I stepped forward through the impenetrable darkness. I could hear distant dripping. I bent down and felt the ground beneath me: stone, mud, and a few puddles. Not a ship anymore, I concluded; it must be a cave of some sort, but where? There were a lot of contexts for a cave. I would need to get out of this cave and have a look around, but which way was out? I heard some kind of constant, indistinct noises coming from my left. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see that the rock wall behind me did not extend completely on that side, signifying a tunnel.
As I followed the tunnel, the noise increased; in addition, I felt a slight breeze wafting through the rocks, and I saw a spot of light. Encouraged, I pressed forward, thanking Charlie in my mind for the sturdy pirate boots he gave me, which protected my feet over the invisible terrain.
The light turned out to be the mouth of a small tunnel, one that I had to duck to exit, grown over like a secret passageway. I could hear the noises better now; a lot of clanging metal, and shouting, the noise of horses. I carefully poked my head aboveground. That moment, I witnessed my first castle siege.
An army in dark armor, waving red flags with the black silhouette of a fox emblazoned on it, set ferociously upon a tall castle topped with a blue flag bearing the symbol of a gold crown over a medieval crest. I knew I would rather make it to the castle and get in trouble with the king as my entrance into this narrative, than make a wrong move and get captured by the Black Fox army—but how was I going to make it through the battlefield separating me from the gate?
I ducked back into the tunnel to think. Could I risk sneaking through the war zone, or should I wait till the fighting died down—if it ever would? I remembered the gunfight in Phantom Gulch, how I had been impervious to the bullets, but not invisible to the enemy. Perhaps I could not be pierced or killed—but could I be wounded?
“But the story wouldn’t be able to continue without me,” I observed aloud, “after all, I am the writer.”
The minute those words left my mouth, I had the strange sensation of being completely aware of everything taking place above me, even things I hadn’t noticed when I stuck my head out of the tunnel. The sounds I heard were no longer ambiguous noise. I knew which soldiers stepped when, or what horses fell, who clashed sword. I knew the position of every pike and lance, “saw” the discharge of every arrow. I was no longer stuck “within” (or as the case may be, below) the action, but, as I had on the HMS Phantom, I could observe and direct the action above at will. I was, quite literally, the writer of this story, and could manipulate the characters and even time, if I wanted to, and none of the characters involved had any notion that their lives and actions were under the control of one person.
Forthwith, I applied the necessary literary technique to slow down the action happening above. I heard the clamor actually slacken its pace, and I peeked out to see the effect of my “narration.” Sure enough, the expressions and the movements were exactly such as if the battle proceeded at normal speed, but to me, everything appeared slow motion. I could actually come out of hiding and maneuver my way between spears and soldiers, and I doubted, at this speed, that I would register as anything more than a rogue wind. Just to be on the safe side, I added that to my descriptive narration.
“As she wove her way between soldiers and horses, lances, pikes, and swords,” I murmured, dodging a bloody body here while ducking under a rearing horse there, “no one spotted her, so deft were her movements. It only seemed to them that a strange and miraculous wind blew through the battlefield, gone as quickly as it had come.”
With the veritable universe in my favor, it took very little time to reach the base of the castle walls. There was no way I would make it to the bridge and through the courtyard, not with all the people I would have to run through. My only option was to climb through the window, and there happened to be one directly above me. By now, I knew what was needed, and I had thoroughly warmed up to my subject.
“Just then,” I announced under my breath (and the action behind me resumed normal speed), “a servant-girl leaned out the window, praying for a savior to appear who would be the means of ending this wretched bloodbath.” I watched the window as I spoke, and saw a pair of hands at the window and heard a barely-audible voice no doubt saying just that. I went on, “So great was her faith that she let down a rope ladder from that same window, so that the savior may ascend.” I don’t know where she could have gotten it from, but down came the rope ladder, only seconds after I finished speaking. I wasn’t finished yet, though. As an added precaution, I concluded, “As soon as she had done this, the maid resumed her duties as faithfully as ever, thinking of the coming savior and purposing to tell no one of what she had done.” With that, I took hold of the thick, knotted rope ladder and began to climb.
It was much slower going than I had anticipated. The battle still raged beneath me, but no one even glanced in my direction. At last, I reached the window and gripped the wide stone ledge, hauling myself over and into the room. I was lucky that it wasn’t a window over a stairwell because I had picked up too much forward momentum and ended up flipping myself over the ledge in a somersault. I hit something with my backside that shattered, and I sprawled on the floor beneath the window as someone screamed.
When I could see straight, I found myself staring down the long, bright blade of a sword, held by a young woman in regal dress. She did not appear, by the way she held the weapon, particularly skilled in its use, but I figured since she held it at my throat she at least knew enough to inflict serious damage at the slightest provocation. And I had just scared the living daylights out of her.
“Villain!” she shrieked, “What are you doing here?” A few of the maids still bustling about the room froze in horror at my presence. Even as she tried to sound harsh and imperious, I detected a tremor in the princess’ voice. I decided that the best course would be to have the humble response, as it had worked so well on the pirate ship.
“Please, your Highness,” I begged, spreading my hands wide to show that I was unarmed, “I apologize for my sudden intrusion. I mean no harm. I’ve just come through the battlefield, I am the one sent to save you!”
The princess almost dropped her sword in surprise. “Merciful saints!” she cried, “A lady, and a corsair? Thy clothes proclaimed the a man, yet I perceive by your speech that thou art a woman, and thou canst not be my elder by more than a year!”
I clapped my hand on my head; in the rush of the moment I had forgotten that I was not dressed for the times; I still wore eighteenth-century pirate clothing in a fifteenth-century castle. I leaned forward to stand back on my feet and took a moment to gather my bearings.
I was certainly in the princess’ bedchamber. There was the gigantic, gilded four-poster, the rich hangings, the thick rugs, and the ornate armoire and linen trunks. Upon my entrance, I had landed on a small table by the window with a vase full of flowers upon it. The flowers now lay scattered and crushed in a pool of water amid shards of the vase. The princess herself did indeed looked about my age, with strawberry-blonde hair cascading down her back, and a simple circlet around her forehead. Her features and her delicate, porcelain complexion gave her the appearance of being quite a bit younger than I did not doubt she really was. I wondered if she was the sort of princess whom everyone underestimated.
The princess, as I observed her, lowered her sword and plopped down on the luxurious lounge behind her. “Oh, this dreadful war!” she moaned, “You say you’ve come to save us, but I fear that any effort will be in vain. The Black Fox’s army is strong, and they have already drawn near the castle gates and the walls.” With a jerk, the princess sat up and gazed at me with keen interest. “You say you were sent to save us, but who could have known we were in danger? Where did you come from? Who sent you?”
“Please, ma’am,” a small voice spoke behind me. I turned and beheld a young servant-girl, whom I recognized as the same one who had let the rope ladder down when I needed it. She stepped forward.
“It was a mysterious cavern, was it not?” she looked to me for confirmation. “A vast passageway, crafted by magic, beyond the comprehension of man, and by this progress, concealed from all eyes, the savior did traverse the entire breadth of the field of blood, and did come to the castle wall, where I—“ she blushed at the withering gaze of her mistress at the maid’s involvement in the story, “where one simple prayer brought the savior to the window and aided her advance into the castle of the king.”
The princess stared at her maid in silence for several minutes. When she spoke, her voice was hushed and full of awe. “The Savior of Phantasia,” she looked from her servant to me. “As in the stories; the one in all the land who could drive away our enemies and bring peace to our kingdom.” She jumped forward and grabbed my hand in her marvelously strong grip. “I must bring you to my father!”
Her father… the king? I barely had time to grasp this realization before she dragged me through a pair of huge oaken doors that thundered as we entered.
Several men sat around a table, but only one sat on a golden throne at the head of it. He was a tall, strong man, with kind, blue eyes. Looking at him, I was reminded of gazing into the face of the Dragon Maarkiss—the same determination, the sense of authority, and the commitment to justice. He willingly held up his hand to still the protests of the men we’d interrupted as he welcomed his daughter.
“Gaelynn, my child, what is the meaning of this?” the king glanced at me, but most of his attention remained with his daughter. The men—presumably the royal council—were not so diverted, and I very much wanted to melt under their withering stares.
Gaelynn lifted her chin staunchly, like the royal she was. “Father, you must continue to repel the Black Fox! See, I have brought the savior with me! She has arrived!”
“She?” one of the councilors burst out, “Poppycock! What could a woman do against an army? If there is any savior for Phantasia, it must be a man. Your Majesty,” he beseeched the king, “how is it that such a stranger has arrived so suddenly, slipping past the royal guard? Obviously this is the apprentice of some sorcerer, and she has bewitched your daughter; who knows what evil she might do in the minds of your most trusted subjects?”
“He minds your mind, you mine his mine, what’s his is yours, his mind, your mine!” A singsong voice erupted from the corner of the room. A wide-eyed jester with mottled clothing—full of patches, pockets, tassels, and buttons—stepped into view. He shook his bauble at the group.
“The witch has switched which mind you mind, the switch of mine, this witch of yours, the switch of the mind, his mine you mind—which is the witch? Mind your mine, you stitch of switches, mine your mind, and dare not switch mine witch!”
The man danced away, his spinning steps an apt demonstration of my spinning thoughts, as I vainly tried to understand the bundle of nonsensical wordplay he had just thrust at me. The king, however, smiled with delight.
“Chilly,” he said, “speak plainly: what is it you want to say?”
Chilly the court fool crept from chair to chair, making his way from the foot of the table to the king at its head.
“The king desires his fool to speak plain, while his plain men speak foolishly over the king’s meat. The stuffed pig is no less stuffed than the king, stuffed with piecemeal news and finely minced suggestions, braised with tasteless lies!” He gently plucked a pork loin off the gilded plate of the councilor nearest the king, sniffing it exuberantly. “The leg, torn off, sits before the man.” He flew to the king’s side with a wail. “Oh! Chilly sees the king on a gilded platter, and when the king arises, lo! He does not know his legs are torn off till he has need of them, and they have been eaten!”
I could see a few of the councilors turning purple, but it was more at how aggravatingly cryptic the fool was than the fact that they understood his meaning. I had the feeling none of them wanted to understand.
The king looked at me, taking in my pirate outfit in obvious confusion. “I am King Marcus; what is your name?”
I bowed, and as an added precaution, removed my kerchief as I replied, “My name is Laura, Your Majesty.”
“And how did you end up in the bedchambers of my dear daughter?”
I did not know what else to say. “I came to the foot of the wall,” I answered, “and I climbed.”
The clown ceased his capering and began inspecting me closely, his eyes taking in every detail of my appearance as he pranced round and round me. The king watched Chilly with evident juvenile delight, forgetting any attempts at conversation. The clown muttered words—sensible words—that only I could hear.
“Strange clothes…a sudden appearance…not the savior! Certainly not; there is only one person in the world who can save Phantasia, and it won’t be her! But perhaps…” he finished pacing circles around me and ended up right in front of my face, staring at me with wide eyes. For the first time, I sensed some level of wisdom behind the crazy demeanor. “Perhaps she can help us find him,” he murmured meaningfully.
I furrowed my brow, “Find whom?” I whispered back, but Chilly turned away and began dancing for the king again.
“This girl is not the savior!” he announced, “She cannot save us…but,” he continued, as a few of the councilors began muttering death wishes toward me, “she is the one we have been waiting for!”
“Well then, why is she here?” The king asked, addressing the whole room. He shook his head, “I cannot lose more men!”
“Aye, your Majesty,” one councilor found safety in agreeing with his king, “surrender seems the only option. We have been fighting far too long. Any more would be insensible.”
“Oh, Father!” Gaelynn fell on her knees before the throne. “There must be something else we can do!”
“No, daughter,” King Marcus lifted her to her feet. “No other nation can give us aid, and we can do nothing else against the enemy. It is finished. The Black Fox rules the world now.”
“Your Majesty,” for once, Chilly dropped his antics and sprawled in desperate seriousness at the king’s feet. “There is one man in Phantasia who has the means to drive away the Black Fox and ensure peace in Phantasia.”
King Marcus frowned at his fool, “Who would that be, Chilly?”
“His name is Jerald, if you remember, Sire.”
“The forester?” one of the councilors erupted, “But I am certain he disappeared long ago! Besides, he could never really be trusted.”
The king nodded to his councilor, “This is true; and even if he were alive, my faithful Chilly, why has he not come before now? Why would Jerald come to aid a lost cause?”
Chilly turned a wide, hopeful grin on me.
“That is why we have been waiting for her, for the Laura. She will find him, and she will bring him back.”
I could feel my gut twisting; I had no idea who Jerald was, much less how to find him. Heck, I did not even know what the world beyond the battlefield looked like! But when the king looked at me, a new strength of hope on his face, I knew I could not refuse him.
I didn’t have to; the expression faded as soon as he met my gaze.
“No,” he stated, “I will not send a girl out into the battlefield; I will send no more people to be slaughtered! How you mock me, fool!” His look was one of deep concern.
“What you say is wise, O king,” one councilor nodded sagely, “it is truly a waste of men to continue holding out hope for much longer. Hope fell long ago, and we must all accept our fates.” The other councilors murmured in assent.
I knew I had to get things going fast; I could not believe for one moment that this story was going to end up at the mercy of the Black Fox.
“There is a way, sire,” I spoke up, “not over the battlefield, but under it.”
King Marcus leaned forward eagerly. “Under? What is this you speak of? Are you truly a witch, that you can make passages through the heart of the earth?”
I shook my head, “No, I am not a witch! The passage already exists. By this I came near your castle undetected and unscathed. By it, also, I can come out to the edge of yonder forest, and so begin my search for the forester unmolested.”
Everyone looked in silence at the map where I traced out the path of the tunnel. One of the councilors burst out, “Unmolested? Everyone knows the Deep Forest is a death trap to all who enter! Even the Queen, God rest her soul—“
“No!” King Marcus thundered, cutting the man off. His face contorted in pain at the mention of his wife. Had she met her demise in this Deep Forest? Suddenly, my quest was not going to be as glorious as I thought it would be. “Be silent; I will ponder this matter. Gaelynn, conduct Laura back to your chambers. I will summon you when I have reached a decision.”
Gaelynn nodded, “Yes, Father.” She beckoned me to follow her as she left the great hall.
Back in her bedroom, Gaelynn went straight to her armoire and drew out a deep-blue dress similar in style to her own.
“Here,” she said, “You had better put this on; people will more likely listen to you if they are not put off by your strange clothing.” She chuckled as she plucked at the hem of my jerkin. “It looks so much like underclothes of leather!”
I understood the wisdom of what she said, but I was not about to give up the boots and leggings for dainty slippers and frilly petticoats. I merely removed the jerkin and slipped the dress on over my outfit. That way, I at least appeared at first glance to belong in the Phantasian castle. Gaelynn directed me to a little stool in front of a mirror, where she gently took my hair in her hands and began brushing it.
“Do you think you can do it?”
I blinked at the sudden question. “What?”
Gaelynn made a small noise and continued in a rush, “I mean, find the forester, and all. You’ve only just arrived, of course, and you couldn’t possibly consider venturing out there on your own.”
I looked at her face in the mirror and saw that it was a deep red, and she breathed as if her pulse was racing. I responded calmly, “There doesn’t seem anyone in this castle who would want to go with me. You all have your duties and your places here; I am the only one who can leave the castle.”
Gaelynn finished braiding my hair, and stood silently behind me. I could see that she was thinking about something, and a little voice inside me told me what it was.
“You’re not thinking of asking your father to let you go with me, are you?” I turned around and confronted her.
Gaelynn bit her lip, as tears welled in her sapphire eyes. “No, father would never let me go. He’s always forbidden me to enter the forest without a large number of soldiers guarding me. Ever since mother—“ her voice caught, and her chin trembled. But she lifted her face and stood resolute.
“Laura, it must be you and I; the forester is our only hope of salvation, and I fear—“ she lowered her voice and glanced suspiciously to the door, “I fear his councilors will convince him to surrender to the Black Fox.”
“They certainly don’t seem to be encouraging any show of force,” I agreed.
Gaelynn was already digging through various trunks and cabinets in her room. She buckled her sword around her waist, and handed me a bow and quiver.
“We must act now, Laura, and find the forester before it is too late!”
I watched the princess; she seemed to mature speedily, the more she talked about it. I could see, however, that there seemed to be a phantom hovering over her shoulder.
“Gaelynn,” I called to her, setting the bow on the bed beside me. “Are you sure you want to venture into the Deep Forest? What if you die there, as your mother did? What do you suppose that would do to your father?”
Gaelynn wouldn’t meet my gaze. When she did, I saw tears and a ferocious scowl. “Well, I don’t suppose there’s any talk of you dying, now, is there?” She sighed hotly. “I must do this, and I mean to survive; we will help each other live. I do not doubt my mother got…lost,” she avoided acknowledging death as everyone else did, “because she was not determined to live through it.” She finally lifted her eyes and looked at me somberly.
The princess was beginning to frighten me. “What are you saying,” I asked quickly, “are you saying that your mother ran away from your father?”
Gaelynn pressed her lips, and I knew she didn’t want to talk about it anymore. “Come,” she said, getting to her feet. She threw a cloak about her shoulders, and handed me a second one. “We’ll go out the back ways. You can show me where your tunnel is.”
I knew for certain that two armed, cloaked girls running through a castle in the middle of a war would not go unnoticed; it is one of the most unbelievable things that seem to always happen in literature. Hence, I decided to craft my own set of precautions.
“Moving warily through the shadows,” I murmured behind Gaelynn’s back, “the two girls traveled safely through the halls, past oblivious servants and worried lords, and soon arrived at the castle entrance to the tunnel they sought.”
The floor of the castle seemed to take a steep decline, and Gaelynn and I found ourselves presently running slap against a locked door. I could see the crags behind it, through a tiny window, and knew that this was the tunnel.
“Oh!” the princess gasped, laying her hand on the rough wood. “This is it! This is how you made it through the battlefield!” she glanced up toward the ceiling. “My room must be straight up there, above our heads. I wonder how no one in the castle ever noticed this!”
“Two little birds, kept in a stone cage,
Two little birds, trying to fly away!
Poor little dark birds, can’t you see?
You couldn’t face the forest without someone like me!”
We both jumped in fright at the sound of the song. Gaelynn and I turned to see Chilly the fool, also cloaked as we were, coming up behind us as if he had followed us the whole way.“What might you two little birds be doing?” he grinned at us. He pushed his cloak back, and the light of the last torch at the end of the hall glinted off of the hilt of a knife in his belt.