Freebie Mondays: Let Down Your Long Stair

Freebie Mondays: Let Down Your Long Stair

This is an indirect follow up to Mirror, Mirror On the Wall, which tells the story of what happened to the evil queen’s magic mirror after the events of Snow White and The Spindle of a Spinning Wheel, which features a follow up to the item post Sleeping Beauty. Possibly my favorite installment, If the Shoe Fits, involves Cinderella’s glass slipper. I followed that with The Singing Shell, a mashup tribute to both the Disney and Hans Christian Andersen versions of The Little Mermaid.

I have a list of these stashed away that I’m always trying to add to. Unexpectedly, the last time I wrote a Darkling Faerie Tale it was based on the Princess and the Pea (Night’s Disruptions), which wasn’t even on my list. Today’s installment was on my list, though it took awhile to decide how I wanted to handle it. It’s based on Rapunzel.
. . .

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, extend your long stair!”

As Doctor Edgar Olsen swung the flaxen colored whip, it almost seemed to change shape, growing longer, sprouting rungs. So that when he flicked his wrist, sending the end across the chasm, it seemed as though a spectacular rope ladder flew from his fist.

The hooks on the far end caught against the stone. And with a single savage yank, the archeologist anchored the bridge in place for their crossing.

It had to be some kind of trick – street magic, perhaps, or an optical illusion. Something that made the whip appear to transform when, really, it was only ever the rope ladder folded in such a way that it appeared flat and braided while it wasn’t in use.

It was a handy contraption – Scott had to give the man that. But Doctor Olsen seemed so perversely pleased with himself as he motioned his team of young assistants to cross the bridge ahead of him, that Scott couldn’t help wanting to smack the smirk off his face.

Two weeks they had been traipsing through these caves, and they had little to show for it aside from scraped knees and torn clothing. He hadn’t come down here for glory, admittedly. Any credit for objects they found would  ultimately go to the head of research, the good doctor now setting his boot against the rope ladder, making a show of testing his weight before he committed to the crossing.

But the interns had been promised payment in the form of a cut of the findings. That and a healthy dose of exposure – the only official reward on record. But exposure wasn’t going to pay his damn rent. And he rather needed to make a payment on his ever-increasing student loans if he wanted to survive to reap the rewards of the placement this internship would earn him.

If he had realized there was so much survival and so little paid lab work involved in archeology, he would have chosen a different major.

When the entire team had crossed the golden rope bridge, Doctor Olsen leaned over the cliff edge and withdrew the hooks he had so expertly anchored to the rock. With another jerk and a flick of his wrist, the whip reversed its unfolding trick, becoming flat once more, allowing the scientist to wrap it back in the coil that often rested against his hip.

Without Rapunzel, this trip would have been three times as miserable, which made Scott grateful Olsen carried the thing. But this was the third time they had seen the trick, and it was starting to grow old.

“Why don’t we just head into the heart of the ruins?” Scott muttered under his breath, not for the first time. Everyone knew there were artifacts in there. The last three expeditions had come home with priceless relics of a half-forgotten civilization and talk of plenty more to uncover.

“Because he wants us to work for it,” Maryanne muttered. She seemed to be the only one paying attention to Scott’s grumbling. The rest of the group had already gathered around Doctor Olsen for a lecture on rock formations.

Natural rock formations which had absolutely no relation at all to the reasons they came down here.

“Or he doesn’t really want to share from the collection we gather,” Scott suggested. The idea had been growing in his mind for most of two days, but this was the first time he dared give it voice. The contract which allowed the interns to pay themselves from the expeditions take was verbal and extremely unofficial. There’d be no way to argue or press about it when they returned to the light of the surface world.

He was starting to think Olsen lured them all down here to be his workhorses with talk of gold and sparkles but no intention of actually keeping his word.

Maryanne clicked her tongue. “I think he just wants to show off. After all, his research trips have become too expensive. His only option for funding is college internships.” Her tone did not indicate whether or not she agreed with Scott. But the fact that she did not stalk away said plenty about her opinion.

The less time they spent actually digging artifacts free of the rock, the fewer easy to misplaces pieces there would be for the students to grab. One or two crumbling rings and a broken piece of tablet would go a long way toward satisfying Scott’s debts, but there were a dozen other eager young interns after the same.

“The breach is right there,” he insisted, pointing to the long chasm that cut through the central portion of the chamber. Why they were taking such a long route, hopping from platform island to platform island, descending and ascending along the edge of the ruins, he couldn’t fathom. “All we’d need is the ladder the old man keeps strapped to his hip.”

“How do you know it’s long enough?” Maryanne protested – again not speaking against Scott’s suggested intentions.

“It’s long enough,” he retorted. “Remember the first time he unfurled it?” It seemed almost endless in its length, stretching across what seemed an impossibly wide gap. Certainly it had been a narrow crevasse, thin enough that the passing students had been able to brace against the sides of the rock where the rope bridge sagged in the center.

But if it could bridge that space, it could cross just about anything.

“He never takes it off,” Maryanne sighed and shook her head as she began picking her way along the rock-strewn path to catch up with the rest of the group, which had just shuffled into motion again. “I’ll bet he never lets it out of his sight.”

“Surely,” Scott agreed. Otherwise he and his entire entourage would be stuck. “But he has to sleep sometime. If we were quick and careful, I’ll bet we could skitter into the ruins, grab a thing or two and make it back by the time he wakes.”

The sun did not penetrate down here; they had long since left its ability to slip through the cracks. But previous expeditions had left a series of electric lamps tamped into the rocks, powered by tiny replaceable generators and controlled by a remote kept in Doctor Olsen’s pocket. The light seemed dim and fragile against the overwhelming press of open shadows, but it illuminated the path previous expeditions had taken both night and day. Olsen only ever dimmed the things at night, so they’d need less fire and lamp light to see by, and so that no one would hurt themself if they roused from some nightmare in the middle of the sleep period and forgot where – exactly – they were.

“It might take a few tries,” Maryanne insisted. “I’m sure it isn’t exactly like the previous expeditions left things lying around.”

Scott wanted her to be wrong. He wanted this theft, if he attempted it, to be easy. But after a moment he sighed and said, “Yeah, you’re probably right.”

“Rapunzel!” Doctor Olsen crowed as he once again pulled the coiled whip free of his hip and began the process of unwinding it.

“Then again…” he cast Maryanne a conspiratorial glance. “If we could slip away once, surely an extra time or two wouldn’t make much difference.”

He could tell by the sparkle in his companion’s eyes before she turned that she was considering it.

*   *   *

“Are you sure about this?” Maryanne hissed as she followed Scott from the quiet camp.

A small array of tents formed a rough circle around the central fire, long since allowed to burn low. Wood and other consumables  had to be brought with them, so fire was used only for cooking and rarely for warmth. Each of the students carried a heavy blanket as part of their pack. Portable cookers had also been provided to help conserve the number of materials they needed to carry, but Doctor Olsen burned a fire every third night to make sure everyone had ate a proper large meal.

Now they were sleeping it off, the sounds of snoring and heavy breathing emanating from several of the tents. There was no need to keep watch because the traffic through here had long since deterred any sizable predators, and no one expected members of the convoy to creep through the shadows for any reason other than to use the privy.

“I’m sure,” Scott replied. He paused in his hunch-back creep long enough to face her and hold up the coiled length of rope. It seemed to glimmer gold even in shadows between the dim circles of light cast by the electric lamps, a fact that made Marryanne swallow hard.

Scott grinned, then turned and continued picking his way through the dimness. Each of them stubbed their toes several times, but always swallowed it to avoid rousing suspicious sleepers.

They were dangerously close to the edge when Scott finally stopped, and Maryanne’s heart lodged in her throat.

She shouldn’t have agreed to this. The fact that they were unofficially allowed to steal from the expedition to make up for the lack of payment was bad enough. Now she was stealing from her classmates and advisor as well. She should just be patient like the rest of them. If that meant she didn’t end up lining her pockets… Well, that wasn’t the reason she’d come in the first place.

She had opened her mouth to say these things, to prevent Scott from carrying out his plan, but he had already unfurled the golden length of rope whip that became a rope bridge when cast properly.

“Rapunzel,” he hissed, what little of his voice he allowed to escape his throat choked with mirth as he tried to replicate Olsen’s wrist flick, “extend your long stair!”

Maryanne had long assumed that the pass phrase was unnecessary. It had to be the way Olsen flicked his wrist and flung the rope that caused it to unfurl. But she noticed with some interest that the whip remained whip-like until Scott mockingly spoke the words that Olsen always used to activate it.

With a sudden sharp cracking sound, the rope unfurled.

But it did not unfold to form the long rows attached by rungs the class had been using to traverse the caverns where the previous teams had not left higher-tech bridges to ease their travel.

Instead it coiled rapidly around Scott’s upper body.

He shifted as soon as the rope tangled him in its snare, trying to pull it free, but he was standing precariously close to the cliff’s edge, which left him little room to move.

In the blink of an eye, the rope tightened, constricting Scott’s arms against his torso like a snake sprung to life from the depths. He tripped, but blessedly fell backward, away from the cliff.

As he tumbled in the rocks, fighting to break his arms free of the rope’s terrible grip, Maryanne forced breath into her numb lungs. Though her feet felt frozen, she forced them into motion, knelt next to Scott and grasped at the golden tether.

But no matter how hard she tore at the edges of the rope, she could not get her fingers around it. It squeezed harder and harder, digging deeper and deeper into Scott’s flesh, causing great purple welts to rise beneath it.

Scott tried to scream, but the rope coiled around his neck so tightly that only a sharp wheeze escaped.

In what seemed like hours but must have been mere seconds, his struggles began to ease.

“Scott!” Maryanne cried, tears already dampening her cheeks, though she didn’t know when they started. “Scott, stay with me!”

She tore harder at the rope, thinking it should be easy to unwrap the rope from the soft flesh beneath it, but it was hard as stone and unyielding beneath her fingers.

A single puff of breath seemed to escape Scott’s gaping mouth, and then his body went still beneath the rope. His eyes seemed to bulge from their sockets with shocked disbelief that things had gone so terribly wrong.

Maryanne froze, lifting her trembling hands away from what she now believed to be a corpse, momentarily unable to respond to this catastrophic event.

Then sound bubbled from somewhere in the depths of her gut. It burst from her mouth in the form of a high-pitched scream. It kept flowing, filling the whole of her mind, so that she wasn’t even aware of the way she scrambled back toward camp, tearing her palms and knees against the rough stone between the freshly dead body and the warmth of the fire cooling among the familiar and sane.

The camp had roused by the time she reached it, but she was barely aware of anything beyond the sound still scraping her throat and the warmth of Doctor Olsen’s arms as he drew her close to him. He smelled like dirt and oil, like smoke and sweat. But it was so shockingly normal, that it finally halted the tide of sound flowing from her throat.

It felt as though it took a long time for his soft, soothing sounds to ease the terror from her limbs. And by then others had discovered the horror that waited on the edge of the rock island. Other, shorter screams escaped other throats as more students skittered into the warm comfort of Doctor Olsen’s presence.

Then Maryanne felt some force pull her to her feet, and allowed it to sweep her back toward the ledge.

Scott would be gone when she got there, she told herself. It had all been a dream. A horrible dream.

But even the strong grip of Doctor Olsen’s hand on her shoulder didn’t ward the chill that swept through her body when she saw that he was, indeed, dead, still wrapped in the glimmering gold of the rope.

“Oh Rapunzel,” Doctor Olsen murmured, his voice heavy with sadness.

He pressed Maryanne onto a rock and she watched with numb disbelief as he knelt next to the body, pressed his fingers to the golden weaving and murmured some word she couldn’t make sense of.

“You were standing with him, weren’t you?” the archeologist asked. His voice was tired and sad rather than accusatory, and all Maryanne could do was nod.

Then Doctor Olsen sighed and shook his head as he fastened the golden coil back to his belt. “She must have thought you were a pair of lovers hoping to slip away for some reason.”

He did not ask what they had really been trying to do, a blessing Maryanne couldn’t begin to fathom. How she was ever going to talk about this, she didn’t know. Scott had been greedy, sure, but he didn’t deserve to die for it!

“She doesn’t like lovers,” Doctor Olsen murmured, his voice choked with pity. “It was love that got her severed from her original host, after all. Forbidden love. I suppose she figures if those two couldn’t be together, she’d never be used for such trysts again.”

It made no sense to her that Scott should be dead as revenge for some failed love affair he had never even heard of. Even less sense than that the rope whip really was magical and somehow managed to steal a life through some bizarre will of its own.

But Doctor Olsen refused to be questioned further. He returned the students to their beds, assigning one of the other girls to watch over Maryanne until morning when they could start the sad trek back to the surface where Maryanne would somehow, someday, need to explain what the hell she had just witnessed.

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