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Sentinel

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By Jon Buck

Claude tried to put his ragged uniform into some semblance of order. Several days of dirt and sweat marred his most prized possession. Despite the fact that he had deserted Napoleon's army—though only when it had become very clear that the formerly great French Emperor's military genius had finally left him—he still considered his time as a grenadier unwasted. For a few glorious years France had ruled most of Europe, like Charlemagne's Empire a thousand years before.

He and his two companions were the last of a dozen who had managed to escape the shattering battle lines. When Napoleon's own elite forces had been routed, it was time to flee. Four had been captured early in their retreat, two were dead of wounds, and three had gone home by themselves once they were well into France. He and Robert sat under an oak tree, waiting for the third—a short musketeer by the name of Denys—to return from scouting the unfamiliar area.

Since Claude had seen most of France during his numerous years of service he was very unsettled that they had stumbled someplace where he hadn't been. It's these hedgerows, he thought. They had encountered them that morning, following the overgrown labyrinth until its apparent end just past midday. Denys was scouting ahead to make sure they weren't stepping into danger. He was sure they were still going roughly southwest, but beyond that he just couldn't tell. And they certainly couldn't turn back.

Robert started cleaning his musket. "We only have enough powder for three more shots," the younger soldier said. "It was foolish to try hitting that deer."

"We haven't eaten meat in days," Claude retorted irritably. "And I doubt the locals would've been willing to let us share a meal." No doubt we're already unwelcome. It's these uniforms...

Robert didn't argue. Unlike Claude, he had discarded as much of his uniform as he could. His tall bearskin hat was long gone, and most of the accoutrements had been discarded, leaving only the woolens to protect him from the weather. Robert made no secret that he thought Claude's attachment to his uniform was foolish. Anyone associated with Napoleon was going to be unpopular. The only reason Robert tolerated Claude at all was because of his claims about knowing the way.

And now since that no longer seemed the case, Claude was starting to get nervous. Robert was still methodically cleaning the musket, glaring at him. The sharp bayonet was still fixed to the muzzle. Claude had kept his pistol, but there was only the single shot left. Failing that, he also had his officer's sword; but the bayonet had the reach and the gun could always be used as a club.

The gaps between unruly hedges had grown over to the point where they could barely be made out. When Denys had been gone almost a half hour the branches finally rustled with his return. The young scout habitually saluted his superior officers.

"No need for any more of that, boy," said Claude. "What did you find?"

"A really old mansion, sir," he replied. "Like the old manors my grandfather told me about. Doesn't seem to be anybody living in it. The roof's caved in." He smiled. "But there's fruit trees galore, sir. And I saw some cows wandering around. There's got to be enough for the three of us for a few days. Sirs."

Claude scratched his graying mustache and considered correcting the boy again, but his stomach rumbled at the thought of fresh meat. He replaced his battered bearskin atop his head. "Let's take advantage of this windfall."

Several of the outbuildings were nothing more than charred hulks. The stone still bore streaks of soot out the yawning windows. The flames had destroyed a single corner of the manor and had obviously consumed the roof. There were broken statues and vases leading like a trail of breadcrumbs away the doors. Neither of Claude's itinerant companions weren't old enough to remember the Revolution, but he did. Those chaotic years when the old nobility had been exterminated were still fresh in his mind. Whoever had lived here hadn't left willingly. Just looking at the house gave him chills.

The feeling had come over him after they'd passed through the hedge. It was a sort of prickle against his skin. It wasn't an unfamiliar sensation, but the last time it was this strong had been when he was half the age he was now. But until it vanished it was like a cloud of gnats buzzing around his ears: always there, but impossible to be rid of.

Obviously not thinking of food, Robert left the two of them and headed for the wine cellar in the hopes that there was something left. While Claude wouldn't have been unhappy with some wine in him himself, he found the manor's surroundings far more promising to fill his empty stomach. "The orchards are this way," said Denys, pointing to the left beyond the undamaged wing of the manor. "Down the hill. Wait until you see what's left of the gardens, sir."

They walked around the quiet remains of the mansion and found what must have been a grandly laid out garden. But the years—and the cows—hadn't been kind to it. It was huge, with silent fountains filled with rainwater used as giant birdbaths and a long pool filled with lily pads. A number of human statues—seemingly in random places—were nearly hidden in the wild growth that the cows found unpalatable.

"The herb garden's still there. The stone fences kept the animals out," Denys reported. "And there's lots of edible greens. Then maybe later... Sir?"

Claude had frozen in mid-step. He thought he saw someone in one of the manor windows on the second floor; for a moment it had looked like Robert, but another look revealed that it clearly wasn't. For a fleeting moment a woman had been watching the both of them intently, before vanishing. The buzzing in his ears swelled, then dropped again when she was gone. "Did you see that?" he said.

"See what?" said Denys, puzzled. He was looking hungrily at the garden.

"Forget it," Claude sighed. "Let's see if we can scavenge anything from the outbuildings, then go find Robert."

Surprisingly, the greens were mostly uneaten. The cows weren't numerous, and the huge pasture that led down towards a small lake in the center of what appeared to be a shallow depression more than satisfied them.

The men found some herbs to season their meal, then headed back towards the mansion. A hint of moisture in the air and a halo around the sun told them that there would be rain by morning. Claude considered this new development. They had so far escaped rainy weather. He looked uncomfortably at the empty manor house. "Go see if any of the surviving outbuildings have a good roof on them," he ordered Denys, giving him his greens. "We may be staying a while."

"Why not stay in the wine cellar? It's bound to be dry," Denys suggested.

"I don't want that place collapsing on my head," Claude replied somewhat feebly. The way the place was built there was little that could bring down that mansion short of an earthquake. "Just do as I ask. Please."

The young soldier gave him another puzzled look, but was so used to following orders he saluted, dropping half the greens and fruit in the process. As he scrambled to pick them up Claude gritted his teeth and approached the front of the manor.

Although he thought he had seen Robert at the window of one of the second floor rooms, Claude doubted he'd find the man there. He considered for a moment where the wine cellar was likely to be in a mansion like this. The building was L-shaped, with the newest and most decorated portion facing the barely-visible road that led from the gap in the hedge. It was fronted by four great Roman columns and a large number of windows. Roughly half of the panes were broken, surprisingly few in Claude's experience. With the charred, missing roof it reminded him uncomfortably of Russia, where the people had burned their houses rather than allow the French shelter from winter's teeth.

Claude had earned his gray hairs on that expedition. And not just because of the winter. This time, just like then, he knew he was feeling the presence of the old magic. His father had proudly spoken of the wizards and sorcerers in their family blood; but all that had come down around their heads when the magic had ebbed over a century before his birth. It had been noticeably stronger when he was younger—even during the Revolution—but now it had effectively vanished from the world.

Except for a few places like this stagnant mystical tidepool. The magic that was left here felt like the gritty dregs in the bottom of a wine bottle. It wouldn't be long before it was gone completely.

The insect-like buzzing became a whisper as he ascended front steps. A multitude of voices, almost human but speaking nonsense. He paused, looking up at the doors, a cold sweat breaking out on his brow. Taking his foot off the stone step, the whispering vanished.

He decided to search for the cellar outside, first.

The rest of the building was around the corner. Obviously much older than the mansion proper; it resembled a real ancient manor house. Though it had been beautified a little to match the newer portion, there were few windows and only a single large chimney that obviously served the kitchen. A small portion of the tile roof remained intact. The wine cellar entrance was probably nearby.

Robert was splayed out on the grass face-first, a pair of empty wine bottles sitting beside him with a still-corked third grasped loosely in one hand. He groaned. The reek of his drunkenness surrounded him in a miasma. Claude was thankful for the growing breeze. Should I help him, or let him sleep it off in the rain? he pondered.

The drunken man turned his head to face him. Claude felt the strong presence of magic, the quiet voices swelled in his head.

Instead of brown, Robert's eyes were blue. Blue, pleading, and seemingly stuck inside of a face where they didn't belong. A woman's eyes. The flesh around them was softer, fairer. Yet it was fading even as he watched, brown chasing out the blue until the supplication was replaced by unveiled hatred and the distant murmurs vanished once again. Robert groaned loudly.

"If you still want meat," said Claude nervously, for no other reason than to fill the silence, "I'm going to order Denys to shoot a cow. You're welcome to come when you can stand."

Robert mumbled a curse at him, but didn't try to make his unresponsive body rise. Claude decided to leave the man's doleful gaze and went to find the scout.

A curl of smoke over towards the only intact outbuilding—one of the many stables—told him that Denys had found a suitable place. When he arrived he saw that the scout had smartly cleared an area near the entrance of the building, ensuring that it wouldn't catch fire. "Afraid there's not a scrap of hay to be found, sir," he said apologetically.

"There wouldn't be," Claude replied. But they were used to hard beds. He crouched down by the fire to warm himself, looking into the dark recesses of the huge stable that still smelled strongly of horse sweat and hay. The incoming storm was bringing chilly air with it, and days of wearing a sweat-soaked uniform hadn't helped much. He longed for a clean one, but after what he had seen that day he was beginning to wonder. Should they leave? Did this area have a rear exit? "How far did you go into the manor lands?" he asked Denys.

"Not that far. But I couldn't make out the other side in the haze. The estate has to be huge."

Claude thought of the mansion, the gnats still buzzing in his ears, and the woman he had seen standing in the upper story window. He was tempted to disbelieve what he had seen looking back at him from Robert's face, but his experience told him not to make that judgement yet. "Rain or shine, we're leaving here tomorrow at first light," he said. "We..."

A groan interrupted him. Robert was staggering into view, holding two more full bottles of wine. He didn't look too well, and had probably spent some time vomiting. His musket was still slung over his back, the bayonet swaying back and forth as he lurched along. "Are we going to get some beef or aren't we?"

"How can you keep anything down in your condition?" Claude said.

The half-drunk man shrugged. "It's a talent." He gestured at Denys. "I want meat. Go get it, kid. Now."

Denys looked at Claude for approval. The older man nodded very slightly. "Pick a good one. And remember, only three shots left." Four, counting my pistol.

"I won't miss." He smiled. "My father's shop was right next to the butcher's. So I'll get the best cuts of meat, too." The young musketeer picked up his gun, leaving Claude and Robert by themselves.

Not quite as drunk as he was earlier, Robert barely hid his dislike for Claude as he sat down next to the fire and looked towards the dark clouds to the west. "He should've built it inside," he complained. "And he should've found more wood."

"I hope you realize we're fortunate to even be under cover at all tonight," Claude said evenly. He looked at the two bottles. "Curious that they'd take everything but the wine, don't you think?"

Robert made a noncommittal sound, then smiled like a reptile. "Would you like some, Captain?"

Although some wine would have been great, Claude wasn't about to let his guard down in Robert's presence. "There's bound to be a well," Claude replied. He still had two full canteens, and planned to meter them out. Something had happened to Robert—and by the look on the man's face, was still happening. It was as if there was somebody else in the musketeer's mind, looking out of his eyes.

Robert stood up again and left the stable, mumbling something about getting more wine to go with their meal.

Claude watched him go, then sat down next to the fire, adding some wood. He turned over the day's events in his mind. The hedgerows, the presence of magic, the woman he had seen both in the window and behind Robert's eyes. It's been years since I've seen a ghost, he thought. Yet if he knew nothing else, there was no other explanation that fit. He recalled the stories his grandmother always told him, and his own experiences. Reims had been full of ghosts of one kind or another, from harmless to deadly. And they left traces that Claude's heightened senses could easily detect.

The Russian campaign had taught him more than just how to prepare for a rough winter. That country was full of ghosts and patches of stagnant magic just like this one. But he'd never thought they existed in France.

He crouched next to the fire, feeding it another few sticks. Above him, lowering clouds obscured the sinking sun. The air felt thick with moisture. A storm was coming quick. All his instincts told him that remaining here was a bad idea. Claude sighed. They'd never believe me. And I can't leave Denys in Robert's company by himself. The rain will put off any pursuit, if any has followed us this far. But it'll also turn the roads into a quagmire.

He really wished he knew just where he was. Not as far southwest as Aquitaine, surely. He'd already be home if that were true. How in God's name did I get so lost? he wondered. Since the Revolution he'd seen practically every part of France, from the Pyrenees to Provence to Brittany. Everywhere except for here, Claude lamented. Somewhere to the southwest of Paris.

The expected musket shot never came. Instead, Robert and Denys returned, bewildered, just as a few drops of rain were starting to fall. Claude looked askance at the younger man. "They're just... gone," said Denys. "I looked everywhere. I saw them in the pasture earlier, but there's no sign now."

Instead, Claude noticed, each man carried several more bottles of wine. Robert's smile was nothing short of pure glee. "I can't believe they left all this!" he exclaimed, still half-drunk from his earlier binge. "Never tasted anything like it, neither."

Another question that made no sense. If the looters took everything else, why would they leave good wine? "Perhaps I shall have a taste after all," Claude lied. "Since all we have are greens and some fruit."

They built another, smaller fire under cover while the storm strengthened. Each had kept only the bare essentials from their field packs, since they'd been lucky enough to be near the reserve encampment when the word had come about the defeat of the elite troops. They'd grabbed what they could—some canteens, a few rations—in the few seconds available to them before deserting. Claude set out an empty canteen with a funnel to catch the rainwater before joining the other two men around the new fire.

Denys drank large gulps of wine between mouthfuls of food. Claude took his place next to his rainwashed pile. "Go easy on that, scout. Or tomorrow you'll regret waking."

The young man snorted, and didn't reply, swaying from the bottle he'd already finished. Robert gave him a doleful look, his eyes looking between Claude's unopened bottle and his face. Claude knew that, if he didn't at least have a single swallow, Robert would be insulted. The man hates me enough without giving him yet another reason, Claude decided. He took his knife out of its sheath and reached for the bottle.

When he closed his hand around the neck of the bottle, the buzz of magic swelled in his ears. The smoked-glass bottle tingled in his fingers, but despite this apparent warning he went ahead and opened it, pulling the cork out with his knife.

It was like walking into a crowded room. Claude raised the bottle to his lips, and with great reluctance, swallowed a very small amount of wine. He then looked at Robert and smiled woodenly. "Yes, it's..."

Denys abruptly slumped forwards, and would've gone right into the fire had Claude not acted. Fate dictated that Robert was now sprawled on his back, arms spread out. The empty wine bottle rolled away noisily, clinking as it hit the stone wall behind.

The rain slowed, then stopped completely, leaving only the splatter of water flowing off the roof and Robert's snoring.

The fire dimmed.

Claude hardly noticed. No wonder the revolutionaries hadn't stolen the wine. They must have known that it was saturated with magic. It filled his veins, going to every corner of his body. It overwhelmed his mystical senses. He was drunk, in a way. Drunk with its power.

The crowded whispers became intelligible. But what conversations he overheard were innocuous. Chat over the cost of silk in Paris. The absolutely horrendous expense of East Indian spices. Had anyone any advice regarding the American colonies? Voices, male and female, emanating from the direction of the mansion.

The human voices weren't the only ones. From the empty stalls came the bored shuffling of horses. And the smells: Fresh hay, straw, grain, and horse sweat.

All this bypassed Claude's normal senses, perceived by the otherworldly versions his ancestors had possessed that had lain dormant until he took that fateful sip of wine. He struggled to his feet, forcing himself to let go of the bottle. It hit the ground with a thump, turning over onto its side.

Claude was going to leave here. He was going to do it now. Not later, now, at this instant. Staying was a risk to life and limb. Though he regretted leaving the two men to their fates, since fleeing Waterloo he'd only had a single thing on his mind: saving his own skin.

I'm a coward, his conscience nagged even has he lurched towards the door. And I can't even walk.

Out of the corner of his eye a mist gathered near Denys. It was huge, and even as he fled at a snail's pace, it resolved itself into a familiar shape. Head and tail, tube-shaped ears, and a pair of large nostrils that sniffed at the unconscious scout's face. Every time the man breathed in, a little of the ghost-horse's foggy form would flow into his nostrils. The animal hovered near the young man expectantly, as its substance began to thin with every inhalation. Denys appeared to be growing fatter.

Music joined the quiet conversation. A harpsichord accompanied a string quartet.

A second cloud joined the first, forming out of thin air near the horse's neck. It took on a familiar shape. A human shape. A woman in an elaborate gown, but with her long hair hanging free. She had a beautiful, young face. The woman he had seen in the window. She took no notice of him, instead giving the translucent horse's neck an affectionate rub. She looked down at the fattening Denys expectantly. The scout abruptly breathed in sharply with the sound of bursting seams. His face no longer appeared quite human, the lips swollen, the nostrils flaring widely. He let out something very like a nicker in his sleep.

Claude was caught mid-stride. His muscles were simply frozen. He felt quite normal, and could sluggishly turned his head, but it was as if time had solidified around him.

The ghost-woman looked him in the eye. Hers were the same bottomless blue eyes that had occupied Robert's face earlier that day. She approached Claude, an intent expression on her face that would have made him recoil if he could move. She stood before him, examining him as if he was a horse himself. "You'll do," she said.

Her cold, misty form enveloped him, sinking into his pores, through his mouth and ears, up his nose. Flesh began to twist and reshape itself under her the force of her will; his chest started to swell even as his prized uniform faded, replaced by her gown. His body seemed to ripple, gaining womanly curves even as his mind was being suffocated.

But she could go no further. Deep inside of him, an inner power was awakened by the invader. Inside of his mind, Claude heard the thin whisper of a scream. A cloud of mist emanated from his body even as the physical changes vanished, chased away by an inner fire that made him feel cleansed. A blue aura surrounded him for a moment, then faded, returning his uniform to him.

Claude could move again, though only to fall to the ground, exhausted.

The ghost-horse had almost vanished now; only a dim silhouette was visible in the gloom. Denys was massive; his hands and feet were unrecognizable lumps tipped by a dark mass. With a final deep breath, the ghost vanished, pulled into the flaring nostrils of a head that now resembled its ghostly form in every way. The rest of the body abruptly filled out; the end of a tail whistled over Claude's head.

The animal slowly stood up, still flicking its tail. It was a massive white charger, worthy of a knight. The stallion regarded him with a disturbingly intelligent eye, then moved to block his exit before he could even begin to sit up. His eyes glowed in the dim firelight. Claude thought he perceived that behind them Denys still slept.

His energy returning at an astonishing pace, Claude found himself free of whatever had frozen his muscles. The stallion glared at him challengingly, and whinnied with his ears pinned back.

There should be another way out...

Claude turned to face the other end of the stable, where there was another door. But all he saw, beyond Robert's sprawled unconscious body, was blackness. No light except for a sluggishly coalescing mist that glowed a dim white. A pair of eyes formed first, as the shape slowly became human again. The mouth, ears, and hair, until her head was visible again. Her eyes were sunken; she looked bruised and beaten. Yet she smiled. "It appears you do have some measure of training. What little fool I am." She laughed humorlessly. The rest of her body reformed beneath.

The woman seemed almost real, hovering on the edge of translucence, as if she was merely made of smoke or dust. Her eyes were a bottomless blue that could either remind Claude of a deep warm sea, or the coldest winter ice. She had the appearance of a noblewoman, but none Claude had seen before the Revolution ever let her hair down like she did. With her unpowdered face, and wigless head, she seemed more genuine than any of the arrogant nobles who had been put to death.

But she was still a ghost. And she had great power in this magical tidepool. She smiled warmly, her eyes like the ocean. "Yes, I'm a little fool. I knew you had power, but I was sure that you didn't know how to use it. Silly me."

"You tried to kill me," Claude stammered, reaching for his pistol unconsciously. "Madame," he added as an afterthought.

"Perhaps... I acted overzealously," she replied guardedly. "I've been trying to leave this wretched place for a long time." She reached for him in entreaty. "Perhaps we can come to an agreement?"

"Madame, what could you possibly offer, after what you did?" Claude retorted. "And what about poor Denys? What will become of him?"

"He will simply be a passenger in my horse's body," the ghost woman replied casually. "Or if he desires, he can join his spirit to Etienne's. Either way, the spell I have wrought is permanent. The young man will simply have to get used to being a horse."

Claude pointed his pistol at the animal, pulling back the flint. "I'll kill him first before I'll..." A small chill appeared in his trigger finger. It grew smaller, the skin fairer, the nail longer. A woman's finger on a masculine hand. He was forced to drop his weapon, spilling the powder out of the firing pan.

"This is our last chance left for life," the ghost-woman said. "I'll not allow you to ruin it for the both of us." Claude stared at the transformed finger, which was missing from the woman's hand. "I do have some small influence over your actions. You drank the wine; you allowed me in because of that. And even your untrained power can't completely remove you from my influence." She looked down at Robert. "This one is a poor second choice, but he'll have to do. He's had so much wine that I can do what I wish with his body."

Claude's finger returned to normal as she sank into Robert. He could only watch, powerless, as she reshaped the musketeer's body. Surrounded by the ghost, it diminished visibly. The week-old beard vanished as smooth fair skin appeared underneath, the facial features remolding themselves as if made of sculptor's clay. Claude turned away, unable to watch.

There was a sound of rustling cloth. "I'm amazed," said the woman, her voice now sounding normal. It was, Claude reflected, quite a nice voice. "The spell worked better than my research said, even with the tiny amount of magic to work with."

"You didn't kill him, did you?" Claude said, looking up again at her beautiful face.

"Pity for a man who was going to murder you in your sleep?" she said matter-of-factly. "Gallant, but your feelings are misplaced. You should thank me." Her expression turned serious. "Please understand that I did not undertake this course of action lightly."

"He was drunk. And I wasn't planning on sleeping in this place, as you can imagine," Claude replied. "He wouldn't have caught me off my guard."

"Perhaps, perhaps not. The fact remains you should feel grateful." She reached out and took his hands in hers. He hadn't felt a woman's touch in far too long. "Please, at least give me the benefit of the doubt. I was quite desperate, you see. If you concentrate, you can feel that this pool of magic has become shallower even in the small time you've been here. In another few years—five at most—it would be gone, and I with it." She tugged on his arm. "Come, I have some things secreted away in the mansion that I must fetch. Clothes and gold."

Her eyes glowed sea-blue. Claude's hands tingled where their skin touched. "It would be agreeable to have you as a traveling companion. A woman takes too many risks on her own." One shoulder of her grown just happened to slide down her arm at that moment, revealing a small portion of fair-skinned breast.

Claude swallowed.

She led him like a dog on a leash, unable to resist either her charm or the sweet reasonableness of her voice. It was foolish for a woman to travel by herself. And as a gentleman, shouldn't he accompany her?

But...

He looked up and found that they were approaching the mansion. The building appeared to glow faintly through the windows. Whispers, the same ones Claude heard earlier, grew much louder as they entered the building. But this time the tone seemed quite different. Worried, strained conversations about inane topics. There was something heavy on the speakers' minds, but nobody wanted to say anything. They were too afraid.

Somebody mentioned the poor king, and the room went silent.

Claude's hair stood on end in that pregnant silence, before the quiet inane chatter picked up again, seemingly ignoring what the man had said.

"It was a horrible night," said the former ghost as they went deeper into the house. A light floated before her, illuminating their dank and musty path. "News had come that the king had been beheaded and they were starting to kill all the nobility they could find. Some fled, but my father and a few others were too stubborn. I wanted to flee myself, but my father wouldn't have it. We would defend ourselves to the last. Fortunately I had just enough time to concoct this spell before they took my life. A pity the village wisewoman was smart enough to make them avoid the wine."

"May I at least know your name?" Claude stammered. So pretty, so beautiful.

"Call me 'Marie'. It's as good as any. Now..."

He thought of Denys, cursed to spend the rest of his life as a horse. He thought of Robert, who didn't deserve to be smothered by "Marie" despite the threat to Claude's life. And he thought of himself. She had power, he could feel it. But he also sensed that it was less than his own. There was a sort of flow between them where they touched, he into her; as if he was a candle and she was the flame, consuming him.

What would she do with him? What could she do?

They reached the old kitchen. This section of the manor had retained most of its roof, but the stars were visible between the beams that joined the rest of the building. The half moon supplemented Marie's magical source. She stopped on a large area of brick in front of the hearth. "The day before the massacre I buried a lead box here with magic," she said. "Now I just need to reverse it and we can be on our way."

The sourceless light vanished, leaving only the moon. Then an area of brick the size of a small box started to glow. She closed her eyes, raising her hands above her head, muttering words that sounded like Latin that Claude couldn't make out. Then, slowly, a translucent cubic shape rose out of the floor, resolving into a shiny black box that must have been quite heavy. Marie's breath quickened, a look of extreme effort on her face as she completed her chant.

Then her arms dropped to her sides, and she fell forwards onto her prize, fainting from exhaustion.

Claude didn't hesitate. He could feel that she was drawing power from him to replenish what she had lost. But it was hardly a flood. But perhaps it would buy him time to escape. Legs pumping, puffing with the effort of the sprint, he dashed up the road towards the hedge. Even as he put distance between himself and the witch-woman he felt the flow to her grow weaker. Distance! The candle could only burn so fast. If he could get far enough away, she couldn't...

A pounding of hooves on the turf. He'd momentarily forgotten about the stallion, who was even now catching up to him with ease. Fearing looking back, he caught a glimpse of the animal's shining white hide out of the corner of his eye. I can't possibly make it...

The horse suddenly whinnied shrilly, and began to buck and snort, ripping up the ground as if he had somebody he didn't want on his back. Had Denys woken up? Claude wasn't going to stop and check. He sent a silent thanks to the young scout, finally reaching the hedge.

But before he could go through, he felt a yank on his feet. He stumbled in his run, nearly pitching forwards onto his face. Only a miracle saved him from getting hurt. Had he tripped? No... he was more like a dog on a leash.

Claude couldn't go forward, no matter how hard he tried. But at the same time, he realized, she apparently couldn't pull him back. He was too powerful. A power, he now realized, that he could have been using his entire life. And it was greater than hers. I'm not going to be her dog.

She was yet weary, moving slowly up the road. Her horse was beside her, supporting his mistress. The fight was over, apparently. And Denys had obviously been overwhelmed. But even from this distance Claude could tell that his fate would not be a pleasant one.

He had one chance to prevent it, while she was still too far away to exert her will. One idea.

He must block her out somehow. Stop the flow.

Marie had used Latin in her spell. But would any language do? He had about a minute to find out.

Claude shut his eyes tightly, willing the magic to do what he wanted. To his relief and amazement, he felt the power gathering around him. The air grew thick, saturated with it. His hair nearly stood on end. He saw Marie's eyes go wide in alarm, and she stumbled as he sapped the energy from around her. "Stop! You don't know what you're doing!" she shouted. The stallion whinnied. "The magic here is..."

But he could no longer hear her. He could no longer see her. A blizzard of crystallizing magic surrounded him, adhering to his uniform. Where it stuck, it became clear and hard like varnish, and underneath his skin felt strange. Not precisely numb, but dormant, with no change in sensation from the moment of contact.

He tried to run.

Claude could sense Marie's fleeting presence, and whatever had happened had indeed blocked the flow of magic between them. But beyond the hard shell that had formed over his skin, the world appeared to be moving at an incredible pace, far too fast to notice things like the presence of humans and animals. Everything was tinted blue-gray.

He quickly realized that time flowed differently inside his frozen prison. Whole seasons passed in what seemed like only a few hours to him. Out at the mansion, more windows were broken with the passing of time. Snow dusted the ground, then melted away in a heartbeat.

People came to marvel at him. He could sense their presence, but they almost never stood still long enough for him to see more than a passing blur. He had a feeling that they tried to move him more than once, but the magic that saturated his body would not allow it.

In the space of minutes, the windows were suddenly repaired. Someone was living there. They built him a gazebo to protect him from the rain. Perhaps they thought him an incredibly realistic statue. Perhaps it was Marie, living in her family's ancient home again, waiting for him. The thought was not a comforting one.

He had a great deal of time alone with his memories. And only one kept him from madness. His grandfather had said that magic ebbed and flowed just like the ocean tides. It had come and gone many times in the past, over uncounted centuries. One day, he had said with a certainty that had impressed itself on the young Claude, the tide would return.

Perhaps then he would be free.