Emily Peters scampered down the needle-strewn path toward the woods that the locals called the Enchanted Forest, following the Golden Retriever whose leash she clasped in both hands. Her blue eyes wide, she called in a high-pitched voice as they went, straining on the leash, “Whoa, Buddy! You’re pulling me too hard.”
Buddy paid her no mind, his nose filled with the scent of squirrels as he determinedly dragged the small girl into the woods after him. Following at a more sedate walk, their companion laughed to herself, enjoying the sight of Buddy’s sun-touched fur streaming behind him in a golden blur and the matching wave of blonde hair behind her little sister as she tried in vain to subdue his pace.
At thirteen, Alicina considered herself too old to go running after them but took in the sights as she passed under the boughs of the evergreen trees and into the dim forest. She breathed deeply, enjoying the smell of earth and musty leaves through her arched nose, and half closed her eyes in pleasure as her feet trod along the dusty path, uneven in places where tree roots bared themselves to the careless hiker. Stepping over a large stone jutting into the path and ducking under the branch that had grown to cover it, Alicina looked ahead just in time to see Emily and Buddy disappear around a bend in the trail.
“Don’t go too far!” she called after them, knowing that Mom would not like her to lose sight of her sister in the forest.
Too many offshoots of the trail ran in different directions that would confuse the inexperienced adventurist in this tiny outcropping of the Rocky Mountain wilds. Emily’s laughter was all that rang back to her, and Alicina sighed and dropped down on a nearby rock, aware that the six-year-old girl knew these paths better than she did and would call out if anything happened. Pulling a worn paperback novel from her back pocket, she began to read.
Not much time had passed when Alicina heard Emily calling her name. Dragging her attention away from dashing Captain Bristol in the pages before her eyes, she shoved herself off of her makeshift seat with an annoyed humph! and began to walk down the path in the direction of her sister.
She turned the bend… Emily was nowhere in sight. Buddy’s leash was lying on the path beside a large boulder, and when she neared it, she heard her sister calling from above the rock face. Figuring the girl must have decided to climb up and gotten herself stuck somehow, Alicina called, “I’m coming, Emily!” in a very annoyed tone and, placing her book beside Buddy’s leash, began to climb.
She topped the boulder but still saw no sign of Emily. A jangle from below made her look down to see Buddy panting up at her, a happy dog grin on his mouth as his tongue lolled wetly outside it. Realizing her stupidity, she saw how impossible it would have been for the dog to reach the top and would have started down. Except that the dark entrance of a cave stood just before her.
She still had no idea where her sister had gotten to.
“Emily?” she called, ducking her head, and entered the cave.
The darkness of the close space at first blinded Alicina, but she walked on through a short passageway and as her eyes adjusted, she could make out the far wall of the cave. Slowly, she saw that it was larger than she had at first supposed. About six feet wide and ten feet deep, it was lit only by the opening to her back, which cast a gray hue against the black rock. To her surprise, a tall iron door lay immediately to her left, thick and imposing against the otherwise empty chamber.
“Amazing,” she breathed, skimming her hand against its uneven surface, “I wonder how this got here.”
So startled was Alicina to find a door where there should be none, she forgot for a minute or two to look for her sister, who was clearly not in the cave, after all.
She stepped closer. Across the tall door lay an ancient wooden bar that served as a rudimentary latch. There was no way Emily had gotten inside then. Curious, she tugged on the bar and felt it give a little.
“Oomph!” Panting, pressing up with both her hands and mindful of the rot on the wood that fell away at her touch, she managed to push it up off its metal latch and dropped it to one side.
Surveying her work, she noticed that on the side opposite the hinges lay a metal ring. Grasping it now, she tugged. The door did not budge. Putting one foot against the stone wall, she heaved. With a groan like an angry bull, the hinges turned. Air pressed against Alicina’s face as the room within let out a sigh of wind and the door slid open a crack.
“Too bad I didn’t bring a flashlight,” Alicina spoke to the waiting air, hands on her hips above her jeans as she contemplated the dark space she had uncovered. The door, once open, blocked the entrance to the cave too thoroughly for any light to shine within. In near blackness, she wondered at the mystery of the secret door. Dare she go any further without light?
As though her words had called it to life, an oil lamp on the far wall of the room came to life, its flame greedily guzzling up through the hole in its glass casing to shine directly in Alicina’s eyes. It was followed by another, and another, until a soft orange glow played across the floor at the entrance to the chamber and Alicina was blinded by its flickering light.
“Whoa!” she cried, stepping back and shielding her eyes with one arm. A fearful tremor went through her. Hurriedly she backed away, and shoved the door with her foot but only succeeded in closing it a few inches. With the glow of lamplight spilling out through the crack, she stared at the door. Words she had not noticed before in the dim were engraved across it: Intercalare, Intercedere, Aetas de Magica.
“Alicina?” Emily’s voice sounded far off, but it brought Alicina to her senses. She turned toward the entrance to the cave. The lights at her back went black and she stumbled as she half-crawled out into the sunshine.
“Emily?” she called. Peering over the edge of the boulder, she saw her sister, Buddy’s leash in hand, tilt her head up to look at her, “I’m coming,” she told the young girl and she climbed down rapidly to the path.
“What were you up there for?” the six-year-old wanted to know.
“I heard your voice and thought you’d climbed up there,” Alicina admitted. She tried to block the memory of what she had just witnessed from her mind, but the words from the door were tattooed across her consciousness. Intercalare, Intercedere, Aetas de Magica. What did they mean? Where had the door come from? How had those lights turned on so suddenly?
“I’m ready to go home,” Emily said. Glancing down, Alicina saw she looked tired and realized that the light from the sun was streaming through the trees at a much lower angle than when they’d first hiked to the Enchanted Forest. Remembering the name of the woods made her shiver. Could there really be magic inside that cave?
Shaking her head, she said, “Let’s go.”
Leading the way, she brought Emily back down the mountain road to the driveway where their house stood overlooking the freeway and the great expanse of the Rocky Mountains beyond.
A week passed before Alicina could visit the cave again. But as Saturday neared, she spent that time researching the mysterious door. She kept it to herself, not wanting anyone else to share in her secret until she could visit again. Some things she had already found logical explanations for. Of course, the lamps must be activated by sound; probably the room had sensors placed about, which picked up on her voice when she’d made her request for light. Maybe there was even a computer system that had recognized the word “light” in “flashlight” and had granted her request.
As to the room’s origins, she was none the wiser. Why anyone would set up a sophisticated computer sensor for oil lamps behind an ancient door in the middle of the Enchanted Forest—a national forest—was more than a quick web search could answer her. The words, she had easily discovered, were Latin. But strung together they made no sense: “Into time, Intercede, Age of Magic”? Perhaps, she mused as she sat in Golden High School’s computer lab at lunchtime—snacking on a homemade turkey sandwich as she scrolled through a historical article on the forest’s website—some rich person had placed it there for fun. But wasn’t that illegal? Building anything inside a national forest was forbidden; that’s why it was a national forest, wasn’t it? So development didn’t threaten the wildlife that lived there. If it was anything illegal, Alicina knew she had better be cautious about entering it again. No telling when the owner would show up, and he might not take kindly to a teenage girl who could turn him in.
The school week wound to a close, and Friday afternoon at five-thirty, Alicina picked up her backpack, slung it over one shoulder, and walked down the linoleum hallway to the sidewalk where Mom waited for her in the minivan. After rolling closed the side door, Alicina answered absentmindedly the questions of how school had been before burying herself in a book. Soon, they swung around a corner and, standing beside a brick building—almost identical to the one they had just left—there stood Emily, hand in hand with two other girls of similar age. Seeing them pull up, she broke loose of their hold and waved.
“Bye!” Emily called over her shoulder. “Bye, Amber! Bye, Megan!” And she too ducked into the minivan, then swung a bright pink backpack off her shoulder onto the seat beside her.
Alicina did not glance up at Emily as she entered. Despite their same parentage, the two girls were hardly alike. Alicina was short and curvy, with long brown hair she wore up in a single ponytail and a hawk-like nose almost too strong for beauty. Strong and athletic, a brilliant mind but shy of strangers, she rarely spoke to any but a few close friends and had little thought for her sister, unless by some unlucky chance she landed the duty of babysitting her sister. Emily, on the other hand, was tall for her age, slender with blonde hair, blue-eyes, and a cute button nose powdered lightly with freckles. A gap of several years divided them too strongly for real affection to shine through, but they tolerated each other most of the time.
Mom chattered on the way home, occasionally answered by either Emily or Alicina, and assigned chores to each as they piled out in the garage, but after this she left them to their own devices as she scavenged the kitchen for dinner.
Alicina stepped out the kitchen door onto the balcony and took a deep breath to steady her nerves. The scent of wild things filled her nose—flowers and ivy overgrowing the garden in front to leap up the lattice framework beside the house and throw soft tendrils over the railing, where she stood and smiled, the sun on her face. Taking the stairs two at a time, she met the hard surface of the driveway below and followed it out fifty yards to the road. It would be another hour before dinner was ready, and she wanted to see the cave again. Just as the house turned out of sight, she heard a call behind her. She groaned inwardly: there was Emily, following her as fast as her short legs could carry, panting with the effort to catch up. As Alicina was about to tell her to turn back, Emily cut her off with a breathless, “Mom said to take me with you!”
Knowing full well this was half-true at best, Alicina seethed quietly, but said only, “You better keep up,” before she took off again, setting a hard pace for the other girl, whose legs were much shorter.
They walked in silence all the way to the edge of the forest; Alicina, seeing the lost look on Emily’s face, thought it served her right for enforcing her presence when it was least wanted.
“Don’t get lost,” she ordered the girl. “I’m going to climb that boulder we saw last time. I don’t want to have to find you in the dark to get home.”
Emily nodded, subdued, and fell in behind as Alicina marched off. When they reached the boulder, however, she begged, “I want to climb up too!” and pouted, a crease between her eyebrows deepening as Alicina stubbornly ordered her to stay down below.
Grabbing hold of a crack in the rock, Alicina hauled herself up as she had before, the light waning in the early autumn afternoon. Only when she reached the top did she realize that she had failed to bring the flashlight. Muttering to herself, she decided to enter the cave anyhow, knowing there would soon be light as she reached the ancient door. This time she could pronounce the words engraved across it:
“Intercalare. Intercedere. Aetas de Magica,” she recited.
The oil lamps flared to life as Alicina entered the room, this time unafraid. Beyond the threshold, she stopped and stared in wonder about her. All along the walls below the lamplight were ancient weapons of every imaginable shape and size. Swords, bows, spears and many items she had no names for lay on racks. They called to her, begging to be touched and inspected. Picking up a medium-sized sword that lay near her held up by two pegs, she saw a fat ruby on its hilt and a steel handle that gleamed under the flickering lamps. Something about it made her turn the blade over several times in her hands and then grasping it firmly, she drew it partway out of its sheath.
Words drew her eye down the deadly length of its blade, and she whispered them to the air. “Accognitare con animere!”
Suddenly, she felt a strange detachment, as though some great force held sway over her body. In awe, she watched as her hands unsheathed the sword entirely, and her legs moved of their own accord into a balanced stance. She willed herself to move left and found to her relief that she could, but just as easily the unknown force shifted her body also, keeping her center of balance forward on her toes as if poising to strike some unseen assailant.
“It’s magic,” she whispered, staring down at the sword in her hands. “It’s a spell!”
Excited, she turned back to the rack and saw that a belt hung over the same peg on which she had found the sword. She lifted it, placing the sword back in its sheath and slipping one end of the belt through a loop on the scabbard, buckling this so the sword hung from her waist where she could easily draw it with her right hand. That done she looked about the room. A small bookshelf stood against the far wall, and nearing it, she saw titles written in the same italic script as lay on the door and her sword.
Picking up Loqueris Lingua de Magica, she opened it carefully, with due regard for its tattered pages, and saw it was a textbook on basic Latin. Probably written for the study of magic, most likely, from the title. On the inside front cover were printed the words in English.
“The best advice any wizard can give an aspiring magic-user is to excel as an artist. The wise sorcerer looks for his replacement among the craftsmen of his country. The only difference between art and real magic is the will to make your imagination come to life.” – E. E. Grimm, Fifth Warlock of the Telidorean Alliance.
“I’m going to learn magic,” she said aloud to the empty room, as though she could not quite believe what was happening.
A leather chest beside the bookshelf drew her eye, and she knelt down, threw the catch, and lifted the lid to reveal its contents. Clothes met her eyes, unlike any Alicina had ever seen, except on film. A dark crimson tunic lay inside with a mythical creature embroidered on its chest, black leggings and soft leather shoes like moccasins, only they had laces like boots, were under that. Below these lay a pair of knives with straps to hold them to a wrist or leg, and a worn brown cap like that of a newspaper boy in the 1920s. Lifting them all out, Alicina glanced around and then began to pull them on one by one, shedding her jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers. Placing the sword belt about her waist once more, she surveyed herself and was impressed at how well the items fit her. There was nothing left in the chest; she closed it with a dull thud, and turning, she ventured out the door to show Emily what she had found.
Only, when she closed the door behind her, Alicina came up short in surprise. The entrance to the cave was gone! In its place stood a wall as craggy as any of the others. The only light came from an oil lamp hanging close by. She did not remember seeing it before.
Again turning, she tried to get her bearings by facing the door again, only to stare in shock. To the right of the door, what had before been the back wall of the cave now stretched down into darkness. A staircase sat not three feet from her, leading down into the heart of the mountain. Alicina swallowed hard. The stillness of the cave suddenly felt oppressive.
She faced the door again. It must be a different exit, she mused. Stepping forward, she grasped the handle and tugged. It wouldn’t budge. She placed her foot against the wall of the cave as she had on her first visit and pulled harder. The door still refused to move. Talking sternly to herself, Alicina refused to panic. Surely the stair must let her out someplace. She would just follow it until it let her out and then circle around to where Emily was waiting.
Taking the lamp off its cradle on the wall beside the door, she began to descend the stairs.
Emily was tired of sitting. She had obediently stayed behind when Alicina climbed the high boulder, content at first to take in the sight of the pretty leaves quivering on the trees with an autumn wind blowing through them, and looked in envy at the hint of meadow beyond the brook that wiggled beside the trail and disappeared around a bend in the woods. She knew how furious her older sister would be if she ventured off alone. But as the sun began to set, and hunger began to remind her that Mom had probably cooked a complete dinner by now, she tentatively began to wonder how much longer her sister planned to be up there.
“Alicina?” she called out with a hint of hesitation in her voice. If the other girl were already heading back, she would be annoyed at the nudge and might take it out on Emily on the way home. When there was no answer, she tried again louder this time. “Alicina?”
Still no reply. Standing up, Emily cupped her small hands around her mouth and cried, “Alicinaaa!” a hint of a whine in her voice. She wanted to go home!
The only answer was the loud mocking of a crow overhead. A frown crossed Emily’s face. Was Alicina just ignoring her, or had she perhaps gone too far inside to hear? Worry began to gnaw at her stomach now in addition to the hunger. There were mountain lions in these woods. Dad always told Emily not to go farther than Alicina could hear her, in case she met something bigger than she could scare off with an angry word or a stomp. One time, Emily had seen a footprint of the big cats in her sandbox. The size of her head, its owner was nothing she wanted to meet alone in the coming dark without Alicina within shouting distance. Screwing up her courage to face her irate sister, she began to climb the boulder.
It took her a while to reach the top, not having the arm or leg spread of her older sister, but soon she stood huffing at the entrance to the cave. She eyed it apprehensively. She was nowhere near an adventuring mood now, with the sun setting at her back, but knowing Alicina could not have gotten off the boulder without going past her seat below, Emily stepped hesitantly into the passageway of the cave, calling out as she went in the hope that her sister would answer.
It only took a few seconds for her to notice the vast door to her left and the wooden bar that had been removed from it. Tugging on the handle, she found it moved open easily, revealing at first glance a warmly lit room and beside the door, a pile of Alicina’s clothes. She tiptoed over to them and looked around, half-expecting her older sister to scare her from behind one of the many objects that filled the room. Shelves lined each of the four walls with interesting objects placed intermittently with books of all sizes, as though it were a mixture of museum and library. Walking over to an object, she picked up an ivory rabbit small enough to fit in her pocket. It was beautifully carved in every detail with eyes that shone as though it were really alive. She smiled in wonder.
“It’s so beautiful!” she exclaimed to the still air.
Putting down the rabbit, she examined a chest that lay beside the wall to her right. Unclasping its latch, she used both hands to lift the lid and inside found a dress unlike any she had ever seen. With midnight-blue velvet, it had tiny pearls sewn along the waistcoat and silver embroidery, a long skirt that just brushed the floor when she held it against her, and beneath it were tiny silver slippers. She gasped with delight and quickly undressed and tossed her jeans and shirt beside Alicina’s to pull on the beautiful gown. Glancing inside the chest one last time, she noticed a string of pearls that she placed around her neck and a lovely silver and diamond hair clip. Hoping that Alicina would help her to place it in her hair, she ran out the door to find her sister.
“Alicina, look what I found!” Her voice was loud with her delight, and Emily did not notice at first that the way was blocked until she had almost run smack into the wall now preventing her exit from the cave. She glanced about her in confusion, hoping to find the way out. When she could not, and saw only the dark staircase down into the mountain, all the happiness at what she had found fled her mind and she burst into tears. It was too much for her, being hungry and later in the day than a six-year-old girl usually plays outside; the many surprises and now to be lost!
“Alicina!” she sobbed in the dimly lit gloom of the cave. “Alicina, I want to go home!” She sank to her knees, forgetful of the pretty dress in the dirt, hands covering her face.
What was that? A soft voice seemed to call from below. Emily stood and fled down the stairs after her sister.
Alicina had just spotted a light far off below her at the end of the stairs and was quickening her pace to reach it when she heard Emily’s sobs behind her. “Emily!” she called, “I’m down here! Come down the stairs!” she called loudly. Something squeaked nearby and she whirled to see a rat scurry away in the blackness. Horrified, Alicina realized this was no place for her sister to wander about alone and so began to climb the stairs back toward the door. Soon she ran into Emily, who was pattering down the steps toward her as though hounds on the hunt followed.
“Emily, it’s okay,” she soothed, embracing her sobbing sister with one hand while trying to keep the lamp steady above them with the other. Kneeling down for a moment, she placed the light on a stair above them so she could wrap both arms around the crying girl. “It’s okay,” she repeated when Emily’s tears did not cease right away. “What happened?”
“I found the room and I tried to leave it so you could put the pretty thing in my hair but the wall was in the way and I got lost and I didn’t know … where you … were!” the little girl sobbed, tears wetting the front of Alicina’s borrowed tunic. But her words raised gooseflesh on Alicina’s arms and neck as she recognized the similarity in Emily’s tearful story.
“Are you sure you left by the same door?” she demanded. “Are you sure?” She pulled Emily away to look her in the eyes but the girl stared back, not comprehending. Alicina already knew the answer. There was no way Emily had managed to open a door by herself that Alicina could not with all her strength budge. Magic had changed the cave and had brought them both here. It was magic that was barring their way back into the room where they had found the clothes they now wore.
Looking Emily over, she said, “That’s a very pretty dress,” in an attempt to distract and soothe her. It worked. Emily wiped a small hand across her eyes and looked down at the dress. In the lamplight, it sparkled with a soft sheen on the velvet and the silver threads glittered on the embroidered edges.
She sniffed in answer and held up the clip. “Will you help me put this in my hair?”
Alicina gathered Emily’s hair into a bun on top of her head and secured it with the jeweled clip. Then, linking their fingers with one hand and taking the lamp in the other, she said lightly, “You look beautiful, Emily! Let’s go show Mom.” With bravado she did not at all feel, Alicina led her down the stairs toward that soft glow of light.
The moment they exited the chamber where the stairs had left them, Alicina glanced back and saw that the steps had disappeared into solid stone. Knowing her instinct about the magic had been right did little to lift the tight feeling in her shoulders. Her stomach twisted uncomfortably, but as they emerged into the forest outside the cave and saw a little path, like that a deer might leave in the grass, she experienced some relief and immediately picked up their pace toward it.
As the sunlight fell on Emily’s face, she let go of Alicina’s hand, gave a small exclamation and stopped.
“What?” came the impatient reply. Alicina turned to see Emily stock-still, white and trembling behind her, blue eyes darting about the trees that surrounded them.
“The sun came back up!” Emily pointed accusingly at a patch of sunlight that played over a nearby bush, and Alicina, who had not noticed at first in her rush to get the little girl home, now stared. When she had entered the cave it had been half-past five o’clock at least—and the sun had already been close to the horizon. Emily had waited at least twenty minutes before following her. By now, the sun should have been shooting its last rays toward them from its perch above the mountains. But instead, bright afternoon sunrays danced happily among the leaves above their heads, filtering down to light the path and making a nearby butterfly glint and sparkle. By its angle, Alicina thought it must be closer to noon than to suppertime! She gaped. How was this possible?
“We must have been inside all night!” she said after a moment. The words rang false in her ears and Emily’s hold on her hand tightened.
“I’m scared,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” Alicina told her, pretending she was not just as frightened as her sister, “Mom won’t be mad if we tell her what happened.” At least, not at you, she thought, wincing. Getting them lost in an unknown cave in the woods would definitely qualify as her fault—Mom would probably ground her for a week!
“What if we can’t find our way back?” Emily sounded panicked, her grip on Alicina’s hand an uncomfortably tight squeeze now.
“We just have to circle around,” Alicina said, gesturing to the path which curved toward the left. Praying her words were true, she tugged Emily’s arm and added, “Come on.”
They walked for a time in silence, Alicina glancing around occasionally to look for familiar landmarks but finding none. They were truly lost, and she had almost decided to turn back and try the cave again when Emily said, “Oh, look!” and pointed.
Between two trees there was a break in the woods where the land fell away. Across a small valley, Alicina could see a castle set in a meadow, its stone walls gleaming white in the sunlight. The distance was not great, and Alicina could tell this was no modern building. An architect could not have been involved in its planning at all for a keep rose high in the air behind a crenulated wall, but there all resemblance with a fairytale castle ended. It was not square but a sprawling mess of turrets and walls and inside, she could just make out the peaks of wooden buildings littering a courtyard before the keep. It was quite large, with what looked like an entire marketplace within its walls.
The comings and goings from the castle were even more interesting: no cars anywhere to be seen and no driveway led up to it, but instead, people in clothes similar to the ones Alicina and Emily were wearing walked or rode horseback in and out of its gate, which seemed to be guarded by men with tall pikes and armor. It was not far; she estimated an hour walk if the path were straight to it, although winding back and forth as they went down the side of the mountain would probably take several hours before they reached it.
“Great,” she said firmly, “we can ask them for directions.” She tugged Emily’s arm toward the point where the trail forked, one path leading away further into the woods and the other taking them closer to the castle. But Emily refused to budge.
“I’m scared,” she said again, tears threatening to spill over her cheeks again.
“Don’t be stupid!” Alicina snapped, her patience gone. “You’re probably just tired and hungry. There’ll be food down there, and nice people who might help us get home.”
“I want to go home now!” Emily wailed. She plonked herself down in the dirt, a full-blown tantrum bursting forth.
As nerve-wracked as she was, Alicina knew even then it was a bad idea, but her next words were borne of a lifetime of impatience with her little sister who was always pestering her, “Fine!” she snapped, letting go of Emily’s hand. “Stay here by yourself. I’m going down to the castle and I’ll come back for you when you’re done crying.”
And with that, she left her sobbing sister on the path in the Enchanted Forest.
Alicina had hardly been gone ten minutes before Emily stopped crying, shock at being left behind ringing in her mind. She was too afraid of being alone to stay still long while Alicina walked away from her, but somehow the dread that had settled over her when she had first spotted the castle would not be shaken, and for a long time she stood in the fork of the path, uncertain of what to do. Finally, the habit of relying on her older sister for protection no matter how annoyed and snap-turtlish she might be at times broke through the surface of Emily’s thoughts and she tried to hurry after, only to stop short when she realized she did not remember which way on the path Alicina had gone. Choosing one of them, she pattered down the path in pursuit.
She had traveled only a short way when a break in the trees showed she was getting further away from the castle, not closer. Deciding it must have been the other direction; she turned to retrace her steps, only to be brought up short.
A brown rabbit stood on the path in front of her, long ears straight up as it sat staring up at her, its nose twitching.
“Oh!” Emily knelt in the dirt, never minding her dress. “Hello, little rabbit.”
She held out a small hand for the wild critter, and to her astonishment and delight, he hopped forward to sniff, black velvet nose wiggling above her palm, his whiskers tickling her fingertips so she giggled. He turned his eyes up to hers and Emily saw then that they were a startling gray–green, not the usual black of a rabbit. “You’re a strange rabbit, aren’t you?” she said, and she made to touch one of his soft ears that flicked back and forth as she spoke.
“Whatcha doin’ ow ’ere on yer own?”
Emily plopped backward onto her rump, eyes wide as she watched the rabbit hop closer. He sat back on his haunches, lifted a front paw and said, “How yeh doin’? Th’ name’s Tom,” and held it out for her, clearly expecting she would grasp and shake it.
“Yeah? So d’you,” argued the rabbit, fairly reasonably.
Emily was speechless.
The rabbit, Tom, seemed to decide she wasn’t interested in a polite handshake and sat back down on all fours. Hopping up onto her lap, he thrust his nose toward her waist. “Yah got any grub wicha?” he demanded, sniffing about her.
Emily shook her head and sniffed, her nose stuffy after her bout of tears, “No, I’m hungry too.”
“Ah well.” He gave a fair imitation of a shrug, “No good are yeh, then, aye? So whatcha doin’ ow ’ere on yer own?” he repeated.
“I’m not alone,” Emily said firmly. Mom had always told her never to admit this to a stranger. Surely a strange rabbit qualified. “I’m on my way to the castle.”
“A noble, aye?” The rabbit’s eyes gleamed in a way that made Emily suddenly feel uncomfortable, “Should catch a pretty price for yeh, then.”
Suddenly, with a flash of brilliant white teeth, he reached out and bit her! She cried out and clutched her bleeding finger to her chest. The world spun and she gazed about her frantically as she seemed to shrink down into darkness.
Emily awoke with no idea how much time had passed. A heavy covering weighed down on her, and as she pushed at it, gasping in air through her nose, a thousand smells overwhelmed her senses.
She could smell grass beneath her; but it was grass like she had never smelled it before—rich and juicy and so strong her mouth watered, reminding her how long ago that small snack had been when she sat at the table with the other children during recess. Other smells came too, things she had never noticed before: the tang of silver metal, musty cloth that has sat too long in a closet, and over it all the threatening scent of human. She flinched away from that, knowing danger was near. Her nose quivered and with a mighty kick of her legs she leaped out from under the heavy cloth that covered her and into the fresh air. As her eyes adjusted to the bright light, she saw it was an enormous blue velvet pile, taller than her head.
Confused, she looked around. She was amazed to see that the trees all seemed to have grown a hundred times the size they were when she first sat down. She tried to walk over to touch one of them and fell flat on her face. “Oomph!” she cried.
Something in her mouth felt strange, as though her teeth were too big to talk around. Looking down to see what was wrong with her legs, she saw soft golden fur that seemed to cover her like a coat. She leaped backward in amazement. The fur came with her! Twitching from side to side, she saw it covered her back as well. Glancing down, two golden fur-covered paws met her eyes where once she’d had hands.
“I’m a rabbit!” she cried.
“A werebunny, actually,” corrected Tom. He sat on his haunches not far from her.
“You … you!” she sobbed, but although her voice quivered no tears ran down her cheeks.
“Wanna know where there’s a nice patch o’ clover?” he asked, unsympathetic.
“No!” she stomped her hind foot, furious. “I want my sister!” she wailed.
“Suit yerself,” he drawled. “Listen, honey. I’m gonna set a few things stroight. I’m in charge o’yeh, and yeh better do what I say, aye?”
“What are you going to do to me?” Emily asked fearfully, her voice full of tears.
“Yer comin’ with me.” The rabbit thumped his foot firmly, “I’m gonna teach yeh a thing or two about fightin’, like, and how to survive in these woods.”
“I don’t want to learn fighting!” The Emily-rabbit was sobbing now, her tiny nose quivering uncontrollably.
“Yeh have to, if yeh wonna survive. Yeh can’t trust the humans. They hunt our kind down and’ll turn yeh into rabbit stew!” And with that, he turned away toward the brush.
Emily watched him go, her heart thumping loudly in her large ears. Alicina would surely come back for her, but what would she say when she found a rabbit instead of a little girl? Surely she would never eat her own sister! But what if someone else happened along first?
“I don’t want to be a rabbit!” she sobbed. Fat tears ran down her furry face and she buried her nose in her front paws.
“Y’ll get used to it!”
Emily only cried harder. Just when she began to hope that Tom would give up and hop away without her, a voice from the bush behind her said, “Don’t move, werebunny, or I’ll shoot you full of holes and feed you to my raccoon!”
Tom flinched. Eyes narrow and flinty, he peered at the bushes behind Emily. “Oo’s that?”
“The name’s Peter! And I don’t like werebunnies. I have no compunction against ridding the world of the lot of you, so stay where you are! You there, girl-bunny, hop toward me.”
Emily was scared, but anything would be better than staying with Tom. She inched toward the bush, afraid of what might come out of it. The whole bush shook violently, and out of it emerged the strangest sight she had ever seen. A fat gnome with skin the color of dry dirt and a bulbous nose sat astride a saddled raccoon. The raccoon bared its teeth at Tom and growled angrily. The gnome, Peter, held a wooden lance in one hand; with the other he gripped the reins of his strange mount. Together they stepped between Emily and Tom.
Threatening the latter with the sharp end of his weapon, Peter the Gnome said, “Now scat, wererabbit—and shame on you for turning a helpless girl.”
But Tom was determined to gain gold from holding the noble child ransom. He bared his long teeth at Peter and the raccoon, and said, “I don’t know what a ‘compuncty-whosit’ is, but yeh better not think yeh can tell me wot to do!” In a whirl of fur, he began to spin, magic blurring the air between them. Emily watched as he grew taller and taller, his features taking on that of a human man.
“Uh-oh, time to go,” Peter said. Turning his mount, he grabbed Emily up into the saddle before him and they dashed into the bushes away from the turning wererabbit.
Emily’s breath came fast and her heart beat fearfully in her large ears. She had no hands with which to grip; her paws scrambled to find leverage on the raccoon’s gear. But Peter’s hands were strong from digging, and he wedged her between him and the saddle horn firmly, not allowing her to fall. Together they raced through the thicket, the heavy sound of Tom, now in human form, pounding after them through the forest. Finally, Peter seemed to find what he was looking for. With a quick jerk of the reins, he turned his raccoon toward a large tree with roots that stuck up through the soil, leaving Tom to wander the woods alone in search of them.
Down under the roots into a tunnel they raced, and though it was dark inside, Emily was surprised to find it was quite spacious and seemed to have been carved by careful hands. Deeper and deeper they went, and finally she saw light ahead. When they approached the door at the end of the tunnel, she gasped in surprise. A beautiful round door stood before them, with a little grating on the front as a peephole from the other side. Dismounting, Peter marched up and knocked three times.
The grating opened and a second gnome peered out. “Peter, is that you?”
“Indeed,” Peter replied, “and I have a guest.” He pulled Emily forward into the light shed by a nearby lantern hung on a hook above the door to light the way.
“A werebunny?” the gnome who guarded the door seemed suspicious.
“A lostling in the forest who ran amuck of a wererabbit that turned her,” Peter explained sympathetically. “Just a young child, of no harm to any of us.”
“Come in, come in,” the gnome replied instantly, and the door swung open revealing a well-furnished foyer.
Alicina had walked for fifteen minutes before she felt her temper cool. She continued for a few more minutes before it really struck her how bad an idea it might have been to leave her six-year-old sister sitting at a fork on an unknown path in the woods where she herself was already lost. Glancing longingly down the side of the mountain where the castle beckoned, she shook her head at herself and said sternly, “Mom is going to be pissed if she finds out you left her behind!” Pretending to herself that this was the only reason, she turned back to convince Emily.
As she neared the spot where they had parted, she listened for her sister’s sobs. The forest around her was quiet; only the chatter of squirrels and an occasional bird song reached her ears. When she arrived at the fork in the path she was at first not too worried to find Emily gone. She had probably struck out in the opposite path just to prove a point. But as she continued down this path and found nobody, Alicina began to really worry.
“Emily!” she called, “Emily, can you hear me?” Silence met her.
At last, she turned around a curve and saw the midnight-blue dress, with the pretty silver and diamond hairpin, lying alone across the path with no little girl inside it. She panicked.
“Emily! Where are you?!” she hollered, brushing aside the bushes on either side of the path to see if her sister lay beneath them. “Emily!”
A feeling of foreboding grew in her chest. Frantic now, she screamed her sister’s name and began to run down the path and then stopped. Something had happened to her. There was no way Emily had just decided to take her clothes off and wander naked through the woods.
Turning around, Alicina picked up the dress strewn across the path, tucked it into her belt band so it hung opposite her sword, and then began to trek toward the castle in the far distance. She was going to need help.
The young woman stepped lightly through fallen leaves as she strode down a winding path, past the spot where three children chased each other around and over a sprawling playground. The winter chill bit at the young woman’s cheeks and played with the ends of her scarf as she walked along. Snow sat in small piles here and there, giving the park the uneven look of not quite autumn and not yet winter, but somewhere in between. Her soft brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, loose strands lashing her cheeks in the wind as she followed the sidewalk’s curve.
At the center of the park, she slowed. Three sapling oaks stood in a row alongside the path, and she stopped at the second, a smile tugging at her lips as she placed a hand fondly on its trunk and read the plaque that had been placed there:
“She always loved plants and things,” a voice came from behind.
She turned, startled, to see a lady dressed fashionably in a black coat and leather boots, standing not three feet away in the shadow of the last sapling in the row.
“Oh, you surprised me!” she said, a little breathless, “I didn’t think anyone else was here.”
The lady took a step toward her, and the young woman noticed curiously that her face seemed familiar, although the reason for this eluded her. Shadows seemed to follow as she neared, or perhaps it was just the leaves blowing in the wind.
“Did you know Emily?” the lady asked, nodding at the plaque.
The young woman turned again to look at the words engraved there. “We were childhood friends. Best friends,” she answered, and her eyes went to the crown of the sapling, “She would have loved this—to know that she was remembered by a tree.” A trace of a smile flitted across her face.
“She knows,” the stranger told her, and the young woman, whose name was Amber, glanced at her sharply.
“I guess so,” Amber said dubiously after a moment.
“I knew her sister, a little,” the lady went on, curling her fingers around a leaf of the first tree, whose colors had already turned and which hung by the barest twig to its branch.
“Alicina used to watch us, when we were little,” Amber admitted. “I missed her too, when they…” her voice trailed off, but then she went on, stronger now, “But not as much as I missed Emily.” Her eyes fluttered to the grass.
“They are both happy, you know,” the lady told her, after a moment of silence in which the wind danced with the trees that were the only memory of two young girls, gone missing long ago. No grave marked their passing, just the plaque and the wind in the trees.
“How do you know?” Suddenly the Amber, who had seen fifteen years pass since Emily disappeared, felt a renewed sense of the loss. She turned to this stranger, unconsciously seeking reassurance in the familiar face.
“Their adventures were not trifling,” the lady went on, her eyes clouded as though remembering something Amber could not see, and her odd tone, as though she had insight into unknown escapades of the two missing girls, sent chills down her spine. Who was this woman?
“They came through alright and they’re both happy now,” the lady concluded. She turned but faced Amber again. “They would want you to know that—and be happy for them too.”
“I don’t know why you say that,” Amber said, nervously twisting her hand in the folds of her warm winter scarf. “But I loved Emily—I love them both. Alicina was like a favorite teacher, a friend, even though we were very different ages. I hope you’re right about them.”
Turning away, she heard the lady say, “I am.”
Amber strode away then, her mood troubled by the strange conversation. But as she neared the playground, her fingers brushed absently against the wooden bench where Alicina had once sat to watch over her, and in a rush that drained all the color from her face, Amber suddenly realized why the lady’s face had looked so familiar.
“Alicina?!” she gasped, whirling back toward the trees. The lady was further up the path, walking away toward the other end of the park.
“Alicina!” she cried, her voice shrill with joy and anguish. She began to run, a desperate longing choking her voice so she could not say a word more to halt the woman.
Alicina turned. Seeing Amber running toward her, she smiled. Raising one hand in a wave that was both greeting and farewell, she shimmered in the sunlight and disappeared.
When the sun finally began to sink below the peak of the mountains across the valley wherein lay the castle, Alicina gave up looking for Emily. Standing alone on the forest path, she stared into the darkness. The most important thing, she decided, was to find shelter for the night. Emily’s disappearance had left her nervous of what else might await nightfall. When turning a bend in the path revealed a small clearing with a fire pit in its center and a circle of stones to offer some scant protection, she sighed inwardly in relief. Exhausted after the day of walking—a day twice as long as it ought to have been, with the sun rising higher in the sky on this end of the magical stairs than the other—she began to hunt around for sticks and leaves to build a fire. She had been camping many times, with her family and on school outings, but always there had been matches or a lighter; never had she created fire out of nothing before.
Once she had a nice pile of combustibles, she opened the book she had found in the mysterious room and in the waning light and quickly scanned its pages for a spell that might be useful.
Centered in the book, under a section entitled Practical Magic, she found a table of spells. Scanning down, she muttered, “Farsight, no. Fear. Hmm, sounds like a bad one. Oh, here we go! Fire—to burn something.” Picking up the book, she walked over to the fire pit and spoke, pointing at her pile, “Urere.”
Flames burst into merry life, dancing among the leaves she had carefully placed under the deadwood she had scavenged. Soon warmth began to reach her fingertips as she held them out, and light flickered across the stone circle, giving it the appearance of a warmly lit room safe away from the forest quickly that was going black as the sun dipped below the horizon.
Alicina sat back against a stone, the book in her lap, her sword in its scabbard at an angle from her hip, one hand on the pommel. A smile crept across her face. She had worked magic!
“Cool,” she whispered softly. Drowsy, her eyelids flickered and she drifted asleep.
Hours passed. The creatures of the forest, magical and mundane alike, went about their business. Through the darkness several miles away, on the edge of the forest where it met the farming lands around Elendor Castle, an army made its way through the trees. Their leader, a man in a midnight-blue cape astride a black horse, muttered dark magic that silenced their progress to the rest of the world. Slowly, they made their way toward the castle, its inhabitants asleep with false assurance that the forest itself would protect them.
Alicina awoke with a start. A sound far off came to her ears. Straining, she heard it above the hoots and whistles of the forest nightlife. It sounded like a stadium football game from miles away—the dull roar of a thousand voices and thunder of applause. She got to her feet and she looked around. To her left rose a rocky outcropping. From the top she would be able to see for miles above the trees. Shoving the book into her belt, she began to climb.
When she reached the top and looked out toward where she had seen the castle the day before, she gasped. The valley floor was alight with the flames of a thousand torches. Men surrounded the castle, arrows flying up, their deadly tips glinting in the firelight as they rained down on the guardsmen within who were defending their home with all their might. As she watched, a man fell to his death from the wall, an arrow through his heart. Alicina screamed, forgetful of the forest around her. Whirling, she began to descend to the ground and her campfire, but the pound of hooves much closer to her than the battle that waged below made her pause. Were some of them coming her way? The sound grew louder, from the direction of the path that led to the castle, and she realized she was exposed here on the rocks in full view of the campfire light. She climbed quickly down and hid behind a boulder and waited.
From around the bend, five horsemen rode at breakneck speed. The first, still in his bedclothes, held a sword in his right hand and the reins in his left, and by the light of her fire, Alicina saw fierce anger in his face as he led his party away from the fighting. Judging by his clothes, Alicina decided he must have been asleep in the castle before making his escape. Just on his heels rode an older man in full chainmail, also riding with his sword drawn, and Alicina could see it was wet with blood. She shivered, fear freezing her behind the stone that was her only protection.
The next horse had two riders: a broad-shouldered man in his fifties with graying curls, dressed in a crimson brocade tunic over chainmail, and a woman behind in a white nightdress, her hands clutching him around the middle as though she were afraid; her eyes roamed the forest around them as she rode by. Somehow, as the light flickered over Alicina’s hiding spot, their eyes met for an instant and Alicina saw comprehension dawn in the woman’s face.
“Halt!” cried the woman, and leaning forward, she urgently tapped the man’s shoulder. He reined in hard and with a trampling of hooves, brought their horse to a stand just beyond the light of the fire. The two men who rode behind were beside him in an instant, circling, their swords drawn, eyes on the forest and the deserted fire pit. They were wary.
“What is it, Milady?” The guard with the bloody sword urged his mount back up the path to her.
“There is a girl behind that rock.” The woman pointed to where Alicina crouched, and now Alicina saw that it was not a woman at all, but a girl her own age. In the darkness with only a sliver of a moon, she could not see the girl’s face.
The guard dismounted in one smooth motion, his horse snorting its disapproval, and pointed his sword at Alicina. “Come out here!” he commanded.
The younger man, who had led the group, gave a snort like that of the horse. Alicina would have laughed at the sound if she hadn’t been so terrified.
“Would you come out if someone pointed a bloody sword at you?” she said.
“We have no time for this!” the older man barked. His voice was thick with tension.
“Father, we cannot leave a girl alone in this forest.” The other girl was reproachful. “Who knows what evil walks tonight?”
She slipped off the rump of their mount and approached, staying behind the guard but beckoning kindly. “Come out, it’s alright. We are not your enemies.”
Alicina stood up and walked out from behind the boulder. As she met the girl’s eyes, there was a gasp from the whole group. They were identical!
The girl was thin and looked sickly as though she had lain abed with illness for a long time, but her eyes and the point of her arched nose, the jawline and her dark hair were the exact image Alicina saw in the mirror every day.
“Impossible!” the young man breathed.
“Oh. My. God.” Alicina said flatly. “You look just like me!”
“A sign from the gods,” the girl whispered. “She is the answer!” she told the man.
“Huh?” Alicina blurted, confused.
“Milady,” the guard said, lowering his blade, “we must go.”
The sound of hooves was echoing up the path again, and this time Alicina knew from the looks on their faces whoever it was would not be friendly.
“Take her up on Cloudwalker, Benjamin,” the older man said.
The knight in his bedclothes stepped forward and took Alicina by the shoulder. “Come. It’s not safe here,” his voice was kind and his eyes alert as they met hers.
She nodded and followed him to his horse.
The other girl turned to follow but stumbled weakly. Alicina watched as the man she had called father lifted her into his arms. Benjamin dropped Alicina’s arm and strode over to the other girl. The man gave his daughter to the knight without a word, mounted his own horse, and then turned to take her from Benjamin’s arms. The girl lifted her gaze to Benjamin and met his eyes. He gave her a soft kiss on the lips before allowing her to be taken up behind her father once more. Their fingertips lingered with each other for an instant, and then Benjamin quickly ran to his mount and pulled Alicina up behind him. Alicina wrapped her arms around his middle gingerly, afraid. But she was more afraid of finding whatever was chasing them.
“Ride!” cried the guard, and taking the rear, he urged them on as the sound of hooves grew louder.
They rode. Through the darkness up the path the way Alicina had come during the day, they galloped. Behind them, Alicina heard shouts followed suddenly by a sharp whistling sound. Turning to look, she saw an arrow pierce the ground behind them. She gasped, her whole body going cold with fear. Other arrows followed. None finding their mark, but it was only a matter of time.
She looked forward over Benjamin’s shoulder. Once again, they were in the lead, pelting down the path toward what Alicina hoped was safety. Suddenly, a bush ahead of them on the right shook and from it emerged a raccoon, now racing beside them. Upon his back was a tiny leather saddle in which sat a little man no larger than her forearm. Urging his odd mount forward, the raccoon gave a great leap and landed on Sir Benjamin’s lap!
Alicina looked at the creature in astonishment.
“Sir Benjamin,” the tiny man addressed him by name, “more of us are coming. Take this.” He handed a small vial to the knight.
Benjamin shouted above the wind, “Do you have another? I must bring this girl with us.” And the small man noticed Alicina at his back.
“Indeed,” he replied, as calmly as though they all sat in her living room back home. He pulled another from a pouch around his waist and handed it to her.
“It is gnome potion. Drink!” Benjamin cried, and following his own advice, he downed the contents in one gulp.
Alicina did not ask questions. Pulling out the tiny cork, she put the vial to her lips and drank. Behind her, she glimpsed other raccoons landing on the mounts behind them, and the girl and her father had already drunk their share of the potion.
That was all she had time for before the world spun. She felt as though she was sinking down, down and the forest seemed to twirl around her. When she could see normally again she was seated on a vast rocking surface with Benjamin still in front of her, but now they were both the same size as the gnome! He grinned, his face more bulbous and foreign than ever when it was at eye level. Reaching out a calloused hand, he pulled Benjamin onto his strange mount and then turned to Alicina. She realized then that the potion had shrunk them, though not their horse, which was still galloping down the path with them standing small on its back!
“We’ll have to ride three on Bandit!” the gnome shouted to her, gesturing to his raccoon. “But he’s strong. Come!”
She took his hand, mounted up behind Benjamin on the furry back of the raccoon called Bandit, and gripped the knight tightly as they leaped from the back of the horse. The ground rushed up at them; she squeezed her eyes shut as they hit with an aching jolt, and then they were scampering through the bushes leaving the path and their pursuers behind.
Alicina listened to the call of the men who pursued them, like a fox listening to the call of hounds. As they crashed through the undergrowth, dead leaves, and low-lying branches in the forest, she wondered inanely whether Emily had encountered a similar adventure of her own. Had she been captured by the men who now pursued them? Who were these people Alicina had fallen in with, and what had happened to their castle? But, most importantly the question burned in her mind of how she and Emily would ever get home.
Alicina was distracted from her thoughts by their arrival at a tiny wooden door hidden under the roots of a large tree. Here, the gnome dismounted and fumbled with a key as the others fell in behind him. Looking over her shoulder, Alicina saw her look-alike mounted up behind the other girl’s father on one raccoon, the guard with the bloody sword—now cleaned and sheathed at his hip—riding with a third gnome. The two other knights that had accompanied them rode a fourth whose gnome had already dismounted and was grabbing the reins of the others.
Relieved that they had all arrived safely, Alicina was just turning around again when she heard a female voice say, “Come inside out of the chill, all of you, before you catch your death!”
A female gnome in the attire of a peasant woman with a floor-length apron wrapped around her plump middle was gesturing them inside the foyer beyond the door.
“Sir Benjamin, you remember my wife, Bess?” the gnome who had brought them said.
“It is a pleasure to see you again, Mrs. Gnome,” Sir Benjamin bowed politely in his bedclothes.
“Such a night!” Bess worried, all aflutter. “A terrible, terrible tragedy! Thank the gods you’re all right.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Sir Benjamin bowed again, but his face was tight as though her words had reminded him of their near escape.
“And who is this?” Bess asked, curiously peeking around his shoulder. “Oh my word!” she gasped as she met Alicina’s eyes.
“Indeed, that is an excellent question.” The older man had come up behind them, his daughter leaning heavily on his arm. “One we all would like an answer to.”
Alicina gazed dully back at each of them, exhaustion eating at the edges of her vision to where the whole of this seemed slightly unreal. She could not possibly be standing in a miniature house underground faced with a gnome and his wife in peasant garb. Except, she was exactly that.
“Can it wait?” the other girl asked faintly. She swooned slightly but then recovered.
“Milady!” Bess cried, seeing her for the first time. She spared barely a glance for Alicina, but that one glance was full of question, before rushing to the other girl’s side.
“We must get her warm, quickly,” she urged her husband, and putting actions to words, she swept the girl up in her strong arms and led the way to a back room, Sir Benjamin on her heels.
“We have not been properly introduced.” The gnome who had rescued her and Benjamin bowed beside Alicina, drawing her attention. “I am Meriwether. That lovely gnome who just left is my wife Bess. We are liegemen of Lord Tyrone.”
“Who is Lord Tyrone?” Alicina wondered.
The gnome looked surprised and glanced at the older man in explanation.
“I am he,” said the man, drawing up. “Lord Tyrone of Elendor and the Enchanted Forest.”
“All of which can wait until morning,” Meriwether said firmly. “Milord, you are exhausted, and this girl looks to be on her last legs. Catch some sleep. You are safe here.”
Alicina could only agree. She followed Meriwether wearily down a hallway into a small guest room pleasantly lit by candles and a cheerful fire in the grate. Wondering sleepily how the smoke reached above ground, she decided to leave such questions for the morning as she crept into the silk nightgown Meriwether left on the bed for her and went to sleep.
“It was Lord Derek, I’m sure of it.” Sir Benjamin’s voice was low but sharp with anger, “I saw him through the trees.”
“We cannot accuse without evidence.” Lord Tyrone was weary despite a full night’s sleep.
“How else do you explain Eric’s involvement?” Benjamin’s voice rose. “The castle doors did not open themselves. With Neal as witness …”
“Neal is my liege and therefore will not be considered without prejudice,” Lord Tyrone interrupted, “We must appeal to the king for aid and not rely on the courts for action.”
“The king wants an Elendor/Secundae alliance,”
“Yes,” Lord Tyrone agreed. “And he can be trusted with the truth about this girl.”
“Speaking of whom …” the soldier Neal strode over to the door, “I believe she has come to join us.”
He opened it suddenly and Alicina jumped back, embarrassed to be caught listening. At his stern nod she stepped into the parlor hesitantly, uncertain of her role in this conversation. Clearly, they had been discussing the attack on Lord Tyrone’s castle, and from the sound of it, they knew who had done it. Would this Lord Derek now be seeking them? Alicina did not care to become involved in politics or war—she just wanted to find Emily and go home.
“Who are you?” the guardsman who had opened the door beckoned her inside and shut it behind her. “I think it’s time we found out who we rescued.” He smiled kindly at her, but Alicina could see a hint of suspicion behind it. This man did not fully trust her.
“Alicina Peters,” she told him softly. “What is Elendor?”
“It is a fiefdom of Telidore—one of the largest estates held by a nobleman of this kingdom. It includes the Enchanted Forest as well as Elendor Castle. It has been ruled by my family for more than four hundred years,” Lord Tyrone said, and there was more than a hint of pride in his voice. But Alicina detected sadness too and perhaps anger.
“I don’t know anything about Telidore,” Alicina said, frustrated. “Or Elendor, or any of this stuff. How did I even get here?”
Sir Benjamin leaned forward. “You are not from this kingdom?”
“I’m not from any kingdom!” Alicina snapped back, “I’m from the United States of America. It’s a republic, not a kingdom. And I’ve never heard of Telidore, or magic, or any of this stuff until yesterday.”
The guardsman and Lord Tyrone shared a look, but Benjamin leaned even closer. “You’re from the Land Above!”
“The Land Above!” he cried, and for the first time she noticed a scholarly attitude about him. It was in the way he slouched slightly—like one who read a lot of books—and a blue ink smudge on the pinky of his right hand.
“Never heard of it,” she said.
“Of course not,” he replied, unperturbed. “You wouldn’t have if that’s where you were from. Long ago, ancient sorcerers sealed off the entrance to the Land Above to prevent the escape of dark wizards known as the Exiles. They were trapped there in a world without any magic, so they could never do harm to the Land at the Heart of the Mountain. Telidore and her neighboring kingdoms are essentially a different world than your own.”
“There’re more than just you?” Alicina asked, interested in spite of herself. She didn’t really want a history lesson, but what he said did make sense. In an odd way. Of course she hadn’t ever seen magic, if the real world was locked away from it somehow. And “above the mountain” pretty much described how she had gotten here. Which Benjamin had no way of knowing, of course.
“Oh yes, to the south is the Regn Republic—a republic run by centaurs. And to the north is the Gryphon Empire—”
“Centaurs! Gryphons?” Alicina cried. “You mean those things really exist here?” She had always loved mythology and the tales of horses with a human torso, or creatures that were part lion, part eagle had fascinated her. To really see one! Her mind spun.
“Of course,” Benjamin said with a shrug. “The reason why you don’t know of them is because the old spell prevents any magical creature from entering the Land Above. No one has ever broken it in a thousand years.”
“Whoa, okay, this is too much,” Alicina said, shaking her head. But her excitement grew. Maybe being lost here wouldn’t be so bad. But she still needed to find Emily. Who knew what could have happened to her in a land with centaurs and gnomes and evil castle attackers.
“Let us focus on a plan of action,” Meriwether interrupted their unplanned geography lesson. “We must get a message to the king that you are alive and well.”
“Yes,” Lord Tyrone said. “But, more importantly, that the ceremony did in fact unite Benjamin and Alice and she yet lives.”
“Who is Alice?” Alicina asked.
While they had spoken, Lord Tyrone’s daughter had entered the room, leaning heavily on Bess. She looked even paler than Alicina remembered from the night before. Her hair was the same color—dark brown—but it hung limply about her shoulders. Her eyes were set too deeply; dark rings beneath them made the brown irises frightening. And her skin was thin, almost as though it were rice paper over her veins, which showed on her neck and the top of the hand that gripped Bess’s tightly.
“What’s wrong with you?” Alicina blurted, unable to help herself. The girl looked extremely unwell.
“I’m dying,” Alice simply said. “A wasting disease.”
“We don’t know what’s causing it,” Benjamin said. He had walked to Alice’s side and in one smooth motion, he lifted her up into his arms. Striding over to the couch beside Alicina, he laid her gently there, kneeling at her feet in a loving fashion.
“But we suspect dark magic.” A fourth man had entered the room, holding a cup of tea in one hand and a half-eaten biscuit in the other. Taking another bite, he washed it down with tea before adding, “Lord Derek is known for his knowledge in the magical arts.”
“I don’t believe you’ve met Sir Roald.” Lord Tyrone gestured to him. “Another of my liegemen, and one of the best.”
Sir Roald was a broad-shouldered, deep-voiced young man in full chainmail with a crimson and gold tunic. He looked much the same age as Benjamin, but where the first knight was tall and thin, Roald was thick chested and had the look of a fighter about him. His hair was shaved close in military style and muscles stood out in his back when he turned to sit. But as he caught Alicina’s eye and nodded a greeting, she saw that he had kind eyes. His eyes were strikingly blue, Alicina thought.
“Nice to meet you,” she mumbled, feeling slightly underdressed in her borrowed nightgown.
“Don’t forget Eric.” The last of their party, the dark knight who had ridden rearguard strode in and seated himself next to Roald. He was deeply tanned, with brown eyes and dark hair. He reminded Alicina of an Italian model she had seen once in GQ. His curls flopped into his eyes as he hunched over the table to grab a biscuit of his own, and he brushed them back with a habitual gesture. “With Eric always at Elendor Castle,” he continued, “he was perfectly placed to poison or trick any of us. He could have easily slipped her something without anyone the wiser.”
“Sir Jarvis of Pecuniae,” Lord Tyrone introduced them. “Son of the richest fiefdom estate in Telidore and a stalwart knight.”
“It’s nice to meet you all,” Alicina replied. “But look, none of this has anything to do with me … I just want to go home,” she finished lamely when they looked at her.
“Your presence here is a sign from the gods,” Alice insisted. Her thin body looked frail and tired but her voice was strong as she pierced Alicina with a gaze that reminded her strongly of her English teacher. “This attack from the Rodere will mean civil war if he tries to claim Elendor lands!”
“It looks like he already did claim it,” Alicina pointed out. “Not to put too fine a point on it.”
“The king knows nothing of this,” Sir Benjamin said, shaking his head. “If he learns that the Rodere attacked us he would declare them rogues. There would be war—a war Eric and his father could not possibly win.”
“Indeed,” Lord Tyrone said. “Our only hope is to reach the capital at Aestas and convince His Majesty that an alliance between Secundae and Elendor is still possible.”
“You were hoping to wed Benjamin and Alice,” Alicina realized.
“They did wed,” Jarvis corrected her. “Last night.”
“But then …” she protested.
“There is little point in a wedding without the hope of a child born,” Roald pointed out. “If an heir of both Secundae and Elendor could succeed Lord Tyrone …”
“Then Elendor, and the Enchanted Forest, would be safe,” Alice whispered.
Alicina looked at her. Her face was drawn and miserable. Benjamin’s soft touch on her arm seemed to hardly stir her.
“Alice would have trouble keeping a babe to term,” Lord Tyrone said, his face stern.
“She probably won’t live that long,” Roald said bluntly to Alicina. “Not unless we lift the evil curse that has touched her.” His fists clenched.
“How can I help any of this?” Alicina asked.
They all looked at her.
“You look just like me …” It was Alice who broke the silence again. “If you could take my place, convince the people of Telidore—convince the king that Benjamin and I are happily wed, with a baby on the way, Elendor would have an heir and therefore be untouchable.”
“Eric will be forced to pretend he knows nothing of the attack. For the sake of peace, we will allow him that deception,” Lord Tyrone said. Anger wrought deep lines on his face, but his voice was firm.
“No way. I’m only thirteen. There’s no way I’m getting married to some guy I hardly know so he can knock me up and save your kingdom! Find some other way! I’m going to find Emily and we’re going home!”
She stood and strode from the room, furious. The anger lasted until the door shut behind her and then she burst into tears. How she wished Mom was here! Even with Emily lost, and that her fault, she still would rather have had someone yell at her and tell her what to do than have to figure a way out of this mess herself. As furious as Mom would be with her when she got home, she would never expect Alicina to do something like this to get Emily back!
“I want to go home!” she sobbed, leaning heavily against a wall in the hallway just beyond the parlor.
A gentle sound behind her, footsteps on the wooden floor and a hand on her shoulder told her someone had slipped out of the room to follow her. Turning, she saw Sir Jarvis. His weather-beaten skin was shadowed in the dim light of candles, his brown eyes soft. Tears spilled out of her eyes and for a moment he looked awkward as any young man is liable to be when faced with a crying girl. But he had a heart as big as his kingdom, this dark knight, and he treated her as his own younger sister as he placed an arm over her shoulder and pulled her close without a word. She sobbed into his tunic for a moment, hiccuping slightly. Then, embarrassed to be caught crying in front of a complete stranger, even if he had helped save her life the night before, she pulled away.
“You must think I’m such a baby,” she began.
“You’re lost, and you don’t know where you’ve landed,” he told her. “It’s not surprising you’re in shock.”
“I just…” she sniffed, “I just want to find my little sister and go home.”
“You have a sister?”
She glanced up. Roald had come to stand guard over them, his back to the door into the parlor, holding it shut to give her privacy. She felt gratitude wash over her.
“Her name is Emily,” Alicina whispered. “She got lost in the woods while I was searching for a way home. I-I shouldn’t have left her alone.”
“How old is she?” Roald asked.
“Six.” Alicina winced. She knew how careless, how irresponsible she must sound. Who left a six-year-old alone in a strange wood?
“Peter the Gnome said he found a lostling in the forest yesterday.” Bess had come softly up behind them from the opposite direction. “She said her name was Emily.”
“You know where Emily is?!” Alicina clutched Bess’s dress front eagerly.
Bess hesitated. “According to Peter, the lostling met with a wererabbit.”
“A what?” Alicina asked, bemused.
Jarvis and Roald shared a look between them.
“What is it?” Alicina looked between them. “What’s wrong?”
“A wererabbit is a human infected with the werevirus,” Jarvis said seriously. “At each full moon, they are forced into the shape of a rabbit.”
“You mean, like a werewolf but a bunny instead?” Alicina laughed.
“It is no laughing matter,” Bess said. “Your sister is forced to wear the form of a rabbit every month for the rest of her life. The werevirus is highly contagious. She must be careful never to bite or lick anyone, or share blood with them.”
That sobered Alicina.
“They are from the Land Above,” Jarvis told Bess.
“Oh?” Bess turned grave eyes on Alicina. “I’m afraid that complicates things even more.”
“What do you mean?” Alicina was desperate now.
“For more than a thousand years, neither magic nor mythical creature has been able to set foot in the Land Above, due to a powerful spell set upon it by ancient sorcery,” Bess told her.
Like Benjamin said, Alicina recalled. “S-so you mean …” her voice faltered.
“Your sister is now partly magical by nature.”
“She can never go home,” Alicina whispered, horrified.