“Ye finks she’ll be all right, Francisco?” I heard Ferbish’s low voice above me.
Woozy, I took a deep breath, opening my eyes. Instead of the dark cavern, I was lying on a cold, stone floor.
“Athena? Are you awake?” Francisco asked, stroking my forehead.
Blinking, I pulled myself to my knees. “Where are we?”
Francisco gulped. “You’re not going to like it.”
“We’re in the Droor Elf dungeons, that’s where we are, Miss,” Ferbish explained.
“And it’s me own damned fault. I shouldna given ye that harspwing fairy. It put us under a spell, and before we knew it, an army of Droors surrounded us. I would have been on me guard but got distracted.”
“But where’s Brenden? And Pigeon?” I looked around and only saw my friends and the gargoyles.
Francisco glared. “He sold you out. When the elves were going to kill him, he explained that you were the Wishcaster and that the Under Realm queen would want to see you. He’s nothing but a coward.”
“I don’t believe it,” I whispered. “There has to be a reason he’d do such a thing. Maybe he’s planning an escape somehow. You said there was an army of elves. We couldn’t fight them off obviously.”
Holly and Ferbish gave each other knowing, sad looks.
“I’m sorry, Miss,” Ferbish said. “It’s as yer friend here says. Brenden got rewarded fer turning you in.”
“Yeah,” Gabby interjected. “And they also uncovered his glamour. He’s a full-fledged, malicious Droor Elf with all the power, too. He handed you over, cackling like a witch. No offense, Athena.”
I rolled my eyes, not believing what I was hearing. “But why didn’t they just take us when we were in the mountains? That doesn’t make sense.”
Francisco shook his head. “Maybe they needed more elves to attack us. That bird was in on it with him. She watched from above, not helping us fight them off.”
“Yeah, I shoulda known somefing was funny when Pigeon didn’t put on her shroud in the cave,” Ferbish added with a sneer. “But that harpswing made me mind go funny. Bloody hell, I’m so stupid. It was the perfect trap.”
I sat on a cold hard stone, stunned. Everyone followed, not saying anything. How could I have been so dumb? So deceived? But it all didn’t make sense. If Brenden needed me to end his curse, he could have done it dozens of times throughout our ordeal. I just couldn’t believe he was a traitor. When he spoke to me at the ruins, he seemed so sincere.
But then what if he was the one who spirited us into the Under Realm? And he would need help to get us to the Elivagar mountains near his brothers. Maybe he’d devised his plan while we were at Nurse Mellecant’s home.
My stomach lurched. The thought of Brenden being evil was making me sick.
“I heard the guards mutter that we was going to the Queen soon,” Grigor said, waving his arms. “She’ll make us slaves. Or worse. The queen hates gargoyles.”
“They won’t make me no slave,” Ferbish spat, jumping to his feet. “I’ll fight ’em off or die trying.”
Suddenly, two guards came in. One put up his hands as magical designs like a kaliedescope appeared. Shackles materialized on the gargoyles and my friends. A gag wrapped itself around my mouth, startling me. One guard smirked and said, “We can’t be too careful with you, now can we?” He jerked my arm and brought me out of the dungeon.
The guards ushered me through the castle to a large living area, and I saw what I assumed to be Brenden’s three brothers sitting in some chairs. The middle one wore a crown.
And then I spied Brenden. He wouldn’t look at me.
My head wanted to burst. Traitor! How could he allow them to gag me and treat me so horribly? He knew I couldn’t cast a spell with my mouth. It was so humiliating.
“Ah, little brother, you HAVE outdone yourself this time.” The elf chuckled. “Hello, dearest Athena of the Over Realm. I am Sir Duff McAilf, King of the Droor Elves. I’m so happy to make your acquaintance.”
Our journey was supposed to be easy, according to Brenden. First we’d trek off road toward the Moor of Dread, sludge through muck for a mile or so, then find a tiny gate called Gilly’s Trap. Our new friend, Ratskin, an old grouchy dwarf, possessed the key to open it.
This would lead us to the Cave of Woe. Nurse Mellecant’s eyes shifted nervously when she explained the cave’s history may have been a little…dark…but we weren’t to worry. She pasted a smile on her face but I could tell she was just trying to make us feel better. If we stayed on the path and didn’t get distracted, nothing horrible would happen to us.
Yeah, right. But did we have any choice?
By reaching the end of the cave, Brenden would be able to open a hidden door with fairy magic to his realm. Under-realmers were not permitted to see it. It was a secret pathway that only Wishcasters used.
“How do you know about it?” I asked Brenden after Nurse Mellecant told me his plan.
His face grew dark as if he was remembering something awful. “I have a bit of inside knowledge.”
He stuck his hands in his pockets, excusing himself, suddenly having to go to the bathroom.
Our troop walked toward the woods– me, Ferbish, Grigor, Brenden, Holly, Francisco, Ratskin and another friend of Nurse Mellecant’s, Pigeon. She was as small as the dwarf with short spiky dark hair and huge, magenta eyes. I had no idea why she was coming along, but Miss Mellecant assured us Pigeon would be a fearsome ally. I didn’t understand who would fear her. She might have looked a bit goth but couldn’t frighten a rabbit.
As we walked, the hood Miss Mellecant gave me itched, so I took it off. There didn’t seem to be anyone around to worry over my un-shrouded self.
“So let me get this straight,” Francisco put his hand out toward the fairy. “We’re just supposed to blindly follow Brenden to a swamp, a trap, and a cave that sounds like my last nightmare.”
Brenden looked disgusted. “What choice do you have, old chap? If you don’t like my plan, I suggest you figure out another way.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh yes, I think trotting off Hangman’s Cliff would be the perfect choice. It’s to your right. Just follow the gravel road.”
“Nice,” Francisco sneered, glaring.
“Hey, you two,” I said, “could we call a truce? The journey’s going to be hard enough without you bickering all the time.”
Brenden floated toward us and said, “Then tell your boyfriend to keep his trap shut and you won’t be bothered by a thing.”
“You’re impossible.” I raised my hands then hobbled away from the two morons.
Stumbling over my big feet, Ferbish rushed over to me. “Easy,” he said, winking one of his dark blue eyes.
“Wish ye got yer wings out do ye?” he asked.
“Wings?” I asked, confused.
“Aye,” Grigor interjected. In his shroud, he was a bit shorter than Ferbish and plump but solid like he could have been a football player in my world. “You gots the wingspan of a giant eagle, ye do.”
Ferbish gave Grigor a look. “Nawr, you dolt. A dragon! She gots the wingspan of a dragon or did ye forget that ye wet yer pants when ye almost turned to ash by her the other night.”
“Awr, do ye have to remind me, Ferbish?” The teen boy rubbed the back of his neck and sulked.
“Enough of yer yammering.” Ratskin the dwarf waved his hand. “Or I’ll poke yer voice boxes right out of their skins. Nurse Mellecant didn’t pay me good gold to suffer this nonsense. I’ve got a wife and children waiting for me, and I’d rather cozy up to a warm fire with them, taking the gold besides and not open yer fool gate.”
“Why do we need you anyway, dwarf?” Brenden asked, curtly. “Just give us your key and we’ll let you on your way.”
“Heh.” He shook his head. “Key’s worth more than any of your lives to me. I won it off one of the queen’s spies in a game of Stone Crow. She don’t even know I gots it. Ye think I’m going to award it to you pups?”
He laughed, shaking his large belly as he waddled along.
Holly sidled up to Pigeon. “So, where do you live?” Holly was great with strangers. In half a minute, she’d learn about their deepest secrets and favorite songs.
Pigeon’s magenta eyes widened as if she’d seen a ghost.
She ran up ahead of our pack, not saying a word.
“Weird,” Holly said, giving me a sidelong glance. “Okay, Athena, your friends and relatives are officially in the hopelessly freaky category. Sorry to say that.”
“Oh, don’t I know it,” I answered. “And I’m the queen freak.”
Holly squeezed me in aside hug. “Aw, don’t say that. I was just joking. So you have a witch for a grandmother, an elf-witch for a mother and you happen to be able to breathe fire sometimes. Is that so horrible?”
I shook my head and sighed.
“Look on the bright side,” she went on, “you can make s’mores whenever you want with that breath of yours. Pretty handy.” She plastered on a huge smile. That made me laugh.
After a few hours of walking, the tops of my feet felt as if someone had hammered them with bricks.
My body was definitely not used to walking. The hobbling only worsened until I was faltering.
Brenden loitered in the back and kept encouraging me to keep up, but that didn’t help me go any faster. I knew he was worried we wouldn’t make it to the gate by sundown.
It also didn’t help that the cobblestone streets had turned into a sporadic stone path, leading into a dark, ominous forest. The branches clicked together in the chilly wind, sending ripples down my back. When I thought I’d have to stop and rest, Ferbish pushed his ass in front of me and said, “Here, Miss.”
I pulled my head back
and asked, “You want me to spank you?”
Grigor howled and doubled over, he was laughing so hard. “Oh…hee…if you only knew!”
I put my hand on my hip. “Um…no.”
Ferbish stood up and poked Grigor’s head.
Grigor stumbled away, muttering curses.
“That’s fer gettin’ smart,” Ferbish hollered. He turned and smiled at me. “Yer tired, aren’t ye?Climb on me back. Go ahead. Don’t be shy. I don’t work in the mines all day fer nothing. Gots me a strong back if I do say so meself.”
I had two choices. Either ride on Ferbish’s large back feeling embarrassed or I could keep walking as tiny knives drilled into the tops of my feet. I knew my answer.
“Okay,” I said, climbing awkwardly onto Ferbish, “but this is only until we get to the marsh.”
“Hold on tight!” Ferbish cried, charging toward the front of our pack.
I whooped, catching Brenden’s shocked face.
He chased after us. “Gargoyle, put her down this instance!”
Ferbish laughed and galloped ahead until we couldn’t hear Brenden’s protests any longer. I felt like a little kid again, riding on my dad.
This gave me a pang, longing for home. I sighed.
“What’s the matter, Miss?” Ferbish asked, slowing to a walk. The jarring movement reminded me of when I once rode a camel at a Christmas festival.
“Are you sure I’m not too heavy? I’m like huge now.” I didn’t want to talk about my family. Too much had happened and it would make me sadder and miss them more.
“Nawr. You’re as light as a harpswing.”
“A harpswing. I’ve heard one of the fairies say something about that. What is it?”
Ferbish didn’t say anything for a moment then he said, “They grow in the full moon’s light and last for only a day. They’re the closest thing we have to fairies, Miss. Tiny. No bigger than me thumb. And thin. Their wings are in the shape of a harp. That’s where they gets their name.” Ferbish turned his head and smiled up at me. “And they bring great good luck, they do. I’ll catch one for you, Miss. If’n ye wants me to.”
“Sure. I’d love to see one.”
“When the full moon rises, I’ll make a present of it.” He winked.
My face grew warm. I had no idea why I was blushing. I only wanted to see a tiny Under Realm fairy. They sounded sweet and I hadn’t seen anything sweet in the Under Realm yet. Myself included. But if I thought about it, Ferbish was sweet.
The wind rose up, whipping at my hair. The tree limbs clattered like a chime of bones.
Ferbish’s back grew taut and he stood still. “Do ye smell somefing?”
He sniffed the air like a dog on a scent.
I breathed in deeply, sensing moisture as if a thunderstorm was about to erupt. “Rain?”
“No,” Ferbish muttered, thick with worry. “Myrrh Mist.”