by D.A. D’Amico
A clockwork hero struggles to convince an old hermit to unleash an army and save a young prince.
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Grigore ground his heel into the faceted crystal skull. It shattered in a spray of liquid, drenching his face and hands as he hopped back, and the jucarii hit the packed earth with a creaking squeal. Its dented iron arms twitched once as springs uncoiled. Then it stilled.
Grigore quickly dabbed at the touches of mud covering his vellum cheek, and straightened his long woolen coat. If he’d been a lesser machine, the moisture would’ve meant spreading corrosion, slow poison. The Turks were becoming clever. This one had been equipped with a lamb’s bladder full of salted water.
“I will not be slowed.” He spoke to the shattered mechanism, kicking it again in rage and frustration. The Turkish machines had stalled him at every pass, delaying him from his duty, preventing him from reaching the help he so desperately needed. “You will not take the boy.”
A scattering of trees had grown across the steep road leading to the old fortress. Grigore dragged the chassis into a copse of young ash, and left it wedged in a spur under a pile of leaves the color of the dying sun. They wouldn’t take him before his interview with the old Prince. His young master’s life depended on it, and nothing on Earth would stop him.
A nearby birch shattered. A torrent of bark rained down on him, followed by the acrid stench of gunpowder. Grigore leapt to the opposite side of the overgrown trail and started running. He fled up the path, moving deeper into the Carpathian Mountains. Harsh evening shadows caused the jagged peaks to appear bleak and forlorn. The air had taken on an edge, and even the birds seemed hushed. Poenari Castle sat like a lead weight along the upper ridge, a jagged pile of rocks strewn above the steep banks of the Arges River.
A storm gathered beyond those peaks in more ways than one, and time was short. Grigore had less than a day to convince the hermit to help, or all would be lost. The Turks were even now demanding Alexandru, and in the wake of refusal, would attack. Surrender the boy, or lose the kingdom. Those were the choices Grigore faced.
He could already feel a slipping in his spindles as his clock wound down. He’d been racing to long through the countryside, and would need a turning soon if he were to survive. The old man had better be as talented a gearist as the stories told.
“Nu pot intra.” The warning not to enter rang deep and musical. The automation, a tremendous dragon’s head carved from the solid oak of the great castle door as if trapped between the blackened beams, snarled. Its bared ivory fangs were as long as Grigore’s outstretched arm. “Be gone.”
He chose his moment with care. The dragon roared. Its jaws stretched in fearsome rage, and Grigore ducked, jumping through rising smoke into the creature’s open maw. It howled in fury. Grigore twisted in its gullet, sliding past a leather-lined gasket hooked to a cast iron brazier. He cut the bladder where it met the fire, falling through the gate and into the inner courtyard.
“Forgive me, beast.” He brushed himself off, fortunate his master had been correct about the dragon’s inner workings. “My time is short, and I cannot play.”
The gloaming drenched the inner stone walls with bloody shadows, throwing dim illumination across a menagerie of jucarii. Mechanical toys littered the sparse grass and packed earth, some animated but most rusted and immobile. The frame of a horse built from interlocking brass plates turned to follow him as Grigore strode past empty stables and outbuildings. An enormous bat glared down on him from the high bell tower, its chassis once silver, but corroded now to the color of pitch. Its eyes glittered like rubies.
Behind him, the dragon thundered. Wood shattered. Metal creaked and squealed, and an explosion shook the ground beneath his feet. Something big had tried to best the door jucarii, but had failed. It would only be a matter of time before they tried again.
Machines filled the courtyard. Copper peacocks with a rich patina strode gracefully along the low stone walls in imitation of real birds. A gigantic creature with stripes and a tapering neck that reached the upper casements of the main house bowed as he passed, and an entire troupe of stout, gnome-like jucarii played somber music from tiny pipes and lyres. Grigore could see no signs of the massive army he’d been sent to awaken. He witnessed only toys, toys and rusted machines.
Grigore hadn’t noticed the automation standing in the shadows. It vaguely resembled a man, although the hair appeared too stringy and pale, and the moustache seemed like an old twist of straw that’d been hastily glued beneath the large cumbersome nose. The toy wore a red cap lined with pearls and festooned with a golden badge, but it stood stiffly, as if the gearist had been too lazy to program facial movements or body motions.
“You should not have come, young man,” the jucarii said slowly.
It was then Grigore recognized the true nature of the creature before him. The man looked nothing like the portrait of the young Voivode of Wallachia hanging in the palace at Craiova. That man had been full of strength and vitality, not this aged mannequin who hung like a specter in the shadows of the old hall.
Grigore bowed. “I’ve traveled a long way to deliver a message, and to seek your assistance.”
“A message?” The man acted as if he sooner expected toys to build themselves. His eyes glowed like dark coals, the first sign of life Grigore had noticed. “Who would trouble with an old recluse?”
“The Prince, your brother.” Grigore tried to imagine this man as the gearist, the unsurpassed master of automata. He couldn’t. The slender spools containing the etchings that made up his thoughts did not have that capacity.
“My brother? Radu, he remembers me?”
“He speaks your name often.” Grigore lied. If there’d been a choice, his master would never have sent him. But the Ottoman Turks massed along the Danube, and little Alexandru’s life hung in the balance. It was time to awaken the clockwork army.
A crash pulsed through the earth, shaking nearby stones. The metal peacock squawked. The dwarven musicians missed a note, but continued to play nonetheless. Grigore turned back to the main gate and the exposed workings of the door dragon as the iron stove exploded, sending shrapnel careening through the compound.
“Our time is up!” Grigore grabbed the old Duke’s frail arm. “The threat has returned, and Mehmed’s troops flow back across our borders.”
“The Sultan? But I thought my father had…”
“Radu has sent the golden key. Will you use it?” Grigore tugged gently, fearful of breaking the old man. He guided the aged gearist away from the gates and toward the ancient towering keep.
“Never!” The man pulled free, dark eyes widening. His thin lips all but vanished beneath the fat grey mouse of his moustache. “The army sleeps, and it will stay asleep. Our kingdom lay in ruins after my father unleashed his warrior jucarii. Many thousands died. I will not allow it to happen again.”
“But the Ottoman Empire surges. The Sultan has demanded the jizya of your brother, and Radu will not pay. His son, your nephew, is at stake.”
Grigore reached into a pocket in his long coat, and extracted a letter bearing a wax seal the color of blood. “He begs your help.”
A staccato beat split the air, a loud hydraulic hammering at several points in the old stone walls. The enemy had arrived in force.
“I refuse! Take word to Radu to leave his brother alone. I will not assist him in destroying this kingdom, no matter how many men he sends.”
Grigore grabbed the man, the thin leather covering on his fingers sinking deeply into warm flesh. “Hear that! The Sultan’s Janissaries are here. They’ve followed me, and now they’re right outside these walls. You are Dracul, and the Order demands fealty. Christianity needs you. Your brother and your people need you. Will you release the clockwork army?”
Grigore felt like shaking the old man. Alexandru’s life tottered on the decision made here and now. Radu, the boy’s father, would not let his son be taken as hostage, but without the assistance of the clockwork army, the kingdom couldn’t hope to prevail. In the end, the boy would sit at the Sultan’s feet and Grigore would be unwound.
A deafening screech pierced the walls. Above them, the silver bat exploded, hit by a bombard ball. A litter of deadly metal shards dropped into the yard as Grigore yanked the old man to safety under the leading archway. The front gate crashed in.
The lawn flooded with gleaming spidery jucarii. The Turkish automata spread out quickly, striking at anything that moved. Smaller toys vanished in a whir of steel hammers and rotating blades. Larger jucarii turned on their attackers, fighting back, smashing crystal skulls and rending metal limbs.
“Find concealment!” Grigore pushed the old man through the dark alcove and turned on their attackers.
“Wait! Young man, come back!”
The Turkish automata noticed them. Three rushed forward, two more flanking. Grigore jumped the first, flipping through its outstretched arms onto the exposed glass hood of another. The third grabbed him, tearing through the leather at his chest, exposing thin iron gears and taught axle motors before Grigore crushed it and used its ruined metal limbs to fight back against the last machines.
A mini-Dardanelles gun flashed. It tore through the vellum coating on his face, sheering off part of his tin skull and knocking several memory spindles loose. He staggered. The blaze of the gun repeated, an infinite loop of exploding metal flesh, as his scrying pin snapped and he collapsed.
“You did not tell me you were a toy,” the dark shape said. For a moment Grigore didn’t know where he was. Or whom. Then the man placed a slender gold rod against Grigore’s head, and he remembered.
“Relax. We are safe enough for now.” The snap of beams and a scattering of gravel from above belied the old man’s statement.
“You did not tell me.”
“No,” Grigore said. “Was it important?”
The man shook his silver mane, rubbing his hands over the worn landscape of his face. “Forgive these tired old eyes for believing you a man. I have lived too long.”
Fire from a sconce on the rough stone wall threw wild animated shadows, confusing the shapes of storage barrels, bales and sacks piled haphazardly about the long room. A wide flight of brick stairs led up to a door barred with metal rods and defended by three copper automata in the form of cherubs. In the back of the hall, half hidden by a faded tapestry depicting the Fall of Bucharest, Grigore noticed the lock and knew it immediately. The old man had brought them to the very room, to the place of winding where a simple turn could bring life to the clockwork army.
“I have always been more comfortable with jucarii. Toys and machines do not judge. Their obedience is unquestioning, their loyalties as obvious as the scratching on these little rods.” He held one of Grigore’s memory dowels between his long fingers. “That’s why I remained here after the destruction, allowing my brother to pick up the pieces my father had scattered.”
He glanced up as another crash resounded through the dim chamber. “So, the Order of the Dragon has returned to Romania? This is good. The people deserve constancy.”
“But it’s all in jeopardy. Janissaries crowd the borders. Turkish automata invade our lands, and if we do not act now the Sultan will force the Prince to pay the tax, and to hand over his son as hostage.”
The man sighed. His gaze wavered, his mind lost in thought. “That fate would have been mine, had my father not loved me so well. But he had refused.”
His fists came together, knuckles white, his gaze lost in a past Grigore could not see. “When Murad Kodja threatened, offering no choice, my father sought the assistance of the Order. They brought forth engineers and clock makers from all parts of Europe, and my father saw what was possible. Then he used his personal fortune and his newly acquired knowledge to build an army such as the world had never seen. He vanquished his enemies with those metal soldiers. The Ottoman armies were wiped from the lands of our ancestors… but the price had been too high. Our nemesis had been defeated, but our kingdom lay in ruins.”
A metal pipe burst through the door above, impaling one of the cherubs. Its companions bent the rod back, hammering it into the dark wood with quick strikes from their wide club-like hands, trapping the broken toy against the iron staple.
“Your brother has learned much. The army can be controlled this time. He begs you to help him save his son.” Grigore placed his hands together in prayer as his master had shown him. “I beg you. Will you use the golden key?”
“A man’s sons are his immortality. I can only imagine how I would have felt had my father given me up to the Sultan.” The man glanced at Grigore, but then looked quickly away.
“Then do not let it happen again.”
The gearist squinted beyond Grigore, his focus lost in the past. “Had he given me up as hostage, that act of cowardice and betrayal would have left me with a rage no man could contain. My anger would have festered like a bleeding ulcer, seething as it turned to a thirst for vengeance–against the Ottomans, who would surely have beaten and tortured me, but also against all those who did not defend me. I would have become a monster.”
The man stared with cold fury at the upper door, and for a moment Grigore could see sharp cruelty in his features, a horrific vision of a world that might have been.
“Do you know what they called me in my younger days, during the time when I helped my father maintain the great army? They called me the Repairer, the finest gearist in Romania. Had I not been my father’s son, I could have made a career out of it. They said I love automata more than the company of humans.”
He inserted the final spindle into Grigore’s head and pinched back the tin coating.
“Why do you, a toy, care so deeply?” He asked. “Why does this outcome interest you so?”
“The boy.” Grigore let his gaze wander back to the great lock. “I was built for him. He is my only friend, my brother, and I would do anything to protect him.”
The old gearist nodded, his eyes moist and shining. “Thank you, young man. I’d thought jucarii mere tools and weapons, fangs at which to strike at our enemy’s throats, but you’ve shown me there can be more in the soul of a machine. You risked your life to save me, and you’ve shown great compassion. No mere toy would do that.”
The gearist sighed. His face slackened as he steeled himself, the decision finally made. “Now, show me that key.”
Grigore reached into the ruin of his chest, past spinning gears and cleaving pendulums, to pull out a shining serrated shaft. The man took it in his shaking hands.
“I have not seen this in thirty years. My brother thought it too much of a temptation to leave both key and army in my care. He had little understanding of my preference for the company of jucarii.”
Grigore said nothing.
Two more pikes burst through the upper door, scattering the remaining cherubs. Wood splintered. A gleaming metal cone squeezed between the beams, a snapping beak that began gnawing at the boards.
“We have no time. The army must be wound.”
The old man stood, staring at the key as if it would come to life. “I thought my father’s jucarii were phantoms of a past better left buried.”
“Save your people. Protect your nephew, as your father protected you. Please, save Alexandru for me!”
The first automata burst into the room. Grigore pushed the old man backwards, turning to launch himself at the machine, listening for the hollow click that would change the world.