Nic was escorted into the city, past the city walls. There was no Great Gate, this was before it had been built, there was only a stone archway.
His hands were tied behind his back and his arms were gripped tightly on either side by men who were much larger than him. They were the two biggest specimens among the men who had captured him, other than Rutga, and being put in their charge seemed to denote some kind of deference towards Nic. Or maybe to the person Nic was inhabiting.
Nic stumbled as he was pushed along, his feet tripping over each other. Everything felt unfamiliar and awkward. His limbs, his head, his stomach, his mouth — none of them fitted the way they were supposed to. Which wasn’t surprising since he obviously wasn’t in his own body. But then whose body was it?
He had been referred to as Nic Tutt by Rutga, which made no sense. It was possible he had been put in the body of some ancestor of his, another Nic Tutt, but his mother had never mentioned a namesake in the family.
Perhaps she didn’t know. His father would be the one to ask.
More bewildering was Rutga’s presence. If this was back when Winnum Roke was Archmage, that was a thousand years ago. How could Rutga be alive?
Unless he too was an ancestor; one who bore an uncanny resemblance to his descendant. An unlikely coincidence. Was any of this even real? If this was a vision of the past, visions could be amended.
“Creature, can you hear me?” mumbled Nic.
“Quiet now,” said Rutga from ahead. The man had sharp ears.
Nic stumbled again. It was like he had fallen asleep in the wrong position and woken to find he had two dead legs and two dead arms. The men holding him helped keep him upright.
“What’s wrong with him,” said the man to Nic’s left. “How could he be drunk and escape?”
“He ain’t drunk,” said the man to the right. “Must be some kind of hex.”
“You two can hold your tongues, too,” said Rutga.
Their accents made them sound like farmers, Nic thought to himself. Nothing like the fast and aloof way of speaking he was accustomed to from the denizens of the capital.
He was led through muddy paths into a maze of sheer walls. The city was smaller but it was crammed full of buildings. Entrances into courtyards appeared on either side. The buildings were small and built from stone piled on top of one another. Nothing like the tall buildings of his time. He caught glimpses of people going about their business, dressed very simply, their hands and faces covered in dirt and grime. Smoke seemed to be rising from every direction; black and sooty. There was a strong odour assaulting his nose. A mixture of cooking meat and burning wood, undercut with something more objectionable. A sharp, bitter scent he couldn’t quite place.
Nic had no idea what part of the city he was in. The walls were too tall to look over and the sky overhead was an unhelpful blank blue. Nothing made sense for the time being. He would just have to wait until he saw Winnum Roke and ask her.
He didn’t even know why he was being taken to see the Archmage. What crime had this Nic Tutt committed? Was his whole family line filled with assassins?
They came out of the maze into a large courtyard filled with men in uniform. They were in pairs, sparring with sticks and wooden swords, dozen of them, maybe hundreds. Nic was becoming familiar with his host body now. He could keep up with the men on either side without needing to be supported. His new legs seemed longer than his own. Looking down, his feet were definitely bigger. This member of the Tutt lineage was a large brute.
They kept to one side of the courtyard. Some of the training soldiers stopped their duelling to take note of the tight group of men passing through. The soldiers behind Nic made enough noise to make their continued presence known. He was clearly a prisoner who needed an armed guard.
There was a large building ahead, far more impressive than anything Nic had seen so far. Could it be the palace? It had been built around now, depending on exactly when ‘now’ was. It didn’t look very much like the modern version, though.
Before they got close enough for Nic to get a better look, the group took a sharp right turn into a more shabby construction. The ground sloped down and it quickly became cold and gloomy. Torches were lit from behind and the passage took on an eerie feel.
There was a different smell now. Damp and rot. There were no steps but the ground constantly sloped downwards until they came out into a large room with braziers providing light and a little warmth. Groups of soldiers, their shoulders sagging and their faces drawn, huddled around the fires. They showed little interest in the new arrivals.
Beyond them, the room was full of cells, separated by metal bars. The doors were also made of metal bars but kept shut using simple bolts that could easily be opened by the cells’ occupants by reaching an arm through the bars.
They took him to an empty cell, the door hanging open.
“Back you go,” said Rutga as his hands were unbound and he was tossed inside. “Try not to run off again.”
Nic fell on the stone floor, the ground slick with something slimy. There were men inside the cells on either side, maybe women, too, although Nic couldn’t tell in the gloom. The men he could see had matted hair and scraggly beards, three or four in each cell. He was fairly certain his own face was clean–shaven, so his incarceration was probably fairly recent.
“You said you were taking me to see the Archmage,” said Nic.
Rutga had closed the metal door and slammed the bolt across. The rest of the men stood behind him, adjusting their armour and belts as though the surroundings were making them uncomfortable.
“You’ll see her soon enough.” Rutga shook his head like he was disappointed. “I don’t know what got into you, Tutt. You showed such promise.”
Nic sat up, his hands supporting him from behind, the palms threatening to slide back along the slippery floor. He took a moment to get a good look at this Rutga. His face was more youthful but otherwise an exact copy. Was he taller than the Rutga Nic had encountered? Or just younger and fitter? It seemed ridiculous to think the same man had lived for over a millennium, but why not? With Arcanum, such things might be possible.
“What am I accused of?” Nic asked.
There were snorts of disbelief and rolling of eyes.
“You’ll have your chance to defend your actions, don’t worry,” said Rutga. He turned towards the men around the braziers. “Watch him more closely this time.”
The men grunted a response. They didn’t seem to care very much about their duty. It was all a little lax, to Nic’s eyes. Were the armies of Ranvar really this ill-disciplined? How had they won so many battles with this sort of attitude? Unless he was only seeing the worst of them.
Rutga led his men away. Nic was left inside a cell he could easily break out of — not even break, he could simply open the door and leave — guarded by men who didn’t appear to care what he did.
Nic got off the floor, the seat of his trousers wet and unpleasant to move around in. The cell was completely empty, no bed or chair. No toilet either, just a hole in the corner he didn’t investigate. The sound of someone relieving themselves a couple of cells away suggested there was no standing on ceremony here.
“Creature?” said Nic. There was no response.
The creature had said it would take him to see Winnum Roke. If this was part of the process and he would eventually get to see her, what exactly would he be able to gain from speaking to a thousand–year–old memory of the Archmage?
Nic grabbed a metal bar that was part of the door and immediately let go. It was bitingly cold to the touch. He reached through and down, and fiddled with the bolt on the outside. It made a loud metallic noise that drew the attention of the guards who gave Nic dirty looks but said nothing. Nic drew his hand back inside the bars.
He looked down at himself. His clothes were similar to those of the men who had brought him here. Clean and in good condition. He checked his body — his arms and chest, then his face and head. He seemed to be fit and healthy. Short, thick hair on his head, a square jaw and a prominent nose. A strong young man, probably in his twenties.
The body moved more naturally now that he’d had a chance to get used to it. Almost like it was his own.
How did this work? He had been put inside the body of someone who had existed, who had lived their life, and now they were under his control. Did that mean Nic could change history? It seemed unlikely. But he could choose to act or not act as he wished, so he could change this particular version of it. Did that mean anything? Not if it had no effect outside of this reality.
Whatever this was, real or not, Nic had to deal with it as his current reality. He was a prisoner and he had committed a crime of some sort. From what Rutga had said, probably involving someone’s death. Perhaps several deaths. Was he innocent or guilty? It wasn’t relevant but Nic was still curious.
He had already tried escaping and failed. It was possible that Nic’s arrival had scuppered Private Tutt’s escape plans, which was a little unfortunate. Had the real Private Tutt managed to get away successfully in the original version of his life?
Nic tried to not think about the real Private Tutt and focused on his own predicament. His main goal was to get to talk to Winnum Roke. Presumably, she would be an accurate representation of the Archmage. Perhaps that was better than speaking to the current one. He might be able to get answers that she would otherwise withhold from him. The thought made Nic feel a little more positive about his situation.
A Winnum Roke unaware of the future might give Nic a much clearer idea of why she had done the things she had done.
The other prisoners sat huddled in their cells, not talking and not looking in his direction. They had their own problems to think about. Nic sat down on the driest area he could find and waited.
It was at least several hours before Rutga returned. He had the same men with him, or at least the same number. The two large men he recognised for sure.
“Come along,” said Rutga as he opened the cell door. “Seems like you aren’t the only one in trouble today.”
“What do you mean?” said Nic, getting up and approaching the open door. The soldiers put their hands to their sword hilts. Nic raised his hands to show he wasn’t going to attack anyone. It was strange to provoke such a reaction. Almost enjoyable.
“I think you know,” said Rutga. “You and the Archmage.” He shook his head, even more disappointed than before. “Turn around and don’t make this any more difficult than it needs to be.
Nic did as asked and his hands were bound again. His arms were gripped the same as before by the same two men. The prison guards watched him being taken out with the same impassive expressions.
He was led back through the dark passage, sloping upwards this time, but not to the same exit. A few extra turns and he was at the bottom of a wide staircase. There was no door at the top just an entrance into the large hall of a building. He was marched across the hall, into another passage and into another cell, but this one looked out into a large chamber full of people.
They were dressed in fine clothes, sat in stacked benches on all sides, vehemently arguing and shouting at each other. The sight was immediately familiar to him from an old painting that hung in the Ranvarian National Gallery. The Pride of Ranvar’s Fall. It was a famous moment in Ranvar’s history, the beginning of the Golden Age, when the mages and the nobles formed a coalition that became the template for Ranvar’s rule.
The view in front of him was so exactly like the painting — the clothing, the colours, the shouting — Nic looked around expecting to see the artist behind his easel. On one side was the High Bench where the Seven Justices sat, three on either side of the Lord Justice.
They were all large men in white wigs, but unlike the proud nobles in the painting in the National Gallery, they were slouching and wore sneers.
And on the other side of the chamber, on a balcony, was a single woman. Winnum Roke.
“You have acted improperly, Archmage,” shouted the Lord Justice over the noise, his elevated position giving him some help. “The murder of the prince is too much.”
“Too much! Too much!” bayed the crowd around and beneath him.
“His death was his own doing,” shouted back Winnum Roke. Her voice easily transcended the noise.
“Lies!” cried out one of the men seated alongside the Lord Justice. “Your agent of treachery is there.” All eyes were suddenly on Nic. “He killed the prince on your orders.”
“The prince,” said a man on the Lord Justice’s other side, “his companions and his servants,” as though this was the greatest crime of all. “What did he do to deserve such a fate?”
“You know what he did,” said Winnum Roke.
The scene being played out was nothing like the story of Ranvar’s rise Nic had learned from history books. This was supposed to be the time when Prince Ranvir was assassinated by a foreign power, an act which united the kingdom and led to the start of Ranvar’s empire building. This was meant to be where the most powerful families came together and put their differences behind them for the betterment of all. All Ranvarians.
“If the prince offended you, madame,” said the Lord Justice, “he should have been chastised appropriately.” The crowd agreed with more shouts of, Too much, too much.
“And what would that entail?” said Winnum. “A slap on the wrist? I know too well how you operate, my lord. You act with impunity, the laws you write only applying to others. And I know the prince, a vindictive little fellow. If I allowed him to live, he would wait until I let my guard down and attack me from the shadows.”
“You slander the dead. You have gone too far, madame.”
The crowd bellowed, Too far, too far.
“It is you, sir, who have gone too far. Release this man and obey your own process of justice. This soldier was acting as he was ordered.”
“You admit it!” cried out one of the other justices. “Your lover is guilty of regicide.”
Nic was a little taken aback to be labelled the Archmage’s lover. It presented all sorts of questions if it were true.
“He is nothing of the sort,” said Winnum Roke.
“So you bewitched him and made him do your bidding,” said the Lord Justice.
“I am no witch,” said Winnum Roke with a ferocity that silenced the chamber, her eyes glowing with a crackling blue light. “I am the Archmage of the Royal College and you have tested my patience long enough.”
The Lord Justice rose out of his seat and floated into the air. He waved his arms and legs to no effect. Some of his fellow justices tried to grab hold of him but they were too slow and too slovenly.
“Put me down,” he yelled.
“Your corruption and self–serving ways must end,” said Winnum Roke. “You will serve as a caution to your successors.”
The Lord Justice began to turn redder and redder, yelling louder and louder. And then he exploded.
Nic turned away, raising his arms. He felt something hit him in the arm, pierce his skin and lodge itself there. He grabbed it and pulled it out. It was a shard of bone.
The chamber was in pandemonium, yelling and screaming as people attempted to exit all at once. There was a red mist falling where the Lord Justice had been. The other justices had sunk into their seats, their eyes wide with panic. This was not how the books had told it.
“Quiet!” boomed Winnum Roke.
The chamber immediately fell silent.
“There is a vacancy for Lord Justice. Do any of the current justices wish to apply?” She glared across the chamber at the cowering justices. They shook their head. “If you wish to resign your posts, do so now.”
The justices took off their wigs as one and vacated their seats, sliding off to the sides and slithering away.
“It seems we will need to elect new members of the judiciary council,” said Winnum. “Allow me to nominate some candidates for the sake of expediency.” She listed some names. They were familiar to Nic, the ones he had read of in his textbooks. “Do any of you wish to contest these nominations?”
No one said anything. “Very well. The seven of you nominated are now the council. I suggest you choose one from among you to be the new Lord Justice. And remember, your task is to serve the nation and its people, not your own whims and desires. Have that man released.” She pointed vaguely in Nic’s direction and then turned and left.
As soon as she was gone, the shouting began again.
The door behind Nic opened Rutga pulled him out backwards. He untied his hands.
“Now the Archmage will see you,” he said.
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