A CHRISTMAS ENCHANTMENT

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CHAPTER III – The Third Spell.

Caspar stormed up the stairs as Bird furiously flapped his wings in an uncertain effort to retain his customary shoulder perch. A hypothetical observer might have been forgiven if he had the impression that the raven was attempting to carry the wizard upstairs.

‘Boil and blast the fellow!’ Caspar raged. ‘To come here with his hand out, today of all days!’

At last they arrived at Caspar’s sanctum sanctorum, his alchemical laboratory in the upper floor. Bird flew to his customary perch, atop a human skull mounted on a salvaged old bedpost. (In his research Caspar had found many illustrations of avian familiars—usually owls or common black ravens, to be sure, certainly none quite like Bird—perched upon skulls. He liked the image so much that he had made this one himself. The skull was anonymous, and certainly Caspar had not asked too many questions of the disreputable rascal from whom he had purchased it, but occasionally as he watched Bird shifting his talons upon it, he found his own scalp itching.)

Harking to Caspar’s last rant, Bird queried, ‘Why? What makes today any different from yesterday, apart from being Tuesday?’

‘O inconstant Bird, methinks betimes you task me only to hear your own tongue rattle!’ (In the heat of the moment, Caspar tended to wax antiquarian, a questionable quirk he had picked up at university decades before.) ‘Have you truly forgot? We are on the Eve of Discovery! My potions are rightly brewed, my incantations gathered; to-night the full moon will share the heavens with Venus, Jupiter and Mars! If you have a heart, invest it! If you have a soul, protect it! To-night we invoke unearthly powers to find my treasure, my son, my Robin!’

‘Oh, that. And here ye had me thinking that to-night was different somehow.’

’You wound me, disloyal false familiar that you are. This night will be different, you will see!’

’Disloyal? Do I nae stand here now, in the very spot where less than a week ago a ball of flame as big as ye’r great huge head flew pell-mell ’round the room and singed half my tail-feathers off? But have I flown South? Nay! Disloyal—ha!’

‘’Twas you that knocked the candle over in the first place, you clumsy fowl!’

‘Woden’s Empty Socket! Clumsy? I? Why, ye ham-handed, stumble-footed hypocrite!’

This dialogue of invective, taunt, rejoinder, counter-rejoinder and general persiflage would go on for hours; we will leave them to it and return to the scene as midnight approaches:

Eugenia is long abed; earlier she had interrupted her uncle’s latest fiery riposte to another of Bird’s broadsides when she tapped on the door to bring him (or them, actually; she always prepared a plate or a bowl for the perpetually hungry Bird as well) some supper. As always, Caspar awkwardly received the tray, making a ridiculous effort to prevent Genie from peering too closely inside. Did he not know who cleaned his laboratory? Did he believe that his niece was oblivious to the work he was doing there? We might blame it on the importance he was attaching to this particular night’s work, except that this was something of a ritual between them. Perhaps that itself explains it: Caspar considered himself an unsuperstitious man, but he had invented a private rite of dinner-at-the-door-with-Genie that must be observed on the nights he laboured in his laboratory. (As for Genie, she may have felt mildly bemused by these encounters, but no more than that. Her uncle had his iconoclastic ways; she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.)

Since their hurried meal, the would-be wizard and his unique Pied Raven companion have curtailed their badinage and put their proverbial shoulders to the metaphorical wheel to prepare for to-night’s event, to wit: casting a spell that will reveal Robin Featherstone’s whereabouts. Bird, lacking hands to help with the physical labour, has been applying himself to reading passages aloud from Magicae and other obscure tomes, as Caspar prepared his latest potion and attempted to compose the necessary incantation.

(Some of you are doubtless asking, ‘What are the ingredients of Caspar’s potions? What his formulae? Where are the transcripts of his incantations?’ I will tell you: Even if these things were known to me—and they are not!—I would not reveal them here! Think of the possible consequences! Think of the burden on my own beleaguered conscience! If you would have these answers, find your own copy of Magicae; troll, as Caspar and Bird had done, through countless pages of near-inscrutable tracts, read and decipher the grimoires of Agrippa and Paracelsus—in short, become wizards yourselves! And then, if you are wise, forget it all and resume your mortal lives.)

Now, at last, the hour has come.

Bird looked up from his book. ’Query: Why midnight? I gather ’tis traditional and all, but it seems queer to me. After all, the cosmos cannae ken the o’clock in England, I shouldnae think, nor Rome nor Constantinople neither. So why nae nine-thirty? Or seven-ought-two?’

Caspar turned to Bird. The flames from a score or more candles reflected like tiny will-o’-the-wisps in his dark spectacles. ’Bird, for once your nattering makes some sense. You’re right—the proper time is the Witching Hour! When the clock strikes three. The deepest dark twixt midnight and dawn; the hour when all the ghoulies and goblins, fiends and demons, lubberkins and tommyknockers are about. When the gates of—’

‘CAW! I surrender! Midnight it is! Ye incorrigible scoundrel—ye’ve given me a case of the shivvers!’

And so at last they completed their final preparations.

It is impossible to say what went wrong, exactly. Was the potion’s formula a bit out of balance? Did Bird garble a key syllable as he read instructions? Perhaps the real trouble lay in Caspar’s exact words in his self-composed incantation: his poor eyesight precluded reading the passage, and his mind just may have wandered ever so slightly as he recited his necromantic monologue...

But make no mistake: the magic worked! Oh, yes, it worked quite miraculously. The pentagram in the floor billowed smoke; flickering corpusants danced from Caspar’s staff; a tiny whirlwind carried smoke and loose papers and a number of Bird’s feathers up the chimney. And between one blink of the eye and the next, a corporeal entity appeared in the chamber with them.

He was dressed all in green, except for accouterments of leather and brass; he was laughing richly even as he appeared. Strapped to his back was a quiver full of flamboyantly fletched arrows; an impressive longbow, loosely strung, hung there as well. He stood confidently, arms akimbo, his right fist on his hip, his left hand resting casually on the pommel of his sheathed sword. His grin was honest and charismatic—at the same time, he exuded an almost palpable aura of danger.

‘Beelzebub’s Blazing Beard!’ squawked Bird. ‘Caspar, this is Robin Hood, or I’m a budgerigar!’

The apparition laughed again. ‘Ha-ha! Crack me! It’s a talking chicken! A very Chanticleer! Cock-a-doodle-do! And halloo!’ He touched his two arrow fingers to his Lincoln-green cap. ‘I am Robert Loxley, Earl of Huntington, whom the good folk of Nottingham do call Robin Hood.’ He looked Caspar up and down, his sparkling eyes taking in everything at a glance, from the wizard’s smoky spectacles to his gnarled shillelagh to his tattered sorcerer’s robe. ‘Ho, you’re a home-spun sort of Merlin, aren’t you? Well, congratulations, sir! I know not what sorcery brought me here, nor even why I’m speaking thus, but I am, for the nonce, yours to command.’ And with a flourish he bowed to Caspar, whilst aiming a conspiratory wink at Bird.

‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’ cried Caspar, collapsing to his knees. ‘What have I wrought?’

‘’Tis a fine hour to consider that now!’ said Bird. ‘Ye’ve tripped o’er yer own troggs, that’s what ye’ve wrought! Instead of findin’ yer lost son Robin, ye’ve somehow summoned this great green highwayman instead!’

‘More a bywayman, in sooth, but I’ll grant your appellation with one proviso, friend Cockerel: that you remember that I and my men take from—’

‘“The rich and give to the poor”; so we’re told, but—’

“I was going to say, “Take from the Normans to give to the Saxons”, but perhaps your phrase is the more apposite to our noble calling.’ He turned to Caspar. ‘Sir Wizard, if wizard you be, you certainly apprehend that I am not the lost son whom your feathered friend spoke of. A fellow Robin, eh? I wish him well. I know little of searching for lost children, but perhaps the little vagabond will return on his own in time. And if—’

Meanwhile, Caspar had risen to his feet. ‘Away, brigand! You were summoned falsely. Plainly, the similarity of names confused the eudaemonic forces I called upon. Your “noble calling” is of no use to me! Look at you, a supposed Hero out of Legend! Bah! You’re a posturing popinjay! Noble calling! Look around you—am I not poor enough? Where is my reward? Where my justice? Unless you can repurchase my mortgage, there’s naught you can do for me! Now—’

‘Done and done!’ Robin Hood exclaimed, leaping up to a windowsill and throwing open the sash. ‘You are a courageous fellow, friend Quasi-Merlin! A popinjay! Ha-ha! I shall return! Look for me three nights hence!’ And thereupon, he leapt out into the night.

‘Julius Caesar’s Seizures!’ squawked Bird (the incorrigible Corbie had a remarkable catalogue of colourful mild oaths, from ‘Adam’s Missing Rib!’ to ‘Zeno’s Plodding Paradox!’—at least one for every letter of the alphabet, even including X: ’Xantippe’s Torturous Tongue!’—such that Caspar had rarely heard the same oath twice.) ‘The feckless fool has leapt to his death!’ Bird cried, and withal flew out the same window. For his part, Caspar collapsed upon the battered old wingback chair in the corner (in which, by the bye, the exhausted magus was more likely to sleep—what little he did sleep—than in his bed, one storey below). In spite of all his bombast and reckless rhetoric, the Old Man in the Old House was shocked to his core (and back out to his extremities!) that his efforts had at last produced tangible results, however misbegotten. His stunned mind rattled with internal conflict. On the one hand: Merciful Heaven! I have actually awakened occult forces beyond my current ability to control! Am I prepared to face the consequences? On the other hand: Hallelujah! My magic works! Finding Robin—my Robin, my precious boy—is almost within my grasp!

And so on, back and forth, forth and back, first the one hand’s horror, next the other hand’s hope, until Caspar was effectively paralyzed by the dichotomy. Thus he sat, his head heavy on his hand, slumped in the tattered cushions of his chair, as the candles all began to sputter and die. At length, only the coals in the fireplace brazier and the cool moonlight that limned the curtains in the open window illuminated the laboratory.

Suddenly, those curtains fluttered as Bird reappeared on the sill. ‘Well, I found nae sign o—CAW!’ Bird squawked, startled by the eerie aspect before him; the flickering hearth fire was lighting the skull atop his arcane perch such that it seemed animated. ‘Yorick’s Gruesome Grin! Why is it so blasted dark in here? Caspar! Are ye here?’ The old wizard still sat, as unmoving as a statue, in the big, dark chair, and truly was all but invisible there. Still, Bird finally espied him. ‘Och, there ye are. Dinnae despair, the great green bandit does nae lay broken in yer garden. I found nae hide nor hair nor feather of him. I believe he’s vanished back into whatever void ye conjured him from in the first place... Caspar!’ He flew over to one of the large curved wings of the back of Caspar’s chair. ‘What ails ye, man? Have ye died of apoplexy?’ With that, he bent over and grasped a lock of the old man’s sparse hair in his beak and yanked it out by the roots!

‘YOUCH!’ Caspar cried, rubbing his sore head with one hand, and swatting at Bird with the other. ‘Bird! What madness is this? Have you gone lunatic in the full moonlight? How dare you assault me so!’

'Ye seemed insensible! What would ye ’ve had me do? Send for a surgeon?’

And thus another of their quarrelsome colloquies began, and so on into the night.

For three days Caspar paced the floor of whatever room he found himself in, fairly haunting his own mansion. On the first day, Bird stayed with him, but it was a precarious proposition, as Caspar often seemed unaware of his presence, and would turn sharply or throw up his arms in temporary despair, upsetting Bird cruelly from his shoulder.

Eugenia, bewildered, tried to communicate with her uncle, but he was unresponsive. Whenever she approached him with her little slate, on which she tried uncle, what is wrong? and uncle, what can i do? and the like, he would stare at it as if ’twere etched in Greek. Genie of course knew nothing of the recent adventure with the shade or avatar or hallucination (Caspar alternately embraced each of these scenarios, but took no comfort in one category over another) that was Robin Hood, and her uncle was determined it should remain that way. Again and again the words ‘Look for me three nights hence!’ rang in his mind like an augural knell, and he shuddered each time as he tried to imagine the bandit’s return and realised anew each time that he was powerless to stop it. He was resolved that he and Bird should rightly suffer whatever may occur, but Genie was innocent of any trafficking with the occult, and he fretted for two days about how he might see her safely away from the sequel to Tuesday night’s events. He would have eagerly sent her off to stay with relatives, if they had still had any, but they were each the only relative the other had. Where could he send her?

On the morning of the third day, after another sleepless night in which he was nevertheless tortured by wakeful visions of Robin Hood reappearing with the Sheriff of Nottingham or perhaps Prince John’s army of merciless mercenaries in his wake, filling his laboratory with the clash of arms and the blood of innocent wizards and birds, it occurred to Caspar that there was one soul in the village who would gladly take temporary responsibility for Genie’s safety. He was a big, lumbering ox of a fellow, but he would die before he’d let any harm come to the girl. Yes, Quint was just the man for the job.

Later that morning, Caspar sat at his cluttered desk and addressed two envelopes, one to Warrington, the other for young Quint. Then he wrote a single missive, put it in Quint’s envelope, and slipped a blank sheet into the landlord’s.

The text of the note to Quint was as follows:

Quintius,

Say nothing to Eugenia. React not with alarm! but the dear girl’s life is temporarily in danger, and I beseech you to safeguard her through the night. Say that she should wait until you can find your master and await his reply. Or, say what you will, but delay her return home to me until it is too late for her to safely set out to-night. Make some excuse about the carriage having a broken wheel, but persuade her that she must stay the night. Enlist your master if you must, or engage your housekeeper; female collaboration will doubtless ease Poor Genie’s mind. If she will not accept a guest room, then sit up with her all night!

Do not fail her! She must not come home till to-morrow!

Faithfully Yours,

Caspar Featherstone, Wizard

That afternoon, Caspar sought out Genie, who sat mending lace in the parlour. As she looked timidly up at him, he mustered an imitation of a smile and apologised for his current more-than-usually-taciturn behaviour. He cited the recent visit by the young viscount as the inciting event, and said (almost sincerely) that he had been brooding over the best way to reopen communication with him. Genie nodded her understanding. Caspar had placed the two envelopes in an old leathern folio case, and now entrusted them to her, with instructions that she was to take them to Quint, as he had specific requests of the lad as well. (Caspar had laboured carefully over his exact words to his niece; although she was very trusting—to a fault, in his avuncular opinion—he feared that she would detect a lie from him as certainly as any Inquisitor wielding hot coals in a pair of tongs might have done. He was a poor liar; but this soliloquy was almost entirely honest, except by the omission of his true motives, and he acquitted himself adequately enough. At any rate, Genie seemed unsuspecting.)

He sent her out in mid-afternoon. The manor was nearly an hour’s walk away, and in these short days of early December, she would already have been hard put to make it back home before dark, but she was a strong, determined girl, and would no doubt have managed if Quint failed to detain her. But Caspar had an instinctive faith in that young stalwart, and as soon as Eugenia was well on the manor path he breathed an earnest sigh of relief.

Nevertheless, within the quarter hour he sent Bird out to keep watch on the girl from above.

The hours until midnight that December Friday evening crept by at a tortuous rate. The ticking of the clock in the parlor became so thunderously loud, so ploddingly slow in Caspar’s mind that at length he opened it and stopped the works. It was only with the utmost restraint that he held back from crashing it to the floor. It was still only a few minutes past eight o’clock.

He had no idea when or how Robin Hood would re-appear, although he was dreadfully certain that he would. ‘Three nights hence.’ So, night-time. The sun had now set; the moon would soon rise. When would the bandit come?

Soon, Bird returned with the relatively happy news that Eugenia seemed well ensconced within Warrington Manor. He went into a rather meandering report, which included his condescending opinion of a family of crows, some commentary on the laziness of the stables’ cat, and other miscellaneous observations. Finally, he told the inattentive old man that he was able to espy through a window that Genie had fairly disappeared into the commodious bosom of the sweet old housekeeper’s embrace, and that all seemed passably well. Caspar gave no indication that he had heard a word of any of this rather comprehensive soliloquy, but when the garrulous raven finally paused for a breath, the old wizard simply said, ‘Thank you,’ a courtesy so rare that Bird, perhaps unwisely, saw fit to comment upon it: ‘Och, now I’ve heard everything! Caspar Featherstone, the most querulous, quarrelsome curmudgeon for miles, if nae leagues all around, extends a “Thanks” to this humble Corbie. Next ye’ll be asking after my health! Offering me a wee dram o’ brandy, which I’d nae turn down, I might add.’

But Caspar was too distracted by his mounting anxiety to pay any more heed to Bird’s sarcasm than he had done his narrative; when another moment or two passed silently by, he finally turned and said, ‘Eh? Did you say something, Bird?’

Bird shook his head in disgust and said, ‘CAW!’

The long, long evening finally came near to midnight. Reckoning that their visitant was indeed likely to return at that hour, Caspar also thought he would probably again materialise in the laboratory, and so he and Bird repaired upstairs. Caspar clung to a tiny hope that if he did nothing to re-summon him, Robin Hood would not appear at all, but every time he allowed himself to nurse that hope, he was more certain than ever that the legendary hero would return regardless.

The laboratory clock was still operating (although due to a bit of mischief that Bird still denied was his, the cuckoo-bird that once resided there had gone missing for years now), so both Caspar and Bird watched as the final minutes ticked away. Finally, the time came. The clock’s little door opened, revealing the vacancy within, then closed again. Another minute ticked away. Then another...

An hour passed. From somewhere downstairs came low, furtive sounds, but neither man nor bird heard them—both had fallen into deep, exhausted sleeps.

Sunlight was obliquely sneaking in a South-facing window when the two were startled awake by a hullabaloo from below. There was a great deal of stomping about, and pounding on the main door, and a powerful voice was shouting, ‘Featherstone! Are you there? Featherstone!’

Caspar and Bird hurried downstairs, both aflutter, though only one literally so. ‘Hold off your racket!’ the Old Man shouted as they reached the entryway. When he threw open the bolt, a red-eyed Eugenia dashed directly into his arms and hugged him fiercely.

She had just quitted the company of an impressive trio of stout worthies: Quint (who obviously had let the cat out of the bag, the big-mouthed oaf, thought Caspar uncharitably), his master Warrington, and a big red-faced fellow, whom Caspar recognised as the Sheriff, who now said, ‘The poor girl has been beside herself with worry that you had come to some grief.’

Caspar was muttering ‘There, there’ to the poor girl in question, gently patting her back till her trembles should cease. He looked up at the burly sheriff. ‘’Twas only an old man’s unfounded fears,’ he said, with some genuine humility. ‘I’ll make it up to Eugenia. And I’m sorry for your trouble. Thank you for seeing my dear niece safely home.’

That was no trouble,’ the Sheriff said gruffly.

‘See here, Featherstone,’ said Warrington. ‘You can’t summarily dismiss us with no better story than a bit of unexplained panic. Something is afoot here, and the Sheriff and I are here to get to the bottom of it.’ He stepped around Caspar and Genie into the room and promptly stumbled over something on the floor. ‘What—’ he mumbled, then as he recovered his footing, he saw the object of his mishap. ‘Ecod!’ he exclaimed, and knelt to examine it more closely. ‘Sheriff! Here!’

Warrington stood, holding in his hands the object from the floor. It was a small strongbox. The Sheriff came closer. ‘Is that—?’

‘It is.’

‘Well, I’ll be damned.’ He turned to Caspar. ‘Featherstone! How came this box into your possession? And don’t start with more of your “Doddering Old Man” twaddle; I’ll none of it!’

Caspar’s face was a veritable image of guilt. In a sudden realisation, he intuited what had transpired: Robin Hood, curse his green-clad hide, had waylaid Warrington sometime in the last three days, stolen this box—undoubtedly full of money—and delivered it during the night, honouring his declaration (‘Done and done!’) that he would bring Caspar the mortgage balance. ‘Well?’ the Sheriff bellowed. ‘Explain yourself!’

Genie had calmed, but was now alarmed again as she had pulled away from her uncle and struggled to comprehend the scene. She knew Warrington had been robbed; he had returned late last evening fresh from the assault. He had ranted that a bandit dressed as Robin Hood had been the culprit. None of it made any sense.

‘Mister Featherstone,’ said Warrington quietly. ‘I know it was not you who robbed me. How do you come to have my stolen cash-box here?’

Caspar never considered attempting a lie; he had no talent for it, and any such effort would almost certainly make a bad matter worse. Yet how could he tell the truth? He looked over at Bird, who was shifting his feet awkwardly as he perched upon a newel post at the bottom of the stair. Caspar would find no help from that quarter. Finally, he settled on the only truth the present company would be able to accept: ‘I cannot say.’

A few minutes later, Caspar had been taken away in the Sheriff’s custody. His gaol was to be in an old barracks on the Warrington Manor grounds. The Sheriff had been loathe to put the old man in his regular gaol in town, populated as it was with ruffians and reprobates (truthfully, at that moment, only one ruffian and one reprobate, but still, hardly a humane facility for a frail old man). Warrington’s property had been put to similar use in the past when the occasion warranted, and the landlord, perplexed by Caspar’s odd behaviour, and certainly influenced (as was the Sheriff) by their profound sympathy for Genie’s feelings in the matter, had readily agreed that the barracks would suit.

Eugenia had refused Warrington’s offer that she take up temporary residence in the manor, in spite of Quint’s earnest pleas, and at length, at last, everyone but she and Bird were gone. Genie closed the door, and turned to walk back to the parlour. She glanced at the clock, and saw that it was not working. Guessing (accurately enough, perhaps) at the time, she set it, wound it and set the pendulum in motion.

Bird, still aperch the newel post, said, ‘Dinnae fret, lassie. The story’s nae over yet.’

Genie turned, as if she’d heard him. She favoured him with a wan smile.

Bird said, ‘CAW!’

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