Mr. and Mrs. Burroughs lived in a cozy house behind the General Store they operated in the tiny community of Cauldron Bottom. They were proud to say they had lived there all their lives, as did their parents, and most of their grandparents and great-grandparents all the way back to when settlers first arrived in this small, round valley surrounded by sloping green hills like a vast grassy bowl.
They lived there with their daughter, Kate, who was thirteen years old. Kate was a perfectly normal teenager. During the summers she loved to read, go swimming in Lackaday Creek, and ride broomsticks with her cousins, Merlina and Bobby. Often they would fly down the holler to visit their older cousin, Miss Vivian, and ask to play with Scratch, her pet Kneazle, or else try to spot unicorns in the woods above her house. Kate and her cousins were just ordinary kids—who happened to be wizards!
During the school year, they all attended boarding school at Malkin Academy for the Magical Arts. Kate had just finished her second year. In fact, she had only just returned home the previous week. But that didn't keep her from jumping out of bed as soon as her alarm clock rang. After a quick breakfast and shower, she put on the clothes she had picked out the night before: white shorts and a white sleeveless Cardigan sweater belted over a blue tee shirt. It was the most non-magical-looking outfit she had.
She brushed her teeth and agonized over what to do with her curly red hair before deciding to simply brush it out and pull it back in a silver-and-black barrette that she thought would look perfect with her stud earrings (she had finally persuaded her parents to let her pierce her ears!) and silver eagle-pendant necklace.
When she realized she had gotten ready so fast and it was still four full hours before her appointment she was beside herself. She paced back and forth in her room for a few minutes, then opened her dresser drawer to pull out the two leaves of parchment she had received in the mail during her first week back from school. The first was a permission form, already filled out and signed by her mother. Today it was Kate's most prized possession. The second was a letter on Malkin Academy stationery, which said,
Dear Miss Burroughs,
I'm pleased to see that you have chosen to begin Muggle Studies with me in August. Your cousin and my colleague, Ms. Vivian Hoskins, tells me you are a fine student. I'm sure we will learn a lot together.
As it so happens, I will be passing near Cauldron Bottom a week from this Friday. I'd be delighted if you joined Ms. Hoskins and me at her house for lunch. I would also like to invite you to accompany me on a brief field trip to help me with some Malkin Academy business. I believe this will be an excellent opportunity for you to get a head start with my class.
Please have a parent sign the enclosed permission slip and bring it with you to Ms. Hoskins' house by 12:00 noon. You should be home by 4:30. Be sure to bring your wand and to dress in typical Muggle fashion.
Kate folded the letter and stuffed it into her canvas print bag. She grinned at the thought that she—and neither of her cousins—had received such an invitation. Bobby was a year behind her, so he wasn't old enough to take Muggle Studies. Merlina was a year older, but her friend Elliot Black had convinced her Muggle Studies was boring, so she was taking Divination instead.
Time seemed to stand still. Kate read the latest issue of Teen Witch Weekly for about the eleventh time, sneaked some fresh blackberries from the kitchen for a mid-morning snack, and finally decided to walk to Miss Vivian's house instead of flying on her broomstick. It would take longer walking, but at least she could start on her way a few minutes early. So, grabbing her wand and her canvas bag, she slipped out of the house, kissed her mom and dad on her way through the General Store, and stepped onto the sidewalk.
The walk to Miss Vivian's house seemed almost instantaneous. She had forgotten that Cauldron Bottom was such a tiny place. Three houses past the Prewetts (where Bobby lived with his mother and grandparents) then cross the footbridge at Lackaday Creek and take the left fork. Before she knew it, she was hiking up the gentle slope of the hill where the Hoskins clan had lived in a patchwork of old but well-kept houses for over two hundred years. She grinned at Merlina, who was helping her little brother Faustus de-gnome their family's vegetable garden. Merlina pretended she didn't see her.
Miss Vivian lived in the topmost cottage, not very far from the top of the ridge and the forest on the other side. As much as Kate tried to take her time, she still arrived half an hour early. Scratch was waiting for her. The fat little furball twitched its bottlebrush tail, stretched, and escorted her the last few yards of her journey like a bored feline honor guard.
"Hello!" Kate called.
"Come on in!" came the answer. "My stars, Kate, what kept you?" Miss Vivian teased. Kate dropped her wand into an umbrella stand by the front door and her bag into a nearby rocking chair. She joined her cousin in the kitchen. Miss Vivian was in her early forties, slim, with long blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. In her hand she held a wand like an orchestra conductor, but what she was conducting was a levitating knife she had set to slicing a four large potatoes.
"As long as you're here, you might as well help. We're having BLTs. Can you get that tomato sliced while I fry these potatoes?" Vivian indicated a gigantic yellow tomato on the counter.
Kate reached for a knife. "Yes, ma'am."
"You're not excited, are ya?"
"A little," Kate grinned. "Do you know what this is about?"
"Well, of course I do, child! But Mr. Cryer would have my hide if I let the Kneazle out of the bag." Scratch rolled her eyes and left to explore the living room.
The rest of the menu came together quickly with two cooks in the kitchen, and Kate enjoyed visiting with Miss Vivian, even if she failed three more times to coax her to tell the secret of this "field trip."
At five minutes to eleven there was a loud cracking sound in the direction of the front porch. Kate was halfway through the living room before she heard a knock at the door. By the third knock, she had opened the door with a smile.
"Good morning, Mr. Cryer!"
"Good morning, Kate. It's good to see you again. Ah, there you are, Viv. How are you?" Mr. Cryer was a black man of about fifty, not especially tall, who was also dressed in "typical Muggle fashion" in khaki pants, a sport jacket, and a blue necktie with dozens of tiny golden cat silhouettes.
"Is that bacon I smell?"
"We're having BLTs, Corbin," Miss Vivian chimed in, "and they're almost ready. Come on back and we can visit in the kitchen. How are Hannah and the boys?"
"Fine, Viv. Thanks for asking."
Mr. Cryer set his wand in the umbrella stand with Kate's and let Kate usher him back to the kitchen. The pleasantries around the table were mercifully brief. After not too many minutes the conversation turned to the reason for Mr. Cryer's visit. Kate was ready for business, and so—finally!—were the adults.
"Kate," Mr. Cryer began, "I've heard very impressive reports about your progress this past year. Mr. Corntassel in particular thinks very highly of you." Mr. Corntassel was the head of Kate's House at Malkin Academy and his opinion counted for a great deal. "Next term you get to begin your elective courses. You're signed up for Muggle Studies with me, Care of Magical Creatures with Ms. Hoskins here," Kate and Miss Vivian traded mischievous glances, "and Ancient Runes with Ms. Svenson-Benson. Is that right?"
"Well, I'm here because I think you could be helpful to me in a small errand I need to do today that involves Muggles. Are you interested?"
Kate wanted to blurt out, "Of course I'm interested! Are you crazy?" Instead she nodded again, speechless.
Mr. Cryer continued. "I know you understand about Muggle-born wizards. There are several in your year, right? Felicia Hyatt, Victor Neumann..."
"Yeah, Felicia's really nice. We're dorm-mates."
"Have you ever talked with her about what it was like to get her acceptance letter from Malkin Academy?"
Kate furrowed her brow. She had never thought about that. Kids from wizarding families got their Malkin acceptance letters by owl post some time in June. Kate remembered how excited she was when hers came. She had never thought about how a Muggle-born witch or wizard probably had never even heard of Malkin Academy.
"I guess I just assumed they got an owl like everybody else," she said. Even as she said it she knew this had to be a wrong assumption.
"In fact, Kate, those letters are delivered in person by a member of the Malkin faculty." Mr. Cryer paused.
Kate's mind raced ahead several steps and her eyes got big. "You want me to help you deliver a Malkin acceptance letter?" she tentatively offered.
"If you don't mind. There's a girl with definite magical potential not too far from here. Her brothers are just this morning leaving on a camping trip with some friends, so we'll be able to talk without interruption. I expect having you along might make her and her parents feel more at ease when I deliver her letter. It can be a shock to find out you're a witch—or that you're the parents of one!"
"When can we start?"
"I'd say as soon as we help Ms. Hoskins clean up her kitchen."
"Y'all don't worry about that," Miss Vivian said. "We didn't make too much of a mess. Go on and have fun."
With a smile Kate got up from the table and followed Mr. Cryer into the living room.
"Now, don't forget the rules," Miss Vivian called as she brought up the rear.
Kate rolled her eyes. "I know, Miss Vivian." She recited the litany her parents had drummed into her since she was eleven years old. "No magic outside of school. No magic in front of Muggles. Defensive magic only in an emergency."
"And remember," Mr. Cryer added, "this girl—and her family—knows nothing of the wizarding world. It will be a shock to learn that people like us even exist. But I bet she already knows she's different somehow. We'll have to be patient, gentle. Understand?"
"Now, do you have your wand?"
Kate retrieved her wand from the umbrella stand. Malkin Academy preferred the use of long Appachian-style wands that were really more like long, straight rods. Kate's was eighteen inches long, made of dogwood, with a tuft of unicorn's hair at the core. She grabbed her bag.
"This was a birthday present," she said. "Dad got it from a mail-order house in Cannular Square. It has an Undetectable Extension Charm on it. It's not a very strong one, but I can hide my wand in here easy." And with that she slipped the rod into the bag until it vanished entirely from sight. She rummaged around in her bag until she found her signed permission form and proudly presented it to Mr. Cryer.
"That's good thinking, Kate," Mr. Cryer smiled. "You've already got more sense about Muggles than a lot of wizards I know."
Mr. Cryer drew his own wand (about twenty inches long and probably applewood, Kate thought) from the umbrella stand. "Viv, could I bother you for an empty bottle or soup can? If you like, I can show you my permit from the U. S. Portkey Authority."
"No need for that, Corbin. And I've got just the thing!" Miss Vivian said, and in a second she had retrieved a green Muggle pop bottle from the kitchen trash. Mr. Cryer thanked her and walked out onto the porch with Kate. He set the bottle on the railing of Miss Vivian's porch, tapped it with his wand and uttered, "Portus." The bottle trembled slightly and glowed blue for a second. Then it seemed once more like an ordinary pop bottle.
"Are you ready?" he asked. Kate nodded, speechless again.
"Y'all have fun!" Miss Vivian said.
"You know about Portkeys? Good. On three, then? One...two...three!"
Kate and Mr. Cryer each touched the pop bottle at the same time. Kate suddenly felt a strong tug as if someone had snatched her by a place behind her navel. Miss Vivian's porch disappeared.
The next thing Kate knew, she and Mr. Cryer were in a deserted alley. They were standing beside a brick wall next to a huge metal dumpster. Kate could smell the aroma of spices and cooking vegetables and hear the clatter of pans and dishes.
"Giovanni's Pizza," Mr. Cryer said, indicating the building behind them. He tossed the pop bottle into the dumpster. "I don't care for it but it's popular with the locals. Also, the bright green roof makes an excellent landmark from the air." Kate puzzled at this but didn't say anything.
"Let's go," Mr. Cryer said. Kate and her teacher started to round the corner. Kate hesitated.
"Mr. Cryer, would you like to hide your wand in my bag?"
He smiled. "I prefer at least one of us keep a wand at the ready." He opened his left hand palm-up, balancing his wand with the slightest encouragement from his thumb. He whispered, "Occulto Virgulam." Suddenly Mr. Cryer's wand began to shrink, like a balloon being deflated, until it was only a few inches long. In the process it gained a glossy sheen and several flourishes of gold trim: a pocket clip, a cap band. It was no longer a wand at all but a fountain pen! Kate was dumbstruck.
"I had a Masquerod Charm put on it years ago," Mr. Cryer explained. "Very useful when you spend as much time around Muggles as I do."
With Mr. Cryer's "fountain pen" safely tucked into his shirt pocket, the pair made their way out into the street. Kate could see she was in a smallish town—far larger than Cauldron Bottom but not nearly as big as Arlington, Virginia, which was the biggest city she'd ever seen. Every summer her whole family went to Cannular Square in Arlington to buy the books and other supplies she would need for the upcoming school year.
Mr. Cryer seemed to know exactly where he was going. He guided Kate along the sidewalk, helped her read the traffic lights and cross the street safely, and nodded pleasantly to the Muggles they passed along the way. Kate strived with all her might not to let on that she was enthralled with every detail. There were so many things she wanted to ask. How do automobiles work? How do the traffic lights know when to change? Are they charmed or do they just have trained fairies inside them turning levers? What are those tiny boxes Muggles hold up to their ears, and who are they talking to?
Finally Mr. Cryer nudged Kate to turn right. According to the street sign, they were now walking down Redbud Way. After another block, Mr. Cryer tapped Kate's shoulder and whispered, "Looks like we're in luck. See that girl up ahead?" Kate indeed saw a brown-haired girl about a block ahead of them. She wore cut-off denim shorts and a pink tee shirt. She stooped to pick up a pop can someone had tossed on the side of the road and stick it in a plastic bag she was carrying. From the look of it, she had had a productive day collecting cans.
"Muggles recycle the metal," Mr. Cryer explained under his breath. "I'll bet she collects the cans, then turns them in at what they call a 'recycling center' in exchange for a little bit of spending money" Kate nodded appreciatively at such arcane knowledge. The girl was once again walking in their direction.
"What do you want me to do?" Kate whispered.
"For now, just try to look harmless."
About three driveways away, Mr. Cryer raised his voice. "Excuse me, Miss!" he said. A couple of neighbors out in their front yards took note of the pair's presence. Kate figured Mr. Cryer was trying not to seem like he was sneaking up on the girl. Wizarding kids were taught to be careful of strangers, and she assumed the same was true for Muggle kids. "I'm looking for 700 Redbud Way. Am I going the right direction?"
"Yeah, that's my house. Right at the corner."
"Your house?" Mr. Cryer pretended surprise. "You wouldn't be Jessica Robinson, would you?"
The girl shrunk back. It looked to Kate like she might be trying to decide whether to cross the street to get away from them. Kate flashed her most harmless-looking smile.
"I have a letter for Jessica Robinson," Mr. Cryer continued. He pulled an envelope from his jacket pocket and held it toward her. "Do you think we could go back to your house to give it to her? I'd also like to meet her parents."
The girl glanced from Mr. Cryer to Kate and back. "I'm Jessica Robinson," she finally said. Kate still thought it was special to get real mail from someone other than her parents or friends while she was away at school. Without taking her eyes off these strangers, Jessica said "Come on. My mom and dad are home."
"Thanks," Mr. Cryer said, offering her the letter. The envelope was made of parchment and sealed with wax onto which was stamped the Malkin Academy coat of arms: two cats raring on their hind legs on either side of a cauldron, above which levitated a book, wand, and pointed hat. Kate tried to make out the upside-down hand-written address. Jessica studied it as if it were a puzzle she were meant to solve:
Miss Jessica Robinson
700 Redbud Way
"Jessica!" A voice called from the front stoop of 700 Redbud Way. The tall brown-haired girl returned to the present. Her two visitors looked up in the direction of a slight, brown-haired woman who must have been Jessica's mother. "What's going on?"
"Go to your mom," Mr. Cryer said, loud enough for anyone to hear. "We'll catch up."
Jessica ran ahead with the envelope in her hand. She showed it to her mother and the two exchanged words neither Kate nor Mr. Cryer could make out. Mrs. Robinson eyed the pair suspiciously as they walked up her driveway.
Mr. Cryer was the first to the stoop. "Mrs. Robinson? My name is Corbin Cryer. I'm a teacher at Malkin Academy. It's a...private school. I'm happy to say your daughter has been accepted to attend, and I'd like to discuss the matter with you. Is this a good time?"
"Malkin Academy?" the woman asked, her brow furrowed. "I've never heard of it. Jessica goes to the public school. We've never applied—"
By this time Mr. Robinson had poked his head out the door to see what was going on. Jessica had obviously gotten her height from her imposing, muscular father.
"Mrs. Robinson, Mr. Robinson, Malkin offers a rather unique curriculum that we believe is perfectly suited for your daughter's needs. Perhaps if she could read her acceptance letter?"
"I'm sorry you've wasted your time. I don't think—"
"What has Jessica told you about Tom Walker?" Mr. Cryer interjected. Jessica's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.
Mr. Robinson now spoke up. "Jess's not the only kid Tom has picked on. He's finally getting some counseling, though. Things have gotten better. Jess doesn't like to talk about it. But what does that have to do with—"
"Yes," Mr. Cryer said, pulling a slip of parchment from inside his jacket. "It looks like Tom hasn't caused anyone any trouble since February the 18th." He turned to Jessica. "Do you have any idea why that might be?"
All three Robinsons now gave the appearance of spies whose cover was about to be blown.
"Might it possibly have something to do with the fact that young Mr. Walker was sent home early from school that day with a face covered with warts?"
Jessica examined the envelope once again. Her dad took it from her hands, flipped it over and read the return address. His hand began to tremble.
"Malkin Academy for the Magical Arts? What the...?"
"It seems Jessica is just the sort of young lady Malkin Academy is looking for." Mr. Cryer referred to his parchment. "Making it snow in her bedroom at age seven. Very impressive! A dancing a teddy bear at eight. Transfiguring Brussels sprouts into gumballs last September. And jinxing the school bully not four months ago." He looked up from his parchment. "Have I missed anything?"
"Maybe you'd better come inside," Mr. Robinson said.
Author's note: I wrote this before "The Cup of Kings," although I'm only now getting it into a form suitable for posting. If you recognize anything, it belongs to Ms. Rowling. All original characters, spells, and settings are my invention.