The Huntsmen: Chapter 17

If the previous evening’s dinner had been tense, it was nothing compared to the discomfort of breakfast. Veronica wasn’t speaking to Willamina, who was silent and miserable. Rebecca and Lady Hughes felt mutually terrible about the entire situation and were friendly but deeply awkward. Stephen wasn’t speaking to Edmund, and Rafe quite frankly wasn’t thrilled with him either. Sir Thomas and Harrison were the only two who seemed unaffected, and they chatted amiably while the rest of the party glared.

Rafe ate as quickly as he could, then headed upstairs. He met the two mages on the landing, and said, “You don’t want to go down there.”

“That bad?” Casmin asked.

“I’ve been to more cheerful funerals. In fact I’ve been to at least one funeral where the corpse was in better humor.”

Stian grimaced. “Perhaps we’d best skip breakfast.”

“I’d recommend it,” Rafe said. “Look, can you do me a favor?”

Casmin nodded. “Of course.”

“Tell Edmund I need him to get Harrison out of the house for at least an hour.”

“I will,” Casmin said, “but why can’t you tell him?”

“Because any conversation I have with my brother today is going to start with the words ‘You arrogant, insensitive, prat’ and go downhill from there. This will save time.”

 

The message must have been successfully conveyed, because shortly after breakfast, Edmund, Harrison and Sir Thomas rode out to shoot. The younger Thomas was, apparently, packing up and returning to London early in spite of his father’s encouragements that persuasion would improve his marital chances. The resulting tumult — hurried packing, maternal dismay and pleading, Veronica’s door slamming, Sir Thomas’ confusion over such elaborate drama — worked in Rafe’s favor, and as soon as Harrison was out of the house he made his way to the man’s guestroom.

He tried the knob: locked. Not unexpected, and it confirmed that Harrison had hidden whatever he had gotten the night before in his room. The lock was a simple rotating bolt, so all he needed was…

“What are you doing?” a voice hissed at him.

Rafe flinched, then relaxed as he saw his sister peering around the corner at him. “Perfect timing, Wils. I don’t supposed I could borrow…”

His sister rolled her eyes and reached up into her hair, pulling out a pin and handing it to him. “Why are we burglarizing John Harrison’s room?”

“We?” Willamina just stared, waiting for him to continue. He sighed, flicked the bolt open, and stepped into the room. Closing the door behind them, he said, “I followed Harrison last night while you… Where were you, anyway?”

“I went out,” she said.

“No you didn’t,” he said. “I would have seen your tracks.”

She shrugged. “I went out a different way.”

“In any case,” Rafe said, “while you were out in questionable circumstances, I followed Harrison to a meeting. He was given a box, and I want to know what’s in it.”

“You think he’s smuggling?” WIllamina asked.

“No,” said Rafe. He began eyeing the bookshelves along the west wall of the room. “I think it has something to do with why we’re here. The meeting was of people like him.”

“People like him meaning?”

“Werewolves. I think. I can’t see whatever you can. But even I wouldn’t drink with that lot, so whatever he got, I don’t want him to keep.”

“Fair enough,” she said. “You get the dresser, I’ll check the shelves.”

It only took five minutes of searching. Willamina threw the sheets back off the bed and felt gingerly under the mattress. She clucked when her fingertips hit wood. “Not very creative, is he…”

“He didn’t have three brothers to hide things from.”

“Apparently.” She handed Rafe the box.

Inside was a golden torc. It was made of heavy gauge wire, twisted and then shaped into a neck band. Both ends were capped by tiny gold wolf’s heads. Their fangs were bared and their tongues lolled out, and their eyes were set with what looked like tiny rubies. Rafe whistled and reached for it.

“Don’t touch it,” Willamina said urgently.

“Why not?”

“Just… don’t. Take it to your room, and I’ll find Dr. Casmin.”

She found Casmin and Stian in the drawing room. They had been cornered by Veronica who was, as far as Willamina could tell, attempting to flirt. Badly. She waved from the doorway, attempting to catch one of their eyes. Stian was already starting to look for an escape, and noticed her first. She waved him towards her, and he looked startled and started to rise. She then gestured towards Casmin, and he nodded. “Excuse me, Miss Hughes,” he said, interrupting her mid-chatter, “But Dr. Casmin and I are needed elsewhere. She turned in her chair, and seeing Willamina, scowled.

“Well,” thought Willamina, “that’s one friendship that isn’t going to recover.” She ducked out into the hallway and waited for the two men.

“Rafe found something I think you should see.”

Once upstairs in Casmin’s room, Rafe handed Casmin the box. He opened it, and again Willamina jumped. “Don’t touch it.”

“What’s wrong?” Casmin asked.

“It’s covered in spikes,” she said, fishing around for the right words.

Casmin looked at Stian, who shook his head. “I can see that it’s glamoured, but that’s it. You go get your student, and we’ll pull this apart.” He called for Fetch while Casmin got Stephen.

Willamina’s eyes widened when the imp appeared. “I knew I wasn’t seeing things.”

Stian gave a half smile. “It’s quite the unusual talent you’ve picked up.”

When Casmin returned with Stephen, Stian said, “All right, show us.” Fetch hissed at the torc, and a series of glowing lines appeared, wrapped around the gold. There were three interlocking sets: one grey and leaden, one glowing like flame, and one an ugly, infected looking red. This last resembled nothing so much as barbed wire, sharp and spiked.

“Oh, you ugly little son of a cu…” Stian began before Casmin kicked him. His eyes flashed to Willamina and he grinned. “Sorry.”

She returned the smile. “I told you it as nasty.”

“Nasty indeed,” Casmin said. “Is that…” he leaned in close, peering at the spellwork.

“You said Hart was supposed to *wear* this?” Stian asked.

Rafe nodded. “That’s what the man said.”

“I wouldn’t put this on a dog. No pun intended. You see this?” Stian pointed to the glowing line. “This is an enhancement spell. Whoever wore this would be…well, stronger, faster, even than the boost they’d get from being in wolf form.”

“I’d bet this year’s salary that’s how he’s talked them into it,” Casmin said.

“And the catch is?” Stephen asked.

“The grey cord is a binding,” Stian continued. “Probably connected to the one who gave them the bands. See how it’s wrapped around the red?”

Stephen nodded, then frowned. “It’s a choke collar.”

“With ‘choke’ being a literal threat here,” Casmin said. “It would have bound on contact, Rafe.”

“And isn’t it lucky you let me tag along just this once?” Willamina said. To her credit, it barely sounded like she was gloating.

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