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by Eric M. Battaglia

"I don't enjoy this," the witch Bruella whispers in your ear. Her scissors go snip, snip, snip.

"We don't enjoy this at all," agrees her sister Cathione from the floor, as she gathers up the shorn lengths of your hair, where resided your power.

You sit in silence as they work, snipping away. Your gaze is focused through the window, to the land splayed out before you. The view from the tower carries so far, but you can see it all, your vision stretches over the palace, with its seemingly endless gardens and maze-like structures, its other, shorter towers along the perimeters. Outside the palace walls lies the village, with its citizens bustling to reinforce their own barriers, preparing for a battle they will lose. Out beyond the village, there is a wide gorge that cuts the land in two. On the other side, a dense forest, and you can make out movement among the twisted trees. That would be the goblins, waiting for their chance.

There used to be a bridge at that gorge, not so long ago. Burned away at your father's orders when his sorcerer's betrayal was made known. But oh too late, the palace may be secured but this tower isn't your father's anymore. And the imp stands here to ensure even his loyal witches obey and strip you of your power. You were always your father's greatest secret, and his last defense.

"I wish there were another way," says Bruella as she snips the last lock from your head.

"I wish we could fight back," whispers her sister, gathering it up with the others.

"Bring the locks to Dementius," commands the little green imp, waiting impatiently by the door.

Cathione gathers up your shorn hair, rolling their black lengths around her arm and leaves the room. The imp remains, glaring at you. "Something isn't right," he says. "Perhaps it is because some of her hair remains."

You say nothing. The room is colder; is it because you are no longer cloaked with your hair? You would ask for a blanket, but you don't want to anger the imp. Bruella would get it for you.

"Only a few tufts remain," she protests.

The imp glares at her, then waves his hand and conjures an obsidian blade, straight and flat, made for scraping. "Use this. Take the rest off. Her power must be removed."

"Oh, what a cruel thing," says Bruella as she takes the blade and holds it up to the light. "It tugs at my very soul." She nonetheless brings it to your head. "I will need a basin of water and soap," she says.

"No," says the imp, grinning so that if you were looking, you could see what was stuck between his sharp and wicked teeth, making his breath reek so that you can smell it even in this room, with the chill breeze slipping through the window. You wonder about asking him to close his mouth, as you would have in days past, but now you fear that he'll just laugh and then tell you exactly what he'd been eating to make his breath so rank. Exactly who. And he will laugh, and laugh, and laugh, filling the room with that carrion smell.

So you focus your gaze outside, watching over the horizon for the goblins in the wood as they seethe and writhe. They won't step one foot beyond the treeline for fear of your father's men and their arrows. But they wait for their chance, their gnarled and scarred hands clutch things that might be weapons. An idea begins to form.

Bruella laments the lack of water as she begins to scrape the remaining hair and stubble from your head. The blade is sharp, but also cruel. It needlessly bites into your scalp, no matter how she wields it. Bruella mutters apology after apology as she keeps making these cuts, keeps trying not to. The blood is flowing down your head, you can feel the warm trickle making its way around your ears.

The imp must be smiling, and you can hear him make a smacking sound with his lips.

"Oh, this is terrible," says Bruella, sobbing as she looks at her bloody hands, the blood staining your clothes, falling in sticky strands, falling as though it were hair, red, twiney hair to replace your fine black flowing hair, the hair that hadn't been cut since you were a little girl.

"Terrible, indeed," you say now, with a soft voice.

"What's that?" asks the imp, scampering forward two tiny steps.

"It is as if I now have a head of red hair instead of black," you continue, and as you speak it becomes so. "As if it will grow as I bleed, and grow and grow and grow."

"Shut your mouth!" the imp hops up and down. "Shall I get the sorcerer? Shall I bring Dementious here? How do you think he would feel, being interrupted for nonsense?"

"Can you manage such unwieldy red hair, Bruella?" you ask.

"No," Bruella says, gazing down at the thick red locks that twine themselves harmlessly around her arm, and wrapping down her body.

"Stop this at once!" shouts the imp, just before a particularly thick lock smacks him and sends him across the room and out the window.

You gaze out after him, not lifting yourself from your seat.

"I will form a bridge," you say "which is what Dementius wants. A bridge to replace the one my father burned. I will let the goblins through."

As you speak, your red hair continues to bleed out, faster and faster now, it twists as it goes, and flows out the window weaving itself into a lattice, reaching down and over, passing over the palace with its mazes, over the village with its blustery haste and panic, over your father's men as they stand at the gorge and fire their arrows, and down over the gorge, coming to rest before the forest, a bridge for the goblins, straight to the tower.

"How do you do this?!" cries Bruella as she struggles to free herself.

"It is what the sorcerer wanted, all what he wanted," you say, as you feel the goblins climbing your bridge, climbing over your father's men, who shoot their arrows upward in futility, over the village, over the palace gardens, over the palace itself and up into the tower room, they are flooding the room, and bursting through.

They are wild, they are chaos and mischief embodied, they heed the call but no master. Though they swarm the room they cannot touch you. You have wrapped yourself and Bruella in a case of your red, red hair, a thick red basket that they rush past, uncurious, uncaring, only seeking Dementius. And here he is barricaded in this tower with the creatures he sought to aid his final victory.

When enough have come you call your hair back, this marvelous red bridge retreats over everyone, everything, shaking the remaining goblins loose and hurling them into the gorge or dropping them crushed and injured before the king's men, and you think you could hear their guttural shrieks as they fall, but the tower is full of shrieking, so how can you tell?

You have one final chore here, one thing left before you can be done, and you can sleep. The sorcerer is up, up in the very top. Listen, are those his screams? You send your new red locks up and into the tower, tendrils feeling every stone, seeking their lovely black sisters. Snaking past scampering, stomping, clawed feet and past the falling corpse of Dementius, chewed apart even as he cools, they find your locks clutched in Cathione's cold hand. You will mourn her loss later. Right now like seeks like, and your beautiful black hair meets your blood hair, and twines together like serpents mating.

When all is said and done, and your father and his men have hammered the door down, they find a tower full of goblin corpses, like so much detritus. They climb the stairs, fearing all the way what they will find when they reach the room that served as your prison. But they needn't fear.

They will see you sleeping peacefully, curled up in a corner, your head on Bruella's lap, both of you wrapped up tight in a thick blanket of red and black hair.

* * *

Eric M. Battaglia lives near Chicago, IL. He is a librarian by profession, a storyteller by passion, and a creative by habit. He has dabbled in the visual arts and participated in multiple craft fairs and group art shows, but in recent years has returned his focus to writing about strange and darkly wonderful things.

What do you think is the most important aspect of a fantasy story?

I think a fantasy story needs to have a sense of wonder, which comes as much from the telling as from the fantastical elements. Narrative, setting, characterization, imagery, pacing—these are tools we use to build our illusions and imbue them with strangeness. The end result is a story that calls to the imagination and invites it to play.