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SHE DID HER CHORES that morning and got out of the house with the book as fast as she could, heading for one of her secret places in the woods. If weird things start happening, she thought, no one will see them there. Oh, I'm going to get that pen back! And then...
Behind the high school around the corner from Nita's house was a large tract of undeveloped woodland, the usual Long Island combination of scrub oak, white pine, and sassafras. Nita detoured around the school, pausing to scramble over a couple of chain-link fences. There was a path on the other side; after a few minutes she turned off it to pick her way carefully through low underbrush and among fallen logs and tree stumps. Then there was a solid wall of clumped sassafras and twining wild blackberry bushes. It looked totally impassable, and the blackberries threatened Nita with their thorns, but she turned sideways and pushed through the wall of greenery undaunted.
She emerged into a glade walled all around with blackberry and gooseberry and pine, sheltered by the overhanging branches of several trees. One, a large crabapple, stood near the edge of the glade, and there was a flattish half-buried boulder at the base of its trunk. Here she could be sure no one was watching.
Nita sat down on the rock with a sigh, put her back up against the tree, and spent a few moments getting comfortable-then opened the book and started to read.
She found herself not just reading, after a while, but studying-cramming the facts into her head with that particular mental stomp she used when she knew she was going to have to know something by heart. The things the book was telling her now were not vague and abstract, as the initial discussion of theory had been, but as straightforward as the repair manual for a new car, and nearly as complex. There were tables and lists of needed resources for working spells. There were formulas and equations and rules. There was a syllabary and pronunciation guide for the 418 symbols used in the wizardly Speech to describe relationships and effects that other human languages had no specific words for.
The information went on and on-the book was printed small, and there seemed no end to the things Nita was going to have to know about. She read about the hierarchy of practicing wizards-her book listed only those practicing in the United States and Canada, though wizards were working everywhere in the world-and she scanned down the listing for the New York area, noticing the presence of Advisory Wizards, Area Supervisors, Senior Wizards. She read through a list of the "otherworlds" closest to her own, alternate earths where the capital of the United States was named Huictilopochtli or Lafayette City or Hrafnkell or New Washington, and where the people still called themselves Americans, though they didn't match Nita's ideas about the term.
She learned the Horseman's Word, which gets the attention of any member of the genus Equus, even the zebras; and the two forms of the Mason's Word, which gives stone the appearance of life for short periods. One chapter told her about the magical creatures living in cities, whose presence even the nonwizardly people suspect sometimes-creatures like the steam-breathing fireworms, pack-ratty little lizards that creep through cracks in building walls to steal treasures and trash for their lair-hoards under the streets. Nita thought about all the steam she had seen coming up from manhole covers in Manhattan and smiled, for now she knew what was causing it.
She read on, finding out how to bridle the Nightmare and learning what questions to ask the Transcendent Pig, should she meet him. She read about the Trees' Battle-who fought in it, who won it, and why. She read about the forty basic classes of spells and their subclasses. She read about Timeheart, the unreal and eternal realm where the places and things people remember affectionately are preserved as they remember them, forever.
In the middle of the description of things preserved in their fullest beauty forever, and still growing, Nita found herself feeling a faint tingle of unease. She was also getting tired. She dropped the book in her lap with an annoyed sigh, for there was just too much to absorb at one sitting, and she had no clear idea of where to begin. "Crud," she said under her breath. "I thought I'd be able to make Joanne vanish by tomorrow morning."
Nita picked the manual up again and leafed through it to the section labeled "Preliminary Exercises."
The first one was set in a small block of type in the middle of an otherwise empty page.
To change something, you must first describe it. To describe something, you must first see it. Hold still in one place for as long as it takes to see something.
Nita felt puzzled and slightly annoyed. This didn't sound much like magic. But obediently she put the book down, settled herself more comfortably against the tree, folded her arms, and sighed. It's almost too warm to think about anything serious...What should I look at? That rock over there? Naah, it's kind of a dull-looking rock. That weed...look how its leaves go up around the stem in a spiral...Nita leaned her head back, stared up through the crabtree's branches. That rotten Joanne. Where would she have hidden that pen? I wonder. Maybe if I could sneak into her house somehow, maybe there's a spell for that...Have to do it after dark, I guess. Maybe I could do it tonight...Wish it didn't take so long to get dark this time of year. Nita looked at the sky where it showed between the leaves, a hot blue mosaic of light with here and there the fireflicker of sun showing through, shifting with the shift of leaves in the wind. There are kinds of patterns-the wind never goes through the same way twice, and there are patterns in the branches but they're never quite the same, either. And look at the changes in the brightness. The sky is the same but the leaves cover sometimes more and sometimes less...the patterns...the patterns, they...they...
(They won't let you have a moment's rest,) the crabapple tree said irritably. Nita jumped, scraping her back against the trunk as she sat up straight. She had heard the tree quite plainly in some way that had nothing to do with spoken words. It was light patterns she had heard, and wind movements, leafrustle, fireflicker.
(Finally paid attention, did you?) said the tree. (As if one of them isn't enough, messing up someone's fallen-leaf pattern that's been in progress for fifteen years, drawing circles all over the ground and messing up the matrices. Well? What's your excuse?)
Nita sat there with her mouth open, looking up at the words the tree was making with cranky light and shadow. It works. It works! "Uh," she said, not knowing whether the tree could understand her, "I didn't draw any circles on your leaves-"
(No, but that other one did,) the tree said. (Made circles and stars and diagrams all over Telerilarch's collage, doing some kind of power spell. You people don't have the proper respect for artwork. Okay, so we're amateurs,) it added, a touch of belligerence creeping into its voice. (So none of us has been here more than thirty years. Well, our work is still valid, and-)
"Uh, listen, do you mean that there's a, uh, a wizard out here somewhere doing magic?"
(What else?) the tree snapped. (And let me tell you, if you people don't-)
"Where? Where is she?"
(He,) the tree said. (In the middle of all those made-stone roads. I remember when those roads went in, and they took a pattern Kimber had been working on for eighty years and scraped it bare and poured that black rock over it. One of the most complex, most-)
He? Nita thought, and her heart sank slightly. She had trouble talking to boys. "You mean across the freeway, in the middle of the interchange? That green place?"
(Didn't you hear me? Are you deaf? Silly question. That other one must be deaf not to have heard Teleri yelling at him. And now I suppose you'll start scratching up the ground and invoking powers and ruining my collage. Well, let me tell you-)
"I, uh-listen, I'll talk to you later," Nita said hurriedly. She got to her feet, brushed herself off, and started away through the woods at a trot. Another wizard? And my God, the trees- Their laughter at her amazement was all around her as she ran, the merriment of everything from foot-high weeds to hundred-foot oaks, rustling in the wind-grave chuckling of maples and alders, titters from groves of sapling sassafras, silly giggling in the raspberry bushes, a huge belly laugh from the oldest hollow ash tree before the freeway interchange. How could I never have heard them before!
Nita stopped at the freeway's edge and made sure that there were no cars coming before she tried to cross. The interchange was a cloverleaf, and the circle formed by one of the off-ramps held a stand of the original pre-freeway trees within it, in a kind of sunken bowl. Nita dashed across the concrete and stood a moment, breathless, at the edge of the downslope, before starting down it slantwise.
This was another of her secret places, a spot shaded and peaceful in summer and winter, both because of the pine trees that roofed in the hollow. But there was nothing peaceful about it today. Something was in the air, and the trees, irritated, were muttering among themselves. Even on a foot-thick cushion of pine needles, Nita's feet seemed to be making too much noise. She tried to walk softly and wished the trees wouldn't stare at her so.
Where the slope bottomed out she stopped, looking around her nervously, and that was when she saw him. The boy was holding a stick in one hand and staring intently at the ground underneath a huge larch on one side of the grove. He was shorter than she was, and looked younger, and he also looked familiar somehow. Now who is that? she thought, feeling more nervous still. No one had ever been in one of her secret places when she came there.
But the boy just kept frowning at the ground, as if it were a test paper and he was trying to scowl the right answer out of it. A very ordinary-looking kid, with straight black hair and a Hispanic look to his face, wearing a beat-up green windbreaker and jeans and sneakers, holding a willow wand of a type that Nita's book recommended for certain types of spelling.
He let out what looked like a breath of irritation and put his hands on his hips. "Cojones," he muttered, shaking his head-and halfway through the shake, he caught sight of Nita.
He looked surprised and embarrassed for a moment, then his face steadied down to a simple worried look. There he stood regarding Nita, and she realized with a shock that he wasn't going to yell at her, or chase her, or call her names, or run away himself. He was going to let her explain herself. Nita was amazed. It didn't seem quite normal.
"Hi," she said.
The boy looked at her uncertainly, as if trying to place her. "Hi."
Nita wasn't sure quite where to begin. But the marks on the ground, and the willow wand, seemed to confirm that a power spell was in progress. "Uh," she said, "I, uh, I don't see the oak leaves. Or the string."
The boy's dark eyes widened. "So that's how you got through!"
"I put a binding spell around the edges of this place," he said. "I've tried this spell once or twice before, but people kept showing up just as I was getting busy, and I couldn't finish."
Nita suddenly recognized him. "You're the one they were calling crazy last week."
The boy's eyes narrowed again. He looked annoyed. "Uh, yeah. A couple of the eighth graders found me last Monday. They were shooting up the woods with BB guns, and there I was, working. And they couldn't figure out what I was doing, so at lunch the next day they said-"
"I know what they said." It had been a badly rhymed song about the kid who played by himself in the woods, because no one else would play with him. She remembered feeling vaguely sorry for the kid, whoever he was; boys could be as bad as girls sometimes.
"I thought I blew the binding, too," he said. "You surprised me."
"Maybe you can't bind another wizard out," Nita said. That was it, she thought. If he's not one-
"Uhh...I guess not." He paused. "I'm Kit," he said then. "Christopher, really, but I hate Christopher."
"Nita," she said. "It's short for Juanita. I hate that, too. Listen-the trees are mad at you."
Kit stared at her. "The trees?"
"Uh, mostly this one." She looked up into the branches of the larch, which were trembling with more force than the wind could lend them. "See, the trees do-I don't know, it's artwork, sort of, with their fallen leaves-and you started doing your power schematic all over their work, and, uh-"
"Trees?" Kit said. "Rocks I knew about; I talked to a rock last week-or it talked to me, actually-though it wasn't talking, really..." He looked up at the tree. "Well, hey, I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't know. I'll try to put things back the way I found them. But I might as well not have bothered with the spell," he said, looking again at Nita. "It got caught. It's not working. You know anything about this?"
He gestured at the diagram he had drawn on the cleared ground, and Nita went to crouch down by it. The pattern was one she had seen in her book, a basic design of interlocking circles and woven parallelograms. There were symbols drawn inside the angles and outside the curves, some of them letters or words in the Roman alphabet, some of them the graceful characters of the wizardly Speech. "I just got my book yesterday," she said. "I doubt I'll be much help. What were you trying to get? The power part of it I can see."
She glanced up and found Kit looking with somber interest at her black eye. "I'm getting tired of being beat up just because I have a Spanish accent," he said. "I was going to attract enough power to me so that the big kids would just leave me alone and not start anything. An 'aura,' the book called it. But the spell got stuck a couple of steps in, and when I checked the book it said that I was missing an element." He looked questioningly at Nita. "Maybe you're it?"
"Uhh-" She shook her head. "I don't know. I was looking for a spell for something different. Someone beat me up and stole my best pen. It was a space pen, the kind the astronauts have, and it writes on anything, and I always took all my tests with it and I always pass when I use it, and I want it back." She stopped, then added, "And I guess I wouldn't mind if they didn't beat me up anymore, either."
"We could make a finding spell and tie it into this one," Kit said.
"Yeah? Well, we'd better put these needles back first."
Kit stuck the willow wand in his back pocket as he and Nita worked to push the larch's needles back over the cleared ground. "Where'd you get your book?" Nita said.
"In the city, about a month ago. My mother and father went out antique hunting. There's this one part of Second Avenue where all the little shops are-and one place had this box of secondhand books, and I stopped to look at them because I always look at old books-and this one caught my eye. My hand, actually. I was going after a Tom Swift book underneath it and it pinched me..."
Nita chuckled. "Mine snagged me in the library," she said. "I don't know...I didn't want Joanne-she's the one who beat me up-I didn't want her to get my pen, but I'm glad she didn't get this." She pulled her copy of the book out of her jacket as Kit straightened up beside her. She looked over at him. "Does it work?" she demanded. "Does it really work?"
Kit stood there for a moment, looking at the replaced needles. "I fixed my dog's nose," he said. "A wasp stung him and I made it go down right away. And I talked to the rock." He looked up at Nita again. "C'mon," he said. "There's a place in the middle where the ground is bare. Let's see what happens."
Together they walked to the center of the hollow, where the pine trees made a circle open to the sky and the ground was bare dirt. Kit pulled out his willow wand and began drawing the diagram again. "This one I know by heart," he said. "I've started it so many times. Well, this time for sure." He got his book out of his back pocket and consulted it, beginning to write symbols into the diagram. "Would you look and see if there's anything else we need for a finding spell?"
"Sure." Nita found the necessary section in the index of her book and checked it. "Just an image of the thing to be found," she said. "I have to make it while you're spelling. Kit, do you know why this works? Leaves, pieces of string, designs on the ground. It doesn't make sense."
Kit kept drawing. "There's a chapter on advanced theory in there, but I couldn't get through it all the way. The magic is supposed to have something to do with interrupting space-"
"Listen, that's all I could get out of it. There was this one phrase that kept turning up, 'temporospatial claudication.' I think that's how you say it. It's something like, space isn't really empty, it folds around objects-or words-and if you put the right things in the right place and do the right things with them, and say the right things in the Speech, magic happens. Where's the string?"
"This one with all the knots in it?" Nita reached down and picked it up.
"Must have fallen out of my pocket. Stand on this end, okay?" He dropped one end of the string into the middle of the diagram, and Nita stepped onto it. Kit walked around her and the diagram with it, using the end of the string to trace a circle. Just before he came to the place where he had started, he used the willow wand to make a sort of figure-eight mark-a "wizards' knot," the book had called it-and closed the circle with it. Kit tugged at the string as he stood up. Nita let it go, and Kit coiled it and put it away.
"You've got to do this part yourself," Kit said. "I can't write your name for you-each person in a spelling does their own. There's a table in there with all the symbols in it."
Nita scuffed some pages aside and found it, a long list of English letters and numbers, and symbols in the Speech. She got down to look at Kit's name, so that she could see how to write hers, and group by group began to puzzle the symbols out. "Your birthday's August twenty-fifth?"
Nita looked at the symbol for the year. "They skipped you a couple grades, huh?"
"Yeah. It's rotten," Kit said, sounding entirely too cheerful as he said it. Nita knew that tone of voice-it was the one in which she usually answered Joanne, while trying to hide her own fear of what was sure to happen next. "It wouldn't be so bad if they were my age," Kit went on, looking over Nita's shoulder and speaking absently. "But they keep saying things like, 'If you're so smart, 'ow come you talk so fonny?'" His imitation of their imitation of his accent was precise and bitter. "They make me sick. Trouble is, they outweigh me."
Nita nodded and started to draw her name on the ground, using the substitutions and symbols that appeared in her manual. Some of them were simple and brief; some of them were almost more complex than she believed possible, crazy amalgams of curls and twists and angles like those an insane stenographer might produce. She did her best to reproduce them, and tied all the symbols together, fastening them into a circle with the same wizards' knot that Kit had used on the outer circle and on his own name.
Copyright © 1983 by Diane Duane
Afterword copyright © 2003 by Diane Duane
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