A cold night breeze came blowing through the tiny window high above me. The shutters were closed, but they were crooked and broken, and did next to nothing to protect us from rain, snow, wind, or whatever else might want to get in at us. The creaking sound of the door opening sounded in my ears, but the light of Mistress Mordon’s lamp did not flood the room. She must be in the next room over. With any luck she would still be a couple rooms down the hall, but still I didn’t have much time. Barely turning my head, I snuck a peek at Abigail, asleep in the bed next to mine, so close we might have been sleeping side by side. Her eyes were just closed, and her breath was gentle and still. I gently shut my eyes and tried to copy her slow, rhythmic breathing. The door creaked again, and under my eyelids I could just see the light cast by Mistress Mordon’s lamp. As her footsteps drew near, I kept my breath carefully controlled and willed her to stay away from me. The sound of her footsteps stopped right beside me, and I could feel her gaze resting on me. Imitating Abigail as closely as possible, I prayed that my breathing was natural enough. At last she moved on, and in a moment the lamplight disappeared with the sound of the door creaking shut.
I lay still a few minutes longer to be sure she was gone. At last opening my eyes, I peered around the room, wanting to be certain everyone was asleep. Finally satisfied that no one would see me I silently slipped out from under the one thin sheet covering my bed and tiptoed to the wall beneath the window, where the feet of two beds met. Squeezing into the few inches between them, I climbed up to the top bunk and reached up, feeling for a tiny outcropping in the wall, a place where the bricks were not quite evenly laid. I pulled myself up, balancing on the metal railing at the foot of one bed, and stretched up for the next handhold: a spot where the mortar between the bricks had begun to wear away, leaving an opening just large enough for the tips of my fingers to hook into. Half pulling myself, half jumping, I got my feet onto the first handhold, where there was barely enough space to balance on the tips of my toes. The next step had to be done quickly or I would fall. Swiftly, with a precision developed by too many failures, I reached up for the window and swung myself up onto the narrow ledge, opening the shutters to make more space.
I took a satisfying breath of fresh air, the first I’d had in days. It was terrible, being shut up in that big brick building with all those other children day and night, especially since there were only two who could qualify as friends. And Thomas couldn’t really count; he was too annoying. But here was freedom; here I could sit and think for as long as I wanted without interruption.
From the window I could just reach the rooftop, which I quickly jumped up to. Here I could see the stars, beautiful, brilliant spots of light in a dark sky. Hope for a better life in a black world. Gazing up at them, I remembered that a great sorceress had died just a few days before, or so I had heard. If I was going to make a wish I’d have the best chance with a new star; they were always more willing to grant wishes right after they died. I didn’t notice anything in the sky that was different than before, but I’d never been able to keep track of the stars too well. There was one star that seemed brighter than the others, so that would have to do.
I concentrated on that star as I though of my wish, something I’d longed for every time I’d managed to slip up here during our free hour, when I could watch the schoolchildren walk home, carrying books that I was sure held wondrous things. I wanted to be a schoolgirl, to spend everyday in a place where they taught you things, things beside basic reading and writing and a little arithmetic. “I wish I could go to school,” I thought hard. “Let me go somewhere I can learn. Anywhere, as long as it’s better than here.” I shoved from my mind my other wish, the one I knew could never come true. I wanted to be a sorceress. I wanted to go to the Sorcerer’s Academy and learn magic. I didn’t even know if I had magic, or what it meant to use it; to me magic was just a strange power that allowed you to fly and do other impossible things. But still I dreamed of attending the mysterious school.
The wind blew harder, and, though I was used to cold, I began to shiver. My eyes drooped, and I began to nod off despite the freezing air. No! I mustn’t fall asleep there. Carefully I climbed back inside and slipped into bed. As my eyes closed, an idea entered my mind. It wasn’t really a thought of mine, but more like a whisper in my mind, like I was receiving the faintest breath of the memory of another. Whatever it was, it was strong, and refused to be ignored. Perhaps it was not enough to wish. Perhaps no wish, no matter how strong, could be granted without action. It was a strange idea to a girl who thought of magic as a means of solving problems effortlessly, but the thought persisted in my mind as I drifted to sleep.
Someone was shaking me. “Minnie,” a voice called. “Minnie, wake up. Minnie!” I was shoved again, and this time I opened my eyes.
“Get up.” Her voice was anxious. “Breakfast is in five minutes.”
“Great!” I exclaimed sarcastically, jumping out of bed and pulling off my nightgown. I yanked my faded blue dress on, and as Abigail buttoned the back with her quick fingers I hurriedly combed through my tangled hair with my not-so-quick ones. As we dashed down the hall I pulled my hair into two braids and flung them over my shoulder.
“Why did you sleep in so late again?” Abigail asked.
I half shrugged as we reached the end of the hall. “I just didn’t go to bed early enough. Thanks for waking me up.”
The clock in the entrance began to chime right as we ran though the dinning room doors. We joined the line of children waiting for the breakfast of porridge made by the older girls.
“You were up on the roof again,” Abigail whispered with an accusing tone.
“Yes, I was.” A girl handed us each a bowl as I spoke.
“To see the stars?”
“Minnie, stars can’t grant wishes. We both know that.” Another girl dumped a ladle-full of porridge into each of our bowls.
“I think they do,” I insisted.
“Right,” she said, with a tone that clearly meant that the conversation was over.
We sat at one of the table in the dimly lit room. As we ate, the idea from the night before pushed its way into my mind. But what could I do to get into school. Abigail might know; she wanted to be a teacher. “Abigail,” I asked, “how do you get into a school?”
She swallowed her porridge before responding. “You apply.”
“But how do I do that?” I pressed.
“Minnie, schools don’t want kids like us. We can’t pay for it, and most people think we can’t learn.”
“But can’t you get a scholarship?”
“Yeah, but it’s really complicated.”
“Just tell me,” I begged.
She sighed. “First you have to get accepted, and like I said, they don’t like orphans. They think we haven’t got a chance at becoming anything anyway, so why bother wasting time and money on us? If you do get in, then you have to apply for a scholarship, and to get that you’ve got to be super smart and amazing. They want examples of work you’ve done that kids like us don’t get a chance to do. They want stuff that kids do in a primary school, and we’re too old to go to one of those anymore.”
“You mean the kids that walk by every day? A lot of them are about our age.”
“Yeah,” she agreed, “but they’re the oldest ones. Once you turn twelve you’ve got to go to a real school. The kids our age who are graduating from the primary school have already learned a ton more than we have. They’ll all be applying to real, good schools now, or they’ll start learning a trade. But we’ve learned so little compared to what other kids our age are supposed to know.”
“So how are you planning to become a teacher?” I asked.
Abigail glanced around to be sure no one was listening, then spoke in a low voice. “You know the two books under my mattress?”
“I read those, and anything else I can get my hands on. I can’t stop hoping that maybe, someday, if I study enough, I’ll find a way.” She turned back to her porridge, clearly finished with the conversation.
I started thinking about ways to get around all the problems, but my thoughts were interrupted by a voice from behind me.
“What’cha thinkin’ about, Minnie?”
I turned to face the boy who spoke. “Nothing Thomas. What do you want now?”
“Oh, I don’t want anything. I just thought you might want to hear what the postman told me.”
I glanced up to where Mistress Mordon sat, and saw the postman delivering the mail to her. I knew that if the information was of any importance I’d hear it soon enough, without having to bribe it out of Thomas, so I continued stirring my porridge, and tried to look disinterested. “And just what did the postman tell you?”
Thomas faked a sheepish look. “Well, he might not want me to tell you.”
“What sort of things would the postman tell you that he wouldn’t want me to know?” I asked.
“Oh, you know. Important things.”
“As if the postman would tell you anything important,” I laughed. “He wouldn’t tell any of us anything important.”
“He told me.”
“He told you what?”
I glanced at Mistress Mordon again. The postman had left her. A gruff voice whispered in my ear, “You’re a lucky girl, miss.” I turned and saw the postman walking away from me.
I turned back to Thomas rather fiercely. “Did he tell you something about me?”
“What’ll you give me if I tell you?”
“Thomas Rodman, you tell me what the postman said to you this instant!” I was whispering as loudly as I dared.
“Minerva Hilden,” Mistress Mordon said.
I stood and turned to the front of the room where she was standing. “Yes ma’am?”
“Who do you know by the name of Samuel Truman?”
The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “No one, ma’am.”
“Are you sure?”
I racked my brain, trying to remember where I’d heard the name, but I couldn’t. “Yes ma’am, I’m sure.”
“Well, he’s writing to you.” I stood still, not sure what to do. “Well,” she said threateningly, after a moment’s pause, “aren’t you going to come read it? Or do you want me to open it instead?”
I hurried to the front of the room and took the letter from her. As I turned it over in my hands, I realized where I’d heard the name before. Samuel Truman was the head student at the Sorcerer’s Academy. But he wouldn’t be writing to me. It must be someone else by the same name. But why would anyone write to me? I didn’t know a soul outside of the orphanage. I tried to keep my hopes from rising as I broke the seal. It was a plain seal. It didn’t look like it was from a school. Slowly, I opened the letter.
“Hurry up Minerva. We don’t have all day.”
I gasped and dropped the letter.
I picked the letter up again and looked at it again, hoping against hope that I wasn’t dreaming. I rubbed my eyes, then pinched myself, but I still wasn’t waking up.
“Well Minerva, what does it say?”
The Mistress Mordon’s harsh voice scared me. “I’ve been invited to attend the Sorcerer’s Academy.”
“Don’t lie to me, Minerva. What does the letter say?”
“I- I’m not lying ma’am. Would you like to see?” I held the letter out to her. She snatched it from me and began to read it. The look on her face went from annoyance, to disbelief, to furry, to wicked glee. She was smiling when she looked up from the letter, smiling in a way that told me that all was not right. It was too suspicious. With this smile on her face, she handed the letter back to me. I took it nervously.
“Pack your things Minerva,” she said with a fake sweetness in her voice, “You’re leaving in the morning.” She turned back to the rest of the mail, and I hurried back to where Abigail and Thomas were waiting.
“What did the letter say, Minnie?” Abigail asked.
“I- I’m a sorceress!” I burst out, “Or, at least, I will be.”
“What do you mean? You’re not a sorceress.”
“I’m going to the Sorcerer’s Academy, Abigail. I’m a sorceress.”
“Were you accepted?” Abigail asked.
“What do you mean?”
“What did the letter say? Were you accepted? Or were you invited?”
“I- well, it- I think that it said that I was invited, but, well, I’m not really sure.”
“Well read it and find out. Really Minnie, don’t you think of these things?”
My hands were shaking from the shock of it, but I opened the letter and began to read. “My dear Miss Minerva Hilden, it is my pleasure to inform you that you have been invited to attend the Sorcerer’s Academy of the
. Be ready to depart by the morning of the sixteenth
day of the month of the Wind. If for any
reason you should desire to refuse this invitation, please inform us by the
evening of the first day of the month of the Wind. I remain yours respectfully, Samuel Truman,
Head Student of the Sorcerer’s Academy of the kingdom
of Middon .” kingdom
“You were invited!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands with delight. “Minnie, do you know what that means?”
“Only three people are invited every year. All expenses are paid. It’s like getting a scholarship-well, kind of like that. But they are often the most powerful ones.”
“So…you’re saying that I’m super powerful?”
“No. I’m saying that it’s possible.”
I looked back down at the letter. “The sixteenth day of the month of the Wind. That’s tomorrow!”
Thomas grinned. “Looks like Minnie’s leaving us tomorrow.”