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“The Seventh Son” by Llinos Cathryn Thomas

The things we found out on my brother’s birthday changed our family.

My parents were very proud of Peter. He was going to be the making of this family. They’d scrimped and saved and all the rest of us had gone without things and worked hard on the farm so that Peter could have his tutor, Doctor Alzar, who had spent the last seven years teaching him everything he would need to know when he turned thirteen and came into his powers.

See, Dad was the youngest of seven boys, and he’d always planned to have seven boys of his own so that there would be a wizard in the family. (I was an afterthought – once he had the required seven sons, Mum wanted to try once more for a girl, but I turned out a boy anyway. She never showed me that she minded.)

Anyway, Peter’s birthday arrived. The family – me, Peter, our parents, and the next three brothers up who still lived at home, Dan, Phil and Mike – gathered in the barn, where Doctor Alzar had made a magic circle, traced all around in salt. He had drawn mystical symbols in chalk on the floor, and in the centre of it all a cross was marked.

I knew all about it. Peter and I shared a room and the night before his birthday, too excited to sleep, he had told me all about it.

“I’ll go into the circle and stand on the cross,” he had said, “and then I say an incantation, invoking the four elements, and calling down my powers. Apparently all sorts of spectacular stuff happens, and then I’m a wizard, and I’ll be able to start actually using all the spells I’ve learned.”

“Sounds terrific,” I said, without envy. I was apprenticed to a silversmith two mornings a week and I loved it.

But when the moment came – Peter in the circle, all of us standing around, watching intently – nothing happened. Not a thing. Peter said everything he was meant to, did everything he was meant to. Sparks refused to fly from his fingers, and the air declined to bend and swirl around him. We all held our breath.

Doctor Alzar had seen this sort of thing before and he urged calm.

“Are you sure this is the right day?” he asked. “It’s a lot of birthdays to remember, might it be tomorrow?”

“No, it’s not!” Peter and Mum said in indignant unison.

So Doctor Alzar tried for a while getting Peter to just try a bit harder, redrew some of the symbols, spoke a few incantations, but still nothing happened.

“This is most unusual…” he said. “I don’t know what to tell you, it ought to have worked by now…”

“He’s the seventh son of a seventh son, dammit!” said my father, stomping into the magic circle, sending the salt flying and scuffing the chalk. “If he doesn’t have magical powers then…”

His eyes widened and he spun to stare at Mum.

“They are all my sons…?” he said, dangerously.

“Of course they’re all your sons!” Mum snapped. “How could you?”

I could see her lip wobbling, so I went to hold her hand. She squeezed mine back.

“Then what the hell happened?” my father asked.

Peter cowered, looking miserable. Nobody knew where to look.

“Um,” said a voice. “Um… I…”

It was Phil, the fifth brother down.

“What is it, Phillip?” Doctor Alzar asked gently.

“I think it might be my fault,” said Phil, going bright red. He looked down at his shoes.

“Your fault? How could it be your fault?” Dad asked, but Mum shushed him.

Phil muttered the answer so quietly that we missed it the first time. Dad made him repeat it and he almost cried, shaking as we all leaned in to hear better.

“I think I’m a girl,” Phil whispered.

There was a long silence.

“Don’t be so bloody ridiculous!” said Dad. “We’d have noticed!”

“No, I mean… on the inside…” said Phil, voice cracking. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry Dad, I’m sorry Peter… I’m just– sorry…”

Phil turned and ran, out of the barn and off into the distance. The rest of us stared at one another.

“Ah…” said Doctor Alzar, into the atmosphere. “Ah… yes. That would explain it.”

“It would?” asked Peter.

“I’ve seen it before, once or twice,” said Doctor Alzar. “Sometimes a female soul finds itself in a body everyone thought was male. There’s nothing to be done about it – Phil is a girl.”

“And… that’s it, it’s definite?” Mum asked.

“The evidence would all seem to point that way,” said Doctor Alzar, with a tilt of his head towards the magic circle.

“But… what about me?” Peter asked plaintively.

“I’m sorry Peter, you don’t have any magical powers,” Doctor Alzar said. He turned and looked appraisingly at me. “But your brother might.”

I don’t like attention much, but I got a lot of it that day. Suddenly I was the seventh son, not the eighth. No matter how much I protested that I didn’t know the first thing about magic and that it probably wouldn’t happen anyway and besides I wanted to be a silversmith when I grew up, not a wizard. It was decided that I would begin intensive magic classes immediately – it was barely a year until my own thirteenth birthday, and I was very far behind.

As evening drew in I managed to slip away, and made for the barn. Nothing was left of the morning’s events except for chalky scuffs and scattered salt that crunched underfoot. I climbed the ladder up to the hayloft. Up there, at least, everything seemed the same as ever. The smell of drying hay, the sunset creeping through the gaps between the planks. The rope swing that we all still played on, even Mike who was eighteen and too big. There was a fat knot at the bottom to stand or sit on, and you could launch yourself out and right over the barn, blurring back and forth once, twice, three times before thumping back into the hayloft, or if you weren’t careful, onto the barn floor – Mike had broken his arm that way, once, but it didn’t stop any of us.

I thought about my apprenticeship, my hopes of being a silversmith. Mr Brown always said I had the hands for it – small hands for a boy, and quick fingers. And a quick learner. Maybe that would help, with the magic.

A rebellious part of me hoped that I would turn out not to have any powers after all, but I already knew somehow that I would. I could feel it growing inside me. There was no escaping it, at least not now. I leaned hard against the wall, stretching my feet in front of me.

I heard a noise, and turned. Phil was climbing up the ladder to join me. Her eyes were red but she was smiling. I watched her reach the top and pull herself onto the cushiony hay, and tried to see a sister where a brother had been before. It was like crossing my eyes to try and make two fence posts lie exactly on top of one another. The image blurred, but now and then it came together and I could see her clearly.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“I had a long talk with Mum and Dad,” she said. “Dad’s just so relieved that he’s still going to have a wizard in the family, I don’t think he really minds. Mum cried a lot, but she was very kind about it. I think it’s going to be all right.”

“So, are you still called Phil? Are you going to start wearing dresses? Will you still shear the sheep and mend the fences and stuff?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” she said. “About any of it. I never expected anyone to find out – I didn’t realise this would happen. Now that everyone knows, I need to find my way of being a girl, and I don’t know yet what that will be.”

She shuffled along to sit beside me. “And how about you? Now that you’re the seventh son?”

I shrugged. “It’s ok, I suppose. I never wanted to be a wizard but… I suppose I might not mind it once I get started.”

“I’m sorry that I made you be one,” she said.

“It’s all right,” I said.

“I’m sorry too,” said a voice, and Peter’s head poked over the top of the ladder. “Phil, I’m sorry I made you tell your secret.”

“Don’t be. Maybe it’s even better this way,” said Phil with a smile, making space for Peter beside us.

“And I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry I stole your future, Pete.”

He sighed. “None of us are turning out how everyone expected us to, are we?”

We contemplated that for a few moments, in a silent, thoughtful row.

“Have a go on the swing?” Phil suggested, breaking the silence.

The things we found out on my brother’s birthday changed our family. But really, not all that much.

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About the Author

Llinos Cathryn Thomas grew up in North Wales and now lives in London with her fiancée and a lot of books. She writes about shrink rays, kick-ass princesses, movie stars, and anything else that takes her fancy. You can find her on her blog, www.llinoscathrynthomas.co.uk.

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