This is the first draft so, as always, comments are welcome <grin>
Gwyneth took a deep breath as she walked along the edge of her family’s farm, tasting sand in the air as the wind blew across the fields. Her footsteps crunched on sand blown in from the desert, slowly strangling the life out of the farm. The field below her was already dying, the corn turning a sickly yellow as it died of thirst. It wouldn’t be long, she knew despite her father’s boundless optimism, before the farm died, before her family had to take flight and head west. If they were lucky, they would be able to find work on another farm; if they were unlucky …
She gritted her teeth as she reached the boundary marker at the end of the farm. The sandstorm in the distance was blowing closer, but she could still make out the remains of an older farm. Her best friend had lived there, only two years ago; now, the girl and her family were sharecroppers, slaves in all but name, on a farm further to the west. Gwyneth and her family might go the same way, if they were unlucky. The thought of giving up their freedom was appalling, but there was no other way to survive.
And I may be married off, she thought, numbly. Forced into someone’s bed to keep my family alive.
She felt a pang of bitter regret, mixed with sadness and grim understanding. Tom had come to pay court to her – she’d known him long enough to believe he would make a good husband – but his father had vetoed the match. Gwyneth’s family was on the brink, he’d said, when Tom had asked for his blessing. He didn’t want to have to take them in, let alone feed and care for them … and he would have been obliged to take care of them, if Gwyneth had become his daughter-in-law. Gwyneth wanted to hate him for forbidding the match, but she was a farm girl. She understood the logic all too well. Tom and his father couldn’t support an entire family, if – when – they were forced off their farm. The entire region was dying and no one gave a damn.
The wind picked up speed, just for a moment. She covered her eyes, cursing under her breath as sand blew against her face. Nothing, no matter what they did, seemed to be enough to keep the sand off their fields. She spent half of her days clearing the land, only to see the sand blow back time and time again. The water wells were already drying up. It wouldn’t be long before they had to leave. Already, agents from further to the west were prowling around, looking to see what starving families might have to sell. And with dozens of families on the brink of total disaster, it was a buyer’s market.
She peered into the distance, her eyes seeking out the abandoned farmhouse. They’d stripped it bare, of course, once the farm had been surrendered, leaving only the shell of a building in the hopes that – one day – someone would return to the fields. But she knew, as the sand blew around the farmhouse, that it was a futile hope. The fields had been strangled so quickly, once the farmers had left, that there was nothing left but endless sand. She’d once played in those fields as a little girl, back when the land had been green and wet. Now …
Her father had forbidden her to walk into the desert. But he needn’t have bothered. There was something about the sand that scared her, something that chilled her to the bone, even though she couldn’t have put it in words. No one went into the Desert of Death willingly, not even the bravest man in the village. There were too many strange stories of things lurking in the sand.
And something was moving within the sandstorm. Gwyneth stared, unsure if her eyes were playing tricks on her. There was nothing out there, but abandoned buildings and dead fields, now buried under layer after layer of sand. Animals shied from the desert, refusing to go near the sand. And yet, there was definitely something moving within the sandstorm. She watched shapes within the sand, strange figures that seemed to be coming closer. Surely, nothing could survive out there …
The sandstorm receded, just for a second. Gwyneth froze in horror as she saw the men advancing towards the farm, towards her. They were men, but they weren’t men. Their faces were twisted and warped, their eyes bulging or their faces twisted and mutilated … a handful had animalistic eyes or legs. And there were hundreds of them, an entire army advancing out of the sandstorm, carrying swords and spears and weapons she didn’t recognise. Her family had no weapons. They weren’t allowed to carry anything more dangerous than a knife.
She turned to flee, too late. Strong arms caught her before she’d run more than a couple of metres, knocking her to the ground. Gwyneth was hardly weak – she’d been working on the farm almost from the moment she could walk – but resistance was futile. The man – or the creature – holding her had skin like rock. She was plucked off the ground and slung over its shoulder as easily as she would pick up and carry a knapsack. It was hard to see anything as the creatures swarmed onwards, but she saw enough to know they were storming the farmhouse and tearing the farm apart … she heard, just for a second, a scream torn from a very familiar throat before it stopped abruptly. Her father was dead.
Her head swam as the creature carried her onwards, its comrades surging into the village and smashing through the buildings. There was hardly any resistance – how could there be? The villagers had no weapons either. She was carried through the village, then dumped unceremoniously in the middle of the square with a handful of other prisoners. Once, she’d prayed to the gods there; now, now she wondered if she would die in the square.
“Sit,” the creature grunted. “Stay.”
Gwyneth glared at its retreating back, then looked around in hopes of finding a way to escape. But there was nothing. An endless stream of creatures was making its way out of the desert and heading west. It wouldn’t be long before they reached the nearest town, then the nearest city … the king would send soldiers, surely? But the soldiers might not be able to stop the creatures. All they seemed to be good for, these days, was bullying farmers and demanding tax. And more tax. And …
She glanced at the other prisoners, feeling cold. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason – there were old men and young men, old women and young women – and it puzzled her, more than she cared to admit. Youngsters made good slaves, if the creatures wanted slaves; oldsters weren’t worth keeping alive, not now their village was gone. And yet …
A man stalked past her, his eyes crawling over the prisoners as he silently counted them. He looked reassuringly normal, yet there was something in his eyes that terrified her. She lowered her eyes, but watched him as best as she could. Who was he? What was he doing with the creatures? What were they?
He reached into his pocket and produced a sheet of parchment and a pen, then wrote something down. Gwyneth frowned, trying to understand what he was doing. Was he a slaver, recording the useful prisoners? Or was he up to something else? She had no way to know. She’d never been taught how to read or write.
“On your feet,” the man ordered, returning his parchment to his pocket. He jabbed a finger westwards. “March.”
Gwyneth stood, then assisted one of the older women to stand. Maybe they had been enslaved after all. Or maybe … gritting her teeth, she began to stumble west, helping the old woman to walk. There was no way to escape, not yet. They were surrounded by an entire army of monsters. All she could do was follow orders …
… And pray, desperately, for a chance to escape.
“Are you out of your mind?”
“No, Grandmaster,” Sergeant Miles said. “I believe there is no other choice.”
Grandmaster Gordian didn’t look happy. Miles wasn’t surprised, not really. Gordian might be a stiff-minded bureaucrat, powerful magician or not, but he took his responsibilities seriously. And with his school in disarray, following the near-collapse of the pocket dimensions, the Grandmaster had too many other things on his plate.
“You intend to take a fifth-year student to the wars,” Gordian said. “Is that correct?”
“Yes, sir,” Miles said. It spoke well of Gordian, Miles supposed, that the Grandmaster wasn’t prepared to just let Emily go. He didn’t like her – he’d made that clear – but he wasn’t willing to send her into danger. “She is no ordinary student.”
Gordian’s face darkened. To him, Emily would always be a dangerous student. Miles understood, but life was dangerous. No one, not even a Lone Power, could guarantee their own safety. And Whitehall, on the front lines between the Allied Lands and the Blighted Lands, was far from safe. Miles knew, deep inside, just how close the school had come to utter disaster, four years ago. Emily had saved them all from a fate worse than death.
“Politics,” Gordian said, finally. He looked up. “I know better than to think this was your idea.”
“General Pollack requested her specifically,” Miles said.
“And it would be politic to grant his request,” Gordian said. “He is her future father-in-law, is he not?”
“If the courtship comes to a successful conclusion,” Miles said. Formal courtships were relatively rare. He was surprised, more surprised than he cared to admit, that Caleb had opened one with Emily. He’d met Caleb’s mother, years ago. She hadn’t struck him as a strict traditionalist. “But I believe he wants the Necromancer’s Bane.”
Gordian’s face darkened. “Does he?”
“Yes, sir,” Miles said. “And he has called in a number of political favours.”
“Of course he has,” Gordian said, dryly.
He leaned back in his chair. “You do realise this will harm her education? She may have to repeat fifth year just to make up for it?”
And you don’t want Emily hanging around for another three years, Miles thought, sardonically. Gordian had tried – hard – to find grounds for expelling Emily, rather than allow her to return to Whitehall after his predecessor had died. The quicker she graduates and leaves, the better.
“I will offer her private tuition over the summer, if she needs it,” Miles said. “And I believe Barb will do the same. If worst comes to worst, she can sit the remedial exams before sixth years begins. It isn’t an ideal solution, but it will have to do.”
“She won’t like that,” Gordian predicted.
Miles nodded. Emily was one of the most studious students in Whitehall, yet even she wouldn’t want to spend her entire summer trying to catch up with the rest of the class. It wasn’t uncommon for students to retake entire years, if they failed their exams, but it would be humiliating. And with Emily’s rather … odd … status, retaking a year would probably reflect badly on her.
Gordian tapped the desk, meaningfully. “You may ask her,” he said, flatly. “No tricks, no games … just a simple request. If she chooses not to go, you are not to force her. And I suggest you clear it with her father first.”
Miles nodded, feeling a flicker of grudging respect. The temptation to just order Emily to go to Tarsier had to be overpowering. It would have gotten her out of the school, with no blame attached to the Grandmaster. And if Emily happened to get herself killed … somehow, he doubted Gordian would spend overlong mourning her. A student like Emily was always a mixed blessing at best.
He pushed the thought out of his mind. “I will ask her,” he said. He had no intention of trying to manipulate the girl. Lady Barb would cut off his unmentionables if he tried. “And I will … attempt … to communicate with Void.”
“Very good,” Gordian said. “Ask him first. She is still under his authority.”
Miles shrugged. Only a handful of people knew Emily’s real origins and Gordian wasn’t one of them. Void … had played along, when people had started to conclude that Void was Emily’s father. It would hardly be out of character for Void to hide the existence of a daughter, then send her to school as soon as she turned sixteen. And he’d even sent her on a dragon …
And he is her legal guardian, he thought. He rather doubted that Emily understood all the implications, but it wasn’t his place to discuss such matters with her. She does need his permission to go.
“She will be my apprentice, if she chooses to come,” Miles said. He had no illusions. It was not going to be a comfortable experience. “She will be under my protection.”
Gordian looked displeased, but he said nothing. Miles didn’t really blame him. It was unusual for anyone to take on an apprenticeship before completing their sixth year, although some students occasionally managed to jump ahead. And yet, having Emily listed as an apprentice, if only for a few months, would make life easier. He would have grounds to teach her spells and tricks that weren’t normally discussed with students. But then, Emily was no ordinary student.
“Take care of her,” Gordian said. “And good luck.”
Miles nodded curtly, although he knew that they would need more than mere luck. The reports were grim. This was no raid, no attempt to capture prisoners for the necromancers … this was an all-out invasion. The necromancers had been quiet, since Shadye’s death, but few had believed it would last. And now the cold war had finally come to an end. If Tarsier fell, the Allied Lands would face attacks on three fronts …
And if the necromancers have finally managed to learn to cooperate, he thought as he headed for the door, it could be the beginning of the end.
Emily snapped awake.
Her mind raced. She’d been enspelled … she’d let herself be enspelled. And then … her head felt hazy, her memories slightly jumbled. It wasn’t uncommon, if magic was used to stun an unwilling victim, but … she pushed the thought aside as she tried to move and discovered she couldn’t. Her hands were tied – tightly – behind her back.
No magic, she reminded herself sternly.
She forced herself to concentrate, silently assessing the situation. Her hands and ankles were tied so tightly they were starting to go numb, while … something … covered her head. It felt more like a piece of sackcloth than a blindfold, she thought … she stuck out her tongue and felt rough sacking, far too close to her skin for comfort. Someone hadn’t just tied her up, she realised as she tested her bonds. They’d made escape practically impossible without magic.
No magic, she reminded herself, again.
She gritted her teeth as she rubbed her head against the hard wooden floor. The room was warm, alarmingly warm. Sweat trickled down her back as she tried to remove the sackcloth, just so she could see, but it was tied loosely around her neck. Panic bubbled at the back of her mind as the room started to grow warmer … where was she? Somewhere in Whitehall or Blackhall? She sniffed the air and shuddered, helplessly, as she tasted smoke. Was the entire building on fire? She listened, carefully, but heard nothing beyond the beating of her own heart. A spell could easily make the air smell of smoke …
And yet, the room was growing warmer.
She twisted her body, trying to weaken her bonds, but it was futile. Sergeant Miles and Lady Barb had taught her all sorts of tricks to escape captivity, yet whoever had tied her up was clearly an expert. She couldn’t budge the knots, no matter how hard she struggled. And she didn’t dare try to roll over without knowing the layout of the room. For all she knew, there was a bottomless pit right next to her. Or a fire …
Emily started. Someone was calling for her. The voice was muffled, the sackcloth making it hard to tell who was calling, but there was someone out there. She lifted her legs and banged them on the floor, hoping the sound would attract her rescuer. Perhaps it was unwise to draw attention to herself, she thought a moment too late, but she was already tied and helpless … as long as she didn’t use magic. She knew a dozen spells that could get her out of the trap, yet she didn’t dare use them.
“Emily,” the voice said, again. Emily heard footsteps, then felt strong fingers untying the rope around her neck. “Found you!”
The bag came free. Emily found herself staring up at Frieda, the younger girl’s face streaked with sweat. She was lying on the floor in a small room, utterly barren save for the wooden door. Frieda plucked a knife out of her belt and sliced through the bonds on Emily’s ankles, then freed Emily’s hands. Her ponytails bobbed alarmingly as she helped Emily to her feet, muttering a spell to help soothe the pain. Emily’s legs felt utterly unreliable.
“We have to get out of here,” Frieda said, half-carrying Emily towards the door. “The whole place is on fire.”
Emily stopped as they stumbled out of the door. Flames were clearly visible down the corridor, licking at the wooden floor. She glanced down at her feet, wondering if the floor was going to catch fire soon … or simply collapse, plunging them into the flames. If the entire building was on fire … Frieda yanked her down the corridor, dragging her towards the stairs. Emily caught sight of a portrait hanging on the wall, an aristocratic-looking man with a mouth set in a permanent sneer, a moment before it exploded into flames. The stairwell was on fire.
“Crap,” Frieda said.
Emily’s mind raced. There were spells they could use to protect themselves, but the odd flickers of colour amidst the flames suggested that they were magic. The spells might not be enough to keep them alive. And the air was already starting to thicken … she ducked down, trying to stay low. If the smoke wasn’t rising … perhaps the smoke was magic too.
Frieda caught her hand. “This way …”
Emily nodded and followed her further down the corridor. If they were in Blackhall – and she was sure of it, now – they should be able to find another stairwell and get down to the ground floor. But it was growing hotter and hotter … she heard the floor creak, an instant before it started to collapse, sending them plummeting downwards into the flames. Frieda gasped out a protective spell, then tried to levitate them both into the air. But the levitation spell gave out a second later …
Frieda threw a pressure spell downwards, cushioning the fall. Emily’s mind raced, searching for mundane options. If they couldn’t use magic … if she couldn’t use magic … there were other options. But what?
“Water,” she gasped. It was growing hard to breathe. A water spell might not work in the local environment. Perhaps … “Cast breathing spells, then …”
She glanced up, alarmed, as a chunk of debris fell from high above, landing far too close to them for comfort. Frieda yanked her forward, waving her free hand desperately to cast spells as she pulled Emily down the corridor. The entire building was creaking loudly, on the verge of total collapse … the roof shuddered, more and more pieces of debris crashing down around them, one smashing into Frieda’s wards and disintegrating into a sheet of flame. Emily nearly cast a protective spell of her own as Frieda’s wards weakened, the temperature rising steadily. They were about to die …
Frieda dragged her through a door, then froze. The room was small, utterly empty save for a window looking out over the forest. Emily peered through, then swore. They were on the third floor, at least. Given time, she was sure they could climb down and make their escape, but they didn’t have time. She wasn’t even sure if they could open the window before it was too late.
“Hang on,” Frieda said.
Emily sensed the wave of magic, an instant before the younger girl wrapped her arms around Emily and held her tight. She closed her eyes as the world lurched around her, something crashing into the wards hard enough to weaken them badly. Frieda screamed as they flew through the air and hit the ground, the magic protecting them lasting badly long enough to save them from the impact. And then the temperature dropped rapidly …
“Ouch,” Frieda said.
Emily opened her eyes. She was lying in the snow, Frieda lying on top of her. Their eyes met, just for a second, then Frieda rolled off her and sat up. She looked utterly exhausted, her face paler than usual. Emily gathered herself, then stood and undid her hair. It just didn’t feel right to tie her long hair into a bun.
“Well done,” she said. She helped Frieda to her feet, then turned to look at Blackhall. The old house was wrapped in flame, but the fire didn’t seem to be doing any real damage. “You made it.”
“In the nick of time,” Frieda said. It was clear she could barely stand. Emily wrapped an arm around her to hold her upright. “Do you think we would have been burned?”
“Of course,” Sergeant Miles said.
Emily jumped. The sergeant had been right behind them … and they’d missed him? Lady Barb would be furious, when she heard. And she would hear, Emily knew. She’d certainly heard the lecture often enough. Letting someone sneak up behind you was asking for a knife in the back. She turned slowly, supporting Frieda. Sergeant Miles smiled at them both.
He didn’t look like an army officer – or a sergeant. Or, at least, he’d never matched her conception of what a sergeant should look like. He was short, with short brown hair and a friendly face … a face she knew she could trust. But she also knew he was a combat sorcerer with more experience than most of the other teachers put together. A very dangerous man hid behind his friendly smile.
“The flames wouldn’t have killed you,” he assured them. “But yes, you would have been burnt.”
Frieda shivered against Emily. “Did I pass?”
Sergeant Miles looked back at her. “Did you?”
“Yes,” Frieda said, stubbornly. “I got Emily out of the building.”
“You also smashed a hole in the wall,” Sergeant Miles pointed out.
Frieda twitched. “The objective was to get her out before it was too late,” she said, before Emily could say a word. “You didn’t say anything about how I was to get her out.”
The Sergeant smiled. “True enough,” he said. “You pass. And congratulations.”
He turned. “Jove!”
Emily glanced behind him as the third student stepped into view. Jove was in Frieda’s year, a young man with dark skin and green eyes. She barely knew him, beyond Frieda’s comment that he’d asked her out several times. He never seemed to give up.
“Take Frieda to the infirmary and make sure she gets some sleep,” Sergeant Miles ordered, shortly. “And then report back to the Armoury.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” Jove said. He held out an arm for Frieda. “I’ll take her at once.”
Emily hesitated, then let go of Frieda. Jove wouldn’t do anything stupid, she thought; Frieda might be drained, but she was hardly incapable of defending herself. And besides, Sergeant Miles would take a very dim view of anything stupid. Friendly or not, Emily knew she wouldn’t want to do anything to risk his displeasure.
She watched the couple walk off, then looked at the sergeant. “I don’t like being the damsel in distress.”
“No one does,” Sergeant Miles said. He snapped his finger at her. “Remember.”
Emily winced in pain as she felt a spell – a spell she hadn’t even known was there – flicker and fade into nothingness. Her memories returned a second later … she’d agreed to serve as the victim, she’d agreed to refrain from using magic … she’d … her head swam, just for a second. She hated spells that affected her mind.
“You didn’t have to use the spell,” she said. She knew she sounded petulant and she didn’t much care. “I wouldn’t have done anything without it.”
“There were reasons for it,” Sergeant Miles said. He looked up at Blackhall for a long moment. The flames had gone, leaving the building suspiciously intact. “And we will discuss those at a later date.”
Emily nodded, reluctantly. She knew there was no point in trying to draw the sergeant out, not when he was determined not to talk. He’d tell her the other reasons when he felt like it.
“I need to talk to you about something else,” Sergeant Miles said, instead. “Go back to the school, take a shower and then report to my office. Do you have anything planned for the rest of the afternoon?”
“I was due to help clear up the library in an hour or so,” Emily said. “Lady Aliya …”
“I’ll speak to her,” Sergeant Miles said. “Go shower. I’ll be back in my office in” – he glanced at his watch – “thirty minutes.”
Emily hesitated, then turned and hurried back down the path towards Whitehall. She wasn’t in any trouble, she thought, but it was odd for the sergeant to want a meeting. And a long meeting, at that. What could he possibly want? She puzzled over it as she walked through the side door, shaking her head at the mess. Only two days since the entire school had come close to a complete collapse … they were still cleaning up the mess. It felt like longer … but then, it had been longer for her. Her trip to the past had made her several months older than everyone else. It still surprised her when her friends talked about events that – to her – had been months ago.
Time lag, she thought. It was like jet lag, only worse. At least I don’t think its midnight when its actually noon.
The wards pulsed around her, silently welcoming her home. The Grandmaster had realised the implications of her work in the past, even if no one else had. But then, he had cautioned her to keep the whole story to herself. She had been there when the nexus point was tamed, she was the sole surviving founder … she, in a very real sense, owned the school. And yet, the knowledge was as much a curse as it was a blessing. No one had managed to duplicate Whitehall in the nine hundred years between Lord Whitehall and the present day. If someone realised she knew how to do it, they’d want her to show them how …
… And they wouldn’t ask politely either.
She glanced into one of the spellchambers and smiled when she saw a couple of boys practicing their spells. Sergeant Miles had put her to work repairing several of the spellchambers, although she wasn’t sure if it was a reward for hard work or a punishment for nearly destroying one of his chambers several months ago. Except it had been only a few weeks for him … she shook her head, then headed onwards. The remainder of the Armoury was completely deserted, save for a hopeful student browsing the small collection of books on military tactics and strategy. Emily silently wished him well, although she knew he needed more than book learning to pass Martial Magic. Sergeant Miles had made it clear, more than once, that nothing could substitute for experience.
Putting theory into practice isn’t easy, Emily thought. Jade had admitted as much, back when he’d been writing to her during his apprenticeship. Master Grey had been a good teacher, whatever his faults. Jade had problems leading men at first too.
She pushed the thought aside as she stepped into the washroom, checked the wards to make sure she was alone and started to undress. She’d picked up a whole series of bumps and bruises during the escape from Blackhall – and there were nasty marks around her wrists and ankles – but she was otherwise unharmed. Frieda’s charms had held up, despite the flames and heat. She walked into the shower, turned on the water and allowed it to run down her body, enjoying the sensation. Several months with nothing but sponge baths – at best – had reminded her, again, of the sheer luxury of being able to have a shower whenever she wanted one.
But there was no time to relax and enjoy the warm water. She stepped out of the shower, used a spell to dry herself and hastily tugged her robe over her head. The ill-fitting tunic she’d worn earlier would have to be washed before it was returned to the general pool, waiting for the next person to wear it. She scooped the tunic up, dumped it in the basket and left the room, pacing down the long corridor. A couple of first-years were playing hide and seek through the tunnels, risking worse than a ticking off if they were caught so close to the Armoury. Emily had been the only first year student in decades to be allowed to enter the Armoury and train under the sergeants.
She stopped under a large portrait of Sergeant Harkin and looked up at it for a long moment, feeling a wave of bitter grief. Nothing in her life had prepared her to like a man who looked like a gym teacher from hell, but she had. He’d treated her as just another student. And he’d given his life to save hers and beat Shadye. Whoever had drawn the portrait, she thought numbly, had never known him. The basic details were accurate enough, but the subtle points were lacking.
Shaking her head, she walked through the door into the sergeant’s antechamber, then sat down on the bench and waited. She knew better than to try to enter the sergeant’s office without his presence, even though he had asked her to meet him there. The protective spells were so powerful that she could feel them from halfway across the antechamber. Trying to break in could wind up costing her more than she cared to pay.
The door opened. “Emily,” Sergeant Miles said. “Come with me.”
He led the way into his office, the protective spells falling back at his touch. Emily smiled in genuine admiration at how easily he handled the spells, then glanced around the office. It was simplicity itself, bare save for a handful of pieces of wooden furniture. The sergeant could probably replace everything in the room himself, without spending his hard-earned gold. Emily had watched him work miracles with wood during long excursions into the wildlands surrounding Whitehall.
“Take a seat,” Sergeant Miles said. He motioned to a chair. “Kava?”
“Yes, please,” Emily said. She couldn’t help a flicker of relief. If he was offering Kava, she wasn’t in any trouble. “Thank you.”
She sat, smoothing down her robe, as the sergeant poured them both Kava. He passed her a mug, then sat down behind the desk. A handful of pieces of paper – she smiled as she recognised a chat parchment – lay on the table, one unfurled to show a map. She wasn’t familiar with the country.
“Emily,” Sergeant Miles said. He sounded oddly hesitant. That was odd. She’d never seen him at a loss for words before. “There is a serious problem.”
Emily forced herself to meet his eyes. “What?”
“Four years of relative peace have come to an end,” Sergeant Miles told her. “A Necromancer has invaded the Allied Lands.”