Shay Sheridan - Reality
He climbed the castle's crumbling wall, a miserable, precarious effort, but at least he remembered where the footholds were. He reached the central chamber safely and stood panting a little, listening. Trolls were audible in the outer corridor but nowhere in view.
But something was in view: the magic shoes, twinkling at him, trying to seduce him. He shook off the feeling with an indignant huff. Let's see: shoes mean the king is in residence, so better be extremely careful. He sniffed the sour air, wrinkling his nose at the stench of trolls, searching for some trace of Virginia, but caught not a hint of his fair mate's sweet scent. Silently he moved towards the hall door, again passing the shoes -- and didn't they sparkle beautifully in front of the fire! No, no, NO! He heard raised voices and looked out into the hall. King Relish was striding down the corridor, trailed by an enormous ugly troll and a ghastly orange-haired troll, and dragging by the nose a squat, hideous troll. Relish bellowed and they cringed.
"Come on, Dad," the tallest troll whined, "We didn't just hand over the dog, you know --"
"No, Dad," wheedled the orange-haired female, "We tried to bargain with her --"
"Yeah, Dad," piped up the third, "Bud the queed outsbarted us ow, ow, OW! Watch the dose, Dad!"
They were headed his way, so Wolf turned towards the window oh, those shoes, how they glittered! and exited the way he'd come, balancing on the parapet, then using overgrown vines to lower himself to the ground. Lucky the trolls took such rotten care of the place! He ran down the glacis, paused to listen and then sauntered away from the castle, pleased at his escape, though frustrated at not finding Virginia. Huff, PUFF! Could this really be what Snow White had had in mind for him to do? What a waste of time and energy and
"Oh, NO! How did those get there?"
What were the magic shoes doing under his coat?
Oh, cripes! They'll be after you now! Drop the shoes, drop them and run!
But he didn't drop the shoes.
Behind him he could hear faint but angry voices, and he didn't dare stop to look. He glanced briefly to his right. In the distance the distorted trunks of the beanstalk forest reached up into lightning-streaked clouds. No, not that way I hate those beanstalks! And I'm not going back to that prison, absolutely, not for any reason. Besides, Tony's not there, I don't have to rescue him, I don't HAVE to go that way -- boat, boat, boat!
He put on a burst of speed and sprinted for the river.
The trolls had been gaining on him but no troll, not even an enraged one, could outrun a wolf in flat-out flight. Wolf reached the river, jumping in to push the boat away from the debris on which it was stuck.
"Move! Move! Come on! On!" Finally it slithered free and he climbed aboard, shaking off the water. He could see trolls in the distance, closing the gap between them, and he raced to stoke up the engine, then used a pole to push the little boat further from shore.
He was nearly mid-river when the trolls reached the bank, and stood shouting obscenities at him in impotent rage. The squat troll tried swimming after him, but began floundering immediately and had to be pulled out of the water by his siblings.
The boat started picking up speed, and Wolf began to relax, even standing on the deck to wave gaily to the trolls, which enraged them, to his vast amusement. He felt so smug that he failed to notice a promontory jutting out into the water, nor did he see the troll on top of the promontory taking aim with his slingshot. The troll dust hit Wolf squarely in the back, and within an instant he collapsed on the deck, senseless.
The little boat puttered away down the river.
His head had been crushed by a rock.
No, a troll had squeezed it until it burst.
No, a giant had stomped on it. Repeatedly.
With a groan and a wave of nausea, Wolf opened an eye. Big mistake. The blinding light of dusk -- sent a bolt of lightning through his eye into his brain. He sagged back down again until the pain subsided to a bearable ache, then ever-so-slowly rolled onto his side and tried opening the other eye. Better.
Looking at the deck reminded him where he was, and he struggled to a sitting position, attempting successfully to open both eyes together. He looked around. Incredibly the boat was still moving, riding the current now that the wood for the engine had burned itself out. He was amazed he hadn't hit anything, but was furious at himself for being caught unawares. Besides, he'd lost precious time by not being awake to stoke the engine. He knocked himself on the head to emphasize the point to himself, which only served to intensify his headache. Stupid! Start using your brain, Wolf! If there's any of it left. He brushed the troll dust off his coat and wiped his face, then used the rail to pull himself upright. He clung to the side, waiting till the vertigo passed. Nasty stuff, troll dust. Dangerous creatures, trolls.
And there on the deck next to where he'd lain unconscious were two other nasty, dangerous items those cursed magic shoes! Wolf growled at them, which made his head feel worse. What had he been thinking? Or more to the point, why had he NOT been thinking? "I should pick them up, right now, and throw them overboard, get rid of them once and for all!" Hadn't he resisted them before? And--shame coursed through him--hadn't he lectured Virginia about the addictive properties of magic? "Better get rid of them now, while I still can," he muttered. He picked them up, snarling at the way they tingled in his hands. Go on, Wolf, throw them over the side!
He stuffed them into an inside pocket.
He had no idea how long he'd been knocked out, but by the fading light he reckoned it had been several hours at least. He put more wood on the engine fire, and then moved to the bow, scanning the riverbank ahead. And shivered. There on the right bank, silhouetted eerily against the streaking sky, was the ruined castle, the one that had so unnerved him when he passed this way before. He knew now why it had filled him with unease; the queen had been there at the time, far too close, able to see him, speak with him, get to him, watching, always watching.
She can't get to me now. I'm not in her power this time. He gulped. At least he didn't THINK he was. Her contact with him had been brief, though intense, and after all, she hadn't even wanted or needed his help. She'd left him there. She couldn't know he was this close.
More importantly, he was close to the mirror...the second traveling mirror.
The queen probably also had the dog up there and the prince, whichever was which these days. Not that he cared too much about that right now. Wendell would have to fend for himself this time. Wolf just wanted to find Virginia. To the Goblins with everyone else!
If he was going after the mirror, he might as well see what was going on with Wendell. He didn't have to DO anything once he found out. Didn't have to RESCUE him. Again. No sirree, one rescue to a customer.
Unless, of course, you were talking about Virginia. He'd rescue her a million times if need be. A zillion, even.
He docked the boat at the quiet little river town that sat virtually at the foot of the castle, then made his way up the slope. "Looks to be a two-castle-siege day," he said grimly. "But I'll just find the mirror and go through it."
The shoes twitched in his pocket. Ooh--I should put them on, and sneak into the castle --good, good. Put them on, put them on!
No! No! Why do I still have them? Throw them away now!
Don't be silly --this is the PERFECT time to wear them! He pulled them out of his pocket and slipped them over his shoes. The familiar buzzing feeling took hold and he watched in wonder as he disappeared from the feet upwards. "Wow! This is GREAT!"
He sauntered around the side of the castle, examining the junk at the bottom of the drained moat, not bothering to move carefully. The queen's men could never see him now!
Except there were no men.
The castle yard was deserted. And when he marched straight though the front door, no one was there to stop him even if he had been visible. No one was there at all. But the dying embers of the fire in the throne room told him someone HAD been there, and recently, too.
Somewhat reluctantly he took off the shoes, staggering a little as he put them back in his pocket. Best save some power for later.
Part of him hoped it would be sooner.
He roamed the corridors, picking up the scent of power that he knew came from the queen. It was everywhere she'd been here a short while ago, probably left while he was lying in a stupor on the deck. There weren't many habitable rooms left in the old castle, but he found dog hairs in one of the dungeons, and an odd blend of human and canine scent in one of the better bedchambers. Evidently Prince Wendell retained plenty of his doggy nature no matter what he looked like. He wasn't housebroken, either.
As for the mirrors, he found where they had been excavated from the earth, but no trace of them in the castle.
Too late again! "This is getting to be a bit discouraging, if I may understate the situation," he muttered, heading for the door, then jumped as he nearly collided with someone.
The elderly caretaker in the doorway looked just as frightened, from the way his knees buckled and his voice shook. "Would you be a friend of the queen's, sir? Sorry, sir, they've gone."
Wolf let out the breath he'd been holding. "How long?"
"Not two hours since."
"To the prince's palace."
"Thank you. " Wolf turned to go.
"You won't find 'em there, though. Not yet. They're stopping somewhere."
"Where?" This slow questioning was trying Wolf's patience.
"Don't rightly know. Didn't tell me. They went west, though."
"Or maybe north. Dunno, really."
Great! Just great. Going to the palace but not going. West, or maybe north. West was the Disenchanted Forest (unpleasant memories). Little Lamb Village (he shuddered at the thought). North was Kissing Town (best forgotten). The Deadly Swamp (at best deadly). None of it seemed promising. "Thanks a lot," he rumbled at the caretaker, pushing past him and dashing out the door.
"Hah!" said the old man, wiping his very damp brow. "Queens with nasty tempers, princes and dogs what ain't, felons, and who knows WHAT this fellow's about? I quit!"
Wolf was hungry. Very hungry. Ravenous. Possibly, he thought morosely, on the verge of starving to death. He'd picked up some food (well, stolen it) in the village but had devoured it all within an hour of entering the Disenchanted Forest. Now he fished around in his pockets in the hopes of discovering an overlooked morsel, but found only crumbs. He licked them off his fingers and frowned. He hadn't even seen so much as a rabbit since he'd been here. The prospects looked dim, indeed, for getting a meal before he tramped through the entire forest.
He already felt like he'd been walking forever. Like he'd been born walking and had a lifetime to go before he could stop. Maybe he should have gone north. Except this way was "the road once taken by." The way he'd come before. "Queen Snow White, I REALLY hope you know what I'm doing!" That phrase didn't seem quite right, but the sound of his own voice bucked up his spirits, at least for a moment.
The forest moaned softly around him. Wolf pulled his coat tighter, more from the gloom than from the cold. This journey was so much worse than the last one, because this time he was making it alone. Wolves weren't by nature meant to be solitary creatures, and though circumstances throughout his life had often dictated he be alone, Wolf craved the company of others. Even when he had to hide his true nature from them, he was happiest having others around -- village idiots, trolls and "burn the wolf" fanatics excepted. It made him feel like he was part of society. Any society.
Sure, he was traveling much, much faster this time without Tony dragging that stupid Prince along. But Tony's idiosyncrasies -- and idiocies -- at least had been diverting, providing some relief from the endless grind of picking a path through the forest.
But most of all, the harsh journey had been sweetened by the presence of Virginia. She'd carped and argued, picked on him, pointed out his mistakes and inadequacies. She'd been the cause of trouble, freeing magic birds and drawing the huntsman to them. She'd been closed off, uncommunicative, and when she did speak, angry, annoyed and annoying.
In short, she'd been wonderful. He missed her. Deeply. Painfully.
Just thinking about Virginia made him want to howl, but he settled for a sigh. Whatever Snow White had in mind with this ridiculous trek, he held tightly to her promise that by doing as she wished, he would, eventually, find his lost love. I'd better, or I'll I'll --huh! What CAN you do to someone who's not only a revered heroine but also a dead one? "I'll stop believing in you, THAT'S what!" he said belligerently.
"Oh, will you?" A voice spoke close behind him. Too close. "Well then, stranger, I suppose we'll have to do the same to you."
Wolf gasped at the closeness of the voice. He spun around, to find eyes staring into his own. Many eyes, shrewd and distrustful. Gypsies! Cripes! You'd think I'd get the knack of hearing them creep up on me, but NO! That's bad form, Wolf! And potentially fatal form when dealing with gypsies.
"Um, no offense," he offered in his most ingratiating tone. "Just talking to myself, actually." His stomach rumbled as if in agreement. "I'm probably just hallucinating from lack of food."
The leader leaned in towards him. "Ah, then we'll have to do something about that, won't we, fellows? We have plenty to share. The forest is very good to us, eh?" The others laughed conspiratorially.
Yeah? Well, not too good if the huntsman finds you, Wolf thought, but aloud he said, "Thank you, you're very gracious." The leader took him by the arm (a little forcefully, he thought) and led him towards the encampment. It looked the same as it had before. Well, of course it did after all, it WAS the same encampment. Nothing had changed because he was reliving his first visit, and
Oh huff-PUFF, this thinking was complicated. Eat first, think later.
Other gypsies looked up as they entered the circle made by the caravans. "Un straniero viajero! Taksidos!" the leader called. "A traveler is joining us for dinner! Tha phae mazi tos!" Several gypsies whispered together, gesturing in Wolf's direction. He hoped they weren't discussing how to murder him, but so far they seemed as welcoming, if wary, as they had the first time.
Someone handed him a bowl of stew. A woman with tousled hair gestured for him to eat (winking at him rather overtly) and took a spoonful herself. He followed suit. The meat was cooked beyond recognition, but he was so hungry he didn't quibble. He cast his eyes around as he ate, and there, on the fringes of the circle, he saw again the strange little boy he'd noticed on his first journey. The boy's eyes, large and intense, of an iridescent green, widened even further as he stared back at Wolf. There was a moment of startled recognition, not of Wolf himself, but of what he was. Poor little cub, Wolf thought, he has no idea how difficult his life is going to be. Well, maybe I'll get a chance again to tell him some truths about the world.
A fiddler had started a melody, and several of the gypsies began to sway to the music, kicking up their heels higher and higher as the song gained speed and liveliness. Wolf enjoyed their leaps and kicks, but knew that they'd soon ask him to repay in kind. He was prepared to tell them a story, or show a few sleight-of-hand tricks, but the dance was suddenly interrupted by screeching voices coming from a wagon. Two women, a redhead and a brunette, burst through the caravan door, falling to the ground as they hit and tore at each other, rolling on the dirt in a tangle of bright skirts and flailing arms.
The men jeered and hooted; the other woman stood talking and laughing together, pointing, eyes dancing in the firelight. A good catfight had great entertainment value wherever humans lived, Wolf reflected, watching the gypsies enjoy the show. Finally several men, with great effort, pulled the two apart. The redhead was facing Wolf, and he had to admit she was quite a beauty. But her voice was whiny as she complained to anyone who would listen, "She stole my garnet beads! She stole them! Feodor, do something! The little slut is a thief!" She tugged at the sleeve of the gypsy leader, who hushed her and pulled her fingers away.
"Sloya, they're not even real garnets, so shut up," jeered a woman standing nearby. "Fight over a man, if you must fight!" Another tittered at this, and the redhead glared in their direction.
"Give her back the necklace, girl," Feodor said, advancing on the brunette with his hand out.
She shook her head and Wolf saw her curls dance impertinently. "No!" she cried, backing away from the gypsy leader. "They're MINE!"
Wolf's ears pricked up. Something...
"She's nothing but trouble! She acts like she's too good for us!" Sloya prompted a burly fellow standing nearby. "Lino, Feodor, send her back where she came from!"
"You wouldn't dare!" hissed the other girl.
Wolf's pulse began to pound.
The girl was still backing in his direction, and he stood up directly in her path. She stepped backwards onto his foot, then crashed into him, recovering her balance quickly, spinning around angrily to accost the idiot who'd blocked her way. Her face came into his view, a delicate heart-shaped face, with vivid blue eyes and red lips, framed by short dark hair
His heart lurched, jumped and danced. "It's you! Virginia, Virginia, Virginia!" Delirious with delight, he grabbed her and swung her off her feet, the disguising gypsy clothes flying around her, then set her back down to earth, drawing in her scent, and pulled her into the kiss he'd been yearning to deliver for what seemed an eternity. His hands cupped her face, her dear face, his mate's face. His lips locked on hers and his heart nearly burst with relief and joy and happiness, and she stood wrapped in his arms until, without warning, she kneed him forcefully in the groin.
Wolf crumpled up with a gasp, holding himself and howling in agony. All around him, gypsies stood, some laughing, some gawking, some with knives in their hands.
"'Virginia?'" one said with a smirk. "Vergine? Gigi? Hahahaha!" Several of the men chortled and shared knowing looks. A snarl escaped from between Wolf's clenched teeth.
She ignored the men. "You --you --" she hissed at Wolf, "Who do you think you are?"
She loomed over him as he lay in folded agony, her eyes ablaze, arms akimbo, feet firmly planted. She glowered at him. One hand wiped her mouth and she spat onto the ground.
Who am I? What kind of question is THAT? He wanted to shout, "I'm the one who's been searching for you, facing trolls and prison guards and almost certain death, trying to rescue you, and you do THAT to me??"
But the only thing that came out of his mouth was "Aaaooowww!" His feelings were hurt, but there were other parts that felt much more tender at the moment.
"Silence! What is going on here?"
The voice was so sharp it cut through the commotion like broken glass. Wolf looked up from where he lay and saw a woman advancing on him, the crowd parting to let her through. Even upside-down he recognized her as the ancient crone who had read death and murder in his palm. Great, he thought, still feeling the pain of the assault on his manhood. The more the merrier. Maybe she'll slit my throat and put me out of my misery.
"Mother Triuna, this stranger attacked me!" the girl they called Gigi complained to the gypsy crone.
"More like she attacked him!" someone laughed, then stopped abruptly as Mother Triuna's black eyes stabbed at them.
"Stand him up."
Hands reached down to lift Wolf under the arms. He tried to stand up straight; he felt it incumbent upon him to display whatever dignity he retained. "Hello," he said, going for a smile but grimacing despite himself.
The old woman stared at him a moment with eyes that bored right through his skull. Then she moved in closer, until she was less than a foot away, and took his chin in her claw-like hand, turning his face this way and that, studying him intently. He couldn't tear away his eyes from hers. Her scent was like old, dry bones.
"I know you."
He felt a chill. Was it possible? "I don't think I've had the pl --" He stopped abruptly, her eyes spearing him. 'Yes," he said.
She released his chin, stepped back and looked him up and down. She walked around him. Her eyes strayed to his hands and then returned to his face. "A wolf," she said simply. The men holding him dropped their grip and reached for their knives.
"No no!" Wolf put up his hands in a submissive gesture. He looked directly at the old woman. "I mean yes, I am a wolf, and I have met you before. I was here, with my friends."
"Liar," said Feodor. "Do you think us fools? We've never seen you before."
"No, you're not fools, of course you're not, it's hard to explain. I mean, it's impossible to explain. I don't even really understand it. We were here, in this camp, before, but it's really now this same time, only it's happening differently this time around, and I have to retrace my steps and see to something, I don't know what, but, but things are different, and I'm just trying to find her, Virginia, I've come for her --"
"You can have her!" shouted the redhead Sloya.
"My name is Gigi and I don't know you!" Virginia's voice was shrill and furious. He turned to look at her. What was wrong with her?
The large man named Lino grabbed Wolf by one shoulder and spun him around. "You are crazy! We don't know what magic or foolishness you're talking about! But a wolf, we know what that is, don't we, fellows?" There were calls and sounds of agreement. Ugly sounds. Mob sounds.
Wolf began to get angry. "You 'know' what a wolf is? I doubt any of you do. Except Bedros."
There were gasps from several people, and the gypsy let go of Wolf's shoulder. Almost as one, all eyes turned in one direction towards the young boy.
There was a moment of stillness, during which the boy's mouth dropped open and people began to look at each other, confusion on their faces.
"How how do you know my name?" The boy had a soft voice, but it was clear in the silence.
"You told me."
"I didn't. I didn't talk to you." He ran to the old woman. "I didn't, Grandmother!"
Wolf took a step towards her. No one stopped him. "He did. When I was here. Before. We had a long talk, Bedros and I." He looked the old gypsy in the eye. "You believe me, don't you?"
Now all eyes shifted back to her. "Perhaps." Wolf felt great relief until her next words. "But I also believe you are trouble. Tie him up."
"No wait! I just want to talk to Virginia--!"
Two large men grabbed him and pulled him away. They tied him to the wheel of the largest caravan, leaving his arms free but winding a rope tightly around his chest. He thought with some effort he might be able to wiggle himself loose, but it was obvious they had no fear he would escape, tied as he was in the center of the camp. Now that Mother Triuna had made her decree, the gypsies seemed to lose interest in him. With two exceptions.
Wolf looked up to see the boy peering at him around the corner of the wagon. "Bedros." The boy stood mute. "Don't be afraid of me. My name is Wolf. I won't hurt you. I CAN'T hurt you see?" He struggled lightly against the ropes.
"Are you..." His voice was extremely soft and he gripped the wood of the caravan with white knuckles. "Are you really a wolf?"
"A half-wolf, yes."
The boy moved a little closer, looking around to see if anyone was watching. "You smell different than people. I mean, not bad, just different." He took another step closer, curiosity conquering fear. "My mother was a wolf."
"Where is your mother now?"
The boy's face clouded. "The huntsman got her when I was little. He's a very bad man."
"Yes he is." Wolf was experiencing a very vivid sense of deja vu. "Bedros, you should be very proud to have wolf blood in you. We are a very old race, you know. Some say older than humans. Just think how wonderful it is to be part of both!" Yeah, sure, persecuted by both, accepted by neither! What a hypocrite I am! At least the boy seemed to have a fairly happy life among the gypsies.
The boy shrugged. "I don't feel very special, except...." He sat down next to Wolf and lowered his voice into a whisper. "I do like having a tail. Though I don't like tucking it in."
Wolf nodded in agreement. "I understand completely. Sometimes it's best to keep it a secret, though."
"That's what Grandmother says."
"The thing is, Bedros, some people think we just go about eating little girls and attacking livestock. And there are some times when --" There was a palpable pause. "Bedros, um, has your Grandmother told you what happens to wolves when the full moon rises?"
The boy looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"
Okay, here we go again. Wolf took a deep breath and began to tell Bedros the wolf equivalent of the birds and bees. He figured the boy had a few years before puberty to get a grip on the facts, but still he knew the boy wouldn't really understand until he'd felt the pull of the moon in all its power. Still, knowledge ahead of time couldn't hurt. Bedros listened intently, eyes widening, mouth agape, as Wolf detailed the Change and gave him advice on how to deal with it. Not that he himself had ever mastered coping with it. I wonder if I'll have this conversation with my own child some day. Will he --or she--have a tail? Will my cub be governed by the moon? He forced his attention back to Bedros, who was asking questions he actually could answer.
"Bedros!" The voice was angry and so familiar in its cantankerousness Wolf didn't need to turn his head to know who it was.
"Virginia." He smiled at her. Oh, how the sight of her made his heart race!
She made a face. "Stop calling me that. Bedros, your Grandmother wants you." The boy complied, jumping up and speeding away, but not without a friendly smile to Wolf. "What horrible things were you telling him?"
"The most horrible things of all. The truth. Virginia --" she opened her mouth to protest. "What do you call yourself ?"
"Think look at me. Don't you recognize me?"
"I am your mate."
She scoffed. "Your mate! That's disgusting. As if I would let a wolf touch me." She folded her arms and stood with a defiant stare.
Wolf looked away, gathering his thoughts. The sense of unreality that had dogged him intermittently since this trip began returned to make him doubt his senses. She smelled like Virginia. She looked like Virginia. She WAS Virginia. She had to be. He remembered her --how could she have forgotten him? Why was she here, among the gypsies? How could she have gotten here, when it had only been a couple of days since she came through the mirror?
But and the dawning realization was so enormous, he caught his breath. The words "we've cornered the dog" echoed in his memory. Could she have come through the mirror if Wendell the dog never made it to the Tenth Kingdom?
Think, Wolf, think..."How long have you been with the gypsies, Gigi?"
She seemed wary of his question. "Why?"
"Please, just humor me, all right? I can't do anything to you, tied up like this."
"Well...they're probably going to kill you, anyway, so what does it matter? But don't call me Virginia any more."
"All right." Boy, she certainly was as stubborn as ever!
"Not long. A few weeks." Her face grew haughty. "Did my father send you to get me?"
"Right --pretend you don't know what I'm talking about."
"I don't. You mean Tony is --"
Her mouth dropped open. "You dare to call him --" She stopped suddenly, looking around. "They must not know who I am, do you understand? If one of them finds out who my father is, I will kill you myself. I have no wish to be ransomed." Her hand moved pointedly to her fringed boot, and he saw the flash of a knife. "Understand?"
"Not really. Who is your father?"
With a swift movement she slid the knife up towards his throat. His hands were free, but her nearness so overwhelmed him that he didn't try to take the weapon from her.
"Viscount Anthony, Lord of the Western Mountains, as well you know. Your master, I have no doubt." Her voice had dropped to an intense whisper. "If they let you go, return to him and say I will not marry Prince Wendell. But remember if you call me by my rightful name again, you will die immediately. If you kiss me again you'll WISH I killed you. NOW do you understand?"
She stood, sheathed the knife, and melted away into the darkness.
Wolf's head spun. He understood nothing. Wendell? Viscount Anthony? Ransom? None of this made any sense. Unless he accepted the obvious conclusion: she was not Virginia, at least not HIS Virginia. He let his head fall back against the wheel.