The sun was flirting with the horizon by the time my characters and I found our way back to the spot where I had encountered the mermaid, Crown Princess Eloise, and her swan friend, King Mēzän. The pool where they had been swimming earlier was empty, and tracks in the mud at the water’s edge looked as if there had been a scuffle.
My admonition was unnecessary. My characters were already moving into a defensive posture and looking around carefully.
“What do you make of that?” My Gypsy jutted his chin toward the muddy prints by the pond.
I walked closer and knelt to examine the tracks. My two best trackers – my Foreman and my Bounty Hunter – joined me while the rest of my characters safeguarded the area.
“Some of these tracks were definitely made by the webbed feet of a large, heavy waterfowl.” My Foreman pointed to a jumble of scalloped-edged tracks in the mud at the water’s edge.
I nodded. “King Mēzän.”
“And others were made by someone with large, bare feet.” My Bounty Hunter frowned. “But the tracks are not deep, so they were made by someone slight, perhaps about the size of Esmie’s henchman, the green one.”
“Gobschlerk.” I supplied the name and nodded in agreement.
“I see no other tracks.” My Foreman tilted his head and furrowed his brow. “I doubt the little green creature could have carried the mermaid, and there are no signs of her being dragged from the water.”
“So, what happened, and where is Eloise now?” I rose and looked around.
“Mistress! There!” Cleric pointed to the rocks next to the waterfall.
I saw some movement in the water behind a large moss-covered boulder.
“Eloise?” There was no response. “Eloise! Are you okay?”
Warily, Eloise peeked around the boulder. When she saw me, she swam slowly over to the shore and sat on a rock.
I gaped at the mermaid. The difference in her appearance was startling. Gone were the sass and the pluck. Her shoulders drooped, her golden scales were dull, and her eyes were red-rimmed. “Eloise! What happened?”
“My mother and I had a discussion.” The way she pronounced it, it sounded as if the word was sour in her mouth.
“Oh?” I raised an eyebrow.
“Yes.” The Crown Princess lowered her eyes. “Mother explained to me the difference between youthful rebellion and treasonous disloyalty to one’s sovereign.”
“I’m sorry.” I touched her gently on the shoulder. “What happened to your friend?”
“Mother had Gobschlerk escort Mēzän to the border between his realm and ours. I think their alliance has been dissolved. There may even be war.” Tears started to stream down her cheeks.
“I am so sorry, Eloise!” I patted her arm.
“It’s all my fault! I was the one who talked Mēzän into helping you! I wanted to spite my mother because she won’t let me share in the royal duties. She doesn’t think I’m old enough or experienced enough to have a say in important matters of state. I wished for a way to show her she was wrong. Now look what happened!” The mermaid started sobbing and hiccupping and could hardly get her words out. “I . . . I destroyed an . . . an alliance, I destroy . . . destroyed a f . . . friendship, and . . . and by interfering and going against my m . . . mother and the wish listeners, I’ve ca . . . caused you to remain trapped in this world!”
I didn’t know what to say.
Dragon, who had changed back into her accustomed form of an elf maiden, stepped forward and spoke gently to the distraught princess. “Child, this is not your fault. You simply made a wish. You meant no harm. The wish listeners contrived the circumstances that allowed this to happen. They are at fault.”
Eloise tried to smile at Dragon. “They may have heard my wish, but I was the one who made it in the first place.” Her voice was so soft, I could scarcely hear it. “Now, I must suffer the consequences.”
Sorceress scowled. “That is the problem with those cunning little creatures. The consequences of the wishes they grant, in the way in which they interpret them and grant them, does not befall only the one who made the wish. Other, innocent beings also suffer the consequences.”
“Like Mēzän?” Eloise looked wistful.
“Exactly.” Sorceress nodded.
My Old Dwarf spat. “I be wishin’ there be a way ta be givin’ tha wish listeners a taste o their ownest medicine, ta be teachin’ ’em a good lesson.”
“Have you not learned your lesson about making wishes?” Dragon frowned at her friend, who turned crimson as we all stared at him.
“You? You are the reason we are in this land?” My Arrogant One’s screech could probably be heard by Miles, back in our world.
“He is, as am I.” Dragon’s cheeks were as red as my Old Dwarf’s.
“What on earth did the two of you wish for?” I gaped at both of them.
Dragon cleared her throat. “Ahem. Ah, yes, well, we will explain that some other time. Right now, we need to continue our search for the way back to our own world.”
“Wait!” Eloise swished her tail back and forth and raked her hand through her long, golden tresses. “I have done you a grave disservice. It was my plan to help you, but for the wrong reasons. Maybe I can right that wrong by sending you to one who really can help, one over whom the wish listeners have no sway.”
My companions and I exchanged skeptical looks, but Sorceress smiled encouragingly at the young princess. “We would appreciate any assistance you could render.”
“But we do not want you to risk additional trouble with your mother,” my Young Hero added.
Eloise squared her shoulders. “Do not concern yourself with that possibility. I will accept the consequences of my actions. Go back to my mother’s pool and take the trail off to the southeast. It is a faint trail, hardly more than a deer track, but there are no other trails in that direction, so you should be able to follow it. It will lead you to a small clearing. If you get there by nightfall, sleep easily, for nothing will bother you in that clearing. At sunup, the Lord of the Forest will arrive, and you can ask him for aid.”
“The Lord of the Forest ?” I frowned, wondering what sort of creature that might be.
My Bounty Hunter scoffed. “How will we recognize this clearing? What makes it distinguishable from all the other clearings in this forest?”
Eloise tilted her head and chewed her lower lip. “I don’t know. But I do know that it has a different feel to it than other clearings. You will know it when you arrive.”
My Gypsy crossed his arms over his chest and frowned at Eloise. “That is most helpful.” His voice dripped with scorn. “If we should find this clearing, what makes you think this forest lord will help us?”
“I don’t know that he will. I only know that he can see if someone is worthy, as I believe you and your companions are. Plus, he detests the wish listeners and would most likely do anything that would oppose them.” Eloise paused. She held a hand up to silence us, and her eyes widened. “I hear Dyrke coming. You must go!” She dove back into the pool and disappeared under the waterfall. We scrambled to hide in the nearby woods.
We had barely concealed ourselves when Dyrke appeared on the trail and walked over to the pool. “Eloise? Eloise! Your mother says you are to stop sulking and return to her this instant.” He paused, peering into the orb that floated above his left hand. “Eloise! Now! You do not want to further incur your mother’s wrath.”
After a few minutes, the small creature sighed and left the pool, walking back along the trail whence he had come. We waited many long minutes before coming out of hiding. Quietly, we drew close to discuss our options.
Dragon held up a hand to silence us. She mumbled an incantation, then turned to me. “I have once again warded us against prying eyes and ears. We may speak freely.”
I nodded, but before I could say a word, My Arrogant One began. “I do not trust the mer-child. I fear she sends us on another fool’s errand.”
Sorceress shook her head. “She is sincere.”
Cleric nodded in agreement with Sorceress, but Dragon lifted an eyebrow and shook her head.
My Foreman scoffed. “For once, I agree with the elf. Lord of the Forest indeed! Another creature who will mislead us, to the amusement of all the inhabitants of this land.”
“Particularly the wish listeners.” My Gypsy narrowed his eyes.
My Bounty Hunter nodded. “Even if the princess is sincere – which I doubt – and there is some forest king who will help us – which I also doubt – how will we ever find him? I still want to know how we are to find one clearing in a forest full of glades.”
My Young Hero shrugged. “While this is most likely another wild goose chase, what other options do we have? We do not know which path will lead us home, so we might as well take the path the young princess recommended. It is as good, or as bad, as any other option.”
My Arrogant One screeched in disagreement. “Surely you do not propose we return to Esmie’s pool? She will most likely have her lackeys waiting for us, and who knows what they might do to us?”
My Bounty Hunter scoffed. “With Dragon’s wards, we can proceed with sufficient stealth to avoid that outcome, for all the good it will do us, trying to find this one particular clearing.”
My Old Dwarf snorted. “Tha scaly lassie be sayin’ tha clearin’ be havin’ a particular feel ta it. Thet be soundin’ liken magic ta me. There be enough magickers among us thet we should na be havin’ any trouble findin’ thet particular clearin’.” He turned to me. “What be ye sayin’, lass?”
I sighed. “I agree with both points of view, but – as my Young Hero pointed out – we have few, if any, other options. Chances are this is a mistake, another wild goose chase, but we will return to the vicinity of Esmie’s pool and try to find the southeast trail. We must remain undetected as we search.”
Dragon nodded. “Then we must proceed slowly, so I can maintain the wards.”
By the time we made it back to Esmie’s pool, the sun had already bidden the sky farewell. Surprisingly, the pool and the surrounding area were deserted. No henchmen waited to seize us. I breathed a sigh of relief.
It took us a few minutes to find the path leading southeast from the pool, but once we did, it was easy enough to follow. As we trudged slowly along the trail, stars began to twinkle overhead, and the near-full moon began its ascent. Many hours later, we entered a glade and stopped dead.
There was nothing notable about the clearing. The moonlight was no brighter, the trees no larger, the grass no greener, the breeze no more refreshing, the night air no more fragrant than in any other glade we had seen in this land. But there was something different, something intangible, something inexplicable.
“This is it.” Dragon’s pronouncement was met with nods of agreement and murmurs of astonishment.
“Eloise was right.” Sorceress looked about in wonder. “This clearing does have a different feel.”
“It feels . . . safe.” Cleric smiled.
“I guess I should have been more trusting.” My Gypsy ducked his head, his cheeks red. “I guess the mer-child was not sending us on another wild goose chase. We can do as the young princess said, and sleep without fear tonight.”
“Mebbe ye be trustin’ her now aboot this place.” My Old Dwarf brandished his axe. “But tha beastie an’ me still be standin’ guard this night.”
Dragon assumed her true form. With the great beast and my Old Dwarf watching over us, the rest of my characters and I found comfortable spots in the tall grass and settled down to sleep. I could feel tears wetting my cheeks as I faced another night away from my husband. Oh, Miles! We have been gone so long! What can you be thinking by now?
I awoke at dawn. Apparently, all my characters did, too. We all jumped up at the same time and looked around, trying to determine what had awoken us. We realized the feel of the clearing had changed. The magic was so strong now even my Old Dwarf and I could feel it.
A noise startled us and, as one, we whirled around to see a magnificent silvery-white unicorn staring at us.
Is this the Forest King Eloise told us to seek? If so, will he help us? Or is this just another detour in our odyssey? And what is poor Miles thinking, now that we have been gone so many days? Be sure to come back next week as we continue our strange journey. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.