It was a gloriously sunny day at Cackle’s Academy. The temperature had been climbing for the past few weeks, and had finally reached such heights that Miss Cackle had thrown up her hands and declared that the girls could have the afternoon off. And then after a few stern words from Hecate, she had made a further, subsequent announcement that the girls could use their half day to replenish the stock of the potions’ cupboard.
But regardless the majority of the girls made their way down to the lake at the edge of the grounds, peeled off the thick woollen tights that Academy lore forced on them even in June, and waded in the shallows, laughing and splashing and skimming their brooms on the surface as they flew low over the water.
Hecate surveyed the cacophony of girls, trying to school her face into a mask of disapproval, but unable to prevent a feeling of fondness from creeping into her gaze, even as her fingers twitched watching Felicity Foxglove dangle from her broom by her knees, and Beatrice Bunch sneak up behind Sybil Hallow and startle her so badly that the girl tumbled shrieking from her perch at the edge into the water.
She had made a grudging promise to Ada to turn a blind eye to misbehaviour that afternoon – and whilst the thought of doing so would normally raise her hackles like nothing else, she found to her surprise that she didn’t mind so much. After watching frost creep over the school like mildew, and seeing girls’ skin turn blue then white then disappear under layers of ice, there was something in watching them cavort about so ridiculously that made her heart contract a little in her chest.
Hecate felt a head brush her elbow.
‘Sorry Miss Hardbroom!’
‘Sorry Miss Hardbroom!’
Maud Spellbody and Enid Nightshade sprinted past her, Enid grabbing Maud’s hand as they ran full pelt into the lake, Maud squeaking at the cold water. Remembering her promise to Ada, Hecate bit back a rebuke and contented herself by rolling her eyes at the pair of them.
And then a thought occurred to her. A quick survey around the lake with narrowed eyes confirmed her suspicions, and with a twist of her fingers she materialised behind the two girls.
‘Maud Spellbody, and Enid Nightshade,’ she drawled, watching with enjoyment as both girls jumped about a foot in the air. They turned around.
‘Yes Miss Hardbroom?’
‘Just the two of you out today, girls?’ She arched an eyebrow as Maud squirmed, glancing nervously at Enid, who raised an eyebrow cheekily back at Hecate.
‘Yes.’ She put her arm around Maud and pulled her into a half hug. ‘We’re taking some time for ourselves.’ Hecate bit back a laugh, her lips quirking upwards into a smirk.
‘So if I were to transfer to wherever Mildred Hubble has chosen to pass her half-holiday, I would not find her embarking on yet another egregious violation of school rules?’
‘Err…’ Hecate didn’t wait for the inevitable excuse. With another twist of her hand she was gone.
Whilst pleased with the dramatic effect she was able to have, in hindsight Hecate really should have known better than to blindly transfer to Mildred Hubble’s location. She found herself knee-deep in the old pond, Mildred Hubble standing opposite her open-mouthed, covered head to toe in pondweed.
The girl at least had the good grace to look a bit sheepish.
‘Oh, hello Miss Hardbroom. What are you doing here?'
‘I might well ask the same question of you, Mildred Hubble. Hecate grimaced, transferring them both from the pond. Mildred pulled a newt out of her pinafore cheerfully.
‘Oh you know, just collecting frog gloop. Minding my own business. Watching the sky – er, the sky…reflected in the pond.’
Hecate rolled her eyes. She sometimes wondered whether Mildred Hubble truly didn’t realise what a terrible liar she was.
‘And then you decided to take an impromptu bath, fully clothed, I imagine?’ She asked, drily. Mildred looked down at her sodden clothing as if seeing it for the first time.
‘Oh yeah. Errr…’ She closed her eyes, waved a hand and blasted herself with a wave of hot air so violently that had Hecate not reached out to steady her she might well have been blown right back into the pond.
‘Mildred Hubble.’ She ground out, looking more ferocious than ever in an attempt not to laugh. ‘Unless you wish to spend the rest of your half-holiday writing out I must not tell ridiculous lies to my form mistress a thousand times over, I recommend that you tell me precisely what you were up to, so that I can embark on mitigating the damage.’
Mildred hesitated, and then nodded, scuffing her shoes on the ground.
‘Okay, but what you’ve got to understand Miss Hardbroom – I didn’t mean to at first.’
‘Of course not.’ Hecate muttered almost to herself.’
‘I just – I keep getting these weird bursts of energy where I just want to…I don’t know, lap the castle a hundred times, or one time I beat the computer at Just Dance, even. And then I was in my room trying to distract myself, and I was thinking about how I wanted to be down at the lake, and…’ She gestured around her. ‘I ended up here! I mean it’s not the lake, but I must have transferred.’
Hecate nodded as the girl paused for breath, well able to imagine the situation.
‘It’s an excess of magical energy.’ She explained. ‘It occurs when the magical power you exercise becomes greater than the constraints you have over it. If you’re not more careful, Mildred Hubble, you’ll exhaust yourself.’ Mildred frowned.
‘Is it normal, then?’
Hecate regarded the girl carefully.
‘Magical exhaustion is itself not uncommon.’ She said finally, tracing her fingers around her watch. ‘Sudden bursts of magical energy are of a somewhat rarer character. But they are nothing that can’t be handled, with a little discipline and control.’
She said the last part severely, but Mildred seemed to be lost in thought.
‘So if I learnt to actually transfer properly, that could be a good way of controlling it, couldn’t it?’
She looked up at Hecate hopefully. Too hopefully. Hecate grasped her meaning and her eyes widened.
‘If you are asking me to teach you to transfer, Mildred Hubble, then the answer is a categorical no.’
‘But why? Mildred pleaded. With a pointed gesture, Hecate pulled a large tendril of pondweed out of one of the girl’s plaits.
‘Can you tell me the recommended age for transference without a potion, Mildred?’ Mildred’s shoulders slumped a little.
‘Sixteen, Miss Hardbroom.’ She said, sadly.
‘And can you tell me your own age?’
‘Thirteen. But Miss Hardbroom if it would help me control my magic…’
‘Mildred Hubble.’ Hecate intoned, eyes flashing as she loomed over the girl. ‘You have, without a doubt, been the single most troublesome presence at Cackle’s in my career as a teacher here. I spend most of my day either in detention with you, or looking for you to put you in detention. The mere thought of you learning to move around the castle using magic before you reach an age where I might expect the barest modicum of responsibility or common sense in doing so is one that would not only send me into early retirement, but quite possibly into an early grave. Have I made myself clear?’
‘Yes Miss Hardbroom.’ To Hecate’s dismay, Mildred looked quite unfazed. ‘Do I have detention?’
Hecate considered it – she was sorely tempted, it had to be said. But mindful of the promise she had made to Ada, she contented herself by saying,
‘I suggest you join your miscreant friends by the lake, Mildred Hubble. And if I catch you attempting to transfer, Mildred Hubble, the consequences will be…beyond imagination.’
‘Yes Miss Hardbroom.’ Mildred nodded vigorously. And looking entirely too cheerful, Mildred picked the final strand of pondweed out of her hair and ran in the direction of the lake.
Over the next week Hecate grew increasingly on edge.
She never managed to catch Mildred Hubble at it – but there could be no denying that the girl was turning up in increasingly odd places. It was not exactly unusual for Mildred Hubble to be found in the art cupboard or the herb garden – or even the roof. It was when Hecate was walking down the corridor and felt the sudden transfer of magical energy into a nearby suit of armour, even before she heard muffled cries for help, that she decided enough was enough. She snapped her fingers and Mildred Hubble materialised in front of her.
‘This has to stop, Mildred Hubble.’ Hecate seethed, glaring at her pupil. Mildred tried to look innocent.
‘What has to, Miss Hardbroom?’ Hecate was about to levitate with rage, when she took in Mildred Hubble for the first time. The girl was hopping from foot to foot, sparks lingering around her fingers.
‘Alright, steady.’ Suddenly serious, she placed a hand on one of Mildred’s shoulders. ‘You cannot continue exerting so much force when you have these bursts of energy. You will do yourself a serious injury.’
‘I can’t help it.’ Mildred gasped, even her speech seemingly quicker. ‘It’s got so much worse this last few weeks – I need to get rid of it.’
Hecate groaned. Knowing she would come to regret this deeply, she looked the girl in the eye.
‘Can you feel the energy in your fingertips?’ She asked. Mildred nodded. ‘Good. Bring your hands in front of you, and imagine the energy travelling down your wrists and up your arms.’
Mildred nodded, brow furrowed in deep concentration.
'Now focus on the spot down the corridor, twist your wrist and imagine the magic moving from your arms to the rest of your body. Ready?'
Mildred nodded, practically vibrating with energy.
‘Alright. Now.’ With a gasp, Mildred squeezed her eyes shut, twisted her wrist and moved – well a good deal further down the corridor than Hecate had told her to travel, but in the vicinity nonetheless.
‘I did it!’ Mildred gasped, looking around her in wonder. ‘I actually transferred.’
‘Small, disciplined exertion of magical force will always be a better means of controlling energy that large, uncontrolled outbursts.’ Hecate said, sternly. ‘If you feel unable to control yourself again, transfer short distances and do so with the utmost discipline.’
‘Will I be able to transfer normally now, even when I don’t have as much energy?’ Mildred asked. Hecate pursed her lips.
‘Perhaps. If you can gain enough control to channel your magic into transference without the need for a sudden injection of fuel. But once again Mildred Hubble, I would advise strongly against the attempt.’
Even as she said it Hecate knew there was no point to her warning. Mildred Hubble already had a characteristic gleam in her eye.
A few weeks later, Hecate was marking tests in the potions’ lab on a cool, clear summer’s evening. She had gone two weeks without putting anyone in detention, a testament to her good mood as the term rolled to an end and the fractious beginning to the year was smoothed over and healed.
‘Hello Miss Hardbroom.’ Hecate jumped about a foot in the air. She turned around, and saw Mildred Hubble grinning from ear to ear. ‘Did I startle you?’ Hecate stood up, began,
‘I did it! I didn’t even have all that energy behind me, I just thought about where I wanted to go, concentrated – and I actually transferred! I actually did it!’
And beaming, Mildred wrapped her arms around Hecate.
Stiff and awkward, Hecate nonetheless felt familiar pangs of fondness somewhere in her chest.
‘Detention Mildred Hubble. Every day for a week.’
‘Yes Miss Hardbroom.’