The Magic Quill No. 174: Surfer Mice
Contest winner: Evensong
Runner-up: Linda Carrig
Merlin and Miss Pucey legged it. In their mouths the slightly medicinal, herbal tang of Turbo Gum (tiny lozenge-shaped chicle drops made to Signor Subito's family recipe). Over their shoulders a massive wall of water that advanced so slowly that it seemed almost suspended in time. To their left and right, smooth stone walls that arched overhead to form a vaulted ceiling only a meter or so above the level of the approaching water, but with no footholds to climb and no ledges to climb to. Ahead, a seemingly endless tunnel offering no refuge from the wave behind. Time was in their favor while their legs, and the flavor of the gum, held out.
They ran and chewed. They chewed and ran. The slow-motion roar of the following wave was so deep it could not be heard by the human ear, but they felt its thrum in their feet, legs, chest. Apart from that, only the sound of their panting breaths and running footsteps broke the silence of the watery, subterranean deathtrap in which they ran (and chewed) for their lives.
The wave was not gaining on them. In fact, they were pulling farther away from it every minute. This was not very encouraging, however. They knew that when the Turbo Gum lost its flavor, the wave would take only seconds to cover the distance they had gained. They might have time to pop another drop of Turbo Gum in their mouths... but how long could they keep running like this?
Miss Pucey snapped her fingers. Merlin looked round and followed her pointing hand. This was hard to do because they were both running, so both pointing and looking are chancy affairs and cannot be done with great accuracy. After a few more hand-snaps and emphatic gestures, Merlin finally saw what Miss Pucey was trying to point out.
At the cornices of some of the pillars holding up this endless vault, gargoyles looked out over their own dark, damp, lifeless domain.
Merlin looked at Miss Pucey and shrugged his shoulders and eyebrows at the same time. He was doing his best to say, "So what?" without swallowing his gum or breaking his stride.
Now Miss Pucey began gesturing toward the satchel slung over Merlin's shoulder. He gave her another "So what?" look. She pointed to herself, then the satchel. She pointed to Merlin, then the satchel. Then she pointed up toward the gargoyles.
"We'll never have time," Merlin said out loud.
On the t of the word time he made the mistake of spitting out his gum. "Bother," he said, hastily ducking out from under the satchel's shoulder strap.
Meanwhile, Miss Pucey flew away from him in one direction, and the roaring wall of water suddenly began flying toward him from the other. Merlin desperately patted his pockets in search of the tin of Turbo Gum.
A moment later Miss Pucey returned, still on Turbo time, moving so quickly that she appeared as a blur. She dived into the satchel headfirst. She somehow grabbed Merlin's wrist at the last moment and pulled him in after her. The jerk nearly dislocated his shoulder.
The wall of water was only a thousand feet away. The satchel sat on the stone floor in front of it, sagging open, motionless.
The wall of water was now seven hundred feet away. A wad of gum flew out of the satchel with a dainty pop. The gum ricocheted off two or three cobblestones before getting stuck in a crack.
The wall of water was within five hundred feet. A wand-tip poked itself out of the open satchel. The person at the other end of the wand said something that he or she could scarcely hear over the now deafening thunder of the approaching wave. The spell must have been something like Accio Gargoyle, because the wand-tip was pointing at a gargoyle. Since, however, the gargoyle could not move, the satchel moved instead.
It rose up into the air. It rose very rapidly, in fact. But was it rising fast enough? When the wave was only two hundred feet off, the satchel had risen less than halfway to the gargoyle's jutting chin.
Meanwhile, riding a crest of the approaching wave on a re-purposed door was a lean figure covered in tattoos, piercings, and very little else. Rigel whooped and sported as though a California beach filled with sunkissed girls lay spread before him, rather than an endless, empty, underground cathedral. For a moment he was distracted by what looked like a pair of tiny, fleeing figures far ahead of him, but he dismissed them with a shake of his head. Nobody could move that fast!
With a snap of his head he threw his wet, hip-length hair in front of his face. He had almost made up his mind what color to change it to, when he failed to see a satchel flying straight at him.
WHAP! Lights danced in front of Rigel's eyes. The world spun, tumbled, and roared. Something hit Rigel with all but crushing force, and suddenly everything went black.
Darkness. Silence. No... the sound of dripping water...
For a while Rigel lay still with his eyes closed, wondering. He wondered how he could have been so foolish as to fall asleep in the midst of non-stop, fast-paced danger. Maybe the high-speed action had gone on too long, he had gotten used to it, even bored with it. Maybe he was just too exhausted to help it. But apart from that, how could he have survived?
Another sound was added to the background silence and dripping sound. A scritching sound, like a mouse gnawing and scratching on something. Rigel lay still anyway. He wasn't sure, now, that he wasn't actually dead. He wanted to delay finding out as long as possible.
The scritching sound grew closer. In fact, it was very close. Surely he must be dead. Mice wouldn't get that close to a live body, would they? Now rats, he thought, were a different matter. They would eat anything, living or dead...
Rigel's eyes snapped open. He looked around, moving only his eyes. He was surprised by his surroundings. For one, he wasn't lying on a damp stone floor, surrounded by debris swept in by the wave. Rather, he was on a dry, soft bed, covered by a soft rug and surrounded by all the normal trappings of a bedroom. A woman's bedroom, Rigel realized with satisfaction, taking in the objects on the nearby table, the cut of the curtains over the windows, the soft cushions and pillows, the muted glow of gas lamps draped in patterned silk. The air was warm, delicately perfumed...
The scritching noise came even closer. It was the one thing that truly bothered him. But all in all, this wasn't a bad place to wake up after that horrible dream about the wereyaks, and the merhags, the canal and the tunnel and the wave. He wondered, though, why he couldn't remember whose bedroom this was or what had happened the night before.
Rigel thought about sitting up. He decided to turn his head first and look at the other side of the room. That's when he saw what the scritching was all about.
On the table next to the bed stood an old phonograph with a single bell-like speaker. A furry paw was turning the crank, winding the spring that drove the mechanism. Another furry paw let fall a hinged arm with a needle at the end. The needle landed with a deafeningly amplified SCRATCH on the flat, black disk rotating atop the turntable. Tinny music began to pour out of the speaker. Drums, guitars, keyboards... squeaky voices singing unfamiliar words to a familiar tune...
Rigel slowly turned his gaze up the length of the huge, furry paw that had now withdrawn itself from the phonograph. The paw was attached to an arm, which in turn was attached to a large furry body perched on the edge of the bed. A furry tail grew out of the rear of that body. It stood up and turned around, confronting Rigel with the whiskery, toothy face of a gigantic mouse. Swaying on its hind legs, it began to dance and sing along with the record: "I wish they all could be California miiiiiice...."
Rigel's eyes snapped open. He gave a little scream and tried to sit up, but hands pressed him back into the bed. Hands, he noted, not paws. He tried to see who they belonged to, but the room was too dark. He was definitely in a bed, though. A soft, cushion-strewn bed with perfumed draperies and a warm rug across his chest... Rigel struggled, but again the hands gently restrained him. Not paws. Not paws. He relaxed.
"Good," said a familiar, feminine voice. "That was close, wasn't it? Aren't you fortunate that I sent Carpet to follow you. I must say, the more I see of you, the more interesting I find you."
Rigel clutched the edge of the rug self-consciously. A tassel on the fringe of the rug snapped at him, and he loosened his grip. "Gently, there," cooed the woman's voice, though it wasn't clear whom she meant.
"You're Sheherazade Jenkins," Rigel ventured.
"We've had a strenuous night, haven't we? Sleep now. I'll leave Stanley here to watch you."
"Wait," he said. "Where am I? Where are my knickers? There are people... I mean, I have to find..."
"There, there," said the woman who had neither confirmed nor denied being Sheherazade Jenkins. "It's all taken care of. You're safe now." Lips brushed lightly against his forehead. "Why don't we have a little sleep, eh?"
The bed creaked and shifted. Weight lifted off the side where the woman had been sitting. Footsteps. A door closing. Rigel lay in darkness, wondering.
Rigel wondered who Stanley might be. He could hear someone breathing nearby. He couldn't see anybody except Carpet, whose only name (so far as he gathered) was Carpet, and who didn't seem to need to breathe. To be sure, however, Carpet felt unusually soft and warm just now. As Rigel stroked its fringe, Carpet even began purr. The effect was very soothing. In spite of his worries, Rigel fell asleep in seconds.
Rigel's eyes snapped open. The room he found himself in was quite different from the surfer mouse's bedroom. It felt and smelled like the room he had last fallen asleep in, which he hoped wasn't a dream. It wasn't, however, the boudoir of Sheherazade Jenkins that he had visited earlier, the one with the painting of the joined twins. It was, in fact, the lair of a troll.
The bed was actually a huge pile of fleeces, skins, several heavy rugs, and assorted sacks of rushes and feathers. The perfume came from a brazier near the bed which, even at this bright hour of the morning, blazed with a fire of aromatic wood. The walls were whitewashed. The furnishings were sparse, rough, and well-used. The only woman's touch was the curtain of shells strung on threads that covered the window. The door Rigel had heard closing was a hatch in the floor. All in all it was the nicest troll's lair Rigel had ever been in. Indeed, he might not have worked out that it was a troll's lair, had the troll not been lounging on the floor next to the bed, holding the trapdoor shut with his elbow.
The troll didn't look any more civilized than the average troll. Rigel could only guess that it owed its refined surroundings to some human influence, possibly the woman who owned Carpet.
Carpet began purring again.
"Don't start that again," said Rigel, sitting up slowly so as not to alarm the troll.
The troll watched him with a bored expression, and picked its nose.
Rigel decided it was time to make the introductions. "Stanley, is it?"
The troll's eyes moved slightly when he spoke the name. Otherwise, there was no response.
"Look, Stanley," said Rigel, "I think we should be on a first-name basis before I get out from under this Carpet. Which I've got to do rather urgently, don't you know. But, you see, I haven't got anything on. So, like, me Rigel. Rigel happy to meet you. Now I don't suppose there's a chamber-pot around here somewhere?"
Stanley gazed at him flatly, then began to eat the bogey that he found on the end of his finger.
"Cripes," Rigel groaned, flopping back on the bed. "I don't know if I can remember any Troll after all these years. What was that tutor's name again? And did we ever discuss how to ask if one might go to the loo? Ah, yes! How could I forget? Going to the loo was a whole chapter in the grammar. Er... hem, hem... Oorg graargh heh aarrgh aargh!"
The troll perked up at the sound of its own language. It looked at Rigel with a bit of curiosity.
Rigel felt only slightly encouraged. What was he saying wrong? "Er... Oog grunt heh ugh ugh!"
The troll grunted something back at him and pointed out the window.
"Oh, lovely," said Rigel. "How does one say, 'Would you mind looking the other way?' Er... Grunt raaorr wump-wump blaaaargh!"
At this the troll began to laugh, now and again heartily slapping its massive belly.
"That evidently doesn't mean what I thought," said Rigel, beginning to squirm with discomfort. "I say, Carpet, you couldn't help a lad out, could you?"
Carpet curled at the corners in what appeared to be a sort of textile shrug.
"I'm just going to skip over to that window for a moment. Could you provide a bit of privacy for me?"
Carpet twitched affirmatively, then flew off the bed and attacked Stanley the Troll. While the troll struggled to claw the rug away from his face, Rigel ran to the window and brushed the dangling shells aside. He was about to empty his bladder out the window when he realized that he was standing above an enormous egg-shaped cavern, open to the sky above, and surrounded by similarly curtained windows. A few meters below was a sunny courtyard where dozens of large, scantily-dressed trolls of indeterminate (but probably mixed) sex were hard at work skinning carcasses, pounding seeds into flour, repairing weapons, and building up a fire beneath a huge cauldron. At the sound of Rigel's involuntary yelp of surprise, they all looked up at him. There was nowhere to hide.
"Er," said Rigel, deciding to put on a brave face, "Oorg graalk hurr aarrgh ugh!"
About a hundred meaty paws pointed toward a trap door close to the opposite side of the courtyard. Even from here Rigel could see the crescent moon carved onto the door. A pile of catalogues from Vold-Mart lay nearby, their pages smeared with what Rigel did not care to think about.
"Lovely," said Rigel, and he began the difficult climb down to the floor of the courtyard. His descent was followed by the riveted eyes of every troll in the courtyard, and more joined them at every moment. He had never been a person to feel shame of any kind, but at just this moment Rigel wished he could crawl inside his own belly-button and disappear.
It was only after he reached the floor that Carpet caught up to him and carried him the rest of the way. This, at least, saved him having to dance out of reach of grabby troll hands. He reached the trapdoor, opened it, quickly closed it and spent a minute breathing through clenched teeth while pinching his nose shut, then opened it again and climbed down into the hole. Though it was the last thing in the world he wanted to do, Rigel made sure the trapdoor was shut before he climbed out of reach.
When he got down to the really nasty bit, Rigel wondered how anything with an underground river gushing through it could be this filthy, and what became of anything that happened to live downstream. After all his squirming and wriggling, he found he wasn't in such a hurry to use the trolls' loo now. He made himself use it anyway. He did his best not to touch anything. Then, while mincing back toward the ladder up to the courtyard, he was surprised to find a familiar leather satchel wedged between a pile of catalogues and one of the most sickening pieces of troll plumbing.
Rigel poked the satchel with his toe. "Hello?" he said, reasoning as only a wizard would. "Is anybody in there?"
When no one responded, Rigel's blood ran cold. "Cripes," he said for the second time that morning. "I don't reckon Merlin would let this go without a fight. I hope they're all right."
He picked up the satchel and tried to open it, but of course it would only open to Merlin's touch. "Drat!" Rigel said to himself. "Might as well take it back to Stanley's gaff, anyway." He didn't say it aloud, even to himself, but he didn't mind having something to hide behind until he found something to wear.
He was just emerging from the crescent-moon trapdoor when a melodious voice spoke behind him: "Making yourself at home, are you?" Her words flavored with barely-suppressed laughter.
Rigel spun around, clutching the satchel across his middle. "What are we doing here?" he snapped, more angrily than he meant to sound. Partly he was furious at himself for the blush he could feel spreading down his neck and below his collarbone. "And might I ask what you've done with my robes?"
"You arrived as I see you now," said the woman of Rigel's dreams, Sherherazade or not. "I see you've even recovered your toilet bag. I left it down there hoping that it would come in useful for you. Though it doesn't seem to have done you much good."
Her mischievous eyes did not conceal the fact that she had tried, and failed, to open the bag herself.
"The clasp is a bit stuck," Rigel said defensively. "I'm ordinarily much cleaner than this."
"I hope not," said the woman, cocking one eyebrow in a way that made Rigel's blush spread even further. After another uncomfortable moment, she relented. "Fresh clothes and breakfast await you, this way. Hop on Carpet. Make room, now. I won't bite."
Rigel wasn't worried about that, exactly. He held the satchel firmly across his lap as carpet swooped up toward the circle of sunlight overhead.
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