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.”