The West Wind carried her far over the fire. The water grew thicker until it became land. The land grew wider until it became hills, and the hills grew taller until they became mountains. Penny dipped along between them. The wind drifted her over fields of boulders, through massive tree’s branches, and above flooding waterfalls. The air smelled sweet with the greenery growing all around her, and her soul filled with exhilaration. She relished her moment of lightness. This is what a bird feels like. This is what it feels like to be free.
They flew for almost an hour before the wind lay her down on top of a deep green hill. It kissed her cheeks before fading away. The grass held her, graciously allowing a soft spot to lie on before she sat up, surveying her new surroundings.
A wide valley lay before her. Trees lined the sides of the hills, and in the bottom of the valley a river trickled. A figure of a man sat next to the river. He stood and sparkled wet, as if he had just jumped in the river to cool off. He strode up the hill to her.
She wondered if she should be afraid, but curiosity and the man’s easy demeanor told her not to fear. By the time he reached her, she noticed a pointed, black beard growing from his chin. Two nubby horns protruded from his forehead, and his eyes crinkled when he smiled. He wore no shirt, and what appeared to be heavy pants, upon closer examination proved to be very thick fur; instead of feet he had hooves, and in his hand, he held a reed pipe.
“Hello Penelope, I am so happy you are here.” He spoke with laughter in his words. Orbs of light glowing with bright colors appeared all around the man. Penny reached towards one. Energy pulsed from the little being, and a gleeful giggle from the orb paused her reach. The ball changed into a tiny, floating person. All the orbs transformed, and around her danced hundreds and hundreds of winged people.
“Faeries,” she gasped with delight. The man laughed, and the valley filled with his laughter. It echoed all around them. Not a lonely echo, but a harmonious one. It seemed as if the trees themselves knew his laugh and responded back in their own timbre of voices.
He bent down and helped her up. “Yes, they are faeries, and I am their chief. The Lord of the Wilderness, I am Pan.”
The faeries continued their dance; Pan joined them with an exuberant laugh. He brought his pipes up to his lips, and played a mysterious and joyful melody. The earth pulsed, and the hills filled with his song. Penny had never heard anything like it.
She hadn’t heard music since her father sang to her as a small child. He stopped when she had absentmindedly sung in front of Mrs. Kendrick’s tenement one evening. Mrs. Kendrick told her father they would have to leave if Penny kept displaying such obscene behaviors in public. Why was singing and music seen as bizarre back home?
She remembered her father telling her that when people forgot stories they also lost their imagination and creativity, so it frightened them when Penny did something unusual. She eyed Pan warily as he played his song and danced his jig among the faeries. Her heart pounded, yearning to join his revelry. Last time she danced her father chided her, not wanting to bring attention their way.
But her father wasn’t here. Mrs. Kendrick wasn’t here. Mr. Brubacher was nursing – what she hoped – was a royal-purple black eye. She smirked at the image. Good.
She ran down the hill towards Pan, throwing back her arms and leaping into the air. She pirouetted, skipped, and twirled. Light washed over her, and her heart swelled with joy. When Pan stopped playing, she landed so close to him that the life radiating from his skin pulsed through her, as if the energy of a thousand forests coursed through his veins. Overwhelmed, she jumped back.
He laughed. “Dearest Penelope, you are learning how to be brave, but let’s get better acquainted before you get too close, to see the natural world as it truly is, is an overwhelming experience even for the most attuned.” He beckoned her to walk along the river with him. He picked luscious fruits and meaty nuts along the way and gave her the biggest ones. The berries burst in her mouth, thick with sweet juices and tangy seeds. The nut’s woody taste and aroma balanced the berries and soon she felt full and content.
The sun now blazed high overhead. Faeries floated everywhere, lighting on one branch and then another, caressing the leaves, dancing with the flowers, cajoling and prompting the growth of each plant with their touch. She and Pan crested the hill from where the river flowed, and at the top she gasped at what she saw.
An ancient cathedral, forgotten long ago, rested atop the hill. Its foundation seeped into the earth, sagging like an old man around the middle. Creeping vines claimed the walls as their own and curled up and through the broken stones. The roof had caved in long ago, but trees growing inside the cathedral spread their branches across the opening as a cover.
“You will rest here for the time being,” Pan said as they walked through the ancient arches serving as a doorway. Sunlight filtered through the canopy and dappled the chipped marble floor. Green, delicate plants enveloped solid verdant walls. Moss and vines crept up the stairs, while young saplings sprouted beneath their parent trees in the spots of light allowed in from above.
The large, open room greeted her with wild sounds of life. Perhaps because Pan stood right beside her, or maybe because she had never been so immersed in nature, she heard every note of bird song. Every blade of grass, flower, leaf, vine, and tendril glowed in different shades of green while singing their praises to Pan and welcoming Penny.
“I don’t need walls or a roof, but I love this place,” Pan motioned around him. “What a harmonious marriage of man’s creativity and nature’s beauty. See what wonders we can make together?” He scanned the room, satisfied. Penny stared wide-eyed. He lowered his hands as if conducting an orchestra, and the colors and sounds grew subdued in hues more familiar to Penny.
She smiled. “This is wonderful. Thank you for bringing me here.” She ran her fingers across the soft moss growing on a banister.
He turned to her, his eyes serious. “We must talk about the most pressing matter: what do you know of your mother?” His earnest question startled her. She knew nothing of her mother, except that whenever she thought of her she felt very alone, and very insignificant, but Pan was waiting. She didn’t want to tell him about her loneliness, so she bit her lip, pretending to think.
“The fox said my mother is the Story Weaver; what does that mean?” she asked. He piled up the fallen leaves around them into a big, cushy bed.
“Your mother’s name is Moira. She weaves stories for the Realm of Men, and the tales she creates come to fruition on this very Isle.” He sat down across from her. He radiated with warmth and life.
“My mother is that important?” she whispered and looked down at her hands.
That explains why she never tried to find me; an important woman like her is too busy to think about her plain, quiet, ordinary daughter. She will be so disappointed when she meets me.
Sadness washed over her, and outweighed the joy that she might see her mother again. She clasped and unclasped her hands. Still wearing the clothes from yesterday, she felt sweaty and ugly.
“When do I have to see her?” She looked back up and Pan’s grim face unsettled her.
“Penny, your mother is in danger.”
“What’s wrong?” Penny tried to control her voice. “The fox said she needs me.” Pan paused, the usual merriment gone from his eyes.
“She does need you. Your mother’s been in hiding for twelve years, since the night your father fled the Isle with you. She returned to her home just recently but disappeared again within a day. The West Wind saw a band of hobs trekking up to her home in the mountains before she disappeared. I’m afraid Michal, the King of the Hobs, kidnapped her when she returned to her mountain.”
Pain followed by relief shot threw Penny’s chest; so her mother didn’t send for her, but it wasn’t because she didn’t care for her. She was in hiding. Maybe she wanted me all along but couldn’t reach me. Pan paced before her.
“I wonder why the old trickster brought you back now,” Pan mused. “You must not go anywhere near the Kingdom of the Hobs. Until we know the king’s plans, you must stay here.” He plumped the bed of leaves. “I know it’s only mid-afternoon, but you need to rest. You had a long night.”
Penny sighed; her body ached from clinging to the fox, crossing the North Sea, and riding on the wind. Her head grew heavy with the news of her mother.
“But…but who is the Hob King?” she asked as she lay back on the pile of leaves. Pan smiled and crouched down to her eye level.
“We have much time to discuss it when you are refreshed.” He bid her good sleep and stepped out of the cathedral. Questions fluttered through her head, but she soon shut her eyes and fell asleep to the sounds of birdcalls and plant song.
He raced through the tunnels trailing his companion at an exhausted distance. He noticed King Michal check behind him every few minutes to make sure he kept up; the king’s long legs far outpaced his.
They ran through the underground tunnels for hours until they reached a concealed doorway that opened into the forest. The fresh air of growing life revived him. Roots pushing deeper into the soil, branches stretching towards the heavens, brooks and streams racing towards the sea, he breathed it all in. Pan’s domain never slept.
They plunged through a path of bushes and trees that formed a tunnel of greenery, passing undetected to any creature on the outside. As the sun crossed the sky and faded into the opposite horizon, he bristled in anger. He had seen the sun rise that morning, and now it was setting. He longed for his chambers in the palace and swore that when they returned, he would take the longest leave of absence from his duties and spend some much-deserved time off in the steam caves behind the palace. His legs burned and cramped with dehydration. He wanted to stop and rest, but he had to keep up with the king. Exhausted, he stumbled over a thick root, and finally, King Michal paused long enough for him to catch his breath.
“Where are we going?” he gasped.
“To the Grove of the Spider King,” the king barked back. Fox cursed under his breath.
“That’s a night’s journey from here. I need a rest, my King.” He licked at his paw, pretending to pull a thorn from the soft pad. He dreaded entering the domain of the Spider King. Spider warriors trained night and day, and their physical superiority of four arms and four legs made them intimidating fighters. He hesitated to find out what King Michal had in mind.
“You can rest in the grove. We must be there before dawn, for that’s when the Spider King whispers his prayers alone,” King Michal snapped.
Fox suppressed his irritation and imagined murdering Captain Gillitrut on their return, for it must have been the Captain’s whispered lies that pushed Michal into the madness of entering the Realm of the Spiders.
They climbed the steep hill leading to the Grove of the Spider King, not an easy task considering that a rockslide many years ago covered the precipitous slope with jagged, treacherous rocks. The front side of the hill grew green with lush vegetation and was an easy walk up to the Grove, but it faced the Meadow of the Spiders where the king and his people hunted and lived.
Giant Spidress mothers patrolled the meadow at all hours, protecting their young. King Michal and he together would be no equal to a Spidress protecting her children. He muttered a prayer of thanks to the gods when the king chose to climb the backside. They looked over the meadow as the first hint of sunlight peeked over the rim of the earth.
“What are we doing?” he tried to conceal the disdain in his voice. He did not trust Michal to make the right decisions. After the curse that crippled his body had reached his mind, the king no longer made rational decisions. Michal motioned him to crouch in the trees. Smoke rose from the pile of stones in the center of the grove and the smell of incense tickled Fox’s nose.
“When the Spider King is up here praying all alone and lighting the morning’s oil, we will attack him and take him back to Atmøs.” King Michal sneered.
Fox groaned. “We can’t do this. Can you imagine a war with the spiders? It would ruin Atmøs.” He wanted to hit Michal over the head and drag him back home to avoid any confrontation with the Spider King. The king snorted.
“What’s gotten into you? You’re so cautious. Ol’ Gilli was right, you’re so much like an old woman and not the soldier I remember,” he growled at Fox. “By the time they notice their king is gone we will have all their fates in our hands.” Fox wanted to remind the king that there was only one story he should be interested in, his own, but thought against it.
“How are you going to do it without their warriors attacking us?” he asked. King Michal smiled and drummed his claws along his jaw line.
“A distraction…” he said, and his eyes flashed in the brilliant morning light.