To Enter a Tapestry
Chapter One -- It Always Takes You by Surprise.
"My grade 10 grad is having a medieval theme," said Jolie. She was lying on her bed applying dark purple polish to her toenails. Monica had just finished filing her nails and was reaching for the midnight blue. She stopped midway, her hand suddenly coming up in surprise.
"You home school, Jolie."
"Yeah, but I still take some courses at the high school and I can go to the grad. This really cute guy asked me on MSN last night."
"How do you know he's cute?" asked Tina. "Have you actually seen him?"
"No, but he sent me his picture."
"It could be anybody," said Roxanne, bored with all the nail painting that was going on. She wanted to do something.
"My friend Jessica said it's him. She's in some of his classes."
"So, are you going to go with him?" Monica decided it was time to get to the point of the conversation -- no sense in getting side-tracked.
Jolie shrugged. She gave her toenails a critical glance. "It's not quite dark enough -- I'll give it another coat when it dries better . . . maybe I should have put it over black first."
"So, what about grad?" yelled Monica, getting a bit frustrated.
"I'm going to sew my own dress. It's going to be so cool. It's going to be just like in the tapestry."
"What tapestry?" asked Monica and Roxanne together.
"Remember last week we told you we went to an auction with mom?" said Tina. "Well, there wasn't anything really good like mom was looking for. She wanted this one dresser but the bidding went too high. Anyway, there was this box and it was full of junk, but there was a mirror in it that my mom sort of liked, only the glass was all speckled, but she thought she could refinish it . . ."
"It looked like nothing but junk in that box," cut in Jolie. "I thought mom was crazy when she started bidding on it."
"There was the cutest cream jug with little cows on it," said Tina.
"It was cracked," said Jolie. "Anyway, mom got the whole box really cheap because everyone thought it was garbage. We took it home and under all the junk was this thing that looked like a big, heavy, dusty old blanket."
"Jolie just wanted to throw it away," said Tina.
"So did you." Jolie gave her a quelling look. "Mom said it might be good for something, like taking to the beach so we took it out to wash it only when it unfolded we found out it was just the backing cloth of an amazing tapestry."
"Mom's got it hanging in her bedroom," said Tina.
"Why didn't you tell us about this before?" asked Monica. "I'd love to see it."
"Mom doesn't like us poking around in her room, but you have to see the lady in the tower. It's her dress I want to make for grad." Jolie grabbed Monica's hand and pulled her from the bed.
"Hey! Mom said we're not allowed to," said Tina.
"So don't tell," said Jolie. "We'll be right back."
"I'm coming too." Tina put her hands on her hips.
"Me too," said Roxanne, making her mousy face and putting her hands on her hips too.
"All right, but hurry up!"
The girls all ran upstairs, through the kitchen, pantry, and living room, and along the hall to the bedroom door.
"When's Auntie Vanda coming home?" asked Roxanne.
Jolie checked her watch. "We've got at least fifteen minutes. We'll only be in there for five, max." She opened the door to her mother's bedroom and then ushered them all in quickly, closing it securely behind them. "There!" she said, waving her arm in the direction of the wall. All the girls stood still in awe.
"It's huge," said Roxanne.
"It's so beautiful," said Monica, going closer to it and stroking it. "And it's a real tapestry, not painted cloth. Look at the detail!"
The tapestry covered almost the entire wall. In the lower left corner was a castle with tall spires and banners flying. A knight and his page were leaving by an open drawbridge. A thick forest took up the majority of the tapestry. Craggy mountains towered in the background, and above it all a dragon flew, richly woven in gold and green with blazing red eyes. In the foreground a youth was walking with a girl, deeper in the forest an elf could be seen running amid the trees. Pathways wound here and there in eddying confusion, and about three-quarters of the way across a river running through a deep canyon divided the forest. High up a suspension bridge precariously dangled, guarded by a fearsome looking troll with a battleaxe. In the upper right a tower rose from dense forest and tangles of brambles. A princess stood looking out the window, her golden hair flowing in ripples over one shoulder and coming to rest on the sill where a small bird sat, looking up at her.
"See her dress?" said Jolie. "Here, where it is blue, I would use a deep red brocade, and this gold part I would do in black velvet. For the flowered borders I want to find some ribbon trim that's silver and gold, maybe with black roses on it, or something."
Monica thought the dress looked beautiful just as it was, but she was too busy studying the whole tapestry to comment. Everywhere she looked she saw more detail. A hawk flying low over the trees. A rabbit running through the underbrush. Her attention was taken by the youth again. He was standing with his hand resting on the hilt of a sword, his eyes searching out a trail. He was tall and slim and wore a green tunic over brown breeches and high leather boots. His dark hair hung in loose curls that brushed his collar. His expression was intent and something about his face was very familiar.
"Jolie! Does this guy remind you of anybody?"
Jolie came over to look. "He kind of almost looks like Elijah Wood."
"Well, he does a little," admitted Monica, "but that's not who I meant. I know it's been five years, but I think he looks like Rhondin."
"Rhondin?" cried Roxanne. She had been studying an animal that she and Tina had spotted in a clearing, trying to decide if it was a dog or a wolf. At Monica's announcement both girls came over.
Tina adjusted her glasses. "He does look like Rhondin! I never noticed that before."
"And the girl looks like Sharna," added Roxanne. "I miss her so much. Can't we go to Caricana and see her again?"
"I don't know how many times you've tried," said Jolie. "Running around the monkey puzzle trees every time it's even a tiny bit windy."
"Well, it's worth a try," said Tina. "We had such a good time in Caricana."
"Especially when we had nothing to eat and we had to walk for miles, and then later when the Igma was searching for us, and Roxanne got captured." Jolie crossed her arms in front of herself and looked back at the tapestry.
"Well -- there was a lot of danger and stuff, but it was so different and exciting," said Tina.
"And we made very good friends," said Roxanne.
"I really think this is Rhondin," said Monica, interrupting the discussion that was almost going to blow up into an argument. "And if it is him, then maybe it's some kind of message. Maybe this tapestry was in that box of junk for a reason. Maybe you were meant to get it."
Everyone became quiet and stared at the figures. They were beginning to look very, very real. It was almost as if they would move at any moment. The leaves on the oak trees looked as though they were about to stir restlessly in a light breeze. The air seemed suddenly colder as if they were out of doors. Just then, they heard the front door open.
"I'm home! Where are you girls?"
"It's mom!" shouted Jolie in a loud whisper.
"Auntie Vanda!" echoed Roxanne.
"What are we going to do?" Tina looked around -- there was nowhere to hide.
Monica grabbed hold of Roxanne. Tina clung to Jolie's arm. They all looked at each other, their eyes big with worry. "She'll kill us," said Jolie. "She made us promise not to come in here."
Steps were heard close by the door. The handle turned.
"Jump!" cried Monica, and they did. Suddenly they were falling through branches, leaves catching in their hair. The grass was soft and spongy; tree roots rough against their knees. They landed in a breathless, tangled mass.
"Get your knee out of my back!"
"You're sitting on my foot!"
"We're . . . we're in the tapestry!" cried Monica. She looked around to see if the room was still visible from where they lay sprawled out under the trees, but they were surrounded by forest. The room, the house, everything else was gone. The trees that had once been no more than interwoven threads were now rough and real. A breeze did stir the leaves. It was getting cold in the heavy shade of the thickly growing woods. The sun was still up high above the crossing branches, but very little tight filtered through the shadowy darkness.
"Well, it looks like you got your wish," said Jolie to Roxanne.
"This isn't Caricana," said Roxanne, looking about herself, trying not to think of the wolf she had seen earlier when the tapestry was still a tapestry and not a whole new world.
"No, Caricana never had forests like this," said Tina, picking her glasses from the ground and putting them on. She shivered. "What are we going to do now?"
"We need to get out of this underbrush and onto a trail," said Monica. "We have to find Rhondin."
Chapter Two -- Reconnecting with old friends.
Monica led the way to what looked like a path of sorts and then brushed away the bracken that was sticking to her long skirts. She was relieved that whenever she'd had the experience of being transported to another land, her clothing always changed to conform to the clothing styles of the location. Otherwise, she would have been running around the forest in pyjamas and bare feet. Instead she wore a long blue dress, belted and trimmed in yellow and comfortable boots made of soft black leather. The rest were similarly dressed, only in different colours: Roxanne in dark blue with red trim, Jolie, a maroon that was so dark it was almost black, a silver cord tied about her waist, and Tina in purple with a lavender sash that criss-crossed her front and tied in the centre.
"So, which way do we go?" asked Roxanne.
Monica had been thinking the same thing. She stood and concentrated, trying to get her bearings. Should they head left or right to find Rhondin and Sharna?
"I'm all confused," said Tina. "Which way is my mom's bedroom?"
"You can't see the bedroom from here, or go back to it," said Jolie.
"I know! I just mean if we looked in the direction we came from, and then turned around, we could pretend we were looking at the tapestry and we'd know which way to go."
"That doesn't make any sense," said Jolie.
"Well, It sort of does," said Monica. She turned to face the trees they had come out from, then held out her arm. "We go left. I'm sure of it."
It sounded as good a choice as any, so the girls turned in that direction and began walking down the winding path. Soon it widened and they came to a fork.
"What now?" asked Jolie.
Monica remembered all the paths they had seen disappearing here and there into the forest of the tapestry. It was difficult to tell just how deep they had jumped in. "Eenie meenie minie mo?" she asked.
"Let's follow the wider one," said Roxanne, walking ahead.
They kept going for another half an hour. The sun was sinking lower, and though the path was wide and the forest not quite so tall or dense as it had been, the darkness was deepening.
"We'll have to stop somewhere soon for the night or we'll get lost in the dark," said Tina.
"Lost?" Jolie snorted. "And we aren't now?"
"Okay -- more lost."
"I recognise this tree," cried Roxanne. "I saw it from the room -- look at the way the branches fork up there." She pointed high into the boughs. "There was an eagle on a nest. See?"
The eagle was no longer there but the nest was just visible.
"Was it anywhere near where we saw Rhondin and Sharna?" asked Monica.
"Not too far," said Roxanne.
"But we don't know where they've been walking since then," said Jolie.
"Look, I see a light through the trees," said Tina.
Sure enough, there was a flickering of firelight ahead of them, to one side of the trail. The faint smell of smoke assailed their nostrils, and something even more welcome, the aroma of food cooking. Their steps sped up and soon they reached a small clearing. A campfire burned in the centre, with a steaming pot set upon a tripod. A short, hunched figure bent over it. In the shadow of the trees a few small tents were pitched. The girls slowed. This person was neither Rhondin nor Sharna. Would it be someone they could trust, or someone to fear? Should they pass by quietly or should they approach? Their decision was taken from them when he lifted his head and turned towards them, his gaze intense and encompassing.
"I've been waiting for you. The stew is almost ready." His voice was frail, like brittle leaves crumbling underfoot.
"Waiting for us?" asked Monica. "Did you know we were coming?"
"Not precisely. Not that you would come or who you are. I simply felt your presence as you entered these woods. Vlidmur. My home. But you are only four. I sense two more." He paused, swivelled his head, and sniffed. "They will arrive shortly. Come -- rest by my fire."
The girls approached timidly, only then realising just how cold they were, and how tempting the warmth of the burning logs. They eyed the creature suspiciously, but he looked back at them blandly, his expression indecipherable. Under his hood his face looked more that of an animal than a human. His nose was like a badger's, and he had stripes flaring up across his cheeks, but his eyes were deep with intelligence under their bushy brows. He turned back to his cooking pot and gave his stew a stir, all at once seemingly oblivious to their presence. He took a taste and then added this and that from a basket at his side, tasted again and emitted a satisfied sigh. He turned back to the girls.
"It is ready but we'll wait for your friends."
"How do you know they are our friends?" asked Jolie.
"I feel no enmity -- and besides should not friends meet at long last in a place such as this?"
"Do you know anything about why we are here?" asked Monica.
"That is for you to discover yourselves," he answered. "All I know is that there are powerful forces at work, and that you are in need of a good meal and provisions. I can do as much as is my task and no more. The rest depends upon you."
"Is it such a big mystery?" asked Roxanne.
"I only know what I need to know. You will discover what you need to know in the fullness of time. I see no mystery. The forest functions as it does with a purpose -- it is not for me to question it, only act as is required of me."
"Thank you," said Tina. "We really do need supper and it was nice of you to make it for us."
The creature bowed in acknowledgement and the other girls all thanked him too. Monica was about to ask another question when they heard steps and soft voices. She stood up and ran to the path. Not far away, two figures were approaching.
"Rhondin! Sharna!" she called out. Jolie, Tina, and Roxanne all joined her and were calling and waving. The two broke into a run and soon they were together, hugging each other excitedly.
"I don't believe it!" said Sharna, giving Roxanne a tight hug.
"When we arrived I thought of you all and hoped you would be here," cried Rhondin, looking from one girl to the other. "I can't believe it's been five years -- you all look so changed, but I would recognise you anywhere."
"Come to the fire and meet Mr . . . oops, we never asked his name. Anyway, he's made us some supper and set up a camp for us. C'mon," said Monica as she grabbed Rhondin and Sharna's hands and pulled them along. "Sorry," she said to the creature. "I don't know your name to introduce you, but this is Rhondin and Sharna."
"Pleased to make your
acquaintance. I am Sindor. I trust you are hungry. Won't you be seated? " He
gave a hint of a smile and extended his arm.
There were enough blocks of wood for everybody to sit down. Soon they were all enjoying the warmth of the fire and the surprisingly tasty stew and reminiscing about the past.
"How are Meera and Storik?" asked Jolie.
"My parents are well," said Rhondin, "and the town is prospering again. Every year we celebrate the demise of the Igma with music and dancing. None of you have been forgotten." He smiled nostalgically and then resumed speaking. "The new Cari forest has grown at an amazing speed. Why, today Sharna and I were walking in it when we were transported here."
"How did it happen?" Roxanne asked Sharna. "Was there a wind or a fog, or were you suddenly scared into jumping like we were?"
"No -- it is most strange. We were walking through the trees in the quiet of the afternoon. A stillness descended over us and we felt very calm and content. It was then we noticed that the trees had changed -- rather than stands of young Cari trees we were walking through oak and ash. I looked at Rhondin in wonder, for there never was a forest of this type on Caricana. He had such a smile upon his face."
"Yes, of course I did. You know that this is what I have longed to do for years, even before I met you girls. You must remember how envious I was of you. And now I am in another land -- all there is to discover is why we have been brought here."
"To Vlidmur." Monica's tone was hushed.
"I beg your pardon?"
"The name of this forest. Sindor told us it is called Vlidmur."
Rhondin turned to their host who had been quietly eating his stew, and appeared not to be attending their conversation at all. "Do you know who has brought us, or why we are here?"
Sindor looked up and refocused his gaze. He sat in silence for a moment and then spoke. "The who is impossible for me to answer. It is a stronger power than I know that is at work here. The why you will discover for yourselves. I do know one thing -- you would not be here if you were not needed."
"Tomorrow should bring an answer," said Rhondin, as much to convince himself as the girls.
"It will," said Sindor, and then he lapsed into silence again, his body barely moving as even his breathing slowed. He appeared to be in a trance-like state. Everybody looked at him, afraid to speak and disturb whatever had happened to him.
"Do you think he's okay?" whispered Roxanne.
"Ssshh." Monica watched Sindor closely. He twitched suddenly and then opened his eyes.
"There is someone else." His voice was even weaker than before. "Known to one of you -- but not like you. She will arrive shortly. I must prepare another bed." He placed his bowl upon the ground and hobbled off.
"What does he mean by that?" asked Jolie. "Does he always have to talk in riddles?"
"There is one person it could be," said Monica, a light dawning in her eyes. "Chisti."
"Who?" asked Tina.
"Remember? The elf I made friends with in Lintaka. I'm the only one of all of us that knows her, and she's a different race from us."
"An elf!" said Sharna.
They all turned as a small figure crept up close to the fire.
"May a stranger join your camp?" she asked.
Monica looked at her and smiled. "You aren't a stranger to me! Chisti! You look just the same, but I think I've changed quite a bit in eight years. It's Monica! Remember me?"
Chisti gasped. "Monica! How could I ever forget? This is not your world, is it?"
"No. We have been brought here just like you. Let me introduce you to everybody."
The introductions made, they offered her a spot to sit and served her a bowl of stew. The group talked well into the night, recounting their various adventures in Lintaka and Caricana, and learning about what each other had been up to in the long interim since they were once together. Finally they left the dying fire to Sindor's care, settled into the waiting tents, and slept deeply the whole night through.
Chapter Three -- To everything there is a purpose.
When Monica awoke the first thing she saw was a blurry grey glow which brought back old memories of waking in the tent down by her pond. She rubbed her eyes and shook her head to send the strange traces of dreams back to where they originated. Shadowy images of woods, creatures, and medieval garb. The air was redolent with the smell of wood-smoke, pungent earth, fern and forest. It took a few more moments for Monica to realise it was not a dream. They had really spent the night in the forests of Vlidmur, sleeping in the small cosy tents Sindor had provided. She could hear someone up and about in the campsite. She stretched and then crawled out of her sleeping bag to discover what the world looked like in the early hours of the morning.
Sindor already had the fire going and was setting a pot to hang from the tripod. "It's not much," he said as he turned to her. "Just a porridge of wild grains but it will fill your stomachs and give you energy for the day." He handed her the spoon. "Stir it well. By the time your friends are awake it will be ready. If you need me I will know where to find you." With that he started to wander off into the depths of the forest.
"You're not leaving?" asked Monica.
"I must," he said, without turning around. "For now my part is done. Fare thee well."
He slipped into the shadows and soon was indistinguishable from branch or leaf, bracken or root. Monica stared after, the spoon hanging limply in her grasp, and then returned to her task as her friends started emerging from the cocoons of their tents.
After the breakfast they packed everything up into equal bundles and slung them over their shoulders. They were eager and excited to discover their purpose and begin their adventure, but they had no idea where to go or what to do.
"I wish Sindor gave us more information," said Roxanne. "What if we go out and walk in the wrong direction all day?"
"Our steps will be led upon the right path," said Rhondin with assurance. "I don't think it is a matter of us finding our purpose, but our purpose finding us."
"I wonder," said Monica. "Think of the tapestry. What did we see in it? There might be some sort of clue."
"There was a . . ." said Tina.
"A tower with a . . ." said Jolie.
"Banners flying from . . ." said Roxanne.
"Something flying overhead, but
not a bird, larger, stranger," said Monica.
"It's suddenly like it was all a dream. I see nothing clearly anymore -- just trees and trails leading . . . nowhere."
"Me too," said Jolie. "What's happening to us? Yesterday everything was so clear, I think."
"Yesterday we were . . . or have we always been here, in this forest?" Tina looked about her. "Yes -- this forest is our home."
"No," said Sharna, "the trees are not the same."
"They are the same trees," said Chisti. "If we take this trail we will come to the lake and our cottage."
"No . . ." said Rhandin, wrestling with his mind. "No -- we must go this way." He pointed in the opposite direction.
Monica felt like a mist had invaded her head. Thoughts were swirling, twisting across each other; nothing was clear. A glimmering whisper in the back of her mind told her not to give in. To follow Rhondin and not look back. The sun was bright on the trail in the direction Chisti had indicated. It shimmered with promise. Beckoned enticingly. Monica felt an overwhelming urge to follow -- there would be a lake soon. She could see it clearly in her mind. The stone cottage with climbing roses cascading over the doorway. The sparkling water, small horseshoe of a beach. Warmth. Happiness. Comfort. All pulling at her, tugging with magnetic force. In the other direction the branches arched over the trail. It became a dark and uninviting tunnel. She hesitated, unsure, the quiet note of caution almost indistinct now.
Rhandin grabbed her hand. "Monica! Everybody! Come with me. Now -- run!"
"No!" cried all the younger girls. "We're going home to the lake," and they turned towards the sun and the warm smell of summer promises.
"We cannot become separated!" cried Rhondin in desperation. "Monica! Jolie! Help me stop them." But it was all Rhondin could do to hold Monica and Jolie back as they looked, yearning, at the smooth path that led to vivid green and splashing light.
Tina, Roxanne, Chisti, and Sharna all ran, laughing, turning back and beckoning, their eyes bright with promises. "Follow us!" they cried.
Jolie twisted, trying to break free of Rhondin's steady grip. "Let me go! What do you think you are doing?"
"Roxanne, Tina, wait," Monica cried. She turned to Rhondin, her eyes wide. "What is happening? Why can't we follow them? It's our home." She tore her wrist from his grasp and began to run, calling the girls to wait for her.
They only laughed and kept going, disappearing around a bend in the trail.† She could hear Jolie and Rhondin running behind her, felt hands grabbing for her shoulders. The glow of the trail dimmed, the green darkened, the branches closed over, and the shadows grew. She rounded the bend -- saw the trail stretch long and empty before her. She stopped and bent over, labouring for breath, a stitch burning in her side. "Where are they?" she gasped.
"What happened?" asked Jolie.
"It was a mirage," said Rhondin, his voice tight. "And now it's gone. Who knows where they have been taken?"
"We have to follow them and find them," cried Monica.
"This path will never take us to them," said Rhondin.
"How do you know?" asked Jolie. "They are our little sisters. We can't just leave them."
"Do you think I'm not as concerned as you?" said Rhondin, trying to keep his voice calm. "I have read many books of ancient lore. This trail could go forever and end nowhere. If it tempts us again and we let it control our minds we will only be trapped like the girls are, and most probably not in the same place as them. We must find our purpose here and try to understand the magic of the forest if we are ever going to save them, or ourselves. There will be other traps. We must always be wary."
It was difficult for Monica and Jolie to be convinced to turn around and follow the trail in the opposite direction, but the great fear of wandering a trail forever with no escape finally convinced them. If they were going to save their sisters they had to have a better idea of what they were up against and they trusted Rhondin's conviction that the answer was to be found to the north. He was the only one who had not become entranced, the only one who had kept their goal in mind.
Two hours later they were still walking. Trudging, actually. Disheartened and weary, consumed with guilt. They came upon a clearing with three stumps and stopped to rest. Jolie passed the water skin around and they all drank deeply. Monica's lips were feeling dry and chapped. The water did nothing to ease their parched feel. She reached her hand down into the deep pocket of her skirt and was surprised to find a lip gloss there. She had just finished applying it when a small bird flew up close and landed on a branch nearby. It looked at her and tipped its head.
Do not repine.
It was as if there was a voice inside her head. "What?" She looked around.
"Nobody said anything," said Jolie, shutting her eyes and leaning against a tree trunk.
Your sisters will be safe. They have their own way to follow.
ĎAm I hallucinating?' wondered Monica.
Set your mind free. My words will come to you. Your words will come to me.
The bird was looking at Monica very intently.
Are you talking to me?
In a manner of speaking.
Aren't the girls in trouble?
Yes -- but it is their trouble -- and their solution. You will be reunited anon if all goes well. Your task is ahead.
Where? What are we here to do?
Go to the castle. There are two you will meet on the way. Trust no one else.
How will we know which two they are? What if we meet the wrong two?
One is valiant, the other assured of his own discernment -- mistakenly, alas.
But . . .
Be strong. Have faith in your judgement.
The bird flew off and Monica stared after it, a look of amazement on her face. "That was the weirdest thing," she said. "That bird just spoke to me."
"It didn't even go tweet!" said Jolie.
"I heard it inside my head," said Monica.
"What did it say?" asked Rhondin, his eyes brightening.
"It said not to worry -- the girls have their own quest -- we'll all get together again when everything's fixed up. We have to go to the castle and meet two people."
"Who?" asked Jolie.
"I'm not sure, but one is brave and one thinks he knows everything, or something like that."
"Why does everyone always talk in riddles here?" asked Jolie.
"Well, that's more to go on than we had before," said Rhondin. "Let's continue following the trail."
After half an hour, Monica, Jolie, and Rhondin met up with three travellers. They were very friendly and begged them to join their crusade to rid the kingdom of evil dwarves that were plaguing the countryside. Monica remembered the warning to trust no one else, so they said no, politely at first, and then more insistently. In the end Rhondin had to pull his sword. He stood, brandishing it threateningly, while Jolie and Monica stood beside him, ready to support him in any way they could. Just the flash of sunlight off the blade sent the travellers scurrying.
"Strange," said Rhondin, looking at his sword. "How did that happen?"
Monica and Jolie came close and stared at it. It was made of wood, fine and strong, the blade a dull brown. The tip had a notch in the end. A thing for show, not battle. It would be whittled into kindling in a moment if held against a real sword. And yet it had glinted in the sun like elven steel.
"Where have I seen that before?" asked Jolie.
"It's Storik's sword, carved from the cari tree."
"Of course," said Monica. "It used to have the cari leaf attached to the end."
"I keep it as a talisman. I did not think it would ward off evil," said Rhondin.
"Well, don't complain," said Jolie. "Those guys would have taken us in a fight even if we kicked them where it hurts."
Rhondin sheathed his sword, still with a look of wonder in his eyes, and they continued on their way. A horseman stopped them a few miles down the trail and asked them for directions. He was old and worn looking but his eyes were clear as glass. He warned them to be careful of strangers in the wood and said he had passed by two young men already that had pretended they were in trouble and then had tried to rob him.
"One was masquerading as a brave knight -- the other his cocky page. They set upon and old fellow such as I! Yee'll do well to give them a wide berth," he warned.
They thanked the man and he rode off slowly.
"I'm glad he warned us about those guys," said Jolie. "Maybe you should get your sword ready, Rhondin."
"Maybe we should go off the path and creep through the bushes," said Rhondin. "I'll be no match for a knight."
"The bird told me to trust no one," said Monica. "So that includes the old man. What if these guys are the ones we are looking for, and we avoid them because of the warning?"
The path followed a river for a while and then rose up and away from it, climbing a slow rise. As they crested the low hill, the forest thinned and they could see the castle's battlements with banners flying free. Crossing the drawbridge were two figures, leading horses. One held himself tall and straight. He wore leather armour embellished with silver on his chest. His hair was dark and long. The other, though still tall, was shorter and wore a blue velvet hat that flopped over one eye, and a deep blue tunic. Both had swords hanging by their sides, and they looked like they knew how to use them.
"Oh my God," said Jolie when they got closer. "That guy is so hot! He looks just like Aragorn!"
"Well, he does need a shave," said Monica. "And he has a dimple on his chin. I think his friend is cuter though."
"In that dorky hat?" asked Jolie. "I bet these are the guys. The brave one and the one who thinks he's all that."
Rhondin looked at the two girls and just rolled his eyes.
The knight came up to them and held out his hand in greeting. "Good day, young travellers. May we be of assistance? I am Naragor, knight of the realm, and this is my page, Dep."
"Actually, we were wondering if we could be of assistance," said Rhondin.
"A slight young lad like you and two fair damsels?" he asked. "Our quest is much too dangerous for the likes of you. We are expecting the help of seasoned veterans, brought from the far reaches of the world."
The page nudged Naragor and whispered, "These might just be them."
"What? But they are only young people. The soothsayer said we were to be helped by three who had bested a most evil enigma," Naragor whispered back, a trifle too loudly.
"Beggars can't be choosers," said Dep with a smirk.
"Would you be serious for one moment?" Naragor turned back and addressed Rhondin. "Your offer is most appreciated; I just don't see how you can help in such a dire predicament."
"We did destroy the Igma in Caricana," said Monica. She had been watching the two young men closely and was pretty sure they were the right ones. One had yet to prove bravery, but the other had already shown himself to be sure of his own mistaken opinion.
Jolie looked up at Naragor. "It's not always age that is important -- brains are what really count." She cast the page a sarcastic smirk.
"The damsel is forthright," said the knight. "If you are willing we will enlist your help. The task will be arduous and we will be sure to face great danger, but never fear for I will be leading you."
"And I'll be following to make sure nothing goes wrong," added the page as he pulled his hat a little further over one eye.
Monica almost choked trying not to laugh.
"How may we aid you, Sir?" asked Rhondin, giving Monica a dirty look.
"Come, we must hie ourselves to a secure location -- even the walls have ears," said Naragor.
Monica looked around. The castle was quite far away -- the walls must have extremely good hearing, she thought.
Dep came up beside her and whispered. "I think he meant the cobblestones. But, to tell the truth, this is serious business so I think getting out of the middle of the road and sitting in the field on those rocks over there is probably a good idea."
When they were seated on the rocks Naragor turned to them, his voice a mixture of concern and importance. "There was to be a wedding -- the uniting of two kingdoms -- but on her way here, the royal princess went missing, entourage and all. The prince disappeared from his bedchamber that same night. His room was charred black. It was announced that he died in the fire and his uncle is set to usurp the crown, but we, his faithful followers, believe he lives yet. The castle is filled with traitors -- there is no one we can trust. We are heading now into the forest of Vlidmur where dangers abound, but we believe it is where the answer to this terrible riddle is to be found. Will you stand with us?"
The four girls rushed along the pathway into the golden, sun-dappled halo of warmth that spoke of trailing honeysuckle, sparkling water, and a welcoming cottage. Their eyes, minds, and hearts were filled with the vision. It was all they had ever wanted. All thought of their companions was gone -- their destination was everything. But as they ran, things began to change. It was as if a cloud passed in front of the sun. The glow ahead dulled. The path darkened. The trees loomed tall and forbidding overhead, and they slowed their pace, looking around in bewilderment. Their thoughts became unclear. Finally they stopped and turned to look at each other.
"What are we doing here?" asked Sharna.
"Where is everybody else?" asked Tina.
"I feel as if I've just woken up from a dream," said Roxanne. "There was something very special . . . but I can't remember anything."
"I feel it too," said Chisti. "I'm left with a strong desire, but for what I know not." She looked around. The path stretched straight and empty in either direction. "The forest has separated us from our friends -- that is the one thing I am sure of."
"We have to go back and find them," said Roxanne.
"I think not," said Chisti. "Nothing happens by chance. We were meant to be on our own."
"They'll be looking everywhere for us," said Sharna.
"They will have their own quest to follow."
"How can you be so sure?" asked Tina. "I think we should look for them."
"And I think we should discover our purpose," said Chisti. "We weren't brought into this land just to become lost. Sindor told us that today we would learn why we are here. We were caught in a charm of the forest and released from it here for a reason."
"I hope you're right," said Roxanne, "but if you aren't we'll have to face that we are lost already and have to deal with it. I have no idea where we are in the tapestry anymore."
"What should we do?" asked Sharna.
"Keep following the path and see where it takes us," said Chisti.
It seemed their only choice. The path behind them was darker and uninviting, not that the path before them held any of the same temptations as it had before. They all felt a certain restlessness deep inside. A feeling of having lost something that they had wanted very much. It was unsettling, and accompanied with their concern at being separated from the others they felt very lonely and insecure. The shadows between the trees worried them and every unfamiliar sound startled them. As the eldest, Chisti felt full responsibility for the three younger girls. She began to sing softly as she walked in an effort to calm their spirits.
The day stretched endlessly and still they came upon nothing and no one - not one hint of their purpose. They stopped in a clearing to eat the bread and cheese Sindor had provided for them, and then continued down the trail growing increasingly dispirited. Conversation lagged completely and even Chisti was finding it difficult to lift her spirits enough to sing. They didn't notice the net until it was on them, heavy and rough. They cried out as they struggled only to become more tangled in its meshes.
Two of the ugliest creatures they had ever seen climbed down from the tree the net had fallen from and walked around them, peering and poking and tugging at the ropes.
"Have we captured a noisy bunch of scrawny chickens, brother?"
"I'm thinking so, sister. Not much meat on their bones, but the pickins are slim this time of year."
"Aye. Slim pickins. Still -- will Maw let us eat them, do you think? Even they would be better than roots an' rabbits. I'm tired of pickin' bunny fur from between my teeth."
"Yer too fussy sister! What's a little fur, I say. Maybe we should cook this lot straight off, afore Maw says yeah or nay."
The girls huddled together in the heavy net. The creatures spoke with strange accents but they could understand what they said, and it scared them.
"I'm not going to be anyone's dinner," whispered Tina.
"That is certainly not our purpose, so have no fear," said Chisti, trying to calm them. "Maybe we can reason with these trolls."
"They're trolls?" asked Roxanne.
"Yes. We have them in our land. They have no morals and will eat anything they choose, but they also have very weak brains and can be easily tricked."
"But they have us in their stinky net," said Sharna. "How will we escape?"
"And they're planning on eating us right away."
"They won't do anything their mother has told them not to," said Chisti. "No matter what they'd like to do, young trolls never disobey their parents."
"They speaks, brother. Bop them with your stick." The girl troll began hopping from one big, hairy foot to the other.
The boy troll rubbed his bulbous, warty nose. "I dunno. Maw said we's to bring anything we finds alive."
"But you said we should cook 'em!"
"Then Maw would bop us."
The girl stopped hopping and sat with a thud. "She would, she would!"
"Let's drag them home." The boy troll began to haul on the ropes.
"Don't drag us home. Your mother would be angry if we were damaged," cried Chisti.
The girl peered in through the webbing of the net. Roxanne could feel her hot stinky breath and shuddered as she tried to hold her nose. "You knows our maw?"
"Yes," said Chisti. "She's expecting us. Unharmed. We have important information for her."
"You gots what?" asked the boy as he scratched his knobbly head. "I don't see nuttin."
"Something to tell her. Top secret."
"About the bridge?" asked the girl.
"Yes," said Chisti. "A big important secret about the bridge."
"And the princess?" asked the boy.
"Especially about the princess," said Chisti. "She would be in a lot of trouble if she didn't get the news. And she would get very mad at you. We won't tell her our secret if you don't let us out of this net."
"But . . . what if you try to run away?" asked the girl.
"Why would we run away?" asked Chisti. "It is our mission to give the secret news to your mother. That is why we are here."
"Then you won't escape from us?" asked the boy.
"You have our word," said Chisti.
"What do you think, brother?" The girl troll scratched her armpit. "News about guarding the princess. Maw would be pleased with us."
"Okay," said the boy. "We'll let you out. But if you try to run we'll bop you real hard." He turned to his sister and said in a loud whisper, "We could eat them after they tells the secret to Maw anyway."
She grinned at him, showing a row of crooked teeth with brownish tufts stuck between them, then took a huge knife from where it was stuck in her waistband and began slashing at the ropes indiscriminately.
"Hey, watch out!" cried Tina. "You almost cut me. Your mom would get mad at you if you did."
"You shush," said the boy troll. "Just be glad we's lettin' you out."
As soon as the hole was big enough Roxanne scrambled out of the net and turned to help her friends. The trolls were still suspicious of them, and tied their hands together on a long rope that the girl held tightly in one hand while she kept her knife at the ready in the other. The boy followed behind with his big club, threatening to bop them at any false move.
"You know something?" whispered Roxanne to the others. "I think we've found our purpose."
"To make sure we don't get eaten?" asked Tina with a snort.
"No. I think we are here to rescue the princess."
"You may be right," said Chisti thoughtfully. "Messages come in many strange guises. I think we will have to stay with these trolls until we find out all we can about the princess. We must be very careful, especially when we meet their mother. Hopefully we will learn all we need to before the day is over and we can escape during the night."
And so they continued down the road, escorted by the two large troll children, keeping their eyes and ears open to learn as much as they could, not only about the trolls but also about their surroundings. Knowing the point of their quest gave them a fresh burst of energy and resolve -- that there was a princess to be rescued they were certain, and they would do all that was in their power to help her. The fact that they didn't want to be eaten was also a great motivator.
Monica and Rhondin looked at each other. They'd just come out of the forest and now these two expected them to go back into it in search of the lost prince and princess. And they had nothing to go on. Unsurprisingly, though Naragor had a lot to say on the matter, when his rambling explanations were analysed he really had not said anything of practical use. Even Dep had been uninformative. He was more valuable for humorous relief. Well, not relief actually, because they had to choke on their giggles.
"Do you have any idea where the prince might have gone?" asked Rhondin.
"And why was his room all burned?" asked Monica. "How do you know he didn't die in the fire?"
"I saw the bedchamber," said Naragor. "It was scorched black, and the furniture was rendered to nothing but a heap of ashes. But the heavy oaken door was barely singed. What kind of fire does that? Would the prince have stayed abed and let the fire consume him when all he had to do was walk five paces to be free of it?"
Monica thought about the possibility of him having been drugged, or smoke inhalation, but she didn't say anything.
"So, what do you imagine happened to him?"
"Wizardry and witchcraft," said Naragor importantly. "It must have been a powerful spell that transported him."
"It smelled to me like dragon fire," Dep put in.
"Dragon fire" Naragor was scornful. "There are no dragons in all of Vlidmur."
The way he said it showed he hoped there were no dragons in Vlidmur. His face took on a yellowish hue and his body appeared to quake ever so slightly.
"You think he was abducted by a dragon?" asked Rhondin, turning to Dep.
"It is a possibility," said Dep. "But it is just as possible that he was drugged and abducted in the night by Duke Fremor and the fire set afterwards as a ruse. I mention dragons because Naragor is an acclaimed dragon slayer." He glanced over at Naragor with a smirk.
Naragor had regained his proud bearing, and now swaggered slightly as he leaned towards Jolie to say, "It was I who rid the kingdom of all the dreaded beasts."
Dep whispered to Monica and Rhondin, "I think there must only have been one very sickly specimen, for otherwise I don't see how he could have done it."
Jolie just looked up at the dimple on Naragor's bristly chin and sighed.
"So, if we don't know what we are up against, how to we know where to begin?" asked Rhondin.
"The answer must lie in the forest," cried Naragor. "My instinct for danger will lead us thither."
"Follow him and we'll become lost," teased Dep.
Jolie gave him a dirty look. "Do you have a better suggestion?"
"Not stumble about over tree roots in the dark?" was all he could come up with.
So with no idea better than following their intrepid self-appointed leader, they all headed back towards the forest. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, there was a sound like snapping sails and in a gust of sulphurous wind, a green and gold dragon came swooping down upon them. Naragor pulled his sword and waved it futilely as he shielded himself behind Dep, Jolie clinging to his other arm. Rhondin pulled his and held it high over his head, at the same time rushing to come between the dragon and Monica, who was staring transfixed at the beast's ever nearing great head and flaming red eyes.
The dragon flicked Rhondin's sword away with the beat of a wing, sending it spinning from his grasp, and then knocked him aside as it caught Monica up with its forelegs and spiralled up, higher and higher, until it was lost from their view in the distant mountain peaks.
"Monica!" screamed Jolie, and
the beat on Naragor's back with her fists.
"Why didn't you do something to try and stop it?"
Naragor flashed his sword about in impressive swoops as he returned it to his scabbard. "I was busy protecting you and my page, young maiden."
"Your page?" said Dep. "For a moment there I thought you had me confused with your shield."
Meanwhile, Rhondin had gotten to his feet shakily and then retrieved his sword from where it had fallen. Besides a bruise on his elbow from when he had landed on it, he was uninjured. There was a tear across the breast of his tunic, but the wingtip had only grazed his chest, leaving the tiniest of welts that was quickly fading. "We have to follow them and save her," he cried.
"Our task is to find the prince," said Naragor. "When we have done that we can raise a party to vanquish the dragon."
"But what will happen to Monica in the meantime? He could kill her, eat her, whatever dragons do to their captives."
"Have no fear," said Naragor. "She will be kept in his cave until a knight comes to fight the dragon for her freedom. Her life is in no danger."
"Her life is in no danger?" asked Rhondin. "So I suppose that makes everything all right? We can just leave her there to be cold and frightened, alone and miserable, with nothing to eat or drink, just because he won't eat her?"
"I understand captive maidens are well taken care of," said Naragor. "I do have some experience in this field."
"And I'm sure you are dying to go up there and battle the dragon just as soon as we find the prince," said Dep.
"If it were not for this quest I would be halfway to his mountain eyrie already," cried Naragor, striking a valiant pose.
"I've had enough of your vainglorious announcements. If the rest of you are too frightened to face the dragon, I'll just have to go by myself." Rhondin turned from them and stuck out in the direction of the mountains that the dragon had flown too.
"You can't go by yourself!" cried Jolie.
Dep looked at Naragor. "Aren't you going to do anything to stop the young hothead?"
Naragor just yelled after him, "You swore you'd help us with our quest."
Rhondin turned to face them one last time. "I'll help you when I've rescued Monica, but not until then."
"Remember that the forest has many traps," Dep called to him. "Take care."
"Let me go -- Monica's my cousin -- I need to go with Rhondin and help save her," cried Jolie.
"I cannot let you do that, fair maiden," said Naragor as he held her tightly against himself. "The forest is no place for one as fair as you to be ranging in alone without a protector."
"But -- I'd be with Rhondin."
"He is but a boy -- I only hope he manages to protect himself until we are able to save them both."
"As long as we don't get lost first," said Dep under his breath.
"And now, to find the prince," said Naragor. He released Jolie and began striding down the path to the forest.
"You'd better come with us," said Dep, holding his hand out to Jolie. "You'll never catch up with your friend now."
Jolie gave him a blistering glance and then ran to join Naragor. "Promise me you'll save them as soon as possible."
"As soon as the prince is found, I assure you. After all -- I am the dragon slayer -- I'll chop that beast to little pieces before your very eyes."
"Brave words when the dragon isn't around," muttered Dep as he followed close behind.
©2006, 2007 Copyright held by the author.