Dragon growled, and acrid black smoke spewed from her reptilian nostrils. “What do you mean, the Lord of the Forest has disappeared? When did this happen? What have you done to find him?”
Sir Daniver sighed and leaned wearily on his shield. “It was several months ago when we first became aware of his absence. We were out patrolling our realm. We took the tree-lined avenue to where we first encountered you and your companions. We could see immediately things had changed. While the trails leading to the right and left appeared the same, still impassable, we were unable to find the trail that leads to the unicorn’s meadow.”
“You undoubtedly recall I had confided in you that my sister is a hedge witch.” Sir Jenneseer’s voice was soft. He blushed scarlet and waited until Dragon nodded, then he continued. “We consulted her, and she used her limited magic to try to find the unicorn. When she was unable to determine what had happened, she sought assistance from some who are more powerful in their craft. They, too, were baffled.”
“Every day since our discovery, we have searched the entire realm for any sign of the mystical being.” Sir Hrolf made a sweeping gesture toward the castle and surrounding lands. “We have recruited others from our own fiefdom, and from our neighboring kingdoms, to aid us in our quest. We assure you, great and noble beast, we will not cease in our efforts until we find the unicorn or learn his fate.”
“Perhaps you would be more successful finding him.” Sir Jenneseer looked at Dragon hopefully. “Your power is greater than any in this world, apart from the unicorn himself.”
Dragon nodded. “If you cannot find the trail to his meadow, am I correct in assuming the neighboring realms have vanished as well? Those claimed by Medal`av`alia and the mermaid queen, Esmie?”
The ranking knight nodded sadly. “We can find no way into their queendoms, nor into the kingdom of the royal swan, King Mēzän. Where once the trails to those realms could be found behind the brush tangle, now there is no tangle. There is only a set of stone steps leading nowhere.”
Dragon frowned. “I will take to the air to search. You fetch your mounts and return to the convergence of the trails and the stone steps. I will meet you there.”
Before Dragon could move, the Arrogant One drew himself up, rocked back on his heels, and grasped his cloak with both hands. “I will go nowhere save to look for the evil wish listener. I need to regain control over my power!” He gave Dragon a petulant look. “You promised to help me. We have no time to go off on another quest.”
Dragon’s eyes narrowed, and flames erupted from her maw. The elf dove behind the apple tree, out of the path of the deadly inferno. “Understand this, elf.” Dragon grabbed him and thrust her face to within inches of his. “Finding the Lord of the Forest is infinitely more important than solving your little problem. You will come with us now and aid in the search or your ashes will remain here forever.”
The Arrogant One’s eyes almost popped from his head, and his legs would not support him when the huge beast shoved him away. He fell to the side of the road as limp as a wet towel, whimpering and mewling like a scared child.
Sir Hrolf scowled. He reached down and grasped the elf by the arm, pulling him up. “The beast is right. Your problem pales in comparison to the disappearance of the Lord of the Forest. Come. You will assist us in our quest to find him.”
Still trembling, the elf nodded dumbly. He allowed the knights to lead him along the road toward the castle as Dragon took flight, heading in the opposite direction.
By the time the knights, with the elf in tow, arrived back at their castle, the elf had regained some of his composure and all his arrogance. “You go along, like puppets whose strings are pulled by the dragon’s talons. I will not. I will search for the evil wish listener and question him regarding my loss of control over my power. I will get the answers I seek while you waste your time on a quest that has no reward for me.”
“No reward for you?” Sir Daniver rounded on the elf. His face was as red as Dragon’s scales, and his voice shook the timbers of the castle. The elf wilted under his murderous gaze.
“You are not from this world.” Sir Jenneseer waved his hand dismissively at the Arrogant One. “You do not understand how important it is to find the Lord of the Forest .”
Sir Hrolf snorted. “The popinjay thinks nothing is as important as his own concerns. Foolish elf!”
The Arrogant One blushed, but still drew himself up haughtily. “The affairs of your world hold no interest or meaning for me. As you say, I am from another world. All that matters to me is discovering whether the cause of my affliction lies within this world. If it does, I wish to find a remedy and return whence I came.”
Sir Hrolf scoffed. “Mayhap the disappearance of the unicorn is somehow connected to your own affliction. By helping find the Lord of the Forest, you might help yourself.”
Seeing the Arrogant One was unconvinced, Sir Jenneseer placed a hand on the elf’s arm. “Even if the two incidents are not connected, if your affliction originated in this world, then the Lord of the Forest is your best chance for remedy. As I stated to the Great Wyrm, the unicorn’s power is unrivaled. Help us find the mystical creature, for he might have the answers you seek.”
The elf narrowed his eyes and stroked his chin. “Very well. But if we do not find him by sundown, I will leave this company and strike out on my own to seek the evil wish listener.”
The knights grumbled their displeasure with that idea, but the elf remained adamant. The group quickly saddled four of the swiftest chargers in the stable and departed without further discussion.
By the time the three knights and the elf had made their way back to the convergence of the three trails and the stone steps, the midday sun was directly overhead. They looked all around, but there was no sign of Dragon.
“Mayhap that is a good omen.” Sir Daniver looked hopefully at his companions. “Mayhap she has found the Lord of the Forest.”
The elf sneered. “Or, mayhap she has suffered the same fate as the unicorn.”
It was another hour before they spotted Dragon flying erratically toward them. As she landed, she cart-wheeled several times end over end before coming to rest in a heap. The knights could see she had suffered serious wounds. There were tears in the membrane of her right wing, her left wing was in tatters, her left arm was bent at an unnatural angle, and blood flowed from three long gashes running the length of her left side where her scales had been ripped away.
The three knights ran to her, and gently turned her to lie on her uninjured side. The ranking knight examined her wounds. “Noble beast, who or what did this to you?”
It took Dragon several minutes before she was able to answer. Panting and wheezing, she forced out the words. “It was another of my kind . . . a large, green drake with leathery wings . . . horns upon his head, spikes down his back . . . and a spiked ball at the end of his tail.”
“Another of your kind?” Sir Daniver gasped, and all three knights gaped at her, disbelief in their eyes.
The elf narrowed his eyes and tilted his head. “Why is that so shocking? If the beast foolishly wandered into another dragon’s territory, it would stand to reason it might attack.”
Sir Daniver shook his head. “You do not understand! Other than your companion here, and the army of illusory dragons you helped create when we were mounting a defense of our castle, there have been no dragons on this world for the past millennia.”
* * *
My Old Dwarf paced the length and breadth of the conference room. He kept punching his one fist into the palm of his other hand, muttering and grumbling, and throwing angry looks at me.
“Would you please calm down?” I stared at the dwarf. “Sit!” I pointed at a chair.
When the dwarf made no move to heed my bidding, my husband walked over and placed his hands on my Old Dwarf’s shoulders, guided him to the seat, and pushed him down. The dwarf sprang back up so fast, he looked like a jack-in-the-box.
“Ye shouldna e’er been lettin’ tha beastie be goin’ alone!”
I frowned at the dwarf and crossed my arms over my chest. “She isn’t alone. She has my Arrogant One with her.”
“Thet be worse’n alone!” The old reprobate started pacing again.
“I agree with the dwarf.” My Bounty Hunter spoke softly, but there was fire in his eyes. “You should not have allowed them to leave without the rest of us accompanying them. I told you as much already.”
“I know you did.” I heaved a huge sigh.
“Why did you allow them to go without us, Mistress?” Cleric wrung her hands. “We would have gladly gone and helped.”
“Would you have?” I raked my hand through my hair. “Would any of you have lifted a finger to assist my Arrogant One?”
Sorceress gave me a sullen look. “While few if any of us would risk ourselves for the elf, Dragon is our friend. We would have gone to aid her.”
My Foreman, my Young Hero, and my Gypsy all agreed.
“I jes’ be knowin’ tha beastie be in trouble.” My Old Dwarf looked at me, his red-rimmed eyes glistening with unshed tears. “I jes’ be knowin’ she be.” He started blubbering.
I placed my hand on the dwarf’s shoulder and spoke gently. “Look, I’m sorry. Maybe I made the wrong decision, but it was Dragon herself who said she and the elf should go alone.” I sighed again. “Anyway, it’s a moot point now. I have no idea where she and the elf are, or how to find them.”
“Why do ye na jes’ be askin’ tha you-nee-corn?”
“Be askin’ tha you-nee-corn.” My Old Dwarf pointed.
I turned and gaped at the shimmering image of the Lord of the Forest standing in the middle of the room, in front of Dragon’s illusory fireplace.
Why has the Lord of the Forest disappeared from his world, and why has a strange dragon appeared there? Is the unicorn here to lead us to Dragon and my Arrogant One? Will we find them before it is too late to help them? Be sure to come back next week and see what happens. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.