Nic’s arm was bleeding but it didn’t seem to bother him very much. There was a large damp patch on his jacket that was growing bigger.
“Looks alright,” said Rutga, giving the wound no more than a cursory glance. “You’ve had worse.”
Nic was not the sort of person to ignore cuts and gashes to his person. But then, this wasn’t his person. Perhaps the people of this era were made of sturdier stuff. The High–Father had mentioned that his ancestors had been resilient, maybe this was what he meant. Or maybe it was just this man who could take shards of bone fired into his body like arrows and barely notice.
It didn’t hurt that much, surprisingly, and he seemed to be able to use his arm without any problem. There was still a good chance it would become infected if not seen to, and eventually he would pass out from loss of blood, but if no one else was too concerned, Nic didn’t feel the need to make a fuss about it.
Nic was still trying to take in what was happening as he was led back outside into the courtyard. He had a smaller escort this time, only four men and Rutga. He wasn’t given an explanation or told what would happen to him but he did his best to remain calm and be patient.
The scene he had just witnessed had been a mixture of terrifying and fascinating. A pivotal moment in Ranvar’s history that bore absolutely no resemblance to the version he’d been taught in school.
Had Winnum Roke really killed one of the judiciary to bring them into line? It would explain why no one had a nice word to say about her. History might be written by the victors, but the losers usually managed to slip in a few snide passages here and there.
He was taken around the courtyard to the other side. There were still men training out here although they may have been different to the ones he’d seen earlier. He thought maybe he recognised a couple of their faces. He thought maybe he saw admiration in their eyes. They watched the small retinue circumvent their training ground, the prisoner no longer bound but now bleeding.
Nic found it almost enjoyable. To be looked at as someone who could take damage to his body and walk it off like it was no big deal was a new experience for him. There was something about other men giving you a slow appraisal and finding what they saw to be acceptable that was strangely uplifting.
Of course, they weren’t actually looking at him, Nic Tutt. If they were impressed by the bleeding prisoner, it was another Nic Tutt their admiration was directed towards.
Rutga turned the small retinue into an archway and through to an inner area that was suddenly full of noise and life. Instead of entering a building, they had passed in between structures that ringed the true city, which was a huddled mass of houses teeming with activity.
Nic was starting to get his bearings. The buildings behind him were were to become the various ministries of his day. The area he was in now was restricted to the public and used for ministry business, whatever that might be. But in this time, the ministry building formed a protective barrier around the settlement that had sprung up.
He could see the other buildings going all the way around, not quite the same as their modern counterparts but recognisable from the same yellow sandstone used in their construction.
And these houses crammed into their limited embrace were nothing like the houses of the capital. They were a mass of unevenly built structures piled on top of one another.
Nic’s neck swivelled from side to side and up and down, not watching where he was going but staying on course thanks to being flanked by people who knew where they were going.
The streets were cobbled with only small patches of mud where stones had been kicked loose. Horses and carriages hurried through the streets, leaving deposits of dung in their wake. No one seemed too concerned.
The populace were busily going about their business. The atmosphere was one of upbeat optimism. Nic wasn’t sure how he could tell but he felt it strongly, the urge to get going, to get things done. The air was thick with ambition and industry and resourcefulness.
Their destination wasn’t too far. The Royal College loomed before them, exactly the same. The red brick, the tall gates, none of it had changed in a thousand years. It was both impressive and imposing. It seemed to indicate an ability to endure beyond what intentions others might hold.
They paused at the gates as someone on the other side, a porter or possible a very lowly mage, exchanged words with Rutga and then pulled the gates open with a great deal of effort and much straining. Rutga watched him without offering to help.
“Now then, Private Tutt,” said Rutga. “You’ll be on your best behaviour or we’ll have to tie you up again.”
Nic nodded. He had no idea why he’d tried to escape in the first place. If he had been working for Winnum Roke all along, shouldn’t he have waited for her to come and get him, just as she did?
And what was his relationship with this Archmage? There had been some insinuations made that there was something more personal between the two. Was that merely scandalous gossip or something more? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
They entered the grounds of the Royal College and Nic instantly felt more comfortable. Not because he’d be any safer here — probably quite the opposite — but because everything felt familiar. He knew this place. It was the same.
“Okay, boys,” said Rutga. “I’ll handle it from here. No need putting the rest of you through this. You can head back now.”
Whatever it was Rutga was referring to, his men accepted his orders with obvious relief. They immediately turned around and hurried off.
“This way,” said Rutga. He set off without waiting for Nic. The gates were slowly being closed by the same man. If he’d wanted to, Nic could have darted through before they shut.
He followed Rutga, touching the damp spot on his chest. It seemed to have dried. Maybe it hadn’t been as bad as he’d thought.
Rutga was already entering a tall building, one of the many towers that gave the college its distinctive shape on the city skyline. Nic followed him in and they climbed the stairs that took up most of the space inside.
They went all the way to the top. To his surprise, Nic wasn’t at all tired by the time they reached the door at the top of the stairs. Being this physically fit was what he had aspired to, and now he had achieved it. All it had taken was using someone else’s body.
Rutga knocked on the door and then entered when told to do so from the other side. Winnum Roke was seated behind a large desk, writing something in a large book. She quickly scribbled something down and then closed the book.
“You’re here. Good.” She got up and walked across the small room.
She looked younger than the last time he had seen her on the demon ship, which was understandable, but also less stern and cold. Which was odd considering what she had done to the Lord Justice a few moments ago. There was a brightness and vitality to her that he hadn’t seen in the Other Place.
“You may go,” she said to Rutga.
Rutga raised an eyebrow that suggested he didn’t think it was wise for him to leave them alone, but it wasn’t clear whose safety he was concerned for. He turned around and exited, closing the door behind him. At least the return journey was going down.
“Nic,” said Winnum Roke, smiling, “what were you thinking?” She put her arms around him and kissed him on the mouth.
Nic was too startled to do anything other than let her. He felt the pressure on his lips but didn’t respond. He just froze.
Winnum Roke stopped kissing him but their lips were still connected. She slowly backed away, pulling her mouth off of his. She looked a little more like her old self now.
“Who are you?”
“Nic Tutt,” said Nic. He patted his lips which were tingling. It wasn’t his first kiss but it was definitely the hardest.
“No. You’re not him.”
“No,” said Nic. “I mean, I am. I’m Nicolav Tutt from—”
“Nicolav? Your name is Nicodene.” Her eyes were now as cold and stern as he remembered them.
“Is it?” So this person wasn’t the same as him. It was something of a relief. Was there a Nicodene Tutt in his father’s family tree? Was there also a Rutga–predecessor always destined to stand alongside him, or was the man just immortal? The thought that the Tutts and the Rutgas had some kind of eternal partnership through the ages, a duo fighting side by side, was quite a romantic one, if a little unlikely. His own relationship with the man who had tried to kidnap him probably wouldn’t rank very high on the list. “I’m not him.”
“I can see that,” said Winnum, her eyes sparking with blue light. “Who are you?”
“I really am Nic Tutt. I think I may be a descendant of this man, although I’m not sure. I’m not from this time. Sorry, I probably sound like I’m insane.”
“Not at all,” said Winnum. “Why don’t you tell me why you’re here.”
Nic decided to do just that.
At first, Nic had been thrown into confusion by his abrupt entry into this world. He had no idea what he was doing here or what he was supposed to do. The creature had said it could take him to see Winnum Roke and, technically, here he was.
But Nic had had time to think through the possibilities and it seemed fairly clear that none of this was real. It certainly felt real and he had little doubt this was an accurate recreation of the time and place it was meant to represent, but he hadn’t gone back in time to these events. He had been inserted into a memory of them, like being in a dream or a story.
And like being in a dream, nothing that happened here would affect the real world. This had already taken place. Even if he could affect this place, push and pull it out of shape, what these people went on to do had already happened. Nothing Nic said or did here would change the future.
This was the conclusion he’d come to. What he wasn’t so sure about was why he’d been sent here. What could this Winnum Roke tell him about a world she had no knowledge of?
“I came here to ask your advice.” That was the reason he had wanted to speak to Winnum Roke. If not advice then an explanation. He wanted to hear from her own mouth the reason she wanted to sacrifice her own people to defeat the High–Father. It just didn’t make sense to him but maybe she had a reason that would make him understand. Then he could step aside and let her do as she wished.
“I see.” This Winnum Roke had accepted his presence with great calm, but then she was the Archmage. Perhaps people from another time dropped in for a chat like this every now and again. “About what?”
Nic hesitated. If he couldn’t get the actual Winnum Roke’s response that didn’t mean this one’s was invalid. In fact, he might be able to get a more honest answer from someone who hadn’t yet been through the bitterness of learning what the Royal College truly was. This Winnum had that to come.
His hesitation came from not knowing how she would react but then he reminded himself that it didn’t matter. As real as this seemed, as real as Winnum Roke believed it to be, it wasn’t. He could tell her a completely honest summary of events and the worst she could do was nothing. And if she was anything like the Winnum Roke he knew, that wasn’t going to be the case. Unless she didn’t believe him. He had to make it as clear and as plausible as possible, that was all.
“In the future, I mean, where I come from, I mean when I come for, we’re in a struggle against the demons.” He looked at her, hoping he hadn’t lost her already.
“I see,” she said. “That would warrant seeking my advice. How far into the future is this?”
“A thousand years,” said Nic.
Winnum’s eyes widened. “So I’m long dead. At least the kingdom managed to survive that long.”
“Yes. We’re the most powerful country in the region and have been since your time. There has been prosperity and peace for many years. This threat is something recent.”
“And the dragons? Why not use them to fight off the demons?”
She didn’t know the link between dragons and demons. This Winnum Roke had yet to discover the secrets of the Royal College.
“The dragons have been… incapacitated. They sleep and can’t be roused.”
Winnum Roke nodded. “And what is it you wish of me?”
A good question. What could an ingenue Winnum Roke tell him?
“There is talk of making a last–ditch attempt to defeat the demons, to sacrifice everyone to stop them in their tracks. A plan that will take the lives of every single living person, but it is the only way anyone has been able to come up with that might work. We might fall but no one else will have to suffer at their hands.”
“And the alternative?”
“To become mindless, soulless slaves with no free will, trapped in an illusion until we eventually perish.”
“The only option is to allow everyone to perish? I think you have been misled, Nicolav Tutt.”
“I have?” said Nic. “We’re going to die anyway. At least this way we can make sure no one else has to go through this.”
“To sacrifice oneself to save a child, your own or even someone else’s, that is something many have done, it is something that is very human. But to sacrifice your child to save someone else’s?” She shook her head. “No, that is not something any human is capable of. Who came up with this preposterous plan?”
Nic had to stop himself from saying you did. But then, if this Winnum Roke was so clearly dead set against this idea, how had the other one come to the opposite conclusion? Unless she hadn’t.
“But if we die either way…”
“So be it. There is no shame in losing a fight. But killing yourself first… ridiculous. I’m sure I could come up with half a dozen alternative solutions if I had the chance to assess the situation. And if I can, so can your current Archmage.”
“He may be on the side of the demons,” said Nic.
“Typical,” she said, like it came as no surprise. “Still, no reason we can’t work around the traitor. And who is on our side?”
“Well, um, there’s me… and some people I know from school.”
“School? You mean the Royal College?”
“No,” said Nic. “I’m not a mage. I’m a student at Ransom.”
Winnum’s mouth fell open. And stayed there.
Nic waited for her to say something but she remained frozen. In fact, everything had stopped moving, even the air felt like it had stilled.
The door opened and Rutga entered. “You see, she’s the one we need.”
Nic looked at him. Was he the real Rutga transported here just as Nic was? “What do you mean?”
“This Winnum Roke, she can find a way to defeat the High–Father.”
No, not Rutga. This was the creature. In here with him the whole time.
“But you already have her,” said Nic. “On the ship.”
“She cannot be freed.”
“What about the piece of her I brought back?” said Nic. He had a fragment of Winnum Roke in his head which the creature had taken from him.
“That is not suitable. It has the mindset of the Winnum Roke who is bitter and determined to destroy rather than save.”
“And this?” Nic pointed at the woman standing like a statue. “You can take her out of here?”
“It can be done. But we need to replace her. A recording like this one can’t simply have parts removed. Someone has to take her place. Are you willing to do it?”
“You would be the Archmage, able to shape this world however you wished. It would only be a dream, but a magnificent one.”
Winnum Roke was right. What he was suggesting wasn’t something any person would propose. In fact, everything he’d been told about how to defeat the High–Father struck him as inhuman, just like the creature.
“No,” said Nic, “I won’t do it.”
“That’s a shame,” said Rutga. “I was hoping to do this amicably.” He reached out to grab Nic.
Nic dodged easily. He didn’t do it intentionally, the body he was in reacted on its own. Instinct or training or innate self–preservation, he didn’t know. But this body, this Nic Tutt, knew how to handle himself. He also knew how to fight, and how to kill.
Nic jumped towards Rutga.
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