|Spell, Book, and Candle Chapter 1|
"And lastly I call upon the fourth element, fire, to heed my will. I, Bronwen Trelawney--Oh, bugger."
Bronwen scowled at the end of her raised forefinger. Not even a flicker of flame erupted on the tip.
Someone sniggered. Bronwen blushed. Not only the six members of her examining panel, but also most of the staff of Lady Agnes Whitelaw’s Academy for Young Gentle Ladies, had come to watch her fail. They stood at a safe distance against the red brick walls of the hall. All wore their formal, dowdy witch’s robes, though some left them casually open to reveal a lace-trimmed collar or ribbon-decked bodice. Only the theoretical magic instructor, Valerie Winter, nodded encouragement.
Bronwen took a deep breath and tried again to imagine magic happening, just as Mistress Winter had taught her. She added a silent prayer to every passing deity for a minor miracle.
"And I call upon fire to heed my will--now!"
A crack of thunder shook the hall. Bronwen winced. The accompanying acrid puff, as sulphurous as gunpowder, made her eyes water. She blinked to see a diminutive green flame twitching on her finger. Green?
"Oh, bugger," she muttered.
The expectation of failure exuded by the assembled witches ameliorated not one jot. They knew Bronwen Trelawney: a ripe twenty years old and still at school. Even their familiars, with a scratch or twitching tail, emanated animal disdain. The headmistress’s fat, beady-eyed tortoise reminded Bronwen of her fat, beady-eyed father. How it watched her now with that cold stare, just like his.
As Bronwen stooped to light the seven candles on the floor, she singed a lock of her long brown hair.
Bronwen had prayed for many nights that she would get this ritual of calling a familiar right. She also prayed that it would be answered by something more lovable than a tortoise. But, realistically, since she knew she was such a useless witch, she’d be lucky if she ended up with a stick insect.
Someone coughed impatiently.
Bronwen bit her lip and looked down to check that she stood roughly in the centre of the chalked heptagon. She drew herself up to her full, not very tall, height, and screwed her eyes shut.
Please, gods, let me call a familiar. I know I’m the worst witch ever, but please let me pass this exam. Please. I’ll be so grateful. And so will Burghermeister Thomas Trelawney, head of the wool merchant’s guild in Haverston North. My father will offer libations to you all if I finally get to leave this school and earn my own wages.
"I, Bronwen Trelawney, am a--" Bronwen’s voice squeaked unsteadily. "--a true daughter of the arts. Hear my call, you helpers and spirits. I bid one come to--Erm...I bid one come to--to companion me through the ways of--the ways of--Oh. Erm. Arcana and magic! Yes, that’s it. Come. I claim you."
Bronwen waited, eyes shut.
Feet shuffled on the wooden hall floor.
Bronwen opened her eyes and sagged.
"Not a spark of magic." The dean’s loud voice knifed through the hall. "I told you that girl is unfit." Her grass snake, twined up her staff, flicked its tongue at Bronwen.
"Yes. Well..." The headmistress tugged at the orange sleeve of her robe and glanced aside to the blonde witch in white. "Perhaps, Valerie, Bronwen would benefit from another year of--"
The leopard at Valerie Winter’s feet bared its teeth with a throaty growl. The alchemy tutor’s badger bolted from the hall.
"Brutus!" Valerie dropped a hand to her familiar’s head. "Bronwen is ready. She just needs a little more time. Perhaps you could all have the courtesy to be patient."
Although softly spoken, Valerie’s words caused even the dean to snap her mouth shut. The hall fell so quiet that everyone must have heard the thump of Bronwen dropping her apprentice’s staff.
"Bronwen, compose yourself," Valerie said. "Relax and concentrate. Try the call again. You’ll be fine."
The gentle championship of the best witch at the school drew a nervous smile of thanks from Bronwen. Although, this now obliged her to try extra hard. Not only must she succeed to justify her father’s prolonged investment in her education. She must also vindicate Valerie’s belief in her before everyone.
Bronwen swallowed. She squeezed her eyes shut, mentally implored magic to do her this one favour, and theatrically threw her arms wide.
"I, Bronwen Trelawney, am a true daughter of the arts. Hear my call, you helpers and spirits. I bid one come to companion--Oh, bugger it. Just come! I claim you."
Something hard like a broom handle smacked her between the shoulder blades. She stumbled forward. The world whirled with black speckles. Bronwen tripped on her dress hem and fell.
A murmured chorus of disbelief rippled around the hall.
Good gods, she thought, it must’ve worked.
Bronwen scrambled around on hands and knees. Despite herself, wild hope flared. Was her life-long companion an eagle that would call her friend? A lioness to keep the crowds in awe? Or a wolf who would--
"Caw." A black feathered head cocked to one side to study her with a dark eye. "You’re not exactly what I had in mind for my new witch. Not a thing like Cordelia Armstrong. Still, she were a great witch."
Bronwen’s mouth dropped open.
"Something wrong?" the crow asked. "You’re looking gormless. Still, you’re probably dazzled by my magnificence. I bet you can’t believe your luck. Come on, what’s my name?"
A talking crow? Bronwen loosed a groan. "Oh, bugger..."
"Bugger?" The crow blinked. "Hmm. I suppose it could’ve been worse. Birdy. Or, gods save me, Mr Beaky."
He strutted past Bronwen. "Big place you’ve got here. Not as nice as Cordelia Armstrong’s, of course. Where’s the food? I’m starving."
Bronwen winced and skidded to a halt in the garden just short of the rear door to the school’s dormitory wing. Bugger’s black form glided over her head and disappeared into the building.
Mistress Goodbody, the dean, levelled a hawk-like glare at Bronwen as she bore down on her.
"That bird of yours drove away the turkey destined for the staff’s dinner table," Mistress Goodbody said. "The gardener and his boy had to chase it nearly two miles to re-capture it."
Bronwen bit her lip. "I’m sorry, mistress."
"You will indeed be sorry, Trelawney, when my report reaches the headmistress’s ears. This is not the first time I’ve had to speak to you about that bird."
"No, mistress. I’m sorry, mistress."
In the four days since Bronwen had called him, Bugger had terrorised the headmistress’s tortoise back into its shell, thus earning Bronwen the distinction of being the only graduated witch to ever do a punishment duty in the kitchens. Also, the incantation instructor’s marmoset had taken to hiding in the cellar. Bronwen could guess how the thaumaturgical tutor’s squirrel had acquired a nasty patch of raw skin and an aversion to scampering up trees.
"The sooner you and that awful creature of yours leave us in peace, the better," Mistress Goodbody said.
"Yes, mistress." Bronwen frowned down at the gravel path. "We start our journey to the Witch of the King’s office tomorrow, mistress."
"Well and good. Let’s hope that the Witch assigns you to some tiny village well out of harm’s way." Mistress Goodbody pursed her lips, which accentuated the small pox scars on her cheeks. "I never thought you’d ever leave us as a graduate, Trelawney. Your spell casting is frighteningly erratic. You need some backbone, girl. Even a village witch must command respect. You will certainly not impress anyone if you can’t keep your crow under control. No witch is worth her robe if she doesn’t command even the respect of her familiar."
"Remember, there is no shame in marrying and having babies. Now, get along with you. And try not to let that bird do anything else before you leave."
"No, mistress. I’ll try, mistress." Bronwen dropped a quick curtsy and strode indoors.
Once inside, Bronwen hitched her dress and bolted down the corridor to the room she shared with three other girls.
The room was empty except for Bugger preening on Bronwen’s bed. Bronwen yanked open the chest at the foot of her bed and pulled out her best dress.
The slap of running feet and a girl’s squeal carried through the dormitory door.
"You’re going to be late," Bugger said.
"Did you chase the school turkey?" Bronwen asked as she tugged off her old, patched dress.
"Heh. You should’ve seen that podgy bag of feathers run."
"That wasn’t a very nice thing to do," Bronwen suggested.
With no hint of contrition, Bugger busied his beak with a wing feather.
On that vital scale of judging a witch’s prestige through her familiar, a crow ranked in the humble category of avians, common and non-predatory. Bronwen had looked it up in the library. Bugger, though, seemed blissfully unaware of his lowly lot in life.
Yes, Mistress Goodbody was right: it was for the best that Bugger and Bronwen would soon be leaving Lady Whitelaw’s to begin their career in the world.
Bronwen sagged onto her cot.
No, it wasn’t. The last ten years had not been happy, but the academy was home. Bronwen’s eyes stung with impending tears. How could she possibly be the witch of a whole town, with no Mistress Winter around to fix her mistakes? The idea was even worse than the headmistress’s yearly threats to have her sent home as an unteachable failure.
She bit her lip and gripped her apprentice’s staff. The battered wood was chipped and blackened. Her father hadn’t sent an allowance for the purchase of a new staff, or a graduating robe, so that she would at least look like a real witch. The gods knew that she didn’t feel the part.
"Caw. Shake a leg, lazy." Bugger hopped along the cot to tap his beak against Bronwen’s wrist. "Can’t keep Lord Brutus waiting. Cordelia Armstrong was always punctual."
Bronwen sniffed and wiped her face with her sleeve.
A stifled shriek punctuated the muffled voices from the corridor outside. Despite Bugger hopping impatiently from one claw to the other, Bronwen paused as she smoothed the lie of her collar across her shoulders. She frowned as she listened. There were too many voices to be someone getting a reprimand for running in the corridors, and they sounded too hushed to be a poor girl getting bullied.
Bronwen gave her skirts a final shake, but no matter how she tugged her sleeves they would not puff out to a fashionable fullness. Her leather soles slapped on the scrubbed stone floor as she walked out into the dormitory corridor. Girls of all ages and sizes crowded the windows facing into the once-cobbled courtyard. Chilly draughts crept under the doors and wound around Bronwen’s ankles as she padded forward to join the throng. She heard their exclamations.
"No! Fie. They’re soldiers. At home--."
"Those ugly, dirty men at the back have muskets!"
Bronwen stood up on tip-toe behind a group of first year girls. A dozen men and three horses waited in the courtyard. The headmistress, flanked by half of the teaching staff, stood at the top of the broad entry stairs. The headmistress looked most displeased at what the man in the broad-brimmed hat, buff coat, and wide blue sash was saying.
"I think he’s a nobleman," a girl said in an awed whisper.
Bronwen silently agreed. His boot tops were crushed down around his knees showing off the complicated ribbons at the sides of his breeches. A gauntleted hand rested on the hilt of a sword.
"I bet he’s from the king," a young girl at the next window said.
"But what are they doing here?" one of the senior girls asked. "Nobody ever comes here."
"Men certainly don’t," Corinna Davidson said with a toss of her golden curls. "That officer isn’t very handsome, though his horse is passable. He might be a nobleman. Though he’s not fine enough for me."
Tall and willowy Corinna was three years younger than Bronwen but scheduled for her calling examination next month. Her sycophants, who now nodded their agreement, included most the senior year. Girls of all ages, though, turned to listen to her words. Bronwen frowned out of the window.
Down in the courtyard, the officer gained two more steps, despite the headmistress’s half-raised hand. The witches behind the headmistress parted for a blonde-haired colleague. Valerie Winter stepped forward. The officer swept off his hat. After a brief exchange, Valerie led the officer inside. The headmistress and the other witches followed the pair.
Perhaps Mistress Winter would tell Bronwen over their dinner what all the excitement was about. Since offering to tutor Bronwen, Mistress Winter had invited her to dine many times. This afternoon would be the last time. Bronwen bit her lip as she turned away from the window.
"Oh, ho, girls!" Corinna Davidson eyed Bronwen. Her rosebud lips curled with malice. "Look who is here. It’s the mighty witch, Bronwen Trelawney."
Corinna stepped forward to block Bronwen’s path. Every one of the girls at the windows quietened and turned to watch.
"What are you hanging around here for, Bronwen?" Corinna sneered. "I would’ve thought you’d be on your way to the Witch of the King to offer yourself as her personal assistant."
Even the smallest first year girls joined the sniggers.
Bronwen gritted her teeth and stepped around Corinna. Bugger’s claws dug in her shoulder. The heat rose in Bronwen’s cheeks as the girls laughed.
"What sort of witch are you, to let them say such things about you?" Bugger demanded.
"I’m a very ill sort of witch," Bronwen said. "I always have been. Always will be."
"Caw! My old witch wouldn’t have put up with that," he said. "But then, Cordelia Armstrong was a very good witch. Could do anything, could Cordelia."
After only four days, Bronwen was already growing tired of Cordelia Armstrong.
Bugger finally fell silent when Bronwen rounded the last stair and stepped onto the upper floor landing outside Valerie Winter’s rooms. He quickly rearranged a feather.
Bronwen knocked. The wooden door swung open a few inches.
"Mistress Winter?" Bronwen pushed the door wider and stepped inside.
A welcoming fire burned in the grate. The small dining table at the back of the room waited set for two. Yet the room was empty.
Bronwen hesitated beside one of the high backed leather chairs flanking the hearth. Usually she would go through to the study to read until Mistress Winter returned, but this time there would be no lesson. She frowned. She had not seen Brutus down with Mistress Winter, but neither was the leopard sprawled on his favourite rug before the fire toasting himself.
Bugger lifted from Bronwen’s shoulder and flapped through the half-open study door. Bronwen followed him. A deep, throaty growl greeted her.
"Brutus." Bronwen smiled and spread her hands. "It’s only me."
The leopard’s hackles relaxed and his spotted ears raised.
Bronwen dropped to her knees and laid her staff down. She lifted her hands to stroke the side of Brutus’s large, furry head.
"What are you doing growling at me?" she asked. "Anyone would think--"
Metal hissed against metal. Just beside her.
Bronwen froze. Brutus turned away to look up at Bugger. His wiry whiskers tickled her cheek. Bronwen turned her head very slowly, her eyes straining at the corners to see--Nothing. The eye-like knots on the wooden panelling stared back at her, but nothing else did. The five feet of wall between the door and first bookshelf was empty.
Frowning, Bronwen rose.
The study looked exactly as it should. A neat stack of books sat on one side of Valerie’s large mahogany desk along with a letter sealed with red wax waiting to be sent. The two chairs and three oil lamps were in their usual places. Bugger perched up on the curtain rail of the window. Apart from him, only Brutus’s presence seemed out of the ordinary. Especially, now she thought about it, with Valerie downstairs with those armed men.
Bronwen turned back to frown down at the leopard. In such a wildly unusual situation as soldiers in the courtyard, where there might be a threat to Valerie, her familiar should be with her. Yet Brutus sat here. The tip of his spotted tail beat a slow rhythm on the floor.
And Bronwen definitely had heard something. She turned to scowl at the wall. She took a step closer.
Bronwen started. The male voice came from the main room. A man not three feet in front of her turned his head.
Bronwen leaped back.
The wall was bare again. No one stood before her. Yet, for an instant, she had seen someone--an armed man.
"I’m sure you understand, madam," the male voice from the next room said.
Bronwen opened her mouth. The man between herself and the wall materialised again. In a fluid motion, he clamped a hand on Bronwen’s mouth and tugged her back behind the door. His hand and body felt solid and real as he held her tight against him. The butt of his pistol prodded her backside.
"Don’t move," her captor whispered.
Bronwen bit down hard. He stiffened and sucked in breath, but made no other noise. The arm around her waist jerked tight. His bitten hand slid up to cover mouth and nose. Thumb and index finger pinched her nostrils closed. Bronwen jabbed her elbows back. He breathed a grunt. Bronwen shook her head wildly and clawed with her fingers to try to dislodge his suffocating grip. She felt him flinch, but his hold tightened.
Her lungs demanded air. She flailed with her legs. Her kicks landed on someone else. A second man bent towards Bronwen. The iron grip on her waist pulled tighter, as if her captor tried to squeeze the very last air out of her lungs. She could feel her strength seeping away as her lungs screamed for air. The second man clamped strong hands around her wrists and pressed himself against her, sandwiching her between the two men. Imprisoned and weak, she sagged. Unexpectedly, the grip on her nose relaxed to allow her to breathe.
"This is my study." Valerie strode into the room.
Bronwen, face pressed against the neck and lace-collar of the man in front of her, could neither move nor make a sound to attract Valerie’s attention.
The officer from the courtyard strode in, his boot heels tapping on the wooden floor. Brutus, who had made no move over Bronwen’s capture, bared his fangs. Valerie dropped a hand to her familiar’s head.
"You have a great many books, madam," the officer said.
"I’m a witch," Valerie said. "And a teacher. You may examine any as you choose. But I would ask you to return them in order."
The officer waved the suggestion away with an impatient gesture and wandered up to the desk. A hand rested on the hilt of his rapier. The other stroked his moustaches and tapered beard. He openly read the address on Valerie’s letter.
Behind his back, Valerie quickly bent to retrieve Bronwen’s staff from under Brutus’s paw. She cast a frown at the trio against the wall. She looked directly at Bronwen, and her eyebrows raised in surprise as if she saw through the illusion that cloaked them. Bronwen could do no more than roll her eyes. Valerie turned away, her expression composed.
The officer grunted.
"You correspond with the duke of Granst," he said.
"I correspond with a great many people," Valerie said. "As I'm sure Roxanne is well aware. She has the power to banish me here, but I believe it’s outside even her jurisdiction to proscribe my freedom to write letters."
Bronwen’s eyebrows soared in surprise. Banished? By Roxanne Sturmgard, the Witch of the King? And Mistress Winter was on a first name terms with the Witch?
The officer shrugged. "The Witch of the King must consider the safety of our sovereign and his kingdom. Which is doubly important in these days of unrest. Traitors must be rooted out."
"Are you accusing me of being a traitor?" Valerie’s voice dropped dangerously, and she lifted the restraining hand from her leopard’s head.
The officer hastily held up his gauntleted hands, palms out. "Madam, no. But these De Roymans insinuate themselves everywhere. And there have been reports of sightings in this area."
"Do you see them?" Valerie spread her hands.
The hands on Bronwen tightened.
The cruel irony was that the officer’s gaze slid right over Bronwen and her captors, but she was held too firmly to alert him. Yet, he must be the enemy. But, then, so were these two imprisoning her?
"No, madam. And I thank you for your cooperation." The officer lifted a hand to the door. "If you’d be so kind as to lead your--your beast out."
Bronwen saw Mistress Winter give Brutus a long look. The leopard padded out ahead of his mistress. His gait and the angle of his tail told Bronwen he was not happy.
As soon as Valerie left, the officer quickly dug something out of a pocket and jammed it behind a row of books on the nearest shelf. He strode out.
"I thank you for your cooperation, madam," the officer said in the next room.
The grip on Bronwen remained as tight as ever. Bronwen belatedly noticed that the men against whom she was pressed smelled only faintly of sweat. Something seemed very wrong in the idea that she might be killed by a pair of the rare men who bathed regularly. And who wore a doublet of velvet with the sleeves slashed to reveal a silk lining. When the one she faced turned his head, the ends of his long dark hair slipped from behind his shoulder to tickle Bronwen’s nose. A nobleman? She was going to die at the hands of a pair of noblemen in Valerie’s study? Oh, bugger.