Authors: Mark Tuson
‘Peter. Peter Rutherford.’
Eric stood and shook Peter’s offered hand. ‘Actually, we know who you are. While you were unconscious I looked you up. Unable to find work, even though you’ve betrayed an obviously high level of intelligence. A string of bad luck, eh?’
Peter nodded. He was starting to feel impatient. ‘So,’ he said, ‘you know about me, and you have this Guild. I get drawn into that… whatever it was, and very nearly get killed, when all I wanted was to stretch my legs before bed. I have no clue what this is, what I nearly got killed for, or who you are.’
‘I was getting to that.’ Eric opened the door and motioned, in a suddenly stiff and formal manner, for Peter to use, which he did. After stopping to close the door again, Eric led Peter down the corridor, which was very long indeed, but eventually they came to an end, where there were stairs leading down. At the bottom of what turned out to be another long flight of stairs, was a continuation of the corridor above.
They marched in silence for three or so minutes, and then Eric stopped and held his left arm out, signalling a door like all the others, except for a long gauge running along its length.
‘Inside, please,’ said Eric.
Peter knocked on the door gingerly and stepped through, suddenly feeling like a child at school, sent to the headmaster. Eric didn’t follow, instead closing the door from the outside.
In the centre of the room was a large, heavy-looking table covered in papers and pens and open books. Not a desk; it didn’t have any drawers or anything like that. Just a table. There were shelves containing more papers and books and other artefacts along one wall, and what looked like cupboards and wardrobes, integrated as a single unit, against the other. At the desk was a well-built man who had a large, round, shaven head, and was wearing a dark blue shirt and black trousers.
He was reading from two of the papers, comparing them. Without looking up, he addressed Peter. ‘Sit down.’
Peter found a chair by the wall next to the door and sat on it in silence.
Nothing else was said for a moment. And then the man at the table looked up. ‘Peter Rutherford.’
All of the man’s attention was now evidently occupied by Peter; he was studying him. ‘This is the Guild. But Eric will have told you that.’ He spoke with the rough voice of someone who had spent their entire life as a heavy smoker.
‘Yes,’ Peter repeated.
The man nodded slowly, thoughtfully. ‘The Guild is a group of special people who, in our way, look after normal people. Even though they mostly don’t realize. What we do is hidden, mostly. Because when we worked openly we were taken advantage of and often made a mockery of as well.’
Peter looked at him blankly.
Peter blinked. As jokes went, that would have rated around one out of ten.
‘Magic,’ he repeated. It was difficult keeping the sarcasm from his voice.
‘Yes, magic. As in the preternatural, forces invisible.’ The Steward looked impatient. ‘Which brings me to why we’ve kept you here rather than just letting you go.
‘We have had time to find out who you are. Eric, who brought you here following your accidental discovery of the duel he was engaged in, believes you have potential as a magician, yourself.’
‘Do you honestly expect me to believe this?’
‘Yes. I'd go so far as to say that you haven't a choice but to believe it.’ The tone of his voice betrayed no humour. It betrayed no emotion whatsoever.
To Peter, the whole idea sounded simply preposterous. In fact, he was starting to wonder if he had been drugged and was now hallucinating. He might have gone so far as to think someone was staging all of this, if it hadn't been for knowing rationally that there was nobody to whom he mattered that much, and nobody with these resources available to them. That said, he was still lucid, so surely he can't have been drugged.
He had to admit, it would be the simplest explanation, and he knew that Occam's razor favours, by default, the simplest explanation.
So the Steward was right, damn him.
‘So,’ Peter began, ‘magic is real... and you think I could do it. Why?’
‘Mostly because you stayed alive. The majority of people would have just given up and died long before you simply passed out. That shows strength of will far greater than pretty much any other “man on the street.”
‘Okay, magic isn’t just about strength of will. It’s just one of many character traits that are needed in a magician. There’s also huge amounts of patience, personal discipline, and other things like that which you would find out more about along the way, if you decide to accept this offer.’
Offer, Peter thought. Were they going to… ‘offer me what? Training in magic?’
The Steward nodded. ‘You would be an asset to us, provided you applied yourself to the training. We know of your own situation, and… well, frankly it would be silly for you to refuse.’
Privately, Peter agreed. But he had to be certain it was what he wanted, not to mention being certain that this wasn’t all a joke. But, for now, he would have to take the man in front of him at his word. ‘Do I have to decide now?’ He said. ‘Could I have a day or two to think about it?’
‘Of course. You can have three days. That’ll bring your total time here to a round week.’
At this, the Steward stepped toward the door and opened it. Eric was waiting outside. He told him what the result of the conversation he and Peter had just had was, and Eric nodded once, and led Peter away.
To Peter’s great relief, the next place Eric led him to was a large refectory. The room was long and thin, with three comically long tables stretching along its length, and a long stone counter at the nearest end, where the few people who were in there at that moment – Peter assumed it wasn’t actually a mealtime – were either being served, or finishing what they had.
Peter went to the counter and was given a wooden plate, onto which a thick piece of rye bread was placed, along with a bowl of what appeared to be pea and ham soup. Simple enough, he thought. He wondered what mealtimes were like. Eric didn’t take anything, but then Peter supposed he would have eaten with everyone else earlier on.
The two of them sat down, and Peter ate in silence, Eric looking around thoughtfully. It was pea and ham soup, and it was hot and rich, and together with the heavy, strong-tasting bread, it made him feel a lot more like himself. Once he had finished, he stood up, holding his plate and bowl, and motioned curiously to Eric.
Eric nodded, understanding the unspoken question. ‘Yes, we take them back.’
Peter nodded. ‘Just like at uni.’
The next three days were very pleasant indeed for Peter. He slept in the room he had first awoken in, took his meals with the Guild, went for walks around the valley above the caverns – which included woodlands and brooks and similar places – and was even given something of a tour by Eric.
When the time came for Peter to report back to the Steward with his thoughts on the matter, his answer was simple:
‘Yes. I like it here, and I would like to learn magic.’
In the days following Peter’s acceptance of the Steward’s offer, he found himself playing the experiences of the fight that he had become involved in, and the following conversations at the Guild, over and over in his mind. He was finding it no easier now to believe that magic could possibly be real than he had in that first meeting with the Steward. In fact, since even the Guild didn’t use much magic in their day-to-day routine, Peter was still half-wondering if all these people were pulling some elaborate prank on him.
Life at the Guild was almost exactly the same to Peter as it had appeared when he first found himself there; much of it was quiet and monastic, people were quiet other than when they needed to talk, meals were taken in the refectory (though at mealtimes the food was more substantial than rye bread and pea and ham soup), and the majority of the people there woke very early. For the most part, Peter found a lot of this lifestyle very comfortable, even if it did seem more like he had joined a monastery than a community of powerful magicians.
One-on-one tuition sessions were arranged for him, starting the Monday after he had accepted the offer of membership. They were to be conducted by a woman called Caroline, and when Peter was informed of this, he was also informed that, actually, this was the usual way for people to join the Guild; they would be noticed in some out-of-the ordinary situation and invited to join, and then they would begin their learning experience as a magician. What Peter privately found perplexing was that there were such a lot of people there; surely they couldn’t have all been found within their own lifetimes? Or were there people from abroad here as well? He supposed he would find out, in time.
When he met Caroline for the first time, the first thing he noticed was how strict she was. She had obviously been a teacher for most of her life, which apparently had been a long time: she looked maybe sixty or seventy.
All five feet of her stood bolt upright as she addressed him for the first time. ‘Mr Rutherford.’
Peter initially didn’t know how to respond, so he just looked at her blankly. A few uncomfortable moments passed, during which Peter and Caroline looked at each other, her face conveying little emotion other than patience.
Eventually, he decided that he should respond. ‘Caroline,’ he said uncertainly.
She relaxed slightly, which Peter took to mean that maybe this wasn’t going to be the least comfortable moment of his life. ‘First thing you need to understand is that I’m not going to pretend to be your friend.
Do you understand
Having spent a large portion of his life as a student, Peter understood that a working relationship between student and teacher was better served by a lack of friendship; equality was something that needed to be earned, not assumed.
‘Yes.’ He nodded.
Peter’s first lesson, it turned out, wasn’t taken in the seminar rooms in which they usually were. Caroline delivered a slow lecture on the nature of magic to him while they walked around the Guild, toward the entrance and the surrounding grounds.
‘You see,’ she was saying, ‘magic isn’t silly words, or gestures, or waving wands. It is operating, with a scientific rigour, on the unseen properties of objects. Yes. Words are used very occasionally, and gestures, and wands, and other tools which you’ll learn about and even design yourself as you learn and progress.
‘Think of it this way: you aren’t going to turn a piece of wood into a work of art – or even another tool – simply by waving a knife at it. You need to use the knife to change the wood. To take away from it, in a controlled and yet very direct way. Likewise, you can’t use a meat-cleaver to make a whistle. You use a scalpel or a modelling-knife, or if you’re really skilled, you might use your trusty pocketknife. But you must always use the right tool for the job.’
‘That makes sense,’ Peter said. ‘Magic is just another kind of tool, then?’
‘In a sense. In another sense magic is the truest aspect of something. Magic is what makes a piece of wood into a whistle, or a bundle of hairs into a brush. It is the creative will.
‘What you are doing is changing the truth, essentially. You are changing, fundamentally, what the truth is. Not manipulating it. Just changing it.’
Peter stopped walking, confused by that last comment. From the look on Caroline’s face, she could see that he was confused, but she didn’t elaborate. After a moment, they resumed walking, both in silence for a few minutes as they climbed the very long staircase which was the passage between the Guild and the outside world.
They walked to a dense wood nearby, which Peter remembered seeing while he was walking around alone before. While it was rather sunny and pleasant outside, it was very dark and cool and lonely once they entered the wood; the layer of leaves was so thick. The trees themselves looked old and weather-beaten, including grand oaks nearly five feet across and pines that looked at least two hundred and fifty feet tall. Peter was suddenly overcome with a feeling of insignificance, such were their awe and majesty. He felt that, while the wood wasn’t itself spectacularly large, he wouldn’t have much of an issue getting lost in it.
Caroline stopped, motioning for Peter to do the same. He edged close to her and waited for her to speak.
‘You can feel it, can’t you?’
Peter nodded gravely. There wasn’t a question what she was talking about.
‘These are some of the oldest trees in the world. Oaks, pines, hazels, ashes – all sorts. There are even ginkgoes here. Most of them are over two thousand years old.’
This, again, didn’t come as much of a surprise to Peter. ‘So,’ he said, ‘what are we here for?’
Rather than responding verbally, Caroline slowly put her hand into a pocket and drew out a shaft of wood.
‘A wand...?’ He felt silly saying it aloud.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘The most universal magical tool. It isn’t simple, though; don’t be fooled into thinking that. And it won’t make all your magic devastatingly powerful. All it will do is give you a means to focus your energy.’
That made sense, and the notion of having a wand to start training with and learning about wasn’t entirely unexciting, and Peter was keen to make one. ‘So, what exactly am I supposed to do...?’
Caroline motioned around the wood, holding both her arms out. ‘Choose a tree,’ she said, a little formally. ‘And make a wand.’
Okay, Peter thought. This is very fun and all but… ‘how? They’re trees, and I don’t know what the difference is between one and the next. And I haven’t got a clue how to choose. Or how to make a wand.’
Caroline wasn’t quite doing what he would have expected of a tutor. ‘What am I supposed to do?’
‘Listen to the trees.’ And that was all she said.
Peter spent a good ten minutes staring blankly around himself, turning on the spot. He felt like an idiot, and didn’t appreciate being made to feel that way. It felt to him as though he’d told someone he couldn’t swim, and had the response ‘it’s fine, the water will guide you!’ and then been thrown in the pool.
He obeyed, however, and after a while – to his own surprise – he did start to feel drawn toward a particular direction. So, tentatively, he crept toward where he was being drawn to, Caroline following at a respectable distance. It was almost as though the ground was magnetic: he was being led subtly from here to there, wherever
was. Every few steps, he stopped and looked around, and once or twice he turned to look at Caroline, but all she did was nod her head a single time. Peter guessed that must mean he wasn’t doing anything wrong, at least.
It wasn’t long after he started walking that he came to a particular tree. He looked at it. Broad, round leaves with a gentle point on the end. He touched a thin branch that was growing out of the trunk at chest-level. The bark felt smooth and very slightly oily.
,’ said Caroline. ‘Hazel.’
He was intrigued by the tree, and by how it might have brought him here. He stroked the branch with the back of his hand. ‘What does this mean?’ He looked at her, frowning.
‘It means that your wand will be taken from that tree.’ She nodded her head toward it. ‘Snap that branch off.’
He did. Or he tried; the branch turned out to be very springy, and as he bent the base of the branch back and forth against the trunk, he didn’t feel like he was getting very far. The bark was splitting, exposing the yellowy-green wood inside as it cracked and tore bit-by-bit. It took a good couple of minutes, at the end of which both of Peter’s arms were aching and tired, but eventually he did get the branch off. He held it dumbly, as though it was a sword.
Caroline took from her pocket a small folding knife with a wooden handle, and handed it to Peter. ‘Cut the end off, where the wood is torn. And then cut the other end to a length that you’re comfortable with.’
He did, letting the whittled-off fragments of wood fall to the ground, and laying larger pieces under the tree. After a few moments of inexperienced cutting, Peter was left with a short piece of wood with roughly-rounded ends, with the bark still on it.
‘Now take the bark off it, carefully.’
Peter went to start peeling the bark from the wood using the knife, but Caroline interrupted him, urgently snapping her fingers just as the blade was about to make contact.
‘No! Use your fingers.’
He stopped, surprised. Meekly, he folded the knife and returned it to Caroline, and then proceeded to push his short thumbnail under the edge of the bark at the thicker end of the wood. It came off a lot easier than he expected, in full strips, which he also dropped under the tree. The finished wand was pale yellowish-green, and damp with slightly sticky sap.
‘Okay,’ Caroline said, looking at it in Peter’s hand, ‘now we need to get back, you need to wash that.’
Constantly telling him what he needed to do, while necessary on Caroline’s part in this teacher-student role, was making him feel like a clueless child. However, he swallowed this feeling and nodded, and followed Caroline back into the Guild, and into the seminar room.
The room was like the classrooms Peter remembered from his childhood, but without windows. There was a huge wooden desk at the front, a blackboard against the wall – in fact the blackboard pretty much
the wall – and twelve old-fashioned wooden school-desks and chairs, arranged three-wide and four-deep, widely spaced, on the floor. At the back of the room was a workbench with three sinks which appeared to be made from silver, each with an old-fashioned hand-cranked water pump over it. Caroline directed him to one of these and he, holding the wand in his left hand, pumped water over it with his right.
When he had satisfied himself that it was clean, he stopped pumping the water, which was cold and starting to make his hand feel a little numb. He held it up, dripping.
‘Good.’ Caroline looked satisfied too. ‘If you put it in this’ – she opened a cupboard under the sink and brought out what Peter would have otherwise taken to be a boiling-tube rack, straight out of his lessons in organic chemistry during his time at sixth-form college – ‘and leave it to dry, I’ll show you what you will be using to learn the basics.’
Wait. ‘I’m not going to be using my wand?’
‘No. For one thing, it isn’t ready. It needs to dry and it needs to season. And you need to learn about the wand; the structure of the wood inside, the way your energy will flow through it. Like learning about any other tool before you can use it.’
‘Yes,’ Peter said, a little stiffly, ‘but when I’ve learned to use tools before I’ve started by trying, and learned what I’ve been doing wrong along the way. I’ve always believed that to be the best way to learn…’
A hard stare from Caroline cut him down, so that by the last word of what he had been saying, Peter’s voice had trailed off into an uncertain whisper. ‘For some things, that works best, I’ll agree. You learn to whittle
whittling. You learn to play a guitar
making an awful noise until it starts sounding like music.’ She paused and pointed to Peter’s drying hazel shaft. ‘But,’ she continued, ‘you don’t use a gun before you know how to keep safe with it. You wouldn’t learn about explosives by getting a stick of dynamite and lighting it. Space agencies don’t come up better rocket designs by trial-and-error.’
Peter sighed angrily. She was right.
Caroline walked to the desk at the front of the room, took something out of a drawer, and handed it to Peter. It was two small strips of wood, slotted together so that they slid through one another. ‘That is one of the most basic tools we learn with, and use, as magicians. Think of this as learning to knit before you can use the loom; once you understand how the yarn works and how it reacts to being treated in various ways, you’ll find it a lot easier to understand how to use the cloth.’
Peter had no choice but to use these interlocked strips of wood (which he found out was, imaginatively enough, called a ‘two-stick’) as his main instrument for learning about, and eventually using magic. One of the first things he had been called upon to do practically was detect whether an object was carrying a spell or not; in his own case it had been a small book.
She placed it on the desk in front of him one morning and told him not to read it – or even open it – simply to examine it. Sensing a test, he nervously drew his two-stick from his pocket and began to gesture with it, tracing a pattern over the front cover with the join between the pieces of wood. It took him a few minutes, but eventually he did see a pattern of live spellwork react to his gentle probing. Once he had found it, he was able to follow the pattern and reveal all of the energies that had been invested into the book, and then after a few more moments he managed to parse the energies into a recognizable construct; a process which reminded him of reading computer code and then working out what the program was supposed to do.