As per the queen’s wishes, Otis spent the next several days making himself at home in the guest quarters. The subtle attention to detail and luxury was head and shoulders above anywhere he’d ever been, including his own castle. Fresh fruits, flowers, milk, drinking water, and bathwater were brought in every morning. Every evening, a local woodcutter would bring in a stack of firewood, cut and split from his own apple and cherry orchards.
The massive walkout balcony extended forward and in both directions. Its considerable size and weight made it a structural marvel and one of the most impressive appendages on any castle at the time. Its latticed ledge overlooked a three-hundred-foot drop and endless ocean views of the eastern sky. There were several hand-carved chairs, a hammock, and an oval bronze tub that had been propped on stilts in the southwest corner. Beneath the tub sat a small mobile fire pit.
“Just use three logs at a time to heat the tub,” the queen had said at their most recent dinner. “Any more than that, and the water is just a bit too hot, in my opinion.”
Otis slept a lot those first days. Most of the daylight and much of the night were spent in a cloudlike bed that embraced him the way an expecting mother’s womb does her baby. Despite the many thoughts raging in his mind, he was tired and hadn’t gotten a decent night’s sleep since before having left for the war. It was only during the predawn hours that Otis found himself wide awake, percolating with depressing and disorderly thoughts, most of which were about Mac and Penelope. How were they doing? What were they up to? What were they thinking about at that very moment? These were just a few of his concerns.
His thoughts didn’t so much come in the form of words or questions but in images. His troubled imagination projected visuals within his mind that showed him that they were happy—very happy. He pictured Penelope waking in their bed next to another man while Mac scampered into the room to wake them. Otis imagined the three of them going into town, mingling with friends and merchants. Perhaps they had their own favorite places to visit, where they would smile, laugh, and make the type of memories that would wash Otis away forever. Eventually, the three of them would go home and tuck Mac into bed. Then Penelope and her new husband would retire to the master suite, where he would build a fire, and the two of them would make love savagely, with a type of connection that she and Otis never shared.
Otis didn’t know any of this to be accurate, of course. And it wasn’t. But the influx of increasingly troubling images had an equally devastating impact on his predawn emotions. While the hot water encasing him was enough to relieve the ache of physical injuries accumulated in years past, there weren’t enough logs to burn off his mental soreness.
As Otis lay in bed, staring through the intricate etching scribbled about the room’s black ceiling, someone knocked on the door. It took a moment for Otis to gather enough strength to speak. “Come in.”
The queen, escorted by her two most trusted guards, entered so gracefully one might assume she was walking on air. “Good morning,” she said, with a pearly smile. “Care to join me for a walk on the beach?”
“Oh, stop,” she said, stomping her bare foot in the damp white sand. “You do not.”
“I sure do,” Otis said, cracking a mischievous smile. “He was even at my wedding. We go way back.”
“Well, I don’t believe you,” she replied, growing flirtatious in her tone.
“Why is it so difficult to believe? He’s just a normal guy like the rest of us who were there.”
“I’ve heard stories. And I’ve seen paintings. Robin Hood was not just a normal guy.”
“He did always have a way with the women. I will say that. And he would have liked you. Contrary to all the stories, he always had a thing for the dark-haired girls.”
“Well, I’d ask you to put in a good word for me when you see him next, but unfortunately, these days, I’m just a dark-haired old lady.”
“Oh, stop it,” Otis said. “You’re lovely, and you know it.”
“Used to be,” she said, slowing pace over the crinkled tides coming into shore. “Nowadays, when I meet a suitor, he seems to be more interested in my castle than in me. When I was a girl, so many men proposed. And all of them were so romantic in their presentation. Feels like centuries ago now.”
“Well, you’re beautiful and charming. And wonderful company,” Otis said. “Any eligible man would be out of his mind to want your castle more than you. I’m certain your days of romantic proposals are far from over.”
“We’ll see,” she said, grinning and raising her eyebrows with newfound confidence. “How did you propose to your wife?”
Pleasant images finally claimed some space in Otis’s mind as he recalled that beautiful day. “Well, I knew I wanted it to be a surprise,” he said. “Some of her friends and family had been expecting it for a while, so I knew it wouldn’t be easy to catch her, or them, off guard. So I planned a little romantic getaway. We stayed in a cozy inn just south of Ithaca, right on the beach—much like this. We, uh…” Otis wiped his eye before it was able to birth a tear. “We spent the days being lazy. We ate—too much, got a little bit frisky. A lot frisky, actually. And we slept. It was the best vacation ever, actually,” he said with a short laugh.
“So. When did you ask her?” she asked, giggling along.
“I didn’t. Not right then, at least. The vacation ended, and we went back home. All her friends stopped by over the next few days—‘Did he ask? Did he ask?’ They were all shocked when she told them no. Some were even upset.”
“Well, yeah. How are you going to get a girl’s hopes up like that?”
Otis grinned. “About a week later, we were going for a walk. And we stopped at the oldest olive tree on the path. I said, ‘Penelope, I have a surprise for you. Just a little gift. No big deal. But I think you’ll like it.’ Then, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a silk handkerchief and handed it to her. She’d always wanted one, and silk wasn’t all that easy to come by in Ithaca, so she was ecstatic. She looked at it and rubbed it against her soft face and thanked me several times before she noticed the ring in my other hand. After the initial shock wore off, she said yes—and proceeded to soak the handkerchief with happy tears.”
“My goodness,” the queen said with delight. “I do believe you’re going to have to stop talking now. One more word, and I just might fall in love with you right here and now.”
The two shared a laugh and finished their walk along the dark water’s edge. It was the first time since leaving home that Otis could genuinely remember what it felt like to be happy, and he was grateful for the visit from that memory.
As the ocean’s twinkling ripples swallowed that day’s sun, Otis stepped out of the warm bronze tub, closed his eyes, and let out a happy sigh. For one reason or another, he couldn’t shake the warm embrace of optimism. He wrapped himself in a cozy robe before stepping over the threshold that divided the balcony from the guest quarters.
A gentle series of knocks coming from the door made him think the queen was stopping by for an evening visit, but when he told her to enter, it was the woodcutter who walked in. Otis greeted the young man, who responded with silence as he carried a mixed stack of apple- and cherrywood.
The woodcutter headed for the balcony, keeping one eye over his shoulder, fixated on the door he’d just entered. Otis sat on the edge of the bed and dug his bare toes into the floor.
Much like the guards roaming about, the woodcutter had been given specific instructions not to speak to any guests. Otis didn’t know this, but since the woodcutter had practically ignored him up to this point, Otis was caught off guard when the strange man sneaked back in and began to whisper into Otis’s ear.
“Shhhh,” the woodcutter warned. “We haven’t got much time.”
Puzzled, Otis reared back and quickly noticed the grave concern radiating from the woodcutter’s eyes.
“You’re in terrible danger.”
“What are you tal—”
The woodcutter placed a finger over his own mouth and shushed Otis.
“Before you came here, were you locked in a cell with a giant snake?”
Otis nodded, equal parts concern and curiosity.
“And it left you alone, for the most part?”
Otis nodded again.
“Where do I start?” the woodcutter asked, keeping his voice hushed. “For years she’s fed that snake more men than I can count. But every once in a while, it’ll ignore one. When that happens, the queen gets it into her head that she’s meant to spend eternity with that man, and she moves him into this room to see if he’s worthy of being her husband.”
“She said her husband died just a few months ago.”
“What? No,” the woodcutter replied. “He died fifteen years ago. She poisoned him.”
The searing weight of fear began to push down on Otis’s shoulders and chest. “Whenever a new man comes in, she puts him in this room. At first, they seem grateful—even thrilled by the accommodations. But eventually, they ask for something they don’t have. They always want more. So she says. One man insisted that fresh fruit and milk be delivered to his room every morning. Another asked for that bronze tub out there. No one’s made it more than a month before she labels them as greedy. This room and all its amenities were designed and handpicked by the ghosts of previous guests. And the reason it’s been painted black is because that’s the only color that will hide the bloodstains.
“She’s not right—in her mind,” the woodcutter said. “She’s got this mirror in her room that she talks to. And she thinks it talks back to her. But the voices are just inside her head. I know you’re expecting to leave here soon. But you need to know that she will never let that happen. She’s going to keep you here and groom you to be her husband unless she decides to kill you first.”
“She told me there was a passenger freight coming, and that I’d be on it when it left,” Otis said.
Otis stood up and ran his fingers over his forehead and through his thick hair. “I have to go. I have to leave—right now.”
“Out of the question. You leave now, and she will have you followed and killed. She controls every mode of transportation on and off the island. The only way you’re getting out of here alive is if you have outside help come get you. Even then, it’s likely a death sentence. She has eyes and ears everywhere.”
Otis sat silent for a lingering moment. “What can I do?”
“Bide your time. Don’t ask for anything. I—I’ve hidden some ink and a small book filled with blank paper under your firewood on the balcony. Once a week, someone will come by to collect your milk bottles. As long as you don’t do it every week, they won’t notice when you keep one. Write for help, stuff the paper in a bottle, and toss it as far as you can off that balcony.”
“Pray that it lands on another island.”
“Can I write one up now and send it with you?” Otis asked.
“Oh, no,” the woodcutter said. “They don’t do it often, but every once in a while they search me on the way out. I’ve helped all I can. I wish I could do more, but I’ve got my kids to think about. As I said before, she’s got eyes and ears everywhere.”
“Why are you helping me at all, then?” Otis asked.
“My father served in the Trojan War. He was too old to fight and had no business being there. But what’s right is right, he always used to say. Anyway, he suffered a large cut to his leg and probably would’ve bled to death if you hadn’t been there to wrap it in a tourniquet.”
“Oh,” Otis said, surprised.
“My family and I have and always will be grateful for what you did. And I wish I could do more to help you now. But I can’t. Good luck, Otis. May the gods be with you.