The Magic Quill #158: History of Magic

by Robbie Fischer

Contest winner: Dragonic
Runner-up: greyniffler, Linda, Rehannah, TWZRD, & Evensong
With apologies to Pamela Dean and Roald Dahl

In a hut of mud-caulked timber, in a compound full of similar huts, in a remote valley, a door opened and closed as if by itself. As a school lesson was going on in that hut, the teacher halted her lecture on magical inventions to look round at the door, but she saw nothing to explain the event. She looked narrowly at the children before her, studying them for signs that one of them was playing a joke with, say, a wand under the desk. Seven young faces looked up at her, as surprised and alarmed as she was.

“Never mind,” she shrugged. She resumed pacing up and down in front of her students. “Let’s check what you’ve learned now. Patrick, who do you think was the greatest wizard inventor?”

The youngest of the three boys flashed a crooked smile and said, “I’m after sayin’ it were Bertrand the Bibulous.”

The teacher composed her face to a long-suffering expression and asked, “And how did Wizard Bertrand make our world better?”

“Why, by inventing the cure for hangover, sure.”

The other children fell over each other laughing. Patrick gazed steadily into the teacher’s face with a look of absolute sincerity, while the latter turned her eyes toward heaven. For a few moments, no one was looking at the teacher’s desk. And so no one saw a bruised, dirty hand reach up from behind the desk and pinch the shiny apple that stood there.

“I wonder if that invention really made the world a better place,” the teacher said primly, as soon as the room was quiet enough.

“It does for me da,” Patrick blurted, to the great delight of his friends.

“And how brave of Bertrand, to keep experimenting on himself until he hit upon the right spell,” added one of the older boys. “He must have endured a lot of rough mornings…”

The children’s roar of laughter just covered the muffled munching sounds behind the teacher’s desk.

“Since Edward is so eager to give us his thoughts,” the teacher trilled, as the class came to order again, “the next question will go to him. Who invented Floo Powder, and how was it originally used?”

Edward stammered for a few moments. Casting around for anything to say, he caught the eye of a girl on the other side of the room, who made an odd gesture with one finger pointing upward behind her head. His eyes brightened. Before the teacher could look round to see who was helping him, Edward recited: “A Lakota medicine wizard named Red Smoke is said to have compounded the first recipe for Floo Powder. Originally it was meant to make smoke signals secure from enemy spies. You would throw the powder into the flames and say someone’s name. Then, until the spell ended, your smoke signals would appear in that person’s fire. The idea of sending anything but smoke didn’t come until the Lakota shared their secrets with a white wizard called Gorse.”

“Excellent work, Edward,” said the teacher, who had been too engrossed in the young man’s performance to notice the soft thump her coffee mug made when the strange hand returned it, empty, to the top of her desk. “Now, Ruth, perhaps you can tell me who wrote the first witches’ cookbook, and how useful it is.”

The tallest girl, who happened to have signaled to Edward before, gave a pained smile. “The witch was known as Cauldron Kate, and the trouble with her book is that she doesn’t quite separate the magical potions from the spells to cook food. Many of her recipes have magical side effects, like when her cabbage rolls make you grow asses’ ears.”

The children tittered. Ruth looked embarrassed. She seemed to resent being asked questions about domestic arts, when she cared rather more about Red Smoke and his type of wizards. The teacher took no more notice of this than of the quill and inkwell disappearing off her desk.

“Ellen,” the teacher said, starling a much younger girl out of a daydream, “tell us about the witch or wizard who invented Veritaserum.”

“Her name was Samirah al Haqq,” said Ellen, stifling a yawn. “She was the first female Court Wizard, or rather Court Witch, of the Sultan of, er…”

“The correct pronunciation is Ur,” the teacher hinted.

“Exactly,” Ellen said cheerfully. “She was also the court historian, treasurer, and royal torturer. The Sultan of Ur was a bit of a cheapskate, so he liked to combine different jobs like that.”

“Ellen,” the teacher growled warningly as the other children giggled. The mysterious hand behind the desk took advantage of this disturbance to nick a roll of parchment.

The girl rolled her eyes. “No one would talk to her because she was a woman,” she added. “It didn’t look like she was going to last long in her job as royal historian, so she messed around with potion ingredients until she came up with Veritaserum, and that saved her. It also…”

“That’s fine,” said the teacher. “Let’s move on. Laura – ”

A girl about Ellen’s age started nervously, knocking her inkwell off her desk. The teacher, used to this sort of thing, saved it from smashing on the floor with a levitation spell and charmed it back onto the desk. Suppressing a sigh, she continued: “Laura, what became of Gertrude the Grotesque?”

In an almost inaudible voice, Laura reported that Gertrude had invented a variety of potions and glamors to keep herself looking young and beautiful long past the usual best-by date; but that, in a moment of rare clumsiness, she had accidentally turned herself so ugly that anyone who saw her went mad. The Wizengamot had sent three blind wizards who used their exceptional senses of smell, hearing, and irony to discover Gertrude’s hiding place. Once captured, she was imprisoned in a hall of mirrors, where her screams, or the screams of her ghost, could be heard from that day to this.

Laura shivered at the end of this tale. For a moment, the whole school room was so still that the stranger’s hand froze in place above a pot of Floo Powder on the teacher’s desk. Then a weak, nervous laugh spread through the room like ripples in a puddle, and with a quick dusty snatch the hand disappeared again.

“Matilda,” the teacher barked at a small girl who was concentrating on levitating a newt out of its aquarium, using neither a wand nor a spoken spell. The girl sat up straighter and gave the teacher a look of perfect innocence. “Tell us,” said the teacher, “how the modern wand was invented.”

“Wizards had always used forked sticks, greenwood rods, unicorn tailhairs, and so on,” said Matilda. “By themselves, they didn’t really do much. The first real wand, with a dragon-heartstring core, was made by Po the Polisher, a wizard in the army of the first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. His wand made him so deadly in battle that all the other army wizards soon wanted them. Po ended up making wands full-time, and his experiments led him to discover nine of the eleven fundamental charms of wandmaking.”

“Excellent as usual, Matilda. And that leaves…” The teacher squinted up and down the row of children facing her, then snapped her fingers and said: “George!”

A boy with a dirty nose and stained fingers said, “What?” without looking up from the picture he was drawing on a loose piece of parchment.

Failing to stifle her sigh this time, the teacher gave up on getting George’s undivided attention and simply said, “Tell us about an inventor, will you?”

“Tylenenkhamen,” said George, without looking up.

“What about him?”

“Invented wizard medicine,” George grunted. Meanwhile, he continued to scribble.


“And his potion to cure headaches wasn’t used for four thousand years because it was mixed up with a recipe for embalming fluid,” the boy added. “Preserving the dead was a much bigger business in ancient Egypt than curing headaches. Healing magic had to be re-invented several times before it caught on, thanks to Healer Koscrates of Hippo. But my Great-Uncle Ambrosiaster, who was a curse-breaker for Gringotts, found Tylenenkhamen’s recipe and tried it.”

“How did it work?” said Edward.

“He died,” shrugged George. “But you can’t expect success on the first go, can you? His ancient Egyptian was lousy anyway. Recipe probably would have worked if he’d read it right…”

By this point the class had erupted in its loudest disturbance yet, groans of disgust mingling with screams of laughter. The teacher banged a petrified egg on her desk in a vain attempt to call them back to order. In all this commotion, no one noticed the door opening again and a crouched figure darting out into the compound.

Sir Lionel Niblet kept his head down and scurried from hut to hut, pausing only to make sure the coast was clear before crossing each open space. He finally reached what appeared to be a barrel of burning garbage. Opening a door set in the side of the barrel, he tossed in a handful of Floo Powder, whispering “Spanky Spankison,” and thrust a tight roll of parchment after it. The letter vanished in a burst of green flames. Now, Sir Lionel thought as he ducked and weaved toward the treeline, he would just have to wait…

His progress was abruptly halted by an unexpected obstacle. He had run directly into the legs of a tall, heavy-shouldered wizard whose robes had, at first glance, blended into the foliage on the edge of the clearing.

“Here’s a juicy surprise,” said the man, grabbing Sir Lionel’s throat in a steely grip.


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