Read an Excerpt
By JEFF CONNER
IDWCopyright © 2010 Idea and Design Works, LLC
All rights reserved.
The Fairest of Them All:
A Symphony of Revenge
By Sean Taylor
First Movement—Once Upon a Time
They were nameless, though they had no trouble distinguishing one another. Short and squat, they smelled like the caves they mined, but that didn't bother them. They had done so and been so for more than two hundred of the humans' years, and they looked neither older nor younger than they had a few decades ago.
The one who knew himself as the leader, and perhaps the eldest—it had been so long and who knew really—walked the tunnels in thought.
The woman, the human woman, was waiting for them at the cottage. No more than a cleaned-out cave by her standards, no doubt, but for them it was as close to a cottage as they could tolerate. Before finding her, he had simply called the place home, but she had named it cottage and because they loved her, he could abide the change of terms.
"Good day today, brother?" the one with the red beard said as he passed.
"So far," Leader said. "Enough gold to justify another day of digging."
"That's not what I mean."
"You'll turn gray from the worry I see on your face. You've got wrinkles on your wrinkles this morning."
He laughed, a coughing sound laden with rock dust. "I'm thinking about Snow."
"We all do. She's quite a beauty."
He shook his head. "Not like that. Something's wrong. There's a darkness growing in her and I fear we can't stop it. It's an ill wind, brother, and I fear for her safety."
"She's fine. The Queen thinks she's dead."
"The Queen is not a fool. She knows more than we hope. At any rate, what she doesn't yet know, she will learn soon through her dark arts." He cleared the dust again and patted his chest with a rock-like fist. "Snow is not safe and will not be until her mother is killed."
His brother dropped his voice to a whisper and cut his eyes askance. "Are you suggesting...."
"I'm suggesting nothing, brother. Merely stating a fact. Whether or not it is our role to play the assassin, who can know?"
Redbeard shoved his stubby finger in the elder's chest. "Be careful what you say. She has eyes and ears all throughout her kingdom, even as far as these Deadlands. If you don't want a price on your head too, I'd keep my tongue from waggling, or failing that, cut the damn thing out to keep it still."
He laughed and stepped away from the finger in his chest. "At any rate, it's not a matter for today. And there is more gold to be found to keep our little Snow's neck lined with jewels."
Redbeard raised his fist and opened it. Leader did the same then clasped it, and the two nodded twice and let go.
Both turned when the tallest of their brothers, though still a stump of a man by human standards, tripped along the path toward them, panting and dragging his pick behind him.
"Brothers!" he said. "We found something you need to see."
Leader reached up and grabbed his brother by the shoulders. "Calm down."
"What did you find?" asked Redbeard.
"We're not sure."
"Not sure? Then why are you running like a cowardly troll?"
Tallest grabbed his elder brother's dirty arm and pulled him closer. "It's a mirror, but we don't know what kind."
"What kind, what kind," said Redbeard. "What a stupid brother. A mirror is a mirror. There are no kinds. They're for women to crow about their vanity and little else."
"Not this one." Tallest crouched toward his brothers' faces, his breath hot and sweaty in their eyes. "This one has a girl inside it."
The cave stank of sweat and urine, and she cleaned it daily on her knees, then cooked whatever forest creature the little men captured and killed for dinner on the way home from the mines. She sang as she worked, a melody she remembered from when she was a child, perhaps no older than five or six. It was increasingly difficult to remember. The years had been far too unkind since her mother's death.
Her father's second wife had been a beautiful woman, practically a goddess of a high order, but only on the outside. Inside her throbbed a heart of poison. She hated her stepdaughter from their first meeting, pretending to enjoy their time together and planning whenever she could events that would take the girl and her nanny away from the castle, leaving her alone with her new husband.
She'd grown up lonely, and no matter how they smelled or how atrocious their table manners, the little men had become her friends, and she loved them.
Still she shuddered.
She'd seen the way the eldest of them and the redheaded one looked at her across the table. She'd heard that dwarves remained unmarried and merely mated when nature called for more of their species to arrive. Like something wild, something that was more a part of the forest and mountains, not part of her civilization of culture and glamour and pomp.
But that place had forsaken her. After her father's death, her stepmother had grown more openly vile toward her, insisting on marrying her off to a distant prince from a nation of barbarians, so she had run away.
To retaliate, her stepmother had thrown the blame of her father's death onto her and labeled her guilty of treason, then offered a reward for her death.
"Just a little longer," she said to no one, gazing out at the reddening sun as it dipped into the edge of the world. "I wonder what we'll have for dinner tonight."
As she spoke, she walked to the row of beds sitting in the dark shade of the overhanging rock. Once there, she reached down to steady herself with one hand then sat down, her knees poking up even with her chest thanks to the small frame.
The door burst open and a small dog with white matted fur bounded in and leapt into her lap, pushing her back onto the bed. Her feet hung off the edge and touched the floor, flatfooted, and the top of her head pressed against the head rail. The dog snuggled into her chest and licked her lips and nose.
"Stop, Aspen. Stop," she giggled, covering her face with her hands. "That tickles. Stop."
Of course the dog didn't stop.
"And you probably tracked mud all over the clean floor."
She finally managed to push the dog off her chest and sit up again. Clean floor, she thought. Not very. Even freshly swept it was just a base of flattish stone cut out from the base of a mountain and etched with a grid to make it look fancier than mere rock.
The little men had done that for her. They would have been content with a hole cut out from a rocky ledge, but for her they had created a floor. A pattern. A little bit of culture and glamour and pomp. For her. The same reason her larger wooden dresser and bed were adorned with spheres and cubes and statuettes of dragons and harts instead of the simple blocks of their own furniture. And the same reason her top drawer was filled with golden chains and colorful stones from the mines and the rest with fancy dresses they had traded for with the villages beyond the mountain. For her.
They loved her.
And she loved them.
But that was no longer enough.
For any of them.
The faces were staring at her. Ugly. Wrinkled. Filthy. Prunes with noses, she thought. No. Rotten prunes with noses. She imagined that they'd smell horrible too if she could be close enough to fall prey to their odor.
But the glass that had been her prison for years was in this case a grace, protecting her from the trollish monsters.
In her father's kingdom, years ago, he had gone to war with the creatures, and ultimately run them off his lands into the mountains.
But her father's kingdom was long gone, lost for centuries in the world on the other side of the glass. Her family had grown old, died, rotted and nested forests in their remains while she remained a captive of a witch who had stolen her away and sent her to this land of nightmares and hallucinations.
"Alice," said a voice she recognized instantly. "What are those horrid creatures?"
"Long ago, when I was much younger and not younger at all, my father called them the darshve. He told me how they were creatures born from the sides of mountains and baptized to life in the blood of our ancestors. Monsters of the rock and greed."
She turned toward the voice and smiled.
A white rabbit, dressed in armor save for his face and head stood before her, bowing.
"What news, Ulysses?"
"Alas, none, Alice." The rabbit frowned. "I wish I had better news. But I've traveled as far as the ocean to the East and as far as the swamps of the Jabberwock to the West, and no one has any knowledge of another doorway into your home world. It appears that when the looking glass was destroyed behind you, that was the only path to your old world."
"No!" she screamed and flung her hands against the mirror between her and the darshve. "There is a way, rabbit, and you will find it for me. I will not be slave to this witch any longer than I have to." Alice turned and glared not at her companion but through him to the door of her chamber. "And when I do escape, she will die."
She glanced toward the wooden desk beneath the mirror. On it sat a book bound in leather. Ulysses caught her gaze and asked, "And the book?"
"Sadly, no. There are paths to and from other worlds, but none back to mine." She released a heavy burden of a breath. "Yet."
The air between them wriggled. Then rippled out. She touched the center of the motion and pulled back.
"Her?" asked the rabbit.
"I'm not going this time," she said and sat down on the floor, crossing her legs in front of her. "She can rot before I let her collar me again with her beckoning."
"Hush, rodent." Alice glared at him this time. "Leave me alone."
The rabbit bowed, saluted, then turned on his left heel and strode from the chamber. When he was gone, Alice gripped her stomach and doubled over.
"No ..." she said through gritted teeth. "Not this time, witch."
But the pain in her gut became a fire. In a few moments she crawled onto her knees, then lay her face down against the stone floor. Her stomach churned.
She pressed both palms flat against the floor and raised her face a few inches from the stone.
"I will not obey you."
Her gut twisted and bile danced in her throat. She coughed. Three drops of blood splattered from her lips to the floor.
"I will n—"
Her stomach opened, pushing blood and water and acid and bile and pain and fire through her throat and thrusting it onto the floor in a puddle of green and red and brown.
"One day, witch," Alice said, reaching to wipe her mouth free of debris and mucous.
But another churning sent her hand to the floor to brace herself as her stomach emptied its filthy contents into the puddle again.
A voice in the air whispered, "Mirror, mirror on the wall...."
Second Movement—There Lived a Princess
"What's wrong with her?" asked Redbeard.
"She's beautiful, almost as pretty as Snow," said Tallest. "And she's young."
"Where is she?" Redbeard again. "Is she real, or the mirror a conjurer's trick?"
"Quiet, both of you," said Leader. "She's in pain." He tapped on the glass. The girl turned to face him and retched a third time. "She's real. That pain isn't a conjurer's game. No one could fake that. Look at her face."
His brothers crowded him at the mirror and he pushed them away.
"One side," he said. Not waiting for them to move, he pushed them away from the mirror and traced his thick, calloused hands around the oval edges. He tried to dig his nails between the glass and iron rim. There was no rim, as if the glass and frame were somehow molded from one piece of material. But it couldn't be, he thought. As a miner he knew raw materials, and iron was as different from glass as he was from the human woman living with him and his brothers. "There's conjuring here, but not necessarily only inside the mirror. This is made and bathed in magic. This is no ordinary mirror."
The smallest of his brothers, a golden-haired one with a mere few inches of a beard, shoved through the melee to the front. "Let's take it to Snow!"
"To Snow?" he asked.
"Yes, she loves trinkets and jewels, and a magic mirror would be the perfect thing for her to use when she brushes out her hair."
The others sighed and oohed approval.
"This is not a trinket, brother."
"No. It is a magic trinket," said Redbeard. "And our brother is right. Snow would love us even more when we give her this."
Tallest puffed out his chest and made himself a few inches taller. "And with the year of maturing coming soon, we will need to find women of our own kind or find something more wonderful than mere jewels to woo Snow."
"Here, here," said the others, in a sort of off-unison.
"Quiet," Leader said and stomped his boot into the dirty trail. "I say this is a bad idea. This mirror is enchanted and until we know what it does, it is far too dangerous to remove from this mine. But, we are brothers, and we will do what we will do. Who knows what role even this cursed looking glass may play in the evil that rides on the air through our Deadlands? We will put it to a vote and we will play our parts."
He let go of the mirror and leaned it against the wall of the cave. It teetered twice then stopped. The girl in the mirror had disappeared while they had argued, he noticed, though her chamber remained in view. Curious, he thought.
He sat on his knees and drew two circles in the dirt. He poked two dots outside the top of the left circle and one dot with a line across the top at the bottom of the right circle. Then he stood up again and walked to the wall opposite the mirror. He raised his pick and cut several slivers of stone from the wall. Then he put the pick down and gathered up the shards of jagged rock. He walked from one brother to the next and handed each a fragment until he had given away six of them, then kept one for himself and threw the remaining pieces into the dark tunnel.
"You know our way, brothers," he said. "Cast your vote."
They formed a single line and as each walked by the circles, he placed his stone in one of the circles. Redbeard placed his in the circle with the two dots, as did Newbeard and Tallest. Stumpfinger dropped his in the other circle. Then Finder.
That made two votes for each.
After Finder, No-Talk dropped his shard into the two-dot circle, then Grunt-Mouth did the same.
Leader gazed at the circles. Four votes to two. His vote was the only one left. Not that it would matter.
He sighed, then grumbled and stepped forward and carefully placed his stone fragment in the circle adorned by one dot and a solid line. Then he turned around and addressed his brothers.
"Let it be as we agreed. When we leave today, the mirror will go with us as a gift to Snow. Whatever danger befalls us and our love, let it be on our heads."
"Here, here," said his brothers. Then they each shook on the decision with open palms and two nods.
After they were done and finally returned to work, Leader carried the mirror to the mouth of the cave and laid it out in the sun. He slipped out of his tunic and spit on the cloth, then proceeded to wipe the dust and dirt and mud from the mirror and the frame.
That's when he felt the symbols etched into the iron.
Old letters. Older almost than his own people. From just after the time of the great wars. The Dark Days, as the humans called them. His own people called them the Time of Great Adventure but even the oldest of them couldn't remember the time. Only that they had been free to live anywhere in the land, not confined to the Deadlands.
He cleaned vigorously for nearly an hour, passing the time with a tune that Snow had taught him. He had tried to whistle as she had tried to teach him, but he just couldn't get the knack for it, and had to suffice with humming, though even that was difficult for his throat and mouth to conjure. In his own tongue, the old stories and songs were immensely disagreeable to human ears, and he had refrained from making the noises while in Snow's company, but he did enjoy grunting and burping out a story from the old language in private as often as he could.
Although—and the thought struck him as odd—Snow's songs were growing on him. Far too sweet and kind for his race. He knew that. But still they were pleasant, and they seemed to relax him.
There was no hurry, and he let the job take him another hour before he was able to at last make out the symbols around the glass.
Only, he couldn't read them. Not only were they older than his father's father's father, they weren't in his tongue.
Excerpted from Classics Multilated by JEFF CONNER. Copyright © 2010 Idea and Design Works, LLC. Excerpted by permission of IDW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.