She awoke to the sound of the whole earth singing. Pan must be near. She smiled and stretched herself out on her bed of moss and leaves. Her heart pulsed with the beat of growing vegetation. Rosy sunlight filtered through the ceiling. Have I slept till the next morning? She sat up startled. It was early morning to be sure. She had never slept so long. Her stomach clenched in hunger. She hoped Pan would give her a big breakfast before starting their day.
He stepped into the cathedral. The flowers dazzled and shone, the tendrils on the vines grew taller, and the air danced about her. Pan lowered his hands, and the blinding forces of life settled into a subdued hue. He approached her, but his eyes looked concerned.
“You need to leave.” He said. Distraction filled the lines around his eyes where laughter had danced yesterday. Penny’s heart filled with panic.
“What…What? Why?” She gasped, and pushed herself up and out of her bed of leaves.
“A fire is raging in the Meadow of the Spiders, I must go to help the young ones escape. There is great terror coming from the meadow.” He tossed her a sack of food and a folded canvas map.
“Here is a map of the isle; it will lead you to a village nearby. There’s an old shepherd who lives there. He is a lover of the wilderness, and you will be safe with him and his wife until I return.” Penny unfolded the map. It looked identical to the one her father took with him to the sea every evening.
“Do not talk to strangers, and do not take shortcuts. No matter what, you must stay on the road.” He grasped her shoulder and squeezed it. She looked down at the map; fear clawed at her throat, and when she looked up again Pan was gone.
The vibrant luster of the plants faded with him. She looked around her. All alone now, she couldn’t breathe.
What does Pan expect me to do? I’ve never been here before. I’ll get lost! Now he wants me to find a shepherd? Why am I listening to him? This is so unfair. I hate that stupid fox for bringing me here! I’m not a grown up. I can’t do this!
Maybe she could go back home. Tell her father she found the Isle he had spent her life looking for. If she brought him back, then he would know how to find her mother. Her mother… he would be disappointed in her if she came home without her mother. Penny sunk her head to her hands. What am I doing here?
The luscious beauty of the cathedral now lay sinister and heavy around her. She had to get out and into an open space to think. She picked her way through the verdant growth. It seemed thicker and out of control without Pan’s presence. Her toe caught on a wild vine, and she fell forward. Entangled in twisting curling vines, she struggled to break free and hacked at them with her foot.
“What’s the point of bringing me here, then abandoning me?” she yelled into the air. She grabbed for a dangling vine, hoping to pull herself up, but her hand pricked on a thorn. She gulped and sucked the bead of blood off her finger. Fear and loneliness closed in around her, and tears gather in the corners of her eyes. I am alone. Her throat squeezed tight.
A soft breeze picked up a strand of her hair and caressed her cheek with it. “I am here,” the voice of the West Wind whispered in her ear. She spun around, the leaves rustled around her. She was not alone; the wind was there, the same wind that carried her to Pan. She breathed in. Peace washed over her.
She picked up the sack of fruit and bread Pan provided and followed the breeze into the sunlit meadow. The light warmed her skin, and she smiled, knowing she wasn’t alone and followed the path down the hill. Bright white flowers descended the slope guiding her steps.
Faeries flitted about the buds, cajoling each one to open, and she reveled in the magic of it all. Back home she would be on her way to school, fear and bile building in her chest with each step, but not today.
Today, she was free to explore a new world. She did worry about her father. She imagined him searching for her, forgetting about his hunt for the Isle and thinking solely on finding her. She hoped he knew why she had left and where she had gone.
The colors grew more subdued as she walked further from Pan’s Cathedral, and rolling hills of farmland stretched before her. She clutched her sack to her chest as her fear grew, but the breeze nudged her along with gentle whispers. She walked all day, following the thin path through the hills and getting closer to the village. The sun kissed the horizon, casting long warped shadows all around and signaling the end of the day.
She reached a crossroad. Not sure whether to go left or right, she squinted to see further up both roads, hoping for some sign of the village. Movement on the road to the right caught her eyes. The steel of helmets glinted in the crisp sunlight of the setting sun. It looked like a group of soldiers headed her way. The West Wind picked up her hair and tickled her face.
“Stay on the path, stay on the path,” it whispered and grew into a gust as it pushed her forward. Her body wanted to hide, or at least to run. Her heart told her to listen to the wind and remember what Pan had told her. The soldiers dipped down behind the hill, but when they would emerge again she would be right in front of them. Their armor clanked as they approached. Any second they would walk over the hill, and she would be the first thing they saw.
Fields surrounded her now. A large boulder lay to her right, but the rest of the field sat empty. She made up her mind and scampered off the path, ducking behind the rock. Seconds later, the soldiers crested the hill. The crunch of sand beneath their feet grew louder, and then stopped right in front of her hiding spot. She flattened herself against the boulder closing her eyes and hoping that they wouldn’t be able to see her.
Heavy footsteps drew closer to her. A brown, wiggling nose made its way around the rock. She ducked and crouched on all fours. A hoof stepped closer, and the head of a horse poked around the corner. His eyes glittered with intelligence, and he whinnied. Penny scooted back.
“What is it Winston?” a light voice spoke from the horse’s back. The horse rounded the boulder, and Penny could see the rider, a tall, beautiful woman with golden hair. A black cloak flowed behind her shoulders and snapped in the wind. On the horse, she towered over Penny, but she looked down on her with kind eyes.
“Look what Winston’s found.” The woman jumped from her saddle to the ground. Penny stood up and scanned the group of soldiers who now gathered around her. They wore thick, leather vests over cotton shirts and pants. Long hair flowed down their backs in thick, braided waves, and Penny realized that they were all women. They held swords, axes, bows, and arrows. Penny crumpled the map in her hand, her heart pounded. She covered her chest with her fist, hoping to muffle the sound of her fear.
“Put down your weapons,” the woman said and approached Penny as if she was courting a wild animal. “You poor, little thing. There’s no reason to fear.” She crouched down before Penny and offered her a gloved hand. “Are you lost?” Penny nodded her head. She did indeed feel lost.
The woman smiled. “I am the queen of this humble kingdom. I may be able to help you. What is your family name?” Penny didn’t know what to say. Pan told her not to talk to anyone, but this woman seemed nice, and a queen too. She was sure to be a helpful person to know. The woman turned to her soldiers.
“She doesn’t even know their names, poor thing. Volksmarchen has fallen so far. Orphans everywhere, families split apart, abandoned babies. I can’t stand it.” She seemed so heart-broken, so genuine. “You can come with me dear one.” She reached for Penny’s hand and pulled her towards her horse.
“I-I-I know my parents’ names,” Penny croaked. The queen turned to her, a warm smile on her face.
“Oh wonderful. I’m sure we can help you find them then.”
“My…my father is not here, but my mother is. She’s… she’s….” She paused, Pan said not to. “Moira. I’m looking for her.” The queen’s face drained of color, and her smile disappeared.
“Moira? Moira? Is your mother the Story Weaver?” Penny shook her head no. Why did I tell her? The queen bent over and glared into Penny’s eyes. “Are you lying to me girl?” Penny bit her lip and shook her head again.
The queen snapped her fingers and spun around. “Dri-fa! Show this child what we do to those who lie to the queen.” A soldier with a wide scar across her face and a fierce hawk perched on her shoulder stepped forward. Penny watched in horror as the soldier strung an arrow through a massive bow and aimed it at her neck. Her throat closed in fear and in anticipation of the pain she would feel before dying. The string tightened and creaked.
“Yes, yes, she’s the Story Weaver.” She gasped out and ducked her head down to her knees.
The queen inhaled sharply, and the soldier lowered her bow. Penny peered at them, her heart fluttering and twisting inside her. She wondered if she could run through them and get back to the path, but her body froze. The queen seemed to be deciding what to do next. She paced before her, drumming her gloved fingers on her arm and turned with suddenness upon Penny.
“I apologize for having my guard threaten you. It meant nothing. It’s a way to get people to talk sometimes. You must come with me. There are creatures on the road you can’t trust. Creatures who would hurt you.” The queen smiled at her again, but this time it was too nice, too fixed.
The guards stepped in towards her, signaling that she had no choice but to accept the queen’s offer. Her mouth dried, like pieces of sand paper rubbing together. She would be diverted again. Controlled again. No, she could not allow it.
“You can’t make me!” She yelled and ran towards the road. I don’t have to go with them. I’m not going to do what this horrible queen wants! She darted through the gathered soldiers and raced up the road.
“Dri-fa! Get her!” The queen shouted behind her. Penny sprinted up the road, but a dull thud on the back of her head was the last thing she remembered before stumbling to the ground in unconsciousness.
He followed at a safe distance, not sure if the Queen of Volksmarchen, or any of her soldiers, were descendants of mountain witches or well studied in second sight. It could be very possible that if one were to spot him then his whole plan would be compromised. He secured his camera over his shoulder and patted it lovingly: his ticket to illustriousness. He had taken a few good shots earlier when they were distracted with the girl, but now that they rode at a slow pace, it would be easier for them to spot him.
He did not enjoy seeing the soldier club Penelope over the head. He wanted to intervene, to throw pebbles down on her, or whip up a dust storm on the road. He knew that wouldn’t be proper journalism though, so he stood aside and watched as they threw her over the front of the queen’s horse and continued down the road.
They were a vicious band of warriors. Axes, knives, swords, bows, and quivers full of arrows hung off of them. They carried themselves as if they were the descendants of war gods. Rumors indicated that the Queen’s Warriors were dedicated, and some of the most dangerous fighting units on the Isle.
He couldn’t have the soldiers clubbing him over the head too, so he lingered behind. He remembered to keep his breathing even and to move in smooth, legato bounds. It was not as easy to remain invisible on the Isle of Scealta as it was in the Realm of Men.
So he concentrated on staying invisible. Like a dewdrop rolling down a sloped leaf, he glided down to the path and pushed himself off again. He bounded like a dancer, imagining that he was a fairy; a beautiful, delicate fairy twirling and gliding behind the small dust cloud the soldiers and their horses kicked up. He extended his arms out, full and long, admiring his tapered fingers and mottled green and brown skin when he felt the camera slip off his shoulder and watched in horror as it tumbled end over end to the ground.
It clattered against the pebbles and dirt, rolling down the path. Once it left his body, it slipped into visibility. He panicked and rushed after it, grabbing it before it could roll in between the hooves of the queen’s horse. He kissed it in triumph and flung himself into the branches of a tree, breathing heavily, and now visible. He would have to wait a few moments before following them again. The queen continued up the path as if nothing had happened.
He slapped himself across the cheek for being so careless. His camera looked unscathed, but how would he know if it still worked? Worried, he nibbled on his knuckles and flipped the levers. He reached into his knapsack, counting the film plates he had left. Enough to last him awhile, but he would soon have to make a trip to Atmøs to replenish his supplies. Oh, that city was strange. And dangerous, for a sprite.