a fairy tale
In the room there sat a marble bust of Caesar, a pile of pirate’s gold, a ruby as big as a prize fighter’s fist, and the sword still stuck in the stone, but Oliver didn’t want any of it. He just wanted – needed – to find Margot, and to take her home again.
He told the little man in the luscious wingback chair exactly that. Oliver wouldn’t be swayed by such material things, no matter what their price tag back in reality. Some said these things were priceless, some said precious, but the only thing Oliver could think of that fit the bill for him was a warm fire and a tummy full of food. And his Margot.
The little man stood and, small as Oliver was, he was not very much taller than him. Oliver was almost sure that if he stood on only two legs, he’d tower over the little man – or, at the very least, he’d be able to look him in the eye. As it was, the little man crossed the room and stood before Oliver, his face hovering somewhere not so far above and his brow knitted in confusion. “This isn’t enough for you?”
Oliver didn’t know how to explain that it was too much, so he simply stood, silent and stoic, and gave a subtle shake of the head. Margot. How could he possibly articulate that one eighteen-year-old girl was, by all other standards, so insignificant in comparison to these things, and yet everything to him? How could a little man with such a big appetite for wealth and glory understand that all an honest being needed in this universe was the one simple thing that made him most happy?
Then again, Oliver wasn’t even entirely sure what the universe was, or if he was still in the one he had previously called him. He didn’t entirely know where he was, even if he remembered the whole long trip that had brought him here. But he tried not to think about the goblins or the Venus flytraps or the three-headed dragon, because he had to keep his wits about him. The little man was sly, clever, and cruel; Oliver knew that from scent alone. And losing focus for even the smallest instant would certainly mean an eternity rolling in the wealth every man desired, while being deprived of the only wealth that really mattered.
“What if I just offer you the ruby, then?” the little man offered. He walked over to the gleaming white cushion where the precious stone was placed, and lifted it with a reverence normally reserved for newborn princes. He knelt before Oliver and offered the stone for his consideration, keeping a close eye on his reactions. “Well, then? Is this enough?”
Oliver thought the ruby looked rather tasty, in a dangerously sharp sort of way, but he didn’t want to offend anybody, so he kept the idea to himself. Instead, he again shook his head. The ruby was too much. All he wanted was to find his Margot, and she was lost somewhere in this land of magic and make-believe, the kind that hid horrors and dark secrets. She had been taken for seemingly no reason at all, a young woman not of this place and yet seemingly destined to be here for eternity.
Oliver would never last that long without her, ruby or not.
He began to describe what he was feeling, but the little man was not listening. Instead, he replaced the ruby on its cushion and scurried over to the bust of Caesar, patting the Roman on the head as if he were a common house pet and not the great man everyone seemed to believe he was. “This?” the little man offered, just a hint of desperation seeping into his tone. “Take this and know the wonders Julius Caesar knew, my friend! You’ll have his strength, his power, his diligence…”
All Oliver needed to have any of those things was Margot.
The little man stomped one of his little boot-clad feet at this, and scowled on his way over to the pirate treasure. He shot an abrupt finger out to the gold and asked shrilly, “This, then?”
The gold pieces were each identical, the work of some fine craftsmen, and perhaps not one of the universe Oliver knew. Perhaps it was the work of dwarves, or elves, or some equally dexterous creature Oliver didn’t entirely understand. Whatever the case, the beauty of their golden glow in the low candlelight alone would be enough fortune to obtain anything his heart desired. Were Oliver to actually offer the gold pieces, either for bargaining or for sale, he would most certainly be able to afford all the canned tuna he could ever eat, let alone his very own couch to nap on and drapes suitable for his climbing needs.
But it would be hard for him to open the cans himself, and it would be terrible to sit all alone on a cold couch without anyone to enjoy the silence with. And what fun was climbing without a Margot to tell you not to?
“But this is the personal wealth of Blackbeard, himself!” the little man exclaimed. He nearly leapt into the air in his frustration. “You know who Blackbeard is, don’t you? And this is just a sampling, a taste – his full trove is an island shrouded in silk, embedded with diamonds, stinking of wealth! You simpleton! One word, friend, and it could all be yours!”
Oliver sat down heavily on the ornate rug. His expression was unchanged – disinterested, if perhaps a little more sorry now, following that outburst. It was too much. It was all just too much for him to take. He wanted to the little man just to tell him where the Ogre King had taken Margot. He wanted to know why they had kidnapped her in the first place. He wanted to go on his way and find her, with or without the little man’s help, because a fat cat all alone in the universe was not a fun thing to be.
The little man sputtered for a full ten seconds before he could find his words again. “You can’t leave! If you leave without taking anything, it’ll be a disaster.”
Oliver tilted his head to the side and let out a small noise, nearly a meow but not quite, as he had never learned to do so properly. It was undeniably a sound of confusion.
“Take the sword then,” the little man said with a sigh, and gestured helplessly to the stone at the center of the room.
Oliver didn’t want it, but the carpet was itchy and he wanted to get up, anyway, so he stood and crossed the room to examine the sword in the stone. It seemed pretty stuck to him – unmovable and unyielding, much like the little man in his little purple suit and paisley necktie. Granted, it was nicer to look at than the little man. But what possible use did he have for a sword, especially one stuck in some dumb old rock?
The little man’s mouth dropped open at this passing comment. Then, he smacked an open palm to his forehead. “The most powerful magic any world has ever known,” he muttered, “and the cat doesn’t want it.”
Oliver wanted Margot. He thought it was a simple enough request. He wanted Margot and then he wanted to go home and take a nap. That was all.
“If you prance out of here without accepting one of my offers, we’re all doomed,” the little man said. He seemed quite serious, so Oliver hopped up on the rock and curled up to listen. “You leave empty-handed, and I die. Got it? And then the Ogre King will come after you. And this Margot of yours will be his Queen and, even if you somehow survive his attack, you’ll never see her again.” He paused to let Oliver take this in. “It’s a lose-lose situation. You might as well just take a few pieces of gold so we can send you back. The sooner that happens, the sooner you forget all about this.”
Forget about Margot? Oliver shook his head so hard he nearly toppled off the rock, but he righted himself in time and stood so he was, at last, at eye level with the little man. You didn’t simply forget about the love of your life, the same as you didn’t bite the hand that fed you (unless it was really deserved). Bribes couldn’t stop a cat on a mission. If the Ogre King liked shiny, pretty things so much, why didn’t he just keep all this nonsense for himself and let Oliver have Margot back?
The little man shrugged. “He needs an Ogre Queen.”
Didn’t everybody? Oliver shook his head. One ear twitched, as if of its own volition.
“And ogres are ugly – you can’t tell the women from the men,” the little man elaborated, as Oliver showed no signs of attempting further conversation. “So, he looked to your world, instead, and he found Margot. Things just happen that way, sometimes.” He glanced around the room as an awkward tension settled, until something, anything, caught his eye. “Oh, how about this bookend, just here? That’s nice, isn’t it? The King was kind enough to give that to me for my personal library. How about you take that?”
This wasn’t going anywhere. Oliver stalked away from the rock and towards one of the doors, gazing longingly up at the doorknob and wishing he could understand how to make it work. If the little man wasn’t going to be of any help, and if the only way to find Margot seemed to be to strike out on his own to rescue her, then Oliver was going to do just that.
The little man moved towards the door. He knew this was a lost cause, so he’d just have to think quickly – either let his potential customer go free in search of the girl, or murder him in cold blood where he stood, in order to save his own hide. Luckily, one hand outstretched, he was spared from the decision before he reached the door. Unluckily, he was interrupted by the abrupt opening of the door and a harsh wind billowing through the house, extinguishing every torch and candle and plunging them into sudden night.
In the room there now stood a marble bust of Caesar, a pile of pirate’s gold, a ruby as big as a prize fighter’s fist, the sword still stuck in the stone, the little man, Oliver, and, just over the threshold in all his dark glory, the Ogre King.
The Ogre King was just a half inch taller than the little man, but his long, long cape was exquisite and his tall crown of rock and twig made him appear much taller than he truly was. He was, by far, the smallest of all the ogres in the land, but that was what gave him the distinct honor of leading his brethren – the shorter the stature, in the ogre’s world, the farther-reaching the wisdom. He was a terrifying figure in the darkness, a silhouette of blackest black on just regular nighttime black, and the only light in the room seemed to be the gleam in his eye. “So,” he growled, guttural and yet somehow suave, “you won’t accept my gifts?”
Oliver, fur standing on end, pressed himself deeper under the little man’s wingchair as the Ogre King spoke, eyes darting between his beloved Margot and the King. Meek in the presence of greatness, he settled his eyes on the Ogre King and shook his head.
“Hm. Well, then…” The Ogre King strode into the room, dragging a fighting Margot along after him as if she weren’t three feet taller than him. He glanced around the room, then raised a fat, gnarled finger and pointed to the little man in the purple suit. “You die.” He pointed to Oliver, still under the chair. “And you die.” He turned and leered at Margot, taking hold of her face in his ogre hand. “And you shall be my queen.”
With a yowl that could very well have been either a shout of, “No!” or a prelude to a hairball, Oliver summoned all his courage and pounced at the Ogre King. He put all twenty-three of his pounds behind the attack, claws outstretched on all four paws and fangs bared, but the Ogre King shook him off like a leaf from a thin branch in a hurricane.
“Ollie!” Margot cried, still fighting the clutches of the Ogre King to save her cat. She tried, unsuccessfully, to snatch the bookend the little man had gestured to earlier to beat the King over the head with it. “Leave Oliver alone!”
The Ogre King cackled with evil glee and raised a hand to cast some dark spell to rid the land of the offending parties, but when he turned to finish off Oliver, the cat had vanished. He wasn’t stunned, as the King had hoped. Instead, Oliver was perched atop the bust of Caesar, ready to pounce again.
“Clever, aren’t we?” the Ogre King said.
With a twirl of his cape, he launched himself across the room. Oliver took flight at the same moment, headed for a high bookshelf, and his momentum sent the bust back towards the Ogre King. The two powerful leaders collided head-on, the bust unharmed by the contact with the ogre before making a dent in the hardwood floor, while the King spun in a full circle and collapsed.
“That cat,” the Ogre King managed, then refocused his energies from insults to standing upright again. He raised his hand again and sent a killing spell at Oliver, but the cat found his inner grace and agility and leapt, landing messily on the pile of treasure. The coins skittered off in different directions, covering the floor, and the Ogre King soon realized how hazardous the fine metal was as he took one step and slid into another bookshelf.
Margot and the little man had backed against the far wall, out of the line of fire, and the teenage girl was trying to suppress laughter at the sight before her. Her own dumb little cat, defeating an Ogre King? Even Oliver seemed to raise his head a little higher, as he strolled towards the rock that held the stone and leapt nimbly onto the stone. It was cool beneath his paws. His eyes were watchful as the Ogre King stood again, taking stock of what weaponry he had left to work with. Magic wasn’t working – perhaps something more tangible. After all, if he was using it, it would be impossible for the cat to use any more of his precious collection of treasure against him.
With the speed of Oliver’s wild cousins, the Ogre King went for the sword and gripped it tight, prepared to unsheathe it from the rock and slay the cat, the bane of his existence. But, instead, the little ogre dislocated his shoulder and came away empty-handed, taking two steps back to nurse his injuries.
“How can this be?” he howled, glaring at Oliver as if it were, somehow, all his fault. “I am the true king of the land! This sword belongs to me.”
Oliver rose onto his back haunches and placed his front paws on the hilt of the sword, to better look the Ogre King in the eye. He shook for a moment, balanced precariously, and then the sword gave way from the stone and the little cat was left with a big responsibility.
“Impossible,” the little man whispered, sharing a confused glance with Margot.
Nothing made sense anymore, not that it had made any sense Oliver had been forced to embark on this epic quest to save his Margot. The Ogre King was growling and snarling in rage, swinging his good arm and trying to reach the sword before Oliver would figure out a way to make the weapon for him. Oliver, meanwhile, who had rather excellent hand-eye coordination for a cat, managed to get his front paws around the hilt of the sword and, as if by magic, the intimidating steel blade was light enough for an overweight housecat to lift.
Oliver twirled, unsteady and letting out a meow of surprise, just as the Ogre King stretched for the sword. The cosmos aligned and the cat gods smiled down from their ancient heaven of swimming goldfish and flying birds – the blade shot through the Ogre King’s chest, coming out black on the other side of his heart, and, with a hellish shriek, he collapsed into nothingness, leaving behind only his fabulous cloak and crown.
Oliver dropped the sword, still spinning and getting dizzier. Sensing that the danger had passed, he regained his footing and stumbled towards Margot, purring as he never had before in his life. Margot lifted him into her arms and held him close, squashing his head against her chin and babbling things he didn’t understand and letting sloppy tears fall into his fur. The little man remained in his place, unable to move from shock.
He looked at Oliver with an expression caught between wonder and revulsion. “You – you killed him. You killed the Ogre King.” The cat didn’t seem to care. “And you got the sword from the stone.” Oliver squirmed until Margot put him down, and then simply stared up at the little man, waiting for the punch line. “Well, that makes you our king!”
The candles lit up again and the bookshelves moved aside to reveal large windows. Outside, the sky was the most beautiful shade of blue any of them had ever seen, the sun blindingly white and almost too warm. Oliver was surprised the forest critters weren’t singing with joy, like they were supposed to be.
But…King? Oliver titled his head to one side, then glanced back at Margot. He could hardly hold a sword to defend this place – he didn’t even know where this place was. How could he lead anybody, or defend them? And, besides, Oliver had a general grasp on what being a king meant. It meant listening and talking and treasures beyond imagination and all the Fancy Feast he could eat. But all that was going to cut into his napping and playing time, and he liked to squeeze in a few hours to just lounge around and listen to Margot finishing her homework or reading him a book.
Perhaps the little man hadn’t pulled the sword from the stone, but he could take care of it far better than Oliver could. Without trying to explain, Oliver rubbed his head, hard, against Margot’s calf, begging to be cuddled again; she obliged. Together, they made their way out of the little man’s study and through his home, until they finally reached the sunshine again. Everything looked so different than when Oliver had first fought his way here, but it was much brighter now, so maybe it would be easier to see the right path to take.
And the little man stood in the center of his little room with his treasures in disarray and, gently, ignoring the crumpled cloak and broken crown, he replaced the sword in the stone to await its next willing wielder.
And then Oliver found himself back in his own house, with Margot sitting quietly at the kitchen table and enjoying a book, and he finally got to take his nap.