Read an Excerpt
Cumberland, Northwest England
“Time to get up, rat!”
Jack Langdon’s narrow bed tilted ruthlessly, pitching him onto the cold stone floor. He shoved himself to a sitting position and blinked sleepily at the young man who had invaded his room. Where was he?
Stonebridge Academy. Of course. The family travel coach had deposited him here late the night before after days of exhausting travel. Jack had been given a piece of bread and shown to this room without seeing anything of his new school or classmates. Today he must learn how to survive the next years.
He scrambled to his feet and asked the older boy, “Are you a prefect?”
“I am. Call me Mr. Fullerton, sir. And you’re a rat, the lowest of the low. Get dressed and go down into the courtyard. The colonel wants to speak to the new rats.” The prefect scowled. “Do I need to stand over you while you put your clothes on?”
Jack had a powerful desire to plant a facer on that smirking mouth, but he wasn’t stupid. The prefect was probably seventeen, twice Jack’s size and three times as mean. He settled for saying, “No, Mr. Fullerton, sir. I’ll be right down.”
“See that you are.” Fullerton left for the next room.
Shivering, Jack went to the washstand. He had to break a skin of ice in the pitcher before he could pour the water. He should have guessed how cold Cumberland would be in September since they were practically in Scotland. It had taken three long days of uncomfortable travel to reach here from his home in Yorkshire.
His home. He tried not to think of Langdale Hall, where he’d lived his whole eleven years. He’d never wanted to leave. Though he’d known school was inevitable, he’d assumed they would send him to a regular place like Eton, not that he would end up at Stonebridge Academy in disgrace.
Trying to soften the blow, his mother had said the school was small and very good. The headmaster, Colonel Hiram Stark, was widely respected. Jack would learn a great deal, and each boy had his own room, not like some schools where dozens of boys slept in the same chamber.
Jack scanned his spartan surroundings. His own room? More like his own cell. Even his mother hadn’t tried to convince him that Stonebridge was anything other than punishment.
Fullerton stuck his head in the door. “Am I going to have to strip that nightshirt off, rat?” There was something avid in the prefect’s eyes that made Jack nervous for reasons he didn’t understand, and didn’t want to.
“No, Mr. Fullerton, sir.” Jack picked up his discarded clothing from the night before, grateful when Fullerton moved along to bully the next new student. He’d heard talk of how miserable schools were and thought maybe it was just older boys trying to scare younger ones. Apparently the rumors had been true.
When he grew up and entered the army, he’d have to put up with cold billets and beastly senior officers, so time to get used to it. He yanked on his clothes and grabbed his cloak, then headed into the corridor.
Outside in the long, gloomy hall, he hesitated. When a footman brought him to this room last night, it had been late and dark and he’d been too tired to notice the route. But he thought they’d come from the left. He turned that direction and set off at a brisk walk. It wouldn’t do to be late when summoned by the headmaster, and maybe walking would warm him up.
His corridor ended at another. As he paused and tried to remember, another boy of about his age emerged from a room to the left. Jack said, “Hello, I’m Jack Langdon. Are you going to the courtyard?”
The newcomer, wiry and blond with ice gray eyes, nodded. “I’m Ransom.”
Jack offered his hand. Ransom looked startled for a moment before returning the handshake.
“Do you know how to find it?” Jack asked.
“That way.” Ransom indicated the corridor to the right. “There’s a staircase to the ground floor at the end.”
They fell into step together. Jack was glad to meet another student—a fellow rat?—and wondered what he had done to end up here. But asking questions was bad form and Ransom looked like the touchy sort.
They were halfway to the stairs at the end when Jack heard a smothered cry from behind a door on his left. He halted, frowning, and wondered if he should investigate. Uncertainty was resolved when a sharper cry sounded.
“Hang on a moment,” Jack said to Ransom. The other boy scowled, but waited rather than continuing.
Jack tapped on the door. “ ’Lo in there! Are you all right?”
When there was no answer, he cautiously turned the knob. The door opened easily, but he didn’t find the sick boy he expected. Looking at him were three students—and the older two were tormenting a youth smaller than Jack. The tallest was viciously twisting the boy’s arm behind his back while his comrade was threatening the boy’s face with a candle flame.
“I say!” Jack said, shocked. “You shouldn’t be doing that.”
The largest boy, a redhead with a ferrety face, snarled, “Mind your own business, rat. I’m a prefect and can do what I damned well want.”
The boy with the candle growled, “Leave now and you won’t get hurt.”
Their victim stared at Jack but said nothing. Slight and dark-skinned, he had startling green eyes and an expression of bleak resignation.
Jack teetered on the edge of fleeing. But he couldn’t imagine that the boy had done anything to justify the way he was being treated, and right was right. Girding himself for a beating, he said, “It’s not fair for two of you to gang up on a smaller boy. If . . . if you don’t stop, you must face the consequences.”
The redhead laughed nastily. “As if we can’t thrash two rats as easily as one! But if that’s what you want . . .” He released his victim’s arm and moved toward the door.
“Not two. Three.” Ransom stepped into the doorway beside Jack and gave a smile that was all teeth. “Rats fight nastily when cornered.”
The redhead hesitated. Jack didn’t blame him. He’d just as soon not take on an opponent who looked as fierce as Ransom.
He sensed movement behind him. A cool voice said, “A fight? Splendid! I assume we’ll take on these two ugly bullies?”
From the corner of his eye, Jack saw that two more boys had joined them. Surrendering, the redhead shoved the green-eyed boy toward the door. “Go on, join your pack of rats and be grateful that they’re here to save you! For now.” His last words were a clear threat.
The smaller boy darted across the room and joined Jack’s group. There was a burn mark on his cheekbone and he looked as if tears were near the surface, but he didn’t complain. Slamming the door shut, he said, “Thank you. All of you.”
“Why did that happen?” Jack asked. “Do you know each other already?”
“No. They just don’t approve of me on principle,” the boy said tersely. “I’m Ashby. Hadn’t we better get down to the courtyard?”
“Right,” said the one of the two boys who had joined at the end. Fair-haired and whip-thin, he pivoted and headed down the corridor. “I’m Kenmore and this lethal lad is Lucas Winslow.”
Dark-haired Winslow was the one who had expressed that cool willingness to fight. Jack decided that Winslow and Ransom looked like a good match for each other. Tough fellows, but they’d come through when needed.
Moving at a fast trot, the five of them made their way down to the courtyard. The manor house rose on three sides, the gray stone looming over the flagstones in the yard. The academy was high in the hills, and a bitter wind slashed to the bone.
Several other boys were standing in a ragged line in front of a tall silver-haired man with a glower that would melt granite. Jack stiffened, knowing this had to be Colonel Stark, the headmaster of the academy. The colonel had achieved fame first in battle, then as founder of the most notorious school in Britain.
Against his better judgment, Jack cautiously tried to touch the colonel with his mind. Not to pry, just to get an idea of his personality. How to please the old devil and avoid punishment.
Nothing. Jack tried again, harder, and still got nothing. Queasily he realized that magic didn’t work here. He shouldn’t be surprised. That was the whole point, wasn’t it?
The colonel’s piercing gaze raked the newly arrived students. “You five are late. You’re off to a bad start. No breakfast for you. Now line up with the others and make sure the line is straight.”
Jack considered explaining why they were late and immediately discarded the thought. Stark wasn’t the sort to accept any excuses. Even if Jack had been delayed saving his mother’s life, it wouldn’t matter. He sighed, his stomach growling at the thought of no breakfast.
The newcomers joined the other boys in a line. Jack stood at one end, hoping he’d be overlooked.
Stark’s lip curled contemptuously as his gaze moved slowly along the line. “You all know why you are here. You are the sons of Britain’s greatest families. The finest blood in the land flows in your veins. You were born to become officers, diplomats, landowners, and clerics. The one thing you will not become is wizards. Wyrdlings!”
Jack shivered at the way the old man hissed the last word. The term wyrdling wasn’t very polite, and even though his father had despised magic, he’d not allowed his children to use the word. But Stonebridge was all about contempt for magic, so Jack had better get used to hearing wyrdling.
The cold gaze moved back down the line, halting at Jack. “All of you have been sent here because of a disgraceful interest in magic. A refusal to put it aside along with other childish things. Your parents want that filth beaten out of you. They chose well, for I never fail.”
Surprisingly Ransom spoke up. “Why is it wrong to use magic? Everyone has at least a bit of talent. It’s . . . it’s amusing, and it can be very useful. Even the church says magic is no sin if it’s not used for evil purposes. Why should we have to give it up?”
For a moment Stark was stunned to hear such heresy. Then he stalked forward until he loomed over Ransom. “Everyone has sexual organs, but that doesn’t mean they are to be glorified or exposed for the world to see,” he snapped. “Magic is for women, the inferior classes, and lazy swine who lie and cheat because they’re too incompetent to succeed on their own. For a gentleman to use magic is like being in trade. Worse.”
“Being a merchant is honest work,” someone muttered farther down the line.
Jack suspected that the colonel heard the remark but pretended not to rather than admit he didn’t know who had spoken. Keeping his attention on Ransom, he said, “For your defiance you will receive ten lashes. I am lenient because this is your first day. Do not expect such mercy again.”