Read Charming, Volume 2 Online
Authors: Jack Heckel
Liz glared back at him for the remark about her age, and said, “I was going to say writers.”
“We're actually actors,” Hayden said with a smile and a wink.
“We are not actors,” Grady countered with a snarl.
“But we act.”
“Perhaps I should say that we are not merely actors,” Grady said. “We are artists that on occasion author, produce, and perform dramatic works.”
“But we do act,” Hayden said in happy, but relentless, repetition.
“I won't have this argument again,” Grady said. “We are a bloody artist collective, and you know it!” He turned back to Liz and said in honest, if aggressive, confusion, “Now, where were we?”
Liz fought her growing desire to laugh. Maybe her arm wasn't broken, but they had done what they thought was best, and no real harm had come of it. Still, she decided they should squirm a little more. She cleared her throat. “You were telling me how being an actorâÂI mean, an artistâÂqualifies you to examine me?”
“I thought that would have been obvious!” he replied matter-Âof-Âfactly, “We are used to dealing with the exposed formâÂin all its shapesâÂno matter the flaws.”
Liz could not help blushing, and to his credit, so did Grady.
“Yes, well, perhaps we could move on,” Dorian pleaded, wiping his forehead with the end of his beard.
Apart from a twittering of birds, there was a general silence that he took for consensus. Dorian poked at his glasses with his thumb, until they were listing badly to the left, and nodded. He raised his forefinger. “Let's see, your first question was where are you? You are in the Cottage of the Seven Players, deep in the White Wood. You have been with us something a little short of a week.”
“And, you were right,” Baldwin said, briefly poking his head out from behind the curtain and eyeing Grady, “we are the Seven Dwarfs .Â .Â . at least we are
of the Seven Dwarfs. You-Âknow-Âwho is in rehab.”
, Baldwin,” Grady barked, emphasizing the
with imaginary quotation marks. “We, each of us, played
of the seven dwarves in that awful play.”
“Awful play?” Liz protested. “It was fantastic. My mother took us to see it when we were children. I loved it, especially the singing numbers.” She hummed a few bars of one of the songs.
“Thank you,” five of the dwarves said in unison.
“Crass commercial fluff,” rasped Grady.
“Wait,” Liz said firmly, “you called the seventh dwarf âYou-Âknow-Âwho.' Who? Do you mean DopâÂ?”
“Shhh .Â .Â .” hissed the dwarves.
“Don't,” Grady said with real urgency. “The rights to that name, in particular, were sold, and well, in fact, we sold the rights to the whole play to pay off some um, ill-Âadvised, well .Â .Â . I guess you could call them investments.”
“He means, we lost big on the horses,” Hayden translated with a smile.
Grady glared at him and continued. “The point is, if you don't want to wind up in the poorhouse with us, you'll not mention That Play again. The new owner lives in another magical kingdom, but he has some bloody good lawyers. They could be anywhere.”
The dwarves looked about uncomfortably as though these lawyers might actually be hiding somewhere in the room.
Grady's muffled growl broke the tension. “Anyway, if you must know, his name is really Dominic. He went solo. Made a mockery of his art by going around
the masses in a one-Âman comedy show called
Big Ears and All
“Quite successful too,” Dorian said softly. “It was after he made it big that we got the offer for the rights to .Â .Â .
“Yeah, and we sold it,” said Grady.
“Poor Dominic,” Hayden said in a happily mournful voice.
“What happened to him?” Liz asked.
Baldwin piped up from his hiding place. “After the lawyers from that other kingdom gave him the cease and desist, he got hooked on snuff. Put all his money up his nose. Sad, really.”
“I'm allergic to snuff.” Sneedon sniffed seriously. “Did you know I'm also allergic toâÂ”
Grady slapped Sneedon's nose, eliciting a violent sneeze and a round of chuckles from the other dwarves. “I warned you, I won't tolerate any more talk about your allergies.” Sneedon rubbed his nose sadly while Grady concluded. “Point is, Dominic was a sellout and deserved everything he got.”
“Oh, ignore Grady,” Dorian said, “he's just grumpâÂuh, angry because he has writer's block.”
“Speaking of which,” Grady harrumphed loudly. “I don't have time for idle chatter and neither do you, Sneedon.” He jumped from the foot of the bed and stomped toward the door. “Coming, Sneedon?”
Sneedon shook his head, which made the tasseled cap perched atop it wiggle. “Uh-Âuh. I want to hear the answer to her last question.”
The dwarves all turned back to Liz. Baldwin's face appeared from behind the curtain. Sloane's eyes opened and, for once, stayed that way.
“That's right,” Dorian said. “You asked us how you got here. We want to know the same thing. How does a lady appear at the bottom of a ravine, in the middle of the woods, with a broken arm and shattered head?”
“I'm warning you, it has all the hallmarks of something a crazed stalker-Âgroupie would do,” Grady muttered under his breath.
Suddenly, Liz's mind clearedâÂand the events since her escape from the tower came flooding back. Her eyes widened in alarm. “My God, the Princess has some evil power! Elle! Will! IâÂI must warn them.”
She was moving before the words were out of her mouth, but with the movement came a flood of pain that radiated simultaneously from her bandaged head and plastered arm. Gasping, she fell back into bed.
Dorian sprang to her side, “Lady .Â .Â .”
“Liz,” she grunted. “My name is Liz.”
“Liz,” he said. “You shouldn't move. The boys were right before. You were in terrible shape when we found you.” He scratched his head. “Doctor or not, the fact is you shouldn't be up and moving about.”
Liz sighed and lay back against the pillow. She felt so weak. “I have to. My brother, he may return to the castle at any time. I must get a message to Elle. Do you have a horse? Is there anyone nearby? An inn perhaps?” She wanted to say more, but her head was swimming and she felt nauseous.
Dorian scratched his tangled beard. “We're pretty far out in the woods, Liz, and we don't own any horses ourselves on account of, wellâÂ”
“On account of horses being great untrustworthy beasts,” Grady spit before concluding with a muttered, “Samson to win. I mean, really, what kind of tip is that? Didn't I say that Samson had only shown any real speed on turf courses .Â .Â .”
While Grady spluttered on, in a soft, almost whisper of a voice, Hayden said, “There is our patron .Â .Â .”
At this suggestion, Baldwin disappeared, once more, behind his curtain, and the remaining dwarves exchanged uneasy glances.
“Patron?” Liz murmured weakly.
“Well,” Dorian replied, rubbing a hand along the back of his neck, “I suppose technically he is not our patron.”
“Yet .Â .Â .” Sloane added vaguely.
“He's more of a patron .Â .Â . in waiting.” Sneedon sneezed.
“All we need to do is get an audience with him and we're sure we'll be able to win him over,” chirped Hayden merrily.
“What? You've never seen the fellow?” Liz asked.
“No, not yet,” Dorian admitted.
“It's his damnable butler,” Grady groused, seemingly having exhausted himself on the topic of horses.
“He has no artistic soul,” Sneedon agreed.
“Last time, he set the dogs on us,” Sloane said between snores.
“But this time will be different,” Dorian said, trying to rally the other dwarves. “You'll see. This time, we'll give the man a performance that will knock him out.”
Grady grunted, “How? This time we've got nothing. Neither Sneedon nor I have had a decent idea for months. We don't even have enough material for a one-Âact, much less a proper play.”
A deep silence fell on the room.
“I have a story,” Elizabeth interjected. “A story that might melt even the butler's heart of stone.” She looked about the room, “Did you find a bag with me?”
Dorian nodded and brought it to her. She rummaged through it, and then, with a flourish, she pulled out the crystal slipper and held it in the air for a moment, so that it flashed in the sun. It was an act of unconscious stagecraft that worked magic on her audience. The dwarves sat staring dumbly at the little sparkling shoe.
“How did I get here?” she said in a faraway voice. Liz cradled the shoe in her lap, remembering the only night she had worn it and the man with whom she had danced. Tears rose in her eyes. The shining image swam and wavered, and she whispered, “I suppose you could say I am here because my family has, for generations, believed in Happily Ever Afters .Â .Â .”
The dwarves exchanged collective glances. Grady opened his mouth to say something and the other dwarves silenced him with a simultaneous hiss.
Liz shook away the sadness and smiled. “Well, my own little fairy story started the night the dragon attacked our farm. We had doused all the lights when we heard, on the night air, its first cry, and then saw the sky light up with its fires.” She was staring out the window at the trees beyond. “Well, we were sitting there, in the dark, and Will grabbed my hand, put a book in it, and said, âLiz, you sit tight. I've got to go do something.' And off he went, just like that.”
Liz blinked, and the gathered tears streamed two-Âby-Âtwo down her cheeks. “By the moonlight, I could see that the book he'd given me was the
, and I knew he had no intention of coming back. He was going to try and do something heroic. All he ever really wanted was a chance to do something noble.”
“Holy hell!” yelled Grady. “You're the dragon slayer's sister?”
The other dwarves whistled in unison.
“I suppose,” she responded, “but that night we were just William and Elizabeth Pickett.”
“Mmmhmmm,” the dwarves hummed together. “And?”
And so, Liz told her story, and the sun rose high as the dragon died and Will journeyed to the dark tower. Lunch was served, and, over bowls of steaming soup, they listened, enraptured, as she danced with Prince Charming at the ball. And, as the sun began to dip again toward the horizon, she was finally riding her horse into the dark wood with the bewitched valet. When at last she stopped, dark shadows had crept across the room. At some point in her telling, a fire had been laid in the deep stone hearth, and the dwarves were sitting in its orange glow, staring at her with rapt attention.
She blinked at them and wet her lips. “Well, what do you think? Is it a good story?”
“Good?” Grady crowed. “Sister, with a few rewrites it could be a sensation!”
“Rewrites?” she asked.
“Sure, sure,” he said smoothly, and nodded over to Sneedon, who pulled a pencil and pad of paper from the open cuff of his sleeve. “A little tweak here or there for drama, you understand, and to smooth out the rough spots in the narrative.”
“Rough spots, butâÂbut all that was the truth. What really happened.”
Grady waved her to silence. “Now, now, the Seven Players have no use for pride of authorship, Liz. It's about creating the best theater possible. That means writing rich characters, providing those characters with the right dramatic arcs, putting them in appropriate settings, and so forth.” He ran a hand through his hair and snapped, “I've
! Squash .Â .Â . no, pumpkins! A metamorphosis of mice and pumpkins. I mean the symbolism .Â .Â .” He turned to the door, spun on his heel, and called out, “Well, come on, Sneedon. We've got work to do.”
Liz looked at Dorian in confusion, “Pumpkins? There were no pumpkins in my story.”
He reached across and patted her hand. “My dear, that is what we call artistic license. Let them work. Perhaps a little poetry would help you fall asleep.”
Dorian retrieved his book from where it had landed after thumping Sneedon as the remaining dwarves slipped quietly out behind him. Even the birds on the window dispersed in a sudden blur of fluttering colors. Alone with her poetic tormentor, she groaned in defeat.
“I see the pain is growing worse,” he consoled. “Don't worry, Liz, you're in good hands.” Dorian positioned his glasses on the very tip of his nose and opened his book. Â“Couplet will take your mind off your body's agonies.”
THE NEXT MORNI
the sun rose, and with it so did the curtain on what Grady had entitled,
Ash and Cinders: The Elizabeth Pickett Story.
He and Sneedon, his co-Âauthor, had worked on the play all night and were anxious for an audience. So, with the hearth as a backdrop and the foot of the bed as a stage, Liz watched as the dwarves ran through a marionette production that resembled her and Will's story in almost no respect. There was a wicked stepmother instead of the Princess, the dragon seemed to have fallen by the wayside (apparently the puppet proved too challenging to construct); there was a kindly fairy (mostly because they had a fairy puppet on hand from an earlier production), a pumpkin carriage, and a disappearing gown. It was all wrong and she might have said so, except that somehow they had managed to capture her emotions, with such perfection, particularly during the ball scene: her terror at the beginning, rising elation as she danced with the Prince, and then despair as she fled up that long stair. When the curtain fell (quite literally, as it had been strung between the bedposts with a particularly dubious length of string), she found herself in tears.