The Magic Quill #57: The Boatman and the Dragon

by Robbie Fischer, concepts contributed by: AngelBot and Jon

As Merlin’s story continued, he and his unlikely companion Rigel were starting down the second of seven tunnels branching off of the dreaded “pit” at the bottom of Gringotts Wizarding Bank…

“As we trudged down Tunnel Number Two, watching our footing to beware of breath-ants, I noticed that Rigel was in a bit of a funk.

“’Something on your mind?’ I asked casually.

“’Yes, actually,’ said Rigel. ‘I was just thinking about you.’

“I was about to say something like, ‘I’m moved,’ but I saw that he was in no state to be played with. So I held my tongue and waited. After a minute or two, he went on:

“’You’ve never complained. By now I would have expected you to be heaping all kinds of abuse and blame on me.’

“’What for?’ I asked, surprised.

“He gave me a wounded look, distrusting the genuineness of my question. But a minute later he answered it anyway. ‘For dragging you down to this hole. Your life is well over, you know, and it’s my bloody fault.’

“’Not true,’ said I. He gave me the same look again, only perhaps with a hint of suspicion. I went on, ‘I followed you of my own free will.’

“’Because my father paid you.’

“’Because I agreed to do it. Think of it this way: I’m paid by the day. The longer we’re stuck down here, the more the old man will owe me when I come to collect.’

“’You won’t, though,’ said Rigel. He stopped. I moved past him, thinking he had only paused for a moment, but when he sat down I stopped as well.

“’What are you doing?’

“’Giving up,’ said Rigel. ‘It’s like you said, mate. This is our grave. I made it. I might as well lie in it.’

“’You did not make this,’ I said fiercely.

“But he stabbed me with that look of his—not the clouded-with-despair kind that he had on him back in Tunnel One, but a totally clear look of calm resignation. Then he said, ‘No, I did, really.’

“’Well, you’re not dead yet,’ I replied. ‘Where there’s life…’

“’Shut up,’ said Rigel. ‘I’m not asking you to join me. Get out if you like. But I quit.’

“’No you don’t,’ I said. And I was inwardly very satisfied by his look of outrage when I savagely hauled him to his feet and started dragging him bodily along the tunnel.

“’Get your filthy hands off me!’ he raged. ‘What do you mean by this?’

“’I mean to bring you back to old Dad,’ I shouted back. ‘After all, I’m not here for my health. I only get paid for my time if you come out of this with me. So if I’m going to be poking around this place for a while, by the yeti’s tooth, you’re poking around with me!’

“This evidently put us back on a footing Rigel could live with. From then on he was angry, sullen, distant, and even at times rather haughty, but I never saw him give up again. It was too bad though. For a while I thought we were growing to be friends, but now I fell into the role of a useful but not wholly desirable servant. It was in this chilly but effective relationship that we arrived at the end of the tunnel, where the ground sloped down to the edge of an underground stream. The other side of the stream was a solid wall.

“’Well, that settles this route,’ said Rigel, and he turned and started back the way we had come.

“’Wait,’ I called. He kept walking away until I added, ‘I hear something. Someone, I mean.’ That stopped him.

“After a minute, Rigel came back down to the edge of the stream and craned his head out over the water, trying to see around the nearby bend in the river. Faint at first, the sound grew clearer and stronger. It was a man’s voice, singing. Singing a repetitive, meaningless song that had become quite a torture to mind and spirit by the time the boatman poled into view. That song still runs through my head from time to time: ‘Deep, deep, he runs so deep, Wearing the time away; Sleep, sleep, adrift in sleep, Don’t listen to what I say.’

“The boatman pulled up within a few feet of the shore in front of us and leered at us out of a very disconcerting face. It looked like a big, startled hedgehog, round and bristling with dark hairs that stuck straight out. He had dark, beady eyes and a round, crooked figure, almost but not quite humpbacked. And although the only clothes he wore was a filthy loincloth sort of thing, you couldn’t see any of his skin through the thick, matted, filthy hair that covered him all over. He smelled very bad. From several yards away I thought he smelled like the pile of insects that used to accumulate around the edges of the shield spell that my Aunt Bougainvillea used to set up around her garden parties. Closer to, when he had beckoned us onto the boat, I changed my mind and decided that he smelled like the time I was obliged to hide in a laundry cart at a sanitarium for disabled security trolls.

“No one said anything for a while. We just watched the rock walls swim by as the boatman poled us upstream, whistling the tune of that infuriating song of his. When he took a deep breath as if to resume singing aloud, I cut in with a question. ‘Where are you going?’ I asked.

“’Thataway,’ said the boatman, with a nod upstream.

“I coughed. ‘To be sure,’ I said politely. ‘But what, pray, is up thataway?’

“’A round of cheese from the milk of the cow what jumped over the moon,’ was the boatman’s answer.

“’Aged to razor sharpness, no doubt,’ I said, smiling at the man. But he nodded solemnly, and I realized he was quite serious. So I asked another question: ‘Is it a very long way?’

“’Not if you set out after you get there,’ the boatman rejoined. ‘And the tide is in my favor; it has to be, you see, because it always flows toward green cheese.’

“This answer silenced me for a while. I stared, tongue-tied, into the darkness, determined not to look for help from Rigel. ‘Who are you?’ I asked at length, when the boatman puckered his lips to begin whistling again. ‘Sir?’ I added.

“’I am the chap what wore the other shoe what never dropped,’ the boatman replied.

“Rigel confided in me so far as to exchange an exasperated glance. Then I asked, ’And what might that chap’s name be?’

“’It might be Orville McCharon,’ the boatman replied.

“’What brings you down to this depth of Gringotts?’ I asked, partly in response to a roll of Rigel’s eyes.

“’Gringotts? Have I got that far already?’ the old bristle-brush said, chuckling. ‘Why, isn’t that something. I thought it had been a longish time since I heard the surf.’

“’We’ll get off at that landing up ahead,’ Rigel blurted, and without quite waiting for the boat to stop, he waded out into the waste-deep, icy water. Naturally, I followed him, after paying the boatman a couple of sickles. We clambered up onto the dry land and strode, shivering, into the tunnel until the boatman’s singing voice had faded away. It took some time; I wasn’t sure but that toward the end, we were only imagining it. Then we paused again, and Rigel rummaged in his pocket for a while. He came out with a phoenix feather. After he had finished drying his robes off with it, he offered it to me. I took it reluctantly, wondering whether the feather’s original owner had contributed it willingly. Then, dry but still somewhat cold, we continued our hike.

“After what must have been five miles of up and down, twisting, rubble-strewn tunnel, our way widened toward a huge gallery. At first we both groaned, thinking we had come out in the gallery of seven tunnels again, but then we noticed that there was only one other entrance—a wide arch leading into a high, vaulted chamber that curved out of sight on our right. A faint glow illuminated the walls of the side chamber, and I became aware of a distant thrum, like the sound of the lowest pedal note on an organ when you’re walking past the church. I felt it more than heard it; and I began to think that I had been feeling it for some time, only without noticing it.

“Rigel paused, grabbing my arm, and sniffed. He took two steps forward and sniffed again. Then he turned to face me with firm decision written all over his face. ’We’re going back to the river,’ he said. ‘If we can’t find the boatman, we’ll swim for it.’

“’But we haven’t seen what’s up ahead yet…’

“’It’s for the best, really,’ Rigel hissed. ‘And for pity’s sake, keep your voice down. Can’t you hear it? Can’t you smell it?’

“’Smell what?’ I said, less loudly. I sniffed the air, and all I could make out was a faintly brassy smell, or maybe ozone. And there was something else, too—something burned, something rotten… ‘Oh,’ I said, and I turned on tiptoe to go back down the tunnel we had entered by.

“But there was a problem. It was gone.

“Rigel and I exchanged desperate, reproachful glares as we hunted all over the gallery for another way out—but there was only one way, and it led towards the unmistakable sound and smell of a dragon…”

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