AUTHOR'S NOTE: I don't own the characters (Miramax does) or the fairy tales referenced in this story. I'm not making one single penny off this story. (pauses) I wouldn't mind borrowing the boys for awhile though…
1) This is rated TEEN for a reason. There are some very adult themes and situations and angst in here and some violence. It deals with rather dark issues relating to familial rifts and deaths of family members (if you saw the movie, you know to what I'm referring). Can't handle, please don't read. 2) Although there are religious references in the story, nothing is based on any real people or cults. They were completely fabricated for plot purposes and if you see similarities to any real people or cults, you are squinting way too hard, if you know what I mean. Do not try anything you see in this story, boys and girls, because it's all made up stuff. So, if anyone flames for reasons of dark themes or religious references, I'm going to ignore it because I've given fair warning. 3) The opinions expressed by characters do not reflect the opinion of this writer. See Chapter One for the rest of the notes.
The raging wind swirled around---emanated from---the incorporeal figure, a contrast to the gentleness in her smile as she gazed down at both of them. She was exactly as both of them had seen her in visions and dreams. Her wide eyes fell on Jacob first and his trembling hand, which held the Messer to his chest, and her smile darkened into sadness. It telegraphed itself from her eyes right into Jacob's soul…and to Will's as she turned her head to gaze upon him. The lump in Will's throat had grown painful, and when she reached one gauzy hand to brush delicately along Jacob's chin and extended the other hand towards Will, the latter closed his eyes.
Still, he felt the warm touch caress his face and heard her voice carried on the wind: "Look, Will."
He didn't want to look. This was impossible. This was not happening. He was back in the vision, only this time it was no dream. Jake was about to die and Will couldn't rouse himself from his shock at what he was seeing, couldn't make his feet carry him to the altar. The sight of Sister was bringing it all back to him---the grief at her death, the endless years of anger and blame directed at his younger brother for not fetching the doctor as he'd been told to do, the horrid fear of watching someone else he loved perish that had spurred him to flee Catriona when the first, early symptoms of Mother's illness began to manifest themselves.
Sister's voice was strong and persistent in his mind, on the wind, "Look, Will."
Will obeyed. He opened his eyes and saw the altar and Jacob no longer. He was home again. He was back in their small, cold house, watching Mother clinging to their feverish, dying Sister…
Mother was holding tight to Sister and rocking her gently, the only comfort she could give the girl. She'd tried every remedy she knew to try to break Sister's fever. A simple root tea had done the trick when Will had been struck with the illness only the week before. It wasn't helping Sister. The girl was pale and sweating and yet shivering with cold, and her breath was coming in ragged gasps. No tea abated the fever. Cold compresses did little to sooth the heat burning the girl's forehead. Mother was murmuring reassurances that the doctor would be there soon, that he would be able to help.
Will resisted the vision playing out in his mind. He'd lived through this once. He'd seen it a hundred times or more in his nightmares. He didn't want to live it again. But the images would not be chased away by his defiance.
Mother was never scared. The fact that her fear was so evident now terrified young Wilhelm. She had been afraid the night when Father died, Will remembered. Did that mean Sister was going to die? The boy paced, unable to sit still as his anxiety grew. No, it was only a fever. Mother had sent Jake to fetch the doctor. The doctor would know what to do. He would help their Sister. Will clung to that belief with all his heart and soul. What was taking Jake so long?
Jacob remembered the man.
Wisdom and hindsight in the adult Jacob was now clearly revealed the man with the moustache, the missing right eye, the threadbare coat, the gloves with the fingers tore out, and a sneer that yielded no inner goodness or kindness for the charlatan that he was. The boy Jacob had been at the time was full of childlike trust and Father's lessons in magic, and he had no innate suspicions towards anyone he met. He'd been gullible, naïve, and the mustached man had preyed on Jacob's trusting nature and youth.
Poverty had further blinded the child: His eyes beheld the gold coins the man had brandished and it was more money than Jacob believed was possible for one person to possess. It was enough gold to pay for ten doctors to care for his Sister, enough to buy a home that wasn't too cold in winter and too hot in summer, enough that Mother wouldn't work all day and into the night to earn money to buy them food. The charlatan's words were logical to the child: Selling the cow would fetch enough money for a doctor, yes, he had said, but the magic beans could yield gold like the coins that the man displayed for the boy. With that many gold coins, Jacob could care for his family for the rest of their lives.
Therefore, to the wide-eyed boy's way of thinking, trading the cow for the magic beans had been a sensible bargain.
Jacob the adult, however, cringed in remorse at the memory and the memory of every subsequent moment of pain caused by that fateful decision he had made so long ago. When he closed his eyes to shut out that memory, the apparition of Sister brushed her fingers along his cheek and the touch conveyed sympathy he didn't want. "Jacob, look," she whispered in his mind.
Jacob felt cold envelope him and the smell of sulfur faded into the crisp scent of snow. He opened his eyes to find the familiar streets of his town of birth, and saw a vision of himself as a child bounding down the street. The child Jacob was guiding the family cow. The charlatan was there, too, and Jacob saw the glint of greed in the man's eyes as he spied the unsuspecting boy.
With everything he was, Jacob willed his younger self to run from the evil about to destroy his fragile world. He heard his own adult voice shout to the boy: "Don't!" He even moved towards the child in the vision, as if it were possible to stop the boy.
And then the vision diverged from the scene that had played out so long ago. As Jacob watched, his younger self veered away from the approaching con man before the vile creature could open his mouth the spew forth his lies. Jacob made his way down the street, tugging the cow behind him, and continued on his way to the marketplace as Mother had instructed.
The glow of the Messer became blinding, but, caught up in his visions, Jacob did not notice…nor did he see it when light poured from the hilt and formed a beam, which shone onto Jacob's chest, directly above his heart. With his eyes closed, he failed to see the drop of blood well up from the spot where the light burned through his shirt and touched his skin.
For the thousandth time since his younger brother had left the house, Will wished desperately to have been able to go with him. Action was better than standing and waiting. Jake was far too young to be trusted with the responsibility of selling the family's only valuable possession—their cow---and negotiating the services of the doctor. Jake could barely pull his head out of his books long enough to attend to his own simple household chores. But Mother would not leave Sister in her condition and Will was barely over the fever himself and it was wretchedly cold outside. Mother had forbidden him to set foot outside the house. Still, Will felt fine. He could have bundled himself up in Father's large coat to ward off the cold…
The door banged open and a tiny figure bounded into the room. Jake had his scarf pulled up and his cheeks were rosy from the frosty air outside, but his eyes glinted with triumph. "I fetched the doctor!" He held out his tiny, gloved hand to display a palm full of silver coins. "Look at the money I got for the cow! We had some left after I paid the doctor!"
Will's brow furrowed and his lips curled downward into a frown of confusion. Doctors? Money? That wasn't right…where were the 'magic beans'?
The doctor tipped cap politely to Mother, but moved straightaway to the feverish girl in her arms. Will's relief was so great that his knees nearly buckled beneath him. He squeezed his younger brother's shoulder in approval, "Well done, Jake." Both boys swiftly crossed the room to stand behind their Mother while the doctor checked their Sister. "It's going to be all right now," Will told the girl, not sure if she could understand him in her feverish delirium. "The doctor's here now. You'll be well soon."
That wasn't the way it had happened. Will wished it could be real. The scene playing out in his mind, before his eyes, unfolded as he'd spent years wishing it had. Was this another dream? Another hallucination?
Will had long imagined the doctor leaning over his Sister---just as he did now in this vision. He had imagined the doctor opening his bag—as he was doing in the vision now---and mixing powders and teas for Sister. Will had seen, countless times, the doctor put his hand on Sister's overheated forehead and smile down at her and offer promises that soon she would be well. The vision doctor mimicked Will's imagination again---there was the comforting press of his hand to her head and there was the smile meant to soothe and comfort the delirious child.
There were, however, no words of promise or reassurance. No, the vision doctor defied that task that Will had mapped out in his wishes and dreams. Instead, the doctor rose from his knees with a solemn frown. His eyes, unlike in Will's imagination, did not sparkle with the promise of Sister's life. No, they were dark and somber. "Mrs. Grimm, I suggest we put the girl into her bed," he said in a tone that frightened Jacob and Will. The doctor offered them an inscrutable glance and told Mother, "I would speak with you alone."
Will, the boy in the vision and the Man seeing these shadows of the past, shook his head. The doctor was supposed to say, "The fever's broken, Mrs. Grimm" or "She'll recover in due time, Mrs. Grimm." He wasn't supposed to say things to make Mother's eyes so wide and frightened. He wasn't supposed to make her face pale to a deathly gray. She wasn't supposed to meekly nod her head or let the doctor pick up Sister and carry her into the room that the three Grimm children shared---carry her out of reach of Will and Jacob, who dared not protest. Mother was supposed to cling to her boys joyfully and whisper prayers of gratitude. She wasn't supposed to rise to follow the doctor, or pause and order in a subdued tone: "Wait here, boys."
The doctor was supposed to make Sister well! He was not supposed to put Sister to bed and mumble things that made Mother cry! Tears rolled down the face of the boy Will and the adult Will.
Sister was supposed to live!
Supposed to live if not for Jake's foolish blunder. Bitterness was like bile in Will's mouth, and he squeezed his eyes closed once more against these unwelcome images.
There was no blame, bitterness, or anger in the angelic voice soft in Will's ear: "You must forgive him, Will. You must look. Time's almost gone."
Jacob's finger hovered over the symbol on the Messer's hilt that would release its blade. The light from the wand's hilt burned through his shirt now and seared his skin until it drew blood, but Jacob was oblivious to the pain in his body, engulfed as he was in the agony caused by the visions Sister's ghost was showing him in his mind. Jacob did not want to look, but her voice implored him to. The image showed itself in spite of his having shut his eyes to it.
He saw her grave again. It was precisely as he remembered it from her funeral long ago and many visits since her burial. The only thing that had changed was the date of her death…changed to only one week later than Jacob recalled.
Bringing a doctor instead of 'magic beans' should have changed the outcome of this nightmare, but it had not. The doctor could not save her at all. The best of his talents and the whole of his medicines had given her one more week in the grip of her fever before her weakened heart could take no more. One more miserable week.
She hadn't been meant to live. The still-rational corner of Jacob's mind derived the message Sister was trying to give him.
He'd spent so many years mired in guilt over his mistake, so much time sheltered from that guilt by his descent into the world of folklore and mysticism in search of a way to undo his mistake, that it simply never occurred to him that Sister's fever had been incurable. It was not his fault that she died.
With this epiphany came fresh pangs of despair where there should have been release from his guilt…despair at years wasted in that guilt, years of blame from Will, scorn from strangers, whispers of those who'd questioned the boy's precarious grasp on sanity…all for nothing. The blame for her death was never his to shoulder. Jacob wanted to cry for the wasted time, for the fracture that mistake had made in his remaining family, but he had no tears left.
His finger dropped a millimeter closer to the seal on the Messer…the trigger. Not 'wasted', Jacob would never believe his faith in magic and things unseen was 'wasted' time. All the proof he needed was before his eyes at that moment---a radiant apparition of a long-missed face, and it was very real. For all those who had called this quest a 'fool's errand' and the altar a 'fable' and the spirits 'myths and hokum' and the power to raise flesh back to life 'blasphemous', there was the proof, gazing at Jacob with eyes bright with love. He could see Sister, that made her real…didn't it?
Jacob scowled, doubt clouding his thoughts. Was she real or was this a hallucination generated by a mind finally snapped? How could he be sure?
Then he remembered that he wasn't alone there on that plateau. Someone had called his name… "Will?" he heard himself shout over his shoulder, never tearing his eyes from the specter in front of him. "Do you see her?"
An eternity passed before a reluctant answer came, spoken so softly it was nearly inaudible over the wind. "I see her, Jake."
Jacob swallowed hard, finally, finally, feeling the faintest hint of relief in his heart. Will saw her. Jacob had not gone mad. If she was there, the powers of the altar were no fable…they were real. If they were real, Jacob had only to drop his thumb onto that symbol and a lifetime of hope would be realized. A press of a button, that was all, and Sister would live again. Jacob could purchase her life…with his own.
One more miserable week.
Will had pinned a lifetime of rage to the conviction that the doctor had only to show his face---a doctor, not 'magic beans'—and Sister would have lived. That she hadn't been meant to live never once, in all the years since, crossed Will's mind. From the instant Jacob had bounded into the house with those damn beans, to the hours after Will had fled from Sister's graveside to hide—alone with his grief---Will had held on to that faith in what would have been 'if only'.
He'd nursed the 'if only' from a nagging in his heart until it had blossomed into anger. Anger had lashed out whenever Mother spoke of Heaven or angels---for Sister, Will had known, wasn't mean to be an angel in Heaven, not at such a young age. 'If only' and its companion anger had turned Will's back in disgust, disdain, and embarrassment at all times when he should have watched out for his baby brother. It had sent him running from Catriona before Mother could grow to the age where she would join Sister and Father in Heaven. It stilled his hand on those rare occasions when he knew he ought to take pen in hand and write to his brother. It widened the rift between Will and Jacob until only the specter of Death itself had been able to compel Will to cross that divide. And for the misery his 'if only' caused, Will never once considered that his 'if only' might have been born from a false assumption.
One week more…that's all Sister would have gained.
Will's long-held 'if only' changed with that sudden insight. It was painful, this realization, and his heart—so long mired in its need to blame---would not yield its anger so easily. He clung to it as if it were a cherished friend and not an albatross drawing him down to dark depths. Still, 'if only' shifted from wishes for a doctor to 'if only' Will would have known that Sister had been destined to pass away that day. How might his life—his family's life---have been different? Perhaps things would not have gone so horribly awry…perhaps they would not be standing here now, before an apparition of the buried past, and Will would not be waiting for his brother to sacrifice himself to that past.
"Save him, Will." Sister's voice was no longer a gentle urging, but rather it rang sharp. The wind that was her touch was no longer a caress---it was a hand laid squarely between his shoulder blades to push him to action, as powerful as a good kick across the seat of his pants. At her command, before he'd fully recovered from his reverie, Will's feet were moving, heedless of the peril of the altar. Her sentiment resounded in Will's own heart. That lunatic was still Will's only family. Will would not watch any of his family die again…even if he had to plunge that blade into his own heart in Jacob's place.
He saw Jacob's thumb poised above the switch that would release the blade and end his life, and Will vaulted over the stream of molten rock and landed on the altar. The stones of the altar lashed at him, spewing a torrent of fire and acrid smoke to burn the interloper who had violated its boundaries. Serya's talisman repelled every lick of flame the altar threw at Will. Emboldened, he broke into a run and closed the distance between himself and Jacob.
"Jake, stop!" Will didn't pause to see if his baby brother obeyed. Catching his brother completely off guard, he snatched the Messer from Jacob's hands and tossed it away. The wand/blade clattered across the stones almost to the edge of the cliff before it stopped. Jacob made a wordless grunt of protest, but Will ignored him. Shoving Jacob, with no gentleness at all, away from the flames of the central columns, Will tore open the canteen and pitched every last drop of the holy water onto the fire…erasing from his mind and soul all doubt of its ability to douse Desdemond's flame.
Believing was one thing---there was still no reason to take a chance. Discarding the empty canteen, Will turned back to Jacob and caught his brother in a flying tackle that knocked both of them off the altar. They tumbled, saved by the talisman from the molten river, away form the altar and down the grassy slope, never to see what happened next.
At the contact with the holy water, the orange glow of fire between each column darkened to the crimson color of blood, as if the water had penetrated the heart of the altar and created a mortal wound. The flame blazing from the central columns shrank back upon itself until nothing remained of it but black smoke. As the torch died, the altar shook and the cracks between each of its basalt columns deepened. One by one each pillar pulled itself free from the other pieces. As each piece broke from the altar, it tumbled down the side of the cliff and plunged into the ocean far below. Individual falling columns of basalt quickly became an avalanche raining down into the water. Having been resting atop these rocks, the Messer des Feuer followed the stones down into the surf, never to be seen again.
As the last of the columns that had formed the cliff, which in turned form the Altar des Feuer, disappeared into the ocean, the sulfuric smoke no longer poured from the earth and the wind carried away the clouds that had blotted out the afternoon sun. The stream of molten rock that had tried to swallow up Torsten now rapidly cooled, and the earth rose up of its own accord and covered the hardened lava. Within seconds, grass sprouted from these mounds of earth and it was as if the lava had never existed.
When the ocean had swallowed up the Messer des Feuer and each piece of the Altar des Feuer, the apparition summoned by its powers smiled to herself and slowly faded back into nothingness. Only a few golden strands of hair remained of her, and they were picked up and carried away on the gentle ocean breeze.
Wilhelm Grimm sat bolt upright, awakening with a surge of panic from sleep haunted by nightmares that retreated upon his return to consciousness. Where am I?
He squinted, for the room was dark, and found himself laying sprawled on a bed of musty-smelling straw and staring up at a very low wooden ceiling. A hay loft perhaps? He'd awakened in enough hay lofts for that to be a plausible location, and he checked to discover that he was alone on that bed of straw. Alone, now that wasn't the usual routine upon waking in hay lofts.
Then his memory came back in a rush and trying to recollect how he'd come to be sleeping in this warm, foul-smelling straw became a secondary concern.
Will and Jacob had not witnessed the destruction of the altar, tumbling down the slop of the mountain as they were when it destroyed itself. Somehow, as they fell, they had avoided slamming into the boulders that dotted the hillside. They landed in heaps hundreds of feet from the place where the altar had been only a minute earlier.
As the clouds parted and the warm sun touched them, Will had recovered first and pushed himself off the ground and onto his knees. He whirled to look back in the direction of the altar and saw only a few puffs of lingering dust where the stone dais and torch had been. Of the ghostly form of Sister, there was no sign. Fresh pangs of sorrow and grief momentarily wrung at his heart…but no regret.
His attention shifted to the figure sprawled nearby. "Jake!"
His brother was dazed, but his blackened eyes were half open and his chest rose and fell, indicating life despite the ugly, fresh stain of blood on the front of Jacob's shirt. The memory of that blade poised to pierce his brother's heart would stay in Will's mind for a very long time to come. The fact that Jacob's own hand had held the blade there, seeing the full capacity to sacrifice his own life for the strength of his faith in magic, frightened the life from Will. Even as Will tore open Jacob's shirt to inspect the severity of the wound there, he was silently renewing his pledge to keep a very, very close eye on his brother from that day forth. With everything in his power, Will would do his best to make sure Jacob never carried his beliefs in rot and rubbish to such lengths as his own grave ever again.
The wound was not serious. The burn was red and ugly, but it was already healing itself. The blood dried over what was no more than a small nick, also starting to close itself up. For the first time in weeks, Will felt his anxiety, fear, and tension begin to ebb out of him. Jacob was alive and there was no long a possibility of his using the altar or its Messer…
Where was Jacob? Will wasn't quite back to lucidity when he jumped off the bed of straw and stumbled through the dimly lit room of---wherever the hell he was. A single lantern burned and the room felt uncomfortably like the cargo hold where Torsten and his men had imprisoned the brothers. Fleetingly, Will wondered where Torsten and his surviving lackeys were now, but he spared them no more than that passing, idle thought. Where in God's name was Jake---?
In the faint light, Will didn't see the second heap of straw…or the figure sleeping there…until he tripped over Jacob and landed with a splat, face down on the floor. Jacob grunted, jolted awake by Will's foot connecting with his shins, and blearily lifted his head to peer at his prone brother. The younger brother grumbled a sleepy oath and his head lolled back onto the straw. Even in the poor light, even in his sleep, Jacob's annoyance was still quite plain.
He'd been sullen since he'd regained consciousness on the island and found Sister, the Messer, and the Altar des Feuer were gone. Most (all) of his ire was focused squarely upon Will.
Will knew Jacob would be in a rage about his brother spoiling his plans, but Will hadn't anticipated that Jacob's first action upon waking would be to punch Will right in the nose. Jacob couldn't throw a punch worth a damn---or rather he hadn't been able to the last time Will had seen him, years ago---but this blow carried with it the strength of anger and grief and crushing disappointment, and it effectively knocked Will right back onto his ass.
Will clutched at his nose, which was bloodied but thankfully not broken. "Ow! What the devil was that for?"
"Where is she?" Jacob sat up and craned his head, seeking Sister and the Altar. Both were irretrievably gone, he saw, and with them went any hopes of finishing what he'd set out to do a lifetime ago. He all but hung his head in despair. "Why did you do that?" he shouted at Will.
"Why did---I saved your life, you ungrateful brat!" Will was dumbstruck at the question. He rather had the urge to return Jacob's punch, and might have if his brother's face hadn't already been one big, pitiful bruise. At the least, he might have throttled some sensibility into the boy. He held his temper in check in deference to the fact that he'd almost lost his brother that day. "That's the rub about fraternity—it compels one, against his better judgment, to do foolish things like dig up ancient heathen altars to try to resurrect the dead…or to try to stop your brother from sacrificing his own life for nothing."
Jacob wasn't moved, not one bit. "Not for nothing! It was working!" His mouth curled into a frown…and he punched Will in the nose a second time.
This increased the trickle of blood from Will's nose to a full stream. "Ow! Ow! Bloody hell damn it!" Will cursed at the top of his lungs. "What was that for?"
His brother yelled right back, with no sympathy or remorse. "It's my life, it's my choice! Who asked you to interfere?"
Well, the answer to that should have been obvious to a scholar. "Who do you think? You're supposed to be the damned poet/scholar in the family---what do you think Sister was trying to tell you with that…whatever that was?" Will shouted, fed up with trying to handle his brother with kid's gloves. "She knew what you were doing before you did. She didn't want you to die and neither do I. Why do you think she's been at me to go to all this trouble in the first place---?"
Will hadn't meant to let that much slip.
Jacob's mouth shut, anger vanishing from his expression. He blinked quizzically at Will. The significance of what his brother had said had not eluded Jacob. "You saw her, too? Before today?"
Will backpeddled, tried to deny it. "Simple bad dreams, of no more consequ---"
"And that's why you've been chasing me from Germany to here? Because an angel told you I was in danger?" Jacob's tone went from disbelieving to amused to outright gleeful. Will had the feeling he'd rue that slip of the tongue for years to come. Yes, rational, reasonable Wilhelm Grimm saw an angel. He could hear the whispers now: 'There go the Brothers Grimm…barking mad, the both of them.'
"I knew you'd like that," Will muttered.
Jacob sobered. "I could have saved her…"
Will's patience finally ran out. "Try to hear what I'm saying! I. Do. Not. Care!" He rubbed his eyes and counted to ten. "First of all---you are the most stubborn, intractable, maddening, foolish boy to ever walk the earth and it's true that you embarrass me quite spectacularly on occasion, but you're still my brother and I have no intention of letting you die. Pardon my self-preoccupation. Second of all---" Will pulled back his arm and punched Jacob squarely in his good eye. "---stop hitting me, damn it!"
Jacob was still in a snit over losing the altar, despite saying nothing more about it after Will's tirade. In fact, Jacob had been silent most of the time since they'd left the island. He'd sat at the rail of the ship, brooding, until exhaustion finally got the better of him. Will gave him space and ignored the tiny glares Jacob occasionally spared him. Let Jake hate him if it made him happy…as long as he was safe.
Still pressing handkerchiefs to their bloodied noses, turning reflexively at Gerit Torsten's shout had caused twinges of pain in their faces that made Will and Jacob yelp a bit. Jorn had returned and was agog at the destruction he'd been only just in time to witness. He guided the more composed Torsten, who was still blinded by the slowly-healing burns to his eyes.
Will grumbled, "If you intend to try to kill us, Torsten, at least wait five minutes until we've had the chance to stop bleeding." He was in no shape for another fight, but would take them on if he must. He considered the odds in a fight to be stacked in Torsten's favor, since Torsten had Jorn on his side and neither Jacob nor Will could muster the strength to haul their own asses up off the grass at the moment.
"It's gone! They did it!" Jorn stammered excitedly to his leader. "The altar is gone! Fell right into the drink!"
That didn't satisfy Torsten. "And the Messer?"
"Oh, that," Will shrugged, "Followed the altar into the ocean, I'm afraid. Sorry."
Torsten mulled that. Burial at sea was not the way he wished to dispose of the Messer des Feuer. However, the blade's true powers were derived from its connection to the Altar. Without an altar, the blade would be no more menacing than an ordinary dagger. He hoped. Still, when he was recovered from his wounds, Torsten would return to search for the Messer, in case it washed up on the shores of this island, with the help of any man from the Society who wasn't cowed by all that had transpired here…if any could be found. "All right, then," Torsten said simply. He nodded to Jorn and they headed down the hill.
Will raised an eyebrow, even though Torsten could not see it. "You're not going to try to kill us again? Not that we aren't grateful, mind you."
"Killing you was meant to keep the Messer and the Altar des Feuer a secret. Now they're gone, there's no point in killing you. Besides, we had an agreement. Unintentional though it was, young Jacob led me to the Altar, as promised. You helped me destroy the altar, as promised. My end of the bargain was to let you go. I'm quite glad, for once, to be able to keep my word," Torsten answered.
Will smiled mirthlessly. "Well, splendid. You aren't going to stick a blade in our ribs. Jake's not going to put one in his own chest. And the altar is gone. That just leaves the small matter of being stranded on this island…"
Jacob had passed out while reading, as usual…or, rather, as Will remembered him doing every night as a child. Most of the time, he had dozed off with his own journal clutched beneath his arm. The journal (praise God) was gone now and Will hoped it was never replaced. Of course, as a child, Jacob had passed out from exhaustion…not from imbibing too generously from a bottle of rum like the one he now clutched in one hand. When had Jacob started drinking? Will could answer his own unvoiced question when he thought of the drawings of Sister's angel that Jacob had made in his childhood. Probably when specters started haunting his sleep. God knows, another week of ghosts bedeviling my dreams and I'd be drinking myself to sleep, too. For his part, Will was already well on his way to convincing himself that the events of the past month were a prolonged bad dream and had never happened at all.
Will had just reached to pull off the glasses still perched on Jake's nose---they would never be able to pay to replace them in their current financial state---when a knock on the door caused Will to recoil, embarrassed to be caught at the brotherly action. Jacob, however, only growled a sleepy "G'way!' and resumed his snoring.
Will padded across the tiny room to the door. It was no surprise to find their rescuers sheepishly standing on the other side.
The group of them, standing on that grassy hillside, had barely begun to ponder the problem of getting off the island (their only transportation was resting with the altar on the floor of the ocean) when unfamiliar voices rang across the plateau.
"Ho there, friends!"
The cheerful greetings and voices thick with the Scottish brogue belonged to a group of men who were trotting up the slope and gazing around with open curiosity. 'Guess Desdemond's traps were destroyed with the altar,' Will mused. That would make the hike back to the beach considerably more pleasant. Will, Jacob, Torsten, and Jorn turned towards the newcomers.
They were fishermen, the new arrivals, carrying poles and satchels of gear, although one or two carried woodsmen's axes. There was at least a half-dozen of them. They were bundled up for cold weather in heavy boots and woolen stocking caps, and their faces were tanned and weather-beaten. All but one sported lengthy white beards and one wore glasses quite similar to Jacob's. The tallest among them would only have stood the height of Will's elbow. Several whistled cheerfully. Only one wore a sullen expression.
"Hullo!" the one with the glasses greeted them. "That your ship scuttled out there in the bay?" He directed the question at Will, but spared concerned glances at Torsten's burned face and Jacob's bruises and bloodied shirt. "From the looks of you, I'd say you survived by the skin of your teeth, eh?"
The remark was an attempt at friendly levity. The fisherman could not know how accurately he'd guessed. "You have no idea," Will told him.
The sullen-looking one sniffed, "Been looking all over this island…we though someone might be marooned after a shipwreck like that…didn't know there was anything up here, though. We'd have never looked here if it weren't for that landslide." He frowned at the group. "You lot must have an angel watching out for you, surviving that wreck and then the landslide. Don't know if you're very lucky or very unlucky."
The short fisherman with the glasses elbowed the sullen one. "Pay him no mind. He's grumpy."
Jacob was the first to ask: "You have a boat that could carry all of us?"
Torsten interjected, "We've ten more survivors down at the beach."
An inexplicably happy fisherman beamed, "We do, and we'd be glad to take you back to the mainland---but you'll have to wait with us until the tide comes it tonight."
Will laughed at that. "We're not going anywhere before then, believe me." It was going to take the remainder of the afternoon for the four of them to limp down the mountain, he estimated.
The fisherman with the glasses agreed, "I'd say not." He turned to Jacob and Torsten. "You've got injuries. Done a fair bit of doctoring in my day---I could have a look at those cuts and bruises," he offered. At Jacob's weary nod, the man set down his fishing gear and rummaged through his satchel. "I know I have something in here that can help those burns, too. Won't smell too good, but it works like a miracle…ah, here we are!" With a flourish, he produced a jar of salve and strips of cloth and set to work treating the various bumps and bruises. "There now, that's a wicked cut!" he tsked at Jacob's wound. "How'd all this happen?"
"Long story," Will and Jacob answered in unison.
The knocking persisted as Will crossed the room to open the door. As he reached for the door handle, he heard Jacob mutter and the rustling of straw as his brother climbed to his feet. Jacob grunted a bit as the wound on his chest and his aching nose twinged at the movement. He followed Will to the door, walking a bit unsteadily from too much drink and too little sleep.
As he'd expected, when Will opened the door he found the sheepish faces of their rescuers on the other side. Will counted seven of them gathered outside their room on the ship, which the fishermen had let the brothers occupy for the duration of the trip back to the mainland. Will didn't know these seven---the doctor fisherman and the sullen fisherman weren't among them---but they also had white beards and were no taller than the ones who'd rescued the brothers and Torsten's men from the island.
The spokesman of the group blushed bright red and doffed his woolen cap respectfully when Will opened the door. "Y-you are the Brothers Grimm, y-yes?" he stammered shyly.
"Most of the time, yes," Will said.
Impossibly, the bashful fisherman blushed an even deeper crimson as Will waited for him to spit out whatever business had prompted them to pound on the door in the middle of the night. "P-pardon our interruption, good sir, b-but there's a matter we urgently need to discuss with you…b-both of you," the shy man continued.
Yes, I gathered as much, please be quick about it, Will silently begged.
Mustering his courage, the bashful man continued, "Your friend, Mr. Jorn, told us a most intriguing story about the two of you," he nodded a greeting as Jacob shuffled over to the door to join the group.
Will felt a pang of alarm. "If this is about the wooden maiden incident, we can explain. We'd never do that on you sh--"
The shy fisherman shook his head, "No, no—well, since you mention it, did you really defeat that colossal wooden figurehead that came alive?"
Will and Jacob exchanged slightly guilty looks. "Defeated? In a manner of speaking, I suppose…" Will answered.
Another fisherman, who appeared to be half-asleep himself, asked (around his yawning), "And did you really use magic to make a tree pull you out of a cave just before it would have collapsed and crushed you?"
Jacob raised an eyebrow at Will. Since his brother had been sulking for most of the voyage to the mainland, Will hadn't had the chance to fill him in on the details of every bit of the past few weeks. Will wondered where this line of questioning was heading. "Uh…in a manner of speaking," he repeated.
"You didn't mention that," Jacob said.
"Well, you weren't speaking to me! I'll explain later," Will snapped.
The bashful fisherman was losing some of his shyness. His eyes were becoming quite bright with interest. "And you rescued a blind man from a lava flow?"
"And battled a ghost?" the sleepy one asked.
The brothers shook their heads. " 'Battled' may not be the appropriate word," Will corrected.
"And destroyed that heathen altar in the Hebrides with a flask of holy water?" a third fisherman asked.
"It was more of a canteen…"
The sleepy one yawned, "And unearthed the burial place of that magic knife-wand?"
Unable to stop the barrage of questions, Will finally tried waving his hands to gain their attention. He was beginning to get a rather large headache. Jacob finally spoke up, "You're, perhaps, making all that sound far grander than it was."
Will seconded that remark. "Yes, grander indeed. Thanks for stopping by---" He tried to close the door, but the shy fisherman suddenly became assertive and stuck out his foot to prop the door open.
"Wait, Mr. Grimm, sir! We wished to beg the service of you and your brother in a small matter of our own---" the bashful one pleaded.
"Not such a 'small' matter," the sleepy one disagreed.
"---something well-suited to your…unusual…expertise. It concerns a young friend of ours, a very lovely young maiden," the shy one explained.
Interested now, Will swung the door open again, "Go on."
"Kind girl, virtuous," the shy one continued.
His interest gone now, Will tried to close the door again. Jacob stopped him and gave his brother a glare. "Behave."
The bashful one paid the exchange no mind. "I'm afraid our lady friend has gotten onto the bad side of a less…er…oh my, how should I put this? A less kindly and much older woman…she's…"
"She's a witch," the sleepy one summed it up.
Will raised an eyebrow. "A what?"
The shy one was scandalized by the word and opened his mouth to rephrase what the sleepy one had said. The sleepy one persisted, "She's a witch, I tell you! I even saw a boiling cauldron in her cottage in the woods! Fed our friend a poisoned apple and almost killed the poor child! And the old crone won't be happy until she does kill the girl."
The shy one worried that they would scare the brothers, who were now staring at the group, at a loss for words. "You can see we lack your talents for confronting a woman schooled in such dark arts. We thought, perhaps, you might help us..er…"
"Send that warty old witch on her way?" the sleepy one said bluntly.
"We're happy to pay you, of course," the bashful one promised, "a very generous sum."
It was Jacob who moved to close the door this time. These fishermen were friendly enough, but they clearly believed Jacob and Will to be something they weren't. As much as he had sympathy for their lady friend's plight, even with Jacob's knowledge of things magical, the brothers wouldn't begin to know how to help. "We would be glad to assist a damsel in distress, but it sounds as if what you need is a priest. I'm afraid we're not…"
Will inserted himself between Jacob and the seven fisherman once more, grinning ear-to-ear as visions of gold coins danced in his head. "How generous?"