Friday, December 26, 2008

107. The Ossuaries

Contest winners: Potterpig, Norman Greene, zanaboo, jatibbal, Linda Carrig, rory86, Dragonic, _houdini, and Elizabeth

“So we went back downstream again. We had to find a way through that wall; that was our best chance. But after trying quite a few ideas that didn’t work, and having many arguments, each worse than the last, it began to look as if our group would break up and go separate ways. It was Rigel who finally saved us. We had landed him on one of the side-tunnels, where he had toddled off by himself...”

The silvery head of Merlin sank back into the Pensieve as the faces round the parlor table watched. Harvey pulled a handkerchief off his face (leaving it covered with another handkerchief, as per his custom at the Hog’s Head), and draped it over the Pensieve. The handkerchief fell flat against the table as the Pensieve vanished.

Sadie puffed on her pipe. Spanky used his great silver knife to carve a twist of lemon. Endora sipped at a smoking goblet. Joe Albuquerque continued to buff his nails, resplendent in his current disguise as a vivacious blonde in a knee-length skirt and a fuzzy pink pullover. All eyes were on Merlin.

Merlin sighed, torn between relief and wistfulness. “So it’s back to business as usual, then.”

“For now,” said Harvey. “Even though we’ve used your information to plan and execute our strike upon Gringotts, parts of your story remain untold. We burn with curiosity as to how one man could do the impossible not once, but twice. So you simply must tell us the rest of the tale of your first escape from Gringotts. Is everyone agreed?”

A chorus of “Certainly!” and “Not half!” or such expressions came from the corners of the table, where the original members of Harvey’s circle had finally reunited after many wild excursions.

“So then,” said Harvey, “after you abandoned the attempt to escape by the underground river, what happened next?”

“Well,” said Merlin, after pausing for a deep breath and an even deeper drink from his goblet, “I followed Rigel down the passage from the boat landing, and the others followed me. After several twists and turns, ups and downs, we suddenly came to a great vaulted chamber all done up in polished marble and gold flake. Set on pedestals all through the place, and in recesses in the walls, were small chests.

“We were just about to start prying the lids off some of the chests when Slavik screamed at us in four languages to stop. He knew exactly where we were somehow – scholarly chap, was Slavik. The chests didn’t contain magical items or even gold. They were ossuaries, said Slavik. The final resting places of the bones of dead goblins – and very important goblins too. I would rather not imagine what kind of curses would have come out if we had opened one of those chests.

“Each ossuary was made of smooth, polished stone, carved with glyphs and runes in some archaic dialect of Gobbledygook, and adorned at one end with a relief of a goblin’s head. Even in life they weren’t the handsomest or friendliest faces, and now in death they seemed to look out at us in baleful judgment, or perhaps a kind of chilling irony. The whole atmosphere of the room seemed to grow colder and creepier the more I looked around. I couldn’t help thinking that we were in a tomb – and wondering if it was going to be our tomb. There didn’t seem to be any way out but the way we had come, and we were out of options.

“I sat down on a bare pedestal, facing a corner of the room that didn’t have many ossuaries in it, and began composing a speech in my mind – conceding defeat, and accepting our doom then and there. Slavik and the clowns went around the room, prodding the walls and the floor for signs of a secret passage. The other Durmstrang lads huddled near the entrance, too unnerved to come in any farther. With a corner of my eye, out of habit, I kept a watch on young Rigel as he skipped around, pausing now and then to run his fingers over a stone goblin’s face.

“I said before that he toddled, but now that I think of it, he had grown a good bit past toddling, and was rather at the stage where they never stop asking questions. Only now he wasn’t asking anything. If I hadn’t been so busy preparing a grim summation, I would have wondered what he was up to. As it turns out, Rigel was remembering things he had learned in his first childhood by listening – actually listening! – to Professor Binns in History of Magic.

“'Crookchin,' he said, very insistently. I realized that he had said it five or six times while I wasn’t listening. He came over to me and tugged on my sleeve until I followed him round the opposite end of a particularly ornate ossuary. He pointed at the face carved in relief in the stone. ‘Crookchin,’ he repeated again.

“'That’s lovely,' I said in a patient voice, and patted his head. As far as I knew, he was describing the goblin’s facial features, or making up names for the carved heads. ‘Yes, Crookchin indeed,’ I said indulgently. ‘I seem to recall he was involved in that scandal about spinning straw into gold.’

“'Don’t be stupid,' piped Rigel. ‘Crookchin was a pioneer in the dragon-spotting school of treasure gathering. Thanks to his reforms, Gringotts achieved solvency for the first time since the Goblin Rebellion of 1438.’

“'Oh,' I said. It was becoming one of those increasingly frequent, bemusing moments when the old, grown-up Rigel seemed to be speaking through his new, tiny self. ‘Well, that’s nice to know,’ I added, recovering my self-possession. ‘Why don’t you take a look around, and when you’re done, you can tell me all about...’

“'This one over here is Hangnail the Putrid,' Rigel cut in, dragging me over to another ossuary. ‘His attempt to levy a tax on wizards’ and witches’ use of magic resulted in a boycott that lasted until Hangnail was killed by a falling piano. They say it wasn’t an accident.’

“’Whoever they are, they’re probably right,’ I said.

“’It didn’t happen soon enough to stop 8,500 goblins going bankrupt. They had to go into slavery, like house-elves. Over here is Vaultpawl the Sticky, who ended the goblin slave trade in 1765 by paying off all the owners. He ended up falling into a vat of molten silver and being struck into coins. Definitely not an accident; a disgruntled stockholder was seen giving him a push...’

“’Look, Rigel,’ I said, ‘This is all terribly interesting, but just now I have to think about something. Can we continue this history lesson another time?’

“He ignored me – or rather, he tightened his grip on my sleeve and forced me to view the graven image of Winzebind, who was celebrated for his charity work – for instance, he donated huge piles of gold for building St. Roz’s Parish Church in Leicester Square, the one that famously disappeared when its Secret Keeper absconded, as well as Our Lady of the Levitating Pulpit in Diagon Alley. His stockholders loved him because the donations were deductible from the Reparation Payments the Wizengamot demanded after the biting-knuts incident of 1511.

“I had only the vaguest notion of Professor Binns having talked about this stuff when I was at Hogwarts. Rigel rattled it all off as if it was his most vivid memory, and his enthusiasm was infectious. Instead of thinking about giving up and dying, I followed him around the tomb. He showed me the ossuary of Kreakjoint, who instituted the tradition of eating roasted niffler on the Sundays in Lent; Mokosh, Fachtna, and Cascrak, the far-sighted estate goblins who bought loads of land surrounded by hedges, which the bank sold generations later when we wizards ran out of well-hidden places to live; Bloodknot and Boulderfist, whose security measures in the 12th century resulted in the capture of Robin Steele, the last wizard to carry off a successful series of Gringotts burglaries.

“Finally we came to the ossuary of the conjoined twin goblins, Scythefinger and Screwfoot, who designed many of the miles of confusing tunnels, ghastly chambers, and deadly traps we had already been through. Their ossuary was bigger and more elaborate than most of the others. It actually showed the goblin brothers from head to toe, one of them with a twisted foot, the other with a long curved finger pointing out of the stone. Rigel reached out and gingerly touched the stone finger – and it moved.

“’Look out,’ I said, but he touched it again – pulled it downward, even – and without even a whisper of sound, the large ossuary slid sideways and revealed a set of stairs, lit by torches that suddenly flaired up.

“’Hey! Over here!’ I yelled, and the clowns and Durmstrang lads came running. ‘There’s a way out of here!’

“’But vhere does it lead?’ Karl asked, holding Slavik back from rushing down the stairs.

“’There is only one way to find out,’ said Don Pagliai. ‘We must go down these steps.’

“’But that is insanity,’ said Karl. ‘Haffen’t ve fallen into enough traps to learn not to...’

“’Scythefinger and Screwfoot were architects,’ Rigel yelled, so as to drown out any other discussion. He had been doing a great deal of this sort of thing, lately. ‘This must be how they got in and out while they were building this place.’

“’Nonsense,’ scoffed Karl. ‘They could have used the river, at least until that invisible wall was put up.’

“’They may have done that with the materials and the workers,’ Don Pagliai reasoned. ‘But surely, there had to be a quicker way in and out, while all this was being built?’

“’Let’s go down it,’ Slavik said restlessly.

“’Let’s stay,’ said Karl.

“’We’ll die here,’ said Don Pagliai.

“’Ve can go back to the vand tree preserve,’ said Karl.

“’I don’t want to live in a bloody bird sanctuary!’ Rigel screamed, and after kicking as many shins as he could reach, he took advantage of the lot of us being doubled over in pain and ran down the steps.”


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SURVEY: Do some wizards and witches get any formal education after Hogwarts? If so, where? (A) Trade school or on-the-job training only. (B) A magical college tucked away in a major university. (C) Mainly private research. (D) Other—please describe.

CONTEST: Describe a way a wizarding parent might discipline a naughty, wizarding child.

The Survey answer that gets the most votes, and the Contest entry that Robbie likes the most, will be featured in Magic Quill #109. So be sure to visit our Discussion Thread – and if you aren’t a member of COS Forums, join today!

[Originally posted 11/12/06]

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