Repeated hammering on the heavy brass door knocker brought no response from within. Mr Attlewood resisted the urge to collapse in a heap on the doorstep and instead brought out his handkerchief once more.
"Looking for Meric?" someone inquired from above. Mr Attlewood glanced nervously upwards. Few professional sorcerers behaved like this. Most kept receptionists instead of talking trees.
"Ador Meric. And I do mostly." the voice added on reflection.
Mr Attlewood peered more closely. The leaves shifted and he caught sight of a face, then the long figure of a boy in his late teens sprawled on his stomach along a thick bough, his chin on his arms, his ankles crossed.
"Are you....?" Mr Attlewood started to ask nervously, then stopped himself. The renowned North Eastern Guardian, the most famed and least seen sorcerer of the western isles could not possible spend his time up trees.
"Is..?" Mr Attlewood began again. Then paused. "What ARE you doing up that tree?"
The boy had the grace to look mildly embarrassed.
"I was supposed to be helping with a charm HE'S doing on a tree. Except I wouldn't shut up. So he slung me out."
"And who is HE, brat?"
The voice was surprisingly young. And the boy seemed far from intimidated as he merely leaned over the branch to grin unrepentantly at the tall, surprisingly ordinary looking man below.
"The cat's mother."
"I seem to remember sending you to study." the man said mildly. The boy winked and clicked his fingers. A book materialised in his hands, which he waved at his master.
With far less drama, the man below opened his hand and the book jumped cleanly down to him.
"So no doubt you are ready to be tested? Don't sulk outside, Jordan, it blights the trees. Good morning Mr Attlewood. How may I help you?"
Mr Attlewood cleared his throat. "I'm from the Ministry- I was looking for the Guardian-"
"I am Ador Meric, the young man in the tree is my apprentice Jordan, we hold that guardianship." Meric gave Mr Attlewood a rather more kindly look. "Perhaps you would like to come in and sit down? I might venture to guess that you are not yourself gifted?"
"No." Mr Attlewood followed Meric to the now opened front door and into the hallway beyond. "I'm one of the attaches, I haven't been at the ministry very long-"
"Jordan, would you be kind enough to make some tea for Mr Attlewood?" Meric said politely as Jordan slithered out of his tree. "And then return to your studies?"
Jordan said nothing but pulled a face at Mr Attlewood as soon as the sorcerer's back was to him.
"Tea with lemon?" Jordan snapped his fingers and a tray appeared, complete with three steaming mugs of tea....upside down. Jordan dropped the tray as the scalding hot tea touched his fingers.
The clattering of the breaking glass caused Mr. Attlewood to turn around but Meric simply said without looking, "Try the kitchen kettle Jordan, then clean that mess up." He guided Mr. Attlewood into the living room and situated him on the couch. Meric took a seat in the side chair.
Jordan grumbled to himself as he walked into the kitchen. It was such a simple trick, WHY did the cups come out upside down? He got the kettle, filled it with water and set it on the stove.
The cat jumped onto the kitchen table and leaned against his arm.
"That works in the book." Jordan told it. The cat butted his shoulder, sat down and began to wash itself.
"If you're making tea," a rather reedy voice said through the ancient speaking tube, "you might bring me a cup."
"Or I might not." Jordan said under his breath, adding more clearly, "Yes Mr Wheedon."
"With two sugars mind." Meric's secretary added sharply.
"And a partridge in a pear tree." Jordan muttered. The cat sneezed and jumped off the table, stepping carefully and distastefully over the broken china.
"Don't YOU start." Jordan told her sharply.
"Jordan!" Wheedon's voice said again more imperatively.
"Two sugars. Yes Mr Wheedon."
Jordan glowered at the kettle and willed it to boil.
Meric's study was far older than the rest of the house and gave the impression of all other rooms having been built around it. Mr Attlewood perched on the edge of a very ancient sofa and watched the mighty North Eastern Guardian sit behind his desk, looking remarkably unimpressive in a straightforward, inexotic suit.
"I've been sent to give you details of a few- rather important negotiations." Mr Attlewood said nervously. "There are a few documents I was asked to give you along with the contract for the- event- itself."
"I see." Meric held out a hand. Mr Attlewood opened the briefcase and produced a wedge of neatly clipped files and a dusty scroll, which he opened with some difficulty.
"This is rather old-"
"That's allright Mr Attlewood, Jordan and I deal with ancient writings much of the time."
Mr Attlewood jumped violently at the sound of the detonation from the kitchen. Meric didn't even look up from the scroll.
"Uh.....er.....just a minute!" Jordan replied, wondering why his magic just wasn't working as he expected. The pot was supposed to boil, NOT explode according to the text book.
"Are you trying to deafen me?" Said the speaking tube.
"Try the tea again.....turn the stove ON this time." Said Meric.
"Yes Great One" Jordan replied, answering both questions.
"Excuse me?" Said the speaking tube. Jordan grabbed the cat, took her to the speaking tube and squeezed gently until she meowed, loudly into the mouthpiece.
The response was an exasperated "hrrrmmph."
The cat gave him a look, slithered through his hands and marched out of the door.
"Fine." Jordan said after her. "Be like that." He kicked the stove gently. Meric studied the non-magic community closely, insisting that the non gifted needed to feel comfortable as well as other magic users in their home and that they needed a thorough understanding of the non magic ways of life.
Jordan never could see why Mr Wheedon needed to feel at all comfortable in the house. Grousing, he filled the kettle with water, dumped it on the stove and muttered at the fire. Which rose obediently. Jordan shook his head at it and wandered back into the garden. Meric refused to regard it as a problem, finding it entirely natural that an apprentice should have erratic control over his skills. Jordan found it annoying and bewildering. Some things worked perfectly, other things were complete disasters for no apparent reason. Which was why he was supposed to work only the most basic, practical charms without Meric's direct supervision: another annoying and frustrating order. Meric was good at those.
He was also supposed to be back in the library upstairs, nose in a book, deepening his knowledge about the mechanics of levitation. Jordan glanced silently at the house clock. Meric would be involved in government business for a good while. The thought of going back to the stove and juggling by hand with the tea things was irritating and the studying was NEVER inviting. Wondering how long he had to slip up the mountain to the stream and practice levitation on the fishing stream up there, Jordan began to silently make his way toward the gates. If he brought back a few fish, Meric might not be quite so annoyed or convinced he'd been time wasting and Meric had ways of grilling fish-
Jordan stopped in surprise, looking at the car outside the gate. Up here, in the back of beyond, they saw very few motorised vehicles at all. Most sorcerers had far more convenient methods of travelling.
What fun Jordan thought. He went over to the car and opened the door. Almost unseen, the cat jumped in and took a seat on the passenger side, luxuriating in the warm sun. Jordan sat down, closed the door. Surely there had to be a button to push, something to get the car started with. He looked for about five minutes, pressing buttons, turning dials, nothing was happening.
The cat watched in amused silence at Jordan's weak attempts at starting the vehicle. Deciding that the fun would never start at this rate, she pawed at the keys dangling from the ignition. Her claw caught on one, and she gave a quick yank down. The engine sputtered into life.
"Smarty pants." Jordan told her reproachfully. The cat turned around and sat looking directly out of the windscreen, paws primly placed together. Jordan snorted.
"That's easy for you to say. Now how does this thing fly?"
Pressing foot pedals he discovered one that made a lot of noise, found the handbrake and his eyes widened as the car leapt forward. In sheer panic, Jordan did the only thing he could think of, grabbed for all the energy available and the car leapt directly over the fence in its way, spiraled ten feet in the air, rolled a few times and then landed nose down with a heavy thud.
The cat sprang free of the car through the open window, shook herself and opened her mouth. Jordan struggled to get the car door opened and fixed her with a glare.
"You DARE call him!"
Green eyes blinked at him. Jordan peeled himself slowly and painfully out of the door, hit the ground and picked himself up, rubbing his bruises. The car smoke gently on its crushed bonnet.
"Stupid thing." Jordan told it resentfully. Then cast a slightly more apprehensive look at the house. "Do you think he'll notice?"
The cat rose to it's feet, her tail pointing skyward in a reproving spike, and stalked back towards the house. Jordan discreetly followed her. Time to bury himself in his books, in the library, like a well behaved, well mannered and dedicated apprentice. Fast.
He quickly and silently followed the cat into the library, and found his chair at the desk. He opened the big black book to the marked page, the one concerning levitation. He got out the soft, plastic ball he was supposed to use for the trick and laid it on the desk.
The cat leapt elegantly to the top of the bookshelves, arranging herself like a bookend, intent on a few minutes of comedy. Then maybe a short nap, as she was sure it wouldn't remain quiet around the house for long, not with the smoking car planted like a silent tree in the yard.
Jordan looked at, and raised the ball slowly in the air. This was too simple, he really didn't understand why he needed practice, over and over again. He glanced at the cat, and the ball went flying across the room, bouncing off the wall and gently coming to a rest on the floor.
"Quit laughing, you!"
The cat smiled serenely down at Jordan from her perch.
Jordan jumped up, grabbed the ball and lofted it at the cat.
She casually raised a paw, batted it directly back at Jordan, and quietly snickered as the ball bounced off of Jordan's head.
Jordan hissed at her and sat back down when she ignored him. Even the cat did better magic than he did.
"Does that all seem clear sir?" Mr Attlewood was saying nervously. Meric gathered the papers into a neat bundle.
"Perfectly. Jordan and I will leave in the morning, we'll take good care of it."
"Your apprentice-" Mr Attlewood glanced doubtfully at the closed door. The young man with the wild hair and the bright eyes seemed far from the type to be coping rationally with top secret governmental magic. Meric smiled faintly.
"I never work without Jordan. His talents are exceptional, he is as much the guardian as I am. Although I admit he looks less convincing in a suit. Speaking of Jordan," Meric added, "You never did get your tea."
"That's quite allright." Mr Attlewood rose, not sorry at the chance to return to civilisation. "I'll let you return to your teaching."
"I sincerely doubt I'll have a pupil available, this is fishing weather and I have had my eye off Jordan for well over the three minute limit." Meric rose to follow him. "However the cat is with him, which usually prevents the worst catastrophes."
Slightly wild eyed, Mr Attlewood led the way to door and turned on the doorstep to shake hands.
"Its been a plea-"
"Mr Attlewood," Meric said calmly, looking out at the field beyond the house, "I have a suspicion that you may be remaining a guest for a little while longer."
Mr Attlewood frowned at him. "Is that Foresight and Prediction?"
"I'm afraid," Meric said sympathetically, "It is hard fact."
Mr Attlewood followed his glance to his smoking car. His mouth dropped open in surprise, then worked to say something, but he couldn't quite get the words out.
"Come back inside. I think we have time for that tea." Meric said soothingly.
Mr Attlewood took one last look at his car before he was guided by Meric into the kitchen.
Meric found the tea kettle almost dry, having been left on the flames by Jordan. He quickly removed it and turned off the stove.
The speaking tube came to life with the reedy voice of Mr. Wheedon.
"Jordan, I can't wait all day for that tea! What are you doing boy?"
"Mr. Wheedon, tea with two sugars in just a moment." Meric said. Then he turned around, one cup in the left hand for Mr Attlewood, one cup in the right hand for Mr. Wheedon, two sugars already in. "Excuse me for a moment, please?" He said, as he headed in the direction of Mr Attlewood.
"Why don't you take a seat- right over there, this room is perfectly safe I promise you." he said, depositing the attaché in the small sitting room over looking the garden. "I'll see what I can do about your car."
Mr Attlewood accepted the cup without protest, face still bewildered. "My car is upside down."
"I'm sure it can be straightened out very quickly." Meric said soothingly. "Excuse me."
Mr Wheedon, occupied in his small, dark study on the second floor, greeted the north eastern guardian with a derisive sniff and nod towards the garden.
"I suppose you've seen what That Boy has done now?"
"It did cross my mind to wonder whether Jordan was involved." Meric admitted.
"I saw it." Mr Wheedon said with gloomy enthusiasm, sitting back and snuffling through his beard. "Car flipped right up and flew it did. Over the fence like a race horse."
"THANKyou Mr Wheedon."
"Only place for That Boy is under lock and key in the library, I've told you before."
"I can't keep Jordan prisoner any more than we do already."
"Dangerous." Mr Wheedon's small black eyes glittered over his mug. "A risk to everyone. What he needs is a keeper."
Meric shut the door on him. The cat was sprawled along the step below the landing, her paws luxuriously stretched above her head. Meric stepped over her, pausing to meet her satisfied smirk with a frown.
"You really do know better. You're as bad as he is."
The library door was pushed to. Beyond it, in the sea of books, globes and other strange artifacts surrounding the large glass telescope, Meric found his apprentice, virtuously buried in his text books, apparently never having heard of cars.
"Studiously studying I see." Meric said, crossing his arms.
Jordan looked up, trying to place a rueful smile upon his face. "You know how much I dislike this? I've been at it for hours."
"So that is why the tea kettle just about boiled dry?"
Jordan jumped up, trying very hard to look surprised. "OH! I for-"
"I've taken care of it. As usual. The hours you've spent studying, by what clock are you taking that into account?"
"Why...any clock." Jordan said, sinking back down into his chair.
The cat got up, stretched languorously and padded softly down to the door, stopping just behind Meric. She tipped her head sideways looking at Jordan.
Jordan saw the cat, the look she was giving him. He knew she was waiting to hear his excuse for the car, Meric would ask about that at any moment. He looked at the ball, directed his energies around it, lifted it up slowly. Then he shot it forward, intending to scare the cat away. Instead, Meric had to duck as the ball went whizzing through the air where his head had just been.
The cat shot after the ball, corralled it against the wall, and batted it back to the library. When she got there, the door had been closed.
Meric beckoned to his apprentice, looking anything but amused. Jordan winced, getting up very slowly.
"You said practice levitation-"
"I'm well aware of what you've been levitating Jordan, how often have I told you NOT to meddle with things you know nothing about?"
Jordan's eyes went wide with injured innocence, an expression Meric knew very well. His apprentice halted just out of reach of the sorcerer, stalling for all the time and thinking space he could manage.
"I've been right here and-"
Meric lost patience, gripped his wrist and marched him across to the dusty and extremely ancient chaise longue. Jordan's tone changed swiftly, innocence sliding straight into the half whine, half plea that meant he was clinging to what little hope was left of talking his master out of any rash judgements.
"Allright, I didn't mean to fly it- well not exactly- I thought I could manage it!"
"How often have I heard that thought of yours Jordan?" Meric demanded, taking his usual seat on the couch. Jordan twisted in his grip, trying to sound reasonable.
"It was levitation-"
"It was magic, worked without my direct supervision, which as you know you are FORBIDDEN. Under any circumstances." Meric said sternly. "Take your jeans down."
"You SAW I was making the spell work-"
Jordan ducked his head and kept his retort behind his teeth, slowly and unwillingly unfastening his jeans. Meric would win. He always did. Losing patience, Meric yanked the denim down to his knees, pulled shorts down after them and turned his apprentice over his knee.
"Explain about the car Jordan. And I would make it EXCEPTIONALLY good if I were you."
There was no reasoning with the sorcerer, not in this position. Jordan tried twisting around, he hated looking at the floor. All he earned himself for his struggles was a steel handed swat across his vulnerable bottom.
"Ow! Meric, it was an accident!" Jordan blurted out, the sting from that one swat making him wince.
"An accident that shouldn't have happened! How did the car get planted?"
"It just took off and was going to hit the gate. I had to keep that from happening!" Jordan twisted more, but couldn't gain any leverage.
Meric swatted the bottom over his knee four times in quick succession.
Tears welled up in Jordan's eyes, Meric meant business. "Aaaaah, I'm SORRY!"
"The car was behaving itself when you were inside with us. Are you going to tell me that it just decided to drive through our gate, and you wanted to save it?" Meric asked pleasantly.
A sound suspiciously like a cat sneeze was heard from the other side of the door. Had either of them been able to see through the door, they would have seen the cat shaking with laughter.
"Then what happened?"
"I haven't seen a car in a long while. I just wanted to see what it was like. I didn't mean to crash it, I didn't even start it! It was Esmerelda!"
"You are seriously accusing the cat of driving the car."
"She started it!" Jordan protested. "What do I know about cars! I never even get to go beyond the gates!"
"Do you seriously wish to start a second argument with me at this moment in time?" Meric inquired. There was a long silence. Then Jordan said unwillingly,
"Then we'll assume you wandered off from the tea I'd asked you to make, and the task you should have been studying- and do not DARE to tell me you were practicing on the car- and allowed your insatiable curiosity to lead you yet again into meddling where you had no right to be?"
Silence. Meric sounded deceptively gently.
"Yes." Jordan muttered, surrendering.
"Ending in the destruction of private property?"
"And what do you think we should do about that, Jordan?"
Jordan thought several extremely unpleasant curses at the floorboards. Meric saw the smoke rising from the wood and Jordan yelped as the sorcerer swatted him hard enough to break his unintentional spell.
"If you could answer me without setting fire to anything I would appreciate it?"
"I'll repair the car."
"If I know anything of mortal cars, it's irreparable." Meric said sternly, "It's certainly beyond my field of expertise. You WILL deal with the paperwork to the ministry, detailing the insurance claims. And you will most certainly apologise to Mr Attlewood and then refrain from moving out of my sight until you have convinced me I can trust you a little better."
He was unsurprised by the sullen silence that greeted that statement. Passionate, hot tempered and hasty of mind and tongue, his apprentice was not good at admittance or apology.
"Jordan?" Again, the deceptively gentle voice, prompting a reply that Jordan was not in the least bit eager to give.
Meric swatted sharply again.
Jordan jumped, kicking reflexively. "Ow!"
Jordan looked at the floor again, realized he was getting rather uncomfortable, and capitulated. "Yes, sir."
As soon as those two words were out, Meric started spanking in earnest. Swatting sharply and quickly, Meric quickly turned the slightly rosy bottom a dark uniform shade of red.
Jordan started sobbing only a few swats into the spanking, and his cries quickly rose in pitch and volume as Meric worked his usual magic across the backside. Jordan was ready to promise anything, but he had no breath to use to talk, it was taking every bit of air he could get just to keep the cries going.
Finally, just as Jordan was certain of his imminent death, Meric stopped. He gently lifted Jordan to his feet, and pulled the underwear and jeans back up, Jordan crying softly. Meric walked Jordan into the bathroom and washed his face.
Jordan looked into the mirror and saw his red rimmed eyes, and flushed face. He wanted to run to his room and sulk, but Meric had a firm hand on his wrist, and was insisting an apology was due to Mr Attlewood immediately.
There were times when Jordan hated Meric. Sullen, scowling, feet dragging, he trailed with the sorcerer down stairs, past the cat who turned her back on Meric as he passed. Mr Attlewood jumped a mile at the sight of them.
"Jordan?" Meric said gently. Jordan stared hard at the floor.
"I'm sorry I wrecked your car, it was an accident."
"Jordan that won't do."
What did he want, blood? Jordan raised his chin and glared at Mr Attlewood who visibly retreated.
The anger radiated off him in waves. Meric briefly considered doing battle further, then out of pity for the bewildered civil servant, decided this was not the time or the place. He put a hand on his apprentice's shoulder and turned him towards the door.
It earned him the flat out glare that meant an explosion was imminent. Meric ignored it for the moment.
"Now please Jordan."
Jordan stomped off and up the stairs, his footfalls shaking the entire house.
Meric flicked his wrist twice and was rewarded with a surprised "OOHHH, OOOOWWWWW!!" from his apprentice, as a magic wand appeared behind Jordan and laid down two perfect red stripes of fire across his already sore backside.
Jordan turned, rubbing furiously, and knew he wouldn't find anyone there. "I hate it when he does that!" he said to no one in particular as he turned and a little quieter, made his way to his room. He flopped face first down onto his bed, tears threatening to fall again. He looked up to see Esmerelda eyeing him from the window.
She bobbed her head and jumped out the window.
"Sounds good to me." Jordan said to the window, and got up to follow her. He clambered over the sill, and hopped into the huge tree. He followed the cat down the branch and over to their special place. He stretched the length of the branch, and laid nose to nose with the cat.
She slowly blinked at Jordan.
"I know. Not real smart saying it was you driving the car. What else could I do?"
She raised her tail, forming a perfect question mark.
"A lot of help you are!"
Mr Attlewood was leaving. Esmerelda craned her neck and Jordan stretched to follow her gaze, seeing a mortal tow truck entering the front gates. It attracted all of Jordan's curiosity. The house was very isolated, miles away from the nearest mortal settlement and as Meric had very strict ideas about Jordan going anywhere off the property, it was rarely Jordan saw anything but the inside of the house. The truck slowly wound the crushed car onto it's back, Mr Attlewood got into the cab and drove away. Esmerelda settled slowly down on the branch and began to wash, with great deliberation. Jordan sat up, and then hastily thought better of it.
"What's someone from the ministry doing here anyway? It used to be that Carstairs guy up here every other weekend and he was a wizard."
"Jordan?" Meric's voice made the apprentice jump, hard, stomach sinking fast. The sorcerer had it in for him today. Slowly Jordan climbed back to the windowsill and slid down to the carpet, keeping his eyes down. Meric's arms were folded, he had the same infuriating calm he always had.
"Have I mentioned to you that you are forbidden to climb that tree?"
"I didn't climb it, I just sort of slid out on to it."
"You are forbidden to be in it OR on it, I will tolerate under and round it so long as you can be sensible. And I believe I sent you to bed, young man? That means IN bed, curtains drawn and staying put."
Meric sighed at the silent defiance on the younger man's face.
"Jordan. Why is it you persist in defying me just for the sake of defiance?"
"I don't." Jordan muttered. Meric sat on the edge of the bed with the look of exasperation mixed with a strange sort of sadness Jordan never quite understood.
"Jordan. Sorcerers cannot act on whim. Not even the brightest and the best can live to please themselves. For your safety and for everyone else's, you MUST learn self discipline. To think of what you should do before what your impulses suggest you do."
From Jordan's face it was apparent how often he'd heard this lecture before. Meric gave up, gently took his apprentice's shoulders and pulled him around to face the large oval mirror that hung on the side of the wall. Jordan looked at the two familiar reflections. Meric, tall, dark, well built, with the glimmer in his eyes that just stopped him looking too ordinary. And his hands on the shoulders of someone nearly as tall, gangly, angular with what Meric called felinity at the eyes and hands and a scowl on his face. Jordan's eyes wandered between the two reflected faces with the vague feeling of disquiet that there was something here he was missing, some nagging thing he'd forgotten. Meric was watching his face closely in the mirror, searching his eyes, then he sighed again and Jordan felt the comfort of Meric's hand tousling his hair.
"Very well brat. Bed with you."
"Please-" Jordan started to coax, scenting weakness. Meric looked sharply down at him and Jordan knew he'd mistimed it again. The sadness was gone from his sorcerer's face, there was a determination there now that Jordan knew from experience was indefatigable.
"I said bed, Jordan. Now. If you disobey me you WILL learn there are consequences."
"Yes sir." Jordan muttered under his breath. He slowly slid under the covers and turned away from Meric, sulking.
Meric woke as usual, far ahead of Jordan. He got his suitcase packed, the house straightened to his satisfaction, and then went to get his apprentice's stuff ready. He found him still sound asleep in bed, Esmerelda curled gently up to him. He made some noise, enough to gently awaken Jordan.
Jordan opened his eyes slowly, and watched Meric pack a suitcase. He ventured a comment. "Where are we going?"
"Where we usually go when the ministry calls upon us. An assignment. Get dressed."
"Worn out protections that need replacing."
"So where are we going?"
"Some distance and it's going to take some time to get there." Meric shut the case. "Get dressed, come downstairs and have breakfast, there's transport coming in an hour."
"What?" Jordan asked with a spark of interest. Ministry transport could be exciting or appalling- anonymous HGVs or broomsticks, either was as likely to appear at the gate. Meric glanced at him.
"I don't know. We'll know when it appears, but we're going some way up into the mountains. I'd anticipate it having to be fairly mobile. Get dressed."
"Up in the mountains? Why can it never be down in the valley, where all the excitement is?" Jordan muttered.
"We go where we're needed. Downstairs, 10 minutes." Meric said, leaving the room with the packed suitcase.
"The transport better be fun, because the rest of it sounds like NO fun." Jordan spoke to the cat. He got dressed and walked downstairs, the cat making it hard for him by rubbing against his ankles all the way down. "Hey, watch it before we both go flying!"
Jordan devoured breakfast, eating was one of his favorite things to do. He dropped quite a bit on the floor for the cat, behind Meric's back of course. When he finished, he had to clean up, something he hated to do. He went to use magic, but was swatted sharply by Meric with stern words to wash the dishes as the mortals do.
"Transports here, let's go." Meric said. "And leave the cat, she stays here."
He paused and sighed at Jordan's expression. "Don't argue with me Jordan. She stays, end of discussion. Pick up your bags, let's go."
"I'm not leaving her here, we could be gone for days!"
"She'll be fine, Mr Wheedon's in every day. Jordan come on please."
Meric stepped over a cat, looking at him with large, chilly eyes and headed for the front door. Jordan glowered at the sorcerer's back and found the glimmer of something at the back of his mind- words and thoughts he didn't recognise. Sometimes he felt as though he was possessed by some flickering demon at the back of his mind who knew all sorts of spells and magic Jordan knew nothing about. If he didn't take too much notice of the demon or try too hard, often he'd find knowledge suddenly in his mind that was as if someone with a sense of mischief he admired, had suddenly presented him with a nudge in the ribs and an idea. Jordan glanced at the cat and muttered the words, following the spell cast into his mind. Esmerelda sedately vanished from view. A minute later Jordan felt the familiar jolt as she landed on his shoulder, sat down and her tail wrapped around his neck as she began to wash.
"JORDAN!" Meric said outside.
"COMING!" Jordan said back in the same tone.
Meric bit his tongue, not wanting to battle first thing before leaving. He watched as Jordan trudged outside towards him. Something was a little peculiar, but he couldn't quite put a finger on it. "Say your goodbyes to the cat?
"Yeah, what do you care?" Jordan replied thankful that Meric didn't see the cat on his shoulder. "What's our transportation today?"
"That vehicle over there." Meric said, pointing at a peculiar shaped automobile looking thing.
"Does it fly?" Jordan asked.
"Not by itself, but that's never been a problem. Give me your suitcase and let's go." Meric took the bag and threw it into the trunk, getting into the driver's side. Jordan opened the passenger door and stepped up and into the vehicle.
"Why this? We could fly much faster." Jordan hated long car trips, he couldn't be confined for too long before he lost his sense of humor.
"The ministry has it's reasons, they don't always make them clear to us. This should be fine."
"God forbid we should upset the ministry." Jordan said under his breath. Meric took his hands off the wheel, turned and surveyed his apprentice.
"Jordan. Are you intending to make this trip a living hell for both of us? If so I feel I ought to warn you, it's a game I can play too, and I have a good deal of experience at it."
"No sir." Jordan muttered. Meric waited almost a full minute, until Jordan was flushing hotly, then once more turned over the ignition.
Jordan turned away from the sorcerer and fixed his gaze sullenly out of the window, comforted only by the weight of the still invisible cat curled up on his lap.
He never remembered any of the routes out of the valley. He suspected at times that Meric deliberately set out to confuse him beyond remembering, part of the strategy of keeping him isolated and a prisoner to the house and gardens. He remembered very little of any life before Meric. Vague memories of his mother when Meric prompted him, faint images of a home somewhere other than the valley, but all he really knew of life was of living in the house with Meric and with an endless stream of lessons. And the occasional, boring trip like this.
Meric allowed him to sulk in peace until they reached some flat and unattractively farmed land. Then he decided to enliven his apprentice by quizzing him on the more complex government regulations on uses of witchcraft in public communities. Within an hour Jordan was mutinous enough to be at screaming point and the atmosphere in the car was sizzling. Esmerelda, never pleased with battles between her housemates, had withdrawn to the backseat and determinedly curled up to sleep.
"Why don't you just SAY I'm not to use magic in public places!" Jordan finally exploded. "You don't have to make me recite every bloody regulation, I KNOW them!"
"*Know* is a relative term for you." Meric said icily. "And I'd ask you not to shout at me please Jordan."
Jordan glared at him hotly, beyond sulking now. "If you don't trust me to behave in public why don't you leave me at home! I didn't want to come with you anyway!"
"You have made that abundantly clear." Meric spared him a grim and faintly weary look. "However I doubt I could trust you to behave any better at home with Mr Wheedon in charge. It's probably safer for all concerned if I keep you in my sight."
Jordan looked pure dislike at his sorcerer, hurt and furious, folded his arms tightly and slumped down in his seat, determined not to say another word. Meric, who recognised the posture, sighed mutely and wished his apprentice was less skilled at stinging him out of patience. Jordan excelled at provoking him into saying things he knew were less than tactful and less than useful in managing the boy's hot tempered, mercurial temperament. Deciding that further conversation would only lead to trouble, he left Jordan to sulk in silence.
The drive continued for another three hours. Esmerelda had returned to Jordan's lap as soon as she could, she was bounced out of the backseat and onto the floor one too many times. She wished for a flying carpet, they rode much smoother, and had a nice texture to bury the claws into when the wind blew. Finally a lone cottage appeared on a hillside, and Meric said
"That must be it."
Jordan looked with distaste at the cottage. It was small, only one floor, and nothing at all interesting around it or about it. He had been hoping for a little more excitement. Some people, animals, anything, but NOT what looked like a single cottage in a field, just like home.
"Please keep all hands inside the vehicle until it comes to a complete stop." Jordan mimicked sourly as an amusement ride operator might say.
Meric looked at Jordan and saw that same face, set and determined to not enjoy anything about this trip. He wondered for the hundredth time what he was going to do with his apprentice. Keeping his mouth shut for the moment, he unlocked the cottage door and watched Jordan move ahead of him, scuffing in dust that looked as though it hadn't been touched for a few centuries.
"Oh neat. Really nice. First class." Jordan said sardonically. "Don't tell me we're here to redecorate?"
"We have an assignment that will take a few nights to deal with." Meric put the cases down on the floor and opened the second room to find two bedframes and nothing else. "In the meantime, there appears to be plenty here to keep you occupied. You can start by washing this dust out. I'm going to have to start on the calculations for tonight."
"Wash the..." Jordan looked at him in outrage. "You drag me all this way to do housework? I can do that at home!"
"Just do it Jordan. And if the mop gets moved by ANYTHING other than your hand, I swear you will spend every minute we're not working in bed."
"That's a good com - OW!"
Meric swatted Jordan in a way that meant business. "One more word young man, and you'll be in bed on your stomach!"
Jordan grabbed the broom with one hand and rubbed his stinging flesh with the other.
Meric went into the kitchen and with a wave of his hand the table and chairs were spotless and he set down to work.
Jordan meanwhile, was muttering to himself about wicked sorcerers and stupid rules while creating enough flying dust to choke a horse. Esmerelda quickly vacated the room and wandered into the kitchen. She jumped up into one of the vacant chairs and sat down for a bath herself. Before she knew what hit her, a sneeze escaped her lips. She quickly jumped silently down and vacated the kitchen.
Meric looked around, certain he'd heard something that sounded very much like a cat sneeze, but not seeing anything, he went back to his calculations.
Jordan stifled a laugh and headed outside fast, ignoring Meric's call behind him. He shut the door and nearly fell over the invisible Esmerelda. She purred under his chin when he picked her up and hugged her, surveying the landscape around the cottage.
"This place is in the middle of nowhere." Jordan told her. "If it wasn't for the damn leylines I wouldn't know why it was here in the first place-"
He stopped, hearing himself. Leylines. He had no idea how he knew, but thinking about it, he was certain. He could feel- almost see- the faint gold lines running across the turf. Not intersecting at the cottage, but running on up the hill. The point they crossed was out of sight over the next rise. Jordan's immediate instinct was to rush for Meric and tell him. His second was not to tell Meric under any circumstances. Instead he put Esmerelda down and started up the hill towards the intersection point of the lines.
At the top of the hill he found a cairn of stones, right over the point the lines crossed.
He knew he'd find the stones. But he couldn't quite figure out why that was important. Something was nagging him, but he couldn't quite put it together. Maybe it would come to him if he waited. He had just taken a seat when he heard the ever powerful sorcerer bellow for him.
"JORDAN! Come here."
Jordan got up muttering hideous things towards Meric. That man never seemed to give him a minutes rest.
Esmerelda wound her way around Jordan's legs all the way back to the cottage, making it very hard for Jordan to keep his sense of humor. By the time he had gotten to the cottage, he was at breaking point. Just then he noticed a carpet, parked at the door. A visitor! This could be fun.
The visitor was actually Mr Attlewood, pale and shaken and being revived with tea by Meric.
"It should have specified for the job advert, carpet-trained." he was saying almost tearfully to Meric. "I can't control the damn thing-"
"You're not supposed to, you just sit and stay." Jordan said cheerfully. Meric gave him a Shut Up look. Mr Attlewood gave him a doleful nod of hello, then sneezed, hard.
"Excuse me. I came to see if you have everything you needed and to bring you the last parts of the paperwork-"
Meric glanced up at Jordan and nodded at the door, "Before we bore you to tears, you can go and collect enough wood to get the stove going. And if I hear a whisper of magic, there'll be trouble."
Jordan waited until he'd turned away before he stuck his tongue out. Mr Attlewood sneezed again as he left the cottage.
"And Jordan?" Meric added before he closed the door. "Don't even THINK about touching the carpet. Those things are owner-proofed, it'll probably attack you if you go too near it."
That appeared to decide Esmerelda. Jordan felt her brush past his leg and saw the slight indentation as she leapt onto the chair beside Mr Attlewood's.
Jordan shut the door with a satisfyingly loud bang and stomped off the porch. He was getting mighty tired of looking like a three year old in front of Mr. Attlewood.
There was a copse of trees about a quarter of a mile away. Jordan decided it would take too long to lug wood back and forth for the fire. He knew he shouldn't ride the carpet, but surely he could use it for transportation of the logs. He grabbed the fringe and pulled it along.
When he got to the woods, he looked around and couldn't find any logs that were easily accessible. He looked back towards the cottage, and decided he could use magic out here alone, no one would be the wiser. He sat down on a rock and went through his repertoire of tricks, finally deciding which one would work best on a tree. He found a tall, sturdy tree and stood facing it, closing his eyes. The tree broke apart, but instead of breaking into short logs for the fire, the tree split itself top to bottom, long slender boards of wood, almost perfect for building a house. It clattered to the ground, sending a flock of birds skyward, chattering loudly.
Meanwhile Esmerelda was eyeing Mr. Attlewood from the chair next to his. She picked up her paw, intent on settling down in Mr. Attlewood's lap when he released a horrendously loud and violent sneeze. She was startled, and her first reaction was to scramble onto the table and fly across it, knocking Meric's tea over in her haste. She slowed when she made it to the other room. Now that she had her wits about her, she held her head high, with the look that said, "I meant to do that" and sauntered over to the bed, landing gently upon the coverlet before pawing herself a nice, comfortable spot to sleep.
"WHAT" Mr Attlewood said, pinning himself to his chair, "was that!"
"I suspect," Meric said wearily, "it was an invisible cat."
"Ah." Mr Attlewood said nervously, not understanding at all. "Tricky things so I understand. Your apprentice- is he really up to this work? He looks a little-"
"Sullen." Meric supplied. "Jordan's sulking. He does it awfully well. When it comes to work however, he is far more gifted than I am and I would be unable to do the protections without him, I promise you. Do you intend to remain here and sign for the protections when they're reinstated?"
"I'm afraid I have to. I'm not licensed to return on that Godforsaken carpet until tomorrow evening, since I can't do the enchantments myself-" Mr Attlewood jumped at the noise outside. "WHAT IS THAT? "
Meric shook his head, knowing somehow that Jordan was involved, and that it wasn't going to be pretty. He made his way to the door and opened it, dreading the disaster that was sure to be awaiting him. He saw the carpet in the same place that Mr. Attlewood had left it. That was good, he thought. He took a few more steps out onto the porch and looked off to the side. There was a huge pile of cut wood, several pieces broken and twisted where they had collided with the house as the carpet had stopped suddenly. He looked around and couldn't spot Jordan anywhere. Finally he spotted a lone figure, trudging slowly up the hill from the treeline. He spoke quietly, but he knew Jordan was listening.
"If you had looked out in the back yard, you would have seen a pile of wood already cut and ready to use. When you get here, you are to clean up your mess, gather the wood from the woodpile, then report directly to the corner of your choice in the cottage. At some point after that, we will discuss your use of magic AFTER I warned you not to use any, unauthorized use of flying carpets, and invisible cats."
Jordan winced when the words reached his ears. That sorcerer was just getting too uptight, and something needed to be done and soon.
That's impressive, Meric was thinking absently, watching his apprentice muttering. The force needed to split and re arrange a tree was considerable, and he'd achieved transmutation as well as translocation. Now if that instinctive skill and talent was harnessed to any kind of conscious control- but Jordan could accidentally level a forest in an attempt to pick a flower. That kind of power couldn't be left to run rogue. Or left in the frenetic control of a volatile adolescent. Jordan passed him, radiating sullen disapproval, gave a glower to Mr Attlewood that pinned him to his chair, and headed for the bedroom. Meric could feel Esmerelda's invisible glare of disapproval as she followed Jordan. At times, Meric felt ganged up on.
Mr Attlewood tactfully went for a walk after the supper Meric produced mostly by discreet magic, since he doubted his visitor would eat anything he could not find a reasonable state of belief in. He watched the rotund little minister wander up the mountain, got up and went to find his apprentice. Jordan's arms were folded, his chin was down and his eyes were smoldering. Meric sat down on the edge of the bed, trying to keep the exasperation out of his tone.
"Come here brat."
Jordan turned and glared at him. Meric glared back, unable to help himself.
"What do you have to say for yourself THIS time? Where's Esmerelda?"
Something small and furry and invisible brushed against Meric's leg. He stooped and picked her up.
"Rematerialise her please, Jordan."
"I can't." Jordan said sullenly.
"Concentrate, do a two stage reversal spell and keep a WHOLE picture of her in mind please. I don't want a headless or tail-less cat."
Jordan stared at Meric's empty lap. And concentrated. A moment later a snapping sound was heard and Esmerelda reappeared in Meric's lap, all body parts where they should be. Jordan opened his eyes and was shocked to find it had worked. Except there was something different. Her colors were reversed. She'd been mostly gray with white markings, now she was mostly white with gray markings.
Esmerelda looked at herself, then at Jordan, and hautily hopped off Meric's lap and ran into the bathroom to check herself out in the mirror.
"It worked!" Jordan remarked excitedly.
"Almost perfectly." Meric replied. "Did you have any doubts?"
"I NEVER know what is going to hap....pen." Jordan had started his sentence with a sense of wonder, and ended quietly as Meric had AGAIN gotten him to admit that he couldn't control his magic, and that was EXACTLY the reason for not being allowed to use it without supervision. He adopted his defiant look again and crossed his arms.
"But unless I practice, I'm never going to get any better at it."
"Unless you work with me and with structured teaching to get PAST your mistakes you are never likely to learn at all!" Meric said exasperatedly. "In the mean time, you CANNOT throw uncontrolled magic about when you have no idea what is going to happen!"
"That's what apprentices do!" Jordan said passionately, "That's how they learn!"
"Jordan, you are much too strong to do that safely! You MUST NOT do magic out of my supervision, how many more times must we have this discussion?"
Jordan scowled at the floor.
"And quite apart from the unauthorised and unsupervised magic, which I TOLD YOU NOT to use, we still have the matter of the carpet you were told not to touch and the cat you were told not to bring. Jordan have you any concept at all of the word 'obedience'? I am sick and tired of your willfulness, your persistence in doing the exact opposite of everything I ask of you!"
Jordan's scowl intensified. Mostly as hurt was starting to mix with anger. Meric bit down on exasperation. His apprentice could drive him easily to distraction. However midnight was only a few short hours away and by then he needed Jordan calm and in a fit state to be able to work. He took a few deep breaths, forcing himself to calm down.
"Come here brat and take down those jeans."
Jordan glowered at him. Meric's tautly controlled temper began to rise again. He shook his head and got up.
"No Jordan. I'm too angry with you. I'll deal with you later. Right now, you can go to bed, we're going to be up most of the night."
"In bed, NOW."
Jordan sullenly slid under the covers, wondering for the hundredth time why everything always seemed to end with a spanking. Well, maybe Meric would forget about it.
Esmerelda padded back into the room and jumped up on the bed.
Meric sighed and left the room. Jordan could be nearly impossible some days.
Jordan turned towards Esmerelda. "So, what do you think tonight holds? Protections. Nothing fancy, at least as far as I know, though that one time we missed getting the protections in place in time, and the guy simply dissolved in a pool of wax. Now THAT was some sort of magic."
Esmerelda just purred softly, snuggling against Jordan's chest, curled under his arm.
Jordan decided he didn't want to sleep, but found himself gently awakened a few hours later.
"Jordan, it's time."
The wind was high on the hill in the darkness. Mr Attlewood hovered, nervous and fluttering despite Meric's requests made to him with forced politeness.
"Please keep your distance and try to keep calm. This is difficult for me and extremely hard for Jordan, it won't help to distract him or make him anxious."
Jordan had trailed up the hill with Esmerelda, initially still inclined to be sulky. The darkness and the prospect of seeing- feeling- serious magic however was intoxicating and when Meric held out a hand he quickened his stride without protest to take it. Meric squeezed his fingers and gave him a brief look, half a smile.
"Kind of." Jordan said warily. Meric's hand tightened reassuringly.
"You can do this. You're good at this, it'll be okay. Don't worry."
That helped. Jordan kept pace with the sorcerer, suddenly realising as he did sometimes, that where as usually he was distinctly on the small side compared to Meric- tonight they seemed much the same height and build. He was puzzling over that when they reached the cairn.
"I have to observe." Mr Attlewood was saying anxiously.
"Stay well back." Meric touched the stones and Esmerelda leapt up onto them, seating herself neatly with her tail tucked around her feet. "Once we begin please don't touch anything, don't approach us, don't do anything that might distract us."
Silence. Meric turned his back on Mr Attlewood and took both of Jordan's hands. His smile this time was deeply reassuring.
"Ready." Jordan took a deep breath and relaxed. It was his job here to offer the grounding- the stability, the connection with the earth and the safety barriers to hold Meric's powers steady while he set about renewing and strengthening the protection spells that held the leylines stable, kept their magic flowing and prevented the magic spilling out and affecting the world around them. Meric would guide this, he needed to do little but concentrate and follow Meric's lead. Meric held Jordan's eyes with his, waited until Jordan was completely focused and then softly began the chants.
Mr. Attlewood stood nervously, anxiously, looking around to see if anything was visible. The chants were musical, beautiful. His eyes were brought back to the sorcerer and his young apprentice when a light seemed to start glowing around the two. Then something happened that caused Mr. Attlewood to raise his brows in wonder. Right there before his eyes, the young, teenaged apprentice started to transform. Gone were the boyish good looks, the small and angular bones of arms and legs. In the apprentice's place stood a muscular, well built man. The arms rippled with muscles. The face was strong, dark, and ruggedly handsome. The eyes seemed to grow deeper blue in color. They were still fixed on Meric's, although he now topped Meric's height by nearly two inches. Mr Attlewood fumbled for a handhold and held tightly to it.
Meric's forehead was starting to show the strain now, the light was growing brighter and the chants slowly starting to buzz in Mr Attlewood's ears. He was aware of the sheen of sweat on Meric's face. Then the light surrounding Jordan and Meric suddenly crackled and became incandescent, and Jordan pulled Meric against him, his voice cutting across Meric's, clearer and far more certain. He took over the chants and to Mr Attlewood's amazement, Meric let him, leaning hard against his apprentice's now broader chest. The light blazed brighter and brighter. Jordan stepped away from Meric, raised his arms above his head and the light flowed upwards, away from the ground and Meric and into his hands. Jordan turned, still holding the ball of light, and whistled to Esmerelda who bounded from the stones to balance on his shoulder, eyes glowing. Jordan laughed and flung the ball into the air. It burst in a shower of sparks that fanned out and sank slowly into the earth around them. Jordan stretched, without unbalancing Esmerelda.
"I LOVE doing that! My God, that is good! My dear boy, stop panting, do you think I'd let you muck it up?"
The last appeared to be addressed to Meric who was still gasping. Jordan hooked an arm around him, pulled him up and kissed him, oblivious to Mr Attlewood.
"Magic, as I keep telling you, is fifty percent talent and fifty percent confidence, which is why you would be a lousy sorcerer without me-"
They were levitating, rising steadily off the ground together. Mr Attlewood cleared his throat, stammering.
"I - er-"
"WHO is that tedious looking man?" Jordan demanded in clarion clear tones. Meric turned him in mid air, not interested in Mr Attlewood. Now he watched Jordan in rapt fascination, enjoying every minute of seeing his lover before him, strong, powerful.
"Oh GOD." Jordan swept down with a thump that shook Esmerelda down. "If the ministry spent a little less time fussing and a little more in-"
He broke off. Meric held his shoulders. He was untired, he had continued the chants as Jordan worked the physical side of the magic. Now he saw the telltale signs of weariness flash across Jordan's face and held tighter to him.
"Ador. Ador hold on."
Jordan sank to his knees. Meric went down with him, his voice sounding strained to the ministry official.
"Ador try. You can overcome it, try this time. Please."
The light that had been surrounding them and growing brighter popped out, and Meric caught Jordan as he collapsed. The hat that sat upon the sorcerer's head fell down the face, and when Meric lifted it back up, as always, the strong face had been replaced by the boyish one, pale and unconscious. Meric slowly sat back on his heels, his face unreadable.
"Wh-" Mr Attlewood said uncertainly. "Wh- what exactly-"
Silence. At last Meric hooked an arm under Jordan's shoulders, another under his knees and lifted him gently, cradling the boy in his arms.
"It's allright, Mr Attlewood. You're perfectly safe, the fireworks are over."
Mr Attlewood was still too shocked at having seen such a wondrous display of magic. The transformation of Jordan was even more shocking.
"Do you have the paperwork completed that you needed?" Meric asked as he walked back down the hill with Jordan cradled in his arms.
"Y..yes. The paperwork is complete. Is- is he alright?"
"If that's what you want to call it." Meric said, a bit of bitterness apparent. "He'll wake up within a few hours, raring to go." He said a little more kindly.
"What the...." Mr Attlewood trailed him into the cottage and stood a little helplessly as the sorcerer carried his apprentice out of sight. The cat leapt up on the table, sat down and began to wash systematically from ears to tail. Eventually Meric appeared and closed the door quietly behind him.
"Shouldn't you watch him?" Mr Attlewood ventured when Meric took a seat at the table. Meric shook his head, face grim.
"He'll be out for hours yet and he'll be aware of nothing. I know. I've watched him a lot."
"You mean with Jordan?" Meric continued when Mr Attlewood shook his head in the affirmative. He sighed.
"It's a long story Mr Attlewood."
The civil servant waited. Meric ran his hands through his hair and sat back.
"Years ago- when I was an apprentice myself- I was much like many youngsters with magic. Full of myself and confident in my own abilities. So I sought out a sorcerer I knew by reputation and whom I looked up to like a hero. He was a mythical figure. A man who stood up for what he believed in despite all opposition and cared nothing at all for what people thought of him. To cut a long story short, Mr Attlewood, I found this poor man and made such a nuisance of myself, he finally agreed to take me as his apprentice and he trained me himself. And I admit I fell fairly hopelessly in love with him. It was hardly difficult. He was something of a rebel. Headstrong, foolhardy, very powerful. He needed someone with a level head who could earth him, we were the ideal pair. Then finally came the day when I was no longer his apprentice. You must understand, Mr Attlewood. This man was not popular with the ministry or the magical community. He did what was right, never what was wanted. As I came into my powers I had many offers to leave him, to join other sides. I was determined that when I reached the final investment of my powers I would join him and work with him. We would always stay together."
Meric steepled his hands, surveying them.
"The ceremony upon achieving a sorcerer's status was being held for myself. Those are powerful affairs, with strong magic flowing all around. My master was entrusted with the magic to anoint me with the final powers. It should be three men. Two to support the third, the energies involved are immense. The pressure from the ministry was such that only one man would stand with my master. He knew to be a member short would put this other man- his friend- in danger. Had he told me, we could have simply deferred the event to a less politically sensitive time. He naturally didn't. He attempted to do it alone, and by the time I realised, I was too late to stop him. Something-" Meric sighed. "Everything went wrong. I received the powers, but instead of sharing a small portion, somehow I got all of them. I can't give them back, he must take them."
"Jordan?" Mr Attlewood said in shock.
Meric shook his head. "I'm Jordan, Mr Attlewood. Ador Meric is unconscious on that bed and his cat is wishing you would get out of her chair."
Silence. Mr Attlewood swallowed.
"Do the ministry know?"
"Things are a little more stable now. Yes." Meric sat back in his chair. "He was- IS- one of the most powerful Guardians this kingdom has. He can't be spared. Still less can we afford the rumour to get out that he has lost his powers. The simplest thing seemed to be for me to assume his identity and him to assume mine. Sorcerers look- more or less as they wish to look. They take on the form they carry in mind, it's to do with containing the magic they do. So long as he believes he is an apprentice he will continue to look sixteen. He has no memory of what happened and he accepts his - somewhat fluctuating skills- as natural for his apprenticeship. He doesn't yet realise how powerful he is. He vaguely remembered the name Jordan and the identity of an apprentice- it wasn't hard to persuade him he WAS Jordan. It's far safer for him. If it was generally known that the Guardian was helpless, he would be the target of every black magician on the border."
"I see." Mr Attlewood said, though he really didn't.
Meric saw the confusion but was too tired himself to try any more to help straighten it out. "I think it's time to turn in. The guest bedroom is that way."
Mr Attlewood headed towards his bedroom, and Meric to Jordan's. Esmerelda slowly followed Meric, sparkling clean after her bath.
"Can I help at all?" Mr Attlewood asked in the doorway of his room. Meric shook his head.
"He'll wake in a few hours and remember nothing."
"What will you do?" the civil servant couldn't help himself asking. Meric gave him one of his more sardonic looks.
"I shall carry on managing the guardianship, and my partner. We've managed in this way for approaching a year now."
"And that's all?"
Meric looked at him. How to explain the temptation- the temptation to drag Jordan into these complex magics at every chance, just to see a glimpse of him- and the dread knowing the stress and confusion it caused him every time.
"Apart from how much I miss him? Yes." Meric clicked his fingers to Esmerelda. "Good night Mr Attlewood."
Jordan was still unconscious. Despite himself, Meric leaned over him, listening to the sound of breathing. He was pale, chilled and immobile on the bed, looking alarmingly frail. Meric pulled the covers higher over him, lay down and cautiously wrapped himself around Jordan. At the moment, the gesture was more for his comfort than Jordan's. Esmerelda leapt onto the bed, turned around three or four times, then curled up in the crook of his knees.
Jordan slowly came to around five that morning. As he regained consciousness, he determined that Meric was curled tightly around him, nearly smothering him. He slowly moved around until he was a bit more comfortable and dropped into sleep again, relishing the closeness and warmth
Meric woke up a few hours later and saw that the colour had returned to Jordan's face. He was sleeping soundly, and Meric could almost see the energy rebuilding up to the usual enormous proportions that kept him on his toes. He went downstairs and with a minimum of magic got some breakfast on the table for himself and Mr Attlewood, who appeared a short time later.
Mr Attlewood looked up in shock as Jordan appeared, sleepy, roughly dressed and heading straight for Meric as if he was unaware of anyone else in the room. Meric gave him a hug, drawing his attention unhurriedly and tactfully to their spectator. Mr Attlewood was frankly staring. Jordan sat down at the table and looked around him, bewildered.
"I woke up and didn't know where we were. "
"We came to renew the protection spells here." Meric's voice was matter of fact and soothing. "You fell asleep while I was finishing the fail-safes."
Jordan looked up at him in sudden anxiety. "Did I screw it?"
"You did it very well. No accidents. Were there Mr Attlewood?"
"No. None at all. It was a beautiful display of power. Do you not remember anything about it?" Mr Attlewood couldn't help but ask.
Jordan looked at the table and said quietly "No. I never seem to remember much on the big jobs. Meric says I will one day."
"I'm certain of it." Mr Attlewood said, knowing how very much both of them wanted to believe that.
Meric flashed a grateful smile at Mr Attlewood. "Jordan, get some food into you."
Jordan dug into his plate with a relish born of the powerful forces exerted during the protection spell. He felt better with each bite, the sadness at his memory loss rapidly fading as he thought about the day ahead.
Meric watched him closely through the meal, seeing his colour coming back. When he bounced to his feet at the end, he was more than reassured.
"Wait, Jordan." he said before his apprentice reached the doorway. "You and I need to take a walk. I need a word with you."
"I'm on my way anyway." Mr Attlewood said, getting up. He held out a hand to Meric and it was grasped firmly. "If I can help in any way- well you have a friend at the ministry, perhaps I can put it that way. I'll be more than happy to continue responsibility for the North Eastern Guardianship."
He got one of Meric's rare smiles. Jordan's was sweet and guileless, the smile of an untroubled boy. Mr Attlewood shook his hand and returned the smile with some emotion for the struggle this boy lived with. That this couple lived with.
Meric slid an arm around Jordan as they watched the nervous civil servant settle down on his magic carpet. He looked less than keen as it took off and vanished at a speed he looked downright unhappy with. Esmerelda strolled across the grass towards them, wound around Jordan's ankles and leapt up to his shoulder.
Jordan absentmindedly petted Esmerelda as he watched the carpet disappear from sight.
Meric steered Jordan inside, his voice changing. "Inside young man, I want a word with you."
Jordan's mind may have forgotten the magic completed just the night before, but he still vividly remembered the look on Meric's face and the words spoken before he drifted off to sleep before the spells were cast. He nervously walked ahead of Meric into the dusty study of the cottage. Esmerelda jumped down and situated herself in the window, away from the magicians, out of harm's reach.
Meric clicked his fingers and a chair materialized from thin air. "Sit" he said to Jordan as he pushed him towards the chair. Once Jordan was situated, his feet barely touching the floor, Meric began.
"Do you remember the discussion we were in the middle of yesterday Jordan?"
"Yes or no?" Meric said, not ungently. Jordan winced.
"Most of it."
"Shall we recap?" Meric invited. "First there was the mystery of the invisible cat. THEN the illegal use of a magic carpet AFTER I asked you specifically to leave it alone. And unsupervised magic. On several occasions."
"And it's dangerous." Jordan said plaintively. "I know. I'm a permanent screw up."
"You are many things, Jordan." Meric leaned on the table, looking at him with deep and loving exasperation. "Infuriating. Disobedient. Careless. Willful. Foolhardy. But never a screw up."
"Can we just forget about it?" He asked hopefully.
"Not in a million years. One of these days Jordan, I hope you will simply listen to me when I tell you things. Until then, if a spanking is what it takes to grab your attention, then that's what we'll do."
"I'm listening?" Jordan offered. Meric shook his head.
"So was I Jordan. Yesterday. To the sound of trees crashing down in a forest and being towed back on someone else's magic carpet. Come here."
The eyes lifted to him were wide, guileless and apprehensive. There was still enough of the man left hidden in the boy's face to pull Meric's eyes, make him search that young face for the person he'd loved and idolised. Jordan of a year ago would have met such accusations- and probably identical accusations- with nothing but amused laughter and a demand to know what it mattered.
You are going to come back, Meric silently told that hidden face. You're there and you will come back. And while we wait, at least I can teach you a little common sense. The boy's body was heavy over his lap, a complicated mixture of youth and man as though Jordan's confusion shifted shape within him.
Meric tucked his hand around Jordan's waist to keep him still, and brought his hand smartly down across the right cheek, a handprint being left immediately upon the white flesh. A matching handprint was quickly left on the left cheek.
Jordan immediately began to squirm. He knew Meric meant business, and that those two swats were only the beginning of a volley that would quickly leave him short of breath and in tears.
Meric continued spanking Jordan, making certain to cover all areas of the upturned bottom. It quickly changed from a light pink to a darker red as swats rained down on already reddened flesh.
Jordan held on as long as he could but always, inevitably, he found himself giving way to burning eyes and gulps that were turning into sobs. As always, by this point, he believed implicitly that unsupervised magic was not something he'd be doing again, ever, under any circumstances. Meric's face softened at the numerous, bubbling promises to that effect, although his hand didn't soften until Jordan was scarlet from hip to thigh. Jordan slid slowly to his knees and buried his face in Meric's lap. Meric stroked the dark hair scattered over his knee. Jordan pushed closer and buried himself in his sorcerer's arms.
"I'm sorry, I won't do anything unless you're there, I swear I won't-"
"Don't swear." Meric said automatically. No need to tell Jordan the promise was unlikely to be kept. He'd known Jordan for five years. He thought on his feet and he took whatever decision looked best at the time- he always had done. But he was gradually, gradually learning to hesitate a little longer each time.
And there was a general public and a landscape to be protected.
Meric shut his mind to that and concentrated on the familiar body in his arms. Still Jordan. Just a smaller, less resilient Jordan. Still a facet of the man he knew and loved.
"It's okay." he said calmly, as Jordan had heard him say so often he never really heard the meaning anymore. "You'll see. It'll be okay, we'll be fine."