Knights of the Loom

Everyone knows about the Emperor and his new clothes but what ever happened to the tailors?

This is the tale of how they made their fortune—and of how they met their doom.

Percy is thirteen, he’s a magician’s apprentice, and he’s in a lot of trouble.


Percy travels the countryside with his two uncles, the Brothers Arcane, peddling the spectacular and selling the enchanted. Their magic, however, is a sham. Not content merely conning simple village folk, however, the brothers take on their biggest jobs yet: defrauding the emperor. But when everything goes wrong young Percy is left to take the fall. Can Percy escape the emperor’s wrath and the executioner’s noose? Doing so will take all his wits, wiles and, yes, perhaps even a little magic.

KNIGHTS OF THE LOOM is a work-in-progress middle-grade retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES.

You can read the opening chapters below.

Percy Schwindler was thirteen and he was a magician’s apprentice. 


But to understand his story, first let me tell you about his family. The Schwindlers were peculiar. They lived in a tinker’s wagon, like a tiny house on wheels, and traveled from town to town. 


Percy had no parents. 


It was usually up to Percy to drive the mules while his two uncles, the Brothers Arcane as they were known, tinkered away on their next invention in the wagon. They were quite clever as all uncles should be and their inventions solved all sorts of problems. 


No one ever bought them, however. 


Perhaps it was because people were too set in their ways to accept such new and marvelous inventions. Or perhaps it was because for every problem the uncles solved they made two new ones. That’s okay, because they made inventions to solve those problems too.


But as strange as all this was, that’s hardly what made Percy’s family so peculiar. No, what made them peculiar was the magic. Invention and artifice were wonderful but mix in a little magic and it becomes downright arcane. The Schwindler brothers had started as tinkers but when that didn’t fill their bellies or put money in their pockets they became magicians instead.


People love the arcane. Even the ones that disapprove of it or fear it love to talk about it. Percy’s uncles peddled the spectacular and sold the enchanted. Tinctures, pure and clear as water, with the power to cure any illness in a year and a day. Oils of essence to invigorate or help with sleep. Glass jars containing the North Wind or a faerie’s breath. People came in droves for the promise of a miracle or even just a spectacle. They called them wizards, sorcerers, arcanists. Some called them fools. Some called them charlatans. The most devout even insinuated that they were possessed by malevolent spirits. But call them angels or demons, the Schwindler brothers and their apprentice didn’t care as long as the crowds still came and the money flowed. 


This is the story of how Percy made his fortune. And of how he met his doom.

The magicians to Schladming and excitement was in the air. Their wagon stood on a hill on the outskirts of town. Like a house on wheels, it was unlike anything the townsfolk had seen before. It stood on four big wheels capped with polished brass. Above it stretched a big, blue banner between two poles with silver lettering that sparkled in the sunlight. For those who could read, it said “The Brothers Arcane: magical ministrations for mundane needs, esoteric delights for the curious, and rarities for those with the coin. Fortune-telling by appointment only. Solicitors not welcome.” Below this, for those who could not read, was the sign of their trade: a staff with wings. It was the Herald Staff, the magic wand of the god Hermes, and the symbol of magicians, alchemists, thieves, and wise men. From atop its perch on the hill, the colorful house on wheels was visible from the whole town and, for those in the countryside, word traveled fast.

Already, a crowd gathered.

A tall man in a dark suit spoke to them. He was handsome, with oil-slicked black hair and a pencil mustache. He introduced himself to his audience as Mr. Tuesday. That wasn’t his name, of course, or, rather, the man had many names, of which Mr. Tuesday was but one. He collected names like some people collect stamps or bottle caps. Some he borrowed. Others he stole. Some names he made up entirely. This one was new and when he said it, “Mr. Tuesday”, it was like trying a new food for the first time. It felt strange in his mouth but he liked the taste of it and he savored it on his tongue. 

In truth, he was Tom Schwindler. Beside him stood his brother, William. Today, William was “Vulcus”. But William didn’t collect names like his brother. Every day, if they were on performance, he was Vulcus. He was the older Schwindler brother by fifteen minutes. He was built like an ox, with thinning hair, a close trimmed beard, and reading glasses. While his brother looked every part a magician, William looked like he’d be most at home in a boxing ring. But he had clever hands to match his brother’s quick wit and while his brother was ambitious, William was careful. Together, they made magic.

Their apprentice, Percy, was nowhere to be seen. It was imperative to the plan that he not be seen – not until the appointed time, at least. Percy was in the wagon. It was a bright, sunny day but you’d never know inside the house on wheels. The shutters were closed and the curtains drawn so that the only light came from a mirrored lamp. In utter privacy, Percy applied the last of his makeup. He wore rags, his hair was disheveled, and his face dirty. He looked like a street urchin – which was the point. He was growing tall and the rest of his body hadn’t caught up with his height, yet. It made him look skinny and awkward. He was painfully self-conscious of this fact but at this moment he didn’t mind. It only added to the illusion. The door opened and William ducked in.

“It’s nearly time,” whispered William. “Are you ready?”

“Yes,” said Percy, “I look the part, don’t I?”

William grunted. “Be careful. We crossed the border yesterday. There can be no mistakes.”

Percy grimaced. “I’ve done this a hundred times. I could do it in my sleep. You’re supposed to be out there working the crowd. Do your part, I’ll do mine, and everything will go off without a hitch.”

“Tom can work the crowd just fine. It’s my job to worry,” said William. “If you make a mistake, we can’t help you. You know what they do to thieves, this side of the border. They’ll-”

“Cut off my thumbs. Yes, yes, I know. You’ve already told me. The last town it was branding with a hot iron and the one before that was a day in the pillory. But I’ve never been caught and I won’t be today, either.” 

William frowned. He stared at Percy for a moment. Then, he nodded. William held out a meaty hand. There was a glint in the lamplight as Percy palmed the coin and made it disappear. Then William reached down and opened a trapdoor in the floor of the wagon.

“Good luck,” he said. Then Percy was out through the floor and into the crowd. 

Percy suppressed a grin as he picked his way through the growing crush of people. Despite whatever reservations William might have, Percy was eager to get to work. Pickpocketing provided a certain thrill. It was dangerous but it was also exciting and Percy was good at it. It was an art that required patience, dexterity, and confidence. Percy had all three. But slitting a purse was for common thieves. What Percy did was more sophisticated. 

With William already back at his side, Tom regaled his audience, his voice carrying over the green slope. “ . . . but I tell you, the alchemists’ search for the Philosopher’s Stone, that mythic substance which can turn base metals into gold, is not one of invention but rediscovery! It was in faraway Egypt that we unearthed evidence that the Philosopher’s Stone already exists! Indeed, Adam himself was given knowledge of its making by God before He cast him out of the Garden. While the stone is lost, the knowledge was passed down by the biblical patriarchs and we have replicated with some success the process of drawing perfection from chaos.” The crowd snickered. Such a tale was outlandish. It was simply beyond imagining! Nevertheless, their eyes were glued to the stage. The same absurdities that made “Mr. Tuesday’s” story unbelievable were also what made it captivating. They may not believe it, but the crowd was enthralled, nonetheless. That was the first rule of any good con: an amusing lie is more attractive than a realistic one. Before you could sell the mundane as magic you had to make people really want to see the magic. Belief came later.

“You don’t believe me?” said Tom in mock offense. “A volunteer from the audience, please. A volunteer!” Several hands shot up. Tom stroked his chin, deliberating.

“You then!” He pointed to a young woman near the front. “Come forward.” With a hand from William, she stepped up to join them on the little wooden stage. Tom pulled out a vial of red powder. Meanwhile, Percy maneuvered through the crowd, scanning his quarry. He noted a variety of tradesfolk in simple clean garb, a widow in a thread-worn dress surrounded by a gaggle of skinny children, and a well-groomed man, smartly dressed. The last was most likely a merchant – and a very successful one by the looks of him. Percy could very nearly smell the money on him. 

“I have here in my hands, red sulfur,” said Tom to the crowd, “what the alchemists call the Prime Material from which all other matter is derived. A single grain can transmute any metal. A penny from your purse, if you please ma’am.” She hesitated. “It’s quite alright. You’ll get it back.” She took out a penny and Tom took it. Then, he licked it and, with extreme care, applied a minute amount of the red powder to the penny. It dissolved on its wet surface. Deftly, he returned it to the woman’s purse.

“Now you shall have your miracle!”

“Hey, now!” shouted a man in the crowd. “You can’t fool us! I bet you switched those coins.” 

“No tricks!” shouted another.

“Show us the purse!” Shouts of agreement rose from the crowd. The air bristled with the static of anticipation. Percy watched the merchant. Yes, there it was: a bulge where his purse had been stitched to the inside of his jacket to prevent theft. Not an easy target. Good. Percy liked a challenge. 

Meanwhile, the woman on stage was excitedly rummaging through her purse. She pulled out a handful of copper pennies, a silver piece, and an assortment of hairpins. But no gold. Disappointment. People looked at each other. They grumbled. A few turned to leave. Tom had set the crowd up for a trick, a spectacle. He’d teased their fantasies and sparked their imaginations. He’d made them want the magic or, at least, the illusion of it. But there was none – no payoff. 

“Please, please, everyone,” begged Tom. “Transmutation is an unpredictable process. You can’t expect instant results! Bring your penny back tomorrow, ma’am, and all doubts shall be gone!” Jeers rose from the crowd. A few had come for miracles, most for a spectacle, but now they knew they’d get neither. They had little patience for second-rate charlatans who couldn’t even put on a good show. The crowd began to disperse. 

Percy picked his way towards the rich merchant and—

and then ran right into the woman leaving the stage. 

He lost his balance and grabbed her arm so that they both went down. He fell right on his backside and, still sitting there, he looked around frantically. He’d lost sight of the merchant. Face red with embarrassment, he muttered an apology as others helped him and the woman to their feet. But when she turned she saw the glint of coppers as he pocketed the contents of her purse.

She shrieked. “Thief! Thief!” A hand grabbed him. He looked up into the face of the marchant. In Percy’s experience, merchants were a soft breed, used to comfortable living with not enough mass in the shoulders and too much around the middle. This man had a grip like a vice. Apparently, in the hill country, even their merchants were bred tough. 

“Empty your pockets,” he growled. Percy was caught. There was nothing else for it so he did as he was told. A few pennies spilled out.

“Now, what’s this fuss about?” The crowd parted for the Brothers Arcane.

“He pickpocketed me!” cried the woman.

“They’re my coppers, I tell ya!” whined Percy, desperately.

“No lies from you, guttersnipe!” said the merchant and he gave Percy a good shake. William wore a stony expression but Tom smiled.

“Well, this is easily settled, ma’am,” said Tom lightly, “show us the contents of your purse.” She reached into her purse, then frowned.

“Wait, what’s this?” She held up a coin. Every head turned at the gleam, like molten fire in the sunlight. “Gold!” shouted the onlookers. 

“Why, it’s your penny! It has transmuted before our very eyes!” And just like that the crowd was under Tom’s spell. Not a penny from the woman’s purse was unaccounted for and Percy was released. Forgotten, he disappeared into the crowd. It wasn’t until he was back in the wagon that he relaxed. With a movement of his wrist, he revealed the woman’s penny from his sleeve. Letting her catch him was, of course, the point. Any common criminal can pick a pocket but it takes a master to deliberately get caught and still get away with it. He’d swapped her penny for a counterfeit. It was real gold, of course. The piece had to be authentic to ensure the trick took. Even now, he could see through the shutters as the merchant assessed the woman’s coin for her and nodded. The merchant still hadn’t realized that his own purse was missing. 

The second rule of a good con is show, don’t tell. Even the most skeptical townsfolk would believe them now. The Brothers Arcane could flap silver tongues until they were blue in the face and only a few would believe them. But now they’d witnessed a miracle first-hand – or thought they had. The trick was letting people see the world the way they wanted to see it, not the way it actually was. Deep down, even the most skeptical people wanted to believe that lead could be turned to gold or that the jar labeled ‘bottled faerie’s breath’ contained more than just air. Such was the miracle business. They’d seen the miracle. Now they’d believe anything they were told because it was what they expected. It was an expensive trick but they’d make their investment back and more selling their curatives and curios to the now eager crowd.

Percy watched as Tom and William performed their favorite magic trick: turning belief into money. They sold bezoars to protect from poison and periapts to ward off evil. They sold glamours and hexes. Even the widow with her five skinny children spent what must have been her whole life savings for a mandrake root that was, in actuality, nothing more than a deformed potato. Percy’s smile slipped a little when he saw that. 

The magicians peddled their craft until the sun sank and the light faded. Then they brought out lanterns. The lanterns were magical things, their wicks enclosed in sheets of metal with the shapes of animals punched out so that their illumination took the shape of stags, bears, and more fantastic beasts. They spun and played against the side of their wagon in a menagerie of light. 


It was after midnight before the last stragglers were parted from their coin. They retired to the wagon. William tinkered away on some new invention while Tom meticulously tallied their earnings by the pot-bellied stove. They’d leave early the next morning at dawn before anyone got wise to their grift. The third rule of the con is always quit while you’re ahead.


Percy was replenishing the stock. He wondered if labeling the glass jars with “King Tut’s Last Breath” was too much and if he should just stick with “bottled moonlight” but he was too distracted to really care. He was thinking of the widow and her children. Finally he spoke up, “Do you think what we do is right? Swindling people, I mean?”


Tom looked up from counting his coins and rolled his eyes, “Again with this? Percy, we’re not swindling anyone.”


“Oh, of course,” said Percy, “What I mean is, what about that poor widow, today? She paid a hefty sum for that ‘mandrake’ – probably everything she had.” Tom was silent a moment. Then he set aside his work and stood up, pacing what short distance the compact space of the wagon would allow.


“Listen, Percy my boy, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: what we’re selling is an experience,” Tom put a hand on Percy’s shoulder, “we’re not swindlers. We’re showmen. The world needs men like us to show them the world, not as it is, but as it could be.  We make their dreams come true in the only way they ever can. We show them the oasis in the desert. We put makeup on an ugly world and dress it up pretty. We’re actors and like all actors we’re paid to lie. If you don’t want that spoiled, don’t look behind the curtain.”


“But what about the money?” said Percy.


“What about it?”


“Our ‘miracles’ are expensive. Some people spend all their money on them. What good are our spectacles when they don’t have money left over for food?”


“How they choose to spend their money is none of our business,” said William without looking up from his work.


“Yes, precisely!” said Tom, “besides, we can’t work for free and if our prices are high, well, they have to be. No one believes in discount miracles. It ruins the illusion. Makes them feel like cheap tricks. Oh, we give one away for free to a pitiful soul every once in a while – makes us look generous; excellent marketing, that! But the exorbitant prices are part of the experience. Makes what we’re offering feel exclusive, exotic even! Our services are valuable because people perceive them as valuable. 


“Besides, a man has to have respect. We work long hours in poor conditions, constantly traveling from town to town without hardly a rest, or a hot meal, or a bath. We charge no less than what we’re owed. The world needs honest liars like us tirelessly trying to make the world a better place. There’s no harm in making a bit of profit while we’re at it.” Tom mussed Percy’s hair. Percy grunted in a way that could be taken for agreement and went back to his work. There was no point in pressing the issue.


William was silent. He collected silence like some people collected wine corks or like, well, like how Tom collected names. He could say more with his silence than most people could with words and right now he wore a frown that told Percy all he needed to know. The creases on his forehead and the lowering of his brow told Percy that he had heard all that Tom had said and it didn’t sit right with him, either. He’d never say it, but he didn’t enjoy cheating people. Not the ones who couldn’t afford it, anyway.


But enjoy it or not, William didn’t object. They made a lot of money with their tricks and that was enough for William. It hadn’t always been that way. Before they’d taken on Percy, the Schwindler brothers made their money mending pots and selling tinker’s toys before they’d taken to magic. They were dirt poor, then, living day to day on what they could scrape up. It had been hard on them both but it was worse for Tom. The years of poor food and cold, damp nights had taken their toll on Tom. One winter he’d nearly died from pneumonia. His lungs had never been the same since and he still got short of breath when he talked too much – which was often. William blamed himself and he’d never let his little brother experience poverty again if he could help it, Percy knew. So as long as the money flowed William would go along with their hustle, no matter who else it might hurt. He was loyal to the point of vice.


Percy was on his own. Later, as he lay tucked in his cot, sleep came slowly but his mind worked fast. Percy had a plan. 

The night was old and the sun’s first, well, it wasn’t light exactly, just a lesser shade of black, crept up from the horizon. It was the gloaming hour, the time of predawn that contrasts the twilight of evening, right before the sun rises but dawn has not fully come. It was a liminal period, a time of transition, of change, and one of magic.


Percy walked down the green hill in the direction of town. Within the hour, Tom and William would awake and they’d be on their way. No matter, he thought, that was plenty of time. Percy’s pocket sagged from the weight of the merchant’s coins. He wasn’t sure exactly why he was doing this: perhaps it was pity, or mercy, or just good old-fashioned guilt. Whatever the reason, it was the first step out the door to adventure and his feet wouldn’t stop until he reached the end of it. If he’d known that then he might never have set foot on his errand. But then this story would be far less interesting.


He found the widow’s house almost immediately. Before each show, it was their habit to survey the town in question, scouting out the situation and learning what they could. Schladming was a small town and the widow’s family was large. They stood out and he remembered them quite well. He tried the door but it was locked. Percy pursed his lips. He had just the device for this occasion. He reached into his cloak. 


When people think of magic artifacts what usually comes to mind are runic swords and rings of questionable origin. They seldom consider bits of string, a hairpin, some coins, and a pen knife. And yet, Percy could do more magic with these things than all the ancient and mysterious relics in the world, which usually turn out to be little more than overpriced junk with no magic, whatsoever.


Percy took the hairpin and turned it in the keyhole, just so. There was no satisfying click. The lock did not tumble. There was no clink, clack, or chink to indicate that the lock had relented. Percy was better than that. In utter silence, the door slid open and Percy slipped into the widow’s house.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


The widow’s youngest son wasn’t in his bed. The house was asleep and Henry’s three older brothers snored noisily. They slept on reed mats on the floor, such luxuries as beds being beyond their poor mother’s means – that is, except for Janice, the youngest and the only girl, who not only got a bed but also her own room. 


Henry stepped carefully over the shadowy lumps of his brothers, their shapes barely discernible in the predawn haze. He’d just take a quick peek, that was all. One look at the mandrake wouldn’t do any harm, would it? The kitchen hearth was cold and black. But Henry knew his own house and was able to maneuver in absolute silence. He’d heard that a mandrake’s cry could kill a full-grown man, instantly. But that was only when they were first dug up. After that, they were practically harmless. At least, that’s what he thought. He couldn’t remember all the details. 


He grabbed a cast-iron skillet from the wall, just in case. How it would help, he wasn’t exactly sure, but Henry had yet in his life to come across a problem in which hitting very hard and very fast didn’t accomplish some kind of result. Those instincts had helped him survive three older brothers and surely some old root couldn’t be any worse than that? 


He opened the cupboard. 


Henry stared. Funny, it looked a lot less mystical up close. In fact, thought Henry, if he hadn’t known any better he’d say it looked like a very wrinkly, very ugly potato. 


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Percy moved with slow intent. He was in the dark, in unfamiliar territory, and the slightest mistake could give him away. Nevertheless, he knew his business. He was barefoot and he slid his feet across the floor, careful to test every floorboard so as not to make a sound. Locked doors, creaky floorboards, unseen furniture, he could deal with those. As long as there wasn’t a dog – and he was nearly certain they didn’t have a dog – he’d be fine. Dogs were the worst. Percy could be absolutely silent. He could even make himself invisible, or close to it, in the dark. But he couldn’t do anything about the smell. Dogs had a sense of smell that bordered on the supernatural. Percy would have better luck robbing the emperor’s own vault than breaking into a house with a dog.


Percy needed a place to stash the coins, someplace where it would be guaranteed to be found but not too quickly, not until Percy and the Brothers Arcane were long gone. Outside, the sun’s first rays breached the horizon and the darkness took on shades of gray. With unhurried confidence, Percy methodically searched the living room. There are surprisingly few places where people hide their money: in a mattress, stashed in a shoebox under the couch, under a creaky floorboard, or – Percy smiled – or in the salt jar. There, on the dresser, stood not one but two jars for the salt. Now, why would anyone ever need an extra salt jar? Sure enough, one jar contained, not salt, but a now-empty coin pouch. Percy retrieved the coins from his pocket. The time had come to ease his conscience and get out of here. 


It was at that moment that chance betrayed him. 


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Henry heard the old dresser creak. Quiet as a mouse, he moved to investigate. To his astonishment, he saw he was not alone. A shadowy figure stooped over the dresser and, in its hands, was the unmistakable gleam of coins. Henry didn’t understand where so much money had come from  – them being dirt poor – but Henry wasn’t about to let such details confuse him. There could be no mistake: this man was a thief and they were being robbed. So Henry raised the frying pan and did what came naturally to him.


The ‘thief’ never stood a chance.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


“Oh, you were right to fetch us!” whispered Paul, surveying the massacre with the stern disapproval only an eldest brother can pull off. “It’s murder for sure.” 


“I thought he was stealin’!” said Henry. He’d wallopped the thief over the head with his frying pan. Then he’d panicked. Had he killed him? Was it really a thief? Where did all that money come from? He’d woken his brothers and now they all stood in a circle, peering down at Henry’s handiwork.


Paul looked around performatively. “Stealing what? We’ve nothing to steal!”


“I don’t know! But what business do you have breakin’ and enterin’ in the dark if it ain’t stealin’?” moaned Henry. 

Oliver picked up one of the coins that lay scattered across the floor. “Whoever heard of a thief breaking in to give money?” Oliver was the second-oldest and liked to poke holes in his brothers’ arguments at every opportunity – although he didn’t seem to have his usual satisfaction about it right now. 


Henry groaned. “Old Sheriff MacDugal will cut off my thumbs for sure!”


“That’s for thievin’!” said Liam, the third brother, much too loudly. He always spoke too loud. “They cut off yer head fer murderin’!” Oliver and Paul aggressively shushed him. Henry clutched his neck in despair. 


“Don’t tell mom!” said Henry.


“Right,” said Paul, taking charge. “She’d want to do the right thing and report it to Sheriff MacDugal and then Henry will be a goner for sure. It’s just us. No one else can ever know. We’re in this together, boys.”


“She’s coming!” hissed Oliver.


“Quick! Hide the body!”


It was at this moment that Percy began to wake up. His head roared in pain. He groaned. There were four simultaneous screams and Percy opened his eyes just in time to see the black disc of a frying pan approaching him at speed and growing rapidly until it took up his whole world. Then, there was a fresh explosion of thunderous pain and he knew no more.