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Magpies

One for sorrow, two for joy,

Three for a girl, four for a boy,

Five for silver, six for gold,

And seven for a secret which can never be told.

 

Boris flew to the meeting tree looking somewhat bedraggled, and down in the feathers.  He’d clearly had a bad day.

“Hey Boris.  Tough day?”

“Oh, hi Tony, you said it.”

Now my job as the Magpie barman is to serve the drinks and listen to the stories.  Occasionally I offer some advice, but my days of flying Informational Magics is long gone, and most of the chicks they send out these days seem to ignore me.

I lined up a stiff drink for Boris and said, “Do you want to talk about it?”

It was clear he didn’t, but then he shrugged his wings and took a long drink of his drink and said, “You know how some days if it can go wrong?”

“Oh yes.  Saw a single one today did you?”

I was joking of course, Magpie magic doesn’t work on Magpies, something I’ve always thought is vaguely ironic.

“Ha, almost as if I had done.  My day started with an easy one.  I needed to get a farmer to see me.  He’s going to get some bad news from his girlfriend it seems.  Farmers are easy I thought to myself, wait until they’re out into a field, and then, you know, pop up.  He conveniently headed out, and so I flew along.  Nothing, he was looking at his phone I think.”

“Bloody things have made it harder than in my day, and no mistake.”

“You said it Tony.  You couldn’t line me up another?”

I watched him finish the first as I poured the second.  I hoped he wasn’t going to drink too much, I’d struggle to carry him off this tree at the best of times, but my right wing has been giving me shooting pains when I extend it recently.

“Where was I?”

“Farmer.  Phone.”

“Yeah, so I had to get over the other side of town for my next job, and I was running out of time, so I popped up again.  The farmer looks up.”

“Job done?”

“I hadn’t spotted him, but Douglas was flying across the field, on his way to his first gig of the day.  Blam, we’ve now given the farmer Joy.”

“Oh, well, could be worse.”

“I know, but now I’m the one who has to go and give his girlfriend Sorrow, because her dream job evaporated and she’s staying with her farmer boyfriend.  Sucks for her.”

“Mmm.”

“Now of course, I’m running late, so I wing it straight over.  I reckon I can get away with it, so I cut over the Grey woods.”

“The ones with the footpath?”

“Yeah.”

“Risky.”

“At that time of day I figure it’ll be fine.  I was wrong.  A couple going for a mid-morning walk.  Blam they get some Sorrow.  Their car engine’s blown.  Then a man walking his dog, more Sorrow.  He’s going to get an unexpected, and wrong, gas bill, but it’ll take three months for him to clear it up.”

“Ouch.  You speak to Control about doing some reverse work?”

“You seen them recently?  Something strange is going on, they’re planning a load of Secret raids.”

“Awful tricky to pull off they are.”

It’s difficult to get seven of us in one place where a human can see, and count, all of us before we have to move on.  Anything getting in the way can turn it into something else, and I hated doing them when I was still in the field.

I went on, “I was involved in one of those once, we ended up giving three Silvers and one Gold before we hit it properly.  Control was mighty angry.”

“Well they’re so angry already, I wasn’t going to ask them to allow three Joys just to fix my mess up.”

“Fair.”

“I get to the meeting place, expecting Steph and Jon, and you know what?”

“What?”

“Bloody Yanis turns up.”

“Oh he’s alright…”

“Maybe, but suddenly the Girl we’re announcing turns into a Boy.  Then while I’m remonstrating with him another couple come along.  Now by this point Jon’s off, but they get a Girl, and they weren’t expecting anything if you know what I mean.”

“A bad day and a half.  Have another.”

His second had gone almost as fast as the first, but he sipped the third a bit more cautiously.

“Next few gigs went ok, but I couldn’t help feeling the day wasn’t done with me yet.”

“No?”

“No.  My last couple of gigs were over by Westfield farm, you know at the edge of our territory.”

“Bordering the Greenlark mob?”

“Yeah.  Bloody amateurs.”

“So I hear.”

I didn’t tell him my mother had been a Greenlark.  When I was a chick we’d been on best of terms with them, but last couple of years there’d been some bad blood.  Accusations of stealing of missions and suchlike.

“Well I was there to do a Sorrow and a Joy, with Steph again.  I like her, real professional.  Always on time, flies low, can disappear into anything.  Easy to work with.”

He was smiling in such a way that I imagined he wanted a little more time with Steph.  He was quiet for a bit.

“You were saying…”

“Yeah, sorry.  Steph.  She turns up as expected, and we’re about to do the double.”

“Nice.”

“Yeah, the dossier on these two said they were inseparable, but that the man always looked round to the right when they got into a new field.  Steph and I were prepped.  The humans climbed into the field and we popped up.  At the same time some bloody Greenlarks are having a fight with a murder on the border of the land.  All sorts of squawking and whatnot.”

“Not good.”

“Not good?  Disaster.  She gets the Joy and he gets the Sorrow.  Her premium bond numbers come in and his ankle gives way.  Doesn’t seem fair.”

“It’s not about fair.  At least they didn’t see the Greenlarks.”

“True.  And I think Steph blamed me, though she didn’t say anything.  Just a bit off.”

“I’m sure she understands, we’ve all been there.”

At that point one of Control’s messengers turned up.

“Oi, Boris, get over to Control.  They need you for a Secret.”

“I’ll be there in two ticks.”

The messenger looked like he was going to argue, but then just flapped off, making a deliberate show of his whites.

“Bloody showoffs, think they’re better than us cos they do the planning.”

“It’s a tough job.”

“Yeah, whatever.  Not sure what the point of a Secret is, I mean they never tell us what it is anyway.”

“Um.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know that’s the point.”

Boris slurped the last of his drink and then headed off, waving his wings a little unsteadily.

I watched him depart and thanked my stars I wasn’t out there anymore.  I’d enjoyed spreading Joy and announcing the little ones.  But the Sorrow was always hard.  I polished up the glasses and waited for my next customer.

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Rebalancing

Having young twins can be a lot of fun, but it is also exhausting…

Rebalancing

Isabel rolled over and looked at the clock. It showed the time as 0307, the dull red glow of the digits taunting her. That made, what, eighteen minutes of sleep, or was it fourteen, nearly an hour over the night. Could be worse…?

She wondered which baby it was. Had she put Ruth down last? After giving her some milk. Yes. Probably. So it was likely to be Grace then. The cries continued, and she dragged herself out of bed. Sometimes they stopped before she had to get up, not this time though.

Stepping quietly into the room she could tell it was Grace. Though given the volume emanating from her daughter’s lungs she sometimes wondered why she tiptoed.

“OK Grace, I’m here, just one second.”

The whispering seemed foolish too, but she really didn’t want to wake Ruth up again. She picked Grace up and carried her out of her room and into the kitchen. Having initially stopped crying Grace decided to start up again. Each scream ripped through her, leaving her nerves tender and, worse, anticipating the next wave of sonic pain.

“Oh darling, what’s wrong? Is it your toothy-pegs?”

Screams.

Isabel grabbed some gel and rubbed it on her daughter’s gums. Grace stopped for a few seconds, and then carried on. Then she heard an answering cry from the nursery. Ruth was awake too. Putting Grace down only increased the volume of the already intolerable screeching.

“I’m just getting your sister, and then I’ll sing to you.”

Screams.

She shuffled back quickly to the nursery, running being beyond her at this point of tiredness. Ruth was standing up and howling at the world. Isabel picked her up.

“Don’t worry Ruth, we’ll go to the kitchen, and then we’ll have a sing song.”

She knew she’d have to give them milk, but she was trying to get them out of the habit of thinking it was always going to happen. Even if she could delay it for ten minutes that would help.

Two minutes later, having tried and failed to pacify them with her rendition of the greatest hits of Boney M, she capitulated and gave them milk. They were onto bottles now, she just wasn’t able to provide enough milk herself for the two of them, and as much as that hurt, she was happy that she could sit and watch while they drank. The day they’d been able to hold their own bottles had been one of the few good ones recently.

“Girls, I’m not sure how much of this I can take. Please, please start sleeping. If only your father was here…”

She started to sob. She missed him, how could he do this to her? How dare he die. How dare he leave her, alone, with no one to help her in this strange town. The insurance company were still deciding whether they could pay out, and in the meantime she was eking out her meagre savings. Another worry she couldn’t cope with any more.

The two girls started crying in unison, joining her in misery. They hadn’t finished their milk though, which was unusual. What was the problem? Isabel spotted one of the signs just as the stench hit her. Liquid brown was escaping from Ruth’s nappy. From the way Grace was wriggling she was in much the same position. She really hoped it was just the teething and not another bug.

“Now darling, let me change you and you can get back to your milk. In the meantime Grace, perhaps you could try your milk again? Or at least tone the volume down. Please…”

Ruth’s nappy was a mess, and it had crept up her back, Isabel would need to change the baby-grow as well. Ruth also hated it when Isabel laid her on her back, and was making her upset very clear. In fact she was so loud Isabel could barely hear her sister, who was doing her best to join the chorus. Eventually she managed to get Ruth out of her stinking clothes and wiped up. As she was about to put the nappy on Ruth started to pee, and it went everywhere. All over the mat, all over Isabel. Ruth didn’t stop screaming.

It was the final straw. She could take no more, they’d broken her, she sank to the floor, holding her naked squealing daughter and just started to cry.

It didn’t help. The girls didn’t understand, all they knew was that they were uncomfortable, and hungry, and had sore teeth and…

She couldn’t help it, her anger at the loss of her husband, the lack of money, the lack of sleep and the constant crying boiled over. She knew what she had to do.

“Enough is enough, I didn’t want to do this, but I have no choice. I’m sorry girls.”

Putting Ruth down firmly, she stalked from the room. Darkness seemed to gather, and even the twin girls realised something was happening and quietened. The silence was only momentary though, and they began again with full force.

Isabel returned to the room, filling it with her presence. In her hand she held a short stick, about eighteen inches long, and a thumb’s breadth.

“I hate to do this; it’s your own faults.” Her voice was filled with energy, and pain.

She waved the wand left, and right, and then made complex sigils in the air. She could see the shapes as the wand had started to leave a glowing path. The girls stopped screaming long enough to stare bemusedly at the pretty lights. They’d never seen their mother do this before.

Both babies started to rise into the air, the clothes came off, they were wiped clean and new nappies put on. All by invisible hands. They were placed back in their chairs and the milk handed back to them. They drank happily, but their eyes were on the scary woman who’d replaced their mother.

“Good. Drink well my little ones. After this you are going to sleep. And sleep well. Do you understand me?”

The two little girls shouldn’t have understood, but they did. They realised that they didn’t want to find out what would happen if they didn’t sleep.

Once they finished their milk they were burped and carried into the nursery, where they were gently rocked to sleep.

Meanwhile Isabel, barely standing with fatigue, stumbled to her bedroom and fell into bed. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow. She was finally getting some proper rest and she slept the sleep of the truly exhausted.

The babies woke up again at 0715, and were changed and fed again. Some soothing gel was applied to their gums. They made almost no sound, apart from the occasional happy gurgle. They were then placed carefully in their pen – the cage as their mother called it – where they played happily, watched over by an invisible force.

At just after noon Isabel woke up, feeling so much better. She would have been happier with another twenty hours of sleep, but even so she felt almost human again. Stretching she got out of bed and went to her bathroom, where she enjoyed a long hot shower. The first time in a long time that she truly relaxed.

She knew she didn’t have to worry about the girls. They were just fine. Then the horror hit her. She’d performed magic.

“What have I done?”

She had to find out what had happened, still naked from her shower she ran to the back window and looked out. The neighbourhood looked fine, nothing untoward. She looked left and right and could see nothing. She started to relax. Perhaps she’d avoided anything major happening. Quickly getting dressed she hurried to the nursery.

She approached the cage warily, but the little girls were playing nicely, even sharing toys for a change. It would be so nice if she could live like this all the time, but she feared the consequences.

Isabel waved her hands to dispel the magic nanny, and sighed.

“No my girls, we can’t have that again. As you will learn when you are old enough, and can control it, there is always a danger with magic. It is capricious, and insists on a form of balance. This time I think we’ve been lucky…”

That’s when she heard the fire engine.

“No no no…”

She ran to the front door, and flung it open. Across the road her neighbour’s house was in flames. She stopped, should she go out? Should she instead duck back inside? She didn’t want anyone to connect her with the fire. No, she realised she had to know. Rushing across the road she saw her neighbours were still alive. She was relieved, but, she still had to confirm what had caused the fire. The husband, Tom, seemed to be talking to a policeman, while Pauline was sitting on the grass, just staring at their once lovely home.

As she approached she heard Tom trying his best to explain what had happened to the obviously sceptical policeman.

“…was like lightning or something. Suddenly there was a crack, and then flames. Flames everywhere. We don’t have gas, or anything. And I haven’t smoked in, what, twenty years now. I don’t know what it could have been.”

“Wiring sir?”

“Oh I don’t see how, this house is very new. We have it inspected regularly. Maybe it was…”

He looked up, as if he was hoping to see a storm cloud.

Isabel knew there would be no storm cloud; she knew what had caused the crack. It was the magic discharging to balance what she’d done the night before. Guilt hit her, and unable to face her neighbours, she slunk back home.

Re-entering the nursery she thought she’d caught a whiff of dirty nappy, but leaning over it was gone. She tried explaining to the little girls what had happened, though they were oblivious.

“For every act of goodness you do, there must be an act of badness, or chaos. As you learn about your powers you will find ways to channel them and control the chaos so it causes minimal harm to people. You should always do your best to control it, as the effects can be fatal. I failed last night…”

Despite the sleep she was still exhausted, and the emotional stress was too much. She started sobbing again knowing what might have happened, and yet guiltily grateful for the small rest she’d had. Even at the cost of her neighbours’ house.

She stood there bent over, crying freely now, when she felt a hand inexpertly stroking her head. Surprised she looked up, there was no one there. No one except the twins, and little Grace was staring at her with concern. Isabel smiled tentatively and Grace responded, then lost interest and looked around her pen.

Perhaps she’d just imagined it? They’d only been exposed to magic for half a day. It shouldn’t have awakened within them yet. Isabel watched her little ones carefully, but they seemed to be behaving quite normally. She was about to go and prepare their lunch when Ruth started to fuss. She was looking around her pen grumpily. Then she saw what she wanted, her favourite toy, the tiger teddy bear, was on the other side of the pen. She reached out her hand to it, and it lifted up and headed unsteadily towards her.

“Oh no…” wailed Isabel.

Her worst fear was realised. It appeared that last night’s incident had been too much and the girls, having been exposed to all that active magic, were now starting to manifest some of their powers. They wouldn’t know they needed to be careful, or what might happen, and the consequences could be horrendous.

She’d have to train them, but in a place where she could limit the damage which might happen while she did so.

If they stayed where they were she could see a future in which theirs was the only house standing in the neighbourhood.   Her neighbours, lovely people, would find their houses burned. Their pets dead. Some houses might fall into suddenly appearing sinkholes or collapse with rot. People might die.

In the past that would be the cue for the locals to rise up and burn her. Some witches had thought that if they did good that would protect them, but it had only made the whole situation worse as the magic forced balance. Ironically they’d only started to realise the truth during the Enlightenment.

These days, well, she could imagine the news frenzy it might become. She’d be hounded and wouldn’t be able to get away, and the girls, how would they cope? There’d be police, and social workers and psychiatrists. Scientists would be asked to ponder what was happening. They’d become freaks at the centre of their own circus. Other witches wouldn’t thank her; in fact they might decide that the best way to deal with her would be for an accident to occur. That had certainly happened a few times over the centuries.

No, they couldn’t stay here. Even though it contained the last connections to their father, she had to take the girls away. They needed to go somewhere remote, miles from anywhere. In the modern world it was ever harder to secure such places, but she’d find somewhere. She waved the magic over the girls again, after all she was already in such trouble she might as well get the benefit. She also concentrated to ensure she was controlling the build up of negative energy. It would get hard to hold after a while, but she’d be ready to go before it was a real struggle.

As she thought of options, she realised she only had one left. It was the one she’d been hoping to avoid. She called her mother.

“Hello?”

“Hello Mother.”

“Darling, such a surprise to hear your voice!”

“I doubt that.”

“OK, I could feel the magic. Do you admit now you need my help?”

“Yes. Please.”

“See, it wasn’t that bad.”

“You have no idea.”

“Anyway, you’ll have to appear to leave normally. How soon can you be here?”

“In a few hours.”

“Oh, that is excellent. It’ll be so good to see you, and there are a few awkward characters we’ll need you to deal with.”

“Mother…”

“You can’t come back unless you’re willing to work. You know that.”

“I know. I was just hoping…”

“For a break? What do you think you’ve been enjoying. Now get back here, and bring my lovely granddaughters with you. I am so looking forward to meeting them.”

There was little point arguing with her mother. She said, “I’ll see you soon mother.”

“Looking forward to it darling.”

Her heart was lighter, at least she’d be getting help, and rest, and it would be nice to be among other witches again. It was also weighed down; as she knew the kind of work she’d have to do. She shuddered.

One of her skills was controlling the negative energy produced by good work. She could harness and direct it. Perform targeted acts of evil. As much as she understood the necessity, she’d never enjoyed it, and the images had started to plague her. That’s why she’d run away.

Sighing she started to collect her things. The girls, still behaving impeccably, were quickly loaded up in their carry seats, and the basics for the trip were ready. She was tempted to use magic to load the seats into the car, but if anyone saw them it would cause real issues. She lugged them over, strapped them in and made sure they were safe.

As she was about to get into the car she took one last look at her home, and said a final goodbye to her husband.   She got in and drove off.

She was half way along the block when she let the magic go. It blew the walls of her house down, and the roof collapsed. She didn’t look back.

 

The neighbourhood was surprised by three unusual happenings that day. There was the lightning strike, the collapsed house and the strange disappearance of the nice young widow and her twins. People gossiped, as they do, but they couldn’t see a connection, which was perhaps fortunate for everyone.

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