This is my second time participating in Writer in Motion, so for more background on that you can check out their page, or my retrospective summary of it here. Ok, with that out of the way, on to this year’s prompt.
When I first saw the photo prompt this year (seen above), my instinct was to listen to Folklore on repeat until a witchy, sapphic, horror story exorcized itself from my body. The only real question left was is this book about a curmudgeon leaving the chaos of the world for this distant cabin or a chipper somebody who finds this mountain dwelling grump and convinces them the world isn’t so bad and they should come back down the mountain.
I’ve never actually never written anything witchy or horror and I’m sorry to inform anyone salivating for these ideas I’ve suggested thus far, but I continued brainstorming. I understand that short stories are your time to branch out and try something new. That’s what I thought at first too. But then I also thought, today is not that day.
It was probably because, at the time of my brainstorming, I happened to be hiking up an obnoxiously uphill trail around the NY finger lakes region. Whoever decided waterfalls should be up high is the worst. That’s when I realized this story isn’t about the cabin and whether someone is coming or going from it. It’s about the journey up the mountain.
Photos by me (2020). From left to right: Watkin’s Glen SP, Buttermilk Falls SP, and Chimney Bluff SP
This week happens to coincide with my wedding anniversary (hence painful excursions up mountains for something cute and romantic like a waterfall). Anyway, the hike reminded me of another impromptu hike up a mountain that Husband and I went on in Banff National park in Canada. The set up was perfect for a romcom short story.
I ended up recasting the characters. Not that I’m not an amazing subject, but this was more fun with new characters. For my last WIM short story the two main characters were lovers to enemies in a fantasy pirate adventure, but for this one I’m looking at lovers to enemies and back to lovers again in a contemporary romcom.
I’ve already finished the first draft and plan on releasing it hopefully tomorrow (Aug 7). So get ready for a pessimist, a himbo, and a whole lot of references to Speed starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.
“Rose, Sky, Violet, and Amber, I have your queen.” The witch’s voice echoed through the halls of the palace as the four sisters listened, shivering on the drawbridge. “You’ll never save her!” A loud cackle sent their hearts racing.
“Does she think this is a game?” growled Amber, clenching her fist.
“What is she talking about?” asked Sky, clutching her older sister’s sleeve.
“There is a legend of three tokens,” replied Amber. Spending as much of her day in the library as she could, Amber was the sister most familiar in kingdom lore. “If a princess collects all three tokens, she will have all she needs to defeat the witch and save our mother. She would become Princess of the Kingdom.”
“What do these tokens even look like?” asked Violet, already annoyed by the whole situation. She moved back a strand of long black locks, just enough to see her sister as she continued.
“I don’t know,” Amber replied, adjusting her glasses. “They appear in different places for each person, but the three items should be the same no matter what.”
“We should split up,” said Rose, stepping forward and taking her rightful place as oldest of the four. “I’ll go first and check the throne room. Wait until I enter before following to make sure this isn’t a trap.”
They all held their breath as Rose stepped over the threshold. Nothing happened. She took another step. Again nothing. I guess this search will be rather straight forward then, thought Rose as she continued down the hall and around the corner. She opened the double doors to the familiar, red walls and velvety carpet of the throne room. Standing in stark contrast sat a simple, black lantern. The hairs on Rose’s neck stood on end as she walked over to pick it up. This was too easy.
“I’ll go next,” cried Sky, scampering forward eagerly. This was her chance. She would be thirteen soon and no longer the baby her sisters saw her as. She only made it to the first doorway when a whinny from within called to her heart. “Buttercup,” she cried, clasping her hands together. “And Chester!” Her two favorite horses were settling in for the night, but she could see from their restless movements that they were just as excited to see her.
She hurried down the stairs, almost stepping on a small hand-mirror in her haste. What was this doing here? A stable was no place for a mirror. It was pretty though. Sky slipped it into her satchel to show her sisters later before returning her attention to the two horses.
“We shouldn’t just be exploring without a plan,” said Amber to Violet, the only two still outside. “We should keep track of which rooms have items. A system will be more efficient. I don’t think the witch will leave us to search in peace.” Amber adjusted her glasses again before continuing. “The kitchen is just past the stables. You should take that room and I’ll take whatever is after it.”
“Whatever,” said Violet, rolling her eyes. She was tired of waiting and walked past Amber into the castle. At the kitchen door she stopped and honestly did think about going in, but the room just past the kitchen was the dungeon. Also, Amber wasn’t the boss of her. There was no way she was going into the hot, boring kitchen when she could explore the royal dungeons. Maybe she would find a skull or a rusty skeleton key.
The dungeon door screeched on its hinges and Violet practically squealed with joy. A single, high window provided the only source of light by the fading sun, falling in a small square in the back corner of the room. In the center of the light, poking out of a pile of hay, lay a skeleton holding a small, pink hand mirror. Cool, thought Violet as she walked closer. Something about the mirror called to her, and it couldn’t just be the rush of being so close to a dead body. She pulled the mirror from the skeletal hand and stuck it in her bag.
Amber sighed as she watched her sister blatantly ignore her advice to search the kitchen and skip to the next room instead. Deep breath, no problem here. She would search the kitchen herself. The throne room was just around the corner, so the kitchen was the last of the first four rooms in the castle. There was still order, though slightly more chaotic than Amber would have orchestrated on her own.
The kitchen was covered in pots and cooking implements. Anything could be a magical item, but nothing was calling out to her. As she reached the back wall, the kitchen fire burst into a blaze and the broth boiling in the pot began to bubble loudly and boil over. What was going on? Amber grabbed a nearby towel and rushed to the pot to try and save the broth.
A gratingly-high laugh filled the room and Amber froze mid-step, her hand still reaching for the pot. “And who do I see?” A dark figure emerged from behind the door – the evil witch. “Amber, waiting for me?” Her black, cropped hair was topped precariously with an insult of a crown. A long black cloak hid her, showing nothing but claw-like fingers grasping a long, golden staff. She smiled lazily. “Turn into a frog!”
There was a loud pop and a flash of light outside the barred window of the dungeon door. Violet froze on the second step gazing up. Something was wrong. She ran up the steps and back down the hall she first walked with Amber. Just as she caught sight of the door, Sky came running from the opposite direction and into the kitchen.
“Amber!” Sky cried.
Had Sky heard something more? Did she know what was going on? A cackle sounded from the kitchen and Violet hid in a nearby shadow across the hallway. Another popping sound and a bright flash came from the kitchen. A moment later a frog hopped out the door, a comically large, blue bow atop its head.
“What’s going on?” called Rose, coming down the hall from the throne room. “Amber? I thought I heard something.” She passed Violet without seeing her and approached the kitchen, not noticing the small frog with their sister’s bow.
Let her go, a voice said in Violet’s head. Then no one can stop you from becoming Princess of the Kingdom.
“Rose, wait!” Violet called, emerging from her hiding spot and catching her sister’s arm steps from the door. “The room is cursed.” She would become Princess of the Kingdom without cheating her sister. Violet pointed at the small frog on the floor, and Rose gasped, covering her mouth as she recognized the blue bow.
“There has to be a way to break the curse,” Rose stated, not looking away from the frog. “Amber is like this, too?”
“I didn’t check, but that’s the room she entered.” Guilt cramped Violet’s stomach as she realized the fate she had nearly dodged and sent Amber to in her place. She let her hair fall in front of her, hiding her face behind a black curtain.
“We have to keep going. Once we defeat the witch, her curse will be broken.” Rose spoke matter-of-factly, hoping her tone would push her doubt away. The evil witch had already stolen their mother. She would not take her sisters as well. Not while Rose could still stop her. “Have you found anything yet?”
Violet bristled at the question. Why did Rose want to know what item she found? Did she want it for herself? “Nothing yet,” Violet lied. She felt the mirror weigh heavier in her satchel. “How about you?”
“I found a lantern in the throne room,” Rose replied, “I was hoping you had found something too and we could team up. We need to finish this game before anyone else is hurt.”
She wants your token, the voice whispered to Violet. Don’t let her take it from you. “We should split up,” said Violet. “Amber said that was the fastest route.”
Rose nodded and walked down the hall and around the corner. Violet waited until she was out of sight before slipping into the garden. She didn’t want Rose following her and seeing her token, stealing her glory.
The garden was small and simple with a single fountain in the back. The walls were lined with greenery and flowers, and a paved path strolled down the middle. The only sounds were a soft breeze rustling the leaves and the cheerful bubble of the fountain. A small bird hopped from branch to branch, but remained silent. Feeling herself relax, Violet was surprised to find a long, pink wand lying in the middle of the path. Approaching cautiously, Violet picked it up. Immediately, a voice like their mother spoke, filling the whole garden.
“Cast a spell,” the singsong voice proclaimed.
Violet dropped the wand like it had burnt her and stepped back, glancing around to see if anyone else had heard. This was the answer Rose was looking for – a way to break the curse. They could all work together to save their mother. Someone else will find the tokens before you, her inner voice warned. Leave them. There was no harm in leaving them frogs for now. Once the witch was vanquished and their mother saved, they would surely change back. This would just speed up her victory without her sisters to distract her.
Stepping widely around the wand, Violet continued to search the garden. Her efforts were rewarded, for there on the fountain lay a golden key. She snatched it up and placed it in the bag with the mirror. Now, all she needed was that lantern, and she knew exactly where to find one.
Rose walked to the first room around the corner. At the sound of snoring inside, she quickly retreated and closed the door behind her. No need to disturb someone’s sleep when there was still one other room to check first. She continued on to the last room – the music room.
Inside was whimsically tiled in blue and yellow with a grand piano in the far corner and a man with a lute standing nearby. He stood and bowed as she entered but said nothing further. Rose responded with a brief curtsy, but was too busy scanning the room to start up a conversation. Her gaze landed on a pink stick lying on the floor with a funny star on the top. Curious, she picked it up.
“Cast a spell,” the voice chimed.
This was it! This was the cure she was looking for. Rose ran from the room and back to the kitchen. Careful to not enter, she scanned the hallway until she found the blue bow. She pointed the wand at her sister and a chiming song started. There was another pop and a flash and then Sky sat there on the floor where the frog had been, slightly rumpled but still good as new.
“Sky!” Rose exclaimed and encircled her baby sister in a hug. “You’re back. I was so worried for you.”
“Rose,” Sky answered, equally excited if a bit perplexed by her sisters fervent greeting. She didn’t recall being gone so long, and enjoyed how high she could jump as a frog. But Sky loved warm hugs and would not complain. “I was coming to find you,” Sky continued, reaching into her bag. “I found this and thought maybe it was a clue.” Sky gave Rose a mirror.
“That’s two of the items,” Rose replied. “We just need one more. Where is Amber? Did she find anything?”
Sky’s eyes grew large and dewy, and Rose knew the answer was not a good one. Looking around, Rose realized the wand had vanished. “We’ll save her, Sky,” Rose assured her. “Don’t worry.”
With the key and mirror safely in her bag, Violet decided it was time to leave and look for that last item – the lantern. As she approached the gate, the bird began chirping excitedly. Violet froze, unsettled by the bird’s sudden activity. An evil cackle came from behind the fountain as the witch climbed into sight.
“And who have we here,” she laughed. “Violet, waiting for me? Turn into a frog!”
Rose and Sky heard the pop from across the castle and ran. They reached the garden gate, but Rose knew they couldn’t save Violet. She stopped and tried to look in, but silly Sky kept going. Too late, Rose realized Sky still didn’t know the rooms continued to carry the curse after the first spell. Another pop, another flash, and a long cackle from the witch, and Rose was suddenly very alone.
Violet opened her eyes to find a flower towering over her head. Shrieking, she jumped backwards, but her legs caught under her and she fell on her face. And that’s when she noticed her hands. No, no, no! A pair of green webbed feet lay before her on the giant tiles moving when she told her hands to move. This was her life now. Could it be any worse?
There was another popping sound and a flash, and for a brief moment, Violet knew she was saved. This was clearly a mistake which would now be reversed. But when she turned around, she found another frog with Sky’s blue bow atop her head. Again, Sky? Someone needed to sit down and have a talk with her about cursed rooms. Rolling her eyes, Violet hopped past her sister and out the gate. She couldn’t be saved if she stayed in a cursed room and no frog could be Princess of the Kingdom.
Traveling was exhausting and took exponentially longer than when she was bipedal. By the time she reached the hall she needed a break. The castle was quiet – no silent. Then, a door hitting the wall as it was flung open and a single set of running footsteps.
“Nothing,” mumbled Rose, passing Violet without even noticing her. “Nothing in the music room.” She continued around the corner, slipping on the smooth floors in her hurry. Violet hopped out of the way just in time to avoid being crushed as Rose crashed to the floor, barely catching herself with her hands and one knee. The impact echoed off the walls and Violet knew that would smart. And yet Rose stood, not even taking a moment to pause and collect herself, and hurried off, a slight limp apparent in her run.
Violet watched Rose disappear around the corner, a sinking feeling creeping into her stomach. Amber was still a frog, Sky was again a frog, and now Violet was also a frog. Rose was all alone.
“Ha ha ha!” The witch’s cackle filled the castle and Violet thought she might be sick. Trumpets blasted from the throne room – the direction in which Rose had just disappeared.
No! thought Violet as she pushed past the tired burn in her legs and hopped down the hall. Rose was their last hope and now she was gone. Regret sank into Violet as she hurried to the door. She should have been more cooperative. If she had only helped. She saw the wand. She could have saved Amber and they could all be together now. This was all her fault.
She reached the throne room, the door blurring out of sight as her eyes filled with tears. They would never be human again, and their mother would be trapped forever.
“I found one!” Rose cried, bursting from the dungeon just past the throne room, a long, pink wand in her hand. Spotting Violet, she pointed the wand. A chiming song started and then a pop and a flash.
It took Violet a moment to understand she was sitting on the floor. Rose offered a hand and she accepted it, wrapping her arms around her big sister’s waist.
“Thanks, Rose,” Violet said, smooshing her head into Rose’s shoulder so she wouldn’t see the tears that had broken free.
“Violet, you’re ok,” Rose soothed. “We’re both ok. We have a lantern and a mirror. We just need one more item and this can all be over. What rooms do you have left to check?”
Violet let her go and stepped back, wiping her eyes clear before letting her hair cover her face again. Taking one calming breath, she reached into her bag and pulled out the key.
“Go to the tower, Rose.”
Rose took the key from Violet and nodded solemnly. She would not let her sisters down. Running for the stairs, she lit the lantern, scaring away the darkness as she ascended. The lantern cast only enough light to see the next few steps, but she wouldn’t let her momentum falter. Not when everyone she loved was counting on her.
There was a single empty room at the top of the stairs with a set of barred doors at the back. “Mother?” Rose whispered, unable to believe she had found her so easily.
“Rose,” cried her mother. “Help me!”
“I’m here, mother,” sighed Rose, relief flooding her. She rushed to the door and set the lantern down, fishing for the key and fumbling in her haste. Her hands were shaking from the adrenaline. This would all be over soon.
She dropped the key, the metal falling to the stone floor and echoing in the small space. It landed near what looked like a black curtain. Rose scampered to grab the key but the cloth swallowed it up. She followed the long curtain up with her eyes until she found she was crouching at the feet of the evil witch.
“Ha!” the witch exclaimed. “You’ll never save her.” The flickering light of the lantern lit the witch’s face from below, casting harsh shadows across her crooked nose and demented smile.
Rose jumped back, feeling for the wall behind her. What was she supposed to do now? The key was gone and all she had left was Sky’s mirror. Pulling it out of her bag, she held it in front of her, wielding it like a weapon. If the witch came at her, she would defend herself.
A small flash off of the mirror caught her eye and Rose glanced around the room, never fully leaving the witch from her sights. Her eyes had finally adjusted to the dim lighting and she noticed a shuttered window near the entrance she had come through. A ridiculous idea started to form, but at the moment that was all she had.
The witch began to advance, her arms lifting. She was going to curse Rose and no one would be left to save them. Not when she was the only one with all the items. Rose sprinted, half leaping, to the window and flew open the shutters, tearing the latch off its hinges in her haste.
“No, don’t!” the witch hissed, covering her face and retreating to the shadows. Rose had hoped to blind the witch and give her time to grab the key, but this was better still. She was afraid of the light. Stepping into the middle of the room, Rose held up the mirror, directing the light at the cowering witch.
“This is for my sisters,” she cried. The witch screamed, grasping the wall and trying to shuffle away from the beam, but Rose still saw Sky’s blue bow atop that tiny frog. The scared look on Violet’s face when she was human again. Her mother’s pleas for help. “This is for my mother,” Rose continued pushing the witch out of the corner with her light beam. “And this is for our kingdom.” The witch had finally reached the windowsill and Rose ran and shoved her with all of her might.
“No!” the witch shrieked, her voice carrying the one word as she plummeted to the ground.
Instead of hearing an impact, there was a loud pop and a flash from the stairwell. Her sisters were safe. Now there was just one more member of their family to take care of. Rose scanned the flood for the glint of gold. Grabbing it, she hurried to the cell and unlocked the door.
“You saved me!” Her mother sat there on the cell floor her arms flung wide and a bright smile upon her face. “You are the Princess of the Kingdom.”