Once, in a faraway land, a carriage arrived at a castle, drawn by four white horses. Its sumptuous interior was enclosed by veils no more substantial than the wisps of the morning fog that traced through the great forest. And beyond the veils, in repose upon the cushions within, was a sleeping young woman of surpassing beauty. She was dressed in such finery that she could only have been a princess.
The princess remained insensible despite all attempts to revive her. The kindly king had her taken into the castle and cared for. The king’s son became enchanted with the mysterious young woman, and he stayed at her side day and night. And on the third day, so overcome was the prince with his love that the he dared to kiss her.
And thus, she awakened.
He lost track of the turns he had taken since he had fled the town hours ago. He was lost, but he didn’t care. He was glad of it. Fortunately he didn’t know the name of the town. He had run away as soon as he learned its secret, shouting warnings of doom behind him and probably sounding like a madman.
He knew he looked like a madman. There were traces of decayed finery about him, the odd length of gold braid clinging to the seam of his trousers by a few threads or the frayed end of an epaulet dangling from his shoulder. But these scraps of lost riches only looked more wretched next to his stringy hair, the frayed ends of his tunic and the loose heel of his boot that slapped on the road as he ran.
He had long since sold his horse. It was cruel to run the beast into a froth every day.
It grew darker with every minute, and he began to stumble on the stones of the road. The night bugs were starting to sing, and the owls to hoot. Far in the distance came the chilling howl of wolves.
Ahead, the road forked. Both directions looked the same—sparsely wooded and uninhabited.
Lost. He needed to stay lost.
Richard stopped at the center of the fork, closed his eyes and began to spin. Around and around he went, until he felt as if the world was awhirl along with him and until his stomach stung his throat with bile.
He stopped spinning, caught himself from falling and then with his eyes still closed, he stumbled and groped his way down one of the roads. For all he knew, he could be heading back in the direction he came from. He had already taken numerous turns, so it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he stay as lost as possible. He opened his eyes and carried on.
The last of the daylight eked out of the landscape, and his eyes strained to see.
A swoosh of dizziness almost pitched him over. He staggered against a low roadside wall as a vision crowded out the darkness. He could see little of the wall or of any of his surroundings. Instead, a face swam before his consciousness, a vision that was familiar, lovely beyond compare, and terrible.
“Greetings, slave of the mirror,” she said.
He didn’t respond. He never did. He just waited for the questions.
“Who is the fairest woman of all?” A crown topped a veil of gold damask that showered over her platinum hair. Her eyes were just the opposite. They were so dark that he could not tell where the pupils ended and the iris began.
One. “You are, my lady, as you well know,” he said. She often asked this question, and he always wondered why. He had to tell the truth when summoned by the mirror. He would betray his own father, and indeed, he had before. So why waste a question on a matter of vanity?
He suspected she didn’t—that there was another reason she asked.
“Tell me what you’ve learned today that might interest me.”
Two. “There’s a town. It’s—” he couldn’t stop himself from telling the truth, but he could be as vague as possible, “—it’s reached an…arrangement with your tax collector. The townsfolk were…very happy.”
“I see.” She paused. He knew she was trying to think of a way to phrase the question to yield the most information possible. Beyond her he could see a richly bedecked room and the pointed arches of glass-paned windows. “What is the name of this town, which reached an arrangement with one of my tax collectors?”
Three! The name of the town came to him—Grunberg—but so did the names of other towns, in other places. He smiled. “There are many such towns.”
She scowled in frustration. “Where is it?”
He shrugged, free now to be himself, but still trapped by the vision until she chose to release him. “I don’t know. I got lost.”
She paused. “Did you get lost on purpose?”
“Yes, my lady. I am not bound to obey. Only to answer you truthfully. And only three questions at a time.”
She looked vexed. “You are still under my control until I release you.” She most likely was not alone, and she didn’t like to be seen exerting anything other than absolute control. She made a gesture and paused before speaking again, and Richard guessed that the room she was in had emptied. “Therefore,” she said, “I suggest you answer my questions.”
“You know I’ll only answer the questions I’m compelled to answer.”
“Perhaps. But I can make this very painful for you the next time I summon you, a fact that you should keep in mind. Which tax collector?”
“I didn’t hear.”
She frowned again. “How can you not hear something?”
“I stoppered my ears and yelled like a madman.”
“You are not being very cooperative.”
“Just release me. Morning will come soon enough.”
She narrowed her eyes at him one more time. “Indeed it will,” she said. And she turned away. Her face vanished.
He closed his eyes and sighed.
Then he opened his eyes and trudged along the road. He could barely see, but the starlight was enough to keep him on the paving stones until he entered an even greater blackness. He looked up. Branches traced the sky overhead and trees crowded both sides of the road.
He was tired. He longed to sleep.
But then, the memory of a map flicked in his mind, the placement of certain towns along the periphery of a great forest. It was the Schwarzwald. The thickest forest in Europe. He had heard tell of it. A man could spend days and weeks roaming its depths and never encounter anything more than a hermit or huntsman. It was naught but hills and trees, and if there was an occasional hamlet in there, surely the queen would never find it.
He had been a fool to stick to the roads. Roads meant people. People meant news. Sometimes it seemed there was no limit to the knowledge he had when he was before the mirror, but there was. He could not tell future events, for example, or things that occurred in the past unless—in this case—he had directly experienced it. He could not delve into a person’s mind or tell what someone intended to do. But he could have told her everything he didn’t know about the people of the town of Grunburg, and the tax collector who had just made a deal to everyone’s satisfaction, except hers. But only if she asked the right questions.
To avoid such knowledge, he must avoid people.
Without any further thought, he plunged off the road and into the forest.
Despite the ache it gave her lower back, Gretchen leaned forward as she listened to a minstrel spin his tall tales.
“And what did I find in this curious house,” the minstrel asked his audience, “on this curious farm that made it so curious? Was there a two-headed cow?”
The audience cried, “No!”
Gretchen could just glimpse the Spielmann through an opening in the tables. She had pushed the tables around for that purpose before the crowd had gathered.
“Was there a three-legged dog?” The minstrel’s voice had a theatric flair Gretchen had never heard before.
“No, it was something you’ll never guess…”
Not unless you heard about this speech from someone who was here last night, Gretchen thought.
“Why, it was a house—” his audience indulged his dramatic pause with a moment of silence, “—full of dwarfs!”
The crowd murmured. He stuck out a hand, fingers outstretched.
“Five of them, to be exact! Two are married and are named, appropriately enough, Herr and Frau Klein.” He spun around to face his audience on the other side.
Gretchen wondered if fortune had cursed them with a name that meant small, or if someone had bestowed it upon them as a joke.
“They have a son,” the Spielmann continued, “who is sixteen years old. And how tall do you think he is?”
“Three feet!” someone called.
The minstrel pointed at the speaker. “Double that!” He held his hand level in the air to indicate a respectable height. “Two dwarfs for parents and he’s a full six feet tall.”
“Tell us about the farmhands!” said someone who, like Gretchen, had heard of the story from elsewhere.
Gretchen leaned forward.
“Ah yes, the farmhands.” He clapped his hands together with a sharp pop. “A most amusing bunch. The eldest stands not four feet tall, and most of that…is head!”
The audience laughed. He wagged a finger. “But which head? Now that’s the question!”
His listeners laughed even harder.
“The next is a man in miniature. He is a perfectly proportioned little Heracles, not even five feet tall, with arms the size of melons and a chest rrrrippling with muscles.”
Some women oohed in appreciation.
“And the last—to odd out the trio—stands the shortest of all. He takes himself verrrrry seriously because you can be sure no one else does!”
As everyone laughed around her, Gretchen felt a surge of dislike for the Spielmann.
“And so,” he continued, “these five little dwarfs live together on the farm in sort of a—” he paused, apparently searching for the right words, “—a dwarf asylum.”
And then, finally, someone said it.
“We have a dwarf here in town.” Gretchen looked around to see who had spoken. It was Gisela, of course.
The minstrel turned toward her. “Yes, so I’ve heard.”
Gretchen sighed. She may as well get it over before Gisela said something nasty. Gretchen stood and clambered onto her chair, and then onto the table. “Over here,” she said, waving her handkerchief.
His eyes snapped her way. “Fräulein,” he said. “Maybe we’ll share a beer together after my performance.”
Gretchen didn’t want to, but she nodded anyway. She would listen to whatever demeaning thing the minstrel had to say in order to hear more about the dwarf asylum.
“Why not meet her now?” Gisela yelled. “Bring her forward!”
“No!” Gretchen yelled, but it was too late. A big man named Karl, who had been sitting with Gisela, jumped up and grabbed her before she had a chance to climb back into her chair. Two other men joined in, although it wasn’t really necessary. A hand clamped around her breast, and fury surged into her heart and stung tears in her eyes. Gretchen began to slap with abandon.
“Stop it! Put me down!” She clouted an ear.
“Ow!” One man yelled.
Emboldened, she began to kick. She heard an “Oof!”
“Gently!” the Spielmann said. “She is a lady, after all.”
This elicited a chuckle all around.
Karl plunked her down in front of the minstrel with too much force. Gretchen’s knees buckled, but the minstrel’s hand shot out to steady her. She glared at him and swiped a tear off her cheek.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Fräulein,” he said. He held out his hand for her.
And he waited.