This an excerpt from a fantasy/ romance/ historical fiction I've been working on during quarantine. In an alternate version of America, where magic is commonplace, a witch and wizard have adventures as they travel the country in pursuit of magic and gradually fall in love. Right now, I call this story Hazel and Saul, after my main characters, but the title is subject to change. This is a second draft, which means it's pretty early on in the writing process. I haven't added a lot of details and description, and the prose is rough. This scene takes early in the story, when the title characters first meet.
Hazel Meets Saul
Pennsylvania, October 1870
He was worse than a peddler. The wizard stood at the gate of her aunt’s house, banging on the door for a good ten minutes. Hazel could tell he was a wizard by the gaudy purple cloak he wore, popular among only the lowest rung of that profession. Hazel had made the mistake of peeking out through the window to see what was making the noise. Unfortunately, he’d seen her, and his rapping had only grown more furious.
“Miss Blackwood! Miss Blackwood!” he cried.
Hazel pressed her hands to the side of her head. She had a terrible headache and his pounding on the gate only made it worse. She’d been sick these last three days and wanted nothing more than to curl up and rest. But here was this annoying creature, disturbing her peace.
“Miss Blackwood! A word, please! Just a word!”
Hazel sighed. From his voice he sounded rather young. Young and full of energy and shamelessly relentless. She decided she wasn’t going to get rid of him, so she put on her cloak and bonnet and hobbled out. It was cold and chilly, and the wind on her face made her shiver, despite the warmth of her cloak. She walked down the path through the front yard until she reached the gate.
“Ah, Miss Blackwood!” The wizard sounded relieved. “Thank you for your indulgence. I crave but a moment of our time. You are Miss Blackwood, are you not?”
“I am, but--”
“My name,” he said with a flouncy and exaggerated bow, “is Solomon Felix Zephyrus, an apprentice wizard of distinction, and I have a proposal for--”
He stopped and blinked. He leaned forward and stared at her face, as if seeing it for the first time.
“You’re young,” he said, with some dismay.
Hazel felt a flash of irritation. She was 25. She did not feel particularly young; certainly, she was no mere girl. Her sister Rosemary was already married and mother to two daughters--and she was younger than Hazel.
Besides, she was certainly older than him. Now that she was up close, she could see that he had a round and boyish face with a spattering of freckles. He was tall and had a man’s voice, but he was also thin, and his cloak fairly billowed around him, giving the impression of a child wearing his father’s clothes. How old was he? 15? 16? Were wizards apprenticed that young?
“Can I help you, Sir?” she asked him. Her voice was rougher than usual due to a lingering cough that had worn down her vocal chords.
The wizard-in-training looked uncertain. He took out a piece of paper, looked at it, and then looked at her.
“You are Miss Mabel Blackwood?” he asked.
“No, I am her niece, Hazel Blackwood.”
“You’re her apprentice.”
“I was once. I am now a witch.”
“Is your aunt home?”
“No, she is not.”
“Is she expected back?”
“She’s gathering lemons in Florida. She won’t be back for at least another month.”
“A month!” he said in dismay.
“Shall I tell her you called, Mr.--?”
“No, it won’t be necessary,” he said quickly. “Thank you for your time, Miss--” He stopped and looked at her again. “You said you’re a witch?”
“Of course. Do you wish to see my papers?” she asked with an edge of sarcasm to her voice.
“May I?” He leaned over the fence.
Hazel stared, amazed at his boldness. She found herself going to her purse, where her protection spells were kept, and pulling out her documentation. She handed it to him. He took them and read them over carefully.
“…according to the laws and rules set out by the Coven of American Witches, do fully certify as a witch Hazel--” He paused, and a small smile lit his face. “Witch Hazel?”
“Yes, I know,” she said.
“…permitted to gather, transport, and buy and sell magic and magical potions…” He scanned down. “Issued in 1865. You’ve been a witch for five years.” He stared at her. “I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“Do you have some business you wish to conduct with witches, Mr.—?”
“I do,” he said. “I have a proposal--a grand quest, if you will.”
“May I have your name, Sir?”
“Oh, yes. Solomon. Solomon Felix Zeph--”
“Your real name.”
“I…” He hesitated. “I prefer to use my wizard’s name--”
“But you are not a wizard,” Hazel pointed out. “You told me yourself, you’re an apprentice. Your wizard’s name is not registered. What is your real name, Sir?”
“Saul,” he said, with a sigh. “Saul F. Zimmermann. Would you like to see my card?”
He handed her a calling card, which had little more than his name on it. She handed it back.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Zimmermann? And, since I have a cold, I would appreciate it if you made your request brief.”
“I--I am in need of a witch to help me extract a dragon’s tooth,” he said.
Hazel blinked. That was not at all what she expected to hear.
“The dragon is suffering a toothache, you see. It is a military dragon, stationed at Fort Mifflin. The job pays only $15. However, thrown in as payment, is the dragon’s rotted tooth. It is a valuable source of magic.”
“Not to a witch.”
“To a wizard. The tooth is pure magic. If I attain it, I can fulfill my apprenticeship contract and become a fully-fledged wizard.”
“So why do you need me?”
“The colonel in charge of the dragon is rejecting wizards without proper certification. Frankly, he’s rejecting wizards who do have proper certification. Rumor is, he prefers either an alchemist or a witch, especially one with some knowledge of easing pain. That was your aunt’s specialty, I believe.”
“Yes. She sells potions that numb pain.”
“Did she teach you these potions, perchance?”
“I am one of her suppliers.”
“Perfect,” he said.
“But these potions are meant for humans, not a dragon. I know nothing about mythic beasts. I’m afraid I am unqualified for the job. You should inquire elsewhere.”
She turned to leave.
“Wait! Wait, Miss Hazel.”
“Miss Blackwood,” she said turning back toward him.
“Miss Blackwood, I believe you are more qualified than you think.”
“Sir, you have known me for all of ten minutes.”
“And in those ten minutes I learned that you are a licensed witch of five years, apprenticed to Mabel Blackwood, and able to prepare her famous potions on a commercial level. Those are impressive qualifications, and the colonel is desperate.”
“Mr. Zimmermann, this is not even my house. I don’t have the supplies--”
“I will purchase them for you,” Saul said. “And I will pry the tooth from the dragon myself. All I need are your credentials to enter the fort and a potion to ease pain.”
“Sir, I don’t think I can in good conscience--”
“Please!” he cried desperately. “This is my freedom. I need this tooth. I need to become a wizard.”
She tilted her head. “How old are you?”
He stiffened. “Nineteen. I’ll be twenty in a couple months.”
“You are still young,” she said. “You have plenty of time to learn and--”
“We don’t learn,” he said. “My master trained me for all of a week, and as soon as I learned how to extract magic, I was set upon the world to fend for myself. All I do is look for magic and extract it. For three years! It is tedious. It is dull. And what’s worse, there is no magic left here. Not unless I attempt to poach off private property or buy it at full price. I can’t get enough to fulfill my contract. At the rate I’m going I’ll be 30 before it’s completed--30! Ten more years stuck scraping and grinding. And my contract forbids me from leaving the state, so I cannot even see my family. Please, Miss Hazel--”
“Blackwood,” she muttered.
"--I cannot live this way! If you help me, I’ll--I’ll owe you a great favor. Something spectacular. Once I become a great and powerful wizard, I’ll find a way to pay you back, ten times over, a hundred times over.”
Hazel looked away. She heard the terror and desperation in his voice, and she knew it was real. And she had witnessed, with her own eyes, wizard-apprentices scrabbling around the city, like beggars, often ill-dressed and ill-fed, fighting over scraps of magic.
Unlike witches, who were licensed by local covens, wizards were registered nationally at one of two cities: Philadelphia and New Orleans, the latter of which was currently undergoing Reconstruction. This meant that the state of Pennsylvania was a breeding ground for apprentices. From what Hazel understood, any wizard with some magic could take on an apprentice, which was more or less like taking on an indentured servant. In exchange for awakening the magic within him, the apprentice was bound to give his master half of all magic he extracted until a certain amount of magic was repaid. He could not be fully registered until the contract was fulfilled.
The whole system, Aunt Mabel had said, was corrupt and exploitative to the extreme. Even when young wizards fulfilled their contract, they were left to fend for themselves with no support. No wonder, Mabel said, the profession was a breeding ground for thieves, con artists, and scoundrels.
Her aunt was all for reforming the system, mostly because this influx of wizard-apprentices was ruining the state. In Mabel’s mind, the apprentices were a kind of pestilence, chewing up every magic tree that grew in the wild and constantly trespassing on witch’s lands. Hazel, though, had always felt a little sorry for them, especially the young ones. It wasn’t that long ago, she had been left to fend for herself. If not for the support of her aunt, she had no idea how she’d have survived.
Hazel wanted to help, and yet the problem was so big. What could she do? Looking at Saul, it occurred to her that she could help him. But it was such an unorthodox way of helping and he was only one individual, after all. Would that make a difference? And why this task? Did he even know what he was asking of her?
“Sir,” she said, “a dragon is nothing to be trifled with. They are dangerous beasts. Have you thought of the risks?”
“I don’t care,” he said passionately. “I’ll take any risks to win my freedom.”
“And would you risk my life?” she asked quietly.
That stopped him dead in his tracks. Hazel studied his face closely. She didn’t exactly know what she was looking for--perhaps some indication that this young man, whom she didn’t know, was worth helping.
When Saul spoke again, his voice was measured, but earnest. “I fear that I’ve misrepresented myself. I am eager to win my freedom, it’s true, and I would risk my own life to achieve that end. But I would never wish to cause you harm… nor pressure you into anything you’re unwilling to do.”
“That is good to know.”
“Miss Blackwood, before you refuse me, may I--may I offer up a compromise? Will you consider merely accompanying me to the fort? That way, you can speak to the colonel and assess the situation for yourself. If, at that time, you still feel uncomfortable with the task, I will escort you home without a word of protest and offer you my hearty thanks. But if you and I and the colonel believe that the tooth can be extracted without danger to you… would you at least consider helping me?”
He looked at her hopefully. He had brown, puppy dog eyes that she found hard to resist.
“Well…” she said.
“Have you ever seen a dragon, Miss Hazel?”
“Miss Blackwood. And no, I have not.”
“Would you like to?"
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.