Prince David, heir to the Duchy of Torai, was not his usual self. He wandered aimlessly through the bustling camp, avoiding excited staghounds and harassed huntsmen alike, dodging pages trotting hither and yon with messages and squires burdened with all manner of hunting weapons from boar spears to bows without really seeing any of the purposeful activity around him. Usually he adored the excitement of the chase and the thrill of facing a furious stag or boar that had been brought to bay, he reflected. Especially when the meat would be going straight to the kitchens. Midsummer festivals needed a lot of provisioning. The Castle Torai huntsmen were hoping to get two or three kills today, taking their quarry from among those unfortunate stags who had failed to gain themselves a harem at the annual rut earlier in the year and were as a consequence roaming the forest alone.
David's preferred quarry, in fact. A perfect day for a hunt, a challenging quarry, and the congenial company of like-minded friends and colleagues... and yet the prince was miserable.
"Have you heard from Redwood? He thinks you'll pick up at least one of those stags just past Sweetgrass Hollow..."
George's excited voice trailed off as he saw David's face, and he put a sympathetic hand on his friend's shoulder as he handed over the reins of the prince's favourite hunter. "No sign yet of your mystery boy? I'm sure he'll arrive soon. Look - there's a party just arriving from Goldeagle now! Go and see if your Nick is among them - or perhaps they might know of him, and can tell you where to find him!"
David turned eagerly, only to shake his head in disappointment.
"No no, those are the last people I'd ask! Those people were at the Ball - Nick was so scared of them, George. I'm sure they were the reason he ran away... and he told me not to trust them, either. They're Imperial, you know, no matter that they live in Goldeagle. No. I can only hope that the Court Wizard can glean something from the mask Nick left behind."
"Well it's clear from their clothes that they're from Roseheim," commented George, openly admiring the hunting gear worn by the leader of the new arrivals. "Just look at that outfit! Lord Mandelson must have ordered it direct from the Imperial Court tailors."
Then he looked back at his prince, an arrested expression on his pale features. "Wait - Nick is frightened of Lord Mandelson, you say? And warned you against him?"
David had returned to an unnecessary, last-minute check of his equipment. "That's what he said," he returned briefly, testing the strength of the strap fastening his case of quarrels to his hunting saddle. Absently he patted Alexandros in reassurance when the big gelding flicked his ears in curiosity at this unaccustomed fidgeting about from his human, adding,
"I did not need a great deal of convincing, George. There is something very unpleasant about those three. And the way they hounded me at the ball...!"
Abruptly tiring of the conversation, he swung up into his saddle and gathered up his reins, preparing to move over to where the hunting party was gradually coming together, with much chat and laughter and the odd gruff order from an increasingly stressed Head Huntsman Redwood.
George stepped forward, putting a hand up to Alex's bridle. "I think Nick had the right of it, and that your instincts are good," he said seriously, crinkling his eyes against the sun as he looked up at his friend. "Bercow tells me that someone, or something, has been testing our wards of late. And whatever-it-is has a distinct taste of Imperial thaumaturgy about it.
"So be wary of those three while you're chasing down the game, my prince."
Then he made a conscious effort to throw off the serious mood that had descended on them both. "Though I doubt whether they can carry out their plans - if indeed they have any - in the middle of a hunt! You go and show everyone that our Prince is truly a prince among huntsmen, and I will see what I can discover about your lad from the members of their retinue. Not all servants are as close-mouthed as their masters, even in Imperial households."
David's unwontedly serious countenance lightened, and he chuckled. "Any excuse for a gossip, eh George?" he teased, then sobered. "That is an excellent thought; and thank you. You will get far more out of them than I would."
There was a shout from the glade and a burst of barking from the Castle Torai stag hounds and he gathered his reins once again. "Ah, we are finally about to leave it seems. Here's hoping for a successful afternoon, for both of us!"
Alexandros moved off to join the hunting party and within a very short span of time the seeming confusion of curvetting horses, chattering riders and excited hounds had resolved themselves into some kind of order and disappeared into the trees.
George turned towards the group of grooms and other servants that had arrived with Mandelson and his journeymen, already considering which approach would be best and which servant to speak to first. Given that they were not from the duchy they would not recognise him, and it was doubtful therefore that any of them would realise that he was of a higher social rank than they. Unlike the custom in Imperial society, Torai hunters usually dressed in the plainest and most functional of garments; in fact George was amused to notice that several members of Mandelson's retinue were better clad than he was!
He wandered across to where the Imperial grooms were tending to their masters' riding mounts and fell into easy conversation with the two or three undergrooms who appeared to have no immediate duties. Their charges, it transpired, were the hunters on which their master and his journeymen were currently out at hunt, and with little to do until the hunt returned to camp, the grooms - Tom, Jez, and a sturdy middle aged woman called Angela - were most willing to draw a cup or two of ale and spin a few yarns with this friendly outlander.
George was just beginning to move the conversation towards why their master had moved to Goldeagle in the first place, and from where, when a disturbance at the edge of the camp caught his attention.
A ragged figure atop a sturdy chestnut cob had been intercepted just short of the guard tent and was now arguing, with much waving of hands, with the lieutenant in charge of the prince's guard detail.
"Wha - why, isn't that the scullery brat?" demanded one of George's companions.
One of his companions looked across from watering the Mandelson horses. "Nah, don't be - why, you're right Tom, that's Ashface and no mistake. The uppity little bugger! What's he doing here -"
The guards had raised their bows by this time. George was relieved to see that with arrows poised and following his every move the rider was reluctantly dismounting, protest clear to see in every move of that skinny body.
Ther was a gusty sigh from the groom called Tom, who seemed to be the one in charge of their contingent.
"I'd better go and claim him before he gets us in any more trouble. Bastard little cinderface. Still, what do you expect from one of them Wandering Folk? Thieves and troublemakers the lot of them. When the master finds out he's here..."
There were nods of agreement as Tom reluctantly turned towards the fast-growing gathering of guards and curious onlookers, some sympathetic, but most of grim satisfaction at the unnamed punishment that the scullery boy was about to face, and with a brief word of farewell George fell in behind the Imperial groom, catching him up just as he reached the small crowd surrounding the boy.
"I, I have to speak to the Prince, it's important, I swear! He's in danger! Please, oh please, you must hear me out -" the boy's voice was unexpectedly educated, his accent far from that of a beggar or a peasant, and George, his interest now most definitely piqued, moved quietly away from Tom and into a position where he could see and hear without it being obvious he was doing so.
As soon as the boy 's bare feet had touched the ground he had been roughly seized by the guards and dragged willy-nilly, despite his lack of resistance, to face Lieutenant Hammond, the officer in charge, insisting all the while at the top of his voice that he be allowed to speak to the prince. Now Hammond's irritated bellow drowned out the youngster's huskier tones, forcibly silencing him.
"Ho! Important is it? Now what could a guttersnipe like you have to say to our prince that's so damned important! A likely story. And where did such a ragamuffin acquire such a mount? Stolen, I've no doubt -"
Before the lieutenant had quite reached full flow he was interrupted.
"Gentle sirs, my apologies. This...insolent brat is, I regret to say, of my Lord Mandelson's household."
When George turned to look the speaker was not Tom, who was still standing where George had left him (and who appeared most happy not to have to intervene, judging by the relieved expression on his broad face).
Just within the entrance to the camp, with his reins looped over one arm and a dejected-looking mount at his shoulder, was the taller of Mandelson's two journeymen. He looked over the scene before him, his mouth twisting scornfully, then moved forward, indicating to Tom to take his (clearly lame) horse.
The journeyman turned to the lieutenant. "Good sir, my name is Alastair, Senior Journeyman to my Lord Mandelson of Roseheim, once Chief Thaumaturge to the Imperial Court and now an Alderman of Goldeagle Freeport. I must apologise for this most unseemly incident. This.... creature is our scullery boy, a mere Wanderer's brat of no account who my lord took into his household out of compassion and charitable duty. It is to be regretted that, as with all his folk, he possesses no vestige of the civilised sentiments of gratitude or the most basic rudiments of honour. He is naught but a lout, a mere brute, lazy, dishonest and cowardly..."
George's black brows twitched together as he listened, seeing the ragamuffin's reaction. Watching the slow flush of shame spread across the boy's features, visible even through the grime and bruises which proclaimed the lad's lowly status more clearly than any words, and seeing how he kept his head proudly erect through the whole tirade, his chin high and his eyes on his master's face - no. That was no coward. And somehow George doubted the rest of it also. That half-starved, lanky body, dwarfed by the sturdy guards surrounding it and yet still unbowed... facing down his betters, taut with his desperation to warn Prince David of - something...
Abruptly George came to life and strode forward.
"Enough of this!" he snapped. "Lieutenant Hammond, bring the boy and come with me!"
"My lord -" began Journeyman Alastair, only to be waved impatiently to silence; a response which the tall Imperial found not to his liking in the slightest, judging by the way his mouth hardened, fury sparking in his eyes as he snapped his mouth shut on whatever he had been about to say.
Well, let him stew. George was no diplomat and no Great Lord either, but his close friendship with Prince David gave him an influence that was much greater than might be guessed from his family background, and he was well accustomed to making full use of that when he deemed it necessary.
As, for instance, when determining whether there was a threat to the Torai heir, and if so, what manner of threat it might be.
Once in the relative privacy of the Royal tent George seated himself deliberately in the Prince's ornate camp chair. Its high back and curved arms were distinctly reminiscent of a throne, which he hoped would send the right message.
The guards had followed him into the tent and were standing just in front of him, one each side of their prisoner, who looked... more impatient than intimidated, George noticed, a flicker of amusement breaking through his preoccupation with what the youngster had to tell him and whether any of it would be true. The Goldeagle lad was only a scullery boy, of course, and apparently a Wanderer at that. Presumably desperate to get away from what was obviously a bad master, who could blame him for making up a false tale which might earn him the gratitude of someone wealthy enough to buy him out of his situation!
George opened his mouth to order the boy to speak, but before he could utter a sound he was interrupted. The tent flap closing them off from the rest of the camp suddenly lifted, and the Imperial Journeyman walked in, grim-faced - and without so much as a by-your-leave!
Furious, George drew breath to demand why this intrusion...
... There was a sudden - flicker - of light and sound and air, as if the world had, had hiccuped, or jumped somehow...
... and suddenly there was no boy, and no Journeyman Alastair. Only Lieutenant Hammond and his guards, looking as confused as George felt, with an empty space between them and a half open tent flap behind.
"What -" began George furiously, before snapping his mouth shut on the angry explosion behind his teeth. There was a slight tingling in his fingertips and a rapidly fading buzz in his ears; he knew what that meant! They had all been Frozen in time. It wouldn't have lasted long, it was a spell that took a great deal of power and control even to cast for a few seconds, but then, a few seconds would have been all that was needed.
That Imperial Journeyman, it had to be. The gall of it, using magic in Blueforest lands, and on a member of the Ducal Court, without so much as a by-your-leave! The Duchess would be incandescent, as would Wizard Bercow, but George was more concerned over the Imperial's reasons for breaking all the rules of diplomatic protocol in the first place. That scullery boy must have had some genuine information, or why had the journeyman taken such drastic action to prevent him passing on what he knew?
And that meant that Prince David truly was in danger!
George exploded out of the tent, yelling for the captain of the guard. They had to find the Prince!
"I was cursing the ill-chance which lamed my horse at such an inopportune time," Alastair was saying to Nick at that very moment, holding Nick's arm in a grip so tight it was bruising to the bone. His tone was casual, the words light and seemingly cheerful, but Nick could see the cold fury burning in the taller man's eyes and was not fooled.
"There we were, all ready to go, and my horse fails me... which brings me back to camp just in time to prevent you betraying the whole plan! I had to show my own hand, of course, but my lord is still unknown, as is Charles. The Torai know nothing of them, and we hold Goldeagle in the palm of our hand. We can still do this. Truly fate smiled on us today..."
He was dragging Nick through the woods, towards the planned rendezvous with the pair who were to take charge of David.
At least David is safe for today, Nick found himself thinking as Alastair forced him onwards, stumbling over the rough forest floor and feeling the wrenching pain in his arm sharpen and grow with every step. And I'm sure George will realise that I must have been telling the truth, otherwise why go to such lengths to prevent me talking to him? But... oh, what will they do to me? Godfather, help! Please, if you can hear me, please...
No response, though the snuffbox tucked against Nick's ribs seemed to warm slightly when Nick thought of his Godfather.
Alastair strode on, his fury leading him to lengthen his stride, and Nick flinched, the uneven, debris-strewn ground bruising his bare feet as he was forced into a half-run by Alastair's tight grip pulling him along. He stumbled and nearly fell, and was unable to repress a cry of pain as his arm was twisted brutally high behind his back. Alastair snorted.
"Ach, such a coward! Sneaking around listening and spying behind our backs! Snivelling little traitor!" He shook his captive, then, suddenly losing his temper altogether, he threw Nick to the ground and began to beat him, venting all his pent-up anger and frustration on his captive.
Nick began to curl in on himself, to endure until the storm had passed as he had always done; and then, suddenly, he snapped. The slow-burning coals of his anger and frustration, fanned by a growing warmth from the snuffbox, burst into full-blown rage. With a yell of rage Nick sprang to his feet and attacked his tormentor, bony fists pummelling at Alastair in a passionate fury.
Alastair flinched and jumped back, caught completely unawares; then with a growl of angry contempt he dodged sideways, shouting an arcane phrase, and thrust one hand, glowing a dull crimson, at his assailant. The ball of energy flashed towards Nick - and dissipated in a shower of sparks even before he had time to duck!
With another shout, of triumph this time, Nick threw himself bodily at Alastair.
Both men crashed to the forest floor, scattering dead leaves and twigs in all directions, and the struggle recommenced, both men so absorbed in their fight that neither noticed others approaching.
"When you have both quite finished..."
There was no immediate reaction from the two men on the ground, and with an irritated sigh Lord Mandelson raised a hand, snapping out a phrase in a language that was certainly not Imperial.
A bright red, translucent barrier sprang into existence around Alastair, forcing the tall journeyman off the ground and back on to his feet, but Nick, still intent on hitting back at his longtime tormentor, simply scrambled up in his turn to fling himself once more into the fray.
With a grunt of surprise Mandelson repeated the phrase, aiming only at Nick this time, but the red glow flashed into existence only to sputter and disappear as Nick charged through it, eyes fixed on a now-apprehensive, retreating Alastair.
"Charles!" snapped Mandelson, shaking free of the surprise that had held him briefly motionless. The combative journeyman needed no further instruction; jumping forward from his position at his master's shoulder he grabbed Nick by the shoulders and hauled him off his fellow magician. Then, with Alastair's help, he twisted the struggling youth's arms behind his back and forced him round to face Lord Mandelson.
Mandelson's thin face seemed as calm as ever, but there was a tightness to his lips and his dark eyes were smouldering. Yet even as he drew breath to let loose his vicious tongue on his errant servant anger turned to puzzlement, then a cold curiosity.
"Now, just how did you escape the influence of my Control wand, hmm?" he murmured. "Indeed, I wonder how you were able to resist the Homing Bind and hamper our plans in so dramatic a way?... Gentlemen, it would seem there is more to our young scullery brat than meets the eye..."
"We can beat it out of the dirty thief sir! Spineless, like all Wanderer's get, he won't stay silent long - "
Mandelson held up one long-fingered, slender hand and Charles' flood of words dried immediately. Lifting his chin, Nick met Mandelson's eyes, defiance burning in his own.
"I am not your dog," he said, his voice remarkably calm for one who had been spitting with rage so short a time previously. "Your powers hold no sway over me, my lord."
"That is most clear," returned the other, even as his journeymen cried out in anger at Nick's insolence. "I find myself wondering... how? and why?..
"However, this is neither the time nor the place to discuss such ...matters."
The twist in his master's voice on the last word had Nick shivering, but Mandelson had turned away and, gesturing to his journeymen to follow, with Nick still held captive between them, he led the way to a small glade where Mandelson's and Charles' hunters were tethered, peacefully cropping at the sparse grass under the gaze of two men who Nick recognised immediately. Was it only that morning that he'd overheard them outside the stable window, as they discussed the plan to kidnap and bespell Prince David?
At least I stopped that, Nick thought, a hint of forlorn pride breaking through his foreboding. And Lord Osborne is warned now... surely he'll take precautions, he believed me, at least a little - he was willing to listen, he snubbed Alistair -
Lord Mandelson was snapping orders.
"Alastair, return immediately to the hunting camp, retrieve the rest of our party, and return here. You must make your own way," he added to the two Imperials. "You will receive your payment -less the bonus for completion of the contract, naturally - in Goldeagle."
The pair looked a little sullen at this but neither seemed inclined to argue, and their employer turned to Charles, still holding tightly on to Nick and gleefully inflicting painful punishment whenever his prisoner attempted to break free.
"Charles, you are responsible for this -" he gestured disdainfully at Nick "- and for getting him back to Cowley St. Do not let him escape, and do not attempt any coercion spells, for they are clearly ineffective. And most especially do NOT damage him or attempt any physical chastisement; however tempted you might be!"
Charles scowled and seemed about to argue, but Alastair hastily intervened, "Have you seen Fae influence about him, my lord? I am sure I detected some hints of such. Is that why he is able to resist us?"
His master nodded curtly. "It is. I am relieved that at least one of my journeymen is willing to use his wits! Really Charles, did you not see the manner in which our spells collapsed as soon as they struck their target? That is obviously Fae work. Precisely what that influence might be, and why it has been activated in the brat's defence - is something I fully intend to look into... once we are all in my bespelled and shielded study, behind the strongest arcane walls I can muster!
"Until then we treat the lout as if he were made of purest spun glass - do I make myself clear?"
Charles' scowl had lifted as he listened; now he nodded vigorously and shifted his grip on Nick's arms to a more secure and less painful one. "Alastair, see if you can find some rope at the camp," the stocky journeyman suggested. "It will serve to secure him to a saddle for the journey."
With a nod of acknowledgement, Alastair disappeared back towards the hunting camp, while Lord Mandelson mounted his horse and turned it towards home. The rest of the group settled down to wait.
I hope the camp is buzzing like an overturned beehive! The thought went through Nick's head. If Lord Osborne believed me - and I think, I hope he did - then our disappearance, and especially Alistair's spell... oh, I hope they catch Alastair red-handed!
But a little later the sound of voices and the rattle of tack told Nick that his hopes were in vain. When Alastair entered the clearing his handsome face looked flushed and angry, and the grooms following him seemed more than a little agitated. Judging by the snatches of conversation Nick overheard, as he was pushed onto Pepper and tied firmly into the saddle despite his struggles to escape, the hunting camp was in considerable disarray. As visiting 'foreigners', though, Alastair had been able to talk the Mandelson party past the soldiers and camp guards by emphasising his master's wealth and power and high rank in Goldeagle society.
So... no help for Nick from that quarter.
Nick shivered again as he remembered the cold curiosity glinting in Lord Mandelson's dark eyes. Once Mandelson's curiosity had been roused he would not rest until it was satisfied... and what then? What would happen when he discovered the snuffbox - for Nick could not imagine that he would be able to keep it secret for long, in fact he was truly astonished that it had not yet been discovered, in all that had happened that day. Mandelson would take possession of it, of course. That went without saying. But would that alert his godfather to what had happened? Would he come rushing to Nick's defence, or would he (and Nick had a sinking dread that this was the more likely; for after all, who was he that a Fae should help him?) shrug and return to his Fae doings, and dismiss the snuffbox and his godson as no longer his concern?
Nick knew Mandelson's study very well indeed. When it had belonged to his guardian the bookshelves had been piled high with books and scrolls and sheets of papyrus. The small areas of wall not covered by those shelves had been crowded with maps old and new, paintings and drawings of curiosities from far away, and everywhere - on desks and tables and cabinets, stuffed into chests and dropped carelessly in corners - had been objects strange and intricate, exotic and beautiful, that Master Merchant Ashdown had accumulated in a lifetime's wanderings across the great seas and oceans. The very air had been scented with the tang of exotic spices and strange scents, and the sun had poured through the great window that had formed one whole wall to fill the room with golden light, displaying its wonders for any visitor to see and marvel at.
Mandelson had made many changes. The shelves were just as crowded, but the books and scrolls were far older. Some of the larger tomes had their own padlocks, others were chained shut. The curios of past voyages were long gone, and instead the tables and cabinets bore the tools and instruments of Mandelson's trade; curiously formed cups and bowls of wood and stone and metal, rods of crystal or rare woods, daggers both plain and ornate. A great crystal globe on a stand glimmered in one corner, and intricate instruments of brass and silver and other, less identifiable metals were everywhere. Green and purple fire burned in a metal bowl with no clear fuel providing the flame, and in the very centre of the room, surrounded by a floor-painted multi-coloured design of a five-pointed star inside a circle, was a waist high block of stone with a dark, stained depression in the top and bronze rings on either side.
The great window was covered by heavy dark crimson brocade curtains which were always drawn, leaving the room to be lit by the flickering light of the fire - which Nick had laid and lit almost every morning these past years, save on the hottest of summer days - and by the magickal lanterns dispersed around the walls. These provided a bright, white illumination, bathing their surroundings in a pitiless glare and throwing sharp-edged, dark shadows that reminded Nick of the shadows he had seen on the stable wall when the snuffbox had done... something... to Ashdown's letter. As he was manhandled into the centre of the circle inscribed in the floor he eyed those shadows uneasily, wondering whether they too would come to life, and if they did, whether the snuffbox would be able to restrain them, here at the heart of Mandelson's power.
Charles removed the rope binding Nick's wrists, replacing it with heavy bronze manacles whose chains he fastened to the rings on the sides of the stone block. As he felt the cold metal dig into his skin Nick could not help jerking futilely at his bonds, and Charles gave a harsh laugh.
"You won't get out of those in a hurry, ashface. Fight all you want though, it will be entertaining!"
Stepping back he left the prisoner alone, standing in the circle next to what Nick was convinced was an altar, and one dedicated to no beneficent power. He tugged at the chain once more, with no more success than the first time, then, with a quick look around to ensure that he was still on his own, he set one foot against the altar and tried a long, steady pull. Pausing at intervals to rest and ease his arms and shoulders, he pulled at the chain with all the strength he had, until his muscles were cracking and he was almost dizzy with the effort. He was not going to wait quietly here for whatever fate Lord Mandelson had in store for him! The long nightmare of the wizard's enchantment had finally been dispelled, and he would fight to his last breath to keep free of it!
Tug... release. Tug.... release. He was just beginning to feel a flicker of hope, seeing some small movement in the staple fastening the chain to the stone, when the study door opened and Lord Mandelson entered, followed by his journeymen.
Nick quickly straightened up, letting go of the chain, but the wizard had clearly seen what he had been trying to do for a sardonic smile flickered across his thin features. "So, there is still some spirit left in you, boy. Of course there is. That is your Wanderer's blood. Ungovernable and unruly, just like the rest of your kind. Well, let us see if we can tame you!
"Charles... Alastair. To your places. A simple scrying spell first, I think..."
The two moved to positions around the edge of the circle, both careful not to cross the inscribed lines on the floor. Nick watched in silence as their master closed his eyes, breathed out and in, and intoned a series of meaningless - to Nick - syllables, moving his hands in an upward motion as if lifting something.
The inscribed circle began to glow a pure carmine red, brightening to a steady radiance... and then that radiance flashed briefly brighter. Curved walls sprang into being, following the lines of the circle on the floor, and suddenly Nick was standing in a hazy, red-tinged dome that seemed as fragile as a soap bubble. The top was just above his head; had his hands been free, he could have reached out and touched it, but he was not sure that would be the wise thing to do. These, presumably, were the 'wards' which Mandelson had mentioned...
... his surmise was confirmed mere moments later, when Mandelson opened his eyes and, after studying his work with narrow-eyed concentration, nodded once, a satisfied air about him.
"The wards are stable," he stated. "Charles, how do I know this?"
As Charles, with some hesitation and fumbling, began to answer the question, Nick set his teeth. He was being used as a, a teaching aid! Damn them -
After Alastair too had been asked a question concerning the creation of the wards, Mandelson turned his attention back to the silent captive standing inside the circle.
"Now, gentlemen, " he said coolly. "Let us see what we can see. Alastair!"
"A scrying spell, the most powerful you can cast, if you please."
Alastair nodded, a determined expression settling over his face, and began to incant in a calm, commanding tone. Charles looked relieved rather than resentful, Nick noticed, and a flicker of amusement briefly lightened his dread. The whole household knew that Alastair was by far the more talented of the two journeymen and that Charles was jealous of his colleague's talent, but on this occasion the younger man seemed thankful rather than resentful!
As for the scrying spell... good luck with that, Nick thought, unable to resist cocking his head in challenge at Alastair. The journeyman saw the gesture, and anger flared through the concentration on his face, but although his voice sharpened and his whole body tensed with temper, he did not lose control of his spell.
With a final cry in Imperial of "As I will it, so it must be!" Alastair thrust out one hand in a complicated, twisting gesture, fingers spread wide, and a flare of dull crimson flashed across the space between them, passing through the wards as if they were nought but the soap bubble they resembled.
Nick was unable to stop himself ducking away, even though he was hopeful that the snuffbox would protect him as it had earlier. His confidence proved well-founded. The eerie glow scattered just before it struck him, disappearing in a spray of red and crimson sparks.
"-Do not break the wards!"
A furious Alastair had started forward from his position at the edge of the circle, but his master's snapped order stopped him in his tracks and he settled quickly back into place, his face sullen and flushed with humiliation.
"Dear me. So, Alastair, perhaps your skills are not so great after all?"
Mandelson's silky voice had Alastair flushing an even deeper red. He made no attempt to reply, contenting himself with glaring at the source of his humiliation and leaving Nick in no doubt of the fate in store for him if he was ever left to Alastair's tender mercies... he shivered but made himself meet Alastair's furious eyes, refusing to let himself be intimidated. He could fight back now, he reminded himself. He wasn't bound by his master's enchantments any more, he could fight, he could run... he was no longer their slave.
Thanks to the snuffbox, warm and comforting at his waist.
Mandelson was studying him, narrow-eyed. Nick shifted uncomfortably and looked away, feeling as if those cold dark eyes were spearing into him, searching out all thoughts of his Godfather's gift like a hound on the scent... then the enchanter took a small hide bag from his pocket and, with a few words in that strange, guttural tongue which was like no language Nick had ever heard, emptied its contents into his hand and tossed them into the air.
A cloud of silvery, sandlike motes flew upwards and floated for a moment as if confused; then they drifted slowly but inexorably towards Nick's captive figure in a swirling, glittering cloud of dust. Mandelson began to chant, and after a moment the other two joined him, the chant growing in volume as the dust cloud approached its target.
Nick tried to back up, only to be brought up short by the chains about his wrists. Tugging futilely at his manacles Nick ducked and twisted away, but the cloud did not touch him. Instead, as the chanting grew faster and the voices harsher, the cloud stopped just short of his chest, then assumed a snakelike shape which whirled round him in a spiral from his head down to his feet. Then it spun back, shifted, and reformed into a spear, pointing straight at his waist, where the snuffbox was tucked into his shirt.
Nick felt the snuffbox - he was sure he wasn't imagining it - start to pulse, hot/cold, hot/cold. Every time that glittering spear of silver dust made a dart at where the box lay hidden, he felt a flare of heat; and was there a suggestion of anger about that heat? He thought so...
"So. The brat has a magical talisman, of Fae make. Now where did he get that...?" Mandelson's voice sounded tired but satisfied, and there was no sign of fatigue in his face or body. His journeymen, on the other hand, were sagging where they stood, and their faces were flushed and sheened with sweat.
"Stolen, I'll wager," muttered Charles in response to his master's musing, then turned an even deeper red as Mandelson barked out a brief, scornful laugh.
"Not even the most accomplished thief - and you know as well as I that this lout is accomplished at nothing that requires any skill or wit - can steal a Fae-made talisman! It stays with its owner and will brook no attempts to remove it by force or trickery. Do at least try to still that tongue of yours Charles, at least until you have given some forethought to what you are saying!"
"Some memento of his guardian, perhaps, that he has but recently found?" volunteered Alastair.
Nick concentrated on staying still and silent, watching and listening and refusing to succumb to the flare of exultation which washed through him at the news that no-one could take the snuffbox from him without his consent. It wouldn't be that simple; it never was, with Lord Mandelson...
"That is possible," Alistair's master nodded. "It matters not. He has it, and we cannot take it. Neither can we kill him, or send him through a Gate to the Other Place as I could do with a rival, say, for the Fae will know. And their revenge would be swift, extreme, and very final. So... he must be silenced, but without physical harm to him or to the talisman.
"A pretty problem, is it not? And yet I think I have the solution. Alastair, is the Red Rose still in port?"
Alastair looked confused but answered with commendable speed, "She sails on the dawn tide tomorrow."
Why had Mandelson wanted to know that?
Nick watched apprehensively as Mandelson snapped a series of orders which had his journeymen mixing three potions to banish their fatigue before making a series of preparations. At the edge of the wards surrounding the captive, another series of shapes formed, painted by Charles under Mandelson's demanding eye while Alastair ground a number of substances into dust, putting them into small bowls, setting them alight and placing them, with finicking care, at very precise points on Charles' sigils. When all was done Mandelson examined the completed work and gave one short nod of approbation, and both journeymen relaxed, exchanging looks of relief before hastening to their new positions at points of the new design.
Now what? Nick wondered. What was Mandelson going to do now? He'd already said he couldn't force Nick to give up the snuffbox, and neither could he kill him, or force him from the world in some other, wizardly fashion... and as long as Nick had the snuffbox Mandelson couldn't control him. Oh, godfather, Nick couldn't help thinking, If only you'd told me that from the beginning! I could be with David right now - all this would be over -
His thoughts were interrupted. Mandelson was standing tall, one arm held up, holding a crystal rod skywards while the other arm pointed towards the earth, a rod of intricately-worked metal in its hand, and all Nick's senses came alert. He knew that pose, it was one all magicians used for a major magickal working... and the journeymen were in the same pose!
Oh no. Mandelson was going to use all his power, and all of his journeymen's too; what would that do to Nick? To the snuffbox... what if Mandelson proved the more powerful -
Mandelson began to incant, the words pouring from him in a powerful voice which echoed round the room until Nick could hear nothing else. He could see the journeymen's mouths opening and shutting, but no hint of their voices came to him through the thunder of Mandelson's... and something was indeed happening!
Nick's gaze jerked up, to the top of the hazy, soap bubble dome in which he was standing. Just below the peak, just above his head, a dark, sullenly glowing cloud was gathering. As the chanting continued it expanded, rolling turbulently about and striking against the wards as if trying to escape, and growing more agitated as its path was blocked.
A bead of sweat ran down Mandelson's face and he raised his voice, the crystal rod quivering slightly as he poured himself into the spell. The dark cloud sank a little and grew less turbulent, but continued to grow until it was about the size of a yearling lamb, rolling and swirling above Nick.
Nick stared upwards, fascinated and repelled all at once. He fancied he could see shapes moving and dancing in the darkly-glowing vapour, shapes which menaced and attracted in equal measure. One hand found its way to his waist and he clutched at the snuffbox through his shirt, hoping forlornly that it would save him from whatever this cloud-thing was going to do...
With one last shout Mandelson completed his incantation and thrust both rods out towards the cloud, then brought them down in a sweeping motion over Nick's body. Instantly, instinctively, Nick dropped to his knees and crouched down, covering his head with his manacled arms. He held still, waiting for he knew not what, feeling coolness flow down and across him. But it was coolness only; there was no touch of anything material, even so insubstantial a thing as water. Only that gentle breeze across his skin...
Blinking, he found the courage from somewhere to open his eyes and look about him. The cloud was gone as if it had never been. Mandelson was eyeing him with an air of immense satisfaction. The journeymen were hanging on to each other to stay upright and breathing as hard as if they had been taking part in a race. And Nick?
Nick slowly straightened up, puzzled. He felt no different, now that coolness had faded he felt just as he had before. What had that, that cloud-thing done to him?
Then he caught sight of his hands out of the corner of his eye and stared down at them, astounded.
Those arms; dark, broad, muscled, smooth... those were not his arms! The hands were long-fingered and narrow rather than his own square, work-scarred pair. Wonderingly he put his hands up to his face, but it felt just the same as always -
"The lout does not seem to understand what has happened to him. Natural, in one so slow of wit... show him, Charles."
Mandelson's gloating voice snapped Nick's attention back to his surroundings, and he saw Charles approaching with a mirror. The journeyman hesitated as he approached the wards, and his master sighed impatiently and nodded to Alastair to disperse them with a few words and a quick gesture of one rather drooping hand.
Then Charles held the mirror up in front of Nick.
It was an utterly strange and foreign face which looked back at him. Young, as he was, but darker, high-cheekboned and pointed-chinned, and with coarse, straight black hair above eyes that were almost black. That face looked as if it had been burnt by a sun far stronger than Goldeagle's, and the features bore no resemblance to any Traveller that Nick had ever seen.
"It is a visual illusion only, created just above the surface of your body and not actually touching your skin; so of course your talisman does not protect you." came Mandelson's gloating tones. "The other senses are not involved, but then they don't need to be. No-one will recognise my insolent lout of a pot boy or be interested in what you have to say... especially not where you're going."
And he smiled.