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Black Swans and White Mice

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On the upside, Mildred thought, there wasn’t much chance this could be her fault.

She lay in the unnerving darkness, trying to ignore her pounding heart and puzzle out what had happened in the last few seconds.

She’d had detention. She’d been remaking the potion she’d failed to make properly in class earlier on. She’d called Miss Hardbroom over to test it once she’d finished. And then...

And then the floor had disappeared beneath her feet with a loud creak, and for a second she’d been falling, screaming, and then there had been a firm pressure – a hand tight around her wrist – and several echoing thumps very close, like something heavy bouncing off a trampoline. And then she’d come to a stop – had she still been falling, then? – and the hand around her wrist had gone away, and now here she was in the dark.

She definitely hadn’t done anything to make this happen. It had only been a colour-changing potion, and nobody had even tasted it yet.

‘Mildred?’

She jumped. ‘Miss Hardbroom?’

There was a flicker of light, and Mildred let herself breathe again. It grew stronger, illuminating Miss Hardbroom’s face, dusty and framed by wisps of hair that had escaped from her bun. The light was a softly glowing ball in her palm, but she let it go and it floated upward and brightened a little to reveal... what?

Mildred sat up and looked around. They were inside a small, perfect sphere of chunks of stone and bits of rubble. Odd.

‘Are you all right?’ Miss Hardbroom asked. ‘Are you hurt?’

Mildred thought about it for a second, wiggled her hands and feet. ‘Nope,’ she said. ‘Are you?’

‘No.’

‘Where are we?’

‘Somewhere underneath the school. I can only assume that the third years had an accident with the vanishing potion they made earlier and neglected to tell me. My classroom floor was perfectly sound this morning.’

She looked around again. The sphere around them, too regular to be natural... the debris above their heads, like it was suspended...

‘We’re inside a protection spell,’ she said.

‘Indeed.’

She sounded grudgingly impressed that Mildred had identified it.

‘Are we safe, then?’

‘... Yes.’ She frowned, not meeting Mildred’s eyes. ‘For now.’

‘For now?’

‘I can keep the protection spell up for quite some time, and Miss Cackle is bound to notice when I don’t come to her office for tea in a while, and someone will come and... retrieve us. There’s nothing to worry about.’

Maybe it was just the way everything sounded weird and echoey in here, but it seemed like Miss Hardbroom’s voice was a tiny bit shaky.

‘So you can’t just magic us back up there?’ Mildred asked.

‘If I could, I would have already done so,’ Miss Hardbroom snapped. ‘I can’t maintain the number of spells required simultaneously, not with this much weight bearing down on the protection spell.’

‘Sorry,’ said Mildred.

They fell silent for a minute. Mildred couldn’t believe her luck – of all the teachers to be stuck with! Miss Cackle would have been nice and reassuring, and Miss Drill would probably have found a way to make the wait fun. Miss Bat would have told entertaining stories about witching history or something.

Miss Hardbroom, however, was sitting with her knees pulled up to her chest and her arms wrapped around her knees – there wasn’t that much space inside the spell – and she kept drumming her fingers, the same pattern over and over. She looked distinctly unhappy. Every few seconds she glanced upward and frowned.

‘You’re not claustrophobic, are you?’ asked Mildred. ‘My friend Haresh at my old school was claustrophobic and he went to a counsellor and it helped a lot.’

‘I’m not claustrophobic,’ said Miss Hardbroom, and Mildred could almost hear the you silly girl trapped unsaid behind her gritted teeth. ‘I merely... dislike uncertainty.’

‘Sorry,’ said Mildred.

For a while all she could hear was their breathing and Miss Hardbroom’s fingers drumming.

‘If we don’t get rescued soon, I don’t know if I’m going to have time to finish my homework for tomorrow,’ she said at last, for something to say.

‘That’s unfortunate,’ Miss Hardbroom said. ‘You’ll need to have looked up the properties of the list of ingredients I gave you before tomorrow’s lesson, or you won’t understand what’s going on.’

‘You could tell me now,’ suggested Mildred. ‘That way I won’t get behind.’

Miss Hardbroom considered it for a moment. ‘It would be a productive use of time while we wait,’ she agreed.

Teaching Mildred the new ingredients seemed to cheer Miss Hardbroom up a bit. After a minute she sat crosslegged instead of all hunched up, and her voice got less shaky the more she talked. They went through the list, and when they had finished she tested Mildred on what she’d remembered, which was about half of it.

‘We’ll go through the list again,’ she said, and they repeated the process.

Without anything else to do, it was actually pretty interesting to hear about the various ingredients and their uses. Miss Hardbroom knew much more than the textbook included – not only could she list a dozen uses for an ingredient off the top of her head, she knew when it had first been used, where it grew, and how to prepare or preserve it.

‘Henbane can be used in many spells,’ she told Mildred, ‘but the only ones you need to know about are minor healing potions.’

‘But what are the other ones?’ Mildred asked, feeling bold.

‘As I just said, you don’t need to know about them.’

‘But why not?’

Miss Hardbroom glared. ‘Most of the potions it’s used in are either illegal or frowned upon,’ she said. ‘I do have reasons when I tell you not to do things, Mildred.’

‘I’m not going to try to make any of them!’ Mildred protested.

Miss Hardbroom huffed, like she didn’t believe it.

‘The spells that use henbane are generally intended for personal gain,’ she said, grudgingly. ‘For example, combined with certain other ingredients it can be used to enhance sporting performance, which would give you an unfair advantage. As you hopefully know by now, magic performed for personal gain is against the Witches’ Code.’

‘But, isn’t all magic for personal gain, really?’ Mildred asked. ‘Like, why else do it if you don’t want something to happen that helps you in some way?’

She braced for another lecture about how she would never truly understand what it meant to be a witch, but Miss Hardbroom just sighed.

‘If people could agree about that,’ she said, ‘there would be a lot fewer amendments and additions to the Witches’ Code.’

‘Really?’

‘Witches have debated the question ever since the Code came into being,’ said Miss Hardbroom. ‘Most people broadly agree that the important thing is not to use magic for your own gain at the expense of others. For example, a... hair-curling spell may be frivolous, but it hurts nobody and takes nothing away from anyone, except that it depletes the energy of the witch performing it, the same as all spells do. But if you performed a spell to… win a broomstick race, say, then you would be competing under false pretences. And of course there are much more serious types of spells, like spells that conjure riches or manipulate people into doing things that benefit you. Different witches, different covens, have different ideas of what counts as personal gain, and which kinds of spells are acceptable.’

‘So how do you know what’s allowed and what’s not?’

‘Certain spells and behaviour are specifically prohibited or encouraged by the Code,’ said Miss Hardbroom. ‘But mainly the responsibility lies with the individual witch. Each of us must use our own judgement when it comes to the magic we use, and we must be prepared to accept the consequences of the spells we perform, for good or ill.’

‘There’s so much to think about,’ said Mildred. ‘When I first came here, it seemed like you could do anything with magic. But the more I find out about it, the more complicated it is.’

‘You’re learning, Mildred Hubble,’ said Miss Hardbroom. She opened her watch, looked at the time, tutted. ‘In a few minutes,’ she said, ‘we may have to start thinking about getting ourselves out of here.’

‘I thought you said there were too many spells to maintain...’

‘There are.' 

‘So...?’

Miss Hardbroom half-smiled in a way that looked almost apologetic. ‘It’s quite dangerous. I would have preferred to wait for rescue but I’m not sure how much longer I can keep the... Well. In order to perform the transference spell, I’ll have to drop the protection spell, but it’s... honestly, I’m not entirely sure I can do it fast enough to transfer us out before the protection spell collapses. But if I don’t do it soon, I won’t have enough power left to transfer us both.’

‘Couldn’t I help?’ asked Mildred. ‘I know I’m not very good but, wouldn’t my power make a bit of a difference?’

Miss Hardbroom shook her head. ‘You’ll need your power,’ she said. ‘I’m keeping the air in here breathable with a respiration spell. I’ll have to drop that too to attempt the transference spell, so before we try it I want you to start a respiration spell of your own. That way, if it doesn’t work, you’ll still be able to breathe.’

‘All right…’ said Mildred.

Miss Hardbroom taught her the incantation, and made her practice the words several times in a row before actually activating the spell.

‘Now, concentrate,’ she said. ‘Take a few slow, deep breaths, feel your magic, draw it to the surface, then begin.’

Mildred spoke the incantation and felt the respiration spell come to life, a soft breeze around her face and shoulders. For the first few seconds she had to concentrate to keep it going, but once it settled she could maintain it and still pay attention to what was going on.

‘Good,’ said Miss Hardbroom. ‘Whatever else happens, keep hold of that spell. Do you understand?’

‘Yes...’ said Mildred, with a sinking feeling.

‘Now, come over here.’

Mildred scooted across the floor, closer to Miss Hardbroom.

Right here,’ said Miss Hardbroom, and she guided Mildred to sit in her lap, the way she had with her mum when she was little. Her head leaned forward over Mildred’s.

‘You think it’s not going to work!’ said Mildred. ‘You think we’re going to be stuck here, and all the rocks will fall on us, and maybe if I have a respiration spell and you lie on top of me so the rocks don’t hit me then I might not die.’

She felt Miss Hardbroom tense.

‘It’s nice to see that you can pay attention when you want to,’ she said, without venom.

‘But...’

‘Don’t worry about me,’ said Miss Hardbroom. ‘A witch is hard to kill.’

‘Then so am I!’

‘But you’re also my student, and it’s my job to protect you. Come on now. Respiration spell still working? It’s time.’

Mildred braced herself, but at that moment there was a muffled yell from above, and a chink of light filtered through from above as the rubble began to lift away.

The sound Miss Hardbroom made could have been a choked sob, but by the time Mildred turned around to look, her face was composed.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘here they come. Nothing to worry about after all.’

And there really wasn’t. After another few moments the circle of light above them widened enough to show Miss Cackle and several other teachers peering down on them from a great distance, and a few moments after that the entire bubble of their protection spell was rising towards the light, and then all of a sudden they were back in the potions lab. The spell around them burst like a soap bubble, leaving them sitting on the floor.

‘She’s all right, we’re all right!’ Miss Hardbroom half-shouted over the five people asking at once.

Miss Bat helped Mildred up and held her at arms’ length to examine her, while Miss Drill cast a spell to temporarily cover the great big hole in the floor. Out of the corner of her eye Mildred could see Miss Hardbroom shuffle to sit against a pillar and close her eyes. Miss Cackle reached down and squeezed her shoulder, then came over to Mildred.

‘Mildred, are you hurt at all?’

‘I’m fine!’ Mildred said, even though her legs felt a bit like jelly.

Miss Cackle pulled her into a brief, tight hug. ‘I want you to go to the sanatorium anyway,’ she said. ‘Just to make absolutely sure.’

‘I’ll take her,’ said Miss Bat. ‘And perhaps we can find you some hot, sweet tea for the shock? You’ve been very brave.’

As Miss Bat herded her out, Mildred looked back to check on Miss Hardbroom – she was still leaning against the pillar, eyes tightly closed. Miss Cackle sat down beside her and took her hand, and then the door shut behind Mildred and she followed Miss Bat down the corridor.

* * *

The school nurse pronounced Mildred entirely healthy, Miss Bat plied her with tea and biscuits, the other girls clamoured to hear the story as many times as Mildred could bear to tell it, and by bedtime she was starting to feel like it had actually all been pretty exciting.

There was a knock on her door as she brushed her hair before bed, and when she called for them to come in it was not Maud and Enid but Miss Hardbroom who entered.

‘I just thought I’d make sure you’d suffered no ill effects from our little... misadventure,’ she said.

‘I was a bit wobbly at first, but I’m fine now,’ said Mildred. ‘Are you all right?’

‘You did very well,’ said Miss Hardbroom, like she hadn’t heard Mildred’s question. ‘You stayed calm and you did a good job with the respiration spell.’

‘I should say thank you,’ said Mildred. ‘For the protection spell. You probably saved my life.’

‘That’s my job.’

‘I know, but thank you. Really.’

Miss Hardbroom smiled.

‘You’re welcome,’ she said. ‘Now, lights out. In the circumstances I think we can consider your detention complete even though I never got the chance to test your potion, but now that I’ve seen how well you learned those ingredients, I’ll expect you to be on top form in class tomorrow morning.’

‘Yes, Miss Hardbroom.’

She turned to leave.

‘Miss Hardbroom?’

‘Yes?’

‘What about the third-years who made the potion?’

‘Detention, every night for a month,’ Miss Hardbroom said. ‘And an essay from each of them on basic potion safety. And from now on they will work at the very front of the class, where I can keep an eye on them. I would have liked to turn them all into frogs, but Miss Cackle believes that would be excessive.’

Something happened next that Mildred had never seen before and never expected to again. Miss Hardbroom winked.

‘Goodnight, Mildred Hubble,’ she said.

Then she turned and disappeared, so quickly that Mildred wondered if she had imagined it.