The witch-to-be, Brinley Sparhawk, woke in the full-dark hours of the morning and left her bed like a cat on the prowl. Appearing as a ghost in just her slip and woolen socks (and other unmentionables, which will not be mentioned), she moved through the room of sleeping girls, also witches-to-be, to the shared wardrobe in order to collect her black dress and accompanying black boots before exiting not just from the room, but the whole of the witches’ school that the room was a part of. She dressed herself on the back steps of the wood-and-earth-built, straw-topped building before moving even farther into the darkness, finally ending up at the small shed forty or so paces from the door, where tools for the garden were kept. There, she had stashed half a dozen apples, and now she lit a candle and placed them in a row across the floor and stared at them until she was nearly cross-eyed.
She had been at the school for almost three months by that point and her first qualifying examination as a witch, which would grant her the all-important pointy hat, was fast approaching by the end of the week; and she’d not been able to do a single bit of witching in all of that time. If she failed she’d be sent back to her family on the farm, whom she loved, but still a fate worse than death by her estimation. At thirteen years old, she was well-read, inquisitive and perceptive, studiously serious, cautious but adventurous—and they were…not. So it was important that she not be sent home.
The first apple popped in a slurry, coating the toes of her boots in a sweet-smelling ooze, with more substantial chunks sticking to the hem of her dress. The second did the same. Though the third made an admirable attempt to tip on its side and roll away before bubbling just beneath the surface as its core turned molten.
The first time she’d encountered a witch had been when diphtheria swept through her hometown and her eldest brother caught it from the girl he’d been sneaking off and kissing most days. He’d been confined to the one room all her brothers shared and his coughing and wheezing could be heard through the house as his throat threatened to seal shut. The witch, when called upon, had entered the house with the severest look Brinley had ever seen and gone immediately to the room. Brinley followed and stood just inside the door. She had expected to see the witch draw fiery runes in the air and chant in a cabalistic tongue. Instead, she threw a kerchief over the brother’s face and placed the tips of her fingers to his neck just beneath the jawline, muttering to herself. After several seconds, she took some herbs from her dress pocket, crushed them in her palm, and boiled them within the cup of water on the bedstand (the only veritable act of magic Brinley was to witness). Her brother was made to drink the mixture before falling into a comatose state.
The witch turned to Brinley and addressed the girl as if she were her brother’s nursemaid. “The disease will leave him after two days, but do not expect a full recovery for at least a week.” Then, just as quickly as she’d come, the witch departed, leaving the now-contaminated kerchief behind. And Brinley was enamored with the idea of becoming a witch.
The fourth apple fared better as its skin flayed and curled like thin petals around the stem, before sweating out all its juices and shriveling up. The fifth glazed over with a strange lacquer that then crackled as if it were quietly speaking to itself.
At the school she’d met the two matriarchs, Mistress Eugenia and Mistress Josephine, who gave her a tour of the grounds and introduced her to her peers, all clad in the same black uniform. Mistress Eugenia was the more tenderhearted of the two, giving encouragement and praise to even the most hopeless of the girls (of which Brinley was one), while Mistress Josephine seemed happiest when doling out cutting criticisms and especially when punishing those who could not improve within a certain time-frame that she never bothered to specify. It was while announcing the upcoming qualifying examination that Mistress Josephine suggested, at a whim, that the girls should be made to take a piece of fruit and transubstantiate it into a golden approximation of itself. Despite the impracticality of the act and waste it would cause, Mistress Eugenia agreed because, at the very least, changing anything into gold was always a good party trick.
So that’s what Brinley had to do if she hoped to become a witch.
The sixth apple contained a worm, unknown to the girl, and it was some fluke in her concentration that allowed the grub to transcend seventeen levels of being and open a hole in the fabric of space and time, which the apple then disappeared through, not to be seen again.
“Shit!” Brinley spat. She sat down upon the floorboards in her soiled dress and set to thinking. She realized she would need something greater than magical aptitude and know-how, more than the grandeur of kicking the universe sideways and rearranging molecules during its discomportment, of higher fancy than a flaring meteorite to pass along her wish to the gods—she was going to need an engineer.
After the last of the day’s classes let out, Brinley walked the wooded path leading to the nearby road which would take her into town. The witches’ school was suitably hidden away deep within a forest and it was an hour’s hike to get from the grounds to the muddy highway along which travel, commerce, and thievery would occur. Being obviously from the witches’ school, she had no need to worry about thievery, and even commerce and travel would leave her be up until if and when she demanded their attention. As such, she only needed to relate the slight fatigue in her legs in order to be offered a ride in the straw-softened bed of a cart bringing various types of produce into town; and even so, it was still another half-hour before she arrived and stood outside the tavern, which was her best bet at sourcing an engineer.
She approached the publican at the bar with her most severe look and made sure to square her shoulders in order to show him she meant business. But he must’ve overlooked the dress (most people only saw the pointy hat anyway) because he gave her smirk and addressed her as “young lady”.
“I’m sorry,” he spoke, “but I think you’re seven years too soon. Come back when the boys aren’t sticking gum in your hair.”
“I’m thirteen,” Brinley said, “and I’m here to inquire about an engineer.”
“Engineer? You after one in particular, or will any do?”
“How many engineers do you know of?”
“Normally, none. But it just so happens I’ve let the room upstairs to a man who describes himself as such. So aren’t you Lady Luck?”
“And he’s…” Brinley picked out her words carefully. “Is he still on the premises? And I’m a witch, by the way.”
The publican grinned at her. “Yet, my hands haven’t been turned into gophers. Yeah, he’s over there.” He waved her away in the direction of blondish man reading a book and eating a plate of fried eggs and steak in the corner. The man wore a white button-up shirt and pants held up by suspenders, which hung loosely on his bony frame, and if she had to guess he must’ve been at least six feet when standing.
“You’re assistance has been appreciated,” she said, and for good measure she tried to magic away the nails in the publican’s shoes but instead changed them to gummy candies, which achieved about the same result anyway.
Brinley approached the engineer in the corner and cleared her throat when he did not look up from his book.
“Yes?” He looked at her through greasy spectacles. “Oh! Another refill, miss, if you would?”
“Are you an engineer?” she asked.
“Ye-e-es? No,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m an alchemist by trade, actually. I only said I was an engineer because I’m trying to branch out. You know, diversify my resumé.”
“Good!” Brinley exclaimed, plopping herself down in the chair opposite him. “You can help me. You see, I need to turn an apple into gold and—”
“Stop right there. I can’t help you.”
He lowered his voice. “You see, the alchemical sciences have been quietly disproved by its own practitioners for the last hundred years or so. No one has ever turned anything into gold, not even gold! We’re just all too embarrassed to admit it.”
“So you can’t help me.”
The alchemist’s face went kind of wormy as he mulled this over. “Actually, I might be able to come up with a solution. I am an engineer, after all.”
“But you just said you weren’t?”
“Not accredited, no, but independently self-educating…diversifying, like I said. I’m Coilin, by the way. I’m on a little wander-about away from the Sugartop Mountains, uh, near the Cruller’s Deep dwarf mine? Never mind. You said you needed to turn an apple into gold?”
“Yes! My first witch’s examination is coming up and I need to pass it to get my hat.”
“Ah! You’re a witch. I guess I should’ve guessed by the dress…and the sour expression you’ve been giving me this entire time.”
Brinley felt a small bloom of pride.
“You know what? Give me a couple of days and I’ll see what I can come up with. You’ll be able to fund the R&D, I assume?”
There was a muffled clinking as loose change and wadded up bills were dropped onto the table.
“My parents send me some money every other week,” she explained.
“Okay,” Coilin said. “Two days and we reconvene back here.” They shook on it. “And no refunds.”
Two days later, the stick-thin alchemist/engineer asked the witch-to-be to follow him up to the room he was renting and showed her what he had come up with.
“I had to keep material costs down, of course,” he explained, “and the limited time-frame I had to work with didn’t help things either. The pottery wheel is on loan, by the way. It’s not to be damaged under any circumstances, or the elderly lady I borrowed it from will have my head. And this…well, I can tell you about that later. What do you think?”
Brinley stared at the thingamabob Coilin had apparently taken two days to create. She asked, “That’s it?”
“Huh? That’s it? I’ll have you know that I hand-crafted the nozzle myself, and the plunging mechanism needed some modifications so that it could be operated by armpit, and—”
“It’s just some rubber tubing and a syringe.”
“And I managed to locate several perfectly balanced apples, which was the hardest part!”
She sighed. “How is this supposed to turn apples into gold?”
“Yes,” Coilin said excitedly, “a demonstration is in order. First, the mechanism of the operation—syringe—must be nestled beneath one’s arm. The tubing will be attached along the length of the arm by string, though elastics are preferable, with the nozzle—which I did mention is of my own design and construction—ending at the tip of a finger. Then, one merely has to take an apple selected for this specific purpose, set the wheel a-spinning, and…”
With the apple ablur on the pottery wheel, Coilin cupped his hands to either side, drew his shoulders while bringing his elbows in, and theatrically exhaled as a thin, glistening mist was expelled from his right hand and took the fruit from an uneven shade of red to a uniform gold. Even the stem managed to make the transition over from its normal, brown self.
“Gold paint?” she inquired. “And you can still see the tubing! That’s not going to fool anyone!”
“Ah, but that’s where this comes in.” Coilin picked up something that looked like a very long earthworm and held it wriggling before his face.
“What is it?”
“Prosthetic skin. I borrowed some cosmetics from…well, women who are in a very specific type of profession, and on the day of the exam you only have to hide the tubing inside the prosthetic and blend the edges to your skin-tone, yeah?”
“Yeah! So you’re set.” The alchemist/engineer took a bow. “You’re welcome.”
Brinley sighed. “As long as it works.” She stared for a moment at the golden apple now coming to a rest. “You’re helping me get that pottery wheel to the school.”
The day of the qualifying examination arrived and all the witches-to-be were gathered into the school’s central room. Mistress Eugenia and Mistress Josephine stood before the girls and addressed them, reiterating the task at hand and reminding them of what would happen if they failed.
Mistress Josephine snatched an orange from one of the girls’ hands and held it above her head. “You are take a piece of fruit—and it must be fruit, substitutions are grounds for immediate disqualification—and turn it into a golden representation of itself. This does not require that the entirety of the fruit is changed, but it should still be easily verifiable by either myself or Mistress Eugenia that a change has occurred. Do this and you will be granted your very own witch’s hat, as well as the official title of Witch-in-Training. Any questions?”
One of the girls raised her hand. “What if I didn’t bring a piece of fruit?” she asked.
Mistress Josephine let out an exasperated sigh. “You were required to bring a piece of fruit. Since you have not done so you are disqualified without right to appeal.”
“Ahem,” Mistress Eugenia cleared her throat. “Actually, I ran into town just the other day and purchased a basket of fruit in case some of the girls forgot theirs. So if anyone is without her piece of fruit she should feel free to grab one from me, I have plenty.”
Mistress Josephine glared at Mistress Eugenia, who smiled encouragingly back at her. “Fine,”—Ms. J. turned back to the assemblage of girls—“but do not expect such accommodations to be made to you in the future. Now, who would like to go first?”
One after the other, the girls were asked to step forward and demonstrate their grasp of the thaumaturgic energies. It seemed that everyone had her own magical style she wished to show off to the two teachers. Fruits of every size and shape flew through the air, disappeared into a puff of smoke, or otherwise shone bright before turning into some ratio of Au and organic matter. Meanwhile, a crowd of pointy hats took up residence atop the girls’ heads.
Then it was Brinley’s turn. A few days before, she and Coilin had dragged the pottery wheel into the room and now she faced the embarrassment of trying to lug it into place before the teachers with some measure of dignity. “Oh, let me…” Mistress Eugenia said as she took up the other end and helped. Brinley placed one of the perfectly balanced apples Coilin had given her and set the wheel to spinning. Early that morning she had donned his contraption and managed well enough with the prosthetic skin and the makeup so that no one would notice without looking twice. The rubber tubing ran down the inside of her sleeve and as long as she didn’t make any flapping motions she wouldn’t prematurely release the gold paint that sat nestled in the pit of her arm. The nozzle sat flush with the tip of her middle finger and would remain indistinguishable from the skin around it.
In comparison to the other girls’ performances, Brinley’s was subdued. She made a show of nodding to both of the Mistresses, but after that she cupped her hands loosely around the turning apple and concentrated. She spun the wheel up even faster with a few kicks of her foot. Then she closed eyes, squared her shoulders, brought her elbows in, and exhaled. Just like it had done in the alchemist/engineer’s rented room, tiny particles of paint streaked through the air as a mist and affixed themselves to the apple’s surface. There was a gradual gradation from red to gold and it appeared for a moment as if the apple were merely ripening into what it was always meant to be. Brinley remained still as the wheel spun down and revealed to the room an apple as golden as one from an old fairy tale.
There was polite applause.
“Hmm,” Mistress Josephine said, “a bit unorthodox and lacking pizazz. Let me just—”
She made to reach for the apple but Mistress Eugenia got there first and plucked it from the wheel.
“Exemplary work!” she exclaimed. “Very impressive how you extracted the necessary molecules from the air and used them to form a new shell for the apple, while simultaneously expunging those of its original skin!”
“Yes,” Brinley mumbled. “Of course. Thank you.”
“You may claim your hat now,” Mistress Eugenia said, dropping the apple into Brinley’s palm. Clear as day, gold paint clung to the Mistress’s fingertips—now also staining the girl’s hand. Mistress Eugenia whispered, “I praise your ingenuity, but perhaps next time you could stick to more legitimate methods?”
“Yes. Of course,” Brinley repeated. “Thank you.”
She went and collected her hat, then stood beside the other girls in their hats. Overturning her hand, the apple fell through the air, and for once it did as she asked. It disappeared from existence and took all evidence with it.