‘Look, Tara! We’ve arrived! I can see land, it must be Iceland! Tara… Wake up!’ Missy is excitedly shaking Granny’s shoulder. ‘Look! Hardly no ice at all. It’s all green and black and-’
Granny discreetly pulls out her earplugs and leans over her sister to have a look through the window. A six hour flight and Missy has been talking non-stop, effectively hindering Granny from getting her usual flight induced sleep.
The plane circles the ragged outskirts of the volcanic island and she can see scattered villages before a rather big city comes into view, Reykjavik. A surge of excitement flutters in her stomach. They’ll rent a car at the Keflavik Airport and follow the coastline to the village of Staðarfell, where they have reason to believe Magnus Darkling, the purpose of their well-planned journey, is actually living.
Upon Granny’s return from Italy, after performing the dangerous exorcise of her pregnant daughter and stripping her of her powers, she told Missy everything. Her sister had first gone into a real hissy fit about not having gone to Italy with Granny, but when she told her about Taïga’s father, she forgot everything about her missed trip. They just had to find Magnus and make sure he’d leave Shasta alone. After all she had been punished enough and no witch equals no oath. Most important of all to Granny; by abandoning any claims on Shasta, he would never get to know about Taïga. They just had to find him. Easy peasy.
But Magnus Darkling had not been easy to find. Even the palantìr only indicated a country, not a precise address. And even that was only after using some of Taïga’s hair from a brush to canalize the question. When the hazy contours of the volcanic island showed up for a brief moment, Missy remembered his stories from their time in Paris, and they took a chance on him having returned to where he had once grown up.
The Grey sisters alternate at the wheel, carefully nosing north along Highway no 1, the ringroad that circles the whole island. Keeping the cold, grey waters of the North Atlantic Ocean on their left, they drive through Reykjavik and first take an almost 6 km long tunnel under Hvalfjörðu fjord, then they pass over the next fjord, Borgarfjörður, on a long bridge connecting smaller islands. After driving through the outskirts of a smaller town, they head inland on highway no 60. The little VW New Beetle has a GPS option that the Hertz assistant helpfully programmed for them, but Granny mutters that they could have spared the expense, it is not as if the Icelandic highway system is as complicated as in other European countries. She would also have preferred something more solid than the little German car to take them through such a wild landscape. One of the Toyota Landcruiser automatic four-wheel drives had seemed like a much better option, but had revealed to be too expensive for their limited budget.
It takes them just as long as the flight overseas to drive through the breathtaking, rough volcanic landscapes before they arrive at the outskirts of Staðarfell where they have rented a discreet cottage. But upon arrival, the cottage seems to be a three storey high apartment building in the center of the village, right opposite a low school building. Granny argues the GPS must be wrong, but Missy stops the car and jumps out.
‘Let’s ask,’ she says leaving the car idling at the curb.
Granny leans over and turns the ignition off. There are rules about idling vehicles, and people seem to be very law abiding in this country. Missy waves for her from the door where she has checked the names on the mailboxes. She shouts that it is the right address after all.
Granny steps out and stretches. The sky is a pale blue and the air is fresh with a hint of sea. The neighborhood seems calm enough, maybe because it is Sunday and the school is not in session. She bets it will be another story tomorrow morning. She looks over at Missy who is talking to someone on the interphone.
Apparently taking care of the luggage is up to her. She pulls the huge suitcase out of the car and half lifts, half drags it on its stuck wheels towards the door.
‘How come this isn’t a cottage? There must surely be a mistake?’ Granny grumbles, impatiently waiting for the owner to arrive and clear this misunderstanding.
A slim woman in her thirties, with her fair hair cut in a short feathery style, opens the door. She is wearing a wholesome skirt and gloves, as if she was heading out taking a stroll or whatever the people in the little town do with their spare time. Her knitted turtle neck sweater sets off the blue in her eyes and Granny marvels over the sheer number of fair haired people she has seen since their arrival.
‘Dallilja Jonsdottir. Welcome to Staðarfell.’ The landlady smiles an honest, broad smile and shakes Missy’s hand vigorously.
‘Melissa Grey. We are absolutely delighted to be here. This is my sister, Tara.’
Granny tears her eyes away from her contemplation of the apartment building and shakes the woman’s hand politely.
‘I think there must be some mistake. I believe we insisted on a discreet cottage,’ she says drily.
Dallilja Jonsdottir seems genuinely surprised. ‘A cottage? But… I can assure you there are no cottages for rent in the whole area.’
Missy looks sheepish. ‘There is no problem at all, we’d love to pass a few days in the middle of the action. Don’t we, Tara?’ she adds. Jingling the keys, she ushers her sister inside, assuring Dallilja Jonsdottir that they will be perfectly all right.
‘Such a charming woman. Did you know her name is a mixture of “valley” and “lily”? Lily of the valley, such a romantic name, don’t you think so, too?’ Missy gushes, preceding her sister up the last steps to the third floor.
Granny struggles with the suitcase. Never again will she use magic to pack. She had not realized how heavy the suitcase would be when the magic was gone. And Missy blubbering like this could only mean one thing. She has something to hide. Probably concerning the reservation of an apartment in the center of town instead of a cottage in the countryside.
After unpacking, they discover the minimalist apartment. It might not have a view over the fjord, Hvammsfjörður, but the interior is light and cozy, and very functional. The little kitchen is well equipped and there are basics in the fridge and the cupboard. They will have to find a grocery, though. While Granny puts a kettle on the stove, she can hear Missy squealing excitedly from the living room.
‘Tara! Come and see! There’s a flat screen TV, and a tablet! And maps and even an IKEA catalogue. Do you think we could redo Bayou Oaks? I just love their sofas, they look so sleek and comfy.’ She turns the glossy pages of the catalogue.
‘A tablet? Like Taïga’s?’ Granny puts down the tray with two steaming mugs on the low, birchwood table. ‘Let me see. How does it work?’ Awkwardly she picks up the iPad, turning it in her hands. But she puts it down again, pushing it towards her sister. ‘Go ahead. Have at it. I’ll go check for a phone book.’
‘Wait!’ Missy picks up a little booklet from under the coffee table. ‘Instructions. But I know how it works, it’s exactly the same as Taïga’s. Look. I’ll show you.’
‘No need for that. I prefer a good old phone book.’
‘But there’s a phonebook in here.’ Missy stabs at the screen. ‘With more addresses than you can ever find in a dumb phonebook.’
Granny sits down on the couch. ‘OK. Show me how it works.’
Missy turns the tablet this way and that, finally admitting she is at a loss.
‘I don’t know how to start it, it is not exactly the same as Taïga’s after all. Here, read this.’ She hands her sister the instruction book.
Painstakingly Granny starts leafing through all the pages in search for the English part, while Missy scrutinizes the smooth sides of the tablet for an on/off button.
‘I still think that you should have brought the palantír with you,’ she grumbles, abandoning the tablet on the table and trying to read over Granny’s shoulder. ‘This takes too much time.’
‘We agreed before leaving not to use magic, Missy. Let’s not draw unnecessary attention to us.’ She picks up the device and turns it on. The screen lights up with a multitude of icons on it. ‘Voilà! Let’s use this, err… technological magic to fulfill our task…’
‘Well, we’re indoors, aren’t we? If we shut the blinds and pull the curtains, nobody could see us. And I don’t know how we could be able to find Magnus on an iPad, I don’t think he has a website advertising his whereabouts… Hey, wait! Look at that – there’s Angry Birds on it! And something called Candy Crush!’ She reaches out to take the tablet but Granny holds it out of reach.
‘Missy, you’re not here to play! Stay focused!’
Grumpily Missy sits down next to her. ‘But where shall we start?’
‘There is something called Safari-’
‘Oh, that’s so exciting! I love lions and-‘
Granny silences her sister with a look, feeling slightly superior in her newly acquired knowledge from leafing through the instruction book.
Two hours later, the two sisters are seated in a taxi on their way out of town. Granny is seething and Missy is sulking, but obeying to the letter her older sister’s recommendation not to talk in front of the driver. Especially as everyone they have met so far speaks impeccable English.
But as soon as the driver parks, she considers the ban on speaking is over. She gets out of the taxi, checking out the ultra-modern spa complex.
‘See? A taxi was much faster. We would probably still be programming the GPS at this hour if you had gotten your way.’
Granny struggles out of the backseat and fumbles around in her purse for loose change.
‘Are you even sure we’ll find him here, in Staðarfell?’ Missy continues. ‘I don’t even think it’s on the maps…’
‘We agreed on this location. It was even you who remembered him talking about it.’ Granny pays the taxi.
‘I know. But there must surely be an easier way to find him – without using magic, of course,’ she quickly adds.
‘We googled, binged and crystalled him just a few hours ago.’
‘But without results. I was thinking doing some field research.’
‘That is exactly what we were supposed to be doing if you had not set us up for the SPA.’
‘It’s not my fault the calendar was automatically set for the same day,’ Missy justifies. ‘No. I mean, maybe we should have stayed in Reykjavik where there are clubs. Vampires love an active nightlife.’ She walks up the stairs and stops at the door, looking down at her sister. ‘It would do you good to get out and meet some people. Loosen up a little. Being modern.’
Granny stops. ‘I don’t need to be modern.’
‘Really? You don’t even know how to turn on a computer without help.’
‘I turned the tablet on.’ Granny looks up at the imposing, modern facade. ‘And I still think we’re wasting our time. We should be out looking for him here, in Staðarfell. Or better yet – catch up on some sleep.’
‘You slept on the plane the whole way here. Sundhöll Spa is a treat for us! To get our minds and bodies in shape after the long flight – I think we’re worth it! And it was so easy to book, just a click. I even paid on-line, and got us a taxi. No hassle.’
Granny rolls her eyes and pushes through the glass doors. This is what happens when you let Missy fiddle with a tablet. She only has herself to blame, she shouldn’t have left the device to her sister. But she is secretly delighted over her initiative. It almost makes her forget about the less fortunate action concerning the booking of the apartment in town. But then again, it came right back at Missy, as there is no particular night life to enjoy in Staðarfell.
After getting pampered and massaged, the sisters put on their bathing suits and walk outside to try the different pools. They are all part of a system with different temperatures. Granny puts a foot into the cold water of a smaller pool and freezes.
‘It’s too cold, huh?’ Missy says.
‘Of course not. It is all about self-control. Everything you feel is in your mind,’ Granny answers and steps down the ladder, crisping her jaws at the onslaught of cold. She quickly takes another step down and lets go of the handles. The ice cold water molds her body with shocking speed and spluttering and waving her arms she frenetically turns around towards the ladder again before she’ll have a seizure.
‘Well, you don’t need to use your mind much to draw the conclusion that this pool is probably covered by ice under normal circumstances. They probably just sent someone out to pick it clean while we were getting massage.’ Missy looks around her, shivering in the cold air. ‘Maybe we should get back inside and try out the bar?’
But instead she finds herself half running behind her blue frozen sister in the direction of the geothermal lake.
Mist is rising from the water, indicating it is warm. Granny doesn’t hesitate. She wades into the lake, enjoying the tickling feeling of the warm water against her frozen skin.
‘Come on, Missy! It is amazing, the water is really warm.’
‘I know, I’ve learned my lesson: “It’s a geothermal area, producing natural pollution-free heat energy” blablabla…’ Shivering in the cold air, she hugs herself. ‘Why couldn’t Magnus have chosen to settle in Bora Bora, or Florida, where the air isn’t freezing cold! And where there are lots of dark handsome surfers…’ Missy sighs longingly.
‘Surfers. The cliché is; blond.’
‘Whatever. The only sight of life around here is possibly polar bears – and the troll massage therapist.’
‘Missy!’ Granny looks sternly at her sister, motioning for her to join her in the water. ‘Don’t be so negative. She gave good massage. Now, are you coming or not? I have something important to discuss – out of earshot of everyone.’
‘You must mean no one.’ Missy makes a wide sweeping gesture with her arm to underline the absence of people. But she follows Granny deeper into the water nevertheless, mostly because it is becoming too cold to just stand around in a bathing suit.
The warm water is a lovely contrast to the chill spring air and the sisters swim further into the hot springs. Granny gets outdistanced by her younger, more vigorous, sister and that annoys her immensely.
‘Pffui… Wait… Wait… We cannot be overheard here!’
She struggles to catch up with Missy who stops and threads water.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, absolutely,’ Granny pants. ‘Now, Missy, listen carefully – this is what we shall do tomorrow…’
But Missy is not up to letting herself be bossed around by her sister. Especially when it involves her reading through the telephone book. The paper version.
‘Why do you always get to decide? Just because you’re older? And why are you the only one who’s allowed to use magic, huh? When you want to… I know I only have access to basic magic, but it’s called basic for a reason.’
‘Go ahead. Tell me.’
‘Like clothes, of course.’ When Granny just glares at her she continues, ‘Ever heard about a basic wardrobe? Basics are the absolutely most necessary items in your wardrobe. Magic is the same.’
They are soon quarrelling, luckily out of earshot of anyone.
They sleep through most of the next day, jetlagged and tired after the SPA experience. But on Tuesday morning they are up and about as usual, bickering over breakfast. Granny doesn’t approve of Missy’s use of the tablet. It is way too easy to click and pay, and Granny wants control over their budget. The SPA package has set them back several hundred dollars. Then, this very morning, their doorbell rang and Granny buzzed up a delivery from a nearby grocery store, even though they had agreed on going sometime today. They also disagree on the best way to spend their time.
‘A vacation is all about combining leisure with pleasure,’ Missy states, adding an extra spoonful of cloudberry jam to her toast. ‘This is so good, we should order some to bring with us home.’
‘We are not on vacation. We are on a mission.’
Most of all, Missy wants to meet people, while Granny is only preoccupied with the best way to look for Magnus.
She tries to win Granny over, using her older sister’s taste for cultural events by announcing that their apartment might be situated across from a noisy school, but the big building with all the European flags is some museum or other that may be worth the visit.
‘… not far, in fact it’s just around the corner.’
‘We are not here to visit, Missy. We have a purpose. An important matter to settle and not much time to do it. We’re here for a week and need to put that time to maximum use.’
‘But Tara, as you’re always going on about wasting time I think I have a way…’
Granny raises her eyebrows. She has an idea about what her sister is going to say next.
‘… it would be much faster if we just used our wands and-’
‘I said: NO magic! At. All.’
They finish their breakfast in an uneasy silence. Granny knows how stubborn and spiteful her younger sister can be. Even though she frequently wishes Missy would be quiet more often, she is not prepared to spend the whole day with her moping.
‘Ahem…’ Granny clears her throat. She decides to give her sulking sister a hint about the day’s program, just to try to cheer her up a little. Pushing back her chair, she announces, ‘I have prepared a surprise for today, but if you’re sulking, I’ll just go on my own.’
There. She said it. Not waiting for an answer, she puts her empty plate in the dishwasher and sets off towards the bathroom.
Missy is too eager to find out what her sister has prepared to continue moping, and Granny hasn’t even finished brushing her teeth before her excited sister barges into the bathroom.
‘I love surprises! Please hurry up!’ She throws her bathrobe on the floor and steps into the combined bathtub and shower. ‘And if I do your thing, you’ll do mine? Deal?’
‘Deal.’ Granny rinses her toothbrush, hiding a smile. So, it worked. Her sister might be extremely chatty and annoying, but she doesn’t hold grudges. At least not when it suits her purposes.
‘There’s no hurry, we have an appointment in an hour. Have you brushed your teeth yet?’
A black and white ad in the newspaper had drawn her attention the other night. Mostly because it was in English and thus stood out from the Icelandic gibberish but also because her critical eye centered in on the choice of preposition.
‘In Iceland,’ she mutters. ‘Should be “on”. It’s an island, after all.’
But reading through the short ad destined to tourists gave her a splendid idea. She thinks the best way to try to find Magnus is by air. As they can’t ride around on their brooms, she decided to call the number in the ad and charter the hot air balloon on the picture. But to her dismay the rain is pouring down this morning, making her unsure of whether they should go or not. She is on her way to cancel when the owner of the venue calls. He asks if they won’t mind putting everything off until the day after.
‘No, of course not… I understand… Yes… Yes… Certainly… See you tomorrow, then.’ She hangs up.
Missy has followed the one sided conversation and excitedly claps her hands. ‘Visiting a museum is perfect for a day like this!’
The sun plays hide and seek with dark grey clouds on their way to the Modern museum that is proudly housing an exposition of…
‘Wallpapers? Do you sincerely expect I’m going to pay for looking at wallpapers?’
‘No, of course not. I already paid on the site, when I ordered the tickets and the guided tour.’
Granny gasps, but is prevented from snapping back at her sister by the appearance of yet another tall, blonde, blue-eyed woman. Their guide. And an elder man, apparently another visitor joining them for the tour.
Dutifully Granny tags along, listening to the guide talking about hand painted wallpapers, Chinese silk wallpapers, nailed wallpapers, ceiling wallpapers, 18th century taxes on wallpapers and death penalties. She perks up a little and decides to tell Taïga about the English craze for wallpapers and how falsifying the protection tags was punished by the death penalty. Good old England, always uncompromising.
Steini Sturluson, the elder man, is more interested in Missy than the exhibition. He explains that he has worked for a wallpaper company almost all his life, and went here mostly to see if one of the papers from his enterprise had made the cut. He is extremely flattered that Missy takes such an interest in his job.
They hit it off from the start and they continue their animated discussion well after the tour is finished. Tired after so much walking and standing, they take a seat on one of the stylish, modern couches in front of a whole wall of what looks like dandelion seedheads. Something fitting in a nursery, Granny thinks. She is sitting in the corner, leaning against the armrest with her cheek against her hand, being bored out of her mind and not caring if it shows. She stays with her sister and her suitor, trying not so much to be a polite fifth wheel…
What are they talking about? Fishing? Her sister has never fished in her life, so how come she knows so much about recreational fishing? Hooks and bait and poppers and whatnot. All extremely boring. She supposes she could leave her sister to it, she knows the address to the apartment after all.
But then again, no.
She’ll just wait it out. Counting the dandelion seedheads against the pale, pink background…
‘You’ll see, Missy. It’s as comfortable as it is silent.’
The sisters stare in awe at the brightly colored hot air balloon sitting in the middle of the yard, waiting for them. The morning had started out with an insistent rain, but the skies has progressively cleared and even though it is still grey and a little foggy, the weather forecast is optimistic.
‘It’s beautiful… Is it really made of silk?’
‘Eh… I don’t think so.’ Granny searches her mind. ‘Maybe before, but now I think the envelope is usually made of rip-stop nylon.’
‘Well. I think it’s silk. It’s much more romantic than nylon.’
‘OK.’ Granny rolls her eyes. If it makes her happy to think it’s silk, silk it is… She clears her throat. ‘Now… You’ll stay here while I go inside to tell them we’re here. Don’t touch anything.’
‘I won’t,’ Missy promises.
Granny goes through the formalities in the office, signing off on insurance papers and showing her false FFA license, assuring the owner of her capability of navigating a hot air balloon. For once new technology had been useful. She learnt the essentials on how to maneuver a hot air balloon from the wikiHow pages, and the owner seems to be convinced by her technical language – inflation fan, fuel cylinder, capacity of the basket, quality of the envelope, rip lines and parachute valves.
She finds her sister in exactly the same spot as where she left her. The two ladies take place in the wicker basket. Granny checks the vital equipment is there; maps, altimeter, first aid kit and most important – a fire extinguisher.
Missy cranes her neck, staring up through the gaping mouth of the hot air balloon. ‘Wow! It’s huge! And empty!’
Granny sighs, and stops her inventory. ‘It’s a hot air balloon, Missy. Of course it’s huge – each cubic foot of air contained in a hot air balloon can only lift about 7 grams…’ Granny is happy she’s can show off her encyclopedic knowledge.
‘Oh… That explains the size. But how does it work?’
‘Well, warmer air rises in cooler air. So we’ll heat the air with a burner unit and the balloon will rise – with us.’
But the technical explanations are boring to Missy. She looks at the cardboard box Granny brought with her from the office.
‘What did they give you?’
Together they open it. Inside is a courtesy kit containing their picnic and some brochures, but more important – a map and high end binoculars. She picks them up and fiddles with the zoom while Granny leafs through a little ornithology book, looking at the detailed illustrations.
‘These binoculars are amazing! I can see the people going about their business in the apartments over there and…’ Missy lets the sentence trail.
‘I’m sure they are great. Put them down before they call the police, and help me with the burner, please.’
‘Wait a sec.’ Missy chuckles. ‘Oups! He just took off his underwear and-’
‘Missy! Put those dang binoculars away and give me a hand! Please!?!’
Missy blushes and reluctantly she puts her binoculars away. ‘Are we going on our own? Isn’t there a pilot?’
Granny straightens her back, proudly answering, ‘I have got a license.’
Missy looks at her, raising her eyebrows.
Granny looks guilty. ‘OK. There were lots of them on the Internet, and it was quite easy to use the printer, really.’
‘And you take the liberty to admonish me? I’ve never falsified a docu-’
‘Shht!’ Granny hisses, busying herself with the burner. ‘We couldn’t really afford to have someone overhearing us, now could we? And, as you probably have noticed, there’s not much room in here!’
‘Err…’ Missy doesn’t understand what the cramped space has to do with anything, but she clams up – for the time being.
The basket lifts and sways when the owner and his assistant untie the ropes. Granny and Missy pulls them into the basket before posing them in tidy coils under the little bench.
‘You have fuel for at least 6 hours, but we expect you back in four.’
‘Roger that,’ Missy shouts excitedly, trying to keep her balance in the swaying basket as it continues rising.
Granny actions the burner and with a hiss the balloon shoots upward a little faster and steadier.
People on the sidewalk stop and watch them rise. Missy waves to a little girl, feeling incredibly proud of being the chosen one in the hot air balloon.
Granny is too preoccupied to notice. Her eyes are darting from the burner to the surrounding trees and the roof, gauging the distance and the potential danger. She would die of shame if the balloon hit something on its way up.
The owner shouts some last minute advice before they get out of earshot. Granny answers, smiling down at them, assuring they’d be back well before sunset at 9 pm.
The sky is blue, and even though it isn’t exactly freezing it is quite cold and they both appreciate their thick woolen sweaters and sturdy underwear. Of course they complain a little, regretting not having worn pants and better shoes, but all in all they are keeping warm. There is a thermos with hot tea, and even hot water bottles and two blankets. They try out the powerful binoculars supplied by the hot air balloon company, watching the town beneath them.
Granny points out their apartment and the Modern Museum but slowly they leave Staðarfell behind. Missy marvels over how comfortable it is to fly in a balloon, certainly more comfortable than a broom. They silently drift with the wind until they get the hang on the way to navigate.
Which basically consists of going up and down, using the burner.
The only sound is the occasional hiss of the burner and some noisy seagulls circling high above the waves on the lookout for a fisherman’s boat on its way to shore.
Suddenly Missy breaks the silence. ‘What happens if the wind takes us out over the ocean? Because that’s where we’re heading right now.’
‘Oh, my! We’ll probably drown.’ Granny fumbles in a red box with a white cross on it and Missy can see Band-Aids, gauze and lots of other first aid paraphernalia. Triumphantly she holds up a canister with shaving foam.
‘Do you really think now is the time to shave your legs? Nobody cares anyway, you’re wearing pantyhose.’
Granny stares at her sister, then she bursts out laughing so hard she almost can’t explain what the shaving foam is for.
‘We’ll squirt some over the edge of the basket to check the wind below us,’ she chuckles, drying tears of mirth from her eyes.
Missy is not a little offended. She looks out over the sea, waiting for her sister to get her act together again. How could she have known about the shaving foam? It would have been more logical to just spit. She turns towards her sister to share her idea, but Granny just puts an altimeter in her hand, instructing her to keep it at 500 meters.
Missy watches the shaving foam blow away far beneath. She looks at the numbers on the altimeter. If she understands the device right, they should go down about 50 meters to catch an inward wind. Wow.
They let the wind take them inland, towards the mountains where a high waterfall drops several hundred meters down into a fjord. They thrift lower, the almost nonexistent breeze bringing them in over the blue-green water. It seems safe enough to sit down for a while, so they decide on eating while admiring the view.
‘Don’t you think we could use the burner to heat the sandwiches? Like panini toasts,’ Missy suggests.
‘Absolutely not! What about the mayonnaise, huh? It would be all disgusting.’ Granny scrunches her nose.
‘I didn’t think about that. Well, the burner is too high up anyway… I guess we’ll catch up on a hot meal tonight.’
The picnic is delicious, and the old ladies devour the chicken sandwiches sitting close together on the bench covered in warm blankets. They rinse the cold lunch down with Egil’s Pilsner – Icelandic beer that make them shudder and freeze. They decide to share what’s left of the tea to warm them up a little.
They don’t really notice that the balloon has dropped even lower, the envelope is now below the top of the fjord’s steep sides.
‘I think we’re too close…’ Granny throws off her blanket, leaning over the edge of the basket to check how close they are to the water underneath them. Too close. She searches her brain for what she knows about dangerous winds close to the mountains. She follows the steep mountainside with her yes, up, towards the sky. Thermals. The ones birds rely upon. Just like the falcon high above.
‘You’re right, let’s check out what’s above.’ Missy reaches up and actions the burner before Granny has the time to prevent her from doing so.
The balloon is rising when suddenly it shudders violently. Then, slowly at first, it starts turning on itself. The fjord falls away beneath them as the balloon spirals upwards, faster and faster.
‘OhMyGod! A thermal! Hold on!’
Granny sits down on the floor, tugging at Missy’s skirt. Her sister stumbles, off balance, then falls heavily next to her. She straightens her glasses, scooting closer. They hold on to each other as the basket rocks and tosses on its way up, the fragile envelope missing the rough volcanic rock with only inches to spare.
A sudden surge of wind pushes them inland. The basket stabilizes but the sisters sit immobile for a few seconds. Then Granny frees herself from her sister’s grip and stands up, a little shakily. She smoothes out her skirt and arranges her hair, lifting her chin and looking down her nose at Missy, who is still covering on the floor.
‘Are you crazy? You could have gotten us both killed!’
‘But we made it, didn’t we?’ Missy looks a little sick, but Granny is not easily coaxed over.
‘Not thanks to you,’ she sputters, hoping her sister won’t get sick in the basket. ‘You’re supposed to land when this happens.’
‘Land? In the water?’
Granny pretends she didn’t hear her sister’s last comment. She throws a glance upwards, checking that the burner’s pilot light is not blown out.
‘I didn’t think so,’ Missy adds, struggling to her feet and pushing up her glasses. ‘And you said there weren’t supposed to be so much wind in the evening,’ she points out.
‘The owner might have mentioned the occurrence of thermals,’ Granny mutters, checking the altimeter. ‘Oh, my. We’re a little too high I think.’
‘Really?’ Missy looks down at the green, fertile plateau interspersed with sharp peaks, some you could imagine were active volcanoes not so long ago.
But Granny doesn’t have the heart to admire the strange, almost alien, landscape.
‘How are we ever going to get back?’ she moans, staring blankly in front of her.
‘You’re the one with the license, not me.’ Missy makes a show out of picking up her binoculars and scrutinizing the horizon.
A tense silence installs. Granny follows her sister’s initiative and picks up her binoculars, too. The air balloon slowly drifts forward and the two old ladies carefully scan the ground for a sign of Magnus.
‘So… Do you really think we’ll catch him strolling over the lava fields?’ Missy asks innocently.
‘No. But if we are observant and pay attention to details, we might get a hint of where he is living.’
‘Hmm… I think we should head over there.’
Missy points to her right and Granny can see the spire of what looks suspiciously like a stave church. Her airhead sister may well have a point… Magnus is not old school, sleeping in coffins in a mausoleum, but it is as good a place as any other to look for clues.
Worriedly she scans the sky. No sight of rain, but the sun is already on its way down, coloring the sky in spectacular shades of pink.
They approach the old cemetery and reluctantly Granny lets Missy navigate while she concentrates on scanning the ground.
‘Watch out, Missy! Don’t get us too low…’
‘But it’s getting dark and we have to see the ground, right?’ Missy grabs her binoculars. ‘Are you sure there aren’t any night goggles in the box with birdwatching stuff? We should have asked for those army things where everything turns green and-’
‘I can see perfectly well, these binoculars are really something, it’s like I’m practically standing on the ground…’ she lets the sentence trail, concentrating hard, her binoculars sweeping the quickly darkening surface below.
That’s maybe because we are practically advancing at ground level, Missy thinks, watching the fir trees almost level with the basket. Better get the balloon up a little. She reaches for the handle commanding the burner when her eye catches something dark against the setting sun.
The church is approaching way too rapidly and they are way too low. Missy looks at Granny, but she is busy scanning the ground. A decision. Quick. She fiddles with the anchor, unfastening it. But the balloon doesn’t slow down.
‘Tara! Watch out!’ She braces herself for the crash, closing her eyes.
The hot air balloon stops abruptly just in time, but the fierce jerk makes the unsuspicious Granny lose her binoculars.
The old lady is so angry she can hardly speak. ‘Why did you do that!?!’
‘I didn’t do it on purpose… We had to stop, didn’t we? Anyway, they wouldn’t have slipped over the rim if you hadn’t bent over the-’
‘No.’ Granny shakes her head. ‘The anchor! Why did you throw out the anchor? You should have cut off the ballast! Just look!’ Granny points an accusing finger at the ground.
Missy picks up her binoculars from the floor and directs them downwards. The smooth green lawn is scarred, labored by the heavy anchor.
‘Uh-oh. I’m sorry… I think I missed the tombstones, though. That’s rather positive… Isn’t it?’
‘I think I saw something…’ Granny takes Missy’s binoculars from her hands.
‘You saw what?’
‘Wait… What the-? Look over there!’
Granny fiddles with the settings on the complicated instrument to get it adapted to her eyesight, but the excitement makes her fumble and the binoculars escapes her hands. Luckily they fall inside the wicker basket this time.
‘Where? What? What did you see?’
‘Just over there, in the hills – towards the setting sun!’ Granny fumbles on the floor after the binoculars. ‘A rider? On a black horse? Can you see him?’
‘You just took my binoculars,’ Missy grumbles.
‘They are my binoculars! … I could have sworn I recognized… Ah, here they are!’ But when Granny gets back on her feet, breathlessly fiddling with the binoculars, the rider has vanished.
‘Yours. The binoculars. They are mine – you lost yours.’
‘Mine, yours. Whatever,’ Granny mumbles. ‘We have to try to find them anyway.’ She pulls her scarf a little tighter as dusk settles over the graveyard, bringing a chill in the air.
Missy is fed up. And hungry. ‘It’s a waste of time. Let’s go get your dang binoculars so we can go home.’
‘Wait a second… I think I saw something… There, just over there!’ She points towards the dark silhouette of the mausoleum.
‘Shhhh… There’s definitely something moving.’ She grips the binoculars tighter, struggling to see.
‘Yes,’ Missy whispers. ‘I can see it too… I think it’s… a… a zombie?’
She starts fiddling with the burner. ‘We must leave!’
‘No, we have to investigate further.’
‘Are you sure? What if there is more than one?’
Granny stares at Missy and raises an eyebrow. ‘Aren’t you the one who wanted to become a zombie master?’
Missy stares back. ‘I still do. But I’m not sure it’s a good idea to get down there without our wands.’
Granny hates to admit her sister is right. But neither can they return without the expensive binoculars.
‘The probability of it being a zombie is infinitely small,’ she says, pulling on the cord to open the parachute valve and let the air out of the balloon to make it land.
‘What? Who says?’
‘So now there are statistics of the zombie frequency in Icelandic graveyards?’
‘Not exactly, but you know what I mean.’
Missy doesn’t. But the basket touches ground, so it is too late anyway. They carefully sneak around to the mausoleum – just to have a look.
‘Why are we tiptoeing?’ Missy whispers.
‘Don’t be stupid. So they can’t hear us coming, of course,’ Granny whispers back with a hint of exasperation in her voice.
‘They can’t have missed the balloon,’ Missy grumbles, throwing a glance over her shoulder towards the huge silhouette of their transportation against the dark sky. ‘Tara, I’m not sure about this. I’m scared…’
‘Of a zombie? Or of Magnus?’
Missy hesitates for a second. ‘Both.’
The crunching of shoes on the gravel makes them scramble for shelter, ducking down behind some scrawny bushes. The paces stop, and they can hear someone muttering in Icelandic. Then the sound of paces moves away and Granny ventures a quick glance, just in time to see someone step through the door to the mausoleum.
With a sigh of relief they shuffle to their feet again. ‘See, Missy? Nothing.’
‘How could I have known it was the mausoleum keeper? He looked like a zombie.’
‘Humpf. A zombie… At least we now know that the mausoleum keeper is a living creature. Shht, here he comes…’
‘Good evening.’ The sisters smile charmingly.
‘Good evening.’ The mausoleum keeper touches his beanie politely, turning a big key in the lock. ‘I’m sorry, but we’re closed, ladies. Maybe I can help you.’
‘I think those are ours.’ Missy points to the binoculars in his hand. ‘My sister lost them when we flew over-‘
Granny smiles charmingly. ‘We’re on holiday and we would like to know if-’
‘We’re architects.’ Missy interrupts.
Granny looks at her. ‘Architects?’
‘Yes, architects. We design houses. And we love old houses with a history to tell.’ She looks hopefully at the mausoleum keeper who lights up.
‘Oh, I see! I think you should make a detour to Eiríksstaðir… it’s definitely worth the visit. We have found some interesting artifacts and the site is closed to the public, but you can see the house from the hills. The hills on the other side of the bay… Ahem. But it is worth the trip. A very interesting Viking structure. You know, Leifr Eiríksson, the first known discoverer of America was born there, and there are many stories about his father, Erik the Red, and his friend, the Jomsviking Yggve the Dark…’
The Grey sisters look at each other, avidly listening to the mausoleum keeper’s story.
It is against a star studded sky, with clouds strangely lit up in green and purple nuances by the Aurora Borealis, that the hot air balloon is launched once again. But this time a thick rope is attached to the mausoleum keeper’s truck. Slowly he tows them back to town and their starting point.
From above they can see a police sedan parked at the curb, and an officer talking to the owner who apparently had called the police when they didn’t show up before sunset.
‘I hope the insurance covers the graveyard incident,’ Granny mutters.
‘Uh-huh. And how much can it be? Us overrunning the schedule by a few hours…’
‘I don’t know. We were set on four hours…’
‘Good thing to know we had enough fuel for eight hours.’
‘We spent two on the ground, assessing the damage,’ Granny adds drily.
‘You’re always so negative. Why don’t we just conjure up some money and bribe them all?’
‘We might just have to do that.’
Granny succeeds in taking the balloon down without touching any trees. The, owner, the policeman and the mausoleum guard all help towing the basket to the center of the launch pad, securing it to the ground.
Granny is for once using her age to get off the hook, but they still have to pay a hefty fee for the trouble they have caused, leaving them with their bank balance in the negative and Missy extremely disappointed at her sister using her Visa card to pay. In real money.
The following morning Granny is up at dawn. She pulls up the Venetian blinds and checks the weather which is as difficult to foresee as usual. A uniformly grey sky and a fine, drizzling rain that could change into beautiful, but bleak, sunshine any time during the day. She sighs. Weather to suit her mind… Something is moving in the little garden downstairs. She squints and can see two hares feasting on the cabbage and she watches them for a while before waking Missy.
Granny soon regrets not having splurged out on the big Toyota. Especially when they attack a gravel road, alternating potholes and a washboard surface. To make things worse, the rain intensifies and soon the wipers work overtime. They have to stop at the side of the road to wait it out. Then she has to drive extremely carefully, keeping in the middle of the road to avoid the loose gravel along the side of the road. A small rock bumps against the side of the car when an impatient driver overtakes them, and they argue for a while about how much it will cost them for the ruined paint job.
‘Probably as much as a shattered windshield, but less than the fee for the towing of the hot air balloon and the reconstruction of the east graveyard. I bet there are insurances for this,’ Missy says, forever optimistic.
But Granny is not so sure about that. They’ve been unlucky so far. And they didn’t pay for the towing, but for having overrun the schedule.
As soon as they find a suitable place to park, they stop, pull on their wellies and leave the car behind to continue their way on foot. The view is amazing, even under the drizzling rain. They brave a short thunderstorm with their umbrellas, taking shelter next to a huge boulder the time the storm pass.
Waterfalls throw themselves down steep cliffs of several hundred meters, making it hard to hear anything but the ear deafening roar of millions of liters of water. Geothermal lakes of different sizes steam of heat in the cool air.
They frequently stop, breathless not only because of the altitude, but by the sheer greatness of the nature which makes them feel tiny and unimportant.
After a strenuous walk following a rather hazardous narrow dirt track winding along the edge of a fjord, they arrive in sight of the famous dig site. And a dig site it is.
The sisters are disappointed. They have braved the weather and set out on a difficult, mostly upwards, trek only to come face to face with a jumble of rocks.
‘There’s not even a roof.’ Granny exclaims.
‘There aren’t even any walls!’ Missy clarifies, kicking a little rock with her feet and watching it roll down to rest against a rotting branch.
‘Nobody can live here… Not even a vampire!’
‘What shall we do? My feet hurt,’ Missy whines.
‘Take a closer look.’
Granny slips and slides down the muddy slope and walks over a slippery plank laid out to cross into what must once have been the main room. She tries to visualize what it must have looked like when Magnus lived there but it is a difficult task. No one, a part from enthusiastic archaeologists, could even imagine what the heap of fallen stones and boulders surrounding her might once have been.
‘I wish I had brought my wand to see what happened here…’ she says wistfully to Missy, who is sloshing towards her in her too big wellies.
Missy thinks hard. Should she tell her sister? Well, here goes nothing… ‘Err… I brought mine.’
Granny lights up. For once she’s happy about her sister’s stubbornness. ‘Well… I told you to leave it at home, but as you’ve got it with you, better put it to good use.’ She peers around the half demolished wall. ‘There’s nobody in sight. Go ahead, draw from me.’ She reaches out and takes her sister’s left hand, closing her eyes.
‘Err… I’d love to, but what do you want me to do exactly?’ Missy asks.
‘Just conjure up an image of who lived here last. We’ll start with that.’
Missy starts mumbling, swirling her wand, but nothing happens. She shakes it, looking at it incredulously. ‘Oh. I guess this is yours. But I’ve got mine. Somewhere…’ She fumbles in her pocket.
‘Oh. Just give it to me.’ Missy grimaces as Granny swiftly pulls the wand out of her hand. Mumbling she waves it around them.
‘Come over here. Quick!’
She motions for Missy to face her and before she has the time to say no, Granny puts her hand on her face, two fingers on her own forehead and the world starts spinning for them both.
A hazy image takes shape.
Successively a worn wooden floor, hand painted walls with delicate brown flowers climbing in columns over a warm yellow background towards a border of dark red ribbons in trompe-l’œil, and last shabby furniture are brought forward until they find themselves standing in a small room, lit by flickering candles and heated by a tile stove in the far corner next to a large, almost royal, bed. There is a washbasin in porcelain on a special nightstand with a towel neatly hung to dry, empty rudimentary hooks made out of birch wood nailed to the walls and a shelf littered with dusty, not much used, kitchen paraphernalia. A large wooden chest, like the ones sailors used to bring to sea at a time when the ships were propelled by wind, not fuel, stands at the foot of the bed and an oriental carpet is rolled and pushed to the side to liberate space and to protect it from getting stained.
Their eyes pass over the unmade bed. Its heavy brocade bedspread in different shades of pastel green still bears the marque of its last occupant. Heaps of books scatter the floor on both sides. The old, neglected tile stove is as crackled as the walls, and the floor in front of it is dark with spilled ashes. The thick fur of a bear serves as a rug. Or maybe it is used as a warm blanket and had just slid off the bed when the inhabitant nonchalantly got up.
Some old tools hang on the opposite wall where the yellow wall painting comes to an end and the wooden planks are unadorned. A couple of spades, a fork, a saw. Precious to the owner and not to be left outdoors to be stolen or damaged. Different sizes of empty canvases are leaning against the wall, ready to be used.
So the occupant is an artist. The chances of him, or her, being Magnus increases.
Their eyes travel to the right, following the nude planks until they get painted again, towards a table in the corner between two small windows covered with leftover cloth from the bed. There is a golden candelabra on the whitewashed surface of the round table, and some food; dark bread and what looks like pickles. A woven basket on the floor is filled with red, tasty apples, and Granny remembers seeing the still-life of something similar in a museum somewhere. She recognizes vaguely the plump woman on the portrait on the wall, but cannot linger as she has to follow her sister’s eyes as they quickly scan the objects.
Missy looks down and squeals with surprise and disgust when she looks at the floor. It is strewn with crumbs and several fat rats are scurrying to and fro through holes in the wall with the biggest residues of the owner’s last meal.
There are clues of the resident everywhere, but there is no sign of Magnus Darkling himself.
‘Can you see him?’
Missy shakes her head.
‘Oh, well, concentrate harder,’ Granny urges.
Out of the mist almost at their feet appears a big red stain, glistening in the flickering light, but on its way of being absorbed by the dry wooden boards. Blood? No. A knocked over glass, two unopened bottles of wine. A palette, brushes and paint. Then an old barrel. A big candlestick on its top. More brushes and a corkscrew. Next to it, in reach of their hands, an elaborate iron easel. Long legs in rolled up linen pants, bare feet.
Oh. My. God.
A tall, fair man is painting just in front of them. He’s shirtless, his muscular body gleaming with sweat as his powerful arms nervously mix the colors. He dries his forehead with the back of his hand, pushing away the hair falling into his eyes and leaving a streak of cyan. It is Magnus Darkling, intensely working on his “chef d’oeuvre” in the late 1700’s…
‘He looks almost real! How did you do that?’
‘Missy, he IS kind of real. This is a mirror image of what happened more than two hundred years ago, at this very moment!’
Missy frowns. She doesn’t understand the subtlety of what is happening. As usual when she is troubled, she starts talking. ‘Can’t we touch him?’
‘No, we can’t. And keep your eyes shut and concentrate, we’re not finished yet.’
‘What about talking, then?’
‘Then what’s the point?’
‘We now know he lived here.’
‘Yes, but obviously he doesn’t anymore.’
Granny doesn’t know what to answer. Through their connection she can feel Missy’s eyelids twitching.
‘Keep your eyes shut, or the vision will dissolve,’ she admonishes.
Missy stares in her mind at the beautiful man, looking so real, being so close she can almost smell the scent of his glistening body.
Mirror image? He looks real to me. And just as hot as I remembered… Except for the beard. I don’t like beards… But the long hair suits him fine. And working shirtless is definitely a big YES… Tasty indeed. I wonder if I could touch him – just a little.
She reaches out with her left hand, fumbling in the air.
‘Missy! What on earth do you think you’re doing?’
‘Err…’ Missy hadn’t realized Granny was still in her head, not only looking through her eyes, but listening in on her thoughts as well. Her eyes pop open.
Granny tries her best to uphold the connection, but the room progressively fades until there is only Magnus left, caressing the big canvas with his paintbrush, and then even he is gone.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to, but I just had to. Like a reflex, you know.’ Missy looks wistfully at the spot where Magnus had just been seen.
Granny sits down on one of the boulders. She is so drained, she is not sure she will be able to walk back to the car without help. At least it doesn’t rain anymore.
‘We should try to find the rider,’ Missy says, breaking the silence.
‘Yes. I’m sure it was Magnus. He was headed south-west, towards the lava fields.’
‘I don’t think the car we rented can take us there.’
‘No, you’re probably right… Let’s go back to Staðarfell and see if we can rent the hot air balloon again.’
Missy claps her hands. ‘Oh yes! It was such fun!’ Then she seems to think of something. ‘But do we have any money left? You said yesterday that we were in the red zone.’
‘We’ll figure something out,’ Granny answers noncommittally waving her sister closer to help her stand up.
For once they are lucky. As soon as they reach the dirt road, the black Audi that overtook them is on its way back. It stops and the driver asks if they need a ride, and before Granny can say no, Missy has already accepted. She rides in front, chatting animatedly about America the whole way back to their car while Granny dozes off in the backseat between two small children in baby car seats.
Part I – End of Chapter 56
Special thanks to Louise at Not Just a Book Sims – especially her “looking up” pose has become one of my favorites!