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THE VISITOR

 

I’d been expecting Hempen Beeble to call round; looking forward to it, if I was being honest. Living your life as a social pariah has its drawbacks and a lack of good company is one of them. Not that Hempen Beeble could be classed as good company; he was only coming to collect my Good Neighbours subscription. But hey, boggarts can’t be choosers.

‘Has my life come to this?’ I sighed pulling up the bottle of dandelion wine which had been cooling in the water cistern. I dropped the lid back down and placed the bottle upon a table which had more scars than a butcher’s apprentice. A fire blazed in the hearth and above it hung the painting of my mother and father on their wedding day. He, a boggart in a royal household, looking prouder than a peacock with a daughter at university; she, a water nymph, sitting ill-at-ease, with one eye on the window that overlooked the moat; their coming together made me what I am. The Lepping Stones Boggart. A misfit.

 

Maybe I was being hard on myself, I thought, as I flicked a feather duster over mother and father. I’ve not done badly. The tied cottage that comes with the job overlooks my place of work – The Lepping Stones. And the job? Well, I have to occasionally make people fall into the water whenever they use the stones to cross the river. Not much of a job I know, but it’s a living. The way I look at it is that for most people their work involves making things. A carpenter makes furniture, an accountant makes sense of numbers, and a guardian makes the town a safer place. Well, boggarts make mischief – an easy job since I can make myself invisible whenever I wan.

 

The knock came a little harder than I’d expected. It hammered the door clean off its hinges and sent it flying over my head like an over-starched magic carpet. Mum and Dad took a direct hit as the door smashed into matchwood against the chimney breast. I had a hunch it wasn’t Hempen Beeble when the light spilling into my little cottage was soon extinguished by the huge frame of an ogre wielding a nailed club. He squeezed through the doorway like he was taking off his coat and stood as upright as he was ever going to get. It was fortunate for my ceiling that his head emanated from the centre of his chest rather than his shoulders.

“Leppintone Mommerhhh!” A roar of bad breath that could have browned the top of a shepherd’s pie filled the room.

“I am indeed The Lepping Stones Boggart. How may I help you?” I stood up to face him and began removing my clothing with as much haste as I could. The ogre’s rheumy eyes made a feeble attempt to focus in my direction. His big nailed club swished in front of me and a table and chair disappeared from sight.

“Leppintone Mommerhhh. You meenh a madh moyhh!” The ogre’s tusks weren’t helping his small talk much.

“How have I been a bad boy?” I removed the last of my clothes and stood naked except for the ‘magic mirror’ I always carried around my neck. I almost started to believe I might enjoy the next ten minutes as the ogre came to a standstill. My disappearance jammed his thought process, but despite the corrugated brow, I knew he was still dangerous. He surveyed the room with the turning circle of a team of oxen, by which time I had tied a length of cord around his feet. Scrambling for the upturned bottle I threw dandelion wine in his eyes and stepped back. With a cry of outrage the ogre rushed to where he thought I was and tripped headlong towards the fire. His outstretched arm complete with club plunged into the roaring flames. Bellowing in pain, he lumbered back onto his feet. His club was now enhanced by a flaming log which had impaled itself onto one of the numerous nails. Despite almost doubling its weight, he swung it around his head as if it was a long loaf. One circuit of flames later and my curtains were on fire. I decided now might be the time to leave. In my invisible state, I slunk by the flailing ogre and headed for the safety of outdoors. As I reached the gaping doorway, I tripped and fell to the ground. Confused, I looked back to see a length of cord tied across the threshold. The appearance of someone in a hooded black robe standing over me left me somewhat bewildered.

“Not leaving already, are you?” he said, “Not when you have guests.” The face beneath the hood confirmed that this was no human. The tell-tale features betrayed his heritage. A single yellow eye glared to make up for its sightless partner which hid beneath a livid scar. This was an ironed-out goblin, one who had forsaken his original magic to take the witches’ mark.

In his hands was a bucket I recognised with increasing horror. “You really should dispose of this more often.” A malicious grin creased his face as he emptied the bucket over where he assumed I lay. I cursed his accuracy as I was bathed in the reeking smell of my own piss. “Oh and I’ve put some lime wash in there as well. Only fair your guest can see you, isn’t it? Now get back in there and …entertain him.” A gun appeared from beneath his robe.

Presented with no choice I edged back into the cottage. The flames had leapt from curtains to beams, filling the room with smoke. The ogre, wheeling around in panic, caught sight of me once more. I cursed my laziness as the fetid covering betrayed my every move and the ogre forgot about the fire around him. He shambled towards me as I positioned myself behind my stuffed armchair. Another sweep of his great flaming club and the armchair was gone leaving me standing there feeling, well…naked.

By now, beyond any control, the fire had destroyed the curtains and the paint on the shutters blistered in the heat like a sun burnt dwarf. I identified the far window as a possible escape route, but as I scampered beneath the ogre’s grasp, the outside shutters were slammed in my face. My goblin friend outside was determined I wouldn’t get out. The smoke became overwhelming and even the smouldering ogre had decided now might be a good time to leave. Crashing into the chimney breast in panic he collapsed to the floor where his small brain clicked into gear. Now on all fours, he scrambled beneath the smoke until he reached the door. As he rose to his feet, I heard the crack of a gunshot followed by what sounded like a wardrobe being pushed over. I crawled over to the doorway and saw the ogre’s inert body blocking my escape. Sure that his murderer lay in wait for me I turned back into the cottage.

 

*

 

There are those who think modern conveniences are the beginning of the end of the world, but I am not one of them. Cottages around here with their own indoor water supply are few and far between, but just when it seemed there was no way out of my burning cottage, I crawled to the trapdoor that covered the cistern. With barely the strength to push away the debris that lay across it, I lifted the lid and dropped like a newborn lamb into the cool water below. My ability to become at one with the water offered some relief from the superficial burns I had received. It also gave me plenty of time to try and make sense of what had just happened. Someone had deliberately tried to kill me. And that someone had once been a goblin, a sprite just like me.

As I lay within the dark water, listening to the devastation above me, I searched for reasons why someone might go to such lengths to get rid of me. Wallowing, literally, in self pity, I hadn’t heard the deliberate steps of that same someone negotiating the charred remains of my home. The blast of light and sound that hit me when the trapdoor flew open took me by surprise. Bullets fizzed through the water, passing through me like pennies in a wishing well but this time the assassin’s wish wasn’t granted. He was clearly unaware I was unlike other boggarts due to my mongrel parentage. With sight still useless from the glare, I relied on sounds to tell me he had moved away to thrash around what was left of the cottage in search of my dead body.

A minute or so passed before he returned to the trapdoor. I gazed up into the far from limpid pool of my enemy’s eye, while he gazed down into…well…a limpid pool, I suppose. He stared down into the cistern. Lime wash scum betrayed that I had been there. His mind weighed up the impossibility that I could have used the water inlet pipe to escape. A journey up such a narrow pipe would be a first for me, but impossible for a normal boggart.

The frustration of not confirming my death left the ironed-out goblin seething. He hurled down the cistern lid. I listened as he stamped across the damaged floorboards and waited for the slamming of the door. Then I remembered I no longer had one.

 

Not knowing whether my one-eyed assassin was still around, I lay as one with   the water for a few hours. I pondered the reasons why a goblin might want to forfeit his magic. Once upon a time when witches needed to exert their power over the rest of the population they brought in a scheme where any sprite could earn themselves a whole mark in exchange for the loss of the magic they possessed. In those days a mark was worth a lot more than it is today. Not only would they lose their magic but the process would increase their size to that of a human. At first the scheme only attracted sprites who were down on their luck, ones who were always on the lookout for the next bottle of wine but recently a new trend had developed. News from Thursday Market, the great city of our land had told of disenchanted sprites who now paid to be ironed out just to get themselves employed in the new industries. Inherent magic doesn’t take kindly to the presence of iron; it makes the possessor, if spending any length of time in close proximity with it, feel unwell. Hence the need to get yourself ironed if you want to get a job in the city. Here in the country, sprites like myself didn’t feel the need. Like most sprites, my magic was limited, but the ability to become invisible and take on a liquid form had played a big part in keeping me alive.

 

When darkness fell, I returned to my bodily form and lifted the cistern lid. Satisfied my assailant was no longer around; I retrieved the ‘magic mirror’ from the water and placed it around my neck – not so much a lucky charm as my only remaining possession. Shamed into invisibility by my lack of clothing I swapped the hot embers of my home for the cool grass beyond. Within ten minutes I was up by the watermill on the road to the nearby town of Glasswell. Looking back I could still see the glowing remains of my cottage. There was nothing for me there now. How could I continue working the Lepping Stones now that I was a marked man? Whoever this ex-goblin was, he wanted me dead. I had to get away.

As I sat there coming to terms with my predicament, a stifled moan broke the silence. My invisibility allowed me to investigate the bushes that lined the high road without being seen. Beneath the branches of one, lay what looked like a large maggot writhing in the moonlight.

“Hempen Beeble!” I gasped, becoming visible once more. The brownie who came once a year to collect my Good Neighbours subscription was staring at me wide-eyed. His hands and feet were tied and a piece of rag had been pulled tight around his mouth. I hurried to his side and untied the gag. “Are you all right, Hempen?”

“I’m fine,” he croaked. “I am just pleased you are in one piece. I overheard the man who did this to me telling the ogre you were not to get out of your cottage alive. It was to look like an accident but I’m happy to see that he failed.” I began untying Hempen and helped him get to his feet.

“Interesting amulet you have there”, said Hempen, his head bobbed in the general direction of my ‘magic mirror’. “Perhaps you should be wearing it a bit lower.” I looked down at my nakedness and nodded.

“You know how it is, Hempen, sometimes you need to get naked to get out of a scrape. Oh, and it wasn’t a man who tried to kill me, it was an ironed-out goblin.”

“A goblin, you say. I’ve heard about this ironing out. You lose all your magic don’t you? Can’t see the point really. It’s very handy being able to make yourself invisib-” I had just bent down to untie Hempen’s feet when a loud crack filled the air. I looked up into his agonised face. A pool of blood filled out across his chest. I was invisible before he hit the ground. I was in the millpond before he gasped his last breath.