CHAPTER 7 REUNITED
‘We’ll have to stop for the night,’ said Izzy. ‘I can’t see more than two feet in front of me, and I don’t fancy being carried into a fast-flowing river and being swept away, or something equally as unpleasant.’
‘Can’t you cast a spell to light the way, Niamh?’ asked Cait.
‘I could,’ said Niamh, ‘but on a night as dark as this, it would be seen from miles away and could lead anyone looking for us right to us. No, I think Izzy’s right. We must stop. Adam, Dylan – you two take the first watch.’
‘I don’t mind taking first watch,’ said Dougal, who liked to do so, as it meant he could then have an undisturbed sleep.
‘No,’ said Niamh. ‘No leprechaun will keep watch tonight. You have carried us all day, and we need you well rested if you’re going to do the same again tomorrow.’
‘It will be dark soon, so we’ll stop there.’ Prince Gaston pointed to the walled town of Biscay on Mazarin’s map. He then spurred his horse forward and galloped towards the town. ‘Open the gates!’ yelled the prince.
‘The gates are locked at dusk. If you wish to enter Biscay, return at dawn,’ an unseen voice replied.
‘Open the damned gates now!’ Gaston roared at the guard.
‘If I open the gates, Lord Capet will have me whipped.’
’If you don’t, I’ll have you flayed alive and your head displayed on a spike overlooking this very spot. That should serve as a lesson to all who consider disobeying an order from Prince Gaston de Lis!’
The prince shouted so callously it sent the guard running to open the town’s gates, while another guard ran to warn Lord Capet of the prince’s unexpected arrival.
‘You,’ said the prince, pointing to one of the guards. ‘See that my men are fed and housed for the night.’ He turned to the guard who had opened the gate. ‘Take me to Capet.’
‘Yes, milord,’ said the guard, turning to lead the way.
‘Mazarin,’ the prince continued. ‘You come with me.’
They found Capet waiting for them in the town’s main council chamber. The lord was tall and muscular by esprit follet standards. His hair was curly and brown, and rested lightly on his shoulders. He had yellow eyes, the colour of a hawk’s and with the same intelligence about them.
He sat still in his chair, totally at ease, as he watched the prince and wizard approach. He waited until they were over halfway toward him before casually rising to his feet.
‘Hello, Gas. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?’
‘Yes, Andre, it has,’ replied the prince. ‘If you don’t address me correctly, I’ll have you thrown into your own cell.’
‘That reminds me, Prince Gaston. Who was it that opened the gates and let you enter after nightfall?’
‘Him,’ answered the prince, pointing to the nervous guard.
‘Sergeant,’ said Andre, looking at one of his personal guards. ‘Take that man and have him flogged. No one disobeys my orders, no matter what the circumstances.’
‘Six lashes?’ asked the sergeant.
‘Make it twelve,’ Andre replied casually. ’Now, Prince Gaston, what brings you and Mazzy to my humble home?’
‘Dismiss your guards and I will tell you.’
‘Get out, all of you!’ ordered Andre. They left instantly, all knowing the penalty for tardiness.
As the last guard left the room, Gaston spoke. ‘We’re hunting fairies.’
’Don’t you think you’d have more luck in Sarasidhe, yourhighness?’ said Andre, both sarcasm and amusement creeping into his voice.
‘I’m not looking for random fairies, you fool,’ snapped Gaston. ‘I’m looking for a group that escaped from De Medicis’ dungeons.’
‘How is that fat fool?’
‘Pity. I can’t believe your father put you under his command.’
’I am under nobody’s command, and you would be wise to remember that, Lord Capet,’ Gaston barked back.
’Of course, you’re not,’ Andre smirked. ‘Anyway, what are fairies doing in Auvergne?’
‘Did they find any?’
‘Surely even your wizard could have handled this little mission without your direct involvement?’
‘One of them stole my sword, and I intend to personally make him pay for his actions with his miserable, inconsequential life.’
’What do you want from me, Ga –’ He stopped himself just in time. ‘Prince Gaston?’
‘How many troops do you have stationed here?’
’Twelve knights, one hundred other mounted men, and one hundred- and fifty-foot soldiers.’
‘Good. I want your mounted soldiers ready at first light,’ ordered the prince.
’All of them?’ gasped Andre. ‘How many fairies are we talking about?’
‘Roughly a dozen.’
’I would’ve thought thirty-six horsemen and a wizard – even if Mazzy is the wizard – would be more than enough firepower to capture a dozen fairies.’
‘They have a wizard amongst their number.’
’And you have Mazzy. I know I give him a bit of a hard time, but he’s really quite adequate.’
‘Not against this wizard,’ said Mazarin, addressing Andre for the first time.
’Anyone would think you were chasing the legendary Niamh Donegal.’ Andre laughed, but stopped instantly when he saw the looks on the faces of the prince and the wizard. ’Are you telling me you’re hunting reputedly the most powerful wizard on the face of Connacht?’ he asked, genuinely aghast.
’Am I the only one who has never heard of this bloodywitch?’ replied the exasperated prince.
‘Several of my guards were mercenaries in the pixie king’s army in his unsuccessful campaign against the fairies,’ Andre explained.‘It is fair to say that the wizard, and her friends, created quite an impression.’
‘Did these friends include a brownie princess?’ asked Gaston.
‘I don’t know whether either was a princess, but there were two brownies, who were supposedly close to the wizard, as well as a couple of giants. There was also the last of the fairy dragons, and a couple of pixie knights. Why?’ ‘It’s not just fairies we’re looking for,’ Gaston replied, deciding to tell his friend everything he knew. ‘They’re accompanied by a couple of brownies and a pixie knight they rescued on the way. I believe the pixie’s rescue was a coincidence, as De Medicis assures me no one else knew he was there.’
’If these are the brownies, they are apparently rather resourceful and will have to be watched. It would be preferable to kill them both on sight,’ Andre warned.
‘I will take that into consideration. It would be worth doing it just to upset De Medicis.’ The prince didn’t care what happened to anyone except the one who had stolen his sword.
‘On the brighter side,’ Andre said flippantly, ‘at least they haven’t brought the giants and dragon with them.’
’Giants?’ The prince shook his head. ‘I really have to start paying more attention to world events.’
Andre did not respond to the comment. ’My men will be ready to leave at first light. As an added bonus, there are three wizards staying at Le Poulet Gouche. I’ll send a couple of my more persuasive guards to convince them to join our little mission.’
’Our?’ asked the prince, looking directly at Andre.
’You don’t expect me to let you have all the fun, do you?’
‘We leave at dawn,’ said the prince, now with a serious tone in his voice. ‘If you’re not ready, I’m leaving without you.’
Phil found Niamh, and the others, getting ready to leave the farm, complete with eight horses.
The previous evening Dougal, Derry and Turloch, while invisible, had stumbled across a well-guarded stable. They had slipped past the unsuspecting guards and set the horses free. While the guards and horse handlers rushed around trying to recapture the escaped animals, the invisible leprechauns had calmly led eight away and back to the farm.
Phil landed gracefully as always. The first thing he did was return Izzy’s sword. She was thrilled to have it back, and thanked Phil for recovering it.
‘It may not be magical like your new sword, Dougal, but at least I knew what I was doing when I stole it from Rupert. You got yours by luck,’ she teased.
Dougal looked at her and smiled.
‘Phil, do you know if we’re being followed?’ Niamh asked in a serious tone.
’Yes. There’s a follet prince and wizard, along with three-dozen horsemen, on our tail.’
‘How far behind us are they?’
‘At a guess, I’d say half a day at the most. I would’ve found you hours ago if it hadn’t been so dark last night.’
‘How are they tracking us?’ asked Izzy.
‘The wizard has a map that somehow shows them your position,’ the dragon replied.
‘The sword?’ suggested Dougal.
‘Possibly.’ Phil walked towards him. ‘Show it to me.’
Dougal drew the sword from its scabbard and held it out in front of the dragon.
Phil studied it intently. ‘It is indeed magical, but I can sense nothing that would allow it to be magically traced – quite the opposite, in fact. I think it actually shields its holder from any form of magical detection.’
‘If it’s not the sword, then how are they tracking us?’
‘It doesn’t matter how,’ said Izzy. ‘It only matters that they are, and we have to make sure they don’t catch up to us. Phil, did you see if, or where, the ogres landed?’
’No. I got a little side-tracked by the wreckage of your boat.’
‘Fair enough,’ smiled Niamh. ’Phil, do you need to rest, or can you fly back and make sure the follet prince isn’t catching us?’
The dragon took to the air.
‘We’re getting closer,’ said Mazarin, ‘and it looks like they are definitely heading for the coast, so if we keep to the well-maintained surface of Rue Montaigne, we should be able to travel far quicker than they can cross-country.’
Prince Gaston nodded in approval, mounted his horse, and signalled his small army to follow him out of the town.
While they rode, Gaston, Andre and, to a far lesser extent, Mazarin reminisced about the time they had spent at the Academy De Elysee (an elite military school in Fontaine, the Auvergnen capital).
For Gaston and Andre, life at the academy had been easy. The prince, and the noble-born Andre, had gained access to the school through birth right, as did all who were of noble or royal birth. They were housed in plush, private rooms and served the finest of foods and wines. They had full access to all the academy’s facilities and were assigned a less privileged student to act as their servant, but for the common born like Mazarin, things were very different. He was granted a ’scholarship’ (forcibly taken from his family and sent to the school) when a wizard from his small village decided he had intuitive magical ability.
His first year at the academy had been the worst year of his life. There was no private room for him. He slept on the floor of a barn, along with fifty other ‘students’, all of whom had received scholarships. They were fed gruel, if they were lucky; if they weren’t, it was stale, and often mouldy, bread. The only water they had access to was from a trough used by livestock.
That, however, wasn’t the worst of it for Mazarin. Within a week of his arrival at the academy, he became the servant of a final-year student, who had just beaten his previous servant so badly that the boy would never walk again. Mazarin received many beatings himself in the first year, but none that he required more than a week to recover from. The only thing that kept him going was his daily lessons.
Although the young mage was developing into a more-than-useful all-round wizard, by the end of the first year he had begun to show signs of exceptional scrying ability, the art of magically spying on others.
At the start of his second year at the academy, he was sent to serve Prince Gaston. Mazarin was terrified. He had heard the rumours about the disappearance of the prince’s first servant. Officially, the servant had left the school and returned home; the unofficial story was that the prince had killed the poor boy in a fit of rage. So, the young wizard had begun the second year at the academy praying that it wouldn’t be his last.
After hearing about Mazarin’s scrying ability, the prince had personally requested the young wizard be assigned to him. It was, however, Andre’s servant who looked after the prince, as well as his young noble friend. The wizard’s life changed from that day forward, and, he had to admit, it was a change to his advantage.
The king had insisted that Gaston was not to be given a free rein and would have to pass his exams like all the other students. It was important to the king that Gaston proved himself worthy of the throne. The prince excelled in military matters butwas quickly bored byhis academic studies. He had tried to buy the answers to the exams he was forced to sit, but all his approaches were rejected. He was therefore forced to take more drastic action, and that was when Mazarin became useful.
Mazarin used his spells, and a crystal ball, to spy on Gaston’s and Andre’s instructors, gaining access to all the answers to their exams, allowing them to graduate from the academy with the minimum of actual effort and the maximum of achievement.
After their graduation, Andre returned home and had his father murdered. He then assumed his position in the Auvergnen nobility.
Gaston, at his father’s insistence and despite his vigorous protests, took up a post in the army. He then had Mazarin assigned to the position of mage to the dauphin, the magical advisor to the heir to the Auvergnen throne and had continually used the wizard’s skills to his advantage.
Lord Andre and Prince Gaston would always live the high life, but the wizard knew he would keep this privileged position only if he continued to serve the prince well. This he had done for over ten years, and he was determined to keep doing so for the rest of his life.
Three follet riders were intently studying a map.
As Phil looked down on them, he was shocked to see his friends were being chased not by a few dozen horsemen, but by a small, well-organised mounted army, complete with a detachment of wizards.
Phil had no doubt that Niamh and Derry could take care of the wizards easily enough, but he knew there was no way they could fight that many esprit follet horsemen and come out of the battle without serious losses.
The dragon was about to return and report his latest findings, when he heard the prince summon his scouts.
Phil watched as four riders rode forward.
‘You,’ said the prince, handing a scroll with the royal seal to one of the scouts. ’Take this to the Lord of Diziel, and tell him if he doesn’t send me all his cavalry and wizards, the crown will confiscate his holdings. If he disagrees, arrest him, and throw him in his own dungeon. Either way, once you’ve rounded up his men meet us in Havre. If you’re not there by dawn, when we leave – well, you know what will happen.’
The prince dismissed the scout and instructed the next one.
Phil watched as the prince sent three other scouts to individual towns, all with similar orders.
He flew back to warn his friends, wondering just how many esprit follet horsemen would be hunting them by the following morning.