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Cindernick. Part the fourth


The house on Cowley Street was quiet, the rooms empty and still. Then a scrape of sound shivered through the air as the door to the yard eased open and a ragged figure slipped through, breathing hard.

Nick turned his head, listening intently, but could hear no hint of movement. Satisfied that he had succeeded in returning before the rest of the household, he abstracted his rag of blanket from its hiding place behind a store cupboard, wrapped it around his shoulders, and padded across the kitchen floor to curl up on the hearth where a little warmth still lingered. He knew he wouldn't sleep, but he was happy to lie quietly, remembering the ball and thinking of David, until his eyelids grew heavy and he drifted gently into a doze...

… only to be jerked awake, heart thudding, by a coldly malicious voice which wound itself through his bright visions of what had been, hissing menace into his dreams.

Shaking, Nick sat up, wrapping his arms around his knees in a scared, apprehensive huddle of limbs. It was no good. Much as he might want to avoid thinking about Lord Mandelson, about his cold gaze, viciously cutting tongue and delicate, precise cruelty to those, like Nick, in his power – he could not afford to. Because that evening it had finally become clear to Nick that Mandelson and his journeymen were planning something. Knowing the three as he did, Nick was also sure that any plot would have been carefully put together with every possible outcome taken into consideration. And – there would be devastating consequences for their target.

Nick was very much afraid that the target of that plot was Prince David, heir apparent to the Duchy of Blueforest.

Nick's shivering increased and he dropped his head on to his knees, screwing his eyes shut in a futile attempt to block his scurrying thoughts. David... lovely, kind, beautiful David... in thrall to a dark wizard. All that warmth and generosity, all that innocent optimism and delight in the world and in his place in it, corrupted into darkness and hardened into selfishness and arrogant pride... oh yes, Nick knew – all of Goldeagle knew – how dark wizards operated. The town had narrowly escaped the thrall of such a bare few generations before, and the stories of Dark Lord Owen and his corrupting influence and thirst for power were commonplace. The tale of how the town's very own Chief Alderman, Master Merchant Steel, had been brought under Owen's pernicious influence was recited at the River ceremony every Sixday, as a warning and a reminder to the townspeople. If Mandelson drew David into his clutches, it would not be very long before the happy, generous prince that Blueforest knew and that Nick loved would be utterly destroyed. And in his place would be a proud, cold, cruel shell of a man.

Someone, in fact, very similar to Lord Mandelson himself, lacking only the wizard's dark powers and therefore completely under Mandelson's control.

Sudden fury shook Nick and he found himself up on his feet, one fist clenched on his godfather's talisman, glaring into the darkness. Prince David, a wizard's plaything? Never!

“You won't do it, Mandelson,” he whispered grimly, his fury settling into a steady burn of determination. “I know what you're planning, and I – will – stop – you. I will!”

With one short, choppy nod of his head, jaw set and chin jutting determinedly, Nick settled back into the huddle which was his favoured sleeping position, snuggled a little deeper into his rag of blanket, and at last felt himself drift into slumber.

...

The next morning Nick was busy washing up the staff's breakfast dishes when the household valet, young Burnham, came in, face sheet-white, and announced, "Th' master's in one of his strops this morning, and no mistake! Well, I'm not attending to his room! Where's Cinderbrat? Oi - you!", as his eyes fell on the scullery boy, head down over a pile of dirty crockery, "You get yourself up to the master's bedroom and attend to it! An' make a proper job of it, you lazy lump - no cleaning of the fireplace and leaving the rest for me, understand? Go on, get to it!"

He aimed a clout at Nick's head as the other hastened past but Nick ducked the blow with the skill of long practice and ran up the back stairs, his stomach one big hollow at the thought of encountering Lord Mandelson while the wizard was in the grip of one of his ice-cold, terrifying rages. But he was only the scullery boy. If anyone in the household ordered him to do something, he was obliged to obey. Quite apart from his lowly status, Mandelson's coercion spells enforced his obedience unless he was carrying his godfather's talisman, and Nick had no desire to reveal the existence of that until he had to. It was hidden away in the safest place Nick could think of, out in the stables, in a storeroom which only Nick ever had reason to use, so once again Nick was carrying a cold weight in his chest and on his tongue, preventing any acts of rebellion and shutting his memories of childhood love and happiness away behind a barrier of non-feeling which he could not penetrate.

He reached the floor where his master's rooms were located and approached the door to Mandelson's bedroom, his heart thudding so hard he feared he might choke from it. The wizard usually rose early, broke his fast with a simple meal of bread, honey and fresh fruit, and removed himself to his study for the remainder of the day, but there were occasions when he remained in his bedroom until much later.

And then woe betide any servant who disturbed him. Especially if that unfortunate was Nick...

Nick reached the door. Tentatively he raised his hand, then lowered it, then raised it again. Finally a spark of anger at himself pushed him into tapping at the door - very, very softly.

There was no response. Nick repeated the knock, a little more forcibly, and waited, hope growing. Was his master out after all?

There was no sound at all from within, and nervously Nick pushed open the door and sidled through into the spacious room that had once belonged to Nick's beloved guardian. Although it was now furnished in a far richer and more opulent fashion than when Master Ashdown had been the occupier, Nick could never look at the room without seeing his guardian in it.

This time, however, all memories of Master Ashdown fled at the scene before him.

The room was in chaos. It was as if a small but particularly vicious whirlwind had spun through, ripping the pictures from the walls and the curtains from the great four poster bed and sending delicate porcelain vases and ornaments flying across the room to crash against the wood-panelled walls. Precious glass decanters and wine glasses had smashed to the floor, splashing wine and spirits and rare, precious perfumes across the intricate, finely worked patterns of the rugs and carpets, and the whole room was covered in a snowstorm of books and vellum and loose leaves of paper.

Jaw agape, Nick stared around, wondering a little helplessly where to start. He had perforce had to clean up after his master's rages before, but they had never been this destructive! What had occurred to put Mandelson into such a fury?

With a resigned shrug of bony shoulders Nick began to clear the floor of debris and smashed ornaments, reasoning that he had better get all the broken fragments out of the carpet before he did anything else, or his feet would suffer. He went slowly, checking every nook and cranny for glass splinters and shards of porcelain which must have been smashed with great force to have been thrown so far - under tables, behind chests, even lodged behind bookshelves!

And that was when he found the letter.

Tucked down behind a red leather-clad chest, which was usually piled high with papers that Lord Mandelson liked to work on late at night, was an old, stained envelope. Nick tugged it out, along with the fragment of china which had been the original object of his search, and blinked at the vigorous scrawl of the address. The ink was old and faded, but the hand was unmistakably his guardian's - and it was addressed to Lord Mandelson of Roseheim, Thaumaturge of the Imperial Court.

Nick stared at the envelope, chewing furiously at his lip. It was his master's private correspondence... But it was from his guardian... It might hold some clue to what had happened to Master Ashdown!

That last thought was enough, and Nick hurriedly shoved the envelope into his ragged shirt before resuming his cleaning. He had to neaten the room and clear it of all the irretrievably broken items before Mandelson returned, he knew.

By the morrow all the ornaments and the glass would have been replaced, all the torn materials would have been as if they had never been damaged, and the carpets would once again be pristine - but only if Nick had cleared up the damage first. Once, back when Nick was still learning his duties, he had left the broken and damaged furnishings and ornaments where they lay, thinking that Lord Mandelson's wizardly powers would simply replace them. His master had been furious, and the beating Nick had received from the Head Groom as a consequence had been among the worst of the many he'd been given over the years. His back still bore scars...

When the door to the study swung open and Mandelson stepped through, Nick was on his knees polishing the brass surround of the fireplace, his bucket full of broken china and glass and the floor swept clean and glowing with freshly-applied wax.

Out of the corner of his eye, Nick watched his master's dark gaze sweep the room and nod in curt acknowledgement of the transformation. Then Mandelson stalked across to snatch up the papers Nick had piled on the desk and scan swiftly through them.

"These are not in order," he snapped. Nick shrank a little lower.

"I, I... No, master," he faltered, and was about to try and explain that he had not thought Mandelson would want his private business read by the house scullery boy when the wizard gave a short bark of laughter.

"Ha, foolish of me, to expect a dullard like you to understand these matters! I doubt you can even read, halfwitted Wanderer's brat that you are - eh?"

"No master," Nick responded obediently, too relieved to be affected by his master's jibes. He scrambled to his feet and ducked his head humbly. "Is, is there anything more you wish m-me to do here, milord?"

Mandelson waved a dismissive hand. "No, no. Be about your duties, halfwit. Go!"

Thankfully, Nick fled, only to encounter the housekeeper on the landing. Mistress Cooper dealt him a brisk buffet around his ears and sent him to help prepare the dining room for the evening's formal dinner, and as soon as that was completed the cook sent for him. The demands of the kitchen staff kept him hard at work for the rest of day, right through the formal supper and late into the night. No chance to peek at the guests, to enjoy their happiness and admire their attire, and perhaps glimpse Prince David - if the prince had even attended. And certainly no opportunity to examine the letter tucked away snugly at his waist...

Some time after midnight a solitary figure slipped furtively across the courtyard in the warm silvery light of the almost-full midsummer moon, to be lost in the black shadows of the stable yard. A door creaked open, then shut again, and all was as before, serene and silent under the night sky.

Inside the harness room Nick lit the covered lantern hanging by the door and took it across to the small room - more of a cupboard than a room - where he kept the shovels, buckets, brooms and other items he used about the stable yard. Setting the lantern down on the floor he took his godfather's talisman from its hiding place atop the roofbeam, rejoicing in the sudden explosion of light and colour which washed across it as the cold weight of Mandelson's enchantment melted away like ice in the sun. Memories of love and warmth and friendship rushed back into his head - no longer bright pictures locked away behind a pane of glass, mere visions carrying little sense of connection to himself. They were there now, back where they belonged, and that fierce anger rose in Nick once more at what had been wrested from him. Some day, he vowed silently, there would be a reckoning....

But for now - there was the letter.

Hands shaking a little with eagerness and trepidation, Nick squatted next to the dim warm light of the lantern and drew the letter out of the envelope. It was but two sheets of paper, written in the hurried impatient scrawl which Nick knew was his guardian's working hand, used for Guild business and trade matters. Ashdown had possessed another, more formal style, but that had been reserved for social engagements and family occasions.

So this was a business letter? Why would Master Ashdown be using this style when writing to a kinsman, even on a matter of trade -

Unless Lord Mandelson was no kin at all.

And if he was not kin, and not heir... how had he known about Master Ashdown's disappearance? How had he arrived so opportunely at the house on Cowley Street, with all the correct papers to hand declaring him heir? To be sure, he was a wizard, but even wizards must need time to prepare. Which suggested that Lord Mandelson had known in advance that Master Ashdown's business and property would fall vacant...

Nick drew a long, shaky breath, and cautioned himself against letting his imaginings run wild. Why, he hadn't even read the letter yet! There could be a perfectly logical explanation, involving no wrongdoing at all - but somehow, he doubted it.

Bending closer to the lamp, Nick turned the letter towards the dim glow and held it as close as he dared, squinting to make sense of the inky scrawl. It had been some time since he had been able to snatch more than a glance at a book or a broadsheet, but he had always been a voracious reader and he was relieved to discover that the skill had not left him.

The letter appeared to be a standard closing letter acknowledging formal receipt of Lord Mandelson's payment for the entire cargo of the Liberty Bird, the ship with which Ashdown had made his fortune and the very craft whose rumoured loss had led to the master merchant's trip overseas.

Lord Mandelson and the Liberty Bird... and now a hand-written letter from his guardian - dated after his departure overseas, Nick suddenly noticed - what did it all mean?

Nick growled in frustration, his hand clenching involuntarily on the letter. All these separate pieces must fit together somehow! How had Mandelson met Ashdown? For what reason? And was his guardian, maybe, still alive and held captive somewhere under enchantment - perhaps the same kind of enchantment with which Mandelson had chained and silenced Nick?

Realising that the letter was a crumpled ball in his hand, Nick smoothed it flat again then examined it as closely as he could in the hope of finding something unusual, some turn of phrase or code word which might give him a further clue to what had happened. There was a blurred, scratched out word near the bottom of the second sheet where it seemed that the quill had spluttered, and Nick moved the paper as close as possible to the lantern glass covering and magnifying the candle flame, putting his face as close as he dared to both. As he bent nearly double in his effort to make sense of the tangled letters, the Fae snuffbox fell out of his ragged shirt and landed full on the letter.

Light and colour flared up from the snuffbox in a spray of brilliant gold sparks, washing out across the paper in a fizzing dazzle of brightness, and with a muffled yelp Nick dropped the hand-written sheets, afraid that they had burst into flame.

The letter hit the ground, and the snuffbox - which surely should have slid or bounced from the papers - stayed where it had struck the letter as if it had been glued there. It was still glowing, through with the steady light of a fire rather than the dancing sparkle of a firework, and the letter too was taking on a light of its own.

No, it wasn't the letter, it was the ink! A thrill of excitement raced through Nick as Master Ashdown's handwriting began to shine, a shimmering silver that was growing ever stronger, turning from black to moonlit silver, glowing more and more brightly until Nick had to look away... The glow was so bright it was throwing sharp shadows on the wall, but those shadows did not look like any of the objects which might have caused them! Nick swallowed apprehensively when he saw the spiked and clawed shapes shifting and moving on the wall of the tiny room, twisting and turning and seemingly fighting to pull free of whatever held them to step out into the shining air...

... But then the snuffbox returned to effulgent life, the blaze of gold and azure combining with the silver of the letter in a brightness so fierce that Nick was forced to close his eyes.

There came a soundless explosion of light which washed over Nick like a breaking wave of bright water, then darkness.

Cautiously Nick opened his eyes to see his small storeroom looking very much as it usually did, save for the presence of a lit stable lantern on the floor by his knee with a very ordinary-looking letter on two sheets of paper lying next to it, held down by an enamelled gold and blue snuffbox.

What had just happened?

Nick reached out for the snuffbox, then hesitated. Don't be a fool, he castigated himself. Your godfather gave you that snuffbox! He would never give you something which might cause you harm! - ah, but he's a Fae, his caution responded. How is he to know what would harm a human?

Fiercely Nick shook his head at himself and in one swift, hurried movement scooped up the snuffbox, wincing in anticipation as he did so.

Nothing. When he turned his hand over and opened his fingers the snuffbox was sitting innocently on his calloused palm, its enamel work shining gently in the glow of the lantern with no sign that it was anything more than a beautifully-crafted example of the jeweller's art.

With a gusty sigh of relief Nick scrambled to his feet. Snatching up his guardian's letter and folding it into its envelope, he stuffed it into the unused dovetail hole in the roof beam where he kept his treasures. Weighting it down with the snuffbox and with one final check that all was out of sight, he hastily returned the lantern to its hook by the door and hurried back to the kitchen.

Once wrapped in his rag of blanket, Nick told himself to sleep. Now was not the time to think about what had just occurred - not when dawn, and his household duties, were a bare few hours away... Closing his eyes, Nick took a couple of deep breaths, making himself relax. Fatigue swept over him in a great wave, and he slept.

The next morning all seemed to have returned to normal in the Mandelson household. Nick swept, cleaned, polished, scrubbed floors and hauled wood and coal in his usual workaday routine, all the while half-expecting to be called to his master's study to explain the disappearance of the Ashdown letter...

But no call came.

Could his godfather's magickal talisman be even more powerful than Nick had guessed - did Mandelson not realise the letter had been taken, let alone that it had been ... disenchanted, or whatever the word was?

As the morning wore on with no sign of extra attention from the wizard, Nick felt the tight knots of apprehension in his middle gradually begin to uncurl. Perhaps - perhaps it was going to be all right? He could keep his memento of his guardian after all?

In the forenoon the pot boy was sent out to help in the stables, a regular occurrence and one which Nick always enjoyed. Although the Chief Groom, Goodman Brown, was someone of violent passions and given to roaring fits of anger that sent everyone scurrying for cover, he was fair minded with it, possessing little of the cruelty which was so characteristic of Lord Mandelson, his journeymen, and so many of the household staff. And Nick liked horses. They were so uncomplicatedly pleased to see him, caring nothing for his tainted blood or his lowly status, and showed their gratitude for his care and caresses with an affection which had long soothed his lonely heart.

It was a bright, breezy day, more suited to late spring than the height of summer, and the shutters in the stable block were flung wide to let in the light and the scented breeze from the neighbouring meadow. Stable lads were scurrying hither and yon at the behest of the Chief Groom, whose deep voice was roaring orders at a speed that made Nick, for once, very glad he was not considered one of Goodman Brown's minions.

There was to be a hunt, it seemed; Lord Mandelson had suddenly accepted the invitation extended to himself and his journeymen to join the hunting party that Castle Torai was sending out in search of venison that very afternoon, and now it fell to the Chief Groom and his stable lads to make all ready at the last minute - the hunting horses, their harness and accoutrements, and the steadier riding horses that would transport the three with their servants to the camp from which the hunt would set out, at which point the men would transfer to their speedier hunters.

So Nick's appearance was greeted with relief by the harassed stable staff and he was immediately set to mucking out while the stable lads and lasses busied themselves with the preparations for the hunting expedition. Nick set to with a will, hoping that if he was sufficiently speedy he might be permitted to care for one of the working horses, or perhaps even the carriage team. And so it proved, for just as he was scattering fresh straw in the last of the loose boxes undergroom Watson appeared at the door.

"How much longer - ah, you've finished in here, good! Chief says to tend to Salt and Pepper. Just a quick brush down, nothing fancy! Don't you go fancying yourself a proper groom, ashface - hear? Now, get to it or you'll be catching the back of my hand, and that'll be nothing to what the Chief'll do to you!"

Nick ducked his head, humbly acknowledging the gabble of Watson's rapid, town-accented speech, and hastened across the stable yard to the row of boxes that housed the carriage teams. Salt and Pepper were a pair of matched bay geldings, not of the first quality and well past their prime but strong, steady and unflappable, possessing the perfect temperament to pull the small gig about the lively, crowded Goldeagle streets for Mistress Cooper when she was about her duties. Nick was fond of them, and harboured a small hope that they liked him too - they always seemed happy to see him on the rare occasions when he was permitted to groom them.

Salt and Pepper's stalls were at the very end of the row, with windows that looked out over the meadow, and the bright sun streaming in through the open shutters, along with gusts of the warm, meadow-scented summer breeze, made it a pleasant place to spend a little time - quite apart from the nature of the task before him.

Nick relaxed as he began to work on Pepper. This promised to be an enjoyable afternoon!

"She'a heras berannui k'ta!"

Nick flinched, instinctively ducking at the harsh-voiced command to keep quiet and stay hidden - then blinked in confusion. He hadn't seen anyone else enter the stable!

He shifted towards the front of Pepper's stall to see if someone had somehow managed to enter the building without him noticing, when another unfamiliar voice responded to the first, and in the same language. This time Nick was able to tell where it was coming from; the meadow outside the stable. The two strangers must be just outside the window, close against the wall to ensure they were hidden from the view of any casual passers-by who might be going down to the river by way of the lane through the grassy meads.

Pepper's nose nudged at his shoulder in an unsubtle reminder that he had still to finish the final brushing of the gelding's coat, and with a quick pat of apology Nick returned to his task, keeping an ear out for as much of the muttered conversation as he could overhear. There was a furtive quality to it that made him uneasy - and why were they talking in that particular dialect, unless it was their native tongue? And if it was their native tongue - why were a pair of Imperials lurking outside a Goldeagle stable and speaking in conspiratorial whispers?

It was just as well that he had befriended so many Imperial sailors down on the Goldeagle docks these past few years, he realised after a moment. He understood the two men perfectly...

"Not happy about this, mate. Not happy at all. Don't sit right."

"Not our choice, is it? We take his money, we do as we're told. Besides, I don't fancy getting the wrong side of a witchy. Court witchy as well - they're the worst. Do what we're told, get our pay, and get out quick - that's what I say!"

"But this is no ordinary job, Ed. This is political. What is the boss thinking! Politics is always messy. Why's he got himself mixed up in the affairs of a tuppenny-ha'penny outland dukedom anyway?"

Nick could hear the shrug, and the callous indifference, in Ed's tones, even as his own mouth dried and his heart seemed to stop. David. They had to be talking about... David! And their 'boss' was - had to be - Lord Mandelson! Who had taken on a 'job' for someone unnamed, presumably at the Imperial Court... What job? Who for? And what was the wizard's plan for David?

Still automatically passing the brush over first Pepper's, then Salt's coats, as the horses sighed and leaned into his strokes, Nick strained to hear more. The two men were still grumbling, but within their complaints Nick managed to pick up the gist of what was planned. The duo were to go out with Mandelson and his journeymen in the guise of their accompanying grooms, leading the men's hunting horses. Then, once the hunt had left the camp, the pair would slip away to a pre-arranged spot where the journeymen would bring the prince to them - after he had been 'gentled' so that he would be biddable and easy to handle. (Nick snarled silently at that. No-one was going to 'gentle' his David if he could prevent it!)

Ed and his companion were then to conduct David to a secluded 'safe place' - not the house on Cowley Street - and await Lord Mandelson's arrival, hopefully before the alarm was raised over the prince's disappearance.

It seemed that David was not to be harmed - physically, at any rate - and once Mandelson had 'dealt with' him, he was to be returned to Castle Torai as if nothing untoward had happened, thereby avoiding any potentially disastrous encounters with the Torai Court sorcerers.

"The boss is a bit... twitchy round that lot. Seems they're too good at their jobs for his liking."

"Huh. How good can a rabble of outland witchies be?"

"True enough... I'm guessing he doesn't want to take any chances, even if they are only outlanders. C'mon, mate. We took the man's money, we have to fulfil our side. We'll get out as quick as we can after. That do?"

There was an unhappy grunt from Ed's companion.

"I suppose. Let's get to it then. Which horses we taking...?"

The voices faded away towards the stable's meadow gate, and hurriedly Nick ran to the door to catch a glimpse of the two conspirators.

He was unlucky, however. While Nick had worked on Pepper and Salt things had moved on outside. The yard was full of men and horses; the hunting party was making final preparations to depart. Even as Nick reached the door Lord Mandelson and his journeymen appeared from the house, dressed in fashionable but functional hunting gear and carrying the crossbows and quivers of heavy hunting quarrels needed to bring down a stag. Hastily Nick slid back into the shadows of the stable. He did not dare come out into the open yet. If he was seen he would be sent back to the kitchen, and once under the stern eye of Goodman Balls he would never be able to get away!

Frantically Nick looked about the busy yard, his gaze skipping from excited horse, to harried groom, to stoic attendant - he hesitated, looked back, looked again. Yes, there were two men standing behind Lord Mandelson, holding the reigns of two of the household workhorses along with the sturdy cobs used by the journeymen for errands and the like.

Those two. It had to be.

Nick studied them from the shadow of the doorway, fixing their appearance in his mind. He did not remember seeing either of them before. Neither was memorable in appearance or manner; one dark haired, the other greyer, both tall, slim, clean shaven, and neatly and conventionally dressed in the shirt, waistcoat and breeches of the small trader or personal servant. They looked nothing like the bandits or bravos that Nick had visualised from their overheard conversation!

Even as Nick watched, the two held the stirrups of the cobs for the journeymen to mount, then mounted in their turn and took the reigns of the three hunters the Mandelson party were to use later. Lord Mandelson had swung himself into the saddle of the grey thoroughbred that was his own favoured mount; now, with a nod of command to his companions he led the way out of the stable yard at a brisk trot, journeymen a pace behind and the two Imperial henchmen bringing up the rear with the three hunting horses on their leading reigns following eagerly behind.

Nick did not stay to watch the stable settle back into its routine. He had moved even as Lord Mandelson had moved towards his horse, accurately guessing that all eyes would be on the master of the household. Sidling along the wall of the stable block until he reached the the small room where he kept his treasures, he slipped inside and retrieved his snuffbox, then - sighing with relief as the world turned colourful and full of possibilities around him - he made his way back to the carriage horses' loose boxes, pausing only to remove an old, much-patched saddle and bridle from an unobtrusive peg in the shadows of the harness room on the way.

A quick glance out of the door confirmed that Lord Mandelson was just exiting the stable yard, so Nick made haste to Pepper's box and swiftly harnessed the old horse, talking in a breathless undertone all the while.

"Good horse, Pepper. Easy now... you won't mind me riding you, will you? You've been ridden before, though I doubt you remember when Danny would ride you - ah, good horse!" - as Pepper's ears pricked forward and he whickered eagerly, presenting his muzzle for the bridle. "You like this? You want to go out? Good lad..."

When the saddle went on Pepper snorted in surprise but settled quickly, turning his head to watch with interest as Nick adjusted the girth and stirrups. Nick resented having to take the time to put on a full saddle and bridle, but felt he had little choice. Riding Pepper bareback for any distance would be painful both for him, and more importantly, for Pepper, besides making the horse much more difficult to control.

Saddling complete - much faster than Nick had feared, thanks to Pepper's easy temperament - he led the horse to the back of the stable, where an old door, hidden in the shadows, showed little sign of the recent use to which Nick had put it. He was not sure that Chief Groom Brown even knew of the door's existence, though it had seen regular use in Master Ashdown's day to let the horses out to graze on the sweet spring grass of the river meadow. When Nick had realised that no-one was using it he had quietly worked on it over time, greasing the hinges and the lock, keeping it clear of debris and concealing it behind a stack of stable tools. It was this door that he had used to gain entrance to the household after the Midsummer Ball... Ah, David! please be safe! I must warn you! I must!...

Glancing around to confirm that he was still undiscovered, Nick led the willing Pepper through the door, pulling it to behind him. Then he swung himself into the saddle and set his steed in motion, heading for the forest at a canter. He had this advantage, he told himself determinedly as he urged Pepper on; there were few people in Goldeagle who knew the woods as he knew them, and none of them were in Mandelson's household! He knew where the Torai Hunt would have set up their camp, and he knew by far the quickest method to get there too!

He could only hope that he reached them before the hunt - and Prince David - set off...

Close to Goldeagle the forest was open with many sun-dappled glades and clearings, for many of the townsfolk grazed their animals on the rich pickings under the trees. Nick kept Pepper to an easy, ground-eating canter, picking his way from one clearing to the next and concentrating fiercely on working out the quickest route, everything having to fight through a dreadful sinking fear for David... once or twice his thighs tightened involuntarily on Pepper's flanks, leading the old horse to lengthen his stride into a lumbering gallop and Nick to hastily relax again with an apologetic pat to Pepper's neck. But he had to hurry.

He had to.

David...

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