Something had startled me from a sound sleep. I jumped up and found my characters also scrambling to their feet, yawning and stretching. As we tried to determine what had disturbed our slumber, we realized the feel of the clearing had changed.
My Old Dwarf, who had been standing watch with Dragon, came scurrying over. “Do ye be feelin’ it?” He spoke in a hushed tone. “Tha very air be alive and quivery-like!”
All around me, my characters were nodding, brows furrowed. I turned to my Old Dwarf. “Yes, I think we all feel it. Perhaps that is what woke us.”
Dragon walked over to us, slowly, almost as if in a trance. Her eyes were hooded. She inhaled deeply, then stuck out her long, reptilian tongue and tasted the air. “Magic.” She barely whispered the word. “Very powerful magic.”
Sorceress, my Arrogant One, my Gypsy, and Cleric all nodded and murmured their agreement.
My Old Dwarf shook his head and scoffed. “Do na be daft! Ye be knowin’ full well thet dwarves can na be magicked.”
Dragon smiled. “Dwarves may be immune to magical spells, and they may be unable to cast magic, but if they come into contact with a great enough magic power, even dwarves can feel its presence, my diminutive friend.” She paused, taking another taste of the air. “This magic is so powerful that I am sure it touches even the most mundane or non-magical creature.” Dragon continued standing there, sniffing.
A noise behind us startled us. As one, we whirled around and found ourselves facing a large white unicorn across the meadow. A chill went down my spine that had nothing to do with the crisp morning air.
None of us moved, but we were not rooted in place by fear. From the look of awe on the faces of my characters – a look that was surely mirrored in my own face – I believe we all remained still out of a sense of wonderment. As we gawked at him, the unicorn remained motionless in the golden light of dawn, staring back at us.
After many long minutes, the majestic creature slowly drew nearer, then stopped and whickered softly. He pawed the ground and tossed his head.
Dragon slowly approached him. She towered over the creature, but the unicorn showed no fear.
The two eminently magical creatures stood in silent communion for nearly a half hour. Finally, Dragon nodded, bowed to the unicorn, and returned to us. We crowded around, eager to hear what had transpired.
“Is that the purported Lord of the Forest whom the royal mer-child said might help us?” My Arrogant One sneered and looked sidelong at the unicorn standing placidly in the middle of the clearing. “It looks like the second cousin to a donkey.”
Dark smoke poured from Dragon’s nostrils, and she snarled at the annoying elf. “He is the Lord of the Forest, and you would be well advised to keep a civil tongue in your head, twit. In this world, the unicorns are the most ancient of species. They are the supreme wielders of magic, and their incredible power far exceeds your meager abilities. I daresay it is even greater than my own.”
As my Arrogant One started to reply, my Bounty Hunter clapped a hand over the elf’s mouth. He narrowed his eyes and gave Dragon a penetrating look. “Is this beast as beneficent as he is magnificent? Will he assist us in our quest to return to our world?”
Dragon nodded. “We must return to the wall of branches the dwarf chopped down. Then, we must perform a service for the knights we met in that area. Only then will we be free to return home.”
I heaved a huge sigh. I pulled off my hat and raked my hand through my hair, then plopped the cap back in place. “We’ve come a long way, through many twists and turns. Do you think we can find our way back to that spot?”
My Foreman interrupted. “First, what is this service we must perform?”
My Gypsy nodded. “Yes, tell us about this service. And what guarantee do we have that we will be able to return home upon completion of the task?”
Black smoke continued to erupt from Dragon’s snout, and her eyes narrowed dangerously. “You speak out of ignorance, Gypsy. Like dragons, unicorns are honorable creatures. Do not fear – once we have rendered a service to the knights, we will be able to return home. The Lord of the Forest has given his word.”
My Young Hero moved closer to his friend and placed a reassuring hand on the Gypsy’s shoulder. “We mean no offense, Dragon. We know you are a noble beast because we are familiar with you. But we have no experience with unicorns. How do you know this beast is honorable and will keep his word?”
Dragon gazed into my Young Hero’s guileless green eyes. “I know you mean no offense, stripling. You have no cunning or deceit within your heart. Therefore, I will answer you. I know the unicorn is honorable because he and I have seen into each other’s soul.”
My Young Hero nodded. “Then, since we trust your word, my friend, we will trust his. Let us start back to the wall of branches.”
Cleric fidgeted with the cord on her robe. “How will we find our way back? Mistress is right – we have been on a long and winding path.”
My Foreman snorted. “The Bounty Hunter and I are fair hands at tracking. We will find the way.”
“There is no need.” Dragon nodded toward the unicorn. “The Lord of the Forest will lead the way.”
“Wait. You have yet to explain the service we must render to the knights.” Sorceress stood, her arms folded over her chest, her brow furrowed, her mouth a tight slash across her face.
Dragon lowered her head and she scuffed one enormous clawed foot back and forth. When she finally answered, she blurted out her words quickly, as if expecting opposition. “We must help them in battle, that they may save and restore their castle.”
“Oh, is that all?” The petulant whine of my Arrogant One indicated he had finally squirmed free of my Bounty Hunter’s grasp. “Well, as long as it does not involve any danger.” His voice dripped with a double helping of sarcasm and scorn.
Dragon thrust her face close to my Arrogant One and glared at the elf almost nose-to-nose. “It is not too great a risk, considering the alternative. Or do you desire to remain here? If so, just say the word. I am sure it could be arranged.”
My Old Dwarf smirked. “Thet be workin’ jest fine fer me!”
“That’s enough.” I heaved another sigh. “I’m sure everyone wants to go home. I know I do. Let’s just do what the unicorn requires of us. I see no alternative.”
The unicorn, still standing placidly in the middle of the clearing, nodded. He trotted off, never looking back to see if we followed.
The way back to the wall of branches was swift. The landscape flew past at a dizzying speed, though it did not feel as though we moved any faster than a comfortable walk. We arrived within the hour without any of our company having even broken a sweat.
“Where did he go?” My Gypsy looked about, eyes wide, one hand on his hip, the other scratching his head. “I thought the unicorn was right ahead of us.”
We looked about, but the Lord of the Forest had simply vanished after leading us to the battered wall.
“I knew that beast was not to be trusted!” My Arrogant One drew himself up, rocked back on his heels, and grasped his robes in both hands. “He has delivered us to the knights, who will now most assuredly slaughter us!”
My Old Dwarf rolled his eyes. “Lassie, do we really be needin’ ta be takin’ tha elfie back wit us?”
“How many times must I tell you? Do not call me elfie!” My Arrogant One’s face was red as a beet and he shook with rage. His voice hit a register that even the best operatic sopranos would have trouble reaching.
“Quiet, you buffoon!” Dragon snarled at the elf. “We are here to provide succor to the knights, we know not against whom. Do you wish to alert the enemy to our presence?”
The elf gave Dragon a sullen look but remained quiet.
I examined the wall of branches, which had already started growing back in the scant few days since my Old Dwarf had reduced it to a pile of kindling. “It looks like there is still enough of an opening for us to squeeze through, although you may have to transform into your alter-ego of an elf maiden, Dragon.”
Dragon shook her head. “I will shrink to whatever size will allow me passage, but I will remain in my true form.”
I nodded and started to lead the way through the tangle of branches. My Old Dwarf grabbed me. “I be leadin’ tha way, lassie, an’ tha beastie be bringin’ up tha rear. Ye be keepin’ yerself in tha middle, wit tha Gypsy lad, Sorceress, an’ Cleric closest aboot ye. Tha Foreman, tha Bounty Hunter, an’ tha udder laddie kin be protectin’ tha perimeter. Iffin there be trouble, and tha first group do na be able ta be protectin’ ye, tha magickers kin be usin’ their power ta be keepin’ ye safe.”
“You forgot me.” My Arrogant One pouted.
“Now did I be doin’ thet?” My Old Dwarf didn’t wait for a reply, but dove headlong at the tangle of branches, using his axe to enlarge the passageway.
I grabbed my Arrogant One. “Just fall in line behind Cleric.”
Once on the other side of the branch wall, we headed down the wide avenue straight ahead of us, the path taken by the knights when they had departed us our first day in this world. Trees lined both sides of the road, their branches forming a canopy overhead, shielding us from the hot midday sun. At the end of the twin line of trees, the road continued for several miles through open fields before starting the gentle ascent into the rolling hillside. A cooling breeze swept across the countryside.
As we rounded a bend in the road, we came upon the ruins of a castle in the foothills. The trio of knights we had been tasked with helping were there, positioned to challenge any intruders.
“Halt! Why hast thou come here, witch? Must every stone of this castle fall before thou art satisfied?” The ranking knight’s voice cracked with emotion.
I scowled at the chevalier and his two comrades. “I told you before, sir knight, if I were a witch, you would be a toad, hopping around on the forest floor.”
“Then what brings thee to our castle . . . or what is left of it?” The second knight’s voice was as full of emotion as was his commander’s.
Dragon stepped forward. “We have come to help.”
The third knight drew his sword. “Yes! Thou hast come to help our enemies in their final onslaught.”
Dragon raised her hands in a placating gesture. “No. We have no knowledge of your enemies. The Lord of the Forest has petitioned us to give you aid.”
The ranking knight narrowed his gaze. “The unicorn sent thee? Why did thou not tell us this when we met some days ago?”
I stepped forward. “We had not encountered the unicorn then.”
The knight who had drawn his sword sheathed it again. “The noble beast is too late in sending us aid. Our castle lies in ruins, and our enemies will surely return by nightfall to annihilate us.”
I squared my shoulders and set my jaw. “Not if we can help it.”
What aid might we give the knights? If we stand with them, will their enemies overwhelm us? Will we perish beside them, here in this strange land? If we save the knights and help them defeat their enemies, will the unicorn keep his word and help us return home? Be sure to join us again next week to find out! We’ll leave the porch light on for you.