by Robbie Fischer
Contest Winners: Norman Greene & Linda Carrig
Merlin and his party ran out one side of Il Comte di Bestemmia’s banquet hall, rounded a corner in the corridor, and immediately ran in the other side of the Il Comte’s hall.
“That is a new enchantment since last time we were here,” Don Pagliai murmured.
Another unexpected change was that they could no longer hear sounds of Il Comte’s struggle with the vicious chipmunks Merlin had set on him.
Gingerly, the ragged group of wizards tiptoed among the columns, potted trees, and statuary that lined one side of the hall. Look and listen as they might, they could find no sign that Il Comte was in the room.
Merlin was beginning to wonder if this was, after all, the same hall. Then he started to notice some of the strange items surrounding him.
“What is this?” he whispered to Don Pagliai, pointing toward a potted tree that seemed to have been planted upside-down. What looked like leafy branches were thrust into the soil, while gnarly roots stretched upward into a patch of sunlight.
“That,” said the fat clown, “is a Stupid Tree. Very rare, difficult to grow. See, you have to plant it in a pot that is enchanted to make anything grow. Il Comte uses many such pots. Look here.”
Don Pagliai pointed out a shockingly hideous tree in a nearby planter. Its trunk was twisted and knobbly, its foliage slimy and black. Here and there were bare spots where mottled, discolored wood showed through the peeling bark, and much of the trunk was covered with ill-smelling fungi.
“Let me guess,” Merlin said, before Don Pagliai could introduce the plant. “The fabled ugly tree?”
“A wood so unpalatable that tree lice will not eat it,” Don Pagliai said, with a touch of sadness. “Woodpeckers do not peck it, either, so it would make a very good building material, if only you could cover up the appearance. But then, it is so rare; you see, bees refuse to pollinate its flowers.”
“Il Comte may actually be doing some good here,” breathed Merlin, as he realized that he was in the midst of an endangered-tree preserve.
But the clown shook his purple-haired head. “He only preserves these few specimens as curiosities–and, perhaps, to help him invent more cruel spells and potions.”
“And this?” Merlin asked as they approached a podium, where a shining, silver horn lay on a velvet pillow.
“Oh, that is just a shoe-horn,” said Don Pagliai.
“Really? It’s terribly fancy. Which end do you stick into the…”
“No, no, not that kind of shoe-horn. This shoe-horn, when you blow into it, pops shoes out the other end. This is quality magic; the shoes will always be your size, and coordinate with your overall style of dress. I have often used this to replace my clown shoes.”
Merlin glanced down at Don Pagliai’s enormous shoes, and wondered how much wind it would take to blow them out of a shoe-horn.
“Are we not trying to escape?” said Slavik impatiently.
“But it is hopeless,” Karl reported, as he came round the side of a potted tree which, instead of leaves, was covered in rustling banknotes from all the countries of the world. “All the doors lead back to this room.”
“Did you try window?” Slavik chimed in, before he craned to see that the windows were out of their reach.
“Why don’t we just disapparate?” Merlin suggested.
Everyone’s eyes widened. After so many years among the apparition-proof vaults of Gringotts, they had forgotten about that possibility. But their expressions of hope changed quickly to concern, then disappointment.
“We cannot,” Anatoly said needlessly.
“Is another new enchantment since last time you were here?” Slavik said cuttingly to Don Pagliai.
“No, of course not,” said the clown impatiently. “Only, where would you go from here? Have you ever been in this country? Where, in safe apparition-range, is there a place that you can visualize clearly? Hmm?”
“What about you clowns?” Merlin asked. “Why are you still here, then?”
“Oh, that,” said Don Pagliai, looking ashamed. “We are not very good. Only Subito ever studied apparition, and he uses it mainly to pop back and forth between one end of the stage and the other. It is part of his clown act.”
“Then we really are trapped,” said Merlin. “Again. Unless anyone has an idea?”
At that moment, Jaan’s face brightened and he began babbling in an incomprehensible language. Slavik eventually calmed him down and made sense of what he was saying.
“Jaan says he has uncle in broom business. He used to help in shop during school holidays. We could cut canes and twigs from these trees, make broom, and fly out window!”
Merlin whipped out Il Comte’s wand and used a quick severing spell to cut a relatively straight limb off the Ugly Tree. But it was no good; the twigs were too droopy. After all the trouble of stripping the bark and twigs, and tying some twigs back on, they realized that the broom would get them nowhere.
“Try Stupid Tree,” said Karl.
Merlin agreed. Taking aim, he blasted a long root off the top of the Stupid Tree. It clattered to the floor, and a ragged figure stepped around the nearby column and picked it up with a heavily-bandaged hand.
“I apologize for the delay in my hospitality,” said Il Comte di Bestemmia, as he straighened up. His face was covered with a bright green gel, through which one could still see the faint traces of a hundred vicious scratches. He brandished the stupid stick at Merlin, adding, “But I see that you have been helping yourself.”
Jaan helpfully handed Merlin the failed broom made from the ugly stick.
For a moment, Il Comte looked pale and tongue-tied at the weapon in Merlin’s hand. Then he smiled suavely. “All right, then. One against one. My good looks against your brains. We’ll see which one stands up longer.”
Don Pagliai began to whisper, “Every blow from that stick…”
“I know,” said Merlin. There was time to say nothing else, as Il Comte chose that moment to strike.
+++ THIS WEEK’S DOUBLE CHALLENGE! +++
To send general comments to Robbie, you can still use the Feedback Form. But to be a part of the magic of writing The Magic Quill, go to the COS Forums and discuss this week’s Survey and Contest! Your votes will determine the winning answer to the Survey. Robbie will pick the winner of the Contest. The winning answers will be used in The Magic Quill two weeks from now. Click here to respond by 11:59 PM Greenwich on Friday, 13 January 2006.
*** THE SURVEY ***
Which of the following best explains Merlin’s ongoing “dream” about his experiences escaping from Gringotts?
A) He has fallen into an enchanted sleep from which no one can wake him; all his friends are concerned.
B) No time has actually passed; he dreams all of this in one night, and is about to wake up.
C) He actually woke up a long time ago, and when he finishes the next chapter, we’re going to find out that he is really narrating all of this to his friends in the Hog’s Head.
D) ______(your alternate explanation here)______
*** THE CONTEST ***
Name and describe a magical CREATURE. It doesn’t have to be original; it doesn’t have to be in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” either.