Wizard Bingelgretson focused his spell through his facilitator and spoke the release word clearly. There was a tingling in the air as a cloud of smoke flattened out and developed a shining surface. A silver surround crawled around that and met itself. The wizard lifted the new speaking-mirror down and nodded casually at his facilitator.
“A good focus. Now, let’s do it again. I’ll send the second mirror to Wizard Herrtonington and we’ll be able to communicate at will.”
The rather thin cat made a plaintive sound. “Wizard, focusing your magic is tiring, we should do this in the morning.”
The wizard scowled. “Are you or are you not my facilitator? Your job is to take my magic and refine it in a narrowed focus to do as I require, that’s your job description. Now get on with it.”
Wearily Jerris the cat focused again. The second mirror popped into being and was laid down on the workbench while Bingelgretson crooned over his workmanship.
“Yes, yes, a superb job if I do say so myself. Yes, my craftsmanship cannot be bettered. Herrtonington will envy this when he receives it.”
“If you’ve finished admiring our work may I eat and then go to bed now?”
Bingelgretson nodded absent-mindedly. “Yes, I suppose so. There’s food in the kitchen, and I won’t need you again tonight. But be ready first thing in the morning, I plan to produce more mirrors and on Nonesday we’re going to the Anver conference.”
The exhausted cat bit back a tart comment and headed for the kitchen. He was seldom given sufficient food to meet his wizard’s demands, and he was starving. It was every bit as tiring being a facilitator as it was being a wizard, but his person never seemed to think of that. Jerris knew he was valued, but it wasn’t for himself, just for his ability, and there were times when it was as if he were a machine, something that wouldn’t tire, or protest or require feeding – and certainly not appreciation.
Nonesday saw cat and wizard on the way to the Anver conference. For Jerris it was a complete bore. Some forty wizards crowded into a large room with food and drink-laden tables along both sides. Their facilitator-cats mostly sat under the tables to avoid the trampling feet, and listened to their partners’ chatter.
“Yes, mine is so effective, why, over the past three days I’ve created six speaking-mirrors, as well as two nightcaps for the Duke, and a reduction vest for his Lady. Jerris focuses my magic so well that none is wasted, not even the slightest overflow.”
“Yes? Not bad, but mine managed five builder spells incorporated in their cornerstones, four strong-bridge spells on their keystones, and a ford-protection spell keyed to posts on either side.”
Bingelgretson’s cat winced. Wonderful, that was quite a lot more focus than his wizard had listed and he wouldn’t be pleased to be outdone.
He was right. They returned home and Jerris was addressed early next morning. “Herrtonington is an arrogant, supercilious, braggart. Him and his cursed facilitator. Today I plan to outdo him.”
Jerris made an attempt at reason. “Sir, he was lying…”
“Lying? Can you prove that? I could bring him up before the wizard’s council if…”
“Well, not exactly lying, just misleading you.”
“In what way?”
“You said that we had done our work over three days – as we did. He, however, claimed his feats and they were done, but not over the three days he implied. It took him a full seven-day and his cat was unable to work for another two days while he rested.”
“Maybe, but everyone heard what he said. They’ll all think that he can do better, faster work than I can. Now, be ready, first we’ll create six builder spells incorporated in their cornerstones, six strong-bridge spells on their keystones, a strengthen-curtain-wall spell for Duke Monmanth’s castle.” Binglegretson rubbed his hands together. “And we’ll do them in the next two days. I’ll show that braggart he isn’t half the wizard he thinks he is, prepare!”
The cat hesitated.
“What’s wrong now?”
“I’m not sure I can achieve that many facilitations in so short a time.”
The wizard snorted. “That’s your problem, I can always get another facilitator. Begin…” He linked his hands, pulled them apart slowly and magic grew in the gap.
That night Jerris slept the sleep of the completely exhausted. He’d spoken no more than the truth, he doubted that any of his kind could do that much work in two days, but Binglegretson was determined and a facilitator in his first life must obey his wizard. He did as he was told, but by mid-afternoon his focus was slipping. He steadied himself, reached deep into his reserves of strength and hung on for the final spelled keystone. Then he sagged to the floor.
Binglegretson nudged him with a foot. “We still have that strengthen-curtain-wall spell to do. Get up and focus.” The second nudge was closer to a kick. “Apply yourself.”
Magic grew between Binglegretson’s hands and the weary cat did his best, but he had nothing left. Binglegretson shouted the invocation and the rising power back-lashed through the cat, who went limply to the floor as his abilities and consciousness faded.
He woke to find himself lying on a transfer stone. Binglegretson eyed him sourly. “You burned out, I’m sending you where you won’t gossip about me.”
Before Jerris could move or speak he was abruptly sprawled on wet ground, it was cold, dark, and his head hurt. He tried to stand, fell back, and slept. Morning gave promise of a fine day and his senses reached out as soon as he woke. Nothing. He had no idea where he was, but he couldn’t stay here. He staggered to his four paws and walked forward. The region in which he’d found himself seemed to be a mixture of farmland with large forest areas. He found water, but any attempt to approach a farm was met with barking dogs or cats in attack-mode. He plodded on, until weak with hunger he collapsed by a small spring and cursed the man who’d been his wizard.
Bad enough Binglegretson had been violently competitive, but to be so careless of his facilitator that Jerris had been burned out and discarded against all the laws of wizardry, no wonder Jerris had been dumped elsewhere along the world-chain. Had his wizard intended him to die? Something in Jerris said that he had. He mourned his work, his world, and the man who should have cherished him. If he survived and found a place here for himself, he’d never again trust a human, or help one in any way.
“Oh, you poor thing, what happened to you, little cat?” Gentle hands scooped him up. “Did someone abandon you? Come home with me and I’ll take care of you.”
Jerris was carried to where a cottage stood in a clearing. A neat vegetable garden was lined down one side, while along the track were fruit trees and berry bushes, with a scattering of scented shrubs and patches of flowers. A herb garden lay along the other side of the cottage and the scents of everything perfumed the air pleasantly. Jerris relaxed slightly, all the indications were that this human would not ill-treat him, not that he expected it, a facilitator was – into his mind flooded the remembrance that he was no longer a facilitator. He was an ordinary cat and could be killed at a whim.
Involuntarily he mewed. The hands cradled him more closely. “Nearly home. Don’t worry, there’s water and food for you, and a blanket to keep you warm.” The voice took on an edge. “How could anyone dump you out here to die? But it’s okay, you can stay with me if you want to, or I’ll find you a home somewhere.” A hand moved away, and he heard the creak of a door opening. “Here we are, boy, home.”
Jerris was placed on a soft blanket, the human bustled about and in a few minutes bowls containing food and clean water were placed by his head. Jerris ate, drank, and lay back, drifting off to sleep. For two weeks that was his life as he gathered strength again. People came and went, he heard them talking and gradually understood that the human was an herbalist. She had no magic but knowledge, and she also traded the fruit, berries, and vegetables that she grew.
She owned her cottage, furnished it comfortably, and was never short of food, or respectable clothing. In the world from which Jerris had been exiled she would have been middle-class, a professional herbalist with her own magic. This one had nothing he could facilitate – even if his ability hadn’t been burned out. Once she realized that he’d be tossed out again. He wailed at the thought.
“Poor cat, what made you meow?” He was scooped up and cuddled. “It’s all right, nothing will hurt you here, I’ll protect you.” She sat him up on her lap and looked into his eyes. “But if you’re staying you’ll need a name. Something of your own.”
Jerris projected. If the woman had any talent at all she’d pick up the sending. Laia felt the intensity of his stare but understood none of it.
“Hmmm,” She laughed. “I know, I’ll call you Bloss. That’s half for Blossom, and half because cats tend to be the boss of wherever they are. Bloss? Bloss – yes, that’s your name, you’re my Blossom and Boss.”
Jerris settled again under the stroking hands. It could have been worse, at least the human understood that cats were both beautiful and commanding. It wasn’t his real name but it would do while he honored her by living in her cottage. Memory struck again. He did her no honor by being here, not a burned-out facilitator in the home of an untalented human. They were well matched – until his ability returned and he could find another wizard. Meanwhile he’d remain in the cottage and maybe catch a mouse or two.
Several times in the next few months Jerris almost set out to leave, before changing his mind again. Let him learn of those who lived nearby, and what this world was like. He caught the occasional mouse, and learned. Amongst other thing he discovered that this world had house imps. Laia’s cottage had one and he was surprised when he met the creature late one night in the kitchen.
“An imp? In this world? I thought there was no magic here?”
“Then you thought wrong, didn’t you? Many people here believe in us and leave out a saucer of milk. We foster their belief cautiously, we tidy the buildings, clean them, bring minor luck to those who live within, but they don’t see us.”
“There’s no magic here though?”
Jerris gaped. “Do you say that there is?”
“I say that you make too many assumptions.” The imp made a small jump and disappeared while Jerris growled after him. What was that about?
He redoubled his wanderings after the human was safely in bed. There was no scent of magic clinging to those who called on the herb woman. He studied them, increasingly irked by their attitude. Some were rude, as if they expected more than they received, Jerris thought. Why would the human accept such treatment?
The house imp snorted when he was asked. “Laia is gentle. She can be firm about treatment, but have you ever heard her raise her voice?” Jerris hadn’t. “Well, then, nor have I and this has been my house since her grandparents’ time.” He changed the subject. “And what about you, are you going to stay here?”
“I’m a trained facilitator. Yes, I burned out, but often the ability returns. Once that happens I’ll find a strong wizard, someone who’ll value what I bring to his art.”
“And leave Laia?”
Jerris stared. “What use would a facilitator be to her?”
“She loves you.”
Jerris preened his whiskers abruptly. “Nonsense, once I’m gone she’ll get an ordinary cat. Humans value one’s abilities, what do I do here apart from bringing her a mouse now and again? Any cat could do that. No, when my talent returns I shall find someone with power and if you think she’ll mourn me you’re wrong.”
The house imp eyed him, opened his mouth, shut it again and gave one of the jumps that saw him vanish in mid-air. Jerris looked after him. Funny creature, fancy thinking that the human cared for a cat, now value, that was a different matter. When he went Laia would be free to get a commonplace cat. She might even get herself a dog, this cottage was isolated, anyone could come here… he found that the fur on his back was standing up and he stretched. What did he care about a human’s isolation?
He explored, watched Laia’s visitors, and talked to the imp. Many nights before she took her candle upstairs to the tiny bedroom Laia would write out her herbal recipes with Jerris asleep in her lap. He accepted her invitations, she was soft, warm, comfortable and her hands stroked pleasantly. Why not make use of her? After he’d been there a year he discovered that the imps had minor magic. He asked about it.
“It’s little enough, but it serves us in our cleaning to pay for the milk we’re left.”
“Could you do more?”
The imp shrugged. “We do well with what we have. Why? Are you thinking that we could give you back your ability?”
“No.” It had been idle questioning, but now that the subject was raised… “Could you?”
“A working like that would take many of us. Succeed, and we’d strip ourselves of magic for a moon. We’d be more likely to fail and lose what we have to no purpose.”
Jerris nodded. Or, to be blunt, the imps weren’t going to take the risk for a cat that could offer them nothing, had no abilities of his own, and could move on at any time.
Morning four months later brought a human male hammering on the cottage door. Medium black hair, medium black eyes, and a deep black temper.
“Open this door, woman, you cheated me.”
Laia opened the door. “Sir, in what way did I do this?”
He strode past her, shouting and snapping like a bad-tempered dog, listing her crimes as he saw them. “You gave me a love potion, you said it should incline my love towards me if she dabbed it upon her throat and wrists, you said that if I drank the other potion it would make her like me, you gave me a salve and bade me spread it in certain places so that she would desire me. She is cold, she will not walk and talk with me, you cheated me and I’ll have my coin back.”
In silence Laia walked from the room, to return with a number of coins, which she held out. “Your payment is returned, sir. Now please go. It seems my craft can do nothing for you since you did little of what I suggested and listened to less of what I told you.”
“Bow politely and leave,” a harsh voice said from behind Laia’s former customer. Jerris who’d been listening recognized Master Harvis, Laia’s friend from two farms away. The customer scowled, but Harvis’s shoulders were broad and his arms brawny. The customer summed him up – bowed politely and left.
Harvis watched him out of sight. “What was that about?”
Laia sighed. “He loves a girl in Alling who’ll have nothing of him. He asked me what he should do and I gave him potions and advice.” Harvis raised his brows in question.
“I gave him a pleasant scent to give her and said that he should pick flowers to go with it. He gave her only the scent. I gave him a potion to swill around in his mouth each night and morning after eating, since his breath stinks and that would cleanse his mouth. Apparently he merely drank it. I gave him a salve and instructed that he should bathe every second day and apply it to his armpits and groin since he never bathes and his body also stinks. He used it without bathing. He demanded his money back and I repaid him.”
“And he then made threats,” Harvis said thoughtfully.
Laia smiled. “An angry man says more than he means. Don’t worry about me, Harvis. But if you think you should do something, loan me one of your dogs to lie by my door a few nights. If Master Jaden returns a hound will make him think twice.”
Jerris hissed to himself. A large dog, not something that he wanted around the cottage. He had it anyhow but found that the dog was used to cats, a polite pleasant beast that harassed neither cat nor house imp, and fawned affectionately on Laia. Jerris noticed its prowling outside after dark and approved for Laia’s sake – until the third night when there was a strange silence. He padded to the small window and looked out. In the light of the full moon he saw the dog lying still, a half-eaten piece of meat beside it.
Few cats are fools. He meowed softly for the house imp and it came. Jerris spoke quickly and the imp listened.
“There’s little I can do. I cannot make Laia fight. I cannot keep the human out if he wills to be in. I cannot fight him, my magic isn’t strong enough.”
Jerris nodded. “But you can do something if you will.” The imp waited. Jerris spoke quickly and it nodded. “That I can and will do. And I know another possibility that may aid. Stand motionless while I work, after that it is up to you, cat.”
Jerris stood, feeling magic begin to settle over him. The imp jumped and vanished while Jerris waited by the door. It splintered open and Jaden crept in, picking up the motionless cat as he went past. Laia woke to find herself held down with an arm across her throat, a voice murmuring in her ear. She began to struggle and Jaden laughed.
“I have your cat, fight me and I’ll gut him and you can watch him die.”
Laia sobbed once. “No, let Bloss go and I’ll do whatever you wish.” Jerris could smell her fear and disgust. Her voice, however, remained firm. “Anything, just don’t hurt Bloss.”
Jerris felt something he had never known before grow within him. She stank of fear and horror, of disgust and hatred, but for his life she would allow herself to be used against her every inclination. Jaden made a movement in the half-dark and he smelled her sudden pain as the man spoke.
“That’s a taste in case you get too comfortable. You won’t be using that wrist for while. Now, take off your…”
The magic settled into its shaped configuration and Jerris sprang. The imp’s gift had lengthened and sharpened the cat’s claws and teeth, and he hoped that would be enough. His claws sank into the man’s back, his teeth deep into the thick neck. Jaden screamed and bucked himself free of woman and cat. Laia fell back gasping. In the tiny bedroom Bloss was fighting for their lives, screaming the long eerie battle-cry of a cat, to which surrender is unknown. Laia managed to light her candle and saw that while Bloss was inflicting considerable damage Jaden was still the likely victor.
The man screamed again as claws raked, and snatched too quickly for Jerris to dodge. Jaden laughed, gripping the struggling cat by the scruff. “You and your pet, I’ll teach you both.” He flung the cat against the wall and Jerris slid down the wood planking, basically unhurt but stunned by the impact. Lying on the floor he smelled what the man could not know. Laia’s fury, not for herself, but for Bloss. Her scream echoed the fighting screams the cat had uttered and in her hand the heavy brass candlestick curved forward with so much force that she grunted with the effort.
The candlestick base caught Jaden across the nape of his neck, he dropped and did not move. Laia fell to her knees. “Oh, Bloss, my brave one.” She caught Jerris up, tears falling onto his fur. “Don’t die, I don’t want to lose you, please, Bloss?”
Downstairs, encouraged by a house imp, a barking dog led a man down the path. Footsteps thundered through the door. “Laia? Are you there? What’s happened?”
Jerris managed a faint purr. Harvis to the rescue – just a little late, but he’d be useful.
He was. He checked Jaden, found him dead, and called the law. Later he sent his younger brother to mend the door, and his sister to clean the blood from the bedroom walls and floor. In court he testified to Jaden’s threats, and had a knowledgeable man swear that the dog left as Laia’s protection had been deliberately poisoned, while a healer spoke of Laia’s bruises and broken wrist. The court agreed unanimously that their herbalist had acted in self-defense and Laia went home to her cottage.
A week later the house imp spoke to Jerris. “When do you think that you’ll be leaving, I know your ability has returned.”
“Yes, it may have been the magic you shared that started the return.”
“Therefore I ask again, when do you leave?”
“I am uncertain.”
The house imp exaggerated his surprise. “You always said you could only be valued by a wizard. You said Laia was a human of no magic and that she’d find an ordinary cat of as much use to her. You said she wouldn’t miss you.”
Jerris growled. “I know what I said.”
“Then when do you leave?”
“Very well, imp, if you will have it aloud. I’m staying. Laia loves me. She would have let that human do as he willed to save me. I smelled her pain, her disgust at his touch, but she would have suffered whatever he would do to her to keep me safe. And when the human hurt me she killed him to save me. How can I leave? I owe her.”
Unseen the house imp smiled. “I see, it’s for a debt, and is that all, cat?”
“No, she loves me, I won’t grieve her by going away.” His voice roughened. “And – I love her too, and I will stay with her so long as we live.” His teeth showed in a cat grin. “A facilitator is not an ordinary cat, we live long. I could be here for very many years. Think about that, imp.”
He trotted up the stairs to curl up by his human. She liked to have him there and it pleased him too. Which was the aim of any cat, to please himself. If it pleased him to stay, he would, if it pleased him to tolerate that nosy house imp, he would, and if it pleased him to love the human – that was his right too. And no one had better argue!