The Magic Quill #121: Madrigal Unchained

by Robbie Fischer

Contest winner: greyniffler
Concept contributed by ralucacoldea

Spanky’s tale continued…

“While Mulligan the house-elf kept my wand pointed at me, Ilona went behind him and untied the hagmaid and Zichri Goode. She also checked the condition of the surviving RMB agents, but everyone was unconscious, perhaps in an enchanted sleep.

“I kept the house-elf’s attention on myself by staring him in the eye. I had learned this trick during one of my earliest RMB cases, something to do with a gargoyle guarding a doorway, a gargoyle that could move and attack you, except it was frozen as long as you looked it in the eye. I held Mulligan’s eyes in an unblinking stare; he could not look away. After a minute of this he started to shake slightly, either from fury or from weakness. I have seen people faint after a minute of my basilisk stare.

“When Ilona was done, I told Mulligan I wanted a plate of grapes and cheese cubes. He took advantage of being freed from my gaze, and used my wand to conjure up an enormous spiderweb to keep me pinned to my chaise longue. Then he went away to fetch the food.

“Ilona knelt beside me and started to pick through the strands of spiderweb. She still hadn’t said anything since Minimilian had gone off to play golf. I finally broke the silence.

“’What is this artifact, then?’ I asked. ‘The one your old boyfriend keeps going on about.’

“Ilona glared at me for a moment, then snorted. ‘Boyfriend indeed,’ she said. ‘We are distant cousins. Our families have never agreed. We knew each other at school, where I learned never to turn my back on him.’

“’Sweet school-days,’ I said bitterly. ‘What memories you must share!’

“’He was Professor Lukavij’s star pupil,’ she said, ‘because of his interest in dark magic. It wasn’t an altogether scholarly interest, either. He used his knowledge to fill the school with curse-traps, poisoned pajamas, and cruel illusions. He encouraged the ghosts and poltergeists to reach for higher levels of disruptiveness, and kept letting dangerous plants, creatures, and magical objects fall in the way of unsuspecting students and even teachers. No one blamed him because he seemed so sweet and cheerful and honest, and because his family gave a lot of money to the school.’

“’I know the type,’ I growled, glancing with a pang at the corpse of Sid Shmedly.

“Ilona nodded and went on: ‘Minimilian takes pleasure in other people’s discomfort. Everything he did was meant to cause either pain or chaos. He broke up friendships. He gave people bad dreams. His pranks caused injuries that, in one or two cases, led students to withdraw from the school. The teachers complained, but Lukavij did nothing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Merlin’s friends from Durmstrang hadn’t become lost in Gringotts because of misleading directions Minimilian gave them – though they weren’t in school at the same time.’

“’This is all very interesting,’ I said, struggling against the cobweb but unable to move my arms. ‘But…’

“’The artifact,’ Ilona said, still picking at the web. ‘Yes. I was getting to that. His family and my family both have claims to the castle where you lived during your Moldovan Worm Control assignment. The castle used to belong to a great nobleman who served the king of Moldova, Stephen the Great and Holy, Stephen the Third. This nobleman was also a wizard, and an ancestor of both Minimilian and me. Mind you, this was in the fifteenth century, so that makes us very distant relatives…’

“’Point taken,’ I said. ‘Go on.’

“’Who are you talking to?’ squeaked a gravelly, and heavily accented, voice at my elbow. I flinched, painfully hitting the edge of a silver tray with my elbow. Grapes and cheese cubes flew up in the air and rained down on my head, becoming stuck in the spiderweb, which (fortunately) helped to conceal the progress Ilona had made in unpicking it.

“’Excellent,’ I said evasively. ‘Now, since I’m all tied up here, perhaps you would be so kind as to feed me.’

“For the next little while, the house-elf picked grapes and cheese cubes out of the cobweb and stuck them in my mouth with his dirty little fingers. I chewed silently, listening to Ilona’s story which, I knew, only I could hear.

“’This wizard nobleman, whose name was Matthias, had a signet ring that he kept hidden somewhere in his castle. It was the type of wing used to make an impression in wafer seals, the kind that nobility and royalty used to sign important documents. Matthias had ensorcelled his seal so that anyone receiving a letter from him must obey what the letter said.’

“’A ring of power,’ I said around a mouthful of cheese.

“The house-elf raised his eyebrows inquiringly. I told him I needed something to drink, and he went away to fetch it.

“Hurriedly resuming her unpicking of the spiderweb, Ilona continued: ‘A ring of royal power, yes, and it was meant for King Stephen. But Matthias kept it for himself, and used it to incite conflicts among his rivals, and to build up his own power. But in the year 1499, Matthias was thrown from his horse and died. His twin sons did not agree as to which of them should inherit. In the resulting battle the castle was burned, the ring lost, and the family divided down to this day. Minimilian thinks the ring belongs to him, and if he gets it, he could use it to turn countless people into his willing or unwilling slaves.’

“’He also thinks you have it,’ I added. ‘He thinks I helped you steal it from “his” castle.’

“Ilona’s face darkened with anger. ‘The ring has a spell on it. Only the rightful owner can touch it. It cannot be stolen, only given freely. However, the castle ruin also has a spell on it; no descendant of Count Matthias the Second can enter it uninvited. The second count’s brother, who considered himself Count Stephen, saw to that.’

“’So you,’ I said, ‘are descended from…’

“’Count Matthias II,’ Ilona said. ‘Minimilian descends from Stephen, Matthias’s twin brother.’

“’And Matthias was the rightful owner of the ring?’

“’His father had given it to him shortly before he died. But somehow it was returned to its hiding place, which only the father knew. The story told in my family is that Matthias II tied it up in a handkerchief and gave it back to his father for safekeeping. No one knew where Matthias I hid it after that.’

“’So you,’ I said, ‘are the rightful heir.’

“Ilona nodded. ‘Unfortunately, Count Stephen was the older of the twins. The family’s castle, lands, and title rightfully belonged to him. He wanted the signet ring as well, but Matthias II did not want him to have it. Matthias was no better; he wanted the title and wealth and power for himself, as well as the ring to help him get more. But Stephen wouldn’t let him come within a mile of the castle, where the ring was hidden. They negotiated and argued and published pamphlets of propaganda, and finally they met in battle. Both brothers were killed, the castle was burned down, and the surviving forces ended up in a stalemate.

“’Finally a truce was called, the king intervened, and the family property was divided down the middle. Stephen’s children inherited all the family’s holdings on the east side of the Prut River, Matthias’s on the west. The king was probably wise to do this, though no one liked him for it at the time. In practice, it meant that nobody could use the ring to develop absolute power. Stephen’s heirs were left with a ruined castle containing a magic ring they could not touch. If Minimilian has killed enough of his cousins, he may be the last surviving heir to the castle. Meanwhile Matthias II’s heirs, including me, are entitled to the ring but can’t enter the castle to get it. I am the oldest child in my generation of the family, so…’

“I choked. By now Mulligan had returned, and was trying to drown me by pouring a jug of wine down my throat. Some of it went down the wrong pipe, so I went into a fit of coughing and turned my face away. The wine continued to pour from the jug and ran down my shirt. Mulligan laughed, shaking the last drops out of the jug. His laughter turned into a growl when, controlling my cough reflex enough to croak out one word, I said: ‘More.’ The house-elf narrowed his eyes at me, then took the jug and stomped off.

“’So you took advantage of me,’ I said hoarsely.

“’I didn’t even know you lived in the castle until you invited me there,’ Ilona said vehemently. ‘I already loved you by then. Finding myself inside the forbidden castle, finding the ring, were like a sign from heaven. It was meant to happen.’

“’And yet you kept this secret from me,’ I said, trying to speak louder but only getting hoarser in the process. I had another fit of coughing.

“In spite of my obvious anger at her, Ilona kept picking me free of the spiderweb. ‘I gave the ring to my Uncle Radu, who is the oldest living heir of Matthias II. It will probably come back to me some day. Until then, I didn’t want to concern you with it. I intend never to use it.’

“’So you couldn’t give the ring to this Minimilian fellow, even if you wanted to,’ I said, more calmly.

“’Nor is it that I would if I could,’ she agreed. ‘My aim, and that of my uncle and most other members of my family, is to keep this ring from being used by people like Minimilian. And I think anyone who uses it would, in time, become like Minimilian. So we hide it, and do not use it.’

“’Your uncle could write to this midget and tell him to let us go,’ I suggested.

“’I would never ask it of him,’ said Ilona. ‘It would be better for us both to die.’

“’And what about these people?’ I asked, gesturing toward the slumbering survivors of Silver’s party, as well as Goode and the hagmaid. ‘Are you prepared to pay with their lives, as well?’

“Ilona looked like she wanted to slap me. ‘Are you saying I should…?’

“’No,’ I said, catching her hands in mine — which, I now noticed, were at last free of the giant cobweb. ‘I am only asking if you are prepared.’

“Ilona swallowed heavily. Before she could respond, the house-elf reappeared, waddling under the weight of a wooden keg over half the length of his body. His eyes grew to the size of saucers when he saw that my hands were free. He dropped the keg and reached for my wand, which he had tucked into the string he wore as a belt. Before he could reach it, Ilona tackled him. The house-elf shrieked and went down, hitting his head on the wine cask and instantly going limp.

“Using my wand, Ilona blasted the remaining spiderwebs off me. Then I took the wand and began to revive my people, pausing sadly over the bodies of the dead. I tied up the house-elf, overcoming my fury just enough to dress the wound on his head. Then I sat down again and waited for my reviving spells to take full effect. Zichri Goode was already starting to wake up.

“Before my reinforcements were ready, however, Minimilian returned — unexpectedly soon, for someone who was supposed to be playing eighteen holes. He limped into view from behind a box hedge, his robes torn and burnt, dragging his own bag, which was missing several clubs.

“’Dashed inconvenient,’ he said, cheerfully enough. ‘The dragon under the sixth green ate my caddy. Tried to eat me, too. Seems to have lost a few teeth in the…’ He dropped the bag as the scene before him registered in his mind. ‘I say,’ he said, but he didn’t get a chance to say what he was saying before I stunned him with my wand.

“’Your tonic seems to have worn off,’ I said as Minimilian fell back into the box hedge. The branches caught him and held him upright. I resumed trying to revive my friends, who had started falling asleep again. I wondered just what this little angel-devil-man had done to them. A potion? A spell?

“As Ilona checked under Zichri Goode’s eyelids, and I pinched the leg of a first-year RMB agent who responded by kicking in his sleep, the tables turned again. I paused in the middle of a particularly vicious pinch when I felt the tip of a wand at the back of my neck.

“’No,’ said a familiar, sweet voice. ‘I am not out of my tonic. I am always careful to reapply the Mr. Shmedly’s nectar when it wears off. Drop your wand, raise your hands, and turn around.’

“I did as I was told. But when I turned to face Minimilian, he looked worried for the first time.

“’Why are you smiling?’ he demanded.

“’Look behind you,’ I said.

“’I’m not as stupid as…’ Minimilian froze in mid-sentence.

“The hagmaid had risen to her feet behind him, and was now stroking his beautiful, golden hair. With each touch of her hand, the serenity of the little man’s face turned more and more into horror.

“’Pretty little baby,’ the hagmaid cooed. ‘Scrumptious little baby! Madrigal is so hungry! Madrigal is on a low-child diet but…oh, if only…just this once…’

“I plucked the wand out of Minimilian’s trembling hands and said, ‘Go for it, Madrigal. No one here will tell.’

“Minimilian screamed and ran, tumbling over his own golf sack and rolling to his feet again. The last time I saw him, he was running flat-out toward the sixth hole of his golf course, dragon or no, with Madrigal the hagmaid pounding along behind him.”

+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR TMQ #123 +++

To help choose the direction of the next few chapters of The Magic Quill, visit the Discussion Forum, or send Robbie feedback. The survey answer with the most votes, and the contest entry (or entries) Robbie likes best, will be featured in the chapter after next.

SURVEY: What character, concept, or storyline from a past edition of The Magic Quill should be revived or revisited?

CONTEST: Describe a magical weather occurrence.