We were prepared.
It had taken several hours, but we were prepared to meet the enemy – whoever or whatever it was – when next it attacked the castle.
Dragon and my Arrogant One had put their powers of illusion to work. Dragon pointed proudly at dozens of knights, including several mounted units, bolstering the defenses on the castle ramparts, and a flight of fierce dragons patrolling the sky above the castle. “The forces protecting the castle now appear large and formidable. An enemy might think twice before attempting an assault on such a well-guarded fortress. And if any are foolish enough to attack, my illusions are solid and substantial. They will prove most difficult to defeat.”
I nodded. “Where are Sorceress, Cleric, and my Gypsy?”
“Sir Jenneseer directed them to a cache of grimoires, potions, and spell components within the castle ruins. Using those items, they have been able to prepare a wide variety of defensive and offensive spells. They have concealed themselves and await now to launch their enchantments when most needed.” Dragon pointed to a nearby copse of trees on a knoll to the southwest of our position. “The dwarf is with them, to keep them safe.”
I nodded and smiled approvingly.
Dragon beckoned. “Dusk draws neigh, and the attack could come soon after. Let us look things over one more time.”
Dragon and I meandered among the troops, giving an order here, assisting a knight to adjust his armor there, and viewing everyone and everything with a critical eye. When we had finished our inspection, Dragon turned to me. “We are as ready as we will ever be. Now, Mistress, we must find a place for you away from the battle. Your safety must be assured.”
“Away from the battle?” I planted my feet, crossed my arms over my chest, and jutted my jaw. “No way!”
“Mistress . . .”
“No!” I waved at her dismissively. “I will stand with all of you and defend this place and these knights. If I don’t, then how can I expect to be allowed to return to our world with the rest of you? The Lord of the Forest said we must help the knights in battle. He didn’t say some of us must help them, while others may place their own safety first.”
Dragon’s eyes narrowed, and a small plume of smoke rose from her nostrils. “You are a stubborn and foolish human.”
I shrugged. “Maybe so, but like I said before, this ain’t my first rodeo. I chronicled many battles in your world, and I didn’t do that by relying on second-hand accounts.”
The big beast sighed. “Yes, you chronicled many fierce battles. You did so from a safe distance, watching from a remote overlook, or at the side of a scryer many miles away. You did not draw sword or cast fireball.”
I inclined my head. “True. But this is different. I have been charged, along with all of you, to help. This time, I need to draw sword.”
My Foreman had been listening to the conversation. He frowned and shook his head. “The beast is right, you know. You are stubborn . . . and foolish, very foolish! There is a great difference between writing about a battle and actually taking part in one. You have no training. You would be placing yourself in mortal danger.”
I scoffed, but my Foreman silenced me with a pointed look. “How could the rest of us return to your world and tell Master Miles we had allowed you to suffer a fatal injury?”
That gave me pause. My characters and I had disappeared from our world days ago while on a nature walk after our picnic. Miles had remained at our picnic site, to take a nap in the shade of some trees. I knew he must be sick with worry by now. I had to return to my husband safely. I sighed. “Where should I go?”
After a brief but heated debate, my Foreman suggested I join Sorceress and her companions. Dragon nodded her approval. “A perfect place. You might lend your assistance to the spellcasters, and your Old Dwarf would give his life before allowing harm to befall you.”
The last vestige of twilight drained from the sky as I reluctantly took my place with my Old Dwarf and his companions. Our position on the knoll afforded us a commanding view of the moonlit castle and the approaches to it, while the thicket gave us adequate cover.
We settled in and waited for any sign that the battle was about to begin. The still of the night was broken only by the rhythmic flapping of giant, leathery wings as the dragons patrolled overhead, and the occasional clank of a knight’s armor on the ramparts.
The hours dragged on. The moon set, and clouds covered the stars, leaving us enveloped in inky blackness. Still we waited, jumping at every snap of a twig or hoot of an owl.
More time passed, and the night became even darker. I could not see my hand in front of my face. I knew my characters were still beside me only because of the sound of their breathing.
Time continued to pass slowly. I fought the sleep that threatened to overtake me. Finally, the sky began to lighten, slowly shedding the ebony mantle of night. I shifted my weight, trying to stretch muscles that complained about the inactivity and the chill air.
“Psssstttt.” My Old Dwarf nudged me. “Psssssstttttttttttt. Be ye seein’ thet?”
“What?” I could barely hear his hoarse whisper.
“There. Lookit!” He pointed at something with his axe.
I stared at the spot at which he pointed. It took me many minutes to see in the dim pre-dawn light what the dwarf had no trouble seeing with his enhanced night vision. The fog was rolling in.
Slowly, the fog advanced, a thick, wet blanket roiling along the ground, swallowing up the landscape. Less than a dozen yards away, it came to a stop. As I watched it, it seemed almost alive, tendrils of mist reaching out hesitantly, seeking. It seemed obvious that Dragon’s enhanced defenses gave the enemy pause.
Fierce dragons swooped down and harried the fog, but the flapping of their heavy wings didn’t disturb the heavy mist. It remained like a wall of dirty gray cotton.
Sorceress cast several fireballs at the fog, which ate them with a sickening fizzle.
My Old Dwarf squinted, then jumped up, shouting. “Thet be no natural fog! I be seein’ summat wit’in.”
The dwarf pulled me to my feet and pointed again. I peered at the dense vapor. “I see nothing within the fog. What is it you see?”
“There be wee creatures init!”
I heard giggling and scowled. “I know that giggle! I’ve heard it before!”
“We all have, Mistress! I think it is time for me to cast dispel magic!” My Gypsy jumped up and mumbled a quick incantation, pointing his silver dagger at the precise center of the fogbank. The thick fog exploded, exposing the wish listeners, who immediately started to run.
Dragon swooped down and grabbed one of the little creatures in her talons. The diminutive figure cursed loudly and squirmed mightily, trying to free himself. My Old Dwarf raced to Dragon’s side and snatched the writhing creature as it broke free of Dragon’s claws.
As soon as the one wish listener was subdued, the other three surrendered without a fight.
“Well, that was a bit anticlimactic.” I looked around as Dragon released all the enchantments. Scores of illusory dragons, knights, and horses disappeared. Moments later, the three real knights and the rest of my characters came dashing up to us.
“This is the enemy?” Sir Daniver gaped at the wish listeners in disbelief.
“But . . . but they were the ones who offered us a worthy opponent.” Sir Jenneseer thumped his fist into the palm of his hand. “Why would they do this to us?”
Sir Hrolf raised his sword. “I will cleave them into little pieces!”
I grabbed the knight’s arm. “No. They are defeated. There is no need for further violence.”
Three of the wish listeners began keening and howling. “Please! Please do not hurt us! We meant no harm. It was him!” They pointed at the other wish listener, who was still cursing and thrashing around, trying to escape the grasp of my Old Dwarf, who effortlessly held the small creature fast.
Dark smoke plumed from Dragon’s nostrils as she faced the trio of cowering creatures. “Explain yourselves.”
“That creature tricked us.” One of the wish listeners glowered at the squirming creature.
“He made a wish.” The second wish listener whined.
“He wished he could give people what they deserve.” The third wish listener shook with anger.
“That is what we do.” The first wish listener gestured to indicate himself and his two companions. “We listen for deserving people to make unselfish wishes and we do our best to grant them.”
“We thought that was what he desired to do, too, so we granted his wish and allowed him to become one of us, a wish listener. But he has made a mockery of us.” The second wish listener stomped his foot. “He forces us to listen for selfish or undeserving people to make foolish wishes.”
Still shaking with anger, the third wish listener concluded the tale. “He forces us to give these wishers a warped version of what they wished for. He is evil!”
The evil wish listener snarled. “They get what they deserve!”
“As will you, now.”
We all whirled around to face the new speaker. There stood the Lord of the Forest. He shimmered, and seemed as insubstantial as a poorly cast illusion, but his voice was deep and commanding.
The unicorn pawed the ground. “Evil one, I strip you of your powers. You will no longer be able to pervert the purpose of the wish listeners. Should you ever attempt such an atrocity again, I will allow these good knights to deal with you. Now, be gone!”
The evil creature slunk away, still cursing under his breath.
The unicorn then beckoned the three good wish listeners. “As you cannot be faulted for recent events, you will be free to return to your duties as wish listeners. Remember to always listen with your hearts to the desires of others.”
The three little creatures squealed with delight, thanked the unicorn, and raced off, skipping and jumping for joy.
Once again, the unicorn spoke, his voice sounding like a clarion. “Noble knights, step forward.”
The three knights stepped forward and bowed to the unicorn.
“You have defeated your enemy and the castle here is restored. Now, you may return to your own kingdom or you may settle here and claim this castle as your own. If you choose to remain, you will henceforth be responsible for the defense and upkeep of this castle. Furthermore, you would protect and provide for the welfare of all who swear allegiance to your flag.”
It took only a moment for the three knights to decide to stay.
Finally, the unicorn turned toward me and my companions. “You selflessly gave aid to the knights, despite the danger. One of your number made a promise and every one of you honored that commitment. I will now keep my word. Return to the wall of brambles. The steps to your own world await you beyond.”
Before we could thank the unicorn, he vanished.
Sir Daniver approached us. “Wilt thou not stay another day with us? None of thee slept last night, and the way back is long and tiring. Thou may sleep, and then feast with us”
I shook my head. “We have been gone too long. My husband must be sick with worry. We need to return as quickly as possible. But I thank you for your offer of hospitality.”
The knights saluted us, then turned to claim their new fiefdom. When my companions and I looked back, we saw them on the ramparts of the newly restored castle. I smiled, then turned to Dragon, who nudged me.
“I do not believe this group will need the protection of a dragon for the rest of the journey.” Dragon shapeshifted into her customary guise of an elf maiden. “Riding would be better than walking, I should think. And we can all use a quick nap.” She conjured a large hay wagon, complete with a team of heavy draft horses. We climbed into the wagon and promptly fell into a deep sleep.
The sound of my Old Dwarf chopping through the wall of branches woke me, and I saw my other characters were just waking as well, yawning and stretching. “Are we here already?”
“Aye, lass, but I dinna be wantin’ ta wake anyone until we could git through this barrier agin.”
The dwarf pushed his way through the wall and called back to us. “Wale, it be lookin’ liken tha youn-ee-corn be speakin’ true. There be tha steps.”
The rest of us quickly made our way through the barrier and ran up the steps.
I looked around. “We’re back! This is the park where we had our picnic!”
We raced back to the picnic grove. I saw my husband pacing around the tree, frowning and looking at his watch.
“Miles! You’re still here!” I threw myself into his arms and gave him a tight hug.
He smiled and gave me a kiss. “Well, what did I do to warrant such a nice greeting? And where have you been? I was beginning to think you had gotten lost! You’ve been gone for hours!”
I gaped at my husband. “We’ve only been gone for hours?”
“What do you mean only?” Miles tilted his head and frowned.
My eyes were wide. “Boy, do we have a tale to tell you!”
Dragon cleared her throat. “Perhaps, Mistress, it would be best to save that story for another time.”
I nodded, and gave my husband another big hug.
What adventures – or misadventures – await us now that we’re back home? Be sure to come back next week and see. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.