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Adventure Coming of Age Fantasy

Magic was the way most folk described Malinda, but that was the least thing about her. She was cruel, spiteful, beautiful, kind, selfish, generous, capricious, brilliant, and the person I loved most in my life. I started working for her when I was five years old. She lived in a house outside of town that had big flower boxes spilling over with blooms, even in midwinter. She was the only healer for thirty miles- I call her healer because that’s what the local folk called her; she told me once her training had been as a sorcerer. My mother had died while birthing me and my father was a drunkard and hit me a lot about how there was never any food in the house. When I brought home bread that I had stolen from the inn, he ate the whole loaf in front of me to teach me a lesson about stealing. I learned that it didn’t much matter who stole first; what mattered was who stole last.

Malinda wore purple gowns that showed the top of her bosom. The gowns were made of stiff silk and rustled like the empty husks snakes leave around the woods when winter ends.

I’m Tol, I said when she opened the door to me; too quickly I said it, like I was defending myself.

Actually for a boy of five you’re on the runty side, she said. Come in.

Her house was much larger inside than out. I was wearing pants too short that showed my ankles and rode down on my backside. How? I asked when I saw the ceiling yawning high above me. I would have sworn to it being only regular height outside.

Malinda just laughed and her perfect lips opened against a set of white teeth and a pink tongue. She didn’t answer me, and I knew she wouldn’t. I understood her immediately, like I hadn’t understood my Pa, or my school mates, or my own self.

I don’t take on apprentices, she said. She rose into the air- fully off the ground- and placed a book on a shelf that lined the upper floor wall.

I didn’t say anything. This was expressly the purpose for which I had come, sent by the county magistrate to replace Malinda when she left. I puzzled about this and continued in my puzzled silence too long for speech. It seemed to me that if I stayed quiet long enough, it might be that she would forget I was there and I could secretly observe her and learn magic by association.

You’re very quiet, aren’t you? she said. As if to prove how right she was I continued to make no sound.

I don’t like loud children, she added.

(I seemed to agree.)

Children never have anything interesting to say.

(I knew I didn’t.)

She was still floating at the top of the house pulling books off shelves and inattentively flipping through them before tossing them over her left shoulder where they hovered like eager hangers on.

After a long moment of my standing quite still and silent as if an unrepentant traitor before the gallows, she descended in front of me. Her skirts billowed out like a pond flower.

Can you read? she demanded.

Yes, I said.

Read this.

I looked at the page. The letters weren’t letters at all but meaningless squiggles and slashes.

These aren’t words, I said.

Yes they are. Read them.

I- I can’t.

Ha! She snapped the book closed.

I got angry then, and clenched my small fists.

I can read Common Script! I shouted. It came out more of a mutter.

Malinda turned her eyes on me and I wanted to suck the words back into my mouth and swallow them.

Wielding magic is not about how many spells you know or how many potions you can brew.

She raised her head on her neck, haughty like a swan.

Magic, she said, is a resource. To master magic, you must master logic.

I stood abashed. She swept around the floor as she spoke, gesticulating aggressively with her hands.

Magic and logic demand precision. Your enemies will try and trick you. I just tricked you. I asked you if you could read- I didn’t say which script- I just showed you an advanced spell book written in Ancient Draconic. You should have asked me- which script? after I asked you if you could read.

I worked my mouth around but couldn’t think of a good retort.

What spell was it? I asked finally.

She looked at me. I think my question surprised her but she acted like it hadn’t; like anything I said or did was incapable of rendering her surprised; that she had probably never experienced a moment’s hesitation in her life.

It’s a spell of unlife, she said.

I had never heard of healers causing unlife. It seemed counter to the profession.

***

I came every day for two weeks. Some days I would knock and then sit on her stoop until I was too hungry to be still. If she did let me inside, she wouldn’t direct any words to me. She would say things aloud as if to herself, things like: it would be very convenient if those tubers had no eyes or fronds; washing cauldrons is something an apprentice would do if I had one.

After practicing my speech for three days I finally asked.

Why don’t you want to teach me magic?

She answered instantly.

Because I’m extremely busy, she said.

She was lying on the cushioned seat with one forearm resting on her brow and one foot bouncing dreamily as it hung off the side. She had been lying there all morning. I wondered how she found the time to be extremely busy in addition to all the book reading and lying around.

***

When I came to Malinda’s with a bruise on my cheek she narrowed her eyes and asked how I came by it. I told her my father had thrown a piece of kindling at me and when I ducked it he threw a punch instead. She didn’t make any reaction but asked if this happened often and I shrugged.

A day or so later she wrapped herself up in a mink lined cloak and hood and swept out the door before I could knock. I’m going into the village, she said. Clean the cauldrons.

She returned a few hours later in a changed mood.

I saw your father, she said.

I said nothing and continued to scrub dried vermin innards from the cauldron in my hands.

He wanted an augury, she continued.

I paused.

What was the omen? I asked

Unfavoring. I’m afraid your father is going to find himself in quite a grave situation very soon.

They buried him three days later.

When I told her the news she said oh? well you’ll need a place to live.

I agreed.

You can live here.

I said where at? and she snapped her middle finger and thumb without looking up from a book she was reading and said: top of the stairs, third door.

What about the facilities? I asked.

She snapped again and turned the page. Done, she said.

What about a private study?

She lifted her eyes to me and I said: never mind. I trotted up the stairs.

***

Once when I was working on transcribing runic script into draconic in the study a man walked out of the mirror.

Hey, just got your message, he was calling out. I have to be back tomorrow morning but we definitely have time for a couple decent f- hey, fella. Who’re you?

I had jolted upright and ink was dripping off the nib of my quill. I didn’t speak. I was ten.

Malinda strode into the room then, putting a balm on her hands and neck.

More than a couple I hope, she said.

She stopped near the desk and glanced between us.

Dreven, Tol. He’s my- helper.

Ah, got yourself a whipping boy. The question is: which one of you is doing the whipping?

The man winked at me.

Don’t be crude, Malinda said.

Unfortunately it looks like he’s got a leaky quill, the man added. Don’t worry lad, you’ll grow out of it, he said.

Malinda gave the man a bored glare and I felt my face get hot even though I wasn’t sure why.

I wiped the ink off my pants and muttered something about going to gather suncaps and stayed in the woods for several hours, even though I found enough suncaps right away.

For several months Dreven made appearances. When he visited I often heard thuds and scrapes of objects like Malinda was rearranging the furniture. I thought it was peculiar she wouldn’t use a levitation spell and she only got this redecorating urge late at night. I studied the tomes until I found a silence enchantment and it became my most used spell.

I alternately worshiped and despised Dreven. He often brought me little trinkets like a compass that pointed towards the nearest alehouse and a scroll that was enchanted to recreate the images in my head like a moving painting. But Malinda laughed a lot when he was around and gave him her rare smiles that had no sneer in them at all. For that I burned with jealous hatred.

Once I woke up late in the night. My silence enchantment had worn off and I heard raised voices and things breaking elsewhere in the house. After that night I didn’t see Dreven again and Malinda wore brown dresses like empty grain sacks and didn’t comb her hair. She barely left her room except to hand me bottles of potions and ointments that I delivered to the village folk.

I came home one night after making a delivery to a young mother who suffered from ceaseless bleeding. Malinda was in the great room hunched in a cushioned armchair gazing into the fire with a blank look. I told her the woman looked pale and sick. Malinda told me she would probably die. I asked if we could make her a potion of coagulation, and Malinda said it would make her throw clots and die a different way. I suggested several things and Malinda turned them all down. She didn’t seem to care about anything then, except sleeping.

I got angry and said she wasn’t a good healer because she didn’t care about the sick at all, she only cared about herself. She looked at me and said: yes, you’re right. And then she stood up slowly and walked up the stairs. She walked- like she was too weary even to cast a levitation spell.

I stayed up all night looking through books on bleeding diseases. I made my own tinctures- simple things even a hedge witch could make that did next to nothing- and brought them to Emeline. She and her little baby were alone. Her husband had died in the queen’s war. I wanted to help her to live. I didn’t know why, but I thought if I could save her, I could make Malinda herself again.

Look, I said a few days later. There.

I pointed.

Malinda glanced at the book page. She was in bed. She had called me in when I knocked. The room was all dark.

I can’t do that, Malinda said. I haven’t done anything like that in too long. I’ll kill her.

Malinda, I said. I never used her name. I always said Mistress or nothing.

Tol. You can’t make good things happen in the world through force of will.

Please.

She gave a long sigh and didn’t speak for so long I thought she had fallen asleep.

Fine. Bring my texts on post-natal hemorrhaging and the scrolls for knitting organ flesh. And we’ll need buckets and buckets of blood.

***

Marion the midwife had taken baby Greta. Malinda and Emeline and I were in a room I had never been in before, a stone room that was lit in orange and red by a huge fireplace. Emeline lay on a cushioned elevated table. She looked lifeless. Malinda was wearing a black gown that went up to her chin. There were sharp metal instruments on a table near her elbow. I was afraid.

It began. Malinda worked quickly, cutting through the flesh of Emeline’s abdomen with a blade so sharp the skin seemed not to know to bleed. Malinda handed me the knife and said the name of another instrument. She didn’t look away from the body of Emeline, she held out her hand and accepted what I put into it without question. I had never seen her like that before, and I thought she was like a goddess.

Open books hovered near Malinda’s head displaying illustrations of bodies with no skin. Drops of blood that appeared in the cavity of Emeline’s body rose and placed themselves into a basin. The hovering needle stitched together flesh as Malinda moved her fingers in precise patterns and whispered.

She proceeded with intense concentration, sealing off veins with a lick of flame from her fingertip, pouring potion over the raw flesh to keep infection away. With her brow furrowed and her neck bent she would ask me to hold the mirror beneath Emeline’s nose to ensure she still breathed.

We worked for hours. I couldn’t tell the time of day because there were no windows in the room, but my body kept the time in the dryness of my eyes and stiffness of my spine.

I knew something was wrong when Malinda put down the instruments and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. She leaned on the table for a long moment.

We need to start sealing her up, she said.

What?

No response.

Did you heal her?

No. The uterus is perforated. I’m going to rest and then give her a final few hours with her daughter.

She turned away.

No, I said. Wait. Can you remove it?

She kept walking. It’s too difficult. I’d have to seal the other organs off. I might puncture the spleen trying to extract it.

She had reached the doors. Her hands were slicked with blood.

But she’ll die anyway. Can’t you just try?

What do you think I am Tol?

She didn’t look at me as she spoke. her head was bent and her hands grasped the door handles limply. When she spoke her voice was low and changed with some emotion.

You especially should know that I’m not omnipotent. I’m not a god. I cannot save everyone.

She paused and her shoulders were drawn up tight and protectively.

I am only a woman. Things like this haunt a person. I don’t need another dead mother in my dreams.

Killing her and letting her die are the same, I said.

She opened the doors and walked through them.

What if it were you? I begged, chasing after her.

I’d prefer death, she said.

What if it were me?

She continued down the hallway into her room and closed the door.

I went into the room with Emeline and wept.

I was standing and holding the young mother’s cold hand when I heard her come back. She didn’t speak to me. Her hands were clean. She uncovered the young woman and began again.

I felt a thousand of my lives pass in those next hours. Malinda’s brows were knit and her nostrils were flared. I doubt she blinked more than a dozen times in two hours. As she worked I prayed to the Mother and Maiden and Crone to spare this woman. Even as I prayed I knew if Emeline lived it would only be Malinda’s mind and will which saved her.

When she placed the small crimson mass in the tray in my hands I saw her grimace, but it was not resigned, it was determined, and I knew what she had done.

***

Emeline and Greta walked to the house once a week for a year after that to bring us bread and jam. We drank tea by the fire, all of us, and Malinda would tell us stories, real stories, of her life. She wore purple silk again and made her hair into elegant shapes. Greta began to babble and then walk and then she was my age when I had begun my apprenticeship and I loved her like my own sister.

I turned sixteen the month before Malinda left. I cried in my room and I knew she could sense my sadness. She told me I was her boy, always, and she was proud of the healer I was. I told her I wasn’t ready. She said I was better trained than she was when she began healing. I told her I didn’t know how to go on without her. She embraced me and whispered into my ear and then she disappeared into the mirror. She had told me before she left to take on an apprentice.

September 24, 2023 16:31

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2 comments

Rudy Greene
20:14 Oct 05, 2023

Good story, interesting premise. I like the humanity and generosity injected into it near the end. Only suggestions would be to flesh out the characters a little better and tighten up some of the sentences. Good job!

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Leigh Johnson
20:53 Oct 05, 2023

Thank you for reading and for the feedback- really appreciate the critiques so I can figure out how to improve.

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