This story is paired with Chapter 12 of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
When Dorothy killed the Wicked Witch of the North, we hailed her. Everyone who knows the story of Oz knows that much. For me, it was the end of a nightmare and the beginning of a dream. My first years in my service to the Witch were much more on the nightmare side.
It started with the annual levy. The Witch was paranoid. She needed a palace guard to live securely. Even a witch can’t be vigilant at all times. Every year, she levied the villages around her castle for children to serve in her administration.
Not everyone served as a soldier. She had tax collectors, clerks, and other minions, but soldiers made up the bulk of her slaves. Once a year, a cloud of her flying monkeys darkened the sky as soldiers from her castle marched into the area villages. The clerk picked children—mostly boys—as inductees into her service. The townspeople were obligated to bring their families to the common. The monkeys swarmed over the town looking for children hidden by their parents. The clerk selected the inductees. They selected me for service in the palace guard.
My mother wept that night. My father was glum. My brothers and sister were bewildered, not knowing what to do or say.
“Try to remember, Drustin,” my father said.
This was what most parents said when one of their children fell victim to the levy. The Witch is generous and gives leaves and vacations to those in her service. You can visit home, write letters and, on occasion, entertain family members at the barracks. But her magic is subtle. Maybe it’s not even magic. Maybe it is the numbing aura of evil that pervades her castle. Whatever it is, it leeches out traits like loyalty, affection, and compassion so that after five years or so of service most of her slaves have no affection for their family and no attachment to friends, village, pets, and old jobs. They become grim, evil wraiths who will do the witch’s bidding. When my father told me to remember, he spoke from sad experience. His brother had been taken. No one knew if he was still alive. We had not heard from him in years.
The day before I left I went to see Noreen.
I had gone to school with her and liked her red hair and freckles. She was not a prissy, sedentary girl. She liked to run and romp. She belonged to the knot of girls who played with boys as much as propriety would allow.
Noreen did well at school. No one surpassed her at reading or math. Her parents owned a bakery. Our families were friends and they often came to our house to visit and we to theirs. Noreen would bring books with her when they visited us. After we had played outside, she and I would lie by the hearth and she would read aloud to me. I could catch some of the words in her book, but couldn’t make too many of them out. One night she left to go to the privy. I picked up the book she had been reading and puzzled over it. She came up behind me. I didn’t hear her. “Having trouble?” she asked.
Started, I jumped. A wave of shame and embarrassment swept over me.
“I don’t read very well,” I said. “I just learned a little bit of reading at school and then left to go to work.”
Her eyes softened, losing their sarcastic glint. She lowered to herself to a prone position. She did not apologize for humiliating me, but asked, “Do you like words?”
I blinked, puzzled. “I think so—though I don’t know exactly what you mean by that.”
“What do you think is a beautiful?”
The question startled me, but I didn’t want to appear stupid or tongue-tied. “Well,” I said, “The sun coming up mornings; fog streaming off the mountains.” I began to warm to the idea of listing beautiful things. “The mountain flowers when they bloom in spring; waterfalls; uncovering a new vein of silver in the mine. I think you’re beautiful.”
I blushed at the last thing I said. I had thought it but not meant to say it. Somehow, it came out of my mouth. I was afraid she would laugh at me, but she only smiled mysteriously.
“You like beautiful things. I like all those things too. I’ve never been in a mine and seen a vein of silver, but I know silver is beautiful. I would add words to the list. Words can be beautiful too. What are your favorite words, Drustin?”
It took me a moment to come up with some, not because I did not have favorite words but because her question was so different from the questions people usually asked me.
“I like the word ‘dawn.’ It’s pretty—pretty as dawn itself. I like ‘ignoramus.’”
She laughed. “Why do you like that word?”
“I like the way it sounds. I like the way my mouths feels when I say it. I like it because it’s so—”
“What does that mean?”
“It means it really says it—it hits the nail on the head. If someone is stupid—really stupid—that word says it with such beauty and force.”
“Yes.” I nodded. “‘Mist’ is another word I like, like ‘dawn.’ It sounds quiet and soft, like mist is.”
She beamed. “You’re smart. Can I teach you to read better so you know lots of words? So you can read stories?”
“I would like that, Noreen, but I have to work. At the end of the day, I’m tired—probably too tired to read or learn.”
She put her hand on her chin, her mind thinking thoughts I imagined loftier than my own.
A week later my father said I could spend lunch break at the bakery. Noreen wanted to teach me to read, he said, which would be a good thing. Every family needed someone who could read well. He was thinking of contracts, deeds, and ledgers. Monica was thinking of stories, heroic tales, and poetry.
I made a trip to the bakery every day to pick up bread. Everyone eats the noon meal outside, and because we start so early and work so hard, we get two hours off at noon so we can eat and then rest. We like our bread warm, and the bakery accommodates us. As lowest in seniority, my job was to trek to the bakery and carry the order back to the mine. My father said I could go back after the delivery and study with Noreen for the rest of lunch break.
She started me with easy books, ones I could read without her assistance, helping me any words I didn’t know. We went on to harder.
After a year, I could read quite well.
I also fell in love with Noreen. She grew prettier as the years passed. She got breasts and got hair on her legs. She grew out of the rambunctiousness of childhood into the thoughtful quiet that comes with being an adult, though the romping, scurrying child lay not very far under her surface of maidenly decorum.
One day, two months before the Witch’s agents conscripted me, I kissed her. We were both thirteen. I got up the courage and, when we came to a pause in our reading, leaned toward her. She looked into my eyes and knew what I meant to do. I expected her to do anything from giving me an angry look to slapping me, but she looked straight at me, her eyes soft, her face set as if to say if I meant to kiss her I should do it—now or never, and she would not move to encourage me.
It took all my courage to plant a kiss on her mouth. I and rested my hand on her right breast. I quickly drew it away but she gently guided my hand back to where it had been and, with pressed it into her softness. It seemed like the paradise religious people talk about. After a while I drew back. She touched my lips with one finger.
“We’d better stop,” she said. “Father will see us. I don’t think he would really be angry, but let’s no push our luck.”
I left the bakery longing for her but knowing I could never marry her. After I left for the castle, I probably never see her again.
My head filled with wild schemes. We could flee over the mountains. We could make our way through the Great Desert to the lands our stories said lay beyond it. I knew, of course, my plans were vain. The flying monkeys would track us down and the Witch would torture us to death for trying to escape. If we did somehow get away, she would kill our families. She ruled by fear. Two nights before I had to go we held hands and looked at the stars blazing above the northern mountains. After a long silence, she spoke.
“There is a way you won’t forget.”
“How? Everyone who goes there forgets.”
“Read,” she answered.
We kissed for the last time. I spend the next day with my family. At dawn they came for me. Mother wept. My father, stoic as he was, had tears in his eyes. My brothers and sisters whimpered. I got in the wagon with the prescribed items to take to the castle: food for the journey, two changes of clothing, and a water bottle. Father had given me eight gold crowns. Rumor said the Witch’s administrators confiscated anything you brought with you upon arrival at the castle. I did not care so much about the money as I did about two thin books Monica had given me. Whatever else happened, I was determined I would read.
* * *
The first day’s march took us miles from home. The troops shouted at us and cuffed us as we walked alone, though none struck me, I think because I looked strong and they did not want to take the chance I might hit back. When we stopped for the night, I had my first lesson on what my life as a soldier would be like. We curled up in blankets around a fire. I don’t know how long I had slept before someone kicked me and I sprang awake. Two boys in uniform, not much older than me, stood nearby. Further off, two older soldiers observed. In the firelight I could see the old soldiers smirking and grinning.
“Give me whatever money you have,” one of the younger soldiers said. I might have given him the crowns, since I did not think they would be of much use to me in the Witch’s castle, but he added, “And take off your pants and lay down on your stomach, you sweet little plum.”
Instinct took over. Maybe because he was my age, or because of the arrogant look on his face, I acted. I reached out and grabbed his throat.
My move took him by surprise. Probably he had counted on fear making me compliant and had not been on his guard. He lifted his arms but could not break my grip. I squeezed. I have worked wielding picks, chisels, carrying rock, and drilling with a nine-pound hammer since I was six. I choked him so hard he collapsed.
The other dove for me. I dodged him. Off balance from diving for me, he left himself vulnerable. I never fought that much, but the right side of his body invited a hard blow to the ribs. He crumpled to the ground. I walked over and gave him a kick on the other side. He jolted and groaned, blood oozing from his mouth. My other assailant lay still in the dirt. By now the conscripts were all up. Four more soldiers joined the two watching us.
Standing there, the scene so silent I could hear the fire crackling, I thought I had made a glorious end. They would kill me. I would never marry Noreen; but, damn it, I would not live my life as the Witch’s slave either.
One of the two soldiers I had first seen walked over. He jostled my first attacker with his foot and looked down at the other, who sobbed, blood spilling from his mouth and nose. He turned and looked at me.
“Good work, boy,” he said. “Do like this and you’ll make a place for yourself.”
He ordered the other soldiers to carry off the two I had disabled. I learned a few days later the first one who attacked me was dead. I had broken his neck. The second one took weeks to heal. He lived in fear of me and did not try to avenge himself. I did not get in trouble for my action. In fact, the ranking soldiers seemed friendly and did not harass or bully me. No one bothered me or the recruits who shipped in with me for the rest of our time in the castle.
* * *
The castle loomed like a storm cloud coming over the top of the mountains the day we arrived. The drawbridge lowered, its chain screeching. We saw the courtyard the assembled guard. Torches blazed even though it was the middle of the day. The castle sat in perpetual darkness. A mass of black cloud hovered around it at all times.
As we came inside and the portcullis came down, sealing us in that cursed place, I noticed how many of the troops had green or blue skin. A few of the ranking soldiers in our escort did, but I had thought they had stained their flesh as a symbol of status or for camouflage. The guards inside the castle showed a sea of green and blue faces.
Oz is a land of many races and varieties of people, but never before had I seen men with such complexions. I learned in the next few weeks that after you had been in the Witch’s service, your skin changed to one of these colors. People in our land are white, black, brown, gold. Whatever color you are, a few years in the Witch’s service will turn you. This is so no one runs away. The monkeys or the Witch’s lackeys can easily spot you should you desert.
Our training began immediately.
Like most soldiers, we learned drill and how to handle weapons. The hauberk was the primary weapon if you were a guard in the castle. We learned archery in case anyone laid siege to the fortress (a remote possibility but the Witch lived in constant fear of it). Strength training occupied a lot of our time. We did not learn to fight with swords.
The quartermaster issued uniforms our first day. Since it was cold most of the year in the castle, we wore thick wool coats, bearskin hats, mittens and heavy boots, and canvas trousers. On rare days when the temperature climbed, we took off our coats and rolled up our sleeves.
In any army, there are official and unofficial rules. I quickly learned them. Because I had successfully defended myself on the way here, I had reputation for being tough and had to live up to it. The first week there, two groups of older recruits attacked me. I managed to fight them off. Working in a mine not only makes you strong but adroit and observant. You learn to notice everything around you, avoid falling rocks, and sense collapses. This skill can easily carry over to skill in observing opponents’ moves and assessing two or three attackers’ strategy. I disabled the three recruits who attacked me and robbed them, taking their money and their boots. I told them if they wanted them back they could pay me a week’s wages, and they had no choice but to comply. Losing your boots was punished by a flogging. My coffers filled with gold coins at an amazing rate.
I earned friends as well—defenders who clustered around me. My faction grew strong. After I had been there two years, one of my allies told me of a plot against me. Degesa Norr, a five-year recruit, decided he would kill me. I had beaten him up once and humiliated two of his relatives by taking their boots. By bribes and threats, I managed to find out what he meant to do and when he planned to do it.
I went into the village nearest the castle and bought a stiletto. It is a crime to use an official weapon to kill another soldier but not a crime to use a personal weapon on a comrade at arms (the Witch’s rules don’t have a lot of logic to them). I knew he would come after me at zero hour—after twelve but before one. Superstition has it that this is the most auspicious time to commit a murder. I hid myself in a corridor near his room. Sure enough, just after the bell tolled midnight, he emerged and headed for my room.
Nothing dramatic. I didn’t knock him down and make a speech before delivering the death stroke. I waited until he walked by and thrust the knife in between the third and fourth rib. He gasped, stiffened, and then crumpled. I seized his body as it fell so it did not make a lot of noise and clatter. He had an army issue knife in his possession. Word would get out that I had killed him. I doubted if they would arrest me, but if they did I would get off the charge by having friends testify he meant to kill me and that his weapon was an army blade. I took his money and rings and returned to the room I shared with three other recruits.
No one said a word about Norr’s death. A week later, the commandant promoted me to the rank of Sergeant.
I got a private room. I commanded a squad. Two platoons—a hundred men—made up the palace guard. Each platoon was commanded by an officer and was broken into squads, each one led by a sergeant. I had nine men in my squad. I achieved the distinction of being the youngest non-commissioned officer in the place. After my promotion, no one opposed my word, let alone tried to do violence to me.
Three years passed. The commandant gave me a week of leave. I went home to my family. They rejoiced to see me. I had kept my promise not to forget them.
One night, when Father and my oldest brother stayed up late and we were all drunk, he asked me how I had remembered. I thought about it and said, “Books.”
He thought I was joking and guffawed. I told him I was serious. He asked how.
“If you read, your mind stays free. The Witch’s magic doesn’t creep into your soul. You keep your lease on yourself. Noreen gave me two books to take with me to the castle. When we get liberty and go into town, I buy more books. I read every day. I have a private room and am able to read at night.”
I noticed, when I mention Noreen, my father’s eyes gave out a sad look.
“Did you hear about Noreen?” he asked.
“No. What about her?”
“We got word she’s been gleaned. She leaves for the castle in three weeks.”
The Witch’s bureaucrats had picked Noreen to be a prostitute for the soldiers at the castle.
* * *
It was right after I learned this that our unit got several briefings on a new threat—a serious one, apparently, and, unlike most of the security notices we heard—a genuine and not imagined threat. Someone had arrived from another world and had killed the Witch’s sister and chief ally. Further, she had possession of some magical item the Witch Wanted. She had enlisted the aid of Glinda, who had considerable magical powers; and she had been commissioned to kill the Witch by none other than the Wizard of Oz.
The Witch was frantic. She had tried to kill this woman, Dorothy, several times. Glinda, or Dorothy’s own magic, always saved her. The Witch knew, through her orb, that Dorothy was near the castle. Glinda’s magic was not efficacious in the Witch’s territories, but she had no idea what powers Dorothy herself might possess.
We went on high alert. Sentries were doubled and patrols sent into the wood around the castle. I began to see that aiding this Dorothy might be the only way I could protect Noreen and have her for myself.
I even prayed. Religion is not a big thing here, and my family hardly mentioned it to me growing up. I prayed to the spirits I did not know but imagined must rule the universe in some way. Later that day I found out the gleaning had been postponed until the crisis with Dorothy had passed. Noreen would not be brought to the castle to begin her service. It might have been the answer to my prayer or might have been sheer luck, but I determined to help Dorothy. She might bring an end to the Witch’s reign. Helping her to triumph would be my only hope and Noreen’s only hope as well.
As Dorothy’s party approached the castle, the Witch’s fear increased. She called meetings to discuss security and sent out patrols that roamed the countryside. Three guards stood where previously one had occupied the post. Her flying monkeys moved through the sky looking for the enemy.
One morning I awoke to a buzz. The whole guard went on alert. I mustered my squad. We assembled in the courtyard, wondering if an army might besiege us. The flying moneys clotted the sky above us. I soon got the official word: Dorothy had been sighted in the Haunted Forest. The Witch had sent her monkeys to capture her. Dorothy had come with some sort of bodyguard, it seemed, but we could rule out the possibility of an army or destructive magic. We formed ranks, battle-ready, awaiting orders. The commandant sent us out with orders to double-check security.
The flying monkeys captured Dorothy, as you probably know. They disabled her bodyguard and carried her and her dog to the castle. The dog managed to escape and led her friends here.
If we had not been so preoccupied with security, those three would never have sneaked into the castle. We had patrols out, guards posted everywhere, and extra personnel in the watchtowers. Because of this, we had fewer men on the walls. The Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow were able to sneak in.
Three of my men saw them. A lot of people wonder how they overcame the soldiers, but think about it. A lion (however cowardly) is a formidable beast. A man made out of metal is something to be reckoned with. The Scarecrow, though not strong, displayed adroitness; his soft, straw-filled body could only be harmed if you tore it apart, as the monkeys had, or burned it. My soldiers did not discern as much. They threw down their hauberks because the Witch had ordered intruders captured so they could be tortured for information. Mistake. The trio of Dorothy’s friends made short work of my men, put on their uniforms, and infiltrated the castle.
On the way up to check on a soldier I had posted at a lookout point, Sarah took hold of my arm.
Sarah was one of the women who serviced the soldiers. I went to her quite a bit. She could read and I gave her books. She told me the books kept her sane and gave her hope.
“Is everything all right?” she asked me. “If besiegers take the castle, will they treat us justly?”
“As far as I know, we won’t face an army. The monkeys would have seen if one were approaching.”
“I thought I would tell you,” she said, drawing closer to me and lowering her voice. “Bashur has been granted first claim on Noreen.”
A chill ran over me. First claim meant that when Noreen came here he would be the one to take her virginity. My plan in the event that she was sent here was to get first claim on her and use my influence and, if necessary, violence to keep the others away from her. Bashur was the commandant. The only way to stop him from working his will on Noreen would be to assassinate him. I did not have time to consider how I might do this at that moment, but I knew I must begin making a plan as soon as I could. I thank Sarah for telling me.
“When the Witch of South died, the people stormed her castle and killed everyone inside,” she said, her eyes full of fear.
“It won’t happen here. Be assured. You and all the other women will be safe.”
Sarah is the one to thank for the Witch’s downfall, because if she had not told me about the danger Noreen was in I would not have looked the other way when the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow passed by me.
Oz is a land of diverse and, often, bizarre people. Many of the guards are Winkees, like me, but the Witch acquires slaves from all over the land. I might not have thought anything of a man with a silver face or one who looked vaguely like a scarecrow, but when I saw the Lion’s tail protrude from his greatcoat, I knew something was wrong. After I talked to Sarah, command informed us to be on the lookout for Dorothy’s companions and described one as a lion. Oz abounds in talking beasts that walk upright, but the Witch did not like animals and kept them out of the castle (her accursed monkeys excepted.) I discerned what had happened and went to sound the alarm. If I stopped the three friends from rescuing Dorothy, perhaps I could persuade the Witch to give Noreen to me. I could protect her and keep her as mine alone.
The thought blazed in my mind but flamed out quickly. To do this would turn Bashur against me. He harbored a great deal of suspicion toward me already and considered me a rival and a usurper. If I took a young woman he had a fancy to, his hate would intensify. And the Witch of the North inverted all natural impulses. Where normal human beings loved, she hated; she returned goodness done to her with malice. I had seen her, out of sheer maliciousness, kill those who did her service. She would loathe me for loving Noreen and wanting her for an honorable wife.
So it was that when I spotted Dorothy’s confederates, I did not expose their identities but let them sneak into the castle. Looking around, I found the bodies of the men they had killed. They were good men and their loss sent sorrow into my soul. A lot rested, though, on Dorothy’s duel with the Witch.
I was absent for the drama that unfolded inside the castle. Apparently, Dorothy possessed no magic at all. The Witch planned to kill her. Her friends temporarily freed her but the guards surrounded them and Dorothy destroyed the Witch simply throwing a bucket of water in her face.
Water. We had never even dreamed. I once was told the Witch went into a village and a dog bit her. She did not bleed, the people said, because all her blood had dried up long ago. Looking back, I don’t remember ever seeing her drink. Something about the evil make-up of her body excluded water or anything like it. That makes sense because water is the fluid of life.
It was lucky I did not see Dorothy prior to when I met her at the celebration of the Witch’s death. She was a girl maybe eleven or twelve years old. Someone told me later that when Oz the Great and Powerful addressed her she answered him as “Dorothy, the Small and Meek—” as accurate a description of her as I have ever heard! Noreen reminds me that her goodness, not her power, destroyed the Witch and that I should not despise her for her meekness. She also reminded me that books—a thing scorned by many as useless, impractical, and unmanly—saved me from being conquered by the evil of the Witch’s castle.
When the Witch died her spells died with her. When the guards saw how they had cut off contact with their families, they wept and grieved. Their flesh quickly reverted to white, black, and olive. The monkeys shed their clothing, lost the ability to understand human speech, and headed for the jungles to the south.
Word of the Witch’s demise spread quickly. The villagers came in force. We met them and told them what had happened. They left us and the women forced into prostitution alone. The queen’s bureaucrats did not fare so well. The mob hanged them all and looted the castle. It stands today, an empty ruin, a cursed place no one dares go near.
I returned to Noreen. We were married. I went back to mining, but my habit of reading and the organizational skills I had learned as a soldier eventually propelled me into public service. I became commander of our local militia, alderman and, eventually, mayor. Our children are strong and our family prospers. When the children are asleep, Noreen and I stretch out by the hearth and read. The magic of the old days never leaves us. The magic of the books we read points to enchantments that still stretch out ahead of us.
David W. Landrum teaches Literature at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. His speculative fiction has appeared widely, his fairy tale revisions in The Fairy Tale Whisperer; Modern Day Fairy Tales; Myths, Legends, and Fairy Tales; Father Grim’s Storybook, and Sorcerous Signals. His novellas, The Gallery, The Prophetess, and Strange Brew, and his full-length novel, The Sorceress of the Northern Seas are available through Amazon.