AN: Had a go at rewriting the prologue, trying to cut down on overrunning sentences and too much weirdness. Any feedback on it would be great!
Engang for længe siden...
Es war einmal...
Hi havia una vegada...
Once upon a time…
They always start like that, don't they? The old stories. They let you know exactly what you're in for. Something about the words just reaches down into the depths of your childhood and tugs at heart strings. They make you feel safe. When something takes place once upon a time, that's the sign that you can snuggle down next to the fire, safe in the knowledge that there will be Princes and Princesses lying in wait behind the next page, alongside Wicked Witches and Ugly Stepsisters, talking Mice, Three brothers (or tailors, or goats, or rats depending on the telling) A glorious triumph of Good over Evil.
But really, we know that's not the case, don't we? Because all fairy tales are built on foundations of blood and bones, on sightless morals and lessons hard learnt but seldom won. We know that Little Red Riding hood never really escaped the wolf's belly. We know that the only way to save yourself from dancing forever in pretty red shoes is to cleave off the feet they are attached to. And we know that deep down inside, nobody really ever had a happy ending...
Once Upon a time….
In a land far, far away….
A match strikes in the darkness. The sound is so quiet that even it seems to recognise the severity of the situation at hand. It catches fire with a soft hiss and flickers haphazardly, licking at the air. The little girl, tasked with the great honour of holding the lantern steady, watches with wide, excited eyes as it is lit. The warm glow quickly grows to illuminate the dark workshop. It stirs the already deep, impenetrable shadows in the corners of the room and under the work table to a deeper midnight black.
"Just put it on the table there, that's a good girl"
The old man squeezes her shoulder warmly. His deep voice is made deeper by the darkness, and the fact that he is whispering. His voice is also shaking, but the little girl doesn't notice this. She runs to do as her Uncle bids.
The lantern is set down carefully and with great reverence next to the vials, books, bottles and boxes which litter the workbench. Candlelight glints off of thick glass and bubbling, mysterious liquids.
The little girl has always loved her Uncle's workshop. But she has never seen it at night, with the shutters tightly locked and every step and voice muffled by the darkness. Like this, it seems as if the workshop simply stretches on forever.
By daylight the room is full of sawdust and wood, strings and metal and the heady smell of greasepaint. By daylight it is a toy shop, a child's paradise. But even the little girl is wise enough to realise that what happens here at night is something far more magical.
There is a soft scrape of wood as the little girl's uncle eases himself painfully into his chair. His balding head and wide, amiable features are gently illuminated by the candlelight. Every crease and line and wrinkle is highlighted as he leans in close to inspect his materials. This is followed by the gentle clink of glass on glass as he begins his intricate work. Although his eyes are not the best, or his fingers the most nimble, the Toymaker's skills are still renowned, in hushed tones, throughout the Kingdom. The practise of alchemy may be banned in this City, but there are still those who can be sought out to accomplish it, in the dead of night, by the light of a single lantern.
This, now, is how the girl will always remember her Uncle: under the candlelight, with the creeping shadows and the gentle sloshing of mysterious liquids. This will be how the little girl remembers her Uncle. Because she will never see him again.
Before, there had been no noise outside, save for the occasional flutter of drying washing, or the pattering of a rat scurrying from one alleyway to the next. Nobody dares walk the streets at night, even in this fairly affluent neighbourhood, just in case.
But now there is a sound. It is the sound of boots marching across cobblestones, followed by the steady, painful creak of carriage wheels being guided down the narrow street. They are only small sounds, barely distinguishable from all the other night time squeaks and bumps. Unless one has been listening intently for them.
The Old man jumps up with a startled intake of breath. A curse escapes his lips before he can quell it for the girl's sake. But they have been through this before. The little girl knows what to do. She turns obediently and begins to wiggle under the narrow bed in the corner of the room. Crushed against the back wall, she curls up tight behind the boxes and clothes stuffed under there for this very purpose. For all either of them know, this could be a false alarm. He could be after some other unfortunate tonight. But this isn't a chance the little girl's Uncle is prepared to take.
The lantern light goes out with a hiss and darkness swallows the workshop. As her eyes begin to adjust to the gloom under the bed, the little girl can hear the footfalls getting louder. She can hear each separate step, each creak of the cartwheels. Traveling past the door... and gently coming to a stop.
The room is silent. Time and space hold their collective breath. The little girl can see dust moats whirling through the fetid air under the bed. She can hear her own heartbeat.
The front door crashes heavily to the floor, wrenched completely from its hinges. Harsh, jagged shadows leap and jerk across the ceiling as what appears to be a whole platoon of the King's men surge into the room. Their metal booted feet drum deafeningly on the hard wooden floorboards, sounding like rain, or thunder.
The little girl curls up tightly and watches from between her fingers as her Uncle stumbles back and clasps the edge of the work bench. She may not be able to see his face, but she imagines his wrinkled features set in an expression of fearless determination. He is her knight, her guardian. Whatever happens next, she knows that her Uncle will protect her from the monster who only visits at night. The monster that is worse than every one of the King's soldiers put together.
For the little girl's uncle, however, the sight is not nearly as comforting. In any other circumstance the little man making his way slowly through the crush of guards would look ridiculous, like a clown, or one of the old man's own deftly painted toys. He is a plump, piggish creature, clad in a grey swallow tailed doublet and puffed up mutton sleeves. He walks like a fussy little hen, his thick black hair tied back in an elaborate blue bow and a little blue hat bobbing on his head. The monster has arrived.
"Cornelius Fletcher" the man's voice is clipped and toneless. Either unable or reluctant to look him full in the face, he speaks to the toymaker as if he does not exist. Addressing a spot maybe a foot above the man's head, his round face and horrible blue eyes are tight with abject concentration. "I am placing you under arrest"
With a curt nod, the man indicates for two of the nearest guards to step forward. Their faces passive and professional, they march wordlessly to the Toymaker's side and grab him by the arms. He is forced painfully to his knees. Not once throughout these first few moments does the old man open his mouth to speak or protest. As his knees give way beneath him he utters a soft grunt of pain, but that is all. Instead, he regards the monster with a look of disappointment, even pity.
The monster's eyes are still fixed resolutely ahead of him as he speaks. He now seems utterly committed to ignoring the toymaker, and waits as the old man's hands are roughly bound behind him. "You have been found guilty of the highest treason, and of wilfully committing…" a muscle jumps in the man's cheek and he visibly winces as he regards the various vials and liquids left scattered across the work bench "magic."
He signals curtly with a plump gloved hand. The toymaker is unceremoniously dragged back to his feet. Turning briskly on his heel, the little man makes to lead the way outside. His face is still carefully blank as he steps through the ranks of his armed guard. It is now that the Toymaker finally speaks. Lifting his head to stare at the retreating tracker's back he murmurs:
The man flinches violently at the mention of his name and freezes. His hands ball themselves into tight trembling fists. After a moment he turns and bobs his head stiffly to the guard on the old man's left. His lower lip wobbles dangerously. His name, it seems, has broken the monster's composure, and that will not do at all.
Without another word, the guard lifts a metal plated shoe and kicks the toymaker hard in the stomach. The old man cries out harshly and doubles over in agony. He will not be speaking again.
Apparently satisfied by this, Percival turns and once more makes his stately way past the line of guards, stepping out onto the dark cobbled street. The toymaker, now moaning softly and struggling to breathe, is lifted by the elbows and dragged swiftly after him.
In a matter of moments the workshop has emptied, leaving behind only various scattered items of furniture and the damp smell of sweat and fear. Quietly, half sobbing with terror and pain, the little girl claws her way out from under the bed. She knows it is naughty to do so, and that her Uncle has told her not to under any circumstance, but the little girl toddles stiffly to the still open door and peers out into the darkness. Her hands grasp at nothing, as if she can somehow grab a hold of her lost Uncle and drag him away from the bad men who have taken him away.
But all she hears in the gentle creak of cartwheels as they roll off down the street. The monster has taken her uncle for himself. She is left completely alone.
Stories are never as simple as they like to make you believe. And someone, somewhere, must always pay for another's happy ending.