The Magic Quill #78: The Thestramule
by Robbie Fischer
Contest Winners: Linda Carrig and Shadow Phoenix
“So I said, ‘We’ve been had!’”
With these words, Merlin shook his head and took a long drink from his smoking goblet.
Endora clucked sympathetically. “It’s like a nightmare,” she said. “It keeps goin’ and goin’ around, and you can’t ever get out.”
“Well, thank goodness, he did get out,” said Harvey, mopping his brow with a corner of the handkerchief that covered the lower half of his face. “But before Merlin goes on with his heartbreaking tale, we need to discuss…”
“Oi!” a rude voice interruped. The shabby, bearded proprietor of the pub poked his head around the drapery that usually lent this back parlor a bit of privacy, and studied its occupants with a beady eye.
“I believe the expression you are searching for is, ‘I beg your pardon,’” Harvey suggested mildly.
Ignoring him, the proprietor muttered, “All right, he’s not here, then.”
“Who?” Sadie asked, earning a dig in the ribs from Joe Albuquerque.
“Aye! Just that tallish, gamekeeper chap from up at the school. Somebody’s thestramule found its way onto the roof, and I’m guessing whose.”
“What’s a thestramule?” Joe wondered as the proprietor’s shaggy head withdrew.
“It’s what you get when a male thestral sneaks up on an unsuspecting female unicorn,” said Endora, blushing. “They’re meant to be very rare outside of the Forbidden Forest. They can’t reproduce themselves…”
“I’d like to have a look at that,” said Joe, and a moment later the parlor was empty. Last to leave was Sadie, who was careful to drain every goblet.
A small crowd had gathered outside the Hog’s Head and were gazing up at the top of the crooked building. Heads in nightcaps craned out of the upstairs windows. But only those who had alcohol in their blood could see the strange creature that perched restlessly among the chimneys.
Sadie gasped when she saw it. Tears came to Endora’s eyes. Merlin took off his funny glasses with the fake nose and mustache, and squinted upward with puzzlement while wiping the lenses on a corner of his cloak. Spanky licked the tip of a pencil and began sketching the animal in a small notebook that he always carried. Joe scratched his head, his mouth agape, like many of the other wizards in the crowd. Only Harvey seemed interested in other things – most notably, a bright-orange feather on the ground a few yards away.
The thestramule shuffled nervously. It clearly did not like being looked at by such a crowd of people. But they couldn’t help it. It isn’t every day one sees a horse-like creature with a shiny, rose-colored coat. Its body seemed powerful and delicate at the same time, all lean muscle stretched across graceful bones. Instead of a horn, its forehead was marked with a carrot-shaped streak of pure white which somehow changed position as the thestramule moved its head. In fact, all thestramules had such marks, and they always pointed due north. But most remarkable of all were the creature’s vast wings – covered not with feathers, but with a smooth, suede-like skin covered with a thin, pinkish down.
The sound of a glass bottle shattering on the cobblestones startled everyone. A voice swore that it would never touch the stuff again. Looking round, Merlin saw Harvey stooping to pick up the orange feather.
“That didn’t come from the beast up there,” Merlin said, when Harvey straightened up and showed him what he had found.
“No,” said Harvey. “I believe someone charmed wings onto a carrot. Then they let the carrot fly away, but it lost this feather.”
“Who would do such a daft thing?” Endora snorted.
Sadie looked away awkwardly, and whistled. The rest of the group turned on her suspiciously.
“Don’t be silly,” cried Joe. “Sadie was with us the whole evening.”
“And I doubt that even her mate Miles O’Roughage would do this,” Harvey announced. Sadie blushed as Harvey continued, “The winged carrot was meant to lure the thestramule up onto the roof. But why?”
The answer came suddenly. A gasp arose from the crowd as a soot-blackened figure emerged from the largest chimney atop the Hog’s Head – cloaked, hooded, and hauling a sack that clanked loudly, as if filled with bottles of firewhisky. Once free of the chimney, the figure staggered, nearly fell off the roof (wringing another gasp from the crowd), and then waved a carrot in front of the face of the uneasy, winged mule.
“Why doesn’t it just fly off?” Endora moaned, wringing her hands. “They aren’t meant to like men, are they?”
“There are three things you should know about thestramules,” said Harvey. “For one, they are stubborn. For another, they are quite stupid and poor judges of character…”
“To say nothing of a poor judge of sex,” Sadie added under her breath.
“I suppose they prefer the company of the cripplingly drunk,” Joe speculated.
“And worst of all,” Harvey concluded, “they will do anything for a carrot.”
Crippled or not, the mysterious figure on the roof was now clambering onto the back of the thestramule, which was contentedly munching its carrot.
“He must be drunk to fly on that thing,” Merlin observed with awe.
“That’s exactly so,” Spanky said knowledgeably. “Once he starts to sober up, he will no longer be able to see the thestramule. At that point he might fall off the creature’s back. Or at least, he won’t be able to tell his direction by the thestramule’s carrot mark.”
“That would explain all the bottles the blighter is nicking from my pub!” screamed the proprietor of the Hog’s Head, running outside to join the crowd. “Stop thief!”
A lot of wands came out just then, and many in the crowd were momentarily blinded by a barrage of flashing spells. But in the confusion, the thestramule and its larcenous passenger had gotten away.
“What was the point of all that?” Joe grumbled. “Just to stop someone nicking a few bottles of the cheapest, blended firewhisky this side of Inverness?”
“Do you think I care about the drink?” the innkeeper growled.
“Besides,” observed Sadie, “who in his right mind would go to so much trouble to nick that?”
“Then what seems to be the problem?” Harvey asked, with an air of authority that made all around him feel suddenly calm and ready for action.
“The firewhisky was just something the burglar needed to make his getaway,” Spanky said. “It was a means to an end.”
“What was the end, then?” Harvey turned toward the proprietor. “What did that thief come for?”
“Something my late brother entrusted to me,” the innkeeper barked, almost dancing with impatience. “This is no time to give me the third degree. Has anybody got a broom? They might still catch him!”
“I’ve got one,” said Merlin, and he muttered a summoning charm.
“Of course he does,” Sadie snorted, remembering the Iwixarod.
Endora grabbed Merlin’s arm and gazed into his bespectacled eyes. “Don’t go,” she said. “You mustn’t fly drunk.”
“If I don’t, I’ll never be able to see that thestramule,” Merlin said wisely. By now his broom had arrived, and off he flew.
The street grew quiet after that, and the crowd began to disperse.
“Well, that throws our agenda right out the window,” Harvey sighed. He gathered the other members of his group with a glance and said, “Let’s meet here again next week.”
+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR #80 +++
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