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 son 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’m invisible most of the time.
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.
Having no home to go to and being closely pursued by a one-eyed, hooded, murderous maniac, I pondered my options. It didn’t take me long…I only had one - Aunt Jenny. After the death of both my parents in a tragic drawbridge accident; it was Aunt Jenny who had brought me up. As my mother’s sister, the likeness between them made it much easier for a little ten year old boggart to accept her as a replacement. She had looked after me through the troubled years of my adolescence with extraordinary patience.
When it was time to take on my first posting at the Lepping Stones; she came out with me and helped me get started in the role with kind advice and an unlimited supply of rock cakes...which if left to go stale provided a more than efficient substitute for firewood.
Despite the pair of us both working the same river; we were separated by the town of Glasswell. So, after paying a visit to an unguarded washing line, I headed off downstream. It had been quite a while since I’d last seen her. She, like me, was committed to her job and that quality alone meant neither of us ever found much time for social visits. On the odd times we had met, at child-namings, hand-fastings and funerals, she’d never failed to ask me why I still persisted in pushing people into the river for a living. Jenny was a professional lifeguard, but I knew her family history prevented her from claiming the moral high ground. I told her I was an old school boggart upholding centuries of tradition in tipping people into what was only a rather shallow river at the worst of times. Whereas Jenny, well she had a much more dubious background.
When I arrived at her place of work down by the pack-horse bridge, she was making sure young children kept away from the river. Ironic really as in the old days, before the witches decreed the Better Society Act, water nymphs would drag unsuspecting children to their watery deaths. Parents would warn their offspring that Jenny Greenteeth - the name was still a family tradition - would be lying in wait for them if they played down by the duckweed-covered ponds and still rivers in the area. But ‘Jennies’ over the years ‘saw the error of their ways’ and now my aunt is the first member of her family to play an active role in accident prevention. Her style is unorthodox to say the least. Based on the old maxim that prevention is the best medicine, most of the kids around here are terrified of being rescued by Jenny (would you want the kiss of life from someone with green teeth?). So in a way she is carrying on the family tradition of scaring the local children away from a watery doom...but in a much nicer way.
Waiting for her to finish work meant I spent most of the day skimming stones until I hit her on the back of the head with one. The way she came screaming out of the river at me made me appreciate just how effective she was at doing her job.
Despite her bandaged head, Jenny still gave me a warm welcome. Coming back to the river cave cottage I had once called home, presented me with a great feeling of security both in an emotional and practical sense. The single, well-bolted entrance and the numerous small high windows would prevent all but the most persistent and limber of assassins from entering. The boarded floor, raised above the uneven bottom of the cave made the place seem warm and cheering. Right at the end of the cave was Jenny’s chamber which, despite the fire being in the large kitchen, was the warmest place in the house. We settled down in two comfy chairs and I began to tell her how I had lost both my job and my home due to the fire (I thought I’d skip telling her the bit about the evil assassin trying to kill me). She was genuine in her sadness for me.
Jenny gave the matter some thought as she went through the ritual of putting the many bejewelled rings back onto her fingers; there seemed to be one of every colour. She regarded the wearing of jewellery while on duty as being very unprofessional...and the simple act of watching her perform this familiar routine went some way to making me feel at home...even safe.
“There’s no other thing for it, darling…you’ll have to stay here until you sort yourself out.” With little alternative, I gratefully accepted. “But what are you going to do with yourself, darling?” said Jenny as we sat drinking a fine damson wine. “Your house has burnt down but surely it will be rebuilt as it goes with the job, doesn’t it? I was always led to understand it was a tied-cottage. Can’t they give you a tent or something while they rebuild it?”
I was in an awkward position as I didn’t want to worry Jenny by telling her the full story. I knew I couldn’t go back because of the threat of being killed. I had to move on, but to where?
A few days later a letter arrived for me, which came as a bit of a shock as I didn’t think anyone knew I was staying at Jenny’s place. It was officially marked as being from The Druid’s Palace in the great city of Thursday Market, but I got to thinking if they knew I was here then perhaps the assassin did as well. I had little alternative; I would have to move on. I couldn’t risk anything happening to Aunt Jenny.
I opened the letter and found I had been invited to receive the Order of the Four-Leaved Clover for my service to the Massy Witch. It wasn’t such a big deal in my eyes; to be honest, the less who knew about it the better. I do have a reputation to keep up.
This young fellow had been hurtling over the Lepping Stones with an old broom in one hand and a canvas bag in the other. Probably a cleaner late for work, I thought. Then the local blacksmith and his son came hurtling after him. So I just did my job. How was I to know I’d averted a national crisis?
That was the day I found my ‘magic mirror’. I was wading back across the river when I noticed something shining beneath the water. I reached down below the surface and pulled up a perfectly-round mirror and held it in the sun. It had no frame and, for some reason, a finger-sized hole in the centre. What was most strange about it was its lightness. Whatever it was made of, it was not like any glass I had seen before.
A mirror is of little use to a boggart. We’re not big on personal appearance on account of being invisible most of the time…which is something of a boon when you’re having a bad hair day. I did think about throwing the mirror away because, apart from using its reflective glare to blind those crossing the stones on a sunny day, I couldn’t think of a use for it. That was until I turned it over and found the writing on the back of it. In large print it said…THE BIG SLEEP. What did it mean? I was beginning to suspect perhaps this mirror might be magical. Could it be possible that whosoever looked into the mirror would be put to sleep? If so, then why wasn’t I affected?
I read the smaller writing on the mirror which referred to various companies and their numerous badges of office; one of which reminded me of a tattoo I had seen on the young man’s arm. The mirror also carried a dire warning that on no account should I attempt to make a copy of it. To be honest I wouldn’t know where to start making another mirror as fine as the one I held in my hand. Under the Law of Finders Keepers, I claimed it as my own. Until I found out just how it worked, I decided I would keep it on a string around my neck.
And so it was my life carried on as normal. The whole episode of the young man and the broom never gave me a moment’s thought again until the arrival of the letter. Flight for my life had meant I had lost everything...even my name, which I had to renounce when I became the Lepping Stones Boggart, was no longer mine. I had noticed that Jenny had avoided using my birth name since my arrival...as much as I loved her; she was a stickler for tradition. I was unable to use my official name under the terms and conditions of the position I had just abandoned. Give it a month or so and a new Lepping Stones Boggart would arrive to take up his post.
So there I was without a name, a job or a home...but at least I would have a poxy medal for which…and get this, I had to traipse well over a hundred miles to have the pleasure of receiving. When Jenny came home she was a little more excited than I had been.
“Ooh…a trip to Thursday Market. You lucky thing, darling!”
What I really wanted to say was “How am I lucky? I’ve got to pay for the trip myself, just to pick up a useless medal.” But because I was worried about Jenny’s safety, what I actually said was…
“Yes, it’s a marvellous opportunity. I’m heading for the big city and I’m going to get myself ironed out!”
On hearing just how far I was prepared to change my life, Jenny burst into tears. I put my arms around her and as the pair of us struggled to control our emotions, we flickered between substance and invisibility like a guttering candle.
“But taking the witches’ mark is such a big step!” she wailed, “I don’t want to lose my little...er...darling!”
I eased her away from me so I could look into her eyes. “Look, Jenny, I appreciate all you’ve done but it’s down to me to make something of myself in this world. I thought I had a job for life at the Lepping Stones but in the last few weeks I’ve realised that perhaps I’ve just been treading water.”
Jenny wiped the tears from her eyes. “Is that such a bad thing?” she said. I realised she was speaking professionally here. I loved Jenny to pieces but she was very focused.
“Don’t you see, Jenny, I could have remained as mischief-maker at the Lepping Stones for years but would that be any kind of a life? Just waiting there to tip somebody in every now and again? I mean, don’t get me wrong, it still never fails to make me laugh, but would there have come a day when the laughter stopped?”
“You could become a life guard, like me”, said Jenny. “Look at me now! I’m a fulfilled member of society who has job satisfaction coming out of her ears. Look, I’m even rewarded for my work.” She gestured to the framed life-saving certificates lining the walls of the cave.
“What you’re saying, Jenny only makes me more certain I’m doing the right thing. I need to change.”
“But not the ironing, darling! It’s so final.” There was no denying she was right. The process had its drawbacks, but I realised it was a straight choice. As a boggart, who knows, magic could help me survive much longer than a human…but to what purpose? I needed to have some kind of role in life. Boggarts with no purpose are limited to spending their days using their invisibility either to help a household, surviving on the scraps they left out for you, or using it to steal from people. It seemed like no kind of choice at all to me. Taking the witches’ mark meant I might be able to move on and do something interesting with my life.
Once Jenny had realised she wasn’t going to talk me out of it, she wiped the tears from her eyes and headed out into the kitchen. At first I decided to ignore the strange groaning noises. Naturally, it would take time to come to terms with her nephew’s life-changing decision. I felt it best to leave her to get it out of her system. After a quiet spell of half a minute or so, a loud banging noise made me reconsider my inaction. I ran into the kitchen and found her on her knees with a large claw hammer.
“Jenny, what are you doing?” I reached down to her and pulled the hammer from her grasp. I was certain her anguish at my leaving was having an adverse effect on her behaviour. I sank to my knees so I could face her emotions head on. “I realise it will probably leave a kind of hole in your…” I looked down at an actual hole beneath us, “…floorboards?”
“No, it’s all right, darling, I’ll put them back later,” she said, smiling through her glistening eyes. She reached down into the hole and lifted a heavy bag of coins onto the floor. Rising from her knees, with a straight back, she placed the bag in my hands.
“What…?” I was confused and almost fell over with the weight of it.
“There are nearly two hundred marks there. I’ve been saving it for a rainy day, but who worries about rain when you’re a happy water nymph. I’ve kept it hidden under the floor all these years now.”
“But…” I was at a loss to understand.
“I know it costs money to get yourself ironed out and you might need to pay for food and that until you find out what you want to be.” I looked at her and she smiled, her green teeth gleaming in the firelight.
“I’ll never forget this, Jenny. And I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.”
“Just be happy. That’s all I ask,” she said as she reached for another bottle of damson wine.
Despite the wine, I slept fitfully that night. My straw-filled mattress was placed far enough away from the kitchen fire to evade the occasional stray spark. With much on my mind regarding the future, I had been turning like a pig on a spit and twice as hot. Thankful the fire had now fallen to embers, a slight change in temperature caused me to shiver as I listened to the night. The hooting of owls and the yelps of foraging foxes became commonplace to me but when they were replaced by a new sound, I spun round in my bed to face the door. It was clear from the shadows cast beneath it by the full moon that someone was standing outside. Hairs rose on the back of my neck as the intruder began to speak in a low voice. Had the assassin returned? If not, who else could it be? My ears strained to make sense of what was being spoken. It seemed to be some sort of incantation in the old language. Magic! My body froze and I don’t mean metaphorically. I couldn’t even move an eyelid. It was an enchantment and it had been aimed at me. Trapped, unable to move from my bed, I watched as the shadow of my assailant dropped to its knees behind the door. The chanting increased in volume; clearly my enemy was confident I was going nowhere. Terrified at my own incapacity, I mentally implored Jenny to wake up. As if to emphasise my vulnerability the low drone of her snores emanating from her chamber increased in volume.
Something landed on the floor a few yards in front of me. The soft glow of the fire lit up the indeterminate shape of a muslin bag shifting its weight on the floorboards. I watched, transfixed, as the shape of the bag began to change, not through impetus but of its own accord. Pulsing with life of some kind, my fear was contained in that bag. Every nightmare of inertia, that inability to remove yourself from your fears, was writhing within it.
I watched as the bag was tugged away from its contents by an unseen string. The muslin danced out of my vision and presumably back through the high window from which it came. The bag’s contents readjusted themselves onto the floor. I peered at the mess anxious to identify the possible threat it would pose. The rank smell of fresh horse manure, blood and other bodily fluids filled the room as I recognised the distinctive shape of a mandrake root before me. Something, a large spider perhaps, stirred amongst the primordial mess. Incongruously, a small, but exquisitely formed knife gleamed red in the glow of the dying fire.
A brilliant flash of light illuminated the room for a second and, unprotected by my frozen eyelids, I could only wait and wonder what might happen before I could make use of my eyes again.
Minutes passed and my worst fears came to fruition as my sight returned enough for me to see a fully-formed homunculus stepping out of the chaos from which it was created. The tiny replica of a human, only about a foot in height, bent down and retrieved the small knife from the floor. It had received its orders in the chanting prior to its conception and its featureless face did its best to show grim determination. Fixed upon its target, it swayed on its newborn legs, each step more accomplished than the last one. Tiny pin-hole eyes gave little away as it bore down on my constrained body.
Step by tiny step it drew near until a scream, the like of which I had never heard before, rendered me insensible.
“Darling! Darling! Are you all right?” That was Jenny…my second thought was I really do need to get myself a name. Then I remembered the homunculus.
“What happened?” My mouth was as dry as a glass-blower’s spittoon. I was still in my bed but at least I was able to move now. “Where is it? The homunculus?” Jenny pointed across the room to what looked like the remains of a north country breakfast.
“How did you…?”
“It was the scream that woke me up. I shot into here with my base-ball bat and the little sod had spiked himself on one of the nails from the upturned floorboards. He was busy trying to extricate himself when I gave him my best shot. I was the captain of the Glasswell Lady Sprites base-ball team back in the day.”
“You must have hit it hard.”
“Well…” Jenny looked a little embarrassed now, “I guess I got a bit carried away…but you can’t take chances with homunculi, you know? They’re stubborn little buggers. What I can’t understand is how it got here. It had a knife you know!”
“I think it was probably sent to kill me.” I glanced over at the residual mess smeared against the cave wall if only to reassure myself that it wasn’t coming back. “I think you’d better sit down.”