We should all spare a thought, as we gallop by on our enormous chargers, for the enchanters who make our adventures possible. Who exactly constructs all those perilous beds that get transfixed in the middle of the night by flaming lances? Those fountains with bowls of water that, if poured out, cause meteorologically unlikely storms? Those tomb-stones that can only be moved by the one named in the prophecy? What poor sods have to take a nasty hallucinogenic and produce the prophecy in the first place? Enchanters, that’s who. Tim was an enchanter. He was good at fireballs. He also grew fruit-trees and tomatoes, did carpentry and kept goats, because there isn’t much money in enchanting, even if you’re good at it, which Tim was.
Tim had a suitably baroque wizard’s grotto in the Forest of Adventures. He’d acquired it when the previous inhabitant had been killed in a magic duel by his mum, who could be over-eager to help sometimes. However, he had made it his own, decorating it in his rather stylish way, and bringing in his two magical beasts, the Colour-Changing Cat and the Blood Red Bird. He often worked in partnership with the two neighbouring enchanters, Blaise and Emrys. Recently, however, Emrys had been seized with enthusiasm and abruptly moved to the opposite side of the Forest, where he was busy making friends with all the woodland creatures and constructing odd, complicated bits of magic of his own. He came back to visit sometimes, looking extremely cheerful. It was therefore to Blaise that Tim went when he noticed something worryingly wrong with the local lake. It had a bilious, bulgy appearance and was a good eighteen inches higher than normal. This can easily happen to a lake if too many swords of the wrong kind are cast into it, but it’s a bugger to fix. Tim thought he could do with a hand.
But when he arrived at Blaise’s house his friend didn’t seem in a state to help anyone. He was sitting by the fire, pale and sweating, and holding a poultice to his cheek. He told Tim he’d had an accident.
“There’s a Grail Quest going on. I was asked to put together a fiendishly seductive lady on a ship, who at the sign of the cross would go with the wind roaring and yelling that it seemed all the water burnt after her. You know, usual kind of chastity test type thing. Unfortunately she exploded in my face.”
Tim swore respectfully under his breath (he was quite a sweary enchanter). No wonder Blaise was looking ill. This would explain the problems in the lake, too; nothing ruins a lake like a scatter of bad magical lady parts, especially if it’s mixed up in spells for ships and burning waves.
“I need to reel all those magics back in somehow,” continued Blaise, “but I’m feeling like complete and utter shit. Tim, you’re a mate. Could you get something for me?”
“I’ve got some pretty good weed,” said Tim.
“No, I was thinking of a magical object,” said Blaise, “the Luminous Orb for Vacuuming Enchantment. Could you bring it here?”
“Yeah, I reckon I could do that,” said Tim, reckoning he probably could.
“And if you could shove something together for the Grail Quest…”
“A fiendish lady is too big a job in the time,” said Tim, “but I could do you some fireballs. And a vicious killer rabbit with sharp pointy teeth.”
“I knew I could count on you,” said Blaise, adjusting his poultice with a wince.
Getting the Luminous Orb of Vacuuming Enchantment was not an especially difficult quest for Tim, as it was guarded by the Fortunate Nymph. Tim had an arrangement with the Nymph. Some enchanters have terrible trouble with nymphs; they pick bad ones who trap them under rocks and take their magic. Tim, however, had done very well in the nymph department. He put on his smartest pointy-toed wizard boots and set off, with the Blood Red Bird flitting from branch to branch above him and intermittently settling on his shoulder. The polluting slick of Blaise’s botched magic was steadily spreading, and soon it began to rain, first lightly and then more heavily. Tim constructed a spinning wheel of pom-pom-sized fireballs to surround him as he walked and keep his nice boots dry.
When knights travel through the Forest of Adventures they do so by the Errant route, which is to say a wandering one, winding backwards and forwards so as not to miss any of the carefully placed castles, combats, grotesque peasants and so forth. They are carefully guided into this route by teams of well-informed damsels who appear at crucial moments, and if the weather’s bad and the damsels don’t fancy it, they can always set light to the grail-shaped beacon and keep the knights straying indoors. Tim, in contrast, was able to take a direct line, rather like someone who’d discovered the shortcuts in IKEA. He arrived at the Fortunate Nymph’s charming abode that evening, and, after a pleasant sojourn, prepared to return home the next day.
“Do you think Blaise is really safe with this?” asked the Nymph, as she handed the Luminous Orb for Vacuuming Enchantment to Tim.
“He’s tried it before a few times and he usually recovers eventually,” replied Tim. He sent the Blood Red Bird ahead of him with a message – “Have LOVE, will travel” – and set out.
The rain and the mud grew thicker and thicker as he neared home, to the point where the fireballs were no longer effective and, stopping to eat the packed lunch the Nymph had given him, Tim found it was completely soaked. The swollen forest stream threatened to overflow the path. Tim was worried for his cat and his goats; before taking the Luminous Orb to Blaise he went to the grotto to check on them. The lake had now risen so far it was lapping at the bottom of the garden, and it looked more magically disgusting and wrong than ever. A sad little crocodile crawled out of the water and stared at him. Taking pity on it, he allowed it indoors and it nosed around a bit before taking refuge in the bottom of the fridge. “Keep an eye on the crocodile,” Tim told the Colour-Changing Cat, who was red today in order to keep warm.
On the path to Blaise’s house there were more and more signs that something was terribly wrong. Oily, evil waters seeped from the ground all around, mingling with the driving rain. Blaise had always had a line of fine yew trees along his driveway, but these had now been wantonly hewn.* Many minor landscape features had, for no good reason, turned black. Knocking on Blaise’s door, Tim was nervous as to what he might find.
*This means they had been cut into rude shapes such as tits.
For a moment he was reassured. Blaise seemed much stronger. He drew Tim in with a firm grip and eagerly seized the Orb from him. But the look he then turned upon him was glittering and manic.
“So, you have brought me the thing of power,” he gloated. “Fool! But you had wit enough for my purpose.”
Oh dear. This didn’t sound good.
“I think you’ve got a spot of trouble in your head,” Tim said.
“No, the trouble is all yours!” exclaimed Blaise, gloating even more. “I can use this Luminous Orb for Vacuuming Enchantment to vacuum YOUR enchantment, and you will be powerless before me, as will everyone else! AHAHAHA! And then I’m going to breed some orcs!”
The Luminous Orb had been created as a healing tool for undoing magical injuries, and for forming close, intense connections sometimes featuring suction, but in the wrong hands it could be a terrible force for misery, blackness and ruin – and Tim had just delivered it into the wrong hands. He realised that when the lady exploded the full force of her fiendishness must have rebounded into Blaise, and he was now warping into a mad, evil, manically cackling parody of himself. Even as Tim watched he was growing a long white beard that didn’t suit him at all and affixing the Orb to the end of a crooked staff.
“Good God, man!” exclaimed Tim. “You’re meant to be a Romance Enchanter, but you’re turning into a High Fantasy Wizard! You’re – you’re genre-hopping!” And indeed Blaise was hopping from one leg to the other in his frenzy.
“And you are breaking the fictional frame in an arch postmodern way that has become pathetically cliche’d,” sneered Blaise, “but I should have known to expect no better from you. I would destroy you forthwith, but it pleases me more to make you witness my pointless acts of evil. Live, and soon you shall yield and serve me!”
“Bugger that!” cried Tim, but Blaise raised the staff and transfixed him with a fork of blue light. Unfortunately, years of friendship meant that Blaise knew Tim’s two great weaknesses – snakes, and heights. Transporting him on the end of the crackling light, he whirled Tim’s quailing body to the very top of a sinister, two-pronged tower he had recently erected in his garden. Dizzyingly high above the ground, Tim could feel his powers ebbing away. (But there weren’t any snakes. Blaise didn’t like snakes either.)
Tim lay weakly on the exposed platform at the top of the tower. He could see Blaise, far below, using the Orb and staff to blast great pits in the ground, from which began to rise a venomous black miasma. There was nothing he could do. He closed his eyes and knew no more.
A flurry of wings and the brush of feathers roused him. It was the Blood Red Bird. In one clawed foot it held out to him a can of cold beer. With profound gratitude, Tim drank the beer, and felt a morsel of his strength return. A trace of a plan began to form.
“You’re a good bird,” he told the Bird. “There’s not much I can do up here like this, but you and the crocodile keep me supplied with beer and I won’t die. You can bring me that leftover pasta puttanesca that’s on the top shelf of the fridge, too. And tell the Cat to go to Emrys.”
Emrys didn’t much like fighting, especially not with Blaise, but he was clever and often had good ideas. Also, he got on well with cats. Tim was sufficiently revived by the beer to use his enchanter’s sight to follow the Bird’s flight back to the grotto; he saw the Cat receive its charge and, turning a dusky blue, slip out into the shadows of the forest.
It was a long way to where Emrys lived even if you knew the direct route, but the Cat was a cat. It padded quietly through the holes in the space-time continuum and leapt up onto Emrys’s desk, landing in the middle of his work and adopting a fine red and blue tabby pattern as it did so.
“Hello Tim’s Cat,” said Emrys. “Look, I’ve invented this time machine in the shape of a flaming pie. I’m planning to use it for going to Liverpool in 1960 and making bad puns. How are you?”
The tabby markings strobed urgently as the Cat fixed Emrys with its yellow gaze. Emrys gazed back.
“Oh, I see,” said Emrys. “That’s not good at all. Hmmm. Well, I think I have just the thing for Tim. It doesn’t really work for me but I know that Tim would make the most of it.” He picked up a large magical object from the corner. “I admit I bought it on eBay” – he looked a little self-conscious – “but I’m pretty sure it’s not broken. Are you going to be able to carry it?” The Cat stared at him reproachfully. “Of course you are, just as soon as I give you those turkey slices I was saving for my lunch.” He gave the cat the turkey. “I think with this Tim will be able to save the day. But, if he doesn’t, come back and get me, ok?”
Emrys watched as the Cat once more vanished into the forest. He hoped very much his two friends would be alright. As a precaution, he got out another of his gadgets, his Screen for Kvetching and Yakking to People by Enchantment (SKYPE), and made a quick call.
When the Bird arrived, laboriously flapping to the top of the tower with the magical object in its talons, Tim was at the end of his powers. The beer and snacks supplied by the Bird and the crocodile had kept him going to this point, especially as the crocodile had been careful to choose a range of foods supplying good nutritional balance, but he could see the trail of smokes and craters Blaise was making through the forest and he was almost in despair. If only he could get down, go to his grotto, and use his abilities properly. But the touch of the new object brought his strength flooding back. This, he realised immediately, was exactly the sort of tool he could use best. At the first stroke of his fingers on its strings, his head cleared so that the height no longer troubled him; in fact, he thought a high place, such as a tower or cliff, could be rather a good spot to operate this object in a dramatic and flamboyant fashion. Moreover, its special virtue in his hands was that, while he couldn’t undo what Blaise had done, he could work with Blaise’s magic to make it better.
He began with the black miasmic pits. These became limpid forest pools, strewn with lilies and silver mists. He made a couple of them pink just to piss Blaise off. Next he shifted his attention to the mutilated yew-trees; he couldn’t restore them to their former state, but with a small effort he was able to turn the crude topiary into something actually quite sexy. The black landscape features began to shine with a variety of glitters, mirror effects and psychedelic swirls. The craters started to soften into dells and the smokes to look a lot like dry ice.
Now for his own escape. Some forceful and rhythmic work on the object, and the tower began to split in half. The section Tim was standing on slid gently to the ground. His jail had broken. He stepped out.
And reeled, feeling a sharp blast of magic in his back.
“Not so fast, old friend!”
It was Blaise, returned at the most narratively appropriate juncture. Raising his staff, he sent out a blast of slicing, bitter magic from the Luminous Orb. Tim parried with the stringed object and both enchanters found themselves whisked away to a strange dark landscape that neither of them recognised. It was time for their climactic battle.
Blaise released a black shaft of depression and misery. Tim reworked it into a poignant, reflective melancholy. Blaise shot out anger, resentment and hatred. Tim turned them into constructive criticism. Blaise unleashed a hideous torrent of self-pity, repetitiveness and performance anxiety. Tim added fart jokes.
“Jeez, man, get a grip on yourself!” shouted Tim. “You’re a good enchanter! Fun-loving, even! Remember that Christmas game with the green guy who could walk away carrying his own severed head? You did that! Come on, enough with the gloom and megalomania!”
But Blaise raised his staff and prepared himself for an onslaught that, his wrecked mind was sure, would defeat even Tim’s powers to deflect. At that moment, a cheery looking older witch in a brightly-coloured hat appeared behind him, whacked him on the head with a stick, and grabbed the staff and orb out of his hands.
Blaise stopped, looking lost.
“Mum!” exclaimed Tim. “What are you doing here?”
“Your friend Emrys appeared in my scrying bowl,” said Tim’s mum. “I was taking your granddad for his blood test, so I thought I’d check on you on my way back. It looked as though you hadn’t been home in a while. Did you know you have a crocodile composting all your out-of-date salad vegetables?”
“Yes, he’s a treasure, that crocodile,” said Tim. “But how did you find us? We don’t even know where we are.”
“Aha!” said Tim’s mum. She brandished the stick. “With this. It was free with this month’s Witch magazine. With this we can always be connected – it’s a Wizard Finder. Wi-Fi, for short.”
“Good old mum,” said Tim. But now he needed to take care of Blaise.
Using the Orb and the new object together, he carefully reversed the transportation spell so that they were back in Blaise’s house. Then he began to suck up and gather in all the festering scattered pieces of the failed fiendish lady spell. The oily bulging waters sank back into their channels and grew clear. The lake shrank to its normal dimensions. The rain finally stopped and the mud dried up and was carpeted over with fresh grass. Best of all, the mad, evil look drained away from Blaise’s face, and his stupid new beard vanished too.
Tim found that with Blaise’s magic and his own there was now enough for not one but three perfectly functioning ladies. He gave them beehive hairdos and a provocative hip-wiggle. They were excellent. For the roaring and yelling part he substituted doo-wops, because it was fun to subvert the brief.
“There, grail quests sorted for the next year at least,” he said, with satisfaction.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” said Blaise, pale with embarrassment and relief.
“You can thank me by giving my mum dinner, sending a thankyou note to Emrys, seeing to my Cat, my Bird and my crocodile, and finding some new pasture for my goats,” replied Tim. “I’m going to see the Fortunate Nymph.”
Tim popped the Orb in his pocket and, tired as he was, set out with a spring in his step. He felt good. He’d cured his friend, saddled the same friend with a mildly erotic yew hedge and some kitsch ponds, and probably saved the world; and, besides all that, he was going to see his baby today.