After Esmie departed with the promise to return soon, I took the opportunity to explore. While my characters remained at the spot where we had encountered Esmie, resting and keeping watch, I followed the trail around the mermaid’s pool. I discovered the area was honeycombed with small, terraced waterfalls and pools. One basin was adjacent to a large clearing, carpeted with lush grasses. A smattering of fragrant wildflowers grew along the water’s edge.
I was about to call to my characters to join me when I was startled by a shrill voice from the grass, almost under my feet. “Looks outs!”
Startled, I backpedaled away from the sound and almost lost my balance. I stared at the spot from which the voice seemed to emanate. I finally saw an extraordinary, tiny creature, hardly taller than the mushroom next to which she stood.
“Don’ falls down!” The little creature squeaked in alarm. “Dids Baalizhene scareded you?” She bowed her antlered head contritely and softly fanned her gossamer wings. She folded her hands in front of her, as if praying. “Baalizhene sorry if Baalizhene scareded you.”
The creature who identified herself as Baalizhene looked up again, craning her neck. “Whose is you? Baalizhene never sees you here before. Baalizhene not s’possed to talks to strangers. Is you a strangers? Whatcha doin, strangers? Does you has a name, strangers?”
I opened my mouth to reply, but no words came out.
“Baalizhene! You no bother Esmie’s guest!”
I whirled around to face the new speaker. This creature had a hairy green body, long arms, big feet, a sharp nose, and pointed ears. He stood only as tall as my waist, but he towered over the other, diminutive creature.
The tiny creature’s eyes grew large with fright. “Baalizhene sorry, Gobschlerck. Strangers almost stepped on Baalizhene. Baalizhene just wanteds talking to strangers. Baalizhene didn’t means to scareded strangers. Baalizhene didn’t means to bothered strangers, neithers.”
The green creature the tiny one addressed as Gobschlerck stamped his foot. “Esmie tan yur hide if she find you talk at strangers. Go!” He pointed up to a copse of trees on a rise adjacent to the clearing.
Like a frightened mouse, Baalizhene darted through the grass, scampered up a tree, and dove into a hole.
“Hmph. You go, too, Esmie’s guest.” Gobschlerck scowled at me, stamped his foot again, and pointed in the direction opposite the grove where he had sent Baalizhene.
Again I opened my mouth to reply and again no words came out.
“Gobschlerk!” I turned toward a new voice, this one tinged with a note of reprimand.
Another creature strode across the clearing toward us. This one was about two feet high but had the commanding presence of one much larger. Butterfly wings, entwined with tiny branches, sprouted from his back. He did not watch where he was going; instead, he peered into an orb that floated above his outstretched hand, and he directed his remarks toward it rather than to the green creature he addressed.
“Gobschlerk! Do not speak in that tone to one of Esmie’s guests. And what do you mean, chastising Baalizhene? You know she is my responsibility.”
“Dyrke no watching Baalizhene. Gobschlerk watch. Baalizhene underfeets. She talk to stranger. If Esmie find out, Esmie tan her hide good!”
Still speaking to the orb hanging in the air above his hand, the newcomer replied in an even voice. “Gobschlerk, I have explained this to you before. Baalizhene is frightened of you. You must not speak sharply to her.”
The green creature hung his head. He snuffled loudly and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He shuffled one big foot back and forth in the grass. “Gobschlerk sorry, Dyrke. Gobschlerk like Baalizhene. Gobschlerk no want scare Baalizhene. Baalizhene purdy!”
Dyrke sighed. He continued gazing at the ball suspended above his hand and speaking in the direction of that orb. “Yes, Baalizhene is very pretty. She is also very small and very timid. Gobschlerk is brutish and scares Baalizhene. Gobschlerk must leave Baalizhene alone. If Esmie is not around, I will watch Baalizhene. I will keep her safe and out of trouble.” He paused, frowning. “Do you understand, Gobschlerk?”
The green creature nodded.
“Good. Now go and gather the food for Esmie’s guests, Gobschlerk. Bring the food here. Find something to spread on the grass so that Esmie’s guests may sit and eat.”
“Yes, Dyrke.” The green creature shuffled away, head down, a hang-dog expression on his angular features.
Dyrke continued to speak at the orb. “Welcome to Esmie’s realm. I am Dyrke.”
I stood, staring at the creature. For the third time, I opened my mouth to respond, but still no words emerged.
“You are rude.” He frowned while speaking to the orb.
I felt my cheeks grow hot. I stuttered and finally found my voice. “I . . . I’m sorry. I have never seen a creature like you before, or like the other two.”
The creature called Dyrke seemed to consider that. He tilted his head and stroked his chin with the hand that did not have an orb hovering over it. When he spoke again, he continued to address his remarks in the direction of the orb. “I had assumed, judging by those with whom you travel, you were accustomed to seeing fey folk. But, I suppose even among the fey, Baalizhene and I are unique. I would have thought Gobschlerk quite common, though.”
“Perhaps he is, in this world. In my world, creatures such as the three of you do not exist.”
“But among your companions, there exists some elves, a dwarf, a dwarf-kin, and a dragon. From whence do these individuals hail?”
“They fell from the pages of my manuscripts.”
“Ah, you are a scribe, a scrivener.” Dyrke brightened. “I do not often have the opportunity to enjoy such learned and prestigious company.”
He gestured toward the path I had followed to this clearing. “Come, we will converse while we walk back to Esmie’s pool and collect your companions. Then we shall return to this clearing and you and your comrades can eat.
I nodded and allowed Dyrke to lead me along the trail. I tried not to stare as he nimbly navigated the uneven ground while staring into the orb. “If I am not being rude again, may I enquire about your orb? Your eyes never leave it, even when you are speaking to someone.”
Dyrke ducked his head sheepishly. “I apologize for labeling your actions rude. I was being judgmental and insulting. As for the orb, I am blind. The orb gives me sight.”
Before I could comment, Dyrke changed the subject. “So, how did you come to be in Esmie’s realm?”
“Evidently, one or more of my companions wished for something. A group of creatures who identified themselves as wish listeners decided coming to this world was the answer to that wish. In our travels here, we were directed to Esmie. We were told she may be able to help us find our way back home.”
“Ah, the wish listeners!” Dyrke smiled, and there was a tone of respect and affection in his voice.
“You are acquainted with them?”
He nodded. “I have been blind from birth. Some years past, I wished very hard that I might see. The wish listeners granted me a boon and presented me with this orb.”
“Nice of them. But they don’t seem too popular with some others. Queen Medal`av`alia, and a certain caravan-toting tortoise, seem a bit miffed with them.”
Dyrke laughed. “Well, those individuals do have some grievances. Meddie sought power and wealth, so she wished to be a queen. The wish listeners gave her the title, but little else . . . no riches, no authority, just the title and a gown in answer to her greedy wish. The tortoise was greedy as well, in his own way. He wanted to be more than just a common reptile. He wanted to be important, and he wanted to be known far and wide. So, the wish listeners made him serve as a caravan for some of the fey folk. Not exactly what he had in mind, but it did conform to the letter of his wish.”
I chuckled. “In my world there is an expression – be careful what you wish for.”
Dyrke nodded. “Indeed. You just might get it!”
“What about Esmie? The tortoise seemed to think she could help us, but a bird warned him against crossing the wish listeners. What is the mermaid’s experience with the wish listeners? Will she help us?”
But for a slight twitch of his lips, Dyrke did not respond to the question.
While we were talking, we arrived back at Esmie’s pool. Dragon, now in her true form, stood guard with my Old Dwarf while the others rested by the water’s edge. Dyrke pursed his lips and shook his head. “There is really no need to keep watch. No harm will come to you in Esmie’s realm.”
“Indeed. And we will see to that.” Dragon peered down her long snout at the small creature, dark smoke drifting from her nostrils. My other characters closed rank around us, nodding.
Dyrke shrugged. “As you wish. I am Dyrke. As Esmie’s representative, I welcome you to her realm. There are very few restrictions. You may wander where you will, and drink from any of the streams or pools. The water is pure. We ask that you do not hunt or fish while you are here, though, as some of Esmie’s subjects are difficult to distinguish from prey. Also, some of the fruit and mushrooms are unsafe for consumption by some species. Therefore, food will be provided for you. In fact, a repast is being prepared for you at this very moment. Come.”
My characters all looked to me before making a move. I nodded, and we all followed Dyrke back to the clearing. Gobschlerk was gone, but he had placed a coverlet on the ground and piled food around it.
“If you require anything more, Gobschlerk or I will provide it. Please enjoy yourselves.” Dyrke bowed and strode off toward the copse of trees where Gobschlerk had banished Baalizhene.
My companions were uncharacteristically quiet. They lowered themselves warily onto the blanket Gobschlerk had spread on the ground, Dragon first assuming her accustomed form of an elf maiden. They all eyed the food suspiciously.
I took my place on the blanket and reached for some fruit.
My Old Dwarf grabbed my arm before I could pop the apple slice in my mouth. “Be ye sure it be safe, lass?”
I frowned. “Do you have any reason to believe it is not?” I looked around and addressed the question to all my characters. “Did you learn anything while I was gone that might make you mistrustful?”
“No, but we learned nothing that would make us trustful, either.” My Gypsy scowled. “We know nothing of these creatures. The mermaid disappeared and has not returned. Her lackeys assembled this repast for us. Do we know their agenda? Are they ally or foe? Do they mean us good will or harm?”
“You present valid points.” I chewed my lower lip and considered the situation. “My potion users – can you detect any poison in the food?”
Sorceress scoffed. “It is not that easy to detect. We would need our paraphernalia, and time to test everything.”
“Well can any of my magic users . . .?”
“No, we cannot.” The high-pitched, petulant, impatient whine of my Arrogant One interrupting me grated on my nerves. “None of us, through physical or magical means, can foretell if eating this food will cause our demise. I propose we employ a food taster. If someone eats the food and does not die, the rest of us can eat it, too. I suggest the dwarf.”
We all jumped. The small green creature was back, standing next to us.
My Old Dwarf raised his axe, but I placed a restraining hand on his arm. “Why not, Gobschlerk?”
“Dwarf not easy to poison. If he live, others could still die.”
I raised an eyebrow. “If the food has been poisoned, right?”
Gobschlerk nodded. “If poison.”
“Has the food been poisoned, Gobschlerk?” I narrowed my eyes.
“Is it unsafe for anyone here?”
“Some not good for Gobschlerk, and some not good for Dyrke. That’s why we no eat. But all of food not no good to Esmie’s guests.”
I nodded, easily understanding through his use of a double negative that all the food he had gathered for us was safe for me and my companions. “Esmie would be very upset if any of her guests were poisoned, wouldn’t she, Gobschlerk?”
The green creature nodded. “Esmie tan our hides good if anything bad happen to guests.”
“That’s what I thought.” I popped the slice of apple in my mouth and crunched it. My eyes widened. “Wow! This is delicious!”
My characters immediately started grabbing the food and filling their empty stomachs. By the time we were all finished eating, the sun was setting.
Gobschlerk had disappeared when we began our meal. He returned as we finished eating, bringing more blankets. He pointed to a sheltered area by the copse of trees, then started gathering the remains of our meal.
“I guess we’re sleeping here tonight.” I sighed, and tears filled my eyes as I wondered what Miles had thought when we didn’t return from our hike.
With our bellies full, and our bodies tired from the day’s long hike, we fell asleep quickly. Too few hours later, I felt someone nudging me. I opened one sleepy eye, then both. Baalizhene stood next to me, pushing as hard as she could on my shoulder. She was whispering in a tiny, shrill voice, like the buzzing of a mosquito. I could barely make out her words. “Hi, strangers! You awakes, strangers?”
Before I could say anything, she placed her tiny finger over her mouth. “Shhhhhh. Come with Baalizhene, strangers.” She giggled.
I followed Baalizhene through the woods, making sure not to step on her in the faint moonlight. We soon arrived at our destination and Baalizhene motioned for me to sit.
Baalizhene climbed up on a branch by my shoulder and whispered shrilly. “Baalizhene not s’possed to come here. Esmie says Baalizhene too small. But strangers not too small.” Baalizhene giggled.
I smiled. Water from a series of terraced falls splashed into a moonlit pool. Fey folk and fantastic creatures were frolicking in and around the water. Baalizhene and I watched for a long time before sleep overtook me again.
Will Esmie return tomorrow? Will she help us to go home? Or will we have to continue our search without her assistance? How long will we be stuck in this world, and what is Miles doing back in our world? Be sure to join us next week for our continuing adventure. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.