A silly one for this week. This is a short story I wrote for a competition a few months ago. I had to include fairy tale (genre), a video game and a house painter.
Phil can just make out the top of the wall through the wispy clouds that slide like ghosts over the cold, damp stones. He sighs and lets the bucket drop from his hands. It clanks against the cobblestones, tipping over and spilling his paintbrushes into the dirt.
“Clutz,” a small, high-pitched voice mumbles. The other two squirrels snigger.
Phil kicks at them and growls, scattering the obnoxious creatures in a flurry of squeaks and flamboyant tails. The steady cadence of an approaching horse grows louder and Phil turns to see the King’s squire clinging to an enormous, dappled Clydesdale. Phil rolls his eyes—pompous ass. The squire pulls on the horse’s reins and turns the animal up alongside Phil and the newly regrouped squirrels. The horse, or Ralph as he used to be known, narrows his eyes and glares at Phil, steam streaking from his large, pink nostrils.
Phil tips his hat and nods to the horse. “Ralph.”
Prompted by an irritated cough, Phil looks up to meet the squire’s eyes, “Nice hat. Prey, what glorious shade of grey are my trusty companions and I to paint His Majesty’s wall today?” The squirrels chuckle.
The squire purses his lips and pulls out a scroll from his saddle-bag. Ralph doesn’t take his eyes off Phil.
“What?” he says to the horse, arms out in an innocent gesture. “Don’t pretend you didn’t enjoy it.”
The horse snorts and digs at the ground with its front leg.
Phil points at the horse. “Hey! Harden up. That princess thing was your idea. You might have that monkey on your back, but spare a thought for me. I have this sodding great wall and these little freaks.”
“Really?” The fat squirrel protests. “That’s harsh Phil. Really harsh. You need us little freaks to get to the top of that wall or it’s caput for you.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Phil waves his hand at the squirrel without turning around. “So? What’s the colour?”
The squire scans the scroll mumbling various royal decrees under his breath.
“Aah!” he says eventually. “Here it is. His Royal Highness Alfred the Magnificent, fourth of his name, Lord of the—”
“Cut the crap, what’s the colour.”
The squire coughs and squirms in the saddle. “Shale grey.”
“Shale grey?” Phil takes a step towards the squire, hands up in supplication. “Shale grey? Are you joking? Are you making fun of me?”
The squire turns pale. He grips the reigns with one hand and lifts his chin. “That’s what it says.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong here, but didn’t we paint this wall shale grey the day before yesterday?”
The squire purses his lips and nods, his eyes darting to the squirrels who stand behind Phil with their tiny arms folded across their chests. “Indeed, and in his infinite wisdom His Majesty realised his error in changing the colour to, to,” he stammers and fumbles with the scroll. “To slate grey yesterday and would now like it returned to its former glory.” He stuffs the scroll, still unravelled, back in the saddle bag and encourages Ralph to make a quick withdrawal.
Phil pinches the bridge of his nose and, without opening his eyes, tells the squirrels to get the paint ready. They scurry around his feet, picking up the fallen bucket and carefully dusting off the paintbrushes. When Phil opens his eyes the three squirrels stand around the bucket, their clawed hands clasped together to form a circle. They sway, slowly at first, then building to a frenzy, like trees in a winter storm thrashing against the wind. Slowly, with a tingle of a bell-tree ringing in the distance, the bucket fills with the drab, grey paint that is at the heart of today’s punishment.
Phil grunts as he pulls himself up on another handhold. Don’t look down. The fat squirrel squeaks as Phil catches the tip of its tail in his grip.
“Watch it!” The squirrel glares at Phil, using two hands to wrench its tail free.
Phil can only muster an inarticulate, humf, as an apology.
The other two squirrels run back and forward along the top of the wall. Phil is too tired to parse their rapid chatter. He pauses for a moment, taking a deep breath and wills himself to make the final climb.
“I see them! I seem them!” The two squirrels on the top of the wall jump up and down, pointing into the courtyard on the other side of the wall. “There’s a new one!”
The fat squirrel scrambles to the top of the wall. “A new one? Let me see.” He nudges past one of the smaller squirrels. It elbows him back.
“Hey! Don’t push me!”
“You pushed me!”
The fat squirrel stands taller, trying to menace his smaller workmate, but the short squirrel puffs out his chest, squares up and pushes the fat one with two tiny hands. The fat squirrel scrambles to save himself from falling. His arms circle in the air, grabbing at nothing as his momentum slowly pushes him beyond the tipping point. The fat squirrel whooshes past Phil’s head on his way to the ground but he doesn’t try to catch the furry lump. The rush of air passing is disturbing, but what sticks with Phil is the crunching, splattering sound of the fat squirrel’s explosion as it impacts the ground. Above, the two other squirrels giggle, assessing the radius of the spray of flesh and blood between tiny claws. They turn their backs and go back to watching the courtyard.
Phil pulls himself up another rung and reaches out with his paintbrush. Almost there. The air to his left shimmers as he sloshes the last of the grey paint onto a protruding piece of stone. Something appears, flickering in and out of existence for a few seconds then materialised on the wet stone. He’s used to the little tune that accompanies these reincarnations now. It jingles and hangs in the air for a few seconds before fading out, leaving him with the usual background noise of flutes, bell-trees and pig-skin drums.
“Guys!” The fat squirrel complains. He peeks over his shoulder and shudders at the sight of the mess on the gourd below then scurries back up the wall to join the others. “That wasn’t very nice.” The other two squirrels laugh and slap each other on the back.
When Phil reaches the top, the squirrels point out the new addition in the courtyard.
“Pretty,” Phil said through heavy breaths. She is tall, with long, plaited blond hair. Does he know her?
“Obviously.” The smallest squirrel rolls its eyes. “Wonder where she came from?”
Phil smirks, “A tall tower, deep in the forest.” Phil sits with his legs hanging down over the edge of the wall and stretches his arm across his chest. He still had to get down when the paint dries.
“I think,” the fat squirrel says, “that she’s Princess Ranielle.”
“Really?” Phil squints, trying to bring the golden-haired woman into focus. “But Antross’s army is four-times the size of the King’s. Surely he isn’t that stupid.”
“He wants the set,” the fat squirrel says.
Phil nods. There couldn’t be many Princesses left in the known kingdoms that the King had not ‘acquired’.
“What does he do with them all?” Phil says.
“I heard he makes them sew his clothes.”
The fat squirrel shakes his head. “I heard he makes them cook for him.”
“No, no, no. I heard,” the smallest of the squirrels pauses for dramatic effect, “that he keeps them in the banquet hall, sitting in chairs along the walls and just walks around looking at them. Like dolls in a museum. Creeeepy.”
“What I want to know is, how does he feed them all?”
Phil snorts and does a quick head count. Twenty-three. That’s a lot of precious, spoiled mouths to feed.
“Where do they sleep, do you think?” The fat squirrel asks. “Are they in one big room? Or locked up in cells at night? Look at that one, she’s still at it.” He points out an emaciated girl lurking in the shadowy corner of the courtyard. She’s fidgeting with something but Phil can’t make out.
“She’s been here for as long as we’ve been painting. So that’s at least—what?” his tiny clawed hands try to count. “How long have we been painting this wall?” They look at each other in shock.
Phil thinks for a minute, then shakes his head. “I can’t remember. I know we’ve painted it shale grey at least fifty times. Maybe more. Then there was steel grey, shark grey, cloud grey, natural stone, burnt stone, mood storm, ocean nights…” He trails off. “Holy shit. How long have we been here?”
A horn signals the end of exercise time in the courtyard. The Princesses form a line and let themselves be ushered back into the castle. The guards push the stragglers with pikes and, occasionally, boots. Phil stands, his legs wobbling, and contemplates the climb back down the wall. The squirrels collect the buckets and brushes and race down ahead of him. How many times had he painted this wall? Worse, how many more times would he paint it? The details of his life before the wall are vague. He knows that he’s being punished for cosying up to the King’s daughter, but he can’t remember the actual event itself, just the belief that it had happened.
He looks down into the empty courtyard. What would happen if he didn’t climb down the wall? What would happen if he followed the top of the wall around the courtyard to the small wooden door on the opposite corner? The squirrels, now at the bottom, rile each other up, pushing and shoving as they head down the cobbled road away from the castle, their incessant chatter soon inaudible beneath the jingle of the relentless ambient music.
Phil walks half bent across the top of the wall, waiting for one of the guards to call out and stop him. As he rounds the corner he thinks he hears wailing coming from below, but when he stops he hears only the lilting, hollow whisper of a flute. From this side of the castle he can see across the valley to the snow-capped mountain ranges of the next Kingdom and the geometric shapes of the hedges in the King’s private garden immediately below. Something stirs in him at the sight of that garden. He remembers walking through that intricate maze to tend the rose bushes with their vibrant reds, pinks and lavenders. He scoffs. As if he has ever been in the King’s private garden.
He slinks along the wall. When he reaches the wooden door, he closes his eyes and turned the handle slowly. It clicks open and the muted sound of women crying drifts through the door. He pulls it shut. Silence. Ready this time, he opens it slowly and steps onto the landing at the top of a wide stone staircase. His feet leave prints in the thick layer of dust on the flagstone. It reminds him of the moon landing. One small step, he thinks, then freezes. What?
He descends the stairs into a large, stinking dormitory filled with the stolen Princesses. They sit, some in small clusters, some alone. Several women lay curled up against the damp wall, their eyes fixed on some distant place. Bloody hell, how long have they been here? Large, ornately decorated silver doors dominate the wall on the opposite side of the room, but they aren’t the doors that lead to the courtyard, or the bolted, heavy wooden doors that presumably lead into the rest of the castle. If Phil is right, the silver doors lead to nothing at all. Just the blank wall above the castle’s deep moat. He frowns, contemplating the pattern of silver spirals and light spatters that cover the two massive doors. It moves. Twisting on itself and making Phil’s eyes water.
“They don’t open.”
Phil jumps. A thin, ghostly woman materialises next to him and stares at the doors with impossibly huge, dark eyes. He recognises her as the thin, isolated woman from the courtyard. She is even more bizarre up-close with large, dark eyes that are impossibly round. Inside her almost black irises are perfect, symmetrical white highlights, as though someone has drawn her forth from their imagination. Her lips are small, heart-shaped, and deep crimson though she isn’t wearing any make-up, and her head seems somehow too big for the slight, pale body it is perched upon. She has something in her hand. It is rectangular and black and its smooth surface glints between her fingers, reflecting the torchlight.
“Good grief woman! You scared the life out of me. What are they?” Phil points to the coiling, intertwining patterns on the silver doors. “Why do they move like that?”
She shakes her head and pouts. “We’ve all tried to open them but nothing happens.” She tilts her head to one side, as though considering Phil, then blinks with torpid lids. “Can you open them?”
He studies the doors. The movement across their surface is erratic. There is no sense to the patterns it makes and he can’t see a handle or latch. The woman presses the small black rectangle into his hand. The top surface of the object is dotted with brightly coloured buttons. A red button, painted with a small circle partially intersected by a white line catches his eye. He has seen one of these things before. He has used one before. But where? He smirks, Abbey hates it when he wastes the afternoon watching fishing shows. In a moment of clarity, he knows what to do. He points the box at the door and presses the red button with his right thumb.
“What do you mean he’s awake?” Phil hears a woman’s voice. Her tone is sharp and angry, and even though she must be close by, he can’t see her. His view is dominated by a white ceiling, with ornate cornice-work and a ceiling rose framing an elaborate chandelier.
“He just woke up,” a man’s voice pleads. “I swear Your Majesty, we didn’t do anything. He must have… he must have solved the game.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Something clatters near Phil’s right ear. He tries to turn to look but his head doesn’t budge.
“It’s the only explanation,” the man says. It’s a familiar voice. Ralph? No, Ralph hasn’t been able to speak since the had King him turned into a horse. One of the squirrels? And the woman, who is she? Your Majesty. The voice doesn’t sound like the Princess.
“Are you trying to tell me, and consider your answer carefully, that my husband completed a quest that required him to be brave, selfless and valiant. My husband?”
The man coughs. “It would appear, Ma’am, that he did save all twenty-three damsels in distress.”
“Then bloody well put him back in it again. I have an official dinner tonight and I can’t have him cocking it up. Saved them? Or impregnated them? What was he this time?… A house painter? Make him,” the woman pauses. Who is she? Your Majesty? Oh, bloody hell. Abigail. His wife. Queen Abigail no less. “Make him a court jester or something.”
A man’s face looms over Phil. He frowns as looks into Phil eyes.
“Sorry about this Your Highness,” the man says. Arthur, that is his name. “It’s her Majesty’s orders. See you next time.”
“Ow!” A fat squirrel bites his leg then runs off laughing. Phil sighs and picks up his sack, setting the bells on his hat jingling. What ever made him think being a jester was any way to make a living?
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