“I must beg your pardon,” said the little fairy, Tempest, “I did not hear you correctly. I thought you just said that you want to capture Lang Li.”
“That’s right,” said Lizzie, dropping the turkey leg on the table and pouring herself a goblet of thick wine. “We’re going to trap Lang Li in her own castle.”
“How are we going to do that, Lizzie?” asked Bobby, who for the first time in recent memory was not thinking about food.
“Such a thing is impossible,” said Tempest, “Lang Li controls powerful magicks and an army of Skutters.”
“Look,” said Lizzie, leaning forward to see the fairy clearly, “We have Lang Li’s castle until tomorrow. Somewhere in this castle she’s got to have something, some kind of a weapon or some kind of device that can either trap her, kill her, or get me home. All we have to do is look around and see what we can find.”
“My advice,” said Tempest, in a tiny yet commanding voice “as captain of the White Witch’s Fairy Guard, and someone with considerable martial experience, is to leave this castle as soon as possible and find the Rani. I think you are still flush with excitement over the trick you just played, and not thinking clearly.”
Bobby looked from Tempest to Lizzy and back again, his eyes flitting back and forth like a shuttlecock. “What are you going to do, Lizzie?”
“We stick to my plan,” said Lizzie, “we’re going to trap Lang Li.”
“That’s not a plan, it’s an idea…” said Tempest.
“Joan sent you to aid me, Tempest,” said Lizzie with anger in her voice, “Not to give me orders. If you will not help me then you should fly back to the White Castle.”
Lizzie regretted her words instantly as the tiny fairy bristled under her rebuke. “I have never failed in my duty and I never will, Lizzie. I will aid you, and I will follow your orders. But I will also speak my mind, and when I think your plan is stupid, I intend to say so.”
“That’s- good,” said Lizzie, now plagued with doubts about her plan even as she won her argument in favor of it. She took a gulp of the thick red wine from the goblet and swallowed it. The intense flavor shocked her and she winced even as the wine warmed her insides. Lizzie put the goblet down and stood up.
“Let’s take a look around.”
The room they were in was the same room that Lizzie had snuck into before. The veranda with Lang Li’s telescope was accessible through two large windowed doors that were now wide open. On her last trip Lizzy had not stepped onto the veranda, for fear of the evil queen, but now the girl felt free to indulge her curiosity. She stepped out onto the veranda and gasped.
“Wow-Wee!” said Bobby, following Lizzie onto the veranda and peering over the ornate wooden railing.
“You can see the ocean from here,” said Lizzy.
“Lang Li’s castle is perched upon one of the highest peaks of the mountains of Aus,” said Tempest, flitting to perch upon the railing next to Lizzy’s left hand. Though the tough little fairy was usually very gruff, she could not help but say, “The view is spectacular.”
Indeed the view was amazing. From this vantage point the entirety of the land of Aus was stretched out before the three travelers. Lizzy could see, in the far distance, Joan’s White Castle, where she imagined Lang Li was angry enough to boil cabbage. She could just make out with her strong, young eyes a thin yellow path that meandered it’s way through the forrest and alongside the river, the road of golden bricks. Turning her head the opposite direction Lizzy could just make out another castle, seemingly carved from blood red stone, and surrounded by a forest of trees with leaves of yellow, orange and red.
“The Rani’s castle,” said Tempest, but somehow, Lizzie knew that just by looking at it.
Lizzy stepped over to the telescope, hoping to get a better look at the Rani’s castle and peered through the eyepiece without touching it. What she saw startled her, and she pulled her head back quickly to confirm that the telescope was actually pointed at some random point in the blue sky before she peered through the eyepiece again.
After staring through the telescope for nearly a minute, Lizzie stepped back to consider what she had seen. Tempest, curious about the girl’s reaction, gently alighted on the telescope and peered through herself.
“It’s you, Lizzy,” said the fairy with some confusion, “or at least it is your double.”
“It’s Princess Victoria,” replied Lizzy, “in her palace back in London, I assume.”
“You look exactly alike,” said Tempest, “I wonder…”
Lizzy stepped off the veranda and back into the main room. What she had seen through the telescope was Princess Victoria engaged in some sort of school lesson with a tutor patiently explaining something out of a book. The scene was ordinary, banal, and vividly real. Questions streaked through Lizzie’s head, but she put them aside for now, and decided to continue exploring the castle.
There were two doors leading out of the room, and both were large wooden affairs with iron hinges and handles. Lizzy went to one of the doors and pulled it open with some effort. The doorway lead to a room with a large canopied bed, a boudoir, a table with a mirror, and another door, smaller than the one Lizzy had just opened, that Lizzy assumed to be a closet. Sunlight came through a large open window, and the curtains fluttered in the warm breeze.
Lizzie rifled through the boudoir and opened a chest she found under the bed, but all she found were clothing and gold coins.
“Wow!” said Bobby, grabbing a handful of the coins and stuffing them into his pockets.
“Bobby!” said Lizzy, “we are not thieves.”
Tempest raised an eyebrow at the girl in response to her outburst, but said nothing from her perch atop the canopied bed.
“Blimey, Lizzie, she’s trying to steal your head. The least we can do is help ourselves to her gold.”
“No Bobby,” said Lizzie, “we have to be better than that.”
Bobby suddenly brightened. “What about that story, Lizzie, about that boy who planted beans and climbed into the sky and stole gold from that giant?”
“What are you talking about, you stupid boy?”
“Jack!” exclaimed Bobby, his stupid brain thinking as fast as it could, “Jack and the Beanstalk! He stole gold and food and a harp from a giant, then he killed the giant. Why can’t we steal from a witch what’s trying to kill you Lizzie?”
Lizzie thought about that. For a boy as stupid as Bobby, he sometimes made good points. “Very well then, Bobby,” she said, “You may fill one pocket with gold.”
Bobby laughed at this and set about fitting as many gold coins into his pocket as he could without ripping the seams. “Cor! I wish I had deeper pockets…”
Lizzy moved to the closet door, unlatched it, and pulled it open. This door was very light and opened noiselessly on well oiled hinges. The interior of the closet was difficult to see inside of, because of the darkness. Lizzie remembered seeing a lantern in the main room so she scooted out, retrieved the lantern and lit it with one of her matches.
Holding the lantern before her Lizzy entered the darkened closet and what she saw scared her so much she almost dropped the lantern and ran screaming from Lang Li’s castle, but even as panic threatened to overcome her Tempest landed upon the girl’s shoulder bringing a calming presence with her.
“Heads!” said Lizzy in breathless, hushed exclamation.
“Be brave, Lizzy,” whispered the fairy, “heads without bodies can’t hurt us.”
Inside the closet, on shelves that lined the back wall, were the heads of eight women, of every different nationality and hair color, their eyes closed as if sleeping. Each head but one was mounted in what looked like a delicate Nipponese birdcages, with odd oriental lettering beneath. All the women represented were quite beautiful.
“These are Lang Li’s heads,” whispered Tempest, “She is quite the collector.”
“This is horrible!” said Lizzie, as she touched her neck, “Those poor girls…”
“Are trying to sleep, you know.”
Lizzie gasped and took a step back. Tempest took to the air and drew her tiny sword. One of the heads had spoken.
“It’s very rude of you to speak so loudly.”
The voice came from the head of a blond girl whose hair was parted down the middle and done up in two lovely braids on either side. She stared directly at Lizzie with sparkling blue eyes that were tinged with more than a hint of sadness.
“You- you’re alive?”
The blond girl spoke with a sing-song Swedish accent. “Yah. I thought the witch had killed me for sure when she chopped off my head you know, but then I woke up in the closet here with the other gals. My name is Ilsa, by the by.”
“Lizzie,” said Lizzie, then, remembering her manners, added, “Pleased to meet you.”
Ilsa laughed. “Save your bows and your manners for the courts m’lady. I’m just a humble country milkmaid.”
“How did- I mean how…” asked Lizzie, unsure of how to phrase her next question.
“Ah, don’t worry Lizzie. I’ve told the story to my sisters here, though they’re not actually my sisters in fact but in circumstance, if you understand. And there’s not much else to do in this closet but talk to each other, seeing as how we’re naught but heads and all. Also, it feels good to talk to someone new because, as you might have guessed by my prattling on, we don’t get many guests here. In fact you are the first.”
“I see…” said Lizzie.
“I was up early, an hour before the sun, to start the daily chores on my family’s farm. I had just finished milking Gretel, she’s my family’s cow you know, carrying the bucket of milk back to the house from the barn when quick as a wink a spinny wind reached out of the clouds and plucked me up and into the sky.”
Lizzie recalled her own trip through the sky on the dragon kite.
“I was in the air and spun about for so long I lost all sense of time. At some point I passed out, and when I awoke, I found myself on the shore of a shallow pond, my clothing soaking wet and my right leg broken.” Ilsa looked wistful, “I miss my legs.”
Lizzie’s heart went out to the bodiless girl, but she said nothing, encouraging Ilsa to continue her story.
“As I laid on the shore of the pond, trying to figure out if there was anything nearby I could crawl to and fashion a splint for my leg, I noticed a red door a cow’s length away, sitting in the sand without a house to go with it.”
Lizzie held her breath, dreading, yet knowing the end of the story even as she longed to hear it.
“I made my way to the door, clawing my way across the sand at the edge of the pond, when suddenly the doorknob began to turn, and then all I wanted to do was get away, but my leg was broken, and I was at the mercy of the things behind the door.” Ilsa paused, “But I can tell by your face you know what greeted me.”
“Yah. Four of the nasty she-brutes. I screamed of course, terrified of the monsters, helpless in the sand. All I had was the milk bucket I was carrying with me when the wind scooped me up. The milk was long spilled of course, but somehow, without realizing it, I had never let go of the handle. As the filthy Skutters came towards me I swung the bucket at them and defended myself as best I could, but it was hopeless, of course.”
A tear streamed down Lizzie’s cheek.
“A Skutter raised her sword and chopped off my head,” said Ilsa. “They used the milk bucket to carry my head back through the red door. The worst thing was that chopping my head off didn’t kill me. I caught a glimpse of my body, lying on the blood soaked sand before my head was dumped in the bucket. The bucket smelled of sour milk. As the Skutter carried my head away, all I could think was that I was dead, and yet somehow, I was also alive!”
To Be Continued!