Tales from the Hog's Head
A cloaked figure paused on the threshold of the Hog's Head while icy gusts hurled snow. The figure seemed to be considering whether to enter the darkness inside or return to the darkness outside. The codger behind the bar looked up from the crate of firewhisky, whose bottles he was relabeling from "Ogden's Best" to "McKnickers Incendiary."
"In or out, take your pick before I do it for you," was the codger's cheerful greeting.
"I'll have one of those bottles of Ogden's Best," the figure said, approaching the bar. "And a table by the fire."
"'S not Ogden's," the codger growled, yanking a mislabeled bottle sullenly from the crate and offering a filthy glass (which the figure declined).
"McKnickers and a twist, then," said the figure, producing a silver cup and flask from within the cloak.
"And you'll have to work out the table for yourself," added the barkeep. He dug a moldy lemon out of what appeared to be a dustbin. "Will there be anything else?"
"I'll let you know." Coins clinked on the grimy bar.
One cloaked figure, face hidden, weaved between many others slouched over small tables in ones, twos, and threes. Some of the customers may have been sleeping. Some, for all anyone knew, may have been dead. By the smell of the place, they may have placed their last order days ago.
The newcomer found a table for four near the fire, and only one of the chairs seemed occupied.
"Madam?" said the figure under the cloak, gesturing to an empty chair.
"Have a seat," said the veiled lady in a surprisingly gravelly voice. She patted the chair beside her and crossed her legs, showing a bit of very hairy ankle. But as the newcomer moved to sit in one of the chairs
opposite her, she suddenly shrieked, "Not there!"
"Pardon me," said the figure, sitting down beside the veiled lady. It pulled the bottle of McKnickers out of one pocket, the flask and cup out of another, and began to cut the lemon with a long, deadly-looking knife. It paused. "Do you mind if I drink?"
"By all means, do," said the lady. A strong smell of tobacco wafted from her direction. "We have our own."
At this point, the newcomer noticed that there were already a bottle,
half-full, and three cups on the table. One cup was in front of the lady. The other two were across the table. One of the cups raised itself about eighteen inches in the air and tipped so that the liquid ran off the edge of the cup; yet somehow not a drop spilled. Presently the cup went back to the tabletop with a bit less firewhisky in it.
"Aahh," said a voice out of thin air, smacking its invisible lips. It burns so smooth. Best stuff you ni- OW! Why j a go an' ...? Oh."
If the new visitor stared, it could not be blamed. Anyway, who could tell? Its own face was as good as invisible.
"What are you calling yourself tonight?" asked another disembodied voice from the chair opposite the veiled lady.
"Merlin," said the cloaked figure.
"Can't," said the second voice. "I got that one already. This 'ere is Endora, she is, and (excuse me pointing) that's Sadie."
"No offense," said the newcomer, "but I still don't know which one is which."
The bottle levitated off the table and tipped itself into the glass across from the cloaked man.
"You've got to hexcuse Endora. She's been goin' through 'er change of life, she 'as."
"Change of life yourself," came Endora's voice. "What was you sayin', Sadie luv?"
"I wasn't sayin' nothin'," came Sadie's gravelly voice from under the veil. It sounded a bit slurred. "I finished tha' story arf an hour hago."
"Wha' story?" said Merlin's voice.
"I forget," said Sadie. Her smoky breath made the veil tremble, just below where her long nose poked it outward. She began to relight her pipe. "But tha' reminds me of another one."
"What does?" said Merlin, who by the creaking of the table must have been leaning forward on his elbows.
"The weather, what this gentleman brough' in. It was on a nigh' like this one 'ere, nigh onto Christmas..."
"What's it called?" Endora's voice interrupted.
"What's what called?" Sadie said, a trace of irritation in her voice. "The night? I don't know what night it was exactly."
"The story, I meant."
Merlin snorted. "Not every story 'as to have a title, mate. He cleared his invisible throat. Er, I mean, dear."
"Not so much of that," said Endora. "'Ey! I ain't the one what kicked you. Keep your-OW!"
In the invisible scuffle that followed, one of the seemingly unoccupied chairs across from the newcomer fell over with a loud clatter. None of the other customers seemed to notice.
"All right, then," said Sadie. "Don't get your, ahem, er, just relax and let's call it 'The Gifts of the Animagi.'"
The scuffle ended. The chair righted itself, and both chairs across the table creaked while their unseen occupants gasped for breath.
"It's my nose, you imbecile," Merlin was heard to say.
"Is it about 'Arry Potter?" said Endora's eager, and rather mannish, voice. "Your story, I mean?"
"Naturally," said Sadie. She sucked on her pipe for a moment, then added, "Now dry up and listen."
And the newcomer under the cloak drank, and listened...
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