Chapter 2: The Middle
The day after Odyssey’s threat, the king waddled out into the garden for a noontime stroll. He sighed, removed his bulky crown, rubbed his bald head, and stared at the ground. Gradually, he became aware of strange, small shadows flitting across his path. He glanced up and saw an army of crows circling high above. He shuddered. He had once dreamed that a legion of birds had pounced on him and pecked at his ears.
Suddenly, the crows, with a mighty caw, dived down, straight at him, just like in his dream.
“AAAAUUUGGGHHHH!” the King screamed as the crows tore at his ermine cloak and pecked at the blood-red rubies adorning his waistcoat. “AAAAAUUUUUGGGGGHHHHHHH!” He flapped his arms wildly. He fled from the garden and through the palace halls, still pursued by the birds. Servants and courtiers scampered out of the way.
Finally, just as the crows succeeded in stealing his sapphire seal ring, help arrived. “I SHALL DELIVER YOU, MY SOVEREIGN!” cried the Head War Leader, brandishing his sword. Waving the weapon about, he nearly lopped off the King’s head and managed chopped a marble effigy of Jack the Giant Killer right in half. The crows retreated, comparing booty and cawing disappointedly to each other how “The good times never last.”
The King and Head War Leader, breathing heavily, watched their enemies depart. “That…puff…that…pant…Queen…huff…sent them!”
The Prime Minister cautiously approached. “Um…very-disturbing…um…are-you-all-right-your-majesty?”
The King had only time to gasp, “Yes,” before each of them started. Odyssey had appeared round the corner. She looked upon them almost pityingly before demanding:
“Art thou prepared to accept my mistress’s suit?”
“No…puff…thank…huff,” said the King.
“NEVER GIVE IN!”
“Very well,” said Odyssey. “Thou shalt assuredly be visited again.” She disappeared to whence she came.
The next morning the King awoke with dread clutching his heart, caused by the screams filling his ears. He quickly slid out of bed and…
The carpeted floor was swarming with cockroaches.
The King joined his voice to the chorus of yelps echoing through the Castle. He had developed a fear of cockroaches ever since they had infested his bathroom. They had popped out of drains, scuttled under floorboards, and lurked in drawers, nearly driving him insane with paranoia. But he was king. He must be brave. He began making his way precariously from chest, to table, to chair, to desk, to couch, to stool, to wardrobe where he drew on a pair of silken slippers. Then, chomping his lip at every crunch (splat), he courageously investigated his home. There were cockroaches everywhere. The Prime Minister was cowering under the covers, eyes wide and teeth chattering. The Head War Leader was frantically trying to hack the tiny, nimble insects to bits with his huge, clumsy blade and making no headway.
All through that horrible day, most people, including the cook, refused to budge from their beds. Those who stirred discovered that cockroaches had completely swamped the gatehouse. The drawbridge couldn’t be lowered. Everyone was stuck in the castle, where the everlasting rustle of cockroach limbs played havoc with their nerves.
Finally, at ten o’clock that night, the Prime Minister, carried in a sedan chair, entered the throne room. The King was attempting to hold court and failing miserably.
A fabulously shrunken hag hobbled in, clutching a bulging sack in one claw and a twisted cane in the other. “We have a cockroach problem,” she observed.
“Yes, Madame,” the King replied.
“Well, I can do away with them, for a price,” she offered.
“What will you charge?” the King asked.
“Twenty-thousand crowns,” the crone stated matter-of-factly.
That was an insane price. But no one gulped when the King declared: “Agreed.”
The unsightly woman drew a plain brown rock from her bag and placed it in the center of the Throne Room. She retreated ten feet and began slowly circling the stone, all the time drawing strange patterns in the air with her finger. She chanted:
“Áyla ńyla éya súil.
“Cóka Róka súil a rún.
“Éka brán. Éka brán.
The old woman threw her arms in the air, pulled her hair, and jumped up and down. With each thump the cockroaches scampered further away. At last they disappeared altogether. Joy flooded the castle. The King, Prime Minister, and Head War Leader began laughing in relief…until they saw Odyssey enter the Hall. “Art thou prepared to accept my mistress’s suit?” she demanded.
“No,” said the King.
“Very well,” said Odyssey. “Thou shalt assuredly be visited again.” Then she turned to the hag. “And thou shalt assuredly be punished for thy treachery to our common mistress. Thou shalt never live to see the full moon.” With that, Odyssey turned away and returned to whence she came.
The next evening, the King and his court sat at table. “When is the food arriving?” asked the King, his stomach growling.
“I beg pardon, you majesty,” entreated a nearby servant, “but the Head Cook fell asleep in the blackbird pie and we were unable to wake her. We had to call for the Assistant Head Cook who likewise fell asleep in the mutton stew and we were unable to wake her. We had to call for the Under Head Cook who likewise fell asleep in the roasted peacock and we were unable to wake…”
“CUT TO THE CHASE, LAD,” called the Head War Leader, “WE’RE STARVED!”
“The kitchen staff has been cut by more than half because they have all fallen asleep. Thus dinner preparation is behind schedule.”
“Asleep?” queried the King, nervously. “What do you mean?” It sounded unsavorily like the fable of his great-great-great grandmother, Aurora Rosebud-of-the-Briar. His mother had told him the tale, which he had never liked—all that pricking your finger and dying and falling irresistibly asleep. Then his mother had maintained that the only moral of the story was that you must always double-check your guest list and never skimp on price.
The lad intoned: “Asleep. Adjective. Thirteenth century. Being in a state of sleep. Dead. Lacking sensation: numb. Inactive, dormant. Not alert: indifferent.”
The king huffed. “Go and see what they are doing now, boy,” he ordered.
Shortly the servant returned, pale-faced, trembling, and panicking. “They are all of them asleep! Everyone! And they will not be waked!” He tripped on the Marquis of Carabas’ train, and landed sprawling on the feet of the King. The boy did not rise, and immediate investigation revealed that he was…asleep.
There was a general stampede for the drawbridge. They all ran for it, servants first, courtiers next, and King, Prime Minister, and Head War Leader last. But the first souls that set foot upon the drawbridge immediately fell upon the ground, overcome by weariness. The rest dared not approach the portal.
“Woe! Oh woe is us!” sighed the helpless multitude.
From then on, people began dropping off right and left. “Oh please, please accept that Queen!” pleaded one elderly dowager duchess, as she sank to the floor. The next thing out of her mouth was a snore.
“The-poor-boy!” The Prime Minister was in the Throne Room, sobbing over his softly breathing son. “Ahem….um….bewitched…um…by-a…um…witch.”
“MAN UP, MAN!” ordered the Head War-leader, “HE WAS BRAVE TO THE LAST!”
“How many are left?” asked the King.
“Ahem…um…counting-us…um…three,” said the Prime Minister.
The Head War-leader yawned, then started. “NO! YOU SHALL NOT HAVE ME, FOUL FIEND! SHOW YOURSELF!” He too toppled over.
“Actually, ‘tis much more to the enjoyment to torment people from a long ways off,” observed Odyssey, entering the Hall. “Art thou prepared to accept my mistress’s suit?”
“No,” the King staunchly declared.
“I…um…I-think-perhaps-it-would-be-best-if…um…you-acce…” The Prime Minister fell over the body of his son.
“Well?” demanded Odyssey.
“Well, um, no…”
“Thou art next,” she warned, “and the last.”
“I…um.” The King froze in terror. His eyes were becoming heavy. His mouth was a gaping cavern. But just as his limbs began to fail him, he summoned all his remaining strength and shouted: “YES!”
“Say: ‘I am willing to accept thy mistress’s proposal,” Odyssey said.
“Yes! Yes! I am willing to accept thy mistress’s proposal!” cried the King.
Odyssey knelt and rolled the Prime Minister’s body off his son’s. She planted one quick kiss on the Prime Minister’s son’s lips. Straightway the spell was lifted and the King felt new life run in his veins.