SO HERE'S THE DEAL. I'm toiling away on the final draft of my new novel, an all-ages fairy tale adventure called Mabel Gray and the Wizard Who Swallowed the Sun, and if all goes well, it should be hitting shelves sometime this spring. While I'm working on it, I thought I'd share a little sneak peek. Here, then, is the prologue, in what is sure to be extremely close to its final form.
Enjoy! (Or don't. I can't tell you what to do. This is America.)
That You Would Do Well to Read
Most people will tell you that all fairy tales must start with Once Upon a Time. I’m certainly not one to balk in the face of such a grand and long-standing tradition. However, as your faithful narrator, I am duty-bound by the Guild of Storytellers, Fairy Tale and Folklore Division, to tell the full and honest tale of Mabel Gray and the Wizard Who Swallowed the Sun, and the simple truth is, sometimes events happen before Once Upon a Time that directly relate to the story at hand.
This is one of those times.
Therefore, in as succinct a manner as I am able without betraying the sacred duty of the narrative voice, I shall relay to you the events that immediately preceded ours.
Six hours, seven minutes, and forty-three seconds before our story begins, Elder Alder was sitting at his desk, staring at nothing in particular. There was plenty he could have been staring at, mind you; the office of a Brightsbane elder was a stately and impressive room, and Elder Alder’s office contained pillars of polished marble, ornately carved tables of iron oak, and floors of petrified gold leaf. The walls, of course, were positively beset by bookshelves, so full of carefully-bound knowledge that the room itself appeared to actually be made of books (though we can safely assume that it was not, for a wall of books would be rather unsturdy, and an elder’s office must first and foremost be a haven of relaxation and safety).
But despite all the books, and all the polished marble, and all the ornately carved iron oak, and all the petrified gold leaf, and all the carefully bound books that he could have been looking at, Elder Alder stared at nothing in particular instead. He was thinking, you see, and when one is lost in a good think, one has little time for ocular focus.
The night had grown quite late, and the fire in the elder’s hearth was whittling itself down to embers. Elder Alder swirled the glass of anteberry wine in his hand, and his thoughts tumbled over themselves, causing quite a row in his head.
Then the window on the far end of the room was flung open, and a mighty wind burst through the office.
“Good heavens!” Elder Alder cried, spilling his wine as he leapt from his chair and hurried to the window. It took a great bit of strength to shut it, so insistent was the wind on being let in. The elder threw his entire weight against the frame and finally succeeded in latching the window closed. He stood before the glass, panting and shaking spilt wine from his hand. The moon was bright that evening and cast a luminous white glow on the world beyond his quarters. The southern edge of the Briarbranch Woods loomed on the horizon, but despite the strength of the wind that had exploded into his room, not a single leaf on a single branch from a single trunk of a single tree so much as fluttered. The night appeared to be quite still.
That’s odd, the elder thought.
“Not so odd as all that,” said a gruff voice behind him.
Elder Alder yelped in surprise and turned to face the intruder, holding his wine glass above his head and preparing to hurl it like a flash pot grenade. “Who’s there?” he cried.
A figure melted forth from behind one of the pillars. He was tall, made taller by a conical hat that sagged at the very top. He had a long white beard, and a longer midnight blue robe that was illuminated with little pinpoints of light, so that he seemed to be cloaked in the night sky. In one hand, he grasped a gnarled, wooden staff topped with a glowing, bright blue jewel; in the other, he held a glass of the elder’s wine.
Elder Alder gasped. “The wizard!”
“Well, a wizard, anyway,” the old man said. He sniffed the drink in his hand and made a sour face. “Is this anteberry?” he asked. He tossed the whole thing, wine and glass, into the dying fire. The embers blazed and grew to healthy flames once more, though now they took on a strange, pinkish hue. “I hate anteberry.”
“How did you get in here?” the elder demanded. He clutched the front of his dark brown dressing gown and held it tightly, as if he could sprout armor by drawing into himself. “The Elderary is protected by powerful magic. Magic to keep you away, specifically.”
“Not in its entirety,” the wizard said with a little huffing snarl. “As it turns out, each office is protected by a spell that has been placed by its owner. When your predecessor—or should I say when your father—passed on, his protection spell passed with him. It seems you haven’t managed to replace it yet. A stroke of luck, wouldn’t you say?”
“No, I wouldn’t.” The elder eyed the door and wondered if he could make it to the latch before the wizard turned him into a scrumpton.
“You’ll want to weave some sort of spell or other after I’m gone, then. Something to keep the rabble out. I’m sure you can find a passable one within these handsome volumes.” The wizard clasped his hands behind his back and stalked about the room, exploring the spines of the hundreds of books that lined the walls. “Do you think anyone has actually ready any of these?” he asked.
“What do you want?” the elder demanded, adding more courage to his voice than he felt.
“I want to introduce myself,” said the wizard as he continued to peruse the shelves.
“You’ve done it. Now please leave.”
The wizard’s shoulders shook with silent laughter. “I sense a tension in you. Has your first day on the job been stressful?” He plucked a book from the wall and read the title aloud. “The Self-Digestion Habits of the Housebroken Grubbabout. How fascinating.” He opened the book and flipped through the pages.
“I’ll call the guard,” the elder said. He inched his way around the wall, moving toward the door. “They’ll bind you in iron chains and toss you into the lake.”
“Now what cause would they have for that?” The wizard snapped the book closed and slipped it back into its place on the shelf. “Seems like a harsh punishment for a simple drop-in.”
“It’s better than you deserve.” With the wizard wandering along the bookshelves, not seeming to pay particular mind to the elder’s movements, Alder began to feel something very like the beginning of bravery. “If I had my way, you’d be lashed to a post in Parchrock’s field and left for the crows.”
The wizard snorted softly. “That’s quite a sentence. What is it that I’ve done to deserve such a cruel demise?”
“You mean aside from swallowing the sun?” the elder asked. He tiptoed around a pillar and continued his slow slide toward the door.
“Ah. That.” He lifted a hand and ran it along a row of books. Clouds of dust puffed up from their spines. “I knew your grandfather, you know. The original Elder Alder. I knew him quite well.”
“Funny…he never spoke of you,” Alder said, nearing the door.
“He was a good man. Lots of potential there. Until he disappeared, of course.” The wizard took another book from the shelf. “Mother Crabnoodle’s Improbable Tales for Parlor Room Entertainment.” He smiled as he slid the book back into place. “Now we’re getting close.”
Elder Alder chanced a look to his left. The door was close now, just three more steps away. If he could just keep the wizard talking…
“Did you know my father too, then?” he asked, taking another step. The gold leaf creaked under his foot. He winced. But the wizard did not turn.
“Unfortunately, I did,” the old man said sourly. “A brutish creature, your father. Did you know that you’re the youngest elder in the history of Brightsbane?”
“So the other elders enjoy reminding me,” Alder sighed. He slid one step closer. Just one step more…
“Ah!” The wizard stopped walking, and the elder’s blood froze in his veins. Still, the old man did not turn. “Perhaps that’s the source of your tension?” The wizard resumed his easy pace. Elder Alder took the last step and reached for the door handle. As he did, the wizard said, “I’ve locked the door, you know.”
Alder’s heart sank. He gripped the latch and pulled, but it didn’t budge. “I don’t expect there would be much point in calling for help,” he sighed.
The wizard snorted. “Try it if you want. I find that shouting can be quite cathartic. Perhaps we can work through some of that stress. Go on and scream yourself silly. I brought ear plugs.” He opened his palm, and two shapeless white blobs of wax bubbled into existence. He stuffed them into his ears and motioned for the elder to begin. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Alder frowned. “Fine. Let’s get this over with. What do you want? What do you really want?”
“Eh?” the Wizard said, cupping his ears with his hands.
“Oh, for sun’s sake, take the plugs out of your ears,” the elder said, making the proper hand motions.
The wizard plucked the wax from his ear canals and threw them into the roaring fire. “Sorry. What were you saying?”
“Tell me what you’re doing here. It’s late, and since I can’t escape, if you’re going to spit me and roast me, I’d rather get it over with.” He crossed his arms in what he hoped was a convincing show of determination.
“I don’t eat elders,” the wizard mumbled, turning his attention back to the shelves. “They're all either too spindly or too fleshy.” He shuffled toward the last case of books. “I truly did want to meet you, young elder. To get a sense of you.”
“You didn’t risk entering the Elderary to say hello,” Alder insisted. “What else are you after?”
A book on the last shelf caught the wizard’s attention, a slim little volume with three horizontal iron bands striping its spine. He walked up to the book and read the title. “Ah,” he breathed, pulling the tome from the shelf. “The Boneyard Compendium.”
The elder stiffened. That’s it, he thought, suddenly alarmed. Of course that’s what he’s after. “Put it back,” he said, his voice faltering.
“I think I’d like to borrow it,” the wizard said with a wicked grin.
“Put it back!” Elder Alder said again. He rushed forward, his panic swallowing up his fear. “Leave it!”
The wizard waved his staff, and a shimmering field of light appeared between himself and the elder. Elder Alder skidded on the gold leaf floor and slammed into the barrier. It knocked him flat on his back.
“You really should install some magic in this place,” the wizard said with an amused little smile. “Any number of witches and spell-casters could find their way in here and wreak all manners of havoc. I’d make it my first order of business if I were you, younger Elder Alder.” He tucked the book under his arm and tipped the sagging peak of his hat. “Do try to have better wine next time.” Then he stamped his staff on the floor, and in a puff of smoke, he was gone—hat, book, and all.
Elder Alder struggled to his knees. His head swam, and he felt as if he might become sick. He pressed his forehead against the cool golden floor and waited for the nausea to pass.
His first day as a Brightsbane elder, and he’d already lost the single most powerful book left to his care.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, he cursed himself. When Elder Whip found out that he’d lost the compendium, Elder Alder would be the one lashed to a post in Parchrock’s field. The very thought of the crows with their razor-sharp talons sent shivers through his shoulders.
He heaved himself to his feet and lurched over to his desk. He rummaged through his drawers with shaking hands and pulled out a piece of parchment and a quill. There was only one way to get the book back without drawing the attention of the other elders…and he had to get the book back. The Boneyard Compendium was a book filled with terribly powerful spells, and whatever the wizard had planned, it would make swallowing the sun look like a parlor trick. He scratched out a brief letter and ran forth from his chambers to find his steward before the ink even had a chance to dry.
And now, dear reader, our story may begin.
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