By Christopher Baxter. Novelette, 11,800 words. Originally published in Deep Magic – Oct 2016 and The Best of Deep Magic – Anthology One.
Dwyn felt her spells react to the explosion before she heard it. She dropped the flask she’d been about to fill and darted to the window just as a dull boom rattled her cottage. Across the garden stood her grandfather’s tower. Guided by her spells, flames roared out of the narrow chimney that poked up from the steep roof. The rest of the tower seemed unharmed, not a stone out of place.
The wards should have protected her grandfather, but she wasn’t positive she’d gotten everything right; they had been very complicated to create. She turned to sprint for the door. Then she paused to ensure that her pots were all simmering at safe levels—she felt guilty for taking the time when her grandfather might be hurt or worse, but if she didn’t, then she risked a second explosion right there in the cottage. It only took a moment to satisfy herself that everything would be safe, and then she took off down the hall.
A foot from the front door, Dwyn tripped and nearly fell, barely catching herself against the wall in time. As she opened the door, she glanced back to see what she’d tripped over—it was a stack of newspapers, the South Wales Echo. Several matching stacks stood along the wall. When had her grandfather left those there? She’d just cleared the room out the night before.
She sprinted along the gravel path between her home and the tower. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see a few of her neighbors peeking over their fences. They were used to odd noises from the high wizard’s tower, but that one had been louder than most. A car had stopped in the street, and the driver was leaning out the window with his bowler tipped back on his head.
Dwyn yanked open the tower’s heavy oak door. A narrow staircase ran up along the curved outer wall, made even narrower by the stacks of papers, boxes, and clothing as high as her waist that crowded the left side. She cursed her grandfather’s traditionalism as she scrambled up the four flights to the top. Most wizards those days lived in simple houses or flats in the city—why couldn’t he?
“Grandda?” she shouted as she burst into the uppermost room of the tower. “Grandda!” She couldn’t see him over the piles of junk that filled the place. Somewhere in the room, his old radio was blaring, dry old newsreaders discussing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in dusty but deafening voices. But when their speaking paused, she could just barely make out the sound of coughing and grumbling. She sighed in relief. If her grandfather was grumbling, he was probably not seriously hurt.
She took a moment to catch her breath, relief warring with irritation and guilt. She shouldn’t let him make potions anymore—disasters would just keep happening. Then she snorted and shook her head. How was she supposed to stop him?
She edged down the one relatively clear path through the stacks of junk, occasionally tiptoeing in a vain attempt to see her grandfather. It didn’t look like anything in the room was on fire; the wards had worked, though they’d left more smoke in the room than she’d have liked. The explosion had also knocked things into the narrow pathway through the junk—an old burlap doll here, a bundle of brown weeds there, and a box of dried plum pits beyond that.
Dwyn carefully stepped over it all, fanning herself with her hand. Whenever she went in there, the piles of junk seemed to loom in toward her, crowding her space, and the smoke made it even worse. The blaring radio was beginning to make her head pound. She bit back curses. That was it; she was going to clean the whole tower out.
Coming around a curve in the path, she finally found her grandfather. He was standing next to a table that sat beneath the window, using an old shaving brush to painstakingly sweep fine purple dust off a stack of newspapers.
“Grandda, are you all right?” Dwyn asked as she climbed over a toppled crate. He couldn’t hear her over the radio show, which had moved on to a discussion of the looming threat of war on the continent. She bit her tongue in irritation; that was the last thing she needed her grandfather to hear about. She pushed her way to the radio, a tall, decade-old standing model that poked out of a pile of junk a few feet from her grandfather, and switched it off. “Grandda!”
Her grandfather jumped and turned to face her with a reproachful frown. “Dwyn, there you are,” he muttered, his voice gravelly with a heavy, singsong Welsh accent. “Did you meddle with my protective wards?” He waved a gnarled hand over his head, gesturing to the smoke. “This should have cleared out by now.”
Dwyn sighed. “I replaced your wards years ago, Grandda. I told you about it—you had let them fade.”
“My wards were fine,” he grumbled, hunching his shoulders and turning back to the stack of newspapers.
“Are you hurt?” Dwyn took the old man by the shoulder and turned him to face her. He was a little bit shorter than she was, wrinkled and tan—at least, she hoped he was tan and not just dirty. His hair was disheveled, as though he’d only gotten halfway through combing it before giving up, and he’d missed several small patches of white whiskers when he’d shaved that morning. Dwyn stifled another sigh and straightened the ragged green robes that he wore—the man looked like a beggar.
“I’m fine, Dwyn, leave it alone,” her grandfather said, pushing her hands away and turning back to the stack of newspapers. “If you want to help, you can get the fae dust off these papers.”
“Grandda, they’ll fall apart before you could ever get them clean. Just throw them out.”
“Well, I can’t throw them out until I’ve read them.”
Dwyn leaned over his shoulder to look at the top newspaper: the UK Wizard’s Times from June 25, 1919. “They’re over twenty years old.”
He didn’t reply; she was pretty sure he’d heard what she said and was simply ignoring her. Rolling her eyes, she turned to his workstation.
“What happened, then?” she asked, eyeing the dented, cracked cauldron on his workbench. A towel had been hastily shoved beneath it to sop up the mud-thick brown goop that was dripping out.
Her grandfather didn’t reply.
“Grandda, what exploded?”
“What?” Her grandfather turned to her, his brow furrowed. “Oh, this blasted cauldron cracked and leaked the potion I was brewing. I’ll tell you, I’m angry about that—I just got it back from McKaeton, and he promised me that it was patched up perfect. Overcharged me too.”
“Blacksmith McKaeton moved back to Glasgow three years ago, Grandda.”
Her grandfather blinked, his face startled. “Oh. Well . . . it must have been another blacksmith, then.”
“Why aren’t you using the new cauldrons I bought you for your birthday?”
“Well, my old one is good enough,” he grumbled, returning to his newspapers.
“Obviously it wasn’t.” Dwyn leaned forward to sniff the puddle of brownish potion on the workstation. Icebark, fourth clover, and . . . mandrake? No, something else, something with a strong scent. Was he trying to make a shapechange potion? “Grandda, which potion is this?”
“The clearthought potion, of course. I managed to salvage enough to fill a flask, though.”
Dwyn’s stomach dropped and her headache seemed to spike. He’d been trying to make clearthought, and he’d ended up with that? She followed the puddle to where it leaked off the back of the workstation, and found the twisted remains of a rusty steel bucket on the floor there. So the potion had leaked into the bucket and reacted with whatever it held, causing the explosion. She picked up the bucket and then frowned, studying the charred remains of plants within it.
“Grandda, was this bucket holding anything other than powderpods?”
“No. I picked them the other day,” he said, not looking up.
“There’s not much that would have reacted with powderpods,” she said, frowning. She turned to search the shelves above his workstation. “What was in that potion?”
“You know what goes in clearthought, Mair. Nothing in there caused the explosion.”
“Something caused it,” Dwyn replied. She didn’t bother, anymore, to point out when he called her by her mother’s name.
“I’ll tell you what it was,” her grandfather said, pointing out the window at their neighbor’s house. “I caught those goblin neighbors of mine nosing around my garden last week, trying to steal some of my ingredients. I’m sure they messed around with the powderpods and got something else in them. Goblins are always doing things like that.”
“The Jameses aren’t stealing from you, Grandda.” She pulled a tray of dark green leaves from one of the shelves and sniffed it. They had a strong scent—the smell she hadn’t been able to identify in the potion. “What is this?”
Her grandfather stared at the tray for a moment and then turned red. “Well, that’s just some of the starleaf that I found in my lawn.”
“Grandda . . .” Dwyn closed her eyes and took a deep breath before continuing. “We discussed this—it’s not starleaf, it’s a weed!”
“I know starleaf when I see it.”
“Where’re the points on the leaves, then? Where’re the silver veins?”
Her grandfather turned away with his lips pursed stubbornly.
“It’s a weed, Grandda,” Dwyn continued. “It’s a weed that’s been growing in your yard and soaking up stray bits of magic. It’s what made the potion explode.” Shaking her head, she dumped the weeds off the tray and into the dustbin beside the workstation.
“Dwyn, don’t!” her grandfather shouted, hurrying forward and snatching the bin from the floor. “Maybe I wouldn’t have to scrounge for wild starleaf if I still had any in my garden.”
“Scrounge . . .” Dwyn gritted her teeth, fighting for calm. “The starleaf needed to be harvested before the full moon, Grandda! You’re the one who taught me that! I kept asking if you were going to pick it, and you never did. Half of the crop went bad before I harvested the rest.”
Her grandfather mumbled something under his breath as he began picking the weeds out of the dustbin and placing them carefully on the tray.
Dwyn shoved the tray aside. “And then—then I brought you half of what I picked. You said you didn’t want it, remember? I had to force you to take it, and what did you do with it then? You left it in the sunlight and it withered!”
She realized suddenly that she was almost shouting, and went quiet, breathing heavily. She rubbed her temples. How had her mother dealt with him for so many years?
Her grandfather simply pulled the tray back into place and resumed picking leaves from the bin. After a moment, Dwyn sighed and turned away.
“I’ll bring you some starleaf later,” she said, “and we’ll dig through this place and find the cauldrons I gave you. Are the other potions ready? I’ll take them down.”
“I’ll take them,” her grandfather replied. He dropped the dustbin and shuffled past her to a half-buried chair near his completely buried bed, grabbing a small leather satchel that was balanced precariously on the edge. “I need to make sure the lad knows the proper dosages.” He tromped from the room.
Dwyn took a deep breath, reminding herself how glad she was that he wasn’t hurt, and followed him down the stairs. She eyed the stacks of junk along the wall; it couldn’t have been more than two months since she’d last cleaned it out. Where did he even get all that stuff?
A young man was sitting on the grass outside with his back against the fence—she hadn’t even noticed him earlier, or the rusty bicycle that leaned on the fence beside him. The lad’s hair was a dark brown, a little lighter than Dwyn’s, and when he scrambled to his feet, he was just a few inches shorter than her.
“Is everything all right?” he asked, wringing his hands.
“Everything’s fine,” her grandfather replied. He held up the satchel. “Here are the potions for your father.” He proceeded to list off when the young man should give his father doses of which potion, as though he expected the lad to remember it all from the one lecture. Dwyn shook her head—his instructions made little sense, anyway.
The young man nodded, wide-eyed, and bowed once her grandfather finished. “My whole family gives their thanks, High Wizard,” he said. “Our local hedgeman has tried to treat him, but it wasn’t helping. I couldn’t believe it when he told me I could go to the great Arliss Bobydd himself!”
Despite her frustrated mood, Dwyn smiled slightly at the look on her grandfather’s face—he was beaming. He stood up a little straighter and adjusted his robes. “Yes, well . . . I’m always happy to help. If anyone else in your village falls ill, you just come back to me.”
“Thank you, sir!” The lad hesitated, biting his lip. Just as Dwyn’s grandfather began to turn away, the young man blurted, “Why is everyone talking about war, sir?”
Dwyn’s grandfather blinked. “What?”
“It’s just . . . won’t the Peace Ward—”
Dwyn stepped between them and placed a hand on the lad’s arm. “How far is your village?”
“Oh—I’m from Llanelwedd,” the lad replied, glancing back and forth between them. “About seven hours away on my bicycle.”
“So you probably haven’t eaten since you left home, have you? In what . . . eleven hours?”
“Oh . . . well, no.”
“Come inside and have a meal before you go, then. That’s a long ride to make on an empty stomach.” Dwyn forced a smile and gestured to the cottage, pushing the boy along before he could bring up the rumors of war again. If her grandfather heard about that, he’d want to run off to the continent to fix things, and no one would be able to convince him that he wasn’t able to anymore.
Her grandfather was frowning, but he didn’t follow them. Grumbling, he turned and headed back into his tower. Dwyn sighed; that good mood hadn’t lasted long.
The young man hesitated, glancing down at the satchel he still held against his chest. “I just . . . I worry about keeping my father waiting for his medicines.”
“We’ll get you something you can eat while you ride, then.” Dwyn took him by the arm and began pulling him toward the cottage.
The lad looked up at her with a frown. “Miss, can I ask you something?”
“If the Peace Ward is still protecting us, then why is everyone so worried about war?”
Dwyn winced and glanced over her shoulder involuntarily. Her grandfather was nowhere in sight . . . not that he would have been able to hear them if he was. “Wards don’t last forever,” she replied, turning back. “They fade over time.”
The young man’s eyes went wide. “So . . . there could be a war?”
“Don’t worry.” Dwyn tried to make her tone reassuring. “We can always make another peace ward.”
“Would the high wizard do it again?”
“Well, he’s retired now,” she said. “But I’m sure that Lord Wizard Churchill will make one if things come to that.”
The young man nodded. His shoulders relaxed a bit, and he smiled as they entered the cottage. “Thank you, Lady Wizard.”
“I’m . . . not actually a full wizard. Just a student.”
“Are you the high wizard’s assistant?” the young man asked as she sat him down at the kitchen table. “Is that why you live here?”
“I’m his granddaughter,” she replied, digging through a pouch at her waist. “This was my mother’s cottage until she passed last year.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” He was silent for a moment. “Can you do magic too?”
She pulled a small handful of suspension powder from the pouch. “Yes, I can.” She tossed the dust in his face and whispered some words of power in Old Welsh.
The lad barely had time to react; his eyes went wide and then he stopped moving, frozen in place.
Dwyn took the satchel from his hands and opened the bag, wincing when she saw the potions inside. Only one was anywhere near the right color, a dull green that could almost be mistaken for the vibrant wellrest potion that its label said it was. The virulent orange potion that was labeled “Elixir of Healing and Restoration” should have been a rosy pink, and the brownish goop her grandfather claimed was a clearthought potion should have been pale blue.
She glanced at the boy, making sure that the suspension spell had taken effect properly, and then left the kitchen. A knock at the door interrupted her before she could reach her workshop. She groaned and turned back, hoping it wasn’t another petitioner. A glance through the peephole showed her neighbor, Mrs. Reilly. Dwyn opened the door.
“Good morning, Dwyn,” Mrs. Reilly said, smiling. The middle-aged woman had prematurely silver hair and was wearing a pale green long-skirted summer dress. She held up a worn disk of wood carved with spell knots. “I’m not imposing, am I? I was hoping you could get me youth charm working again. Me husband’ll be getting back from sea this week, as long as things on the continent haven’t gotten any worse, and I want to be sure I’m looking me best for him.”
Dwyn gave a thin smile and took the charm. “I’d be happy to. Come in.” She stepped back to let Mrs. Reilly in, and shut the door behind her. “I just need to take care of one other thing first, if that’s all right.”
“Oh, of course, dear, take your time.”
Dwyn turned and headed to her workroom, trying not to feel irritated. She really was happy to help Mrs. Reilly—the woman was always so kind and solicitous, and Dwyn would have to be completely thoughtless not to appreciate her. It was just that she wasn’t getting done any of the things she’d planned to do that morning . . .
Mrs. Reilly followed her down the hall and stood in the doorway to the workshop, looking around with a curious eye. Dwyn set the youth charm on her carving table and then turned to her row of simmering cauldrons. She carefully removed all the flasks and vials from the satchel—old and poorly washed, every one of them—and placed them on a stand beside her sink. She would pour them out later, after she’d made sure that none of them would damage the plumbing or cause trouble if it washed out into the river. Most of them were probably harmless, but . . . you never knew.
“What’re all those, then?” Mrs. Reilly asked as Dwyn began filling new flasks with the potions she’d been brewing before the explosion interrupted.
“Potions for a petitioner,” Dwyn replied without looking up. “Clearthought, wellrest . . . a few others.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you’d begun taking petitioners!” Mrs. Reilly hesitated a moment. “I . . . thought students weren’t allowed to do that. Aren’t you still on leave from the academy?”
Dwyn paused her pouring without looking up, a familiar sinking feeling settling into her stomach. “No, not anymore.”
“Oh, dear.” Mrs. Reilly placed a hand on Dwyn’s shoulder. “They wouldn’t extend it?”
“It’s all right.” Dwyn took a deep breath and resumed pouring. “It really is. They’d already given me a year’s leave, after all. It wasn’t really reasonable of me to hope . . .” She trailed off with a shrug.
Mrs. Reilly leaned down and gave Dwyn a gentle hug. “I’m so sorry, dearie.”
Dwyn shrugged. “It should be all right, really. I found some of my grandfather’s old spellbooks buried in one of the lower tower rooms—the books he was just positive the Jameses had somehow broken in and stolen. I’ve been studying some of the spells he designed, trying to learn them myself. It will give me an advantage if I . . . whenever I reapply to the academy.”
“Well, that’s good, I suppose . . .” Mrs. Reilly sat down quietly in a chair by the wall.
Dwyn forced a smile. “Anyway, no—I’m still not taking formal petitioners. I’m just . . . helping my grandfather with one of his.”
“Helping him?” Mrs. Reilly glanced at the dirty potion flasks that Dwyn had removed from the satchel. “I take it he doesn’t know you’re helping?”
“Well . . . no.” Dwyn corked the final flask and began loading them into the satchel. “I hid eavesdropping spells in the protective wards I put on his tower last year. I just listen in when a petitioner comes and then switch his concoctions out for the proper ones when no one’s looking.”
Mrs. Reilly bit her lip. “You know, Dwyn . . . there are homes for older people, when they become this troublesome.”
“Oh, I’ve thought of that, believe me,” Dwyn replied. More and more every day, she’d thought of that. “But . . . I couldn’t do that to him.”
“They’re not so bad, these days,” Mrs. Reilly said. “Especially after all the work your grandfather did for the kingdom back in the day; I’m sure his pension could get him in a prime, government-run home where they’d take wonderful care of him. He’s the High Wizard Bobydd, after all!”
“That’s the problem, Mrs. Reilly.” Dwyn frowned at the older woman. “He’s the man who single-handedly ended the Great War, the greatest Welsh wizard since Gwydion. Everyone knows it. I can’t put the legendary Arliss Bobydd in an elderly home. Even before word of it got around, he would be so ashamed; he wouldn’t really be alive after that.”
Mrs. Reilly sighed. “Is it really much worse than living a lie, thinking he’s still living up to his old reputation when he’s not?”
Dwyn hesitated, staring down at the potions in the satchel. She wondered that every day. “Yes, it would be worse than this,” she finally replied. A year ago, when she’d come home from school, she wouldn’t have hesitated. “He spent his life building that reputation, and he deserves to keep it. The only times I really see him happy now are when he thinks he’s helping someone, or when he gets talking about the old days, and I won’t take that away. If . . . if I have a hard time because of it”—she shrugged her shoulders—“that’s just too bad.”
For a moment, she thought that Mrs. Reilly was going to cry. “Well, that’s right compassionate of you, Dwyn. Your mother would be so very proud.” Mrs. Reilly hesitated, biting her lip. “But . . . and I hope I’m not being too forward saying this . . . but I don’t think your mother would want you to give up everything you cared about. She was so proud of you, going off to the academy so young. All of those offers of employment you had and whatnot.”
Dwyn leaned her head into her hands. Her temples were throbbing again. “I know, I just . . . I don’t know. What do you think I should do?”
“Oh, I wish I knew, dearie.” Mrs. Reilly hugged her again, patting her hair. “I just don’t want you to feel like you have to give up what you want. You can, if you think that’s best—but you don’t have to.”
Dwyn nodded. She would think over it some more later, when her head didn’t hurt so much.
Mrs. Reilly squeezed Dwyn’s shoulder and then stood. “I’ll come back for me charm later, dearie—don’t worry about getting it done right away.” She turned and headed for the door.
Dwyn tucked the last potion into the satchel, the clearthought. Years before, her mother had convinced her grandfather to take a little of it every morning. It had helped him keep things together for a while. But the potion no longer helped enough to waste the resources.
The older woman stopped in the doorway. “Yes?”
“How did my mother deal with all this, while I was at school?”
“Oh, dearie,” Mrs. Reilly smiled. “She talked with me. When I stop by for the charm, you can let out all your frustrations. It’ll do you good.” She waved and left.
Dwyn smiled. She took a deep breath and then returned to her work, penning a list of instructions for using the potions. Then she returned to the young man in the kitchen, placing the satchel back in his arms. After checking to ensure she was standing where she had been before, she let the power fade from the suspension spell with a whisper. The young man blinked once or twice, and then his brow furrowed.
“All right,” she said, turning to her cupboards before he could ask what had happened. “How about some pasties? I’ve got some with meat and potatoes, and some with raspberry. That should get you through the day.”
She looked over her shoulder at the young man. He blinked a few more times, visibly confused, and then he nodded. “Um . . . yes. That sounds wonderful, thank you.”
“Of course,” she replied, pulling the pasties from the icebox and placing them in a small basket. She handed the young man the note of instructions. “Now, I know my grandfather went over the instructions for those potions very quickly, so I just wanted to make sure you remembered what to do. Give your father a spoonful of the restorative and the wellrest potions before he sleeps each night, and let him sip at the fortitude potions whenever he’s feeling weak. Give him a teaspoon of the clearthought potion each morning—that will help him focus through the day until the fits pass—but don’t give him any more than that. If he has too much, his mind will become overworked and he’ll go into a coma. Understand?”
The young man nodded, wide-eyed as he looked over the note. Dwyn smiled and handed him the basket. “You’ll do fine. Let us know once your father’s doing better.”
He smiled and stood. “Thank you so much, ma’am.” He bowed, clutching the satchel and basket. “I can’t believe we got help from Arliss Bobydd himself! I’m going to have to tell my whole town about this. Thank you!”
She smiled again and led him to the door. The young man’s gratitude made her feel a bit better about things. As he hurried down the walk to his bicycle, however, she noticed her grandfather on his hands and knees in front of the tower, picking weeds out of his lawn and placing them carefully in a basket.
Dwyn sighed and leaned against the door frame, rubbing her forehead to try to clear her head. Her plans had been to spend the day researching some new spells, but it didn’t look like that would happen. The morning had been taken up with potion making, and she needed to replace the tower’s protective wards since the old ones had used up all their energy containing the explosion.
She turned to head back to her workroom and immediately tripped over the stacks of newspapers by the door.
* * *
Dwyn made the physical focus for the new wards out of tungsten wire and oak branches, weaving in small bits of other materials here and there while constantly double-checking her work against one of her grandfather’s old spellbooks. The design for the wards was his, discovered when he’d been younger and somewhat more . . . stable. Like all of his spells, it was intricate and amazing and difficult.
The strenuous work was already beginning to give her a headache when she heard her grandfather enter the cottage. A moment later, he turned on the radio and turned it up loud enough that the newsreaders seemed to be shouting. She groaned and rested her head on the worktable. Then she continued working, trying to concentrate through an ear-pounding discussion of the king and queen’s visit to the United States. When the topic shifted toward German aggressions on the continent, she stormed out to turn off the radio and discovered that her grandfather had already returned to his tower, leaving the radio on behind him.
As she worked, Dwyn realized where she’d gone wrong when she’d made the wards the year before—her eavesdropping spell had interfered with some of the more delicate functions of her grandfather’s design. It took her most of the day, but she eventually adjusted the design to incorporate both spells without interfering with the functionality of either.
Immensely proud of herself, she waited until her grandfather left for the market and then took the focus up into the tower. Using Welsh words of power, she projected her magic through the focus, casting glowing replicas of the ward into the walls, windows, floor, and ceiling—she left no surface unprotected. The images would be visible only to other wizards who knew how to look for them, but her hidden spell wouldn’t be visible at all.
By the time she was finished, she was exhausted and beginning to feel jittery and stifled from the looming piles of junk. Her stomach rumbled as she climbed down the stairs; she needed some food and a nap before she finally picked up on her personal studies. When she entered her cottage, she was greeted with the scent of fresh bread and roasted lamb. A steaming pot of stew sat on her stove, a loaf of bread was keeping warm in her oven, and a note of encouragement from Mrs. Reilly sat on the table.
Her grandfather returned home about a half hour after dark. Unsurprisingly, his bag was stuffed with odds and ends—from a roll of natty twine to a horseshoe that looked as though it had been sitting in the mud when he found it. And six newspapers. She didn’t complain until he tried to stash his newfound treasures in one of her kitchen drawers. She led him to the storage room at the back of the cottage and helped him stash the things there.
“An old woman in the market asked me whether I thought there was going to be war with Germany,” he muttered as he sorted through a box of broken charms.
Dwyn froze for a moment and then forced herself to continue tidying the messy storage room. “Oh, really?”
Her grandfather nodded absently. “I felt bad for her—memory gone like that. She must have thought it was still before the Great War.”
Dwyn breathed out in relief. “Poor thing.”
Her grandfather put the box away and began sorting through the newspapers he’d bought. As he lifted the first one, Dwyn noticed the headline on the second: “Kaiser Seeking War?” She snatched the newspaper before he could read it and tossed it on top of a larger pile.
“That’s not where that goes—” her grandfather began, but she hustled him out of the room to the kitchen table.
“Mrs. Reilly made us some stew for supper,” she said. “I’ll dish some up for you.”
“Oh . . . Mrs. Reilly.” He shook his head, scooting his chair closer to the table. “That woman is after my apples.”
Dwyn paused in spooning out the stew, confused. “What?”
“Every time she comes by, she always asks about the apple tree on the edge of the garden. I know she’s planning on sneaking in and stealing them once they’re ripe—that’s what she did last year.”
“No,” Dwyn said, more firmly than she’d intended. She pointed the ladle at him. “Mrs. Reilly has been nothing but sweet to you, and she was a great support for mother during her last years. I don’t want to hear you badmouthing her.”
“Well, I’m sure she does lots of nice things,” her grandfather said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that she stole my apples. I caught her sneaking in!”
“You caught her? You saw her in your garden?”
“Well . . .” Her grandfather stuck his chin out stubbornly. “No, I didn’t, but Mr. James did. He told me she was in there.”
“Mr. James? The one you’ve been accusing of breaking into your house?” Her grandfather opened his mouth to reply, but she cut him off. “No. I’m not going to listen to this, Grandda.” She set his bowl of stew on the table with a thunk. “Just eat your dinner.”
After that, he didn’t speak to her for the rest of the evening; all her life, that had been his most common response when someone offended him. It had stopped bothering her years before.
Dwyn retreated to her workshop, looking forward to finally being able to study. Then she remembered the flasks and vials of potion that she’d confiscated from the young man that morning. They were still sitting by her sink, awaiting disposal; and it looked like one of the vials was beginning to melt. It took her several hours to safely negate the magic of the potions and dispose of them. By the time she finished, it was nearly midnight. She regretfully patted the spellbooks she’d been hoping to study; they’d have to wait until morning.
When she came out of her workshop, she found her grandfather asleep at the kitchen table with his head on his arms—he did that more and more often of late, falling asleep wherever he sat. It worried her. She was trying to decide whether or not she should wake him, when a knock came at the cottage door.
She frowned and made her way quietly to the door, where she peeked through the peephole. A thin man in an old-fashioned black suit stood on the porch, holding a bowler under his arm. She couldn’t make out his face, but she could see several cars on the street behind him. More men in suits stood beside them.
She placed a hand in her pouch of suspension powder, just in case—she doubted that someone with nefarious motives would have politely knocked, but it didn’t hurt to be cautious. Slowly, she opened the door.
The light from the cottage fell on the man; he was older, with dark hair and a bushy mustache that were streaked with wide lines of silver, and he looked very familiar.
“I’m sorry to bother you so late, miss,” the man said with a nod. “But I’m seeking High Wizard Arliss Bobydd on extremely pressing business. No one is answering at his tower—this is his daughter’s house, is it not?”
The moment she heard his voice, with its English accent and somewhat nasal tone, she recognized him. Neville Chamberlain, the royal minister himself. She realized that she was staring with her mouth open.
“Um, yes . . . yes, sir. I’m his granddaughter. I’ll, um . . . I’ll go get him.” She turned and began walking toward the kitchen, and then stopped in her tracks. Had she just left the royal minister standing on her doorstep? Red-faced, she hurried back to the door and pulled it open wide. “I’m sorry, sir. Please come inside and make yourself at home.”
The royal minister nodded with a polite smile, though it seemed to her that beneath the smile his face was tired and worried. He stepped inside and stood beside the door, making no move to sit. With a glance out at the cars and men along the street, Dwyn shut the door and hurried to the kitchen.
She was surprised to find her grandfather awake and nibbling at a sweet pasty. He didn’t hear her approaching, of course, but when he saw her out of the corner of his eye, he quickly stuffed the half-eaten pasty back into the bread box as though he’d been caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to.
“I’m going to head up to my tower for the day, Mair,” he said, moving to the sink. “Let me know if any petitioners come looking for me.”
“For the day?” Dwyn repeated, caught off-guard. “Grandda, it’s midnight.”
Her grandfather looked at her with a mixture of confusion and fear that broke her heart. He glanced out the dark kitchen window. “Oh . . . I . . . all right,” was all he said. He lowered his head and turned away.
Dwyn wanted to give him a hug and comfort him—she suddenly realized that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d hugged her grandfather. Instead, she pointed toward the sitting room. “Grandda, there’s . . . the royal minister is here to see you.”
Her grandfather looked at her, his brow furrowed. For a moment, she thought he hadn’t heard her; and then he suddenly swept past her out of the kitchen, walking more quickly than she’d seen him move in a long time. She followed.
“Neville?” her grandfather said as he entered the room.
The minister stepped forward from the door with a smile, extending his hand. “Arliss, it’s good to see you.”
Her grandfather was grinning. He shook the minister’s hand enthusiastically. “Goodness, Neville, how long has it been? I haven’t seen you since you were made minister of health . . . the first time.”
“Yes,” the minister said, his smile fading. “That was ages ago.” He released the handshake and cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to bother you so suddenly, and so late, but it is urgent.”
“What is the matter?”
The minister glanced at Dwyn and licked his lips. “Would you mind if we headed up to your tower? These are matters best discussed alone, and behind wards.”
“Oh . . .” Her grandfather’s face fell. “Well, there’s . . . there’s not much room up there . . .”
“I’ll step out, Minister,” Dwyn interjected quickly. “You won’t have to climb all those stairs, and the whole cottage is protected against eavesdropping by my grandfather’s wards, just as the tower is.” In a way, that was true. She’d placed the wards, of course, but they were her grandfather’s design.
“Thank you, miss,” the minister said with a nod. Dwyn curtsied and then hurried away to her room, a looming feeling of dread enveloping her. There were no pleasant reasons why the royal minister would be visiting her grandfather in the middle of the night.
As soon as her bedroom door was shut, she ran to the mirror on her dressing table. She spoke a few words of Old Welsh, and the mirror lit up, showing her the sitting room. She’d put the same eavesdropping spells in the cottage wards as in the tower, just in case. Suddenly, she was glad that she had.
The minister had opened the front door again. After a moment, a man in a double-breasted blue suit stepped into the room, thin and slightly taller than the minister. Dwyn touched the edge of the mirror, swinging the view around so that she could see the man better. It was the king. He nodded to her grandfather.
“Your Majesty,” her grandfather said, bowing. “You’ve gotten much taller, Albert.”
“High Wizard,” the king replied, nodding. He smiled slightly. “It’s George, now, actually. Thank you for receiving us at such a late hour.” He stepped aside to let in another man, one decidedly wider than he was. “Have you met Lord Wizard Churchill?”
“I have not,” her grandfather replied, bowing again. “It is an honor.”
“The honor is mine, High Wizard,” the lord wizard replied in a gruff voice. He shook her grandfather’s hand. Unlike the others, he wore a set of midnight-blue robes. “I am sorry that I’ve never had the opportunity to come and meet you before.”
Dwyn stared as the men seated themselves. Some part of her had always known, of course, what kind of people her grandfather had once worked with. Everyone knew. But seeing the royal minister, the first lord of wizardry, and the king himself sitting in her cottage was quite another matter. She winced—her rumpled grandfather looked so out of place.
“I’m not going to waste time, Arliss,” Minister Chamberlain said. “Early yesterday morning, the German Empire invaded Poland.”
Dwyn gasped, then covered her mouth before remembering that the men couldn’t hear her. It wasn’t really a surprise—rumors had been spreading for months. But still, hearing it so suddenly was a shock. Her grandfather simply frowned.
“They attacked without a formal declaration of war,” the minister continued, “and, as far as we know, they’ve completely overwhelmed Poland’s defenses. Information is still scarce.”
Her grandfather was silent for a moment longer. “What will you do?” he finally asked.
“We will go to war, this time, if we must,” Lord Wizard Churchill replied. “The Germans have pushed too far—we can’t allow this to continue.”
The minister sighed and nodded. “Tomorrow, we will issue an ultimatum for the Germans to withdraw from Poland or face war, as will France.”
“But . . . will they listen?”
The lord wizard scoffed. “It’s obvious they will not—they mean to have all of Europe, perhaps even more.”
Her grandfather shook his head. “What is Wilhelm thinking? He swore to us that he wouldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps.”
“Wilhelm might be kaiser,” Churchill replied, “but I do not believe he still runs the empire. That chancellor of his is disturbingly ambitious, and he’s somehow obtained the favor of the imperial hexmasters.”
King George sat forward suddenly. “Whoever is b-behind the invasion, it is of n-n-no . . .” He trailed off with a sigh, and the lord wizard quickly handed him a small vial. Dwyn squinted at the potion as the king gulped it down—the king used smoothspeak?
The king coughed and then continued, handing the empty vial back to the lord wizard with a grateful nod. “The fact is, war is upon us—and this time, if we allow it to progress, it will be worse than before.”
The room went silent. Dwyn stared at her mirror. Worse than the Great War, the war to end all wars? How could that even be possible?
“Worse?” her grandfather whispered.
Minister Chamberlain nodded. “It seems likely. The Germans and Italy are allied—Mussolini will join with Wilhelm, or whoever is running the empire. He’ll likely make another grab for Ethiopia, and perhaps more of Africa.”
“Japan has already invaded China—they’ll take advantage of the chaos to push further.” Churchill sighed and rubbed his face. “And we all know that Stalin fellow can’t be trusted one whit either. The Soviets will move west while the Germans move east. I doubt we can count on them to wipe one another out.”
Dwyn pulled her feet up onto her chair, hugging her knees as they continued to outline the precarious position the world was in. Another Great War. She closed her eyes, trembling, recalling the few memories she had of the war. Waving to her father as he walked away from the cottage, wearing green-and-black magical forces fatigues. Her mother enchanting fighter planes down at the factory. A late-night phone call, and falling asleep in her mother’s arms as both of them wept.
She opened her eyes, blinking back tears, and shook her head. Why were they even discussing it? The German Empire had been acting increasingly belligerent for months. Surely the Ministry of Wizards had long since prepared a new peace ward. Why had they come to her grandfather?
Her grandfather was shaking his head. “But . . . the Peace Ward. You just need to get into Poland and make another peace ward, and things will calm down.”
There was a brief silence, and then Chamberlain sighed. “That is why we’ve come to you, Arliss. The Ministry of Wizards, they . . . well . . .” he trailed off and glanced at the lord wizard.
“We cannot create a peace ward,” Churchill said.
Dwyn stared. The expression on her grandfather’s face was the same as what hers must have been.
“Why not?” he asked.
The lord wizard sighed and seemed to deflate and droop. “You may not have noticed, High Wizard, but . . . magic is on its way out, these days. Fewer and fewer new wizards come to the academies each year, and each of them is a bit weaker than the one before. I’m one of the most powerful magic-workers in the ministry, and I can barely manage to perform the simplest of the spells you left with us.”
He shook his head and ran a hand over his balding scalp. “There are several theories as to why it’s happening, but it doesn’t really matter why right now. The fact is, you’re the only man in Europe—possibly in the world—who can make a peace ward.”
“High Wizard Arliss Bobydd,” King George said, leaning forward with a grim expression, “you once saved the world from the greatest destruction that it had ever faced. Now, as your king, I must ask you to do it again.”
Dwyn felt herself begin to tremble. They couldn’t really be asking her grandfather to do that. Not at his age.
Her grandfather seemed thunderstruck, staring at the king slack-jawed. Then, after a moment, he pushed himself to his feet, his joints creaking and popping. He straightened his back, adjusted his robes, and then nodded. “Well, all right. I mean . . . of course. I’ll do it.”
* * *
“You can’t do it,” Dwyn said, trying to keep her voice level.
Her grandfather dug through a pile of books and newspapers. “You had no right to eavesdrop on that conversation,” he said, his voice muffled by papers and years of dust. “What did you do to my wards? They should have kept you from prying.”
“You don’t have any wards, Grandda. I’ve told you a dozen times that I replaced them all after you let them decay.”
They were in the top room of his tower, which was illuminated by a single lantern that Dwyn had enchanted months before to float over her grandfather’s shoulder when it was lit. He, of course, thought that it was the lantern he’d enchanted himself over a decade ago. Outside, it was still night—the king and his retinue had returned to London, where her grandfather was to join them in another day.
“I know that book is in here somewhere,” he muttered. “Mair, did you move it?”
“No, I didn’t.” Dwyn pulled him away from the pile and turned him to face her, trying to be patient. If she got mad, he would just become stubborn and ignore her all the more determinedly. “Grandda, you can’t do this. When you made the Peace Ward, it left you bedridden for over half a year. Even if you could somehow get into Poland right now . . . if you try to make a peace ward in your current health, it could kill you.”
“It will be fine, Mair,” he grumbled, pushing her hands off his shoulders and turning back to the pile. “It will be easier to cast early in the war, before the fighting begins in earnest. I can handle it.”
“I’m Dwyn,” she said, more loudly than she’d intended. “Grandda, this is—”
“Where is that book?” he said, cutting her off. He glanced at her with a sudden look of angry realization. “I know what must’ve happened to it—it’s those goblin neighbors of mine. They took it when they broke in here!”
Dwyn clenched her teeth and her fists. Of all the times for him to start in on that again . . . “No, they didn’t, Grandda. It’s just deeper in one of these rooms somewhere.”
“Well, I can’t believe this,” her grandfather said, moving to the window that faced southeast over the rest of Cardiff, overlooking the cottage and their neighbor’s house beyond it. “It’s bad enough they’ve been taking my tools and ingredients, but I’m not going to stand by while they steal my books.”
“The Jameses aren’t stealing your books, Grandda!” Dwyn said, stalking over to stand beside him at the window. “They’re good people, and far nicer to you than you deserve, the way you talk about them. Besides, the tower is warded—there’s no way they could get in here without me knowing about it!”
“Well . . . you don’t know goblins like I do,” her grandfather replied, cupping his hands to peer out the window, as though he were going to catch someone in the act of sneaking through his garden. “They’re tricky. I guess I’ll have to go over there and get the book back—I just hope they’ll give it up if I threaten to call the police.”
Dwyn clenched her fists again. “No, that’s a great idea,” she said. “Let’s call the police.”
“What?” Her grandfather seemed taken aback.
“Let’s call the police, Grandda,” she repeated with all the insincere sweetness she could muster. “If they’ve stolen from you, then they should be arrested. We’ll just call the police, and tell them the neighbors somehow broke into the warded tower of a high wizard and stole his spellbooks.”
Her grandfather frowned. “Well, I don’t want to get them thrown in jail. I just want my spellbook back.”
“No, Grandda. If you’re so sure that this is what happened, then we need to call the police.”
Her grandfather looked back out the window and then hunched his shoulders. “Goblins would probably just trick the police, anyway,” he muttered, turning back to the room. He shuffled to his bed and began digging through a pile of old clothing there. “I guess I’ll just have to do it from memory, since someone doesn’t want me to get my spellbook. You try to be good and decent in this world, but look what it gets you . . .”
Dwyn just managed to refrain from punching a stack of newspapers into the air. Instead, she closed her eyes and took a slow breath, carefully unclenching her fists and forcing the muscles to relax.
“Grandda, please listen to me,” she said, opening her eyes. “You’re not up to sneaking through a war zone anymore. You’re not up to creating a peace ward again—you just aren’t. It will kill you.”
“Well, I have to try,” her grandfather replied, frowning at her. “Even if I might die. The world is depending on it.”
“Grandda . . .” Dwyn sighed and rubbed her face. “You can’t do it.”
“Oh, just stop it, Dwyn. You’re as bad as your mother, always thinking about your own wants before the needs of others.”
Dwyn froze, staring at her grandfather. “What did you say?”
“You just don’t want me to leave.” Her grandfather tugged a natty old robe free from the pile and held it up to the light. “Your mother was always doing that, after the Great War, stopping me from going out to help people like I used to. All she cared about was what she wanted.”
“You think my mother was selfish?” Dwyn said. “You? You think that your daughter, who spent years looking after your needs and putting up with everything . . . you think she was selfish?”
“Oh, don’t go acting like Mair was some sort of saint,” her grandfather said. “She made me take care of the tower all by myself, even when I was sick, and I had to do most of the chores around the cottage too. Why, she once—”
“You can’t perform a peace ward, Grandda!” Dwyn snapped. She was shaking.
Her grandfather rolled his eyes. “I already told you, I—”
“I’m not saying that you shouldn’t, I’m saying that you can’t!” Dwyn shouted over him. “You’re not the lord wizard anymore—you are incapable! You can’t tell when your wards have decayed; you can’t even tell a weed from starleaf anymore!”
“Well . . .” her grandfather looked startled and confused. Dwyn should have cared; but she didn’t.
“And this!” She stalked over to where his battered, cracked cauldron still lay on the workbench and dipped her finger into the remains of the potion he’d botched that morning—which he still hadn’t cleaned up—holding it up for him to see. “What color is clearthought potion supposed to be, Grandda?”
Her grandfather stared at the brownish goop on her finger, his eyes unfocused and distant and his brow furrowed.
“It’s supposed to be light blue!” she said, waving her finger. “This looks like you were trying to make a shapechange potion and failed completely! And you think you can create a peace ward again? From memory?”
Her grandfather hunched his shoulders and stuck his chin out stubbornly. “Well, that may be what you think, but—”
“What I think?” Dwyn shrieked. The room was growing blurry—there were tears in her eyes, she realized. The piles of junk were leaning in on her, and it was difficult to breathe. “Grandda, you blew up your tower today! I have to switch out all of the potions and spells you make for people with ones I’ve made, because the ones you make might kill them! You eat rotten food, you can’t hear anymore, and you make up stories about the neighbors stealing from you . . . do you want to know what really happened to all of your missing things?”
Her grandfather simply stared at her.
“It’s all buried somewhere in a senile old man’s . . . useless . . . trash!” she screamed. She grabbed the table near the window and heaved, toppling it on its side. Dust-covered newspapers flopped across the floor, filling the narrow pathway from the worktable to the bed. Other odds and ends clattered into the wall and against her feet—glass marbles, forgotten cups and plates, a stack of old plaques and commendations, and a brown, decayed potted plant that had been covered up and forgotten.
Dwyn stared down at the mess. She put her hands over her mouth in horror, sobbing. After a moment, she forced herself to look up at her grandfather.
She caught a glimpse of painful, terrifying awareness on his face, and her breath stopped. His eyes were wet, just on the verge of spilling tears. Then his chin jutted out again and his eyes hardened. He turned away.
Dwyn ran from the tower, slipping and stumbling over newspapers and books.
* * *
She hid in her room. She didn’t even make it onto the bed, instead ending up curled in a ball on the floor, crying. At one point, she heard her grandfather come into the cottage. He went to his room, and then his footsteps moved to the back of the house, to her workroom. Probably stealing supplies that he thought he needed. She didn’t care. She just pushed herself into the corner and covered her face with her arms.
By the time the sun began to rise, she was cried out. Her body was sore, her head was pounding, and her face was plastered with crusty snot and the salt of dried tears. But she was finally calm enough to know what she had to do.
Her grandfather was going to try to create a peace ward; she clearly couldn’t talk him out of it. But if he botched a spell of that magnitude, who knew what it would do. It wouldn’t just put him in danger—the effects could cover all of Europe, perhaps more. She would have to warn the king, to let him know that her grandfather wasn’t as capable as he’d once been. Maybe . . . maybe the king would keep it from getting around.
Dwyn stood, stiff and aching, and began to pack a small bag with a change of clothing and her toiletries. She would try to send a telegram to the king from the Cardiff station, of course; but she doubted that he would be taking messages from young dropout wizards at such a time of crisis, no matter who her grandfather had once been. She would have to go to London.
And then what? She paused her packing, thinking. Would her grandfather even want her around after she’d gone to the king? He had ignored her for days and even weeks over minor disagreements—it wasn’t hard to believe that he wouldn’t ever forgive her for ruining his reputation with the king.
Maybe Mrs. Reilly had been right—maybe she needed to find an elderly home for her grandfather. She certainly wouldn’t mind having time for her studies; there was even the chance that she’d be able to get back into the academy, if she reapplied soon enough.
She sighed and shook her head, resuming her packing. Even after their argument, her stomach knotted up at the thought of sending her grandfather away, of taking away the last vestiges of his pride. But then, if he remained angry with her, it might be best for both of them.
With the bag over her shoulder, she left the cottage and began following the gravel path to the road. When she reached the gate, she glanced up at her grandfather’s tower. The faint glow of his lamp still shone in the windows, only slightly washed out by the gray dawn.
Dwyn hesitated. If she did it, she wouldn’t be able to take it back. For several minutes, she stood there on the path debating. She didn’t want to face him again right then, but . . . maybe he would listen to reason. Maybe. At the very least, she felt like her mother would have tried again. Finally, she sighed and walked to the tower.
She climbed the stairs slowly and then paused in the doorway at the top. The table was still overturned, and the newspapers and other junk still cluttered the narrow pathway. But she was surprised to see that a new path had been cleared through the center of the room to the far wall.
The path led to a bookcase that she hadn’t even known was there. Her grandfather sat beside it in a sturdy old rocking chair—her grandmother’s, some distant part of Dwyn remembered. There was a pile of books beside the chair, and her grandfather held one open in his lap.
Hesitantly, Dwyn stepped forward to see what was in the book. She’d thought that maybe, somehow, he’d managed to find the spellbook that contained the peace ward. Instead, she was surprised to see that it was a dusty old photo album.
“You look so much like your mother, Dwyn,” her grandfather said. He rested his hand on one of the photographs. It was of her parents at their wedding. “Did your parents ever tell you the story of how they met?”
Dwyn looked down at her grandfather, but his head was lowered over the book and she couldn’t see his face. “Um . . . Dad was one of your students, wasn’t he?” she asked. “He met Mum when you had her help you carry some equipment to the classroom?”
“I made her help me so that she would meet him,” her grandfather said. She thought she could hear a faint smile in his voice. “He was one of my best students, so promising, but he was determined to remain a bachelor forever. I knew he’d change his mind when he met your mother.”
“I hadn’t heard that part.”
“I never told them about it.”
Dwyn smiled slightly. It wasn’t often her grandfather was so lucid anymore; she’d forgotten how pleasant talking to him could be. It was a much better reaction than she’d expected.
Her grandfather turned a few pages; Dwyn noticed that he’d already had the spot marked with one finger.
“Do you remember this?” he asked.
She peered at the picture he was indicating—her, as a baby, sitting in her grandfather’s lap and gnawing on a wooden charm.
“No,” she admitted.
“That was an old flavor charm, for improving food and the like. Your mother let you play with it after it stopped working.”
Dwyn squinted at the photo. “Wait, I do remember that. I carried that old thing around for years, didn’t I? I still had it when I started primary school.”
“Yes, you did.”
“What ever happened to it?”
“One day, after you’d left for school, your mother found it hanging in the kitchen. You’d repaired it and put it there yourself.”
Dwyn blinked. “Really? I don’t remember that. How old was I?”
“Six.” Her grandfather chuckled softly, shaking his head. “Your mother thought I had done it, at first. Then she thought I’d been teaching you behind her back, even though you were too young. But no . . . you had been sneaking peeks at our spellbooks, and had figured out on your own what the flavor charm was supposed to look like and what it did. So you fixed it and hung it up in the kitchen.”
He lifted his left hand, and she saw that he was holding the flavor charm itself.
“You still have it?” she asked.
He snorted. “Of course I do. It didn’t work for too long, but for a child your age to manage that, without any instruction . . . we were so proud. Even your mother wanted to keep it, for the memory. We weren’t surprised at how well you did when you went to the academy—you already knew most of the curriculum, by that point.”
Dwyn blushed. “It’s in our blood, I guess.”
Her grandfather nodded. He looked up at her, and she was surprised at how . . . present his eyes were. She’d never realized just how distant his gaze tended to be lately. There was water in his eyes and faint tear tracks on his cheeks.
“Yes, that’s the point I’m trying to make,” he said. “The magic is in our family’s blood. It’s strong. You’re strong, Dwyn.” He set the charm on the photo album and then reached down beside the rocking chair, lifting a thick, leather-bound book from the floor. “You’re probably the strongest wizard alive these days.”
With a sad, slightly pained smile, he handed her the book. It was the spellbook that held the peace ward.
“You can perform it,” he whispered. He leaned back in his chair, visibly exhausted. “I looked at the wards you have on the tower—they’re excellent. A peace ward will be difficult, even agonizing . . . but you can manage it.”
Dwyn stared at her grandfather. She looked at the book, then back at her grandfather, and frowned. Something was wrong.
“Grandda, what’s going on?”
Her grandfather had begun to doze. He started and looked up at her, his eyes half closed. “You were right,” he said, his voice slightly slurred. “I can’t . . . can’t manage it. S’why you have to go . . .” He began to nod off again.
“Grandda?” Dwyn stepped around the rocking chair to look him in the face, and her foot bumped something on the floor. She looked down—it was an almost-empty glass flask. One of her flasks from her workshop, not one of the old, stained bottles her grandfather used. And it held a few spoonfuls of pale blue liquid.
Dwyn went cold. “Clearthought?” she asked. “You . . . you drank the whole flask?”
“Was too much,” her grandfather slurred.
“Grandda!” she shouted, jolting him awake for a moment. She grabbed his head and turned him to face her. “You can’t . . . you have to stay awake! I’m going to get you some monkshroom, but you have to stay awake!”
“No,” he replied, his voice faint. “Rubellum and some fae dust—should counteract the effect.” He blinked, his eyes becoming alert for a moment. “I think. Double . . . double-check in that book there.” He pointed weakly at the bookcase.
Dwyn scrambled for the book and tore through the pages, finally finding a list of overdose countermeasures scribbled in her grandfather’s shaky handwriting. She squinted, trying to decipher the words. He’d been right—rubellum and fae dust, boiled in moonwater.
“Grandda, stay awake!” she shouted, shaking him. “Tell me more stories!”
“I was the lord wizard, once,” he murmured, his head lolling back against the chair’s headrest. “Did you know that?”
“Tell me all about it!” She stumbled across the room to his workbench and dug through his cupboards until she found the ingredients. When she hurried back to her grandfather, his eyes were closed again. “Grandda!” She forced some of the rubellum into his mouth, the yellow chunks crumbling across his lips. “Just a little rubellum should keep you alert without being poisonous, right? Right? Just chew that while I brew the rest!”
For a moment, he didn’t move. Then, just when she was about to burst from holding her breath, he began to chew and swallow. It wouldn’t be enough. Dwyn looked around for something that could buy her time. After a moment, she remembered her suspension powder. She pulled the bag from her waist and dumped some of the powder on her grandfather, whispering the words to freeze him in time. It would buy him twenty to thirty extra minutes.
The next half hour was a haze of lantern light and dust. She dug madly through the room until she found the cauldrons she’d given him for his birthday, still in the gift box. While the potion boiled, she lifted her frozen grandfather—he was frighteningly light—and moved him to his bed, clearing enough space with kicks and plentiful curses. He coughed as she set him down; the suspension was wearing off.
When the potion was ready, she spoon-fed it to him with his head in her lap. He had trouble swallowing, occasionally coughing it back up. She mopped his face with shaking hands and kept feeding him. He had to pull through—he was all she had.
When the potion was gone, she sat and held him, waiting for his eyes to open.
* * *
Her grandfather finally awoke around ten o’clock, when the sun through the window reached his face. Dwyn had moved to a chair beside the bed, and she sat forward and squeezed his hand.
“Grandda? Can you hear me?”
“Dwyn?” He turned his head, and his eyes slowly focused on her. “You need to go,” he coughed. “I’ll . . . I’ll be fine with a little more rest.”
“I know,” she replied. She held his spellbook in her lap and had been studying the peace ward. As he’d said, it was enormously difficult, but . . . she did think she could do it. “Grandda . . . they’re going to ask why you sent me to do it instead of coming yourself.”
He looked at her, his expression confused and frightened. “Well . . . just . . . just . . .” After a moment, his face calmed and he forced a weak smile. “Just tell them the truth.”
Dwyn tried not to cry. The clearthought was wearing off. Beneath the smile, she could see that he was sad, confused, and broken. She looked back at the spellbook, not wanting to watch him slip away again.
If she managed to create a peace ward and stop the coming war, she would be a hero. Her name would go down in history, just as her grandfather’s had. The academy would probably welcome her back with open arms, if she decided to go, and it would be an easy path to being ordained a wizard of the realm and even a high wizard. Everything she’d wanted would all be within reach.
But things wouldn’t suddenly be better between her and her grandfather; she had no illusions about that. He would forget, would argue and mishear, would be just as paranoid as before. Word would get around about his condition, and petitioners would stop coming. He would putter around the tower and wander the market, lonely and confused, upset by all the knowing looks that people gave him that he didn’t understand. People would respect and honor the man he had been, but they would pity the man he had become.
“I saved the world once,” he whispered, closing his eyes. “I think . . . now it’s your turn.”
Dwyn sat watching him as he dozed off to sleep again. She had years ahead of her to do what she wanted, but it was suddenly painfully clear to her that she didn’t have years with her grandfather. She didn’t care about saving the world—she just wanted to save him.
* * *
Dwyn spent the afternoon making potions. Most were for Mrs. Reilly to give her grandfather over the next few days—a little bit of fortitude each day, and some wellrest for the nights. She also made one other, an earthy-brown potion, which she took with her.
Her train ride was quiet, even grim. She only left her compartment once; as she moved through the passenger car, she saw newspapers bearing the grim announcement of invasion on the continent. She heard fearful, worried whispers of war.
Her train arrived in London late that night. Before she left the train, she drank the brown potion of shapechange she’d made that afternoon. The conductor seemed confused when the old man stepped out of the compartment that had held a young woman only a few hours before.
People pointed at her as she left the train station, whispering in awe and hope. “High Wizard,” greeted the coachman that had been sent to pick her up. Dwyn nodded to him with a smile and climbed into the carriage. As the coach pulled away from the station, she clutched her grandfather’s spellbook to her chest with gnarled, shaking hands.
High Wizard Arliss Bobydd would save the world one more time.
© Christopher Baxter, 2020