Friday, December 26, 2008

112. The Savage Noble

Contest winners: i6uuaq, TWZRD, stwonks, pdhorner, Xantha, and dele

“I spent most of the morning replanting the broom tree,” Spanky continued while, except for the sound of Sadie scraping out the bowl of her pipe, his friends listened in silence. “It didn’t half fight me. The branches scraped, whipped, poked, pulled hair. The flowers blew pollen in my eyes. The roots tried to trip me. I had to stun the plant several times, then I had to drive stakes into the ground and tie it down to keep it from escaping again. I had just gone into the summerhouse for some tea and a bit of a wash when the self-fertilizing rosebushes started chucking mooncalf manure at each other.

“There was nothing we could do about the rosebushes, except to spray them with a stain-repelling potion so that, at least, the manure didn’t stick to their leaves and flowers. Meanwhile, the hammock vines had taken over an entire grove of ball-gown walnut trees, turning it into an open-air dormitory without a single open path to walk through. I had to cut them back, a job made harder by the sleepy scent of the hammock flowers. The moon was high in the night sky before I had finished.

“Meanwhile, Ilona was trying to find out who was behind all this. Since no one but I could see her, it wasn’t hard for her to snoop around or follow people undetected. But she didn’t see anyone near Sir Lionel’s property who didn’t have a good reason to be there.

“For a couple of days, I was busy keeping the broom tree tied down, until I found out that it would keep still as long as it had something to read. After that, I made sure there was a canvas sack of books from Sir Lionel’s library within branch’s reach of the old broom. There again, the hammock vines and the rosebushes were a continual problem. The aspidistras became upset when manure fell on them, and it looked as if they would be trying to weed out the roses, until a clever boy from the village offered me his old, patched quaffle. This the rosebushes tossed back and forth, while I moved some of the aspidistras over by the walnut trees. They took control of the hammock vines in no time.

“On day eight of the job, a new difficulty arose. I caught a shoot of the Valenvine trying to throttle the truffle bush, while at the same time, the Dentistree was dropping thousands of sharp toothpicks on the Valenvine. Sir Lionel solved this by grafting cuttings from the three plants together, creating an After Dinner Mint Tree and a Truffle Bon-Bon Bush, which served as an effective buffer between the feuding plants.

“By the time Sir Lionel was doing this, I had other problems. Some children from the village were trapped in a tree, under siege by a party of irate pirate frogs. It was starting to look as if the frogs might set a fire to flush the children out. It seems the children had been playing ouija-hockey on the everlasting ice pond when the freshwater oysters from the next pond had started shooting tiny, transparent pearls at them. This had enraged the frogs, who thought the children were plundering their treasure. I was only able to settle the situation by summoning all the loose pearls on the ice pond, exchanging them for galleons at the money tree, and tossing the gold into the frogs’ pond as a ransom for the kids.

“To this day, I don’t know what caused a whole pondful of oysters to projectile-vomit at the same time, and in the same direction. But I had a growing suspicion that an enemy of Sir Lionel was behind all these strange events. And I also suspected that whoever was doing these things was after more than the All-Europe Garden Goblet. Something about all this smelled, to me, of Dark magic.

“Ilona was the only one who had spare time to trace these suspicions. She noticed that the medusa nettle hedges had bloomed in flowers that, apparently, mimicked the scent of the fairy-feeder flowers. Whenever the wind blew from that end of the garden, scores of fairies got lured into the nettles, where they either got trapped in the thorny tangle or poisoned by the false flowers. Sir Lionel was furious when he learned of it. He nearly lost one of his most prized fairy colonies, from whose hive his family had been harvesting their best candle wax for nearly a century.

“Ilona also found out, just in time, that the fence fungus had been tampered with, and would have sprayed garrotting gas on the next person who tried to climb the garden wall. You see, something about the medusa nettle incident had piqued her memory, and she had sent an owl (in my name) to her old tutor in Romania, who by then was in charge of the library at Durmstrang. Old Mihai immediately replied with a copy of a story out of an obscure text on the History of Romanian Magic. It turned out that, back in the 14th century, some ruffians had overthrown the Grand Warlock of Dobruja, a very wise old man named Mircea the Merciful, using a similar pattern of attack.

“First, the assassins had turned Mircea’s garden plants against each other. This destroyed a whole crop of healing herbs and took away the warlock’s potion-based defenses. Then the unknown enemies had goaded the pasture plants into attacking Mircea’s livestock, driving away valuable creatures that may have aided in his defense. Finally they had charmed the moss on the walls of Mircea’s castle to fill the place with a deadly vapor for a night and a day. When the vapor dissipated, the old warlock and his servants were found dead. His successor was a very powerful and cruel wizard named Bogdan the Deviant, a man with a legendary gift for herbology.”

“Ooh,” Sadie interrupted. “I’ll bet that Bogdan blighter had a thing or two to do with...”

“We’re all ahead of you,” Endora snapped.

“Because Mihai was so quick with his return owl, Ilona was able to deduce that someone was trying to assassinate Sir Lionel, someone with an interest in the History of Romanian Magic, a dark wizard with some talent in herbology. Ilona was also able to predict the next form of attack – the poisonous fence fungus – and neutralize it before anyone was hurt. But now we were in a tight spot. The poison-gas moss had been Bogdan’s last gambit. We didn’t know what this latter-day villain would try next. And we wouldn’t have found him, either, if we had tried to look for him.

“How we found him, then, was like this. I had an off-duty day every fortnight. On day fourteen of my assignment, Ilona and I put on muggle clothes and went for a walk in the countryside. There was nothing else for us to do, really. None of my people were still living in the area, and we were too far from London or Hogsmeade to bother, and we had everything we needed right where we were, so we really had nothing planned except a long walk in the sunshine and fresh air.

“Our road was one I had walked many times as a boy. So I was surprised and embarrassed to realize that I was lost. We had gone down into a sunken forest which, from outside, seemed to be only a small wood, and my memory agreed. Yet now we found we could not get out of it. Without taking any turnings, we seemed to be going in circles. We passed the same rock, the same tree, the same hissing stream several times. Plus, something was bothering Ilona.”

Merlin suggested, “Being lost, maybe?”

“No, something else,” said Spanky, without even a hint of levity. “She kept waving her hand in front of her face, as if trying to push cobwebs out of her way, or as if swatting at a persistent gnat. But I was just beside her, and I saw and felt nothing of the kind. Finally, as I became certain that we had wandered into some kind of magical trap, I closed my eyes for a few seconds, feeling too ashamed to face my wife and tell her what I knew. But just then, Ilona cried out, ‘There!’ I opened my eyes and looked around. She had been pointing at something, but now she let her hand drop, looking bemused.

“'What was it?' I asked.

“'Nothing,' she said. 'My eyes must be playing tricks on me.’"

“'There’s nothing wrong with your eyes,’ I said. Then, in order to summon up the inner strength to confess that I had foolishly led her into danger, I closed my eyes again. And again, she gasped, ‘There, look! Do you see it?’

“I looked. I saw nothing. And from the moment I opened my eyes, it was evident that whatever she saw had disappeared again.

“’Hang on,’ I said. ‘Let me try something.’ I took her hand, closed my eyes, and said, ‘Can you see it now?’

“’Yes, it must have been there the whole time,’ said Ilona. ‘I don’t understand why I keep losing sight of it.’

“’Still there?’ I asked, eyes tightly shut.

“’Yes, still there,’ she said.

“’That’s all right then,’ I said. ‘If you can see it and I can't, even when my eyes are open, then it’s a trick—someone has bespelled you. But if you can only see it when I have my eyes closed, then it’s really there.’

“’I don’t follow you,’ she said.

“’Precisely,’ I said. ‘You lead me. By the hand.’

“For a minute or two, Ilona just stood with her hand in mine. I could feel her fingers twitching. I knew she had a lot of questions, but for the moment she held onto them—and me. Then with a small, quiet laugh, she began to walk, tugging me forward.

“I stumbled a few times. She started muttering directions to me: ‘Exposed root at one o’clock...rabbit hole two steps ahead,’ and so on. Then it was: ‘Four steps up...we’ll have to edge sideways here, there’s only one plank left intact...stop!’

“I heard the squeak and click of a doorhandle, and felt a soft sigh of air around me as a door opened ahead of us. Then I could tell we were inside a corridor, by the way the sound of our footsteps closed in around us, and the heavy smell of the air, and the coolness of the shadows. As we went down the corridor, Ilona stopped a few times to try a doorknob. Some of the doors opened into rooms that she pronounced empty; others were locked. I advised against knocking.

“I first heard the snoring as we climbed a steep flight of stairs. It grew louder as we re-crossed the length of the house, until it became so loud that I wondered how we hadn’t heard it from below. Ilona led me into the room where the snorer lay. She gasped—I opened my eyes—in my surprise I stumbled against a small table and knocked over a glass retort of some reddish liquid. The retort fell to the floor and shattered, and the red liquid exploded into nothingness with a sound like a brief, high-pitched scream. And on the filthy pile of rags and straw in the corner, a filthy, ragged man with white hair and hollow, unshaven cheeks stopped snoring and sat bolt upright.

“He recognized me first. It wasn’t until he said, ‘You! I should have known,’ that I put the voice and the face together.

“’You look like death, Sid,’ I said, quickly recovering my poise – while discreetly preparing to draw both of my wands. ‘And you smell like a wild animal.’”

“Actually, it was the other way around. Sid Shmedly looked like a wild animal, cornered and about to spring. And he smelled like something that had died several days ago. But it was less scary to think about it the way I said it.

“’You meddling halfblood insect,’ Shmedly said, his eyes unblinking in their icy fury. ‘How very like you, to be in the middle of this. I’m afraid you’ll find, this time, that if you stand in my way, I’ll squash you. Or haven’t I already destroyed you thoroughly enough?’

“Until that last remark, I was all but paralyzed by rage and that dreadful, nervous feeling I always get before a duel. But when I realized what he meant, I almost smiled. A feeling of warlike bravado came over me, such as I hadn’t felt since Shmedly had made Ilona disappear. It was me realizing that Sid didn’t know what I knew—he couldn’t see the woman standing beside me. For all he knew, she was still missing and I was still destroyed.

“But I didn’t smile. My secret was my advantage. Other than quirking an eyebrow in Ilona’s direction, I made no sign to her. But we both drew our wands. And so did Shmedly.

“’Hildebrand rules?’ Shmedly asked.

“I was about to say, ‘Blow the rules,’ but Shmedly was already doing so. His first jinx turned my right wand into an eel, which I threw at him, blocking the aim on his follow-up curse. With my left wand I fired a stunning charm that hit his right shoulder, but its only effect was to knock him slightly off balance. In my surprise I failed to shield myself from his third curse. I didn’t hear what he said, but when I saw a bolt of green light coming at me I thought it was the end.

“At that moment, a flight of doves came out of Ilona’s wand. Several of them dropped dead as they deflected the green light from Shmedly’s curse. He stumbled again, momentarily confused as to where the birds had come from. ‘Should have closed the bloody window,’ he grumbled while effortlessly deflecting my body-bind curse.

“Whatever he tried next, it was no spell I had ever seen before; it flew at me like an arrow made of purple smoke. Fortunately, Ilona had me covered with a shield spell, while I retaliated with a tinnitis curse. Like my first spell, it hit him in the chest—yet he shook it off. I couldn’t touch him with anything. Shmedly was getting as frustrated as I was. ‘How are you doing that?’ he screamed as Ilona blocked yet another spell from hitting me.

“Ilona yelled, ’Cover yourself, dear,’ and while I did so she aimed her wand at a badly scratched broomstick leaning next to the door. A moment later, Shmedly was ducking under a series of blows from the broom handle, while I pumped a jellylegs jinx, a disarming spell, and three different types of transfiguration spells into him. Nothing had any effect.

“’Was that red brew some kind of anti-jinx lotion?’ I panted while dancing out of the way of his next few curses. ‘Or have you made another pact with a genie? What’s your secret, Shmedly? You should be dead by now!’

“’Vitamins,’ was all the explanation Shmedly would give for his seeming invulnerability. Even with Ilona giving me an invisible line of defense, Shmedly had me at a disadvantage and we all knew it. He didn’t need to defend himself; I did. I couldn’t keep dodging his spells forever. I was already starting to get tired. I was out of practice, and I had been on a long walk before this, and I was already down to one wand. Without a stroke of luck, I wouldn’t last much longer.

“’Spanky,’ Ilona panted, casting shield charms as fast and hard as ever she could.

“’What?’ I snapped at her, too busy keeping my eye on Shmedly’s wand to pay much attention to her.

“’What what?’ Shmedly drawled, while shooting dozens of poison-tipped needles out of his wand.

“’I wasn’t talking to you,’ I grunted, dropping to the floor and rolling out of danger just in time.

“’Then who were you talking to?’ Shmedly asked, smirking.

“’I was answering Ilona,’ I said, ‘who is standing right next to you.’

“Shmedly staggered again, wincing with pain as a loud noise—rather like a hayrake sliding down the incline of the slate roof overhead—drowned out my words. This gave me the idea that saved my life. ‘Look to your left, you dirty great git!’ I shouted with all my strength. ‘Ilona, my wife, is right there. Remember her? Can’t you see her?’”

“Shmedly screamed with pain, covering both of his ears. I had never heard such loud thunder before, but it was nothing to the hideous sound of timbers parting and walls buckling as a sudden whirlwind tore the roof off the house. The sound went straight through me, shaking my very bones, but I continued screaming to Shmedly about exactly where to find Ilona. The noise got louder and louder as a nearby train added its whistle and the sound of shrieking brakes to the crashing thunder, wailing wind, and disintegrating house. Ilona clung to me, casting a bubble charm around us, while pieces of furniture and debris flew about. The small table flew straight at Shmedly and dashed itself to pieces against his side. For the first time that day I saw fear and pain in his eyes.

“Then something happened that was probably lucky for all of us, though I didn’t like it at the time: Shmedly got away.

“The broomstick sailed out of the sky and jammed itself between his legs. It couldn’t have been an accident, though Shmedly didn’t like having to uncover his ears in order to grip the broom. As he flew out of range of my voice, the storm died down, and Ilona and I looked at what was left of the house around us. It wasn’t much—just enough to keep us from plunging directly into the cellar.

“’It makes sense,’ said Ilona, as we climbed back down to the ground. ‘Shmedly has Romanian connections. People who would know about Mircea and Bogdan must be backing him. And they want Sir Lionel out of the way. But why?’

“’Maybe this is too obvious,’ I said, ‘but the Niblets and the Shmedlys are pureblood families, which means they are probably related. Maybe closely related. And if something happens to Sir Lionel, Sid might be the next in line to control Sir Lionel’s estate. What’s in it for Sid? He gets the Niblet family fortune. What’s in it for the people backing Sid? They get control of whatever Sir Lionel has that they need...’

“I put my arm around Ilona. She was shivering badly.

“’This is unlike you,’ I said teasingly.

“’It’s not because of the battle,’ she said huskily. ‘I was just thinking, what if something should happen to Sir Lionel? I can’t help imagining that disgusting animal taking possession of such a beautiful place...’ At that point, Ilona fell apart crying in my arms.”

“Eurgh,” Sadie said, squirming, between puffs on her pipe. “Skip the wobbly bits, won’t you?”

“There aren’t many ‘wobbly bits’ after this,” Spanky warned.

Sadie looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, “In that case, carry on.”


To help choose the direction of the next few chapters of The Magic Quill, visit the Discussion Forum, or send Robbie feedback. The survey answer with the most votes, and the contest entry (or entries) Robbie likes best, will be featured in the chapter after next. [EDIT: This discussion is now closed.]

SURVEY: True or False? Sir Lionel Niblet briefly played a role in hiding the Potters from Lord Voldemort.

CONTEST: What gave Shmedly the ability to withstand Spanky’s spells?

[Originally posted 2/19/07]

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