Redcaps in the Morning, Sorcerer’s Warning
Just before dawn, Rachel was awoken by a tapping on her window. Climbing out of bed, she padded forward cautiously and peered around the open curtains. Outside, above the black, leafless branches, a faint paleness was visible in the eastern sky.
Something huge and black shot toward her fourth story window. Rachel stumbled backwards, nearly screaming. The dark shape tapped against the glass. In the light of the few will-o-wisps that had drifted out of their night hoods, Rachel could make out an enormous black raven and the gleam of blood red eyes.
She clapped her hand over her mouth until she had regained her composure.
“Jariel. You nearly scared the living daylights out of me!” She whispered. With a soft giggle, she gestured toward the few wayward lighting will-o-the-wisps above her that had not yet retreated to the night hoods at each corner of the ceiling. “See, a few of my daylights escaped!”
The great bird passed soundlessly through the glass of the closed window and landed on Nastasia’s vanity. In one talon, it held a crystal vial.
“Rachel Griffin, your blood brother needs you. He is west of here but not far.”
Rachel rubbed her tired eyes. When she glanced up again, she was alone, standing with her bare feet on the cold floor of her dorm room. Had the Raven truly come or had that been a dream?
On the vanity lay a crystal vial that had not been there before, a familiar crystal vial. On a long white sticker words had been written in Sigfried’s spidery hand: Chameleon Elixir.
Losing no time, Rachel grabbed her red duffle coat and snowman hat from her wardrobe and then retrieved Vroomie from under her bed. She slipped on her pouch that was larger on the inside, as well as the other things she normally carried with her, such as her grandmother’s wand. Bristleless flying broom in hand, Rachel downed the elixir the Raven had left for her, shivering at the slight lizardy taste of chameleon. Then, opening the window as quietly as she could, she climbed onto her steeplechaser and shot out into the pre-dawn morning.
* * *
The temperature had dropped during the night. Snow was falling. The cold February pre-dawn was brisk and bracing against her sleepy face. She laughed with joy. Flying made her so happy, especially after having been trapped inside for days. It drove off all her dark thoughts.
She flew through the air on her steeplechaser—an elegant flying device with a haft of polished walnut, handles of cast iron and shiny brass, a long, black leather seat low to the shaft, and a bristleless tail fan of ten alternating mahogany and cherry wood slats. Though, of course, she currently could not see it. Thanks to the special herbs her Elf had given Sigfried—which he had put into the chameleon elixir—even her bristleless was invisible.
No one could see her and Vroomie as they flew.
The wind tousled her hair—the girls had all taken the rollers out after dinner. As Rachel had predicted, her hair had held the curl for approximately twenty minutes—and blew her aquamarine pendant up into her face. She tucked it under the collar of her coat.
In the distance, she could hear violin music. It sounded as if someone was playing a reel. Perhaps, one of the many musical groups in Dare Hall, such as the Geometric Quartet or the Ginger Snaps, had decided to rise unusually early and had opened the windows of the room in which they practiced.
Except, they weren’t supposed to leave the windows open during the lockdown
As she flew through the forest just west of Spenser Hall, the music grew louder and more boisterous. Rachel darted through trees whose branches were decked out in icicles. Ahead, in the growing early dawn light, she could see stomping footprints appearing from nowhere in the fresh snow. They seemed to be dancing, forming the steps of a jig. Beside the footprints, Lucky the Dragon hovered in the air, making fancy S-shapes to the beat of the music. The serpentine lung was covered with golden fur except for his ruby stomach scales, his long, flame red, koi-like whiskers, his red horns, and the fluffy, crimson, dorsal ruff that ran from his between his horns, down the length of his back, to the puffy tuff at the end of his tail.
Rachel thought back a few seconds and then called upon her perfect memory to show her the scene she had just witnessed. No differences. She sighed. If those were Sigfried’s footsteps, she could not see him, which, in retrospect, made sense. Her method for seeing through obscurations did not work on chameleon potion.
Some fifteen feet beyond Lucky and the dancing footprints in the snow were four small men. They wore red hats with long trailing peaks, heavy leather coats with high cuffs, and shiny black boots with silver buckles. Three of them sawed away on fiddles. The fourth whistled upon a flute.
That was strange. She knew that American redcaps were a different strain from the bloody vicious creatures of Scotland and Ireland, but still, a concert in the snowy forest seemed oddly peaceful.
Too late, she saw that the violinists grinned manically, and the eyes of all four were filled with malicious glee. More importantly, she saw, as her eyes adjusted to the dim light, that ruby sparkles swirled everywhere, swirling with the snow. The air twinkled and smelled of cherries. The birches with their curling papery bark gleamed. The snow glittered with little red glints as if a child had spilled art supplies.
“Sigfried?” she called.
“Griffin, back up!” Sigfried’s voice came from above the footprints. He, too, spoke with a British accent, though his hinted at his lower class, orphan upbringing. “They’ve got magic music!”
Rachel shouted, “That’s inspiration enchantment. It can make you dance or fight or laugh and such.”
Then she clapped her hands over her mouth. If she shouted too loudly, it would draw the attention of the proctors, which might not be as bad as ending life as dye for a redcap’s hat, but it could be a close second.
“Ya think?” Siggy’s footsteps spun in a circle to the music.
Three trumpets notes sounded, sending a blast of silvery sparks out from the position of Sigfried’s footprints. By the time he finished playing the spell, however, he had spun farther. Instead of sweeping the redcaps off their feet, his wind blast just swept snow off the ground to the left of his position.
Rachel, too, found herself attempting to dance to the lively tune, which was dangerous in mid-air. Her perfect memory made her immune to entrancement, but this was inspiration. She was no more immune than Sigfried and Lucky. Landing quickly, she jumped away from her bristleless, so that she twirled about on the open snow, as far from her broom—and from the nearest birch trunks—as she could.
“The Raven sent me!” She shouted at Sigfried in annoyance. “What are you doing out here?”
Sigfried blew another blast. Again, he twirled as he blew. His gust missed the redcaps again; however, it scooped up Rachel.
The sparkly, silver wind tossed her into the air. She flew, turning head over heels, until she rolled into a drift of soft, fresh snow. Somewhere, outside of the cold, cold, whiteness, she heard Lucky’s growly voice.
“Er…Oops,” murmured the dragon.
“Better not breath flame, Lucks, since you’re dancing, too,” came Sigfried’s voice. “Don’t want to accidentally crisp the blood-sister. Or me.”
“Yeah, there are probably rules about not eating relations, even if they’re crispy,” agreed Lucky with great seriousness.
Wonderful, Rachel thought, her face icy cold, I’m going to die, frozen in a snow bank while invisible. Do elixirs wear off if you die? Or do they stick, and you stay that way forever?
The trumpet blared again. The violin music suddenly halted.
“Ha! Take that Red Tops! I knew I’d get you if I timed it right!”
Rachel climbed to her feet, brushing snow from face and hat. Two of the little men had been thrown some twenty feet and were picking themselves up out of the snow. They did not look happy. Rachel took advantage of their momentary consternation to run to Sigfried, or at least where his footprints were appearing.
“Quick!” she shouted. “Lucky, ward us!”
“Um…How do I do that again? Wasn’t paying attention in that class,” Lucky said in his growly voice.
“Run in a circle three times widdershins. Make sure that the silvery part of the bottom of your feet is touching the ground…or, er, snow.”
“Boss, that makes no sense. How can I run with my shins if my feet are touching the ground.”
“Good grief!” Rachel cried, feeling that she sounded rather like Gaius when she said it. This made her happy. “Not with-your-shins, Widder…never mind. Counter-clockwise. Right to left. Three times. Around both of us, quick!”
“Okay. Got it!”
Lucky swooped down and moved rapidly in a circle around Rachel and Siggy’s position, his long, sinuous, furry body dancing and swaying as he did so. The music had started again. The little men looked angry. The beat picked up. Ruby sparks circled Rachel’s feet, and her legs began to move faster.
If truth be told, it was rather fun.
Rachel loved dancing. It did not feel like she could not control her limbs, unless she tried to stop. Otherwise, it just felt like the urge to move about to music with a particularly good dance beat. She began to smile as she twirled and moved her feet, attempting cleverer steps.
“That’s it, Lucky,” she called, “Just one more time aroun—umph!”
Mid-leap, Rachel’s face collided with the invisible Sigfried. Pain exploded throughout her nose and cheeks. Her arms windmilled. She might have been able to keep her balance had her feet not had a will of their own, but, even as she was falling backward, they insisted on continuing to high-step to the reel. She crashed into the snow, smudging and ruining Lucky’s ward.
“Watch where you’re goin’, Griffin,” called Sigfried.
“I can’t!” she wailed from where she lay in the snow. “You’re invisible.”
“Ah. Fair point.”
Rachel flailed, trying to rise, her efforts hampered by her continued attempt to dance. A crimson stain appeared near her in the white snow. Her nose must be bleeding. As his previous ward had been ruined, Lucky began again, this time making a larger circle.
The redcaps let out an eerie ululating cry. The hackles rose along the back of Rachel’s neck.
“Ace! Two can play at that,” cried Siggy, and he let out a similar cry.
That gave the little men pause.
Enough was enough. Still pinching her nose, Rachel rolled into a kneeling position. Her feet tried to tap and jig, but with her weight on her knees, there was little her feet could do. Fixing her gaze on the little men, she whistled.
Blue sparks flew from her mouth, striking the flute player, who ceased to move, frozen in place by her hex. Sigfried followed this with a well-timed wind blast, which threw the two he had struck previously back another forty feet. They tumbled head-over-heels, pointed redcaps flying.
The remaining unencumbered redcap returned the favor. He ran his bow across his strings and the red sparkles swirling toward Rachel and Sigfried changed to blue.
“Not again!” cried Rachel, unable to duck.
She hated being frozen.
With a thud, the outline of a figure in a parka appeared in the snow beside Rachel, where Sigfried had been dancing. It laid motionless. When the twinkling blue lights reached Rachel, however, they spun oddly and winked out. With a cry of joy, Rachel realized that, as promised, the aquamarine necklace Peter had given her for Yule had protected her.
Lucky finished his third time around them, widdershins. Like throwing a switch, the compulsion to dance stopped. Her limbs were her own again. Red sparkles swirled around the outside of the circle Lucky had tracked in the snow, but they could not cross it.
“Obé!” Rachel made the accompanying hand gesture in the direction of the body-like indentation of snow. Luckily, the Word of Ending cantrip only took one hand, as her other was still pinching her nose.
Sigfried both began to move and instantly reappeared. He had snow in his golden curls and a gleeful look of maniacal delight that almost matched that of their opponents. On his back, he wore Zoë Forrest’s backpack. That was suspicious. Zoë’s backpack had an entire room inside. What was Siggy planning to move?
“Quick,” Rachel shouted, ‘Get them!”
“Now I got ‘em,” Siggy crowed, grinning like a jack-a-lantern.
Raising his trumpet, he blew. A stream of blue sparks flew from the instrument, accompanied by the scent of evergreens. They swooshed forward, surrounding the remaining redcap. It stopped moving, standing like a violin-wielding statue beside its flute-playing companion. There was no sign of the other two, the ones Siggy had sent flying with his wind blasts. They had fled.
“Lucky, ward them!” cried Rachel. “They’ll be stuck in the ward!”
Lucky circled the two froze redcaps three times, counter-clockwise. Rachel pulled her athame from her pocket and drew a circle in the snow with the warding knife, tracing Lucky’s path.
“There! That should hold them,” she declared.
“Woohoo!” Sigfried whooped, leaping in the air and high-fiving Lucky’s taloned paw.
“What are you doing out here?” Rachel put her hands on her hips and glared at him, even though she knew Sigfried could not see her. “You do realize if they catch us out during a lockdown, we’ll be punished, possibly expelled. We’re still on probation for the time we fell out of campus by accident…into Transylvania.”
“Expelled, Ex-smelled, I’m not afraid of them!” scoffed Sigfried Smith. “Besides, they won’t catch us. We’re too wily. And we’re invisible.”
“That’s not the point,” Rachel replied, realizing suddenly that he did not know that she could now see him. “What are you doing out here?”
“Getting my loot.”
“From the ogre’s cave. I knew if I didn’t get it right away, the adults would steal it. They already stole the ogre. By the time I recovered enough to send Lucky back for it, it was gone. After all my plans to mount the head on our clubhouse wall!”
“The ogre’s cave! That’s miles from here—on the other side of the island.”
Siggy shrugged. “Lucky carried me in the backpack.”
“How did you get in trouble with the redcaps from the inside of a backpack?”
“I saw them on my way back,” Siggy tapped his chest where Rachel knew his all-seeing amulet rested beneath his robes and parka. “I climbed out, so I could investigate. I thought maybe they would offer me something to drink, and I could play nine pins and wake up a hundred years later.”
“Valerie would be a hundred and fourteen,” Rachel observed wryly. “The Wise often live to be two or three hundred, but that’s a long time to ask her to wait.”
“Oh, good point! Can’t leave my best girl behind!” Looking back at the recaps, Sigfried added, “We’ll get credit for catching them, right? Is there a bounty?”
Rachel grabbed her aching head with hand that was not holding her nose. “Sigfried, if they find out we were out here catching them, we’ll get into horrid trouble.”
“Oh. Right.” He slumped, deflated.
Voices called from the direction of Marlowe Hall. Footsteps crunched toward them in the snow.
“I hear the proctors coming.” She whispered loudly, running for her broom. “Quick, jump on. And drink another elixir! You’re visible!”
* * *
The arched window of her dorm room flew upwards. Rachel ducked her head, soared through the opening, and landed. She stood in the safety of her room, breathing in the pleasant scents of cedar and clean linen. The warmth was wonderful, but it also made her feel the depth of the cold she was escaping. She shivered and chafed her arms.
She had dropped Sigfried off at the window to his dorm room, but Lucky had accompanied her. The sinuous red and gold dragon followed her through the open window, sniffing around the rug in the middle of the chamber. Rachel’s familiar, Mistletoe, hissed from under her bed. Lucky ignored the cat. Then, he snaked off next door to return the backpack to the foot of Zoë’s bed, before the other girl noticed it was gone.
With a sign of relief, she ended the chameleon elixir with a cantrip.
“R-Rachel?” came a small squeak.
She whipped around, looking this way and that. Two dark brown eyes and a shock of curly black hair stuck out from under a blanket on the far top bunk. Her roommate Astrid stared down, her expression a mix of terror and relief. Her normally caramel skin had blanched to a dull gray.
“Yes. It’s me. S-sorry,” she whispered, hoping not to wake their other two roommates.
Now it was Rachel’s turn to be afraid. Would Astrid tell on her?
Astrid’s head came out from under the blanket, a concerned look replacing her fearful one. Quietly, she whispered back, “Is that blood on your hat? Are you bleeding?”
“Oh!” Rachel pulled off her white snowman hat. Bright spots of red now marred its pristine white. Looking in the mirror, she saw that her nose looked a little funny, and blood had splattered her coat. “Yes. Or, rather, I was. My poor hat.”
“Let me help.”
Astrid slipped down from her bunk, her long limbs clad in lavender flannel pajamas spotted with pink and blue llamas. She always wore the collar of her pajamas turned up in what Hildy from the room next door called a Dracula collar, but which reminded Rachel more of the collar in a black and white poster of an actress named Audrey Hepburn that hung on the wall of Sandra’s study.
Taking the white hat, Astrid paused to squeeze Rachel’s hand. “You’re frozen. Why don’t you take a warm shower, and I’ll get the blood off.”
Very gratefully, Rachel slipped out of her coat and followed Astrid’s advice.
* * *
When Rachel finally roused the strength to leave the paradise that was the warm shower, Astrid stood by the sink working on the hat with cold water and hand soap. The red wool coat lay on the counter beside her. It had a big wet spot, but Rachel could see no sign of blood.
Slipping into her fluffy, peach, dressing gown, Rachel wiped the steamy mirror with a paper towel and examined herself. Her nose was swollen and felt tender to the touch, but it did not seem to be broken. She wondered if it would turn black and blue.
As she toweled her hair dry, she announced, “Thank you. You’re a lifesaver.”
“No problem.” Astrid gave her a sweet smile, her llama-covered sleeves pulled up to her elbows as she turned the hat beneath the running water. “My mom taught me how to do this when I was six. You have to use cold water, so the heat doesn’t cook the blood into the fabric. And a lot of soap, rubbing it in with your fingers over and over. I think she made a point of explaining the whole thing to get my mind off my skinned knee, but it has served me well.” She held up the snowman hat, which was again, pure white. “There, see! No harm done!”
“Thank you! Oh, that’s brilliant!”
“It’s the least I could do after you saved me from the darkness and the pixies on the ice Tuesday night. I might not have ever found my way back, not with my hurt foot. I could have…” Astrid’s voice trailed off. She gestured at Rachel’s face. “What happened?”
“I hit my nose on Sigfried.”
“I couldn’t see him.”
“Oh. That’s a sham—“ but Astrid never finished.
A giggle erupted from her. First one or two, and then waves of giggles as she dissolved into laughter. A moment later both girls were laughing, until they leaned over, grabbing their stomachs, and gasping for air..
“Rachel,” Astrid asked, when they could finally breath again. “May I ask you a question.”
“A few weeks ago, you and the dean were walking in the hallway with a man…”
“And you dropped your books,” Rachel recalled, wishing, after she saw Astrid’s face, that she had not said that aloud.
“Oh, you saw that.” Astrid ducked her head, embarrassed.
“That was Agent Bridges from the London Wisecraft office. Why did you ask?”
“Um…no reason.” Astrid was quiet for a moment. “I can’t believe you remembered that I dropped my books. How embarrassing. Do you really have a perfect memory? Sorry, I overhear a lot because no one notices I’m here.”
“No one notices you? I am sorry, Astrid!” Rachel cried. “I will try to do better!”
“You don’t need to worry about it. No one else notices me either.”
“But I want to notice you! You are one of the most delightful people to spend time with I have ever met!”
Astrid bit her lip and ducked her head, clearly not knowing what to say, but she looking very pleased. She reached out and pressed Rachel’s fingers with her own. Rachel smiled and squeezed back. Astrid drew her hand back into her lap, as if that amount of forwardness had been too great an effort for her.
“And yes,” stated Rachel. “I do have a perfect memory.”
“That’s an interesting gift.” Astrid leaned forward, curious. “How far back do you remember? Birth? Back into the womb? Before that?”
Rachel shook her head. “The talent doesn’t develop until we learn to speak. I only recall back to around age two. Mum’s the same.”
“I imagine it’s an extremely useful talent.” Astrid raised her head and met Rachel’s eyes. “But it also must be quite difficult.”
Many people throughout her life had commented on how much they wished that they could have perfect memory or on how lucky Rachel must be, but no one before had ever offered sympathy. Rachel eyed the other girl carefully, but Astrid looked sincere.
“I suppose so,” Rachel agreed, faintly surprised. “Occasionally, it is.”