Matron Darniss hated to drag Queen Lacurnia away from her daughter. She knew that the other members of the palace staff felt nothing but sympathy for both of them as she took the Queen gently by the arm and urged her to leave the side of the afflicted Princess before the close and prolonged physical proximity caused the parent bond to go into reverse. She also knew that they would have felt completely differently about her if they’d known the real reason for her reluctance. If the parent bond went into reverse, the daughter would begin to raise the mother up the ladder of life, instead of the other way round. The blessing that had afflicted the Princess would be passed on to the Queen, and she would also start glowing in the dark. Give it a few months, and there would be two demons in the palace.
Darniss never tried as hard as she might to drag the two apart, therefore. She allowed the Queen to talk her into being allowed to stay by her daughter's side for a few minutes longer, then a few minutes more, only finally exerting herself when she sensed that the Queen’s handmaid was growing distressed. Great though the temptation was, it was important that no suspicion fall upon herself. If, by some unlikely miracle, the Brigadier did find a cure for the girl, it would be up to her to find a way to sabotage it. She was one of only two agents that the Callowmen had managed to place in the palace, and she could not do anything that threatened her position there.
Today, the Princess seemed to be glowing more brightly than she ever had before, although that might be nothing more than her imagination, a subconscious expression of wish fulfilment. “You must come away now, your Highness!” she insisted. “It has been too long!”
“She is right, mother!” agreed Princess Ardria, pushing her away with her tiny, white hands. “Please go now! I could not bear the guilt if you...”
“If I were afflicted, you would not have to suffer alone!” replied the Queen, tears in her eyes. “You would...”
‘No!” cried Ardria in horror, breaking free of her mother's embrace and running across the room. ‘Don't even think that! To see you afflicted like this would destroy me!”
“To see you suffering like this is destroying me!” The Queen reached out to her, and the girl backed away into the very corner of the room, her hands outstretched in a warding off gesture. “If my joining you under this curse would lessen your torment, even by the smallest amount...”
“It would not! It would make it a thousand times worse! Please, you must go now! Please!”
“She is right, your Highness,” said Darniss, moving to stand between mother and daughter. “Bogarde says that five hours a day is the absolute maximium! You've been here nearly seven hours! You must leave now!”
Tearfully, the Queen allowed herself to be dragged away from her daughter. “I'll be back tomorrow!” she promised, as she always did. “There'll always be someone with you! You'll never be alone!” She looked back to the door, where Teena, from the kitchens, was waiting to take her place. She beckoned her forward and the girl crept nervously into the room, as if it contained a nest of venomous snakes. “Look, here’s Teena, come to keep you company.” She turned to the maid. “Talk to her. You must talk to her, you understand? Tell her all the gossip from the kitchens. Don't let her get lonely.”
“I won't, your Highness.” The maid glanced nervously over at the Princess, as if wondering whether there was a safe distance she should keep. It was the first time she'd been called upon for this duty. Bogarde, the King's wizard, was worried that the other maids were getting too much exposure and had recommended that the duty be shared out among more people. Teena had been horrified when she'd found out. She loved the Princess as much as anyone else in the kingdom, but she had parents and a half raised brother to support and couldn’t allow herself to become afflicted. A command from the Queen could not be refused, though, and so here she was, in the lion's den, her life being put at risk by a mother who didn’t understand that the one thing her daughter probably wanted more than anything else was to just be left alone for a while.
The Queen watched as the maid introduced herself to the Princess, then finally allowed herself to be led out of the room. “Now could they do this to an innocent girl?” she asked for what must have been the hundredth time. “What did my precious Ardria ever do to deserve this?”
“They say there are historical grievances,” replied Darniss, thinking of her grandparents who had been aristocrats when this land had been under Callow rule, fifty years before. She remembered having to remove a portrait from the Green Gallery when she'd accepted her first post as a serving maid here, thirty years before. The portrait of Duchess Thelmia, a renowned historical character from before the Helberion conquest, whose resemblance to Matron Darniss might well have attracted unwelcome comment. The disappearance of that portrait remained an unsolved mystery to this very day.
“I don’t care about history! I care about my daughter! You understand that, don’t you? You have a daughter of your own!”
“Yes, I do, your Highness.” And I want more for her than to serve the descendants of conquerors and murderers. The blood of my ancestors cries out for vengeance!
“They will be made to pay for this! My daughter will never marry Prince George! Never! It was probably the Prince who ordered this crime! Him or his black hearted father!”
Matron Darniss knew that to be true. It occurred to her that even if the Princess were to be cured, the wave of hatred towards Callow might serve their purposes just as well. If Helberion withdrew the offer of a royal marriage, Callow could use the insult as an excuse to goad Helberion in other ways. If they could irritate Helberion into declaring war, if even one Helberion soldier set foot on Carrow soil, Carrow could claim to be the injured party and launch a full scale invasion without having to worry about interference from the Kelvon Empire, and the position of her family would be restored, as promised.
“The Brigadier will be successful, won't he?” said the Queen. “He will find a cure, won't he?”
“If anyone can, he can. I've heard the stories that are told about him. If you will excuse me now, your Highness, I have duties.”
“Yes, of course. I will be in my chambers.”
Matron Darniss bowed, then turned and made her way to the servants quarters, to consult with Fenby the staff manager, her direct superior in the palace. So long as she was masquerading as a loyal servant to the King, the daily business of running the palace had to continue smoothly. She had to receive her orders and pass them on to the staff below her. It was dull, demeaning work, but she consoled herself with the thought that better days would come, soon, in which she would have a palace of her own, and she would be the one giving the orders.
Before she could get there, though, she was met in the corridor by Thurley, one of the palace guards. “What are you doing here?” she demanded, looking around to see if they were being observed. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “If you're seen, away from your post...”
“I’ll say I heard something and went to investigate. Listen, we've got a problem. Pettiwell’s been arrested.”
Darniss gave a start of alarm and spun around to check the corridor behind her, as if expecting to see the guards coming for her too. The corridor was still empty, though, and she turned back to confront Thurley. “What happened?” she demanded, grabbing him by the elbow and pushing him into an empty storeroom. She went back to the door, glanced both ways up and down the corridor to make sure it was still empty, then closed the door. “What happened?” she repeated.
“The Besswell house was broken into last week...”
“So what? That was nothing to do with us!”
“One of the servants saw the burglar and gave a description to the city guard. The description matched Pettiwell, who'd been seen throwing money around in all the taverns and gambling houses...”
Darniss swore. “The idiot! Has he said anything?”
“All I know is what I hear on the streets. Last I heard, the guards are ‘questioning’ him. How long he holds out...”
“How much does he know? He doesn't know about either of us, does he?”
“He knows my face. I'm always in civilian clothes when I see him, but he knows my face.” He frowned, searching his memories. “It's possible, from conversations we've had in the past, that he's guessed I'm in the palace guard. Depends on how smart he is.”
“The man who recommended him says that, while he's not the cleverest man in the world, he does have a certain low cunning. What about me? What does he know about me?”
“He knows things. Times, places. Things that could lead to you, if a clever detective puts it all together.”
“And with their dear Princess all poorly, they'll have their very best on the case!” She swore again. “You'll have to get him out. Either that or kill him.”
“How? I'm a member of the palace guard, not the city guard! He'll be in the Lime street cells, I have absolutely no legitimate reason for going anywhere near the place!”
“Find a reason, unless you prefer to face the hangman’s noose!”
“It just can't be done! We have to get out of the country before he talks! It's the only way!”
“No!” If she ran, all hope of getting her family's nobility restored would be lost forever. King Nilon would see it as weakness, making her unworthy of a place in his country’s aristocracy. Or worse, he might see it as a betrayal. They had to fix this, but how?
An idea came to her. “If we could get him transferred to the palace cells, you'd have access to him.”
“How do we do that?”
“They'll bring him here for interrogation by the King’s own men if they think he's responsible for what happened to the Princess. You could spread some rumours...”
“He'll panic! He'll tell everything he knows, try to make a deal with them...”
“Not if he's smart. Not if he guesses what we're up to. He has to know we'll try to get him out...” Or kill him, she thought but didn’t say. “He’ll keep his mouth shut so long as he still has hope.” She paced up and down the room as she turned things over in her head. “Yes, yes. That's what we'll do. Go back to your guard friends and tell them you heard rumours on the streets that Pettiwell’s responsible for the Princess. If they move him here, tell me immediately.”
“They'll know I'm a traitor! The moment we break him out they’ll remember that he was brought here because of me! I'd be committing suicide!”
Darniss paused for a moment in thought, tapping a finger against her lips. “Yes, you won't be able to stay here,” she said. “If suspicion falls upon you and you’re caught, you might name me to save yourself.”
“I would never...”
“Shut up. I'll deal with Pettiwell. The moment he’s been transferred to the palace cells, you must leave the city. Return to Carrow and inform Lord Krell what has happened. I expect he'll want to reward you for your years of service. Give you a pension, a new life under a new identity. That sort of thing.”
Thurley eyes widened with relief. “Very well,” he said eagerly. “I'll see to it. I'd like to say that it’s been a pleasure working with you...”
“Shut up, you idiot! Just do It!”
Thurley nodded gratefully, opened the door and marched out into the corridor. Matron Darniss waited a couple of minutes, in case there was someone out there who shouldn’t see the two of them leaving together, and while she waited she thought. Thurley’s departure would leave her alone in the palace, without allies. Krell would try to place another agent in the palace, of course, but that kind of thing took years. In the meantime, she would have no-one to help her if she found herself in difficulty. No-one she could call on to help her. All alone, among enemies... She felt a thrill of fear shooting up her spine but suppressed it with a surge if anger at herself. Nothing worthwhile was accomplished without risk, and the restoration of her family's name, position and holdings was worth a little risk. Hopefully, once Pettiwell was dealt with, there would be no further difficulties. She could play the part of loyal palace retainer until Carrow had defeated this upstart little country and she reaped the rewards she had earned.
She had waited long enough. She opened the door and stepped confidently out into the corridor, and then she continued on her way to the servants‘ quarters with all the stately dignity of the Duchess she was.
The great south road led the Brigadier’s patrol towards the Grantens, a ridge of tall, rocky hills that some people called mountains and that marked the southern edge of Helberion territory. As they entered the lower foothills they left the last towns and villages behind and entered lands that were occupied only by the occasional goat farmer. Great pine forests covered the horizon, but the lands through which the road ran, rising steadily out of the lowlands In which the bulk of the Kingdom sat, were bare and scruffy, the soil thin and stony, just barely covering the bedrock below. The wind blew strong and cold as the bare hilltops rose around them, sucking away the heat of their bodies, and they buttoned up their jackets right up to the neck in an attempt to stay warm.
“From here on, we're foreign soldiers travelling through someone else’s country,” said Sergeant Blane, his eyes scanning the horizon. “We have to be constantly on our guard.”
“We have diplomatic papers, signed by the King,” replied the Brigadier. “Apologies to the King of Wilterland for the intrusion, promises of compensation etc.”
“Fine, if the patrol that spots us has someone who can read. What if they tell us to go back the way we came? What if they try to arrest us?”
“Then we will have to hope that they are amenable to reason.”
“And if they're not?”
“We'll face that problem when and if it arises. We won’t be going through the most densely populated parts of their country. If we're lucky, we might pass right through their lands without being spotted by anyone in authority.”
“Here's to luck, then,” said the Sergeant, taking his water bottle from his belt and taking a long drink from it.
“We've got company,” called out Cowley, and the others followed his pointing finger to where a man was scrambling down the slope that lined the road, loose stones and bits of gravel sliding out from under his feet as he did so. The men watched with interest as he descended in a cloud of dust, wondering whether he would lose his footing before reaching the bottom and slip the rest of the way on his backside. “Five crowns says he falls!” said Harper with a grin.
“You're on!” replied Spencer.
“Gambling is a violaton of the military code, mister Harper,” warned the Brigadier, eyeing him sharply.
“Yes, sir,” replied Harper. “Just kidding, sir.” He glanced across at Spencer, though, and the two men winked at each other. The Brigadier pretended not to see.
The man reached the road safely, and the Brigadier made a hand gesture for the patrol to halt while he came running up to them. “Is one of you a wizard?” said the man, looking at each of them in turn as if a wizard would look different, in some way, to a normal man. “Army patrols always include a wizard, isn't that right? That's what they say, anyway.” He went to stand before the Brigadier. “Please, I need a wizard!”
The Brigadier looked over at Quill and beckoned him over with his eyes. Quill sighed in resignation and guided his horse forward. “An ontomancer, to use the correct term,” he said. “How may I be of service?”
“My horse,” the man replied. “We were snowed in over the winter, the pass was blocked for months. A tree fell in a gale, destroying our house. My wife and I were forced to spend most of the winter in the stable...”
“In close proximity to the horse,” said Quill, nodding to himself. He looked at the Brigadier, saw the warning look in his eyes, and took the hint. “I'm afraid we're in something of a hurry, we don’t have time for detours.”
“My home is just up there.” He pointed up the slope from which he had just descended. “There's a track half a mile ahead, a road horses can follow. It's getting late, you'll be wanting to find a place to spend the night and I've rebuilt my home. There’s room for you all. A roof over your heads and a warm fire. You can look at my horse while you’re there. Please!”
The wizard looked hopefully at the Brigadier, who looked ahead, along the valley. The past few nights had been spent in tents, with wind blowing through every gap to suck away every scrap of warmth. “A warm bed for the night would be very welcome,” said Malone. “If we can help him while he helps us...”
The Brigadier nodded, therefore. “Very well, lead on.” The man bobbed his head gratefully and trotted ahead of them, the patrolman following on their horses.
They saw goats in twos and threes on all sides of them as they rode, chewing contentedly as they eyed them warily with their suspicious, wide pupilled eyes. Some came running forward, recognising their owner and hoping for a handout of stale bread or honeycorn, but the man ignored them. “Name's Flordan,” he said. “My family's been herding goats here for five generations. I was a goat myself, not so long ago. All my family come from goats. Bit of a family tradition, you might say.”
“Tradition’s important,” said Quill absently, not really paying attention.
“Right!” agreed Flordan. “Just me and my wife now, though. My parents went back into the ground just a couple of years back. First my dad, back in the autumn. Just slipped away three days before his declaration day. Only been human less than ten years, and I were declared less than three years ago. I barely knew him! Then my mother went just a few weeks after him. Couldn’t live without him, I reckon.” He came closer to Quill’s horse so be could speak in a lower voice and still be heard. “She started to revert while she were still alive! I heard o' such things but I thought it were just stories!”
“No, it can happen,” replied the wizard. “As you say, it can be caused by the loss of the will to live. Also by certain diseases...”
“She had no disease. Anyway, just me and my wife now. We were thinking of starting a family, but that’s a big commitment. We picked out a goat, the biggest, healthiest one, and Marly, that’s the wife. Marly. Anyway, she keeps saying that we should bring it in the house to sleep with us, but there's so much work needs doing around the place! You know how it is!” Quinn grunted, just loudly enough to be heard. Casual conversation was something he'd never really gotten the hang of.
“So, how do you get to be a wizard? Are there schools you can go to?” He had to repeat the question twice more before Quill finally looked at him and paid him enough attention to hear what he was saying.
“Some people just are wizards,” he replied. “They just turn out that way. We have the ability to form an instant parent bond with another person or animal, and we can use that bond to either raise or lower the subject through the rungs of life.”
“And it has an instant effect?” asked the goat herder. “It normally takes years to raise a child!”
“We can accelerate the raising of a subject to the next rung up, so that it takes weeks instead of years,” replied the wizard. “It’s risky, though. It runs the risk of the subject growing wild, becoming deformed. The more skilled the wizard, the less likely this is, but a blessing is never without risk.”
“What about dropping an animal back down a rung?” asked Flordan. “That's much faster. Right?”
“Yes, all animals seem to ‘remember’ their previous form, I can't really describe it any better than that, but cursing is not something we do lightly. Not reputable wizards, anyway. Also, there's a chance that the creature it ends up becoming is not quite the same as the creature it was raised from. Ontogeny is a very hit and miss affair, we try to use it as little as possible.”
“So how does it work?”
“How does what work?”
“The parent bond. How does it work?”
“No-one knows.” Quill tried to think of a way to end the conversation. Perhaps if he just stared off into the distance and answered every question in monosyllables...
“A fox eats rabbits,” continued the goat herder, though. “Suddenly, though, for no reason anyone can work out, it takes a rabbit back to its burrow without harming it and keeps it there for a few days. After that the rabbit doesn't want to escape any more and stays of its own free will.”
“The parent bond,” said the wizard. Maybe a simple answer would be enough to satisfy him. “It affects the animal’s brain first. Both parent and child. The parent is driven to adopt a creature it would normally eat, and after a couple of days the prey animal loses its fear of the parent. It then changes, physically, until it resembles the parent.”
“Yes, everyone knows that, but how? How does it happen?”
“No-one knows,” said Quill. “I'm sorry, but I can’t give you a better answer than that. No-one today knows. Maybe the Hetin people knew. It’s said that their science surpassed ours by a great degree, but if they did know, the knowledge has long since been lost.”
“Maybe there are theories..”
“No!” snapped the wizard angrily. “There are no theories! No-one knows! Now please stop asking!” He geed up his horse and rode ahead to the front of the column while the rest of the men sniggered to themselves in amusement. Flordan stared after him in confusion. “I only asked!” he muttered to himself.
The goat herder’s home turned out to be little more than four dry stone walls with a ceiling of grassy turfs laid over a framework of wooden planks salvaged from the remains of his original home. That had been a much more impressive building made of fired bricks, glass windows and with a tiled roof, but it had been thoroughly demolished by the massive pine tree that still lay across it. The stable stood nearby, also made of bricks and tiles and just big enough for one horse and a cart, which now stood outside, it’s metal fixings rusting from neglect. The man's wife was waiting there, a dumpy creature wearing shabby clothes in badly faded colours. “Who are these people, Flor?” she asked, shuffling forward nervously.
“They've come to fix Nag,” said Flordan, taking her reassuringly by the elbows. “One of them’s a wizard!”
“Good day to you,” said the Brigadier, dismounting and coming forward. Behind him, the rest of the men dismounted as well, then stood beside their horses. He offered her his hand, which she stared at uncertainty for a few moments before taking. He gave her hand a firm shake. “My apologies for Intruding into your lives. We were asked to come here by your husband. My name is Brigadier Weyland James and these are my men.”
“It’s a honour, sir!” she said fearfully. She stared at her husband for support, not knowing what to say or do, and he came forward to take the brunt of the Brigadier’s attention. “It's so good of you to help us out like this! A real life wizard, just passing by! It's a dream come true!”
“I've just come to look,” said Quill. “I didn't promise anything!”
“Right, right. It's in here. Dorry, why don't you show our guests to the house and sort out some places for them to spend the night.” The woman stared fearfully at the soldiers, but then led the way to the sorry looking building while Flordan showed the wizard into the stable, where the beast was waiting.
It was dark inside, and Flordan lit an oil lamp hanging beside the door. The horse was tethered to an iron ring near the rear wall and looked up, whinnying unhappily as the goat herder approached. It was already showing clear human traits. Its head was shorter than was normal for a horse. Its eyes close together on the front of its face, and all four hooves had begun to divide into stubby fingers and toes. Its hide was beginning to lose its hair in patches, revealing light brown, human skin beneath. It was clearly rather uncomfortable being on four legs, and kept trying unsuccessfully to rise onto its hind legs. As Quill approached, a frown on his face, it uttered a series of sounds that were only half neighing and that contained the beginnings of human speech. It stared nervously at the wizard and staggered away from them to the limit of its rope tether, tottering on its cloven hooves. Flordan hurried over to it and put a comforting hand on its neck, patting it and crooning into its ear.
“Easy, boy, easy,” he said, patting its head as Quill studied it, running his hands over its body. “Is there anything you can do?”
Quill’s face had fallen at his first glimpse of the creature, though. “I'm afraid not,” he said. “The transformation has progressed too far. Legally, it's already human. Congratulations, you've got a son!”
“But I don’t want a son, I want a horse! How am I going to take goats to market without a horse to pull the wagon? You're a wizard, you can turn him back, make him all horse again! Cast a curse...”
“It would be murder,” replied Quill. “The law is quite clear on this subject. That's why we change mounts at the start of each new day, to prevent us from becoming parent bonded to our horses. Everyone knows this...”
“We had no choice! Our house was destroyed, we had to sleep next to the creature! Of course we knew what would happen, but I thought a wizard could turn him back!”
“I'm sorry. As I said, the process has gone too far. There's nothing I can do.”
“You have to...”
“You heard him,” said the Brigadier, who'd entered the stable behind them with the Sergeant. “See this as a blessing. I'm sure he'll be a fine man one day.” He then beckoned for the wizard to follow him back outside. “There isn’t room in that house for all of us,” he said. “Some of us will bed down in the stable overnight. One night with the horses won't hurt. I want you in the house, though. With me, away from that poor beast. Otherwise the father will keep on pestering you about it.”
“Thank you, Sir. Appreciate it.”
“Blane, we'll all accept our host’s hospitality in their house for supper, but I want you to select five men to sleep with you in the stable. Make yourselves as comfortable as you can.” The Sergeant acknowledged the order and returned to the men, while Harper and Spencer led their mounts into the stable. Flordan was still with his son, staring in hurt betrayal as the half raised horse continued to nuzzle up against him, stamping his feet at his inability to understand his father's unhappiness.
“Bad business,” said Malone a little later as he prepared the Brigadier’s sleeping area in the house, a little way apart from the other men. “Sometimes there's no way to avoid close contact with animals. I heard that snow trackers sleep cuddled up to their dogs to avoid freezing to death.”
“They have half a dozen dogs, at least, and snow trackers never go around in pairs,” replied the Brigadier. “The number of animals helps prevent pair bonding with any of them. He should have had more than one horse. It was obvious what might happen if he had only one.”
“Even so, you can see the dilemma he’s in...”
“Not our problem. Go talk with him, see if he'd be willing to sell one of his goats. I'm sure the men would welcome some fresh meat further along the trail."