Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Chapter Fifty-One

The forest is still alive. And that troubles the Queen.

She no longer fears the dead. Now she fears the living.

How many hours remain before she, too, falls prey to the curse of walking death? Should a stray squirrel or badger draw near, will she be tempted by the taste of their flesh, the scent of their blood? How much longer does she have?

Her hand still throbs painfully. Already she can see the redness around her missing finger. Not for the first time, not for the last time does the Queen curse that foul Dwarf.

She expects the curse will travel up her arm and slowly kill her, but she isn’t sure - she never bothered to study any of her dying subjects, not when the Mirror was missing.

Now her beloved Mirror weighs down her pack. How it fits inside such a small satchel is a matter of magic most dark, darker than the whispering forest that she hurries through.

Whatever moves about and watches from the trees, it will only impede her on her quest, and she still has leagues to walk before she sleeps. Indeed, she may never sleep again. Not when so much is at stake.

Her approaching death makes it easier to carry on. No pausing for rest or food or even water. There is no more need. All that matters is that she reach the Forbidden Mountain, the birthplace of this terrible curse, before it claims her, as well.

On a different night, under different circumstances, perhaps, she would pause and listen to the whispers of the forest. Out of curiosity, if nothing else, for secrets are often spoken in the dark. But not tonight.

The Queen glides on, a glimmer of jeweled darkness in the moonlit night, until finally the forest calls to her.

“Ho, fair lady,” comes a pleasant voice from the trees.

She does not stop. Something steps lightly among the branches and follows her.

“My lady, these woods be most treacherous at night. Why not wait 'til daybreak up here, safe above the ground?”

Still the Queen does not stop, although her spine begins to buzz with the beginnings of fear. She can smell flesh and blood.

“Please?” A pause. “Well, if that be the case...” says the voice, and something falls lightly from the trees and lands quietly at the ground in front of the Queen.

“We’ll need to be taking whatever you’ve got, then.” He sees the jewels of her crown, and then bows slightly. “Your majesty.”

He is a fox, dressed for a life spent outdoors. He casually carries a longbow, but is too polite to aim it upon her person.

“You dare rob from me?” says the Queen. Too late, she’s identified this forest as Sherwood.

“It’s what we do,” says the fox. He smiles. “Take from the rich, give to the poor. Of course, if you’d agree to stay with us, there’d be plenty of food for all.”

The Queen looks up into the mighty trees of Sherwood, only now realizing the walkways and well-concealed huts. A perfect sanctuary from the dead, a sanctuary she would destroy were she to accept this thief’s invitation.

A bear appears from the shadow of an oak, and unslings the pack from the Queen’s shoulders. He rifles through it, but the magic prevents him from seeing its true contents.

He groans in disappointment. “No food.”

“What?” The fox nearly drops his bow in surprise. “No food? What about water?”

“Not a drop.”

The fox turns to the Queen. “What have you been eating, then?”

She raises her wounded hand, revealing the stump where her finger was bitten. “Myself,” she says.

The bear is too stunned to resist as she snatches her pack and flees into the darkness, intent on putting as much distance as she can from this haven before the inevitable.