The old man frowned when he saw the goatherd. For many years he had been engaged in a vigorous campaign to discourage the folk about from frequenting the area. He’d had more than enough of people and their machinations in his long life, and he went to some lengths to deflect attention away from himself. It was true that now and then he did lose control and let his irritation get the better of him, but people rarely got hurt, and his tactics were mostly harmless. He was too apathetic today to enjoy much at the expense of the credulous goatherd however, so settled for leaning ostentatiously on his staff and looking feeble.
Hoisting a vacant expression onto his face, he assumed a stooped posture and ran gnarled looking fingers through his straggly beard. On the whole, he enjoyed the aspect of a dotty old man he projected for the benefit of unwelcome visitors, but the beard was hard. His beard was, in actuality, full, even luxuriant, and of a glossy black. He thought it his best physical feature by far, and he was vain about it. He considered that hiding its glory was a high price to pay for anonymity. But, he reasoned with himself when feeling especially aggrieved about it, if he was going to make his home here at the northern end of the world in order to escape tiresome people and their trivial little lives, he must keep his beard as a purely private enjoyment.
His attenuated campaign of unhospitality had not been without success, so although his guise of a creaky old man looked harmless enough, the goatherd sidled out of view again with a fearful backward glance or two. The old man grunted with satisfaction and straightened, allowing his features to lose the mask of decrepitude and senility he showed to his unwelcome neighbours.
He went for weeks or even months sometimes without seeing anyone at all, which was exactly the way he liked it. This morning however, the look of apprehension on the goatherd’s face put an extra spring in his step. He gave his staff a jaunty swing as he walked along, glad to know his efforts towards being feared and disliked weren’t going to waste.
The snares yielded sufficiently for his needs, and he returned to what he still enjoyed thinking of as his castle. It wasn’t so much the castle part that he never really wanted to get used to, but rather the fact that it was his. Oh he’d lived in castles, too many to remember, but always someone else’s. His status, no matter how revered or respected, had always been that of guest: honored guest to be sure, but always there for another’s purpose, a visitor in another man’s home. He could never say, “I’ve always hated that tapestry, fob it off on one of my inferiors with bad taste and weave me another,” or, “This stew isn’t fit for a hippogriff, bring me something palatable or it’s the mines for the lot of you!” No, he’d always had to just take what he was given, he, the greatest wizard in all of Britain, in all of the world he’d wager.
This castle though, this was his, and he’d built it himself, using magic to levitate and shape the stone. It had taken him quite a long time it was true, but he had time. There was nothing else he wanted to do, nowhere else he wanted to go. He’d seen and done it all, and now he wanted to be left alone.
As he approached his castle, he had a fleeting wish to see it as muggles saw it. He knew the enchantments and concealments he had laid on it, but he always felt just a little put out because he could never experience the full effect.
Any muggle who strayed here would see nothing but a broken down ruin, unpromising, depressing, even a bit eerie. (Eerie was subtle, he was still working on that part.) Their understandable disinterest would be augmented by a sudden feeling there was something they’d neglected to do elsewhere, and they’d be off, castle forgotten. In fact, the need for little demonstrations of eccentricity had declined steadily: a job well done he told himself as he climbed the steps to the door.
He passed the hares on to his house elf, who headed kitchenwards with them immediately. He looked around. His eye was caught by his chess set. Really there was no reason to have it set out he reflected, running nimble fingers through his perfectly groomed beard, but he left it nonetheless. Occasionally, on winter nights, he’d play from memory games shared in days passed, games with kings and games with friends. He shook his head. It was a beautiful set, made of ivory and gold, too beautiful not to be seen. His house elf made a tempting repast with the hares, and the old man made an early night of it.
That night, greatly to his annoyance, the old man dreamed. For you and me this might be an event of little moment, but for this particular old man dreams were a serious business. In the days that followed he did his best to dismiss what he had seen as the result of an overly rich sauce prepared by his house elf, who had a heavy hand with the cream. Try as he might though, he failed to convince himself.
He had, he was sure, long since become immune to fetching young women with flaxen hair and sweet smiles. Still, the young lady in question, the one who began appearing with some regularity in his dreams, was in danger. He knew it. If something wasn’t done….
At this point the old man would call for his house elf to bring one of the bottles of Burgundian wine he took such care never to be without. It was no small feat to round up enough sturdy owls to transport such treasures, and he tried to stick to his own home-brewed ale as a rule, but this was a special case. He wanted to blot the image of the young woman from his mind, and numb his thoughts so that the niggling sense of worry and obligation would shatter under the careless boot of inebriation. This worked right enough, but only till morning.
One afternoon, feeling restless and morose, he wrapped himself in his cloak and went to sit on the stone bench in the courtyard. He looked grumpily round, then caused a collection of small stones to pile themselves at his feet. It was so long since he had ceased to require a wand to do magic that he forgot to be grateful for warm hands tucked under his arms.
He saw that the patchy black and white cat sat primly watching him from a distance. He frowned. He didn’t like cats, never had. This one, though surprisingly sleek for a stray, seemed particularly unprepossessing. Some cats at least could boast elegant colouring or obvious breeding, but this one merely showed an unremarkable pattern of markings, and a resistance to his many attempts to shoe it off his property. The cat would sidle nonchalantly out of reach of his boot, and might drift away for days at a time, but it would always return, indifferent but persistent. He would have banished it to the barn if he’d had a barn, but he settled for giving it one contemptuous glance, then ignored it entirely.
Moodily, the old man levitated a stone to rest on the edge of an empty fountain some distance away. He caused another stone to rise up, float several arm spans away, then shoot violently forward, knocking the first stone forcefully into the air, sending it tumbling, its adversary falling with it. When his mind was focused, he could fire stones off the edge of the fountain at the rate of one per heartbeat for a good long time. This afternoon however, his thoughts were distracted and his aim poor. Finally, he gathered the whole pile and flung it testily and with some force against the outside of the stone basin.
For a while he considered venturing out in search of a hapless villager to torment. He could become invisible and pelt them with dung, or send a rabid dog into the middle of a sheep herd to scatter it, or send someone’s laundry sailing off the line to land in a stagnant pond. Unfortunately for him, none of these diversions, no matter how entertaining they might have been in the past, offered any real reprieve from what troubled him. He had not chosen this spot at random. After staring grumpily at the basin a while longer, he got up with a deep sigh mingling anger and resignation, to get water.
After brewing the henbane tea, he drank the cup down, and filled the basin to the brim with icy water from the well. He stood before the basin, and, not without reluctance, let his gaze sink into the watery surface and his mind go blank.
If he had thought that soliciting clear-seeing in the water would improve his night’s sleep, he was sadly mistaken. The dreams grew less frequent, but his fretful mind no longer required them. To his disgust, he found himself engaged in the same argument he had with himself every hundred years or so.
He had come here to get away from the tumultuous world full of people with their ambitions, greeds, loves, hates, and endless goings to and fro. He desired only solitude, quiet, a regular supply of ale and Burgundian wine, the excellent ministrations of his house elf, and the occasional spot of bating the locals. If he troubled himself with every guileless young woman in peril, witch or not, he would never have any peace.
At this point he would begin pacing in a distinctly unpeaceful manner. He would once again see the face of the woman before him, and, like distorted shadows cast by trolls, the dangers multiplying behind her. If she hadn’t been a witch he might have been able to dismiss the whole thing from his mind. The thing was that he knew what it was like to live among muggles, whose admiration and gratitude could so easily turn to suspicion, fear and betrayal.
Once he made up his mind to act, he did so with vigor. The sooner he could discharge his conscience, he felt, the sooner he could return to his daily routine of reading, eating, drinking, taking constitutionals through the rugged landscape surrounding his castle, the occasional small terrorizing of the local folk, and sleeping the sleep of the cozy hermit: unruffled, untroubled, unmoved, undisturbed.
His task began with a book. It was an impressive book. He felt a gratifying sense of self-satisfaction as he laid it on the table before him and studied the illustrated cover. He was less accomplished as an illustrator than as a writer of magical tomes, but he still experienced a pleasant thrill of pride as he read the illuminated title: Metamorph Magi, Enchant Your Way to Anonymity.
Part of the book’s magic was that if a muggle looked at it, the title would appear to be, Delineated Details: An Old Man’s Guide to Great Grammar. In general, he thought this a sufficiently tedious title to discourage even the most thorough scholar. Nevertheless, the book’s magic went further. If a muggle opened it, the book would appear to contain a rambling and intolerably pedantic examination of verb conjugations. If the reader was a witch or wizard however, the proper title would appear on the book’s cover, and an illuminated spell would be displayed on the first page. This spell, when spoken by the witch or wizard, would reveal the rest of the book’s contents. This book was, the old man felt, one of his masterworks. It was a step-by-step guide to that most difficult of tasks, becoming a metamorph magus.
But its element of disguise barely scratched the surface of its powers. The book had a twin, a perfect copy, produced by magic. When both books were read at the same time, regardless of where in the world the books might be, a bond was formed between the readers. A less accomplished magus than the old man, which covered pretty much every witch and wizard alive he felt, wouldn’t be aware of the connection immediately. The sorcerer of greater power would be able, for a time at least, to get inside the mind of the other reader, poke about a bit, even make a tweak here and there. In extreme need, a limited amount of communication was possible, but only at the discretion of the more powerful wizard.
The old man had parted company with the copy many years ago. He had left it in the keeping of a sorceress of whom he had been especially fond. He had no idea of the book’s fate, but he liked to think that the sorceress, who had had quite a fondness for him as well, would have seen to its care.
If his plan for relieving his vague sense of moral responsibility went as he hoped, the copy would currently be in the hands of a capable witch or wizard. He intended to establish a rapport with this individual, send them a few highly specific and compelling dreams of their own, then call it a deed well done, and return to his life of reclusivity and sloth. This wasn’t a task to be accomplished in a day, but he was a patient man.