The High Priest and the Idol : Chapter One - Summoned to Lyremouth

Before much longer, the progression of the equinoxes was going to progress off the edge of the paper. Jemeryl sat back and ruefully studied the diagram. Despite her careful planning, with hindsight she could see that she should have positioned the first astral alignment point further from the centre of the page. Was the situation retrievable if she shifted the dates on by twelve years so she could fit the earlier bits in on the left? Jemeryl nodded thoughtfully. That should work well enough. However her satisfaction lasted less than a second. The new section would then take up the space allocated for the table of the lunar eclipses she had yet to add.

In fact, the more Jemeryl looked at the half completed work, the more she reached the conclusion that her whole approach had been wrong to start with. The figures should have been broken up by planetary conjunction, rather than year. Briefly, Jemeryl considered erasing part of the diagram and amending what was left, maybe even turning the sheet widthways, but then she picked up the paper, scrunched it into a ball and tossed it into the fire. The paper burned with a agreeable finality. Jemeryl smiled and pulled a clean sheet towards her.

"What makes you think you're going to do any better this time?"

The raucous voice was inhumanly devoid of inflection, but this did not stop Jemeryl catching the undertone of ridicule. She answered without looking up. "Because now I know what I'm doing."

"Excuse me? Haven't I heard that before? Paper doesn't grow on trees, you know."

"Your point being?"

Klara II landed on the desk in a blur of black and white feathers. She strutted forward to stand on the paper and stared up at Jemeryl. Her bead-like eyes glittered in the firelight. "My point being that you've wasted a lot of paper. Why do you have to start from scratch each time you make a mistake? It would be quicker to edit what you already have."

"I want to get it right."

"What is so important about this diagram?"

"Elthon, the idiot. He's spent two years trying to that demonstrate lunar conjunctions can be used to underpin oracles."

"So you're going to waste three years and half a forest proving him wrong."

"It won't take me that long."

"But you can't comment on the forest? Look, the Protectorate isn't going to collapse just because a weasel-faced, ginger-haired sorcerer produced a stupid diagram."

"Elthon has black hair."

"I wasn't talking about him."

"My hair's too dark to count as ginger." However, Jemeryl was grinning, knowing her familiar was merely trying to get a rise out of her. She pushed Klara off the paper.

"Check out a mirror sometime. Anyway, by the time you finish this diagram, it'll be grey. I suppose next you'll be telling me you're not an pedantically over obsessive crank?"

"No. That's Elthon."

"You know the thing about turning into whatever you most dislike?"

"Can't see it applies, because I'm not about to turn into an annoying magpie."

Wings flapped. For an instant, Jemeryl assumed Klara had flown off in disgust, before the sound registered as coming from behind. Jemeryl turned her head in time to catch sight of a carrier pigeon swooping in through the half-open study window.

"Oh look. It's grey and gormless." Klara latched on to the fresh target for her sarcasm.

"Don't taunt the pigeon. It's rude of you."

"Why not? It's to dense to notice."

"It's not nice."

"Now who's being rude? I think it's a perfectly nice pigeon--just a bit on the stupid side."

For its part, the carrier pigeon bobbed its head up and down, cooing, as if agreeing with Klara.

Jemeryl shook her head at her familiar. "You're incorrigible."

"Who'd want a corriged magpie?"

Jemeryl chose to ignore Klara's question in favour of retrieving the note from the pigeon's leg. However, reading the contents turned her expression and mood progressively less cheerful. She read it a second time and then started on a third pass, but broke off. The words on the paper were not going to change, no matter how many times she read them. On the surface, the summons was straightforward, but what lay behind it? Jemeryl glanced at the fire, tempted to let the note follow her failed diagram, but regrettably, the letter could not be dismissed so easily. She rang a small bell and a few seconds later the head of a servant appeared around the door.

"Yes, ma'am?"

"I want to talk to Captain Teverik. Can you find her for me. Er..." Jemeryl frowned at the sheet of paper in her hand. "Tell her I'd like to talk to her fairly soon, but it isn't so urgent she needs to dash over if she's busy."

"Yes ma'am." The head withdrew.

Jemeryl wandered to the window. Her residence at the apex of the hill commanded a view over the densely packed streets of Horzt and the surrounding farmlands. A sky of washed blue hung over the scene. The air heavy was with the weight of spring. To her nose it was the scent of rich soil and pollen. To her extended sorcerer senses it was a riot of auras, about to erupt now that winter was fading. Her eyes focused on the line of mountains to the south. Beyond them was the city of Lyremouth, the home of the Coven. The pigeon had flown all the way from there with the letter--a personal summons from Alendy, the Guardian.

Seven months had passed since Alendy had been elected to the position, making him the leader of the Coven. For Jemeryl, these had been seven months of wondering what he would do, while trying to persuade herself that most likely he would do nothing. Now a message had come. Was it what it seemed? Was she reading too much into it? Jemeryl chewed her lip. Would Alendy really be so blatant?

The door of the study opened again. "I got your message. Has something happened?"

The new arrival was Tevi, town guildmaster for the Mercenaries. Judging by the reinforced leather armour covering Tevi's tall frame, and the sweat plastering her dark hair to her forehead, she had been drilling the town guard when the servant found her. Regardless of how the message had been phrased, Tevi had obviously rushed over, not taking the time to shed the protective wear.

Jemeryl took a moment to study her lover. Although Tevi clean up well, the active warrior style definitely suited her. In fact, no matter how Tevi dressed--or undressed--she was well worth looking at. Jemeryl smiled. Whatever Alendy was planing, separating them was one thing he would never succeed at.

Jemeryl nodded towards the pigeon. "I've just had a letter."

"Is there a problem?"

"I assume so, though I don't know what it is."

"What?" Tevi's face wrinkled in confusion.

Klara piped up. "Don't worry. It's not you. She's been progressing equinoxes all morning. It always makes her turn cryptic."

Tevi ignored the magpie and came close enough to put her hand on Jemeryl's arm. "What is it?"

"In detail I don't know but..." Jemeryl indicated the letter on her desk. "It's a summons to go to Lyremouth immediately."

"No other information?"

"None. Not even a hint. They're sending an interim sorcerer to stand in for me. He should be here in a few days." Jemeryl slipped her arm around Tevi's waist for a quick hug, before sinking back down in her chair. She picked up the paper but, rather than read, merely stared at it. The words were telling her nothing. The paper they were written on was just as informative. "And I'm to go alone."

The air left Tevi's lungs in a sigh and she dropped into a chair on the other side of the desk. For a while she sat glaring, before saying, "So. Alendy has decided to play games with us."

"I don't know. I can't believe he'd be so blatant about it."

"I can. It's no secret he disapproves of us. Gilliart was on our side, so there was nothing he could do while she was Guardian. But it's what now...seven, eight months since she died? I'd say that was the right sort of time-frame for him to get a feel for being Guardian and want to see what sort of power he has."

"Well, one thing he very definitely doesn't have the power to do, is to say who I share my bed with."

"Not directly. By he can order you to one end of the Protectorate and leave me at the other. We're perfectly free to be lovers, but not to get within a thousand miles of each other."

This was all familiar territory that they had covered often before. Jemeryl shook her head. "I've told you, there's no way he could get away with it. Wherever he sends me, you can join me. And if he keeps mucking around, what he's doing will be obvious to every other sorcerer in the Coven."

"Will they care? You know most are on his side."

"Oh true. My consorting with an ordinary citizen shows no regard for the status of sorcerer, and therefore demeans them as well." Jemeryl knew her ironic grin was a half shade away from being a grimace.

"Exactly. They aren't going to get upset about us."

"Not about us as such, but they will get upset. We sorcerers are very tetchy about our rights. We get irked enough by the rules we have to obey. We don't want to concede anything more. And we certainly don't want rules about our private lives. If I lose the right to pick my lover, then they do too."

Tevi started to speak, but Jemeryl held up her hand and went on. "As a member of the Coven, I'm sworn to obey the Guardian. But on the flip side, Alendy has sworn to vouchsafe the rights of Coven members. He's so obsessive about the pre-eminence of sorcerers. He can't have it both ways and decide I don't have the same sort of freedoms a farm hand would take for granted."

Tevi slumped back in her chair. "So what are you going to do?"

"I've got to obey the summons. Maybe, just maybe, Alendy has a good reason for it."

"And if not?"

"Then I'll pull out the Coven rule book, and give him more grief than he'll know what to do with."

"I can go with you anyway. I'll help you turn the book's pages."

"If I obey his orders to the letter it'll make me an irreproachable victim of an abuse of power, and my case will be all the stronger. Don't worry. I can guarantee we'll be back together again soon."

"If you don't come back, you know I'll follow you. Wherever you are."

"Yes. I'll be counting on it."

Tevi pursed her lips, clearly not mollified. "When will you go, and for how long?"

"I'll leave tomorrow, but I can't say when I'll be back. I'll leave Klara with you. I can use her to pass on messages."

"And a damn sight more effective than the grey gimp over there." Klara fluffed up her feathers.

Jemeryl reached out and stroked Klara with her forefinger. The magpie was her familiar. The bond between them so close that, effectively, she was doing some of her thinking in Klara's head. "By the time I get to Lyremouth, it will be too tiring to mind ride her for long. But no matter how far away I am, I'll be able to make contact, if only for a few minutes a day. I'll be able to let you know where I am, and what's happening. The rest of the time, she'll be quiet."

"That'll be no bad thing." Despite her manifest discontent with the plan, Tevi gave a half grin.

Klara hopped onto Tevi's wrist. "And I love you too, sweetie."

~~~~~~

The anteroom to the Guardian's quarters had not changed since the first time Jemeryl had seen it, more than two decades before. Dark wood panelling peaked between the same hanging tapestries. The row of ornate chairs at one side would not have needed replacing. They were so uncomfortable that most visitors chose to stand, ensuring a lack of wear on the seats. Heavy leaded windows gave a view over Lyremouth harbour--a scene blurred by a haze of sea-mist, as it had been on the day of Jemeryl's first visit.

Back then, she had been a eleven year old child, recently confirmed as being able to perceive and control all three paranormal dimensions, and sent to Lyremouth to study as an apprentice sorcerer.

Jemeryl had felt few regrets in leaving the village of her birth, and none at leaving the family, who had shunned her from the day it become apparent that she was able to work magic. Growing up had not been easy. The other children in the village had known she was different, and had shown it various spiteful ways, until Jemeryl's growing power made provoking her too dangerous. Even then, some children had always been ready to see just how far she could be pushed. The memories of rejection and ridicule still hurt. Looking back, the main cause for surprise was that nobody had been killed, or turned in to a frog.

Loneliness had been the worst of it. Coming to the Coven at Lyremouth had been the start of a wonderful time in Jemeryl's life, surrounded by people who saw the world with all the same multidimensional complexity that she did. For the first time, Jemeryl felt she belonged. She had friends. She had not wanted to leave. Meeting Tevi had changed that--had changed her outlook in many ways.

Jemeryl knew her childhood did not count as unusual among sorcerers. They were all born into families that were not like them. They grew up, through their formative years, surrounded by people who appeared weak and stupid, unable to see the obvious. In return, they were feared and ostracised. Was it any wonder that so many sorcerers were emotionally scarred by their childhoods, and held the ungifted in disregard, bordering on contempt?

The laws of the Protectorate granted rights to all its citizens. Members of the Coven were sworn to defend those rights, with their lives if need be. They were supposed to watch over and lead the citizens in their care, like shepherds watching their flocks. For many sorcerers this analogy was all too apt and they viewed the ungifted masses as no better than sheep. So when it came to her and Tevi? Jemeryl's lips twisted in a wry smile. Yes, the analogy fitted pretty closely there as well.

The door to Alendy's rooms opened and a junior witch appeared. "The Guardian can see you now."

Send in the sheep-shagger. Jemeryl tried to dismiss the thought from her head. The meeting enough potential to get awkward, without any undue flippancy on her part.

Alendy was portly man, a few years shy of seventy. His bald head made his face seem all the rounder. Jemeryl had always thought that he took himself too seriously and being elected as Guardian was unlikely to have softened this trait. When she entered, he was seated in a high backed chair beside a window. His pose gave the impression that he was working a little too hard at appearing relaxed.

Alendy waited until she was also seated before speaking. "Thank you for coming. I was wondering how things are going in the borderlands near you."

The topic was not what she had expected and Jemeryl took a few seconds to consider her answer. "It's getting calmer. With Revozik's new empire expanding from the east, the dragons are retreating. Trade is picking up. Nine caravans had already passed through when I left, which is up two from this time last year."

"How do you judge Revozik?"

Regimes outside the Protectorate were always in a state of flux. In the case of the lands north of Horzt it had been a period of exceptional turbulence. For the common population, the dragons had been no more deadly than the wars between aspiring sorcerers, seeking to step into the void left by Bykoda's death and the collapse of her empire. So far, Revozik was showing no sign of being more despotic than the former empress, and regardless of what he was like, most folk would welcome his rule, if it could provide a measure of security.

"He's young, but learning. I think he's someone the Coven can work with. I'd been toying with the idea of visiting him in person this summer."

"And in Horzt itself?"

Jemeryl continued to answer the questions, sure they were not the real reason she had been summoned. Much of the information, Alendy must have already known. The rest could have been answered in a written report. Possibly, Alendy wanted time to gauge her mood before getting to his real objective. Jemeryl forced herself to stay calm, to wait and be patient, but it was a bad sign if the Guardian felt he needed to sidle into the discussion.

At last Alendy leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "You must be wondering why I summoned you."

Such an obvious statement needed no reply. Jemeryl tilted her head to the side, surprised at how tense she felt. Alendy had finished prevaricating.

"When you were here as an apprentice, there was one of your fellows, Ciamon. You remember him?"

"Yes."

"You got on well together and parted on good terms?"

"Yes."

"That's what I thought. I don't suppose you're still in contact with him."

Jemeryl's previous tension solidified in a knot of anger. Alendy was still sidling around the subject. The waste of time would be bad enough, even if the end goal was legitimate--which it was not. Already, she could guess where the trail was heading, and it was all the more insulting if Alendy thought he could string her into going along with it. Why could the man not come straight out and stay what he meant?

"Is this about my relationship with Tevi?"

"No. Why should it be?" Alendy's denial came a little too quickly.

"Because, as I'm sure you know, Ci and I were lovers for a while. And no. I don't want to give up Tevi in favour of another sorcerer. Not him, or anyone else." Jemeryl knew her tone was not as deferential as it should be when addressing the Guardian, but he had no right to meddle in her personal affairs .

Alendy's face darkened, either in anger or embarrassment. "All right. If that's the way you want to deal with this. You know how I feel about your liaison with a common mercenary. It's highly undesirable, as one day you'll realise. However, I accept you're not going to take my advice, and there's nothing I can do about it." He took a deep breath. "I'm asking you about Ciamon because he's had an accident."

"Accident? How serious is it?"

"Serious enough that he needs help. Unfortunately, it's left him disturbed and he's not going to accept this help from someone he doesn't trust."

And he doesn't trust you. That's two of us. The thought shot through Jemeryl's head, although all she said was, "What sort of help?"

"That will be for the healers to gauge, when they see him. I want you to talk him into returning to Lyremouth."

"Where's he now?"

"Outside the Protectorate. The desert town of Kradja, you know of it?"

"It's got a big temple, that specialises in..." Jemeryl frowned, probing her memory. "Oracles?"

"Yes. That's it."

"Why has he gone there? Is he after a prophesy?"

Alendy shook his head. "I don't think the temple has anything to do with it. He was working in Serac. Kradja lay on the quickest route out of the Protectorate."

So Ciamon was fleeing, but from what? Jemeryl bowed her head, thinking. She was sure that Alendy was not telling her everything. What approach would have the best hope of producing worthwhile answers?

"Why send me after him? Surely he has friends in Serac who could get to him quicker."

Alendy took a moment before replying, clearly picking his words. "Ciamon has not had a happy record since finishing his apprenticeship. He has strong views which put him at odds with most other sorcerers. He's held a number of posts, but I regret to say he's had trouble fitting in wherever he's been. You shared a close bond in the past. There's a better chance he'll listen to you than anyone in Serac."

Ciamon had been idealistic, a passionate dreamer. He had been compassionate to the extent that Jemeryl was sure some latent telepathy was involved. He had been quick to make judgements about right and wrong, and had not been afraid to challenge the Coven leaders when he found something he thought was wrong. He annoyed a lot of people. It sounded as if he had not changed much.

"You said he'd had an accident. What happened?"

"I don't have all the details."

And you don't want to tell me the ones you do have, Jemeryl thought in frustration. That much was clear.

Alendy continued. "Just over a year ago, Gilliart sent him to Serac as assistant to an elderly sorcerer. Ralieu is brilliant, but she's also a little eccentric, as some very talented sorcerers are. I think Gilliart hoped the two nonconformists would get along together. He joined Ralieu just before Gilliart died and what with my election and the transition period, I regret I wasn't able to keep as close an eye on things as I'd have liked."

Why would the appointment of an assistant require the personal attention of the Guardian? There had to be something more to it, and whatever that something more was, Alendy's admission provided one obvious conclusion and a partial answer in explaining his unease. It was a dangerous situation that you knew required monitoring, and you let it slip.

"What state is Ciamon likely to be in? I'd appreciate any preparation before I meet him."

"There was no physical damage to him, although regrettably, a few other people lost their lives. At first, Ciamon seemed unharmed, but a short while later his behaviour became increasingly erratic. After making a series of wild threats he vanished. We traced him to Kradja, but I'm afraid I don't know anything else. I've recalled Ralieu to Lyremouth, to find out more."

"When is Ralieu due to arrive? Can I speak to her?"

"Ralieu is hard to predict. She's assured me she's on the way but..." Alendy shrugged. "I'm certain nothing she has to say will help you."

You don't want me to talk to her. Was she being too suspicious? Jemeryl chewed her lip, but then another niggling thought wormed its way into her head. "You said Ciamon had been making threats?"

If so, then something had definitely changed him. Ciamon was always willing to argue his case with passion and persistence, but he had never been violent. He had never let his battle against perceived injustice become a vindictive attack, even on those he believed guilty.

"Not against anyone in particular. To be honest, they were nothing but mad ravings. They only show how badly disturbed he is. The only person he's likely to hurt is himself. Which is why I want him here. Ciamon was injured as a result of his assignment from the Coven. This explains something of the grudge he now clearly carries. As Guardian, I owe it to him, to see that he is cared for and receives treatment. You are one of the few people I think he might listen to."

I'm also too junior to challenge you if I dig up anything. And if I start making noise, since everyone knows you and I are in conflict over Tevi, you can try to pass my report off as biased. I ought to think up an excuse to say no, head back to Horzt and leave you to stew. It was what common sense told her. But common sense was not the only voice in Jemeryl's head.

She closed her eyes. Without effort, she recalled Ciamon, running down a street while laughing at a shared joke, playing with a puppy they found, kissing in a doorway at dawn. She remembered his face, artless and innocent, sleeping beside her. She remembered him, ardent and unswerving, wanting to set the world to rights, and believing that he could. Dreams rarely came true. Ciamon's had clearly evaporated more than most.

Alendy was not telling the whole truth. Of that, Jemeryl was sure. And she was equally sure that, whatever he might say, separating her and Tevi played some part in his motives. Yet Ciamon was in trouble and she could not abandon him. Not because he had been her lover, but because he had been her friend, and because she knew, despite all the years separating them, that if their positions were reversed, he would not desert her.

Jemeryl raised her head. "When do you want me to leave?"

~~~~~~

Iralin had aged in the eight years since they last met, to an extent that shocked Jemeryl. The old tutor had lost so much weight that she was little more than a skeleton sitting hunched in a chair. Her hair had been white for as long as Jemeryl could remember. Now it was thinning as well, looking like a halo around her head where the sunlight hit. However, she got quickly to her feet when she saw Jemeryl and her eyes were as sharp as ever.

"Jemeryl. I wasn't expecting to see you here. Have you been recalled from Horzt?"

If Alendy had not discussed the matter with Iralin, it was unlikely that he would have spoken to anyone else. Iralin's former role as tutor meant she was familiar with all that had gone on regarding Ciamon, and she would thus be the obvious person to seek out for advice. However, Iralin also had the seniority to ask probing questions. Was Alendy really so keen to avoid scrutiny? However, he had neglected to give instructions about confidentiality, so there was no reason for Jemeryl to keep silent. After guiding Iralin back to her seat, she proceeded to recount the details of her meeting with the Guardian earlier that day.

"I've said I'll do it, but I don't trust Alendy. I wish you'd become Guardian instead of him." Jemeryl concluded.

"Please! Don't wish that on me. I have enough trouble keeping my room in order. I wouldn't want to be responsible for the whole Protectorate."

"You didn't always feel that way."

"I wasn't always this old." Iralin sighed and settled back in her chair.

"Then if not you, someone else. I know he'd been deputy for years, but that's no reason to..." Jemeryl finished in a contemptuous pout.

"Alendy's not that bad. He's not dishonest, stupid or weak-willed. And he'll always do what he thinks is right for the Protectorate."

"I guess that's my big problem with him. He thinks the future of the Protectorate depends on splitting up me and Tevi."

"I think you're overstating the situation. Alendy has strong views about maintaining the status of sorcerers."

"And my relationship with Tevi debases the whole Coven."

"Maybe it does, in his eyes."

"There's no maybe about it. He a narrow-minded bigot."

"Bigot?"

"He thinks sorcerers are better than everyone else."

"And you don't?"

"No."

Iralin smiled. "You answered that too quickly. Take a moment and think. Are you sure you don't feel just a little bit superior to the person who washes your clothes?"

Jemeryl paused, poking around at her conscience. Admittedly, she could spark a few reactions she was not so pleased with, but on one point she was certain. "I don't feel superior to Tevi."

"I'm pleased to hear it. But Alendy isn't having an affair with her and has no desire to start one."

"He better not have."

Iralin laughed. "It's all right. I think you're safe. But you have to allow his attitude toward her won't be the same as yours."

"True. And that's one thing I worry about. He sees her as a worthless pawn who's upsetting his vision of how the world ought to be. I'm scared he might do something to her while I'm away."

"Alendy won't step outside the law."

"There's enough he can do from inside it."

"Such as?"

"He could get her guild to send her on a very dangerous mission." Jemeryl could feel her stomach tightening at the thought. She swallowed, wishing she could also swallow her fears. "I want her to be here when I get back."

"You're worrying too much. And being unfair on him."

"I've left Klara with Tevi, so we can keep in contact. But it's becoming more of an effort to mind ride. Once I've crossed the Middle Seas, it's going to get harder still." Jemeryl bit her lip. "Can you keep an eye out for Tevi and make sure she's all right?"

"I'm not exactly in the thick of things any more. Even if Alendy did do something--not that I can imagine he would--but I wouldn't know anything until it was too late."

The words were not comforting and it was not something Jemeryl wanted to discuss at length. She met Iralin's eye and held them until the elderly woman sighed and said, "All right. I promise to do what I can."

"Thanks."

"When do you leave Lyremouth?"

"As soon as they can get me passage on a ship bound for Serac. I'll have a couple of witches in attendance, but it shouldn't take more than a day or two to sort out."

"So you've got time to see what I've been working on?"

"Of course."

Jemeryl smiled. Some things would never changed. She was not surprised that the old woman was still actively pursuing her research. Iralin might be ancient, but she shared with Jemeryl a love of learning. Only death or senility was going to stop either of them from studying magic.

~~~~~~

Tevi's face and voice were distorted by Klara's senses, but recognisable, once Jemeryl allowed for the softened bass and weird colours. "You're going to Kradja?"

"Yes. You've been there, haven't you?"

"Just the once. Make sure you visit the temple. It's impressive. And camels--you ought to see them in the market. They're weird. Desert sunsets though. They beat the lot. They're..." Tevi smiled wistfully. "I wish I was going with you."

"So do I."

"I miss you."

"I miss you too."

"Talking is nice, but it's no substitute for holding you close."

The conversation was revisiting familiar, painful ground. The journey to Lyremouth had taken Jemeryl a month. Kradja was as far away again. No matter how quickly she concluded her mission with Ciamon, she would not be back in Tevi's arms until mid summer. Jemeryl was trying hard not to nurse her anger, since it could do no good, but there was no reason at all why Tevi could not have gone with her--no reason except for Alendy's aversion to them being together. Jemeryl clamped down on the thought.

"You know I'm not going to be able to contact you so often in future. The elemental forces in the sea will be hard to balance for more than a few minutes at a time." As it was, Jemeryl could feel the strain of projecting her mind over the hundreds of miles. She would not be able to keep it up much longer, and the residual awareness of her body, back in the room at Lyremouth was trying to claim her attention. She was required to deal with something. "I've got to go."

"All right." Tevi looked sad. "Contact me whenever you can. I love you."

"I love you too, and I will. I promise."

Tevi blew a kiss, a gesture Jemeryl could not reciprocate as a magpie.

"Bye."

Jemeryl loosened the bonds tying her mind in Klara's body. The world bucked and surged. Her stomach contorted as if trying to turn itself inside out. After a few seconds the nausea retreated, only to be replaced by the pounding of a headache at the back of her skull.

The pain faded although the pounding remained. Jemeryl clapped her hands over her ears. Her head felt far too big, then it shrunk to the size of a pinhead, before finally regaining its proper size and relationship to her neck. The world was back in place, and her body was again her own, with nothing worse than a tingle over her left eyebrow.

Someone was at her door. This was the noise that had intruded on her awareness while she had been mind riding Klara. Filtered through the magpie senses, it had sounded like a mob trying to smash their way in, but was now only a polite tapping.

Jemeryl took a last deep breath to steady herself and called, "Enter."

Both visitors wore a green amulet on their left wrist, inscribed with a pattern of oak leaves, marking them as middle ranking witches. In style, the amulets were the same as the one on Jemeryl's own wrist, although hers was black, as befitting a sorcerer. At the front was a blonde man. His face had a firm jaw, full lips and startling blue eyes. The woman behind him was taller, dark-haired, with high, chiselled cheek bones. They looked to be in their late twenties.

The man spoke for them. "Madam Jemeryl?"

"Yes?"

"My name in Taedias, I'm adapt in the sixth dimension. This is Gante"--the woman nodded in acknowledgement--"adept in the fifth. We will be accompanying you to Kradja. We've been sent to introduce ourselves and to tell you that passage to Serac has been arranged on a merchant ship, leaving at high tide tomorrow evening."

Gante nodded again, as if confirming that the information was correct, and then both witches stood rigidly in the doorway.

"Thank you. That's great."

"Is there anything you need us to do before then?" Taedias' voice was without modulation. If he were an actor, describing his performance as wooden would be an insult to trees.

"No. I'm all set to go." Jemeryl gave a wide smile, hoping to put her new companions at their ease. It showed no sign of working.

"We've arranged for a porter to carry your bags to the harbour."

"I can carry them my--" Jemeryl broke off. It did not matter. "Fine."

"We'll be here after dinner tomorrow to escort you to the docks."

"Thanks."

"Is there anything else?"

"No. See you then." By now, Jemeryl's smile was masking her clenched teeth.

Taedias gave a formal bow, Gante nodded for a third time, and then the pair shuffled a retreat. After they had gone, Jemeryl sat, staring at the closed door in bemusement. Judging the two witches on such a brief first meeting would be unfair, although neither had impressed her with their intellect. However, it was impossible to miss that they were two of the most physically attractive people Jemeryl had seen around the Coven.

She frowned. Surely Alendy had not hand picked them, in the hope she would fall for their good looks, start an affair with one or the other, and abandon Tevi. The idea was insulting. Alendy could not be that crass, could he?

~~~~~~

Long before completing the journey, Jemeryl had formed the opinion that, if Alendy had truly thought she might lose her heart to either witch, it went far beyond the realms of mere insult. Neither was someone she would want as a close friend, let alone anything else. If she combined their best personality traits together, between them they had the charm, wit and incisiveness generally associated with a bowl of cold porridge.

At least Gante was easy to ignore. Jemeryl had only once heard her string more than five words together, and this had been to explain that she did not like being rained on. Taedias went to the other extreme and said everything twice--three times if he himself was the subject of the remark. Jemeryl had come to think of him as Tedious, and was dreading that she would call him it by mistake.

They were half way across the desert, and he was complaining about the heat and the flies, in same way he had complained about seasickness and the rough manners of sailors on the voyage, the price of beer when they landed in Serac, the poor state of the road over the Merlieu hills and the inadequate plumbing at their lodging in Villenes. All of these were, needless to say, targeted solely at him, by a vindictive fate.

He also had a headache. "It's behind my eyes, you know, and flares out towards my ears."

"Um." Jemeryl had one too. Could headaches be infectious?

A shout rang out, far more interesting than Taedias moaning, even though Jemeryl had no idea what was said. In Serac, she had hired a team consisting of a couple of guides and a wagon crew. All of them were from the district around Kradja, and among themselves, the hired hands usually spoke in a sibilant language, that Jemeryl thought belonged to the desert nomads. However, as a consequence of their work the entire team could make themselves understood in a range of languages, including several dwarven dialects.

The shout had come from a guide who was scouting ahead and had stopped at the top of a low ridge. Jemeryl slowed her horse to get a translation from the driver of the supply wagon.

"What is it?"

The driver smiled broadly. "She can see the oasis we camp by tonight. We have made good time. "

Before Jemeryl could say anything, Taedias piped up. "Great. I'm sure all the bouncing around is making my head worse. It's starting to upset my eyes, though I wasn't going to say anything. You know I don't like to complain."

Jemeryl bit back a string of replies. She knew of no such thing. Moreover, the power of suggestion was clearly at work. Her own headache was getting worse, and the light was behaving strangely, twisting in the sixth dimension and breaking into rainbows where it glinted off mica in the sand. In fact, the whole world seemed out of kilter, partly leaden, partly chaotic. Jemeryl had hoped to contact Tevi when they camped that evening, but it was not going to happen until she felt better.

While they approached the oasis, Taedias continued to describe his symptoms in unwanted detail. Jemeryl just wished he would shut up. Apart from anything else, the commentary was unnecessary, since she was feeling exactly the same. Had they eaten something bad at lunch? In which case, why did the wagon driver look so cheery? Surely he would also be suffering, since he, and the rest of the team, had shared the meal.

As an adept of the fifth dimension, Gante ought to have some skill as a healer. Currently she was at the rear of the group. Possibly she felt that being unable to see people's faces relieved her of any obligation to communicate,

Jemeryl dropped back to join her. "How are you feeling?"

Gante wrinkled her nose. "Not good."

"Do you have a headache?"

"Yes."

"How about the light? Does it seem odd?"

Gante tried out several different shrugs, the medium in which she was at her most eloquent. "The light's all right. But..."

Jemeryl waited, yet nothing was forthcoming. Talking to the woman was like getting blood out of a miserly vampire. "But?"

"My horse feels dead."

Jemeryl caught her lower lip in her teeth. It would make some sort of sense, if there were such a thing as a magical illness. The ungifted wagon driver was not bothered at all. Taedias was adept in the sixth dimension, which held the physical energies that bound the world together. Hence he was experiencing the malady in terms of light. Gante was adept in the fifth dimension, which held life forces, so she was noticing an effect in the animals around her. As a sorcerer, Jemeryl was able to perceive all dimensions, and was not only seeing changes in light and the horse she was riding, but time was also acting oddly. The minutes were tripping over themselves. But what sort of illness only targeted paranormal perception?

Abruptly, they were at the oasis, then a hundred yards away, and finally back at the waterside. Time was definitely not running in a nice steady way. Jemeryl shook her head, hoping to clear it, and tried to focus on her surroundings, not that this helped. The palm trees lining the water were bleached of life. The still pool reflected the sky in a smeared kaleidoscope of colour. The sound of the wind over the sand was broken into a staccato rhythm as the seconds disintegrated.

Jemeryl got down from her horse and stumbled to one of the palm trees. She sat with her back against the trunk, head held in her hands. What was wrong with her? She no longer felt so bad physically, even her headache had faded. But it was as if the illness now infected her surroundings, rather than her body.

Again, a shout claimed her attention, this time in a language she understood. Jemeryl took a deep breath and shoved herself to her feet. She was overreacting. She was not in pain, nor was she about to throw up or pass out. She needed to get a grip on herself.

"Madam sorcerer," one of the guides called again.

"Yes?"

"There are people approaching."

"So?" The oasis was a common campsite. It was not surprising if others wanted to stop there.

"They have weapons."

"Ah."

This was more ominous. A group with drawn swards was unlikely to be honest traders, wanting to make camp for the night. The well used oasis might be an obvious place for bandits to lie in wait. However, the ambushers were in for a surprised. Even in her current state, Jemeryl was sure she could cope with a gang of sword wielding thugs. She hobbled over to the guide.

Jemeryl squinted, looking out across the desert while struggling with the broken light. The approaching group must have numbered about twenty. If they were bandits, they were being very brazen about it, marching forward in a line, with no attempt to conceal themselves. Just for the sake of style, surely bandits would make some effort to skulk. The group clearly felt they had the right to claim the oasis, which might mean that they represented some legitimate power.

Then Jemeryl's vision cleared enough to see the red cloaks and gold helmets. The uniformed soldiers were now only a few dozen yards away. Abruptly, Jemeryl's headache re-erupted in white hot fury, imploding and sucking the world inside it. Her legs gave way. From a long way off, she heard someone scream. She did not think it was herself, although she could not be sure. And then, between one breath and the next, the headache vanished. The world snapped back into place--or parts of it did.

Jemeryl found herself on her knees in the sand, surrounded by the new arrivals. One of them grasped her sleeve and yanked her left arm up, displaying the black sorcerer's amulet on her wrist. Judging by the man's manner, he was an officer, relaxed and confident, the only one not carrying a drawn sword.

He let Jemeryl's arm drop. "Our High Priest said the Coven would send someone soon. He was right. They've sent us a sorcerer. Or to be precise, someone who used to be a sorcerer."

Jemeryl stared up into the officer's face. What he said was true. Already she had identified the bits of the world that had not returned. The universe had shrunk to four dimensions. Energy and life were contained only by height, depth and length. Time was a simple linear progression. She could not grasp the energy tensors. She could not massage the auras of the bodies around her. She could not probe into the future. She was less than half what she had been. The world was devoid of magic.

The officer's triumphant smile broadened. "How does it feel to be a normal person?"

Jane Fletcher ~~~