The brief was:
Genre – fairy tale.
Location – a riverboat.
Object – a bell.
Word limit – 1,000.
Time limit – 48 hours.
The riverboat’s bell stopped ringing. Its hull finally frozen still.
On the northern embankment of the Colossus River, the border of the Northern Kingdom, Gavagai looked through his spyglass. The Prince was right. The Southern Kingdom was preparing to make a move on the riverboat too.
The Prince came down to the river at dawn, while Gavagai was inspecting the ice. “Are you ready to go?” he asked.
“One more day,” said Gavagai, feeling the ice with the bare skin of his single, ginormous foot.
The Prince nodded, disappointment tightening his eyelids. But he didn’t pressure Gavagai. He’d brought the monopod down from the mountains because they were masters of snow and ice. The Prince had lost too many volunteers from the city already.
If Gavagai recovered the potion that was rumoured to be aboard the riverboat, his town would own the mines that they worked. It was an odd boat to be carrying a potion, he thought. But the Prince and the city people seemed convinced, the riverboat was carrying a cadre of doctors to treat the comatose Queen when it had gone adrift.
A day later Gavagai was ready, dressed in extra-thick animal skins. A crowd had gathered as the word spread that the monopod was ready. The Prince came to see him disembark and handed the monopod a small sack. “Whatever you find, burn the riverboat down when you leave.”
Gavagai looked at the families assembling on the bank. The men all out of work. The children restless without school. The mothers without basic supplies. Their mouths and noses covered with beak shaped masks.
Convinced by the Soothsayer that his mother was the victim of an airborne virus, the Prince had ordered a general quarantine. No one else had been comatose since, so it must be working, but the people were suffering and getting desperate.
Gavagai took up his crutches and moved onto the ice. His giant foot acted as a wide ski, spreading the slight weight of his dwarfish stature over a huge surface area. Only a monopod could risk going onto ice this thin.
As he shuffled towards the riverboat, he saw the skeletons of wrecked vessels that had tried to recover the potion before the winter. War, passenger and trading boats commandeered by the Prince, all of them wrecked in battles with the Southern Kingdom, until there were none left. Gavagai couldn’t understand the conflict. As far as he knew, the two kingdoms had left each other alone for centuries, until the riverboat arrived.
He peeked into his spyglass and saw a monopod from the south was also crossing the ice. He lowered the spyglass, startled at the coincidence. He wondered if the monopods of the Southern Kingdom were as pragmatic as the northerners. If they were, perhaps they could agree to share the spoils and begin a new relationship between the kingdoms.
As he approached the riverboat he lost sight of the other monopod, but the remains of the Southern Kingdom’s vessels came into view. Their boats were massacred in eerie synchronicity. He slowly climbed the frozen ladder onto the main deck. It looked ordinary. A leisure boat that would’ve served the river cities. Nothing to suggest that this contained some magical elixir.
Where would someone hide a potion on a boat? He decided he may as well work from the top down. Starting at the observation deck. As he hopped through the boat’s levels carefully, he found no evidence any crew or passengers had ever been aboard at all. Except for some frozen condensation and dust, it looked as if the riverboat had only just been launched.
When he entered the observation deck, beyond the polished wood benches he saw the monopod from the Southern Kingdom, emerging from the opposite set of stairs.
“I’m glad we bumped into each other,” said Gavagai, firmly and without aggression. But the other monopod said something at exactly the same time, overlapping his speech with alien sounds. They speak a different language, thought Gavagai. Why wouldn’t they?
“I’m sorry I…” he started, but the monopod overlapped him again.
He moved further onto the observation deck, the other monopod’s movements mirrored his exactly. He stopped, as did the other.
After a pause he threw one of his crutches halfway between them. So did his opposite. The crutch landed halfway over whatever barrier he was looking into. It split into four right-angles, creating a cross on the floor.
“A reflection,” he said to himself. His opposite overlapped him again and he realised its speech mirrored his sounds.
Gavagai returned to the Northern Kingdom empty handed, the riverboat ablaze behind him, the bell ringing arrhythmically across the ice as the hull collapsed under the fire. He was met at the bank by the Prince’s guards who escorted him directly to a parlour room at the palace.
“Have you spoken to anyone else before me?” asked the Prince.
“No,” said Gavagai.
“What did you find,” asked the Prince, with what Gavagai thought was a strange lack of urgency.
“Don’t you want the elixir?” asked Gavagai. The Prince smirked. “So you knew it wasn’t there?” The Prince nodded. “And there is something else…” continued Gavagai.
“I know. I guess the world has to end somewhere, right?”
“Why did you send me if you knew?”
The Prince stood up and walked around the room, running his hands over the shoulders of the rich leather chairs as he picked his words. “I need a way to end all this. Tomorrow I will announce that you successfully retrieved the potion. That we gave the potion to the Queen and she woke from her coma, but died overnight. Now we have the elixir, everyone is safe from the disease. I can reopen the kingdom.”
“When did you realise that there was no airborne disease?” asked Gavagai.
“Months ago,” the Prince admitted, with no pleasure in his tone.
“Why not end the quarantine then?”
The Prince snorted, “That’s not how power works.”