I looked all around. The pint-sized, gnome-like creatures who had identified themselves as wish listeners – who claimed they listen for people to make wishes and then grant those wishes if they are so inclined – were gone. Their chortles, giggles and titters still hung in the air like the sound of distant wind chimes, but the creatures had disappeared, and where they had gone was anyone’s guess.
I sighed and removed my hat. I raked my hand through my hair, then plopped the cap back on my head and adjusted the drawstring. “Great! Now what?” I looked at my characters.
Dragon cleared her throat. “I propose we start wishing to return to the park whence we came, and hope those curious little creatures hear us and are inclined to grant us our wish.”
“And iffin they do na be so in-clined?” My Old Dwarf raised his eyebrows and his axe. “I be proposin’ thet I be gittin’ ta choppin’ tha wall o branches what be blockin’ tha path ta tha steps.”
“I think the dwarf is right. We need to get out of here and find our way back to the picnic grove by the lake where Master Miles awaits us.” My Foreman wiped the sweat from his brow and rested one foot on a small boulder next to the clearing. “Since we know two of the trails leading from this clearing are impassable, and we do not want to follow our recent knightly guests down the avenue they took, that only leaves us one viable alternative.”
“Wishing is a viable alternative. Did the creatures not imply that is what brought us here in the first place?” Sorceress scowled and glared at her companions through narrowed eyes. “One or more of our company wished for something that brought us to this place. If one or more of our company wishes for us to return whence we came, perchance the wish listeners will grant us a boon.”
My Old Dwarf shook his head. “Or tha wee, nasty varmints could be sendin’ us somewhere else, just ta be havin’ a laugh at our expense.”
My Arrogant One pursed his lips and drew himself up, rocking back on his heels. “For once, I agree with the dwarf. We need to extricate ourselves from this land, not place our fate in the hands of alien creatures whose agenda is unknown to us.”
I looked around at my characters. Most were nodding in agreement with my Old Dwarf and my Arrogant One. Finally, after some heated discussion, even Dragon and Sorceress capitulated.
“Well, then, you should start chopping.” I watched as my Old Dwarf set about the task. His sharp axe and strong arms soon made kindling of the tangle of branches. But no steps were waiting for us behind the wall of wood. Instead, an ancient forest almost devoid of underbrush lay before us, crisscrossed with barely discernable paths.
As the ten of us began to traverse the tangled woodland, my Old Dwarf nudged Dragon. “Ye will na be able ta be squeezin’ yer great bulk underneath tha branches o these great trees, beastie. Best ye be changin’ yerself agin.”
Dragon snorted a puff of black smoke, but quickly returned to her customary form of an elf maiden.
The going was slow. My two best trackers – my Foreman and my Bounty Hunter – led the way, with much discussion from everyone else when trails seemed to branch off in every direction.
The twisted, misshapen, old trees slowly gave way to newer growth. The young trees grew straight and tall, and grasses and underbrush flourished. The path we had taken grew wider and more distinct and became easier to follow. Soon, a stream appeared on our left, the water flowing from a source somewhere up ahead of us.
Cleric pointed. “Look, Mistress! Some beautiful water iris are in bloom along the stream, and some water lilies are starting to open as well.”
“Curious.” Sorceress examined the flowers. “These are the first blossoms we have encountered, despite the overpowering fragrance of wildflowers on the breeze.” She bent over to sniff at them. “The scent from the iris and water lily is not strong enough to be the source of the intense fragrance.”
“Neither is the handful of wildflowers scattered in that prairie on the other side of the creek.” My Foreman pointed.
Sorceress furrowed her brow and followed my Foreman’s gaze. “Indeed.”
My Gypsy frowned. “That is as disconcerting as the fact I have been hearing the pervasive melody of birdsong ever since we left the old growth forest, despite the obvious lack of birds.”
No sooner had he spoken than we heard something quacking. We looked about and spotted a Mallard hen with her babies in the water. Then a harsh croak drew our attention to a Great Egret fishing in a small pool on the other side of the stream. Loud gobbling announced the presence of a Wild Turkey walking across a nearby wooden bridge.
“I do not believe any of those birds are songbirds, Mistress.” Cleric’s brow was furrowed, and she was chewing on her lower lip.
I frowned. “This must be some sort of outlandish prank. Perhaps the wish listeners are at work here.”
“Something surely is.” My Bounty Hunter frowned.
Warily, we continued along our way. For a time, the trail we walked paralleled the waterway. The scent of the wildflowers and the sound of birdsong followed us, though we saw no more flowers or birds. Eventually, the stream narrowed, and the path started to rise. A wooden fence bordered the side of the trail farthest from the stream.
“Thet fence dinna be builtin’ itself, lass. We best be keepin’ our wits aboot us.” My Old Dwarf fell in behind me as I took the lead.
The trail took a sharp turn away from the stream and a new set of stairs rose before us. I stopped dead in my tracks, and my characters piled into me. After we regained our composure, we all stood there, gaping.
Ahead of us a beautiful figure blocked our way. She wore a royal blue and gold gown, her flowing, silvery hair was crowned with a circlet of laurel, and angel-like wings sprouted from her back. When she spoke, it sounded as if an unseen musician was caressing the strings of a harp. “I am Medal`av`alia, Queen of these lands. Why are you trespassing in my realm?”
I bowed low, then rose and met her narrow-eyed gaze. “We do not travel this land by choice, Your Majesty. Strange creatures calling themselves wish listeners caused us to be here.” I noticed her eyes widened at the mention of the wish listeners, but she remained silent. “Perhaps you could help us find our way home?”
Her Majesty scowled at us. “Ask the turtle.” And she was gone, leaving us all gaping again.
I shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts and make sense of things. “Ask the turtle?” I looked around. “Did anyone see a turtle?”
My Young Hero tilted his head and rubbed his chin. “Turtles are usually found near water. Mayhap we should return to the spot where we observed the ducklings and the egret.”
We backtracked as quickly as we could. In the pool by the stream where the egret had been fishing, we now saw a large turtle, covered with duckweed.
“Cleric, you are the one with the greatest affinity for animals, and the one with proven ability to make yourself understood by lesser creatures.” I pointed to the turtle. “Do you think you can ask him how to return to our own land?”
“You mean your own land.” My Arrogant One sniffed disdainfully.
I glared at him. “It is your land now as well. It has been since the day you fell out of my manuscripts. But there is no time to rehash that issue now.” I turned my back on him and repeated my request to Cleric. “Do you think you can?”
“I will try, Mistress.” She looked doubtful but approached the edge of the pool. “Kind turtle, Queen Medal`av`alia suggested you might be able to direct us back to our own lands.”
Something in the grass on the other side of the water snorted. A loud voice exclaimed, “These creatures are as dim-witted as our queen, what?”
I looked around and spied a large tortoise. My mouth dropped open and my eyes almost popped out of their sockets as I stared at the bizarre creature, which had a small, wooden shanty tied atop its carapace. Three tiny, winged fairy-folk were in the structure, while two more flitted about the tortoise’s head. A small songbird was perched on a tree stump in front of this strange group.
I was dumbstruck, and my jaw almost hit the ground as the bird spoke in response to the previous remark. “I’ll say, guv’nor. Ol’ Meddie never did comprehend the difference between a turtle and a tortoise, did she?”
“Imagine!” One of the fairy-folk flying around the tortoise tittered. “Thinking a turtle could talk!”
It took me a few minutes to regain my composure. Then, with my characters in tow, I traversed the wooden bridge we had seen the turkey crossing earlier and approached the strange entourage. “Excuse me. Are you the one the queen referred to when she told us to consult the turtle?”
“Prob’ly, luv. She don’t seem ta get the diff’ between us terrestrial travelers and our semi-aquatic cousins.”
“I see. Well, I apologize for the confusion.”
“No prob, luv. It weren’t you wot made the mistake. Ol’ Meddie can present me with ’er own apology.”
Quickly, I explained the problem to the tortoise – or as quickly as I could with constant interruptions and additions from my characters. “So, you see,” I concluded, “we need to find our way back to our own land.”
“Hmmm . . . it wouldn’t be too smart to cross the wish listeners . . . bad business, that.” The bird shook its head and fluffed its feathers.
The tortoise nodded. “Quite right, mate, but I owe them barmy buggers for turnin’ me into a bloomin’ caravan for a bunch of bloody pixies and sprites.” He snatched a flower and chomped it loudly while he considered the problem. “Tell ya wot, luv – you an’ yer friends follow this stream. Stay on the bank, not on the trail – the trail goes off on a tangent before it comes back to the creek a bunch of miles upstream.”
The tortoise chomped another flower. “Bad business, mate!” The bird said again, shaking his wings and fluffing his feathers.
The tortoise ignored the bird and continued. “Upstream about a mile, mile and a half, you’ll find a waterfall. Look for Esmie and ask her. She’ll know, for sure.”
“Thank you most kindly. And how will I recognize Esmie?”
“How will ya recognize Esmie?” The bird twittered. “How will ya recognize Esmie? Just how many mermaids do ya expect ta run inta there?”
“I do not believe your friend identified Esmie as a mermaid.” Dragon had been growing impatient with the exchange and had shape-shifted back to her reptilian form. Black smoke drifted from her snout.
“Blimey! It’s a bleedin’ talkin’ lizard! An’ it’s on fire!”
One of the brownies laughed. “Shows you how much you know, bird-brain. That’s a dragon!”
“A dragon? Ya don’t say!” The bird flew around Dragon, inspecting her from every angle. “I don’t see what makes a dragon such a big deal.”
I hustled Dragon away before she could show the bird exactly what makes a dragon such a big deal. I called back to the entourage. “Thanks again! We’ll tell Esmie you sent us.”
“Oh, blimey! Don’t do that, luv! If the wish listeners find out I sent you to Esmie, I’ll never be shed of these blinkin’ pixies and sprites!”
“Oh!” I hesitated then said brightly, “Well, okay, it’ll be our little secret.” I smiled, thinking they’ve probably been listening to every word.
My other characters and I continued prodding Dragon to the bridge. We crossed to the opposite side once more, where Dragon changed back into an elf maiden. The ten of us followed the creek upstream as instructed, being sure not to follow the road when it left the stream. Even though travel was easy over the lush carpet of grasses and clovers, it took us the better part of three hours to reach the waterfall, as it was closer to a five-mile trek than to the mile and a half estimate the tortoise had given.
The late afternoon sunshine lit the grotto by the waterfall as we approached. A mermaid with emerald green hair and scales splashed in the shallows by the shore, gazing up at a large bubble she held in one hand. The orb was filled with images I could not quite make out.
She dropped the bubble and stared at me and my companions. “Oh, it’s you.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You were expecting us?”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Well, I wouldn’t be saying oh, it’s you if I wasn’t expecting you, now would I?”
Unable to think of a snappy comeback to that statement, I shrugged. “Who told you we were coming?”
Esmie gave me a smile that was half Mona Lisa, half Cheshire Cat. Then she abruptly changed the subject. “You all must be hungry and tired. Please, sit. Dinner will be served soon.”
My characters looked askance, but I nodded. Esmie smiled. “I’ll be right back.” She dove under the waterfall and disappeared.
Dragon frowned. “We do not know this creature’s motives. How did she know to expect us? Will the food she serves be safe? Mayhap we should leave now, before she returns.”
“And go where? We have no idea where we are or how to return home. I don’t think we have much choice.”
Will Esmie prove friend or foe? Will dinner be luscious or lethal? Will the mermaid help us return home, or will we continue to wander this land, searching for an escape? Be sure to come back next week as we continue our little odyssey. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.