Alone in her bed, surrounded by the trappings of her power and wealth, Theolonia Crabbe suddenly sat upright and listened to the night. Faintly, as if it were made a long time ago and a long way off, the deep resonant toll of a single bell could be heard. No-one else in the whole of Angland would be able to hear that sound but her, and she had waited on its signal for a long time.
It was the sound of freedom.
The attic was the same, as was the mirror. The stool had gone.
Theolonia Crabbe waited while the mirror’s depth of field reconciled itself with wherever it was in her mind that her brother dwelt. There was a calmness within her that grew out of her absolute certainty that events were finally… finally… going as planned.
Slowly her brother’s countenance took form out of her own… then he was there… as he always was… old and grey and bitter.
There was no greeting. ‘It has commenced, Horatio,’ Theolonia began. ‘The null has been found. The spell will now reconcile with his counterpart here. We must now make plans to be there at that transfer; to ensure that you claim your new body.’ She was very careful to keep any trace of hope or triumph from her voice. Very careful.
Horatio’s own voice was dry and hollow; he sounded tired. ‘Where will it occur, sister?’ His hard, deep-set eyes narrowed above the hooked nose.
‘Here. Through this very mirror.’ Theolonia spoke quietly and confidently. Gone was the nervousness and fear. Now that the time was rapidly approaching when she would be free of him, her strength was returning.
‘I dare to dream again, sister.’ Horatio eyes closed in momentary ecstasy; then they snapped open again. ‘What is he like? Is he…’ the mandrake licked his dry lips… ‘is he…?’
‘Young and tall and strong, brother.’
‘Where is he?’
Theolonia was amused. ‘Curiosity, Horatio? Dear me; that’s a new trait.’ Her hand raised the shroud to cover the mirror.
‘Who is he? Tell me!’
Theolonia dropped the shroud, and her brother disappeared. ‘He could be anyone,’ she whispered to the empty attic. ‘Anyone at all.’
On the western side of Angland, a long way from the city of York lies the pleasant historical town of Chester. And within that town stands an imposing stone building that is the home of The Ancient and Royal Guild of Apprenticed, Indentured and Journeyman Mages. The Guild looked after the well-being and progress of all junior mages throughout every industry, occupation and profession, because good, hard-working practical mages were worth their weight in gold. Without magik and its practitioners, there would be no modern civilisation.
The twenty-first century couldn’t run without them.
Inside that building, in an office, a young man was feeling totally miserable.
Guildmaster Beryl Hedgewycke looked down her long, fleshy nose at the young apprentice who stood in abject misery before her, and said, ‘You’ve failed, Master Aldredge.’
Tall and matronly Beryl might be, with a rather imposing bulk to back up her title of office, but she was not without a modicum of concern for the lad. ‘How do you expect to succeed in the communications business if you can’t control the basics of magik?’
She settled back in her creaky leather chair, surrounded by the panelled walls of her office and looked at the young man across the polished surface of her old, oak desk. She saw a likeable lad with innocent dark green eyes and a shock of red hair that fell across his face in unruly waves; she saw a tall, well-built lad with a face freckled and fair.
And she saw misery.
Garreth Aldredge felt every ounce of that misery. This meeting was not exactly unexpected, because he knew there had been problems at work. His employer had concerns about his Talent, and problems with the Talent were Guild matters. So here he was. If only it was one huge mistake…
‘Is there…’ his voice faltered between dry lips and he started again, ‘Is there any chance…?’
‘…of a mistake?’ the Guildmaster finished for him, reading the question in his eyes. ‘No. I’m afraid not. Failure of the Talent is just that, I’m afraid… failure.’
Beryl Hedgewycke was a kindly, rumpled woman who had guided the new apprentices on their way through the difficult early years of commercial magik for more years than she could remember. There was a large leather-bound book on the desk before her, a very large leather-bound book, thick with the pages of the years and heavy with the expectations contained therein.
It was the Book of Rolls and it was open at Garreth’s name.
‘The modern world, Master Aldredge,’ she continued, ‘relies on good magicians to make the simplest of things work. Every aspect of our lives is touched by those of us that can adjust and control the natural earth harmonies and harmonics. How many people,’ she asked, conversationally, ‘do you think are discovered to have the Talent?’
‘Well, er…’ everything inside his head was in slow motion, like a dream. He wished desperately that he would wake up…
‘Ten percent,’ she told him. ‘Ten percent. And how many of those go on to become competent mages and thaumaturges, do you think?’
‘About half, ma’am,’ he replied, gloomily.
‘Correct. And you had a chance to join that elite band. After another five years work and training in the profession of your choice, and with the assistance of this Guild… who knows? Eh? Who knows what you may have become.’
A large wall clock banged out the minutes of the interview one slow, loud, second at a time. At the window, a cold wind demanded attention.
‘It’s all academic now,’ Guildmaster Hedgewycke continued, her index finger tracing his information across the page, ‘although I am rather perplexed. All the signs of your potential ability are there. The scryer's reports are quite detailed and positive. Your initial assessment showed that you have strong mental receptors to basic natural magik. All the node-buds of magikal determinism are in place within your mind,’ she turned a page… ‘homoeopathic there… sympathetic here,’ and another page, ‘contagious there… just waiting to develop; scrying, prestidigitation, incantation, higher maths and curved-space geometrics. All there. All waiting, ready to germinate.
‘But they aren’t, Master Aldredge. They aren’t germinating.’ The Guildmaster steepled her fingers and her eyes seemed to Garreth to take on a harder edge… as if looking through him… as if looking for mistakes!
‘It appears,’ Beryl Hedgewycke continued, ‘that your Talent became…’ she consulted the report, ‘erratic. Mis-aligned. Indiscriminate.’ Her eyes pinned him. ‘Would those words describe the problem, do you think?’
There was no shelter from the baleful glare, and he felt naked and alone. A slim folder lay next to the Book of Rolls, and it too was open. And Garreth knew exactly what that was; his mouth went dry at the sight of it. It was the report to the Guild from his employers, The East Angland Communications and Paraphone Company, Chester division. A report of his mistakes.
Images flashed through Garreth’s mind one after the other, images of the truth of the words…
… placing a paraphone call for Mr. Ellisdale the banker… the large, round scrying crystal strangely murky… the mathematics of the customer’s mandala-sign squirming and twisting in his mind… he saw himself trying to will them into shape… then the horrible scene as Mr. Ellisdale gazed out a rather large, florid-faced Pictish fishwife who just happened to be taking a bath in a copper tub before a roaring coal fire. Loofah in one hand... soap in the other… he still heard the screams.
And there were others just as embarrassing.
Garreth’s mouth was dry and words struggled to form. His mind tried to get around what was happening, but only floundered in the attempt. His whole world had collapsed before him and he couldn’t understand why. He was Talented! He had the rare chance to be a mage! Not to remain normal! His parents… what would they think?! They’d been over the moon with happiness when the Office of Magikal Determination had confirmed his acceptance as apprentice and trainee mage… the promises… the plans!
‘Despite the best attentions of your employer and of this establishment,’ the voice of his doom continued, snapping his thoughts back to the present, ‘your Talent has failed to develop. You have even been allowed to continue your studies three months past the cut-off date because… well… quite frankly Master Aldredge, we do not have too many… setbacks. We prefer to give everyone a full and proper opportunity to develop their talents of the Arts Arcana. Failure, Master Aldredge, is not good advertising copy.’
The Guildmaster reached across the desk and selected a quill pen. The pen was one of several that lined up along the front of the desk, each one with its own little glass bottle, each one a different colour. With relief Garreth saw her bypass the red one and pick up the yellow. It made a dry scratching sound as she drew the nib across his name.
‘One year of suspension, Master Aldredge. In that time you may wish to seek remedial assistance or you may gain employment in a normal occupation. You do have some ability in the basic natural fields, but I’m afraid they are not sufficient qualifications to allow us to certify you on a probationary level.’ Beryl Hedgewycke slowly replaced the pen and gave Garreth a wan, sympathetic smile.
‘For what it’s worth, Garreth, our chirurgeon’s opinion is that you’re suffering from a form of hormonal surge, a growth spurt, if you like, that is common in some pubescent males. This seems to cause a chemical imbalance in the hypothalamus; which in turn causes temporary dysfunction in the sympathetic receptor nodes. A clear case of compromise in the Base Laws, I’m afraid; particularly Causality.’
Hope flared in Garreth’s heart. ‘You mean that I could grow out of it? It’s temporary?’
Guildmaster Hedgewycke slowly lifted the cover of the Book of Rolls and let it fall closed. ‘The prognosis,’ Beryl Hedgewycke said with finality, ‘is not good. We know this condition as Onset Cognitive Depression, and scarring of the nodes invariably remains.’
The leather-bound journal shut with the deep thud that old, heavy tomes acquire over the years. It was the dull echo of doom, and it reverberated around the dusty, panelled walls of the Guildmaster’s office before disappearing forever.
Garreth Aldredge knew within his sinking heart that as the echo disappeared, so too did any idea he may have entertained about succeeding in the business of magik. That future was now denied him. He was now condemned to a life among the normal folk.
Sixteen, Garreth’s mind told him, is too young to be a failure.
Guildmaster Hedgewycke shook his hand in a gesture of finality and regret, and words of sympathy were expressed. Garreth hardly heard them, nor the heavy, solid click of the door closing firmly behind him.
Misery attracts misery.
Fat, heavy drops of rain made their way slowly to the ground to complete the cycle of precipitation, but some never made it. They expended themselves on the forlorn figure that walked unprotected amongst them, anxious to comfort him.
Garreth Aldredge was alone. Really alone. That fact was made painfully obvious when he had made the long, lonely walk down the gloomy corridor from the Guildmaster’s office to the main door; his footsteps had been the only ones to echo on the ancient boards. His last connection with the Guild, a backpack of his books, was slung morosely over one shoulder.
For eight months he had been coming to the Guild one day a week; there were memories here… and friends. Fellow apprentices and journeymen who shared the same Talent. Friends who would go on and succeed in their professions and careers; some of them might even be good enough to be selected for pure Thaumaturgical studies. Some might even make Wizard!!!
But those friends now looked out at him from behind the portal of the door, their faces in shadow.
Just because some adolescent hormones disagreed with a few budding homoeopathic magikal paradigms, he told himself, was no reason I should suffer this! It just isn’t fair!
‘IT’S NOT FAIR!’ he shouted at the darkened doorway, but the only response to his anguish was… silence.
The doorway. Un-noticed symbol of his aspirations. Once a week he had passed through it with barely a glance at the carvings above it. Now those carvings stood out for him, for chiselled deep into the stone above the arch of the door were the three icons of the Arts Arcana. A circle represented the Art Temporal, the magik of worldly things. The second icon was the ankh of the Art Arcane, the magik of mystery. The final icon represented the Art Ecclesiastic, the magik of religion and faith, and was simply a single eye.
The symbols seemed to mock him; once so near, now remote and unattainable. He tore his eyes away and turned his back on them. Cold rain trickling down his neck brought his mind away from his misery and he looked about him. Here was Chester’s Old Town that he knew so well; the old Twdr-style shops; the granite cobblestones underfoot now slippery with rain; the rattle of the iron-tyred wheels of the hansom cabs and delivery carts; the harsh clatter of horse’s hooves.
Garreth settled his backpack on his shoulder, and stepped…
…he jumped back in alarm at the piercing call of the steam whistle, and a local omnibus… a red one, his startled mind noted… rumbled over the spot he had vacated. The driver, sitting up front in a half-open cab and not exactly un-damp himself, shook his fist at him before directing his vehicle into the growing gloom. It moved away with an indignant hiss, clank and pop from the steam engine.
Get a grip of yourself! he told himself. Around about the streets the gas-lighters were going about their business and he knew it was time to get to the station… time to go home. Home. Lower Thatching. Fifteen minutes away by train.
The tears had gone, the eyes were dry and the big lump in the throat swallowed.
All done in the privacy of his room; all done alone, safe from prying eyes. Now if only he could swallow his dinner as easily… but it didn’t want to go down and his stomach really didn’t want to accept it anyway. He put his fork down and pushed his plate away. The usual family dinner had been a sombre affair, with a lot of uncomfortable silences.
‘Sorry, Mum,’ he told the thin, well-dressed woman across the table from him. ‘I’m just not hungry.’ Mary Aldredge ran a neat, tidy household where nothing was left to chance, one where everything had its place and conformity and acceptance were the pillars of life; surprises and deviations from this routine were not to be countenanced. She had passed on to her son her hair and eyes, but not, she had often lamented, her nature. Her own eyes were full of concern and hidden tears, both for Garreth’s predicament and the social dislocation it would cause if it indeed were to be true.
Mary switched her gaze from Garreth and looked to her left, to her husband of twenty-five years. ‘Edgar,’ she said, in a tremulous voice, ‘is there nothing to be done?’ His father’s fork halted halfway to his mouth. ‘In all the world, Edgar, is there nothing that can be done?’ Anguish dripped from her voice and a single tear dripped down her cheek.
Slowly, her husband lowered his own fork and let it clatter onto his plate. He was a tall man of ample girth; a man of stature, his business associates told one another. A sandy moustache and thick, luxurious mutton-chop sideburns lent character to that stature and he peered down on the world through a pair of wire-framed spectacles. He had hoped to avoid this… after all, family business was… well… household business, and that was his wife’s department. Still, he thought, one must do what one must do. He leaned back in his chair and hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his waistcoat.
‘I’ve given this some thought, Mary. I’m trying to be a little… dispassionate… yes, that’s the word… dispassionate… about it; to look at things objectively. And that’s not easy when everyone knows what’s happened.’ He shuddered at the embarrassment of it all.
Here he was a successful grocer of reasonable means, with a nice stone cottage in one of Lower Thatching’s better leafy lanes, a steam buggy in the coach-house, and a wife of good family who knew how to keep up appearances. Two talented children had blessed their union; Sandra and then young Garreth.
Edgar Aldredge's eyes clouded a little as he recalled the delight he and Mary had experienced when Sandra was accepted into Hattie Farnsworth’s Musikal Conservatory and Garreth had been indentured at East Anglic. Not only that… Garreth had the Talent! Latent, Edgar Royal agreed, but present none the less. The future had looked a nice comfortable place. Now this!
‘People feel a little awkward talking about it; it’s hard to bring the subject up.’ His spectacles caught the light from the gas lamp, the mantles reflecting like two glowing orbs, and Garreth could see, courtesy of his Talent, the rainbow effect of the magikal corrective field in the plain lenses.
‘Dad, Mum. I don’t want to be an embarrassment to you. I know you both work hard; I know how much you’ve sacrificed so I could be apprenticed.’ He looked at their faces and he didn’t have to use his Talent to see that the blank stares hid the disappointment within. He looked from one to the other, their misery adding to his own.
‘My talents are still there, you know. They haven’t disappeared.’ Why does it feel like it’s my fault… that I’ve done something wrong?
‘They’ve failed to mature, Garreth,’ his father said, sadly. ‘The report from the Guild was quite explicit; you are limited to the levels you have attained at this time. Use and training will not develop them.’ He pushed his plate away. ‘I want… your mother and I want… you to consider coming to work in the shop. Just while you sort things out. Think about it, will you?’
Garreth nodded, but he could feel panic rising; greengrocing? Selling vegetables? ‘Could I be excused from the table?’ Garreth inquired, and to the solemn gaze of his parents made his way to his room. Gas lights lit his way and his shadow flickered across the floral-papered walls of the hall and preceded him up the short, narrow set of stairs that led to his attic room.
There, as he opened the door, were all the comforts of his recently departed childhood; a double bunk bed against the wall, a casement window that let in a square of pale moonlight. Below the window, a narrow chest of drawers nestled up to the wall and carried on its cluttered surface his precious things; his first cat’s-whisker audio-phone, his new-fashion wire-framed sunglasses with non-magikal dark lenses, a small-globe para-vision set with a cracked power crystal, a model steam engine that had defied his attempts to start it up ever since he was given it as a present for his fifteenth birthday and four books of the Art Arcana that he had saved for. Each tome sported various book-marks that were testimony to his efforts to gain his Magehood.
His eyes travelled to the big wooden wardrobe, to the carved curlicues and dangly handles on the two side doors, to the oval mirror that rested between the doors. It was a very tall mirror, nearly as tall as the ‘robe itself, and it reflected the room back to him… a room now all the more dark for the disappointment and misery that had entered with him.
Garreth’s thoughts churned, as if his mind was trying to find one that made sense…
…magikal ability was a rare and gifted thing that was usually identified prior to puberty in both boys and girls. He was a late starter. Still, six years of training in business, engineering, the law, communications, design or any number of everyday practices that relied on the skeins of magik to operate properly, and he’d only be twenty-two. Plenty of time… nobody failed.
Well, he thought miserably, hardly anyone. ‘I really should get a job away from here,’ he told his room. ‘But where? How?’ This was a new world to him, and a little corner of his mind knew that he would have to adapt quickly. Have to grow up. His emotions said… not yet… wait… something might turn up… it’s all a bad dream.
In the semi-dark, Garreth flung himself onto the rumpled sheets of the bottom bunk and let out a deep sigh, a sigh that expressed every one of the accumulated set-backs and disappointments of the last seventeen years, a sigh that could have circled the world bringing loneliness and despair to all it met.
‘Damn!’ he said softly, his voice husky from the power of his new-found emotions. ‘Damndamndamndamn…’
Want? …came a thought he knew. Need? Not a thought exactly, but the feeling of a thought, a mind kindred and close, one available to his Talent. Want?
‘Come here, Mr. Toast,’ Garreth called out quietly, and a shadow within a shadow detached itself from under a pile of clothes and slowly waddled over to him. With a shower of loose fur, and to the jingle of a small brass bell, an old marmalade cat joined his master on the bed and fell in a heap next to him. Garreth’s right hand absent mindedly dropped on to the cat’s neck and started to stroke, his eyes blankly looked at the springs of the top bunk just above his head.
‘What should I do, Mr. Toast?’ he asked the night. ‘What would you do?’
…images of dark places came to him; wet cobbles that glistened with the murky light of fog-shrouded gas lamps; noises almost beyond hearing that filtered through the night; blood that dripped from fangs onto the still-warm body of the rodent; the scent of enemies offering a challenge to all he was; her tail moving slowly before his eyes, sinuous and tantalising with the promise of…
‘Stop that, Mr. Toast,’ Garreth admonished. A purr as heavy and deep as an old man’s snore rumbled out of the cat and carried both of them off to sleep.
Cold moonlight streamed through the window and illuminated the two figures asleep on the bed. The hour was very late, and the moon very bright… and Mr. Toast’s eyes opened. Something wasn’t right. The old cat could feel the wrongness in his bones. Slowly his eyes roamed the room, but all seemed as it should be…
…but the shadows moved a certain way
…and the very air seemed more alive than it should.
Mr. Toast knew with absolute certainty that something was watching them.
The Book of Null completed its ancient duty…
…it had found such a one as called for in the spell
…and had found the counterpart in the reality that was but a breath away
…a reality where so much was the same
…yet where so much was terrifyingly different.
The front door woke Garreth.
The distinctive, heavy thunk of someone leaving, followed by the rattle of the mail-flap, cut through his post-sleep doze and brought him fully awake. The old brass alarm clock with the two bells on top told him it was five to ten and… five to ten! Garreth dived out of bed rubbing the sleep from his eyes and trying to pick his clothes up at the same time. Damn! I’m late! He caught sight of himself in the mirror and halted; the tall, skinny guy with tousled hair and wrinkled pajamas looked back at him and shook his head slowly.
‘You’ve got nowhere to go,’ his reflection said. ‘No job… nothing.’ Sunlight flooded his room, destroying the gloom of the night and bringing a warmth and cheerfulness that he struggled to ignore.
‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said to the mirror, stabbing his finger at his image, ‘I’m not giving in. I’ve got Talent,’ he raked his fingers through his hair and squinted at his reflection, ‘I’m young, I can get a job….’
‘You’re dreaming,’ he answered himself through the mirror. ‘You set your heart on being a Mage. As soon as you knew you had the Talent, you couldn’t wait to let all your friends know, could you? Eh?’ Garreth groaned at himself, at the memory, at the embarrassment; how he told everybody what a big-shot he was going to be. Maybe, he’d told them, he might even become a wizard. And he remembered them telling him where to put his wizardhood!
The kitchen was prim and neat. Polished wooden floorboards and painted walls made it seem bigger than it was, and shiny glass jars sat on the window-sill, reflecting the sunlight. There was a stone sink, a draining board and a table with four wooden chairs set around it. An ice-chest stood next to the door, and the slow, metered drip of melting ice sounded softly in the room. The kitchen, like the rest of the house, was also empty. So was the house. Garreth pulled a lucifer from a small stone jar that sat next to the gas-stove and scratched it into life; in seconds he had popped the kettle on the ring and the bread under the grill. Five minutes later he was ensconced in the lounge room in front of the para-vision set, his breakfast on the kaffee table.
The PV was a large scrying crystal that sat on a short wooden column in one corner of the room; a smaller version of it graced the kaffee table. This smaller crystal was covered with a heavy, black-beaded cap, and when Garreth lifted that cap…
…the PV burst into life. In the air above the crystal an announcer appeared reading the news. The picture was a hologram that could be made bigger or smaller and it was the same perspective no matter where in the room the viewer stood. Garreth’s fingers rotated the small crystal ball sideways to his right… the station changed; this time it was a children’s show. He moved the ball again… a gardening show; again… football. Aha! Exactly what he wanted. Now he rotated the ball away from him, and the sound level increased. Garreth Aldredge settled back to watch the game and take his mind off things.
But, ten minutes later, his tea was cold, his toast half-eaten and he had no idea who was winning. His mind was elsewhere, going over and over again the events of yesterday. With a sigh Garreth placed the cap back on the control crystal and the PV shut down. He needed company… he needed to be alone. Garreth Aldredge didn’t know what he needed.
His bike was outside the back door and with relief he grabbed it and wheeled it down the side of the house. Sunlight bathed him and the smell of fresh-cut grass assailed him; he felt better already. At the front gate he turned left, in the direction of the old mill pond, and pedalled down the lane. The bike wasn’t a particularly fast one, wooden micro-laminates could only be lightened so far and the solid, aerated rubber tyres were wide enough to offer significant rolling resistance, but it was his. And the wind felt great blowing through his hair.
The only metal on the machine was in the wheels and brakes. He had seen pictures on the para-vision of full-metal racing bikes, but they were for the rich or sponsored.
Around him were the cottages and the tree-lined lanes of the village of Lower Thatching, the place he had grown up with, the bucolic backwater that had suddenly seemed too small when he had had a future in the world of business and magik. Now, faced with staying here, it all looked frighteningly boring. All the cottages looked the same, and all the gardens were neat and tidy. He passed four horse-drawn family buggies and one steam-buggy heading the other way and nodded to each of them as he recognised them as neighbours; and three field-workers, scythes slung over shoulders and lunch-pails in hand, cheerily waved at him as he passed by.
The mill-tower came into view and he hurried his pace. Tiny stones flew off his tyres and pinged against the underside of the mudguards and the leather drive belt creaked with the extra tension.
The mill was old.
Hundreds of years some said. The lower half had a circular stone base topped by a stocky timber tower, and above the tower a tall column rose into the air. The wind-vane. It was an open cylinder fluted with the twisted helix of twin aerodynamic foils, and as it turned in the light breeze the foils twisted like a giant screw. Like a giant barber pole. Like a giant blue barber pole, Garreth corrected. Blue meant that this mill pumped water up to the reservoir on top of the hill. Yellow foils signified mills that ground grain. Hundreds of each type were dotted over the county. Angland sported tens of thousands of them; the Angle Isles contained hundreds of thousands of them.
There was a tree-fringed pond, deep and wide; overflow for the mill pumps. There were the obligatory ducks and swans on its surface, paddling around the weeds and lilies, bobbing now and again into the depths for a morsel or two. Across the pond, where the lane curved back to the village, a row of tree-framed cottages bracketed the post office and the mixed-goods shop. The cottages had new thatching on their roofs.
Two horse-buggies were tied to the trough there, and outside the post-office, resplendent in its livery of red and white, stood an open-top omnibus, ticking away the minutes until its timetable began. The faint chuff-chuff of the idling steam engine drifted across the pond and now and then a little spurt of steam would pop from the safety valve at the rear; the smell of hot coke followed the sound of the engine. Garreth pushed his bicycle onto the grass by the edge of the pond and lowered it to the ground in the shade of a tree. Of all the places he and his friends had grown up with, this was his favourite. Pirate rafts on the water, mud pie throwing contests, fishing for eels and perch; all memories now, all things of the past. There was a sadness to Garreth’s thoughts, as if all this had passed and would never come back; as if this was the end of things.
His eyes travelled to the sky, where silver clouds gathered high and kept out of the way of the sun. He recognised the pattern. He knew of the spell. It was a level six inverter with a thermo-clime modifier and it was designed to keep a moderately high trough over the countryside until nightfall. Then the clouds would return to their preferred state and precipitation would follow. In the trade it was known as the Camelot Effect…
‘I thought it was you, Garreth.’ The voice that interrupted his reverie came from behind, and as he turned around he had already recognised the soft lilt.
‘Hi, Jemma,’ he replied, surprised to see her. Normally he would keep his voice casual when he talked with Jemma Mayhorn just in case she heard some interest in it. She was willowy, with long strawberry tresses and the deepest hazel eyes he had ever seen. The faintest of freckles dusted her cheeks and there was just a hint of gloss on her rather full lips. Garreth had hardly seen her for all the months he had been working and he couldn’t help but notice there had been… well… er… changes. Her voice had a deeper resonance than he remembered, she seemed more grown up. Yes, his subconscious noted, while his body concentrated on finding out why his pulse had quickened, definitely more grown up.
She wore the latest designer blouse, dark green with the logo on the right sleeve that almost succeeded in hiding the new curves underneath. A silver-chased belt at her waist wasn’t there just to hold up the calf-length tights that clung to long and shapely legs; it also served to delineate the narrowness of her waist. Open sandals with ankle straps graced her feet. A gold-chained talisman circled her neck and she wore a torc of protection above her right elbow. Jemma was only two months younger than he, yet she was years ahead in poise; and in the fashion stakes. And she was the only one of his friends that hadn’t laughed at his dreams of magehood.
In contrast, all he had managed to throw on were clothes his mother had washed and folded, but he hadn’t got around to putting away. An open-necked, short-sleeve, dark blue football shirt hung outside knee-length black cargo shorts, the kind with the big external pockets on the sides. Well-scuffed loafers, the backs broken from months of cramming feet into them without first untying the laces, clad his feet. Consequently, he looked in need of a good ironing. None of which seemed to bother Jemma in the least.
His abashed grin told her he was very pleased to see her, and that in turn pleased Jemma Mayhorn.
In fact, Jemma Mayhorn had been looking out for just such an opportunity to “bump” into Garreth for a while now. He had changed so much from last year’s schoolboy, she acknowledged; now he was taller, more adult-like, more… she couldn’t put into words exactly what it was about Garreth that was different… but something was. Suddenly, after all the months of hardly seeing him at all while he had been away working, the prospect of seeing more of him was exciting. And this was her last year at school, too! Next year, university and the world beckoned. And Garreth? Hmmm, she thought
‘I heard. I’m sorry.’ Her eyes were sincere and honest, and he accepted her words.
‘Thanks, Jem. I think Mum and Dad are feeling it worse than me at the moment, but they’ll get over it… and I’ll still feel lousy.’
‘What will you do?’
He drew in a deep breath that was more sigh than inhalation. ‘Don’t know. Dad wants me to work in the shop. I think I’d hate that, Jem, working with Mum and Dad. Besides, it’s too close to home.’
‘So what? You’re among friends, Garreth.’ The shop would be good… and there’s nothing wrong with being close to home, she told herself.
He shook his head. ‘Am I? I’m neither mage nor normal.’
‘Of course you’re a normal now, Garreth,’ she protested. ‘If you work for your father and…’
The vigorous shaking of his head interrupted her. ‘You don’t understand. I still have knowledge. Ability. Talent. They don’t go away, you know. I can still function at a low level. But the Law doesn’t allow that; I have to be licensed. I can’t work in any industry in any magikal capacity because I would need supervision by a senior mage. I can’t even do leg work for scryers and cantors because my abilities could invalidate the sanctity of their client’s confessionals and I would need to be monitored all the time… oooohhh!’ Jemma placed a comforting hand on his arm and a frown crossed her face… and didn’t detract one bit from her looks, Garreth noted. ‘Look. I can understand if you feel disappointed, but you have to accept the facts.’ Jemma’s folks were both university professors and facts were a daily consumption in her household. ‘It’s not the end of the world, you know…’ She saw the crestfallen look on Garreth’s face and her expression softened; her own pulse gave a little lurch. ‘It’s not. Truly.’ An idea struck her.
‘Listen. Uncle Rufus in Chester is looking for someone to help out at the office. It might suit you.’ Eagerness radiated from her. ‘I could ask, if you like; Mum and I are going in there today.’
The last office Garreth had seen had been Guildmaster Hedgewycke’s and the thought of actually working in one… ‘Ughh! No thanks, Jem. Dull, dry actuarial work isn’t exactly the sort of thing I had in mind.’
‘What do you have in mind?’
‘I don’t…’ a shadow covered them, blotting out the sun for several seconds before drifting away, ‘… know.’ He tilted his head back and looked up at the big golden dirigible that was silently sailing the sky above them. The gondola underneath was a glitter of crystal windows, and long coloured streamers drifted like dragon’s tails from the rear stabilisers. Above the curve of the hull, almost invisible from the ground, three broad cylinders rose into the sky, cousins to the wind-vane that drove the mill. Two huge, ponderous propellers, one each side, converted the power from the wind-vanes into forward motion. The propellers made a deep luffing sound. Garreth pointed to the craft.
‘There. I want to go wherever that’s going. Or maybe…’ the ideas filled his head ‘…across the Atlantik.’ There was a vague look in Garreth’s eyes as if the faint hopes of outrageous dreams could take away the pain of the present.
‘Yeah. Why not? I could go to Vinland. We have relatives there on Mum’s side. Or even the Amerika Free States.’ His imagination poured out of him, fuelled by recent events. ‘Hunting plains bison. Learning native magik in the Indian Nations. Or even prospecting for gold in the Spanish Territories.’
Rubbish, thought Jemma. ‘Rufus Pendragon. Attorney-at-Magik. In Chester. Of the old firm of Halfdan, Athelstane and Pendragon. In the DaneLaw Chambers by the Latin Wall. Specialists in were-debt, were-gild, grimoire copyright protection and property titles.’
‘What?’ Garreth’s mind was drawn back to Jemma as his dreams disappeared faster than the dirigible. ‘What?’
‘My uncle.’ She smiled sweetly at him. ‘You should see him. About a job.’ The focus in his eyes came back. ‘You would still be involved in magik, you know.’
Garreth picked up his bike. ‘Come on. I’ll walk you home.’ With one last look at the peaceful scene around them, Garreth walked back the way he had come, wheeling his bicycle with one hand, Jemma at his side matching his slow steps.
Jemma Mayhorn lived with her parents in a rather fashionable cottage between the station and the mill pond.
It was very large as far as cottages go, with three bedrooms, a small formal lounging room that contained a very expensive pianogrande and a large wooden-framed globe of the world. There was a modern gas kitchen that opened up into a family room, and a bathroom tiled with genuine Tuscan tiles. It was a bright, happy home. Her parents, Clarity and Redgrave, were well able to provide the best for their children and themselves as their qualifications in the teaching profession were long and impeccable. They were, so to speak, at the top of their class.
From the back garden there were glimpses through the trees to the mill-pond and beyond, and a carriage house complete with stable was built against the rear garden wall. It contained the family buckboard and was a home for their grey gelding, Oatley.
Garreth walked Jemma to her door. It was obvious there was no-one at home.
‘Mum’s not home yet,’ Jemma said. ‘I suppose…’ she let her voice trail off as she looked at Garreth.
‘Why don’t we go to my place and wait for her there?’ Garreth offered. Truth be told he needed the company. He’d known Jemma for ever, it seemed, and she was just the sort of person he needed to talk to. So much was confusing to his mind, and Jemma was so calm and poised.
‘Alright,’ Jemma agreed, secretly pleased at the turn of events. ‘I’ll leave a note for Mum. But you have to double me on your bike.’
Garreth and Jemma walked around the side of his home to the back door. It was locked. The steam-buggy was gone so Garreth assumed his parents were out at their usual Saturday market. Good. The key was under a flower pot and with it he unlocked the door.
‘Come in,’ he invited Jemma.
Mr. Toast wandered across from the garden and stood a few feet away. ‘Come on, Mr. Toast,’ Garreth called, but the cat stayed where it was. Jemma went to pick it up, but it backed away. Garreth’s Talent picked up the tendrils of feelings of thoughts that Mr. Toast broadcast to him… Stealth… Hunt…Danger… they came like static because the day interfered with them. He really needed the half-wake of bedtime to fully receive Mr. Toast’s thoughts.
‘I think he’s killed a rat and wants to show us.’ They went inside, but the cat didn’t.
Mr. Toast sat outside the door, uncertain what to do. There was certainly something inside the house. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew it wasn’t right.
Garreth’s room was a mess; his mother had obviously shut the door on it and left it for him to clean up on the weekend.
Jemma marched in behind him and looked about with mock disgust. ‘Garreth! What a pig-sty!’
Happy to be on familiar ground, Garreth smiled agreement. ‘I’ll clean it up,’ he told her, ‘right now.’ Grabbing a pile of clothes from the bed he tossed them in a pile midway between the door and the wardrobe mirror. Then he picked up the satchel that contained his guild work. Jemma opened the wardrobe and pulled out new bed clothes…
…Garreth was bending over behind her, his back turned
…Jemma closed the door, her arms full of bedding
…and caught sight of the mirror
Garreth leaped up, shocked at her scream…
…spinning as he did so…tripping on the clothes…
…falling, the satchel held out before him
…in the blink of an eye time slowed and the world crawled
…he saw every detail in the mirror
…himself with open mouth, falling forwards
…the mirror a big oval around him
…an image inches away, waiting for the impact, expecting the shatter of glass
…the room behind the image
…NOT HIS ROOM!
Jemma staggered back as she saw the image as the door closed. It wasn’t Garreth… she knew immediately it wasn’t Garreth. And it was against the glass… held there… rigid…with staring eyes… with a frozen look of surprise on its face… or a frozen scream.
In slow motion she saw Garreth fall towards the mirror. The two images slowly met, fingers reaching out to each other. Then they appeared to slide together…blending into each other…disappearing into the glass… arms first…then the head… torso sliding through like a diver into water…thighs… legs… feet.
Her mind slowly unfroze… the mirror was empty, yet the room beyond was not the room she stood in, and she couldn’t see her own image!
A ripple crossed the surface of the glass… her image returned to the mirror
…and somebody else came pouring out!
Danny Royce hit the floor solidly, his breath leaving him with a great whoosh!
He felt terribly dizzy and there was an itch in his brain. Colours and textures resolved themselves and the world stopped spinning. He was grateful for the polished floorboards that supported his cheek.
‘Wha…? Hunnnh?’ Words fragmented inside his mind. There was something else in his mind, in the back part, something that flickered and rifled through thoughts and images like so many pages of a book that are rapidly flicked with a thumb. There was no focus; he was terribly disoriented and he had a headache.
Slowly, and with every muscle trembling, he climbed to his knees and looked around. Clothes and bedding littered the floor around him; further away a pair of shoes on the end of shapely legs met his eye. He lifted his head. A girl was sitting on the edge of the bed… staring at him… a very frightened girl.
‘Hell’s bells,’ he whispered in panic. ‘Where am I?’ A cold knot of fear cramped his stomach and it became hard to breathe.
The window was there so he staggered over to it and looked out. He saw a long garden, full of shrubs and fruit trees; he saw a vegetable plot by a stone wall at the end of the garden. Beyond the vegetable plot was a row of trees, and through the trees he could see several chimney stacks. They looked like cottages. Everything was drenched in sunshine.
It looked horrific. It was WRONG!!!
It wasn’t sinking in… he needed a reference point… something familiar.
‘Home,’ he said, quietly. ‘I’ve got to get home.’ The girl hadn’t moved and he turned his attention to her. Perhaps she could… ‘I’ve got to get back home,’ he pleaded. ‘My folks will hit the roof when they find out. They’ll… they’ll…’ He didn’t know…
…and there were images in his head; images of someone else.
The girl said something. When he didn’t answer, she repeated it. It almost sounded familiar. What sort of language is that? he wondered. She spoke again, several words this time. They didn’t make sense to him. He really wanted to run out of there, to get back home… he looked wildly at the mirror… but which way was it? He had a terrible feeling about the place he had found himself in.
The girl said something again and nodded to the door, a nervous smile on her lips. He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of helplessness and her response was to point to him, and point to the door.
Jemma could see it still… the slow way Garreth fell… disappearing into the glass… his mirror image… it was… it was… words failed to find their way to her mouth, and she had felt paralysed with indecision.
Then… then someone had poured from the glass. For the very first time in her life, Jemma Mayhorn felt bewildered and lost; she didn’t like the feeling. It was obviously a trick; someone was playing a magikal trick on Garreth, but the fact it was so blatant completely surprised her. She knew enough about magik to know that using it for frivolous ends was a serious offence. She also noticed that the lad had the same surprised look in his eyes as her Garreth had. Maybe, she told herself, someone can make some sense out of this… but no-one’s home yet. She had to do something, something ordinary while she collected her thoughts…
Ten minutes later Danny and this strange girl were sitting around a little kitchen table, his hands trembling slightly from the emotional drain of his fear, sipping …er… kaffee. Her name was Jemma, and she watched him with worried eyes. She knew he wasn’t Garreth.
Aldredge. The name popped into his head, startling him, and he looked over his shoulder to see if someone was there. It was as if there was another him coaching him. Mayhorn. He knew her surname. That too just popped out. Her words almost made sense to him. Even the kitchen looked slightly familiar, as if… as if he could go to any of the cupboards and know what was in them. Wide eyed, he looked across the table at Jemma. Weird, weird, weird, he thought, but his panic wasn’t going away.
A big marmalade cat came in from the garden and jerked to a sudden stop, tawny eyes fixed on him. In Danny’s mind his English and another language collided for a moment or two, wrestling with each other. There were definitely memories of this place in his mind! He could see it all in his mind’s eye! They sat in the back of his mind, waiting to explain themselves. He just had to relax and let them out…
‘Mr. Toast,’ he said to the cat. But not in English.
‘Yes,’ Jemma said, and he understood her perfectly.
It was very, very scary, having someone else’s memory in your mind.
Not up front like it was always there, but like a total recall pops out when you need it. Danny knew he just had to be patient, which is hard to do when you’re a long way from home. In another universe, he surmised. It hadn’t, he knew, sunk in yet; but when it did…
He was still trying to figure out what had happened. It didn’t make sense! It was all a blur… one minute he was sitting with Emily… the next he was…
…what? Where was he? What is this place? Where is this place?
Thank God for Jemma! Without her he’d be a gibbering wreck. She had read the situation perfectly; someone called Garreth had disappeared into the mirror and his alter-ego had popped out from it. Now she was organising some help. She must be terrified, Danny thought.
‘My parents can help,’ she told him. Conversation was a little slow and halting because he had to stop trying to make sense of the words… Anglic, she called them… and listen to them with his subconscious to let his extra memory make sense of them for him.
‘Yours will panic… sorry… Garreth’s I mean. Hurry, please. We should leave soon, before they come home.’
There was a strange-looking bike outside the back door, and Jemma insisted on taking it. With Jemma riding side-saddle on the cross-bar, he wobbled his way down the lane following her directions. It dawned on him how quiet everything was.
Thirty minutes later, Clarity and Redgrave Mayhorn arrived home and listened with open-mouthed amazement at the story Jemma