A Boy Less Ordinary
"We'll sleep on it first," Chrestomanci had said. "There's no point going into this hungry and tired. After all, this is the most powerful enemy I have ever faced, and he's already killed me once."
Tom had been powerless to argue. He had spent a night in a room that Chrestomanci told him apologetically was a second-class guest room, but which was more comfortable than anything he had ever seen. There had been books everywhere, and no-one had popped their head round the door to laugh at him or cuff him round the ear.
Breakfast had been good, full of meats that Chrestomanci had assured him had once belonged to creatures with four legs, not two. Chrestomanci had politely deflected all questions about who Tom was, and Tom, for his part, had said nothing at all.
After breakfast, they retired to Chrestomanci's room. Chrestomanci was brisk and business-like, dressed in a dark suit that was impeccably tailored, without being showy.
"Stand still," he commanded. Tom obeyed, and felt the stirrings of magic around him, like motes of dust settling on his hair and clothes. His magic sense was getting stronger by the hour, though he had yet to perform anything magical himself.
"There," Chrestomanci said, lowering his hands. "I've linked your life to mine."
Tom felt himself blanch. It sounded sinister, dangerous.
"Oh, it's nothing like that," Chrestomanci declared. "Your father's really warped you, hasn't he? Most enchanters prefer not to bind slaves to them with magical chains, you know. No, all I've done is make it that if I die again, you will be safe."
Tom thought there was a flaw in that argument, but did not say anything. Chrestomanci would only correct him in a superior fashion.
"If I die," Chrestomanci said, as he busied himself with gathering up small things and putting them in his pocket, "it will be my last life, except for the one in Gabriel's safe. That means I'll come back to life here. It's the perfect safety net." He grimaced. "Well, not to perfect, since it means that Gabriel will likely never let me out of his sight again, and I'll only have one life left. But it does at least mean that your father cannot destroy me completely, even if everything goes wrong."
Tom wondered whether to speak up. He knew his father better than Chrestomanci did. "He won't kill you again," he confessed at last. "He'll just keep you alive forever, in torment."
"Sounds uncomfortable." Chrestomanci winced. "But never mind. I am perfectly capable of killing myself, if worst comes to worst. In any case, it will all come to the same thing. I will awaken here, to a scolding. And you will find yourself back here, too, because you are bound to go where I go, until the spell is lifted."
Tom could feel the spell, heavy on his soul. He knew that Chrestomanci had done it for his own protection, but it felt like chains. He didn't know Chrestomanci, not really. He only had to trust that he would not abuse his power. It was a hard thing to trust. He had never done it before.
"How…" His voice came out like a squeak. He cleared his throat. "How are you going to k…kill my father?"
"Kill him? Dear me!" Chrestmanci spread his hands in mock horror. "I'm not going to kill him, dear boy. It's most impolite to kill a friend's parents, even if they are evil Dark Lords bent on world domination. Besides, a gentleman never stoops to the level of his enemies."
"My, you do ask a lot of questions," Chrestomanci said, not unkindly, "but I suppose I have rather landed you in this, like a traveller lost without a map. I often forget to pause to explain things. It is one of my many failings."
"But…" Tom clapped his mouth shut, realising that he had been about to ask another question. He resolved not to ask one again, at least for a minute or two.
"Best not tell you, my boy," Chrestomanci said, "just in case your father plucks the truth from your mind. Suffice it to say that I have a plan. Your part is merely to distract your father."
"Distract…" Tom fell back heavily into a chair. A cold fist clasped round his heart. Distract his father..? His father must surely know that Tom had helped Chrestomanci to escape. He had never liked Tom, but now he would be furious. Tom had often hidden under the bed, rather than face his father in one of his rages.
"Of course." Chrestomanci clapped a hand on Tom's shoulder. "Be a hero. I'm relying on you."
But I'm not a hero, Tom thought, as he trailed miserably behind Chrestomanci. He didn't really know what a hero was. His father said heroes were self-deluding cowards who spouted nonsense about noble causes, but broke and blubbered in the end. Chrestomanci had grovelled, and then run away, and that had only seemed to confirm it. But now Chrestomanci was going back into danger, not because he had to, but because he thought it was right. He was risking his final spare life, not to mention the fury of this Gabriel de Witt.
Tom did not understand it. At home, he was miserable and an outcast, but at least he understood the rules. This strange and too-bright world was too confusing for him, and Chrestomanci the most confusing thing of all. He was infuriating, but charming, too. He was arrogant and unfeeling, but he had never actually been cruel, and he was risking a lot for a world that was not his own.
But I'm not like him, Tom thought. In contrast with Chrestomanci's perfect appearance, Tom's clothes were creased and hung on him like washing from a line. His hair was already tousled, and he suspected that there was some breakfast on his face. Instead of striding confidentally towards his fate, Tom slunk in Chrestomanci's wake, feeling small and scared. He had never dared stand up to his father. He had never dared anything at all.
"Here we are," Chrestomanci said. Tom realised that he had stopped, and stopped, too, just in time to avoid walking into him. They were standing in front of a shining pentacle on the floor. "The gate," Chrestomanci said. "Time to go."
He did not move at once. Tom wondered if he was supposed to be saying something, and opened his mouth, but then he closed it again, unable to think of anything that was not a question.
"It might be tricky," Chrestomanci said, looking intently at Tom with his brilliant eyes. "The alarm bells will be ringing right from the start. Get ready to lie, and lie well."
Tom nodded, biting his lip. As he watched, Chrestomanci pushed up his sleeve, revealing a barely-healed cut on his wrist. "I did it on the stairs," he explained. "A drop of blood, inside his wards… It gives me a way in. Of course," he added, after a pause, "it gives him a way to get at me, if he finds it. That's the trouble with such things. There's always a catch."
Smiling, he dipped his finger in the blood. Still smiling, he raised his blood-stained hand, and uttered words of magic. The space inside the pentacle flared into life, and Chrestomanci moved forward into it, dragging Tom behind him.
Everything flared into wild confusion. Tom felt as if he was on the top of the Citadel, in the strongest of winds, buffetted by sound and sensations. Things rushed past him, invisbile to see. He clung to Chrestomanci, who was strong and tall and always there, striding through the confusion, barely half a step ahead.
The whirling ended. Tom staggered, and hit something hard and damp. It was the wall, he realised. The wall in the staircase, just in from the courtyard. The place where Chrestomanci had first made them invisible.
"Get ready to lie," Chrestomanci whispered, and vanished.
Tom stood there reeling. All was silent for the space of a few breaths. He groped inside his mind, and found that all was silent there, too. The burgeoning sense of magic was gone, sealed off as if by a great muffling door. You really had no right, father, he thought sadly. He felt suddenly years older than he had been only a day before, faced with the reality of his father's betrayal. You should have loved me, even though I was different.
Doors clanged open above him. Across the courtyard, his father started bellowing in fury.
Stage effects, Chrestomanci had called them. He was right, too. Tom's father was terrible, but the fire and darkness was done deliberately to terrify prisoners and impress visitors.
This is no way to live, Tom thought.
His twin came clattering down the stairs. "You're really for it this time, Talon," he gloated, when he saw Tom.
Tom folded his hands calmly in front of him. "I know."
He saw doubt flicker over his brother's face. Always, all through his life, Tom had responded to the taunts, either by defending himself, or retreating into silent misery. His brother had no idea how to react to this, but covered his confusion with a kick.
Tom greeted the kick with a calm stare, modelled on Chrestomanci. He blinked once, but said nothing.
His twin blundered on, out into the courtyard. As he reached the doorway, Tom had a clear view of his clothes, all black and affected pointiness, and the deliberate way he hunched and dribbled.
Chrestomanci's right, he thought. Inside, he aged another year. They aren't the normal ones. I am.
And then his father was there, filling the world, towering towards the sky in exploding fury. "Talon? You dare show your face here?"
Tom's nails dug into his palms. He wanted to grovel, to apologise, to appease. He wanted to promise to do better next time. He wanted to try a single pathetic little show of evil, just so his father would like him. He wanted to be part of things, even if it was only a tiny part.
"You helped that wizard to escape!" his father boomed. "You helped him trick me. And now you dare come back here…" He gave a dreadful laugh, that scraped in Tom's brain like a scream. "No, a worm like you would never be that brave. He dragged you back, didn't he? He grew tired of your whining, and cast you back like a fisherman with a scrawny fish."
"Be what they expect to see," a voice whispered in his ear. Tom did not even have time to wonder who it was.
"Yes," he sobbed. "He threw me back. He said I was a snivelling coward."
His father raised a taloned hand. "But he is here. No use lying to me about that, boy. I can feel him."
Tom nodded eagerly. "He's here. Please don't hurt me, father. He came back. I didn't want to come with him, but he made me. He's going to kill you, and he's going to make me watch."
"Kill me, is he?" Tom's father grabbed hold of his throat with long and dreadful fingers. "How does he propose to do that?"
"I don't know," Tom choked. "Please, father, you're hurting me."
"Disgusting." His father threw him away so hard that he struck the opposite wall, and fell down, stunned. "To think that a son of mine…"
He made as if to walk away. Desperate, tears hurting his eyes, Tom pushed himself to his feet again. "Kill you with magic, yes. I was so scared. I know I'm a disappointment to you, but I don't want you to die."
"Don't worry," his father said coldly. "I won't be dying. It's your little wizard friend who will do that, a very long time from now. But he will long for death before that."
"Please," Tom sobbed, grabbing his father's feet. "Please don't. I'll do anything. I'll be evil. I'll throw away my books. I'll do anything. I've changed my mind. I've seen another world, and I hated it. This is the way I want to live. I was so wrong. This is what I want. Please, father. Please."
His father kicked him away. "A good show, worm, but not good enough. I know your game." Cold magic raked through Tom's mind like claws. He's taking it! Tom thought desperately. He's taking it all. He tried to forget. He tried not to think about the important things. He felt sick, violated, the lowest of the low.
"You don't know anything," his father sneered in disgust.
Tom desperately clawed back his scattered thoughts, like someone gathering up jewels that they had dropped. Mine! he thought. Mine! Dimly, he remembered Chrestomanci refusing to tell him his plans. He knew this was going to happen, he thought bitterly. He knew.
"Just a distraction," his father sneered. "I will deal with you later, after I capture your friend."
He wanted to slump and hide. It was all over. All was lost. His soul had been laid bare, and his father knew him for the coward and traitor that he was. His father was raising his hand, readying the magic that would pluck Chrestomanci to his side, that would enslave him, that would destroy him.
"No," Tom sobbed. He pushed himself to his feet. "No!" He threw himself at his father's back. It was like hitting a wall of magic.
As he did so, something broke free from his collar. It was a bee, and there were words in its buzzing. "Take that!" it cried, as it stung Tom's father. "Take that! And that! And that!"
His father's hand was raised high with imminent magic, but he snatched it back, and started swatting at his neck. Tom screamed in his ear, and kicked with all his strength. The bee buzzed furiously…
And suddenly Chrestomanci was there, calm and immacculate in the middle of a flaming glory of white light. "Forgive me for interrupting," he said, with a little bow, "but my friends and I need to be leaving now."
That was all Tom knew for quite a long time.
He woke to grass, and the curious things that Chrestomanci had told him were flowers. His felt his body experimentally, and found that it barely hurt, and, better still, that he was most definitely alive.
Chrestomanci was looking down on him with amused patience. "Finally awake, I see. Sorry about that final shock. I could have pulled you out of there quietly, but it was just too tempting to be dramatic."
"Is father…?" Tom moistened his dry lips. "Did you kill…?"
"I said I wouldn't kill him," Chrestomanci said, with a frown. "Isn't the word of an enchanter enough for you? No, your father is still Dark Lording merrily away. The thing is, he can't do it anywhere else."
Tom did not understand, but he bit his lip, and did not ask. He hated it when Chrestomanci was superior.
"It was easy, when you knew how." Chrestomanci looked impossibly pleased with himself. "He had fearsomely strong wards set, so strong that I realised there had to be a focus item. All I had to do was find it, and work on it when he was distracted. So I did, and I did. It was a simple of matter of tweaking it so it worked in reverse. They no longer keep anyone out. They do, however, keep your father, and everyone loyal to him, inside, and inside forever."
"But can't he just change it back again?" Tom asked, deciding that curiosity was more important than pride.
"Oh no." Chrestomanci grinned, and reached into his pocket. "The only way he can reverse it is to lay hands on the focus, and it so happens that I have it here." He pulled out a small and shining item. "Turns out it was a ring after all. What did I tell you? It always has to be a ring with these Dark Lords."
"Oh." Tom looked down at his hands. "I wasn't much use, I'm afraid."
Chrestomanci looked surprised. "My dear boy, I couldn't have done it without you. He was working against me all the time. Hardest thing I've ever done. But you kept most of his attention elsewhere."
"I grovelled," Tom confessed. "I was terrified."
"You were terrified, but you did it," Chrestomanci said. "That, my boy, is courage. And your grovelling was just a tactic in war. You will often find that the best tactic is to be what your enemies expect to see."
"That's what…" Tom's head snapped up. "Galadriel! She was there! She was a bee."
He had expected Chrestomanci to look surprised, but instead he looked almost embarrassed. "I planted her on you, yes. I took a risk, I admit. She's no friend to Gabriel, but I was bargaining that she would jump at the chance to help defeat the Dark Lord. An enemy in the hand is worth another one in the bush, or words to that effect."
Tom looked around him, but they seemed to be alone. "Where is she?"
"Slipped away," Chrestomanci admitted. "She came with us when we left your father's Citadel, but she wasn't here when we got here. Jumped off in some other world, I'd imagine. I doubt we've seen the end of her, but that's a story for another day."
Beyond them, Tom saw the castle. The door was opening, and people were emerging, coming towards them. He decided not to tell Chrestomanci for a while.
"I don't know what to do now," he admitted.
"Do?" Chrestomanci spread his hands. "My dear Tom, you can do anything you like. There's a strong gift inside you, waiting to be trained, and you have a formidable strength of will. No, don't deny it. You withstood the seeping evil of that place, and withstood it for many years. You refused to be bullied, and you held onto your goodness. I think you can be anything you want to be."
"But I don’t… I don't know how to…"
"Your life is your own." Chrestomanci looked wistful, almost as if he envied Tom a little. "I know you're not used to making choices, but you can go wherever you like, and do whatever you want. As long," he added, "as what you want doesn't include subjugating worlds."
"It doesn't," Tom said, with feeling.
"Your father will never catch you," Chrestomanci assured him. "You're finally free. Make the most of your life, Tom, because it's yours." He stood up, sighing. "Well, Gabriel's almost here. I suppose I'd better go and face the music." Just before turning round, he gave Tom one final look, like a prisoner about to face fearsome torture. "Think of me, Tom. This is going to be terrible."
"Christopher!" an old man boomed. He was wrapped in a blanket, and his eyes were red, but in his own way, he was as terrifying as Tom's father. "I turn my back for a moment, and what do you do? You've lost another life."
"And saved a world," Chrestomanci added hopefully, but it was not enough.
As he was dragged off in disgrace, he turned to Tom and mouthed, "Remember me."
But by then, women were fussing around Tom, asking exclaiming at how pale he looked, sympathising with him for being the unwitting victim of one of Christopher's adventures. As he let them lead him inside and sit him down at an over-flowing dinner table, he thought that he could be quite content here.
One day, when he was grown-up, he could make the choices Chrestomanci had talked about, and decide what he wanted to do in life. But, for now, all he wanted was somewhere that felt like home.
Besides, he thought, as he heard the distant sounds of Christopher's scolding, at least in this place no-one would call him abnormal, not when they had Christopher to compare him with.
Notes: I really enjoyed writing this! I've never written DWJ fanfic before, though I've loved the books for years. As to whether I'll do another…. I don't know. There is potential sequel material in this story, but it just slipped in by mistake, and wasn't intended. I have no immediate plans to write a sequel, anyway.
The inspiration for this was three-fold:
1. Suddenly realising that Christopher ended "The lives of Christopher Chant" with 3 lives (well, he was on course for having three lives shortly after the end of the novel, anyway) but was down to 2 again in "Charmed life." It made me wonder how he'd lost that life.
2. Musing about "Archer's Goon", and wondering what it would have been like to be a truly ordinary child in that family. Not just Venturus-style "ordinary", but really ordinary.
3. All the Tough Guide/Derkholm style Dark Lord stuff, which I've found fascinating and hilarious for years. I've written several short Dark Lord humour pieces, and this, in a way, is just the latest one.