The Enchanted Press Part 4
My gaze darted from the fairies to the trolls and ogres, to the other patrons, then back to the fairies. As I scoured my memory for the vaguest recollection of the fairy who knew me, the entire room stared at Prince and I huddled by the barred exit of the doorway. The troll blocking our way cracked his massive neck and leered down at us.
I feared if I got the fairy’s name wrong, his gruesome foot would squash us flat. Heart thumping, I struggled with a polite way to tell the fairy I didn’t know who she was.
After what seemed an eternity, she smiled kindly at me. “You don’t recognize me, do you?”
I gave a reluctant shake of the head. “Apologies, I mean no offense.”
A tolerant smile crossed her face. “That’s understandable,” she replied as the surrounding fairies agreed. At her acknowledgment the troll’s aggressive stance relaxed a little, his glower becoming a less menacing scowl. Since when did trolls become such selfless protectors of fairies?
“My name is Sen,” the fairy said. “The last time you saw me, I wore lotus petals and carried a sparkling wand.”
“You’re a fairy godmother?” I blurted unable to contain my shock.
Sen motioned to her friends. “We all are.”
“What happened?” I asked, a trifle more confident the troll wouldn’t harm me.
“Someone stole our wands.”
I gasped, my mouth hanging open. For the first time in my life words failed me. My reaction seemed to appease the troll because he grunted affably. Throughout all the ages of our kingdom, no one had ever dared such a heinous act. To steal a fairy godmother’s wand was a terrible crime.
From one end of the Enchanted Forest to the other, we held fairy godmothers in the highest regard. They were public servants sworn to tend to the social and emotional needs of the realm, enacting wishes for the neediest of citizens with a steadfast heart. There was a serious sentence for the feebleminded thief who stole a fairy’s wand.
“Who would do such a thing?”
A hasty flutter of wings brought the fairy nearer. She drifted close to my ear and spoke in hushed tones. “The same one who’s behind all the crimes spreading across the realm.”
After a cursory glance at the determined faces of her sisters, a stony resolve settled over her, giving her the courage to utter the name I’d whispered in the back of my mind for days. “Scrivenger.”
My blood ran cold. With a shaky breath and a timorous smile, I suppressed the shivers plucking at my vertebrae.
She drew back, a knowing look in her eye. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You’re investigating again aren’t you?”
I didn’t know how to answer. High Queen Rosamont hadn’t sworn me to secrecy about my mission but with all the upheaval I’d seen in Rockledge, it seemed prudent to keep it hush-hush. At that precise moment, providence struck and saved me from answering.
Prince, who’d been quiet during the interaction, gave a squelching croak, his tongue whipping out of his mouth like a supercharged lightning bolt. In a pink frenzy, it slapped and tumbled across the ceiling, snatching up insects from every crack, crevice, and hidey-hole it came across. It even came close to snagging a few fairies. Startled by the abrupt action, Sen and the fairies shrieked and scattered in every direction.
With equal momentum, Prince’s tongue retracted. The force of the action throwing his head into the leg of the troll behind us with a loud thwack! Intense silence followed. Hands clutched around his bruised head, Prince straightened up, offered a sheepish smile at the troll, and belched mightily. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Troll,” he said.
After another endless silence, the trolls and ogres stood up, garnered him with looks of deep admiration and applauded.
The troll barring the door thrust out a steely gray hand and smiled, his mouth split open like shattered stone, a huge row of mud-brown teeth protruding from his lower jaw. “My name’s Rawhide Picker,” he grunted, pumping Prince’s hand with such vigor the poor frog bounced up and down like a rodeo pony.
Once everyone had offered Prince their praise, they ambled back to their tables to resume genial conversations about the state of affairs in the realm. Everyone had an opinion and fortunately, those beliefs correlated. I’d hate to see an ogre and a troll on differing sides of political debate. High Queen Rosamont was a popular ruler but with things growing direr, how much longer could she retain such favor with the people?
From across the room, Sen watched us, her keen gaze lingering on Prince before she took another patron’s drink order. Whether it was his foreign accent or his tongue’s brash behavior, it was obvious she distrusted him.
With the crowd dispersing, Prince and I found our way easily to the bar and the innkeeper, a kindly man with a broad smile and an even broader belly. He peered down at us over the bar, his beady eyes trained on Prince.
“That was mighty fine work, Mister?”
“Mister Prince.” The innkeeper’s gaze moved upward. “Thank you. Those flies have been eating away at many of my customers for ages.”
Prince smiled awkwardly. “I was hungry.”
The innkeeper chuckled. “What else would you like to eat?”
“We’ll have two ales and some vegetable stew if you have any,” I replied sliding two copper coins toward him.
“We do,” the innkeeper replied giving the money back. “Any friend of Sen’s is a friend of mine. Friends eat free. Save your coin for less friendly establishments.”
I nodded appreciatively and pocketed the money. “Thank you, sir. I’m sure I’ll need it.”
The innkeeper gave us each our meals and, under the watchful eyes of everyone, we carried them to a grubby table with two rickety stools.
“Well, we’ve found some food,” Prince said trying to juggle eating and keeping his tongue in check.
It was quite a sight to behold and rather amusing. Without warning, it kept lashing out and snapping at flies on the ceiling followed by tumultuous applause.
“But, where are we going to sleep?” he asked wrangling it back in with a swallow of broth.
“An old friend of mine used to live here. Perhaps he’ll help us.”
“Who is this old friend?”
“Gapetto. He’s a craftsman. We traveled together for a time when I was drawing maps of the Kingdom for the High Queen’s grandfather. While he searched for the finest materials for his designs, I surveyed and sketched the land.”
I took a flute from my satchel and showed it to Prince. “He made this for me. It’s the sweetest sounding flute in Fawnwood. Gepetto’s craftsmanship was superior when he was a young man. Since then, I’ve heard he’s the greatest wood carver in the Forest. If this flute is any proof, I wouldn’t doubt it.”
Prince took the flute and turned it over in his hands. “It is quite beautiful. Do you know how to play this thing?”
I coughed and sputtered into my stew, dripping hot broth onto my lap. It stung but not nearly as much as his question. Drawing myself up with indignation, I snatched the flute back and stuffed it away. “I am a fawn.”
Realizing his statement was rude, Prince, smiled in apology. “I meant no offense.”
Abashed, he steered the conversation back to our dilemma-finding accommodations. “When did you last see Gepetto?”
I let Prince’s insult slide and answered his question. After all, he was a foreigner to the realm. “About 30 years ago. We’ve kept in touch through the Web. I messaged him about six months ago but never heard back.”
Prince’s face puckered in confusion. “The Web? What is that?”
“It’s a relatively new way of sending messages to people throughout the realm.”
“How do you send messages through a web?”
I smiled in sympathy at his ignorance and explained. “A few years ago, Rosamont and her friend Miss Muffet devised a network using the silk from spiders to communicate.”
Prince looked intrigued, even his tongue was prone with interest. The tip, poking out through his lips, quivered with anticipation. “How doth it work,” he lisped around his tongue.
“As a way of overcoming her arachnophobia, Rosamont suggested Miss Muffet befriend a colony of spiders near the castle. Rosamont had been close with an elder before she died so she knew they were a friendly colony. When she and Rosamont saw how versatile the spiders were at code breaking and how durable the webs were they came up with the idea to create a national highway of webs.
“Clever,” Prince said.
“Very,” I added.
After we finished our meal, Prince snapped up a few more flies, shook a few more hands, and forced out a few more operatic belches for the crowd. The added musical vibrato was artistically impressive.
The ogres were so taken with the melodic sound, Rawhide lumbered over and plucked an aghast Prince right out of his seat. “Come over and meet the misses.” He stuffed Prince under a thick bicep and carried him off. “She wants a word.”
Alarmed, I watch my amphibious companion being toted across the room, his protuberant eyes, ever wider with panic, looked in danger of popping out of his head. I jumped up from my stool and followed.
Rawhide stopped at a set of tables overwhelmed with enormous gray creatures. Hard-faced and repugnant, they looked like lumps of fleshy granite with a haphazard arrangement of eyes and teeth planted on their faces. Rawhide plopped Prince in the lap of the biggest and ugliest troll of the bunch.
“For you, my wife,” Rawhide said.
Mrs. Picker smiled down at Prince who whimpered in reply.
“You have a lovely singing voice. Play us a song,” Mrs. Picker simpered tugging on Prince’s ukulele.
Trembling, Prince nodded, took hold of his instrument and plucked experimentally at the strings. His hands were shaking so bad he couldn’t strum a proper chord.
Mrs. Picker gave Prince a tolerant grin that set him into another shaking fit. She put him on the stool beside her. “Take your time, dearie.”
By now the pub was as silent as a High King Rufus’s tomb, every eye fixed on Prince and Mrs. Picker. After a few tries, Prince got his fingers to work and soon the room was rocking to a boisterous song about a maiden wearing a hand-me-down bonnet. His voice fluctuated in intensity, ranging from high and clear notes to deep and raspy ones rich with a soulful vibrato.
The tune caught on quickly and everyone joined in swaying to the music and chanting the refrain.
“The girl was a maid, she wore an ivory bonnet,
Her speech was soft and lovely, like a romantic sonnet.
What ails you can cure you, so the wise men sing.
But, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.”
In no time at all part of the crowd played along: Ogres banged on barrels of ale, a centaur drummed away on an old piano in the corner, and everyone stomped their feet or clapped their hands to the rhythm.
I pulled out my flute to join in the fun when Sen tugged on my ear and shouted into it. “Come with me.”
I was about to protest but her uneasy expression stopped me. Reluctant to leave the fun, I followed Sen into a hallway, aware that her need was greater than my desire for ear-splitting frivolity. The moment we stepped into the hall the noise level dropped, my ears ringing in the sudden silence.
“What a powerful Muting Charm,” I said impressed with how well it blocked out the commotion a mere four feet away from us. “Who cast it?”
Sen’s eyes darkened. “I did right before someone stole my wand.”
“Oh,” I said, embarrassed at my tactlessness.
Sen waved the awkward exchange away. “I need to talk to you about your friend.”
She nodded. “There’s more to him than he lets on.”
The statement didn’t surprise me. I’d discovered on the road he had a secret he didn’t want to talk about. His reluctance to share hadn’t offended or disturbed me, merely curious and cautious with my speculations.
“Dark magic clings to his aura.”
I gave her a questioning look. Like most citizens, I wasn’t an expert in fairy doctrine, like their homestead locales they kept their ancient secrets well-guarded, but I knew that most of a fairy godmother’s power and mystical perception came from her wand.
“I may not have a wand but I know dark magic when I feel it,” she said, defensive.
I considered her concerns before replying. “I know someone has cursed him, but I don’t believe he’s evil.”
“Evil begets evil,” she replied.
“Perhaps,” I said still unconvinced that Prince had a wicked heart. “But, wouldn’t it be prudent to keep a person like him close? He may lead me to the…uh…source of the realm’s problem.”
“You think he’ll lead you to Scrivenger?”
“Not exactly. But, I think whoever cursed him may come back to use him somehow for Scrivenger.”
“You’re playing a dangerous game, Tims.”
“These are dangerous times.”
“Yes, they are. Where will you go next?”
“To Gepetto’s for the night. Do you know if he still lives in Rockledge?”
Sen’s expression soured. “Oh yes, he and his son live a few streets over.”
Nettled, Sen crossed her tiny arms and nodded. “His name is Pinocchio.”