Someone pounded on the door.
Annabelle sprang out of bed and grabbed her gun. Her nightgown swished around her ankles as she ran for the hallway, bare feet hitting the worn wooden floor.
A voice came from the other side of the door. “Good grief man. Do you have to wake up the whole town? Can you be quieter?”
“I literally cannot.” A deeper voice said. “Do you know how hard it is to control my hooks? I am pretty sure they aren’t supposed to be used like this.”
“What do you want?” Annabelle called.
“To hire you!” The first voice said. “This is Annabelle’s detective agency, right?”
“Come back in the morning.”
“We would rather not.” The deeper voice said.
Annabelle cocked her gun. “Well, I would rather not deal with people who have to sneak around in the shadows.”
“Annabelle, it’s me.” The deeper voice said. “Richard. We are cousins. We met that one time at Sarah’s wedding?”
Annabelle groaned. She knew she would regret going to that wedding. She did recognize his voice, but just because someone was her cousin didn’t mean he was trustworthy. But… if she didn’t open the door she would be hearing about it from her mother.
“I’ve got a gun.” She warned. She opened the door.
The only things in front of the door was a coatstand and a fork.
“Can we come in?” said the coatstand in Richard’s voice.
Annabelle pointed her gun at the stand. “What kind of witchcraft is this?”
“That’s what we want to find out.” said the fork. “Look, can we come inside?”
Nope. No. Negative. Nothing good ever came from messing with witchcraft. But even as her mind yelled at her to slam the door shut and go back to bed, she found herself nodding. A job was a job, and she desperately needed one.
Annabella stepped aside and the Fork and Stand kind of… hopped inside. It was strange.
“Come on into the kitchen.” She shut the door and they went to the kitchen. Annabelle opened a drawer and pulled out a silver knife. It was the only valuable thing she owned, a gift from her uncle. He’d told her it repelled magic, but then again, he was crazy. She had never thought she would have the opportunity to find out if he was right or not. She wasn’t sure what she would do with it — stab a fork? But the weight was familiar and it grounded her, at least for a moment.
She crossed her arms and leaned against the wall, holding the knife in her hand. Her gun leaned against her waist. Normally she made tea for clients, but she wasn’t going to start a fire in the middle of the night and use up the little tea she had left.
She didn’t know if these guys could eat anything anyways.
“So you know how I work at Hemingburg Castle, right? Just up the hill?” Richard said.
Annabelle made an affirmative noise even though she knew no such thing.
“Well, a couple of days ago this sorceress came in the middle of the night. Everyone had finished working so no one heard her knock but the prince. He opened the door and there was an old woman there. Long story short, she wanted to come in, the prince said no, and she cast this curse on the whole castle. Now the prince looks like a monster and everybody else has been turned into furniture.”
“The curse will be broken if Prince Fur-face can get a girl to fall in love with him.” the fork said. It snorted, a strange sound coming from a fork. “Like that’s going to happen. If he doesn’t, we will be furniture forever! We won’t even be able to move! Our fates are in the hands of our selfish butt of a boss and there isn’t anything we can do about it!”
“You don’t want me to fall in love with him, do you?” Annabelle asked warily.
“No,” the fork said. “We want you to find the sorceress.”
The declaration should have been met with… something. Lightning. Thunder. A dramatic chord from an organ. But the stand and fork just stared at Annabelle with their eyeless faces. She shifted.
“Sam actually saw her.” Richard inclined his ‘head’ at the fork. “We figured he could stick with you to identify her while I go back to the castle. Everyone back at the castle has agreed to pool their money together to hire you.”
Annabelle fingered her knife. A part of her, a very large part of her, wanted to shove these two out the door, lock it behind them, and forget everything they told her. You don’t mess with a sorceress. One wrong move and she could be two inches tall and craving flies.
But… she needed the money. Desperately. And it wasn’t like she ever needed to talk with the witch. She could just find her and throw the fork at her. No sorceress interaction involved.
“I’ll do it.”
The next morning Annabelle set out, fork in one hand and knife in the other. (The knife did not remove the curse on Sam, but he complained it made him itchy, so that was something.)
Hopefully, the sorceress would want to hang around and keep an eye on the curse. If not… there was no telling where she would be. If she wasn’t still around, there was no finding her. They had to assume she was still in town.
Maybe it would be better if she had left the area. Annabelle could spend a few billable hours looking around and get on with her life without coming within twenty feet of a witch.
But first, Annabelle needed to check all the magic-y places in the area. The only one she knew of was a clearing a couple of hours into the forest. She’d heard stories of men falling asleep in it and waking a hundred years later. It’s where druids gathered to bless the forest. If the sorceress was anywhere, she would be there.
As they walked, the silence stretched between Annabelle and Sam like a watermelon. That is to say, not well.
“So, um, what’s it like being a fork?” Annabelle asked.
The blue sky overhead peeked through the trees. Birds trilled in the background. The ground was as solid as it always was. Out here in the light of day, the idea of a curse seemed so foreign and out of place.
“Horrible.” The fork shivered. “I have no hands. I’m a foot tall. I can hop around but that’s about it. It could be worse though. I’m not being used. Some of the others are forced to continue working even though they have been turned into furniture! Fancy-fur’s butler Trent was turned into a wardrobe and has to continue to dress the beast. Trent is too big to move so he can’t even leave the room.”
“That sounds awful.” Annabelle said.
“It is. I don’t know how this curse was supposed to make Hairy-hands into a better person, but it isn’t working. He sees us as even less human than he did before. Thank goodness he only eats with his hands. If someone came along that wanted to actually use silverware, they would have to put my head in their mouth! Gross!”
“So, how does that work?” Annabelle asked. “Is there twice as much furniture in the castle now? Did you have to go through and throw out the furniture that wasn’t a person?”
“No, it’s like our minds went into the furniture that was already there,” Sam explained. “Every single person in the castle has lost their body. The Head Housekeeper. The lowest maid. Children. Even the dogs! The last couple of days have been real chaotic, I can tell you that.”
They arrived at the clearing. Sunlight filtered down from the leaves. The color of the flowers on the ground seemed just a bit brighter than normal. Annabelle’s skin tingled, like the very air was humming. A fallen log laid at the edge of the clearing. It looked ordinary and plain against the backdrop of vivid colors.
There was no one here. Annabelle didn’t see any sign of someone being here recently. She didn’t know if she was relieved or annoyed.
“Hmmm.” She scanned the area.
“Hmmm? What does that mean?” Sam said.
“If she isn’t here, I don’t know where she could be.” Annabelle said. “I could go into town and ask around, but if she can change her appearance than I don’t know if that will be much help.”
She set Sam down on the ground and jumped up on a fallen log. She began pacing. “We need to get inside her head. If I was a powerful sorceress who enacted a curse on a prince, where would I go?” Annabelle sighed. “I don’t know if we have enough information to figure this out.”
Should she even keep trying? Trying to think like a sorceress seemed like it was just asking for trouble. But being a fork sounded horrible… she couldn’t give up just yet.
“We know that she didn’t think about how her curse would affect others.” Sam said.
“Or she just doesn’t care.” Annabelle pivoted. “We know she is really powerful. A ten-year curse this complicated has got to take some power. Is this the first time she has done something like this?”
“I think I remember her smiling,” Sam said. “I had just been turned into a fork so it was all really fuzzy, but she might of been… smirking? She was proud of what she had done.”
“That does tell us something.” Annabelle jumped off the log. “She was smug. Hmmm.” Annabelle knew a place where a proud sorceress might go.
“Is that a good hmmm?” Sam asked. “That sounds like a good hmmm.”
“It is.” Annabelle grabbed the fork. “Let’s go.”
There was a cliff that overlooked the castle. This meant said the castle was in a terrible spot if it was ever attacked, but it had been built in peacetime and it was cheaper than hauling everything up the steep hill.
The sorceress stood at the edge of the cliff, peering down at the castle. Wind billowed at her dress. She seemed almost otherworldly — like she was less real than her surroundings.
“There she is,” Annabelle whispered. “What now?”
“Put me down,” Sam said.
Annabelle did so, gripping her knife tightly in her other hand. The sorceress was right in front of her, even if she hadn’t acknowledged their presence yet. This could go wrong in so many ways. Annabelle should just run. She’d found the sorceress. She’d done her job. But something glued her in place as Sam approached the sorceress.
“Hey!” Sam yelled at the sorceress, “Hey you! Do you recognize me? Probably not, because I’ve been turned into a fork!”
The sorceress frowned at the fork. “What are you doing here?”
“So you do recognize me.” Sam took a hop closer. “Now turn us back, you snickerdoodle!”
It was the bravest and stupidest thing Annabelle had ever seen anyone do. Insult a sorceress? Sam was going to die.
“You aren’t supposed to be away from the castle.” The sorceress said. “Why are you here?” She waved her hand at Sam. “It doesn’t matter, I suppose. Off you go!”
Sam disappeared in a flash of light. Annabelle gasped. The sorceress went back to her castle-watching.
What was Annabelle going to do now? She knew the smart thing. Run. Thank her lucky stars that she wasn’t next. Let the cursed servants find another solution to their problem.
But what if there wasn’t?
Annabelle took a cautious step towards the sorceress. And another. And another, pulse pounding in her ears until she was standing next to the witch overlooking the cliff.
Below them was the castle. It was so far away Annabelle shouldn’t have been able to see anything, but somehow she could. A couple of footrests chased each other around the garden. An armchair shuffled across the courtyard. A hideous deformed monster sitting on the balcony, body twisted and warped.
The sorceress sent Annabelle a sly smile. “He’s done nothing but mope for the past couple of days. Such a big baby.” She clearly wanted to show off her curse. As they watched, the monster stood and roared at the footrests. They scattered, clearly frightened.
Annabelle stared at the beast. “How is anyone going to fall in love with that?”
“Don’t be so shallow.” The sorceress smacked Annabelle’s arm. “She’ll love him for who he is on the inside.”
“His insides are looking pretty horrible at the moment as well,” Annabelle said. She could hardly believe she was being this bold to a sorceress, but the thought of someone like Sam being stuck as a fork forever gave her courage.
“Well, that’ll change once he starts falling in love.” the sorceress smirked.
“I don’t think anyone would stick around that long,” Annabelle said. A thought struck her. “Wait, are you thinking they are going to force some poor girl to stay until she falls in love? Do you want them to kidnap someone?”
“What? No…” the sorceress laughed but it sounded false.
“What is your plan then?” Annabelle demanded.
“I…” the sorceress struggled for a moment then shrugged. “Alright, I don’t have the answer for that. But he only has ten years to fall in love — that should motivate him to figure something out.”
“In nine and a half years, maybe,” Annabelle said. “What happens if he doesn’t find someone?”
“Oh, this is where it gets really clever.” The sorceress said. “If he doesn’t get someone to fall in love with him, the furniture all goes still and he remains a beast forever! He couldn’t find someone to love and now he never will. Justice is served.”
Annabelle stared at the sorceress. “That’s horrible! What happens to the people who are furniture?”
“What about them?” The sorceress asked.
“They didn’t do anything to you! They are going to die! The servents have no control over how their boss acts. What if he decides he doesn’t want to change? There are children under this curse. You are going to kill children because their parents worked for a guy you didn’t like? How is that justice?”
The sorceress shifted. “Well, when you put it like that…”
“How would you put it?” Annabelle was trembling, but whether it was from fear or anger she didn’t quite know.
The sorceress snapped. “I don’t like that tone, young lady.” She narrowed her eyes at Annabelle and suddenly everything came into sharper focus, like the world was pressing down on her. Annabelle tightened her grip on her knife. It grew warm under her palm.
“I think you need to learn your place.” The sorceress's voice rose. Waves of light shot out from her palms and flew towards Annabelle. They circled her, but as they grew closer her knife began to glow. The threads of light shied away from Annabelle like oil against water. They faded, and the sorceress and Annabelle were left staring at each other.
Annabelle smiled. “Are you finished?”
The sorceress didn’t respond. Annabelle pointed her knife at her. “Turn them back.”
“No!” The sorceress took a step back, but she was against the cliff and had nowhere else to go.
“Turn them back.” Annabelle insisted. “People shouldn’t die because you were offended at something someone else did.”
“He deserves it!” The sorceress said. She shot more beams of light, this time around herself, but the knife repelled them before they could take hold.
“Maybe,” Annabelle said. “But the others don’t. Turn. Them. Back.”
“Fine!” The sorceress threw her hands up. “Fine. I’ll turn them back. The prince will have to become a better person on his own. Just — ” she glared. “Get that knife away from me.”
Annabelle hesitated and lowered the knife. The sorceress gathered her skirts and cast another spell. Beams of light flew towards the castle. Through the sorceress’ spell Annabelle could see furniture turning back into humans. The footstools became dogs. The armchair became an old man. The beast became a prince.
“There. Happy now?” The sorceress pouted.
“Happy enough,” Annabelle said. “I think you should leave.”
The sorceress disappeared in a flash of light. Annabelle sighed. She must be even stupider than Sam was, threatening a sorceress like that. They didn’t hold grudges lightly.
It was worth it though, to save the others. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be a piece of furniture for ten years.