The daughter watched on, a sense of unease growing inside her. From within her drugged stupor she could only see the lies Lucien had told her about the shoemaker, and yet some part of her still felt a kinship with the old man. Her feelings left her visibly troubled.
The shoemaker saw the consternation on her face, and recognized the battle that was being waged inside her.
“What did you do to her?”
Lucien replied, his voice thick with vitriol. “Why, I simply told her the truth. I told her you’re a barbarian who stands in the way of progress and free will. I told her that you only care for those that follow you unquestioningly. I told her you’re a pathetic old man who lacks the sense to see when he is beaten.”
“You can’t honestly believe that? I stand in the way of harm. I rejected your idea because it hurt people. I’ve watched your progress over the years, Lucien. Do you know why you’ll never sell more shoes than me? Because those that buy your shoes always come back to me, more grateful for my services than when they left.”
“Enough! We both know you turned me away because you couldn’t handle your apprentice becoming the master!”
“If memory serves, you left me. I spent years hoping I would see you run through my door like you did when you were a lad. You are a skilled artisan, Lucien. I’ve never denied that. What saddens me the most is that I never got to see what we could accomplish if we worked together. Come home, Lucien. Apologize to the people you’ve hurt and we can start over.”
Lucien had spent decades imagining this moment. The great confrontation. He spent nights staring at the ceiling imagining how this conversation would go. In all of his fantasies, it never involved the shoemaker forgiving him. It certainly didn’t include the shoemaker affirming his skill. For just a moment, he felt his heart light up the way it used to when the shoemaker complimented his work. Unfortunately, instead of bringing joy, this time it only fueled his rage.
After years of convincing himself that he was completely free of the shoemaker’s grasp, one single conversation had shown him that some part of him still longed for the shoemaker’s approval. For every second he contemplated the shoemaker’s offer, he hated himself a little more. The exchange worked him up so much his body began to tremble. Through hot tears of resentment he cursed the shoemaker.
“No. You refused to listen to me then, and this is the price you pay. Your daughter has made her choice. She is mine and will never be yours again.”
“Then there is nothing left to discuss. Prepare yourself.” As the shoemaker spoke, Lucien watched as the old man stood to his full height. The tenderness that defined him was replaced by resolution and righteous anger.
Without a word, Lucien climbed onto the table that separated them and stepped down to face the shoemaker. For a few moments, the two simply stared into each other’s fiery eyes. Stillness filled the air; it was as if all of creation was holding its breath.
It’s impossible to say which of them struck first. To the daughter it appeared the two were simply standing face to face, and then suddenly they were gone—replaced by blurs and grunts.
They both moved with shocking speed. Despite all of Lucien’s strength and skill, he found it impossible to bring his fist in contact with the shoemaker. The shoemaker’s body belied his agility, and the ease at which avoided Lucien’s blows only served to further infuriate the younger man.
After dodging several strikes and blocking several more, the shoemaker saw his opportunity. Lucien’s arm hung low and left his face open. The shoemaker struck with a hand toughened by years of working with wood and nails. His knuckles made firm contact with Lucien’s jaw.
At that exact moment, the daughter gasped as her surroundings flickered for just a fraction of a second. Instead of being seated inside of a lavish hall, she was sitting amongst a pile of ruins, and then suddenly she was back at the table.
Lucien spat blood from the side of his mouth. Realizing that he was getting nowhere, he reached into his jacket with both hands and retrieved a pair of daggers. With a dark and savage glee, Lucien squared off with the shoemaker once more. All the shoemaker’s efforts were now spent on dodging and blocking the blows of his opponent.
The longer they fought, the more it seemed the shoemaker could predict every attack. Lucien attempted a strike but came in slow allowing the shoemaker to catch his wrist, spin Lucien, and smash his elbow into the side of Lucien’s head.
This time, the flicker lasted longer. The daughter was able to recognize that she was somehow both outside and inside at the same time. She was surrounded by walls made of stone but the moon shone brightly overhead. She rubbed her eyes only to discover that once again, she was seated at the table inside the hall.
The battle continued and Lucien’s demeanor began to change. The frustration of being unable to touch the old man began to mount. Lucien’s hair grew disheveled and his eyes bulged from exertion. Finally he began to sense his opponent slowing, and his lips curled into a grotesque smile.
The shoemaker had begun sweating profusely, and gasped for breath. Through his panting, he spoke.
“I know my time here is nearly through. But I will be damned before I let you hurt my daughter.”
“You have no choice, old man.
The words echoed in the mind of the girl. “My daughter… My daughter…” She felt the twinges of epiphany nearly upon her. In just a moment, she sensed, this would all make sense.
The shoemaker was exhausted and Lucien saw that his time had come. Feigning to his right, Lucien’s opposite hand quickly thrust forward and plunged the blade of his dagger into the shoemaker’s heart.
For the daughter, time froze. She watched as Lucien pulled the blade from the shoemaker’s heart and red blood began pumping out from the wound.
“You pathetic old fool. Can’t you see, you never had a chance? You’ve lost everything. Your daughter hates you. Your shoes and everything you stood for will be forgotten. It’s only a matter of time before every person in the Kingdom is clamoring for a pair of shoes that only I can give them. You’re out of time, old man.”
The shoemaker grew light headed and sank to his knees. He cast a final glance towards his daughter, mouthed the words “I love you,” and turned his gaze back to Lucien.
“Do what you have to do.”
“With pleasure.” Lucien swept the tip of his dagger across the old man’s throat. Arterial blood sprayed forth for just an instant before the shoemaker’s body collapsed onto the floor.
Laughter and warm hugs. Opening a gift and looking up into the shoemaker’s smiling face. Talks that went late into the night. Holding his weathered hand when she was a girl. The memories all came rushing back.
“Noooooooooo!” The shriek came from the shoemaker’s daughter.
In a flash she was up and over the table. She collapsed next to her father’s body, lifting his head into her lap and shaking him.
“Daddy! Daddy! Please! Come back to me! I’m so sorry!” As she held him, his eyes slowly opened. Seeing that the the spell had been broken, relief flooded his face… and then his eyes closed. The daughter shook him, calling out his name as the shoemaker’s blood soaked into her dress and covered her skin. “Daddy? Daddy!”
The daughter’s body shook with a guttural sob as she began to weep. She clung to her dead father as she looked toward the heavens and began to wail. The sound was cut short as Lucien delivered a brutal backhand to her face, knocking her to the floor.
“You ungrateful wench. I’d kill you right now if I didn’t intend on having some fun with you first. In fact…” As he spoke, he turned toward the daughter, and began to take his jacket off.
It was then that they first heard it. From somewhere, far below them came a deep and ominous rumble. Lucien stopped in his tracks and listened. For a few precious moments, all was still… and then—
It was as if the ground itself was mourning the loss of the shoemaker and it began cry out with the only sound it could; a roar that drowned out everything else. The earth began to shake violently. The girl knew not what else to do and clung to her father.
The ground shook even harder. She felt dust fall onto the back of her neck and smelled the oil from the lamps that had fallen over. Looking up, she saw pieces of the ceiling had begun to fall. She felt a voice somewhere in the back of her head shout, “Go!” and she knew she had to. If she stayed, she would surely die. Leaning down she gave her father’s forehead a final kiss and stood to her feet.
She began to run towards what she believed to be the exit. If she had looked behind her, she would have seen the ground tear a hole through the floor and gently begin lowering her father’s body. When Lucien saw this, he grew furious.
“No! You cannot have him! I took his life! His body belongs to me!” His words were lost amongst the roaring earth. Despite that, it seems he may have been heard, for at that moment a great piece of ceiling shook loose. Lucien saw it coming at the last moment, and tried to leap away. He nearly made it, but his leg was caught underneath the great stone, shattering bone.
When this happened, the world flickered once more. Only this time, it did not change back. The daughter glanced down and found she was wearing little more than scratchy rags. The ornate halls had been replaced by cold ruins, illuminated periodically. She realized that the entire vision of this castle, the food, the clothes were all an illusion created by Lucien. He was unable to maintain appearances with his attention so divided.
With no other choice, the shoemaker’s daughter continued to run through the halls, searching for a door that would let her out. She could see light from outside pouring through cracks in the wall, but none of them were big enough for her to fit through.
Meanwhile, Lucien lied beneath the stone in the great hall. No matter how hard he pushed, he could not free himself. During his struggle, he realized he felt dampness crawling down his back. He twisted and found that one of the lamps he had lit had fallen beside him. It was then he saw one of the great tapestries fall from the ceiling. It floated downward, and landed across the fireplace. Lucien froze, and for a moment, it appeared as if he was spared. And then came a spark. Fire erupted throughout the entire hall. The floor continued to shake, and even Lucien’s screams could not be heard over the ground.
The shoemaker’s daughter turned a corner and found herself staring at a great wooden door. She tried the handle, but it would not open. She could smell the smoke from further in the building, and the shaking had not yet subsided. She could be buried alive in rock at any moment. She shook the knob as hard as she could, but the door would not budge. She threw herself against it repeatedly, to no avail.
Feeling pebbles from above falling upon her more and more frequently, she knew she could die soon. There was nowhere left to go. Falling to her knees she began to weep. Not just for her own predicament, but for her father. For the part she played in his death. For a moment, she felt the weight of the world upon her shoulders. It was then that she noticed it. A rhythmic thumping, different and separate from the chaos that surrounded her. Just as she looked up toward the stone ceiling, a fist clutching a ring of skeleton keys burst through. She heard a muffled voice that she was terrified to believe in tell her to take them and open the door. Forcing herself to simply obey instead of asking questions, she complied. She ran to the door, and found the key which fit the lock. The door swung open, and she ran through it, and directly into the waiting arms of the Shoemaker.
For a moment, she panicked so suddenly he was upon her, but once she was able to get her bearings and saw his face, she gasped. Standing before her, bruised and bleeding, but entirely alive was the Shoemaker! They embraced tightly as sun began to rise. Behind them, the ruins of the castle continued to crumble, falling far, far, beneath the surface of the ground and into the abyss.
The daughter was the first to speak.
“How are you here? I saw… I saw you die.”
The Shoemaker smiled softly. “I’m back. All you need to know is I’ll always be here when you need me.”
“I’m so, so sorry.”
“Shhhh… There, there. From the moment Lucien left me, this was how things were destined to go. What’s important now is that we’re together.”
“I love you, daddy.”
“I love you, sweetheart. Let’s go home.”