Demoted To Cinderella/Burn The Witch!
“I love my love with an – X? You stuck me with X?!”
“What’s so bad about X?”
“Marty, how many words can you think of that start with the letter X? I have to love him because he’s something, hate him because he’s something, feed him on something, name him something, and have him live somewhere. Do you really think there’s an X-word for each of those?”
“Well, for names, there’s Xavier,” Alice suggested, looking thoughtful.
“Could you throw a xylophone anywhere in there?” Marty wondered aloud.
“Unless I say he can eat them or live on them, no,” Jennifer said, looking amused despite herself.
“I know of ‘xenophobia’ – it’s ‘fear of foreigners,’” Victor provided. “You could love or hate him for that.”
“That sounds like something to hate him for,” Jennifer nodded. “But what about the rest of it?”
“I love my love with an X because he’s xylophilous – fond of wood,” Doc stated. “I hate him because he’s xenophobic. I feed him on xiphias – swordfish – and xylocarp – a hard, woody fruit. His name is Xavier, and he lives – he lives--” His brow furrowed. “Damn, are there any towns around here that begin with an X?”
“He could live at ‘X marks the spot,’” Marty suggested as a joke.
“I think that’s as close as we’ll ever come,” Jennifer groused. “Why’d I have to get stuck with X?”
“I can’t imagine Y or Z would have been much easier,” Alice said, frowning thoughtfully. “I love my love with a Y because he’s – yellow?”
“Hey, fork in the road up ahead,” Marty said, looking up.
“Oh, good, maybe the signpost will have an X-name for us.”
Doc rode ahead a little to study the names on the post. “All right,” he said as the others joined him. “To the right is Gardnerville, to the left is Burtonsville. If I remember the map we saw at the mapmaker’s at our last stop correctly, the quicker route to the castle is through Burtonsville, so--”
“We should m-most definitely g-go through G-Gardnerville!”
Everyone blinked and looked at Victor. The young man was sitting stiffly in his saddle, gripping the reins of his horse so tightly that his knuckles were turning white against his already pale skin. “What?” Jennifer said, arching an eyebrow.
“Well, I – I j-just thought, we m-may as well t-take the scenic route,” Victor said, with a shaky, forced smile.
“Victor, that will add at least two days onto our journey,” Doc protested, frowning. “I don’t know about you, but I’d like to complete this quest sometime in my lifetime.”
“Yes, we’ve already lost quite a bit of time due to our other adventures,” Alice nodded.
“Y-yes, but – but Gardnerville is such a nice town compared to Burtonsville! We r-really should g-go there instead.”
“All right, what’s with you?” Jennifer said, folding her arms. “I know you’re usually nervous, but the stutter only comes out when you’re starting to panic.”
Marty, however, was looking quite thoughtful. “Burtonsville, Burtonsville,” he repeated to himself, snapping his fingers. “Where have I – hey, yeah! That’s your hometown, isn’t it Victor?”
Victor nodded, looking down. “Yes, it is.”
“Yeah, you mentioned that when you – oh. Oh, right.”
“What?” Jennifer said, turning to look at her boyfriend.
Marty gave her an awkward grin. “They, uh, kind of want to kill him there. That’s the place that thinks he’s a witch.”
Alice put a hand over her mouth, looking rather horrified. “Oh God – Victor, I’m sorry, it’s been so long that I’d forgotten the name--”
“It’s all right,” Victor said, sighing. “I wouldn’t expect you to remember after all we’ve been through. But you can see it’s rather important to me that w-we don’t go through my hometown.”
“Looks like we’re taking the long route, Doc,” Marty said with a nod. “Unless you want to try something else.”
“Well, I did want to get to Morteburg as soon as possible – that delay before set us rather off course,” Doc admitted. “I heard at our last stop the Count Bonejangles was throwing a grand ball, and I happen to know for a fact the place has a very good militia. If we’re going to drum up any common support for our cause, that’s the best place to do it.”
Jennifer looked rather skeptical. “Do you really think it’ll work though, Doc? We haven’t managed to get much help yet. After all this time, it’s still just the five of us.”
“Most everyone thinks we’re rather mad for going on this mission at all,” Alice added. “Even people we’ve rescued.”
“I know, but I still want to try. We might have more luck with military types than farmers and merchants.” Doc looked thoughtful. “How big is Burtonsville, Victor?”
“Oh, not that big at all. There’s the town square, the marketplace, and a few outlying roads, but that’s basically it. Why?”
“I was thinking – maybe we can just ride around it. We wouldn’t have to enter the town at all – our supplies are fine, and as long as we pace the horses. . . . Do you think that could work?”
Victor frowned, thinking it over. “It could, I suppose. It really is a small town – we could cut through the forest nearby. Though I’m still concerned about someone seeing me.”
“Eh, everybody seems to get the shudders from the woods these days,” Marty pointed out, with a fairly careless wave. “We know we’ve got nothing to fear, but they don’t. You really think we’ll see someone?”
“I don’t know. Shooting parties were the preferred entertainment of what few members of the upper class we have there.”
Doc studied Victor for a moment. “We could hide your face,” he suggested. “I’d wish you invisible, but unfortunately I’ve already used my wish for the day.”
“When?” Marty asked, looking a little confused.
“Before you all woke up – our camp turned out to be right under a low-hanging bee’s nest, and the bees did not look pleased to have our company,” Doc explained.
“You should have woken me up, I could have taken care of them.”
“And gotten stung half to death for your efforts. Even with Victor’s healing potion, that’s not something I’d want you to go through.”
“What? They’re just bee stings! I’ve gotten stung before!”
“By an entire hive?”
“No. . . . See, that’s another reason you should have let me handle it. Might have taught me fear.”
Alice raised an eyebrow. “Fighting all manner of hellbeasts can’t teach you such a thing, but a simple bee could?”
Marty frowned. “Okay, yeah, that does sound a little stupid.”
“Nevertheless, the deed’s done,” Doc said, shaking his head a little. “We’ll have to think of another way.” He looked at Alice. “Would you mind lending him your cloak?”
“Not at all,” Alice said promptly, undoing it and handing it to Victor.
“It’s gonna be kind of small on him,” Marty pointed out.
“As long as it covers my face, it’ll be fine,” Victor said, accepting the fabric with a shy nod and draping it around himself. He adjusted the fit as best he could, and pulled the hood over his head and face. “What do you think?”
Jennifer peered at him from the side. “Yes, that works nicely,” she said with a smile. “You can’t see anything at all.”
“It’ll do for a quick ride through the woods, anyway,” Alice said.
“Precisely,” Doc agreed. “Let’s get moving – the sooner we go, the sooner we’re through. Victor, you come up here next to me – you’ll need to show us where we leave the road.”
The group rearranged themselves, then set off along the path. Victor had them veer left after a little while, and they soon found themselves in a small forest, surrounded by tall, straight trees. “Gloomy place,” Marty remarked as they slowly rode along.
“It feels like it should be haunted,” Jennifer agreed with a tiny shiver.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a ghost or two roaming about,” Victor admitted. “People have disappeared in here before. I--”
He stopped suddenly, body going stiff again. “What is it?” Doc asked him, eyes filled with concern.
“Oh God – the old cemetery,” Victor whispered, hands tightening on the reigns. “It’s been long abandoned, but. . .I’d – I’d almost forgotten how badly--” He took a deep breath. “C-can we try and f-find another route a-around it? I don’t think--”
“Of course,” Alice said gently. “Let’s try this way, it seems a bit clearer.” She turned her horse a little further north.
“What’s wrong with this way?” Marty asked, turning his south.
“I believe that path leads closer to town,” Doc pointed out. “And we’re trying to cause Victor the least amount of distress while taking the quickest path toward our destination.”
“Come on, Doc, it’s not like we’re heading straight--”
Everyone except Marty started at the unfamiliar voice. “Who’s there?” demanded Alice, one hand resting lightly on the handle to her axe.
A patch of brush nearby rustled, then disgorged an absurdly short and fat man balanced on two sticklike legs. He was dressed for a day’s hunt, and carried a small blunderbuss. He regarded the group with beady eyes. “Did I just hear you address him as ‘Doc?’” he demanded of Marty.
“Yeah. What of it?” Marty shot back, not liking the guy’s tone of voice. It reminded him of Biff, back when they’d first met Doc.
The man scowled at him. “I don’t like your attitude, boy,” he snapped. “You shouldn’t speak to your superiors in such a way.”
“I didn’t know you were superior to me,” Marty replied, sarcasm dripping off his words.
“Impudent creature! I could have you whipped, if I so chose! I am Lord Finis Everglot, descendant of the Grand Duke of Everglot!”
“Never heard of him,” Marty said casually. “‘Course, before now, I didn’t get out much.”
“Obviously.” Lord Everglot turned from Marty to Doc, still scowling. “Am I correct in assuming, sir, that this ‘Doc’ appellation means you are a doctor?”
Doc arched an eyebrow. “Well, yes. Is there something I can do for you, my Lord?”
“There most certainly is! Our town is only now recovering from a terrible bout of plague, and my head maid is still languishing in her bed! The local doctor is a blithering idiot – I demand you come and see her at once!”
Doc felt some of the color drain out of his face. Shit. . . . “My Lord, I’m sorry, but my doctorate is in scientific study, not medicine,” he said quickly. He could see Victor fidgeting out of the corner of his eye.
“Bah. Science, medicine – a doctor is a doctor,” Lord Everglot said dismissively, waving a hand. “We need our maid on her feet again. We’ve already lost so many servants – the housework is beginning to pile up. Come with me at once.”
“You can’t force us to go anywhere with you,” Jennifer spoke up with a frown.
“I am the highest ranking noble in this town. I will do as I wish,” Lord Everglot replied. “You will all accompany me back to town this instant.”
“Forget it,” Marty snapped, giving his horse a nudge. “We’re in a hurry. We have to get to Morteburg in time for Count Bonejangles’s party.”
“If you’re in a hurry, why are you riding through the woods? It won’t cost you any time at all to come and see the girl. I’m willing to pay you, if I must.”
Doc was starting to really regret using up his wish so early in the day. Why on earth did that watch only work once every twenty-four hours? “My Lord--”
“You will come with me now, or I’ll have the police on you!” Lord Everglot burst out. “I’m sure they’ll be very interested in why you’re skulking about here in the woods!”
That gave everyone pause. Jennifer stared at Lord Everglot. “You’d do that?” she said disbelievingly.
“If I had to,” Lord Everglot replied. “What are you doing out here in the woods? Are you fugitives?” He leveled a hard look Victor’s way – the young man pulled the cloak closer over his face. “Why is he hiding his face?”
“The poor boy’s suffered a disfigurement,” Doc hastily lied. “He’s shy about it. He doesn’t do well in crowds.”
“That’s why we’re riding through the woods,” Alice added. “We didn’t want to upset him. He’s a dear friend of ours.”
“Harumph,” was Lord Everglot’s only reply. “Your friend sounds like an absolute ninny.”
“He is not!” Alice said with sudden venom.
“Lay off,” Marty agreed. “Come on, guys, let’s leave him in the dust.”
“We need a doctor. I don’t want to get sick, and we need our maid. If it comes right down to it--” he cocked his blunderbuss “– I am willing to shoot your horses.”
Everyone stared. “You’re kind of nuts, aren’t you?” Marty said after a moment.
“We’ll go,” a strange voice said. It took the others a moment to realize it came from Victor’s hood – the young man was doing a rather odd take on a Scottish accent. “But just to see the – l-lass, all right?”
“That’s all I’m asking,” Lord Everglot said, looking slightly more pleasant now that he’d gotten his way. “This way, please.” He trotted off in the general direction of the town.
The group followed him reluctantly. “Why does this shit always happen to us?” Marty complained. “And why can none of it teach me fear?”
“You do seem oddly resistant to the idea,” Doc said, looking thoughtful. “But I’m certain something’s got to give eventually.”
“I hope so. This is really wearing on my nerves.”
“What on earth is with the accent?” Jennifer whispered to Victor.
“I can’t r-risk him recognizing m-my voice,” Victor whispered back.
“Well, yeah, but – Scottish?”
“It was t-the first thing t-that popped into my h-head!” He shivered as he looked at the tiny figure of Lord Everglot before them. “Oh, I was s-so hoping to avoid t-this!”
“Don’t worry, Victor,” Alice said soothingly. “We’ll probably be out of there before you know it.”
It was only a short ride to the actual town itself. It was small – Marty had thought Hill Valley was a fairly little town, but even it was bigger than Burtonsville. The town was also depressingly grey – the cobblestones, the storefronts, even the sky seemed utterly devoid of cheerfulness. The people were much the same – quite a few wore simple white and/or black clothing, and whatever colors were present were very muted. Everyone was unhealthily pale to boot (though Victor still looked whiter than most of them, Marty quietly noted). It was rather like walking through a living tintype.
Lord Everglot led them straight to the town square. There were a couple of small shops there, and a statue of what was presumably the town’s founder on his horse, but the main features seemed to be two enormous houses on opposite sides of the square. One was marked with a large crest with a stylized “E” – obviously the Everglots’ home. The other had two ludicrous-looking fish statues in front of the door. “Who put those up?” Marty commented with a smirk.
“Oh, that’s the Van Dorts,” Lord Everglot said, scowling at the house. “The worst sort of nouveau riche one could meet. And don’t even ask about their boy. Mixed up in all sorts of dark nonsense. . . .”
Everyone tried not to look at Victor, who tugged a little on the hood of his borrowed cloak. Marty made a quick mental note to say he was sorry once they were out of here for insulting the guy’s parents’ house. Though he has to admit, those statues do look kind of weird.
They dismounted in front of the Everglots’ house. Lord Everglot looked around the group. “I certainly hope you don’t all have to come in,” he said coldly.
“Most of us are perfectly happy waiting outside, thank you,” Jennifer replied just as coldly.
“Just show me to the girl so we can get this over with,” Doc nodded, stepping forward.
“Gladly.” Lord Everglot began mounting the steps. “I do hope you can help, we’d hate to have to find someone new. You’d better at least confirm we’re not about to all die.”
Doc began to follow him, only for Victor to grab his arm. “Perhaps I-I’d best come too,” he said, adopting his Scottish accident again. “Just in c-case you need – a-assistance.”
Doc was surprised for a moment – Victor would willingly walk into the lion’s den with him? Then he noticed that, in his other hand, the young man was holding his vial of medicine. “All right,” Doc agreed, and together they proceeded up. “Soft-hearted, or thinking a quick cure will hasten our exit?” he added in a whisper.
“A little of both,” Victor admitted. “I do hate the idea of anyone s-suffering, and if I can m-make her well. . . . I’d gladly send you in with the v-vial by yourself, but you w-wouldn’t be able to see Godfather.”
“What are you whispering about back there?” Lord Everglot asked before giving the bell-pull a yank.
“Private consultation on disease,” Doc said smoothly. “Nothing you’d understand.”
Lord Everglot seemed to accept that, luckily. Moments later, the door opened, revealing a dour-looking woman who had to have four feet on Lord Everglot if she had an inch – and that was not including her hair. “Who are these people, Finis?” she said, eying Doc and Victor with ill-disguised disgust.
“A doctor and his – assistant, I suppose,” Lord Everglot replied. “I found them in the woods and insisted they come and look at our maid. You know how useless our local doctor is. Perhaps these two might be able to effect a change.”
The woman – who seemed to be Lady Everglot – continued to eye the two men. “I doubt it, but we may as well try,” she allowed. “Do come in.”
The two followed Lord Everglot through the door. “Will you take off your cloak?” Lady Everglot asked Victor as she closed the door behind them.
“N-no! No, I’m fine,” Victor said hurriedly, almost forgetting to do the accent. He backed away a step, pulling the cloak tighter and putting his face even further into shadow.
“He was badly disfigured by a house fire,” Doc explained as Lady Everglot scowled. “He hates to show his face for any reason.”
“He’s a ninny,” Lord Everglot said, causing Doc to glare at him. “But it doesn’t matter. I don’t think they’ll be staying long anyhow.”
“I hope not,” Lady Everglot said. “We have no proper accommodations for guests at the moment.”
“We don’t intend to take up any more of your time then necessary,” Doc said. “If you’d just show us to the patient. . . .”
“Of course. This way.”
The Everglots led Doc and Victor down a long hall to a rather tiny room. Crammed inside was a bed, a nightstand, a basin, and a little wardrobe. Lying on the bed was a young woman about Victor’s age, looking pale and worn. Her greyish-brown hair was tied up in a bun, though quite a few strands had come loose and were hanging around her face. Her breathing was a little labored, like it hurt to inhale. She opened her eyes a crack as the two entered the room. “Oh. . .who. . . ?”
“They’re doctors,” Lady Everglot said crisply. “We’re hoping they can effect some sort of change in your condition.” The way she said it, it was if she blamed the girl for getting sick.
“Oh.” The young lady attempted a smile. “Hello.”
“Hello,” Doc said, feeling a wave of sympathy. Already this young woman seemed a lot nicer than her employers, even as sick as she appeared to be. “My name’s Dr. Brown. This is my assistant – Scott.” Oh, that was brilliant naming on his part. He hurried on. “We’re here to help, if we can.”
“I do hope you can,” the woman replied, then coughed. “I’m rather sick of being sick at this point.”
“I’m sure you are.” Doc pretended to make a bit of an examination, examining her face, taking her pulse, and feeling her forehead. Her pulse was steady, but her temperature was rather high – never a good sign. He glanced back at Victor. “What do you think?”
Victor peered intently at the bed. An odd chill passed over Doc – it was like Victor was seeing something no one else could see. Which he is, he thought. What a gift to have, to see Death no matter where he might be. . . .
Victor nodded. “I think she’s near recovery, actually,” he said, the relief in his voice evident even through the accent. “Just needs something to bring her fever down.”
Doc nodded, doing his best to radiate confidence. “That’s my boy. Hand me the vial, will you?”
Victor passed it over. Doc put it to the girl’s lips. “Just a few swallows of that should bring it down fast,” he said, voice soothing. “You should be back to yourself in no time.”
The girl smiled and gratefully drank the liquid down. “Thank you,” she said softly as Doc handed it back to Victor.
“It’s our pleasure, really,” Doc said, tipping his hat.
Lord Everglot looked dubious. “Will that liquid really help to cure her?” he asked gruffly.
“Oh yes! It’s a compound of willow’s root, cattails, a little triglyceride meta--”
Just as he’d planned, Lord Everglot’s eyes began to glaze over. “Right, right,” he interrupted, obviously worried Doc would go on rambling. “Now, as for the bill. . . .”
“We didn’t spend much time here, so whatever you feel comfortable paying,” Doc said, seeing Victor start to fidget. He wanted to get out of here himself – this house was very depressing.
“What I would be comfortable paying is nothing,” Lord Everglot said brusquely. “But as I’m sure you won’t accept that. . . .” He pulled out a few paper bills and handed them to Doc. “Will that do?”
“That’ll be fine,” Doc said, counting them and stuffing them in his pocket.
“Thank you very much,” Lady Everglot said, though her voice held very little real gratitude. “Do you need us to show you out?”
“We can find the way,” Doc said, wanting to spend as little time in the company of these two as possible. “You’re welcome.”
“Feel better, lass,” Victor said with a nod.
“Thank you,” the young woman said, already sounding a bit healthier. Doc nodded to her as well, then he and Victor took their leave as rapidly as they could.
Marty greeted them at the front door. “We’re good?” he asked.
“We’re good,” Doc said, heading straight to his horse. “And we’ve gotten some extra money out of the deal. Now let’s be off before Victor has a heart attack.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to make life more difficult,” Victor murmured as they remounted.
“It’s not your fault,” Alice told him. “We didn’t particularly want to make any stops either.”
“Yeah, bad luck can happen to anybody,” Marty agreed. “Is their maid okay?”
“I’m afraid we don’t know,” Victor said quietly.
Doc blinked, then gave him an odd look. “What are you talking about? You gave her a dose of your magic medicine. She should be fine now.”
“Yes, but – that wasn’t the Everglot’s maid.”
Jennifer lifted an eyebrow. “Funny how they’d describe her as such, then.”
Victor nodded. “Yes, it is. I never thought they – oh, God, it’s all my fault. . . .”
“Stop speaking in riddles,” Alice said with a frown. “And stop blaming yourself for everything, while you’re at it. What’s got you so upset?”
“Well, the young woman Doc and I saw? That wasn’t their maid – that was their daughter.”
“Their daughter?” Jennifer repeated loudly, shocked.
“Shh!” Victor waved a frantic hand. “Yes! That was Victoria Everglot! I never met her face to face before now, but I saw her with her parents back when I lived here. She was to be my arranged fiancée before I – went mad for a while. My parents wanted the honor of being connected to someone with a title, while the Everglots rather desperately needed our money. But after my ‘gift’ became apparent, the union was dissolved. The Everglots must not have found another way to raise funds, if they’ve pressed their own child into service as the maid.” He looked down at his feet. “I never thought about how my – inability to get married could ruin someone. . . .”
“Sheesh, this town likes to bring you down,” Marty commented. “That ain’t your fault, Victor. You’re not the one who chose Death for your godfather. And you certainly aren’t responsible for those two idiots deciding to turn their daughter into the maid.”
“Precisely,” Alice said, tone dark. “If I ever meet the Reaper, I might just have to have some words with him.”
Victor looked up at her, astonished. “You’d scold the Reaper?”
“I think he needs it, after what he’s done to you.”
“I wouldn’t mind giving him a piece of my mind either,” Marty said. “He sounds like an asshole.”
“We can debate this later,” Doc said, turning his horse around. “Let’s get through this town and back on the road. We shouldn’t linger here any longer than we have to.”
“Oh, yes, please,” Victor said, taking the lead.
Only to find his path blocked by two small boys. “Why are you wearing that cloak?” one promptly asked, trying to peer into the face hole.
“A disfigurement,” Victor said, quickly readopting his accent. “Terrible fire. . . .”
“Is all your face burned off then?”
“Near enough,” Alice said, riding up next to him. “We’re rather in a hurry, boys, so if you don’t mind. . . .”
“It’s rather small for you,” the older of the boys said, not moving from his spot.
“He’s tall, it’s hard to find clothes for him,” Marty said. “Come on, squirts, move.”
“Why were you visiting the Everglots?” the younger boy asked, moving to the side so the teenager couldn’t pass.
“It’s none of your business,” Doc said firmly, resisting the urge to pick up the boy and move him bodily out of the way. “We have to be going.” He led the group around the children.
“Their daughter was going to marry the witch, you know,” the older boy said, with a disturbing eagerness, following behind them. “Master Van Dort. He cursed people to die.”
Victor couldn’t stop a shudder going through his body. “Do we look like we want to hear such horrible things?” Jennifer said with a glare.
“We don’t often get strangers about,” the older boy said, ignoring her tone. “Where are you from?”
A shared look between the five showed they were all thinking the same thing – ignore them, and perhaps they’ll go away. They increased their speed a little.
This tactic, very unfortunately, did not work. “We’re speaking to you!” the younger boy said indignantly, stretching his hand out and grabbing the nearest thing within reach.
Which happened to be the corner of Victor’s borrowed cloak. Which, in response to the tugging, slid off his head.
Victor yelped and frantically tried to replace the hood, but it was already too late. The two boys leapt backwards, looking horrified. “IT’S THE WITCH!” the older one yelled. “HE’S BACK! HE’S COME BACK AFTER THE REST OF US!”
“He cursed the Everglots, he cursed the Everglots!” the younger one chanted, running around his companion in circles.
“So much for stealth – time for speed!” Doc yelled, putting his heels to his horse.
“Right behind you!” Victor said, desperately urging his horse toward the edge of the square as people began piling out of shops and houses in response to the screams.
Other people began taking up the cry as they rushed to get out of the town. “It is him! It’s the Van Dort boy!”
“The witch! Son of Satan!”
“Murderer! He who tampers in the domain of God!”
“Don’t let him get away again! Hang him from the highest tree!”
“Burn him at the stake!”
“No, the proper way to deal with witches is a good hanging.”
“Bah, everyone knows they’re only dead when you burn them.”
“I say we do both – can’t be too careful with this sort.”
“Agreed! KILL THE WITCH!”
“Stop him! Don’t let him leave!”
“Foul black magic man!”
A carriage thundered into their path. The horses, already agitated, reared. Victor was thrown off, landing hard on the cobblestones. The mob now chasing them promptly swarmed him. “Bastard! Evil sorcerer!”
“I didn’t do anything!” Victor cried, trying to get away as strong hands clamped around his arms. “I swear!”
“He swears!” one woman mocked. “We all know what the word of a witch is worth!”
A man glared into Victor’s face. “Why did you do it?” he snarled. “Why did you kill my Roxanne?”
“Lies! You told us both that she’d be dead within a fortnight, her blood on the cobblestones! You knew about the footpad that would take her from me! Why did you charm him into killing my Roxanne?”
“I didn’t! Do you think I enjoyed seeing her die?” Victor said, a few tears starting to trickle down his face. “Do you think I like living like this?”
“He cries now,” another man jeered. “Just you wait! The Everglots will be dead before sundown!”
“LEAVE HIM ALONE!”
The mob turned to see Alice standing there, axe at the ready and eyes alight with murderous rage. “He’s not a witch!” she continued, advancing. Behind her, Marty, Doc, and Jennifer followed, looking similarly upset. “He’s cursed! And he hasn’t killed anyone – he saved one of your children!”
“What was so special about the Velde boy?” an older woman demanded of Victor. “Why is he allowed to live, and my George to die?”
“I could save Timothy, I couldn’t save George,” Victor said, still struggling to get free. “Death had already claimed your husband. If I could have, I would have!”
“Hang him!” one man yelled, waving a stick he’d found. “Hang him, then burn him! Scatter the ashes at a crossroads!”
“You harm one hair on his head, and you’ll be answering to me!” Alice roared.
“To us,” Marty corrected, hand on his sword. “I don’t get why you guys are blaming him for everything, anyway. Didn’t people die before he went crazy?”
“He’s been cursing them!” declared the man who’d been married to Roxanne. “He dares to try and choose who lives and who dies! He’s been dabbling in the black arts! He’s a witch!”
“Is he a girl, then?”
The man blinked as he looked at Doc. “I beg pardon?”
“Witches are traditionally female,” Doc continued. “So unless you believe the young man you’re holding is actually in a clever disguise, you want ‘warlock.’”
“Doc, is this really the time to be correcting them on their word choice?” Jennifer asked, giving him a weird look.
“Witch, warlock – what’s the difference?” the original mocking woman agreed. “He’s evil!”
“Really?” Doc looked over the mob with a condescending smile. “Well then, allow me to commend you on your bravery! Not many people would try and attack someone whom they believe can kill them very easily. Especially without making sure he’s not covered by some enchantment.”
The members of the mob paused for a moment, digesting this information. A few of them began to look rather uneasy, and the one holding Victor slackened his grip. “Well. . . .”
It was enough. Victor tore free and ran for the safety of his friends. The mob, seeing their prey about to escape, allowed their rage to overtake them again. “Tricks! They must be his foul accomplices!” the late Roxanne’s husband declared. “Kill them all!”
“If we’re his foul accomplices, how do you know--” Doc started, hoping to use his same trick again.
A gunshot that barely missed his head put an end to that. “Good try, Doc, but I don’t think they’re falling for it again,” Marty said in a resigned voice, pulling his sword. “Come on, let’s get back to the – son of a bitch!”
“What?” Jennifer asked, turning.
Only to see what Marty had seen – their horses had already made their own break for it. “Oh, for – Victor, please tell me you have at least one friend here,” she begged as more people began producing weapons.
“There’s two people I can think of who should help us,” Victor said, getting his bearings. “The trouble is getting to them.”
Alice seized his wrist with one hand. “Lead the way – I’ll clear the path,” she said, swinging her axe at some of the mob.
“All right, follow me!” Victor took off, followed very closely by his friends.
They somehow made it back to the square proper without getting caught – those of the mob who got too close were forced to withdraw as Alice threatened them with her axe and Marty with his sword. Victor pulled them up the stairs of the Van Dort house. “Mother and Father are – eccentric, but they should be willing to shelter us,” he said, banging on the door.
After a moment, it opened, revealing a rather hunched-over, balding man with a large mustache. He started upon seeing the crowd on his front step. “Victor? What--”
“Father! Please, you’ve got to let us inside--”
“Now, now, what’s going on?” Mr. Van Dort said, settling his spectacles more firmly on his nose.
“The witch – or warlock, whatever he is – must be hung!” someone yelled from the mob. “And burned! And buried at a crossroads for good measure!”
“He’s probably set a terrible curse on the Everglots!” another voice said. “How will they die, All-Seeing One?”
“I don’t know! I didn’t curse them, I helped them!” Victor protested. Looking back at his father, he added, “There must be something--”
“William! What are you doing, answering the door on your own? Why do you think we have a butler?”
A rather fat, bossy-looking woman hurried into the doorway, scowling. “And what’s all this racket?” she added, raising her voice above the crowd. “Who’s done what now?”
“They’re kind of after your son,” Marty spoke up, sword pointed at a villager who’d gotten too close. “Can we come in?”
“Our son? We don’t have a son,” the woman sniffed.
“Oh, sorry, thought you were Victor’s mother--”
“She is!” Victor cut in, eyes wide. “Mother, what are you talking about? It’s me! Victor!”
Mrs. Van Dort gave him a dirty look, flipping open the fan she held. “You don’t count,” she said coldly. “We can hardly tarnish our good name by associating with the likes of you.”
“Now, Nell, there’s no need to be so harsh about it,” William said, in what he obviously thought was a placating manner. “I’m sure Victor understands that – well, having a son whom everyone thinks is a little – off – is bad for us.”
“Then what’s he doing on our doorstep?”
Victor stood there for a moment, jaw hanging open. “I – I – I’m being chased by an angry mob!” he finally got out. “I didn’t think – how can you--”
“Victor, they nearly stopped buying from my cannery,” William said, in that same soft, gentle tone. “You have to do what’s good for business.”
“It’s bad enough you had to have that – madness on you right when we could have gotten you properly married off,” Nell added, scowling. “The Everglots won’t even look at us anymore.”
“T-that wasn’t my – please, I’m begging you,” Victor whispered, putting a hand on Nell’s arm. “If not for my sake, then that of my friends. Please, Mother. . . .”
Nell snatched her arm away. “Shelter such common riff-raff? I think not! Why, that one with the axe looks like she just got out of an asylum!” Alice turned to give Nell a glare. “And don’t go on about charity and suchlike – even if it wasn’t bad for our standing, we wouldn’t help you after what happened to Mayhew.”
“Mayhew? What happened to Mayhew?” Victor asked, confused.
“You know what happened to Mayhew! He died! Not two days after he smuggled you out of the house! Fell over dead during one of our carriage rides! We were halfway to Albion before we realized!”
Victor’s jaw dropped again. “Mayhew – Mayhew’s dead?” he whispered.
“Why are you acting all shocked? You must have seen it,” Nell snapped, gesturing with her fan.
“No, I hadn’t the slightest--” A sudden chill went through him. “You believe them, don’t you?” he said in a voice that barely qualified as a whisper. “You believe I – I--”
William shifted from foot to foot, looking uncomfortable. “Well, it is a little odd how you always seem to know when someone’s about to die,” he said.
“That’s just because I can see Death! I d-don’t actually k-k-kill people! Mother, Father--”
“Don’t call us that!” Nell said, folding up her fan and poking him with it. “Do you want everyone to get the wrong idea?”
Victor fell silent, an absolutely crushed look on his face. Alice, seeing this, furiously turned to the Van Dorts. “You – you – he told us how this happened!” she roared. “This is all your fault!”
“Nonsense,” William said, looking affronted. “All I did was choose a godfather.”
“Uh, yeah, isn’t that sort of the point?” Marty said. “You chose the worst godfather ever? Also, Alice, could really use some more help here.”
“Just give us the boy!” someone yelled. “Give us Death’s Chosen and get out of the way!”
“No, we should kill all of them! They’re all evil! They wouldn’t be with him if they weren’t!”
“Maybe they’re under a spell – let’s kill Van Dort first and see what happens.”
“Do we have to kill anyone? The old guy made a point before. . . .”
“Coward! We shall not suffer a witch to live!”
“YOU SHOULD ALL BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELVES!”
Practically everyone in the vicinity jumped – even Marty looked startled for a brief moment. Jennifer was glaring at the mob, fists clenched and eyes narrowed almost to slits. “What kind of way is this for people to act?” she continued, seething. “One poor boy gets hit with something that isn’t even his fault, and you’re all ready to kill him?! Tell me, what proof do any of you really have that he’s hurt or killed people?”
“He keeps knowing how people are going to die!” the man who had been married to Roxanne yelled. “It’s unnatural!”
“Foreseeing the future doesn’t count! Would you kill any seer who had that ability? And isn’t it obvious he’s rather tortured by this ‘gift’ of his? What if it was your child who’d been cursed like that? Would you want a angry mob of idiots on his tail, screaming for his blood?”
“He’s – he’s always been strange,” one of the women protested, though rather less forcefully than before.
“So? Is that any reason to want him dead? He’s helped a couple of you, hasn’t he? That one boy would be dead without his intervention! And before you say anything about how ‘why was that boy chosen,’ the poor fellow wasn’t in his right mind before! How could he be expected to help anyone in that state? Honestly, I dread to see how you treat other villagers who are sick or hurting. Do you throw them to the dogs as well?”
The mob was becoming a bit more subdued in the face of Jennifer’s anger. “Who are you to order us around like this?” one of the men demanded, trying to keep his rage going.
“Princess Jennifer of the old court!”
There was a collective gasp. “P-Princess?” somebody whispered, as others went white.
Jennifer’s own anger faltered from confusion. “Yes, I--”
Something clicked in her mind – the villagers obviously thought she was the daughter of the current queen. For a moment, she considered correcting them. Then she decided they weren’t worth the trouble. “Yes, I’m the princess,” she said as haughtily as possible, folding her arms. “And I happen to be a very close friend of the young man you all want to hang, burn, and bury at a crossroads. So unless you want to suffer my wrath. . .or worse, my family’s. . . .”
Everyone immediately started backing up, hastily-grabbed weapons falling to the ground. “So sorry to bother you,” the man who’d been married to Roxanne said, trying and failing to smile.
“We’ll be off,” the woman added, turning around and walking away.
“Have a nice stay,” someone else said. “G-give our best to Her Royal Majesty!”
“Of course,” Jennifer said blandly.
The rest of the mob dispersed quietly, quite a few shooting frightened looks toward Jennifer. Marty grinned at her. “Oh, that was great,” he said, putting an arm around her. “You should go into public speaking as a career.”
“Well, I did learn to yell at people from my father,” Jennifer half-joked. “I’m so glad that worked. . . .”
Nell and William were watching the group with new interest. “Princess? Victor, you’ve met a princess?” Nell said, now sounding much more accommodating. “Why didn’t you say that before? And she actually likes you?”
“Well then, Victor, maybe you’ve hooked a winner after all,” William said with a smile of fatherly pride. “Come in for some tea – we’ll have to keep this visit a secret, of course, but under the circumstances. . . .”
Victor stared at his parents for a moment. Then, without a word, he turned around and walked away, pushing his way through his friends. “Victor?” Nell called after him. “Victor, where are you – oh, go and collect him, will you?” she told the others. “Except you, Your Highness. Why don’t you come in and sit with us for a while?”
“We’re not your delivery boys,” Alice snapped back, looking like she wanted nothing more than to use her axe on the woman in front of her. “And I wouldn’t choose to spend time with you even if the alternative was having a red-hot poker shoved up my arse!”
“Yeah, I’m with her,” Marty agreed as Nell’s jaw dropped. “Come on, guys, let’s blow this stupid town.”
They turned around and walked away, ignoring Nell’s sputtering after them. “Where do you think our horses got to?” Marty asked as they caught up with Victor.
“Hopefully not too far,” Doc muttered, looking around. “Trying to buy some new ones around here is not something I want to attempt.”
“Yeah, don’t blame you.” Marty gently nudged Victor’s side. “At least you’re not dead, right bud?”
Victor didn’t make any reply, continuing to stare straight ahead. Marty tilted his head. “Victor?”
“Something wrong?” Jennifer asked, reaching out to touch his arm.
Victor blinked a few times, then swallowed. “I-I – I’m--” he started, voice cracking.
The group slowed to a stop. “Victor?” Alice said softly.
That seemed to be the breaking point. All of a sudden, Victor burst into tears, burying his face in his hands. “I’m – I’m sorry,” he choked out. “I just – I never thought – my own parents--”
Alice wrapped her arms around him. “Shh,” she whispered, pressing her cheek against his arm. “It’s all right.”
“No, it’s not,” Victor said, looking up a little. “They’re not supposed to be like that. They’re supposed to – They probably would have turned me over to the mob the first time. They don’t actually care about me, only what I can do for them. The instant I become an embarrassment, a liability. . . .” He sniffled. “They hate me. My own parents hate me.”
“I’m – I’m sure they don’t hate you,” Jennifer said awkwardly.
“Not for the moments they realized I knew a princess, no,” Victor replied, anger clear in his voice. “But before, and afterward – they don’t care about me at all! They believed the townspeople, and they knew the truth! How could I--” He ducked his head again, tears streaming down his face. “They care more about the fish than they do me.”
Nobody could think of something to say to that. So they remained silent, letting Victor cry out his feelings. Finally, he got a grip on himself. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, wiping his red eyes. “I shouldn’t have made such a scene.”
“Trust me, Victor, it’s fine,” Doc said, patting him on the shoulder.
“Yeah, you can’t help your parents being assholes,” Marty agreed, offering Victor his handkerchief.
“No, no, he’s right,” Victor said, taking the cloth and wiping his face properly. “I think I should have seen this coming – on M-Mo-on Nell’s side, anyway. She never approved of anything I did, growing up. And I’ve overheard her saying that she wanted a girl. She was probably elated to get rid of her clumsy, shy, mad son. It’s Fath – it’s William I’m more surprised by. He was always a bit absent, and prone to going along with M-Nell just to keep her quiet, but I never expected. . . .” He sighed deeply. “I always did have a better relationship with Mayhew. Oh, poor man. . .I told him to give up those dreadful pipes. . . .” Alice squeezed him understandingly.
Jennifer patted his back. “I’m so sorry for you.”
“Nobody’s life should be this bad, yeah,” Marty agreed. “Want to blow this popsicle stand once and for all?”
Victor nodded firmly. “Yes. If I ever seen any of these people again, it’ll be too soon,” he said, voice unnaturally cold. “Especially the Van Dorts. Let’s find our horses and be on our way.”
Fortunately, the horses hadn’t run far – the group found them wandering a side street, looking very lost. They calmed their steeds, mounted them, and rode away, not looking back.
And thus, not seeing the figure watching them with a rather determined expression on her face.
It was coming up on lunch time the next day when Alice stopped her horse. “All right, that does it,” she announced, dismounting and turning around.
“That does what?” Jennifer asked, frowning back at her.
“Someone or something has been following us since shortly after we left,” Alice replied, getting out her blade. “I thought it might be a wild animal trailing us for scraps at first, but now I’m thinking it’s something more intelligent.”
“Think you’ll need my sword?” Marty offered casually.
“Depends on what it is.” Alice raised her knife a little, letting the sunlight glint off the blade. “Whoever you are, I would recommend you show yourself and reveal you’re not a threat!” she called into the nearby woods. “I’m a fair hand with this knife, and with my axe! Not to mention I own a very powerful blunderbuss!”
There was a moment of silence. Then some nearby bushes rustled, and out of them emerged a rather disheveled-looking young woman, wrapped in the remains of a quilt and carrying a fireplace poker. She blushed at the group. “Hello.”
“Hi,” Marty said, dismounting. “Who are–”
Victor slid off his horse as well, staring in shock. “What are you doing here?” he asked, looking her up and down.
“Following you,” Victoria said, not quite meeting his eyes. “I-I was going to a-ask if I could join you. I was just rather nervous about it, thinking you’d refuse.”
Alice looked between them, an unreadable expression on her face. “You two know each other?”
“This is the Everglots’ daughter,” Victor explained. “The girl I cured the other day.” Looking back at Victoria, he added, in somewhat colder tones, “I thought you’d want to stay far away from me. I’m the evil madman, after all.”
“Please, Vic – er, Master Van Dort,” Victoria hastily corrected herself, “I’m not like the others. I never really believed in those rumors – you never seemed the evil type. And after you cured my sickness so quickly the other day. . . .”
Victor softened a little. “I’m sorry, Vic – Miss Everglot,” he said. “We just had a rather hard time of it there yesterday.”
“I heard about that,” Victoria nodded. “I’m sorry for you. All of you. Mobs are ugly things.”
“You don’t have to say that twice,” Doc muttered. “So why are you following us? It can’t be merely to say thank you.”
“Yeah, won’t your parents be missing you?” Marty asked, frowning.
“To do the chores, maybe,” Victoria said, bitterness clear in her voice. “After I was unable to procure a proper husband, they sent me down to the servant quarters. This may be terrible to say, but I’ve had it with them. I have to get away. And – and you’re the only people I even barely know.” She fiddled with her torn quilt. “I watched you leave, took note of your direction, gathered a few things, and set off after you. I don’t mean to make trouble for you, I really don’t, but – please, could I stay with you? Just until we reach another town, at least?”
The five looked at each other. “Can you defend yourself?” Alice asked, folding her arms.
“I have the poker,” Victoria offered, hefting it. “It’s very sharp at one end.”
“You can’t judge her for that, Alice,” Marty pointed out. “Victor’s got a fork. Fireplace poker is better than that.”
“True.” Alice looked her over. “What do you have for supplies?”
Victoria produced a small bag. “A few cakes, some money, and a spare dress,” she said, opening it up. “I – I can cook a little, if you need someone to do that.”
“No, we’re fine on that front,” Doc said. “I think we can keep you on until Morteburg, at least. I doubt you want to follow us to our end destination.”
“We’re going to kill the Queen of Hearts,” Marty said cheerfully.
“Marty’s attempting to learn fear,” Victor explained. “He thinks killing the Queen is the only real way for him to learn.”
“Nothing else has worked,” Marty defended himself. “Even facing down that mob yesterday didn’t give me a shudder.”
“We’re trying to go about it properly, inciting a real rebellion, but it’s hard, slow work,” Doc added.
“I would imagine,” Victoria agreed, looking slightly stunned. Her eyes turned to Jennifer. “But – I thought--”
“Lies,” Jennifer said succinctly. “My parents were a king and a queen, but they’re long dead by this point. But who am I correct an angry mob?”
“Oh, I see. Still, going up against the Queen of Hearts. . . .”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get her,” Marty promised her, smiling again. “Then everybody here will be able to live in peace. Or, at least, without the threat of demons and other nasty things killing them.”
“Well, I – I do wish you all the best with that. But you’re right, I think I would prefer to stop at Morteburg.”
Doc laughed. “Just like everyone else we’ve temporarily hosted – to the next town, then we’re through,” he joked. “All right, welcome to the party for now. I’m afraid you’ll have to share a horse.”
“I suppose you can ride with me,” Victor offered, looking a bit shy. “I am the only one of the party you know.”
“That’s very gracious of you, Master Van Dort,” Victoria said with a little curtsy. “Thank you.”
Victor nodded, then frowned. “Actually – if you want to call me Victor, that’s a-all right with me,” he said suddenly. “I’m n-not very fond of my last name at the moment.”
Victoria nodded understandingly. “I’m sure. I’m not that fond of my own, really, so you may call me Victoria in return.”
“Nice to meet you, Victoria,” Jennifer said with a friendly grin. “I’m Jennifer, and this is Marty, Dr. Brown – Doc, for short – and Alice.”
“Pleasure,” Marty said with a little wave.
“Nice to make your acquaintance,” Doc nodded.
Alice hesitated for a moment. “It’s good to meet you,” she said quietly, that unreadable expression still in place. “I’m – I’m sorry for threatening you before.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’m sure you’ve had a dangerous journey,” Victoria assured her with a smile. “You could hardly know I was friendly.”
“Yeah,” Marty agreed. “Alice is kind of the bodyguard of the group. Don’t worry, though, she won’t sink her axe into you without a good reason.”
“You’ll be safe with us,” Victor agreed.
Victoria smiled a little brighter. “Thank you.” She giggled, a bit nervously. “Goodness, but it is odd meeting you again under these circumstances. I expected – oh, I don’t know what I expected.”
“Us to meet at the altar?” Victor suggested.
“I don’t think our parents would have delayed that long. We would have had to go through the rehearsal together, at any rate.”
“Oh, yes.” Victor pulled at his tie and fidgeted. “I’m s-sorry about my – illness. I never thought--”
“It’s not your fault,” Victoria assured him. “You can’t help your – er – condition. We didn’t even know each other at that point. I think we should leave what our parents planned in the past and start completely fresh.”
Victor smiled. “I’d like that.”
“We’d better get moving,” Alice said abruptly, turning and getting back on her horse. “We don’t want to lose too much daylight. Miss Everglot, if you would?”
“Oh, you can call me Victoria too,” Victoria told her as Victor helped her up onto his horse. “I certainly don’t mind.”
Alice looked at her for a long moment as Victor climbed on behind her. The two frowned, feeling uneasy. “Alice, is something wrong?” Victor asked, concerned.
Alice shook her head rapidly. “No, I’m fine. I’m sorry.” She smiled rather weakly at Victoria. “I hope you like bread, as we eat a lot of it.”
“Anything’s fine,” Victoria assured her. “Come, I don’t want to delay you. Let’s be off to Morteburg.” Jokingly, she added, “I’m sure you all can’t wait to be rid of me.”
As they rode off, Alice muttered in a voice softer than a whisper, “I didn’t think I was that obvious. . . .”