I have once again entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest. In this delightful contest, one is assigned a Genre, a Character, and a Subject, and must write a story in the assigned genre and including the character and the subject. This time, I was assigned:
…and here is what I wrote based on these prompts. It is not as polished as I like my writing to be, because three hours before the midnight deadline, I changed the entire plot, but… here goes.
In the tiny river-kingdom of Fib, the river ran red and the fish died. The red deepened in color and the fishermen died. The poison in the river could not be boiled or blessed away. The people had but few wells. It seemed as if it was the end of the kingdom of Fib. The song of the banshee-bird (an ominous bird, black all over save for a single red feather on its brow) was heard in the land for the first time in a thousand years.
The king sent out a Proclamation to all of the villages of his kingdom.
The King doth declare this day that any Lad who shall act as to make our river water potable again shall marry my fairest daughter and be King after I am gone.
Many things resulted from this Proclamation, but three only must now be told.
First, the Crown Prince flew into a rage and stormed out of the palace.
Second, the four Princesses consulted first their glasses and then a witch to discover who would be the one to marry the hero- and the answer they received surprised them considerably.
Third, a boy named Jack remembered that Princess Annabelle had once smiled at him. She wasn’t, from most points of view, the fairest of the princesses, but Jack knew his own mind, though he knew very little else.
“Mother,” Jack said that night, “I am going to save the kingdom.”
“No Jack! You mustn’t go, for the river winds through a forest and the forest is full of fairies.”
“But I wish to marry Princess Annabelle,” Jack said, looking thoughtful. “I don’t see how else I can do that.”
“Jack, I forbid you to do this! Leave it to the strong and grown men!”
“But then one of them might marry Princess Annabelle.”
Jack’s mother did not think this likely. Not Annabelle. She was plump and plain.
“I think Annabelle is the fairest,” said Jack, “and when I save the kingdom I shall say so.” And Jack kissed his mother and marched up to bed.
The prince’s cloak was of fine black velvet, rendering him almost invisible in the dark of the forest. The only visible thing about him was the blade of his knife glinting in the moon, and that was visible only when it was poised to strike. In his pocket, he had a cloth soaked in river-water, and he wiped his blade with this regularly, to keep the poison fresh. The Prince was determined that no hero would win his birthright from him. He would rather rule over a land of corpses than see some horrible commoner- or, indeed, any but himself- on the throne. That night, the prince sent many of the finest knights of the kingdom to swell the ranks of the dead.
In the town, two figures slipped out of windows and into the forest. One was Jack. The other, cloaked and muffled from head to toe, dropped heavily from a window in the palace, landed with a thud, and ran.
As the prince looked up from his latest victim, he noticed the glow of a campfire a little way off through the trees. As he approached, he laughed to think how easy it would be to kill the fool who’d allowed a fire to dazzle his eyes. But when he drew near, he saw that it was no hero sitting by the fire, but only a withered old crone. She was turning something over and over in her hands, something that blazed gold in the firelight. The Prince drew closer and saw that what she held was a crown.
And it wasn’t just any crown. It was the crown.
The crown that was lost in the last great calamity, when the banshee-bird last sang. The ancient crown of Fib that still adorned the Royal Seal today, was still stamped on Fibbish coins. It was so obviously itself, so obviously important. There is an aura about some magical things, and there are few things more magical than a crown. The prince stood and was awed.
This awe lasted for a whole fifteen seconds. Then the killing came into his eyes once more. If he possessed this crown- why, he’d be a more legitimate king than his own father! He could depose the old fool, or have him beheaded, or anything! When a man is mad for a crown, he is mad indeed. The prince stepped into the clearing and asked a question.
“Where did you get that, old woman?” Asked the prince.
“In a dead land where only I sing. A raven was feasting on the meat of the skull that wore it, but I told him my secret and he flew away.” In the flicker of firelight her face seemed ever-shifting, as if she might become something else at any moment.
Jack watched the scene from the cover of the trees, as did the muffled figure from the palace.
The prince drew his blade and stepped towards the old woman.
The muffled figure burst into the clearing and jumped on the prince’s knife-arm. But the figure was little and the prince threw it to the ground easily. Then he made ready to stab the muffled thing, for it- whatever it might be- had tried to thwart him.
The figure on the ground rolled over, and the hood fell away from her face.
“Annabelle!” Cried the prince. He stayed his hand. This required thought. There are things you don’t do, and one of them is kill your kid sister. Not in a place like Fib, where the Furies yet bide and magic is everywhere. But then the prince smiled his murderer’s smile, and said, “Well, you can’t be allowed to tell father of the crown, so-” and his knife flashed down.
“Annabelle!” Cried Jack, and leapt into the fray. The prince, startled, whipped around and lunged for Jack. Annabelle kicked the prince’s shin and ran away into the woods. Jack tried to follow, but the prince grabbed him and lifted him into the air with one hand – the knife was in the other. Jack knew he must say something to arrest the progress of the blade towards his throat.
“Hey! Where did the old woman go?” Asked Jack. And indeed the old woman had gone- and so had the crown.
“I’ll find her by and by,” said the prince.
“I can see her now,” said Jack.
“Where?” Said the prince.
“Put me down so I can point,” said Jack.
And the prince, who was more vicious than bright, put Jack down.
So did the prince. But he did not run after Jack. He thought he saw the flash of old gold somewhere off in the other direction, and now he ran after that. He must have that crown. He would be king.
Soon, Jack came to a cottage. From the yard came the sound of hammering. Jack stopped short when he saw what was being made, for it was a coffin. Some design was being hammered upon the lid. Jack froze, uncertain. The man turned.
He was not a man but a giant. In the darkness, his size had been hard to judge. But when he looked at Jack, somehow, it was very, very clear.
“Hello small boy,” said the giant. “I’m Grol the Woodworker, coffineer and cabinet-maker to the Ancient Court of Fib. You will be my apprentice. I need someone with little hands to do the fancy bits.”
“Do you know why the river is red and poison?” Asked Jack.
“Ask the bird.”
“Have you seen a young lady run by here?”
“You get eaten if you don’t start carving fancy bits in this coffin. Gotta be done in time, this coffin.”
“In time for what?”
The giant just smiled. He had lots of teeth. More teeth than a mouth should have. Jack got out his mother’s kitchen-knife and approached the coffin-lid.
The design that Grol had hammered in the lid was a crown. The crown. The crown on the coins. The crown the old woman had had. Jack understood nothing. He started to carve the fanciest things he could think of around that utterly familiar and utterly strange crown.
As Jack carved, he worried. Where was Annabelle? Where was that prince with his wicked knife? How could he ask the birds anything and how would they answer? How could he clean the river?
He was so worried that he almost didn’t notice that as he scratched and dragged the blade across the coffin-wood, something was scratching back. Something was inside the coffin, scratching at the other side of the lid. But as soon as he noticed this, he also knew that it was his Annabelle on the other side of the heavy oak. She’d dashed into this yard, seen Grol, and hidden herself in the coffin.
Jack saw that Grol was tending a small fire in a circle of stone. The fire was too small to be of much use to a giant. Perhaps, then, it was a magic fire.
“Giant, I am terribly thirsty,” Jack cried.
“You keep on working. Who cares for your thirst?”
But Jack only fumbled helplessly with his tools, and he got clumsier and more plaintive when shouted at. So Grol drew a big bucket of water from the well. Jack promptly poured the bucket over the fire.
“Gra-meow!” Cried Grol, who was no longer a giant, but only a cat. The cat mewed piteously and burnt its little paws trying to get the fire to light again. Jack heaved the lid off the coffin, and there was Annabelle. She was very pale.
“There is someone else in here with me,” whispered Annabelle. Jack helped her up, and indeed under Annabelle was the old woman, and in her hands was the crown.
A red feather grew in the center of the woman’s forehead. And the woman was- changing.
Jack grabbed the red feather.
“Well, bird,” he said to the woman, “why is the river poisoned?”
“The dead of Fib have beheaded their King. His blood will flow up, from the dead river into the living one, until a new king is crowned. And the sands are running out. Soon the dead will be the only kingdom.” She looked up at the lightening sky, and it seemed to be growing darker even as it grew light. “When the sun is full-risen, the river will swallow you all.” And the woman smiled. “Shall I tell you my secret now?”
Jack, about to say yes, was kicked in the shin instead.
“No thank you, my good woman,” said Annabelle. Jack let go of the feather and made a grab for the crown, but it and the woman disappeared in a whir of wings.
Ravens began to settle upon the branches of trees, so many that their black feathers fell like snow.
“Crown!” Said a raven.
“Fail!” Said another.
“Hurry!” Said a third.
“Eyes!” Cried another, and they all settled back in agreement. Eyes were the nicest parts to eat. And it looked like they’d soon have a feast.
For the river was rising, and what it was swollen with was not rain.
“Why did you come here?” Jack opened the conversation with this question, and his voice was savage with anger.
Annabelle looked at him coldly. “And who are you?” She asked.
“I am called Jack. Why did you come here? You’ll have to cut out these dangerous entertainments when we’re married.”
Annabelle, when she was calm enough to speak, had a lot to say. “Married? Married! That’s why I’m here. The witch said I’d be the one judged fairest. Me! I don’t want to marry any hulking, sweaty, hairy, dumb old hero- so I’m just going to have to save the kingdom myself.”
“How?” Asked Jack.
“We’ve got to get the crown, and- and hope that we’ll know what to do with it,” said Annabelle. “Only I didn’t see which way she went.”
And then from the canopy of ravens came a bird-call that no raven could cry, a liquid lament, a song of death and grief, a song that silenced the ravens as the earth is silenced by the falling snow.
The cry of the Banshee-bird.
The red water began to seep up through the soil of the forest.
The sun was coming up.
Grol the cat howled from the top of his very important coffin. They’d forgotten him, and if he were forgotten… he shivered. His fire was now not only out but under water. It would have been so easy as a giant. As a cat, it was impossible. Grol howled out a lament for a doomed kingdom.
The coffin began to float. There was a way, then. Grol put a paw against a nearby tree and pushed off.
“There she is!” Cried Jack. A young woman with a red feather on her brow danced in the rising river-water. The crown dangled from one hand.
The water was up to their thighs now.
And then she saw them- and smiled- and started to change.
The prince leapt out from the shadow of a tree and savagely broke both of her arms. “Try flying now,” he said, and grabbed the crown before it hit the reeking surface of the water. And when he looked up from the crown to his sister, there was nothing human in his eyes. The blade was in one hand and the crown in the other. He moved towards them. Jack and Annabelle tried to run, but their feet were stuck in the thick blood-charged flood.
“Oh, brother,” cried Annabelle, “do put on the crown first! That will make my death an execution, and you will not be cursed for killing a sibling!”
The prince smiled and put the crown on his head.
Still smiling, he fell down dead, and floated upon the red waters.
Which were still rising.
“What must we do now?” Cried Annabelle. “I thought that would do it!”
“I-” said Jack. And he kissed her. Because there was nothing else to do. They were out of time.
“Meow,” said Grol the cat, laboriously steering his coffin through the maze of trees. “Meow,” he repeated, more urgently. Humans. Kissing. Yuck. “Meow!” He touched the coffin-lid with his nose. “Meow.” He hopped on Jack’s shoulder.
Jack and Annabelle loaded the new King of the Dead into his ceremonial vessel. There was a noise of rushing water as the river started to go back down again. The coffin was sucked into the red waters, and it must have kept going right through the ground, for when a moment later the waters had receded, no coffin could be seen.
The ravens, disgusted, flew away.
In the forest, a banshee-bird with two broken wings sang her sad heart out, and longed for the end of all things.
And soon Jack and Annabelle were married and lived happily ever after.