My characters and I huddled together in a small clearing. The woods here looked different. I couldn’t see the trail leading back toward the lake, where we had enjoyed our picnic, where my husband now waited for our return. Nor could I see the steps we had just been climbing.
We currently stood at the bottom of some steps, but these steps looked much different than the ones we had been climbing. The steps we had scaled had been overgrown with lush vegetation, save a small path barely wide enough to tread. They had risen from a trail next to a sign proclaiming it a secret trail, a trail I had never seen while hiking in this park. The steps behind us now were steeper and, though narrower, were not covered with as much vegetation, allowing a wider passage.
Trails branched off in three directions from the small clearing where we now clustered at the bottom of the strange steps. To the right, the path was choked by protruding tree roots. To the left, the trail was littered with boulders. Straight ahead, a wide avenue passed between two rows of trees whose branches formed a canopy over the road.
This was not the park where we had had our picnic, where we had just been hiking and taking wildlife photographs.
“Which way should we go?” Cleric’s voice was barely a whisper.
I crossed my arms over my chest and chewed my bottom lip while I considered the question.
I beckoned my Foreman. “Take the lads and go scout the path to the right. Don’t go too far, maybe just around the first bend. Let me know if the trail clears out, and if you can see where it leads.”
My Foreman nodded and started down the path with my Gypsy and my Young Hero following close behind. They picked their way carefully around the protruding tree roots and soon disappeared around the bend in the path.
I motioned to my Old Dwarf. “Take my Bounty Hunter and my Arrogant One and scout the trail to the left.”
My Arrogant One stuck his nose in the air and started to protest in his typical whiny screech. “I am not a scout! Such menial labor is beneath me!” My Old Dwarf and my Bounty Hunter rolled their eyes and quickly hustled the annoying elf away, but he continued complaining every step of the way. The trio made their way over and around the boulders, and a bend in the trail soon took them from my sight. Unfortunately, I could hear my Arrogant One much longer than I could see him.
I turned to Dragon, who was in her guise of an elf maiden. “Can you, Cleric, and Sorceress check out the middle road?”
Dragon nodded. “We will go about half the distance to the end of the trees that border the road.” I watched them make their way cautiously along the road, until the mist swallowed them from sight.
It did not take long for my characters to return. My Foreman and the lads were the first to report.
My Foreman removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. “The path to the right deteriorates quickly past the first bend. There are areas that are all but impassable, where trees have fallen across the path as erosion has led to several trees being uprooted.”
My Gypsy nodded in agreement. “Some of us might be small enough to crawl through the debris, but I do not believe all of us could do so.”
My Young Hero grimaced. “We were unable to determine where the path went past the downed trees.”
I turned to my Old Dwarf. “And the trail to the left?”
The dwarf shook his head. “Beyond tha first turn, there a been a rockslide. I be havin’ no troubles makin’ me way o’er tha boulders, but the udder two . . .” He spat on the ground.
My Arrogant One rubbed his leg and whined sullenly. “I almost broke my leg trying to scramble across those huge, slippery rocks!”
My Bounty Hunter concurred. “The boulders are covered with moss and are too slick for any but a dwarf or a sure-footed mountain goat. And another bend in the trail prevented us from seeing where it led.”
Dragon spoke up. “The middle road is level and easy underfoot. The trees provide shade, and the way is pleasant.”
“Could you see where the road leads?”
Cleric shook her head. “The mist prevented us from seeing what is at the end of the double row of trees whose branches form a canopy across the trail. It may be another clearing, or the road might continue past the trees.”
“With the hazardous condition of the other two trails, the center trail seems the most logical choice.” Sorceress made a moue. “It makes me wonder if we are not being maneuvered into taking that road.”
I considered all that my characters had said, thinking long and hard before deciding. “I don’t feel good about any of these trails. I think we should go back. We’ll go up the steps and see if we can retrace our trail.”
I turned to lead my companions up the steps, but the steps were gone. They had been replaced by a very thick wall of tangled branches.
“Wale, I be guessin’ we do na be goin’ thet way, lass, ’lessens ye be wantin’ me ta be choppin’ a hole through tha hedge.” My Old Dwarf raised his axe.
I shook my head. “No. I don’t imagine that would do any good.” I did a double-take at my Old Dwarf. “Why do you have your axe? Why are you wearing your armor again?”
I suddenly realized that all my characters were wearing their own clothing again, not the modern jeans, shirts, and sneakers I had insisted they wear for the outing. And Dragon was no longer in her guise of an elf maiden. She had changed into her true form of a Great Wyrm.
“How did you all change back into your old outfits so quickly? And, Dragon, why did you shape-shift?”
The wide-eyed expressions on everyone’s faces as they looked at their companions told me they had not done this of their own accord.
Dragon confirmed my suspicions. “Mistress, I did not shape-shift. I should still be in my accustomed form of an elf maiden.” The great beast was so distraught, she morphed to a pale blue, and smoke bubbles dripped from her snout.
I took a quick inventory of my own outfit. I was still wearing the same clothes, including my hat and sneakers, and my camera still hung around my neck.
“You have not changed, Mistress. Why have we?” The usually imperturbable Sorceress gaped at me and wrung her hands. Her voice quavered, and all color drained from her face.
“I have no idea.”
A sudden noise caught our attention. A trio of mounted knights rode slowly toward us on the center trail, the clanking of their armor sounding louder and louder as they approached.
As they grew nearer, Dragon recovered some of her poise and morphed back to a more imposing looking dragon. She stepped in front of me, extending her wings. “Remain hidden, Mistress. You look . . . a bit out of place.”
I peeked under Dragon’s wing and watched as one of the knights, probably the ranking member of the group, dismounted. He handed his reins to one of his mounted comrades, who nudged his charger to stand at the opening of the trail to our right. The other mounted knight took his courser and blocked the trail to our left.
The rest of my characters drew into a tight semi-circle around me as Dragon moved forward. The great beast towered menacingly over the knight who had dismounted, but when he made no threatening moves, Dragon sat and greeted him in a congenial voice. “Hail and well met, noble knight!”
“Hail, great and terrible beast! Methinks thou and thy companions art strangers in our fair land.”
“We are.” Dragon stood and began to explain. “We are traveling and seem to have taken the wrong road.”
The knight nodded. “Where art thou bound for?”
Dragon hesitated. “I know not the name of the place.”
“My lord!” The knight blocking the left-hand trail vaulted off his horse as he addressed the knight with whom Dragon was speaking.
The ranking knight seemed irritated at the interruption and started to snap at his underling. “What doth thou . . .?”
Before the ranking knight could complete his question, the other one pushed through my companions, grabbed me by the arm, and hauled me out into the open. “Look, my lord!”
My Old Dwarf stomped up to the knight and brandished his axe. “I wouldna be doin’ thet iffin I be ye, laddie. I be thinkin’ ye best be releasin’ tha lass right quick-like, iffin ye be placin’ any value on yer hand!”
The knight let loose of my arm and squared off against the dwarf, wielding his sword with both hands.
I moved between the two warriors, shook my head, and gestured to my Old Dwarf to lower his axe. “Stay your weapon, old friend. These good and noble knights mean me no harm.”
Scowling at the knights, my Old Dwarf nevertheless lowered his axe. The knight was slower, but soon lowered his weapon as well. Keeping his eye on the dwarf, he took me by the arm again.
The ranking knight gaped at me. “What manner of dress is this thou art wearing?”
“And what doth that object be, hanging from thy neck?” The third knight had leaped from his mount to confront me.
The two knights started to pull me over to their superior. Dragon reared up and roared. Flames shot toward the ranking knight, who stood steadfast against the fiery threat.
My eyes widened. “Dragon! No!”
Dragon growled but stood down.
The two knights escorted me a bit more gently, keeping their eyes on Dragon and my Old Dwarf. When I stood in front of their superior, I bowed to the ranking knight and spoke in low, respectful tones.
“Well met, noble sir. I trust you withstood well the censure of my companion. I assure you she meant you no harm.”
The knight snorted. “I am aware of that. If the beast had meant to harm me, I would be naught but a pile of cinders upon the forest floor.”
He and the other knights walked around me, scrutinizing me. The ranking knight gestured toward my outfit. “Thou shalt explain thyself, wench.”
“This is the mode of dress in the land wherein I reside, my lord, a land far from these most pleasant woods.” I motioned to my camera. “And this object hanging from my neck is one of the tools of my trade.”
“And prithee, at what trade art thou employed?”
“I am a scribe, a historian, a scrivener, a recorder of deeds fantastic and mundane.”
The ranking knight snorted. “From thy dress and thy choice in companions, I would posit thou art a witch.”
A sly smile tugged at the corners of my mouth as I took a step closer to the ranking knight and dropped my voice. “Forsooth! Were I a witch, my good sir, you would be a toad, hopping around on the forest floor.”
The ranking knight paled a bit at the implied threat, and quickly backpedaled until he had put a safe distance between us. He motioned to his men to bring him his horse. The three knights remounted without another word, saluted us, turned, and rode away at a gallop.
“Wow!” My Young Hero grinned at me. “You certainly handled them well!”
“It ain’t my first rodeo, kid!” I chuckled.
“Mistress, what do you mean by that? This is not a rodeo.” Cleric tilted her head and furrowed her brow.
I chuckled. “It means this is not the first time I have been in a situation like this.”
“Of course! I had forgotten. The tales of a mysterious scribe visiting our world refer to you, Mistress Writer!” Cleric smiled at me.
I nodded. “Yup. I told you I didn’t make up the tales I wrote about all of you. I merely recorded your exploits.”
Dragon and my Old Dwarf exchanged furtive glances, and the old reprobate gulped. “Cleric do na be tha onlyest one what be forgittin’ thet tha lass be havin’ experience in different worlds.” His voice was barely a whisper, and Dragon’s ears were the only ones it was intended to reach.
I turned back toward the tangle of branches where the steps had been. “We need to find a way home. I don’t fancy following the path taken by those knights, and you’ve indicated the other two roads are all but impassable. That just leaves the way we came.”
My Old Dwarf hefted his axe, but before he could move toward the wall of tree limbs that blocked our way, a strange noise caught everyone’s attention.
“What is that sound?” My Gypsy looked all around.
My Young Hero cocked his head to listen. “It almost sounds like giggling.”
We followed the sound and found four small creatures, hardly bigger than squirrels, standing in the grass by the side of the center road, giggling. Three of them looked like garden gnomes come to life, with conical hats and beards. The fourth had a close-fitting cap and a sly smile. All four had long rabbit-like ears.
Sorceress stared at them. “What manner of creatures are you?”
The one with the sly smile stepped forward. “We are wish listeners.”
“You’re what?” I rubbed my chin and narrowed my eyes.
“We listen for people to make wishes.” The speaker wiggled his long ears and continued to smirk.
“And you grant these wishes?” I raised an eyebrow.
“If we are so inclined.”
“So which one of us wished to be here?” I frowned.
“Oh, the ones who made the wish know who they are and they know what they wished for that brought you all here.” The creature continued to simper at us.
I looked at my companions, hoping to catch a guilty expression on someone’s face. All I saw was curiosity. I turned back to the sly one. “And if we wish to return home? Will you grant that wish?”
“If we are so inclined.”
My Old Dwarf’s hand shot out and wrapped around the creature’s neck. “Be ye so inclined?”
But the creature vanished, leaving the dwarf holding a handful of air. The other three wish listeners faded from sight as well, only the sound of their giggling remaining.
“Great! Now what?” I looked at my characters.
Dragon cleared her throat. “I would assume we should start wishing to return to the park whence we came, and hope that those curious little creatures hear us and are inclined to grant us our wish.”
Will the wish-listeners hear and grant our wish to return home? Or must we find another way? Be sure to come back next week and join us on our odyssey. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.