Chapter 8: Ferndell
By the end of the week, the new novices had settled into a comfortable routine. They had begun to enjoy their classes and their recreation time at the Oratory, though there was still little mixing between cells. Primarily this was due to the immense amount of competition between them. The Whyte cell was consistently outperforming the others in every area, and this was causing some resentment. The name calling, though subtle, had become entrenched; the Whyte cell now being referred to as the ‘not-quites’, by a significant number of the other novices. The result of this was that Rose, Ash, Auriel and Lee, spent more and more of their time, in each other’s company and actively avoided the other novices.
The first-year novices were to be taken on the annual Alchemy trip to Ferndell. Every year, Lord De Lille arranged for the new novices to have a day there to assess and develop their plant identification and foraging skills.
Already, there were rumblings within the other cells about how the Whyte cell would have an unfair advantage, because of their pharmacon loris. Lord De Lille, having overheard one of the Blood novices discussing this with Rowan, had kept them both back after the lesson.
They stood there glumly in front of his bench as he eyed them silently for what seemed an age.
’I can understand your wish to do well,” he said, his voice cool and stern, “ but that is no excuse for bullying behaviour, and it will not be tolerated!”
The two of them squirmed in their shoes. Rowan opened his mouth to protest, but De Lille did not give him a chance to respond.
“If I hear any more of this” he snapped, “those concerned will not be allowed to accompany us to Ferndell or indeed on any of the excursions we will be taking this year. Perhaps you can pass that message on to anyone else that you think it may apply.”
“But it’s...,” said Rowan.
De Lille’s words cut through his response.
“Lord Rowan, do not attempt to proffer me an excuse,” he said, his eyes narrowing to tight slits beneath his brows. “ This type of behaviour is inexcusable and certainly not the kind of conduct expected from ascendants of the Oratory. What we do expect is that each cell works hard at being the best that they can be, using the resources that they have access to. This is not a competition’.
“I understand Lord De Lille,” said Rowan, his voice subdued, “ and I will endeavour to change my behaviour.”
“As will I,” said Tor-el-van.
“Good,” said Del Lille. “ Then I look forward to seeing the evidence of this new leaf that you have turned, tomorrow at Ferndell.”
He averted his eyes from them, looking down at the parchment on his bench and picking up his quill pen. It was a subtle but effective dismissal.
As they closed the door of the classroom behind them, a petulant look clouded their faces.
“So now we have to learn to tolerate the ‘not-quites’,” said Tor-el-van.
“No, we don’t,” said Rowan. “We just have to make it appear that we tolerate them.”
The following day the novices were awakened early for their trip as Ferndell was a three-hour carriage ride into the southern Aurum plains.
The Oratory carriage was a roughly constructed wooden conveyance, decorated at each corner with hand carved fyre hawks which had been expertly embellished with gold leaf. It was pulled by four beautiful and seemingly identical palomino horses.
The road was rough and cut with deep ruts caused by the trundle of hundreds of years of carriage wheels, and with only leather strapped suspension, the ride was uncomfortable.
Added to this, the novices had little space to move around as the vehicle had originally been designed to carry only fourteen passengers.
There was little conversation at first, a general atmosphere of moody discontent, stifling any meaningless chatter. Lord De Lille passed out parchments to each of them.
“You will find a list of plants that I would like you to acquire, together with a detailed description and accurate illustration of each one. The easiest to locate are the four at the top and the last three, devils bread, Wolfsbane and bloodroot are the rarest.”
The novices began examining the parchments and the atmosphere subtly started to alter from dismal boredom to one of eager anticipation.
“You should forage in pairs,” said De Lille. “Please do not go off on your own, and be advised, I will deal very severely with anyone who fails to follow the safety guidelines for handling these plants. Wear your gloves and place each specimen straight into the appropriate container of your occultus. Take particular care with the most toxic herbs, wolfsbane, bloodroot, devils bread, snakeweed and moonseed. They are all extremely poisonous and although having fewer of you may make the journey back a little more bearable,” he said, with a mischievous glint in his eyes. “I would prefer not to explain to Lord Dux why I was unable to return with you all safe and in one piece, this evening.”
His words were followed by a few hesitant chuckles.
Lee carefully studied his parchment examining the names and illustrations of each of the ten plants. Sloley, perched on his shoulder, was looking attentively at the drawings, clicking and chattering excitedly. Ash twisted in his seat, feeling rather constrained. He gave Lee a friendly nudge.
“Your little critter is looking rather excited at the prospect of getting out in the Dell.” He whispered, “Sloley really must give us a massively good chance of winning this.”
“It is not a competition,” said Auriel rolling her eyes, “Lord De Lille told us that. Remember? He said we were here to learn. That’s what is important. All this competition business is making things awkward for us and the other novices. Maybe we should let someone else be the best for a change.”
“Are you kidding me?” said Ash grinning mischievously.
He nodded towards the other novices whose glowering faces were staring enviously at Lee and Sloley.
“This is fun,” he said. “Anyway, of course, this is a competition. Winning the manna was a competition, winning Sloley was a competition and I bet there will be something equally desirable waiting for whoever brings back the largest selection of weeds.”
He winked audaciously at Auriel, grinning broadly.
“Fascinating…” said Lee shaking his head, “you actually seem to be enjoying the tension between us and the other cells. I wonder if all Muds display this macho, aggressive and overly competitive tendencies.”
Rose leant forward, interrupting them.
“Auriel and I were talking last night,” she said, “and we think that I should pair up with her and you two should pair up.”
“And your reasoning for this is?” Lee asked, quizzically lifting an eyebrow.
“Well logically,” said Rose with an ironic smile. “As Auriel has read everything ever written on Medicinal and Magical Vegetation but, unlike me, is not a strong Alchemist, I think that we would make a good pairing. You, of course, are by far the best Alchemist of all of us and you have the Pharmacon loris. Whereas Ash, well let’s just say Alchemy is not his strong suit, but, on the other hand, he is amazingly good at communicating with Sloley, which make you two an ideal pair also.”
“That does sound logical,” Lee said, “putting the strongest and the weakest together.”
Lee’s deadpan expression barely hid the subtle glint of amusement in his eyes.
“Hey now, hold on a minute!” Ash protested “I got a C in my last pharmacology assignment.”
“Was that the one Sloley helped you with?” Lee said, raising a knowing eyebrow.
“No! … Err; well he may have pointed out a few errors… Okay, you’ve got a point. I guess I’m with you.”
The carriage clattered and shook as it hit a rut in the road. They had reached the top of the hill and before them lay the beautiful wooded valley of Ferndell.
As they descended into the valley, the sounds and scents of the Dell were as welcoming as a homecoming celebration. The heady scent of ripe forest fruits mingled with the pungent aromas of mint and wild garlic. A symphony of birdsong announced their arrival. This was quickly fighting for dominance with the buzzing and clicking of thousands of varieties of insects and the screeching and chattering of various species of primates that were common to the forest.
A colourful bird with long tail feathers and a large beak sat on a low bough just beyond the entrance of the woods. The bird’s head was held high as its beak sniffed at the air, which made it appear strangely aloof, but its eyes followed them closely as the wagon rumbled past.
When at last they alighted from the carriage, there was much stretching of stiff arms and legs, accompanied by the usual groaning and moaning of uncomfortable boredom. However, this soon gave way to the relief and joy of finally being free to move around.
“I think my leg has gone to sleep,” said Rowan.
“It had to catch up with the rest of you sooner or later” Cedar teased. “I am with you, by the way, the girls have decided that you and I would make a good team, don’t ask me why.”
“Suits me,” he said, with some relief “Tammy wants to forage for the rare and dangerous stuff.”
His eyes closed as he used Cognito to effortlessly flick through his memorised volume of ‘Medicinal and Magical Vegetation.’
“The plants on our list are all relatively common and pretty harmless except for the snakeweed and moonseed, and I am just reviewing how to handle them safely.”
Lord De Lille called them to gather around for final instructions. He stood beside the carriage in the middle of the forest clearing. The driver had unstrapped the horses and was leading them to the nearby brook for a drink of the cool, clear mountain water.
“Gideon and I will remain here with the carriage,” said De Lille. “Everything on your list can be located within two miles of this point. You should not venture further. In particular, do not wander into the northern swamp lands, they are inhabited by rougarou and they are not always friendly, even to young novice ascendants.”
“It’s a wolf man,” said Auriel in answer to their blank and enquiring looks, “half man and half wolf. They do not have a good reputation.”
“Momentarily,” said De Lille, “I will send up a location beacon to enable you to find your way back here. Please make sure that you periodically check your position in relation to the beacon, to ensure that you do not stray too far. When you observe that the beacon has changed colour, from orange to red, then you must make your way back. Do you understand?”
The novices responded with murmurings and nods of accord.
“Good. Lord Goldin tells me that you have all mastered the technique of conjuring an alarm spell, should you need one. So if you have any problems, you know what to do. Now you may pair up and start your forage. Stay in your pairs, do not wander about in the forest alone, it is not safe.”
De Lille raised his arms and began to make a spinning motion with his hands, moving them around each other as if he were winding a giant ball of yarn. An orange thread of energy streamed from his potens ring. Spinning it into an enormous ball of orange light, he threw up his arms and propelled the glowing sphere high into the sky above them.
“In lucem editi,” he said as he cast the beacon.
The novices watched it soar high into the air, where it remained like a miniature sun, spinning and pulsating with magical energy. Ash looked on in admiration.
“You’ve got to admit it,” he said. “That guy has got class.”
Separating into their pairs, they wandered off into the forest.
There was a pleasant, relaxed and unhurried atmosphere as they strolled along the leaf-strewn pathways. After being confined within the Oratory and then squashed inside the wagon for hours, the novices were enjoying the freedom to roam about.
Ash and Lee had decided to go south while the two girls took the Northern path. Rose and Auriel managed to locate the Wolfsbane within a few minutes. Auriel had recalled from ‘The Anthology of Rare and Poisonous Herbs’ that it grew in the moisture-retentive, but well-draining soils of Fern Meadow, to the far north east of the Dell. They had decided to go there first and look for the other herbs on their way back. It had taken them less than twenty minutes to walk to the edge of the wood. Looking out onto the peaty meadow, Auriel spotted a mass of Wolf’s Bane flowers, gently swaying in the breeze above a sea of rye grass.
“Why do they call it Wolf’s Bane?” asked Rose as they made their way over to the plants. She looked admiringly at the delicate purple blooms. “It looks rather beautiful.”
“It is highly poisonous,” said Auriel “it’s used to make a potion that’s so powerful that it even kills rougarou, along with most other native species. Ferrum archers tip their arrows with it, in small doses, though, it’s used as medicine. Combined with ginger, it can detoxify and remove other contaminants and poisons from the blood. It’s a precious herb.”
Auriel dug up one of the plants with her small trowel. Then with her gloved hands, she carefully removed the root and placed it in a specimen jar, inside her occultus.
“One down…” she smiled triumphantly.
“What next?” Rose asked, “you’re the expert.”
“Bloodroot,” said Auriel. “It only grows in moist, thickly wooded areas, so we should look where the Dell is thickest on its northern edge, close to the swamp, and it is not too far from here.”
They walked north along the path between the wood and the meadow until the field turned increasingly boggy as they approached the swamp. They turned a sharp corner on the track, taking care to ensure that they kept the swamplands to their right.
A bloodcurdling, howling cry cut through the air, stopping them in their tracks.
“Whatever is that?” Said Rose, “It sounds like someone’s in a lot of pain, I think it’s coming from over here.”
Without hesitation, she turned and ran into the trees.
“Rose, no!” shouted Auriel, hurrying after her. “Rose, stop! You’re heading into the swamp!”
They raced through the trees, leaves and branches slapping against their faces and thorns scratching deep into their skin. The ground rapidly became boggy, their pumps sinking into the wet ground, and slowing their pace. Rose moved incredibly fast and had soon left Auriel far behind.
This time, the cry was close, it came from Rose’s left, turning sharply she quickened her pace, vaulting over fallen, rotting trees and weaving between patches of quicksand and thick, stinking bog. She ran on until her way was blocked by a wiry thicket. She pushed through it, dividing it with her hands, just as the cry rang out once more.
As she stumbled through the thicket, Rose came face to face with a rougarou. It lay, squirming on the ground, just a few feet from her. A wolf-like man, dressed in soiled rags. As it howled it lifted its snout high into the air and clawed desperately at its leg, its lank grey hair matted with congealed blood.
The animal’s foot was caught in a steel trap that had bitten into its flesh like the teeth of a great dragon, cutting deep down to the bone.
The face of the rougarou was beastly, with its long snout and wide jaws crammed with sharp fangs, but its eyes appeared almost human, and they were brimming with pain and fury. Rose did not hesitate, approaching the animal, she spoke softly and calmly.
“You should stop struggling,” she said. “You’re making it worse.”
The animal snarled and growled, baring its teeth and extending needle claws from its stumpy, paw-like hands. It raised them threateningly, towards her. Tentatively, Rose moved closer.
“I don’t intend to harm you,” she said, “only to help.”
His eyes narrowed and fixed on her Vaulknut pin.
“Ascendants do not help rougarou,” he said with a low throated rasping growl. “I have not seen your kind before. What… Are… You…?”
“I am Rose, a Whyte ascendant.”
“Impossible.” He scoffed. “Whytes are extinct.”
He winced, his breath catching in his throat.
“Nevertheless,” said Rose, her voice softening “I am a Whyte and a novice Mage of the Aurum Oratory. I wish to help if you will allow me to?”
“Why would you want to help me?” He asked in a tone full of suspicion. “How do you know that when you release me, I will not kill and eat you?”
He gave a low throaty growl.
“I cannot know that can I?” Said Rose undaunted, flashing him a faintly insolent smile. “So I will just have to trust you won’t I? Do you have a name rougarou?”
As she spoke, she slowly and carefully knelt down beside him, and his exhausted body seemed suddenly to relax.
“Those that know me call me Raemis.”
“Well Raemis, from what I can see, I can predict with a fair degree of certainty that this is going to hurt like hell, but I need to get it off you.”
Rose gripped both halves of the trap and tried, with all of her strength, to force open the jaws. Raemis howled in pain.
“I’m so sorry,” said Rose. “I need…”
Auriel burst through the thicket, panting heavily.
“Rose!” she shouted, her eyes widening at the scene before her, “What are you doing?”
“Auriel this is Raemis,” said Rose. “He needs our help.”
Auriel stared in horror, her eyes fixed on the writhing body at Roses side.
“Rose,” she said, gasping. “Are you mad? That... I mean... he’s a rougarou.”
“I know what his is Auriel,” she said “but he still needs our help, come over here. If you pull on one half, I’ll take the other.”
Auriel hesitated, biting her lip she edged closer and leaning over she carefully examined the trap.
“This is a centurion’s trap, Rose. They cull the rougarou every spring, which is why they hate us!"
“This is inhumane Auriel, don’t you see that?”
“I see it, Rose,” said Auriel with a sigh, “ but I still value my life.”
“He’ll not harm us Auriel. I know he won’t. Please help us.”
Auriel paused for a second, before letting out a groan of exasperation and cautiously circling around the rougarou to join Rose. Watching him intently, she crouched down next to Rose and began to examine the trap more carefully.
“It’s a spring loaded, dragons jaw, trap,” she said. “To release it you need to unscrew the bolt on the right and then slide that rod out. Then you should be able to loosen the jaws.”
“And which book was that in?” said Rose arching her brows.
“’The Complete Anthology of Wild and Dangerous Beasts’,” Auriel said with a shrug. “There is a chapter on the safe control of dangerous animals, with a whole section on the rougarou.”
Auriel glanced from Rose to the crumpled figure lying next to her.
“I will do this for you Rose, but you cannot be here when he is released, it’s too dangerous. You have to go back out of the swamp and to the safety of the path.”
“I will not leave you Auriel.”
Raemis watched their exchange with interest, his sharp, intelligent eyes catching the unspoken words that passed between them.
“Rose,” said Auriel, her voice uncharacteristically sharp. “I will not help him unless you go.”
Stubbornly, Rose did not move. Instead, she reached forward and began to unscrew the bolt.
“I will try not to pain you too much Raemis.” She said, ignoring Auriel’s angry glare, “but you will feel it when I remove the jaws, these teeth are buried deep.”
She turned back to Auriel.
“We do it together,” she said, placing her hand on the trap next to Auriel’s. “I’ll get the rod.”
Their eyes met as together they blinked out an unspoken countdown. Rose yanked out the rod as Auriel simultaneously forced open the jaws of the trap. Raemis let out a bone-chilling cry as he lifted his foot free from its razor-sharp metal teeth.
The three of them regarded each other warily for a second then Rose and Auriel got slowly to their feet. Rose offered a hand to Raemis. Taking it without hesitation, his claws retracted, he winced as he attempted to put weight on his injured foot.
“Rose the Whyte,” he said, breathing heavily as he swallowed his pain. “I am in your debt, and this I will never forget.”
Rose steadied him as he attempted to take a step.
“We can get help, get you bandages,” said Rose, “we have Alchemists with us, and they can heal you.”
“Rougarou recover quickly, Rose,” he said “I will soon mend. Your friends from the Oratory, I fear, will not be as altruistic as yourselves. You must go, leave the swamp quickly. My pack also is not known for their altruism, and they have no debt of honour with you.”
“He’s right Rose,” said Auriel urgently. “We need to go.”
“Take care Raemis” said Rose. “I am glad that we met.”
Raemis watched them as they left the clearing and then he followed them, silently bearing his pain until they reached the edge of the swamp and he was satisfied that they would be safe.
Auriel did not speak to Rose until they were out of the marsh and back on the forest path. Then she exploded.
“Do you even know how stupid that was?” she shouted. “You could have been killed. We both could have been killed. Have you no idea how important it is that you stay alive?”
“We were not in any danger Auriel,” said Rose as she casually wiped her muddy pumps on a clump of damp moss.
“You could not possibly know that. Rougarous have killed novices before you know, more than once. It was just stupid; stupid, stupid, stupid!”
She shook her head, her eyes blazing and two small round circles of scarlet warming her cheeks.
“I couldn’t leave him in pain like that Auriel, and you couldn’t either” She rested her hand gently on Auriel’s shoulder, “tell me that I’m wrong?”
Auriel let out a sigh of acquiescence.
“No, I can’t tell you that Rose, because you’re right, but I was charged to keep you safe, we all were. You’ve made me break my promise to Lord Dux.”
“I am safe, Rose... so you’ve not broken anything.”
Tamarix and Willow, the Mud’s Alchemist and Mage, appeared around a bend in the path ahead. As they approached, Tamarix noticed Rose and Auriel’s confrontational stance. Looking questioningly from one to the other, she smiled awkwardly.
“Err, are you after bloodroot?” she asked.
“Yes,” Auriel confirmed a little too sharply.
Briefly, she attempted to return their smile.
“Have you two had any luck?” She asked.
The two Muds gave each other a conspiratorial glance. Willow appeared to come to a decision.
“Yes, we have actually, if you keep on the northern edge, you’ll find a large clump of it on the border of the swamp just before you reach the brook. Be careful, though, the path is really overgrown, you can hardly see where it is in places. If you reach the water, you’ve gone too far. Did you manage to find any wolfsbane?”
“Yes,” Said Rose looking back and pointing to where they had just come from. “There’s plenty in the North East Meadow. If you follow the path between the wood and the meadow and keep your eyes on the east horizon, you should see the flowers just before you reach the edge of the dell.”
The four of them stood for a moment, indulgently enjoying this new found camaraderie, but unable to think of anything else to say they stood awkwardly regarding each other until finally, Tamarix held out her hand.
“Thank you both,” she said, taking Rose’s hand and then Auriel’s, “good luck with the bloodroot….and make sure you wear your gloves, it’s evil stuff it is.”
Rose and Auriel found the bloodroot about a mile into the thickest part of the wood. It stood in a large shallow rooted clump. White, daisy-like flowers gave the plant an innocent appearance. However, its roots, ugly orange coloured rhizomes shaped like giant intermeshed hands, contained a thick red sap which was extremely poisonous.
“I’ll get this if you like,” said Rose “you foraged the wolfsbane.”
She stepped onto the boggy ground surrounding the plant. Blood red coloured water seeped up from the ground, wetting her pumps. Wondering if she would ever get the colour out of the material she squelched on. The red liquid filled the indentations left by her footsteps as she made her way into a small clearing.
Rose found that the roots were easy to remove. However, when she cut the rhizome from the rest of the plant, thick red sap flowed out of the wound, almost as if she had amputated a real finger.
“This is so gross,” she said crinkling her nose.
Carefully she sealed the cut end with the tablet of wax from her occultus. A bird screeched loudly nearby, causing them both to turn.
“Hey,” said Auriel frowning “isn’t that the bird we saw from the wagon when we entered the dell? Over there.... look, on that big bough to the right.”
She pointed back along the path they had just walked. It was dark, but on one overhanging tree limb they could just make out what appeared to be the silhouette of a large bird, with an enormous bill and long tail feathers.
“I doubt it.” Rose sounded sceptical, “probably just a trick of the shadows. I doubt that there are any large birds in this area, there’s scarcely enough room to walk through here, let alone fly.”
Wrapping a square of hessian cloth around the bloodroot, she dropped it into a flask and placed it into a pocket of her occultus, before squelching her way back towards Auriel.
Just as she reached the path, there was another ear-splitting screech, this time, it was accompanied by a thunderous flapping sound as a large bird flew from its roost.
Mesmerised they watched, as almost in slow motion, it glided towards them. The bird took on a phosphorescent glow as it drew near and then its form began to change, becoming blurred and indistinct.
Immediately Rose recognised this mixture of glowing vapour and solid form from her morphology classes and with a sudden feeling of dread, she realised that the bird was not a bird at all. Helplessly, she watched as the rapidly expanding hazy form surrounded her friend.
As the glow subsided, standing beside Auriel, his arms wrapped tightly around her and his hand holding a dagger to her throat was Senior Custos Lord Baroque.
“Rose, I wouldn’t do that!” Baroque said quickly, as she moved instantly into an alarm action. “If you signal an alarm, I swear I’ll slit her throat before it’s even in the air.”
Rose hesitated, before reluctantly bringing her hands to her side.
“I don’t understand,” she asked, her brows creased together, “why?”
Rose’s dismayed, accusing expression, seemed to disturb him.
“I am sorry, Rose,” he said, shaking his head he looked down seemingly afraid to meet her reproachful eyes. “I did not wish to do this, but if I had not agreed to come here then, they would have sent someone else, someone who would have no hesitation in doing their bidding. I have been charged with the task of sending you back, of despatching your physical body and forcing your descent. You wish to know why? Well, it would seem that Lord Ka may be about to be returned to us and the Ophites see you as a threat to his reincarnation.”
His hand shook as spoke to her and the tip of the blade cut into Auriel’s neck. She winced. Baroque responded to this by gripping her more tightly.
“I have studied the prophecy for many years,” he said, “and in great detail. I do not believe as they do that you were ascended here to prevent Lord Ka’s return. I think Eldwyn sent you here to protect us from the Djinn. Lord Ka’s ultimate aim has always been to gain control of the Djinn and then use their armies to enforce his rule over the Afterlands. However, no one has ever been able to control the Djinn. If the Djinn are freed, and Ka cannot control them, then you could be our only hope. I believe that Eldwyn the Whyte foresaw this eventuality and that the actual purpose of the incantatio he bequeathed to you is to defeat the Djinn, which is why I have no intention of following this order.”
Rose looked puzzled.
“Then why all this?” she said, gesturing towards the dagger.
Each time he tensed the tip of the curved blade bit deeper into Auriel’s flesh. It released a stream of blood which trickled down her neck and soaked into the collar of her robe forming a crescent-shaped crimson stain.
“I have to take you with me, Rose, don’t you see, you are our insurance.”
He sighed, frustrated by her apparent bewilderment.
“When Lord Ka is returned to us,” he said his voice quickening. “If he does succeed in controlling the Djinn then you will be of no use to him. Indeed you may even pose a threat to his plans, but if Lord Ka fails to control them, then he will need you, we will all need you. Either way, surely you must see that your destinies are linked. This is why I am asking you to come with me willingly Rose, if you do, I will ensure that no harm comes to either of you, I swear this.”
Auriel’s fearful eyes found Rose’s, but with a stubbornly defiant and almost unperceivable shake of her head, she urged Rose not to comply.
Rose’s first instinct was to go along quietly and then to wait for an opportunity to save herself and her friend, but Lord Dux’s words were ringing in her head. ‘Whatever the cost, you must not be taken. Do you understand Rose, whatever the cost?’ She had said that she had understood, but she hadn’t, not until now.
The speed of her response took them all by surprise. Rose struck at the air with her potens hand. A loud snapping sound cut through the air as if she had cracked a giant whip. Simultaneously she yelled the strike command.
A whip-like thong of energy crackled as it flew from her ring and wrapped itself around Baroque’s dagger. Rose yanked back her arm, pulling the weapon from his grip. Auriel gasped as its blade sliced deep into her skin.
Rose did not hesitate. With a lightning fast lasso movement, she threw out her arm towards Baroque to cast a binding spell.
The air crackled and sparked as a stream of blinding white energy flowed from her ring, changing direction in mid-air it coiled around Baroque like a giant, flaming python. Beads of perspiration glistened on his forehead as he struggled in vain to get free. Rose pulled steadily until the thick coil of magical energy had tightened around him and until eventually, he could utter no words, or move... even one finger.
Auriel stood transfixed, holding her hand over the wound on her neck, which was now bleeding profusely through her fingers. Staring open-mouthed from Baroque to her friend she shuddered.
′Now, I understand why everyone here is so afraid of you Rose” she said, her voice like sandpaper. “I thought that I was getting to know you, I thought that you were just like me, just like the rest of us, but now I’m not so sure; you scare me...”
Rose looked hurt.
“Why do I scare you?” she asked “all I did was I cast two incantations. I had to, or we would both be Baroque’s prisoners now, or worse. You would have done the same in my position Auriel, if you could, wouldn’t you?”
Auriel’s reply was pensive, and she appeared remote.
“Maybe, but it’s not so much what you did,” she said. “It’s the way you reacted; so quickly, you knew exactly what to do, exactly how to do it and you didn’t blink an eye. It was just so clinical… so... ruthless.”
“I did what I had to do,” Rose said quietly, “ as I do now.”
Looking up towards a small gap in the tree canopy, Rose pointed to an exposed circle of blue sky.
“Auxilio!” she said, casting a flawless alarm incantation.
A stream of light flowed from her potens ring, climbing high into the sky where it burst into a cascade of colourful sparks shooting out in every direction. Then a thundering boom sent birds scattering from the cover of the trees, their alarm calls echoing around them.
Rose took a square of lint from her occultus.
“Let me have a look at that,” she said, pointing at Auriel’s bloody neck wound.
“It is nothing,” said Auriel, wincing as Rose gently pried her hand away from the cut. “Really Rose, it‘s just a graze.”
“I’m sorry,” Rose said, her eyes brimming as she dabbed at the wound, “I am really sorry, but I had no choice…”
Auriel placed her hand over Rose’s.
“I know that Rose,” she said her voice softening “I understand. Lord Dux told us, but I don’t think I really got it, until just now. You just took me by surprise, that’s all.”
“I didn’t know that Dux had spoken to you about me. What did he say?” Rose asked sounding surprised.
“Well, to be honest, we thought he was a little over dramatic,” said Auriel “maybe a little cruel, and even perhaps a bit paranoid. Basically, he told us that the three of us were expendable but that you were not, so we should be prepared to defend you with our lives.”
Rose’s eyes widened and flashed angrily.
“Lord Dux is wrong Auriel!”
The sharpness in her voice prompted Auriel to meet her gaze.
“Everyone is important,” said Rose, her eyes reinforcing the sincerity in her words.
She took Auriel’s hand in hers.
“None of us is expendable. I know this deep in my bones Auriel. I need you, we need all of you.”
The moment was disturbed by shouted words and concerned voices approaching from deep in the forest.
“Did you signal the alarm?”
“Do you know who did?”
“Has anyone seen Rose the Whyte?” These words were spoken by Lord De Lille, he sounded anxious.
Tamarix’s response was equally fraught.
“We saw them earlier,” she said, “they were heading to the edge of the swamp to harvest some bloodroot. The signal came from that area, follow us, we know where they were going.”
They burst into the clearing minutes later. De Lille was visibly relieved when he saw that Rose was unhurt.
“What happened here?” he asked, but noticing the bound, struggling figure at the edge of the clearing, he quickly understood what must have occurred.
The novices, most of whom had responded instantly to the alarm signal, continued to arrive in their pairs. Gathering at the edge of the clearing they stood gaping at the scene before them. Tamarix held one hand to her mouth as she stood at the edge of the path, her eyes fixed on Auriel’s blood soaked robe. Lee and Ash almost knocked her flying as they stumbled into the clearing from the thickest part of the forest. Quickly taking in the scene, they ran over to the girls.
“Are you alright?” Ash asked, his mouth agape as he glanced from Rose and Auriel and then across to the custodian.
“Auriel has a wound on her neck. Otherwise, we’re fine” said Rose, sounding calmer than she felt.
Ash put his arm around Auriel, now ashen faced and shaking uncontrollably. He took off his cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders. De Lille took hold of Rose’s arm and led her to one side
“Rose, what exactly happened here? Did you do this?” He asked, nodding towards Baroque’s tightly bound body.
He could see that the binding spell that had been cast on the Senior Custos was an extremely accomplished and powerful form. Remembering what Lord Goldin had told them all a few days earlier in the Magister’s meeting he realised that he was right. Rose’s magical potens were extraordinarily strong and well developed for a first-year novice.
Rose recounted what had happened and what Baroque had told them.
“But that’s impossible,” said De Lille, though his expression was troubled.
He shook his head and continued, his words spoken almost as if he was attempting to convince himself.
“Lord Ka is now nothing more than an effigy. Lord Eldwyn used a sophisticated petrification spell. He was transformed into stone, this is irreversible. Sublimation from stone has never been accomplished, even with plants and lower animals.”
Rose placed a hand gently on his arm.
“My Lord, if you recall,” she said, “until recently, the ascension of a Whyte was thought to be impossible too.”
“You think he speaks the truth?” De Lille asked her, an old fear rising in his bones.
“I think that he believes it to be true,” she said, “and there must be a reason I am here, a Whyte, after all these years. Can a prophecy actually foretell what is to be?”
Lord De Lille did not answer, but the anxiety on his face was answer enough. He looked past Rose, towards the other novices who had been waiting, huddled together, and were now chattering nervously.
“I don’t know Rose.” Said De Lille, his voice morose, “ but I look at you and at them, and I wonder what would become of you, of all of us, if Ka were to return. Lord Ka is a particularly venomous flavour of evil.”
They were interrupted by commotion within the group of Gold novices who were moving towards the east path into the forest.
“Can’t you hear it?” said Saffron “It’s coming from over here.”
Then they all heard it, a soft buzzing sound, rapidly increasing in volume.
“Apis?” said Rose.
Then out of the cover of the forest, like a demented phantom, flew a large swarm of apis bees.
Locating De Lille they immediately formed into a monitus spiral.
“Indica mihi,” De Lille instructed them to reveal their message.
Responding as one, they landed on the ground in front of him and frantically began to dance.
After a few seconds, Rose lifted her gaze from the swarming insects. Her troubled eyes met De Lille’s and instantly she saw to her horror that her clumsy interpretation of the apis message had been correct.
De Lille called to the others, his voice filled with urgency.
“Everyone, back to the carriage, we have to return to the Oratory immediately.”