By H. M. Snow
The small army of puppets carried Dasarre into a long workshop. Their progress rattled like dry bones until they dropped him on the floor. Then they stood at attention around him.
“What are these?” Dasarre prodded one with his fingertip.
“Have you never seen a puppet before?” The puppet’s master, face hidden within the depths of a dark blue hood, followed them into the workshop. His hand was rough and knobby but steady as it pointed toward a little stage set up at the near end of the workshop. “Then you have never seen a puppet play before either. You should watch closely.” He deposited a tiny puppet on the stage and walked to the far end, as if he had nothing more to say.
Dasarre sat cross-legged before the stage. He was tall enough that he needed no chair. Like an obedient child he fixed his eyes on the delicate puppet. “Ah!” he exclaimed as the puppet stood up and dusted off its skirt.
It was a child puppet, round-faced, with long brown hair and wide brown eyes and a tiny cupids-bow mouth. It wore a traditional long dress tied with a wide sash high on the waist. The puppet raised one exquisite hand. Each finger was carved distinct from the rest, with impossibly tiny joints that allowed them to clench into a fist. The puppet knocked in midair, but the gesture created a wooden tapping noise.
“Enter.” The response came from the shadowy side of the stage. Only when it moved was the second puppet visible, though its dark blue hood kept its face concealed. “How may I help you? Is it a toy you seek?”
The girl puppet bowed her head and fidgeted. “No, sir. Are you the one who makes the puppet booths that sit on the street corners?”
“In this neighborhood, I am. Did one of them malfunction? If so, I can refund your coin.”
“No, sir.” The little girl fidgeted some more.
The puppet master paused to look properly at the girl for the first time. “Then why have you come?”
“The booths are amazing,” said the little girl. “I watch them all the time. I watched so many of them—I wanted to find out who made them.”
“And now that you have?”
The little girl bowed deeply. “Thank you!” she exclaimed. “I really want to see more of them!” Then, as if pursued, she ran offstage.
The puppet master puppet remained in place for a few seconds, hood turned in the direction of the little girl’s exit, before uttering a perplexed noise and returning to his work.
The little girl returned a few seconds later, but in a different dress and a little taller. She climbed onto a tall stool near the puppet master’s workbench and swung her feet. “What are you making today, Omar?” she asked after watching his work for a few moments.
“A new form of puppet,” replied the master.
The girl clapped her hands together in delight, but she asked no further questions. When the puppet master made his completed work stand up on the workbench, the girl clapped her hands again. “It’s good, very good! Is it for a new booth?”
The puppet master did not answer at first. He waved his hand. The new puppet clattered off the bench and tottered on three legs to a nearby shelf, returning with a hammer for the master.
“Ah! I see,” said the girl, no less delighted. “A shop assistant, right?”
The three-legged puppet used one of its four hands to pour a glass of water and carry it to the little girl. It curtsied before her in a genteel manner.
“Thank you,” said the girl to the new assistant, in all seriousness. “Omar, why don’t more people come to see your work?”
“The work I put into the street booths, they come to see. That is enough.”
“But don’t you get lonely here?”
“Quite the contrary,” said the puppet master. “Visitors use up my energies too quickly and interrupt my work. I enjoy being alone in my workshop without noisy and nosy strangers interfering.”
The little girl hopped down from her seat and set aside her glass. Sidling toward the puppet master, she asked in a timid voice, “Have I been troubling you all this time?”
“I have got used to you. You are no trouble.”
She clapped her hands. “I’m so glad. I have such fun when I visit you, Omar.” She lunged at him in an impulsive hug that only reached around his waist. “Thank you!”
This time, when the little girl left the shop, the puppet master set one of his smallest puppets on her trail. It trotted after her to a house full of children. “Mairen’s home at last!” one of the elder boys yelled.
“Good! Now we can eat our dinner.” The one adult in the house, an elderly woman, gathered the children around a long table. The little girl Mairen was smallest among them and sat at the foot of the table. The little spying puppet hid just outside the door and watched.
“Is it really tomorrow?” asked one child.
“Yes,” said the old woman. “Tomorrow is the Festival of the Authority. I hope you’ve all prepared something to impress Master Gisle.”
All together the children started to chatter about what they had prepared, all but little Mairen. She sat and listened to the rest, offering praise to anyone who shared their plans with her. When the meal was over and the dishes cleared away, however, Mairen crept out into the yard to be alone. She drew shapes on the ground with her finger. “What if I don’t have an ability?” she asked herself. “How can I impress the head?” She was so engrossed in these questions that the little tracking puppet came up to stand beside her and patted her on the head before she noticed it. “Oh!” Mairen picked it up. “Did you follow me? I hope Omar isn’t worried about you. I’m not allowed to leave the yard after supper,” she confided in the puppet, “in case the night elves attack. So I can’t take you home until tomorrow. Oh!” Mairen stood frozen for several moments with her mouth open. “That will impress Master Gisle!” She smiled and carried the puppet inside the house.
Swift darkness fell over the scene, only to lift three seconds later to reveal the children of the house lined up along the fence in order of age, Mairen the youngest bringing up the end of the line. All of them stretched forward and craned their necks to gaze intently to their left. A group of adults approached from that direction. Central among them was a man whose face had an ageless beauty almost verging on feminine. In his right hand he carried a heavy walking stick with an ornate scrolled top. His clothes were styled simply, in contrast to the sweeping blue robe he wore over them, and his long fair hair drifted behind him as he walked. At his appearance, all the children stood straight. In a chorus they declared, “Good day, Master Gisle!”
The man stopped before them. “Hello,” he greeted them. “What fine children you are! Do you have something to show to me today?”
The tallest boy among them pursed his mouth and furrowed his brow in concentration. A few seconds passed. Then a starling fluttered down to land at the boy’s feet. Another bird, this one a pigeon, alit on his shoulder. Two dogs chased one another into the yard and frolicked around the boy, startling the starling into finding a safer perch on the boy’s head. Then a cat slunk down out of the tree to join the menagerie. When the boy stopped concentrating so fiercely, he had acquired two frogs, a dragonfly, another pigeon, and a raccoon in addition.
“Good,” said the head, “quite good.” He extended his walking stick so that its scrolled knob rested against the boy’s forehead for an instant.
Child after child, the head of their people observed their skills, praised them and touched their foreheads with the end of his staff, until he came to Mairen. She clutched the puppet master’s doll to her chest and stared up at Gisle with searching eyes. “How do you do, Master Gisle?” Mairen said in a quivery voice.
“I’m very well,” said the man amiably. “How do you do?”
Mairen’s smile was still shaky, but she ran through the gate and around the fence to take the master’s hand. “Come,” she said, tugging at him.
Unbeknownst to her, the doll in her arms turned its head to stare at Gisle, and Gisle stared back in curiosity. “Where are we going?” he asked as he allowed her to lead him by the hand down the street.
“Something to impress you,” was all Mairen said. She was out of breath from nerves and exertion, but her eyes gleamed.
When they reached the puppet master’s tent, a booth stood in the doorway to block their entrance. Dozens of tiny puppets danced and twirled and played on the small stage. Mairen only released the master’s hand so that she could clap her own together. “See?” she said, laughing, “see? Isn’t it impressive?”
“I have always found Omar’s work impressive,” agreed Master Gisle. “His skills and ability increase with the years, it would seem, but his preference for hiding behind his work has not changed. Omar!” He leaned close to the side of the stage. “If you won’t let me enter, then you must come out to meet me.”
“I must come out? But you did not come to see me.” The puppet master’s voice came from just inside the doorway.
“This child,” said Gisle, “is she related to you?”
“No. She comes sometimes to watch me work. That is all.” After a pause, Omar added, “My skills are as they always have been. My ability as well. Whatever change you see is due to her ability.”
Gisle turned to Mairen. “Child, what is your ability?”
Mairen turned her blushing face from him. “I don’t have one, Master Gisle. I’ve never been able to do anything like everybody else.”
“And yet,” said Omar from the shadows, “the range and strength of my ability more than doubles when she is nearby. Strange, is it not, Master Gisle?”
Crouching down, Gisle put himself at Mairen’s eye level. “I had supposed that you were controlling that puppet,” he said, “but it was Omar all along, and from such distance!” He reached out the tip of his staff to touch the girl’s forehead.
Its scrolled knob cracked open with a startling resonance. Mairen leaped backward in alarm.
Gisle broke into a broad smile. “I have found you. What are you called, child?”
“Mairen, you are coming to live with me and be my apprentice. Does that please you?”
She blushed even more hotly. “May I still come to see Omar?”
“You may, as often as you please. Or, if it pleases you more, we can move Omar to my house so that you may see him even more often.”
Mairen shook her head vigorously. “Oh, no,” she said, “Omar wouldn’t like that. Too many people.”
“You are a considerate little friend.” Gisle picked her up in his arms. “Let’s complete our tour of the city, and then I will show you where you will live from now on.”
“Omar!” Mairen called out suddenly. “I brought you back your puppet. It followed me.”
“Keep it with you,” the unseen Omar replied. “Let it follow you.”
Master Gisle began returning in the direction of Mairen’s house. One among his entourage stopped him with a strong grip on his elbow. “Head— something is approaching the city.” This one lifted his head as if listening. “Sun elves… six… nine of them, moving at speed.”
“Another of their raids?” said Gisle. “Which direction?”
His companion pointed. “They’re scattering. Only two are coming toward us now.”
Gisle turned to another of his companions. “Sound the alarm.”
Every bird, whether at rest or in flight, began to cry out its own warning. Dogs barked; cats yowled. The head’s companions closed ranks around him. Mairen clung around Gisle’s neck.
The first assailant came like a blur, knocking the head’s companions every-which-way. A second landed in their midst. Both shared identical physical characteristics: a narrow torso, lean musculature in the arms, solid thighs, and long bare feet that gripped the ground for traction. Both were impossibly fair in complexion and hair, but one had black eyes and the other blue. The black-eyed sun elf leaped from their midst as soon as he had landed, but the blue-eyed elf locked onto Mairen. “Beautiful.” The elf’s voice was cold and thin. She reached toward Mairen.
Gisle held his cracked staff between the elf and the girl. “Leave her alone.”
“I cannot,” said the elf. “Never have I seen a child so beautiful. She must serve me.” She batted aside the first companion who regained his wits and tried to interpose himself between Gisle and the elf. The attempt did not even disturb her composure. As Gisle backed away, the elf stalked forward.
The ground clattered as wooden feet trampled it. All the puppets from Omar’s booth charged the elf, not to attack her but to interlace themselves around her feet and legs. The elf grabbed one of them, raised it before her eyes quizzically, and then crushed it in her fist.
“Don’t!” Mairen shouted. “Don’t break Omar’s puppets!” In her small earlobe, a white pearl appeared, engulfed in burning light.
With a crackling like fire, the puppets began to grow bigger. Several of them sprouted leaves according to the type of wood from which they were crafted. Double, triple, quadruple in size they grew, until Master Gisle was forced to retreat to an open space farther down the street.
The bulk of the puppets blocked the elf, but she threw them as if they weighed nothing. When she had cleared a path, she sprang forward with a hand outstretched toward Mairen. “I claim her!”
Clutched in Mairen’s arms, forgotten, the doll that Omar had given her began to move. It raised both dainty hands and launched itself from Mairen’s embrace. It landed with both arms around the elf’s long, slender neck and clung there like a strange necklace. The elf grabbed its legs and ripped them from its body, but the puppet went on tightening its hold around her neck. Its arms grew and thickened into sturdy branches that tightened and tightened still more. “What is this?” the elf gasped. She tore at the remains of the puppet, but by that point the puppet’s growth was so rapid that she could only tear off minor branches while the original limbs continued to constrict her throat.
Slow, heavy footsteps like mallet blows to the ground came from behind Gisle. The puppet master had emerged from his workshop in his oversized hood and robes. A breeze pushed his hood back to reveal a face much scarred around the nose and mouth. One eye was patched over. In his earlobe, a single pearl still glowed. He took Mairen from Gisle’s arms and held her close. “You are unhurt?”
Mairen, crying, clung to her friend. “Mm-hm,” she said, “but she broke your puppets.”
Omar patted her back awkwardly. “Those, I can fix. You, I cannot. I am glad you are unhurt.” He bowed his tousled head down to rest it against Mairen’s head.
In the meanwhile, the head’s companions were at last able to subdue the sun elf, who was half-unconscious from lack of breath. “What shall we do with this one?” one of them asked Gisle.
“She is little Mairen’s prisoner,” said Gisle. “The decision rests with you,” he said to the girl.
“Why did she say I’m beautiful?” Mairen asked. “I’m not. I’m plain; everybody says so. Master Gisle is the beautiful one.”
The head’s companions laughed amongst themselves. Gisle said, “Beings like the elves and the devourers have a different way of seeing than we do. It is said that they see souls instead of bodies. What she saw in you was the true Mairen, who is beautiful in her sight.”
Mairen gazed down at the prone elf. Then, to Omar, she said, “May I stand, please?”
Omar set her down on her own feet.
She did not move away immediately, because from that position it was possible for her to see what she had not before: Omar’s legs and feet were crafted of wood, like his puppets. She looked up at him. “What happened to your legs, Omar?”
“I lost them,” he said, “on the night I lost my mother and father. A hunting party of night elves attacked. I was left for dead. When I grew older, I made these for myself so that I could walk.”
“But sun elves are different from night elves,” said Gisle. “They mean no harm. These raids are like games to them.”
“The fright they cause is no game.” Omar’s voice turned savage.
Mairen looked up into Omar’s face. Then she went to stand beside the fallen sun elf. “You can let go now,” she said to no one in particular. She wrapped her fingers around the strangling wooden collar.
It shriveled and shrank until once again it resembled the doll Omar had given her.
Mairen took up the pieces and carried them back to Omar. “You can fix it?”
She ran back to the elf. “Are you sleeping?” she asked. “Thank you for calling me beautiful. No one has ever called me that before. But I need to stay here. Master Gisle says I must be his apprentice, and that will take a long time.”
The elf opened her blue eyes. She stared at Mairen but made no move to rise. “Beautiful,” she repeated.
“Will you go home now? You’re scaring people. I don’t think you mean to scare anybody, so can’t you please go home?”
“I cannot leave.” Swiftly, the sun elf snatched Mairen into her arms.
Omar snarled. His puppets came running from all directions.
But the elf, rising to her feet with a dexterous bound, swung Mairen around in circles. “I cannot go home without this beautiful child.”
“She isn’t your servant,” Omar barked.
The elf batted away the puppets as they came, but when Omar charged forward to drag Mairen from the elf’s grasp, the elf did not resist.
“Leave her in peace!” Incensed, Omar hastened away from the impromptu battleground with Mairen secure in his protective arms. He glanced backward. “Go! She told you, go home! You will not take this one.”
But the elf followed after them, showing only an intense fascination toward Mairen. She seemed not to hear a word Omar said to dissuade her.
Gisle collected his assortment of guardians. “What a strange child. The era of the next head will most definitely be an interesting one. I only wish I could be here to see it.” He led his companions after Omar, Mairen, and the female sun elf.
The curtains fell closed on the stage, jolting Dasarre back from his entranced viewing. From behind him, clapping hands startled him a second time in quick succession. “Your work is always so clever.” The young head Mairen came forward from the shadows. “But you took a long time with your self-introduction, Omar. Did you need to tell it all?” Her face glowed a becoming rosy color.
“But that wasn’t all,” Dasarre protested. “I wanted to see more!”
“Omar’s puppet plays are always like that. That’s what makes them so good. What are you working on now, Omar? May I see it?” Mairen hurried over to the workbench. “Oh! That’s a good resemblance!” She brought a small puppet over to Dasarre. “See? It’s you! He’s adding you to his plays.”
Dasarre took the small wooden replica of himself gingerly on his palm. For a change, he seemed lost for words as he stared at it. He handed the puppet back to Mairen in the same uncharacteristic silence.
“It’s nearly dinnertime,” Mairen announced as she returned to Omar his newest creation. “Come and you can meet everyone.” She left ahead of them.
The guardian in the billowing robes drew alongside Dasarre. “I hope I can infer from your silence that you take my meaning.” Omar held up the miniature Dasarre. “I am her first guardian. If you bring her to any harm, I will know.” In his hand the head of the Dasarre puppet turned to stare at its original. “Now, let us join Mairen at the table.”