The Secret Magicians
A short story for children
by Karen Tucker
‘Hold a bag for me, will you?’
Business had been brisk on my mother’s market stall in Melagon, and I’d been busy holding bags to fill, refilling baskets with fruit and veg, or counting out change. But just for a minute, it had gone quiet. That’s when my life changed forever.
I was idly glancing around the bustling square when I spotted a dog. It must have been a stray. It looked thin and uncared-for. I could see its ribs through its patchy fur. It was staring up and drooling at the meat pie some fat merchant was eating. The juices were dribbling down his chin. He was talking, with his mouth full, to another fat merchant. He looked pompous and over-fed.
I looked again at the dog. It needed that pie far more than the merchant did. I thought how brilliant it would be if he dropped it so the dog could have the rest. I even made a little motion with my hand as though I was jogging his elbow.
And the pie fell! I felt a surge of excitement. I watched, elated, as the hungry stray wolfed it down in two mouthfuls, then agilely evaded his foot as he kicked at it. I chuckled, and my mother looked sharply at me.
‘Look,’ I said, all innocence. ‘That merchant just dropped his pie, so the poor dog’s got a meal.’
My mother tucked a stray blonde curl, lighter than my own straight locks, back under the edge of her white cap. ‘Don’t laugh at other people’s misfortunes,’ she said, quietly. ‘That poor dog would be better off dead, so it wouldn’t have to go hungry again.’ Then she turned away to talk to a customer. I was surprised at her reaction. But although I could see her point, I wasn’t sorry for what I’d done.
The merchant was cross, and looked around to see who had jostled him, but he couldn’t find anyone to blame. That was fine. I didn’t want to get anyone into trouble.
Then it hit me. I would be in big trouble if he realised what had happened! I’d seen what happened if the Authorities discovered you doing Magic. That’s what I’d just done, and however small it might seem, it could get me taken away by the authorities. I would never see my family again. I would be locked away and made to work for the Government. Because no-one who can do Magic can live an ordinary life.
I shivered, and looked around to see if anyone had noticed. Thankfully, it seemed not, but I would have to be very careful in future.
‘Oh crikey!’ I thought. ‘What am I going to do?’ You see, if you have the Magic, you have to use it. If you don’t, it sort of builds up inside you and explodes somehow. That’s why you can’t be an ordinary person. It’s how the government justifies taking Magicians away and using them for their own purposes. Because you can become a danger to yourself and everyone around you if you aren’t taught to use it properly.
But I was only ten years old. I didn’t want to be taken away from my family. I didn’t want to work for the Government. No-one knew what Magicians did, because they weren’t allowed contact with anyone. But I knew the Government fought wars and things, and it was rumoured that the Magicians helped them kill enemy soldiers. I shivered. I didn’t want to be made to do that!
‘So,’ I thought. ‘I’ll have to find ways to use the Magic without being noticed.’ That would be a challenge, and I would almost certainly be found out one day. But I wanted to stay free as long as I could.
‘Jack!’ My mother’s voice, sharp and insistent, broke into my thoughts. ‘What’s the matter with you? Stop biting your nails and hold the bag for me, will you?’
I jumped to it.
‘Thank you, love. That’s better.’ She smiled at me, then turned to hand over the bag and take the money. I went back to considering my new problem.
How could I use the Magic enough to avoid exploding, yet also avoid being caught? That would be tricky, even at home, as my two little sisters seemed to follow me around everywhere. They were way too young to be entrusted with such a secret. I had no idea what else the Magic could do, so I decided to experiment around the farm whenever I could.
Thankfully, there were always times when Annie and Sarah were doing their own chores, or playing together somewhere. Over the course of the next few months, I found several ways to stop the build-up of Magical energy.
But then came the moment I’d been dreading.
At the market one day, I spotted a small child running away from her mother’s skirts. The girl ran into the path of a noble on his horse, who was going way too fast in the busy street. Another second and it would have trampled her. With a larger movement than usual, because I was in a hurry, I whisked the child out of harm’s way.
And someone saw me. Even as I heaved a sigh of relief that the girl was safe, I looked up into the eyes of a woman on the other side of the road. She gave a small nod to show me she’d seen. My heart thumped, and I stopped breathing. There was a soldier only yards away. Would she tell him?
No! She looked away and carried on walking. I breathed again and stopped biting my nails. But that wasn’t the end of it.
I was staring out of the window after dinner that evening when I saw her walking up the garden path. I recognised the long green skirt and black hair as soon as I saw her, and my heart started to thump again. Was she coming to blackmail us? Was that why she hadn’t told the soldier?
My mother took her into the parlour. I tried to listen at the door, but they spoke too quietly for me to hear, though I heard a stifled gasp from my mother and a reassuring tone in reply. After a few minutes, footsteps came towards the door and I backed away. It was my mother, looking for me. I went in with fear in my heart and my hand to my mouth.
‘Mrs Ermine has told me what she saw,’ Mum said, as she closed the door. She was more agitated than I’d ever seen her before. She sat down with an audible thump, like she was collapsing into the chair. ‘Oh Jack, why didn’t you tell me? I had no idea! I’m so frightened for you.’
I hung my head. ‘Sorry, Mum.’ But what was Mrs Ermine going to do about it? That was what I wanted to know.
Her lips tightened. ‘Yes, well. We can talk about that later. Jack, Mrs Ermine has come with an offer to help keep you safe.’
‘Oh, wow! That’d be cool!’ Well, if that really why she’d come, it would be a huge relief.
Mum continued, ‘We’ll tell people she’s employing you to help with a rat infestation in her barns, so you have an excuse to spend some time at her house. But what she’ll really be doing is teaching you how use your Magic, and also to hide from the authorities. You’ll actually be using your talent to help people. The problem is, you’ll have to leave the farm for a while, and it’s nearly harvest time. I don’t know what to do for the best, Jack. What do you think? Should we leave it until after the harvest’s in?’
Mrs Ermine interrupted. ‘Should the lad’s father not be asked?’ she suggested.
Mum replied quietly, ‘My husband died in the war. They took him to be a soldier, and he never came back.’
Mrs Ermine looked sympathetic. ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ she said.
‘Well, this is it,’ I thought. I straightened up, took my hand away from my mouth, and faced my mother bravely, knowing that my time had come to leave. I’d been expecting it, though not like this, and at least I wouldn’t have to kill soldiers, like my Dad. I’d even be able to come home, one day.
‘I’m sorry, Mum,’ I said. ‘I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d worry, and there wasn’t anything you could do about it. I’ve been practising in the farmyard and the orchard and the barn and places where nobody could see me. But that little girl might have died if I hadn’t saved her. I didn’t even think. I just did it. And I knew someone would see me one day.’
My mother looked as if she wanted to hug me, but was scared to, in case I went bang. ‘But Jack, if you’re not very careful, you’ll just …’
‘I know. That’s why I’ve been using it.’
Mrs Ermine interrupted. ‘I’m afraid, Jack, that although that was the sensible thing to do, you could still have been found out. The government has people who spend their time looking for disturbances in the Magic that show someone’s using it. I guess you’ve been lucky up to now, perhaps because you haven’t drawn on it very much at a time, but they will find you eventually, unless you learn to shield yourself.’
My eyes grew round with wonder. ‘They can do that?’ I said, awed. ‘Wow!’
My mother was impressed in an entirely different way. ‘Oh, Jack!’ she gasped, wringing her hands. ‘You could have been caught and dragged away any time since you discovered you had the Magic!’ she said. ‘And I never knew! Oh, my darling boy, I don’t think we have a choice. If Mrs Ermine can keep you safe from the soldiers, I think you’d better go with her now!’
I nodded, solemnly, feeling suddenly much more grown up than my years.
‘I agree,’ I replied. ‘What will I be doing, if I come with you, Mrs Ermine?’
She smiled at me, and her smile reached deep into my heart. Any remaining worries I had about whether she was for real died on the spot.
‘Well, Jack,’ she replied, ‘you’ll be helping people. And I will not only house you, but also pay you a small wage for it. There are a few others at my house with your talents, who I’ve found before the authorities got them, so you’ll have friends there. We call ourselves The Secret Magicians, because we can’t let people know what we do. It would be too dangerous. Most of what we do is persuading people to look after those who need it most.’
‘Oh, like the dog I fed the first time I used the Magic?’ I asked.
Mum looked sharply at me. ‘Did you make the man drop his pie?’ she asked. ‘I always wondered about that.’
‘I didn’t do it on purpose. I just thought how the dog needed it more than he did, and how great it would be if the dog could finish it, and I made just a little movement like I was jogging his elbow – and he dropped it! That’s when I knew I had the Magic. So I came home and started practising. I can feed the hens with Magic, and pick apples, kill rats; that sort of thing, that no-one really notices.’
My mother didn’t seem to know whether to look appalled at how much I’d been using my talent, or proud that I had been so careful. Her expression shifted back and forth, and she ended up bursting into tears.
‘Oh, Jack!’ she wailed. ‘What are we going to do?’
I looked at her blankly. Why was she crying? I looked at Mrs Ermine, wondering if she knew.
‘It’s been a bit of a shock to your mother,’ she said. ‘Give her a moment to get used to it, will you, Jack?’
So I went over to Mum and put my arms around her. After a moment, she pulled me into a fierce hug that nearly cracked my ribs. Instinctively, I used the Magic to make her loosen her grip a bit. She let go, and grabbed my arms instead, holding them too tight, and looking intently into my face. Her eyes were red and a teardrop trembled on her lashes. ‘You used the Magic on me!’ she gasped.
I hung my head. ‘Sorry, Mum. I didn’t mean to, but you were hurting me. You still are.’
She loosened her grip just a bit, and looked at Mrs Ermine. ‘Could they find him, just from that little use?’ she asked, clearly alarmed.
Mrs Ermine nodded. ‘If they were looking in this direction, and if I wasn’t shielding him,’ she said.
‘You were? Oh, bless you!’ My mother’s face relaxed its worried look, and she turned back to me. ‘I can see you’re going to find it difficult to hide much longer,’ she said.
I nodded. ‘I know. And I’d much rather go with Mrs Ermine than be taken away by the soldiers.’
‘Me too! We’ll miss you, Jack. Will he be able to come and visit? It’s his birthday in a couple of weeks.’ She put her arm around my shoulders, looking back at Mrs Ermine.
She nodded. ‘I should think he could come back for that. He will probably have learned enough by then to stay safe,’ she said. ‘It sounds like he’s pretty good at using the Magic already. But right now, as you can see, he’s very vulnerable. Still, you can always write to each other in the meantime.’
Mum looked relieved. ‘Thank you!’ she said, a smile starting to appear on her face, for the first time since Mrs Ermine arrived. ‘And does he have to leave tonight?’
‘I think tomorrow would probably be OK,’ said Mrs Ermine. ‘Provided he’s careful. I’ll come for him soon after breakfast, if that’s OK with you?’
Mum nodded. Tears seemed to be welling up inside her again, and I put my arms around her.
‘I’m sorry, Mum,’ I said, knowing there wasn’t anything I could say to make it easier for her.
‘It’s not your fault,’ she replied, hugging me back. ‘Just come back to me safely.’
‘I will. I promise,’ I said. And I hoped, with all my might, that I would.