Illustration by Jerry Burge

by Ian Covell

The last cat flew serenely past Simon. He snatched at it half-heartedly, and struck its hind legs. The animal somersaulted twice with the impact, then righted itself with a twist of the body and an angry hiss. It spread wide its wings and swooped at his face. Simon ducked, and the feline flattened its dive - only its forked tails contemptuously brushed his forehead. It flew through the unshuttered window, mewling.

Resting a hand on the wooden sill, Simon watched the creature grow smaller in the warm blue sky, calling after its companions. He marvelled at its aerial abilities: the cat was only four minutes old, yet, the other cats were two minutes ahead of it. "Slow learner," Simon murmured, then the thought of cats somehow reminded him. "Gretchen!" he barked, correcting himself hastily, "I mean, Greta!"

She undulated from the bedroom, one hand combing her tangled hair. Her body was heavier than he had intended, but pleasingly curved. She seemed entirely composed of curves: the swell of hips and breasts, the inward swing of waist and neck, of cheek and chin and lips.

He had to look away from her mouth, invitingly half-open as she waited for him to speak. "Get some clothes on,"he ordered.

Her eyes clouded, "Vrensday, again?"

"No, and there are no visitors either. It's happened again. We're going out."

Greta asked nothing else, she began to look round the room, moving aside cushions and hassocks and threadbare tapestries, lifting the carpets laid over the meagre furniture to peer beneath. "Have you seen my.." she paused, picked up a cloak, sighed. "Not here either. What did I do with them?"

He turned to her, irritated, "With what?"

She looked at him solemnly, motioned towards her naked body. Simon closed his eyes quickly. She was doing this deliberately, she didn't want to go out. He cast his mind back, and a moment later pointed to the small niche atop the doorway to the street. "Your pants and tunic are up there."

"How did they - oh yes, I remember now. You were very impatient last night and - "


"Enough!" he snapped. If she reminded him of anything else from last night, they wouldn't go out at all. "Just get them down," he said tensely.

"I can't reach,"she said in her small voice.

Her arms were much too short, sometimes. There were moments when he wished he had built her body a little taller, given her longer limbs. His eyes clung to her curved form: there were many more important moments when he was amazingly glad of her build - the long and narrow hands, delicate and graceful and firm, the receptive lips, her -

Thrusting the visions away, he pointed a finger and murmured a brief rhyme. The clothes responded, floating out of the recess above the door, then denied his power over them and fell limply to the floor.

"They're down," she noted, and picked up her tunic to dust it. "What went wrong?"

..this time.. The unspoken words hung between them.

"Wrong? What goes right around here? I tried to make some snakes - to annoy that smug presbyter - and what do I get?" He glared, "What?"

"That's what I asked. What?" The short tunic was tied loosely about her, she bent for the pants.

His breath caught. "Uh. Cats. Fork-tailed, winged, damned cats."

"Not what you desired,"she said, rising.

"Not hardly. I could understand if they'd been, say, birds.. birds are winged serpents.. but cats? Where in Asliek did cats come from?"

While she laced on her boots, he thrust some victuals into a scrip, slung the scrip and a waterbag around his back, then pulled on a cloak, and tossed one to her, both were blue silk trimmed in white. His fingers were too tense to hold the cord, and Greta stood close against him to tie it. Simon tried not to breathe out as he spoke, "I can't stand any more."

"You invoked that stamina spell.."

"I mean I have to find who's against me. This must be enemy action. I can't do anything right. Haven't been able to do a thing since - " He coughed, "Since I can't remember when."

She took a step away, turned her head, "Since you made me, isn't it?"

"No," he said emphatically, "there's no connection at all. It started days before you. There was the widow's ring," he tapped his palm with each example, "and the Book Of Future Things.. and then there was that magic mirror. Best spy ever, that speculum - you could see directly into any encampment or fortress, at any distance. All it showed me was what happened yesterday!" He cupped his fingers, and stared at them as if they held an unseen idea, "I was surprised when you materialised so.."

"Solidly?" she slapped her hip.

"When you were even better than I - than - so much more - "

"Yes?" she prompted. Her emerald eyes seemed to grow wider, and softer, with each of his fumbled words: a pool uncovered by dawnlight in the forest.

"More there,"he said, and because that also sounded wrong, he told her, "It was a great magic." He became brusque again, "My uncle lives some distance off, we'd better start now."


"Theobald, my.. Have you heard of him?"

"No.. the sun hurt my eyes for a moment. How should I know him? You haven't mentioned him before."

"He's not a man you talk about lightly. If I could think of any other help, I wouldn't seek him out. He's my teacher in magic. Was my teacher. I haven't seen him in years, though he sends me greetings on every birthday."

"Do you send them in return?"

Simon smiled, "He wasn't born, he'd never get that close to a woman." His tongue was stilled as he saw her flinch. Greta had not been born. He was ashamed, suddenly aware that he'd never asked how she felt about being conjured, didn't dare to question her now...

Hurriedly, he took her hand and led her into the afternoon sun.

The village was very quiet. The thatched houses and animal pens drowsed in the heat. A breeze raised small flurries of dust. A dog lapped at a puddle of water leaking from a cask, lay down against a wall, pricked its ears at the murmur of voices.

The voices grew louder: children playing. A dozen of them flying above the narrow paths, swooping close to the pens. The beasts bellowed in fear and cowered from the diving shadows. Their keeper shook his fist, and threw a curse upward. A young girl, perhaps twelve years old, cried out and faltered in her flight. Her dress whipped up across her eyes as she began to fall. The others banked towards her, but the young keeper anxiously shouted three Words and the girl regained lift, joining her friends as they circled higher. The watchman cast a spell on the pens. Simon knew the gestures: any shadows would now be diverted away from the animals; it was a minor piece of magic the keeper had obviously forgotten to renew. As he strode back to his gatehouse, a flash of scarlet behind the window suggested what occupied his attention.

"SIMON," the deep voice startled him. He turned, dismayed to find they had stopped beside Andric's house. Simon stood five and a half feet tall, body slim as a bow. His hair was white and short, his face pale, with violet eyes that seemed forever puzzled by the world; he seldom smiled in public. Andric was six feet, and seemed almost as broad, muscles bulged beneath his thin tunic and tight leggings. His ruddy face was strong, his smile was wide and genial. They were the same age, and had hated each other since childhood.

"You ready to give her away yet?" Andric said idly, eyes raking Greta from heel to crown.

Simon glared, Greta moved nearer to him, her hand tightened on his arm as he spoke, icily polite, "I give away nothing."

"I'll swap you Myrtle for her." Andric's grin didn't slacken, became if anything more intense.

"Why would I want a hen?" Simon already knew the answer, his question was information for Greta.

Andric lowered his voice conspirationally, mocking, "Myrtle lays eggs - filled with gold, like the sun."

"- that lasts as long," Simon growled, "right up to sunset."

"What a day it can buy! Pleasure can't be judged by time."

Simon shook his head, "The lady's not for giving." The curiosity of others in the village had turned to disinterest after several weeks - the men in particular rarely spoke to Greta - but Andric was different. His pursuit of Greta was a puzzle - his practised attentions were usually directed at slimmer girls, pale and blonde and serious; shy wisps who clung to him like vines round a broad tree, nourished by his approval. Greta was no wisp. Perhaps it was simple: Andric wanted whatever someone else owned.

..whatever someone else held.. Simon corrected himself with a mental apology to Greta.

As they walked on, Greta looked back. Andric was watching the children but lowered his eyes to meet hers with an assured smile, he'd known she would turn. He reached out, making a clear invitation of the gesture as he lifted the door curtain that kept his home free of dust while he worked on the loom. The storm shutter tethered over the doorway slipped its latch and swung down to hit him on the shoulders, knocked him sprawling on the matted floor.

Anyone close would have heard a groan, then a muted curse. Greta heard.

Simon heard nothing. He had put Andric firmly away from his thoughts as he rehearsed what he should tell Theobald.

How could he explain that one of Theobald's best students, his nephew, was having difficulty with the simplest of spells and cantraps? That he couldn't do the most basic magics without going wrong? Couldn't compel a bird to carry simple messages, couldn't light a fire with his finger, or keep his dwelling clean without resorting to a broom - one that didn't fly. Simon shuddered, Theobald wouldn't be pleased: his temper was renowned, his revenges ingenious; many cursed the fate that had him reborn in their lifetimes.

"Simon?" The voice interrupted Simon's fatalistic musing. He glanced round, looked at Greta. Her head was tilted back, eyes shaded with a hand, to look up at the man who had spoken. He was many yards above, leaning over the watchtower's parapet to see them. Menichos, an old man whose white beard fluttered in the breeze, but whose eyes saw keenly.

He spoke again, his voice as distinct as if he stood beside them, "Good morrow, Simon. Gretchen."

"Greta,"she yelled.

The watchman cocked his head, "What?"

"It's Greta now."

Manichos looked at her for a long, silent minute, then either said "Ah," or gave a louder sigh than usual, before, "Where are you going?"

Simon cupped his hands round his mouth, "We'll be gone - "

"There's no need to shout,"the old man admonished, "I'm scarcely deaf. Just sorcel your voice to me."

Simon tried, "We're going to see my uncle."

Menichos looked skyward, "Is that your voice up there, Simon? Why do you talk to the weather-vane, and why are you speaking backwards?"

Simon blushed as he shouted, "I misjudged. The sun's in my eyes."

"Wear a shadow across them," Menichos advised. "Now, where did you say you were going?"

"We," Simon shouted, "Are. Going. To. See. My. Uncle."

"Ah. Him," Menichos avoided mention of the name. "He sent for you?"

The question was intrusive, but Simon heard the underlying concern, "No," he shouted, then spread his empty hands, nothing else to say.

"Ah," Menichos said, disappointed; after a long moment he suddenly looked down at his feet, leaned to pick something up, then held it out. "This is yours, isn't it?"

Simon looked at the cat as it swished twin tails and grinned down at him. He called, "One of them. You can keep it if you want." His eyes narrowed, " How did you know it was mine?"

"Ah, I, er, saw through the window."

Simon was appalled, had his disastrous attempt been so visible? He looked backward, judging from the rooves, surely that window faced the mountains, and this tower looked more directly into the.b--

"Why didn't you catch them all?" Greta shouted.

"I only watch,"Menichos said, "I don't interfere."

"You didn't think they were dangerous?"

"I saw no threat, only the natural working of sorcery, the shaping of power to its desired form."

"A pleasant form?"

Menichos looked at the cat, then at her, as he smoothed a hand across its wings, "Marvellous. Grace and power combined." He looked at Simon, "You are fortunate."

Simon could only nod, unwilling to lie. He reached for Greta's hand, turned.

"Ah," Menichos said, "Shall I expect you back this night.. or the morning?"

Simon shrugged.

Menichos made a last laconic comment, "Beware witches."

Simon went rigid, and Greta glared upward. It was the warning parents gave to children, and to those who couldn't learn: don't eat fire, don't swim near the weed, beware the Fregen witches. It was obvious that Menichos knew something was wrong. Menichos looked innocently at Greta, winked.

As she turned, irritated, she saw Andric shuffle out of his house, one hand rubbing the back of his neck. Her irritation slipped away.

There were about four hours of daylight left. Simon quickened his pace, dragging her along. She had to take quick short steps to match his stride, and only had a moment to glance at the sentinel. Menichos had already turned to scan the horizon: jagged mountains, ochre desert, silver ribbon of distant ocean lit by the second-farthest moon.

The land was donning its autumn colours: greens had faded to yellow and dull red; the sered and curling leaves were stripped from branches by warm gusts of wind.

Travelling away from the crop fields, they met no-one, it was as if the people had vanished with the summer; only the beasts and birds moved swift and briefly in the heat, the subtle hunters and their anxious prey, trembling huddles of camouflaged dullness or bursts of jagged colour cutting through the air.

Theobald's dwelling was deliberately hard to reach, only Simon's memory took them past the subtle misdirection spells. As they went higher into the mountains, they had to follow little-used tracks and paths that meandered upward like hesitant birds. It wasn't long before they took off their cloaks, folding them small enough to put into the scrip.

They drank often, and when they had to ford a stream, Greta chose to stand in mid-stream to refill the waterskin, as he sat on the bank to wait. She bent her knees against the force of the water; water foaming around her thighs, laughed aloud at some pleasure she couldn't explain to him, one that flushed her face and made her emerald eyes bright; the water sheened her warm brown skin and ebon hair. Her tunic soaked up water faster than the waterskin, and before it had swelled to fullness, Simon had to slide from the bank back into the water to cool his own desire.

They scrambled over moss and rock, up steep slopes slippery with grass. The mountains rose around them like the bower of giants, soon denying them any sight of the village, or of any human paths. The faint echo of the stream was swallowed by the massive pines, until they walked through green silence tinged with the calls of unseen birds, guided on their way only by glimpses of the black mountain peak that lay directly beyond Theobald's home.

For long minutes Simon forgot his despair, the reason for their journey; only once did he curse aloud, after barking his shin on a rock. A nearby spider expanded instantly to the size of a cat, then a moment later shrank and began to repair its web. Simon looked at Greta, who put her hands together, drew them apart and nodded approvingly, moved them towards each other and looked below his waist with a frown of disappointment. Simon - already hopping on one leg - fell over and laughed helplessly. She knelt by him, grinning, stroking his hair, finally embracing him, her face pressed to the damp collar of his jerkin. Reluctantly they travelled on, hands linked, so close that the entire world lay outside their clasp. What they shared, was shared without words; somewhere in the viridian quiet, all worry fell from him, lost among ancient trees. Theobald was a distant shadow --

There was a shriek.

Only as the echoes resounded did Simon realise the furious voice had screamed his name. He looked anxiously around. Without realising, they'd passed through the natural barrier of trees surrounding a small clearing, where a steep and barren hillside rose to meet a rocky ledge. On the ledge, in front of his cave, a furious old man glared furiously at them - ragged clothes barely covering a body streaked with dirt, his eyes burning like battle fires as his clenched fists punched at the air.

"Uncle?" Simon said in disbelief.

"SIMON! You bloody fool!"

Simon snapped erect. He hadn't seen the old man for ten years.

"'WARE WITCH!" Theobald yelled. Simon began to turn, bewildered, then Theobald yelled again, and on the second word, Simon knew it for a killing spell, one of the most powerful. Even the spell's wake could cripple those close. He threw himself at Greta, who stood with arms out and palms spread as if she sensed Theobald's purpose and was futilely trying to stop him.

Theobald's yell was suddenly drowned by the roar of giants. Beneath his feet, the thick ledge cracked thunderously, then broke into massive slabs and began to fall.

Theobald, already caught up in the killing shout, had little chance to try any other sorcery, and his words changed only to a plea for impossible help. Simon's shoulder struck Greta hard in the stomach, and they hit the ground, he used the momentum to roll them both beside and then behind a tree.

The titanic layers of rock toppled and slid, gouging out earth and rocks in a destructive tide. The magician was just another mote tossed about in the cyclone, clawing for the solid ground that, after an eternal moment, rose dreadfully to meet him.

Simon and Greta huddled behind the tree as the rocks smashed past, a furious storm assaulting the forest; saplings were crushed and uprooted, dust choked the air, their tree rocked with the impacts.

It could have been seconds, or minutes - time is not measured when you wait only its end - but finally there was calm, a void waiting to be filled with ordinary sound, resurging life.

Hesitantly they moved out of their shelter, climbing over a mound of debris the height of a man. Theobald lay no more than a dozen yards away, prone and unmoving on the riven earth, his right arm was partially buried by soil but otherwise he seemed untouched.

Simon groaned. Then he was running towards his uncle, Greta beside him.

He ran practised hands along the old man's arms and legs, touched his head, felt his heart. He was only just alive. His furious eyes rolled as he gasped. Simon knew he couldn't live without immediate help. Aid Simon daren't give with his spells determined to go wrong. Any attempt would kill Theobald the faster. He wished Greta had some power or ability.

The old man whispered. Simon leaned down, "What?"

"Witch," Theobald gasped.

Simon looked around quickly, then upward, anywhere - there was only Greta, the old man and he. Yet Theobald knew much about witches, and so Simon began to rise, gripping the knife at his belt. "Where.. tell me where.."

Theobald's hand clutched at him with desperate strength. "You.. damn fool.. Fregen.."

"We avoided their domain. I'm not a f- "

The old man snarled again, teeth clenched, "..witch!.."

"I can't see any,"Simon said helplessly.

"Oh," said Theobald, gazing straight into Simon's eyes; the gaze became fixed. His hand loosened, his eyes closed.

After a moment, Simon laid a hand on the breathless throat, said ritually, "May your sleep be short." He took his hand away and said for himself, "But not too short." He was only slightly ashamed of the words. He stood, still scanning the forest.

Any witch would have attacked before now. They were murderous beasts. It was said they killed with pleasure, and no man tried to escape from them before he died of their arts. No-one who had seen a witch had returned to tell - except Theobald, and he told nothing, only guarded himself from Fregen sight by numerous devices and wards.

Simon looked across the mountains. The sun had already impaled itself on the horned peaks of Conispar. They had to hurry if they wanted to try for the safety of the village, but he knew they should stay here and bury Theobald, and he could still feel the acrid tang of power that was the incomplete killing spell, that would need dissipating or grounding.

He hugged himself, rubbing a hand on each sleeve, "Ring, mirror, book, cat, uncle. What single scheme is there to compass them?"

He spun round at a sudden thud. Greta leaned on a rock, standing on one leg as she rubbed her foot.

"What?" he said, bewildered.

"I tripped over the witch-killer,"she said, and pointed at the body.

The old man's body had been tumbled quite a distance by the impact. Simon shrugged, preoccupied, the dead were elsewhere, their bodies were unimportant. "He had time for one last word, and he wastes it on his hated witches. May he be reborn as one!"

"You hate them so much?" she said quietly.

Simon shook his head, "I don't hate the unknown; they might be like you or I, but they are hidden, and being invisible to me, I fear them. Like my enemy: I cannot see them clear." He made a fist, "Why won't he face me directly? Am I of so little worth?"

"- or so precious?"

Simon smiled bleakly, "Precious ore? Am I gold to be mined?"

"- and quarried. You are my quarry," she told him, and smiled.

"As you are mine." He studied the sky, "Come." He began to pick his way up the shattered slope towards Theobald's cave, to gather the things to be buried with the body. There might yet be some old knowledge or manuscript secreted there that could explain why his spells were being thwarted, or who stood against him. Only at the very back of his mind, had a vague puzzlement grown around something Greta had said.

Behind him, Greta glared down, and kicked the body again, more openly.

Murderer, she thought.


The End

The End