On the third day, they brought the sorcerer to see Alice. She had been curious to see what kind of sorcerer would be so respected by a village who would subject an alleged witch to shackles, beatings – with fist, foot and whip – and repeated immersion in freezing water. When it actually came to it, she had little curiosity left; the shackling, beating and near-drowning had driven it out of her.
The first she knew of the sorcerer’s presence was a warmth which spread from her aching shoulders into her battered body. Slowly, the pain which had overwhelmed her senses receded and the dim, close environs of the stable came back into focus. The straw beneath her felt warm and soft.
Close on the recovery of her senses came the realisation that her shirt had been pulled open and that there was a man leaning over her, with one hand on her breast bone and the other on her bare stomach. She pushed him away with a cry of protest and at once the warmth fled from her; her body ached and the straw scratched painfully at her scourged back.
“Sit up,” the man told her gently but firmly. He was young, no older than Alice. He wore a red robe and a heavy chain, like a mayor’s chain, around his neck.
Reluctantly, Alice obeyed, and the man knelt beside her. He signalled with a wave and a young woman with a hard face and soft eyes brought over a bowl of water. With a slow, practiced hand, the man began to clean the cuts on Alice’s body. Each touch brought fresh warmth.
“I take it this is so I don’t end up bleeding on your wizard,” Alice managed to croak out, while the girl was out changing the water.
The man laid his hand on Alice’s throat and the roughness was smoothed away in a wave of warmth. “I am the wizard,” he told her. “I’m sorry for what they’ve done to you…”
“Alice. I only found out you were here this morning.”
“Some wizard,” she said, and was surprised to find that it did not hurt to speak.
“I’m a healer and a weathermonger, not a seer,” he told her. “They said you were in the Sacred Heart, stealing from the forbidden vaults.”
“Forbidden…” Alice stifled a laugh. “I was looking for medicines; the ones that don’t go off. I managed to get about a dozen syringes and… Ow!”
“Sorry,” the sorcerer said, sincerely. “But you shouldn’t use those words. They’re… bad words.”
“Words aren’t bad,” Alice told him. “You look like an intelligent man…”
“Christopher, and it’s not about intelligence.”
“Isn’t it? Can’t these people tell the difference between medicines and… black magic?” Alice demanded.
“No,” Christopher replied. “They can’t. I barely can and the madness has a much weaker hold on sorcerers. You’re clearly free of it altogether, so you can’t imagine how these people feel. You say syringe” – he winced just to say it – “and they feel a sense of physical revulsion; you show them a… that thing and the rage is instinctive. They can’t remember using the machines, let alone what they are, and they can’t control the hatred.”
Alice shook her head. “But…”
“I don’t understand it,” Christopher told her, “but I can’t deny it either. You need to be very careful, Alice. If you talk about these things then you’ll be branded a witch before you know it.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Alice insisted.
“It’s real,” Christopher told her. “You can’t believe it because you can’t feel it, but look at me. I used to be a student nurse; now I can heal with a touch, not to mention controlling the weather with my thoughts.”
Impossible?” the sorcerer asked. “You can say that if it makes you feel better, but it doesn’t change the fact that you were almost dead when I came in here. You were at the hosp… the Sacred Heart; you must know enough medicine to recognise how ‘impossible’ that is.”
She sighed. “What will they do to me?”
“Press you to death with stones,” the sorcerer said. “If I put in a good word, they’ll probably limit themselves to drowning you. I’m told it’s a better way to die, although how the people who told me could know that…”
Alice doubled over and retched in terror. Somehow, she had managed to convince herself so far that she would survive this experience; that no-one could possibly go so far as to kill her for carrying a syringe and a stethoscope.
“I’m sorry,” Christopher said softly.
She shook her head. “Thank you for not lying to me,” she said.
“I wish I could do more,” he sighed, “but I don’t have that kind of influence. They need me to control the weather, but they don’t like me much.”
“Why not?” she asked. “You must do so much for them.”
“I do, but…” He reached down and grasped the chain about his neck. He lifted it and drew a talisman from beneath his robe.
“That’s an ophthalmoscope,” Alice gasped, drawing another wince from Christopher.
“It’s my talisman,” he explained, “the focus of my power. I don’t know why a piece of… machinery should be necessary to some arcane gift, but it is. They distrust me because of that.”
“So… why are you here?” she asked.
“Because they said that you were,” he explained. “They asked if I’d come and put you to the test, but I couldn’t just…” He shook his head and stood up. “I’m sorry; this probably isn’t helping.”
“No,” she assured him. “It’s good of you. It would be easy to stay away; to ignore me.”
“No,” he replied. “It wouldn’t.”
They sentenced her to death by drowning, with the sentence to be carried out in the morning. Alice found it hard to sleep, especially when a terrible storm blew up in the middle of the night. It must have been close to midnight when a bolt of lightning forked down from the rebellious sky and blasted a hole in the wall of the stables.
“Alice!” Christopher pulled open the door of her stable. She was only tied with ropes now and he handed her a knife. “Cut yourself free; I’ve horses ready, but I need to keep them calm until the storm passes.”
Alice wanted to ask when that was likely to be, but the thunder was already moving into the distance.
“Did… did you do that?” Alice asked as she emerged from the stable.
Christopher was absorbed with the three horses, touching and stroking their noses and whispering to them. It was his companion from earlier, the girl with the kind eyes, who answered.
“He’s a weathermonger,” she reminded Alice.
“Alice, this is my sister, Kate,” Christopher said. “She’ll ride west with you while I lay a false track east. I can disappear in another rain storm and double back to meet you.”
“Why are you doing this?” Alice demanded. “You’re safe here; respected.”
Christopher shrugged and Kate answered: “Everything changes.”