Tuesday, December 23, 2008

98. Essence of Merlin

Contest winner: Shadow Phoenix

Tip shivered. He wasn’t sure whether this was a result of the cold draft that blew through the cracks in the wall, or of the billywig withdrawal. Huddled in the dim light that came through a small, grimy window high in the wall, he looked around.

It wasn’t just that his room in the top floor of the Hog’s Head was small enough to be a broom cupboard; it actually was a broom cupboard. The landlord had fitted it out with a fireplace, to accommodate desperate wizards such as Tip. Apart from a dozen old, forgotten brooms, there was barely space to lie down on the rush-strewn floor.

It was the lowest Tip had fallen in his life, even counting the day his solo tour broke up over creative differences. Curse those billywigs! Ed and Ned had said it would happen. Why had he never listened to them?

Tip scraped together a few of the dried rushes and assorted shavings and rubbish that he found in the corners of the room. It helped that the mouseholes were all blocked with bits of shredded paper, as if even the vermin wanted to avoid the place. These formed a small mound of kindling in the center of the fireplace, which Tip lit with his wand. Then, using an Accio charm, he summoned the loose and broken twigs on and around the old brooms, gathered them up, and piled them loosely over the small flame.

When he was done he wiped his hands and sat back on his heels, watching with satisfaction as the fire grew. The edge came off the cold of the room. Tip trembled gratefully, until his stomach growled. He decided to conjure up some sausage...but his wand was nowhere to be found. He felt around on the floor, patted his robes down, then looked with horror at the fire he had made. Something went pop and a fountain of sparks leapt out of the fire.

Tip wept.

Meanwhile, several yards below Tip’s miserable cell, a group of witches and wizards were laughing and celebrating in a large parlor. Spanky and Endora had returned from Gringotts, and were overjoyed to find Rigel, Joe, and the Spankison children waiting for them along with all the others. Firewhisky flowed freely (Butterbeer for the young ones), until Spanky decided to crown the occasion with the bottle of Bouché-Leclercq he had stolen from Il Comte’s vault.

“This,” he announced to the group after spending some minutes shouting them into silence, “may not be the best vintage, but I believe it will be the most refreshing bottle that I have opened in many a year.”

He popped the cork out with his wand. But before he could pour a drop of wine, there was a loud BANG! A cloud of smoke filled the room. Harvey muttered a charm that caused the chimney to suck the smoke out of the parlor. As it did so, several people gasped. Wedged into a corner of the parlor, doubled over with his back against the ceiling, crouched an enormous gilded man who winced at the not very bright light.

“Could one of you spare a body some aspirin?” the genie asked groggily. “Magical stuff, that. Been having a massive pressure-headache these last six, seven years. Thanks. Mind if I borrow a tot of firewhisky to wash it down? Ta there. Now, who summoned me?”

Spanky wriggled out from behind the genie, whose rump had crushed him against the wall, until the swallow of firewhisky had shrunk the genie a bit. Spanky held up his hand, but could say nothing while he panted for air.

“Your wish is my command,” said the genie. “Matter of fact, I’ve got a generous feelin’ comin’ on. Take three wishes. No hurry, I’ll just have another drink while you think about them.”

Harvey thrust a scrap of parchment into Spanky’s hand. Spanky read it and shot a sharp look at Harvey, who nodded. Spanky caught Endora’s eyes and shrugged. Then he handed the parchment to the genie and continued to take deep breaths.

The genie, now only about twice the height of a tall man, peered blearily at the parchment. “It says, ‘I wish someone who could read the Runes of Yves the Leper would step up and help us identify the potions we liberated from Gringotts.”

No sooner had the genie reached the full stop than a dirty, tousled head poked through the beaded curtain. The young man smiled, though tears had recently marked trails through the grime on his face, and said, “I say, has anyone got an extra wand that I might borrow, just for an hour or two maybe, or even perhaps all night...”

Tip’s eyes widened when he noticed the genie. It would have been remarkable if he hadn’t noticed him.

“E-er,” he stammered. “Is th-that a...a...?”

“It’s not polite to stare,” the genie said. By now he was only a head taller than Spanky, but the gold-leaf skin gave him away. “I’m shockingly dehydrated,” he added as he downed the contents of the last remaining goblet. “Is there nothing more to drink?”

Facing the newcomer, Sadie said, “Oi, aren’t you that OUCH!”

Sadie gave Endora what anyone could tell was an evil look, in spite of her veil.

“Sorry,” said Endora. She shifted her foot from off Sadie’s.

“We happen to have a ridiculous surplus of wands,” said Harvey. He fished one of Jaan’s surprise specials out of his pocket. “I can’t say exactly what will happen when you use it, but I’ll let you keep this one if you’ll do us a small service.”

“If you mean singing for it,” said Tip, looking nauseated, “I’m afraid I’ve given that up.”

Someone said, “Thank God,” but when Harvey looked round everyone looked equally sheepish, so it was impossible to tell who had said it.

“No, it’s nothing like that,” said Harvey. “It’s just that we have a number of old and very obscure runes, and we wondered if you might have the knack of reading them for us.”

“Oh, that’s nothing,” said Tip. “You wouldn’t know it, but my parents were Dr. Rosetta Snoldelev and Dr. Kylver Kensington, who deciphered the Pictish spell-runes. They had me translating ancient runes before I could even spell my name.” A bolt of sadness flashed across his face. “They haven’t spoken to me in years...”

“Well, when you do talk to them, don’t mention any of this,” said Harvey, who was in too much of a hurry to pay attention to Tip’s emotional state. “I’ve taken some rubbings of the runes in question. Will you have a look?”

Tip sighed, looked at the wand Harvey held by the tip, and nodded.

“Good lad,” said Harvey. “Come over here, out of the way.”

By this time, Spanky had recovered his breath. He turned toward the genie and said, “I’ll have that second wish, then.”

“Wish away,” giggled the genie, who was now only a little taller than Rigel, and looking distinctly buzzed. Joe had been keeping him quiet by refilling his goblet of firewhisky every few seconds. The genie was finally starting to slow down; a goblet-sized drink was a much bigger deal to him now.

“That my wife,” said Spanky, “Ilona Ilonera Ethelbaldricson, should be released from all spells, curses, illusions, and magical disabilities of any kind, is what I wish.”

“Well put,” hiccupped the slave of the bottle.

Endora gasped. Sadie stepped backward, as if by accident, into the tattooed wizard’s arms. Young Bob screamed, “Mum!” Everyone looked shocked when Ilona appeared next to Spanky, as if she had been there all along. The children mobbed her. Spanky clutched her to his chest.

“That’s two down,” the genie slurred as his head came level to that of Spanky’s boy Marmaduke. He drained the last drops out of yet another goblet of firewhisky. “Ye gods, am I thirsty!”

“Set him free,” Ilona whispered into Spanky’s ear.

“I did that the last time,” Spanky whispered back. “See where it got us?”

Everyone took turns embracing Ilona, shaking hands, and introducing themselves to her (in most cases, needlessly). Joe, Merlin, and Orion Oldmanson shook Spanky’s hand in congratulation. The children, overcome with joy, hopped and ran and squirmed through the whole press of bodies until they realized that they could not become invisible anymore; then they sat down to sulk.

“Your attention please,” said Harvey. It took some moments for the commotion to subside. Then, with his arm round Tip’s shoulders, he announced, “We have a result. Here are the names of the great witches and wizards whose essence Yves the Leper decocted: Radbert the Rotund, Frya the Ticklish, Seran the Two-Faced, Kenod the Silent, Helga the Spotty, Almon the Troublesome, Iola the Strange, Elwin the Aromatic, and...” Harvey momentarily lost his voice, swallowed, and added hoarsely: “Merlin the Hirsute.”

“You mean THE Merlin?” Endora gasped.

“I believe so,” said Harvey, once more in full control of his voice.

“But why the Hirsute?” Merlin exclaimed. For some reason, he seemed offended. “Why not Merlin the Great?”

“It’s all a matter of perspective,” said Harvey. “We know very little about the other wizards, unless Helga the Spotty was Helga Hufflepuff. But she must have been very old, to be still alive in Yves’ time. All the same, there is no way of guessing what any of these wizards’ essences will do. Not without trying them, that is. And I, for one, am not eager to be a flobberworm for trials of ancient potions based on the essences of unknown wizards.”

“Hear, hear,” said Joe Albuquerque.

“On the other hand, I have a fair idea of what effect the Essence of Merlin should have,” said Harvey. “And it calls for a toast. A round of 11th century sack, on me.”

He reached into his robes and pulled out a small wooden wine cask, gray with age. Where he had room for it in his robes, no one knew or cared. Harvey set the cask on the table, popped out the bung with his wand, and let the wine pour out into a series of elaborate crystal goblets that appeared out of nowhere.

“Are you doing that?” Sadie asked, noting that Harvey did not appear to be conjuring the goblets with his wand.

“No,” said Harvey. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? And very appropriate. I believe it confirms that the Merlin in question is, indeed, he of the crystal cave and so forth.”

The wine ran out just as the last glass was poured. Everyone had a goblet of the stuff, including the Spankison children, whose cups were little more than thimble-sized, and Rigel, who scowled at his flute that seemed to contain little more than a swallow of wine. The genie, who now stood as high as Bob, grinned over a crystal bucket of the dark, red wine. Merlin restrained him from drinking it before Harvey announced his toast.

“To living backwards in time,” Harvey proposed, and he drank.

At first, only the genie said, “Hear, hear,” and drank to Harvey’s toast. After an awkward, confused sort of pause, the others joined in. Then they mostly forgot about the strangeness of Harvey’s remark. The room filled with the sound of smacking lips, hums of pleasure, and remarks on how extraordinary the wine was, taking or leaving its advanced age.

Spanky leaned toward Endora and whispered to her, “I think your Britannin theory is back on.”

“Yes,” she said. “And after that toast, I think I know what he’s going to do with those preserved grape-pips....”


Tune in next time for the “Who’s Who” of the first 99 installments of The Magic Quill. The weekly Double Challenge will resume after TMQ #100.

[Originally posted 8/13/06]

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