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Nussknacker Sample

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This is a sample chapter — the rest has been removed now that the work has been published.


Despite the cacophony of a myriad of ticking clocks, Drosselmeier, the much sought-after clock-and-toy-maker, heard the unmistakable tinkling of his front bell telling him that someone had just entered his shop. He quickly flipped his eye patch down; it wouldn't do for anyone to know that a perfectly healthy eye lay beneath it. Wiping his greased fingers on a towel, he left his task on the workbench and stepped into the shop proper.


"Herr Drosselmeier!" came a hearty greeting from the equally hearty man standing just inside his doorway. The newcomer courteously tapped the tips of each if his boots on the welcome mat, knocking off the snow, then stepped up to the counter.


"Herr Stahlbaum," Drosselmeier returned with a smile and a bow of his head.


Stahlbaum's smile faded, his eyes haunted. "I haven't heard from your nephew Christoph in nearly a month. You're still visiting him every week, yes?" he asked tentatively, and Drosselmeier nodded. "How is his boy Erich doing? Any progress in his recovery? I'd go see him myself, but this is our most hectic time of year...."


And Stahlbaum was busier than ever, what with taking over much of Christoph's work so that the man could focus on Erich. No, Drosselmeier could not begrudge Stahlbaum in the slightest for not taking what amounted to almost a day and a half of travel, round-trip, to see a boy he knew mostly only through Christoph's letters. Indeed, Drosselmeier was quite glad that Christoph had made such a good, life-long friend as Stahlbaum in their boarding school days, and himself was very fond of the man.


"Unchanged, I'm afraid," the toymaker answered. "His eyes are open, he eats, they can even get him to walk about when he's led by the hand, but...otherwise, he's still catatonic. It's as if his body is a house where the lights are on, but no one is actually home.... Ah, but he's been like this so long now, I don't think his parents hold much hope that he will ever recover," he sighed.


"To think such a thing could happen," Stahlbaum remarked sadly. "One minute, you're playing in a tree, like any boy, and the next.... Well, I always thought strokes only afflicted the elderly...."


If you only knew, Drosselmeier thought to himself. Aloud, he asked, "What about you and yours, Stahlbaum? I hope my goddaughter is well?"


Stahlbaum nodded. "She is, she is—although she's a bit distressed. That's why I've come to see you, in fact, though I know how busy you are yourself."


"Oh?"


Stahlbaum removed a wrapped bundle from his cloak and handed it to the elder man. "Fritz was playing with it the other day, when Marie wasn't looking," he explained while the tinker unwrapped the item. "The little fool put a toy cannonball in it. Don't know what he expected to happen, other than for it to get broken," he muttered.


In the bundle was a wooden nutcracker, its "ponytail" handle splintered. Even without that, it would have been in sorry shape, it cloth clothing tattered, its paint faded and chipped, and its head missing some hair. "I'm not sure whether Marie is more upset
over the fact that she can't crack walnuts with it anymore—you know how fond she is of them—or the simple fact that it's broken. I offered to just buy her a new nutcracker, but she seems terribly fond of this one. Can you fix it?"


Drosselmeier raised the brow over his patchless eye.


Stahlbaum put his hands up in a surrendering gesture.


"All right, all right! Not 'Can you fix it?' but 'Will you fix it?' As I said, I know this is your busiest time of year, and so I'm sure you have plenty of tasks far more worthy of your skills...."


Drosselmeier gave him a wry smile. "Worry not, my friend; Marie will have her dear nutcracker back soon enough, hale and whole. But she will have to wait till Midwinter's Eve, when I come for that party of yours."


Stahlbaum grinned. "Fair enough, fair enough!" He drew out his purse. "And how much do I owe you?" For if anyone wished to have Drosselmeier's skilled hands put to a task that they desired of him, it was well-known that they had to be prepared to pay a pretty penny up front.


Well, usually they did.


Drosselmeier waved a hand at his friend. "Put that away! She's my goddaughter, isn't she? And it will take very little effort on my part to fix this. Consider it part of my present to her."


"Well, then! I reckon I'd better leave you to your work!" Stahlbaum smiled warmly and offered his hand, which the elder gentleman shook firmly. With a wave of farewell, the marginally younger man then stepped back out into winter's harsh embrace.


Drosselmeier went back into his work area, his attention focused on his newest patient.


"Well, my old friend," he asked it, "how are you and Marie getting along?" For while Stahlbaum believed the doll to be just an old family heirloom of his wife's, the toymaker was actually well acquainted with it. "You've no idea how happy I am that Stahlbaum brought you to me today; now I know just what to make for the party this year!" And the old man immediately set all his other work aside, to begin work on a new piece under the nutcracker's watchful eye.


 


II


 


"Good show, old man, good show! You've outdone yourself this year!"


Marie heard her father congratulate her godfather, but the sixteen-year-old maiden was too busy examining the workings of Drosselmeier's latest clockwork marvel to pay them or the rest of the crowd any attention as they fawned over the man and his creation, much less notice when they eventually abandoned it. So intense was Marie's concentration on the castle, she didn't even realise when the party was mostly over, not until her godfather laid a hand on her shoulder—and nearly startled her out of her skin in the process.


"Sorry, my dear! I was just wondering if you like it?"


Laughing made it difficult to breathe deeply and calm her speeding heart, much less speak, but she could at least nod. "It's truly brilliant, Uncle," she finally told him, earnestly, as she went back to watching a swan circling in the moat. She then peeked into each of the castle windows for the umpteenth time, delighting again in the attention to detail. She could see countless dolls within, scurrying about in their household tasks. Though far smaller than a real one, the castle was massive enough that any of her own dolls could still fit through the castle entry—if the doorway weren't already taken up by the king and queen, who stepped out now and again to gaze upon their kingdom.


"I wish I could go in!" Marie sighed.


"But you can, Marie!" Drosselmeier told her conspiratorially. "I promise you that one night, after you've closed your eyes, you will be able to enter the castle."


She granted her godfather a tolerant smile. "Oh, certainly I shall—and then I'll forget the whole experience once I open my eyes again!" she added ruefully.


"Perhaps—but that will be up to you. For now...."


She saw him look about, his gaze finally resting on Fritz, who had apparently lost interest in a castle he couldn't actually play with. The boy was now occupied with his own toys in a far-off corner; Drosselmeier gave a nod of satisfaction. Marie realised then that the man had wanted to make sure that her little brother was not privy to what he was about to say. A thrill of excitement rippled through her.


"I have another gift for you!" the old man whispered.


"But Uncle!" she protested, the loudness of her own voice startling her. She kept her voice low as she tried again. "This is already so much!" she insisted, waving a hand at the clockwork castle.


"This next present was no extra trouble for the likes of me!" he clucked back at her, leading her by the hand to the ornate tree. Underneath it sat a rather innocuously wrapped box; he gestured to it. She knelt beside it, Drosselmeier settling himself down on the floor next to her, seeming as eager as if the gift were for him.


Shyly, she undid the wrapping, casting a nervous glance now and again at Fritz, worrying that he might cause a scene if he noticed her opening another present. Her fears were quickly forgotten, though, when she laid her eyes on the box's contents.


"You fixed him!" she gasped, quickly grabbing her mended nutcracker up in her arms and hugging it tight. She then looked it over, noting how, besides its handle having been restored, its clothes and paint looked new. In addition, its head was now well-haired. It looked much younger now. "Thank you, Uncle!"


"And that's not all, my dear. Look in the box again."


Casting her godfather a quick, puzzled glance, Marie obeyed. Resting in the tissues was another doll, one that looked something like Marie: similar features, the same paleness, and the same bright blue eyes. The only noticeable difference was that its hair was gold-coloured, while Marie's was chestnut. Its dress, white silk embroidered with sparkling glass beads and silver thread, was fit for a princess. At first she thought it was made of porcelain, but closer inspection revealed that it was actually wood. Marie also noted that the limbs were jointed with metalworking similar to that of Drosselmeier's usual automatons, which allowed for far more mobility than most toys. Even the dainty fingers were jointed!


"Oh!" Marie breathed. For a long moment, she was as at a loss for words as she had been while regarding the clockwork castle. She might have reached an age where she was, according to her mother and society in general, too old to actually play with toys, but she didn't think she would ever lose her fondness for them, or stop collecting them. "She's the most beautiful doll I've ever seen! But...why, Uncle?"


"They're a pair, your nutcracker and dear Clara here. Would you like to hear their story?"


"Their story?" Marie laughed. "Uncle, fine as he is, my nutcracker is an heirloom, not one of your wondrous toys! He's probably older than you!"


Drosselmeier smiled, and there was a glint in his eye that seemed to emphasise her words, making him seem much younger than he was  supposed to be. "Don't be so sure of that, my dear. Now, would you like to hear the story or not?"


She nodded, causing her ringlets to bounce. "Forgive me, Uncle! I pray you, please continue!"


He rolled his eyes, sighing dramatically. "Well, if you insist. Let's see, now.... You remember me telling you of Thot?"


Marie smiled gleefully, and quickly looked about for her mother. Marie had heard many marvelously magical tales from Drosselmeier before, and knew from past experience that her mother would not approve of this one. "He was that shapeshifting elven mage, yes?" she whispered. Ladies did not listen to tales of devil's work, and some would insist that magic fell into that realm of activity. "The one who became a god in Egypt?"


"Yes, though he was hardly the only magic-user elevated to such a status there. Remember that Isis was also considered a goddess, as were her husband and son. All the same, though, it was Thot who taught Isis how to raise the dead."


"And he eventually came to Europe, and became one of Odin's ravens for a while," Marie remembered. "Wasn't he also the crafter who made that magic mirror for that quee—"


"Yes, yes, that was him," Drosselmeier cut her off.


Marie ignored his interruption. "—out of the dryad she'd had killed? And he bound the dryad's soul to the mirror—"


"He had his reasons!" Drosselmeier pouted.


"—and ended up having to help resurrect a princess that the queen had poisoned with an apple?"


"You say it like it was his fault!" Drosselmeier complained.


Marie smirked. She wondered why Drosselmeier took that story so personally. He'd seemed reluctant to tell her that tale in the first place—but then, why make it up if not to tell it? "Oh no, of course it wasn't his doing!" Marie placated hm. "So this is another story about Thot?"


"Yes, but you may remember that Thot was not his only name."


"He was Huginn when he was with Odin, and in that mirror story," Marie offered, hoping that her godfather wouldn't get upset again.


"And he's Huginn in this one," the man revealed with a sigh. "After that...incident with the mirror and the princess, he spent many endless years travelling the world, using his skills to earn his daily bread by healing the sick and wounded, and restoring the recently dead to life.


"Do you remember, dear Marie, what a scholar he'd been when he'd gone by the name of Thot? How, despite his supposed 'godhood', he yearned to understand the universe? Well, that hunger never left him. He longed to do more with his power, to bring life to that which had had none before, to animate the inanimate. He knew that souls could possess objects, and move them with spirit energy, but that was not the same thing as being alive—those objects did not need to breathe or eat and, though they could be destroyed, did not die. And although they had a soul, they had no lifeforce.


"Huginn studied anatomy and biology, religion and metaphysics, but quickly discovered that even the most esoteric knowledge was not enough to accomplish what he wished. So he studied with the greatest clockmakers and tinkers, toymakers and puppeteers. But of course this was not enough for him, making bits of wood and metal that could move about on their own: he became obsessed with the idea of giving true life to the automatons. Through the centuries, he became a master clock-and-toy-maker himself, but never actually achieved his ultimate goal."


Marie smiled with fond exasperation at the revelation that the elf shared an occupation with her godfather, but retained just enough politeness to refrain from remarking on it.


"One day," the old man continued, "he came upon a barony where he had once lived before—one that was in need of a clockmaker. By then, being able to raise the dead was no longer a skill he cared to advertise: rather than being grateful, men tended to consider him a demon and drive him away. In fact, most everywhere he went those days, mankind seemed to be crusading against magical folk, driving them into hiding. But this barony, which was in a remote area of the Alps, seemed mostly untouched by that war, and still played host to other magical beings; he decided to settle there again for as long as he could. Though none living there those days had ever actually known him, they knew of him, and the baron's family welcomed Huginn with open arms. By the time the war against magic reached the barony in earnest, he had been the trusted advisor to four generations of their rulers.


"The fifth Baron, Machtgier Reichlich, gained his title through marriage, and to be honest, Huginn did not much like the man. But Huginn adored Gretal, the baroness; she had been one of Huginn's godchildren, after all, and had made him godfather to her own daughter, Clara. Huginn doted on Clara, as he had all his godchildren, as if she were his own. He called her 'Pirlipat", which meant 'mouth filled with pearls'. And Clara did indeed seem to have pearls for teeth, gracing her with a smile that Huginn never tired of. She was also gifted with hair like spun gold, skin as soft and white as the purest silk, and eyes like azure. Yet for all her beauty, and all the attention that it brought her, she was neither arrogant nor spoiled.


"She had a heart that more than matched her exterior, always looking to help others and sharing her family's bounty—kindness and generosity being traits that she'd inherited in abundance from her mother. She never gave much credence to appearances either, but seemed to have an uncanny ability to see to the heart of any being she came in contact with. She was a child out of a faerytale; indeed, she was even fey, on her mother's side.


"So it came as no surprise to Huginn when, one day, in the garden of Baron Reichlich's estate, Clara befriended a brownie squirrel."


"Brownie squirrel?" Marie asked. "Was he made of chocolate?" she giggled.


Drosselmeier granted her a bemused smile. "You remember me telling you of the Gaiankind?" he asked.


Marie nodded. "They are beings of magic, made that way by the Elementals of Earth, Fire, Water, or Air," she recited.


"Or by a Celestial body, like the Sun, or Moon, or the Earth herself," Drosselmeier added. "Well, like elves and waerwolves and faeries, brownies are Gaiankind. They're a sort of small animal-people. They have fur and tails and faces that resemble those of their animal kin, but their tiny bodies are human-like—most of the time. They can make themselves appear to be true animals, though, if they wish. When they are their brownie selves, they wear clothes woven of faerie silk, which can change shape as they do."


Marie raised a skeptical brow. "'They can'? 'They are'? Uncle, you sound as if you believe they are real creatures!"


Drosselmeier smirked at her. "I dare say you will yourself when the tale is done. That is, if you ever let me finish it."


At once, she made herself the epitome of contriteness, and he resumed his tale.


"Pirlipat wasn't the slightest bit alarmed when the brownie squirrel called hello to her from his perch in a tree in the baron's garden. She—" Drosselmeier apparently saw Marie start to open her mouth to say something; he answered her question before she could ask it. "No, she couldn't talk to animals, nor can brownies speak any human tongue very well—their mouths aren't shaped right for it—but they can speak mind-to-mind, sharing thoughts.


"So when he said hello, Pirlipat heard him and invited the brownie lad to come share the nuts she had gathered from around the trees in the garden. She and this Nussknacker, Prince of the Squirrels, became fast friends.


"Now, Pirlipat knew that her father, having married into the barony and hailing originally from a distant hamlet, was not overly fond of magical beings; wisely, she kept her friendship a secret over the years, even as she and the squirrel prince basically grew up together.


"One day, when Pirlipat was barely sixteen, Reichlich invited a large number of prominent guests to stay at their home for the Harvest Festival, in hopes that he might find a suitable marriage prospect for her. Gretal, kind and generous and humble woman that she was, helped in the kitchens with the preparations in the days before it, as had always been her family's custom. She was actually quite good at making sausages—the best in the world, some would have said."


If she didn't know better, Marie would have sworn Drosselmeier looked wistful for a moment....


"While Gretal was preparing the sausage," he went on, "another brownie, Mouserinks, Queen of the Mice of the barony, made a grand entrance into the kitchen, and asked for some of the meat. Gretal, of course, had to refuse—the sausage was for her husband's coming army of guests, and he would be angry if there wasn't enough for all of them. But Gretal was willing to let the mice help themselves to the larder, as again was the custom of her family. After all, it could only bring them good to keep the Queen of Mice happy, so that she in turn might keep her small but numerous people under control.


"But Gretal did not know that Reichlich, upon finding a gathering of mice feasting in the kitchen one evening, had recently forbidden the servants to continue leaving offerings to the mice, and had instead demanded that traps be laid in the larder. He certainly didn't want his esteemed guests to find his home overrun by vermin! Gretal was also unaware that the people of their barony, who had once been so welcoming of the mice, had, under the Baron's orders, taken similar measures, laying traps not only in their own larders, but also in the fields. Seven of Mouserinks' sons had died in one trap or another.


"*So my people are not worthy to eat as well as your human guests do, Lady Baroness?* the Mouse Queen asked, mind to mind. *Is that why your Lord Baron saw fit to kill my children? Why he now makes it impossible for my subjects to find food in a land that was theirs long before your people came? If you want a war, then so be it. Henceforth, we will take what we want, by whatever means necessary!*


"And with that, her subjects rushed forward, making short work of the sausages, then raced away as quickly as they'd come. Before leaving, Mouserinks paused and turned back to Gretal, who was staring at the empty table in numb disbelief. *Because you had always been so kind to us before, and I am certain your husband is alone in being the source of my woes, I will give you one last warning. Look well to your daughter, Baroness, lest you lose her as I lost seven of my own children!* The Mouse Queen departed then, leaving Gretal to face her husband's wrath over the sausages.


"Reichlich was indeed angry. He told his wife that it was her fault for having encouraged the mice to come to them for food in the first place. And demure creature that she was, she bent easily to his whims, accepting his law against feeding the brownies—or any of the other small faer folk—without protest. She was far too worried for Clara's safety to object anyway.


"Gretal did, however, hire a trio of waercats to act as 'handmaidens' for Clara. Always present, one keeping a watchful eye as the other two slept in shifts, the guard-cats kept the mice from getting anywhere near Clara, who was now kept confined to her suite and would continue to be until the menace was eliminated. Huginn, in the meantime, was ordered to devise new and better ways to catch the mice.


"Huginn was not happy about his work, but he was too worried for his Pirlipat's well-being not to complete his task. He also feared angering Reichlich and subsequently being cast from the barony, never to see Pirlipat or Gretal again. He might have used his magic to control or imprison or even kill Reichlich, but he had seen too much of the battles between men and magic. He was not eager to start an uprising in the barony that could end in the deaths of those he loved as much as if they were his own kin.


"Now Clara, being the clever girl she was, noticed that her feline nursemaids seemed to get drowsy if she stroked their fine fur while they sat watch in her lap. So one afternoon, when the heaviest sleeper of the three waercats was on guard-duty, she told the feline that she was quite cold, and had the she-cat, in human guise, stoke the fire until it was almost unbearably warm in the room. Clara then called for and offered the waercat a bowl of warm milk, which, after returning to her four-legged form, the cat happily accepted. Once the waercat was finally resettled in her lap, Clara stroked her fur and hummed to her until the cat was lulled to sleep. When Clara was quite satisfied that the cat wasn't going to reawaken anytime soon, she slipped out from under her, grabbed a wrap from her wardrobe, and opened the door to suite's balcony.


"Clara called out to her dear friend Nussknacker, not knowing that he was out gathering food from his stores on the other side of the garden wall and could not hear her. But someone did hear her: Mouserinks, who had been waiting patiently for days on end for such an opportunity. She'd left the meat of a cracked walnut on the balcony rail. Clara, thinking that it was a gift from her brownie friend, happily munched on the treat. At the same moment, the Mouse Queen stole up alongside the poor girl and bit her on the toe. Clara kicked out in pain, and Mouserinks flew up over the balcony rail, landing in the garden below.


"Clara had a sinking suspicion that she had made a grave error that day, but, feeling ashamed of having tricked the very people who had been trying to protect her from the mice, she could not bring herself to tell her maids about the encounter. After cleaning her foot with water from the basin on her dressing table and wrapping her toe in a handkerchief, she crawled back into bed, and, in the heat of the room, soon fell as deeply asleep as her nursemaids.


"She was awakened later that evening by the screams of another of the waercats. Annoyed at having been disturbed, Clara tried to scold the cat-maiden, but found her tongue thick in her mouth, and her jaw stiff and sore. She tried to sit up, but every joint in her body seemed arthritic, and she was too weak to even lift her arm for more than a moment. Still, a moment was all it took for her to see what had set the other cat-woman to screaming.


"Clara was now hideously deformed. Her arm and fingers were swollen to four times their normal size. She managed to turn her head and look into her dressing mirror, only to discover things were far worse than she'd even imagined. Her golden locks were now pale and brittle, her eyes wide as saucers, and her once cute-as-a-button-nose now better resembled a wedge of cheddar. Her head was now as wide as her shoulders, and her mouth was set in a wide rictus, which nearly split her face in two. She shrieked at the sight of herself (as well as her new mouth would allow).


"Drawn by the cries of his goddaughter, Huginn threw open the doors to her suite and raced through the rooms, hunting for her. He let out a yelp of terror when he found such a frightening creature in his dear Pirlipat's bed, and came very close to casting a spell at it, when it suddenly occurred to him that it might actually be Pirlipat resting there. The monster confirmed as much; using his power, with her permission, he read her mind and saw all she had been through. Huginn attempted to use his Earth magic to determine what was wrong with Pirlipat and reverse her condition, but found that the spell on her was too strong.


Reichlich, when he learned what had happened, was understandably furious. Though she was none too pleased with the waercats herself, Gretal convinced her husband to stay their executions, banishing them instead. Huginn, meanwhile, managed to save his own hide over his failure to catch the Mouse Queen by reminding the baron that Clara still needed a cure, something the elf couldn't provide very easily if he were dead. Reichlich agreed to give Huginn until Midwinter's Eve, just a week away, to restore Clara to her former health and beauty, saying that if the elfin mage hadn't managed it by then, then there was probably no hope anyway.


"Huginn sat for hours by the fountain in the garden, under his beloved Pirlipat's balcony, mentally studying every scrap of healing and herb lore he could think of, when he caught something scurrying out of the corner of his eye. He turned to find Mouserinks sitting beside him, just out of reach. Small creature that she was, the fall from Clara's balcony hadn't harmed her in the slightest.


"*I've heard of you, elf—a master of life and death, are you not?* she asked.


"'After a fashion, yes,' Huginn replied. 'But I do not seem to be as much of a master as that I can reverse what ails my young friend. How did you do it, Mouserinks? And if you're such a powerful mage, how is it that you weren't able to save your own people?'


"*Oh, a mage I may be, but I'm not so powerful as that,* she replied. *I'm sure you remember the dryad who lived here once, parent to all the Gaiankind clans of this region, including my own? After it was lost to us, most of the faer clans in its domain hoarded the walnuts bearing the remnants of its power, but over so many years, few clans have even one of those left. Using last walnut left to my own clan, I was able to weave the shape-changing spell that afflicts the girl now. And since a dryad's magic is far, far stronger than yours, that is why you cannot reverse it with your own power, great though it is. I wove the spell most carefully, too, with knots that can only be undone under special circumstances, so even if you could find another dryad, they might not un-puzzle the charm. But I have thought on it, and decided that I am willing to tell you the way to reverse the spell after all—if you will first do something for me.*


"'Name it!' Huginn told her, desperate.


"A number of Mouserinks servants scurried up behind her, struggling with a large bundle of cloth. When they opened the bundle, they revealed six mouse heads and one very-very-large-but-still-whole mouse body.


"*This is all we could recover of my late sons,* Mouserinks told Huginn, her eyes glinting with a mad light. *I have met multi-headed dragons, and see no reason that there can't be multi-headed mice. If you can join those six heads to the shoulders of my seventh son, and bring the lot back to life, then I will tell you the secret to saving Clara.*"


"Why didn't she use the nut to bring her sons back to life?" Marie interrupted, immediately regretting having done it.


Drosselmeier didn't get angry, though; he just sighed. "The nut needed to be consumed to work, for one thing, and the dead don't eat. For another, it takes considerable medical knowledge to merge those parts in such a way as they might function—knowledge which she didn't have. So instead, she used the nut in a ploy that allowed her both revenge against the Reichlichs and to coerce Huginn into helping her.


"Huginn eyed the remains, deciding that, while it would be difficult, it was by no means impossible. He therefore agreed to the bargain, and Mouserinks left him to his work. Before the sunset of the next day, Mouserinks had her sons returned to her—after a fashion. She was well pleased.


"*Fine work, Master Clockmaker,* she said. *And now, I shall tell you what I saw in my dreams—for while I am no great mage, I am a Seer of considerable talent! That was how I knew what to do to curse yon Clara and have my sons returned to me.* Her voice grew distant as she spoke her prophecy. *I see a young male, one who has never shaved nor worn boots, cracking open a nut of a dryad with his own teeth, and feeding it to Clara from his own lips whilst his eyes are closed. But take care, for the future is never set in stone! If this tale is to end happily, he must first be promised Clara's hand in marriage for his success! And after he has fed Clara the nut, he must then take seven steps backwards—with his eyes still closed! If he should stumble before the last step is taken, he will take Clara's fate for his own—and more!* And with her last words, Mouserinks suddenly bolted away, her monstrous, seven-headed son following just behind her.


"Nussknacker dropped out of a tree to land beside Huginn, having listened to all. *I will appeal to my clan, get them to give Pirlipat our last dryad nut....*


"'I thank you, my friend,' Huginn replied, 'but I fear that may not be enough, if we can't solve the riddle she left us with. The dryad's nut would hold the power to restore her, but only if it is given under the terms of the spell. We need to figure out who the young man she foresaw is.'


"*But if she foresaw it, doesn't that mean the events will come about no matter what?* Nussknacker asked.


"'Perhaps,' Huginn replied, though he wasn't at all sure he trusted the Mouse Queen's wor—"


"Mouse Queen?" Marie's mother, Margaret, interrupted the old man's tale. "Are you telling Marie a bedtime story, Herr Drosselmeier? At her age?"


"Something like that," he replied wryly, "but I suppose the hour is late. Time for us all to retire."


"Oh, no, Uncle!" Marie pleaded, a little surprised to find, as she looked about, that the party had ended. Even Fritz was sound asleep amongst his toys. "You must finish!"


"Heh, listen to this one," Drosselmeier commented to Margaret. "So demanding!"


"Well, she is descended, albeit distantly, from a line of Barons," Margaret replied, patting Marie's hair affectionately. "It's in her blood to be bossy—as it is in mine! And I say it's time for bed!"


"Oh, Mama!" Marie pouted.


Drosselmeier shook his head, smiling. "You can wait till tomorrow evening to hear the rest, I think, Marie."


She perked up at that. "You're going to be here for Midwinter's Day?"


He nodded, and Marie let out a happy little squeal. She gave her uncle, her mother, and her father each a peck on the cheek before running up the stairs, her father following with the sleeping Fritz on his shoulder.


 


III


 


Try as she might, Marie could not fall asleep. This, of course, was one of the many reasons why her mother was always warning her off of Uncle Drosselmeier's stories: the fanciful thoughts he planted into her mind made her brain "feverish" and kept her from much-needed rest, which in turn made her "hyper and strange" the next day. No, Margaret preferred to see Marie keep her feet firmly planted in the real and practical—basically anything guaranteed to bore her and put her to sleep.


But her mother's words could not change Marie's nature: she was a dreamer, and the night was her day. Thoughts of the mundane world her mother wished for her, a life of running a household and rearing children, threatened the girl like a storm-cloud waiting to wash all the colour out of her life. If she had not been born a girl, perhaps she would have apprenticed herself to her godfather, and spent the rest of her days bringing a bit of, she felt, much-needed whimsy into others' lives. Or perhaps, even as a woman, she might become a writer, like Jane Austen or Mary Shelley! Anything to allow her imagination to thrive! If only she could convince her mother that she knew the difference between fantasy and fiction—unlike dear old Uncle Drosselmeier!


Her father, at least, was too involved in his business workings to chastise Marie much for daydreaming. He also indulged her fondness for dolls, and brought her novelties from France, Italy, even China once, when he returned from business trips. But her father wasn't usually around to act as a buffer between her and her mother. And as she did in fact love her mother, she tried not to upset the woman, which was why playing with her dolls had become a clandestine, nightly activity, when the rest of the house was fast asleep.


Finally, when the grandfather clock in the sitting room struck a quarter to twelve, Marie decided it was safe to indulge in her hobby. She lit a lamp, put on her dressing gown, and padded lightly down the stairs.


The sitting room was home to the china cabinet where her best dolls and Fritz's toy soldiers were on display. She felt a stab of guilt; her mother must have tidied up after Fritz before retiring herself, something Marie normally did. And when Marie was close enough, she could see that her nutcracker, too, was back in his old spot.


The clockwork castle was also in the room, to be displayed there for the rest of the holiday season—perhaps longer. She spent a few more minutes marveling at it. As it was currently inactive, though,  she quickly lost interest, returning her attention to the cabinet.


Setting the lamp down next to the castle, she opened the cabinet door, wincing as the hinge squeaked. She paused, holding her breath as she strained to hear if anyone was moving about on the second floor. Satisfied she hadn't disturbed anyone, she lifted the nutcracker off the shelf—and then her new Clara-doll, as an afterthought.


Cold, she set the dolls down on the mantel and started a small fire. Tempted to light some of the candles on the tree, she decided against it. At last, after gathering the nutcracker and her newest doll back up in her arms, she settled on the floor to examine Drosselmeier's handwork.


First, she took another long look at the Clara-doll. Had Clara really looked so much like Marie herself? Marie shook her head. Of course she didn't—she didn't exist!Honestly, Marie! She set the doll aside, then surveyed the repairs to her nutcracker.


It was as if he had never been broken. The shade of his new "ponytail" lever was a perfect match for the rest of his brown hair. Her brother had once said that the nutcracker was an ugly, creepy little thing, but she'd always felt there was a certain sweetness to it. It seemed...earnest, somehow. Determined.


Damn, she wanted a walnut.


But nutcrackers were nothing if not noisy, so she abandoned the thought, instead getting up and returning her treasures to the cabinet. She'd just closed the cabinet door, when the clock struck midnight, making her jump. She stifled a giggle, then glanced at the clock, as if to deny that it had startled her.


What she saw when she laid her eyes on the thing only startled her even more.


There was her godfather, reflected in the clock's glass door. She glanced behind herself in confusion, but he wasn't there. She looked back at the glass, and suddenly realised that her own reflection was inexplicably absent—and that what stood behind Drosselmeier wasn't her home, but the mess that comprised his shop, which she was always chiding him over.


"U-Uncle...?" she finally managed in a rasping whisper, after several unsuccessful attempts to speak.


He looked alarmed, his mouth moving as if to tell her something but the sound could not reach her through the glass that separated them. He gestured urgently, pointing. She followed the aim of his finger to the clockwork castle—and very nearly screamed, except that her vocal chords once again didn't seem to want to cooperate.


Balancing atop the highest turret was what looked to be a giant, malformed mouse—the size of a housecat, she reckoned—with glowing red eyes. Well, no matter its size, it was still only a mouse—one that, at more than halfway across the room, was a harmless distance away. After the initial shock faded, it seemed silly to be so frightened. She was no fainting maiden! She also thought that mice were generally cute, had even secretly kept one as a pet for a few months when she was five—surely they weren't so horrible as people said?


She changed her mind when the king-sized mouse opened its other six sets of eyes. Seven heads, just like in her Ucnle's story.


This is not happening. This is not happening, this is NOT—


Glass tinkled behind her, and she spun around. There was a hole in the glass of the door of the cabinet.


A hole directly in front of where the nutcracker no longer stood.


She heard the distinct patter of something small running past her, towards the tree, and an answering shiver went down her spine. She feared it was another deformed rodent. And then she saw her nutcracker: he was climbing the Yule tree in an apparent effort to reach the tabletop. The mouse-thing saw him too, and hissed. The nutcracker snagged a small metal sword ornament and waved it in challenge.


Oh. I'm dreaming. Okay, then. And she sat down cross-legged to watch the spectacle, no longer the least bit worried or scared.


As she watched, the mouse leapt into the tree and scurried over to the nutcracker. It grabbed another little sword ornament off a branch and began swinging it at the doll. The nutcracker lost its balance and tumbled to the floor. The mouse leapt at him, but despite his clumsy construction, the nutcracker rolled away and got to his feet in time to parry another strike from the mouse.


I hope we get to the part where I get to go into the castle soon! For she had never been terribly interested in battles, not the way Fritz was. Then she got an idea—if she knew she was dreaming, maybe she could just bypass this part of the dream....


She tiptoed over to the castle, giving the fighting pair a wide berth. Now, how do I do this...? She tried thinking of herself shrinking—nothing happened. She got the idea to climb onto the tabletop, but it started to tilt when she put her weight on it, so she quickly gave that up. She tried opening the door and sticking her face in, thinking that might trigger some shrinkage on her part, but all she did was cut her nose on the sword of the king, who was standing with the queen, just behind the entry. Baffled that she had felt the cut and yet it did not wake her, she turned her attention back to the battle, deciding that there was nothing to do but wait it out.


The mouse had given up on using the sword—the Nutcracker was made of wood, after all—and had instead filched one of the candles from the tree. It magically burst into life, and he chased the nutcracker around the room with it.


Marie willed the mouse to fall over dead—it didn't even stumble. She scowled and tried again—still nothing.


A hundred tiny taps drew her attention back to the cabinet, where she found Fritz's tin toy soldiers beating their tiny fists against its doors. Grinning in almost-devilish delight, she hurried over and opened the cabinet. The tin cavalry rushed forward first, and then the foot-soldiers leapt to the floor. She clapped and cheered them on as they converged on the Mouse King. The first cannon shot hit his tail and pinned it for a moment against a box; when the ball loosened from the dent it had  made and fell to the floor, she saw that the mouse's prehensile appendage now had a kink in it.


The mouse let out an angry squeak, and was answered by a thunderous, alarming sound that erupted from the walls. Within seconds, the room was flooded in a black tide of vermin, who swept the soldiers back from their rescue attempt. Holding his candle aloft, the Mouse King converged on his nutcracker quarry, who was now being harried by a number of the king's subjects.


Furious at this turn of events, Marie pulled a slipper off one of her feet and threw it at the monstrous rodent. The soft material couldn't harm it, of course, but it did catch the creature's attention; while it was distracted, the nutcracker broke free of his other assailants and ran the king through the gut with his sword. The seven heads of the mouse let out seven identical shrieks of pain. With his massive, damaged tail, the king knocked the nutcracker aside and ran off into a dark corner. Outraged at the injury to their king, a small host of the mouse subjects abandoned their individual battles to swarm Marie. In trying to back away, her foot slipped on another cannonball, causing her to pitch backwards into the clock; her head cracked the glass soundly before she fell, unconscious, to the floor.

Like this sample? You can buy the book, which includes the full version of "Nussknacker", as well as the sequel, "A Conspiracy of Spirits" ( sample: [link] ), here: [link]

(Check out the awesome chapter illustration ~WyldAngel did for me! [link] Thanks, hon! :love:)

(**Story edited July 26th, 2011 & July 31st with concept changes and tweaks, for publication** I'm removing the postings of the last two sections.)

(**Story edited December 6th, 2012, with a revised edition released.)

~INTRODUCTION~

Welcome to the first story of The Drosselmeier Chronicles, a Victorian 'Gaslight Fantasy' sub-series within the Gaiankind storyverse!

The version of "The Nutcracker" that most people are familiar with—that is to say, the ballet scored by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky—was an adaptation by Alexandre Dumas (of The Three Musketeers/The Man in the Iron Mask/The Count of Monte Cristo fame), but is not the original story. "The Nutcracker and the Mouseking" was penned by E. T. A. Hoffman (in German) in 1814. The ballet leaves out the tale-within-a-tale, "The Story of the Hard Nut," which explains the nutcracker's origin. (Gee, that's kind of a weird detail to leave out!)

I wasn't even aware of that fact, though, until many, many years after I first saw the ballet (I think I was five the first time I saw it). In 1986 I got a volume of Time Life's The Enchanted World series called "The Book of Christmas" (which is sitting on a shelf behind me as we speak). In it is a story called "The Midnight Battle," which is a much darker version of "The Nutcracker". For a long time I thought that was the original version. In 1991, I saw the animated film The Nutcracker Prince, which is based more on Hoffman's story, despite featuring Tchaikovsky's music. This is where I first encountered "The Story of the Hard Nut"—which, at the time, I assumed was made up for the movie.

I've been working on my own fantasy storyverse, what eventually became Gaiankind, for many years. In college, I got the idea to incorporate various folklore, faerytales, myths, and legends into the world I’d created, plugging in my own concepts wherever possible. I decided to have some of those stories be past lives of my two main characters; "The Nutcracker" was one of the stories I considered for a past-life. I even have a sketch of the nutcracker and Clara/Marie dancing together. But it stayed on the backburner: the tale just didn’t fit into the timeline I'd set up.

Then in late 2004, as I was working on a novel set in the Gaiankind storyverse, I was inspired by the holiday season to finally take a stab at my own version of "The Nutcracker" -- not as a past-life of my leads, but still as a part of the series. One of my other characters, an immortal elven inventor and mage (who evolved from a character my friend Sara, aka ~lynx-the-ranger, initially created), seemed a prefect match for Drosselmeier. He was my key to getting the story going, and tying it into Gaiankind. With him to guide me, everything else just sort of fell into place. I also found an excellent page on Hoffman's version, which clarified details immensely—although it's not like I stuck to them. Still, it gave me a foundation to work with. I've reworked it a few times since, as well -- especially most recently, as I've made some major changes to the Gaiankind universe ....

If you wish to check out the original tale first, the bulk of it can be found here: [link]
© 2005 - 2022 WolfenM
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Julayla-64's avatar
I read the entire story and you did very good on this tale. My only complaint is that the link leading to the original tale is no longer there. Just thought you'd like to know.