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.
“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.
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.