The Magic Quill #66: Hiking, Birdwatching, and Wandmaking, Part Two

by Robbie Fischer, concepts contributed by: Angelbot and Norman Greene

After a long, fruitless search for a door into the Gringotts bird sanctuary and wand-tree preserve, the six would-be escapees remembered Rigel’s portable hole. Even with the hole stretched as far it would go, they had a tight squeeze though the six-foot-thick walls, even after months of near-starvation. But at last they found themselves in a vast, vaulted chamber filled with the sounds of running water, birds in flight, birds in conversation, and the rustling of tree branches. Somehow there seemed to be sunlight and a warm, scented breeze. The ground, covered with grass and flowers and patches of ferns or bramble, sloped down from the outer walls.

The first order of business was to gather up mushrooms, edible roots, and berries. They ate ravenously and plunged their faces into a stream to drink. Merlin went a few paces downstream for a bath, and when he came back everyone was stretched out in a patch of warm sunlight, snoring. He joined them cheerfully.

A mournful cry woke him. The first moment after he opened his eyes, it seemed a swift winged shadow had passed over him; the next moment, he realized this was a trick of his mind, as the air beneath the shining ceiling had filled with dark clouds. He only had time to cover himself in the robes he had washed during his bath – they had nearly finished drying – before a sudden drenching rain came down. The others awoke then, sputtering and coughing. They soon found shelter under a loganberry thicket.

The rain continued for hours. It was so loud that it drowned out their feeble attempts at conversation, so all they could do was huddle together shivering and wait for it to stop. They dined on loganberries and rainwater, and suffered numerous scratches and cuts from the thorns. Merlin was happy to see that Rigel had put his cloak of visibility safely away.

When the air cleared up, everyone put his robes out to dry, and they set about building a more comfortable shelter out of fallen limbs. Merlin found that he was better at this sort of thing than any of the others; Rigel tried to help, but mostly got in the way. As soon as a semblance of a thatched roof was completed, another rain storm broke out and they got a chance to try the shelter out. It was surprisingly snug; in fact, Merlin almost missed the elbow-room under the loganberry bush. While stepping outside on the excuse of mending some leaks in the roof (but really to stretch his cramped legs), he again saw a bird-shaped something rushing through the gloom.

The six men continued to work during the next several days. They counted the rainy bits as night, and the bright bits as daytime. After adding two more rooms to their hut, so that everyone could stretch out flat on the ground, they began collecting other things. Jaan and Karl combed the thickets for potion-quality herbs. Anatoly and Slavik scouted the treetops, at great personal risk, to steal fresh feathers and, now and then, a few eggs from the birds’ nests. Rigel collected as many long, straight switches of wand-quality wood as he could, using a short saw he had bought from a stall in Quizzic Alley without really expecting that he would ever use it. Merlin did the jobs nobody else knew how to do: he cooked meals, washed clothes, made improvements to the hut, and even tried to invent some traps.

The days went by, each pretty much like the others. The men lost track of how much time they had been there. The only thing that changed was the length of their beards. Now and then the monotony of having roots and mushrooms for every meal was brightened by the capture of a rabbit, squirrel, or pheasant. One time, Rigel was nearly pecked to death while trying to steal eggs from a nest; no one could identify the bird that attacked him, but they took to calling it the Rather Irritable Crow and avoided its neighborhood after that. Merlin proved handy at patching up wounds, so Rigel recovered in time to be trampled by a stampede of flightless fowl that they afterward dubbed the Frantic Hen.

When Rigel came out of his fever after being bitten by a Venomous Budgie, he found Merlin once again bending over him, applying a fresh mud plaster to the bite-marks on Rigel’s arm.

“Here I am again,” he said.

Merlin resisted a temptation to grin and, instead, said gruffly, “I’m afraid you’re going to pull through, in spite of your best efforts.”

Rigel looked shocked and hurt. “You don’t think I’m trying to do myself in, do you?”

“Well, it’s either that or you have an interesting way of avoiding work,” Merlin said. But this time, enough of a smile escaped from the corner of his mouth that Rigel knew he was being teased.

“How are the wands coming?” he asked casually.

“Jaan is almost finished with the first batch, no thanks to you.”

“Eh! Who had a cauldron in his pocket locker?”

“All right, apart from that. The infusion that binds the wand core to the wood is nearly done brewing, and about a dozen sticks have been trimmed, tempered, and polished. But we could still use a sacrificial lamb like you to help us find that augurey’s nest. There don’t seem to be any other birds around whose feathers would make a suitable wand core.” Merlin plumped the pillow under Rigel’s head, meaningfully. Made from a shirt that Slavik had given up, it was stuffed with feathers that Jaan had judged entirely useless for wandmaking.

“You only thought you saw an augurey once or twice,” Rigel pointed out. “And that was ages ago, wasn’t it?”

“I also think I heard its cry. But they’re very shy, augureys. They only come out in weather that keeps us in, and so far we’ve had no luck finding its nest.”

“I don’t see why we don’t just use the portable hole again and try Tunnel Number Four,” Rigel complained.

“Do you suppose we would be better off in an unknown tunnel, where we may not find another bite of food or a safe place to lay our heads?”

“We might find a way out of this pest-ridden bank,” Rigel said with surprising violence. Then he clutched his head in pain.

Merlin squeezed his shoulder and said, “Don’t worry. We’re working on that right now.”

Rigel pulled away from Merlin’s touch. “Are we?” he asked, his voice muffled by his hands, which still covered his face. “We’ve been telling ourselves that for…how long, now? Six weeks? Three months? When do you suppose we’ll give up this cracked wand-making wheeze and move on? Or are we simply going to accept the comfortable prison we’ve made for ourselves here?”

Merlin’s mouth was open in reply before he realized that he didn’t know what to say. His mouth was still open, however, when he heard a long, moaning cry – and a second later the rain began to patter on the hut’s roof. Rigel sat up slowly as their four companions, looking more heavily bearded since he had last seen them, shuffled into the shelter. Everyone looked at each other out of round, fearful eyes. They had all heard it this time: a slow, inhuman threnody that made the heart ache and the neck hairs bristle.

Was it an omen of tragedy…or of triumph?

What happens next? Send us your idea in 150 words or less, and tune in next week for another installment of the Magic Quill.