His constant clawing at the wood and dirt of his prison ultimately warranted a spark of light in the darkness, though it was dim and allowed through only by a sliver in a crack he had formed with his fingernails. The stench of blood from his fingers mixed with the earthy air outside of his soon to be tomb as he gasped for air. Finally, his salvation in sight, a new breath of energy and hope swallowed him up as he thrust his arm through the crack, freeing him of his earthy cell. But freedom was little, if anything. The room that revealed itself to him was a small round chamber, with two dimly lit flickering torches on opposite ends of the room. He looked down at himself, and all of his assumptions were confirmed: he wore a nice dress suit, the cuffs now slightly stained with blood and earth, his shoes looked to have been shined previously, though they were now coated in the earth of his prison. He had been buried, presumed dead and thrust into the ground.
Slumping suddenly, he caught himself against the wall of the sepulcher, breathing shallowly. His stomach clenched uncomfortably as he tried to gulp air, and his hands trembled just a little as he ran them through his hair. Crumbled earth fell from his clothes and hair. The man closed his eyes, still catching precious breath and calming his rebellious body.
He took apart the situation carefully, analyzing his surroundings. The air was moist and warm, smelling of moss and dirt and the creeping things that lived there. There was a faint dripping somewhere to his right, far away in another catacomb, perhaps. The shuffling sound of many feet, the damp garbage smell of rodents flooded his senses and curled his lips.
Grabbing a torch from the wall and shivering from the damp air, he pressed forward down an opening in a wall. The tunnel seemed to go on forever in front of him, darkness engulfing all beyond the range of his torch. It seemed almost as if, in all the flickering of the dim torch's light, the shadows around him were scurrying about of their own free will. He stumbled over uneven Earth and panted his displeasure with the situation, until finally it seemed the tunnel was coming to an end. But the end of one tunnel, only led to the beginning of another.
The light at the end of the tunnel was little more than another series of torches and a small campfire. A few strides before him there was a small river, almost stagnant as it slowly seeped along. Across the river a group of men, all shaded by cloaks with their features hidden stood around a dim fire. A shadowy creature, small, unidentifiable, floated along the river in what seemed to be a miniscule boat. Along the river there were different humanoid shapes, some chatting, or fishing, and some just pacing. Two young men approached from far down the river, their skin was deathly pale, almost gray, and they wore tattered rags for clothes. They both argued amongst themselves energetically, their words almost matching each other's in sync, but with different points or opinions expressed. Listening to them as they approached he derived that their names were Tim and Tom, but which was who he could not be sure as they stopped and stared at him.
Tim and Tom were certainly not the most attractive of individuals, he decided bemusedly. Their eyes were pale blue, much like the blind pony he'd seen at the circus when he was a boy. The two were thin, all angles and limbs, with surprisingly large, soft looking mouths. The smell took a few moments to hit his nose, but that sea-sick feeling was back now in full force. They were surrounded by a cloud of sick, sweet air that he could almost taste. Their clothes, already ragged, were stained with dark splotches. Dirt, or blood, or something else, he couldn't be sure.
A thick cockney accent shone through as the first questioned him "What are you doing here?"
"Well, my name's Daniel Riddell and-"
"You're not from around here are you?" the second chimed in cutting Tom off.
"Well no I'm not, you see-"
Again he was cut off by the first boy, "Well where are you from?"
Tom was becoming quite flustered by the two's discussion and rapid interruptions, "England."
"You're from Eagle land?"
"Eagle land, where's that Tim?"
"I don't know Tom where is that?"
Daniel blinked twice, then cleared his throat. "Gentlemen," he said, inclining his head gracious, "with all due, albeit dubious, respect, could you please direct me to the surface?"
The pale man cocked his head sharply and at a somewhat unnatural angle. "Surface?"
Daniel latched anxiously to this sudden interest. "Yes, yes, yes! The surface! You know, sunshine, trees, sparkling brooks?" At the blank look he receive, he plunged desperately ahead, gripping on thin shoulder, shaking it furiously. "My god, man, the surface! Where is it?"
The pale figures giggled suddenly.
"We'll take you to the surface, we will, won't we, Tom?"
"Oh, certainly, we'll take you to the surface Yes, Tim, yes, we will!"
"Right!" they said together, and suddenly Daniel felt thin, surprisingly strong hands gripping his elbows, and he was yanked into the light of the campfire.
Around the campfire stood a circle of vagrants, many similarly dressed to the two youths who drew him in. Seven men stood around the fire for warmth, seven men now eyed Daniel as he was pulled in by Tom and Tim. One figure stood out from the others, dressed very well, looking to be an English noble in dress. He smiled broad with pearly teeth as he watched Daniel's reactions.
"This here is Thrushcross," said Tim.
"Thrushcross, this is Riddell, he claims to be from Eagle land."
Daniel cleared his throat, "England, gentlemen."
"'Tis what we said," Tom responded.
Tim continued, "Eagle Land."
The conversation around the fire continued without any notice of the three new additions, and Thrushcross picked up his lines as if unnoticing of the lads, "Yes everything's fine at my home in the forest. No the deer have quite calmed down recently. Lolita's quite well she is. "
"What of that giant spider," one of the grislier men questioned.
"It doesn't come around the house much anymore."
Tom spoke up again, "Mr. Riddell here wants to go to the surface."
Only for a moment did the man called Thrushcross avert his eyes from the men he was conversing with, staring for a brief beat of the heart at Daniel Riddell, then it was over, and he continued with the gathered men.
Daniel cleared his throat, shifting nervously.
This was all too much. He'd awoken with only vague memories of the hours before his entombment and there seemed to be nothing that could point him in the right direction. his head and his jaw ached, and his body was stiff and sore. The offending smells and sights of this underground tunnel bombarded him. His chest tightened and for a moment, he was worried he might succumb to a faint.
One of the Tim-Toms leered up at him pleasantly. "Tell us about Eagle Land, Riddell."
"Yes, tell us!" giggled his twin.
Riddel's mouth was suddenly dry and he looked at Thrushcross, whose face was half hidden by shadows.
"That's quite enough you two," Thrushcross stated, drawing Tim and Tom's attention, "Release our guest here and give him some space."
The two youths backed away from Riddell obediently and joined in the circle of men in other areas. Riddell finally recollected his strength and stood slightly taller, glad to have some freedom from the closeness of the two men.
"Now, Mr. Riddell, tell us a little about why you're here."
Riddell thought about it for a moment, "I honestly have no idea. I think I was buried, alive.
Thrushcross nodded, "And where are you going?"
"Home! I just want to go home to England!"
"So you know your point A, that's here. And you know your point B, that's there. So that leaves you with your means of getting from point A to point B."
"God yes can you tell me how to get there?!" Riddell exclaimed gripped with excitement at Thrushcross' understanding.
Thrushcross stared at him for a moment, stroked his bare chin thoughtfully then stated in a very final manner, "No."
He nodded, "Quite, no. I cannot tell you how to get from here to there. That's something you shall have to find."
Riddell grumbled and stepped away from the circle, proceeding down the river without giving the group behind him a second thought. If it was so easy to get from here to there he wouldn't be asking for assistance, and yet Thrushcross expected him to find it for himself. 'They're all lunatics,' he muttered to himself, 'All lunatics in some horrific underground hellhole.'
"Well now I wouldn't call it a hellhole," came a voice from Daniel's left. He turned his head to the river and found what appeared to be a small black cat floating along the river on a large leaf, "This is our home after all," said the cat.
Riddell pressed a hand to his head, checking to see if he had a fever. This was followed by a pinch to the soft under part of his arm, and a tug on his hair.
"Perhaps I have malaria," he said aloud. "Some exotic disease that has rendered me into this nightmare. I'm really at home, with a maid bathing my brow. Home, where cats don’t talk, and-"
"Oh, what a loud mouthed boy," said the cat lazily, arching his back and blinking its great saucer-like eyes.
Daniel shuddered as he saw the cats mouth widen to an abnormal degree, full of sharp, sharp teeth. "Are you…. are you smiling? You're mad! This whole place is mad and terrible!"
The cat tsked, its laughter somewhere between a purr and a cough. "Oh, sweet boy, we're all mad here."
Riddell pulled at his hair and collapsed to his knees, practically sobbing, "God this is maddening, I only want to go home."
"Then home you shall go," the cat purred.
Riddell looked up, "What?"
"Of course, you'll have to do something to get there."
Riddell leapt up from his knees, "Anything, I'll do anything to get out of this madhouse!"
"Save the princess," the cat grinned again, "Save the princess and the king should be able to return you home."
"Y-you're joking right?" Riddell frowned down at the cat, suddenly his normal life hinged on his ability to save a princess? The place truly was mad.
The cat gave his terrible, husky laugh once more. "Oh, oh, I never joke. At least … about princesses. Now, stupid boy, what is your name?"
Daniel pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, breathing shallowly. "Daniel. Daniel Riddell." He spent a good minute, like that, on his knees with his eyes closed, his whole being concentrating on his breathing. The cat watched him silently, blinking his large green eyes, expression never changing.
The cat's purr reverberated around the whole tunnel, accompanied by the soft rush of water and a ceaseless dripping. Laughter from the men gathered around the fire drifted towards him eerily. "Mr. Riddell, you know what you must do. You must take action and make your way home."
Daniel inhaled deeply, then met the cat's gaze levelly. "Well, how do I go about finding this princess?"
The cat grinned. "Follow me."
The feline dipped his tail in the stream and began paddling fiercely, using his tail to propel him down the waterway of the tunnel. Daniel followed close behind, drawing away from the laughter of the other men. "Where is this princess?"
"In the dark tower," the cat stated plainly.
"The…dark…tower?" Riddell stared at the cat incredulously, "You're joking right?"
"Oh no, I nev-"
Riddell cut the cat off, "You never joke about princesses, I know. Where is this dark tower then?"
The cat purred quietly, "Oh in the center of the Eastern Dark Forest."
Daniel stopped for a moment and chuckled, "And of course I'll have to defeat the Dark Lord to save her?"
"Oh no, silly no one would dare, you must only face the Warlock."
Riddell tilted his head back, absorbing this information as he strolled. "A warlock? I am in a fairytale. It's certain." The cat just gave his coughing chuckle and paddled on.
There were worse fever dreams, he mused. He could have dreamt he were in Hell, or with his cousins. Then again, why could he have a nice dream? One where he got to have tea with bread and honey.
A faint green light in the distance thrust him from his reverie. Daniel shot a quick look at the cat from the corner of his eye. The cat was grinning, his widest, most blissful smile, and the light reflected back in the cat's wide eyes in such a way that it made Daniel's stomach twist and turn in anxious knots.
"Oh, how I love adventures," said the cat dreamily.
Daniel's stomach sank.
"The question is, how do you intend to slay the Warlock?"
Daniel blinked blankly, "Slay?"
The cat chuckled again, "Yes, surely you don't expect him to just hand over the princess do you? You'll have to fight him, and quite probably kill him. Along with any number of his undead and demonic hordes."
Riddell felt like throwing up at this point. His stomach's willingness to retain its contents at the thought of slaying hordes of demons left very quickly. "I hadn't thought about that."
"Oh," the cat looked up as he paddled along, "Then we simply must have you pick up some equipment from the blacksmith who lives in the Western Dark Forest."
Daniel sighed, "And of course I'll have to fight my way into his hand crafted fortress and shatter his armies of gargoyles?"
The cat scoffed, "You act as if cats can't have friends. Just follow that gravel path there," he stated, pointing toward an opening in the wall of trees on their left, "Up about a mile into the forest and you'll find his house there atop a hill. Tell him you've been sent to save the princess, I'm sure he'll quite understand."
Daniel nodded, inhaled sharply, and began to march towards the break in the trees with purpose. When he glanced back, there was no trace of the cat. However, there was an unnatural rustling in the brush.
Suddenly, Daniel stopped. Brush, he thought wildly.
He really must be going insane. Time itself seemed to be flowing at a distant pace, and only moments ago it seemed he'd woken up in the dirt. Now he was in a gnarled wood, with a muted green sun and the strangest inhabitants. He heart thudded weakly in his chest, but he pressed on, slapping aside branches and thorns, for it seemed this path was made for much small, narrower creatures than he.
While the moments before had seemed to pass in a moment, this walk seemed to take a century. Riddel trudged on, sweating and swearing under his breath. With his peripheral vision, he could make out large green eyes and flashes of teeth as he paced his way up the hill. Yet, there were other things, things that he couldn’t see, but gave him a feeling. These things made his skin crawl and his heart wrench. He supposed it was something akin to having a person walk across your grave. Or so the stories went.
At long, long last, he found himself panting as he scrambled out of the forest, rubbing his neck to usher feeling back into the skin. A tree had curled a long viney tendril around his neck and proceeded to squeeze while making the strangest, most gleeful squeaks Daniel had ever been privileged to hear.
He wasn’t sure what he'd been expecting when he found the blacksmith's home. Something a little more … sinister, perhaps? Yet, it was only a small house, with a large open area with a roof. He could feel the heat from where he stood, and there was a tantalizing smell of smoked meat and fresh bread drifting from somewhere inside.
Daniel eagerly struggled forward.
He knocked on the door to the blacksmith's home and patiently waited. Listening closely he could hear grunting coming from far beyond the door, grunting and sizzling. After a few minutes he rapped on the door again, but there was no response. Although he thought inappropriate to barge right in uninvited, Daniel resolved that if he did not invite himself in, he may never be heard, so reluctantly he twisted the knob and pushed his way into the house, being greeted by a massive puff of black smoke.
The grunting now became grumbling, the sizzling drew him into what looked to be a kitchen, where two burly people waddled about the room. One, with long curly red hair, was viciously stirring a fish fry over a stove, while the other, a slightly larger figure with a twisted beard and bald head, poured up four glasses of a dark liquid.
"Ack. Benwyn, that rotgu' smells like Chess' cat box."
The balding man child lifted a brown jug, taking a long healthy swig, then wiping his mouth with his shirt sleeve. He then gave a heart belch and patted his belly. "Better'n 'at swaller ye call wine, me lovey."
The female (possibly) gave a surprising dainty sniff and turned, pan in hand, towards the table and Daniel.
He watched, entranced, as she digested the fact that an unfamiliar man stood in her kitchen. Her brow furrowed first, a look somewhere between complete confusion and anger. Her mouth then tilted down at the corners, little by little. Then, quick as a flash, the fish, and the pan, and the hot oil began sailing toward Daniel's head with a bellow.
Daniel ducked just barely before the pan collided with his head and felt the hot oil splash across his back as the pan slammed into the wall behind him.
"What the devil was that noise?" the one called Benwyn bellowed, not turning from his glass.
"They's a man in here!" the other one shouted.
"Well course there is Bruntilda," Benwyn stated as he turned about, "I invited him."
Benwyn's eyes met with Daniel's as he turned, he stared at him for a brief moment, sharing a similar expression to Bruntilda, then launched his cup across the room at Daniel.
Daniel, who was now cowering in the door, his arms crossed defensively in front of his face, wincing at the oil sliding down his back. "Please, please! The cat told me to come here!"
The short man snarled, shoving his wife behind him. She had somewhere in the ruckus came across another pan, which she brandished over the burly dwarf's shoulder threateningly. "Wa' cat?"
Riddel swallowed, painfully aware of the oil quickly cooling on his skin. He could feel the welts beginning to rise and swell. "The cat who smiles!"
The dwarf regarded him suspiciously, but cautiously lowered his fist. "Smilin' cat, ye say?"
Suddenly, there was a husky laugh from somewhere near the floor. Daniel winced as he felt the light weight of the cat on the back of his coat. "Oh, stupid boy," the grinning cat purred. "I should have known you would get into trouble. Off with this tacky shirt."
Daniel watched the dwarves warily, but did a he was bade, panting as the wet cloth parted with singed flesh. The cat dipped its head, gave a few small swipes of his tongue, and immediately, the man felt cooling relief. Once the pain had been dismissed Daniel stood, allowing the cat to leap safely to the floor, and faced his hosts again. "I'm sorry to have intruded, I was advised by this feline that you would assist me."
"Aye well that we might lad," Benwyn stated as he looked the confused man up and down.
Bruntilda nodded and turned toward the kitchen, "But we're expecting company, perhaps you'd like to eat with us?"
"Expecting someone? For dinner?"
"That be the idea," came Benwyn's gruff voice as he ushered the man and cat into the kitchen, where he quickly positioned two new chairs around the table.
"But you were only preparing one fish," Riddel responded flushing his confusion.
"Aye, he don't eat much, that Mr. Thrushcross," Bruntilda said as she repositioned herself before the stove, now frying a pair of fish.
Thrushcross, that name sent Daniel's heart to sinking, a meeting with the mysterious man from before. Hopefully he would be a bit more attentive or helpful upon this second meeting.
"I would ask ye what yer doin' here, but I reckon' we ought to wait on Thrushcross, so we don' ha'e to repeat the story." Benwyn stated, shoving a glass of the brown liquid to Daniel.
Daniel sat, cautiously sipping the liquid, close to gagging at the bitter taste of hops and grain. The short woman grunted as she exited a nearby pantry with an arm full of food. The discarded pan was unceremoniously slapped back on the stove, oil liberally sloshed in. When it was hot and popping, she laid in what appeared to be thick slices of pork, along with other unidentifiable vegetables.
The cat and the dwarf talked quietly while Daniel made faces at the glass, his stomach squeaking with hunger as the smell of supper crept about the room. The dwarf woman occasionally threw sullen glances his way, muttering what may or may not have been insults. He couldn’t be sure but he might have hear Benwyn call the slim black cat Arthur, which was a rather odd sort of name for a feline.
However, he mused, most everything here seemed to be of an odd sort. Night was descending, and the green light from outside cast an eerie glow on the window. Yet the blacksmith's shop was warm and comfortable. With her wares sizzling in the pan, Bruntilda lit various lamps and candles. She cracked the door and a tiny gray tabby cat slid inside, mewling prettily as she wound around the table legs. As far as Daniel could tell, she couldn’t speak.
As he scratched delicately behind her ears, a knock resounded at the door.
He swallowed. Thrushcross.
"I'll let him in," Arthur stated, hopping down from the table and crossing the floor, disappearing beyond the threshold, a short puff of smoke erupted from the doorway as Daniel heard the door swing open.
"Arthur! It's good to see you," came Thrushcross's voice.
"Ha, it's good to be seen Mr. Thrushcross," Arthur stated as Thrushcross unceremoniously stepped past him into the kitchen.
As Thrushcross rounded the corner Riddel took note of not one man, but two, crossing the threshold into the kitchen. In front was Thrushcross, wearing the same formal garb he had worn by the river, a pocket watch tightly clasped in his hand, he seemed more attentive than he had before. Behind him was a man cloaked in black, with beady black eyes and long pale fingers.
"Who is that?" Daniel questioned as Thrushcross sat down across from him.
The man smiled, "Who indeed," he stated as Arthur's voice erupted from his mouth full of mirth.
It was too much for poor Mr. Riddel. He collapsed, upon hearing the voice of the small black cat escape from the mouth of the tall gaunt man he simply lost his bearings on the real world. Or what up until that point he had considered the real world, but as his last waking thoughts crossed his mind and he felt the hard floor crack against his skull he resolved, 'Surely I must now wake from this terrible dream.'
Alas upon waking Mr. Riddel was not ridden of his dream state. In fact he woke in the same position he had lost consciousness, only his compatriots had slightly shifted. Now the figure he could only assume was Arthur was sitting on the table above him, and the dwarf known as Benwyn, and the gentleman lunatic Thrushcross, were both leaning over him intrigued.
"Are you quite alright Mr. Riddel?"
"Bloody hell," Daniel mumbled. Arthur's pale face floated blurrily above him, chuckling in a hoarse voice that sounded so much smaller in that bigger body. He scrubbed his hand over his face angrily, trying to sit up. Bruntilda's large rough hands patted his shoulders, helping him rise.
"Take yer time, spratlin'. Got a nasty bump, ye did," she murmured, her voice oddly comforting. She smoothed his shirt down and gently prodded the sore place at the back of his head with blunt fingers. Daniel winced, but sat sullenly under her ministrations.
After the woman decided there was nothing else she could do, she swatted him on his shoulder and waddled off to the table.
Daniel grunted and stood up, pushing himself up on the chair legs. As Thrushcross stood the chair back up and slid it under the table Benwyn went back and took his own seat, while Arthur, still sitting awkwardly on the table, licked a spot of liquor off the table.
"Now what are you doing here Mr. Riddel?" Benwyn asked as he began situating plates and cups across the table.
Daniel smoothed out his clothes then sat in the chair next to where he had originally seated himself, "I'm trying to get home."
"Well where do you live," Benwyn questioned, "Off in the kingdom of Kar? Or perhaps to the East in Desterland?"
At this Thrushcross interjected, "He says he's from England."
"Aye, that be where ye were from Thrush?" Benwyn replied.
Daniel perked up at this, "Wait, you're from England?"
Thrushcross nodded and crossed his hands in front of him, "Well, yes, I am originally from England, though I've made Underland my home for quite some time."
"Then you know how to get back to the surface!"
Arthur chuckled, "Thrushy hasn't left Underland since he first arrived, he did try at one point, the loon tried to climb a wall and dig through the earth above us, he quickly learned that was not a good experiment."
"Wait then I can't get back to the surface? You dirty cat you lied to me!"
"I didn't lie," Arthur said scratching his ear, "I merely said that if you saved the princess the King might be able to return you to the surface, there were no definites in there."
Riddel slouched and sighed, "Then it may all be naught."
"I'll not hear sad voices in my home!" Bruntilda sung out as she turned and placed the food on the table, "Now let's see about getting some food in that belly and then we'll discuss getting you back to the surface, and if nothing else you'll probably find that Underland's not such a terrible place."
Smiling weakly at Bruntilda, Daniel obediently dug it the plate that was thrust before him. Surprisingly, his stomach held it down, growling appreciatively. What it lacked in the visual sense, the Bruntilda's supper was very good and filling. He downed a glass of water, another of the bitter ale, and most of a loaf of very dark, rough bread that somehow tasted vaguely familiar, though he'd never seen any of its kind.
There was no talking there for the first few minutes, only the desperate sound of Riddell shoveling as much as he could into his mouth, for he found that once he began to eat, it was most difficult to stop.
Finally, when his belly was only mildly rumbling, Daniel looked up at the others. They, too, seemed rather starved and all of the ate with gusto, Benwyn and Bruntilda mumbling companionably to each other over their plates.
After a warm silence filled only with slurps and the gentle scrape of silverware on plates, Thrushcross pushed his chair back and rested his hands on his belly.
"So, young Riddell, tell us all about your adventure."
Riddell shifted in his seat.
"Well starting from the beginning, at least as close to the beginning as I can remember, I woke up, in a coffin," Daniel started uneasily, "Or at least, in a box, buried underground. At first I feared for my civilized life, believing I was to be sold into slavery by pirates, but I soon realized, through suffocation and frantic clawing, that I was not a prisoner, but a forgotten soul, marked dead and buried. By some miracle I managed to dig my way out of the hole I was in and found myself in a cavern, which, after gathering my wits and catching my breath, I fled from, opening up into a larger area where the river by the forest flows."
"This would be when you met Tim and Tom," Thrushcross cut in, "Any clue how you died?"
"Them's rotten boys Tim and Tom they are," Bruntilda stated, nudging Benwyn.
Daniel shook his head, "I don't remember anything shortly before waking up. I can recall bits and pieces of my youth, and I remember my manor, no doubt now abandoned to some other member of the family. But I don't know how I actually came to be declared dead."
Benwyn nodded, "Now how did you arrive at my doorstep young Riddel."
"Well that would be my doing," Arthur cut in, "I'm sure we all recall the business with the king's daughter and the vizier."
Benwyn again solemnly nodded his ascent, "Of course, that business with the princess's kidnapping after the vizier was exiled, started calling himself the warlock after that didn' he?"
"That fiasco got you removed from the position of princess' knight unless I'm mistaken," Bruntilda stated.
"Aye that it did," Arthur stated.
Everyone stopped for a moment then Benwyn said to Daniel, "Well please continue Master Riddel."
"Well Arthur told me to come to see the royal blacksmith," here Benwyn interrupted:
"I be not the royal blacksmith enemore. Nah sin' they removed Arthur from his proper role."
Daniel apologized and went on, "The accomplished blacksmith living in the forest to prepare me to defeat the evil warlock in order to rescue the princess and have myself restored to the surface."
"Well if anyone could help you get home it'd be the King of Underland," Bruntilda responded as she walked around the table and collected the cleared plates.
Daniel shoved his hands through his thick, dark hair, sweating slightly. "A warlock vizier. This is getting more odd by the minute."
"Hasn't even started yet," said Thrushcross cheerfully, accepting the plate Bruntilda handed him. Daniel reached for his as well, not even bothering to be suspicious of the custard pie before him. He also readily took the steaming mug of what appeared to be hot cocoa, downing both very quickly. "So, Mr. Thrushcross, how do you come to be here?"
"Well Mr. Riddel memories fade as do faces, and it's been a long, long time since I saw my last fading face. I believe my first venture beyond the surface was some two hundred years ago."
Riddel spewed hot cocoa as he gaped at Thrushcross wide-eyed, "T-two hundred years?"
Thrushcross smiled, a wide toothy grin, "Yes some two hundred years ago I was buried alive, much in the same manner you were probably, but for quite different reasons possibly."
"What does that mean?" Daniel prodded.
"I was a noble, one of the Queen's very own if I do say so myself, but my Earldom was quickly abolished after my death no doubt, having been the first and the last of the house of the dragon."
"That's quite interesting Thrushcross, I've not heard of that noble house," Riddel said as he took a new glass from Bruntilda.
"As I stated master Riddel, I suspect it died with me."
Arthur perked up at a conversation on Thrushcross' past, "Thrushy, do tell him what your role was back then."
Thrushcross nodded, "See Daniel, I was a student, and my title and estate were assigned to me so I could study. The queen at the time understood that some of our enemies were digging into some sort of devilish arts, it was my business to try to understand such…sciences."
Daniel paled at this statement, "You studied magic?"
"Thaumatology, necromancy, hemomancy, you name it I researched it," Thrushcross smiled wide, "Odd it never really went anywhere, except the hemomancy, it led me straight to the grave."
"How so?" Arthur pressed playfully.
"Oh well it was simple really, none of the spells I was attempting to invoke ever went anywhere, of course I was forced to settle for animal blood. I made many requests of the Queen that I be allowed to investigate using prisoners, to see if human blood might be more potent, I was bluntly refused."
"But you did it anyway!" Arthur chuckled as Riddel paled even further.
"Now Mr. Riddel, understand I am a man of education, and education cannot be obtained without testing. So I pressed it. I tested it, what I found was that hemomancy is very hard to control, my blood quickly left my body when commanded, and my heart happily pumped air into my blood stream. I died that night that I first tried my blood magic."
"But you're here," Riddel stuttered.
"Yes, here I am. I don't even know how, best I can guess the blood flowed back into me. But here I don't age, I'm left well enough alone and using my own blood I've found myself able to do many small tricks, never anything impressive though, for fear this second life might leave me."
Riddel shuddered. He sat in a room with two people who had already tried to kill him, a rogue knight who appeared to swap back and forth between the forms of a cat and human at will, and now a traitor to the crown who had experimented on human blood with the dark arts. His stomach churned as he stood, and nodding slightly he turned to Benwyn, "I believe I'll need to lie down."
Benwyn stood then, turning to a short door to the left of the pantry. "Ye can sleep in here. The bed'll be a mite short for you. But the sheets be clean. Tomorrow, we'll work on getting ye ready fer what's ta come."
Thrushcross stood, gently taking Daniel by the elbow and leading him away. Daniel, who couldn't forget his manners if he tried, bade goodnight to the other four, and thanked them for their generous hospitality.
Daniel made his way into the room, stooping in the darkness. From the window's pale green light, he could make out a very short bed, with an equally small night table. Against the wall, there was a very simple chest of drawers and a bowl and pitcher for washing. Two tattered white towels were folded neatly there.
Awkwardly, Daniel removed his coat and shoes, then sat on the edge of the bed.
Thrushcross leaned against the door jamb in the dark, the smoke from his pipe making weird, fantastic shapes in the green light filtering through the window. "We will try to get you home, boy," he said softly, "but alas, it is too late for me."
Daniel shook his head vehemently. "No. We will get you home, too! We can-"
He finally looked Daniel in the face, and that face was full of a strange, sweet sadness and acceptance. It stopped Daniel cold, and that cold slipped into his belly and sat there like a stone. "I will never go home to England, son. Even if you defeat the warlock, or dig a tunnel straight through the sky, I can never go back. My family is likely dead and gone, and I had no sons to carry on my name. Even if I had them, I couldn’t. This place changes you. Nothing could ever be the same. I'm barely even human anymore."
Thrushcross stared into Daniel's eyes, and he could have almost swore he saw a green light there in that gaze, but then it was gone, and young master Riddell felt quite foolish. The older man laughed and walked towards the window, raising it up just a bit. "However, young man, you will find there are things you might miss here. " He opened the window and pulled the faded curtains apart. He turned back to Daniel, and tapped his nose. "Remember to breathe deeply." With that, he departed from the room.
As Daniel settled against the pillow, he listened closely. He heard Benwyn slap Thrushcross on the back, heard the Englishman compliment Bruntilda on the excellent meal. Benwyn offered Arthur a place by the fire, and even in the back room, Daniel could hear the throaty purr.
Thrushcross left, it seemed, for Daniel heard his heavy footsteps on the worn boards of the floor. The dwarf couple retreated to their beds as well, and he could hear Arthur and the other cat making very soft cat noises at one another.
Sleeping here wasn't as bad as it could have been, he decided. He could have spent a lonely night in the wood, cold and frightened until dawn. The blacksmith's house was warm and inviting, albeit very small and cramped for tall, gangly Daniel.
The nobleman dozed for a while there in his tiny loaned bed, listening to the creaks and groans of the house, the gentle snores of his hosts, and the distant crackling of the hearth fire.
When he was just on the very brink of sleep, he rolled over, turning his face to the fresh air coming in through the window. It was then, he could smell just the slightest hint of some sort of spice.
Awake now, he sat up in the bed, and laughing, breathed in deeply. The scent of something like cinnamon wafted through the window. The tension in his shoulders that he hadn't been aware of lessened, and the bed seemed slightly more comfortable. With a sigh, he leaned against the headboard, watching the breeze bend the long grass on either side of the lazily moving river.
"I wonder," he said aloud, but very softly, "if they even have a moon."
He looked for what seemed a long while, but no moon rose in the low slung sky of Underland. However, in the distance, there seemed to be many tiny dots of purple light. Curious, he knelt beside the window frame, watching quietly. The scent of cinnamon seemed ever stronger as the lights seemed to move closer, swaying and bouncing all across the field.
Suddenly, one light hurtled into the window, landing with surprising force and a poof of purple dust against Daniel's cheek.
Daniel sailed across the floor and into the bed frame with a loud crash.
Regaining his senses as he stood, Riddel stared at a small purple glowing mass in the window sill. Upon approaching it he found it to be like some sort of rock or shell, having a rippled circular pattern terminating in a center point. He reached out and touched it and found it to be only just above room temperature, and, on rubbing his hand across the hard shell, he found it was very scaly. Suddenly the thing unfolded and stood on four legs, with a lizard shaped head marking the end to an elongated neck. The purple reptile snorted and blew smoke through its nostrils then looked up at Riddel and…smiled…yes that's what the toothy grin it revealed would be called.
Daniel stared dubiously at the tiny creature, immediately jumping backward when it made a tiny cheeping noise. The creature stamped its tiny foot on the window sill and snorted again.
Riddell, who had already scrambled behind the bed to take shelter, peeked over the mattress, eyes wild and hair standing on end. If one more thing went wrong before he had had some sleep, he decided, he really would go mad.
With an angry huff, the lizard lifted tiny leathery wings that Daniel hadn't noticed before, then swung them down in one powerful movement. Once in the air, the creature caught a draft from the window and coasted onto the bedspread. It cheeped at him once more and cautiously, Daniel reached out a hand. The animal cheeped happily and butted Daniel's fingers with its tiny head, then lifted itself into the air, chirping happily about his head.
Waving his arms, Daniel attempted to shoo it towards the window for several minutes. At long last, he managed to trap it outside of his window, shutting it firmly with a sigh. Once again in his bed, he glanced at the window, then immediately sat up again.
The tiny creature was crooning a sad, low warbling note, its tiny face pressed against the yellowed glass of the window. For several minutes, Daniel tried with great will to drift off to sleep, but the little lizard's sad song was going to land him in Bedlam.
With a groan, Daniel rose and opened the window. Without even looking to see what the creature was doing, Daniel dragged himself back to the too short bed, in the too short house, with the too short lizard trailing behind. He flopped onto the bed on his stomach, took a great breath, then willed himself into slumber. His small of his back itched for barely a moment, and a soft warm heat soothed the muscles there.
At long last, the strangest day of his life had ended.