Booshus had an ambivalent relationship with storms. He loved to watch them from the castle walls, stalking around on their lightning legs and bellowing about how massive and terrifying they were. He found their boorish arrogance charming, much like the queen thought of the king, he suspected. Although since the incident with the dryad, he was certainly less boorish than he had been – as well as a good deal thinner. The queen had him on a strict and healthy diet, and the castle was being rebuilt slowly but surely. The storms, however, also came with destruction and, Booshus found, headaches; with the especially excitable ones. The headaches were easy to deal with. Chewing willow bark and draping a damp cloth over his forehead usually alleviated the worst of the ache, but the destruction was something else.
It was usually the trees that got struck by lightning, since Booshus had persuaded the king to install the palace turrets with lightning rods. It was an idea he got from a merchant passing through from somewhere very far away to somewhere even further away. And whilst the king eventually threw the merchant out of the castle because he decided he didn’t like his accent, he and Booshus got on very well. The notion of giving the lightning a road to travel down instead of having it wander willy- nilly through the palace blowing the tops of towers was one the king was astonishingly resistant to. Booshus could only conclude that the king was suspicious of the idea’s origin. The poor trees, though, could not really fit lightning rods to their topmost branches, so every now and again, one of them would be struck.
In his travels through the forest one day, Booshus encountered a weeping dryad by her blasted oak, and asked her what had happened. She explained how the lightning was hotter than the fiery sun, and boiled her poor tree’s sap to death. He was very sympathetic to the poor creature, and brought her a pot of honey and cream the next day. She appreciated his gesture so that she offered him a limb from her tree as a thank you, to make use of as he pleased.
Booshus was bowled over by this, and thanked the dryad profusely. The dryad was unusually gracious, though, and told him that it didn’t really matter all that much, since the tree was now quite dead, and the beetles couldn’t eat it all, for goodness sake!
When Booshus got this massive limb home, it sat in the corner of his rooms for some time whist he decided what to do with it. His assistant Vernon gave him several increasingly confused looks as the limb just sat there, day after day. Eventually, he asked Booshus what was going on, and Booshus explained that he was trying to make up his mind what to do with this limb. It wasn’t nearly straight enough to make a bow, or even arrows out of. He didn’t have the skill of a carpenter, and as it was a special log – being both lightning- touched and from the tree of a dryad – he didn’t really want anyone else messing about with it, either.
Vernon shrugged. ‘Well, master – we need more books – why not make the log into books, so it can help us keep all our hard- won knowledge safe?’
‘Vernon, you’re as genius! I knew there was a reason I took you on!’ Booshus gave Vernon a great smacking kiss, and then they rolled their sleeves up and started work.
It was a very long, involved, exhausting and boring work to make paper. It took them weeks of hard work to get the paper they needed. Luckily, all was quiet everywhere else since the court had gone off to the seaside for the summer. Booshus and Vernon hadn’t gone because Booshus didn’t like sand very much (unless he was using it as a tool or a raw material) and Vernon burned easily in the sun. There was time for them to get on with it, without the king wandering in every five minutes to demand this or that stupid thing be done as soon as possible. Booshus loved that the king provided him with space and resources to pursue his studies and train Vernon, but wished that sometimes he would just leave them alone.
At the end of the work they had piles of paper that was all ready to bind into books. This took a lot more work, but wasn’t nearly so labour- intensive as actually making the paper.
At the end of their weeks of work, Booshus and Vernon had a large pile of blank- paged books into which they could record knowledge, studies, observations, musings and theories and, in the case of Vernon, multiple doodles in the margins which were the result of Booshus’ tendency to rhapsodise about any given subject he was passionate about. Vernon was, after all, still a young man and still learning how to learn. His concentration had a marked tendency to wander to the outer reaches of his consciousness when his present brain had absorbed all it could for that day. Booshus was well aware of this tendency, but he was also aware of his own tendency to fierce concentration to the exclusion of all else, so he didn’t mind all that much.
Vernon was, it must be said, a pretty good artist, and he did keep one of the new notebooks back just for himself, so he could sketch and doodle in his free time, should he so chose. It wasn’t that he failed to notify Booshus of this – it’s just that Booshus didn’t really notice that he’d left one book behind when he’d moved the stack to their shared study. Vernon just assumed that Booshus had left it for his use. He was pleased, too, since it was the fattest of the books and, as he discovered when he opened it, it contained the finest paper. Indeed, Vernon went to thank Booshus for this handsome gift, but when he got to the laboratory where Booshus was ensconced, it turned out that he was conducting a particularly interesting experiment, and it totally slipped his mind. Again and again, Vernon thought, ‘I really must thank Booshus for that book!’ and never remembered to when he actually saw Booshus. Eventually, when the court returned from their summer retreat, it slipped Vernon’s mind completely, since the king had a whole new set of fanciful ideas and questions brought back as a consequence of random and half- drunken conversations and arguments with the courtiers, and Booshus and Vernon were rushed off their feet finding answers. The queen was also threatening that next year at least one, if not both, of Booshus and Vernon should go with the court since, in their absence, the king had been plaguing the life out of her with esoteric questions that she had no answers to, when all she wanted to do was read by the shore in the shade of the trees.
And so the darker days of the year approached, and the equinox festival loomed. The courtiers were excited since it was yet another excuse to get drunk and party, but this time, they got to do it in costume. Whilst Booshus and Vernon continued to study, the rest of the castle was awash with sequins and fabrics and papier- maché and paint whilst everyone competed in costume design and outrageousness. On equinox eve, when the world was poised on the brink of tipping from light to dark, from summer to winter and balanced on the cusp of living and dead, the ball took place in the silvery blue light of a full moon.
Drunken courtiers tend to be a noisy bunch, so when the party really got going, Booshus threw in the towel. ‘That’s it, Vernon – I can’t think straight any more. That lot are driving me nuts. We’ll look at this again in the morning. I’m going to go and find an empty bedchamber on the other side of the castle, put a pillow over my head, and get some sleep. I suggest that if you don’t plan on joining the party that you do the same. You’ll never get any sleep otherwise.’
Vernon wandered over to the window and looked down into the courtyard. There was a long table down one side, filled to groaning with huge platters and tureens of food. Around the perimeter of the courtyard were trestle tables where people chattered and laughed, or shrieked and yelled depending on their level of inebriation, and the cleared area in the middle was full of bodies dancing patterns to the lively music being played by some musicians situated on a balcony on the other side of the courtyard. It was a riot of colour and strange movements and shapes thanks to the exuberant and, in some instances, frankly terrifying costumes. ‘Actually, master, I think I’ll stay and watch the court at play for a while, if it’s all the same to you?’
‘Heh, do what you like, lad. Go join them and get some food if you want.’
‘But I haven’t got a costume.’
Booshus joined him at the window, just as a particularly drunken courtier let out a particularly insane cackle. ‘Really – who on earth do you think is going to notice?’
With a wry smile, Vernon said, ‘I admit you make a very sharp point there, master.’
‘Meh. Do whatever you like lad. No-one’s going to bother you tonight. Unless it’s to make you get drunk with them, that is.’ He yawned hugely. ‘I’m off, anyway. I seem to remember the queen mother’s suite has nice thick walls and a nice comfy bed.’
‘How do you know that?’
Booshus grinned. ‘That would be telling, now wouldn’t it?’ He laughed at the expression on Vernon’s face. ‘Oh don’t look so shocked, Vernon – she used to let me stay in the suite’s spare bedroom on nights of the equinox ball when I was an apprentice. She couldn’t stand the racket, either. G’night.’
‘Yeah, goodnight, master.’
Vernon sat at the window with his notebook in hand, idly doodling as he watched the revellers below. When one of his doodles threatened to spread out all over his carefully researched notes, however, her decided that it was time to bring out the big… er… cannons. So he laid his notebook on the desk and went and fetched his sketchbook. Ensconced on the wide window ledge, Vernon spent a very happy hour sketching by moonlight all the outrageous costumes that the courtiers were wearing. There were lions and tigers and satyrs and centaurs and mermaids and peacocks and many more beautiful and terrible things besides. He was so lost in the moonlit sketches and the torch lit revellers’ antics that he only noticed how cold and hungry he was when his hand seized up and refused to work halfway through the sketch of a giant (really the lord chamberlain on stilts). As already noted, Vernon was a young man, and not quite finished yet – he still had many areas in need of improvement. Two of those that gave him occasional trouble were impulse control and tidiness. Therefore, when he emerged from his artistic zone, his first thought was “Cold / Hungry!”, and his second was dictated by the first thought and by the sight of the groaning table in the courtyard. It was “Food / Warm!”
This was all his body needed to propel him at some considerable speed from his perch at the window down into the courtyard, leaving his sketching tools where they lay, and the shutters draughtily open.
Downstairs, the party was in full swing, and Vernon had to push and shove and duck and dance his way around all the costumes taking up so much space before he could get to the buffet table. He’d been in the castle less than a year, so this was his first equinox ball. It turned out to be a terribly informal affair, with everyone expected to help themselves from the platters and tureens on the table, even the king and queen. The only place that still had servants actually serving was at the far end of the buffet table, where all the alcohol was. This was mainly because the queen found it distasteful to drink from a punchbowl that someone else had already dunked their head in to drink from the source, as it were. So the drinks were to be ordered by a shout or, in the case of some of the more drunken revellers, a point and a garbled slur. Vernon walked along the table, weaving in and out of bodies and piling his plate high with all sorts of goodies. He then collected a mug of wine from the makeshift bar and went to find a table. He credited his ability to weave through the throng without spilling his wine or food to his time walking in the forests with Booshus to find potion ingredients . He finally managed to find a place at a table on the edge of the dancing area, and watched the intricate patterns of the dancers whilst he wolfed down his plateful. The plate was large, and it had been piled high, so by the time he’d finished and was sweeping up the crumbs with a finger, his hunger was more or less satisfied. He sipped his wine and watched the dancers more closely; his fingers started twitching to sketch the shapes and movement. He cursed, remembering that he’d left his notebook on the windowsill. Glancing up to the windowsill where he’d left it, he thought his eyes were going fuzzy from the alcohol, though he’d only drunk one mug so far. Rubbing his eyes, he looked again. There was definitely a faint bluish haze surrounding the window, particularly centred on the windowsill.
Oh, dear. This could not be a good thing.
Hurrying back through the throng, Vernon almost screamed with frustration. The press of costumed bodies was tighter than ever before, and several times, he had to evade grasping hands and invitations to dance, or be more… intimate. Finally he made the stairs, bounding up them two at a time, despite the heavy load he carried from the plate of food he had just eaten. He was rather uncomfortable, but managed to ignore it. Skidding into the study, he rushed over to the window, where the blue haze was still hovering. He realised that it centred on his sketchbook, and his stomach twisted as he saw that the pages it lay open at, though he had almost filled them with sketches before rushing off to the party, were now once again pristine. He knew also that the book hadn’t rearranged its pages as stiff, spine- open books are sometimes wont to do, since there was his quill, resting in the gully between the pages. The blot that should have left was not in evidence, either. Just the pen and blank paper. Looking at the wash of equinox moonlight across the pages made from a lightning struck dryad tree, he cursed long and loud whilst he grabbed the book and shut it with hasty movements, taking it away from the window. He lit a candle at one of the desks, and used it to examine the rest of the book. Everything else seemed to be there – just excepting the pages he’d been sketching on when he abandoned the book and left it to the tender mercies of the moon’s light. He racked his brains to try and remember what he had been sketching when his hand had cramped. He remembered a tiger, a manticore, a giant fish, a gryphon, and that he’d stopped half way through the drawing of the lord chamberlain on stilts. His train of thought was interrupted by screams from the courtyard below.
Dashing to the window, he nearly lost the food he had so recently consumed. Stomping around in the courtyard below were a pair of legs higher than a tall man, leading up to a body that was not there, save for a shimmering suggestion of body, arms and head. Unfortunately, where the body stopped at the waist was crowned with a pile of viscera that glistened redly, even in the moonlight. As the legs moved, the pile wobbled and swayed until one part broke loose and started to slither toward the ground. Its momentum carried it further until there was a large pile of guts on the ground, yet still attached somewhere inside the half- giant. The guts tangled and tripped the legs, and they landed on a nearby table, sending hastily abandoned food and drink flying, and flailing about in the mess and the wreckage. There was a fair bit of screaming and running going on, not to mention vomiting as those who had had too much good cheer suddenly found it sour in their stomach. All three activities increased dramatically when a gryphon came bounding out of the shadows and began to tear at the viscera with its sharp beak, sending great globs of meat flying around. Vernon was dreading the next part and, sure enough, a manticore now came bounding out of the shadows, and it and the gryphon began to squabble and then really fight, about who should have best pickings from the giant half-corpse. The castle now rang with the screams and clangs and crashes of a very large number of half- drunk and all- the- way- drunk people barricading themselves in to their respective rooms, apartments and other living quarters. Vernon watched as the castle guard shut all the access off to the courtyard and started raining arrows, spears and various other missiles down on to the flailing conglomeration of monsters. Nothing seemed to touch them. Every arrow or spear or what not that looked like it ought to deliver a fatal blow just seemed to pass through them as if they were not there. But they were still knocking tables and chairs flying as they all wrestled together. It wasn’t long before there was a crash and the door of the laboratory burst open to admit a panting and somewhat wild- eyed king.
‘Where’s Booshus?’ he demanded after looking straight through Vernon a couple of times as he searched the rooms.
‘I’m not sure, your majesty, but I think he might be in the queen mother’s rooms.’
‘What in the name of all the gods is he doing there? She’s been dead for nigh on twenty years!’
‘Um… he went there to get some sleep, majesty. What with the party and everything.’
‘I don’t care if he’s such a killjoy he has to hide away from a party but for heaven’s sake, why isn’t he here now?’
‘Actually, I am,’ said a bleary- eyed, tousle- haired and night shirted Booshus. ‘What on earth is going on? Can’t a fellow get a decent night’s sl… oh, hello, your majesty. What’s all the kerfuffle?’
‘Booshus, there are monsters in the courtyard disrupting my party! What are you going to do about it?’
Booshus blinked in surprise and then wandered over to the window to have a look. ‘Are there really? Oh, bless my soul, so there are! Gosh – they do look angry!’
‘Not nearly as angry as I will be if you don’t find a way to get rid of the wretched things!’ bellowed the king.
‘Indeed, your majesty. Well, I see that the men at arms have the creatures contained, even if they can’t actually dispatch them for the moment…’ here he yawned hugely, ‘…oh, do excuse me… that would seem to indicate that we have a little thinking time.’ He began to usher the king toward the door.
‘You had better make sure this gets sorted, Booshus – I know you’re behind this somehow!’ said the king, as he was practically pushed out of the door and it slammed behind him.
Booshus listened at the door until he heard the noise of the king’s footsteps retreating, and then he turned to Vernon, his tiredness vanishing and becoming immediately all business. Vernon wondered if the sleepy head had been an act to put the king off the scent. ‘Now then, Vernon – why don’t you explain to me what’s been going on? I assume that it’s something to do with that book which you are clutching so tightly that your knuckles have gone white?’
‘Um… I have a feeling it might, master.’
Booshus narrowed his eyes. ‘All right then, Vernon. Tell me everything that happened after I left you this evening.’
So Vernon did. He explained about the sketching, and going down to the party because he was cold and hungry, seeing the blue haze around the window, and returning to the rooms to find the empty pages.
Then he told Booshus what happened next, with the giant legs and the manticore and the gryphon that, by the sound of it, were still tearing chunks out of each other in the courtyard below.
Booshus listened to all this with intense concentration. ‘Hmmm. May I see that book, lad?’
Vernon slid the book over the table to Booshus, and then waited in nervous dread as Booshus leafed through the drawings it contained, making vague humming noises.
‘These are good, lad. Very good. You have a rare talent here.’
‘Oh, erm… thanks?’
‘You’re welcome. The book, though. The book is interesting too. It seems to me I’ve seen it before?’
Vernon hung his head, and stuttered and stammered his way through the explanation of how he had come to be using this particular book for art instead of science.
‘I see. Well – it’s water under the bridge now, I think. These things can’t be helped. However, this is the last time that you leave any uncertainty hanging between us, Vernon. Are we clear on this?’
The steel in Booshus’s normally tranquil and often mildly dreamy gaze took Vernon aback and nailed him to his chair. ‘Yes master. Yes of course! Please, I’m sorry, master. It was a mistake. I really, really won’t…’
Booshus waved him quiet. ‘Yes, yes. Apology accepted, as long as you treat it like any other lesson and bloody well learn from it. The problem we have now is: what are we going to do about these creatures?’
‘Well we can’t very well leave them in the courtyard rolling around and causing a nuisance, can we? I mean, look at them!’
Vernon got up and went back to the window. The three creatures were still locked in mortal combat.
‘What do you notice about them, Vernon?’
Vernon wrinkled his forehead as he examined the thrashing melee for a moment. And then his expression cleared. They’re tearing chunks out of each other, but none of them are dying. Or even bleeding!’
‘Exactly! These are magical creatures with unusual properties, and can’t be killed just any old way, as our dear friend the captain of the guard has so ably demonstrated. At some length. So – how do we get rid of them? Think, lad!’
‘Well… h’m… a magical creature, if summoned by a spell, can be banished by the reversal of that spell. But these weren’t exactly summoned by a spell.’
‘Think what they were summoned by, then.’
‘Ink? And paper.’
‘Good, Vernon, good. You’re getting a bit closer. Just think about that ink and paper, though.’
‘Well we made it from the dryad’s tree which got struck by… oh!’ Vernon’s eyes widened. The growing sense that his master already knew how to deal with this problem and was leading him around by the nose melted away as the pieces began to come together in his mind.
‘All right then, lad – spell it out, please.’
Vernon spoke slowly as the ideas were still coalescing in his mind. ‘So – if we banish magical creatures by reversing the spell that summoned them, let the lightning dryad paper and the ink and the moonlight stand for the spell that summoned them?’ He looked to Booshus for approval, who merely nodded and said, ‘Go on.’
‘So that follows that if we destroy the paper and ink, we should destroy the creatures, too?’
‘By burning it!’ shouted Vernon, in triumph.
‘No.’ said Booshus, frowning. Vernon’s face fell as Booshus went on, ‘This is special paper. See?’ He held the book over the nearest candle and, whilst the flames licked round it like hungry snakes and singed the leather cover, the paper just would not catch. ‘This is paper that was at least partly formed by the terrifying heat of the lightning. It was so hot that it instantly boiled the sap and made the tree explode, don’t forget. How on earth do you think we’re going to make fire that hot? ‘
Vernon’s head had sunk into his shoulders, where he remained for some time. Booshus waited. Soon, though, Vernon looked up. ‘Hang on a minute. Don’t you have that machine… thingy?’
Booshus grinned. ‘Well done, lad! Let’s go and fetch it, shall we?’
It took a while, and much puffing and panting, but they finally managed to extract the bulky equipment from a store- room down the corridor and get it set up in the lab. The book was standing on a wooden platform between two towers with needles extending from them and pointing inwards. There were all sorts of complicated things going on in and around the contraption, but the most prominent thing was the large wheel with the handle sticking out of one side. The wheel was so heavy, in fact, that the handle was long enough for two people to stand side by side as they held it. Which Booshus and Vernon duly did.
‘Right, come on then – put your back into it.’ said Booshus, and they began to turn the gigantic, heavy wheel. There was more grunting and swearing by the two of them as they heaved with all their might to get it going. Vernon was just wondering if Booshus had forgotten to oil the thing when it started to move. Once they had broken the inertia, it became easier and easier to turn the wheel as it went faster and faster, the quiet humming from the contraption rose in volume until it was distinctly audible, and then the hairs on the backs of their arms began to prickle and stand up.
‘I think it’s about time we went and stood on that board over there, Vernon.’
Vernon heartily agreed and skipped as far away from the machine as he could go. The whirring continued as the flywheel on the contraption continued to turn. Booshus stepped away too and, taking up a long wooden stick he’d laid by handy, poked something on the machine. There was a huge flash and a bang which threw both of them to the floor. It took a moment for them to recover and sit up.
The flywheel was still going, and there was now a continuous spark of lightning arcing between the two needles and the centre of the book which stood between them. Amazingly, the book was still in one piece, if you count being charred beyond recognition with a gaping hole in the middle as “in one piece”. But there was, apart from the ringing in their ears, total silence.
Rushing to the window, the wizard and his apprentice gazed out into the courtyard. The moon had gone down now, but the promise of dawn was staining the sky, and there was enough torchlight still flickering that they could see, where once there had been a pile of thrashing limbs, fur, feathers, tails, beak and teeth, there was now a stone statue that had two heads, two tails, four wings, and ten legs.
‘Great!’ said Vernon, brightly. ‘It worked… sort of. But what now? Won’t the king be rather angry, still?’
‘Why ever would he be, lad?’
‘Well, master. The creatures are no longer destroying the castle, but there’s that great big statue there.’
‘Everyone loves a statue, Vernon.’
‘Well, yes – but it’s really ugly!’
Booshus chuckled. ‘We’re not quite finished Vernon. But we’re going to have to wait a moment for the finale.’
‘Things forged in moonlight, my lad, very often will not survive in the bright light of day. Especially not if they’re already damaged. Watch.’
As Booshus spoke, the sun peeped over the brow of the nearby hills and its light began to creep across the courtyard. When it reached the multi limbed statue, it began to disintegrate where the sun’s light touched it.
Once it was nothing but a pile of sand, Booshus sighed. ‘Well – at least there’s one good thing that’s come out of this.’
‘When winter comes around, and then spring follows, we always need sandbags for when the snowmelt starts trying to drown the castle. At least we won’t have to haul it up from the bottom of the quarry this year.’