"Every witch must needs a familiar, dearie -- why, 'tis the first thing any witchling learns."
"Yes, Auntie," young Millicent dutifully replied, attempting to soak in every ounce of her strange new surroundings.
Auntie Endoricent was, technically, nobody's aunt. But most every up-and-coming witchling in the region thought of her as such, as did quite a few common folk who'd no inkling of her craft (and the very few who knew, but could be well trusted not to report her to the King's dreaded Imperial Witchhunters). And here was young Millicent, always marveling in nature and mystery, having a remarkable touch of the gift, and just today beginning her first day as Auntie's new apprentice, in Auntie's little house in the woods.
Millicent wondered how anybody could possibly keep track of a house so packed with baubles and trinkets and odds and ends as was Auntie's little house in the woods -- shelves and tables and drawers filled with crystals and candles and goblets and keys and strings of beads, all manner and all color of stones. And here was a drawer filled up with carved runes, and at the moment Millicent was staring into another drawer filled with.... mouse dolls? Real mice? Stuffed ones, maybe? Or were they just dead? Millicent's mind took a moment to adjust to the thought. Then she let out a short, sharp screech as the mice moved.
Auntie reappeared unhurriedly from whatever corner of her house she'd been rummaging in. "Oh good, you've got the wee beasties out of their lazy stupor." Auntie snapped her fingers twice over the drawer, and most of the dozen or so little creatures darted their heads up. "Most witches, I'm sure you've heard, have cats for familiars," Auntie began, "but I've always preferred mice. Such cute little darlings, I've always thought, and about in abundance. And these days, with the king's witchhunters looking every which way-- well cats are suspect." She pursed her lips wistfully and looked off into nowhere, "I've known some perfectly lovely little old ladies -- not an ounce of witchcraft in them -- taken to the stake for little more than having cats, and the odd habits of old age."
Millicent nodded attentively. Auntie continued with little pause, for she was bursting with the energy of having such a talented new student, with so much to learn. "Now, the tools of the trade!! First, must thou learn to converse with others from afar, for conversation conveying knowledge shall be our food and drink, and for this we must combine the powers of several enchanted talismans!!" She gestured to the broad metal-worked serving tray from which they had enjoyed tea earlier. "This tray, hid in plain view, 'tis a powerfully enchanted item. By using wires with a complementary enchantment to tie it together with a few other such trinkets in this very room, shall we have the means to speak to witches the world over."
Millicent's eyes widened in wonder at the prospect -- how unimaginable, to be able to speak to somebody many leagues distant, simply by talking towards a contraption of metal and wire.
"As you can see," Auntie continued, "'tis cast in pewter, and, naturally, we employ it to converse from afar. And so, we call this the 'con-pewter.' And, if we are to see into the con-pewter, well then, we must attach a screen -- do bring me that small bolt of silk in the corner."
Auntie neatly tied the corners of the silk so that it lay tightly across the tray. "Gothinca, down the road and past the two great oaks, she useth a pewter bowl to hold her screen of silk, and all that she sees is curved so. But lo, mine fondness hath always been for a nice big flat screen. Now, do be a dear and fetch me that pile of netting behind the comfy chair."
"'Tis cold as ice," Millicent gasped, upon grasping it.
"Naturally, dearie. For 'tis imbued with a captured bit of the peak of Winter Solstice itself, the time when communication between distant witches is sharpest by a thousandfold. Spread it out on the table now, dearie, for we must get the con-pewter hooked up to the Winter-net!!"
"How-- how do we do that?"
Auntie pointed to the walls on either side of the nook into which her writing table was crammed. A row of a half a dozen coathooks were below the ceiling on either side -- an odd place for such things, much too high to hang a coat.
"But Auntie, how are you and me--"
"You and I, dearie, you and I. Grammar!!" Auntie shot a finger in the air, "'tis most important to proper spellcasting with a con-pewter. So many young witches today won't bother to learn it -- anti-grammars, I call them!! Won't work at all, with a con-pewter on the winter-net; for the con-pewter will only recognize commands given in language most precise and correct. A pro-grammar language!! Got that, dearie?" Auntie winked.
"Yes Auntie!!" Millicent obediently declared, reciting back the fine points: "Spellcasting is for the Winter-net con-pewter pro-grammar!!"
"Good girl. But, before we make our Winter-net connection, dearie, do fetch me that key board, by the door." Millicent glanced to the spot, where hung a simple board of pegs, from which hung all manner of keys for all manner of locks.
Once the "key board" had been set upon the writing desk, Auntie handed Millicent a corner of the Winter-net and instructed the girl to carefully repeat a strange incantation -- Millicent had never heard this language before, though it was speckled with common words. Auntie insisted that it was a very regular pro-grammar language, but one by which witches could speak in code to the very core spirit of the Universe!! And as Millicent repeated Auntie's chant, she suddenly felt very strange -- light, like a feather. And before she knew it, she found that her feet had lifted a few inches off the ground. She was floating in the air!!
"Very good, dearie, now float up to that corner and string your end of the net over the hooks on your side, as I do with mine."
Millicent was quick to figure out how to control her floating. Once the net had been strung across the ceiling, and the pair had returned to the ground, Auntie hung her pewter tray by its little legs onto the net, the silk screen having been fastened to notches at the corners of the tray. Auntie then took two lengths of wire from a basket under the desk. To one, she attached her keyboard. As Millicent gazed in unrelenting fascination, Auntie went to the drawer filled with mice and asked herself aloud (or perhaps she was asking the mice?), "who shall it be today? Armand? Beoth? Brund? Oh my, the two of you are getting plump-- oh yes, Lottie, we'll use you today!!" A medium grayish mouse poked her head out of the drawer and obediently climbed up Auntie's arm.
Auntie placed Lottie on a comfortable little pad on the table, and Millicent realized that all of the mice were outfitted with little collars about their necks, and each with a little loop on it. Auntie carefully threaded the other end of the wire through the loop, and hung the middle of it through the serving handle of the tray.
"Now we've all the components together," Auntie beamed, "the con-pewter is hooked up to the Winter-net and to the screen, the keyboard, and," she petted Lottie affectionately, "a mouse -- and so we may use an enchantment in our pro-grammar language to begin researching spells!!"
Auntie placed one hand on her mouse, Lottie, and the other on the keyboard. Tapping the keys in a careful order, she began a rhythmic chant-- and Lottie immediately began squeaking in accompaniment, her squeaks coming in an unnatural pattern of short chirps and strange high-low high-low tones, until-- light spread from the center of the screen, and a vision filled it up!! Another person, an elderly, long-bearded and heavily robed man. Millicent could see that a window was behind the man, and through the window it was snowing, though surely there was no snow within a hundred leagues of Auntie's cottage.
Auntie gestured proudly toward the screen: "Pray, heed the quality of yon picture!! Oh, and I nearly forgot--" Auntie pulled two little wooden dolls from a drawer nearby -- the kind, fashioned after nutcrackers, whose mouths can be opened and closed by a lever on the back, and connected these to the con-pewter with bits of wire as well. "When our distant friend speaks, these enchanted little ones will speak with his voice -- and so we call these the speakers."
And indeed, when the elderly man in the screen jovially spoke, "Good tidings, Endoricent of the Woods," the sound came from the magically moving mouths of the speakers.
"Good tidings, indeed, Beothindor of the Blue Mountain," Auntie answered. And but moments later, Millicent was startled to hear the faint echo of Auntie's own sentence return through Auntie's speakers.
"To what do I owe the pleasure of this call?"
"Meet Millicent," Auntie replied, "my new apprentice. She's a talent, I tell you Beo."
Beothindor smiled and nodded warmly towards Millicent. She could see that he was using a cat instead of a mouse.
"Now then, Beo, what have you been up to?"
"Oh, you know, the same old thing. Mostly spells to fend off the cold. And I've been working on enhancing long distance communication with my familiar." He petted an animal which sat offscreen; Millicent couldn't tell what it was, but it seemed like something very big, from the shadows it threw when it moved.
"Well I do have some thoughts on better fending off the cold," Auntie ventured. The pair spoke at some length, trading bits of wisdom learned through years of practice in achieving various magical effects -- and bits of gossip. At the end of it, Auntie petted and squeezed Lottie in such a way that it made the screen go blank.
"When the weather is warmer, dearie, we'll go visit Beo up on his mountain."
"But Auntie," Millicent motioned towards the con-pewter, "'tis such a large contraption -- surely thou canst not to carry such a burden in thy travels?"
"Oh nay, dearie, for travelin' I've an whole 'nother con-pewter. Not as powerful, and with a much smaller screen, but 'tis verily modest enough to set atop my lap." Auntie then turned her attention to showing Millicent another spell which allowed her writing on a tablet on the table to appear on the screen; and when she crossed out a word on the tablet, it disappeared from the screen as well. "The con-pewter is a wonder, Auntie!!"
"It is, dearie, it is, for it surely allows me to write my best spellwork." She paused a moment. "But I do wish I had a better printer."
"A printer, Auntie?"
"Verily, for the young man who operates the printing press in the village, nice enough a fellow is he, but always smudging the inks." Auntie leaned in and whispered, smiling, "Really he's something of a plodder." Auntie waved the subject away, "but let us get to spellcasting. First, to learn wards," Auntie instructed. "The very first thing, and I mean the very first, is the ward of safe travels. It's not an especially powerful spell, but it can give you just the right pinch of luck when you need it the most."
"Yes, Auntie," young Millicent nodded. Then she raised an eyebrow for a moment. "Is Beoth, the mouse, named for Beothindor of the Blue Mountain?"
Auntie seemed startled by the question. "You're a perceptive girl, young Millicent. But let us talk of magic." And so the instruction went.
And in only a few months Millicent, gifted as she was, had mastered the essentials of spellcraft, and had even ventured into learning more advanced charms and crafting her own very simple spells.
One day, as she was heading to Auntie's, carrying a basket of odds and ends for her next lesson, she chanced to hear horse-hooves. Millicent slowed her approach, going off the path to stay close to the trees. And indeed, there were several horses, the King's Imperial Witchhunters!! Men in black armor stamped with the royal sigil. All were masked except one tall and especially sinister one, with a long black mustache. She knew from the description that this was Garrolus, their leader. And now Millicent saw that they had seized Auntie and were dragging her from the house; they bound Auntie's wrists in golden rope, and were forcing her into a carriage. Other men were carrying various parts of Auntie's Con-pewter. Millicent stood wordlessly, clutching her basket, not knowing what to do, until she felt a scratch at her leg. It was one of Auntie's mice, Beoth gesturing for her to follow. One of the Witchhunters turned to look in that direction, but saw only a rustle of the bushes into which Millicent had disappeared.
Just then Auntie yelled something like, "unhand me, I can get in a carriage myself!!" Millicent wondered if Auntie had known she was near, and had done that just to keep the Witchhunters from minding the rustling in the bushes. Creeping further into the shadows of the trees, Millicent found the rest of Auntie's mice gathered in the woods, shivering, chattering nervously amongst themselves. Gathering her wits, Millicent dumped out her basket, reclaimed a few of the more useful items, and hurried the mice into the remaining space. She had one thought of where she could go, and there she went, at a running stumble through the woods.
"Miss Gothinca!! Miss Gothinca!!" Millicent panickedly pounded at the door. Then she jumped back upon hearing from the other side, the deep and unmistakable sound of very large dogs barking a very angry warning and scraping at the door. A slit in the door popped open and two quite displeased eyes glared through.
"Bother elsewhere little girl," the voice screeched from behind the door. "You've no business on my property. Begone!!"
"But Miss Gothinca," Millicent cried, "it's Auntie!! Auntie Endoricent!! She's been taken by the witchhunters!!"
There was a pause. Then the door flew open with a thunderous crack. And there stood Gothinca, not at all what Millicent had expected. She looked as though she was the age of a young wife -- seeming closer to Millicent's age than to Auntie's though Millicent had thought Gothinca to be much older even than Auntie. And she was shapely, curvaceous in a way Millicent knew to be enticing to men. But her eyes were cold and stern, paralyzing Millicent in the brief moment before Gothinca spoke. "Well, girl, don't just stand there!! Come in, we've a rescue to plot!!"
The discussion was short. Gothinca would disguise herself and follow the Imperial Witchhunters at a distance, knowing that they would bring so choice a target as Auntie Endoricent to the King's Capitol City, for a drawn-out public trial. And Millicent would go to Beothindor, taking as a companion the largest and most able of Gothinca's three dogs, Beast. Beast was big enough for Millicent to ride, even with her basket secured to his back. Gothinca cast enchantments to make him, for a few days, able to run with much greater speed than a normal dog and with unrelenting endurance. Millicent wished she could be charmed with such endurance, but hers came from a deeper and more personal source; and so, towards the mountain Millicent rode, for hours on hours, never flagging in her determination.
Eventually, as the sun gave way to darkness, she leaned forward and rested, gripping Beast's strong back. She cast a small charm which would prevent her from falling off, and slept. When she woke, it was morning, and the mountain loomed in front of them, though it was still half a day's journey away. Millicent's stomach growled. There was some food in the basket -- bread, a boiled egg, a few pieces of fruit. Most of the mice were left in Gothinca's cottage, but three were with Millicent, Beoth, Brund, and Lottie. She gave each a piece of bread, and gave herself a small portion. Suddenly, beast stopped.
Millicent turned her attention from the basket, and saw why. Wolves. Five of them in a semicircle a few yards in front of Beast. Their fur was gray, like the stones of the mountain itself, their eyes icy blue. Beast was big, but they were bigger, longer and leaner, teeth dripping with hunger. And there were five of them. Millicent slid from Beast's back and huddled at his side, her breaths short and sharp. The lead wolf took a step forward, and the others began to circle to the sides. Beast growled and snapped, but the wolves continued in their movement, closing in, coiling their bodies to pounce!! Millicent tried to think of a spell-- there might be something which would work for a moment to hinder one or two, but five?
And then there was a magnificent roar. Not from the wolves but from out of sight. And from behind an outcropping of rock charged a bear, a brown behemoth barreling straight towards them. Two of the wolves ran at the bear, but it swatted them away with ease. Millicent quickly recited some words of incantation at the momentarily distracted wolf nearest to her, and it worked!! The thing was lifted from the ground, and immediately began paddling its paws against the air, desperate to find some purchase. Millicent concentrated as hard as she could and continued to speak the spell. Beast was wrestling with another wolf behind her, and she could give no attention to the bear. She pushed her wolf higher and higher into the air, inch by inch, repeating her incantation, and feeling in her entire body as if she were lifting a heavy weight, until she could take it no longer. Her arms dropped; the wolf, snapped from the spell, fell to the ground-- and turned and ran off. The fall was probably not enough to hurt it, but it was surely startled. She turned to see Beast standing triumphantly, the remaining wolves dispersed. But now they were facing an immense bear.
Millicent didn't think she had enough in her to deal with a bear by magic, but she steeled herself to try. But she noticed Beast wasn't growling or barking; instead, Beast walked right up to the bear and-- licked its paw, some kind of greeting!! The bear looked at her and simply lowered its head to the ground, letting out a most gentle growl.
Millicent, mouth half open in surprise, nodded. "You must be Beothindor's familiar."
The bear sat up and grunted with marked satisfaction. Millicent climbed back onto Beast's back, and the three of them continued up the mountain.
Late in the afternoon they reached the warmth and safety of Beothindor's lodge, firmly set up in the mountain. Millicent found that in person, Beothindor, looking exceedingly wise and wizardly, as he sat and pondered and stroked his beard for a moment. "Auntie's con-pewter, is it still in her house?"
"No," Millicent shook her head, "the pieces were taken, the platter and screen, the Winter-Net, the keyboard. All but the mice, those ran to the woods. Some are with me."
"Yes, naturally, the mice know that they'd be killed. Nobody can use a witch's familiar without her permission. To the Witchhunters, the only good familiar is a dead one." He tapped his fingers together several times. "But they'll never go far from their witch, if they can help it. I've something here I've been working on...." Beothindor opened a cupboard and produced from it a small ring centered with a large red gem. He placed it in the palm of Millicent's hand, and began to explain his thoughts for its use.
"But--" Millicent started, before suddenly catching herself. She wouldn't dare be so bold as to suggest a modification to a master's spell....
"Go on," Beothindor prompted. Millicent's breath caught in her throat.
"Well," she reached into her basket for a tightly wound scroll, and laid it out on the table, a spell-tree she'd drawn in some minutes stolen here and there. "You're trying to improve on this wire spell -- that is, to do something which does the same thing it does. But it's not really the same kind of spell at all, it's more like a combination of this one," she pointed to a branch of her tree, and then traced her hand across the paper, "and that."
Beothindor stared at the space where she'd traced the line, and broke into a broad grin. "Yes, yes, naturally, that ought to do it exactly. We'll need to pluck a string from my Winter-net.... Yes, let's test it immediately. Time is precious!!"
This business was swiftly and successfully concluded. Millicent turned to leave, for she had no more time to spare, but Beothindor bid her pause just a moment; he asked, "Millicent, do you know the difference between a witch and a wizard?"
"A wizard is more powerful. And a man."
"You're half right," he smiled. "Any especially powerful witch might be called a wizard, if he -- or she -- chose. And you, I think may someday claim that right."
Millicent nodded slightly, and turned back towards the door. Looking to the vast expanse beyond, she stepped into the sunlight. Beothindor was casting a spell to shroud her with a distortion of light. Those who knew not what to look for would see not a small girl, but a large bird. She cast a second spell on herself, one Beothindor had given her for the occasion, and rose from the ground in flight -- not simply a floating spell this time, but flying, slowly at first but then at a speed which went faster and faster until she could barely breath. From high enough up she could see all the roads leading to the King's capitol, and to that destination she turned.
The sun had set while Millicent flew, but the moonlight was bright, and she could see the ground far below. She saw wolves scattering on the cold rock. She saw dense patches of forest and wide rivers. As the sun rose, she saw houses, and the King's Capitol City. And it was there, at mid morning, that Garrolus strode into the hall of judgment flanked by a phalanx of Witchhunters. Townsfolk were gathered in its rows of seats to observe the pomp. Auntie was carried in, bound by heavy ropes to a chair, and set down alone at the head of the room.
Auntie's con-pewter was set on a table, connected to the Winter-net, which had been hung from a pair of poles, and with all the other pieces attached, as a display for all in the audience to see the strange workings of a witch's world. Garrolus licked his lips and barely suppressed a smile. He slowly unrolled a scroll bearing an edict from the King himself. "Endoricent of the Woods, ye are pronounced guilty of practicing witchcraft. Your vile works shall be destroyed, and ye shall be put to death at the stake!!"
"Oh no she won't" a voice arced from the middle of the chamber, like the trill of a slightly off-key songbird defending its nest, perhaps surprising a hawk with its ferocity. Millicent was standing on her chair, and then, just as suddenly, she floated, angelic, above the gasp-filled room.
"A witch!!" Garrolus howled, "seize her!!"
"Nay," she cried back, as her hands began to glow like whisps of fire, "not simply a witch. For I am Millicent of the Woods!! The Winter-net con-pewter pro-grammar wizard!!" She was punctuated by a sound like a thundercrack, and a brisk breeze picking up in the hall.
People jumped up and backed away, rushing about this and that way in the tumultuous scene, as Garollus's Witchhunters slowly, uncertainly, advanced towards Millicent. But Auntie, still at the front of the hall, sat stock still -- for she felt something crawling up her leg, and knew from long experience just what that something was -- a mouse!! From the weight and length, it had to be Beoth or Brund.... Up her leg, her hip, her back, now over her shoulder and down her arm.... almost there.... No wire could possibly be connecting the mouse to Auntie's con-pewter, but Auntie knew, somehow, that it mattered not. Millicent, bright young thing that she was, must have figured out how to let this little mouse do its work with no wire -- and indeed, right away when it emerged from her sleeve and into her hand, Auntie saw that the little one -- it was Brund -- bore a talisman of his own, a ruby-jeweled pendant attached to the loop in his collar, which glowed a dim and eerie red.
Auntie raised her arm as much as she could against the ropes. One of the Witchhunters noticed immediately, but to no avail. Auntie clicked her mouse once, and the con-pewter screen lit up, a bright and eerie blue, for she had summoned one of the most powerful spells in witchdom: the Blue Screen of Death!! And in an instant, the whole of the chamber was silent. All were mesmerized, no one able to move a muscle. Well, no one but Millicent, who continued to float majestically above the crowd until she lost control trying to turn, and tumbled down, her flailing fall broken by a most shocked village boy.
Garrolus turned swiftly to survey the situation. He barked to his guards, "Witchhunters, seize her!! But there was no movement in response."
"There'll be no seizing of anybody here," Auntie declared, for in the spell over this room, only a witch can move or speak." She shifted her head and shoulders against her restraints to cast her gaze over the frozen audience, they might be unable to move, but they could see and hear everything. "And now everybody here knows that, too."
Garrolus turned red as a beet, a mix of humiliation and fury burning under his furrowed brow. He put his palms together and a white hot light formed between them. "Then I'll kill them all. And place the blame on you!!"
As quickly as that, a ring of lightning whipped out from between Garollus' hands -- and just as quickly it was met by an invisible barrier emanating from one of the women in the gallery -- it was Gothinca, who had hid in plain sight in a peasant's cloak, now standing on her seat and warding off the attack with all her might. Garrolus narrowed his eyes and focused his energy. But he had taken his eye off Auntie's con-pewter, and did not know that she was resetting it with her now-wireless mouse, that it no longer showed the blue screen of death, that the Witchhunters Garrolus had moments ago intended to kill were now able to move. They charged. Garrolus was forced to abandon his attack on Gothinca, instead leveling blast after blast at his Witchhunters.
"Garrolus is a wizard!! Garrolus is a wizard!!" one of the townspeople was crying out in shock. The crowd was alight with murmuring of this unfathomable revelation. Some were running out the door. Word would travel fast and far across the kingdom that the King's own head Witchhunter was himself of their kind. There would be no corner of the kingdom in which Garrolus could hide from this.
Millicent had not stood still during this exchange; she had run to the head of the hall and was even now doing all she could to untie the knots binding Auntie. And then it was done.
Auntie rose, mouthed an incantation, and snapped her fingers. Invisible walls sprang up around Garrulos and the few Witchhunters who were still conscious.
"That'll be enough of that, dearie."
Garrolus sneered. "So you think you've got the better of me, Endoricent?" A new blue sphere formed between is hands. Auntie began to mouth a ward against it, but then it shot from Garrolus's hands, through the barrier -- and straight at Millicent. It enveloped her, and like that, she was gone.
Gasps, and then silence, filled the hall.
"Where have you sent her!!" Auntie demanded.
"Into the deadly void between stars and worlds."
"Monster!!" Auntie cried. Her eyes blazed with rage as she summoned a new spell, a dark and grim and ancient spell. Flames came up from the floor like writhing snakes crawling up from Hell's burrows. They wrapped themselves around Garrolus' legs, and no matter what charms he screamed, he could not shake them off. They slithered about him. But as the flames reached his waist, Gothinka grabbed Auntie's arm.
"Endoricent," she whispered.
Auntie thought that Gothinka meant to take pity on the man, but then she too heard the soft, almost indecipherable sound -- it was Millicent's voice, coming through the gemstone on Beoth's neck.
"Auntie," Millicent was calling.
"Millicent!!" Auntie snapped her fingers, and the flames surrounding Garrolus went cold and turned into ropes, tightly binding him.
"I'm alright," Millicent continued, "I cast the ward of safe travel, and it caused that Witchhunter's spell to take me.... somewhere safe, I think."
"But where? Where are you, girl?"
"I-- I don't know." Her voice was fading now. "But I'll find my way back home, I promise you, Auntie."
Millicent looked around in the field of golden grass to which she'd been taken. She heard a sound from just over a nearby hill-- somebody blowing a sharp note on a bugle, she thought. And as her gaze came over the top, she stopped and gasped, eyes wide with wonder.
For here was a road wider and grander than any in all the kingdom from whence she came. And this was a place of great magic, for chariots untethered to any horse sped thither and yonder. And then she saw that many were heading towards a grand city with towering, shimmering spires -- even more magical!! And if there was magic in that city, then meant that Millicent could find, or build, a new con-pewter-- and reconnect by a Winter-net. She could, in time, find her way home.
A gleaming green sign hung over the road. She drew a sharp breath, and quietly mouthed the exotic words as she read them: "Des Moines. Next exit."