“Hurry up Jasper, Come see these pretty flowers I found!” the small girl called back as she danced off in front of her group.
“Hey! Annabelle! Wait up!” her brother called, trying to carefully carry the picnic tote and keep up with the small child.
“Anna dear, don’t go far. We’ll set things up here Jasper” his mother instructed as she pointed to the shade cast by a lone tree that stood on the edge of the looming Wood. Jasper nodded and set the basket down on the blanket his father unfolded, before going to chase after his little sister.
“Look Jasper! I found this one! And this one too!” Six year old Annabelle shouted as she shoved a fistful of flowers into her brother’s face. Jasper coughed and gagged on the pollen that flew up his nose and nodded, trying to appease her enough to withdraw them which she eventually did as she found more prey. He glanced around and then caught her hand. She looked up at him curiously as he put a finger to his lips, motioning for silence, and pointed to a swarm of butterflies that hovered not three feet away. She gasped and clasped her hands eagerly. He nodded and they moved in, slowly and cautiously, edging in as close as they could get. At no more than an arm’s length away Jasper gave Annabelle the signal and with a joyful cry she jumped to her feet and pounced. The insects easily avoided her and before long a grand hunt was taking place in the meadow as the two of them chased the butterflies around and around. Jasper managed to catch a few that he gave to his sister who held them lovingly, staring in awe as they slowly flapped their multi-colored wings and crawled across her palm before fluttering away.
After several hours of this, Jasper sat down in the high green grass with a sigh of exhaustion, taking off his hat and mopping the sweat off his brow raking his fingers through his thick black hair to cool himself down.
“Come on Jasper! Get up! Come see!” cried Annabelle as she began tugging eagerly at his sleeve.
“Oh Anna, give me five minutes!” he moaned as he flopped back and closed his eyes.
“No! Jasper! I found a cat! A pretty cat!”
“Yes! It’s right there in the Wood…”
“No! You can’t go in there!”
“Mreooooowl.” A large orange cat announced as it stepped lightly over the hill top and came to rub up against Anna’s legs. The child squealed in delight, and Jasper smiled and scratched the cat’s chin gently.
“Sure is a friendly fellow, though he looks more like a monster than a cat. Makes sense he came from the Wood.”
“Look Jasper, he’s got no eyes, poor little kitty!”
The ‘kitty’ was anything but little, but Jasper wasn’t one to argue.
“Jasper! Anna! Lunch!” their father’s voice hailed them from the distance.
“Coming!” Jasper shouted back, rising and dusting off his pants.
“Jasper! Carry him for me!”
“Because he’s heavy and you’re sixteen.”
“Age has nothing to do with it.”
“Yes it does! You’re older and stronger. Now carry him for me, please!”
Unable to resist the pleading brown eyes he gave up with a sigh and lifted the cat into his arms. Grunting under the unexpected weight he struggled to keep his hold, frowning when he noticed a smug smile on the blind creature’s face. That smile didn’t last very long once they reached the picnic site and he was deposited into Annabelle’s lap. Stroking and squeezing her new found pet she proceeded to forcefully hand feed him cucumber sandwiches and talk to him with her mouth full, scattering crumbs across his Matted golden fur and then later, combed him, much to his disliking.
With a sigh, Jasper leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes, listening to his sister prattle away to the cat and its grumpy growling replies. He smiled and relaxed as the evening came on and his parents began packing up the lunch. It felt like a heartbeat later when Anna suddenly grabbed his arm and shook him violently.
“Huh, what?” he sat up and then looked at her worried face “Oh, Anna, I must have dozed off. Are we leaving now?”
“Jasper! My kitty’s running away into the Wood! You have to get him for me!”
“Now Anna, that cat’s not yours and if he wants to…”
“Jasper he’s blind!”
“Well he made it here fine!”
“But what if something eats him!” As tears started to well up and her shoulders shook he succumbed and stood up.
“Alright, I’ll fetch your cat, you just stay here alright?”
“Alright!” she hugged him “thank you Jasper.”
“Anything for the lady” he said with a sweeping bow before starting off after the cat. The creature was sitting at the edge of the Wood, facing back at the camp, its tail twitching from side to side and its head cocked to the side as though listening. Jasper walked over to it slowly with his hand held out.
“Here kitty, kitty, kitty. You don’t want to go in there. Come on out or you’ll have my sister sobbing.”
With a smirk the cat turned and promptly trotted off into the Wood. Jasper stared after it in disbelief. The cat paused, still just out of reach and he could have sworn it was looking at him.
“Uh, hey you wait up!” he shouted, charging after it, heedless of the fact that he had just entered the Wood. With another gleeful smirk the cat trotted off with the boy in tow. As soon as he passed through the trees a strange sensation came over Jasper. The world seemed to pass by in a sluggish blur and he could almost feel that time had stopped. His heart pounded in his throat as he remembered the tales of travelers getting lost on the treacherous fairie paths that littered the Wood and a horrific memory that would haunt him forever of dark and towering trees, many glowing eyes and the forest floor hidden in deep blackness. He wondered whether or not he ought to just turn around and go back without the cat, yet all the while his feet moved forward as if of their own accord. Suddenly a small figure darted across the path and hovered over the boy’s head and Jasper listened once again to the peaceful song of the thrush. Here was someone he knew he could trust. He reached out towards the bird that immediately turned and darted off to the left. Forgetting the cat and feeling only too glad to abandon the path he had been on, he plunged after the bird eagerly. The small creature led him further and further from his own world until he had finally stepped across the threshold of an entirely new one. He didn’t know when or even how it happened, all he knew was that one moment he had been following the thrush through the Wood and the next he had staggered out of a small grove into a large clearing alone. He shielded his eyes from the sun and looked around. He saw that before him lay a green, flower covered slope that led down to the distant sea. The cool breeze blew his face as he stared in wonder at the tall tower that stood at an odd angle on the slope, looking as though it was trying to climb back up to the top. But far more fascinating than the angle of the tower was what dangled from it. A long, long, long rope like structure that appeared to be braided golden hair. Pasted on the side of the tower at about three feet off the ground was a sign that read ‘Do NOT pull’. Jasper reached out and ran a hand through the hair; it shimmered with an unearthly light and ran like silk through his fingers. He was so entranced by the mysterious object that he didn’t hear the small door behind him open nor notice the small figure that stepped out, jumped and then glared at him.
“Can’t you read?” an irritated voice demanded from behind him.
The boy jumped and then whirled around, stammering apologies that died in his shock at what he beheld. A girl who couldn’t have reached higher than four feet by an inch stood before him, glaring at him with piercing blue eyes that seemed to somehow illuminate her pale face. Petite’ hands clutched a small basket that was pressed against a white dress that appeared to be made almost entirely of lace and that dragged along the ground behind her but revealed the edge of her tiny bare feet. Her ruby red lips were puckered into a furious scowl and her cheeks glowed a rosy red as though from the heat of her frustration. More fascinating than all of this though was the fact that her long, braided golden hair appeared to fall away behind her and wind back through the door, up the tower and then proceed to dangle out the window. “Uh…” was all he could manage to stutter at the moment.
The girl’s eyes narrowed “Is that a no? Can you even speak then?”
The sarcastic tone bit enough to bring him to his senses. He bowed politely “I…I beg your pardon, I was just fascinated by this…”
“Is it really? How’d it grow so long in such a short time?”
Her face reddened visibly “And what, pray tell, is a short time?”
“Well, how old are you? Ten perhaps, you can’t be much more.”
“Dimwit! I’m fifteen!” she shouted in absolute fury.
He staggered away from her in surprise “But…that’s impossible! That would make you only a year younger than me!”
“And far brighter. As it appears you can speak I will ask you once again, can you read?”
“Then why, may I ask, are you touching my hair?”
“The sign didn’t say anything about not touching it.”
The girl frowned and walked over to look at it. “It would appear that you are correct. I’ll have to adjust it so simpletons like you will know better than to rub their dirty, grimy hands in my…Ow!” she yelped suddenly as her hair refused to come out any farther, yanking her back. She rubbed her head ruefully and glared up at the tower as though at an old enemy.
“Are you okay?” Jasper asked, unsure of what had just happened
“Yes, I suppose so. Drat it all, I wish I could cut it.”
“My hair, then I wouldn’t have to worry about so many people touching it and then…and then I could leave.”
“Why can’t you leave it now exactly?”
“Because my hair’s tied to a beam on the ceiling.”
“How did that…”
“It’s a long and private story.”
“I see. So why don’t you just cut it?”
“I don’t have anything to cut it with.”
“Well I have a knife…”
“You do? Let me see it!”
Snatching the weapon away from him she reached down and sent three well aimed slashes through her hair without a second thought. Jasper stared in horror as her hair exploded out of its braid and cascaded over her shoulders now considerably shorter as it was slightly above ankle length.
“Um…are your parents going to mind that you did that?”
“Not at all” she said, smiling at her reflection in the knife’s polished blade. She handed it back to him and then turned and headed off towards the grove he had just come from. “Come along Simpleton, we must make haste if we are to reach my Father’s kingdom before nightfall.”
“Wait…what? What are you talking about? And by the way, my name is Jasper…”
“And mine is Victoria, Princess Victoria of the fairy kingdom Elladrias, daughter to the powerful and beautiful, if not wise, King Ellander. You have rescued me from my captivity in yonder tower which would take far too long to explain, and by doing so have become my faithful servant and guardian who will aid me in my journey to my Father’s kingdom. Now that that’s out of the way, let us continue.”
“Servant…wait, what? You there, Victoria!”
“Hurry up Jasper or we shall be late!”
“I’m not your servant!” he shouted, clenching his fists and taking a stand “Just because you say you’re a princess doesn’t mean I believe you and furthermore, what on earth makes you think I want to help you when you’ve just spent the last five minutes insulting me!”
She paused and turned around to eye him inquisitively. “I can tell from your face you are a gentleman of sorts so let me put it this way. I am heading out into the dark and dangerous Wood, filled with many evil fairy creatures that would love to eat me or worse. I am asking you to come and protect me but I am going with or without you and there’s nothing you can do about it. So if I die because you were heartless and petty enough to hold back because of a few stated facts, my death shall be on your head and my blood on your hands.” Giving him one last evil eye she turned and marched off, vanishing out of that world between two trees.
“Uh…uh…wait! Victoria! Wait just a second!” he called racing after her, sure she would get eaten just to make him feel guilty which, despite his best efforts, he knew he would feel tenfold. Stepping between the trees he found himself once more inside the Wood. As the thick darkness closed in on him, closer and deeper than he remembered, he groped about calling out frantically “Victoria! Victoria where are you?”
He tripped over a root and fell on his face. Pulling himself up he found himself staring into Victoria’s bright blue eyes. “My, you are noisy. If the dark bothers you that much you may hold onto my hand.”
“What…no, that’s not it. I thought you’d gone and gotten eaten to spite me.”
She scowled fiercely and then tossed her head, refusing to look at him. “As if I would care that much as to how you feel! I am perfectly capable of making the journey myself as nothing can stand against my explicit knowledge…”
“Then why exactly did you want me to come along?”
“Well, you never know when a servant will come in handy.”
“Now look here…”
“Don’t argue you’re very bad at it. Now follow me and please refrain from shouting.” Turning off to the right she continued on. Jasper stumbled to his feet and hurried after her. As they progressed he began to wonder how Victoria could see where she was going in the pitch black Wood, but she marched forward without hesitation and, oddly enough, no matter how far ahead of him she got he could always see her with a certain ease, it was as if her whole being glowed faintly. Finally catching up to her he asked breathlessly “Do you know where you’re going?”
“Of course I do! I’m going to my father’s kingdom! I thought that we’d been over this!”
“I mean, do you know how to get there?”
“Of course I do! All I have to do is find the right path.”
“And do you know where to find it?”
“No but with my intricate wisdom it will be impossible for us to miss.”
Jasper sighed despairingly as he realized they were lost. After several attempts at conversation that Victoria nipped in the bud, he fell into silence, merely plodding along behind her. As they progressed he began to feel a certain uneasiness and found himself continually glancing over his shoulder as faint noises began to intrude upon his conscious. At first he told himself that they were nothing more than his tired imagination acting up but as time passed they became louder and more distinct. For a while Victoria seemed oblivious to them aside from a slight stiffening in her shoulders but when the sudden snap of a twig rang out like a warning, she jumped and froze. Jasper glanced back and then started as she grabbed his hand and tugged it, demanding fiercely “What are you looking at? It’s not like you can see anything back there!”
“I know it’s just...I get the feeling that’s something’s watching us.”
“Don’t say that” the sharpness had left her voice and it was now the merest whimper as she squeezed his hand fearfully.
Realizing all of a sudden that Victoria was as frightened as he was of the Wood, the dark and the noises, he forced a smile and held her hand more firmly, stepping forward he took the lead. “Come on, there has to be a path somewhere around here that will take us someplace where we can at least get directions.”
“Maybe we should just go back; it’s far too easy to get lost in this place.”
“Yes, I know, but it’s far harder to get back. After all, do you know which way we came from?”
She sucked in her breath at the realization and then mournfully shook her head. “So then we’re already hopelessly lost” she sighed.
“Yes so it can’t get much worse than this right?”
“No, I suppose wandering around in darkness forever is about as bad as it gets” snap “oh and being followed by an unknown and possibly dangerous creature. Nope, can’t get much worse unless it decides to start raining which I’m sure it will do eventually.”
“There now you see, as it can’t get much worse it can only get better.”
“Or stay just as bad”
He shrugged “Well, something’s bound to turn up at some point.”
She looked at him in a curious mixture of awe and disbelief. How did he manage to smile so brightly when they were facing almost certain death? Did he know nothing of the Wood and its treacherous ways?
Jasper hoped desperately that he could keep up his brave face until they found some way out of there; otherwise he didn’t know what they would do. It seemed to be working for now as Victoria no longer looked scared but simply distant, but how long could it last? What if it was days or months even, before they were found? Would he be able to keep up her spirits till then? Or would they both succumb to the Wood? Suddenly Victoria’s hand jerked out of his and her scream pierced the stillness. Whirling around, Jasper was just in time to grab hold of the girl’s outstretched hands before she was dragged off into the darkness. He stared in horror at the midnight colored hand that held fast to her ankle and the six red eyes that stared at him from out of the blackness. Tightening his hold, he gave a sudden pull and stumbled backwards with the girl.
“Jasper! We’re going to die!” she shrieked, her eyes wide in terror as she clung to him.
“Don’t say that!” he ordered sternly.
She stopped trembling and stared at him, surprised by his firm tones. Snatching up the chance as she struggled to pull herself together he took her hand and took off, dragging her behind him as he shouted back “Run!”
Panting, she staggered after him as they plunged through the darkness with no sense of direction. A dark figure loomed up in front of them, its many eyes glowing red in that pitch black night. Jasper drew his knife and slashed at it, clenching his teeth as a black liquid sprang from the creature’s wound and spattered his hand with a slight burning sensation. Behind him, Victoria screamed as though in extreme pain as the liquid left fierce burns on her hand. Bodily shielding her as the creature let out an ear splitting screech and slashed at them, Jasper searched desperately for a means of escape. All around them the sound of more monsters approaching filled the air. Victoria pressed her trembling body against his and shut her eyes. “They’re here for me” she whispered hoarsely.
“You should leave while you can Jasper. Before they…”
“Out of the question.”
“No, I came after you with the sole purpose of making sure you reached your father’s palace or whatever, safely. I’m not going to give up on that the moment things get dangerous!”
“You fool! Then we’ll both die! Better one than two and besides, don’t you have a family waiting for you back at where ever you come from?”
Jasper shook thoughts of them away and turned to look at Victoria “I don’t intend on letting anyone die!”
“There’s nothing you can do about it” she said, her voice now no more than a hollow murmur.
The creatures moved in, slowly but surely, intent on their prey.
Suddenly a thrush’s song pierced the gloom like a beam of light. It came from somewhere up ahead. Jasper gasped and looked towards it seeing at last the end of the darkness Taking a deep breath and mustering up what was left of his courage he took Victoria’s hands and wrapped them around his right arm. “Don’t let go” he ordered.
“What are you…?”
With a yell he charged the beast in front of him, driving his knife in as deep as it would go. The creature shrieked and fell back. Without a single pause he continued onwards, focusing on the light ahead. He knew, somehow, that if he could just reach that light they’d be okay. He grabbed at Victoria, catching her as stumbled once again over her dress that had become dirt caked and torn by now. “Are you alright?” he asked worriedly. She leaned against him and nodded breathlessly, too weak to do much more. “Hang on, we’re almost there” he said, trying to encourage her. She just nodded again. Taking her hand firmly he began pulling her onwards, repeating over and over “Almost there, we’re almost there!” He saw once again the creatures of his childhood, the ones that had haunted the shadows of the Wood, and that terrifying night when he had wandered in here alone. He had to follow the thrush; he had to follow the song! Finally he saw the end to the darkness, struggling forward he stepped into the light. Suddenly he felt the world around him change, just as it had when he had first stepped into the Wood. Time seemed to hold no sway over this place and all around him everything was a smudged blur. Beside him Victoria collapsed on the path, sobbing for breath. He leaned down and tried to pull her to her feet, “Come on, we can’t stop now…”
“It’s a path, Jasper! This is a path! Thank goodness! Those creatures can’t reach us here.” So saying she lay down and closed her eyes, smiling happily “You did it! We’re alive! We’re going to be okay!”
Jasper stood there, momentarily surprised by her total change of character. Then he grinned and sat down beside her. “Hey, Victoria, do have any idea where…Victoria?”
But the soft sound of her regulated breathing was all he got for an answer. Leaning over he looked at her face and then, realizing she was asleep, he sat back with a small smile, watching over her until she woke. Seeing the burns on her hands reminded him that he had nothing to tend them with which led to the realization that they had no food or water either and he was beginning to feel rather thirsty. He glanced down the path and then back up it, wondering which way to take. He hoped this was the one the cat had led him on and if so it was bound to either lead back to his family or to wherever the cat had gotten to. As sleep began to overtake him he wondered if the cat had meant to lead him into the Wood and if it had been an accident that he had met Victoria. A brief flash of silver wings as a thrush flew by seemed to assure him that it was no accident.
Slowly, Victoria’s eyes fluttered open and she took in her surroundings, the blurred Wood, the calm, quiet of the path, everything slowly came back. She turned and saw Jasper sitting next to her, watching her. “Do you feel better?” he asked.
She nodded and sat up “As much as I could feel after sleeping on the dirt…huh?” She picked up his jacket that had slid off of her onto the ground. She stared at it blankly before starting “How…”
“You looked cold and it’s all I had in the way of a blanket.”
She looked at him in surprise and then asked “Did you get any rest?”
“A little” he said, standing. “I’ve been thinking and I believe that if we head over to your left then we should come out around the same place where I came in. So we should go to the right.”
“What? Why? I thought the goal was to get out.”
“No, the goal is to get you to your father.”
She frowned and looked down and the path. He looked at her with some surprise “Isn’t that what you wanted.”
“It doesn’t matter. I just thought…I wanted to…never mind.” She stood up and dusted off her tattered dress “Let’s go to your home. My father won’t miss me anyways.”
“Are you joking, of course he will! Don’t worry about me; I’ll get home after I’ve seen you safely placed in your father’s home…”
“What if it’s not safe?”
She bowed her head, letting her hair hide her face as she stated quietly “My father put me in that tower so he wouldn’t have to look at me. He doesn’t want me.”
“Nonsense! Of course he…”
“He’s a fairy king, proud, beautiful…and seemingly wise. But he fell in love with a human and they were secretly wed. Then I was born. Ashamed of the fact that he had associated himself with mere mortals, he put my mother and me away, hiding us so as to escape the criticism of his people. He claimed to love my mother, but obviously he loved his power more. She died shortly after from illness and I was left alone in that tower.” She fell silent and stood there perfectly still, not moving in the tiniest bit. Jasper stood in stunned silence, trying desperately to think of something to say. He watched in shock as tears ran down her cheeks and wet the ground before her. “I was alone for a long time and I thought I would die there. I couldn’t leave because my hair…It had always been abnormally long. It was what contained my immortality, I hated it, to know that I would spend an eternity locked away in that place where my father had abandoned me, where my mother had died. My father was the one who had it tied to the beam knowing that it would keep my mother there as she would never leave without me; I was only two at the time.”
“But…how…how did you…survive?” Jasper stuttered.
She smiled slightly “I found a cat in the tower one day. Turns out, he was another fairy only a different kind than my father. He said his Prince had sent him to watch over me. His name was Sir Rogan. He brought me food and clothes and took away my loneliness. He stayed with me for a while and then he left. He said his prince needed him for something but he would come back if he was allowed. I haven’t seen nor heard from him in the past five years.”
“You’ve been alone in that tower for five years?”
She nodded “Yes, my only company was a thrush that sat outside my window singing. That was the only thing that kept me sane during that time. My hair had eventually grown long enough that I could come out of the tower for a little ways, and so find food, Rogan had taught me of the many wild things that grew outside.”
“So…” Jasper tried to comprehend all she was saying “If that’s true, why did you want to find your father’s kingdom?”
“I thought that maybe I could prove myself to him and then he would except me but…why would he? He hadn’t wanted me before. He left me in the tower…alone, for twelve years.” Her tears fell fast but she didn’t move and her voice didn’t waver. She took a deep breath as she tried to regain enough composure to look up.
Jasper watched her pityingly and then he smiled. Victoria gasped as he took her hand and told her reassuringly “Well, you’re not alone anymore.”
She looked up and then smiled at him “Right.” Drying her eyes, she closed her small hand around his larger one and they started off down the path heading left. They walked in silence for a bit before Jasper commented quietly, as though to himself “It’s kind of odd.”
“What is?” Victoria asked.
“Huh? Oh, did I say that out loud? I was just thinking that it’s odd that you’re a half blood too.”
“What do you mean too?” she asked, her eyes narrowing “and what’s a half blood for that matter?”
“It’s a term human’s use for someone who has a bit of fairy blood in them; it doesn’t actually have to be half. I’m only a quarter; my mother was a half blood.”
“You what?!” She cried, stopping suddenly.
Jasper stopped and looked back at her “What’s wrong?”
“J…Jasper! Do you mean to tell me that all this time I thought you were a mere, simple, dimwitted, human and you were really part fairy?!”
“Yes…why are you so mad?”
“It’s totally humiliating! I’ve been going on and on about my superiority as a fairy and you…you just stood there smiling!”
Jasper grinned “Well, I thought you were a real fairy, you’re so small and shiny. But still, you’re half and half while I’m only a quarter.” He shrugged “I fail to see what difference it makes either way though.”
She scowled and marched on ahead, leaving him staring after her in confusion.
Several more hours passed as they trudged on in silence. Time didn’t seem to pass here, it never grew any darker or lighter and they had no idea how long they’d been walking when they made a turn and came to what at first appeared to be a large grove of trees and then was a beautiful mansion. Jasper stared in shock for a moment while Victoria stepped up to the door and rapped it sharply three times without any pretense at hesitation. Jasper hurried to join her. They stood there waiting, listening to the voices that were coming from behind the large door.
“I’m telling you, I walked into the Wood with a boy right behind me and I come here…”
“Without the boy. Yes Eanrin, I know, you’ve told me. But what will the Prince say when he finds out you lost the child in the Wood!”
“It wasn’t my fault! He shouldn’t have strayed off the path!”
“As if he would know better! And now he’s lost out there with those things…”
“Well, it’s not like Oeric did any better. He couldn’t even find his charge, just an empty tower and a lot of hair!”
“Oh you silly…”
Jasper, feeling uneasy about what seemed to be eavesdropping, knocked again, louder than Victoria. The voices stopped and a moment later the door swung open to reveal a pretty young woman with black hair, large brown eyes and noticeably crooked teeth that only seemed to enhance her welcoming smile.
“Hello, can I help you?”
“Um…” he stuttered, trying to think of a quick way to explain their presence to this fairy like lady.
“We’re travelers lost in the Wood, is this a haven of the Prince of Farthestshore?” Victoria said in a curt, business like, manner.
The woman smiled again “Yes, it is, you are welcome to come in.”
“Thank you. Come Jasper” beckoning as though to a servant she stepped inside. Sucking in his protests at her tones, he followed after her. Inside, the mansion took on an entirely new form. It looked like a grove of trees that made rooms and corridors, but when he blinked they looked like the fine walls of a mansion, warm and richly decorated. He gawked while Victoria made brief introductions “I am Princess Victoria of Galdenbrane and this is my servant and protector, Jasper.”
“Hey! Victoria…!” Jasper started but a single glare from the girl caused him to fall into dissatisfied silence.
The woman smiled pleasantly “A pleasure to meet you. I am Dame Imraldera, the keeper of this haven. And my companion over there is…”
“Sir Eanrin, Bard of Rudiobus, Prince of poetry, you’ve heard of me I’m sure.” The golden haired man said with an elaborate bow.
Jasper stuttered over his words as he stared at the man before him. The Bard Eanrin? His mother doted on the man’s poetry! He wasn’t aware of a living soul who hadn’t heard the name before. But the man who stood before him, dressed in bright scarlet colors with scarlet eyes patches, was not what he had expected. On the contrary this man, oddly enough, reminded him of the mangy cat that had led him into the Wood…how long ago had that been?
“Oh you.” Victoria murmured distastefully. She turned her nose up and closed her eyes in an important sort of way “Yes, Sir Rogan told me much of you.”
The smile on Eanrin’s face faded as he coughed awkwardly “Oh…he did, did he? What, ahem, exactly did he say?”
“That you were a pompous, good for nothing that wrote the strangest forms of poetry to the woman you hate the most.”
The bard visibly bristled and then suddenly seemed to go limp, his face revealing that something had just dawned on him “Did…did you happen to say your name was Victoria?”
“Yes” she said, narrowing her eyes at him “Why?”
“Um…never mind. I…” suddenly he stiffened and whirled around his nose twitched and he took a quick step towards Jasper. Next thing the boy knew he was face to face with the cat. With a surprised shout he stumbled backwards while the cat began running circles around Imraldera shouting “That’s him! That’s the boy!”
“The half-blood?” Imraldera asked, looking at Jasper with a mixture of interest and pity.
“YES!” The cat shouted.
Jasper stared in shock, trying to make sense of it all but Victoria quickly grabbed the cat by his scruff and gave him a good shaking “How do you know about that? Answer me fairy!” she shouted in his face.
The cat cringed and struggled to escape her surprisingly strong grip. “Ow! Let go of me! Of course I know what you both are! I could smell it and besides, the Prince told me to fetch the boy here to the haven …”
“Let me go!”
“Because” Imraldera cut in “of the creatures that have escaped their domain.” Victoria dropped the cat that quickly turned into the bard once more and stepped away from her.
“What creatures?” the small girl demanded fiercely.
“The malrocks. They were a creature created by faries to destroy the half-bloods who were seen as a threat to their pride, seeing it as shameful to mingle with mortals.”
Victoria clenched her teeth and stared at the wall angrily but made no comment.
“These monsters were locked away, several thousand years ago, by our Prince, to protect the half-bloods.” Eanrin added.
Imraldera nodded and continued “They have recently escaped their imprisonment though and are once again tracking them down. Until we can contain them, the Prince has ordered that his knights bring all half-bloods here to my haven where they will be safe.”
“What do they look like?” Jasper asked, by now having regained his composure and his feet.
“Like the ones that attacked us” Victoria murmured.
“What?” he asked incredulously
She nodded “Creatures made to dispose of us, it makes sense. That’s why they followed us, it explains also our burns.”
“Burns?” Imraldera repeated worriedly.
Victoria held out her hand, showing where the burns had worsened. Jasper felt a twinge of guilt at being unable to treat them in any way.
“We received these when Jasper slew one of them and the monster’s blood touched us. It hurt” she glanced at the pale red marks on Jasper and then back at her own vibrantly colored ones and nodded “Yes, that’s why it hurt me more than you. Because I am a half-blood while you are nearly human.”
Imraldera examined her hands and then turned and hurried out of the room calling over her shoulder as she did so “I think I have something for that.”
An awkward silence filled the air after she was gone, as Eanrin stood over to the side and Victoria refused to acknowledge his existence and Jasper tried to think straight. Finally the Bard straightened and cleared his throat “If I’m not mistaken, you said you once knew a certain Sir Rogan?” He asked, addressing Victoria.
“That’s correct. What’s it to you?” she demanded without turning to look at him.
“Well…um…it’s just that I was once an acquaintance of him as well and…”
Victoria whirled around and grabbed at him clutching him fiercely as her voice took on a surprisingly pleading tone “Do you know where he is? Can you tell me what happened to him?” Tears filled her eyes “He promised he would come back! He said he would get me out! Why didn’t he come?”
Eanrin stumbled back and moaned slightly “Oh dragon’s teeth! I was afraid of that. You didn’t hear did you?”
“Sir Rogan…how do I say this? He…he has passed on from us while fighting valiantly for our Prince… We are comforted though by the thought that one day we shall all meet again in…a better place and…”
“Yes, I suppose that’s another way to put it.”
She released his shirt and slumped to the ground, staring out the window blankly. “So that’s why…” she murmured hoarsely. Closing her eyes she doubled over as her shoulders shook and loud broken sobs escaped her. Without warning, the cat man knelt and wrapped his arms around her, letting her cry into his shoulder. Jasper stood helpless and silent in the corner watching until Imraldera returned. She took it all in with a single glance and then waved the boy over to her. After applying the ointment to his burns she showed him to a room where he could rest, assuring him she would take good care of the girl, before returning to where Eanrin was waiting for her. When she came in she saw the bard standing in the middle of the room, slowly rocking the sleeping girl back and forth like a baby. She walked over quietly and looked at her with pity. “Poor thing, to have waited for so long only for it to have come to this. Rogan spoke often of her; she’s the one whose father locked her up right?”
Eanrin nodded slowly “Yes, the fairies of Galdenbrane are cold and cruel monsters that dwell on their dying traditions of rigorous purity” his tones dripped with disgust “what I’d do if I ever got my hands on that…”
“He’s lucky he’s locked up” Imraldera cut him short but her tones were equally hard. She rubbed the ointment into the burns and then tried to take Victoria but Eanrin shook his head. “Lead the way, I’ll carry her.”
Imraldera hid a smile, knowing the poet would sense it even if he couldn’t see it and nodded.
Jasper didn’t know how long he’d been asleep when he woke to find himself lying in a strange room. Memories began to slowly filter back and he sat up. Stepping out of the room, he followed the quiet sound of soft voices into what appeared to be a parlor. There he found Dame Imraldera and Sir Eanrin talking with a strange looking man. The man had the appearance of your average person, the kind you pass by on the street without ever noticing and yet…there was something different about him, something that made a fire burn inside of the boy as soon as he laid eyes on him, the kind that made him want to follow this stranger wherever he may lead. The man turned as if he had been expecting him and smiled. “Good morning Jasper. Do you feel better?”
He nodded “Yes Sir…uhm…”
“Aethelbald, my name is Aethelbald.”
“Yes, thank you, Sir Aethelbald.”
Aethelbald made room and motioned for him to take the seat beside him. Jasper felt oddly uncomfortable sitting so close to this man but at the same time he wanted to be as close as he possibly could, to soak in every word that he said.
“Um…Jasper” Imraldera said quietly, shifting uncomfortably in her seat across from him “the Prince has just brought some news…”
“The Prince of Farthestshore to be exact” Eanrin added as if eager to change the subject.
Aethelbald nodded and smiled again at Jasper, a warm and welcoming mile that set him at ease. Imraldera saw him relax and continued “It seems that your family was…well…”
“They were attacked along the way and one of my knights was gravely injured while defending them” Aethelbald said quietly, his smile fading. “Your family has been taken by the malrocks.”
“They were half-bloods too Jasper, except for your father of course, but your mother was half fairy and your sister was like you. When they entered the Wood they somehow lost the Path and the malrocks found them.”
Jasper stared at Imraldera blankly, unable to take in what she had just said. “But…”
“They have been taken back to the creature’s domain as bait for others. I’m going to retrieve them and lock away the monsters once more” Aethelbald finished quietly and Jasper heard a question in his voice. He looked at the man before him wonderingly and then stood up.
“Please let me go with you!”
Aethelbald smiled as if Jasper had just passed a test of some sort, and nodded. “Of course.”
Relief and joy surged inside the boy at the thought of following this man. He knew his family would be safe soon if the Prince would go after them. An unexpected voice from the doorway cut short his enthusiasm. “You’re leaving me?!”
Everyone turned to see a fuming Victoria standing behind them. She blinked when she saw Aethelbald and seemed to be momentarily taken aback by his kind smile, but then she re-focused on Jasper and vented her fury “Why does everyone think it is okay to leave me behind? I didn’t think you were that kind of a person Jasper! First my father, then Rogan and now you! Well, if you think I’m going to stand by while you run off and…”
“Victoria, I have to rescue my family! The malrocks have caught them and if I don’t do something…”
“Let the knights take care of it!”
“They’re my family! I’m responsible for them! Not the knights!”
“Well what about me?”
“How selfish can you get? My family is in danger! You can’t come because that would put you in a dangerous position!”
“I am and you can’t stop me! Neither can you! Or you two!” she shouted, pointing to Aethelbald and then waving her hands at Eanrin and Imraldera. Aethelbald nodded. Jasper wondered why he encouraged her instead of telling her how dangerous it would be. He was sure Aethelbald could make the girl calm down if he wanted to, but instead he seemed as if he wanted Victoria to come. Taking a deep breath to calm himself down, Jasper tried to talk sense into the infuriated Victoria “Look, Victoria, I have to go, and you have to stay. This hopefully won’t take long and I’ll be back before you know it…”
“That’s what he said!”
“He?” Jasper saw tears shimmering in her eyes and realized she was on the verge of breaking down again. So, Rogan had really meant that much to her? Was she really that scared of being left alone again? Feeling helpless he turned to the others for help but they remained silent. He sighed in defeat.
Six hours later Jasper found himself standing once again on the Fairie path with Eanrin leading them as Aethelbald had gone ahead to gather up a few more of his knights. Victoria marched beside him in silence, still mad at him for almost leaving her, and Eanrin was prattling on about his poetry and reciting piece after piece until Jasper wanted nothing more than to burn every piece he’d ever heard before. They came at one point to a place where the path seemed to narrow and they saw on either side of it the deep darkness that followed the malrocks and their red eyes glowing eagerly.
“Don’t worry, they can’t set foot on the path” Eanrin assured them, marching on.
Taking a deep breath, Jasper hurried after him. As they walked and the Path continued to narrow, Jasper noticed that Victoria was walking closer to him than necessary. She still wouldn’t look at him, but he could see her face and saw that there was no longer stubborn fury but that blank look she wore to hide her fear. Taking pity on her, he took her hand. She muttered a protest but didn’t try to pull away and he didn’t let go. Eventually the Path widened again and Victoria put a bit more distance between herself and Jasper, but she didn’t let go of his hand. He smiled quietly to himself and felt a little a better about having her there. They walked for what felt like forever but could have been a mere five minutes for all the three of them knew. It mattered little to the immortal Eanrin, but Jasper felt an odd tug at the lack of time as neither day nor night seemed to pass. There were occasional times when it became darker than other times, but it was so short it was more likely to be a passing cloud or fleeting shadow. But as they went on, Jasper found himself wondering if maybe these were the day and night of this place and, if that was the case, many, many days had passed since they’d left the Haven of Dame Imraldera.
It was a moment of brightness and peace when Eanrin finally stopped and turned off the path. Jasper and Victoria stared after him in shock for a moment before following. Outside of the Path, the Wood was dark and strange looking, but they passed through it in a few seconds and were plunged into blackness. It was so overwhelming that Jasper immediately froze, overcome by the nauseating sensation of falling. Beside him, Victoria shamelessly clung to his arm but never made a sound. Holding the girl close to him, Jasper felt a hand reach out and take his. “Come on mortals, we haven’t got forever” Eanrin murmured, his heavy tone killing the jest. Jasper nodded and let the cat man lead them along what appeared to be a twisting and turning path. All around them nothing but darkness could be seen and Jasper wondered where they were. Beside him, Victoria’s own faint glow did nothing to lighten their surroundings.
“We’re here” Victoria murmured as if reading his thoughts “home of the malrocks. They can’t stand the light because they were made from the darkness of King Galdenbrane’s very soul.”
Jasper tightened his hold on her, afraid that if he loosened it, even for an instant, she might vanish into that intense darkness. Suddenly they came in view of a light in the distance. Eanrin hurried towards it and then they all froze; in front of them, in a long procession, floated the beautiful shimmering silver people of Galdenbrane. Fairies clad in pale green and blue with delicate, transparent wings that shimmered with the colors of the rainbow even in that dismally dark place. One of them, a shimmering man with wings larger than them all, approached them, walking as though on the air though his wings never moved. “And so, the last of the half-bloods are found” he announced to the rest who stared solemnly down at them. Eanrin stepped between them and offered a winning smile at the fairy. “Hello there King Ellander, funny meeting you here. To what do we owe this grand surprise?”
“Step aside Bard; this matter does not concern you.”
Eanrin scowled and his tone hardened as he answered “oh, I think it does and you would do well to give up and go home before…”
“Your Prince is coming? He must not interfere.”
“He had better show up soon because otherwise I might do something I’ll regret latter, but I’m not going to let you hurt these children.”
“You cannot stop the judgment the council has passed upon these shameful creatures…” the man stopped suddenly and stared at them as though just noticing them for the first time. Victoria smiled mirthlessly as she stared at the ground, knowing his eyes were on her. “Hello Father” she murmured.
“So, at last you have come. We have waited a very long time for you” he murmured quietly.
A slight whimper, barely even a sound, escaped her as she seemed to shrink away inside herself. “Do you want to kill me?”
“We will eradicate all your kind from the face of the earth, purging ourselves and becoming clean once more. Then, at last, shall we…”
“No!” Eanrin and Jasper chorused at once in furious tones.
“How can you talk to her like that? She’s your daughter!” Jasper demanded while Eanrin continued to shield them.
Ellander scowled at him “And what would a pathetic half-blood like you understand about the beauty and purity of our race? Stand in humble silence before one so great as I.”
“Great? A man who kills innocent people, sparing neither woman nor child?” Eanrin spat “You lost your purity long ago with the rest of the worlds and none of it had to do with the half-bloods. This is just to make you feel better you pompous….”
“Silence cat! How dare you speak so bluntly to a king of my rank!”
“Just you try and stop me!”
Ellander turned to his daughter “You are part of our kind and feel the slightest bit of our pride that flows through your tainted veins; you know what must be done.”
“You want me to die so you won’t have to own up to your mistake.” Victoria murmured.
“I won’t let you touch her!” Jasper shouted, holding her hand tighter “I will take my family and Victoria and leave and you cannot stop us!”
“We can and we shall, already the creatures return from their search, knowing that those they have longed for are waiting here for them. Prepare yourself, you puny little…”
“Do not insult my people” a stern but calm voice commanded from behind them. They all turned and saw The Prince of farthestshore standing there, backed by three of his knights. The Prince smiled slightly and strode up to Ellander who was visibly cowed by his presence. “I will ask you once, and only once, to return what is mine” he said quietly “before I take them myself.”
Ellander was silent, obviously unprepared for this, but the fairies behind him, the council by appearance, began vehemently protesting the Prince’s threat. Jasper tightened his hold on Victoria, and then quickly eased it once he realized he was crushing her hand. But she clung to him all the more fiercely when he did so. The Prince said nothing for a long while as he stared at Ellander, reading the King’s answer in his eyes.
“I see” he murmured. Stepping back he nodded to his knights and drew his own sword. A blazing light lit up the place and Jasper heard the screech of the malrocks behind him while all around him was the black silhouette of hills and, in the distance before him, a castle. “Quickly Jasper, go fetch your family, they’re hidden within the dungeons.” Aethelbald called to him.
“Right!” he shouted, taking a firmer hold on Victoria’s hand and pulling her after him.
Turning they ran for the castle, Victoria casting enough light now for them to see by. Stumbling over the loose, shifting gravel like terrain that surrounded them, they made their way to a large, old, stone bridge that spanned across an empty gorge that once might have been a moat. On the other side of the bridge the path continued but it was broken and scattered in many places as time had apparently taken its toll. “Jasper…wait” Victoria panted as she stumbled yet again, threatening to knock them both over. He paused and glanced back worriedly. Already he could see the darkness rolling across the bridge as the malrocks gave chase.
“Come on, Victoria” he urged, trying to pull her on “We have to hurry.”
“I can’t! Maybe…you…were right. I shouldn’t have…”
“Well it’s a little late for that now. Come on, you can make it in, I don’t know how we’ll get back out though.”
Nodding remorsefully Victoria allowed him to pull her on. They hurried through the large gates that hung crookedly on a single hinge each. Not a breath of wind stirred the still and silent air as they ran down twisting corridors and halls, down several flights of stairs, and up a few more until they were thoroughly lost and frustrated. After nearly an hour of this, Victoria pulled her hand out of Jasper’s and took the lead without a word.
“Victoria…what…where are you going?” he demanded breathlessly.
“To find your family so we can get out of this place. I don’t like the dark.” She said quietly.
“Do you have any idea where you’re going?”
“Yes, we’ve passed the dungeons twice now.”
“Wha…what?! That’s impossible!”
“That’s what I thought…and then you passed them again.”
Silently he followed after her as she led the way back down a passage they had just come out of. Stopping in front of a blank wall she pointed “There.”
“Where? I don’t see anything. Are you sure…”
“Look at the floor Jasper. Those scratches were created by something heavy being continually scraped across the stones, also, the bottom of the wall is worn out and the stones don’t match up with the rest of the wall after about say, two feet. It’s a small, hidden door that leads down to the dungeons.”
Jasper pushed against the wall and with a click it swung outwards. “Okay, how’d you figure dungeons by that?”
“Well obviously the malrocks would want to hide their prey where no one would ever find it, just in case those being lured in proved hard to grab. Therefore, the best place would be in the hidden dungeons which most castles the Galdenbrane make have.”
“Victoria, you are amazing.”
The girl scowled to hide the blush that crept up her cheeks. She stood still, in front of the open door that led down into more deep darkness and stiffened.
“Well, let’s go” Jasper sighed, taking her hand and starting down. He stopped when she didn’t move. “Victoria…”
“I can’t” she whispered hoarsely “I can only take so much dark Jasper. I can’t go down there. Even my light won’t shine down there.”
“Victoria…I can’t just leave you here.”
“I’ll be fine here, but I won’t go down there.”
Jasper glanced down at the descending stairs and then back up at her tight, drawn face. “Alright. I’ll be quick. But if something happens, don’t wait, go back to the others.”
She nodded. He let go of her hand and descended into the darkness. All around him the light seemed to have died; there was nothing but darkness so real he could feel it pressing against him, hot and thick. The sound of invisible water lapping at an unseen shore filled his ears but he didn’t know whether it was his imagination or not. Stumbling forward he suddenly saw a light though how far off he couldn’t tell. Heading for it he found a lantern sitting on the sand where someone had lost it. Shuddering to think what had happened to its owner; he picked it up and stared into its overwhelming brightness that seemed to banish all his fears. And then he heard the song. The thrush’s voice resounded and echoed in that place and yet, called to him, clear and true, from up ahead. Raising the lantern up he followed the sound and soon found himself standing in front of a closed iron door. Stepping forward he tested the door but found it locked tight. He swung the lantern around to search for the keys but it revealed nothing aside from the door. Taking a deep breath he tried to hit it in but it wouldn’t budge. Holding the lantern over the lock he tried to examine it but as soon as the light hit it, the lock snapped. Jasper stared in shock for several minutes before trying the door again. It swung open easily, creaking on its rusty hinges. The light from the lantern flooded the small cell and revealed many, many people crowded into the small place, they stared at him with hollow, dirty faces and reached out to him pitifully. “Are…are these all the half-bloods the malrocks have gathered?” he wondered, staring in shock.
“Jasper?” a familiar voice hailed him and Annabelle came hurrying towards him out of the crowd.
“Anna! Thank goodness! Are you alright?” he asked, crouching down and pulling her into a hug.
Her tears soaked the front of his shirt as she nodded and clung to him.
“Are mother and father here?”
She nodded again. Turning around, he hoisted her up onto his back and then waved to the other people “Follow me, I’ll get you out. Stay close to the light.” And then he started off with the prisoners following after him, many stumbling, unable to see the light. Jasper clutched the lantern that seemed to glow brighter with every step, and followed the sound of the thrush’s song as it led them all back to the stairs. By the time he was half way up, Jasper realized that the lantern was gone, how he hadn’t noticed he wasn’t sure, but the light was no longer so strong and he felt the emptiness in his hands. He wondered where he had left it, but that didn’t matter, the thrush’s song still guided them and they couldn’t lose their way while walking up the stairs. Eventually they came out at the top of the stairs, the darkness lessened by the light of the swords of the knights and their Prince, battling in the distance. At the top of the stairs, Victoria stood there, anxiously waiting for them. Her face was white and her hands twitched nervously as she peered into the darkness for any sign of them. When Jasper finally appeared with Anna on his back, her face relaxed into a relieved look and he thought he saw her tenderly murmur his name, but he couldn’t be sure and he doubted she would ever admit it. He smiled up at her and she smiled back. And then he saw the darkness rolling in behind her. He froze while a sickening second passed and they were surrounded by the thick fog once again. Swallowing his fear he hurried forward, shouting the girl’s name over and over. He could feel the presence of the malrocks, drawing ever nearer, closing in on him and those behind him. Suddenly he bumped into someone. A strong arm reached out and steadied him and the boy looked up to find Aethelbald standing in front of him. “You did well Jasper” he told him quietly as he took Annabelle from him “But I have another task for you two.”
“Two…what…where’s Victoria?” he asked, feeling muddled and exhausted.
Eanrin materialized out of the darkness beside him. Aethelbald nodded to Jasper “Go find her, I will deliver these safely to the haven. Trust me and everything will be fine.”
Jasper looked into the Prince’s eyes and felt his anxiety wash away. He nodded and hurried off with Eanrin following close behind. He wasn’t exactly sure where he was going, but he felt certain that the direction he was following was the one he needed to be on. It wasn’t until he exited the courtyard that he realized that he was following the sound of the thrush. It led him after the receding darkness that was fleeing back inside the castle. They had the one prey they had been set on, they had been told to seek, and it was all they needed. They had Victoria. Gritting his teeth, Jasper pushed himself, he had to hurry, he had to find her before…no he couldn’t think of that, he had to find her, he would find her. He raced through the twisting corridors and up more and more steps until they came out on the battlements. Jasper paused, panting heavily and tried to survey his surroundings, but it was still too dark to see. The fog wasn’t moving anymore, the malrocks had stopped. They were waiting for him, they wanted him too.
“Lad…” Eanrin started but Jasper stepped into the fog. Taking a deep breath the knight plunged in after him, drawing his sword as he did so. The creatures backed away from the two even as they sought to grab at them. Never looking either right or left, Jasper followed the Song until he came to the center of the darkness where the Thrush perched on the trembling, pale hand of Victoria. The girl turned tear filled eyes up at him and smiled “He said…you would come” she murmured in a broken voice.
“I’m sorry I took so long” Jasper murmured, taking her hand “Can you walk?”
She shook her head “I’m so…scared. He said to trust him, and I do, but…”
“Come along mortals, this won’t hold them back forever” Eanrin growled.
Jasper leaned down and picked Victoria up, she gasped and clawed at him as though afraid he would drop her, but he had no fear of that as she weighed no more than a doll. “Hold onto me, the Prince will see us out of this.”
“But Jasper, the creatures…”
“Don’t look at them. Trust the Prince.”
She took a deep breath and then hid her face on his shoulder.
“We’re ready” he told Eanrin and they set off, slowly and cautiously. But this time the malrocks didn’t fall back. Instead they pressed in about them. With a shout Eanrin slashed out and killed one of them. Jasper backed up, shielding Victoria.
“Stay close to me” Eanrin ordered as he began cutting his way through the masses. Jasper fumbled to pull out his own knife and help.
“Why did you come for me?” Victoria murmured “Now they’ll kill us both.”
“Because you’re my friend and I care about you. I won’t leave you alone.” He slashed at a malrock and then asked her quietly “Why did you want to come. You knew this would happen.”
“Because I knew you wouldn’t find them without my help. And…I was afraid you wouldn’t come back. I…care…a little…too.”
Jasper smiled and held her tighter “Don’ worry Victoria, the Prince knows what he’s doing. Eanrin will take care of us.”
She hid a small smile by burying her face in his shoulder.
“Alright you two, there’s the stairs” Eanrin interrupted, beckoning to them from where he stood at the head of the tower stairs. “Let’s get going.”
Jasper hurried down with Victoria and Eanrin came after as rear guard. Once they were back out in the courtyard they found one of the other knights, Sir Oeric, waiting for them.
“What ho, I was wondering if anyone had cared to wait for us!” Eanrin hailed the knight cheerily. Oeric smiled and motioned for Jasper to hurry on ahead. He took up the rear beside Eanrin and commented drily “looks like a storm.”
“If only” Eanrin sighed wearily. He grunted as he took a deep wound on his arm and returned the favor by lopping off the creature’s head. They backed up slowly, cutting down the malrocks as they advanced, until they had crossed over the bridge, there another knight was waiting. As soon as the four were safely across she removed the props that held back two large boulders. The rocks crashed down on the crumbling bridge, utterly destroying it and cutting the land of the malrocks off from the rest of the world. With a relieved sigh Eanrin turned and immediately started off for the exit from that world, calling over his shoulder as he did so “Come you four, we haven’t got all day. I still have that announcement I promised you Beana.”
“It’s about time! Sixteen hundred and something years is far longer than that poor girl ought to have waited for a good-for-nothing like you.”
Eanrin grinned mischievously and disappeared. Oeric motioned for Jasper to follow as he stepped out of that world. Still holding Victoria, Jasper came after him, with Beana bringing up the rear.
The walk back to the haven didn’t seem to take nearly so long as it had before and they were soon standing once more at the door to Dame Imraldera’s haven. Eanrin reached out to knock but before he could the door was flung open and Imraldera, almost in tears was hugging him tightly “Eanrin! I thought…when the others came back without you I thought…” Suddenly realizing everyone was staring at her she pulled away and started scolding him fiercely “How could you do that to me? You horrible cat! Here I was, waiting for you all and you decide to stay back and wait a little, never sending word or anything…”
“I’m relieved to know you care so much” Eanrin commented, obviously enjoying her confusion.
“Imraldera” Eanrin cut her off with a sweeping bow “In all the years I’ve been fortunate enough to know you I have never…”
“Cut to the chase!” Beana snapped.
Eanrin looked up at Imraldera with a cheeky grin and asked simply “Will you marry me?”
There was a moment of stunned silence before Imraldera let out her breath in a relieved sigh. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Two hours later Jasper was reunited with his family. While the rest of the half-bloods were being returned to their own worlds by various knights and Jasper was busy, Aethelbald took Victoria aside and talked long and deeply with her. No one ever knows exactly what transpired between them, but Jasper did remember looking up and seeing happy tears glistening in her eyes at one point. After Jasper had finished talking with his family, the Prince pulled him aside. They talked about many things, it seemed like nothing in particular and yet everything at once and then Aethelbald asked him “Jasper, would you agree to become one of my knights in training?”
The boy nodded, overjoyed at this proposal and yet filled with an inner sense of calming peace.
A week later, Jasper’s family was returned to the human world, Eanrin and Imraldera were preparing for their wedding and Victoria and Jasper were leaving the haven for their first task as Knights of Farthestshore. The haven was filled with bustling activity as everyone ran around trying to get ready for whatever they were about to do and Eanrin seemed to be everywhere at once shouting “Dragon’s Teeth! I’ve lost my comb!” While Imraldera chased after him to force an opinion of something or other out of him. They all eventually met back up at the door where Aethelbald and Jasper were waiting for Victoria. A silence settled on the crowd as the girl, clad now in a white dress and shining armor, came grandly down the hall.
“Victoria” Imraldera whispered as the girl passed. Victoria glanced behind her and then nodded “Oh right, I almost forgot.” She took a deep breath and with a loud snap, two shimmering translucent wings appeared behind her.
“What…where did those come from?!” Jasper demanded in shock.
Victoria scowled at him “What are you talking about? I’ve always had these.”
“There was never any point in bringing them out before, I was afraid they’d get torn.” She touched one gently and then shrugged.
“All right then, let’s go” Aethelbald said, motioning for them to follow after him. Waving goodbye to everyone there, they left the haven behind to follow the Prince.