Jim (Baron Sir James Eckert, Lord of Malencontri Castle and its environs, and also now uppermost-level apprentice in Magick) woke two hours before moonset; and rose from bed, going to the nearest of the Solar windows to look out.
Behind him in their bed his wife, Angie (Lady Angela),slept peacefully. Beyond the window it was still full night, but cloudless and moon-bright. From just under the top of Malencontri's tower, where the Solar's large, single room was, the full moon itself was still up, and everything far below him stood out clearly.
The tall trees beyond the cleared space surrounding the castle blended together in an unbroken wall of blackness; the stubbled ground of the cleared space showed a faint shine on its patches of grass, evidence that the night's rain had stopped only recently.
As he watched, two figures, bent under the loads on their backs, came out of the woods to his right and cut across the cleared space at an angle to enter the woods again on its further side. They walked slowly, heavily, one figure taller than the other, the large bundles riding high on their shoulders.
The prospect of dawn must have roused them, with its hope of sun to dry their worn clothes--for clearly all they owned was carried on their shoulders now--and put a little heat into their bones. So they had roused from whatever forest nest they had made in the rain for the night and were once more moving on; to what they did not know, but someplace better than this, and much better than wherever they had left.
Standing before the six-inch squares of glass that made up the panes in the Solar window, warmed by the blazing fireplace, refueled even while he and Angie slept by the servant who, with a man-at-arms, was always on duty outside their door, Jim felt a chill go through him.
They grew more numerous every day, these drifters. Running from news of the bubonic plague, now in France--always traveling west, always so poor they did not even have a donkey to carry their belongings, and with no real goal in sight--driven on only by the instinct for survival. The chill deepened in Jim. There they trudged, cold, undoubtedly hungry, if not starving. All doors were closed to them out of a fear of the very sickness they fled from.
No community would take them in, for the same fear. Some member of the Church might put oat food for them, but otherwise could not help--probably would not help. They had probably given up hope of aid, even from Heaven.
Faith and Love, those two great Pillars of Strength in the medieval world--available to even the poorest--were almost surely lost to them by now. Faith, that offered hope even beyond the grave, would have been drowned in the animal effort to live. Love, in all its meanings of this time--love of wife, children, comrades, community, and country--all the ways the word wove together in the tapestry of medieval society, had once made the fabric of their lives. All gone now.
What was left now was no more than the blind urge to run, and under that instinct, they trudged mindlessly westward, ever westward, like cattle before the driving, level snow in the fierce wind of a blizzard.
Jim remembered how he had lied about being a knight and a baron when he and Angie--now his wife--came to this medieval world, a far different version of the Earth into which he had been born and grown up. He stood here now, warm, protected and fed as what he had claimed to be. It was true he had done what was required of someone with the rank he had claimed. He had followed the rules. He had fought with the proper weapons when necessary, according to the customs here--not well, but well enough to get by. But his attempts to live had been rewarded. Those two out then had not There was no more fairness in this time and place than there had been in the world of his twentieth-century birth.
The ones he watched might reach the sea eventually---it was not a great distance from them now--and there would be nothing for them there, either. What would they do then? Drown themselves like lemmings in their spring migration? There seemed no sense or reason to their keeping on.
The chill was deep in him now, and he knew what had driven it mere: the question that had returned again and again to him the last two years of those few he and Angie had spent in this historic period of a world almost exactly like the one in which they had grown up.
Will Angie and I ever really belong here?
And even as he faced that question once again, Carolinus, his Master-in-Magick, appeared beside him.
"Good! You're up!" he said. His red robe, like all his robes, was worn thin, and would stay that way until, in a less absent-minded moment, he would recollect the fact and make it clean and new again. "Jim, I've only a short lime to tell you something important"
"Shh!" said Jim. "Angie's asleep!"
"She will not wake while we talk," said Carolinus, "and, Jim, try practicing at least a little proper respect to senior Magickians. You may need it soon. You may now be in the last stage of apprenticeship, but you're not yet a fellow member to a Magickian--let alone one like me. Must I remind you I'm not only the most senior of Magickians, but one of the only three AAA+ Magickians in the world?"
"Of course not," said Jim. "I never forget But I thought we could drop formality in private."
"Sometimes. Sometimes not! This is not one of those times. I come to you at this hour in person, that no other Magickian might chance to overhear, and, by the way, with a ward around us now through which nothing could be heard, to privately give you information it is against the laws of the Collegiate of Magickians for a member to share--two laws in particular I, myself, helped write. It was I who woke you just now, I who then gave you some moments in which to become fully awake, so that you would fully grasp the importance of what I have to say."
"Sorry," said Jim. "But look, Carolinus, I was deep asleep just ten minutes ago, and about to go back to it. Wouldn't you rather tell me in the morning--"
"Jim, listen to me! You must tell no one--not even Angie. There are things no apprentice should ever be tole beforehand. One is that his Master-in-Magick has proposed him for full membership--until the Collegiate has agreed to consider him. I'm telling you this now--and the other matter that brings me here--because the problem is dire, and I believe I have seen in you a caacity no other apprentice has ever shown."
"I see," said Jim, fully awake to the conversation now and at last impressed by what Carolinus was telling him. He had never heard the elder magickian speak to him with quite this much urgency before. "All right, if it's that serious I won't even tell her--though we generally don't keep serets from each other--"
"This is not your secret!"
Carolinus glared at Jim for a moment. He seemed to grow in stature.
"I understand," Jim said.
"Then engrave this thought in your mind. Whatever must be done to prevent it, whatever it costs you, me or anyone else--the King must not die! The King must not die!"
"You've mentioned this before," Jim said. "But never this seriously. Is there some immediate danger--" Jim began to ask, but it was too late.
Carolinus was gone.
Quietly Jim went back to bed and slid carefully under the covers. Angie did not stir. The image of the two refugees, drifting westward, was still with him; riding on top of it in his mind was what Carolinus had said. The part about his now being considered for membership in the Collegiate was welcome--he had ideas of what he wanted to do with that membership--but it was no great surprise. They would have had to do something about him eventually.
Although he had no direct evidence of the fact, he was sure that no other apprentice-rated magician came within a country mile of him in terms of magical abilities--not anywhere in this world, though that was not really due to his having an innate genius where magic was concerned. It was to do with the advantage of having grown up in a world of scientific method and knowledge more than five hundred years in the future of this time.
Carolinus' unusually powerful concern over the life of the King was something else again. There must be not only reason for it, but reason that deeply concerned the worldwide Collegiate of Magickians itself. According to the history that had been his undergraduate and graduate study where he had come from, Edward IV was not due to die for years yet.
But--he reminded himself--events here often did not exactly match what he had learned in the world of his birth.
This last thought gnawed at his mind, colored by the emotion of seeing the drifters. He was tired, in need of sleep, but sleep seemed impossible.
Thought succeeded thought Possibility followed possibility. Mental scenarios in which he dealt with one wild situation after another.…The night-duty servant quietly came in several times to replenish the wood in their fireplace. Each time Jim pretended to be asleep.
At last, he did sleep--but not well--waking to find predawn looking in the windows and Angie gone. He got up, dressed, called in the room servant to make up the bed, and lay down on it.
He fell asleep again. This time he dreamed--until the sound of the door opening woke him a second time, as surely as if it had been an alarm.
"Jim!" said the Lady Angela Eckert, to the further sound of the door closing sharply behind her. She came in, lit now by bright morning sunlight through the Solar windows, moving swiftly to his bedside to stare down at him. "You're as white as a sheet!"
Jim looked up at her from their big bed and answered without thinking. His voice did not come out right. He had meant it to sound humorous. It did not.
"Someone just walked over my grave," he said.
Angie continued to stare at him, her face showing a mixture of expressions: alarmed concern, near anger.
"What on earth do you mean saying a stupid thing like that?" she said finally…but gently now, her face showing only concern as she sat down on the edge of the bed. "Here...