Crystal Ball Blues

by

Gustavo Bondoni

 

This story is featured in “Aurora of the Sun”, Aurora Wolf’s third print anthology.

While I’ll be the first to admit that being the son of the local evil witch isn’t always the easiest thing in the world—getting a date without going through a whole litany of heinous felonies is all but impossible, for example—it does have its perks. Breakfast is one of them, mainly because we have first pick of any milk and eggs produced in the entire valley, from the source of the stream that runs through our village all the way to the sea.

My mother calls it the law of demand and supply: she’s taught the villagers that if they don’t meet her demands, she will seriously affect the supply. Have you ever tried selling milk that emerges from the cow pre-curdled? Or eggs that, upon purchase, immediately hatch into poisonous, fire-breathing snakes that attack everything in sight? Suffice it to say that we used to get great food at our house.

It was while enjoying the benefits of our somewhat unusual position, however, that all hell broke loose, although we were completely ignorant of what was coming at the time. The whole family was seated at the table, mom presiding, her face hidden behind a large tome of witch-lore, while Hans, Peter and I sat along the sides.

Dad, of course, was present but not seated at the table; a dispute with mom a decade or so ago regarding the local barmaid had seen him turned into a very convenient hat-rack. And he’d gotten the good side of the bargain: the unfortunate wench had last been seen wrapped in the tongue of a toad after first being transformed into a fly. Witches, she explained, have their ethics, and draw the line at turning formerly valued members of the family into edible insects, no matter how much they deserve it.

I particularly enjoyed breakfast because it was the one time of the day when I could share the company of both my brothers. We’d grown to depend on each other after what we called Dad’s “little accident,” and were very fond of one another. The day’s chores, would separate us—each of us had to walk into a different village each day to issue dire warnings, make vague threats about what would happen if our mother was displeased, collect our vittles from the terrified villagers and, if necessary, burn a haystack or two just on general principles. Nighttime found us exhausted from this activity and dinner was usually a silent affair.

We were chatting happily about little stuff, wenches and the like, when mom suddenly threw her book of lore onto the table, gave us a hard stare, said, “So that’s how it is, is it?” and stormed out.

We looked at each other.

“Uh, oh,” said Peter, and the rest of us nodded. We had no idea what had just happened, but whatever it was, it couldn’t be good.

The book, of course, was useless to us, since you couldn’t read it without the second sight. We tried anyway, of course, but the results were precisely what we expected. The moving gibberish on the page succeeded only in giving Hans a headache and a suspicious new wart.

We ignored the wart—we were used to warts; almost everything you do around witches involves warts—and tried to guess what mom had gotten all upset about. Had she heard about Hans and Frieda? That could get us all locked in invisible cages for a couple of days. But I had this terrible feeling that it was something worse, and that meant that we had to be on our toes because Mom’s tantrums could sometimes be . . . interesting.

Whatever it was, we would be finding out shortly; mom was coming down the stairs.

Stopping only to pull our hats and scarves off Dad, we moved as one towards the door and out into the yard. There were two reasons for this: we wanted to pretend to have been busy getting our horses read for our daily tour, and also wanted to have space to run if mother had a fit. It never worked, of course, and everyone who’d ever fled from her magic ended up a toadstool anyway, but it helped to think there might be some hope. We also stood in a wide triangle, Peter and I on opposite sides of the house, Hans near the cliff by the sea.

When mom came out, we were appalled to note that the reason she’d stormed upstairs was, in fact, to get her wand.

“So,” she screamed at Hans, who was standing in front of her, “you think you can usurp my power?”

“Huh? What are you talking about?” Hans replied. Panic had raised his voice a couple of octaves.

“I’m talking about my horoscope readings in the Witch’s Bedside Companion. Here I am, trying to have a relaxed breakfast with my latest book of lore, and what do I get? I learn that my three ungrateful children are plotting to kill me in my sleep and steal my magic paraphernalia.

“That’s ridiculous!” Hans exploded. I signaled for him to keep it down. While vehemence might convince Mom of his sincerity, it might also make her think that he was a cheeky bugger, and have consequences equally dire. A toadstool, after all, is a toadstool, regardless of the reason for its mushroomness.”

“Of course not,” she retorted. “How can you possibly dispute the wisdom given out by the Companion? I live by its teachings and never do anything without consulting it!” She seemed on the verge of discharging her wand.

But Hans stood his ground. “Yeah, don’t we know it! Wasn’t it the Companion horoscope that told you to bet all our savings on Sir Skillinghead in the joust? A knight, if I recall correctly, who dislocated his shoulder trying to put on his armor, cut himself with his own sword and then died of blood loss before the tournament began?”

“So I misread the signs once! That doesn’t mean the book can’t be trusted!”

“That’s ridiculous! What about the time that—”

The wand flashed, and where there had once stood a fine, if warty, example of Teutonic youth, there now flopped a large and confused looking eagle. Peter and I stood stunned as we watched the eagle struggle to right itself and favor Mom with an indignant squawk.

Relief at the lack of mushrooms where Hans had been warned with the instinctual desire to avoid becoming wildlife of any kind. I think I reacted before Peter did, and this probably saved me. He ran for the cliff and I ran for the woods. He reached the edge and jumped, attempting to reach the ocean before the magic got him. It wasn’t even close.

Mom nicked him with a shot from the hip and, though I was unable to see what had become of him, it couldn’t have been something small—the splash from his impact with the water overflowed the cliff top.

I was certain that, having covered air and water, Mom would turn me into something ground hugging, such as a bear or a wolf or something. This was simply unacceptable, since I was of a more delicate disposition than my brothers and could not be expected to survive on a diet of cold leaves or, even worse—shudder—raw meat. I redoubled my efforts to reach the woods, and was among the trees when a tall oak beside me took a direct hit and became a small, noisy dog.

So that was the game, then. I never would have imagined that my mother would reduce me to something as humiliating as a lapdog, a creature whose only recognized contribution to life on Earth was to irritate right-thinking people with its high-pitched barking. So much for the maternal instinct.

I ducked and weaved, thankful for the cover of the trees as I moved further into the dark forest. I was just about out of range of my mother’s magic, but I now had another, possibly worse, problem. I was being hotly pursued by a yapping pack of the execrable things hell-bent on making friends with me and, if at all possible, licking my face.

I found myself almost wishing mom had better aim.

* * *

As the son of an enchantress, lost in the woods with no food, a few copper coins and just a sword for self-defense, I knew what was expected of me. I had to go on a quest immediately. I was relatively pure of heart, and probably smelled a lot better than those woodcutter’s sons and assistant pig-keepers that you always heard about going on quests, so I knew I was eminently qualified.

And besides, I’d never been one to shirk my duty. I sat on a stump and racked my brain for open quests I’d seen recently carved into the wood of the door of the public outhouse in the nearest village, Himen.

Being slightly agitated from my long run and dreading the barking that signified doom made it a bit difficult to concentrate on any quest, but, truth be told, I hadn’t seen anything really interesting for months.

There had been one “Hero Wanted” ad that had asked for a man to sail beyond the end of the known Earth and bring back the fleece of a sheep that, due to a serious endocrine dysfunction kept growing hair made of gold. The farmer was obviously happy when he skinned it, little knowing that men around the world were being recruited to take it away.

The only real problem I saw with this was that it required having access to a boat, and, preferably a crew of large bearded men to help fight off the “expected monsters” cited in the ad. Well, if I decided to go this route, I could always steal a fishing boat and worry about the monsters later.

Then inspiration struck. I’d heard of a beautiful Princess, a true King’s daughter (not the queen’s daughter, sadly, but then, you couldn’t have everything. And legitimate princesses were more trouble than their snobbery value was worth) who’d been locked up in the Castle of the Golden Sun by a wizard of some description, and was awaiting deliverance.

It was perfect. Conveniently located a couple of days from the valley, with a princess—reputedly stunning—included in the package, and, presumably, if you defeated the wizard they’d let you keep the castle. Challenging enough for a true hero.

I have to admit to a slight dimming of my sunny disposition as I remembered just how challenging the project was. Twenty-three men had attempted it and died for their trouble. The next would be the last, which prompted two reflections: that I had better succeed or everyone in the afterlife would be truly upset at my having wasted the final chance, and that, evidently, whoever had set up the rules to this challenge had been, at some point in his life, a very unimaginative farmer. Just once, I’d love to hear of a quest where precisely seventeen questers were permitted. Always three, or ten, or, as in this case, two dozen.

Still, a body count of twenty-three was a worthy challenge. Worthy enough that it left me only one choice.

As I walked through the woods towards the sea, I planned carefully, but I wasn’t too worried. After all, how hard could it be to steal a fishing boat?

* * *

The gloomy forest seemed to reflect my mood. If I’d had the energy to walk east a few hundred miles, to where the Russians ruled the roost, I could have made my fortune writing deep, moody and introspective novels. But in my current condition, I would have been lucky to avoid keeling over after ten steps.

And my eye was killing me, which was totally unfair. The fisherman, after all, had been a head shorter than I and skinny to boot. How was I supposed to know that he packed such a vicious wallop?

The worst part about it was that he insisted on dropping the boathook he was carrying in order to make the fight more entertaining despite the fact that I had my sword drawn.

No, even that hadn’t been the worst bit. The worst bit was that, on discovering me trying unsuccessfully to untie his boat from the pier, he’d told me to hold on a minute and went to get his friends. Not, as I imagined initially, to help him tear me apart, but to watch, cheer and give me advice.

Seems there’s a premium on entertainment in these seaside villages, since after using me for exercise, and knocking me into the dreamworld, he’d sportingly woke me up with a bucket of salt water, shook my hand and invited me back anytime I wanted. I’d left the village a broken man.

So my left eye was killing me, and would probably be a very pretty shade of purple when and if I ever got to look at it in a mirror. I was also, to be perfectly honest, lost in these woods, which might actually be a good thing as I wasn’t feeling particularly heroic at the moment. The thought that a real hero would have been able to defend himself against any number of fishermen, and would likely have also found a stinking great castle in the vicinity without walking around aimlessly all day and eventually getting lost in a forest.

If I’d been confronted with any real challenges, I would probably find myself scattered over various counties right now.

“Hey, you,” boomed a voice. It was one of those bass voices that made the trees shake and the ground tremble. It was much too close for comfort, and too close to try to hide.

I looked for the source of the voice and sighed, although, with the way my day had been going, I should have been expecting the worst.

Giants were never good news. A single small giant could, if the mood took him, demolish a middling stockaded village in about an hour, and use the people as juggling pins. They also had a tendency, when bored, to snack on cows.

This was not a small giant, and there were two of him. Of them. Whatever. And the fact that he’d seen me meant that there was no way I would ever escape – he could take one step and be thirty yards ahead of me.

“Come here, little man,” said one.

I really had no choice, so I walked towards them.

“Is it a man? It looks a bit scrawny,” said his companion.

“What do you know about little folk? Look at the short hair. It’s a man, and he’s even carrying a sword. Women don’t carry swords.”

“I can’t see what good a sword would do him. He doesn’t look strong enough to lift it. Might be good for a tickle, though.”

“No tickling until we’re done with him!”

“Oh, all right.” The second giant sounded unhappy.

I didn’t really care. While they were arguing, I’d taken advantage of their distraction to sidle behind a tree. For a moment, I dared dream that I might actually be safe. I stared furiously at the bark in front of me, holding my breath and willing myself to be perfectly still.

Then, all of a sudden, something very unusual happened. I started to sink into the ground at an alarming rate, and the patterns on the bark went upwards apace. It was only when I saw the tree’s roots, covered in clumps of muddy soil, sail past my eyes that I realized that I wasn’t sinking; the tree had risen, torn out of the ground by its roots.

“There you are. See, I told you he wouldn’t try to run away.”

The other giant grunted. “Let’s get this over with so I can eat him. This whole thing has made me very hungry.”

Both giants bent for a closer look and turned to face me. I felt myself turning white, and then gagged at their breath. At least one of them had evidently had a dragon for lunch.

“Look,” boomed the first giant, “we need your help.”

I swallowed and said nothing, concentrating all my energy on controlling my bladder and keeping my trembling knees from knocking together. As a quester, I knew, I was a spent force, but if there was one thing less dignified than being an afternoon snack, it was being a wailing, pitiful afternoon snack. What was left of my honor was at stake, and I refused to descend to the lowest rung. I was the son of a hat rack—perhaps not glamorous or noble, but sturdy and hardworking—and I couldn’t let the family down.

I nodded.

“Good,” said the giant. “We’re having this little disagreement about the cap, and since you small people are so much cleverer than we—we’ve never understood how you could survive otherwise—we’d like you to sort it out for us.”

“Cap?” I replied, glad to see my voice was only a couple of tones higher than normal and not as tremulous as I expected. “I don’t see any cap.”

Both giants raised one arm immediately. Between their hands and in serious danger of being torn in half was a single cloth cap, stained and threadbare. It also looked at least a hundred sizes too small for either of them to wear.

“What seems to be the disagreement?”

“We can’t decide which of us has the right to keep the cap. Our strengths are evenly matched, so neither can murder the other in a fight and take it. And we can’t think of any other way to decide which of us keeps it.”

“But why would you fight over such a lousy cap?” I asked. One of the few good things about talking to giants, I discovered, was that they were so irritating that you found yourself hoping for the conversation to end even though they would eat you when it did. It seemed an almost acceptable price in this context.

The giants laughed. They guffawed and only the fact that each was holding one side of the cap prevented them from rolling on the ground. I thought it was pretty rude, but decided against lodging a complaint.

“Maybe you aren’t so clever after all. This is the famous wishing cap of Louisseize which disappeared after his execution. He was, supposedly wearing it when he was killed. Ironic, isn’t it?”

“Why Ironic?”

“Because when you wear it, you can wish yourself to be anywhere else. That’s its power. Hey, you’re pretty stupid for a little one. Maybe we should eat you now and find somebody else.”

This was certainly not the kind of logic I wanted to hear from them. I felt that it was not an avenue of thought I wanted them to continue exploring.

“I may be stupid, but I have the solution to your problems.”

“You do?”

“Yes, I do, but you have to promise not to eat me.”

“No,” said the second giant in a tone that brooked no argument.

The first giant seemed about to contradict him, but preferred to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, so he turned to me instead. “No,” he echoed.

“Then I won’t tell you how to decide.”

“Then we’ll eat you now.”

I quickly outlined my plan. They would give me the cap, which seemed perfectly safe since I didn’t know how to use it, and I would run into the forest with it. They would wait precisely five minutes and come after me. The one who caught me would get to keep the cap.

I was also happy to learn that the giants were, in fact, gentlemen. Each gracefully conceded that it was only fair that the loser of the race would be allowed to eat me.

Three and a half minutes later, I was a panting wreck, trying to ford a swift stream in order to get as far away from the giants as possible. The cap, in a sardonic twist of fate, fit me like a glove, and was the only part of my attire not soaked through and through when I collapsed on the far bank.

In my soggy misery, I completely forgot about the giants, and lay on the grass feeling sorry for myself. My mother, my own mother, had turned on me! My father . . . Well, my father was a great listener, but not much for giving paternal advice. My brothers were turned into dumb beasts of air and water. And I? All I wanted was to meet the beautiful princess and free her from captivity. Was that so much to ask? I felt tears streaming down my cheeks. I wished I was with the princess.

* * *

When the kaleidoscopic lights cleared, I found myself lying on a soft but foreign surface. I quickly jumped to my feet. My eyesight was still blurred from whatever had happened to me. Had the giants eaten me and sent me to the afterlife? I couldn’t remember it happening, but maybe I had suppressed the awful memory.

An imperious female voice somewhere in front of me said, “I’m certain you could never afford to pay for that rug, so I would really appreciate it if you would kindly stop dripping all over it.”

Definitely not the afterlife, then. I tried to find a rug-free space, feeling the ground with my feet as my eyesight slowly returned.

“Nice hat,” the voice continued.

I blinked a few times, relieved that I could, at last, see my surroundings a little more clearly. It would be easier to strangle the voice if I could find its owner.

Things soon got clearer. I was evidently in a bedchamber, as a large, ornate bed was right in front of me. The building stone of the walls and the view out the large unglazed window made me conclude that it must be some kind of high castle tower.

I was suddenly excited. Princesses were traditionally locked in high castle towers. Everyone knew that it was a supremely unintelligent thing to do since they were always getting up to unexpected shenanigans—handsome princes climbing up their hair, and that sort of thing—but it was traditional, and that was what mattered. If you went about messing with tradition, you were likely to get banned from the shuffleboard tournament and written out of the histories, even if you could prove that a nice impregnable basement dungeon with an iron maiden or two for color was a much more logical place to stash a sequestered princess.

I turned around to look at the beautiful princess and—

Aaarrgh! A hideous hag!

I tried to throw myself out the window to in order to die quickly and forget the sight, but I found my progress impeded by the creature, clutching desperately at my tunic.

“No! I beg you!” I was happy to note that the voice had lost all of its imperiousness and was now more of a plaintive whine. And it sounded very, very young.

I turned around with my eyes firmly shut.

“What you see isn’t real,” the hag said. She seemed to be sobbing now, a view that I certainly didn’t want to imagine.

“I hope not,” I replied. “I’m the son of a village witch, and even I’ve never seen such an awful collection of warts, blemishes and wrinkles. And what have you done to your hair? I imagine it must take some practice to get every single strand to stand out like that and still ooze with grease, and the fire-colored strands would do any witch proud!”

“Not practice, a magical illusion. Come, let me show you. My mirror is not fooled by the illusion—only human eyes are confounded.”

A hand took mine, and I reluctantly allowed myself to be led to my left. Making certain that the hag was out of my line of sight, I peeked. Washstand and hand-mirror—nothing to worry about.

The hand released mine and picked up the mirror.

“Now look into the mirror,” she said.

I must admit I almost quailed at the task. What if this was just a ruse to get me to see, once again, the awful face of doom that I had witnessed before? Maybe I would be better served by throwing myself out the window before she was ready to grab me again. The thought of falling wasn’t all that unpleasant. But then I remembered the landing.

Cringing, I looked into the mirror. The most beautiful face I’d ever seen looked back out at me. She was perfect in every sense of the word, and she was weeping.

“Now you know my shame,” she said. “I cannot leave looking like this. I’d get plastered all over the “fashion don’t” pages.”

“How can you be set free?” I asked. “I fear nothing.” At that exact moment, looking into those eyes in the mirror, it was actually true. I could always change my mind later, if expedient.

“He who gets the crystal ball, and holds it before the sorcerer, will destroy his power with it, and I shall resume my natural form.” Her sobbing redoubled, almost causing me to forget myself and look at her directly, but iron will prevailed. “So many have died trying.”

“Nothing can keep me from doing it,” I said. If confronted with this statement in court, I would claim that it wasn’t valid since it was made under the influence of testosterone. I would also have pleaded that dripping onto a carpet while the most beautiful princess ever is asking for a favor is tantamount to coercion. “But I have to know what I’m up against.”

“You shall know everything. Leave the castle and walk down the hill. You’ll come to a brook by the sea. In the meadow near the brook, there waits a large bull. You’ll be able to identify it easily, because it’s the one with the steam coming out of its nostrils and bloodstains on the tip of its horns. You have to kill the bull.”

I nodded at the vision in the mirror. Child’s play.

“If you’re fortunate enough to kill it, a fiery bird will spring out of the body. The bird bears a burning egg, and the yolk is the crystal ball. But the bird will never drop the egg unless forced to do so. And if it falls on the ground, it will burn everything and melt the crystal ball!”

“I understand. I’ll get right to it.” I went to the window and looked down at the smooth walls and the long drop, but I was still under the influence of that lustrous hair and those deep eyes. I put a leg over the sill.

“Er, I don’t mean to criticize, but wouldn’t it be much easier to use the door?”

“But isn’t it locked?”

“Of course not. The garderobe is in the room at the end of the corridor!”

“Oh.” That was logical. “But then why don’t you escape?”

“I can’t be seen like this! What do you think I am? A commoner, who can allow herself not to be at her best at all times?”

I walked out the door, careful to keep my eyes averted, and found myself in a long, gloomy hallway. Torches cast sinister shadows on the walls, and their smoke made it difficult to see. I crouched under the smoke and saw a staircase to my right. I quickly reached it and had little subsequent difficulty reaching the main door, but there, was stymied.

A huge man in servant’s livery barred the door as effectively as any dragon.

I froze, but he’d already noticed me. He looked down his nose at me but moved aside and opened the door.

“Who should I say called, sir?” he asked.

“Tell your master that the man who will kill him was here.”

“Very well, sir. Do you have a card?”

“Er . . . No. My reputation speaks for itself.”

“Very well then, sir. Goodbye.” The door shut in my face, leaving me with the after-image of the man’s face. It was a face that seemed to say, without losing its façade of civility, that this was the last he’d see of me, and that it was a good thing that it would be so. It was also a silent condemnation of the quality of so-called heroes and murderers that one got these days, so inferior to the ones they had when he was young.

I almost turned around to challenge the man to a duel, but reflected that he’d probably just sit on me until his master came by and turned me into a toad—which would bring me neatly back to where this whole mess started.

So I controlled my irritation and turned back towards the stream. A cloud of vapor made it pretty simple to find the bull. I approached steadily, crawling along the high grass which served as concealment. Finally, cresting a grassy knoll, I came into sight of the bull.

It was a magnificent beast. Easily as high at the shoulder as I was tall, its sleek black coat shimmered in the sunlight, and it grunted and snorted as it moved.

I knew then that I was at a crossroads. I could wait for the bull to see me and challenge it to a fair and equal battle, with the strongest and most skilled surviving to tell the tale, or I could attack it now, when it was otherwise preoccupied mounting a bored-looking cow. These are the decisions that make a man.

But there are also sights that make him. I will, for example, forever remember the look of surprise and annoyance that the bull gave me when I sunk my sword into his neck. I only got a quick glimpse of it, of course, because, not waiting for him to dismount, I left the blade where it was and ran for it.

It was a titanic battle. I, running ahead, weaving and ducking and generally climbing trees wherever possible, and he running after me, and bellowing in taurine rage as he spewed blood all over the place and knocked down my trees with his head.

We’d nearly reached the sea when he finally keeled over from blood loss. I watched him for about an hour when I noticed that his breathing was slowing, before it finally stopped. Then I bravely pulled my sword out of its neck, satisfied with a job well done.

I was nearly done when I noticed an eerie glow at the bull’s hindquarters. A golden, glowing head peered out from its hiding place and observed me with the beady eyes of a mad turkey, as if trying to get me to commiserate with it for the indignities it had to endure.

But I wasn’t buying it. This was the fiery bird that wouldn’t give me the egg I needed unless forced. I took a swipe at its neck, trying to remove the head with one swipe, but it saw me coming and took flight.

It hovered maybe twelve feet off the ground, squawking at me in what was probably a deeply insulting way, had I only spoken fire-bird well enough to understand it, and keeping the egg plainly in sight, making certain that there could be no doubt that it was, in fact, a burning egg and not, for example, a strangely colored melon.

I threw a stone at it, and watched the wretched thing dodge contemptuously with another screech. Was it laughing at me?

With a sinking feeling, I noticed another large bird gliding in circles a hundred feet above it. After all I’d been through, I felt truly put upon by this unwanted infestation of overgrown aerial fauna come to torment me. Which, furthermore, I felt I didn’t deserve.

You can imagine how quickly my despondency turned to surprise, therefore, when the upper, circling bird suddenly swooped down on the original firebird and delivered a nasty whack with its beak. Burning feathers flew everywhere, and the meadow was truly fortunate that the wind was blowing out across the ocean.

Then I recognized the markings on the second bird: it was my brother, Hans! I cried for joy, because I knew then that everything would be all right.

Hans kept pecking at the poor fire-bird with the armored beak and sharp talons characteristic of your less pleasant airborne predators, a piece of weaponry designed to tear large pieces out of unfortunate small mammals, which seemed to be doing the other avian no good whatsoever. Thus harassed, the fire-bird flew out towards the ocean. In the extremity of the end, it dropped the egg in order to lighten its load and flew off over the sea.

I watched in horror as the egg fell from its grasp. I recalled the princess’ warning about falling on the ground, and it was with a terrible sick feeling that I watched it land squarely on top of the thatched roof of a fisherman’s hut, not a hundred yards from the sea. The thatch, of course, caught fire as soon as the burning egg touched it. Now all that remained was for the fire to melt the crystal ball and end my quest right here.

I confess that I nearly ran away. If, I reasoned, the punishment among fishermen for the relatively minor crime of attempted grand theft fishing-boat had been the walloping I’d received, then the chastisement for successful arson would probably leave me aching in places that I didn’t know were places for the next few months.

And suddenly, from the depths of the ocean, some kind of monstrous leviathan, fish-shaped and blue, jumped out of the water and landed once more with a tremendous splash. A huge wave, the size of a tall house, washed over the shore, over the burning cottage and over me. I was thrown around like a rag doll and only the fact that I became entangled in the branches of a stout tree kept me from being washed into the ocean and my death.

When the water cleared, I tried to climb down from the tree, fell about ten feet—bouncing on the branches along the way—and collected another few scrapes and a sprained ankle. I then limped towards the cottage. Getting onto the roof presented no problem, as one of the walls had collapsed into an easily climbable pile of rubble.

What I found there was enough to make any man weep for joy. The shell of the egg, so hot previously, had cracked when brought into contact with the cold water. And inside, still unmelted, sat a perfect clear orb, obviously the magical crystal ball that I’d heard so much about.

Now I understood what the leviathan had done. He’s created the wave and drowned the cottage on purpose, to stop the flame from spreading. And then it hit me: the whale had evidently been my brother, Hans! And the personality behind that kind of strike was typical of him—big, showy, effective, and with a total disregard for collateral damage.

I pulled the crystal ball out of its shell and used the cap to wish me back to the castle, where I was met by the doorman.

“And who should I say is calling, sir?” The look he gave my torn, wet and sooty clothes immediately conveyed the message that I should have used the servant’s door, after first attempting to swim the monster-infested moat.

I sighed. “Look, just tell him I’ve got the crystal ball and will spare his life in exchange for a place to sit down and a stiff drink.”

“Very well, sir.”

The feared and ancient enchanter was a tired-looking man of about fifty with graying hair and evil whiskers. He poured my drink himself.

“Well, I’m glad that’s over,” he said, letting out a long breath. “You have no idea what it was like to be the local menace. Always having to think up new ways to be a bastard. Have you got any idea the kind of strain it puts on you to be obliged by tradition and breeding to think up at least one despicable plot a day? I mean it’s all well and good, and the pay is pretty decent, but after you’ve kidnapped and spelled the local princess and planted a werewolf or two in the woods, you’ve really got to wing it. I was getting into some truly ridiculous things like creating magical carnivorous eggplants and floating junk bonds.”

I had nothing to say to this, so I didn’t.

He looked me over. “Well, here’s the deal. When you crossed the threshold with that thing, three things happened. The first was that I lost all my powers, meaning that I can now retire to my summer house to organize my stamp collection. The second, and corollary to the first was that you became the king of the Castle of the Golden Sun, and the third is that the princess has resumed her rightful form.”

This point was quickly proven when the girl herself ran in, threw her arms around my neck and kissed me. I reeled happily, but sobered quickly when I remembered that now, I was, by custom, law and the quester’s code, required to marry her. I remembered the imperious voice that she’d originally greeted me with and shuddered.

“And, just by wishing it, you can restore your brothers to their rightful forms.”

I wished it, and at that precise moment, I heard the rustling of branches, a thud on the ground and the cursing of some heavy object that had fallen out of a tree.

“Now, with your permission, I shall take my leave.” I nodded, and the old man left.

And they lived happily ever after . . . For about thirty minutes.

The doorman came into the presence. He bowed, but still couldn’t find it in himself to remove the snooty expression. I would just have to get used to it, I guess.

“There are some visitors at the door, sir.”

“Visitors? Tell them the old magician has retired.”

“These visitors are looking for you, sir.”

“For me?”

“Yes, sir. There are two very tall gentlemen who claim you stole a cap from them and, furthermore, that you owe them lunch.”

I nodded. You couldn’t have expected the doorman to balk those two.

“There are also a number of smaller folk,” he continued and began to count on his fingers. “A farmer who claims you killed his prize bull, a fisherman who wants a new cottage and two men who claim to be your brothers. These last two were also complaining about, respectively, falling out of trees and nearly drowning trying to get ashore. They also demanded lodgings and, coincidentally, lunch. Oh, and the young woman’s lawyer is also here with a draft of the pre-marital agreement.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes, sir.”

“All right. I’ll be out shortly.”

I sighed. There was always something.

 

Graphic illustration by Jack S. Rogers