Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Chapter Sixteen

The pig of brick gasps awake. Still half in nightmare, he cringes from the angry claws of his dead brother.

But there’s no one here. He is alone, safe in his house. The embers from the hearth even bring a dying light to the room, so he isn’t in darkness anymore.

And he’s long since learned to ignore the scratch-scratch-scratch at the front door, where the pig of straw still waits, rotting and patient, eternally trying to visit his brother.

All is silent.

I’m alone, thinks the little pig, but then he hears it again, that sound from his nightmare, the thud of spade against skull.

It’s the door. Someone is knocking at the door.

His throat tightens, and his thoughts flee wildly to the cellar, where the pig of sticks is buried under the cold earth.

He’s back, he thinks. He’s back. He’s here. He’s back.

Scratch, scratch, scratch. Knock, knock, knock.

They die once. They come back. You kill them. You bury them. They still come back. There’s a knock at the door, and he remembers his dream. It’s the pig of sticks, come for his body.

Two brothers - one a corpse, one a ghost - trying to enter the house for one final reunion, one final trick to play on their still-living sibling.

“Go away!” squeals the pig of brick. “I didn’t want to kill you!” He falls from the bed and crawls to a corner. “Leave me alone!”

The knocking stops.

The pig of brick bursts into tears.

Scratch, scratch, scratch.

“Hello?” A voice at the door. His brother’s ghost.

The pig swallows a few times until he has the strength to answer. “Yes?”

The voice: “Are you all right?”


The pig of brick thinks again of his poor brother, how kind he’d always been. “Are YOU all right?” he asks.

“No,” says the voice. “I’m lost.”

Aren’t we all, thinks the pig. He gets to his hooves and reluctantly steps to the peephole, where the pig of straw still scratches. It’s hard to stand the sight of his brother, all withering, running flesh and a buzz of flies.

“I can’t see you,” says the pig of brick, no longer sure if he is dealing with a spirit or with his own madness, or if this is still a dream.

“What?” says the voice. “I’m down here.”

Standing on the tips of his hooves, the little pig looks down through the peephole, unsure of what he will see. It isn’t the ghost of his brother, and he cannot help but laugh at the sight before him.

And the little wooden puppet at his doorstep, encouraged by the laughter, smiles back with a hopeful smile.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Chapter Fifteen

“What exactly are we looking for?” asks Baloo. He pokes his snout into a trunk full of clothing.

“I’m not sure,” says Mowgli. He thinks very hard about anything he might remember from his youth in the man village, but those memories are hazy and untrustworthy - he remembers Baloo being there, for one, and that’s certainly impossible.

“Just look for anything that might make fire,” comes the quiet voice of the Man, the lord of the apes.

This is easier said than done. The Man and the man-cub, despite their species, were raised in the Wildlands. They’re as unfamiliar with the items scattered throughout the ruined camp as their bear companion. The tools are a mystery. One is just a handle that holds a circle of some invisible material. Another is a dark box with a leather strap.

The three of them push buttons, turn levers, poke and prod, all to no avail. Baloo tries to keep an eye out for any invaders, but soon gets distracted by the unmistakable scent of food.

Mowgli puts down the magnifying glass and goes over to look at a framed photograph. The Man joins him.

“She was so beautiful,” he says, referring to the smiling image of Jane.

Being a child, Mowgli doesn’t know what to say. He gently pats the Man’s thickly muscled arm.

After some effort, Baloo figures out how to lift up the lid of a certain box, and he sighs at the sight of the man-food within.

“What makes fire?” Mowgli asks, as he rummages through the men’s nests.

The Man tries to remember. They had fire at this camp, from the brief time he visited. “The old man, the Professor, he could make fire. He often used it to breathe smoke. And the other man, the Hunter, his metal stick would sometimes flash like fire.”

“Guns,” says Mowgli, wisely.

“And they had…” The ape-lord looks over to the lanterns, still hanging from their hooks. “These. They had small fires in them at night.”

He takes one from the wall and shakes it. It is unlit and cold. “But I don’t know how they got them to work.”

Mowgli takes another lamp and opens it. There is a small little stub, like the sprout of a vine. This, he knows, should be fire. But it isn’t.

“I don’t get it,” says Baloo, his mouth full of man-food. “The men had these things. They had fire, but it didn’t save them from the invaders. What if it doesn’t help us?”

“These aren’t enough,” says the Man. He shakes the lantern dismissively. “Bagheera didn’t fear these fires. Most of the larger animals don’t. These are contained, controlled, locked behind these invisible walls. But a big, bright fire…”

Baloo shudders at the thought of it. That image in his head is enough to make him imagine he smells smoke, one of the worst smells in the entire Wildlands – it is the smell of destruction, of fleeing, of death.

“Wait a minute…” he says. He isn’t imagining it. He smells smoke, even over the overwhelming scent of delicious man-food.

The Man notices it as well. Smoke rises from the platform that the Professor would work from.

“Mowgli?” he asks, and takes a cautious step nearer the table.

They approach where Mowgli put down the tool holding the invisible rock. It lies there, magnifying the papers that the Professor will never finish writing. But with the sun winking down on it, the papers have begun to smolder.

“It’s a miracle,” says the Man. He rushes toward the edge of the camp. “Quick,” he says to Baloo. “Find some branches, dry ones. And moss. Dried grass. Anything that will burn.”

Baloo reluctantly turns away from the man-food and places a comforting paw on the boy’s shoulder. “Good job, little britches,” he says nervously, eyes glued to the smoke. “You’ve made fire.”

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Chapter Fourteen

“Yer town’s safe,” grumbles the Dwarf, his back still to Cinderella. He is hard at work just outside the town, digging a suitable fire pit.

“Yes, thank you,” repeats Cinderella, and she steps closer to him. “But I just wanted to ask, who are you? Can I offer you any food or water?”

The Dwarf grunts and spits. Human food. Nothing worse, he thinks.

“No,” he says distinctly, after she fails to interpret his grunt. Can’t the daft girl see he’s busy?

“I’m Cinderella, by the way,” she says, and takes another step closer. After a moment’s silence, she adds, “And you are…?”

He snorts. Apparently he won’t be allowed to work in peace. “I ain’t nobody. Just a Dwarf.”

“Yes, but who are you? Why are you here?”

“I’m buildin’ a pyre fer the dead, what’s it look like?” he growls.

“Oh.” Silence. The girl goes away. Took her long enough.

He digs stoically, knowing that blisters are inevitable, even with his hard, callused hands. The big people cause nothin’ but trouble, even in death. Always adding more work to his schedule.

Footsteps approach, but the Dwarf doesn’t turn. He can tell they belong to someone alive - they aren’t shuffling and stumbling like one of the damned. He half-turns his head so he can glare at whoever else is coming to thank him.

It’s that same girl. Cinderella. Only now she’s carrying a shovel.

“What’re you doing?” he asks, and in his surprise, he stops digging.

“What’s it look like?” she responds, though with no bitterness in her voice. “I’m helping to build the pyre. Some of these people were my neighbors.”

The Dwarf sniffs disdainfully but says nothing. Finally, he nods his head and continues digging.

“Yer doin’ it wrong,” he says, as soon as she puts her foot over the shovel. “Point it this way, so y’ get more dirt.” He demonstrates and grumbles to himself. What would a girl know about diggin’, he figures.

Cinderella corrects her shovel and steps down hard on the back of the blade.

He expects her to gab on and on and thank him and ask all sorts of questions, but is surprised (and oddly disappointed) by her silence. But it makes sense – she’s gotta save her energy to dig through the rough grass outside the town wall. And there’s a lot of diggin’ to do.

“Yer goin’ out too far,” he eventually says. “It oughta be a rectangle, out to about there.”

Cinderella nods and steps to where he pointed. Strange that she doesn’t say anything, after being a chatterbox not too long ago. Well, she’ll soon be talking again, that’s for sure, once she starts sweatin’ and gettin’ blisters on her delicate hands, and then he’ll never hear the end of it.

But if her hands pain her, she doesn’t mention them. She continues to dig under the Dwarf’s direction. Soon she is red in the face, and she’s breathing loud enough to wake the dead, but she doesn’t complain.

Though the sun is at its zenith, the Dwarf’ll be damned if he takes a break before the job is finished. He expects the girl to give up any minute, because even when the digging is done, they still have to drag the bodies, then lay ‘em out and burn ‘em up. It’s certainly not women’s work, and she was the one who mentioned eatin’ and drinkin’, so she’s probably hungry, herself.

Still, although she wipes her brow and ties her hair back in a kerchief, the girl shows no sign of slowing down.

Eventually, the silent treatment gets to him. The Dwarf tugs at his beard and says, “I’m lookin’ fer someone. That’s what I’m doing.”

Cinderella keeps her smile to herself. She nods tersely and continues digging. “I hope you find them.”

“It ain’t you,” the Dwarf adds quickly, and he steals a look at the girl to see if she is listening. She doesn’t appear to be paying attention to anything other than the dirt. Of course, why should she respect one of her elders when they’re trying to tell her something?

“I’m lookin’,” he pauses dramatically, since dramatics seem to be the only way to get this silly girl to listen, “fer a prince.”

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Chapter Thirteen

Imagine waking up to discover your family has disappeared. You are always the first one awake (there is always much too much work to be done), but as you descend the spiral stairs from your tiny attic room, you notice the silence of the house.

First, the absence of your sisters’ tell-tale snoring. Even stranger, the mantelpiece clock isn’t ticking. You scold yourself for forgetting to wind it the night before, but then you realize it’s missing.

Your heart skips a beat as you realize you’ve been robbed – not only is the clock gone, but so is the portrait over the mantle, the one of Great-Uncle Louis.

You rush to your stepmother’s door, knowing you’ll be punished for waking her before dawn, but you are more concerned with the safety of your home than your own well-being. You knock and knock, but there is no response – not terribly surprising, as your stepmother is a deep sleeper. After a few seconds of inner debate, you walk inside the master bedroom.

And it is empty. The bed has been inexpertly made, but your stepmother is gone. You wonder to yourself if she’s been kidnapped, but doubt that most kidnappers would not clean up after themselves.

Then you notice the note on the pillow. After reading it, you sit on that great down-filled bed, and put your head in your hands. Your family has left. “On holiday,” the note says, though with no description of where or when they will return. It is written unmistakably in your stepmother’s tiny, perfect handwriting, and makes no mention of why certain items were taken.

Even the cat is gone.

You are used to being abandoned, but it never ceases to hurt any less each time it occurs. You try, try very hard, to get your family to love you, but there is something you must be doing wrong, because you’ve never succeeded.

They could've woken you, though. You would have at least made them some food for their journey.

Imagine that time passes, and the times get worse, and the rumors become facts. You watch families load up their wagons and coaches, while others run away with bindles on their backs. You think it is best to keep the windows shuttered.

You long to follow their lead, but you have nowhere to go. And besides, you have been told to watch over the chateau in your family’s absence.

Imagine that times get worse, and after one final night of screaming and fire, you are alone.

You no longer go downstairs. You’ve left much of the furniture jammed about the narrow staircase, in the event any of them try to climb up. But as near as you can tell - and you keep constant watch from your attic window - none of them have tried to break into your home.

You spend a day busily sewing, and then hang a brightly colored pennant from your window. On a field of red is the unmistakable white-lettered word “ALIVE.” It goes unnoticed by the eyes of the dead.

You drink rainwater. Your few animal friends bring you food – berries and bits of stale bread – and you gratefully invite them to stay in your small, cramped room. It’s good to no longer be so alone, and sometimes you even think you can understand their chirping and chattering.

They no longer mention any sign of the king’s soldiers and the king’s men coming to put things aright. Some of the dead wear armor, they say. A few even ride half-eaten horses.

As the weeks go by, occasionally a bird or mouse sets off for food and doesn't come back. You hope they might’ve found a better shelter, but it’s hard to believe. Privately, you weep.

Imagine that their numbers dwindle, slowly, painfully, until you are alone once more for too, too long.

Then one day, from the loneliness of your attic window, you hear a voice, the first voice you’ve heard in months, ever since the screaming stopped. A scratchy, self-assured voice, warning you to remain indoors for the time being. You call back, but you doubt your own voice can carry that far.

And then, finally, that voice says it is safe to come out. Your town has been cleansed of the dead.

Imagine, then, if you were Cinderella. Wouldn’t you leave the safety of your attic, and go, cautiously, to investigate?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Chapter Twelve

As he watches his brother return to life, the third little pig wonders if he is going mad.

A sound heralds this hideous resurrection – the eternal scratch-scratch-scratch at the front door. This is the youngest pig, the one who no longer sleeps or rests. The one that is dead, but still hungers.

For how many days has the pig of brick been trapped in his home? How long did it take for his brother, the pig of sticks, to grow weaker and weaker and finally, feverishly, die? He no longer trusts the accuracy of the tally marks on his wall. There is no light to tell the time; the sun and the moon and the stars have been blocked out by the bricked-up windows.

And now the burial shroud begins to twitch. The pig of sticks returns from death. There is a scratch at the door and a twitch from the shroud and a squeal from the pig of brick. The sound must have excited his brother outside, for the scratching grows more frantic.

The pig of brick whimpers something unintelligible, his voice rusty from days, perhaps weeks, of silence. His brother’s passing had been a cold, lonely, painful ordeal. To lose even that is to lose the final semblance of stability in this house, this lightless tomb.

Like a newborn learning to move, the pig of sticks struggles out of his shroud. He falls from the bed, soundless and peaceful, and crawls in the darkness toward the warm, living flesh of his brother. He does not recognize the sound of his own name, nor is he moved by the pleas and tears.

A dead brother scratches outside and a dead brother crawls inside, and there is nowhere to run. Despite living in a land full of wolves and other treacherous creatures, the pig of brick was always a pacifist at heart. There are no weapons in his house - he’d always fought with his wits. But what good are they when he is going mad?

For the first time, he flees. How many times had his brothers done the same? His house of brick had always been the last refuge, the safe haven from the big bad wolves of the world. But now that world, that story, is over.

Down into the cellar he runs, the pig of sticks clumsily bumping down the stairs after him. No matter how much the pig of brick begs and pleads and cries, his brother doesn’t understand.

The pig of brick stumbles over something in the darkness – a small spade. Practical to the end, he’d planned to bury his brother in the soft earth of the cellar, before the shroud began to twitch. And he realizes he may not have weapons, but he does have tools.

It is a horrible thing to take another’s life. It’s a nightmare when it’s someone you love. And his poor brother, the pig of sticks, so carefree and laughing in life, so weak and grateful on his sickbed, so undignified and lost in death, looks up at the spade but does not flinch away.

Again and again falls the iron head of the spade. The shadows hide his brother’s patient face, and the pig of brick tries to tell himself he’s just splitting wood. It doesn’t work. He keeps his eyes and mouth clenched shut as specks of liquid splash onto his snout, and wonders if he is going mad.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Chapter Eleven

The Wildlands are awash with noise.

The animals shout over one another, roaring and growling and hissing and snarling. A few yards from Council Rock, a cackle of hyenas snicker amongst themselves, amused by the din. They realize they are adding to the problem, and laugh even harder.

Only one lion remains silent. He watches the proceedings from afar with half-lidded, contemptuous eyes. "Let them bicker," he bitterly muses to himself. Real leadership, he knows, is understated.

Finally, Hathi, the chief of the elephants, trumpets a powerful, angry blast that carries on for several seconds. It surprises them all, even Shere Khan, into silence, until only the echo lives on.

"We must retreat!" says the elephant.

Shere Khan hisses in disgust. "We must fight!"

Hathi looks down at the great tiger; he is one of the few in the Wildlands who is not threatened by the striped killer. "You saw what happens when we fight them. We add to their ranks, make them stronger!"

"We cannot leave the Wildlands," says the King of the Lions. He knows all too well what happens when one abandons one’s home. "This is our land, not theirs. And where would we go? Through the Doorway? To the Land of Men?"

This slight does not go unnoticed by the gorillas. They grunt their displeasure, and the Man, their leader, calmly stalks forward. The animals murmur as he walks past, but they do so quietly.

"As Hathi has said,” says the Man in his low voice, “we've seen what happens when we fight the invaders." He turns from the Council and looks into the eyes of the other animals: wolves, apes, bears, lions, warthogs.

"One bite, one scratch is as deadly as the cobra's venom. If we could, I would suggest that we fight them above, from the trees…"

The hyenas giggle, but the Man ignores them.

"But already the Bandar-log and their king have been taken into their fold, and even in death, they are unsurpassed in climbing."

"They must have a weakness we can exploit," says the King of the Lions.

"Bah!" hisses Shere Khan. "Their weakness is that they are weak. One swipe of my claw, they will fall." He slashes at a nearby tree, leaving white, moist, deep gashes in the bark.

"There is no need for dramatics, Khan," says Hathi in a condescending tone. "They do not die like normal, good animals. They will fight on, even though their spines be trampled and their bodies torn limb from limb."

"There must be some weakness…" repeats the King of the Lions.

Unnoticed by all, the bitter lion fades back into the darkness of the jungle.

"Weakness or not, is it worth risking all of our lives?" The elephant looks around at the cluster of animals, particularly the young. "Those who can defend the Wildlands will do so, but those who cannot, we mustn't ask them to waste their lives in suicide."

The cluster shouts back – many are too proud to give up their land, or at least do not want to be seen as weak. Others bark and howl in agreement with Hathi.

Absent from the noise is the raucous laughter of the hyenas. They, too, have abandoned Council Rock.

Off to the side, one small voice in the crowd does not concern itself with the squabbling of the Council. He tugs at the paw of the sleepy gray bear. "Baloo?"

Baloo looks at the man cub. "What is it, Mowgli?"

"What about red fire?"

"What about it?"

"Maybe the invaders would fear red fire. Everything fears red fire."

Baloo thinks about it for a moment, then slowly smiles.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Chapter Ten

Another lifeless village.

The Dwarf hefts himself up the side of a house, grumbling all the while. His short, stumpy physique is not suited for climbing, but after much jumping, stretching, and even some cursing, he finally lifts himself onto the roof.

He bends down and reaches for a weapon that leans against the house's wall. It's a long, stout pole, topped by a sinister combination of axe-head and spear-point. A comically large weapon for such a little man, he knows, but it gets the job done.

After a look down the streets - they’re coming - he grunts to himself, spits onto the ground, and removes a whetstone from the leather bag slung across his side.

He scrapes the stone across the spear, sharpening it to a fine razor point, and then bellows, seemingly to no one, "Stay inside!"

The echoes of his raspy voice bounce about the abandoned streets before fading into silence. His keen ears hear a familiar rustling from inside some of the buildings. More have heard him. They’re coming.

"Stay inside!" the Dwarf calls again, almost musically, holding each word for several seconds.

"Stay inside, dag-blast it!" he shouts. More rustling, more bodies walking through the streets.

He learned to give warning several towns ago when a few survivors, drawn by the sounds of battle, had emerged from the safety of their barricaded cathedral, only to get caught by the also-curious undead.

The Dwarf repeats his call as the wretched creatures approach. Though the spear is not sharp enough for his satisfaction, it’ll have to do.

They’re here.

They glare at him balefully, raise their arms helplessly. They cannot climb onto the roof, but will stand there flailing against the wall until doomsday unless something is done about them.

So that's what he does.

Lifting the halberd, adjusting his hands so the weight is properly balanced, he jabs it forward at the closest one’s head. It doesn't defend itself, it doesn't try to dodge, it simply dies and crumples to the floor.

It’s easy, repetitive work, like digging for jewels in a mine. Gonna leave him sore at the end of the day, that’s for sure. He whistles a tuneless song while waiting for the next one, then stabs again. Before any of them can snatch at the weapon, he’s already pulled it out of reach.

The work doesn't require much thought, so the Dwarf’s mind wanders to criticizing the defenses of this storybook town. Sure, it’s pretty, but at what price? A small, low wall – to protect them from what? Dogs? The gate left open. Thin wooden doors on all the houses. It's no wonder they were caught so helpless and unawares.

Though his people don’t talk about it (this Dwarf most of all), they share their home under the mountain with all manner of dark things, hungry things. The Dwarven race is cautious, prudent, prepared. The big people could've learned a thing or two about defense from their earth-dwelling cousins, but did they? Of course not. Bah. The Dwarf spits again before skewering a fat man’s skull. Disgraceful.

He stabs and stabs. The halberd is a silly weapon, but damned if it isn't effective against these things. They just stand there, reaching like hungry babies, waiting to get killed. Though with his luck, too many will come, and they'll soon start climbing over the bodies of the fallen. Then he'll have to jump off the other side of the roof and scramble for a new location.

He's prepared for that, of course - he scouted out his escape route beforehand. Wouldn't want to get cornered, like he did two villages ago.

What a waste.

Stab, stab, stab.

Then, after all this is done, he's still got to take care of the bodies. ‘Cause if he doesn’t, who will?

That’s another thing. The Dwarf shakes his head at the foolishness of the big people, not only leaving themselves so vulnerable, but then turning tail and fleeing so readily. Leaving him to clean up their mess.

Ought to bury them, he knows, but it’s safer to build a pyre and let ‘em all burn before heading on to the next town. Wouldn’t do him any good if they came back a third time, and who knows what’d happen to any hungry animal that dug up the bodies?

Plus, the person he’s looking for might see the smoke.

Stab, stab, done.

The streets are empty. No more coming, just the big, stinking pile in front of him. The Dwarf waits another moment, regains his breath, and then cries in his hoarse tenor, "Yer town is clean! Y'can come out now! It's safe!"

He doesn't expect a response, much less any gratitude. Even if someone’s still alive, they’re usually too scared or weak to do anything, or their homes are too strongly barricaded.

Doesn’t matter. He’s still got a job to do. After tossing down his halberd, the Dwarf scrambles down from the roof. Then, taking the tinderbox from his satchel, he gets to work, still whistling.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Chapter Nine

The carriage stops, and the Stepmother irritably knocks on the small wooden panel that separates her from the dusty outside. It slides open immediately, and the driver peeks through with fearful eyes. He knows she will be angry.

“What’s going on? Why have we stopped?” she demands. The Castle of the Door is clearly in sight. Her two daughters have been clamoring about it since they cleared the last hill.

"It's the castle, mum,” says the driver.

"What of it?"

"Don't you see?"

The Stepmother gestures at him to move aside and peers through the panel. The castle appears the same as it always has, sound and solid for generations.

"No, I don't see, you insufferable…" and then she stops short, for she does see.

The drawbridge has been raised.

"What? Why?" is all she can say. In her entire life, and the life of her long and illustrious line, the drawbridge to Castle of the Door has never been raised.

Day or night, storm or fair weather, peace or strife, the Castle has been a haven to all. She had never even known it could be pulled up, to be perfectly honest, but now the Castle has been sealed.

"I don't know, mum," says the driver.

"I'm not asking you. Go and find out." She slides the panel shut with a thin bang. The carriage jostles as the driver disembarks, and the Stepmother moves aside the window curtain to observe.

She hopes the annoyed scowl on her face doesn't betray any of her concern. The long ride had been a safe one - if any of those things had followed them, they were too slow to keep up - but she doesn't like being stranded in the open like this.

Her daughters begin babbling and asking questions, but she dismisses them with a curt "Silence.”

She can hear the driver speaking, and someone from the castle answers, so that's a good sign. Perhaps they are just taking precautions. Fair enough. She’d done the same.

The persistent rumors of the past month had made her skin prickle, and so, early one morning, she woke her two daughters, told them to quickly and lightly pack, and they left the village. Just she and her daughters, the cat, of course, and a small chest of valuables.

If the rumors ended up being nothing more than the talk of superstitious commoners, then the girl could manage the manor in their absence, and the rest would enjoy a small holiday in the Lands Beyond.

But if the stories were true, if the Castle of the North had fallen… well, though it would pain her dearly, she'd only brought along the things she couldn't possibly live without.

The driver begins walking back to the coach, and the Stepmother notes with equal parts alarm and annoyance that the drawbridge hasn’t lowered. She generously allows him to return to his seat before pulling the panel open again.

"What did they say?" she demands.

"They… they won't let us in, mum. Not unless we pay a toll."

"A what? But this is the Castle of the Door! Passage has always been open to all, even peasants."

"I know that, mum," sweats the driver. He looks back down the road from where they came. "But I don't think we should argue with them, mum. I think we should pay."

"I don’t pay you to think.” The Stepmother’s voice is icy calm. “And I most certainly will not. We do not answer to thugs like these. Who are they, anyway?"

"It’s the Sheriff and his men, mum. The Sheriff of Nottingham."

"That worthless, fat…"

"Mum," interrupts the driver, something he would never, ever do, and the shock of it actually silences the Stepmother.

"I think we should pay them."

There's something about his voice that makes her listen, makes her realize that the driver is preoccupied with something more painful than his mistress's wrath.

She follows his gaze and looks behind her.

They are coming. Two of them. A fox dressed in a frayed and soiled suit, and a cat wearing the rags of a beggar. Just two, but where there are two, there are more. They're cresting the hill, still far enough away… but where would the carriage go, otherwise?

Her youngest daughter has also looked out the window. "Mother," she says in a shrill voice, "we've got to get out of here."

"I know, child," says the Stepmother, less sharply than she’d intended.

She thinks for a moment, then speaks through the panel. "Very well. How much do they want?"

"Well…" The driver hesitates, swallows, and takes a quick breath. "Everything, mum. They want everything."