Sunrise, and the shadows were at their longest. The dawn sky was flecked with amiable rose-pink clouds. A lark’s tinkling song filled the air. It was an upbeat hour, ripe for honest enterprises and decent work. The postman wheeled his trolley from house to house, whistling. He doffed his cap to old ladies, patted the heads of giggling children, smiled politely as he delivered his letters. He strolled down the street, passing a shabby brown villa overshadowed by trees.
A squat grey pigeon with bedraggled plumage glowered at him from the rooftop. It settled back into the gutter with a huff.
This was so boring.
When you’ve helped construct several of the world’s most majestic wonders, a shabby Gothic mansion in Hampstead doesn’t exactly float your boat. You know the kind; all twiddly bits and extra turrets. In the centre of the back lawn was an ornamental pond crowned with a statue; a flagstone path crept meekly around to the side patio beneath a shaded pergola of wisteria.
Dull. Dull. Dull.
Guard duty in this dump. Ugh. The pigeon settled miserably into the leafy ooze. I, who had once raised temples from the sinews of the earth, sliced through mountains and felled forests with a single breath, my essence surging with a terrible joy. I who led Egypt’s armies against the hordes of Assyria, cheetah-quick, mighty as a bull elephant, deadly as a striking cobra! Now reduced to this pitiful state, squatting in a leafy gutter watching the world crawl by. It was a big letdown, to be honest.
My master had made quite clear what would happen if I failed my charge. Sure, I had a week’s reprieve. But I still had to obey her orders to her full satisfaction, or suffer the punishment. The Shrivelling Fire hung over me like the Sword of Damocles; if not that, I had an appointment with Old Chokey buried in the crushing ooze at the bottom of the Thames.
The sun rose higher, tinting the housefronts golden. A beautiful pearly vapour hung above the trees. The pigeon watched it with approval. Just like the sunrises at the pyramids, the djinn flitting like swallows above the tombs of mighty Pharaohs, and —
A soft coo of approval broke into my reverie. A plump, well-preened pigeon had fluttered onto the gutter to my right and was gazing at me with a keen tilt of the head. Could it be… ugh. Not a female. I ruffled my feathers, gave a haughtily dismissive coo and looked away. The pigeon shuffled coquettishly towards me. I edged away. She hopped closer.
It was real tempting to change into an alleycat and frighten the feathers off her, but not now. Concentration was crucial. Focus on the job.
There! A bush was quivering far below me, leaves rustling in the hushed stillness. The pigeon leaned over, narrowing its beady black eyes…
Out crept a snuffling hedgehog. I closed my pigeon eyes, opened my inner ones. Still the same harmless prickly mammal through all seven planes, no doubt grubbing for early worms. False alarm.
The pigeon relaxed; suddenly a purring coo sounded directly in my ear. I turned my head…and came beak-to-beak with that dratted she-pigeon. With devious feminine cunning she’d seized her chance to snuggle right up close. Just what I needed: a lovestruck feather-bag. Marvellous.
My essence shivered; I spied a squat green imp with bat wings insolently lounging on a distant postbox, enjoying my dreary predicament. Its slimy potbelly shook with laughter. Another purring coo in my ear.
My response was gracious and eloquent; she got a wingtip in the eye and a kick in the plumage. With that I was airborne, streaking towards the imp in hawk-form. Too late. It scarpered off cackling over the rooftops. The hawk circled higher, weighing its options; perhaps a lucky Detonation —
A humming blue nexus rose up before its eyes; the hawk swore and veered aside. Alighting onto the pond statue I watched the dome of crisscrossing force-threads shimmer over the house and fall to earth, flaring along the garden fence. I was sealed in.
I drummed my claws against the statue. Perfect. Just perfect. Not only had I met a fat sourpuss with all the charm of a warty toad, I was stuck doing guard duty and housecleaning in this grotty shithole. And now I couldn’t even leave the grounds to stretch my wings. Today was getting better and better. Cursing, I withdrew to skulk among the camellias as a peevish wasp.
The day wore on, the garden drowsy in the morning heat. A bee droned lazily past. The trees rustled in a gentle breeze.
Movement in the shrubbery. I shrank out of sight, my senses tingling. Three butterflies flitted over the hedge. I scanned through the higher planes — yep, small shifty-looking foliots on the third, each a blobby mass of gristle, bulbous wet eyes and webbed claws. They were approaching the back door…
The wasp rose up behind them. No time for subtlety; I zapped them with pinpoint Infernos. Uttering shrill shrieks, all three burning butterflies plummeted into the pond in a delicious hiss of pungent steam. I changed into a red squirrel and cartwheeled with glee.
My master appeared at the back door, scowling. ‘What the devil was that racket?’
Gloating in triumph, I pointed to the charred remains bobbing among the lilies. ‘Spies! Caught ’em sneaking over the hedge.’
She crouched amid the bullrushes, prodding the sodden fragments of insect with a stick. Her scowl deepened and she rounded on me. ‘Idiot! Those were my spies, bringing back valuable intelligence. And now I’ve lost it all, you clumsy oaf!’ Her hands slashed the air. I spun around, too slow; the Convulsion caught me mid-leap. Sizzling pain tore through me. I crumpled to the grass in a heap of crackling fur, purple flames licking over me as I writhed and gasped.
My master snapped her fingers; the tongues of fire sank into the soil. She turned and stomped inside, leaving a thoroughly-singed squirrel groaning on the lawn.
Dinner wasn’t much better. I slunk between the kitchen and the dining room as a lanky manservant, bearing domed tureens of food. The magician sat primly at the head of the table, watching as I gingerly uncovered each steaming silver platter and ladled out food. The cutlery, the dishes…I shivered at the searing cold, teeth gritted against the freezing aura that clawed at my essence.
My master toyed with her dover sole, a faint smirk tugging at her mouth. ‘That’ll teach you to obey orders, won’t it?’
A clatter of silverware; reaching over for more, the boy had dropped his spoon, spattering brown soup over the lace tablecloth. My master rose with a curse. ‘Idiot boy!’ She smacked his head. He shrank into his chair, red-faced and trembling.
I glanced over at him. He didn’t meet my eyes.
And so the evening drew wearily on. No sign or sound of the Archmage.
Wish he’d hurry up.
To be continued…
 Not that my expert advice was always taken: check out the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
 Not detailed enough for you? Well, I was only trying to speed the story along. Chagwood House was a dreary two-storey mess of arched windows, soaring ceilings (heavily groined), numerous gargoyles (likewise) and whitewashed walls browned by the elements that made everything blur together like melting Tiramisu. Charming.
 Didn’t last long, of course. Never does. “Ooh Korukai, could you just irrigate the Fertile Crescent?” “Could you just divert the Euphrates here and here?” “Look, do you mind planting a few million wheat seeds along the floodplain if you’ve got a second? Thanks.” Didn’t even give me a tea-break. By the time I arrived in Uruk I wasn’t surging with any more of that boundless energy, nope. My back was killing me.
 Nefertiti was always pulling this on Akhenaton, sidling over while he was doing the crop accounts, fluttering her eyelashes and asking how she looked in her nice new head-dress. Poor schmuck; he never learned. Still, even the wisest noblest spirits can sometimes be fooled by that old trick.
 My master, this was. Could you tell?
© Tom Burton, 2020