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.
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 Queen’s Road headed to the palace. Persinette has succumbed to the Death Sleep. I am sure you are distraught with grief.
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.
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.