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The Story Weaver Chronicles : Penelope and the Hob King – Chapter 1

 

1926

Edinburgh, Scotland

Harrier Bogbean

 

Half-flying and half-running, a slender woodland sprite propelled himself off the decaying brick buildings and ducked into narrow doorways. Thick fog billowed over crumbling, cobbled streets beneath him. The Realm of Men made him skittish. Anything could happen to a solitary sprite in a world that knew no stories. His eyes darted about in caution and he flew to a nearby rooftop.

A camera hung from his neck and bumped on his chest with each change of direction. It weighed him down; sprites were not made for hauling things like a common draft horse, or dwarf, but he pressed forward and alighted on an old chimney. He sat there watching the fog shift and fold back on itself. Tendrils of mist wrapped around buildings and tucked into shadows before a cold, early-spring sun bored through the clouds and dissipated the last of the fingers of old man fog.

Human life whisked about below him, hurrying to jobs, schools, and errands. Pulling coat collars close to their necks, no one spoke to each other. Most scuttled up the road to factories and the streets soon cleared. He watched them leave with mild interest, wishing he were here to make some mischief. Oh, he could have such fun with the dodgy folks of earth, but he was not here for them.

He soon noticed a little girl sitting alone outside a red brick tenement. A prick of knowing stung at his heart. She was the one. The one he had come to document. He could sense it. She crumbled a dry biscuit on the street before her. Pigeons scurried over, and sparrows swept down eager to join the feeding.

His heart beat faster and he struggled to unscrew the lens cap off the camera. The ambassador from the City of Atmøs had gifted the camera to his father the evening before, and oh how he eyed it with envy! After a night of eating and drinking mulled rum, the ambassador and his father had fallen into a deep sleep. He smiled, remembering how easy it had been to replace the camera in his sleeping father’s arms with a square shaped rock. He then zipped away with the real one in hopes of recognition and fortune as the first sprite journalist.

001_Feeding Birde-1

If only he could get the blasted lens cap off! Was it the lever on the left, or the button on top? He grumbled at himself for not listening to the ambassador’s instructions on how to use the blasted mechanism. He pressed a toggle switch on the side of the camera down and the lens cap sprang off. He lifted the viewfinder to his face and snapped a few frames.

A tickle of joy crept up his spine. He giggled and adjusted a few buttons before bringing it to his eye again, but the girl was gone. He ground his teeth and stamped his foot in exasperation. He looked down the hill. No one. He looked up the hill. Her solitary figure labored up the cobbled streets. He leapt off the chimney and landed on the side of the street opposite her. He lifted the camera to his eye, and Snap! Click! Whir! He smiled as he took another picture of the girl destined to bring the mythological folk and the Realm of Men together again.

Penelope

Plain. Ordinary. Quiet. Plain. Ordinary. Quiet. The words pounded through her head with each stride as she rushed up the hill to school. Hot embarrassment flushed her cheeks as she wiped away the angry tears that gathered in the corners of her eyes. She knew she wasn’t much: long, brown hair pulled back in a low pony-tail, an out of style cotton skirt and blouse, a sweater no thicker than tissue, and sturdy walking shoes that her feet slipped around in no matter how hard she pulled on the laces.

Plain. Ordinary. Quiet. The accusatory words spoken that morning by her landlady echoed back at her. She thought she heard the click of a camera behind her. She stopped and gasped for breath. She saw no one, and reached for the small book in her shirt pocket. Good. It’s still there. She climbed the hill in dread, not wanting to arrive at school before she had to.

She realized that Mrs. Kendrick had not meant any harm with her hurtful words. How could her landlady have known that she sat right outside the kitchen window? While she warmed her shoulders against the sun-kissed wall, and fed her biscuit to the birds, she overheard Mrs. Kendrick’s visiting sister ask about the tenants. Mrs. Kendrick chirped away, telling her that Penny’s father was crazy for wandering the river every evening in his boat, and about Plain. Ordinary. Quiet. Penelope.

Her father noticed too late the holes in her stockings, or her knobby wrists protruding from her sweaters, and then would bring home clothing from the dumpsters lining the streets of the city. Mrs. Kendrick gave her the shoes her own plump feet had worn down. The thin leather soles barely shielded her feet from every hard stone and pebble on the slick streets. Mrs. Kendrick’s swollen feet stretched the leather to the maximum, and the splat of Penny’s footsteps, rang as an ever- present reminder of her poverty.

The small book in her shirt pocket thumped against her chest. She checked again to make sure her thin sweater covered its outline. Good. No one would see it as long as she kept her sweater buttoned. She walked in the shadows of the ash-covered buildings and furrowed her brow, intent on ignoring the stern, printed signs lining the street.

She hated the signs. Their constant presence burned their messages into her memory. If she wanted to, she could recite each one as she passed. “Ordinance 461: For our own protection every man, woman, and child must remain indoors from 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.,” she said to herself as she passed a blue, rectangular sign. “Remember:” a white octagonal sign screamed at her, its red words thick and straight across it, “Every man has his uses.” She scrunched her nose, that one was so strange. She tried to walk past the third one quickly without reading, but it had engrained itself on her soul and she could not help but whisper, “Don’t Worry: The Protectorate Can Think For You!” She shivered and quickened her pace up the hill to The Protectorate State School for Girls.

003_Red Book copy

Fellow students walked around her chattering and laughing. Marjorie Carr and her group of friends stood on the stairwell at the entrance of the school scrutinizing the other girls as they entered the building. Penny climbed the far end of the stairs hoping to avoid their harsh, critical gazes.

She spied her friend Eva ahead of her, and walked a little more quickly to catch her. “Eva,” she whispered. “I brought it.” Eva grinned, but looked straight ahead.

“Show me during lunch,” she whispered back, and Penny smiled. She relished her lunch breaks with her friend.

They passed Penny’s father polishing a display cabinet in the hallway. He worked as the school’s caretaker, and often she would bump into him as he mopped floors, pruned the bushes, or polished the cabinets like he did today. He smiled and waved the dirty polishing rag. A pang of embarrassment warmed her cheeks, and she ducked inside her classroom. She slid into her usual desk in the back of the room and stared ahead as Mr. Brubacher dragged a piece of chalk across the blackboard.

His thick voice rolled out of his crooked neck like the porridge she had eaten that morning: dry and thick. Today, he drilled them over and over again preparing them for the final examinations at the end of the year. They would be tested on their knowledge of the laws, ability to stand in a queue, and how well they could follow rules. After their examinations they would receive their occupations, and Penny would never have to see Mr. Brubacher again.

She liked the idea of never returning to school again, but she wished that school could be more enjoyable. Her father told her that before she was born, children learned from books. She sighed, wishing she could read books in school, but no, no that was for home.

004_Hesitant to Enter CLassroom

In the secrecy of home, her father told her tales of a time when people read books and told stories. Twelve years ago, when she was just a baby, their neighbors and quite possibly the whole world collectively forgot the stories and used their books to build fires, stuff the cracks in their walls, or in some of the poorer neighborhoods, to clean themselves after using the bathroom. Her father spent evenings begging neighbors to give him their old hardbacks before they ripped them up and threw them in their hearths. He stacked hundreds of books in his small coat closet, including the pocket book of fairytales she smuggled out that morning.

She entertained herself by recounting the tales she had read the night before. She remembered the tale of Aschenputtel, and imagined bearing the taunts of evil stepsisters and the oppression of a wicked stepmother. She smiled to herself as she imagined the grand ball, and what it would feel like to escape a dreary life. A sharp thwack across the back of her head brought her attention back to the stuffy classroom.

“Not paying attention again Miss Collins?” Mr. Brubacher said, and lowered his sweaty face next to hers. He flicked the wooden ruler he used to strike her. “You will never find an occupation under the Protectorate. You’re a pathetic example of citizenship. I think a little after school training with the custodian change that. You could never hope for anything more.” He said.

His eyes narrowed, and he turned to the front of the classroom. A few of the girls tittered in their chairs. She could tell it was a nervous laugh, but it panged her all the more. She seemed to be the brunt of all his ridicule, and the girls’ laughter ensured that he would keep it on her.

Her eyes prickled in the corners. She would not let them see her cry. Never a day went by that Mr. Brubacher didn’t torment her with physical punishments, or insults towards her father. She hated Mr. Brubacher.

 

 

She sat up straight and tried to show him that his words didn’t bother her, but her jaw tightened with anger. Several times she heard the click of a camera, but dared not to look around the room and garner his attention again.

After four long hours of review the bell finally rang signaling lunch break. She tightened her sweater, dashed out the door, and leapt down the steps two at a time.

“Hey, caretaker’s skint!” Marjorie yelled from across the dry grass. “Do you have any lies for us today?”

Penny flushed red and tightened her sweater around her neck.

“Shut up Marjorie,” Eva shouted, running up from behind Penny and grabbing her arm in solidarity.

Marjorie used to be their friend. Penny would regale her and Eva with her father’s tales until the day Mr. Brubacher learned of her stories and threatened to expose them all to the Protectorate. After that, Marjorie never spoke to Penelope unless it was to taunt her, and now kept a hawkish eye on all she did and said, threatening to tell Mr. Brubacher if she ever told stories again. Marjorie headed towards them; her group of friends close behind.

“No one’s talking to you Eva.” Marjorie snarled and stared down at Penny. Penny instinctively placed a hand over her hidden book.

“Go away,” Penny whispered. Marjorie frightened her. She never knew what misery the angry girl would try to inflict on her. A wicked grin curled Marjorie’s lips.

“What did you say, Liar?” She stepped closer to Penelope, her hands on her hips. Penny heard Mrs. Kendrick’s voice in her head again. Plain. Ordinary. Quiet. Mr. Brubacher’s voice joined hers. You’re a pathetic example.

Penny’s heart tightened in pain at the thought of her own insignificance. Fingers of shame scrambled up her neck and wrapped around her throat. She didn’t know what to say, and gaped wordless and alone.

A gentle breeze brushed her cheeks and danced with her hair. It brushed away the shame. She shivered and tightened her thin sweater closer around her, breathing in deeply.

005_Mr. Brubacher teaching

“I said go away Marjorie.” Her heart flipped as fear grew inside her chest, but she stood tall in front of Marjorie’s angry face. Marjorie’s eyes widened in surprise, but soon narrowed into a glare. She raised her hands and shoved Penny backwards. Penny’s worn shoes slipped on the pebbles beneath her feet and she fell to the ground.

The book flew out of her pocket and landed with a thud in front of her. The girls around them laughed as she tumbled to the ground, but grew silent the moment they realized what had fallen from her pocket. Her book lay on the ground. She reached to pick it up, but Marjorie kicked it away. A long shadow covered the book as Mr. Brubacher ambled over. His smile swept round the group and landed on Penny.

“What’s this, Miss Collins, I hear about telling lies?” He smirked. The pages of the book rustled at his feet. Penny pushed herself up and reached for it, but Mr. Brubacher grabbed it and flipped through the pages.

“Miss Collins, what’s this?” The anger flashing in his eyes told her that he knew exactly what it was. She looked down at her shoes.

Plain. Ordinary. Quiet. Tired of Marjorie’s accusations, and not caring anymore to fit in at her miserable school, Penny confessed.

“I only wanted to tell a story.” Her classmates looked confused, but Mr. Brubacher looked confused and angry. Penny scuffed her toes along the ground. She opened her mouth to protest this injustice, and the words came in a frenzy. “A story about a girl whose father died, and her step-mother made her work like a slave in her own home. There was a ball, and the girl wanted to go to it, but her step mother locked her away…”

“And do you know this woman personally?” Mr. Brubacher interrupted.

Penny looked behind Mr. Brubacher. A lone sparrow drifted in the breeze over the school. It’s wings outstretched as it floated in freedom. She squinted up at it. Oh to be a sparrow! To shed the confines of this place that would never understand her. To be free as herself. She felt Mr. Brubacher’s presence draw closer to her own.

“N-n-no, Sir. It’s a story.” His face leaned in closer, eclipsing the sparrow and her reveries of freedom. Whether on purpose or on accident she did not know, but he stepped right on the toe of her oversized shoe, trapping her.

“All stories are lies, Miss Collins.” He quipped. She struggled to get away from his hot breath and tobacco stained teeth, but her shoe wouldn’t budge under his weight. “There is no room for liars under the Protectorate. Your father will be interrogated at once,” he said as a thin smile stretched across his face. He ground his heel into the toe of her shoe.

The girls around her started to giggle. Only Eva stood with her mouth agape. Rage and embarrassment roared in Penny’s ears drowning out the giggling. Her fists clenched by her side, and before her brain had time to stop it, her right arm shot out and punched Mr. Brubacher in the jaw.

008_Punching Mr. Brubacher

He howled in surprise, dropping the book as he brought his hands to his mouth. He stumbled back, releasing Penny’s foot. The laughter stopped. She used his moment of distraction to lunge for her book and ran towards the gates.

“You are expelled, Miss Collins!” Mr. Brubacher thundered from behind her, but she already knew she would never go back. She thought she heard the click of a camera button, but soon forgot about it as she made her way through the narrow streets of Edinburgh with one eye out for the grey uniforms of the Protectorate officials.

She ran all the way home and bounded up the flight of stairs to the fourth floor, her floor.

Wrenching open the door and tossing her bag on her father’s desk, she flung herself onto their couch. She had never hit anyone before. Usually she stored the embarrassment and anger in her stomach before it could bubble forth in words and violence. Today she did not.

Today, she let her anger take over, and she almost liked that better. She kicked off the offensive loafers, and flung them into the corner of the room. Swearing to never put them on again, she walked over to her father’s coat closet.

The leather bindings of the books filled the closet with a pleasant smell of earth. She closed her eyes and imagined she was far from this city of spies, fear, and suspicion. She imagined herself walking along a forest path taking baked treats to her grandmother while wearing a red cape. The face of Mr. Brubacher leered at her through the trees, a near perfect imitation of the wolf, and her daydream was over.

What would Mr. Brubacher say to her father? What would her father say to her? He kept the books hidden, and now she had revealed his secret. Would the Protectorate send them both to prison? She paced the room in fear.

009_Running Away

When she was much younger and very afraid of the Protectorate, her father told her not to worry; prison was an empty threat, and they only fined those who broke the rules. She sighed, hoping he told the truth, and threw herself into her book of fairy tales. Rereading the stories she loved most, the sick feeling in her stomach dissipated as she waited for her father to come home.

Featured

Undomesticating Myself

To domesticate refers to a process of time.

A time of turning wild things: animals, plants, people into

Something else.

Something who’s worth is defined by the domesticator.

Something that cannot –

Tend to self.

Care for self.

Think for self.

We’ve domesticated animals and plants, but we too,

Are domesticated.

 

From birth we’ve navigated hundreds of systems.

Family systems.

Religious systems.

Education systems.

Healthcare systems.

Government systems.

Capitalist systems.

Societal systems.

Cultural systems.

 

Each one forming our behavior.

A slow drip – eroding our marrow.

Our essence wrung out like a dish cloth.

Our inner being wiped clean.

Our sense of self pummeled.

Our soul negated.

 

But I am.

I am reclaiming my essence.

One step at a time.

I am changing my mind about myself.

 

I am waving my essence like a flag.

I am restoring my inner being.

I am nurturing my sense of self.

I am plumping my soul with joy.

 

My friend,

Let us do this together.

Let us rewrite the future.

By being here now.

Untethering our souls

From the systems that feed on our depletion.

I can do it.

So can you.

 

 

Stock Image: https://www.deviantart.com/art/enlighted-meadow-3-280277379

God Doesn’t End At Me

Infinite God doesn’t end at me.

God doesn’t end at the edges of the sea.

God doesn’t end at me.

God doesn’t end in space, the absence of gravity.

God doesn’t end at me.

God doesn’t end at the overarching tree.

God doesn’t end at me.

God doesn’t end at the crippled, broken feet of the fleeing refugee.

God doesn’t end at me.

God doesn’t end at birth, present in the womb, but gone at delivery.

God doesn’t end at me.

God doesn’t end in the face of bigotry.

God doesn’t end at me.

God doesn’t end at grief and misery.

God doesn’t end at me.

God doesn’t end at depression, the emptiness of we.

God doesn’t end at me.

God doesn’t end at you.

God doesn’t end at me.

 

 

 

 

The Story Weaver Chronicles – Penelope and the Hob King: Chapter 10

 

Harrier Bogbean

He followed with care behind the girl and the horseman when the pelting of rocks sent him spinning towards the earth. Confused, he rolled into a tight ball and somersaulted under a thick bush. He lifted his camera with delicacy and smiled in relief to see it unharmed. Peering around the branches, he could not tell where the rocks had come from. Someone must have thrown them. Rocks didn’t just fall from the sky. Soft footsteps a fox’s leap away caused him to duck behind the bush’s wide leaves and press himself into the shadows. A heavier footstep fell in line with the first one, and he knew now that there were two of them.

“Are you sure you saw him fall here?” An anxious female voice hissed.

“Yes, of course,” a raspy voice grumbled. “I watched him all the way down. Little bugger can’t creep around for too long. He’s here.” The footfalls grew closer. He knew those voices; he knew those footsteps. How dare they hunt him down and pelt him with rocks! His own siblings! The outrage. He sprang out from behind his bush and startled the two sprites coming near him.

“Buttercup Blackthorn and Grouse Pearlwort, I must say, I am surprised to see you this far from home. You two must be lost.” He cracked his long fingers, anxious for them to move along. He enjoyed the surprise and uncertainty that crossed the other sprites’ faces. Buttercup blushed from her neck to her forehead, and Grouse rolled his eyes in disdain. They were, by far, his most boring siblings.

“Sprites never get lost, except with one exception.” Grouse peered down his long nose at him with accusation. Harrier’s neck grew hot with indignation. He wanted to pop Grouse in his chubby cheeks for bringing up his one fault.

“That was one time, and I had too much to drink, and the parade was just too long.” He stopped, noticing that the other two were smirking at him.

“Who gets lost in a parade? It’s a straight line.” Buttercup taunted. Grouse snorted. Harrier was not amused.

“Well, if you two are just going to mock me, I will be on my way. I have important business to attend to.” Grouse and Buttercup cast each other serious looks.

“You know we would leave you about your revelry,” Buttercup said. “But we have a duty to Father to find you. He was not happy that you left.” She glared, and Harrier rolled his eyes.

Exasperation filled him. Could he just get on with being a hard-hitting news reporter and not have to deal with these two knuckleheads? Ugh, why couldn’t anything be simple? But the beginnings of an idea nibbled away at the corners of his brain; they were, after all, his two most serious siblings. Could he use their serious nature to his benefit?

“And what is that device you’re carrying?” Grouse reached towards the camera.

“Umm… nothing.” Harrier backed away. “Absolutely nothing…” He tried covering the camera with his shirt, hoping his feigned concealment would catch their interest.

“Oh but it’s something new, and look, it has glass in it.” Buttercup floated next to him. “Wouldn’t you show it to your favorite sister?” She glided around him with a sweet smile.

“No.” He ducked away. “Not even to my sixty-second-eth sister.” Harrier backed away and into Grouse’s thick, barrel-chest. “And not even for one of my eldest brothers who showed me how to change into a turnip. Sorry dear brother.” His words held just enough pleasantries and not enough details to keep their curiosity, and he could see the hungry looks in both of their eyes. Something foreign to their world of nature, and they didn’t have one of their own. Oh, he could see their faces turning greener with jealousy.

“What is it?” What is it?” Buttercup bobbed up and down. Grouse still held a stern look and butted up between the two, pointing a long, tapered finger at Harrier’s chest.

“Is this the device you stole from father? A servant heard you talking about a newspaper as you left. Is that what this is?” Grouse waved wildly at the camera, “a…a…a…newspaper?” The accusing words faded into the air. Harrier chuckled as he knew that not even Grouse knew what he was saying. Its hard to keep up the appearance of significance when one has no idea of the situation. He snorted. Harrier drifted back to the ground and sighed, faking disappointment at having to tell them everything.

He showed them how the camera operated, dispelling the mystique of the buttons, glass, and levers. He told them about the Weaver’s daughter and his goal of a sprite newspaper that would bring their people to the forefront of importance on the Isle. They sat deep in their thoughts for a few moments until Buttercup whispered, “So the legend is true? There is one who can reunite the Realm of Men and the Isle of Scealta?” Harrier nodded. Buttercup and Grouse looked at each other with knitted brows before turning to him.

“We want in,” they said together. They could not conceal the excitement in their voices. “We want a camera and a newspaper, and to see the mythical daughter of the Story Weaver.” They leaned in together, waiting for his next word. Harrier bubbled over with excitement, but he tried to remain calm. He leaned back and tried to look like their father, pompously pondering his next decision. He stroked his chin.

“This is for serious reporters only. You have to stick with it to the end of the story. You can’t dabble in it for a few days before getting bored. We have to break the sprite code of being fickle, silly, and good for nothing but trickery.” The other two nodded, apparently understanding the solemnity of the situation. He sighed.

“Fine, I guess you can help out. It is a big story,” he conceded. They huddled together and formed a plan.

Queen Aschenputtel

 The queen and her party arrived at her palace between the cliffs, exhausted from their journey. Sore from the night of sleeping in the tree house, and dirty from the long days of riding beforehand, she limped up the narrow staircase to her bedchamber. What happened to Allerleirauh? They noticed hours after they left the tree house that she was no longer with the party. No one could remember if she left with them or stayed behind in the tree house with the Weaver’s daughter.

She sent a small group of soldiers to search for the fur-clad cook, but after a few hours, they returned with no word. Her temples throbbed with fatigue. She reached her bedchamber and smiled at her refuge of peace and solitude. The balcony at the end of her bedroom allowed her a view of the cliffs, the forest, and the Dragon’s Head. Larger than a boulder, the Dragon’s Head hung over the entrance of the main gate and, at night, burned as a beacon for her subjects caught between the cliffs after the sun went down.

In times of siege, which never happened, but which she always prepared for, the jaw could be lowered to shower any attackers with scorching embers. Her treaty with the Hob King to the North was precarious, and she knew that the slightest infraction could cause a war.

Her weak, disheartened kingdom would not stand a chance against the hobs. She rested her head on the cool, stone wall of her tower. She had not always lived between two cliffs, set off from her people in a remote, snaking valley. As she stepped onto her balcony, the harsh afternoon light shone a sharp beam onto a potted fruit tree she had brought from her childhood home. It stood dried and withered. Sighing, she grabbed a pitcher of water off a table and poured water over her dying plant.

She thought of the home she grew up in, content and happy. She remembered the wide, open rooms where her parents received guests, the orchards grown from the seeds of the giants: seeds that produced peaches, apples, and pomegranates the size of her head.

She was eating a peach the day after her sixth birthday when her father told her that her mother had died that morning from a riding accident. He cried, and he held her. She pushed him away, preferring to cry alone in the orchard. She walked and wept along a row of bushes and planted her peach pit there in the mud made by her tears.

A year later, her father married that awful witch, her stepmother, who brought along her twin daughters. Those two wretched stepsisters tormented Aschenputtel without end. Four years older than she, they physically tortured her when the adults weren’t looking and teased and humiliated her even when adults were around. She found herself booted from her own room and reduced to sleeping in the kitchen fire ash for warmth.
026_Queen Aschenputtel On Balcony

 

She never forgave her father for that. He didn’t intervene when his new wife and stepdaughters treated her worse than a slave: she, his first daughter, and the daughter of his true love. Instead, he huddled away in his study or went on weeklong hunting trips, sleeping in the hunting lodges in the woods.

Water dribbled over the side of the potted tree and splattered her boots. She punched the wall on which she rested her hand moments before. Velvet blood dripped from the dry cracks on her knuckles. She sucked on the blood before it rolled down to her sleeve. Why had he never cared for her? Why did he let them treat her like a slave? They had paid servants; they had parties, and friends. Not one person questioned the treatment of little Aschenputtel, the daughter of his first wife.

If it had not been for her friendship with Pan and his visits with her by the peach tree, she would have run away to anywhere. Not only to get away from the hate and grueling work thrown her way, but to get away from her father’s betrayal. Pan’s advice, company, and humor sustained her through those soul crushing days. He provided her with the gown and dancing slippers she wore to the king’s ball. He conjured the field mice and pumpkin into a splendid horse drawn carriage. He told her to kick off her shoe and leave it as a token for the king.

After the king chose her, and on their wedding day, she saw the lengthy figure of Pan standing on the hillside across from the temple. He waved, and she nodded, knowing that she was the only one who saw the lanky man with the beard, dancing eyes, and pipe. She was the only one who heard his song that day and received his blessing.

As a young bride, she continued to see him on the walks she took alone in the lush castle gardens. He knew before she did that she would bear a beautiful son the same day the Weaver’s daughter was born. The king and she proclaimed a national holiday the day of their son’s birth. The year following was the best year of her life. She forgot the evil treatment of her stepmother and stepsisters, and the betrayal of her father. Free to do as she pleased for the first time since her mother died, she filled her days loving her son, practicing archery, walking in the gardens, and working with her husband to eradicate the mistreatment of children in the kingdom. The people called her the Children’s Princess, a title she loved.

Twelve long years passed since that wonderful year. She remembered her son trying to walk, grasping her fingers, and taking tiny steps to his father who stood smiling across from them. She remembered his dimpled hands reaching for her hair, and his long lashes closed in beautiful slumber.

Her jaw tightened, and she pushed the tears back. Now he lay in the Crystal Caves, wasting away in the Death Sleep. He lay there, thin and weak but not a day older than the day the Weaver had abandoned their fates. She touched the corner of her eyes, feeling the slight wrinkles that formed there. Her handsome husband would be surprised to find himself married to an older woman if he ever woke up.

She sank into a large chair and watched the afternoon sunlight creep across the sky. The light reminded her of the last time she saw Pan. The evening before she ordered the execution of her stepsisters, she walked the gardens of the palace contemplating her decision. She considered extending mercy to them, but they had crossed her too many times. They had gone too far when they went to her enemies among the nobles and accused her of using witchcraft to seduce the king.

Tired of their scheming, she ordered their execution on the basis of kidnapping and thievery before the nobles could intervene. Yes, they stole from the palace anytime they came near it, and yes they perpetuated child slavery by luring orphans off the street to work in their mother’s bakery. She knew they ran a black market out of the bakery and killing them was the best way to be rid of them.

Sparing their mother was the best revenge. Aschenputtel knew no worse torture than the memory of a child taken away too soon. She wanted that punishment for the Story Weaver too: unrelenting sorrow.

The last place she saw Pan was in the palace’s ancient garden, growing wild with neglect. She fired most of the palace gardeners when the costs of treating those stricken with the Death Sleep became too expensive to keep palace staff.

 

027_Queen Aschenputtel Looking out Window

 

“Is this what you plan to do then?” Pan said as she slashed into a tall row of hedges under the pretense of pruning them, but all she wanted was something to cut, destroy, obliterate.

She spun around in surprise. He waved his hand over the destroyed bushes, healing what she had smashed. “So you plan to execute them?” He asked.

“My oldest friend.” She smiled, ignoring the healed bushes. “What does it matter to you that two more evils leave the Isle?” His sad eyes twinkled, not with laughter this time, but with grief.

“The earth cannot soak up anymore blood.” He rested a hand on her shoulder. “The Death Sleep, the violence of the Hob King, too much blood has spilled. The Isle swells with it.”

She shrugged him off. “You liken their deaths to the deaths of innocents, to the deaths of thousands of my people. There is no comparison. The deaths of two criminals should be a welcome sacrifice of justice to the Isle.” She met his gaze with defiance but looked away, embarrassed, when his gaze showed only love.

“No sacrifice is needed. It’s not for the condemned I plead, but for their condemner. When will you stop this legacy of anger?” His voice faded away, and when she looked up to where he stood, he was gone.

The memory of their last encounter burned fresh in her mind. She chose not to extend mercy that day, and their blood poured into the earth. It pooled around the birch stump where the executioner took their lives. The queen walked by the stump every day for three days willing the earth to soak up their blood, but it never did. On the third day she ordered the remaining servants to wipe it up with dry cloths. The evening sunlight filled her room as her memory filled with horrors, and she wept.

The Story Weaver Chronicles – Penelope and the Hob King: Chapter 9

Allerleirauh

It wasn’t difficult to fall away from the queen and her soldiers. She knew that no one would think to look back for her. Dri-fa proved to be her sole friend among the guards. Everyone else gave her a wide berth, and they would probably be relieved if they noticed her missing. She knew they thought of her as an oddity. After a few hours of trailing them, she slipped into the trees and doubled back to the tree house. She flattened herself in the shade of a low hanging tree and debated over calling up to Penelope.

The breeze brought a distant smell of a horse and a single rider. She flattened her body further into the ground. The smell of the horse and rider grew stronger, but they were still a quarter mile or so away.

She looked up through the tree branches, wanting to get a glance of the girl. The tree house stood invisible behind the foliage. She hoped Penny wasn’t too scared and wondered why both the queen and Dri-fa were so intent on keeping an eye on her. The smell of horse and rider grew stronger and startled her with their pungency. A few moments later, they rode into sight. The horse rippled with muscle. His rider looked to be a tall man dressed as a soldier with tanned skin, black hair, and dark eyes.

He surveyed the woods around him before leaping off of his horse and drawing his sword. The sweat beading on the horse smelled wonderful; hunger clawed at her stomach like a caged animal. She wanted to wrap her teeth around the sweaty haunch of that beautiful horse but shook her head instead, trying to ignore the wolfish tendencies inside her. The rider circumnavigated the tree with his sword drawn and stopped next to his horse.

“Persinette, Persinette!” He shouted. “Please, let down your hair.” He smiled up at the top of the tree as if he could see Persinette leaning over the railing of the tree house. Allerleirauh rolled her eyes in disgust and hoped that Penny would not lower the basket. This man was a queen’s guard and no friend to Penelope, but the sound of the basket creaking downward told her that Penny was not so wise, or perhaps just curious and alone. She furrowed her brow, and sniffed the air again, hoping to catch a scent of the rider’s true motives.

The man climbed into the basket and gave the rope a tug. With a jerk, the basket rose again lifting its occupant into the branches and out of sight. She contemplated eating the horse, but decided she must find Dri-fa. This new turn of events did not bode well for the girl in the tree house.

Penelope

The man who rode up in the basket appeared just as startled as she felt. “Is Persinette here?” he looked over her shoulder and into the interior of the tree house.

“Ummm….no.” Penny gulped. His dark eyes unnerved her, and she twisted her hands together, hoping not to look frightened. He continued to stare. Silence lay between them, heavy in the air. “She was taken away this morning by…” she was not sure what to say. This must be the man the queen was asking about last night. Would he be angry with her? Would he hurt her or help her escape from the queen?

“By?” he prompted.

“By the queen,” Penny stammered. A flash of confusion crossed his face, and he shifted his sword from one hand to another.

“The queen was here? Why did she take Persinette?”

Penny shifted from one foot to the other, “She was in the Death Sleep.” He broke their gaze, sheathed his sword, and took off his riding gloves.

“I can’t believe it. She should have been safe here.” He sat at the table and rubbed his temples. “And who are you?” he turned towards her.

“Ummm.” She searched for an answer and thought of the queen’s cook. “The queen left me behind to…to….” She motioned to the kitchen still dirty from the smashed breakfast, “to clean up…I’m kitchen staff.” He looked around, his eyes glazed. He appeared tired and sad.

“Well, I’ll have some breakfast then, and then I’ll have a bed prepared. I was up all night; sleeping in the woods does not make for a restful sleep.” He mumbled and pulled off his boots. He grabbed a wire brush from a shelf and began cleaning off the mud that caked the soles.

Penny breathed out in relief. He was the first person she had met who didn’t have plans for her, except that she make his breakfast. She turned into the kitchen where the remnants of the morning’s destroyed breakfast lay before her. She could salvage enough for one person. Maybe even pick out enough for herself? The bread remained in excellent condition, so she dusted it off and set it on a plate. She rinsed off the berries and set them in a bowl.

The crumbled, cold eggs she scooped onto a platter and carried outside where the mice rustled about in their baskets. Wrinkling her nose, she veered to where the chickens scratched and pecked. She preferred their slow, calculated movements over the quick, unpredictable scurrying of the mice.

Allerleirauh must have gathered the eggs from the chickens fresh that morning, but Penny hoped she had missed a few under the hay. She searched under overturned baskets until she found three perfect eggs, just lain. She picked them up, warm and smooth in her hands, and imagined she was a farmer. These eggs were her own chicken’s eggs. She turned back into the tree house enjoying her thoughts of farming, but the loud beat of wings startled her, and she dropped one of the eggs.

A plump crow sat on the rail, a twist of paper on his right leg. He looked as if he wanted to ask her a question but couldn’t voice his thought. She grabbed some seeds to coax him over. He accepted the bribe and landed on her palm. Wax sealed the paper tight. She did not care if the note was for her or not. She slid her thumbnail along the seam and popped it off.

She peered over at the man inside the kitchen. He continued to clean his boots and started to whistle a cheery tune. Penny squatted down and pretended to hunt for more eggs. She unrolled the message. In a tiny scrawled script, she read:

My Dear Hy,

Dispose of the girl you will find at the top of the treehouse. I will not pay you for this service. Consider it punishment for visiting Persinette after I banned you to the West Watch. I am on the Queens Road headed to the palace. Persinette has succumbed to the Death Sleep. I am sure you are distraught with grief.

Queen Aschenputtel

 Penny gasped. Her hand shook with fear and anger. The lying queen intended to have Hy kill her. She reached deep for a breath; she needed to think to clear her head. The whistling inside stopped. She tore up the message and scattered it under the hay. A disapproving hen clucked nearby, and Penny grabbed the eggs before she turned to meet Hy’s dark gaze.

“Has a message come?” he surveyed the sky behind her. Penny tried to appear unconcerned.

“No,” she muttered as she fidgeted with the eggs. “But I’ll keep a look out, Sir.” He continued to scan the sky. She bowed her head and sidled past him into the kitchen where she began cracking the eggs into a pan.

“She was in love with me.” Hy stood in the doorway behind her, his head cocked to the side with a jaunty smirk on his face. “She thought I would rescue her. Run away with her. Take her away from the overbearing queen.” He fingered the flowers in a vase on the cupboard shelf. Penny kept her eyes down, concentrating on the eggs. The fire burned in the stove, and the eggs sizzled. A floorboard creaked behind her. He stood closer.

“When were you sent here? You weren’t here last week. The queen allows no one to visit the princess.” He pulled a throwing star out of his vest and took aim at a spot across the room. He threw the knife, and it pierced the air landing in the center of a dark, knotted plank. She froze. This was not supposed to happen. He was supposed to eat his breakfast, then go to sleep. She trembled as she slid his eggs onto a plate.

“Your eggs are done.” She smiled wanly and sidestepped him on her way to the table. He followed her. His stockinged feet padded across the floor. His sword leaned against the far wall, and she felt a little safer with the table between them. He sat and drank the lavender water, then poured something brown and thick from his own flask into the now empty mug. He started on the eggs before turning to her.

“What news from the palace?” he asked, his mouth full of food. “What’s the gossip among the maids?” Penny started to shake her head but then realized the opportunity to learn more about her mother.

“They say the Weaver’s daughter is here, trying to find her mother.” She peered up at him through half lowered lids waiting for his reaction. He reared his head back and laughed.

“That should have the queen in knots. I’m surprised she hasn’t sent for me to hunt down the little wench.” He jabbed at his eggs. “I believe that’s merely a rumor. The queen wouldn’t sit idle and let the woman she hates most in the world find her daughter while her own family lies in the Death Sleep.” He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and bit into a fist-sized strawberry. Penny wanted him to forget all about her, but curiosity forced her to speak again.

“Why does the queen hate her?” she asked, and he squinted at her with uncertainty.

“Where did you say you were from?” He asked between mouthfuls of eggs. Penny flushed, angry with herself for saying too much.

“I… I’m new,” she stammered. “My parents kept me hidden too, before I started to work for the queen.” Hy nodded then took a long swig from his mug. He leaned back in his chair and sighed.

“A lot of families hide their daughters these days. They fear the Death Sleep, which takes anyone: men stronger than I have fallen afoul of it.” He leaned back in his chair, and then rocked forward, ready to divulge a secret. He fumbled for his flask and drew a long drink from it. Drops of the liquid dripped down his chin and onto his shirt. He wiped his mouth with his wrist before pouring the rest of its contents into the mug.

“They say the Hob King is scouring the land for beautiful maidens.” He gave her a long look. “Not that you’d have to worry about that… They say he hopes to reverse the curse laid upon him some eighteen years ago. He kills the maidens, executes them in his own courtyard.” He drew his finger across his neck signaling their execution. She grimaced but tried to guide him back to her original question.

“So why is the queen so angry at the Story Weaver? Did she kill her husband? Is that why they call her the Widow Queen?”

Hy paused and took a long swig out of his mug. “The queen’s marriage lasted one year. It was the best year this land has ever seen. Crops yielded full bounties, the monsters of the world ceased their attacks, almost disappearing… Festivals and parties filled every night. It was a joyous time. Only happy endings…” His words slurred, and he rubbed his eyes with his hands before lovingly wrapping his fingers around his mug and bringing it to his lips, sucking down the last few drops. He seemed to forget Penny, and instead traced the pattern etched on the mug for a few long seconds before continuing.

“That all ended when the Weaver angered the Hob King by refusing to bring his wife back from the dead and reversing his curse.” He continued. “He tried to kill the Weaver’s daughter to force her to change his story, but she sent her daughter into hiding. So instead, he stole the life threads of as many of us as he could and cursed them to the Death Sleep.” A tired inhale filled his lungs, and his chin dropped to his chest. He jerked back up and looked at her with blurry eyes. “The queen’s husband and son were some of the first to slip into the Death Sleep.” He swirled his pointer finger around the rim of the glass and sucked on the last bit of drink he found there. She knitted her brows.

“How do you know all this?” She asked him.

“I travel…” his speech grew more distant and his head fell again to his chest. His eyes shut for a moment. Penny thought he fell asleep, but his eyes flew open just as she tried to get up from the table. “The Weaver should have known not to upset the Hob King. She should have known that after thousands of years of weaving our fates, then losing them, that she would upset the balance of things. She should have done as the Hob King asked.” He sank back into slumber and set his mug on his lap. “But I don’t know why I’m telling you…” he mumbled. Sleep overcame him at last and he let out a snore.

She exhaled the breath she didn’t realize she was holding, and decided to leave before another message from the queen arrived. She gathered what food she could find lying about the kitchen and stuffed it in the pack Pan had given her. She flung the rope of hair over the railing, hoping to let herself down hand-over-hand, and climbed into the basket on the edge of the porch. With both hands on the rope, she leaned towards the forest side, tipping towards the edge.

The sound of breaking glass shattered the silence. Penny looked up in time to see the shards of glass from Hy’s mug skid across the floor. She threw all her weight towards the forest and tipped over the railing. The sudden weight of her in the basket nearly jerked the rope out of her hands. She heard Hy muttering and cursing and knew that within seconds he would be there, trying to reel her back up.

She lowered herself hand over hand into the foliage. He stumbled across the floor of the kitchen. She worked faster but struggled to hold her own weight. She cursed herself for not being stronger.

The rope of hair slipped between her fingers several times before she interlaced them among the strands of the thick braid to catch herself. She descended three or four meters when she heard his footsteps stop above her. She looked up. Hy’s face jutted from behind the rail. He cursed at her, his face red, and his speech slurred.

“I know who you are!” He threw one leg over the side and then the other. “And I know what the queen would wish me to do with you.” He swung his sword around his side and began sawing through the rope of hair. His firm grip made it impossible for Penny to lower herself any further. With all her strength she shook the rope of hair back and forth hoping to dislodge him. Hy, who held the rope in one hand and the sword in the other, lost his balance and slipped off the side of the rail.

For a second, he was gone. Then the basket swayed with a jerk as he caught the edge of it in an effort to save himself. The sword fell to the forest floor; he kicked his legs violently and almost broke Penny’s grip on the rope.

“Stop it! Stop it!” she screeched, “or we’ll both fall.” His panicked kicking subsided, but his weight on the side of the basket was far too heavy for her to hold. “I’m slipping!” she cried, her hands cramped from holding on so tight.

“Don’t let go!” he shouted back. “Hold steady, and I’ll climb up.” He started reaching for the length of hair next to his free hand.

“I should knock you off!” She yelled back, shaking her body from one side to the other. The basket began to rip where his hand pulled on it.

“Stop!” he yelled. “ I promise I won’t kill you if you hold this basket still.” She couldn’t fight anymore and threw all her strength into holding the rope. He reached for the hair, and the side of the basket ripped with his weight as Penny’s grip slipped. They hurtled towards the earth.

She clambered at the hair as it slid through her fingers. Hy screamed in agony as every gnarled, spiked branch scraped at his body, poking at his eyes, and clawing at his skin. She ducked into the basket. The rope swung just out of her reach. She stiffened in fear, waiting for the impending crash that would kill them both, but a gust of wind burst beneath the basket and pushed them skyward in a gentle caress.

She sprang up and grabbed for the rope. Her muscles burned in her arms, but she held on tight. Her knuckles turned white with the pressure as the wind lessened and drifted them down to the ground. She directed their landing with the rope. They settled on a soft bed of dead leaves.

025_Falling From Treehouse

 

Her hands bled from the friction of the hair sliding between her palms. Torn in spots where she had squeezed most tightly, the skin peeled back and blood beaded on the corners of her nails. She looked over at Hy. He groped at his face.

“I can’t see!” He pulled his hands away and turned towards her, but his pupils did not focus. “I can’t see! I can’t see!” His voice welled with fear. The whites of his eyes gleamed red with blood; Penny stepped away, wanting to run, wanting to leave him here in the woods. Then she remembered the cries of Gustav. She couldn’t leave him to Gustav’s fate. She crept closer.

“Here, let me help you.” She reached for him, ready to jump away if it was a ruse. His torn pupils melted into the dark rims of his eyes. His eyelids began to swell with blood, and Penny turned away.

“It should heal soon,” she encouraged, even though she felt it a lie. He scrabbled around on the ground looking for something. Penny spied his dropped sword sticking straight out of a dead bush and ran over to grab it. She pointed the weapon at his back.

“How do I get out of here?” She turned the sword against his back. It was heavy, but if she held it with two hands she could steady it. His frantic rustlings stopped.

“I would not threaten me if I were you little girl.” He spoke through clenched teeth. “Even blind, I could tear you to pieces.”

Penny lowered the sword and took a few steps back. She would have to be more soothing.

“How do we get out of here?” She emphasized the “we.” He continued feeling the swollen mounds over his eyes. He screamed, enraged, and cursed. Penny waited. He kicked at the tree then tripped and fell to his knees. Her sympathy overtook her urge to laugh at his temper.

She stepped closer, “I could take you to a safe place, if you would let me go free from there.” He slouched at the base of the tree, his head in his hands and nodded.

“There’s a traveler’s shelter we could reach by tonight,” he said.

“Perfect,” she quipped, glad to be out of the tree house but annoyed to have a blind travelling companion who tried to kill her as company.

He let out a sharp, high whistle. A trampling of underbrush startled her, and she attempted to raise the heavy sword in front of her but couldn’t lift it higher than her chest. Her throat closed in fear, but the sight of a large, black horse trotting through the trees made her laugh with relief.

“There you are Apollo.” Hy reached up and stroked the steed’s neck. The horse nuzzled his master, sensing his misery. Hy reached up and climbed on Apollo’s back. He extended a hand to where Penny stood.

“We need not waste a minute. The day is half over.” She grabbed his arm, and he pulled her up. They headed east.

 

 

The Story Weaver Chronicles – Penelope and the Hob King: Chapter 8

Allerleirauh

She peered out from under her wolf-hood. The room pulsed with the heartbeats of all who lay there. One beat quicker than the others, and she smelled the fear ruminating off of the girl the queen picked up on the road. She watched Penny sneak a look at a canvas map and then stuff it into her bag.

She wondered why Dri-fa told her to make sure the girl never left her sight and to protect her at all costs. She reminded Dri-fa that even though the queen seemed coarse and cold hearted she was really gentle and kind and would never harm the girl. Dri-fa left with the queen’s stepmother before Allerleirauh could ask any questions, but it was easy to fulfill her request.

She liked Penny. No one had offered to help her with dinner chores before. Maybe the queen would assign Penny to help her with cooking for the rest of the journey. It would be nice to have a friend to talk to on the trip back to the queen’s palace.

She settled back and tried to go to sleep, but the strange events of the day kept her awake. The cloak clung to her, almost suffocating her. She couldn’t take it off. She wouldn’t take it off. She lay still in hopes of drifting off to sleep, but her own mind raced. Old memories haunted her this night as they had every night of the past year.

She shifted the cloak around her, remembering the night her father had given it to her, the night she left Atmøs. She packed her bags in a hurry that evening, grabbing a loaf of bread and a few apples from the kitchen. Earlier that night, her father made the ascent into her tower and announced that he intended to marry her the next morning at sunrise. He threw the cloak of a thousand skins at her feet and said that she had no right to refuse him any longer. She, of course, pretended to be delighted. For she did send him on his fool’s errand, requesting that he make her a cloak from the skins of a thousand animals. She hoped he would die in the process or, in his madness that changed everyday, forget that he desired to make his daughter his bride.

He fell at her feet, grabbed her hands, and brought them to his lips. “In the morning you will be my bride, little Belle.” He called her by her mother’s name. He hadn’t called her by her own name, Allerleirauh, in over a year. She loosened her arm from his grip and petted the cloak as if it were a good dog.

“This is beautiful,” her voice caught as she draped the cape over her narrow shoulders and looked into her mother’s ancient mirror, the glass rippled and dimpled with age. She preened before it like an exotic beast. A wolf’s head adorned the hood, hues of white fur patched together made the sleeves, brown and black fur formed diagonal stripes down the front, and swatches of long hair in chunks of brown, blonde, and black flowed down the back.

“Is this,” she gasped in horror, “ is this… what is this?” She pointed to the long hair in the back. His smile faded.

“Aren’t you pleased my bride?” He ran his claws through the long hair.

“An extra touch for my beautiful Belle, a cloak of animal hide alone was not good enough.” He kissed her hand again. She turned away.

“Bounty from the executions. The most beautiful maidens on the Isle are worth nothing compared to you.” He smiled. “Their beauty is merely worthy of your adornment. Tomorrow you will wear this cloak and all our kingdom will know my adoration of my bride.” He kissed her cheek, oblivious to her grimace and left.

She slammed the door behind him with disgust realizing why her father insisted on performing the executions of the beautiful women in the courtyard beneath her tower. Did he think that would impress her? The room spun; she felt nauseated. Her governess led her to a chair.

“Princess Allerleirauh, you have to leave, you can’t marry him,” she whispered. Allerleirauh met her eyes; she could smell the fear in the room, the cloak seemed to heighten her senses. Did her governess know that she planned to leave that very night?

“I can undress myself tonight, Lady Katarina.” Allerleirauh clasped her governess’s hands in her own. “Please go.” She brought her governess’s fingertips to her lips and kissed them. “I will be fine.” The older woman nodded and left with tear filled eyes. Allerleirauh wanted her to be above suspicion and able to tell her father that she had no idea where the princess had gone.

As a child, she loved her father. He would visit her once a year, the day after her birthday, for on her birthday he grieved the loss of her mother who died birthing her into the world. He brought her presents from the more exotic Southern kingdoms. She sang to him, played the Djaro, and made him delicious dishes with the assistance of her governess. He left at the end of each birthday with promises to return next year. She remembered crying and begging him to stay, but he would always leave and say, “Not now pet, you have toys and Governess to keep you happy.”

On her fourteenth birthday he came to visit as usual, but this time a haunted look lingered in his eyes. He stared around the room lost and confused until he saw Allerleirauh standing by her governess.

“Belle?” he said, and ran to her, falling on his knees and sobbing before her. “Belle, it’s been so long, but you look the same as the day we met.” He kissed her hands. She remembered shrinking back in horror.

“Father, it is I, your daughter, Allerleirauh.” He threw his head back and laughed.

“Oh my darling.” He kissed her cheek. “I have no daughter.” The dull truth of those words hit her like a curse, and she recoiled at the kisses she had welcomed just a year ago.

“What would my bride have for a wedding gift?” He asked in earnest. Wedding gift? The lump of horror in her throat grew so large she could barely speak. By now she was accustomed to his beast appearance, but she recoiled at the shaggy fur, the spines sticking through his back, the eagle like talons growing from his hands. His features disgusted her.

“I want a cloak, a cloak made from the skins of a thousand beasts,” she spat and wrenched her hands away from him.

“Anything my darling.” He kissed her hands, unaware of her suppressed feelings of disgust. He rode away that afternoon joyful and promising to return in time for an autumnal wedding. Within eight months he brought back the furs and ordered the cloak made. She hoped he would die out there, facing wild beasts and trespassing into foreign kingdoms, but he did not, and now he expected her to marry him.

She remembered wearing the cloak and wrapping an old blanket over it before slipping out of the unguarded tower. Her father, in his delusion, didn’t think to guard the tower of his one true love, so set was his belief in her reciprocal feelings. She waited by the Southern Gate until the early morning when the shepherds let out their flocks to graze. She hobbled along, walking as a beggar to avoid questioning and slipped into the shadows of the boulder fields surrounding the city of Atmøs.

It wasn’t until she entered the Volksmarchen that the forest and the road appeared. She heard through the whispered stories of her governess that all roads in Volksmarchen led to the Queen’s City, so she followed the road in hopes of finding a refuge. Maybe in a large city she could find work, safety, and a home with more rooms than a one-room tower.

She remembered the moon that night, silver and huge as it cast a glow over the whole landscape. The trees lurched over her, throwing warped shadows on the world. She walked faster hoping to out run the fears plaguing her mind. A thick root snagged her feet, pulling her down to the earth, and she slammed her face against a rock.

Stunned, she lay there feeling the blood trickle down her forehead and drip onto the packed soil. It started to dry as the minutes passed. She imagined sinking into the earth, disappearing beneath the ground and out of reach of her father. A home underground with the sprites and the hares appealed to her. Her father would never find her there.

The rustlings of nocturnal animals caught her attention, and the energy of the plants overwhelmed her. The longer she wore the cloak the more she became like a beast herself. She threw off the suffocating hood and inhaled the cool night air. The brilliance of the plants nearly blinded her; each blade of grass reflected the moon’s sheen, and the colors of the flowers glowed even in the darkness.

The figure of a man emerged through the thick growth of the forest, but she did not feel afraid. He offered her a hand, and she reached for it, feeling the energy of a thousand forests flowing through his veins. She gasped as he pulled her to her feet and dropped his hand as the energy overwhelmed her. He towered over her. The hair on his legs grew thick like fur, and instead of feet, he stood on hooves.

“You’re not afraid of me?” His voice twinkled with laughter, and he smiled.

“No.” She smiled back. “I feel better now that you’re here. Who are you?” She tilted her head far back but could not see his full face.

“I am Pan, God of the wilderness and wild things, and you know me, Allerleirauh, Princess of the Hobs, for you are a wild thing.” He let go of her hand. “You are seeking safety.”

“Yes,” she mumbled. “My father…” He squeezed her shoulder.

“Your father is mad with grief. He may come out of it yet, but you need to hide somewhere safe. His patrols comb the Boulder Fields looking for you, and soon they will make it to the Queen Aschenputtel’s woods.” He extended a hand. “You will seek shelter in the palace of the queen. She is a friend of mine and always in need of good cooks.” He smiled down at her. She looked back in awe.

“How do you know that I like to cook?” she asked, and his eyes twinkled with mischievousness.

“The wild world keeps track of its own.” He smiled and she reached for his hand. The same energy coursed through her arm that had overwhelmed her before, but this time it pulsed with warmth and excitement. They stepped forward together, and with each step they covered miles, putting the fortress of her father far behind.

She smiled now, thinking of Pan. He had left her at the gates of the palace with a message for the queen. Guards found her the next morning, and they rushed her to the queen when she told them she had a message from Pan. The queen ran to the gates after she delivered the message, but Allerleirauh knew he was long gone.

Queen Aschenputtel asked her to be a companion to her ward, Persinette, but she assured the queen that her place was in the kitchens and that she required no special treatment, just a small home next to the kitchens where she could work her troubles away.

That was over a year ago. Now, more troubles plagued the queen’s kingdom, and she found herself being pulled from the kitchens and taken on expeditions with the queen and her guards to find resources and answers from whoever could give them. She missed the kitchens and her little home in the city.

The soft rustlings of her companions in the tree house brought her back to the night at hand. Sleep tugged a heavy curtain across her memories, and she sighed as she noticed that all the heartbeats had slowed to a restive pace, including her own.

Harrier Bogbean

He crumpled in a corner of the tree house, relieved for a chance to sit and rest. The long day tired him. He had worked so hard to stay invisible from the queen and her guards. Sleep would be easy. He pulled a blanket up to his chin and chided himself for his carelessness earlier. Half of his film plates were now broken. He would have to sneak into Atmøs to find replacements.

When they arrived at the tree house he had zoomed up to the top and snapped a few photos of the girl inside it. She looked as if she were waiting for a visitor and preparing the table for a guest to join her. The folk soldiers went up one by one until he and the jittery, long nosed man with a limp ponytail remained.

He thought he’d have some fun with the nervous, pasty man and set his camera and plates on a smooth stone. Delight filled him as the man chose this moment to relieve himself against a tree. Harrier giggled at the good timing of it all and snatched the man’s pants, pulling down with all his might. The man screamed as if wild beasts were mauling him and stumbled backwards, kicking the camera and crushing the plates.

Seeing his plates crushed on the ground, Harrier roared in anger and changed into a wild boar, his father’s natural essence, and his too when he grew enraged. The man cried in real fear and ran away from the tree and into the woods. Harrier’s rage subsided when he looked down at his hands and realized that he still held the man’s woven breeches. He didn’t think the man would come back anytime soon, and he let out a primal roar to ensure that he wouldn’t.

His camera lay dirty at his feet. It sat intact, but now he only had a few plates to spare. He would need to get some new plates quickly. The sprites were too far south, and he didn’t want to bump into his father while grabbing the extra plates the ambassador brought. He would have to sneak into Atmøs if he wanted to take more pictures. He rubbed his temples. UGH. It would be a risk, for Atmøs was a confusing city, built half underground and half above it. He would never find the camera inventor’s workshop. He inhaled as he settled into his makeshift bed, and a thin smile spread across his face. He liked risks.

Penelope

Morning songbirds woke her from fitful sleep. They chirped and chased each other through the open walls of the tree house. The soldiers and the fur cloaked cook still slept around her. Blankets housing bodies rose and fell with each sleeping breath. She stretched out her legs. Not brave enough to escape, but feeling curious, she peeled back her blankets and slipped her feet onto the floor.

The cold wood slats shocked her feet into wakefulness. They tingled as she put her weight on them. She would like to find some shoes soon. After walking all day yesterday and well into the night on bare feet, her muscles ached, and her nerves tingled with each step. She tiptoed out the door to the edge of the porch and peeked towards the forest floor, looking for a sign of Gustav, but she saw only the tops of trees.

The suffocating clasp of the towering trees hid her from the view of any creature on the forest floor, or any birds in the air. Up here she could see how Persinette would get so bored. It seemed that the world below did not exist. The isolation sent a chill through her bones, but the birds’ songs soon warmed her. The breeze rustled the leaves and played with her hair, tickling her face. Penny smiled. She was not alone; the West Wind danced around her.

“Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” the soft, cool voice of the queen startled her out of her reverie. She spun around and frowned at the dazzling queen. Hot anger flashed to Penny’s face, and before she could stop herself, her temper burst through her lips.

“You kidnapped me!” She accused and stopped before she said more, afraid of what the queen would do.

The queen pursed her lips together, her mouth drawn in a tight smile. She squinted her eyes, seeming to make up her mind on what to do with Penelope before sweeping down on her and grabbing the front of her shirt.

“I would fling you off this tower to be rid of you and show your mother what it’s like to lose a child. But you saved my life in the bakery, and I am not so cruel as to forget that,” she spat out the last words before letting go. She rubbed her palm where she had gripped Penny’s shirt, and Penny saw the dark nail marks there where the queen dug into her own palm. The queen sighed and composed herself, patting down Penny’s rumpled collar. Penny flinched from her touch.

“Now,” Queen Aschenputtel smiled her stiff smile. “Let us go inside; we can find some of Persinette’s old clothes and get you out of this ridiculous garb. Allerleirauh is making breakfast, and I would never spoil a good breakfast over bad blood.” She spun around and turned back into the tree house.

Penny’s heart pounded like a deep drum. The buttons on her blouse rose and fell with each pounding heartbeat; she stood for a moment catching her breath and then followed the queen with uncertainty. What had just happened there? Did the queen blame her mother for her losing a child?

The aroma of Allerleirauh’s breakfast filled the air within minutes. Yellow eggs steamed from a bowl on the table. Loaves of bread the size of watermelons rose on the little oven in the corner. Bowls full of the largest fruit Penny had ever seen sat in front of each plate.

Apples the size of her head, strawberries bigger than a man’s fist, grapes too big to eat without cutting, and honey drizzled yogurt sat by each plate, with jams and jellies of every color and flavor. A pitcher of lavender water sat next to the eggs, and a tiny vase with fresh flowers sat in the center of it all. Penny stood in awe.

“Allerleirauh creates magic in the kitchen,” the queen boasted. “I had the foresight to hire her in the kitchens when she showed up at the city gates looking like a sick beast any hunter would shoot just to put it out of its misery.” She laughed and patted the fur-clad girl on the shoulder. The queen surveyed the room.

She sighed. “Everyone is here except Persinette –that girl is more spoiled than a coddled pig. Go fetch her please, Allerleirauh.” Allerleirauh nodded, smiling from the compliments, and retreated into the interior of the tree house. Everyone stood around the table waiting for her to return; no one dared to sit down without the queen first doing so. The delicious smells teased Penny, and all she wanted was to bite the fresh soft bread now baking in the oven.

Footsteps clattered toward them, and Allerleirauh reappeared. Alone. Wide-eyed, she glanced around the room and settled on the queen’s steel gaze.

“She’s in the Death Sleep,” she whispered.

A collective gasp left everyone’s lips. The queen froze. A look of horror crept across her face. She swayed then grabbed the back of her chair to steady herself. Penny closed her eyes, bracing for the coming storm. The tense silence reached her inner thoughts. Persinette dead? She was awake and chatting with the queen just last night. A loud clash of shattering china and tumbling pans startled her out of her thoughts.

The queen commenced to sweep everything off the table. Fruit tumbled across the floor, fragments of eggs and yogurt dripped from the table, the pitcher of lavender water burst into shards when it hit the ground. The soldiers stood back, aghast. Penny trembled. She wanted to run and hide, afraid of what the volatile queen was capable of doing. When she finished destroying their breakfast, the queen collapsed in sobs on the floor.

“She did it, the Story Weaver did it again. I did everything I could to protect Persinette, and none of it mattered.” She seethed. Her blue eyes gleamed. She turned to Penny.

“You!” She stood up and approached her, towering over her with her menacing whip and long, tattered cape. Penny’s knees buckled, and she cowered behind the chair in front of her. The queen glared.

“This is all your fault, your mother’s, your father’s, yours. You have destroyed all that I love.” She raised her whip. Her hand trembled, and she let it fall again as she sank into a nearby chair. She turned to the soldiers. “Prepare the princess for the Crystal Caves.”

Two soldiers rushed into Persinette’s bedroom. Allerleirauh began cleaning up the mess from the overturned breakfast. Penny sat in shock and watched the queen as she stared out the door at the trees. The soldiers came back carrying Persinette between them on a wooden board.

The queen approached her, grabbing a large knife off the table. The queen raised the knife over Persinette. Penny shouted no, but looked down sheepishly when she realized that the queen grabbed Persinette’s long braid to saw through it.

“She won’t need this any longer,” the queen whispered. “She’s too heavy to carry with all this hair.” The grim soldiers carried Persinette past Penny. Her braid lay on the floor, limp and lusterless. Persinette looked at rest, her mouth relaxed and her hands down at her sides. A slight rise and fall of her chest surprised Penny. She rushed forward to examine her.

She isnt dead. Penny opened her mouth to alert the queen, but a hard tug on her shoulder stopped her mid-breath. The dead eyes of the wolf’s hood stared back at her before the girl underneath looked up: her green eyes flashing in the light.

“I can see you’re concerned,” she whispered. “You’re right. She’s not dead. She’s in the Death Sleep. It’s a disease that’s afflicted the kingdom for some time, including,” she lowered her voice, “the queen’s own husband and infant son.” Allerleirauh leaned in closer. “There’s no cure for it, but people who have it are taken to the Crystal Caves where they will be protected from death. They lay there, forever in a sleep.” Penny looked at her wide-eyed.

“Poor Persinette,” she whispered. “But why does the queen blame me and my parents?”

Allerleirauh opened her mouth to say more, but the queen approached them, and she scuttled away. The queen grabbed Penny’s elbow and steered her towards the balcony. Penny’s limbs stiffened. To go anywhere with the queen meant she lost her freedom. Anger filled her. She detested the queen, but fear stopped her from wrenching free. They walked towards the edge. The queen threw her to the floor, inches from the railing.

“I decided that you must stay here.” The queen gazed past her, and into the forest. “I cannot protect you from myself. I won’t take you to my kingdom, and closer to your mother.” She stiffened. “I would never allow the two of you to be reunited.” She began to shake with suppressed rage. The relief that filled Penny when she realized that the queen wouldn’t force her to go with her dissipated when she realized the queen intended to leave her in the tree house.

“You can’t leave me here.” Her heart fluttered. “I have to find my mother.” The queen’s stony gaze silenced her.

“She does not want to be found. She abandoned her stories, abandoned all of us.” She glared at Penny. “She abandoned you. Why would you ever want to find her? We are left with the stories she condemned us to, and now we have to make sense of this ugly world she left for us.”

Tears pricked the corners of Penny’s eyes. The queen’s words stung, and her throat went dry. She tried swallowing, but fearing that any movement would cause her to cry, she sat still. She did not want to cry in front of the queen. She didn’t believe the queen but couldn’t muster the courage to question her.

The queen straightened, smoothed out her dress, and seemed intent on keeping up the appearance of control. “If you need supplies, send me a messenger.” She pointed to the wall behind them. Cages holding nests and baskets for mice and birds lined the wall. The woodland creatures gnawed at their breakfasts; some of the mice finished their meals and curled up in the corners of their open baskets for naps. Birds flitted in and out of their nests, their wings stirring the air around them.

“Write a note on a scrap of paper and attach it to either a bird or a mouse.” She showed Penny tiny scraps of paper and a graphite pencil. “Send the mice down the chute.” The queen pointed out a hole in the tree trunk. “And release the birds into the air. They know their way to me. We are all very old friends.” She nuzzled a bird that landed in the palm of her hand, and stroked the chest of a mouse that stood on its hind legs and stared at Penny in curiosity.

Two guards walked past them, loading supplies into the basket and lowering it to the ground where the other guards waited. The fur cloaked cook and the guards loaded the stretcher with Persinette onto the basket. With a sad nod to Penny, the cook lowered herself down. The queen offered Penny a wan smile.

“A supply cart will be here in one week; until then you will have plenty of food and fresh water to sustain yourself.” The remaining guard pulled the basket back on the ledge, and the queen climbed in with her.

“And Penny.” She looked back with scorn. “Do not try to leave the tree. Remember what happened to poor Gustav.” She smiled.

The guard jumped in and lowered them down, passing hand over hand until they descended from Penny’s view. Fear rose up around her. Alone. In the cruel, violent woods, how could she escape? She peeked over the railing. The queen drifted closer to the ground. The rope made of hair pulled tight with their weight.

She resented the queen for leaving her. Running over to the table, she planned a way to take control of her story and grabbed the knife the queen had used to cut Persinette’s hair. She ran back to the ledge and began sawing at the rope. The sight of her hand chopping at the hair startled her, and she pulled away. She lowered the knife by her side. She could not kill the queen; she was not a murderer.

The sounds of the queen and her entourage heading away from the tree house died away, and the grumblings of a very alive, very treacherous forest echoed around her. Scratches and rustlings came from the animals in their cages along the wall. Above her, wild birds screeched and tittered. Below her, the wind rustled through heavy branches, and the occasional call of a wild animal filled her ears. The West Wind tickled her face, and she smiled slightly, not alone.

The Story Weaver Chronicles – Penelope and the Hob King: Chapter 7

Penelope

She shook with energy. Pride filled her as she thought of how she had faced the cannibal woman. She shivered thinking about the woman fattening up the little boy in the cellar. How could the queen brush off her encounter with death as nothing more than an argument? Yes, she did send the crazy old woman to the prison, but Penny still shook with fear and excitement while the queen taunted the old woman. The queen confused her; she was so kind to the other children, but told Dri-fa to knock her out. Why did the queen hate her?

With the size of the guard cut in half, two escorting the children to the palace, and nine taking the old woman to Straff prison, Penny could better see with whom she travelled. A thin, long-nosed man with a limp, brown ponytail rode to her right. She hadn’t noticed him before, so hidden was he among the women.

Three soldiers rode ahead of them, and two rode behind them. A donkey pulling a cart of supplies brought up the rear. A figure cloaked in furs and skins led the donkey. The hood of the cloak was a large wolf’s head. It covered the person’s face, so that Penny could not see who or what was underneath it.

The setting sun now nestled behind the hills, and darkness covered the land. They rode further into the village. Chewed bones littered the path from the bakery to the main road. She shivered, not from the cold, but from the tingling suspicion that the bones were somehow human. Crumbling brick buildings stood sentinel on either side of them. The largest one, a two-storied inn, sat at the end of the street. Light flickered from the windows, and muted voices came from inside. The queen dismounted in front of the inn and tied up her horse.

The thin, little man jumped off his own horse and tapped on the door.

“Open up for Queen Aschenputtel,” he bellowed through the door. Silence overcame the building and echoed out onto the street. Penny heard the queen sigh and mutter curses under her breath at the man for announcing her presence so loudly. The door opened outward.

“Thank you Gustav.” The queen tightened her riding cape around her face and followed her guards into the building. She turned and beckoned to the fur-cloaked figure behind them.

“Drape a blanket on her.” She pointed at Penny, “and be sure she does not leave your company. I don’t want anyone knowing who she is.” The person grabbed a rough wool blanket off the back of the donkey and covered Penny.

“Stay with me and keep quiet, if you want to stay alive,” the person whispered to her. She stiffened; were the people inside the inn more dangerous than the company she travelled with? As soon as I can I’m going to run away from the queen and try to find the road that Pan set me on! Her heart pounded, but she had to find her mother. She had to be brave. She swallowed and nodded at the fur-covered creature, then followed it inside the pub.

The dark room reeked with the scent of cooked food, alcohol, and dozens of unwashed bodies sitting together in clusters playing cards and drinking. At first it seemed no one noticed the cloaked visitors as they made their way to the back of the room, but Penny sensed the gaze of every person on her back. Their eyes shifted behind their pints of beer, and their whispered words warned her that they either feared the queen or held her in great reverence. The creature kept its head low and propelled her ahead of it.

“We request the queen’s suite for the night,” Gustav whispered to a burly man behind the bar. His eyes grew wide and he nodded.

“What is the word?” the bar tender asked. Gustav stood on tiptoes and whispered in his ear. The man nodded and beckoned them to follow him. First the group of soldiers, then the queen, and finally Penny and the creature followed him through a door behind the bar and descended stairs hewn into the earth. The stairs led to a tight, cramped room beneath the busy inn with a thick wooden door at the end. The bar tender opened a peephole and whispered a few words to the other side. He then bowed low to the queen before turning back up the stairs.

The watcher behind the door opened the door outward. Everyone hurried inside, and a long, empty corridor lay before them. The man guarding the door stood planted against the wall. His bare, hairy arms crossed at his chest. He wore a long, leather vest and knives, axes, spears, and swords hung off leather straps crisscrossing his torso. In his giant paw of a hand he held a long chain with a barbed ball swinging on the end. He bowed to the group.

“My Queen.” He grabbed a torch off the wall and lit an oil filled bowl hanging from the ceiling. The oil blazed with flames, and the fire followed a gutter full of oil downward to the next bowl. The entire left side of the corridor lit up as the flames travelled downward.

“Keep in mind to stay on the left,” the queen cautioned.

The furry person behind Penny leaned in and whispered into her ear, “the right side is a deep trench meant for invaders to fall into if they happen to get this far. The light reaches only to the edge.” Penny turned and peered into the dead eyes of the wolfish creature behind her. The wolf hood slipped back slightly, and the pale green eyes of a pointy nosed girl peered back at her. The girl offered her a timid smile and bowed her head. Then she slipped the hood back over her face and the dull, dead eyes of the wolf looked at her once again. Penny smiled. The mischievous glint in the girl’s eyes reminded her of Eva, her friend from school.

She grabbed Penny’s hand, and they followed the others down the corridor. Penny clung to the left side of the hall and looked back as the door grew smaller and smaller in the distance. The soldiers in front of them pressed against the wall as well, balancing on the lit portion of floor. She felt her map bouncing against her heart with each step and wished she could pull it out to see where she was in this strange land. She wondered how far she was from her mother. How hard would it be to slip away?

After an hour of walking single file along the wall, she saw a different shade of black. A dark night instead of a dark, underground tunnel surrounded them. The spacious blue gray of earth and sky reflecting off each other engulfed the group. Towering trees grew on all sides. Penny could not see the moon or stars, but she could tell that they radiated above the trees. Their light shimmered through the canopy. The leaves appeared silver and danced above them in the slight midnight breeze. The forest lay thick around her, and a wall of black night hovered around them.

Gustav raised a lantern over his head, and only then did Penny see the two giant men guarding the exit. They stood as burly and menacing as the first guard. Their steel-set eyes followed the travelers as they crossed the path. They bowed low to the queen, and she nodded a hello. Within a few steps the light from the tunnel faded, and the stalwart sentinels disappeared into shadows.

The party plunged deeper into the woods. Night sounds surrounded them. The hooting of owls, the scampering of nocturnal animals over the earth and through trees, each sound made her heart jump. She drew closer to the girl in fur. She wasn’t sure if she could trust her, but she must be safer than whatever dangerous creatures lurked in the forest.

After another hour, they drew to a halt in front of a towering tree. Gustav lifted his hands to his mouth and yelled a request into the night which the wind carried away from her ears. All waited, holding in their breath. He called out again. This time Penny heard him.

“Persinette? Persinette! Let down your hair!” He commanded. Persinette? Penny knew that name, and giddy excitement rose in her chest at the thought of meeting another fairy-tale character.

Something heavy fell through the night sky, cutting through the still air like a thick blanket. A wooden basket, big enough for two people to stand side-by-side in, landed inches in front of Gustav. A dark brown rope pulled taut on the other end. Two of the guards climbed inside and pulled themselves up by climbing the rope, hand over hand. The queen followed, then the rest of her guards pulled themselves up two at a time. Penny turned and looked back through the forest, searching for a way to escape, but the trees stood too dark and menacing around her for her to leave the company of her captors.

“We’re next,” the girl in furs whispered to Penny. She climbed into the basket and helped her inside. She tugged on the rope twice, and they began moving upwards, disappearing higher and higher into the tree. Gustav grew smaller and smaller below them until the darkness engulfed him.

The tops of the trees gleamed in the starlight. The rope came to a halt, and the soldiers pulled her onto a wooden ledge protruding from a small home in the tree. One soldier pulled her up and steadied her before helping the girl in furs. The other soldier began to lower the basket back down.

“Stop,” the soldier stabilizing Penny hissed, “listen!” They all peered down to better hear the strange sounds coming from below. In horror, Penny recognized the cries of Gustav yelling for help, and the grunts of some wild thing attacking him. She sensed the queen come up behind her as the cries below faded and soon stopped.

“Goodbye, Gustav,” the queen whispered, and laid a hand on Penny’s shoulder. Penny wanted to shake off the queen’s offensive gesture of friendship but was too stunned to move. One soldier attempted to throw the rope down again, but the queen warned her off.

“Don’t be a fool!” she cried. “In the morning we will try to find what happened to Gustav, but for now, whatever’s down there could finish us all off.”

Penny shuddered. She had to escape the violent queen, but this Isle, this kingdom, wherever it was that the fox had brought her, seemed more dangerous without the queen to protect her. She shivered thinking about the encounter with the baker woman and now whatever hideous beast had eaten Gustav. Tears pricked her eyes as the echoes of his yells resonated in her ears. How could her mother call such a place home?

The soldiers coiled up the rope, winding it into the interior of the tree house. Once Penny’s eyes adjusted to the dim room, she could make out the contents. A table with two steaming mugs sat in the center. Shelves full of books lined one wall, and cots piled high with children’s toys made of wood and leather lined the others. At the back of the room, Penny could make out the figure of a girl a few years older than her sitting on a bench and watching them. The guards wound the rope closer to her, and as their lights illuminated the interior of the tree house, Penny realized that the brown rope was the girl’s hair.

“Persinette!” the queen hissed picking up a steaming mug from the table. “Did you have a guest tonight?” She squinted her eyes with suspicion. The girl seemed oblivious to the queen’s displeasure.

“No Aunty,” the girl laughed. “I was expecting Hy tonight, but he’s not here yet.”

“I see.” The queen arched an eyebrow. “Is it then Hy’s week to bring your rations? I thought last month I moved him to the Western Watch and appointed another to do it.”

Persinette stared with apparent defiance. The guards busied themselves by preparing the cots for sleeping. The girl dressed in fur started preparing a meal, but Penny could sense that they all listened to the queen’s conversation with Persinette.

“He visits sometimes on his way back to the watch.” Persinette stood up and walked over to the queen. She grabbed the queen’s hands in her own. “He’s been my only company over the last year except for the occasional visit from you, but tell me Aunty how is dear Snow? I miss her. She never comes to visit her sister.” Persinette pouted. The queen raised the other eyebrow in exasperation.

“Do not try to distract me! You’re getting too old to have male company without a chaperone. No more visits from Hy!” The queen arched an eyebrow sternly, before a slight smile crept upon her face. She embraced Persinette, and the two began talking and gossiping like Mrs. Kendrick and her sister. Now, Penny was listening to a different type of gossip. She remembered the stories in her father’s study, the ones she had to keep a secret. She felt she was in the middle of one of his secret stories, or in the middle of several.

022_Rapunzel

 

“But who is this, Aunty?” Persinette strode over to Penny extending her hand. Penny said nothing but looked at the queen, curious how the queen would introduce her.

“Oh her,” the queen laughed and waved her hand. “She’s a local orphan. I’m escorting her to safety in the city.” The queen smirked, tightlipped, at Penny, who tried not to glare at the queen, and instead, turned to Persinette.

“I’m Penelope, but everyone calls me Penny.” She stuck her hand out for a handshake, but Persinette didn’t seem to notice.

“Oh what a polite girl.” Persinette giggled behind her hand. “Aunty, wouldn’t you like it if I were so polite?” She turned back to the queen and started to complain about how the food her new consort brought up wilted and paled compared to the lush vegetables and fruit Hy used to bring her. The queen continued her reserved grin. Penny walked over to the fur-clad girl, preferring her quiet company to Persinette’s self-absorbed chatter.

“Can I help you with dinner?” Penny asked her. The girl looked up. This time Penny could see her whole face. Round, green eyes; a freckled, upturned nose; and pointy ears reminded Penny of a pixie she once saw in one of her father’s books. The girl was close to her age, a few years older perhaps, but stood a head shorter.

“Oh no.” The girl smiled revealing small, rounded teeth, and a soft accent different from the one the queen and her soldiers spoke in. “I’m almost done; we’re having dried meats and vegetables. It’s too late to make more, but wait ‘til the morning. I’ll prepare a feast. Breakfast is the queen’s favorite.” She placed a bowl of dried tomatoes on the table. Something about this girl did not seem quite human; more than the fact that her fur cloak clung to her like a second skin, more than her pixie-like features, she possessed a quiet confidence, an air of knowing the secrets of the world and not being scared of them. Penny liked her best of all.

They ate dinner gathered around the small table. Penny, the queen, and Persinette sat on the few chairs, while the fur cloaked cook sat on the floor, and the soldiers sat in small groups around the room. Persinette entertained them all with tales of the strange creatures she saw below her in the forest: bears with tusks, wolves with the faces of men, giant boars, and her failed attempts at hunting them from three hundred feet in the air. The soldiers laughed at her stories, and the queen observed her with an affectionate smile.

Penny could tell that the girl was well loved by all of them, and she wondered what it would feel like to have others love her. Was it hard work? It seemed so natural to Persinette, everyone listening and laughing at the right moments. What was wrong with me? Never in her whole life had she held the attention of more than one or two people, unless she counted the morning she punched Mr. Brubacher. Her eyes burned and prickled in the corners. Did being ignored upset her enough to make her cry? Maybe it hurt more than she realized.

024_Rapunzel

After dinner, the soldiers pulled bedrolls out of knap sacks and laid them on their cots. The fur cloaked girl pulled blankets and pillows out of chests and off of shelves for Penny, and together they made a cozy nest for her to sleep in. The queen and Persinette slept in private quarters up a narrow stairway through the branches of the tree, but everyone else stretched out around the table and slept.

Penny thought about her map. She wanted to pull it out and chart her course, but a snore or a movement from her slumbering companions warned her off. After a very still period she unfolded it and held it where a sliver of starlight lit her bed. The queen took her so far off the path that she had no idea where she lay in the world. Frustrated, she stuffed the canvas map back in her bag and drifted in and out of a nervous sleep.

023_Rapunzel Brushing Hair

The Story Weaver Chronicles: Penelope and The Hob King – Chapter 6

Penelope

The horse trotted along a path created by much smaller animals. They followed a game trail now, not an official road. She wondered if this path would be on Pan’s map. Probably not, she thought, and wanted to cry. The idea of being taken off the road that Pan had set her on made her grow desolate. The queen sat straight and tall behind her and flowed with the horse’s rhythmic shuffle, but Penny slid and bounced around chapping her legs and rear.

Her head pounded with the horse’s steps, and she rubbed the back of her head where she had been hit. Her ears’ rang, and she thought she might be sick. She hated the queen and her guards. How dare they hit her. She wanted to fight back, to attack them and flee, but knew it would be useless, so she sat very still and tried to think of an escape.

The queen’s cloak whipped in the wind, snapping at her face and flapping behind them. Her grand clothes looked shabby up close. The black cape frayed in several spots, and the tattered brown dress grew shabbier as shrubs and branches caught on the delicate fabric.

Lights from a village glittered ahead. Not much time had elapsed since she met the queen, as the sun had just begun to set and cast a warm glow on the green, rolling fields between them and the village. Boys with sticks chased after grazing cows, herding them into the village for the night. Bushes and low stonewalls marked the borders between the fields.

“Where are we?” Penny ventured to ask, afraid to disturb the silent queen.

“We are nearing the village of Rhonde. I have an old acquaintance I need to speak with.”

Square, brown huts lined the road up to the village. The horse’s footfalls echoed in the silent streets as the inhabitants stood silently aside for the queen and her soldiers. A bakery, a church, and an inn solemnly stood at the end of the road looking with disapproval at their squalid neighbors.

They headed up the hill towards the bakery. It sat solid and proud on its little patch of earth. White paint peeled off the walls exposing the grey rocks beneath. The yard sat nice and neat with rows of tidy flowers welcoming the visitors to the front door. A woman stood over a black pot by the bakery door. As they drew nearer, Penny spied a small girl sitting at the woman’s feet and stirring the pot with a long wooden spoon. The woman waved them down.

“Hello travelers, come inside and have a taste of the best hot cross buns in the kingdom,” she rasped in a refined accent. Long grey hair flowed past her shoulders. Pearl barrettes held the hair in place and reflected the setting sun. Her whole head shone with the sparkling pearls. Despite the grey hair, the woman’s face appeared young. Her skin was pale and her eyes drooped as if she hadn’t slept in days. Penny felt the queen stiffen behind her. The queen handed Penny the reins and lowered herself off the horse. She approached the woman.

018_Landscape

“Old dog, you dare stand upright when the queen of the land approaches?” The queen lashed at the woman with her riding whip. The woman dropped to her knees and threw herself on the ground before the queen.

“Excuse me your Majesty, for I am old and nearly blind and could not see you.” Her head scraped the ashes, and the sparkling pearls were now covered in dirt instead of sunlight. The queen lashed at her again, and Penny turned away, afraid and embarrassed for the old woman.

“I’m sure you can see well enough to know the age of that slave you have.” The queen pointed her whip towards the little girl who sat in the ashes watching. The woman looked up.

“She is an orphan, she came to me hungry and in need. I fed her and clothed her when others in the village turned away.” The queen stepped forward and placed a boot on the woman’s shoulder.

“You revolting old hag. I should execute you like I did your daughters.” She kicked the woman in the stomach. The woman cowered and whimpered in pain. Penny bit her lip. She hated the queen.

“How may I be of service to you, Queen Aschenputtel?” The woman spat from the ground, her mouth filled with dust and ashes. Aschenputtel? Penny’s mind whirled. This couldnt be the Aschenputtel from the stories. This wasnt the meek servant girl from the tale. She rubbed her sore head to be sure she wasn’t dreaming. Yes, it was still tender, and no, she wasn’t dreaming.

“I am here for my summer taxes and the usual inspection of your bakery. You have operated far too long with slave labor. If I didn’t enjoy seeing you so miserable, I would kill you today,” she spat, winding her whip around her hand. The woman trembled and reached into her shabby dress. The queen lashed at her hand with her whip, knocking the thick key she pulled out of her sleeve to the ground. The woman whimpered and rubbed her hand at the spot where the whip struck her.

The guards laughed around them. Penny clenched her fists at her side. She wanted to help the old woman, to stand and face the queen together. The woman bent down to pick up the key; as she stood again her eyes met Penny’s. The woman’s glare startled her.

“You may inspect my home, Queen Aschenputtel, but remember: I am still your father’s wife. Even though he is dead, he would die again knowing how you treated us.” The woman shook, her bright eyes sparking with hatred. Dri-fa lunged towards the woman with her sword drawn, but the queen stopped her.

021.2_Queen Whipping Hera

“That’s enough Dri-fa,” she barked. “My step-mother will escort me into her miserable hole. Stay out here and guard the exterior.” The queen swooped into the house after the old woman.

Penny stared after them. The door hung open and the dim twilight filled the opening with shadows. She could no longer see their figures. The woman was the queen’s stepmother? She tried to remember the details of Aschenputtel’s story, but a tug on the hem of her skirt brought her eyes down to her feet. The small girl who had earlier sat by the large cauldron now sat next to her. Layers of ash matted her thin hair, and dirt covered her face. Despite what the old woman said, the little girl did not look well cared for. She scooted closer to Penny. Her bone-thin legs and arms bowed out. She could not walk or stand up straight, and her thin lips cracked from exposure. The guards gave her a wide berth as she crawled over to Penny. They looked down at the girl in disgust. Penny knelt and laid her hand on the thin, dry hand of the little girl.

“You poor child.” Penny’s eyes stung as the girl’s eyes pled to her. The bony hand tugged on hers, and she pulled Penny towards the bakery. She motioned for Penny to peep through a broken window and into the dark room. Penny saw the queen follow the old woman to the back of the building. The girl pulled her away from the window and towards the side of the bakery. Penny looked over her shoulder and noticed Dri-fa watching them with interest.

“Eh, what are you two doing?” she yelled and walked over.

“She’s pulling me over.” Penny twisted and shouted back, but the girl pushed her closer to the bakery and began to dig at the loose dirt and ash. She motioned for Penny to do the same. Dri-fa snorted and returned to the other soldiers.

“What are we digging for?” Penny whispered, but the girl didn’t seem to hear her.

 

Queen Aschenputtel

She followed her stepmother through the bakery, glancing around her for signs of more children. Paper on the windows filtered the orange evening sunlight into dull squares of light on the floor. An ancient oven in the corner radiated heat in waves throughout the small building causing her to sweat in her cloak. A large wooden table filled half of the bakery, and broken, discarded remnants of fine furniture filled the other half. She didn’t see any other slaves. Unless her stepmother was hiding them somewhere, it looked like the starving girl in front was alone.

“We sleep in the back, the girl and I.” Her stepmother motioned towards a curtained closet, her sophisticated accent grated on Aschenputtel’s ears. She didn’t care where the old, nasty woman slept, or for the old witch’s false attempts at conversation.

“Where’s the tax?” she barked, enjoying her power over the woman who once abused her. Her stepmother approached a heavy cellar door. Her hands shook as she fit the key in a black lock and opened the thick, heavy door with a heave.

“Down there,” she rasped, motioning for the queen to step below. The sunlight from the first floor created a long rectangle of pale light on the cellar’s cracked dirt floor. Aschenputtel remembered her stepmother’s treachery.

“Oh nooooo… you can’t deceive me old woman. Fetch it yourself and return quickly, or I will send Dri-fa in after you with a barbed spear.”

The woman bobbed her head and stepped below. Her steps echoed down in the dark cellar then stopped; Aschenputtel turned back to the room they had entered through. She recognized the fine furniture as remnants from her father’s house: her mother’s furniture, her inheritance broken and desecrated by her stepmother, but hoarded and treasured out of spite. She shivered in disgust. She wanted to get out of the miserable hovel and back to her guards. She called down to the old woman, and told her to come back, or plan on dying the way her daughters had. No sound came from below. She called again, threatening to send Dri-fa and the barbed spear, but no answer.

Once, her stepmother would have scared her, and she would never have willingly been alone with her, but now the brittle, old woman amused her with her desperate attempts at the finery she once had as her father’s wife. Aschenputtel sighed, annoyed that she would have to enter the dark cellar, looked around the room once more, and pulled out a dagger from her sleeve.

She descended the narrow stone steps, balancing herself against the wall. Dirt covered the steps making each stair slick. The light from the first level faded to complete black down in the earthen room. Muffled cries came from one corner, and a child’s voice cried out to her.

“Turn around!”

She turned in time to spare her neck from the rough squeeze of a rope her stepmother held taunt between her hands. Her stepmother swore; Aschenputtel ducked, and as her eyes adjusted to the black she saw a birdcage set on the ground stuffed with the fattest child she had ever seen.

“Quick! Turn!” he yelled.

She jabbed her dagger into the arm of her stepmother; the latter withdrew. Aschenputtel grabbed at a jagged rock and threw it at the old woman. It glanced her temple. She howled with pain and backed into the shadows. Aschenputtel ran up the stairs. Daylight appeared before her, but the heavy cellar door slammed shut enclosing the room in pure, evil darkness. Gasping, Aschenputtel banged on the thick wood. It did not budge. What magic was this, that her stepmother could command the slamming of the door?

021_Little Girls Digging

Fear scrambled in her gut like a caged animal. She heard a scratching sound, like a hand scratching at the dirt. She tried to shout for help, but the fear in her belly reached up and grasped her throat making her gasp for air. She hoped Dri-fa would swing the door open, finish off the crazed woman, and free her. No one came. The only sound was the scraping of her stepmother as she crawled up the stairs towards her.

“All I wanted,” her stepmother growled, “was a man who loved me and my daughters. Someone established and wealthy enough to take care of them, but you were in the way; you were always in the way.” She looped the rope around Aschenputtel’s kicking foot and dragged her down the stairs. Her head hit each step with a sickening thud. The rough dirt scraped through her clothes. She kicked and raged, grabbing at the stairs. Her stepmother looped a rope around her neck and cinched it tight.

The boy in the cage screamed for help. So is this how it’s going to end? Our decades long battle of wills ending with my death in a cellar while my pathetic guards stand outside the door? I think not!

She burst her strength in her struggle against the rope, but her stepmother had tied it to a hook on the wall. The old woman grabbed the dagger in her arm and wrenched it out. She slipped her arm around Aschenputtel’s neck and lay the blade over her throat. A void crept into the corners of Aschenputtel’s eyes.

“Little Aschenputtel, all grown up and queen of the kingdom, going to die in my cellar. A fitting end…” Her stepmother cackled and pressed the knife further against her throat. She felt the blade pierce her skin, cold and wet. The sound of scratching in the dirt grew louder; it wasn’t coming from inside the cellar, but from the outside. Her stepmother turned to look. The wall of the cellar began to crumble.

Hazy twilight peeked in between the wall of the cellar and the first floor. The dirt caved in as four small hands windmilled through the loose dirt. Armored legs started kicking in the rest of the wall. Her stepmother loosened her grip and backed away, then shrieked and ran up the stairs where Dri-fa pulled the door open and grabbed the old woman’s arms, pushing her towards the other soldiers inside the bakery.

The Weaver’s daughter jumped into the cellar and ran over to her. She reached out cautiously and untied the noose around her neck. Aschenputtel jumped up and grabbed the rope, enraged, spitting curses at her stepmother and her guards.

“One more second and I would have been skinned from ear to ear! Where were you Dri-fa?” she yelled as the latter rushed down the stairs. The blood from her neck dripped onto her dress. She dabbed at it with her fingers.

“Guarding the exterior!” Dri-fa gasped. “The girl warned us that you were in danger. We couldn’t get through the door in time so she broke through the dirt.”

“So a little girl is doing your job?” she shouted. She knew that she had been at fault by following the woman into the bakery, unguarded, but fear and rage boiled inside her. She couldn’t stand there anymore. She began to pace across the floor. The Story Weaver’s daughter could not be underestimated.

The little girl dropped into the cellar after the Weaver’s daughter and motioned for them to follow her. She pointed to her stepmother’s keys on the ground and the cage holding the boy. Aschenputtel’s hands shook as she grabbed the keys and opened the lock to his cage. The boy crawled out with caution, his chubby legs and arms weak and unused, and his body filthy. The girl scooted over to the boy and grabbed him in a fierce hug.

“It’s taken me months to get that one fat,” her stepmother yelled from the top of the stairs. Aschenputtel whirled around and faced the woman.

“And you will never enjoy the results of your rations. Dri-fa, send two guards to take these children to my personal physicians with explicit instructions that they be nursed to full health.” She swayed, weary from her struggle. Her stepmother cackled from the top of the stairs.

“Those children were better off with me than that one is with you.” She motioned towards the Weaver’s daughter. Aschenputtel glared at her. She ascended the steps and punched her stepmother in the mouth. Blood burst from her stepmother’s face and splattered her, but it felt so good to release years of torment into one physical act. She smiled as the blood gathered at the corner of her stepmother’s mouth.

“I would kill you, old dog, but I prefer to watch you die alone and in misery. However, I simply cannot have you eating local children.” The woman looked into her eyes, glaring evil.

“Take her to Straff Prison,” Aschenputtel said, enjoying the look of horror that crossed her stepmother’s face and knowing the woman was too proud to plead for mercy. She smiled with satisfaction thinking of the old crone in the pure black cells of Straff, hundreds of feet below ground. Hidden from daylight, children, and the finer things in life, Aschenputtel could think of no better end to her evil stepmother.

Outside of the bakery, doves cooed as they settled in for the night, and the wind grew silent. She looked across her soldiers and attendants. Twelve soldiers, one cook, one advisor, and out of all of them the infernal weaver’s daughter had saved her from the stranglehold of her stepmother.

A hint of guilt crept up her spine and niggled at her ear. Maybe she shouldn’t kill the girl. Wasn’t it ill fated to harm one who saved your life? She would have to consider her choices.

Two soldiers walked past and placed the boy and the girl on a horse. The boy’s dimpled arms wrapped around his much smaller, bonier sister. Her shoulder blades stuck out like baby bird wings. Four other soldiers secured the old woman to the back of the supply wagon, while the others moved the supplies onto their horses.

“She’ll need a full escort,” she told Dri-fa. Dri-fa nodded and organized four more soldiers to escort the woman to Straff. Dri-fa turned to ride with her, but Aschenputtel did not want the company of her captain.

“Dri-fa, you’ll need to head them up,” she snapped. She caught her captain casting the Weaver’s daughter a wistful look, but it passed before she could be certain.

“My Queen,” Dri-fa bowed, “as captain of the guards my duty is with you.”

“No, Dri-fa, you didn’t do your duty earlier. When you return from escorting my stepmother, then you will be restored to my side.” She saw the worry pass over Dri-fa’s face as she glanced again at the Weaver’s daughter. “Tend to securing the prisoner,” Aschenputtel barked, irritated at her captain’s sudden interest in the girl. Dri-fa bowed again before setting off to finish shackling her stepmother to the wagon.

 

The Story Weaver Chronicles: Penelope and the Hob King – Chapter 5

Penelope

 

She awoke to the sound of the whole earth singing. Pan must be near. She smiled and stretched herself out on her bed of moss and leaves. Her heart pulsed with the beat of growing vegetation. Rosy sunlight filtered through the ceiling. Have I slept till the next morning? She sat up startled. It was early morning to be sure. She had never slept so long. Her stomach clenched in hunger. She hoped Pan would give her a big breakfast before starting their day.

He stepped into the cathedral. The flowers dazzled and shone, the tendrils on the vines grew taller, and the air danced about her. Pan lowered his hands, and the blinding forces of life settled into a subdued hue. He approached her, but his eyes looked concerned.

“You need to leave.” He said. Distraction filled the lines around his eyes where laughter had danced yesterday. Penny’s heart filled with panic.

“What…What? Why?” She gasped, and pushed herself up and out of her bed of leaves.

“A fire is raging in the Meadow of the Spiders, I must go to help the young ones escape. There is great terror coming from the meadow.” He tossed her a sack of food and a folded canvas map.

“Here is a map of the isle; it will lead you to a village nearby. There’s an old shepherd who lives there. He is a lover of the wilderness, and you will be safe with him and his wife until I return.” Penny unfolded the map. It looked identical to the one her father took with him to the sea every evening.

“Do not talk to strangers, and do not take shortcuts. No matter what, you must stay on the road.” He grasped her shoulder and squeezed it. She looked down at the map; fear clawed at her throat, and when she looked up again Pan was gone.

The vibrant luster of the plants faded with him. She looked around her. All alone now, she couldn’t breathe.

What does Pan expect me to do? I’ve never been here before. I’ll get lost! Now he wants me to find a shepherd? Why am I listening to him? This is so unfair. I hate that stupid fox for bringing me here! I’m not a grown up. I can’t do this!

Maybe she could go back home. Tell her father she found the Isle he had spent her life looking for. If she brought him back, then he would know how to find her mother. Her mother… he would be disappointed in her if she came home without her mother. Penny sunk her head to her hands. What am I doing here?

The luscious beauty of the cathedral now lay sinister and heavy around her. She had to get out and into an open space to think. She picked her way through the verdant growth. It seemed thicker and out of control without Pan’s presence. Her toe caught on a wild vine, and she fell forward. Entangled in twisting curling vines, she struggled to break free and hacked at them with her foot.

“What’s the point of bringing me here, then abandoning me?” she yelled into the air. She grabbed for a dangling vine, hoping to pull herself up, but her hand pricked on a thorn. She gulped and sucked the bead of blood off her finger. Fear and loneliness closed in around her, and tears gather in the corners of her eyes. I am alone. Her throat squeezed tight.

A soft breeze picked up a strand of her hair and caressed her cheek with it. “I am here,” the voice of the West Wind whispered in her ear. She spun around, the leaves rustled around her. She was not alone; the wind was there, the same wind that carried her to Pan. She breathed in. Peace washed over her.

She picked up the sack of fruit and bread Pan provided and followed the breeze into the sunlit meadow. The light warmed her skin, and she smiled, knowing she wasn’t alone and followed the path down the hill. Bright white flowers descended the slope guiding her steps.

Faeries flitted about the buds, cajoling each one to open, and she reveled in the magic of it all. Back home she would be on her way to school, fear and bile building in her chest with each step, but not today.

016_Walking through flower path

Today, she was free to explore a new world. She did worry about her father. She imagined him searching for her, forgetting about his hunt for the Isle and thinking solely on finding her. She hoped he knew why she had left and where she had gone.

The colors grew more subdued as she walked further from Pan’s Cathedral, and rolling hills of farmland stretched before her. She clutched her sack to her chest as her fear grew, but the breeze nudged her along with gentle whispers. She walked all day, following the thin path through the hills and getting closer to the village. The sun kissed the horizon, casting long warped shadows all around and signaling the end of the day.

She reached a crossroad. Not sure whether to go left or right, she squinted to see further up both roads, hoping for some sign of the village. Movement on the road to the right caught her eyes. The steel of helmets glinted in the crisp sunlight of the setting sun. It looked like a group of soldiers headed her way. The West Wind picked up her hair and tickled her face.

015_Emma Holding FLower-2

“Stay on the path, stay on the path,” it whispered and grew into a gust as it pushed her forward. Her body wanted to hide, or at least to run. Her heart told her to listen to the wind and remember what Pan had told her. The soldiers dipped down behind the hill, but when they would emerge again she would be right in front of them. Their armor clanked as they approached. Any second they would walk over the hill, and she would be the first thing they saw.

Fields surrounded her now. A large boulder lay to her right, but the rest of the field sat empty. She made up her mind and scampered off the path, ducking behind the rock. Seconds later, the soldiers crested the hill. The crunch of sand beneath their feet grew louder, and then stopped right in front of her hiding spot. She flattened herself against the boulder closing her eyes and hoping that they wouldn’t be able to see her.

Heavy footsteps drew closer to her. A brown, wiggling nose made its way around the rock. She ducked and crouched on all fours. A hoof stepped closer, and the head of a horse poked around the corner. His eyes glittered with intelligence, and he whinnied. Penny scooted back.

“What is it Winston?” a light voice spoke from the horse’s back. The horse rounded the boulder, and Penny could see the rider, a tall, beautiful woman with golden hair. A black cloak flowed behind her shoulders and snapped in the wind. On the horse, she towered over Penny, but she looked down on her with kind eyes.

“Look what Winston’s found.” The woman jumped from her saddle to the ground. Penny stood up and scanned the group of soldiers who now gathered around her. They wore thick, leather vests over cotton shirts and pants. Long hair flowed down their backs in thick, braided waves, and Penny realized that they were all women. They held swords, axes, bows, and arrows. Penny crumpled the map in her hand, her heart pounded. She covered her chest with her fist, hoping to muffle the sound of her fear.

“Put down your weapons,” the woman said and approached Penny as if she was courting a wild animal. “You poor, little thing. There’s no reason to fear.” She crouched down before Penny and offered her a gloved hand. “Are you lost?” Penny nodded her head. She did indeed feel lost.

The woman smiled. “I am the queen of this humble kingdom. I may be able to help you. What is your family name?” Penny didn’t know what to say. Pan told her not to talk to anyone, but this woman seemed nice, and a queen too. She was sure to be a helpful person to know. The woman turned to her soldiers.

“She doesn’t even know their names, poor thing. Volksmarchen has fallen so far. Orphans everywhere, families split apart, abandoned babies. I can’t stand it.” She seemed so heart-broken, so genuine. “You can come with me dear one.” She reached for Penny’s hand and pulled her towards her horse.

“I-I-I know my parents’ names,” Penny croaked. The queen turned to her, a warm smile on her face.

“Oh wonderful. I’m sure we can help you find them then.”

“My…my father is not here, but my mother is. She’s… she’s….” She paused, Pan said not to. “Moira. I’m looking for her.” The queen’s face drained of color, and her smile disappeared.

“Moira? Moira? Is your mother the Story Weaver?” Penny shook her head no. Why did I tell her? The queen bent over and glared into Penny’s eyes. “Are you lying to me girl?” Penny bit her lip and shook her head again.

The queen snapped her fingers and spun around. “Dri-fa! Show this child what we do to those who lie to the queen.” A soldier with a wide scar across her face and a fierce hawk perched on her shoulder stepped forward. Penny watched in horror as the soldier strung an arrow through a massive bow and aimed it at her neck. Her throat closed in fear and in anticipation of the pain she would feel before dying. The string tightened and creaked.

“Yes, yes, she’s the Story Weaver.” She gasped out and ducked her head down to her knees.

The queen inhaled sharply, and the soldier lowered her bow. Penny peered at them, her heart fluttering and twisting inside her. She wondered if she could run through them and get back to the path, but her body froze. The queen seemed to be deciding what to do next. She paced before her, drumming her gloved fingers on her arm and turned with suddenness upon Penny.

“I apologize for having my guard threaten you. It meant nothing. It’s a way to get people to talk sometimes. You must come with me. There are creatures on the road you can’t trust. Creatures who would hurt you.” The queen smiled at her again, but this time it was too nice, too fixed.

The guards stepped in towards her, signaling that she had no choice but to accept the queen’s offer. Her mouth dried, like pieces of sand paper rubbing together. She would be diverted again. Controlled again. No, she could not allow it.

“You can’t make me!” She yelled and ran towards the road. I don’t have to go with them. I’m not going to do what this horrible queen wants! She darted through the gathered soldiers and raced up the road.

“Dri-fa! Get her!” The queen shouted behind her.  Penny sprinted up the road, but a dull thud on the back of her head was the last thing she remembered before stumbling to the ground in unconsciousness.

 

Harrier Bogbean

He followed at a safe distance, not sure if the Queen of Volksmarchen, or any of her soldiers, were descendants of mountain witches or well studied in second sight. It could be very possible that if one were to spot him then his whole plan would be compromised. He secured his camera over his shoulder and patted it lovingly: his ticket to illustriousness. He had taken a few good shots earlier when they were distracted with the girl, but now that they rode at a slow pace, it would be easier for them to spot him.

He did not enjoy seeing the soldier club Penelope over the head. He wanted to intervene, to throw pebbles down on her, or whip up a dust storm on the road. He knew that wouldn’t be proper journalism though, so he stood aside and watched as they threw her over the front of the queen’s horse and continued down the road.

017_Dri-fa aiming at Penny

They were a vicious band of warriors. Axes, knives, swords, bows, and quivers full of arrows hung off of them. They carried themselves as if they were the descendants of war gods. Rumors indicated that the Queen’s Warriors were dedicated, and some of the most dangerous fighting units on the Isle.

He couldn’t have the soldiers clubbing him over the head too, so he lingered behind. He remembered to keep his breathing even and to move in smooth, legato bounds. It was not as easy to remain invisible on the Isle of Scealta as it was in the Realm of Men.

So he concentrated on staying invisible. Like a dewdrop rolling down a sloped leaf, he glided down to the path and pushed himself off again. He bounded like a dancer, imagining that he was a fairy; a beautiful, delicate fairy twirling and gliding behind the small dust cloud the soldiers and their horses kicked up. He extended his arms out, full and long, admiring his tapered fingers and mottled green and brown skin when he felt the camera slip off his shoulder and watched in horror as it tumbled end over end to the ground.

It clattered against the pebbles and dirt, rolling down the path. Once it left his body, it slipped into visibility. He panicked and rushed after it, grabbing it before it could roll in between the hooves of the queen’s horse. He kissed it in triumph and flung himself into the branches of a tree, breathing heavily, and now visible. He would have to wait a few moments before following them again. The queen continued up the path as if nothing had happened.

He slapped himself across the cheek for being so careless. His camera looked unscathed, but how would he know if it still worked? Worried, he nibbled on his knuckles and flipped the levers. He reached into his knapsack, counting the film plates he had left. Enough to last him awhile, but he would soon have to make a trip to Atmøs to replenish his supplies. Oh, that city was strange. And dangerous, for a sprite.

The Story Weaver Chronicles: Penelope and the Hob King – Chapter 4

Penelope

 

The West Wind carried her far over the fire. The water grew thicker until it became land. The land grew wider until it became hills, and the hills grew taller until they became mountains. Penny dipped along between them. The wind drifted her over fields of boulders, through massive tree’s branches, and above flooding waterfalls. The air smelled sweet with the greenery growing all around her, and her soul filled with exhilaration. She relished her moment of lightness. This is what a bird feels like. This is what it feels like to be free.

They flew for almost an hour before the wind lay her down on top of a deep green hill. It kissed her cheeks before fading away. The grass held her, graciously allowing a soft spot to lie on before she sat up, surveying her new surroundings.

A wide valley lay before her. Trees lined the sides of the hills, and in the bottom of the valley a river trickled. A figure of a man sat next to the river. He stood and sparkled wet, as if he had just jumped in the river to cool off. He strode up the hill to her.

013_Laying in Grass

She wondered if she should be afraid, but curiosity and the man’s easy demeanor told her not to fear. By the time he reached her, she noticed a pointed, black beard growing from his chin. Two nubby horns protruded from his forehead, and his eyes crinkled when he smiled. He wore no shirt, and what appeared to be heavy pants, upon closer examination proved to be very thick fur; instead of feet he had hooves, and in his hand, he held a reed pipe.

“Hello Penelope, I am so happy you are here.” He spoke with laughter in his words. Orbs of light glowing with bright colors appeared all around the man. Penny reached towards one. Energy pulsed from the little being, and a gleeful giggle from the orb paused her reach. The ball changed into a tiny, floating person. All the orbs transformed, and around her danced hundreds and hundreds of winged people.

“Faeries,” she gasped with delight. The man laughed, and the valley filled with his laughter. It echoed all around them. Not a lonely echo, but a harmonious one. It seemed as if the trees themselves knew his laugh and responded back in their own timbre of voices.

He bent down and helped her up. “Yes, they are faeries, and I am their chief. The Lord of the Wilderness, I am Pan.”

The faeries continued their dance; Pan joined them with an exuberant laugh. He brought his pipes up to his lips, and played a mysterious and joyful melody. The earth pulsed, and the hills filled with his song. Penny had never heard anything like it.

She hadn’t heard music since her father sang to her as a small child. He stopped when she had absentmindedly sung in front of Mrs. Kendrick’s tenement one evening. Mrs. Kendrick told her father they would have to leave if Penny kept displaying such obscene behaviors in public. Why was singing and music seen as bizarre back home?

She remembered her father telling her that when people forgot stories they also lost their imagination and creativity, so it frightened them when Penny did something unusual. She eyed Pan warily as he played his song and danced his jig among the faeries. Her heart pounded, yearning to join his revelry. Last time she danced her father chided her, not wanting to bring attention their way.

But her father wasn’t here. Mrs. Kendrick wasn’t here. Mr. Brubacher was nursing – what she hoped – was a royal-purple black eye. She smirked at the image. Good.

She ran down the hill towards Pan, throwing back her arms and leaping into the air. She pirouetted, skipped, and twirled. Light washed over her, and her heart swelled with joy. When Pan stopped playing, she landed so close to him that the life radiating from his skin pulsed through her, as if the energy of a thousand forests coursed through his veins. Overwhelmed, she jumped back.

He laughed. “Dearest Penelope, you are learning how to be brave, but let’s get better acquainted before you get too close, to see the natural world as it truly is, is an overwhelming experience even for the most attuned.” He beckoned her to walk along the river with him. He picked luscious fruits and meaty nuts along the way and gave her the biggest ones. The berries burst in her mouth, thick with sweet juices and tangy seeds. The nut’s woody taste and aroma balanced the berries and soon she felt full and content.

The sun now blazed high overhead. Faeries floated everywhere, lighting on one branch and then another, caressing the leaves, dancing with the flowers, cajoling and prompting the growth of each plant with their touch. She and Pan crested the hill from where the river flowed, and at the top she gasped at what she saw.

An ancient cathedral, forgotten long ago, rested atop the hill. Its foundation seeped into the earth, sagging like an old man around the middle. Creeping vines claimed the walls as their own and curled up and through the broken stones. The roof had caved in long ago, but trees growing inside the cathedral spread their branches across the opening as a cover.

“You will rest here for the time being,” Pan said as they walked through the ancient arches serving as a doorway. Sunlight filtered through the canopy and dappled the chipped marble floor. Green, delicate plants enveloped solid verdant walls. Moss and vines crept up the stairs, while young saplings sprouted beneath their parent trees in the spots of light allowed in from above.

The large, open room greeted her with wild sounds of life. Perhaps because Pan stood right beside her, or maybe because she had never been so immersed in nature, she heard every note of bird song. Every blade of grass, flower, leaf, vine, and tendril glowed in different shades of green while singing their praises to Pan and welcoming Penny.

“I don’t need walls or a roof, but I love this place,” Pan motioned around him. “What a harmonious marriage of man’s creativity and nature’s beauty. See what wonders we can make together?” He scanned the room, satisfied. Penny stared wide-eyed. He lowered his hands as if conducting an orchestra, and the colors and sounds grew subdued in hues more familiar to Penny.

She smiled. “This is wonderful. Thank you for bringing me here.” She ran her fingers across the soft moss growing on a banister.

He turned to her, his eyes serious. “We must talk about the most pressing matter: what do you know of your mother?” His earnest question startled her. She knew nothing of her mother, except that whenever she thought of her she felt very alone, and very insignificant, but Pan was waiting. She didn’t want to tell him about her loneliness, so she bit her lip, pretending to think.

“The fox said my mother is the Story Weaver; what does that mean?” she asked. He piled up the fallen leaves around them into a big, cushy bed.

014_Dancing with Pan Merged

“Your mother’s name is Moira. She weaves stories for the Realm of Men, and the tales she creates come to fruition on this very Isle.” He sat down across from her. He radiated with warmth and life.

“My mother is that important?” she whispered and looked down at her hands.

That explains why she never tried to find me; an important woman like her is too busy to think about her plain, quiet, ordinary daughter. She will be so disappointed when she meets me.

Sadness washed over her, and outweighed the joy that she might see her mother again. She clasped and unclasped her hands. Still wearing the clothes from yesterday, she felt sweaty and ugly.

“When do I have to see her?” She looked back up and Pan’s grim face unsettled her.

“Penny, your mother is in danger.”

“What’s wrong?” Penny tried to control her voice. “The fox said she needs me.” Pan paused, the usual merriment gone from his eyes.

“She does need you. Your mother’s been in hiding for twelve years, since the night your father fled the Isle with you. She returned to her home just recently but disappeared again within a day. The West Wind saw a band of hobs trekking up to her home in the mountains before she disappeared. I’m afraid Michal, the King of the Hobs, kidnapped her when she returned to her mountain.”

Pain followed by relief shot threw Penny’s chest; so her mother didn’t send for her, but it wasn’t because she didn’t care for her. She was in hiding. Maybe she wanted me all along but couldn’t reach me. Pan paced before her.

“I wonder why the old trickster brought you back now,” Pan mused. “You must not go anywhere near the Kingdom of the Hobs. Until we know the king’s plans, you must stay here.” He plumped the bed of leaves. “I know it’s only mid-afternoon, but you need to rest. You had a long night.”

Penny sighed; her body ached from clinging to the fox, crossing the North Sea, and riding on the wind. Her head grew heavy with the news of her mother.

“But…but who is the Hob King?” she asked as she lay back on the pile of leaves. Pan smiled and crouched down to her eye level.

“We have much time to discuss it when you are refreshed.” He bid her good sleep and stepped out of the cathedral. Questions fluttered through her head, but she soon shut her eyes and fell asleep to the sounds of birdcalls and plant song.

 

Fox

 

He raced through the tunnels trailing his companion at an exhausted distance. He noticed King Michal check behind him every few minutes to make sure he kept up; the king’s long legs far outpaced his.

They ran through the underground tunnels for hours until they reached a concealed doorway that opened into the forest. The fresh air of growing life revived him. Roots pushing deeper into the soil, branches stretching towards the heavens, brooks and streams racing towards the sea, he breathed it all in. Pan’s domain never slept.

They plunged through a path of bushes and trees that formed a tunnel of greenery, passing undetected to any creature on the outside. As the sun crossed the sky and faded into the opposite horizon, he bristled in anger. He had seen the sun rise that morning, and now it was setting. He longed for his chambers in the palace and swore that when they returned, he would take the longest leave of absence from his duties and spend some much-deserved time off in the steam caves behind the palace. His legs burned and cramped with dehydration. He wanted to stop and rest, but he had to keep up with the king. Exhausted, he stumbled over a thick root, and finally, King Michal paused long enough for him to catch his breath.

“Where are we going?” he gasped.

“To the Grove of the Spider King,” the king barked back. Fox cursed under his breath.

“That’s a night’s journey from here. I need a rest, my King.” He licked at his paw, pretending to pull a thorn from the soft pad. He dreaded entering the domain of the Spider King. Spider warriors trained night and day, and their physical superiority of four arms and four legs made them intimidating fighters. He hesitated to find out what King Michal had in mind.

“You can rest in the grove. We must be there before dawn, for that’s when the Spider King whispers his prayers alone,” King Michal snapped.

Fox suppressed his irritation and imagined murdering Captain Gillitrut on their return, for it must have been the Captain’s whispered lies that pushed Michal into the madness of entering the Realm of the Spiders.

They climbed the steep hill leading to the Grove of the Spider King, not an easy task considering that a rockslide many years ago covered the precipitous slope with jagged, treacherous rocks. The front side of the hill grew green with lush vegetation and was an easy walk up to the Grove, but it faced the Meadow of the Spiders where the king and his people hunted and lived.

Giant Spidress mothers patrolled the meadow at all hours, protecting their young. King Michal and he together would be no equal to a Spidress protecting her children. He muttered a prayer of thanks to the gods when the king chose to climb the backside. They looked over the meadow as the first hint of sunlight peeked over the rim of the earth.

“What are we doing?” he tried to conceal the disdain in his voice. He did not trust Michal to make the right decisions. After the curse that crippled his body had reached his mind, the king no longer made rational decisions. Michal motioned him to crouch in the trees. Smoke rose from the pile of stones in the center of the grove and the smell of incense tickled Fox’s nose.

“When the Spider King is up here praying all alone and lighting the morning’s oil, we will attack him and take him back to Atmøs.” King Michal sneered.

Fox groaned. “We can’t do this. Can you imagine a war with the spiders? It would ruin Atmøs.” He wanted to hit Michal over the head and drag him back home to avoid any confrontation with the Spider King. The king snorted.

“What’s gotten into you? You’re so cautious. Ol’ Gilli was right, you’re so much like an old woman and not the soldier I remember,” he growled at Fox. “By the time they notice their king is gone we will have all their fates in our hands.” Fox wanted to remind the king that there was only one story he should be interested in, his own, but thought against it.

“How are you going to do it without their warriors attacking us?” he asked. King Michal smiled and drummed his claws along his jaw line.

“A distraction…” he said, and his eyes flashed in the brilliant morning light.

Jesus and the Good Palestinian

And behold, a writer arose to test him, and she said, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26But Jesus said to her, “How is it written in the law? How do you understand it?” 27She answered and said to him, “You shall love THE LORD JEHOVAH your God from all your heart and from all your soul and from all your strength and from all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 Jesus said to her, “You have said correctly; do this and you shall live.” 29But as she wanted to justify herself, she said to him, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus said to her, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and robbers fell upon him. They plundered and beat him and left him for dead.” 31“And it happened a certain priest was going down that road and he saw him and passed by.” 32“And so also a bus full of Evangelical Christians touring the Holy City stopped near him. They exited the bus with their cameras in tow, their Bibles marked in pencil, neon tabs poking from the pages. They stopped short of the beaten man. Despair filling their hearts that even in Jerusalem bums and vagrants could lie naked on the street. They took pictures of a Holy site just beyond the man and then stepped back into their bus. Leaving the man and their concern behind them.” 33“But a Palestinian man as he traveled came where he was and he saw him and he took pity on him.” 34“And he came and cleaned his wounds and set him on the back of his motorcycle. He took him to a hospital and cared for him throughout the night.” 35“At the break of day, he produced two hundred dollars and gave them to the doctor and he said to him, ‘Take care of him and if you spend anything more, when I return I will give it to you.’ “ 36“Who therefore of these three appears to you to have been a neighbor to him who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37But she said, “He who took pity on him.” Yeshua said to her, “You go and do likewise.”

Jesus didn’t choose to tell the story of the “Good Jew.” An easy choice considering he was a Jewish man speaking to a Jewish audience. How easy is it to hear a story of a heroic American? Or an honorable Christian? Jesus’s narrative explicitly put the light within “The Other.” Why don’t we believe the Bible when it says, In Him was Life, and that Life was the Light of all Mankind. Not just Jews, not just Christians, or Americans, or Europeans. All Mankind.

Why are Christians ignoring the light within the Palestinian people? Why are 50 deaths and 2,000 injuries acceptable? Even one death is unacceptable. The Roman Empire thrived when oppressed people turned on each other. Who is benefitting now? Who thrives when the oppressed die? And who turns away?

The Story Weaver Chronicles: Penelope and the Hob King – Chapter 3

Harrier Bogbean

 

He chided himself for pestering Mrs. Kendrick so long. He barely snapped a photo of Penelope before she went through the window. “If I had waited a half a second longer, I’m sure I’d have the only photo of a human passing through a closed window!” He said and gnashed his teeth in exasperation.

Oh, but he did love razzing the stodgy Mrs. Kendrick and her colorless sister! He reveled in tipping over her cup of milk when she brought it to her lips, splashing it down her chins and onto her heavy bosom. When she went to grab another, he turned the milk into butter. It slid out of her mug and hit her on her nose.

He tied the apron strings of the two sisters together, so that they stood back to back for a large portion of an hour trying to reach at the knot between them.

When the skinnier Kendrick slid out from the loosened strings, and the heavier Kendrick went to sit on a chair for a rest, Harrier pulled the chair out from under her and giggled as she tumbled off. He almost laughed himself into visibility when she broke wind as she splayed across her kitchen floor. He barrel-rolled in delight thinking of the two sisters squabbling in the kitchen late into the night.

Below him, Fox ran through the dark, tight streets. The girl clung to the fur on his back. He wasn’t sure if Fox saw him or not. He flew a bit behind them, but every so often Fox would turn over his shoulder (to look at him or to make sure the girl was still safe he did not know.)

Why was Fox even here? He had never met him on the Isle, but he knew of him. The main advisor and sole friend to the King of the Hobs, and mistrusted by Harrier’s father, his heart began to beat a little bit faster as he realized that his news story had just become a lot bigger than he originally thought.

Penelope

They leapt through the narrow streets quickly leaving her tenement behind them. They ran through deserted docks and quiet banks along the river. The fox paused at the edge of the bay. The tide met their toes and then receded.

“The North Sea,” the fox told her, “The only way to the Isle of Scealta is to swim across.” She swallowed back her nervousness and nodded, letting him know she was ready. He splashed into the sea. The freezing water smacked onto her skin. Her veins felt as if they had turned to ice, and they swam further and further into the freezing water.

The shoreline shrunk far behind them as they swam towards the black horizon. She shivered and cursed at herself for following a strange creature into the night. So many questions reeled through her mind. Why has he come for me now? How does he know my mother? Why does she need me? She had to ask him.

“Why did you come for me today and not before?” She chattered through stiff lips.

The fox kept swimming, but after a few moments gasped between breaths. “I am wondering the same thing. It’s been my duty for the last several years to test the waters to fetch you back to the Isle, but the barrier between our two worlds has always been closed to me. Except today, something happened today that opened the barrier between the Realm of Men and my world.”

Penny smiled to herself, “Well I did punch my teacher today… but he deserved it.” She hastened to add.

The fox chuckled underneath her. “That might be enough to open a barrier.”

The labored breathing of the fox silenced her questions for the moment. She didn’t want to distract him from his paddling, so she slunk deeper into his fur. They swam for what seemed hours, his rhythmic kicks nearly rocking her to sleep. Soon the black horizon turned blue and the sun pushed its way to dawn. She longed for its warmth.

“Why is the isle invisible?” She asked.

“The gods created it as a haven for the ancient races.”

Penny smiled. This sounded like a story to her. “What ancient races?” She nestled down in his fur, and brought her legs up higher, trying to pull them out of the water.

“Oh, the faeries, the folk, the giants, the goblins, and the sprites, all mythical creatures, and of course the hobs, who are descended from folk, goblins, and sprites.” Penny smiled to herself. There was a reason her father gathered the stories thrown out by others. He knew they were real, and now she did too.

“How did my father meet my mother?” She asked, but the fox did not seem to hear her. For at that moment, the sun burst over the horizon, scattering golden light across the sea. She smiled in giddy joy and sat straight up, stretching her arms out and breathing in the brisk salt air. She felt free: free from Marjorie, free from Mr. Brubacher, free from Mrs. Kendrick, even free from her father and his mysteries. She smiled with happiness until a slithering movement brushed past her leg.

“What was that?” she cried out, and grabbed the fox tighter.

“We have to cross quickly.” He kicked harder through the water. “But not too quickly to disturb the snake that protects the Isle.”

“Snake?” Penny gasped.

“Well, more like a sea dragon,” the fox whispered. He pushed his legs harder through the sea; the closer they drew to the other side, the thicker the water grew. This must be part of the magic. Penelope marveled.

She had never seen water the consistency of gravy. It bubbled in places where creatures expelled oxygen. She closed her eyes, listening to the constant paddling of the fox, willing away her fears of what creatures lay beneath the surface. The taste of sea salt on her lips made her thirsty.

The sound of mud separating from water, like the sound of her shoes stepping from one muddy puddle to another, grew louder and louder. The fox heard it too, and fought against the heavy stew of the sea to reach the other side. The sound grew closer until the thick head of a gigantic snake emerged from the brine in front of Penny and the fox. His tongue flicked between his lips. His eyes gleamed with fire as he rose to his full height, towering over them.

“Who comesss thissss way?” the snake sputtered. Gold flecks of fire flew from his tongue. Penny shrunk into the fox’s fur, biting at her fists to keep her breath calm. It’s just a snake. The fox will protect me. The fox knows what he’s doing. I will be fine. Her heart fluttered behind her ribs like a bird in a cage despite her attempts to console it.

“Let us pass, Methuselah,” the fox barked up at him. “I am a messenger to the Realm of Men, and you must stand aside.”

The snake paused, seeming to reflect on what the fox said. His bright red and gold scales flickered in the light, and Penny noticed as he drew nearer that he smoldered from the inside out. His eyes burned a deep orange. He stared into her soul.

“You can passss…” the snake slithered around them. “But you mussst take the girl back to the Realm of Men.”

The fox laughed. “Old age has made you deaf; the girl is welcome to the Isle.”

The snake sneered, “Who has allowed her to cross the barrier? Not your king I hope!”

Penny tightened her grip on the fox’s fur. His king? He didn’t say anything about a king…

Fox seemed at a loss for words. The glint in the snake’s eye flashed. “I ssssee what’s happening…” He opened his mouth wider and released boiling, liquid flames into the water between them. “You will never reachhh the shhhore. No one from the Realm of Men can pass into the Isle of Shhhealta,” he sunk into the depths of the sea behind his wall of boiling fire.

The fox peddled backward. They watched as the flames grew higher and higher, making an insurmountable barricade.

“What do we do now?” Penny asked. The now warm water soaked her up to her shoulders. Trapped, far from home, and with a strange creature, she shuddered at her foolishness. Her throat closed and her heart shook in her body with pulsating fear. What was she thinking by riding a fox into the sea?

“The snake doesn’t realize who you are Penelope. You are capable of commanding great forces of nature. Ask and you shall receive,” he said. He threw back his head and howled a long, high note. As the howl faded away, the wind picked up behind her.

A playful breeze wafted strands of her hair and tickled her face. Penny giggled. The fox howled again, and with a loud, powerful gust the west wind picked up and pushed the fire away from them. A light voice filled the air.

“You called for me Master Fox?”

“Yes, I did. I need you to take the girl to the Isle.”

“I will take her to Pan’s Cathedral.” The voice danced around them, impossible for Penny to pinpoint. The fox paused, still treading water.

“No, take her to the shoreline, I can meet her there,” he said. The wind roared, and the voice filled the air again, this time growing deeper and angrier.

“I will take her to Pan. She will be safe with him.” The fox snapped at the air but relented. He turned to Penny.

“Jump into the wind Penelope, before the snake resurfaces,” he yelled. The wind roared in seeming delight. Penny looked into the thick sludge around them. The fox swam through it strong enough, but she feared falling in and sinking to the bottom in her wet, heavy clothes.

“I will not allow harm to come to you,” the wind whispered around her. The water rolled thick and blue under the strength of the wind. The fire moved towards the shore as the water swelled around it. She inhaled a steadying breath and pushed herself up, crouching low to maintain her balance as the fox kicked in the water.

“Now Penelope!” the fox yelled over the wind. She unclenched her grasp on his fur and leapt into the air. She fell towards the water, but the wind grabbed her in its sway, and she soared into its arms. It cradled her above the fox.

“Where are you going?” She yelled down to him.

“I have a pest to eradicate.” His smile curved up, and he dived below the surface.

012_Snake Encounter

Fox

He pushed below the water’s thin shell. His muscles cramped, but he kicked harder through the sludge knowing that Methuselah must be close. Bubbles floated past him from the snake’s movements around him. UGH. What an inconvenience, he thought.

The underwater entrance to the Hob King’s fortress was a few meters away; he pushed through the water like it was bread dough. It grew thicker the closer he got to the Isle. Blue light streamed from the entrance.

A dark silhouette darted in front of the underwater entrance. Methuselah shimmered in the darkness below him. Fire escaped from his close-knit scales before the water snuffed it out.

Fox kept pressing down, intent on making it into the cave before the snake could stop him. One paw pushed through the cave entrance.

Hehe old boy, you’ve made it. He smiled and reached forward with his other paw. A blow from the side knocked him off center, and he tumbled sideways. The snake rammed his massive head into Fox’s ribs.

Thrown off course, Fox kicked back up to the mouth of the cave. The snake attacked again, hitting him with his tail and jabbing at him with his fangs.

Fox darted out of the way, but he began to feel light-headed. His lungs burned from holding his breath. He pushed between two stones standing sentinel in front of the cave. The snake followed.

He dove beneath the snake’s head then doubled back and bit hard into the soft skin underneath his mouth for an instant paralyzing Methuselah into submission. He clamped harder, but the enraged snake dove into the deep sea bringing Fox down with him.

Breath left his lungs and his jaws loosened. He kicked back towards the cave. The water simmered as the snake burst towards him, his heat boiling the water around them. Fox swam straight above him and then dove towards his eye, letting out all the air from his lungs. His teeth sunk around the eye; he tightened his bite and yanked his head back pulling the snake’s eye out of its socket.

Methuselah thrashed and tossed his head back in pain. Fox released one last powerful kick and swam into the cave before darkness fell around him.

He woke up cold and wet on stone steps. Seawater pooled below him as his eyesight adjusted to the dimness of the cave. Methuselah’s eye lay before him, watching Fox menacingly. He wished he had bitten off more than the bare, twitching eyeball that glared up at him. He grabbed the eye by a vein and pushed himself onto all four paws and limped down the corridor.

Tall candles sputtered along the walls, illuminating his path enough to see only a short distance in front of him. Every muscle ached from swimming through the sea and fighting the snake, but he had to tell King Michal where the girl was now.

He despised this underground cave. This was where the king would take his breakfasts with Captain Gillitrut. The two would scheme, and the captain would spurt his twisted lies. Fox grew tense thinking of the captain whispering his deceits in the king’s ear, and he hastened his steps. As long as the curse weighed down the king’s mind, he would never see past Captain Gillitrut’s lies.

A pinprick of orange light grew wider before him as he limped along the floor. Wet and cold, he continued down the hallway, staring straight ahead and hoping not to drop Methuselah’s eye. The long, dark halls opened into a drafty room blazing with hundreds of candles and gold dishes full of burning oil.

“Come in brother,” a deep, raspy voice beckoned him inside.

Fox looked with caution around the room hoping to find King Michal alone. A giant, jagged shadow crept around the table. Michal walked on all fours; a curse from an ancient goddess caused the once handsome, young prince to take the shape of a crippled beast.

His sloped, wolf-like head tottered on thick, muscled shoulders. Spikes growing from each vertebra along his spine poked through the matted fur on his back. Claws like an eagle drummed along the floor. He still bore the common, deformed wings of the hobs, but no other feature identified him as a hob. A broken, grotesque sight, he stood a little taller than fox but seemed much larger because of the the fearful figure he imposed. He sniffed the air.

“Where have you been?” King Michal rasped. Fox spit out Methuselah’s eye.

“The barrier between worlds,” Fox smiled and gasped for breath. “It’s been opened.” He enjoyed seeing the look of shock, and then a smile creep across the king’s face.

“So you have the girl then?” King Michal peered around him as if searching for her.

“Well, Ummm…” Fox paused. “She’s above ground with Pan.”

“That goat footed buffoon!” sneered the king. He padded across the room, pacing back and forth. The eye of the sea dragon followed his every movement. “Why did you let her go to Pan?” he growled.

“I had no choice.” Fox bowed and kicked the eyeball to the feet of the king. “Methuselah barred her entrance, and I had to send her to the most neutral place I knew of.”

“Methuselah has awoken?” the king eyed him with interest, “He must have been alerted the last time you crossed the sea with a human.” He rolled the eye to a corner of the room where a hand protruded through the shadows and caught it with care.

“Ah, a sea dragon’s eye, more valuable than any treasure mined from the earth,” a thin, articulate voice spoke from the shadows, and Captain Gillitrut stepped out of the darkness swinging the eye by the vein.

“Captain Gillitrut.” The king leapt onto a thick, carved chair and tore into a plate of food. “I thought you left for the morning drills.”

The Captain smirked. “I chose to stay, and I’m glad I did. I got to hear firsthand the good word from our friend Master Fox, but I see he’s failed the king again.” Bitter hatred clawed at Fox’s throat. He swallowed it down to his belly, but he wanted to bite the face off the smug little man. He shot a look of contempt at the captain.

“We’ve been trying for years to find an opening. All your little enchantments did nothing. The girl opened it herself. I think I served the king well by fetching her right away. Who knows how long the opening would have lasted? You imagine yourself to be a great wizard, but you’re no better than a little girl with a feisty temper.” Fox said and smiled placidly back at him. The king laughed from above them slicing through a roasted lamb leg with his teeth.

Captain Gillitrut sneered. “My enchantments softened the barrier. The girl is nothing, and how very like you to lose her along the way.” He cracked his bony knuckles, as if daring him to respond. The captain was setting him up for treason. He did not want Captain Gillitrut cornering him into accusations of disloyalty. He stepped towards the king.

“My King, I will go to Pan’s Cathedral and bring her back to you.” Fox smiled at the idea of a visit to his old friend Pan, but the king shook his head.

“You’ve had too many missteps involving that girl. Captain Gillitrut will do it.” King Michal licked the juices of the lamb’s leg as they dribbled down his furry arm.

“Then we can torture her. If her mother still refuses to weave for us then we’ll kill them both, eh Gilly?” The king threw a fish’s skull at the captain. Captain Gillitrut jumped away from the skull, and the king roared in laughter.

“Send a squad to Pan’s Cathedral and bring her here to me. We’ll bring the Story Weaver down from her tower and have her waiting in my throne room when her daughter arrives.” The king snapped up a fresh fish bobbing in a bowl of wine, tossed it in the air, and caught it in his massive jaws. Fox noticed the captain wince before he bowed low.

“Yes, my King.” He spun on his heel and walked away more quickly than usual. Fox smiled, knowing that the captain still feared the king.

“What an insufferable idiot.” He glared at the captain’s back, and the king’s laughter echoed against the vaulted ceiling. Fox smiled. In his absence Captain Gillitrut molded the king’s will like clay, but he, the Fox, still held king Michal’s love.

He turned to the king. “Torture her? There’s no need for that. Surely the Weaver will be so thankful to see her daughter that we won’t need to do her harm.” At least that’s what you told me. Fox disliked being lied to.

King Michal gulped down the bowl of wine before speaking. “You’ve grown soft my friend! How can I trust one who holds the interest of a human child over your king’s? I’m keeping an eye on you.” Fox swallowed. Raw grief gripped his heart at his king’s mistrust. He bowed low and turned to leave. “Where do you go without my leave?” King Michal leapt down from the throne and cornered him.

“To wash off the grime of the sea,” he snorted, surprised at the king’s cruelness towards him.

“You plan your baths too far ahead of time my friend. You’re coming with me.” The king loped up the corridor. Fox’s stomach cringed at the idea of not soaking in a warm, lavish bath and smoking his pipe at the end of a horrible, exhausting day.