Fledgling – Molly Harper

I once believed that the hardest thing I would ever face would be a mountain of dirty laundry or polishing every piece of silver in my employer’s house, and then I was sent to finishing school. “Ladies! Ladies! Why these glum expressions in the face of such delightful work?” my dancing instructor, Madame Rousseau, called as I sagged at the waist and braced myself against my knees just to catch my breath. The spring sun beat warm upon my back as I struggled to force air into my lungs. The grass of Miss Castwell’s expansive south lawn was silky and warm beneath my bare feet. The breath I drew in was scented with the waxy sweetness of white and purple hyacinth blooming on the edge of the knot garden. Behind us, Miss Castwell’s Institute for the Magical Instruction of Young Ladies loomed like a cursed fairy tale castle, the late afternoon light lending the green-gray stone an eerie, ethereal light. Madame Rousseau, a reed-thin woman with sepia skin, clucked her tongue disdainfully at the class full of sweaty, winded students. Miss Rousseau never got tired. She never got winded. Her thick black hair never slipped from its neat chignon. And she never ceased to be disappointed by our insistence that we needed to breathe a n d feel the blood circulating through our limbs. I was in very real danger of flopping forward and meeting the earth face-first. Even Callista Cavill, an awful girl who prided herself on being the unshakeable model for all that was elegant in our class, was beet-faced and shaking. “This vernal circle is an intermediate dance at best, ladies, though its purpose is the truest and purest in intents. Summoning a unicorn is a blessing for Miss Castwell’s.

It definitely seals our magical boundaries for the year. It’s your duty to these glorious halls and all they have granted to you to throw yourselves whole-heartedly in this exercise!” Madame Rousseau scolded us. “How shameful that this class has so little love for our venerated school!” “Does she think we do not know that none of the other classes have been able to summon a unicorn this spring?” Alicia McCray hiss-whispered in my left ear, propping herself on the ground with her palms to prevent face-planting. “Because it’s tricky work at best! And unicorns might prefer the presence of magical maidens, but sudden movements can make any animal nervous! So doing the dance in triple time is what some people might consider counterintuitive!” My other best friend, Ivy Cowell, was bent in a similar L-shape to my right, sweat giving her chestnut skin an almost iridescent sheen. Ivy made several attempts to raise her hand before I shoved my shoulder under hers and helped hold her arm aloft. “Perhaps, Madame Rousseau, if you didn’t ask us to do the dance at such a quick tempo, our performance might be adequate.” Ivy had a gift for both understatement and diplomacy. “Ridiculous,” Madame Rousseau sniffed. “I have written several papers on this very subject. Summoning rituals are even more effective at an increased speed.

I’ve tested this on spirits, nymphs, and merfolk. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to summon a merman when he doesn’t want to be called?” Madeline Sato, one of those most dedicated dancers in the school, groaned under her breath. “I think she is trying to murder us.” Alicia wheezed in agreement, her tiny, pale shoulders heaving. “It’s the only reasonable explanation.” “That will teach you to tell your mother that you’re ready for the ‘full educational experience’ offered by Castwell’s,” I huffed, laughing until I realized how much it made my stomach muscles hurt. “I just wanted to be able to take my classes with you two,” Alicia hissed. “I’ve felt very well over the past few months, but I’m nowhere near my full strength. I thought I would be taking an easy potions course or even belomancy, which you know both know I hate because flinging an arrow at a target is not a reliable way to predict the future. But I was willing to put up with it for the pleasure of your company.

I did not expect to have to run around a lawn at triple time, sweating through my clothes. I am not amused.” I snickered, my shoulders shaking into Ivy’s. The truth was that it was very easy to sweat through our Castwell green physical activity gowns, thin, light muslin dresses with short puffed sleeves and shin-length skirts. Because we were so scandalously dressed (and unicorn historically shunned masculine company), all the male staff had been directed to the other side of the campus so they wouldn’t manage to — gasp — glimpse our exposed ankles. Male visitors had been banned for the next two hours. We might be learning to do magic with enormous knives while conducting social terrorism, but Miss Castwell’s took the reputation of its students very seriously. Ivy, bless her, continued to try to reason with Madame Rousseau. She placed her hands upon my back, and I tried not to grunt too loudly as Ivy used me to push up to a standing position. “But has the theory been proven with unicorns, Ma’am? They’re notoriously skittish creatures.

” Madame Rousseau narrowed her eyes at Ivy’s flushed face and considered for a moment. “Fine! Ladies! Assemble, we will perform the dance at double time.” The class groaned quietly in unison and straightened, stumbling back into formation. “You tried,” I said to Ivy. “It’s more than I was able to do. I was too busy stubbornly clinging to consciousness.” Ivy chuckled as several older girls keyed up violins and a guitar. Poor Theodora Brandywine had the bad luck to be extremely proficient at the most unglamorous instrument of all ladies’ musical options — the snare drum — and was expected to keep time. Sighing, the petite girl tapped a double-time tempo against the skin of the drum and the other girls joined in a lively spring tune. We skipped in tight concentric circles until the music sped up even further, and we darted in and out of each other’s formations, making floral patterns that could be seen from above.

Now that we were moving at a more reasonable speed, I wasn’t worried about hitting the right spot on the ground or not tripping or holding my arms straight and my shoulders back. There was simply movement and breathing and the rare joy of being able to run — a rarity for any proper young lady of Guild Guardian society. The song repeated on and on in a dizzying cycle, and suddenly there was a collective gasp behind me, and I turned to see a pale graceful shape moving out of the woods surrounding the school. We continued dancing, as instructed, but at a slower pace, welcoming the unicorn into our midst. As my side of the circle moved toward the trees, I could see the unicorn more clearly — long elegant legs with delicate ankles, a shining coat of creamy gold, and an ivory horn as nearly as long as my arm. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen in my young life, and yet, my stomach churned at the gleam of its mane and the clip-clop of its shimmering hooves. The dragonfly on my hands, a living metal tattoo that marked me as the Translator of the Mother Book, vibrated with an emotion I’d never felt from it — dread. The mark was trembling with anxiety, and there was no rational explanation. Unicorns were loving beings who only wanted the best for the maidens who called them. We should be thrilled to have called one so easily.

The Hollowhorn That fear overrode any glow of peace and hope we were told to expect in the presence of a unicorn. All I felt were revulsion and dread and a prickle of cold sweat under my arms. I hadn’t felt this out of sorts since last term, when the late Miss Morton had nearly drained my magic and life away in misguided attempt at world domination. “I don’t feel well,” I whispered hoarsely to Ivy, who was staring dreamily at the unicorn as she moved. The wind picked up and a softer, wistful melody piped over the musicians’ efforts. Eventually, the players gave up and simply stood there, staring as the unicorn moved closer. No, we were moving closer to the great beast, our formations becoming misshapen and sloppy. Yet, Madame Rousseau said nothing. Something was wrong. The slow lilting song grew louder, and my legs felt like one of Mum’s aspic jellies underneath me.

I fell forward, dropping to my knees on the lawn and the other girls simply stepped around me, moving closer and closer to the unicorn. I swallowed thickly around the nausea that was making my stomach roll. Now that I was finally still, I could get a long, steady look at the unicorn, and I could see tiny perforations in the unicorn’s horn, spiraling up to the tip in a pipe formation. I realized the haunting melody was coming from the unicorn itself, from its horn. Oh, sweet Circe’s rounded cheeks. We hadn’t summoned a unicorn. “Stop!” I yelled, stumbling to my feet. One of Callista’s cronies, Millicent DeCater, broke from the dancing circles and drifted toward the creature with her arm outstretched. “Millicent, stop!” “It’s so beautiful,” she mumbled, her voice dazed and her blue eyes glassy. In my remedial magical zoology reading, I’d learned that hollowhorns were a malicious, bloodthirsty cousin to the unicorn.

The holes in their horns caught the wind to make music, attracting poor dumb woodland creatures that were too mesmerized to object as the hollowhorn fed on them. Which explained why Millicent was the first among us to come forward. “Madame Rousseau! It’s a hollowhorn! We must stop the music and get away, quickly!” I cried, tugging at Madame’s long green sleeve. But she ignored me and shrugged me off as she glided gracefully across the lawn. I surged towards Ivy, who ignored me completely as I shook her. “Ivy! Wake up!” But Ivy’s usually luminous brown eyes were too dulled by adoration for the poisonous music in her ears. She strained away from me, testing what little upper body strength I had as I caught Alicia around the waist. I dragged both of them away from the creature. “Alicia! Please! Would both of you just snap out of this, for pity’s sake?” But they did not snap out of it. If anything, my creating distance between them and the monstrous horse seemed to make them more determined to reach it! “HELP!” I yelled, turning to the building, while I struggled against my friends’ pulling.

“Somebody please! Help!” Why wasn’t I affected by the music like the others? Why was I alone in this? This felt like a child’s bad dream, fear and panic and helplessness all rolled together. The oily grip of fear sliding along my mark didn’t exactly help me focus. I wrung my hands out, as if I could force more magic into the tips of my fingers. I reached for my ritual blade, Wit, and cast the spell sigil for “silence,” a bright blue symbol staining the air. The lilting music continued. In fact, the hollowhorn seemed to send me a filthy look, as if it didn’t appreciate my attempts to interrupt his performance and mealtime. Letting loose of Alicia, who then flopped face-first on the lawn with the force of her yanking away, I drew a sigil for alarm. To increase the degree of difficulty, I did this while stomping on the hem to Alicia’s gown, slowing her progress as she crawled on the grass towards the hollowhorn. I flung my arm towards Headmistress Lockwood’s office window and the glowing red symbol flew like a hawk toward the glass. Vaguely, I heard a shattering sound as I darted around Ivy and planted my shoulder against her chest to keep her from shoving me along towards certain doom.

I turned and saw that Millicent’s paper-pale fingertips were almost touching its evil velvety nose. “Millicent, stop!” Unfortunately, there were too many girls between me and Millicent. “I’m almost sorry about this, Millicent,” I murmured, throwing something of a “hallway curse” — a livid pink spell that would never be taught in the classroom but whispered among the students far out of the hearing of the teachers. If a student wanted a rival to injure her ankle — not permanently, mind, just long enough to keep her from dancing with a particular boy from the Palmer School for Young Men — she would cast the Glass Ankle Curse. Said rival would immediately sprain their ankle so severely that she would think she’d attempted ballet on a buttered floor. The pale pink sigil hit Millicent in the left leg, and she crumpled with the ground with a sickening pop. None of the girls seemed to notice. The pretense of dancing had stopped, and they were simply stumbling towards the hollowhorn. The monster’s eyes, the flat gray of a gravestone, glanced down at Millicent’s prone form with interest while she moaned over the state of her ankle. Breathing deep, I cast the Stone Shield sigil to put a magical barrier between Millicent and the creature.

My arms ached with the effort of it, but it simply bounced off of the awful thing and faded into the lawn. The hollowhorn’s haunting, sinister song played all the while. Was the creature simply too malevolent to be affected by good magic? Or was it that I wasn’t strong enough to affect it? I was only a student, a powerful student of course, but a student all the same. I desperately wished for an adult — any adult — to see this bizarre scene out of a window and come to my aid. As grateful as I was to be free of the hollowhorn’s thrall, it seemed to be a great burden to put on the shoulders of someone who was in so many remedial classes. I blinked fast, wiping sweat from my brow and trying to focus on priorities. Millicent was on the ground, immobile — thanks to my spell — and very vulnerable to attack. My friends were getting closer and closer by the step. Madame Rousseau was no help whatsoever, and there was no help forthcoming from any other quarter. I nodded, licking my lips.

“Right.”

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