Child of the Sun

 

“Damn!” Pause. “Damn! Damn!”

Caerthemon drew his pen across the page in an ugly, irregular line. Ever elusive, the goal be sought had been only a hair's-breadth away from discovery. He looked back up the page of abstruse symbols, trying to find his ill-judged step, in the certainty that the essence of his reasoning was correct.

He sighed, letting his frustrated anger lapse into a slow burning annoyance. Tomorrow, perhaps, he would hit the right road, but now, at five and twenty past eight in the evening it was too late for a fresh start.

He capped his inkpot, and wiped the pen-nib clean on a rag. Having seen the time, he was reminded of his hunger, and his earlier elation that had driven him to work past the evening meal. He chafed helplessly, realising that it would have been better advised to stop then, and left his current dead-end unexplored until the morrow.

Walking across to his bed, he gathered up his boots, a second-best pair more suited for one wishing to be inconspicuous on the streets after dark, and his wardrobe yielded up a similarly beaten jerkin, with a safe pocket holding a few coins. He added a few more from his purse so that there would be a comfortable reserve left after buying a meal. He left behind his brooch of four Colors deliberately, as much in rejection of what it stood for as that he wished to go abroad incognito.

He blew out the lamp, leaving only a slow candle burning, and quit his room.


Out on the street, having surrendered up his key to the Gatekeeper, he felt suddenly free, struck with a sudden impulse to wander off into the night, never to return, to leave all cares behind. He turned his mind to planning for that contingency, intending to disillusion himself before he did anything so stupid, while, ever wary, he walked the torchlit streets, where activity was still great enough to conceal a footpad or cutpurse.

All the while, his thoughts circled back to the thing that had been consuming his attention for these last nine months, his own quest for superiority. A dozen others lived who shared with Caerthemon the conquest of four Colors of magic, and he ranked low among them, neither great statesman nor great sorcerer, just a plodder. First he had bethought himself to better them by mastering a fifth Color of magic, and his failure to adapt to more than the rudiments of either of the other two colors still rankled.

Then, by chance, he had stumbled across a passing reference to an event in the early ages of the Sorcerers, to the construction of a device called the Red Gauntlet that was to have given its wielder power over Red Magic without need for study or aptitude, and supposedly forged by an artisan without the Talent of binding. Admittedly glove and artisan came to grief before the unknown client had been able to claim his device, in an incident that had sparked another of the wars of those turbulent days.

That reference had given him a new direction in which to hunt for his own aggrandizement. That had been at the feast of New Year, and now his hopes were fading with the summer. The experiments had failed too many times, and when he had tried to find some theoretical background around which to structure new experimentation, the work had faltered, as now, at transformations that were too hard to find. Hope had turned to disillusionment, and maybe soon to despair. Failure now would rob his life of all purpose, for he had made his Talent too great a part of his life, so when that hit a dead end, so would he.

He shivered, for reasons that were not all connected with the chill of the night air, and looked more actively about him. He was near his intended destination, an ale-house called the Oak, after the spreading tree beside it, in a small square near the marketplace.

His footsteps were suddenly loud on the cobblestones of the square, attracting the attention of the two young women leaning against the fountain in the centre of the square. Caerthemon ignored them ostentatiously as his gaze swept the square. Most of the doorways seemed to be similarly occupied, save where a drunkard had already been abandoned.

“Hey, mister!” He didn't know which of the two had called after him, and didn't care. Neither was pretty enough to interest him even in the most abstract sense, and the arrogant manner in which he had been called angered him. He kept his silence rather than curse them aloud, as he passed them by and entered the inn.

Even as he pushed open the door he heard the sounds of revelry within, smelt the mixed stenches of sweat, ale, and roasting meat. There was still, he saw, much meat on the half carcass roasting in one corner. Across the room, in an alcove, there was yet an empty table, and Caerthemon claimed it for his own.


A meal, and two litres of ale later, Caerthemon had decided, more by default than action, that he was going to get very drunk. His appetite had been spoiled by his pent-up frustration, his eating a mechanical chore to ease one of the aches in his belly. Soon thereafter he had gone on to wine, to reduce the number of trips he would have to make to the piss-pot, and now he had lost count of how many times he had called for another jug.

Wearily he emptied his cup, spilling a trickle that he wiped from his beard, and refilled it from the jug. Somehow the drink was refusing to settle, leaving him more morose than ever, cutting away the world, until he alone was left. He rested his chin in his hands, and let his mind go blank, leaving only the dull ache of life. He took the cup again, and topped it up with the last of the jug.

“Wine, wench,” he called to the serving maid, “and schnapps.” If wine would not work, then he would try something more. He lapsed back into quiescence after this, until it occurred to him to finish the wine he still had.

From somewhere behind him, a woman's voice spoke, saying, “No, Kay.”, and a cool hand held his down to the table so he could not reach for his cup. He remembered now someone sitting own beside him, shortly before, and turned to look at her.

He recognised his new-found companion, by sight, as a Sorceress, one he knew well enough to say hello to on passing by.

“Good evening, My Lady,” he said by way of greeting, “What's your name?” That was something he did not yet know.

“Ti Duval.”

“Good evening, Ti” Now he had completed the formalities of their meeting, Caerthemon lapsed back into silence, unable to sustain the effort of speech, watching the world go by from somewhere at the back of his skull.

It was as a spectator that he watched the serving wench return with the drinks he had called for, to be told by Ti that he had had enough already. He tried to protest, but he was interrupted too often to say his piece — and beside, he was becoming more aware of her hand on his. He fought, then succumbed to, the temptation to put his other hand on top of hers in turn, and let his world shrink to his exploration of her hand, how cool and smooth the skin, the very hand-ness off what it was he held, and yet how different it was, how unlike his own familiar hands. He stroked the back of the hand with his thumb, abstractedly.

“Come on, Kay, it's time we were getting home.”

But it was so much easier to stay here… He did not resist being lifted to his feet, but it seemed that he had lost contact with his legs, and had to clutch to Ti's arm for support, falling with his head on her shoulder. He was strongly aware of the ribbed and gathered material against his cheek, far more so than he was of Ti taking his arm and laying it across her shoulders, holding his hand firm, and supporting him under the armpit with her other arm.

Suddenly they were outside, the chill of the air a brief shock, and Kay opened his eyes to see. The square was stark under the light of the nearly full moon, and he was vividly aware of the fountain with now no-one standing by it, but only for an instant, before his eyes closed again. He felt himself slipping, and clasped his hands together in an attempt to hold himself.

Time moved erratically during the journey, with stops and starts. Such lights as there were flared against his almost shut eyes, and the garbage-strewn streets of mud flowed past. His cheek jerked and bounced against the shoulder on which it rested. He…

“I'm going to be sick,” he said breaking free of Ti's support. He did not know how he knew, only that it was true. He also realised with distant disinterest that he had been raving about the failure of his work. He fell against the wall of a building, feeling the dryness of timber under one hand, as he supported himself at arm's length, and hung his head and vomited until he could bring up only thin bile. He spat to clear his mouth each time he had worked up enough spittle to to do, and wiped his face and sweating brow on the sleeve of his jerkin, and finally lurched back to where Ti stood, waiting, to resume the carry.

So, safely cradled, he continued to mutter, punctuating his outbursts by spitting each time he could, until Ti hissed in his ear, “Quieten down, and try and stand up, we're coming up to the gate house.”

He fell into sullen silence, and relaxed his desperate grasp somewhat, as they came into the lamplit brightness of the main gateway. Ti and the gatekeeper passed some words spoken too fast for him to catch, and then she pressed something into his hand, a small cool thing of metal — his key.

The climbing of stairs to his room seemed to last forever, a deliberate placing of one foot in front of the next, with Ti deliberately coaxing him around each turn, until he stood at last before his own door. Much to his surprise, he slotted the key cleanly into the lock on the first try, and opened the door and pocketed the key in a smooth habitual action, but it took Ti to push him across the threshold.


The sunlight was bright upon his face, waking him. Caerthemon felt a sudden disorientation. He didn't remember going to bed, yet here he was. It took a perceptible length of time to remember what had happened the previous evening. The gap in his recollection worried him, there were only a few threads of memory between his return to his room and the present. He pulled his pillow over his face to shut out the light, and closed his eyes, letting himself remember. Still there were only a few time-frozen memories like that of the fountain. Ti putting a bowl down beside his bed, she giving him water to drink, a fragment of his ravings as he lay there abed, and finally how, as she had sat there beside him, holding his hand in hers, he had reached up, and pulled her down onto him, and kissed her full on the mouth. The memory disturbed him, but he still savoured the triumph.

He dozed awhile, and when again he woke, it was because his body was clamouring for attention. He drank greedily from the jug by his bed, heeding more to the demands of his parched mouth than the protests of his stomach, before getting up. And as he arose, he noticed consciously for the first time that he was, as was his habit for sleeping, naked. Who, he wondered, had undressed him? The thought passed, as he gathered up his clothing, separating which was soiled from that which was usable without laundering, and washed, and dried.

Hunger duelled against the acid discontent of his stomach, but doggedly, Caerthemon decided that he must eat, and cut himself a thick slice from a sausage that hung in his food cupboard. He sat at his desk as he ate, chewing listlessly at the spiced meat, and began to sort his papers. One atop the others caught his eye, a note in another's hand.

Kay, it began, I hope you feel better now. Do please come and see me this afternoon, and don't feel you have to apologise. Tiphareth.

So that was what Ti was short for. Caerthemon took another bite of sausage, and reread the note. He did not know what to think. Of his own will, he would not have thought of visiting her, and would have been ashamed of himself on the event of their next meeting, and yet she wanted to see him. Though he would not admit it to himself, he was scared to follow the invitation, scared because he did not know what to expect as the outcome of the meeting.

Still, it was not eleven of the clock, hours yet before he must answer those summons, and the day was bright, and still new.


At ten minutes to four, Caerthemon stood outside Tiphareth's door. He had spent the early afternoon sunning himself in the gardens outside the city walls, taking the advantage of the September sunshine before the onset of the winter, letting the warmth soak up the pains in his body, until the city clocks had chimed half past three. Then, he had returned to his room to run a comb through his hair — he did not want to seem too smartened up for the occasion, but he did have some standards. He knocked.

“Come in.” his hand felt awkward on the doorhandle as he complied. Ti had been reading, and set the book down on a small table by her chair as she rose to greet him, her bare feet quiet on the polished wood of the floor.

Caerthemon studied this woman who had come to his aid, a perfect stranger in any ways, whom he knew only as friend of a friend. She was tall, slightly taller than he, at near six foot, and slightly stoop of shoulder as if to attempt to conceal this. Her hair was long, and a mousy light brown, falling to hide the edges of her face. She wore a white blouse, embroidered at cuff and collar with a simple floral design, and a long skirt of wine-red cloth, mottled in black, beneath the hem of which her toes peeped.

“Good afternoon.” He bowed slightly towards her.

“I'm glad you could come,” she stood slowly, with quiet deliberation, in a manner suited to the quiet seriousness of her manner. “Alice, the maid, will be here soon with tea. Will you join me?”

“Why, certainly.” He paused, and the pause opened up into tense silence, during which he found himself staring at Ti with disturbing intensity. Finally he nerved himself to ask the question that concerned him the most.

“Last night. Why?”

Ti in her turn paused before answering.

“Because I like you, and I don't like to see people I like in the state you were in.”

“I know, I was pretty bad. Thanks for helping me like you did. I hope I said little to offend you.”

“You were more informative than offensive, I fear. It was most instructive to listen to you.”

A knock came at the door before any more could be said, and a young girl entered, carrying a tray that seemed a little large for her to manage — Alice, Caerthemon guessed, with the tea, for she wore an apron and a small white cap, indicative of a servant. She favoured Caerthemon with a wide-eyed awed stare, as she set the tray down, and then bustled hurriedly from the room as Ti dismissed her.

“Nice kid. I imagine her people are proud that she works here. She's probably happy too.” That statement veiled the one he had wished to say, that he by contrast, the one in whose reflected glory Alice moved, was less than happy in his lot. Ti would understand, from what he could remember of his drunken confessions.

“I think she is. Milk? Sugar?”

“As it is will be fine.”

He watched in silence while Ti poured two cups, and carried one over to him. He mumbled his thanks, declining the offer of cake, took one sip of the tea, and set it down beside him to cool.

“You're lonely, aren't you, Kay?”

The question was unexpected, and yet in his instant of confusion, Caerthemon was glad. No longer was it his responsibility to start that conversation. “Yes.” he answered.

Slowly, clumsily, he began to explain how he saw himself, and how he had come to his present state, many times saying things that were wrong, struggling to find the words that would say what he meant. Many times the bitterness in his voice shaded towards anger, in annoyance at his own stumblings, and as many times he had to fight back tears when the memories he disturbed were too painful.

And interwoven with his own tale Ti told hers. She also had been born of farming folk, another daughter to add to a number already too large, so at the age of five she had been sent to a seminary in a remote outpost of greylands, a tiny island in the sea of Color. She had been eighteen before her Talent had been noticed by the Sorceress whose periodic visits were the only contact with the outside world, and had left her home, as it had become, to join the College.

During those years she had been forcibly isolated from the company of her contemporaries by the dictates of distance, yet within weeks of her arrival she had fallen in love with another Sorcerer, and had married soon after graduating as a one-Color Sorceress. Two years later, she had become a widow, her husband lost in a minor skirmish between two cities, and had returned to her training, and now had just been confirmed in her second Color.

Caerthemon felt pain like a dagger within him. Never had he been so isolated from his fellows as she during her youth. The barriers that had grown around him were far more subtle and far more insidious — and in many paces remained, not to be dispelled by a mere horse ride. Never so isolated — but this woman had succeeded where he had failed, as a person. Where had he gone wrong — in valuing knowledge above the harum-scarum of the playground, while yet a child? He looked imploringly at Ti, helplessness fallen like a heavy weight upon him.

“Has there really been no one?” she asked.

“Only infatuations at a distance. Before last night I had never kissed a woman. I suppose I had always been married to my career, ever since I was so high.” He held a hand level with his shoulder as he sat. In the distance, a clock chimed seven times.

“Was that seven?” Ti asked.

Kay looked up at the wallclock behind Ti's chair.

“Yes.”

“I shall be dining tonight, so I'd like to get changed.”

“Very well.” He paused, and then, while the courage was still with him, asked, “May I escort you to dinner?”

“Yes, you may.”

“Twenty past.”

“Yes.”

He felt light-headed to the point of giddiness as he walked back to his room to change. He knew that he was far down the slippery slope to infatuation already, and was going to have to ride it out to the bitter end. He felt scared of the open way they had spoken, and regretful of his final romantic gesture — it was too much a sham, a play-act out of some cheap novel, not meant for real life. And most of all, he did not want to start up a romance with her. Less than a fortnight remained until the equinox, and the graduation ceremony, at which time Ti would leave to take up a courier's post, charged with keeping the loose northern fringes of the known world in touch with the heartlands, gone while he remained, and while he might see her once in a while, for most of the time they would be parted.


Two days later, he broke his resolve not to visit Ti uninvited, setting down his pen from work that only slowly edged towards meaningful results, in good time for tea. Certainly, he thought, to appease his conscience, tea and sympathetic company was a better solution than a solitaire drinking bout to his frustration.

On this afternoon, Tiphareth was at her desk, writing, when he arrived, but she set that aside and came to sit beside him on the sofa.

“Were you busy?” he asked her.

“No — I was just keeping my journal up to date. Now it's so close to graduation, most of my class have gone to their families or get settled into their new posts, but as this will still be my home after graduation…”

“You're still here, and they're not,” he completed for her, “and so you've nothing much to do.” He paused, thought. Next day was Sunday, and no day for work if such could be helped. It was his custom instead to spend the day out in the country, for such a season as the weather was favourable.

“How about coming on a picnic out in the hills tomorrow, then?”

She weighed his suggestion carefully before accepting.


Caerthemon woke early the next morning, and when he went to the kitchens to collect the hamper he had ordered, the morning stillness was yet being broken by the chapel organ playing in the early service. He worked half-heartedly to fill the hour and a half before deeming it suitable to call on Ti, by which time he would normally be risen on a Sunday, and found her long abroad. She had dressed smartly for the occasion in a crisp white blouse, a long dark green skirt, and light brown riding boots, making Caerthemon thankful that he had also decided to dress other than in his normal dishevelled style.

He was glad, too, when finally they left the city, where he felt overly conspicuous, riding south and east into the hills overlooking the town, to a place where he often came.

The place was a small stand of pines on a hilltop, with a small central clearing where a memorial had been placed, its brass plate long corroded into illegibility, with a view over the rolling land, patchworked with fields, to the north west, and the main mass of wooded hills to the southeast. Across the fields, to the north, ran the line of an ancient highway along whose path through the hills ran the contemporary route to the next city, Marera. And though there were grey clouds on the horizon, the Indian-summer sun shone warm, casting mottled cloud shadows on the landscape below.

They tethered their horses to one of the trees, and spread the picnic blanket out over the brass plate and its stone surrounds, arranging over it, the contents of the hamper, cold game pie, a bottle of sparkling wine, salad, fruit pie, pate, crusty rolls, and more. For his part, Caerthemon ate voraciously — his breakfast had been both light and early, and yet, while his appetite was undiminished, and the food excellent, he gave only passing attention to his meal. A week hence, Tiphareth would graduate, would depart his life essentially forever. What then, did he hope to achieve? Happy memories? Then well enough, he had all too few to count to his name. But no more, else the hurt outweigh the good.

And after the meal was done, and the scraps, the cutlery, all packed away, and the two Sorcerers sat back on the blanket, Caerthemon dared take hold of Tiphareth's hand, without even looking down, or pausing as he spoke, and she in her turn smiled and gently squeezed his hand, but said nothing of it. And later they walked hand in hand along the ridge crest and down the far side to Caerthemon's other special place, where a small trickle of water emerged from the rock, and flowed away down, eventually to the river, and down through the oaks of the valley, eventually to come back to the pines from the far side. But when they returned to the city they walked apart, save when they paused at Tiphareth's door, and he took her hand, and kissed it before they parted.


The next two days were taken up by the irksome duty of teaching, keeping him overnight a a river-side lodge some fifteen miles downstream, to lecture his pupils on the theory and practise of yellow magics. And all the while he watched helplessly as he was more abrupt than usual with the dullards, less attentive to those more able, his thoughts turning too often to the enigma that Tiphareth presented, knowing full well the road he trod again — as the Marchesa, as Saralinda, so Tiphareth?

As he rode on the Tuesday evening out from the noisome mists of Magic, he knew that he was fast becoming bored with all it represented. He just wanted to be for a while, to sleep long, and wake up not merely refreshed, but purged clean, to live, laugh, love without fear for the future.

The next day he idled, burning the hours until he could decently visit Ti, and found her out, and in frustration returned to his work, fussing at it until past midnight, and collapsed exhausted into his bed, was still abed the next day when Tiphareth called. They talked long, of themselves, and how they saw life, and other people, Tiphareth listening sympathetically, speaking reassuringly, letting Caerthemon take down the mask he kept up, and when, in the evening, they parted, he wept, for joy and for sorrow.

Friday, bright and cloudy they picnicked again in the hills, and on rainy Saturday they spent the day in Tiphareth's room talking to stave off the feeling of imminent Armageddon. All too soon the bells tolled the hour of seven, time to prepare for the graduation dinner, time to part, for during the ceremonies ahead they would meet only as Sorcerers. Caerthemon begged a farewell kiss, to end as they had met, putting all his will to remembering those moments.

“You'll do fine, Kay,” she whispered as they still embraced.

“Thank you, very very much.”


A month passed. Alone again, Caerthemon turned to his work to assuage the emptiness that had come upon his life, making sufficient, though slow, progress to send him out once again into the realms of Color, to a little island of Gray he had discovered years before, where he had set up his workshop. Between the times of work, he would sit by the brook that ran through the valley, and replay his memories of Tiphareth, until they became worn, or in the chill of night, he would be at his black telescope, indulging his interest in astronomy, turning his attention to the far realms of the moon, trying to map the patterns of blue and ochre — sea and land? — under the shifting white that might be cloud, and seeing naught of Color on its disk. That it was another world, he believed, but what kept it up he knew not, but he had little truck with those who claimed men had come down from there, after some Fall from Grace.

But come morning, he drove himself to work, drawing and testing the patterns that would transform the Color of a Magic, weaving them, after the original, into a silken glove, with threads of precious metals, and set with gems, and going out into Color to monotonously practise the use of it as he would drive a student of his to practise, to bring himself up to the proficiency of Sorcerer in Blue, his choice of fifth Color.

And on the last day of October, a day showing the first signs of encroaching winter, he took the complete glove out into Color for a grand test. The morning mist hung thick as he left his hut, and the sky above was heavily overcast, the chill striking to him even through the warmth of his Sorcerer's cloak, making the land as unattractive as the clouded lands of magic. An untypical gladness filled him as he crossed into Color, for with the crossing he had gained power, and when he came to the site he used for testing, be used that power.

With feet planted apart, he held his mage's staff above his head, his staff, shod in green and yellow, demi-shod in red and purple, and poured his power through it. The white wood took on a silver glow, and the adornments of color glowed, save the yellow, at the moment out of conjunction with the greylands, and at his sung binding, as a warlock of the air, and of fire, the mists were lifted, the air warmer, and still, and he bound a permanence into that patterning that it should endure while he worked.

Its function fulfilled, Caerthemon set down his staff, and drew on the gauntlet that hung at his belt.

“Kay!” The voice burst into his head, a sorcerous far-calling, from Tiphareth.

“Yes?” he called back.

“I'm about sixty miles northeast of Lions, near range of hills that divide blue and green. I've been ambushed by demons, and now my best Color is fluxed out, I can't hope to fight them.”

“On my way, my Lady.”

He picked up his staff, but not for the working of another enchantment. His power, instead, reached into his cloak, folding it about him, and opening again, so now he stood at the closest point he had ever been, in Green, to the source of Tiphareth's call, some thirty miles away, on the outskirts of the city of Sotham, and where he now must rest a few minutes, leaning on his staff for support, while he recovered — such patternings as he had just wrought were not lightly done.

“Kay! What happened? I lost you for an instant.”

“I took a short-cut, but I'm still thirty miles away. I can't be there for over half an hour, but…” He stopped — the far-call had been broken. He gathered his cloak about himself again, but this time at the command of his will, it lifted him up into the air, with all the speed he could sustain, in the direction from which the call had come, leaving the scabrous land to fall fast behind him. Now speed must be of the essence, all his power diverted to flight, and trust to outrun the dragonish flyers of this realm, and for the sake of speed, he would have to make the run straight through the Green continuum, parting company with the grey plane of Earth.

To this end alone did he divert his power, so that when ahead he saw the river of Shammarra's Tears that marked the border of graylands beyond, by the time he passed over them, he saw nothing but a cancerous path of disruption, of boiling land, and then a more natural wilderness, with a green sun in the sky, while he himself was reduced to a near transparent wraith, marked out by greenish glow where shadow ought fall, and nearly as fragile as he looked. Here, should he be attacked, he must maintain his existence first, defend second, and fly third.

But no attack came, and he emerged safely, though tired, from the Green universe into its intersection with Grey.

There was no mistaking the site of ambush, where the bodies of men, and horses, and other things that mimicked those, were scattered around, and to the centre of that slaughter, he let himself drop, so that he might examine the scene. He forced himself to that task until he had ascertained that Tiphareth was not among the slain, and then went away to vomit.

He returned shakily to the battle-site, and poured sorcerous fire over it, so that the men might not become carrion for some skulking creature of the interlands. And what of Tiphareth? Taken to be the plaything of some demon princeling, no doubt. So he would find her and bring her back. But he didn't have the equipment with him, and speed was of the essence; and so there was only one route, to short-cut through his cloak, for all it would sorely weaken him, then to set out from this battleground in search of his lady.

It was several minutes before he was ready to expend the power that would take him home, and he clutched at his staff for support before he made the passage, but at the far end he drove himself to stagger to his door before resting. He ate ravenously to replenish himself after his exertions, making no thought of economy, forcing himself to eat after hunger was gone in expectation of future need.

Only when he could not choke down another mouthful did he set about equipping himself, with the most powerfully enchanted items he had accumulated; a crystal ball for the search, to overcome his ineptness at such spells, that he had gained only for the price of a cloak like the one he now wore, an amulet to enhance his integrity in the realms of Color, and his sword.


The site of the ambush was little changed from when he had left it — the ashes had dispersed under the urging of the fitful wind, and some footprints were new. He called out words of a compelling, that any hearing would obey, were they denizens of this continuum, but nothing showed, no voice returned, and he felt safe enough to lay down his staff, and take the crystal ball from its sack, and hold it forth between his hands.

At first it showed only a distortion of the view ahead, but under his urging, the vantage point shifted, rising to survey the scene from above, to assure himself that no one lurked nearby; Then, reassured, he pushed the viewpoint back into the past, to watch Tiphareth's party caught in ambush, and slaughtered, all save she, under the assault of demon things that cared not for their own survival. She for her part had burned the hordes down until she could call upon no more power, and in desperation had called to him before collapsing. He watched her inert form picked up and bound to the back of a dragon, and that creature, slapped into motion rose, and headed north, until there came a barrier that prevented his following, breaking the enchantment.

Suddenly, there came footsteps behind him. He shut his eyes tight, and spoke a word. Light flared blindingly from the crystal — although it was not intended for such use, it was under enough enchantment to serve as a focus for so simple a working — and he held it above him, as he rose rapidly, silently into the air.

Fifty feet up, he cut the light, and looked down. Standing aimlessly by his staff were two demons, in armour matching those of the ambushers — so some had been left under concealment and countercharm to await searchers such as he — and thus such advantage as stealth might yield would be denied him. He called his staff to himself, and departed northwards with all haste, following the dragon's flight into the Green universe, past where his skrying had been blocked, and agonizingly far from the safety of the Greylands. His only escape could be by his cloak, for which he must leave himself a good reserve of power.


He knew his goal as soon as he saw it on the horizon, a tall dark fortress in the centre of a large take, a lake that filled a great gaping valley in the hilly land. A single bridge crossed that lake to connect the castle to the shore, and Caerthemon set himself down on that bridge, so that while he walked the last few yards, he might gather some fresh strength.

Wraith-like as he was, his feet made no sound on the stone-like substance of the bridge, and in that silence the sighing of the wind, and the croaking of some creature in the distance. Nothing moved to challenge him as he approached the great doors, but he knew he was not here unobserved, and with that thought uppermost in his mind, determined to maintain a show of casual strength, to off-balance his opponent mentally in the coming contest.

He did not knock at the great doors, rather, he stopped, and laid his hand at their join, and spoke a word of opening, driving it with all his will. There was a crack like thunder, and the doors fell away from their hinges, to land with a deafening report. Even as they still fell, Caerthemon strode out across the doors and into the courtyard. He dealt similarly with the grandest of the doors giving entrance into the inner halls, into the great hall where the demon lord held court.

Silence fell upon the revels of the obscene throng, leaving only the slow fading echo of Caerthemon's entry.

“Where is she?” He did not shout, but amplified his voice so that it was heard more than clearly all throughout the chamber. He began to walk towards the throne, with slow deliberation, gathering his power about himself.

“Answer me, you filth,” he said as he came close to the throne, “Where is the Sorceress?”

The creature on the throne looked amusedly down. It had robed about itself the seeming of an impossibly beautiful young man, an incarnation of aristocratic assurance, but it had misjudged him to think such would put him off guard, lose him any initiative.

And what is she to you, manling, that you should come hence to rescue her?

“That is of no essence. Deliver her up to me, or I shall raze this miserable heap to the ground and take her myself. Watch!”

And as he spoke all the windows, each stained-glass depiction of abominations, burst outwards in shards.

You do not threaten idly, lord Sorcerer. Zhirramzimar, bring me the woman.

Something stirred in a corner of the hall, in sufficient gloom that Caerthemon could not discern what it was until in came closer, creeping along the end wall, to keep the throne nearer it than he. It was formed something like a woman, its body perfect, but its hands and feet carried great talons, and the face that showed from the great mane of green-gold hair was a death's-head, with flames burning in the empty eye-sockets. In one hand it held a chain of blue-grey metal, attached to a collar of the same metal bound to the throat of the faint, flickering wraith that followed behind, and though the face was obscure, there was no mistaking the bearing. And yet…

He reached his hand into the folds of his cloak, to touch the crystal ball, and through it to let his mind touch that shadowy figure. It was she! No demon trick this, but the one he sought to rescue.

The she-demon came level with the throne, knelt, then handed the chain to its master, and took its place on the opposite side of the throne. Caerthemon caught a whiff of its musky scent, rousing desire in him, and he caught himself eyeing the she-demon lustfully. He tore his gaze away, and looked first at Ti, then the demon lord.

And now, Lord Sorcerer?…

The demon was clever in his choice of servant, and now had gained time as an ally. At first, time would have been on Caerthemon's side, enabling him to recover a little from his exertion — and now, the longer he waited, the more likely it would be that his body would betray him.

“Release her, hellspawn.”

Take her, …Sorcerer.

He hesitated.

Yes,” said the demon, “she is so fragile here. A pity if she were to break.

Caerthemon fought to keep his face a mask. His hand had been forced; he had no choice but to fight. His hand went to the amulet that hung at his breast, and drew it free.

“Catch, Ti!” he called, as he hurled it to her. The charm glowed like a star as it flew, and as Tiphareth plucked it from the air, its light filled out her shape, giving it greater substance. In the same instants Caerthemon poured his gathered power in a wash of fire. Much of the attack splashed from its hasty defence, across the two standing by the throne. The she-demon screamed in agony, but Tiphareth, Sorceress as she was, had her own defences, that flared up instinctively at the assault, protecting her without distracting, as light flared in her hands and the chain fell in pieces, began to hurry towards Caerthemon.

He in turn, as soon as his attack was done, drew forth his sword. Its hilt was of the same faery metal that had made up Tiphareth's chain, and its blade was of the finest steel — steel with its antipathy for the color realms that now left it to show only as a night dark absence where a blade ought to be, and which, sealed by deep enchantments on its scabbard, would have gone undetected until that instant. Some of its dark virtue spilled forth in an aura of absence, and filled his now shadowy form with smoky opacity.

The surge of movement that had filled the hall as he had made his attack fell instantly to stillness. None in the hall was keen to face, unarmoured, the deathly bite of that hellblade. Even the demon lord paused, for a long enough time for Ti to reach him, and be safe enfolded in his cloak, close enough for the amulet's influence to protect him also.

Caerthemon fielded the first attack, gathered in haste, that was hurled at him, letting the bolt of energy waste its power against the roof high behind him, and then pulled that section of roof down. It hurt to use so much power, but it removed the threat from behind, and opened a way clear to the sky. One final deed now… He grasped in his mind the magic metal of his sword-hilt, and pushed it hard at the demon. Guarded by the steel blade, which tore down webs of enchantment before it, the blade sunk deep into the creature's body, revealing in death the gaunt, bony hideousness of its true form, before crumbling into dust.

Caerthemon called it to its scabbard, and holding tight to Tiphareth, lifted them both free into the air.

“Can you fly for us?” he asked as soon as they had won free from the castle, “or defend us?”

“No, I'm still too weak.”

There was no option — he could not fly them back and defend them against pursuit, or even casual attack, so he must hold them aloft, even as they took the short-cut to safety. Like a juggler, he must divide his power, fighting to power the cloak to do two tasks at the same time, to gather them in its folds and…

His sight flooded with lights, and his head with the ringing of a great gong. His reaching had been blocked by some enchantment ringing the castle, his expenditure of power to no avail. There could only be one way out — the blue gauntlet and the new reserves of power that opened to him; should it work in such a manner, as he had never designed it to, for surely now he could not fly even as far as the overlap of Green and Grey.

“Hold tight to me,” he advised, as he stabilized their flight, for they had faltered after the abortive attempt at escape, “I need to get something from my pockets.”

The glove seemed alive as he drew it on, clinging like a second skin.

“What are you doing?” Tiphareth asked.

“Trying to get us home without having to walk.”

“Then put us down in the trees over the ridge there and rest a while. Otherwise you'll kill yourself.”

“All right.”

Caerthemon followed her instructions simply because he couldn't find the energy to resist. He felt like he had been awake for forty hours or more, and feared that he might fall asleep if he rested. Further, when his concentration was taken from devising their immediate escape, he became painfully aware of Tiphareth's body held close to his, and the lingering effects of the attempt to seduce him were no help.

He landed like a wounded bird, crashing through the spongy, mushroom-like trees of this plane, onto dark soft earth, leaving them sprawled at the base of one tree.

“Anything around?” he asked.

Tiphareth listened for a while, but with deeper senses than hearing, and proclaimed the area empty.

“Good. Now, we go, before I fall asleep. Do you think you can provide some of our power?”

Tiphareth nodded.

“Well, focus on the amulet, and I'll work around that. Now put your arms around me, under my cloak, and when I say the word, give.” He wrapped the cloak about them both, and with his free hand, took hold of his amulet, as it hung between Tiphareth's breasts, and in his gloved hand, he raised his staff. “Go!” he said.

From the staff exploded a cloud of blue sparks as by brute force he opposed the barrier that restrained them in that place, and then, he called on the reserve of power that had been fed into the amulet, and drew at it. Pitiful little as it was, he took it greedily, and took the short-cut. The effort felt like a blow under the heart, and the glove on his hand seared the flesh as he forced his way to safety.

He opened his eyes slowly, after they had cleared. He was indeed home, and despite his hurts, he felt the better for that. Wordlessly, they kissed. Caerthemon relinquishing his grasp on the amulet to hold the warm curve of a breast, until his knees folded under him, and he fell insensible to the ground.

Epilogue

November hail battered against the window panes of Caerthemon's room. Two weeks agone, he had been brought back out of Color by the Lady Sorceress Tiphareth Duval, gaunt and feverish, to lie delirious abed. Only now did his eyes open clear of the fever, with comprehension in them.

He did not question the long nightmare from which he had woken, but looked instead to the woman sitting at his bedside.

“It worked, Ti, after all that — the gauntlet I was working on.” He paused, looked at the scarring on his right hand.

“Where is it? I was wearing it when I collapsed.”

“I don't know. Your hand looked like it had been scourged, and your staff was scorched, but you wore no glove.”

“Never mind — I can build another, as soon as I'm out and about.”

“That will be next spring, I fear — in your weakness you contracted congestions of the chest, and the nurse has said you'll be confined to bed all winter. Thanks for what you did for me, Kay. I hope I'll be able to do the same for you, some day.” And she took and held his good hand.

“Love no favours, Ti, and I love you.”


The winter passed slowly, the more so for Caerthemon when Tiphareth was away, keeping the farmlands and Cities of the North in contact throughout the worst of the weather.

Finally, spring came, and on a fine and sunny day, when the trees were in bud, and the sun bright in the new-washed sky, Caerthemon rode out for the first time, to greet Tiphareth as she returned, after too long an absence. He rode alone, without his cloak or staff, to wait at the north ford, across the Tears of Shammarra, where Tiphareth would come, and sat on a small boulder above the ford to watch.

Noon had come, and Caerthemon had taken lunch, before the figure of a lone rider appeared, riding hard for the ford, as if demon pursued — but this time she was not; for the land over which Tiphareth rode was Grey, its usual red fluxed out.

He walked down to the water's edge, and hearing Tiphareth's voice raised, called back in salute. Then, at last her horse reached the river bank, and plunged ankle deep in the water, and Kay waded across to meet her.

“Why didn't you help?” She asked, abruptly.

“Help what?”

“That dragon.”

“Dragon? but it's Greyland over there…”

“It's bright red — damnit if I can see it, so should you if…”

Caerthemon screamed in anguish. Only the Talented could see Color from outside — and he could not.

“Tell no one of this,” he cautioned, “No one.”

“But what will you do?”

“Ti, my love, I don't know. I don't know.”


© Steve Gilham 2000
© Mr. Tines 2000


Episode 2 — Into the Mystic

Episode 4 — Caerthemon in the Garden of Sorrow

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