Thursday, March 25, 2010

Chapter Eighty-Four

"Here?" asks the Wolf. Doubtfully, he sniffs at the air, and it is indeed full of magic.

Once, this castle had been a cheerful - if isolated - fortress surrounded by the savage forest, a perfect place for an adventuresome young boy to grow up. Now, the jousting fields are overgrown with weeds, the farmlands lie untilled, and no fire burns in the hearth.

"Yar," says the Dwarf. "We need a wizard, don't we? And this is where we'll find one. The best. Now hurry." He cautiously steps from the Magic Carpet and through the window of the tallest tower. The Monkey leaps from his shoulder and scampers before him.

The Wolf looks around and sneezes.

The room is a mess. Creaky, dusty, drafty, musty. Broken brass instruments and inventions - worth little to the Dwarf and even less to the Wolf - lie strewn about. Taxidermied animals hang from the ceiling and casually watch with glass eyes. Shelves lined with pots and cannisters, which the Monkey paws through eagerly. The floor lies spotted with bird droppings, especially over the rafters in one shadowy corner. And books, an entire library of books, so many of them that the floor sags and it’s a wonder the tower still stands at all.

But all that is of interest to them is the figure lying on the large, lumpy bed.

"Hey, you! Wake up,” says the Wolf.

“He’s dead, you idiot,” says the Dwarf, and he throws down his hat in disgust. “The Genie was wrong.”

Upon the bed lies Merlin the Magician. His long gray hands are folded calmly over his chest, his tremendous beard is neatly combed, his mousy robes are stained and creased, and one shoulder is covered in a heavy, blood-soaked bandage.

“He isn’t dead,” comes a low voice from the shadowy corner. A small owl flies across the tower and perches on one of the many antlered skulls that adorn the walls. “Only sleeping.”

“Yar, it’s a spell, I know,” growls the Dwarf. He stumps over to the window where the Carpet waits. “Sleep of death, love’s first kiss. Seen it before.”

The Owl hoots out a chuckle. “Now why would he cast something like that? Look.” It points a wing at the wizard's chest, and they notice a small bit of parchment held in Merlin’s cold hand.

The Wolf snatches it up and holds it to the light (the candles in Merlin’s tower never seem to die). He looks at the words carefully for several moments before admitting he can’t read them.

“We ain’t got time for this,” says the Dwarf. “Come on.” They are all too aware of the Giant’s thundering footsteps, half a kingdom away, but coming ever closer.

“No, wait,” says the Owl, and it plucks the parchment from the Wolf’s paws. It glides through the room and drops the note before the Dwarf.

“I can’t read this either,” he says finally. “It’s backwards.”

The Owl twitters and clucks its beak. “That’s Merlin. He lives backwards in time, you know. He was rushed when he wrote that, and old habits die hard, I suppose.”

Perching on the Dwarf’s shoulder - the Dwarf is too outraged to object - it closes one eye and slowly reads: “’Friends, I am not dead, merely dying. But if you are here with the lamp, all is not lost. Simply wake me with a wish, and we shall set about righting the wrongs of the world.’

“Hmph,” humphs the Owl. “A bit off-meter, I'd have to say, but he didn’t have time to write a masterwork.”

The Dwarf places a foot on the ledge of the window. “Well, we ain’t got any more wishes, so that’s that.” He throws a meaningful look at the Wolf and Monkey, then mutters into his beard something about finding a fairy.

After one final look around him for anything of value - though most of it appears to be junk - the Wolf starts to follow, but the Owl will not be defeated.

“Wait, wait, wait,” it hoots, and flies to the cupboard. "There's another way." It circles near the Monkey, who greedily clutches a pot of dried currants to its chest.

“You want me to kiss him?” snorts the Dwarf. He whistles for the Carpet to circle closer and gives the Owl one last contemptuous glare. “No, thanks.”

“I told you,” says the Owl as it grabs a small bottle, “this isn’t that kind of spell.”

Fluttering to Merlin's bed, it says, “This will wake him up. It'll wake anybody up.” Gently, it drops the bottle upon the wizard’s robe. The approaching footsteps of the Giant cause the bottle to tremble, and the Owl hurriedly sits on it to prevent it from falling.

“Anybody?” says the Dwarf, his voice in a different tone.

“Anybody. Just a drop will do.”

The Dwarf thinks for a moment, then rushes to the bedside. With the wave of a hand, he pushes - not unkindly - the Owl away.

Some dust falls from the ceiling rafters. “Better hurry,” says the Wolf. The ground trembles as the Giant stumbles toward the smell of blood.

Quickly, the Dwarf uncorks the bottle. The label contains a word written in the maddening, spidery letters that wizards seem to always employ.

With a practiced hand, as if he were cutting the finest jewel for Snow White’s wedding ring, the Dwarf cautiously pours a single tiny drop of the shimmering liquid into the wizard’s mouth.

“Like liquid silver,” he thinks, and he wonders if such a thing could exist, and how wonderful it would be if it did.

He casually pockets the bottle, and the liquid wriggles and slithers down Merlin's throat. Almost immediately, his pale face, so different than the smooth and porcelain features of Snow White or Cinderella, and yet so similar in their pearly death, colors and crinkles.

But something is wrong. The Dwarf can tell right away - he's seen it before - by the unfocused, bloodshot eyes of the wizard. Merlin clutches his wounded shoulder with a strangled gasp.

“Hello, my friends, and good-bye,” he whispers weakly, and the edges of his mouth twinkle into a dying smile. His eyes sharpen slightly, and they hold the Dwarf spellbound.

In that instant, he sees wisdom and mirth and such infinity that it even holds the stony heart of a Dwarf in awe. Knowledge deeper than the caverns of the earth, higher than the peaks of the mighty mountains, time of the ages, all pouring and dwindling like a snuffed candle, all ruined by one bite, poisoned into an all-consuming hunger, and yet, still the wizard smiles.

“The lamp!” hoots the Owl, and it nips at the Dwarf’s wrist.

The pain is nothing - he’s used to worse - but the words jolt the Dwarf from his thoughts. He pulls the lamp from his tunic and presses it into Merlin’s unwounded hand.

“Ah, yes,” says the wizard, and he weakly caresses the brass lamp. He sighs with his final breath, and says, almost absently, “I wish to be made whole and healthy.”

The lamp sparks to life. It trembles and twitters and glows like a brass sun and the Genie rockets from the spout, laughing and twirling and dancing.

“Hey, hey, hey!” He laughs, dressed once more in his white coat and odd facemask. “Paging Doctor Genie, paging Doctor Genie,” but he stops short and pops back to his normal self at the sight of the wizard beginning to twitch.

“Oops, sorry!” The Genie claps his hands with a mighty boom, mightier than even the Giant’s unsteady footsteps.

"Quite all right," says the wizard with a chuckle. Already whole and healthy, his skin is pink and his eyes are crisp. He clumsily removes the bandage with one hand.

“Merlin, baby!” says the Genie, now wearing dark spectacles and a shining black suit. “So good to see you, my man! We must do lunch sometime. Why don't my people call your people?”

“Shut up!” says the Dwarf. The ground shakes, and the rotting stink of the Giant seeps into the musty tower. “We’ve gotta get out of here right now. That thing moves fast. Come on, we'll explain later."

“Ever the pessimist,” says the wizard, his voice gently scolding. He hops lightly from the bed and brushes himself off. “Some things never change. Especially Dwarves!” Merlin nudges the Wolf in the ribs and winks.

Oblivious to the earthquake, he reaches for a gnarled leather suitcase. “It’s so good to be back,” he says. “Now then, where are we heading?”

“Away from here!” says the Dwarf. He snaps his fingers, and the Monkey stuffs the last of the currants into its mouth and climbs back onto his shoulder.

“Yes, but that could be anywhere, couldn’t it?” says Merlin. He points at several of his books, and they come from the shelves and waddle toward suitcase, shrinking all the while.

“There’s a Giant coming!” shouts the Dwarf, his voice dwarfed by the echoing footsteps. “Wish it away!”

The Genie looks over to Merlin eagerly. His hands prepare to clap, but the wizard shakes his head with a smile. “I’ve only got two wishes left. Can’t waste them on frivolous things like Giants, my boy.”

The Dwarf doesn’t know which is more shocking - being called a boy or the wizard's insanity. “Then we’ve got to leave!" he sputters.

He seizes a rusty iron poleaxe from a suit of armor and looks out the window. The suit of armor gasps at such impudence, but is ignored.

“I can see that,” says the wizard calmly. He opens the larder and absently throws a chunk of green cheese and a loaf of yellow bread, which the suitcase catches with a gulping mouth. “But wherever do you wish to go?”

The Genie's head goes from side to side, and he says something about forty loves.

“Just wish them all away, then!” says the Dwarf. The sunlight is suddenly blocked from the window, and a milky yellow eye stares vaguely at them. He plunges the polearm into the eye, and it slow backs away.

“Ah, it's not quite that simple, but at least we’re getting closer,” says the wizard, and he nonchalantly grasps a column as the floor tilts suddenly. The Owl flies to Merlin’s shoulder, and the Wolf skids into a corner of the tower. “You wish me to undo the undead, do you?”

“We’re going to die,” thinks the Dwarf, not for the first time, not for the last time. “And all because this blasted wizard wants to teach me some blasted lesson.”

“Yes!” is what he shouts.

“But to do that, I’d have to be at the source of the curse, wouldn’t I, Genie?”

“That’s the way it works, O Bearded One!” says the Genie.

“Then...” says Merlin over the roar of ripping stone and mortar. They tumble against the walls as the Giant tilts the tower his mouth. “I wish for you to take us there.”

Books and pillows and a chandelier and armor and paintings from many years in the future all fall through the window into the Giant’s cavernous maw, but the bodies - with the thunderclap of the Genie’s hands - have disappeared.