Night wrapped the forest in its dark blanket; Da piled logs on the fire; Mamsie quietly set out bread and cheese and boiled another kettle. I was only dimly aware of it all as Ben, with a lot of help from Mamsie, told his story. (Da seemed to have heard most of it before, and I tried not to let that rankle me. Far better to hear it from Ben, I told myself.)
Ben looked into the fire as though trying to neatly pile his thoughts. “I think being a magician is actually a lot more . . . ordinary than people think. No one is born a magician, contrary to popular belief . . .”
“Although you have to be born with some measure of magical talent,” Mamsie hollered from the kitchen.
“Fair enough. I was . . . Here, Mamsie, why don’t you tell the first part? You remember it better.” Ben looked at me and winked.
Mamsie shuffled into the room. “Pull up that table for me, Benjamin. Thank you. Now let’s see.” She unloaded her tray, face thoughtful. “I was midwife at Ben’s birth. He’s the youngest of four brothers, and I could see it from the beginning – not very clearly, but I knew he was special.
“‘Watch that baby boy of yours,’ I told his mother. ‘His path will look very different to his brothers’. Don’t force him to take one not set out for him.’
“I often visited their village to help with births and I could see Ben’s – well, his magicness, growing with him. It was almost like a soft glow around him.”
Ben laughed. “I wasn’t aware of the glow. For me it was a heightened awareness of the world and the tiny things that made it what it was.”
“Like herbs.” Mamsie poured us all chamomile tea. I took a deep breath of it and felt my thoughts settle.
“Aye, so I apprenticed myself to a herbalist when I was fourteen.” Ben curled his hands around his mug. “I was very happy there; his village was about a morning’s walk from where my parents lived.
“I must have been sixteen when a man came into the shop one winter’s day. His hair was the iron grey of late middle age, but he had far less wrinkles than my father and carried himself like a man of twenty. His eyes were deep blue, almost black. Immediately they tugged at my heart.
“What little he said was very quiet. When I gave him the prescribed herbs, I couldn’t take my hand away from his. We seemed to hold each other’s gaze for an eternity.
“‘Well,’ he said, softly, ‘you’ll have to come with me, lad, seeing you chose me.’
“So I became apprentice to Quinlan the magician. I was his pupil for four years and they flew past.”
“Did you – did you still visit your family?” The question sounded ridiculous, but it had seemed important in my mind.
“Aye,” Ben smiled. “It took them a while to get used to the idea of a magician in the family, despite Mamsie’s warning that I’d be different. My father passed away two years ago. We were always friends, but I doubt he truly accustomed himself to the idea. My eldest brother is a coppersmith, like Da was. All three of them visit Ma regularly with their troop of grandchildren and I go when I can.”
“Quinlan is a good man,” said Mamsie through a mouthful of apple pie. “Thank heavens you ended up with him and not one of those empty-headed egotists.”
“What did he teach you?” I asked. Again, it sounded stupid, but Ben didn’t seem to mind. He spun the story of his apprenticeship, colouring it so well I could almost feel Quinlan in the room with us. His presence, I imagined, would bring the comfort of a wise person completely in control of themselves.
“The most vital thing I learned,” Ben said thoughtfully, “was to control myself, and more importantly, my magic. Magic is a tool to be used, not a master to serve. Nothing is more wonderful if used correctly nor more destructive if allowed to run rampant.”
I heard a soft snore and looked up to see Da snoozing in his chair.
Mamsie laughed and tapped him on the shoulder. “Callan? Here, let me show you your room. No, no, Maren and I will sleep on the living room floor. Oh, please, I much prefer it to that veritable broom closet! Far warmer, for starters . . .”
Da followed her to the guest room, stopping to kiss my head and mumble goodnight to Ben.
“I’m not tired yet,” I said in answer to Ben’s raised eyebrows. “And I don’t think I can sleep, either. My head feels fit to explode.”
He laughed. “Sorry.”
“No – it’s a relief to know at last.” It almost looked like he had a question for me, but I spoke first. “What did you need the moss-blanket and granny’s wool for?”
“My tea jar.” Mamsie returned to her rocking chair. “Honestly, that was more of a ploy to get your father – and more specifically, you – here so we could finally tell you the truth.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“I did need a little moss-blanket for that spell, though,” said Ben, “and it’s true that I couldn’t get away to fetch it myself.”
“What . . . what kind of spell?”
He rolled his eyes. “Oh, Quinlan’s new apprentice made a right mess of one of his assignments and I had to untangle the whole spell before it got out of hand. Quinlan was en route to Bankshead for a meeting with another magician. He asked me to please deal with it before all the village cows levitated or the chickens started laying grapefruits.”
I giggled. “Has that happened before?”
“Aye.” He grimaced. “It was one of Quinlan’s favourite ways to scare me into getting my spells right.”
“And it worked.” Mamsie smiled. “The lad never messed up – at least not as far as I can remember.”
Ben laughed softly. “Ah, but there was that one time with the shape-changing – do you remember? See, what happened . . .”
It was midnight before we finally went to bed. I lay down on a mass of quilts – Mamsie snoring softly a few feet away – and slept like a baby in the magician’s cottage.