“The forest?” he finished, grinning horribly at her with a high-pitched giggle. “You’re running away from the king, are you? You won’t bother to ask him, and Chilly knows why! Your father’s gone deaf, has he? His poor mind has turned to stone, and his heart, and soon his whole self will be stone. A stone king on a golden throne, with none to make him flesh again!”
Gaelynn was fairly quaking in fear now, sobbing uncontrollably.
“Wait a minute,” I spoke to him, “you said we couldn’t face the forest without you.”
Chilly bowed with a flourish, “This is true; none in the castle knows the forest like a fool!”
I smiled, catching his meaning, “But you never said anything about how wrong we were to be running away ourselves.”
Chilly said nothing, only smiled at me with an intelligent glint in his eye.
“Gaelynn,” I said to the sobbing princess, “There is a key somewhere here. We must find it.”
“There has not been a key to this door,” Chilly remarked, speaking as plainly as he had to me in the king’s court.
“There must be,” I told him stubbornly, knowing that the mere statement of the fact from my mouth made it true, “I say that there is.”
“I think I’ve found it,” Gaelynn remarked, and she drew from a chink in the wall a large, thick key that undoubtedly fit into the lock on the door. She inserted it, and we all heard the loud click as the bolt turned.
Chilly was staring at me as we proceeded down the tunnel. I heard his whisper echoing around me in the darkness. “She speaks, and it is so. The words, as good as written, flow. If anything happened, the writer would know.” I shivered at their significance; had Chilly guessed my singular ability?
“Laura,” Gaelynn whispered, groping for my hand in the darkness, “where does this tunnel lead us?”
I tried to remember what it had been like when I had first arrived, and had my first glimpse of the battlefield.
“The tunnel lets out just behind the Black Fox’s camp,” I said, “southwest of the castle.”
“Then to get to the Deep Forest,” Chilly supplied, as we traveled easier down the arm of the tunnel that led to the opening, “we will need to travel east.”
I stopped and looked at the man—for I could no longer call him a fool when he very evidently was not one. In the light of the tunnel mouth, I could see that his face had changed. He no longer wore the exaggerated, vacant expression he plastered over his face as the king’s jester. He met my gaze boldly.
“What?” he asked.
I smiled, “You sound like a forester, yourself,” I guessed.
Gaelynn gasped, “Chilly is Jerald?” she shrieked in amazement.
Chilly instantly shook his head, “Nay; if I was Jerald I would have made myself known by now. Do you not recall, princess? Jerald was banished from the castle only after I entered the King’s service.”
“Banished?” I asked. “What had he done?”
Chilly (I felt bad calling him that now, but he had no other name that I knew of) shrugged, “Something to cause him to fall from grace long before that. I was one of his band, we lived in the skirts of the forest and stopped corruption from entering the castle for many years. Then the queen—“ he stopped and glanced to Gaelynn, leaving that sentence unfinished. “Something happened and Jerald was no longer well-received by the king. We were disbanded, and Jerald himself asked me to get a post in the king’s court, to watch over the king for him.”
“Because of the councilors,” I concluded.
Chilly nodded, “Aye; snakes, every one of them! For an unlearned man such as I, though, the only post I could get that would place me by the king’s side every day as Jerald wanted was that of a fool. So I came, singing and dancing, as Chilly.” He performed a little caper to demonstrate his capacity. He bowed to us, and Gaelynn clapped appreciatively, wiping the tears from her cheeks.
“My true name is Charlie,” he told us.
“Charlie,” I murmured. The name didn’t surprise me. He looked very like and older version of the cabin boy I’d befriended in another world.
“Do you know where we can find Jerald?” Gaelynn asked as we slunk out of the tunnel into the trees right behind the backs of the Black Fox and his army.
“I’m afraid I’ve lived in the castle much like you, Highness,” Charlie sighed. “The woods have grown dark and treacherous since the days when the foresters roamed their paths. Much like—“ he dropped off with an abashed glance in the direction of the castle, and to Gaelynn.
“Much like the king’s courts, you were going to say?” I asked him as we began walking, freer now that we were some distance away from the camp.
Charlie smiled ruefully and ducked his head. “You are a smart woman, Laura. You have hit upon the very reason I obeyed Jerald’s request to stay by the king. He has grown overused to listening to the counsel of greedy men, and time has only increased their greed, so that they will give him only that advice that will expand their barns and line their pockets, to say nothing of the kingdom.” He stopped and looked at me earnestly. Gaelynn temporarily lost interest in us and walked on a short ways, alone.
“Truthfully, Laura,” he told me in a low voice, “Those men you saw in the castle are all that Phantasia has left. Every able-bodied man and boy took up arms to defend their castle, leaving the rest of the land open for the Black Fox to claim. Jerald must hearten the king, so that he may rise up and establish the nation again—if he still yet lives.”
I saw the pain in Charlie’s eyes, and I fervently hoped that Jerald could still be found.
“Are you beginning to doubt that he lives?” I asked.
Charlie bobbed his head uncertainly, “He has not been seen for many years,” he mused. “Of course, that is not unusual for a forester; we are well-trained at becoming invisible, even in the forest, but—“
“You think he would have contacted you by now?” I inquired.
Charlie most likely would have answered, but just at that moment, he held up a hand to warn me to keep still and quiet. We heard Gaelynn’s voice, speaking with one who sounded like an old man. Charlie and I approached carefully, but by the time we reached the princess, she was alone.
“Whom were you speaking with?” Charlie demanded a bit brusquely.
Gaelynn waved her hand passively, “Oh, just one of the forest-dwellers; an old man, I think. He said the last time he saw the forester, he was headed down this road here! We are close, I think!” Her eyes danced with anticipation.
Charlie frowned as he studied the path Gaelynn designated.
“What is it?” I asked him, “Could the old man be telling the truth?”
Charlie did not respond for a long while. When he did, his voice sounded uncertain. “I’ve heard stories about these parts of the woods,” he hinted, “how dangerous they might be.”
“But if the forester is there,” Gaelynn observed, “shouldn’t we risk going anyway, for the sake of the kingdom?”
That got Charlie’s attention; he was devoted to Phantasia, he would do anything to help it keep its rightful king. “Oh, very well,” he sighed, “We’ll go there; but all three of us must stay together; our lives depend on it!”
Gaelynn shrugged as she linked her arm in mine. “It’s not like those rumors are true, you know,” she chided Charlie. “We’ve traveled over probably half the Deep Forest, and there has not been one ounce of difficulty!”
“Yes,” Charlie replied, gritting his teeth at the princess’ careless, lackadaisical attitude, “but this is the heart of the Deep Forest. This is where the queen went when she—“
“Well, she was alone!” Gaelynn cut him off and flounced down the path in a huff. I heard her sniff a few times, and knew she was crying.
I shot Charlie a look, but he rolled his eyes and followed after the princess. I heeded his warning and stayed close to him.
We walked for several hours; Gaelynn stayed close enough for us to see her, but she refused to join us. She put a bit more distance between us when Charlie and I stopped to drink from a small spring (after Charlie had made sure it was safe to drink, of course.) I welcomed the cool, clear water.
“Charlie? Laura?” Gaelynn called to us from up ahead. “Come look at these!”
We joined the princess. She stood in a muddy clearing, gazing up at trees with black vines hanging down. Closer inspection revealed that these were not so much vines, but they looked and felt just like sticky black cords.
“It’s all very queer, don’t you think?” she said, gazing at the strange, spectral trees and tipping her head from side to side.
“This whole forest is queer,” Charlie said, his eyes roving around the shadows. “We ought to find a place to camp. Not here, of course,” he tapped his foot in the wet, muddy ground, “but someplace safer, away from the queer parts of the forest.”
“Oh, it’s not getting dark yet.” I wanted to get a closer look at the black vines that looked like nylon rope. “I think—does it look like the vines are getting longer?”
I stood still and watched; sure enough, the vines seemed to lengthen as we watched. After only a few moments, the vines that began near the tops of the trees had nearly reached the ground. The ground…
I noticed as I stood next to Gaelynn that my boots suddenly felt rooted to the spot. I looked down to the ground and saw that the princess herself had sunk to well past her ankles.
“Gaelynn, look out!” I cried.
Gaelynn looked down and screamed. She tried to move her feet, but to no avail. I saw that Charlie was stuck as well. Terror caused my heart to jump into my throat. How had this happened? How long had we been standing here? The sun looked considerably lower than it had been when we first entered the clearing. Night was coming on fast, indeed—but by now we could not move to safety!
“Grab a vine!” Charlie yelled, lunging for the nearest black cord.
We did so, but the vines grabbed back! They stuck to our hands as we pulled, and wrapped around our wrists. Pulling on the cords gave enough counter-movement to pull us free of the mud, but our weight upon the cords only caused them to pull us higher and closer to the trees.
I reached up and tried to pull the vine off my wrist, but in the process, my free hand brushed another vine and was instantly entwined. As it drew me closer to the tree, the cord slowly worked its way down and around my body, like a sticky boa constrictor, until I was completely cocooned in the sticky black cord. Wriggling and pulling only made it tighter, until I began to feel dizzy; the vines were choking me! Charlie and Gaelynn had already passed out. We looked like three black mummies in the tree. I stopped moving, and the vines stopped squeezing. I hung there in the falling darkness, listening to the various growls and howls of countless deadly woodland creatures, praying for the daylight and wondering how on earth we would escape our vile bonds.
After a tortuous night, I could no longer sleep when dawn shone in my eyes. I looked over. Charlie and Gaelynn still remained unconscious and tightly bound high above the forest floor. I looked around. Everywhere was empty, but I could still make out the paw-prints of several large animals in the mud below us.
“Hello?” A hoarse voice came from behind us, in the bushes somewhere. “Is that someone?”
“Hello?” I called back, trying to crane my neck, but I could not see behind me, no matter how hard I tried.
“Oh, thanks be, I am not too late!”
I saw Charlie begin to stir.
“Charlie!” I hissed, “Charlie!”
“Hmmm…” he groaned, “Wha—“ his eyes popped open and he stared down at his bonds.
“Can you help us?” I called to the voice.
“I believe I can. Do you see the cord between your feet?”
I looked down. “Yes.”
“And that branch below it?”
I shifted my feet slightly and saw a jagged stub. “It’s there.”
“Try and work the cord around the branch till it breaks.”
“What breaks, the rope or the branch?”
The voice paused. “Either one will do.”
I rolled my eyes and began wriggling to obey. I nodded to Charlie, who had heard the instructions as well and worked at doing the same.
Charlie’s rope snapped before mine did. He gasped as the whole coil slipped easily off his body, and he landed carefully on the branch, free as a bird. He looked up at me. “Do you need help?”
I shook my head. “Don’t bother with me; see if you can help Gaelynn.”
Charlie’s movements were almost casual as he whipped the knife from his belt and cast it at the tree right behind Gaelynn’s back. The ropes fell away from her, and he swung over on his length of rope in time to keep her limp body from falling. He hoisted her onto a wider branch as my rope snapped, and I was able to free myself. Carefully, I gulped to see the incredible distance between me and the swamp below. There was no way I could make it to Gaelynn’s tree—no way except one.
“Moving carefully,” I whispered, “she joined the others.” In a blink, I stood on the branch just below Charlie and Gaelynn just as the princess regained consciousness.
“Mmmm,” she moaned, “What happened?”
“We were tied up,” I explained as I climbed up to the branch, “but a man was there when I woke up and he explained how to get out of the trap.”
Charlie’s face broke into a wide grin. “Man? That was no mere man, Miss Laura.”
I frowned in confusion. “What?”
“Hello, there!” Charlie called out.
“Are you all safe?” the voice responded.
“Yes we are,” Charlie replied, “Will you come out, so we can thank you?”
“I think not,” the voice replied. “It would be better to say you did not see me. I will see that you return safely from whence you came.”
We all climbed down from the tree, and Gaelynn snooped around the bushes, intent on finding the mysterious speaker who had saved our lives.
“Well, if you will not introduce yourself,” Charlie persisted, “Then I will introduce us. The ladies with me are Laura and Gaelynn—and I am called Charlie.”
Silence reigned. I scanned every shadow I saw, but our mysterious “no-mere-man” was very excellent at remaining invisible. I turned to Charlie to say something, but he raised his finger toward my lips.
“Wait,” he instructed. His eyes were strangely bright.
Finally, the voice came again, slightly stronger, and oddly familiar.
“Charlie?” I detected a note of shock in the voice.
“Aye, sir,” Our guide seemed respectful of the man.
I gasped as I realized who this must be. “Charlie,” I hissed, “Is it—“
We all stilled as the man emerged from the shadows, actually nearer to us than I expected. I caught my breath.
“Jerald?” I guessed, not daring to believe my eyes.
The old man nodded, but could not take his eyes off of Gaelynn. He approached her slowly, reaching out as if to assure himself that she was indeed real.
“You…” he murmured, “you…”
“Jerald, sir,” Charlie spoke gently, “We have ventured into the Deep Forest in search of you. The castle is under siege, and you are our only hope!”
Jerald, the famed forester, gazed around quickly, “Follow me,” he instructed us, “The forest has ears.” We followed him back to a small hovel in a remote part of the forest. All the while, I couldn’t help wondering, Would he return with us?
We received our answer as we sat around the table, sipping mugs of warm cider with the legendary forester.
“I’m sorry,” he announced right away, “but I cannot help you anymore.”
“Jerald,” Charlie pressed, “We need you! Phantasia will fall without you!”
Jerald frowned bitterly, “The king should have thought of that before he sent me off at the behest of his councilors! Let them help him, see what good it does him!”
“Jerald,” I leaned forward, “What happened at the castle that resulted in your banishment? From what I hear, you are quite renown for your skills in preserving lives.”
“Well,” Jerald tossed his calloused hands in the air, “there you have your answer! All the lives I’ve saved mean nothing next to the one life I—“ He broke off and bit his lip.
“The queen,” I said quietly for him.
Jerald’s face was drawn with pain as he closed his watering eyes. “I led her out here; she wanted to go through the forest, and I was tasked with being her guide. We came to the cord trees, as you did—“ He broke off, and his hands clenched to fists as he tried to control his emotions. “I didn’t know how to save her! I should have figured it out, but everything I tried only made them pull tighter and tighter—“
A long moan interrupted him. We looked over to see Gaelynn weeping profusely. Jerald laid a large hand on her shoulder.
“Child,” he said gently, weeping along with her, “you are the king’s daughter?”
Gaelynn nodded, too overcome to speak.
Jerald took the young princess in his arms and soothed her. “You are the very image of your mother.” He turned back to Charlie and I. “I have spent all the years of my banishment studying those trees, figuring out the best way to escape the enchantment, determining that, should anyone else come into the forest and be caught by them, I would know how to save them.”
“Thank you for saving us, sir,” Charlie replied gratefully.
“Please,” Gaelynn’s voice came small and pitiful, “The Black Fox will surely kill my father if you do not come! Please help us! He is the only family I have left!”
“Yes, yes, I will come,” Jerald’s resolve crumbled at the simple petition.
We started back immediately. With Jerald with us, it did not take nearly as long to reach the area I knew was the entrance to the tunnel. Jerald seemed familiar with that particular feature as well.
“I would use it all the time, when the king needed a forester at his side quickly. It was much easier than having to negotiate the moat and the gate.”
We entered the small tunnel. Jerald stopped and turned back toward us.
“Hold a moment; princess, I have something to say to you.”
“What is it?” Gaelynn responded.
Jerald sighed and shuffled his feet a bit. “See, it’s like this: the king isn’t your only family, you know.”
The princess frowned, “What do you mean?” she asked innocently.
“The queen…” The forester sighed awkwardly, “well, she’s… she was—my sister.”
“Sister!” Gaelynn’s hands flew to her mouth as her cheeks flushed. “Why, then, that means you are…”
Jerald nodded. “Yes, I am your uncle.”
“Oh!” Without another word, Gaelynn flung her arms around him. “Thank you for coming with us,” she said.
Jerald smiled, “Of course I must come; it’s what my sister would have wanted.” He sniffed and Gaelynn pulled away. “Now, let’s get to that castle!” He strode forward into the shadows.
Gaelynn freaked out as soon as it got too dark to see.
“Laura?” I heard her cry, “Charlie?”
I was having trouble finding anyone, myself. Why had we not thought of some system of keeping track of each other in the darkness?
I heard Charlie tell the princess, “Here, your highness.”
He must have offered his hand, for she did not utter another sound. I had thought to follow the sound of the foresters’ boots on the rocks, but after about five minutes, I stopped at the realization that it was only my own footsteps I heard.
“Hey guys?” I called out, too concerned with finding the rest of the group to worry about proper vernacular. There was no answer. I did hear a clamor in the distance. Perhaps there was some fighting in the castle. I dashed forward. A bright light appeared in the distance, and I raced toward it as fast as I could. The ground evened out, and I emerged from an alleyway and nearly crashed into a little old lady walking her dog.
“Oh my!” she gasped, stumbling a bit at the sight of me.
I looked around, confused.
Phantasia had disappeared.