The letters shift and settle, and I let the rumble of the engine, the hot sweaty stink of the air fall away. I follow the words, fast as rats, my finger tracing their tails:
This little boy—let’s call him Caleb Dunning, for that was indeed his name—was born in a storm, two weeks before he was due to come screaming into the world. Perhaps the thunder and lightning, the infernal rocking, they frightened him early from the womb. Or perhaps, Caleb just knew that he had to arrive on that exact date and no other.
It was in September, just as the ship was coming in to the Cape of Storms, that Caleb opened eyes like slate and saw the world around him. Born on water, a space made of potential. His parents hurried him ashore, swaddled in sea-salt cloth and trailing magic like smoke. Unaware, of course, just what it was they cradled to themselves.
He lived first in a Victorian house in Green Point, a house shared by several families. His father was an engineer and decided that he would better support his family working on the gold fields of Johannesburg, so when Caleb was three years old, his father packed up his wife and his sullen dark child and bundled them onto the train.
Caleb doesn’t remember that train journey that took him from his cradle, but there are others who do.
It was the middle of a war and people were blinded to magic.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that magic couldn’t still see people.
In 1943, Caleb Dunning was pure magic, although no-one normal would have noticed.
Unfortunately for our hero, the man who was travelling in the compartment next to the Dunnings was far from normal. He was grey and old, having lived through more wars than he cared to remember, and he was going to Johannesburg to die. Because that was fitting for a man who had been alive for longer than he should have and whose magic had grown thin and dusty. He had spent years stealing and eating magic and he couldn’t even remember what it was like to use magic that was actually his. Now the last of his stolen magic was fading, and he was tired.
This old man—and we shall call him Mr Henry, because we don’t know his true name and Mr Henry is as good a name as any—could feel the tug of the magic that came from the Dunning’s compartment, and he positioned himself outside the door, that he might catch a glimpse of the powerful magician who was travelling with him. It had been a long time since he had eaten magic such as this, and the tiredness lifted from him as he plotted, and slow aching hunger woke again in his belly, reminding him of all he had been, could be again. He would have to be careful, he told himself, going head to head with a magician as powerful as the one behind the train door. He would need to use charm and trickery, pretend subservience. He knocked, and was allowed to enter.
Mr Henry was stunned when he realised that the power concentrated in the tiny cabin came not from the moustachioed and stern Mr Dunning Snr or his sallow and tired-looking wife, but from the little child who sat with his pale legs sticking straight out, and who sucked his thumb, despite his age, and who had a wild and woolly look in his eyes.
Like an obstinate sheep, Mr Henry had thought at the time. He had introduced himself as an artist and writer, which the Dunnings had rather sniffed at, and then pointed out that it was only now that he was retired that he wasted time on such fripperies. Before that, he said, he’d been a scientist; a biologist, in fact.
Which was not a lie. Magic is alive, and Mr Henry had studied it all his life.
At this, the Dunnings were mollified, and invited him to share their tea.
“Good day, young man,” Mr Henry had said to the unsmiling child. The golden art radiated off him, an aura so bright that Mr Henry could only look at him sidelong for fear of burning out his retinas.
Magic sucked at him, pulled at him, called to him.
And Mr Henry smiled.
He offered to tell the boy a tale, and the Dunnings, who were good parents, were still somewhat relieved because nothing is quite as annoying as being cooped up on a train with a small and sulky child.
So Mr Henry told Caleb Dunning a story, or rather he told it to him as best he remembered it, and he had to weave very little magic into it, because, as we all know, stories have their own magic.
Many years ago, he said, in a little town called Hemel, in Germany, there was a great invasion of rats.
I drop the book to pull a cigarette from my pack.
At the thump, Caleb turns and glares at me. “I thought you were looking out for rats?”
“I am.” The flame flickers, and I breathe deep. Now that I have my mother’s sight, it’s pretty clear that Caleb is far from a glowing beacon of magicness swathed in bright gold; I guess Heinrich helped himself. So Caleb thinks he can get his magic back too, and use me to do it. I wonder just how much magic he has left. Certainly, he had enough to keep himself alive when that taxi should have killed him, enough to freeze me in place when he needed to. Enough to cast a spell over my best friend.
“I thought we were all looking for rats,” I say. “Or were you two so wrapped up in each other you forgot?”
Rain shakes his head and laughs, the fingers of his one hand curled even deeper into Caleb’s dark hair. “Never mind,” he says. “Irene’s eyesight is crap anyway.”
I stick my tongue out at him, then shift my attention back to Caleb. Maybe it’s not really him, maybe this story is about some other Caleb Dunning, and this one’s got all his magic and he’s heading after Heinrich out of the goodness of his heart, to help his fellow magicians.
Oh, who am I kidding.
I need to ask anyway. “Were you—” I pause, wondering how to phrase this. “How old were you when you moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg?”
“Around three, I suspect, maybe four.” He doesn’t turn to look at me again, just watches the road. “I never mentioned that I came from Cape Town,” he says.
“Um. No, but—”
“I’m trying to drive.”
“Fine.” Whatever. I slump in my seat and relight my cig. “Rain?” I offer the pack and he takes one. He has to disentangle himself from the ageing goth in order to light his, which can only be a good thing. If Caleb is as weak as I suspect he might be, I wonder just how long he can hold that charm for anyway. As soon as I work out how to detect it, I’ll snap it.
I try not to think about how exactly Caleb’s planning on using my magic to take out his old buddy Heinrich. No point stressing about more crap than I have to. I take a deep drag, and let the smoke calm me. I lean forward so I can ash out the front window, and pick up the book again.
Many years ago in a little town called Hemel, in Germany, there was a great invasion of rats.
The rats were as big as terriers, and first they ate all the dogs that the townspeople sent down the rat holes, and then they ate the cats that waited in the kitchens.
They bred in dark corners and no poison the people put down seemed to make any difference to their numbers. The rats were bold as new brass, running down the street even during the day, eating the grain in the stores, the sausages hung to cure. They ate the vegetables straight out of the earth and suckled at the udders of the goats.
It didn’t take long before the townspeople were starving, and the rats too.
With all the food gone, the rats first ate the dead; the old people turned out of their houses, the poor who had no money to import expensive food from the surrounding towns. Then, when all the dead had been chewed down to their bones, and even those bones had been plundered of any scrap of marrow, the rats turned to the babies.
It was a terrible time, Mr Henry said to his wide-eyed charge, as he wove a subtle hook of enchantment into the shining skein of the boy’s golden art. A terrible time.
Starving men sat by their children’s cribs with their muskets loaded, and did what they could to fight off these rat demons. The mothers kept their brooms ready, their pans ready, their rolling pins ready. The village girls learned to shoot stones from slingshots.
The townspeople were at their wits’ end.
At just the worst moment in the history of Hemel, a man walked down the broad main street, and with the man came magic.
Now, this man was a strange fellow dressed in a coat of rags, and he wore a wide-brimmed hat that he pulled low over his eyes. At first glance, his coat was a patched affair of duns and rusts and ditch-water dirt, but when he moved, the poor starved folk of Hemel swore they saw flashes of colour shining through the filth. Red and gold and coppers, polished and gleaming in the last rays of the setting sun.
Mr Henry, having caught the tail end of the boy’s magic, began to carefully wind it between his fingers, like a woman will unspin a cocoon, gentle and deadly. The gossamer thread was reeled in to grow a ball of magic. Mr Henry had to make his movements very small, almost unnoticeable.
The boy, if he ever realised what he was, could have turned him to dust with a word. But, of course, being so small, so very very young and alone, with no witchery to guide him, Caleb Dunning hadn’t yet realised how different he was from most people. Mr. Henry kept talking, his voice pitched low, keeping the boy’s attention only on his words.
The strange man with his coat of colours walked straight to the mayor’s office, stepping over the backs of the rats as nimble as you please, and the people watched him in a hush.
“Sir Mayor,” he said to the man who had once been fat and oily as a dumpling, but whose skin now hung in grey folds on his withered frame. “I do believe that you and your fine town are experiencing something of a rat problem.”
Since the rats where everywhere, eating the papers in their files, and the last stumps of wax out of the candelabra, there wasn’t much the Mayor could do at this but nod.
“I,” and here the man flourished his ragged cloak, “have the solution.”
Hard as it was for the Mayor of Hemel to believe that this rag-tag man could be of any help, he was ready to grasp at any straw, no matter how weak and yellow. “Is that so?” he said. “And how would you go about doing this?”
The magician pulled a long golden pipe from under his cloak, and trilled a few high notes. The rats in the mayor’s office stilled. Slowly, as one, they turned to him, standing on their hind legs, their noses twitching, whiskers vibrating. “I will make them dance,” he said. “And I will dance them away.”
Now, it was very obviously magic that the strange man was using. The magician, whose name was Heinrich, although he never told the mayor that—
“Why not?” asked the child, who had removed his thumb just long enough to question.
“Because a magician never tells people his full name.”
The boy considered this, then nodded for Mr Henry to continue. Already the aura about him had begun to thin, pale, and the knot of magic in Mr Henry’s hands had grown fatter and brighter. Caleb Dunning, if he noticed this new phenomenon, said nothing of it. Perhaps he was still young enough to think it was a normal sight. Perhaps he knew that pointing out odd things to his parents, to any adults, would lead only to a leather strap across his legs. It was better to not see some things, even at such a young age Caleb Dunning had learned that.
Did Heinrich take all of Caleb’s magic? I pause to look up. This time I squint and concentrate, willing to see the golden halo of his magical aura.
Nothing. There’s a faint smudging to the air around him, like he’s a charcoal sketch that someone’s gone and ran their finger down, that’s all. I look down at my own hands and for a minute, I see an echo-image of myself, like there’s two of me, or I’ve drunk so much that I’m seeing double. I wave my hand in front of my eyes, and watch the flickering gold of the after-image chase my fingers.
I stop concentrating and the image fades. Caleb Dunning. It’s his full name, I know that like I know my own name, and I say it softly, rolling the syllables over my tongue like small pebbles. Does this mean I have power over him? Or that he has power over me? After all, he knows my full name, too. It seems strange, that power could rest in such a small stupid thing as knowing the right order of a bunch of sounds. That names can do that. And if we know Heinrich’s first name, does that mean we have a little power over him too—or does it have to be all his names? “Caleb Dunning,” I whisper it so softly I can’t even hear it. He doesn’t flinch or flicker, but I think that maybe the smudgy aura about him does. Or maybe I just blinked.
Caleb and Rain are so engrossed in each other and in watching the road that they don’t notice me staring.
I breathe deep, try sort through the facts I think I have. Caleb has magic, it’s true. I’ve seen him use it. But just how much does he have left? Maybe I’m important to him not because together our magic will defeat Heinrich, but because he basically has none, and I’m the one here with the power. Caleb seems to think I’m some kind of magician. Dammit, even Lily thinks so.
I swallow. Please, let me be wrong. I don’t have any idea how to use whatever magic is inside me, and if Caleb’s counting on me, well, we’re screwed. My mother, lying on her bed like a sacrifice on an altar. The memory flickers through my conscious like a fish in deep water, and I swallow hard. My mother was powerful once, that much at least I know. She knew she was a magician and she knew what she was doing. And look what it got her. I don’t even have a fucking clue about anything and I’m supposed to do better than her? Caleb’s got a shock coming his way if he thinks my magic is the answer.
Unless he’s planning on having me beat the guy to death with my mother’s book. Which is always an option, I suppose. I flick my fingers along the edge of the thin book. It could take a while.
Maybe I should just invest in a gas cannister to haul around with me.
But the story is still waiting, and maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance I’ll read that Caleb pulled all his magic back, that the little boy on the train knew what was going on and in the end, everyone gets what’s coming to them.
I look down at the words swimming on the page.
Even though the mayor didn’t want much to do with magic, he also knew that within a week the rats would turn on the few people left in Hemel and eat them alive. “How much do you want for this?” he asked, because Mayors are generally rather concerned with what this and that is going to cost them, and just how much they can skim off for themselves.
“Oh, a coin for every rat, I should think, will be more than sufficient.”
“A thousand copper—”
The mayor puffed up what little of his flabby leftover body he could. “Oh come now, my good man,” he said. “A thousand gold coins! That’s a steep price indeed.”
Heinrich only raised one bushy brow, and stared at the mayor down his long and somewhat beaky nose.
The Mayor deflated. “It will be done,” he said. “When can you start?”
“Tonight,” said Heinrich as he glanced out at the sun setting red behind the distant mountains. “I shall begin tonight.”
The pompous mayor gave Heinrich a dry piece of black bread, with the edges well-gnawed, and a cup of water, then thanked him and left to go and gather the money from the townspeople.
In the meeting of elders, the Mayor called for attention. He clapped his hands together, and the town leaders stopped from stamping their feet at the creeping rats, and flicking them with lashes and thin branches.
When all eyes, including, he noticed, the beady eyes of the rats, were on him, the mayor announced that he had found them a saviour who would get rid of every last rat and ratlet in Hemel, and all for the low price of only one thousand and two hundred pieces of gold.
The extra two hundred, he failed to point out, was to line his own coffers.
First everyone gasped in shock and then, nodding sagely, agreed that even that ridiculous sum was worth it to be free from the plague of rats. After all, one does not quibble over the cost of your life, or your child’s.