A Boy Less Ordinary, part four
"What?" Tom whirled around. "I can't just…"
"Of course you can." Chrestomanci spoke with that smug calm that Tom had long since decided was maddening. "Think about it. Your father has placed strong wards on this place so that no-one with magic can get in or out, but all his children have magic, all his chief minions have magic, and they go in and out."
"I've never left," Tom said.
Chrestomanci faltered just for a moment. "But your brothers and sisters have, I'd hazard."
Tom had to nod. The others had. He had never been trusted to. No, he realised. He had never tried to. It was one thing to be laughed at as a freak inside your own home, but quite another to be adrift in a strange world, an outcast amongst strangers. He was sad at home, but at least he was sad in a place he knew.
"Think about it for a moment," Chrestomanci said. "Clearly they can't all be setting off alarm bells all the time. Possibly they have to go to your father every time they want to leave, to get a special exemption, but I doubt it. It would too much of a distraction to his attempts to subjugate the world, after all."
"They just go," Tom said. "Without asking." He remembered a time when his older brother had gone out with his followers and wiped out a few villages when he was supposed to be at home guarding a prisoner. He had been in serious trouble for a while.
"As I thought." Chrestomanci smiled. "So we will have to assume that there is some permanent exemption for you all. With the minions, it will be bestowed. But I'm willing to hazard my life on the fact that, with you, it is in the blood." He gave a wry grimace. "Hazard my life? Poor choice of words, is it not, Tim?"
"I've never left." There was a fluttering kind of panic in Tom's breast, although the leaden dullness was still lurking in his stomach. It was an uncomfortable conflict of feelings, rather like going down with flu.
"You don't have to," Chrestomanci said cheerfully. "Just walk me to the door. Give me a push. And there we go. I'll be away, and you can plod back to whatever it is that you do in here."
"What about me?" the hamster piped up. "You can't just leave me like this. I'm not really an animal. I'm a woman. I came here, risking my life, in a desperate mission to overthrow…"
"Yes, yes." Chrestomanci flapped his hand. "I can see very plainly that you're a woman under an enchantment. I'm not blind. But I can't take it off you. That would set the alarm bells ringing as badly as trying to break through the wards."
"Take me with you," the hamster pleaded. It suddenly looked almost shabby in its desperation. "Free me as soon as you're out."
Chrestomanci looked at it thoughfully, but when he spoke, his voice was clear and decisive. "My dear lady, I would never dream of doing anything else." He unfastened the cage, scooped up the hamster, and put it in his pocket. "Now, don't you go doing anything unpleasant in there," he warned it.
Tom trailed his hand along the windowsill, leaving a thin line in the dust. His room was perpetually dusty, from the smoke and brimstone from the courtyard, and the miasma of charred flesh that issued daily from the kitchen-cum-torture-chamber.
"Well," Chrestomanci said crisply, "lead on, Tim."
Tom trudged to the door and opened it, revealing the landing and the dark stair well beyond. There was no-one there, no spy planted outside on the landing to listen to their plans, and gleefully spring the trap. "Perhaps they're invisible," he faltered.
"No." Chrestomanci sounded confident. "There's no-one there."
"I thought you weren't going to use magic," Tom said accusingly.
Chrestomanci gave an apologetic smirk, that didn't look apologetic at all. "I'm not. Some things just come naturally to me. They can't just be switched off like a light. It's just the way I am."
"Arrogant and irritating," Tom muttered to himself. "That's the way you are."
"True, true," Chrestomanci said cheerfully. "Shall we go?"
Tom started down the steps, felling the way with his hand on the dank stone wall. He had often asked for lights and carpets, but had always been refused. He didn't just want them because he was strange, he argued. It seemed to him that even the foulest of Dark Lords would prefer to live somewhere comfortable, rather than in a dark and malodorous ruin. Though his father's chambers were pleasant enough. "Got to toughen you up," his father had said. "Teach the right attitudes right from the cradle."
"Dear me," Chrestomanci said. "I don't think much of his taste in interior décor."
Just what I was thinking, Tom thought. It made him stride out heedlessly and fast. Chrestomanci was infuriating, but perhaps they could have been friends of a sort, if he had stayed.
"It's far worse in the dungeons," the hamster offered, from its place in Chrestomanci's pocket.
"I do not doubt it," Chrestomanci said. His tone suggested finality. Tom thought the hamster had been trying to tell its story.
They reached the first floor landing without being stopped. All the doors they passed were still and silent.
"I risked everything," the hamster whined. "I came here knowing I would be facing torture and possible death, because this world needed a hero, one brave enough to bring the great Chrestomanci here to set things right."
"Oh do be quiet," Chrestomanci commanded. Tom did not think he used magic, but the hamster's little mouth snapped shut audibly, and it said nothing else.
They went down another twist of the spiral, and another. Light filtered in from the courtyard, sick, like a bruise. Dampness and slime were cold on Tom's fingers. "Dear me," Chrestomanci said quietly. "I think I can hear the sound of a fell host gathering."
"Lesser minions," Tom whispered. "There's usually some of them out in the courtyard."
Chrestomanci stood still. "They'll stop you?"
Tom shook his head. "Not if I'm by myself."
"Ah," Chrestomanci said. "And how far to this back door of yours?"
"Across the courtyard, behind the kitchen." Tom considered. "Half a minute. A minute. Less if we run."
"I prefer not to run. Quite undignified." Chrestomanci tilted his head to one side, clearly pondering. By the faint light from the courtyard, he looked almost dead again. "It seems that I have no choice," he said at last.
Tom swallowed, preparing himself for anything.
"I will have to go invisible again," Chrestomanci said. "I think it's best to make you invisible, too."
Tom felt cold. "But won't father…?"
"Very possibly." Chrestomanci sounded far more cheerful than the words merited. "I'll just have to try to make the magic feel disreputable and evil, so it blends into the background. It probably won't work, but it's worth a try. Hmm… I wonder how one makes a spell feel nasty?"
"Smell?" Tom offered. "Think nasty thoughts?"
"Well, let's see, shall we?" Chrestomanci disappeared, and Tom found himself shuddering, sickened. A nasty smell hung in the air, and it felt as if the very air was foul and rancid, slithering across his skin. He felt sick.
"Any good?" Chrestomanci's voice said from the awful air.
Tom nodded, not daring to speak in case he was sick. He had once been sick all over his father, when he was very young, and his father had been demonstrating a particularly evil sort of spell. His father had been horrified, of course. Tom thought that had been the start of his life as an outcast.
"Well," said Chrestomanci. "No good dithering. Do or die, as they say. Let's make a brisk but dignified walk for it."
Tom looked down. He could not see his body. It was less scary that he would have expected. It was not as bad as the foulness that still clung to the air. "Perhaps," he managed to gasp, "you shouldn't make it quite so smelly."
The foulness receded a little, and Tom felt safe to lower his hand. "I don't know where…"
"Just lead on," Chrestomanci said quietly. "I can see you, even if you can't see me. And don't worry. I've put a shroud of silence on us, too."
Clenching his fists at his side, Tom walked out into the courtyard. Around twenty lesser minions were on guard, and not one of them looked towards him. He fought the urge to creep along on tip-toe, in case they could see the shape of his footsteps. He fought the urge to run headlong towards the door, screaming.
"Steadily," Chrestomanci murmured, very close. "Calm. Steady."
His voice was an anchor. Tom walked out into the open courtyard, between two still minions. A group of enslaved monsters were chained next to a dark carriage, and they stared dully towards him, but did not seem to see him. Tom did not recognise them, and assumed they were the slaves of one of his father's guests.
"Silent bunch, aren't they?" Chrestomanci whispered. "Most servants relax when they know their master isn't watching. Even your regular kind of fell host indulges in a little gloating and rampaging when left alone."
They were halfway across the courtyard. None of the minions spoke, and their only movement was to pace the paths of their assigned patrols. They were laden down with weapons, though, and each one possessed a token which, if activated, could call the Dark Lord to their side in an instant.
Tom hazarded a glance towards the Great Hall. The door was closed, the windows glowing red and smoky with fell hospitality. Inside, was his father still eating, still telling his dinnertime tales of heroes he had tortured? Or was he watching from the window, waiting, gloating, biding his time?
He walked a little faster. He did not know if Chrestomanci was following him, or not. Someone could have snatched Chrestomanci away and killed him, and Tom would not know. Perhaps he would stay invisible forever, pacing this courtyard, unable to escape.
"Calm," Chrestomanci whispered. A reassuring hand squeezed his shoulder.
Tom let out a shuddering breath. He thought of the boys in his books, who walked with their heads high even as they went to face the headmaster, or to play the final match of the season. He would do this thing. They were almost there. All he had to do was stay calm, and walk.
"Oh dear," Chrestomanci said. "I think we ought to start running after all."
Tom started to look round. "No," Chrestomanci commanded. "Don't look, or you might fall. It's your father. That's all you need to know. Now run."
He wanted to look. He needed to look. But Chrestomanci guided him forward with a firm grip on his arm, and he had no choice but to run, or he would have been dragged off his feet. "It can't be…" he gasped.
"He's a sneaky customer, it seems," Chrestomanci said. "No fire and brimstone this time, or booming footsteps of terror. Just the real man, who I think is far more terrifying than all of them."
"But what if…?"
"Hurry up!" Chrestomanci cried. "He'll strip the spell off me in a minute, and then he'll know you're here. You have to hurry. Run faster than you've ever run."
Tom felt as if his legs were struck by a hurricane. His body was propelled forward. His legs moved no faster than they normally did, but each one covered three times the usual distance. The buildings flashed by in the whir. Vaguely, he saw the minions start to move, but their limbs moved as if they were in thick jelly, and they raised their weapons as if they were mountains.
"We still have a chance," Chrestomanci gasped. He sounded exhausted, strained beyond belief. "But I hope, for your sake, that the door is near."
Five more steps, ten, fifteen… Tom crashed into the door with a force strong enough to knock his breath out of his body. Hurting all over, he slithered to the floor. "Here it is," he gasped. Every word hurt him. He fumbled for the door handle, his sweaty palms slithering off it every time he found it.
"Open it!" Chrestomanci urged him. "I've only got seconds."
Tom clawed at the door and opened it. Dimly, faintly, he saw another door that was still closed. Chrestomanci was making everyone believe that the door had not been opened, he realised.
"Go!" He shoved blindly at the air, trying to find Chrestomanci, to push him through.
"But aren't you coming?" Chrestomanci sounded stunned.
Tom slumped to the ground. To go with him…? To leave his home behind, and everything that he knew? He couldn't. He couldn't! But if he stayed… His father would know that he had helped Chrestomanci escape. He remembered his father once half-strangling him in cold threat. "If ever you do anything that actually hampers me, rather than being an embarrassment to me, then do not think that your blood will spare you."
He did not think any longer, but threw himself through the door. "Good," Chrestomanci said. Tom felt his hand grabbed, and then everything whirled around him, all rushing air and swirling light. He screwed his eyes shut.
When he opened them again, all he could see was green.
end of part four