Read by David Tennant
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Xar and Wish are on the final leg of their journey — first stop: The Mine of Happiness. Here, starvation is never far away for the Magical creatures who toil in its horrible depths. Xar and Wish must escape and fast; Xar needs to take control of his ever-growing Witchstain, and Wish must achieve her Destiny. But the Tazzelwurm is in their way, a grotesque monster who threatens to block every entrance.
Time is not on their side, but the forests are calling them. Will their combined strength be enough for the biggest quest so far: to defeat the Kingwitch once and for all?
You will find out at last WHO I AM…
I am a character in this story
Who sees everything,
Have you guessed who I am yet?
You will find out at last, for this is the end.
But DO NOT CHEAT and look ahead, just
I should warn you, however, before we start,
Someone in this story is going to die.
I see it and I know it. There is nothing I can do.
I told you these woods were dangerous.
The Unknown Narrator
1. This Isn’t Going to Help Wish’s Fear of Small Spaces
Deep in the heart of the Emperor of Iron Warriors’ territory, there was a mine.
This mine was called the Mine of Happiness, but there was very little happiness going on in this particular mine. In fact, absolutely the opposite, there was quite a lot of misery.
Nearly a mile underground, deep in this dreadful iron mine, three children were crawling down tunnels so narrow they had to wriggle wormlike on their tummies.
These tunnels were just above the water table, and only children were small enough to squeeze into spaces this tiny. So it was children who were braving the terrors of the deepest darkness. It was children who were taking out their hammers and their tools, and scraping out the rocks that contained the iron ore that would later be smelted. It was children who were loading the carts, and pulling them behind them on their hands and knees, up to the upper levels.
It was dark, very dark. A kind of dark that choked around you and suffocated you, and felt like it was going to swallow you up.
The three ragged, hungry children who were currently squirming through these terrible tunnels, trying not to panic, were Xar, thirteen-year-old second son of the king of Wizards; Wish, thirteen-year-old daughter of the queen of Warriors; and Bodkin, thirteen-year-old Assistant Bodyguard to Wish.
Let me introduce you to these three unlikely heroes.
Xar, as I said, was the thirteen-year-old second son of the king of Wizards. His name was pronounced “Zar”—I don’t know why, spelling is weird. Xar was the kind of boy who meant well, but acted first and thought later, and he was partly the reason why the three children were in all this trouble in the first place. Wizards aren’t born with Magic—their Magic comes in when they are about twelve years old. Xar’s Magic had not come in yet, and so he had set a trap to catch a Witch and use its Magic for himself. As you can imagine, this was not a very good plan, and as a result of this, Xar had a Witch-stain on his hand that was beginning to control him.
Xar had a number of companions. Six sprites, and three hairy fairies, who were buzzing slow and sad around Xar as he wriggled forward, and the glow from their stick-insect bodies provided some light in that dark place. But this was an iron mine, and Magic is allergic to iron. So the iron that surrounded the sprites and the hairy fairies was making them fly sluggish and sad, weighing down their wings and confusing them so much that Ariel, the largest of Xar’s sprites, couldn’t even fly at all, and he was hopping along after them, like a bright glowing grasshopper, his lovely leaf wings dragging slowly in the mud.
Xar also had a talking raven called Caliburn. Caliburn was supposed to keep Xar out of trouble, and the worry and the general impossibility of this task meant that Caliburn’s feathers were falling out.
Xar had other companions, too large to join this secret operation, so three snowcats, a werewolf, and a great Longstepper High-Walker giant called Crusher were hidden outside in the forest, anxiously waiting for the return of the three heroes.
The last of Xar’s companions, and his favorite, was an eager little hairy fairy called Squeezjoos, and he had been captured by the Kingwitch, so nobody knew where he was.
The eyes of the sprites were lit up green as emeralds, blinking on and off as they hissed “danger danger danger” to themselves, sometimes varying to “get out, get out, get out” or even more alarmingly, and at a dreadfully high pitch, “We’re trapped! We’re trapped! We’llnevergetoutofHERE!”—and this didn’t really improve the mood of the situation, as you can imagine. It made it hard to relax.
Xar was whistling and trying to pretend that he wasn’t frightened at all.
The second hero was Wish, who was the thirteen-year-old daughter of Sychorax, Queen of the Warriors. Wish was a curious little matchstick of a girl, with a kind but extremely determined expression on her face. She had hair that stuck out too wispily, as if it had hit some unnoticed spot of static electricity, and a black patch over one eye. Warriors, of course, are not supposed to be Magic. But Wish had a secret. Hidden behind her eyepatch, Wish had an extraordinarily powerful Magic eye, and this eye had a Magic-that-works-on-iron. Wish was a person of great destiny, for nobody had ever been born before with this kind of Magic, and the Witches were desperate to get hold of it, for it would make them all-powerful.
Wish had companions too.
Wish’s Magic was so strong that it made things around her come alive, and she was currently accompanied by a number of enchanted objects, all made out of iron. An Enchanted Spoon, who was her oldest, and indeed only friend, when she was living in her mother’s iron fort. The Enchanted Spoon was hopping along beside Bumbleboozle, helping the sprite along, and scooping up any little sprites if they were lagging behind. And then there were an Enchanted Key and an Enchanted Fork, who were both in love with the spoon. And a sprinkling of Enchanted Pins, scattering and reforming, jumping and cartwheeling after them all in little prickly clouds.
Wish was scared of small spaces so she was finding their current situation particularly hard. She was singing the “Warrior Marching Song” under her breath as she squirmed forward, to give herself courage, so her song of “NO FEAR! That’s the Warriors’ marching song! NO FEAR! We sing this as we march along!” was trying to drown out the sprites’ rather unhelpful high-pitched cry of “We’re trapped! We’re trapped! We’llnevergetoutofHERE!”
I’m not really in a tunnel, a mile underground, Wish tried to think to herself, as the dark crowded in on her. She scraped her knees as she crawled forward, her hair all on end as if it were alive and brushing the ceiling. Wish could feel the rough surface of the rock above because something to do with her Magic meant that her hair seemed to have nerves in it like her fingers, especially when she was alarmed like this.
I’m not really so frightened I feel like I might be sick any moment… thought Wish to herself. I’m in a wide open space… the sun is shining… this is all fine… it’s fine…
The third, and perhaps most unlikely hero was Bodkin, the thirteen-year-old Assistant Bodyguard to Wish.
Bodkin was a skinny long twig of a boy, who liked following the Warrior rules, and this was a bit of a problem, because for the last year he had been breaking so many Warrior rules it was difficult to know where to begin. He should not have let Wish join up with Xar, because Xar was a Wizard, and the first rule of being a Warrior was that Wizards and Warriors should never be friends. And he certainly shouldn’t be helping Wish and Xar run away from their parents, and go down mines.
Bodkin had only been made Wish’s bodyguard in the first place because he had come out top in the Advanced Art of Bodyguarding exams, and her regular bodyguard had caught a nasty autumn cold. Every now and then, like when they got into an absolute skin-crawling nightmare of a situation like this one, Bodkin couldn’t help wishing that this had never happened.
Bodkin had a slight problem as a bodyguard, which was that he had a tendency to fall asleep in times of danger, and although he had made great progress with this problem, he still had to concentrate very hard on keeping his eyes open. One of Wish’s pins was helping him stay awake by jabbing him sharply in the bottom when it saw him yawning.
“Come on, everyone!” said Xar, impatiently looking over his shoulder as he crawled through the tunnel at the front of their little crawling procession. “You’re lagging behind! Follow me… I’m the leader…”
“Oh dear… we shouldn’t really be here… there are terrible creatures down here…” moaned Bodkin. Just then, he noticed a flickering light coming from a candle… with a helmet attached. He fastened it to his head, continuing behind Xar and Wish. “What about Bluecaps? What about Knockers? What about the Tatzelwurm?”
At the mention of that last name, the sprites gave little shrieks of horror and started flying around in desperate circles, like moths sent crazy by a light. The Enchanted Spoon was so terrified he plunged headfirst into the ground, under the childish illusion that if he couldn’t see anyone else, they couldn’t see him.
“Don’t say that name!” whispered Wish furiously. “You’re making everyone panic!” And then she added, more loudly, “There’s absolutely no evidence that any of these creatures actually exist…”
The sprites relaxed a little, and the fork and the key dug the spoon out of the ground and helped him to stand up on his stem again, very shaken, poor spoon, and wobbling from side to side.
“Okay, okay, but just remind me,” said Bodkin, “how we have gotten into this mess in the first place? Why are we here anyway? Is this really necessary?”
“Oh for mistletoe’s sake!” exploded Xar. “I told you all we shouldn’t have come, but none of you listened to me! But now we are here, we just have to make the best of it, and get out of here as quickly as possible and—”
But Xar was interrupted by Bumbleboozle crying out, in a voice so screechily shrill that it shredded Wish’s nerves like a cat having its tail pulled:
“STOP!” shrieked Bumbleboozle. “STOP!”
Bumbleboozle was a sweet little dozy dormouse of a hairy fairy, who made a noise like a bumblebee when she flew.
“I thinks…” whispered Bumbleboozle, putting five of her eight legs on her little fuzzy face in horror, “we mights be losssssst… bbbzzzz…”
She ended this terrible statement with an attempt at a buzz that fizzled out miserably.
The fork did an emergency handstand onto the top of Wish’s head and wound its prongs around her hair, tugging the individual hairs so exquisitely that she cried out with pain. Hinkypunk the sprite ran around in circles shouting, “Don’t panic! Don’t panic! Don’t panic!” so hysterical with fear himself that he ran right up the walls and upside down across the ceiling, and back again.
“Bumbleboozle’s right…” hissed Tiffinstorm, drawing from her quiver a sharpened thorn, as if that tiny stab of a pinprick would protect her from the unholy horror of a Bluecap. “I can’tsss hardly hear the otherss anysmore…”
It was true.
The mine was full of children and other magical creatures who were also working as miners, and only a few minutes ago the bouncing sound of axe on rock had filled the tunnel with bright ringing echoes. The sad songs of goblins, of kobolds and the smaller elves, lamenting the dimming of their Magic and the terrible heartbreaking toil of their work, had tumbled through the subterranean shafts, with haunting melancholy.
Now that sound was muffled and distant.
Wish and Bodkin froze deathly still, stretching out their hearing and their earsight into the darkness, longing, willing the noise to be louder than it was.
Xar turned around and crawled over to them.
“We can’t be lost,” said Xar crossly. “I’m the leader, and I’m brilliant, aren’t I, Bumbleboozle?”
“Yes,” whispered Bumbleboozle reluctantly, in a tiny and not very convincing voice. “You’s brilliant…”
At this point the trumpet in Xar’s backpack made a small but distinct raspberry noise.
“I AM brilliant!” objected Xar.
PARP! replied the trumpet, a little louder, and even more impolitely.
Xar sighed. The Enchanted Trumpet had been a present from Perdita of Pook’s Hill, and it had a habit of making a rather rude raspberry noise whenever anybody lied, or boasted, or even exaggerated a little. This was very annoying, because Xar loved playing the trumpet, but he also had a tendency to garnish the truth. If the beastly trumpet kept on embarrassing him like this, he would have to get rid of it.
You see, this is why I miss the old Squeezjoos so much, thought Xar longingly. SQUEEZJOOS would say I was brilliant, and Squeezjoos wouldn’t have to lie. Squeezjoos would really mean it… I told them we shouldn’t have come here… I TOLD them we should have been rescuing Squeezjoos instead, but did they listen to me? Oh no…
The thought of Squeezjoos stiffened Xar’s resolve.
They couldn’t get stuck here; they had to get back to Squeezjoos.
“Look,” said Xar briskly. He could just about sit upright in the tunnel. He got out the Spelling Book to show the others. The Spelling Book was a magical book with over a million pages in it, and Xar typed in the letters that would take him to the maps section.
“I’ve been following the map. I haven’t been making this up,” said Xar as he reached the page that showed the map of the meandering tunnels that were the Mine of Happiness. Their own route was marked in bright gold, blinking on and off helpfully, and they were quite clearly going in the right direction. There were even little illustrations of themselves, delightfully animated and cheerful, crawling steadily through the illustrated passages to where they wanted to be.
It was all very cheering.
“Oh thank goodness for that…” said Wish as she peered over Xar’s shoulder. “The map’s saying we’re going in the right way…”
“I’s so glad I’s didn’t panic,” said Hinkypunk to the other sprites, all letting out whooshes of breath in relief.
“Of course we’re going the right way,” said Xar. “I told you we were, didn’t I? I’m very good at map-reading because I’ve spent such a lot of my life running away and—”
Xar broke off, not just because the trumpet in his backpack was making a succession of rude and musical noises, but also because he had a sudden, particularly sharp twinge of pain in his right hand, the one with the Witch-stain on it.
This hand had a continual dull aching agony to it, painful as a burn, and it seemed to have a spooky life of its own. Something in the nerves of Xar’s fingers was trying to pull him in its own weird direction, and it was deeply unsettling.
One of Xar’s good qualities was that he didn’t make a fuss about physical discomfort, so he tried to ignore the constant spasms and twitches and he never complained, so the others did not know how hard this pain was to forget and how sorely it tormented him.
2. Four Hours Earlier
I’m afraid I’ll just leave Xar and Wish and Bodkin facing that unknown creature a mile underground while I turn back time for a second to answer Bodkin’s question about how on earth they had gotten into this mess in the first place.
It doesn’t seem a very good time to leave them, but frankly, everything is so hectic in their lives at the moment that now is as good a time as any.
And I know that in real life turning back time is impossible, but I am the god of this story, so I have rather more Magic than is good for me.
Four hours earlier, Xar and Wish and Bodkin were hidden in the unforgiving prickles of a gorse bush outside the Mine of Happiness, trying to decide whether to go inside. Thick flakes of snow were drifting down on their upturned faces.
Although the climate was colder in the Bronze Age, it rarely snowed in October. But perhaps the freezing blood and breath of the Witches, returning to the wildwoods like dark feathery locusts, had had an effect on the weather, for this had been the chilliest autumn in living memory. It had begun to snow in early September, and a month later, the ground was hard as iron and the air was sharper than the bite of a Frost-sprite, so freezing that it hurt the children’s noses to inhale it, and their breath misted out of their mouths as if they were three little dragons.
The three children were looking up in terror at a great cliff soaring up in front of them. Halfway up the cliff there was the entrance to the mine, gaping like the open jaws of a dreadful monster. Awful sounds were coming out of that abhorrent threshold. A cacophony of moaning and groaning, and terrifying and unexpected explosions, and the ring of axe on stone, for even though it was too early in the morning for the sun to even think about rising, all the poor souls caught up in the belly of that mine were already working, without a break or ever seeing daylight.
Huge, chained Climbing Lumpenogres were carrying the iron ore out of the mine entrance in immense sacks on their backs, and taking it down to the bottom of the cliff, and then on to the smelting furnaces, fires that burned with such ferocity that the snow all around had melted away and half the trees were scorched.
Scarier still, even though the children did not realize it, their gorse-bush hiding place wasn’t doing its job, and a pair of malevolent eyes was already watching their every move…
“Why are we even thinking of breaking into this mine?” groaned Xar, shaking his arm convulsively, as if he could somehow rattle it right off his shoulder and get rid of the pain forever. “I thought the plan was to find the Kingwitch and say that if he takes away the last bit of Witchblood from Squeezjoos and me, Wish will use her Magic to let him out of his iron prison…”
“Yes, that’s the plan,” said Wish enthusiastically. “And then you and Squeezjoos will be saved, and then we can fight the Kingwitch with the spell to get rid of Witches, and we will expel those Witches forever and ever!”
“The plan is BRILLIANT!” said Xar, shaking his fist in excitement.
“The plan is TERRIBLE,” said Bodkin, shaking his head in despair.
It was rather tough on poor Bodkin, as a feet-on-the-ground sort of person, to have to deal with Wish and Xar, who were both hopelessly unrealistic in their relentless optimism. It was like being dragged around by a couple of enthusiastic puppies with a death wish.
“Terrible or not, we need to GET ON WITH THE PLAN!” said Xar. “We’ve already GOT all the ingredients for the spell to get rid of Witches—we should just find the Kingwitch and fight him absolutely RIGHT THIS SECOND!”
“Patience, Xar, patience,” said Caliburn, very harassed. “In order for the spell to work, the ingredients have to be mixed in a Cup of Second Chances, and you said your older brother, Looter, has the cup.”
“Yes,” said Xar moodily. “My father gave the Cup of Second Chances to Looter for his birthday last year. Typical. Looter gets all the best presents because he is my father’s favorite.”
“But are we absolutely SURE that Looter is here in this mine?” said Bodkin. Part of Bodkin was still hoping that someone was going to say, “No, Looter’s not here. He’s skipping through the Mystic Meadows on his way to your lovely old Wizard fort home without a care in the world; you can catch him if you hurry”—but now it was Bodkin who was being unrealistic, because the Witches had burned Xar and Looter’s lovely old Wizard fort home down to a ring of burning tree stumps in an act of totally unnecessary maliciousness and vengeance.
“The great-chunking-brute-of-a-boy-called-Looter is definitely here,” said Ariel, eyes glowing green. “The Droodsssss shut down the learning place at Pook’ssss Hill, so Looter and everyone else had to leave. And then they were captured by the emperor’s guards and brought here.”
“But even if Looter is in the mine, there’s no guarantee that he’ll give the cup to me…” Xar pointed out. “Looter hates me for some reason, I have no idea why…”
“Oh, I can’t think either,” said Bodkin sarcastically. “Maybe it’s your habit of doing things like turning him into a Graxerturgleburkin and not turning him back again for another three months?”
“Oh yes.” Xar grinned. “I’d forgotten about that trick… that was a good one…”
That cheered Xar and the sprites up. They forgot they were in imminent danger and the gorse bush shook with their giggles so violently that snow came raining down off it in great fluffy clumps. “Ooh that wasss funny…” giggled Bumbleboozle. “And remember when we made Looter’s spelling staffs go all floppy?”
“And when I’s put Itchy-sprites in his knickers?” Timeloss grinned.
It became clear why Looter might not be all that fond of his annoying younger brother.
“Anyway,” said Wish. A very obstinate look had come over her sweet little face. “Looter and all our friends have been captured because of US, and it’s our job to make amends and rescue them. And Looter is going to be so pleased to be rescued, of course he’ll forgive you for the Graxerturgleburkin episode, Xar…”
As soon as Wish put the idea into his head, Xar had an image in his mind of Looter being pathetically grateful. Looter saying, “I always underestimated you, Xar.” Looter hugging him, saying, “I was only ever mean to you all those years because I was jealous.”
It was a good picture, and it made Xar pause.
Maybe it was worth doing this little detour, just to have the pleasure of Looter on his knees in front of Xar, thanking him for everything.
“Okay, then,” said Xar thoughtfully, “we’ll just nip in and quickly rescue Looter and then we’ll get on with our original plan. So how do we get into this mine? It’s heavily guarded.”
“We volunteer!” said Wish enthusiastically.
“Brilliant,” said Bodkin gloomily. “That’s not hopelessly unrealistic and optimistic AT ALL. Now we don’t just have ONE Terrible Plan, we have TWO. We’re taking a detour on our first Terrible Plan, to kill ourselves with another. Marvelous!”
The trumpet inside Xar’s backpack made rude noises at sarcasm too.
At that point, they were attacked.
I hope you haven’t forgotten the pair of eyes watching them malevolently in the darkness? The owner of that pair of eyes launched itself at them, in a screeching, spitting, blazing charge, screeching,
3. An Unexpected Attacker
They were all taken completely by surprise.
Luckily the owner of this pair of eyes wasn’t very large and it attacked the fur hat on Bodkin’s head, apparently under the impression that it was a fierce animal.
Bodkin fainted, and whatever-it-was flew off with Bodkin’s hat and tore it to pieces on the ground in what would have been a very distressing attack if the attacking creature hadn’t been so small and the hat hadn’t been so un-alive and—hatlike.
In about thirty seconds the hat was reduced to a hundred little pieces of fluff in the snow, and the minute attacking creature desisted, stomping on the last fragments with triumphant savagery. “Takess that, yous furry wickednesss!” said the tiny animal, and now that it had stopped stamping, and was still and turned its large, twitching eyes upward toward them, they could see for the first time who it was.
“Eye of newt and toe of frittering frog!” gasped Xar. “It’s Squeezjoos! Wish, don’t spell him!”
For Wish had lifted up her eyepatch ready to use her Magic eye on the tiny, unknown, but clearly vicious assailant.
“Oh, Squeezjoos, I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see you!” cried Xar, opening his arms wide in excited joy. “How did you escape?”
In answer, Squeezjoos just looked up at him from the mound in the snow of what-had-recently-been-Bodkin’s-hat. A low growling came from his furry throat, and his top lip curled back, revealing his pin-sharp incisors.
“Squeezjoos?” said Xar, more uncertainly. “What’s the matter? It’s me. Xar, you don’t growl at me…”
“Don’t listen to Xar, keep your eyepatch up, Wish, and be ready to spell if necessary,” said Caliburn. The old raven was shivering with horror. “I don’t think Squeezjoos is quite himself.”
Caliburn was right.
Poor little Squeezjoos was virtually unrecognizable. He was a hemlock green so nightshade poisonous it smoked with venom. Shaking, his eyes glowing a bright nauseous yellow, the sprite was followed by a hum of dark infesta-pests, sickening tiny menaces that bite insects to make them lose their own survival instincts, and serve as hosts for the infesta-pest larvae.
Praise for The Wizards of Once:"A rollicking adventure tale and coming-of-age story rolled into one enjoyable package...Readers will fall in love with the imaginative worldbuilding and humorous dialogue and asides...A delightful magical romp."—Kirkus
- "A clever and fresh new series.... Cowell fans will be elated to have a new world to get to know, and they'll welcome the author's familiar writing style and humor."—BCCB
- "The tongue-in-cheek voice combines with scribbly b&w interior illustrations...to sustain a sense of wonder and mayhem from start to finish. Cowell skillfully mixes adventure with silliness in a satisfying story."—Publishers Weekly
- "Cowell crafts two believable and lovable main characters...A strong new series starter by a best-selling author."—School Library Journal
- "The first in a series, this book will delight and engage readers of fantasy both young and old."—School Library Connection
- "A new fantasy world fizzing with evil, magic, Iron Age history, laugh-out-loud jokes and a huge cast of memorable characters. Another bestseller is born."—The Daily Mail (UK)
- "The detail of Cowell's world is a delight...This one will run and run."—The Observer (UK)
- On Sale
- May 25, 2021
- Hachette Audio