The Magician Cometh
Stepping out from the dusty air of the shop, she felt the breeze run through her hair, and smiled. The village always seemed to surge into life at this time of year; the time of the travelling circus was almost upon them, and already the younger pets were waiting with insatiable excitement. She thought of her own two children, both running through the streets in front of her with the other kids, and her heart leapt. It had been nearly six months since their father had started his term in King Skarl’s army, and it was always refreshing to see them happily at play; she could never relax while he was gone.
With a flick of the wrist, the red Xweetok tossed a fresh apple into the air and caught it in her wicker basket. The shopkeeper never kept the fruit and vegetables inside; it was far too dry and dusty for them to stay fresh and ripe, preferring to wallow in the midday sun. The old wooden cover was not so fresh, however, and in dire need of repair, but while the weather kept up he was in no rush to repair it.
During her husband’s absence, the shopkeeper had been a true blessing; her husband had been the breadwinner of the family, and the upkeep in Skarl’s army meant far less money came back to her and the children, for which he was always apologetic in his letters. Stripped of their luxuries, what little they had, the shopkeeper had seen fit to gift her with discount products and free gifts, secluded safely in her basket where the other customers would not see. They all knew, however; many of their own husbands had been drafted into the army at one point or another, and always the shopkeeper was there for the good of the village.
She set off down the main street, glancing over the displays in the various market stalls with minor interest. The traders just ignored her, knowing she had nothing with which to buy their goods. The outsider merchants were not as kindly as the shopkeeper, and only ever traded with the men when they were around. It was an idea quickly becoming outdated in the larger towns throughout King Skarl’s domain, but in the small villages the old ways continued to move along.
Abandoning her pursuit of the missing luxuries in her life she retreated down a back street and into her front garden. Small yet vibrant, the children often found strange plants outside of the village and brought them back. She relished spending time with them, before they grew up and left home, leaving her alone like her poor neighbour; one of her sons had left to be a scholar in Brightvale, while the other was now a blacksmith for the King. Neither visited often.
Carefully making her way through the unusual arrangement of plants and flowers, interspersed with the weeds the children thought were flowers, she unlocked the door and entered the bright dwelling she called home. A single room contained their living space and the kitchen, while two small bedrooms branched off from the single storey home at the side. Everything was immaculately clean, allowing the light to enter undisturbed through the south-facing windows along the back wall. All day long they permitted the light into the room, bringing with it the gift of warmth for when the evenings became chill.
Placing the basket on the scrubbed wooden table, she unhooked her pinafore from the stove and set about unpacking. Suddenly she jumped, the jar of fresh jam shattering on impact and spilling its contents over her nice clean floor.
‘Do forgive me for startling you, my dear,’ the apparition declared, his voice silky and dignified. Respectfully he swept off his wide brimmed hat and bowed low, causing her to just gasp at his majestic robes, seemingly crafted from liquid silver. Placing the feathered hat back atop his head the white Blumaroo gave her a sly look and flourished one gloved hand.
‘For you,’ he whispered, handing her the rose, its resplendent gold petals almost glowing in the light streaking through the window.
‘Goodness,’ she replied, flustered by the suave stranger. ‘Thank you.’
The stranger just bowed again.
‘Do forgive me if I sound a touch rude,’ she added, drawing a long breath of the majestic fragrance of the rose, ‘but just who are you? How did you get into my home?’
‘Ah, it is I who should be requesting your forgiveness,’ the stranger declared, looking away in disgrace. ‘I should not have come here as I have, but I saw you looked saddened and in need of a touch more magic in your life. I am but a travelling magician, sharing my trade for the wonder of others, and as such tend to have little use for doors. Do forgive me, my dear, for I have travelled so long I had forgotten what poor taste it is to come into the abode of a lady unannounced. Please, accept my most sincere apologies, and a sign of my gratitude.’
Placing his palms together he sharply opened them to reveal a small orb cradled in his hands, glowing faintly. ‘It is but a trifle of no outward value, and yet I find them strangely comely. Please.’
Gingerly she took the orb from his outstretched hands and gazed at the scene within. It almost appeared her own home resting at the bottom of the globe, bathed in an eerie light trapped in the delicate object. She gazed up out of the window and saw the same light streaking through the panes.
‘It... it’s beautiful,’ she remarked, turning her attention back to the magician, who was fiddling with a playing card between two fingers. With a soft smile he curled it into his hand, his palm bare when he opened it only moments later.
‘May it restore lost pleasure into your life,’ he said, bowing one final time. ‘It has been an honour, my dear, but I must depart. Fare thee well.’
His robes danced behind him as he spun and swept from the home, his tail almost catching in the door as he vanished into the world beyond. Rushing to the window she watched him make his way down the path; even the way he walked was elegant and dignified, a true pleasure to watch. She let out an audible sigh as he vanished from sight. A little strange, but the most positively charming gentleman she had ever had the fortune to meet.
Carefully she placed the orb on the mantelpiece and returned to her unpacking, her attention quickly caught by the golden rose again. A new smile spread across her face and she quickly transferred it to a vase, placing it on the windowsill where it caught the light beautifully, sharing its golden radiance with the rest of the room. Suddenly the mess where she had dropped the jam jar no longer seemed so unpleasant.
She could still not stand the mess, however, and abandoning her unpacking, she found a cloth and began to wipe away at the stain, meticulously separating the shards of glass as she went along. An odd tune filled the room, and she realised she was whistling to herself. She never whistled. Must be one of the charming effects of meeting that gentleman, she thought, and continued to whistle away, her mind full of thoughts of him.
Content with the freshly tidy floor she wrapped the glass shards in the cloth and placed them on a high shelf, far out of reach of the children, and made a mental note to take them down to the shop later; the kindly shopkeeper would take anything off her hands and find someone else who might want it.
Her eyes fell on the orb again, just sitting there, perfectly nondescript, yet oddly comely, just as the gentleman had said. Looking up, she saw her reflection in the small mirror and checked her hair, marvelling in the way it seemed to sit neater than usual. For all her meticulous attention to detail and tidiness, her hair had never been particularly manageable. Yet there it was, just as she had always wanted it to be.
Suddenly she leaned closer, all joy lost as the horror set in; something was missing! One hand shot to her neck, where the pearl necklace her husband had purchased from a passing merchant during their youth was absent. It was the first gift he had given her, and the sentimental value it held was beyond question, despite having little commercial value anymore.
Could it have slipped off somewhere?
No. It had never done so before, and after so many years it would not suddenly change, not without her doing something special.
Angry with herself for falling for such a trick, she ran from the house and back toward the village, scanning the path for the trickster. Around her came the sounds of cheerful, tuneless whistling and humming, the pets smiling serenely at an unseen thought, and she knew they too had been swindled by the fraudulent “gentleman”. She fought back the urge to spit the last word out of her mouth, wishing it to leave her head behind, the very idea of him now sickened her so much.
‘Something the matter, ma’am?’ the shopkeeper queried as she hurried into his shop, looking more flustered than he had ever seen her.
‘Have you seen a strange white Blumaroo come by?’ she asked quickly, although one look at the yellow Ogrin’s face rendered her question unnecessary.
‘Now you mention it, ma’am, he was in here just now,’ the shopkeeper answered with a cheerful grin. ‘Quite an agreeable fellow it must be said. Shared with me one of these strange orb things; a real pretty item. I put it down here by my...’
She waited expectantly for the shopkeeper to finish his sentence, but he just stood frozen, petrified where he stood, blankly staring at something beneath the counter.
‘Whatever is the matter?’ she asked, peering over the edge of the counter.
The shopkeeper just gawped senselessly. ‘My... my money bag is missing!’ he managed to exclaim at length, looking up at his customer. His eyes passed over her neck and saw the missing necklace, quickly slotting things into place. ‘That filthy rotten swindler! Wait here, ma’am, I’ll go and give him a piece of mind and get back your necklace for you.’
‘Reginald, put that away,’ she snapped as he stepped around the counter holding a pitchfork. Although being several years older than she, the shopkeeper found himself stopped in his tracks by that sharp yet gentle tone; the mothering tone. It took him back to his own childhood all those years ago, and the way his mother would scold him whenever he was naughty. She was the most amazing of mothers, but she had an acid tongue when she wanted one, and it was impossible to disobey any command that came from it.
‘Yes’m,’ he said weakly, putting the pitchfork back under the counter.
‘That’s better,’ she said, switching to the warm, gentle, reassuring tone of motherhood. ‘Now come on, let’s see if we cannot find this no-good thief and bring him to justice.’
‘Yes’m,’ the shopkeeper repeated, hunching his shoulder and feeling small. Now he had some idea of how her children must feel.
‘And no slouching!’ she snapped back at him, leading the way out of the shop, the Ogrin standing straight and following her, pausing only to lock up the shop.
The brilliant sunlight that had held the day its blissful grasp was fading as they set off deeper into the village, the clouds beginning to gather ominously overhead. Unseen by any, the delicate images within their glass globes began to change, the magnificent radiance fading into a grim, gloomy demeanour. The wind snapped chill against their cheeks, forcing her hair from its style and dropping it down her back; a sleek, waterfall of fiery red, perfectly matched to her temperament as they reached the village square.
A ring of astonished onlookers had formed about the charlatan Blumaroo, gasping in amazement and awe as he made a pack of cards circle about him. Blindly he thrust his hand into the ring, snaring a single card between his middle and forefinger, spinning it to reveal the joker, to the rapturous applause of the crowd.
Every member of the crowd possessed one of his strange orbs, tucked into pockets, resting in baskets, or still clutched tight in their hands.
With a clap, there was a sudden explosion and a small black Gallion materialised, soaring once around the awestruck audience before landing daintily on the Blumaroo’s shoulder. He just smiled and touched the brim of his hat respectfully to their applause.
‘You fiendish trickster!’ she bellowed through the crowd, the enchantment the magician held over his captivated audience shuddering at the sound of the furious voice. ‘You incorrigible thief! What have you done with my necklace?’
The Blumaroo gasped theatrically, having the nerve to look affronted. Slowly he removed his hat again and fixed her with his sparkling eyes, a hint of a tear resting in each.
‘My dear, you wound me deep with such harsh words,’ he said slowly, his voice choked to perfection. ‘You have struck me a blow more grievous than any weapon could ever dream, and delivered a scar that cannot be healed.’
Around him the other pets shot her accusing glares, and she knew behind her the shopkeeper was doing the same, lost in the mesmerising words of the magician's magic. The voice was so sweet, so innocent, so hurt by her malicious and unfounded accusations. She was a heathen for even contemplating such a heinous remark.
‘I can see you for what you truly are, you thieving charlatan!’ she cried, the mothering tone cutting cleaner through his hypnotic voice than any vorpal blade.
The instant he had spoken she had felt the soft, hypnotic waves of his magics wrap about her, but the thought of the necklace, and with it the love she held for her husband had repelled his charm and his gentlemanly wiles. Guilt had rushed through her heart when she realised how easily she had been swayed the first time, ensnared by his silky tone and impeccable charm; he had instantly known her weaknesses and played upon them. The shame would forever haunt her, but she would not allow the others to follow suit and be trapped by his falsified facade.
‘Give me back my bag of money, you rotter!’ the shopkeeper called. The magician looked about him as his magics wore off, faced with a power far greater than his own. Others were beginning to realise their possessions were missing, all turning with angered looks toward the conspicuous white Blumaroo.
‘I do not care for anything else you may have taken from me,’ she declared, advancing on the magician with the full matriarchal fury of the ages, ‘but that necklace is worthless to you, and worth the world to me. Return it now!’
The gentlemanly guise of the magician crumpled in the face of such ancient power, far outdating the magics he had devoted his life to mastering. Automatically he felt his hand begin to call forth the item, but his own formidable self-control fought back. He had not been raised by his mother, but by the circle, building resistance to the ancient power.
A sneer formed on his mouth, and when he next opened it the silky tone that had captivated so many was lost, replaced by a slimy, unpleasant drawl, ‘The more it is worth to you, the more it is worth to me, my dear.
‘You ungrateful wretches, the lot of you! I gave you beauty, I gave you splendour, I gave you magnificence, and all I took in return was small items of minimal value. What I gave was priceless, and what I took was worthless. If all you wish to do is insult my generosity, then you can return to wallowing in your squalor!’
A loud explosion rang out over the village, the magician swallowed by a cloud of dense white smoke. Quickly it cleared to reveal the majestic fluid silver robes of the magician, his wide brimmed hat resting neatly on top, its feather fluttering playfully in the breeze. A few figures gasped, and she looked up at the playing card spinning suspended in the air. Angrily she snatched it from the air and turned it over.
It was the joker. Yet the Blumaroo court jester of King Skarl was not adorning the card; rather it was a white Blumaroo clad in robes of beautiful flowing silver, a wide brimmed hat with a single white feather pulled down until it almost obscured his eyes. Yet still the eyes of the silky magician watched, staring at her with a sly smile.
The magician never returned to that village, although they heard rumours of his appearance in several other places throughout Meridell. Every time it was followed by stories of strange thefts and odd globes. The citizens of that village had destroyed all theirs, the magic escaping into the flames and causing them to burn with iridescence. Even the golden rose was cast into the fire, burning black before finally being extinguished; like the distinguished gentleman the magician had worn as a mask, the rose was but an illusion of grandeur.
Only one thing remained of the magician in that village; the playing card of the joker. On the mantelpiece in her home she kept it as a constant reminder of the evil that had entered their world, and what it had nearly cost her. Her husband never learned of the fate of the pearl necklace he had given her; the kindly shopkeeper had found an identical copy and presented it her as a gift, a thank-you for removing the dark spectre. Forever she would keep it to herself; a private shame, an endless guilt.
The joker just smiled at her from the mantelpiece.