Saturday, December 27, 2008

131. Scratching Post

Contest winner: h_morgan

The stone door slid open with hardly a sound. Rigel and his companion stepped out into the starry night, led by the light at the tip of Rigel's wand. As they emerged from the shelter of the cliffside, seven goblin faces turned toward them from around a folding table where they were playing exploding snap, close to the edge of the still, misty lake.

"At last," said the goblin with the longest nose, rising from his seat. Quickly the creatures closed in on the man and boy, surrounding them tightly.

"I don't care what you want!" Rigel yelled. "I'm not going back in there!"

"We already have what we want," said the lead goblin.

Long-fingered hands brushed Rigel's face. Sharp-toothed grins leered at him. Tough little arms held him and the man in an all-but-suffocating embrace. But there was no move toward the entrance to the crystal cave, where all manner of goblin-desired treasures must lie.

"I don't understand," Rigel gasped. "What is this all about? Does this man owe you money?"

"Money!" snarled a particularly ugly goblin. "We would never take money from master!"

As one, the goblins stepped back from the two wizards. Each extended a long, sharp claw and poked it into the top of his own head. The night was filled with the sounds of air hissing out of punctured, inflatable goblin disguises. The goblin bodies collapsed, and out of them came seven beaming house-elves, nearly as ugly but infinitely friendlier.

"Master has returned," said the house-elf with the biggest nose, and he ran to embrace the grown-up wizard's legs.

"There, there," said his master. "It is good to see you too, Dinty. I have missed all of you."

Lifting up his head, Harvey breathed the night air deeply and added, "It is good to see the sky as well."

Rigel clutched his head, bemused. "They were your house-elves all along! I thought they had come from Gringotts to ent-t-tomb me for my sins!"

"Yes, their disguises were rather clever," Harvey said proudly, failing to notice the boy's traumatized stammer. "I expect they've been following Joe Albuquerque since I went away. I shall give each of them a tin star to pin to his pillowcase" - for the house-elves all wore pillowcases with the seams ripped for their heads and arms to poke through - "and free reign to prepare a feast to celebrate my return."

"Master is too good to us," Dinty fawned. Rigel silently agreed.

Harvey rubbed his palms together. "Now, let's go home. Shall we Apparate together? To The Drains, then, on three. One, two, three..."

Rigel, though currently too young for an Apparition license, still knew how since his previous adulthood. Nevertheless, he winced as he felt the constricting, smothering sensation of Apparition. It lasted only a fraction of a second, before an even stranger and more unpleasant sensation took its place. Feeling like a cork shooting out of the neck of a champagne bottle, Rigel fell back onto the lakeshore under the starlight. All around him, bodies popped out of nowhere and slammed into the ground with cries of surprise and dismay.

"That's never happened before," Harvey said, picking himself up. "Someone must have set an anti-Apparition spell around The Drains. I shall have a word with the caretaker as soon as we get home. Meanwhile, there must be a wizard-dwelling within a few miles of here. From there we can use the Floo Network, perhaps."

Man, boy, and house-elves began to march back along the cliffside, retracing the route by which the supposed goblins had carried Rigel the day before. The house-elves whispered among themselves, pointing out signs along the path that no wizard could see, until they came to a cottage in a clearing in a wood.

The ground around the cottage was planted with herbs, turnips, pumpkins, and marrows, guarded by not one scarecrow, but a dozen. The scarecrows were ghastly, huge, animated things with fur and fangs, claws dripping with blood, and slavering mouths from which mangled feathers occasionally dropped: clearly the work of a wizard or witch. Rigel had never seen anything like them. Even the house-elves seemed subdued as they approached the cottage door. The woods around the clearing were strangely silent; perhaps owing to the effectiveness of the scarecrows, not one bird's song could be heard.

Harvey knocked on the front door. Whoever lived there must have sensed their approach, because the door immediately opened. Rigel was astonished as, quite unconcerned, Harvey walked into the dimness beyond the door. Hesitantly, the boy followed - but the house-elves stayed outside in a nervous cluster.

The owner of the house may have been male or female; it was hard to tell. He or she stood tall and bone-thin, wrapped in patched and threadbare robes, with long, dirty, white hair hanging in tangled profusion over his or her face. The strangest aspect of the cottager's appearance was the steel mesh-reinforced birdcage over its head - or perhaps it was the swim goggles it wore over its eyes, overhanging hair and all.

The cottage itself was equally strange. Strange skins dangled from the ceiling, along with nets full of small skulls. The tables, shelves, walls, and mantel were crammed full of unusual items: pixie-sized weapons, fragments of an enormous eggshell, a string full of deadly looking talons, a feathered wing mounted by itself, bird skeletons held together by wire, a large number of pipes and whistles in all sizes, runes written in blood on bamboo blocks strung on leather thongs, and stones with holes through them.

Rigel made up his mind to stay close to the door.

"I'm terribly sorry to intrude," Harvey said, taking in the cottage, its owner, and its bizarre contents as if none of it surprised him. "I've had a minor travel mishap, and I would be very grateful if you could assist me in sending for help. Is your fire hooked up to the Floo Network?"

The cottager pointed to a velvet bag dangling by a string next to the hearth. It was embroidered with the symbol of two crossed wands. Harvey took the bag off its hook, found that it was empty, and put it back.

"Well, you seem to have run out of Floo powder," he said cheerfully. "I will gladly see that you get a supply of it, if I could only borrow your owl."

The silent cottager flinched, and spoke at last in a nasal voice that confirmed, at least to Rigel's ears, that its owner was a woman. "I won't have an owl in this house," she said.

"Then," Harvey went on, not sounding at all discouraged, "is there any way you can help us send a message?"

The crazy old witch pointed to a cupboard door. Hesitantly, Rigel opened it. Then he jumped backward and nearly upset a table full of wooden figurines, as a plump beagle popped out of the cupboard with a gray and white cat on its back.

Immediately the dog began to bark - but not in the pointlessly disruptive way Rigel normally associated with dogs. Within a few woofs, Rigel recognized the tune of a song Celestina Warbeck had sung on the Wizarding Wireless the previous evening. The cat hopped onto the kitchen table and began to dance, its rear legs cleverly matching the steps of its front legs.

Rigel swallowed. "I never..."

"Tie your note to Puss's tail," the witch rasped. "He won't like it, but he'll know what to do."

Harvey pulled a small roll of parchment out of his hat and wrote quickly with a pen the witch proffered him: "To Agent S. Spankison, RMB - I have returned, but suspect that trouble awaits in my flat. Please gather the usual forces and meet me at The Drains at your earliest convenience. Your humble etc., M. Harvey, esq." This he rolled up as tightly as possible and tied firmly to the cat's tale while Rigel held it.

The cat yowled and scratched Rigel up and down both arms, then darted out the door in a furious gray-white streak.

"Thanks for the help," Harvey said smoothly, while Rigel clutched his bleeding arms. "We'll just be off to the train station, then. I will have that Floo powder delivered, courier, I suppose. And if you ever need anything, please contact me." He handed the witch his card.

The witch shook her head. "Never go to London these days," she said. "Have a horror of pigeons. Birds of all kinds, really."

Rigel wondered that birds didn't have a horror of this witch, thinking of the wing trophy, the string of talons, and the horrible scarecrows outside.

"Be that as it may," Harvey shrugged.

"My parents were eaten by a roc," the witch explained. "Saw it happen when I was very young."

"I quite understand," said Harvey, bowing his way backward out the cottage door. "Pay a call by Floo, anytime. Cheers, then."

He waited until he and Rigel were well away from the cottage, following the house-elves and their invisible signs, before giving a low whistle. "I've seen too many witches or wizards end up like that," he said. "Filthy rocs."


Contact Robbie through the Discussion Forum or by feedback to share your ideas about how the Magic Quill should continue. Survey answers that get the most votes, and contest answers that Robbie chooses, will be in the next two chapters! [EDIT: This discussion is closed.]

Survey for TMQ #132: How can Harvey be in St. Mungo's and with Rigel at the same time? (A) It's just one of those odd things that happens when you mess around with time travel. (B) The one with Rigel is an impostor. (C) The one with Rigel is someone else who has been made to look like Harvey, and who actually thinks he is Harvey. (D) Two words: magical cloning.

Contest for TMQ #132: Describe a potion that a witch or wizard could find habit-forming.

Survey for TMQ #133: Which of Rigel's old Gringotts-escape mates should come back next? (A) Karl, the survival expert. (B) Jaan, the wandsmith. (C) Anatoly, the animated tattoo artist. (D) Slavik, the DADA teacher at Durmstrang. (E) Boccachiusa, the mime wizard. (F) Subito, the vertically challenged clown wizard. (G) Pagliai, the leader of the clown wizards.

Contest for TMQ #133: Describe a magical plant and its properties, including both advantages and disadvantages over a similar, non-magical plant.

[Originally posted 1/20/08]

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