The Blue Magic Stew

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Blue Magic Stew Storm SkyTurtle kept her mouth clamped as the carriage she had been thrown into hit another bump.  She had already bitten her tongue twice.  She was certain she would have bruises on her legs, from knocking against something each time the carriage turned right.  Her hands and feet were tightly bound, as was the sack into which she’d been stuffed.  Her head and hands were on the bottom end of the sack.  She had only managed to bring her hands up to cover her head.

Thus far, she had managed not to cry, and she took solace and courage from that thought.  But as the carriage hitched up again, so came a hitch in her chest.  She wanted to be a warrior someday.  But this day, she was just a little girl…

***

Turtle took solace in one other thought.  She had a friend who would be looking for her when she did not return.  A friend who was gentle and kind under most circumstances, but who would be angry with anyone who hurt her.  A friend who happened to be as tall as a cornstalk and as wide across the shoulders as three or four big men put together.  For Turtle’s friend was a giant.

At a run, he could probably overtake the carriage.  Turtle had tried at first to keep track of the time, trying to figure how long it would take before the giant, Cob, began to worry over her.  Then how much longer before he decided to search for her.  She wondered if anyone in the marketplace had seen her being taken.  She thought of her mother and father, who had surprised her by letting her stay with Cob up in a mountain so many months ago.  She suspected they did so because they thought the giant could protect her, as he had once protected her entire village from an attack by raiders.  She was grateful that they didn’t know the danger she was in now.  They would never know, not if Cob found her.

Turtle soon became so tired that she began to drowse.  For a long while, each bump and jostle would wake her.  But soon, she was so sleepy that she drifted off.  It was the sound of rain that woke her next.

She was still in the carriage.  She began to shiver, for the sack in which she lay and the light trousers and shirt and cloak she wore were too thin to keep out the cold.  The carriage traveled slowly now and on the smoothest road that Turtle had ever felt.  She couldn’t even hear the turning of the wheels.  A gray cold light seeped through the sack.

She tried to sit up to relieve her cramped and frozen limbs.  The carriage came to a stop.  And the door to the back opened.  Turtle felt herself being dragged toward it.  The bindings of the sack abruptly came loose, as did the bindings on her feet.  Turtle stuck her legs out of the sack.  A pair of strong hands grasped her arms and lifted her up and down to the ground.  As she steadied herself, the sack was lifted up and she saw her captor for the first time.

From the bones of his cheeks to the point of his nose to the slant of his brows, his face was made of angles.  His hair was black save a streak of grey at each temple.  His robes were of a dark velvet and black fur from some animal she could not recognize.  His rich dress, confident stride, and upturned face spoke of nobility.  She did not see his eyes, for he did not look upon her.  He only pulled her along, and Turtle was too tired and bruised to struggle.  She glanced around as much as she could.  But there was a thick fog draped over the ground, a fog that reached to her knees.  She saw only the vague shapes of trees.  And when she glanced back, she saw the wagon.  It was white and gold, and she was shocked  to see that it floated just above the ground.

Her captor pulled her toward a short and shabby wooden tower.  They walked up a flight of winding stairs.  At about the middle of the tower, he stopped and opened a wooden door that seemed to be splintering away as if abused by wood-mites.  It was brighter on the stair than in the chamber, for the stair was lit by many torches.

So Turtle could not see what lay in the chamber as her captor tossed her inside.

***

Turtle crashed against a pile.  She opened her eyes and saw a golden goblet spill over her shoulder, followed by coins and spoons and forks, all of gold.  She pushed herself off the pile and stumbled a bit until she could stand.  Her hands were still bound, so she glanced about for anything sharp that she might use to cut through the rope.  And she gaped.

Her eyes had adjusted to the dimmer light.  It was not a large chamber.  She could run its distance in twenty strides.  But it was strewn with treasures.  Piles of gold wrought into shapes of coins and rings and platters and more were scattered amongst piles of precious stones, some set into jewelry, some lying bare on the ground.  There was a chest filled with what appeared to be eggs of different sizes, decorated with gold, copper, and silver, and crusted with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds.  Some eggs were painted with scenes as if they were canvases.  There were instruments in the chamber.  Some, like the lyres, pianos, and drums, Turtle recognized.  Some she did not, like the spoon shaped instrument with six strings.

She had expected a prison cell bare of all but stone and cobweb.  She wondered if her captor had made a mistake.

And then she hoped he had.  For if this was his treasure room, perhaps there was a way out.  After all, treasure did not move.  The aim of the chamber would be to keep people out, not to keep them in.

Turtle noticed a window.  It was high, but she could reach it if she arranged a few golden chairs just right and climbed atop them.  The window was made of glass.  Gray light streamed through.  She could see there were no bars on either side.

She found a pile of glittering golden weapons.  She cut off her bindings on the sharp edge of an axe and searched until she found a hammer small enough for her to wield.  Then she arranged the chairs and climbed atop them.  As she climbed, she heard a noise in the chamber.  Her heart began to hammer.  She had sensed no other person or creature in the room.  But she certainly heard a shuffling now.

Turtle climbed more quickly.  She reached the window and drew back the hammer.  As she banged the hammer onto the window’s glass, she though she heard a cry from below.

She felt a flash of heat and pain.

Turtle screamed and dropped the hammer.  The tower of chairs teetered and she sucked in a breath and scrambled down to the ground, her left hand throbbing.  She looked at the hand and the flesh was burned away.  The hammer was melted where it had struck the unbroken window.

She looked up and gasped.

There was indeed someone in the chamber with her.  A woman sat on her knees few strides away, reaching out toward Turtle.  She was straining and Turtle saw why.  A gold chain was looped about her throat and one end was attached to the opposite wall.  It restrained her from coming any closer.

“It will heal,” the woman said.  “It was only meant as a warning.”

And as she spoke, Turtle looked down at her hand and could see that it was indeed healing.  The pain was already fading, replaced by a terrible itching.  Turtle thought it best to stick her hand in her opposite armpit to keep from reopening the wounds by scratching at them.

Turtle looked up warily just as the woman was rising.  She was beautiful.  The most beautiful woman that Turtle had ever seen.  She had buttery yellow tresses that seemed as light and soft as silken thread.  She wore a dress of satiny gold.  Her eyes were a silvery-blue like the waters of an enchanted sea.  And there was kindness in them.

Turtle found herself curtsying and offering the woman both her given name and her preferred name.  Turtle, the warrior, she said she was.

The woman turned away, knelt to the ground, and lifted up a small harp, well-worn and made of some kind of silvery-white wood.  She too offered her given name, Yrennive, a name that sounded like the name of a noble lady.  Turtle began to call her the Lady Gold in her mind.  But then, the lady too gave her preferred name and trade.

“Renny, the harper,” she said with a curtsy far more graceful than the one Turtle had managed.  And she smiled a radiant smile.

Turtle gawked at her.  “You’re so beautiful.  The most beautiful person I’ve ever seen.”

The lady dropped her gaze and even in the dim light, Turtle saw a flush of rose on the lady’s cheeks.

“Thank you,” the Lady Gold said.  Then she looked up and fixed Turtle with a mischievous gaze.  “And you are the cleverest person I’ve ever known.”  Her gaze flicked to the pile of fallen chairs below the window.  “Or perhaps the most reckless.”

Turtle laughed. “That wasn’t clever.  That was just obvious.”  And she realized that perhaps she too should have just said “thank you.”

The Lady Gold, Renny, lifted the harp up and propped it on her right shoulder.  “Tell me, what is your favorite song?”

Turtle pulled her left hand out from her armpit.  It was stiff now, but it neither hurt nor itched.  She tried flexing her fingers as she thought upon the lady’s question.

Turtle asked for a warrior’s song. The Lady began to play the rickety old harp made of flaking wood and strings that look like they might snap at any minute.  And yet, the music she played was heroic.  Turtle had doubted a warrior’s song could be played on the harp.  Such songs were for drums.  And the booming deep voices of warriors.  Better still, the lady changed the words of the song, making up a story about a clever and agile young girl who grows up to be a warrior.  The girl fights but never kills, and spends her time encouraging children to sing and play and read scrolls.

The song made Turtle swell with both pride and laughter.

“Thank you,” Turtle said when the song was finished.

The lady inclined her head.  But then she set her harp down and stepped toward Turtle.

“Do you know who has captured you and why and what this chamber is?”

Turtle shook her head.  And the lady spun another tale, but this one was no song.

***

Their captor was a warlock.  He called himself Dorian, though the Lady Gold doubted that was his true name, given or otherwise.  It was a disguise, much like the face he had worn when he captured Turtle.

“You will see his true face the next time he visits,” the lady warned.

The chamber was indeed a treasure chamber.  And they two were indeed the only living creatures within.  Even rats and spiders and other such creatures could not enter the chamber.  And nothing could leave it.

With no vanity or pride but only cold truth, the Lady Gold said that she herself was the warlock’s prized possession.  Her leash of fine golden twine was enchanted so she was doubly trapped, so fearful was he of losing her.

“He is vain and he covets what you call my beauty.  And my vigor and youth.  He is brewing a potion so that he may steal those things from me.  He has tested his brew a few times already.  It works, but the effects are temporary.  Always he returns to being what he is and I return to being what I am.”  The lady sighed and lowered herself to the ground onto a pallet of golden cushions and cloaks.  She sat against the wall and Turtle sat down beside her.

“A few months back,” the lady said.  “He began to notice a little girl coming into town with more gold than her tattered clothes and dirt-smudged fingers could account for.  He took notice of her, watched her, even told me of her.  ‘You will have a companion soon,’ he said.”

Turtle frowned.  “Poor warlock.  How frustrated he must be that I had no bags of gold for him to add to his treasure chamber.”

“He knows, Turtle.”  The lady plucked at her dress.  “He loves gold best.  And he knows the secret of your gold.  He knows of your goose.  The goose that lays eggs of pure and solid gold.”

Turtle stiffened.

“Where did you come by such a creature?” the lady asked.

Suddenly, Turtle rose from her place by the lady’s side.  She became suspicious.  Why were there only two people in the chamber?  She believed it was indeed a warlock who held her.  But what if the lady was some trick of his?  Some way to trick Turtle into telling the secrets she would otherwise never tell.

The lady looked at her in surprise at first, but she seemed to understand.

“Keep your secrets, turtledove.”  She reached for her harp.  “I have secrets too, come to think of it.  And you might be some trick he has sent in here to pry them from me.”

For the rest of the day, the lady plucked gently on her harp while Turtle searched the chamber for some way out.  She did not believe that creatures adept at finding their ways through any crack or crevice had not found their way into the chamber.  There had to be a tiny spider somewhere, an ant or two.  She found nothing.  Soon, tired from her searching and soothed by the music, Turtle went to sleep, out of the Lady Gold’s reach.

So passed the next day.  And the next.  The two living inhabitants of the treasure chamber said little to each other but “good morning” and “good night.”

***

On the fifth day in the cell, as both reached for their breakfast porridge, left sometime in the night, the lady spoke.

“We cannot go on like this.  I say I am no ruse of the warlock’s and neither are you.  It is the only way I can hope to do something of use before I perish only to feed a warlock’s vanity.”

Turtle chewed on her porridge and listened.

“The next time he comes to the chamber to test his brew, we must have some plan prepared so that you might escape.”

Turtle swallowed. “What of you?”

The lady sighed.  “He is closer to getting what he wants from me than from you.  This warlock is patient.  He has been working on the potion to steal my vigor for almost a year, if my count is not mistaken.”

Turtle started.  She had not thought to ask the lady how long she had been imprisoned.

“Why has no one found you?  Surely your kin or your friends have come searching for you.”

The lady nodded her head.  “I have some kin, but they could not brave the danger.  There is one friend who could.  And he did come for me, but he failed to free me.”

Turtle’s eyes widened and she thought of Cob, who till that moment, she had hoped was coming closer and closer.  She had pictured herself finding a way to weaken the warlock before her friend came barging in to rescue her…and the lady if the lady was truly just a lady.

“What…what happened to him?” Turtle asked.

The lady looked dismayed and Turtle’s heart sank.  But then the lady looked up and smiled.  “Do you hear that rooster who sings to us each morn an hour before sunrise?”

Turtle heard it all right, though “singing” is not what she would call the racket the beast made.

“The warlock did that to him, after stealing his youth and vigor.”  The lady smiled again that smile of mischief.  “He was shouting curses at the warlock even as his life was being drained from him.  The warlock told him that his ‘crowing’ was bothersome and transformed him.”

Turtle frowned.  It seemed too merciful a deed for the warlock to let the rooster live.  “Why did he…?  Why didn’t the warlock…?”

“Kill him?”  The lady pointed her finger up.  “Ah, but he would have if he could have and still kept the treasures he stole.  But it seems that when youth and beauty and vigor are taken from someone, that someone must not die or their gifts die with them.  It is a part of the spell that the warlock seeks to change.  The gifts will fade in time anyway, and he will have to seek another.  Stealing my friend’s gifts has given the warlock more time to figure out how to steal mine for good.  I fear he is trying to change the potion so that it transfers my very essence to him, leaving me dead, but him alive and well and owning the gifts that once were mine.  He does not understand.  Such gifts were not meant to be kept forever.  But my essence, my spirit, that is meant to be forever.  And I pray and hope that he does not take it from me.”

Turtle almost told the lady about Cob then, but she bit her tongue.  She would tell the lady in good time…when she trusted her more.

So that day they spoke and amidst amusing stories or songs and tales of their lives, they tried to plan some way to trick the warlock or distract him so that Turtle might escape the chamber.  If Turtle could find her way outside without the warlock knowing for a time, she could steal his enchanted carriage.  Turtle could direct it to fly back to familiar lands.

Despite the lady’s urging not to try, Turtle tried to dislodge the golden chain from the wall with axes and hammers, so the lady could escape with her.  When she was satisfied that she could not, Turtle swore she would return with help and free the lady.  The lady would have none of it and forbade Turtle from ever trying to find the place again.  But when Turtle pointed out that the warlock would come looking for his lost treasure, the lady realized that Turtle was right.  And they began to wonder if there was some way for them to defeat him, so they both could truly escape him.

They did not get far into their discussion before they tired that night.  And they did not get far in their discussion the next day before the warlock appeared.

***

He said no word and cast no glance toward Turtle.  But he looked vastly different from the man who had brought her to the tower, save for the sable robes.  This man had sickly and sallow skin.  He had no wrinkles, but he seemed old, so old his skin was thin and papery and stretched taut.  And he stooped a bit and his hands shook a bit.  And his hair was thin and gray and straggly.

He had brought two vials with him.  They looked the same, both small and thin, and filled with a clear liquid.  He offered one to the lady and she drank.  The warlock drank the other one.  All the while, Turtle, feigning curiosity had stepped closer and closer.  The warlock had left the chamber door open.  It might be enchanted, and it might burn her, but Turtle had to try.  She slipped past him, trying to catch the lady’s eye as she did.  But the Lady Gold, Renny, the harper, did not see Turtle.

Turtle took great pains not to launch herself down the stairs.  That would have been noisy and would have alerted the warlock.  She took each step as carefully as she could, glancing back every now and then.  She reached the bottom, then dashed to the door of the tower.  She opened it slowly.

She was halfway down the path to the carriage before something snagged her collar and dragged her backward.  She struggled and kicked and tried to bite, but an arm gripped her tight and lifted her up and pinned her arms and legs so she could not struggle.  And she gave up, for this attempt was failed.  She looked up at the warlock and gaped.

He was transformed, if indeed this was the same man who had captured her, the same man who had just been in the treasure chamber.  He was young now, and as beautiful as the Lady Gold.  Only he was not golden, but darkly beautiful.  Raven hair, black eyes, and the night-black cloak.  Only his complexion remained pale, but it was a beautiful pale, like snowy marble.  Translucent and pure.  Free of a single blemish.  He looked down at her and smiled, and she was stunned.

He tossed her into the chamber and the first thing Turtle did was look for the harper, so she might apologize for failing to escape.

She found the golden dress and the golden chain.  But what lay within was not the Lady Gold.  She was a heap against the wall, grey-skinned and droopy.  The lady’s hair was straggly stone grey.  Her arms and legs were as spindly husks.  Her hollow chest made the barest of movements.  Turtle crawled toward her.  She understood what had happened.

The lady turned her head toward Turtle.

“He took your youth, your beauty, your life,” Turtle said.  She reached out but feared to touch the lady’s fragile-looking limbs.

“Let him…have them,” the lady said, her breathing labored, her voice dry and husky.  She reached for her harp, and Turtle helped her place it on her chest, fearful the small instrument might now be too heavy.  The lady took a hitching breath.  “They are not me.”

***

Turtle scoured the chamber for more golden cushions and golden drapes and anything else soft enough to make a more comfortable pallet for the lady, for Renny.  She feared for Renny’s life, for the harper was too weak to keep her eyes open for long and when Turtle moved her limbs, Renny winced.  She took all-too-shallow breaths and too few of them.  Her skin was cold, even after Turtle draped her with a heavy cloak of golden fur.

Out of fear for Renny and for herself and rage at the warlock, Turtle told Renny everything she had held back thus far.  She told the harper about Cob and her hopes that he would rescue them.  She told Renny the story about the golden goose, and so she revealed the goose’s secret, and Cob’s.  For Cob had once been an ordinary boy who was tricked into selling his mother’s vegetables in exchange for five magic beans instead of a dozen solid coppers, which is what his mother had hoped for.  Cob had planted four of the beans to no avail.  And he had eaten one, a green one, and turned into a giant.  Just as the goose, who was once just a goose that belonged to Turtle’s family, had eaten a golden bean and turned golden inside and out.

Turtle kept speaking, telling stories her mother had once told her, stories she had read aloud to Cob.  For Renny’s eyes had shut and Turtle was too afraid to check and see if the harper was still alive.  At last, Turtle stopped talking and lowered her head and wept.

***

A hand with fingers like twigs reached under Turtle’s chin and lifted her face up.

Renny, the harper, was still alive.

The warlock had not yet perfected his potion.  He still needed for Renny to stay alive if he wanted to remain as beautiful and young as he appeared.  But the harper was weak and though she did not say it, Turtle saw that she was in great pain.  When the meals came, delivered always while they slept just like the fresh wash pots and fresh chamber pots, Turtle fed Renny as much food as she could, urging the harper to eat and grow stronger.

“If he didn’t steal your essence, then you can get stronger,” Turtle said, offering a spoonful of broth.

Renny nodded, but she did not seem as confident as Turtle was.

For several days they continued as they were, Turtle feeding Renny, telling her stories, and Renny merely abiding.  Turtle told her she was growing stronger.  And she was, ever so slowly.  Too slowly perhaps for Renny.  She struggled to play her harp, but she only had the strength to pluck the strings a few times before she grew tired, before her face twisted in pain.

That is what truly defeated her, Turtle thought.  The harper cared little for her beauty and youth.  Her vigor though, she wanted back, for without it, she had not the energy to play her harp.  And if she could not play her harp, then the warlock may as well have stolen her essence, her spirit, already.

So Turtle took the harp and plucked at it and goaded Renny into telling her how to play each note again and again.  And that seemed to get the harper feeling better, for she began to scold Turtle for playing a note wrong, and praise her when she played well.

And so they continued for several more days.  And Turtle began to feel hope.  The warlock, she hoped, was far away wreaking havoc elsewhere, leaving them alone long enough for Turtle to nurse the harper back to good health and find a way out of the enchanted locked chamber.

But one morning, she woke to find that Renny’s face and the color of her dress were drenched in blood.  The harper’s nose had bled.  She had been getting stronger, but in her condition, what might have been a harmless wound seemed to drain her of what little life she had regained.  And it was that same day that the warlock returned.

And he tossed another living treasure into the chamber.

A golden goose.

***

Turtle gaped as the goose flapped and honked, then waddled toward her.

The warlock, still young, still beautiful, held up a small black pouch.  He emptied it into his hand and out fell three beans, a blue bean, a silver bean, and a red bean.

Turtle caught her breath.

“Did you think I would not hear what is spoken in my own tower?” the warlock said.  He looked down at the beans.  “The giant was not at home.  He’s away, I expect, abroad, searching for a treasure he’s lost.  Rather a lot like me, isn’t he?  Gathering such lovely and unique treasures.”

Turtle hugged the goose and glared at the warlock.

“And when he returns,” the warlock said, “he will find he has lost more than a tattered little girl.”

The goose squeaked and Turtle shushed her.  Beside the wall, the harper stirred.  The warlock paid her no heed, just as he had paid Turtle no heed before.

He held up his hand.  “What will the rest of these do?  Do you know?”

Turtle glanced away and shifted her eyes.  She pretended to look at the goose.  “No.  I don’t know anything about the beans—or, whatever those are.”

It was the truth.

“Ah,” the warlock said.  “I see.  Perhaps you will tell me later.”  He left the chamber with a sweep of his sable robe.

It was the truth.  But the warlock did not believe it.

Turtle looked up at the chamber door and she let out a breath.  She looked at the weakened Renny, at the shivering goose in her arms.  She thought about Cob, aimlessly wandering out there, while the shifty warlock hid into fog and shadow.  Cob was not skilled at sneaking about.  Or at trickery.

But Turtle was.

***

She had to get the beans.

One of them or preferably all of them.  She had to ingest them.  Come what may, even if they killed her in the end, Turtle hoped they would give her some power to help her free her friends and defeat the warlock.  It was the best idea she could conceive.

She waited for the warlock to return again, praying that he had not discovered the secret of the beans.  As she waited, she planned.  But she also watched over Renny, and she wondered if she should save one of the beans for the harper. She knew from watching Cob and the golden goose that they could take tumbles that would cripple normal people and animals.  Perhaps the enchantment of a bean would restore the harper’s strength quickly and completely, unlike the meager meals that they received.  There was no sunlight, no fresh air, no hope of escape to feed the harper what nourishment food could not provide.

Turtle decided, through the logic of color, that the red bean seemed most healthful.  If she could, she would steal all three beans from the warlock and give the red one to Renny and swallow the other ones herself.  She hoped Renny’s health would be restored, if not her youth and beauty.  And that she herself would transform into something, perhaps some silver-blue beast, preferably enchanted, who could wrench from the wall the wretched gold chain holding Renny, and who could crash through the chamber door and through any enchantments that the warlock cast at her.

Turtle wanted to punish the warlock herself.  But she remembered Renny’s song, about the warrior girl who fought but did not kill.  She wanted to be that warrior.  She knew who could cast judgment on the warlock.  An order of sorcerers, sanctioned by the rulers of all neighboring lands, upheld laws about the use of sorcery.  One of their number was placed in every large town.  And Turtle knew who that person was in the town above which she and Cob lived, for she had once considered going to the sorcerer and asking him if he knew anything about magic beans.

***

The warlock returned two days later.  Turtle saw the black pouch at his waist, the one she hoped still contained the beans.  He brought a bottle with him, filled with what appeared to be water.  He knelt beside the harper.

“Have you decided to tell me how the beans work?”

He tipped Renny’s head back and gently dribbled some liquid down her throat.

“What is that?” Turtle asked.

Renny’s limbs suddenly constricted.  Turtle tried to run to her, but the warlock rose and caught her and tossed her back.

“How do the beans work?”

Turtle looked at him through a film of tears.  “You…you have to eat them raw.”  She sniffed and shook her head.  “Whatever you do, don’t cook them, or…they turn poison.”

“Raw is it?”  He knelt down beside Renny.  “Shall we test that on your friend?”  He pulled out a bean, the red bean.

Turtle’s heart stopped.  Could it be?  He would do the very thing that she wanted to do.  He would see the bean restore Renny or transform her.  He would know Turtle was lying then.  She had to stop him.  Even if it meant Renny would suffer a bit longer.

“No!”

But the warlock was already rising.  He wouldn’t have risked Renny.  If she died, all the gifts he stole from her would die too.  He would be a weak old man again.

“So, they must be cooked,” he said.  “How?  For how long?”

“I’m no sorcerer.”

“Did you not feed that goose a golden bean?”

“It wasn’t meant for her.”

“Whomever it was meant for, you had prepared the bean, and it was ready.  The goose ate it by mistake, is that right?”

Turtle said nothing.  She was astounded that the warlock thought she truly knew the secret of the beans.  If she did, why wouldn’t she have used them herself already?  She glanced at Renny.  And she tried to think as the warlock would think.  He was patient.  Perhaps he assumed that Turtle too was patient.  Perhaps he had no experience of children and how terribly impatient they could be.

“Or was it always meant for the goose?” he asked.  “You tested it.  You tested one bean to assure that your preparation worked and would not kill or harm you when you tried it on yourself.”

Turtle looked at Renny.  “Let me see if she’s all right.”

The warlock locked his gaze on Turtle.  “She is doomed to linger in this state, on and on and on, until she finally dies and I turn to another.  It may be many, many years.  But…I could restore a bit of her youth, just enough to ease her pain.”

Turtle looked up at him, widening her eyes, hoping she looked hopeful.  She didn’t really believe him, of course.

“You can do that?” Turtle asked, her voice as high and meek as she could manage.  But her blood boiled and her shoulders shook and the tears that came to her eyes were tears of rage.

“I can.”  The warlock stepped toward her, the red bean still in his hand.  “If you tell me how to prepare the beans, then I shall.”  He stepped aside.

Turtle dropped to her knees beside Renny.  She looked up at the warlock.  “Please…can’t you do it now?”

The warlock shook his head and feigned a sympathetic smile.  “Tell me first.”

“If I tell you, will you let us go?”  A high, meek voice.

“I will let you go.  I’m afraid I have to keep my other treasures.”

Turtle wondered if that meant he would kill her.  Or perhaps he would not.  He might be lying.  He would keep her to steal her youth.

Turtle let her tears spill.  She nodded her head and bawled.  And through the storm of tears, she saw that the warlock was smiling, for he had utterly broken her.

***

He gave her no time to recover.  He bid her to follow him and brought her to another chamber on the floor above.  This one was half the size of the treasure chamber.  It looked like an apothecary’s shop.  There were bottles of potions and powders on shelves everywhere.  There were empty glass jars and tubes and cauldrons and pots.

Turtle selected a silver pot and asked the warlock to assure the pot was free of all speck and blemish.  She told the warlock that the bean must be boiled in pure water.  And the fire must not be too fierce or too gentle.  She feared she was ruining one of the beans as she prepared the pot and the water and the fire.  But she needed more time to plot.

When the warlock held out his hand with all three beans in them, Turtle thought about swiping them all and swallowing them then and there, but he pulled back his hand and asked her to choose one bean.

“Blue,” Turtle said.  She would sacrifice the blue bean, while she thought about how she could get her hands on the others.

She directed the warlock to place the blue bean in the pot, but ever-suspicious he insisted that she do it.

Turtle washed her hands as clean as she could make them.  Then she selected the blue bean, rinsed it off, and then tried not to let her hand shake as she dropped it into the pot.  She had no idea what would happen.  Would the bean split open and explode into a tangle of vines?  Would it just burst out through the silver pot, killing them with force?  Would it vanish, proving Turtle a liar and sealing her doom?

The blue bean did none of these things.

It did what any bean would do.  It sank to the bottom of the pot.  And then as Turtle watched, the water in the pot began to swirl as with blue ink, bubbling gently, until the water was as blue as the bean.

“It’s like the beginnings of a stew,” Turtle said.  “But with only one bean, and with no salt or vegetables.  Or bacon.”

“Indeed, how long must it simmer like this.”

Turtle winced when he spoke and she saw that he noticed.  She looked down at the pot, at the bean.  It still looked whole, but she wondered if all the blue seeping into the pot was the bean’s magic seeping out.

“That I truly do not know,” she said.  “We will have to watch it.”  She frowned.

“What’s wrong?” the warlock said.

“Nothing, Turtle said.  The blue bean had given her an idea.  “It’s just…the other bean did not color the water so quickly.  It took a few days, then the water turned gold.  Then the gold vanished.  That’s when the bean was ready.  That’s all I was told.”

The warlock took Turtle back to the treasure chamber, and she feared that she might have lost her chance to get the beans if the warlock decided to cook the remaining two himself.  But at least he would destroy them.  And then Turtle would just have to find some other way to rescue herself and Renny and the golden goose and the singing rooster.

***

Turtle needn’t have feared, for the warlock returned the next day.  He told her that she must start preparing the other two beans.  Turtle was ready.  She had a few items in her pockets that she had found in the treasure chamber the night before.

First she checked on the blue magic bean.  It still simmered and the water was still blue.  Then, she prepared a pot for the silver bean.  When the warlock held out the bean, Turtle took it and in one movement moved the bean from the warlock’s hand to the pot.

Or so it seemed.

As she had reached for the silver bean, in the palm of her hesitant, childishly twitchy hand, she was already holding something else.  A silver nugget, one of very few she found in the treasure chamber.  One that roughly resembled the silver bean.  It was this silver nugget that she dropped into the pot.  As it simmered, the warlock watched the pot.  Turtle held her breath, as she slipped the real silver bean into her pocket.

She had a tiny piece of garnet in her pocket as well, to double for the red magic bean.  She reached for a third pot, but the warlock stopped her.

“I think it would be wise to start the last one tomorrow,” he said.  “Tonight, I shall have you stay in this chamber and watch both pots.”  He placed a small hand bell on a counter.  “Ring that when the first bean is ready.”

Turtle nodded, but as he turned, she gasped.  “Renny!”

The warlock turned back.

“I have to feed her dinner.  She is too weak to do it herself.  Unless…perhaps if you restored her—“

“No.  You will feed her.  I will give you half an hour.  Then I will bring you back here.  Come.”

Turtle shuffled past him, her heart thumping, for she had a magic bean in her pocket.

***

She feared the warlock might stand there and watch her feed Renny, but he did not.  Aside from the treasures they could provide, he seemed to have no interest in his prisoners.  Turtle fed her friend some porridge and some water.  She showed Renny the silver bean and asked her if she wanted to try the desperate plan.

“I’d best not…end up…laying…silver eggs,” Renny joked.  With a grimace, she swallowed the silver bean.  And she ate the rest of her dinner.  Turtle placed Renny’s harp on her chest and kissed the harper on the forehead.

As she pulled away, she saw that a lock of straggly gray hair was growing and smoothening and brightening and plumping.  It gleamed a silvery gleam.  More of the harper’s locks grew and turned silver, not the silver of age, but silver like threads of the precious metal.  Turtle rose and watched as the harp melted into the lady’s chest.  Renny’s arms and legs and face plumped up even as her hair had. Even her dress changed, so that the tatters looked like leaves of silver.  She looked as if she were sleeping.  Turtle took heart and she dared to lean down and touch the lady’s arm.  But it was cold.  And the harper had ceased to breathe.  Her skin had turned pale.  But it was a wholesome pale, more milk than marble.  And then it turned silvery, like moon-glow.

Turtle stood above the harper, clutching her hands before her heart, pursing her lips.  She watched.

And the lady, a Silver Lady now, took a deep, slow breath and opened her eyes.  They were silvery-blue like the waters of an enchanted sea.  They were the same eyes.  Renny’s eyes.

Turtle beamed at her friend.  Then she dropped to her knees and began to gather up the golden cloaks.  “He’ll be back any minute.  We have to hide you so he doesn’t see.”

Renny put a hand on Turtle’s shoulder.  She smiled a smile of mischief.  “Let him come,” she said.

And from her heart, she pulled out her harp.  A shining silver harp.

***

When the warlock came, Turtle stood forth with a small battle axe in her hands, not knowing what she thought she would do with it.  As soon as the warlock opened the chamber door, the Silver Lady began to sing a silver song.

The music of the harp was ethereal.  The lady’s singing was mesmerizing.  It was…an enchantment.

“As before I burned like the sun, now I cool the world like moonlight,” she sang.  And Turtle dropped her axe and listened.

Then the lady turned to her.

“You must fly, turtledove,” she sang.

Something cracked.  Turtle shook her head as if waking from a stupor.  She looked about the room and saw that the warlock was standing in the doorway, utterly entranced.  Even the golden goose was watching the Silver Lady.  And the gold chain around Renny’s neck was vibrating.  Renny was still playing, but Turtle could only hear it as if she were hearing the music through a wall.

“I’ll return for you,” Turtle said.  She scooped up the goose and flew.  She swept past the warlock, yanking the black pouch from his belt.  She went a few steps down, then remembered the blue bean and climbed up to the bean-cooking chamber.  The door was not locked.  The two pots still simmered.   She found a spoon and fished the blue bean out of its pot.  As she drew it out all the blue color seemed to pull back into the bean, leaving the water clear again.  Turtle checked the black pouch to assure the red bean was truly in there and she spooned the blue bean into the pouch as well.  She grabbed up the goose again and clamored down the tower, still hearing Renny’s singing and playing from afar.

The Harper

Turtle ran down the path and there she saw a rooster who peered at her as no ordinary rooster would.  Turtle grabbed him and ran toward the enchanted carriage.  The rooster crowed in protest and the goose honked in disapproval.  Turtle stuffed them both into the carriage.

“We have to go find Cob,” she explained.

She jumped onto the carriage seat.  There were no horses and no reins.  But she remembered the driver, the warlock, speaking.  She thought he was directing the horses.

“Take me to Cob, the giant,” she said on a whim.  The carriage lurched forward.  As it moved several yards, Turtle gasped when she realized that the carriage had been sitting at the edge of a cliff.  She wished she had sat inside with the birds.

Something crashed into the carriage.  Beneath her, it splintered apart.  Turtle began to fall chest-down and the breath was knocked out of her.  She struggled and managed to breathe with difficulty.  She couldn’t see the bottom.  She fell through a cloud and felt strangely serene.  She pulled the black pouch from her pocket, clutching it tightly.   She pulled out the beans from the pouch, one by one.  She stuffed the red bean in her pocket.  She crammed the blue one in her mouth and swallowed.

***

The falling felt like soaring.  It was exhilarating, bracing, peaceful.  If only she could slow and glide gently down to the earth.  Turtle closed her eyes and hoped that if she dropped to the earth, she would not feel anything upon her death.

As she plummeted, she remembered the words that Renny sang.  You must fly…

And she felt a change ripple through her.   From within it felt like a tickling shiver.  From without, it was like putting on a strong warm cloak on a blustery day, kicking a rock and feeling nothing through a sturdy pair of boots.  Strength was growing within and through her.  Yet she felt lighter.  Her fall was slowing.  Her arms felt twice as long.  She opened her eyes and her sight was sharper.  She flapped her arms and she rose.

Turtle turned her head to the right and saw beside her a giant wing covered in vivid blue feathers.  She knew what had happened.  And what she must do.   She flapped her wings and tested her tail and after a few clumsy tries, she learned to veer and to rise.   With her keen eyes, she found her fellow birds.  The rooster and the goose.  The goose was flying around the rooster, unable to help him.  Turtle swept over both and tried to grasp them in her claws.  She passed over again and grabbed both birds.  Flapping her wings, she rose higher and higher.  A current of wind blasted upward and she stopped flapping and rode it back up and up.  She had never felt so mighty and so free.

She saw the cliff edge and rose above it.  She swept down to the ground, dropping the two birds and saw the warlock standing in the clearing.  There was something glowing in his hands.  And his appearance had changed once more.  In an instant, Turtle realized what had happened.  He had broken free of Renny’s spell somehow, and the glow in his hand was a ball of flame that he had conjured to blast his carriage apart and send Turtle to her death.  Conjuring the flames, it seemed, had drained some of the youth and beauty and energy that he had stolen from Renny.  For he had streaks of gray in his black hair.  And his flawless marble-pale skin was now pocked with the marks of age.

He launched the ball of flame at Turtle.  She dodged it and swept toward him.  She gave a cry of rage and the warlock clutched his ears.

Renny came crashing through the door of the tower then, and Turtle was relieved to see that the harper seemed unhurt.  The Silver Lady pulled a harp from heart again.

Turtle gave a cry of delight before she realized what she had done.  But Renny did not react as the warlock did, clutching his ears again and falling to his knees.

Renny only gazed up at her with a gaping smile.  And her harp seemed to glow with a silvery-blue glow.

Turtle wondered if she had done that with her cry.

Renny began to sing again.  And to play her harp.  This time, the strings of the harp detached and wrapped themselves around the warlock.  As they did, strands of Renny’s silver hair replaced the missing strings.

Turtle made a circle of the tower and then landed.  As her feet touched the ground, she felt herself growing taller.  Her arms seemed to detach from her wings.  Her sight changed.  Her beak shortened.  She raised her arms up and saw that she had once again the arms and hands and fingers of a girl.

Somehow, Turtle had transformed back to her original form.  She looked down at herself.  Her clothes had torn off and been carried away by the wind when she transformed into a bird, along with the red bean, which she would have to search for later.  She was now clothed in a tunic and cloak of blue feathers.  Her feet were bare and she stumbled on some rocks as she approached Renny and the captured warlock.

Renny smiled at her and reached into her hair.  She pulled out a blue feather and laughed.

“The blue bean,” she said.

Turtle nodded.

“So you can transform back.”

Turtle felt a twist of guilt in her gut.  She wasn’t sure why.  Perhaps it was because the blue bean was the only one that had been cooked before being eaten.

“It’s all right,” Renny said, noting her discomfort.  “I like being silver.  I always did prefer it to gold.”  Renny stopped smiling.  “I think that carriage was the only way off this tower of rock.”  She waved her arm about.  “It doesn’t connect to another piece of land.”

Turtle flapped her feathered cloak.  “Not the only way.”

“Then you must find some help,” Renny said.  “I’ll stay and watch over the warlock and our friends.  I’m sorry I failed you before.  He managed to knock me to my feet with a gust of air, and when I stopped singing, he closed the chamber door.   I won’t fail you this time.  He can’t make any balls of flame or blasts of air with his hand tied.  Not unless he wants to blast himself.”

Turtle shook her head.  “No, I shouldn’t have left you behind.  I can carry everyone, even the warlock.”

Renny started.  “Turtle, no.  We’ll be too heavy.”

“It’s no boast.  I wouldn’t risk you and the birds and even this warlock if I had any doubts.”  Turtle looked at the warlock, who still seemed stunned by the twin songs of pleasure and pain from his enemies.  “I can manage the burden now.”

“Then let us go.  I must find some way to thank you for restoring my life.”  She raised her harp.  “And my spirit.”

Turtle grinned.  And she flew.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.

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