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."