The puppet show was well attended, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
It was early morning when the bright wagons were first spotted, stringing their way through the forest glades. Word spread quickly through the region and the first onlookers arrived later that afternoon. By nightfall, people had thronged from villages far and near to see the show. While puppets were traditionally regarded as children’s entertainment, folk in this forlorn and forsaken hinterland were so starved for entertainment that even a troupe of dancing cockroaches would have been well-attended.
And to compare Waldani’s Puppets to a troupe of dancing cockroaches was to do them a grave disservice. The dolls were beautiful; the scripts were well-scrivened, and what the puppeteers might have lacked in dedication, they more than made up for in drunkenness. They were jolly and joking. More than one running gag had been born at the bottom of a gin-bottle. Waldani graciously allowed their boozing (even going so far as to keep the gin stocks topped up) so long as the performances did not suffer. In any case, as has been mentioned, the audience had so little with which to compare the show that they were pitifully easy to impress.
Upon their arrival, visitors found an entire section of forest cordoned off. Before they could reach the chosen glade that housed the low, curtained stage, they were first forced to queue through a bottleneck where they lined up for the privilege of handing over their hard-scrimped coins as entrance fees.
And indeed, it was a privilege, because there at the gate was the most beautiful little girl that any of the pig-rearing peasants had seen in their lives. ‘Angelic’ didn’t do justice to the little blonde-haired stunner. ‘Cherubic’ failed to capture the beatific grace of her smile. Many of the show’s visitors were so lacking in the vocabulary department that they were forced to resort to referring to her as ‘purdy’, and consequently suffered a few days under the nagging suspicion they had committed a mild blasphemy.
Yes, the little girl—presumed by all to be Waldani’s daughter—was arguably one of the most important members of the troupe, being, as she was, solely responsible for the fact that not a single visitor escaped without paying. How could the thought cross their mind once they had been beguiled with those innocent blue eyes? Indeed, some visitors even queued twice for the privilege of pressing their money into her small palm and hearing her murmur (like a distant echo from heaven), “Thank you. Please take any seat.”
The only discordant note in the whole, glorious process of paying and enjoying your few precious seconds basking in the glow of the young goddess’s smile, was the overly long, hideously sharp knife that lay in plain sight on the table next to her. A couple of well-meaning fathers even attempted to pick it up, reasoning that it had surely been left there as an oversight. Waldani would certainly thank them for moving it away, thus safeguarding the well-being of his precious daughter. But no sooner had they reached for the knife, they were arrested by an abrupt, “Leave that there!” from the girl herself.She was always quick to remedy the lapse with an extra smile for the well-meaning fools in question. Nevertheless, the knife stayed where it lay, glinting evilly.
Performances were well-received in practically all the stops along Waldani’s tour. For what bumpkin wouldn’t enjoy a grand tale of debauchery and wife-beating at the end of a long day toiling in the fields? Folk generally left the show feeling wondrously cheered, repeating the best bits to one-another, reliving the emotional climaxes in their minds as they wended their ways home to their hovels. Performances were well-received in all places, except one.
No one can really say what the difference was when it came to this particular show in this particular fiefdom. It was a rough part of the realm, to be sure, but no rougher than others they had traversed without incident. Perhaps the puppeteers hadn’t quite drunk their fill before the start. Perhaps the wagons themselves were looking a tad dull and bespattered at the end of their rolling journey through this muddy spring season. Waldani had intended this show to be one of the last before the company took to the towns to do their usual festival run. As it happened, it was the last of all.
It started like any other night. Visitors arrived in droves, willingly surrendering their hard-earned funds to the miniature beauty at the entrance. Folk gathered in the glade before the curtain, chattering and humming excitedly. When the show started, they enjoyed the sketches and laughed along with the ridiculous songs.
Then someone threw a punch. The story goes that a man heard a comment made by his neighbour and took offence. But like any brawl, it didn’t take long for the original reason to be buried under a pile of mindless, snarling, punching men and women. Yes, even the women. It was that sort of town.
It was also the sort of town where a certain proportion of the population weren’t above using a disturbance to their advantage, sneaking off to see what could be liberated into their own pockets. As the battle of fists raged in the glade, a shadowy group melted away from the ruckus, creeping back along the path to where they’d last seen the cash-box, with all its delicious, rattling booty.
But if these ne’re-do-wells had expected to find the entrance kiosk empty, they were startled to see the same little blonde girl sitting there. The same little blonde girl with one tiny difference. The knife that had been lying on the table was now held firmly in her small grasp.
There was a shocking incongruousness in seeing such a lovely little child grasping a sharp blade. If the rascals had been inclined towards philosophy, they might have stopped to ponder exactly what was in the nature of the sight that gave them pause.
But they weren’t so inclined, so they didn’t stop and they didn’t pause. They converged on the girl. Even with that knife, she’d surely be easy prey. There was no way in hell she knew how to use it or had the strength to stop a determined man four times her size.
The screaming was what stopped the brawl. Those who ran towards the sound returned to say they’d found Waldani’s daughter covered in blood. An uproar ensued. The sheriff was called. Luckily he happened to be nearby, nursing a rapidly swelling eye. It had been caught by someone’s elbow as he’d been making his way out of the fracas. He hadn’t been brawling, he was quick to assure anyone who’d listen. Unfortunately, nobody believed him. It was that sort of town.
The sheriff grabbed his trusty chair leg (standard issue to all lawmen) from where it lay next to a pile of unconscious ex-altercaters. He holstered it, hitched up his belt and then hauled his deputy out of a mildly smouldering discussion with two other I-didn’t-brawlers. They hurried along the path to the scene of the reported crime, ready to question the suspects.
Except, when they arrived, there weren’t any suspects to question. Only a pile of bodies and a remarkably composed-looking little girl covered in a remarkable amount of blood.
“Ahh, here he is,” boomed Waldani, who was crouched next to the little girl, proffering a handkerchief. “Now Willa, tell the sheriff what happened.”
“A gang of idiots came back here, thinking they’d swipe your gold,” the girl stated, matter-of-factly. “I stopped them,” She wriggled away from Waldani’s handkerchief as he attempted to wipe some of the blood from her face. “Leave that,” she snapped. “None of it’s mine anyway.”
“I’m so sorry, I think I misheard.” The sheriff wondered if he’d been hit too hard in the head. “Did you say you stopped them?”
“Yes, I…” the girl glanced up at him and then sighed, continuing in a sing-song voice. “I told them to go away and they didn’t but then they started fighting and somehow they all killed one-another.”
“Ahhh.” The sheriff relaxed. That made a lot more sense.
“And you just kept out of the way, didn’t you, my sweet?” Waldani nudged her.
“Yes,” said the girl in a bored manner.
She rolled her eyes. “Yes, Daddy.”
The Sheriff and his deputy glanced at one another and smiled. She really was too adorable. Thank goodness she hadn’t been hurt in the fray. They’d have to ask the puppet show to leave town, but Waldani would be keen to be on his way after this ruckus. As for the heap of dead men, they were layabouts and trouble-makers, the lot of them. The village would be a good deal quieter after this. A fine night’s work!
Waldani picked up his precious cash box and held out a hand to his daughter. “Come, Willa.” Together, they led the way back to the glade where the wagons were parked.
As soon as they were out of sight, the little girl snatched her hand away and stalked off by herself into the darkness.