The Magic Quill #117: Two If By Biscuit
by Robbie Fischer
Contest winner: greyniffler
I felt like I was nine years old again, half-strangled in the dress robes without which I would never be admitted to Madam Hunsickers parlor, trying not to fidget, inwardly shuddering at the flirtatious looks the hagservant kept fluttering at me as she led me down the passage. It was all the worse, knowing that my bride was watching all this from the vantage point of functional invisibility. I was afraid that Madam Hunsicker might still make me tremble when I saw her, as she always had done when I was a boy. I remembered her as a terrible woman with the shoulders of a rugby player, wiry eyebrows that protruded so far from her face that they cast her eyes in shadow, a jaw strong enough to crack walnuts, long sinewy fingers that could pinch a childs ears black and blue, and a voice like the roar of a wounded rhinocerous, which I had once recognized in the midst of a cheering crowd at the Owlympics.
The hagservant pulled aside a pocket door and announced us: Young Mr. Spankison of Mangeford, and friend. Then she stepped aside and we entered the parlor, where Madam Hunsicker was sitting stiffly on the edge of a wing-backed armchair draped with Shetland lace. A tea table was laid out in front of her, also decorated with Shetland lace, as were the sofa, the mantel, a nearby dresser, the wall-sconces on which oil lamps glowed, and the curtains around the window. Please, sit, Madam Hunsicker said in a surprisingly gentle voice.
I sat on the end of the sofa closest to the schoolmistress. Zichri Goode remained standing behind me, holding his hat in one hand and now mine in the other. Madam Hunsicker gave him a severe stare over the top of my head, but I could imagine him staring straight ahead, noticing nothing.
She had changed a great deal since I had last seen her. Madam Hunsicker was thinner, hollow-cheeked, a bit stooped. Her rugby shoulders were hunched under a Shetland lace shawl, and her fingers were twisted and frozen in place by rheumatism. But she still had the same hard, black eyes that glittered at me from the shadows of her eyebrows.
For a while she said nothing while seemingly sizing me up. Then, while still facing me, she said, Madrigal, pour the dear gentleman a cup of tea. The hagservant hastened to comply, getting nearly as much tea in the saucer as in the cup. She seemed reluctant to let it go as I took it from her. Ilona, sitting undetectably on the sofa beside me, snickered.
I had scarcely lifted the cup off the saucer when Madam Hunsicker ordered Madrigal to offer me a biscuit. I really shouldnt, I said politely.
’I insist,’ Madam Hunsicker replied. I did my best to nibble and sip with the best possible manners, inwardly squirming under the pressure of the old witchs appraising stare. I wouldnt dream of allowing you to discuss the reason for your visit on an empty stomach. It would be inhospitable. She seemed to be saying this for someone elses benefit rather than to me but whether that other person was Madrigal, or Zichri Goode, or someone else, I could not tell.
When I got to the center of the biscuit, I noticed an odd feeling in my mouth. I chewed and sucked for a moment, then found a handkerchief and coughed politely into it. Madam Hunsicker looked away as I studied the tiny slip of paper that had come out of my mouth. It said: Danger. Leave At Once.
Did that hit the spot? Madam Hunsicker asked as I finished the last bit of biscuit. She was still gazing at the small side-table, where I now noticed a row of spiders busily sewing lace out of their own silk. What Madam Hunsicker really meant was: Did you get my message?
I wouldnt mind another, I said. Meaning: Im not going anywhere at the moment.
Madam Hunsicker closed her eyes for a second, then looked up at Madrigal. The hagservant grinned a crook-toothed smile, batted her eyes, and handed the biscuit plate again. As I put away my handkerchief, I fingered my wand and muttered something under my breath, then added aloud, Wont you join me, Madam Hunsicker?
Very well, she said sweetly, still not looking at me. I took a biscuit, broke it, and dipped the half that didnt have a slip of paper sticking out of it. Madam Hunsicker did the same with her biscuit, and as we nibbled on tea-dipped biscuit, I read her message (We can handle this ourselves) and she read mine (We need each others help).
I wonder what Vindicta puts in these, Madam Hunsicker exclaimed. Each time I eat one, I feel more famished than ever. I must have another. Dont be bashful, Mr. Spankison. We have an ample supply.
I dabbed my lips with my handkerchief, returned it to my pocket, muttered something under my breath. Then I took a third biscuit, broke it, dipped half of it in tea, and surreptiously read the tag sticking out of the other half: I dont want a good chap like you to get hurt. Meanwhile, Madam Hunsicker seemed to choke on her tea as she read: Lives at stake. Must move quickly.
Im stuffed, arent you? Madame Hunsicker blurted suddenly. In fact, I can scarcely move. Madrigal, dear, why dont you sing one of your songs, to speed our digestion?
The young hag assumed a stance that she must have thought poised and graceful, though she resembled nothing so much as an enraged bull about to charge. She took a deep breath and began to bellow in a voice that broke frequently between a shrill, nasal keening and a scratchy, atonal contralto: Poor, purblind, wayward youths… The words seemed to be something by W.S. Gilbert, but I wouldnt want to implicate any composer in the melody. The noise was so shattering that it was all I could do to maintain a serene expression, rather than shutting my eyes tightly and covering my ears.
Meanwhile, Madam Hunsicker leaned forward and beckoned me to do likewise. When our heads were nearly touching, she hissed into my ear: It is too late for your friends. You must flee. All this has been a trap, and youre the one they want to catch. Flee!
A cold feeling poured down my body from head to foot. I just managed to check an instinct to do just what Madam Hunsicker urged. Where are they? I hissed back. And who are they?
By now, Madrigal was adding some dance steps to her song. This had the soothing effect of putting her a little out of breath, so that she could not sing quite so loud; but the impact of her footfalls caused the dishes in the nearby dresser to rattle.
I only know that you dont want to meet them, said Madam Hunsicker. They came here yesterday and questioned me about you. They overturned the whole house, and I dont doubt they left magical eyes and ears everywhere. Then they took some of my lace and left. They will be back soon, I am sure of it.
What do you know about my people? I growled, as Madrigal bounded over the tea-table and nearly took the pot with her.
But it was too late to learn any more from the old schoolmarm. The pocket door opened into the room which was quite wrong. In the resulting commotion and rain of splinters, Madrigal dived on top of Zichri Goode and pinned him behind the couch. Madam Hunsicker cowered in her chair, covering her head with her arms. Spiders, lace doilies, and tea things we hurled in all directions. The lamps blew out, plunging the place into gloom. I drew both of my wands, but only just in time to be disarmed by a spell that I couldnt quite hear over the last gust of wind that followed the door into the room.
Entering the parlor behind the blast came a very short man, scarcely a meter-and-a-half from the tip of his pointed hat to the opalescent black scales of his dragonhide boots. I could immediately tell that he was a grown man, and not merely a boy, yet I cant say exactly why. In spite of his dwarfish height, he had the shape of a well-proportioned man, an angelic face, and beautifully tailored, immaculate robes. His wand sizzled with energy, and it was pointed at my heart.
Flanking this stranger were two fiercely ugly house-elves who actually stood a bit taller than he. One carried a bag of child-sized golf clubs hanging from his shoulder, and wielded a persimmon-headed driver. The other carried a coil of thin cord that, I suspected, had been plaited out of unpicked spider-silk lace.
Hello, Mr. Spankison, the tiny man said in a voice as sweet as his face. He spoke with a very slight accent whose origin I couldnt place. Ive been with child to meet you. Would have done sooner if that Shmedly fellow had delivered as promised. But alls well that ends well. Divot, prepare Mr. Spankison for his trip. Mulligan, stand by the lady and offer Mr. Spankison an incentive to cooperate.
The house-elf with the cord moved toward me and began tying up my hands. The other one set down his bag and stepped up to Madam Hunsickers chair, where he brandished the club at her while looking meaningfully at me. Their master had just started relighting the oil lamps with a flick of his wand, when under the hag, behind the couch, Zichri Goode groaned.
Who was that? the little man demanded, still standing in the doorway.
That was my hagservant, who was knocked out by a fragment of the door, Madam Hunsicker declared angrily. Mulligan the house-elf flinched backward half a step from the fury in her eyes.
Stay there, the little man told him. Then he barked at Divot to resume tying me up, as the latter had paused in his work at the sound of Goodes groan. Drawing a iron from the golf bag, the little man walked very slowly, yet without hesitation, toward Ilonas end of the couch.
She was my ace in the hole. No one in the room knew of Ilonas presence but me. I tried to make eye contact with her, to signal her somehow, but she was staring at the pretty little man as if the sight of him froze her with horror. I felt more perplexed and goose-fleshy than ever. Here was a woman who stood up to vampires and werewolves, but a four-foot-tall man armed with a toy golf club had her petrified!
What have you done to my team? I demanded, mostly to stall the small man, to give Goode more time to recover from his stunning encounter with Madrigal.
The short gentleman did pause in his stroll toward the couch. He looked at me with a smile so affectionate that, under other circumstances, it must have warmed my heart. My dear, dear Spankison, he said warmly. You really are a simple man, after all. Easily lured; easily caught. Provided, of course, that you can be disarmed before you are ready to duel. It amazes me that the RMB puts such a high value on you. Alas, I think your stock will fall steadily from now on.
A wand poked the back of my leg, from under the sofa. I shifted my legs out of the way, and in so doing I kicked Divot and sent him flying right into Mulligans chest. As the two house-elves toppled and tangled on the carpet, Ilona came to life. She fired a stunning spell at the little man while, at virtually the same time, Zichri Goode shouted Petrificus totalis! from under the sofa. The little man shook himself, said, That tickles, and aimed a spell at the sofa that blasted it into a million singed splinters of wood and strands of horsehair. Luckily, Ilona had time to dive out of the way first. The reduction of the sofa exposed Zichri Goode, who was still half-pinned under an unconscious hag ballerina. Before he could fire off a second curse, the small man disarmed him as well.
What a shame, said the small man, turning back toward Madam Hunsicker. You backed the wrong side, didnt you? Im afraid I shall have to put your academy to the torch, my dear. An example must be made.
You monster! the old woman sobbed.
He tsked at her. Dont fret, dear lady. Ill let your precious hags out of the cellar before I blast the place. Now, if youre quite recovered from your fall, Divot, please to continue tying up Mr. Spankison. Mulligan, I think you had better guard this one. He gestured toward Goode, who was even now trying to squirm out from under the fallen hag.
Soon I was completely bound. Ilona, meanwhile, had tried several spells on the small man, but he merely shrugged them off with a small shudder. What an interesting vibration this room has, he remarked at one point. I dare say its haunted.
Do it, I barked at Ilona, as she hesitated about whether to pick up the teapot and do some kind of mischief with it. She had learned, during her time as a virtual ghost, to be strongly disinclined to move objects around in front of observers.
Do what? the little man asked. Whom are you addressing?
The thought of telling him the truth entered my mind. I now knew that doing this would probably destroy Madam Hunsickers Academy, just as it had destroyed Sir Lionels safehouse. While I was deciding whether this was a worthwhile risk, the little man said, Never mind, and stooped down to stuff a club-cozy into my mouth. Thats when Ilona hit him with the teapot. Madam Hunsicker screamed. Zichri Goode invoked a number of saints, and the young hag awoke and clung to him, whimpering.
For a moment the small man seemed not to react to the heavy blow to the back of his head. Lukewarm tea ran down his collar, and the dented teapot rolled off his shoulders and hit the floor with a dull clang, while he remained stooped over me as if completely unaffected. Then his eyes crossed and he pitched forward, his forehead knocking against mine. I saw stars and then blacked out.
When I came to a moment later, Zichri Goode was untying my hands and explaining to a tearful hag that he was already married, terribly sorry, couldnt be helped. The house-elves quivered in terror as Ilona finished binding their wrists and ankles behind their backs. Madam Hunsicker merely looked on with a dazed expression, muttering, Its really true. The place is haunted…
What about him? I asked Goode, nodding toward the already-bound figure of the angel-faced man. Is he alive?
Amazingly, yes, said Goode, nervously glancing at the struggling house-elves. But hes in no condition to tell us where he came from, or where he has your people. And the house-elves have already trotted out We keep our masters secrets and our silence, so that angles no use.
Ilona, meanwhile, was searching the little mans pockets. She found something, dug it out, then dropped it on the floor with a cry of disgust. It landed only a few inches from my knee. I picked it up for a closer look, but I already knew what it was.
Thats a snakes skull, Goode said nervously.
Thats not all it is, I said, recognizing the peculiar, slippery buzz of magic that clung to the thing. Its also a portkey. Take hold of my robe, both of you.
Goode and the swollen-eyed hag looked at each other quizzically, thinking I meant both of them, then they grabbed my right sleeve. Ilona grabbed the hem of my robe as I said, Three…two…one…Portetis!
A deafening, crushing, suffocating moment later we found ourselves in the middle of a vast pleasure garden, surrounded by fountains, lawns, sculpted hedges, and flowerbeds. Of to one side, in the middle of a paved square, a carnival carousel turned slowly. Two of the golden horses on it had been replaced by live Abraxan horses, hooves clamped in place, flapping their wings in indignation and whinnying piteously. The others let go of my robes and staggered for a moment, while I turned round and saw something even more horrible.
On the edge of a pallette-shaped pool, my missing agents were laid out on a row of chaises longues, their sumptuous upholstery ruined by dried blood. Several of them were covered with sheets, head and all. Two of the younger agents writhed feverishly, their burns and wounds undressed. And sitting wide awakebruised, scraped, favoring one arm as if it were brokenSilver Conkling regarded me with calm eyes, in spite of the knife at her throat.
Well, isnt this interesting, said the figure cowering behind Silvers seat. I recognized Sid Shmedlys voice at once. He pressed the knife blade against Silvers throat, to make sure I took the point.
Its all over, Shmedly, I said. You had might as well let her go.
Or wait until His Lordship returns, said Shmedly. It wont take him too long to get out of whatever restraint you put on him.
How do you know hes not dead? I spat.
Because I know you, he sneered. And then, for the second time that night, my blood ran cold because, for the second time, I heard the sweet voice of a sweet-faced monster this time from behind me saying: Easily lured…easily caught….
+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR TMQ #119 +++
SURVEY: Spankys new enemy wants to get him because of: (a) his connection with the Potters; (b) his connection with Sir Lionel; (c) his involvement in a particular RMB case; (d) other reasons [feel free to suggest].
CONTEST: Give the small, evil, angel-faced man a name. Hint: he might be from somewhere around Ilonas part of Europe.