Many years had gone by since a wizard last dwelled in the small seaside town of Shorehaven. It had been so long, in fact, since the town had enjoyed the presence of a wizard, that the people of Shorehaven had begun to forget why a wizard was such a desirable thing for a town to possess.
Children would finish their bedtime prayers with the words, “and please send Shorehaven a wizard before too much longer”, but the words meant almost nothing to them, and little more to many of their parents. Wizards, as far as the younger generation of Shorehaveners was concerned, were a fantasy; something nice to dream of, but never seriously expected to come to pass.
The townspeople were surprised, then, when a wizard arrived one day. She was of middling height, with long twisting hair that was brown, grey, and white in different places, and wearing long robes the same colours as her hair. She looked very, very tired.
The only question on the town’s lips was whether the wizard had come to stay or she was merely passing through. She spent her first night in a boarding-house, where (to the tremendous disappointment of the proprietor and the other patrons alike) she requested a private room and took all of her meals within it, never venturing out into the common areas. There were many in the boarding house that night who hoped for a chance to converse with the wizard, or at the very least to catch a glimpse of her, and there were many in the boarding house that night who went to bed disappointed.
The following morning, the wizard walked past Marsh’s Stores in town, examining the glass-fronted noticeboard outside the shop and taking down notes in a small leather-bound book that she kept in the pocket of her robe. Then she walked out of town along the north road, towards the coast.
A few Shorehaveners were sufficiently intrigued by the wizard’s arrival that they attempted to follow her out of town, but ill luck befell all who tried. Gordon Harris the baker’s son stepped into a bog and ruined his socks and shoes. Amelia Connor the seamstress got her skirts so badly caught up in a patch of brambles that it took her almost an hour to free herself, and she came home scratched and bleeding. And Ghislaine Willis, who fancied herself something of a hedge-witch, became so lost while trying to follow the wizard that she found herself walking back into town along the south road, miles away from the north road that she’d taken out towards the coast in the first place.
A single cottage sat at the very edge of the cliffs, past the point where the north road ceased to be a road and turned into a path. It had lain empty for many years, almost as many as the town had been without a wizard. The notice announcing that this cottage was for rent was one of the oldest advertisements on the board outside Marsh’s Stores, with its print almost completely faded and its edges yellowed and curled.
The wizard decided almost immediately after viewing it that she would take the cottage. She made one last trip into town, to put down a year’s rent and to purchase some provisions from the store.
By this time, many of the townspeople were curious about the wizard, but everyone who attempted to walk out as far as her cliffside cottage to get a better look at her ran into the same kind of trouble as those who’d followed her out of town the day after her arrival — minor injuries and misfortunes, the sudden loss of their ability to navigate familiar roads, and in some cases a profound urge to turn around and check that they hadn’t left the front door unlocked or a pan boiling dry on the stove. Eventually people started to complain about the situation, lamenting that after so many years of waiting, they should suffer the misfortune of only a very unsociable wizard arriving in Shorehaven.
The Mayor was a popular person to complain to, because he was ostensibly the most powerful man in town. In his private moments the Mayor would laugh to himself about this assumption, knowing as he did that being the Mayor gave him no power whatsoever — it merely made him responsible for dealing with all the problems that other people couldn’t or wouldn’t deal with themselves.
For the first week, the Mayor listened to the town’s concerns about the new wizard with a solemn expression. He told each of them that he understood why they were worried — that he, too, was interested to learn more about the wizard — but that since it had been such a long time since the town had had any sort of wizard at all, everyone must be very patient. The wizard would reveal herself in her own good time; he was certain of it.
After three weeks had passed and there had been neither sign nor word of the wizard, however, and no further orders placed at Marsh’s Stores, even the Mayor began to lose his patience. He decided that the townsfolk had been respectful enough of the wizard’s privacy: he would force the issue. A wizard could hardly refuse an official visit from the Mayor, after all. And it would have been deeply undignified for the Mayor to have returned from attempting to visit the wizard with his legs scratched to pieces by thorns, his memory strangely absent, his socks and shoes ruined, or his sense of direction temporarily suspended, so he took Leonie with him as insurance.
Leonie was his only child, a quiet and unassuming person of around twenty-four years of age, who possessed a certain subtlety when it came to magic — it was said that Leonie’s mother, who by this time had been dead for almost as long as she’d been alive in the first place, had been a distant relative of the town’s previous wizard. The prestige of this connection had been one of the many reasons the Mayor had married her, and the fact that their only child showed the faintest hint of this familial skill had always been a source of particular pride for him.
Over the years, his child’s ability had manifested on only a few occasions. Once, when the town had been suffering a drought, Leonie had managed to sense a raincloud nearby, tugging it by some unseen means towards the wheat fields that lay beyond the town. And there had been the time when a very young Leonie had managed to calm a rabid dog that was blocking the road to the schoolhouse simply by speaking soothingly to it, in a voice that sounded strangely ethereal, and nothing at all like Leonie’s ordinary speaking voice.
Leonie did not enjoy being the Mayor’s daughter, in spite of the Mayor’s pride. For as long as Leonie could remember, people had watched constantly to see what the Mayor’s daughter might do, and to ensure she comported herself with the same dignity and respect that the Mayor himself assumed. Something deep within Leonie writhed and squirmed away from this attention, seeking out a more dark and private place where it could merely exist, unobserved. The demands of the position sat very uneasily with the Mayor’s daughter, who felt as an adult only very slightly mayoral, and not at all daughterly.
Leonie and the Mayor took their time walking along the north road, for Leonie had been born with one ordinary leg and another that tapered into nothingness halfway down the thigh. Leonie had hardly noticed this difference until the Mayor had made it clear that it was something to be managed carefully; as an adult, Leonie wore a prosthesis so artfully constructed that it was indistinguishable from a full-grown leg in every way, except for the fact that it caused Leonie to walk a little more slowly and carefully than other people. The small amount of magic that Leonie possessed had been very fortunate on the day when the rabid dog had wandered into town, given that running away at any speed had been out of the question.
Leonie could feel the wizard’s presence all along the north road, even before they made it past the edge of the town. The charms and glamours that had prevented curious individuals from trespassing upon the wizard’s hospitality until now were obvious to Leonie, glimmers faintly perceptible to the corner of the eye and easy enough to work around. They arrived at the wizard’s cottage just after midday, picking their way through the nettles and weeds that had grown over the path to the cottage door, which was closed.
The Mayor knocked, with an amount of force and ceremony befitting his status in the town. There was no answer. He knocked again, but still no answer. After his third knock was similarly ignored, he motioned to Leonie. Leonie’s knock was soft, gentle, and hesitating. After it had sounded, the wizard called out.
“It’s open. You might as well come in.”
The Mayor was old enough to remember a time when this cottage had not stood empty. It had been a pretty place then, full of light, with a lush garden surrounding the house on all sides. Now, even though the new wizard had been in residence for almost a month, it seemed a drear and dingy little hole. The floor had not been swept, half the shelves were bare and lined with a thick layer of dust, and the curtains, old and frayed and stained as they were, did a very thorough job of preventing any light from entering the house.
There were three rooms downstairs, the right-hand side of the cottage divided into a kitchen at the front and a sitting room at the rear, looking out over the sea. On the left side was one long room that the original owners had used for dining and entertaining. There were two bedrooms upstairs, but the Mayor assumed them to be out of use, given that the stairs had rotted and fallen in and no one had repaired them.
The wizard’s voice had come from the room on the left, but when Leonie and the Mayor went in, there was no sign of anyone there. Just as they were about to check the kitchen and the sitting room, they heard a groaning sound from the corner of the room.
There they found the wizard half buried in a makeshift bed, beneath a bundle of blankets on top of a broken old sofa.
“I ought to get up and greet you properly, I suppose, except I don’t want to,” said the wizard, an unseen hand pulling at the pile of blankets to reveal her mouth.
There were a few chairs scattered here and there around the room, and Leonie and the Mayor selected two of the least dirty and broken ones and pulled them over toward the sofa where the wizard lay.
“I am the Mayor of Shorehaven,” the Mayor began, in his most mayoral tone. “I would like to formally extend our warmest welcome to you on behalf of the town. It’s been a very long time since we’ve had a wizard dwelling near Shorehaven.”
“Oh dear,” said the wizard. “I was afraid this might happen.”
“Afraid what might happen?” asked the Mayor.
“That you’d all assume I’ve come here to be your new wizard,” said the wizard.
“Well, what have you come here for, if not that?” asked the Mayor, trying to hide his disappointment.
The wizard took a deep breath beneath her pile of blankets.
“I have come here to die,” she said mournfully.
The Mayor stared at Leonie, hoping the wizard could not see his expression.
“Oh,” he said, after too long a moment had passed. “Well, I’m very sorry to hear that.”
“Not as sorry as I am,” said the wizard. “My only wish is to die here in peace, but the people of Shorehaven keep bothering me.”
“We meant no disrespect,” said the Mayor.
“Ah, but respect is poor currency for a dying wizard to hoard,” said the wizard. “I neither relish nor require your respect; I merely ask to be left alone.”
The Mayor did not know what else to say. He had rehearsed a number of talking points that he imagined might make suitable conversation in the company of a wizard, though he’d been but a small boy himself when the old wizard had died. Now, with the new wizard apparently nearly as dead as the old one, the thought of attempting to make polite conversation suddenly seemed ghastly.
“Anything you need, anything that the town can provide for you,” he said instead. “You need only ask.”
In truth, the Mayor was not feeling particularly generous — he’d expected a healthy wizard with many long years of wizarding ahead of them, and he’d already overexcited himself at the thought of the benefits that such a wizard might bring to the town. Now, with those hopes dashed, there was a part of him that wanted nothing more than to leave the cottage and pretend that the dying wizard had never come to Shorehaven. But he feared for the town’s reputation; if word got out that a dying wizard had been treated with such disrespect, Shorehaven might never again attract a healthy one.
“Thank you,” the wizard groaned, “but I require nothing except privacy.”
The idea of staying when they were so clearly unwelcome made the Mayor feel awkward and uncomfortable, sensations that his position in the town normally insulated him from rather effectively. He cleared his throat, stood up, and motioned to Leonie to do the same. They left the wizard in a pile on the broken old sofa and went home.
Dinner that night at the Mayor’s residence was a dour affair, and not even Leonie could brighten the Mayor’s spirits. They both went to bed gloomy, and the next morning at breakfast it was clear that a good night’s sleep had only compounded the Mayor’s concerns about the wizard.
“It doesn’t seem right,” he said, applying a thin layer of marmalade to his crustless toast. “That she should come all the way here just to die alone in that cottage up on the cliffs.”
Leonie nodded and murmured and made all of the noises the Mayor expected from his only child.
“If only there were something we could do,” the Mayor continued. “Some way we could help.”
The Mayor looked up from his toast just as a ray of morning light struck the window of his breakfast room. Framed by this sunbeam, Leonie seemed gently radiant, and an idea formed.
“What if you were to go and assist her?” the Mayor asked.
“Me?” asked Leonie.
“Precisely,” said the Mayor. “You’re a great help to me here, of course, but I’m still comfortably within my prime. I could do without you for a few months; certainly long enough that the wizard might pass peacefully.”
“I thought she made it very clear that she didn’t want to be troubled by anyone from town,” said Leonie.
“Even so,” said the Mayor. “Think how it might look if people found out that we had a dying wizard staying just outside Shorehaven and we did nothing to help her.”
Leonie knew the Mayor well; well enough to know that when he said things like ‘think about how it might look’, he was thinking not only of the reputation of the town, but also the reputation of its Mayor. Although Leonie’s father had been Mayor long enough that many of the townsfolk had never known any other Mayor, he was constantly anxious about his position. He did not want to end up out of a job and forced to cut the crusts off his own toast, rather than having them cut off by someone else and served to him on a silver toast-rack.
Leonie did not want to go and help the wizard. Not because wizards were uninteresting, but because this particular wizard had made it abundantly clear that she wished to be left alone. The last time the Mayor had asked Leonie to do something unpalatable and potentially embarrassing, his only child had made the private decision that it would be the last time, and that next time, “no, that won’t be possible” would be the only answer given. But the Mayor was very persuasive, and his only child had little experience of disappointing him; the middle of the morning found Leonie walking up the north road again, this time with a letter in hand.
It was easy enough for Leonie to avoid the additional charms and hexes that the wizard had put up since the Mayor’s visit the day before, though the work was impressive for a wizard running up against the end of her stamina — once again they glinted, slightly listlessly, in a way that only the corner of Leonie’s eye could perceive. It was a sense that Leonie was well aware that most people in Shorehaven did not possess or even understand; one of the many strange feelings and sensations that Leonie had grown used to never talking about with other people, lest they distract from the importance of adequately performing the role of Mayor’s daughter in public.
When Leonie arrived, the door to the cottage was still unlocked, and the wizard lay in the exact spot where they’d left her the day before.
“I thought I told you to leave me alone,” said the wizard from beneath the pile of blankets.
“That would have been my preference too,” said Leonie, placing the Mayor’s letter on the end of the sofa nearest to the wizard’s head.
A skinny hand crept out from beneath the nest of blankets and snatched at the envelope.
“ ‘Please allow me to lend you my girl to ensure your comfort at this sad time, yours sincerely, the Mayor of Shorehaven’,” she read aloud.
Then the skinny hand crumpled up the piece of paper, which had been embossed with the Mayor’s name, title, address, and official seal, and tossed it into the fireplace.
“Fool,” she said, as Leonie continued to stand around, unsure whether to say or do anything. “To call you his girl. As though you were a girl. As though he owned you.”
Leonie felt very odd at that moment, as though the wizard had stumbled upon an unexpectedly pertinent truth.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re old enough to be a woman, for starters,” said the wizard. “Except you’re not a woman, are you? Or a man, either?”
“I’m not,” said Leonie, a strange feeling bubbling within that might have been anxiety or relief. “Is that what’s always felt wrong about being the Mayor’s daughter? Everyone has always assumed…”
“To hell with their assumptions!” cried the wizard, with more vigour than Leonie had realised her capable of. “You are what you are. Doesn’t matter what people think you are, or what they expect you to be. Now, tell me how you managed to get up here today. You weren’t deterred by my trickery yesterday morning, but the hexes I put down in the afternoon to stop anyone else approaching were sound.”
“I don’t know,” said Leonie, still reeling from the wizard’s previous observation. “I suppose I’ve always been able to perceive magic better than most people in Shorehaven.”
“Well, if someone has to come up here, I suppose I don’t mind as much if it’s you. It was everyone else that I was trying to keep away.”
“It seems a lonely thing, to die up here on your own,” said Leonie wistfully. “I’d be happy to keep you company.”
“Company is the last thing I need,” said the wizard. “If I needed company, I’d seek it out. But since you’re already here…”
Leonie took the hint. The cottage was in such a state of disarray that it was easy to find a place to start, because everything needed doing. First, Leonie swept the dust from the empty shelves and the corners of the room. Then they checked the wizard’s pantry, making a note of anything that might be needed from Marsh’s Stores in town. They boiled up a great quantity of hot water, reserving some of it for mopping, some for wiping down the windows, some for laundry, and the last of it for making tea, which the wizard accepted gratefully.
While the wizard drank the tea, Leonie carried on dusting, wiping, sweeping, and washing. By the late afternoon, the cottage was already looking significantly more presentable, even though there was still plenty more work to be done. The wizard didn’t have much food in the house, but Leonie did what they could, making a big pan of porridge and leaving a bowl of it near the wizard’s nest, covered with honey and nuts.
“I’m going to go back to town now,” they said in the late afternoon. “I’ll order some more things from Marsh’s Stores and bring them up, and I’ll speak to the carpenter about repairing the stairs. I’ll be back tomorrow morning.”
“Suit yourself,” said the wizard from beneath the pile of blankets where she still lay, unmoving.
Back at the Mayor’s residence, the Mayor was delighted to hear of Leonie’s progress and he encouraged his only child to go back to the wizard’s cottage first thing in the morning. And so Leonie did, carrying the supplies from Marsh’s Stores slowly up the north road. They found the wizard exactly where they’d left her the night before, but the bowl of porridge had been consumed entirely and licked clean.
Leonie spent the morning clearing out the kitchen and arranging the groceries in the pantry. With fresh provisions laid in, they were able to make a much more interesting lunch for the wizard than mere porridge: fresh mushroom stew with wild rice and a green salad. Again, they left a bowl and a plate near the wizard and went off to do other things, and again, when they returned, the bowl and plate were clean. Whatever fatal concern was troubling the wizard, Leonie mused, her appetite was certainly remarkable.
On the third day, Leonie walked up from town with the carpenter’s apprentice to make sure he found his way past the wizard’s enchantments. They spent much of the day weeding, raking, and digging in the garden that surrounded the wizard’s house on all sides while the carpenter’s apprentice sawed, hammered, and sanded.
The wizard did not make herself visible when Leonie brought in her lunch — soup made from the remains of the mushroom stew with fresh-baked bread — but when they brought her a cup of tea at the end of the day, after the carpenter’s apprentice had finished the job and gone home, the wizard’s head emerged from the nest of blankets, and she motioned to Leonie to sit down in the chair nearest the sofa.
“I’m glad all of that hammering and banging is finished,” said the wizard.
These were the first words she’d offered that weren’t in response to a direct question. Leonie nodded.
“Why don’t you sleep here at night, to save you dragging that leg up and down the road to town twice a day?” the wizard continued.
Leonie was startled. They’d mentioned nothing of their leg to the wizard, and indeed they’d been using the prosthesis for so many years that it now formed a well-integrated part of their gait; they were surprised that the wizard had been able to tell.
“It doesn’t trouble me,” they said.
“Of course it does,” said the wizard. “The ache in your hip. The tender part that sits in the socket all day, that you cover in socks and bandages so that it doesn’t ever get rubbed completely raw.”
Leonie looked at the wizard again, no less startled.
“How could you possibly know that?” they asked.
One of the wizard’s particular skills, and a focus for her magic, was seeing people exactly as they really were — something she’d hinted at the first day Leonie came up to the cottage on their own, when she’d debunked the myth of the Mayor’s daughter. She was adept at looking past the layers that everyone dressed themselves in, the faces and façades they wore for the rest of the world, in order perceive their deepest essences. That was how she’d known that Leonie wasn’t really a girl, even if they kept pretending they were for the benefit of the Mayor and the town. And the outline she’d perceived of Leonie with her magic, rather than with her eyes, included a leg that ended where nature had ended it, far short of the ground.
The wizard was loathe to explain how her magic worked, however, so she merely shrugged.
“The offer’s there if you’d rather not keep making the journey,” she said instead. “And if you want to take that leg off for an hour or two to give yourself a break, go ahead. It doesn’t trouble me.”
The idea of removing their leg in front of the wizard was on a par with the idea of removing all of their clothes and underwear, as far as Leonie was concerned; something they had never considered doing in front of any living person before. Their father loved to see Leonie walking proud and upright without any hint of pain or fatigue, and they had mastered the art of this performance so thoroughly that the idea that they might choose to stop performing it seemed entirely out of the question.
Their father hated to be reminded of his only child’s disability, and in the years since the first in a series of legs had initially been crafted for Leonie, they had never once taken any of them off in his presence. They knew, somehow, that to do so would be to violate a holy and entirely unspoken expectation that stood between them.
It was also one of the many reasons they had never seriously considered forming a romantic attachment with another person. No one, as far as Leonie was concerned, wanted to see their body as it truly was, and they had taken on the idea that it was their own profound responsibility to manage their body in such a way that it might not possibly offend anyone. This had grown to the status of another holy and unspoken duty, one to be performed privately and in silence, the pain and effort of it never to be hinted at in front of anyone else.
“It doesn’t trouble me,” they said again, more quietly this time.
The wizard did not believe them, but neither did she press the issue.
Leonie kept returning to the wizard’s cottage every morning, where they continued to put the place in order, and dreamt up meals to tempt even a dying wizard’s appetite. And every evening, when they returned to the Mayor’s residence, the Mayor asked them how the wizard was getting along, and whether they thought there was any chance of the wizard doing a spot of wizarding on behalf of the town at some point in the near future.
“She’s dying, Father,” Leonie would say every time the Mayor asked, which stunned him enough to prevent him from asking again the same evening, but not so much that he would not ask again the following evening.
And every afternoon, when the bulk of the day’s work was done, Leonie would sit with the wizard and drink tea. The wizard gradually became more communicative as the weeks went on, and she began to sit up properly in order to drink her tea, rather than sipping at it from the side of her mouth as she lay on the sofa. Indeed, as the wizard’s surroundings began to brighten up, so did the wizard.
And just as the wizard responded to the improvements that Leonie had made to the cottage, Leonie began to respond to small signs of improvement from the wizard. She mentioned one day, in passing, how much she might enjoy a scone with her afternoon tea. From that day on, during the quiet hour after lunch when the wizard took her nap, Leonie would stand in the kitchen conjuring up sweet things. It turned out that the wizard enjoyed cakes, biscuits, and brownies as much as she enjoyed scones, and Leonie enjoyed making them for her, and sitting with her in the late afternoon looking out over the ocean as they ate something fresh and small and sweet and drank their tea.
“Do you mind me asking what’s wrong with you?” they inquired one afternoon, no longer able to suppress their curiosity about what possible condition could be killing the perfectly healthy-looking wizard in front of them.
“It is a long, sad story,” said the wizard.
“I’d like to hear it, if you’re willing to tell it,” said Leonie.
The wizard sighed, and took a deep breath.
“Many years ago now, when I was a much younger wizard,” she began, “I wandered all around this world until I came to a forest. For as long as I could remember, my head had been full of spells and noises, wonders, and curiosities. But when I sat for a while beneath a great ancient tree in that forest, for the first time in my life I felt at peace.”
The wizard sighed again, more tenderly this time, before she continued.
“Given how thoroughly that sense of peace had eluded me until then, I began to imagine crafting a life for myself in those woods. I slept out beneath the forest canopy that summer, building myself a small hut day by day. There was a brook nearby, and in the evenings I would sit with my feet in the water, resting my body and allowing my mind to wander.
“One evening, I felt the presence of another with me on the bank of the stream. Every time I thought I was about to catch a glimpse of her, she slipped away from me. But I kept returning to the brook every evening, and eventually she took form one night, and sat beside me.
“She was a spirit of the forest, as curious about people and their wizards as I was about forest spirits and their magic. We danced around one another for months — metaphorically speaking, of course — before she finally kissed me. My hut was complete by then, and she agreed to live with me there for a time, to learn on an intimate level how human wizards conduct their private lives.
“We were very happy there together, for many years; I should have known that it would not last forever. No one has ever managed to keep a forest spirit captive for very long, not that I wanted to imprison her. I suppose it is a miracle that she stayed as long as she did. For what felt like an age, we lazed in the grassy glades together, splashed one another as we swam in the brook, slept beside one another each night. And then, one day, she was gone.
“I could not stay. The hut seemed empty without her. The whole forest seemed empty without her, even though I knew she lived on somewhere within it. The days of her sharing my life with me were over, and I was utterly bereft.
“It is said among my people that when a wizard tires of life, death must surely follow, and swiftly. After she left, I was more than tired of life. I felt nothing but emptiness. I ate little, slept either too much or too little, and as my strength waned, so did my magic. That is why I came here to Shorehaven to die, for there are few trees along the clifftops. I wondered if it might be easier to forget her in a place like this. To live out the final days of my diminution here.”
Leonie listened to the wizard’s story with interest, and they sat silent for a long time after the wizard had finished speaking.
“I’m sorry you lost her,” they said at last.
“So am I,” said the wizard mournfully.
“Is it not possible, though,” said Leonie, “that you might have been mistaken about the nature of your illness? I understand why you felt as though you were tired of living after she left you, but I’ve seen a great improvement in you since you came to Shorehaven.”
The wizard took offense at this, and made a huffing noise.
“I have been a wizard all my life,” she said. “Surely I ought to know whether or not I am dying.”
Leonie said nothing, nor did they give the wizard the pointed look that they strongly wished to. From their perspective, the wizard had only grown in strength and vigour as the weeks passed. She seemed less gaunt now, and her hair was shinier and less tangled, and she had even begun standing up from the sofa from time to time and walking out as far as the end of the garden behind the house to look out over the sea.
After this conversation, the wizard kept firmly to the sofa for several days, reverting to her previous position beneath a tangle of blankets, as if to prove to Leonie that she was indeed dying. Leonie considered asking the wizard whether she’d ever experienced a spell of low spirits before, if it might be possible that she’d mistaken the despair of such an episode for the fatal certainty of her own impending demise, but again they held their tongue.
Instead, Leonie set about clearing out the rooms on the upper floor of the house, which were now accessible thanks to the work of the carpenter’s apprentice. The bedsteads that had been left up there by the cottage’s previous inhabitants were still perfectly serviceable, so Leonie ordered new mattresses, linen, and curtains when they were in town, and asked to have them sent up. The wizard grudgingly agreed to temporarily remove some of the protective charms and spells along the road to the cottage so that the delivery people could bring up the mattresses.
“There’s no way I can manage those mattresses myself,” said Leonie sheepishly.
“There’s no need for you to walk up and down the road to town every day,” the wizard replied sharply. “Especially now that there’s a bedroom for you upstairs if you want it.”
Leonie said nothing, although they’d considered taking up the wizard’s previous offer. It would save them a lot of walking every day, and their father the Mayor had only become more insistent as time had gone by that the wizard ought to begin to do at least some wizarding for the town, regardless of the state of her health.
And they were tired of the Mayor referring to them as his ‘darling daughter’; ever since the wizard had confessed her perception of their true self to Leonie, they’d found it increasingly difficult to carry on the pretence of being the person that Shorehaven expected them to be. Life was slow and gentle up here on the cliff edge, and for the first time in their life they felt entirely unobserved.
“I’ll think about it,” they said this time, instead of ignoring the question altogether.
When they arrived at the cottage the next day, Leonie was surprised to see the wizard standing up near the window, wearing more than just a nightgown and looking out over the sea.
“Do you have much work planned for today?” she asked.
“Dusting, decorating the bedrooms, making an apple cake,” they replied.
“Anything you can’t put off until tomorrow?” the wizard asked. “Apart from the apple cake, which I’d very much like to eat later. Can you put together a picnic lunch while you’re at it?”
Leonie agreed to postpone the dusting and bedroom-decorating, and set about preparing the requested victuals, curious about the wizard’s intentions. When the apple cake was cooling on the kitchen windowsill and the picnic lunch had been packed up in a basket, the wizard nodded her satisfaction and strode out into the rear garden towards the edge of the cliff, which she stopped to look down over.
“Is there a path to the beach?” she asked.
Leonie shook their head.
“We’ll see about that,” said the wizard.
She knelt down at the far edge of the cliff and planted her hands firmly in the thin layer of grass and soil, massaging it gently. At first there was a faint vibration that grew more rumbling and distinct as the wizard continued her work; Leonie felt it radiating up through the bones of their right leg, and buzzing furiously where the prosthesis met the terminus of their left leg.
Slowly the edge of the cliff began to change shape, the rock rearranging itself beneath the command of the wizard’s fingers until a new form emerged amidst the cliff face: a narrow staircase that looked as though it had always been there.
“Can you manage?” the wizard asked.
Leonie looked at the staircase, anxiety creeping over them as they considered just how many steps there were, and just how uneven most of them looked. The Mayor had drilled into them over and over again how important it was that his daughter appear normal in public. ‘Normal’, in the Mayor’s eyes, meant things like never walking with a visible limp, and taking any number of stairs with equal amounts of agility and cheer. Leonie had internalised these lessons so deeply that most domestic staircases posed no challenge, but the stairs the wizard had just summoned into existence were an entirely different proposition.
They realised, however, that they were not exactly ‘in public’ out here with the wizard. Nor did they seriously feel compelled to maintain the pretence that they were the Mayor’s daughter, especially not so far out of sight of the rest of the town.
“I’ll be honest, I think it’s going to be a struggle,” they replied. “The leg is fine on shorter staircases, but this one might be beyond me.”
“How would you approach it if the leg wasn’t in the picture?” asked the wizard.
Leonie was instantly transported back to early childhood, a time they hadn’t thought about for many years, when they’d accepted their body exactly as it had been, and they’d had no concept of legs or propriety or the role of a Mayor, or indeed the role of a dutiful daughter. They’d been more than happy back then to pull themselves up and down staircases in a seated fashion; it was the Mayor who’d insisted they learn to walk up and down the stairs like any other person.
They took a deep breath. Then they began to untie the leather straps that anchored the leg to the girdle they wore just below their left hip. Once the straps were loosened, they tugged at the socket of the leg until it popped off, and then slipped off the thin covering they wore over the tapered area where the end of their natural leg met the beginning of the prosthesis. Instead of placing the leg down carefully, as their father had always insisted they do, because of its great importance and the tremendous expense of its construction, they let it fall to the ground with a thud.
Standing before the wizard without their prosthesis, Leonie felt strangely exposed, but the wizard merely nodded and smiled.
“It’s nice to see you as you are, for a change,” she said.
Then the wizard began to clamber down the steep, narrow staircase towards the sea, hitching up the skirt of her robe and carrying the picnic basket while Leonie followed on their backside, their trousers rolled up as far as their right knee and the terminus of their left leg. By the time they reached the short pebble beach that lay between the base of the cliff and the sea, Leonie’s arms burned from the exertion, but the effort left them feeling strangely exhilarated rather than worn out.
They followed the wizard down the beach, the sensation of the smooth pebbles beneath their right foot a delight as they hopped along. The Mayor had disapproved of hopping almost as much as he’d disapproved of taking staircases from a seated position; Leonie was surprised to find that they were easily strong and agile enough to hop the distance to the shoreline comfortably. The Mayor had been so insistent that they needed the leg in order to function that they’d never stopped to consider whether this was actually true.
The sea was fresh and salty and just a little too cold for comfort. After stripping off her clothes and leaving them just beyond the reach of the waves, the wizard began swimming, and Leonie joined her. They swam side by side for a while, pausing occasionally to tread water, and then they returned to the beach, where they lay in the sun until their bodies were mostly dry again.
The wizard rolled towards Leonie, stroking their arm, her lips parted and her eyes questioning. Leonie shrank away from her touch, not entirely understanding the expression on the wizard’s face. They turned onto their left side, covering their thin, short left leg as much as they could with the sturdy bulk of their right. The wizard took Leonie’s cue and did not pursue the matter; when they went back up to the cottage in the late afternoon, she strode on ahead as Leonie worked their way up backwards. At the top of the cliff, they sat on a rock and reattached the prosthesis, easing the end of their left leg into its socket and feeling the dull, familiar pain in their hip as they stood and began to bear weight on it again.
The wizard attempted no further advances that afternoon. Leonie finished up a few chores and left the wizard some supper. The wizard did not want to appear as though she was watching them, but she couldn’t help noticing how they’d turned inward after she’d reached out to them: the pain and confusion visible on their face in moments when Leonie believed the wizard was not looking, the fact that their gait seemed clumsier somehow now that they’d reattached the leg. As they went to leave, the wizard caught their arm.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather stay the night?” she asked.
Leonie pulled away again, their eyes flushing with hot tears even as they tried to blink them back. On the return journey to town, their mind swirled with memories and emotions, things they’d steadily and dutifully repressed in order to more deeply inhabit the role of the Mayor’s daughter. A single, sweet kiss shared with a girl from school, never repeated for fear of what people might think if they found out. Their leg, and the extent to which they’d allowed themself to turn it into an excuse never to become intimate with anyone. But the wizard had seen them without it, and hadn’t shied away; she had perceived their lower left leg’s absence as a core component of Leonie, a radiant part of their truth rather than something to be obfuscated.
Dinner at the Mayor’s residence that evening was subdued. The Mayor could tell that something was wrong with Leonie, but couldn’t fathom what the problem might be. When he enquired as to whether the wizard was dying at long last, Leonie’s response surprised him.
“No, father, it’s not the wizard. She’s doing well.”
“Then what is it that troubles you, child?”
Leonie’s next response surprised even Leonie.
“My hip aches terribly from all the walking I’ve been doing back and forth to the wizard’s house, and I’m afraid that a sore patch is forming where my leg sits in the socket of the prosthesis.”
The Mayor’s eyes widened, and an expression as sad as the one Leonie had been wearing all evening crossed his face. But he said nothing more about the wizard or Leonie or their leg, just as Leonie had expected he wouldn’t. And in that moment, they understood that a decision they hadn’t even realised they’d been contemplating had just made itself.
The following morning, the wizard stood anxiously in the cottage doorway. Leonie was late, much later than usual, and the wizard was afraid she’d driven them away with a single wordless touch on the beach, and that they might never come back. As she watched, however, a figure emerged along the road from Shorehaven, moving slowly and springily. As the figure drew closer, the wizard saw that it was Leonie hopping along the road, the prosthetic leg and a pair of crutches that the Mayor would have preferred them not to own strapped to their back.
Leonie was annoyed at how long the journey had taken, even though they’d set out with plenty of time to spare. It was only a small annoyance, though; it paled in comparison to their delight in finding that they were easily fit and strong enough to make the journey from town without the assistance of the prosthesis.
Leaving town, they’d seen people they’d known their entire life staring at them and whispering. And although they couldn’t hear any of those whispers, they could easily imagine what the people of Shorehaven were saying. Goodness, there goes Leonie-the-Mayor’s-daughter without her leg. Perhaps it’s broken. Maybe that good-for-nothing wizard is going to fix it for her. Poor little dear. What a shame.
But each hop they’d made past the town boundary had felt like a leap of triumph, the energy and propulsion of every successive step batting away the dreadful comments they imagined the townsfolk were whispering to one another. Every time their right leg landed on the road, it seemed to reinforce some deep, unadulterable part of themself: they were not the Mayor’s daughter, there was nothing broken about the leg that nature had given them, nothing about them was a shame, and they were categorically not a poor little dear.
The wizard tried to appear nonchalant as Leonie approached the cottage, though her face was somewhat flushed. Leonie did not immediately comment on their journey or the leg, which they left propped in the hallway for the time being, but they did announce a change that made the wizard very happy.
“I’ve told the Mayor not to expect me back tonight,” they said. “Assuming your offer of an overnight stay still stands?”
“It does,” said the wizard, and when she slowly approached Leonie and placed her hand around their waist, they did not pull away this time.
As they kissed, Leonie realised that their anxiety at the thought of being intimate with another person had melted away entirely, only to be replaced with a different concern.
“I’m not sure I can measure up to a forest spirit,” they said, blushing.
“If I wanted to be with a forest spirit, I’d go back to the forest,” said the wizard. “I like you just the way you are.”
The people of Shorehaven complained at length about the town’s great misfortune during the many years that followed. To have been without a wizard for so long, only to have one arrive who showed no interest in using her magic to benefit the town or its people was a heavy burden for any town to bear. They felt tremendously ill-used, both by fate and by the wizard herself, and rather than teaching their children to pray for a wizard to come to Shorehaven, they now taught them to curse the wizard who had arrived, for her selfishness and lack of community spirit. Some even said that they wished the wizard would hurry up and die, as she’d said she was going to, for she had done absolutely nothing to help the town, nor any of its inhabitants.
That was not true, however; Leonie blossomed at the cottage on the cliffside. They managed to persuade the wizard to make an exception in her charms and hexes for their father, that he might come up and visit them occasionally, and the wizard agreed, so long as Leonie wasted no further energy pretending to be the Mayor’s daughter.
The Mayor was made to understand that Leonie would no longer live with him, that they had tried a life of service in the town of Shorehaven and it had not suited them, and that they did not particularly enjoy being called “she” or “daughter” when those ideas were so foreign to the sense of self that the wizard’s love and company had solidified within them.
The Mayor was also made to understand that the wizard would not live to serve the town of Shorehaven either, even though the wizard was indeed not dying, and no matter how much the town might desire her service. Much of the Mayor’s professional life from that point on consisted of placating the townspeople on behalf of the wizard, and it was true that he did not enjoy his job quite so much once the town realised that the wizard was not inclined to help them in any meaningful way. He tried to point out to the townsfolk, as the wizard had pointed out to him, that they had managed perfectly well for many years without any wizard at all, but this was cold comfort as far as most Shorehaveners were concerned.
Finally, the Mayor was made to understand that any future wearing of the prosthetic leg would be done entirely on Leonie’s terms. The first time he visited the cottage, they sat in a chair with the leg leaning against a bookcase in the living room, hopping into the kitchen as needed. It seemed to pain the Mayor to see this, but when he asked whether there was anything wrong with the leg, Leonie told him unceremoniously that they would no longer be wearing it purely for his comfort — only for their own, on the occasions when it was truly comfortable to do so.
And the Mayor had wrung his hands together, and said that he’d only ever wanted his only child to be happy and comfortable — and that surely the key to being happy and comfortable was to be as much like other people as possible, which was why he’d always insisted about the leg. But he was capable of understanding that he had been wrong, and of realising that the price of a relationship with his only child meant never mentioning his own preferences regarding their leg, or calling them “daughter”.
And so Leonie remained in the cottage with the wizard, baking cakes to enjoy with her in the afternoon, swimming in the sea with her as often as they liked, working alongside her in the garden and talking about magic in a way that they both knew no other Shorehaveners would understand. Up on the cliffside, surrounded by the peace of the wind and the waves, they set aside all thoughts of how a Mayor’s daughter ought to appear or behave, and allowed themself merely to be.