Greed, Then Accident
Friday, August 11, 1786
In an invisible cottage in the forest
Far to the south, Kingdom of Lionbear
Mocus was the greatest wizard of the kingdom; or so he believed. Admittedly, he had good reason.
What other wizard in Lionbear had a doctorate degree in alchemy? Indeed, had not Mocus discovered a way to turn lead into gold? Then had not Mocus afterward surpassed this feat with an even greater feat, turning stone into gold?
So who else but Mocus would dare to experiment on an immortality potion? Who else but Mocus could hope to achieve such a supposedly-impossible task?
Of course Mocus, now being famous for his wizardly brilliance, was overrun with visitors wanting Mocus to make gold for them.
Or rather, that would have been what happened, except that Mocus invented a new kind of invisibility spell, then cast that spell on his cottage.
King’s men, rich men, greedy men, and other wizards—they all sought out Mocus. But none of them found him.
Only one person had ever found Mocus in his invisible cottage: a fifteen-year-old boy, Michael from Rockham Village. Michael had asked to become Mocus’s apprentice. After a short interview, Mocus had agreed.
Mocus was convinced that Michael was a smart boy, and might be a great wizard himself one day.
If he doesn’t turn himself into a frog first, Mocus thought. Michael ignores orders that he thinks aren’t important. But in magic, everything is important. Every spoken word, every gesture, every ingredient—it’s there for a reason.
Just beyond Mocus’s cookroom was a table. Laying on that table was a flat piece of iron, with an iron rod rising vertically from the middle of it. Jutting out from that iron rod was an iron ring, on which lay a square of woven copper wire; on the copper-wire square rested a flat-bottom glass flask that was filled with various ingredients. Just under the flask, the woven-wire square, and the iron ring, a blue-glowing magic fireball provided heat.
Inside the flask:
• stream water (filtered through undyed cheesecloth),
• the fur from a black rabbit,
• the eggshell of an eagle chick,
• and other strange things.
At the moment, the fluid inside the flask was bubbling.
“When I invent an immortality potion,” Doctor Mocus said to Michael, “I will be applauded down through the centuries. Even better, I shall be alive to hear such applause.”
“The ingredients in the flask are boiling now, Doctor Mocus,” Michael said. He held back saying more.
Michael of Rockham Village, the wizard’s apprentice, saw his job as a little bit of doing menial work, and a lot of biting his tongue. Doctor Mocus was a blowhard and a worrywart, and it would be so easy to say You worry about things that will never happen. But lucky for Michael, he had managed to stay silent thus far.
Such silence was more difficult for Michael each day. Mocus was only a little smarter than Michael’s parents, and they were fools. But what kept Michael silent was that if Michael showed disrespect often enough, the old fool might send Michael away before Michael had learned the older wizard’s spells.
“I think my mistake last time,” Mocus said now, “was to not add a purifier to the boiling components. Once the magic became manifest, nothing stopped it from turning sour.”
Michael said nothing. Michael especially did not say Perhaps there is a reason why no wizard before you could make this spell work, hm?
But Doctor Mocus had reached the ancient age of forty-five, so Michael knew that the wizard was determined to invent the immortality potion if he did not die first.
Now Mocus picked up a pair of silver tongs that were as long as his forearm. Michael looked a question at him.
“It would not do,” Doctor Mocus explained, “to drop the purifier into the boiling liquid. That would splash the liquid, and the magical effects of this are unpredictable.”
“Not to mention, we might get hot liquid on our skin,” Michael said.
“Er, yes, very true,” Mocus replied with a distracted voice.
The “purifier” to which Mocus referred, was a man’s gold ring that had been turned on its side and hammered flat. Mocus had ruined the ring deliberately: No thief could wear it, and only a foolish thief would steal it.
But to a wizard, the flattened ring still had value: Gold’s magical properties were the same whether the gold object was a round ring, a flattened ring, or a gold cube. The catch was, when using gold in spellcasting, the gold had to be natural in order to be magically useful; gold made by magic was unpredictable in later magical spells.
Now Mocus picked up the flattened gold ring with the silver tongs. “Using the tongs, now I will ease the purifier into the boiling liquid.”
So saying, Mocus slowly lowered the tongs into the flask. When the tongs touched the bottom, only then did Mocus release the flattened ring.
Seconds later, Michael was surprised by what he saw. “It worked. Or at least, something happened.” The liquid in the flask, which had turned a dark-blue color, changed into the same green color as summer leaves after the ring was put into the liquid.
Mocus smiled. “So now we let it boil, while I go fetch the last ingredient: moss from the northern side of an ash tree.”
Now Mocus moved to a cabinet in the cookroom, opened a drawer, and took out a teacup and a paring knife.
Michael made his voice sound casual: “You sure you don’t want me to collect the moss, Doctor Mocus? That’s more an apprentice’s work than a master’s.”
“No, no, the moss must come from the northernmost side of the tree bark. Moss that grows just a little to the west or a little to the east does not work so well in spells, and I have not shown you the trick of that yet.”
Still working at making his voice sound casual, Michael replied, “Very well, I’ll see you when you return.”
Mocus went to the door and opened it; but then he turned back to look at Michael and at the immortality-potion experiment. “Move the flask away from the fireball if it looks like it will boil over—but unless that happens, do nothing! Do you understand?”
“Yes, Doctor Mocus,” Michael said.
Michael watched Mocus shut the door.
Michael counted to ten. Mocus did not return.
Michael ran to his cot. Under his cot, shoved against the wall, was a large stone and a piece of paper. On the paper was written Mocus’s most famous spell: duplicating gold.
Michael ran back to the table, with the written spell and the big stone in hand.
Nine years ago, Mocus had discovered a spell to turn lead into gold—this spell was what had first made Mocus famous among wizards, alchemists, the people of Lionbear Kingdom, and even beyond Lionbear’s borders.
Two years later, Mocus had perfected the “Copy object” spell, so that it worked for even gold and silver objects. After this, Mocus’s fame knew no limits.
Alas, Mocus soon discovered that the magical qualities of duplicate-gold objects were unpredictable. Only gold that had come to Mocus the hard way, out of the ground, could reliably be used for spells.
(Mocus had once used duplicate-gold in a spell to turn a kitten into a calf. Mocus had wound up with a three-legged calf that meowed—and two wizards from Yadalind had witnessed Mocus’s blunder. Embarrassing, this.)
Knowing all this, Michael did not intend to duplicate the ring to make a duplicate-gold object for magic spells. No, Michael wanted to duplicate the ring so that he could sell the duplicate; to non-wizards, gold was gold.
Michael used the silver tongs to remove the flattened gold ring from the boiling liquid (which immediately turned dark blue again). Michael set the steaming gold ring on the table, to the right of the stone.
Next, Michael pointed with both hands, first up, then north, then south, then east, then west, then down.
Picking up the paper again, Michael read aloud—
Keektos wisha akoktos noavit senom, goitheh bois atomois. Mirepiwassoi kyarobit.
—holding his left hand first over the big stone, then over the flattened gold ring.
During the next minute, the stone made strange noises; the stone shrunk, changed shape, changed color, and changed luster, becoming a second flattened gold ring.
“Success!” Michael said, smiling.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” yelled Mocus from the doorway. “PUT THE GOLD BACK IN THE FLASK! NOW!”
Fairyfog! I’m in big trouble, Michael thought.
Flustered Michael grabbed the tongs, then used them to pick up a flattened gold ring.
Michael’s first mistake? He picked up the duplicated-gold ring on the left, not the natural-gold ring to the right.
Michael’s second mistake was that he did not use the tongs to ease the ring into the boiling liquid; instead, Michael flung the wrong ring into the boiling potion.
Michael had just enough time to see the boiling immortality-potion turn opaque gray within the flask—
The exact color of the brain of a black cat, Michael thought irrelevantly.
—then the potion exploded, shooting up through the mouth of the flask and into Michael’s face.
Michael’s nostrils, his tongue and mouth, and his cheeks and chin all burned with liquid fire.
Michael screamed, as Mocus yelled “NO!”
Mocus dropped the paring knife, and the teacup that was filled with moss, and came running to help Michael.
Who was quickly dying.
“Mocus?” said Michael, “I hurt. Everywhere. In a strange way.”
Mocus’s aid did no good. Mocus had never needed to learn the physician’s arts, preferring to heal magically; but healing spells did not affect Michael.
At the end, Michael’s brown eyes turned mustard-yellow, he gave a shuddering gasp, then he went still.
Mocus cast a detect-life spell, just to be sure. If Michael’s face glowed green for a second, this meant that Michael was alive; Michael’s face glowing momentary red meant that Michael was dead. The result of the spell was that Michael’s face briefly glowed red—with an inch-thick green line down the middle of his face.
Mocus had never seen such a result before, but he shrugged it off.
Am I to blame for Michael dying like this?
I don’t know.
A good wizard never says “I don’t know.”
Mocus went to the doorway (which was still open), and distractedly shut the door. He picked up the paring knife and the teacup (which now was cracked). He walked to the cookroom and tossed the cracked teacup, as well as the moss it contained, in the garbage jug. After all, what need did he have for any north-side moss now?
Mocus went to the cabinet, pulled the drawer open, and was just about to drop the paring-knife in, when he heard a sound to his right.
It sounded like Michael’s feet walking on the board floor of the cottage, but Michael was dead. Mocus was puzzled.
He turned to the right. Michael was coming toward him—
“You are Mocus, the wizard who taught me magic,” Michael said. “I am Michael, your apprentice. I am hungry. I want to eat you. You are alive.”
The skin of Michael’s face was blotchy and uneven, from the boiling-liquid burns his face had received. Michael’s eyes were mustard-yellow, and they did not blink.
Without thinking, Mocus stabbed Michael in the stomach with the paring knife.
Michael not only did not blink, he did not wince. With the little knife sticking out of his stomach, Michael kept coming.
Michael said, “I am hungry. I want to eat you. You are alive.”
Mocus shrieked and backed away. “No! Stay away from me!”
Panicked now, Mocus once again acted instead of thinking. He reached into the drawer, grabbed a longer knife, and, as quickly as he could move, shoved the blade between Michael’s ribs and into his heart.
It was a waste of time.
“I am hungry. I want to eat you,” dead Michael said.
Mocus looked down into the drawer again, intending to grab the giant knife that he used for butchering—
But in that moment, Michael attacked Mocus. Michael grabbed Mocus’s head between both his hands, yanked the wizard toward him, and bit into Mocus’s neck.
Unlucky for Mocus, Michael’s first bite opened the wizard’s carotid artery. Blood spurted everywhere, and Mocus quickly lost consciousness.
Mocus’s very last thought while he was alive was I should have tried magic.
Seconds later, Mocus’s flesh suddenly tasted awful. “Ugh,” Zombie-Michael said, pulling his face away.
Zombie-Michael saw that Mocus’s blank-staring eyes now had yellow irises. Then those yellow eyes moved, and focused on Zombie-Michael’s face.
“I am Mocus, a wizard. You are Michael, my apprentice. You killed me. I am hungry,” zombie-Mocus said.
Seconds later, two blood-covered, humanoid forms emerged from the cottage and walked away.
In a nearby tree, fairies Apple and Chrysalis watched the undead men depart the invisible cottage.
Chrysalis said, “Neither one of them has an aura, and yet they walk.”
“I noticed that,” said Apple. She gestured, and in the air appeared a sparkly white ball. Apple the fairy pointed at the creature that was wearing wizard’s robes, and the sparkly ball flew away.
The sparkly ball came close to hitting the undead wizard in the back, but stopped. Then the sparkly ball moved up and down, like a buzzing bee, before returning to Apple’s hand.
Already the sparkles were nearly gone. As Apple and Chrysalis watched, the sparkles vanished entirely, then the flying ball turned black and shriveled.
“We must tell King Glen,” Chrysalis said. Meaning We must tell the Fairy King.
Happy Family, Unhappy News
Two weeks later
On the grounds of the Riverstone Meadow estate,
In the village of Burbury,
Elsewhere in the kingdom of Lionbear
Twenty-year-old Ella Riverstone was smiling as she set the spinning wheel on the grass near the garden.
But then, Ella often smiled. She loved her parents and her parents loved her—why not smile?
Nearby, Ella’s mother (Squiress Catherine Riverstone) exchanged amused looks with Mrs. Bennett, the cook. Mother was weeding the garden, while Mrs. Bennett was shoveling out the henhouse that had been built next to the garden.
Mrs. Bennett said, “Ella, you really do plan to spin thread outside? Under the sun? You will ruin your fair complexion, then young men might pass you by.”
As Ella ran toward the manor to fetch her spinning-stool, she yelled back, “A suitor who dismisses me for having a face a little brown is a suitor whom I want to be dismissed by!”
A minute later, Ella came running back with the stool, which she set down by the spinning wheel. She hiked up the skirt of her blue dress and made a show of sitting down on the stool. “Now back to work!” she said, grinning.
Ella reached into the pocket of her apron, pulled out a big tuft of white wool, and resumed spinning thread.
“Why come out here to spin?” asked Mother. “The manor has lamps and oil aplenty, and windows with big glass panes.”
“True,” said Ella. “But out here is good women’s company, and the song of birds, and the flitting of butterflies, and the air outdoors is fresh.”
“The air is fresh?” Mrs. Bennett asked. “Not in the henhouse, it isn’t!”
All three women laughed.
Mrs. Bennett continued, “But I never notice the birds and the butterflies, except when you point them out.”
Mother said to Mrs. Bennett, “Ella is a marvel. Not only does she have beauty, but she finds beauty, in everyone and everything she meets.”
The cook nodded. “Ella is good and kind. She will marry well.”
Ella laughed. “Not till I finish my trousseau. So now I must spin, spin, spin under the sun. Too bad Miss Holly”—the laundress—“can’t join us out here. The day is lovely.”
Ella was secretly pleased that Mrs. Bennett had predicted that Ella would marry well. Ella had fair skin, honey-blond hair, eyes the color of sky, and she had been told since girlhood that she had a beautiful face. Such things were nice to have, yes, but Ella was more proud of the fact that she was a responsible woman. The gentleman or nobleman who married her would find his household managed well.
Ella said, “Another reason I am spinning here outside is that the sun is warm while the manor is cool, and it’s getting cooler each day.”
Mother said, “Ella, soon we will have to bring the heavy blankets down from the attic for sleeping at night.”
Mrs. Bennett said nothing. Being a servant, she would not sleep during winter nights under a thick blanket with a fireplace in her bedchamber. Rather, Mrs. Bennett, like Miss Holly or Miss Betsy (the scullery maid), would sleep in her tiny room in the servants’ quarters in the basement, with only a thin wool blanket to keep her warm.
Now Ella heard the clip-clop of a walking horse. She looked toward the manor and saw Walter Riverstone, the Squire of Burbury Village, who was riding Chestnut. “Father,” Ella yelled, “we’re out here!”
Father turned his head, then he pulled reins to turn Chestnut’s head, then Chestnut came trotting over.
Still astride Chestnut, Father greeted his wife and daughter, as Ella took it upon herself to pull up two handfuls of grass and feed them to the horse.
Father gestured at Ella’s spinning wheel and laughed—
“Oh, Ella. On such a beautiful day, any other young lady of breeding would be writing a poem to honor the beauty around her, but here I find you spinning!”
Ella smiled. “When my trousseau is complete, the garden is weeded, the henhouse is clean, the food is cooked, the pots and pans are clean, and our clothing is washed and hung out to dry, then I will write poems during the day and dance with the fairies at night.” Now Ella stroked Chestnut’s muzzle.
Father smiled. “With this as your practice, you will marry well.”
Mother said, “Mrs. Bennett and I were just saying the same thing.”
Father lost his smile then. “I heard strange news in Kingscourt,” the kingdom’s capital. “Rumors say that people living near some forests have disappeared, and a few people have seen monsters.”
Ella looked around. Beyond the village of Burbury was a forest; but Ella had played in those trees as a little girl and had felt safe. Ella had never even seen a boar in those woods.
Ella could not imagine monsters hiding in “her” woods.
“What kind of monsters have people seen, and where?” Mother now asked, her face worried. In a magical kingdom, monsters meant big trouble for whoever met them.
Father answered, “Monsters who eat people till the people die. But these monsters are many miles south of here, so rumors say. We needn’t worry.”
Ella smiled up at her father on his horse. “I’m not worried at all, Father, with you here to protect me.”
“You are a treasure, Ella,” Father said. Then he headed for the stables.
A Villager Is Missing
Eight days later
Ella and her parents were eating breakfast when someone knocked on their front door.
When Father answered the door, the visitors turned out to be John the blacksmith— the unofficial leader of Burbury’s villagers—and middle-aged Mrs. Morton.
“Widow Rutledge is missing,” John said.
Hearing this, Ella and Mother left the table to join Father at the door. John gave Ella a quick smile.
Father asked, “Why do you think she’s missing?”
Mrs. Morton replied, “Last night I saw that her cottage was dark. I took a lamp over, and sure enough, she was not home and her hearth was unlit. This morning I went to her cottage again, and there was still no sign of her.”
Father asked, “Where do you think she might be?”
Ella answered, “She goes into the forest to find things to sell—mushrooms, wild onions, or strawberries.”
Mother asked, “Do you think she might have been attacked by a boar? Or a . . . ?” Clearly Mother did not want to say monster in front of villagers.
Father shook his head. “I doubt there has been a boar in these woods since Widow Rutledge was a girl. She’s old and her joints are swollen, so I’m guessing she had an accident out there alone.”
Father turned to look at his wife and daughter. “I’ll leave the servants here, since they have work to do, but I’ll need you two to help in the search. Wait while I load my musket.”
An hour later
By Burbury’s blacksmith shop
Father looked at the people gathered around him—Ella, Mother, and every villager from Burbury who could be spared. Father said, “I don’t expect trouble. But to be safe, don’t spread out so much that you can’t hear each other. If you see trouble, run toward me, yelling all the way. Unless you are attacked by a boar—then climb a tree fast. Does everyone understand?”
As the group began to walk toward the trees, Mother asked Father in a low voice, “Will your musket protect us against monsters?”
Father paused, then murmured back, “It will have to.”
The villagers entered the woods north of their village. Once in the woods, the Burburians made a north-south line, with the young and feeble nearest Burbury’s ring of farmland, and the strong and healthy being farthest away; John the blacksmith would be able to see the farmland of the neighboring villages. Father and his musket were in the middle of this north-south line. Once the Burburians were in place, they began a clockwise sweep.
This search would take hours, Ella knew. Outside the village of Burbury itself, where the squire and his family, the freeholders, and the tenant farmers all lived, was Burbury’s ring of farmland. Father owned half the farmland, which was what made him the squire. The ring of farmland went out almost two miles beyond the village; this meant that searching through the woods that bordered Burbury’s ring of farmland would be quite a walk.
Hours passed. The day was beautiful, though cool in the shady forest. Ella heard wind blowing through the trees, and she heard birds calling. Spots on the forest floor glowed, caused by sunlight dappling through the trees.
Ella saw no sign of boars, monsters, or Widow Rutledge.
Three hours into the search
“I’ve found blood on the ground,” John the blacksmith called out. “Lots of blood.”
“Yeah, it stinks of blood over where John is,” a male voice agreed.
In the hours since the Burburians had begun their search, they had circled more than halfway around Burbury. The villagers had crossed Whisper Stream twice now, and were now in the woods southwest of their village.
Father said, “Catherine, Ella, follow me.” Then Father took a good grip on his musket and said, “Let’s see what John has found.”
Sure enough, the reek of blood was strong. Ella also heard the buzzing of flies.
When Ella got close, she saw—
• a bloody basket with mushrooms in it,
• blood on the grass and moss,
• blood on the dirt,
• blood on a tree root,
• an old woman’s left hand that had been chewed off; flies were buzzing around the severed hand, but—
Ella saw no sign of Widow Rutledge herself.
By now, all the villagers were standing in a circle around the bloody basket and the hand. Villagers sent each other meaningful looks, but nobody spoke.
Widow Rutledge’s adult children (Freeholder Rutledge and Mrs. Adkins) and her grandchildren all looked pained; Young Willy clearly was trying not to cry. Ella went to them, giving firm hugs to each person in Widow Rutledge’s family.
Ella didn’t say anything to Young Willy about the tears he was trying to hold back. Instead, Ella gave Young Willy his hug, then she squatted down and stroked his cheek.
John broke the silence: “Where did Widow Rutledge go?”
Ella saw Mother look sharply at Father—was he going to tell the villagers about the rumored monsters down south?
But Father didn’t mention monsters; instead, he said, “She probably wandered off in a daze, before dying somewhere else.”
John crossed his muscular young arms. “So you don’t think monsters got her?”
The villagers gasped.
Father said, “I’m sure monsters did not do this.”
Ella glanced at Mother. Mother was looking at Father and frowning.
The blacksmith, meanwhile, was giving Ella an accusing look for not speaking up with the truth. Ella shrugged, unwilling to contradict her father.
Soon after, Ella moved up close to Father and murmured, “I think you should tell our people about the monsters.”
Father shook his head. “Why frighten them when I don’t know the stories are true?”
Mother said, “I agree with Ella. We should tell them something. Even telling them rumors is better than leaving them in a fool’s paradise.”
Father shook his head. “Ladies, I’ve already told the villagers that Widow Rutledge didn’t die by monsters. Our people won’t respect me if now I change my mind.”
The village resumed its clockwise search of the woods just outside Burbury. But everyone was on edge, Ella noticed.
Nobody eyed the ground anymore. Everyone spent a lot of time looking around, and looking up in the trees. There was no chance that Widow Rutledge would be spotted in a tree, but monsters might be.
An hour and a half after finding the blood and the severed hand, the villagers had returned to the place in the woods where they had started. The bad news was, the villagers had not found Widow Rutledge, either alive or dead. The good news was, no monsters had found the villagers.
When Father dismissed the villagers, they ran back to their cottages—
All except for John. Ella saw the blacksmith take a few steps toward Father; then John stopped himself; then John walked away. If John had intended to say something to Father, or to ask Father something, the blacksmith clearly had changed his mind.
Father was gone. As soon as he had returned to the manor, he had saddled Chestnut and had gone back into the woods. Father had declared that he would find Widow Rutledge—or her corpse.
At least Father took his musket with him, Ella thought, though she spoke no criticism aloud.
In the meantime, Ella was using a shovel and leather gloves to transplant a young rosebush from the garden to the side of the house. Mother was weeding the garden. Miss Holly was taking clothing off the clotheslines and folding it.
Movement caught Ella’s eye. She looked up from her digging.
Widow Rutledge was walking through growing wheat, toward the manor.
Widow Rutledge was walking straight for Ella, Mother, and Miss Holly, and the old woman was moving fast. Ella had never seen the old woman move so quickly since Ella was a little child.
How can she move so fast? Doesn’t she have swollen joints?
The old woman was too far away for Ella to see her clearly; but even far away, Ella could see that the old woman’s black dress was shiny somehow. This was another puzzling thing—if Widow Rutledge had ever owned silk or satin, it was long before Ella was born.
Miss Holly said, “You’re right, her hand is missing. Why isn’t she screaming in pain?”
Ella said, “How is she still alive after all the blood she lost?”
Now Widow Rutledge looked back at the trees, but a different copse of trees from where she had come. She made an impatient gesture with her right hand. Come on.
More people stepped out of the trees.
Coming from a different direction than Widow Rutledge, a man and two twelve-year-old girls headed for Ella and Mother through the barley. Even as far away as those other people were, Ella could see that the man was wearing cut shackles on his wrists and ankles. He was an escaped prisoner—more trouble.
The young girls were wearing peasant gray—which was stained dark red with dried blood.
Even far away, Ella could tell there was a wrongness about the faces of the man and the two girls.
Widow Rutledge still was hurrying toward Ella, Mother, and Miss Holly. The three latecomers also were coming toward the three women, but not as quickly. The man was stumbling as he walked; the girls waddled.
Mother said, “Miss Holly, grab the laundry basket, get inside the manor house, and bolt the door. Open the door only if you hear a voice you recognize.”
“You want me to go in the manor house, not the laundry shack?”
“Don’t ask questions, go! Ella, you go with her. Help her carry the laundry basket. Hurry!”
Ella said, “I’m not leaving you, Mother.”
Hearing this, Miss Holly grabbed the laundry basket and ran for the manor house. Miss Holly’s scream was loud.
Mother said, “Ella, you are my daughter, and you will do as I say. Get in the manor house now.”
“And you are my mother, and I will not leave you undefended.” Ella hefted the shovel.
In response, Mother switched her hoe around, so that she was holding the dirty end, and the hoe handle was poking up as a cudgel.
Then Ella asked, “Why are you standing here? Hiding in the manor house is a great idea—why aren’t you doing it?”
“If your father were here, he would be defending his people and his land. Since he’s not here, it falls to me. You really should go to safety, my daughter.”
“And leave my mother undefended? No.”
Ella and Mother watched silently as Widow Rutledge and the other three came toward them.
Ella felt scared, because she had no idea what was really going on. Mother looked scared too; but what Mother said aloud was—
“I think we’re about to meet the monsters.”
Zombies And Tragedies
The monsters were, at the moment, far enough away that mother and daughter could take time to watch Miss Holly run screaming for the manor house.
Soon Miss Holly was safely inside. Ella and Lady Catherine, with neither woman saying a word, walked across the green toward the stone fence.
Surrounding the grounds of the manor (where were found the manor house, the green, the garden, the henhouse, the laundry shack, the carriage house, and the stables), was a waist-high stone fence. This fence separated the grounds of the manor from the rest of Burbury Village, and from the squire’s farmland.
This fence was where Ella, “armed” with a shovel, and Mother, who was “armed” with a hoe, took their stand when the monsters came near.
The monsters were four dead people—clearly dead people. But all four monsters not only walked and talked, unlike four corpses, each monster had undecomposed eyes with mustard-yellow irises.
The monsters were disgusting. All four stank of decay; the man-monster and the girl-monsters each had his or her chin and the skin below the nose be solid red with dried blood; their hands were the same color.
When Widow Rutledge came close, Ella saw that the old woman not only was missing her left hand, but she was missing the tip of her nose. Her face was pale, including her lips. Her remaining hand was blueish. Her dress had a hole in it at stomach-level—except she didn’t have a stomach anymore. Widow Rutledge’s dress, and her stomach-less intestines that were visible through the hole in her dress and the hole in her skin, were each thickly covered with dried blood. A legion of flies crawled over Widow Rutledge’s intestines, and buzzed around her handless left wrist.
The young girl with hair in two redheaded braids, also had a hole in her dress at stomach-level, and also had bloody clothing. The redheaded monster’s intestines were hanging down the front of her clothing and were dragging on the ground. Her face, arms, legs, and abdomen were bloated; she looked ridiculously fat. Her skin was shiny, and covered with blotches of mustard yellow, burned orange, and charcoal gray. Gray maggots filled her nostrils and ears, and were visible in her mouth when she spoke; maggots covered her intestines as thick as paint, both inside and outside her body. The horde of maggots wriggled.
The other girl-monster, her hair in a single blond braid, had been dead about the same time. Her head flopped back and forth because most of her neck muscles were chewed off. Ella could see two of the blond monster’s neck-vertebrae sometimes. The blond monster, like her sister, was fat-looking from bloat; had multicolored, shiny skin; and like her sister, she was covered with wriggling, gray maggots.
The man-monster was in the worst shape and in the best shape of the four. His body was the most decomposed— his face and hair were gone (only his teeth and ears remained); his neck and arms had loose-hanging skin, and had tears in that skin—but he seemed to have no fatal injuries. The only thing that Ella could see wrong with him (other than being days dead!) was that he had a bite-sized chunk missing from his left arm. The edges of that bite-mark were purple and shriveled. He was maggot-covered where his skin had torn.
The three older monsters were disgusting-looking, they stank, and they clearly had evil plans, but they were not smart. At first they were blocked by the simple waist-high stone fence. They kept trying to shuffle forward, which resulted only in them falling against the wall; they would push themselves upright, and try again unsuccessfully.
The first time the sister-monsters fell against the stone fence, they popped open their bloated bellies. Each time, Ella heard a loud hiss sound. Soon the nearby unpleasant smells smelled worse.
The older monsters were having trouble getting past the stone fence; Ella and Mother, meanwhile, were having their own problems. Ella really did not want to hurt the monsters, she just wanted them to go away, so she was hitting the monsters (including Widow Rutledge) with the flat of the shovel instead of the edge.
Ella figured out quickly that this tactic achieved nothing: the monsters were either unaware or unbothered by Ella hitting them. Mother had meanwhile gone back to holding her hoe the regular way, and she kept hitting the monsters with the hoe’s sharp metal end. This had to hurt, but the monsters did not wince or move away from the hoe.
At first the battle to keep the monsters beyond the stone fence was a standoff. But then the man-monster put his arms out forward and fell over the wall and onto the green.
Mother and her hoe faced off against the man-monster, leaving Ella and her shovel to keep the other three monsters outside the wall.
The problem was that when Ella was smacking her shovel against the redhead-braids sister-monster, Widow Rutledge used her one remaining hand to immodestly pull her long dress up to her hips, then she lifted one leg and then the other leg in order to climb over the wall.
Two monsters now were inside the fence, and the other two were still trying. Ella and Mother had a major problem.
Then Ella heard heavy running footsteps behind her. A man’s voice yelled, “I’m coming, Lady Riverstone, Miss Ella! I’m coming!”
The two girl-monsters were too short to try those other tricks. Instead they pulled themselves up on top of the wall, then let themselves fall forward. Each girl-monster scraped her legs and her bloated belly against the stone fence; and the redhead-monster also scraped her intestines against the fence, but neither girl-monster cried out in pain.
All four monsters now were inside the fence.
Ella could not spare a moment to look back. But a few seconds later, John the blacksmith stood next to her. He was red-faced and panting; he also was holding a ten-pound sledgehammer in his left hand and a sickle in his right hand.
Widow Rutledge-monster said, “SQUIRE’S WIFE AND CHILD. BLACKSMITH. YOU ALIVE. I HUNGRY.”
The three humans backed up, though John didn’t move back till Mother did.
“UNG-EE,” said the redhead-monster.
John said, “Who wants the sickle? I sharpened it yesterday. Point’s sharp too.”
Ella said, “Give it to Mother. I don’t want to hurt them.”
“UNG-EE,” said the blond-braid monster.
Mother shifted the hoe from a two-handed grip to her left hand, and let the hoe droop. She turned her head in John’s direction, her face expressing relief, and her right hand reached for the handle of the sickle that John was holding out.
Widow Rutledge-monster said, “Look.” She pointed.
John said to Ella, “You don’t want to hurt them? Miss Ella—”
Ella glanced at John, about to make a reply—
In that second, three of the monsters rushed Mother and grabbed her.
Only the blond-braid monster was free to rush at Ella, and Ella almost did not get her shovel swinging in time.
The man-monster grabbed the back of Mother’s dress, ripped it apart, then bit into her bare neck and shoulder. Wet blood poured down from Mother’s shoulder.
Widow Rutledge and the redhead-braids girl were trying to bite into whatever part of Mother they could reach, and so what if there was clothing in the way?
Mother’s scream could be heard in Kingscourt. “THEY’RE BITING ME! GET THEM OFF ME!”
John shoved the sickle-handle into Mother’s hand, but did not take time to see whether she grasped it or not.
Then John swung the sledgehammer around till the hammerhead was in front of him. John shoved the sledgehammer forward, the muscles in both his arms flexing, and he hit the man-monster in the chest. The blow was hard enough to knock the man-monster away from Mother; but more than that, the blow caved in the man-monster’s chest. The monster neither grimaced nor screamed. Seconds later, the monster was trying to grab Mother and bite her again, as if John had done nothing to hurt him.
John said, “What are we supposed to do? Killing them doesn’t kill them!”
Mother was waving the sickle around blindly, succeeding only at stabbing Widow Rutledge and the redhead girl here and there with the point of the sickle. The monsters took no notice of Mother’s stabbings.
Ella said, “Pain doesn’t bother them either.”
Ella swung the flat of her shovel as hard as she could at the blond-braid monster’s left arm, near the shoulder. There was a loud snap, then the girl-monster fell down sideways.
Meanwhile her sister, the redhead-monster, grabbed Mother’s sickle—losing parts of several fingers in the process—and yanked the sickle out of Mother’s hand. The redhead-monster tossed the sickle aside, then she and Widow Rutledge managed to pull the sleeves of Mother’s dress down her arms till Mother was bare to the waist. The two monsters began to claw and bite at Mother’s abdomen.
A second later, it was clear that the blond-braid monster had a broken left arm, but she seemed to be unbothered by the pain. Rather than try to attack Ella again, she crawled (one-armed) over to where Mother was struggling, pulled up the hem of Mother’s dress, and bit into her upper leg.
Mother had been pulled down to the ground by now. She whimpered at this new indignity of her leg being chewed on. Meanwhile, the redhead-monster and Widow Rutledge were feasting on Mother’s internal organs.
Ella was using the flat of the shovel to keep monsters away from herself (successfully), and to knock monsters away from Mother (unsuccessfully).
Meanwhile, John was hammering on the man-monster with powerful blows, none of which killed the monster. By now the man-monster had as many broken bones as if he had fallen off a cliff, but he was still trying to put the bite on somebody living.
Or rather, he was trying to bite a living person until John smashed in his head. Then the man-monster went down and stayed down.
“Destroy their brains! That kills them!” John shouted, smiling.
“I can’t do that,” Ella said. She explained, “They’re people, or they were. I can’t kill them.”
“Fairyfog, Miss Ella,” said John, exasperated. He then smashed in the heads of the other three monsters.
Ella heard galloping hooves on her right side. “Ella? I heard a scream—Catherine!” Father yelled.
Mother was dying, and everyone knew it—especially her.
John the blacksmith had taken Chestnut to the squire’s stable, both because Father’s horse needed cool-down care, and to give the family some privacy.
Before John had left, he and Ella had given Father the briefest of summaries. Widow Rutledge, lying on the manor green with a bloody mouth and a caved-in skull, pretty much had told the story for them.
Now John’s bloody sledgehammer and bloody sickle lay near the truly-dead corpse of Widow Rutledge.
Father was holding Mother and crying. “I should have been here. Instead of looking for an old dead woman in the woods, I should have been here, defending you.”
Mother gasped, “I don’t blame you. I love you, Walter.”
“I love you too, Catherine,” Father said. He was sobbing now.
Mother looked in Ella’s eyes. “Dear daughter Ella. Beautiful face, beautiful heart. Please stay good and kind.”
Ella said tearfully, “I will, Mother, I will.”
“Promise me. Stay good and kind.”
“I promise, Mother. I love you.”
Mother’s eyes then looked up at the sky. “Pinecone, remember . . . your . . . vows!”
Ella was confused. Why is Mother talking to a pinecone?
Mother was gasping now; she could no longer speak. She tried to smile, despite her pain. It was a sickly smile that she made, but it was a smile.
Her eyes went to Father’s, and Mother and Father held a look for a while. Then Mother’s gaze went back to Ella.
Mother was looking into Ella’s eyes, trying to smile, when her brown eyes turned mustard-yellow.
Mother made a death-rattle then, and went still.
Ella’s hands flew to cover her lips as she backed away, shaking her head. “No, no, no,” she whispered. “My mother . . . my beautiful, wonderful—”
A cry of anguish was torn from Ella as she sank to her knees, sobs racking her slender body. But Father—he needed her more than ever now. Ella swallowed grief, wiped her eyes, and rose on unsteady knees.
Ella saw Father staring at the face of his dead wife lying in his arms. “Her eyes are the same color as theirs! What does this mean?”
Ella said, “I don’t know, Father.”
But Ella had a horrifying theory.
She added, “Maybe it would be wise if we—”
Mother sat up then. Ella backed away.
Mother looked at Father and Ella with unblinking mustard-yellow eyes. “You are Walter Riverstone, my husband. You are Ella Riverstone, my daughter. You are alive. I hunger for your flesh.”
Father put his hands on her shoulders and gently shook her. “No, Catherine, fight this! Don’t be one of them!”
Ella said, “Father, get away from her. This is not Mother.”
Ella ran over to the bloody sledgehammer, but did not pick it up. Ella’s hands fluttered as she did nothing; she wavered between two impossible choices.
Father said, “You wouldn’t hurt us, would you, Catherine?” He stepped back slightly, but only so his right hand could stroke Mother’s cheek. “Ella and I love you, and you love us. Hold on to that, Catherine.”
Mother’s head turned swiftly to her left, and Father screamed, before yanking his hand away. “Catherine!”
Ella’s indecision ended. “I’m coming, Father!” she yelled.
Ella was disgusted at getting blood on her hands, but she picked up the blood-spattered sledgehammer. It was way too heavy for her, and she was not graceful when she moved with it—but Ella was graceful enough, and strong enough, to achieve what she set out to do.
Mother died for the second time, when Ella killed her.
Ella and Father were hugging each other and crying when John walked up.
“Lady Riverstone is dead now?” John asked. He looked sad.
“She is truly dead,” Ella answered in a calm voice. If Ella did not make herself be calm now, she instead would be screaming like a madwoman.
“Truly dead?” John repeated. His eyes were drawn to Ella’s bloody hands.
Father wiped his eyes. “Tell Harry”—the village carpenter—“to make up two coffins and to gather deadwood. We’ll have funerals for my lady Catherine and for Widow Rutledge tomorrow.”
John asked, “What about the other three bodies?”
Father answered, “They’re strangers, and they stink, so we’ll burn them on a deadwood pyre. Hopefully today, if Harry can find enough deadwood quickly enough.”
John said, “Maybe those others aren’t strangers. Maybe they came from one of the villages on the other side of the forest. We could ask—”
“No, John. We say nothing to the neighbor-villages.”
Ella said, “The family of those girls must be worried about them.”
Father said, “It’s bad enough that people in Burbury will know that Widow Rutledge became a monster. I’m not going to frighten other villages.”
John crossed his arms. “Even if this means that other villages aren’t told they’re in danger from monsters?”
Father said, “I have decided, John. Now go back and send some villagers to collect the bodies. Warn them about what they’ll see and smell.”
With a glare at Father, John left.
After John left, Father wiped his right hand on his pants. “My pinky-finger aches where your mother bit me. Can you imagine that? In all the years we were married, she never even slapped me.” His voice was ragged; he was trying not to cry.
Ella hugged Father and said nothing.
One minute later
Two white doves flew past Father and Ella and landed on the stone wall. Ella paid no attention to the doves.
“Hello, Ella, my godchild,” she heard.
Ella looked over. Dismounting from one of the white doves was a woman not quite as big as Ella’s palm. The tiny woman’s gown was made of white sparkles.
“You’re a fairy!” Ella said, walking up close. Father followed.
“I am Pinecone, your fairy godmother.” The fairy’s voice turned sad: “I grieve with you both, Walter and Ella Riverstone, in the death of Catherine.”
Father said, “Ella could have used your help, fairy, earlier today. Where were you?”
Pinecone gestured with her tiny arm toward the doves. “I came here as quickly as I could.”
“So why come at all?” Father pressed. “Why are you here now?”
Pinecone turned to face Ella directly. “I come with a message: All the zombies are in South Lionbear. None are closer than 123 miles south of here. The only zombies closer to you than that are these four, and you true-killed them before they made more zombies. For now, you are safe.”
“What are zombies?” Ella asked. “These monsters who attacked us?”
Pinecone nodded. “Corpses that walk and talk and eat, by the power of magic. Humans who die from zombie bites become zombies themselves.”
Father said, “Why should we believe you? Fairies are liars and tricksters.”
Pinecone was tiny, but she drew herself up straight. “You have forgotten, Walter Riverstone, that I vowed three vows at Ella’s christening. The first vow was, ‘I never will lie to Ella Riverstone or will trick Ella Riverstone.’ ”
Father said, “Fine, but—”
“Godmother Pinecone,” Ella asked, “can you make Mother live again?”
The fairy’s little face looked sad again. “How I wish I could. Dead is dead; and as for zombies, that magic is alien to fairy magic.”
Ella sighed. “So there is nothing you can do.”
“There is little we can do, for now. The Fairy King is working on the problem.”
“Why?” Father demanded. “Why does the Fairy King want to help humans?”
Pinecone lifted one tiny eyebrow. “Because fairies are not liars and tricksters where humans are concerned.”
Pinecone walked over to one of the doves and climbed between its wings, then threw her arms around the bird’s neck. She said to Ella, “I will be keeping a close eye on you. Do not worry—when you need me, I will be here for you.”
The doves and Pinecone flew away.
Father said, “I don’t trust any fairy—even a fairy who pledged vows at your christening.”
Ella said, “Pinecone seems trustworthy to me.”
Father wiped his right hand down his shirt, as he sighed. “Ella, everyone seems trustworthy to you.”
Minutes later, inside the manor house, Father and Ella didn’t tell the servants much more than “Lady Catherine is dead. You don’t want the details.” Both Father and Ella omitted mentioning that Ella had smashed in her mother’s head with the blacksmith’s sledgehammer.
Boom-boom-boom. Now somebody was pounding on the brass knockers on the front door.
Ella’s dress had dried sweat-stains on it, along with dirt, blood, and smelly stains that she didn’t want to even think about. She had blood on her hands from wielding the sledgehammer to true-kill her mother. Ella toyed with ordering one of the servants to answer the door.
But in the end, it was Ella who answered the door, because Ella was now the lady of the manor.
Standing just outside was a well-dressed woman in her late thirties or early forties. Even at such an ancient age, the green-eyed blonde was stunning.
Beyond the woman was a black coach that was pulled by two black horses. Trunks and boxes of every size were lashed to the top of the coach.
Looking out of the coach were two girls of Ella’s age. Ella’s first thought was Those poor girls—they are so ugly.
Calmly, oh so calmly, Ella said, “Yes?”
The woman at the door had been looking Ella up and down. Now she sneered and said, “I am Perra Spalding, and I have a letter of introduction for Walter Riverstone, Esquire. Is he here?”
“Yes he is, but—”
“Then fetch him, lazy girl, and be quick about it!”
The Handsome Prince
Common Room, the Whistling Mouse Inn
Kingscourt, capital city of Lionbear
The young courtier Edward Windsor was dressed in purple velvet and powdered wig, and he wobbled slightly as he came through the common-room door. He called out, “Make way for the prince!”
The customers and employees of the inn could barely be bothered to keep their eyes on the door. Kingscourt had four princes, and two of them were known to be stuffed shirts.
Prince Cabolus walked through the door then, his wig-hair barely missing the top doorframe and his shoulders almost filling the doorway. In a bass voice, Prince Cabolus called out, “Good evening, good people. Is this not a wonderful day to be alive?”
The common room had seven serving-wenches working there; a family of husband, wife, and three teen-aged daughters was eating there; a married couple in their fifties was eating there; and a widow was slowly sipping a cup of chicken broth. Thirteen women or girls over twelve years old were in that room when Prince Cabolus walked in, and all thirteen immediately sat up or stood up straighter.
Prince Cabolus’s dark-blue eyes twinkled when he saw this, and he smiled. His smile resulted in thirteen sighs.
Three serving-wenches competed to lead Prince Cabolus and his friend Edward to an empty table. Cabolus decided to follow the brunette wench Belle, because of her pouty smile and her knowing brown eyes. Those eyes said I know what men like, and I like it too.
As the three people were walking through the common room, Cabolus asked, just to make conversation, “So Belle, what do you like to do when you’re not working here?”
Belle replied, “I like to read books.” Then her voice dropped an octave: “I learn interesting things by reading.”
Once Cabolus and Edward were seated, Belle said, “Tell me what I can do for you, Your Highness.”
Prince Cabolus looked over at Edward. “You eat here all the time; what’s good?”
“The rabbit stew is the best in the city.”
Cabolus said to Belle, “I’ll have that.”
“Rabbit stew. Got it,” Belle said distractedly. She was staring at the prince’s muscular chest.
Cabolus was used to this reaction. Women who met him for the first time, stared at either his chest or his gold coronet. “Belle? My eyes are up here.” When the blushing serving-wench was again looking at the prince, he finished ordering: “Bring us each a big bowl of rabbit stew. Also bring me a mug of beer, and bring my friend a wineglass and a bottle of good Gaullind wine.”
“Right away, Your Highness,” Belle said, dropping a curtsy. Perhaps accidentally, she gave Prince Cabolus a glimpse of cleavage.
After Belle rushed off, Cabolus said to Edward, “Happy birthday, Eddie.”
“Tonight it will be happy,” Edward replied. “Life is always exciting when you’re around, Cab.”
Only seconds later, Belle was back, with the entire order on a big tray. Edward remarked on the service, which was apparently much faster than normal.
Meanwhile, the three teenage girls eating with their parents had been whispering. Now one of the girls, a brunette who looked to be about fourteen years old, stood up and walked over to Prince Cabolus’s table.
“Luvena, don’t you bother the prince,” the girl’s mother called out. But the woman sounded wistful, not angry.
The teen girl stopped at the prince’s table and dropped a curtsy. “Hello, I’m Luvena of the Garrett family and, um, you really are a prince?” She was staring at Cabolus’s coronet.
Edward smiled at his friend. “What did I tell you? Exciting.”
Cabolus said to the girl, “Am I a prince? Barely. Do you know what ‘the line of succession’ is, Miss Luvena?”
“Isn’t that something about who becomes king if King Allard dies?”
“Exactly. You’re smart,” Cabolus said.
Cabolus continued, “Before I can become king, then King Allard has to die, then my uncle, my cousin, and my father have to die. Then if the king, my uncle, and my cousin haven’t sired any sons in the meantime, and if I haven’t died myself, then I’ll become king.”
Luvena asked, “Your uncle, your cousin, and your father, those are Prince Garwin, Prince Thane, and Prince Mitchell?”
Cabolus smiled at Luvena again. “Oh my, you’re smart.”
She grinned. Then she said, “Well, I think they should make you king after King Allard. Because you look like a king and you act like a king.”
“Cab, I agree with the girl,” Edward said. “You’re better with a sword than anyone I know.”
Cabolus shrugged. “Some say Prince Cousin Thane is better with a sword. But ‘who’s better’ doesn’t matter—the line of succession is what it is. Look, my father and I don’t even live at the Royal Palace—which is unwise unless they never expect to drop a crown on either of our heads.”
Cabolus turned his gaze from Edward to the fourteen-year-old girl. “But you meant what you said as a compliment, and I thank you for it.”
Cabolus picked up his spoon. Luvena took the hint, curtsied, and left. When the prince could see her face again—when she was seated back with her family—the teenager had an awestruck expression.
Cabolus was used to this too.
Cabolus and Edward ate, drank, and talked about life at court—Edward was a junior palace clerk, he worked in the throne room every day, so he told good stories.
Meanwhile, Luvena and her two sisters had gone back to whispering.
Luvena’s thirteen-year-old younger sister abruptly stood and rushed to the prince’s table. Not pausing for breath, she said, “Hello, Your Highness, I’m Charlotte of the Garrett family”—a quick curtsy—“and is it true? What I’ve heard? About Princess Milikki?”
Edward whistled. “I thought only people at the Royal Palace had heard that story.”
Prince Cabolus tried to evade. He said to the girl, “Princess Milikki of Finnolind married Prince Cousin Thane. It is a good match for her. Both of them are young and healthy, and Thane is third in line for the throne.”
Charlotte said, “But Your Highness, I heard that Princess Milikki begged her father, Finnolind’s king, to marry her to you, not to Prince Thane.”
Cabolus tried to evade again. “Princess Milikki married my cousin, and they seem happy together.”
The girl asked Cabolus two more questions about Princess Milikki, which the prince evaded. Then Charlotte sighed, curtsied, and went back to her table.
Edward said, “I don’t know if Prince Thane and Princess Milikki are happy or not. But I have sure noticed, her eyes still light up whenever you speak to her.”
A few minutes later, Cabolus asked, “So what other interesting stories do you know?”
Edward replied, “His Majesty”—King Allard—“is planning to lead an army down south to fight the zombies. The king figures everyone will be back in Kingscourt by Christ-Mass.”
“Too bad I won’t be allowed to go,” Cabolus said. “I’ll miss out on the glory.”
Cinderella, Zombie Queen—buy the book!
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