Chapter 17: In Which the Fate of the Princess is Known

“It all depends,” Madison began. “How well you have been paying attention. You have been following us for hours now, and you found us, so you must be very clever. My question is simple, and you will know the answer if you know me.”

Once again the witches grew excited.

“Oh we know you, little Princess,” the old man-witch screeched, his voice like the sound of a frightened cat being used to play an out of tune violin. “We’ve watched you read on the lawn and walk in the woods and wave at us peasants.” For a moment, his face changed back to that of the pleasant farmer. Madison shuddered as he returned to his true, disgusting form, mucous and maggots dripping from his hollow nose. “Everyone knows the Princess, beloved of peasants and woodfolk alike.”

Madison tried to be brave, and when she couldn’t, she tried to pretend. She gulped, and challenged the witches.

“Well then, you will have no problem. In my bag I have a book. The question is simple: What is written in the book?

After a confused pause, the witches protested.

“That’s not fair! How can we know that?” They cried out much like little children.

“It is fair,” Madison answered firmly. “But because you were generous with me, instead of three guesses I will give you three hints. You only get one guess, but if you guess correctly, I will give you the book.”

“But we can take the book when we magic you,” the old man cried out like an eagle with a horse stuck to his foot.

“No. No you can’t. First, you will not have won the duel. Second, this is a book of great importance, but it is only important if it is given, and not taken.”

Madison chose her words carefully, trying not to lie, but also trying to make the challenge seem more important to the witches. She watched as the old couple whispered to each other, considering the offer. Madison knew it was a difficult question, but she noticed that they were curious. She also noticed that even though they were waiting to do evil things to here, they seemed to want to do the right thing, like they were bound by a code of honour in the duel of wits, and she wanted to win by that code.

Finally, the old man spoke, his voice like the sound of a very tall woman with a bat stuck in her hair.

“We accept. Give us the hints.”

“There are three,” Madison answered, trying hard to smile mischievously.

It is full of hope, but has no dreams.

It tells no truths, but has no lies.

You’ve never read it, but you know it well.

The witches delighted at the challenge and danced their way back toward the cottage—though Madison was not sure if the cottage was real. It had actually faded a little bit, and Madison thought she could see trees through it on the other side. Westley Cummerbund looked down at her, clearly impressed at the riddle.

“What is it?” he whispered in her ear.

“Shh!” she responded sharply, focusing on their opponents. Westley snapped back into place and tried to look intimidating, hoping to frighten the witches.

While Madison tried to look brave and intelligent and Westley tried to look intimidating, the witches were arguing back and forth, trying out different ideas. Madison knew that the longer they took, the better the chance was that she would win the duel of wits. But the longer the old witches gargled and cackled in their harsh whispering tones, the more Madison felt like she was going to throw up. She reached up and held Westley’s hand, who was scowling at the witches, trying to help Madison.

Finally, when Madison could stand it no longer, the witches came back to face the travelers.

“It is a powerful book?” the woman asked, her voice like sound of a frog with a sore tummy.

Madison thought for a moment, and then answered.

“Really, you could say the book has unlimited power.”

The witches’ eyes lit up.

“This old fart,” the woman said with her grumbly voice, pointing at the male witch. “He thinks that book is about cheese.”

“What could be more important?” he screeched. Westley nodded, agreeing with the man. But Madison laughed out loud, and the woman rolled her eyes.

“But I know the secret to your riddle,” the woman said. Westley’s stopped looking intimidating and looked quite frightened. Madison’s stomach churned and quartled—quartled isn’t even a real word, but that’s how frightened she felt. The witch’s eyes gleamed with power and pride.

“The book inside your bag is filled with magic spells. What could be more powerful?”

“Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Westley cried out. He threw himself upon the ground and began weeping and wailing. “Why?” he cried, and then, “We are doomed! We are doomed! What a world! What a world!”

Westley’s reaction was so surprising that the witches did not even celebrate. The other three people, young Princess Madison Jayne and the two evil tricksters, just stared at the bewildering sight of the frantic hero.

Now, Westley and the witches think at this point that the guess is correct and that the book is really full of magical spells. What they do not know, but what you and I know, is that way back near the beginning of this story Madison was given a book by her father. It was black and tattered, and smelled like pavement just as the rain begins to fall. It was completely empty, except the first note that was written to her that began this adventure, the note written from “a Friend with a Scraggly Beard.”

As the ridiculous Sort-of Knight wailed upon the ground, Madison thought about that note. She knew that the Friend with a Scraggly Beard was her third-favourite uncle, Brentonio Dickvinci. But how did he know that this adventure was going to take place. And how did he know to put a message inside a Princess magazine that told her to duck at the right moment in the chapel. And who was this silly Knight?

Madison was jolted out of her deep thoughts by the screechy challenge of the male witch.

“So, is it a book of spells?”

“Of course it is!” Westley wailed anew. “Doomed. Doomed.” And then he stopped weeping and looked mournfully at the witches. “You won’t turn me into an aardvark who eats cactus for lunch, will you?”

Before the witches could answer, Madison spoke.

“Westley, Westley. Stop crying. No, they did not guess correctly.”

He stared at her incredulously, a big word some adults use to say that he just didn’t believe her.

“They were wrong,” she assured. “It isn’t a book of spells.”

While Westley stared at the Princess incredulously, the witches looked at her in disbelief—though, of course, both words mean the exact same thing. None of the other three could understand that the duel of wits was won by young Madison Jayne.

When it finally dawned on the witches that they had lost and their prey would get away, they threw themselves on the ground and began to weep and wail. Westley got slowly to his feet and wiped his runny nose on the back of his sleeve.

“How embarrassing,” he said, pointing at the witches. “Look at them going on like that.”

Madison rolled her eyes at Westley and waited for their opponents to recover from their disappointment.

“It’s about cheese, idn’t it?” the old man asked, screeching like a bunny trying to swallow a buffalo. Wiping their eyes, he sniffled and she snortled.

“No, it isn’t about cheese.”

“What’s it about, then?” the lady growled, her voice like a grizzly bear trying to scratch that little spot in the middle of his back that he can’t reach.

“You did not win the duel. Why should I tell you?”

“Oh, please,” the old man begged, his voice like the sound of a thousand baby toe nails of a Japanese monkey falling from the sky and landing on a crystal dance floor. “You must tell us.”

“Will you guarantee us safe passage to the edge of the wood?”

They nodded excitedly and rubbed their hands together in excitement, like they were waiting for a great feast.

Madison pulled the old black book from her canvas bag and held it out.

“You can look,” she said. “But you cannot touch.”

Then she opened it up, showing the book to be bare—there were no words in it at all. Madison wondered if the couple would be angry, but she suspected that they would not harm her.

“It’s a journal,” the man said in a hushed tone, for the first time not sounding like anything ridiculously screechy.

Instead of being angry, the couple smiled at each other, winked at Madison, and then disappeared. When they disappeared, the cottage and table faded away. The churned, dark soil of a new garden returned to grass, and leafy trees filled the sky in the clearing. In just a few seconds, Madison and Westley were alone in a natural clearing in the deep wood they had entered. The only trace that the witches had ever been there was a note nailed to one of the trees on the edge of the clearing.

It said only one sentence:

You will reach the edge of the wood safely.

Madison suddenly felt very tired, and very hungry. She sat down and began to cry.

Published in: on October 4, 2010 at 7:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

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