By Dianna Sanchez
Cretacia chewed on the end of a braid as she crouched over the scroll, trying to make sense of it. There! That word is spell, isn’t it? And that one’s fire, so this is some kind of fire spell. But what kind? Big or small? Contained or cast away? She cracked her knuckles nervously, turning the scroll upside down to see if it made more sense that way, but that just made it worse.
She rocked back on her heels and sat heavily in the dust of the unused room she had claimed as her personal workshop. Cretacia loved this part of their old, rambling manor house. It had belonged to Baba Luci, back before she became the Baba and took up residence in her walking, chicken-legged hut. Lucinda had raised her five daughters here while hosting various foster witches, too. Whenever another witch showed up, Luci had just added on another room or wing or turret.
Now that Cretacia lived here alone with her mother, Hepsibat, most of the manor lay empty and disused, which gave Cretacia all the space she needed to do what she liked. It was a wonderful house for keeping secrets. In a teensy little hut like the Baba’s, she would never have been able to hide the fact that she was too stupid to read.
Beating her fists on her thighs, Cretacia bent over the scroll one more time, the tip of her tongue sticking out from the corner of her mouth.
The will to popper? Polver? No, that makes no sense. Power? Yes, that fit. The will to power this something spell comes from witlen? Witness? Wither? Ah, within!
“Well, duh,” Cretacia muttered. “Can’t you just get to the good parts?” She skipped ahead to what looked like a list of components, but she just couldn’t decipher them.
Her shoulders sagged. “Fine,” she said, placing a long, sharply pointed fingernail at the beginning of the scroll. “Lukea minulle.” She felt her magic suffuse the parchment, making the letters dance for a moment. Then a voice, like her own but without any emotion or changes in tone, began reciting the words on the scroll.
“Minniver’s Combustion Spell,” said the voice.
Combustion? Cretacia thought. What does that mean?
“An exceedingly useful spell for inducing large fires with minimal combustible materials.”
Okay, it makes fires, I knew that. Why do enchanters always have to use such stupid big words for things?
“It requires only a few components, relying instead upon the caster’s strength of will to power the spell.”
Ah, Cretacia thought, that’s good, I can work with that. She laughed aloud, so she missed the part when it said, “Be warned that this spell should not be used within small confined spaces.”
Cretacia leaned forward and tapped the components list, and the read-aloud spell skipped forward.
“Required components for this spell: a pinch of firewort, a drop of any oil, though some work better than others, and a breath of air.”
Cretacia turned and opened the window seat. She kept her personal stash of magical components in there, far from the prying eyes of visiting cousins. Firewort? There! Oil, oil. Ah, linseed oil, that will do.
The read-aloud spell droned on. “Caution: before you cast, make certain the surrounding area is clear of flammable materials. The safe radius will depend upon the amount of power you wish to put into the spell, so you can also reduce the effects by limiting the power.”
Skipping back around the dust-covered featherbed, Cretacia dropped the firewort into her cauldron, which she’d placed in the middle of a tattered rag rug. She opened the bottle of linseed oil and added a drop.
“Should you need to cancel the spell, hold your breath for a minimum of five seconds. And now the incantation.”
Alarmed, Cretacia spun back to the scroll. It was generally a bad idea to let her spell read High Mystery. Even spoken by a spell, the words were potent, and she’d meant to read through the scroll once or twice more before she cast it. But before she could tap the scroll, it began reading.
“Pieni liekki,” said the read-aloud voice, and Cretacia gasped, her breath passing over the cauldron as the incantation completed, “syttyä ja kasvaa.”
Flame roared out of the cauldron, knocking Cretacia back, her braids singed and smoking. The featherbed next to her caught fire, as did the ceiling, flames roiling like an orange, upside-down river above her.
“Stop! Stop!” Cretacia dragged the smoking scroll away from her cauldron and scanned it desperately. It had said something about holding your breath, but of course her read-aloud spell had no breath to hold. She would have to counter the spell. “Halvene!” Cretacia cried, but this just blew apart the spell, scattering bits of fire all over the room. The ceiling began to creak ominously.
“Katoa!” she screamed, and the fire in the cauldron finally went out. But this did nothing to the rest of the flaming furniture, ceiling, and now the walls as well. And if it reached her stash of firewort…
Before Cretacia could even glance that way, the windowbox exploded, blowing out the entire wall. Above her, the ceiling beams began to fall in. Cretacia flung herself aside, just missing being crushed by a blackened beam.
“ALARM! ALARM! FIRE! FOES!” Two of her mother’s golems swept into the room. Hinkle, a metal golem, extended an arm, popping off its hand to reveal a hose. It began spraying the room with water. Spindles, however, was made of wood.
“Spindles!” Cretacia screamed at it. “Get out of here! You’ll burn up!” She got a lungful of smoke and coughed wretchedly.
“PRIORITY: SAVE CRETACIA,” Spindles replied. It zipped forward on its wagon wheels and scooped her up in its long, skinny arms, then darted back out of the room and down the hallway. Halfway down, they met Hebsibat, zipping along on her broomstick. She slowed and called out, “Are you all right?”
Cretacia nodded, still coughing.
“Keep going,” her mother ordered. Spindles continued down the hallway as Hepsibat zoomed forward. A moment later, a torrent of water gushed down the hallway, knocking Spindles sideways into a wall. Cretacia heard a crack.
“Stop, Spindles,” she gasped out.
Obediently, the golem rolled to a halt. Cretacia clambered down, ankle deep in water, and examined its right wheel, the one that had slammed into the wall. Two spokes were broken, and there was a small crack in its axle. Cretacia touched the axle and said, “Paikata.” It came out as a whisper, but the crack sealed up seamlessly. She did the same for the two broken spokes.
Suddenly, Cretacia realized that she was deeply, incredibly tired. A little mending spell shouldn’t do that, she thought as her eyes slid closed.
Cretacia woke in her own bed. Her mother dozed in the chair next to her.
“Mum?” Cretacia croaked. Her throat felt like it had been scraped with sandpaper.
Hepsibat’s eyes flew open. “Oh, good, you’re awake.” She removed the stopper from a vial and handed it to Cretacia. “Here, drink this. It’s from your aunt Bogdana.”
Cretacia drank it down and grimaced at the bitter tang. But her throat immediately felt better, and her breathing grew easier. She sighed and lay back on her pillows.
“Good,” her mother said, smiling. “Bogdana’s the best of us at healing, but don’t tell her I said that. Now, tell me what happened.”
Cretacia squirmed. “I was working on that fire scroll you gave me to study.”
“Yes, I found it in the ruins.”
Cretacia gasped. “Ruins? Then you couldn’t save the wing?”
“I have Hinkle and Birnbaum working on clearing the rubble right now. I’ll decide later whether to rebuild it or not.” Hepsibat frowned. “It’s not as if we need the space now.”
Cretacia’s heart sank. That was her wing, her secret place. All gone.
Hepsibat noticed this. “I’ve told you, time and again, you need to be careful with new spells. You’re an extremely powerful young witch, my dear, and sometimes you just don’t know your own strength. Also,” and her mother frowned, “you don’t read things through carefully enough. Didn’t you notice the warnings about flammable materials in the area?”
I didn’t know what flammable meant, Cretacia thought. I sure do now. To her mother, she said, “I’m sorry. I thought I could control the spell well enough.”
“You got ahead of yourself, didn’t you?” Hepsibat patted Cretacia’s arm. “I know it’s difficult sometimes, having so much power. You forget to be careful. But as you get older and begin trying more complex spells, the safety precautions become more and more important. That runaway fire spell almost completely drained your magic, did you know that? And then you went and mended Spindles – nicely done, by the way – and that almost finished you off.”
Cretacia gulped. No wonder she’d been so tired. “I’m sorry, Mum. I’ll be more careful.”
“You know,” Hepsibat went on, “it’s all right to ask for help sometimes. I know you don’t really need it, you’re so good at this. But if there’s anything you’re not certain about, come and ask, okay?”
I can’t read, Mum, Cretacia wanted to say. I have no idea what I’m doing most of the time. I just try stuff, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, and half the time I don’t know why.
But Cretacia looked at her mother’s face, etched with concern but also glowing with pride. Hepsibat was convinced that her daughter was a genius, the most powerful and promising witch in the Coven. She loved showing Cretacia off, demonstrating her outstanding abilities, telling stories of Cretacia’s successes. Losing a wing of the manor was nothing compared to the boasting Hepsibat would get out of it. Cretacia could already hear it: Oh, my, it’s so trying having a prodigy. Why, last week she burned down a whole wing of my house!
What if I tell her, and she stops admiring me? What if she stops loving me? Cretacia thought. And what if she tells the other witches in the Coven? I’ll be a laughing stock.
“Okay, Mum,” Cretacia said. “But don’t worry. I won’t make that mistake again.”
Hepsibat smiled. “Of course you won’t. You’re such a quick study.”
“I’m going to Vanaheim with the new shipment of golems,” Hepsibat said. “Would you like to come along?”
Cretacia looked up from her packing. For reasons that still escaped her, Mum was marrying the wizard Salazar, and they were moving to Westmarch Tower.
“Are you going to tell Papa?” Cretacia asked, knowing she was being cruel but not caring. It wasn’t fair that she had to move, even though she hated looking at the walled off wing.
Hepsibat blushed a little green. “Yes, of course,” she said. “He deserves to know.”
“I’ll come,” Cretacia said. “Better than packing. Why can’t Spindles pack for me?”
“When you make your own golem, your golem can do your packing,” Hepsibat told her. “I need Spindles for my own work.”
But of course, Cretacia couldn’t make a golem. She’d have to write out an inscription to place in the golem’s head, bringing it to life. And Cretacia couldn’t write one out to save her life. She got all the letters jumbled. So she’d told her mother that golems were boring and stupid and that she had no interest in animation at all.
Which was about as far from the truth as Cretacia could get. She loved the golems. They were her friends and playmates. More than anything else, she wanted to make a golem beholden only to her. The golem could read things and write things for her, and then Cretacia would be safe.
So instead she lurked around her mother’s workshop, trying to learn all she could. But nothing she did helped. Cretacia still couldn’t read or write.
“Come on,” said Hepsibat. “The golems have to walk to the portal, so it’ll take at least an hour.”
“I’ll go get my broom,” Cretacia told her.
An hour later, they reached the Vanaheim portal, a pair of standing stones with runes carved on them. Hepsibat touched the runes in a particular sequence, and the portal opened like a shimmering curtain.
“Forward!” Hepsibat told the twenty golems she’d brought along. They marched, two by two, through the portal, then Hepsibat waved Cretacia through.
Cretacia liked Vanaheim. Unlike the Enchanted Forest, it wasn’t completely covered with trees. There were vast, open plains where reindeer and dire wolves roamed. Great craggy mountains reared up, and deep fjords wound around their bases.
Cretacia’s father, Ljot, was waiting on the other side, inspecting the regiment of golems as Hepsibat flew through, tapping a rune to close the portal.
“Cretacia!” Ljot said. He was tall and very fair, like all the Vanir, dressed in long white robes, with wavy golden hair tumbling over his shoulders. Poor Papa, Cretacia thought. Thank darkness I look like Mum. “How are you, my flower?” he asked her in very formal Canto.
Cretacia hopped off her broom and ran to give her father a hug. “Fine, Papa,” she said, “except for moving.”
Ljot raised an eyebrow and turned to Hepsibat, who was scowling at Cretacia. “We can discuss that later,” her mum said. “First, does this shipment meet with your approval?”
Letting Cretacia go, Ljot walked slowly around the golems, lifting an arm here, inspecting a knee joint there. “Excellent quality,” he said in a slow, measured voice. “Better than usual, in fact.”
“Quite,” Ljot said. “Here is your payment.” He handed her a small box.
Hepsibat opened it, and her face lit up with a warm glow from within. She smiled and shut it. “Perfect. Thank you. Golems, you will now take orders from this Vanir, Ljot.”
“SIR,” the golems said in unison.
“Thank you,” said Ljot. “Now, about this move…”
Hepsibat turned to Cretacia. “Would you give us a minute, dear? Go harass some reindeer or gather dilmoss.”
Cretacia snorted, “Fine,” she said, climbing back on her broom. Under her breath, she whispered, “Kuunnella,” her eavesdropping spell. Kicking off, she zoomed away, but she could still hear her parents talking.
“If it’s more children you want,” Ljot was saying.
“It’s more than that,” Hepsibat replied. “Salazar has high standing in the Enchanted Forest. And his son, Maximillian, has a reputation as a brilliant young wizard. None of the other apprentice witches can match Cretacia’s abilities. She’s quite alone, poor thing. I think having a stepbrother who can keep up with her will be good for her. They can learn from each other.”
Oh, no, Cretacia thought. Nononononono. This wonder boy will figure out I’m stupid. He’ll tell my mother. He’ll tell everyone! This is terrible!
“She could come here to study,” Ljot was saying. “The children of the Vanir are among the finest magicians in all the Realms. No doubt it is her Vanir blood that gives Cretacia her great power.”
“She’s a witch, Ljot. She should be among witches. Really, I think this is best.”
“Katoa!” Cretacia yelled, and the eavesdropping spell abruptly ended. She didn’t want to hear any more. Vanaheim was interesting, but she didn’t want to leave her mother or all her minions. I’ll just have to find a way to keep Wonder Boy from prying into my business, she thought. I’ll torment him. I’ll annoy him so much that he’ll leave me alone. A small voice in the back of her head said, Or maybe I could ask him for help. But Cretacia crushed it ruthlessly. Never trust a wizard, she thought.
Max read constantly. He always had his nose in a book, and if she prodded him to do something with her, he’d look up at her, blink, and then say something like, “Did you know that naiads are matriarchal?” or “Did you know that there are seven different classifications of stardust?”
Of course she didn’t know. It was hard enough just reading her spellcraft. But Cretacia couldn’t admit that, so she’d tease Max mercilessly instead. And it made her so jealous, watching him casually, trivially doing what was nearly impossible for her. She just couldn’t stand watching him read all day. So she cursed him with warts or boils or itchy-foot and put spiders in his bed.
What Cretacia really wanted to do was gather up her courage and ask, “How do you do that? Can you teach me?” But Max started avoiding her, then disappearing all day. And she was glad, because deep down, she was afraid he’d laugh at her, call her stupid and useless, and tell everyone else how stupid and useless she was. After all, that’s exactly what she would do.
One morning, Cretacia went down to her mother’s basement workshop to watch her prepare a golem for animation. This was an interesting golem, made of slender willow branches. Hepsibat was trying to create a golem that could fly. As she wove the branches, binding them with pitch and magic together into a framework that resembled a large bat, she said to Cretacia, “You know, you’re nearly twelve. We really ought to start preparing you for your journeywitch examination.”
Cretacia sucked in her breath. “My what?”
“Come now, we’ve discussed this. When you turn thirteen, you’re eligible to become a journeywitch. It’s a wonderful time in a witch’s life. You’ll study with other witches to learn a bit about their specialties, travel to other Realms, perhaps meet some eligible young wizards.” Hepsibat winked at her.
“Like Max?” Cretacia stuck out her tongue. “Gross. Anyway, I know all that, Mum. I’ve been looking forward to it.” Mostly, she had been hoping to escape the constant fear that the next scroll her mother handed her would be her undoing. “But I don’t remember anything about an examination.”
Hepsibat waved a pitch-coated hand. “It’s nothing to worry about, you’ll do fine. You’re so talented, my darkling. But still, it can’t hurt to prepare.”
Cretacia clenched her hands. “What’s the examination like?”
“Oh, nothing terrible. There’s a practical exam and a theoretical exam. In the practical exam, you demonstrate your abilities before a panel of witches. And in the theoretical exam, you write an essay to show your deeper understanding of magical principles.” She picked up a small glass sphere and peered through it, her image flipping upside down.
Just how Cretacia felt. “Write an essay? About what?”
“You pick the topic,” her mother said, then frowned. “We’re going to have to work on your penmanship, and your spelling. It’s atrocious.” Hepsibat paused, looking keenly at her daughter. Then she shrugged. “Well, we have more than a year, plenty of time. It’s not as if you’re Millie.” She whooped with laughter.
Cretacia laughed with her, forgetting for a moment the cold fear coursing through her. Millie was a great comfort to Cretacia. Knowing that there was someone else far worse at magic always made her feel better. She could at least cast spells, ride a broom without getting sick, and rule the local Underforest with a warty fist. All useless Millie could do was cook, and not even magical cooking. Though Cretacia had to admit her cookies were delicious.
While it was annoying that Cretacia’s curses couldn’t make things much worse for Millie, with her appallingly ugly blonde hair and pink skin, Cretacia made sure that everyone knew how terrible Millie was at magic, and how much better Cretacia was. There was no way Millie would be taking that examination. She’d fail miserably if she tried.
The thought warmed Cretacia a bit, but still she worried. A year, she thought. I have a year to figure this out. That’s plenty of time.
The months flew by, Cretacia turned twelve, and still she struggled. She did improve her penmanship, but she couldn’t do a thing about her spelling, and her poor grasp of grammar was starting to show. “Really, Cretacia, you’re just not trying hard enough. A lazy witch is a lousy witch,” Hepsibat would say.
What am I going to do? Cretacia thought. It was getting harder and harder to hide her stupidity from her mother. And then Hepsibat mentioned speaking to Baba Luci at the next Coven meeting. Baba Luci! She’s fair, and she’s discreet. She won’t tell anyone if I ask her not to. Probably. Maybe she can help. Asking the Baba was risky, she knew. The Baba kept the balance between good and evil within the Coven. If your motives were true, she would help you, but there was always a price. Still, it was the best hope Cretacia had.
At the next Coven meeting, Cretacia kept her fingers crossed, hoping desperately that the Baba would choose to attend. To distract herself, she gathered up the Hanterslash twins and got them to help her tease Millie mercilessly. It was so easy to goad her, like kicking a puppy. Cretacia even snubbed Millie’s cookies, though that cost her dearly. Salazar’s dinner that evening had been rubbery roast with watery gravy, tasteless mashed potatoes, and that horrible white bread.
The Baba arrived, driving all thought of food from Cretacia’s mind. As soon as she stepped out of her giant mortar, Cretacia rushed in to hug her. “Baba,” she whispered. “Can I talk to you later?”
“Of course, my dear,” the Baba said kindly. “Those braids’re frightful. Nicely done.”
Cretacia blushed green and smiled up at her. It’s going to be okay, she thought.
And then, the Baba said, “Where’s Millie?”
As Millie came up with her cookie – oatmeal raisin pecan, the Baba’s favorite – Cretacia pushed away in disgust. How could the Baba stand her, the miserable, talentless, ugly little thing? Was it pity? And yet Baba Luci seemed to actually like her, giving her a bone-crushing hug.
The Baba told everyone about how the Enchanted Forest Council was requesting that they send witches to school with all the other children of the Forest. A sudden hope caught fire in Cretacia’s heart. What if she went to school? Would they be able to teach her to read? And write? No one in the Coven would willingly send their daughter to the school; it just wasn’t done. Witches learned from their mothers and from other witches.
Cretacia thought furiously. It might mean a reduction in her status among the apprentices. She might get teased, and her mother might disapprove. Unless she found a way to turn it to her advantage. Recruiting minions, as the Baba had suggested. Also spying on the other forest races, learning their strengths and weaknesses. And she could make it look as though she was attending to discredit the school, bring it all down.
Yes, she could do it. It was her best, maybe her only, chance.
As Cretacia opened her mouth to volunteer, the Baba turned to Millie. “Millie,” she said. “I offer you this path.”
MILLIE! Of all the people to send! Cretacia was furious. What a wasted opportunity! What could Millie possibly learn there when she had no talent for magic? “Don’t say yes, don’t say yes,” Cretacia whispered.
Millie straightened up from her usual cowardly slouch, lifted her head, looked the Baba right in the eye, and said, “I accept.”
Cretacia barely paid attention as the Baba began their monthly ritual. Instead, she leaned back against an outer standing stone, seething with indignation. That was her spot! Her chance! She needed to go to school, not Millie. Maybe I can change her mind, Cretacia thought. Maybe I can make it so horrible for her that she’ll quit. And then I’ll get to go. One of Hepsibat’s goblin minions sent his children to the Enchanted Forest School. Well, unless they wanted a permanent case of poison ivy, they’d help her fix the problem, and Millie.