Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chapter Fifty-Three

“Just my luck,” grumbles the Dwarf. “Started with one sleepin’ girl, ended up with another. Left one dead kingdom, and look where I am.”

He speaks with the same fastidiousness he’d use when stoking a fire. The silence, like the cold, would be overwhelming, and he’s the only one who can carry the conversation.

The bonneted dog listens stoically, and the Dwarf surprises himself by scratching her shaggy haunches.

Cinderella slumbers, lost in the sleep of death. He won’t allow himself the notion that she can hear his words, and doubts that she can feel the plushness of the bed in which she lies. It took him quite some time, working alone, to push it into this room.

The Wolf is gone. He’d been no use the day before, of course. He’d whined about his stitches and wounds, constantly circling about and getting in the way, and hadn’t helped board up a single door or window. Then with the rising of the sun, the Wolf had abandoned them altogether - up through the chimney, quick, quick, quick.

“Good riddance t’ bad rubbish,” growls the Dwarf. It’s a return to his favorite topic. He scratches the bonneted dog harder. “Hope they got him. One less mouth t’ feed, anyway.

“Not that we got much,” he says, raising his voice to drown out the scrambling and scratching below. Downstairs, the dead thrash against the walls and go bump in the night, agitated by the unreachable scent of Dwarven sweat.

“Hard, moldy bread. Water if it rains soon... which it won’t. Probably end up needin’ to eat these shoes.”

With a long-suffering sigh, he stumps toward the fireplace. Not that he needs a fire - his eyes are long accustomed to the darkness of the mines - but the girl might appreciate it. And maybe the firelight will be noticed by someone in this great empty city. Some lucky fool.

A crash and a thump from the roof. The bonneted dog snaps to attention and growls faintly. The Dwarf swears and grabs at his spear-axe. How they got up there is nobody’s guess, but he’ll be damned if they get through.

“Watch over her,” he orders the dog. She nods a small salute, and stands by Cinderella’s bed.

The noise changes to a scuffling in the chimney, and the Dwarf relaxes ever so slightly. Defending a fireplace is easy - they can’t get in faster than he can kill them.

And the dirty head of the Wolf peers through. For a horrible moment, the Dwarf fears his bitter words have come true, but then the Wolf winks. He wriggles from the fireplace and wipes the soot from his arms.

The Dwarf drops the axe to his side. “Don’t make a mess in here,” he says. There’s no need to bother with a greeting.

Slowly, sarcastically, the Wolf brushes himself over the fireplace. Then, paws clean, he reaches into his pocket and removes three bundles of fur. Kittens. Dead. He tosses them in the Dwarf’s direction.

He picks one up, brings it to his nose, and sniffs. Fresh, but no longer warm. Snapped neck. Of course, the Wolf probably ate the plumpest of them, but it’s enough for a stew, and maybe some meat can be dried.

“Where’d you get these?”

“Other end of town. Holed up in an attic.”

The Dwarf grunts. “Should’ve brought back the other ones you ate, too.”

The Wolf’s eyes go wide with pretend innocence. “There were only three, I swear!”

The bonneted dog snorts.

“She could’ve used the extra fur for a blanket. It’s summer now, but it’ll get cold soon enough.” He begins gutting the first kitten. It’s wearing a leather collar, which he pockets. He does not read the name.

The Wolf nods and grins in a way that the Dwarf doesn’t trust. But the creature doesn’t seem hungry... at least for the time being.

“How’re you gonna feed her?” asks the Wolf, with a flick of his tail toward Cinderella’s bed.

“I don’t,” says the Dwarf. “If she’s like the other one, she’ll maybe just drink a few drops of water, but I don’t think she even needs it. But it... it just ain’t right to not give her nothin’.”

The Dwarf tries to focus on the kitten, though one eye keeps going toward the Wolf. He salivates openly, and keeps running his paws over the stitches in a way that is almost - but not quite - scratching.

Muttering to himself, the Dwarf vows to keep watch that night, but eventually, stomach full of stew, he falls asleep. He doesn’t hear the Wolf disappear, quick, quick, quick, up the chimney for a brief nighttime prowl.

But in the morning, someone has placed a small cup of fresh water beside Cinderella’s bed.