once upon a shuffle: 0: elise

Last May, a friend of mine accidentally gave me this idea while kicking off a project of his own. I sat down that evening with grand intentions but a combination of wordpress problems and work promptly beat things back down. I’ve decided now to resume the project. I am going to start writing faerie tales of a sort, and I am going to write as many of them as I can. Hopefully one a week, maybe two. We’ll see. These stories will be seeded by a shuffling of prompt cards from Atlas Games’ Once Upon a Time. My rules for the exercise are as follows:

  1. I draw between 5 and 12 regular cards and one ending
  2. I have to use all of the prompts in a coherent manner
  3. I must finish the story within 72 real hours of starting it – minimal time “wasted” in editing or rewriting
  4. Cards that I have used are not eligible for reuse until I have consumed the entire deck
  5. Bonus points for referencing previous stories in the set

The goal here is to spend time writing every couple of days and publish something every week. Call my deadline Wednesday evening. Just to keep my brain from shriveling up and blowing away.

The first story used 7 cards, and was written over two evenings in May of 2011.

once upon a shuffle: 0: elise

Once upon a time in a forgotten corner of a forgotten kingdom, a small village was tucked away in the shadow of a great mountain. The village saw neither peddler nor tax collector, so far away from the rest of the kingdom were they situated, and over time, the mapmakers and historians forgot it even existed. The village didn’t have a name, people just called it “The Village”. Because, honestly, what other village was there? They had similarly creative names for the mountain and the forest. The people lived a simple but happy life, away from news from the outside world. They raised goats and grew a remarkable variety of potato – and cared for little else.

It was here that Jens was born to a pair of happy parents. He grew to adulthood never questioning their way of life, happy with his dinners of goat cheese and potato soup. He had many friends among the other village youths – though there were only a handful. His best friend was the lovely Elise, a girl with rich chestnut hair to her waist and eyes the color of a frozen pond. Almost from birth, the two were inseparable and got into every sort of mischief together. It was assumed by the entire village, and the kids themselves, that they would eventually be married.

One autumn day, Jens and Elise climbed the mountain behind the village a ways to a secret spot where they had been building a cottage together, very slowly. The place had three walls, no door, 3/4 of of a roof, and an empty window frame overlooking the valley below. After their climb, they didn’t feel much like building. It was often this way, which is why the place was taking so long to put together. They would escape to their cottage two or three times a week and might put in an hour’s work one of those trips. Mostly, they just enjoyed the view and the quiet away from the bustle of the village below.

As Jens sat propped up against the wall overlooking the valley, Elise enjoyed watching the clouds and shadows through the 3/4 shaded cottage interior. Sometimes they talked, but only rarely. Mostly they just sat and watched and listened. Eventually it began to grow late and they both knew that they should head home or it would be too dark to descend the hillside in safety. Elise was the first to rise. Her scream of terror transported Jens through the empty doorway seconds later.

She could not speak, but only pointed out the window to the valley below where sparks blew and thick dark black smoke rose in the distance. Jens goggled and looked closer, for he had seen no such smoke outside the cabin. In a few moments of rapid activity, he was able to confirm that the smoke was only visible through the window. Incredibly unnerved, but ever curious, Jens clambered back out of the cottage through the window, where he could see the fire as clear as the setting sun. When he raced around the door to show Elise, who was still recovering from the shock… she was nowhere to be seen. Running back to the cottage window, he could see her anguished face looking back at him. Jens called Elise to join him through the window and she too could see the fire from outside of the cottage now.

They ran, tumbled, and skidded down the hillside and through the woods to their village. Elise arrived first with Jens only a few steps behind but he tripped over a low row of stones that crossed the entire length of the path.

It was a steaming ruin of embers and smoke. The air was thick and it hurt to breathe.

For a moment, they stood together in silence, not knowing what to do. Then they hurriedly began looking for people. Any people. There were thankfully no bodies, but there were also no survivors. There were no goats or chickens to be seen or heard either. Eventually, Elise and Jens made their way to the far side of the village from the mountain and found an old woman propped against the nearest unburnt tree. She had hair the color of wood smoke and eyes like a pitcher of goat’s milk, and she was panting softly in obvious exhaustion.

“Grandmother!” they called, “Whatever happened to our village?”

The old woman turned, shocked. “Jens? Could it be…” And then she spotted the young lady, “Eli… Elise? Is it really you?”

Elise responded, “Of course it’s me, who else would it be?” And then she started, for she did not recognize the old woman. “Who are you, Grandmother?”

“Never mind you that right now. Call me Grandma Elle. Everyone else does. And as for what has just happened, I can only guess. But the village was destroyed by the Takers and the people and animals were dragged off, every one of them.”

“The Takers? Who?”

“Never mind you that either. They’re a lot of bad men who take folk. We’d never known them to be so bold as to attack an entire village like this. The king will have his hands full of it, that’s for sure.”

“King? …”

Grandma Elle sighed deeply and attempted to climb to her feet. When that failed, she motioned for Jens to help her and was soon explaining what she could to the couple. The Takers had been operating in this forest for a dozen or more years now, and while the village had taken the usual precautions, something had gone wrong this fall.

“Jens, be a dear and fetch us all something to eat? There must be at least one cellar that the Takers didn’t find…” And as the boy ran off, the old woman turned to the girl. “Elise,” Grandmother announced, “it will be up to you to save everyone, of course.”

Before she could object, the old woman began detailing exactly how the rescue would unfold. “These things are secret, and are not for the ears of men. Even good men like your Jens.” Grandma Elle started her explanation by telling how the circle of stones around the village normally hid it from the eyes of outsiders and while she was not sure why the magic had failed today, she showed Elise a similar circle around the tree where she had been resting.

Elise was instructed to gather a dozen stalks of purple comfrey. As she did so, she found her eyes keen, despite the darkening twilight and the shadows cast by the smoldering ruin behind her. The task went quickly. Grandmother then told her how to plait a crown from the stalks, leaving the flowers on and facing outward. As Elise worked, she found that this task too went quickly, her fingers nimble and sure of the motions – as if they had done it countless times before.

When she was done with the crown, Grandma Elle examined it closely and nodded with approval. “Ahh, to be so young again… This will work nicely.”

At that moment, Jens arrived with a large sack of potatoes and a jar of plums. The old woman quietly set the crown in the circle of stones and stepped over to Jens and examined his find, pulling a couple of the large tubers from the sack and setting them to one side. “This will make a fine dinner, but we can hardly eat these potatoes like this. Would you be a sweet and fetch us a pot and some water to cook them with?” And Jens was off again.

“Now. Where were we?” The old lady retrieved the crown and placed it gently on Elise’s head. As she did so, the crown wriggled and twitched and wove itself into the girl’s hair. “Right. Now he won’t be seeing that. Here, help me with this fire.” And the two busied themselves with dragging a few pieces of wood into a pile and transporting a bit of fire from the village to light it.

Jens arrived shortly thereafter with a stewpot full of river water. “I’m sorry, Grandmother, the well was broken…”

“That’s perfectly all right dear. We’ll cook this fine dinner while you find me a pillow to sit on?” And again, he was off.

Grandma Elle glanced quickly over the ground nearby and plucked a pair of harebell flowers. One, she tucked into her own wispy hair, and the other she held out to Elise with instructions to do likewise. As Elise followed instructions, she finally managed to shake off some of the shock and begin asking questions, starting with the most obvious. “Who -are- you?”

Elle produced a flat look and answered simply, “I should think you’d recognize me. But really, there is not time for this. We can wrap our heads around this foolishness soon enough. Jens will be back soon and you’d best be off before he tries to talk us out of this. Here, hold the sack open for a bit, would you?” Elise did as told and watched as the old woman blew a handful of dust into the sack and whispered something indistinct – and the bag of potatoes slowly floated off of the ground.

“Look now, keep those flowers in your hair and your brains in your head and and the Takers won’t even know you’re there. Follow the road and get our people back. Now go,” and she gave Elise a little push to turn her around. “Oh, and be sure to eat one of those potatoes before you arrive. You’ll know what to do from there. I’ll stall Jens as long as I can. GO!”

And not really sure what she was doing or why she was doing it – certainly respect for one’s elders didn’t go this far, did it? – Elise started to jog slowly away from the village, just as Jens returned in triumph to the little camp with an old horse blanket, “I’m sorry, Grandmother, this is the best… Grandmother?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, dear.” Grandma Elle took a step back toward the village and continued, “I’m right here.” Jens turned around to face her, confused, but presented the blanket and began to ask a series of foolish questions that would take him the rest of the evening. Grandma Elle just smiled and opened the can of plums, offering it in return for the blanket as she settled herself back on the ground.

Elise walked and jogged and munched on one of the floating potatoes until the moon was bright overhead. She was tired and confused and thought that maybe she did recognize the old woman after all. As she rested for a bit, she began to notice two very different things.

First, she was actually quite enjoying the raw potato. Granted, she’d been raised on the things her entire life, but there was typically a bit more in the way of cooking to their preparation before they were considered anything like edible… and typically, there was considerably less floating… floating. Huh. Like the dust… the dust that she… huh.

And second, she thought she could hear noises from a bit further down the road. Shaking her head, she stopped and listened a bit harder. Elise was pleased that she was able to make out what were obviously the sounds of voices and animals and general human activity. Well, this must be it. She rested a bit longer, finished her potato, and headed down the path a bit more quietly than she had previously.

It was the Taker camp. There must have been a hundred of them. What was she thinking, coming here to take on these fools like this? Armed with a sack of delicious… floating… potatoes? Huh.

Elise began to circle the camp slowly, occasionally having to widen her route to avoid one of the scattered sentries. Idiots. On a night like this, with the moon this strong, it would take more than a few sots with cudgels to catch her…

And after a bit more looking, she found where the prisoners were being kept. The whole village really had been taken… but she didn’t recognize anyone, except, well, kind of? The big one with the white hair looked a bit like her old uncle Terrance, but something was off. Wait. He didn’t look like Uncle Terrance… he looked like her cousin Terry… Of course. Well then, it was time to save the family.

It didn’t take a lot of work to weave between the haphazardly parked wagons and ratty old tents without being spotted by the Takers. They didn’t expect to see a 17-year-old girl with flowers in her hair tiptoeing into the makeshift corral where the prisoners were being kept for the night, so they didn’t. They also didn’t expect to see the same girl placing floating potatoes in a circle around the prisoners, so they didn’t. And, they also didn’t expect to watch as those potatoes floated up into the sky above their camp, so they merely looked up at the moon nervously.

Then it began to rain potatoes.

Oh, it started softly enough. One or two eyes budded and sprouted and grew small floating potato plants that ejected little fingerlings that scattered throughout the camp. As the first batch of potatoes fell, the bandits started to accuse one or another of pulling pranks, and in a few cases punches were thrown, and in one case, a knife was drawn. As the second, larger, batch fell, the punches stopped and they started taking cover; after all, a potato falling on your head from thirty feet up hurts a bit. As the third batch fell, the bandits who’d already made it to cover noticed that whenever a falling potato hit the ground, it crumbled to dust and blew away.

Soon, it was a downpour. The bandits closest the horse lines made for mounts and were off without waiting for anyone else. Tents were smashed and cookpots overturned as the rest tried to clear the hail of angry tubers. Some of the Takers noticed that it wasn’t raining potatoes on the prisoners and they hurried to let themselves in to safety.

Then the prisoners began to float.

And the rest of the bandits pretty much lost it at this point.

Those who didn’t sprint blindly off into the woods certainly didn’t expect to see a 17-year-old girl with flowers in her hair locking them in the corral, so they weren’t quite sure what to think when that happened. Then, when they turned to get a closer look at the girl who was tying them up, they just shook their heads at the ridiculousness of the idea. It must have just been the moon playing tricks with their shadows or something.

Shortly after that, the potatoes stopped falling – except for the occasional fingerling that thudded into the head of one of the and the new prisoners in the corral.

And a moment later, the villagers landed on the empty road outside of the camp. They saw the 17-year-old girl with flowers in her hair who looked just like one of old Elle’s granddaughters as she stepped out of the woods and hurriedly led them back home.

Nobody talked much on the way back, except for a bit when the goats caught up.

Elise was exhausted, but in that weird kind of way where her body felt like running a marathon, so she jogged on ahead of the rest of the villagers.

When she returned to the village shortly before dawn, Jens was standing nervously in the middle of the road waiting for her. Elle was snoring softly against her tree, wrapped in a couple more blankets that Jens must have scavenged for her after their talk.

“So, is everything alright?” he asked carefully.

Elise nodded, “the Takers won’t be bothering us again any time soon, I think. Let’s go home.” She held out her hand and Jens took it as she marched past the last unburnt tree, “Yes, Elle.”

“Wait. What did you say?”

“Umm, yes… dear?”

“Huh.”

“Huh in deed. Shall we?”

The couple held hands as they walked through the smoldering ruins of their village and up the hillside to their unfinished cottage. They climbed through the window and managed to make it back down the hill where they were reunited with their families before anyone started to worry.


cards: ruin (place), crown, window, village, far away, this can fly, witch
ending: and she was reuinted with her family

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