The mid-afternoon sun shot its rays through a sea of clouds and upon the shimmering surface of the real, endless sea of the north. The rays bounced back and sprayed everywhere, imitating the great rolling whitecaps as they rose from the waters, only to crash back in defeat.
From the eyes of the gulls that sailed on the warm updrafts and the gentle zephyrs from lands unknown, there appeared to be a tiny spattering of dots set in the aquamarine seascape. As the birds drew closer, the dots revealed themselves to be tiny islands, the green of their foliage making them resemble emeralds set in gold, surrounded by the protection of a gargantuan, sapphire robe. There were four islands, one resembling a colon turned on its side, one tall and ominous with its many jagged peaks and mountains, one nearly covered in thick trees and shrubs, and the last one, though not the largest, seemed the grandest of them all.
A large palace was built in the center, surrounded by tiny villages and elegant gardens. The walls of the palace were not built of stone and mortar, like many castles in other kingdoms, but rather of light peach stucco, with Arabic designs winding their way up the sides along with the creepers and vines that reached up towards the windows. One tall tower protruded from the intersection point of two of the walls, with one small window looking out at the outside world. Within the tower was a single room, and within the room, two people were reading of kingdoms other than their own.
“You’ve heard all the poetry and stories concerning Atlantis, I’m sure,” said the older one.
“Most of it, I suppose,” replied the younger one. She brushed her black hair away from her face, moved closer to the other woman on the bed they were sitting on and turned her green eyes toward the open pages of the thick volume that the other woman was holding. “That Plato is a great storyteller.”
“He may be much more than that, daughter,” replied the woman, smiling back at her child with a face that was a near-perfect match in appearance and emotion, differing only in the years that set the two apart. With a delicate white hand, she turned over the page, revealing a beautiful, colored picture that spanned both of the leaves, etched in ink and paint, depicting a young man in steel armor, holding his sword tightly in both hands, kneeling before a blinding sun.
The girl gazed at it in awe. For the past few hours she had been swimming through an ocean of stories, tales from faraway lands, lands that never existed, lands that could only be seen by wizards and shamans, and the histories of the people that lived in the lands…gods, demons, giant reptiles with foot-long fangs and bat-like wings called dragons, spirits that inhabited every living thing, even rocks and trees, and then the stories of heroes who conquered these lands, heroes who faced death and danger, then faced it again when they failed, which they never seemed to do. They outwitted the most clever sorcerers and escaped the most vile predicaments, with their mighty swords flashing light and fire, running for no reason but to reach their goal, where they lived happily forever, so the story goes. The only thing that the girl noticed was that there were no female heroes in these stories. They always seemed to be either the damsel in distress, the luring temptress or even the malevolent witch. Hardly any of the stories had heroines, and that was the one thing that made her wonder.
Still, she enjoyed reading the ballads of bravery, and everything else in the stories. It was even more amazing when these epic tales were told in verse, how the words flowed and hopped and skipped over each other, leaving the girl guessing ahead of time which word that rhymed the best would come next. Some of the poems left her quiet for several minutes, but she had yet to hear one from her mother that made her decide to take a respite from the reading.
The girl’s mother seemed quite exhausted from both the weight of the volume on her legs and the soreness of her mouth from reciting the poems and stories from the book, with her daughter always begging her to read another. In a concealed act of desperation, the woman flipped through several of the weathered pages, catching brief glimpses of long, artful, sweeping calligraphy and brilliant drawings and paintings, with her daughter trying to persuade her to stop, only to be cut off as the pages flipped past her eyes.
Finally, the girl’s mother stopped at a page that seemed centuries older than the others, as if some spirit from a long ago past had slipped it in, and hoped that someone would eventually find it. The woman did feel a strange sensation in the air as she read the single, 11-line poem inscribed on the left page, bordered with arabesque patterns and mystical swirls of blue ink. Though the girl could see it and read it clearly, she still looked at her mother with a look that pleaded her to read it aloud. The two both knew that something written was always different when read by somebody. The woman cast a tired glance at her daughter, inhaled lightly, and read:
Scheherazade, of hero’s might
Weave your adventures day and night
Never falter, never fail
You’re the one who lives the tale
Do not fear the unsheathed knife
Your dreams and thoughts become your life
Fight demons in and out of you
Get through your woes and start anew
Do what your heart knows is true
When you find love and you are free,
Then a hero you will be.
When she finished reading, the young girl, who had previously been peering over the manuscript with the physical posture of a vulture, sat up straight and fell back slowly on the bed until she was lying down, her eyes gazing at the canopy of her bed with a strange emptiness in them, the strange beauty of the poem seeming to be progressively working itself into her mind. Finally, there was a poem, even if just one, that mentioned a heroine, a young woman from the Arabian Nights, in fact, the very creator of the magical tales. The poem was just that, yet more than that, the delicately interlocking lines seeming to weave an enchanted veil over her, leaving her almost literally spellbound. Her mother curiously leaned over her, with a mix of satisfaction and triumph in her face.
“Would you like to hear another one?” she asked, with the comfort of the realization that she had found the one poem that caused this final reaction in her child.
“No,” replied the girl softly, her eyes still studying the folds in the canopy above her, the verses of the poem racing across her memory like flying fish. “I think I’ll rest here for a while.”
“That’s fine,” replied her mother, rising from the edge of the bed and placing the thick book upon her daughter’s bedside table, leaving it open to the page on which the strange, enchanting poem was written. She paused to scan it once more before concluding her reply:
“It takes a lot of poetry to make you stop and think, doesn’t it, Cassima?”
King Caliphim, the ruler of the Land of the Green Isles was seated on his golden throne in the high-vaulted chamber of his palace, a beautifully handcrafted chair with red velvet cushions and a detailed, floral pattern decorating the back. Several inches from the left arm, adjacent to the king’s throne was another, identical seat, in which was sitting his wife, Allaria, who was wearing a pale silk dress embroidered with flowers at regular intervals. They were talking quietly, not loud enough so that the guards near the double doors at the end of the throne room could hear, but at a volume just high enough to let their words bounce off the walls and gradually dissipate into the air.
“Yes, I know Cassima is a young woman now,” said Allaria, gazing into her husband’s eyes with concern. “And no other man in this realm seems to be worthy of her hand. She hasn’t shown much interest in marriage, I’ll admit, but inside I’m sure she is willing to become a bride.”
Caliphim stroked his white beard pensively, his blue eyes gazing back at his wife’s. “True. Cassima has made good friends in the past, and she is a noble person to know. Alhazred has been asking about her frequently I the past months, and sometimes I wonder if he knows something about my daughter that I don’t. I think I’ll ask him about that now.”
The king rose slowly from his throne and walked down the length of the hall, his footfalls muffled on the brilliant red carpet. The guard dogs at the door stepped aside, their spears raised to a parallel with their stoic postures. Stepping through the two double-doors, Caliphim walked a short distance, then turned and ascended the flight of stairs to his left, or, from the viewpoint of anyone standing at the main doorway, the one to the right. It took him several seconds to reach the top, with his decades catching up on him and his strength fading. From the top of the staircase, Caliphim walked down the hallway, which was decorated with gold-plated portraits and large, ornate vases lining the walls. Allaria had been the main person behind the decoration of the castle when she and Caliphim were crowned and her first words on the interior of the palace were “It could use more a aesthetic atmosphere.”
Reaching the end of the hall, Caliphim turned and found his vizier, Abdul Alhazred sauntering his way, clothed in his clashing azure and rose-colored robes that he insisted upon wearing. His face, as it always did, bore its typical look of a serious advisor combined with a mind that was never short of “filled to the brim.” Upon seeing the king approaching, however, his mouth curled into an appreciative smile and his arms opened in an exuberant greeting.
“My Lord Caliphim, how pleasant to see you off that binding throne of yours! Is everything well?”
“Yes and no, Alhazred. Allaria and I are well, but our feelings about our daughter’s future are not.”
Alhazred’s face fell, but he only hesitated a short period of time before picking it and his self-assured air back up.
“My king, what is there that I can do to assist you? Surely there is something I can do to help!”
“Well,” said Caliphim, assuming the thoughtful, pondering expression of a long-lived monarch, “You know that I have trusted you for many years, and in all these years very little misfortune has befallen this kingdom. But lately there has been some unrest among the islands. And you know that I have asked you on numerous occasions…”
“And you know that I have answered on every one of these occasions that I know nothing of these peculiar goings-on, though truly I wish I did. Perhaps it is something hidden on one of the isles that the people do not wish to know about. It could be a malevolent force coming from somewhere outside this realm. It could even be…”
“You’ve told me all that you know and your many hypotheses over and over again, Alhazred,” said Caliphim said. “And they have gotten us nowhere. So I find I can do nothing more than let the issue rest for now. What concerns me now is Cassima.”
“The princess is well?” queried Alhazred.
“Of course she is well physically, it is the matter of marriage that I am speaking of.”
“Cassima is a beautiful girl,” Alhazred said affectionately, “And any man in the kingdom would be more than honored to know her, let alone wed her.”
“True, but my wife and I have found no such man,” replied Caliphim. “This is a small kingdom, and our only alternative seems to be a prince from the kingdoms beyond the Isles. Not many of our people are able to leave this land, but some have in the past, and have returned telling tales of lands totally different from ours, filled with fantastic beasts and countless varieties of people. Surely among all these people there has to be a prince suitable for my child.”
“Of course,” replied Alhazred, smiling again, “But again, I believe we have gone over this topic before, and my idea was to just let me think for a while. You know that great answers to such questions do not occur overnight.”
“It has been many nights since I first asked you about Cassima,” said Caliphim impatiently. “That was on her sixteenth birthday. Now she is almost into her eighteenth year, and I have received no enlightening solutions of this dilemma from you.”
“I don’t know what to say, my king,” Alhazred said. “It is hard to solve such problems in such a tiny realm as this, with barely any contact with the outer world. But as I’m sure you know, I have knowledge of powers that will enable all of us to gain what we seek. I have been studying the art of magic and I believe I have found some means of finding a prince for your daughter. But this requires practice, and I am not about to try such inexperienced, rash, advanced magic spells. But I promise you, I will be working as fast as my schedule will allow me to help you and your problem. Now, please excuse me, my liege.”
Alhazred turned and entered his study, closing and locking the door behind him. Caliphim gazed at the closed door and pondered the closed conversation that had just been concluded. Then, with a heavy sigh and a hope that his trusted advisor would remain true to his word, the king turned and began the slow journey back down the hall.
Dusk was slowly settling upon the tiny archipelago, the shadows from the tallest isle bringing an early night to all that lay east of it. Cassima, the young princess of the Green Isles was in her room, standing in front of her dressing table. She had changed into a casual, light blue dress, what her mother always told her was appropriate for wearing at meals. Only an hour or two remained before the bell for supper would ring, and the servants and guards would come flying from whatever task they were indulged in, drawn like iron to a magnet to the dining room, where some elegant meal would be waiting to be devoured.
Fit for a queen, right, thought Cassima, still studying the reflection of herself in the mirror. The face that she always saw whenever her mother was in front of her looked back. She was a near-perfect reflection of her mother: the long, black onyx hair, the emerald green eyes, and the clear, pale face. There was little that she saw that reminded her of her father, though, and Cassima sometimes wondered that if she had a brother, would he resemble her father? Her father’s hair and beard were gray and starting to turn white now. Her mother had told her that it was once black, just like hers and Cassima’s. The only real difference between him and his mother and daughter were his eyes: a piercing blue that few men, even young ones, possessed. However, Cassima had seen few men in her lifetime, and thus was unable to make a fair comparison of her father, or any of the other men she saw in the castle.
Alhazred was anything but a good man, even Cassima was right about that. He always seemed to have something on his mind that was the complete opposite of what someone was talking to him about. And then there were the guard dogs, an odd species that Caliphim said had originated from another island, were taken to the Isle of the Crown, and shortly afterwards, the isle had vanished…sunken, Cassima assumed, or otherwise moved to a new location. She supposed the guards could be considered human, since they were intelligent, walked upright and understood their loyalty to the Crown. Still, they were different, nonetheless…
Then there was Ulrica, the only female guard dog on the entire island, who lived in a tiny room in the basement. She was the royal nurse, and was always ready treat Cassima’s wounds whenever she fell out of a tree or tripped and fell on the hem of her dress. Even now, when Cassima was of age to marry, she still seemed to injure herself in the oddest ways, and Ulrica never asked any probing questions of the princess. But she still had much to talk about…
Cassima wetted her fingers in the large jug of water on her dressing table, lifted her hair up with the back of her hand and readjusted the golden locket she wore around her neck. The locket was in the shape of a heart with the insignia of a crown on the front. Inside were twin portraits of her parents, Caliphim and Allaria. Cassima’s mother had given the necklace to her when she was still very young, but old enough not to put anything that could be picked up in her mouth. Cassima had worn it every day since then, with the exceptions of the times that it had to be either polished, have a new clasp fastened, or when she unintentionally lost it, and in between that time and the time she or another person found it, the castle would be exploding with activity, every servant tripping over another servant in a desperate scramble to find her locket before everything fell apart completely.
A warbling note from the window of her room made Cassima turn her head. Her gray nightingale, Sing-Sing, was perched on the window ledge, eyeing her with curiosity. Actually, Sing-Sing wasn’t Cassima’s pet, just as no wild creatures are truly tamed, but was rather an orphaned fledgling that Cassima had found in the royal gardens, taken in and raised to adulthood. She and Sing-Sing had formed a close friendship, and many of the guards exchanged rumors that the bird and the princess could actually understand each other.
Cassima smiled, then glided to the window and extended her hand. The gray nightingale hopped onto her fingers, its magenta crest raised in excitement. Cassima raised her hand and the bird flapped into the air, coming to a rest on her left shoulder, where it affectionately nibbled her ear and twittered gently. The princess slowly walked over to her bedside table, where her eyes immediately fell upon the open pages of the old tome and the 11-line, mesmerizing poem written on the first page, the same way her mother had left it several days ago. Cassima paused and read the poem once to herself, then aloud, well aware of the influence spoken words can have upon a person.
Scheherazade, of hero’s might
Weave your adventures day and night
Never falter, never fail
You’re the one who lives the tale
Do not fear the unsheathed knife
Your dreams and thoughts become your life
Fight demons in and out of you
Get through your woes and start anew
Do what your heart knows is true
When you find love and you are free,
Then a hero you will be.
Again, the strange pulsation of energy moved through her, a slow warmth that enclosed her spine and limbs. Sing-Sing peered at Cassima with a combination of concern and that familiar, burning curiosity. For several minutes, she could hear nothing else but the poem echoing in her head.
A sudden knock on the door and a jingle of bells brought Cassima out of her trance with a start. She turned to the door and recited the familiar, generic phrase that one always uses when someone unknown is standing outside their door:
“Who is it?”
“It is Jollo, princess! May I come in?”
“Sure,” replied Cassima, turning and sitting down on her bed. The door of her room opened and in waltzed her father’s court jester, Jollo. The sight of him never failed to make Cassima laugh. He seemed to have a different combination of clothing for every day of the year. Today it was a crimson vest with a brilliant orange pair of pants that completely covered his boots but failed to muffle the sounds of the bells that were attached to the curved toes of each. His childish, bumbling voice topped off his clownish appearance. It was no wonder that everyone in the palace (with the exception of Alhazred) loved him.
“Cassima, dear, you seem a bit quieter than usual lately. I wanted to ask if anything was wrong.”
“Nothing is really wrong, Jollo,” said Cassima nonchalantly, “I think it was that poem that Mother read to me a few days ago. It was so beautiful and I don’t know why.”
“Which poem, Cassima?”
“The one on the left page of that open book,” said Cassima, gesturing to her table. Jollo jingled over to the open book and read the writing on the first page. As he did so, his eyes widened in silent awe, the same awe that Cassima felt when she heard it first.
“It is very pretty,” said Jollo, still spellbound by the verses, walking over and sitting on Cassima’s bed, next to her. “It’s almost like magic.”
“Magic? Jollo, you don’t mean those little tricks you always perform for Father and Mother, do you?”
“Oh no, those are just things that jesters like me learn to keep our audience confused. That’s what keeps their attention. But this poem of yours…it feels like genuine magic to me.”
“Wow. I thought that poem sounded magical, Jollo, but I had no idea that it might be…”
“It may not be, Cassima,” put in Jollo. “Maybe I’m just a dreamer who always calls things I can’t explain magic. That’s why I’ve always stuck to these little illusions and sleight-of-hand tricks.”
Cassima paused for a moment, trying to understand what her friend said. “Still,” she said after a few moments, “I just don’t see how you are able to do things like making birds and flowers appear without the aid of real magic.”
“There are many things someone can do without ‘real’ magic, princess,” said Jollo. “Why, I know how to summon the voices of the sea nymphs with just a glass goblet half-filled with water!”
“You’re joking, Jollo.”
“No, really, Cassima!” Jollo pleaded, pulling a wine glass out of his inner vest pocket. “I can prove it to you! Just bring me that jug of water from your dresser over there.”
Cassima rose slowly, as Sing-Sing trilled anxiously, walked across the room and picked up the pitcher and carried it back to the bed. Jollo took it from her and filled the goblet halfway. Then he dipped his finger in the water and rubbed it around the rim of the glass. A loud, piercing, throbbing note filled the room, like the echo of a bell only softer and more mysterious. It did sound as if the voices of the sea nymphs were passing through the room. Cassima listened in amazement, while Sing-Sing ruffled her feathers as if in jealousy.
“It’s not magic,” explained Jollo after the sound had died down. “It’s something called a glass harp. It’s quite simple, really. You can put more water in the goblet and it sounds different.” He filled the glass until it was about three quarters full and moved his finger around the circumference of the ring again. This time the note was deeper and fuller, but it still awed Cassima, drawing her closer to Jollo and his strange “instrument.”
“Here. You can play it,” said Jollo encouragingly, handing Cassima the glass. She eyed it carefully, trying to see if anything made this wine glass any different from any other wine glass, finding nothing, then raising her finger to the edge of the rim and running it around the glass counter-clockwise. No sound came from the glass, no sea-nymph song, and Cassima looked at Jollo in puzzlement, not understanding that he could make it make noise and she couldn’t.
“You have to put your finger in the water first,” said Jollo gently. Cassima obediently touched the water delicately with her finger, then wound it around the rim of the glass again. A rich, wailing tone filled the room, filling the ears of both human and bird. Cassima stopped, looked at the glass, then at Jollo and laughed like a child.
“It’s so amazing!” she cried. “And you say it’s not magic?”
“I promise you, Cassima, it isn’t!” chuckled Jollo. Cassima focused her attention back on the glass and began rubbing her finger around the rim, this time more rapidly, creating a resounding harmony that penetrated her mind just like the poem had. Imagine, she thought, if there were more than one! What amazing sounds that would make! It is like the sea-nymphs! It’s beautiful…
Just as she was starting to fall into the hypnotic rhythm of the glass harp, a sudden spark of pain hit her finger, causing her to snatch it away from the rim and press it between her lips.
“Ouch!” she exclaimed, spilling some of the water on the carpet. Drawing her hand away from her lips she saw that the tip of her right index finger had a sharp cut down its middle and was bleeding.
“Oh no,” shuddered Jollo, taking the glass from the girl and examining her injured finger. “That glass must’ve had a sharp edge! Oh, I’m so sorry, princess, I didn’t know…please don’t be angry…”
“Ow,” said Cassima. “I’m not angry, I’m just hurt. Merciless glass.”
“I think you should see Ulrica, princess,” said Jollo. “Would you like me to take you down to her?”
“No, no, Jollo. That’s all right. I’m not mad at you, you understand. Just the glass.”
“You’re as kind as your mother, Cassima. Well, I’ll clean up this mess and tell your parents what happened…”
“Please don’t, Jollo,” said Cassima, opening the door to her room. “I can tell them myself. Don’t fret about me just because I cut myself.”
“Yes, majesty,” said Jollo, walking out the door, down the hallway and down the stairs. Cassima followed him down the stairs and across the main hall, through the basement door (which she opened with her left hand, her right one being inoperative with her injured finger) and down the stairs to the ground floor of the Castle of the Crown.
From there, Jollo turned to the left and walked down to his room, while Cassima continued down the corridor, into the guardroom and to a tiny room in one corner, hardly more than a closet. A thick cloth obscured the doorway. Cassima knocked on the wall beside the door, and a gruff, female voice snorted:
“Yes, who is it?”
“Cassima, Ulrica. Jollo said to come down here.”
“Another scrape, princess?”
“Well, yes,” said Cassima, not unwilling to not share such a minor injury. “Jollo was teaching me how to play the glass harp and the harp had a sharp string.”
“Ah,” said the voice again. A plump, female dog drew back the curtain and gestured for Cassima to come in. Cassima seated herself on a low stool. The dog examined her cut with probing eyes and whiskers, then began searching through a small pouch of doctoring supplies.
Ulrica wasn’t a purebred dog, like Saladin, Gruff, Rowlf and the other guards. She wasn’t sleek and shiny, nor was she short and squat like the bulldog guards. Her fur was scruffy, patchy and unkempt, Ulrica obviously paid little attention to the proverb, “physician, heal thyself.” She was of no specific breed, and in normal terms she would have been labeled a mutt, but neither she nor Cassima or any of the inhabitants of the castle called her that. She was stout for her size, but not grossly overweight. She was just, in short, different.
Ulrica turned around, clutching a roll of white cloth and a surgical knife in her round paws.
“Here. Let me bind your wound with this.”
Cassima extended her finger and the dog carefully wrapped the thin strip of fabric around the tip of the girl’s finger, then tying it off and smartly slicing off the end with her knife and shoving the remainder of the bandage back in her bag.
“I heard the two of you playing up there,” said Ulrica softly. “Very beautiful.”
“Thanks,” said Cassima. “Did you hear me talking to Jollo about the poem too?”
“No. I don’t hear everything, child.”
“Well, it’s something my mother read to me a few days ago. It’s incredible. It’s about that woman named She-hara…I never can remember how to pronounce it…’
“I think it is Sche-her-a-zade, Cassima,” said Ulrica, pronouncing each syllable for the princess. “And yes, I know her story.”
“”You seem to know everything,” remarked Cassima, squeezing her finger gently.
“I seem to, but I don’t,” said Ulrica. “By the way, I think that Scheherazade is not that different from you, Cassima.”
“Really? I never thought that…”
“You should. She was an ordinary woman who became a hero in such a simple way…And I think you have a hero’s potential, princess.”
Cassima was about to reply “I don’t think I do” when the supper bell rang and the halls sprang to life with activity. She rose from the stool and headed towards the door to the guardroom.
“Remember what I said, princess,” said Ulrica. “I smell deceit in this stronghold. I don’t know why, I just do. Be careful, Cassima.”
Cassima looked back at the old nurse for a moment, trying to decide whether to appear awed or humored. She never made her decision, for the increasing sound coming from above called her away from Ulrica’s room and up the stairs, into the dining hall where her parents awaited.
To a fellow member of the Black Cloak: Mordack, greetings from a fellow sorcerer, Grand Vizier to the Ruler of the Green Isles, Abdul Alhazred.
Pausing briefly to refill his pen, Alhazred quickly scanned the beginning of his letter and continued writing:
I have taken into account your extended admiration of the Princess Cassima, and have attempted to make your request beneficial to the both of us.
Again the vizier paused to read over another, older piece of parchment on the desk. His lamp lay inactive to one side, useless in the brilliant noontime sunlight coming in through his window.
As my last letter stated, my plan is in motion. My trustworthy servant, Shamir, has spread the necessary rumors and thus produced adequate unrest throughout the kingdom. No one has yet to accuse me as the rogue…
Here Alhazred crossed out the word “rogue” and tried to formulate a better word.
…as the villain…
He crossed this out as well, the term still not suitable for this formal note. After minutes of thought, Alhazred retrieved the elongated, narrow-necked, blue bottle from the right corner of the desk and uncorked it, quietly whispering into the mouth:
“Shamir! What is a good word for a man who is accused of evil deeds and has been in hiding for a long period of time?”
A high-pitched, mischievous voice came out of the vessel: “How about ‘Alhazred?’ Hee-hee-hee-heeee…”
“Not funny, Shamir! Be serious and answer! What word would best fit that description?”
“’Snake in the grass?’”
“Ah-ha! That sounds good. Excellent. I’m corking you up now, Shamir.”
“Yes master,” said the voice as Alhazred jammed the stopper back into the bottle and placed it where it once was.
…as the snake in the grass behind the whole scheme. The King and Queen and sometimes even their nosy little daughter ask me if I know anything about it, but I always tell them I know nothing, but I will work on it.
Alhazred chuckled at his own joke, and resumed his writing:
Lately the royal couple has been asking me questions about their daughter, Cassima, since, as you know, she has come of age and no prince in the kingdom seems fit to wed her. I “hinted” that a man from another country would be the best, but not necessarily a prince…
Again he laughed, almost smearing the ink as he moved to refill his pen, which was still wet on the paper.
But still, no one suspects me. So, now to business:
Four nights from now, I will bring the princess out on the main beach, where you will easily arrive without stirring up anything. You will take her back to your island, where you can do whatever you wish with the girl. I suggest killing her, but I warn you not to leave any traces. Otherwise, you might be in trouble as well as me. Again, the date is four nights from now. Send your reply via my genie, Shamir, who undoubtedly will be there when he delivers this note…
As the vizier wrote, a slight hint of roses reached his nostrils. At first he assumed it was something blowing in from the window, a rogue breeze, perhaps, but as he tried to ignore it and continue his work, the hint slowly swelled into a full-blown solution, a strong blend of flowers and scents.
Sensing movement from behind his left shoulder, Alhazred slowly turned his head to the left, seeing nothing out of the ordinary until his head had nearly reached the point where it couldn’t turn any more, and then there was still nothing.
Confused and now paranoid, Alhazred twisted his head around to its normal, forward position and found another head looking over his right shoulder. It was Cassima. She was standing several feet from him, but still too close to be observing him from the door. In a desperate move, the vizier flung his arm over his still-moist letter and mashing it flat, realizing too late his mistake. Hissing and cursing under his breath, he turned to face the princess.
“What? What is it, princess?”
“I was going to ask you something, but since you seem so busy now, Alhazred…”
“No…I mean, yes…what did you want to ask me?” snarled Alhazred, trying to hide his secrecy behind a semi-friendly attitude.
“I think you know, Alhazred,” said Cassima, with an innocent, yet sassy demeanor. “Father has been asking you if you know anything about the tension between the isles, and you promised him a hundredfold that you would do something about it. And you don’t seem to be doing that to me.”
“I am, Cassima, and you are breaking my concentration!”
“You were laughing, and I don’t see what kind of concentration I could be breaking with you doing that.”
“All right, you little eves-dropper!” snapped Alhazred, flailing his pen with the hand that wasn’t stuck to his letter, “So I wasn’t working on solving the mysteries of the kingdom! I just happen to have other matters besides that! Are you satisfied now, princess??”
“Not quite. You’re up to something. You haven’t been showing yourself much lately.”
“It’s all in that tiny mind of yours, girl! Go tell that to someone with time on his hands!”
Cassima, quite used to such furious insults flying from her father’s vizier, replied: “It’s not all in my head, Alhazred. Ulrica told me that she sensed something as well.”
“That illegitimate mongrel says anything to be on your side! Name something she’s said that is her own word and thought, and I’ll be a winged basilisk!”
“I think it’s too late for that, Alhazred.”
“Get out of here, wench! Get out of here before I tell my genie to transform into a tumor and make a nest in that smart little brain of yours!”
“All right, I’m going, I’m going,” said Cassima, turning smartly on her heel and quickly walked out the door to his study, barely missing being speared with the vizier’s pen, which he had suddenly thrown in her direction, spraying ink everywhere before hitting the wall several inches from the door, then snapping off at the nib and falling with a clatter on the floor.
Still churning with fury, Alhazred peeled his arm from his letter, the impact of the two objects colliding had created a regular Rorschach pattern on his sleeve and the parchment, beyond examining, let alone reading. Swearing with rage, he crumpled the ruined letter and tossed it aside, pulled a new piece of paper out from the stack under his lamp, knocking it off the table, where it shattered on the floor, then pulled a new pen out of one of his drawers, nearly breaking the nib as he jabbed it into the inkwell and quickly scrawled out another letter, many times shorter than the previous attempt:
I’m bringing her to the beach tonight. Be there to take her to your isle. Don’t fail.
Cassima’s sleep was restless that night. The memory of what Ulrica said about deception being within the castle kept her awake, often sitting up in her bed, staring at the canopy. And what she said about that woman being so much like her…her name… Schahere – again, she couldn’t remember the name…so long and ornate…just like the calligraphy of the poem itself. The poem…
Cassima rose from her bed and felt her way through the darkness, broken only by the light of the crescent moon, to her bedside table. The lantern beside her bed was glowing faintly, and in its glow she could just make out the poem, and its words…
Scheherazade, of hero’s might
Weave your adventures day and night…
A sudden noise, a muffled thud from the corridor caused Cassima to jump in surprise, her heart beating rapidly. But again, the mystical essence of the poem brought her back to it:
Never falter, never fail
You’re the one who lives the tale
Do not fear the unsheathed knife
Your dreams and thoughts become your life
Fight demons in and out of you…
Again, a noise broke the silence, this time closer to her bedroom door, though she was tempted to leave, she couldn’t break herself from the verses…
Get through your woes and start anew
Do what your heart knows is true…
Another crash from outside. This time it was too much. She couldn’t finish the poem. Cassima grabbed her lantern, flung open her door and stepped outside in her bare feet. It was cold in the castle halls, especially in her thin nightgown, pink silk embroidered with jasmines. Her gold locket felt like ice against her neck. With her free hand, she grasped it, the soft metal slowly growing warm in her grasp.
Yet another noise from down the hall, this time around the corner. With her heart and gait quickening, Cassima walked down the hall, expecting to see Alhazred, some dark wizard or a trained assassin. But surprisingly, it was none of these.
It was Shamir Shamazel, Alhazred’s genie. She seldom saw him without his master, and seeing him here, clad in his silly, pointed turban, golden eyes, baggy pants and large, overly decorated necklace shocked her more than any wizard or murderer could have.
“Oooooh, Princess Cassima!” Shamir said in his high-pitched, impish voice, his eyes twinkling. “Didn’t expect to find you outside your room in the dead of night!”
“”Shamir…it was you making those noises, wasn’t it?” asked Cassima, that being the only question she could think of offhand.
“I fear so, princess. So sorry to disturb your beauty rest!”
“Oh, you’re forgiven, Shamir,” said Cassima, suspecting his usual tricks and pranks that he occasionally pulled, especially on her.
“Yes, princess,” said Shamir, his voice suddenly softer and more solemn. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I’ll have to take you somewhere.”
“What? What do you mean?” Cassima asked, shocked that this normally benign genie would suddenly make such a hostile comment. It had to be a joke…
“I cannot tell you, princess,” said Shamir, suddenly making a move to seize Cassima’s free hand. She jerked it out of the way, then, in an attempt to wake whoever was sleeping nearby and summon help, she let the lantern the was carrying fly from her grasp, hoping for a good, solid crash against the wall. The stucco walls of the palace could not burn.
But the lantern didn’t crash. In fact, at the same time Cassima sent it flying, Shamir pointed his hand directly at the airborne lamp and seemed to “catch” it in midair…only his hand didn’t touch it. Instead, the lantern was floating just above the carpet. As if in mockery, Shamir played with it, twirling it around and making it swerve and dip, but never once letting it fall.
“Can’t make any noise, princess,” he said with a hint of sadness in his voice and another flash of his yellow eyes. “You must come with me.” Here he gently set the lantern down and out of Cassima’s reach.
“Where do you think you’re taking me?” snapped Cassima, her voice rising in volume. “If you think you’re…”
Suddenly an empty feeling exploded in Cassima’s throat, and at the same time her speech stopped, leaving her mute and even more shocked than she had been before. Grasping her hand to her throat and struggling to speak, she glared at Shamir, who was clutching something in one of his hands. What did you do, she tried to say, only expelling air but leaving the genie with the impression that she wasn’t happy.
“Sorry,” whispered Shamir. “I had to take that from you as well. No noise, princess. Now you must come with me. My master will not approve of my being late.”
What?? rasped Cassima, her eyes widening with terror. Alhazred? Commanding you to capture me? But why? Where? What…
There was no time for asking questions or even trying to ask them, for Shamir had pointed his other hand at her and her wrists had snapped together in some kind of invisible bond, rendering her helpless. Still Cassima refused to move.
Seeing that she would not be led anywhere, Shamir grabbed her around the waist and before Cassima could break his grasp, their bodies were enveloped in a cloud of smoke, and when it cleared, there was a smell of salt in the air and a light wind around their legs. They were standing on the beach of the Isle of the Crown, with the sea before them and the path to the village behind. In her silk nightdress, Cassima was shivering within seconds. Her awe at the sudden change in setting turned to rage when she noticed Alhazred standing near the shore, looking out at the waves.
You, she tried to yell in her silenced state, I knew you were plotting something! What else have you done that you haven’t told anybody but your nefarious genie and your outlaw allies –
“Shamir?” asked Alhazred, as if Cassima weren’t there, “I think it is safe to give the little wildcat back her speech now. No one can hear her, no matter how loud she is.”
Shamir flicked open his hand, and the empty space in Cassima’s throat was instantly replenished.
“ – If my father knew about this,” yelled Cassima, not even noticing that she was once again capable of talking, “He would have you serving as mortar in the basement walls!”
“I’m afraid that will not happen, my dear Cassima,” said Alhazred aloofly. “And even if it does, you will not be here to witness it.”
“What do you mean? What’s going on?”
Alhazred did not answer. He simply stood with his eyes on the horizon, as he had been since Cassima and Shamir arrived. The princess was still trying to free herself from the genie’s arms, but only succeeding in flopping like a fish and twisting about like a person possessed. After a few minutes, Alhazred stamped his foot in frustration and again looked out over the water.
“Confound it! Where is that boarish oaf of a sorcerer! He should have been here minutes ago!”
“Sorcerer? Alhazred, I knew you were in cahoots with someone dark, but an actual sorcerer…you must be from that…”
“Finally! Here he is!” roared Alhazred, squinting his eyes at the heavens.
“Here comes whaaa-aa-aaaa – “ Cassima’s mouth dropped open before she could finish her sentence. A brilliant, pulsing red light was screaming across the water, creating an eerie, sanguineous reflection on the now churning waves, heading straight for the beach they were standing on. Unable to face it any longer, Cassima closed her eyes and prayed that the light would destroy her gently, but before she could cry for help, the light stopped. Every part of it seemed to stop. The glow, the motion, the color, and even the chaos it carried.
Daring to peer through the meshes of her lashes that blocked her nearly-closed eyes, Cassima saw a strange, dark figure floating several feet above the shoreline. Opening her eyelids fully, she noted that the figure was a man, with tenebrous, bark-like skin, pale, gray eyes and a black goatee similar to Alhazred’s. He wore dark clothes and a long black cape that floated around his feet. He was standing – or from her view, floating – on a pillow of gray smoke, giving him an appearance of a classic genie, except he did not appear willing to do her bidding at all. In fact, it seemed to be quite the opposite.
“Cassima,” he purred in a voice nearly identical to Alhazred’s when he was flattering someone. “I am the wizard Mordack. How pleasant to meet you here tonight.”
“Alhazred, who is this man?” Cassima asked, ignoring the wizard’s introduction.
“I think he clearly told you, princess,” said Alhazred, with an ugly, curling smile not unlike a snake’s grin.
“Please excuse the physical roughness needed to bring you here, princess,” said Mordack in the same, crooning drawl. “But I’m afraid you’re coming with me now.”
Cassima gave Shamir a good kick in the leg with her bare foot and finally broke free, standing before the morbid wizard with the ferocity of a tiger.
“It’s bad enough that your friend Alhazred made his genie drag me from my room in the middle of the night and down to this barren beach to almost get blinded by your approaching entourage of fire, brimstone and who knows what! If this is your idea of a joke, I’m not in the mood for it!”
Mordack raised an eyebrow and still stared at Cassima with those cold, gray eyes. “This is not a joke, young Cassima,” he said coolly. “Sorry that you were so disillusioned into believing that it was.”
He slowly turned his head to face Alhazred. “I’ll take her to my island, like you said, Alhazred.”
“And then you’ll kill her?” asked Alhazred. Cassima staggered in shock as the vizier’s face contorted into an expression of glee and greed. Her locket beat against her chest from the outside just as her heart was beating at it, only from the inside.
“Kill her?? No,” said Mordack, looking shocked at his companion’s suggestion. For the first time, Cassima felt what seemed like good feelings towards him. “I couldn’t kill a beautiful little jewel like this. I’ll only take her where no one on this island can get to. I promise you that, brother of the Black Cloak.”
Again, rage overflowed in Cassima’s heart as she looked back and forth to Alhazred, the traitor, and Mordack, the one who was going to take her from her home and family…it couldn’t be happening…
“Guards!!” Cassima screamed. “Guards! Help! Alhazred has betrayed the Crown! Guards!!” Though within she knew that her screams were useless, she continued crying for help until Mordack twirled the fingers on one of his hands, causing her to spin around and fly into his chest.
“Farewell, Alhazred,” said Mordack loudly, over Cassima’s yells and cries. “I may meet you again…but Cassima will not. I assure you.”
“You’d better teleport out of here now before she wakes the whole island,” snapped Alhazred hurriedly.
“Well…” said Mordack, showing a touch of embarrassment for the first time, “I…I…can’t teleport.”
“You what?!?” roared Alhazred loudly. “I ask you to take the girl away quickly and you show up saying you can’t teleport!?! One of the most basic wizarding tricks and you can’t do it…”
“I’m sorry,” pleaded Mordack, “I can’t teleport…at least not with two people. I can handle myself, but if I tried it with this girl, she might be left here.”
“Well, why don’t you give it a try?” snarled Cassima, now trying to break his grasp as she had with Shamir’s.
“Shut up!” said Mordack, squeezing her tighter until she was almost breathless. “The only form of self-transportation I can do with more than one being is the form I demonstrated when I arrived. It is similar to flying, only I am protected from other airborne objects like birds and dragons. I also do it in order to achieve a grand entrance, like I just did.”
Dragons? thought Cassima worriedly. Where are we going?
“It takes only a few minutes, an hour at the most,” Mordack went on, “And I can reach my isle in no time. It is just down the northern sea and over Serenia. Well…I’ll be leaving now.”
“Noooo!” Cassima wailed as Alhazred grinned again and waved good-bye and Shamir did the same. At the same time the cloud she and Mordack were on turned around and shot into the night sky. A reddish cloud enveloped them, and although she could still breathe, Cassima felt the thinning of the air and the strong winds pushing against them as they coursed through the stars. Clouds streaked by like long, white snakes and stars became comets at the speed she and Mordack were going.
After several minutes, light began to appear and soon the sky was its typical, calm, azure blue. Cassima was mournful and at the same time furious that she couldn’t enjoy it. The dark wizard, appearing no darker than he was in the night, was still clutching her waist, giving her the message that he could squeeze the air out of her if she tried to get out of his arms. But there would be no harm in just asking him something…
“Mordack,” she yelled over the noise, remembering what Alhazred had called him. “What did you mean when you said ‘we’re going to my island?’”
“I meant what I said,” said Mordack, his voice rippling backwards with the fierce winds. “You and I are going to my island. It is my own creation. I’m sure you will like it.”
Oh sure, Cassima thought, hoping that the sorcerer wasn’t a mind reader. There didn’t seem to be anything else to do but enjoy the ride. One wrong move and he could probably just drop her. Her locket was wildly dancing in the air, and it seemed ready to break free, but Cassima grasped it firmly with her hands, determined not to let go of the one thing she had to remind her of her parents.
The clouds they were passing through suddenly cleared and the pearly ocean appeared hundreds of feet below them. But there wasn’t just ocean, there was also land below, a huge, mountainous piece of terra firma set in the sea, with a beach skirting the coastline. The peaks of the mountains rose through the curtains of clouds and out of sight, even from the two airborne humans.
“What is that?” Cassima cried.
“Serenia, girl,” said Mordack. “Just a large continent connected to the land of Daventry. It’s also home to that infernal, soft wizard Crispinophur…”
Cassima wasn’t listening to what Mordack said after “Daventry.” She had heard the name before in stories and myths told by her mother, as well as Serenia. Could this mean that this wizard was taking her to one of these lands? He said it was an island…were there islands off the coast of Serenia?
With her dreams growing stronger and her grip growing weaker, Cassima’s locket suddenly whipped back and the golden chain snapped. She made a desperate grab for it as it fell, but Mordack seized her wrist and glared at her maliciously.
“Do not try that again,” he growled, “Unless you want to fall the rest of the way to my island!”
“But my locket!” Cassima screamed. “I can’t lose it! It’s the only thing I have of my home!”
“You just lost it,” snapped Mordack, squeezing her chest tighter. “It’s probably landed on that beach down there, but I’m not going down just for some scrap of jewelry! And you also have that pretty dress you’re wearing, so stop complaining!”
Cassima suddenly realized that she was still wearing her nightgown, and other than that, she had nothing on. Her face felt hot, and she closed her eyes and pursed her lips, not wanting to think about it anymore.
Finally, they began to descend. The air grew humid and salty with the smell of the sea and a thick, black mist replaced the white clouds. As they flew on, almost skimming the surface of the sea, the red aura surrounding them dissolved and Cassima could clearly see something coming out of the mist. It wasn’t moving, but since they were still flying along at a fair speed, it seemed like it was.
“It” vaguely resembled an island, but looked more like a frozen volcano, with lava pouring into the sea, but the majority of it seemed to be floating above the water. On the “island” was a castle; a castle being the thing it was most similar to, which appeared as if it had grown out of the rocks like a malignant fungus. It was repulsive to look at, and Cassima found herself turning away to avoid the nauseating feeling that was growing in her. The water beneath their feet was black, just like the mist surrounding them. As they drew closer, with no sign of slowing down, Cassima began to feel the same anxiety that she had when Mordack’s fireball was first streaking towards her and she felt it was going to crash into her. Now it was the reverse, it seemed that she was going to crash into the land, but the wizard? Who knows what he would think of that…
Before she could think any more, they had swooped upwards over a narrow, rocky beach and equally rocky path, over the heads of two twin serpents with hostile eyes that seemed to glow as they passed, and finally skidding to a stop on a flat, stone pathway, which would have led to the iron portcullis barring the massive doorway before them, but for some reason, it was rived halfway down, leaving a wide gap between them and the gate.
Before Cassima could say anything, Mordack reached into one of his pockets and pulled out a long, thin, ebony wand, then pointed it at the gap. A tiny, white spark shot out of the tip of the wand and the gap suddenly vanished. It was as if the sides of the path had grown together like skin closing over a wound. Mordack then raised his wand at the gate, which sprang open like a mousetrap, opening into a gloomy, uninviting hall. Cassima could not make out anything inside.
The wizard swiftly crossed the once empty space in the road and gestured for Cassima to follow. The princess was reluctant at first, but when Mordack’s hand tightened on his wand, she decided to do what he commanded. Her actions were not a second too soon, for as soon as she stepped over the gate threshold, the path split again, revealing the wide, gaping hole again.
“Inside,” Mordack said coldly, stepping inside the castle. Cassima silently shrugged and followed him inside. As soon as she was standing in what she decided was the main hall of the castle, the portcullis fell shut with a loud crash behind her. There was no way back now.
“All right, Cassima,” said Mordack when the dust from the crash finally settled, smoothing back his flat hair and his cape, “Now to talk about why I brought you here.”
Cassima said nothing; her emotions and morals were too strong to let her make a snappy retort.
“Alhazred has told me about you, and how beautiful you were, even as a child. Of course, I can’t tell you what else he told me, but the one thing I was certain of when I met you in person: You are indeed a beautiful creature.”
“Thanks,” replied Cassima indifferently, trying to look at the least ugly furnishing in the hall they were in. Everything was covered in dust or rat-eaten cloths. Cobweb-laced chandeliers, in many cases more web than metal, clung to the ceiling like bats, looking ready to fall at any moment. A plain, undecorated door was in the left wall, leading to another section of the castle. Further down the hall was a long dining table, in no better condition than the rest of the place, with at least ten chairs set along it, though it was obvious they were rarely used. The legs of some were rotting, as were the backs. Near the end of the hall was another doorway, giving no hint as to where it led.
“So that is why I’ve brought you here, Cassima.”
“Because you like the way I look? That’s it?”
“No, of course not,” said Mordack, pausing for effect. Suddenly he dropped to one knee before Cassima and extended a hand (the one that wasn’t on his wand). “I have brought you here so I can wed you. Will you marry me, o sweet princess of the Isles?”
It was a long time before Cassima realized what Mordack had asked her. A dozen comebacks flashed through her mind, but none reached her lips. All that she actually said was:
“I asked you to marry me, young Cassima. That’s all I’m asking.”
You must be insane. You drag me from my family and my homeland to this primordial rock in the ocean, far away from any human life and ask me to be your wife? You’re worse than Alhazred. You’re worse than that man who decided to slaughter every bride he took the day after he married, until…
Until she came. She-hera…Shahara…However you pronounce it, Cassima thought. She was the only one who stood up to him. That’s what I’ll do. I’m not giving my life to this emaciated pig.
“What did you say, my dear?”
“No. I would never marry you, even if my life depended on it. You’re selfish and unscrupulous. No woman in the world would make a choice like that, and I won’t either.”
Mordack’s face seemed to whittle itself into a twisted, evil, narrow-eyed grimace that drilled itself into Cassima’s mind as he tightened the grip on his wand until there was a sound of splintering wood. She feared that her opinion that death would be better than marriage to him was going to suddenly come true. If that is the case, Cassima said to herself, I’m not going to go down pleading for forgiveness. A true hero faces death without fear. Go ahead. Kill me now, if you think you can…
After several dragging seconds, Mordack did something that Cassima would never forget. His face softened, he slid his wand back into his pocket and looked at her with an expression of defeat.
“Very well,” he replied. “You are lucky that you are so beautiful. Otherwise I would have killed you.”
I still think that brains are better than beauty, Cassima thought, still shaking in her terror.
“But I still give you the opportunity to marry me. After several years of doing what I have decided you should do, you may think differently.”
Nothing could be worse than you. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Feeding dragons, assisting Charon in the Underworld, living in a cell for eternity…
“From this moment on, you will serve as the scullery maid for this castle. You will scrub the floors, clean the tables, prepare the meals and look after the beasts…”
“What?!?” Cassima shrieked, much louder than she had when she first realized Alhazred was a traitor. “A scullery maid? Me?? In this decrepit monstrosity of a castle on this barren island in the middle of…Wait. Did you say ‘beasts’?”
“Of course. You don’t think my only protection is a pair of stone snakes and an incomplete path, do you? I have several beasts within the castle walls that capture any intruders who should happen to…”
A loud rumbling cut Mordack off. The walls and floor began to shake, and presently a huge monster came galloping through the door near the end of the hall. Its head resembled an antelope’s, with sweeping horns and a long, narrow snout, but its eyes were red and a wild mane of hair went down the ridge of its back. Its front feet were cloven, but gargantuan in size, the hooves almost as large as shields, with spindly legs coming out of a fat, scaly body. Its hind feet were as different as they could be, instead of hooves, the creature had thick, reptilian claws that dug into the stone floor as it ran, its scorpion-like tail whipping around like a cat-o’-nine-tails.
As it neared, Mordack calmly raised his hand and the beast stopped, dropped back on its enormous back legs and sat still as a statue, waiting for what its master had to say.
“Scalawag! I told you to never, ever stampede through the castle like that again! You know what I do to creatures who disobey me!”
The beast bowed guiltily and lowered its slender head until it rested on its front hooves.
“This is the Princess Cassima,” said Mordack, gesturing to Cassima. “You and your fellows will not hurt her in any way unless she does something she isn’t told.”
Cassima eyed Mordack suspiciously and was about to say something, but the presence of the huge creature directly in front of her silenced her completely.
“Now, Cassima,” continued Mordack, “Your first task will be scrubbing the scullery floor, through the door farthest from us and to the left. It has not been cleaned in years. From there, you will go on to polishing the statues in the hall to your left, cleaning the dining table and fixing my dinner.”
“What?” shouted Cassima. “All this? In my dressing gown?!?”
“No, you frivolous girl! Like I said, in the castle! Trying to humor me will not make your task any easier. Now move!!”
Mordack gave Cassima a hard shove in her back, sending her sprawling across the hard, stone floor and onto her knees. Lifting herself up slowly and wincing in pain, she could hear Mordack speaking behind her in a dragging, admonishing drawl:
“You’d better hurry up, princess. I don’t tolerate dawdling in my castle…”
Out of the corner of her eye, Cassima could see the wizard’s hand going for his wand again, and she was about to dodge the blast of light that she expected to spurt out of the business-end of the long, slender rod, but instead of an electrical surge hitting her in the back, there was a sharp crack and a singeing flame of pain that sent her sprawling again. Mordack hadn’t used the wand as a wand. Instead he had used it as a whip or a schoolmaster’s cane, and with a very similar infliction on Cassima as she limped towards the back of the room, clutching the place where the wand had hit her.
“A very useful tool,” Mordack remarked casually. “When magic apparently isn’t adequate, the typical ‘brute force’ strategy is always a sure bet. Now move.”
Tired of being a target for Mordack and his deformed beast, Cassima stomped down the length of the hall and through the hallway to the left of the dining table. From there, she walked through a narrow corridor decorated with more of the ghoulish sculptures and decorations, as well as a devilish pipe organ against the right wall, and into a cobwebby kitchen, with a high, vaulted ceiling, a dead fireplace with coals that looked centuries old rotting in the hearth, pots and pans cluttering a nearby counter and a decaying, wooden table in the center of the room. A rusty bucket filled with brackish water stood near one of the legs, beckoning Cassima to start working, along with a dirty cloth hanging over the rim.
Sighing, Cassima knelt down beside the bucket, her knees still raw and bleeding from Mordack’s first push, and her back still stinging from his second blow. Grimacing in distaste, she picked up the moth-eaten cloth and dipped it into the gray water, using the same method she had seen the servants of her own castle use. Squeezing most of the liquid out, Cassima then slapped the cloth down on the floor and began rubbing the stones with a circular motion. A few minutes of this revealed a floor that was barely distinguishable from the dirty floor. Sighing again, Cassima dipped the cloth in the bucket again and crawled over to another unclean spot.
As she scrubbed the scullery floor and silently lamented over her already ruined nightgown, a soft grunt over her shoulder caught her attention. It was the beast that had almost stampeded her and Mordack upon their arrival, the one Mordack had called “Scalawag.” A very unflattering name, but still, it seemed to fit. He had somehow crept in behind her without making a sound. In spite of the clamor he made when he first appeared, Scalawag was apparently able of moving silently on his big, flat feet. He was peering at her with immense curiosity, his antelope’s head with its big, dewy eyes seeming remarkably innocent, in spite of the scorpion’s tail dangling over his back.
As Cassima looked into his eyes, she realized for the first time that her own eyes were stinging. The coldness of the castle must have caused her to forget her emotions, but now the site of the naïve, emotionless beast somehow made her aware of what she was feeling inside.
“I’m crying, aren’t I?” she asked Scalawag, her voice choked up with her sudden grief. Though he made no verbal reply, Cassima swore that Scalawag actually nodded.
After several hours of toil that day, as the sun was setting in the west and the shadows became long and red within the castle walls, Cassima was finally reaching the end of her work as she put the last finishing touches on Mordack’s dinner, a large, pale fish that had been sitting beside the fireplace.
After several hours beforehand, Cassima had finally gotten the fire burning (which was difficult considering the greenness of the wood supplied), skewered the fish on the fireplace poker and held it over the flames. Scalawag proved to be remarkably helpful to Cassima, showing her how to cook the fish and which herbs to season it with, and she assumed that he had been a cook for Mordack before but had been excused because of his awkward handling skills. Perhaps another beast, a breed with actual hands and digits prepared the food before Cassima became a scullery girl.
After the fish was ready, Cassima washed off one of the crusty plates and a set of silverware and placed the steaming food on the plate. After a brief pondering of what Mordack would want to drink, Scalawag again came to her rescue and pointed out a stash of old wine bottles beneath one of the cupboards in the other half of the kitchen. An old, oak door at the back of the kitchen interested her immensely, but the wizard’s tight schedule wouldn’t let her venture any further.
Her day had been filled with rushing back and forth, trying to find the rooms that Mordack had specified in his instructions. When she took too long to start her next task after completing another, Mordack would suddenly appear in a cloud of smoke and bellow at her like a crazed Minotaur, asking why she wasn’t working and how she was supposed to follow orders until Cassima could get a word in edgewise and explain that she didn’t know where the room her next chore entailed was. Mordack would then give her a brief description of the room and vanish to an unknown place.
At first this confused Cassima, for from what she had heard Alhazred say, Mordack couldn’t teleport, but then she remembered Mordack explaining that he could not teleport with more than one person, but he could by himself. His reappearances were quite less puzzling after that was cleared up.
Cassima’s mind had become a labyrinth of maps, directions running through her memory like flying ribbons, replaying every direction to each room in the castle, struggling to hold on to them…from the main hall, the corridor goes to the left, up the stairs is the observatory, left from there is Mordack’s room, try not to go in there often, down from there is his library, don’t go in there either, right from the observatory is the laboratory, go there only to clean, starting from the main hall again, the second door to the left goes past the organ, into the kitchen, the cellar I guess it is, and that door…
“Cassimaaaaaaaaa!” bellowed Mordack’s voice, from the dining room. His usual dull “explosion” that occurred whenever he appeared in the teleportation fashion hadn’t happened, so instead he must have walked down the stairs from his room…or his lab, wherever he was…
“I’m coming!” yelled Cassima angrily, pouring the wine from one of them more ancient bottles into a rough, glass goblet. The goblet reminded her of something that had happened at her home a few days ago…something that had to do with the bandage on her right index finger…But the shock of the events that had taken place in the last few hours had wiped almost all her memories of her dear home from her mind. If only she could remember, though…
Snatching a blotchy, wool napkin from a shelf, Cassima gathered up the fork, knife, goblet and plate in her two hands and carried it all through the corridor with the morbid organ with the stone head that seemed to follow her wherever she went (with Scalawag quietly clumping behind her), and into the dining hall. Mordack sat at the head of the table, drumming his brown hands on the wood, which was noticeably cleaner, thanks to Cassima’s scrubbing and polishing. Cassima set the dish before Mordack, placing the utensils, napkin and drink in the proper places her mother had indicated to her many years ago, insisting that it was an essential thing to know as a woman, then Cassima stepped back, awaiting whatever task Mordack was going to assign her next.
Far from giving her orders, Mordack instantly became engrossed with his food, examining it thoroughly from every angle and sniffing it cautiously, as if he was concerned that it was poisoned.
“Not bad for a first attempt, princess,” said Mordack flatly. “None of my beasts have ever cooked this well.” At these words, Scalawag sulked away from Cassima and slouched down in a corner. “You may sit down if you want,” he offered.
Reluctantly, Cassima sat down in the chair at the opposite end of the table, as far away from the wizard as she could. Though Mordack examined her several times through the course of his meal, Cassima never so much as made eye contact with him. Instead she studied the ragged front of her nightgown, which looked just like something a scullery girl would wear. The worn away part revealed a more than discreet view of her legs, making Cassima feel extremely insecure, even when her legs were entirely hidden from Mordack’s sight. Who knows, maybe he could see through solid wood…
“I’m sure this day has been a bit much for you and your royal weaknesses,” said Mordack in the same, indifferent voice.
Shut up, you, said Cassima to herself, hoping that Mordack couldn’t hear her. Mordack looked at her with an expression giving her the idea that that he had, but his features then relaxed as he threw a fish bone over his shoulder, where it bounced across the floor for a short distance. Scalawag pricked up his ears, spotted the bone and pounced on it like a cat, gnawing on it as if it was the only food he had eaten in days. From the looks of it, it probably was.
“I’m also sure,” continued Mordack, “That you would not appreciate doing these chores all day tomorrow.”
Cassima did not raise her head to look at him.
“Or the next few weeks…”
Still, Mordack got nothing but silence from the other end of the table.
Finally Cassima looked at him, her narrow emerald eyes black in the shadow of her tangled hair.
“There is an alternative to this, of course, princess,” said Mordack lightly.
Cassima blinked slowly, her gaze penetrating the wizard’s gray eyes unerringly.
“As I said this morning, the only way you will get out of this miserable life is to marry me. Surely you’ve had a change of heart by now, my dear princess.”
What I need is a change of clothes, thought Cassima wrathfully.
“Well? Will you do me the honor of being my bride, Cassima?”
“Are you quite certain, dear?”
“Yes, I’m certain. No. Absolutely not, Mordack. I’ll never marry you. I thought I said that clearly today.”
“Very well,” said Mordack, his hand reaching towards his wand. Cassima, seeing it coming, sprang out of her chair and towards the door to the kitchen. “You will start work at sunup tomorrow. I will give you your instructions then.”
“What am I going to eat?” shouted Cassima. “I can’t work without food!”
“Find something in the kitchen,” growled Mordack, putting his wand away. “A few scraps of bread or some dry beans. I always keep a good supply of food in there.”
“But you don’t cook it yourself!”
“”I have more important things to do, girl! That’s what you are for!”
“Where am I going to sleep tonight?” asked Cassima, since they were both in a fairly open question-and-answer state. “I haven’t seen any spare bedrooms anywhere!”
“Sleep on the floor, silly princess!” snapped Mordack, as if Cassima slept that way every day of her life.
“What??” yelled Cassima, for the fourth time that day. “On the floor?”
“You’ve got a nice echo there,” remarked Mordack. “And yes, that’s what I said, on the floor. You can pile some of the potato sacks in a corner, make a little bed for yourself. Just don’t snooze the day away! Now get out of my sight!”
As Cassima turned away, Mordack drained the wine out of his goblet and threw it at her as she ran for the door. An explosion of glass hit the floor near Cassima’s foot, some of the slivers hitting her in the heel. She ran all the way back to the kitchen, where she slumped to the floor in a corner of the room, crying softly.
When she finally became conscious of the pieces of glass stuck in her heel and the blood oozing from them, she slowly pulled them out on by one, wincing in pain with each extraction.
Feeling very much like the Greek hero Achilles, Cassima limped over to one of the cupboards and opened it, finding a stale loaf of bread within. Forcing herself to eat half of the bland confection over several minutes, Cassima shoved what was left of the loaf back in the cupboard, then walked across the room and found a pile of rotting sacks in one of the corners and pulled them over to her own corner until she had achieved a nice, thick layer, then lay down upon the sacks, still crying as she struggled to sleep, trying not to think of her mother, who was probably weeping just like she was.
Cassima’s sleep on the hard, stone floor was a restless one, which was normal for someone who had slept in a canopied bed all her life. When she finally succumbed to her tiredness after many hours of tossing and turning, it seemed only a few minutes more before Mordack was shaking her awake.
“Lazy little minx! The sun has already risen and I ordered you to be up no later than sunrise!”
Cassima squinted through her sticky eyes at the furrowed, dark forehead and even darker eyes that were glaring at her.
“If you’re going to be my scullery girl, you must learn to follow orders! Now up!”
A sudden jolt from Mordack’s wand made Cassima suddenly stand up rigidly, as if she were tied against a stake. Her mind, though still exhausted, now felt like it was in the grasp of an iron fist.
“That’s better,” said Mordack in satisfaction. “Now for your chores: You will start off fixing my breakfast and sweeping the floor in my laboratory. Then I want you to organize the cupboards in the kitchen and polish the metal parts of the machine on the upper story of the lab.”
“Mmm,” said Cassima dully, unable to comprehend what was going on in her half-conscious state. Mordack solemnly nodded and vanished. Cassima’s rigid transfixion seemed to vanish, and she fell to the floor like a dropped marionette. Slowly riding to her feet again, she began groping around in the cupboards of the kitchen, searching for something suitable for breakfast.
After several minutes, Cassima managed to cook up a mediocre pot of porridge, leaving just enough for herself. Mordack ate this without comment, ordering Cassima to do the rest of his previous chores. Cassima’s weary body was barely able to start, let alone complete the chore of sweeping the entire laboratory with the bristly, stiff bush of a broom. More than once she found herself falling asleep with her arm resting on the broom’s handle. The first time this happened, she woke herself up, but the second time, she was awakened by Mordack’s roaring voice, yelling at her to wake up and get back to work.
The rest of the day was all an endless blur of falling asleep, trying to stay awake, getting admonished by the wizard and moving on to the next chore. Then came dinner. This time it was a roast, but where it came from Cassima had no idea. The fish she had prepared the night before surely came from the waters surrounding the island (if indeed fish could survive that mess), but where would a roast come from?
This question was still burning in Cassima’s mind as she slowly carried the steaming piece of meat to the dining table, where Mordack waited impatiently. As she set the food before him, she gently asked the wizard:
“Mordack? Where do you get this and all the other food on this island? I can understand the fish’s origin, but what about the vegetables and meat that I’ve seen in the kitchen?”
After chomping through several bites of beef without reply, Mordack grinned slightly and said:
“Don’t you know? You’ve known me long enough to make a good assumption, no?”
Cassima shook her head.
“Well, it’s stolen,” said Mordack lightly.
“Stolen?” Cassima asked, horrified (though knowing a wizard like Mordack, it hardly seemed horrifying, more like “typical”).
“Of course,” Mordack said. “You know that the mainland of Serenia has a small town near the mountain range? There’s enough for me to get by on. I simply spy on one of their humble abodes through my crystal ball…”
Crystal ball? Cassima thought excitedly. This awful wizard has something as amazing as a crystal ball??
“…And then I just transport it here as quickly as that. No one knows where I live, so I am perfectly safe, with no alibis necessary to support me.”
You keep speaking using the singular pronouns, thought Cassima. Are you forgetting that I’m here now?
“And again, I ask you…will you marry me so that I will no longer remain the lonesome vagabond that I am? I could fashion us a beautiful island paradise in the middle of the sea, where the gardens are always in bloom and we have servants to tend to our every need, and you never have to wear those filthy rags again!”
These “rags” were my silk nightclothes, thought Cassima angrily. And you wouldn’t do something like that if your alternative would be marrying a Cyclops.
“No,” said Cassima. “I told you twice, and I’ll tell you again. My answer will always be no.”
“All right,” said Mordack after a brief pause. “Get out of here, scullery girl, and don’t let me see your dirty face until morning.”
Gladly, thought Cassima as she ran away from the table, through the corridor and into the kitchen, where she gratefully lay down on her bed of sacks, where she was asleep within minutes.
The next several weeks turned out to be one endless stream of work for Cassima. Every day Mordack would shake her awake (except for the rare occasions when she woke up on her own), give Cassima her orders, breakfast always preceding the rest of the chores, then fix the wizard his meal, to the room of the first task, repeat for the next, the next and the next, get scolded by the wizard for dallying, work a bit quicker, try not to fall asleep, get confronted by the wizard again to tell Cassima what to do next, do what he said, then the next chore, then dinner, a few scraps for her, and to bed.
Every hour Cassima secretly mourned the loss of her home and family, everything she had taken for granted, now gone forever. All because of that vizier Alhazred. If only she could get off the island and find a way back home, she could tell her parents everything, and Alhazred would be doing work lower than what Cassima was doing now. But there was no way off the island, and Mordack’s rambling stories of how he had battled sea serpents in his attempt to create the island were no consolation. These facts made Cassima grieve even more, but with Mordack’s non-stop chores hitting her at every hour of every day, there seemed to be no time even for grief.
Her ruined nightgown soon became unsuitable for wearing, so several nights before she got rid of it completely, Cassima scavenged the basement for a needle and thread, finally finding a nice supply of the latter in a large rat’s nest behind a large barrel. The needle she never found, instead she found a good substitute for one: a large fishhook on one of the many dirty, stone windowsills, obviously for the beasts Mordack kept that were capable of handling a hook and a line to catch the fish that strayed out into the stagnant waters surrounding the isle.
Using the fishhook and the coarse thread, Cassima sewed some of the potato sacks together with the limited needlepoint skills her mother had taught her, making an uncomfortable, but sturdy dress, tied about the waist with a frayed rope belt, one that she assumed made her look just like one of the captive princesses in her fairy tales. Again, she vaguely remembered the words to a strange poem from her distant past:
Do not fear the unsheathed knife
Your dreams and thoughts become your life
Sighing heavily in realization of the strange irony, Cassima threw what was left of her silk nightgown out one of the highest windows, not bothering to watch it flutter down like a dying bird, falling to the sharp rocks below. She continued to work in her new attire, ignoring Mordack’s snide remarks about her appearance, and still refusing his nightly request to marry him, no matter how furious he became.
Her body became dirty and coarse, and she had no opportunity to bathe, not even in the salty seawater. Her bare feet became so callused that using pumice on them would do no good – her feet had achieved the very texture of pumice, matching her hardened mind and fading memories as the endless stream of nearly identical days marched by.
One day, however, when black clouds were releasing torrents of rain down upon the castle (the castle seeming to be the only place the rain was coming to), Mordack was busy in his laboratory, stoking the fire in the large, rectangular furnace in order to keep it alight, a task that he insisted was accomplished purely with a trained, magic-oriented mind, though Cassima could not see why.
It was obvious that he was going to spend most of the day brooding over his fire, so Cassima decided to take advantage of this. Since there still were no obvious means of escape she could uncover, she decided to explore the one thing that hadn’t left her mind from the first day she arrived: the wooden door in the back of the kitchen.
Quietly, using the same skills she had developed sneaking out of her room in the castle of the Green Isles at night to visit the gardens, Cassima crept down the length of the kitchen and lifted the heavy brass ring on the door. It wasn’t locked. Giving the ring a firm pull, she slowly drew the door open, praying that it wouldn’t creak or make any revealing noise, no matter how small. Mordack, it seemed, could hear anything she did.
When the opening between the door and the wall was wide enough, Cassima quickly slipped through and found herself in the tenebrous space on the other side of the door. After a few minutes, her eyes became used to the pressing darkness and strained to identify the strange room she was in. When her efforts yielded no real result, she walked forward a few steps, to see how far the corridor was. After a few paces, the wall suddenly made a sharp turn and the corridor made a 90-degree turn to the left. Cassima walked in the direction the hall pointed her until another wall rose up in front of her. This time the hall forked, one path leading to the right, and one to the left.
Cassima then realized just what she had stepped into. It was the same thing Theseus had walked into on his quest to find the Minotaur.
It was a labyrinth.
In her sudden excitement, Cassima was about to dart into the dank passages and see what there was to explore, her imagination running wild with possibilities: a subterranean tunnel to the Green Isles, a magic portal to Serenia, a way to summon help, a trove of treasure with a potion that could do away with Mordack…
But her sensibility stopped her from going more than two steps down the right fork. In a maze like this she could surely get lost, and who knows what beasts could be lurking in the shadows, ready to punish her as Mordack bade them to do if she disobeyed…and this maze was surely not a place that he would allow her to wander through…
Do what Theseus did, thought Cassima. Of course. She skipped back to the door and pried it open carefully. It was fortunate that she left it partially open, for when she tried the handle, it wouldn’t budge. It must be stuck, thought Cassima. On one of the shelves in the kitchen, under a pile of dried squashes were the few yards of thick thread left over from sewing her dress. Gathering up the small bundle, Cassima walked out the door again and tied the end of the string to the handle of the door.
Letting the thread trail behind her on the floor, she gently gripped the ball of thread in her hand and continued down the corridor. At the first junction, she turned right and continued down until she came to the next junction. Here she turned left, then right again. It didn’t really matter which way she went, because the thread would always guide her back to her starting point. The only real danger seemed to be getting caught by Mordack or by one of his beasts, which, even though she had seen only one, Cassima assumed there were more somewhere in the castle, and this labyrinth seemed to be an ideal place for them to lurk.
Maybe I should’ve brought a dagger, like Theseus also did, she thought. But what in this castle is even close to a dagger? One of those dull kitchen knives? Any beasts that caught me with something like that’d probably laugh themselves senseless.
As if alerted by her thoughts, a sudden scuffling made by a rat-sized animal came from ahead of her. Cassima stopped, listening tenaciously until the scuffling died away. Sighing quietly in relief, Cassima continued through the maze.
She was still suspicious as to what she would find, or indeed could. The walls of the maze were thick and plain, with no sign of there being a secret door hidden in any of them. The floor and ceiling were of equal blandness, not made of stone and mortar, like the rest of the castle, but instead of a dark gray, solid substance, similar to the stucco of her former home, but with a touch much like stone, rough and cold as ice.
The ball of thread in Cassima’s hand was dwindling rapidly, and she was still getting nowhere. She was ready to turn around and try another path, when suddenly a low, sonorous sound echoed through the maze. It was difficult to place what the sound was, but it seemed strangely unthreatening. Again, the short, abrupt noise resounded down the hall she was standing in.
From where Cassima stood, it seemed to be coming from around the corner several feet ahead of her and to her left. She was not afraid of the sound, or even who or what the sound could be coming from, but she was still very apprehensive. But then…she remembered the lines of a poem from her past. The one about the hero…and how Ulrica had said the princess was like her. Heroes don’t turn back because of a frightening noise. They go on and see just what it is.
With a sense of strength, Cassima cautiously walked down the corridor and turned the corner. The hall turned again, then once more, spiraling to what turned out to be a dead end…but this dead end was occupied.
Squatting in the corner of the maze was a huge, broad beast. His tiny red eyes, peering out of a head tiny in proportion to the rest of his body, shining like his large, sharp teeth, watched Cassima closely. His feet were large and flat, resembling those of an elephant or a rhinoceros. The only visible hair he had sprouted out of the top of his head, a ratty brown color, was bound with a metal hairpin, making his appearance altogether a little ridiculous.
Cassima wasn’t sure how to react. The beast seemed capable of capturing her immediately and bringing her to Mordack, who could, for all she knew, be over with his fire-stoking and now looking for her. But in spite of his fierce features, the beast looked almost benign, and in a way playful…but again, one can’t judge people that way…or beasts.
Cassima stepped forward shakily and reached out to touch the beast’s topknot. The beast looked temporarily befuddled, then suddenly jumped into the air about a foot and came down with a sickening thud, nearly flattening Cassima’s toes. She stepped back in terror, breathing much faster than she had before when she first saw the creature, which appeared just as mellow as he had before, but this time he bore a hint of malice.
“Sorry,” said Cassima timidly, not knowing what else to say.
“Dink,” replied the creature. The sound his voice was the same noise that Cassima had heard twice in the corridor, though the reason he made that sound she didn’t know. But he seemed capable of speech, unlike Scalawag, and was also friendly, unlike Mordack, who thought that a good attitude was something that was wasted on his slaves.
“I hope I didn’t startle you,” whispered Cassima, trying to at least get their friendship started on a good note.
“Dink,” said the beast again.
“Does Mordack keep you down here?”
“Well, Scalawag is allowed to roam the castle, I thought you would too.”
“I guess you don’t know me…uh…beast…”
“My name is Princess Cassima. From the Land of the Green Isles. Mordack kidnapped me and brought me here.”
“Is that all you’re going to say to me?” Cassima asked, the beast’s repetitive speech both irritating and amusing her.
“Well…you’re one of the only friendly creatures on this island. I hope I can see you again…uh…er…”
Cassima left Dink in his corner, since he had no inclination of going with her. Following her thread back to one of the junctions where she had originally gone to the left, Cassima decided to head right this time. As she was walking through the twisting corridors and abrupt corners, a loud scuffling noise sounded again. It was coming from behind her this time. She whirled around quickly and spotted the sound’s source immediately: a small, brightly colored creature scurrying across one of the walls of the labyrinth.
It looked like a four-legged spider, but it seemed more mammalian than arachnid. It was a brilliant chartreuse, the first color that Cassima had seen in the dull castle she was standing in. As it drew nearer to her, the animal suddenly stopped and peered at her curiously, curiously in that it had no visible head or eyes.
After examining the stranger thoroughly, the creature rapidly crawled down the wall, turned a corner and vanished, the noise gradually fading with it. Shrugging her shoulders, Cassima continued her way down the corridor, wondering if she would meet another of the odd organisms, which also seemed to be harmless, and almost cute in their appearance.
After a few more minutes, Cassima heard yet another noise, not dull and resounding like Dink’s monosyllabic voice, and not swift and scuttling like the sound of the wall-crawling creature. This was a loud, thundering sound of hoof-beats on stone. It was not as thunderous as Scalawag’s, but much more like the hooves of a goat or a horse, not like the plate-sized feet Scalawag had.
The beats grew louder and louder until the floor under Cassima’s feet began vibrating, then a strange, large, blue beast rounded a corner in front of her and stopped inches from the tips of her toes. This beast was definitely more colorful than Dink or Scalawag, and more bizarre still. Cassima could recognize no familiar animal traits in the creature’s appearance.
What it seemed to be was a hairless, slim, blue monstrosity with strange, curling horns wrapped around its head like a ram. Its legs were coiled around themselves as well, making it run and walk bowlegged. From the side, with the exception of the color, it resembled a human ear more than anything else. The arms of the beast were actually quite human, with thick, knobby fingers that looked capable of a good grip.
But like Dink, this creature did not look at all like it was eager to capture Cassima at all. It also appeared very friendly. Using the same approach she had with Dink, Cassima attempted to start a conversation with the beast.
“Hello. My name is Cassima. Princess Cassima. Of the Green Isles?”
The beast regarded her out of its beady, black eyes but made no vocal response.
“Do you have a name?”
The beast shook its head slowly. Apparently it understood her quite clearly. Not only that, but it could communicate without a voice. Obviously this was something Mordack had taught it.
“I see. Mordack keeps you down here?”
The beast shook its head again.
“You can go anywhere on this island?”
The beast nodded.
“But not off it?”
The beast shook its head.
“There’s no way off this island?”
Another headshake, but this time a more reluctant one.
“No way that you know of, you mean?”
An exuberant nod. After a short pause, Cassima asked the beast a question that she should have asked at the beginning of their conversation:
“You don’t like Mordack, do you?”
An exaggerated headshake followed by a ferocious gnashing of its goat-like teeth.
“You’re not alone, then.”
Suddenly, from above the maze came the worst possible voice Cassima wished to hear in her predicament. The wizard’s voice, bellowing:
“Oh no,” Cassima cried. “He’s going to paralyze me with his wand if he finds me here! I’ve got to get back to the maze door!”
The blue beast blinked in surprise and grew tense, its back legs coiled like springs. Cassima turned and ran back through the maze, following the thread and rapidly coiling it back up as she moved. It was a few seconds before she realized that the beast was running behind her. She spun around and looked it in the eyes, for a moment unaware of her trouble.
“You want to follow me?”
The beast nodded, but its eyes flicked up towards the ceiling, noting that he knew what was going on.
Again, Cassima turned and raced through the labyrinth of tunnels, turns and twists until she finally reached the door and the true terror of her predicament finally hit her.
The door was closed. Either the wind blew it shut – if there was any wind – or some other creature in this maze had accidentally slammed it shut. Praying that the door had only been stuck when she tried it from the inside, Cassima yanked on the handle with all her strength. The door remained still. She tried the handle with both hands, but it was no use.
“It must be locked from this side!” she wailed in despair and horror. “And I can’t pick locks! How can I get back into the castle? He’ll skin me!”
The beast was eyeing her and the door in deep contemplation, then the solution seemed to come to him. He gently grasped her arm with his large paw-like hand and looked into her green eyes pleadingly, as if asking for her trust.
“You want me to come with you?” Cassima asked. “You know another door?”
The beast shrugged, then nodded. Before Cassima could ask anything more, the creature pulled her to its side and faced the wall to the left of the wooden door. Suddenly, there was a low humming sound and a rectangular, black hole appeared in the wall, just the size and shape a door would have. Gripping her arm more tightly, the beast then leapt through the doorway, which sealed itself behind them, revealing nothing but darkness. In the next minute, there was another hum and another door opened, this time leading into the grand hall of the castle. Cassima had no idea how this could be, since the labyrinth was beneath the castle, but very little was impossible in this place.
Before Cassima had time to thank the creature, it had disappeared through the door, which vanished at once. In the next instant, Mordack poofed into the room, with one of his “darker” expressions plastered across his face.
“Cassima! Where have you been? If you’ve been sleeping on the job again, I’ll…”
“No! I haven’t been sleeping, Mordack!” Cassima shouted, quickly stuffing her ball of thread into a pocket.
“I’ll accept your excuse for now. It’s time for you to sweep the kitchen. It’s still as filthy as ever.”
“I just cleaned it two days ago!”
“I have noticed no difference. Now move!”
With her head held high, Cassima stomped back to the kitchen to do what Mordack ordered. As she found the bristly broom and began the tedious task of sweeping the floor, she curiously eyed the basement door, wondering where the strange blue creature was and whether she would get a chance to thank him, or even explore the maze some more…
He didn’t even have a name…
As the months dragged on, Mordack grew increasingly more and more vicious as Cassima continued to refuse his questions to marry her. The time she spent working and the time she spent sleeping began to grow imbalanced, the former gaining the upper hand. The upside to this was that she was free to wander the castle at night, while Mordack snored away in his over-decorated, grotesque bedchamber.
The first place Cassima decided to investigate on one of her sleepless nights was the library. Though she wasn’t as desperate as a person in danger of losing her life, her need to get off the island was growing with her master’s malicious temper. Since the beast in the maze had indicated there was no ordinary way to escape the castle, perhaps the way out was by magic, and being the captive of an amateur wizard, there was no way Cassima wasn’t going to find anything on magic in his library.
The library of the castle was a high-ceilinged chamber, with iron stools and strange implements scattered everywhere. The table was scattered with scrolls and papers, which Cassima decided not to move, in case Mordack noticed. The shelves on all sides of the room were crammed with books, all of them ancient and falling apart. Cassima started with the shelf to the right of the desk, with no particular goal in mind. Anything that looked interesting (and was written in a familiar language) she would read.
Perhaps I could find a spell that could turn me into a bird, Cassima pondered. But then how would I become human again once I reached the isles? Not only that, but how would I find my way…oh well. There has to be a way off this rock…
During the hours that she searched the book-packed room, in the few scraps of parchment that were written in her language, she found nothing that would aid in her escape. Spells to prepare food, to charm animals (that must have been Mordack’s spell when he tamed his beasts), create rain and drought…none were in the least bit helpful. Disappointed and aware that her time in the library was limited, Cassima turned to leave, but then her eye fell upon something different, resting on the large desk at the back wall of the room. It was the only thing that truly seemed familiar to her in the library: a tiny, detailed model of a sailboat. She had never seen a real one, but the pictures from her storybooks were real enough. For some reason, she was intrigued by the craftsmanship of the little craft, and briefly pondered the possibility of taking it with her and hiding it somewhere…but Mordack would notice it, for sure. Much too risky.
Cassima left the library and entered Mordack’s bedroom. The wizard was sprawled out on his bed, snoring thunderously. His wand, glowing softly, lay on a bedside table. For a moment, Cassima was tempted to snatch it from the table and put some unmentionable curse on him, but once again, the voice of reason spoke to her. She knew no spells, and not only that but the wand might not work for her. They are crafted specially for certain magic-users, Cassima said to herself, and I’m not one. But I know I can try…but no…not now.
Cassima left the room and descended the stairs. From the foot of the stairs, she walked down the length of the main hall and turned left, going past the organ and into the kitchen. From there, she picked up the ball of thread she had hidden under the pile of squashes after Mordack had confronted her months before, and headed to the one place she had been determined to see more than any other place in the castle: the maze.
Opening the heavy door and angrily wondering why it couldn’t be opened from the other side, Cassima retrieved a hard squash from one of the counters and placed it between the door and the wall, so that she couldn’t be locked in again. Then she tied her thread to the handle of the door and once again began her journey through the maze.
She still had a vague mental map of her previous visit, and decided to test her memories by going down the same path she had gone to meet Dink. The heavy creature was still there, in his corner, still repeating that silly word over and over. Again, Cassima laughed just to hear him, which gave her a spark of confidence.
Backtracking to the beginning of the maze, Cassima tried a new route, this time bearing entirely left whenever possible. Several minutes of this lead her to an inevitable dead end…but this was different somehow. The wall was composed of large, rectangular stones, not the smooth rock of the rest of the labyrinth walls. Not only that, but the mortar between some of the stones was old and crumbling, giving Cassima the impression that some of them were loose. She knelt on her bare, dirty knees and tried pushing on some of the bricks. To her astonishment, one gave way. It fell into whatever room was behind the wall, leaving a space just wide enough for Cassima to slip through on her stomach.
The room was dark and a stagnant smell was in the air. A light split into several identical, rectangular slits shone down from the ceiling. It was a large grate, too high to reach, even standing on the loose stone. As Cassima’s eyes grew used to the darkness, the room she was in slowly revealed what it was. A prison cell. A dank, moldy, classic dungeon cell. Cassima had seen each of the three dungeon cells in the basement of her castle home, but they were well kept. This was a nightmare of reality. Slimy fungi covered the dirt floor, which was already soggy enough. Putrid water dripped from the grate, which gave no indication as to where it was located in relation to the level above the cell.
Then something clicked inside Cassima’s head. All these months she had wondered what happened to any intruders that managed to get by Mordack’s treacherous jagged reefs surrounding the island, the stone snakes and the great gap in the path. They were taken here. But how? Of course. The blue beast could step into one room and into another. He had demonstrated that very well. It would be a simple matter to snatch up whatever person was inside the castle, open one of those “doors”…then step through…and dump him in here…
A slight skittering caught Cassima off guard. At first she thought it was another of the little creatures that crawled the labyrinth walls, but it was only a large, black rat that scurried across the floor and into a small hole in the left wall. Feeling slightly sorry for it, considering how difficult it must be to survive in such a harsh environment, Cassima decided to leave the dismal dungeon cell. She backed out through the hole, dragging the stone with her, managing to wedge it into its space just enough, enough so that Mordack wouldn’t notice, that is, if he ever came down here at all.
Quickly, Cassima ran back through the maze, rolling up her ball of string as she did. A few turns before she found the door again, there was a clatter of hooves on stone, and the odd, blue beast turned a corner and almost ran into her. Both of them stopped seconds before they collided, Cassima breathing hard, the creature eyeing her inquisitively. Then she remembered what she had been meaning to tell the creature since their meeting several months before.
“I…I wanted to thank you for saving me from Mordack, Beast.”
The beast nodded, and Cassima swore that it almost grinned, showing the same goat’s teeth that it had when she asked him if he hated his master. Combined with the curling blue horns, he looked more like a big blue ram than anything.
“You told me that you don’t have a name,” continued Cassima. “Would you like me to give you one?”
The beast nodded again, smiling delicately. It has to be something simple. Something that has to do with the way he looks…or at least…what he looks like…
“The first impression I got of you was a ram-like creature,” said Cassima.
Again, the beast nodded.
“I thought I’d name you something that…well…went with that word…perhaps something that…rhymed, perhaps?”
The beast blinked in interest.
“Something Ram…something Ram…hmmm…how about…Sam? Sam the Ram? Does that sound good?”
The beast grinned happily and bounded in place on its hooves.
“Well, then Sam it is.”
The next few weeks found Cassima feeling better about herself. She now had three friends who weren’t on Mordack’s side, the magic number in everything she read about, a secret place to visit that she was positive the wizard had forgotten, and a time that she could use to find a means of escape. But the memories of her home were coming back stronger, and at times she felt lower than Atlantis.
The bandage on her finger had been fraying and coming apart for ages now, and one day, peeling potatoes in the kitchen with Scalawag monitoring her (under Mordack’s orders), she finally pulled it off, revealing her shriveled finger with the tiny cut on the tip. Finally, after so many days of doubt, she remembered how she had gotten it. The glass goblet half-filled with water. Running her finger around it, the sweet, resounding sound pouring from it, the voices of the sea nymphs of the Mediterranean Sea. And then snagging her finger on a sharp edge…Ulrica binding it up, then telling her how she was like that other woman…whose name Cassima couldn’t remember. And by this time, she didn’t really want to anymore.
But she did want to hear the voice of the glass harp again, like the way Jollo had first played it to her. Cassima filled one of the glasses on the counter with some of the water that she assumed came from the sea. This puzzled her, because even though it came from there, it was drinkable. Her guess was that Mordack somehow extracted the salt from the water with his magic, though she had never seen him do it. If so, it was probably the only kitchen-related thing he ever did in the castle.
Dipping her finger in the sparkling liquid, Cassima wound it around the edge of the glass, but no sound came. Wetting her finger again, Cassima slowly and carefully rubbed the rim in a circular motion, going clockwise, the same way that the shadows traveled around their objects every day.
Finally, a clear, ethereal whine came from out of the glass, filling the kitchen, and from Cassima stood, almost shaking some of the dust from the ceiling. Scalawag snorted in surprise, looking almost as Sing-Sing had when Jollo had first played the harp. She increased the rate of the revolution of her finger, and the one, sonorous note grew louder and more penetrating, until another voice shattered the music.
“Cassimaaaaa! Stop that harpy-voiced cacophony! How can I concentrate with you making that ruckus!?!”
“All right!” snapped Cassima, slamming the glass down on the table and splashing water into her face. Scalawag jumped into the air and came down with a loud clump. Wiping the moisture off (as well as a small smear of dirt) Cassima snarled and glanced up at the ceiling, where Mordack’s voice was coming from.
“And when you finish preparing those potatoes, clean the walls in the hall to your left!” Mordack roared.
Cassima grunted in response, not caring to let him hear her answer. In spite of her weakness, she would not let him get the best of her.
Later that afternoon, after Cassima had finished all her chores that Mordack had assigned her, the wizard was taking a long siesta in his room, his snores shaking the castle walls. Cassima was walking through the halls and rooms, not knowing what to do. A trip to the library or the laboratory would be too risky. Mordack did not sleep soundly during the day. The labyrinth was also a no for the same reasons. Scalawag and Sam were nowhere about, and Dink displayed no ability to depart from the maze. Not that he could fit through the door, even.
Cassima was striding down the corridor that led from the kitchen to the dining room, trying to think of something to do when her eyes happened upon the gigantic organ against the left wall. The great stone head above the organ that followed her every move leered at her as she approached. There were two rows of keys…could be worse, but still more than the mini-organ she had occasionally practiced on back home. But she hadn’t practiced in years…she had only learned a few pieces, and even those weren’t fully mastered, but…no one said she couldn’t practice here…
Smiling mischievously, Cassima positioned her hands on the keys, ignoring the grimacing head above her. It would be more convenient if I had a stool, she thought. Could be worse. Placing her fingers in the positions for one of the first chords she had been taught and pressing down on the cold, white keys, Cassima nearly flattened against the opposite wall when the organ began to play a loud, thundering, ghoulish march by itself. Quickly recovering and feeling a touch of irritation, Cassima slapped her hands down on the first row of keys again and began playing the first thing that came to mind: the national anthem of the Green Isles.
Indeed, she was very much out of practice, hitting wrong notes occasionally and playing the wrong keys for the chords. Combined with the creepy music that the organ itself was playing at the same time, it was not a pleasant sound. At last, after several seconds of fighting to get the upper hand, the organ stopped playing and the stone head growled and snarled in silent rage, trying to scare Cassima away and stop the music. But she simply ignored the face and kept on banging out the song of her homeland. She was having a good time, and nothing was going to stop her.
Her skills were anything but satisfactory, but she partially blamed Mordack for her lack of practice. To her, it was the best adaptation of the song she had ever heard, and she swayed slightly on her feet, tapping her callused toes to the beat. She had gotten halfway through the second verse when a loud bellow cut her off:
Cassima slammed her hands down, hitting a note so sour that it made a lemon sound sweet.
“Stop that terrible hell’s bells melody! Haven’t you made enough noise today??”
Cassima gnashed her teeth, trying to think of something smart to yell back, but nothing came to her. Then she realized the most obvious thing that would irritate Mordack more. She began playing again, where she left off, the notes rolling resoundingly (if it were played by a more skilled hand) through the castle, filling Cassima’s ears. She smiled lightly and began playing mezzo forte. The music now boomed through the place, bouncing off the walls like rain.
“Cassima! Stop that God-forsaken noise before I take drastic measures!!”
“I will not!” shouted Cassima, hitting several wrong notes as she did so. After a brief struggle, she got back on track and continued her symphony.
“Scalawag! Beasts!?! Any beast! Get her!!”
“Don’t you know? They haven’t been around since you sacked off, Mordack!” yelled Cassima gleefully, purposely forgetting to tell him where she knew they were, the labyrinth.
“Stop that, you little wench! You don’t know what you’re digging for yourself!”
Who cares, I’ll always come out on the other side, thought Cassima sassily, her hands sweeping across the keys as her rhythm began to awaken from its long dormancy. Seconds before she reached the final notes of the ballad, there was a huge puff of red smoke and Mordack appeared behind her, wand in hand. Still she refused to stop playing until a sharp blast of light from the wand struck her in the middle of her back. Her muscles froze and her body grew rigid in a straight, standing position that would have received a word of compliment from her mother. The music stopped, of course, but the essence of it still hung in the air, leaving the ears of all living things in the castle ringing.
“A very unwise move, princess,” said Mordack, peering over her shoulder and looking her in the eyes, seeing as she couldn’t turn her head. “I can’t give a minor punishment to you now. One of the beasts will take you to a place where you will stay until it is time to prepare supper. You are lucky, Cassima,” he said haughtily, turning away. “I usually reserve this room for uninvited guests that come by here.”
Mordack snapped his fingers twice. Out of the corner of her eye, Cassima saw Sam appear out of a black portal with the familiar humming sound in the wall to the left of the organ. The wizard gestured to Cassima, and Sam hobbled over and grabbed her around the waist.
“You will remain where you are until the beast comes for you,” explained Mordack. “Not that you can escape, anyway. Let this be a lesson to you for disobeying my words.”
Sam carried Cassima, still stiff as a plank, to the wall. Another portal opened, and Sam stepped through with Cassima in his grasp. Another brief hum, and they came out in a dark chamber, where Sam immediately let Cassima go, sending her sprawling across the floor. The spell that bound her was broken as soon as she hit the ground, yet she still rolled for a short distance before she came to a halt. Sam vanished through the now familiar black portal routine, leaving Cassima alone in the dark.
As her eyes adjusted to her surroundings, she almost laughed upon discovering where she was. She was in the same dungeon that she had stumbled across days earlier. She waited until she could at last see clearly, then ran to one of the walls, hoping to find the loose stone that she had found before. The first wall yielded no result. This made Cassima worried, she gazed up at the ceiling, trying to remember how she entered. Could this be a different cell?
Then she remembered: the bars in the grid above her head were perpendicular to the door, not parallel. She tried the wall adjacent to the one she was kneeling in front of. Still, no loose stone. What else marked where she had entered?
The rat hole! Of course! It was left of the entrance, not right, where her present position would have meant. Turning and running to the opposite wall, Cassima quickly searched the wall and finally found what she was looking for. The stone jutted out just a few centimeters, barely a finger’s breadth. If she had pulled it back any farther when she first left the cell, it would be impossible to escape now.
Gripping the edges with her long, tough nails, Cassima heaved and pulled on the stone until it began moving. A few more moments of yanking and it was out enough to use her hands. Finally it was free. Cassima stepped aside to avoid squashing her foot as it came out and fell to the swampy floor. Squeezing through the hole, Cassima stepped out into the familiar, blank-walled labyrinth. She carefully pulled the stone back into place, this time leaving it out just a little more than last time. You never know, she told herself.
Without her trusty ball of thread, Cassima felt afraid for the first time in the maze. She could easily get lost, and who knew what booby traps or malevolent beasts could be lurking in the shadows. But her proud heart pushed her on. The thread that had guided her had become almost an extension of herself, her nerves, her veins, all branching from the simple string, guiding her through the maze of passageways, sometimes reaching dead ends, sometimes arriving back at the dungeon’s outer wall.
Finally, after what seemed like ages, Cassima found the door to the kitchen. It was then that the truth hit her. The door was locked from this side. Not only that, but Mordack would obviously do something far worse than imprisonment if he caught Cassima out of the dungeon cell. But why hadn’t he confronted her already? He knew of the cell, so why not the labyrinth?
Then Cassima hypothesized that he, in fact, didn’t know the location of either the labyrinth or the cell. He knew of their existence, but he didn’t know just where they were. He left errands to either of the two to beasts, which knew the castle far better than he did. If Mordack did know of the cell and the maze, however, it could be that he either forgot their location or cut himself off from them. Since they were surprisingly worse than the rest of his “lovely” castle, he would obviously stay away from both. Not only that, but since the only doorway to the maze was through a door in the scullery, Mordack would most certainly prefer dancing with Dink than setting foot in the kitchen, especially with a dirty scullery girl occupying it most of the time.
Turning her back to the door disappointedly, Cassima decided to see if she could make her way through the maze without the thread to guide her. Unlike Theseus, she had no Minotaur to worry about, so she didn’t have to fret about getting lost. Sam was always there to help her out. She could trust him enough.
Her quest through the maze was rather uneventful, with the exception of Dink, who she ran into at least three times. Scalawag appeared a few minutes later, the first time Cassima had seen him in the maze, and he clopped behind her as she made her way through the labyrinth, through the twists and turns and tunnels. She secretly told herself to get the ball of thread she had hidden in the kitchen and carry it with her in a pocket. She wasn’t going to end up in a situation like this again without it.
Presently, she became aware that light was coming down on her. Cassima glanced up and saw a metal grate in the ceiling, not unlike the one she saw in the cell. However, this one was different. The bars were enclosed in a broad metal frame, and there was a pair of hinges on one side, indicating that it could be opened, and who knew what was beyond the grate. But like so many things that she wanted in the castle, it was totally out of reach. Even Scalawag, standing on his back feet and on the tips of his large claws couldn’t reach it.
Even more crestfallen than before, Cassima slowly trudged back to her cell, deciding to wait inside until Sam came to take her back inside the castle.
“You have behaved most naughtily today, princess,” said Mordack softly as he sawed away at his broiled chicken and glanced at Cassima from the opposite table end.
As usual, Cassima said nothing in reply.
“You know that if you married me, you could do whatever you desired and more. Not have to be punished at every opportunity.”
“Mordack,” said Cassima after several seconds of sickening silence. “You know what my answer is going to be as well as I do. I know you aren’t going to change your entire lifestyle because some pretty princess consented to spend the rest of her life with you. I’m never going to say anything even hinting of a positive reply.”
Mordack jammed the blade of his knife into the table, the tip nearly coming out the underside.
“Your uncooperative behavior has not changed much in the time you have stayed here, Cassima. Perhaps I should come up with more difficult tasks that take longer for you to accomplish…or maybe ones that you can never accomplish…”
“Go ahead, dark face. Do whatever your crannied mind can formulate. I still won’t…”
“You will!” shouted Mordack, pulling his knife out of the tabletop and gripping it menacingly. “Five more years of this and you will be crawling on your tender little knees to me, begging for me to be your husband and to free you from your prison! But if you don’t, even after all that I put you through, I just might decide to kill you instead. By the gods!” he roared again, the tips of his fingers glowing with blood-like light. “I’ve never in my life met a creature as difficult to tame as you, with the exception of the cannibalistic lamia that the sorcerer Andrithus encountered in the volume of magical history in my library!”
Funny, Cassima thought as she quickly rose and fled from the table as Mordack continued his mad ranting. That’s just where I’m planning to visit tonight.
As she planned hours before, Cassima stealthily snuck into Mordack’s library, but not before taking the ball of thread she had intended on getting hours before and placing it in her ragged skirt. Then she once again tried to locate where she had left off last and continue her search for a useful spell. Anything that would assist in getting her off the island or summoning help. As before, the scrolls and volumes were written mostly in an incomprehensible chicken-scratch language of hieroglyphics and symbols. The few pictures that accompanied the writing did little to put what the whole thing said into perspective.
Finally, Cassima pulled a hefty volume from one of the shelves, one that she had been eying since her entry, but saving it until she reached its position. As she gave a last heave and the book dropped to the floor with a soft thud, she became aware that something was monitoring her. She glanced behind her at the doorway. Scalawag wasn’t there, nor was Sam. The gaze seemed to be coming from above the doorway.
As Cassima’s eyes slowly traveled up the bone-like frames of the door, they met the glance of another, enormous, unblinking eye positioned above it, a few feet below the ceiling. As usual, she was surprised, but by now Cassima was so used to being monitored by some entity that the eye that watched her so intently came as a very brief shock, in fact, she almost sniffed in ignorance at it as she turned back to examine her book. Since the eye had no visible mouth, it appeared quite unable to yell out an alarm that an intruder was in Mordack’s library.
Cassima dusted off the unclean cover of the volume and tried to read the gold lettering printed on the leather binding. Most of the writing had flaked off or corroded in some way, enough so that the title was beyond readability. She carefully opened the book, the cracked spine creaking slightly as she turned to a random page which was thankfully written in English, and began to read:
“Then did the intrepid Simpleton recite the words “Sail, ship, sail,” and lo, the miniscule fragment of bark of a birch tree did expand into an enormous vessel, hovering a hand’s breadth above the ground, capable of flying betwixt the closest of mountain peaks and over the tallest of trees. The young fool climbed within the flying wonder and thus did…”
Wait, thought Cassima. This is a fairy tale. Like the kind my mother read to me when I was younger. In fact…I know this one. The Fool and the Flying Ship! But…why would Mordack keep a book of fairy tales in here??
She quickly skimmed through the remaining pages, then discovered a long footnote at the end of the story:
“For the Flying Ship Spell, the mage who gave the gift to the fool, used a powder of two egret’s flight feathers, a palm-sized strip of bark from any angiosperm from any northern climate and a permanent-enchantment adapted magic wand. See Appendix B: Essential Tools and Supplies.
For the achievement of the thick-skulled constitution of the fool’s first companion, one must mix a poultice of ground ram’s horn with a solution of…”
Hmm…I’m starting to understand the purpose of this book…but let’s see…
Cassima flipped a few more pages until she reached another story entitled “The Tale of Lusmore.” After a brief analysis, it turned out that the story was about a hunchback named Lusmore who stumbled across a fairy ring, and his harmonious songs convinced the fairies to remove his hump and give him a new life. When a friend of Lusmore’s, another hunchback, tried the same thing, his awful voice and rash impatience made the fairies decide to fasten Lusmore’s hump on top of the friend’s. Naturally, the friend died, the usual fate for one who irritated fairies. Then the footnote again…
“The Hump-Detaching spell used upon Lusmore is a feat performed easily by fairies, but with much difficulty for wizards and witches. The simple act of detaching is simple enough, but the position of the spine and the abdominal organs in relation to the hump must be acknowledged. The best maneuver used in a similar predicament such as Lusmore’s is the Straightening spell, which removes any hunched or improper posture of the subject prior to casting. See Appendix A: Basic Spells.”
So that’s it, thought Cassima. It all made sense now. This book of fantasies wasn’t’ merely for recreation, but to give Mordack ideas for similar situations. How all those heroes did what they did, step-by-step instructions on every magic spell and curse cast. It sure takes all the mystery out of the stories, Cassima thought. And there were quite a few situations listed in the book, from the Nordic myths to the endeavors of the Greek heroes and heroines, and even the Arabian Nights.
The Arabian Nights…they were all told by one person…but who?
Cassima quickly checked the book’s index, found the introduction paragraph for the Arabian Nights and turned to it, running her finger down the page with the same tenacity she used when she was playing the glass harp. There…
“The tales of the Arabian Nights, told by the young commoner turned princess Scherazade, are perhaps the most magical of all the great myths. Many people have taken them as real, no more unreal than Scherazade, who was also believed to have existed eons ago. For many, her stories become reality, as did…”
Just as Cassima was whispering, “That’s it” to herself, a loud grunt and a louder groan from the adjacent room indicated that Mordack was having one of his talking dreams again. She promptly shut the book and shoved it back where it once sat. Looking around the side of the door, Cassima could see Mordack convulsing in his bed like a possessed man, pointing his contorted hands at the ceiling.
“Cassimaaa…” he croaked. “You are mine to keep…I can do anything with you…I can carry you with me…Make you dance for me…I can chain you to the bed…mine…all mine…”
Wrinkling her nose in disgust, Cassima decided to leave the library before Mordack had a sudden spasm and awakened from his loud dreams. With one last glance at the one object in the library that had caught her attention before, the tiny boat, she skipped out of the room like a pursued deer, across the eternally torch-lit hall and into her next destination: the laboratory.
The high stone-and-mortar ceilings and the large, glowing furnace were familiar sights that met Cassima’s eyes as she entered. A dull rumbling made the floor vibrate at a low frequency. The only place she had not explored was the large worktable and the upper story. She decided to investigate the latter. She trudged up the spiral staircase, careful not to make any loud noises that would wake the wizard.
A small bookshelf reached halfway up the wall at the top of the stairs. A few sheets of parchment lay on the bottom shelf. Cassima decided to take a sheet and hope she could find a pen. One never knows when some writing material could prove essential.
Further down the narrow balcony of a second floor was something huge and metallic. Cassima tiptoed towards it, hoping it wasn’t something alive. It wasn’t, but it appeared to be. It was a colossal machine, hissing steam and rumbling softly, obviously the source of the vibrations. Two plate-like trays were on either side of a vat of smelly, bubbling material that vaguely resembled lava (from what she could remember from the descriptions in her books at home), or some other kind of molten hellfire brooding in the huge, round container. Above each of the round trays were strange, conical, metal devices suspended like pendulums from a huge bar above the entire device. All in all, it looked like a giant pair of scales mounted over a huge bowl.
Wires and tubes spurted out from the center of the “scales,” somehow connected to the liquid, as if feeding off of its heat or analyzing it somehow. Cassima didn’t want to know what the machine did, though part of her did. Even if it were operational, the task of finding out just how it worked was just too arduous, as well as the question of how much noise this device would generate. A thing this big would certainly make a lot more noise than an ancient organ played by an amateur. Cassima couldn’t even begin to comprehend the volume of sound; just thinking about it gave her a headache.
Disappointed, she walked back down the stairs and to the large table on the bottom floor. On it was a large, glass container, bottle of ink and a couple of pens, the first writing materials that she had encountered in her prison. Deciding to test herself to see if she still knew how to write, considering the many months she had spent without practice, Cassima pulled out one of the sheets of paper she had salvaged from the cabinet, dipped one of the pens in the congealing ink, and began to write the thing that had been in her mind since her arrival and had just reawakened with the reading of the old book in the library:
She crossed out the name and tried again:
Still not right…
Good enough. Cassima continued writing, trying to remember the words to the haunting poem that wouldn’t leave her memory.
Schaherezade, of hero’s might
Weave your stories day and night
Never falter, never fail
You’re the one that tells the tale
Do not fear the unsheathed knife
Your thoughts and dreams become your life
Fight demons in and outside you
Get through your woes and start anew
Do what your heart knows is true
When you find love and you are free
Then a hero you will be.
Cassima glanced over her work. True, it wasn’t accurate, but it was all that she could remember, the only part of her past that stayed with her, tucked in her mind. All other memories were physical things, things that she couldn’t shape with a pen and paper. She could only shape the poem, with just her bare hands.
Suddenly Cassima remembered that she was a slave, a slave who would be punished if found in the laboratory at night. Quickly she crumpled the poem and stuffed it in a pocket, running back to her corner in the scullery, hopefully to let what she had just written seep into her dreams.
Mordack’s rage that one evening at dinner seemed to deprive him of any ferocious energy he had intended to spend on Cassima in the following days. He was much more mellow, and he seldom snarled at Cassima not to touch anything in his room, the library or the lab while she was cleaning them. She didn’t mind being scolded all the same, since she was free to explore them by night. In two nights of searching, she upturned little besides a few more legible spell books in the library, which she discreetly marked for later reference.
But besides Mordack’s softened attitude, there seemed to be something else. Something almost nervous…or worried. Cassima was secretly humored at seeing him this way, but she was careful not to let her feelings show. He just might turn on her.
One evening, however, Cassima was sweeping the floor of Mordack’s bedroom while the wizard himself was in his library, hunched over something that he refused to let Cassima see, even though she tried, looking over her shoulder and peering up cautiously as she appeared to be looking at the floor. Finally, Mordack picked whatever he was examining up and briskly shoved it into a bookshelf. As he turned towards Cassima, she could see nothing of the object, as if it had disappeared at the wizard’s touch.
“Cassima,” said Mordack coldly, Walking towards her in that flowing manner that his cape always gave him. “I am leaving on a quest. I should be back within the week.”
“What for?” asked Cassima, trying to keep her innocent voice as she looked at Mordack.
“Not that it is any of your business, princess…”
But you’re giving it to me anyway, aren’t you?
“…But I’ve been sending my brother Manannan messages by raven over the past few months, and he has returned none of my letters. Not only that, but the ravens never return either, save one that came back looking like something half-eaten. I am going to call on him in his house in Llewdor, but I haven’t been there in several years, and it will take me some time to locate him.
“As for you, I expect this castle to be in working order when I return. The beasts will make sure you don’t try anything stupid. Do not do anything that you wouldn’t do in my presence!”
Yeah, yeah. Whatever you say.
“I will take a few provisions from the kitchen, then leave. Remember my warning, princess.”
Mordack stomped down the stairs as Cassima listened carefully. There were twenty steps, and consequently there were twenty echoing stomps on each of the stairs as the wizard descended, then (though Cassima couldn’t see him) a turn to the left, straight down the hall, then left again. Into the kitchen, take what he needs, then…
Poof. A dull explosion resounded from the floor beneath her. Mordack had vanished, on his way to Llewdor, wherever that was. At first Cassima was tempted to rush into the library and continue her pursuit of spells, but the thought that had just passed over her stuck, and made her think differently:
Why not try to find a map of the world? Surely that would give her a perspective of just how far from her home she was. Also, it would give her an idea of where this Llewdor was. Of course.
A map of the world would not be stuffed in a bookshelf. It would most likely be in a drawer, which would certainly be in a desk…yes…an oak desk. A large oak desk…like the one right at the back of the library. Even as she thought these thoughts, Cassima was inside the library, totally oblivious of the huge eye above the door, rummaging through the desk, searching for a map.
Her efforts were rewarded after several minutes: she had discovered a large, weathered, tan scroll. A brief glimpse down the long tube revealed that it was just what she was searching for. Cassima unrolled the map and slapped it down on the desk, poring over it to find the island that she was standing on.
At first, she couldn’t find anything. Most of the names of the land masses were written in a script so elaborate that even her keen eyes couldn’t make them out. After several seconds of unsuccessful toil, Cassima decided to find the land mass that the island was closest to instead of the island itself. Now that would be…Serenia, thought Cassima, just as her finger found the title, inscribed in interweaving, delicate calligraphy. Connected to Serenia was a land called Daventry, the land that Cassima remembered from the books that her mother had so often read to her.
A search around the land’s border led to a dotting of islands off the west side, like someone had spilled some ink on the map. They all appeared identical at first, but a larger dot caught her attention. Looking closely at it revealed a tiny marker beside it that read “Mordack’s Island.” It suddenly occurred to Cassima that the island and the marker weren’t part of the original map. The wizard undoubtedly drew them himself, just like he had created the entire isle. But what about the Green Isles…?
Cassima squinted her eyes in the dying light, trying to find her homeland on the faded parchment. She tried to remember events from the night of her kidnapping. Since she had “flown” with Mordack over the land and sea, there had to be some visible landmarks from their journey…
The one prominent thing was the sun. Unless they had made any sharp turns in their flight…now, which side was it on? The right? The left? Front? Back? Cassima strained to remember this…Yes! The left! The sun was rising on the left. She checked the legend on the map. The compass rose was the standard N-E-S-W style, no different from any others she had seen before. So that would mean that we flew to the island from the north…
Cassima’s finger moved upwards from Mordack’s Island, past a blunt peninsula of Serenia that jutted out a few inches on the map (which would mean several miles in actual size). The peninsula was undoubtedly that patch of land they had passed over en route…also the place over which Cassima had lost her locket…the one she wore all her life, and now it was gone forever, lying on the beach of an unknown country…
Painfully, Cassima pushed the memory from her head and tried so find her homeland, a place even more close to her heart, regardless of its distance from her now. But no matter how carefully she searched the Northern Seas (as they were labeled), she couldn’t find a single archipelago. Not even a marker or a label. The injustice of it all burned within her. Why Mordack would include his own unnatural, tiny island in such glory on this map but didn’t even bother adding her own country, which had existed much longer than he or his precious island. It was disgusting. Repulsive. Her hatred of the wizard boiled in her blood and her hands trembled with rage. I’ve got to get off this island.
But then another thought emerged. The land of Llewdor. Where was it on the map? Cassima quickly scanned the surface and almost immediately found what she was searching for: a large, western country that shared a continent with a land called Tamir, which was the farthest west of any of the countries. Llewdor’s coast looked out to the Western Sea, which technically wasn’t “western” unless it was from Daventry, which was situated several inches (at least on the map) from Llewdor. It seemed to convert to a great distance from Serenia and Mordack’s Island. Who could say that Mordack got to Llewdor in one piece…that is, if he got there at all…
Cassima rolled up the map and shoved it back into its drawer, nearly squashing her finger as she slammed it shut. As she had done the last few times she visited the library, she glanced at the tiny sailboat replica on the desk. It was perfect in every way, structurally speaking. A person suited for such a tiny boat would set sail in it easily…but of course, it would be more convenient if the boat were much larger…
Cassima abandoned the intriguing thought for the moment. Stomping over to one of the library walls, she yanked a book off one of the shelves and cracked it open, determined to find something that would get her away from Mordack and his isle. Some of the spells she found and reread during the hours she scoured the library perked her interest: An enlarging spell…a hypnotic trance…a spell to enslave lower minds…hmm…The last spell made her have a second thought: By “lower mind,” the book undoubtedly meant the mind of an animal or beast, though she was sure that Mordack fit the profile. But Cassima wouldn’t cast such a spell on Dink or Sam for anything, even if it meant doing away with the wizard. How would that free her anyway?
The hypnotism seemed promising, but it required ages of practice, devotion and concentration, all of which Cassima had no time for. Overall, the spells that seemed to hold the most potential were those that required wands. Mordack was no irresponsible villain; he had taken his wand with him, mostly out of fear of what she would do with it. Cassima had never handled a wand before, but the hope of escape made her as willing as a budding sorceress to try one out.
But without this essential tool, the only thing the princess could do in the now dark library was to light a candle and practice reciting the strange words in the incantations, trying out different accentuations and voices until she found the one that best fit the spell in question. In addition to saying the spells, Cassima moved her hands in motions that she assumed a sorceress would do (if she were holding a wand, that is).
How ironic, she thought. How Jollo told me that the glass harp was a type of magic. Even if it wasn’t real, it was real enough for me. Then I hurt myself, just after one go at playing it. Now here I am, practicing true magic in a powerful wizard’s library in an attempt to free myself, and I haven’t hurt myself nearly as much as I did before. How funny.
After several practice sessions, the candle she lit was burnt halfway down, and it seemed to be nearing midnight. Cassima carefully put the books away and blew out the candle, waited a few more minutes for her eyes to adjust, then turned to walk out of the room…but something was different. Something that she hadn’t seen the many pervious nights in the library…something glowing…coming from one of the shelves…
Cautiously, Cassima approached the light, trying to make out what it was. She suddenly realized it was coming from the same place Mordack had taken that object he was staring at. So it hadn’t disappeared…
The light was coming from behind a book, which was turned so that the cover faced her, almost completely obscuring what was hidden behind it. Almost. Cassima moved the book aside and staggered in surprise.
It was a crystal ball.
A crystal ball. The one Mordack used to steal food from the mainland. Just like the spheres of the gypsies of the Arabian Nights, the ones that mystics used to foretell the futures of heroes…right here, in this dank, dreary castle!
Cassima carefully lifted the sphere, her hands clasped around the carved, claw-like base. The ball glowed brilliantly as she did so, causing her to almost drop it. What would happen if a crystal ball shattered? Trying not to make any guesses, she carefully carried the ball to the desk and set it down, pulling up an iron stool so she could sit as she gazed into the strange object.
It reminded her of a shimmering drop of water encased in a shroud of fire, glowing innocently as she stared into it, trying to make out what was inside the mysterious sphere. The light and the shadows given off by the crystal danced across the walls and ceiling like the surface of water. Cassima couldn’t see anything, not even a ghost of an image within the magic ball. She tried to remember the stories of the gypsies her mother read to her that explained just how they managed to “work” crystal balls like the one in front of her…
Hmm…From what I remember, it was basically focusing on the person or place you wanted to see…I can concentrate enough for that, I guess…
The only thing Cassima was curious to see in the crystal was Mordack. He was surely in Llewdor by now, since the only form of teleportation he could use (the type without another person with him) was instantaneous…but then, perhaps Mordack didn’t know just where Llewdor was. Perhaps he got lost en route or landed in a nearby ocean. Slightly humored by this thought, but feeling a tiniest murmur of concern out of her tendency to never be entirely cruel, even to a crueler person, Cassima decided to see if she could get an image of the wizard. Surely he wouldn’t know if his crystal ball was examined by another person, who barely even scratched it…why not?
Cassima rested her palms on the desk and tried to clear her mind, closing her eyes and breathing deeply, trying not to doze off. After a few moments, she opened her eyes and stared, with the tenacity of a clairvoyant, into the crystal orb. She attempted to focus on Mordack’s face, the tiny, gray eyes, the sharp goatee, the tan, almost brown skin…trying not to let her impatience break her gaze…all she could hear was her breath and heartbeat, and every part of her body seemed to be becoming part of the crystal, traveling down its many paths and tunnels, seeking out the person she was trying to picture.
A long time seemed to pass before something started happening. As the sound of Cassima’s heart grew louder, the pulsations of the crystal ball seemed to become more pronounced, stronger and more vibrant. Finally, it seemed that her heart had synchronized itself with the crystal, every beat sounded with a bright flash of light, and in between each, a figure began to take shape. Cassima began breathing more slowly and peering more closely, trying to make out if it was whom she thought it was.
As she suspected, it was Mordack. He was walking through an old, majestic mansion, unlike any abode Cassima had seen, except in illustrations in her storybooks. It looked like the house of Cinderella’s stepmother. The floors were of some type of wood, long, hard planks running to plaster walls. Candles flickered in sconces and numerous doorways led to other rooms. It was dark, naturally, just as dark as the night outside the castle Cassima was in, with moonlight shining in through a single window at one stair landing.
Mordack was walking up one of the flights of stairs, one that was rimmed by elaborate iron banisters (but resembled cages or chains more than anything to Cassima). A slight breeze ruffled his cape, coming from the open window. The mansion seemed to be in a state of decay, as if it hadn’t been cleaned in months. Or lived in, for that matter. Cassima’s view was at Mordack’s back, as if she were there, following him wherever he went, though he didn’t sense a thing.
The wizard reached the top of the stairs. The hallway he was in now was quite different than the floor below. It was vacant except for another window on the west wall, matching its double below. A door to the north led into what appeared to be a bedroom, and to the east, yet another flight of stairs led upwards, and besides that, a wide hall led to another bedroom, which Cassima didn’t need to be close enough to notice that it wasn’t nearly as grand as the other one.
Mordack turned his head, and the princess could see that he had a look of genuine worry on his face, a look that she rarely saw, if ever. He then turned left and headed into the large bedroom, which was indeed enormous, in fact, it made both of the rooms Cassima had glimpsed before seem small. Containing a luxurious canopy bed, a chest of drawers, a dressing table, a towering wardrobe and a small window between the table and the wardrobe, it was furnished with the most clashing colors an atrocious mansion like the one it was in could have: pink blankets on the bed, blinding red carpets and a gaudy brass-framed mirror accompanied by numerous brass-handles on anything that could be opened. Normally, pink was a color that Cassima appreciated, but seeing it on all these unattractive objects filled her with a sudden undeniable loathing.
Mordack was glancing around the room with that same concerned expression, and Cassima could not tell why until he moved closer to the bed. The sheets were torn and scratched, as if a savage beast were unleashed in the room. As he walked to each of the ugly furnishings, she could see more of the numerous rips and marks: on the rug, on the table legs, on the sides of the dresser and the wardrobe…in fact, one of the wardrobe doors was coming off its hinges…and the mirror over the table was tilted back…and presently, Mordack stepped on something that made a loud crunch, and he staggered back to see the skeleton of a bird lying on the floor…in fact, two skeletons, with some black feathers still on their bony wings. The place was anything but orderly. It was a disaster.
“What the devil happened here?” said Mordack to nonexistent ears. “Has my brother left the house to a mad monster?”
A sudden yowling made both Mordack and Cassima jump, but fortunately she recovered in time to keep the image from going out of focus. The wizard turned to see a scrawny black, golden-eyed cat crawling out from under the bed. It was barely visible in the tenebrous room, and only the glowing eyes indicated that the so-called shadow was alive. Upon seeing Mordack, the animal became excited, almost frantic, yelping and meowing and dancing around, trying to communicate something to him.
“You must be that sorceress my brother transformed into a feline all those decades back,” said Mordack indifferently. “Now beat it. Unless you can tell me where Manannan is.”
Again, the cat pranced around wildly, occasionally rising to its back feet and slapping a paw to its chest, a gesture Cassima had never seen in cats (but then, she had never had a cat as a pet, mostly out of concern for her nightingale, Sing-Sing).
“Are you trying to tell me something?” Mordack asked. “Trying to tell me that you ate my raven messengers and nearly did the same for my last?”
The feline nodded exuberantly, but then shook its head and bounded up to Mordack’s side and pressing a paw to his leg, then back at its own chest. The wizard’s brow wrinkled in confusion.
“Listen, cat: I can’t understand a word you’re saying, now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see if I can find my brother…”
Mordack turned and began to walk out the door before he finished his speech. At his words, the cat moaned in despair, then lunged in front of him, hopping up and down madly and howling like an insane creature.
“What is it you want?” the wizard asked, irritably. “You can’t be hungry, since those skeletons don’t look that old. And Manannan’s house is full of vermin, and it’s your job to eat the vermin.”
The cat moaned again and slapped its paw to its chest yet again. Then it made a different gesture: it trotted to Mordack’s side, then beckoned with a paw and looked back over its shoulder hopefully.
“You know where my brother is?” asked Mordack, finally beginning to understand what the animal was trying to say, even though it was obvious that he couldn’t understand a word of Cat. The cat nodded quickly, and beckoned wildly, facing the back of the room. With nothing better to do, the wizard slowly followed the little creature, which made a beeline to the wardrobe with the one unhinged door. The cat made an attempt to nose open the door, which failed, so instead, it used its front paws to pry it open, a strangely human characteristic yet again. But still, Cassima couldn’t let her mind wander. She had to continually focus on Mordack if she didn’t want to miss a thing.
Inside the wardrobe were many long, silk robes, all with one common trait: black. Nothing but the dullest of colors, the color of soot and steel…and also the color of the black cat that paced the wardrobe floor.
“Yes? What are you trying to say?” asked Mordack without a touch of astonishment. “Manannan is in this closet? Because if he is, I don’t see him.”
The cat seemed to sigh – a remarkably human sigh – and grabbed the corner of one of the garments with a paw, cleverly grasping it between its toes. The cat then wrapped the edge of the dark cloak around itself like a miniature mummy. When Mordack still appeared unenlightened, the cat put on a serious face and folded its paws across its stomach. Except for the fur and whiskers, it suddenly looked more like a tiny sorcerer than an animal.
“Well, you would be a good imitator for any magician to keep,” remarked Mordack, as dense as ever, though Cassima already had a feeling of what was going on.
“You look just like – wait,” he said, suddenly growing pale and wide-eyed. “Manannan? Are…you…were…you…him?”
The cat slowly nodded, looking angrier than ever, but at the same time satisfied.
Cassima almost collapsed with laughter before Mordack let out an anguished, bull-like roar and fell to the floor, pounding it with his fists. After that, she couldn’t take any more of it. Her mind snapped out of its focused state, the crystal clouded up and she backed away from the table, bent over with laughter at the irony of what she had just seen. Mordack went so far just to see his brother, but ran into a cat that turned out to be him! Cassima couldn’t get over the humor of it all. She was laughing as she never had before in her captivity in the castle.
But there was a deeper irony that she hadn’t discovered: how the crystal ball, which allowed her to see what was happening to a person she hated, didn’t let her see what awful things were happening to the two who she loved the most.
The steel black surface of the ocean lay calm and undisturbed, reflecting a marred image of the crescent moon. The still waters held within their depths the truth behind their deceptive exterior, the truth that anyone who entered their midst from a beach or an island would be instantly pulled from land and far out to sea, where a certain death awaited. The few people that knew of this were those who had either been drawn out themselves or witnessed the event happening to a friend. Even those who had heard from a secondary source or rumor took the stories as undeniable fact.
Similarly, the peaceful, green islands that sat nestled in the dark sea presently held an obscure, deep and terrible secret, one that had festered continually beneath the skin of ignorance for many years, but was finally starting to break through, yet still retaining its nebulous shroud of confusion.
The center where the darkness originated from was within the great palace of the main island. For months now, the King and Queen of the Green Isles, Caliphim and Allaria, were both mourning the loss of their only daughter, so much so that they could barely continue their reign. After their grief subsided enough for them to talk about Cassima without breaking down, the questions began emerging: who could’ve done this? Why did he or she take Cassima? What kind of motive would the kidnapper have? Was Cassima still alive? Where could she have been taken in such a short time?
Most of these questions were directed at Abdul Alhazred, the Grand Vizier, who always replied with the same words: “I don’t know.” Somehow he was able to always get away with his shrewd responses, more than likely it was he turmoil as a whole that ironically prevented any further questioning.
The hostility between the islands was increasing to a final apex, and what was bound to happen next was clear: each land, with the exception of the Isle of the Crown, would detach itself from the others, cutting off communication and trade. Unless something drastic was done soon, the entire kingdom could be in danger of collapse.
Now the King and Queen of the islands lay at rest in their bedroom, asleep side by side, their dreams untroubled for once in the time since Cassima’s disappearance. But only a few yards away, their downfall was waiting to make his move.
Alhazred lay quietly on his canopied bed, pretending to sleep but scheming intently. He had gotten this far without being suspected. Shamir Shamazel had safely delivered the letters to and from the vizier’s fellow members of the black cloak without being intercepted by anyone or anything with suspicions on its mind. For the last several hours he had lain motionless, watching the shadows from his lamp bounce across the walls and ceiling, trying to restrain his waking dreams of power and his long-time wish to rule this land that had captured his fancy so many years ago.
Frequently, his mind would wind itself around Cassima, that beautiful little princess with her innocence shutting her off from the real, cruel world outside. So beautiful, but with too much impudence for a woman. She was always talking back to Alhazred, as if she was the queen instead of the queen’s daughter. He wondered if her stubbornness was persisting as she remained in Mordack’s castle on his remote, handcrafted island. Probably not, but it should surely be muted to some degree by now, Alhazred thought. Women should not be allowed to have such independent natures. Their task is to serve their husbands and make themselves suitable for them. Sure, as children, both boys and girls were allowed freedom to live in equally with each other, but as adults, women were never higher than men. Ever. Cassima should have learned that when she was younger.
When she was younger…of course. When Alhazred first arrived in the kingdom, a request from King Caliphim. Cassima was so young and lovely, even as a young girl of four or five years old who would escape from her room to go play on the beach or in the gardens. But how she changed as she grew older, from a teenager to a young woman. She began to question everyone, especially Alhazred, the only person who didn’t trust him and would tell it to his face.
Perhaps it was good that Mordack had taken her to his island. No more rebellious semi-princess for Alhazred to deal with and try to convince her of his trustworthiness. Still, deep inside he missed her beauty, the way she walked and spoke to her mother, Allaria. But a woman with a disposition like Cassima’s wasn’t deserving of such a beautiful appearance. If a girl was unintelligent but lovely, that was fine, but lovely and too smart for her own good was not.
But there was no time to think about Cassima now. The climax of Alhazred’s history was about to be shaped, and there would be no chance of him missing it. That was because he was going to create it himself. Himself. With the same hands that shook hands with Caliphim in agreement to become his chief advisor. The hands that patted little Cassima on the forehead when she was still a child. The hands that wrote all those letters to the darkest wizards of the age, the hands that made his own genie dance and obey his every command as willingly as a puppet. The same two hands were about to make his one dream come true. He didn’t need three wishes. He didn’t need time to decide. He knew what he wanted, and he was going to get it, no matter what happened to the others.
Alhazred slowly rose from the wrinkled blankets. They had become snarled and creased even though he had hardly moved in the hours he had lain upon the bed. Perhaps it was his pulsating, wild mind or his livening blood that twisted the surface he rested on, but he barely noticed anything as he stood up and stretched his stiff muscles. He was still wearing the clothes he had worn during the day, the scarlet, embroidered vest; the black sandals; the long, ankle-length blue robe that appeared blood-black in the dim, flickering lantern light.
Smoothing back his limp, black hair, he gazed into the dancing glow of the lantern and at the shadows that romped across the surfaces of the room, giving life to even the most lifeless of forms: the trunk, the doorframe, the tall cabinet, the table the light rested upon as well as an oblong, blue bottle…
Slowly, Alhazred slipped off his sandals and stepped into his silk slippers. The ideal footwear for sneaking about, he decided. Then he stealthily padded over to the large trunk he kept locked at the foot of his bed and knelt before it like a priest before an altar. Reaching quickly into a pocket, he removed from it the small, gold key that he always kept with him, no matter what outfit he wore, whether it was on a string around his wrist, a chain around his neck or fastened to a drawstring of one of his garments tucked within his robes, the key was always kept close and out of sight. He could not remember a day he had found himself without it.
Inserting the key into the gaping hole of the heavy padlock, which resembled an empty space in a mouth where a tooth used to be, the vizier subtly rotated the gold rod clockwise, watching the light dance on the cold metal in a rapid roundabout with his own shadow. As a child, he had often wondered how locks work, and if there was more than the elfin sprite or jinn that he was always told inhabited the inner workings of the lock. He was no person to take apart objects of such a complexity and reassemble them just as easily, but still he often wondered what it would be like to see inside the metal box and watch the metal teeth of the key push the one rod of the lock’s horseshoe-like shape out, eliminating the barrier between the person and the contents of the container.
A gentle click informed Alhazred that the trunk was unlocked. Carefully he removed the lock and hinged open the heavy lid, trying to see clearly what was within. It was too dark within the trunk to see anything, and he did not have time for his eyes to adjust. Time was no longer on his side. He glided across the room to the small table and picked up the lantern, toting it back to the trunk’s gaping maw, casting the welcome light upon the contents within.
Inside the worn wood and leather case were pieces of parchment and blank scrolls, as well as many much older writings bedecked with ancient runes and hieroglyphics. There were also many written in English: the letters that Alhazred had received from the Brothers of the Black Cloak and kept safely inside his trunk for future reference. Beside the letters and scrolls was a pile of battered leather books, the topmost one bearing the title Guidebook to the Land of the Green Isles. Though a bit out of date, he still valued it as he had on his first voyage to the Isles, having purchased it from an older wizard from a town near his southern homeland.
Moving the lantern cautiously over the contents, Alhazred squinted in the dim light, his eyes recognizing many familiar baubles and trinkets, various pieces of junk that were probably old gifts of recognition from the royal couple that he had filed away after his exaggerated words of thanks. Suddenly, his hand and eyes stopped. He had found what he was searching for: a small, needle-like dagger, nestled among his other possessions as safely as an egg. He paused for a few moments, admiring its beauty and simplicity, yet at the same time its infinite complexity and possibilities. Then he reached in with his other gaunt, shadowed hand and lifted it out by the silver handle, turning it in the lantern light to examine each side of the instrument.
Looking in the trunk again, he found the second object he had been seeking. It was a plain, round stone, almost hollow in the checkerboard of dark and light that played across the box’s inside. Placing the lantern on the carpeted floor, his eyes unwavering from the stone’s position, Alhazred reached into the trunk and retrieved the spherical rock. It felt light and roughly textured in his grasp. Lifting the dagger to the rock and pressing the blade of the former against the surface of the latter, the vizier paused for a moment before swiftly dragging the weapon across the rough stone.
A brief, yet impacting shriek of metal on stone broke the silence of the room, but Alhazred was certain that no one heard it except him. The sound was loud only because of the current situation. In any other place or time, it would be nearly imperceptible, but now it was as loud as thunder. With the sound came a brief puff of powder from the rock, vivid against the glow of the lamp.
In a few minutes, it will be done, he thought as he raised the dagger to the stone again. He raked it down with a sound not nearly as impacting as the first one.
I have it all planned. No one will know.
Another draw down the simple, round, hard product of earth.
The dead tell no tales, and this weapon will leave none to tell.
Another shriek accompanied by a puff of dust.
Only a few more, and then I will be ready.
Alhazred sharpened the dagger three more times against the rock, then examined his tool with pride and a hint of tension. He placed the rock back in the trunk, and pressed his thumb against the tip of the sharp weapon. There was a slight sting of pain, like that a bee or wasp leaves on its victim. The vizier withdrew his finger and smirked in satisfaction at the drop of blood that blossomed on the end of his weathered digit.
Now everything was ready. There was no more time to waste. Alhazred blew out the lantern and felt his way across his bedroom to his table. There he uncorked the blue bottle and whispered down its thin neck:
“Shamir! Out, now! But quietly, I warn you!”
Thick smoke billowed from the container’s opening, and gradually the nebulous cloud formed into the shape of a shabbily dressed man, wearing baggy pants, a small turban and a gold armband with a golden spark in his eyes.
“You will make sure that nobody comes near me as I make my way to the King and Queen’s room. Disguise yourself as a guard if you have to, but don’t – I repeat, don’t – let anyone see me.”
“Of course, Master!”
Nodding solemnly, Alhazred made his way to his bedroom door and opened it silently, paying little heed to the cold gust of wind that ran past his ankles as he stepped into the hallway. His slippers made no noise on the red, carpeted floor as he tiptoed through the dark corridor, past his study, Cassima’s former room, and finally to the last door that stood between him and his goal. The door that always remained unlocked, in case any “emergency” occurred within, the door that was only a short walk from his chamber. Outside, though he was unaware, the sliver of a moon slipped behind a sea of dark clouds and the stars shivered in the black heavens. Clenching his dagger tightly, Alhazred turned the brass knob of the door and entered to at last fulfill his goal.
Cassima’s placing the crystal ball in its original position was so precise and exact that Mordack never knew that she had spied on him and Manannan, let alone discovered it. But her feelings of glee were quickly extinguished when the wizard returned home the next day with his cat-brother tucked under his arm, his approach punctuated with a thunderous roar coming from across the ocean. He arrived in the usual “flying” style, surrounded by a ball of fire and wind, yet, as Cassima observed through a castle window, still standing stoically as he flew over the rocky reefs surrounding the island, over the twin stone snake-heads (which she could not see from her viewpoint but knew were there), then landing in front of the portcullis (obviously not wanting to demonstrate that path-fusing trick of his).
The princess ran from the window and down to the chamber at the base of the stairs as she heard the iron gate screeching open. It slammed shut just as she grabbed a dirty rag and began buffing one of the statues, trying to give the wizard the impression that she had been working several hours prior to his return.
Surprisingly, Mordack wasn’t the first person she saw striding into the room she was in. Instead, it was the black cat that she glimpsed in the crystal ball, which turned out to be the wizard’s brother. Cassima almost snickered at the sight of him sauntering through the doorway as if he was still the man he once was, but she remembered just in time that she couldn’t let Mordack see her acting that way towards Manannan. Surely he would somehow realize that she knew who the cat was, and then the whole interrogation routine would start. She had to act surprised, as if she had never seen the cat before and had no idea what had happened during Mordack’s visit with his brother. Cassima looked over her shoulder at the cat and put on a puzzled expression.
“I have returned, princess,” said Mordack, walking through the doorway and standing over her (even though Cassima was only a few inches shorter than him).
“Welcome back,” she replied unenthusiastically, glancing at him, then at the cat again. “How did your journey go? What’s the cat for?”
Mordack’s face twisted into an expression of fury and sadness, just the kind of face Cassima expected. “My…my brother…I met him, princess.”
“That’s good,” said Cassima, going back to polishing the head of the winged mermaid statue leaning against the wall.
“Some…sorcerer cursed him…he is…the cat…is…my brother.”
“No!” gasped Cassima, whirling around and staring at the cat in feigned surprise, fighting not to burst into laughter. “Who could have done such a thing?”
The cat scowled at her and snarled something vulgar in Cat, which she was thankful she couldn’t understand. Perhaps the feline could see through her false act. Animals always seemed to see more than humans could.
“I don’t know,” said Mordack, clearly still upset. “But I swear that I will find out. In the meantime, Manannan will be a resident in my castle. You will see to it that he is taken care of and well fed. Treat him just as you would another person. Remember…I will be watching you.”
Mordack promptly disappeared, leaving a foul smell in Cassima’s nose and a fouler hatred in her mind. Muttering something under her breath, she picked up the rag and began to walk out of the room to get herself something to eat from the kitchen, since she hadn’t eaten since the previous night. But before she reached the stone threshold, Manannan the cat suddenly darted in front of her and sat down in the middle of the doorway, blocking her path. Cassima tried to edge past him, but he refused to let her by. He glanced around her legs, towards the statue she was previously working on, as if motioning for her to finish the job.
The princess was uncertain if he really was until she heard a noise that sounded very much like the cat clearing his throat as he sat up primly and twitched his tail agitatedly. Sighing angrily, Cassima turned around and walked back to the statue, rubbing the rag in circles while silently fuming, well aware of the black beast that crouched behind her, waiting patiently until her task was complete.
Manannan continued to follow Cassima around the castle, monitoring her every move as she started each new cleaning job and wasn’t permitted to finish until the cat let her. Apparently, he was a real stickler for cleanliness when he was a man, but not the sort of person to do the job himself. Cassima wondered who once kept his majestic house clean, which obviously was at one time tidier than it appeared to her in the crystal ball.
Whenever she began to slow down or even take a brief rest from her chores, Manannan would pad over to her and dig his claws into her bare legs. The first couple of times he did this, Cassima was tempted to swat him, but quickly reminded herself that Mordack could be watching her, and a kick to his brother would mean a much more painful kick to the scullery girl, and it surely wouldn’t be with his boot.
The work that Cassima accomplished that day was probably more than she accomplished in any of the weeks she slaved away within the castle. Fortunately, Manannan’s monitoring was occasionally interrupted by Mordack, who would poof un unexpectedly and say something along the lines of: “Now, now, dear brother, Cassima already cleaned this floor yesterday,” or “Manannan, I think four polishes is enough for her, don’t you?” and Manannan would reluctantly nod in agreement as Mordack would send Cassima off to her next task, with the cat close behind.
She sensed that the wizard’s interventions were not on her behalf, but were some means of making peace with his brother, whom Cassima assumed was probably angry that Mordack had sent him messages over the few months he was a cat, but had never considered coming to see what was wrong until now. He was probably trying to establish that “brotherly bond” that Cassima had so often read about in stories. It was always the same thing: the youngest son always got the best, while the older brothers made all the mistakes and ended up in poverty. She wasn’t sure if Manannan was the “older brother,” or if the two had had any struggles like the brothers in her stories, but it seemed that all siblings became cross with each other at some time in their lives. But a situation such as this seemed a little bizarre.
When the sun finally started to set that day and Cassima was sweeping the dining room floor, Mordack appeared again and requested that she should begin preparing dinner. But as she turned and the black cat began to trot after her, the wizard called softly to the cat and gestured with his finger.
“Manannan, you come with me. We have things we must talk ab – well, try to talk about. I know you can understand me, but I must find a way to understand you. We will talk in my room. This way.”
The cat grimaced slightly at being called like an ordinary house pet, but then willingly walked to Mordack’s heel and followed him down the hall and out of the room through the farthest hallway from where Cassima stood. Gratefully, she ran down the corridor to the kitchen, where she threw the broom against the table, nearly frightening Sam (who was curled up, dozing near the smoldering fireplace) out of his wits. The blue, ram-like creature sprang to his hooves and blinked several times before focusing on Cassima.
“You know, Mordack brought his brother back from his journey,” said Cassima, reaching into a cupboard and finding a tin of salt, which she removed and set on the counter.
Sam blinked again, not understanding what she said. Even though the beast couldn’t speak, Cassima could read his expression perfectly: What brother? I have seen no other person in the castle. Who do you mean?
“You may not believe this, but it’s the cat,” the princess said, assuming that Sam had noticed the black animal following her everywhere. “Someone ka-poofed him into a cat somehow.”
Sam almost snickered as Cassima noticed a small fish on a metal plate resting on the counter. She smiled lightly as she glanced back at her strange, blue friend.
“Know any good ways to prepare fish for animals?” she asked.
Dinner did not go nearly as good as Cassima had hoped. She was still almost starving from her lack of food, and even more drained from her increasing rage towards Manannan. The dishes she prepared for the two diners were both fish, and both roughly equal in size. She didn’t know if Mordack had stolen the fish en route to the island or obtained it earlier in the month, but both man and cat seemed to enjoy their meals.
Cassima sat in her usual spot at the end of the table, watching Mordack and his brother eat. It was, in a way, almost ludicrous, since Manannan, even though he was a cat, and a mangy one at that, was sitting in the chair closest to his sibling, with his paws resting on the table. He did not eat with a knife and fork, of course. He ate the way any normal cat would, his furry face mashed into the plate, his little mouth smacking greedily as if this were the first full meal he’d eaten in months.
Mordack’s manners were a near opposite of his brother, chewing slowly and solemnly, every now and then looking at Manannan with a mixture of pity and happiness that he had reunited with him at last, combined with occasional stern glances at Cassima. His black wand lay on the table on the right side of his plate, as if it were part of the silverware setting. If Cassima weren’t so mad, she would probably find it fairly amusing.
“I appreciate your efforts to make my brother’s meal satisfactory on his first evening back,” Mordack said through a mouthful of fish. “Hopefully you will improve as his stay here continues.”
Cassima blinked but said nothing.
“I understand that you were neglecting some of your chores, and I am glad that my brother saw it fit to discipline you. He did a better job than I could.”
Manannan grinned with his greasy face, and Cassima sat still, not looking up, the pain from the scratches on her legs slowly increasing.
“But it is not Manannan’s job to force you to do your chores,” the wizard continued. “You should have learned by now that you must do them yourself, not wait to be admonished by…”
“He’s a cat,” said Cassima almost inaudibly.
“He’s a cat,” said Cassima again, this time much louder, gesturing wildly at Manannan. “Can’t you see that your brother is surely himself on the inside, but on the outside, he should still be treated like any lower beast? Like the way you treat the beasts in this castle?”
“Silence, girl. You will not talk like that in my presence.”
“But he is!” she yelled furiously, her mind burning with fury, unable to maintain her overflowing emotions. “He’s been being an absolute menace to me all day! He doesn’t deserve such luxuries like that! Don’t you see how ridiculous he looks perched on that chair? Animals aren’t supposed to eat like that, even if they are wizards on the inside! Even if they are dark sorcerers or brothers of men who kidnap princesses from their kingdoms…”
“That’s enough!!” roared Mordack, his voice rattling the ceiling. Cassima could see it coming. His right hand was going for his wand, which was still resting on the tabletop. She was ready to dodge the beam of light that would surely be shooting from the tip at any moment, but her expectations flipped over themselves as the following events occurred:
Mordack didn’t grasp his wand with his hand, instead he slammed his palm on it with a force that shook the table. At the same instant, a blast of light rocketed from the end of the wand, streaking down the length of the table, heading straight for Cassima. She tried to dodge it at the last minute, but it was too late. The light hit her in the left shoulder and she let out a brief shriek, nearly falling off her chair. In the same moment, her skin began to darken and her body began to rapidly decrease in size so that she shrank out of Mordack’s view.
Within seconds, he couldn’t see any part of Cassima from where he sat. Slowly rising from his seat and picking up his wand, the wizard walked down the length of the table to Cassima’s place and looked in interest at the wooden chair. A tiny, black mouse was crouched in the center of the seat, trembling uncontrollably.
“That should teach you not to talk to me that way,” said Mordack in satisfaction. “Manannan? Give the princess a run.”
Manannan leapt off his chair and bounded towards the chair his brother was standing by. Cassima screamed and sprung off her own chair, a minute, black blur that shot across the floor with the cat in pursuit. Just when it seemed that Manannan was going to catch her, she sped into a large crack in the wall, pressed against the wall and breathing fast, a large paw clawing at her whiskers.
Mordack’s footsteps rumbled across the floor and his boots appeared behind the cat.
“You are lucky that my spells are temporary,” he said coldly. “I haven’t learned how to cast more permanent ones. Manannan, play with her all you want, but don’t eat her. And when she starts shimmering, let her out before she becomes human again. I wouldn’t want my future bride to be responsible for destroying my wall. I will be in my room. Good night.”
A reddish puff of smoke and Mordack was gone. But Manannan remained, grinning nastily through the hole at the silky black mouse that Cassima had become, where she knew he would remain until the wizard’s spell wore off, which would undoubtedly be several hours.
Cassima sighed and sat down on her haunches, trying not to look at her hairless tail as she cowered at the mercy of the cat.
Cassima’s punishment had an effect more lasting than any of Mordack’s previous ones, including the temporary imprisonment in the dungeon. Now she argued less and worked more, avoiding the cat whenever she could.
For a few weeks they seemed to live in peace with each other until one cloudy day when Cassima was sweeping Mordack’s room and Manannan was lying on a small rug in the center of the floor. Since he refused to move when the princess approached him with her broom, she swept as thoroughly as she could all around the rug until she could see a significant increase in the cleanliness of the bedroom. All the while she kept her eye on the library, in which there was still that storybook and all those spell books that just might hold the key to her escape…if only she could find it.
As she thought these thoughts, she was watching Manannan, waiting for him to move off the rug so she could clean under it. Mordack had grown more watchful of her work, and he would surely notice a dirty spot under a rug in his own quarters. When Manannan refused to move, Cassima made hissing noises at him and gestured for him to leave. The cat remained as still as a statue. Since swatting him off the carpet with the broom was something the wizard would certainly not approve of, she angrily whispered to him:
“Listen, cat: move! I have to clean under there. Mordack will punish me again if I leave a spot uncleaned. Come on, scoot.”
Manannan looked at her lazily and paid no heed of her commands.
“Please, Manannan,” Cassima pleaded, remembering his name. “Just for a few minutes and then you can have your rug back.”
The cat hissed and twitched its tail, declining to give up its rug. After several more unsuccessful minutes of persuasion, Cassima shrugged and left the room to sweep the next place Mordack had assigned her to: the laboratory. Before she had reached the lab doorway, Manannan began howling in an ear-scraping cacophony, a sound like claws on metal. Fuming, Cassima turned and stomped back into the bedroom, where the feline still lay on his rug, caterwauling as if something was eating him, his tiny mouth opened as widely as it could.
“Shut up,” snarled Cassima. “What do you think you’re doing? If your food’s been poisoned, it wasn’t me.”
The cat continued screeching and the princess kept yelling at him to stop until suddenly, Mordack poofed into the room. At the same time, Manannan leapt off the rug and stood beside it, looking proud.
“Well, now,” Mordack said, his voice softened by the sight of his brother. “What is it, Manannan? Has Cassima kicked you or swatted you with that ratty broom of hers?”
“It’s not mine,” snapped Cassima, “And I didn’t even touch him.” Her voice trailed off as she noticed the cat pointing frantically at the rug he was laying on several moments before. She became uneasy with the realization of what was going on.
“What’s this?” Mordack asked, lifting up a corner of the rug. Underneath it was a week’s accumulation of dust, dirt and cat hair, most of it appearing to be stuffed there on purpose by someone Cassima didn’t have to guess.
“Well,” said Mordack, letting the corner fall and turning to her. “I see you haven’t been cleaning as well as you should, girl.”
“He was lying there and wouldn’t let me,” Cassima explained angrily, pointing at the cat, who was already giving Mordack the impression that his position beside the rug was the one he had occupied, not on the rug as she was accusing him or lying upon. The wizard raised an eyebrow and glared at Cassima icily.
“I don’t believe your far-fetched claims, Cassima,” he said. “But I will let you go on without a punishment this time. After you clean the laboratory, I would like you to clean the pipe organ in the hallway: keys, pipes, wood, everything. Don’t leave one area undone. Don’t make me check on you before dinner.”
As he vanished, Cassima sniffed in fury at the injustice and looked back at Manannan, who was resuming his place on the rug, snickering wickedly at her. She stifled a growl under her breath and suppressed an impromptu kick at the cat, but her gentle, polite demeanor couldn’t prevent her from saying the three words that were dominating her mind at the moment:
“I hate you.”
Cassima’s strong but brief enmity with Manannan didn’t make her forget her one mission to visit the library that night, just as she tried to do every night. When Manannan first arrived, she was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to explore the castle at night, since cats, as she remembered, were typically nocturnal beasts. But apparently, the ex-wizard’s human past was so strong that he had sleeping habits just like a human, resting at night and moving about during the day. After Cassima realized this, she was quite relieved that her night-owl routine wouldn’t be halted just because of one animal that just might notice her snooping around in his brother’s books.
As the constellation Orion reached its highest point in the sky, Cassima crept into the library and pulled one of the books off the shelves. It was one that she had discreetly marked with a piece of charcoal on the shelf’s base. She leisurely flipped through the index until she came upon a spell that had caught her eye before: the enlarging spell. But like the many other enchantments that interested her before, it required a wand…a wand…
Quickly, she glanced through the door at Mordack’s still form on the bed. The wizard was sound asleep, snoring loudly, with a black blob of a cat resting by his feet. His wand lay glowing softly on the bedside table.
Was Cassima ready for this? She had read the spells over and over and practiced them frequently as well. All she needed to actually cast one of the spells was a wand…and a wand was resting just a few feet away, within easy reach…
But what if he awakened? What would become of her then? As it had already done countless times before, fear seized her and gripped her mind. She couldn’t do this…it was too dangerous…it could mean death…But as she backed away from the door, a rustle of paper in her pocket caught her attention. It was the poem she had copied from memory, the poem of Scherazhad…or however her name was spelled. Holding the book in one hand, Cassima took out the poem and read over the hypnotizing lines, and her courage returned. Of course she could do something as simple as taking a wand. The woman described in the poem had stared her death in the face for one thousand and one nights and told her stories without fail…she had defied the odds and freed herself as well…something Cassima could surely do.
Without pausing to reconsider, Cassima laid the leather-bound book she was holding on the stone floor, tiptoed into Mordack’s room and picked up the pulsating rod. It was warm to her touch, and its glow made her hands appear blue in the darkness. Triumphant, she turned and walked back to the library and looked around, using the wand as a torch. Now what could she use it for…
She gave it a slight flick, uttering one of the archaic phrases she had run across in one of the books. A ball of green light spat from its end, bounced around the room, off the walls, bookcases and ceiling before hitting her in the thigh with a brief surge of electricity. Wincing, Cassima hopped on one foot for a few moments before the feeling returned to her leg and she could stand straight again. She should be more careful. That blast could have been much larger, large enough to knock her out…and be found by Mordack the next morning holding his wand in her hand…not a good thought, Cassima decided. She had to use her knowledge of magic, which, although limited, was the only way off the island.
Cassima moved the wand around the room, looking for something that would inspire her or give her an idea. The spines of the books, facing her like the backs of people, gave her little enlightenment. Not even the lifelike iron stools brought any ideas to mind. The thought of somehow animating the spider-like things and making them crawl all over the castle was something that Cassima couldn’t bring herself to thinking of.
Finally, she found it: the one thing that had truly caught her attention on her first visit to this storehouse of information deep within the crumbling castle of the wizard Mordack…the tiny boat. She remembered how she had admired it before, the find craftsmanship, the detailed, realistic design, the simple yet complex shape, the little compartment in the middle, perfect for seating a person inside…
It was all coming together now. The way of escaping the island…Jason used it. Odysseus used it. Sinbad the Sailor used it. A boat. Of course. The most efficient and practical way off an isolated, water-bound land mass was sitting on the table in front of Cassima…the only downside was its size. And now she had a way to make it bigger…
The princess lifted the boat in her hand and placed it on the floor. Then she opened the book, holding it in her left hand and the wand in her right. Carefully using the glowing rod, she read over the enlarging spell which spanned the two pages. Then, when she was at last ready, Cassima held the wand in front of her and recited the word inscribed beside the note “Increaseth object size twicefold.” There was no blast of light, but she did feel a cool pulsation of energy pass through the wand and the tiny boat began to slowly grow. From a length no longer than the width of one of the book’s pages, the model grew until it was almost two feet long, then stopped. Cassima examined the still small craft. It was just as perfect as ever, with the sail fluttering ever so slightly with her soft breath. The niche in the center appeared even more spacious, just large enough for a cat to fit in.
She was almost ready to enlarge the boat again, when another nagging factor entered her mind: the size of the library’s doorway. Would it be large enough to let such a large boat through? After all, Cassima could only consider the boat seaworthy when it was at least four times larger than its present length, say maybe eight feet or so. The door would certainly not allow a boat of that size to be shoved through. Impossible.
But as soon as this thought was sinking into Cassima’s head, a new idea suddenly emerged: take the boat to the labyrinth. The passageways in there were more than wide enough to accommodate a small boat, as was the large doorway to the scullery. When Mordack was asleep or away on another of his journeys, Cassima could drag the full-sized boat out through the gate and down to the shore that she and the wizard had passed over when they first arrived. From there, she could sail for the Isles. She knew of their approximate location, north of Serenia and to the east, but she should probably take along the map, just in case…
But not now. Now she had to get the boat out of the library, where Mordack wouldn’t see it. She rarely saw him in his own library, let alone the barren labyrinth. Surely he wouldn’t notice the disappearance of one small model of a sailboat. Clutching the wand in her right hand, Cassima tucked the boat and the book under her other arm and snuck out of the library, through the wizard’s bedchamber, down the hallway and the stairs, all twenty of them, past the dining table, through the hallway below the upper one, through the dark kitchen, through the oak door which could only be opened from one side, and into the tenebrous depths of the stone maze.
There, she set the boat down on the hard, cold floor held the book and the wand as she did before and recited the same phrase used to enlarge the boat to twice its size. Again, the cool sensation in the wand, and the boat slowly grew until it was almost as long as Cassima was tall from stem to stern, about four feet. It still had at least three feet of space between it and the labyrinth walls on its port and starboard sides. But it still wasn’t large enough for her to sit in.
Once more, she recited the magic word, and the boat swelled again, its mast nearly touching the ceiling, but finally, it was large enough. Cassima climbed into the little compartment. It was slightly cramped but adequate for someone of her size. She had definitely lost weight during her captivity, and only now was she beginning to see the advantages of being so thin.
Yet even now, when her spirits were beginning to soar high again, another problem pecked at her head: she had no means of steering the boat. The mast was fixed to the deck, and the sail couldn’t be rotated. How could she maneuver this precarious craft through such wild currents? Perhaps she shouldn’t depend entirely on the sail…think of something else to steer it with…
Oars! Why not? She had never used them before, but, just as she had learned how to use a wand, she could certainly learn how to row. But where could she find a pair of oars in this castle? Use a substitute, Cassima. Some suitable alternative. You used magic to shape the boat. Use it to shape the oars.
Words kept coming into her mind from unknown places. Think…an oar is a simple shape…like a rod with a bowl at the end. It looks almost like a giant spoon…A spoon! She almost spoke the last two words out loud in her excitement. There were dozens of spoons in the scullery. She arranged them at Mordack’s place every day for breakfast and dinner. Quickly, she ran through the open door and into the kitchen, where she began searching through drawers, trying to find a pair of spoons. But a metal spoon wouldn’t do, especially for the job she intended to use it for. Something that large made of steel would be impossible to lift, and would sink like a rock if she let go of it when she was out to sea. She needed to find a wooden spoon. A sturdy, lightweight, wooden spoon.
Several minutes of searching turned up just what Cassima was looking for: a wooden serving spoon stained with food on the bowl, but still perfect. Placing the utensil on the counter, she looked through the other drawers and cupboards, including some she had never opened before, revealing cobwebs and large spiders. Her search yielded no rewards or spoons like the one she already had. She would have to control the boat with only one oar. Well, it could be worse, she concluded. At least I have something to steer with.
Cassima placed the spoon on the kitchen floor and enlarged it the same number of times she had enlarged the boat. She ended up with a long, wooden “oar,” about six feet in length. She picked up, satisfied with its lightness. Carrying it into the labyrinth, she laid it upon the boat, propped up against one of the shallow sides.
The next time you leave, Mordack, she thought to herself, smiling with triumph, I’ll be leaving too.
The next day was successful (by Cassima’s standards, at least). Mordack didn’t notice the absence of the boat, nor did he question Cassima about it. She had returned Mordack’s wand to his bedside table immediately after her using it, and wiped it free of fingerprints as a precaution. He never noticed that it had been in use either. However, Cassima was rather hungry as she finished preparing the wizard’s breakfast and took an old carrot from the scullery to gnaw on as she swept the dining room floor.
She had been eating less and less over the previous weeks. She discovered that hunger kept her alert and awake during the night, whereas eating something filled up her small capacity for food and ensured a deep sleep without a chance to explore the place. Her appetite for food had decreased along with her sleep requirement, the reason for it probably the scarcity of food along with the limited time she had to eat it. Cassima could handle this, though, for now, no matter what she ate, even if it was a tiny portion, was enough to satisfy her.
Now that she had her escape planned, she had more free time to explore the regions outside the library. The one other place that interested her was the colossal machine in the laboratory. Over the following nights, she examined it from all angles, trying to figure out just what it did, and, more importantly, what sounds would come out of it if it was activated. Normally, Cassima was indifferent to machines and other mechanical devices, since they were rare within the Green Isles, but the sight of something so large and grotesque revolted her immensely.
She continually wondered what objects should be placed upon the twin plates on either side of the apparatus, if indeed something should be placed upon them. She wondered what purpose the odd, glass tubes coming up from the bubbling vat served, as well as the odd, globelike ball that encased many of the tubes. Even more puzzling were the contents of the vat itself. Some weird, slimy, red concoction was all Cassima could see from her viewpoint. She could not tell what exactly it was or what it was supposed to do, besides give the air around it a pleasant stench not unlike rotting cheese.
When the princess took the ball of thread she had decided to carry around with her after the wizard locked her in the labyrinth weeks before, dropped the end of it into the giant container and withdrew it shortly afterwards, the end that had touched the substance was eaten away, totally dissolved. There was also a blackish smoke trailing from the frayed end. Feeling slightly squeamish, Cassima decided not to drop anything more into the vat. Who knew what would or could happen.
Her freedom from the anxiety she associated with the library didn’t keep her from visiting it, though. She continued her poring through the large book of stories, and the magic spells that came with them. Ironically, the spells held little interest to her any longer, it was the stories that made her continue her literary quest through the volume.
She was growing more aware of the roles that the women played in the stories. Ariadne was the one who gave Theseus the ball of thread that helped him through the maze, but that was all she did to aid him. Then he took her from her homeland and abandoned her on a beach. In another myth, the sorceress Medea aided Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, but later betrayed him when he distrusted her. And then there was the story of Princess Margaret, who was made a tender of geese by her evil servant, Ellen. In the end, it was her pleading words to her mother that alerted the prince, who was going to unknowingly be wed to Ellen, that she was his loved one. But Margaret never raised a fist or a knife against Ellen or went against her wishes. None of the women in the stories were like that. They were always obedient, always accepting the fate chosen for them, never going against the wishes of anyone greater.
Scherazhade wasn’t like that, though. Her words were as mighty as any sword, and she defied the odds and saved herself, as well as changing the hearts of all who heard her stories. Ulrica was right when she said I was like her, Cassima thought. I’m not as much of a naïve, innocent princess as I am a rebel and a fighter. But I’ve never seen a woman in these stories that could compare to me exactly. So what does that really make me?
A loud clawing outside the door alerted her senses. She slammed the book shut and turned around. It was Ursa, one of Mordack’s beasts. She had only glimpsed Ursa once or twice in the past weeks and heard Mordack yelling the creature’s name, but only now could she see the beast clearly. It was very bear-like, with coarse, black fur and beady black eyes. Its long, pointed teeth peeked out of a saliva-coated set of lips. Odd fins protruded from the beast’s back and atop its shoulders. It was small for a bear, even though Cassima had never seen one, she could depend on her books to give her a good picture. Since “Ursa” was a feminine name, Cassima decided that, unlike Scalawag and Sam, this beast must be a female.
“I’m sorry,” the princess said, pushing the book back onto its shelf. “I wasn’t stealing. I was just reading. You know…”
The beast cocked its head and blinked slowly, as if in recognition.
“You’re Ursa, aren’t you?”
Ursa made a soft grunt but made no other gesture.
“My name is Cassima…or did you know that?”
Another grunt and a lick of the lips.
“You won’t tell Mordack about this, will you?” Cassima asked, although it seemed that the beast was quite incapable of doing this, its body more suited to killing unfortunate intruders, like Dink.
Ursa snarled slightly, and Cassima decided to take the gesture as a “no.” As Cassima got up and left the library, the creature eyed her curiously and she eyed it back. It was strange that such a beast could exist within the castle walls without her knowledge. Perhaps it only could be seen at certain times of the day or the year, like the seasons or the solstices. It was a wild guess, but it was as good as any.
Then again, Cassima hadn’t seen Scalawag for several weeks, and the weather was getting cooler. Perhaps Mordack did something to them, made them disappear or froze them in time. But it made sense, because Scalawag had very short fur, and Ursa had very thick fur. Maybe the wizard employed different beasts for the different seasons…but she could never understand Mordack’s strange way of living, and was quite grateful that she couldn’t.
Manannan the cat’s constant monitoring of her continued, as did his human brother’s attempt to understand his language. Cassima was still surprised that a wizard like Mordack was unable to understand animals, but then again, he was a young wizard, and Cassima had never understood an animal herself, so she could excuse him.
However, there were times in her own home when she felt she could understand her nightingale, Sing-Sing. The tone of her song, the way she flew, everything seemed to say so much without words. But there were times when she truly wished she could hear Sing-Sing talk, especially when she returned from one of her flights with some strange object in her beak. One time she returned with a grape that made rude remarks whenever Cassima touched it. Another time, Sing-Sing brought back a peppermint leaf, which the vizier’s genie stole and ate soon afterwards.
These little treasures were probably from other islands, but which ones? Cassima had not been to the other islands in years, not since the strange “unrest” began to set in and the hostility between the isles grew hotter. Abdul Alhazred was undoubtedly connected to the disturbance, but how? Cassima could not even begin to think about it, especially since she had her hands full with her captor and his cat.
One day, it was so cloudy around the castle that it was impossible to tell what the time was. Normally, there was always a layer of magically produced clouds crowding the sky around the island, but now they had grown increasingly dense along with the natural fog and haze so that the atmosphere was a dull, steely gray, like the floor of the labyrinth.
Cassima was polishing the wooden rail of the stairs that led up to the second floor of the laboratory when Mordack walked in, carrying Manannan in his arms and stroking his head. The cat apparently didn’t mind this, as he was purring softly.
“Cassima,” announced Mordack. “I am having no luck communicating with my poor brother.”
Tell me something I don’t already know, Cassima thought.
“I am leaving to visit a fellow sorcerer who has knowledge in communicating with animals. It will most undoubtedly be a process not requiring a wand. However, I cannot discuss my questions with Manannan while in the presence of this other sorcerer.”
And I’m sure we both know why, Cassima thought. You and your dark schemes…
“Consequently, I will be back in a few hours, say around suppertime. I expect my food to be ready by then. Farewell, princess.”
He turned on his heel and strode out of the room, Manannan’s tail swaying behind him. Cassima counted the twenty steps down to the ground floor, then heard the gate rattle open. A dull, thundering roar met her ears. Quickly she raced to the window of the lab and looked out. A tiny, red ball was streaking across the ocean, finally disappearing beyond the horizon.
Cassima grinned and clenched her fists with excitement. She was ready.
The first step was to check the library. One never knew when something from there would come in handy. After a quick scan of the books that lasted longer than she anticipated revealed little. But still, she decided to take the spell book that she had found the enlarging spell in, as well as the map of the world. Something even more useful might come out of both of them.
As she was looking at the room for one last time, she suddenly noticed something that she hadn’t before, even though her visits were so frequent and thorough. It was a large book, buried under a pile of papers. Perhaps it had been there all along, or maybe Mordack had only recently gotten it out. Out of curiosity, she opened it and skimmed through the first few pages. They were covered with strange, small symbols with no meaning to Cassima, as well as larger, perplexing black and white pictures, two to a page.
One picture was a profile of a man’s head with a strange, flying beast with a curved, scorpion-like tail within it, as if the beast was part of the man, or vice-versa. Another was of a man with lightning coming out of his eyes, and another was of a roaring tiger’s head. On closer inspection of the tiger’s head, Cassima noticed that it was combined with a side view of a man’s face, also “roaring,” making up the right side of the cat’s cheek.
Though greatly intrigued by the symbols, Cassima realized that her time was limited. She had only a few hours before Mordack returned, and what in the Fates’ names could happen in between? Without even bothering to hide the book again, she grabbed the spell book that she originally planned to take with her, opened a desk drawer and pulled out the map she had discovered a few weeks before and raced out of the room, down the stairs three at a time, skipping the last few and jumping to the floor.
No beasts intercepted her as she ran through the kitchen and the labyrinth’s door and began dragging the boat out. She wondered how Mordack would live without her tending to him and his cat. Would the beasts miss her? Certainly, they were inhuman creatures, slaves by nature, but she had befriended them. They seemed to be on her side, but still…what would they think of her if she left them with this wrathful wizard?
Cassima tried not to think about this, instead she concentrated on dragging the boat and the oar through the kitchen, grabbing a bag of beans as she did for food during her journey. Then, deciding that she might need more than just food, she took a sharp knife from one of the drawers and stuck in in her rope belt. Then she continued dragging the boat through the hallway, ignoring the crazy organ, through the dining room, almost stubbing her toe on one of the chair legs and cursing it hatefully, and finally reaching the iron gate that led to the outside, a place she hadn’t been in months, possibly years. She tried to raise the gate with her hands, but it wouldn’t budge. She tried using the oar as a lever to pry it open, but still, nothing happened. Her elated feelings suddenly dropped down with a sickening thud.
How did Mordack raise the gate? His wand, of course, but how could a normal person raise it? Perhaps it was impossible. Perhaps he fashioned the gate so that it could only be opened by magic. Cassima groaned in despair. The wizard was gone, and he had taken the one little thing that would have meant escape, the one that – Wait. Mordack was only going to seek advice, not on some potentially dangerous journey like the one he went on to seek Manannan. He wouldn’t need any magical weapon…He even…did he…did he say that the magic he was going to enquire about didn’t require a wand? Was it possible…no…it couldn’t be…
Even with her doubts, Cassima was already running back up the stairs, praying that her wishes were true, but at the same time trying to tell herself that it was nonsense. Mordack wouldn’t leave his wand here with her. But still…it was a friend he was seeing. He said he wouldn’t need a wand. He might’ve taken it with him just the same. Forget it. But…
Cassima had crossed the threshold of Mordack’s doorway. She stood in the center of the room, panting heavily. She quickly glanced around, the two sides of her mind battling each other wildly. Unable to see clearly, she approached the bed and looked at the table…
There it was. The same tool that had enslaved her, stunned her, stiffened her, beat her and turned her into a mouse, out of its master’s grip and lying there. Cassima picked up the wand, and, unable to restrain her joy, let out a scream of triumph. She took her poem out of her pocket and read the last two lines:
When you find love and you are free,
Then a hero you will be.
I may not have found love yet, thought Cassima, but I’m definitely free now. If this is how heroes feel, I must be one!
Cassima’s first attempt to open the gate by waving her newly-acquired wand at it was a failure. Maybe it was because she was an amateur. That was the only reason she could think of with time ticking against her.
After several painful minutes of searching through the book of spells, Cassima found the incantation for raising a gate (or any other object, for that matter). Tucking the book and the map under her arm, and pointing the wand at the steadfast portcullis, she recited the word “Ascendo!” Immediately, the gate began to rise, and Cassima was able to drag the boat and the oar through.
For a moment she was puzzled about the fact that Mordack could raise the gate just by pointing his wand at it, but she couldn’t move it an inch with all her waving and gesturing. Perhaps the wizard had become so mastered at the task that he didn’t need to speak the incantation out loud. It could be that just thinking the word was all it took for someone of his rank. But for one like Cassima, the spoken word was the only thing that would get her by these obstacles.
The gate abruptly slammed shut and the wide gap in the road stood in front of her, too wide to jump across. Cassima looked at the sky, but even though she couldn’t see the sun, she knew that she had to hurry. She couldn’t waste time looking for another spell. There had to be an easier way across the gap. Then she looked at the boat she had been dragging with her, then back at the empty space in the road. They seemed to be almost equal lengths. Cautiously, Cassima pushed the bow of the boat over the chasm. Yes, it did seem to be long enough…She pushed it farther out…the nose was nearly touching the opposite side…she tried not to let it fall…
Finally, the end of the boat fell upon the other side of the fissure with a satisfying clunk. A makeshift bridge had been created, spanning the gap in the road. Cassima threw her oar across the chasm, placed the spell book, the map and the wand in the large niche in the boat and nimbly climbed across, trying not to look down. The mast was an inconvenience to maneuver around, but eventually, she made it to the other side. Another surge of triumph. Cassima picked up the oar, dragged the boat across and continued down the path.
Soon she came to a pair of gigantic stone serpents facing each other, the same ones she had noticed upon her arrival. She vaguely remembered how the eyes of the serpents glowed when she and the wizard passed over them. She stepped closer to the two gargoyles, and sure enough, the two pairs of eyes began glowing softly, a fiery, golden light that somehow struck fear in Cassima’s heart. She stepped back from the snakes and the eyes became cold and hard once more.
She remembered Mordack once speaking of the stone snakes as protection, and though she couldn’t see what they did to protect the castle now, she decided that she shouldn’t try to pass. But how would she get to the shore? The sides of the path dropped almost straight down to the ocean, and though there was little solid ground between the jagged rocks and the surf, there seemed to be no safe way to get down there…
Cassima tried to think of a way to get down safely. She couldn’t teleport herself down, what with the limited, imperfect skills she had achieved, and making the rocky cliff smooth or creating a temporary staircase was far out of her league. She remembered her recent solution to crossing the gap in the road. When magic doesn’t work, don’t use it, she told herself. After a few moments of thought, the answer came to her: A rope! Yes! She could tie a rope around one of the snake statues and climb down…but where would she find a rope? Her frayed belt was too short to do anything, and the only ropelike material she had with her was the thread that she used to navigate through the maze…if only it were larger…
A light went on in Cassima’s head. She had already made small things bigger twice, and of course, “three time’s the charm.” So perhaps magic would work here after all. She took the string out of her pocket and placed it on the path. Twice its size wouldn’t have much effect. Cassima turned to the pages in the spell book concerned with enlarging objects, and skimmed through the enchantments until she found one written besides the description “Increaseth object size tenfold.” She proudly recited the word, and the thread slowly swelled from a tiny pile to a huge heap of rope, looking a lot like a snake coiled and ready to strike. Cassima picked up her new rope and tied the end around the left serpent. She then yanked on the rope to make sure it was tight, then gripped it tightly and stepped over the side of the path.
She jumped back up as soon as she jumped down with a high-pitched yelp. The rocks were much more jagged than she had anticipated, in fact, her callused feet felt very tender on the needle-like terrain. Another obstacle, Cassima said to herself. Now what do I do? I need some kind of protection for my feet. Something tough and durable. Like…
She glanced down at her ragged, potato-sack dress. I think you’ll do, she thought. Pulling her knife out of her belt, Cassima cut a large section out of the bottom of her dress and lay it on the ground. It wrapped around her right foot just fine, but how was she going to keep it on? She could use some string, but all her string had been turned into rope…she frantically searched her pockets, and was relieved to find a copious length of string. Apparently, she had grabbed more than just the length she used in the maze.
Tying up the cloth on her foot firmly and tightly, Cassima cut another section out of her dress. Hopefully, she wouldn’t be wearing it again anytime soon. Quickly, she wrapped and bound her left foot, savoring the moment of being in shoes again, even if they were only impromptu booties.
Walking over to the edge of the path and gripping the rope again, Cassima tried descending over the side again. She could not feel the sharp rocks through her thick “shoes,” and knew she would be able to get to the ocean safely now. She climbed up to the pathway again and placed the oar and the book in the boat’s compartment. She put the wand and the rolled-up map in her pocket. Then, carefully lowering the lightweight sailboat over the side, Cassima wrapped the rope around her waist and began the slow route down the cliff. There were many wide crannies and cracks in the rocks, where she could lodge her boat as she made her way down.
As she continued her slow descent, she began to realize that there really wasn’t much dry ground to land her boat on before the sea. There was only rocks and surf. Her only choice was to drop the boat into the water and hope it didn’t hit any sharp reefs, then jump into it herself. It was risky, but it was the only way if she wanted to escape. Cassima rested the boat in a large gap between two rocks and took the oar out of the compartment.
Finding her footing on the corroded stones and letting go of the rope, she used the oar as a walking stick, making her way as far down as she could to the water. Then, Cassima reached up and dislodged the boat. She gritted her teeth as it fell down, the sail fluttering wildly before it hit the water with a loud smack. It seemed intact, but there was no time to make last-minute precautions. Her muscles tensing, Cassima readied herself, using the oar for balance, then launched herself through the air, landing solidly in the sailboat’s compartment.
Letting her breath out with a laugh of relief, the princess drove the oar into the churning waters and gave a mighty stroke, pushing herself away from the shore and the miserable life she suffered.
When Cassima was several yards from Mordack’s Island, she checked the map she had brought with her to see if she was on course. However, she wasn’t sure which side she had actually launched off from, and nor was she certain which way was north. By now, the sky had cleared enough for her to see where the sun was. It was behind her and to her left. That meant it was just about setting in the west…Setting?? How long have I been escaping, Cassima thought frantically, Mordack could be home within the hour! I’d better get going!
Sticking her oar into the rough waves, she turned herself northward and straightened the sail. The wind from the south caught it, and her little boat began its journey toward the northern sea.
Cassima could not be sure how long or how far she sailed. It couldn’t have been too far…but then, it was some time since she started, several hours at least, the sun was starting to turn the western sky red, and the sea was becoming rougher. She had set herself up for danger, without knowing exactly where the islands were…she could hit Serenia, and ask for help there…but then, nobody knew much about the location of her homeland, even her mother told her that was true. She couldn’t be lost…
A dull form several miles off the right side of her boat gave her renewed hope for a moment, then a groan of disappointment as she discovered that it was Mordack’s Island again. So she hadn’t gone that far at all…she had just wasted too much precious time. Now her chances for escaping the island seemed to be decreasing by the second, with what appeared to be an approaching storm descending from above. Cursing her turn of luck, Cassima tried to trim the sail and propel herself away from the island, but the winds had changed, and now seemed to be pushing her back to her prison, where her captor would soon arrive.
Angrily, Cassima got to her feet in the boat’s compartment and pulled as hard as she could on the oar, fighting the strong waves, but it was no use. She was being drawn back to the place she had tried to hard to escape. Whether it was an accident or whether the elements were turned against her, she couldn’t say. But she wasn’t going down without a fight.
As she continued pushing with the oar, it suddenly struck rock. The water was growing shallower, much sooner than it usually did. It must have something to do with this being a “handmade” island, Cassima decided. She was able to achieve greater force pushing off from the stone floor, but the approaching, growing waves and the increasing, strong wind were getting too strong for her. It was as if some creature were swimming towards her, creating these monstrous waves as it rose from the surf…
Then suddenly, her thoughts became real. A huge, gray, scaled head shot out of the waters and towered above her and her tiny sailboat. It had angry, slit-eyes, a long snout and a red, forked tongue. There was no question as to what the beast was. A sea serpent, Cassima screamed inside her head. So those tales that Mordack told of fighting sea monsters were true! And now the evidence he never bothered to bring up was coming straight for her!
Cassima shrieked and quickly poled her boat to the side as the creature stuck, crashing into one of the jagged reefs surrounding the island. It raised its ugly head again, leering menacingly at this tiny creature afloat in its ocean…and so alone, too…
As the sea serpent lunged at her again, Cassima jabbed her hand inside a pocket and pulled out Mordack’s wand. In a desperate move, she whipped the black rod at the creature and cried out something incomprehensible, but loud. Perhaps she hoped her outburst would stun the monster somehow, or turn it to stone. A white light shot out of the tip and hit the serpent in the nose. It reeled in pain and roared in fury only a creature like it could manage.
But Cassima’s attempt didn’t stop it, of course. Sticking the wand back in her pocket, her hand now went for her knife…but no…now that she looked at it, she saw that it was just a small, stained, and rather dull kitchen knife, and she was being faced with a carnivorous sea-beast. The reality of her peril began to hit her as she barely dodged another attack, this one tearing a chunk out of the stern of the boat.
No time to look up spells that would get her out of this mess safely, no way to slow things down and swim for safety. Cassima dove for the wand again, but discovered it was missing. It must’ve fallen out, lost forever to the waters surrounding the isle. Just as she realized this, her boat suddenly smashed into a huge rock, the bow splintering into fragments. Cassima tried, but was unable to dislodge her craft or even herself from the clutches of the jagged rock. They both were stuck fast. The serpent, seeing its chance, made one last lunge, its jaws open wide, its eyes glowing like coals.
A feeling just like the one when she had refused Mordack flooded over her, like the seawater that was coating her garments and body at the same time. She was going to be killed…eaten in an attempt to escape an island ruled by a tyrant, someone that nobody could ever conquer and destroy…in this flimsy boat, with the tattered sail…with a stolen spell book and a soggy map of her world, on which her homeland didn’t even exist. Suddenly, even this fell out of the crushed boat, and sank out of sight before she could retrieve it.
As she tried to prepare herself for her death and the great head shot towards her, suddenly everything stopped. There was no sound of wave crashing, so sound of wood from her boat cracking. There was no wind, no moisture. Time seemed to have frozen. Cassima looked around…surprised that she, unlike all of her surroundings, could move. She felt like a figure in a painting. Everything was still, inanimate. The sea serpent’s head was inches from her and her boat, its gray neck still arched, muscles tensed and flexed. What was going on?
“Over here, princess,” came a familiar, drawling voice. Cassima turned her head slowly and beheld Mordack, standing with Manannan and Scalawag on the beach of his island. The wizard was holding his wand in his hand. For a moment, Cassima wondered how he had gotten it, and was going to ask him, but she was too exhausted to do anything but breathe.
“I have stopped time for a short while,” said Mordack calmly. “Just around this isle, except for the four of us.”
He waved his wand smugly. “You didn’t think I would be so foolish to let my wand sink with the sinking boat,” he purred. “I simply made it disappear from your skirt pocket and appear in the hand of its rightful owner. It’s quite simple, really. But not for the likes of you.”
Cassima, having caught her breath by this time, tried to stand up and was interested to see that the boat (or what was left of it) remained stable, as if it were locked in stone instead of water. She glared at the wizard and his cat furiously, but Mordack remained cool and unmoved.
“You’d better hurry back here, princess,” Mordack urged. “Unless you would like to be eaten by that sea beast you were obviously irritating.”
“Irritating?” Cassima thought. I was fighting for my life, you snotty boar! I suppose you could do better!
“Come on. The water’s safe to walk on. I’m not trying to trick you.”
With no other alternative, Cassima extended one booted foot and placed it on the still surface, half-expecting it to sink in. Instead, he foot remained upon the surface, as if the water was frozen like ice. She placed her other foot on the water, and achieved the same result.
“Hurry up,” said Mordack, with a hint of impatience. Then Cassima remembered what the wizard had said about his spells when he turned her into a mouse weeks before. They were only temporary. And then, she had turned back into a human in only a few hours. And that spell was fairly simple. This spell, stopping time, with the exception of her, Scalawag, the wizard and his brother was surely a complicated one, and consequently, it probably wouldn’t last as long. Why, it could suddenly wear off at any minute!
Becoming nervous, Cassima stepped over the uneven surfaces of the waves, picking her way over the sharp rocks in her soggy booties, clutching the soggy book to her chest, the knife in her belt cutting into her thigh. For something so normally delicate and smooth, the ocean was incredibly hard and jagged in this frozen state. The air was still deathly silent as Cassima made her way towards the shore.
She was only a few yards from dry land when suddenly the water became liquid again and Cassima plunged into the deep surf. The cold winds began roaring again, and the dark clouds swirled overhead. The serpent’s head smashed into her boat, biting it into fragments. The mast snapped, the sail was ripped to shreds, and within seconds, it was impossible to tell what the little sailboat once was.
Cassima was struggling to swim through a deeper area of the reef. She was still exhausted, and her feet could not reach to the bottom. Not only that, but she was still holding the spell book under one arm, making it impossible to swim. Sensing that she was in trouble, Scalawag leapt into the surf, rapidly paddling out to where Cassima was, trying to stay above the waves, her mouth filled with salt water.
The serpent had finished destroying the boat, and had spotted the girl that had somehow escaped its mouth and struggling to reach the shore. Before it could attack again, Scalawag had reached Cassima and gestured for her to put a hand on his back. The girl gratefully grabbed a lock of his ragged mane, still clutching the book to her chest. Scalawag swam as far as he could with his wide claws and hooves to the shore before they could feel solid rock beneath them. Cassima set her feet on the ground and let go of the beast, wading through the shallows towards the beach. The serpent, apparently not able to follow them in such shallow reefs, let out a roar of frustration and sank back down beneath the waves and out of sight.
Cassima looked after it, shivering with cold and fear, before sloshing her way to solid ground. For several moments, she stood there, dripping wet, her skin speckled with goose bumps. Then she looked at Mordack, who still wore that same calm, disappointed expression. Manannan stood beside him, bearing a very similar look.
“Cassima?” he asked, extending a hand. “The book, please.”
Reluctantly, but knowing that hesitation would mean something dangerous, she handed the wizard his spell book, which, like her, was waterlogged. Then she stood, not looking at him or anything else, bearing no readable emotion.
“Well?” the wizard asked, fingering his wand, examining the enormous ripples left by the sea creature and the bedraggled princess standing before him. “Aren’t you going to say thank-you, Cassima?”
Cassima looked at the sea, then back at him as if she hadn’t noticed him until now. “Oh yeah,” she exclaimed with false enthusiasm. Then she turned to the sodden beast standing behind her.
“Thank you, Scalawag.”
Then she indifferently but confidently walked past the wizard and the cat, heading back up the rocky, eroded path to the castle.
Cassima was so upset the rest of the day that she could hardly remember Mordack’s words and orders. Perhaps it was because of what the wizard said after he took her wrist and floated over the deadly snakes’ heads with her. Scalawag simply vanished into thin air, and was there to greet them when they entered through the massive gate.
Mordack had thrown her to the floor and exploded with an endless outburst of insults, threats and hard words, accompanied by Manannan, hissing and spitting with equal malice. Cassima was brought close to tears at a few moments, but she was beyond crying now. Pride wouldn’t allow her to let this man or his transformed brother see her weep.
Then Mordack summoned Sam to take Cassima to the familiar dungeon cell, which the princess didn’t even try to escape from. She was too weak with fatigue and disappointment, thinking about her parents, the nurse-dog Ulrica, funny Jollo, and everyone else in her homeland that she had failed to reach. To look into the wizard’s crystal ball would be of no help. She doubted if she could even remember what her friends and parents looked like. Besides, the sight of them mourning over her (which she was certain they were doing) would make her feel even worse than she already was.
After about an hour, Sam arrived to take her to the kitchen. Possibly the short length of her imprisonment was due to the fact that it was nearing Mordack’s dinner time, and he still intended on Cassima fixing his and Manannan’s food. Still feeling as low as the dirt within the dungeon, she began preparing the leg of mutton that lay upon the counter. Ursa was monitoring her, obviously upon Mordack’s request, and appeared to be very sympathetic to Cassima’s troubles, often nuzzling the princess’s hand with her broad nose or stroking the girl’s back with her own padded paws.
Cassima tried to stroke Ursa back, but she couldn’t help wincing as she ran her hands over the fins on the creature’s back, remembering the sea serpent she fought…or tried to fight. Fortunately, she managed to finish the wizard’s dinner in a short period of time, as well as some chopped fish for Manannan. Dinner was silent, except for the sound of the diners chewing and smacking loudly. Cassima didn’t say a word to Mordack, neither did she look him in the face. Under normal conditions, this silence would be welcome, but she was too torn up inside to savor it.
After dinner was over, she took the plates and utensils, ran back to the kitchen and threw what she was carrying on the counter, nearly cracking a plate. She then slumped down in a corner, tearing off her still-wet booties and using the knife that she still had with her when the seams wouldn’t give, cutting her flesh and chafing her fingers in the process. She then threw the knife and the scraps of cloth across the room and lay in silence, hot tears running down from her eyes.
She awakened in the middle of the night, and her first true realization was that she was painfully hungry. Her first impulse, of course, was to eat something, which she did. She pulled a potato out of a rotting barrel and had eaten half of it before she realized why she was so alert at this time. Her nightly explorations. Her examinations of the rooms she wasn’t permitted to go during the day. How could she have forgotten? Easily, Cassima thought, recalling the awful events that had occurred.
Since she was awake, she decided to get the most out of her regular insomnia and explore one of her regular haunts: the library. Her feet, still sore from where she accidentally cut herself with the knife, made her limp up the stairs and through the corridor. She tiptoed through the library door and looked around at the familiar room, noting that the heavy book of strange symbols was still lying open on the desk. She was tempted to look at it again, but decided not to. Those pictures were something nasty, she thought. I’d best stick to stories for now. Her hands felt chafed and raw as she took the book of stories down from its shelf and sat herself down on the floor and opened the volume.
Cassima turned through the stories of valor and bravery, of the heroes who slew the fierce monsters, solved riddles told by the most powerful of antagonists and rescued the imprisoned maidens from their prisons. Rapunzel and her savior. Atalanta and Melanion. Pyramus and Thisbe. How much they reminded her of her present predicament. Only here, there was no way that a prince or a hero or anyone, for that matter, could rescue her. The waters were treacherous and the reefs were unpredictable.
Unless someone knew how to fly over the ocean and knew where Mordack’s Island actually was…even if that was so, how would she return to her homeland, a place known by very few who lived outside it. In fact, there were even rumors that those who visited the Green Isles became captured by its beauty and could never return to their native country. Cassima, a person born and raised on the Isle of the Crown, often wondered if the rumors were true. Alhazred had stayed in the islands indefinitely from the time he arrived when Cassima was six, but that was merely for power and fortune, as she found out that night the wizard kidnapped her. Would she ever meet someone who chose to stay in her homeland only for love?
She put these questions out of her mind as she continued reading through the stories, the hero always being the same archetype: an avenger of good, opposed to evil, conquering all in the name of whatever he stood for. And now here she was, also the typical captive princess, the damsel in distress, the helpless maiden with no means of escape. She sighed heavily with the realization of her likeness to all those women in her stories, and was just turning to the next story, Perseus and Andromeda, when a sudden snort from the adjacent bedroom indicated that Mordack was turning in his sleep.
Whether it was her present weak condition or her ignorance of the movement, she couldn’t tell, but suddenly the most unexpected of events occurred. Mordack appeared standing before her in a cloud of smoke, with a very displeased expression on his creased brown face.
“Cassima!” he bellowed, so loudly that Cassima dropped the book and sprang backwards, nearly hitting her head on the bookcase behind her.
“What are you doing in my private library, you little minx?!?”
She was so stunned that she couldn’t answer the wizard as he stepped closer to her, over the still open book.
“I told you that I do not appreciate you snooping around in my chambers, Cassima! So that is how you created that little dinghy of yours! Stole my model, didn’t you?”
Cassima made no response, shaking against the wall like a trapped rabbit.
“And you stole my wand as well, I noticed!” Mordack roared, brandishing it before her. “I suppose you think you’re smart, stealing my book of spells and my wand and trying to escape through the most hostile waters in this realm?!?”
There was still silence from the princess’s end of the conversation. Here the wizard paused, obviously out of breath and insults, and picked up the book on the floor.
“And what have you been reading here, girl! Oh, I see! Stories of knights in shining armor, rescuing fair maidens from the thickest of strongholds!”
Cassima burned with indignation. Mordack slammed the book shut and threw it against the wall, nearly hitting her head.
“Well, I have news for you, princess,” he growled, putting his face close to hers, her green eyes quivering like leaves. “You are not going to be rescued by anyone or anything, and reading about drivel like that will not assist you in any way! Your job here is to work, not read about some child’s fantasy!”
Again, he withdrew, wiping his mouth with a hand.
“Of course, you have been punished enough this day, therefore I will not beat you down anymore than I have. Return to the kitchen. I do not expect to see you in here again at any time, including after dark. Good night.”
Mordack turned and strode back to his room. Cassima waited until he was in his bed, then exited the library, turned and walked down the stone hallway, which seemed even longer than usual, then down the score of stairs to the main floor, where she traversed the endless path to the dark scullery, lit only by the dying embers of the fire. There, she threw herself against the wall, hoping to knock herself out and not have to think about her sufferings anymore. But her attempt failed, and all she got was a bad headache as she sank down to the pile of rags, hoping that her sleep would be enough to get her through the next day.
Cassima’s encounter with Mordack in the library was enough to stop her nightly routines of visiting it, enough to even change her body’s cycle in a single night, so that she now slept soundly all night and was up and alert during the day. She was naturally surprised that something so insignificant in her long, eventful life could have such an effect on her. But then, Mordack was no “small” thing at all, and to make matters worse, he always seemed to be giving everyone the impression that he wasn’t.
For weeks after the incident, Cassima tried her best to forget how the wizard had taunted her about her stories, the ones that had shaped her life and enchanted her for so long. Sure, they were fantasies, but they were so much more than that. They created the bases for humankind. They described ideal individuals and gave people goals to reach for. They weren’t just frivolous children’s stories, as Mordack called them.
Still, Cassima managed to put the harsh words that she had been bombarded with that night out of her head, and tried to do what the wizard asked of her. Possibly her attempts were recognized, because Manannan didn’t follow her around as often, and Mordack didn’t speak so viciously to her when giving orders.
However, Cassima couldn’t accept the possibility that the two were actually acknowledging her struggles to be obedient, it just wasn’t like them to take other people’s feelings into account. Her only explanation from their change in behavior was that Mordack was trying to communicate with Manannan, and their conferences were taking up a lot of their time. Even so, there seemed to be very little progress between the two. Cassima was surprised at this, since Mordack appeared so anxious to talk to his brother. Perhaps it was because of his amateur skills, or perhaps he was just slow at these things. She could never really say.
One cold day, as Cassima was scrubbing the floor of the room at the foot of the stairs, she heard soft footfalls near the door. It couldn’t be Mordack, since he always appeared in his dramatic, magic style, except when he was carrying Manannan. Not only that, but he always wore the same hard, black leather boots, and these didn’t sound like his. They sounded more like soft cloth, or animal fur, or even sandals.
Could it be that Mordack had somehow restored his brother to his human form? No, Cassima thought. Impossible. All this time and he hasn’t been able to have a two-sided conversation with him. There’s no way he could have disenchanted that scruffy feline of a sibling so soon…that is, if he actually could…
Suddenly realizing that Mordack could be watching her, Cassima resumed her scrubbing with the dirty rag, occasionally dipping it into the bucket of water beside her, trying to ignore the pain in her knees on the hard floor.
The footsteps grew nearer, and then suddenly stopped. Cassima felt a soft wind from the doorway. Cautiously, she raised her head to look at the person she assumed would be standing in the doorway.
It wasn’t Mordack, neither was it Manannan. In fact, it wasn’t anyone she knew at all. It was a young man, of about twenty years old, standing in a regal pose and looking straight at her. Cassima was so startled that she dropped the cloth she was holding and rose to a kneeling position, trying to look more dignified than her slouching, scullery-girl appearance.
He had brilliant blond hair that seemed to have a golden aura about it, bringing light into the gloomy castle. His eyes were an aqua blue, the same color as the cloudless sky above the Isle of the Crown. His clothes were an unfamiliar style as well. On his feet were (as Cassima had assumed) tan boots with a soft, worn exterior, tied with brown laces near the tops. Covering his muscular upper body was a blue tunic, the same color as his eyes. The sleeves of the tunic were long, just coming to his elbows, with smooth, well-toned arms and strong hands that rested on his hips.
On his right hand was a golden ring that flashed as he moved his fingers slightly. Cassima could just make out an insignia of a dragon on it, meaning that this stranger was undoubtedly royalty. His black leather belt also bore the sign of a dragon on the buckle, which, like his ring, was gold, inlaid with emeralds for the dragon’s eyes. His trousers were a deep, wine red, with intricately embroidered designs on the hems. Around his shoulders was a long, red cape fastened with a gold clasp. It fluttered slightly as he stood there, examining Cassima.
Perhaps he was more than a mere mortal. The way he carried this feeling of light and adventure into the dark castle seemed to lift him higher than the common man. Still, the thought of a cape blown by wind, even though there was no wind might’ve aroused Cassima’s suspicions in any other situation, but now she was much too shocked to notice it.
“Who are you?” she rasped, her voice almost leaving her in her amazement.
“I am Dorian of Serenia,” said the man, putting his ringed hand to his chest in a formal gesture. “May I ask who you are?”
“How did you get in here?” Cassima asked, not paying attention to his last question. “This castle is so well protected…Mordack would know if you were here! If not him, one of the beasts would…”
Dorian looked as if she were joking with him. “Mordack?” he asked, laughing. “That stingy old coot? He wouldn’t know his downfall if it walked right past his nose. But tell me: why are you here?”
Cassima was amazed at the youth’s daring personality. He was just like one of the princes in her stories, who had no idea what fear was, even when faced with the most treacherous of tasks. They walked through hells and traps without knowing, almost as if they knew they were going to win. Could it be that her hopes of rescue were actually coming true, in spite of what Mordack said?
But then, what did Mordack know anyway? Like Dorian said, “he wouldn’t know his downfall if it walked right past him.” This wizard didn’t even have the sense to take his wand with him, when he knew that she was desperate to escape the island, so what would he know about stories being true or not? Why, Cassima’s whole life was turning out just like one, and he was the main villain, with Alhazred being number two. And now that the hero had obviously arrived, the irony of Mordack’s ignorance was finally starting to hit her.
Suddenly, she remembered that Dorian had asked her something. “Oh,” she said, “He keeps me here as a scullery girl.”
“Are you some peasant that he stole from a village, then?” asked Dorian. “Some poor man’s daughter, perhaps?”
Cassima was quite offended at this remark, but then, she was aware that her appearance was like a peasant’s, and Dorian didn’t know anything about her, not even her name. Not only that, but the experience of hearing Mordack’s stinging insults had made her almost numb to a simple question of whether she has a commoner or not.
“I am not,” she proclaimed proudly, rising to her feet and feeling in control again. “I am Princess Cassima, of the Land of the Green Isles. The wizard made me a scullery girl when I refused to marry him.”
“Princess,” said Dorian humbly, sinking to one knee. “I am so sorry. Please forgive me for my rudeness.”
“Oh, certainly,” said Cassima, impressed at his manners. Most of the princes in her stories, she was certain, weren’t as chivalrous, especially to a girl dressed in rags, with no proof of her royalty except what she claimed herself to be. Rising to his feet, Dorian continued:
“The wizard has been wrecking havoc on my family ever since I can remember. My father died trying to revenge us, but he…didn’t succeed.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Cassima, her heart softened by his plight. “Is that why you’ve come here?”
“Yes,” Dorian said, his blue eyes suddenly filled with tears. “My boat is tied outside.”
“But how…” Cassima began, still amazed at this man’s sudden appearance, “How did you get past those stone snakes and the gap in the road and that heavy portcullis? And the beasts? They don’t hurt me, but Mordack told me that they imprison any intruders they find.”
“Beasts?” asked Dorian, with that same, blithe expression. “I didn’t encounter any beasts. Maybe I’m just lucky.”
Irritated and slightly suspicious that Dorian wasn’t answering all her questions, Cassima said:
“You must be very powerful to come so far and to penetrate this castle without Mordack even seeing you. But how do you plan to revenge your family?”
“I have my plans,” said Dorian. “But I dare not tell them aloud. That wicked creature might be listening from wherever he’s situated now. But I swear that I will return victorious. My family knows that as well.”
After a brief pause and a subtle smile, he asked:
“Well, now that I’ve told you all my history, may I please hear a bit of yours?”
In spite of her anxiety that Mordack might appear at any moment, Cassima quickly told her about how her homeland had been troubled over the past few years, and how Alhazred had befriended her captor, and how she had been taken away to the island. Dorian listened in interest, looking sad when she told of how the vizier betrayed her family and was still alive, doing who knew what else. When she finished her brief story, he told her:
“I can see that you are quite miserable here. I offer to take you from this island after I do away with the wizard.”
Though it might have been inevitable to her at any other time, Cassima was taken aback at his statement. Her eyes grew wide as she stared in awe at Dorian’s confidant face.
“Truly?” she asked. “Do you mean you’ll really take me away from here, even though you hardly know me?”
“I know enough for now,” Dorian said. “I know that a beautiful jewel like you doesn’t deserve to live in such drudgery. I can take you to my home in Serenia.”
“Your home…” Cassima began. “But…I’m sorry, Dorian, but…I would much rather return to my home, in the Green Isles…”
“You mentioned that place before,” he said thoughtfully. “Where is the Kingdom of the Green Isles?”
“North of here, somewhere in the Northern Sea,” Cassima said. “But that’s all that I know. From what I’ve heard, no one outside the Isles has even heard of it. I don’t know…I just don’t know,” she said sadly, turning her head away.
Dorian drew close to her and put one of his hands on her shoulder. A soft warmth seemed to radiate from his fingers, making Cassima look up at him. “Don’t be unhappy, princess,” he said gently. “I promise you will return to your kingdom. When I return to my home and tell my family that the wizard is no longer a threat, I will find where your kingdom is located. I will search every library in my homeland, I will ask every cartographer and geographer, I will ask every explorer of the realm it they’ve heard of the Green Isles. I will find out, Princess Cassima. I promise you. I promised my family that I would get rid of Mordack, and I swear to you that I will return you to your home. And I never break my promises. So…do you trust me, princess?”
Cassima turned to him and looked him in the eyes, her hands clasped in his. This was the climax in every story she’d read with the prince and the maiden in it. The prince had made his pledge, and now it was time for the princess to respond. But what should I say? Cassima asked. Her mind became suddenly blank, and she couldn’t remember what all the fair maidens in her stories said when they were suddenly granted their lifelong wish of freedom from their awful, imprisoned conditions. She tried to shape her own words in her mind, but she couldn’t. All she could do was feel Dorian’s hands in hers, and try to comprehend what she should do.
Obviously, Dorian wanted to marry her, as was the custom with all those fairy tales. But was she ready for this? Sure, she’d had many close friends in the past, but to suddenly marry someone who she’d only just met, and knew so little of…would that be a wise idea? Then again, it was usually the way most princesses met their husbands in the fairy tales, wasn’t it? But how close were these stories to real life, to the experience she was having now?
“Well…” she stammered. “Well…well…Yes,” she finally said. “I trust you, Dorian.”
“Good,” he said coolly, his voice suddenly growing lower in tone and with a more distinguishable edge. Cassima noticed that his blue eyes were suddenly a dull gray, and his hands were gripping hers more firmly. She suddenly became nervous and tried to back off, but he refused to release her as his face slowly twisted into a sinister smile, in fact, his whole body was starting to change. The ring on his finger vanished and his hands and face became older and wrinkled.
His whole body was growing darker, his skin, his clothes, especially his eyes. Cassima became wildly frightened and tried again to break out of his grasp, but it was too late. Standing in Dorian’s place, glaring into her eyes, wearing an evil smile and clutching her hands in a bone-crushing grip was the wizard Mordack.
“Thought you’d actually been rescued, did you?” he asked mockingly, seizing her shoulders so quickly that she couldn’t even try to escape his hands. “Thought you’d met your handsome prince, eh?”
Cassima gritted her teeth and tried to pry Mordack’s hands from her shoulders, but he remained as strong as ever.
“I told you not to fantasize over those silly stories,” he said. “But you just wouldn’t listen, would you?”
“I haven’t been in your library!” screamed Cassima. “I haven’t set a foot in there since you caught me in there!”
“But you haven’t cleared your little head of those tales of nonsense, though, have you?” Mordack asked. “Just couldn’t let go of those happy-go-lucky children’s nursery fairy stories that always have those ‘happily-ever-after’ endings?”
Cassima struggled but said nothing.
“Well, there is going to be no happy ending as long as you choose not to marry me,” said Mordack, squeezing her shoulders more firmly. “No prince is coming to rescue you, no king, no benevolent wizard, no anyone! I warn you, Cassima: no more daydreaming of being rescued because it is not going to happen!”
He promptly disappeared, the sudden release of Cassima sending her falling to the floor, shaking with rage and sadness. Her fantasy had almost come true, and it had all turned out to be a setup by the very person she was intending to escape. How did he know that Cassima was thinking about being rescued? He couldn’t read minds, could he? Or was he just “keeping her in check,” making sure that something like her recent flight wouldn’t happen again? She couldn’t decide now, all she could do was to get back to scrubbing the floor, as tears slowly fell from her eyes.
Cassima soon forgot about the incident with Dorian. She had no other choice, since any memories that she held on to only brought her down emotionally, and Mordack would always tell her to stop moping and continue with her chores. He had no consideration for other no one’s emotions except his and his brother’s.
He and Manannan were having their little “conferences” more and more frequently, and though they occurred often, the meetings seldom lasted for more than fifteen minutes. One early, cloudy morning, however, when Cassima was dusting the upstairs hallway with a large cloth, she heard the wizard appear in his bedroom, obviously unaware that she was standing only a few feet from his door.
“Well, Manannan,” he proclaimed in that overly proud tone of his, “I believe I have mastered the procedure for the magic recipe that will enable me to understand you.”
A loud hiss from Mordack’s bed indicated that the cat was resting on it. Cassima found it quite humorous that Manannan, though a cat, could understand both his and his brother’s language, but Mordack, the assumedly “ intellectually superior” individual, couldn’t understand Cat at all. Again, Cassima reminded herself that mastering another tongue was quite difficult, and even more so when the language belonged to another species, but one would think that a wizard would at least understand some dialect other than his own.
“All right,” said Mordack. The sound of covers being pushed aside and garments rustling indicated that the wizard was sitting down on the bed. Cassima cautiously crept closer to the doorway, trying not to make any noise. She flattened against the wall on the left side of the door, her right arm inches from being seen by either of the two individuals.
She stuffed the dirty rag in a pocket and strained to hear what was going on, trying not to breathe too loudly. She heard the sound of Mordack placing his wand on his bedside table, then placing various other containers and jars upon the floor, each object giving a soft clang as it was set on the stone floor.
Cassima could distinguish the sound of the wizard mumbling softly to himself, obviously examining the implements, with an occasional snarl from Manannan, who obviously wanted to know what his brother was doing. She was tempted to peak around the door and see just what was happening, but that would certainly mean some diabolical punishment, something far worse than any of the previous ones, especially since she was spying on not only Mordack, but also his private attempts to understand his feline sibling.
The next few minutes were filled with mutterings, relocating of objects and the crinkling of papers. Cassima, afraid that she would be leaning against the wall for several hours, tried to amuse herself by watching a large beetle crawling across the floor and the carved, stone symbols arranged in a semicircle. She had often wondered what the symbols stood for, but now she suddenly remembered: the astrological signs of the zodiac. How simple! How obvious! How absurd that something like that could slip her mind!
Cassima was slowly identifying each of the signs as the beetle crawled across them. Their simple, yet unique forms were highlighted by the fluttering torchlight, a blood red crimson combined with saffron yellow…
A circle with a semicircle perched atop its top…Taurus. The bull. Born in the springtime.
A square sign resembling the Roman numeral “two”…Gemini. The twins. Early summer.
An “M” with a descending arrow from the right side…Scorpio. The scorpion. Late fall.
An arrow intersected with a tiny, diagonal line…Sagittarius. The archer. Early winter.
I wonder what my symbol is, Cassima wondered. Which one of those archaic symbols do I stand for? On that note…when is my birthday? When was it? How long has it been since my last…?
Her thoughts were interrupted by a series of dull, sonorous incantations from the room behind her. Mordack was starting to cast a spell, hopefully something that would enable him to understand Cat fluently. People are always looking for the shortcut to success, Cassima decided. No matter how high up they are, there’s always something beyond their reach. But still, they try to get to it.
You should talk, said another, opposing voice in her mind. You were born with everything. Now you’re feeling what it’s like to be on the other side. To be like Ulrica, the poor mutt.
She’s not a mutt, Cassima thought. And I’m not a scullery girl. Well…maybe I am now, but I’m still Cassima inside, not some nameless, homeless person. Just wait. I’ll find a way off this rock.
A soft, billowing sound from Mordack’s room meant that he had finished his incantations and was now ready for the moment of truth.
“Okay, brother. Say something to me.”
Manannan screeched loudly, his voice accentuated by raspy breaks and hisses.
“Wait, wait! What was that? ‘And you near me?’”
The cat howled again, this time more slowly, but in the exact same tone.
“I think I can understand part of it…’Can you hear me?’ Is that what you said?”
Manannan mewed once excitedly.
“And that was a yes, wasn’t it?”
Another loud, snarling meow.
“Wait…I’m still not getting most of this. Let me try something here.”
Mordack began moving the containers around again and rummaging through papers and scrolls. Cassima took the opportunity of the slight noise to straighten herself up and stretch her legs.
“All right,” said the wizard, pushing aside the sheets again. “Say something else. Say…your name, Manannan.”
Manannan yowled something that Cassima was nowhere near comprehending, but she could almost distinguish the three, bland, repetitive syllables of his name. This was probably due to the fact that she knew what the cat was supposed to be saying, if indeed he was saying it.
“Yes, I understood that clearly,” said Mordack, excitedly. “Now tell me, brother: what would you like to ask me?”
The cat said something of the same, clamorous feline dialect that brought no pleasure to Cassima’s ears. She was tempted to clap her hands over her ears, but since her arm was so close to the doorframe, even the slightest movement might attract the wizard’s attention.
“You want to know how I can change you back? Why yes, of course I was wondering about that, but as you already know, I am still an amateur at transfiguration, and most of my spells aren’t that permanent…”
Manannan growled something that Cassima was glad she couldn’t understand. Judging by the cat’s present attitude towards his brother, it most likely wasn’t anything pleasant.
“I’m sorry, dear brother,” said Mordack with a sympathy that even Ursa could pull off better. “I just don’t understand how exactly you came to be like this. I suppose it is a long story…”
Manannan snorted disdainfully.
“Well, then, let’s do it this way: I ask you questions, and you answer them as simply as you can. I’m still having trouble understanding your language.”
An impatient sigh from the cat.
“All right: Manannan, who turned you into a cat?”
A howl, a snarl, and several purring meows, punctuated with several bird-like chirps.
“A servant boy, you say? How did this come about?”
A loud chorus of snarls and several dull growls. A servant, eh? Cassima thought. Well, I never thought that Mordack’s idea of keeping me here was that original. I should have known he had a brother that did the same thing.
“He used the same spell you used on that rival of yours? The Cat Cookie Spell?”
A short meow.
“But how did he come across this spell? You told me that you always keep your spells archived in your basement.”
Another long series of noises. Cassima sighed quietly and glanced at the symbols on the floor again. Only half of them were visible to her. The other six were cut off as the circle was bisected by the wall. Was she one of the signs that wasn’t shown? An un-thought-of piece in the tile work?
“One of your former slaves discovered your laboratory when he turned eighteen?” Mordack asked as Manannan howled on. “And you decided to kill off each one of them before they reached that…yes, yes, you told me about your system years ago, a good one, I agree, but still…”
He was cut off as the cat continued his “story.” After a few seconds, the wizard continued:
“And you suspect this last slave-boy found the entrance to your lab and poisoned you with the cookie? But, you never keep all those supplies in your house! He must have gone into the town. I passed it on my way to visit you.”
Another short meow, which by now Cassima decided was a “yes.”
“Yes, those young people are always trouble, Manannan. Always disobeying the rules and playing us for the fool.”
Wish I knew this boy, thought Cassima. We have so much in common. Manannan then went into another long soliloquy, and Mordack listened in silence until it was his turn.
“You say that this spell is permanent, brother?”
A single meow. Mordack rose to his feet and began pacing the room. Cassima moved away from the door a few inches.
“Impossible! It can’t be!” he cried. “These curses always have an un-raveller somewhere…”
Surprisingly, Manannan said nothing in response.
“Wait! I read in one of my volumes on breaking curses that usually the caster of the spell can undo it…makes sense, since that slave boy is the person who made that infernal cookie…”
The feline meowed something forlorn, obviously saying that he didn’t think it would work.
“Of course it will, Manannan!” said Mordack, taking a short step then stopping, obviously in front of his brother. “It has to! Now tell me: What was the boy’s name?”
A brief meow, though somewhat drawn out.
“Gwydion? A very interesting choice, the one before him you called Yorick. You always chose strange names for your slaves. But tell me: what was his birth name?”
Another long, forlorn series of mews.
“He was royalty? Well, well, brother, you certainly have an interesting taste of slaves. But can’t you remember his real name?”
Manannan began a series of short, pondering meows, as if he was trying vainly to recall the boy’s title. Finally, he perked up with an excited meow, upon which Mordack naturally asked what the name was. The cat then said something that Cassima was unable to tell, but it definitely was one word with four syllables.
“Al…ex…an…der…Alexander? You say his name was Alexander?”
A short meow. Yes. A nice name, thought Cassima. Alexander the Great…
“But his homeland…Can you remember the name of his homeland, Manannan?”
A three-syllable meow.
“Daventry? That land’s right on the west side of Serenia! What a coincidence! This is excellent, Manannan! Now we know not only your slave’s name, but where he undoubtedly is right now! Daventry!”
Cassima was so intently listening to the familiar name of the land that she had so often read about that she didn’t notice that one of her feet was slipping out from under her until it nearly did, with a brief scuffle of skin on stone. She just managed to right herself again, but a sudden silence in the room behind her indicated that both the wizard and the cat had heard the noise.
“Now what is that?” Mordack asked, his voice assuming its familiar, drawn-out, aloof manner. “Is something outside my room making noise?”
Oh great, Cassima thought. Now what?
“I surely hope it isn’t Cassima,” Mordack continued. “She’s been getting herself into so much trouble lately, I would hate to do something more to her.”
Not transfiguration, Cassima thought, gripping the wall, remembering the time when Mordack had turned her into a mouse. Please, anything but that…Please…
“I would hate to punish her if she indeed was standing right outside the door now, listening to us,” said Mordack. “I would greatly dislike having to do something like…this!”
Cassima couldn’t see it, but she could plainly hear it. On the word “this,” Mordack had grabbed his wand from the bedside table and in the next minute, a bolt of red light flashed past her right hand, nearly singeing the doorframe. She squinted her eyes and clenched her teeth in fright, but relaxed briefly when she realized that it didn’t hit her.
Her realization turned out to be quite wrong, however, as she noticed her fingers slowly turning a sickening shade of blue and gradually beginning to fuse together to form a solid, gelatinous appendage. Cassima grimaced in disgust and squinted again, trying to ignore the cool, moist feeling starting to develop on her arm as the numbing feeling moved upwards until it stopped near her shoulder.
Finally daring to look at what had happened, Cassima made out through her blurred vision something that looked like the tail of a snake, in the place of her right arm, only smoother and slimier. She tried not to guess at what Mordack intended to turn her into if he had hit her somewhere else where the spell could take its full effect, deciding that she was lucky that it had only gotten her on the hand. And after all, his spells were only temporary, and hopefully it would only be a few hours that she had to live with this pale, blue tentacle for an arm.
She heard Mordack placing his wand back on the table, trying to pick up where he left off in his conversation with Manannan.
“I’m certain she wasn’t there, brother,” the wizard purred. “Now hear me out: We know the name of the person who enchanted you, and now we even know his homeland. My guess is that since he was born of noble blood, he was of a higher degree of intelligence than your other slaves. My hypothesis is that he somehow discovered his true lineage and escaped…but are there any ways out of Llewdor besides the magic, teleporting fashion, Manannan?”
His brother caterwauled for a few seconds in the same, raspy cat tongue.
“A ship? Of course! You told me that you caught the boy down the mountain and in the town at least twice. Someone who has escaped from your stronghold at least twice doesn’t lose that disobedient streak. Most likely, that boy hitched a ride on a galleon headed straight for Daventry. Unless he died…and this I highly doubt. You told me that this Gwydion always managed to keep you satisfied, even when he did…”
An irritated yowl from Manannan indicated that he was growing bored with Mordack’s babbling.
“Sorry…so sorry, dear brother…Now, the next step to confirm my theory is to locate this Gwydion…er, Alexander, whatever his name is…”
The cat said something that sounded like a question or a query.
“A crystal ball? Of course I have one!” Mordack said. You didn’t have to tell me that, Cassima said to herself.
“You were the one who recommended me getting one in the first place!” Mordack exclaimed. “Remember that ‘Eye Between the Worlds’ that you showed me once? This model isn’t as complex, but it will surely give me an idea of where the boy is!”
Mordack rose and exited the room through the door to his library. Cassima half-expected there would be a soft thud, the sound of Manannan jumping to the floor and following him, but there wasn’t. The former sorcerer was still trying to keep his dignity in spite of his furry appearance.
Cassima flattened herself against the wall tenaciously, still trying not to look at her right arm. She could hear the sound of Mordack moving books, followed by the sound of him walking across the room and placing something heavy on a table. She correctly guessed that he was retrieving the crystal ball out of its hiding place and going into the familiar trance to try to locate the boy Alexander. Obviously, the time Mordack would take to work the crystal would take much shorter than Cassima had taken when she used it.
She wondered how he would be able to focus on the boy without even a description, let alone a mental image. Her puzzlements were alleviated when she made out the soft mutterings of “Alexander of Daventry…Alexander of Daventry…” coming from the library. So that was the other way of working the orb: repeat a person’s name until an image of that person comes into focus. Instead of an image-to-image process, it was a title-to-image process. But how would Mordack know if he was viewing the right person? There could be dozens of Alexanders in the realm of Daventry…
“Manannan?” came the wizard’s voice, still in that eerie, trancelike state. “Was your servant near his eighteenth birthday when he cursed you?”
Manannan made a brief meow. Yes.
“Short, dark hair?”
“And if he is of royal blood…would he be a king, then?”
A negative response from Manannan, followed by a short, “chirping” mew.
“Ah, a prince. I see…yes…Prince Alexander…I believe I’ve found him…”
After a few more minutes, Mordack’s footsteps traveled across the library, and again, the sound of books being moved met Cassima’s ears. Then he came back into the bedroom and sat down on the bed, presumably beside his brother.
“This is excellent, Manannan,” he explained. “I’ve located the young Alexander. He has returned to his homeland, in fact, he is right within the walls of Castle Daventry!”
Manannan mewed in eagerness.
“Now that we know of his precise location, we can do just about anything we please to convince him to return you to your original form. It won’t be easy, but then, what does he know? An inexperienced little boy with less skill than even I have, and surely nothing that can compare with one of your caliber!”
Manannan purred loudly, loud enough that Cassima could hear him from where she stood.
“Now…what would be the most ideal way to get revenge on this prying brat?” Mordack asked, rising to his feet and pacing the room again. “Kidnapping would take too much planning, and his family surely wouldn’t make the same mistake twice…”
Manannan scowled audibly, but his brother responded:
“I know, yes, I agree it was a good idea, very bright of you, but I think his family would be much too cautious at this time to risk penetrating and stealing him again. Besides, he was a little baby when you stole him the first time, and eighteen-year-old youths aren’t easy to manage, especially when they have a knack for getting in trouble. I suggest we use one of my plans this time, brother.”
The cat moaned in disagreement, but Mordack ignored him and continued pacing and throwing out ideas.
“What about turning the royal family to stone? Then we could just pick up the statue of the prince and carry it home with us! What do you think of that, Manannan?”
Mordack’s brother asked him something with a hint of sarcasm, and Mordack, sounding a bit uneasy, replied;
“Well, no, I haven’t learned the basics of changing humans into stone…but…But I would get around to it if I had time…”
Manannan hissed and spat disagreeably, obviously complaining that there was not enough time for anything that complex, and that Mordack should find a way of getting revenge that he could actually do.
“All right, all right,” the wizard said, starting to become impatient with his irritable feline sibling. “How about placing a large cage around the castle, with bars so close together that the people within can’t escape? We would surely have them in our grasp then…”
Another chorus of howls and hisses.
“Too big? Well, yes, I admit it is a big jump, but…all right, I’ll scrap that idea, Manannan! Sorry! Now what else could we try…something that would bring the royal family to its knees…something that would make Alexander realize that he made a very, very rash mistake when he…”
As Mordack continued pondering his schemes and asking his brother for approval, Cassima came to the realization that her right arm (the one that the wizard had hit) had somehow become stuck to the wall. It wasn’t the slimy skin that was sticking to the stone, but rather something “underneath,” on the side of her arm that she hadn’t bothered to examine. Now that she finally had come to terms with her predicament, she discovered that on the underside of the tentacle were several round, fleshy suction-cups, attached to her skin. Apparently, the pressure that she was putting on the wall had caused the cups to become fastened to the flat surface, and now they refused to let go.
Cassima strained to unstick her arm as quietly and discreetly as he could without the wizard seeing her, but her efforts were of no avail for several minutes. On instinct, she grabbed the cold, wet appendage with her left arm, which still had the hand and the five fingers that she suddenly found herself in great need of. Finally, with one mighty tug, her transfigured right arm broke free from the stone surface, with no visible damage to either. Unfortunately, the event of the parting of the suction-cups and the wall resulted in an extremely loud popping noise, which Cassima knew couldn’t possibly have been ignored by Mordack or Manannan.
“Ah, princess! Decided to drop by, did you?” Mordack asked, not looking around the door. The princess felt the heat rising to her cheeks, and was relieved that neither the cat nor the wizard could see her. But since they both knew that she was there, she decided not to remain in hiding any longer. Reluctantly, she stepped into the room.
Manannan snickered at the sight of Cassima and her slimy, blue right arm. Mordack, however, remained serious as he looked at her, then at his brother.
“Princess,” he began, “I assume you heard enough of our conversation to know what our dilemma is.”
You knew that already, thought Cassima, clutching her tentacle with her left hand to restrain herself from sticking it across Mordack’s ugly face.
“We are trying to decide how to deal with this youth from Daventry, and how to take revenge on not only him, but his family. Getting however-many birds with one stone, so to speak. Now, Cassima, you tell me: What would your idea of an ideal revenge be?”
After several minutes of thought, Cassima raised her angry, green eyes to Mordack, her tangled mane of hair trailing into her eyes.
“I think the two of you are insane,” she said slowly. “You just can’t let things like that go, can you? That Alexander had every right in the world to escape, especially when he had a master like you.” Here she looked at Manannan, who hissed and twitched his tail.
“You can’t even muster up the brains to even ask Alexander if he knows how to change Manannan back! Like you said, he’s not even a wizard, so how can he know how to reverse such a curse?”
Mordack’s gray eyes grew narrow as Cassima continued talking, still clutching her right arm tightly. “And these plans of ‘revenge,’ as you call them, aren’t even worthy of being called revenge! They are twisted, evil, demented schemes. No person worthy of being returned to his true form would even begin to think of things like that! Turning people into stone? Encaging an entire castle? It’s disgusting. It’s inhuman. My suggestion for any future plans of revenge that you two manage to brew up is this: Get rid of them.”
For a moment, Mordack looked ready to pick up his wand and finish the transfiguration that he had tried to hit Cassima with before, but his hand stopped. He put a finger to his chin in deep contemplation, then turned to his brother.
“’Get rid of them?’ ‘Get rid of them?’ Do you realize what she said, Manannan? It’s so incredibly simple, it’s a wonder that we didn’t think of it! ‘Get rid of them!’ Get rid of the kingdom surrounding the castle…the armies…the surrounding mountains…everything!”
“Uh…Excuse me,” Cassima ventured, becoming more and more nervous, “What did I just say?”
“It all makes sense, doesn’t it, Manannan?” Mordack exclaimed, rising to his feet. Manannan meowed in agreement, also becoming animated with excitement. “Of course! We’ll isolate the castle from the surrounding countries, but with the royal family trapped inside!”
Manannan howled something of a query, whereupon Mordack replied, without missing a beat,
“What will we do with it? Why…we’ll take it here, of course!”
“Why, I can miniaturize it, certainly! You remember how I turned Cassima into a mouse, don’t you? Well, this one will be even simpler, since the original form of the castee is retained…yes! Yes! And not only that, but I know how I can make this spell permanent! Since it is only a simple matter of proportions and scale resizing, why…it will last more or less indefinitely! This is wonderful, Manannan! I think we’ve got it!”
Manannan leapt of the bed and began dancing around on the floor, just as Mordack was doing, the sudden enthusiasm pouring from the two magic-workers.
“What in the…” began Cassima, almost becoming light-headed with confusion.
“What time is it?” asked Mordack, glancing out the window of his room. “It’s still early, that’s excellent! I’ll leave immediately! I will be back shortly. I will simply transport the castle from its foundations to here…let’s see…a reduction ratio of one-thousandth…yes, I believe that’s small enough. I’ll aim for that large glass container on my lab’s desk. I’ve never gotten this spell wrong before. Well, farewell, my dear brother! I’m sure you will be in your human form soon!”
He promptly vanished in the familiar black puff. Cassima, still standing motionless and open-mouthed, was so transfixed with Manannan and Mordack’s exchange of words and obliviousness of her presence that she had almost forgotten that she herself was even in the room. Now she suddenly came to her senses, realized that Mordack was gone and his brother was lying on the bed with an air of smugness about him, and finally she realized what she had said to the wizard only a few seconds before, and what he had interpreted her words to be.
“By Samhain’s heart,” Cassima whimpered, covering her mouth with her left hand as her eyes filled with tears of guilt. “What have I done?”
Mordack reappeared only a half-hour later, and long before he did, Cassima’s arm had returned to its normal, five-fingered form, much to her relief. But she didn’t have time to feel much relief, for the guilt of what she had unintentionally told the wizard was still hanging over her like a dark cloud. She had never meant to take part in such an evil act of revenge, but now she had just assisted a wicked sorcerer in doing something to an innocent family, a family she didn’t even know, but now was in a way responsible for whatever Mordack had done to them, whatever the deed was, she still wasn’t sure. The sudden explosion of words from the wizard left her blank and stupefied, and she couldn’t remember just what his plans were.
The first thing Cassima heard was a dull poof coming from the laboratory. She quickly ran there, expecting to see Mordack, but instead beheld something totally different. A large bottle that she had glimpsed once or twice in the laboratory was there, but inside it was something not even Cassima’s mind could have anticipated. It was a castle. A tiny, intricate, stone-and-mortar castle, just like the ones of her fairy tales, just as intricate as the boat that she had enlarged and attempted escape in…
But she had no time to study it because just as she was drawing closer, Mordack appeared, standing between her and the bottle. Fortunately, his back was to her, so Cassima had enough time to dart out of the room and stand just outside, pretending to scrub the wall with a piece of her skirt, but at the same time glancing over her shoulder, trying to see what Mordack was doing.
She had repaired her skirt as best as she could a few days after her failed flight from the castle, but her thread supply was running low, and she had little time to make perfect stitching. Consequently, many of the patches were still loose and ragged.
As she was simultaneously scrubbing and spying, Manannan suddenly ran past her, en route to the laboratory. He didn’t give her much more than a glance as he entered the lab and jumped up on the table, beside the bottle as Mordack continued to examine it.
“Ah-ha!” he shouted, his eyes on the castle inside the glass vessel. “There you are! Prince Alexander of Daventry, I presume? I am the wizard Mordack of Serenia, brother of your former master, Manannan. Here,” he said, moving the cat closer to the bottle. “Remember this face, ‘Gwydion?’”
Cassima couldn’t tell what was going on from where she was, but she was certain that something evil was afoot. Was this Prince Alexander really imprisoned inside the container that Mordack was talking to? It seemed to be that way, but he would be so small to fit in a jar like that…
Finally, the schemes that the wizard had planned out loud in his room, right before her eyes, began coming back to her: how he had planned to miniaturize Castle Daventry and transport it back to his lab, along with all the occupants, just to get Alexander to turn Manannan back into a wizard. She was witnessing the aftermath of something that she had accidentally helped accomplish, but there wasn’t any time to mourn about her past errors. There had to be some way to help out this family…that is, if there was a way…
Manannan was pawing at the glass, trying to touch whoever or whatever was inside. Cassima could just picture the person Mordack had described in his trance over the crystal ball…blue eyes, black hair, just a year or two older than her, standing in terror at the giant, black-haired monster towering over him.
“And who is this?” Mordack asked, gesturing to another person in the container. “Your…sister? Manannan, you didn’t tell me that Gwydion had a sister! And such a pretty little thing too…what a shame that her brother had to make such an unintelligent move on my brother…”
Quit while you’re still at an all-time low, thought Cassima. Since she couldn’t let the wizard hear her at this time and place, the best she could do was think up insults. Haven’t you done enough to them already, you feisty weevil?
“And your mother, I assume?” Mordack said in a disgusting, sarcastic voice. “Where’s your royal father, eh?”
There was no response that Cassima could hear. Then the wizard suddenly noticed her and jerked his head up and glowered at her.
“What are you doing here, Cassima?”
“Scrubbing, Mordack, what does it look like?” she retorted.
“All right, princess. I’m going to talk with Manannan about which way would be the best to get that Alexander to change my brother back to the way he was. Clean the rest of the lab, but do not try to release the Royal Family of Daventry. It would be a shame that my brother’s only way of restoring his human form would escape, only to be eaten by rats.”
Mordack exited the room, with Manannan walking behind him. When they were both out of sight and the sounds of their conversation began to echo through the hall, she cautiously crept up to the table and looked inside the glass bottle. It was just as she had seen it minutes before: a complete, stone-walled castle, only tiny. No wonder it had appeared so realistic. It was real. A real-life castle, only shrunken to the size of a trunk, with three minute figures standing in the courtyard, staring up at her like mice under the gaze of a cat. Two were women, one a young blonde girl, about Cassima’s age, the other a brunette, maybe as old as her mother…and the third was a young man, who undoubtedly was Prince Alexander.
Even in his miniaturized state, he appeared amazingly handsome, wearing a simple, sea-green tunic and long, black pants, and his features…just as she had heard them described, short black hair, and (though she couldn’t see them) bright blue eyes. His face appeared quite young for someone of his age, yet mature in a way that Cassima couldn’t place. Then she remembered how Manannan had told his brother that Alexander was once his slave, taken from his cradle at birth and raised to serve the former wizard. Cassima winced at the thought, and looked at the tiny people with pity and helplessness swelling in her.
“Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you,” she ventured in a soft voice. “My name is Cassima…I’m a slave to Mordack. I don’t know why he had to do this to you…I’m…I’m sorry I can’t really help you…but maybe…I hope I can.”
After she finished her task in the laboratory, the rest of Cassima’s day was fairly boring, mostly because she didn’t get to see Mordack talking with Alexander again. It certainly wasn’t because she wanted to see the poor family suffer once more, she only wanted to find out more about them, especially Alexander.
Near the end of her uneventful day of chores, after dinner, as she was sweeping the upstairs hallway and studying the zodiac symbols on the stone floor, she heard a sudden commotion coming from downstairs…a clattering of boots on stone, resonating through the rooms and finally transferring to the stairs. Cassima counted the twenty steps, and before she had finished her count, a flustered man stood at the head of the stairs, panting heavily.
His hair was brown and untidy, and he had a thick bead that covered his chin. He had dark, deerskin gloves on and heavy, leather boots. His clothes were similar to the clothes that the Green Islanders wore, but slightly different. He was wearing something that looked like a cross between a tunic and a robe, almost coming down to his knees. His pants were slightly baggy and weather-beaten, as was the rest of his body.
“My lady,” he rasped. “It is an honor to meet you.”
Cassima cautiously backed away, remembering the incident with Dorian several weeks before. “You’re Mordack, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Mordack? That mad wizard? Here? Impossible! I put him out of the way minutes ago…but please: we don’t have much time, young one.”
“I don’t think so,” said Cassima suspiciously. “You’re probably someone like Dorian.”
“Eh? What’s that?” the man asked. “I don’t understand you, girl.”
“You’re playing with me,” Cassima said, standing up and getting ready to run. “You’re trying to convince me that you’re here to rescue me.”
“But I am!” cried the man, pressing a hand to his chest and extending the other pleadingly. “And I have heard of your imprisonment here, beautiful one. I have come to free you from your prison!”
“No you’re not,” argued Cassima, starting to become angry. “Nobody knows I’ve been kidnapped except my family and friends, and they live in a kingdom that barely anyone in this world has heard of! And nobody knows just where I’ve been taken except that snake of a vizier, Abdul Alhazred…”
“Please, my lady,” begged the man, starting to plead earnestly. “I don’t know what you’re accusing me of! All I want is for you to trust me!”
“I will not,” Cassima snapped, backing against the wall behind her.
“Please,” said the man, a tone of impatience finally starting to come into his voice. “Come on, girl…”
“Leave me alone!” Cassima shrieked. The man suddenly flew at her with an unnatural speed, and before she could slip away from him, the stranger had his gloves locked around her neck, nearly cutting off her breath.
As Cassima struggled to get air into her lungs, the figure before her slowly began to change. The beard shrank, the eyes became smaller and darker, the skin became tanner and the garments grew blacker. Just as it happened weeks before, Mordack stood in the stranger’s place.
“Not as trustful of visitors now, are you, princess?” he hissed as he retained his grip around her throat.
“Let me go,” gargled Cassima, trying to pry the wizard’s fingers loose and coughing loudly.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have done it so soon after your first ‘encounter,’” Mordack continued, “But then, I had no choice. I knew you were in the lab, checking out those three under glass. I’m sure you’ve already taken a fancy to that runt Alexander!”
“Can’t breathe,” Cassima choked.
“Manannan saw you talking with them! Don’t think we are both so blind that we can’t see what is going on inside our castle at any time!”
“Aagh,” Cassima gasped. Mordack finally dropped her like a suffocating fish, and she lay, motionless, upon the floor as he continued talking to her:
“I told you that you must not let my private affairs disrupt your daily work. What I do is nothing that you need stick your nose into. I realized this was necessary in order to keep you in check, lest you came up with the thought that ‘Alex’ would somehow free himself from that bottle and liberate you as well as his family from my castle. Or maybe you’d think up some crazy scheme of your own, right?”
Cassima didn’t look at him. She was still trying to breathe.
Mordack straightened himself up, stepped over the princess, and into his room, where he stretched himself out on the bed and laid his wand on the bedside table. He was asleep in a matter of minutes.
Cassima finally got to her feet, picked up her broom and descended the stairs, from there walking past the dining table to the kitchen, and from there through the heavy oak door to the one place in the castle where she felt safe: the maze.
She tapped into the maps that her mind had formed of the labyrinth, and using her memories, she was able to find her way through the twisting, turning tunnels to the farthest possible point (as she determined) from the starting point, and back to the door again.
She also located the three most interesting sights of the maze: the metal grate set in the ceiling of one of the passages was the first. All she could see was darkness through it, typical for an outside view by night.
The second sight of interest was the loose stone in one of the walls and the dungeon cell behind it. The stone was still pushed in partway from one of her last visits, and she decided that as long as she was in the maze, an investigation of the cell would be in order.
It was just as she remembered it: Dripping, stagnant, and smelly, only everything was darker. But even in the darkness, she could see the uneven, crusty floor with the drops of water falling into the unreflecting puddles, as well as the rusty chains and clamps attached to the walls, with objects that resembled bones littering the floor. A rat stuck its nose out of a large hole in the wall, but disappeared when it saw Cassima, who grew slightly edgy upon seeing it, remembering her first transfiguration-related punishment from Mordack.
Finding nothing of interest in the cell, she left, pulling the stone back in place behind her, but still letting it stick inwards just a little, so that she could remember just which stone to shove if she returned. Leaving the cell behind, she proceeded on through the maze, towards the third interesting sight: Dink.
The huge, gray beast was still squatting in the shadows, peering at her with interest as she approached. Cassima knelt on the stone floor and examined Dink from a safe distance…his big, flat feet…his huge teeth…his scruffy topknot bound up with the hairpin (where did he get that anyway?)…just as he was during her previous visits to the maze, which were always extremely short, much shorter than her present one was turning out to be.
“Hello,” she said politely.
“Dink,” replied the creature.
“You’ve heard of what Mordack’s done?”
“He’s captured an entire family just to change that mangy cat of his back into his brother.”
“I never knew just how low that man would stoop just to get what he wanted…or what his brother wanted, for that matter…I think it’s disgusting, Dink.”
“Dink. Dink. Dink.”
Cassima was sure that Mordack would be interrogating Alexander about Manannan the first thing in the morning, so she got up early and went into the lab. Kneeling down beside the table, she squinted at the glass jar in an attempt to see within. The family wasn’t still out in the garden, but the castle was still as beautiful and sad as ever. A once-proud fortress now kept in a large glass jar like a fish. Cassima couldn’t help remembering her own castle and her parents, and deep sorrow filled her heart as she examined the castle.
A thunderous yawn came from down the hall. Cassima was on her feet in a heartbeat. Quickly, she bounded across the room like a deer and hid behind the staircase, where she could see most of the lab clearly. Mordack walked into the laboratory, with Manannan close behind. Both of them appeared well-rested, without a hint of tiredness in their eyes. The cat sniffed the air cautiously, as if he could smell Cassima, hiding close by, but then he seemed to decide that it was an odor left from her last time in the room, the previous day.
Manannan darted ahead of his brother and leaped upon the table, just as he did the previous day, sniffing the glass jar in interest. Mordack approached the table and examined the jar closely, as if he were looking for someone. Cassima didn’t need to guess who.
Presently, Mordack jerked his head forward, as if he had spotted what he was searching for, then whipped out his wand and pointed it at the bottle. There was no flash of light, but in the next instant, a tiny form was standing on the table, near Manannan’s paws. With her keen eagle’s eyes, Cassima could see that it was (as she had assumed) Prince Alexander.
He screamed at the sight of the wizard towering over him and tried to run, but Mordack deftly stuffed his wand into a pocket and caught him with the same hand in a matter of seconds. Cassima couldn’t see much after that, since the wizard’s back was to her, but she could hear plainly what was happening.
“Look, Manannan,” said Mordack, his elbow moving in a teasing fashion, obviously baiting the cat with the hand holding Alexander. “Look what I have for you.” Now turning to the tiny person he was holding, he continued, “Take a good look at what you did to my brother, Alexander. Here he’s doomed to spend the rest of his days as a cat and there’s nothing I can do!”
The wizard’s body shook in fury as Manannan’s tail twitched excitedly. “But you can do something about it. Since you’re the one that did this you’re the only one that can turn him back again…Back to the wizard Manannan!”
I’ll turn you into a bat first, Mordack, thought Cassima angrily. Then a new voice responded to Mordack’s angry speech, so faint that Cassima could barely hear it, but it had to be the voice of Alexander.
“I don’t know how, Mordack! I’m not a wizard! I just stumbled across some magic spells and…accidentally turned your brother into a cat! I didn’t mean it! Please believe me, Mordack! I don’t know how to turn him back into a wizard!”
Cassima was certain that his first words were lies. He didn’t change his master into a feline “accidentally.” It was on purpose and they all knew it. But now, with his mother’s and his sister’s lives at stake, now wasn’t the time to tell the truth. But she couldn’t blame him for saying that he had no idea how to reverse the curse that Manannan was straddled with.
“You’re holding out on me, little man,” Mordack said mockingly. “You’re taking advantage of my good nature…but not for long!”
Good nature my foot, thought Cassima. I think I’m going to be sick.
“If I don’t get a change of tune from you, I’ll feed your family to the cat…starting with your dear mother!”
Cassima nearly passed out on the floor as the wizard’s laughter filled the room. This was beyond wicked. This was just plain insane. She had never heard such awful words from the mouth of a living creature. Her mind turned to her own mother, and suddenly she realized how lucky she really was.
“Remember what I said! You only have a little more time to decide before your family becomes cat food!” With that, he placed Alexander on the table, pointed at him with his wand, and the tiny youth vanished, obviously back within the confines of the glass bottle.
Cassima, shaking in rage and feeling more like strangling the wizard for what he was plotting to do than fainting at the moment, grappled for a piece of crusty, congealed slime growing near the bottom of the underside of the stairs and hurled it at Mordack’s head. It barely missed him, but the throw wasn’t something that the sorcerer could ignore. He whirled around, nearly knocking his brother off the table.
“Cassima! Was that you?” he yelled, glancing around the room. Cassima stuck her head around the winding stairs, but pulled it back just in time as Mordack directed a blast of green light at her face. The light barely missed her as she ducked back behind the staircase.
“What the devil were you doing spying on us when I specifically ordered you not to!?!”
“Habit, I guess!” chirped Cassima, poking her head around the other side of the stairs, and once again nearly getting hit with a blast from Mordack’s wand.
“I’ll turn you into a worm for the rest of eternity!”
“No, you won’t! You can’t do permanent transfiguring spells, and besides, I’m your bride-to-be, right?”
Cassima stuck her head out again, and this time she didn’t pull it back, instead she jumped forward and rolled across the floor, making a beeline for the doorway.
“Get out of here, you little wasp!” Mordack bellowed, in such a state of rage that his blasts began hitting the walls several feet from Cassima’s actual position. The princess sprinted out of the lab and almost tumbled down the stairs, with the words of “Clean the kitchen until I can see my reflection in the floor!” following her.
Cassima’s cleaning of the kitchen floor was a very laborious task, especially because the stone floor wasn’t the kind of surface that reflected readily. Still, cleaning just it was better than darting from room to room, doing multiple tasks one by one.
As long as she was down in the kitchen, Cassima decided to get a start on Mordack and Manannan’s dinner. She sliced several vegetables and mixed them together in a large pot, adding some of the herbs that Scalawag had recommended. Then she placed the pot over the fire and added kindling to the flames until a cheery glow emanated from the hearth.
As the day dragged on and evening began to set in, she continued her scrubbing of the floor, worrying about what was going to happen to Alexander and his family. Would Mordack actually feed those two innocent people to that awful brother of his? It was inhuman…heartless…and evil, but then, it was also something that a creature like Mordack would do.
As she scrubbed on, she almost swore that she heard footsteps coming from somewhere near. She paused for a moment, thinking it was just one of the beasts, then shrugged and continued her work.
Then there was another sound…a soft click and the sound of creaking hinges…could it be that one of the beasts somehow opened the labyrinth door from the inside? How could that be possible, Cassima wondered. But then, fearing that Mordack might me watching, she resumed her work, blocking out all the strange noises, no matter how real they sounded.
She was so deeply focused on her work that she didn’t see the man approaching until he was only a few feet from her. She shied back against the wall, examining the stranger. He was an older man, with a muscular build, gray hair and sky-blue eyes, wearing a red tunic with blue pants and black boots. Atop his hat was a pointed cap with a red feather and on his face was a look of concern. In spite of his harmless appearance, only one description spouted in Cassima’s head. Mordack. He was Mordack, disguised as one of those “rescuers,” coming to taunt her yet again. She shivered and raised an arm to defend herself.
“Don’t come near me!” she cried. “Leave me alone!”
“I would never hurt you,” said the man. “I’d like to help you…”
The same manner as both of the previous “rescuers.” Trying to help, just walking in like nothing can hurt him, thought Cassima. Why is Mordack doing this? Doesn’t he have enough on his hands??
“I don’t believe you,” Cassima screamed. “You’re probably one of…them!”
“I’m not. Believe me.”
“Just go away,” Cassima pleaded, near tears in her distraught state. “Please…I don’t want to talk to you anymore!”
The man appeared puzzled and unsure for a moment, an expression that Cassima hadn’t noticed in any of Mordack’s disguises. Then he stepped close to her, as she suspected, but then he reached into one of his pockets and withdrew something that startled the princess so much that she almost fell over backwards.
Rising to her feet, she closely examined the object that dangled from the stranger’s fingers. It was small, golden and heart-shaped with a crown carved on the front, dangling from a fine, golden chain. It caught the light of the fire and the flashes that reflected off it temporarily blinded Cassima’s eyes. It was the one physical thing she had to remind her of her home before she lost it while Mordack was taking her over Serenia. Awed, she carefully lifted the trinket from the man’s fingers and gazed at it like it was a fallen star.
“Wherever did you find my gold locket?” she asked. “I thought it was gone for good!”
“You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you,” the man replied with a hint of laughter in his voice. “But tell me: who are you?”
The sight of her treasured locket dissolved all the suspicions and fears Cassima had of the stranger. She poured out her whole story, how Alhazred befriended Mordack, how Mordack had kidnapped her and asked to marry her, her refusal and her long slavery, working for her keep as a scullery girl. Then, to her amazement, the man introduced himself as King Graham of Daventry, then explained that he had arrived to the island to free his family from the wizard, and somehow he knew of their being imprisoned in a glass bottle. He even promised to free her somehow, if he survived.
“I know the glass bottle you speak of!” Cassima said, eager to be of help to him. “It’s in Mordack’s laboratory upstairs!”
Graham thanked her, and she carefully put her necklace into one of the pockets of her ragged dress. He then walked cautiously out, through the hallway that led to the dining room. Cassima looked after him until she could no longer see him, then went back to her task of scrubbing the kitchen floor, amazed at her sudden good fortune. You were wrong, Mordack, she thought. These things do happen.
Cassima continued scrubbing the floor as vigorously as she could, fearing that the wizard would pop in to check on her, or if not him, one of the beasts. She then started pondering how this handsome stranger managed to get to the island. He must have used a boat, but who would know the way to this island? Well, drop that for now…how about the pair of snakes with the glowing eyes? Well, who could say…And the labyrinth? He must have somehow gotten in through that mysterious grate that Cassima had passed several times…and the door…it was always locked from the inside, so how…he must have found a way of picking the lock, Cassima decided. That King Graham must be a real hero…braving the unknown from his homeland of Daventry to rescue his family…but what would that make me? A semi-hero?
Suddenly Cassima heard a clopping of hooves in one of the hallways beyond the kitchen. There was a sound of a struggle, and a low humming sound, then silence. The princess rose to her feet. She knew what had happened: Graham had been captured by one of the beasts…whether it was just Sam that could open “doors” in the walls, she wasn’t sure…she had heard the same sound when only another beast was afoot…she didn’t know where exactly the humming sound and the struggling came from, but she was positive where her friend was now: the dungeon in the labyrinth.
Cassima dropped her scrubbing rag and ran towards the back of the scullery. She yanked open the heavy door and dashed into the labyrinth. This was something only she could do. That man could never get out of that dungeon without her. The loose stone could only be pushed from the outside, and she was the only human in the castle that knew where it was.
She slowed down as she tried to find her way, creeping through the corridors and trying to remember which way the dungeon was. Keep bearing east, she told herself. It’s east and down. East and down…
In her excitement, she lost her way once or twice, passing several “landmarks” that she would’ve visited by following a different route. She passed the grate, and as she suspected, it was open, propped up by a metal bar. No time to observe. That poor fellow needs you, Cassima!
Finally, in the space of only a few minutes, Cassima located the door with the loose stone. Pressing her hands against the crumbling rock, she gently pushed the rectangular slab, and with a low grinding and a rumbling, it tumbled inside the cell. Poking her head through the opening, she saw Graham standing in sudden surprise at seeing her again. With all the greatest words that the heroes said when they reached their goals absent from her mind, Cassima greeted the man with the most universal salutation of the entire world:
“What? Princess Cassima!” Graham said, his eyes wide with astonishment. “Where did you come from?”
“From the labyrinth,” explained Cassima. “I spend a lot of time down here, you know. With my friends.”
“Friends?” Graham asked, obviously wondering where in this awful place an innocent girl like her could find friends.
“Yes,” said Cassima, trying to remember some names. “Like Dink…and Sam…I don’t know if you ever saw Sam or not,” she concluded, deciding that it could have been any beast that carried Graham to his cell. “Anyway, I discovered this loose stone that led here – to this cell! Now come on! You’d better get out of here!”
Crawling back through the gap, Cassima began walking back to the wooden door, tired by her brief sprint. Graham followed close behind her, and once again, Cassima was glad to be of assistance to her savior-to-be. Finally, after numerous twists and turns, she found the door to the scullery, which was, to her horror, closed shut. She probably slammed it accidentally when she first rushed into the maze. At first she was mortified at the thought that it would be locked, but then, remembering that Graham had somehow picked the lock, she gratefully opened it and slipped inside.
When Graham re-entered the scullery, Cassima was already on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor again. Smiling at him briefly, she quietly gestured for him to keep moving. For an intruder, staying on one place in a castle full of potential enemies was not a good idea. Graham nodded and exited the room through the same door he had before, and Cassima was left alone, but happy. She had saved a king from a certain death in a dungeon, and he had already promised to free her…eventually. That was enough for her.
A long time passed as Cassima labored in the kitchen. It could have been several hours, but she couldn’t tell. Her excitement seemed to slow down the minutes, and eventually she began to grow bored from her menial task. Once there was another scuffle and a crash in the hall beyond, but she couldn’t risk investigating again. Her friend was on his own now. Several more dragging moments passed, then, for the first time, doubt began to creep into her head:
What if Graham really was Mordack in disguise? He could have teleported himself to wherever the locket was, picked it up and come back…that would explain why the wizard wasn’t checking on her…But then, Mordack didn’t care about Cassima’s love for her home. In fact, what did he do when she dropped her locket over Serenia? He told her to shut up. Surely he wouldn’t have remembered her loss for this long…but still…
Cassima’s thoughts were interrupted by a thunderous cacophony coming from above. It was even louder than some of Mordack’s outbursts, dust fell from the ceiling and the floor quaked under her feet. It seemed to be coming from both above Cassima and to her left…Mordack’s laboratory…could it be?
Her thoughts were quickly coming together as she sprang to her feet and sped down the corridor, her world shaking madly as she ran. The machine in the lab had been activated! Graham must have somehow started that thing, and now the deafening roaring and vibrations, the very sounds that Cassima had expected the metal monster to make if it were turned on were now at such a high intensity that the entire castle seemed ready to collapse.
As Cassima ran through the dining room, she nearly slipped on several round, hard objects, and regained her footing just in time to see Sam lying unconscious on the floor, surrounded by several hundred dried-up peas. Apparently, Graham had tripped the beast up with the food somehow, but Cassima didn’t pause to contemplate or try to wake Sam. He would undoubtedly be very cranky when he regained consciousness, and Cassima didn’t want to be around for that.
As she turned the corner and reached the room at the foot of the stairs, she nearly tripped over another strange object. It was a burlap sack, but it seemed to be alive. Cassima could hear the sounds of a cat inside, and realized that Graham must have bagged Manannan, though she couldn’t tell just how he had gotten so close to him. I guess you won’t be eating any royal families of Daventry now, eh? Cassima thought. Pausing to give the bag a good kick, she began the final sprint up the twenty stone stairs to the laboratory.
One, two, three…
The machine’s rumbling was beginning to reach an even higher peak.
Four, five, six, seven, eight…
A sound like lightning filled the air, and flashes of light came beyond the lab door.
Nine, ten, eleven, twelve…
The lightning sounds filled Cassima’s head and rattled like pebbles through the castle.
Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen…
The sounds were slowing now, but the walls were still trembling, like they had after her organ solo.
Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen…
In only a few seconds, all of the noises had ceased.
Cassima reached the top of the stairs and looked through the lab door towards the upper story of the lab. The huge machine looked like a beast recently aroused from a deep sleep. An awful smell filled the room and smoke drifted towards the ceiling. Beside the machine stood the very person she suspected: Graham. He was looking at the colossal device in amazement, then he carefully reached out and retrieved something from one of the two giant metal platters.
Then there was a dark puff of smoke, and Mordack appeared, standing on the stone floor. Hissing something obscene under her breath, Cassima darted into the shadows, where she was well hidden but could still see everything.
“What’s going on here?” Mordack roared. Then he spotted Graham and fixed his eyes on him like a vulture. “I’ll take care of you, swine!” he growled.
He raised an arm in a sweeping gesture, and something came flying towards him, which Cassima realized was his wand. So you let him take your wand, huh? Cassima was thinking. Some wizard you are, Mordack!
Her emotions turned to horror as Mordack grabbed his wand and pointed it at Graham. A beam of white light shot out of the end, streaking towards the king. Before Cassima could scream “No,” a large, brown object came fluttering in through the tall window in the laboratory wall. It was an owl…but unlike any owl Cassima had heard of, wearing a blue vest and a monocle, and looking very excited and unaware that he had just fluttered between Graham and a blast of magic.
“Graham!” he cried. “I’ve heard from Crispin – “ But then the light hit the owl, and he dropped to the floor like a feathered stone. Cassima gaped in shock. The poor owl had saved Graham’s life, but lost his own…and he didn’t even know…Cassima felt like strangling Mordack more than ever. She had always loved birds, ever since she rescued Sing-Sing she was always partial to all animals, but for Mordack to kill a harmless creature, even if it was only an accident, was by far the cruelest act she had seen him do.
“What the – “ blurted Mordack, without a hint of remorse for what he had just done. Cassima then realized that his wand was no longer glowing with that familiar aura or light, instead it was as dull as a plain, ordinary stick of wood. Not only that, but the spell he had just performed moved much more slowly than his spells had done before. Had Graham somehow drained the wand’s power? Cassima would have laughed aloud as Mordack threw his wand to the floor and asked what Graham had done with it, but the sight of the dead owl lying there had destroyed any laughter left in her.
“You think you can outwit me, little man?” Mordack snarled. “Well, let me show you a thing or two!”
Cassima nearly fainted at what happened next. Mordack suddenly transformed into a hideous creature, like a blue, red and black bat-winged scorpion, with a head like a monstrous, prehistoric beast, and flew up at Graham. Cassima remembered creature from somewhere before…but where…
Then she recalled the book that she had flipped through before her attempted escape. The book of symbols she left open on the wizard’s desk…the profile of the man’s head with that beast transfixed over it…could it be that those symbols somehow gave the reader the power to change into whatever creature or element was described?
Just as Cassima was trying to contemplate if she was right, suddenly Graham waved something at the monster that was Mordack…a wand! How did he get a wand, Cassima wondered. In the next instant, a shimmering white light enveloped Graham, and in his place was a fierce, snarling tiger, swiping at the flying creature with its extended claws and roaring ferociously. So it was what I thought, said Cassima to herself. Those symbols change the caster into whatever the picture describes…that tiger with the man’s face merged with it…Graham must have seen that symbol…but Mordack won’t surrender to just a giant cat…
“Why you little…” Mordack said through a mouth that Cassima couldn’t see. The winged scorpion flew down to the ground floor, and the princess squeaked in fear and hid herself from the terrible monster. Graham, still in the form of a tiger, leapt off the upper story and cornered Mordack against the wall, still growling. Suddenly, the winged beast transformed into a gigantic, blue reptile, with webbed wings, a long, scaled tail and a long pointed snout.
Dragon, thought Cassima, it’s a dragon! Oh, Graham, watch out…
Before she was through with that thought, the strange white light enveloped Graham again. This time, he changed into a tiny, white hare, poised tensely on the floor, its tiny, black eyes fixed on the dragon. Suddenly, Mordack spat a ball of flame at Graham, who bounded aside and barely missed getting singed. The dragon jerked its head in the rabbit’s direction and spat fire again, only to miss as Graham leaped aside again. This routine repeated itself several times, with Cassima clenching her fists and holding her breath.
Finally, Graham dodged Mordack’s flames one last time, and was now cornered, with his tail against a column, his little chest heaving. Fortunately, Mordack seemed to be growing bored with their little game, but he apparently hadn’t had enough.
“You think you’re smart, don’t you?” he snapped. “Well, I’ve got you now!” With that, the giant dragon shrank down to a large, black serpent that slithered across the floor to where Graham crouched. It coiled into a ball and raised its hooded head. Cassima shuddered as she glimpsed what resembled an ornate, red “U” on the back of it. A cobra.
“Sssssssay good-bye, ssssssssswine!” Mordack hissed. Cassima was thinking fast: what form could Graham assume now? What creature is wily enough to defeat a cobra…
Her questions were answered as Graham changed into a slender, brown, weasel-like rodent. A mongoose, Cassima recalled. Yes! That’s it! Her enthusiasm seemed to fuel Graham’s sudden regain of energy as he sprung about, snapping at the wizard’s head and shaking it in his mouth like a bag of stones. After a few lunges, the mongoose leapt aside and raised its claws and teeth in triumph.
“Ssssssso,” Mordack hissed, still not beaten yet. “That’sssssss the way you want to play…”
The cobra wound itself in a circle around Graham, and suddenly the scaly hide burst into flame. Mordack had changed himself into a ring of fire. The mongoose rose onto its hind legs and glanced around in fear. There seemed to be no escape now…
The wizard changed into an element, Cassima thought, so Graham can too. What else can conquer fire but water? Just as she thought this, Graham changed again…but into his own form…No, Cassima screamed inside her head. Water, water, water! Even as the words were ringing inside her, Graham conjured a dark rain cloud out of nowhere and rain came pouring down around him. The flames spluttered, shrunk, and finally vanished. The battle was over.
Graham walked over to the large glass bottle and waved the wand he was holding again. A flash of light spurted from the end and touched the glass, but nothing happened. Graham’s jaw dropped in shock, then he glared at the wand and yelled, “Now why won’t you work!” and threw it to the floor. Then he knelt down on the cold stones and began crying.
Cassima peeked inside the doorway, then softly walked in and stood several feet from him, nearly crying herself out of pity. When Graham noticed her, he rose to his feet, obviously not wishing for her to see him in tears.
“I did it,” he said. “Mordack is dead.”
“Dead?” Cassima asked. “Are you sure? Maybe he’s only trying to trick you.”
Graham assured her that he was, obviously not aware that she had witnessed the whole battle, but then his eyes became teary again as he explained that he didn’t know how to free his family and castle.
“After all you’ve been through,” Cassima cried, “There must be a way!”
Suddenly, a flash of light erupted between them and an old man with a white mustache and beard, wearing glasses and leaning on a gnarled staff appeared.
“Crispin!” Graham exclaimed. Cassima opened her mouth to ask something, but Graham laid a hand on her shoulder, communicating to her without words that the old man was a friend.
As Cassima listened in interest, the man Graham called Crispin described the reasons why Graham’s family had been kidnapped, as well as Alexander’s mistake of turning Manannan into a cat. Cassima, of course, knew all this, but she decided not to say anything in anticipation of what was going to happen next.
Crispin picked up the wand from the floor, which was apparently his, and recited a few words while pointing the tool at the glass jar. A beam of light hit it, then flew back out of it. Prince Alexander materialized only a few feet from them, only full size and looking quite spellbound. Next came his sister, with her long, white dress and blonde tresses, and then came their mother, and Graham’s wife…the Queen of Daventry, Cassima realized. Embarrassed, she curtsied slightly before the three, in spite of her shabby garments.
Graham’s face broke into an ecstatic look of happiness. “Valanice! My children!” he cried, running towards them. “My joy knows no limits!”
“Oh father,” said the blonde girl, “I’m so glad you’re here!”
The four relatives embraced each other, Cassima looking at them with happiness, but still with a feeling of emptiness. Then Graham turned and looked at her and grinned, then beckoned kindly.
“Oh, Princess Cassima. How could I forget you! Come over here.”
Cassima shyly approached them and looked into the eyes of the three people that she had seen only as tiny figures before, now they were as large and real as her, all with gentle blue eyes and welcoming expressions. Graham began:
“Let me introduce you to my family. This is my wife, Queen Valanice, my daughter, Princess Rosella…” here he paused, as if searching for the right words, “And my son, Prince Alexander, the one who started this whole mess.”
Cassima, though surprised at his bluntness, was even more surprised at Alexander’s expression. His eyes were looking at her with awe and amazement. In spite of her rags and tangled hair, he seemed to be in a state of astonishment by her appearance.
“All of you,” Graham continued. “This is Princess Cassima, of the Land of the Green Isles. None of us would be standing here now if it weren’t for her. She bravely saved my life.” Cassima bowed her head and blushed lightly.
“My lady,” said Alexander bashfully. “I am deeply in your debt, and I will make it up to you, I promise. With your permission…I’d like to travel to the Land of the Green Isles to visit you.”
Cassima, unsure of what to say, nodded, and then, to her amazement, Alexander walked over to her and knelt down on one knee, holding her hand in his. Feeling the heat rising to her face again, she smiled as Alexander rose to his feet again and stood beside her. For some reason, the sight of his face so close to hers touched something in Cassima. Was it the same thing as it was in the fairy tales? Love at first sight? Could this be it, she wondered. Reaching into one of her pockets, she removed the locket that Graham had returned to her and fastened it around her neck, and the little golden heart seemed to glow as she looked at Alexander.
“All right, that’s enough formalities,” interrupted Crispin. Turning around, he mumbled another incantation. The castle in the glass bottle vanished, and Crispin told Graham that he would find it back in its original location (and the right size, too, he added). Then, he announced that he was capable of transporting all of them back to their homes, including Cassima, whose heart leapt with joy upon hearing that she was returning to her homeland after so many months. No more scrubbing floors, no more being yelled at by that heartless creature, no more eating like a slave and working for her keep within this beastly fortress…
Still, she felt sad that she was going to be leaving those funny, strange beasts alone in this crumbling castle…she hoped they would somehow find ways to survive on their own…but even more sad was the fact that she and Alexander would be parting so soon after their first meeting face-to-face. She looked at him again and sighed heavily.
As Crispin was getting ready to transport the five of them to their respective homes, Graham suddenly said, “Wait! What about Cedric?”
Cassima didn’t know what he was talking about until he pointed to the motionless form of the brown owl on the stone floor. Again, she felt broken inside at seeing this poor animal lying there, dead from Mordack’s wand. But then, Crispin attempted to recite another magic word, and before anyone could ask him what he was doing, he had finished the spell, and the owl was sitting up and dusting the dirt off his vest.
“Hooo! Crispin!” he exclaimed.
“Cedric!” cried the wizard. “How good it is to see you!”
“Hooo, likewise, I’m sure,” replied Cedric.
Her spirits lifted by the sight of the funny owl alive and well were elevated even more when Crispin asked her if her homeland was the Land of the Green Isles.
“Yes, that’s right,” she said, almost crying with happiness and clutching her locket. “I can’t wait to see my parents again!”
Then, turning her head to Alexander, she said, in a softer tone, “Good-bye, Alexander. I’m sure we’ll meet again.”
“You can be sure of that, my lady,” said Alexander.
With that, Cassima’s world was enveloped in a gleaming, yellow light, and in the next minute, the air had grown humid and warm, and the fresh smell of the sea was in the air. She looked around, and to her delight, saw that she was standing on the barren, windswept beach of the Isle of the Crown.