WE FOUND THE MONSTER ON A ROCKY LEDGE HIGH ABOVE the lake. For three dark days my brother and I had tracked it through the maze of caves to its lair on the mountain's summit. And now we beheld it, curled atop its treasure, its pale fur and scales ablaze with moonlight.
It knew we were there. Doubtless it had smelled us coming, its flared nostrils drinking in our sweat and fear. Its crested head lifted slightly, almost lazily. Coins and jewels clinked and shifted as its body began to uncoil.
"Kill it!" I roared. My sword was in my hand, and my brother was at my side, his own blade flashing.
The speed with which the beast struck was incomprehensible. I tried to throw myself clear, but its muscular neck crashed against my right arm, and I felt the arm break and dangle uselessly at my side. But my sword hand was my left, and with a bellow of pain I slashed at the monster's chest, my blade deflecting off its mighty ribs.
I was aware of my brother striking at the beast's lower regions, all the while trying to avoid its lashing barbed tail. The monster came at me again, jaws agape. I battered its head, trying to stab its mouth or eyes, but it was as quick as a cobra. It knocked me sprawling to the stone, so that I was perilously close to the precipice's edge. The monster reared back, ready to strike, and then it shrieked in pain, for my brother had severed one of its hind legs.
But still the monster faced only me--as if I were its sole adversary.
I pushed myself up with my good hand. Before the monster could strike, I hurled myself at it. This time my sword plunged deep into its chest, so deep I could scarcely wrench it out. A ribbon of dark fluid unfurled in the moonlight, and the monster reared to its full height, terrible to behold, and then crumpled.
Its head shattered on the ground, and there, among the bloodied fur and cracked crest, was the face of a beautiful girl.
My brother came to my side, and together we gazed at her, marveling.
"We've broken the curse," he said to me. "We have saved the town. And we have released her."
The girl's eyes opened, and she looked from my brother to me. I knew she didn't have long to live, and a question burned inside me. I knelt.
"Why?" I asked her. "Why was it only me you attacked?"
"Because it is you," she whispered, "who is the real monster."
And with that, she died, leaving me more shaken than I could describe. I staggered back. My brother could not have heard her words--they were spoken so softly--and when he asked me what she'd said, I shook my head.
"Your arm," he said with concern, steadying me.
"It will heal." I turned my gaze to the pile of treasure.
"We have more than can ever be spent," my brother murmured.
I looked at him. "The treasure is mine alone."
He stared back in astonishment, this brother of mine who looked so much like me, we might have been the same person. And indeed we were, for we were identical twins.
"What do you mean?" he said.
I lifted my sword, put the tip against his throat, and forced him, step by step, toward the edge of the precipice.
"Why should we not share this," he demanded, "as we've shared everything else equally?"
I laughed then, at the lie of it. "No twins are ever completely equal," I said. "Though we're of one body, we are not equal, Brother, for you were born the sooner by two minutes. Even in our mother's womb you stole from me. The family birthright is yours. And such a treasure that is, to make this one look like a pauper's pittance. But I want it, all of it. And I shall have it."
At that moment the monster stirred, and in alarm I turned--only to see it making its final death contraction. But in that same instant my brother drew his sword.
"You will not cheat me!" he shouted.
Back and forth across the ledge we fought. We were both strong, with broad shoulders and taut muscles that thrived on exertion. But my brother had always been the better swordsman, and with my broken arm I was even more disadvantaged. But my cold serpent's resolve was strong, and before long I had smacked the sword from his hand and forced him to his knees. Even as he stared at me with my own face, and pleaded with me in my own voice, I plunged the sword into his heart and stole his life.
I gave a sigh of utter relief and looked up at the moon, felt the cool May air caress my face.
"Now I shall have all the riches in the world," I said. "And I am, at last, alone."
For a moment there was only the shushing of the breeze from the glacial lake--and then applause burst forth.
Standing on the broad balcony, I turned to face the audience, which had been watching us from their rows of chairs just inside the ballroom. There was Mother and Father, and their friends, their delighted faces bathed in candlelight.
My brother Konrad sprang to his feet, and together we ran back to the crumpled monster and helped our cousin emerge from her costume. Her luxuriant amber hair spilled free, and her olive complexion glowed in the torchlight. The applause grew louder still. The three of us joined hands and took a bow.
"Henry!" I called. "Join us!" We all three of us waved him out. Reluctantly our best friend, a tall blond wisp of a fellow, emerged from his lurking spot near the French doors. "Ladies and gentleman," I announced to the audience. "Henry Clerval, our illustrious playwright!"
"Bravo!" cried my father, and his praise was echoed round the room.
"Elizabeth Lavenza as the monster, ladies and gentlemen," said Konrad with a flourish. Our cousin made a very pretty curtsy. "My name is Konrad. And this"--he looked at me with a mischievous grin--"is the hero of our tale, my evil twin, Victor!"
And now everyone was rising to their feet, to give us a standing ovation.
The applause was intoxicating. Impulsively I jumped up onto the stone balustrade to take another bow, and reached out my hand for Konrad to join me.
"Victor!" I heard my mother call. "Come down from there at once!"
I ignored her. The balustrade was broad and strong, and, after all, it was hardly the first time I had stood on top of it. But I had always done so secretly, for the drop was considerable: fifty feet to the shore of Lake Geneva.
Konrad took my hand, but instead of yielding to my pull he exerted his own, and tried to bring me down. "You're worrying Mother," he whispered.
As if Konrad hadn't played on the balustrade himself!
"Oh, come on," I said. "Just one bow!"
Our hands were still joined, and I felt his grip tighten, intent on bringing me back to the balcony. And I was suddenly angry at him for being so sensible, for not sharing my joy at the applause--for making me feel like a childish prima donna.
I jerked my hand free, but too fast and too forcefully.
I felt my balance shift. Already weighed down by my heavy cape, I had to take a step backward. Except there was nowhere to step. There was nothing, and suddenly my arms were windmilling. I tried to throw myself forward, but it was all too late, much too late.
I fell. Half turned, I saw the black mountains, and the blacker lake, and directly below me the rocky shore--and my death, rushing up to meet me.
Down I fell toward the jagged shallows.
But I never reached it, for I landed hard upon the narrow roof of a bow window on the chÂteau's lower floor. Pain shrieked from my left foot as I collapsed and then rolled--and my body began to slide over the edge, legs first. My hands scrabbled, but there was nothing to grasp, and I was powerless to stop myself. My hips went over, then chest and head--but at the roof's very edge was a lip of stone, and it was here that my frenzied hands finally found purchase.
I dangled. With my feet I kicked at the window, but its leaded panes were very strong. Even if I could've cracked the glass, I doubted I could swing myself inside from such a position.
More important, I knew I could not hold on for very long.
With all my might I tried to pull myself back up. My head crested the roof, and I managed to hook my chin over the lip of stone. My flexed arms trembled with fatigue, and I could do no more.
Directly above me came a great clamor, and I glimpsed a throng of people peering over the balustrade, their faces ghastly in the torchlight. I saw Elizabeth and Henry, my mother and father--but it was Konrad onto whom my gaze locked. Around one of the balustrade's posts, he had tied his cloak, so that it hung down like a rope. And then I heard my mother's shrieks of protest, and my father's angry shouts, as Konrad swung himself over the top of the balustrade. He grabbed hold of the cloak, and half climbed, half slid, down to its very end.
Even as the strength ebbed from my arms and hands, I watched, enthralled. Konrad's legs still dangled some six feet from my little roof, and his landing spot was not generous. He glanced down, and let go. He hit the roof standing, teetered off balance--to the gasps of all the onlookers--and then crouched, low and steady.
"Konrad," I wheezed. I knew I had only seconds left before my muscles failed and my fingers unlocked. He reached out for me.
"No!" I grunted. "I'll pull you off!"
"Do you wish to die?" he shouted, making to grab my wrists.
"Sit down!" I told him. "Back against the wall. There's a stone ledge. Brace your feet against it!"
He did as I instructed, then reached for my hands with both of his. I did not know how this could work, for we weighed the same, and gravity was against us.
And yet . . . and yet . . . with our hands grasping the other's wrists, his legs pushing against the stone ledge, he pulled with all his strength--and then something more still--and lifted me up and over the roof's edge. I collapsed on top of my twin brother. I was shaking and crying and laughing all at once.
"You fool," he gasped. "You great fool. You almost died."
© 2011 Firewing Productions