A Boy Less Ordinary
Tom fell onto his face. Something moist and choking tried to get into his mouth and tickled his nose. He spat, clawing at his face. "What is it?"
"Just grass." Chrestomanci was standing above him, immensely tall against a sky that was an impossible shade of blue. The light that streamed around him was a yellow-tinged white.
Tom rolled onto his back, blinking. "What…? Where…?"
"Back home, of course," Chrestomanci said. "Well, almost home. I tweaked the spell a bit, so we'd come back in the grounds, not inside the castle itself. The people there can be a bit overwhelming."
"Grass…" Tom reached out a trembling hand. He had read references to grass, of course. The boys in the stories played football on it, or hid in it from their friends. He knew it was green, too, but he had always imagined it to be the same colour as the rancid slime on the walls of the dungeons. That was the only green he knew.
"I think I was right, too," Chrestomanci said. "If you're this overcome just by a bit of grass…"
Tom struggled to his feet. Even the air was strange. There was no undertone of smokiness in it, and he could suck in a lungful without wanting to cough. But, then, the very absense of smoke made him want to cough, because it was so different to anything normal.
"Is… Is the sky always so blue?" he stammered.
Chrestomanci nodded. "The honest answer is yes. The more accurate answer is yes, but we often can't see it. It rains a lot in this country, you see. And, before you ask, the clouds are white or grey, not the colour of blood."
Tom took a faltering step forward. He felt very tiny, adrift in a world where everything was different. "What are you going to do with me now?" he asked.
"Do with you?" Chrestomanci frowned. "Why, nothing. The question is: what do you want to do yourself?"
The question was too big. Tom could not answer it.
"Well…" Chrestomanci rubbed his hands together briskly. "First things first, I suppose. I'd rather do this out here. I do have reasons."
Tom brought both hands to his chest and clasped them there. "What if father…?"
"Oh, he won't." Chrestomanci sounded distracted. He had reached into his pocket and brought out the hamster creature. "Not here, anyway. Too well protected."
So I am just a prisoner here, too, Tom thought sadly. He could see a castle beyond the trees, and it was cleaner and fairer than his father's Citadel, but not too different. He could see tall walls around this impossible expanse of green. He expected that Chrestomanci had magical wards, too, so that no evil could enter the walls. Tom had left home without anything, and it looked as if he would have to stay forever in this place, an outcast here, just like at home. Only the colour of the prison had changed.
"Now, then," Chrestomanci said. "Let's see who you really are."
Placing the hamster on the ground, he raised his hand. The air seemed to shimmer, and suddenly there was a woman in front of him, hunched over on the ground. She twitched her nose a few times, then stood up. Tom was mortified to see that she was entirely naked.
"Oh. That won't do," Chrestomanci said. He flicked his fingers again, and she was clothed in a suit that looked rather like his own, except that it was cut low at the front, and had frills on.
The woman looked down, and grimaced in disgust. "What sort of an outfit is that? A vain boy's idea of what a girl ought to be wearing, I suppose. Ridiculous."
"You do better, then," Chrestomanci said tetchily.
The woman put her hands on her hips. "Don't you have women in that castle of yours? Can't you conjure out a set of their clothes?"
"I can," Chrestomanci said politely, "but I will not. Take what you're given. It was very kind of me, under the circumstances."
"I don't know what you're talking about." The woman turned pleadingly to Tom. "I don't know what he's talking about. After all I've suffered…"
Chrestomanci settled down on the grass, folding his long legs elegantly beneath him. "Why not tell us what you've suffered," he suggested.
The woman looked pleased, as if she had wanted nothing else than to be asked. She was fairly pretty, Tom thought. Not that the really knew what pretty was. She had none of the deadly beauty of his mother and sisters, but they were enchantresses whose job was to seduce men with their beauty, and then destroy them.
"My name is Galadriel," she said. Chrestomanci raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. "My people were cruelly oppressed beneath the Dark Lord's rule. Heroically and nobly, I took it upon myself to save them all."
"How?" Chrestomanci asked politely, "for you seem to be only a relatively minor witch."
"I was coming to that," she said tetchily. She knelt down, composing herself again into a storytelling pose. "I knew that none in our world possessed the power to defeat the Dark Lord, but I had heard tell of a great enchanter called Chrestomanci. I saw him once in a vision, and I knew that he was the one I had to summon. But the Dark Lord's citadel was well guarded. Not even Chrestomanci could enter it. But a wise man told me that there was a way. Chrestomanci, he said, could be summoned anywhere, through the strongest of magics, if one who belonged there called his name."
"One who belonged there?"
Galadriel ignored Chrestomanci. "I put myself under an enchantment, so that everyone who saw me would see what they expected to see."
"Clever." Chrestomanci nodded. "So you planned to walk up to the Dark Lord's door, and hope that everyone saw a postman, or a travelling torture implement salesman, or something."
"Yes." She sounded annoyed now, even sulky. "I do wish you would stop interrupting."
"I'm sorry." Chrestomanci did not look sorry at all. He was doing something casual with his hands. Preparing magic, Tom thought. There was a tickle in the back of his mind, as if something inside him was responding to the movement of those fingers.
"So I entered the Citadel," Galadriel said. "Unfortunately, my enchantment was flawed. People saw not what they expected to see, but what they wanted to see. Unfortunately, what they wanted to see was a captured prisoner to be tortured. So I was captured. I endured awful torments, before the Dark Lord tired of me, and gave me to his no-good son, hoping to shut up his whining for a little while."
"But not before he'd cursed you further," Chrestomanci said.
Galadriel tugged awkwardly at a lock of her golden hair. "Not before he'd cursed me further. Instead of merely appearing to be what a person wanted to see, I actually became it. I've been a hamster for years."
"Months," Tom corrected.
She shot him an ugly look. "It felt like years, brat."
Chrestomanci studied the back of his hand. "But surely that was part of your plan," he said mildly. "The name Chrestomanci had to be said by someone who belonged there. You said so yourself."
"Ah yes. True." She cleared her throat. "I… I found out the hard way. I tried to say it myself, but nothing happened. I tried to say it as a hamster, but my voice was too quiet. I had to bide my time, and wait until this boy here was ready to be trusted with the name himself."
"Really." Chrestomanci stretched out his legs, first one, then the other. He looked at the alarmingly blue sky, than at Galadriel again. "How annoyed you must have been to end up with me, rather than Gabriel de Witt."
"Furious," she spat. Then her face composed itself into smiles again, and she moved sinuously towards him. "But I cheered up when I saw how handsome you were, and how powerful."
Chrestomanci did not seem to move, but a gap had opened up between them. "Before you humiliate yourself," he said, "I should tell you that I am practically engaged to a lovely girl called Millie. Childhood sweethearts, and all."
She smiled with terrible charm. "That can change. But where is dear Gabriel? I would love to meet him."
Chrestomanci raised a casual hand, and Galadriel disappeared. "What have you done?" Tom cried out.
Chrestomanci raised one eyebrow. "You really can't tell? Come on, Tim," he urged. "See if you can find out."
Tom looked around. Everything was so bright, so shocking, so strange. He had no idea where… But wait! There was a worm there at Chrestomanci's feet…
"That's her," Tom said with certainty. It was obvious, now he came to think of it.
"Good boy." Chrestomanci smiled. "It seems I was right about you." Scooping up the worm, he stood up and started to walk towards the castle.
Tom was rooted to the spot. Too many questions were gibbering in his mind. Right about me? Why did you do that to her? How can anything be so green? How did I know? A worm? How you live here without going blind? What's going to happen to me?
"You said you didn't have magic." Chrestomanci's voice was getting fainter, so Tom had no choice but to run after him. Chrestomanci seemed unaware that Tom had not been following him at first. "But clearly you had to have magic, with heredity like that. It was clear that your father had taken it off you when you were little, because he couldn't trust you to do evil things with it. But now you're in a place where your father has no power, it's coming back to you."
"But…" Tom stammered. "How…? What…?"
"I expect you were trying to ask me about our guest," Chrestomanci said calmly, without turning round. "A wily creature. Any fool could see as much. It's plain that this was all part of a devious plan to lure Chrestomanci into a trap. Fortunately, she did not entrap the real Chrestomanci, but got me instead. Of course," he added, a few steps later, "the real Chrestomanci might have got out of it without losing a life."
"You mean she…" Tom swallowed hard. "She's in league with…"
"Oh no." Chrestomanci shook his head. "I very much doubt it. I expect she wanted your father brought down as much as anyone else does, but she hated Gabriel more. I wonder why. Perhaps Gabriel can tell us. Anyway, she planned to summon Gabriel in through the Dark Lord's defences. Either Gabriel would kill the Dark Lord, or the Dark Lord would kill Gabriel. Either way, she would be halfway victorious."
Tom trotted behind him, trying not to look down at the unnatural green of the grass. "But how do you know all this?"
"It's obvious," Chrestomanci said. They had almost reached the door, and he paused on the step. "Well, if I'm wrong, we can just change her back, and no harm done."
He threw open the door. Inside, it was clean and shiny, and the furniture looked comfortable, in colours Tom had never seen except on the front covers of books. A woman came scurrying out of a side room. "Oh, there you are, Christopher. You missed lunch."
"Could I have it in my room, please?" Chrestomani asked politely. "Two plates, please. This is Tim Green, and he's staying with me for a while. Though I'm not sure what his appetite will be like at the moment."
The woman bobbed her head, and vanished back through the door. Was she a slave? Tom looked round, puzzled. He could not see any torture devices on the walls, and there was not even the faintest sound of screaming.
Chrestomanci paused in the hallway. He seemed suddenly to be faltering. "Oh well…" He raised his head, stiffened his shoulders. "Let's get this over with."
He began to climb the stairs. Tom, for want of orders to the contrary, climbed after him, though the staircase was barely like a staircase at all. It did not twist, and it was not made of crumbling, slime-covered stone. It even had a rail, to stop people from falling.
Two children raced past the top of the stairs. "Hello, Christopher!" one of them called. "You missed lunch."
The other child jabbed her in the side. "He's Chestomanci today, remember."
"Gabriel still ill?" Chrestomanci asked them, with strained indifference.
"Still in bed," they told him. "Won't let anyone near him."
Chestomanci swallowed. He led Tom along shining corridors and past lavish rooms. Light streamed in through clean windows, and still Tom could not hear any screaming anywhere. Other things whispered in his head, though. He knew that someone was doing magic behind that door, and there, behind that one, too. Magic, he thought. Can I really have magic?
Chrestomanci paused outside a large, plain door. "Well…" he said. "Faint heart never won… Well, whatever it is." He knocked at the door.
"Go away," said a faint voice inside. Even though it was faint, the command struck Tom's mind like a blow.
Chrestomanci flinched. "It's me, Christopher."
"I know it's you," the voice said. "Leave me alone. Can't I have a day's peace?"
"Oh well." Chrestomanci shrugged. "I tried."
He gestured to Tom to follow him once more. Feeling dazed, as if in a dream, Tom did. This time Chrestomanci led him to a slightly smaller door, painted white. "My room," he said. He opened the door, and went in. Tom hovered on the doorstep, and watched as Chrestomanci went to a chest of drawers, and put the worm in the top one. When Chestomanci waved his hand and muttered some magic, Tom felt an answering twinge in his own chest.
"Well, come in, boy." Chrestomanci snapped his fingers.
Tom went faltering into the room. "What did you…?"
"Bound her to that form and to that place, of course," Chrestomanci said. "Of course, she's stuck there with my socks. I'm not sure if that's worse for her, or for my socks."
"Did you…? Will you…?" Tom staggered to a chair and sat blindly down. "This is too much. Everything's so strange."
Chrestomanci gave him a sympathetic smile. "Chrestomanci Castle is strange, I admit, but…"
"Not the castle," Tom said. "The air. The sky. There's no screaming. It's like… It's like somewhere in books. It's not normal. It can't be real."
"Not real?" Chrestomanci gave him a searching look. "You, my boy, are confused. It's your family that's not normal. It's that place of your father's that's strange."
"They are normal." Tom folded his hands in his lap. "Everyone in the world is like them, even those who pretend to be heroes and tell lies about noble causes. I'm the strange one. Normal people don't want to play football, or make models, or help their friends."
"Normal?" Chrestomanci strode towards him. He looked taller than ever, and angry. His dark eyes blazed. "I'll show you normal."
He grabbed Tom by the arm, and dragged him to the middle of the room. Still holding him, he raised his other arm and waved it in circles, while muttering words under his breath. Slowly, as Tom watched and struggled, a blurry picture appeared in the air, beneath Chrestomanci's hand. "Don't," Tom pleaded. "Please…"
"A glimpse into other worlds." Chrestomanci's voice was implacable. "Take a look and tell me what you see."
Tom looked. Magic held him, and he was powerless to look away. He was a field of green, with boys in white hitting a ball with a stick. He saw smiling children eating food on a cloth on the grass, while their parents laughed and ruffled their hair. He saw friends arm in arm, and he saw someone save a dog from the sea, and almost die themselves. He saw a boy helping an old woman across a path, and he saw a group of young men singing happily, with full glasses in their hands. He saw a girl blushing as she read a little, and a man steal a kiss from a sleeping woman. He saw… He saw…
"Enough," Chrestomanci said quietly. Tom sank back on his heels, blinking. He became aware that Chrestomanci was no longer holding him still. Tom was kneeling in the middle of an empty room, and Chrestomanci was sitting on the edge of the bed, with two empty plates beside him. Outside, the sky was no longer blue, and a flaming sun was sinking over the horizon.
"Don't tell Gabriel I can do that," Chrestmanci said. He looked weary. "I'm supposed to use the proper gate."
"Were they…" Tom's voice would hardly work. His limbs were stiff, and he felt impossibly hungry.
"Real," Chrestomanci said quietly. "All real."
Tom nodded. He knew it was true. This new, impossible sense that was stirring inside him told him as much. He had seen into other worlds, and all were real.
"You were the only normal one there," Chrestomanci said. "The only one who managed to keep hold of goodness. There are bad people in all the worlds, Tom, but they are the exception, and few are as bad as your father. You were the normal one, Tom. Never forget that."
"You got my name right," Tom said.
"Well. Yes." Chrestomanci stretched, looking strangely embarrassed.
Tom staggered over to the bed, and sat down beside him. "I don't know what to do," he confessed.
Everything he had ever known had changed. He had always known that his father's way of doing things was the normal way of doing things. Because Tom wanted something different, he was strange, an outcast. He would never in all his life meet anyone who thought the same as he did. Now Chrestomanci had opened doors to him. Worlds lay ahead of him, where a person like him could fit in and be normal. He never need to be laughed at again. He never needed to eat roast elf again.
Chrestomanci blinked at him. "I’d have thought it was obvious," he said mildly.
"What?" Tom tried to see what he had missed. Had there been a home for him, hidden in all those worlds he had seen? Or did Chrestomanci mean that Tom was to stay here as his own minion. Had there been hints that he had missed?
"Go back to your father's Citadel," Chrestomanci said quietly.
Tom leapt to his feet. It was all a trick! Chrestomanci had brought him here, forcing him to leave behind the only home he had ever known. He had taunted him with false hope, and now he was abandoning him, sending him back to his father, where at best he would be an outcast, and at worse he would be killed. His father was right. All self-professed heroes were cowards. Chrestomani cared only for getting himself home, and didn't care at all what happened to Tom.
"Why," Chrestomanci said with icy calm, "surely you did not intend to just walk away, and let your father subjugate a whole world?"
"But… But…" Tom could not speak.
"Because I certainly intend to return," Chrestomanci said. "I never walk out on something I have started."
"You're going back?" Tom croaked.
"Oh yes," Chrestomanci said. "Why, surely you did not doubt it? Do I look like the sort of man who would think only of saving my own skin? Do I look like the sort of man who would bask here in comfort, knowing that a man like your father was out there, unpunished?"
Tom could not answer. He knew, though, that his blush was answer enough.
"Oh no," Chrestomanci said quietly, standing up. "I intend to go back and finish things. Are you with me?"
And Tom could do nothing but nod.
end of part five