Woman in Black
Karen A. Romanko








    "How are the experiments coming?" asked Harry.
     "A complete success so far," said Nora. "Not one of my spells has been detected by another magical being." She shifted lazily on the divan.
    "Well, at least we know how you spent your summer vacation this year."
    "Let's not bring up ancient history, Harry. How I spent last summer is my business. I'm a fairy. We're supposed to have secrets."
    "Forget I said anything. So you think you've worked the bugs out of this masking spell thingie?"
    "Yeah, the 'thingie's' working swell. Now let me guess. You've got an idea!"
    "Nora, I'm sensing some hostility--"
    "Right back at ya for the 'summer vacation' dig. Well, c'mon, let's have it. What kind of nefarious scheme have you been hatching?"
    "We're gonna need to get the big guy. We'll swing by Trolltown to pick him up. Then I'll lay out the whole thing on the way."
    "On the way where?"
    "Hey, I'm mortal. We're supposed to have secrets."
    "Do you think this is going well, Harry?"
    "Um...no. Okay--truce. Now, you look lovely on your divan, but we need to find Rollo."
    "Harry, you know I'm not going anywhere without at least a hint."
    "A hint--all right. What has wings and barks?"
    "An Icarus Hound! Ooh, a racing scam. I love racing scams."
    "Yup, we're off to the races."


    Harry and Nora found their way to Rollo's mother's house in Trolltown. They looked like elves in front of the immense oaken door, and their knocks sounded like the flutter of fairy wings, but somehow Rollo's mother heard.
    "Is Rollo here?" they inquired.
    "Well, Rollo's here," she said. "That boy can't manage to hold down a regular job. But his brother, Rollo, has his own place now on the other side of town."
    "Umm..."
    "Rollo, get out here, you've got company!"
    "Coming, Ma!"
    "Collecting tolls is in that boy's blood--you'd think he'd be a whiz at it, but no--all I hear is 'it's boring' or 'I get too cold.' Now, Rollo on the other hand--"
    "Harry, Nora, am I glad to see you!" The troll rushed to his friends, knocking over a pile of dirt.
    "Rollo, my sculpture!" his mother yelled.
    "Sorry, Ma!"
    "Hey, big guy, we're happy to see you too." Nora floated up, bussed Rollo on the cheek, and surreptitiously wiped a little grime from her lips.
    "Aw, shucks," said Rollo.
    "Can we talk?" asked Harry.
    "Sure, let's go to my room."
    "His room, that's a laugh. It'll be his room forever," his mother muttered. "No guests on the bed," she said louder.
    "Yes, Ma."
    "Harry, tell me you have a plan. I've gotta get outta here. She's drivin' me 'round the bend."
    "Settle down, big guy. Of course I've got a plan."
    "I love what you've done with the place," Nora cooed. She surveyed the room: straw bed, wooden bench, a couple of rocks, and Rollo's club.
    "Yeah, it's shaping up pretty well. Still, I need my own digs. It's not right for a troll my age to be livin' with his Ma. So what's the plan, Harry?"
    "Have you still got that griffin?"
    "Oh, sure, Rollo's out back."
    "You named your griffin 'Rollo,' Rollo? Two Rollos weren't enough?"
    "Shush, Harry," said Nora. "Don't worry, sweetie," she told Rollo. "I'll come up with a special name for him once we've been properly introduced."
    "He'll love it!" Rollo blurted.
    Is he trained yet?" asked Harry.
    "Yeah, I finally took him to obedience school. Ma loaned me the money--she wasn't gettin' any sleep. He kept scratchin' at the door and pacin' on the roof. Why you askin' about Rollo, Harry?"
    "I'll explain on the way."
    "On the way where?"
    "What has wings and barks?" asked Nora.
    "An Icarus Hound! Ooh, a racing scam. I love racing scams."
    "Yup, we're off to the aerodrome," said Harry. "Let's get--erm, Rollo."


    Harry and Nora rode on the griffin, Nora at the reins, one magical creature guiding the other. Rollo steered his Clydesdale alongside. The troll's feet almost scraped the ground, but the draft horse seemed accustomed to the oversized load.
    "Okay, I think I've got this thing figured out," said Nora.
    "By all means," said Harry.
    "As I see it, I'll cast a spell to disguise the griffin as an Icarus Hound. Then I'll apply my masking spell to cover up that spell. When the track officials test our 'hound' for spells, he'll come up clean, and we'll walk away with the purse."
    "You are correct, m'lady."
    "But, Harry, Rollo's way too fast. They'll know somethin's up," said Rollo.
    "May I?" asked Nora.
    "Please," said Harry.
    "I'm guessing we're going to weigh Rollo down somehow to make him slower. And, if I know our Harry, he's already lined up an inside man at the track to help us out."
    "Beauty and brains," said Harry.
    "I think this is going better now, Harry, don't you?" asked Nora.
    "Much. Now, what about a name for this beast? Rollo's too confusing and we ought to have one of those clever racing names."
    "Well, he's quite regal. How about King's Gambit? And we can call him Gambit for short."
    "King's Gambit--yeah, that's a great racing name," said Harry.
    "Ooh, I love it," said Rollo. 
    "I think he likes it too," said Nora, petting the griffin. "King's Gambit it is."


    Harry's motley crew arrived at the aerodrome just before sunset, to the baying of stabled Icarus Hounds.
    "Another thing I like about griffins," said Nora. "They're quiet!"
    Gambit made a demure squeak.
    The group passed through the stable area to louder barks, which muffled Harry's calls of, "Red? Red, where are you?"
    Red, Harry's inside man, finally emerged from one of the cubbies. "Nothing like a few dozen watch dogs, eh? Welcome, welcome! The gang's all here, I see!"
    "Can we go someplace quiet to talk?" Harry yelled.
    Red motioned toward the track. "That's the only place."
    "All right, let's get out of here."
    A long walk later, Harry and crew found themselves at the edge of a canyon. The high wooden platforms circling the canyon, which were normally filled with spectators, were empty now. A spindle-shaped rock jutted up from the bottom of the gorge, almost at its center.
    "There she is," said Red. "We've got to teach this beast to fly in a circle around that spindle. What are the odds?"
    "The odds are good," said Rollo. "Rollo--I mean Gambit--is very smart."
    "Can't we just 'magic' him into it? It sure would be a lot easier and faster," said the jockey.
    "There are rules to magic," answered Nora. "I can disguise his true nature, but I can't change it--No, we can't just 'magic' him into it."
    "Okay, let me mount this beast and see what I've got to work with."
    Red jumped on top of the griffin. Gambit reared and squawked and nearly bucked Red to the ground.
    "Sheesh!" cried Nora. "You're a jockey? Aren't you supposed to understand animals?"
    She turned to Gambit and stroked the beast's neck. "He doesn't understand you're just a little shy, does he?"
    "What is this griffin therapy?" cracked Red, sliding off the animal.
    "Obviously she's a natural--a griffin whisperer," said Harry.
    Red started to reply. "I'm not sure this is going to--"
    "Just give her a minute," Harry said.
    Nora continued her counseling. Finally she spoke to the griffin, but glared at Red. "The nice man isn't going to hurt you, is he?"
    "Um--no--I'm not--going to hurt you," Red found himself saying out loud.
    "Okay, you can take him now, but go easy," said Nora.
    "Uh, thanks--yeah, thanks," said Red.


    "Do we really have to do this?" Harry asked.
    "You know we do," said Red. "Gambit needs to learn how to share the  track with his fellow 'hounds'--unless you want me to bring more jockeys in on the deal."
    "That wouldn't be my first choice. But, jeez, that canyon's pretty steep."
    "You'll be wearing a safety harness. And the hounds know what to do. Cowboy up, will ya? This will only be a workout, so you won't be going at top speed."
    "Harness...right...not at top speed..."
    Nora walked beside the men, leading two Icarus Hounds by the reins. "Here, Harry, take your hound. She doesn't bite--much."
    "Very funny," said Harry.
    Rollo followed behind them, pulling a gargantuan hound, while Red led the griffin.
    The four riders and their mounts finally arrived at the canyon. Nora was off like a shot on her hound, seeming very much the old hand, though only a novice.
    Rollo went next. His Icarus Hound made a vertical ascent and just as quickly descended, landing with an unceremonious thump.
    "What's wrong?" asked Rollo.
    'I think you're a little too heavy for her. Sorry," said Red.
    "Aw, I'm too big for everything," cried Rollo.
    "You're next, Harry," Red said.
    "All right, all right--gimme a second." Harry raised his leg over the hound. The animal twitched, and Harry jumped back.
    "C'mon, Harry," yelled Red. "I need another hound out there. This won't be much of a test as it is."
    "What a baby," Rollo muttered. The troll went over to Harry, grabbed him under the armpits, and lifted him onto the Icarus Hound. "You should be thankful, Harry. You're not too BIG."
    "Yeah, I'm overwhelmed with gratitude," said Harry.
    "Okay, Harry, strap yourself in," coached Red. "Then just tap her sides with your heels and she'll do the rest."
    Harry did as instructed and his hound flew off onto the track.
    "All right, Gambit, we're next." Red turned to Rollo. "Don't look so sad, big guy. Just keep thinking of that purse. We're gonna be rich!"


    Race day arrived to the herald of one hundred trumpets. Everyone in Harry's crew had learned his or her part to perfection.
    Red added a few sacks of stones to Gambit's saddle to slow the griffin down to the speed of an Icarus-plus-a-little.
    Nora applied her transformation spell to make the griffin look like an Icarus Hound, and then added her masking spell to hide the first spell from the track officials. She then joined Harry and Rollo in one of the owner's boxes, all three playing the part of prosperous co-owners. Even Rollo had managed to adopt a natty look, but only with days of coaching from Harry and Nora.
    Everything went exactly according to plan. Red held Gambit back just enough, and the faux-hound surged to take the lead in the last lap. The real hounds were no match for a griffin--even a weighted-down one--and Gambit's strong wings pulled him to the finish line several lengths ahead of the rest. Gambit won the race, just as Harry and company had  expected.
    Harry, Nora and Rollo made their way to the winner's circle and collected the purse--several small sacks of gold. They smiled and waved at the admiring throngs.
    As they moved to leave the aerodrome, a woman in a black, with face veiled, approached the group. She offered congratulations all around, and seemed to take extra time shaking Harry's hand. As she left, Harry opened his hand and found the torn pieces of a racing stub.
    "Hey, thanks, lady," Harry yelled after her. "What's she think--I'm the trash man?"
    The woman in black didn't turn around, and neither did the three men who followed her.
    "I think that lady lost a bundle," said Nora.
    "I guess she was absent the day they discussed good sportsmanship," Harry hollered in the lady's direction. Then to his friends, "All right--to the pub with us--drinks are on me!"


    Harry awoke to a deafening rumble, which shook the floorboards of his bungalow. It could mean only one thing--Rollo was knocking on the front door.
    "All right--all right! What time is it?" Harry asked, finally reaching the door.
    "Gambit's gone!" Rollo blurted.
    "What do you mean, gone?"
    "Gone, as in gone--swiped from my backyard."
    "Are you sure?" asked Harry.
    "Well, Gambit's pretty smart, but there's no way he coulda unhooked the latch to his pen."
    "I guess we made our 'Icarus Hound' look a little too good yesterday."
    "Whadaya mean?" asked Rollo.
    "If Gambit's been stolen, someone may want to race our winning hound for themselves. You know, disguise him up a bit."
    "But he's not a hound," said Rollo.
    "Yeah, but they don't know that. We left him transformed, in case anyone was curious for the next few days, remember?"
    "What's all the fuss?" interrupted Nora, wrapping a robe around herself as she entered the room.
    "Rollo thinks Gambit's been stolen," said Harry.
    "Oh, poor baby," said Nora.
    Rollo took no note of the potentially embarrassing situation. "What am I gonna do without my Gambit," Rollo wailed.
    "Cheer up, sweetie," said Nora. "It should be easy enough to find him."
    "What? Really?" Rollo's big troll face brightened--to about scowl-level--positively beaming for a troll.
    "Well, a spell can serve as a kind of homing device for its caster, so I should be able to zero in on him. There's just one eensie problem."
    "Oh?" asked Harry.
    "Um...the masking spell leaves no signature--that's part of its charm--so I couldn't home in on that. I can find him via the transformation spell, but I'd have to remove the masking spell to do that."
    "Can't you do that?" asked Rollo.
    "Oh sure, I can do it from here--it'll find him, as it were."
    "So what's the problem?" asked Rollo.
    "Oh, no," said Harry.
    "Oh, yes," said Nora. "The problem is that whoever has Gambit will see him in his true Griffin form and know that we changed him."
    "Yikes," said Harry. "We'll have to think about this for a while."
"But we're gonna get him back, aren't we?" asked Rollo.
    "Of course we are, big guy," Nora soothed. "We'll just have to figure out how."


    The woman in black paced back and forth through the dirt of her immense stables, looking like the dark center of a small tornado. "There's something hinky about that beast," she said.
    "You're just not used to having a winner in here, boss," said Bruno, one of her henchmen.
    "Excuse me?" she said.
    "Yeah, there's definitely something hinky about him."
    "That's better. What did they call this weird one?"
    "King's Gambit."
    "King's Gambit...Kings Gambit...We're gonna need a new name. I've got it--he's Queen's Knight now."
    "That's a good one, boss."
    "So thrilled to have your approval," she said.
    A wide-shouldered man appeared from inside the stall. "Uh, boss, you better come see this. The hound just turned into somethin' else."
    "'Somethin' else'? What are you talking about? I'm surrounded by neanderthals."
    The woman in black entered the stall. She could see the outlines of a griffin through the black gauze of her veil.
    "Ah," she said. "Our hound is not a hound after all. This explains much. Bruno, Frank, get in here," she yelled.
   More burly bodies entered.
    "Everybody, listen up. We're dealing with people who know magic, and I'm guessing they're on their way. Let's be ready."


    Harry, Nora, and Rollo sat at a discreet distance from the stables.
    "I sure wish we had another body with us," Harry said. "Good ole Red sure didn't let any grass grow under his feet."
    "It was his prerogative to leave town--kind of a good idea, when you come to think of it," said Nora. "Take the money and run."
    "It's just that--"
    "I know--ever my brave little soldier." She patted Harry's hand in mock sincerity. "This is what we have to work with, so let's make the best of it."
    "It's just that--"
    "Yeah, it's a good plan," said Rollo, "but you two stay behind me. I'm the one who's the real troll."
    "Don't worry--we'll leave all the heavy lifting to you," said Harry.
    Nora applied her transformation spell, and she and Harry morphed into the meanest looking trolls ever seen that side of Trolltown.
    "Remember to stomp your feet and look mean," said Rollo.
    Harry and Nora practiced foot-stomping and teeth-gnashing until Rollo seemed satisfied.
    "Let's move out," he said.
    The three "trolls" approached the stable in full frontal assault, as was the troll way.
    The woman in black appeared from inside the stables. "I've been expecting you," she said. "Welcome to my humble camp."
    The trio froze at this unexpected development. Rollo finally started to stomp his feet, and the ground shook. Harry and Nora tried to follow suit, but spent most of their energy trying to stay upright during Rollo's seismic dance.
    The woman in black seemed unfazed. She approached the trolls and sidled up to Rollo. "So where you been all my life, tall, dark and lumpy?"
    "Um--ma'am..."
    "Even if I'm not your type, I can always use a big boy like you in my gang."
    "Um--Harry..."
    "C'mon, who are you guys kidding? I'm onto the transformation spell," the woman said at last. "I was expecting something, but this is priceless."
    Harry and Nora tried more foot-stomping.
    The woman in black went over to Harry-troll and gave him one big push, sending him tumbling to the ground.
    "Look at me beating up a troll!" said the woman. "Okay, people, the jig's up."
    Nora de-cloaked.
    "Ah, a fairy--it figures," said the lady. "You had your wings camouflaged at the track."
    "Natch," said Nora. She removed the transformation spell from Harry.
    "And a puny human. Ain't you a pair?"
    "But why didn't our real troll scare you?" asked Harry.
    "I saw him at the track, remember? I knew he was housebroken."
    "Well, since the jig's up, as you say, let's open negotiations," said Nora. "We want our griffin back. I assume it'll cost us. What's your price?"
    "Just fork over the purse--it should have been mine anyway. You magical types really crease my veil. I mean there's cheating and then there's cheating. A girl goes to all the trouble to bring in a ringer, paint him up a little, spread her bets around, get some long-shot odds, and you come up with this magically enhanced monster. What's the world coming to?"
    "The whole purse is out of the question," said Harry. "We'll go 60/40."
    The woman in black let out a whistle and three burly men appeared like magic.
    "Whether or not your troll is wild, there's going to be a dust-up. Would you like to reconsider?"
    "50/50, that's my final offer," said Harry.
    The woman whistled again. Three more minions appeared.
    "Shall we try again?" she asked.
    "40/60?"
     Another whistle.
    "All right, all right--I get the picture. One of us will have to go back to get the money."
    "Let the fairy go--I don't want her type around here anyway--makes me nervous. But, remember, missy, I've got your friends here. No tricks."
    "Yeah--no tricks."
    Nora was about to fly off, when the ground began to rumble. She could see a troll off in the distance.
    "What, another one?" asked the woman. "You guys really are priceless."
    The troll headed straight for the woman's bodyguards. Men, even brawny ones, normally scattered at a troll's approach, but the henchmen thought they were on to the trick--another domesticated troll. They stood their ground.
    One swing of the club, and the troll had mowed down three of the woman's stooges.
    Discovering his inner troll, Rollo picked up his club and moved to assist. The two trolls mopped up the rest of the woman's gang in no time.
    That left just the woman in black. She tried to run, but Nora conjured a club of her own--not as big as Rollo's, but big enough.
    "Unlike my friend, I am not housebroken," Nora told the woman. 
    The lady stopped in her tracks.
    Rollo's mother grabbed her boy by the ear. "It's a good thing I followed you. I knew you'd mess this up. How are you ever going to amount to anything? Your brother--HE knows how to pull a racing scam."
    "Let go-a-me, Ma!"
    "You didn't tell us your mother was in on this," Harry said, trying to force his puckered puss into a more pleasing aspect.
    "He didn't know, poor dear," said Rollo's mom.
    "Well, you saved the day," said Nora.
    "Yeah--um--thanks," said Harry.
    "Don't worry, young man. I'm not going to ask for a cut. A mother does these things for her child--she doesn't expect a reward. Rollo needs the money to set himself up. I'm sure you two need it as well. You could all take a page from Rollo's brother, Rollo. That boy's a paragon."
    "Yes, Ma," the three said in unison.
 

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