by Robbie Fischer
Contest winner: kaleidoscopicepic
The arrival of a tall stranger wrapped in a cloak, his face hidden in the shadow of a hood, had the usual result on the patrons of Talia’s inn. Most days, the arrival of any stranger at all was enough to stop conversation.
Talia’s inn shared a lonely intersection of two forest roads with three other businesses: an apothecary who moonlighted as a no-questions-asked surgeon for magical beasts, a wandwright who doubled as a trader in charmed amulets and talismans against the dark, and a toothless old biddy who performed divination, midwifery, and all the duties expected of the village curmudgeon. No one had any business in these woods except the wizarding clans who lived there and, now and then, the type of visitor best left alone. And though such visitors were rare, the nature of the village meant they were always looking for something rare and powerful.
Long experience had taught Talia’s patrons to assume, when they saw a hooded and cloaked stranger, that he was someone not to be crossed, someone not to be trusted, someone up to no good.
“Looking for something special?” Talia asked the stranger when he approached the bar. In her usual way, she looked him over while appearing to slump lazily against the dresser behind the bar, her eyelashes drooping sleepily. She wore a spotless linen towel draped over her left wrist, an impossibly clean apron tied around her plump waist, and a bonnet to hold her ample hair out of the ale. Nevertheless, a keen eye could not have missed the wand tucked up her sleeve, nor the hand that was casually ready to draw it.
The stranger saw all this in an instant, but he understood nothing Talia had said. She asked him another question, equally unintelligible. This was not his language. He said the only thing he knew would be understood here: “Spiro.”
Talia stiffened. She sniffed. The voice was very foreign, very deep and dangerous. From the sound of it she gathered a sense of the size and strength of the figure only vaguely revealed by the stranger’s cloak. Keeping her hooded eyes fixed on her visitor, Talia poured two glasses of twelve-star Metaxa, drained one in a single draught, and upended the empty glass on the clean countertop. A golden stain began to spread across the wood. The stranger threw back his drink and upended it as well. They looked at each other, he from beneath his hood, she from behind her eyelashes, with nothing to say.
After a minute of this silent, mutual study, a third character joined their tableau. He was a middle-aged wizard with a short, dry, wiry build, dressed for the forest in a short, supple jacket, sturdy boots, snug trousers, and a waistcoat with numerous pockets. Apart from his loose white shirt, open at the neck, the wizard’s clothes all seemed to be woven from homespun wool and dyed in shades of brown. Most important for identification purposes was the letter clutched in his hand, a letter sealed with the crest of Count Matthias.
“Spiro, I presume,” growled the huge, hooded stranger.
Spiro slapped the letter down on the bar and moved the upended Metaxa glasses onto it.
“What you ask I will do,” said Spiro, and even a foreigner could hear him silently adding, “although it is madness.”
“Neither of us has a choice,” said the hooded stranger. “But I believe we are equal to the dangers of this forest at night.” Somehow a knife found itself in the stranger’s hands — a very long, very cruel-looking silver blade, almost a dagger in fact. To Spiro’s credit, his hand did not shake as he took a glass offered by Talia and raised it to his lips. When it was empty, he upended it on the counter as well.
The stranger tapped the three glasses with the tip of his knife. Coins materialized in them. Without another word, he turned and walked out of the inn, followed by his wiry new guide.
During the next several hours, the two wizards spoke aloud less than a dozen times. They moved through the forest with a silent, mutual understanding. The terrain was uneven, often sloping steeply and veined with tree roots, and until the moon rose above the treetops they had only a faint gleam of wandlight to guide their steps.
They were near their destination – perhaps half a mile – when Spiro stopped short and put his arm out to halt his companion. Not far ahead, and slightly downhill from where they stood, lay a round clearing whose grasses gleamed like silver in the light of the full moon.
The stranger observed that Spiro was scarcely breathing. He stared at the clearing ahead in rapt stillness, waiting… but for what?
A moment later, the answer became clear. Suddenly, strange figures began to march into the clearing, forming lines. At first they looked like children – boys wearing waistcoats that seemed to be woven out of bark, girls draped in little more than moss-covered vines. There was something especially strange about their legs, clad in furry trousers and moving in a manner that, for some reason the stranger could not put his finger on, struck him as unnatural. And something about the headware worn by the boys tugged at the back of his mind. Then the knut dropped.
“Satyrs?” he breathed into Spiro’s ear.
“You see human feet?” Spiro whispered back, his words understood more by the shape of his mouth than by any sound the stranger could hear.
He looked again. No, there were hooves at the ends of the children’s furry legs.
“Fauns,” Spiro mouthed, then repeated it to make sure he was understood.
The stranger wanted to ask more questions, but there was no time. Something was about to begin. The childlike fauns, male and female, stood in a mixed formation that now tightly filled the clearing — except for a small space in the very center. Into this space stepped three fauns, two male and one female. One of the males struck a chord on a sort of lyre strung on an enormous, curling horn. The other male began to play a sprightly tune on a bone flute – a tune that struck the stranger as absurdly familiar. And finally, the female began shaking and tapping a tambourine and singing at the same time. As the song began, so did the dance.
Under other circumstances, the stranger would have been breathless with awe to witness the midnight dance of the fauns, in this ancient forest, on the night of a full moon… But instead, he had to stuff half of his hand into his mouth to stifle his laughter.
The fauns were doing the hokey-pokey.
There was no mistaking the dance moves, nor the meaning of the instructions sung by the faun girl with the tambourine. Even with the folk-inflections of the flute skirling around the main melody, the stranger could not fail to recognize it. And with all the seriousness of a magical race celebrating its most mystical rite, the other young fauns danced the hokey-pokey for all they were worth. They put their right hoof in, they took their right hoof out, they shook it all about…
Suddenly, the stranger’s urge to laugh aloud merged into a powerful feeling of joy that wiped out all consciousness.
After what seemed like only a few minutes but, by the angle of the moon, must have been several hours, the stranger realized that the dance was over, the fauns had left, and he and Spiro had remained where they were, gazing into the clearing with wonder.
“Wow,” said the stranger, pulling back his hood and looking up into the sky, where the disc of the moon had already begun to dip into the treetops again, and where the stars twinkled as though enjoying a hokey-pokey dance of their own. “To think,” said Spanky Spankison, his face filled with happiness and moonlight, “to think that that’swhat it’s all about…”
“We must not cross this clearing,” said Spiro, his voice trembling slightly.
“No,” said Spanky.
Together, they skirted the clearing – though it meant wading across a frigid stream too wide to leap across, making a detour around a dense thicket, and climbing the cliffs on both sides of a massive rock. Finally, they came to the ravine Spanky sought. At the far end of the ravine, in a cave behind a waterfall, something huge and strong and dangerous was reputed to live, something with a loud voice that could be heard roaring and howling on many a moonlit night, a giant being with a vast hunger and even greater thirst. Local legends disagreed whether it was a giant, a troll, or an ogre that dwelt in the cave. The one point on which the locals agreed was that the dweller in the cave behind the waterfall must be avoided at any cost.
Tonight, something moved in the cave behind the waterfall. It moaned. It sobbed. It screamed a hideous scream that made the flesh on Spiro’s back creep and crawl.
“I go no further,” said Spiro.
“Merlin’s beard,” Spanky gasped, recognizing something in the sound coming out of the waterfall cave.
“You did not hire me to make the introductions,” Spiro said defensively. “Only to show you where to find the ogre. You need not seem so surprised. I do not resist what your letter told me to do.”
“No, no,” said Spanky. “Listen! The creature is singing!”
Spiro gave him a queer look, and began backing away into the trees.
“I know this song,” Spanky explained, grinning at his guide. He began lightly singing along with the tuneless caterwauling of the cave giant: “Ché se non galleggiava per me quest’epa tronfia, certo affogavo. Brutta morte. L’acqua mi gonfia….”
“I do not know this song,” said Spiro, though he was intrigued enough to cease backpedaling.
“Your howling troll behind the waterfall?” Spanky gestured toward the source of the horrible noise. “He knows Italian opera! He sings it badly, to be sure… but if that’s a savage monster, I’m the Man in the Moon.”
“Oh, him,” sniffed Spiro with a dismissive wave. “I know him well. Visits Talia’s tavern once a month. But this one…! Savage brute or no, he is a dangerous customer. The floor of his ravine is littered with bones. Mauled goats and deer are often found in the country around here. People, entire families have disappeared, their farms vanished without a trace. And many barrels of mead, firewhisky, and Metaxa bound for Talia’s have been snatched in these woods. Sometimes the splintered staves are found near this place…”
“Our operatic friend likes his drink, does he?” Spanky grinned even wider, and twirled his silver blade. “Let’s go back to Talia’s, then. We’ll come back tomorrow night a cask or two.”
“I will have no part in this craziness,” Spiro protested. “I have fulfilled my duty.”
Spanky turned toward Spiro with an anguished look on his face. He seemed to beg forgiveness with his eyes even while his mouth formed the words: “Have you?”
Something inside Spiro told him he could not refuse to join yet another night of secrecy and danger. This Englishman with his sealed letter was perhaps even more dangerous than the creature in that cave.
“No,” Spiro admitted in a strangled voice. “I appear to be bound to help you.”
“Good,” said Spanky, the ruthlessness in his voice belied by the sorrow in his eyes. “Let’s get some rest. Our next night’s work will be much longer than this.”
Spiro shuddered as they turned away from the ogre’s cave.
“If it makes you feel better,” said Spanky, pulling up his hood, “the creature in the cave is neither a giant nor a troll nor an ogre.”
Spiro chewed on this as they climbed over the rock, skirted the thicket, and waded the stream. As they paused for breath near the fauns’ clearing, he finally asked: “What is the beast, then?”
“Not a beast, so much,” Spanky replied cryptically. “It knows opera, after all. Shakespeare, even! And once it’s had a drink or two, it won’t seem very threatening….”
+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR TMQ #175 +++
You can help decide what happens next in The Magic Quill! Simply leave a brief comment (up to 150 words) answering the following Survey and Contest. The survey answer with the most votes, and the contest answer that Robbie likes best, will turn up in the chapter after next.
SURVEY: Which are you most interested in finding out? (A) What costume Joe Albuquerque wears next. (B) Which of the contents of his Survival Satchell Merlin uses next. (C) What happens when Sadie lobs the Waveform Collapser at Harvey. (D) What Allie O’Modo, Chat Noir, or Minimilian gets up to (take your pick).
CONTEST: Briefly describe a discrepancy, or possible mistake, in the Harry Potter books and a possible solution to this problem.