I’ve been occupied lately by preparations for my Grandma’s 90th birthday–well done, Grandma!–but I am very glad to be able to go back to work writing. Specifically, I’m back to work on Kathleen’s wizards.
Remember my contribution of an original story to the fundraiser in aid of LGBT Chechens? This is that story! It’s been an interesting writing journey because the story and characters have all evolved unexpectedly as I’ve been writing. I have been wanting to share a snippet for ages, so here is the opening scene of the story, as it stands now. Note: there are almost certainly going to be a lot of changes in the final story!
Jonah woke seconds before the sirens sounded. With the black-out curtains drawn, there was no telling what time of day it was. He groped for the candle on his nightstand, and as he sat up, felt a cold tendril of pain lance through his left foot. A worm attack. Beyond the window, the sirens took up the alarm, their shrill voices slicing through the early morning.
Jonah felt a surge of pride. The wizards will be out there. The sirens’ wail was a sure sign that the city’s defenders were already hard at work. He rubbed his leg, trying to relax his body. The cold never lasted long, but while it did it was paralysing. Finally, it lifted and Jonah swung both legs over the side of the bed.
Yesterday’s clothes were on the floor where he’d left them. Jonah dressed quickly in the candlelight, ears straining for any sound of brooms passing overhead. Tempting as it was, he knew better than to peek out from behind the curtains. They said a basilisk could turn you to stone, just by looking at you. Instead, candleholder in hand, he made his laborious way down the stairs to his shop—the only coffee shop in Glastonbury.
The flickering candlelight glowed in the glass tubes and metal pots of the shop. Jonah turned up the gaslight, illuminating the commercial kitchen, as tidy as it had been a handful of hours later when he’d swept it before bed. He used the flame from his candle to light the boiler, and reached for the grinder. As he pulled the hand wheel, the smell of the coffee beans rose up to greet him, rich and aromatic.
Twenty minutes later, he peddled his bike through the city, two large coffee urns slung in saddle bags either side of the bike. The pedal-powered lamp of his bike was the only light in the city, the street lamps cut as part of the black out. The lamp showed a different Glastonbury, familiar yet mysterious, a shadow reflection in a witches’ mirror. The shadows parted reluctantly before his lamp. Anything could be lurking within them.
Jonah grunted as he pedalled. The urns weighed down the bike, making his progress slow and laborious. He kept at it, knowing his destination wasn’t far away. As he turned off High Street and into Market Place, a red glow lit up the horizon. It faded quickly, leaving a cloud of falling sparks behind it. Jonah’s feet slowed on the pedals. A—a dragon? They were in serious trouble if it was a dragon. A dragon had attacked London in the early days of the Quickening and it had taken the combined might of her Majesty’s Army and the newly formed Wizards Battalion to subdue the beast.
A distant thunder crack followed, and a yellow light illuminated for a moment the outline of the defence wall around the city. Another retort followed, showing the local cavalry had joined the fray. Jonah gripped the handles of his bike more tightly and renewed pedalling. Not far now. Ahead of him, light spilled onto the pavement. Jonah slung himself off his bike and walked it toward his destination.
The only building in the city that was lit was the Wizard’s House, an irreverent name for the building that was all that had saved Glastonbury from the fate of so many small villages in the Quickening. It was a mansion, built by a prosperous merchant and, when his fortunes declined, sold to a group of scholars who were very vague on what exactly they studied. Back then, wizardry was considered heresy, and if it had been known that within a shadow’s reach of the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey was one of the best magical libraries in the world, the building would have been stormed, the library torched and its occupants driven out or worse. Instead, it had become the city’s salvation.
Two women in military uniform stood guard on the step. “What I wouldn’t give for a hot cuppa right about now,” the younger said. The clatter of Jonah’s bike on the cobblestones drew their attention, and she looked up with a smile. “Right on time, Mr. Vaillant.”
“Sorry to have kept you waiting, Ensign Hodgson.” Jonah detached the urn from his bike, and it was gratefully received.
Captain Burrows frowned. She was an older witch. Before the Quickening she’d been a school teacher, and she still had a matron like attitude to her companions. “I hope you didn’t take any unnecessary risks getting here, Mr. Vaillant.”
“No, ma’am. I was careful.”
“If you were truly careful, you’d be tucked up safe in bed with the rest of this city.”
Jonah squirmed. He always felt awkward under the Captain’s eye. “I couldn’t rest, knowing that you’re doing all you can to protect us without doing my bit too.”
She sniffed. “And I suppose that second urn’s intended for the officers in the field?”
Jonah felt colour rush into his cheeks. “Well—”
“It’s a reckless, foolish, needless risk,” she said. “But the latest reports have the worm at the West gate. You’d be wise to stop before Dyehouse Lane.”
Jonah blinked. Had she really… ?
A young witch appeared on the doorstep with a crisp salute. “Captain, a raven’s just landed with news from London.”
As the Captain turned to receive the message, Jonah swung himself back onto his bike. It was distinctly lop-sided now, the remaining coffee run pulling him to the right, but after a few seconds, he found his balance, pedalling hard toward Dyehouse Lane. He had to be gone before Captain Burrows could rethink her lapse in protocol.
As he approached the city wall, the flashes of light and thunder grew more frequent, along with a steady hissing sound, like air escaping a giant blimp. Jonah’s left foot throbbed not with pain, but with ice. His foot slid on the pedal and he stumbled to a halt, barely managing to slide from the bike before he fell. Leaning on the bike and favouring his right leg, he limped down the lane, the light of his bike fading to an intermittent pulse. The only sound he could hear was his ragged breathing, the gears of his bike, the scrape of his boots on the street stone and the rumble of battle, drawing closer with every step.
Smoke subtly inundated the night air, and Jonah, drawing it in, tasted gunpowder. Must be close now. As he turned a curve, he came in sight of the gate. Two large lamps had been rigged above it, and the artillery were stationed on the wall below. In the shadow of the wall, a communications tent had been set up, with telegram wires stretching over the cobblestones. A steady metal tapping rose from within. Two automobiles had been parked ahead, forming a barrier across the lane. In the space between them stood a lanky figure, who straightened as he caught sight of Jonah. The light flashed across the outsized goggles he wore, and danced on the buttons of his waistcoat.
“What ho! I see the cavalry is here.”
Jonah grinned. Gatsby was not just an ally in his mission of keeping the troops refreshed, he was Mallory’s batman, a soldier-servant awarded to high ranking officers. The wizard never went anywhere without him. As Jonah kicked the stand of his bike down, and slung the remaining urn onto his back, he asked, “Is the Wing Commander—”
“In action?” Gatsby smirked, taking the urn from Jonah, and easily slinging it over his shoulder. “He most certainly is. Lord Badness is making the worm regret its decision to put its head above the ground tonight.”
“A worm?” Jonah turned his face toward the wall. “I saw flame. I thought—”
Gatsby grinned. “No dragon. That was ‘is nibs. He’s been cooking up a new spell. Look.” He pointed.
Jonah’s gaze alighted on a figure standing on the wall. Unlike the practical uniforms of the soldiers, Mallory wore the top hat and tails that signified a wizard. Like all of the field officers, he wore goggles, enchanted to not only protect from the petrifying power of a basilisk’s stare, but to allow him to see in the dark. He stretched out his hands, and Jonah saw what looked like a spark form between them, quickly growing to the size of a cricket ball. “What is that?”
“Wait.” Gatsby sounded as proud as if he were the one building the magical weapon.
Jonah looked again—and froze. A serpentine head, dark as if it were made from the shadows that cloaked it, rose above the wall. Gigantic jaws opened wide, and the hissing sound grew to roughly the sound of a gale. Jonah opened his mouth, but felt the warning on his lips freeze along with the rest of him.
Mallory didn’t flinch. With a flick of his wrists, he sent the glowing ball, now the size of a rugby ball, directly at the beast. With a hideous screech the worm sank below the wall, and with an imperious signal to the artillery officers behind him, Mallory leaped from the wall after it.
“It’s toast now,” Gatsby said with satisfaction. “Nothing the worm can do against fire.”
Jonah discovered he could breathe again. “He’s really something, isn’t he?”
“Not a wizard living to match him,” Gatsby said fervently. “And I dare anyone to say otherwise.”
A tremor shook the cobblestones, and Jonah staggered.
“The death throes,”Gatsby said. “Better get moving. They can do a lot of damage.” He patted the urn. “I’ll see this is put to good use.”
“Ta.” Jonah dragged his unwilling feet across the stone to his bike. As he mounted he looked back. There was no sign of Mallory now, but in his mind Jonah saw once again the proud silhouette, outlined against the night, and a smile came to his lips. No wizard like him in all the world…