Quickstaff & Alice


Chapter 1

     A large, blacker than black crow flew way up, far above the forest and landed on the top of a huge tree overlooking the large redwood below. She spoke to him there, asking him to do this certain thing. They must go. It was crucial, dangerous, but necessary, because of what was to come.

The attention drew a dark blackened entity that peered into the house, glowing red eyes that viewed the person within with curiosity and then passed by.

The wind from the flapping black wings tossed raindrops here and there, interrupting their steady downward plunge to the earth. Picked up and transported to places they had no intention of going, the rain resented its changed itinerary.  Splat.  Right in the eye of the dwelf, foolish enough to peek out the window right at that exact moment.

“Taking your temper out on me, eh?” Quickstaff said as he wiped the raindrop from his eye with a thick finger. Scrutinizing at it he saw it was special: a shimmer drop. Your average rain cloud had no more than three. He took the raindrop over to a shelf filled with bottles and after a moment, found the one he was looking for. He opened it and pushed the drop off his finger and into the bottle.

“A rare specimen. Not often called for – a drop in the eye, rarely used but with very special obscure qualities. Always good to keep at least one in store.”

Quickstaff crossed back to close the window. A chill wind blew in carrying more raindrops including the other two shimmer drops. He eyed them speculatively, wondering whether to escort them into bottles, but no. Let them stay on the floor. A raindrop on the floor is a blessing evermore. A quote about shimmer drops from one of the many books on spells and incantations he kept on hand as reference. Customers might need to check something while placing their orders. If he had wanted to, he could have gone into the business himself. Not to be. He had always been more interested in questions of supply.

The little room, in the heart of a huge redwood was Quickstaff’s home as well as his store.  Virtually every wall and space was covered with bottles, jars and other strange and assorted items. He had to move away from the walls and live in the center of the room. No matter. He liked to be at the center of things and with clients discussed at great length the potions and the spells they were going to make. He sat on a heavy, small chair, decorated with alpine flowers and reached for the tea he had been preparing before he decided to check the weather. In went the tea leaves.

An annoying client, a warlock came in the other day, Leadly Malcroft, one of the Council members who were the authority over Neerbe.  He really tried Quickstaff’s patience.

“You want to change a unicorn into a hippopotamus?” Quickstaff couldn’t believe it.” Why? Do you know how dangerous that is?” The fellow must be mad, but it wouldn’t do to upset a Council member so he stopped grilling him. Leadly wouldn’t answer him anyway.

Leadly stood there immovable and insistent slapping his gloves in one hand, impatient, his small beady eyes fixed on Quickstaff.  Not a nice fellow.

“Do you have the ingredients or not.  I can go elsewhere if it’s too much bother.”  Leadly said his tone clipped and annoyed.

Quickstaff just had to try again.

“You can’t just spring a spell on a unicorn you know. Unicorns are nothing to fool with, and with their fair store of magical abilities it could be a real problem for you. They can hold a grudge a very long time.”

Leadly just shook his head no.

In the end he gave up and supplied the items needed. As an afterthought, Quickstaff decided to waive the fee if the Leadly, could get a chip from the unicorn horn before beginning the change.

Leadly gave him an argument, but being a persuasive fellow, which was a quality to be glad of in this business, he convinced him to put the unicorn to sleep first – this made chip collecting easier and would also help the warlock since the incantation was a lengthy one. Unicorns couldn’t be counted on to stay in any one spot for long – flitty creatures. So, even though he didn’t like what Leadly planned, or trust the outcome, Quickstaff could as least expect a rare bit of unicorn horn, perhaps in a week or two.  Almost compensated for dealing with such a fool. How did he earn a seat on the Council? Made you wonder.

Quickstaff rubbed his hands with delight at the thought of the rare and expensive find, and also rubbed to increase the circulation – the chill out there was now in here. The herb tea was precisely what he needed. He tipped the hot teapot and poured out the spicy-scented brew. Adding a bit of honey, he raised the cup to his lips. A bell rang, jangling and jingling in the corner of the room.

Drat. Never time for a cuppa. Always business, business, business. The one bad thing about running a store; the constant interruptions. Mushroom soup yesterday, cold and unpleasant once he got back to it. Today – the tea. He rose muttering to himself.

His short, stocky body glided across the room, elfin slippers making not a sound, and he chanted the chant that would open the door, quickly and mechanically, as he had done a thousand times.

The person who entered was an elderly witch, with a bent back. There was a bit of a shuffle in the walk as she came towards him. She shook the water off her umbrella, black like the rest of her and set it aside.

“Well, well, Quickstaff, my dear, how are you today?”

Alice had long been one of his favorite witches and a very good friend. Looked like she had been hit by a few shimmer drops as well, the glow in one eye, dripping down the robe in a light streak. He looked at the rest of her, bedraggled and sodden from the rain. Not a pretty sight at the best of times, even worse wet. He could never understand why, with all that magical ability, they were always so ugly: straggly dark hair, pointy nose, pointed chin, little eyes. But then with his thick features and bulbous nose, top half dwarf, bottom half elf, any aspirations to Prince Charming had vanished long ago. Ugly, he was afraid, was stock and trade. And she maintained it took too much juice to stay pretty. You had to sacrifice the looks if you wanted total magic abilities, apparently.

“I’m fine, Al. What can I get for you?”

He called her Al, like Al Capone on TV, the old gangster. A tough guy with hidden machine guns that was Alice. One of four Guardians, advisors to the Council, the authority on Neerbe, her role in the Troubles of a few hundred years back showed her to be fierce and a great defender. No flies on her. Tough like Al Capone.

He didn’t watch much TV, mainly old Magnum, P. I. re-runs – Tom Selleck had the best moustache. However, TV had its limitations. Wednesday or Woden’s Day you could count on, but the other days?  Very unreliable. Radio didn’t work much either. Electricity worked sometimes, microwaves no. Too bad, he loved microwave popcorn.

In the big things, though, Neerbe had it good.  The Mother wouldn’t put up with pollution. Automobiles, with their internal combustion engines, didn’t last more than five minutes before, poof, she sent them back home. The same with planes and trains, trucks and tractors, motor boats and most machines. Clean air, fresh water, always.

“I need fairy lashes and mushroom gills – the standards, nothing exotic today.”

“I’ll get that for you right away.”  he said, rubbing his hands again. She brought the scent and chill of the rainy day in with her. He put the items in a bag and rang it up on the old cash register.

“Could I offer you a nice hot cup of tea, dear? I was about to have some myself.”  Maybe he could get the tea in after all.

“That would be a treat. You serve the best selection of teas in the forest, Quickstaff, my dear.”

They sat and Quickstaff poured.” What brings you out on such a rainy day as this?” he asked, passing her the steaming aromatic teacup.

“Rainy days are good for inventory, you know, so I went through my stocks and supplies and realized I was running out of those two items. Wouldn’t do, wouldn’t do at all you know if I needed to whip something up in a hurry and didn’t have the basics.”

She lit a corn cob pipe as she talked, the smelly tobacco filling the air. He would have to clean up the smoke smell when she left. Bad habit.

She continued, “Had a human Thud in the other day for a love potion, your typical love potion, mind you, and used my last fairy lash. What a funny woman – has the darndest time keeping that husband of hers. So I offered a permanent potion, but no, she won’t hear of it. Likes the thrill of rejection. Regular as clockwork, she shows up, through a portal somewhere and into this land for another. Lot of work and bother, if you ask me. Zap him with a good one and that would be it. No wandering and eyeing the other ladies. Oh, they can be difficult sometimes. And I am getting on. Forgetful and a little uneven in the incantations. I’ve been seriously thinking of giving it all up and letting my niece take over my practice. I’ve just had the thought to walk the land and see the world once more, before my time’s up.

“Aww, Al, you’re not that old. You wouldn’t give it all up totally would you? You’d keep your hand in with a little spell here and a little cauldron magic there, surely?”

“Maybe, maybe. But I’ve been here in the same place for 200 years now with only short flights now and then. Have not seen much of our magic world of Neerbe since the Hunt. I know the human world, the world of Thuds better than my own. Been there often. I read their papers, watch TV when it works, and I must say their world’s a mess. I have a hankering to travel in our world– become reacquainted with my own land before it’s too late.”

Quickstaff nodded, “I would have to agree. Not much excitement here. Years and years in my shop and I’m not getting any younger either, even if my lifetime is about twice yours. I was just thinking about how much the business takes from me. Can’t have a vacation, can’t leave much at all, except to chase after ingredients for my customers.”

“I used go to the Thud world as well. Isn’t it great?  But they do have such highs and lows – art and music and then murder and war. Maybe their short lives make them so intense about things. It is so much more pleasant to be the middle ground like us.”

Quickstaff continued, “In my younger days, I would go to Art shows, go to concerts, theatre and sometimes just watch TV in a motel and eat microwave popcorn. I still keep my journal of Thud phrases too.  I just love ‘Sup, y’all. ’ I haven’t travelled for years so time to be ‘movin’ on up’.”

He pulled out his Thud phrase book and saw the phrase came from a TV show, “The Jeffersons.” That’s right, he remembered it now.

“You and your sayings.”   She puffed the pipe harder, sending the vile smoke high up into the ceiling. “As though there isn’t all that slang they pick up from us, you have to bring some back?”

“Anyway,” Quickstaff continued. “I really have enjoyed my store as well, but somehow this last 50 years or so, things aren’t as exciting. I think I have a compulsion to travel, too.”

Impulsively, and almost before he realized it, the words were out. “I’d like to come with you, love, and be your travelling companion if you’d have me.”  Shockingly, he had voiced that thought out loud. What made him say that?  Oh well, it was out now.

Surprised, Alice almost dropped her cup, her long tapering fingers catching it before it hit the table. She still had her old reflexes at least.

“You would?” she said in amazement. “That would be lovely. A friend to talk to and share with. Something a witch with her own solitary business misses. That would be grand.”

Her excitement grew, green eyes flashed now and then, sending sparks around the room. She flung her arms to the sky. “All the things we can see!” Smoke came from her fingertips.

It wouldn’t do to have materials smoke damaged. Holding his palms out towards her he said gently, “Now, now calm down, love.”  He patted her arm. Then he coughed delicately as smoke from her hands began to fill the room. “It’s getting a bit too much in here too, if you don’t mind me saying so. The energy is wild. You really shouldn’t let yourself get in such a state.”

She smiled a wide narrow smile at him, her hands folding quietly in her lap in obedience.

“See how useful you are already. Sorry to get carried away.”

“And” said Quickstaff, “I know a few basic incantations, but I’ve a notion to try some magic making myself. I know before, in the beginning I didn’t do so well and Mother bless me, it did take two years before my right pointer finger re-appeared – so hard with a bad hand and all those little bottles. But I think I’ve picked up a lot over the years and never had a chance to try any of it. If you could help and show me some of the basic stuff, and be there if anything went wrong, then I could do all the arranging of travel, food and that sort of thing. You wouldn’t have to worry about it at all.”

“Oooh, that would be wonderful. And you have such a talent for organizing and managing things. I could always see that in you by the way you run your business. Never out of anything. Always finding what you need in your shop – so orderly and neat. Oh, yes.”  She clapped her hands and thunder rolled around the room.

She really didn’t know what she was doing at times, did she? Quickstaff thought as he put his hands to his ears to stop the reverberations.

“We’ll have such great fun.”

“Now we can’t use magic to travel. It’s too tiring anyway. And no catching a ride with a passing eagle or riding a stag or a horse even. If we want the full experience, we walk the land. You can’t see it if you are not in it. Maybe we’ll use a little bit for meals and for emergencies of course, but you have to agree other than for practice, no magic.”  And she waved a finger at him.

“See how important a pointer finger can be.”  he thought, nodding in agreement. He’d have to be careful with the magic, so a limit was good. He planned on keeping all his parts this time. As well, if they used too much magic not only would it exhaust them, it would also leave a signature residue for others to follow, and an instinct told him that wouldn’t be good.

The wind howled and the rain poured down. The two sat and drank tea and talked. Towards the end of the afternoon, the sky cleared and the birds of the forest began to take flight again, chirping and screeching as they flew.

A dark crow, hovering near the redwood, noticed smoke coming out of the top of the tree. Fearing fire and being anxious about the dwelf, his friend, he flew to a window and peered in the round pane. The moment he saw the witch, Alice, her hands twisting and turning like a ballet he knew everything was all right, even though strangely, smoke rose from the dwelf’s fingers instead of the witch’s fingers. He flew away again. The first lesson had begun.