04 November 2019
Three weeks after the goblin raid, the wizard came to Toppermare. Not that I saw him. My life was busier than ever, what with watching the littles and the work I was still doing with Healer Cally.
The wizard rode into the village in a hired coach, not as impressive as a dark cloud by any means but far more reassuring for those who saw him and likely far better for his continued health as well. The coach drew up before the village hall and the wizard stepped forth. He was a well set-up man, not old as wizards go, clean-shaven, dark of hair and eyes, dour of aspect, and gloomy of garb. He looked like chief mourner at the funeral of a rich old uncle whom nobody liked.
He was seen by some youths on the village commons. Since they were supposed to be at harvest, they weren’t in any hurry to tell anyone.
The only people not at harvest were … well, I wasn’t because I was watching the littles, but we were in the orchard, not in the village proper. The only people in the village were the constable on patrol and the village luck-maker and it was the luck-maker who was in the village hall when the wizard entered. As soon as the luck-maker caught sight of the stranger, he knew exactly what he was and he bolted for the back door, convinced that necromancer had returned and the goblins were coming and not staying to see the truth of the matter or to hear what the stranger had to say.
As for the wizard, he sat himself down at the high table, in the very seat that Headman Mastersmith himself uses when the village elders meet in council, and the wizard took out a book and commenced to reading. And that was how they found him when they came in; Headman Mastersmith, Master Ranger, Brother Calum, and the constable.
I think I knew, in a way, that the wizard was come to visit because I got to feeling very twitchy that day. I practiced with the littles running to the Apple-man’s tree and drawing a circle round us for protection. I still carried the stick the Apple-tree man had given to me that day, keeping it nearby whatever I was doing. Ma wanted to toss it in the fire but Healer Cally talked to her and that was that.
The first I knew about the wizard was when he came to the orchard, accompanied by Headman Mastersmith, Master Ranger, Brother Calum, and the constable, a young man of an age with my eldest brother, not long in the position. I had just landed at the bottom of a child-pile, giddy with laughter and trying to be gentle enough not to hurt the littles. I didn’t have the Baker littles, so there were only seven of them, ranging from the littlest just able to walk to three, all boys, almost of age to attend Lady school.
Took me too almost too long to figure out that the shivery shakey scared-rabbit sensation was something other than giddiness but once I did, I pushed the littles off, calling out, “Olly olly Apple-tree!” which was the signal for them to race there as fast as they could. I grabbed my stick up and followed, drawing a circle big enough to contain us all quicker’n quick. I set myself up in front, the littles behind, sitting between me and the trunk of the Apple-man’s tree.
It was only then that I saw what I faced and the familiar faces, too. I started to relax, then I called to mind that some Otherfolk can take the seeming of people one knows and just because I thought I recognized faces didn’t mean that the folks behind those faces belonged to them. And I purely did not like the look of the wizard. From the expression on his face, he didn’t much care for the look of me either. He looked as though he’d just stepped onto a cowpatty and him wearing his best shoes.
The littles were just then realizing that I wasn’t playing any more. The leader of the three looked out around my legs, as though I were a tree trunk myself, in order to jab at the wizard with a twig, he’d found and yelling “Mizzletof! You’re dead!” at the top of his voice. I pushed him back and tried to ignore the argument that ensued.
“What’s going on? Why are you here?” I asked, my heart in throat. If they were Otherfolk powerful enough to take the seeming of those I knew, then I would have no chance against them. Especially in that I had no idea how I had held off the creatures before.
The wizard left off glaring at me in order to spin dramatically around and engage the men from the village, demanding to know what we ‘brats’ were doing messing up the incident site and how he was supposed to get any kind of accurate reading with some moonchild working magic at random all over the place. Master Ranger tried to say something but Headman Mastersmith cut him off. The wizard snorted and turned back around again, his robe flaring out around him.
I wondered how long he had practised before he figured out how to get it to do that.
He strode toward me, toward us, stopping a few feet away, and he studied the ground between us, his dark brows drawing together over his eyes.
“What is this?” he muttered, clearly not addressing me or anyone else visible to sight. “It’s not a ward,” he mused then corrected himself. “Not any ward I’ve ever encountered.” His face was distorted by a grimace, but one of puzzlement, not anger. He bent forward, sniffing loudly. He did have rather a prominent nose for it. Shaking his head, he straightened, still speaking as if to himself, “I smell naught but apples.” He met my eyes, frowning greatly. “Who taught you the making of this?”
I shook my head wordlessly, afraid to say anything lest it give him power over me. His frown darkened.
“Let’s see how effective …” he said, taking another step forward.
I gripped my stick more firmly. “Stay back!” Master Ranger had begun teaching me to use it as a quarter-staff but three weeks wasn’t much time to learn how to fight. The one who might be that self same Master Ranger started toward us, calling out to the wizard that perhaps he should speak with me. The wizard ignored the offer, his nostrils flaring in derision.
“Or what?” he mocked. “You’ll whack me with your little stick?”
There were three littles of an age almost to go to Lady school, all boys. The leader of them, who had spoken before, answered the wizard from the safety behind my legs. “She’ll mizzletof you dead, just like the other big meanie!” he cried, poking forward with a twig again. I hissed at him, ordering him to get back and protect the others, not that I expected him to do much but I thought that might get him to obey. He was a bit of handful.
The wizard wasn’t looking at me anymore. His attention was fixed on the little, with an expression of puzzled irritation.
The villagers came closer. Or rather, the ones who might be villagers if they weren’t Otherfolk pretending. It gets confusing when you aren’t sure if anyone is who they appear to be. How do you speak of them?
Brother Calum held the Headman back so Master Ranger could speak. “Master wizard, this is the lass who encountered the goblins. She and these littles were here in the orchard when they appeared.” Mastersmith tried to argue some point, the wizard waved him to silence. He hadn’t taken taken his eyes off the littles behind me. I shifted into his way, breaking his view and ordering him to leave the little alone. My voice shook. I hated it, that it shook like that.
The wizard shifted his gaze up to meet mine. “What big meanie?” His voice rumbled, low and dangerous. It sounded like a threat. He was too close and the others … the constable was edging around the wizard, flanking me. I couldn’t keep them all in view.
Swallowing heavily, I drew in a deep breath and began to pray. I probably should have been along, I guess.
“Oh generous chief of chiefs, bless me and all anear me. Bless my actions that I may keep them safe … from every gruagach and necromancer, from their ill-wishing and curse; from glaistig and kelpie; from Gentry folk and goblins. From hill-troll and water-hag and piskie on air; grant to me the strength I need; preserve the ones I guard.”
It wasn’t a prayer taught in church and it wasn’t exactly the prayer I meant to be praying but it felt right.
The circle I’d drawn in the soil, surrounding myself and the littles, flared to my sight and the wizard flinched away, hand to his nose. None of the other four showed any reaction although they noted the wizard’s surprise and asked him what was wrong. I began the second iteration of the prayer-spell, but I heard the wizard’s response. He asked them who had the teaching of me and wasn’t too pleased when Brother Calum admitted that it was he. This answer did not please the wizard at all. In a loud voice, he asked … demanded … ordered, “Why isn’t she at Academy?”
My breath caught in my chest, interrupting the chant briefly. Then I took up the thread of it again.
It still hurt. After two years, it still hurt.
I earned a placing at Daingmark Academy. A commoner’s seat, true, but I was accepted. Not many were. I had been so happy and proud of myself when I received the letter saying I was accepted. I turned to Ma, thinking she would be happy for me, too, but she yelled at me and tore the letter from my hands and threw it into the kitchen fire.
Later Pa told me why. She wasn’t angry with me, he said, but because … I couldn’t go. There wasn’t money to pay. Even if I had won a full scholarship, it would have cost too much to send me to Academy.
The prayer was done. I felt spent. I fell down to one knee, letting the stick support some of my weight.
“Fool of a child.” I didn’t know … couldn’t tell … who spoke those words. They were softly spoken, intended only for me to hear and I didn’t recognize the voice.
My eyes were downcast. I had done what I could to keep the littles safe. Several of them were crying, trying to get me to pick them up and give them comfort, but it wasn’t safe to turn my attention away just yet.
“Look at me.” I raised my head slowly. It was so heavy. I looked up past the line … except it wasn’t a line in the dirt anymore. There was a … a soap bubble glowing between me and the rest of the world, enclosing me and the littles inside. The wizard knelt on the other side, his dark eyes … sympathetic?
“How old are you, child?”
I bristled. “I’m not a child. I have thirteen summers.”
He winced. “Too old,” he muttered. I felt affronted. First he calls me a child then he says I’m too old. Wishy-washy, I call it.
“But maybe …” he mused, his voice trailing off. “Lass, would you like to come to Daingmark Academy? To study?”
I knew he was cruel, but this was beyond cruelty. Yes, I had wanted that more than anything … two summers back when I was of age and eligible. I drew in breath in a hard gasp, then shook my head, and speaking a decisive, “No!”
He stared at me in disbelief. “Why ever not?” he spluttered, aghast that I would dare deny him. “You have a strong gift. You need the training of it!”
“I’ll see her properly trained.”
I was glad to see that the wizard was as startled by the newcomer’s voice as I was. I had been so fixed on the wizard and his … his temptation, that I had failed to see Healer Cally and Master Cider approaching. The wizard recovered quickly, regaining his feet and facing those new come to join us. He stood with his back to me so I couldn’t see his featuers but I heard the arrogance in his voice as he replied.
“A village hedgewitch. Is that the highest you aspire?” Turning again to me, he softened his voice into a wheedle. “At Academy, you could reach for so much more; the secrets of the Universe await … ”
“That’s enough, Master Wizard,” Br. Calum interrupted coldly. “Don’t make promises you haven’t the wherewithal to make good on.” To me, he said, “Lass, take your charges away to the churchyard. Now that Mistress Healer and Master Cider are here, we must needs get to business.” He turned his attention to the constable, directing him to help me take the littles away and then return.
I was fairly certain that the village elders were who they appeared to be but before I broke the circle, I wanted to be completely sure. I bowed my head. “Give us a blessing before we go I pray ye.”
Br. Calum gave me a crooked smile and sained me and the littles in the name of the Three. None of those around him screamed or burst into flames or showed the slightest sign of discomfort. Clamouring to my feet, I dismissed the circle and let the littles out at long last. Although, as long as the time seemed, not much time had passed since first I cried Olly on them.
“Wait!” the wizard commanded. “Before you go, tell me what happened to the necromancer.”
I had turned away, reaching down to pick up the littlest. At his question, I hesitated, then completed the action, settling her on my hip.
“What necromancer?” I asked carefully. Too carefully. He knew and I knew that he knew.
“The ‘big meanie’ you ‘mizzletofed’ to death.” His face was stiff, expressionless. I gave a little laugh, pretending unconcern.
“Oh, you know how littles are; always playing games.” I turned away in what I hoped was an obvious show of being too busy to answer anything more, when I heard him ask again. “What big meanie?” I would have ignored the question except there was an answer, of sorts. A confused babble of little-speak except these were the older littles. I spun around. He was talking to the three eldest littles. No. Worse. He was listening to them and showing signs of understanding.
“Leave them alone!” I shouted, rushing to get between the wizard and the littles. Headman Mastersmith stopped me, grabbing my arm.
“Let her go,’ the wizard said, standing and dusting off his knees.
“It was a mistake letting her have take charge of the littles again,” the Headman complained, glaring at me. “Filling their heads with lies. Mistress Baker was right, we should have strapped you proper.” He shook me, hard and pushed me away so that I stumbled and almost fell on the little that I was carrying. I didn’t hit the ground, but a cushion of air that felt as soft as a feather bed. The constable came to help me up. I didn’t know it then, but he was one of those who had been to talk to Pa about courting me when I came of age.
The wizard was watching Mastersmith. “Do that again and I will ensure that ill-luck follows you ever more.” The Headman blanched. Satisfied, the wizard turned to me. “Now. No more foolery. Tell me about the necromancer.”
“No one else saw anything except goblins,” I said defensively. The little was crying. I turned her head to my shoulder and rocked her, crooning softly while I watched the wizard warily. He waited.
After I got my voice back, I tried to tell people what had happened, how the goblins and the necromancer just appeared, out of no where, but no one wanted to hear. Ma beat me until I finally accepted what “everyone knew” as the truth.
He made a gesture. I almost saw what he did, but not quite. “Tell me what happened.” It wasn’t a request.
I could feel the words jostling to be spoken. I pressed my lips to keep them in. The wizard cocked his head, his brow creasing. He made another gesture, threads of light extending from his fingertips like thread on a distaff. It became harder to keep silent. He took a deep breath and made a third gesture and this time I saw it well enough to reach out to break the threads. Instead the threads of magic wrapped around my arm and up to circle my throat. Words spilled out.
“I knocked the necromancer off his cloud, he shattered and the sun came out and all the goblins screamed and then the men arrived.” I drew in a much needed breath of air, then glared, angrily demanding, “Happy?”
Mastersmith pushed his way forward. “Foolishness! There was no necromancer. She’s telling lies to make herself look the hero instead of admitting her mistake.” The wizard gave him a bothered look and made a movement with one finger and after that Mastersmith’s mouth flapped open and shut but no words came out. He looked very distressed as well he should, Mastersmith loved to talk.
After silencing the Headman, the wizard studied me, as if I were a strange specimen he couldn’t quite place. At last he sighed and shook his head. He turned to Brother Calum, ignoring the silent Headman. “I’m going to need to know everything she saw and did that day,” he said. “Starting with where the necromancer stood and ending with exactly how she ‘knocked him off his cloud’.” He appealed to the Master Ranger. “You know how vital it is to have that spell.”
Master Ranger nodded grimly.
“She has a chore to do. Let her get the littles settled back at the village proper and then she can come back and you can do what you will with her,” Brother Calum suggested.
“She’s a clever little lass,” Master Ranger mused. “She can read and write, not only the vulgar but Latin and Greek as well. What say ye that she be made available to you during your stay here, as an aide or assistant, like. You can query her at your leisure then.”
I protested, loudly. No one heeded. Healer Cally stated that I was to be her prentice … which shocked me silent again. She had said that she would see to the training of me but … Prentice. Did I want to be a village healer? Never go beyond the bounds of Toppermare?
While I pondered that my fate was sealed. I politely refused the constable’s help and betook me and the littles back to the village.
I wondered what it would be like to work for a wizard?