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Boy flew from the little clearing and, buffeted by a sudden updraft, was hurled up above the first of the trees. He twisted his supple body and turned, coming back so that the rising air would take him up into the blue and all he had to do was spread his wings and soar.

Ruig looked on wistfully. Boy was a part of him, his own child, yet Ruig's own feet were fixed to the ground, not tucked up under his belly like those of a bird.

Boy was a speck and then he was gone.

Ruig sat back, resting his elbows on the rising ground. He listened to the screeches and pipings of birds and animals from the surrounding undergrowth; somewhere in the distance, he thought he could hear the hum of agricultural machinery. He looked up at the blue sky, drifted over with wisps of white. He would give the boy a few minutes more — he knew how he liked to soar when the day was such as this.

But when he came down he would work him hard: Boy knew he must pay for his moments of pleasure. If he wasn't pushed to his limits then his muscle condition would deteriorate and he would become fat and lazy and the flying edge would be lost.

Ruig took a long pull of perry from the flask he carried on his diagonal chest belt. Two days ago, he had been Witness at Charlbur, a village on the banks of the River Ewenlode, and they had sent him on his way well provisioned, as the river peoples usually did.

He stood and stretched. Boy had been away longer than Ruig had intended. Often, his child would spend much of the day aloft, while Ruig walked or rode, but now was the time for his training and Ruig didn't want him to have gone too far away.

He was about to call his hawker's call when he spotted the mote up above. He squinted and waited, smiled when he saw the distinctive profile of his child's stoop: chin out, wings and legs dragged back at full stretch by the wind. He didn't have the grace of a true falcon, but his bulk and sheer, physical power were impressive, nonetheless. Boy's eyes were slitted against the rush of the air, his lips peeled back in a toothy grimace, his hair flying out behind him.

Ruig snatched the lure from his belt and swung it low. Boy twisted, spread his wings, switched from falling rock to sudden, low swoop and in an instant was past him, rising, the lure pulled away just beyond his grasp. Boy's wing-tips had cut past Ruig's face, a leaf's width from cutting his skin. A cynic might claim that it was only Ruig's Ward that had prevented such injury, but Ruig knew it was his own, and his child's, practised skill — empathy, not gadgetry, allowed man and son to work so closely, like one person in two bodies.

He had been holding his breath, overcome, as always, by the thrill of nature. As a child he had flown finches and bats; as an adolescent, he had flown owls and falcons and an insane, augmented raven. As a young man he had worked with a sympathetic Caster to create all kinds of chimeras and augmentations, but none had ever come close to the man-child rapport he had with his son. He often dreamed of joining him in the air, of having his own body recast. But such a radical transformation did not fit with his professional life and, in any case, he had been in his own body far too long to change now.

Boy was a speck again, circling in the updraft from the gentle slope where Ruig waited.

"Boy!" he yelled, into the wind, swinging the lure in a slow, tempting circle. "Hup! Hup! Hup-hup-hup!" Still, the boy-hawk soared, although Ruig could see that he was watching the circling lure, and he knew that his child's blood would be screaming out to him to dive, stoop, catch the lure and drink of its pale fluid. Boy was his dependant in more ways than one.

There was a disturbance at the edge of the clearing, the chatter of an agitated magpie. A figure appeared at the mouth of the path Ruig had arrived by some time before. A man, tall and dark-skinned like Ruig, although this newcomer's frame was leaner, the musculature more precisely defined beneath anonymous grey trousers and dark leather cape.

Eyes met and the man glanced away to the ground. It is a rare individual who is not uncertain when meeting a Witness. Then he looked up, nodded, climbed the slope towards Ruig.

Boy was circling lower now, and Ruig snatched up the lure from where it had been lying in the sun-dry grass. Boy would take any such opportunity to steal the lure and cut his exercise short. He was no fool.

Rather than stop below Ruig on the faint track that bisected the clearing, the man circled and stopped at the same level. "Ruig," he said, and nodded in greeting.

"Yes?" Ruig replied, wondering what the man might want. Some communities still sent out messengers like this, when seeking a Witness. Ruig preferred them to log a message with his signaller: that way there was no one to break his peace as he travelled with Boy. Ruig would have to refuse, in any case, as he already had an engagement at a settlement in the Windrush valley, to Witness a dispute between that village and its neighbour.

The man seemed confused, as if he did not know what to say. "Yes?" said Ruig again, letting his irritation show. He hated company, when he had the trees, and the hills, and Boy.

"Ruig," repeated the man, grasping for words. "My name: Ruig."

"No," said Ruig. It was his turn to falter, the sensation unfamiliar. "No, I am Ruig. You have come to find me, to seek my help, perhaps?" He felt sorry for the poor man, obviously confused, perhaps simple, although one was only simple through choice or design these days.

"No," argued the man. "My name is Alcaj Ruig Tre. I am a traveller. I saw you here, alone. I sought companionship."

Alcaj for his father. Tre for his mother. Ruig for the Caster who had tuned his genes in the hours after conception. The newcomer shared not only his public name, but also the private fore- and aft-names of his family. Alcaj Ruig Tre.

"A strange coincidence," said Ruig, father of Boy. "We share all three names." He tried to put his discomfort aside. The man was merely a traveller who shared his three not-uncommon names.

"Strange indeed," said Ruig, the traveller, who was not a Witness, and not father of Boy. "And here, on the same road." He nodded again, in greeting, and made as if to move away. "A Mentor once told me that coincidence is the work of the Devil," he said, "so if I may excuse myself..." He started to walk on, up the slope.

"Boy!" called Ruig, the Witness. "Hup! Hup!" The traveller glanced up, but continued on his way.

Boy grew from speck to silhouette to stooping, naked boy-hawk-bullet, cutting down through the mild air. Ruig raised his hand, but the Boy had mistimed his dive, would need to return for another pass.

But instead Boy headed for Ruig, the traveller, still walking up the slope. Wings and tail spread, braking against the air. Ruig, the traveller, looked up again as the turbulence ruffled his hair; then, instinctively, he raised his hand, and Boy landed gently, scrambling up his arm to chuckle softly into the man's ear as, in the early days, he had done to Ruig, his father.

The man continued to walk and Ruig started to panic. He felt, irrationally, that he should let them go, Boy and father, walking up the slope. He shook himself, gathered up his bag from the ground. "Hey!" he called, and began to scramble up the slope, as man and child disappeared into the mouth of the forest.


Trees closed in above them, around them, so that the light, filtered through countless layers of leaves and tendrils, was as green as the vegetation itself. Green flowers grew from the litter of leaves and sticks on the forest floor. Green birds flew, tiny emeralds flickering in and out of the fringes of Ruig's perception. As a boy he had spent hours, days, just sitting quietly, motionless, waiting for the woodland fauna to emerge; a travelling Witness only ever saw a tiny fraction of this wildlife, as he moved, and disturbed.

They had been walking for some time, now, and Boy was still on the Traveller's shoulder, both frustratingly uncommunicative, both green, in the dappled woodland light.

Ruig had shared his journeys, on foot, on hang-car, on public train, with many unwanted companions before. They were drawn to him like ants to sugar. As a Witness, people fed him, housed him, clothed him, and these unwanted companions followed in the hope of living on his leftovers, dwelling within his sphere of goodwill. Most of all, they sought the protection of his Ward, a device which shielded him from bullet and spear and knife. The Ward was rarely employed, though, as everyone knew that he, a Witness, had its protection; but if, somehow, its defensive field was breached, they all knew that punishment would not be far away. He was, in a very small way, something of a god to the people he watched over. He was the arbiter of their lives.

But if this man, this Alcoa Ruig Tre, the Traveller, was merely another parasite, then why had Boy flown to him, as if to his own father? Why did Boy ride on this interloper's shoulder, sparing barely a glance in Ruig's, his true father's, direction?

Perhaps the man carried some means of enchantment to which Ruig was immune. Some device, some gadget, some new augmentation about which Ruig had not heard. But then, Ruig thought, as he struggled to keep up with the fit man's pace through the trees, over the protruding roots, up the steepening slope ... but then, perhaps he was not immune after all? Perhaps he was in this strange man's thrall just as much as Boy. Why else would he struggle so, to keep up? He could always have another Boy cast from his tissues — all it would take would be a visit to the city, and the price of the Caster's time. Money had little meaning to a man who spent all his days travelling and living off the kindness of strangers. There were even Casters who worked for free, for the love of their craft, if he was not prepared to pay. It was such a Caster who had worked with him when Ruig, himself, was a boy, with his first owls and hawks, grafting into them a bonding, a mental affinity, an understanding of the way Ruig thought.

They had reached the lip of the hill, now, and before them the wooded country spread out as far as Ruig could see. The forest here was chequered with machine-tended fields, and great glass growths where the more tender crops were raised. Below them, at the foot of the scarp-face, was the village that was Ruig's destination.

"What are you doing here?" demanded Ruig, as they rested before their descent. "Why have you come?" He was unaccustomed to feelings of defensiveness, invasion. He was a Witness: no one had ever intruded on his life to quite this extent before.

"I am a traveller," said the other Ruig. "What are you doing here?"

"You've been sent to trap me," said Ruig, the real Ruig. He looked at Boy, and said, "Why do you travel on this man's shoulder? You should be up there — " he gestured at the sky " — flying with the birds. Go on!"

He waved his hands and Boy shook his feathers, spread his wings and heaved himself into the air. Ruig watched as his child dropped out over the edge of the hill, caught the updraft, and rose majestically in a slow spiral, wings stretched, slight adjustments of his tail correcting his course. Again, Ruig was taken with the ease of his son's flight. He breathed out gently, and saw his own expression of wonder on the stranger's face. "What do you want with me?" he said softly, to the man, but there was no reply.

They followed a rough track down the limestone face of the scarp and rested again, halfway down. They sat on a rocky ledge, with the tops of the trees reaching up to almost their level. Ruig thought of eagles, imagined he was perched in an eyrie, surveying his domain.

"Have you considered the possibility that you are the impostor?" said the man, the impostor. His tone was that of a normal conversation, yet his words had the edge of a blade no Ward could deflect. "Have you considered the possibility that I am Alcaj Ruig Tre and that someone has sent you to test me?"

If this man had come to trap him, then he was doing an admirable job. For a moment Ruig was tumbling through space and time and he believed this other Ruig, but then he gathered himself and he saw the playful smile on the man's face and he realised he was being taunted as no ordinary man taunts a Witness. It made him feel, in that instant, as if he was just a normal man again, privy to all the little social exchanges and challenges he had left behind when he had accepted the Ward.

He shouldered his pack and led the way down the rough track and all the time he was reminded — by the scuffed footfalls, the little cascades of dislodged stones — that this man was behind him, watching him.


They passed in silence through the trees, the slope of the land gently leading them down towards the village of Scawlter. The woodland was not as thick here and occasionally Ruig glimpsed Boy soaring, gliding, being mobbed on one occasion by a cloud of chattering finches. Boy somersaulted and lashed out his taloned feet at the birds, to no avail; they only harried him more eagerly. The hostility was a sign of his age, Ruig thought. When he was newly cast, eighteen, nineteen years before, he would never have responded in such a manner. Perhaps he would benefit from recasting — an eagle? a vulture? Maybe all he needed was an adjustment to the aggression and impetuosity of his age. They would discuss it tonight, perhaps.

They came upon a mud road, at the edge of the wood. It took the form of a ridge, dropping away to swampy paddies on either side. Along the rows of rice and tilapia enclosures, little automata floated, tending their crops, their shoals.

"Boy! Hup-hup-hup!"

Signalling his continued strange mood, Boy came at him directly out of the sinking, golden sun. Ruig squinted, held his arm up before him, gasped when suddenly Boy resolved himself as a great haloed silhouette and struck his arm harder than necessary. "Shoulder," he muttered angrily, and Boy walked along his arm, up to rest against the side of his head and face. His grip was tight on Ruig's shoulder, but his talons were blunted by the protective influence of the Ward.

His call had attracted the attention of the villagers and as the children came running, the Traveller retreated until he was following Ruig and Boy at a respectful distance.

"What's his name?"

"Can I hold him?"

"What is he?"

Ruig smiled at the familiar questions. "My son," he said. "Only he can decide who holds him." He nodded at the adults of the village, as they caught up with their children and admonished them for their forwardness.

For the last third of its distance, the road was barely wide enough to contain the throng around Ruig and Boy. The children still chattered and their elders spoke to Ruig in the standard formalities of greeting. Augmented animals looked intelligently on, perhaps wondering if Boy was one of their own.

Where the paddies ended the road opened out and its surface changed from dry mud to a plasticised matting. The dwellings were of a design typical of this region. Single storeys, one or two with an extra level built onto the flat roofs; walls were off-white, of a similar material to the road surface; windows were glazed and tinted, doorways open and wide. The village had a single telecom mast attached to the machines' warehouse, set a little distance away from the main part of the settlement.

Two houses on the fringe were warped and twisted, the result of a recent fire. Ruig looked at them. He could still see the black scorch marks, the charred remains of their less durable contents. The dwellings were beginning to heal themselves, but it would be several days before they were habitable again.


"The glade has been ours for generations," said one man, from the village of Scawlter. "My parents took me there as a boy. I know where every fruit bush is, I know all the places that the birds nest, the flowers bloom. The glade is ours."

They had been arguing since first dark. They were seated on the ground in a woodland glade a short distance from Scawlter, Ruig dressed in his Witness's cloak and hat, trying to cultivate an expression of interest, and attentiveness.

Why did they call him for such trivialities, he wondered? But to these people, the villagers of Scawlter and the Paul's Acolytes of Riss, he conceded that ownership of the glade had some deep significance. The Paulian Ecclesiarch wanted it as the site of his new Lodge, but for the Scawlterans it was a challenge to their traditions and heritage, and to their pride. But what did it really matter?

He realised they were looking at him, waiting. "What does the historical record say?" he asked, hoping that they had not already told him. His role was more guide than judge, it was merely to sit, and prompt, and encourage. This dispute was one of long standing — generations, rather than months, he suspected — but recently it had escalated so that any tragedy, such as the fire at Scawlter, or a recent drowning at Riss, was blamed on the other side. The Witness brought the two sides of a dispute together and provided the framework for them to work out some form of settlement. He diffused hostility, allowed confrontation without violence. He had no doubt that Scawlter and the Paulians would be in dispute again before long, but in a world where there was little physical hardship, and crime was usually Cast out before birth, the Witnesses were normally enough to maintain an informal peace.

He was drifting again. He could sense that the villagers and the Paul's Acolytes were displeased with his vagueness, that they sought more direction from him, but there was little he could do. Tonight, he was distracted and weary. He did his best to keep the debate going, but by midnight there seemed little point in continuing.

A house with four rooms had been set aside for Ruig that night. He stood in the main living area, watching as the Traveller settled himself on a heap of cushions and Boy swung up to sit in a conveniently placed niche in one wall. He hadn't invited the Traveller in, but now that he was here there seemed little point in having him removed.

One of the men of the village stood in the doorway, smiling obsequiously. "Of course," he said to Ruig, "all the usual hospitalities have been provided. We are grateful, indeed, that you could come so quickly, and that you were such a help. They had not spoken to us in over four months, before tonight."

Ruig waved in dismissal. He hated the type, the unctuous official for whom communication was a series of coded, rehearsed formalities. The man backed out of the doorway.

Ruig turned to the Traveller, but decided not to speak. Instead he stepped through a beaded doorway into one of the sleeping rooms. The air was scented, here, and he felt his spirits lifting. He shrugged the diagonal belt over his head, untied his cloak, his trousers. He had sensed her presence as soon as he entered the room. A hard cotton mattress covered one half of the floor and she lay on it, waiting. In the dim light from the walls he could see her slim shape, her hair splayed on the pillow, the dark triangle at her crotch. He wondered how the adults of the village had known of his preferences — it was not uncommon for less informed settlements to offer him men, children, animals, automata, as well as the women he favoured. Perhaps his reputation had gone before him; perhaps they had enquired.

He lay down beside her and in that instant wondered what she would be like. He reached out and put a hand on her belly, felt its nervous tremor at his touch. He pressed himself against her, found her mouth, her cheek, her neck. He was surprised that he felt so eager, after such a long day.

"I am honoured," she said, stroking him, the first words spoken between them. He did not care that it was the Witness she wanted, not Ruig, the man. He did not mind being a symbol at a time like this.

In the other room Ruig, the Traveller, activated a wall-screen and a surge of music washed over, into Ruig's, the Witness's, bed-chamber. He groaned, felt himself soften. He had forgotten about the other. Boy, he did not mind; Boy could be ignored, as he sat on his perch, cleaning his feathers or licking his downy crotch. But the other, the interloper...

The woman was disappointed, naturally. She tugged at his limp penis, urging him, beseeching him. All her pleas simply made it worse.

Angry, he turned away. "Go," he said. "I want to sleep." She cried as she pulled a cloak around herself and stepped clumsily into her shoes. He hated her sounds. He felt angry, frustrated. He hoped they wouldn't send him an alternative now — man, child, automaton. He hoped they would all just leave him in peace.


Sleep didn't come easily that night. His emotions were too fraught to allow him to settle and then, as he lay on his mattress alone, he heard the sounds from the next room — the woman's voice, her moans, and the deep, murmuring tones of the other Ruig — and he knew that the village's hospitality was being enjoyed by the man who shared his name.

In the morning he left the house, stepping past their tangled, naked bodies, under the gaze of his child, perched in his niche as before. "You have an Oracle?" he said, to the first woman he saw. She looked at him strangely, as if a Witness should have no need of technological assistance, but she pointed him towards the right building nonetheless.

The room was entered directly from the street, a screen drawing down automatically behind Ruig as he passed within. The Oracle took the traditional form of an old man, sitting against one wall with legs crossed. "Please," it said, arranging its veils. "Sit, if it puts you at ease." It gestured at the floor before it, and Ruig sank to his knees and then sat before the Oracle. "Please," it said, again. "What is the nature of your enquiry?"

Ruig stared into the machine's impassive features, its facade of human flesh spun over a metal framework. It seemed, as they always did, like a real man, a man of wisdom and hard-won experience, yet he knew that it was only a front, that the real processing of data and actions took place in the fabric of the building, or back in the city to which it was linked via the village's telecom mast. He knew that it was no more than an automaton, with a multi-cored cable plugged into its anus as it sat cross-legged, solemn-faced, before him.

"Who am I?" said Ruig, simply. He was accustomed to asking questions, but never about himself.

The Oracle raised one eyebrow and smiled a little. "A trick question?" it asked. But it was obliged to answer. "Somewhere on your torso you carry the Ward of a Witness. Its code identifies its registered carrier as Alcaj Ruig Tre. Alcaj Ruig Tre is fifty-six years old, was born in the town of Theoc, Province of the Sevens, educated — "

"But is that me?" interrupted Ruig. He did not know what he expected to gain from this meeting. When he had entered the room he had not even known that he would ask these questions. He had not understood quite how intensely this other Ruig had disturbed him.

The Oracle shrugged. Somehow the gesture seemed even more human to Ruig for the fact that it had been executed by an automaton. "You ask unusual questions," it said, after a long pause. "Facilities are available for you to provide tissue samples for analysis, if that is your wish." It stopped and watched him and when it was clear that he did not intend to respond, it continued, "But I fear that even then you would be unsatisfied."

"You can't help me?" said Ruig. "Is that what you mean?" He had not considered the possibility that this, an Oracle, would be unable to solve his problem. An Oracle always had the answer.

"I can offer help," it said, and Ruig relaxed a little. "But my analysis indicates that whatever is offered by a mere machine will be inadequate to your demands. There are times when the old ways are best. Interpersonal contact and the progress of time are two solutions that cannot be provided by an Oracle."

Ruig thought for a few minutes. "My parents," he said. "You have records, information?" He had not seen them in over a decade.

"Of course," said the Oracle. "Tre died three years ago by self-inflicted wounds, a ritual death supervised by officials from the Sheolat religious cult. Alcaj is alive..."

The Oracle gave Ruig details of where his surviving parent lived in the city of Oxfer and Ruig decided to go there immediately.


"If you are me and I am the impostor," Ruig said to the Traveller, before leaving him with the boy in the room donated to them by a sycophantic Oxfer hotelier, "then why are you prepared to follow where I lead? Why did you sit back when I put on the robes of the Witness to mediate at Scawlter?"

Ruig, the other, smiled, and said, "Because that is my nature, where yours is to dictate and dominate. Is that sufficient answer?" The ease with which the traveller deflected all Ruig's questions only served to undermine what confidence he had retained. Even the Oracle had been unable to tell him if he was the real Alcaj Ruig Tre or an impostor.

He left the hotel and strode through the crowded streets of the city in a fit of anger. Seeing his Witness's outfit, people parted like water flowing around a post, yet that merely deepened his gloom. If only they would close around him, let him join the mass, the jostle and bustle, he felt that he could at least be reassured of his own humanity.

He found the district by relying on memory, and then his signaller guided him to the address the Oracle had given. It was a shabby building, built of brick, with crumbling white rendering; the door stood open and screaming children ran in and out, chasing a small dog that had been augmented with the head of a wolf and the eyes of a cat. He brushed past their small hurrying bodies, smiling at their touch, the implication that they had not yet marked him as different to any other. A woman glared at him from along the corridor. Perhaps she had seen his pleasure at the children's touch and she feared for them, knowing that a Witness usually got what he wanted.

He climbed the steep stairs, shallowly breathing the air that smelt of urine and old cabbages.

The door hung crookedly, partly open. "Hello," he called, hoping that there would be no reply and that he could go quickly from this place.

The door creaked back and a small, hunched woman stared out. Her face was wrinkled and sagging, her eyes that horribly familiar, piercing blue. Her hair was sandy grey, tied back with strands loose across her brow, her cheeks.

"Father," said Ruig, uncertainly. "It's me: Ruig."

His father stepped back into the room, pulling the door wider open and indicating that Ruig should enter. "It's a mess," she said, her tone as unapologetic as it had been when its pitch was lower.

"It always was," said Ruig, entering the room, looking about at the books, the tangled bed linen, the small wall-screen blabbering silently out at him. He looked at his father. "You've changed," was all he could think to say.

Alcaj chuckled, and somehow the sound made Ruig relax. It sounded right. "Let's drink," she said, heading for a half-empty bottle on a table, wiping glasses with fingers and then the hem of her long shirt.

Ruig couldn't take his eyes off his father. The two sat and drank, catching up on the lost years. In the past his father had been incommunicative, a morose man whose longest sentence was two grunts instead of one. Now, Ruig was amazed that it was all so easy; he was discovering a relationship he had never known before, he had thought there was little left to surprise him in the world, but he had been wrong. Finally, Ruig asked, "How long have you been a woman, father?"

"Six years."

"I wish I'd been here at the time." But he knew that he would have done the wrong thing, at the time: it had to be presented to him whole, like this.

"No," said his father. "I needed space of my own. Tre had left, you had left ... I had time to think. It's troubled me all my adult life, I realised. I went to a Caster, before my mind was made, and he questioned me until my head was ringing and whatever progress I had made was shattered by his casting of doubts. It took me another year before I decided." Alcaj looked at Ruig, now, and then looked out of the window as if he could see back across the years. "There's a time when you stop asking questions, Ruig," she concluded. "A time when suddenly it doesn't matter any more, because you just know who you are."

And as the old woman looked out of her tenement window, and Ruig gazed into her faraway eyes, he suddenly started to see, to understand.


When he returned to the room given to them by the hotelier he had half-expected Boy and Ruig, the other, to have gone, but they were still there. The other smiled at him, but this time it did not have the usual unsettling effect.

Boy was perched at the open window, looking down over the street. Ruig squatted before him and waited until his child had turned to meet his gaze. "How long?" asked Ruig. "How long have you resented me like this?" And he saw from the expression on that small, warped face that he was right.

He turned before Boy could respond. He pulled his Witness's cloak from his bag and tied it at his throat. He placed the cap on his head. And then he turned to face his son and the impostor. "Now," he said. "How long?"

His son started to chuckle in his half-human language, restricted by the changes to his vocal cords and his thorax. Then Ruig, the impostor, raised a hand and the Boy fell silent. "He has explained it all to me," he said. "I took the time to listen, you see, the time to decipher his speech, where you, his father, are too impatient."

Ruig wanted to respond, to defend himself, but he was wearing the cloak and its authority forced silence on him.

"You have him cast from your own tissues — your own child — and you have him transformed into the vehicle for your dreams of domination: you make him your hawk, so when you travel alone you have a toy to fly, to work, to use. To foster his obedience you addict him to the substances on your lure: drugs suffice where trust and love fail.

"When you were the age of your son you had been independent for most of a year, yet he is chained to you more surely than if he had been grafted onto your chest."

In that instant, Ruig could see Boy soaring away from him on a thermal and again he knew that feeling of awe, of envy at the boy-hawk's freedom. And he knew that he had been deceiving himself. "And so," Ruig said to his son, as the other appeared to have run out of words for now. "And so you go to a Caster and have a new Ruig cast from your own tissues, as I had you cast from mine." He saw the look on Boy's face and knew that he was right. "And you use him to undermine me and, you hope, to replace me." Boy met his look, with a challenging glare of his own. "Would you have killed me, if you could?" he asked.

He reached for the ties of his cloak, and as he moved he saw Boy and the other Ruig flinch as if they feared some form of retaliation. He smiled at that, aware now of how easy it is not to know your own father, or your own son. He was not a violent man.

He placed the neatly folded garment on the mattress, and then put the cap by its side.

And then he reached down and pulled his shirt from his trousers, held it under his chin so that his hands were free to manipulate the slit in his belly.

It had been a long time, but eventually the small cylinder emerged from its resting place. He looked up and saw that Boy and his Ruig were surprised, confused. "My Ward," he said, holding the cylinder out to them. "You wish to replace me, then do so. The Witness's outfit will need some alteration..."

When the other Ruig took the Ward from his hand he suddenly felt different. His protection was gone, and it was probably that knowledge as much as the physical reality of it that made him feel changed.

He watched as the other Ruig pressed the Ward to Boy's abdomen and it slowly sank through the skin.

When it was finished Ruig nodded at the two. "I hope he treats you as I should have treated him," he told the other Ruig. "I wish you both luck."

"What will you do?" asked the impostor.

Ruig shrugged and smiled. "I'll take my chances," he said. "Just like anyone else." And, he thought, I might just learn to fly.



When I wrote this story I lived on a modern housing estate in Gloucestershire, sandwiched between a motorway, a railway and a large army camp. Rather incongruously, my next door neighbour kept the following in his small back garden: a barn owl, a sparrowhawk, a Harris hawk, several ferrets, and the crowning glory, a rather large eagle owl. I spent many evenings out in the small square at the front of our houses, chatting with Shaun while he flew the birds from one heavily-gauntleted hand. It was on one such evening that my mind started to wander, in the way writers' minds are inclined to wander, following from one "what if...?" to another... pets as child substitutes... what if the eagle owl was your son?

An indirect acknowledgement of the story's origins can be found in the place names: Theoc, in the Province of the Sevens, comes from Theocsbury, the Old English name for my then-hometown of Tewkesbury, which sits on the river Severn.

There are some clear connections between some of the stories in this collection, but for me what unifies them as a set is that they are stories about strange changes and the strangely changed, which is why I coined the term "modifiction" for the book's subtitle. These are stories about identity, epitomised by Witness Ruig's identity-confusion when he meets Ruig the Traveller, and by the fluid nature of these people's identities — people created by sampling the tissue of another, people who transform themselves, as Ruig's father has done.

He looked at his father. "You've changed," was all he could think to say.


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