“What the astronomers told us only confirms our suspicions,” Zwinkie said, concluding his retelling of the prince’s story. “The time is ripe for him to take back his throne.”
Magus nodded in agreement and asked, “So, what do you all think?”
After allowing for a few moments of silence, Joanne smiled politely, stood up, and said: “I think that was a very interesting story. However, it’s about time that my friends and I return home.”
“What?” everyone cried.
“Guys, we have a real life to get back to,” Joanne reminded them. “We don’t belong here.”
“But these people need help!” protested Lizzie.
“Yeah, the Dark Lord sounds like an awful person,” added Jack.
“What can we do about it?” retorted Joanne. “We’re just a bunch of high school kids.”
“There has to be a reason we came here,” proclaimed Mia, who turned slightly bashful when her friends looked at her in surprise. “Do people typically enter new worlds when they fall into a swimming pool? Someone must have brought us here on purpose.”
Joanne faltered. “I don’t see how it’s any of our business to be here or to interfere with anything.”
“Haven’t we always been taught to stand up for what’s right?” questioned Lizzie. “What’s going on with the Dark Lord and the missing prince isn’t right. We should help to fix it.”
“Yeah!” agreed Jack and Mia.
Joanne had never seen that bright glint in her friends’ eyes before, and their expressions exuded such confidence and passion. She could almost feel that maybe, possibly, they could do something to help the Eurovians—which was absolutely insane!
“Magus, do you have a spell to send us back home?” asked Joanne.
“I do not have the power you back to where you came from,” informed Magus.
“Ohhh!” groaned Joanne. “Fine then.” She turned to her friends. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be the buzzkill, but I’m worried about everyone’s safety.”
“I know, Jo,” replied Jack, “but it seems that there’s nothing we can do for now. Why not do some good while we’re here?”
“Well, how are we supposed to do anything against a powerful lord?” inquired Joanne. “No one has more powerful magic than him.”
“Ah, that’s where you err, young lady,” said Magus. “The great Adonai is the Supreme Wielder of Pure Magic, and he will not let the Dark Lord rule us forever.”
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance He’ll come himself to save us?” inquired Lizzie.
“Oh, Lizzie, He already did that a long time ago,” responded Magus with a smile. Before Lizzie could ask him to explain, Magus continued, “Earth Dwellers, it’s our turn to take responsibility for the mess of our world and do something to stop the madness of black magic. It all begins with Prince Daevin. He is the rightful heir to the Eurovian crown, and descends from a strong royal bloodline. If he seeks Adonai with all his heart and trains in the skills of pure, good magic, he will have enough power to defeat the Dark Lord.”
“The only problem is that he won’t come out of the Whispering Timberland,” replied Jack.
“Exactly,” nodded Magus. “However, with the help of these three lovely young ladies, I think we can execute a plan that will get Prince Daevin out of that forest.”
“Us?” squeaked Mia.
“Yes,” affirmed Magus. “There is a tradition among Eurovians that on the eve of her wedding, a woman will go with her friends into the Whispering Timberland to celebrate the final hours of maidenhood. Joanne, Lizzie, and you will dance and laugh and sing while in the forest, so the Dryads will assume that you are carrying out this tradition.”
“How will that help us find and convince the prince to leave?” asked Lizzie.
“What young man can resist the charm of such beautiful ladies as yourselves?” questioned Magus in so genuine of a tone that all three young women blushed.
“Wait, so you’re sending them in alone?” asked Jack.
“No men—young or old—are allowed by the tree nymphs into the Whispering Timberland except for Prince Daevin himself,” informed Magus. “If these ladies cannot take the risk, I would understand—“
“We’ll do it!” exclaimed Joanne. Jack, Lizzie, and Mia gawked at Joanne, but she was undeterred. “The prince might have enough magic to send us home. He can be the solution to everyone’s problems—ours, and the Eurovians’.”
Magus dressed the girls with green garments made of fresh leaves woven together and with floral crowns that flaunted their fragrance. They strapped on thin sandals that were the color of the earth and held baskets full of pink flowers that matched the circlets on their heads. It had been years since any of them had done the childhood dance, so it took many attempts for them to master the performance of skipping about as if there weren’t a care in the world. They stood at the edge of the forest alongside their male friends, took a deep, invigorating breath, and said farewell. It took all of his willpower for Jack not to run after them as soon as they were gone. For the moment, he would simply hope that the plan would work and that they would be safe.
The outer ring of the forest was composed of trees so tall that the children of the clouds could play on their tips. As the girls ventured further into the Whispering Timberland, different kinds of trees shaped the forest. Some had branches that practically grew straight out of the ground, with hardly any trunk in between. Some twisted and curved as if trying to see something behind their backs. Some had broad, flat leaves, some had leaves so sharp they would cut your eyes if you looked too long, and some had leaves that grew on top of each other in thick, flower-like clusters. None of these trees were quite as tall as the traditional forest trees that bordered the Whispering Timberland, but to climb to their tops still seemed impossible. Moss, vines, and flowers swallowed the ground and the tree trunks, while chipmunks and squirrels skittered about. Birds sung in their native language their afternoon songs, one of which quoted an ancient prophecy:
Oh sing, thou wingéd thing,
For o’er the hill climbs he
With sword so mighty
Salvation he’ll bring
And we shall all be free!
Of course the girls could not understand the Bird Language, and even if they could, they would not yet understand the words’ significance; however, they were at least able to appreciate the lovely sound of the song. Joanne in particular was enjoying the chorus of nature, but when she reached out to touch a tree for the first time, her mind suddenly blanked, and she could see only darkness.
After a fewmoments, an afternoon forest scene splashed into view, and Joanne saw a little girl crying. Joanne tried to talk to the girl, but she could not speak, and it did not seem like the girl could see her. The more Joanne watched her, the less she could sense herself and the more she focused on the scene in front of her. The child continued to cry for quite some time, until she began to hear the sound of bells. The girl lifted her face and uncurled her body at the base of the large boulder she was sitting against. Her hiccupping sobs began to recede into heavy, quiet breaths of anticipation. Bells were all that she could hear as she stood up in the thicket of tall, moss-covered trees. Wiping half-dried tears from her cheek, the small girl carefully leaned her head this way and that to try to discern from whence the lovely ringing came. A gentle wind rustled the leaves of the trees around her, and the bells knelled louder and with more urgency.
Now certain of the way to go, the girl walked a weaving path through the columns of tree bark, carefully trying to avoid snapping any twigs with her tiny fairy feet. Many times she thought she could hear distant murmurs, but every time she stopped, she could hear nothing but the bells. Eventually she reached a clearing, where the resonating rings were louder and sweeter than ever. However, the pretty little maiden could not see any bells anywhere—no silver jingle bells or tulip-shaped church bells like she expected. She was hardly aware of this though, because she found herself underneath the canopy of an enormous tree with silver leaves and golden flowers.
One of the flowers, which were so brightly gold they seemed to shine with their own light, let go of its hold on one of the branches. It swayed from side to side, dancing with the wind as it steadily made its way down to the girl’s extended palm. The flower had petals softer than a newborn baby’s skin, which the girl admired as she pet the little flower with a pink finger. Curiously, she pinched the end of the flower between two fingers, held it aloft, and shook it. Instantly a happy jingle rang out and mingled with the rings coming from the branches above the child. The young girl gasped and recognized that the bell sounds she had been hearing were from the flowers after all.
The girl was still staring at the tiny yellow spectacle before her when a teasing voice asked, “What’s so interesting?”
The girl looked up from the flower to see the dirty, upside-down face of a curly-haired boy, who was hanging down from one of the lower branches. A wave of shock trapped the breath inside her throat for just a second, before a strangled scream jumped from her lips. Taking a step back, she tripped on one of the many sprawling roots of the tree. When she landed with a thud, her face contorted with pain, and sobs began to bubble from her chest once again. The boy was swinging back and forth and laughing, but when he heard her first sob, he immediately pulled himself up to sit upright on the branch.
Cocking his head, he asked, “What’s wrong?”
When the weeping girl didn’t answer, the boy huffed and hopped down from the branch. With curled fists resting on his hips, he bent over and tried to see the girl’s face past the curtain of wavy hair, which had the same shade of brown as the bark of the gold-leafed tree. He started reaching out to touch it, but he refrained.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
The girl shook her head.
“Are you angry at me?” he asked in a smaller voice.
She shook her head again.
“Why are you sad?”
She sniffed. “I lost my friends and I don’t know how to get back to them. I don’t know where I am.”
“You’re in the Whispering Timberland. Does that help?”
The girl shook her head; the boy was getting visibly frustrated with all this head shaking. He rubbed his jaw for a few momtes as if it would help him think. The forest was beginning to stir with whispering sounds that made the girl uneasy, when the boy’s hazel eyes suddenly brightened.
“I know how to help you!” he exclaimed. “Come here.”
While the girl scooted closer to him, he picked up a fallen flower and held it before his mouth. He turned to the girl with a grin.
“Watch this,” he said.
The boy blew on the flower, and his breath carried what looked like flecks of silver, which swirled around the flower and caused it to vibrate. The light from the silver breath rebounded off of the girl’s brown pupils.
“Show my friend the way to her other friends,” commanded the boy, letting go of the flower’s stem.
The flower zipped into the air and rang, inducing the girl to cry out in delight and clap her hands. The murmuring of the forest became louder, which the boy finally noticed with widening eyes.
“Okay, you’d better go now,” he urged.
“Thank you,” said the girl, hugging him briefly before bouncing up to follow the flower.
Even though the flower was well within her sight as she walked away from the boy, it rang repeatedly as if it were afraid to lose her any minute. Ring, ring! Ring, ring! All at once the green and brown world of forest trees faded to black, but the ringing persisted.
Joanne blinked, and when she turned, she found Lizzie and Mia staring at her with large, fearful eyes.
“What happened to you?” asked Lizzie. “You were out of it for, like, a whole minute.”
Joanne heard the ringing again, but louder this time. She pointed to her left and began walking in that direction. She had either forgotten or refused to continue prancing, and simply glided towards the increasingly loud sound of bells. Mia glanced at Lizzie, who shrugged and followed Joanne as quietly as her natural clumsiness would allow. Eventually the trio walked so far that the songs of the birds had faded, but none of them noticed.
At last they stepped into an open area that only had one tree right in the middle. The tree had long, low-hanging branches that spread out in all directions with bouquets of silver leaves and golden flowers. Automatically, Joanne reached out, pulled down one of the flowers, and held it in front of Lizzie and Mia. The peal of the flower-bell matched that of the other flowers above their heads, which caused Lizzie and Mia to gawk. Joanne giggled, like she was a child showing her parents a trick she had learned.
“What are you doing?” asked an eager masculine voice.
Lizzie and Mia screamed, for behind Joanne they saw a youth hanging down from one of the thick branches. They nearly fell backward from shock, but Joanne slowly turned around to face nose-to-nose the smirking boy behind her. The boy’s smirk faded when Joanne raised a dark brown eyebrow at him instead of bursting into screams like the other two. Usually when he’d do this sort of thing, the girls would be too busy recovering from shock to notice him disappear. This one kept staring at him, with large round eyes of brown and faded gold and with dark eyelashes curling up around the edges. He could feel a bloom of heat in his chest just from watching those eyes watch him. What in the world was happening to him? His confused pause gave Joanne the few seconds she needed to yank down on his body with all her might, so that he fell from the tree. He was badly scratched, but what smarted worse was his pride when the giggling girls surrounded him and began poking him.
“Argh, enough!” he growled, throwing his arms around to try to chase them off.
They leaned back to avoid his flailing limbs, but resumed staring at him as soon as he was done. The boy squinted at Joanne for a few moments, which confused Mia and Lizzie, while Joanne tried to settle her twitching mouth.
“Who are you?” whispered the boy.
“No one in particular,” was Joanne’s brisk response before she stood up and began brushing dirt off. “Who are you?
“Me?” he said. “Don’t you know? Everyone in Eurovia comes here to try to find me.”
Joanne frowned, and then laughed. “Oh, who cares about some wild boy? Besides, we are not from Eurovia.”
Lizzie and Mia tensed, and the boy sat up and stared.
“Where are you from, then?” inquired the boy.
“Oi oi oi!” cried many voices.
“What was that?” Mia asked, clutching Lizzie’s hand.
A band of Dryads came running into the clearing, and it only took a second for the girls to be awed by them. They were all at least six feet tall and wore fierce, wild, thrilled expressions on their thin, sharply chiseled faces. They wore leaf garments that went over one shoulder and fell to their knees. Their skin was a light shade of green, their long brown hair almost reached their elbows, and their crowns were made of the branches and leaves of their respective trees. Their eyes and lips were dark emerald, and their bared teeth were as white as milk. They had been calling for Daevin, but halted as soon as they realized that he wasn’t alone. One of the more stately nymphs (Joanne could only assume she was the leader) strode forward from the ranks of Dryads and bent her head to get an all-encompassing look at the human girls. After a few uncomfortable moments (for the girls anyway), she nodded.
“You will join us for the Blooms Festival!” commanded the Dryad.
Before Joanne or the others could protest, the Dryads hefted them up on their shoulders as they marched out of the premises of the golden bell tree. The stately Dryad aimed a warning glare towards Daevin and shook her head. However, as soon as they were out of sight, he began jumping from tree to tree in close pursuit. The Dryads brought the human girls to a grotto of pink blossom trees, flung them to the soft green ground, and commenced their Blooms Dance. The nymphs joined hands, forming a large circle around the girls, and began skipping to the right in uniform motion. They unclasped their hands, swirled around like verdant tornadoes, and rejoined hands to skip left. They repeated this sequence with quicker, more complex moves added the farther along they went. A song, low and sweet and crazed, rose out of their long throats and tickled the girls’ ears. It gradually seeped into their bloodstream, causing them to rise from the ground and join the dance.
Suddenly, into the middle of their celebratory dance jumped Daevin, who took Joanne by the hand and began to whirl her around. The Dryads were surprised, but continued in their activity, for the Blooms Dance had not been prematurely broken in a hundred years. The thumping of the Dryad’s feet boomed in Joanne’s brain, and the song spiraled further and further down into her soul. In her elation, she did not at first realize what Daevin was doing, but when she did, she frowned. She tried to push herself away from Daevin, but he only gripped her tighter.
“You know, this isn’t a partner dance,” Joanne pointed out.
“I don’t care,” dismissed Daevin. “I want to know how I know you.”
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Joanne said, after a moment of hesitation.
Daevin rolled his eyes. “Perhaps I shall get more answers from your friends.”
“Doubtful,” replied Joanne with a twinkle in her eye.
Daevin released Joanne and swept up Lizzie (then later Mia) in a flurry of arms and legs. Both times, Joanne could see the look of frustration on his face when Lizzie and Mia responded to his questions just as vaguely as Joanne. Finally, the Dryads ended the dance with a spinning flourish and a loud “Oi oi oi!” The Dryads (who were not tired even after just finishing a long, physically demanding dance) shook their leafy heads and set about bringing out the pre-prepared feast. They had meals that were consistent in soil and lacking in anything edible for humans; thankfully, they had also gotten food for Daevin, who offered the girls portions of his share. The good thing was that the Dryads liked to spoil Daevin, so there was a plentiful bounty of fruits, nuts, roots, and berries.
“So, what are your names?” asked Daevin. The girls gave him a pointed look. “That is the most innocent question I could have possibly asked.”
Joanne smiled in such a way that Daevin didn’t think he knew what supremely irritating was until that moment.
“I’m Joanne,” said Joanne in an overly sweet tone, “and these are my close friends, Lizzie, Mia, and J-“
Joanne paused, and Daevin frowned.
“Huh,” muttered Joanne. “I’m so used to introducing Jack, too.”
Lizzie and Mia nodded, while Daevin’s frown deepened.
“I’m confused,” said Daevin. “Is Jack your fiancée?”
“FIAN—” began Lizzie, who reddened when she realized why Daevin had asked the question.
“Jack is one of a kind,” Joanne said, vaguely but honestly, while her eyes shot arrows at the sheepish Lizzie.
“Right,” drawled Daevin. “Where is he from?”
“The same place we’re from.”
“Which is…?” When Joanne didn’t offer any more explanation, Daevin almost snarled. “What’s with all the secrecy? It’s not like I’m ever going to leave this forest, let alone track you down.”
“Never going to leave?” echoed Lizzie. “Why would you never leave?”
“Because I live in paradise,” sighed Daevin dreamily as he leaned his head back on a tree trunk, “and if you were smart you would join me here.”
That wasn’t quite the response the girls were expecting; they were thinking it was more along the lines of Daevin’s life being in danger due to the Dark Lord, or the Dryads keeping him as prisoner. Granted, even if these were the reasons he likely wouldn’t have admitted it to them, but he seemed too blissful to be faking it all.
“Join you?” Joanne said at last. “No thank you.”
Daevin rolled his eyes. “What do Jack and the rest of that miserable world out there have to offer you? If you were to live my life, you’d never have to worry again.”
“The life you’re talking about is no life at all,” dismissed Joanne.
Daevin squinted. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that none of this is real. It’s a fantasy.”
“What’s wrong with a little fantasy?”
“Nothing is wrong with a little fantasy, I guess, but at some point you have to realize there is more to life out there than just you. It seems to me that you’re just another little kid who’s too afraid to go out and see what the world is really like.”
Daevin’s smile dropped and his hazel eyes glowered at Joanne.
“Well, Jo, you sure know how to lift everyone’s spirits,” Lizzie commented.
Joanne rolled her eyes. “It had to be said. And speaking of the real world, we should be getting back now.”
Mia and Lizzie frowned, and they drew Joanne aside while Daevin continued to stare at Joanne.
“What are you doing, Joanne?” whispered Lizzie. “He’s the reason we came here, and now we’re just gonna leave?”
“Trust me,” replied Joanne. “It’s obvious that it doesn’t take much to goad this guy. He’d jump off a five-story building to protect his pride.”
“I know you, Joanne,” said Lizzie. “You really believe what you said.”
“I never said I didn’t,” said Joanne. “He’s clearly immature and spoiled and he only cares about pranking people. Just like a little boy.”
Lizzie frowned. “You almost sound like you knew him as a little boy.”
Before Joanne could answer, Daevin stood up and marched toward the head Dryad with a determined glint in his eye. He crossed his arms and stared at her defiantly, which unsurprisingly caused her to bristle.
“Ashtalon, I am going with them,” Daevin stated.
Ashtalon’s green eyes flashed. “You know the danger of doing such a thing. It is forbidden!”
“I’ve lived in this forest all my life,” said Daevin, “and I’ve never known anything else. I just want to make a short visit.”
“You can’t go outside the bounds of this forest,” declared Ashtalon.
“Because it would break—!” Ashtalon stopped.
“Break… what?” Ashtalon said nothing. “Break what, Ashtalon?”
She sighed. “You may as well know now. It would break the spell.”
Daevin paused, and the redness of his anger gave way to a pale, bewildered countenance. All eyes were rurned towards her and Daevin.
“W-what spell?” stuttered Daevin in a voice like that of a small, hurt child.
“The spell that made you forget your childhood memories,” Ashtalon said.
The human girls gasped, and Daevin’s face twitched as he tried to suppress the sudden flood of emotion swelling up in his chest. He clenched and unclenched his fingers, trying to grab a hold of a sense of contentment that had always been with him but right then was eluding him. He flopped down on a fallen log and buried his face with his tan hands.
“So… if I haven’t lived here all my life,” began Daevin carefully, “then where did I come from, and who am I really?”
“You are the son of King Elchanan, the late ruler of Eurovia,” answered Ashtalon.
“I am?” said Daevin.
“Yes,” affirmed Ashtalon. “The reason why you came to our forest was so that you would be protected from the Dark Lord. Since your father died, he has ruled the land through the power of black magic. When you first came to us, you were so traumatized—having nightmares, hardly sleeping, always crying. So, we gave you a potion that would cause you to—at least temporarily—forget who you were and simply think you had always been here without question. Once you were prepared to take your place as king and left our forest, the spell would be broken and you would get all your memories back.”
“How come that last part didn’t happen?” questioned Daevin. “I’m of age now, aren’t I?”
“We didn’t think you were ready,” piped up one of the other Dryads.
“But it turns out that we were the ones not ready,” admitted Ashtalon. “We couldn’t bear the thought of losing you to the Dark Lord, or losing you in general.”
“You should have told me sooner,” responded Daevin.
Ashtalon bowed her head and closed her eyes, but she reopened them when Daevin’s arms surrounded her waist.
“You are the only mother I’ve ever known,” said Daevin’s muffled voice as he buried himself deeper into the hug.
The other Dryads joined the embrace with their long, strong arms, and the humans watched in silent reverence. Daevin’s eyes were a little red when he finally withdrew from the Dryads, but he smiled at Joanne and her friends.
“Ladies, would you mind if I accompany you to the outside of the Whispering Timberland?” questioned Daevin.
“If you’re sure about doing this…” replied Joanne.
“I am sure,” he said.