3: Books are for Reading
The old woman dragged her gaze away from the book on the table and gave Iliya a long and slightly nearsighted glance. “What was your name again?” she asked.
Iliya straightened his back like his father had told him to. “My name is Iliya Radov, ma’am.”
“Curious name. Curious name for a curious boy,” said the old woman. She wasn’t very big, but the grey nest of hair on top of her head probably added a hand’s width to her height. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
Iliya bit his lip. He was meant to fetch the payment for the repairs of the roof, but no one had specifically said that he couldn’t stay out a little longer. And if he told his mother the town’s very own witch had invited him to have a cup of tea, she could hardly complain. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said.
“Have a seat, then.” The witch closed the book and waved at a chair, and while Iliya sat down, ignoring the fine layer of dust that rose from the upholstering when he did, the teapot lrose from its place on the table to float towards the empty cup that had been on the table before Iliya entered the house. He hadn’t thought much of it before, and even now he was more concerned with the hovering teapot. It gave him such a curious, tingling sensation. It was the same feeling he often had when he passed the old woman’s cottage. Now he was sure that it wasn’t his imagination. He had felt the witch practise magic in here.
“How old are you, Iliya?”
“I’m ten, ma’am. Almost.” It wasn’t a lie, only a slight exaggeration.
The old woman chuckled. “You are not required to address me as ma’am. Borelle will do fine. Taste. I hope you like wedgeberries.”
“Thank you. I do.” Iliya brought the cup to his lips. The concoction was scalding, but he sipped at it anyway to be polite.
The table was piled up with papers and books, and the shelves sagged under the weight of everything there. The windows had seen better days, but the grime was on the outside of the panes. It wasn’t a neat home, and it wasn’t a clean one either, but it seemed that there was no actual dirt inside. Only dust and the smell of old books and tea.
“Have you never been in a witch’s home before?”
Iliya promptly looked back down at his tea. He had been staring too much. “No, ma’am. I haven’t.”
“You can look. All you want. Curiosity is not a bad trait, you know. Do you go to school?”
“No. I did for a while, but ...” Iliya trailed off. It was too expensive. But Iliya’s parents were not poor like Tennen’s family. Tennen wore his big brother’s clothes, and after he grew out of them, his little brother had to wear them, and there were rumours about his mother making a little extra money for them to get by, and his father sent his sister to beg in the streets. Iliya’s family may not be wealthy, but they got by. Sometimes business was good and sometimes it was bad. Last year had been good because of the accident. The man who fell from the roof and split his head open was a friend of Iliya’s father, and it was very sad, but there was more work for them now.
“So you can read and write and know math?”
“A little bit,” Iliya said. Where were all those questions going? He knew the alphabet, and he could read his father’s notes. He knew how much the witch owed him because he could see it on the paper that he had brought.
“I see. A bright boy you are.”
Iliya searched the old woman’s face for signs of mockery. He found none. “I practise when I can.”
“Good, good. And you help your father, then, with his work?”
Iliya nodded. His mother didn’t like him going up on the roofs, but he was good at balancing and quite strong for his age. At this point, he was all but formally an apprentice thatcher.
“That’s a pity. I was going to ask you if you could help me a little bit,” Borelle said and leaned back in her chair with her hands folded on her stomach. “When you get old, you find that your eyesight isn’t quite as good anymore and it’s hard to sort the books properly and spot the dust everywhere.”
Iliya’s eyes widened. Was the witch really asking for his help? The old woman didn’t have an apprentice to help her with the household anymore. He had moved out years ago to become a wizard in a village down south, and she never took on a new one. Iliya knew that wasn’t what Borelle wanted from him. He knew nothing of magic. But he could feel his cheeks starting to burn at the thought of arranging the books, to maybe open a few of them and look at the spells. “I … I am sure I have time for that,” he stammered. “It would be my pleasure to.”
“Would it indeed?” chuckled the witch. “And your parents would approve of this?”
Iliya nodded again. Yes. He knew they would. It wasn’t the potter down by the market or the blacksmith who asked for his help. It was Dallend’s witch. Not only would it be an honour, it could also prove valuable in case someone in the family fell ill and needed help they couldn’t afford. “Yes, ma’am. I know they would.” He was starting to work out a schedule in his mind that would allow him to help his father, run errands for his mother and come by the witch’s house so quickly that he needed to remind himself he didn’t know if the old woman meant only once. “May I ask what you had in mind?” he asked.
Borelle thought about it for some time. “Hmm,” she finally said. “Any help is welcome, but I think the windows could use a good scrubbing. And the floor too. And then we have the books. Such a mess nowadays. Could you come back tomorrow afternoon? Then we will see how much we can manage, and if you aren’t fed up with this old woman’s chaos, you could come back another day, perhaps?”
Iliya’s smile nearly turned into a grin. He supposed he would almost be a witch’s apprentice, then. Almost. “Yes, that sounds good.”
“Then there’s the matter of payment, of course,” said the witch. “It will not do to ask for help and not pay for it. I’m sure your parents wouldn’t approve of it, either. I will give you a half mark in advance. Then tomorrow we’ll see if you should have a little more for your trouble. Is that acceptable?”
It was more than that. Iliya knew how well respected the witch was all over Dallend. His parents would find it an honour that he was asked to help the woman with anything regardless of payment. But they would welcome a little money, and it would be good to contribute to the household. Maybe they would even let him keep some for himself. “Yes. Thank you. Thank you very much,” he said.
When he came home, Iliya had to tell the story twice. First to his mother, who wanted to make certain that he had come by the money in an honest way and that he hadn’t forced his help upon the witch, and then to his father who was looking increasingly proud even though Iliya hadn’t done anything yet.
The next day, Iliya found himself spending two hours outside the witch’s cottage, washing and scrubbing the windows, lugging around a bucket that had to be filled three times because the water became black as soot. It wasn’t any more glorious than polishing windows at home, and he kept getting distracted by people he knew who passed the house and asked him why he was there. But finally he was done, and with hands red with cold and wrinkled with water, he went back inside to find Borell waiting for him with a pot of tea and two cups. Iliya sat down at the old woman’s table again and glanced wistfully at the stuffed shelves when he thought the witch didn’t notice. He was itching to leaf through one of those huge, leather bound volumes and read just the simplest of spells, to feel if it were any different from other books.
He had done a good job with the windows, the witch said and awarded him another half mark. They arranged for him to come back a few days later to sweep the floor. Iliya was glad of it. He liked the feeling that the old woman’s house gave him. It made him feel safe.
It was a strange thing to feel then, for Iliya had never really known danger or devastating insecurity. It would be years before he needed to take on more responsibility than he could bear, knowing that he would have to do it even if it should break him. It was long before he started making decisions about life and death, and even before his name was put on a list that might end up saving his life. Before he moved away from Dallend to pursue one failed education after the other. But even so, the witch’s house gave him a sense of peace and purpose. Of belonging. As if the answers to all the great questions of his life could be found in it. And in a way, they could.
“You seem interested in my little collection of books,” Borelle said.
Iliya’s face grew as hot as the tea. He really had tried not to stare, tried not to read the words on the spines of the books when the witch saw it, but he had failed again.
“Books are very interesting,” the witch continued. “But more so when you look inside them. Don’t you agree?”
“Would you like to do that?”
“Yes,” he almost whispered. The old woman could have offered him a hundred marks and it would have paled in comparison to this treasure.
“Well, go on then. You have done well today. Take a closer look at the books. Pick one to look in.”
Iliya jumped to his feet and quickly scanned the shelves closest to him before she could change her mind. Most of them had to do with magic of some kind. It wasn’t easy to choose, and he felt anxious that it was somehow a test or the one book he would ever be allowed to touch. But eventually he decided on one and took it from the shelf.
“What have we here?” mumbled Borelle. Iliya hadn’t realised that she had stepped up behind him. “Hmm, a good choice. I am quite fond of it myself. But it is a little … shall we say advanced?”
Iliya carefully began to look in the book. It was full of descriptions of spells and incantations and pictures, beautifully drawn illustrations of what the spells would do. The formulae themselves were written in letters he didn’t know. The witch was right. From his point of view, it was not only advanced magic. It was incomprehensible. Even the bits written in the alphabet that he did know had long words and references to concepts and things of which he had never heard. Nevertheless, it felt like he could keep looking in the book for hours and hours.
He almost jumped, but managed to close the book gently.
“I would like to show you another book. May I?” Borelle stretched out her arm and picked a book from one of the top shelves that Iliya couldn’t have reached without standing on a chair. The witch couldn’t, either. The book moved out of its place and gently into her hand.
This book wasn’t as heavy or as magnificent and awe-inspiring as the book Iliya had chosen. It wasn’t as thick, and it wasn’t as full of beautiful illustrations. But it was about magic and it was much easier to read. It didn’t have long passages in a strange language, but instead it explained how to read some of the writing in the other book. Iliya stared at the first few pages and tried to memorise as much of it as he possibly could.
“Maybe next time we should spend some time reading a little. You can help me dust off some of the books and I will show you how this works.” The old witch patted the book in Iliya’s hands. “I think you will find it interesting.”