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Authors: Jack Heckel

Charming, Volume 2 (9 page)

BOOK: Charming, Volume 2
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“You are . . . you're mocking me.”

The strange smile on the Beast's face vanished in a twinkling. He dropped his pipe on the table and leaned forward, encircling the younger man's forearm in his massive claw. “Charming, I am abjectly sorry for my reaction. I can only beg you to understand that I was overcome.” He let go of Charming's wrist and used the free hand to paw at his neck until he managed to free the little golden necklace from his elaborate lace collar. Charming leaned back so he could focus on the tiny golden charm—­it was a wolf's head.

“When I was cursed, the fairy gave me this blasted wolf's head necklace. Its symbolism cannot be mistaken, but I've spent my life wondering when I would earn the right to be a man again. Despite the undeserved good fortune of finding my true love, I always held a kernel of bitterness in my heart that things were not different. Only now, because of your words, do I understand. This charm will never vanish, because I will never be the man that I was. That man is dead—­slain—­for better or worse by my life as the Beast. In your words, the world does not need who I was.”

“I don't understand.”

His host leaned back in his chair, a mysterious smile on his face as he twirled the little golden wolf on its chain. “If you did, I would feel myself an even greater fool. Perhaps in time understanding will come to you as it did me. For now, I would merely say that perhaps the world never did need you.”

Charming chuckled bitterly. “I know you are trying to help me, Adam, but I honestly cannot say that being told I am useless, and likely always have been, is particularly encouraging.”

The Beast waved an admonishing finger in the air at his guest. “I did not say that you are useless. What I am trying to suggest is that you stop trying to be Prince Charming, if you can, and just be Charming. Find your own meaning.”

Charming pulled the glass slipper protectively against his chest.

The Beast smiled. “I don't know the whole story of that slipper, young man, but if the foot matches the shoe, then I would say you are definitely on the right track.”

Charming laughed, this time a little less bitterly than before. “I know you're right, but whereas when I was Prince Charming I was fool enough to think she was beneath me, now that I am only ‘Charming,' she is so far above me that I doubt I shall ever be given the chance to speak to her again.”

“Ah, but that is a problem that can be met, not a crisis of the soul. I think if you give your lady fair the chance to love the real you, you may find an almost limitless reservoir of forgiveness.”

Without another word, he pulled the golden chain with the little wolf from his neck. “May I give this to you? I have no more need of it, and for some reason I think it might be of help to you.”

Charming took the chain and put it on. “It would be my honor.”

The Beast drew back and breathed deeply. He seemed less weary. “Thank you. Now, please enjoy my hospitality and stay as long as you need. Charming, my home is yours.”

to pass that Charming stayed in the manor of Adam, the Beast, much to the irritation of his butler, Giles. After a time, his smile returned and he found it increasingly easy to laugh. It was as though a burden had been lifted from his mind. He thought that he might enjoy being simply Edward Charming. It had also become more and more apparent to him how deeply he had fallen for Elizabeth Pickett. She was in his thoughts constantly, and he spent most of his time staring at her glass slipper and wondering how he might win her back.

It was toward the end of a pleasant afternoon tea, during which Charming and the Beast had spent their time discussing ways in which an audience might be gained with Lady Elizabeth, that Giles made an announcement. “My lord, the dwarves are here again with another play, begging for patronage. Normally, I would have sent them away, my lord, but after your instructions the other night, I thought I should ask.”

“Now, now, Giles,” said the Beast. “They deserve the opportunity to perform, and we are at our leisure.” The Beast spoke to Charming. “Apparently they are the troupe behind that
Snow White
play that was all the rage a number of years ago. Would you be interested?”

“Lord Adam, if you are at your leisure, then I am at yours.”

Giles sighed deeply and bowed. “As you wish, milords.”

The butler left to make arrangements. Adam directed Charming to a small reviewing balcony that looked out over a plaza on which a group of dwarves were busy at work putting the finishing touches on a makeshift marionette stage that they seemed to have constructed out of the bits and pieces of a cart. While he did enjoy theater, Charming was not truly in the mood for diversion. Were it not for Adam's interest, he would have preferred they continue their discussion of Elizabeth. The bumps and bruises he had suffered were mostly healed, and he had a growing sense that it was time for him to depart. He needed to return to Castle White and find her.

The Beast cleared his throat and gestured to a pair of chairs on the balcony. “I think the players are ready to begin.”

Charming nodded absent-­mindedly and took his seat. The preparations were complete, and two dwarves, one with an almost comically bright red nose and one with a perpetual frown, stood next to each other on one side of the stage arguing. A third, who looked to be asleep, sat slumped on the other side of the stage, a curtain rope in his hand. The Beast and Charming shared a chuckle as the grim fellow reached out and tweaked red-­nose's red nose. The frowning dwarf then stepped forward, glared up at the balcony, and announced, “Grand patron and esteemed guest, I am proud to present the premiere showing of
Ash and Cinders
, based on the true account of a dear maiden who we rescued, and . . .”

The sleeping dwarf awoke with a start, shouted, “Act One!,” and then jerked on the rope. The curtain opened on three very surprised dwarves who were still wrestling with an armload of tangled puppets. The two dwarves who had been introducing the play jumped at this premature start to the production and dove behind the stage, colliding with the other three and sending the whole group tumbling out of sight with a loud crash. The curtain closed.

While the Beast and Charming laughed aloud, Giles exhaled harshly and tapped his foot. After many muffled curses, the play began—­again. The curtain rose on a castle and a beautiful servant girl and her brother, enslaved in the house of a cruel mistress. The play then followed the two through a series of misadventures that eventually led them to receiving an invitation to a royal ball. While the marionettes were beautifully crafted and skillfully operated, the dwarves' constant bickering spoiled the performance. Every scene change was met by a very audible debate over the merits of the previous scene and how one performer or the other was “ruining the artistic integrity of the play.” This in turn, would lead to an incredibly technical, if still voluble, debate about the meaning of integrity in a modern theatrical context. Which in turn would lead to what sounded like an all-­out brawl. It was not long before Charming began to regret Adam's benevolence.

He had long lost interest and was really only half paying attention when the servant girl made her appearance at the royal ball. At the festivities, there was a mad woman with absurdly long hair and a prince that made an utter fool of himself.

Charming sat straight in his chair.
Could this possibly be about William and Elizabeth?
I suppose it
's possible that the story of my disgrace at the ball could have made it this far into the wilderness.
But then the story wandered away from reality as an agent of an evil queen chased the servant girl into a deep wood. Charming's attention slipped away again as he daydreamed about dancing with Elizabeth. He became vaguely aware that the stage had gone dark as pitch. A single light illuminated the little servant-­girl puppet. Then a glittering star flashed on the stage. The puppet was holding a slipper—­Lady Elizabeth's other crystal slipper.

Charming, eyes wide and mouth open, rose in his chair and shouted, “Stop! How can this be?”

From behind him, Giles said, “He is right, my lord. I should never have let it go this long. I will get the dogs and put an end to this debacle.”

“What? No!” said Charming. He turned to the Beast, his eyes pleading. “It's about Elizabeth. They have the other slipper. I must know what happened.”

The Beast looked between Charming and the dwarves, who, after a moment's peace, had all begun to speak at once, offering a variety of admonitions about breaking the fourth wall and interfering with the artistic process. Giles added to the chaos by heaping criticism and contempt at the dwarves. The Beast put a claw to his temple and roared, “SILENCE!”

A blessed quiet descended. The Beast addressed the players below. “My guest has some questions for you. You will answer them honestly, and without arguing, or you will answer to me.” He then turned to Giles. “And, you . . . oh, go get us some tea or something.”

The Beast turned back to the dwarves as the butler scurried out the door. The older dwarf stepped forward, ran a hand through his hair, which had the effect of making it even more unruly, adjusted the spectacles on his nose, which resulted in them listing badly, and said, “On my honor, Your Lordship, we will speak honestly, but I can't promise we won't argue.”

The Beast sighed. “Do your best.”

The dwarf bowed gracefully.

Charming leaned forward over the rail. “The story in the play, is it true?”

The elderly dwarf scratched at his chin. “Well, now that depends on what you mean by truth. I mean, who can say what happened here this evening? Each of us might have had a different experience.”

The glowering fellow interrupted him from behind. “Dorian, don't try to obscure the point with that relativistic nonsense.”

“It isn't nonsense, Grady. You have had a very different experience than have I. The shiner I gave you in Act Two is proof enough of that.”

“Oh yeah? Well, I can give you a matching one if you'd like to experience my reality.” Grady advanced menacingly.

Charming rolled his eyes. “Stop it, both of you. I don't mean, is the whole story the truth. I was there, and I can see you've taken a great deal of ‘artistic license' with the facts.”

The angry dwarf bristled at this, but Charming did not give him a chance to argue. “What I want to know is, did the lady flee the castle, and was she chased into the woods by this ensorcelled huntsman?”

Both the dwarves started to speak, and Charming stopped them with a brisk motion. “I don't want any philosophy, just a yes or no.”

“Yes,” said Dorian, the gray-­haired dwarf.

“No,” said Grady. “It was not a huntsman. I think Liz said it was Rapunzel's valet.”

Charming felt his knees buckle under him. He grasped the rail to keep himself upright. They had seen Elizabeth. “Is she safe? Is she well? Tell me where she is!”

Grady, the angry dwarf, started to speak, but the elderly fellow grabbed at his sleeve and stopped him. He gathered the group of performers together in a huddle, and they conferenced for a minute in low whispers. Finally, Dorian emerged, narrowing his eyes at Charming. “And who is it that's asking?”

“What?” said Charming.

“Well, we know His Lordship here, at least by reputation, but we don't know you. Who exactly are you? How do we know your intentions?”

“I am Prince—­” he started to say, and then bit his tongue.

The elderly dwarf responded with a stuttered, “You are a prince?”

“No,” Charming said with a shake of his head, “Prince Charming is no more, I am . . .” He hesitated and then straightened himself. “I am just a man that loves Lady Elizabeth, and I swear on my life that I shall allow no harm to come to her.” With that, he pulled the glittering shoe from its hiding place and placed it on the railing before him.

The dwarves looked between the two shoes with wide-­eyed disbelief. “Well, we'll be,” they all said in unison.

“Now, where is she? Is she safe?”

Dorian answered, “She's perfectly safe. She's at our cottage in the woods—­recuperating.”

“Recuperating?” Charming said sharply. “Was she hurt?”

Dorian blinked. “Oh, yes. But she's fine now. Nothing more than a busted head and, um, a broken arm?”

Charming paled. “Broken arm? Busted head?”

“Yes, at least that was my preliminary diagnosis,” the dwarf said in a suddenly nervous voice. “Others may disagree, but you've got to understand the circumstances. A great deal of latitude must be given for the rather crude medical tools I had at my disposal. Anyway, not knowing her medical history, any reasonable practitioner would choose to be a bit overcautious in their treatment.”

The dwarf rambled on, but Charming had already stopped listening. He paced along the balcony, deep in thought. As if concluding some internal debate, he stopped and asked, “How long has it taken you to journey here?”

Dorian shrugged. “Not too long, a few days. But, then, we walked.”

“You can't trust horses!” Grady interjected.

The others nodded their mute agreement.

Charming turned to his host. “Your Lordship, Adam, I need . . .”

“You need to go to her, young man,” Adam answered. He snapped at the butler, who had returned with a massive silver tea tray. “Giles, give Charming anything he needs.”

“All I need is a sword and Your Lord's fastest horse.”

I am coming, Elizabeth.


Chapter 5

On Bended Knee

of most fairy tale kingdoms, the woods of Royaume are littered with cottages, which is odd, given that these same forests are also filled with giant boars, gruesome trolls, and a host of deranged woodland creatures. Nevertheless, whether you are a red-­hooded girl frolicking carefree along a woodland path or a raven-­haired beauty fleeing for her life into the trackless depths, it seems that no matter where you go, some little house will pop up like a toadstool in the night. If you're lucky it might be the home of a family of benevolently domestic, if overly trusting, bears, or of a kindly old grandmother with a protective, ax-­wielding son-­in-­law. However, if you are unlucky, you could end up at the front door of an impoverished and morally bankrupt woodcutter or a witch with a sweet tooth and cannibalistic tendencies.

Of course, Elizabeth Pickett had gotten very lucky. She found the dwarves' home unexpectedly cozy. It was filled with an incredibly eccentric collection of books, plenty of nooks to read them in, and a fantastic quantity of fine ale to drink while reading. For rest and recuperation, it was nearly ideal. Every day she grew stronger, and soon she was able to abandon her sickbed. She also smashed her obviously unnecessary cast with a hammer she found under Grady's bed. The arm was tender but otherwise fine, and she reminded herself to make sure Dorian got a full measure of her tongue when he returned.

But, for all of the appeal of the cottage, the surrounding wood was infested with the most obnoxiously endearing wildlife. First, there was the flock of songbirds. The twittering freaks had decided to make it their business to wake her every morning at the first sign of dawn with their incoherent chirps and tweets. Then there were the deer, big, brown-­eyed, and adorable, but also thieving scum. Twice, they had raided her laundry line and tried to carry her undergarments off into the woods. Only a strong arm, another indication that Dorian's doctoring left a lot to be desired, and good aim had prevented them from leaving her in a state of forced indecency. But the last straw was the afternoon she had caught two inordinately cute bunnies and a rather seedy squirrel peering with disturbing intensity at her through an open window while she took her bath. Of course, she did the only thing she could—­scream, then lob her bar of soap at the Peeping Toms. She spent the rest of the day fashioning a sling and collecting stones.

Despite these annoyances, Liz enjoyed her time in the wood. She soon settled into a routine of cleaning, reading, setting snares for bunnies, gardening, reading, taking potshots at birds, cooking, reading, and planning dishes that required large amounts of venison. Then one afternoon, as she was setting a particularly cunning squirrel trap by the stream near her wash line, Liz noticed that a sudden calm had come over the woods around the cottage. After days of near-­constant chirrups, tweets, peeps, and twitters, the silence was eerie. She peeked around the smooth trunk of an ash tree and across the small flower-­covered meadow to the cottage. Everything appeared normal, but the quiet made her suspicious. Where were the deer, the hopping bunnies, and the damnable frolicking squirrels?

Liz hoisted the clothes basket onto her hip and headed toward the house. Halfway across the meadow, the unmistakable feeling of being watched crawled its way along her spine. She hurried her steps to the cottage, wondering when she'd become such a hysterical woman.
A cup of tea should calm my nerves.

She pulled open the door and the same strange odor of nutmeg that had clung to Collins when they fought in the clearing came rolling out. She froze as four men dressed in the livery of the Royal Guard stepped forward. She knew that she should run, scream, or simply faint in a properly ladylike manner, but that wasn't her. She advanced into the threshold.

“What are you doing in my house?” she shouted, pointing her finger at them. “How dare you?”

Her scolding had clearly left them uncertain as to how they should respond.

“Um . . .” one of them started. “I . . .” said another. “Uh . . . Captain?” said a third, while the fourth took a few steps back as though trying to shrink back into the shadows.

“She-­is-­to-­be-­apprehended-­and-­taken-­back-­to-­the-­castle,” said a fifth man who entered from the back bedroom.

She didn't know the voice, but she would never forget that awful inhuman tone. She looked into the man's face and saw the now-­familiar dead expression. He might have been wearing the insignia of the Captain of the Royal Guard, but there could be no doubt, it was Gwendolyn.

“You witch!” she shouted, and reaching into her basket, picked a garment out and flung it at the captain, “Leave me alone!”

The captain clawed Liz's underclothes from his face. “She-­is-­mad. Get-­her.”

The guards looked at each other, then charged. She threw the basket at them and, turning, ran toward the waiting arms of the trees. She had always been a fast runner, and she knew that she had a good chance of being able to outrun the men, weighted down as they were by their heavy swords and chain shirts. But halfway to the tree line, her foot caught on something. She tripped, tumbling hard down the hill, twisting her already injured arm beneath her. Spots flickered before her eyes. The soldiers surrounded her where she lay.

She swallowed her fear. “Would one of you be willing to help me up, or do you only like to frighten women?”

The men looked guiltily at each other, and one gently helped her to her feet.

“Well-­done-­men. Tie-­her-­up,” came the captain's dead voice. He walked stiffly over to her.

Just then, a thundering sound of hooves came through the forest. All of the soldiers turned. There was a resounding crash in the underbrush surrounding the glade, and a voice rang out, “UNHAND HER!”

The rider charged up the hill into the clearing, a sword in hand. He wore no armor, and his clothes were gray and drab and lacked any sort of heraldry. When he got near, the horse reared dramatically, and the man brandished the blade so that the sunlight caught and spun off its edge.

“Who? . . .” whispered Liz, and tried to blink away the flickering spots that were still swirling in her eyes. Then, blade still unsheathed, her savior leapt effortlessly from the back of his horse to land in a perfect dueling crouch on the uneven ground before the four guardsmen. Despite herself, Liz clucked her tongue. She knew who it was now. Only one man was reckless and arrogant enough to try something that dangerous.

“Who-­are-­you?” demanded the captain.

“It doesn't matter who I am.” He stopped to pose dramatically and point his sword at the men, moving it from one to the other as he continued. “What matters is that you unhand that lady, or you will answer to me.” He swept his hair out of his face, and his chiseled features left no doubt . . . Prince Charming had arrived.

“Prince Charming!” the guards gasped and released Liz so suddenly that she reeled backward and fell once again.

“WHAT-­ARE-­YOU-­DOING?” the captain shouted. “Get-­him. The-­King-­has-­disowned-­him. He-­is-­not-­our-­Prince-­anymore-­and-­he-­is-­interfering-­with-­my-­plans-­I-­mean-­orders.”

The guards still hesitated.


The men drew their blades as one and advanced toward Charming. The former prince twisted his blade in his hand and sneered at them. “Come, if you will, but I warn you, I will offer no quarter.”

Liz clambered slowly to her knees, still dazed from her fall and the shooting pains in her arm. She blinked the swimming black spots from her vision. “Don't hurt them. It's Gwendolyn. She's controlling them.”

Charming's confidently suave demeanor broke for a moment and he took a step back. “Wait? You don't want me to hurt them? That will make this rescue more than a touch difficult, milady.”

A yellow songbird alighted on Liz's shoulder and began a frenzied chirp. Liz slapped it away with her good hand. “That is hardly my fault. You are the one that decided to try and rescue me. Why don't you take it up with your princess when you get back to the castle?” Just then, a stag came bolting out the front door of the cottage with her laundry wrapped around its antlers. “Damned deer, those are my clothes!”

“I suppose I should rescue those as well, milady?”

“Don't be ridiculous,” she said as he clashed with two of the guards at once.

“No, no, my pleasure,” he said with a confident grin as he parried the men's blades, both of which had been aimed at his midsection. “And by the way, you are being rather unfair. Gwendolyn is hardly ‘my princess.' ”

His attackers rushed him again, but Charming pushed them back toward the cottage with the strength of his sword arm. He continued. “I never really had any interest in her myself.”

With a quick parry, and a flick of his wrist, he disarmed one opponent and dropped the second with a kick to the ribs.

“What-­do-­you-­mean-­you-­had-­no-­interest?” asked the captain, who was standing motionless watching the fight. “Princess-­Gwendolyn-­is-­the-­most-­beautiful-­woman-­in-­all-­the-­world.”

“And . . .” Liz gasped as she flexed her hand and again felt shooting pains in her arm. “You couldn't take your eyes off of her at the ball, even while we were dancing.”

Charming dodged another sword thrust. “Maybe we could talk about this later. I hardly think”—­he leapt over the body of the guard who had fallen—­“this is the time to discuss my”—­and ran after the deer—­“love life.”

“No! You-­must-­explain. Why-­you-­are-­risking-­yourself-­for-­her? She-­is-­nothing,” spit the captain as he began to slowly lurch toward Liz.

“I agree with Princess Gwendolyn's mindless thrall,” Liz said as she levered herself to her feet and stumbled away from the advancing man. “What better time to discuss why you would come for me?”

“I admit, I was confused at the ball, but I do know that while Gwendolyn might have been my duty, she was never my love. Elizabeth Pickett, I fell in love with you the first moment I saw you. Besides”—­he paused as he caught up to the stag, then grasped it from behind—­“do you have any idea how old the princess is?”

“WHAT?” cried the captain and Liz in unison.

“You love me?” Elizabeth gasped, this time not only from pain.

Charming, trying to wrestle Liz's laundry from the antlers of the deer, opened his mouth to answer but was cut short by the red-­faced captain, who stamped his foot in a very uncaptain-­like way and shouted, “I-­AM-­NOT-­OLD! I-­am-­still-­young-­and-­beautiful. Look-­at-­me-­and-­weep-­with-­desire-­you-­fool.”

Everyone—­a still-­flushed Liz, the guards who had recovered and nearly reached Charming, the former prince, who was in a desperate tug of war with the deer over a particularly frilly shift, and even the deer—­all turned to stare at the captain.

The captain stared back and hissed, “What?”

“Sir? Are you all right?” one of the guards asked.

Seeming to come back to himself, the captain barked in a deep, if emotionless, baritone, “DON'T-­question-­me-­you-­fool! You-­have-­your-­orders. Now-­get-­him!”

“Yes, sir!” said the guards with a collective flinch.

Charming took advantage of the exchange to lock an arm around the neck of the deer and untangle Liz's clothes from the beast's head. “Of course, I love you,” he said as he freed the last dress, “why else do you think I was trying to impress you at the ball with my”—­he gasped as the deer kicked back at him and connected—­“my ­couplets?”

“Was that what you were trying to do?” Liz asked in disbelief. “I thought maybe that you were drunk or possessed by a poetic, but meter-­challenged, pixie.”

Charming, who was still trying to recover from the deer's kick, opened his mouth to respond when all four guards came at him in a rush. He realized that he wasn't going to be able to bring his sword to bear in time, and so spun the stag about instead and parried the four blows on the creature's antlers. Charming waved the shift about in victory and grinned at Liz, who rolled her eyes. “What?” he said, noticing her reaction. “You have to admit, that was pretty impressive.”

The deer, now mad with fear, began snorting and rearing at the men surrounding it. The guards shuffled from side to side, trying, somehow, to avoid the stag and get at Charming, who was holding on more out of self-­preservation than for any tactical advantage.

“This is your problem,” Liz complained as she edged away from the captain, whose whole body seemed to be fighting against itself. “You don't think about the consequences of your actions, and you are insufferable when you succeed at even the simplest of things.”

Charming gestured at the deer. “You can't possibly think that that was simple.”

“Focus!” Liz shouted.

“What?” Charming said.

The four guards had regrouped and arranged themselves in a rough semicircle around Charming and the struggling deer.

“Look out!” she yelled.

Charming turned his attention back to the men just in time to duck beneath one blade and dodge another thrust. He gave Liz a wink and a smile and, in a sudden movement, released the stag.

The beast leapt forward, slamming into two of the guards and knocking them flat before running off into the woods. Charming tried to turn to engage the remaining guards, but the deer's flight had sent him spinning off balance. The men took full advantage, springing forward in a concerted strike. Charming brought his sword up in a desperate defensive move that only just prevented the first stroke from piercing his heart. Even he could not avoid the second blade, which sliced deeply into his sword arm. He dropped to the ground and rolled backward to create space between himself and the pair of advancing foes.

BOOK: Charming, Volume 2
12.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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