by Mary E. Lowd
When Beverly reached the first building — a small cottage, not dissimilar to the one she stayed in her first night, with the family of bears — she stopped, leaned forward with her arms braced against her legs, and heaved until she caught her breath. Then she looked back. She couldn’t see Rocky and Ginny, so she wasn’t sure if they could see her.
Help from Ginny or not — and she had no right to expect any help from Ginny — it was time for Beverly to take the next step. She needed to ensconce herself in a crowd as soon as possible. They’d passed so many knights in the last two days… She dared not face one alone, without Ginny there to protect her.
Breath caught, Beverly ran her fingers through her tangled hair, trying to comb it a little bit back into a semblance of order. She straightened her T-shirt, which would look out of place here no matter what. Then she strode forward, not sure if she should stand tall and proud or hunch her shoulders and try to look small and shy. Which would draw less attention? And did she want to draw attention right away, or wait until she was deeper into the village?
Beverly wasn’t sure how obvious it would be to these villagers that she was from another world, let alone that she was the little girl their queen had spent decades seeking. The only crazed knights who’d actually seen her so far had figured it out quite quickly — but she’d told the second one, and the first? Well, she’d been farther from the castle, traveling through the wilderness with a talking wolf and raccoon. Perhaps that had seemed suspicious.
Were talking animals rare here? Did they hide from the humans or get along with them? There were so many questions that Beverly realized she should have asked Rocky and Ginny when she’d had the chance. But the transition to this world had happened so suddenly — it was all too big, too surprising, and too real. She could hardly process the strangeness of Ginny and Rocky while they were right in front of her. She couldn’t think of the questions she should have asked, until the moment — even a moment that had stretched out for days — had passed.
But now that Rocky and Ginny were gone, left behind her, Beverly missed them.
As if on cue, the white clouds blanketing the sky over the village parted, and a sunbeam shone down from the sky, directly toward her, straight as an arrow. The golden light hurt Beverly’s eyes, and she had to shield her face with a hand. Through her fingers, she saw the clouds in the sky swirl, edged with silver and gold. The solid blanketing of clouds thinned into individual streaks of puffy white, glowing faintly pink and purple. It was a beautiful display, and in her imagination, Beverly could almost see Ginny’s paws waving, dancing through the air, painting the sky like a canvas, turning the natural beauty of nature into the supernal beauty of art.
Beverly had no doubt this was Ginny’s work. The wolf might as well have signed the sky with her name for how clear it was.
Shouts began to ring through the air from further ahead in the village, and soon the voices were followed by people, curious and pointing at Beverly when they saw her. Beverly wanted to shrink away and hide; she wished she had Ginny’s fearsome, solid body blocking her from these people she didn’t know, people who might turn on her like the knight had.
But Beverly couldn’t make it to the castle staying entirely hidden. The castle was too much surrounded by other, smaller buildings — too centered in this society. It was protected by the people around it, and by design, clearly, it was not possible to sneak up to the castle. So, Beverly had to trust Ginny’s plan. Trust her gift of a golden ray of sunlight pointing toward her, drawing a crowd to surround her.
Beverly had never felt at home in a crowd.
The first villager to step close enough to Beverly to directly address her said, “You’ve been traveling.”
Beverly nodded, her throat too tight to speak.
“Has it been a long journey?” the woman asked. “A hard one?”
Beverly nodded again. Then finding her voice, though it was still small and squeezed, she said, “I’m heading to the castle.”
Several of the villagers who stood close enough to hear Beverly’s squeaked admission turned to the castle, almost as if they’d never noticed it before. As if they didn’t know that their village was spread upon a castle’s doorstep until a strange visitor called attention to it.
Beverly didn’t trust the people around her — but as the display in sky drew more and more onlookers, she did feel some safety in their numbers. Unless she was in some sort of horror story or Twilight Zone episode, they shouldn’t all turn on her at once. She’d done nothing, except stumble into their village, looking tired and downtrodden.
“Why are you going to the castle?” the same woman asked; she seemed to have become the unelected spokesperson for the group of villagers who milled about, a mix of all ages and genders, all watching the foreign traveler in the sun’s spotlight, trying to figure her out.
Beverly wasn’t sure what the right answer to the woman’s question was: she didn’t want to tell all these people that she was the little girl the queen had been looking for. It hadn’t gone well when she’d done that with the knight, and for all she knew, this whole world was a horror story. It wasn’t her world. She didn’t know what rules it followed. Maybe all of these villagers were addicted to the queen’s candy too.
Oh, Hazy. Beverly felt disloyal to her memory of the little girl who’d been her friend, the sweet young princess who’d shared secrets with her, for even thinking that she could have become an evil cold queen who had addicted her entire world to some strange candy. Whoever Princess Hazy had grown into — whoever Queen Hazel had become — she couldn’t be that. She wasn’t the white witch, and this wasn’t Narnia. No one was offering her Turkish delight in trade for her family.
“I need to see the queen,” Beverly choked out the words, still afraid they were the wrong ones to say and still feeling guilty for fearing a world run by her friend Hazy so much.
But people do change. Time changes them. She didn’t know Queen Hazel, even if she had known Princess Hazy in the way that two hearts know each other when they recognize the same beating pattern and beat in rhythm together.
Many of the villagers turned to look at the castle again, this time with more recognition, like they were measuring whether Beverly belonged there — perhaps, which part of the castle she belonged in: a prison cell in the dungeon or some grand throne room, kneeling at their queen’s feet.
People in the crowd started to move, shifting aside to let someone pass; when the disturbance grew near enough for Beverly to see who was striding toward her, she automatically stepped back. It was another knight, dressed in shining armor, with her gauntleted hand resting on the hilt of a terrifying broadsword.
Beverly had seen swords like that in real life, sold as curiosities at comic cons and ren fairs. They hadn’t been terrifying in that context. But here? That sword could slice her in half if the knight drew it.
“Why do you need to see the queen?” the knight asked, her voice much stronger and clearer than the other woman who’d been speaking to Beverly. Much more confident. Wearing a full suit of armor will do that for a person, apparently. Beverly wouldn’t have minded her own suit of armor right now; although, it did look awfully heavy. “Speak up,” the knight prompted, impatient with Beverly’s silence.
After clearing her throat and gathering her own confidence — what little of it she could find — Beverly squared her shoulders and said, “I have news for the queen.” She didn’t want to reveal herself… but she did want to fast track her trip from her to the queen. Whatever else awaited Beverly in this world — possibly the rest of her life, if she couldn’t find a way back home — the better parts of her future lay on the other side of being reunited with Princess Hazy. So, taking a risk, she added, “I know where the girl she’s looking for can be found.”
The knight tilted her head. She had long hair, pulled back tight behind her head, and a strand of it had come free, plastered to her face with sweat. The sunlight from Ginny’s painted sky shone on Beverly and the crowd around her, now including the knight, quite warmly.
“Tell me,” the knight said.
“Only Queen Hazel,” Beverly muttered, still cowed by the sight of that sword.
The knight narrowed her eyes, measuring the strangely clothed, clearly tired, and very dirty woman in front of her. Beverly shook her head fiercely, doubling down on her position, and a moment later, the knight sighed. “Let me escort you,” the knight said, letting her hand drop to her side, no longer resting on the sword’s hilt. “I can take you somewhere you can get cleaned up first.”
Beverly hesitated, unsure if she should let herself be alone with this knight. The last one she had encountered tried to kill her. Then the first woman from the crowd who’d spoken to Beverly spoke up again and said, “You can use my house. I have some extra clothes you can wear — something less ragged. Not really good enough for seeing the queen, but better than–” She gestured dismissively at Beverly’s attire. “–that.”
A little boy stepped shyly from behind the woman’s legs and held out a hand toward Beverly. “I can show you the way,” he said, looking at the ground as he said it, and tracing the toe of one shoe along the dusty ground.
Charmed and disarmed by the bashful child, Beverly decided to acquiesce. She stepped forward, let the boy take her hand, and began following him and the woman through the crowd, which began dispersing. The knight followed behind.
Even without the protection of the crowd, though, this knight was unlikely to murder Beverly in front of a woman and her young child. At least, that was the belief Beverly clung to — the belief that Ginny’s gift from the sky had been a kindness and would carry her through these last hours before she reached the castle.
The village had looked small from the outskirts, when Beverly could see all of it laid out like a map in front of her, but walking through it, measuring the length of each cottage in painful footsteps, drove home to Beverly just how much farther she had to go. How much she had lost when Ginny could no longer carry her. Perhaps the knight had a horse they could ride up the steep hill to where the castle sat like a granite gemstone, surrounded by fields of flowers.
“Do you have a faster way to travel to the castle than by foot?” Beverly hazarded asking.
The knight, walking by her side, looked Beverly up and down. Then answered without answering, “You must have traveled far. You look very tired.”
Beverly bristled. Of course, she looked tired. She hadn’t slept well since the bears’ house, and even then, her sleep had been troubled by confusion and vivid dreams of being back at home. In the real world.
The real world. Beverly had to remind herself it existed, almost chanting its name in her mind like a tether holding her to it: the real world, real, world, real, world. One word for each footstep, matching the rhythm of her pace in this place — this place that didn’t make sense.
Beverly didn’t know what this world was, and she still halfway wanted to believe it wasn’t real. But she was here, confined inside its seeming-reality.
The woman and boy leading them arrived at a cottage and brought Beverly and the knight inside. The woman gestured to a simple wooden chair — part of a set of four at a simple wooden table, beside a fireplace with a cooking pot in it, and two cots, one against each wall. As far as Beverly could tell, the cottage only had one room, though part of it was partitioned off by a simple cloth curtain. She sat down in the chair.
“Yes,” Beverly said, now that her feet were no longer screaming at her for walking on them. “I’ve traveled a long way. From another world, really.”
The knight continued to stand by the cottage’s front door. Her eyes narrowed at Beverly, but she didn’t press for more information. Beverly had already made clear that her information was for the queen and the queen alone.
The woman brought a bowl of tepid water to the table and set it in front of Beverly; the child brought her a rough-hewn cloth. After a few moments of silently wishing for an actual shower with scalding hot water, separate bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, and a whole giant beach towel to wrap herself in afterward, Beverly reluctantly dampened the cloth and used it to wash her face, neck, hands, and arms. At first, she felt like the damp cloth was only pushing the dirt around from one part of her to another, but after a bit, she did feel cleaner, fresher. This bathing was pathetic compared to what she’d been used to in the real world, but it would have to do.
Next the woman offered her a dress to wear, but Beverly wouldn’t go that far. Her clothes were dirty, but she’d rather wear a T-shirt and jeans than a dress any day. That would have been true even if the dress had been beautiful and perfectly suited to her — this one was not. It was simple, plain, and looked like it would be a lot of bulky fabric around her legs that would just get in the way.
“Thank you, but no, I need to… uh… stay dressed in the clothing of my people for seeing your queen,” Beverly explained, hoping the explanation would work. It did. The woman probably didn’t really want to give away a perfectly good piece of clothing for nothing anyway.
More important than clean clothing, the woman laid a board of bread and cheese in front of Beverly before letting her go. After days of nothing but foraged nuts and berries, the home-baked bread and fresh cheese were the most delicious foods Beverly had ever tasted. She ate every morsel put in front of her, causing the child to laugh and even the knight to crack a smile.
“I told you I’d been traveling a long way,” Beverly said around the last mouthful of cheese.
“I’ll borrow a horse,” the knight said. “You shouldn’t have to walk farther today.”
The woman looked torn, like she was considering whether she should offer to let Beverly stay the night and get some sleep before taking on the final leg of her journey. But Beverly didn’t want to wait. She wanted to get home, and any chance she had of getting home lay on the other side of arriving at the castle. So, she forestalled the woman’s offer, answering eagerly, “Yes, thank you, I’d like to get to Queen Hazel as soon as possible… and my feet… I don’t think they’re on the same side as the rest of me right now.”
The child laughed again.
The knight said, “Your news seems strangely urgent, considering my order has been searching for the queen’s lost little girl for decades now.”
Decades. That word covered such a span of time in so few sounds. How can a whole life be squeezed into a little word like that, Beverly wondered?
But Beverly didn’t want to say anything more about her alleged news regarding the little girl — she didn’t want to accidentally reveal herself to a knight who might turn on her. So, she deflected, asking, “How is it that one of Queen Hazel’s knights doesn’t have her own horse?”
The knight shrugged. “I rode across the countryside for a while, when I was younger. Searching, like we’re supposed to do. But there are other knights out there — knights who…” She hesitated, narrowed her eyes again, and seemed to decide she liked the measure of this strange traveler in front of her. “…knights who become, shall we say, overzealous about dragging every young girl they find before the queen, no matter how it disrupts everyone’s lives. I decided I could serve the queen better here, protecting her own citizens.”
“Protecting her citizens from her knights?” Beverly asked.
The knight shrugged again, unwilling to commit to the point in so few words.
“Can you tell me about the candies?” Beverly asked.
Now it was the knight’s turn to bristle. Whatever openness had entered her face closed off right away, and she turned to the side, no longer looking Beverly in the face. “The candies are between Queen Hazel and her knights. I’ve never tried them. Never will. I didn’t think I needed help serving her, and anyone in this village can attest that I’ve played my role well without that particular aid. And when it comes down to it, I haven’t fared any worse than the knights who do take the candies — none of them have found the queen’s lost girl either.”
“I’m sorry,” Beverly said. “I didn’t mean to…” Didn’t mean to what? Pry? She had meant to pry. She wanted to know more. She wanted to know why the other knight would attack her, when by all rights, he should have lifted her up on his horse and ridden straight here.
Even so, it put Beverly’s mind very much at ease to know this particular knight didn’t partake in the candies Rocky and Ginny had blamed for the other knight’s crazed, murderous behavior.
Finished with her brief respite, Beverly bid goodbye to the kind woman and her child. Then the knight led her to a part of the town where a half dozen horses were corralled. The knight selected a large, all black mare to rent, and shortly thereafter, she and Beverly were on their way to the castle. Beverly rode behind, arms wrapped as firmly as possible around the knight’s metal-clad waist.
Continue on to Part VII…