Basil Smockwhitener—wizard and gentleman—stroked his enormous mustaches thoughtfully, gently tugging on the cottony-white billows that obscured both sides of his face. His brow was furrowed deeply over his small eyes as he considered the wrought-iron gate in front of him.
“CURMUDGEON,” it read, in large, ornate letters that arched like a cold, metal rainbow over the entrance. And immediately below that, “Education, Exploration, and Meat Processing.”
Basil tapped his lips and then turned to his manservant, a shorter, slightly-built man with dark hair and a stiletto goatee that seemed to stretch his already-narrow face.
“I’ll admit, I’m surprised,” the wizard said. “It’s been years since I’ve visited Fergus, but this hedge…” He shook his head bemusedly. “It most definitely was not here then. The ‘meat processing' bit is new, too, now that I think of it.”
The hedge was impressive. More than twice as tall as the two companions, and stretching beyond sight to either side, the only visible break was here, at this gate.
Fabian had gone pale when the hedge was first sighted, and he’d not improved in the minutes his master had taken to consider their situation. If anything, he’d begun to turn a delicate green, a shade which most definitely did not agree with his complexion.
Basil finally noticed his companion’s discomfort. “I say, Fabian, you don’t look at all well. Is something the matter?”
Fabian took a deep breath. “Actually sir,” he said in a shaky voice. “I think you’re very right. I’m…not well. Maybe we should go back to that town we passed this morning and see if we could find somewhere for me to have a bit of a lie down. We could—”
“Go back?” Basil’s eyebrows seemed to crawl up his forehead like bushy white caterpillars. “That village was miles ago. My legs are positively aching. We’re not that far from Fergus' castle, and I’ve been counting on lodging with him for the night. I sent ahead, in fact. He should be expecting us.”
Fabian’s delicate green seemed to intensify. “Lodging, sir?” he said, voice cracking. “At Curmudgeon Castle?” And then, with a note of panic, he added, “You say he’s expecting us?”
Basil turned back to the hedge. “Yes, I told him to expect me with my manservant. And yes, lodging. It may be just another day’s journey to our hill, but I certainly don’t want to go it without a break first.”
Fabian put a hand to his head and cleared his throat. “So, this short-cut you mentioned a few days ago,” he said. “You intended all along to stop here?”
“Yes, of course,” Basil said, absently, peering carefully through the gate.
Fabian groaned. “Sir, you put me in a most difficult situation. Perhaps…perhaps you should go on ahead. I’ll just circle back to that village and—”
Basil didn’t seem to be listening. “You know,” he said. “I think that’s a maze that Fergus has built back there.” He craned his neck to get a clearer view through the decorative metal bars. “The path definitely seems to branch just ahead—”
“Sir,” Fabian said, more loudly. “I said, perhaps you should go on ahead. I’ll meet you back at your laboratory in a few days—”
“Nonsense,” Basil said. “This is perfect. I’ve been meaning to begin training you in wizardry. When I was last at the Conclave, the other wizards all said you were wasted as a manservant. I quite agree. And now here we are, standing before a maze, which any wizard worth his facial hair knows are veritable hot beds of educational opportunity. It’s too good to pass up!”
Fabian looked progressively more panicky as his master spoke. “Me? Wizardry? Ah, no, thank you, sir, but surely you remember the last time—”
“I’ll not hear any more about this, Fabian,” Basil said, finally turning to his manservant. “The last time…well, accidents do happen. What happened was…regretful.”
“‘Regretful?’” Fabian said, exasperated. “I turned myself into a newt!”
“Yes, well, you got better, didn’t you? And you’ll be more careful this time, yes? Come along, now. Daylight is wasting, and if we’re going to get some lessons in before bed, we need to make a start on them now.”
“Ah, but, sir—”
Basil silenced the smaller man with a raised hand. “Enough. You will follow me.”
The wizard turned and opened the large gate, gesturing his servant-apprentice through before him. Fabian cringed, but sighed. “Yes, sir. As you say, sir.” He picked up their bundles and moved resignedly through the opening.
Basil followed, grinning with anticipation. He rubbed his hands together eagerly. “This will be fun! You’ll see. Come along, now. I’m dying to see what Fergus has done here.”
Fabian nodded glumly. “Dying. Yes, sir. Excellent choice of words, sir.”
Basil didn’t seem to hear. He was already striding purposefully toward the first branch in the path. Fabian could only shrug, and follow.