by Mary E. Lowd
Beverly jostled awake as Ginny changed her gait. The wolf slowed to a stop, and Beverly gazed through bleary, sleep-crusted eyes at the dark forest all around. She saw small lights, moving amongst the greenery, casting shadows and twinkling as leaves blocked and unblocked their light.
“Where are we?” Beverly asked. “What’s happening?” The lights made her think of the Christmas lights strung up year-round, across the shrubberies in her parents’ backyard. But in this world, they wouldn’t be anything so mundane. Besides, they moved, more like fireflies than anything stationary.
“The mice have agreed to watch guard over us while we sleep,” Rocky whispered. Even hushed, her voice sounded loud in the darkness of the forest. It was answered with tittering, high-pitched squeaking.
Beverly peered harder into the darkness, focusing on the lights. Each one, she realized, was held in the paws of a mouse.
The mice were perfectly normal-sized, and the lights they held were tiny torches, almost like matchsticks, except they didn’t burn so fast. Their fire was cool and steady, more like minuscule candles.
“We need real sleep,” Rocky said. “And this will be our last real chance before the castle.”
“The knight I fought earlier will have passed along word of you,” Ginny said. “We’ll almost certainly cross paths with more of them tomorrow, as soon as we leave the protection of the forest.”
Beverly still didn’t understand why the knights couldn’t simply accompany them. Possibly function as guards themselves. Knights are more like guards than mice are. The mice — in her sleep addled state — made Beverly think of Tinkerbell in the movie Hook. Small, flighty, and glowing. Except, they didn’t make her feel like Peter Pan. They made her feel more like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians. Far too large and awkward. Likely to crush whole houses with her feet or be struck down by Mickey Mouse wielding a giant needle like a sword.
Perhaps the mice would have some tiny pumpkins for her to eat.
Fortunately, given Beverly’s exhaustion, she wasn’t expected to do much other than roll off Ginny’s back, curl up beside her on the surprisingly springy loam, and fall back asleep.
The mice provided breakfast in the morning — giant piles and heaps of nuts, collected on a bed of fresh leaves. The nuts had already been shelled, and there were a variety of kinds. Clearly, the piles of nuts represented a significant amount of work for the mice, but amounted only to a few handfuls of food for their giant guests. Beverly couldn’t help thinking the mice themselves would probably make a more appropriate meal for Ginny, but the wolf ate nuts right along with her and Rocky.
Beverly listened to the mice squeaking among themselves as she ate. She’d assumed during the half-awake state during the night before that she should be able to understand them. However, no matter how closely she listened, the meaning of their speech eluded her. Though, Rocky could clearly speak with them.
Stiff, sore, and still hungry, Beverly returned to riding on Ginny’s back, behind Rocky. By the time they emerged from the forest into a hilly, pastoral landscape, the allure of this magical land had grown as thin to Beverly as a decades-old, favorite T-shirt, about to disintegrate into less than nothing.
Beverly missed her real bed, cheap though it might be, and she missed playing stupid games on her phone or cruising the internet for interesting articles. If this world was a dream, she was ready to wake up.
Maybe Beverly had felt a bit lost and directionless in the real world, but she’d had more power over her life there. Sure, she’d been hemmed in by her job and limited money, but she’d had access to a century’s worth of music, videos, books, and other culture, all at her fingertips. She could get up any given day, go to a coffee shop, and be surrounded by the cheerful clatter of people working, meeting, and just enjoying themselves. She hadn’t been dragged on a days-long voyages with nothing to eat but nuts and berries and the ever-present threat of confusingly ‘crazed’ knights to enforce her cooperation.
Beverly wanted to take one of those pretty little pairs of scissors her Grand-Annie had kept so many of — the little sewing ones, shaped like pheasants or other birds with very sharp beaks — and cut the piece of thread that had sewn her nice, comfy T-shirt life into this uncomfortable ballgown. She didn’t want to be wanted by a queen. She just wanted to go home, and maybe do a better job of living her own, normal life.
If only she could have an epiphany that would wake her up from this other-world, popping her back into reality. If only there were magic words she could say to take herself back home, something like Sarah says to the goblin king at the end of Labyrinth: “You have no power over me.”
Beverly mouthed the words, quietly to herself, but nothing changed. She wished she had ruby slippers with heels to click together like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Instead, she was stuck in her magical land, depressingly devoid of any magic or agency of her own.
Perhaps that’s why, the next time Rocky spotted a knight in the distance, Beverly’s hold on Ginny’s thick fur faltered as the wolf began to turn, changing direction away from the distant figure. Beverly tilted sideways, then leaned into the tilt and rolled roughly onto the blessedly-grassy ground, tumbling from the momentum of the wolf’s speed.
Ginny stopped and turned immediately, but Beverly didn’t wait for her and Rocky. She pushed her bruised self up from the ground with scratched-up palms, and ignoring her traveling companions of the last few days, ran straight toward the distant knight.
“What are you doing?!” Rocky cried.
Beverly hadn’t seen another human — except for the previous knight, entirely obscured by his silver armor — in days. Only talking animals. And she didn’t want to talk to animals anymore. She wanted something more familiar, closer to home. She wanted another human being who she could talk to, who might understand her predicament, and could maybe help her better than these glorified Muppets had by dragging her through desolate brambles and hiding her in the dark.
Beverly waved her arms as she ran, crying out, “Here, over here!”
Because really? How crazed could the knights be? Crazier than a bunch of mice with matchstick torches feeding her a palmful of nuts? Crazier than a wolf painting the sky for no discernable reason? Beverly had tried traveling with a talking wolf and raccoon, and mostly it had gotten her a stiff neck from sleeping on the ground and a knotted-up stomach from the diet of scavenged berries. Maybe she would rather travel with one of the knights.
Beverly wanted to return to the world of reason, and talking to another human seemed like the first step.
In the distance, the figure of the knight straightened, turned, seemed to notice her, and then urged his horse to gallop her way.
Riding a horse was so much more logical than riding a wolf, like some orc in a Lord of the Rings movie. People rode horses in real life, and real life was where Beverly wanted to be.
“What are you doing?” Rocky asked again, her voice filled with concern.
Beverly looked back over her shoulder to see the raccoon, still riding the wolf, was keeping pace with her, not trying to outrun her or cut her off from the knight up ahead. Just keeping pace. Both animals looked very concerned, but Beverly didn’t want their concern right now. She didn’t want to sew her life to theirs; she wanted to be a part of the great tapestry of humanity again.
“Over here!” Beverly cried again, even though the knight was already riding toward her. She ran until her side cramped, and she had to lean over, clutching the stitch just below her rib cage.
The knight rode the rest of the way over to her, lifted the metal visor on his shiny silver helmet, and gazed at her with piercing eyes. “What do you want?” he asked, shifting his weight on his horse’s back. The horse stamped its feet, impatient with holding still and desirous of running again.
“You’re looking for a girl,” Beverly said. “Right? A little girl to take to the queen?”
“Yes, that’s right,” the knight answered, his heavily armored shoulders straightening. “I am one of Queen Hazel’s knights. I have ridden to the end of the world and back searching for the girl.”
Beverly’s mouth opened, but no words came out. She meant to explain everything — the last few days, her whole life of looking for an old movie about a princess who had turned out to be an imperious queen in a different world. Instead, the words turned to dust in her throat, and her tongue wouldn’t move.
The knight leaned forward, his piercing gaze growing even sharper. His eyes could have cut right through Beverly. And in a way, they did. He saw what he was looking for: “You’re her. Somehow, you’re her. The girl my queen has sent me and all the others searching for. I’ve finally found you.” The final words sounded less like a triumph and more like a bitter surprise.
“Yes,” Beverly managed to say. “Will you take me to her? On your horse?” Riding on a horse had to be faster — and certainly more normal — than riding a wolf. Beverly could feel it: she was almost back to being in a normal, human world again.
But then the world tilted on its axis. The knight said, “No.”
“No?” Beverly repeated the word, stunned.
“No, she must never find you.” His hard eyes glinted, and Beverly thought she saw something in them — a gleam or glow — a flash of something unnatural. Supernatural. He lifted his sword, and his horse reared up.
Beverly tried to step backwards but tripped over her own feet and landed on the ground. Looking up, she saw a terrifying sight: hooves flying through the air, sun glinting off the long, broad blade of a sword, and the only human she’d spoken to in days entirely coated in shining, silver armor. He looked less like another person and more like an inhuman robot, wielding death in his gauntleted hands. This was not normalcy. This was some medieval fantasy film.
And she was going to die in it. She scrabbled backward, but there was no way she could move far enough away before the sword swung.
Then Beverly felt a yanking at the waist of her jeans and found herself tumbling and skidding away from the rearing horse and crazed knight on its back. Ginny had grabbed the waist of her jeans in her teeth and thrown Beverly out of danger — not far out of danger, but just far enough for the wolf to set herself up as a snarling, bristling, growling defender.
The knight swung his sword at Ginny, and the wolf leapt toward him. The sharp edge of the sword missed, and Ginny knocked the knight right off his horse. She landed on the dirt ground behind the horse, already skidding to turn, and before she seemed to have finished landing, Ginny was in the air again, leaping back toward the fallen knight from his other side.
Beverly could hardly track the fight as it happened — swinging sword, leaping wolf, stumbling knight, and frightened horse.
Continue on to Part V…