- Published: 5 July 2022
- ISBN: 9781761043994
- Imprint: Puffin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 288
- RRP: $16.99
A Reluctant Witch's Guide to Magic
“Not frogs again,” said twelve-year-old Willa Birdwhistle as a large green-and-purple frog landed — splat — on her head.
It was early morning in the city of Bad Faith. The sun was rising, the birds were singing, and the frogs had begun to rain. A small blue specimen landed by Willa’s feet. Then another. And another. Splat, splat, splat they fell, dotting the dirt lane.
Willa poked at the frog squatting happily on her head like a slimy, warty, green-and-purple bonnet. “Off you hop,” she said. “I haven’t got all day.”
“Croak,” said the frog.
“It’s not my fault. Come on, I have to get to the mill.”
“Oh, please! I’m late for work and I’ll get in trouble.”
“Fine! If you enjoy sitting up there like a bonnet I’ll sew rib-bons on you. And buttons. And lace. And —”
The frog leapt from Willa’s head and vanished into the reeds.
“Thank you!” called Willa, as yet more frogs rained down around her. She frowned. “I should have brought an umbrella.”
While it was true the city of Bad Faith received more than its fair share of frog rain, this wasn’t because amphibious precipitation was a naturally occurring phenomenon. In the same way that Mr. Nibler’s pig walked on two legs, the bees in Weeping Meadow breathed fire, and Mrs. Tewksbury’s rose-bushes turned carnivorous on Tuesdays, it was all because of the war.
The Witch War.
You see, the Isle of Dreary was divided into three provinces: Gomerim in the east, home to the Silverclaw witches; Mire-mog in the west, home to the Irontongue witches; and squeezed between them both was the Wild, where Ordinary Folk like Willa lived.
The two witch covens had been at war for as long as any-one could remember. At least once a week, Irontongue witches gathered on the western border cliffs to cast spells at the Silver-claws, who cast equally nefarious spells right back. Most spells sailed high across the Wild, nothing more than an irritating buzz far above the heads of Ordinary Folk. But sometimes they flew astray and landed in the Wildian city of Bad Faith, where they’d cause a terrible hullabaloo. Spells to make ropes turn into snakes, to make slugs grow the size of houses, to make the hair on your head turn into spaghetti, to make mirrors laugh at the sight of you, and, of course, to make it rain frogs. Nowhere was safe — the wayward spells slipped through windows, shimmied down chimneys, and slunk through pet flaps in doors.
People in the Wild were not fond of magic.
“At least it’s not cows again,” said Willa as she continued her walk to work, careful to avoid stepping on the frogs.
She was equally careful to avoid glancing at the children playing Ditch-a-Witch outside the school — stomping and shrieking and being terribly, horribly wild. Looking would lead to wanting — wanting to join in, wanting to be . . . Willa rolled back her shoulders and marched on.
I don’t have time for silly games, she scolded herself. I have to get to the mill.
It wasn’t unusual for Ordinary children as young as ten to leave school and work, but Willa needed her job more than most: to put food on the table and to escape being bundled off to the Home for Lonesome Children Who Have Lost or Temporarily Misplaced Their Guardians. So she didn’t have time for games or friends or school or fun. Besides, bad things happened when you were terribly, horribly wild.
She waved good morning to Mrs. Tewksbury, who was shooing frogs out from under her prized rosebushes with a broom. (It was Monday, so the old woman was quite safe from being bitten.)
“Good morning, Willa,” said Mrs. Tewksbury. “You mind yourself, now. The blue frogs give you a beastly shock if you touch them.”
“Thank you,” said Willa. She glanced over her shoulder. “Did you hear that, Talon? Don’t play with the blue ones.”
Talon, a black-and-white cat with one eye missing, ignored her. He trotted at a distance behind Willa in a manner that said, I am not following you. I am merely headed in the same direction, which is a total coincidence.
At least today it was only Talon.
Irontongue witches liked to magic up strange and wondrous creatures, such as frog rain and fire-breathing bees. And not long ago an Irontongue witch had magicked up an army of cats—one hundred of the little beasts! — and commanded them to charge the Silverclaws, to scratch their ankles and bite their fingers and claw out their eyes. But the cats were feeling contrary — as cats are wont to be — and instead had found their way to mooch by Willa’s front door.
“I can’t keep you all!” Willa had gasped.
But the cats had stayed. And now they followed Willa wherever she went. There goes that Willa Birdwhistle, people whispered, her and that army of cats.
It was the sort of thing her father would have clicked his tongue at. “What will the neighbours think?” he’d have said. “It’s not proper.”
Willa quickened her step. Usually she kept thoughts of her parents locked up tight. Memories were horrible things, with sharp edges to cut your hands should you examine them too closely. They were better locked away.
But this morning the echo of her father’s disapproval bounced stubbornly around her heart. It left her bruised and tender. Perhaps it was because today was her birthday and she had no one to celebrate it with. Or perhaps it was because today was also the one-year anniversary of the wayward Clouds-away! curse that had stolen her parents. Though it sounded harmless enough, the Clouds-away! curse was truly unpleasant: it liquified you, evaporated you, then turned you into a cloud. And one year ago today, Willa had watched, powerless to intervene, as her parents had drifted away on the wind, misty white clouds she feared she would never see again.
And it had all been her fault.
The bruise on her heart throbbed painfully, but she was late for work and didn’t have time to wallow. Instead she gathered up the escaped memories — carefully, so as not to cut herself— and shoved them back where they belonged. Hidden, forgotten, ignored.
“Watch out!” cried Mrs. Tewksbury.
Willa looked up to see a puffy orange cloud zipping like a bumblebee toward her — a Silverclaw curse. It pranced and it danced, looping and leaping. With a startled cry, Willa flung up both hands, cowering as she waited for the spell to turn her into a slug, or flatten her like a pancake, or make her bark like a dog. But nothing happened.
Willa lowered her arms and saw that the curse had taken a sudden left turn and crashed into the wall of Mr. Nibler’s barn—and into his chicken coop.
“Oh dear,” said Willa. “That can’t be good.”
In the coop, the puffy orange cloud began to pirouette. Faster and faster and faster it spun until poof! it collapsed into a thousand tiny rainbow sparkles that rained all over the chick-ens. “Bok, bok, bok,” they clucked, dashing out into the lane. Then, slowly, one by one, the chickens began to dance.
“Oh, this isn’t good at all.”
Willa had seen this curse before: Dance-till-you-drop! It made you dance until you had ground off your feet and your legs, all the way up to your neck. Willa watched in horror as the chickens flapped their wings and danced on their spindly legs, unable to stop themselves. Most wayward spells were irritating but harmless; this one, however, was as evil as a Clouds-away! curse. Seeing it brought back a most horrible feeling of helpless-ness and a strange sort of tingling in her bones.
Mr. Nibler tumbled out through his front door in his pajamas. “What is it this time?” He startled as his pig came hurtling out of the barn (on two feet, of course) to jig in the middle of the lane with the chickens. “Not my pig! Not my chickens!” he moaned.
Willa searched the Gomerim border until she saw a Silver-claw witch balanced on the edge of the cliff, arms still raised in spell casting.
Silverclaw witches never cut their hair, nor did they cut the nails on their fingers and toes. Consequently, their hair swept the ground as they walked and their nails grew long and yellow and curled. They were short, pretty, hairy things with a serene but vague look in their eyes, as if thinking about a pleasant sandwich they once ate twenty years ago at a family picnic.
The witch peered down at the cursed chickens with a hazy smile. She didn’t cast a counter-curse. She didn’t seem to care at all.
Willa’s blood ran cold. How can the witch not care?
But no matter her dismay, all Willa could do was stand by and watch, utterly, utterly powerless.
The bruise on Willa’s heart throbbed until a strange feeling unfurled in her: a breathless, bubbling, blistering feeling. A familiar feeling, buried long ago. It was like being a soda bottle all shaken up and ready to explode. A tiny voice whispered in her mind: You’re not powerless. You can stop it.
Before she could think twice, words bolted from her like wild horses: “You there!”
The witch turned her vague smile toward Willa.
Silverclaw witches rarely spoke, at least not in the way that Ordinary Folk did. They spoke through dance. If you ignored the fact that they were likely to turn you into a banana split if you so much as looked at them wrong, they were quite lovely to watch. Their bodies swayed with liquid grace as they fluttered their fingers and jiggled their legs and swung their hips and spun in circles. It was how they spoke to one another and it was how they cast their magic.
The witch inclined her head as if to say, Go on. I’m listening.
“You fix these chickens this instant,” demanded Willa, brimming with that breathless, bubbling, blistering, bold feeling. She hadn’t felt this way in such a long time. She was sur-prised how easily she slipped back into it, like a dress she hadn’t worn for years that somehow still fit perfectly. “And the pig. You can’t go about cursing anybody and anything. Accident or not, it’s wrong.”
The Silverclaw witch stared at Willa for a long time, long enough to make Willa’s boldness wilt.
“Oh dear,” she said as the witch began to dance. “I’m about to be turned into a banana split, aren’t I?” Willa took several hurried steps back, almost tripping over a large brown toad. Nothing good comes from being bold . . .
The witch crossed her arms, shimmied up and down, and then twinkled her fingers. A puffy purple cloud shot from her hands and pranced toward the chickens. Willa ducked as the cloud spat out thick, shimmery, butter-yellow sparkles. When the cloud had vanished, not a single chicken was dancing; instead they clucked quietly, pecking the dirt for worms. Per-cival the pig was still standing on two legs, but at least he was no longer dancing.
The Silverclaw witch nodded once, then turned away, refocusing her efforts on her battle with the Irontongues.
Willa’s hands trembled. Had she really confronted a witch? And lived?
She took off down the lane. If she was quick she could leave behind all trace of that horribly bold feeling — it might fit her perfectly, but she knew all too well it was a disaster waiting to happen. Mr. Nibler shouted his thanks, but Willa didn’t turn back, not even once.
She was breathless and trembling all over by the time she arrived at the mill for her job spinning wool into yarn. “You stay outside,” she instructed Talon — the master weaver despised cats—before she burst through the heavy wooden door. “What a horrible morning. At least things can only get bet —”
The factory was in chaos.
A wayward curse had charmed the long threads of yarn to life. They unwound from their spools and slithered like thin woolly snakes, chasing the poor workers, who bumped into looms and tables and one another as they battled to evade capture. Those who were too slow were quickly wrapped up from head to toe.
The master weaver wriggled on the floor, wrapped in wool like a big hairy blue caterpillar. “Someone get me out of here!” he cried.
Willa moved to help him, but a thick green thread burst out from underneath a loom and looped around her ankles.
“This can’t be good,” said Willa for the second time that morning.
Hidden in the shadows of the forest, Bo peeked under the low-hanging branches of a tree and watched the village children play a game.
‘Tie them up,’ Baron Lassigny ordered. ‘They’re under arrest.’
‘The full moon rose over us,’ Layla sang, while she carefully joined two pieces of metal together in the broiling, cramped welding bay.
Mary Lawson was the first to die. Leaving Euston station shortly before 6.45 a.m, she made straight for her favourite breakfast stall.
Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood. If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now.
My father built the house on Langely Lake for my mother, in the town she grew up in.