The Man in the Cupboard, pt. 24

We last left Mike and Maybelle trapped in the engineering workshop with the enraged Queen Caliee at the doors. The queen is determined to not let Maybelle leave the keep and will stop at nothing to reach her goals.

To read the previous episode, click here!

To start at the beginning of the story, click here!

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Maybelle grabbed Mike by the hand and pulled him toward the back of the workshop which was lined from the floor to the ceiling with shelves filled with thousands of odds and ends.

“It will take her a while to breach the door, even with the key you must know how to align the three levers before the gears will spin.  I showed her how ages ago, with luck she won’t remember right away.” She lifted a thimble and frowned.

“Why would show her that?”

“She is the queen Mike. You don’t say no when your queen asks you for anything.”

“Well, I suppose that’s fair.”

Maybelle ducked under one of the lower shelves and shifted several of the items there. “There’s a hidden lever here somewhere, but it’s tricky to find.” She ducked into the next shelf and pointed Mike toward another. “Try in there, you’ll know it when you see it.”

Mike leaned into the shelf and instantly sneezed at the thick layer of dust sending a cloud into the air around his head.  The pounding at the door had quieted and was replaced with the sounds of metal on wood.  Mike could only assume that the queen had already found the key and had moved to figuring out the combination lock.

“Hurry Mike, if I know her at all its to know that she’s quick.  If she sees the tunnel, our escape will be useless.”

Mike nodded and searched faster.  He shifted a pile of bottle caps and looked behind a snail shell but found nothing. At the door the gears engaged and begin to turn. There were only seconds left before the queen and her guards burst through.

“Got it!” Maybelle gave a quiet cheer as she darted inside.

Mike dove into the inky blackness of the tunnel behind her and tugged the secret door shut just as the workshop door flew open. Shouts erupted along with the crash of chairs being toppled. Someone screamed.

Maybelle pushed at Mike in the narrow passage. He was reluctant to leave anyone to be hurt. “What about them? Will they be alright?

“My friends are strong, they can take care of themselves.  Caliee might be tough at times but she’s no monster. They’ll be alright.”

Mike allowed Maybelle to guide him along the dark narrow tunnel. He couldn’t help but worry what was happening beyond the secret tunnel entrance. Only being able to hear the shouts and crashes made it worse. His imagination kept running to the worst possible outcome. In a way he was glad for the darkness, it made him seem braver for Maybelle’s sake than he was.

The tunnel seemed to stretch on forever.  Darkness robbed Mike of any sense of time and Maybelle stayed quiet as they hurried along. The sounds of struggle grew quieter as they continued to move further away from the workshop and quite possible from the great tree itself.

At last ahead there was a shaft of bright light piercing the darkness. Maybelle turned back to Mike, lines of worry etched her face. “We’ve made it to the end.  Let’s pray that there aren’t any other obstacles.  The sooner we get away from here the better.”

In the dim light of the tunnel Mike stopped Maybelle. “Are you sure you want to do this? It’s not too late to turn back.”

She placed her hands in his. “Listen. I made my decision back when we spent the night talking up on the balcony.  I’ve felt something with you that I thought was impossible for my heart to feel again.  I can’t live in that place anymore and now I have defied the queen.  She won’t forgive me for that, even if it is for a good cause.  She won’t understand. I don’t think she can.”

She was so lovely, even with streaks of dirt across her face. Hearing her determination to be with him sparked within him a desperate need to kiss her. She felt it as well, her eyes closed halfway and she leaned forward.

Before their lips could touch there was a shout from the outside of the tunnel.

“How did she find us? I thought no one knew of this place.”

“It’s not her.” Maybelle’s face lightened into a smile and she scrambled up the steep dirt passage and out into the light. Mike followed close behind, squinting in the harsh sunlight.

Outside in a small clearing in the brush Maybelle was hugging one of the women he recognized from the workshop. They separated when Mike cleared his throat.

“Mike, this is Rachelle, she’s my second in command. She’s aided us in our escape.”

The other woman nodded before turning back to Maybelle.

“The other engineers are leading her to one dead-end after another. They sent me to tell you to stay here.  Ben the bluejay will come soon and take you away from here. She won’t be able to follow you, even if she finds the passage or gets her hands on Ben you’ll be safe. The poor bird can’t remember one day to the next.” She glanced around nervously. “I must go before I am missed.”

The two women hugged again as the sound of flapping filled the clearing. Rachelle ran back into the cover of the brush as the bluebird landed.

The bird gave a happy chirp when he spotted Mike. “Why hello talking candy!  Do you have a treat for me today?”

“I sure do Ben, but you’ll need to take me somewhere to get it.”

Without another word Ben grasped them both and took off into the air.  Mike’s stomach lurched and twisted to be up high again but to his surprise he wasn’t half as scared as he’d been before.  In Ben’s other claw Maybelle spread her arms wide like she was a bird herself.  She smiled and laughed as Ben climbed higher into the sky.

To be continued…

***

The Man in the Cupboard, pt. 23

In the previous episode, Queen Caliee informed Mike that not only can’t he court Mistress Maybelle, that if he refuses to comply with her wishes that she will have him locked up and used as breeding stock for the rest of his days.  Mike will not compromise with the Queen and is locked back into his room.

To read the previous episode, click here!

To start at the beginning of the story, click here!

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Once the initial anger from being locked into the small bedroom subsided, Mike began to pace.  He had to figure out a way to get a message to Maybelle and warn her of what was happening. He picked up his cane from the corner; perhaps he could find a way to use it. He had already tried it on the door, but being Tinker work it had been warded against Tinker magic. Typical.

When he had been locked in before, he had almost figured out the elaborate locking mechanism. He knelt at the door and studied the various gears and levers once again.  He reached for his jacket toolkit and realized that he was still in his night shirt.  That wouldn’t do at all.  If he managed to open the door he couldn’t just waltz down the hall dressed like that.  He had standards after all.

After quickly dressing and brushing he returned to the door. There would be standing guard, he’d have to deal with that once the door was open.  He could only hope that Queen Caliee had kept her plans for him a secret from the keep.  It didn’t make sense for her to share her plans with more than one or two trusted attendants and advisors, ones that sided with her and agreed that Mistress Maybelle should be forced to stay. Otherwise she might have a revolt on her hands.

The lock clicked and the bolt slid free of the frame.  Mike opened the door a few inches and spied the guard standing at attention.  Cane in hand, he opened the door the rest of the way.

“Hello there,” he greeted her in his most cordial voice.

She spun toward him, utterly confused. “How did you-“

Before she could finish he poked her with the end of his cane and released a bolt of magic sending her boneless to the floor. He checked the corridor for any witnesses, there were none. He hoisted her up and hauled her into the room and into the bed and then positioned her so that should anyone look in the door they would assume it was him.

Back in the corridor he wound his way towards Mistress Maybelle’s workshop. Along the way he passed several of the women he had met during the interview process.  Some gave him gentle shy smiles as if by some miracle he would change his mind and want to get to know them better.  Others he had rejected glared at him with open hostility.

Another guard stood rigid at the door of the workshop.  Her eyes widened when she saw Mike and she grabbed her spear. “What are you doing here?” she demanded. Obviously she was in on the Queen’s plan.

Mike didn’t stop or slow as he approached, his cane stretched out in front of him like an anemic battering ram.

“Stop, I mean it!” She held her spear at the ready and seemed terrified to use it.

Mike released a burst of magic at her and her eyes rolled back as she crumpled to the floor. He caught her as she fell.  “I’m sorry, none of this was supposed to happen.”

He was relieved to find the workshop door unlocked.  He dragged the unconscious guard inside and closed the door. When he turned he was greeted by the shocked expressions of nearly a dozen tinkers working in the shop.

Maybelle recovered first and stood from her stool, dropping her pliers onto the workbench. “What is the meaning of this?”

He placed the guard down against the wall and away from the door being careful not to knock her head against the hard floor. He then turned the giant lever that locked the door.

One of the workshop tinkers came forward with a hand to her mouth. “Is she hurt?”

“No, just sleeping. She’ll be fine in a few hours.”

Maybelle grabbed Mike by the shoulder and spun him so they were facing each other, her eyes wide with terror. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m fine, I swear it. It’s the Queen. She doesn’t want you to leave.  She’s threatened to put me in a cell for the rest of my days should I try to take you from here.”

“What?” She released her hold on him dropping her arm to her side. “That’s impossible.”

Mike sank onto one of the nearby stools and ran a hand through his hair. “She says that the safety of this keep depends on you, that you are the next in line to the throne.”

Maybelle gestured to the others to give them some space. “I suppose she didn’t bother to mention that there are six of us in line, six cousins that can all take the throne if needs be.”

“No, she wanted me to pretend that I was not longer interested in you and to take another girl and leave. I couldn’t do it. It’s wrong.”

Maybelle settled into the stool next to Mike and laced her hand into his. “I’ve been worried something like this might happen.  When the curse hit and Caliee was forced to take the throne it was a dark time for everyone, but for her especially.  The king died leaving her alone to protect the keep, she wasn’t ready.  The stress of it changed her, made her harder, more cunning. The last few years have shown us that if she is determined for something to happen she wouldn’t stop until it was done.”

Mike squeezed her hand. “Escape with me. The keep is in good hands. You have trained your fellow engineers well.  I’m sure that they can do whatever is necessary.”

“You don’t understand. She’ll come after us. She’s decided that I must stay here, she won’t stop until she has guaranteed that I will.”

“Don’t you want to leave?”

“Of course I want to leave.  I’ve wanted to leave ever since the curse took all that I loved from me. I want to start over somewhere new.”

“Come with me. Right now.  They won’t have had time to prepare yet, we might make it. You know this place better than any tinker alive.  Surely there is a secret exit, a way that we can slip out unnoticed?”

“This is my home and my family.  I can’t abandon them.”

“But you aren’t living. Every day you are tortured by your past. You deserve a life where you can be happy.”

Maybelle released a pent up breath. “I know.”

“Come with me.”

“I’m scared.”

Mike cupped her cheek, turning her face toward him once more. “I will never leave you.”

“Never?”

“I promise.”

She squeezed his hand back and smiled.  “There is a tunnel under the east wing leading to an abandoned irrigation system.  We could be away from here within the hour.”

Just then loud voices erupted in the hallway along with sounds of someone trying to force the door.

Maybelle stood from her stool. “She knows you’re here.”

“How is that possible?”

“Never underestimate Caliee.” She pulled his hand. “Follow me, we might still make it.”

***

To be continued…

To read the next episode, click here!

The Man in the Cupboard, pt. 22

In the last episode Maybelle finally opened up to Mike and told him of her tragic past. They share a much-needed embrace and Mike vows that he will do everything in his power to never let anyone hurt her again.

To read the previous installment, click here.

To start the story from the beginning, click here.

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Mike woke to a knocking at his door. He rolled over, hoping whoever it was would go away. He and Maybelle had talked long into the night and he had only gone to sleep a few hours before. The light from the bottle glass window seemed too bright to his sticky eyes and he pulled the blanket over his head.

The knocking continued. With a groan Mike peeled off the blanket and answered the door. Whoever had the nerve to wake him at this hour was going to get a piece of his mind.

He jerked open the door. “What do you want?” he barked before looking at who was there. He immediately regretted it

Queen Caliee and one of her attendants stood in the doorway.  The Queen wore her circlet and robe leading Mike to believe that she was here on official business.  Her attendant folded her arms across her chest and wore an unamused smirk.

“I need to speak with you,” the Queen said.

“Sure, give me a moment to put myself together and I’ll be right with you.” He sounded too eager, trying hard to make up for his lack of manners a moment earlier.

“No, now.” She pushed past him and sat in the branch work chair in the corner of the room under the window. The attendant took her post outside the door.

Mike took a seat on the edge of the unmade bed, painfully aware that he was still in his rumpled nightshirt as he faced the Queen.

“I have been made aware of your interest in Mistress Maybelle and I’m here to tell you that you cannot take her from Willow Keep.”

The suddenness of the announcement took Mike by surprise and left him gaping. “Excuse me? What do you mean I cannot take her?”

“The women available to you were the ones that we presented to you.  Did you presume you could just waltz in here and take whoever you wanted?”

Mike attempted to answer, to defend himself, but she cut him off before he could utter a syllable.

“I’ve tried to be patient with you and your lack of interest in the dozens of women we’ve made available for you. I hoped that somehow one of them would spark enough interest that you would be satisfied and leave.”

Mike hadn’t gotten over her initial pronouncement. “Why not her? Why can’t she leave with me should she choose to?” An intense heat built up within him as he spoke and he couldn’t hide the anger that he felt. “She’s lonely and hurting. Staying here only makes it worse.  Everyday she is reminded of what she has lost, of what you all have lost. Why can’t she be allowed to have some peace?”

“It’s not that. She is one of my advisors and is needed here. More than that, she is my cousin and the next in line to the throne. I simply can’t have her running off with the first he tinker that knocks on our door.”

Mike sighed and ran a hand through his uncombed hair. “Have you spoken to her about any of this?”

“No, and I won’t either.  If she thinks that I’m involved she will never speak to me again.”

“You expect me to be the one to tell her that I don’t want her?  I can’t do that.”

“Don’t you understand? She must stay here.  The safety of this keep depends on it.”

“I refuse to argue with you.” He stood and paced the narrow room. “And I refuse to lie to her either. If I talk to her I will tell her that you refuse to let her leave. She should be allowed to decide her own fate. It’s only fair.”

“Fair has nothing to do with it.  If you choose not to comply with my wishes I have no choice but to find a way to get rid of you.  I must protect my people and my kingdom.” She stood, straightened her skirt, and headed for the door.

“This is madness!” he shouted. “Without a next generation there will be no more tinkers. And as the only man left I am your only hope for survival.”

“Oh, I would never kill you.  But it is not beyond me to imprison you and use you as breeding stock for the rest of your days.” She shut the door hard behind her and Mike heard the lock click into place.

Once again they had trapped him in the small room. He kicked at the chair sending it tumbling over the floor. He wanted to scream and to curse. Just a few hours before he had found a happiness that he had never imagined as he and Maybelle kissed goodnight.  In the quiet hours of that early morning she had agreed to leave with him and leave the pain of her past behind.

There was only one thing to do.  He had to come up with a plan to escape with Maybelle, and soon.

***

To read the next episode, click here!

The Man in the Cupboard, pt. 21

We last left Mike feeling depressed and rejected on the swaying tree top platform after a series of personal interviews with the women from Willow keep. He has almost given up on his quest when Maybelle appears at the top of the stairs.

To read the revious installment, click here!

To start from the beginning, click here!

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Mike wiped the sweat from his palms.  Here she was, that wonderful mind, those enticing hands; standing before him and wanting to get to know more about him.  From their earlier meeting he had not been sure if she had any wish to see him again or not. The uncertainty had kept his stomach in knots ever since.

She crossed the platform and settled into a low chair, exposing a slender ankle. “Will you come join me?”

Mike worked the moisture back into his mouth and placed his chair next to hers. “Beautiful evening, isn’t it?”

Maybelle took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “I haven’t been up here in years, I’d forgotten how nice it is. You should see it in spring when the flowers are in bloom and the breeze is warm and soft.”

“I imagine it’s quite a sight.”

“It is,” she said as she turned to face him. “What’s your home like?”

“Nothing like this, that’s for sure. Right now the fall roses lining the front walk are in bloom. It’s an old house, that’s for sure, sturdy and built with care. I’ve made a cozy place for myself there up in the attic. There’s everything a talented tinker like you could ever want to create any number of wonderful things.  The family that lives there has some of the old blood in it as well, the woman and youngest child can see us and I’ve made friends with her.”

“Just how good of friends do you mean?” Maybelle asked, her tone darkening.

“It’s purely professional, I assure you.  I help her keep the house in working order and she allows me to take things from the pantry as payment. In fact she’s the reason that I decided to find a woman to court.”

“How’s that?”

“It wasn’t until meeting her that I realized just how lonely I was for someone special in my life. I imagine in a place with so many other tinkers around that it’s hard to be lonely.”

She leaned forward and rested her arms on her knees. “It would seem that way, but it’s not true. The curse hurt everyone here more than you could imagine.  Everyone here lost people special to them.  The younger ones lost fathers and brothers. The older of us lost husbands and sons. Ever since then we’ve tried our best to keep moving forward. It hasn’t been easy.”

Mike swallowed down the lump that had formed in his throat. Maybelle had lowered her head. Tears threatened to spill down her face.

“Who did you lose?” he asked, his voice now quiet.

“My husband, Stephen, was one of the first. I watched on as he changed from kind and gentle to a terror.  No one knew what was happening. One night he attacked me, I barely escaped.  I was lucky, there were several who didn’t. They tried confining him in a cell but by then he was more animal than man. He attacked anyone who came close.” She sniffed and dabbed at her eyes with the edge of her sleeve. “I’m sorry, after all these years it’s still upsetting.”

“Don’t apologize, you’ve done nothing wrong. You don’t need to go on if you don’t want to. This must be very hard.” He placed a hand on her knee and she rested hers over it.

“No, I want you to know. In the end they were forced to kill Stephen along with the other men.  It wasn’t long until the younger men and even the boys started showing signs of the curse as well, including my son. He was only seven.” She squeezed his hand and he could feel how it trembled.

“I can’t begin to imagine what that was like. You loved them very much. I’ll understand if you would like me to leave you in peace.”

“No, don’t leave me. As much as I miss them, I miss the feeling of being held by a pair of strong arms more.  I miss having someone to come home to at the end of the day. It’s been so long that I’m afraid I no longer know what it even feels like to be loved.”

Mike brushed a strand of her hair away from her face and tucked it behind her ear. “I can’t replace them, we both know that. But I can be that pair of strong arms. Would you allow me to hold you?”

Maybelle wiped her eyes and nodded.  “Yes, I would like that very much.”

She entered his embrace, timid at first, but as he wrapped his arms around her she softened, tucking her head into the curve of his neck. The emptiness that had haunted him for the last few years disappeared as he took in the smell of her hair, the feel of her broken life against his chest. Her tears of pain and loneliness soaked into his shirt.

From that moment he yearned to make her whole again and protect her from ever being hurt again.

To be continued…

***

To read the next episode, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Man in the Cupboard, pt. 20

In the last episode, Mike managed to spend a few minutes with Maybelle the head of the engineering department at Willow keep, and was bold enough to tell her how he felt about her.  The meeting ended with Mike hoping for more but unsure about if Maybelle was interested or was only being kind. He is pulled away to have personal visits with the other women he had chosen from the earlier interviews.

To read the previous episode, click here!

To start from the beginning, click here!

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High up in the willow tree the she tinkers had built a sturdy platform amid the swaying branches.  From that height Mike could see clear across the park and in the distance make out the top edge of the crabapple tree. He shifted his chair closer to the center of the platform, the thought of being that high again made him feel decidedly ill.  He hadn’t quite recovered from his experience with Ben the crazy blue jay.  The current she tinker, Melissa, leaned against the rail that circled the platform.  Her earthy brown hair twisted in the breeze behind her and the subdued green dress hugged her legs.

He had chosen her because she hadn’t tried to impress him with her looks, or wow him with her skills.  She had simply come to the meeting and seemed more interested in learning about him beyond the trivial questions that the other she tinkers had asked.  Now, alone, that shyness that he imagined before had disappeared.

In the beginning of their meeting she had sat close to him.  Her sea blue eyes twinkled with curiosity as they spoke.  She had drifted further and further away as the meeting continued.

“You mean to say there aren’t any other tinkers where you live?  Don’t you get bored?” She traced a finger along the top of the rail and watched the swaying leaves.

Mike couldn’t blame her for losing interest. His own thoughts kept returning to Maybelle and what he would need to do to capture her interest. He wanted to impress her, wanted to make himself worthy of her attentions.

Melissa turned back to face him when he didn’t answer her question right away. He shifted in the chair and tugged at the cuff of his shirt sleeve. “It’s never boring, there are always plenty of things to do in that old house. There’s a terrific garden that could use the care of a she tinker.” He tugged at the other cuff. “I didn’t leave because I was bored, I left because I wanted to find someone to share my life with.”

“I don’t think you realize how much you are asking. Here at the keep I have friends that I can talk to.  I have a job that I like doing.  I’m fed, protected, and cared for.  I don’t know if I’m ready to leave all that and go out into the world alone.”

Mike couldn’t help but wonder if Maybelle would feel the same.  It was true that he couldn’t offer her what she had here at the keep, but he could offer her the one thing that she didn’t have, love and a family.

He stood and reached a hand toward Melissa. “You’re right, I can’t offer you those things, and they are important to you.” He took her hand and held it between his. “I think we both know that you’d be happier if you stayed here.  Thank you for your time.”

Melissa smiled and Mike tried not to read too much into the relief that he saw in her face. He couldn’t help but wonder if there were other things about him that turned her away as well.  He could feed, care, and protect her at the yellow house, and she would have plenty of work to keep her busy.  He couldn’t change the way he looked or how he spoke.

The meetings continued for several more hours and after each one Mike found himself growing more and more depressed.  He couldn’t find that connection he sought with any of the women.  Most were young and too naïve to understand what he was asking of them. They would eagerly agree with everything he said with wide eyes and simpering smiles. It would be wrong to choose any of them unless he knew with certainty that they had thought through what leaving the keep meant.

As he waited for yet another woman to climb the stairs he admired the handiwork of the woven willow railing.  Larger boughs intertwined with smaller switches giving it the look of an elaborate wicker basket. It made him think of Maybelle once again and her exquisite hands, her delicate features.  He imagined her finding happiness within the walls of the yellow house and bringing her beauty and talent to his life.  For a moment a burst of joy filled him, like sun through clouds.

That joy fled at the sound of footsteps.  He dreaded spending another moment with yet another woman.  They would find something wrong with him or he them and he couldn’t take one more rejection.  He was about to tell them that he had had enough for one day when Maybelle appeared at the top of the stairs.

He stood and straightened his shirt again. The sight of her twisted his tongue into a knot. “I thought you were busy,” he stammered.

“I needed a break.” She crossed the platform and rested her arms on the railing. “Have you found true love yet?”

“Hardly. These women are all lovely and talented, but they all lack one thing.” He joined her at the railing, even though the height made his heart leap into his throat. “None of them are you.”

She studied her hands. “You realize I know nothing about you, nor you I.”

“Perhaps it’s time to remedy that.”

“Perhaps…”

***

To be continued…

To read the next episode, click here.

The Man in the Cupboard, pt. 19

Poor Mike survived the first round of meetings to meet all the she tinkers at Willow Keep and now must endure another set of more personal interviews. While he should be thrilled to finally be coming closer to his goal of finding a wife to take home with him, the one she tinker he wants to get to know better won’t give him the time of day.

To read the previous episode, click here!

To start from the beginning, click here! fiction friday banner An elaborate water clock trickled and ticked against the long wall facing the narrow windows in the engineering room. Mike couldn’t help but be mesmerized as he watched its movements from his perch next to the workbench where Mistress Maybelle worked. Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen. Mike began to worry that they would come find him before he even had the chance to say a proper hello.

Finally she set down the file and pick, stood and stretched, and turned to look at him. “What did you want to ask me about?”

Mike cleared his throat, stood, and extended his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I wanted to know if you were the one who made all the wonderful locks and other things around here?”

She ignored his hand. “Some were the work of my mother, some me, she taught me everything I know. Listen, I’m very busy and apparently you have nothing better to do. What’s the real reason you came?”

Mike shuffled his feet, his mother taught him that honesty was always best.  He prayed she was right. “I would like to get to know you better. I was hoping you would come to one of the meetings, but when I didn’t see you there I asked to come talk to you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Really? And you didn’t assume that because I didn’t come I wasn’t interested in being courted.”

“I had hoped that there would be another explanation. That’s why I wanted to ask you.  It’s dangerous to assume anything about anybody.  I might be wrong.”

“Why me? There are dozens of women that want your hand. Wouldn’t it make more sense to get to know one of them better?”

“That’s the thing.  I don’t think half of them have really thought this through.  Most seem desperate for a change in their life, not a personal connection. I’ve lived alone for so long I don’t need a prize.  I need a friend.  I can’t risk returning to my home with someone I can’t feel connected to.”

She picked up the file and hung it in its place. “And you feel that sort of connection with me?”

Mike sat back on the stool. “When I first came here they locked me into a room. They were scared that I would become violent like the other men had.  I must have been in there for hours.  While I waited I examined the lock on the door. It was then I decided that I had to meet whoever had created it.  I fell in love with the hands that would take the time and care to create such a beautiful device.  Now that I’ve met you and seen you work, I can’t deny my desire to spend more time with you.”

Maybelle smiled and shook her head. “You are proving to be a truly interesting fellow, Mike Finnegan.”

Someone knocked at the door. Sali, the Queen’s attendant, stepped inside. “Pardon the interruption but Mike is needed elsewhere.”

Before leaving Mike turned back to Maybelle. “Would it be alright if we met again?”

“I’ll see if I can find time in my schedule, but don’t get your hopes up.  Like I said before, I’m very busy.”  The sternness she had shown before had vanished and was now replaced with a kind laugh.

Mike couldn’t help but smile back. “Please do, I’d very much appreciate it.”

To be continued…

The Man in the Cupboard, pt. 18

In the previous episode it was decided that all women of Willow keep must have a chance to meet Mike so that everyone would have a fair chance. Now he is stuck playing the Tinker version of “The Bachelor” and Mike doesn’t like it one bit.

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To start from the beginning, click here!

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The meetings ran through the morning, ten eligible women would be led into the room and he would have ten minutes to talk to them.  They looked as if they had spent hours perfecting their hair in elaborate braids and curls. The effect made Mike think of ropes and gears.  One woman even went as far to fashion her hair until it resembled a strange tree growing from the top of her head.

None of it impressed him, however.  In fact, it seemed that the women who tried the hardest to look their best, had the most elaborate clothing and hair, where the ones who annoyed him the most. If anything they made him think that they were trying to hide things from him.

After a dutiful knock on the door, the current gathering of women stood and left while yet another bustled in. Mike folded a yawn into his elbow, being careful not to offend this new batch of hopefuls. Only three of them placed plates of food before him this time, to his relief. He had sampled so much food over the course of the morning; tarts, breads, nut candies, and more, that he couldn’t bear the thought of eating another bite. He did anyway.

“Please Mike, we want to know more about you, tell us about yourself,” said a younger she tinker who was sitting so far on the edge of her seat that Mike imagined her slipping off. The thought made him smile. She wore her white blond hair in a wave over one shoulder woven with hundreds of tiny glittery beads.

A chorus of agreement spouted from the other women, each trying desperately to seem the perfect and ideal match. He recited the same information that he had shared seventeen times already, embellishing the details a touch here and there to keep things interesting. They all responded with eager nods and demure giggles, and although they were all interesting they were not her.

He had hoped that he would find Mistress Maybelle among all the different faces, after spending so long admiring her intricate craftsmanship he felt he knew her already.  They shared the same intense fascination with creating and crafting ingenious devices. And yet group after group came and went and she did not come.

After the last group came and went Mike’s head was a sea of faces and names. Only a handful interested him enough to learn more about. He jotted those names on a list, not trusting himself to remember. As he stood to leave Queen Caliee entered, shutting the door behind her.

“Well, Mike Finnegan, what have you to say for yourself?” she asked as she settled into one of the seats facing his.

Mike bowed and then sat back down. “You are blessed with an amazing amount of talent here, I’m flattered that these impressive women would want anything to do with me.”

“Enough with the humility Mike, tell me the truth. What do you think?”

“It’s hard to get an honest impression of anyone when they are trying so hard to stand out. I had no idea that hair could do all that.”

Queen Caliee smiled and adjusted her dress. “There has to be one or two that caught your interest.”

Mike handed her his list.

“Only eight out of everyone, interesting.” After glancing over the names with a nod she folded the paper and slipped it into a hidden pocket. “I will personally tell these women of your interest and arrange more personal meetings for you. Until then you are free to explore. Is there anything else you need?”

This was Mikes chance, and he wasn’t going to waste it. “Yes, I’ve wanted to talk to someone in engineering, I have some questions that I hope they can answer.”

“Of course, Sali here will lead you there.” She motioned to one of the women standing outside the door who blushed and curtsied. He recognized her from one of the earlier groups even though she had changed back into uniform and wore a simple braid down her back.

She led the way without speaking, although she kept sneaking sidelong glances that made him think she wanted to ask how the morning went and more specifically, if he had chosen her. The silence hung heavy between them although wherever they went a trail of whispers followed from those they passed along the way.

The door leading to the engineering shop rose higher than the other doors and was a complex array of gears and wheels more complicated and beautiful than the others, had Mike been on his own he would have stopped to admire it. Sali turned the central knob and gave the door a gentle push. The gears spun to life and the door swung forward opening into a room that Mike could only dream of.   Mistress Maybelle perched on a tall stool in front of a workbench with a magnifying glass in hand.

Mike cleared his throat.

Maybelle didn’t look up. “I thought I made it clear that there are to be no visitors here, only my staff.”

“Even if it’s a special visitor?” Mike asked, fumbling for the right words.

She looked up and studied him as she would an interesting cog or spring before turning back to the table. “Weren’t the other hundreds of women enough for you?”

“It’s not that.” He shuffled his feet, unsure how to continue. “I am impressed by your work, I was hoping to talk to you about it.”

“Is that so? Well then, you’d better have a seat and promise not to touch anything.  I’ll be with you in a moment. Sali, you may go now.”

 

The other woman muttered a thank you and left, leaving the two of them alone.

“This is a remarkable place you have here.”

“Don’t talk to me, I’m busy.” She said without turning her head.

“Sorry.” Mike whispered. He had hoped to have a much more welcoming reception, but as it is with anything he was willing to do whatever was needed to get to know Maybelle better.

To be continued…

***

To read the next episode, click here!

The Man in the Cupboard, pt. 17

In the previous episode we learned that a vile curse had caused all the other he tinkers to turn violent against their own kind, forcing the she tinkers to kill them in order to protect themselves.  Mike, having shown no sign of being affected by the curse, has been invited to dine with the Queen of the Keep.

To read the previous episode, click here!

To start at the beginning, click here!

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The tunnel-like passageway bent and twisted its way through the roots of the great willow tree as Mike followed Izsel. As they turned a corner the tunnel opened into a spacious room.  Blue, white, and green tinted light streamed in through two lines of bottle glass windows that ran along both sides of the room. Four long tables laden with platters of food stretched across the room, each seating at least thirty she tinkers who were all laughing and talking, filling the room with sound.

A ample bosomed tinker with a thick brown braid shrieked in surprise when she saw him, causing the whole room to turn and fall silent.  Every eye in the room watched as he stepped forward, some with fear, some with anger, and a few with eager curiosity.  At the end of the room was a shorter table set on a raised platform.  In the center sat the queen wearing a deep green dress and a simple crown that she hadn’t been wearing when they first met outside the tree. Three women sat at the table alongside her, including Nessa who had come to his room earlier, leaving two empty chairs.  Mike’s stomach sank when he realized that they were for himself and Izsel.

Mike crossed the room to take his seat and a wave of whispers followed behind him.

Queen Caliee rapped a small gavel, bringing the room back to silence. “Ladies, as you have all noticed we have a guest here tonight.  This is Mike Finnegan a fellow tinker. Mistress Nessa has determined that he is safe from the curse and therefore free to go about his business while here at Willow keep.” A volcano of excited voices erupted at the news, filling the room. A tinker wearing orange with hair that reminded Mike of copper pennies openly stared at him with a wistful smile.  It had obviously been too long since any of them had seen a man. Then again, it had been a very long time since he had seen a women of his kind either.

The queen turned her attention to Mike. “I suppose some introductions are in order, you’ve already met Mistress Izsel, commander of our soldiers, and Mistress Nessa, head of our order of healers.  Also, here is Mistress Maybelle, our head engineer, and there at the end of the table Mistress Annette, our head historian.” They each nodded in turn as they were introduced.  “I never did ask you what your business was in coming here, forgive me.  Precautions had to be taken first, you must understand.”

“No apology necessary, I’ll admit I was a bit angry about being stuck in that room. But now I know why I can see the wisdom in it.” He spooned a pile of roasted beets on his plate, inhaling the heavenly aroma. “Besides with food like this no tinker can stay mad for long.”

“So, why are you here?”

Mike felt strangely self-conscious blurting out that he was looking for a woman, especially now he was surrounded by so many. He knew he would have to answer her question, it would be rude not to. He took a bite from his plate and chewed it with care to buy himself more time. “Delicious. I could die happy right now.” Judging by the queen’s gaze, and the impatient looks from the other four ladies at the table he decided he better just answer the question. “Oh, yes, why I’m here. You see, I’ve been a house tinker for several decades on my own and lately I’ve thought how nice it would be to have someone else there with me.”

“Are you trying to say you’ve come looking for a woman to court?”

“Well…” He scooped up another bite, and immediately thought better of it. “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say. You see when I left my comfy home I didn’t know how much everything had changed here in the park,  I had hoped to find a few she tinkers in the gardens tending the flowers with their cozy tinker homes like it used to be.  I never imagined finding all the she tinkers hiding away inside a fortress. You can’t imagine what I had to go through to find you.”

Izsel took a sip from her cup and cleared her throat. “When you have enemies like we do, being well hidden is the best first defense.  I’m surprised you found us at all. This park is a dangerous place.”

Maybelle, a sensible looking tinker with thin pencil tucked behind her ear, leaned forward. “Now that you’ve found us, how to you intend on going about deciding which woman you will court?”

“I’m not sure.  I’d hate to hurt any feelings. I suppose I’ll have to spend time getting to know everyone.”

The historian at the end of the table set down her fork and adjusted her glasses. “Since there is only one of you and many of us it might be wise to come up with some sort of plan to make it fair for everyone, perhaps a series of tasks that the ladies who are interested in being courted can complete and Mike can judge.”

The queen gave a nearly imperceptible sigh and Mike thought he caught her rolling her eyes. “Do you mean to turn this into a contest? Don’t be absurd.”

“Do you remember the story of Cassandra and her twelve suitors, and how her actions ended up dividing a whole kingdom against itself?  If that could cause years of feuding and war, who’s to say what might happen here?” She tapped her fork against the plate as she spoke, emphasizing key words.

“I agree that whatever we do must be fair, although I don’t think we risk the division of Willow Keep over one man. What do you think Mike?” the queen asked.

“I’m just a humble house tinker looking for the right lady, she doesn’t have to be the best at anything, just the best fit for me. Everyone should have a chance who wants to. I’d hate to hurt feelings.”

“That settles it, starting tomorrow morning we will organize a series of meetings where you’ll have the chance to meet the ladies of the keep.  Should you find a few you’d like to get to know better we will arrange more personal visits.”

Mike glanced over to Maybelle who was busy sketching something between bites, and wondered if she had been the brain behind the intricate locking systems that he had seen. He hoped he would find a chance to talk to her about it and maybe even be allowed to see her workshop and tools.  “Will everyone be coming to these meetings?”

“Only those who are interested in being courted, naturally.” the queen answered.

“Of course.” Mike replied and secretly hoped that she would be there.

To be continued…

***

Thank you for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Man in the Cupboard, pt. 16

After a long wait, here is the next installment of Mike Finnegan’s story.  In the last episode Mike finally meets his first she tinker, but instead of being welcomed he finds himself locked in a room inside the last stronghold of the she tinkers, Willow Keep.

To read the previous episode, click here!

To start at the beginning, click here!

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Mike slammed his palm against the smooth grain of the wooden door in anger.  It didn’t seem fair.  Here he had come all this way, had braved so many obstacles, only to be locked into a room by his own people.  He set down his cane on the bed and laid back on the feather woven bedspread.  The sweet crisp smell of autumn roses filled the room from a pitcher of warm perfumed water sitting in a washbowl.

Being surrounded by the comforts of a proper tinker home took the edge off of his forced captivity. It reminded him of being back home with his mother. The only thing that would make the memory compete would be a plate of warm almond shortbread and a mug of peppermint tea in a front of a crackling fire.

He didn’t know how long they intended him to stay in there, and he didn’t want to waste a single second.  There was still a chance to make an excellent first impression.  Using the thick moss hand towel he scrubbed away the dirt from his hands and face and did his best to tidy up his clothes.  Izsel was right, the room had everything he needed.  He combed his hair and shined his shoes and when he was finished he thought he cut a rather dashing figure.

Now, should they come back he would be ready to receive them.  However, he had no intention of waiting.  He was a tinker and it was in his nature to solve problems.  Being locked in the room was a problem he intended to fix.  He returned to the door and inspected the lock and was impressed to find the same complex workmanship like the system that raised and lowered the great tree root at the entrance to the keep.

A lock like that might take hours to work without a proper key, and in a way it made Mike glad.  Nothing made him happier than having a tough puzzle to solve.  Time ticked away as he examined the workings of the door as best he could. If this were true tinker work there would be a way to open it from his side, he only had to find the secret.

Hours passed, although how many, Mike didn’t know.  The light from the tiny window that had grown brighter for a time now started to fade.  He now wished he had saved one of those biscuits that he gave to the crazy blue jay as his stomach started to rumble and pinch.

A noise from the hallway caught his attention and he peaked through the keyhole to see Izsel and another she tinker standing there talking in low voices.  Judging by the way they glanced at the door it had to be about him.  He tucked his tools back into his jacket and brushed the dust from his knees from kneeling on the floor, before returning to sit at the end of the bed. It was a pity for them to come now, he felt with another few minutes he might have figured out the lock.

The door opened and Izsel marched in.  She had removed her armor and in it’s place wore a sturdy green cotton tunic with a sword belted at her waist. “You can come in, Nessa, he’s not going to bite you.”

The other woman who had hung back in the doorway took a few cautious steps inside toward Mike. She wore a simple blue dress, which was a pleasant contrast to the stern hard lines of Iszel.  Before Mike could make a proper introduction Izsel turned to Nessa. “Has it been long enough for us to know?”

“Know what, what are you talking about?” Mike stood.

The gentle woman approached Mike and looked into his eyes before answering. “We have to know if the curse has affected you.  With no he tinkers around we weren’t sure if the curse had run its course or if it was still here.” She raised her hand toward his brow, he caught it before she could touch him. Izsel reached for her sword.

“You mean to say you were willing to risk my life?  I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

“You wouldn’t have been in danger, we would. The curse turned the he tinkers violent, they attacked us, killed hundreds.  We had to protect ourselves.”

A rage filled Mike that burned at his heart. “So you killed them? Wasn’t there any other way?”

Izsel faced Mike, her face spoke of an unimaginable sorrow. “There’s no need to shout. We tried everything we could. They were incensed, crazy even, in their desire for blood. In the end we had no choice.”

“Who would cast such a curse?”

Nessa leaned against the smooth wood of the wall. “This is a conversation for another time, now that I’ve verified that you are safe you are to dine with the Queen.  No doubt you are hungry.”

Mike’s stomach chose that exact moment to rumble, making Nessa smile.

Izsel rolled her eyes. “Men! You’re all alike.”

To be continued…

***

To read the next episode, click here!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Man in the Cupboard, pt. 15

In past episodes Mike has survived challenge after challenge and now has arrived at the base of the willow tree and met his first she tinker.  Will he survive this challenge?  Let’s find out!

To read the previous episode, click here!

To start at the beginning, click here!

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Mike brushed off the twigs and dirt from his sleeves and tugged his jacket straight. His tumble landing from his ride from the crazy blue jay had left him shaken, disheveled, and in no way prepared to meet the woman he might marry. He had envisioned so many things differently.  If he could have done this again he would have been brushed and groomed and come bearing some sort of gift.

The chance to make that sort of good impression was gone and it was all he could do not to curse at his bad luck. Especially not with a she tinker eyeing him while holding a spear.

“Answer me! What are you?” She demanded.

“The name’s Mike Finnegan, and I’m a tinker, like you,” he answered, holding his cane between himself and the armed she tinker. From above in the canopy of the willow Mike heard a gasp and the low hiss of several voices whispering back and forth.

“Impossible, all the he tinkers were killed with the curse.” She lowered her eyes ground the butt of the spear in the dirt.

Now it was Mike’s turn to be surprised. He knew that there had been some sort of calamity ages ago, but only hearing fragments here and there from sparrows visiting the house, he never had learned enough to put the pieces together. The shock of her statement startled him, he had to know more.  “Listen, I am what I say. You have to believe me, I never knew about any curse. Could you tell me more?”

She pounded the spear against the ground and her face twisted in anger as she once again stared him down. “How can you claim to be a tinker and not know this? Are you a spy for those filthy leprechauns?”

Mike stepped back. “No, I swear it!”

Another tinker stepped out from somewhere behind him without a sound.  Her hair hung in two dark braids over either shoulder and she had the air of importance about her.  “Enough Iszel, I’ll take it from here.” The honey haired tinker bowed and stepped back a few paces.

“Well, well, what have we here,” she muttered to herself as she stepped closer to Mike. She looked closely at his cane, being careful not to touch it, and then into his eyes.  With an outstretched finger she traced a line along his brow. “What you say is true, I find no deceit in you.” She smiled and the gesture sparked a warmth within him. “Welcome Mike Finnegan to Willow Keep, the last home of the tinkers. I am Queen Caliee.”

She turned to the other she tinkers who had assembled. “We shall show our guest every courtesy while he is with us.  Iszel, if you will show him to a room, I’m sure he’s weary from his travels.”

Iszel turned to the queen, never taking her eyes from him. “Are you sure he can be trusted?”

“I know you have sworn to protect me and this keep. I trust him to be what he says. Now show him into the keep.” She glanced around. “The longer we linger out here the more notice we’ll attract.”

“Yes,  ma’am.” Iszel nodded and bowed before turning back to Mike. “Alright, come with me and take care to stay on the path. We’ve taken measures to ensure our safety, I’d hate to see you caught in one before hearing what you have to say for yourself.”

“Yes, of course,” Mike agreed and followed her steps carefully.  He knew what he was capable of as a tinker in terms of creating traps and he’d hate to trigger any by accident. Iszel marched on ahead, head high, back straight.  He thought finding the she tinkers would answer all of his questions, not bring an avalanche of even more questions.

Iszel led him to a hidden passageway concealed by an outstretched root of the tree.  From within he could see an elaborate system of pulleys and gears that would raise and lower the root to allow entrance. Whoever had created all of this was surely a genius that he wanted to meet.  The passage slanted down toward a tall door flanked by two armored tinker guards who eyed him with curiosity.

Inside the doors was a great hall with pillars arching overhead formed from the roots of the tree.  The floor was set with smooth polished stones. Several she tinkers in the hall stopped what they were doing to watch him as he passed by.

They traveled down several different corridors before arriving at a door. “You should find everything you need in here, rest and get cleaned up.  Someone will come for you in a while.” Iszel said as she ushered him inside.

As soon as he entered the room she shut the door and he heard a key turn in the lock. “Hey, what’s the meaning of this?” he shouted and banged on the door. There was no answer.

To be continued…

To read the next episode, click here!