We’re back in the forest and I’m beginning to regret my bravado driven words. The small, rag tag bunch has equipped me with an old tool case. I suppose I should be humbled that they’ve trusted me with Eggbert’s tools and have put me in his shoes and have so many expectations of me, but if I’m honest; I’m scared to death.
“The caterpillar is on her side,” I whisper to the knight, staying close to his lazily clip clopping horse. “And so are the flowers.”
“The flowers have always been hungry,” He says, his deep set eyes darting from left to right in anxious anticipation. “The caterpillar needs to be reprogrammed. She thinks she has subverted us, but she is wrong.”
He is talking to himself now. I stop paying attention and direct my thoughts inward, wondering if I can pull off what they want me too.
“It’s not as if she’s a bad queen,” One of the Tweedles says to me in a low voice. “She’s done some good for Mystery.”
“So, why are we doing this?” I demand, unable to keep the tremor from my voice.
“She didn’t get her throne the proper way. She killed two people to ascend.”
(Obviously they don’t know much about politics.)
“I just want to fix the Carousel,” I say, my shoulders slumping.
The Tweedle claps my shoulder and fixes me with a tight smile. I try to smile back. The horse halts in front of me.
“The circus is back,” The Knight says. “We’ll go around. The Carousel isn’t too far from here.”
It wasn’t. I could feel it as if it were a living thing, connected to me. I hurry in front of the Knight. He overtakes me, shooting me a dangerous look over his shoulder. We walk, slower now. The forest with its thin, misshappen trees seems to crowd me, pushing closer and closer until I’m sure they’re going to suffocate me. I feel something wrap around my throat and struggle to breathe, clawing at an invisible hand, trying to pull myself free. A wayward rock trips me and brings me back to my senses just as the trees clear and a descimated Carousel comes into view.
A wail wells in my throat. All of my work, gone. Undone in one fatal blow from something much larger than the metal heap on the ground.
“Can you fix it?” The Tweedles ask in unison.
“Not without help,” I admit. “It’s going to take too long if I have to do it myself.”
I turn and face the group. They look at me helplessly.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’ve lost count how many dreams it took me just to get where I was. The idea that I can do it all in one night is kind of stupid, don’t you think?”
The looks on their faces was that of betrayal and disappointment. I try to ease the sting.
“Look, you guys said Mystery is whatever its creator wants it to be, right? Well, why can’t I just will this thing back together?”
“It doesn’t work like that,” One Tweedle says sadly, “Mystery has rules.”
“Right. Of course it does.”
“Help me…” The voice pleads.
I turn around and glare at the ruin the Carousel had become. “I can’t help you Carousel, or Eggbert, or whatever the hell your name is.”
A makeshift plan forms in my head.
“How long will it be before Minnie notices I’m here?”
The question is directed to the general group. The Knight answers.
“If she doesn’t already, it will be when you start working. We’re all connected to that Carousel, we feel when something changes.”
“How bad will it be when she realises?”
William answers me, thump thump thumping his way to the front of the group. “Bad.”
“Every confederate she has, every remaining bit of the card army will be used to stop you.”
I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t make sense. “Why?” I demand again, thoroughly exasperated.
“Because she doesn’t want to give up her crown,” The Tweedles answer me again with such emphasis that I feel I should take a deeper meaning from it.
My mind draws a blank and I’m left staring at them in consternation bordering on despair.
“When the attack comes, can you hold them off?” I ask, pushing my fear deep down into my stomach.
“We can,” The Knight says decisively, his hand once again on the rusty sword.
I turn back to the Carousel. “Eggbert?”
“Help me?” It says, the plaintive wail sounding faintly like a question.
“Yes,” I soothe. “I’m going to help you. But you have to help me.”
Somehow I feel the Carousel struggle.
“I don’t know,” I admit. “But you have to help me if you want to get out of there.”
Making up my mind, I ignore the others and loosen my cravat. Pushing up my lacy sleeves, I set the toolbox on the rotating platform and set to work.
I must have worked for hours, frantically trying to fit pieces together and hammer out dents, certain that the attack would come within seconds of me starting.
My anxiety slowly starts to disappear. Soon I no longer look over my shoulder, sure that I would see something lunging out of the shadows. My hearing dulls until all I focused on was the sound of tools against metal. My mind narrows. Instead of preparing myself for the attack, I focus more and more on what needed to be done, even going as far as to ignore the Carousel when pieces started fitting together on their own. It was slow work, but productive. I have most of the Carousel finished when the attack does come. I don’t see it. I’m inside the Carousel, talking to Eggbert in a very limited conversation, trying desperately to put the steam engine back together. Screams float into the centre column, jerking the hairs on the back of my neck and arms.
“What do I need to do?” I demand of the Carousel.
I have fixed the engine once, but that was when I had more time, when I could be careful and thorough about what I was doing.
Now I had none of that and I needed answers. The Carousel is less than forthcoming. It stalls and stutters, stammering as if it can’t remember.
“You built it!” I shriek at it, panic finally overtaking me.
I dare a look outside.
It’s a massacre. Somewhere in the fight, the circus members had abandoned their show and come to defend the Carousel. Bodies litter the ground. Some dead, others half-dead and still putting up a fight, makeshift weapons in hand. The enemy, made up of strange, disfigured creatures, advances through the thinning defence slowly. Crumbling clockwork pawns take to the front lines, brandishing sharpened tent poles as swords, taking down as many of the equally broken down playing card soldiers as they could before succumbing to their weathered gears. I stifle a scream. My heart is ratta tat tatting against my ribcage, and the engine clanks loudly in my trembling hands.
“Have at you!” The knight screams, dodging in and out of a Jack of Spades playing card, easily ducking the two swinging swords above and below him.
The Tweedle boys are screaming with delight, taking pleasure in a perverse game of tag where one boy races away from the enemy, leading him to his twin who is hiding behind a tree or stone. Enraged, the enemy has no idea the second boy has a secret weapon.
(I think I forgot to mention the Tweedle brothers each have a bandaged hand.)
One boy squeals delightedly, taunting the enemy until he is within sight of his brother. One ducks, the other jumps up, huge steel blades in place of fingers shining in the moonlight.
The enemy never knows what hit him. Paper bits float through the air like so many snowflakes, coming to rest on the boys’ shoulders as they giggle delightedly. Even William has a few tricks, as only a contortionist who spends much of his time resting his feet on his head can.
They’re buying me time, but they can’t hold out forever.
With feverish intensity I turn back to the engine in my trembling hands. Eggbert is trying to help me, by directing my hands with various cords and wires. It’s no use. The thing is damaged internally. Whatever came through and rent the Carousel did it carefully and with purpose.
I want to scream.
Something else does it for me.
The sound rips through me like a thunderclap, freezing me in place and stopping my heart.
The sounds of battle, familiar now, stop as well, shocked stupid by the unearthly roar.
“Come out, come out wherever you are,” A silken voice croons underneath the roar’s diminishing echo.
The Carousel moans, creaking around me, almost as if its trying to reach for her.
“Come out come out wherever you are,” The sweet voice calls again.
“Don’t!” Hat screams. “Stay wherever you are!”
“Come out or I turn her into a pile of sand.”
I drop the engine and come out of the centre column, hands raised. A girl, not much older than me looks at me through narrowed eyes.
“Kill him,” She snaps.
The roar sounds again.
I look up.
The woman laughs as the beast lunges toward me, vaulting over the Carousel’s tent. I barely manage to dodge out of the way of the teeth. Claws I missed tore my vest in two, separating skin from bone, causing me to land, face first in the soft ground.
“Didn’t count on that, did you?” The girl holding Hat demands, tightening her hold on the rag doll.
“Let him go, Minnie!” Hat screams, trying to twist her way out of her sister’s grasp.
“Not until he’s dead,” The other girl says calmly, looking at me dispassionately.
She was dressed for battle in chainmail and armour. A large red heart was painted on her breastplate, smeared with drying blood.
(When had she joined the battle?)
Blood leaks from between my clutched hands. I feel lightheaded and sick. The beast screams again, smelling blood.
“Kill him,” Minnie repeats.
A whip cracks through the night. The beast recoils from it, bearing its long teeth in a snarl. Another crack, the beast fights back, spreading impressive wings in a challenge, raking its claws in the air.
“‘Twas brilling and the slithey toves…” The queen sings.
The beast jerks its massive head in her direction, curious. Minnie sings as if it were a lullaby.
“Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.…dole a mimsy and the borogoves and the momerathes outgrabe..”
I swallow hard. The beast purrs loudly now, staring at me with hungry eyes.
“No sudden movements now,” Minnie teases, stroking the thing’s ugly head. “It doesn’t like it when you make sudden movements.”
“What the hell is that thing?!” I demand.
“The Jabberwock,” The Knight pants, coming to stand beside me.
“Go boy, if you have any sense in you, you’ll get to that column and fix our Carousel!”
He hauls me to my feet with no care to my injury, pushing me toward the yet untouched Carousel.
“GO!” He roars, finally pulling the ancient sword from its scabbard.
The blade sings as if it had been forged yesterday. A look of recognition crosses the Jabberwocky’s horrible face.
(I swear the thing smiles.)
They circle each other.
I force myself to run for the Carousel. With no way of fixing the machine, there’s no way I can do what they want me too, but at least it’s moderately safe inside.
“Help me,” The Carousel moans when I slam the column door shut.
“What?” I demand.
I’m losing too much blood. I can barely focus. My vision swims, obscuring the engine thousands of wires are trying to point to.
I want to throw up. I hear the pit patter of blood dropping onto a metal floor.
“Help me,” It insists, trying to lift the heavy engine.
I shake my head.
The door rattles in its hinges.
“Fee fi fo fum,” Minnie rages. “I smell the blood of a dead man!”
I scramble toward the engine. Clasping it in both hands, I check it over. A hole gapes at me from two of the pipes. Another hole, the size of a quarter, reveals singed and bent gears.
“There’s no way!” I despair, my breathing shallower now. “I don’t have the parts!”
The Carousel groans a disagreement. Claws the size of Volkswagen Beetles rend the door from its hinges, revealing a dishevieled Minnie. Her hands ball into fists, she tears after me, intent on the engine, slamming into me with all the force she can muster.
I go down like a sack of potatoes.
She laughs triumphantly, one foot on my wound, the engine in her hands.
“I have it!” She crows, holding the engine over her head. “I have it!”
My vision blurs again, creating a Van Gogh of colours and sounds.
“Here Demon!” Pierces my hearing in short bursts.
Battle sounds accompany the Knights challenges, seconded by Hat’s shouted curses and the Carousel’s constant creaking. Above all this was the knowledge I was dying and the Jabberwock’s screams of pain and rage.
My body goes numb very slowly, starting from the tips of my toes. Crawling up my legs, it took great pleasure in sapping the warmth from my limbs in languid spirals until I couldn’t feel my fingers. As if in a dream, I watch blue and yellow wires snake up my legs, ducking Minnie’s delicately slippered foot, and insert themselves into my chest.
A wonder I couldn’t feel them. They look so strange, wriggling like that as if they were searching for something.
It doesn’t surprise me when they find what they’re looking for and the missing parts appear at the end of their fibres.
(This is a dream, after all. Why shouldn’t it happen like this?)
I feel myself smile stupidly. My head dangles from side to side, my neck suddenly unable to support it. I try to move my fingers and toes.
I catch sight of the hideous red stain marring my destroyed clothing.
“Ugh,” I say tiredly, “well, that’s not very attractive.”
Then I laugh, struck by how ridiculous I sound. I’m dying and I suddenly care what I look like.
The laughter takes the queen by surprise. She doesn’t notice the Jabberwock behind her, doesn’t notice when the Knight lunges for its throat. She doesn’t hear the snicker snack his blade makes as it takes off the stupid beast’s ugly head. She doesn’t realise her head has followed until its too late.
Hat screams again.
I close my eyes, still feeling the stupid grin on my face.