By: E.R. LeVar
Ruby ran a clump of Caroline’s pale hair through her hands, feeling for the knots and mats before taking a brush to it. She was gentle, as gentle as could be.
“Sorry. Your hair’s too knotty. Hold still, and it won’t hurt so much.”
Jack complains, “I don’t understand. What am I s’posed to do?”
“I told you, Jack. You need to set up the forest. It’s supposed to be over there.”
“Over where? Over here? Am I s’posed to take this rug thing?”
“Yes. It’s a forest, isn’t it? Stupid.”
“Hold still, Caroline. I’m almost done.”
“Why don’t you just set it up yourself?” the boy complains.
“Because I have to help Caroline get ready. You know that. You know that princesses brush their hair one thousand times each morning so it’s nice and smooth and shiny, like gold and corn. You don’t think princesses do that all by themselves, do you? Stupid.”
“I’m not stupid. I knew that, but I thought you were ladies. Not princesses.”
“We are ladies, but Caroline is a princess, too. A secret one.”
The front door slammed. It rattled through the walls, shaking the nursery room. Caroline jumped. Heavy footsteps pounded, and the floorboards shuddered underfoot.
“Shut the door, Jack,” Ruby commanded her brother, leaning in to her cousin as she started brushing again. She dropped her voice to say, “It’s nothing, Carol. They do that all the time. It’s not like at home. I promise.”
The door to the nursery clicked shut, and Jack asked, “Am I putting these pillows up over here?”
“Yes. They’re supposed to go around the twins, like little walls, but don’t bother them. I don’t want them to cry.”
“Leo’s chewing on that doll again, Ruby.”
Ruby glanced back to see the little boys. One held a blanket wrapped up in his tiny fists, dark and soggy on the edges where he gnawed. The other had the shiny head of an old, beat-up doll in his mouth. Slobber and paint flecks dripped to the floor in large, wet drops.
“That’s fine,” Ruby said, turning back to Caroline’s hair. Caroline shifted before the mirror, tugging Ruby’s hands away with a tilt of her head. “That doesn’t matter. Just don’t bother them. Put the pillows up around them, but don’t touch them.
“How am I supposed to make them stand?”
“I don’t know, Jack,” Ruby said, grabbing her cousin’s long hair again with a scowl. She tugged it back from the little girl’s protesting grasp. “That’s your job. Hold still, Caroline.”
They worked in silence for a moment before Jack said, “I’m done, Ruby.”
“Come over here, then. We’re almost ready. Stand up, Caroline.”
Ruby’s hand was on her cousin’s arms before she even finished her command, lifting the other girl to her feet. Ruby pulled Caroline’s hair back over her shoulder and spun her around. Ruby narrowed her eyes. She nodded, once.
“Hold out your arms, Caroline.”
The heavy quilt, pink and white, was pulled from the foot of the bed. It rumpled the sheets underneath. Ruby shook it out, holding one heavy corner in each hand. She lifted and reached, pulled it around her cousin’s thin shoulders that drooped beneath the weight of the checkered fabric. Ruby pulled it tight beneath the little girl’s chin. “Hold this so I can pull your hair back out again,” and Caroline complied. When her pale hair spilled down the back of her cloak, Ruby nodded again.
“Good. There you go. That’s the dress of a queen.”
“I thought she was a princess,” Ruby’s brother argued, picking up his whine again.
“She is, idiot, but a princess becomes a queen. Duh. Everybody knows that.”
Ruby turned back to face her brother and the room. One corner held the bed. Two chairs were up in the center, dragged in from the dining table. A blanket draped between them, a low canopy. One corner had a hollow cave, a shawl on the hooks that cast shadows on the wall, and the twins in their pillow fort were across from the door. Andy had cast his blanket limply aside. He was reaching, straining for his brother’s large ears instead. Leo didn’t respond to the tickle of grasping, grubby fingers at his face. Pillows and spare blankets littered the ground in mountains, valleys, and caves. The light in the ceiling was off, burnt and dark overhead. A single lamp, a single bulb in its pink shade, cast odd shadows and pillars of pink light across the room.
“Do we turn off the light now, Ruby?” Jack asked, but Ruby shook her head.
“It’s daytime, so the sun is up. It doesn’t need to be dark right now.”
The crash and tinkle of breaking glass filtered in through the walls. A deep voice started to rumble through the house. Ruby flinched and glanced warily toward the door. She pulled at the stools, two little wooden seats with butterflies embroidered on the cushion tops. She pushed her cousin down.
“We’ll sit here, Caroline. Cross your ankles, like a lady. Fold your hands in your lap like this.” Both girls situated themselves, facing Jack. They kept their eyes from the rumbling door. “You can approach us now, Jack. We’re ready for you.”
Jack took a step forward and whined, “Why don’t the babies have to play, too?”
“They are playing, Jack. They’re the Puritans, and they’re too little anyway. They don’t know how to play the game. You know that.”
“Fine,” Jack huffed, furrowing his brow. “What do I have to do, then?”
“You’re supposed to be rescuing Princess Abigail from the evil duke.”
“That’s me,” Caroline said, breaking in with a smile on her face. She had a gap between her two front teeth, too large for her round, little face. “I chose that name. That’s what I was called as a baby, before the duke stole me and pretended I was only a lady. He called me Caroline.”
“That’s right,” Ruby agreed, nodding once, twice. She kept her eyes on the door. She raised her voice as the voices rose outside. “As you know, Lady Caroline is the long-lost princess, and you and her are in love because that’s what happened last time. Remember? So you want to get married, but the evil duke won’t let you marry her. So you’re gonna have to trick him.”
“The duke wants me to marry somebody else,” Caroline informed, and Jack’s eyes moved to her. She pulled the quilt tighter around herself and turned her large, blue eyes on Ruby. “What did you say they were called?”
“No, not that one. The other one. K-k–?”
“Yes, court-yors. My father, the Duke, only wants me to marry the court-yors, and they are all going to ask for my hand soon. So you’ve gotta sneak in there quick, Jack.”
“Why aren’t I one of the court-yors? I thought I was a prince.”
“You are a prince, but right now, you’re only a student. So it’s not the same.”
“So how am I gonna trick the duke, then? Do I have to go on a quest?”
“Yes, and lucky for you, I know of a good quest for you to go on. I want to help you, because Princess Abigail is my sister.”
“But you’re not a secret princess,” Caroline added.
“Right,” Ruby said, nodding her head. “I’m just a regular lady, but maybe you’ll make me a princess when you become the queen.”
“Yeah, I will. When I get married and become the queen.”
“But first you have to complete the quest and trick the evil duke. Are you ready, Jack?”
Jack stood straighter and nodded to the girls. His answer was resolute.
“You’ve gotta sneak into the ball,” Ruby instructed, “so that you can ask Princess Abigail to marry you first, before all the others get there. So you’ve gotta be sneaky and quick. You have to dress up like a prince to get in, and then the duke can’t say no when you try to come to the ball. But you need to look better than all the other princes, so you have to dress special. Lucky, I know the way. There is a secret legend of a golden bird that lives in the mysterious Forest of Woe way over there. If you can get one of his feathers to wear, then you’ll be the best prince at the ball.”
“So how do I get it, Ruby?”
“How do I get it, Lady Ruby?”
“You have to make a long journey to get there, so you’d better start quick. The secret golden bird lives in the middle of the Forest of Woe, but you have to get to the forest first. First you have to pass under the Old Troll Bridge. It’s anchent and rickety, so you can’t knock it down. If you do, you’ll wake up the trolls.”
“That’s there, in the middle of the room?”
“Yes, and don’t knock the bridge down, or you lose. After that, then you gotta sneak around the Puritan Huts. The Puritans live there, and they don’t like it when people go out on quests. They think quests are stupid and silly.”
“That means you have to pretend to be someone else,” Caroline jumped in. “You have to hide your real intentions, because you can’t be on a quest like that. You gotta pretend to be someone else.”
“Who am I s’posed to be?”
“Just some young youth who got lost in the woods or something. You figure it out. Just don’t upset the Puritans like that.”
“Am I s’posed to do something with them when I get over there?”
Ruby glanced at the twins. Leo had dropped the doll. He had dragged one of the pillows from the fort and was chewing on that instead. His single tooth gleamed in the beam of light cast their way. The other pillows had fallen down on their sides, like moats instead of walls. She shook her head.
“You just have to go around them. That’s all. Then, after that, you have to go through the Dark Cave Lair, and on the other side, you’ll find the forest. That should be easy, because you’ve gone through that one before. Can you handle that?”
“Where’s the Old Layer Cave, Ruby?”
“It’s in the corner with the hooks. Like always. We’ve done that one before.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jack said, nodding. “I remember. Are there the bugs and snakes inside like last time?”
“Yeah, so you have to be careful not to get bit and poisoned. Are you ready to start?”
The boy hesitated again. He said, “I don’t know, Ruby. I don’t know if I want–”
A high, female shriek echoed through the walls, a wild and angry sound, and another crash followed right after. Caroline hugged her quilt closer to herself. Baby Andy hiccuped. There was a loud, rattling thud–a weight dropped on the floor or a body shoved against the wall. Ruby picked up her voice, stumbling over her words as they tumbled out of her mouth.
“You have to, Jake. Jack. Sorry. You’re love. You know it your love. That you’re in love. So you gotta.”
Jack hesitated, but then he nodded once, firm and resolute. Caroline straightened on her stool, hooking her feet in the legs below. She rocked a bit, leaning toward Jack and away again.
“Go, my dear love!” she said, her voice high and shrill, too. “Find the golden bird, and free me from the duke! Go quickly.”
Jack skipped back at once, released, and pivoted to survey the room. Caroline hugged her quilt to herself, a barrier. Jack picked his way through the valleys and hills, stepping carefully over creaky floorboards in his whispering socks. Another thud shook the walls of the house, louder and closer than before, and Ruby jumped, eyes darting to the door. Baby Andy’s hand connected with his brother’s head, hard. Both the twins began to wail. Ruby jumped up from her stool, knocking it back with her heels.
“Quick!” she shouted, and Caroline jumped up as well. Her cloak slipped, and she fumbled with the opening, pulling it back up again. Footsteps pounded through the house, growing louder as the shouting without grew, too. “Quick, you’ve upset the Puritans!”
“I did not!” Jack argued, poking his head back out from the shade of the Old Troll Bridge at the center of the room. He glared at his sister and cousin. He straightened, knocked into the chair, and the blanket fell around him, collapsing in on him. He waved his arms, struggling to disentangle himself. “I did not!” he repeated as he knocked into his chair again. The twins cried louder than before.
“I swear to you, Thomas!” called a woman’s voice from outside. “I swear I will take the kids. I will grab the kids right now, Thomas, and–”
“Quick! Calm down the Puritans, Caroline, or they’ll scare the bird away!”
Caroline scrambled across the room, tripping and tangling with the pillows on the floor. She dropped to her knees at her twin brothers’ side, wrapping them up in her arms. Her heavy quilt slid to the floor, a halo of checked pink-and-white around all three. Jack disentangled himself from the blanket, casting it aside. Footsteps pounded up the hall.
Ruby’s mother shrieked, louder than before. Something else slammed the wall. The footsteps stopped. The children were quiet, hardly daring to breathe. There was no more sound without.
“Quick, Jack,” Ruby whispered, voice dropped low and dark eyes on the door. All was silent without. All was silent without. “Quick, lock up the cage so the birds can’t get away.”
Jack looked at her. There was a moment’s pause before Jack scrambled nimbly over the mountains and to the door. He fumbled with the knob before he flipped the lock closed with a soft click. He stumbled back, backwards, and sat heavily on the ground, turning his eyes to Ruby again. Caroline had turned, too, the twins still wrapped in her arms. Ruby stood at the far end of the room, upended stool on the ground behind her. She stood very still, and then they heard it. They heard a noise outside again. They heard footsteps approaching the door.
The knob rattled. The door shook. Then, after a moment’s breath, a few strong knocks resounded on the white-painted wood of the door.
“Ruby!” her father called through the door, too loud at first. He paused another moment, another breath. He began again, more softly, more slowly than before. “Hey, Rubes? Can you let me in please?”
Ruby didn’t move. No one in the room moved. One of the twins hiccuped, sobbing no more.
“Ruby, let me in. I won’t hurt you. I won’t hurt any of you. I won’t let Mommy take you away. I won’t let her take you away from me. Let me in.”
Ruby took a few steps closer, closer to the voice and closer to the door. Her body cast a shadow across her brother, her cousins on the floor.
“C’mon, Rubes. Please.” The knob shook again. He rattled the door.
“Daddy?” Ruby called, as loudly as she dared. She wrapped her hands in the hem of her shirt. The door stopped rattling. They could hear only breathing on the other side. Ruby tried again, “Daddy, can you come back in a little while? We’re in the middle of a game, Daddy, and if we open the door now, you’ll scare away the birds.”