The sorcerer arrived on a Saturday.
Sarah, barely six years old, squeezed my hand as we walked the school corridors toward the headmaster’s parlor. I’d allowed her to wear her gray cloak indoors because the morning fires hadn’t yet been laid. Fog pressed in against the high windows, darkening the stone hall. For Sarah’s sake, I kept a smile on my face. My fear could not win today.
“Will he beat me, Henrietta? I mean, Miss Howel?” She often forgot to use my last name, but I’d only become a teacher two months before. Sometimes when I stood at the head of the classroom to give a lesson, I’d look at the empty place on the student bench where I used to sit, and feel like a fraud.
“A sorcerer would never harm children,” I said, squeezing her hand in return. Granted, I’d never met a sorcerer, but Sarah didn’t need to know that.
She smiled and sighed. How simple to reassure her. How difficult to reassure myself, for why would a royal sorcerer travel to Yorkshire for an audience with a child? Was the war against the Ancients going so poorly that he needed young girls, armed with sewing needles and a little French, for the front lines?
No. He had heard about the fires.
We entered the parlor to find two men seated before the hearth, sipping their tea. This was the only heated room in the entire school, and I rubbed my numb fingers in appreciation. Sarah raced past the men to warm her hands and, embarrassingly, her backside before the fireplace.
“Miss Howel!” our headmaster snapped, leaping up from his chair. “Control that child at once.”
I motioned Sarah back to me, and we curtsied together.
“Good day, Mr. Colegrind,” I murmured. Colegrind was a pale, hook-nosed gentleman with gray whiskers and a gray personality. When I was five, he’d terrified me. Now that I was sixteen, I found him repulsive.
He frowned. “Why does Sarah wear her cloak?”
“The fires haven’t been lit, sir,” I said, stating what should have been bloody obvious. Dreadful man. “I didn’t want her shivering before our illustrious guest.” Colegrind sniffed. I gave him my least sincere smile.
The other man, who had been surveying our scene with a cup of tea, rose to his feet.
“It’s all right,” the sorcerer said. “Little girls must keep warm.” He knelt before Sarah. “How are you, my dear?”
This man couldn’t be a sorcerer. I’d always pictured the royal Order as being filled with humorless men who wore simple robes and smelled of cabbage water. This gentleman was more like a grandfather from a storybook, with a shock of curling salt-and-pepper hair, dimpled cheeks, and warm brown eyes. He swept off his cape, trimmed with sable fur, and wrapped it around Sarah. She hugged herself.
“There, now,” he said. “Just the right fit.” He nodded to me. “You’re very good to take such care of her.”
I lowered my eyes. “Thank you, sir,” I mumbled. As he stood, I noticed something hanging in a sheath by his side. It was the length of a sword, but it had to be his sorcerer’s stave, the great instrument of his power. I’d heard of such things but never glimpsed one. I gasped without thinking.
Agrippa patted the handle. “Would you like to see it?” he asked.
Bloody fool, I was supposed to be unnoticeable today. For once, I was grateful for Colegrind’s interruption.
“Master Agrippa,” Colegrind said, “shall we proceed?”
The sorcerer guided Sarah to a chair while I remained by the wall, invisible as always. Schoolteachers don’t stand out naturally, and I was far too thin and dark-haired to make much of an impact. Granted, I didn’t want to stand out to Agrippa today, not if he’d come about the fires. I exhaled, praying that my heartbeat would slow. Please say that he had come for some other reason. The scenery, the terrible April weather, anything.
The sorcerer produced a toffee from his coat and handed it to Sarah. While she munched, Agrippa took a lit candle and held it before her. The flame flickered. Grabbing a fistful of my skirt, I squeezed to distract myself. I wouldn’t be afraid, because fear often summoned the . . .
I wouldn’t be afraid.
“Think of the flame,” Agrippa whispered. “Think of fire.”
No. As if responding to the sorcerer’s words, my body grew warm, desperately warm. I slipped my hands behind my back, knotted my fingers together, and prayed.
Sarah was clearly doing her best to be helpful, thinking so hard that her face turned bright red. The candle did nothing in response.
“Don’t lie,” Colegrind ordered Sarah. “If you hide anything, Master Agrippa will know. Do you want him to think you a bad girl?”
A bad girl. That was whom they hunted. Eleven years earlier, girls with magic would’ve been tolerated. Now, my God, only death awaited them. Awaited me. I curled my toes in my shoes, bit my tongue until my eyes watered. My fingers burned so badly. . . .
“Look at the flame!” Colegrind said.
I pressed my palms against the cold stone wall. I thought of freezing things, like snow and ice. Hold on. Hold on. . . .
Sarah burst into tears. Between Colegrind’s cruelty and my own physical pain, I snapped. “There’s no need to make her cry.”
The men turned. Agrippa raised his eyebrows in surprise. Colegrind looked as if he’d like to strike me down where I stood. With a sorcerer present, he’d have to contain himself, though after Agrippa left, I suspected I’d feel the headmaster’s birch cane. Beatings were his favorite form of exercise. But the burning eased somewhat, so my outburst had been worth it.
Agrippa said, “Miss Howel is right. There’s no need to fret, Sarah.” He shushed her crying and waved his hand above the candle. He collected the fire into his palm, where it hovered mere inches above his skin. He then took his stave—it was a plain wooden staff, quite ordinary-looking—and pointed it at the flame. Concentrating, he made the fire dance and swirl into different shapes before extinguishing it with one deft movement. Mouth open in astonishment, Sarah applauded wildly, her tears forgotten.
“You’re all done,” Agrippa said, giving her another toffee. Sarah took it and ran from the room as fast as she could. Fortunate child.
“I apologize for the inexcusable outbursts, Master Agrippa,” Colegrind said, glaring at me. “At the Brimthorn School for Girls, we try to curb female waywardness and insolence.”
He could try to curb me all he liked. But right now that was the least of my worries. My hands were beginning to burn again.
“I find a dash of insolence to be quite enjoyable from time to time.” Agrippa smiled at me. “Would you be so kind as to bring me the next girl, my dear? I will be testing every child at this school.”
If he was testing all thirty-five of them, he had to be searching for a witch. I groaned inwardly.
“Of course. I’ll return shortly.” I left the room, breaking into a run. I had to get outside. Pushing through the front door, I raced out the yard and up the hill. Just a few more steps and I’d be hidden from sight.
I collapsed to my knees as the fire spilled from my hands. Blue flames tickled my outstretched palms. I closed my eyes and sighed as I grabbed fistfuls of the damp grass.
Colegrind and Master Agrippa couldn’t know, not ever. Female magic—witchcraft—was criminal, and the sentence, death. As the flames slowed and sparks glinted off my fingertips, I felt someone sit behind me.
“There’s a sorcerer from the royal Order here to test the girls,” I told Rook, without turning around. Only my dearest friend would react with nonchalance when my hands were burning. Smoke hissed out from between my fingers. “He’s looking for the one starting the fires.”
“This is why you should only unleash it out on the moor. I’ve told you,” he said.
“I don’t always have that luxury, you know.” If my temper got the best of me, if something startled me, if Colegrind did something particularly loathsome, the fire would come upon me. I could never control it for long.
“The sorcerer won’t test you, will he?” Rook leaned his back to mine.
“As a teacher I’m spared, thank heavens. Can anyone down there see us?” I was fairly safe here, but not as far away as I’d have liked. If someone came up the hill unexpectedly, it wouldn’t end well.
“Not with me sitting around and ignoring my work.” I could tell from his tone that he was smiling. “Whoever looks up here will only find me.”
“Thank you,” I whispered, nudging his arm. “I should get back. They’ve more girls to test.”
“Think of the cold,” Rook said as he rose and helped me to my feet. His left hand gripped mine tightly, and he winced.
“Do your scars hurt?” I asked, pressing a hand to his chest. I could imagine the older teachers clucking at my “forward” behavior, but we’d known each other since we were children. Granted, Rook was attractive, with sharp, elegant features and blue eyes. His hair was still the same flaxen down it had been when we were eight. He looked like a poet or a gentleman, I’d always thought, even if he was only a stable boy. But most people would turn away from Rook, for all his beauty, if they knew what he kept hidden beneath his shirt.
The scars were terrible. They weren’t visible, as he took care to button himself up, but they were there. Most who suffer an Ancient’s attack die. Rook had been one of the lucky few to survive, but he’d paid dearly for his life.
“Bit more painful than usual. You know how bad it gets in damp weather,” he said. As if in response, thunder rumbled in the distance.
“Meet me after the girls are tested,” I said. “I’ll bring the paste.”
“You know how to make a fellow happy, Nettie.” He nodded, his eyes serious. “Be careful.”
“Always,” I said, and returned to the school.
Two hours later I knelt in the empty parlor. Tears filled my eyes as the cane landed across the back of my neck. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, I counted. Three to go. I pictured banks of snow in winter. Thankfully, I’d gotten through the rest of the students’ tests with only an occasional flush of heat. Twenty. A warm trickle of blood ran down my neck and into my collar. I tried to rise to my feet, but Colegrind gripped my shoulder and kept me in place. Damn him.
“You were a wayward child, Henrietta. Do not allow your passions to lead you astray as a young woman.” I stifled a shudder as Colegrind’s hand trailed across my back. He’d taken to “noticing” me in such ways these past three years. Disgusting man.
“Yes, sir,” I said automatically. It was the single acceptable answer to Colegrind’s tirades. A slow heat prickled my palms. If only I could loose my anger and show him the response he deserved, but that was an insane thought. As I got to my feet, Agrippa entered the room.
“Beg pardon,” he said, and stopped. His eyes flicked to Colegrind’s cane, to me. I put a hand to the back of my neck to hide the marks, but I could tell he understood. His next words were cold and clipped. “Mr. Colegrind, there seems to be confusion with my carriage.”
“The servants are useless,” Colegrind said, as though we should pity him.
“Perhaps you might see to it yourself, then.” That was an order dressed as a request. Colegrind tightened his jaw, on the verge of talking back, and then thought better of it. He left, grumbling to himself. Agrippa came toward me, concern written on his face.
“Are you all right?”
He spoke so kindly that I felt tears forming at the corners of my eyes. I nodded and began neatening the room.
“Mr. Colegrind’s angry that we didn’t find the one starting the fires,” I said, placing a chair against the wall. “It’s been a hard three years for him. He was certain the culprit would be discovered.” I felt a twinge of pride; the old fool was disappointed again.
“Has it really been going on for three years?”
“Oh yes. Mostly it’s been patches of fire around the stables, but several of the headmaster’s favorite coats have met ‘accidental’ deaths.” I worked to keep glee out of my voice. “I would give you a list of those who dislike Mr. Colegrind, but I fear that wouldn’t narrow your search.” I knew it was bold to speak this way, but Agrippa laughed. “How did you hear of us, sir?”
“My Order keeps its collective ear to the ground for cases like these,” he said. I turned to look at him. He seemed to be choosing his words with care.
“Cases of witchcraft?” I nearly stumbled over the word.
“In a sense.”
“What you did with the fire was brilliant,” I said, straightening a corner of the rug. “I mean, putting on that show for Sarah.”
Agrippa laughed. “I appreciate a good audience.” The rain became a dim roar on the roof. I winced as I listened to it. “Really, are you all right?” Agrippa asked, noticing my reaction.
“They say that rain usually brings Familiars with it. Or, heaven forbid, one of the Ancients.”
At this, Agrippa sobered and nodded. “There’s nothing to fear. The only Ancient who favors this weather is Korozoth, and he’s near London at present.”
Korozoth, the great Shadow and Fog. They called him the fiercest warrior of all the Seven Ancients. “Have you ever fought him?” Thoughts of Agrippa rising into the air against a giant black cloud flashed through my mind, as thrilling a picture as I could create.
“On several occasions. This doesn’t frighten you?” He said it with a laugh. I’d sat down in a chair, entranced.
“No. I always want news of how the war’s progressing.” I knew I should wish him a speedy departure, but my curiosity got the better of me. I’d spent countless childhood evenings awake in my bed, watching shadows and moonlight form images on the ceiling. I’d imagined them as monsters, pictured myself meeting them in battle. Miss Morris, the head teacher, had sniffed and informed me how unfeminine those dreams were.
“How old were you when the Ancients arrived?” Agrippa said as he took a seat opposite me.
“Five.” I remembered hiding under the bed when the news first came, listening as my aunt shrieked orders to our maid. We had to pack only what we needed, she said, because we must travel by nightfall. Clutching my doll to my chest, I whispered that I would protect us. Now I nearly laughed to think of it. My doll, my aunt, my old life in Devon—all had vanished.
“You’ve never seen one of the Ancients, have you?” Agrippa asked, returning me to the present.