A CHRISTMAS ENCHANTMENT

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CHAPTER V – The Fifth Spell.

As the wizard and his de facto familiar depart the realm of Faerie, presumably on their way back into this Mortal Coil, and leaving the merry wanderer Puck (to say nothing of malodorous trolls!) behind, it is perhaps a good time (now that ‘Time’ has some sensible meaning again!) to look in on the old man’s niece and his soi disant gaoler, to wit, Eugenia and Quintius.

It is the morning of Christmas Eve. It is a fine day, the air crisp and pleasantly scented with the smoke of hearth fires being stirred back to life. There are faint feathers of gold-lined clouds high in the sky; the sun is just clearing the eastern treetops.

Quint has walked the road from his master’s estate to the Featherstone home, and as he approaches the house, he feels conflicting emotions of joyous anticipation at seeing Dear Genie again, and a roiling dread of delivering the news he brings.

Quint took a deep breath, steeled himself, and knocked on the door. Genie opened it almost immediately; the radiant smile on her face plucked hard at her young swain’s heart. Said swain pulled the cap from his head and gave her his customary nod-and-smile, although the smile may have betrayed his trepidation. Genie frowned and placed both of her tiny hands on his great chest. She mouthed, ‘What?’

‘May I come in?’ Quint said, his eyes meeting hers, but as quickly falling away.

By answer, Genie took his right arm and pulled him across the threshold. As she closed the door behind them, Quint found his courage and asked, ‘Genie, is your uncle here?’

Eugenia’s delicate eyebrows shot up in surprise; then she frowned and shook her head in an adamant ‘No.’

Quint sighed. ‘Oh, Genie, I was so hoping he was here—that he’d come home for Christmas, trusting that the Squire would forgive him, which doubtless he would... Can you be sure-certain he is not here, Dear Genie?’ (In just the past few days, with so much time together since her uncle’s incarceration, Quint had begun taking the liberty of occasionally addressing the object of his unfettered affection as ‘Dear’, and as yet she had indicated no objection.) ‘Perhaps we should search the house, in case he let himself in unnoticed overnight.’

And so, search they did, from attic to root cellar, but as we know, Uncle Caspar was not to be found. At one point, on one set of stairs or another, Eugenia ‘stumbled’, and Quint caught her from falling, and thereafter held her hand, at first just up and down stairs (of which the Dread Redoubt seemed to have more than its share), and finally everywhere they went.

Soon Quint’s joy in Dear Genie’s touch easily overwhelmed his concern for the wizard’s whereabouts. At length, though, Quint felt it was time to give up the pretense of a search, and he told Genie he must report her uncle’s disappearance (he little knew how apt this word was) to Squire Warrington.

Why? mouthed Genie. (They were growing quite adept at this manner of communication—Quint could read her lips almost as readily as she his!)

‘Because...’ Quint frowned. The question, though thoroughly unexpected, was straightforward enough; should the answer not be straightforward as well? And yet, the more he pondered, the more muddled were his thoughts. Why report that the old man was missing? Only one meaningful answer came to him: Because it was his duty to do so. He said as much to Eugenia.

And then what? Will a search begin?

‘Likely, yes.’

She raised her shoulders and hands in a gesture that plainly meant, Aren’t we already searching?

Quint smiled. ‘Well, I reckon we could be a bit more thorough before we bother the Squire... P’r’aps your uncle wanted an early break-fast? He might be in Flibbertie’s kitchen right now!’ (The entire staff had embraced Caspar’s offhand sobriquet for the manor’s chatty housekeeper, Mrs Fitzwhistle, who bore it with her limitless good humour.) Genie nodded enthusiastically. ‘Fetch your coat and hat then, Dear Genie—we’ll catch him there before he wanders off again!’

And so we leave the young sweethearts (for such they were, whether they knew it or no) to go in search of Uncle Caspar, even as we do the same.

‘BAAAAAA!’ cried Lamb as the whirling wind closed in around them, ushering in another dispatch into the utter stygian darkness of the Void between worlds; Caspar could hear the change in tone as the magical tempest devolved into a more earthly gale. At the same time, Lamb’s cry stuttered as if the poor creature was suddenly choked, even as the wizard felt him slipping from his grasp.

WHAM! Caspar returned to the mortal world this time not with a soft stumble onto a carpet of grass, but with a harsh tumble onto a hard wooden deck. He heard the accents of rope and sail along with the wind, and as he struggled to his feet, he barely had time survey his surroundings (noting nevertheless that he indeed stood swaying on the deck of a weather-beaten sailing vessel) when he heard a panicked, hoarse bleat from somewhere nearby.

He turned around and saw that he stood at the top of a short set of stairs that led to an open cabin door. He heard the strange cry again: ‘Braaaw!’ Staff in hand, he hurried down the stairs and into the cabin beyond where he immediately beheld a startling tableau! The erstwhile Lamb was now once again Bird; he was awkwardly perched upon a tiny high shelf, wildly flapping his wings, trying to extricate one leg from the grasp of an axe-wielding troll!

At second glance, Caspar revised his impression—the axe was actually a cleaver, and the troll a disreputable-looking sailor-man. The peril to Bird was no less for the foe being mortal, however, and the wizard cried sharply, ‘Unhand that Bird! Or chance the consequences!’ He pointed his staff in the sailor’s direction, although even as he did so, he knew that the power therein was gone.

The scruffy sailor let go of Bird and lowered his cleaver to a level that more-or-less countered Caspar’s staff. ‘Gah,’ he said nonsensically. ‘And who be you t’ be makin’ frets?’ He squinted as he took in the wizard’s robe. 'Blimey! ’S’Merlin the Vizard! That explains this here bird, a-poppin’ in d’reckly from the eefer!’ He turned to Bird. 'Beg pardon, friend Birdie. ’Ad you pegged for the pot, I did; my mistake.’

Bird was still attempting to recover his avian voice. ‘Caa!’ was the best that he could muster.

The seaman slammed his cleaver blade into the wooden table nearest him and grinned up at Bird. ‘A queer sort of parrot, ain’t you?’ Bird tried to respond, but only managed a sputter. The sailor paid no heed. 'Once ’ad a parrot myself,’ he went on. ‘Name o’ Bob. A right eye-pleasin’ green-an’-yeller feller he was, too. An’ could he tawk! Knowed the days o’ the week, the months o’ the year, an’ all the words to “’Eave-’o, Me Merry Boyos.” Vhat a bird he was...’ He turned to Caspar. ‘Does your bird tawk, Mister Vizard?’

Without thinking, the old man answered, ‘He’s not my bird. I am, it would seem, more his human, as it were.’

'I predicate the sediment, Mister Vizard, I do. Bob was more partner than pet, trufe be known. Near broke my ’eart when ’e went into the pot, but there was naught for it. A crew’s gotter eat!’

‘Caw!’

’Too right! Becalmed off the Seychelles, we were, for weeks on end; ran outter ’ard-tack an’ bacon, and nary a fish let itself be caught.’

Bird took this opportunity to fly a bit clumsily over to the Casper’s shoulder, with another heartfelt ‘Caw!’

'’Fit’s any counselation, the crew took sick from that meal, every man-jack of ’em, save two; one who died, an’ mine own ’umble self. Naw, I coon’t bring myself to partake of Ol’ Bob stew.’

Wiping his greasy hands on his apron, he approached Caspar, extending his only slightly de-greased right hand for shaking. Caspar reluctantly (and as briefly as possible) shook it. ‘Name’s Sam Pluckem, Mister Vizard, ship’s cook. I don’t reckon that you’re ackshully Merlin, eh?’

‘No. I am Caspar Featherstone. My, er, friend and I—that is, um, we were lately shipwrecked, and, ahh, last night we found our way on board your ship...’ (As I believe I may have mentioned, Caspar was a poor liar; but he had no intention of trying to make sense of the truth to this squalid seaman, and so launched unwisely into the current improbable tale.)

‘“Found your way”, did you? Out in the wide blue middle o’ the Injun Ocean?’

‘Aye. Er, might I enquire, by the way, as to the name of this fine vessel?’

’This be the SS Robbin, long time out o’ Bristol.’

Bird said, ‘Caw.’ Casper said, ‘Ah.’ He glanced at Bird. ’The Robbin. Of course.’ The old man was beginning to notice the deck beneath him shifting on the increasingly rolling waves; he could also hear the rising wind whistling through gaps in the planks. Disregarding his own rising discomfort, he asked the cook, ‘Who is your captain? Perhaps I should seek an audience.’

‘Oh, I vouldn’t do that, sir,’ Pluckem replied. ’Cap’n Treblethorn’s a mighty superspicious feller, what don’t take kindly to innerlopers of no sort, let alone the mysterinous sorcerer sort. Like as no, the old codswallop’d throw you o’erboard, or leastwise into the brig, which aboard the Robbin means the onion cellar, an’ e’en the rats stay outter there.’

Caspar gave the cook a good long look. The fellow was rough, after the manner of his trade, but did not seem mean-spirited; he had blue eyes so bright they nearly sparkled, and when he grinned (which was often) his teeth, while yellow to the core, and tobacco-stained to boot, were strong and straight. In short, he had, the wizard thought, an honest mien.

The ship shifted again in the worsening weather. With a barely audible groan, Caspar sank onto a nearby barrel. The cook frowned. ‘Are ya unvell, sir?’ he asked, his concern apparently genuine.

‘No. Only heartsick.’ Bird left his shoulder for a higher perch nearby. Caspar spoke to him. ‘I was certain this time, Bird. The arcane power seemed so strong!’

Meantime, Pluckem had dipped a tin ladle into a cask and offered it to Caspar.

‘Here, sir. Drink this.’

‘Is it water?’

’Har! Not likely! No, ’tis brandy. Of a sort. Mine own private supply. For cookin’, o’ course.’

Caspar sipped. While certainly not brandy as he understood the word, it was a strong spirit, and he drank more. ‘Thank you, sir Cook,’ he said sincerely.

’Pah. ’Twas nuffin’ to me. Least I could do for a shipwreck wictim,’ he said with a not-unkindly challenge in his eyes.

’Still; you have my thanks... The truth, sir—you deserve to know it: I was shipwrecked. Not yesterday, but twenty long years ago...’ And, perhaps in gratitude, certainly in part because the ‘brandy’ had loosened his tongue, Caspar told the friendly cook his tale of woe. At length he said, ‘And so, still and evermore I search. And by hook or by crook, my latest effort brought me here.’ Bird cleared his throat, or rather, pronounced the word ‘Ahem.’ Caspar granted a rueful half-smile. ’Pardon—brought us here. Whither now, I cannot say.’

‘Shipwrecked a full score o’ years ago, you say?’

‘Just so.’

‘Off the coast of Porchy-gul?’

‘Aye.’

’Huh. Sir Vizard, yer tale ’as a fermiliar ring t’ me. I doesn’t claim to ’ave the keenest o’ mem’ries, but ’ere’s what I rec’lect: I sailed aboard a Porchy-gese ship in those days, in those waters... Came a sudden big blow, an’ we barely escaped goin’ under. Still rainin’ it was, when we came upon some wreckage... Somebody spied a body floatin’ there, an’, well, the body was alive.’

Caspar was rapt: ‘A boy?’

’Aye, sir. Mostly drowned, too, but our surgeon brought ’im round. Poor lad di’n’t remember nuffin’—not ’is name, nor the name of ’is wessel, nor even what year it be—as ign’rant as a babe.’

The storm without had reached what must surely be its crescendo. Caspar was weeping; he choked out the words, ‘What became of him? Tell me you know what happened to him!’

‘As I rec’lect, the cap’n o’ that wessel took charge of ’im. But—’

SLAM! The cabin door thundered open, and a huge voice thundered through the threshold: ‘Mister Pluckham! All hands on deck, you lazy—Ho! What’s this then?’ The owner of the thunderous voice stepped through, surprising Caspar, as he seemed far too small in stature to own such a mighty voice. ‘A stowaway? On MY ship, Mister Pluckham?’

‘No, sir! I mean, aye, sir! I was just on my way to—’

‘YOU, SIR!’ roared the captain at Caspar. ‘Explain yourself! Who has been hiding you these six weeks?’

Caspar stood to answer the captain, and as quickly—and rather clumsily—sat again, as the ship lurched up and over a wave. Feeling a bit queasy, but determined to put up a noble front for Captain Treblethorn, Caspar said with as much bravado as he could muster, ‘No-one, sir. I only just arrived.’ Using his staff for balance, he stood again, more successfully this time. ‘I am Caspar Featherstone...’ (To his credit, if not his immediate well-being, the old wizard chose this moment to adopt a strictly truthful approach. Now, it is said proverbially that ‘Honesty is the best policy’, but perhaps there should be some circumstantial codicils to that philosophy. But we digress; Caspar is speaking:) ’I am a wizard! I came here on a whirlwind of my own making, and will depart when—”

‘Oh, you will depart forthwith, Demon! Mister Pluckham! Tie him to a post! Bind him well! And at the moment this unnatural tempest abates, you sir,’ he shouted at Caspar, ‘will depart overboard tied to a bag of rocks!’ The ship’s cook was already busy dragging Caspar to a post, wrapping heavy coils of rope about him. The captain nodded approval. ‘If he tries any incantations or the like, gag him. Or strike him insensible. Or both!’ And he turned on his heel and departed, closing the cabin door behind him.

‘Sorry, Sir Vizard, but it’s as I told you. The cap’n suffers no truck with occultery.’ He was tying a haphazard knot when Bird suddenly alighted on his head, and sinking his talons in the old sailor’s scalp, bent over and savagely bit the top of his right ear! ‘OUCH!’ The old sailor swatted impotently at the angry Corbie, who had already hopped out of arm’s reach. ‘What the devil!’

‘Unbind that man, villain!’ squawked Bird. ‘Else next I’ll tear yer treacherous ear clean off!’

‘Neptune’s navel!’ cried Pluckham. He grabbed at Caspar’s collar. ‘Is this some trick o’ your infernal trade, Mister Vizard, or is the bird ackshully speakin’?’

‘The bird can clearly speak for himself, ye red-nosed ruffian!’ rejoined Bird, his feathers still a-ruffle. ‘Or are ye as dimwitted as ye are traitorous?’

‘Vell, you’re a woquacious creatur’, ain’t you? A-speakin’ your little bird mind as if you knowed what you’re about!’ said Pluckham, leaving off rubbing his ear and getting back to his knot-tying. ‘Believe it or no, friend perry-grin, ol’ Sam Pluckem is endefferin’ to keep your vizard here alive.’

‘Believe or nay, eh? Well, I dinnae believe! Ye’re still tying—’

‘The most escapin’-able knot ever twisted. I’m afeared I can only do so much without endin’ up keelhauled mine own self.’

Caspar nodded. ‘’Tis true, Bird—the ropes are indeed quite loose.’

‘Huh.’

‘Now, you two stay put,’ said Sam. ‘The storm’s lettin’ up; I’ve a bit o’ reckonoysterin’ to do afore the cap’n comes back for you. We might all live through this here adventure yet. Although some of us is bound to get a bit drenchified by the time we’re all said an’ done.’ He clapped Caspar on the shoulder, and keeping a wary eye on Bird, slipped around some casks and further into the bowels of the ship.

‘I dinnae trust that bla’guard,’ said Bird. ‘If ye’re free of those bonds, let’s away!’

‘Away where? How? My staff’s magic has fled, or at any rate stayed behind in Faerie. I believe Mister Pluckham is trying to give us a chance to survive once we are inevitably thrown overboard.’

‘We?’

’I, then. Your fate is in your own hands, so to speak.’

‘CAW!’

And Caspar was right; a few moments later, Sam returned barely ahead of Captain Treblethorn. He (Sam, that is) was carrying a small cask; as the captain barged in, he saw the barrel in the cook’s hands, ‘Is that firkin filled with stones, Mister Pluckham?’ roared Treblethorn. (Indeed roaring seemed his only tone of voice, unless thundering.)

‘Aye, Cap’n.’ The little cask suddenly seemed quite heavy, as Sam set it carefully on the floor.

’Very good. Affix the firkin ’round this necromancer’s neck. He can work his wizardry with the whales and fishes!’

And so, Caspar was quickly re-trussed, and the firkin attached to another rope. Sam hoisted the container laboriously, and as he put it into Caspar’s arms, whispered, ’Remember: ’tis heavy!’

Which it certainly was not! Caspar only delayed a moment pantomiming its supposed great weight, as Sam loosely tied the firkin’s rope around the old wizard’s neck, and began roughly escorting him out of the galley behind the captain.

The storm was no more than a wet wind now, but Captain Treblethorn’s iron will was set. There was some additional roaring and thundering from the little captain, and some Yo-Hoes and Aye-Ayes from the crew, but all Caspar later remembered was that the next thing he knew he was unceremoniously tumbling into the churning sea.

The firkin of air saved him, just as the resourceful ship’s cook had intended. Caspar held it to his chest and floated, head and shoulders above the water, without undue stress. Mind, he was still adrift in the middle of a lonely ocean, but he was alive!

Perforce his mind went back to the last time he had been in this predicament, twenty years before, when poor Robin was lost. Then, he had clung to a bit of planking for hours, shouting himself hoarse calling for his son. He had been quite delirious when finally rescued by a Portuguese fisherman, and, if we’re honest, at least a bit delirious ever since.

Now, he had lost his staff, left behind in the ship’s galley, and though Caspar knew it had no more magic in it, he had been carrying it for many years—he would miss it, if he lived long enough. Likewise, in his first few moments in the water he had been forced to shed his wizard’s cloak; the wet wool had threatened to drag him under, air-firkin or no. Just as he was about to fret that Bird had abandoned him too, the piebald raven alighted on his shoulder.

‘Well?’ said Caspar, prepared for a dose of Bird’s sardonic recriminations.

‘What?’

‘You’ve nothing to say? No tongue-lashing to dole out?’

‘Ye seem battered enough. I only came down to recover my wind for a moment. Ye may be interested to know I’ve spotted land.’

‘Ah.’

‘Dinnae bowl me over with yer boundless enthusiasm!’

‘Bird, I am tired down to my very bones.’

‘And I’m hungry. We all have our burthens t’ bear. The land is nae far. Kick yer feet and follow me.’ So saying, the Corbie sprang into the air again.

Caspar started listlessly kicking. Fortunately, the effort was largely superfluous—he was already riding toward his destination on the tide. ‘Sometimes I wish you behaved like a proper parrot, saying “Pieces of eight” and “Blow me down” and whatnot...’

’But ’tis my great good fortune that I am nae a parrot, proper or elsewise! Besides, I’ve nae idea what those phrases might mean, and neither do you!’ Bird replied from aloft. ‘And anyway, as you certainly know, it is my manifest character to speak my mind, and chance the consequences! CAW!’ And he flew out of range of any comeback Caspar might have engendered, not that the old man had any such wit left to offer.

Before long, landfall loomed. Caspar could hear the waves breaking on the shore before he could actually see the land itself. All signs of stormy weather had cleared or moved on, and as he stumbled up onto the coarse sand of a wide beach, the sun was lowering in the sky. The evening was balmy in those climes, which was a blessing, for without magic, a fire seemed an impossible luxury.

There was a plentiful scattering of driftwood in the sand, and Caspar staggered over to a large specimen and sat wearily down. Bird settled onto a more twisted piece nearby.

’Robin Hood. Robin Goodfellow. The SS Robbin. What’s next, then? Robin-son Caruso?’ squawked Bird, back in form now.

’Don’t be absurd. Robinson Crusoe is an entirely fictitious personage.’

‘I would have said the same for Puck, him being a fairy and all. And anyway, just because a fellow is fictitious dinnae mean he cannae have a ghost. Why, I’ve heard tales of ghosts of concepts, like “Past” and “Present”.’

‘Now you’re just being ridiculous!’ Elbows on his knees, the exhausted old magus buried his head in his hands. From that position, his voice was low and woebegone. ‘Oh, Bird. Leave me be. No, in fact, just leave me. I am spent. I am done.’

‘Bother and balderdash! Ye’re no such thing! Ye’re Caspar Featherstone, Wizard! Together we’ve survived magical mischief most mortals never dared imagine! Why, I dinnae suffer as a lamb of all things to give up on ye now! Ye’ve learned how to conjure, have ye not? Conjure now! Yer son Robin is nearer than ye ken!’ Bird leapt over to a long, gnarled length of driftwood, grabbed it in his talons and dropped it at Caspar’s feet. ‘There! A new staff! On yer feet, man! Now! Conjure Robin! Conjure yer son!’

Caspar was helpless against this fusillade of encouragement; he was encouraged, in the most literal sense! He picked up the new staff and stood. He saw his own long sun-shadow stretching out before him. Without further deliberation, or thought of any kind, he extemporised a new spell on the spot!

Perhaps things would gave turned out differently if Caspar had deliberated somewhat, or given the moment some kind of thought, but what would have happened to our story if he had done? Who can say?

Within seconds of the last syllable of the old wizard’s incantation ringing through the damp evening air, the ground beneath his feet began to tremble. At that very moment, the setting sun slipped over the horizon, and then a circle of the beach, perhaps five yards in front of Caspar, began to erupt in a fountain of sand, stones, and broken sea-shells. Then thick, luminous smoke billowed forth, forming a tower of mystic, seething mist.

From within the column of roiling fumes, a voice thundered out—no, Captain Treblethorn’s voice thundered; this voice fairly exploded, each word a detonation of righteous indignation! ‘WHO DARETH SUMMON ME?!’

The smoke seemed to solidify, or at any rate take more corporeal substance; a tremendous human figure now strode forth, looming ominously over the magus and the bird. He was fully eight feet tall, perhaps more; he wore a massive powdered wig, which tumbled in great curls over his wide shoulders. His clothes were all the same near-black as the smoke had been; even his face, scowling from within the grey tresses of his judicial-style wig, seemed more grey than flesh. His eyes flashed redly as two figures stepped out from behind him, apparently formed out of the remainder of the infernal smoke; on his right hand stood a cloaked executioner, his hideous black axe held at the ready in hands the size of hams; on his left stood a stern, gaunt fellow, who had the officious face of a court clerk, looking down a haughty nose through thick, round spectacles—in his arms he held a large book or ledger.

Caspar could just make out, emblazoned on the cover of the huge book, a weird sigil; it looked strangely familiar to the old magus, but in his current addled state—half-drowned, bereft of his spectacles, weary to the marrow of his bones, he could not recollect where or when he had seen it before... It was some sort of rune:

Before Caspar could puzzle it out, his attention was drawn back to the mighty central spectre. ‘I AM THE CONSTABLE OF THE TOWER, THE LORD MAYOR OF LONDON,’ quoth he, and the ground beneath Caspar’s feet trembled such that he feared its imminent collapse!

‘Ganymede’s Howling Hounds!’ said Bird, sotto voce. ‘’Tis Jack Robinson!’

‘SILENCE!’ bellowed the phantom. ‘I AM SIR JOHN ROBINSON! DO NOT INTERRUPT THESE PROCEEDINGS MORE!’ His fiery eyes found Caspar. ‘FALSE SUMMONER! WHAT IS THY NAME?’

Caspar feared this apparition far more than he had Puck or Robin Hood. His every aspect was intimidation personified; he demanded fear. Out of a suddenly dry throat the trembling old man said, ‘I am Caspar Featherstone, Wi—’ Here he cut himself short. He knew something of the historical Constable Jack Robinson. The flesh-and-blood incarnation had been of normal mortal proportions, but his legend loomed darkly, even nearly two centuries on. He had presided over countless beheadings, and some said worse, if such a thing may even be imagined. So Caspar thought better of identifying himself as a wizard, and said instead, ‘With all enduring respect, milord.’

Robinson raised his left hand a fraction, and glanced to his left. The spectral clerk thereat opened his ledger. ‘WHAT ARE THE CHARGES AGAINST THE ACCUSED?’

The clerk spoke in a sepulchral voice: ‘Delinquent tenancy; highway robbery; and escape from lawful incarceration.’

‘I can explain,’ Caspar began, though he really couldn’t. ‘I never—’

SILENCE, DERELICT! ORDER! THOU WAST WARNED NOT TO INTERRUPT!’ Robinson glowered, his eyes all-but literally aflame. ‘ENOUGH! IT IS THE SUMMARY JUDGEMENT OF THIS COURT THAT THE ACCUSED BE RE-INCARCERATED FORTHWITH!’

Whereupon Caspar and Bird found themselves, suddenly and completely, and utterly without even the barest sense of transition, back in his so-called gaol in the old barracks on the Warrington Manor grounds.

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