As autumn leaves start to litter the trees outside her window and school starts again in october, there is talk of witches in the trees, evil cats and the terrors of the night.
And as a consequence, an evil suddenly appears in that land between the waking world and the dreams. It is not a mouse, nor a rat – but a witch who collects souls of dolls and other toys. There are many casualties from her beloved kingdom, toys who lie in heaps like corpses at the gate.
The witch is cruel, and cannot be reasoned with. The souls keeps her looking young, while inside she is nothing but rot. But Clara, princess now of a kingdom that relies on her, strikes a bargain with her during a dramatic apperance at their castle.
Because if Clara has learned anything in the past year, it is that villains like to brag about themselves – and sometimes, that can work to her advantage. She sits in the throne meant just for her, feeling a strange power surge through her, making her light green eyes sparkle. She narrows her eyes as the witch before her, and just like that, she knows just what to say.
"But surely, you are not the most powerful witch in the world." she utters, and the witch howls with mocking laughter.
"You silly nit, of course I am! I am the most powerful one in existance!" she exclaims, throwing her long dark hair over one shoulder in a vain, confident gesture. But Clara only raises one eyebrow, unimpressed.
"Really? Then surely you would be able to fly across the gap between the west wing of the castle to the north without using your broom?" she asks, making everyone among the court start to whisper amongst themselves.
The witch goes quiet and sour, her beautiful face betraying whats underneath. Black hair bristling, she senses that defeat is at hand. But she is the most powerful witch, after all.
"Hah, of course I can –but the question is, can you do the same?" the witch asks, just as Clara expected.
"Of course." she replies, and now there are several gasps among the dolls watching the conversation unfold – but strangely, the nutcracker remains silent. The witch is gnashing her teeth by now, mystified by the steely calm of this childlike princess who should know nothing of magic.
"Hogwash!" She screeches in disbelief, as Clara decends her throne to approach her, hands behind her back. From afar she looks like a tiny star, with her long golden hair framing her face, her nightdress trimmed with silver thread. Something about the sight of her alone has the witch recoiling backwards.
"Tell you what – I'll race you to the other end of the castle. If I win, you leave my kingdom and my people alone forever."
"And if I win?"
"If I cannot fly, my death will be your prize. Is that satisfactory?"
Soon, the news of the challenge spreads through the kingdom and beforelong, dolls and toys alike are gathered around the castle grounds to watch their princess prove that she can indeed fly. Some are already cheering, confident that she will be able to do it – while others look up to the sky with fear in their shiny doll eyes. It turns into quite an event, almost like one of the october festivals Clara remembers attending as a young child.
The only one who is not quite as enthusiastic is the prince. He has been staring a hole into the back of the witches head as if he wants to put his fist through it, his body on edge whenever she has made an apperance. He makes sure never to stray far from Clara's side, not trusting the royal guards enough to keep her safe.
But most of all, he is distraught over the prospect of losing her. This is not something he says to her, and really doesn't need to – his usually pristine hair is mussed underneath his soldier cap, and just a few minutes ago he broke a gingerbread table in half. He keeps glancing at her – eyes the same shade as too thin ice on a lake, breakable and cold.
When she puts her hands on his cheeks and leans in, their foreheads colliding, she can smell chestnuts on his breath.
"You will never lose me, nutcracker." she whispers solemnly.
"There is something you're not telling me, isn't there?"
"Maybe. Just trust me."
The castle is built on top of a tall green mountain, split into two parts down the middle. There is a long bridge that connects them, but beyond that, there is a long fall down, should one step over any balcony railing or walk over the edge of the small castle park facing the bridge.
The same way another king perished a second time, Clara remembers with a shudder as she stands on the very edge, looking down into the abyss, at the river that flows at the very bottom.
Nutcracker trusts her, and even though it pains him to watch her risk her very life, he cannot look away.
Beside her, the witch is watching her shaking frame, cackling and pointing at her like she has already won.
But Clara is trying not to think about that. Her eyes are on the top of the glittering castle towers, where white mourning doves made out of spun sugar like to perch. She has seen them only in passing before but now, it is all she can focus on.
It is just a theory still, and while she might not understand the reasons behind it, the kingdom of the dolls might not have existed at all if somebody hadn't imagined it first. The dolls she has played with so many times, their voices and their smiles all started with her. If Clara wants to defeat the witch, she has to use the only thing that the evil crow does not have.
She saw how the prince transformed the castle into its dark and gloomy counterpart that night. Since then, she has wondered about it. And the answer is absurdly simple ; the kingdom of the dolls is flexible, appearing as however they see it. But more than that, it is tied to the magic of make belief, a place where your imagination has power. And with her, that power has always been near - a tangible thing she could almost touch.
That is why when she steps of the side of the cliff as the race begins, her body starting to fall, Clara only closes her eyes tightly and thinks about flying on the air currents on strong wings that will carry her where she needs to be. She can hear gasps and screams as she continues to fall, but they are not her own.
A jolt of pain hits her at first, like lightning striving to break her in two. It hurts like a knife through flesh, and she lets out a startling scream.
When she opens her eyes once more, her feet have not touched the ground, nor is she falling anymore.
The witch is still laughing high above her, but a moment later as she soars by, the laughter abruptly stops. The witch has conjured a few nearby peach colored clouds to fly on, but they are sparse and slow.
Claras shoulders ache, much like how your legs would ache after running for a long time. But she is flying through the air, a pair of grey-brown wings now emerging from her back. She can see them in the reflections of the large castle windows, gasping at the sight of them.
They have muscles that have never been used, and it takes all her strength to keep herself steady. But despite the toll it is taking on her body, it is worth it when she looks back over her shoulder at the witch, desperate to catch up to her.
Far below them, the cheers of her people are steadily growing in volume as they realize what is happening.
The mourning doves have flown down from the towers and begun picking at the witches face, poking holes and eating at the purple clouds underneath her, much to her annoyance.
"Fly away, shoo! " The witch keeps yelling, to no avail. But she is gaining speed. The doves fly around them in circles now, agitated. They still have to circle around the other half of the castle and back. The witch manages to sneak up behind her, reaching out a hand to push Clara roughly out of the way and so she tumbles around in the air, not being able to tell which way is up or down. She begins falling.
Below,the crowd watching are still all yelling words of encouragement, cheering and screaming, confetti being thrown into the air, singling down over the edge and down, down, down into the waters below.
Nutcracker is watching the skies, and has not taken a breath since the race started. He was a doll for a centuries before, and has good enough practise not to breathe at all. He has already decided that, should Clara fall to her death, he will turn back into one and stay that way forever, silently entombed and forgotten once more.
After what seems like an eternity, she finds her bearings once more, body righting itself in the air as she falls. The doves have followed her down, circling her with concern. She's too tired to continue, the weight of her wings are heavy and it hurts. But she finds the currents in the air again, and the witch is not far from the finish line.
It will hurt a little bit more, and that is alright.
She reaches the finishing line a few moments before the witch, her wings giving way, not allowing her to land safely as she crashes to the marble floor in a heap. There is a resounding, scratchy scream from behind her as she lands. Clara thinks that it must be the angry cry of the witch, realizing that she has lost.
But as she turns around on the floor to look, the witch is nowhere to be seen. Nutcracker is standing above her protectively, his sword drawn, which glints in the light innocently. It is also dripping scarlet, and his breathing is far too uneven, his head bent down to look over the edge.
What Clara did not see from behind, was that the witch had drawn a weapon of her own, hurtling towards her with the intent to turn her into dust. They all watch as the witch falls to her death, her figure turning into a small, spidery thing before finally hitting the red glancing lake below.
The end of october is spent in bed with a fever at home, as her little brother carves a new pumpkin for each time he has to get up and fetch his big sister another cup of tea.