Guests of the Grande Armée

1811, Black Forest, Confederation of the Rhine

It was no mystery why this part of the countryside had been christened the Black Forest. The abnormally dark leaves and tree bark were nearly impossible to see in the night. Even though a bright moon peeked out from the clouds like a shy child, no one could be certain what was lurking in the thick woods.

A chill lingered in the air like a veil spread across the trees. It was a very remote and mature forest; roots sank as deep into the ground as branches reached high into the sky. Had it not been for a modest path winding through the terrain, the forest would have seemed completely untouched and unseen by human eyes.

A dark carriage pulled by four strong horses shot through the forest like a cannonball. A pair of swinging lanterns illuminated the path ahead and made the carriage resemble an enormous creature with glowing eyes. Two French soldiers of Napoleon’s Grande Armée rode beside the carriage. Black cloaks covered the soldiers’ colorful uniforms so they could travel in secrecy—the world was never to know what their agenda was tonight.

Soon the carriage arrived at the edge of the Rhine river, dangerously close to the border of the ever‑growing French Empire. A large camp was being set up, with dozens of pointed beige tents pitched every moment by hundreds of French soldiers.

The two soldiers following the carriage dismounted their horses and opened the carriage doors. They yanked two men out from inside. The men’s hands were tied behind their backs and they had black sacks over their heads. They grunted and yelled muffled messages—both men had been gagged as well.

The soldiers pushed the men to the center of camp and into the largest tent. Even with their faces covered, the bound men could tell it was very bright inside the tent, and they felt a soft rug replace the hard ground beneath their feet. The soldiers forced the men into two wooden chairs farther inside.

“J’ai amené les frères,” they heard one of the soldiers say behind them.

“Merci, Capitaine,” another voice said in front of them. “Le général sera bientôt là.”

The sacks were pulled off the men’s faces and the cloths around their mouths were removed. Once their eyes adjusted to the light, they could see a tall and muscular man standing behind a large wooden desk. His posture was very authorita‑ tive, and his scowl was anything but friendly.

“Hello, Brothers Grimm,” the tall man said with a thick accent. “I am Colonel Philippe Baton. Thank you for joining us this evening.”

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm stared up at the colonel. They were cut up and bruised, and their clothing was disheveled— clearly it had been a struggle getting them here.

“Did we have a choice?” Jacob asked, spitting a mouthful of blood on the rug.

“I trust you’re already acquainted with Capitaine De Lange and Lieutenant Rembert,” Colonel Baton said, referring to the soldiers who had brought them.

“Acquainted is not the word I would use,” Wilhelm said.

“We tried to be polite, Colonel, but they would not cooper‑ ate,” Capitaine De Lange informed his colonel.

“We had to be aggressive with our invitation,” Lieutenant Rembert explained.

The brothers looked  around  the  tent—it  was  impec‑ cably decorated  for  having  been  so  recently  assembled. A grandfather clock ticked the night away in the far corner, shiny twin candelabras burned on either side of the tent’s back entrance, and a large map of Europe was spread across the  wooden  desk  with  miniature  French  flags  pinning  the conquered territories.

“What do you want with us?” Jacob demanded, struggling against the ropes tying his hands.

“Surely if you wanted us dead you would have killed us by now,” Wilhelm said, struggling against his own restraints.

Their discourteousness made the colonel scowl even harder. “General Marquis has requested your presence tonight not to harm you, but to ask for your assistance,” Colonel Baton said. “But if I were you, I would change my tone so he does not change his mind.”

The Brothers Grimm looked at each other nervously. Gen‑ eral Jacques du Marquis was one of the most feared generals in the French Empire’s Grande Armée. Just hearing his name sent shivers down their spines—but what on earth did he want with them?

An undeniable musk suddenly filled the tent. The Brothers Grimm could tell the soldiers smelled it, too, and grew tense from it, although no one mentioned it.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk, Colonel,” said a wispy voice from outside the tent. “That is no way to treat our guests.” Whoever it was had obviously been listening the entire time.

General Marquis stepped into the tent from between the candelabras, causing the flames to flicker from the sudden burst of air. The tent immediately filled with the strong musky smell of his cologne.

“General Jacques du Marquis?” Jacob asked.

For  a  man  with  such  an  intimidating  reputation,  his physicality was a bit disappointing. He was a short man with large gray eyes and big hands. He wore a large rounded hat that was broader than his shoulders, and several badges of honor were displayed on his tiny uniform. He removed his hat and placed it on top of the desk, revealing a perfectly bald head. He took a casual seat in the large cushioned chair behind the desk, neatly folding his hands over his stomach.

“Capitaine De Lange, Lieutenant Rembert, please  untie our visitors,” General Marquis instructed.  “Just  because we are living in hostile times does not mean we have to be inhospitable.”

The captain and lieutenant did as they were instructed. A pleasant smile appeared on the general’s face, but it didn’t fool the Brothers Grimm—his eyes were empty of compassion.

“Why have you forced us to come here tonight?” Wilhelm said. “We pose no threat to you or the French Empire.”

“We’re academics and authors! There’s nothing to gain from us,” Jacob said.

The general gave a little laugh and then placed an apologetic hand over his mouth.

“That is a nice story, but I know better than that,” Marquis said. “You see, I’ve been watching you, Brothers Grimm, and I know that, like all your stories, there is more to you than meets the  eye.  Donnez-moi  le  livre! ”

The general snapped his fingers, and Colonel Baton retrieved a large book from inside the desk. He dropped it with a thud in front of the general, who began flipping through its pages. The Brothers Grimm instantly recognized the book— it was theirs.

“Does this look familiar?” General Marquis asked.   “That’s a copy of our book of children’s stories,” Wilhelm said.

“Oui.” The general didn’t look up from its pages. “I am a major admirer of yours, Brothers Grimm. Your stories are so imaginative, so merveilleuses—where did you come up with all these stories?”

The Brothers Grimm looked at each other cautiously, still unsure of what he was getting at.

“They’re just fairy tales,” Jacob  said.  “Some  are  origi‑ nal but most are just folk tales that have been passed down from generation to generation.”

General Marquis slowly nodded his headed as he listened. “But passed down by whom?” he  asked  and  slammed  shut the book of stories. His pleasant smile faded, and his gray eyes darted back and forth between the brothers.

Neither Wilhelm nor Jacob knew what answer the general was looking for. “By families, by cultures, by children, by their parents,  by—”

“Fairies?”  The general said in total seriousness, not moving a single muscle in his face.

The room went dead silent. Once the silence reached an uncomfortably long amount of time, Wilhelm looked at Jacob and they both forced a laugh, making light of the assertion.

“Fairies?” Wilhelm asked. “You think fairies gave us these stories?”

“Fairies aren’t real, General,” Jacob said.

General Marquis’s left eye began to twitch violently, which took the brothers by surprise. The general closed his eyes and slowly massaged his face until the spasms stopped.

“Forgive me, Brothers Grimm,” the general apologized with another fake smile. “My eyebrow always begins to twitch when I am being lied to.”

“We aren’t lying to you, General,” Jacob said. “But if our stories have convinced you otherwise, then you have given us the greatest of compliments—”

“SILENCE!”  General  Marquis  ordered  and  his  eyebrow began  pulsing  again.  “You  insult  my  intelligence,  Brothers Grimm! We have been following you for quite some time. We know about the sparkling woman who brings you the stories!” The Brothers Grimm went completely still. Their hearts were racing, and beads of sweat appeared on their foreheads. They had both been faithful to a vow of secrecy for years, but

still the greatest secret of their lives had been uncovered.

“A sparkling woman?” Wilhelm asked. “General, do you hear what you are saying? This is ludicrous.”

“My men saw it with their own eyes,” General Marquis said. “She wears robes that sparkle like the night sky, has white flowers in her hair, and carries a long crystal wand— bringing you a new story for your books every time she returns. But from where does she appear? That’s what I’ve been asking myself. After countless days of looking over every map I own, I must assume she’s from a place that can’t be seen on any map of mine.”

Wilhelm and Jacob shook their heads, desperately trying to deny all that he said. But how could they deny the truth?

“You military men are all alike,” Jacob said. “You’ve already conquered half of the known world and yet you still want more—so you make up things to believe in! You’re King Arthur obsessing over the Holy Grail—”

“Apportez-moi l’oeuf!” General Marquis ordered.

Capitaine De Lange and Lieutenant Rembert stepped out of the tent and returned a moment later carrying a heavy box wrapped in chains. They placed the box on the desk directly in front of General Marquis.

The general reached into his uniform and removed a key he wore safely around his neck. He unlocked the chains and opened the box. First he pulled out a pair of white silk gloves and placed them on his hands. He reached farther into the box and retrieved a giant egg made of the purest gold the brothers had ever seen. The golden egg clearly wasn’t of this world.

“Is this not the most beautiful thing you have ever laid eyes on?” General Marquis said. He was almost in a trance as he stared at the golden egg. “And I believe this is only the beginning—I believe this is just a small piece of the wonders waiting in the world your stories come from, Brothers Grimm. And  you’re  going  to  take  us  there.”

“We can’t take you there!” Jacob said. He tried to stand but Lieutenant Rembert pushed him back into his seat.

“The Fairy Godmother—the sparkly woman you speak of—brings us the stories from her world to share with ours,” Wilhelm said.

“She’s the only one who can travel between worlds. We’ve never been there nor can we take you there,” Jacob said.

“How did you even get the egg in the first place?” Wilhelm demanded.

General Marquis carefully placed the golden egg back in the box. “From another one of your acquaintances, the other woman who gives you stories to share. Apportez-moi le corps de la femme oiseau! ”

Colonel Baton left the tent and returned a moment later pulling a wagon with bars built around it. He yanked off a sheet covering it, and the Brothers Grimm gasped. Lying inside the wagon was the lifeless body of Mother Goose.

“What did you do to her?” Wilhelm yelled, trying to stand, but he was forced back into his seat.

“I’m afraid she was poisoned at a local tavern,” General Marquis said without remorse. “So sad to see such a spirited woman leave us, but accidents do happen. We found the egg in her possession. Which makes me  wonder—if  this old lush has managed to find a way to travel back and forth between worlds, I’m very confident you two can as well.”

The brothers’ faces were bright red, and their nostrils flared. “And what are you going to do once you get there? Claim the fairy‑tale world for the French Empire?” Wilhelm asked.

“Why, yes,” General Marquis stated, as if he had made it obvious already.

“You’ll never stand a chance!” Jacob declared. “That world has people and creatures you could never imagine! People and creatures more powerful than you will ever be! Your army will be destroyed as soon as you set foot there.”

General Marquis let out another laugh.

“That is highly unlikely, Brothers Grimm.” The general gig‑ gled. “You see, the Grande Armée is planning something very big—there are many territories we’re planning to conquer by the end of next year. The fairy‑tale world is only a crumb of the cake we’re after. As we speak, thousands and thousands of French sol‑ diers are being trained and they will form the greatest army the world has ever seen. I very much doubt anything will stand in our way—not the Egyptians, not the Russians, not the Austri‑ ans, and certainly not a bunch of fairies and goblins.”

“So what do you expect from us?” Wilhelm asked. “What if we can’t supply you with a portal into the other world?”

The general smiled, but it was sincere this time. His eyes filled with greed as he finally told them what he wanted.

“You have two months to find a way into this world of sto‑ ries, Brothers Grimm,” Marquis said.

“But what if we can’t?” Jacob said. “Like I said, the Fairy Godmother is very mysterious. We may never see her again.”

The general’s face fell into a cold and malicious stare. “Tsk,

tsk, tsk, Brothers Grimm,” he said. “You won’t fail, because the future of your friends and family depends on you. I know you won’t let them down.”

A quiet snort filled the tense room—but it didn’t come from either of the Brothers Grimm. Jacob looked toward the caged wagon and saw Mother Goose smack her lips. To the amazement of everyone in the tents, Mother Goose stirred back to life as if she was waking up from a long night’s rest.

“Where am I?” Mother Goose said. She sat up and rubbed her head. She cracked her neck and let out a long yawn. “Oh no, did Spain start another Inquisition? How long have I been knocked out?”

The general slowly got to his feet, and his eyes grew in bewilderment. “But how is this possible? She was poisoned!” he said to himself.

“Well I wouldn’t say poisoned…but maybe a little over-served,” Mother Goose said as she looked around the tent. “Let’s see. The last thing I remember is being at my favorite alehouse in Bavaria. The barkeep there has a very generous pour—his name is Lester, he’s a sweet man and an old friend of mine. Always said I would name my first child after him if I ever had one—wait a second! Jacob? Willy? What in the name of Merlin are you two doing here? ”

“We’ve been kidnapped!” Jacob told her.  “These  men are planning to invade the fairy‑tale world in two months. They’re going to harm our family if we don’t provide them with a portal!”

Mother Goose’s jaw dropped, and she looked back and forth between the brothers and the soldiers. She was having enough trouble regaining consciousness in general, but this information made her head spin.

“But…but…but how do they know—?”

“They’ve been following us,” Jacob said. “All of us—they have your golden egg! They have an army of thousands and want to claim the fairy‑tale world in the name of France—”

“Silence!” Colonel Baton demanded of the brothers.

General Marquis raised a hand to silence the colonel. “No, Colonel, it’s fine. Because this woman is going to help our friends fulfill our request. After all, she wouldn’t want any‑ thing to happen to the Grimm family either.”

He peered through the bars at her as if she were an animal. Mother Goose was no stranger to waking up in peculiar places and situations, but this took the cake. She had always feared the secret of her world would be revealed but never thought it would be under such extreme circumstances.

Her cheeks turned bright red, and she began to panic. “I gotta go!” she said. She reached out an open hand and the golden egg floated straight out of the box and into the wagon where she sat. And with a blinding flash, Mother Goose and the golden egg disappeared into thin air.

The soldiers around the tent began to yell, but the general remained very still. The determination in his eyes grew as he stared at the wagon Mother Goose had just vanished from— it was the most amazing thing he had ever witnessed and had proven everything he was after was real.

“Général, quelles sont vos instructions?” Colonel Baton asked, anxious to know what his next instructions were.

The general looked to the ground as he decided. “Emmenez-les!” he said, and gestured to the Brothers Grimm. Before they knew it, the brothers were gagged again, their hands were retied behind their backs, and the black sacks placed over their heads.

“Two months, Brothers Grimm,” the general said, unable to tear his eyes away from the wagon. “Find a portal in two months or I’ll make you watch as I personally kill everyone you love!”

The Brothers Grimm moaned under their masks. Capit‑ aine De Lange and Lieutenant Rembert forced them onto their feet and out of the tent. The whole camp could hear their muf‑ fled moans as they were pushed back into the carriage and sent away into the dark forest.

General Marquis sat back in his seat. He let out a pleased sigh as his heartbeat and his racing mind caught up with each other. His eyes fell upon the Brothers Grimm’s storybook on his desk, and a soft chuckle surfaced from within him. For the first time the fairy‑tale world didn’t seem like an overly ambitious Arthurian quest—it was a victory within reach.

The general took one of the miniature French flags from the map of Europe and stabbed it into the cover of the storybook. Perhaps the Brothers Grimm were right—maybe the fairy‑tale world had wonders he couldn’t imagine—but he was imagining them now. . . .