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‘I’ll take that under advisement,’ Winter said drily. With that, we both lapsed into silence.

***

It was quite a trek to the building where Runic Magic was housed. Along the way, forgetting that I’d never got round to having my shoes re-soled, I stepped in a puddle. Soon I was walking along with a sodden sock and chilly toes, which didn’t exactly put me in a good frame of mind.

The Runic witches didn’t appear fazed by the weather. As soon as we rounded the corner and their grand old building came into view, I spotted several of them out on the grass in front.

Winter hissed in irritation. ‘They’ve been told time and time again not to do that.’

‘Do what?’ The words were barely out of my mouth when the group separated: five witches on one side of the lawn and five on the other. A few others peeled off to the edges including, I noted, my old mate Anthea. Well, well, well. She might be in Tarquin’s pocket but she was certainly doing well for herself if she’d been assigned to this department. I was proud of her; whether Anthea had avoided me for the last eight years or not, and regardless of her tattle-tales to Tarquin about my sudden reappearance, I still remembered our friendship.

I focused on the others. Winter was still bristling by my side; I had the feeling that he was about to put a halt to these proceedings, whatever they were. I placed a hand on his arm. ‘Can we just watch? Pretty please? You don’t need to enforce every rule. People will like you more if you loosen up a bit.’

‘I don’t need people to like me.’ He sounded irritated but even so he relaxed slightly. I rubbed my palms together; whatever was about to happen, I reckoned it would be a whole lot of fun. And at least I wouldn’t be expected to do anything for a few minutes. I’d take my moments of blissful inactivity wherever I could find them.

A tall, gangly witch on the right stepped forward. He tossed a coin in the air, caught it deftly and flipped it onto the back of his hand.

‘Heads,’ called out a witch from the opposing team.

The first guy looked down and grinned. ‘Tails. We go first.’ The other four witches with him pulled back their shoulders, a movement so synchronised that they must have practised it. They began drawing runes.

‘They’re attacking,’ I breathed, finally understanding.

Winter rolled his eyes. ‘Yes. They’re idiots.’

Each witch apparently had a different speciality. One cast a rune for wind, sending a gust out towards their competitors. Another conjured up a swirl of leaves, seemingly from nowhere. It blocked the other team’s vision long enough for a third and fourth witch to work together and draw twin runes to open up a long fissure in the ground.

The other team worked on defensive manoeuvres, casting runes to counter-balance the aggression and keep themselves safe. One almost tipped into the gaping magic sinkhole but another drew a rune quickly enough to snare his arm with a lasso and pull him back. It wasn’t enough, though; the final witch on the attacking side cast his rune, a clever spell designed to momentarily alter the very physiology of living creatures. The other witches realised what he was doing and tried to counter it but they couldn’t. Within moments, all their legs had turned to jelly and they’d fallen to the ground, yelling.

The winning side cheered while all the runes were undone. The sinkhole sealed up again and the losers staggered to their feet, their bones returning to normal. I wasn’t impressed. They’d tried to defend themselves by blocking the spell; what they should have done was mirror it. It’s an easier rune to draw so they’d have had more time to reverse it and win the day.

Winter folded his arms and glared icily at them all. ‘The infirmary has to deal with the aftermath of these kinds of things far too often,’ he muttered. ‘And affecting the ground in this area can weaken the foundations of the buildings. It’s completely irresponsible.’

‘Spoilsport. No one was hurt.’ I paused. ‘Not permanently. The environment is back to normal. It’s a waste of energy, sure, but don’t witches have to practise?’

‘In safe warded places. Not here.’

‘It’s harmless,’ I told him.

‘It’s foolhardy.’

Winter was still in snort mode when Anthea finally spotted me and jogged over. Her eyes were shining. ‘Ivy! Isn’t this great?’

‘It seems like a good way to burn off excess energy,’ I agreed. Not that that was a problem I suffered from.

She arched an eyebrow in my direction. ‘It’d be fun to see a match between you two. Two partners, squaring off against each other, one on one…’

Winter snorted impatiently. ‘We don’t have time for this.’

‘We had time for your detour,’ I pointed out. ‘What’s another five minutes?’ I knew this was a safe bet: Winter was never going to agree. Unfortunately, it appeared that Anthea was well aware of that too.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘in that case you and I should take a turn, Ivy. For old times’ sake. I’d love to show you what I’ve learned. You can show off as well. I’m sure you’ve been doing some magic over the years.’

The tone of her voice suggested that I’d been out in a barren wilderness instead of suburban Oxford. ‘Adeptus Exemptus Winter is probably right,’ I said, using his formal title to remind her that he was supposed to be the one in charge. ‘We really should get going.’

‘What’s another five minutes?’ she asked, throwing my words back at me. Darn it. ‘You should let Ivy off the leash, Adeptus Winter.’

I felt his sudden tension. ‘She is her own person,’ he said stiffly.

Anthea clapped her hands in delight. ‘Brilliant. I’ll take the right.’ She skipped away.

‘Bloody hell, Winter,’ I muttered. ‘You were supposed to put your foot down and refuse her.’

He gave me a blank look. ‘How on earth was I supposed to know that?’ His jaw tightened. ‘And for the record, you’re not on a leash.’

‘Apart from the magical binding one.’

He growled, ‘That one’s not my fault. It doesn’t count.’

‘Come on, Ivy!’ Anthea called.

I sighed. I should have made up more excuses and wriggled away but it was probably faster to do as she wanted.

I shuffled over to the left-hand side. The witches who’d already competed had formed a half circle round us and more were wandering over out of curiosity. As a non-Order witch, I was an object of some fascination.

‘The goal is to bring the other person to the ground.’ Anthea bopped around, still brimming with enthusiasm. ‘Only runes are allowed and there’s to be no physical contact.’ Humour flashed across her face and she wagged her index finger at me. ‘And no sudden death spells or serious dismemberment. Whatever you do has to be immediately reversible when the combat ends.’

Combat? This was all getting a bit too serious. I eyed her then glanced at the audience. Whether I was attacking or defending, I knew deep down I’d have no difficulty in besting her. It wasn’t ego. Anthea put her stock in rote-learned runes that had been taught by the Order for decades; I’d gone guerrilla. She wouldn’t expect anything that I threw at her. But if I let my pride get in the way and showed what I was really capable of, I reckoned some of the other witches would clamour for more action. Not just today, either; it was possible I’d be here at the Order for some time. I dreaded to think what it would be avoiding potential challengers for the next ninety-six days. If I proved to be the weakling they expected, I’d be left in peace. There was really no contest.

The witch from the first fight stepped forward, tossed his glinting coin and caught it. He addressed me. ‘Heads or tails?’

I shrugged. ‘Tails.’

He revealed heads. Even better.

‘If you’re still standing after I’ve attacked,’ Anthea said, ‘we swap places. We’re allowed to cast one rune each.’

I nodded to show I understood and banked down the temptation to check Winter’s glowering face. Don’t worry, I tried to project silently, this won’t take long.

‘Ready?’ Anthea called. ‘I’ll go easy on you, I promise.’

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