Spellbreaker – Charlie N. Holmberg

Elsie could just barely hear the toll of Big Ben in the distance. Four o’clock. A decent enough time for breaking the law. But when the law wasn’t fit, was it really a bad thing to break it? Slipping around a corner, Elsie pulled the letter from her pocket. Although London was only an hour’s ride by omnibus or carriage from her home in Brookley, she was not familiar with this particular neighborhood. She usually burned the letters right away, but she’d feared she might get lost if she didn’t bring this one along. The note had found its way to her despite the fact that it hadn’t been delivered by post. As always, the sender had not signed it, although the small seal of a bird foot stamped over a crescent moon was identification enough. The Cowls. That wasn’t their real name, obviously. But Elsie didn’t know what else to call them. She hadn’t seen any of them since she was eleven, ten years ago. But they kept in contact. More often than usual, lately. Either the world was getting worse, or they were on the cusp of making real change, and including her in that change.

At first, they’d given her small tasks, local tasks. She’d dis-spelled an unbreakable wall, magically fortified centuries ago, which had sat in the middle of farmland. The local tenants had spent months writing to their lords, petitioning for the spell’s removal for the sake of planting, but she was the one who’d helped them. Some of the early tasks she’d been given didn’t even require her fledgling spellbreaking. Delivering bread baskets to an orphanage had been the first to take her away from her home, and she’d managed it, getting lost only once. As her gifts improved, so the tasks she was given became bigger, more important. Elsie became more important, and the occasional coin or candy left with her missives told her the Cowls were grateful, that she was of real value to them. Mind returning to the present, Elsie rechecked the address. A young woman hawked roses from a basket on one corner, and across from her was a small shop with a bright-blue sign reading WIZARD OF ALL TRADES. Elsie rolled her eyes.

Not at the boldness of the color, but at the idea of being a wizard-of-all-trades. Only someone needing a very small spell or someone with no comprehension of magic would visit such a place. For when a person learned magic in all four alignments, they would be very weak in each of them, no matter how much magical potential they possessed. There was a reason people specialized. Not that it pertained to Elsie. Specializations were only for spellmakers. Pulling her eyes away, she crossed at the next intersection. This neighborhood was so large and so winding . she was sure she’d passed her turn. But she couldn’t retrace her steps.

Couldn’t do anything to draw suspicion. So she shoved the letter back into her pocket and strolled, enjoying the sunshine, trying not to think too hard on the novel reader she’d finished just before getting this latest missive. Oh, but it was hard not to think on the mystery! The baron in disguise had just confided his secret to Mademoiselle Amboise, completely unaware that she was betrothed to his enemy! There were so many ways the plot could unwind, and the author had cruelly ended the piece right there, forcing Elsie and thousands of others to wait for the continuation. Were it Elsie’s novel—that is, she was no writer, but if she were—she would have Mademoiselle Amboise get into some sort of trouble. Perhaps with a highwayman? The lady would be forced to relinquish the information before she could give it to the villainous Count Neville, only to later learn the highwayman was actually the baron’s long-lost brother and rightful heir! And to think she had to wait another two weeks to read what happened next. Oh, wait, here she was. Swallow Street. She glanced up at the rows of large houses, thinking on how many families could fit into one of the behemoths, before walking down the road. The elaborate homes on one side of the street were guarded by wrought iron fences. The houses on the other side were closed in by a high brick wall.

She found Mr. Turner’s house easily enough on the brick side. It was three stories high and white with navy tiles, windowed on all sides. Black shutters, blue drapes, a large elm growing up along its east side. Bold white cornices, bay windows, everything a wealthy person could want. These folk didn’t want the poor traipsing around their doorstep, that was for sure. Elsie hid her frown as she approached the end of the street, then turned onto the next road and looped back to approach the Turner home from behind. Despite the crowded nature of the city, these estates didn’t have a second row of buildings at their backs. The wealthy demanded nice gardens to accompany their nice houses. Meanwhile, their tenants worked their land and paid their dues without so much as a cheers! sent their way.

Which was precisely why Elsie didn’t feel bad about breaking the law. It would be sneakier to do it at night. Surely a burglar or the like from one of the tales in her novel reader would have acted at night. But Elsie was already a single woman venturing about on her own; she needn’t ruin herself by doing so after sundown. Times were changing, yes, but people’s minds were slow to keep up. A man passed by her, tipping his hat in greeting. Elsie smiled and nodded back. Once he’d left, Elsie touched the brick wall encircling the Turner home, letting its roughness pass beneath her fingertips. Searching for anything magicked. A few feet ahead of her, a rune shimmered once and shied away, as though embarrassed by Elsie’s scrutiny.

A physical spell, if she could see it. Different spells manifested themselves to her in different ways. She could feel rational runes, hear spiritual ones, and smell the temporal. Physical spells, however, liked to be seen. They were the dandies of the magic world. The thing all runes had in common was their knot-like quality. At least, Elsie liked to think of them as knots. And like knots, they could fray over time. The more masterful the spellmaker’s hand, the more stubborn the knot was to untie. The ones she could see—physical spells—were made of light and glitter, bright and pretzel-like, loose if the man casting them had been lazy or simply wasn’t talented.

Aspectors were usually men, anyway. There were two kinds of wizards in the world—those who cast spells, and those who broke them. The spellmakers, known as aspectors, paid a king’s ransom for the spells they took into their bodies, yet another means of benefitting the rich and rebuffing the poor. But God had a way of making things even. He’d been generous with the other side of the coin, for spellbreakers were born with the ability to dis-spell magic, and it didn’t cost them a farthing. Elsie couldn’t handle any of the four alignments of magic herself, but she could detect spells and unravel them like knots. This spell was decently tied, but not terribly so. An intermediate or advanced physical spell of hiding. It concealed a door, Elsie was sure of it. And it just so happened that Mr.

Turner had a habit of “losing” his tenants’ rent and forcing them to pay double. The people who depended on him for their livelihoods could barely keep food on the table, while this man lounged with the peerage and had servants at his beck and call. This was the sort of injustice the Cowls often addressed—with Elsie’s help. She would disenchant this door, and the Cowls would take back the money he had stolen. Very Robin Hood of them. And Elsie was their Little John. Pushing her palms into the spell, she pulled on the ends of the knot. There were seven of them, and she would need to unravel them in the reverse order of their placement. Fortunately, Elsie had encountered this spell before. She’d know how to proceed, once she found the loose end.

In a matter of heartbeats, the spell faded, and the creases and hinges of a brick-heavy door became visible to her eye. “Who goes there?” Elsie’s heart leapt into her throat. She pulled away from the wall as though it had stung her. It was not a constable, but a man in a fine waistcoat and trousers, a gold watch chain swinging from one of his pockets. Upon recognizing his face against the late-afternoon sun, however, Elsie almost wished it had been a constable. Squire Douglas Hughes. The squire who presided over her hometown. Brookley was close enough to London that it wasn’t particularly odd for her to see him here. But it was bad luck. Not because she feared he’d recognize her—despite the fact that she’d worked in his house for a year, she doubted he would—but because Squire Hughes was the epitome of everything she hated.

He was rude to the common folk and a sycophant to the aristocrats. He hoarded his money and passed off his squirely duties whenever he could, and when he could not, he bore them with the utmost disdain and didn’t attempt to hide it. He held his nose when he passed farmers. And he’d once trodden upon Elsie’s foot and not even stopped to see if she was all right, let alone apologize for it. This was the beast the Cowls fought against, though thus far the secretive group had not deemed him important enough for action. How she wished they would. If the Cowls were Robin Hood, this man was Prince John. Forcing a relaxed demeanor, Elsie walked up to meet him instead of letting him come to her. She didn’t want him to notice the seams of the door. Mr.

Turner was a wealthy man, and therefore the squire might actually care that Elsie had been snooping about his property. Biting the inside of her cheek, she curtsied. “I apologize if I’m disturbing anyone. I work for a stonemason; I was just admiring the brickwork.” It was only half a lie. The man raised a fine eyebrow. “The brickwork? Surely you jest.” He eyed her, but not with any recognition. Rather, he seemed confused by her clothing—particularly her skirts, as if it confused him that a woman could work outside of service. Elsie certainly wasn’t dressed as a maid.

Elsie couldn’t make herself blush, but she glanced away as though embarrassed. Squire Hughes said, “Don’t loiter. Your employer would be angry to see you wasting time.” She was tempted to snap back, to insist her employer had given his blessing for her to be here, but that wouldn’t strictly be true. While Ogden was undeniably generous with her time, he hadn’t a clue what she spent it on. If she left now, she could get back to Brookley by dinner and he’d be none the wiser. She curtsied again. “I beg your pardon.” The squire didn’t so much as nod, so Elsie excused herself wordlessly, walking a little too fast to be casual. Once she turned the corner, she straightened her spine and squared her shoulders.

No, she didn’t feel bad about breaking the law. Not one mite. The sun was setting when Elsie made it back to Brookley; she’d paid a hansom cab to take her as far as Lambeth and had walked the rest of the way. She shredded the letter from the Cowls in her pocket. The oven would be hot about this time, and she could cast the bits into the coals without any trouble. Sometimes she wished she had a confidant, but she counted herself lucky all the same. The Cowls had rescued her from the workhouse and lifted her from a destiny of poverty. The least she could do was protect their secrecy. Brookley was just south and a little east of London, wedged almost equidistant between Croydon and Orpington. It was an old town well kept by those who lived there.

The main road spiraled through the center like a river of cobblestone, a thoroughfare that led south to Clunwood and farmland before continuing on to Edenbridge. It was small and quaint, yet had everything a reasonable person could need—a bank, a post office, a dressmaker, a church. Granted, if one wanted a millinery, they’d have to head into either London or Kent, but seeing as Elsie was set on hatwear, that didn’t bother her particularly much. One of the best things about Brookley was that the stonemasonry shop sat on its northern side, down a small road curving off the main one, so it was a fairly private affair to walk to and from the direction of London. Elsie kicked dirt from her shoes before letting herself in through the back door of the house attached to the studio. There were a few shirts hanging on a clothing line overhead. The smell of mutton wafted through the air. In the kitchen, Emmeline, the maid, stirred a pot on the stove. Elsie had been in that position for several years after escaping the squire’s household, until Ogden had promoted her to his assistant and brought in a new employee. After hanging up her hat and setting her chatelaine bag on a table, Elsie waved to Emmeline before venturing down the hallway, around the corner, and into the studio, which was by far the largest room in the house.

The counter by the door served as a storefront, and the rest of the space was filled with tarps, uncarved and half-carved stone, easels, canvases, blankets, and an array of shelves holding a collection of tools and utensils in every shape a person could imagine, as well as a great deal of white paint; a man who could change the color of anything with a simple touch needn’t spend money on pigments. Cuthbert Ogden hunched on a stool just shy of the center of the room, surrounded by two lamps and three candles, delicately placing snow on the tiles of a manor he’d painted on a canvas half as tall as he was. There was something comforting about seeing him working like that, something familiar, something safe. Elsie needed those kinds of somethings in her life. “You’ll need glasses if you keep squinting by candlelight.” She picked up a nearly extinguished candle and set it closer to his work. “I am young and hale yet.” His low voice seemed to creep along the floorboards. “Hale, yes,” Elsie said, and her employer glanced over to her, his turquoise eyes sparkling in the light. His dark brows crooked in a mock disapproving manner.

“Fifty-four is not old,” he quipped. “Fifty-five is.” Ogden paused, nearly touching his paintbrush to his lips in thought. “I’m not fifty-five, am I?” “You turned fifty-five in February.” “I turned fifty-four.” Elsie sighed and tried to hide the smile on her lips. “Mr. Ogden. You were born in 1840, the same day the queen married Prince Albert. You brag about it to everyone.

” Ogden’s lip quirked. “I’m sure they married in 1841.” “Now you’re just being difficult.” She stepped up behind him, avoiding a lamp, and surveyed the painting. Ogden had managed to make a gray winter sky look cheery. A heavy wreath with red ribbon on the front door denoted Christmas. Snow at the top of the house, the chimney, the bottom two corners. Ogden had a strange thing about adding details at the edges of the canvas first before moving in toward the center. “Does it snow often in Manchester?” Ogden shook his head. “No, but it was the client’s request.

” “Christmas is seven months away yet. Seven and a half.” “But I will need to put this away and look at it again in a few weeks.” Ogden’s eyes stayed on the painting, squinting and scrutinizing. “And then have you take it to the framer’s. That will take up another month, and then if they request corrections . you know how it goes. How was your evening?” Elsie shrugged. “Uneventful. A long walk and some window browsing.

” Ogden stuck his pinky finger in the white paint on the palette in his off-hand. Elsie felt the spell as it sparked out of him, and the white brightened until it nearly glowed. He was a physical aspector, but not a very strong one. Strength in aspecting varied from person to person, although it seemed to be bestowed at random, not by genetics. The spells Ogden knew were all novice level. Spells that made only slight changes to the physical world around him—like changing the color of paint. Ogden didn’t seem to mind, though. Enough for an artist to get by. He’d told her that himself on more than one occasion. Elsie watched him dip his brush and touch its fine tip to the eaves of the manor and the leaves of a tree on the grounds.

It looked like real snow. With artistic talent such as his, Ogden didn’t need powerful magic. He worked for a few more minutes before putting the brush down. “Would you help me clean up?” Elsie picked up one of the candles, shielding its flame with her cupped hand. “I’m expecting Nash,” he added. “Is he staying for dinner?” Elsie asked. Ogden shook his head. “Have Emmeline set a plate aside for me, would you?” Nodding, Elsie carried the candle to a nearby table, then gathered the lamps and stuck them on the counter. She blew out the remaining candles—no point in wasting them. Ogden rinsed his brush and carefully carried the easel holding his latest work to the corner; Elsie rolled up the stained tarp underfoot.

Even as she did so, she knew it was pointless. First thing tomorrow Ogden would be in the same spot, doing the same work, but she strived to make herself useful. Had strived for it these last nine years, ever since she’d advanced from being a scullery maid for a pompous jackanapes. Elsie brushed off her hands and took the still-lit candle down the hall with her. Movement on the stairs made her gasp and set her heart racing. “Emmeline!” Her whisper was nearly a hiss. “Why are you skulking about in the shadows?” The maid, four years younger than Elsie at seventeen, darted her dark eyes over the railing. “Is he here yet?” “Who?” She licked her lips. “Nash.” The name was barely audible.

Elsie rolled her eyes. “Not yet, and don’t worry, he’s not staying for dinner. Ogden said to leave his plate for him.” Emmeline nodded, but fear tightened her face. She was always uneasy around Ogden’s messenger boy. Why, Elsie didn’t know. He was a tall man, yes, but so slight a strong wind might snap his torso like a twig. That, and he was an abundantly pleasant fellow; he always had a grin on his face and a bounce to his step. He wasn’t crude or cruel—indeed, although he rarely spoke to Elsie and Emmeline, he was unfailingly kind when he did so. Emmeline shifted, and the stair creaked underfoot.

“Would you set the table with me?” Elsie let out a long breath through her nose. “Really, Emmeline.” “Why does he always come at night?” she asked, defensive. “Because he has other clients? Because that’s when Ogden is ready for him? And he doesn’t always.” “Often,” the maid countered. “Often at night. There’s a look to him, Els. I don’t like it.” Oh, Elsie knew it well. Emmeline had always been wary of Abel Nash, from her first day in Ogden’s household.

It was an odd reaction to a man who was reasonably attractive and had a rather cheery disposition. Elsie had teased her about it, once, asking if the true reason for her interest in the blond errand boy was a hidden affection, but Emmeline had responded so coldly that Elsie dared not mention it again. Ogden was more likely to court the man than Emmeline was. Elsie’s shoulders drooped. “Yes, I’ll help you.” Emmeline looked so relieved she might have fainted. “Thank you. I’ll serve you breakfast first tomorrow.”

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