The Tenth Part of Magic
It was a white-skied spring morning when the wizard Martyn Hooke discovered the dead boy. Hastening along the Queen's Road, days behind his quarry, he had spied a stone dotted with blood and stopped to investigate. Dry rushes had been crushed down in the ditch that ran along the highway. Beyond there, the dirt slope up to the meadow had been smeared and stamped down. A few paces into some dry brambles Hooke found a loaf-shaped rock coated with gore.
A few paces beyond that lay the corpse, face-down in long grass damp and yellow from a winter under snow. He was about fifteen or sixteen, dark-haired and skinny, wearing crumbling shoes, a threadbare hooded smock, filthy trousers fastened with a length of string. When Hooke rolled him over he found the boy's face smashed, the orbits of the eyes split open.
Feeling every one of his nearly fifty years, Hooke clambered painfully back down into the ditch, picked his way back up the other slope of rubble, and gained the road. He picked up his walking stick, pounded his lower back, wiped dirt from his blue robes. He closed his eyes, but the boy's smashed face seemed to stare back at him from the dark.
It was not the first time Hooke had discovered a corpse on the trail of the wizard Sytheo.
Flee, Sytheo's long-familiar voice seemed to counsel him. No reason to linger. If you report the death, they'll suspect you first.
"Phlegethon!" Hooke swore. "What a wretched waste! And such a young lad, too..."
He walked five miles back to Keswick town. Fog had settled on the mucky streets. A dog whined somewhere. Doors locked one by one as the tap of Hooke's stick marked his passing. He scraped the dung off his boots and entered the inn.
The sheriff of Keswick was drinking in the long dim parlor. He was younger than Hooke, with claw-like mustaches that dipped into his beer.
"God save you, sir," Hooke said, doffing his pointed hat. "I come with news, and I'm afraid it's not good."
"You're that wizard everyone's talking about. What's your business?"
"I'm looking for a crooked wizard named Sytheo--Sytheo of the Sliding Science, he calls himself. He's a seller of false relics and miracle cures, a forger, alchemist, astrologist, and thief!"
"Has this Sytheo of yours committed any crimes in this shire? And can you find someone to swear--"
"Somebody's committed a crime, and the crime is murder. Five miles out on the Queen's road, just after the big chestnut oak, you'll find a dead boy up in the meadow."
While the sheriff conferred with a deputy, Hooke moodily ordered a beer. Sheriffs, beadles and reeves always hastened to gawk at the chaos left in Sytheo's wake, but asking them to hunt Sytheo himself was like sowing seed on stone. People believed tangling with wizards would spell disaster... which was often true. But the real disasters weren't the kind people expected. The boy in the meadow hadn't been transformed into a toad or poked to death by imps. He'd been bludgeoned in the face with a rock.
After sending the deputy away to ready their horses, the sheriff strutted back and studied Hooke with his hands on his hips.
"So you think this Sytheo murdered the boy?"
"I think it very likely."
"It's an interesting story, wizard. Maybe a little too interesting. You're certainly the only stranger anyone's seen around lately."
"You'll understand when you find the boy. He's been dead about a day. And as the innkeeper will tell you, I rode into Keswick two nights ago, and spent all my time right here in this inn, buying drinks, and learning very little of what I wanted to."
"And how do I know you're not telling me all this just to throw me off the track?"
"If I had murdered him, sir," Hooke replied with far more vinegar than wine in his words, "Why on earth would I come back to town and tell you where to find him?"
The sheriff didn't answer, only glowered more suspiciously.
Puffed-up rube. That was what Sytheo would have said. Thirty minutes at his ear and we could sell him Christ's foreskin. First we'll flatter him, pretend to recognize his name, tell him he's feared by criminals because he won't take bribes, loved by merchants because he doesn't cheat on purveyance... A shining example of virtue... No, not virtue, we'll use a word he doesn't understand, like probity... a paragon of probity...
"Well, I suppose you'd be a poor sheriff not to doubt me," Hooke said mildly. "If I must, I'll stay here until you've confirmed my story."
"Good. I'll have someone watch you. And there's one more thing."
"If you're looking for your crooked friend, why don't you just cast a spell to do it, instead of tromping around the country?"
"Sytheo is very good at hiding himself," Hooke said without elaborating.
It was a good question, Hooke thought as he watched the sheriff depart. Despite all his learning--he had read almost a hundred books in his life--Hooke had only six or seven times cast anything a layman would have called a spell. Wizards could not conjure rabbits out of hats, rain out of drought, or facts out of ignorance. But common people believed they could. That was what gave them a great measure of their power.
Not that the fearsome reputation of wizards availed Hooke of any help that day. Two hours passed before they brought the corpse into town and Hooke walked free. He spent another two hours knocking on doors and learning nothing he hadn't known already. The only fact he gained was negative: the sheriff's men hadn't yet identified the boy. Smashed face or no, in a community of a few hundred souls, everyone would know if a child went missing.
So Hooke decided to go looking, not for missing boys, but for boys that nobody knew were missing at all. He asked directions to the abbey just outside of town.
The almoner was a thin old monk with a pained smile on his lips and a look of solemn calculation in his eyes--a visage highly suited to his role of doling out money to the poor.
"In this Lenten season, a man becomes concerned for the state of his soul," Hooke began. "I wish to give your abbey a donation, to relieve the local peasants' misery."
"Such a gift will stand your soul in good stead," the almoner replied smoothly. "What did you have in mind?"
"Well, brother, it is said that money is the best gift, but money can be misused, and if food is scarce, surely grain would be better than gold. And yet it may be that wool is dearer still than grain, or cheese dearer than wool... and so I turn to you, brother almoner, to enlighten me with your doubtless perfect knowledge as to what gift would best suit the condition of your flock."
"Ah, brother!" the almoner exclaimed. "You pose quite a hard question! And it's not as if these serfs make it very easy for us to help them out! To begin with..."
Hooke listened, coaxing out details, while the almoner held forth on all the tricks the poorest local families had tried on him.
"...And the saddest part is, no matter how much we give, some addle-wits can't keep track of it, it's like the coins grow little wings and fly away! Why, this one woman, a beekeeper--makes all her money in the summer, lives on it in winter, it should be so simple, and only yesterday she was here on her knees, begging me for some silver, for she'd spent all her savings and had nothing left for April and May. And her with a child to feed! The irresponsibility! I gave her what I could, tenderheart that I am, but if she'd just come to me sooner, and been honest, I could've asked the merchant to give her better prices..."
"How about her husband?"
"Dead. Lot of war widows around here. Ten years ago was a heavy muster."
"And it's just her and her daughter?"
"Did I say daughter? No, she's a son, about fifteen, and a sister-in-law too, only lately she's been ill, poor soul."
"Ah!" Hooke touched his heart. "Beekeepers--just like my own family! You must tell me where they live, brother. It may be on my way, and I'd like to be able to do something kind for them."
"Of course," said the almoner. Suddenly frowning, he added, "Only I'm surprised to hear of a wizard coming from such humble estate."
Shouldn't have tried that, hissed Sytheo. It's his job to know when people lie, even a little bit. Hurry and give him the money.
"Anyone with wit may become a wizard," said Martyn Hooke as he counted out ten silver coins. "Assuming he has the right teacher."
The cottage stank in layers. It stank of cabbage and of farts and of bread still wet in the center. It stank of dirty bodies, two women and a boy, cooped up all winter around one meager fire, huddling for warmth in one sour bed. It stank of the bile and filth of the wasted woman who never left the bed anymore, one of her breasts bulging bigger than the other with a scirrhous and malignant growth. It stank of the herbs they had burned, hoping the fumes would cure her sickness, and the herbs they had burned to cover the stink of the first. Hooke's eyes watered. He had to stand outside while Goodwife Emelye Runcival, after biting the coin he offered, grudgingly answered his questions.
He had guessed Sytheo had passed by, and he had guessed correctly. It had been two days before, at dusk, while a few miles to the south Hooke had been plying the locals at the inn.
"I didn't like the look of him," said the goodwife. "But Cutberd made such a fuss, said he'd met the wizard on the road, and said maybe he could do something for Malkyn in there, or teach us a charm or two to use on the bees, so in the end I let him share our meal."
"Did Sytheo try to sell you anything?"
"Said he wouldn't accept money, not that we have any. He gave us a little medicine for free, but it didn't agree with Malkyn, so I threw it away."
"Did he eat much?"
"He did not, and that's about the only thing I'll say for him. Didn't eat much for a traveler. And he ate slowly, too, like his stomach was ailin' him."
"How about his face?"
"Pale as chalk. Doubt he saw the sun all winter."
"Tell him about how he walked," moaned a high thin voice from inside the cottage.
"Getting to that, Malkyn," Emelye called tiredly over her shoulder. "It was kind of a crooked walk, all hunched forward and doubled over."
"And did he show you any magic?"
"I wouldn't call it that. He opened the door to let the sunset in, and held out his fist just so, and it was like a rainbow came into the house."
"A prism," groaned Malkyn from the bed. "A chunk of glass. I saw one at a fair once."
"We knew he was a liar then." Emelye smirked, revealing a gap in her teeth. "Told us lots of other lies, too, like how he could multiply lead into gold, and only dressed like a beggar to throw men off the scent because if they knew his secrets they'd slay him for certain."
"Perhaps they would," Hooke said dryly.
"Ask him if he knows where Cutberd is," Malkyn groaned from the cottage.
"Where Cutberd is?" Emelye cried. "Why, Malkyn, what a silly question! You've been asleep, so you didn't hear me send him out! We keep bees here, sir wizard--we see to the wicker hives, Cutberd sees to the hives the bees make out in the wood, only he hasn't come home yet. You know how boys get in springtime. Rather be anywhere than where they belong."
"Mmm. Did Sytheo stay long?"
"Oh no. I sent him on his way before nightfall. We're not cruel to strangers, but this isn't an inn."
"And after that?"
"After that nothing. We all went to bed and that was the end of it."
She went inside and dropped the coin into a rosewood box.
She's lying, Sytheo seemed to hiss. Nobody honest ever says 'that was the end of it.'
Had it been summer, Hooke could made conversation about their fine honey, the healthy buzz of their bees, an unusual garden simple. But it was the gray and Lenten time, the bees were asleep, the showers of spring had not yet pierced the garden's frozen roots, and Hooke found himself at a loss for words. The place reminded him far too much of his own boyhood--his life before Sytheo.
Hooke knew his Boethius and Aristotle, his Averroës and his Rosarium Philosophorum, knew how to use an astrolabe, how to defend a fortress against a siege, how to purify water and amputate a limb, how to survive in the woods, how to make colored smoke for minstrel shows, how to solve algebraic equations, and especially how to fool people into thinking he knew even more than that. What he had never understood was how anyone could endure a toiling life in a sour hovel with the same two people, year in and year out, until death took it all away.
He wandered behind the cottage, past the sloped outbuilding where they kept their cow, past the fallow rows and vines of their frost-ravaged garden. He was looking for the place a boy would go to be alone. About a hundred paces into the forest he found some wooden rungs nailed into a tree trunk. Up past a fork was a little tree fort. Hooke groaned, sizing up the climb. He had already walked more than fifteen miles that day.
So go back to town. You're wasting your time. It's no surprise why the boy ran away. Hooke wished he could disagree.
He hauled himself agonizingly up the rungs. He got his elbows onto the floor of the tree fort. It was covered with dead leaves and a few last rags of snow. Cryptic glyphs carved in the tree bark caught his eye. He spent a few minutes trying to decipher them before realizing they were simple nonsense, the fanciful carvings of a boy who'd seen letters but never learned them. Hooke often envied people like that. Illiterate people would never have to know how little some of the thickest tomes actually contained.
"Those're his spells," called Emelye, who had followed him out to the base of the tree.
Hooke began to climb down. "Spells?"
"He calls them that. He likes to pretend." The goodwife sighed and crossed her arms. "Last summer he told everyone he could breathe underwater and almost drowned in the river. He had to get fished out by the miller's girl he likes. She laughed at him. The boy's a dreamer, that's his problem. I keep telling him that, only he never listens."
"It's normal for a child to pretend," said Hooke. He wondered if the mother and aunt brought up the story when they wanted to win arguments.
By the time he reached the base of the tree, he had come to his decision.
"You needn't lie to me, you know," he said. "I know you and Cutberd argued that night. Probably about some wild story Sytheo told him, about magic, or some great quest for the future, or maybe his dead father. And I know Cutberd stole the money you'd saved for April and May, only you were ashamed to call your son a thief before the almoner, so you pretended you ran out by yourself. All I want to know is--"
"It sounds like you want me to know how wise and cunning you are." Emelye's eyes shone with wrath. "If you're so great at magic, why don't you use some and cure poor Malkyn?"
Give her some powdered belladonna, Sytheo giggled. Miracle cure for all mortal ailments. Don't give me that look, boy. She's suffering, it'd be a mercy.
"If I cut the tumor out she'd bleed to death," Hooke said flatly. "Neither physic nor philosophy can save her. A tea made from butterbur may help her pain. That's all I can prescribe."
Emelye turned so the wizard would not see her eyes.
"Just tell me something. Did Cutberd take anything else? A sack? A weapon?"
"A cart," Emelye croaked without showing her face. "The kind you pull behind you. We use it to bring the honey to market."
Hooke put another coin in her hand, then two more. He began to walk away.
"Do you think he'll come back?"
Hooke looked over his shoulder. In the slanted afternoon light, the mother seemed far older than before; her lips trembling, her eyes reddened and forlorn.
You'll only lose by telling her the truth. Say he'll be back. Say he's a good boy. Say he's got no reason to run away.
"I'm so sorry," said Hooke. "But I doubt you'll ever see your boy again."
The ruts of the cart led Hooke along a narrow forest path, a diagonal cut that would avoid the town and join up with the Queen's Road near the murder site. He walked on, doggedly, ignoring the pain in his legs. He did not want to think about the chaos Sytheo could raise if he reached the capital. He would need to walk all night to have a chance of catching up. He would need to draw on all his strength, and believe himself immune to cold, fatigue, and pain.
It was the weather that stood in his way. All afternoon the sky had loomed gray and clouded. Now a fierce March wind had blown in from the north. Day gave its last gasp, a single feeble sunbeam descended through a chink in the air, and in the revealed space beyond, Hooke discerned steep snowclouds, approaching fast.
He could not resist the horrible fancy that Sytheo had somehow gained control of the sky; that the storm was an expression of his will to slow Hooke down.
The sun went out almost immediately. The chestnut oak trees that lined the path became black and skeletal fingers, creaking and caressing the imperially purple sky. A cold front surged through the wood, a pressure as palpable as a tidal wave. Dry leaves lifted. Boughs creaked and snapped, protesting the onslaught. Hooke's beard and hood blew back from his head. Snowflakes swirled in the dark, chilling his skin.
"Pluto and Proserpyne!" the wizard cursed. "These blasts of Boreas will make an icicle of me!"
Hooke was protected only by a few layers of wool, and after weeks on the road he had lost most of his winter fat. The only thing he thanked Fortune for was that the snow was powdery and thin, blowing about rather than sticking and soaking through. In this frigid wind, a wet person would lose body heat and die quickly. But if Hooke stayed dry and found a sheltered place to build a fire, he could pass the night unharmed. The trouble was do that before it got completely dark.
At a low place on the path he paused. Leaning heavily on his stick, he cast his senses out from him in all directions. He could sense snowflakes scraping across dead leaves, hear the deep groans and creakings of the dry chestnut oaks. He could feel his body heat soaking into the storm. He could smell sharp woodsmoke on the snowy wind--
Hooke sniffed, smacking his lips to absorb the scent. A mixture of woodsmoke and--meat?
Using his stick to clear the boughs from his face, he trod carefully into the forest.
He heard the crackle of the fire before he saw it. Ducking down, he gained a line of sight toward a clearing fifty feet away. A steep crescent rockface provided shelter from the wind. Someone in a hooded cloak was sitting hunched over the flames, roasting a squirrel. Hooke's mouth watered.
With the wind lying thus, and his eyes on the flames, he won't hear you sneaking up. Better to surprise him.
"Hello there!" Hooke cried against the wind.
The stranger looked up. His hooded cloak and the fire concealed all of his face except a pair of wide, startled eyes.
"Don't be alarmed! I'm just a bit lost! I wondered if I might share your fire!" Hooke kept up a rapid patter as he approached the clearing. "I'm very glad I found you, you know! I'm sure you'll think me very careless, getting caught like this! And at my age! I thank you for your kind hospitality--"
"No trouble." The hooded traveler youngster had a large frame and a deep voice, but his face was beardless. Noticing Hooke's friendly smile, he hesitantly returned one of his own. "It blew in awful sudden."
"My goodness, lad, how young you are! With those broad shoulders of yours, and this fine fire you've made, I took you for a grizzled old hunter! Well, no matter. At a time like this, old age gladly doffs its hat to youth!" Hooke sat heavily down and warmed his hands by the fire. It was dry and comfortable under the overhanging rock. "My name is Hooke, by the way, Martyn Hooke."
"Are you traveling?"
"Yes. I'm a kind of scholar, you see... I'm on my way to the capital."
"Me too!" exclaimed the boy. "What kinds of things do you know?"
"Why, a little about almost everything."
The young man studied Hooke suspiciously.
"You're dressed like a wizard," he said at last. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about the Seven Trials of Magic?"
Hooke blinked. "Seven Trials of Magic? Why, what an unusual question! A lad like you has heard of the Seven Trials?"
"Not only have I heard of them, I intend to take them, too!"
Hooke's mouth had just been watering at the scent of the roasting squirrel. Now he discovered he wasn't hungry anymore.
"And how do you propose to do that?" he asked guardedly.
"Easy. I'll just go to the capital and ask them to let me try. They're legally obligated to let you, you know."
"...And you think you'll be able to pass?"
"Well, that's why I asked," said the boy with heartbreaking earnestness. "I think I've got the first two or three trials down. It's just the rest I'll need a little coaching with. Do you think you could help me? After I'm done, you know, I may be able to reward you!"
"I have heard of these trials," Hooke allowed, "Only they were supposedly not easy, and there's another, bigger problem..."
"Well, do you think you could teach me before we get to the capital?"
Tell him yes, Sytheo would have said. If he's ignorant enough to believe in the Trials, he'll believe anything you say!
"I'm afraid I couldn't possibly," said Hooke. "You see... Why are you looking at me like that?"
"I guess I'm just a little disappointed is all. The last wizard I met told me he could teach me, but we got separated. But I suppose he's far more powerful than you."
Not only was Hooke not hungry anymore, he suddenly wanted to vomit. Concealing his emotions, he stared at the fire. The embers that glowed were not ordinary sticks and twigs. The spokes of a cart wheel glowed there.
"What's your name?" Hooke asked quietly.
"I'm Cutberd. I'm the son of Aleyn Runcival, and I don't care who knows it."
"Aleyn Runcival, you mean, the man who fought over the sea ten years--"
"You've heard of my father too!" cried Cutberd. "You really are a wizard! Mother and Auntie never told me anything, but I know he was in the Queen's army, and was some sort of hero, and he knew magic, and people are trying to stop me from learning the truth!"
Snow-wind whistled beyond the shelter, scouring warmth from the wood. Hooke shut his eyes in dismay.
"Tell me something, boy--"
"I'm fifteen years old, so don't call me boy. Didn't you just say old age would doff its hat to youth?"
"Cutberd, then. How many other boys do you know who lost their fathers in that war?"
"Jame Fletcher to start with," said Cutberd, rolling his eyes back and ticking names off on his dirty fingers. "He's my friend. And Piers who works at the cobbler's. And Symkyn by the pond. And Hubert, and Rauf--they're brothers--"
"And what makes your father different from their fathers?"
"Well, he was a hero!"
"Maybe he was and maybe he wasn't," said Hooke. "I've certainly never heard of him. Only if I had to fool someone your age who didn't have a father, it's a trick I might use."
Cutberd's face became livid with outrage.
"You just said you knew him!"
"No I didn't. You just let yourself believe it. Be glad this didn't happen five years ago. Back then, Sytheo would have told you your father was alive and being held for ransom across the sea."
At the mention of Sytheo, the boy's eyes became as wide and vulnerable as a deer's.
"You saw how sick he was, Cutberd. All pale and blind and doubled over. His sliding science has crippled him. He spent all winter with Sir Robyn Gray, trying to multiply metals into gold, and all he got for his pains was a case of lead poisoning. After that he stole fifty pounds of silver from Lord Gray's treasury. Five people died that night. After that Lord Gray asked me to track him down. I would have done it even if he hadn't asked. Sytheo and I go back, you see...
"I've been on his trail for three weeks now, through Eltham and Blancadir and other places. A few towns back someone else caught on to his tricks and robbed him of his stolen loot. After that he got desperate. So, when he saw you on the road--a boy with a nice cart and a pair of strong shoulders--he decided to make you into his ride to the capital.
"So Sytheo lied to you. Only his lie about the Seven Trials was far more long and complicated than it needed to be, and that's what puzzled me at first. It's a very complex story--he got it from a tale of chivalry, stuff a bard can spin out and embellish for as many nights as he needs to. The truth is that the Trials haven't been used to test magicians in more than a thousand years. You'd have found that out if you got to the capital...
"So, Sytheo poured his lies in your ear, lies about your father and your grand destiny, and after your mother kicked him out you couldn't sleep a wink. When the moon rose you crept out of bed and stole the silver pieces your mother kept in her rosewood box, and you took your cart and went after Sytheo. You're a strong lad and he's a crippled old man, so you caught up with him quickly, and you pulled him along all night, you were that excited to strike out on your own." Hooke shut his eyes and sighed. "And then, at dawn..."
"Do you want some of this squirrel?" Cutberd suddenly offered in a quick high voice.
"At dawn you ran into another boy. A boy very much like yourself, I think. Sytheo's almost blind, so he didn't see him until it was too late, and the other boy saw Sytheo riding in your cart, and recognized the old conjurer...
"That's why Sytheo told you that lie about the Seven Trials. He knew you'd have to keep him around until you got every detail. He'd tried a simpler story on the other boy a few towns back, only the other boy got impatient, and left Sytheo behind while he ran on to the capital, to claim his destiny--"
"He was a damned liar!" Cutberd suddenly cried. "Claiming the Imperial Seal from the Lost Crypt and marrying the Queen, it was all lies and nonsense!"
"So you called him out on his lies and nonsense, and he called you out on your lies and nonsense, until one of you threw a rock. After that, even if one boy wanted to stop, the other one wouldn't show mercy. So when the other boy went down, you needed to make sure he stayed that way..."
Hooke trailed off. He stared at the wind-whipped fire, remembering the corpse, the smashed eye sockets. It teetered on the brink of a much more distant memory. Hooke's own eyes blinded by hot tears. Sytheo's hands, warm and comforting on his shoulders. He hit you first. These things just happen. It was a blood rage, no one could've controlled it. I can help you, boy. I can teach you things. But only if you help me.
It never changed. A starving person would do terrible things just for a bite to eat. And for the smallest shred of hope, a lonely person would do the same. Did that damn him, or excuse him?
"You've got a speck of blood on the tip of your nose," Hooke said at last. "You cleaned yourself up well, only you didn't notice that."
"It's squirrel's blood," said Cutberd in a very small voice.
"After that you had to hide the body. I imagine Sytheo told you to get the cart off the road while he covered up the scene, only by the time you returned, Sytheo was gone. Probably he conned someone else into giving him a lift...
"And then you didn't know what to do. You couldn't go to the capital without Sytheo to coach you on the trials. You couldn't go back home because of the stolen money. So you hid in the forest, and you cried and cried, and when night came you burned half your wooden cart to stay warm, and now you're burning the rest.
"What I don't understand is why you didn't bother burying the other boy. You left him for the jackdaws instead. If you had--"
"He was going to murder me!"
"Is that right!" Hooke snapped. "And when your time comes, I wonder why anyone should bother to bury you! It may happen sooner than you think!"
The boy's eyes remained wide open, and he didn't move or make a sound, but tears were pouring down his dirty cheeks.
You handled that nicely, sighed Sytheo of the Sliding Science. Now hook him, Hooke! Heh heh heh! Bind him tight! You of all people should know how it's done. Reminder how you helped with old Master Nembrot?
Hooke felt a flash of vertigo. For an instant, he had glimpsed recurrence: master and student, criminal and accomplice, multiplied between parallel mirrors, an unchanging pattern marching into dim and infinite gulfs of past and future. A memory and premonition, a cycle of blood and secrets...
Hooke spoke on, fighting his own nausea. "You do have one advantage, Cutberd. The other boy was a stranger in the shire, you weren't. The sheriff might decide it was self-defense. Or else he might decide to cast away the rotten apple before it rots the rest--and he'll do it by way of the gallows.
"You've got to make a choice. You can throw yourself on the mercy of the law. You can stay in the woods and live like an outlaw. Or..." Hooke swallowed. "Or you can help me."
Cutberd's mouth dropped open.
"You're surprised?" The wizard smiled grimly. "The law hasn't done a thing to help me hunt Sytheo. Is it so strange that I hesitate to help the law?"
"But you know what I did. Why would you trust me?"
Hooke stared deeply into the crackling flames.
"I was in a place like yours once," he said at last. "All my life I've been trying to make up for it. Maybe it's impossible for us to atone for what we've done. But where does that leave us? Only in the same state as our first parents. If they'd given up after they sinned, and hanged themselves, where would the rest of us be?"
"Nowhere," said Cutberd.
"Exactly. So help me. Help me find Sytheo and put an end to his tricks. It'll be a better fate than letting yourself get hanged."
"Maybe I will," said Cutberd, sniffing hard. "Only... aren't you scared of Sytheo?"
"I am. And you should be too. His learning was always greater than mine, and what's more, he's gone as mad as a snake! Only I'll tell you a secret about Sytheo's powers. You've got far more to fear from dirty tricks and lies than from curses and spells. For all his talk of alembics and cucurbits, his orpiment and bole armoniac, his citrinification and induration and sliding lower metals into highest gold, the things he's seen in his astrology--ignotum per ignotius! Nine times out of ten it's nothing more than lies! You're interested in magic, so you might as well know that."
"Magic isn't real?"
"What a stupid question!" Hooke snorted. "Sytheo had you so fooled that you killed somebody, and you ask if magic isn't real? Of course it's real! So ask yourself how Sytheo enchanted you. Did he feed you a magic potion, or zap a wand, or chant an abracadabra? He had no need to! All he needed to enslave your will to his own was to tell you exactly what you wanted to believe!"
"How do you know all this?"
"I was Sytheo's student once. And Sytheo was a good man... once. He lied, he cheated, just like any wizard--but he always used that power to confound the wicked and help the good. Only in the end, his great wit corrupted him. He started looking down on all the people who weren't as clever as him. Eventually, he stopped thinking of them as people at all. And that's why--"
Hooke didn't complete the sentence. Something had just stirred in the woods nearby. They weren't alone. He squinted into the dark, but firelight cheated his eyes.
"There's nowhere to run, wizard," yelled the sheriff from out in the darkness. "We're coming over, so give yourself up nice and peaceful!"
A shutter opened. A lantern appeared in the dark. A second lantern pinned Hooke down from another direction.
"What do we do?" squeaked Cutberd.
Hooke set his teeth and calculated. He was still calculating when the sheriff and two deputies came into the clearing. They wore full winter gear, thick cloaks and gloves and ear-flapped hats. One of the deputies carried a length of rope.
"What's all this about, sir Sheriff?"
"I thought a wizard would know better than to play dumb. You conned us, Hooke. You said that boy was murdered yesterday morning, but he'd been dead for at least two days. You thought we wouldn't account for the cold."
"I accounted for the cold," Hooke growled as they bound his hands. "Who told you you were wrong about the time?" No one answered. "Well?!"
"Come along, Cutberd," a deputy said to the boy. "We won't let this old trickster do you any harm."
"An old trickster, am I?" Hooke seethed. He didn't like to resort to threats, but there was no other option. "Have you no fear of the wrath of wizards?"
The sheriff swallowed hard. "We are protected from your power."
"And by whom?"
"One more powerful than you."
"Protected, by Cerberus?!" Hooke exploded. "Sytheo's nursed the lot of you well with venom! Well, where is the fiend? Warming his feet by a fire in town, perhaps? Drinking your liquor, lolling in your best bed?"
But Sytheo was quite nearby indeed. Hands bound, blinking rapidly in the snowstorm, Hooke saw him just as they got back to the forest path--a hunched figure on horseback, head held down and forward like a drunken man's. The light of the deputy's lantern, combed through by snowflakes, struck deep shadows inside the folds and peaks of the blankets that bundled Sytheo. His face was completely hooded in a triangle of darkness,
"Are you warm enough, sir wizard?" one of the deputies asked. "Would you like another hot water bottle?"
"Another bottle?" Sytheo's voice was high and fluid, sliding from one tone to the next like a fiddler's glissando. "Well, why not? It's a cold-cold night, after all. Chills to the bone! Boys, I apologize again for calling in such a squall. I'm sure the flowers and the songbirds won't thank me, hee hee! But it was the only way to pin this wretched murderer down."
"Don't be absurd. You didn't call this storm. You only predicted it. You were always a better weatherman than I, and your swollen joints let you feel it coming in advance."
"Ha, he denies it!" A cackle erupted from the black triangle of Sytheo's face. "Ever the materialist, eh, Hooke?"
The sheriff and the deputies had been so eager to bind Hooke, they hadn't considered how to get him on horseback that way. In the end they had to untie him, let him mount, and tie him up again. Cutberd rode along behind one of the deputies. He had not yet spoken a word.
"I have to hand it to you," said Hooke, his horse walking alongside Sytheo's. "You're poisoned, you're probably in agony, and you're still cooking up your same old schemes. You knew I was on your tail, so you framed me for murder."
"Framed you?" snorted Sytheo. "And have you forgotten how we met? You were a murderer before you were my student. I bet you didn't tell them that part!"
Hooke let out only a growl.
"I thought I could reform you," Sytheo sight. "Obviously, I failed. And now, as if murder wasn't bad enough, you've trying to make this poor boy into an accessory! How are you holding up back there, Cutberd?"
"I don't want to talk to you," Cutberd said quietly.
"Brave lad!" Hooke called over his shoulder. "You're the only one who isn't scared of him. The rest of them are under his spell."
"That's enough out of you!" growled the sheriff.
"No, not, let my student speak! Let him heap up his calumnies. We have nothing to fear from Martyn Hooke."
"Sytheo," Hooke insisted. "You're dying and you know it. But you can still repent! You called me a materialist, but where do you think your soul--"
"In a fortnight I'll be healthy as a horse again. I know a spell to do it. And don't prate to me about the soul. It sickens my heart to hear a damned murderer speak of true religion."
"You hypocrite! You filthy tregetour!"
"Call me any name you like, Hooke. I've heard worse. All that noise can do is vanish in my storm. For this storm is nothing less than my own will."
Snowflakes whirled violently in the lamplight. Hooke strained against the ropes, tightened his muscles, forced himself to focus. He closed his eyes.
And he dived.
He dived deeper and deeper into himself. He plunged headlong into philosophy, into the diverse and hidden causes of nature, into the correspondence between the starry and sublunar spheres. Magic could not contradict the cosmos. It could not call a storm where no storm brewed. To believe it could was to believe in an illusion, to be ignorant as the infant who recognizes no distinction between himself and the breast he nurses...
And yet that complex coastline between inside and outside was not impenetrable. For just as an infant's weeping could gain him mother's milk, so too a secret sympathy existed between the wizard and the ordered world; a connection governed by the art of giving names, by defining things ever more precisely, so that the 'world' was no longer simply a world, but was composed of sea and sky and earth and elemental fire; so that 'earth' was not just earth, but turf and clay and silt and soil and tree, 'tree' was not just tree, but ash and oak and holly and hawthorn and the creaking, winter-parched chestnut oaks that lined the path and cracked groaning in the gale.
And Hooke sensed Sytheo's malignant will inside that gale. He had not caused it. He had aligned himself with it. In its restless mutability, its violent and purging winds, its flesh-shriving blasts, Hooke saw reflected Sytheo's struggle against death, his body's war against the heavy metals that had poisoned him.
If Sytheo had aligned with the sky, Hooke could only counter him with the cold earth, the wood, the creaking and overstressed trees--he sent his awareness outward, into the night terrain--there, there it was, a pressure building, a terrible tension--dead wood creaked, crying in agony at the wind's assault--
And Hooke, re-echoing an echo decades old, cried out, "I cast you down, conjurer!"
Sytheo spun. A simple reflex. Hooke threw his own body forward against the horse's neck. To their left, with a crash like a cleaving thunderbolt, a chestnut oak tree snapped from strain.
Splinters exploded, shredding daggers in the dark.
Hooke, huddled, caught the blast in his shoulder and arm and along his side. It shredded the rope that bound him. His horse bucked, almost throwing him. He clung tight.
Sytheo caught the blast straight in his eyes.
The bundled wizard wailed. He gurgled. Hooke heard him topple off his horse and fall kicking into the snow.
Hooke seized his horse's reins. He controlled the animal. It reared up, kicking up its front hooves. Hooke turned it to face the others. The sheriff and the deputies were dumbfounded.
"You are free," Hooke growled, drawing a sigil in the air. "I break the spell that bound you. You, Cutberd, come down. Take a lantern first. The rest of you, fly--or face a wizard's wrath!"
Cutberd nabbed the deputy's lantern and slipped down to the ground as the three riders galloped away, panic on their faces. Only then did Hooke let out a groan. The pain he had held back flooded in. His left arm was needled all over. Blood wet the fabric of his robes, chilling quickly.
He walked over to Sytheo's prone form, stripped off the quilted blankets. Cutberd shone the lantern on his cringing body, his bald white head, his bleeding splinter-blinded eyes.
"Repent," said Hooke.
Sytheo spat a curse in reply.
Hooke felt for warm patches in the blankets that had swaddled Sytheo. Hot water bottles were slotted into the quilt. He took a bottle out. Unstopped it. He dumped it all over Sytheo.
"Ow! You--you burned me! What're you--"
"You claim you called the storm. So call it off. If you want to live, you'd better. These blasts of Boreas chill to the bone."
Hooke dumped a second bottle out, dousing Sytheo's bald pate and crooked back.
"Hooke! You'll kill me! I'll freeze out here!"
"It's the most painless way to go, master. You always said you wanted that."
Sytheo struggled to rise. Hooke tackled him. Fearing a dagger, he seized Sytheo's wrists. They grappled.
"Cutberd, get another bottle!"
The lantern remained still. The boy did not move. His teeth were chattering in the dark.
"Cutberd, help me!"
"...Help you kill him?"
"If... if you kill him, how are you any better than he is?"
Vertigo seized Hooke. The old initiation: echoed, mirrored, multiplied.
"Good lad!" Sytheo croaked. "Kind, merciful lad!"
"Shut up. You asked me to do this, master. Long ago. In a forest like this. On a night like this. When you were at Master Nembrot's throat, and I was standing where Cutberd is, asking why I should help you. You promised--"
"You promised you'd make a wizard of me. And you told me if you ever got as bad as Nembrot was, I should be the one to hunt you down." Hooke paused long enough to draw breath. "Cutberd--I'm promising you the same. Help me, and I'll teach you magic. And if I ever fall as low as Sytheo--"
Sytheo spat upward into Hooke's eye. Hooke roared, relaxing his grip for an instant. The old man wrenched one wrist free. He reached for his belt. He drew a dagger. Hooke recoiled--
And Cutberd was there. He kicked the dagger out of Sytheo's hand. He crushed his wrist into the ground. While the boy held Sytheo prone, Hooke doused his old master with a third and fourth and fifth bottle of quickly chilling water.
After that it was easy. It took about twenty minutes. Wind howled past, draining Sytheo's body heat. Snow accumulated on his soaked robes, white as lead-poisoned flesh. Sytheo's running rant became a babble became a mutter. He rolled onto his belly and clawed weakly at the snow, trying to burrow down. He never got beneath the winter-hardened dirt. He gave a little sigh and relaxed. Hooke and Cutberd, arms around each other for warmth, watched the wizard's last breaths. They kept watching after that, fearing a final trick. But Sytheo's tricks had run out.
"Let's get back to that fire," said Hooke.
They led the captured horse along the path, the lantern casting a feeble cone of light ahead. The snow was failing. The wind had lost its bite.
"You said magic was all lies," said Cutberd after a while. "But it's an awful strange thing to happen by accident, that tree splitting at just the right time."
"I said it was lies nine times out of ten," Hooke replied with a slight smile. "As for the tenth part... well, who can say?"
"The storm's winding down, too. It's finished along with Sytheo."
"Maybe he really did call it. Maybe not. One day you'll decide for yourself."
He's your apprentice now. Make him swear it. Just like you and me. The cycle will go on forever. Like the seasons. Like the tide.
And Martyn Hooke, with a clarity that wracked his soul, understood that he would never be rid of that obscene whisper; that he would be fighting it for the rest of his life.
"We've a lot of work to do before we quit this shire," he said at last. "First we'll warm up, get the splinters out of my arm. After that--is there a stream bed around here, for rocks?"
"What do you want rocks for?"
"To bury Sytheo. Not for the sake of his soul. That's in another place now. We'll do it for the sake of our own."
They worked all night. An hour before sunrise they rode out. The snowclouds had blown away. A few birds warbled in the trees. The sun's bright beacon paled the east. Meadows lay fallow on either side of the Queen's road, frost steaming to mist in the sudden dawn. Winter was over. April had come.