foraging expeditions with Sergeant Miles. He'd assigned push-ups for every poisonous mushroom they’d picked by accident, then lectured them on the dangers of eating the wrong thing. She’d privately resolved never to forage for food again if she had no alternative. Even something that was technically safe to eat could make her very unwell.
    “I saw a dragon last night,” she said, changing the subject. “Is that a good sign?”
    “It’s a good sign as long as it didn't try to eat you,” Lady Barb said. “The mountainfolk tend to leave dragons and their eggs alone, but there's no shortage of idiots who come up to the mountains in hopes of catching and bleeding a young dragon. Or trying to take an egg before it’s hatched.”
    Emily scowled. Dragon’s Blood was one of the most terrifyingly magical substances in the world – and pricy too, even for a Baroness. And dragons didn't like being hunted, though it often took them some time to notice. She'd read stories of villages being attacked years after the hunters had been and gone. But then, everyone agreed that dragons were truly alien. As far as she knew, only Void and herself had talked to a dragon in recent years.
    “Make sure you get some sleep,” Lady Barb ordered, as she lay back down on her blanket. “We’ll have to walk fast tomorrow – and find a place for some practice. And a swim.”
    “If you’re up to it,” Emily said, firmly. “We can stay here for another day or two if necessary.”
    “I’d prefer to avoid it,” Lady Barb said. “And I think you’d get bored.”
    Emily blushed, embarrassed. Was she really that easy to read?
     
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twenty-Eight
    Despite Emily's concerns, they left the campsite the following morning and walked up a long rocky pathway that eventually led them to a lake, nestling within a valley. There was no sign of any other humans, apart from an abandoned hut that seemed to have been deserted for years. She couldn't help wondering if there was a danger here they couldn't see, like the Night Walker. But nothing suggested itself as she perched on a rock and watched as Lady Barb undressed and plunged into the cold water.
    “Come on in,” she called, as her head broke the surface. “The water’s fine.”
    Emily shook her head. Even if the water hadn't been freezing cold – she'd dipped her fingers into the lake, once she’d checked for unpleasant surprises – she wouldn't have felt comfortable undressing and skinny-dipping. Some of the boys did it on camping trips with the Sergeants, but Emily had never felt the urge to join them. Some of their invitations had been downright rude and unwelcome.
    She took some water and boiled it as Lady Barb swam effortlessly from one side of the lake to the other. It was impossible to tell that she'd been ill, not with the speed she was moving; Emily couldn't help feeling a little admiration for her skill. She’d learned how to swim at Whitehall, between Alassa and Sergeant Miles, but she wasn't a very strong swimmer. Lady Barb, on the other hand, tore her way through the water like a rocket. By the time she emerged from the water – Emily couldn't help thinking of the very first James Bond movie – there was boiling water ready make Kava.
    Emily looked away as Lady Barb dried and dressed herself, then washed half of her clothing in the lake. It wasn't ideal, Emily suspected, but they couldn't do anything else until they reached the next town, where they could hire someone to wash their clothes. The last time she’d washed something herself, it had shrunk so badly she’d had to use magic to fix it.
    “You can take a dip now, if you like,” Lady Barb urged. She tied her hair back in a bun, then took the mug Emily offered her. “The water isn't that bad.”
    Emily shook her head, firmly.
    Lady Barb smiled, then drank her Kava. “I understand,” she said. “What did you do while I was ... unwell?”
    “Pocket dimensions,” Emily said. She outlined her practice, then confessed that the dimension never lasted very long without the square. “I just can't get it to work right.”
    “You need practice,” Lady Barb said, shortly. “But I was thinking we would practice something else today.”
    Emily looked up, interested. She loved learning new types of magic and mental disciplines, even though the more she learnt, the more she had to work to keep them all straight in her mind. She’d been told that the different schools of magic were linked together, but she'd also been warned not to think about it until Fifth Year.
    “You know how to evade someone, of course,” Lady Barb said. “I want you to evade me.”
    Emily swallowed. She’d never been that good at evading her fellow students, particularly the ones who had grown up in the countryside. Sergeant Miles was an absolute devil at tracking down his students, to the point where some whispered he’d cheated. And then he'd proved that he'd used no magic at all.
    “All right,” she said, after a moment. “How long should I try and stay ahead of you?”
    “At least thirty minutes,” Lady Barb said, after a moment’s thought. “Same rules as Martial Magic. If I catch you before time runs out you will do a push-up for each minute left.”
    “Incentive,” Emily said, mimicking Sergeant Miles. He’d done the same, only less mercifully. On the other hand, it was great for building up upper body strength. “Is that the only thing we will be practicing?”
    “No,” Lady Barb said. She glanced up at the sun, then smiled at Emily. “But the next thing can wait until I catch you.”
    She put out the fire, then packed up the bags and swung them both over her shoulder. Emily smiled, although she knew that the older woman wasn't really hampering herself too much. It wouldn't give Emily much of an advantage. She stood, then turned and ran down the path into the woods. Once hidden by the trees, she slowed and moved off the path, watching where she put her feet. There were fewer rocks under the trees, forcing her to walk carefully, but at least she wouldn't be leaving footprints behind her. Bracing herself, she kept moving, wondering how long she had to hide. Outrunning Lady Barb probably wasn't an option.
    Finding a large tree, she scrambled up it into the branches, marvelling at just how many skills she'd picked up over the previous two years. She’d certainly never climbed a tree before in her life. But there was no time to reflect. She heard the sound of someone crashing through the forest and held herself as still as possible. It wasn't good enough.
    “Five minutes to track you down,” Lady Barb called from below. “That was pathetic.”
    Emily held herself very still. It was just possible that Lady Barb was bluffing ...
    The tree shook violently and she yelped, then scrambled off the branch as quickly as possible. Lady Barb smirked up at her as she dropped down to the ground, then scowled at the older woman. She couldn't have caught her so fast unless ... a quick check revealed that Lady Barb had sneaked a tracking hex onto her clothes, before she ran into the forest. If she’d thought to look, she could have removed it before hiding.
    “Cheat,” she said, with some feeling.
    “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” Lady Barb said. Her smirk grew wider. “I believe that’s twenty-five push-ups.”
    Emily groaned, but dropped to the ground and started to count them off, one by one. At least she was better at it now, thankfully. The first time Sergeant Harkin had made her do them, she’d had aching arms for hours afterwards, until Jade had helped her find a potion that made her feel better. Lady Barb watched until she had finished, then helped Emily to her feet.
    “You should have looked for the hex,” Lady Barb said. Emily glowered at her. “Ready to try again?”
    “Yes,” Emily said. She paused, wondering if she dared push her luck. “Will you do press-ups if you don’t catch me.”
    “Depends,” Lady Barb said. She turned around, looking back towards the lake. “We’ll see how well you do.”
    Emily turned and fled into the trees, changing her path as soon as she removed the tracking hex. After a moment, she stuck another one on a tree, half-hoping that it would distract the older woman long enough for Emily to put some distance between them. She didn't know how long Lady Barb would wait before she started to come after her, after all. This time, she crouched low behind a tree and hid herself behind a glamour. Without magic, Lady Barb would have to look very carefully for her if she wanted to succeed.
    She jumped as a hand fell on her shoulder. “You did too well,” Lady Barb said, mischievously. “Your glamour was too good.”
    Emily glanced at her watch. Lady Barb had taken twenty-two minutes to find her. Sighing, she dropped to the ground and counted out eight more press-ups, then stood up. Lady Barb shrugged, then waggled her fingers at Emily. Taken by surprise, Emily froze. It took her several minutes to break the spell and escape.
    “Work faster, next time,” Lady Barb said, as she turned to lead Emily back to the path. “You could be easily killed while you are helpless.”
    “I know,” Emily confessed. She needed to move her hands to work magic, mostly. It was harder, somehow, to cast spells without moving physically. She'd worked hard, with Mistress Sun and Sergeant Miles, to master the art, but she was still only a beginner. “But it doesn't always work properly.”
    Lady Barb made a rude sound as they reached the path and started onwards. “Just you wait until you find a proper apprenticeship,” she said, darkly. “Your mistress or master won’t be so kind.”
    Emily remembered some of Jade’s stories and nodded in agreement. Master Grey, whatever his faults, pushed his apprentice really hard. Jade could cope, Emily suspected, but he hadn't had the benefit of a second year of Martial Magic. Master Grey was pushing him right to the limits, as well as teaching him to be a dueller. The thought reminded her of something she wanted to ask.
    “Why didn't you take part in the duelling contest?”
    Lady Barb seemed surprised by the question. “I did, when I was younger,” she said. “And then I lost my ranking and decided I could bow out gracefully. I preferred to fight, rather than duel.”
    She smiled. “It wasn't something I really wanted to keep,” she added. “Duelling isn't something that should be done casually.”
    “I see,” Emily said.
    “Master Grey holds the topmost ranking at present,” Lady Barb said. “This is who you were talking about, isn’t it?”
    Emily nodded.
    “Clasp your hands behind your back,” Lady Barb ordered. “To answer the question most girls ask, he can't decline challenges without forfeiting his ranking. So he insists that all challenges be to the death, just to keep them down.”
    “Men,” Emily said.
    “Indeed,” Lady Barb agreed. She smiled, rather dryly. “Unclasp your hands.”
    Emily tried ... and discovered that her hands were stuck, bound together by a spell. “You have twenty minutes to break the spell,” Lady Barb said, as she kept walking down the path. “And don't even think about standing still.”
    “Cruel,” Emily muttered. She struggled, but her hands refused to unlock. “Why ...?”
    “Because you need the practice,” Lady Barb said, in a surprisingly reasonable tone. “And believe me, you have to learn how to defeat these spells before it’s too late.”
    There was something in her tone that bothered Emily, a suggestion she might need to learn fast – or faster. She cast the cancelling charm, but wasn't too surprised to discover that the charm failed. Lady Barb wouldn't have trapped her hands with something simple and easy to break. Gritting her teeth, she tried a more complex charm, then another. Neither one worked.
    She trailed along behind Lady Barb, struggling with the hex. It was odd; the touch was so light that she couldn't sense the magic, merely the effects. She should have been able to sense something, certainly after two years of advanced study with Mistress Sun and Sergeant Miles. But there was nothing ...
    It clicked and she glared at the older woman’s back. There was nothing, at least nothing on her hands. The spell had affected her mind, forcing her to keep her hands locked no matter what she tried. Once she knew what it was, it was easy to counter. Emily freed her hands, then rubbed them, frantically. She’d gripped them so tightly that her skin, already pale, had gone white.
    “You took far too long to realise how the trick was done,” Lady Barb told her, without turning around. “That may be a problem, later.”
    Emily nodded, sullenly. There were spells she disliked intensely and almost all of them related to ways of rendering someone helpless – and open to outside commands or influence. Quite a few of the traps in Blackhall manipulated the target’s mind, either inserting commands or merely messing around with their perceptions. Emily's standard tactic was to avoid them where possible. They were just too tricky to overpower.
    Lady Barb kept tossing tests at her as they walked, each one slightly more complex and twisted than the last. Emily fought down her outrage and concentrated, but most of the tests required careful thought to defeat, thought they were designed to make difficult. It was worse than trying to study while someone was playing music, she decided, remembering days at school when she'd studied there, rather than go home and risk meeting her stepfather. Her mind was all she had and it could be twisted so easily ...
    “Set up the wards,” Lady Barb ordered. “And make sure you get plenty of sleep.”
    Emily eyed her suspiciously. “Are you ... are you going to do anything tonight?”
    “Sleep,” Lady Barb said, innocently. “Or should I be setting you punishment exercises?”
    “No,” Emily said, quickly. “But...”
    Lady Barb’s expression softened. “It wasn't very easy for me either,” she admitted. “But you have far better cause than I to learn how to resist mental attacks.”
    Emily shivered, remembering Lin – and how the bodies had almost been wiped from her mind.
    Lady Barb went back into the forest and returned, carrying a pair of rabbits and a handful of vegetables. Emily watched in some amusement as she dropped water into the caldron, then boiled the meat and half of the vegetables until she'd made a tasty stew. The sergeants had done the same, she recalled, only with larger animals. But then, they’d had more mouths to feed.
    “Your training has been enhanced, but you have a long way to go,” Lady Barb said. “Still ...”
    Her voice trailed off. Emily looked at her, sharply. The older woman almost seemed to be hinting at something. But what? She braced herself and asked.
    “I can't tell you, not now,” Lady Barb said. “But it is important that you concentrate on all of your defences, not just the physical ones. You will need them.”
    Emily ate her stew, then fell asleep almost at once. Nothing troubled the wards – or at least nothing woke her in the middle of the night. When she awoke, it was morning and Lady Barb was already awake. Emily felt a tight knot undoing itself in her stomach, one she hadn't realised was there. Lady Barb was back to normal.
    “I didn't see anything last night,” Lady Barb said. “We might have slept in the wrong place.”
    Emily shrugged as she washed her face, then drank the Kava. For once, Lady Barb had prepared breakfast, such as it was. The reheated stew tasted a little gamy, but she gulped it down anyway. Lady Barb packed up, then passed Emily her bag. Emily sighed and took it.
    “We’re going to pause overnight in a town on the edge of Easter,” Lady Barb informed her, once she’d pulled the bag over her shoulders. “We should have some time to get information out of the locals before we go visit Lady Easter.”
    Emily nodded. The Sergeants had taught her the value of intelligence, although they’d also added that most people didn’t know anything outside their own limited horizons. It was rare to find a lower-class tourist in the Allied Lands, apart from magicians and traders. Even the upper classes didn't travel very far from their homelands. That might change, she told herself, when the steam railways were finally in place.
    Lady Barb kept testing her as they made their way along the path, heading down towards the nearest town. Emily sighed and concentrated on breaking the spells, one after the other. Several of them caught her so firmly she couldn't escape, forcing Lady Barb to free her, teach her how to escape and then cast the spell again. The second time that happened, Emily discovered that even the smallest change in the spell made it harder for her to escape. Her head was pounding uncomfortably when Lady Barb finally called a halt.
    “You will need to keep practicing,” Lady Barb warned. “But the true danger lies in subtle magic. We may need to carve a rune into your flesh.”
    Emily glowered at her, rubbing her forehead. Carving runes into one’s flesh could be dangerous, even if it worked perfectly. There was no way someone else could do it and expect it to work; she'd have to carve the rune herself, without benefit of anaesthetic. And she wasn't even sure why.
    “Unfortunately, it probably wouldn't be missed,” Lady Barb added.
    “Missed,” Emily repeated. “Missed by whom?”
    Lady Barb said nothing. Emily was about to ask again, demanding answers, when the pathway suddenly widened and revealed a tiny village hidden within the trees. It looked alarmingly like the first village, save that it was organised differently and large carved stones had been placed in front of each of the shacks. A handful of people were moving from house to house, but something was missing. It took her a moment to realise that there were no children in sight.
    Someone sounded the alarm and the women scurried into the nearest house, while the men produced a handful of makeshift weapons. Emily tensed, preparing a spell, as two men started towards them, their expressions frozen somewhere between grim determination and fear. But then, she wouldn't have cared to face a sorceress either, not if she didn't have any magic of her own.
    “Greetings,” Lady Barb said, with studied casualness. “May we enter the village for the night?”
    The two men exchanged glances. “Are you magicians?”
    “Yes,” Lady Barb said, flatly.
    Emily blinked in surprise. They were two women, travelling alone. What else could they be? And why had they been greeted with weapons?
    “The headman told us that a magician would be coming,” the guard said. “He needs your help.”
    “Then we will assist him,” Lady Barb said, regally. “Take us to your leader.”
    “Prove it,” the second guard said. “We need ...”
    Lady Barb snapped her fingers. A frog looked up at her from where the second guard had been, quivering slightly.
    “It’ll wear off,” she said, then looked at the first guard. “Convinced?”
    The guard gulped. “Yes, Lady Sorceress,” he said. “If you will please come with me?”
    Lady Barb followed him, holding her head up high. Emily followed her, glancing around with some interest. The village looked deserted, but she could tell that they were being watched.
    “Stay alert,” Lady Barb muttered to her. “Something bad has happened here.”
    Emily nodded. She couldn't disagree.
     
  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twenty-Nine
    Emily couldn't help thinking of one of the herbalists at Whitehall when she first set eyes on the headman. He was tall and almost painfully thin, with a long white beard that drifted down to his knees. Beside him, there were four other men, each one bearded and staring at the two magicians with expressions that ranged from relieved to outraged. Lady Barb nodded to them politely, then lifted an eyebrow. Somehow, Emily doubted that they’d called the magicians for anything minor.
    “We have a problem,” the headman said. His companions nodded in agreement. “We need you to interrogate a prisoner.”
    Rudolf, Emily thought, in sudden horror. Did they capture Rudolf?
    But they hadn't. The whole story came tumbling out, slowly. Clearly, this headman did not have unlimited power. His companions inserted their own comments, argued and bickered with each other, pushing forward their own views as the headman spoke. Emily found it hard to follow the explanation, even though the headman generally waited for his companions to finish and then went on regardless. By the time she had a fairly complete idea of what was going on, the sun was setting in the sky.
    “Let me see if I’ve got this right,” Lady Barb said. “Two children vanished from your village.”
    The headman and his companions nodded in agreement.
    “The only stranger who came to the village was a postal worker,” Lady Barb continued, calmly. “Your people decided that he was responsible for their disappearance and threatened to lynch him. You managed to lock him up instead.”
    Emily winced as she realised the dilemma facing the headman. If the postal worker was killed without proof of guilt, there would be eventual retaliation from the outside. Even if all they did was cut the village out of the postal route, it would have dangerous effects. The village didn't import much, but it wouldn't be allowed to import anything if strangers weren't allowed to come and go safely.
    But if the mob wasn’t allowed to kill the person it blamed for the disappearances – the deaths, if the kidnapped children were the dead she’d seen after meeting Rudolf – it might easily turn on the headman. There was a degree of consensus in this village that was missing from Hodge’s village, an understanding that there were limits to the headman’s authority. He was caught between two fires, either one of which might kill him. And then he’d been lucky enough to have a pair of travelling magicians walk into his village.
    “That is correct,” the headman said. “If he is guilty, particularly if you verify it, we can kill him. But if he isn't ...”
    “I understand,” Lady Barb said, cutting him off. “We will hold a morning trial, I think. But I will have to see the suspect first.”
    “Of course,” the headman said. He sounded relieved. “And I would be honoured if you would join me as my guests for the night.”
    Lady Barb nodded. “We would be honoured,” she said. Emily knew her well enough to detect a faint hint of irritation in her tone. “Please take us to the prisoner.”
    Emily was mildly surprised that the tiny village had a prison in the first place. Peasant customs of law and order, according to the guidebooks, were very limited. There was simply very little to steal and, for all the hardness of their lives, very few thieves. Those that did appear were normally beaten, sometimes to death or thrown out of the village. But then, there were very few things the peasants considered crimes. Beating one’s wife – or husband, for that matter – was considered nothing more than sport.
    The prison consisted of nothing more than a wooden cage, she realised, as they rounded the houses. Inside, a young man sat in the stocks, his hands and feet firmly trapped. Emily shuddered when she saw just how badly bruised he was, as if the villagers had beaten him on the way to the gallows. There was no one on guard, she realised, as she looked away from his naked flesh. The villagers could come by to hurl stones any time they liked. She was surprised that he was even still alive.
    “Leave us,” Lady Barb ordered.
    The headman bowed and retreated. Emily watched as Lady Barb healed a handful of injuries, then spoke briefly to the prisoner. She couldn't hear the mumbled responses. After a few days of such treatment – and probably no food or drink – the prisoner might be on the verge of death anyway. Emily had never been in the stocks herself, but it looked thoroughly uncomfortable. And escape would be impossible without magic.
    “He’s delusional,” Lady Barb said, as she stepped backwards. “He was confessing to stealing money from the temple and defacing the statue of the god.”
    Emily lifted an eyebrow, surprised.
    “It’s not uncommon when one is being tortured to death,” Lady Barb said. “They tend to confess to just about anything, in hopes of getting a quick end. But he didn't confess to kidnapping anyone.”
    “Which saved his life,” Emily guessed. It was unlikely that anyone in the village would care about stealing money from a temple. They certainly didn't have a temple in their village. “If he’d confessed to the right crime ...”
    She shook her head, then pressed on. “Is he guilty?”
    “I don’t know,” Lady Barb said. She frowned at the prisoner, then looked back at Emily. “I need to have a few words with the headman. You stay here and keep an eye on him. If someone tries to hurt him” – she nodded towards a handful of stones on the ground near the stocks – “stop them. But don’t talk to him.”
    Emily nodded. Lady Barb turned and strode back towards the headman’s hut, moving with a confidence Emily wished she could master for herself. She found herself praying that Lady Barb hadn't weakened herself again, then shook her head as she looked at the prisoner. Even with some of his wounds healed, he still looked to be on the verge of death. There were more lethal injuries, she knew, but failing to treat non-fatal injuries could easily make them lethal if the wounds were allowed to become infected. She looked closer, wondering which one of the cuts and bruises were already infected. Chances were the prisoner would need weeks of recovery, even with magic repairing the damage.
    She was still mulling it over when Lady Barb returned, two younger men in tow. Their eyes passed over Emily without ever quite seeing to register her presence, something that puzzled her until she realised that they were afraid. The guard Lady Barb had turned into a frog was probably back to normal by now, filling their ears with tales of the all-powerful magicians. His fellows wouldn’t want to show any interest in Emily ...
    “Clean him up, bind his wounds and then stand guard,” Lady Barb ordered, addressing the two men. Neither of them looked very pleased at the orders, but they hastened to obey. “I do not want him touched in any way until we hold the trial. Do you understand me?”
    “Yes, Lady Sorceress,” the guards stammered, in unison.
    Emily followed Lady Barb back to the headman’s hut, wondering if the prisoner would really be alright. What if he was guilty? It seemed unlikely – the bodies she’d seen had been used in a necromantic rite and a necromancer could have burnt down the entire village without raising a sweat – but he might be working for the necromancer. If that was the case ... she remembered Alassa executing her treacherous aunt and shuddered. The headman would have to execute the prisoner at once. Nothing else would suffice.
    “I trust you remember how to cast a truth spell,” Lady Barb said. “You’ll be casting it tomorrow.”
    “Only the first three levels,” Emily said. The first one was light, easy to brush off if the victim knew what was happening. “What if he’s strong enough to resist?”
    “I use a heavier spell,” Lady Barb said. “But I don't think he has any incentive to resist.”
    Emily swallowed, remembering an old problem from Earth. If someone didn't have anything to hide, the reasoning ran, why would they object to having their bags searched and their computers monitored? But the reasoning didn't take into account a person’s natural outrage at not being trusted, let alone an equally natural desire for privacy. The prisoner might resist, even without meaning to, a spell intended to force him to tell the truth. And if that happened, the mob would conclude that he had something to hide.
    “What ...?” She swallowed and started again. “What if he is guilty?”
    “Then we deal with him,” Lady Barb said. “But I don't think he is.”
    She shrugged. “You may have to cast the spell on someone else, just to prove it works, or perhaps over a general area,” she added. “In that case, we will work out the questions in advance. The spell won't last very long, no matter how much magic you pump into it.”
    Emily nodded. One area-effect spell made everyone within its sphere of influence tell the truth – and nothing, but the truth. It didn't compel them to answer, it just prevented them from lying outright. But she'd had enough lessons with Master Tor to know that a poor choice of questions could present misleading responses. They would have to do a great deal of research in a very short space of time, just to make sure that there was no room for evasion.
    The headman’s wife welcomed them as they stepped back into the house, offering them the master bedroom, such as it was. Emily was embarrassed to even think of kicking the older couple out of bed and Lady Barb clearly agreed, because after some haggling she managed to talk the woman into letting them sleep on blankets in front of the fire instead. There was no real privacy – she reminded herself to set up wards to ensure some privacy – but there was no alternative. It would have been rude to ask to sleep outside the house.
    “Tell me what happened,” Lady Barb ordered, as dinner was served. “Who did you lose and why?”
    “A boy and a girl,” the headman said. He seemed to be attaching more importance to the girl than the boy, which was unusual. “One was the oldest son of his parents, the other was the middle daughter of my son.”
    Emily kept her face expressionless. That explained it.
    Lady Barb’s lips pressed into a thin line. “How old were they?”
    “Both eleven,” the headman said.
    Emily shivered. Old enough to have magic within their blood, young enough not to be able to access and use it deliberately. A necromancer would consider them prime targets – if, of course, they did have magic. There was no way a peasant village could or would test for it.
    “Might they have run off on their own?” Lady Barb asked. “They were certainly old enough to fancy themselves in love.”
    Emily gave her a sharp look. Now who was forgetting the bodies? But then, they didn't have any proof that the bodies and the missing children were one and the same. Lord Gorham’s castle was two days walk from the village. It wouldn't be a problem for a magician, she knew, but why go to all the effort of transporting the children when there were plenty of prospective victims closer to the castle? Unless the necromancer had feared that missing children would break the power of the runes ...
    Lord Gorham didn't need us to break free, she thought. All he needed was a good reason to start questioning why he was acting in a certain manner.
    The serving girls had been quite open about working for Lord Gorham. He’d been a good master, certainly by local standards. They earned money, they saved enough to ensure they had some independence even after marriage ... and they weren't beaten, harassed or molested. Compared to Emily’s predecessor in Cockatrice, he was a paragon of humanity. And his son, too, had kept his hands to himself. Given how vulnerable the girls were – they literally could not say no – it was odd ... and it spoke well of the two aristocrats.
    Emily shook her head, annoyed. She was going native. Since when had merely not molesting the girls become the mark of a good man?
    She returned to the original train of thought. Lord Gorham cared – and if children had gone missing from his lands, he might well have investigated. And that, in turn, might have ripped apart the haze of magic created by the runes. If he realised that the dead bodies were slipping in and out of his mind, he might have broken free ...
    The headman snorted. “I do not believe that either of them had developed to the point where they noticed the other sex,” he said, rudely. “And the girl was not mature.”
    Emily hastily replayed the conversation in her mind. It had taken her some time to realise that, while a girl was considered marriageable once she started her periods, most girls outside the aristocracy started their periods much later than girls on Earth. They simply didn't eat enough to allow their bodies to develop earlier. Visions of child brides had faded, slightly, when she'd realised that periods might start at sixteen or even later. But that didn't stop children from being betrothed and told they had to marry once they were mature.
    “In any case,” the headman’s wife offered, “they knew better than to run off.”
    Emily had to smile at her. She clearly wasn't interested in being her husband’s subordinate, let alone his punching bag. The woman had enough muscles to pass for a sumo wrestler and a hard, but surprisingly pleasant face. If her husband – who looked tiny compared to his wife – tried something, Emily suspected it would be the last thing he ever did.
    She turned her attention back to the food as Lady Barb kept asking questions. The stew tasted vaguely spicy, with potatoes, cabbage and a handful of tiny pieces of meat. But meat would be rare – or at least expensive – for peasants in such a small village, she knew. They couldn't slaughter all their animals or they would have no way to replace them. Even sheep and goats were expensive in the mountains. Alcohol wasn't, she couldn't help noticing. She made sure to protect herself against drunkenness before taking a swig of the beer. It tasted foul.
    “I was surprised you didn't send the prisoner to the castle,” Lady Barb said. “Would that not have solved your problem?”
    The headman shook his head, his expression oddly torn between irritation and surprise. “We wished to handle it ourselves,” he said. “Our Lady is much too busy to be bothered with small matters.”
    Emily puzzled over that until she worked it out. Lady Easter might or might not be under the same influence as Lord Gorham, but she would be more concerned about the politics of the situation than the dead children. Releasing the postal worker, even if he was guilty as sin, would repair links between her tiny kingdom and the rest of the Allied Lands. The peasants knew that handing their prisoner over to the aristocracy was effectively the same as letting him go.
    At Lady Barb’s muttered suggestion, she gave the headman’s wife a hand washing the dishes, allowing her a chance to inspect the kitchen. The headman’s wife seemed astonished, but allowed her to help without argument. Emily had to admit she was privately impressed by the kitchen, although it was surprisingly simplistic compared to Whitehall’s giant kitchens. It was certainly more efficient than the kitchens in the guesthouses. Once she had finished washing and drying the dishes, she walked back into the main room to discover that the headman had gone and left Lady Barb alone.
    “Think about what questions we should ask, tomorrow,” Lady Barb ordered. “We will need to ask multiple versions of the same questions.”
    Emily nodded. The prisoner might not know the names of the children, even if he had taken them from the village. Asking him if he’d taken the children by name might produce a negative response. They would have to ask vague questions, then narrow it down – and hope that the villagers were prepared to be patient. What would happen, she asked herself, if the mob tried to lynch the prisoner anyway?
    She watched as Lady Barb sorted out the blankets, then lay down in front of the fire and stared up at the wooden ceiling. Emily hesitated, then came over to join her, casting a handful of wards as she sat down. Lady Barb gave her an odd look, then nodded in understanding.
    “This could get problematic,” Lady Barb said, once the privacy ward was in place. “If he really is working for a necromancer ...”
    Emily shuddered. Shadye had been defeated through luck. The next necromancer she encountered might be outside Whitehall, away from the nexus. And, if they were dealing with a necromancer now ... but if they were, it was a very odd necromancer.
    “The more I think about it, the less I like it,” Lady Barb admitted. “He should be completely insane by now, which would make him very noticeable.”
    “Unless he was disciplined enough to keep himself under control,” Emily said. But she remembered the runes and knew that wouldn't be enough, not indefinitely. The necromancer’s perceptions of the world around him would be warped, along with his mind. “How long can a necromancer seem reasonably sane before he cracks completely?”
    “There's no hard and fast rule,” Lady Barb admitted. “Merely ... the reports of experiments carried out by people with more magic than common sense. If there was only ever one victim, the necromancer might seem reasonably sane for years. But the power is addictive and the necromancer would need new victims, sooner or later.”
    Emily nodded.
    “Get some sleep,” Lady Barb added. “Tomorrow is going to be very bad.”
     
  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments?

    Chapter Thirty
    It felt like she'd barely closed her eyes before she felt someone jabbing her ribs and snapped awake. Outside, a faint light was glimmering through the windows, suggesting that the sun was on the verge of rising above the mountains. Emily looked to see Lady Barb sitting next to her, her face twisted into an odd grimace. Outside the wards, the headman’s wife was already laying out bowls of oatmeal on the table.
    “Time to get up,” Lady Barb said, mildly. “There's no shortage of work to do.”
    Emily sat upright, running her hands down her shirt and trousers. They felt grimy, but she hadn't wanted to undress, even behind the privacy ward. Lady Barb stood and walked through the wards, then sat down at the table and started to eat from one of the bowls. There was an assumption of superiority about her action that bothered Emily more than she cared to think about, an assumption that was little different from King Randor’s. Sighing, Emily climbed to her feet and joined her. The oatmeal tasted almost flavourless.
    “Everyone will be at work in the early hours,” Lady Barb said, as the headman and his wife walked out of the door, leaving the two magicians alone. “We won’t hold the trial until at least ten bells.”
    Emily glanced at her watch, then nodded. They had three hours, more or less, to prepare.
    “Get into your golden robes,” Lady Barb added. “We need to make an impression.”
    “I could use a glamour,” Emily suggested. The robes had been buried at the bottom of her bag ever since they’d left Lady Barb’s house. “They’d never know ...”
    “Put on your robes,” Lady Barb ordered, tartly. “The less deceit we use, the better.”
    Emily kept her opinion of that to herself as she washed her face, then found her robes and pulled them over her head. As always, they were scratchy and uncomfortable – and felt very much out of place. Lady Barb’s own robes looked spectacular – the black robe of a combat sorceress set off her blonde hair nicely – and Emily felt a moment of envy, before pushing it aside. She worked her hair into a long ponytail, considering – again – cutting it short. But somehow she found herself unable to do it.
    “I thought they would have children,” she said, as she looked around the hut. Most peasant families lived together, multiple generations sharing the same house. “Or have they kicked them out for us?”
    “The headman doesn't get many benefits from his position,” Lady Barb said. “Having a house that he shares with his wife and no one else is about the best of them.”
    Emily nodded, remembering how cramped Imaiqah’s house in Alexis had been. The children would be constantly supervised by older members of the family, never allowing them to get into mischief ... while the married sons would be expected to bring their wives to join the extended family. There would be absolutely no privacy for the newcomer – or anyone else, for that matter. The thought made her sick. She couldn't have endured such an existence for very long.
    “I’m glad I don’t live here,” she said, finally.
    “Most people would be,” Lady Barb agreed, dryly. “But just remember that your loyal subjects are largely living in similar conditions.”
    Emily nodded.
    There was almost nothing to do until the trial began, so Emily read her way through another book, then talked Lady Barb into a lecture on advanced uses for Healing. Lady Barb might be a short-tempered teacher, but she did know what she was talking about, something that put her ahead of many of Emily’s teachers on Earth. She listened with rapt fascination and was almost disappointed when the headman finally stuck his head into the house and told them that the trial was ready to begin.
    Emily followed Lady Barb out of the house ... and then had to fight down the urge to run as the villagers turned to stare at her. The golden robes shone brightly in the sunlight, drawing their attention like a moth to a flame. Emily gritted her teeth and kept walking, keeping her eyes firmly fixed on Lady Barb’s back. She hadn’t realised that there were so many people in the village. It looked as though there were over a hundred men, women and children.
    The stage had been set up in the centre of the village, with the prisoner – still in the stocks – perched at one edge of the stage. Emily forced herself to follow Lady Barb up onto the stage, wishing she’d taken up the suggestion she joined the dramatics club in Whitehall. It might have made it easier for her to stand up in front of so many people. Even Master Tor’s lessons in public speaking hadn't made much headway.
    “We are gathered here to investigate the accusations made against this prisoner,” Lady Barb said. Her voice was quiet, but she must have used a spell because no one seemed to have any trouble in hearing her. “My apprentice will perform a truth spell, after which we will interrogate the prisoner. Once we have answers, we will know how to treat him.”
    A dull rumble passed through the crowd. Most of them believed the prisoner guilty, Emily realised, and hadn't really thought about what might happen if he was proven innocent. It might cost the village dear if they lost all contact with the outside world. Or perhaps the whole affair would be smoothed over, once some compensation was paid. But what did the villagers have that could compensate for attempted murder?
    Lady Barb looked up at Emily. “Do it,” she ordered.
    Emily swallowed nervously and worked the spell. It took her two tries to get it right. The sheer weight of so many people staring at her was distracting – and terrifying. Magic crackled around her fingertips as she stepped backwards, spell in place. Lady Barb checked her work, nodded and then cast a spell to amplify the man's voice. Everyone would hear what he had to say, good or bad.
    “Tell us,” Lady Barb said. “What is your name?”
    For a long moment, the prisoner didn't answer. Emily wondered, helplessly, if he'd managed to shrug off the spell ... or if he was so badly wounded that he wasn't aware of what was actually going on or he couldn't talk. Lady Barb touched his forehead, then pulled a bottle of potion out of her robes and pressed it to his lips. The crowd muttered angrily as the prisoner drank the potion, then started to splutter as it worked its magic.
    “Healing potion,” Lady Barb said. She looked back at the prisoner. “What is your name?”
    “Reginald,” the man croaked. His eyes were sudden alive with life – and terror. He’d been almost completely out of it until he’d drunk the potion. “My name is Reginald.”
    “Good,” Lady Barb said. “Why did you come to this village?”
    “I had to deliver a letter to one of the peasants here,” Reginald said, between coughs. “He was meant to reply so I waited for his reply.”
    Lady Barb and Emily shared a glance. Who in the village would be receiving letters from anyone? The postal system serviced aristocrats and magicians, not commoners. But it wasn't a question they could ask, not legally. They could only ask about Reginald’s involvement with the missing children.
    “Two children are missing from this village,” Lady Barb said. “Did you take them?”
    “No,” Reginald said.
    “He’s lying,” a female voice shouted. “He took my son!”
    Lady Barb glared her into silence, then returned to Reginald. “Did you take any children from this village?”
    “No,” Reginald said.
    “Good,” Lady Barb said. “What did you do in the village while waiting for your reply?”
    “I courted a girl,” Reginald said. For the first time, he seemed shocked at his own words. “I spent time with her.”
    Emily had to bit her lip to keep from giggling. On Earth, it would be funny; here, the consequences could be disastrous. The peasants might overlook a little affair like premarital sex if the non-virgin was a boy, but it was different for girls. They didn't have access to spells that could determine parentage, not like the aristocracy, nor did they have any form of workable contraception. It was quite possible that Reginald had impregnated his lover.
    She'd need three or four months before they were sure she wasn't pregnant, Emily thought, and shivered. Poor girl.
    Lady Barb bounced other questions off him, one by one. No, Reginald had no sexual interest in children. No, Reginald had no interest in young boys or young girls. Sometimes, she rephrased the question in the hopes of closing any loopholes. A handful of catcalls from the crowd suggested that the listeners weren’t too happy with the result. Emily braced herself, silently preparing to cast protective spells. The village had good reason to be worried about the results, now.
    “The spells have proven that Reginald was not responsible for the abduction of the children,” Lady Barb said. She looked over at the grieving parents. “I believe that others should be interrogated now.”
    The crowd broke down into small clumps, arguing frantically. Some villagers wanted the parents to be interrogated, some thought that was too much and just wanted to bury the whole thing. Emily couldn't help feeling sick. If she were wrong and the bodies they’d discovered earlier had nothing to do with the missing children, where had the children gone? Their parents might easily have murdered them and then framed Reginald. Or maybe they’d just vanished in the forest.
    Lady Barb released Reginald from the stocks, then motioned for Emily to heal the rest of the damage the peasants had inflicted. Emily nodded, keeping a wary eye on the arguing crowd as she bent over Reginald and went to work. The damage was worse than she'd guessed, she realised; they’d broken several of his ribs when they’d arrested him. One of his arms was badly damaged, perhaps dislocated ... she winced in sympathy as she healed it. Lady Barb would need to take a look at him later, she decided. There was so much damage that Emily wasn't sure she'd managed to repair it all.
    “Thank you,” Reginald muttered. His voice was so low that Emily had to strain to hear it. Lady Barb had clearly removed her spell. “I thought ... I thought I was dead.”
    “Not yet,” Emily said. She recalled, all-too-clearly, the days she’d been suspected of destroying the Warden. “You’ll be able to ride soon enough.”
    The headman’s voice suddenly boomed over the crowd. “We arrested the wrong person,” he said. “We should now consider other possibilities.”
    Emily winced, inwardly. Most of the people in the village were related, which meant they had to consider that they might be related to a murderer. Lady Barb motioned and a middle-aged woman, tears streaking down her face, stepped up onto the stage. Emily sensed Lady Barb casting a complex truth spell, then questioning the woman. The mother of the missing boy, it seemed, was completely innocent of his disappearance. So were the other three parents.
    “We could question everyone,” Lady Barb muttered to the headman.
    He shook his head. Emily wondered, briefly, if he was responsible for the missing children, then realised that it was unlikely. The headman wouldn't risk his position by abducting children.
    “It's a trick,” an older man shouted. “They cast no spell on that ... person.”
    He waved a hand at Reginald. “He did it and they covered for him,” he added. “They’re working together.”
    Lady Barb gave him a long look. “I could have taken Reginald out of the stocks at any moment,” she said, tartly. Emily would not have dared to argue with that tone of voice. “If he had been guilty, you could have killed him and I would have done nothing to stop you. But he is innocent. I will not allow you to kill an innocent man while the real murderer runs and hides.”
    The crowd seethed for a long moment, then started to slowly disperse. Emily let out a long breath as the danger receded, then concentrated on helping Reginald to his feet. Lady Barb spoke briefly to the headman, who nodded and headed back to his house with his council.
    “His horse is in the field,” Lady Barb said. “I’ll have it brought around for him.”
    “Thank you,” Reginald said. “They would have killed me.”
    “Yes, they would,” Lady Barb said. “You might want to consider taking your girlfriend with you. She won’t be safe here.”
    Reginald swallowed. Emily read his reluctance in his eyes. From his point of view, the girl had been nothing more than a diversion; from hers, perhaps he'd been the man who would take her away from the village. Emily could understand her desire to escape; if she stayed, she'd marry someone she knew all her life and move into his house, along with his parents, trading one form of imprisonment for another. And if she didn't have magic, she wouldn't be able to escape to Whitehall or another magical school.
    “Just make sure you don't drop her somewhere,” Emily added. “If you take her, take care of her.”
    Lady Barb nodded. “Who in this village received a letter?”
    “One of the older villagers used to be a soldier,” Reginald said. “He worked for Lord Easter before he died. I was charged with taking him a letter, then taking back a reply. But then ...”
    He shrugged, expressively. “I’ll write you a letter,” Lady Barb said. “Once you’ve delivered the reply, take it down to the nearest carriage house and get it on its way.”
    “Of course,” Reginald said. “Anything for my saviours.”
    Lady Barb dismissed him, then led the way back to the headman’s house. “Unless the village is housing a child-killer, we have to assume it was the work of the necromancer,” she said, casting a privacy ward around them. “But if the dead bodies we found didn't come from here ...”
    “Then other children have gone missing,” Emily finished, remembering the rumours. “Could ...?”
    She hesitated. There were possibilities she didn't want to think about, but there was no choice. “Could there be another use for the children?”
    Lady Barb looked at her. “Like what?”
    “Shadye wanted to sacrifice me,” Emily reminded her. Shadye could have killed her at once if all he'd wanted was another victim to feed his lust for power. “Could the necromancer have decided to sacrifice the children instead?”
    Another idea occurred to her. “Or ... were they drained of life energy instead of magic?”
    “No way to tell,” Lady Barb said. She sounded disturbed by the prospect. “A sacrifice should have left traces of demonic magic, but there were so many obfuscating charms around the bodies that I couldn't detect anything specific. Life energy ...”
    Emily frowned. “What would the bodies look like if they were drained of life energy?”
    “Dead,” Lady Barb said, flatly. The prospect clearly disturbed her. “I’d keep those questions to yourself, if I were you. There are people who would take strong exception to you asking them in the wrong places.”
    She shrugged. “There was no sign of rapid aging, but the ritual might have worked quickly enough to prevent it,” she added. “Still, it’s a worrying thought.”
    They paused outside the headman’s house. “You did well,” she said. “They might not be satisfied, but at least an innocent man has been spared death by torture.”
    Emily nodded. “What are we going to do now?”
    “The headman invited us to a dance tomorrow,” Lady Barb said. Emily winced. “Yes, I thought that would be your reaction. Besides, I want to head on to Easter as soon as possible.”
    She looked up at the sun, poised high in the sky. “It will take two days to reach Easter in any case,” she added. “We might as well start walking now. And besides, you still need more practice.”
    Emily groaned. She’d barely recovered from the last set of practice exercises – and, while she knew that Lady Barb was right about them being important, she still didn't know why.
    The headman didn't seem offended when Lady Barb told him they had to leave. In fact, he seemed almost relieved. Emily puzzled over the reaction, then realised that the headman was hoping to quieten everything down and it would be easier if Lady Barb, Emily and Reginald were elsewhere. Lady Barb seemed to agree; she wrote her letter while Emily packed up the bags, took the food the headman’s wife offered her and then led Emily back out the door.
    Reginald was waiting for them, sitting on a bored-looking horse. “Make sure the letter gets into the system,” Lady Barb ordered. “And don’t leave it lying around.”
    “Hexed, is it?” Reginald said. He took the letter, placed it into his saddlebag and then smiled at them both. “Thank you, once again.”
    He dug in his spurs and cantered out of the village.
    “He didn't have the girl with him,” Emily said, quietly.
    “No,” Lady Barb agreed. “He didn’t.”
    She shook her head sadly, then led the way towards the next path. Emily was mildly surprised that they weren't taking the road, but she suspected that Lady Barb wanted to remain unseen. Instead, they started to climb again almost as soon as they passed into the trees.
    “Tell me,” Lady Barb said. “Did you notice how many children were missing?”
    “Two,” Emily said. She'd hardly been able to miss that detail. The headman had repeated it more than Master Tor had repeated his tedious legal faces about the Allied Lands. “Why ...?”
    She saw it, suddenly. There had been more than two bodies hidden behind the obfuscating charms. “Where did the other bodies come from?”
    “That is indeed the question,” Lady Barb said. “Which other villages have also lost people to the mystery magician? And just what is he trying to do?”
     
  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirty-One
    Easter Castle came into view a long time before they saw Easter Town. Like Lord Gorham’s castle, it was a brooding monstrosity perched on top of a mountain, but there was something about it that looked more welcoming than the previous castle. Lady Barb spent several minutes staring at it before leading the way down into the town, a troubled expression on her face. Emily followed her, feeling her body aching from tiredness. She just wanted to get some sleep before she did anything else.
    It wasn't yet sunset, but the town seemed as quiet and fearful as the previous village. Emily saw faces at windows peering out at them, before vanishing behind curtains. She looked around, half-expecting to see guards, yet no one showed themselves. By the time they reached the guesthouse and started to dismantle the locks, Emily felt thoroughly spooked.
    “Someone tried to break in again,” Lady Barb observed, as she opened the door. “But this time they didn't succeed.”
    Emily frowned. “The same person as before?”
    “Unknown,” Lady Barb said. She sounded rather perturbed. “I didn't recognise the traces of magic, but that proves nothing.”
    Inside, the guesthouse was surprisingly clean. Emily checked the potions cabinets and discovered, to her relief, that all of the ingredients were still in place. She put her bag down in the room, then stepped into the kitchen where Lady Barb was lighting the fire. Warmth slowly spread through the guesthouse as Emily unpacked the remaining food and laid it out on the table.
    “This town is as scared as the last village,” Lady Barb said, once she’d made them both warm soup. Emily took her bowl and sipped it, gratefully. “The fear is almost tangible.”
    “They might have lost children too,” Emily said. She finished her soup and moved on to the remaining bread. “How are we going to proceed?”
    “I’m going to pay a silent visit to the castle tomorrow,” Lady Barb said. “You’re going to remain here and take care of our patients.”
    Emily swallowed. “What if something happens I can’t handle?”
    “I’ll be very disappointed in you,” Lady Barb said, lightly. “But if you really can’t deal with it, place the patient in stasis and wait for me to return.”
    She finished her bread and stood up. “I’m going to talk to the headman,” she added. “Set up the beds, then plan out what you’re going to brew tomorrow.”
    Emily sighed – more potions – but nodded. If nothing else, she was certainly gaining in confidence while doing something useful. Professor Thande would be pleased, even though she was only creating First Year potions. Maybe she could apply for extra ingredients for Third Year and do some private alchemical work, perhaps with Imaiqah’s help.
    “We should teach them how to make their own,” she said, softly. “Would it be so difficult?”
    Lady Barb smiled. “Would you like to encourage mundanes to experiment with alchemy?”
    Emily shook her head, embarrassed. Away from Thande’s protective wards, alchemical explosions could be even worse. Whole houses might be wiped out by disasters a magician could have avoided, if only by disintegrating the caldron before it exploded. Besides, she had a feeling that magicians would object to sharing the more complex recipes too far. Who knew what would happen to them?
    She watched Lady Barb leave, then walked into the potions lab and inspected the ingredients one by one. There were enough, she decided, to make everything the townspeople could want – and bottles to store it – if she had the time to do it. She suspected that, normally, an alchemist would have nothing to do with actual patients, which was probably a good thing. Even someone as ... innocent as Professor Thande would be unable to resist the urge to experiment on his patients. There were enough horror stories about alchemists to convince her to keep them well away from mundanes.
    Once she'd sorted out the ingredients, she walked back into the main room and into the bedroom. It was smaller than she’d expected, with one large king-sized bed rather than several smaller ones. The room was cold enough for people to want to huddle together, but magic would take care of that, suggesting that the designer had had other things in mind. Irked, Emily placed her blanket on the floor and silently promised Lady Barb the bed. The older woman had been ill, after all.
    It was nearly an hour before Lady Barb returned, by which time the sun had vanished completely, throwing the entire town into darkness. Emily used the night vision spell as she peered out of the window, but saw hardly anyone on the streets. Lady Barb had been right, she decided, as the door finally opened with nary a quiver to the wards. This town was definitely gripped by fear.
    “The headman was too nervous to talk to me,” Lady Barb said. “But I managed to get some answers out of his wife. They’ve lost at least a dozen children and young men.”
    Emily blinked as she boiled the water for a hot drink. “Young men?”
    “Conscripted,” Lady Barb said, shortly. “Lady Easter seems to be preparing for war. She’s taken over half of the unmarried men from the town, men the townspeople desperately need to prepare for the coming winter. They went into the castle and haven’t been seen since.”
    She ran her hands through her long hair. “And the children have definitely vanished,” she added. “They started to lock them up after three children went picking mushrooms and never came home. It didn't make any difference. The children kept vanishing at night.”
    Emily shivered. “How?”
    “Good question,” Lady Barb said. “Most supernatural creatures won't come into a town, unless summoned. But if it is a necromancer, he should be completely mad by now.”
    She took her drink, drank it and then headed towards the bedroom. “We need to be up early tomorrow morning,” she added, as she walked. “Make sure you are ready to brew in the morning.
    “Shouldn't I come with you?” Emily asked. “If it is a necromancer ...”
    Lady Barb turned and met her eyes. “Could you defeat one through the power of love?”
    Emily blushed bright red. One of the ballads bards sang about her claimed that she had defeated Shadye with the power of love. It said a great deal about some of the others that it wasn't the worst of the bunch. What kind of enemy could be defeated by love? Shadye had probably never known the meaning of the word.
    “Or,” Lady Barb pressed, “do you have the power to beat one now?”
    “I don't know,” Emily said, thinking of the nuke-spell. But it would be completely devastating – and almost certainly suicidal. “Maybe ...”
    “I’ve sneaked around necromancers before,” Lady Barb reminded her, gently. “If I don't come back, you can do as you see fit, but until then do as I tell you. Obedience is one of the rules of apprenticeship, is it not?”
    Emily nodded. She was Lady Barb’s apprentice, at least for the summer, even if she hadn't taken the usual oaths. Obedience, loyalty and servitude were the terms, in exchange for training and practice. She could argue, she could ask for explanations or clarification, but she couldn't disobey. Or at least a normal apprentice couldn't disobey. She felt a moment of pity for Jade, combined with a grim awareness that she might have to take on an apprenticeship after leaving Whitehall. What would happen if ended up apprenticed to someone less reasonable than Lady Barb?
    She followed Lady Barb into the bedroom, then rolled her eyes as she realised the older woman had taken the blankets, rather than the bed. Emily hesitated, then tactfully pointed out that she'd meant to give the bed to Lady Barb.
    “I’m not that old,” Lady Barb said, with a smile. “Besides, I cannot get too used to comfort.”
    Emily lifted an eyebrow. “Did you sleep on nails at Whitehall?” She asked, remembering that she hadn't seen Lady Barb’s private chambers. Students were rarely allowed entry to any of the teaching staff’s quarters. “Or did they just give you a hardwood bed?”
    “Go to sleep,” Lady Barb ordered, shortly. “It takes years to build up a tolerance for moving from place to place, but only days to lose it.”
    The thought nagged at Emily as she lay in the giant bed, feeling an odd twinge of guilt. It had been fun to camp with the Sergeants, but she’d always felt relieved when she finally returned to Whitehall. And yet she’d adapted well to the changes on their walk, sleeping under the stars one night and in an insect-infected hovel the next. But would she have coped so well if she hadn’t had camping experience? Or, for that matter, the magic to make it easier to handle? No wonder so few new magicians went home.
    She drifted off to sleep, but her sleep was broken by nightmares that eventually sent her back into wakefulness, two hours before sunrise. Lady Barb was snoring quietly, her heavy breathing almost hypnotic; Emily sat upright and tried to concentrate, calming her heartbeat until she could sleep again. But she tossed and turned for nearly an hour before giving up, climbing out of bed and slipping into the main room, where she cast a light spell and read until the sun started to rise in the sky. The book wasn't boring enough to send her back to sleep.
    A hand fell on her shoulder and she jumped. “You scared me,” Lady Barb said. “I never saw you wake up before me.”
    Emily blushed. At Whitehall, students normally woke up at eight bells, in time to get some breakfast before running to their first classes. The peasants, on the other hand, rose with the sun and went to bed with the moon. Despite living with them, Emily knew her sleeping habits hadn't improved from Whitehall.
    “I couldn't sleep,” she confessed. It felt oddly warming to know that Lady Barb had been worried. “And I didn't want to wake you.”
    “I normally play Kingmaker or read when I want to sleep,” Lady Barb said. She wandered over to the window and peered outside into the semi-darkness. “And several of the staff have started playing poker.”
    Emily couldn't help snickering. She'd designed playing cards easily enough, although charming them to prevent cheating had required Aloha’s help. But then she’d run into the problem of simply not knowing the rules. Her stepfather had gambled heavily, but he’d never invited Emily to play, let alone taught her the rules. Aloha had listened to what little Emily could recall, then worked out her own set of rules. Emily had no idea how close they were to Earth’s rules, but it hardly mattered. ‘Poker’ had spread through Whitehall like a wildfire. She was probably lucky that most people blamed it on Aloha. Students being students, it hadn't taken long for them to start gambling for more than matchsticks.
    “Yes, I thought that was your fault,” Lady Barb added. She smiled as Emily’s flush deepened. “Who else would invent a whole new game because she was bored?”
    Emily shrugged. She hadn't really invented Chess, of course, but it was the story almost everyone chose to believe. It had been Aloha who had invented ‘poker.’ Somehow, it had sparked off a quiet completion among the students to invent new games that held together reasonably well. Emily hadn't entered, knowing that it wasn't fair. But she hadn't been able to resist planning out a Risk-like game for the Allied Lands.
    “Make us some breakfast, then go start your brewing,” Lady Barb ordered. In the distance, the sun started to glimmer at the horizon. “I need to make sure that no children vanished overnight.”
    Emily wanted to insist on coming with her, but bit her tongue and walked over to the kitchen, where oats and milk had been stored in preservation cabinets. She made oatmeal quickly, then waited until Lady Barb returned to eat. The older woman reproved her gently for not eating at once, but seemed preoccupied by a greater thought. Emily watched her carefully and decided that she seemed caught between two different priorities.
    “A baby was taken from his mother last night,” Lady Barb said, when she had finished eating. “There were strange traces of magic around the house.”
    Emily sucked in her breath. “Can you follow them?”
    “I think so,” Lady Barb said. “Stay here. Do your brewing, then see patients. Can you handle it?”
    “Yes,” Emily said, stung. “I’ll wait for you.”
    She left Lady Barb to put the dishes in the sink, then walked into the potions lab and started to brew, one after the other. Her irritation caused two potions to spoil before she managed to calm herself down enough to brew properly. If nothing else, she told herself, the remaining potions could be bottled and handed over to the headman for later distribution. There would be no need to waste anything. She had worked her way through five potions when there was a sharp knock at the door.
    Shaking her head, Emily walked over – readying a spell in her mind, just in case – and opened the door. A young man was standing there, resting on a cane. Emily listened to a story of accidentally damaging his leg while climbing a tree, then motioned for him to sit down while she worked on the wound. It had been treated by a mundane doctor, she realised, who had bound up the wound, but done nothing else.
    “This may hurt a little,” she said. “Do you want something to dampen the pain.”
    The man shook his head. Emily rolled her eyes – some of the male students in classes were just the same, showing off how much pain they could endure – and cast the spell without any further hesitation. There was a faint crunching sound as the bones were knit back together; the man let out a strangled gasp, then went very pale. Emily concealed her amusement as she concentrated on completing the job. Thankfully, he managed to remain still long enough for her to do it without complications.
    “Take it easy for a few days,” she said, knowing that it wouldn't be easy for him. The town was bigger than any of the villages, but it wouldn't have much room for freeloaders. “If you put too much weight on that leg, it will probably break again.”
    She rolled her eyes again as the young man stood up, clearly resting his weight on the repaired leg. “You’re much nicer than Mother Holly,” he said. “And you did a better job.”
    “Thank you,” Emily said, puzzled. “Who’s Mother Holly?”
    “A witch,” the man said. “She lives some distance from town. If someone is really injured, they will go see her and sometimes she helps.”
    A shadow crossed his face. “They say she’s the one stealing the children.”
    Emily frowned. A Hedge Witch? She didn't know much about them, save for the fact that most magicians looked down on them as untrained amateurs. They were sometimes related to the Travellers, sometimes completely isolated from the magical mainstream. But she was the first magician Emily had heard of since beginning her time with Lady Barb.
    “Tell me,” she said. “Why didn't you go there?”
    “She can be very unpleasant if she doesn't think you’re worth her time,” the young man said. “Or so I have been told.”
    Resolving to discuss the matter with Lady Barb, Emily chased the young man out just in time to see a child with a problematic tooth. Her mother and father insisted on staying with her at all times, watching Emily as if they expected her to snatch the child and run. Emily tried not to keep one eye on the scythe the man was carrying as she gave the child some potion, then inspected the rotting tooth. She wasn't an expert dentist, insofar as the Allied Lands had dentists. The only thing she could do was pluck the tooth out of the child’s mouth and reassure the parents that a new tooth would grow in time.
    She watched them go, then started working her way through the other patients. It amazed her just how quiet and orderly the waiting townspeople were, not even chattering amongst themselves. The handful of times she'd been to a clinic on Earth, the waiting room had been noisy and the doctor’s staff had been driven almost to distraction. But here ... she could turn them away, if they annoyed her. Lady Barb would understand.
    One girl was having problems with her cramps. Emily gave her a bottle of potion – the same she used at Whitehall – and told her to take one sip the day before her cycle began. An older man worried over a nasty cough, which Emily handled and then told him to stop smoking home-grown tobacco. She had no way to be sure, but she suspected that it was stronger than anything she'd seen on Earth. The man didn't seem too happy with her suggestion. Tobacco, like alcohol, helped relieve the boredom of his life.
    Emily sighed, then went on to the next patient. A red-faced boy confessed to having problems with his penis, which Emily noted down then told him to come back and see Lady Barb. She wouldn't be happy about that, Emily knew, but she couldn't force herself to be clinical. It had been hard enough practicing on the training homunculus. By the time she had worked her way through the entire line, it was early afternoon and she was exhausted.
    There was a knock on the door. Cursing under her breath, Emily stood and opened the door to reveal another young man who seemed oddly familiar. It still took her a moment to place him. He’d changed his clothes – he looked like a merchant now, rather than a peasant – but his hands were still dead giveaways.
    “Rudolf?”
    “The same,” Rudolf said. He gave her an oddly hopeful smile. “Can I come in?”
     
    bagpiper, techsar, STANGF150 and 2 others like this.
  7. kellory

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

     
  8. kellory

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

     
  9. kellory

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

     
  10. kellory

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

     
  11. kellory

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

     
  12. kellory

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

    Good story, well executed. Just a few minor issues, which all types of stories have. (typos and missing words)
    And the next installment shall arrive.....when?;)
     
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Now.

    Chapter Thirty-Two
    Rudolf looked faintly ... odd to Emily as he stepped past her and took a seat at the table. It was impossible to place her finger on it, even though he carried himself like an aristocrat while wearing clothes belonging to one of the lower orders. She wondered, suddenly, if Rudolf could be the mystery magician, but there was no scent of magic around him. Unless he was masking very well, he didn't have the potential for magic, let alone actual access to his powers. He was just a mundane.
    She closed the door, cursing herself for forgetting Sergeant Harkin so quickly. He’d been a mundane and yet he’d taught at a school for magicians. Rudolf might have no magic, but she shouldn't dismiss him out of hand. He might still be very dangerous, even though his servants all agreed that he was a good person, for an aristocrat. She mentally prepared a spell, then sat down on the other side of the table, facing him. This time, she didn't want to let him get away.
    “Your father was under outside control,” she said, placing her hands on the table. “He wasn't in his right mind.”
    Rudolf looked relieved. “I knew he must have been under someone’s influence,” he said, once Emily had finished explaining. “But I thought it was Lady Easter.”
    Emily quirked an eyebrow, so he hastened to explain. “She needs to marry off her daughters as soon as possible,” Rudolf said. “I would be one of the few acceptable sons-in-law for her.”
    “Oh,” Emily said. She knew how snobbish aristocrats could be when it came to marriage, but there were strong reasons why Rudolf wouldn’t make a good match for Lady Easter’s daughter, starting with the simple fact that he would take power from his wife’s mother. “Why you?”
    “Lady Easter cannot rule forever,” Rudolf pointed out. “Sooner or later, she is going to need a successor.”
    Emily had to admit he had a point. Aristocrats might cling greedily to their power, but they knew that they had to make provision for the succession. King Randor had had good reason to worry about handing power to Alassa – or at least the Royal Brat she'd been prior to Whitehall – yet he was now training her in proper governance, intending to share his power as soon as Alassa left school. Barring accidents or war, Alassa would outlive her father and then have a son of her own to take her place. Still, there were always problems when one generation took over from the next.
    “You’d think they’d accept a woman could rule,” Emily said, curious to see how Rudolf would react. “Lady Easter seems to do it well enough.”
    “She’s also old,” Rudolf pointed out. “She won't be distracted by female issues.”
    Emily rolled her eyes. That was a common excuse for denying women power and place, although men could be just as emotional as woman with far less cause. But then, people often came up with the prejudice first and then invented reasons to justify it. And it wasn't as if Lady Easter couldn't or wouldn't have children. She had three daughters.
    “Tell me something,” she said. “Why don't you want to marry her daughter?”
    “She’s ugly,” Rudolf said, at once. “I couldn't abide the thought of touching her.”
    Emily felt a hot flash of anger. How dare someone just dismiss his prospective bride like that? She’d been mocked enough to know just how badly it would sting the girl, if she ever heard Rudolf say it. And besides, Rudolf could spend time with a mistress, if he liked, once he’d impregnated his wife. He had a freedom his wife would probably lack.
    But then she took a closer look, controlling her anger. Rudolf didn't seem to quite believe his own words. Like Alassa, he had been raised to know that his marriage would be arranged for matters of state – and to accept it, as the price for being the aristocrat he was. He shouldn't have any problem marrying the girl, even if she was a one-legged hunchback who kept her face hidden under a bag. And ...
    And he should have just accepted it, Emily thought, puzzled. The runes would have seen to that, wouldn't they?
    Rudolf hadn't known the runes were there or he would have alerted his father – and no amount of subtle magic could hide something, once people were actually looking. In that case, the runes should have affected him. Even powerful magicians could be affected, without ever knowing that they were being influenced. So why had Rudolf turned so sharply against the idea of marrying the poor girl?
    “I have never observed men having problems with touching girls,” Emily observed, tartly. “What other reasons did you have?”
    Rudolf eyed her, sharply. “Why do you care?”
    “Because your planned marriage was organised by a magician who might well be a necromancer,” Emily said, bluntly. “And you're changing the subject. What reasons do you have to resist the marriage?”
    “A necromancer?” Rudolf repeated. “But why ...?”
    “A very good question,” Emily agreed. Shadye hadn't given a damn about the politics of the Allied Lands, as far as she could tell. “And you're still changing the subject.”
    “I should have known not to argue with a woman,” Rudolf said, giving her a sly grin. “They always notice the unanswered questions.”
    “It’s a gift,” Emily said. She was tempted to point out that being snide in front of a magician wasn't a good idea, but kept it to herself. “And you have yet to answer my question.”
    Rudolf sat upright. “I am the Heir to Gorham,” he snapped. “I do not have to answer to you.”
    Emily gave him a long look as the pieces fell into place. A young man who hadn’t tried to lure any of the serving girls into his bed, let alone molest them. It wasn't as if he wouldn't have found a willing girl, either. A young man who had been so vigorously against marriage that he’d fled his father’s castle, rather than try and reason his way out of it. And a young man who had been so intensely defensive that he’d been prepared to snap at a magician, even knowing that it could get him turned into a toad.
    And he hadn't shown any real awareness of her femininity either.
    “You're not interested in women,” she said. “Are you?”
    Rudolf turned bright red and looked down at the table, answering her question without saying a word. Emily felt a wave of pity for him, understanding just how he must feel. The Cairngorms were not kind to homosexuals, even when the homosexual didn't have a duty to provide his tiny kingdom with a heir. Given Rudolf’s position, the secret could have undone his father’s lands. Hell, given how homosexuality was often equated with weakness in the mountains, he'd be challenged by almost everyone as soon as he took his father’s place.
    “I understand that there are oaths Healers take,” Rudolf said, when he could speak again. He kept his eyes firmly fixed on the table. “You cannot talk about this to anyone, can you?”
    Emily hesitated. It was true that Healers swore such oaths – but she’d never taken the oaths herself. Lady Barb had just told her never to discuss anyone’s condition with anyone else unless there was no alternative. Parents had a right to know what was wrong with their young children, she knew, but no one else had any right to know. A careless word on her part, she’d been warned, could cause years of gossip for the villagers.
    “I won’t talk about it with anyone, apart from my mistress,” Emily said. Lady Barb had sworn such oaths. “Is that acceptable?”
    “I didn't notice at first,” Rudolf said. He still didn’t look up at her. “Father ... father used to say that a young man should be experienced with women. He picked the prettiest chambermaids for me, even dressed them in revealing clothes. But I felt nothing for them, even when” – his face grew even redder – “he explained the mechanics to me.”
    Emily felt her own face heat. No one had ever explained the mechanics to her – she’d had to learn how to make love from books – but she could appreciate just how agonisingly embarrassing the talk must have been for Rudolf. Men didn't mature at a specific age any more than women. There would have been times when Rudolf was still trapped in the mindset of a child ... and afterwards, when he did mature, he would still have been horrified at talking over such matters with his father. She couldn't help wondering just how far Lord Gorham had gone to ensure his son had experience. Had he paid the maids extra to put out for him?
    “I still felt nothing,” Rudolf said. “But I started to notice men instead. My father’s huntsman, some of the soldiers ... I couldn't help thinking and dreaming about them. And then ...”
    “You did it with someone,” Emily guessed.
    She’d known one boy at school who’d come out of the closet – and that had been in a fairly liberal society. He’d still been teased and tormented mercilessly by his peers. In hindsight, it was easy enough to see that most of them had been worried that it was catching, but it hadn't been a good time for him. It would be far worse in a society where everyone expected him to get to work and produce a heir. Whoever had ... done it with him would be in a position to blackmail Rudolf for the rest of his life. Or, for that matter, someone who caught them together.
    “I did,” Rudolf said. He smiled, suddenly. “It took a while to learn how, but we did. And ...”
    Emily hastily held up her hand. She'd overheard enough boys bragging about their sexual conquests – real and imaginary – to know that she didn't want to hear the gory details. If there was one thing the magicians of Whitehall had in common with their counterparts from Earth, it was bragging endlessly about sex. And the magicians enjoyed a far greater sexual freedom than anyone else.
    “So you were so fixated on men that the runes couldn't get a grip on your mind,” Emily said. She wondered, absently, what would have happened if Lady Easter had a son. Would Rudolf have wanted to marry him? “And you fled, rather than tell your father the truth.”
    Rudolf looked up at her. “Wouldn't you?”
    Emily winced, inwardly. That hit far too close to home.
    “He’d want to take me to a Healer,” Rudolf said. “Someone who could make me ... normal.”
    He met her eyes. “Is that even possible?”
    “I don’t know,” Emily hedged. Subtle magic obviously hadn't worked. More direct compulsion spells and charms might work, but they came with a cost. “It would be much simpler for you to marry someone, then transfer sperm without sex. You could then let her have freedom to do whatever she wants.”
    Rudolf’s face reddened again. “You do realise that my wife couldn't take a lover?”
    Emily met his eyes. “Why not? Isn't that what you want for yourself?”
    Rudolf started to splutter. “It would suggest that I couldn't control my wife,” he mumbled, embarrassed. “And if I couldn't control her, it would suggest I couldn't control my kingdom.”
    “Oh,” Emily said, sardonically. “It’s all about control.”
    It was, she knew. The obsession with legitimate heirs was bad enough, but few people in the mountains would be able to comprehend someone letting his wife look for love and romance elsewhere. He was right; they would take it as a sign of weakness. And the villagers weren't much different – or were they? She'd seen battered wives and wives who were quite prepared to keep their husbands in line through force.
    “Yes,” Rudolf confirmed. “It is.”
    He looked back down at the table. “Can you make me normal?”
    Emily gave him a sharp look. She had no idea if homosexuals were produced by nature or nurture, but given how far Lord Gorham had gone she suspected the former. In that case, Rudolf’s nature would be clashing with a culture that told him that homosexuality was disgusting, as well as a despised sign of weakness. If homosexuals on Earth could get twisted between two contradictory points, why not homosexuals from a far more restrained culture?
    “I think it would break your mind to try,” she said, gently. Maybe he could be charmed into preferring women, but the charm would be pushing against his nature. “Do you feel nothing for women at all?”
    “Nothing,” Rudolf confirmed.
    On Earth, there were people who would advise a homosexual – and provide assistance, if necessary. They would even help talk to parents who were less than accepting of their son’s homosexuality. But there was no one here ... and Lord Gorham had more important problems than homophobia. If his son was unable to produce a grandchild, he would have to cast around for some other solution, just to keep the succession intact.
    “Then my honest advice, again, would be to marry someone who won't mind bearing a child and then being ignored,” Emily said. Ideally, he should marry a lesbian. Oddly – or perhaps it wasn't so odd – the guidebooks had mentioned nothing about lesbians. “And you would have to be honest with them from the start.”
    Rudolf blinked. “Honest?”
    “Women are told that men are sex-mad fiends,” Emily said, remembering drunken remarks by her mother. “If you don't act like you’re interested, she’ll know you're not interested and start wondering why. And then she would be in a position to embarrass you.”
    Or, she thought silently, would you lock her up to keep her from talking?
    Could a wife be kept as a prisoner? The culture of the mountains insisted that a bride moved from her father’s house to her husbands, who assumed complete responsibility for her. There were few aristocratic fathers who would challenge a lord over the treatment of his daughter. Why not? Daughters existed to forge ties of blood, not wield power ...
    “You could marry me,” Rudolf said. “As a magician, you would be a social equal.”
    Emily gaped at him, then shook her head. ‘Millie’ could marry him – a common-born apprentice could hardly hope to do better, if she wanted to marry into the local aristocracy – but Baroness Emily had more lands and money than Lord Gorham. At the very least, it would cause all sorts of problems; King Randor would probably have to approve the match, which he wouldn't unless he benefited in some way. And it was hard to see how he could.
    “I think you want someone who already knows,” she said. “But it wouldn't be a very satisfying relationship for me.”
    It had its advantages, she had to admit ... but she shoved the thought back into the back of her mind. Maybe, if she’d been so totally repulsed by men, she would have considered it. But she had been friends with Jade ...
    “I did,” Rudolf said, shamefaced. “Do you know any magician who would be interested?”
    Emily remembered Hodge’s claim that magicians – female magicians – had no restraints on their activities. She wondered, briefly, if she did know any lesbians. Statistically, there was a good chance that there were more than a handful at Whitehall. But she didn't know who they were ... and even if she did, would they be interested in spending the rest of their lives in a cold castle in the middle of nowhere?
    “I don’t think so,” she said. “What are you going to do now?”
    “I think I need to speak with your mistress, then go home,” Rudolf said. “Can I stay here?”
    Emily nodded, relieved. It was easier having him stay willingly then doing something to keep him prisoner. Besides, they could chat about something else.
    “Tell me,” she said. “Why did you come here?”
    “I had the idea that I could talk Lady Easter out of accepting me as a husband for her daughter,” Rudolf said. “But then I realised just how hard it would be to get into the castle and decided to wait for an opportunity.”
    “Your father knows better now,” Emily reassured him. “But you really should talk to him more openly, before he arranges a match with someone less ... provocative.”
    Rudolf nodded and changed the subject. He was smarter and more knowledgeable than the princes who’d tried to court Alassa, Emily decided, although there were some curious gaps in his knowledge. Rudolf could recite family relationships for every aristocrat within the mountains, but knew almost nothing about the other aristocracies in the Allied Lands, even though they were prospective marriage partners. But somehow Emily doubted that a king’s younger son – assuming he had one – would be interested in marrying into the mountain families.
    “Father always said that reading too much was bad,” Rudolf said, at one point. “Is that actually true?”
    “Depends what you read,” Emily grunted. Her stepfather had said the same thing, which had only spurred her determination to read every book she could reach. “You have to keep an open mind – but not too open. Or bad ideas might come crawling in.”
    Rudolf laughed. “But how do you tell a bad idea?”
    Emily shrugged. Anything could be made to sound convincing with a little effort, particularly if the reader didn't know enough to notice the omissions. Politicians on Earth had specialised in making two plus two equal five, with a little careful dancing.
    She found herself enjoying the discussion more than she’d expected, but a nagging worry slowly grew stronger in her breast. Where was Lady Barb? Emily stood and made dinner for both of them, silently thanking God that Lady Barb had brought enough food for several days, then left some of it on the stove. When Lady Barb returned, she'd want food ...
    But, by nightfall, Lady Barb had not returned.
     
    bagpiper, techsar, STANGF150 and 2 others like this.
  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirty-Three
    Emily half-expected to see Lady Barb when she opened her eyes the following morning, as soon as a rooster outside began to welcome the sun. But the blankets by the side of the bed were untouched, as were the wards she’d erected to protect the bedroom. Pulling herself to her feet, she stumbled through the wards and peered towards the fire. Perhaps Lady Barb was there ...
    But the only person in the room was Rudolf, snoring so loudly Emily was surprised he hadn't kept her awake.
    She checked the outside wards and discovered that no one had passed through them since Rudolf, yesterday afternoon. Lady Barb hadn't returned, then; she might have left Emily’s wards alone, but not chosen to stay outside the house all night. Emily put the caldron over the kitchen fire and started to boil water, thinking hard. Lady Barb hadn't returned and that meant ... what?
    There's a necromancer – a suspected necromancer – out there, Emily thought. Lady Barb was good at hiding, but if she were caught she would have to fight a necromancer at knife-range, making it almost impossible to escape. What if she’d been killed – or captured? An adult combat sorceress would be a tempting source of magic for any necromancer, while no one else would take the risk of keeping Lady Barb alive.
    She finished boiling the water, then prepared two mugs of Kava out of habit. Rudolf snorted, then sat upright, looking around as if he wasn't quite sure where he was. Emily winked at him, then used a spell to levitate the first mug over towards where he was sitting. Rudolf’s eyes went wide, then he took the drink and sipped it. She had to smile at his expression. It was rare for anyone to drink Kava in the mountains, according to Lady Barb.
    “Thank you,” Rudolf said, doubtfully. “Didn't she come back?”
    Emily shook her head, more worried than she cared to admit. If Lady Barb had been killed ... what should she do? Part of her wanted to head out of the mountains and summon help, part of her wanted to go after the older woman and avenge her death. If she was dead. It was possible to hold a magician helpless, if you knew how to do it. Emily had been stripped of her magic once and found it disconcerting, even though she’d spent sixteen years without magic.
    “Eat the rest of the stew,” she said, feeling a twinge of guilt. There was no way she could abandon Lady Barb, at least as long as she didn't know the older woman was dead. “Then we need to go talk to the headman.”
    The air was cold as they stepped out of the guesthouse and started to walk towards the centre of town. Emily couldn't help noticing that there were only a handful of people on the streets, glancing around as though they expected something nasty to be following them. They gave Emily and Rudolf a wide berth, making signs to ward off evil when they thought Emily wasn't looking. Did they think, she asked herself, that Lady Barb was responsible for stealing their children? Or were they just fearful of all magicians?
    She gritted her teeth as she walked past the guards and into the headman’s hut. This headman looked alarmingly like Imaiqah’s father, complete with the pleasant expression that masked a very sharp mind. His wife looked bigger, with a gleam in her eye that suggested she was just as cool and calculating as some of Zangaria’s noblewomen. An equal, Emily realised, feeling oddly relieved. This woman wouldn't hesitate to tell her husband when he was making a mistake.
    “Lady Sorceress,” the headman said. His gaze shifted to Rudolf. “And ...?”
    “A wandering minstrel I,” Rudolf said, with practiced ease. “And sometimes a guide.”
    Emily fought to keep her face expressionless. Minstrels were common in Zangaria – some of them were very good, some of them were so appallingly bad that she’d wanted to turn them into birds – but rather less common in the mountains. But they also wandered from place to place, bringing news and rumours. As covers went, she had to admit that it wasn't a bad one. Like most noblemen, Rudolf had been taught how to sing.
    The headman didn’t seem too pleased – and his wife looked worried. Emily remembered how Reginald had seduced a girl in the last village and realised that they thought that Rudolf would do the same. The thought made her smile. Rudolf wouldn't be interested in any of the girls in the village, but would any of them think to chaperone him with the men?
    “My mistress has not returned,” Emily said shortly, pushing the thought aside. There was no time for politeness. “Do you know where she went?”
    “I took her to examine Tam’s house,” the headman said. His face showed nothing of his thoughts. “She found traces of magic and followed them into the forest. I didn't go with her.”
    Maybe a good thing, Emily told herself. If there was a necromancer, all the headman could have done was provide him with another power source. Anything Lady Barb couldn't handle would be far too much for a mundane human. But she couldn't help wishing that the headman had gone instead of her mentor.
    “Right,” she said. “Do you know where she intended to go?”
    “I believe she was following the magic,” the headman said. “I could sense nothing myself.”
    Emily scowled. He was mocking her, very politely. There would be no way to know where Lady Barb had been going ... or if she hadn't been lured into a trap. What sort of magician would leave a trail for someone to follow? It was unusually subtle for a necromancer, but it would bring a prospective power source right to him.
    “I see,” she said. She’ll have to retrace Lady Barb’s path, assuming that she could find it after a day and night for the tracks to be lost. “You can take me to the house, in a moment.”
    She scowled down at her hands. “Who is Mother Holly?”
    The headman jerked in surprise. “Who told you about her?”
    “Never you mind,” Emily said, trying to channel Lady Barb. “Who is she?”
    It was the headman’s wife who answered. “She’s an old witch, living in the next valley,” she said. “She likes her own company; sometimes, she will help someone who asks, or sometimes she will just banish him from her sight. No one goes there unless they are desperate.”
    That matched with what Emily had been told earlier, she knew. “Do you think she might be behind the stolen children?”
    The headman hesitated, noticeably. “It would be unlike her,” he admitted. “She never comes to town.”
    Emily felt a moment of pity for the old witch. Powerful enough to use magic, but not strong enough to go to Whitehall ... or perhaps she’d simply fallen through the cracks. There was a bounty on magic-using children, Lady Barb had told her, paid by whichever magical school collected the child. But Mother Holly had clearly been missed. Instead, she’d had to learn on her own – or from her predecessor – and live away from her former friends and family.
    But they were looking for a magician ... people from Whitehall tended to think and react one way, but would a Hedge Witch think differently? Maybe she didn't know the limits, so she accidentally broke them ... and, living alone for so long, she might be on the verge of madness in any case. And yet ... if it was that simple to make necromancy work, it would have happened by now.
    She shook her head. There was no proof, one way or the other.
    “Take us to the house,” she ordered. She paused as a thought struck her. “Were any children taken last night?”
    The headman and his wife exchanged glances, then shook their heads in unison. Emily was torn between relief and fear; relief that no more children had vanished, fear that it meant the mystery necromancer had spent his time draining Lady Barb instead. Or her time, if it was Mother Holly.
    She looked up at the headman, then at his wife. “What does Mother Holly do for people who visit her?”
    The wife hesitated, then looked directly at Emily. “Some healing, some potions – she gave a girl in the village something to help her get pregnant – and not much else,” she said. “Most people won't go into her valley unless they’re desperate.”
    Emily sighed and asked several more questions, but received nothing apart from vague and useless responses. No one knew much about Mother Holly, which suggested ... what? Had someone done something to make them forget? Or were they simply unconcerned with an old and vulnerable woman? They didn't know who in the town was related to her, or just how old she was, or anything else that might be useful. Emily couldn't help wondering if they really cared about their people. But then, a Hedge Witch might be too terrifying to face.
    She allowed the headman to lead them through the town to Tam’s house. It was on the outskirts of the town, a small house barely large enough for five people. Tam’s wife was pale and thin, Tam himself looked deeply worried and his parents looked fearful. The only person who showed no overt reaction was his younger sister, who might well have resented Tam’s wife for coming into their home. Emily eyed her suspiciously for a long moment, then closed her eyes and concentrated on sensing magic. Apart from her own magic, thrumming around her like a living thing, there was a strange sense of darker magic in the house.
    “Someone opened the door using magic,” she said, without opening her eyes. Few homes had locks in the countryside – and even if they had, magic could open them with ease. She felt out the next traces, feeling them growing stronger as she looked for them. “They cast a spell first, one to keep everyone asleep. Then they entered the house and took the child.”
    Tam’s wife let out a gasp and fainted. Her husband caught her. Emily opened her eyes and looked at them, seeing their fate written all over their faces. Life was cheap in the mountains and not all children lived to reach their first birthday, but they would never recover from losing their child to a necromancer. If it was a necromancer. There was something oddly dark about the traces of magic.
    Emily closed her eyes again. “They went outside and headed into the forest,” she added, softly. “The trail leads out there.”
    “So we go after them,” Rudolf said. “Let's go.”
    Emily's eyes snapped open. “You ...”
    She shook her head. “I’ll write out a letter for you,” she said, addressing the headman. There would be time to argue with Rudolf when there was no one else around. “If we don't come back, send the letter onwards and others will come to help.”
    She led the way back to the guesthouse, Rudolf shadowing her like a lost puppy. Once inside, Emily found a sheet of paper and scribbled out an update – and an explanation of what she intended to do. If she were killed too, she knew, at least the Allied Lands would know what had happened. They’d be able to send Void or another Lone Power to deal with the mystery necromancer.
    “You shouldn't come with me,” she said, once the letter was finished. “If you die, your father will be left without a successor.”
    “The person who took the child might well be the same person who ensorcelled my father,” Rudolf said. “I have a right to seek revenge.”
    Emily sighed. The odds were that he was right, she had to admit. Rudolf’s father had been pushed into marrying Rudolf to Lady Easter’s daughter – and children had gone missing from both lands. There was definitely a connection there, she knew. But she wasn't sure she wanted Rudolf to risk his life beside her.
    “You could end up dead,” she pointed out, carefully. “Or ensorcelled yourself.”
    Rudolf took a breath. “As Heir, it was my duty to serve as justice,” he said. It took Emily a moment to realise that he’d effectively been the chief of police for his father’s lands. Alassa, in theory, had been the same in Zangaria, someone with enough power and position to hold firm against anyone. “This ... person has been stealing children and butchering them, then casting spells on my father and his people.”
    “This isn't your lands,” Emily said.
    “I still have a duty,” Rudolf said, stubbornly. “And I will not leave you alone.”
    Emily sighed, wondering if Rudolf was deliberately courting death. His life wouldn't be easy, particularly not if he told his father the truth. Death by necromancer wouldn't be suicide, at least not precisely, but it would end his problems. She sighed again, wondering just which god Rudolf worshipped. Some of them considered suicide a noble and rational act, if done in the service of the greater good.
    “Fine,” she said, finally. “But you are to do exactly as I say.”
    Rudolf looked rebellious for a long moment, then remembered that Emily was a magician and thus his social equal. Or, for that matter, that she was perfectly capable of doing something to him to keep him out of trouble. He nodded, reluctantly, then looked over towards the door. Emily sealed up the letter, stamped it with a sigil that would keep it safe until it reached the Grandmaster, then hesitated. A thought had just occurred to her.
    Bracing herself, she walked over to Lady Barb’s bag and cast the detection spell. Magicians almost always protected their possessions ... and it would be the height of irony to be accidentally immobilised by Lady Barb’s defences. But she found nothing, allowing her to probe through the bag. Rudolf watched in puzzlement as she dug through the various components until she found her pencil-sized staff. It tingled oddly as she picked it up and stuffed it into her pocket.
    Lady Barb wouldn't be pleased she'd taken it, Emily knew. She’d have to explain afterwards – and try to avoid using it, if at all possible. But it might prove an advantage if she did encounter someone she had to fight. She briefly considered giving it to Rudolf to carry, then dismissed the thought. If she needed it, she’d need it very quickly.
    Rudolf leaned forward. “What’s that?”
    “Something,” Emily said, evasively. She stuffed Lady Barb’s clothes back into the bag, then closed it up. “Let's go.”
    She wrote out another note – for Lady Barb, just in case she returned – and then led Rudolf back out of the guesthouse. The headman was chatting to a pair of older men, both of whom retreated the moment they saw Emily. Emily sighed, unable to tell if they were reluctant to talk to her because she was a magician or an unattached girl, then passed the headman the letter. He took it and wished them luck.
    Emily walked back to Tam’s house and felt out the traces of magic. They led away into the forest, a trail that almost any magician could follow. Emily felt a chill running down her spine as she led the way into the forest, wondering if it could be any more of an obvious trap. But the magic traces faded away into nothingness the further they walked into the forest ...
    “Odd,” she said, out loud. “The trail just came to an end.”
    Rudolf looked around, one hand on the dagger at his belt. They were in the midst of the forest, with no trace of any hiding place. Emily looked up, half-expecting to see a treehouse, but saw nothing. Had the magician finally realised that he or she was leaving a trail and stopped bleeding magic? But how had they survived for so long without realising what they were doing wrong? Bleeding magic could be very dangerous?
    Emily cast a detection spell, but found nothing. There was no magic in the area, save for the constant hum of background magic, stronger – as always – away from civilisation. But there wasn't enough to hide anything. She looked around, hoping to spot a trail she could follow, yet there was nothing. Lady Barb hadn't left any footprints for her. They'd come to a dead end.
    “It rained last night,” Rudolf said. “Any tracks will have been thoroughly buried.”
    “Maybe,” Emily said. She hesitated. An idea had just occurred to her, but she couldn't help wondering just how Rudolf would react to it. And yet ... there was no choice. “Can you promise me something?”
    Rudolf gave her a puzzled look. “It depends,” he said. “What do you want me to promise?”
    Emily cursed under her breath. Honour, no matter how twisted, wasn't a joke to the aristocracy. Most of them would keep their word, although that wouldn't stop them searching for loopholes.
    “I need to show you something,” she said. What good was a secret weapon if everyone knew about it? “I just need your word you won’t tell anyone.”
    Rudolf still looked puzzled – she wondered what was going through his mind – but nodded.
    Emily pulled the bracelet from her arm, placed it on the ground and released the spell. Rudolf let out a yelp and jumped backwards as the Death Viper reappeared. Emily had a sudden series of jarring impressions, starting with the sense of Rudolf being good enough to eat, that had to come from the snake. But, moments later, she managed to push the snake into sensing Lady Barb’s scent. It had smelled her back when Lady Barb had suggested turning it into a bracelet.
    “Just like a hunting dog,” she said, reassuringly. The snake slithered off, then paused, waiting for them to follow. Emily started to walk, then noticed that Rudolf was hesitating, his face very pale. But then, only an idiot wouldn't be scared of a Death Viper. “Come on.”
     
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirty-Four
    Rudolf kept hanging back as the snake led them through the forest, then up a winding path that led up and out of the valley. Emily couldn't really blame him for wanting to keep his distance from the Death Viper, knowing just how fast the tiny snake could move. As a child, she’d been deathly scared of cockroaches, even though they were largely harmless. The Death Viper was very far from harmless, even to a strong young man.
    She glanced over at the castle, then looked down into the next valley ... and stopped, dead. For a long moment, it was hard to comprehend what she was actually seeing. There was a humanoid skeleton lying on the ground, half buried in the mud, but it was many times the size of a normal human. Emily wasn't good at estimating distances, yet she was sure that it was over twenty metres between skull and feet.
    “The White Giant,” Rudolf said. He kept a wary eye on the snake as he paused, beside her. “Legend has it that he turned on his own people in defence of human villagers, all for the love of a girl. But no one knows the truth.”
    Emily had her doubts. The giant was colossal – and she found it hard to imagine how such an interracial romance could ever be practical. But she had to admit it was a nice story. The giants might have been created by the Faerie as yet another terror weapon, then released to seek food and drink in the mountains. Given their size, she suspected that they had needed colossal amounts of food just to live from day to day.
    But they weren't that intimidating. Sergeant Miles had told his class that giants were very rare, yet magic or determination could take one down very quickly. They had the same vulnerabilities as a human, he'd said, only magnified. Breaking their kneecaps was even more effective than doing it to a normal-sized human, if only because gravity dragged them to the ground hard enough to make the damage worse.
    On the other hand, Emily thought, would someone seeing a giant have time to realise how to take one down?
    Unlike the previous valley, there were only a handful of massive trees looming over the remains of the long-dead giant. Instead, there were smaller bushes and plants that seemed to be laid out in a random pattern. It reminded Emily of some of the plantations near Dragon’s Den, where alchemical ingredients were produced for Whitehall and the local alchemists. Someone had clearly created a plantation of their own ... whatever else she was, Emily decided, Mother Holly was clearly a capable brewer. But how much training had she actually had?
    She stared at the skeleton for a long moment, then led the way down the rocky path the snake indicated. A stream could be heard in the distance, but she couldn't see the water, no matter how hard she looked. The snake seemed to project impressions of wariness at her as the scent from the plants grew stronger, making her head swim. Emily gritted her teeth, cursed her oversight and cast a spell intended to filter out the scent. The dancing poppies ahead of her, blowing in the wind, were a prime ingredient in sleeping potions. Breathing in too much would be enough to send them into a coma.
    “Try not to breathe too deeply, she advised, as they pressed further into the maze. “This place could be dangerous.”
    “They said that people went to see her when they were desperate,” Rudolf said. “How did they escape the plants?”
    Emily shrugged. A damp cloth would be enough, if the victim reacted quickly. Or perhaps they just fell asleep, then Mother Holly pulled them out of the plantation and helped them to recover. It wouldn't take long for the effects to wear off, once they were out of the sphere of influence. She couldn't sense any wards, but some herbalists had a sixth sense for the condition of their gardens. Mother Holly might have the inclination, even if she didn't have the training.
    She knelt down beside the suffering snake and picked it up, absently. Rudolf let out a strangled sound, staring at her in absolute horror. Emily blinked in surprise, then remembered the rotting touch. But the snake felt harmless in her palm ... she stared down at it, feeling no pain at all. The familiar bond, she realised as she shook in relief, protected her from all of its poison.
    The snake licked her finger, then gave her a heavy-lidded look and a series of impressions that suggested tiredness. Emily worked the spell that transfigured it back into a bracelet, then returned it to her arm. Rudolf’s mouth worked frantically, but no words came out. From his point of view, she’d just picked up the most dangerous snake in the world and held it, without losing a hand.
    “I have a link with it,” she said. She honestly hadn't realised the danger ... because the link had ensured that there was no danger. “Don’t try to pick it up yourself.”
    She hid her amusement as they picked their way down the path. Rudolf had asked her to marry him ... he was probably having second thoughts, after seeing her pet. And the connection she had with it. No one would question a death by Death Viper. Everyone knew the snakes couldn’t be tamed. Unless, of course, one forged a mental link out of desperation.
    The sound of running water grew louder, just as they stepped into a clearing and saw a series of carefully-organised ponds. Emily glanced into one and saw fish swimming through the water, fish that were often chopped up and used as potions ingredients. Another held tiny crabs, the mere sight of them sending a chill down her spine. Smashing them up for alchemical research wasn't her favourite activity. Professor Thande used preparing various disgusting ingredients instead of the cane, whenever he wanted to punish someone. Emily had a feeling that most of his students would have preferred to be caned.
    “This place is a tiny farm,” she said, as they walked past the ponds and into another clump of plants. “Some of these are magical, some serve as the neutral baseline for specific potions.”
    Rudolf looked around, carefully. “How many Hedge Witches are there?”
    Emily had no idea. Hedge Witches were usually solitary creatures, unwilling or unable even to talk with their fellows. It seemed odd that one person could have done all this, but Mother Holly was supposed to be ancient ... and she’d presumably had a mentor. Maybe the hidden valley was far older than it looked, or maybe Rudolf was right and Mother Holly had friends and allies. There was no way to know.
    They passed through a final set of plants and stopped, staring at the house at the centre of the valley. It looked, on the surface, like any of the other hovels she’d seen in the villages, but it seemed to have drawn trees and bushes into the wooden walls. Emily took a step forward, reaching out with her senses ... and recoiled as she sensed dark magic surrounding the hovel, powerful and threatening. She held up a hand to stop Rudolf, then produced and enlarged her staff from her pocket. Rudolf nodded in understanding as Emily advanced forward, trying to feel out the wards. They were tainted with dark magic, but not as complex as some of the tricks she'd encountered in Blackhall.
    She looked around, carefully. There hadn't been any warning ward, as far as she’d been able to tell, but Mother Holly might well have sensed their presence. If, of course, she was inside the building. Even if she wasn't ... she might have sensed something. How closely were the wards tied to her?
    “I need to break down the wards,” she said, to Rudolf. “Keep an eye out for trouble.”
    Rudolf snorted. “You mean something more dangerous than we've already found?”
    “Mother Holly herself,” Emily said. If the Hedge Witch was innocent, which was starting to look rather unlikely, she would be understandably upset at discovering two youngsters trying to break into her home. She could legally do whatever she wanted to them – if she could do anything to them. “Let me know the moment anything changes.”
    She stepped forward and tapped her magic against the wards. Sergeant Miles had taught her that it was a way of ringing the doorbell, if there was a ward in place to alert the owner that she had visitors. Emily waited for several moments, but nothing happened. Carefully, balancing the staff on its tip, she walked forward and started to untangle the wards.
    They snapped and spat magic at her as she worked. Most of them were basic, barely enough to repel a mundane visitor, but some of the more complex ones were nasty, tapping into very dark magic indeed. Two of them were even outside her experience and she had to work frantically to counter a series of hexes that would have caused her permanent injury, if she failed to block them in time. The wards were wasteful and ill-designed, Emily noted, but she had to admit that they were craftier than they seemed. Still, a trained magician like Lady Barb should have had no difficulty breaking in.
    There was a final flash of balefire – Rudolf gasped in shock – then the wards snapped out of existence. They were committed now, Emily knew, as she paused to catch her breath. If Mother Holly was innocent, they would be in some trouble. Rudolf stepped forward as she picked up her staff and leaned on it, reaching out for the door. Emily hissed at him to stop just before he touched it.
    “Let me test everything first,” she ordered. If there was one thing she had learnt from Blackhall, it was that the big showy threat might mask something more dangerous. “You could touch something and find yourself a frog the next.”
    But there was no charm on the door, at least as far as she could tell. She used her staff to nudge it open, then peered inside, half-expecting something to jump out at her. But there was nothing inside, apart from darkness ... and a stench that made her recoil. There were no windows, nothing to provide any illumination at all. Bracing herself, fearful of any reaction from undiscovered defences, Emily crafted a globe of light and sent it bobbling into the room.
    “Interesting,” Rudolf said, one eye on the ball of light. “What else can you do?”
    Emily ignored the question as the light illuminated the interior of the hovel. It was messy, as if Mother Holly had given up caring about housekeeping. A large fireplace sat in one corner, a black caldron positioned over it, while the tables were covered with herbs and half-dissected animals. Several bottles were placed on top of the table, their lids removed and protective spells destroyed. She guessed they were the bottles stolen from Lord Gorham’s town.
    Rudolf swore. Emily turned and followed his gaze, staring into another corner. A body lay on the ground, one too small to be anything other than a baby. Sickened, Emily crept closer, directing the light globe to hover over the child’s body. The most obvious wound was a stab to the heart, but there were several others, all of which might prove fatal to a baby. Dark magic surrounded the corpse, clinging to the dead body like a living thing.
    “I thought we could save the child,” Rudolf said. “What did he do to deserve this?”
    Emily swallowed. The answer was obvious; Mother Holly hadn't been looking for magical power, but life force. A trained magician would be the most promising source of the former, yet a newborn baby would be the best source of the latter. After all, a baby had his or her entire life to enjoy. She shook her head, unwilling to discuss the possibility. Lady Barb had been right, again. In the long run, transferring life force might be even more dangerous to the Allied Lands than necromancy.
    “I don't know,” Emily said, instead.
    She created a second light globe and sent it bobbling over towards the pile of blankets at the far edge of the room. Had Mother Holly slept there? She felt another stab of sympathy, which she angrily repressed. Mother Holly was responsible for the death of at least twenty children, as well as trying to enchant Rudolf and his father. What sort of pity did she deserve?
    None, she told herself. The only pity Emily could or would offer Mother Holly was a quick death. She’d become too dangerous to leave alive. It didn't escape her that some people in the Allied Lands believed the same of Emily herself. After all, there were dark rumours that Emily was a necromancer herself.
    She pushed the thought aside as she saw something concealed under the blankets. Bracing herself, she reached down and pushed the blankets aside, keeping a wary eye out for traps. The blankets stank, but there were no other defences, allowing her to uncover the skull. It sparked a memory in her mind; Yodel had told her, back when they'd first met, that some magicians stored their memories, even their personalities, in skulls, waiting for someone to find them and put them to work. There were even stories, cautionary tales, of magicians who primed their skulls to decant their personalities into the first idiot who touched them. It provided a kind of life after death.
    Careful not to touch the skull with either her bare hand or magic, she used the blankets to pick up the skull and deposit it on the table. Up close, there were a handful of runes carved into the skull, only two of which she recognised. One of them would keep the skull intact, no matter what happened, the other would feed a faint trickle of magic into the skull, holding the enchanted personality firmly in place. Bracing herself, expecting a backlash of some kind, she used a simple detection spell and found ... nothing.
    “No magic,” she said, puzzled.
    Rudolf came over to stand behind her. “Is that a bad thing?”
    “I don't know,” Emily confessed. “The skull was once home to a magician’s personality, but it doesn't seem to have endured.”
    She looked down at the skull, contemplatively. Was it a fake? Or something Mother Holly had been trying to make work? Or had the personality sunk into Mother Holly, leaving the skull empty? It was possible, wasn't it? But all the cautionary tales she'd read had suggested that the skull would remain dangerous indefinitely.
    “So,” Rudolf said, as she returned the skull to its hiding place. “Where else do we go?”
    Emily hesitated. There was no trace of Mother Holly – or Lady Barb. She briefly considered releasing the snake again, then realised that she already knew where to look next.
    “The castle,” she said, softly.
    Standing in the middle of the hovel, she cast a powerful magic detection charm. The skull showed no reaction, while some of the potions ingredients glowed faintly – and a bright glow could be seen from a hidden drawer. Emily opened it carefully, disarming a nasty protective hex as she moved, and swore out loud as she produced the book. Like some of the grimoires preserved in Whitehall’s library, it was made from human skin and written in blood. The magician who’d written it, she suspected, might even have used his own blood. Once he was dead, the book would be bonded to his family line ...
    No, that couldn't be right, she told herself. Mother Holly wasn't related to a magician, was she? But there was no way to know.
    She picked up the book, carefully, and opened it. There was no table of contents, forcing her to inspect each spell one by one. Some of them were surprisingly common, used at Whitehall, others were deadly dangerous. One of them was a compulsion spell so powerful that the victim wouldn't have a hope of resisting, once the magician obtained a sample of his blood. It reminded her of the spell Shadye had used on her, years ago. Others told her how to blind a disobedient child or turn him into a toad, make a woman permanently barren or nothing more than a slave, cripple a man or give him permanent bad luck ... the writer, she realised, had been filled with hatred and malice towards the world. The evil the book could have caused was terrifying. And most of the people in the mountains would be absolutely defenceless.
    And, when the writer had finally died, he’d meant his malice to live on.
    The final spell was alarmingly familiar. It was the basic necromantic rite.
    “We have to take this with us,” Emily said, placing the book under her arm. “And we have to go to the castle.”
    Rudolf gave her a sharp look. “Are you sure?”
    “I don't know where else to go,” Emily said, simply. Had Lady Barb gone to the castle after searching the hovel? There was no sign of a fight. But somehow Emily doubted that Lady Barb would have missed the grimoire. “If we can't find her there ...”
    She refused to consider the possibility as she led the way outside, into the slowly darkening sky. Clouds were gathering overhead, threatening to pour rain on their heads. Emily cast a protective charm over the book, wondering if she should destroy it. But she couldn't bring himself to destroy any book, no matter how evil. Instead, she kept it under her arm.
    Rudolf followed her outside. “And what if we can't get into the castle?”
    “You go back to your father and alert him,” Emily said, resentfully. She didn't want to consider the possibility of failure. “I go down to the Allied Lands and call for help.”
    Moments later, the first raindrops started to fall.
     
  16. Sapper John

    Sapper John Analog Monkey in a Digital World

    Fantastic story Chris, thank you!
     
  17. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Things are really beginning to ramp up...Thank you!
     
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirty-Five
    Emily had intended not to risk using magic to shield them from the rain, but within moments she realised that she had no choice. The downpour grew so rapidly that their clothes were drenched quickly, while visibility fell to several metres and thunder crackled in the sky overhead. If she hadn't been so determined to reach the castle, she would have found a place for them to hole up and wait for the storm to end.
    She cast another protective charm on the grimoire, then looked over at Rudolf. He looked like a drowned rat – she probably didn't look much better – but grimly determined to follow her to the castle. Emily briefly considered suggesting that he took the book back to the guesthouse, then reminded herself that Rudolf wouldn't be able to get through the wards and into the building. Bringing him with her was risky, but she suspected he wouldn't go quietly if she asked him to stay behind.
    The rain grew stronger, beating against her wards and washing against her feet. Any tracks that might have been left would be obliterated, she realised numbly. There was no proof that Lady Barb had actually reached the castle. Coming to think of it, she thought sourly, there was no proof Lady Barb had ever entered the hovel. She might have been waylaid somewhere just outside the building.
    “She could have rebuilt the wards,” Rudolf pointed out. “And then gone to the castle.”
    Emily had her doubts. Lady Barb was far more skilful with magic than Emily herself, but rebuilding Mother Holly’s complex series of wards would be very difficult – and besides, she’d left the grimoire in place. And there had been no trace of her magic in the wards. No, Emily decided, Lady Barb had not gone into the hovel. So where had she gone?
    There had been no sign of a battle outside the shack, she recalled. Lady Barb wouldn't have gone quietly, certainly not to a Hedge Witch, so what had happened to her? She briefly considered releasing the Death Viper and inspecting the rest of the plantation, but it would probably be useless. The ground would be sodden by now, all tracks and scents utterly destroyed. It was a marvel that the planets had lasted long enough to supply generations of Hedge Witches.
    “I don’t think so,” Emily said. Lady Barb was still bound by her oaths. If she encountered a grimoire, she was required to confiscate it at once. Instead, she’d just left it in the hovel – if, of course, she had seen it at all. Emily suspected she hadn't seen the cursed book. “I think something happened to her along the way.”
    She jumped as a row of small animals ran across the path and into the undergrowth. Rudolf didn’t seem too surprised; Emily guessed he was used to it. As an aristocrat, he could spend time hunting while peasants worked; he’d probably spent weeks out in the countryside, merely enjoying himself. But Rudolf was an only son. Like many of the older noble children of Zangaria, surely he would be expected to spend time learning to rule.
    “Father always said that all he needed was an awareness of the realities,” Rudolf said. “He never wanted me to learn how to read.”
    Emily shuddered. It still surprised her that so many people had been unable to read, even in the script the Allied Lands had used before she’d introduced English letters. Magicians could generally read – Whitehall offered classes for students – but the other segments of society were largely illiterate. No wonder the Scribes Guild had got away with so much for so long.
    But the Allied Lands didn't really have a literature tradition, she reminded herself. There was no Charles Dickens, let alone a Heinlein or a Hamilton. What literature there was tended to be plays, poems or stories that could be recited from memory. A writer couldn't really earn a living if only a handful of people would ever read his books. Hell, before the printing press had been introduced, reproducing even one copy of a book had been hideously expensive.
    “You should learn,” she said, although she suspected the words would fall on deaf ears. On Earth, reading might be a gateway to countless other worlds, but the books simply didn't exist in the Allied Lands. Not yet. “It can be quite helpful.”
    Rudolf snorted and changed the subject. “Shouldn't we get help to storm the castle?”
    Emily looked at him. “From whom?”
    “My father ...”
    His voice trailed off. It would take at least two days to get his father’s troops to Easter ... and that would be too long. Emily wondered, absently, if he’d ever considered arming the peasants and sending them against the castle, but it was the sort of tactic that only worked in bad vampire movies. In the real world, any magician could deal with an angry mob and – if the magician happened to be a necromancer – use them as a power source. They'd just be giving the enemy more targets.
    “If you want to go back to your father and ask,” Emily said, “you can. But it won’t make much difference.”
    Rudolf scowled at her. It took Emily a moment to realise she’d effectively accused him of being a coward, a sure-fire invitation to a duel in the Allied Lands. For Rudolf, given his leanings, the suggestion had to sting. Emily mentally rolled her eyes. There was nothing wrong with being scared of a necromancer, not when even the most powerful magician would think twice before challenging one. She was scared herself.
    “Come on,” Rudolf said, stalking past her. “We need to get there before the rain stops.”
    Emily concealed her amusement as she followed him up the rocky path. The castle was a dark brooding shape in the distance, larger than Lord Gorham’s castle but much more vulnerable. Thankfully, the designer hadn't seen the merits of placing it on top of a needle of rock, with only one way to reach the entrance. Even so, it was still a forbidding shape.
    She gritted her teeth as she sensed the first ward surrounding the castle. It wasn't anchored properly, nothing like the wards surrounding Lady Barb’s home, and there was something about it that puzzled her. She probed it, carefully, and realised that it didn't seem to be attached to any warning system. It could just be taken down and no one would notice. Emily shook her head in disbelief, then probed further. A second ward was nestled behind the first, monitoring its existence. If she crossed or took down the first ward, Emily realised, it was the second that would sound the alarm.
    “Clever,” she muttered. She'd seen something comparable in Blackhall – and had been caught, every second time she’d attempted to sneak through. “And we don’t have any blood this time.”
    Rudolf gave her a sharp look. “Blood?”
    “You can trick a ward if you have blood from someone keyed into their structure,” Emily said, absently. She'd done it herself in Zangaria, but those wards hadn't been linked into a magician’s mind. They certainly hadn't been smart enough to notice that one person was in two separate places at the same time. “But we don't have any, so it doesn't matter.”
    She probed further, satisfied herself that there wasn't a third ward monitoring the first two, then looked up at Rudolf. “When I start moving,” she ordered, “follow me, as closely as possible.”
    Rudolf nodded. Emily took a breath, then reached out with her magic and touched the first ward. Breaking it would have been simple – it was a very basic design – but that would have alerted the second ward. Instead, she twisted the ward, praying silently that the second ward was incapable of noticing anything less dramatic than the first ward snapping out of existence. But then, it would be tricky to program for every contingency without a nexus.
    She took a step forward, then another and another, bending and twisting the ward around them. Rudolf followed her, his breath touching the back of her neck, unaware of the complex interplay of magic surrounding him. Emily let out a breath as the first ward snapped back into place, seemingly unaware of being warped out of shape. The second ward did nothing in response. As far as Emily could tell, they’d made it through without being detected.
    “The gates are locked,” Rudolf observed, as Emily caught her breath. She was sweating, despite the cold. The effort had taken more out of her than she’d expected. “But we could climb the walls.”
    Emily looked up at the smooth stone and shivered. Sergeant Miles had taught her how to climb – she’d been up and down structures she would have sworn were impossible to climb – but the walls of the castle seemed too dangerous to risk. One gust of wind and they would be sent falling to their deaths. But there was no way through the gates either, she realised, grimly. The guards would know they'd broken through the wards and alert their superiors.
    She took the bracelet off and placed it on the ground. Rudolf gave it a wary look, clearly expecting her to send the snake through the portcullis to kill the guards. Emily doubted it would work. The guards might well be innocent ... and, in any case, the wards would probably monitor their condition. She dared not make any assumptions about what the wards would or would not consider alarming. Mother Holly wasn't a properly-trained magician.
    The best swordsman in the world doesn't fear the second best, Sergeant Miles had said. He fears the worst, because he doesn't know what the idiot will do.
    Emily looked up at the battlements. It was hard to be sure, but there didn't look to be any guards up there. But then, in this weather they were probably hiding in the guardhouse. She shaped a plan in her mind, then looked over at Rudolf. Some magicians would have pushed ahead without asking, but she knew how badly it would hurt him if she did. She wasn't one of those magicians.
    “I can turn you into something small, then turn myself into a bird and carry us both up there,” she said. She would have to carry the snake-bracelet in any case. Transfiguring something into one form and then into another could have dangerous side effects. They’d been taught never to do it, unless there was no other choice. “Unless you really think you can climb up there?”
    Rudolf looked torn. Like most people, he dreaded the thought of being transfigured, particularly as he had no way to reverse the spell himself. But climbing up the walls might prove impossible. If Mother Holly had established wards, she might have worked a few nasty surprises into the walls too. Whitehall certainly had a few tricks to deter students from climbing the walls.
    “Do it,” he said.
    Emily felt a surge of respect and admiration as she cast the spell. Rudolf shank and became a small statue of himself. Emily gritted her teeth, then sat down and cast the second spell. Her vision warped and twisted; she closed her eyes too late to stop her seeing feathers growing out of her hands. When she opened them again, she was staring through the eyes of a hawk.
    She picked up the bracelet in her beak, then the statue in one claw and took off, feeling the winds gusting around her. The hawk’s mind seemed to love the thunderstorm, even through Emily's human awareness was tempted to panic. She'd never flown before coming to Whitehall, but being on a dragon’s back was far superior to flying under her own power. Maybe it would have been different, she told herself, if she’d been able to fly on a broom ...
    The hawk’s mind screamed at her as she dropped down towards the battlements, sweeping the stonework with eyes that were so sharp she could see tiny marks on the stone. It didn't like trying to land, but Emily forced it down. She didn't dare let go of herself, not now. It wasn't possible to protect her mind from a spell she’d cast herself. If she fell into the hawk’s mind, no one would ever see her again.
    There were no guards on the battlements, she realised, as she finally forced the hawk to land and released the spell. She slipped, almost at once, and barely managed to catch herself before falling over the edge. The hawk’s eyes had seen the battlements as more than large enough to protect her, but in truth they were barely larger than something from a model village. Desperately, Emily crawled forward until she was lying on flat stone. The designer of the castle, she realised, hadn't really given any thought to protecting the soldiers on the roof. They might be blown off by a gust of wind if they got careless.
    Carefully, she released the spell on Rudolf, using a minor sticking hex to hold him in place until he had gathered himself. His eyes were wide and staring as he looked at her. Emily felt a shiver of guilt, which she ruthlessly suppressed. Rudolf wasn't unaware that he lived in a world where magicians could turn men into swine with a wave of their hands, but he’d never experienced it until now. How could he take it in his stride? But there had been no alternative ...
    “The guardhouse,” Rudolf said. He pointed towards a small stone hut; Emily couldn't help thinking of a penthouse, perched on top of a skyscraper. “The stairs will be hidden inside.”
    Slipping and sliding, they made their way over to the door. Rudolf opened it – and came face to face with a guard. He cocked his fist as Emily readied a spell, then hesitated. The guard was standing still, as if he was utterly unaware of their presence. He didn't even show any reaction as Rudolf waved a hand in front of his face.
    “He’s under a spell,” Emily said, softly. “I don't think he can see us.”
    Rudolf gave her a sharp look. “Are you sure of that?”
    “ ... No,” Emily admitted.
    She studied the guard, thoughtfully. There were upper-level obedience and loyalty spells that were so powerful that they damaged their victim’s mind, leaving them little more than robots, even if they had been forced to accept the spells. Could Mother Holly have enchanted the whole castle? It would be simple enough, Emily decided, assuming that the Hedge Witch had long lost any moral objections she might have had to taking someone’s free will. Lady Easter could just have called her guards in, one by one, for enchantment.
    “Leave him,” she said. She braced herself, then squeezed past the guard, uncomfortably aware of his body pressing against hers. He showed no reaction at all. “Hurry.”
    Rudolf followed her as she found the stairwell leading down into the castle. It looked almost painfully cramped, just like some of the stairwells in Zangaria. An attacking force that happened to get over the walls, Emily realised, would still have to advance one by one into the castle itself. And they probably couldn't swing their swords properly inside the stairwell.
    “Let me take the lead,” Rudolf said. “You’re probably more capable of helping me then I am of helping you.”
    Emily watched as he stepped into the stairwell, then followed, feeling a hint of claustrophobia as the stairs led down and down. There was almost no lighting at all, leaving her feeling her way forward. If she’d worn a dress, she realised, she might well have tripped and fallen down the stairs. By the time they reached the bottom, she was on the verge of creating another light globe and to hell with stealth. Rudolf sucked in his breath sharply as he stepped out into another guardroom. There were more guards waiting for them.
    “They’re under a spell too,” Rudolf said.
    Emily nodded as she followed him out into the guardroom. There were five men, wearing light suits of armour, standing in the room. They showed no reaction to the intruders, not even when Emily walked over to the other door and opened it. Outside, she saw a servant marching through the corridor, eyes as blank and unseeing as the guards. She couldn't help thinking of the cybernetic monsters from Star Trek. They’d ignored intruders on their starships until the intruders had posed a threat.
    “I could smuggle an entire army past them,” Rudolf muttered, as he joined her in the corridor. “What’s the point of keeping them all under control like this?”
    Emily shrugged. “A magician wouldn't need an army,” she said, although she knew it wasn't strictly accurate. Shadye had produced an army of monsters to attack Whitehall. “But if these guards are loyal to Lady Easter, they might react badly if they knew she was under outside control.”
    The interior of the castle wasn't as bare as Lord Gorham’s castle. Tapestries hung everywhere, each one showing an achievement of Lady Easter and her three daughters. Emily would have thought they were propaganda, if it hadn't been for the fact that no one outside the castle staff would see them. Or maybe the guards and soldiers were expected to admire them and realise that while Lady Easter had the body of a weak and feeble woman, she had the skill and determination to do well by her tiny kingdom. Would that be enough, Emily asked herself silently, if Rudolf had married one of her daughters? Or would the guards have switched their loyalty to him at once?
    They stopped as they came to a large chamber. A throne, painted gold, sat at one end, while a large stone table was placed in the centre of the room. Emily froze as she heard singing, then dragged Rudolf to one side, hastily casting concealment spells over them both. As long as they were quiet, she muttered, they should remain undetected.
    It was only just in time.
     
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirty-Six
    Three girls led the way, wearing long white dresses that were tied around their wrists with rune-sewn clothes. All three of them were singing softly, chanting out words that Emily didn't recognise, their faces blank and almost motionless. There was something about their beauty that reminded Emily of Alassa, save for the birthmarks all three of them had on their faces, just below their left eyes. Lady Easter’s daughters, Emily guessed, as she felt Rudolf tense beside her. His father had tried to force him into marriage with a brainwashed girl.
    He’d described the oldest girl as ugly. Emily didn't see it; the oldest girl looked plain, but very far from ugly. Her face was pale, as if she hadn't seen the sun since the day she was born, while long dark hair cascaded down her back. The white dress, almost translucent, revealed that her breasts were high and firm, bigger than both of her sisters. Emily suspected, rather cynically, that if Rudolf hadn’t been homosexual he would have found far fewer complaints about the marriage.
    The two younger girls weren't really prettier, she decided. One of them had dark hair too, the other had red hair that hung down to her shoulders. Unlike her sisters, she didn't seem to want to go in for the long hair that was traditional for aristocrats, probably deciding that it was a pain to wash without magic. Emily privately suspected that the fashion was just another way to control women; they were forced to spend hours washing and dressing or they wouldn't look fashionable. Thankfully, magic made personal grooming a great deal easier.
    She watched as the three girls, still singing, came to a halt beside the stone table. Moments later, an older woman entered, her back as straight and stiff as a board. Emily met her eyes, very briefly, and saw a furious struggle taking place inside the older woman’s mind. Lady Easter wasn't a willing participant in what was going on, she realised numbly. Mother Holly had laid compulsion spell after compulsion spell on her until it was a miracle she could still resist, even if only mentally. Her body did as it was commanded by the Hedge Witch.
    Lady Easter sat on her throne, eyes locked on the stone table. Emily studied her for a long moment, wondering if she dared try to cancel the spells, then turned her attention back to the entrance, just in time to see a young girl enter. She looked to be about nine, young enough to be innocent, old enough to be poised on the edge of womanhood. Like the others, she wore a long white dress, her face scrubbed clean and carefully made up by experts. There was a vacant expression on her face that suggested she was drugged, rather than under any form of magical compulsion. Emily gritted her teeth as the girl inched towards the stone table, then was helped to climb onto the stone.
    The magic field rippled suddenly as Mother Holly entered the room. Emily had never seen her before, but she couldn't be anyone else. She walked like an old woman, she had the face of an old woman, yet her body seemed to be middle-aged at best. Emily puzzled over it for a long moment, then decided the rituals that stripped children of their life force had been misapplied. Or maybe Mother Holly just wasn't vain enough to try to rejuvenate her face as well as her body. There were sorceresses who didn't care about their appearance, just as there were sorceresses who wasted hours rejuvenating themselves or applying careful glamours.
    But there was something deeply wrong with the old woman, she realised. Her face twisted constantly, moving from a faintly regretful expression to an expression that delighted in the pain and fear she was inflicting. The woman’s hands twitched constantly, as if she was on the verge of casting a spell, while her long white hair moved in odd patterns. Emily couldn't help thinking of gorgons, except there were no snakes in place of hair. There was nothing, as far as she knew, that could account for such an effect. Maybe she was having a reaction to all the magic she was using.
    Mother Holly walked up to the throne, passing close enough to the hidden couple to touch, then turned and faced the table. Two guards appeared, both wearing black robes, carrying Lady Barb between them. Emily had to cover her mouth to stifle a horrified gasp. Lady Barb had been beaten bloody, then chained so heavily that she could barely stand upright without assistance. Her hands were cuffed behind her back, while chains encircled her ankles. A nasty scent wafted over the room; Emily cursed mentally as she realised what had happened. There was a potion that damped a person’s magic, at least for a few hours, rendering them helpless. Emily had been forced to drink it, two years ago.
    And now Lady Barb had no magic, not as long as they kept forcing her to drink the potion ...
    She switched her attention to the guards, trying to resist the urge to leap out and attack the old witch. One of them looked as blank as the other guards, obeying orders robotically, while the other seemed to be practically shaking with horror. Emily looked into his eyes and realised that the guard had seen terrible things. She wondered, absently, if they could count on him as a possible ally, then dismissed the thought. The guard was too terrified to do anything, but watch helplessly, no matter what happened.
    The book had talked about spells to terrify people into servitude, Emily recalled. Perhaps Mother Holly had tested one on the guard, only to discover that it rendered him largely useless. And then she'd just left him that way ... Emily shook her head in disbelief, then heard a loud thump as the door slammed closed. The chamber was sealed.
    “Well,” Mother Holly said. Her gaze was fixed firmly on Lady Barb. “You came to restore the old order.”
    Lady Barb showed no reaction. Emily cringed, mentally. Just how badly had the older woman been hurt? She didn't look to have any broken bones, but someone could be beaten into submission without breaking any bones. The bruises suggested that she’d been worked over by experts, using everything from their bare hands to the flat of their blades. Blood had dried on her bare flesh.
    “But you have failed,” Mother Holly said, when Lady Barb showed no reaction. “The old order has failed.”
    Lady Barb coughed, then spat. Emily couldn’t avoid noticing she’d coughed out blood.
    “You are messing with powers you don’t understand,” Lady Barb said. Her voice was strong enough to hold attention, despite the beating. “You have to stop this.”
    Mother Holly stepped forward until she was standing in front of the table, looking down at the young girl. “I have seen too many aristocrats” – the word was a curse – “abuse the common folk,” she snapped. “Why should I not wage war on them?”
    “You're killing more commoners than the aristocrats ever did,” Lady Barb pointed out. “I know you’ve taken at least twenty children – and I’d bet you took more. How can you justify that to yourself?”
    For a moment, Emily thought the question had started to unravel Mother Holly’s determination to proceed. Her faced shifted rapidly, as if there were two personalities struggling for control. She’d done something to the skull, Emily remembered, draining it of the personality its creator had left in place. What if the personality had tried to overwhelm Mother Holly, only to come to a draw. Or perhaps they were still fighting.
    “I have watched peasants starve because they are not allowed to keep enough food for winter,” Mother Holly said. “I have watched girls taken into the high castles because they are pretty. I have watched boys beaten for daring to go too close to the castle and older men crippled for trying to hunt for food. I will do whatever it takes to prevent the aristocrats from abusing their subjects.”
    Emily puzzled over it. If that was the case, why hadn't she killed Lord Gorham and Rudolf, rather than trying to control them? And why try to have Rudolf marry Lady Easter’s daughter? Unless ... perhaps the objective was to give the mountains a single royal family, once again? There would be fewer people trying to claim tax, for one thing, and it would be far easier for Mother Holly to control them.
    “I will break your mind if you refuse to pledge your servitude to me,” Mother Holly hissed, as she produced a knife from her belt. A wave of dark magic washed across the room. Emily didn't need to see the knife directly to know that it was made from grey stone. “And what is left of you will never be found.”
    “Go to the devils,” Lady Barb said. She managed to stand up straighter, despite the chains, looking Mother Holly right in the eye. “You’re already halfway there.”
    Mother Holly snarled and raised the knife, ready to plunge it into the girl’s chest. Rudolf moved before Emily could stop him, throwing himself at Mother Holly’s back. She turned, surprised, as the concealment spells snapped. They couldn't hide someone who drew attention to himself. Rudolf barely made it halfway to her before his entire body froze and he fell to the ground.
    Emily cursed and hastily returned her staff to normal size. Mother Holly stared at her, then lifted her hand. Emily threw herself to one side as a fireball rocketed past her and struck the far wall, setting fire to one of the tapestries. She channelled her power through the wand, despite the risks, trying to use a basic freeze spell on Mother Holly. A wave of raw magic deflected her spell, followed by another that yanked the staff out of her hand and sent it flying across the room. Emily rapidly shaped another spell in her mind, but it was too late. A third wave of magic caught her, picking her up and holding her upside down, hanging helplessly in front of Mother Holly.
    “Well,” Mother Holly said. Up close, her breath stank – and there were faint hints of red light in her eyes. Emily remembered Shadye and shuddered. “Who might you be?”
    She looked at Emily, then cast a spell. Emily felt magic crackle around her, but nothing happened. Mother Holly repeated the question; Emily braced herself to resist a compulsion, yet there was nothing. It took her a moment to realise that the spell Void had given her, the spell that made it impossible for her to be forced to share her secrets with the world, was still protecting her.
    Mother Holly frowned, then motioned with her hand. Emily found herself dropped to the ground, then trapped in place. Mother Holly picked up Rudolf, cast a spell on him, then started to ask questions. Rudolf answered them, helplessly.
    “Your apprentice,” Mother Holly said, to Lady Barb. “Wouldn't she make an excellent sacrifice?”
    She turned back to the table and nodded to the three daughters. The spell holding Emily to the floor snapped, but she could still barely move. She gritted her teeth as the daughters pulled her up into a sitting position, then started to pull at Emily's clothes. One of them removed the bracelet, then Emily's shirt and carried them both away from the table. Emily felt an odd moment of hope. If she took the bracelet too far from Emily ...
    There was a piercing shriek as the Death Viper returned to its normal form. The girl had been holding it and the mere touch was enough to inflict serious harm. Mother Holly jumped as one of her compulsion spells snapped. The girl was in so much pain that the spell had lost its grip completely. Her sisters seemed equally shocked. Emily gathered all the strength she could, then thrust it against the spell keeping her down and weak. It snapped and she broke free, then slapped Rudolf hard in the head. The shock should help him recover from the charms Mother Holly had used on him.
    She heard a yelp behind her and saw one of the guards double over as Lady Barb pulled her hands free. Emily gaped at her, then turned, just in time to dodge another fireball from Mother Holly. Her vision seemed to split in two for a second as the Death Viper sensed that she was in danger and went after Mother Holly, almost causing Emily to black out.
    Mother Holly screamed with rage, then clutched her knife and brought it down on the helpless child. Emily didn't hesitate; she cast a spell and yanked the girl towards her, then dropped her on the far edge of the chamber. Drugged as she was, the girl didn't even cry out as she hit the floor. Mother Holly twisted, then threw a whirling mess of a spell right into Emily’s face. The sheer force of the impact picked her up and slammed her into the wall. Emily grunted in pain as she fell down and landed on her bottom, then picked herself up as another fireball flashed towards her. Heat scorched her hair as it passed over her and struck the wall.
    Rudolf threw himself at Lady Barb – this time, the madwoman had no time to react before he struck her. But she recovered within seconds, casting a spell that turned him into a slug. Emily gaped in horror as Mother Holly lifted her boot, intending to squash him, then threw a fireball of her own. The madwoman stumbled backwards as it hit her wards; Emily followed up with a twisting hex that required several moments of uninterrupted concentration to break. Mother Holly jumped to one side, then threw another blast of raw magic at Emily. The sheer level of power – Emily hadn't sensed anything like it since Shadye had died – slashed past her and smashed right through the walls.
    The entire castle shook as stone crumbled into dust. Emily saw corridors ripped apart, followed rapidly by the main wall itself. Outside, it was still dark. The wind blew rain right into the chamber. For a long moment, everything was still, as if no one could quite believe what had happened. And then Lady Barb threw a piece of rock right at Mother Holly’s head.
    It should have killed her, Emily realised, as she staggered back to her feet. Or at least knocked her out. But instead ... all it seemed to have done was resolve the inner conflict in the madwoman’s mind. The constant changes in expression were gone, leaving only one face, one personality, staring at them. Another low rumble ran through the castle. It had been designed to weather the very worst storms, to stand tall and proud when gales whistled through the mountains and valleys, but it wasn't designed to stand up to magic. Emily heard the sound of something crashing in the distance and wondered if the entire castle was about to fall down around their ears.
    The madwoman stared at them, cold rage and hatred written all over her face. She lifted her hands, as if she intended to cast a spell, then there was another surge of magic. Emily ducked, bracing herself to evade, but the magic didn't leap out at her or anyone else. Instead, the madwoman floated into the air and flew right through the gasp in the castle’s walls. She cackled out loud as she made her escape, vanishing into the distance. Emily threw a cancellation spell after her, hoping to send her plummeting to her death, but the spell either missed or didn't work.
    She turned to look at Lady Barb. “Are you ... are you all right?”
    “You’ll need to purge my system,” Lady Barb said. “Don’t worry about any of the bruises, just purge my body.”
    Emily nodded as Lady Barb sat down, still wearing the shackles around her ankles. She cast another cancellation charm at Rudolf, breaking the spell keeping him as a slug, then concentrated on Lady Barb. The purging spell was only meant to be used if someone had swallowed poison or a poorly-prepared potion and she'd never liked using it. Lady Barb shuddered, then vomited violently. Emily looked away as the older woman kept throwing up until she was dry-heaving. The stench made Emily want to be sick too.
    “We have to get after her,” Lady Barb said, staggering to her feet. “She drained some of her power now, but she can repower herself ...”
    “She took the knife,” Emily realised.
    She looked around the room. The drugged girl looked to have fallen asleep, thankfully. One of the guards looked to have lost his mind completely – he was sitting on the ground, humming to himself – while the other was groaning in pain. Rudolf looked badly shaken at just how easily he’d been defeated and almost killed. Lady Easter looked angry, somehow, while two of her daughters were desperately trying to tend to the third. And the Death Viper ... Emily looked around and discovered that it was lying next to her, waiting for attention. She turned it back into the bracelet and placed it on her wrist before anyone could start demanding that it be turned into potions ingredients.
    “The knife doesn't matter that much,” Lady Barb reminded her. She waved her hand over her shirt, but it took several tries before the vomit fell to the ground, leaving her relatively clean. “We need to keep her away from prospective victims. Even one person would provide enough power to make her immensely dangerous.”
    She looked over at Lady Easter. “Send a guard to find my staff,” she added. “We cannot give her time to escape.”
    Emily winced. Now that the personality conflict had been resolved, Mother Holly would be twice as dangerous ... and she was already mad. Given time, a necromancer could rip the mountains apart.
    And there was no one else who had even a hope in hell of stopping her.
     
  20. kellory

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

     
survivalmonkey SSL seal        survivalmonkey.com warrant canary
17282WuJHksJ9798f34razfKbPATqTq9E7