The Sorcerer and the Lady


A young man on horseback reached a ridge-top and reined in his mount. He looked down into the valley below, with consternation showing in his face. He dismounted, and pushed back his short dark hair from where it stuck to the sweat on his brow. He wore a leather tunic, and knee-high boots of fine hide. Tough cloth made up his breeches, and his cloak and cowl were cut from heavy wool.

The only show of ostentation about his person was the clasp at his throat, formed of two Möbius bands in metal, knotted into a hexagonal design, each sector marked with a color; red, orange, yellow — this set with a topaz — green, and here an emerald, blue and purple. The other four had settings ready for stones, but they were empty and grey sockets of metal.

He discarded the cloak, flinging it across his horse's saddle, and clipping the clasp, like a brooch, to his left lapel. That emblem marked him sorcerer, a worker in magics, able to bend the powers of Green and Yellow to his will.

From a battered case of brown leather, he drew a pair of binoculars. Originally they had been painted black, but in places, the paint had been chipped, or worn away to polished metal by the years of use.

The sight now brought to his eyes confirmed what unaided he had seen. Where he stood, one of the other Planes of Earth clashed with the true for existence, and in response, its Color flared bright, a sickly lime green, from even the air itself. Ahead, all that was green was the grass, and the sky was blue, with white fair-weather clouds, the sun that shone so brightly down hid only by the mist of the green continuum.

He led his horse down the slope, and across that sudden line, and no longer could he see anything but the green and fertile land, under a blue sky. Only his Talent and training as Sorcerer enabled him to discern the nimbus of Color about the valley, and he could ignore even that. He smiled at the turn of fortune that led him to this tiny island of wholesomeness in the Chaos that overwhelmed the Land.

A small brook ran through the valley, clean and drinkable, and sparkling in the light. By its bank, as he approached to slake his thirst, what he had thought to be an erratic moss covered boulder, resolved itself into some artifact of intelligent design. It was a painted metal box, as tall as he and as large as a small room. A long tube was attached to its upper surface, protruding over one end. From the complicated, overgrown structure of wheels within wheels that covered two sides, it seemed to have been some form of carriage.

Whatever its design, however purposed, it seemed to be veiled with some bitter tension, as if through its influence, the greyland was bound here. Welcome though he found its effect, it disquieted him, and he moved further away from it to drink, and water his mount.

He took food from his saddle-bags, and a battered letter, and retreated a way up the sunward side, to rest his back against a limestone boulder that outcropped from the grass and flowers, while the horse began to graze. As he ate, relaxed in the noon-day sun, he took the letter, unfolding it, and rereading it.

It was a commission from his patron, the Citylord of Akenthroughm, three days ride to the south and east, on the far extent of human domains in that direction, to ride across all the Land to Newlanton, and escort back Her Ladyship, Marchesa Virginia of Tremsel ‘for reasons of state’. He knew little of the Marchesa, only that the House of Tremsel was nearly as old as the Colors, with one of the citiless areas of greylands under its fief. Such times they were, that a Sorcerer of two Colors be casually ordered to such a task. In the half legendary days of old, when Perrian Greensinger, the first Sorcerer, had lived, workers of but a single Color had been men of colossal powers, able to shape the affairs of ordinary mortals at their merest whim. Now, all who had the Talent of binding were trained, and the mastery of three Colors commonplace, the likes of he, but messenger boys for the rich and powerful.

He had been a farmer's son, and had looked on his power as a stepping-stone from that lowly station, but it had changed his situation little. Idly, he wondered whether the Marchesa was young, or whether he would be forced into the company of an aged harridan, to have to pamper her for maybe a week of gentle riding. He played with fanciful futures where she was not only young, but found him a dashing heroic character, and became his wife. Cruelly he smashed the brightly glittering images. He had no sisters, his training had been monastic; and while his contemporaries had been courting and wenching, had had been to be found at his teacher's feet, studying not only the Art Magic, but history, and philosophy and mathematics. They had been his life, and had fired his imagination and his daydreams, that he might someday understand all the workings of Creation. But too soon he had graduated with a second Color, and been refused extension, pushed out, unprepared, into the confusion of society.

Years had passed before he had become comfortable in the actual presence of women, but even yet, he preferred to avoid them, for fear of making a gaffe that those, more versed in the social graces would avoid without thought. However, despite the vile accusations that had been levelled against him, he desired a woman, someone to love and protect, a light to the grey dispassion of his life, as well as to warm his bed of nights.

It had been with a feeling akin to fear, muted only by financial imperatives, that he had even accepted the task before him, the thought of which made him want to turn and flee. For that reason, he deliberately dawdled over lunch, afraid that he would, through his weakness, make himself a laughing-stock.

Too soon, he had consumed the last crumb, and even the taste of the food was gone from his palate. There was no excuse for further delay that would satisfy his reluctant honoring of his word. He recaptured his horse and rode on, pausing only to bid farewell to that small haven, and bind about himself a protection against the dwellers in Color.

The sun was setting, a brilliant red in a blood red sky, that toned through gold and faint green, into a series of blues that no artist could capture on canvas, as he came once more into the Greylands. As he passed from the shifting no-man's-land of the border into the permanently stable ground, fields and small cottages appeared, and the road that led to the city that was his goal. Though both he and his horse were exhausted after an encounter with some of the denizens of the garish orange chaos he had just departed, he pressed forwards anxiously to reach the city before the sun was gone and the great gates closed.

The city appeared over a fold in the land, and grew as he neared it, and around him, the fields gave way to parklands full of flowers that were some of the most beautiful things he had seen. But he could see the gates, one already closed as warning, and those captivated his attention.

Even so, the other portal was swinging slowly to a close as he galloped through and into the city itself. Pike armed guards challenged him to halt, and he complied, dismounting to speak to them. He showed him his scroll of introduction, sealed personally by Citylord Greel of Akenthroughm, and they nodded respectfully to him, and addressed him as Lord Sorcerer. He accepted this indignity in stoic silence, and under their escort was brought to the palace of the Citylord of Newlanton, until at the gates of the palace, they left him, and one of the courtiers took their place, to lead him to the Citylord.

He was taken through the main hall, where hung tapestries of red and gold, and the floor was a mosaic in those colours, up elegant stairways of marble hewn from the distant quarries of the south, and along red carpeted corridors, with white walls with gilded embellishments, and where courtiers and servants bowed to him as he passed. They paused at last in front of a double door, bearing the same scalloped motif as the walls.

His guide knocked discreetly at the doors, and at the call to enter, opened the doors for him.

“The Lord Sorcerer Caerthemon Farmer.”

The room was apparently Citylord Allan's private study. Its walls were lined with books, and to his left, an ornate writing desk bore all the instruments of calligraphy, and a small pile of papers. In front of him, a large fire burned, and standing to the left of the hearth, the Citylord, a heavyset bearded man, with brown heir and keen grey eyes, a glass of sherry in his hand. To the right of the fire, reclining on a couch and with her back turned to him, was, he presumed, the Marchesa. Her hair was the palest of blonde, and fell long, down below her shoulders.

“Welcome!” The citylord was straightforwardly pleased to see him, “and this is the Marchesa Virginia.”

She got up, and walked over to him. She was dressed in a long white dress, brilliantly besequinned, and long white gloves. In her hair, a tiara set with scores of diamonds flashed in the lamplight. She was petite, and she was beautiful. Caerthemon stared at her without knowing what to say or think or do, only knowing that now he saw in the flesh, the exact likeness of his own idealisation of great and fragile beauty. Clumsily, he bowed to her.

“My Lady.” He said the words as if to the accompaniment of heels clicking sharply together, and knelt to kiss the hand she proffered.

After, he stood, staring trancelike into emptiness for what seemed a very long time, until the Citylord offered him a glass of sherry, before dinner, which would be in only a few moments, and though he disliked the drink, he accepted it quietly, and at the offer to sit down, he did so, in the chair looking most away from the Marchesa, and stared at his glass. But all too often his gaze lifted, to skate around the room, feverishly seeking an anchor point — the books, the lamps, the fire, the ceiling ornamentation, Citylord Allan; but never, never, save in passing, or from the corner of his eye, the Marchesa. His thoughts were in a turmoil; the unexpectedness of the sight of her had broken the barriers of coldness and precision he had prepared for the task.

There was a silence in the room, and had there been a conversation in progress, his entry had killed it, stone dead, leaving only an embarrassing pause, while he racked his brain for some topic that would provoke renewed discourse. Yet what could he offer? The technicalities of magic, or the reminiscences of his youth would be of little interest to such as they, and whatever would concern these highborn would not interest a jumped up plowboy such as he.

The Marchesa spoke first in the stillness, where only the rustling of the fire had been, and her voice had an almost whining quality about it, yet in her… Caerthemon was uncertain whether it became beauteous of itself, or whether it was merely overwhelmed by the sheer perfection of her loveliness.

“Sorcerer, you are to be my escort to Akenthroughm?”

“Yes. Here are my letters of introduction from Citylord Greel.” He produced a packet, sealed with the great seal of that city, and addressed to the Marchesa of Tremsel.

She broke the ornate splodge of brittle, scented wax, and unfolded the paper. It rustled like dry leaves, and in its heart were revealed the marching lines of Greel's own bold and simple hand. The Marchesa studied it intently, if briefly, and refolded it, slipping it into one glove.

“Very well. He thinks you are well qualified for the assignment.” Caerthemon mumbled in acknowledgement, and the Marchesa continued, “We ride with a dozen men-at-arms for escort. If you so prefer, I will put them under your direct command while we are in Color.”

She smiled at him, and he simply ceased to think, not allowing himself access to the faculty of daydream. The facts were plain: she was highborn, he a peasant, the smile something perfectly ordinary and everyday, to show that she was pleased by her servant/pet's efficiency. There was, he thought as though through gritted teeth, nothing else to it. In her eyes, he was a cypher, completely beneath notice. Over and over, he cried it to himself, “Forget her, ignore her.”

He dreamed that night that he rode across the plains of Color, and that as he rode, another rode with him. Her eyes were dark, her lashes long and profuse, and her lips were pained a gaudy red. He couldn't remember afterwards if she reminded him of someone — certainly she held no echo of the Marchesa in her appearance. Yet, whoever the rider might be, she and he were so close in spirit that they were virtually one person, one mind, thinking the same thoughts, needing no words to express their closeness, their mutual accord. There was a wistful happiness about that ride, something he had never felt in his waking life, a feeling like loneliness, but without its bitterness. And later, he took her hand, and with a fearful heart, kissed her on the lips. To his surprise and joy, she did not react with anger for his presumption, but it seemed that someone behind him did take offence at the action, for he felt a rough hand on his shoulder. He whirled around, with heart pounding, and stomach twisted, and full of spleen, to greet, bleary-eyed, an elaborately uniformed footman

“It is four o'clock, sir. I have brought warm water and shaving tackle for you.” he indicated a jug that steamed on the table by the window, “I shall return in a .few minutes with your breakfast.”

Caerthemon grunted, rather than snap angrily at this man who only did his job, and apparently this was considered sufficient indication of wakefulness, for the servant departed, and when he heard the door shut, Caerthemon climbed out of bed, and sat down on its edge, shivering a little in the cold of the predawn. What was his life, he mused, that he must resort to dreams to be happy — as soon smoke the gum of the poppy or eat magic mushrooms. What real difference would it make if he burned himself out in five years and not fifty ? He sighed, and began to dress.

The breakfast brought to him was more elaborate than he was used to, in his bachelor rooms in Aden's Keep: porridge, toast, bacon and kidneys and eggs, and a pot of fragrant tea, but he rose to the occasion none the less, eating quickly and methodically, taking only large mouthfuls, and was all but done, when a knock came at the door.

“Come in,” he called, around a mouthful of toast.

It was the Marchesa, today wearing a mail shirt, over a heavy leather jacket, and thick leather riding breeches, tucked into high boots of calfhide, stained black and decoratively studded with steel. At her waist was strapped a sword that trailed almost to the ground, and she carried in her hand a large padded steel helmet, painted grey-green, with an eagle in white, small and stylized, above the rudimentary peak.

He swallowed the mouthful, and stood up, nearly knocking his chair flying.

“Good morning, Sorcerer.”

“Good morning, My Lady,” he replied, trying not to cough or choke on the last crumbs.

“You are ready?”

“One minute — just finish eating.” He proceeded to the task, a last mouthful of toast, and the last of the tea, and whilst he was occupied, the Marchesa spoke.

“I suppose from the hour, that you do not intend to spend the night at the City Reborn. Where do we ride for — Berner's Ummage, Abbot's Umbry, or Aden's Keep?”

“Aden's Keep, as the Colors are better for me, and as that will save a day on the journey.”

“Are you anxious to be rid of me, Sorcerer?”

“No, only anxious for your safety. I prefer not to be out too often in Color, for all that I have power there. Have you no-one in your employ with the Talent?”

“Only myself — and what little of the Talent I have is untrainable. As red was in flux, we rode here in its absence, leaving us only a short gallop through orange between Shayvale and High Silvers.”

“Why did you not travel to Lions? Then you would not have risked even that, nor would we have to rise so early today.”

“Indeed, but to come here avoids my taking the hospitality of Milord Gayell of Lions, who is not fit to run a low tavern, let alone a city, and who thinks an alliance with my family would be welcome. Even if he were not a fool of the first water, I'd not want to run a city — my estate is trouble enough, and it is self sufficient — but towns — all guilds, and tradesmen, and making sure the people are fed… Come on, follow me.”

Caerthemon followed, mesmerized by the swinging of her long silvergold locks. So small and vulnerable she looked, yet he was sure she was the better fighter of the two, his only superiority born of his binding of Color, and away from that, he was weak. Bemused by thoughts of her, he didn't concentrate on where they went, only noticing that they moved down, into the vaults. There, past the racks of wine bottles, and great casks, they came to a heavy door, guarded by two of the Marchesa's personal retinue.

They unbolted the door on her command, and she, and Caerthemon went through into a room, lit only from a small barred window near the ceiling of one wall. Through it, the sky was red with the coming dawn, and the pinkish glow fell on a grey iron strongbox, heavily locked and sealed in black wax. The seal bore an escutcheon, with three stars in chief, and at fess point, a castle resting on cloud. An eagle, like the one on the Marchesa's helm, sat above it as a crest.

The locks clicked heavily, and the bolts boomed as they were flung from their sockets. As the door opened, the seal broke with a faint brittle snap, and one half fell free to clatter on the floor.

There was only one object in the box, the like of which Caerthemon had never seen. A device, somewhat like an elaborate crutch, its shoulder-rest and handle in delicately chased bronze, the main shaft bright steel, and tipped with a red glassy rod, which the Marchesa wielded more like a weapon than anything else, as if it were an arbalest with an invisible bow.

As if to explain, she remarked cryptically, “I make my own thunderbolts, sorcerer. This weapon was my father's before I rose to his estate, and his father's, and his father's before him, and so on back until the house of Tremsel was begun, and before even the Colors came, like the helm I wear, as Colonel the Crew's Militia. That title predates even our Marchesate — you may use it if you wish.”

It was early afternoon, the City Reborn some miles behind them, and to their right, the west, of their route. Green veiled them, and though the Color was the first to become subject to his will, Caerthemon was uneasy, with a sense of a presence he could not account for.

He wove a simple patterning of hand and mind that would allow him clear sight into the underlying reality, and see it superimposed on the uncertain shapes of the mist. In that doubled view, he could see that they were passing through patchily wooded grassland, and, far away to his right, a lone figure on horseback that rode parallel to their path

He called his to escorts to a halt, and rode back to the main column which the Marchesa led.

“Trouble?” she asked.

“Could be. I want to scout around a bit. Let's halt here awhile, and I shall summon some Greyland — you can be safe there without me.”

He dismounted, and drew his sword, its steel dulled in the sickly green mists. He began the major binding that would push the green continuum locally from conjuction with reality. His lips moved, and sound was patterned, in his mind, lights moved, leaving burning streaks that were intricately woven, and so reality was bound, and his hands moved, wielding the sword, and space was brought under his commanding. A cold, fishlike grey glow hung like a flame to the blade as he waved it, but under the binding of truesight, he could see that clean sunlight burned brightly from its burnished metal.

He held the sword high, and it dazzled his eyes. His chant rose to a crescendo, the mind patterns locked, and flared, and he brought his blade down in a sweeping blow, burying the point inches into the ground, and he righted it. Grey blossomed forth, and past them, to form an island of sunshine and blue sky, some one hundred feet across, centered on the sword.

“OK. The grey should persist for a couple of hours if no one touches the sword. If I do not return before then, run for the City Reborn. You should make it. Now can anyone lend me a sword?”

The Marchesa offered hers, and though it was rather short for him, Caerthemon accepted it, and thanked her, and taking his horse, rode off.

Entering Color again, was like passing a physical barrier, nearly erasing the already fast-fading webs of truesight. He gathered those dissipating strands, and cleaned the noise, re-impressing information on the fabric of space. In the unveiling of the mists, Caerthemon sought the rider, and saw him, halted on a small knoll , crowned by half a dozen pines, outcropping from a larger mass to the south and west, and he guessed that his recent conjuration had attracted the stranger's attention.

Caerthemon circled around as he rode, entering the trees the south, by a rudimentary path that seemed to lead to the mound. As hoofbeats sounded ahead of him, he pulled his horse off the track, and waited. The horseman who rode into sight was younger even than Caerthemon himself, with only the lightest of down yet on his cheeks. He wore plate armour, and both surcoat and shield were green, their fields strewn with white teardrops, sword was at his waist, and a lance couched by his side. He seemed acutely uncomfortable.

“Good day, Sir Knight.” Caerthemon's greeting was friendly, but all the same, he gathered up his power about him, lest he be attacked.

The youth was woken abruptly from daydream, and challenged Caerthemon for his name.

“Lord Sorcerer Caerthemon. And you?”

“The knight who follows that Lady unknowing.”

“And who be she?”

“Virginia, Marchesa of Tremsel. I have a small portrait of her, my Lord.”

He took a package, wrapped in oilskins from one saddle-bag, and opening it, produced a small picture in a frame. It was a simple portrait, in pastels, a line drawing in white, and brown and black on the natural beige of the surface, but contained all the subtle beauty of its subject.

“She is lovely indeed, there is no doubt of that, but why do you not ride with her?”

“She is above my station, but as the son of a merchant, it is not fitting that I take service with her. No, sir, I will make do with my love. I see her every day, happy, angry or sad, always beautiful. Let me take my leave, for already they will be departing.”

“No, I ride with the Marchesa as guard and guide. Come with me and ride as a fellow traveller.”

He appeared sorely tempted, but declined the offer, saying that the Marchesa did not recognise him but should she once see him, then she would know him later, and might bid him gone.

“You will say nothing of this to her, Lord Sorcerer?”

“No, good Knight, I swear I shall not. Fare well.”

Whoever the madman was, he had little respect for his life, to come alone into the lands of magic, enough to earn Caerthemon's respect and silence, and his quest was strange enough to occupy Caerthemon's mind as he rode back to the party, before deciding that such a route was not for him.

It was evening, and they were but five miles from Aden's Keep, and crossing the most dangerous terrain on their route, for the color of the land was blue, which dominated his own, but which bestrode the shortest route. By the plain sight of his eyes they seemed to walk along a band of crystal, stretching straight as a die for the city, and bordered by creeping leprous growths, but in reality, he saw a broken highway from before the advent of the Colors, at which the trees and grasses ate.

They had come, Caerthemon judged, to the center of the zone, when all hell seemed to break loose. A chorus of bestial howls arose just beyond the range of visibility, but in the real universe there was nothing. He relaxed the binding of sight, and gathered deeply into the chain of Colors for yellow, to cloak himself in a nimbus of it, and rode on, awaiting attack

And it came, but not as he had expected Instead of a physical attack, the assault was directed at his mind a powerful driving force seeming to blow him to the ground. He threw up barriers, hastily woven and constructed to try and meet that attack. They robbed it of its impetus, but it continued to pound away, ready to capitalize on the slightest break in his concentration.

Then, the physical attack, a horde of the misshapen creatures that had been called trolls. He burned them down in bolts of yellow fire than burst into life about them, but their press was too much, the Colors wrongly aligned, for him to hope to stem the tide and preserve his mind intact. From beside him, the Marchesa joined the battle, her weapon pouring a burning needle of red light into the approaching ranks, harvesting them like grain and still they came.

Another wave arose behind him, and the Marchesa turned to cover that one, her soldiers advancing to help Caerthemon by direct melee, their iron weapons wreaking their own toll, but for all their aid, they were driven back.

“Who is it attacks?” Caerthemon called, aware that the attack was too purposeful for unled trolls to carry out.

I,” called a slender bony creature, mounted on some travesty of a horse. He recognised the breed, few and fickle, these demon princes of the Color realms rarely ventured into the overlap of their own domains and those of men, but were no less dread for that. If he had bound blue to his will, then he would likely become a client of this demon, but as he did not, then destruction would surely be his fate. He could only try to bargain for the lives under his protection.

“Spare my companions, Great Lord of Power. They work not your worlds, only I.”

He watched in silence as a rider came up behind the creature, a rider in green, with sword raised in hand.

You lie!” the denial was acid, burning with flames of hell, “She binds Color!

His skeletal hand pointed at the Marchesa.

I will take her!” Maniacal now, the tone rising to a screech — “Hah! — I will have my way with her, for years. She will live and return to you, but she will no longer be beautiful.

The cackling died as a sword of good steel cleft the creature nigh in twain, from shoulder to belly. Even as it crumbled under the virtue of the metal, it turned, and in a tone truly demonic, howled “DIE!

Caerthemon braced himself for the blow, but it did not come. He opened his eyes. The trolls, disinterested, were wandering away from the two horses and their fallen riders. With the Marchesa following, Caerthemon ran over to them.

The demon lord was naught but dust, but when he removed the helm, the knight still lived, though blood poured from his nose and ears. He smiled weakly up at Caerthemon.

“I did. better… not to ride… with you… Lord Sorcerer… and I rescued…her.”

The sorcerer explained briefly the story of his meeting with the knight, and the Marchesa knelt by the fallen boy.

“No — must thank… you, Lady… for your beauty… anything, anything at all.. Lady Virginia… remember Duncan Petarson… I lived for your beauty…, ransomed… your heavenly…beauty….”

He sighed, and his head lolled back. Virginia kissed the still lips, and wept, her lovely face distorted in her grief. Caerthemon stood, and turned his face. He could never match that performance, for he was unashamedly a coward, and, so failing, would never be considered worthy by her. Tears stung his eyes, tears of helpless frustration at his own condition. Standing by the body of one who died a hero, he knew that he himself failed in all that was important.

The tears were still there the next morning as he watched the Marchesa's party ride out from Aden's Keep, under another's escort. Now, though he longed to just gaze at her beauty, he felt shame at the slightest thought of her. Even the portrait he had stolen from the dead man's belongings, he stood to face the wall. He knew that unlike Duncan, his life would now be spent in avoiding the Marchesa, a live coward with bitter heart. Only his fear of death prevented him from suicide, or courting disaster, condemning him to linger alone a while longer in private hell, without love, without purpose.

Yes, this was inspired by the background of the old SPI game Sorcerer; about the most use I got out of the game (the actual mechanics being rather cranky). This is the first in internal chronology, but the second in order of writing. I wrote the last one first, then started the backstory at the beginning; and that is the order in which I'll publish them. See the afterword to the last in the chronology for more afterword

© Steve Gilham 1976

Episode 2 — Into the Mystic