Sorry it took so long, there was a lot going on lately.
It’s about time to conclude the series, so this is where the short stories and the novel-in-progress start going their separate ways. I’ll let you know what comes next at the end of the last part.
This is the last but one part. Because there’s a lot going on in it for which there isn’t much space available, it may seem to be a bit fast-going. I really have to step on it at this point, fit a lot into the frame of a short story since I have three characters developing (in split up ways) all at once. Please let me know what you think.
PART 4: The deal
Of jesters and men.
The woman shook Edward as if he were a ragdoll.
“He bit the apple.” She replied viciously. “By Darmay law, that makes him mine.” Her voice was like rough cotton in her shrivelled throat.
“Please let him go.” Robert pleaded, for the first time in his life, to save his brother, preparing to go down onto his knees if he had to.
“No, the boy belongs to me. I can do with him as I please. He is my slave.”
She laughed her nail-scratching laugh and resumed her hex.
“We’ll buy him off your hands.”
She stopped instantly, listening to the ring of gold coins in her head. Then she chuckled once again.
“Buy? With what. You don’t look particularly wealthy. I’m sure you have nothing of value to me.”
“Make us an offer.”
“An offer?” She thought long and deep. “An offer...” She said, a gleam of greed and pleasure coming over her eyes.
“I’m sure you’ll find a way to benefit more from all three of us than by turning one of us into a toad.”
George persuaded her with velvet tone. How he kept his cool on times like these, was beyond both of his brothers.
“Why yes, there might be something.”
Now even George’s poker face showed signs of unease. That was far too easy. The boys exchanged a glance of concern. The woman still lifted Edward by his collar, clenching her claws into the cloth. The boy had to stand on his toes not be hanged.
“And since you care so much about your brother’s...” She looked at him with a gleam of anticipation in her eyes and licked her lips “wellbeing, would you risk to share his fate, should you fail?”
“We are at your mercy.” George added, bowing his head in submission.
“This might work out.” She was suddenly surprisingly pleased. The siblings braced themselves for what was to come.
“Here’s the deal: all three of you will perform a certain task and if by sunset, either one of you has failed to carry it out, all three of you will become my property...”
She opened a wooden chest, an upright suitcase of chestnut brown wood, and revealed a case full of shrivelled formerly human dolls, hung up by strings like people hang up clothes, a detestful grin frozen on their lifeless faces.
“And join them.” She let out a horrible hysterical laughter, making the puppets circle in a grotesque dance in the air.
The boys shrugged in horror.
“We accept.” George said, pulling himself together after a deep breath. Robert nodded and Edward was in no condition to do more than look from one to the other nervously.
“You guys, you shouldn’t...”
“We have no choice, Edward, you got all of us in this mess.”
“Let’s hope you’ll learn to use your brain for once!” Robert added through clenched teeth. They were trapped.
The woman chuckled. “Oh, how cute.” She laid such heavy emphasis on the consonants that it made her sound intrinsically evil. She was surely rejoicing in her ploy, rubbing her hands.
Her bent silhouette, so exhausted to the hasty eye, did not flinch under the weight of a huge basket full of goods from her stand. She tossed it to Robert, who could only just catch it, falling backwards to the ground.
“Sell these, you wuss,” she hissed like a serpent, “every each one and should you come back with anything but a basket full of gold instead, you will make me an excellent toad!”
“Whatever!” He strode off, handling his cargo rather roughly in his struggles with the inconvenient luggage. He bumped into an invisible wall.
“I’m not finished yet!”
Carefully, he rubbed the sore spots. What was that?
“Don’t bruise any of my apples, or your brothers will be sorry, got that? Whatever you do to my fruit, I will do to them.”
“You crazy old tart!”
The hag snarled with chagrin.
“I’ll teach you!”
She made some furious gestures in the sky and muttered to herself. Robert paid her no mind, and just kept going, until for some reason he tripped over his own feet. Falling, he heard a hint of bells above his head. It was only when he scrambled back up, that he noticed what had happened. His entire outfit had been replaced by a suit of a bright red-yellow check pattern. On his head was a big Fool’s hat.
She turned him into a jester!
“Now try to sell like that if you can, you big mouth!”
Infuriated, he wanted to go to her, but his shoes were so many sizes too big, it was difficult for him to move. It gave his every attempt to something ludicrously humorous. People around him stopped and pointed, hardly even masking their laughter.
“You!” He called out, panting in anger. With every work the poor boy spoke, frogs and snakes would leap and slither from his lips.
He clasped his hands on his mouth in shock. He was mortified. People stumbled back from him, uttering cries of revulsion.
“That’ll teach you, you little rat!”
“What did you do to him?” Edward cried out, heading out to help his brother.
“He got what he deserved, come here you!” Edwards wanted to leave, but her swift hands pulled him back by the collar.
“This one I will keep as a down-payment.” The boy looked up at her with desperation. “What? Did you honestly think I’d let you walk right out? Neither of you would return and I’d never have any compensation for my sufferings.”
“Sufferings? It was just an apple for God’s sakes!”
“Be it as it may, you’re staying right here as my guarantee. You better pray your brothers do my bidding properly, or else...”
The boy tried to slip away, but the witch had resurrected a barrier around the booth, which he could not leave.
“Watch that tone of yours, me boy, or you will not be the only one to pay!”
Excruciating pain went through him, cramped his stomach. He fell to his knees and screamed. He heard to distant echo’s and watched his brother’s collapse in a similar fashion by the street corners. She would tackle all three of them.
“Alright, I’ll be good, just make it stop. Leave them out of it.”
The woman sniggered.
“You’re such a good sport.” She pulled him to his feet harshly and pushed a broom into his hands. “Make yourself useful.”
Forcefully biting his lips, he started sweeping the spot vigorously.
“Atta boy! It better be cleaned up good, now!”
He sighed, but kept his mouth shut.
“Now as for you!” She turned to charge, who had been watching the spectacle somewhat pensively.
“Across the street there is a house.” She pointed out a high sandstone building with a gloomy atmosphere. “It has long been abandoned. In this house, at the top of the stairs, you will find a room and in that room, a flower. I want you to bring that to me.”
He nodded and ran off. He passed through the dark entrance and got swallowed up by the darkness inside, disappearing into the house. The door fell shut behind him.
“It’s a trap, isn’t it?” Michael yelled.
“Did you think I would make it so easy?” She lined her chin in contemplation. “Hmm, what will I do with them... Toad soup or toad pâté? With some nice crispy legs on the side. Mmm, mouthwatering.”
Edward struggled the best he could to keep his composure so he wouldn’t give her a chance to vent her frustration on his brothers any more than she already had.
Meantime Robert was wobbling through the streets as if he wore flippers like a diver ashore.
He tried to sell some fruits, first politely, but the vermin he spread with every word drove all potential customers away. Then he tried more aggressive, finally violent approaches, all to no avail. People steered away from him, he staggered after them, all citizens mocked him, no matter where he crawled off to hide from them.
He jelled insults at them, the worst he could think of, and they relied with more laughter, throwing rotten food at him. Some kids even attempted stones.
“Sell this!” They cried, chortling.
An egg hit his cheek, the mush dripping down along his face.
“Yeah, ain’t that f...funny.” He stammered, nearly chocking on a slithery tail.
He felt someone bumping up to him and grabbed the person’s mantle, clearing his eye with the other.
“Hey, you, buy some fruit!” He said, turning his most threatening gaze at the dwarf he clutched. The tiny creature struggled and jerked free. He gave a nasty low kick against Robert’s shin-bone and ran off as fast as his tiny legs would carry him.
“Why, you... I’ll show you!”
Robert wanted to go after the little devil, but forget his situation and fell to the ground, face in the dirt, managing just in time to save the basket from a similar fate. Everyone around burst into apathetic laughter and covered him in a pile of rotten fruit and vegetables.
“Yes, go ahead and laugh, why don’t you!” He cried out, bobbing out of the street as fast as he could. That humorous attempt of course only made the laughing worse.
“Why don’t you all drop dead.” He uttered, leaving a trail of frogs and snakes behind, which quickly dissolved once they hit the ground.
He smashed into figure entire wrapped in an oversize grey cloak, face completely hidden away in the hood.
“Hey, watch, where you...” He caught a glimpse of burning bright eyes in the shadows, like green fire, a face laced with dark, curly hair. It made his breath stop. Then she was gone. Hardly two seconds their eyes had met. The world was put on hold, and then started to move again, too fast, too crowded.
“Wait, I...” He wanted to go after her, but couldn’t, and she disappeared. No way of knowing which way. How could she not run, she could not help but be repelled by him, and his vermin.
He lowered his head. He had been going at this all wrong. For the next hours, he held his tongue and persuaded people to buy his fruit with gestures only. It worked. He thanked them with a bow of the head. They paid him extra, his basket quickly filling up with shimmering gold.
George was in the entrance of the hall, waiting for his eyes to get accustomed to the dimness. He took a deep breath and whispered to himself to just breathe, just keep breathing and all would be well. He never told anyone how much he feared the dark.
It wasn’t long until he clearly discern the contours of steps leading up.
“The staircase!” He exclaimed, and rushed up two steps at a time. The sooner he’d get back out into the light, the better!
Just like the witch said, he found himself in a room, as dark as any other in the house, with in the middle a ray of light coming from a hole in the roof. The ray encompassed a beautiful black rose in a narrow crystal vase.
He quickly plucked it from the table and gave it a brief examination – it was of a kind and colour such as he’d never seen before – and made off. His task was complete. All he had to do was go a few more yards to the...
All of a sudden, the ground started quaking. The door shifted further away and the house turned into a gigantic labyrinth in which up-down, left-right, forward-back were all mangled and nothing made sense.
He strolled, ran, went around corners that had not been there before and bumped into walls that rose out of nowhere. Hallways just swayed wherever they pleased, whenever they pleased, stairs lengthened or clipped as they so desired, obeying only a will of their own. After an hour of wandering through the irrational dark, he was soon to find that he was utterly lost. No laws of direction mattered in this maze. He picked something up from the floor and threw it up, where it stuck to the ceiling. Even gravity itself had become unreliable. Who could he ever get out of here?
He looked down at the black flower in his hand. He had the prize, but no way to deliver it. Now what?
To be continued...