Lord of Illusions – Rita Boucher

Surrounded by a bevy of subalterns, the Duke of Wellington scanned the valley below him. Like red sand through the bottleneck of an hourglass, the British troops sifted across the swift-running waters of the ford. The cacophony of an army on the march almost drowned out the rumble of distant thunder. Men shouted curses. Wagon wheels groaned. Horses whinnied anxiously, balking at the crossing. Nonetheless, the general heard that faint reverberation, had half been expecting it, dreading it. His eyebrows knotted as he looked toward a burgeoning line of darkness above the distant hills. With an anxious snap, Wellington shut his telescope and turned to one of his officers. “Tell Picton to hurry them across. A cloudburst and the river will become a veritable Red Sea.” “But Sir,” his adjutant protested. “There is not a cloud for miles.” “Do as I say, Major, immediately, else we risk having our forces divided,” Wellington demanded. “And though they expect me to perform miracles, I am no Moses to be parting the waters.

” As the officer sped off, the duke reluctantly turned his attention to another part of the promontory. His gaze swept past the knots of conversation and camaraderie, seeking the man who had predicted the coming storm and endured the laughter and jibes of his fellow officers for his pains. Wellington winced as he recalled how he had left England’s Chief Mage twisting in the winds of their mockery. Pride was a morsel that the duke was rarely forced to swallow, but it appeared that he would have to tender his apology and pray that the consequences of his arrogance could be mitigated. As usual, Damien, Lord Wodesby stood alone. His hair ruffled in the breeze as he stared off into the horizon, the shock of gray at his forehead like a streak of lightning amidst the coal black sweep of his hair. A night-shaded mastiff loped to his side. Abruptly, faint zephyrs grew into a stormy blast that sent the mage’s cloak billowing majestically behind him. Wellington suppressed a shiver as Wodesby turned, his green-eyed scrutiny steely with rebuke. No words were necessary.

I warned you, that stare declared. You chose to ignore my vision because you feared ridicule if you relied upon me and my sorcery erred. I begged you to defer the troop movement, pleaded in front of them all. “It appears I was wrong,” Wellington said, the unaccustomed words scraping uncomfortably at his throat. Damien, Lord Wodesby, nodded, accepting his commander’s admission as the closest kin to remorse that would be offered. The mage closed his eyes momentarily, using his power to gauge the winds, questing among the clouds. No Gift of Foretelling was necessary to discern Wellington’s next question. “How long?” the general asked softly. “No more than an hour,” Damien replied, adding the equation of the elements and coming up with the sum of disaster. “Less, if the currents pick up.

It will be a deluge.” “Not enough time,” Wellington muttered, surveying the milling host on the far side of the valley floor, his gut clenching as he envisioned the river below swelled by rain, sweeping through his army like a watery fist. Retreat now and the body of troops would be split in half, caught on indefensible ground between the French and the river. Continue . ? Scudding clouds were beginning to form into a solid column. “Do you have any Visions, Wodesby? Any inkling of what is to become of us?” he demanded. Damien shook his head. “None, Your Grace,” he said, his flat tones masking secret fears. For the past few days, it seemed as if his powers as a Seer had deserted him. Every mage had his dry spells, to be sure, but what if there were no visions because there was no future in store for Damien Nostradamus Wilton? In the history of the Blood, there had been but a handful of Seers who could predict a destiny beyond their own span.

Was the line of Wodesby, descended from The Merlin of Camelot, destined to end on these sere Spanish hills? Damien shrugged inwardly. What was fated would be. Right now, his sworn duty was to England and he would do whatever was in his power to avert disaster. Once again, the mage sent his thoughts chasing among the clouds, testing the elements that propelled the coming storm, trying to see if the tempest could somehow be turned aside. If he could work in tandem with nature, there was a greater chance of success. But his survey soon revealed that the natural forces arrayed against him were far too strong. The only available countervailing wind in the vicinity was little more than a puff by comparison to the approaching gale; scarcely enough to cause the rain to bypass them. He considered the possibility of using it to cause a delay. It would be extremely risky to trifle so with the elements, yet magic seemed the only choice. “I will do what I can,” Damien promised, unfastening his cloak and shrugging off the red coat of his uniform “Keep the area around me clear, Your Grace, for I can ill afford distraction and my immediate vicinity may soon prove to be a rather chancy location.

Please take Angel with you.” The mastiff growled in a manner that was uncannily argumentative. “No nonsense, my friend,” Damien said, dropping to his knees. “You know full well that you cannot help me here.” Wellington hesitated, watching as the dog licked Wodesby’s cheek in a gesture that was oddly like a human farewell. The mage rose with fluid grace, rolling up his sleeves to reveal a thin band of hammered gold upon the rippling muscle of his forearm. “What do you intend, Wodesby?” “To buy you time, Sir,” Damien said with a grimace, “to play with lightning, which is always iffy business even for the best of sorcerers. Should I chance to go to seek my final rest in the Light, would you make certain that Angel brings home my ring and this band from my arm along with my regrets?” He touched the inscribed talisman lightly and the runes seemed to twist and shimmer. England’s band, his father’s in his lifetime; Damien had always hoped that his son might someday wear the Chief Mage’s symbol, but now . “My mother will convey them to my cousin, who is presently my heir.

Poor Mama, she has been after me for years to do my duty to the family. I would hate to prove her right.” Never before had his magician seemed more young, nor more human than with that wry admission. There was no room for denials or false heartiness in Wodesby’s stark gaze. Wellington had seen that look of resignation more often than he cared to remember. Beneath that cool hauteur was the fear of a man with unfinished business. “This would not have been necessary had I heeded your warnings, Wodesby,” Wellington said, gripping Wodesby’s hand. It was like holding a block of ice. “I am sorry, Damien.” “You did what you had to, Sir, as I do what I must,” Damien said, touched despite himself.

Although he had been serving as Wellington’s mage for nigh on two years, this was the first time that the duke had taken the mage’s hand without being forced to do so by social obligation, or addressed Damien by his given name. He returned the general’s clasp firmly, trying to convey comfort, to keep his fingers from trembling with the knowledge that this might be his last corporeal contact on the mortal side of the Light. No sooner was the summit cleared than the air began to shimmer strangely and clouds gathered to hide the cliff and the sorcerer who stood upon it. Hats were torn off of unwary heads by sudden winds and lightning blazed through the skies, scenting the air with the threat of rain – an unfulfilled threat. For three hours, the storm hung above the army like the sword of Damocles, but the rain did not fall, not until the final wagon had crossed the river. When they brought down Wodesby’s motionless form, the ford had become a raging torrent. Although there were many who credited luck rather than magic, even the most vociferous of the scoffers gawked at the sight of Damien, a rain-bedraggled ghost, his dark hair turned the silver of lightning, his staring emerald eyes tinged with an unearthly blue. “They are all across, Wodesby, every last man,” Wellington said. Damien nodded weakly and let himself drift into darkness as Angel howled at the sight of the burns on his rain-chilled hands. 1 France 1814 “Kek-kek, kek-kek!” With a complaining cry, the merlin shifted restlessly on its red velvet perch, chittering continuously as the ancient carriage clattered from rut to boneshaking rut along the ill-kept roads.

Rowan, the Comtesse du La Fey, reached out to soothe her familiar’s ruffled feathers. “Patience, Mignon,” she said, stroking the mud brown plumage gently. “Soon, the comte’s final bit of business will be done.” “Will we be much longer, Mama?” Giselle asked, echoing the bird’s question. “I want to go back to Paris. Why do we have to go see my brother now? Etienne never came to visit us at all when the comte was alive.” “The comte,” always “the comte,” Rowan was irritated to realize that they both still addressed her late husband by his title tinged with a tremolo of dread as if he was somehow watching them from Hades. The very innocence of the child’s inquiry was a testament to eleven long years of effort. Looking into her daughter’s eyes, devoid of malice and guile, Rowan stifled a sigh. Somehow, Rowan had managed to shield the child from her father, from the intrigues and rivalries that were as much a part of the French branch of the du La Fey Coven as magic itself.

Although the child had feared the comte, she did not yet understand the full extent of his evil. Hopefully, Giselle never would know, since now, by the mercy of the fates, the old web-spinner was dead. Yet, Rowan could not rid herself of a growing foreboding, as if he were somehow reaching from the grave. He is gone, she reminded herself, buried. You put coins on his eyes for Charon the boatman’s fare. You took the band of France from his corpse. “We have to deliver your father’s things, ma petite,” she said, keeping her tones calm, free of anger and bitterness. “This is how we show our respect.” High upon the hilltop, she could see the outline of the Chateau du La Fey, its imposing presence limned in the setting sun and she was beset by images of long ago. Eleven years vanished and she was once more a helpless girl of fifteen, broken of heart and spirit, heavy with child.

“Home, my comtesse,” the old comte’s mocking words echoed across time. “My home.” “Etienne is now Chief Mage of France.” Rowan squeezed her daughter’s hand as much to be comforted as to comfort. At least some good from those years of unremitting hell, Rowan reminded herself. Whatever she had done, though she had sullied her magical Gift, her very soul, it had been worth all to protect Giselle. “The comte’s talismans belong to your brother now.” She touched the black velvet box on the seat beside her as if to assure herself of its reality. Soon she and her daughter would be free. “And are you still Mistress of Witches, Mama?” Giselle asked.

Rowan smiled ruefully, touching the thinly wrought chain of twining serpents at her throat; her badge of office, the last chain that bound her to France and the du La Fey coven. “I am afraid so, my dear, until your brother decides to take himself a wife.” The carriage swayed abruptly and the case slipped unto the floor, the catch springing open to disgorge the dull band of beaten gold. “Kee, kkkkek,” Mignon cackled angrily. “Is it a bad omen, Mama?” Giselle asked, translating the bird’s pronouncement anxiously. Rowan snatched the band from the floor, quieting her familiar with an angry glare. “Of course not, ma petite,” she said, quelling a frisson of fear. “All will be well, I am sure.” . From behind the window curtain, Etienne watched the creaking coach lumber to a halt.

As his father’s widow stepped into the pool of torch light, he exhaled sharply. Eleven years . he had heard reports of the comtesse’s beauty, but somehow those secondhand accounts had never managed to supplant his memories of an awkward girl of fifteen, shy, frightened and bewildered by events beyond her control. But it would seem that no remnant of that ungainly child remained and for a brief instant, the Comte felt a twinge of regret for the young Welsh witchling that she had been. However, that second of pity passed quickly as he evaluated her with a calculating eye. Mourning suited her; her black gown flowed about her like liquid night. The coal black abundance of her hair was bound behind her in a net that shimmered with pearls, beaded moon drops against the gathered silken dark, framing his stepmother’s piquant face. With her familiar perched easily on her shoulder, she seemed the essence of witchly grace. The child beside her was as fair as her mother was dark, a du La Fey countenance, much like his own, the sister he had never seen, the pawn that he would use against Rowan. “You see now, what your father stole from you, Etienne?” Claude asked, downing the remnants of his brandy and wiping a hand across his fleshy mouth with a satisfied sigh.

“The comte pays the girl’s father a fortune to break her betrothal to Wodesby; for you Etienne, he tells me, for you. She was to be your woman, Etienne, yours! Then your father takes her for his own. Why do you think the comte bans you from the house these years past, eh? And now, by the Laws of the Blood, you may not have Rowan since she was your father’s wife.” Etienne turned to face Claude, concealing his anger. Mage though his cousin was, it was sometimes difficult to believe that he shared the du La Fey heritage. The boor lacked all subtlety. Only a fool would bring up that history now and the reminder that she was beyond her stepson’s reach was an unnecessary goad. “I know the Law as well as you, Cousin. Still, she serves the du La Fey. At present, nothing matters beyond that,” he said, a chill in his voice as his father’s words echoed in his mind.

What matter is it, my son, if the enfant is yours or mine? Her power serves the du La Fey . she serves the du La Fey. He looked down absently at the writing quill in his hand, snapped in two beneath the pressure of his fingers as began to comprehend the full measure of his father’s perfidy. His stepmother, by The Merlin! This enchanting creature was Etienne’s belle-mère, when she had been promised as his wife. Though his cousin was a fool, even a fool could speak the truth. It was obvious now why the elderly mage had risked all to break her betrothal to Wodesby, only to steal her away from his own son. A claw snagged at his trousers, bringing him abruptly back to the present with a sharp hiss. “You are correct, Suzette,” Etienne said, looking down at his feline familiar with a sardonic chuckle. “Have the comtesse shown directly to the library and make certain that her feathered companion is offered food in the kitchens. I do not wish to have that meddling bird interfering, is that clear? Have my sister taken to the nursery.

” The black tabby meowed and padded away to do her master’s bidding. “What did your familiar say to make you laugh?” Claude asked, eyes glaring suspiciously above bloated cheeks. “I have an owl myself and little mastery of the Felinish tongue of cats.” Etienne shrugged. “Loosely translated, she reminded me that ‘all witches are the same in the dark.’” Claude guffawed. “Flesh or fur, a female still has claws, eh, Cousin?” “Claws indeed. And on that note, I think that you had best hide yourself away,” Etienne commanded. “From what I recall, my belle-mère cannot abide your presence. She has not yet forgotten that you were my father’s companion on her betrothal journey.

” The rotund mage reddened. “What has she told you, Etienne?” Claude sputtered. “Nothing,” Etienne said, his brow quirking with interest. “Is there anything that I ought to know?” “I had better be gone,” Claude said hurriedly. “Before she comes.” When Rowan was ushered in the room was empty. “Maman! It has been a long time.” Etienne rose from his chair to greet her. Other than a mild frost of silver among waves of blond hair, her stepson had changed little, still a youthful portrait of his father. That resemblance alone was more than enough to put her on guard.

“Maman?” she mocked, accentuating her ridicule with the tinkling laugh she had perfected at court. “It must be long years indeed, if you finally address me as your father once demanded.” For a brief instant, the formal mask slipped. “He is dead, Comtesse, and you must admit, it was something of a shock to be required to call a slip of a girl, four years my junior, ‘Mother.’”

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