Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Short Story - Blood Red

Her eyes flew open as she jerked awake in total darkness, gasping as though she had been holding her breath too long.  She drew in another breath, as she waited for her pounding heart to settle down.  She must have had a nightmare, for she was also damp with sweat.  She didn’t often have bad dreams, which was odd considering the life she had led, but her optimistic and general outlook served as a potent shield against dark intrusions into her sleep.

She licked her cracked lips.  The inside of her mouth tasted dry like cotton; she had no saliva with which to moisten them.  She must have fallen asleep with her mouth open.  Gah... she hated when that happened, for it left a foul taste on her tongue for most of the day.

She smiled her usual sunny smile.  No help for it now.  Though it was still dark, it would be morning soon no doubt, and she had to get breakfast ready for the little ones.  She started to sit up and a wave of dizziness forced her back down, one hand resting against her pounding head.  She felt very odd, it was hard to think and her head felt like it was stuffed with old rags.  If she had been anyone else, she would have attributed it to too much wine, but she was certain that she hadn’t had anything stronger than milk for weeks.

She was probably catching sick.  That would be all she needed.  Although the men would not begrudge her a few days of rest, especially after all she had done for them; the household would fall into utter chaos if she wasn't there to hold back the tide of dirty dishes, unwashed clothes, and uncooked meals.  In the long run, it was easier to work while sick, then to deal with the accumulation of work when she got better.

Something crackled in her hand.  She hadn’t noticed before, but her fingers had been wrapped around something while she was sleeping, something dry and pointed like twigs.  She broke one between her fingers and sniffed it.  Dried flowers.  How odd.  The men sometimes gave her gifts, but they knew better than to disturb her while she was sleeping.  One, it was inappropriate to enter a lady’s bedroom uninvited and she was trying very had to teach them proper behavior.  Two, she could be a real bear if awakened prematurely.

Maybe that was the problem.  It was too early.  The tall trees made it hard to tell time of day sometimes.  Still, she was awake and not feeling much like going back to sleep.  She might as well start her day.

She tried to sit up, but the top of her head smacked against something hard before she had moved more than a few inches.  She swore loudly and rubbed the spot.  It wasn’t splintery like wood, it was smooth like glass.  This was just getting stranger and stranger.

She put her hand out and touched the smooth surface of something suspended over her head.  No, not suspended, for her exploring hands found similar barriers at her sides, above her stomach, even down by her feet.  Horrified, she realized that she was completely encased by whatever it was.  Exactly the shape and size of a ...

Oh no.

Her memories came flooding back.  The old woman at the door with the piercing eyes.  The apple.  That damn apple!  She remembered biting into it, the bitter taste filling her mouth, the wooden floor rushing up at her.  In the last moment of clarity, before the cold darkness took her, she understood why the old woman had seemed familiar.  The Queen!  Too late, she had understood that her stepmother, the Queen had finally caught up with her and used her compassionate trusting nature to deceive her.  She had taken the crone at her word and paid the price.

And now, she thought in horror, it wasn't her intent to just kill me.  That would be too quick and merciful.  She put me in some kind of death trance.  They buried me alive.  Now I’m awake, just in time to smother to death, all while the Queen sits in her castle somewhere and laughs at me.

She sobbed uncontrollably, knowing that she was using up her precious air, but what did it matter?  She was going to choke to death six feet under ground, alone in the darkness, without anyone knowing that she still lived.  Her prince was not going to rescue her at the last minute.

Her step mother the Queen, who hated her beyond all reason, had planned it perfectly.  Anger flooded through her body.  She had never done anything to the Queen.  All she wanted to do was live out the rest of her life with her new friends, or perhaps in the arms of her Prince.  She was no threat to the Witch Queen.  Why couldn’t she have just left her alone?

All her life she had been a cheerful, happy girl, harboring not a speck of resentment for anyone.  Now,  all the rage at the Queen and her terror of death came bubbling out of her.  She screamed for help, in the small hope that someone could hear her and dig her out in time, then stopped to listen.

Nothing.  Just the dead silence of the grave.

Panicked, she slammed her hands against the lid of her coffin.  It gave way just an inch, to her surprise, and a blast of cool hair brushed her face.

Hardly daring to hope, she pushed against the lid again with all the strength she could muster.  A sharp tinkle of cracking glass and she forced the lid away.  It flew several feet away and struck a nearby tree, where it broke apart into several large pieces.

She sat up, laughing in joy and relief.  She had not been buried!  For some reason, she was lying in state somewhere above ground.  If it had not been such a dark night, she would have been able to see that.  She wanted to laugh aloud in relief, but her joy suddenly turned to confusion.

Why was she lying in a coffin in the middle of the woods if she was still alive?  One made of glass instead of wood, no less.  Why put her in a glass case on display in the middle of the woods like she was some kind of prize jewelry?  It made no sense.  Not that she was really complaining, for just a few moments ago she had been facing a very nasty and lingering death.  The whole thing was so surreal that she it confused her, and frightened her just a bit.

She licked her lips again and looked around.  On top of everything else, her lips were cracked and her tongue tasted like sand.  She was so thirsty that she could barely stand it.  .  Something in her brain was begging her to do something, anything about that persistent maddening Thirst.  She honestly thought that if she didn’t drink soon, she really would be dead.

She pushed herself out of the coffin and swung her legs over the edge.  A wave of dizziness hit her and she stumbled, spilling out of the coffin.  The edge of her foot caught one corner and for one moment, she hung balanced over the edge, staring up at the night sky.  Then with a low groan, her casket fell on top of her.

That has finished me, she thought.  The coffin had cracked apart and the resulting shards had pierced her body in several places.  Strangely, there was no pain, only sadness.  It would seem that Fate wanted her dead, despite all her efforts.  She started to weep again.

A flicker of light caught her attention somewhere off in the trees.  Someone was coming, drawn by all the racket, no doubt.  Perhaps there was still hope for her yet.  Despite the glass shards running through her, she actually felt a bit stronger.  She even managed to sit up a bit.

"H... hello?" she croaked.  If it was the Queen returning, or one of her servants, she was done for.  There was no way she could defend herself like this.

A small figure emerged from the trees holding a lantern in one hand and a large club in the other.    A short man, wearing a low cap and glasses perched on the end of his nose.  She recognized that face, both wise and childlike.  The Doctor!  If anyone would know what to do, it would be him!

He stared at the broken coffin and a look of anger crossed his face.  "You dare defile her rest!" he shouted to the surrounding woods.  "Bad enough that you had to kill her, but you had to mutilate her remains as well?  You got what you wanted!  Why can't you leave her and us alone?"

"No... no, Doctor.  You don't understand!"  His eyes widened in shock at her voice.  She tried to sit up again and without thinking she reached down and grasped the razor sharp glass, pulling it out of her side.

They both stared in shock  No spray of blood.  In fact, the jagged hole, closed up after the wound, leaving only torn cloth to show where it had been.

"I'm not the Queen,” she pleaded with him.  “I'm not dead.  I was only... sleeping."

He backed up a step, terror in his eyes.  "You're not her!  The Queen has used her foul magic to raise the body into you... some kind of undead thing.  I won't stand for it!"  He dropped the lantern and held the club with both hands as he backed away from her.

She was heartbroken at the look of fear and disgust on his face.  A look that she was responsible for.  She held out a pleading hand.  "Please, don't run.  I… I would never hurt any of you.  Something has happened, something that I don’t understand.”  Her pleading eyes grew moist.  “Please help me”

He hesitated, and took a step towards her.  She sighed in relief and reached out to him.  “Dear friend, “ and smiled widely at him.

The color drained out of his face and he stared at her, jerking his hand away.  "Don't you come near me!" he shrieked.  He was quaking in terror, shaking so badly that his glasses slipped off and dropped to the ground.  He stared around in a blind panic running full tilt away.  In the darkness, and with his poor vision, he never saw the tree until he crashed into it with a thud and a groan.

It would have been comical in other circumstances.  She was instantly at his side, checking how badly he had hurt himself.  He lay still, but he was still breathing.  Blood gushed from his nose as well as from a large gash on his forehead.

She wept softly as she tore a section of her dress and began wiping away the blood.  A tear dripped off her face onto his beard as she whispered what little comfort she could give.  "It's all right... dear friend.  I've come back to you and everything will be all right."

She licked her lips again.  She was so thirsty.  The smell of his blood was stirring up emotions in her, alien emotions that seemed to belong to someone else, except that they were coming from her own mind.  Her breath came in short pants as her tongue slavered almost like a dog.  Almost without thinking, she knelt to lap the blood from his face, until she stopped in horror.  Dear heavens what was wrong with her?  Why had her appearance terrorized the Doctor so badly?  She knew that she looked a bit ragged but still...

Her tongue poked in the corner of her front teeth, a habit she had picked up as a girl, when she was afraid.  Her teeth didn't feel right.  She put one finger in her mouth, feeling along her jaw.  Something stung her finger.  Her breath hisses sharply as she felt along her incisor and saw that they were pushing out of her mouth, unsheathing from some hidden place like the fangs of a snake.  It suddenly all made terrible sense.

Her screams echoed throughout the forest.  Far away in the cottage, the other six of them heard the sounds of pain and anguish and huddled under their blankets.  Something terrible walked the forest this night, no doubt.

The Prince did not usually travel at night, but he wanted to get to the cottage as soon as possible.  The message had been brief... but heartbreaking.  His love was dead, poisoned by the Queen.  His emotions fluttered from white hot anger, to cold despair.  What could anyone, even a prince, do against the Queen?  She had won.  The only thing left was to mourn his beloved, and try to get on with his life.

His horse slowed its pace and nickered softly.  He patted her neck.  "Easy girl.  I know you're tired; not that much further to go."

But the horse wasn't tired, she was afraid.  The whites of her eyes gleamed in the moonlight as she whinnied and flared her nostrils.  The prince’s hand went for the sword at his belt, for wolves and other predators were sometimes found in these woods.  "Don't worry, girl.  Whatever it is, all I’ll have to do is show this to them.”

The horse was not so easily convinced.  It backed up slowly, eyes fixed on the road ahead.  Someone was in the road, a small silhouette, wearing a cloak that billowed out behind.  It was a late night traveler, less than half his size with no visible weapons.  It didn’t seem like much of threat, but something told him to keep his hand on his sword.  "Hello?  Who’s there?"

"So, you finally managed to make it, did you?"

He froze.  It was that musical voice that filled his dreams.  Could he dare to hope?  "You're alive?  They had told me that you were..."

"Dead?  They were right.  And wrong at the same time."

It was his beloved, no doubt, but her voice had changed, taken on a hard edge that frightened him.  "What happened to you, love?  I searched all over looking for you, but no one knew where you had gone.  Then your friends sent me that message and I feared the worst."

"And what did you expect to do once you found me?  Make everything all better with a kiss?"  She laughed bitterly.  "Life isn't that simple, my love.  Neither is death, it seems."  She pointed an accusing finger at him.  "You were supposed to rescue me, and yet she came and poisoned me while you were miles away.”

"Love please,"  He moved to get his lantern out of his pack.  "Let me make a light then we can figure out what to do.  I have failed you, to my eternal sorrow, but I swear I will do what it takes to avenge you!"

"Stop." The word was spoken gently, but it carried the weight of a shouted command.  "You don't want to see me now.  The one you loved is dead; there is only this... thing that the Queen has made me into.  If you go after her seeking vengeance, she will kill you.”

"Then at least let me hold you one last time, love.  I would say farewell to you."

“Nothing would make me happier, but that cannot happen.  For one, I want you to remember me as I was, not as I am now.  I want to live on in your dreams, not your nightmares.”  She clenched her fists and backed away from.  "I dare not come any closer.  There is another part of me, a dark and evil part that wants to be near you, but not for reasons of love.”

He nudged the horse a step towards her.  “I can’t believe that you would hurt anyone, much less me.”

“I've gone my whole life and not harmed so much as a bird, but this night I've had to kill two deer to slake my thirst.  And it isn't enough.  If I get too close, it will drive me mad.  I will feed on you, my love."

"Oh God," he whispered.  "What has the Queen done to you?"

"She murdered me," she said sadly.  "Mourn me and find another, my prince.  The world is full of maidens who need rescuing."  The icy bitterness in her voice cut him deep.  "Maybe you can manage to save the next one."

She was gone.  The Prince laid his head against the horse and wept bitterly.

Grimhilde brushed her hair softly, humming to herself.  She was in a good mood, a rare state of affairs for her.  But why should she not be cheerful?  Her place as the most beautiful had been restored, that hateful chit of a girl gone from her sight forever.  She pictured her waking up in her coffin, in the dark, screaming until her lungs burned, her face turning purple as she tried to suck the last bit of oxygen out of the air.  Oh how delightful!  If only there could have been some way she could have been there to see it.  Not so fair at the end, she thought and cackled aloud.

"Something amusing, my queen?" said a voice, the last word dripping with sarcasm.

The hairbrush clattered to the floor.  She whirled around her heart thudding.  No.  The girl was standing by the lone window to her bedroom, hands clasped behind her.  She wore her usual colorful peasant dress, only torn and dirtied with dry and crusty dark stains covering her chin and neck.

But the biggest change was her eyes.  They were dark and empty, like a corpse.  Her mouth still had that same curved smile that she always had, but her eyes turned her smile into something twisted.  This created a situation that had not occurred in many, many years.  Grimhilde was frightened.

"S... still you live?"  The queen's voice cracked slightly, but one did not deal with dark powers like she had without learning to keep one’s composure.  "You have an irritating knack of staying alive, girl.  No matter.  I’ll come after you as many times as is necessary until the wolves feast on your bones!”

The girl did not move only raised an eyebrow in amusement.  "The apple worked as intended, my Queen.  Your mistake was in assuming that 'Sleeping death' meant a sleep that resembles death.  Whatever horrid witchcraft text you got that spell from meant something else entirely.

Grimhilde thought over the dark spell and realization hit her like a thunderbolt.  The spell of the apple had used an old word, meaning literally “death that one can awaken from."  Not a coma, or a trance, but the literal waking death… or Undeath.  Which would mean that in her ignorance, she had turned her bitterest rival into a…

The girl took a step forward.  "The irony is that if you had realized what the poison did, you would have probably eaten that apple yourself.  A few days sleep and you'd awaken with more power than you'd ever had in your life.  The strength, the speed, even the thirst, it all would suit you perfectly.  Yet you gave it to me.  One could almost find it funny."  She tried to laugh, but her voice choked.  "I don't want this life.  You've thrust it upon me for your own twisted reasons.  But since I have this gift, I might as well use it."

Grimhilde took a step back, casting about for a dagger, a knife, any weapon she could use.  "To seek your vengeance, no doubt."

"No.  Revenge is your world, not mine.  I may have lost my innocence these past few days, but I'm not going to be like you; you won't take that from me.  Despite all you've done, I don't hate you, only pity you."

A sneer bloomed on Grimhilde 's face.  "And that is why I rule, and you don’t.  The world is a harsh place, my dear, with only the strong fit to command it.  If you don’t eliminate threats, they will eliminate you."

In the blink of an eye, the girl seized Grimhilde by the front of her gown and lifted her up off the ground.  The queen struggled to pull away, but it was like trying to wrestle with a tree.

The girl waited patiently until Grimhilde exhausted herself, then she opened her mouth in a wicked grin, exposing her altered teeth.  "I'm so... thirsty," she whispered.  "I want so badly to tear your throat, drink from what gushes out, bathe in your blood."  She closed her eyes taking a deep breath to calm herself.  "I don't know much about such things, but if the stories are true, then there's a chance that it would make you like me.  I can't risk that.  The thought of what you would do, with these powers is just too horrible for me to imagine."

"You... you said you weren't here for vengeance."

"True, but I also have a duty, to stop you.  Not out of revenge, but to see that you don't inflict your cruelty on the world."  She pulled the Queen's ear to her mouth and whispered to her.  "You will never do this to anyone ever again."  With a casual flick of her wrist, she threw her against the stone wall of the room, with a loud crunch  and a horrid wet snap.

Grimhilde's body twitched once and was still.  She looked at what she had done, at the Queen's glazed dead eyes, to verify that she was dead.  Then she stared down at her hands, hands that had, for the first time, caused the death of another person.   It had felt too good, too satisfying.  The blood lust had already started in on her, changing her.  What kind of a monster would she be in ten years?  In a century?  She could become a far worse horror than the Queen had ever been.

No.  She must stop it now.  Her first kill, must be her last.

She pulled a chair over to the window.  A single tear trickled down her cheek as she mourned her loss.  All her friends; and the prince of her heart she would never see again.  It wasn't fair, but there was little she could do about it, other than try to remove the taint of what Grimhilde had done.

She closed her eyes and waited for the sunrise.

This story came to me from a series of pictures that I saw on DeviantArt once.  It was of classic Disney characters, but changed... twisted.  It didn't take much to change something from innocent and childlike to horrifying.  Most of the stories that we hear as children are quite frightening, if we stop to think about them too much.

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