Author's Note: Happy 12th to my fellow Northern Irish, and happy Thursday to everyone else! :)
Chapter IV: The Magician
There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere, and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere. – Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
"What did you say your name was?"
"Merethe Haagensen, sir."
"And how old are you?"
Vidar Ovesen eyed the girl before him dubiously. She looked at least two years older than sixteen, yet the wide-eyed curiosity she showed as she surveyed the bookshop reminded him of a small child on her first trip to town, and the way she kept glancing around as if expecting to see someone standing behind her made him think of a teenager doing something her parents would not approve of and expecting them to appear at any moment.
"What work experience do you have?" he asked, moving on to the next question on his list of questions to ask job applicants.
"None at all, sir. You see, my parents were rich and none of us needed to work, but then they got into debt, and I want to get a job to help."
Well, that was a plausible enough explanation, and went some way to explaining Merethe's nervous air. It also raised another question.
"Do your parents know you're applying for a job?" he asked, and his suspicions were confirmed as Merethe turned red.
"Not exactly, no."
"Hmm. Why do you want to work in a bookshop?"
"I like books," Merethe replied, in a 'why else would someone work in a bookshop?' tone.
Vidar considered for a moment. "As long as you do what you're told and don't cause trouble, you've got the job. You can start work tomorrow."
Rigmor had spent the entire job interview certain that her latest prospective employer would see right through her. When he announced that she had got the job, she went through a complicated series of emotions starting at almost fainting with relief and ending with delirious joy. At last! After so many failed attempts, she had finally succeeded! The money she had taken with her when she ran away was dwindling after weeks of staying in inns. Now that she had a source of income and could afford to rent proper lodgings, she could set the rest of her plan in motion.
She wandered down the street, planning her next actions. She hardly noticed the shoppers milling about, wandering in and out of shops or stopping to gossip with their friends. None of them paid any attention to her. Certainly none of them suspected that their cursed princess walked in their midst.
Rigmor had heard rumours of a witch dwelling in a village several miles away, breaking curses and banishing small, troublesome imps and suchlike. That was where she would start, and if the witch couldn't break her curse, then perhaps she could direct Rigmor to someone who could.
The princess turned off the street into a park beside the river. Children ran around, laughing and playing under the watchful eyes of their mothers or nurses. Young men and women, with the haggard, haunted expressions of university students preparing for exams, sat in groups on the grass and talked about everything except their studies. Rigmor wandered past all of them and down a path on the river bank, lined with oaks and a few birches just starting to regrow their leaves after winter.
She stopped beneath one of the trees and gazed out at the river with the wonder of one truly seeing it for the first time. Her previous glimpses of the river running through Therlund, the capital of Vardiholm, had been through windows – the windows of the castle or of the royal carriage.
Here the River Rýnvoll was relatively narrow; it was only about sixteen feet wide. Further upstream it widened into a lake five miles wide. Downstream, when it reached the sea, it widened again, and flowed between and around islands, one big enough to have a decent-sized village on it.
Ducks swam in the shallow water at the river's edge, giving Rigmor hopeful looks and waiting for her to throw food to them. A few swans glided by. On the other side of the river was a pier with several rowing boats moored to it. A group of children were gathered around one of them, debating what to name it. Their voices carried across the water to the princess standing under the trees.
The scene was so peaceful that Rigmor, almost without realising it, sat down on the ground. Oblivious to the stains the grass left on her skirt, she leaned back against the tree, drew her knees up to her chest, rested her chin on her knees, and gazed at the ducks, the children, the river, at everything she had never seen before.
The quacking of the ducks, the gentle splish-splash of the river, the voices of the children, the fragrance of the flowers, the songs of the birds... All of them combined to lull Rigmor to sleep.
In the south of Vardiholm, near its border with Trauneheim, there was a mountain. It was a grim, forbidding mountain, with many cliffs and sudden drops, and its peak split in two as if a giant had taken hold of each side of it and torn it in half. Nothing grew there. Few things would live near it. The inhabitants of the villages around it spoke of it in whispers, with expressions of fear. If anyone needed to travel past it they did so with great haste, never lingering anywhere too long until it was miles behind them. No one, not even the bravest or most foolhardy, ever suggested climbing it.
Had one asked any of the villagers why everyone feared it, no one could have said. There were old legends, of dragons and demons and creatures one could not look at without going mad, but no one knew anything for sure. There were countless stories of people who disregarded the warnings and went too close to it, never to be seen again, yet no one knew of any cases of this actually happening. All anyone knew was, it was a place best avoided.
About halfway to the summit, at the top of a sheer cliff, there was a narrow plateau. At the back of the plateau there was a low, narrow cave. If anyone had gone into the cave, they would have found themselves in a long hallway with a vaulted ceiling, leading further into the mountain. The hallway abruptly ended on a ledge above a large cavern in the heart of the mountain. There were no stairs leading down from the ledge to the cavern floor. The mountain's inhabitants had no need of stairs.
Goblins, hags, werewolves, vampires, ghouls, and all manner of vile creatures, some of them with no known name and some with names in languages that send those who hear them mad - these were what dwelt in that mountain. The worst of the lot ruled over them. Not even his own subjects knew for sure what he was. Some said he was the most powerful sorcerer ever to live. Others said he was an Unseelie Fae. Yet others said he was a demon, or a fallen angel. Then there were those who said he was some incomprehensible being from before the world was created. Whatever he was, everyone called him "the Magician".
In his lair deep in the mountain, the Magician was in a fine rage. His servants cowered and hid themselves in the furthest corners of the mountain, praying to their hellish deities that they escaped his wrath.
His cloak swirling around him, he paced back and forth across the cavern in the heart of the mountain. He muttered angrily to himself. Occasionally he stopped to hurl blasts of magic across the room.
At first glance the Magician appeared to be a middle-aged man of average height, with greying hair and a long beard, wearing a black robe and a pointed black hat, and carrying a staff of black metal topped with an orb that glowed a sickly green. If one looked again, however, one would see that there was something off about his movements, as if his body was a puppet operated by an unskilled puppeteer. The longer one looked at him, the less human he appeared and the more he looked like something's attempt at imitating a human.
"Vanished!" he exclaimed. Despite his obvious wrath, his voice was as toneless and mechanical as a clockwork toy. "Vanished without trace, and my servants come and say they're at a loss! When I get my hands on that loathsome worm, I'll show her what I do to my property when I am displeased with it! I'll–"
And here he went on an angry rant describing the things he would do to Rigmor when he found her, for he was the magician who had cursed her and Princess Rigmor was the "loathsome worm". All the time he spoke in the same emotionless tone.
A goblin crept in, trembling and bowing itself low to the ground.
"O your Magnificence, your Greatness, your Terribleness, sir," it squeaked, cowering, "the... the... the Shadow King has come."
The Magician stopped in his tracks. A curious expression, half-delighted and half-fearful, crossed his sallow face. "Bring him in."
The goblin fled. The Magician waited, impatiently tapping his staff against the floor.
No footsteps heralded the arrival of the Shadow King. He appeared, as noiselessly as a shadow, at the wall of the cavern. His body was shrouded with a long, black cloak that trailed the ground. The hood of his cloak was thrown back, revealing a gaunt, grey-skinned face with insect-like eyes.
The Shadow King was not one of the Magician's subjects. Nor was he an ally. It was his job to bring fears and nightmares to mortals, and in doing his job he sometimes worked with the Magician and sometimes worked against him.
"What do you want?" the Magician asked.
"When I was abroad last night," the Shadow King said in a voice little more than a whisper, "I saw someone. I followed her long enough to be sure it was her, and left before she saw me."
"The princess!" exclaimed the Magician. "You've found her!"
"No. It was not the princess." The Magician made an angry noise and resumed his pacing. The Shadow King held up a grey, three-fingered hand for silence. "It was a witch. You remember the witch who defied you, who stole a soul from your very grasp?"
The Magician gnashed his teeth at the memory. "I am never likely to forget. But I won – I won! She tried her best, but she was no match for me!"
The Shadow King waited, head tilted to the side, until he was sure the Magician had nothing more to say. "I saw her last night."
The Magician stopped in place, as suddenly as a puppet whose strings were cut.
"What?" he asked, in the quiet tone used only by people who were furious and trying not to show it.
"It was her, I have no doubt. She wore the same clothes she had worn when you killed her. She wore her hair in the same style. It can only have been her."
The Magician's hand tightened on his staff, as if he wished it was someone's neck. "How could she– I killed her! She can't–" He stopped. His eyes narrowed. "Oh, that little– She cast a spell before she died. I remember now. I thought it was another attack. The little whore outwitted me!"
"I thought you'd like to know," the Shadow King remarked, drifting towards the doorway.
"Wait," the Magician growled. "Where did you see her?"
"In the town of Inbur." The Shadow King floated closer to the doorway as if eager to be gone.
The Magician fell silent, and the Shadow King fled. He had witnessed the Magician's tantrums before, and had no wish to be on the receiving end of another.
The Magician resumed his pacing, deep in thought. One of his victims had disappeared. Another had reappeared. There was some connection there. This warranted further investigation.
"Slaugh!" he roared.
Minutes passed before another goblin, larger than the first one, came creeping out of a hallway, bowing obsequiously.
"Yes, master?" it asked, bowing so its grotesquely misshapen head touched the floor.
"I want you to go to the town of Inbur."