I awoke with a start. I was vaguely aware of voices calling in the distance. “Mistress? Where are you?”
I looked around. The sun was high in the cloudless, azure sky. Baalizhene, the tiny, antlered, child-like creature with gossamer wings, was no longer perched on the branch by my shoulder. The terraced falls and pool in front of me were devoid of the fey folk and fantastic creatures that had been frolicking there in the light of last evening’s full moon.
The shouting was getting louder. I recognized the voice of one of my characters. “Where be ye, lass?” My Old Dwarf was getting closer. I struggled to my feet and started walking toward his voice.
A different voice came from near where I had heard the dwarf. “She no could go far.” That voice, I knew, was that of Gobschlerk, the short, green, trollish creature that served the mermaid, Esmie, the ruler of this realm.
“You were supposed to keep watch over Esmie’s guests, Gobschlerk, and guard them from harm.” That voice, the one tinged with a note of reprimand, I knew belonged to another of Esmie’s vassals, Dyrke. He was a man-creature with butterfly wings entwined with tiny branches sprouting from his back. Dyrke stood only about two feet high but he had the commanding presence of one much larger. Blind from birth, Dyrke had been gifted by the wish listeners with an orb that allowed him to see.
“Mistress?” That was Cleric. Her voice quavered with trepidation. “Can you hear us, Mistress?”
“I’m here!” I walked along the path Baalizhene and I had taken the previous evening. The trail seemed much longer than it had then, and the voices I had been hearing must have come from much farther away than they sounded.
I passed a large pool I did not remember from the preceding night’s trek. Dazzling beams of light illuminated a large swan swimming alongside a mermaid. As soon as the mermaid saw me, she smiled and waved. “Hello! Are you the guest who has become lost?”
“Well, I do not believe I am lost, just separated from the rest of my party.” I smiled at the mermaid, a beautiful creature with golden tresses and scales.
“I am Eloise, Esmie’s daughter and Crown Princess of the realm. This is my friend, King Mēzän.”
I introduced myself and said, “It’s very nice to meet you both.”
The royal swan looked down his beak at me and then turned to Eloise. He startled me by speaking. “Is this the one?”
He turned back toward me and moved his long, graceful neck up and down, taking careful stock of me. “Why do you feel she is worthy of my help?”
The mermaid shrugged. “Baalizhene said so.”
Mēzän snorted. “Baalizhene is a child. She does not possess the experience or wisdom to make such assessments.” He looked at me again. “This one does not appear very bright.”
Eloise raised an eyebrow. “Mēzän! It is not good manners to make such comments about someone standing right in front of you!”
Mēzän snorted again. “I am a king. Manners are irrelevant.”
I ducked my head so Eloise and Mēzän wouldn’t see me chuckle. The royal swan noticed my movement and shook his head. “There is no reason for me to inconvenience myself giving aid to one such as this.”
“Well . . .” Eloise lowered her voice and winked at the swan. “What if I told you my mother would not be pleased if you assisted this one and her companions? What if I told you the wish listeners have forbidden all to give aid to this group?”
The swan squawked a startled laugh. “Your mother would be displeased? And those troublesome creatures that listen for unfortunate wishes have forbidden it?”
Eloise nodded and smiled broadly, a twinkle in her eye.
“You.” The swan king addressed me. “Gather your companions. I will provide you every bit of aid that is in my power to give.”
I nodded. “I will gather them now and bring them here.”
“Wait!” Eloise’s eyes were wide as she stopped me. “You must not let Dyrke or Gobschlerk know.”
I quirked an eyebrow. “Oh?”
Mēzän nodded. “Indeed. Gobschlerk’s fealty is questionable, but Dyrke is totally loyal to Esmie . . . unlike some here present.” He gave the Crown Princess a pointed look.
Eloise looked hurt. “I am loyal to my mother!” She paused, smirking slightly. “Just a bit rebellious. It is natural for one my age. Besides, are you not being more than a bit disloyal as well?”
“Irrelevant. You are her daughter. I am but her ally, and a ruler in my own right. I do not owe her fealty in all matters.” The swan gave his head a vigorous shake. “But Dyrke is not just loyal to Esmie. He is also beholden to the wish listeners. Should he discover we are aiding you in opposition to them, he could make things most unpleasant for all of us.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“Go back to your companions. Tell Dyrke and Gobschlerk you wish to return to Esmie’s pool for an audience with the mermaid queen. They will not refuse your request. Ask her if she intends to help you. She may decline outright, or she may send you on a fool’s errand. Whatever the case, you and your companions should make your way back here as covertly as possible. I shall, by then, have a plan in place to aid you.”
I nodded. “Thank you. Thank you both!”
I continued along the trail toward the voices of my companions and Esmie’s servants. Soon I was back at the clearing where Gobschlerk had served us our evening meal. I called out as loudly as I could, “I’m over here, in the clearing!”
Moments later, my characters and the mermaid queen’s minions burst into the clearing from another trail. “Told you she no could go far.” Gobschlerk sneered at Dyrke.
My characters rushed over to me, all speaking at once, welcoming me back and telling me how worried they had been. I motioned as furtively as I could to them to remain quiet. Several nodded, indicating they understood, but many continued murmuring and chattering.
Dyrke scurried over to me, peering into his orb while speaking. “You gave us quite a fright! Your companions said you were missing this morning when they awoke.”
I feigned surprise. “I was up early and went for a walk. I didn’t want to disturb anyone. I frequently go off by myself. My companions should be used that, and know it is no cause for alarm.”
“Oh?” Dyrke’s voice held a note of suspicion. “Well then, I do hope you had an enjoyable jaunt. Did you encounter anyone in your travels?”
I sidestepped the question. “It was a very nice walk, thanks. The scenery around here is so delightful. I tried to find Esmie, but I was unsuccessful. I’d like to speak with her, to determine whether she is able to assist us or not. Will you lead the way back to her pool?”
A dark expression passed over Dyrke’s face before he marshaled his features into an unreadable mask. “Of course. Right this way.”
Dragon and I exchanged glances but remained silent. My characters and I filed along the trail following Dyrke and Gobschlerk. We arrived at the mermaid queen’s pool to find Esmie sunning herself at the water’s edge. Just as the first time I saw her, the mermaid was gazing up at a large bubble she held in one hand. I still could not quite make out the images in the bubble.
Before Dyrke could announce our presence, Esmie dropped the bubble and turned to face us. “Oh, splendid, you are here! I have good news for you.” Her brilliant smile could have made the sun jealous, but I noticed it did not reach her eyes.
“Really? What news is that?” I returned her smile.
“I have discovered the path that will return you to your world.”
My characters brightened at that news and gathered closer to hear.
Esmie pointed. “Right over there, along the west bank of this pool, is a deer track heading north. If you follow that for a few miles, it will join a wider path. When you reach a fork in that trail, be sure to follow the left branch. You’ll be home in no time at all!”
“Well, it’s about time!” My Arrogant One’s face was red, and his voice was at the pitch that could have easily shattered crystal. He drew himself up, rocked back on his heels, and grasped his robes in both hands. His annoying voice was petulant, accusatory, and haughty, all at the same time. “The accommodations last evening were not at all acceptable for someone of my stature . . .”
Dragon clamped a clawed hand over the elf’s mouth, stifling his outburst. “What my companion meant to say was thank you, Your Majesty. We appreciate your hospitality and all your efforts to assist us.” She bowed to the mermaid and shoved my Arrogant One into the arms of my Bounty Hunter and my Foreman, who managed to silence the now sullen elf.
Sniffing disdainfully at the elf, Esmie nodded graciously at Dragon and the rest of us. Then she gave me a sidelong glance. “Should I send Dyrke or Gobschlerk with you, to make certain you do not lose your way?”
I smiled but shook my head. “Thank you for the offer, but we don’t want to inconvenience your people further. I’m quite sure we can follow your excellent directions.”
The mermaid and her two strange minions watched us as we started on our way along the path Esmie had pointed out.
Dragon shrank to the size of a pug, to better navigate the forest trail, but kept her true form.
“Here, Dragon, let me help you over this log.” I picked up the small reptilian figure and whispered in her ear. “I need to speak to everyone without being overheard by any of the inhabitants of this world.”
She nodded and turned her head to whisper in my ear. “Perhaps there will be a clearing up ahead, where we can gather close and I can cast some wards to keep other eyes and ears from joining us.”
The closest thing to a clearing we found was where the deer track joined a marginally larger path. I beckoned everyone to draw near. By gathering around and sitting on rocks and fallen logs, we were able to make a tight enough circle for Dragon to cast her wards.
After mumbling the incantations, Dragon nodded to me. “Speak freely. I assure you no outsider can see or hear us now.”
I quickly disclosed the earlier conversation I had had with Esmie’s daughter, Eloise, and her friend, King Mēzän.
Sorceress sighed. “It would be nice to believe that Esmie is sending us on the path that will lead home. However, if you believe Eloise and Mēzän, we need to be wary. Mayhap the mermaid queen does not have our best interest at heart.”
My Young Hero nodded. “It does not sound as if she will defy the wish listeners and help us.”
My Gypsy frowned. “On the other hand, how do we know we can trust Eloise and Mēzän? While you say they seemed genuinely eager to defy the wish listeners and ignore Esmie’s dictates, might they not have their own agenda?”
My Old Dwarf fidgeted with his axe. “It be better ta be taken’ our chances wit tha princess an’ ’er friend. We do na be knowin’ fer sure iffin they be meanin’ ta help us or no, but we do be knowin’ aboot Esmie’s lackey. Tha blind flutterby laddie be beholdin’ ta tha wish listeners, so’s he do na be going agin ’em, and I do na be thinkin’ his queen would be defyin’ ’em, either.”
Cleric adjusted her robe and squirmed on the hard rock. “I agree. I believe we should try to make our way back to the pool where you encountered Eloise and Mēzän, Mistress.”
“And just how will we manage that without arousing the suspicion of the mermaid queen and her serfs?” My Arrogant One crossed his arms over his chest and scowled. “They expect us to be following the trail Esmie dictated. If we go off bumbling through the forest, trying to find the other pool, they may take action against us.”
I tilted my head and stroked my chin. Surprisingly, the elf had made a good point.
Dragon snorted. “I can maintain the wards until we find Eloise and Mēzän, as long as we move at a leisurely pace and stay reasonably close together.”
I nodded. “Let’s try. But stay alert. We don’t know if any inhabitants of this world possess magic equal to or greater than Dragon’s powers. We don’t want to be caught unawares.”
It was late afternoon by the time we found our way back to the spot where I had encountered Eloise and Mēzän. The pool was empty, and the mud at the water’s edge looked as if there had been a scuffle.
What has happened to Eloise and Mēzän? Did Esmie and the wish listeners discover their treachery? And what will happen to us? Should we go back and take the route Esmie directed us to take, or try to find another way home? Be sure to join us again next week as our odyssey continues. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.