The Magic Quill #73: Wine, Clowns, and Song
by Robbie Fischer
Sitting on the floor of the Time Vault with an infant Rigel balanced between his lap and Slavik’s, with their only exit blocked by a detachment of goblin bank guards, Merlin did not expect anything to delay his recapture. And this time, he was sure, there would be no more chance of escape.
He was therefore a bit surprised when there was, in fact, a delay. He had forgotten that the other three Durmstrang lads still had perfectly good wands, which they put to use the moment Merlin said, “Why, hello, Nailspike.”
It was only a short delay, but also a noisy and wet one. Some of the goblins dropped their weapons, one or two were stunned, and some of the shelves collapsed with a deafening crash of jars and flasks and splintered wood. Rigel found his lungs again and resumed battering everyone’s eardrums with his fourteen-month-old screams. It wasn’t that he was too young to talk; but he was too frightened to bother.
And then, of course, it rained. Merlin was beginning to note a pattern in the behavior of wands made with an augurey-feather core. Perhaps it was simply that they were made in haste, without the usual charms. But there was no denying that every time one of the augurey-feather wands was used, something got wet. The cloud overhead thundered and flashed with tiny bolts of lightning, but mostly it just rained steadily, coldly, and heavily. Before Merlin could blink the water out of his eyes, the goblins had regrouped and he was being dragged by all four limbs.
The rain stopped as soon as Jaan, Karl, and Anatoly were disarmed. This prompted Merlin to make a second mental note: nobody had bothered to search him. They must have assumed he was still unarmed, because he had done nothing to defend himself. Perhaps no one but himself knew that he still had a once-used, possibly used-up wand in his pocket. His heart skipped a beat when he realized that Rigel’s never-used wand was still stuffed in the latter’s robes, which were wrapped around the baby. And as soon as the goblins plopped Merlin into an ore cart, they plopped the baby on top of him.
“When you consider your foolishness,” gloated Nailspike the goblin, as he and two other goblins climbed into the same ore cart, “it is amazing that you have all survived so long. Some of us had bets on how long it will take to break your spirit, but none of us dreamed you would still be trying to escape. The house takes all. I salute you.”
“I’m touched,” Merlin said drily, though in his cramped and half-suffocated position it was hard to sound any other way.
“Of that I have no doubt,” Nailspike replied with equal dryness.
A shout went up from the other ore-carts, and the one with Merlin in it started to move.
For a long time no one spoke. Even Rigel quieted down after a bit, and fell asleep against Merlin’s chest. The rails clattered beneath the cart, and Merlin’s body developed enough cramps to keep his mind off the question of where the goblins were taking him. Surprisingly, they seemed to be heading slightly upward; so it could not be the pit again.
What did the goblins have in store for him and his companions? How could it be worse than what they had already gone through? Merlin’s imagination failed him. Instant death wasn’t cruel enough to suit goblin ideas of punishment; so it couldn’t be that. But if not another trip to the pit—this time, with no hope of escape—what could they be hatching?
“It’s too bad, though.”
Nailspike was speaking again. Merlin wondered how long the goblin had been talking before he caught the wizard’s attention.
“What is too bad?” Merlin asked.
“Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to sympathize,” said Nailspike. “But I had already spent my winnings, and now I have to pay them back. Frankly, it had been so long since we had heard from you that we all assumed you had perished.”
“It’s good strategy,” Merlin said carelessly. “Let you drop your guard, then sneak out. Slow and steady wins the race. Good preparation takes time…”
“Yes, but all these years and not one peep!” cried Nailspike. “That’s simply remarkable. I almost feel that I’m talking to a living miracle, a dead man risen…”
“It has seemed like ages, hasn’t it?” said Merlin. He caught himself reacting to the goblin’s words, and made an effort to keep a straight face. But inwardly, he was surprised and perplexed. Years? Was that a goblin figure of speech?
“No mistake,” said one of the other goblins, in reply. Nailspike punched it between the shoulder blades and told it to mind itself.
“Well, we found the shield two years ago, and we’re preparing to wall up that back door to the pit that you and your friends found. That should be the last of them, then.”
“Our work has not been in vain, then,” Merlin said, filling with despair.
“No, that it has not,” said Nailspike, as the ore cart came to a hard, screeching stop. “Your team has done a valuable service to the bank. We aim to reward you.”
“Oh, yes?” Merlin said, hardly daring to hope. “With what?”
“Why, with what every prisoner-for-life dreams of, my dear wizard: wine, women, and song! Only, regrettably, we are fresh out of women. I trust you will find clowns to be a satisfactory substitute.”
While Nailspike spoke these words, the other goblins dragged him and the other wizards out of the row of ore carts and shoved them into an open vault. Before the heavy door was sealed on them, Nailspike personally handed the baby Rigel back to Merlin and leered: “Raise him well. He will inherit all that you see.”
Then they were shut into the familiar Vault of Il Comte di Bestemmia, from which they seemed to have escaped only yesterday.
Three shrunken, drunken, and discouraged-looking clowns greeted the five men and the baby with all the hospitality of an unlimited supply of wine and a magic tablecloth full of food. Don Pagliai looked sad to see Merlin, but said he was happy. The other two said nothing, while the four Durmstrang lads simply fell on the food and drink without a word.
“You’ve lost so much weight,” Don Pagliai fretted, shaking his jowly head with its stiff tower of violet hair. “You must eat, and feed the little one.”
Numbly, Merlin allowed Don Pagliai to steer him toward the magic tablecloth and a vast goblet of wine. The amazing cloth had anticipated their needs, even as far as providing a bowl of mashed peas and a spill-proof tumbler of milk for the child. Merlin’s eyes stung with tears that refused to fall.
Don Pagliai shook his head, and thrust a turkey leg into Merlin’s hands. “It must have been terrible for you.”
“And what about you?” asked Merlin, hoarsley. He took a gulp of wine to clear his throat. “You’re still here after…how many months?”
“Every day is the same,” Don Pagliai shrugged. “But since you asked…Eh, Signor Subito!” He asked the shortest of the three clowns a quick question in a flow of Italian speech. Subito consulted a wall with many scratch marks on it, and reported back.
“He says fifty,” said Pagliai.
“Fifty days?” Merlin said, shrugging. “I guess that’s about…”
“No, no, you misunderstand,” said Don Pagliai, jowls aquiver. “You have been gone from us these fifty months. We may have been drunk the whole while, but you! Can you really be so silly?”
“Hold on,” Merlin said, setting his wine goblet down firmly. “Fifty months? But…that’s over four years!”
“Exactly,” said Don Pagliai. He sighed. “We hoped you had escaped, or perhaps mercifully perished. Alas, you have taken leave of your senses!”
Merlin pinched himself, blinked, then remembered. He groaned, and pressed his hands to his face. “Oh no! The Tomorrow Tonic! It splashed on all of us! We only had a little left, to pour down Rigel’s throat. Otherwise he would have aged backwards to oblivion…”
“But this tonic touched your skin,” Don Pagliai said, with a knowing nod. “Yes…and instead of aging you on the inside, it brought you forward in time…”
Merlin’s mind reeled. In those few moments his party had spent in the Time Vault, truly, the whole world had changed….
As if summing up the predicament he was in—his business ruined, his family heartbroken, his future pitch black, and his food seasoned by a pinch of goblins and a dash of hopes—his last client, who was now his ward, lifted his cheerful, singsong voice and announced: “I MAKE POO!”
+++ YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE +++
Robbie here. I would like to announce an exciting change in the format of The Magic Quill. HAVE NO FEAR. This column is not going to end in the foreseeable future. We are only changing the way your ideas will be heard.
First, we are no longer ending each article with a tag saying, “What happens next? Send us your idea in 150 words or less,” etc. But your ideas WILL STILL BE HEARD, and are vital to the creation of The Magic Quill. Instead of an uninspiring, open-ended question like “What happens next?” each new number of The Magic Quill will end with a Double Challenge. I’ll tell you more about this week’s challenge in a bit.
Second, when you click the link to submit your idea, you will no longer be sent to the Feedback Form. Instead, you will go to a discussion thread in COS Forums, where you can see everyone else’s ideas and add your own. Again, HAVE NO FEAR. I will personally look in on the current thread before I write each new number; if possible, every day. Also, you will still be able to send me an e-mail through the Feedback Form. Your thoughtful comments are always welcome.
Now, for the DOUBLE CHALLENGE. The first part is a SURVEY; the second part is a CONTEST. The winning vote in the Survey will determine the general direction the storyline takes. The winning Contest entry (as judged by Robbie) will be used in The Magic Quill. The “winning answers” will appear in The Magic Quill two weeks later, to give you a week to participate & to give us a week to use your ideas, while continuing to have a weekly column.
So BOTH the major direction of the plot, and some of its juicy details, will be in your hands. Only now, while Robbie gets to pick the winning “detail,” YOU get to choose the winning plot direction!
Here is this week’s Double Challenge. Click here to respond by 11:59 PM Greenwich on Friday, 16 December 2005.
*** THE SURVEY ***
Which Magic Quill character’s story should we follow in TMQ 75? Should it be Merlin or someone else?
*** THE CONTEST ***
Describe an original SPELL. Include both the name of the spell and its effect.