Sunday, August 30, 2009

Chapter Forty-Two

A little town, a quiet village. Dawn rises, and the world is punctured with the blasts of gunfire.

The Town Champion wakes with a start, his hand automatically reaching for the musket on the floor. Still half in dream, he looks out the window and almost sees the mob-like phantoms from his nightmare before realizing they’re just shadows on the morning mist.

This isn’t the first morning to begin with gunshots - just yesterday there was another round of cleansing - but usually they’re fired on his command.

Which means something else must be going wrong in his poor, provincial town.

Crawling over the two sleeping wenches, the Champion prays his men are firing upon the dead - the real enemy - instead of on each other.

He pulls on his boots, grabs his musket, and marches toward the town wall. After a moment outdoors, the brisk morning air clears his sleepy head, and he remembers to fix his hair.

It had taken many hard choices, many difficult decisions, just to keep the women and children safe. And the men, those who were expected to fight and sacrifice and, yes, perhaps die for this safety, were proving to be cowards and traitors, all.

With a sniff, he walks upwind of the town blacksmith, still hanging from his rope. Let the ravens have him, the traitor. After all, he’d killed Pierre. Murdering a dog, could there be anything more cowardly? A foolish act of revenge, when all the dog had done was sniff out the sickness in the blacksmith’s son.

He’d made it clear there were only two choices - turn the sick out of the town to fend for themselves and eventually die, or be lined up against the wall and save everyone the trouble and ammunition.

The townsfolk hadn’t liked that, turning against their friends and family, but what would they know about sacrifice and duty, and what it might take to survive?

It’s a sickness, and when a dog is rabid, you don’t wait for him to bite you. You put him down and ease his suffering.

The people also didn’t like being compared to dogs.

And now gunfire. There better be a good reason for it. Bullets are hard to come by these days.

“What’s going on?” he asks the cobbler standing guard atop the wall. “More of the dead?”

The cobbler looks down at the Champion and salutes. He’s one of the few who still do.

“No, Monsieur,” he says. “It was... a lion.”

“A lion?! That’s impossible.” The Champion nimbly leaps up to the top of the wall. He scans the surrounding fields, but nothing is visible in the mist.

“I swear, Monsieur,” stammers the cobbler. He knows the Champion is very short-tempered these days. “It, uh, it ran away as soon as I fired.”

“It’s all right, Henri. I believe you.” The cobbler being one of the few men not plotting behind his back, he’s sure. “Which way did it go?”

“It ran off toward the western woods.”

The Champion checks his musket, then reaches for the powder horn hanging from Henri’s shoulder.

“But that’s not all, Monsieur,” continues the cobbler. “It was with someone. With a child.”

“A child?” If any other person had made such claims, the Champion would’ve laughed in his face and sent him to the asylum.

But Henri has the best eyesight in town - second only to the Champion himself - and is not one to tell tales. That’s why he is put on the vital nighttime shift - well, that, and it leaves his wife alone at night.

“Yes, Monsieur,” says Henri. “Though the child was definitely alive, not lurching like the dead.”

“And,” adds the Champion quickly, to show that he is more clever than the cobbler, “the dead wouldn’t be frightened off by gunfire. They’d be attracted to the noise.”

It hardly makes sense. Lions live in the deepest wilds of Africa - what would one be doing in France? And with a child, at that? It sounds of witchcraft or madness, but also of adventure and glory.

“I’m going after them,” the Champion impulsively decides. It’d be nice to have a lion pelt, after all. And the people could use some fresh meat - it might cheer them up after the latest round of cleansing. And perhaps they’d stop their mutinous mutterings if he rescued a child.

“But Monsieur,” says the cobbler, “the western woods lead to...”

“I know where they lead,” says the Champion curtly. And with a jump, he is over the safety of the wall and after his newfound glory.

Chapter Forty-Three will be published on Wednesday, September 9, 2009.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Chapter Forty-One

An apple falls to the floor, perfect and unmarred except for a single, small bite.

Cinderella, sleeping the sleep of death, collapses into the waiting arms of the frail old woman.

“Witch!” snarls the Dwarf. Now he remembers. Too late, of course.

All his life he’s thrown acorns and small stones at the woodland creatures who’ve stolen from his garden, and the Dwarf’s aim still holds true. With furious accuracy, he hurls his own apple at the crone’s head, where it connects with a satisfying knock.

But before he can grab his polearm and run her through, something soft, huge and strong charges into his back.

The Dwarf crashes to the floor, and the lavender cat – somehow grown to a massive size – sits on his stomach and pins down his knobby shoulders.

“Mightn’t I eat him, your Majesty?” asks the enchanted cat in a warbling, simpering voice.

“No, we need him,” responds the woman.

“It’s YOU!” the Dwarf spits at the Queen. “You did this to Snow White, now you did this to her, too.”

“Snow White?” asks the Queen. A tremor in her voice cracks through before relaxing again. She smiles coolly. “Ah, so you must be one of her Dwarfs.”

“Damn straight,” growls the Dwarf. He can see his weapon, just a few feet away. Too far. And he can barely squirm beneath the weight of the giant cat.

The Queen gently lays the body of Cinderella onto the cold stone floor.

“Rest assured, Dwarf,” says the Queen, and she begins combing her splotchy hands through what little remains of her hair, “your friend here will not die in vain.”

“Wicked!” the Dwarf shouts. “Wicked!” His cries echo through the empty halls of the castle.

“Ooh, he’s a lively one, ain’t he?” chuckles the purple cat.

The Queen continues running her hands through her hair and over her face, and her features blur, melt, grow in vitality and youth. She stretches her back, and her spine uncurves.

The Dwarf refuses to look upon such black magicks - all he cares about is his polearm. Still too far, and the cat is much too heavy to throw off.

Finally, the spell fades, and in the ancient crone’s place stands the beautiful Queen. She bends over to pick up the Dwarf’s uneaten apple.

“You will eat this,” she says calmly, “and you will never wake up. But I give you my word that your sacrifice, and that of your friend,” she nods toward Cinderella, “will save the world.”

“Your word,” he repeats sarcastically.

“It matters little whether you believe me or not,” responds the Queen. She removes a small, evil knife from her cloak, and cuts the tiniest of slices from the poisoned apple.

The Dwarf clamps his mouth down tightly. If six of his brothers couldn’t make him drink medicine, he wagers one measly woman won’t get him to open up, neither.

After a meaningful look from the Queen, the purple cat digs her claws into the Dwarf’s shoulder. Blood begins to seep, crimson against his red tunic, but the Dwarf’s jaw remains tight.

That damned polearm. Still too far away.

The Queen studies the Dwarf’s face for a moment, then delicately and deliberately takes hold of his large nose and holds it shut.

The Dwarf keeps his lips clamped. The Queen waits. The cat laughs.

A minute passes.

The Dwarf sweats.

Seconds pass. The cat flexes and unflexes her bloody claws. The Dwarf shuts his eyes.

The Queen begins to smile. She dangles the piece of the apple over his head.

Another minute passes.

And then the Dwarf’s head snaps back. He bites onto the Queen’s hand and tears savagely. She shrieks and pulls away.

Now the Dwarf is the one laughing. He spits her finger aside and grins a blood-smeared grin.

“Now yer as dead as me, Witch. In just a couple days, you’ll be stumbling around the countryside, dead as the rest of ‘em.”

“What?!” gasps the Queen. Her unharmed hand clutches the other at the wrist, though blood continues to spurt from the wound.

“You heard me,” the Dwarf smiles coldly. He has a very uncharacteristic look of satisfaction across his face. “I’m done for, already. I just wanted to get the girl somewhere safe afore I died.”

“You… you’re…” the Queen stammers. She looks at the Dwarf’s mouth, then back to her bleeding hand, then to the finger lying on the floor.

“Ooh, now I’m glad I didn’t eat him,” says the cat. She starts to giggle, but stops after a withering glare from the Queen.

“Let’s just kill him, your Majesty,” says the cat, eager to mollify her mistress. “A quick cut of the claw, he’ll be headless and harmless.”

The Queen still looks at her finger on the floor. She would like nothing more than to see this foul Dwarf dead, see him suffer, see him scream and beg for mercy before giving in to the curse, but there are greater matters at stake than her own vengeance.

“No,” she says finally. “We need him to cast the spell. And we won’t get another chance.”

How long will she last? A day? Two? Certainly not until the next moon cycle. For how long can she carry the weight of the world? And who will carry on, after she dies? Her mad companion?

The best laid plans, shattered by a common Dwarf.

After tying a small, dark ribbon around the stump that was her finger (and yet, the blood stops pumping immediately once the black cloth touches her skin), the Queen finds the uneaten piece of apple and again crouches by the Dwarf.

With her healthy hand, she crushes the apple, so its enchanted liquid falls against his tightly closed mouth. And then she covers his nose once more.

“Bite me again, Dwarf,” she says, “but first you’ll taste the juice.”

The Dwarf doesn’t move.

Neither does the Queen.

The cat’s eyes flit from one to the other. A minute passes, and suddenly the Dwarf goes slack beneath the Queen’s hand. His face grows peaceful, perhaps for the first time in his life.

“Take him and the girl,” says the Queen. She stands, a little unsteadily. “We haven’t much time.”

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Chapter Forty

“Visitors!” says the ancient peasant woman. She smiles a toothless, wobbly smile. “Oh, that’s so lovely!”

She limps toward the Dwarf and the servant girl, and the Dwarf raises his weapon automatically. He just doesn't trust anyone who's so cheerful.

A lavender cat, as plump as its mistress is frail, sidles into the Chamber of the Door and eyes the two newcomers with hungry interest.

“We haven’t had visitors in such a long time,” croons the peasant.

“That’s such a shame,” says Cinderella. She tries to mask her confusion with a smile. “But why wouldn’t you go through the Doorway...?” She stops as she sees why. Most of the Doorway has been bricked up.

The crone laughs. “Well, as you can see, my child, some busy brick-layer walled us in. My little kitty could make it through, but I’m afraid it’s a bit too much of a climb for these old bones.”

“I see,” says Cinderella, but before she can continue, the Dwarf interrupts.

“Well, ‘tis a shame. We’ll be going now.”

He starts to march toward the Doorway, but the old woman tugs at his tunic.

“No, no, you can’t go!” she wails. “We haven’t had visitors in so long! Please, stay for a while,” she persists in a sugary voice. “At least for a meal and a cup of tea.”

The Dwarf glares at her, unpersuaded. Besides, he is allergic to cats and already he’s fighting the urge to sneeze.

The woman turns her bleary eyes hopefully toward Cinderella. It takes the girl a moment, but then she smiles back, polite and confused.

“Oh... well... of course,” she says.

“Excellent, excellent!” wheedles the woman.

The girl's manners might prevent her from asking the jumble of questions bustling about her head, but the Dwarf holds no such qualms. "You've been hidin' here all this time? Fer how long?" he asks. "What happened to the others? And how come y'didn't answer when we first arrived?"

His questions fall on deaf ears, and out of nowhere, the hunchbacked crone produces a picnic basket. A symphony of smells emanates from within.

In spite of himself, the Dwarf sniffs eagerly, all potential sneezes forgotten. He’s been living on scraps for far too long, and though the girl fancies herself a cook, she doesn’t prepare things in the proper Dwarven way.

Whatever the old hag’s got in her basket, it must include some fresh, oaty Dwarf bread, salted venison, and the tangy scent of ale. Exactly what he’d been missing.

“It smells delicious,” says Cinderella.

“Oh, we’ve all sorts of goodies, just waiting to share,” says the peasant. She rummages through the basket with one clawed hand.

“Let me see...” says the woman, “how about an apple?” She finally removes her hand, and it holds two perfect red apples.

The lavender cat stops pawing at a bloodstained spot on the floor, its wide face trained on the visitors.

“But they’re not even in season!” says a delighted Cinderella, and she reaches out happily.

“Oh,” the woman clicks her tongue, “they’re always in season somewhere.”

The Dwarf’s mouth stops watering. Fruits, bah. Good for fattening up deer and nothing more. Though, he has to admit, it’s a nice specimen, almost like a jewel, so shining and red...

“Thank you so much,” says Cinderella.

Been some time since he’d seen an apple that nice. Not since…

“You’re so very welcome, dearie,” smiles the woman, and she offers the other one to the Dwarf. "Now eat up, eat up, both of you, and have a proper breakfast."

He takes it, but something about this apple is very familiar...

Cinderella bites.

The crone smiles.

The sun rises.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Chapter Thirty-Nine

"Are you sure my father went this way?" asks Pinocchio.

"Yes, yes, of course," lies the Lion. "I can smell him. But keep your voice down. We must be careful."

The great scarred head of the Lion looks up and down the deserted streets and cautiously sniffs the air. The creatures are nearby, lurking in their dwellings, but that’s what he's come to expect in this city of the dead. Already, a cluster are slowly following them.

However, the unmistakable scent of magic burns in the Lion's nostrils – a sure sign they are nearing another Doorway.

"This way." He quickens his silent pace, ignoring the pain from the hard, unyielding streets.

"It's just that..." begins Pinocchio, and the Lion tries to shush him with a slight growl. It goes ignored. "We keep passing all these Doors," the boy finishes in a louder voice. "How do you know he didn't go through any of them?"

The Lion forces himself to count to ten, and then answers calmly. "As I told you, I can smell him. And I assure you, he passed these Doorways, probably in a vain attempt to find you."

After looking behind them, he continues: "This would all be much simpler if you could read the messages he left for you." Indeed, it was fortunate to discover words painted on several Doorways and walls throughout the city, and so easily believable that the child's father had written them. "But since you decided to be a disobedient child and not go to school, it will be all that much harder for us."

The little puppet looks shamefully away. He knows it's all his fault.

The Lion waits silently - so that the guilt can fester for a moment - before giving a word of encouragement. "But do not worry, my friend. I'm sure we'll find him... sooner or later."

"Do you promise?" asks Pinocchio.

"Of course," lies the Lion. But it isn't the boy's father that he is looking for.

He detects more smells - perfumed aromas, the likes of which he'd never encountered in the Wildlands - but they cannot mask the magic of a nearby Doorway, or the decay of the dead.

"We've arrived," says the Lion.

"Ooh," says Pinocchio. "It's a garden."

Walled on four sides, a metal gate protecting it from the dead, the little plot of land might prove a secure place to stay were it not for the powerful competing smells. The little puppet eases through the iron bars and wades through the wild-growing flowers. He bends to pick one, but is interrupted by a hiss from the Lion.

"Find the Door!" He doesn't like standing in the open like this, and after determining the garden to be isolated, he leaps over the brick wall and strides after Pinocchio.

The boy looks thoughtfully at an elegant wooden door, seemingly leading to nowhere. Around its edge is carved a pattern of roses, and words, the mysterious words of men, are chiseled into its center.

“What does it say?" asks the Lion immediately, though he knows the answer.

Averting his eyes, Pinocchio says, “I don't know. I can’t read it.” Quickly, he adds, ”It might be in another language.” His nose twitches slightly.

The Lion stops the growl in his throat. “Well, we can’t leave here for the time being. There are too many of them outside."

“I know. I’m sorry.”

"You were walking too loudly."

"I know. I tried, but... it's hard."

The Lion sighs heavily, so that Pinocchio will understand what a burden he is.

"I could tell you a story in the meantime," the puppet offers.

“Perhaps later. Can you at least tell me what letters those are? Not that I expect anything to come of it, but we can’t keep searching until those things depart.”

Pinocchio squints at the letters in the door in the hopes they'll become legible. He recognizes some of them - he learned the alphabet from his father - but he had never practiced much.

“B?” He finally ventures.

A slight tremor goes through the Lion’s mane. “And the next?”

“That’s an E.” Of this, Pinocchio is certain... somewhat. There’s an E in his father's name.

“After that?”

“There's two of the same letter... It’s either an I or an L.”

“L?” says the Lion. He pronounces the word carefully. “Elle? Elle?”

“Yes,” agrees Pinocchio. This seems to be the answer that will make the Lion happy. “Yes, I think so.” His nose twitches again.

The Lion's yellow fangs peek through. He is smiling.

“Pinocchio, my dear friend, I think this is it. I believe your father went through here.”

And together, they walk through the doorway marked Belle et la BĂȘte.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Hands stained with blood, Cinderella speaks to the glaring Dwarf. “There’s a story about one of these wolves,” she says, her voice purposefully soothing.

“He ate seven baby goats whole. But while he slept, the mother cut open his stomach so that her children were freed. It’s a simple surgery, really.” She sets aside her scissors into a kettle of boiling water.

"You don't know the rest of the story," growls the Dwarf. “I do.” He knew that family very well, in fact, once upon a time. "She replaced her children with seven hot stones. When the Wolf woke up, he tried to drink from a stream to ease the burn in his belly, and he fell in the water. The stones weighed him down, and he drowned horribly."

Cinderella remains unfazed as she considers the Dwarf’s tale. Beneath her nimble needle, the Wolf squirms and whimpers. "Well,” she says at last, “at least it's a happy ending for the goats."

She wipes her hands on the cleanest part of her apron. "I suppose we'll stay here for the night,” she says casually, “and make sure the Wolf has improved before we leave."

"Oh, no, we aren’t," says the Dwarf. "I said I'd getcha to the Doorway, and I meant it. You've dilly-dallied long enough, now yer gettin' out of here to somewhere safe."

Cinderella's prepared for this. Feigning curiosity, she asks, “What makes you think the Doorway leads to someplace safe? We didn’t know that the Castle of the Door had fallen. Perhaps the Other Lands have been invaded, as well.”

The Dwarf grits his teeth and spits into the fireplace. These are thoughts he’s joylessly mulled over for many sleepless nights. Seeing the castle abandoned and unguarded wasn’t as bad as his worst fears – at least the place wasn’t swarming with the dead – but this was bad enough for him.

Still, he has to argue with the girl. “You don’t know nothin’. There could be any number of safe havens out there. We all know them dead can’t breach these walls with the drawbridge pulled up, so it’s better than hidin’ here and starving’ to death.”

His positivity stuns them both.

“And besides,” he adds with a scowl, “I’m sick of you slowin’ me down. I’ve got a prince t’ find.”

He turns his back on the girl and mutters into the corner. “Playin’ nursemaid to a wolf, fer cryin’ out loud.”

“If there are safe havens out there,” Cinderella says quietly, “how do you know your prince isn’t in one of them?”

The Dwarf stops grumbling. He unwillingly turns his ear in her direction.

“Let’s face it,” says Cinderella, and she winds a silk curtain tightly around the Wolf’s ribcage, “the land has been abandoned.”

He grunts sullenly. Truth be told, he hadn’t thought of that, and wouldn’t it be just like a human prince to abandon his kingdom when the going gets tough?

“If there are safe havens,” continues Cinderella, “wouldn’t it stand that one would be led by a prince? He probably fell back to find a more defensible position… isn’t that what you men-folk call it?”

The Dwarf grunts once more and nods slightly. “I don’t like it, though,” he hastens to add. Why would they have abandoned the Castle of the Door? It was fine enough. Doesn’t hold a candle to Dwarven construction, naturally, but it’s a good, safe place. And the Doorway must be preserved. But perhaps they did fall back…

“So why don’t I just go on,” finishes Cinderella, “and if I find the prince, I’ll send him back here to you?”

“What?!” the Dwarf gasps. Of course she’d think of something so nonsensical. “And what’re ya gonna fight the dead with, yer sewin’ needle?” He snorts in outrage.

“No, no, no, Missy, and that’s the final word. I’ll go with ya in the morning and find him myself.” He trails off and pokes angrily at the fire. “Can’t let you go off getting killed, ya daft girl.”

Standing behind him, Cinderella is secure in the knowledge that he cannot see her smile.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Chapter Thirty-Seven

“This is all I could find,” says Pinocchio. He lays a meager sack of food – moldy breads and dried meats, for the most part - at the base of a stout tree.

“It is more than enough,” purrs the Lion. Amidst the foliage, he is all but invisible. “Thank you, Pinocchio.”

“You’re welcome.”

There are no more words from the tree, and the little puppet realizes he is being dismissed. He swings his arms awkwardly and tries to think of the right thing to say.

“Can’t I stay with you this time?” he finally asks, but the Lion is ready with another smooth denial.

“I’m afraid not, my friend,” he says, having noticed how the child relishes that particular word. “For in my land, we must eat in private. That is how things are done.”

“But in my land we always eat together,” says Pinocchio.

“That may be well for boys and their fathers, but for lions, it is a different matter.”

“I could stay and tell you a story,” Pinocchio says hopefully.

“Another time, surely,” says the Lion, who indeed is always hungry for the boy’s stories. They’re quite informative, and in hearing the tales of this land and others, he’s learned some very enlightening facts indeed.

“Just a short one about a princess who fell asleep,” presses the boy, but the Lion cuts him off sharply.

“No. They are coming. Go.”

Instantly, the boy’s smile vanishes. “Where are they?”

“Downwind, over there. Now hurry and do not return. I’ll find you later.”

The puppet quickly dances away. His feet clatter loudly against the cobblestone streets. He sings and shouts and claps his hands. Soon, three ragged men, their stink mostly masked by all the soot covering their bodies, stagger after the noisy wooden boy.

Eventually, he disappears from earshot, and the Lion thinks of the stories he’s been told, of the prized possession he’s found in this puppet, and of the many Doors scattered about the city. So many Doors. So many stories.

And all that time, his yellow eyes rarely blink, and they never leave the sack of food. The smell of meat, he knows, is wafting across the empty streets, slowly but surely.

It is dusk when they finally come. Their white fur stands out sharply in the foggy gloom. They come slowly, two of them, disturbed by the foreign, feline scent in the air. A hopeful, hesitant nose snuffling at the food, some whispered words, and the Lion drops from his perch.

He lands with a muffled crunch, immediately crushing the spotted dog's spine. Its mate bares her fangs and manages to bark once, but her fury is no match for the Lion.

Quickly, he drags the bodies up the tree. An old habit, but it runs deep. And as the Lion bites into the first body, he reaffirms that yes, it’s probably for the best that the boy not witness his meal.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Chapter Thirty-Six

Unseen in the shadows, a large purple rat watches the two strangers argue.

“What are you doing?!” shrieks the girl. A young, pretty little poppet.

“Yer always askin’ that,” says her companion, a foul dwarf. “What does it look like I’m doin’?”

The Witch had been watching them for quite some time. First as a raven, circling overhead in the midnight storm. Then as a toad, plopping underfoot as they made their way across the moat, heading fatefully to the Castle of the Door.

Such a pity they’d have to die. The Witch titters shrilly to herself, but her ratty squeaks go unnoticed amidst the visitors’ shouting.

The girl thrusts out her arm and grabs ahold of the Dwarf’s polearm. “It’s murder,” she says defiantly.

Bit of fight in this girl. Best to keep an eye on her. She’d been crying earlier outside after rummaging through an abandoned carriage. Must’ve belonged to someone she knew, but it was all too much melodrama for the Witch.

“Look at him,” sneers the Dwarf, and he gestures the weapon at the dying Wolf in the corner. “He needs to be put out of his misery.”

The Wolf whines pathetically.

“You can’t just kill him!” says the girl.

“’Course I can.”

“Of course he can,” cackles the Witch. It’s all the same to her whether they kill the beast or heal him. Just as long as the Mirror’s prophecy is fulfilled.

“No,” says the girl, and she bends down to look at the Wolf’s swollen ribs.

The Dwarf gasps and pulls the girl roughly away. Keeping one glaring eye on the Wolf, he brings his face as close to hers as possible and whispers harshly, "Don't you know what those creatures do? They bite. And how d'you know he isn't diseased? He'll turn into one of them, sure as thunder follows lightnin’."

Stupid, stubborn Dwarf, thinks the Witch, and she laughs again.

"No, he won’t. He isn’t sick. Not like that." says the girl. Clever little poppet. She must’ve witnessed the pestilence before.

The Dwarf stands up straight and levels his blade once more upon the Wolf's throat. "Doesn’t matter. Believe you me, he'll be better off."

And the Wolf, watching the two figures standing over him with dim eyes, nods weakly.

“No. There’s got to be another way.”

“What are you, a doctor?” asks the Dwarf angrily. But at the red-rimmed gaze of the girl, he lowers his weapon. “You can’t help him.”

She looks at the Wolf’s ruined body, a mess of broken bone and fur. The Witch grins eagerly, hopefully, and finally the girl says, “I think I can.”

“Oh, fer the love of the Mountain,” begins the Dwarf, but she’s already fishing through her apron’s pockets for needle and thread.

And the purple rat’s jaw drops as she witnesses something unique and mind-boggling: a Dwarf giving in.

There is the sound of ripping cloth, and the girl turns to see the Dwarf has ripped one red sleeve from his tunic.

"Bandages?" she asks, but the Dwarf scowls.

"I'm makin' a muzzle." He takes the sleeve and ties it across the Wolf's snout with surprising gentleness. “Look at me,” he grumbles, “ruinin’ my clothes for this.

"He's gonna turn,” warns the Dwarf. “Just you watch. And when he does, I wanna be ready.”

Content that he’s said the final word on the subject, the Dwarf busies himself with lighting a fire in the fireplace.

“Doesn’t matter what you want, Dwarf,” chuckles the Witch. Silently, she scampers through the doorway. “Mirror already said you’d be dead by dawn.”

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Chapter Thirty-Five

An evil wind sings outside, the raging song of a midsummer storm.

In the tallest tower of the Castle of the Door, a squat, lavender-haired crone swings her stumpy legs over the edge of the window and delights in the thunder.

“Ooh, look at them dance!” she cackles, and points a gnarled finger at the undead below. Tormented by the sounds and sensation of wind and rain, the lost souls writhe and bat at the air.

The Witch’s enjoyment is not shared by the Queen. Her Dark Highness stands in a shadow-filled corner of the tower, gazing into the Magic Mirror.

“How long it took me to find you,” she whispers, and she runs a lingering hand over its now-chipped frame.

“And what secrets did you share in my absence? What do they know, I wonder.”

“Mirror, Mirror,” she chants and the Witch’s laughter stops. Indeed, even the storm seems to weaken as the spell is cast. “Tell me more... of what you told the Wolf before.”

Her reflection clouds over. The unworldly mask vanishes into position, as if it were always there. Not invisible, perhaps, just unseeable by mortal eyes.

If the demon in the mirror recognizes its former mistress, it gives no sign. It ponders her question for a moment, then speaks in its ageless voice:

“Two shall come within the night. In this place, they set things right.”

The briefest of pauses, until, compelled by the Queen’s word command of “more,” the demon speaks again: “And one shall die ere morning’s light.”

Its empty face disappears once more, perhaps sleeping, perhaps waiting.

The Queen says nothing. She stares into the Mirror, beyond her reflection, as if to see the realms beyond.

"Your Majesty?” asks the Witch in a timid voice. “Weren't you supposed to ask it about..."

"No," says the Queen. “Not yet. This is more important.”

One question, one answer, truthfully told. That is the gift of the Mirror. And yet, so much is never told. Such a maddening gift. And, unless given a suitable sacrifice, the demon could not be summoned for another day.

There is much left unclear.

“If it’s the Wolf you’re worried about,” says the Witch, “why don’t we go wake him up? Set a fire under bones and he’ll tell you some tales, I’m sure.”

“You’ll do no such thing!” A flash of lightning, livid and white, illuminates the Queen as she grasps the old woman’s rounded shoulder.

“If we help or hurt the Wolf, then we might be the ones mentioned in the prophecy! And one of us will die. The Mirror is trying to trick us, you see.”

“But if we leave the beast alone,” the Queen lets go and strides to the broken window, gazing blindly out at the empty horizon. “Two more must come and help. Two others… but who are they?”

Desperate, the Queen leans farther out into the storm as if to see better. She pays no mind as the crone, unwilling to risk the Queen’s wrath, scampers away in search of some vermin to eat.

Will the two be friend or foe, thinks the Queen? And if they are enemies, could they overtake her magicks and the powers of the Witch?

“The damned Huntsman!” Her reflection looks accusingly back at her from the Mirror. So much time, so many answers, had had been lost because of his treachery! No doubt hearing of the exorbitant "refugee tax" imposed by the Sheriff of Nottingham, he had fled with the most treasured item in her castle, the Magic Mirror.

She would kill him, but, assuming the thief had survived, he most certainly would have gone through the Door and into the Lands Beyond.

There is grim joy in the knowledge that the Sheriff, at least, had paid for his greed. And, she smiles, the fat fool had suffered most horribly.

And with those thoughts to tide her over, the Queen watches for the two travelers, ignoring the bitter rain whipping at her face, as the storm sings down upon the tormented dead.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Chapter Thirty-Four

A little town. A quiet village. Dawn rises.

A gray, skeletal figure sidles across the town common. The tired men on duty scowl and narrow their eyes. A few grip their rifles a little tighter, but none fire.

If the figure notices their glares, he pays no attention. His focus is on one man, the largest man, busily explaining how to operate the flagpole.

The Town Champion does not notice the approaching figure, who reaches out a long, thin arm to tap his muscled shoulder.

“Monsieur,” says the cadaverous man.

If the Champion was going to wave him away, he stops his dismissal when he recognizes the visitor. It is the caretaker of the lunatic asylum.

“And, ah, just pull on the rope so that the flag goes up,” the Champion finishes hurriedly, and then begins walking away, out of earshot from the other men.

“What is it?” he asks.

“The patients,” says the Doctor, his whisper low and calm. “They have died.”

“Died? That’s good, then, right?” The Champion speaks a little too loudly, then looks guiltily over to see if he was overheard. Whether the other townsfolk can hear or not, their attention is conspicuously on the pair.

“Not exactly, Monsieur. They died… but they came back. Do not worry,” the Doctor hurries to add, “we have taken care of them, and their ashes are ready for burial. They died, as we shall say, a hero’s death.”

“That we shall,” agrees the Champion solemnly. A few of his men had been bitten two nights previously. Since then, the guard had been doubled. They will not be surprised again.

“But what we learned!” grins the Doctor. “Oh, what we have learned!” He laughs a dry, throaty laugh, earning the attention of some children who are working on one of the common gardens. They have learned, even in their youth, never to trust the laughter of the good Doctor.

The Champion smiles hopefully. “A cure?”

This only makes the Doctor laugh all the more, until finally he is coughing and wheezing and squatting down, his hands resting on his pointy knees.

“Oh, no, Monsieur. I do not think Providence smiles on us that much.” And after another furtive glance around, the Doctor continues in a quieter voice.

“The wounded men, they had been bound and trussed so they could not bite any of my orderlies. And as they succumbed to their first death, they were injected with chemicals, poisons that would fell an elephant. And they were unaffected.”

The face of the Champion remains stony at this useless news. It means nothing to him or his town, but the Doctor seems to have enjoyed the experiment for its own sake. His white coat is spattered with many a dark stain.

“Stick them, stab them, strangle them, decapitate them if you wish. Nothing kills them but damage to the brainpan.” He taps his bald head and grins, looking more than ever like a toothless skull.

The Champion cuts him off brusquely. “I know that already. What do you think we’ve been doing all this time?” He turns and is about to return to the flagpole, but then wheels back to let the Doctor know his place.

“I only gave you those men because you gave me your word, your word, that these experiments would turn up something. And now I have five families who are furious that their loved ones are gone, and dozens more who might not trust me anymore.

“And if they don’t trust me, Doctor, this whole town’s going to die.”

That had been the beginning of his problem. None of the wounded wanted to go to the grim and filthy Asylum – they’d only grudgingly gone at his command.

And the others, those traitors who lied about their wounds, died anyway and took their households with them. Such a waste of ammunition and lives, and who had been blamed? The Champion!

It wasn’t his fault, of course, but the people needed to take their anger out on someone. Never mind the fact that he was the reason they were all alive in the first place, that it was his leadership that established the town guard and the rationing of food.

When things went well, people were happy to hail him, but when things went wrong, how quickly they turned tail. Hateful peasants.

“Ah, but Monsieur,” wheedles the good Doctor, “they will trust you. Because I did learn one thing of great importance.” He pauses dramatically. “From Pierre.”

The Champion thinks for a moment. “Who’s that?”

“He’s a rat terrier. Nothing special about him… except he can smell the sickness.”

Eagerly, the Doctor continues. “He hates the creatures. And he hates the infected. Barks nonstop. We thought after we incinerated the last one, he’d quiet down, but he didn’t. It seems he smelled the sickness within one of the wounds of my attendants.”

“One of your attendants was bitten?”

“A minor inconvenience, already handled,” says the Doctor quickly. “And, by the way, I’ll need one of your men to take his place.”

Before the Champion can protest, the Doctor continues: “But think, Monsieur. With Pierre, we don’t need to worry about them hiding their wounded at home. He’ll find them, and I’ll take them, and the town will be safe.”

“The people won’t like it,” says the Champion after a moment.

“They’ll do as you say,” says the Doctor, smoothly, and the Champion has to agree with such wisdom.

“And all this only matters,” finishes the good Doctor, “if we have another unfortunate incident like the last one.”

“True...” says the Champion, his mind on the previous night’s attack. He looks over at the men on the wall, and the guards quickly avert their curious stares. How many might be hiding wounds beneath their coats?

“Bring the dog around,” he decides. He’s always liked dogs, but would prefer if Pierre was of a larger, more heroic breed. “We should do a sweep of these men before the next ones arrive.”

Without another word, the Champion returns to his men. He offers them a winning smile and secretly wonders which will be sent to the asylum.