Chapter 1: Wooden Celebration
A gentle chestnut breeze flew through the city of Harmagin with a quiet wisp as it slid upon the many rays of light piercing through the thick clouds from above. The city glowed brightly and without a piece of dirt to worry about. The workers hurried their tidings and their masonry as a celebration was to be had. Today was the hundredth anniversary of the Halenbine country’s independence, which coincided with a tradition of old. ‘It was a sign’ some said at the time. Children ran around frantically with joy as they twirled cloth fires on sticks while others wore masks with the appearance of ancient, beaked doctors. Man and woman shouted gleefully as they saturated themselves with alcohol of all forms, all while the organizers of this fine parade tasked and worked to make this a celebration to remember. Tile and brick trembled at the movements caused by these creatures clad in many divine colors and beautiful outfits.
Merchants all around toiled tirelessly to fill their pockets to the brim and beyond, although their pleasant nature was just to lull the naïve customers into buying more than they wanted. A fine tactic for a merchant, a hated deception for the buyer. Tall buildings serving as both home and workplace lined every street, every nook, and each had their own terrible names given to them.
‘The drunk salmon’, ‘The gibbered gobber’, ‘Jimmery’s book and hops’. They all sounded terrible, but that was just a facet.
Off into the distance, marked by its immense, golden round roof, was the palace where Queen Carma lived. She was a queen feared by many, yet her rule was never a terrorizing one. Although the golden palace was a place that demonstrated both her ill-gained fortune through warfare and her immense, political and judicial powers, it also held responsible the tenacity and the strong character of the people of the country.
Even if this week had been rather off for Carma, she had decided to finally leave the palace and present herself to the people, no matter how each individual viewed her. She had soldiers to protect her after all.
Along the main path people lined up. The jittering of the denizens waiting in anticipation to see the festival take place with the queen, or those who were going to see it for the first time in their lives, filled the air more than the amount of confetti some kids threw from atop the roofs of the nearby buildings. It may have been a prank but it was also a form of ‘extra decoration’, as the elderly put it.
Soon, after a very patient wait, the festival commenced. It started by a band, wearing green and purple, marching through the street while reenacting ‘A Queen’s Shimmer’. While it didn’t have the singing, the audience filled that hole with their own singing of the national anthem. Several floats depicting knights fighting their oppressors skid along the floor, their depictions being rather gruesome at times, displayed by an enemy knight being decapitated by one of the queen’s soldiers, whereas the blood was, in fact, red candy. Other, more lighthearted, depicted the soldiers standing triumphantly over their defeated, kneeing enemies.
These were for the celebrations of Halenbine’s independence. The real reason everyone was here was for the tradition made by ancient beliefs. The belief of the Woodworker. A gigantic float stopped right in front of the long path to reach the palace, and deployed itself. The red curtains fell downwards to the sides and the center showed a wooden stage with actors wearing many similar costumes to the audience. One of them, wearing a long, black cloth reaching her hips, bowed down, letting the cloth flow around her body and allowing her orange hair to flow around the beaked mask. The others were around, waiting and waving to children jumping up towards them.
“Welcome, good folks of Halenbine, to our theater. We all must give praise to the Woodworker, for he always asks for our best intents and to honor our loved ones, even if you hate them with all your guts.”
Two actors behind the woman were dressed as hairy, moss covered beasts, began to blabber nonsense and hit each other with their stomachs, comically exaggerating a tumble when hit. This received a few chuckles from the crowds, but many children laughed whole-heartedly.
“Our puppets have been well carved and well received, by many of the bordering creeds. We may not have much, but that’s our gift; giving much thought into our lisp. Whilst we aren’t a powerful country, we are a proud one; so I ask unto you, are you willing to get the job done?”
“YES!” the crowd shouted.
“Then why not follow our tale of the Woodworker and how he carved us, like a lone branch turning into a thick forest of beauty. Years have stretched and gone long by, but you will be able to see through our centur-eye.”
She shouted with pride and a laugh as a whole scene played out on the float.
These were great times, and while the people view the Woodworker as many things, especially the queen, who considered her predecessor to be a dark and evil being, truths are hidden within deception just as deception cannot be found so easily.
It was a day similar as the one radiating upon the inhabitants of the current time. The same beautiful buildings, but with more decorations of the sun, moon, and stars around every nook and cranny. Guards roamed the streets as a form of curfew. The queen had surrendered her country to the invading force of Barlan. Judging by how draconic she was to her people, and how that reign had reached extreme heights, this woman was extremely cruel and feared throughout the country, even going so far as frightening the king of Barlan by her extreme punishments regarding disobedience.
However, the majority of people here were but doing their jobs. Some just bought fruits while others voided people of all their belongings due to a debt reaching starry heights. Tears and begging reached the ears of the surrounding people, but it simply bounced off the silvery helmets of the guards and the perceiver they guarded.
“You should have paid what you owed. I gave you an extra six months to do so,” spoke an imposing man in black.
This person wore a black robe along with a black hat possessing a very long edge. He was noting something on a notebook of sorts, his pale composition doing nothing to alleviate any of the fear radiating from him. He expelled this emotion upon those surrounding him, yet, then again; the laws imposed by the queen prevented anyone from harming a tax collector or a perceiver, lest they pay an extreme price. The current queen was no fan of death. In fact, she abhorred it, yet she loved torture and pain. More specifically, the queen loved to torture those who disobeyed her. Her rule and words were absolute. So absolute, in fact, that the Creator itself could not oppose her and the Destroyer could but nip her heels in its best effort to affect her in any way.
“Hey! Give the guy a chance. His family just went through a war. He doesn’t have anything left to provide for them,” a watcher exclaimed.
The man took a handkerchief out of his robe’s pocket and wiped his nose. “Then he should have fought for Barlan. It is not my fault that he fought with the losing side,” the perceiver taunted.
Everyone around began to mumble and curse under their breathe.
“We didn’t lose…” some mumbled.
“The queen sold us out…” others hissed.
“MOVE ALONG!” yelled one of the guards.
The guards were the soldiers of Barlan. They protected the queen and her tax collectors. Representing the queen’s extravagant love for white marble and yellow metals, their armors were painted with a white composition that bleached the alloys of the suit. At the joints of these metal bodies sat golden sculptures reminiscent of a crashing wave. These were magnificently sculpted pieces of artistic valor, yet they were used for battle and not extravagance, underlining how much the queen hated these signs of ‘pride’ and other useless personal facets of a being.
Although the distraught man wearing rags, like his wife and two, sickly children, begged and pleaded for more time, or to at least leave the country with his belongings, the perceiver wouldn’t have it. He began to tire of these silly games.
“If I told you once, I told you a hundred times: ‘I already gave you more time’,” he added with a stroke of a feather upon his parchment in hand.
“But these taxes keep rising! If they hadn’t gone up TWICE, I would have paid you all our dues two months ago.”
“Then you should have done that two months ago,” a guard mocked.
“Your filthy country RAISED them when your perceiver left.”
The man clenched his fist, but his wife ran to him and tried pulling her husband away.
“Too late for that, woman. He insulted our great country of Barlan.”
Two of the guards walked up to the man with an angered conviction and stern chuckles. Even though the poor husband protested, he was beat to an inch of his life by these guards. The people around could do nothing but watch this horrid display of brutality; many preferring to avert their gaze than observe this scene.
“Let this be a lesson to any who oppose our country,” shouted the perceiver. “You are occupied, and you are defeated. Any further attempts will result in a harsh punishment demonstrated by this man here. Give us our due tax money, and we’ll be on our merry way.”
Although the witnesses of this awful tragedy wished to stop these horrid monsters, nothing happened. They simply cursed under their breath and walked away, the white marble receiving the full blunt of their angered stomps.
Far away, however, in an apartment complex, curtains had been slightly opened. Nothing but darkness could be seen inside, yet no smells came from it, nor sounds. It was a quiet little room giving nothing to suspect about, except for that excess of darkness, perhaps. As people toiled endlessly and with great envy to feed themselves and their family, with but the sweat of their brow and the strength of their bodies, the inhabitant of this dark room never left it. He or she never came out to eat, never came out to get a new assortment of foods or beverages, never came out for new furniture, or going to the doctor. They never came out for anything. Not even the owner knew who lived there. Said owner didn’t even know how he got there! However, as per said person’s words:
“I don’t care who it is. As long as he or she pays their rent, there are no problems here with me.”
This was held firm by the inhabitant of this room. Every month, on the seventeenth day, which was the day that the rent had to be paid off, a small bag of coins would be slid underneath the door. Said bag was attached to a string, and the owner had to empty the bag to receive his money, upon which, once empty, the bag would be shaken to ensure its emptiness, then get pulled hurriedly bag under the door like a mouse frightened by a possible, incoming threat.
Because of the occupant’s mysterious behavior and unknown way of thinking, rumors began to circulate throughout the building. Some said that this person was actually a murderer who went out at night to steal gold from people, or a person who would use black magic to obtain what he wanted by sacrificing captured children, or even a person who would create cursed weaponry sold at excruciating prices.
All these were but rumors stemmed from the more and more frequent claims of theft and robbery along with strange sounds of crafting coming from that room around the afternoon to the evening: the same sounds of something hitting wood along with a scraping of some sort. It was actually quieter than most would think. Proof would be that one could only ever hear these sounds when in the hallways and, once a door was closed, and one was no longer in that area, the banging was barely but a mouse’s squeak.
While many considered this mysterious inhabitant a threat, they were usually soothed by his or her lack of reacting to anything. The occupant would usually leave a well crafted wooden doll with a pretty dress outside of their room with a note on it defining to whom it belonged. It was thought that this occupant listened to everything happening outside of their room, which is why, when a little girl’s birthday was brought up, a little doll based on her preferences or what the occupant had heard would appear right outside of his room.
Yet, suspicion still arose. When seeing that these dolls were increasing in number, a few of the more wary inhabitants of the apartment hid around a corner near the staircase leading downwards, its metal railings designed to look like ivy. The beige, plaster walls along with some simple, yet damaged, black and white tiles along with a few plants near each large window were sufficient enough for the time. These would-be ambushers each held things meant to handle and control this person, whether they be tall, small, strong, or weak. They were waiting. Waiting. It was a sort of hobby for them in these dark and money-stricken times.
These people had purposely spoke in front of the occupant’s room about a girl named “Sandra” whose birthday was coming shortly, and that they hadn’t found any dolls with pink dresses akin to roses. As amusing as it would seem, they knew he would certainly try and make something, and then, when looking around, the inhabitant would open their door and place the doll, and that’s when the group would strike.
“Why hasn’t he come out yet?” one wondered aloud.
“I dunno. Hey, you two, are you sure you spoke about ‘Sandra’?”
“Yes. We did. We even purposely sneaked close enough to that door to make sure she would listen,” A woman stressfully replied.
“Woman? What makes you think it’s a woman?” an insulted man replied.
“Ah! Like men have that sort of artistic talent when it comes to dolls.”
“Just because that guy makes weird little puppet-doll things doesn’t mean it’s a woman.”
“Will you two shut up?! I’m trying to watch him without you two alerting whoever that guy is to our presence.”
“Alert him to our presence? Are you stupid? You think he’s an animal?”a sassy woman asked.
“You…I don’t wanna hear from you. I just accepted that you come along because I recognize your flexible moves, but you are just too dang annoying!”
“Well why don’t you cry about it?”
“I think I’ll do that when I go home,” another person responded with a crack in his voice.
“Why are you laughing?” the sassy lady asked.
“Because you two crack me up when you start fighting each other.”
The two glared at this person who simply shrunk with an awkward smile.
A slam was heard, causing the group to look towards the door to see a little wooden doll waiting for its new owner with a painted smile and worried eyes. She had blonde hair with rosy cheeks, and her blue eyes looked almost too real. The first woman walked up walked to the door with great trembling to grab the doll. Upon closer inspection, and ignoring the woman’s stuttering, one could see that this doll’s dress had extreme attention to detail, but not as much as the doll’s wooden body, which was as smooth as polished ice. As for the clothes of this toy, the main gown was a bright, cotton candy pink while things like added bands of cloth, such as those running down from the neck in tight bands then enlarging themselves at the bottom were a darker, hot pink. Roses were sewn into the neck band of this dress, as well as the top of the sleeves. Those sitting upon the sleeves had been spun around the wrist to avoid annoying the wearer. While not the best designs, the woman was actually beginning to tear up.
“DANGIT!” the organizer of this ambush roared as he hit the ground with his fist.
“That’s what happens when you fight each other.”
One of the men noticed their group companion tearing up as she looked at the doll, and decided to comfort his friend.
“What’s wrong, Annabelle?”
“This…this dress was the same worn…worn by my mother. It was her favorite. We even buried her with it. I…I only vaguely described the dress thinking that whoever was in there would know what I wanted, but she went all out with her imagination and managed to sow something like this. I…don’t think I mind him anymore.”
“Don’t be so sure. It’s most certainly a trap. It’s pure coincidence that he made the dress exactly like your mother’s—“
The sassy woman huffed and interrupted the conversation. “That’s what she just said, vapor brain.”
A long awkward silence interrupted the speech, which resumed itself quickly thereafter.
“Right. I apologize. It’s just impossible for this person to be good. I mean, where does he get the materials? Where does he get the money? Something’s not right here.”
“That’s why you should move or you’ll be sent off into the dungeons for attempted murder,” A booming voice shouted from the stairs.
The hiding man immediately jumped out from his cover and tumbled over. Guards had arrived, and they seemed well armed in this situation. Many held lances. It was anyone’s guess why they would enter a tight area with lances instead of swords, maces, or a one-handed battleaxe.
“Attempted murder? On what grounds?”
“Your weaponry and you obviously conspiring against a citizen that follows the rules of its new ruler.”
“I...we didn’t even try and kill him! We only wanted to capture him to—“
The guard’s voice increased a decibel.“AHA! So it’s a kidnapping! You attempted to hold him hostage in order to wrench off money from our king!”
“What? NO! I—“
“ENOUGH! I will let you off if your ‘friend’ is willing to give us five more coin than usual.”
“Five? But the tax is already at twenty! We barely gain around twenty-four quim. How are we supposed to pay for our own needs?”
“That isn’t my problem. Soldiers, hold them off.”
The group starting to yell in an annoyed manner whilst the leader of these guards, a simple private with added privileges knocked on the door with a very gentle mannerism and a smiling face. He had just lifted the faceplate covering his visage, allowing him a more sterile but certain approach.
“Good sir, it is but the occupying army of Barlan. We simply wish for our monthly tax of fifteen coin along with an added five for your neighbor’s alleviation of trial and accusations.”
This soldier, with a dented nose, chestnut eyes, and a few scars along his face and chin looked upwards with a smile of innocence. A few minutes had passed, and the smile had turned into confusion and concern.
A bag full of gold immediately slipped under the door. It was full of money.
“AH! See? This gentleman knows what must be done. And I’ll...HGNGH!...I’ll…RELEASE THIS BAG AT ONCE!”
“You’re supposed to empty it. She keeps the bag,” Annabelle spoke with a quiver in her voice.
“We don’t know. He keeps the bag but always gives money with it.”
Already perplexed by both using different genders to define this person, shown by a collective “huh?” along with perplexed stares, the private emptied the bag, placed it in a pouch within his armor, then let go of the bag, that, just as quickly as it came out, fled back into its hole. It was with silence that the guards walked out of the building, their calmness born more by confusion than anything else. The people left behind were stunned. They weren’t expecting any form of generosity. Even the organizer was confused, and his rooted thoughts of whoever was behind that door started to get plucked out of his mind. Doubts began to run through him like sap in a tree. Why the generosity? And, more importantly, how did he acquire such a vast sum of money?