Geppetto stood nervously by the door to his shop, watching the King's man search the premises. Most people had little trouble with the King's regulations. Growers of pumpkins and brewers of beer were no threat to the King. Carpenters were watched closely, but not as closely as Geppetto. A carver of wood must watch his every cut and chip to keep his own head.
Sweat glistened on the upper arm of his visitor, who was searching thoroughly through every cabinet and bin. The tattooed image of a Minotaur glistened on the man's bicep. The only image of the King permitted in the kingdom. Conrad, the Minotaur King. A burly man, the King, but more than that. The King was a real Minotaur. His bull head was enormous, and his long horns sharp. He had the temperament of a bull, but for all of that was cunning and wise.
"Stephen, you search every week." ventured Geppetto. He had grown up with Stephen Smith, the third son of the town blacksmith. The man was alone this evening, and Geppetto risked talking to his childhood friend. "You know I make only toys and a few useful household tools. See, I have nothing with which to make a wooden man. Nothing so large as could not be fitted into the hand of a child."
His gruff visitor glanced at a small bench at the back of the shop. "You have enough of those, Geppetto." he said, waving a hand at the carved figures littering the work bench. "True, they are small. Still, the King fears only one thing. The telling of the wandering witch woman, declaring that he would be conquered by an army of wooden men."
"Those are but toys, Stephen." said Geppetto. "I make a lot of them because a toy army cannot be but one figure. I sell them by the half dozen or dozen. I keep them small like that to appeal to children, and to keep the order of the King. I make them of scrap from other work, and whittle them late in the evenings as I watch the stars appear."
"I know, my friend." said Stephen. "And I still consider you my friend, even though the King frowns on his men fraternizing with the people. Were I not the third son, and a burden to my family, I would not have taken this job. There is only so much smith work available in the region, and I had to do something."
"I understand, Stephen." said Geppetto. In the presence of other soldiers the man was quite gruff. It was expected, and Geppetto did not mind. "Come. Let us go get something to drink at the inn."
"I would like to, Geppetto, but I cannot be seen with you." said his visitor. "It looks fine here. Keep to the rules, my friend." With that the King's man let himself out through the heavy door to the shop. Geppetto watched through the window as his old friend made his way down the street and out of sight. When he felt himself safe he closed the curtain and barred the door.
He went to the bench at the back of the room and lined up the six finished soldiers. He made sure their paint was dry, and checked once again for any defects. The only thing missing was a bit of wood bored from the chest of each little man. That would be corrected, soon. From a box beneath the work bench he withdrew several little spikes of wood. Geppetto handled them respectfully.
Into the waiting hole in the chest of each wooden soldier he pressed one of the precious little spikes. They had been formed with care, and pressed neatly into place. Each soldier was returned to his place in line once the final bit of the making was finished. Geppetto sat back and watched them, knowing what would happen.
Each of the soldiers began to tremble, then convulse like little men suffering from some kind of seizure. They writhed on the bench for several minutes, and looked pitiful in their struggles. Eventually each one of them lay still. A few more minutes passed before they one by one got up and stood again in line.
"Welcome, my little wooden friends." said Geppetto in a quiet voice. "I have placed a bit of wood from the magic tree into each of your hearts. Wood given me by the dryad, the Blue Lady. She called me one night while I sought good wood in the forest. She called me when the light of the first star of the night touched the tree that was her home.
"She told me that Conrad the Minotaur King was an evil spirit, given flesh through the vile practices of his mother and her people." continued Geppetto. His little audience stood gazing at him. "He has troubled the good spirits of the woods, and they are being driven out. He must die, my little wooden soldiers. Go, join your brothers in the Cave of the Minotaur. Stay hidden, and stay safe. His annual sacrifice is only three months away. He will have to visit his cave again on that day, and be alone to offer the required blood of a virgin. There should be enough of you, by then."
The little soldiers climbed down from the work bench and made their way to the back of the house. A cat's door allowed them to exit, and soon Geppetto was alone. He took down his precious wormwood cup, another gift of the Blue Lady, and filled it with rich wine from a dusty bottle. He took a sip, and then another. Then he got out a fresh piece of wood and began to whittle yet another soldier.
Geppetto sat and drank and whittled for quite some time. He heard a sound behind him, but did not turn around. He continued to whittle. Gentle hands settled on his shoulders. He glanced at one, so pale and tinged with a blue light. Geppetto took up his cup and drank again.
"They are almost ready, your little warriors." said a soft voice. "You do good work, Geppetto. Your deeds will be remembered for many generations, once the Minotaur King is dead."
Geppetto drank again. The faint bitterness of the wormwood complemented the wine. Where had the vintage come from? He could not remember.
"Come, Geppetto." said the soft voice. "Dryads have special rewards to offer their servants. Come."
Geppetto smiled, and set aside his cup.