This was inspired by a prompt I saw on the NaNo board years ago. After playing with it for a while and tweaking the concept, I wrote the first few paragraphs and promptly abandoned it. Just a few weeks ago, a few friends and I were sitting around a bonfire and we decided to start telling stories we made up off the top of our heads. I confess, and I later confessed to them, that I cheated. I pulled what I had written from this–almost verbatim, which was particularly surprising since I had not touched it in years–and proceeded to complete the story, drawing inspiration from certain faerie tales and twisting them to my fancy. My friends then told me that I had to write this out completely. And I agreed, because I have never completed an original multi-chapter story. So, here everything goes. All of my ideas for this story, execrable and half-way decent, thrown on an electronic page, and now up for you to read.
This is actually quite intimidating...
Anyway, I hope you enjoy this. I really do. I'm not really looking for feedback, since this is more of a challenge to myself to actually finish a story and to put myself out there, but if you feel so inclined to review, please do. Whatever you have to say would be much appreciated.
Once upon a time, in a city called New York, there lived a practical and logical man named Michael Johnson, who worked for an investigation firm located on 93rd Street on the fourteenth floor of a building overlooking Central Park. His office did not have a view of Central Park, but of some pipes and the ventilation system on the next roof, but it was a very orderly and ordinary place so he was happy, because practical and logical men like orderly and ordinary places.
In addition to being practical and logical, he was extremely unremarkable. He had short hair the colour of mud and eyes that looked like swamp water set in an oval face with no unusual or striking features. His posture when standing resembled that of a military private, but he had a tendency to walk with his head forward and down. Though he was perfectly polite and knew the names of each worker and regular at his usual Starbucks and of each person he rode the elevator with at 8:46 every morning, he was not one to engage in long conversation. He lived alone in his loft apartment, except for his eleven-year-old and blind golden retriever, Angus, whom he had adopted from a rescue shelter. He went about his business, the same routine every day, and never complained, because he appreciated the value of simplicity and quiet.
On a particular night around nine o'clock, he dismounted the 5 train at Spring Street and looked about him. Not for the first time that day he questioned his sanity. Only a lunatic would walk into a specified location knowing full well that Ashton Kutcher and a camera crew would step out of the shadows and ridicule him for believing in fairy tales, which he didn't. The actual reason he had decided to appear and face national embarrassment was that his boss had called him and informed him that Mandy, his boss's secretary, had been waiting for half an hour and that if Michael did not go to that station he could begin looking for job ads in the paper.
Either way he was screwed over. If he got fired, his chances of finding a job in New York City were slim, even with his impressive skills and education. But if America came to the conjecture that he believed in dwarves and elves...No one was going to request the help of such a ninny. Still, Michael figured that the better choice was keeping his job and steady paycheck until his boss finally let him go with a large bonus due to the fact that he was not raking in requests, even if he may never find a job again.
He cursed Trevor Soren for being in the hospital. Not that it was entirely Trevor's fault, but if the man, who was just a step up in the echelon, had not gotten in that bumper car accident two weeks earlier and were he not sitting in bed in a full body cast, Michael might not have been the butt of this sick joke. He liked Trevor well enough, but his incessant boasting got on his nerves after a while.
He spied Mandy bent over and furiously scrubbing graffiti off of the border of a large mural. Michael sighed and walked over, recalling exactly how he had landed in this situation.
On the day after his twenty-ninth birthday, his boss had called him into his office to talk, just as all bosses do when doling out new assignments.
"You have got to be kidding me."
Mr. Gowan had sighed. "This is no joke. It's a very prestigious assignment."
"But, sir, a request by Prince Charming? In the kingdom of Angloria? Does such a place even exist?"
"Of course. The portal to the kingdom in on the wall of the Spring Street subway station on the north platform." Mr. Gowan had nodded and folded his hands over his rather large belly, quite satisfied with himself.
"Of course it is." Michael had looked at the paper in his hands and had looked up again. "Mr. Gowan, where are the cameras?"
Mr. Gowan had blinked, clearly assuming the young man had lost his brilliant mind. "What cameras?"
"I know I'm being Punk'd." He had noted that the word had not registered in Mr. Gowan's mind. "You know, tricked. Pranked on national television."
"Why would I want this on national television? These royals are a gold mine for our team! There's no way I'd want other firms to know about them!"
"A gold mine? You actually believe this junk?"
"Just ask Soren about them! He was the last one to go there. Something about finding out the name of a little man who wanted to kidnap the queen's baby...anyway, you should be happy. Opportunities like this are once in a lifetime." Mr. Gowan had pushed himself up in his large, leather swivel chair. "Your departure day and time are written on the sticky note. Take a large suitcase. You may be there for a while. Mandy will meet you at the platform."
And that was precisely how he came to be standing behind a short blonde woman while waiting for nationwide humiliation.
Mandy jumped up and spun around. "Michael! You all squared away?"
He had heard only one other person use that phrase: a soldier from Texas. "I'm ready." He had called his best friend, Jacob Barnes, and had asked that he and his fiancée, Torie, look after Angus while he was gone. He liked his neighbours well enough, but he trusted Jacob above anyone else.
She gestured to his suitcase and then at the mural she had just been cleaning. It showed a picture of a bright green forest with a storybook castle on a hill in the far distance. "Toss it in, but be careful about the paint. Darned hooligans..."
He glanced down at his black bag and then at the mural. "Toss it in?"
She nodded. "Through the portal. Just pick it up and let it fly."
Shaking his head, he hefted the suitcase with both arms, swung back, and let go. The suitcase went through the wall like those people did in the Harry Potter movies. He knew then that it had finally happened: life had caught up with him, and he had completely lost his mind.
"Now it's your turn."
Tentatively, and for a reason he could not fathom, he put one hand out and touched one of the trees in the picture. He meant to, at least, but his hand went right through. He wiggled his fingers and felt nothing but a slight breeze. He looked at Mandy and she nodded enthusiastically, encouraging him to go. As if he were diving into a pool, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes and jumped forward.
Michael landed on his right foot first, but his left got caught on something and he tumbled forward. He caught himself with his hands and felt a small pain shoot through his ankle. Sitting up, he looked back and saw that he had tripped over the suitcase handle. He stood up and grabbed the handle and looked around. There was a stone archway behind him. Had he just come through there? It looked like a perfectly normal stone archway. Dilapidated and a bit out of place in the middle of a forest clearing, but still perfectly normal. He could even see trees through it. It gave no hint at all of being a portal to the Spring Street subway station in New York City.
He thought of his job, which had been commissioned by Prince Charming, and wondered vaguely whether someone had laced his coffee. Perhaps this whole thing was a hallucination. But he felt perfectly stable and was experiencing no unusual feelings of euphoria, just immense confusion and extreme wariness. He could still count ten fingers on his hands, so he decided that he was not under the influence of drugs.
Maybe he was dreaming and none of this was real, the job, Mandy, the subway ride...That would make sense. For how long had he been sleeping? When would he wake up? Where would he wake up? Back in his apartment? At camp? In his dorm at Washington University? His ankle was still smarting, but he knew that pain could be present in lucid dreams. The terrible thing about lucid dreams, he also knew, was that realizing that one was having one was not enough of a stimulus to wake up. He would have to let the dream carry him through his unconscious until something in the real world woke him up. He slowly realized that everything was too real, even for a lucid dream. He could distinctly smell dirt and pine, he could distinctly feel the pain in his ankle and the suitcase handle and the sport shirt and sport jacket on his back, and he could distinctly hear bird calls and a flock of geese flying overhead.
There were no geese in New York City.
He was not dreaming.
Suddenly, he was overwhelmed by the extremely uncomfortable feeling of not knowing where one is. He had certainly felt that feeling before, many times overseas, but at the time he still knew what part of the country he was in and had a general idea of direction and an explicit mission. In his present state, he knew his mission and probably what country he was in, but he had absolutely no ides where he should go.
He spied the castle, the one from the mural, above the treetops and decided to walk in that direction. He did not know whether it was the right castle, but he had graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and he knew from taking courses on social history that castles, as a rule, were near villages and that villages, as a rule, had some inhabitant with a sense of direction.
He collapsed his suitcase handle, picked it up by the leather strap on the side, and began walking, or limping. He came to the much delayed realization that he could see where he was going, meaning that it was not nighttime, as it had been in New York. Wherever he was, the time was off by at least a few hours.
After he had trudged several hundred yards through trees and leaves and bushes, he heard a small rustle in the underbrush some few feet to his right. A small red fox lept from a shrub, jumped over a fallen branch, and stopped two feet directly in front of Michael.
Michael stood very still, admiring the creature's fluffy, rust-coloured fur and white chest and jaw. The fox twitched its ears several times before lowering its head slightly. Michael could not help the strange suspicion that the animal was almost bowing to him, which was a ridiculous notion. The fox lifted its head and pulled back its lips in a way that was almost friendly and not at all predatory before winking.
Michael's mouth opened slightly in disbelief and surprise. A fox could not have winked at him. It was ludicrous, almost as ludicrous as this whole situation. Foxes did not wink, and they certainly did not show their teeth except to intimidate. Before he could clear his head of the questions, he heard hoofbeats growing louder in the distance.
The fox's ears pricked at the sound, and it jerked its head in the direction from which it had come before lowering its head to Michael one more time and scampering off the way it had originally been going.
Michael stood stunned for a moment before deciding that he should probably move out of the way or he might get trampled. The hoofbeats were extremely loud now, and he could hear male voices and a very out-of-tune trumpet over the thunderous sound of horse hooves. Before he could move from his spot, however, a huge band of horses covered in sweat and foam and bearing armored riders came into view. Someone shouted and pointed to Michael, though the words were indiscernible, and the entire party slowed its pace and moved to circle Michael, which was hardly an easy feat, considering the growth of trees and shrubs.
Every man pulled a crossbow from his side and pointed it at Michael, who instinctually reached to hi own side only to remember that he had packed his gun in his suitcase. Seeing that he was clearly outnumbered and out-armed, he dropped his bag and lifted his hands in the air while keeping a confident face to show that while he meant no harm, he was not afraid. Hopefully the party would leave him after sensing that he was no threat and he would be able to either turn around and figure out how to get home on his own or continue on his way to the castle where he could probably find some real help.
One man rode forward and raised his hand in an almost apathetic manner. The men lowered their bows, but kept their eyes trained on Michael. The man who had raised his hand cleared his throat.
"We command that you tell us who you are and why you are on our private lands," the man said in a pleasant tenor voice.
Michael blinked. "What?"
"You will address the Prince and 'Your Highness'!" an armoured man shouted angrily.
The man who had spoken first raised a hand and repeated, "We command that you tell us who you are and why you are on our private lands."
Michael coughed. Prince? Oh. He noticed that this man's armour was made of finer stuff than that of the others and that it had a purple enamel shield painted to the front with a gold lion in the center. "Um...I am Michael Johnson...Your...Highness..." He rubbed the back of his neck. "And...I just...wound up here...I was trying to get to the castle, see–"
"Sir," the man who had remprimanded Michael grunted. "Sir, this man interrupted our hunt, is trespassing on the grounds, and has just confessed to trying to get into the castle. It is clear that he is here to assassinate Your Highness."
Michael shook his head quickly and held up a finger. "Now, wait a minute. That's not even logi–"
"Silence!" the Prince called. "Our man is right. You have interrupted our hunt, which is a great insult, and you have trespassed on our lands, which is a grave crime. Until we know who you are, we shall keep you in our custody."
Michael took a step back. "Hold on! You haven't given me time–"
The Prince waved a hand and four men jumped down from their saddles and approached Michael and grabbed him roughly.
"I told you who I am–"
The Prince and his party made to ride off.
Michael started fighting with the few martial arts skills he could remember in his desperation and managed to throw one man off of him before they twisted his arms behind his back and forced him to his knees. "I'm not–"
The Prince and the rest of the party rode away in the direction the fox had gone and paid no heed to Michael's protestations.
The investigator shouted and groaned loudly. On his list of bad days since moving to New York, this was at the top of his list.
Well...There it is.