The Princess and the Ring
“Crowndon hasn’t been kind, lately,” Vertiline Torp said as she turned from the opening of the literal hole in the wall she and her brother, Pigott, called home. She struck a match and lit a small tallow candle.
“Crowndon ain’t never been kind, Verti,” Pigott said, sitting against the back wall with his eyes closed, his body shivering with fever. “Not never to the likes of us.”
He coughed quietly into his arm. Vertiline smiled ruefully and pulled a tin of salve from within a cinderblock she used to stash things. She’d lifted the salve from a salesman some months back, she couldn’t remember how long. The salesman had been of the snake oil variety, selling dyed water and cheap whiskey to the desperate and stupid of the Klankenvroot Gutter, but the salve was real enough. Probably not something the salesman intended to sell. A private possession. None of these thoughts mattered much to Vertiline, just ghostly whispers in her memory as she dipped her fingers into the tin and pulled out a little dab of the salve. Had to be sparing with the stuff. That traveling salesman was nowhere to be seen, long time now. Either moved on or rolled by the Rats.
“Thanks, sissy,” Pigott said as she rubbed it on his chest. “But you know that’s not doing much good.”
She was all too aware. The salve wasn’t a cure. It was something called a ‘amnegezic’, or something. It could only bring relief. The only way to really help him would be to get out of the Gutter, and that wasn’t happening anytime soon, not with the Thickies running the streets.
“Tell me a story.”
“What sorta story do you want to hear?”
“I dunno. One where the good guys win.”
“I dunno any where the good guys win.”
“Make one up.”
Verti was silent for a moment. She thought of something. Wasn’t a story, not really. A memory. A memory she’d not told anyone. A dangerous kind of memory. She’d have to make it into a story.
“Alright,” she said, and turned to pull down the curtain that served as a door for their hole, dug into the wall of the Gutter. She listened, could still hear the hustle and bustle of the other Rats outside, and so she lifted a section of board that served as flooring. Didn’t leave much of a dry spot for her to sit, but it muffled the sound well enough. She checked the candle, made sure it wasn’t in danger of catching anything on fire. It wasn’t, but she moved it down to the ground between them anyway.
“Well?” Pigott pushed.
“There was once a girl, her name was…Birdie.”
“Sounds a lot like Verti.”
“Yup. How about that?”
Pigott didn’t respond, so Vertiline continued.
“Verti was a princess, but she didn’t know that, not yet. But she had a golden ring.”
“Did the ring mean she was a princess?”
“But she didn’t know that yet.”
“When did she find out?”
“Not for a long time. This story isn’t about that, though.”
“But it’s about the ring?”
“You have a ring.”
Vertline looked down at her left hand. On her thumb she wore a thin band of worn tin. She wore it on her thumb because her other fingers weren’t big enough yet.
“Now. The ring was her favorite thing in all the world. A beautiful thing, and it was hers, her only thing, and she liked to sit in the sun and let the light shine on it. Nothing unusual about that, right? Nothing wrong with that? She didn’t do it to flaunt or tease or anything. She just like the way it looked.
“But one day, a big brute, a troll, or maybe just a troll of a man, Birdie couldn’t really tell the difference, saw the gleam of the golden ring from his hiding place in the trees. He comes lumbering out, walking all Ziggy, like a jammy on a bender, and he bellows at her: ‘What’s you got there, vittle? A pretty?’
“The voice took Birdie by surprise, and the smell even more so, like rice left in a barrel, and she pulled her hand behind her back. And she said, ‘I ain’t got nothing for you!’”
“Verti?” Pigott interrupted. “I thought you said Birdie was a princess.”
“Then why’d she say, ‘ain’t’. Princesses and them all don’t say ‘ain’t’.”
“She didn’t grow up like a princess. She grew up like us, so she didn’t learn all that stuff, like being proper and stuff, yeah?”
“Oh. So, proper folk, they start off like us, and then they got to learn to be proper?”
“So, what’s keepin’ us from bein’ proper? Can’t we learn it, too? We’re smart, right?”
“Yeah. Smarter than most, I’d wager.”
“So, what’s keepin’ us?”
“A whole lotta stuff. Bein proper’s more than just speakin’ right, yeah? You have to be rich…”
“So we nick a few purses. Done and done.”
“Not just rich, though. You have to know people.”
“Oh. And we don’t know people.”
“No. And you gotta be related to the right people.”
“Oh. We’re just related to each other.”
“I think that’s okay.”
Verti smiled. “Me too.”
“So, the troll, or the troll of a man. What he look like?”
“He was brutish, with a big nose, and a big wart on the tip, with hair growing out of it long enough to braid.”
“Damn right, gross. And he had a lazy eye, and a bum leg, and a bald head that he tried to hide under a bowler cap he found in a ditch that was two sizes too small and just made the bald spot look bigger.”
Pigott laughed, then coughed, then said, “That sounds like Old Turner.”
“Yup. And guess what the troll’s name was?”
“No. Wart Face.”
Pigott giggled again. Vertiline lived for that laugh, and dreaded the inevitable cough that followed. She gave him a sip of water and when the fit ended, she continued.
“Wart Face plodded out into the field where Birdie sat, every ounce of fat bouncing every step of the way. Birdie had to hold her nose because the stink was so bad.
“’What’s that you got in your hand there, vittle?’ Wart Face croaked at her. Birdie stood up and held out one hand (the other still behind her back). She said, ‘Nothing. Just like I said before. Now get out of here, before you kill all the grass with your stink.”
“Can you kill grass with stink?”
“Apparently. Saw it in a funny once.”
“Anyways, Wart Face didn’t like being told what to do, and he didn’t like being lied to. And despite being ugly and mean, and drunk out of his wits half the time, he had a certain kind of smarts.”
“No. Like a snake.”
“Them’s at the university call it ‘impstinks’, or something. It’s something all mean things have, makes it easier for them to kill nice things.”
“So, he knew Verti was lying?”
“Birdie. And yes. He knew Birdie was lying, but that was more because she made a mistake.”
“And what mistake was that?”
“She acted like she had something to hide.”
“But she did.”
“Yeah, but Wart Face didn’t know that. It was a lesson she learned that day. Years later, another troll saw the ring, but that time she was able to trick it.”
“By acting like the ring was nothing special.”
“So that troll left her alone?”
“No. That troll tried to eat her. That was another lesson she learned.
“But, back to Wart Face. ‘Show me t’other hand, vittle.’ Birdie dropped her first hand and put it behind her back. She switched the ring from one hand to the other, and held out her second hand.
“Wart Face narrowed his eyes at her.
“’Show me both hands at the same time,’ he growled. Birdie panicked, then. If she’d been wearing trousers, like I do now, she could’ve stashed the ring in the waist band, but no. She was wearing a stupid dress. She could have dropped the ring behind her, but she was afraid the troll would see.”
“So what did she do?”
“She turned and bolted, down from the hill toward the trees. Wart Face raced after her, calling her names and shouting all the horrible things he would do to her when he caught her.”
“What types of things?”
“Things you don’t need to know about right now. She ran into the trees, ran like the wind. Surely, she was running faster than Wart Face, but the troll’s stubby legs carried his bloated body quicker than should have been possible.
“Verti tried to dodge him…”
“The girl’s name. It was Birdie. You said Verti.”
“Oh. Well, you know what I meant. Can I keep going?”
“BIRDIE tried to dodge him, scrambling through branch and root, but that only slowed her down. Wart Face was like a train, and he just crashed through the brambles and bush. He was so close, now, she could feel his hot breath on her back. And all the while, the ring cut a tiny circle in the palm of her hand.
“She thought to herself, this is it, Birdie. That’s all you get. And she thought about throwing the ring in his face to save herself. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. The ring was too important to her. It was a part of her.”
Verti realized that she was playing with the tin band around her left thumb. Pigott had noticed it too, so she stopped. She crossed her arms across her chest, wedging her arms under her armpits to keep them still.
“What happened next?” Pigott said. He was wide awake, now. That was the opposite effect she meant the story to have. Verti made a conscious effort to speak softly, afraid someone might overhear the end of her memory-story.
“Verti came to a riverbed, and in the wall of the riverbed was a pipe. She dove into it. And Wart Face, in his blind stupidity, dove in after her. But the pipe was just big enough for her, so it was much too small for Wart Face, and he got stuck at the waist…”
“Just like Old Turner!”
“Pigott, shhh. Not so loud. It’s late and we don’t want to wake no one. So, Wart Face…he didn’t seem to notice he was stuck as he scrabbled for her, clawing at the floor of the pipe with thick fingers and cracked, yellow nails. It wasn’t until Verti began to crawl away from him that he realized his situation. Anger gave way to desperation. She ignored him, and continued up the pipe. Up ahead, she saw light in the top of the pipe. And further up ahead, she heard the rush of water.
“Birdie had escaped the evil Wart Face, but now she faced a flood. With only one option, she kept forward, towards the light. Unfortunately for her, the hole in the top of the pipe was covered with a grate. It was old and rusty, but held firm when she tried to break through. The water ahead grew louder, and the cries of Wart Face behind her grew terrified, pleading.
“It was too late. The water was there. Verti grabbed onto the grate and held on, held her breath, as the water rushed past. Seconds stretched, on and on and into forever, as the light above her grew wavy and weird. She felt the slats in the grat give way, and her body slip, but she was able to grab on and hold.
“Eventually, the water lessened, and she could breath again. Then, it slowed to a trickle. She could still feel the water around her knees. She guessed that with Wart Face stuck in the front of the pipe, the water had nowhere to go. She was safe for now, but she knew that if more water came, she’d be drowned, same as Wart Face surely was now.
“Birdie looked up and saw that two of the rusty bars had indeed given away, and a third had broken. If she could just get that third bar gone, she might be able to escape. She grabbed hold and put all her weight on the bar, felt rusty flakes fall on her face. Up ahead, she heard it. More water, rushing toward her. She pulled harder than she ever thought she could. The final bar bent, but didn’t break. As the water barreled down through the pipe, she screamed through the grate, loud as she could, and stuck her arm through as the water swallowed her up.
“Did she break through?”
“But, she had to, right? You said that later on, she met another troll. And that she would be a princess!”
Verti shrugged. “You told me to make up a story, so I did. It’s what they call a first draft. Things changed at the end.”
Pigott sulked. “That’s no good! I wanted a story where the good guys won. You gave me a story where no one won.”
“Didn’t I, though?”
“Birdie didn’t throw the ring.”
“You kept saying ‘Verti’ at the end, not Birdie. Or did that change, too?”
Vertiline felt her face grow red. She wanted to lash out at him…not a new sensation, to be sure…but instead took a deep, calming breath.
“She didn’t let the monster have it. She kept it, until the end. She won.”
“Yeah, and apparently she died!”
Pigott started coughing.
“That’s usually how things go,” Vertiline said, sourly. “Go to sleep.”
She blew out the candle, now just a sliver in its dented tin pan, and turned over. Pigott cried silently. Sleep put an end to it. Vertiline hated herself a little bit. All he wanted was to take his mind off things for a while. But while he was escaping, she’d been reliving. Reliving that time Old Turner had chased her through the Gutter, and she’d escaped through a pipe. They found him a few days later, drowned and even more bloated than he had been, from the trapped water.
Vertiline had managed to escape with the help of a passing Thickie, who broke the last bar over a street grate and pulled her to safety. She resented that it was a guardsman who saved her, that she couldn’t save herself. Hated the guardsman for pulling her to safety and trying to take her away from the Gutter, away from Pigott.
And now the Thickies gathered outside the ground of Klankenvroot factory, trying to root them out, trying to take their home. The band of tin burned around her thumb. She hated the damn thing. But she loved it too.
“They’ve got a word for that,” Vertiline whispered to herself as her eyes grew heavy. “Cinammon-tality. Stupid word for stupid people.”
And she fell asleep.