Chapter 1

‘Section A: Spellwork (55%)
Question 1: A) If r=velocity and b=mass, calculate the sum of thrust. B) Which would be the better weave-in, Butler’s variant or Simpson’s? C) Explain. D) Calculate thrust, then weave-in variant, to produce a standard Start-and-Stop operational spell.’

Ermin’s eyes crossed. She read the question again but it didn’t make any more sense the second time around. She tried again. Words darted back and forth, like a school of tadpoles. Dread boiled in the pit of her stomach. What if she couldn’t solve any of the other problems? It had happened before, during the last two times she’d written the Guild’s qualifying exam. She’d never heard of a student failing the exam three times in a row.

She imagined the look of resigned disappointment on Miss Fetchkeep’s face. The headmistress of St. Anselm’s Training School for Orphans was known for 100% placement rates at the Guild’s Apprenticeship Academy but Ermin had ruined her score for two years running. She’d be thirteen next year, too old for an apprenticeship. If she didn’t pass this exam, she’d never get in. Then where would she be?

On the shop floor of some factory, if she was lucky.

She clenched her fists. She could fix almost anything. She just couldn’t do magic. Everyone knew that magic and machines didn’t mix. She didn’t see why she should be forced to learn something she’d never use. Because the Guild says so, that’s why. ‘All entrance candidates must possess a basic knowledge of spell casting before being admitted to the Academy.’ Ermin had combed through the Guild manual so many times, looking for exceptions, she almost knew it off by heart.

All this worrying wasn’t getting her any closer to finishing the exam, was it?

She took a deep breath to steady herself then looked at the question again. More questions flooded her mind, replacing the ones on the page. How could a letter equal a number? Were you supposed to minus the parts inside the brackets? How could a bunch of numbers add up to speed? If only they’d given her something to build, a mechanical problem to solve, not concepts that bore no relation to the real world. She could do something with the proper tools. With spells, there was nothing to touch, nowhere to hold on.

The grim atmosphere of study hall didn’t help. Musty black curtains smothered every window. The air smelled of cracked pencils and chalk dust. At the front of the room, sand sifted through the inverted funnel of the hourglass timer with merciless precision. Study hall was the kind of room that sucked the juice out of every thought and made her feet itch.

She couldn’t afford to waste any more time on useless ruminations. She’d come back to Spellwork later. She turned the page.

‘Section B: Mechanical Drawing (30%)
Part 1: A) Produce an accurate, scaled drawing of an enchant-o-meter and all associated parts in their true size ratio. B) Explain the function of each part and it’s importance to the operation of the machine. C) From the list below, pick three problems, outline their probable causes and provide solutions.’

Ermin’s breath came out in a relieved whoosh as she picked up her compass and triangle. Mechanical drawing was something she could understand! In fact, she was one of the best drafters in the school. Mr. Forge, the mechanics master, had said so. She wondered if the Guild examiners would give her extra credit if she pushed the question further? She hoped so. She’d planned for it.

On a separate sheet of paper, she drew another enchant-o-meter, showing how possible modifications could be made to the original design. Why did the spells have to be written out on paper before being hand-cranked through the machine for activation? Spells could be fired off so much faster with voice activation. She spent a long time with her design, wanting to make it just right. No one would ever guess that she’d already built a prototype for her best friend, Colin. For obvious reasons, she’d substituted scrubbers for microphones in his enchant-o-meter but the principles were the same. Once she was satisfied with her work, she moved on to Section C, History of the Guild (15%). Since she’d already taken the exam twice before, she flew through these answers.

If she’d cracked Sections B and C, then all she needed were six more marks.

Six more lousy marks stood between her and an admission to apprenticeship school.

Since, there was no telling if she’d be awarded extra credit for her designs, she’d have to find those marks somewhere in the blasted Spellwork section. Taking a deep breath, she went back to the beginning of the exam and skimmed through the questions. Colin had coached her on a couple of common spells and one of them appeared on the exam. She filled out the equations from memory, not understanding a single calculation she wrote down. Who cared, so long as she got it right?

She still needed three more marks.

A steady stream of whispers from a girl at a nearby desk shattered her concentration. One of the magitech brainiacs, no doubt. Ermin shot her a glare that soared right over girl’s head, which was bent down so low that the tip of her nose touched her exam paper. The sibilant hisses continued as her pencil flew over the paper, her lips stretched into a pleased smile.

Ermin leaned across the aisle. “Would you please be quiet?”

“Silence!” Mr. Forge called out.

Blasted embers! That’s all she needed, to be accused of cheating. The maniacal whisperer shot Ermin an unfriendly glare and cupped one hand over her paper as if to protect it. The whispers continued. Ermin longed to still the whisperer with a swift blow but she stilled her hand, fearful of being expelled from the exam hall. She was going to wipe that smug smile off the whisperer’s face, though.

Infusing her voice with a menacing growl, she said: “Shut up, or I’ll rip your yammer right out of your head as soon as we’re done.”

The whispers abruptly ceased.

Ermin sat back in her chair and continued flipping through the paper. Her satisfaction quickly evaporated as she read through the remaining questions. Each one was more complicated than the first. None of the spellwork questions made any sense to her. They never did.

At the front of the room, Mr. Forge turned over a smaller hourglass. “Last half hour,” he called out. “Please make sure to review your answers.”

Review? What a joke! How could she review what she hadn’t even written down? Ermin cast a quick glance around the room. Everyone was still working. Where was she going to find three more marks? She flipped through the pages several more times. The spellwork questions were self-contained and sequential: she couldn’t pick them apart to find a mark here and there, she had to answer all the parts and come up with a calculation at the end. Only she couldn’t make sense of a single one. It was over. Ermin covered her mouth with her hand to stop the swear words from pouring out. All that work, for nothing.

“Is everything alright?”

Ermin looked up. Mr. Forge was standing next to her desk. The mechanics master was Ermin’s favourite teacher. She couldn’t answer.

“May I see?” Mr. Forge picked up the exam paper and flipped through it. “Your mechanical drawings are excellent – some of your best work. Are you sure that you don’t want to try the spells?” He flashed her an encouraging smile.

Somehow, the smile made everything worse. Ermin stood up so quickly, her chair crashed to the floor. Her best work didn’t matter. Being the best drafter in the school didn’t matter. Not even being a good mechanic mattered. The only thing that mattered was learning how to calculate the spells the Guild Masters required of all apprentices. She couldn’t do it. Her mind was a blank. Her entire life was a blank. She ran.

Ermin dodged and splashed through the streets of St. Andrews market. Not even the rain wasn’t enough to wash away the awful memories of the exam. It was perverse, the way she could remember each question word for word, but when it came to answers, her thoughts kinked up like bits of bent wire. Never mind the exam, she couldn’t even make sense of herself.

Miss Fetchkeep must know by now that she’d failed. Ermin didn’t know how she was going to face her. Maybe the headmistress would kick her out of the school. She surely would by her next birthday. Thirteen was too old for school. More than ever, Ermin needed to make her own way in the world but it was illegal for the unapprenticed to make money. That hadn’t stopped her from racing to her workshop straight after the exam to read her messages. Essey Sykes, apprentice to Kim and Chen, Millers, needed a storm wand fixed. So Ermin grabbed her tools and headed out to answer the call. Colin usually went with her but he was busy taking some sort of test of his own. She hoped it had gone better than hers.

Ermin shook herself. Self-pity was dangerous on the streets of Garrison Creek. She had to keep her wits about her. The storm would blow the gang pressers out of their holes and onto the streets. It was perfect weather for snatching. Ermin stomped down hard in a puddle. Icy water bit all the way through her boots to her wool stockings, which sagged and bunched in sodden lumps around her toes. Good. The discomfort of cold, wet feet was nothing compared to what could happen if she continued to mope. There was no telling who might be hiding in the old settler’s log shanties, whose eyes might be watching her through the greased cloth windows.

She quickened her pace. She knew the laneways of Old Town so well, her feet took over, turning left, then right, then leading her up the tin roof of a shed and across the slate tiles of a shanty. Her boots skidded on the wet tiles but she didn’t fall. Instead she crouched into the slide, just like she was flying a carpet. It was harder to hide up here on the roof tops but she’d know soon enough if she was being followed.
If she wasn’t so afraid of being snatched by some gang and pressed into service, the view from up here might almost be pretty. It was as if a cloud had deflated over the streets to drape the stalls in an opaque curtain of murk. Storm lamps bathed the streets in a fuzzy yellow glow. Ruined buildings and ramshackle houses pressed close, like people huddled around a fire barrel on a cold winter’s night. Ducks and chickens wandered through rubbish-strewn yards. The rain dampened the usual smells of garbage and cesspools. A red banner hung over a used clothes stall stood out in sharp relief, like an apple dropped on a muddy street. It was peaceful up here away from the streets but she couldn’t count on being alone.

Wind gusted from the lake, strong enough to whip her dark hair around like a gorgon’s striking snakes. She brushed it out of her face and adjusted her tool bag, an old apprentice’s satchel she’d won in a bargaining match. Most gangs wouldn’t risk pressing an already-claimed apprentice into their ranks but Rory Smythe, king of the Wharf Rats, wasn’t like most gang leaders. The route she was on threaded right through the heart of Wharf Rat territory. Ermin had learned long ago there was nothing that Rory wouldn’t do.

She cast a wary look back over her shoulder but there were only empty rooftops behind her. Safe enough for now. She slid down the drainpipe into the street below.

Traders, who’d been enjoying a rare splash of sun, shrugged on oilskins and unfurled rain tarpaulins to cover their makeshift stalls. Cart and horse traffic hadn’t lessened one bit. Iron-rimmed wheels and hoofs churned the streets into a brackish froth. One luckless boy had been caught out on his mat without a rain broom. He frantically swept at it with his hands but the rain and spatter from the passing traffic proved too much for the poor mat. It sank into a muddy rut with the boy’s boots still caught in the riding straps. He swore and bent to unbuckle the straps, not noticing the transport wagon bearing down on him.
Without thinking, Ermin darted forward and yanked on the mat’s mooring rope, pulling it out of harm’s way just as the wagon splashed past. The boy tumbled off, red-faced and breathless.

“You don’t need a broom to get airborne,” said Ermin. “This is reed cloth. Give it a good shake and it’ll shed water like a beaver.” She snapped the mat as if it was an old towel. Water arced in the air. The mat rose. “See?”

The red-faced boy snatched the mooring rope from her hands, jumped onto the mat and sped off without a word of thanks.

“Some people have no manners.” A voice drawled behind her. Denny Lorde, John Smith’s apprentice, stood beneath an awning, his wiry black hair framing his face like a puff ball. He pulled something out of his pocket. “Do you have time to settle up?”

Ermin looked into the dim confines of the stall. A shopkeeper’s apprentice nodded to her in greeting. Ermin had fixed a broken heater for her last week. “Always,” she told Denny. It would be safe enough to conduct business here.

She and Denny turned their backs on the street, pretending to be interested in a mound of muddy turnips. She was too wet for the awning to do her much good but it kept her notebook dry when she pulled it from it’s oilskin wrapping. She flipped through the pages until she came to Denny Lorde’s account. ‘Dragon Lord’ – Denny’s acronym – topped a row of lined and numbered columns. “What do you have for me?”
Denny opened his fingers. An entire packet of Speedwell’s Accelerated Threads lay on his scarred and calloused palm. Ermin blinked. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Speedwell’s were seriously expensive, used to boost speed in the finest carpets. “Where did you get these?” She asked in a low voice.

“Let’s just say I collected on a debt of my own.” Denny touched the side of his nose with one finger. “Is it enough to cancel my debt to you?”

Ermin seized the packet before Denny could change his mind. “It’s enough.” She recorded the Dragon Lord’s transaction and zeroed out his account. The threads were so costly that by all rights, she should count herself as indebted to Denny but she couldn’t afford to gain a reputation for softness.

“Just don’t give them away. People will take advantage if you’re not careful.”

“Repeat those same words to yourself the next time you look in a mirror, Denny Lorde. You didn’t need to give me the whole packet.”

“Each one for everyone. We orphans need to stick together. Does Miss Fetchkeep know you’re keeping accounts?”

Ermin cringed inwardly. Denny had inadvertantly exposed her greatest fear: that Miss Fetchkeep, who’d set Ermin up in business, would discover that Ermin was keeping secrets from her. And not just any secret but a secret so large, it might endanger the very survival of the school she was so proud of. However, she wasn’t about to reveal her fears to Denny. Keeping accounts went against Guild rules, and the Guild was St. Anselm’s biggest patron. “I’m only collecting trades and favours.”

“I doubt that makes much difference to the Guild. It’s only a matter of time before Miss Fetchkeep finds out. You’d do well to collect an invisibility spell from the next apprentice who needs a repair from you.”

“Then how would I be able to read my accounts? Or are you suggesting that I work for free?”

Denny flashed her a lopsided grin. “Not me! I’m only warning you to watch out for blackmailers.”

Ermin laughed. “I’d like to see the apprentice who’d dare try to blackmail me! Their masters would throw them out on the streets if they found out that somebody else was fixing all their gear.” Though how any master could expect an apprentice to have any mechanical knowledge when they spent all their time doing magic, was beyond her.

Denny had a good point. Ermin’s business was more or less an open secret among her apprentice-clients but what if someone from the school found out and told Miss Fetchkeep?

“If they know about your workshop, it’s only a matter of time before they find out the rest. All I’m saying is, watch yourself.”

With that, Denny Lorde slipped out of the stall and was gone. The sharp corners of the Speedwell’s packet dug into Ermin’s palm as she pocketed her prize, stowing it in the bib pocket of her overalls. She was taking no chances with it slipping out. For the first time in her life, she had capital. She’d always been terrified of being caught and kicked out onto the street but now, she had something to show for all the sleepless nights.

She tucked her notebook with it’s oilskin wrapping away in the same pocket. The loss of it would be just as disastrous. If Miss Fetchkeep did kick her out, she’d have something to sell and a book of favours she could trade on. No way she was giving those up, not even for Miss Fetchkeep. She was about to step out onto the street when a scrawny hand reached out and pulled her inside the stall. It was the shopkeeper’s apprentice, her lips thinned to a tense line. And no wonder.

The Magistrates were driving their latest captures to Redemption Square.

People pushed up against the stall to clear the road. The patter of rain on the awning couldn’t mask the groan of wooden wheels. A tumbrel trundled into view, drawn by eight haggard people. Despite the cold and wet, the couriers wore little more than rags. Most went barefoot. A dozen more figures huddled together in the open bed of the wagon. Everyone knew that those prisoners had committed no crime except to be born with the so-called ‘heretical’ powers of wizardry that the Creek’s governor, Dr. Dean, was determined to stamp out.

A grim squadron of guards hemmed them in on either side, their black capes flung open. Magistrates. The enchant-o-meters strapped to their chests hummed from preloaded stunning spells or worse. They walked in formation with their wrist nozzles swiveling to and fro, ready to fire into the crowd at the least provocation. People on either side of the road bowed their heads, either in fear or so they wouldn’t have to look. Ermin’s fists clenched in fury. She searched the passing tumbrel for any sign of her best friends, Colin and Georgie. They weren’t there. Not today.

“Queen Georgina must have been mad to appoint Dr. Dean and his goons to rule over us.” The shopkeeper’s apprentice’s lips barely moved as she spoke. “They’re not fit to govern a chicken coop.”

“Maybe the Queen was desperate to get rid of them.”

“Then she should have thrown them into the ocean. Now I suppose we’ll have to do it ourselves.”

Such talk bordered on the treasonous. Ermin squeezed the girl’s arm in warning. “The tumbrels will come for you next if anyone catches you talking like that.”

The shopkeeper’s apprentice gave her nose a fierce wipe with one sleeve. “Easy for you to say. You don’t live by Redemption Square. You can ignore the drainings. You don’t see them being carted off like a load of animals being driven to the knacker’s. It’s a wonder that anyone survives in the Scrawlings at all.”

The Scrawlings referred to a ring of scrub land bordering Garrison Creek and the forest, where drained wizards were exiled. The so-called lucky ones were found and claimed by bandit gangs. Ermin shook her head. She’d had her own experiences with gangs. The memory was a dark one.

A throng of people followed the tumbrels and their grim cargo, eager to witness the spectacle that was about to start in Redemption Square. Some even carried food baskets on their arm, as if they were going on a picnic. Others held skipping children by the hand.

“You’d best slip out the back way,” said the shopkeeper’s apprentice. “Watch yourself.”

“And you.”

Regular activity returned to the streets, if a bit more subdued than usual. Ermin hefted her tool bag and joined the throng until Picking Cork Lane, a mud-soaked trail that led to Kim and Chen, Millers. Ermin had re-jigged the storm wand’s generating coils two weeks ago. It wasn’t a good sign that it had broken down again so soon. Ermin didn’t relish telling Essey that the conductor plate was likely fried but that was the least of her problems. Working at Kim and Chen’s would take every gram of stealth and wit she possessed, if she wanted to keep her business safe…and secret.

*Photo Credit: xresch and darksouls1 from Pixabay.