Last week, we left our hero chained to a table in a literary sweatshop, where he was forced to write really lousy stories.
He’s still there.
Intaglio spent the next several days transcribing a seemingly endless supply of mangled fairy tale romances like “Hansel and the Beanstalk,” “The Ugly Gingerbread Man,” and “The Three Little Mermaids.” Since he had no need for food, sleep, or bathroom breaks, he only paused in his task when the weeping and groaning of the children chained at the table with him became emotionally overwhelming, or when one of the two thugs whacked him for not working fast enough. The blows hurt. He might have been a wooden puppet, but he still had feelings. And they used a hammer.
One night, the thugs left the shack and trudged off into the forest with a sack full of fresh manuscripts, leaving their prisoners alone in the dark. A scrawny girl sitting next to Intaglio nudged him with an elbow. “Psst. Blockhead…we’re busting out of here tonight. Care to join us?”
“Sure! But how are we going to get loose from this chain locking us to our chairs?”
“I’ve been here for almost a month. Longer than anybody else. My leg’s skinny enough to wiggle out of my shackle now, and once I’m free…”
“You mean, like this?” Intaglio pulled out the peg that secured his knee joint, and slid his disconnected leg out of the iron loop welded to the chain.
The girl froze, mouth agape. “How long have you been able to do that?” The other children were staring at him with expressions which traversed the spectrum from astonishment, through disgust, to purple rage.
“Always, I guess.” Intaglio shrugged. “Sorry. Non-linear thinking isn’t my strong suit.” He knocked on his head. “Brains of oak, and all that.”
“Whatever. Find a rock or something we can use to break the chain. We have to get out of here before Big Guido and Little Vinnie come back.” She reached out to shake Intaglio’s hand. “I’m Marge, by the way. Everybody used to call me Large Marge, once upon a time. Now…not so much.”
“I’m Intaglio.” He reassembled his leg, and after a few moments of searching through the debris on the hovel’s floor, he found a jagged block of granite that was propping the door shut. In no time at all, the children were free and staggering along the road leading out of the forest, their path lit by pale moonlight.
Just as they reached the country lane where Intaglio had been abducted, a huge wolf with a bright red cape tied around its neck leapt from a nearby thicket and blocked their way. It growled and snarled, but instead of pouncing on them, it sat back on its haunches, shook its head sadly, and stalked back into the forest.
Marge sighed in relief. “I guess this is where we part company, everyone. The city’s along the road to the west. Don’t talk to any more strangers on the way.”
“What about you?” asked Intaglio.
“I’m going to Total Freedom Island.”
One of the children piped up. “Aw, that’s Fairy Tale Romance #328, Marge. It’s not real.”
“I think it is. Remember Fairy Tale Romance #15? We just saw ‘The Reluctant Red Riding Wolf.’ If he’s real, there’s no reason Total Freedom Island can’t be.”
Real or not, the other children were sick of fairy tales. With an assortment of hoots, howls, and raspberries, they trotted away toward the city and soon vanished from sight.
Marge patted his head and straightened the pigeon feather on his little alpine cap. “Listen, Intaglio, you’re a good kid and all, but they’re probably right. Besides, don’t you have a puppeteer or something waiting for you back home?”
“I was on my way to college, but it’s too late to start the semester now. I’ve already missed Rush Week. All I really want is to be a writer…a real one, not a galley slave making copies all day.”
“Then Total Freedom Island is the place for you. Everybody’s a writer, and everybody’s their own publisher. You control all the rights to your work. Nobody can tell you what or how to write. Whatever you write, you sell, and you get a fair price for it. It’s just like the name says. Total Freedom.”
“That’s for me! Which way do we go?”
“East, toward the sea. We’ll find a port and start asking around. Sooner or later, we’re bound to run into somebody who knows how to get there.”
As it turned out, Marge and Intaglio found help sooner than later. The sun had risen and the air was beginning to edge toward the uncomfortable side of warm when they heard a rumbling sound behind them. They moved a safe distance off the lane as a black carriage drew up beside them and came to a skidding halt in a cloud of dust. It was pulled by a dozen plump, grey-furred creatures that looked to Intaglio like enormous woodchucks. The driver, a rotund, nattily-dressed fellow with puffed red cheeks and a gold tooth, dropped from his perch and inspected Intaglio and Marge with a broad smile.
Since Intaglio lacked experience in both zoology and geography, it is little wonder he had no idea that the animals pulling the carriage were wombats, which are not commonly found in Northern Italy and not customarily used as draft animals, even in their native Australia. You might hope it would have raised his suspicions if he had known, but that would probably be giving him too much credit. As for Marge, if she thought the situation was in any way odd, she gave no sign.
The coachman wiped his florid brow with an enormous handkerchief. “Well, well! Where are you two young people headed on this fine spring day?”
“We’re traveling to Total Freedom Island!” Intaglio said brightly, and stupidly. Marge stomped on his foot, but since it was made of wood, the hint was less than obvious.
“Oho! You’re in luck, then. My coach provides transportation from the Northern provinces to the fair port of Lucretia, from whence you can hop a ferry to that island, and a wondrous gem of the Adriatic she is. Climb aboard, and I’ll have you there before you can say Bob’s your uncle!”
Marge started to back away. “I don’t think…”
“Bob’s your uncle!” squealed Intaglio.
The coachman snickered. “It’s a figure of speech, lad.” He took hold of Marge’s hand and led her to the carriage. She struggled at first, then her eyes seemed to lose focus, and she climbed the steps and sat down without further protest. “Total Freedom,” she murmured. “Total Freedom.”
Intaglio clambered inside without any prompting or assistance. The coachman mounted to the driver’s seat, gave the team of wombats a flick of his whip, which elicited a brief chorus of bone-chilling screams, and they were off and away, thundering down the road to the sea.
Finally, Intaglio thought as he leaned back into the carriage’s soft cushions, I’m going to have everything I’ve ever wanted.
To be continued…